Believing that we Believe

Advent, Christmas, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, each year the same, but somehow different. Yes we do many of the same things, have similar services and study groups, etc. but somehow it doesn’t ever feel the same as any previous year. That’s because it isn’t. We aren’t the same people, our circumstances aren’t the same and we may no longer be surrounded by exactly the same people: family, neighbours and friends.

The Italian title of a book by the philosopher Gianni Vattimo was ‘Credere di Credere’ – ‘believing that one believes’. This was the answer that he gave to a friend who asked him if he still believed in God. His answer sounds rather paradoxical (in Italian as it does in English) but then of course he’s a philosopher. However, we do use the word believe to mean: having faith, conviction or certainty in something, but also to mean: to be of the opinion that, which implies a degree of uncertainty. In his title Vattimo is implying this second meaning to the first ‘Credere’ and the first meaning to the second ‘Credere’. We might therefore render his title ‘I like to think that I believe’, a statement with which many people would feel comfortable.

This brings me back to the major seasons of the Church Year and particularly to the current Christmas Season now coming to a close. In any season there are the physical manifestations: services, readings and carols, decorations, mince pies and all the particular food and drink, but none of these is the essence of the season. There’s a slogan, much loved in some parts of the Christian Church – “Jesus is the Reason for the Season”. Well I’ve been thinking about it and I don’t agree with it. I think that the Reason for the Season is something else – SIN and EVIL. It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer that put me on to it:

We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.

Why did God send His only begotten Son into our world? Not because he wanted us to build a festival around shepherds, angels and magi, but because of the sin and evil that abounded. And when that baby boy was born, violence and hatred didn’t stop. Tragic events didn’t stop. Man’s inhumanity to man didn’t stop. God sent his Son to us in the world as it was (and still is). To do otherwise would have rendered the incarnation meaningless and changed the whole working of creation and salvation. He had to hold up a mirror to the world so that humanity could see what was really going on, and in the story of the slaughter of the Holy Innocents we see the dark side of our world being reflected right back at us.

We live in a broken world as flawed human beings, that’s the reality, and God sent His only begotten Son into that world as it is, to show us that in spite of everything it can be different. He came to give us hope and to make it possible for us to believe that we believe in a loving and just God who sticks with us no matter what is going on in our lives and the lives of those close to us.

What we hear as we listen to the seasonal readings and carols and how we feel about the Christmas preparation and festivities, is dependent on what else is going on in our lives and the lives of those we love. As a result each Christmas feels different because what it’s really all about is experiencing the Incarnation of God in our lives, and that changes from day to day and from year to year. How could it be otherwise with a relational God? We don’t have to rely on other people to tells us how we should feel. As the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews wrote:

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.” Hebrews 1:1-2

Now that’s something I can believe that I believe. Happy New Year.

A promise that we can trust

Usually by the beginning of December, there is a very obvious focus on what is often referred to as “The Run Up to Christmas”. I don’t know if it’s just me, but this year it feels as though several things have pushed that to one side. If the full power of the consumer bonanza that ‘preparation for Christmas’ represents is knocked out of kilter this year, then I suppose that I feel a sense of relief, but how heartfelt that is probably depends on why!!

Firstly, there’s the General Election, which is dominating the news agenda. Politicians from of all hues trying to woo us with promises, lots of promises. Now many of these promises are for things that we might feel might make our lives, our country and perhaps the world better; but I would have to say that you don’t have to be a financial genius to realise that some of these promises are perhaps rather more realistic than others and few stand much detailed scrutiny. Advent (the name we as Christians would give to this ‘run up to Christmas’) is also about a promise: the promise that God’s future and our future are entwined in Christ. Christ is coming into our world and our world never being the same again.

Secondly, there’s a growing call, encapsulated in protests across the world on what has come to be called ‘Black Friday’, to address the very serious and increasing problem of Climate Change. Black Friday is all about consumption about buying more and more ‘stuff’ by making it appear cheaper though at what environmental cost isn’t clear. The protesters argue that if we want to save the planet, Christmas shouldn’t be about excessive consumption – what’s needed is a serious change in the way that we live our lives. Well I’ll happily say “Alleluia” to that. In Christianity, we also have a name for a change in the way that we live our lives, and that’s ‘Repentance’ (which literally means ‘to turn around or to change the mind’) and surprise surprise, that’s also a theme of Advent.

