Behold I make all things new

A few things have occurred over the past few weeks which speak of new beginnings.When I was at school or working in the University of Glasgow, this time of year was always a new beginning as a new academic year started, but since then as the summer starts to fade and there are the first signs of autumn, I have tended to reflect on endings rather than beginnings in September.

So what of these new beginnings? After a couple of year planning, the Dornoch Men’s Shed has finally become a reality and will be formally opening on 5th October. The work has been carried out by a group of men, none of whom are in their first flush of youth, but who have found new life in this project which has given a number of men a new less socially isolated focus. St Columba’s in Brora will be rededicated and open again for regular worship on 28th September, rising phoenix-like from the ashes of a devastating fire in late 2016 (see below for details). A member of the Tain congregation celebrated her 69th birthday by reaffirming her Baptism in a lovely service and picnic attended by 30 people from seven different congregations/fellowships on Shandwick beach last Sunday afternoon. In that service we prayed:

God of mercy and love,
new birth by water and the Spirit is your gift,
a gift none can take away;
grant that your servants may grow
into the fullness of the stature of Christ.

Fill them with the joy of your presence.
Increase in them the fruit of your Spirit:
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of love, patience and gentleness,
the spirit of wonder and true holiness.

Finally, this is the season for Ordinations. New beginnings in Ministry for Don, Katrina and Kathryn as they are ordained to the Diaconate on 14th September in the Cathedral and Ellie as she is ordained to the Presbyterate on 21th September in St Peter and the Holy Rood in Thurso. As Bishop Mark lays hands on each of those to be ordained Deacon, he will say:

Pour now upon her/him your Spirit
and make her/him a deacon in your Church,
to proclaim your love in word and deed.
As our Master Jesus washed the disciples’ feet,
may your servant follow that example.

May N. be holy, disciplined and sincere;
may her/his words declare your truth,
that her/his life may shine with
the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

What a new beginning! May God bless all these new beginnings, as people at various stages in their lives find new beginnings: in the Men’s Shed project; in Worship, fellowship and peace in the refurbished and rededicated St Columba’s; in a reaffirmation of their faith in a joyous celebration and in a new life in active participation in the Ministry of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Blessings
James

We know not the hour nor the day

There’s a constant refrain in the news media at the moment, that we live in a period of unprecedented uncertainty. I can’t help but feel however that there’s an element of hyperbole about this. Yes there is uncertainty just now, but perhaps you’d like to tell me when there wasn’t. Quite a few of you lived through WWII and the one thing I think I can be sure of, is that it wasn’t a period of certainty, nor was the period of high inflation in the 70s, economic turbulence of the 80s, the effect of tensions in the Middle East on oil prices in the 90s, the sub-prime crisis which led the world into recession in this century, or the populist political shift which has put Donald Trump and Boris Johnson into positions of high office.

In a résumé of a book called “Certainty to Uncertainty: The Story of Science and Ideas in the Twentieth Century”, by physicist F. David Peat, I read:

Early in the 20th century we were giddy and confident in the knowledge that rational thinking would solve many of our ills. Science would provide an abundance of food and energy. Peace and prosperity were within reach. No accomplishment remained beyond the grasp of enlightened thought. Today, 100 years later, we face environmental deterioration, emerging infections, bioterrorism, and doubts about our earth’s ability to sustain us. We did not anticipate this transition from cocky certainty to disquieting uncertainty. Our views and our Western emphasis on science and progress may have led us to this state. Early theorists believed that in science lay the promise of certainty. Built on a foundation of fact and constructed with objective and trustworthy tools, science produced knowledge. But science has also shown us that this knowledge will always be fundamentally incomplete and that a true understanding of the world is ultimately beyond our grasp.”.

What is not beyond our grasp is that there is a power beyond us that we call God.
The final Parable of the Kingdom in Matthew (Matthew 13:47-53), points to the end of time. There’ll come a time when those who are judged to belong to the Kingdom and those who don’t will be separated from each other. But that’s something that none of us can or should attempt in relation to one another, as the earlier Parable of the Weeds indicates (Matthew 13:24-43).

