A Butterfly Flaps its Wings

There are times in all our lives when, to put it mildly, things aren’t going well. Sickness and accident serve to remind us just how fragile is our health and that of those that we love. Uninvited change can serve to remind us just how fragile our home and family life and all that we’ve taken for granted in the world around us are. Many of us aren’t in our first flush of youth and we can’t manage all that we used to be able to do and many things aren’t as we remember them when we were younger.

There are many things going on around us that seem very much out of kilter with how they should be in a fair and just world. It’s sometimes tempting to believe that things are getting steadily worse and in spite of all our prayers, God either isn’t listening or has given up on us completely. But of course there’s nothing new in any of this. The book of Psalms provides us with ample evidence that people have felt like this for at least the last 3500 years. In psalm 22 the Psalmist writes:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.

Dipping into the Psalms we hear anger, frustration and pleading (as well as the whole gamut of positivity, joy, praise and thanksgiving).

So we offer prayers day by day for our loved ones, our neighbours, ourselves, even our enemies. We pray for the sick, the dying and the bereaved, for the nations and races in conflict, for refugees and the victims of war and oppression. Again nothing new, we hear in Psalm 102:

Hear my prayer, O Lord;
let my cry come to you.
Do not hide your face from me
on the day of my distress.
Incline your ear to me;
answer me speedily on the day when I call.

But “on the day when we call” many of the things that we care about, that trouble us or that we wish would change, stay much the same as before. Where does that leave us in relation to prayer and to the loving God to whom we offer our praise? God’s ways are not our ways and perhaps dealing with the ills of the world doesn’t start with grand plans or schemes, it perhaps starts in the heart of each of us and spreads out from there.

If each day, we set out prayerfully to try to make the life of everyone that we meet just a tiny bit better than it would’ve been had they not met us, then the world will be a slightly better place than it would’ve been. If as a result of one of those encounters someone else makes the life of someone that they meet better, then things are starting to move and in time there could be a chain reaction! The butterfly effect is the name sometimes given to the idea that small causes can have large effects. “If a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil, some time later it may cause a tornado in Texas.” The name comes from Chaos theory (that seems strangely appropriate) and the ‘sensitive dependence on initial conditions’ in atmospheric physics and weather prediction, but has become a more widely used metaphor.

It’s through our prayer for the world, for our neighbours, for those around us, those that we love and those that we find it hard to love, that God can give us the strength and will to do our little bit. For the rest, patience and faith are what are required, as in Psalm 40:

I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.

So why don’t we all try to start a chain reaction this Lent by flapping our wings and you never know what might happen by Easter? Wait patiently, but in the meantime be the change that you want to see, be that light in the darkness for others:

Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” (Matthew 5.16).

Blessings
James

Christ Light up Our Lives

On the last Tuesday in January every year, the people of Shetland celebrate the Up Helly Aa Festival. This involves a series of marches and visitations, culminating in a torch-lit procession and the burning of a replica Viking galley in Lerwick Harbour.

The festival as we see it today is relatively new, dating back only to about 1870, although it does have earlier roots. On Old Christmas Eve (the 5th January, the eve of what is in our calendar Epiphany) in 1824 a Methodist missionary visiting Lerwick wrote in his diary that: “the whole town was in an uproar: from twelve o’clock last night until late this night blowing of horns, beating of drums, tinkling of old tin kettles, firing of guns, shouting, bawling, fiddling, fifeing, drinking, fighting. This was the state of the town all the night – the street was as thronged with people as any fair I ever saw in England.

There have long been festivals often involving light and fire during the long winter months. In the Church we have our fair share of these and no more so than during the 40 days of Christmas, from 25th December (Christmas Day) until 2nd February (The Presentation of Christ or Candlemas). Yes 2nd February is the official end of the Christmas Season. It also marks the midway point between the shortest day and the Spring Equinox.

The Christmas Season, is about the revelation of Jesus the Christ as the Messiah, Light of the World – to the Shepherds (representing the Jews) at Christmas, to the Magi (representing the Gentiles) at Epiphany, to the Prophets Simeon and Anna in the temple, to the people (and in particular the followers of John) at His Baptism in the Jordon, to His Mother and early Disciples at the Wedding in Cana, and to the Jewish leaders in the Temple, when He read from the Prophesy of Isaiah.

We mark all of these events over the 40 days of Christmas, but what about the Revelation of Christ to us in our own lives? The longed for Messiah arrived and, apart from those groups mentioned above, the rest probably missed it completely. So for us the fundamental question is: does this annual retelling of the story of Incarnation, of God becoming Human and living amongst us, shine a light in our lives, in yours and mine: “Lighten our darkness we beseech thee O Lord”?

This Season reminds us that God does come among us. Often He does so at unexpected times and in unusual ways. But unless we have some expectation that it might happen, will we be able to discern his presence and be able to respond appropriately? God acting in our lives is unlikely to be accompanied by: “blowing of horns, beating of drums, tinkling of old tin kettles, firing of guns, shouting, bawling, fiddling or fifeing.” No, our God is a God of surprises, so in 2019 let us be open to all that He seeks to be and all that He seeks to do amongst us – it could be life-transforming.

Blessings
James

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

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.