The final theme of Advent is hope, and as we look forward to a time when the General Election will be over and the buying spree will be finished, there’ll be Christmas, when we celebrate God coming amongst us, as one of us. Now that’s a promise that we can trust and it won’t cost a penny or destroy the planet!!

Enjoy the waiting and the anticipation and I wish you all the Joy of Christmas when it arrives.

Blessings

James

The road to eternal freedom

We are now entering what some call the ‘Season of Remembrance’. It starts with All Saints on 1st November, followed by All Souls on 2nd and continues until Remembrance Sunday (this year on 10th) and Armistice Day on 11th. It’s a time when we remember the Saints of the Church, those men and women who are recognised as having an exceptional degree of holiness and who are felt to have a particular likeness or closeness to God. We remember also friends and family members, who we have loved but see no more. And of course we remember those who have given their lives in the armed conflicts of more than 100 years. In churches and communities across the United Kingdom, all of these events are marked with public acts of worship and of remembrance.

On April 5, 1943, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and teacher, was arrested by the Gestapo and thrown into prison; on April 9, 1945, he was executed. Whilst incarcerated, he wrote a collection of the letters, essays and poems. They were addressed to his parents and to a friend, and form an extraordinary picture of a sensitive man whose faith and dedication to service never wavered, whose spiritual depth enabled him to overcome the most trying of circumstances. He was a man of great faith, intelligence and compassion, who understood so well the problems of the modern world. Resisting ease and compromise, he was constantly ministering to his fellow prisoners right up to the time of his death. He was a saint, a friend to many and a casualty of war and therefore has a part in each element of our Season of Remembrance.

One of the short pieces that he wrote to his friend Eberhard Bethge is called “Stations on the Road to Freedom”. In it there’s a short verse on each of four ‘stations’ on that road: Discipline, Action, Suffering and Death. This last he described as “the supreme festival on the road to freedom”. The verse on Death reads as follows:

Come now, Queen of the feasts on the road to eternal freedom!
O death, cast off the grievous chains and lay low the
thick walls of our mortal body and our blinded soul,
that at last we may behold what here we have failed to see.
O freedom, long have we sought thee in discipline and in action and in suffering.
Dying, we behold thee now, and see thee in the face of God.

Blessings
James

He has charged me to build Him a house

After the 50 years of Exile in Babylon, the people of Israel are permitted to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple, as a result of an edict of the Persian King Cyrus in 538 BCE.

Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of those among you who are of his people—may their God be with them!—are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem; and let all survivors, in whatever place they reside, be assisted by the people of their place with silver and gold, with goods and with animals, besides freewill-offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem.” (Ezra 1:2-4)

King Cyrus asks everyone, whether or not they worship the same God, to assist in the effort and contribute gifts in kind. The return begins forthwith.  However the work of rebuilding is halted by the hostility of the Samaritans and doesn’t actually get going until the reign of King Darius I.  Darius orders a search of the archive and finds King Cyrus’s edict and not only silences all opposition, but also commands the rebel kings and governors to assist in every way.

Since April, when I became responsible to getting the repaired ‘tin tabernacle’ that is St Columba’s, ready for use again, I have been struck by the generosity of so many individuals and Churches in providing for us so much of what is needed for a Church to function. All this has happened much as indicated in the edicts of Cyrus and Darius, but without any edict – just sheer generosity and love.

I was reminded of the Return from Exile and the Edict of Cyrus, when I was visiting someone on Monday this week, who asked me to read a passage for her. I reached for the readings for the daily Eucharist. The Old Testament reading for Monday was Ezra 1:1-6 (the passage from which the quote above is taken).

Later on I reflected on how often passages proscribed in our lectionaries for particular days or occasions have an unnerving habit of speaking directly to a present situation or concern. For me this is one of the joys of using a lectionary, we don’t choose which passages to read, removing from us the temptation to read just the bits we like or want to preach on. This allows God to speak directly to us through the pages for Holy Scripture, guiding us to helpful or cautionary verses at exactly the time when we need to hear them.