So when will that end be? That, of course, we can’t know – fortunately! Quite a lot of Jesus’ teaching emphasises this point, but the one thing we do know is that our own end will come, whether we live to be 100 or have a much shorter life. And when it happens, it’ll be clear to God, if not to the rest of us, whether we’re fit for the Kingdom or another place, whether we’re for or against the will of God.

How can we make sure we’re right with God? By making sure that we say our prayers and get to Church regularly? I wouldn’t like to bet on it! Since we don’t know the hour or the day, the best way is to start living the Kingdom today and every day, to live, with Christ’s help, in the way that He showed us in His life and teaching. If we do that, we can trust in God, the uncertainty of the future will take care of itself and there’ll be no need to worry. That doesn’t mean we can duck all responsibility, caring for the planet and loving our neighbour are a big part of it.

Blessings
James

The Spirit of God unseen as the Wind


We are now in what the Church calls ‘Ordinary Time’. That is, the period from Trinity until Advent. For many of us this period of the year is anything but ordinary, as we head into summer, which in our world of changing climate, can mean anything from drought to deluge, heatwave to snow and hail.

At Pentecost, we hear about Disciples staggered about mouthing strange words. Words that are oddly intelligible to people from every nation. This is unfamiliar behaviour and so those around them think and say ‘these people must be drunk’. But Peter points out that it’s only nine in the morning and so that’s not very likely.

It’s out of this scene of exhilarating confusion that Luke records the beginning of the Church. It isn’t the disciples sitting down to soberly consider the merits of Jesus’ teaching or to ponder the meaning of His death, or the minutiae of the Church finances or the meaning of Canon law – important as all of those things may be. The disciples are just carried away on a high, out of which comes preaching and prophesy and it’s this that we in St Andrew’s, St Finnbarr’s and St Maelrubha’s are heir to today. It’s the response to the spirit breathing life into the Church that started it, and it’s this that’s sustained the Church for over two thousand years.

But the Church is not the point. The Church can help to bring people to faith, nuture their faith and resond in ways that individuals can’t. But it’s the Spirit that Jesus sends after his departure, the Spirit that came upon the disciples at Pentecost that is what makes the difference It’s what the Spirit brings into people’s lives that leads to the excitement, and causes the disciples to want to tell everyone about what’s happened; that makes them want to tell anyone and everyone who’ll listen. Is it not the same Spirit that makes us want to share our faith with friends, family and neighbours and through sharing the excitement can become infectious.

At Pentecost, Mary and the other women and disciples believe that the new life welling up in them is the life of God. This feeling is the vitality, the joy, the sheer excitement of God. What happens to them at Pentecost is so unexpected, so unpremeditated, in such contrast to their fear in locking themselves away, that they just feel, they just know, that it couldn’t be anything else but from God.

Whilst many of us may not have such dramatic and overwhelming experience of the Spirit, I suspect that most of us have had unexpected experiences that are just as difficult to account for, that they simply have to be the work of the Holy Spirit. They may be feelings that are fleeting, or last a long time, but we know in our hearts that they’re of God. God breathing life into our lives; at times when we don’t know what to do and need help; at times when someone close to us needs more than we can give them and we don’t know where to turn.

The extraordinary Truth is that the same Spirit that comes to the disciples as a rushing wind and tongues of fire, moves over the chaos of our lives as well, “unceasingly at work, from chaos bringing order and filling emptiness with life.” So enjoy the summer, whatever you are doing, and give the Spirit space and time to work on you and on those that you love and you never know what extraordinary things might happen in this so called Ordinary Time.

Blessings
James

Risen and Ascended

As they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?

