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

Kindled with the Fire

Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.

Strong words from a writer who I turn to from time to time, to challenge me, Annie Dillard, written in a book called ‘Teaching a Stone to Talk’. Annie clearly sees the potential for encounter with God as very powerful, to be taken seriously and not to be trifled with. Perhaps we don’t explicitly talk enough about the power of the Holy Spirit or the Holy Spirit more generally, except perhaps passingly at Pentecost. God the Father seems straight-forward enough and God the Son we read about in the the real-life stories of the Gospels week by week, but God the Holy Spirit?

I don’t know about you, but there are times when the prospect of coming to church doesn’t always fill me with the Holy Joy that perhaps it should do. But you know once we get down to the serious business of invoking the name of what Annie calls the “Sleeping God”, something happens. I don’t know exactly what it is, but it happens. I don’t know quite when it occurs, but it happens. I don’t know precisely what causes it, but it happens. The assembled company become the body of Christ, infused with the Holy Spirit, that “fills our hearts with love”.

One of the joys of the Scottish Episcopal tradition is that in our Eucharistic Liturgies we have an explicit Epiclesis. That is the part of the Eucharistic prayer in which the presence of the Holy Spirit is invoked to bless the elements or the communicants or wonderfully in our case, both. In most of our Eucharistic Prayers it goes like this:

Hear us, most merciful Father,
and 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,
and we may be kindled with the fire of your love
and renewed for the service of your Kingdom.

“and we may be kindled with the fire of your love”, I just love that bit, it sends a tingle down my spine every time. We’re asking for the Holy Spirit to descend on our community of faith, to bless us, to change us and to elevate us beyond all our human weakness, our human failings and our human imaginings.

At Pentecost and every Sunday the Spirit descends, not on us as isolated individuals all with our own likes, dislikes and foibles, but on on our assembly, to raise us to something more divine and just a little less human. The result is an ever deeper common life; united in prayer, united in the breaking of bread, united in action in the world, united in love. As Disciples of Christ we share at least some of our lives, some of our resources and some of our talents for the benefit of others.

Common life in the early church was built across the boundaries of gender, of ethnicity and of social class. It subverted the values and hierarchies of the Roman Empire and by the power of the Spirit, that life is to be taken to every corner of the earth. That subversion is what we should be about – filled with the Spirit.

As 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.

Blessings
James

Travelling in the Resurrection

Since Easter I’ve been away quite a bit. I’ve travelled to Shropshire and back – maybe some 24 hours of travelling by bus, train and car. One of the things I like about travelling by public transport is that you meet a whole selection of people that you would be unlikely to meet under any other circumstances. These people all have their stories to tell and when travelling many share some small portion of their lives with the stranger sitting in the seat opposite. In my experience the likelihood of this increases when the train or bus is delayed, cancelled or suffers some other adversity. My travels were not without incident.

Maybe this willingness to talk is simply a way to pass the time whilst the situation is remedied, or maybe it’s because the immediate adversity makes people more acutely aware of the difficulties that they or their loved ones are facing, and the disrupted travel makes a real connection with disruptions in other parts of their lives.

We’re travelling through the Easter season, after the disruption and adversity of Holy Week, a week which for me had added resonance this year in the aftermath of my Father’s funeral. Easter, I don’t mind admitting, was quite literally a blessèd relief. Easter is here. Alleluia Christ is Risen. He is Risen Indeed Alleluia.

In Luke’s Gospel, we hear about groups of disciples who meet Jesus under a variety of circumstances. In each case, although they’ve encountered the Risen Jesus, they’ve failed to recognise Him (at least initially). On Easter Day we heard about Mary in the Garden, who mistakes Him for the gardener and only recognises Him when he calls her by name. Recognising Jesus requires more than just seeing Him. Hearing about Him isn’t enough either, we need faith as well – think of Thomas who we have also heard about recently. In Luke’s Gospel there’s also the story about two Disciples who meet Jesus on the road to Emmaus and talk with Him as He explains the Scriptures to them whilst walking along. The calling by name, the breaking of bread or the invitation to touch Him – these are when it clicks and we actually realise we are in His presence, as Thomas does when he famously says “My Lord and my God”.