Anyway back to the People of Israel and the People of Brora. Edict or no edict the various tribes and kingdoms in the Persian Empire did contribute to the rebuilding of the Temple in the years leading up to its reopening in 515 BCE and the People of Israel were very grateful for all the help they received. In the five months that I have been working with others to ready St Columba’s for its rededication this weekend, we have all been touched by the amazing generosity of individuals and fellow Christian communities of different denominations for the help they have given to re-equip our Tin Tabernacle, we like the people of Israel give hearty thanks (though animal sacrifices are not part of the rededication).

Blessings
James

Behold I make all things new

A few things have occurred over the past few weeks which speak of new beginnings.When I was at school or working in the University of Glasgow, this time of year was always a new beginning as a new academic year started, but since then as the summer starts to fade and there are the first signs of autumn, I have tended to reflect on endings rather than beginnings in September.

So what of these new beginnings? After a couple of year planning, the Dornoch Men’s Shed has finally become a reality and will be formally opening on 5th October. The work has been carried out by a group of men, none of whom are in their first flush of youth, but who have found new life in this project which has given a number of men a new less socially isolated focus. St Columba’s in Brora will be rededicated and open again for regular worship on 28th September, rising phoenix-like from the ashes of a devastating fire in late 2016 (see below for details). A member of the Tain congregation celebrated her 69th birthday by reaffirming her Baptism in a lovely service and picnic attended by 30 people from seven different congregations/fellowships on Shandwick beach last Sunday afternoon. In that service we prayed:

God of mercy and love,
new birth by water and the Spirit is your gift,
a gift none can take away;
grant that your servants may grow
into the fullness of the stature of Christ.

Fill them with the joy of your presence.
Increase in them the fruit of your Spirit:
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of love, patience and gentleness,
the spirit of wonder and true holiness.

Finally, this is the season for Ordinations. New beginnings in Ministry for Don, Katrina and Kathryn as they are ordained to the Diaconate on 14th September in the Cathedral and Ellie as she is ordained to the Presbyterate on 21th September in St Peter and the Holy Rood in Thurso. As Bishop Mark lays hands on each of those to be ordained Deacon, he will say:

Pour now upon her/him your Spirit
and make her/him a deacon in your Church,
to proclaim your love in word and deed.
As our Master Jesus washed the disciples’ feet,
may your servant follow that example.

May N. be holy, disciplined and sincere;
may her/his words declare your truth,
that her/his life may shine with
the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

What a new beginning! May God bless all these new beginnings, as people at various stages in their lives find new beginnings: in the Men’s Shed project; in Worship, fellowship and peace in the refurbished and rededicated St Columba’s; in a reaffirmation of their faith in a joyous celebration and in a new life in active participation in the Ministry of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Blessings
James

We know not the hour nor the day

There’s a constant refrain in the news media at the moment, that we live in a period of unprecedented uncertainty. I can’t help but feel however that there’s an element of hyperbole about this. Yes there is uncertainty just now, but perhaps you’d like to tell me when there wasn’t. Quite a few of you lived through WWII and the one thing I think I can be sure of, is that it wasn’t a period of certainty, nor was the period of high inflation in the 70s, economic turbulence of the 80s, the effect of tensions in the Middle East on oil prices in the 90s, the sub-prime crisis which led the world into recession in this century, or the populist political shift which has put Donald Trump and Boris Johnson into positions of high office.

In a résumé of a book called “Certainty to Uncertainty: The Story of Science and Ideas in the Twentieth Century”, by physicist F. David Peat, I read:

Early in the 20th century we were giddy and confident in the knowledge that rational thinking would solve many of our ills. Science would provide an abundance of food and energy. Peace and prosperity were within reach. No accomplishment remained beyond the grasp of enlightened thought. Today, 100 years later, we face environmental deterioration, emerging infections, bioterrorism, and doubts about our earth’s ability to sustain us. We did not anticipate this transition from cocky certainty to disquieting uncertainty. Our views and our Western emphasis on science and progress may have led us to this state. Early theorists believed that in science lay the promise of certainty. Built on a foundation of fact and constructed with objective and trustworthy tools, science produced knowledge. But science has also shown us that this knowledge will always be fundamentally incomplete and that a true understanding of the world is ultimately beyond our grasp.”.

