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The perfect summer (Reflection for Pentecost)

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  The perfect summer. No-one referred to weekends. That was considered common. The rich would go to the country for a Saturday-to-Monday. As the sun shone that May and temperatures soared, there were tennis parties, croquet on the lawn, bicycle rides followed by picnic lunches in wicker baskets, enhanced by lacy white parasols and buckets of champagne. The weather was glorious. Novelties such as the new-fangled cornflakes and tea-bags arrived at the breakfast table. People were flocking to cinemas to watch the antics of Charlie Chaplin and the glamour of Mary Pickford. This was the England of an eternal summer, according to Juliet Nicolson's book The Perfect Summer, the year when Rupert Brooke swam in the river at Grantchester:

I know how the May fields all golden show,
And when the day is young and sweet,
Gild gloriously the bare feet
That run to bathe . . .

"Stands the church clock at ten to three and is there honey still for tea?" It did; there was; but this was 1911, the golden summer, and it was not to last. Heat waves do not last; the weather breaks; and with it, England, and a nation's hearts, who were soon mourning their sons and fathers in the war to end all wars. Four years later Rupert Brooke was dead. There was no perfect summer. There never will be.

  The perfect summer. Stands the church clock at Pentecost Sunday? With its birthday candles and cake? And is there the Holy Spirit for tea? Pentecost sounds to us like the perfect summer; raise your glasses to the new church, to the new future, to Pentecost fire, to speaking in tongues and the gifts of the Spirit! Resurrection weather; Jesus has given us his promised Spirit. This is the faith of the perfect summer, where we are taken back to childhood memories of a full church, to "summer suns are glowing" at the school assembly, to a future that was ours - and was God's.

 But then the party goes wrong. God spikes the drinks. "Drunk" is the word outsiders use to describe the perfect party for the perfect summer in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. Once the collective hangover subsided, the real party games began: the kind of party games more associated with Brown versus Blair, or Balls versus anyone, rather than a church. God's will had to be mulled over. Concessions had to be negotiated. The Acts of the Apostles is a political manifesto full of spin. It is not an account of a perfect church in a perfect summer; because there never was one.

There is a tendency for the church to look back on that birthday at Pentecost, to wave its collective hands in worship, get out Mission Praise Volume 49 and to ignore the real and divisive issues that follow. For Peter, there was the not-insignificant matter of which food to eat and the place of non-Jewish converts in the Christian community. Today the headlines may be different but the dilemma is the same. The spirit of unity does not give us the perfect summer, any more than 1911 offers us a united England. 1911 was glorious if you had the money - one aristocrat whose horse won a big race celebrated by putting a pearl in each of his guests' bowls of watercress soup at a dinner party. If you were unemployed, if you were ill with whooping cough or typhoid, there was no pearl, no bowl of soup and no silver spoon.

 For the church, there is no perfect summer to bask in Spirit-filled glory. The storm clouds soon gather. What about those outside the church? Those in 2011 anxious for their jobs, their relationships, their future?

 As I wrote this, outside my window I could see the bizarre inflatable giant balloons and kites of the balloon festival on the promenade at New Brighton. I once wrote that the church should be akin to releasing balloons in a cathedral, a magazine article that attracted a fair number of angry green-biro letters.  Perhaps I was wrong. Balloons are good; birthdays are good; but they, like the perfect summer, do not last. It's what happens afterwards that matters.

 9pm. The promenade is empty now. The balloons and kites are deflated, the crowds gone, the children in bed with dreams. They will wake up tomorrow and unless they are a budding Richard Branson who wants to fly a balloon across the world, they will be unchanged. And I guess we will be too. Pentecost does not change us. Am I turning into Eeyore? You may remember he was given a balloon for his birthday. It burst, but with the help of Piglet he found a great deal of enjoyment from the burst balloon.

Pentecost happens when we accept that we do not need giant balloons; that when our dreams burst what we are left with, the remnants of a perfect summer are the gold and silver for the church. What is the gift for the church today? Not the wind, not the fire, not the birthday balloons, but the little aftershocks of Pentecost that truly shook the world: the eating in common, the sharing, the looking after of one another, That is where balloons are truly released. Then we grow out of Pentecost into a deeper faith that has no need of balloons! ("Evangelism is a phase you grow out of. Discuss.")

  As Country Life said on 1 May 1911, the only drawback of an English summer is that it lasts so short a time. To which we should add: the only advantage of Pentecost is that it lasts so short a time. Celebrate and fly balloons if you will; tomorrow the work begins. For Country Life is not real life; in the real world there are people to be fed, comforted, listened to. Pentecost may be a short season, but the church goes on, season after season, not celebrating but quietly working to bring God's kingdom to people outside our churches who need not balloons but friends.

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The perfect summer (Reflection for Pentecost)

"Evangelism is a phase you grow out of. Discuss." Ooh I really hope not. If Evangelism is the way that I am supposed to show God's love to a hurting world, I hope I never grow out of it!

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