The track behind and the road ahead

The period between Christmas Day and the New Year is a time both of looking back over the last year and looking forward to the coming one. It’s no coincidence that the Roman God Janus, God of beginnings and endings, after whom January is named, had two faces, one looking forward and the other back.

As we look back over the past year and reflect on all that has happened, I’m sure that there are many things that we wish had not happened and things that didn’t happen that we wish had. Those who try to live their lives as Christians aren’t plucked away from the hard realities of life into some paradise where we can leave far behind: pain, anguish, tears, anxiety, loss and grief.

Many of us haven’t had a particularly easy year: the loss of close family or friends, difficult relationships, health problems, worry about the future. There are people who talk as if being raised with Christ removes all these things, all doubt, all pain, all difficult responsibilities and trying relationships They’re either fantasising or living in the world of the more sentimental Victorian hymn writers.

When Paul wrote about being raised with Christ, he was talking about a miracle. But that miracle isn’t about being delivered from our present circumstances, it’s about being transformed by them. Transformed by the Christian hope that through having faith and trust in God, all things can be made anew, so that as St Julian of Norwich wrote of a vision in her “Revelations of Divine Love” in which Jesus informed her that: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well”.

May all blessings be yours in 2019
James

Advent: a season for patient reflection

 

This year has been a challenging year for many of you as it has for me. Many of the old certainties, both political and personal, seem to have been swept away. And so it was for the Disciples of Jesus after his death and resurrection and for His followers ever since, but if our faith means anything to us, it must speak to us in troubling times and well as in the times of joy and celebration.>

It is at such times, that we need to choose whether to live by the ways of the world or by the ways of God. That doesn’t mean separating ourselves off as a holy huddle focussed in on ourselves, refusing to have anything to do with a world riddled with dubious motives and evil actions or with the other people living in it. No, we are called to be in the world but not living by many of the values that the world holds most dear; to be God-centred rather than self-centred. So as we start a new Church Year, with the season of Advent, we have a few weeks to pause and reflect on what Jesus the Christ means in our lives; and how we should respond to that realisation.

In our tradition, we re-tell the story of Jesus each year, with the three Evangelists: Matthew, Mark and Luke, providing the narrative in turn (it’s Luke this coming year). I find that leaving the old year behind at the end of November and starting on a brand new year on the first Sunday of Advent gives me a tremendous boost, just when I need it, when the days are very short and winter is really beginning to take hold. It’s that sense of anticipation, that waiting to see what is going to happen, that lull before the storm of busyness that the festive season represents.

Don’t however run away with the idea that I am always a patient person, because I’m not. I, like the people who put up their Christmas decorations unseasonably early, are simply not good at waiting. Once things have started, most of us want them to reach their conclusion as quickly as possible. We prefer things to happen quickly; but waiting is an important discipline in life. The scriptures remind us that “those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength. In fact, patience is a wonderful gift of the Holy Spirit, which allows us to take our time and live in the moment rather than always wishing to have arrived at some point in the future.

In Jesus’ time people had been waiting a long time to see the coming of God’s Messiah. In our own day we might long to see something of God’s decisive action; in bringing justice and peace to our world; in seeing stability and certainty. The coming of Christ marked an end to the old order of things. In the Christ Child there is a clear sign of God’s commitment to us. In Christ, God is with us, as one of us, which is a mystery “which passes all understanding; one that we need to take time to ponder and reflect on. God’s gift to us in the season of Advent, the season of expectant waiting, is a valuable space in which to prepare ourselves to be able to become aware of and receive all that he wishes to give us.

Let us keep a watchful Advent, so that when the time comes, we may celebrate with joy the one who came, the one who will come again, the one who promises to accompany us each step of our life’s pilgrimage, however uncertain the times.

Blessings
James

We will Remember

Once we get to Advent we will be focussed on looking forward to the coming of Christ amongst us in the Incarnation. Before that however, we have a season of remembrance, which is often perceived as more focussed on looking back. Successively, we commemorate the festivals of All Saints on 1st November, All Souls on 2nd November and then on 11th November we commemorate those who have given their lives in the World Wars and in the conflicts since. This year is particularly poignant because Remembrance Sunday coincides with Remembrance Day, 11th November, and also marks the centenary of the end of WW1.

At at the start of the WW1 centenary commemorations on the anniversary of the start of the conflict (28th July 2014) I was still employed at the University of Glasgow. For the last four years, on the weekday closest to the centenary of the death of each member of the University who died in that conflict, after the morning service there is a small procession from the chapel to the Centenary Memorial Garden to plant a small wooden cross to commemorate that individual. I remember several such events, though in 2014 whilst I was still in the University, they were few in number. The first was 2nd Lieutenant John Hamilton Dickson of the 1St Battalion, Cameron Highlanders, who died on 14th September 1914. There were a further 10 crosses planted before Christmas.

The last time I passed the Memorial Garden there were almost 750 crosses, a sobering thought, so much talent that never reached its full potential. After the horrors of the Great War, the University wanted a lasting memorial to its dead. In the preface to the Roll of Honour, the then Principal and Vice-Chancellor Donald MacAlister wrote of how the University decided to build its Memorial Chapel.