What is not beyond our grasp is that there is a power beyond us that we call God.
The final Parable of the Kingdom in Matthew (Matthew 13:47-53), points to the end of time. There’ll come a time when those who are judged to belong to the Kingdom and those who don’t will be separated from each other. But that’s something that none of us can or should attempt in relation to one another, as the earlier Parable of the Weeds indicates (Matthew 13:24-43).

So when will that end be? That, of course, we can’t know – fortunately! Quite a lot of Jesus’ teaching emphasises this point, but the one thing we do know is that our own end will come, whether we live to be 100 or have a much shorter life. And when it happens, it’ll be clear to God, if not to the rest of us, whether we’re fit for the Kingdom or another place, whether we’re for or against the will of God.

How can we make sure we’re right with God? By making sure that we say our prayers and get to Church regularly? I wouldn’t like to bet on it! Since we don’t know the hour or the day, the best way is to start living the Kingdom today and every day, to live, with Christ’s help, in the way that He showed us in His life and teaching. If we do that, we can trust in God, the uncertainty of the future will take care of itself and there’ll be no need to worry. That doesn’t mean we can duck all responsibility, caring for the planet and loving our neighbour are a big part of it.

Blessings
James

The Spirit of God unseen as the Wind


We are now in what the Church calls ‘Ordinary Time’. That is, the period from Trinity until Advent. For many of us this period of the year is anything but ordinary, as we head into summer, which in our world of changing climate, can mean anything from drought to deluge, heatwave to snow and hail.

At Pentecost, we hear about Disciples staggered about mouthing strange words. Words that are oddly intelligible to people from every nation. This is unfamiliar behaviour and so those around them think and say ‘these people must be drunk’. But Peter points out that it’s only nine in the morning and so that’s not very likely.

It’s out of this scene of exhilarating confusion that Luke records the beginning of the Church. It isn’t the disciples sitting down to soberly consider the merits of Jesus’ teaching or to ponder the meaning of His death, or the minutiae of the Church finances or the meaning of Canon law – important as all of those things may be. The disciples are just carried away on a high, out of which comes preaching and prophesy and it’s this that we in St Andrew’s, St Finnbarr’s and St Maelrubha’s are heir to today. It’s the response to the spirit breathing life into the Church that started it, and it’s this that’s sustained the Church for over two thousand years.

But the Church is not the point. The Church can help to bring people to faith, nuture their faith and resond in ways that individuals can’t. But it’s the Spirit that Jesus sends after his departure, the Spirit that came upon the disciples at Pentecost that is what makes the difference It’s what the Spirit brings into people’s lives that leads to the excitement, and causes the disciples to want to tell everyone about what’s happened; that makes them want to tell anyone and everyone who’ll listen. Is it not the same Spirit that makes us want to share our faith with friends, family and neighbours and through sharing the excitement can become infectious.

At Pentecost, Mary and the other women and disciples believe that the new life welling up in them is the life of God. This feeling is the vitality, the joy, the sheer excitement of God. What happens to them at Pentecost is so unexpected, so unpremeditated, in such contrast to their fear in locking themselves away, that they just feel, they just know, that it couldn’t be anything else but from God.

Whilst many of us may not have such dramatic and overwhelming experience of the Spirit, I suspect that most of us have had unexpected experiences that are just as difficult to account for, that they simply have to be the work of the Holy Spirit. They may be feelings that are fleeting, or last a long time, but we know in our hearts that they’re of God. God breathing life into our lives; at times when we don’t know what to do and need help; at times when someone close to us needs more than we can give them and we don’t know where to turn.

The extraordinary Truth is that the same Spirit that comes to the disciples as a rushing wind and tongues of fire, moves over the chaos of our lives as well, “unceasingly at work, from chaos bringing order and filling emptiness with life.” So enjoy the summer, whatever you are doing, and give the Spirit space and time to work on you and on those that you love and you never know what extraordinary things might happen in this so called Ordinary Time.

Blessings
James