… But joy comes with the morning

I expect that many of you, like me, have been feeling a profound sense of loss in relation to the many people, activities and freedoms that you have lost over the past year.

One day, when I was working at the University of Glasgow, I emerged from the building where I worked into the sunshine and encountered a colleague taking a break. As I greeted him there was something in the way he responded that indicated that a simple exchange of ‘good morning’ wasn’t enough. He then poured out a list of dreadful things that had happened in his family, ending by saying “I just want to yell at God”. “Well why don’t you?” I replied, to which he said “Is that allowed?”.

The answer is: “Of course its allowed, the people of the Hebrew Bible were doing it all the time”. You should have seen the look of relief on his face.

It’s now Lent and our Lent Study this year is ‘Lament and the Psalms’. Lament is a process for addressing what my colleague was feeling and also how I’ve been feeling, however it’s not just another way of being miserable. Lament has a discernable form and purpose, seen very clearly in the 40 or so Psalms of lament.

Firstly, the psalmist cries out to God in anguish, pain or despair, often unable to articulate exactly what’s wrong. A good example is verse 1 of Psalm 22, which Jesus quoted on the Cross – “My God my God why have you forsaken me?”. The psalmist just wants to be heard and helped.

Secondly, he lists one or more complaints, often pulling no punches and accompanied by a list of reasons why the complaints should be heard and responded to.

There follows a recollection of past times when God has come to the rescue and perhaps the realisation and trust that He might again this time. Finally the psalmist remembers the good times when they felt better about the world and this usually blossoms into thanksgiving and praise.

So lament is a process, which may take place over a period of hours, days, weeks or months, by which overwhelming sadness, grief and pain gradually transform into memory of and thanksgiving for the many good things experienced and received. Lament in the lands of the Bible isn’t primarily an individual process and is often communal. Some people may be sharing in the loss or anguish or grief directly, but there will be others lamenting with them to support them in the process. Of course we see this at work in many communities in the mourning that takes place when one of our own has been taken from us.

Lament can be a powerful process to help with any sense of loss, so give it a go, you’ll probably feel better for it. As Psalm 30 says: “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.

Whilst I’ve been writing this, the sun has come out, it’s started to feel quite warm and I’m beginning to remember the good times and trust God that they’ll return in some form.

Blessings
James

Grief and Courage

I have been reading an important and fascinating book about the effects of human activity on the planet that we share. This book isn’t a long list of statistics and dire warnings; it contains no graphs or tables or maps. This is a book of stories, from individuals across the word; thirty-five stories in fact. They are stories told by Christians who have experienced some of the direct and indirect effects of man’s activities on their neighbourhoods, their environment and their way of life.

Words for a Dying World” is, as it’s byline says, a collection of “Stories of Grief and Courage from the Global Church”. You can probably see why I find this book fascinating, but why do I think it’s important? The reason is, because these stories are told not as complaint, not to attribute blame and not as answers to specific problems, but as lament. In his story about his Grandma’s oil well, Kyle Lambelet writes:

Lament is one of Scripture’s primary modes of prayer. The psalms are full of them. God laments over creation before the flood; Rachel weeps over her children; Jeremiah cries out in exile; Job denounces God’s abusive sovereignty. Laments are prayers at the end of human agency. They confront the reality of our situation in recognition that things are not as they should be.

My Grandma’s Oil WellKyle Lambelet (in “Words for a Dying World ed Hannah Malcolm)

Lament is an important part of grieving and something which our current Western culture struggles with. Lament is a way of dealing with grief and, as Kyle says, was an important part of the culture of the peoples of the Old Testament. Lament names the grief, shares the grief in community, talks about that which is lost and acknowledges the loss. But as Hannah Malcolm the editor of this book says:

We grieve the death of particular things, whether creatures or places, and, until we understand this, our relationship between others and ourselves, we will continue to flounder in slogans and simplifications. If grief is an expression of love, our grief takes on the shape of the places and creatures to whom we intimately belong.

Introduction: The End of the World?” (in “Words for a Dying World ed Hannah Malcolm)

In the last year we have all experienced the loss of people, things, activities and important aspects of our lives, as a result of the global pandemic that is Covid-19. It is important for all of us to find the time and the place to name those losses in the company of others, and since each of us experiences an individual set of losses, and the same loss affects each of us in different ways, it’s important that we have the opportunity to share our stories and our sadness. But lament isn’t simply a maudlin introspection on what is no more, but it also allows us to work through our grief at the loss and see hope beyond it.

Our new Eucharistic Prayer for Lament affirms this in the following petition:

Glory and thanksgiving be to you,
most loving Father,
for you have redeemed us through your Son.

By his life and sacrificial death,
he conquered the powers of darkness,
transforming our lament
and freeing us to praise you.

SEC Eucharistic Prayer for Lament

We learn from the psalms, that biblical lament comes in many forms. Some is directed toward an enemy; some toward God; some is individual and isolated; some is communal and comprehensive. Lament is a response to the full range of problems in the human condition. The psalms specifically name: isolation, shame, despair, danger, physical impairment, and death as cause for lament.

Lament may be a helpful way to reflected on any loss, and there are both personal and community aspects to that. With this in mind, our Lent Study this year will explore Lament, both in general and in particular and use the Psalms as an import source of helpful material.

I leave the final word to Hannah, as she writes in the conclusion:

If we cannot bring ourselves to be truthful about our broken histories, or the current trauma we face and perpetuate, we cannot begin to heal. Survival, compassion, honesty. These are all good reasons to grieve. But the conviction that Christ’s resurrection marked the death of death also contains the hope that our works of love in the present are not consigned to destruction. They participate in a transformed future.”