After due deliberation it was agreed, with the consent of all, that their memory, and our gratitude for their devotion, should be associated with the place of our corporate worship, to the end that their example might be enduringly impressed upon Glasgow students in time to come.

As a result, daily worship in the University takes place surrounded by the names of the 755 University members who died in WW1.

In this season of Remembrance, we remember those Christian Saints that have gone before us to show us the way, we remember those that we love but see no more and as we remember those who have died fighting for their country. Let us no simply look back in this season but celebrate the lives of the Saints, all that we learned and all that we shared with those that we love but see no more, and all that we have and have become as a result of those who have fought for their country and for our way of life – Rest eternal grant unto them O Lord and let light perpetual shine upon them. May they Rest in Peace and Rise in Glory.

Blessings
James

For everything there is a season

Autumn seems to have arrived quite suddenly, it sort of crept up on me when I wasn’t paying attention. The turning of some of the trees has been hastened by one or two autumn gales, battering the leaves and breaking off branches.

I like autumn, for although the days are getting noticeably shorter, the fruits of the summer growth become ready for harvesting. Growth and maturing that has been quietly going on a little bit each day become much more noticeable and although we had a rather drier summer than usual, the later part of the summer has provided enough rain for some bumper crops of apples and plums. Everyone we meet seems to be asking if we would like apples, but we have apples of our own and as for the courgettes …

It seems that as though we don’t fully realise all that has been going on until we start to gather in the harvest, and then what has been happening quietly under our noses, becomes obvious. I never cease to be amazed that plants such as leeks and onions, beetroot and carrots, which seemed so tiny and delicate when they first appear in spring, grow into such large and robust plants; the blossom on the apple and plum trees, once the bees have done their work, is transformed over the summer into abundant fruit.

Over the last week or so I have been reflecting on the way that this passage of the seasons is to be found in Christian Theology. It is used literally, but more importantly as a metaphor for spiritual growth. The reason for this reflection is of course the time of year, but also because much of the past week or two has been spent preparing for funerals. A popular and very appropriate passage of Scripture at funerals is Ecclesiastes 3:1-15, which starts:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; …

and later on continues:

I know that whatever God does endures for ever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it.

One of the hymns chosen by a most remarkable woman as she thoughtfully planned her funeral were quite unusual, but as I reflected on the words of (particularly the first and last verses), I realise how appropriately they fitted that celebration of a life, that gradually took shape and achieved much. But I also reflected how we perhaps don’t realise all that has been happening quietly under our noses, until it becomes obvious, when we take stock and realise what an abundant harvest that life has produced.

A death often leaves us feeling more like winter than the celebration that is autumn at harvest time, but even then there is hope for new spring growth once again.

Now the green blade riseth, from the buried grain,
Wheat that in dark earth many days has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.

When our hearts are wintry, grieving, or in pain,
Jesus’ touch can call us back to life again,
Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:
Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.

Blessings
James

Kindled with the Fire

Today I decided to have a bonfire. We’ve accumulated quite a pile of garden rubbish this summer, but haven’t dared to have a bonfire as everything was so dry and one stray spark could have had rather serious consequences. Anyway, today is dry and still and so it seems the perfect opportunity to catch up. A big pile of garden rubbish isn’t, however, all that’s needed. Material for kindling and dry woody material for generating some heat are also required. Anyway it started smouldering gently, but without any great enthusiasm, as a result of the complete lack of air movement and I wasn’t sure whether or not it would actually take off.

Whilst musing on the gentle spirals of smoke, lazily twisting this way and that, a phrase from our Eucharistic Prayer kept repeating itself in my mind: “Kindled with the fire of your love”. Kindle is a wonderful word in that context. It generally means to “start a fire”, but in this context is means “to arouse or inspire”. The fire we are talking about is the flame of the Holy Spirit’s love and we are asking to be inspired by it. This love is unconditional and generous beyond imagination. It came upon the disciples at Pentecost (as El Greco so graphically depicts it in his painting of the Pentecost, with the dove hovering overhead):

Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” (Acts 2:2-3)

The next bit of the Eucharistic prayer tells us why we should be kindled with this fire? It’s so that we may be: “renewed for the service of your Kingdom”. Not only is that love part of all our Eucharistic Prayers but it’s God’s desire for us to be “on fire” with His love, so that this love may be reflected in our thoughts, our actions, how we interaction with others and in our lives more generally.

So every time we celebrate the Eucharist together, we ask God to: “Send your Holy Spirit upon us and upon this bread and this wine, that, overshadowed by his life-giving power, they may be the Body and Blood of your Son”. So that we may be “Kindled with the fire of Your love and renewed for the service of your Kingdom”.

A book that I keep returning to again and again is called “The Healing Power of the Sacraments” by Jim McManus. In it he reminds us of the words of Matthew 5:23-24: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.

