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.

Advent: a season for patient reflection

 

This year has been a challenging year for many of you as it has for me. Many of the old certainties, both political and personal, seem to have been swept away. And so it was for the Disciples of Jesus after his death and resurrection and for His followers ever since, but if our faith means anything to us, it must speak to us in troubling times and well as in the times of joy and celebration.>

It is at such times, that we need to choose whether to live by the ways of the world or by the ways of God. That doesn’t mean separating ourselves off as a holy huddle focussed in on ourselves, refusing to have anything to do with a world riddled with dubious motives and evil actions or with the other people living in it. No, we are called to be in the world but not living by many of the values that the world holds most dear; to be God-centred rather than self-centred. So as we start a new Church Year, with the season of Advent, we have a few weeks to pause and reflect on what Jesus the Christ means in our lives; and how we should respond to that realisation.

In our tradition, we re-tell the story of Jesus each year, with the three Evangelists: Matthew, Mark and Luke, providing the narrative in turn (it’s Luke this coming year). I find that leaving the old year behind at the end of November and starting on a brand new year on the first Sunday of Advent gives me a tremendous boost, just when I need it, when the days are very short and winter is really beginning to take hold. It’s that sense of anticipation, that waiting to see what is going to happen, that lull before the storm of busyness that the festive season represents.

Don’t however run away with the idea that I am always a patient person, because I’m not. I, like the people who put up their Christmas decorations unseasonably early, are simply not good at waiting. Once things have started, most of us want them to reach their conclusion as quickly as possible. We prefer things to happen quickly; but waiting is an important discipline in life. The scriptures remind us that “those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength. In fact, patience is a wonderful gift of the Holy Spirit, which allows us to take our time and live in the moment rather than always wishing to have arrived at some point in the future.

In Jesus’ time people had been waiting a long time to see the coming of God’s Messiah. In our own day we might long to see something of God’s decisive action; in bringing justice and peace to our world; in seeing stability and certainty. The coming of Christ marked an end to the old order of things. In the Christ Child there is a clear sign of God’s commitment to us. In Christ, God is with us, as one of us, which is a mystery “which passes all understanding; one that we need to take time to ponder and reflect on. God’s gift to us in the season of Advent, the season of expectant waiting, is a valuable space in which to prepare ourselves to be able to become aware of and receive all that he wishes to give us.

Let us keep a watchful Advent, so that when the time comes, we may celebrate with joy the one who came, the one who will come again, the one who promises to accompany us each step of our life’s pilgrimage, however uncertain the times.

Blessings
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

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

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