The Season of Easter is almost over and we are in Ascension-tide, which ends at the Feast of Pentecost. Forgiveness is implicit and explicit in the accounts of the Ascension. The fact that the resurrected Christ appears to his disciples at all is very significant. This bunch who when the going got tough, fled and denied Jesus, usually got things wrong and were a motley crew, aren’t having their noses rubbed in their cowardice and faintness of heart. Rather his first words to them are, “Peace be with you”. Just think about it, He must have forgiven them to even bother to come to see them at all. But He comes to them and in fact to all who open their hearts to Him, in mercy. The Ascension simply underlines this mission of mercy.

The ascended Jesus, who sits at God’s right hand, describes a God who’s vulnerable and approachable. When we turn to God in times of distress or temptation we’re not calling out to a deity who’s aloof and can’t relate to what we’re going through. God is right in there, He’s been there, done it, He’s got the tee-shirt as they say. That being the case He is able to comfort us not only by identifying with our pain but also by assuring us that affliction won’t have the final word. All because the Risen and Ascended Christ is with us and that means that nothing can separate us from his love.

For all of us the Ascension is more about letting go than reaching out and grasping. The question for you and me is not, “How do we Ascend?” That’s already been accomplished, through the Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension of Our Lord. The question is: “What’s pulling us down?

What do we need to let go of? Fear, anger, or resentment can weigh us down. The need to be right or in control is a heavy burden to carry. Self-righteousness, jealously, or pride are very effective anchors. Being caught up in perfectionism and the need to prove we’re good enough can become all-consuming. On the other hand it may be indifference or apathy. Many lives are also tethered by addiction.

What is it that holds you down and denies you a share in Jesus’ Ascension?  The gravity that keeps us down is not creation, the world, the circumstances of our lives or other people. The gravity that holds us down lies within us. So we each need to look at our lives and identify the places of gravity, and not despair. The very things that hold us down also point the way to Ascension. So our joining in with Jesus’ Ascension begins not by looking up but by looking within.

Blessings
James

Turn! Turn! Turn!

Next week is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Pete Seeger. For those unfamiliar with the work of this American folk singer/songwriter and social activist, one of his best known songs, written in the sixties, ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ was made popular by many singers and groups including:The Byrds, Judy Collins and The Seekers. What is fascinating about this song is that, apart from the beginning of each verse and a single line at the end, it is more or less a verbatim quote from Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. ‘There is a time for … everything under Heaven’.

Easter is the time when we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead on the third day after the horror, despair and finality of His crucifixion. It is a time of joyful celebration in the Church, because seemed lost forever has been found again. But … on Easter day, Sri Lankan Christians celebrating the great mystery of Christ’s Resurrection, were slaughtered by suicide bombers at three Churches, as were foreign tourists at a number of hotels. This follows on from worshippers being gunned down at Friday prayers at two Mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand in mid-March. So where is the Resurrection Joy and the Christian Hope in all of that? Where is the Resurrection Joy and the Christian Hope for those who have lost friends or relatives over the last week or two?

After the death of his Mother, Henri Nouwen wrote to his Father:

The best way I can express the meaning death receives in the light of the resurrection of Jesus is to say: “Love is stronger than death” and it’s with this great divine love in our hearts, a love far stronger than death, that our lives can be lived as a promise that the Spirit of Christ can never be destroyed.

In this Easter season the empty tomb of Easter invites us to see life where we expect to see only death. The empty tomb invites us to search for love where there only seems to be hate. The empty tomb invites us to seek peace where violence seems to have the upper hand. The empty tomb invites us to sing a song of redemption when the world sees only sin. The empty tomb invites us to proclaim hope where there seems to be only hopelessness. Because whether we are grieving or joyful, Christ rose again for each and every one of us. Whether we doubt or believe, Love conquered death. Whether we are fearful or hopeful, God’s new creation is here, now, and is all around us.

Leo Tolstoy wrote that he became a Christian “because he saw that the men and women round about him who believed in the faith, received from it a power that enabled them to face life and death with peace and joy”. We can help to shine the Light of Christ in the dark places of our world, in the dark times of our lives and in the darkness of the grief and sadness of those around us, if we: “let our light so shine before others, that they may see our good deeds and glorify our Father who is in Heaven”.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

Blessings
James

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