Below is an edited version of my address to this year’s AGM:
Last week I had an interesting religious experience in the National Gallery. I was still recovering from 2 days of meetings in Leeds discussing all sorts of things about ministry in the United Reformed Church. The discussions were long and inconclusive and were a bit soul destroying. Going into the National Gallery I was hoping for a bit of soul repair. I felt the need to focus on a big picture so I asked a helpful guide: What is the biggest canvas or picture you have on display in the gallery? He suggested Whistlejacket by George Stubbs.
If I’m honest, initially I was disappointed. I like horses, but I don’t love horses. I love landscapes with lots of things to look at. But there I was looking at just a horse. Whistlejacket is simply that: against a neutral background Stubbs painted a life size image of this magnificent Arabian thoroughbred beast.
Why did God want me to see this picture? As I say, after my initial disappointment, I was filled with an overwhelming sense that somehow God was speaking to me through Whistlejacket.
Amidst the frustrations and detail of ministry discussions I needed to refocus on the big picture, the big picture which only has one thing to look at. Last week I asked on Trinity Sunday: What shape is God? At that moment in the National Gallery I was totally convinced God was shaped like a magnificent Arabian thoroughbred horse. The picture was telling me: the only thing that matters is God. The only purpose of ministry is God. All that we are about as church is God. Whistlejacket was an awesome creature, beautiful, powerful, lively. Whistlejacket was not saddled or bridled. He had no rider or jockey on his back to control him. Whistlejacket was free and ready to be let loose in the world.
But what sort of horse is Whistlejacket? Wild or gentle? Fast or lazy? Whistlejacket is looking at the viewer and is engaging. So, Whistlejacket was telling me that it is simply enough to say that the only thing that matters is God. We do have to be clear about the character of God and the name of God. The picture was telling me: I am Whistlejacket, not just any old horse! For me the Bible tells us loud and clear that, whilst God has many names, God’s name supremely is love. The only thing that matters is love. The only purpose of ministry is love. All that we are about as church is love.
I recently preached a sermon about loving one another and I was rightly asked at the end of the service: Russell, can we have a definition of love? It’s a very good question. The best answer I can give is that love is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. In Jesus we see all that love is. Love is unconditional. Love is all embracing, unjudgmental, free and unconstrained, welcoming, sacrificial, generous. Love is an open mind, patient and mindful.
Love gets a mention in the strap line of our Mission Statement: Living God’s Love. I have seen that being lived out on so many occasions in the life of this church in the last 12 months.
But I want to mention one particular occasion: 11th November 2018. It was Remembrance Sunday. It was not just any remembrance Sunday. It was a day to commemorate 100 years since the ending of the First World War. It was a privilege and very moving to lead worship here that Sunday. But that is not why I highlight that particular Sunday. I highlight it because I remember having to announce two deaths in the notices that Sunday, two very different characters, but who were both very much part of our church community. It is a sign of a truly loving community, shaped by the love of God we see in Jesus, that that day we mourned both Elisabeth and Katrina. One was almost part of our furniture because she was such a character who remains much missed. The other in a very different way was also part of the furniture and remains much missed. There are few places where both Elisabeth and Katrina would be mourned together. They had very different lives, with different joys and challenges and certainly very different stories, but that day we mourned them both because we loved them both. That is church. That is church with God at the centre, because love is at the centre.
As I reflected on Whistlejacket, I had to ask where I fitted into this picture. Was there a role for me? Clearly not in the picture. So where? I raised my eyes heavenward hoping for guidance. And there it was. To hang such a large painting is quite a challenge. Around the ceiling of the central hall was a picture rail and Whistlejacket was suspended from the rail by two huge strong chains – each chain being made up of link after link, each link helping bear the load in order to present the image of Whistlejacket to the world. So that is my role. That is our role. To be one of the links in the chain presenting the image of the God of love to our world. All that matters is God. All that matters is love. But we have a role to play in helping the world see the picture, the big picture of God’s love. It is quite challenge. It is a big, heavy picture to bear, but we have to and we have to be strongly connected to one another in order to carry that load.
I believe we will do that as we continue to explore the challenge of being more environmentally friendly. As so often is the case, young people show us the way: the Youth Creed written last year has much to say to our world. In order to address global issues we must work together with people across the planet to help all enjoy life to the full. We reveal the picture of God to our community by being open and by being a home to such a diverse group of premises users and we are fortunate that we have angels in Mary and Lorraine to show them care as they care for these premises. It is a huge challenge to sustain the life of any congregation in its life and mission when we face the daily challenge of more and more tasks to be done by seemingly fewer people. So one of my highlights of the last 12 months was the Church Meeting last month when I informed the meeting that so many opportunities for service had been filled, and many by people relatively new to the church. That is hugely encouraging. But the challenge remains.
The challenge remains so hold fast to the image of Whistlejacket. Whistlejacket is what matters. And Whistlejacket is a magnificent, thoroughbred beast. God is love. God will be patient with us. God will give us the strength in our ‘Living God’s Love’.
With love and prayers
Russell J Furley-Smith