It’s through being reconciled with one other that we open ourselves to receive the healing power of the Sacrament that is central to our Christian way of life – the Eucharist. Although it is truly God’s desire to have the Spirit fully alight in our lives, all of us face daily temptation and distraction from the world around us. A world which plays by a different set of rules, not driven by the fire of the God’s love. As individuals we are all constantly in need of reconciliation, so as a community of faith let us strive to help each other in that in order to fan the flames and be truly inspired for the service of God’s Kingdom.

The bonfire did get going, but instead of the dove, there were three ospreys hovering overhead.

Blessings
James

All your works shall give thanks

As I sit here with the wind-driven rain beating on the windows, it seems that the prolonged period of hot and dry weather that we have had this summer has drawn to a close. The news bulletins indicate that there is travel disruption as a result of thunder storms and flash flooding, a far cry from melting tarmac only yesterday morning in some parts of the UK.

Without doubt, the advance of science, technology and medicine has allowed humankind to achieve wonderful things. As a species we have learnt to exercise control over many aspects of our lives, our health, our food, how we live and how we use our leisure time. It may be possible to forecast the weather to a greater or lesser extent, but we cannot control it. It may be possible to treat many diseases, but that neither means that they have been eliminated, nor that the outcome of treatment is certain. We may be able to cultivate the land and raise a variety of domestic animals, but as any farmer with tell you, the degree of success is rather variable no matter how much effort they put in.

All of this serves to remind us, that whatever illusions we might have in the twenty-first century of being in control of everything, we are in fact in control of relatively little and have to live our lives according to conditions which are not of our making. Everything around us speaks of the power beyond us that we as Christian’s refer to as God. As the psalmist says in Psalm 145:

All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord,
and all your faithful shall bless you.
They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom,
and tell of your power,
to make known to all people your mighty deeds,
and the glorious splendour of your kingdom.

During Lairg Gala Week, there is a Flower Festival in Lairg Parish Church, with wonderful arrangements produced by many groups and individuals in the area. On the Sunday evening there is a Songs of Praise to give thanks to God for his goodness to us. At last Sunday’s service, the reading was from Psalm 104, which contains these words:

You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
they flow between the hills,
giving drink to every wild animal;
the wild asses quench their thirst.
By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation;
they sing among the branches.
From your lofty abode you water the mountains;
the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.
You cause the grass to grow for the cattle,
and plants for people to use,
to bring forth food from the earth,
and wine to gladden the human heart,
oil to make the face shine,
and bread to strengthen the human heart.

We may talk about the weather, we may forecast the weather, but ultimately we do not control the weather, even if by our collective actions, we may have significant impact on the climate of our world.

Stewards of the Earth

Crown of the Anglican Cathedral in Cairo

Lovely summer weather, the like of which we haven’t seen for a year or two and initially the garden appreciated the long hours of sunshine and, once the cold winds had subsided, the warmth. As the dry spell continues, the lack of water is proving a bit of a challenge for some of the plants and there is no sign of rain in the five-day forecast, though I’m sure that when the weather does break, we may soon forget what a glorious early summer we’ve had. But of course its not only the garden that may struggle in the heat. Often older people find hot weather very difficult and in many parts of the country, the pollen count is also high, leading to an increase in the number of people suffering what is officially called “seasonal allergic rhinitis” or pollen allergy. For sufferers, weather like this can be very miserable indeed.

After the very wet winter, the availability of water is such that, as yet, there hasn’t been much talk of hosepipe bans. That’s no reason not to be careful in our use of water. Over a decade ago, I did some teaching in Upper Egypt and flew south from Cairo several times and was very aware that without the irrigation water that the Nile provided, there was simply no life.

Having spent quite a lot of time over the past few months helping to sort out and find suitable recipients of my parents possessions, I have become acutely aware of the waste of resources involved in sending things to skips and landfill. My sister and I have become very well acquainted with the whole range of charity shops in the area around the Cheshire/Shropshire border and St Finnbarr’s Charity Shop in Dornoch has also been a beneficiary. I’m sure that my parents would have been much happier that their possessions found new homes and uses than that they simply ending up in a big hole in the ground.

I am reviewing a book for a church newspaper at the moment called “Blue Planet, Blue God”, which looks at our relationship with our planet and its resources through the lens of the Bible and it is very interesting to see what the Bible does say about the wise use of the resources that God has provided for His people. Jesus uses parables to talk about these things. In these he refers to ‘stewards’. What is a steward? A steward is someone who manages the household or property that belongs to another. As God’s people that is the status that we have in relation to our planet and all that is in it. We are stewards because God is the owner of all things. In the 1982 Liturgy, the words at the Offertory include these words from 1 Chronicles:

Yours, Lord, is the greatness, the power, the glory,
the splendour, and the majesty; for everything in
heaven and on earth is yours.
All things come from you, and of your own we give you.

As we manage the things that we think of as ours, including the water that comes out of our taps, the challenge for us as stewards is to be prepared to give account to our Master, who will come and assess how we have stewarded what He has given us in trust. Some of Jesus’ parables give stark warning of the consequences of being poor stewards.

Blessings
James