In our Resurrection journey, the point is that Jesus is really real and truly alive! How is Jesus really real and truly alive in our world today? How do our eyes need to be opened to perceive Jesus? How do our ears need to be unstopped to hear His voice? Where do we touch the hands and feet of our Lord? If the Resurrection is to mean anything to me it has to mean something every hour of the day, every day of the week and every week of the year. It isn’t just an Easter thing or a Sunday thing, we are after all an Easter People. How does the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus help us to make sense of what is happening in our lives just now? How does the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus help us bring comfort and healing to the people of a world which with each passing day seems to be getting itself into a bigger and bigger mess?

At the centre of our Eucharistic Prayer we find Paul’s account to the Corinthians about the last supper. In that account what we perhaps hear is: “Jesus took bread and said: this is my body that is for you”. But is he not saying “If you are looking for my body, this is it” Jesus is saying if you are looking for my body, don’t go looking for it in the tomb, don’t look up to heaven for it, you don’t have to look anywhere but amongst yourselves. In any meal shared in friendship, in any act of hospitality, in any act of walking with others (feeding the hungry, visiting the imprisoned or the sick or the lonely, housing the homeless, celebrating with friends), it’s in all these things that we are in the presence of Christ.

It’s sitting on a train that isn’t going anywhere, it’s sitting in a hospital anxiously awaiting news, it’s in all those everyday encounters, as we travel through life, where stories are told and people share their innermost fears with a fellow human being, that we’re walking with our Risen Lord; Travelling in the Resurrection.

Blessings
James

Christ is Risen. He is Risen Indeed – Alleluia!!

Just three days ago, the situation seemed hopeless, all that signified normality was suddenly turned upside down. The one on whom we relied had been take away and the future seemed pretty bleak. And then suddenly against all expectation, what might have seemed impossible has happened. The seemingly hopeless situation has been redeemed in a way that defies comprehension, that casts the world and life and death in a new light.

Of course I might be speaking from the perspective of the disciples of Jesus; as they recall what happened from Judas’s kiss in the Garden of Gethsemane on a Thursday night a couple of millennia ago, until the women arrived at Jesus’ tomb early on Easter morning and found the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. Then one by one the followers of Jesus came face to face with the reality of the power of God and of the Glorious Resurrection of His Son.

On the other hand, I might be speaking of things that have happened in my life in these last days or maybe things that have happened in yours. What the rocky journey of the last wee while has underlined for me again and again, is if I am prepared to trust in God and stop thinking that I should or could control my life or resolve every difficulty on my own, then against all expectation, what might have seemed impossible can happen. Seemingly hopeless situations have been redeemed in ways that defies comprehension, that cast the world and life and death in a new light. Of course that is not to say that what has happened is what I might have asked for or imagined, but then as Paul wrote to the Ephesians:

I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.

A joyous and peaceful Easter to you all and may you trust in God to make the unimagined a reality in your lives.

Blessings
James

Judge Softly

On my way to and from Lairg early on Sunday morning, there were two items on the radio that particularly caught my attention and as the day went by I started to see connections between them.

The first was in the Sunday Service on Radio Scotland, when the preacher said “Jesus leaves His Father in Heaven to come to a world where He’s not welcome, where He’s not received. He experiences alienation and rejection. His earthly family misunderstand and reject Him. His enemies pursue Him. Jesus has no home, no pillow of His own to rest His head on. And in the end He’s dragged through a rigged trial, condemned to death even though He’s innocent and then crucified.

The second was in the review of the papers, when the news that Brendan Cox, husband of murdered MP Jo Cox, had stepped down from the two charities that were set up in her name as a result of a number of earlier allegations of inappropriate behaviour towards women. In his statement, Mr Cox said: “I do acknowledge and understand that during my time at Save the Children I made mistakes and behaved in a way that caused some women hurt and offence, this was never malicious, but it was certainly inappropriate. In the past I have focused on disputing what I felt was untrue in the allegations, but I realise now that it’s more important to take full responsibility for what I have done.” He also said he was committed to holding himself to “much higher standards of personal conduct” in the future.

