With the people on his heart

During this time of crisis, Simon and James are separately celebrating the Eucharist each week, each “standing before God with the people on his heart“.  It’s difficult for both us and you not being able to share the Eucharist together.  However we should be clear as to role of the priest in the Eucharist as (in some sense) representing Christ to the people, and also as representing the people to God (“standing before God with the people on his/her heart“).

No priest does this because of inherent goodness or other qualities they possess or because of any dignity or status.  Priests who preside at the Eucharist do so in the full knowledge of their own unworthiness and as participants in the sinfulness of the world. In the Liturgy, the priest represents the incarnate Christ in His identification with the people, not as someone standing over them, but as belonging to them, and they to him/her.

Michael Ramsey, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1961-1974, wrote in his book “The Christian Priest Today“, that “Being with God with the people on your heart is the meaning of the daily office, of the Eucharist and of every part of your prayer and service of people.”  Sound advice, which is why the book, first published in 1972, is still on the recommended reading list of those in training for ministry in the Church.

As we celebrate the sacrifice of our Lord and Saviour in this ‘socially distanced’ way, it’s instructive to read the rubrics in the service for “Communion of the sick” in the Scottish Prayer Book, dealing with the situation where someone is unable to “receive the Sacrament with his mouth“:

“If a man, either by reason of extremity of sickness, or for want of warning in due time to the Priest, or by any other just impediment, do not receive the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood: the Priest shall instruct him that if he do truly repent him of his sins, and stedfastly believe that Jesus Christ hath suffered death upon the cross for him, and shed his Blood for his redemption, earnestly remembering the benefits he hath thereby, and giving him hearty thanks therefor; he doth eat and drink the Body and Bread of our Saviour Christ profitably to his soul’s health, although he do not receive the Sacrament with his mouth.”

Rubrics in Communion of the sick” in the Scottish Prayer Book 1929.

Blessings
James

To Keep a True Lent

Tuesday was Shrove Tuesday, or to give it its more common name, Pancake Day. It’s traditionally the last day of indulgence before the start of the season of the Church year called Lent. This season lasts for 46 days (or 40 if Sundays are excluded, as they traditionally are). For many people Lent’s a time for abstinence and when I was a boy, there was no chocolate, no cakes and no biscuits from Ash Wednesday until Easter Day. As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to see Lent as something far richer than simply a time of giving up treats. This isn’t of course a new idea, as long ago as 1648, Robert Herrick wrote a poem called “To Keep a True Lent”. The first verse of which is:

Is this a fast, to keep
The larder lean?
And clean
From fat of veals and sheep?

His initial reply to the question is:

No; ‘tis a fast to dole
Thy sheaf of wheat,
And meat,
Unto the hungry soul.

And he finishes:

To show a heart grief-rent;
To starve thy sin,
Not bin;
And that’s to keep thy Lent.

He attaches importance in attending to the physical needs of those less fortunate than oneself and then to one’s own spiritual needs – “to starve thy sin not bin”. Giving up treats can of course serve both purposes. In the case of the former, we can spend the money saved giving to the food bank or to charity and in the latter, the discipline of refraining from and refusing treats serves as an all too frequent reminder of this particular goal.

You don’t have to be religious to see a need to examine your life and the way you live it; to examine your relationships and how you interact with others; to strip away the masks that you hide behind and the stories that you tell yourself to justify what you do and think. The main difference for those who believe in God is that there’s nowhere to hide. You can tell yourself that your actions are always entirely justified, as much as you like, but there’s simply no hiding from the scrutiny of an all-seeing, all-knowing deity.

Some say we’re now living in a surveillance society, with CCTV cameras everywhere you turn, but for those with a faith in God, it’s always been like that. Consequently it means we have to live life., as Paul wrote to the Ephesians: “as children of light— for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible”. The difference for me between CCTV and God is that I’d rather be judged by the creator of the world, than by the creator of the webcam and whoever may be watching it on youtube, twitter or facebook.

Seven weeks a year of spiritual spring-cleaning through self-reflection and increasing self-awareness, might be helpful to anyone, religious or not, as they strive to become a better person. As the Scottish Prayer Book describes the penitent in the invitation to confession: “Ye that do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead a new life”. That just about sums up for me what Lent’s about. Have a fruitful time between now and Easter and enjoy the Easter Eggs all the more.

Blessings
James

Be Still and Know that I am God

Whilst reflecting on how we might structure our Lent Study on Prayer, I came across this quote by one of my favourite spiritual writers Henri Nouwen:

Deep silence leads us to realize that prayer is, above all, acceptance. When we pray, we are standing with our hands open to the world. We know that God will become known to us in the nature around us, in people we meet, and in situations we run into. We trust that the world holds God’s secret within and we expect that secret to be shown to us. Prayer creates that openness in which God is given to us. Indeed, God wants to be admitted into the human heart, received with open hands, and loved with the same love with which we have been created.

I remember that school prayers were always things with words and not much silence. Also we had to put our hands together and close our eyes tight shut, and woe betide anyone who tried to peek, because strangely teachers seemed to be able to pray with their eyes wide open. Looking round our congregations on a Sunday, I get the impression that most people must have been taught about prayer in much the same way and, of course, old habits die hard. So it comes as rather refreshing to read an article by another of my favourite spiritual writers Eugene Peterson who in writing about a third favourite writer says:

Annie Dillard prays with her eyes open. She says, Spread out your hands, lift up your head, open your eyes, and we’ll pray… She gets us into the theater that Calvin told us about, and we find ourselves in the solid biblical companionship of psalmists and prophets who watched the ‘hills skip like lambs’ and heard the ‘trees clap their hands,’ alert to God everywhere.

When we celebrate the Eucharist together, our celebration is part of entering into the mystery of God. Rudolf Otto, a German theologian, wrote: We experience God as Mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Basically, the unfathomable Mystery before whom we’re awestruck and stand trembling, yet find ourselves inexorably drawn into a relationship that’s also gracious and loving; attracting and fascinating us in ways we can’t fully explain.

It’s quite beyond us to have a loving relationship with the mysterious invisible God, through our own efforts. But because God wants to relate to us individually in love He’s given us the perfect helper in His Son Jesus Christ. Through Him God invites us into the love that we see demonstrated in the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the Holy Trinity. The Son shows us the way to the Father through the power of the Spirit. God however remains a mystery.

Prayer is the mechanism through which we try to enter into that mystery. Prayer works through the power of the Spirit, rather than anything that we could possible achieve on our own. In prayer, the Spirit calls and we respond rather than prayer being something that we initiate. As St Paul says in his letter to the Romans:

The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” Romans 8:26-27

Come and explore these things in our Lent Study Groups on Prayer.

Blessings
James

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.

Blessings
James

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