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

Xmas and Christmas – C S Lewis

Some of you have enquired about the C S Lewis essay from which came my sermon illustration this morning, so I am posting the whole essay for those who are interested.  For me what is really interesting is that this essay was published, not recently, but nearly 65 years ago!!

Xmas and Christmas: A Lost Chapter from Herodotus

by C. S. Lewis

And beyond this there lies in the ocean, turned towards the west and north, the island of Niatirb which Hecataeus indeed declares to be the same size and shape as Sicily, but it is larger, though in calling it triangular a man would not miss the mark. It is densely inhabited by men who wear clothes not very different from the other barbarians who occupy the north western parts of Europe though they do not agree with them in language. These islanders, surpassing all the men of whom we know in patience and endurance, use the following customs.

In the middle of winter when fogs and rains most abound they have a great festival which they call Exmas and for fifty days they prepare for it in the fashion I shall describe. First of all, every citizen is obliged to send to each of his friends and relations a square piece of hard paper stamped with a picture, which in their speech is called an Exmas-card. But the pictures represent birds sitting on branches, or trees with a dark green prickly leaf, or else men in such garments as the Niatirbians believe that their ancestors wore two hundred years ago riding in coaches such as their ancestors used, or houses with snow on their roofs. And the Niatirbians are unwilling to say what these pictures have to do with the festival; guarding (as I suppose) some sacred mystery. And because all men must send these cards the marketplace is filled with the crowd of those buying them, so that there is great labour and weariness.

But having bought as many as they suppose to be sufficient, they return to their houses and find there the like cards which others have sent to them. And when they find cards from any to whom they also have sent cards, they throw them away and give thanks to the gods that this labour at least is over for another year. But when they find cards from any to whom they have not sent, then they beat their breasts and wail and utter curses against the sender; and, having sufficiently lamented their misfortune, they put on their boots again and go out into the fog and rain and buy a card for him also. And let this account suffice about Exmas-cards.

They also send gifts to one another, suffering the same things about the gifts as about the cards, or even worse. For every citizen has to guess the value of the gift which every friend will send to him so that he may send one of equal value, whether he can afford it or not. And they buy as gifts for one another such things as no man ever bought for himself. For the sellers, understanding the custom, put forth all kinds of trumpery, and whatever, being useless and ridiculous, they have been unable to sell throughout the year they now sell as an Exmas gift. And though the Niatirbians profess themselves to lack sufficient necessary things, such as metal, leather, wood and paper, yet an incredible quantity of these things is wasted every year, being made into the gifts.

But during these fifty days the oldest, poorest, and most miserable of the citizens put on false beards and red robes and walk about the market-place; being disguised (in my opinion) as Cronos. And the sellers of gifts no less than the purchaser’s become pale and weary, because of the crowds and the fog, so that any man who came into a Niatirbian city at this season would think some great public calamity had fallen on Niatirb. This fifty days of preparation is called in their barbarian speech the Exmas Rush.

But when the day of the festival comes, then most of the citizens, being exhausted with the Rush, lie in bed till noon. But in the evening they eat five times as much supper as on other days and, crowning themselves with crowns of paper, they become intoxicated. And on the day after Exmas they are very grave, being internally disordered by the supper and the drinking and reckoning how much they have spent on gifts and on the wine. For wine is so dear among the Niatirbians that a man must swallow the worth of a talent before he is well intoxicated.

Such, then, are their customs about the Exmas. But the few among the Niatirbians have also a festival, separate and to themselves, called Crissmas, which is on the same day as Exmas. And those who keep Crissmas, doing the opposite to the majority of the Niatirbians, rise early on that day with shining faces and go before sunrise to certain temples where they partake of a sacred feast. And in most of the temples they set out images of a fair woman with a new-born Child on her knees and certain animals and shepherds adoring the Child. (The reason of these images is given in a certain sacred story which I know but do not repeat.)

But I myself conversed with a priest in one of these temples and asked him why they kept Crissmas on the same day as Exmas; for it appeared to me inconvenient. But the priest replied, “It is not lawful, O stranger, for us to change the date of Chrissmas, but would that Zeus would put it into the minds of the Niatirbians to keep Exmas at some other time or not to keep it at all. For Exmas and the Rush distract the minds even of the few from sacred things. And we indeed are glad that men should make merry at Crissmas; but in Exmas there is no merriment left.” And when I asked him why they endured the Rush, he replied, “It is, O Stranger, a racket”; using (as I suppose) the words of some oracle and speaking unintelligibly to me (for a racket is an instrument which the barbarians use in a game called tennis).

But what Hecataeus says, that Exmas and Crissmas are the same, is not credible. For first, the pictures which are stamped on the Exmas-cards have nothing to do with the sacred story which the priests tell about Crissmas. And secondly, the most part of the Niatirbians, not believing the religion of the few, nevertheless send the gifts and cards and participate in the Rush and drink, wearing paper caps. But it is not likely that men, even being barbarians, should suffer so many and great things in honour of a god they do not believe in. And now, enough about Niatirb.

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

Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers.

A stimulating and uplifting St Gilbert and St Boniface Regional Synod yesterday.  For those of you who cannot imagine that those two adjectives can be used in the same sentence as Regional Synod, just look at the expressions on the faces of those who were there.

We started with a celebration of St Michael and All Angels, led for us by Revd Julia, followed by refreshments and a chance to make new friendships and renew old ones.  At the business meeting that followed, once the usual administrative matters were out of the way, Synod discussed two more substantive matters and very much were DOERS as they set up groups to work on motions for Diocesan Synod.  … and that was all before lunch!!

After lunch Ley-Anne Forsyth (in the foreground above) spoke movingly and passionately about Child Poverty in the Highlands and in smaller groups we again looked at what we could DO to help in our communities.  Ley-Anne said that she had hoped that she could set us alight in her session, but found that we were at the very least starting to glow before she started and well ablaze by the time we finished.

St James says in his Epistle:  “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. … Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

On the Feast of St Michael and All Angels, this Regional Synod might reasonable be described in these words by Bernard of Clairvaux:

but even if the splendour and glory of the holy angels before God is beyond our comprehension, we can at least reflect upon the loving-kindness they show us. For there is in these heavenly spirits a generosity that merits our love, as well as an honour that evokes our wonder. It is only right that we who cannot comprehend their glory should all the more embrace their loving-kindness in which, as we know, the members of the household of God, the citizens of heaven, the heirs of paradise, are so exceedingly rich.

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