On the face of it they don’t appear to have much in common, so where is the connection? For me it’s in the two sections in bold type. As I listened to the first piece, I became increasingly uneasy, because I felt that that what was being said was a gross simplification, it was casting the whole thing in terms of goodies and baddies in much the way that the old Westerns did (except in this case the goodies didn’t wear white hats and the baddies black!) From the perspective of Pilate, he had a responsibility to keep peace in his corner of the Roman Empire and woe-betide him if riots had broken out on his watch. Caiaphas, for all his faults, was committed to preserving the Jewish way of life, not rubbing the occupying force up the wrong way and having Jewish freedoms curtailed. Yes both played fast and loose with the facts to preserve what they believed in and, broadly speaking, they were dealing with a dissident who was bent on upsetting the status quo. They were however far less brazen about it than the leader of a country three and a half thousand miles to our west today. The point is that there are different points of view and the ‘Kingdom of Pilate’ and the ‘Kingdom of Caiaphas’ are radically different than the ‘Kingdom of God’. I don’t believe either man to be wholly bad without any redeeming features; but they did understood the situation very differently to the message of Good News that Jesus was preaching.

Now to Mr Cox. In any interaction between two people, there are (at least) two understandings of what has happened. In the past, he has concentrated on the aspects of the testimony of his accusers that he believed to be wrong, in order to maintain his innocence. So what has changed? Mr Cox in reflecting perhaps on the legacy of his late wife, has switch his focus from his feelings to those of his accusers. He may well not understand why they are so upset and hurt by his past behaviour towards them, but he now accepts the plain fact that they are hurt and upset by what he did. He has now realised that his understanding is different to theirs and is prepared to acknowledge that publically. What he has done might: help to bring some healing to those that he has hurt, allow the charities set up in his late wife’s name to move forward without a shadow hanging over them and help him to become the better person he would like to be. What Mr Cox has done is what the Prayer Book means when it says “Remission of all your sins, true repentance, amendment of life”.

It is just so easy to see things from one point of view and as black and white. This Lent as we reflect on how we live our lives we might do worse that consider this short extract from a poem written in 1895 by Mary T. Lathrap called Judge Softly (often mistakenly attributed to to various indian tribes):

Just walk a mile in his moccasins
Before you abuse, criticize and accuse.
If just for one hour, you could find a way
To see through his eyes, instead of your own muse.
I believe you’d be surprised to see
That you’ve been blind and narrow minded, even unkind.

Blessings
James

Walking Together

A number of things have happened recently which have caused me to reflect on community and what it means. Hitherto, I have tended to think of community as something relatively fixed, with a slow rate of change, but … Consider what happens when something unexpected or life-changing happens. Suppose someone is rushed to hospital or dies unexpectedly; in both cases a spontaneous community forms. A community that involves family and friends who although they already have relationships with each other, gather in support of those directly affected and each other. But there is more to it than that.

A member of my family was rushed to hospital on New Years day and as members of his family we gathered, both physically and virtually, to support him and each other in the changed circumstances of his life. As a result I spent last week visiting the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital each day for a few hours; and what struck me, was not just the community around each bed, but the community of friends and relatives of all those in the ward. People who hitherto didn’t know each other, but who took the time to care for each other, a community of the concerned relatives and friends who were brought together spontaneously by what had happened to their nearest and dearest. It doesn’t stop there. This gathered community extended to all those in the care teams at the hospital, who took the time to care for the relatives and friends as well as those in the beds. We all interacted in many and varied ways, pooling our knowledge and resources. It wasn’t organised, there was no-one leading it, a collection of one-to-one ministries — people being there for one another, walking together.

When anything unexpected happens it can be very difficult to deal with, but when someone who is close to you dies unexpectedly, it is particularly challenging. At times like that, having a community of family, friends and possibly even strangers, gather to provide mutual support is a particular blessing. No-one can fully understand what someone who is bereaved is going through. Bereavement is different for everybody involved each time it occurs, but a community of unconditional mutual support is hugely important, even if that support is more about providing space for grieving than anything else; providing a ministry of presence — people being there for one another, walking together .

Being there for one another, walking together – that for me sums up both community and ministry. The ministry to which we are all called by virtue of being followers of Christ. As Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians: “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.” (Gal 6:2) However if you want a longer version, then you can do no better than to turn my favourite spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen, who wrote in 1983:

More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems. My own desire might be to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project. But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them.” (from: Gracias! a Latin American Journal by Henri Nouwen)

Now you don’t need any special training to do that, being human is more than enough.

Blessings

James