Conclusion: World without End?” (in “Words for a Dying World ed Hannah Malcolm)

Blessings
James

Good News Indeed

There is a phrase in common use just now that troubles me; “My life is on hold just now”. Now I’m no philosopher, but that doesn’t make sense to me. It sounds as though the life in question was on Netflix and you could just press the pause button and start life up again some time later. Our days are ticking away whether we are locked down, locked up or having a ball. The reality is ‘this is your life‘ even though Eamonn Andrews isn’t around with his big red book and things may not be exactly the way that you would wish them to be (twas ever thus).

This week there was “Good News” preached by politicians and screaming out in the headlines of newspapers. A vaccine for COVID has been approved for use in the UK by the regulator MHRA and the narrative has switched to “we can now starting living our lives again”. So what have such people been doing for the last nine months – hibernating?

Sadly I think there is going to be a lot of disappointment around for anyone who thinks that everything will revert to its pre-COVID state any time soon and that Pfizer/BioNTech or Oxford/AstroZenica have some magic potion to bring things back to normal, like an episode out of the tales of Hans Christian Anderson.

The Advent theme is that the time of promise is drawing to an end and the time of fulfilment is drawing near. For Isaiah, it’s the end of exile for Israelites in Babylon. For John the Baptist it’s the coming of Israel’s long-awaited Messiah. So what is it for us at the end of 2020, when people who want to ‘take their lives off hold’, see that long-awaited fulfilment as being delivery of a pharmaceutical?

Advent is Good News in the midst of the struggle. With the Good News of the Incarnation, God has already entered our struggles. He is himself Good News from the battle front, as it were. We hear the voice that commands us to prepare a way in the wilderness. But the way that we are urged to prepare is not our way. The way we are to prepare is the way of the Lord and that isn’t the same thing at all.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Isaiah 55:8-9

Our lives are not on hold, we are not missing out, we are being given a unique opportunity to be in at the start of something far more wonderful than the arrival of a pharmaceutical that must be stored at minus 78 degrees and administered in batches of 975 doses!!

O Come O Come Emmanuel

A week or so ago, I was chatting with someone with whom I reflect on ministry from time to time. We were discussing the challenges that we’re likely to face this Christmas. After a pause he asked me “OK so if you strip everything back, what really needs to be done at Christmas?

I thought about it for a moment or two and said “Announce the Incarnation!” “Well”, he said, “What you need to do is to think about how you and your congregations can do that to the best of your abilities.

So I thought, how do we usually do that? We prepare to do it throughout Advent as we remember successively week by week The Patriarchs (and Matriarchs), The Prophets, John the Baptist and The Virgin Mary as we light our Advent Candles. We hold Advent study groups so that we can think more deeply about some particular aspect of our faith. We have a collection for the Food Bank.

As we get to the end of Advent, we decorate our Church buildings with flowers, greenery, Christmas tree etc. and then set up our cribs. We sing advent hymns and Christmas Carols and we have Carol Services and join in services held jointly with the other denominations. Then on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day we have joyous celebrations of the Incarnation itself and usually welcome a fair number of visitors to our services.

We do all these things and we celebrate in our homes with food and other good things.

The question is, “how many of those things can we do this year?” The answer my sisters and brothers is “most of them”. The principle exception is the singing, but as those of you have been able to celebrate the Eucharist with us over the past four months know, we’ve replaced hymns by humns and our organists have been wonderful in keeping the familiar tunes flowing whilst we humn along. We’ll of course also not be able to meet up with so many people but we can phone them.

This year as any other year, we can share the Good News of Christ coming into our world as a tiny defenceless baby to be Emmanuel – God with us.

This year we face many challenges but it is worth reflecting, as the Christmas story unfolds, on the enormous challenges that Mary and Joseph and their baby faced that first Christmas. And as we do so, let us offer up our prayers for all new parents and their babies, may God be with them all, every step of the way.

Incarnational Blessings
James

We will remember them

They shall grow not old,
as we that are left grow old;
age shall not weary them,
nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.
We will remember them.

Dornoch War Memorial

The Suffering God

Not to the work of sordid selfish saving
Of our own souls to dwell with Him on high,
But to the soldier’s splendid selfless braving,
Eager to fight for Righteousness and die.

Peace does not mean the end of all our striving,
Joy does not mean the drying of our tears;
Peace is the power that comes to souls arriving
Up to the light where God Himself appears.

Joy is the wine that God is ever pouring
Into the hearts of those who strive with Him,
Light’ning their eyes to vision and adoring,
Strength’ning their arms to warfare glad and grim.

So would I live and not in idle resting,
Stupid as swine that wallow in the mire;
Fain would I fight, and be for ever breasting
Danger and death for ever under fire.

Bread of Thy Body give me for my fighting,
Give me to drink Thy Sacred Blood for wine,
While there are wrongs that need me for the righting,
While there is warfare splendid and divine.

Give me, for light, the sunshine of Thy sorrow,
Give me, for shelter, shadow of Thy Cross;
Give me to share the glory of Thy morrow,
Gone from my heart the bitterness of Loss.

Part of “The Suffering God” by Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy (otherwise known as Woodbine Willie)

We Rejoice that they have lived

The weather has definitely announced the start of Autumn in the last week or so, and we are now entering the last few weeks of the Church year, with the Season of Remembrance. There are three key days in this season, each one quite special but with a different focus.

On All Saints’ day this Sunday (1st November) we remember all those Christian people who have gone before us and shaped our understanding of what it means to live a Christian life and our approach to faith, worship and prayer. As part of that we should remember all those who have influenced our own journeys’ of faith, those who have guided and taught us, those who have nurtured us and those who have encouraged us when we were struggling with grief, doubt and disappointment. Our Services in St Finnbarr’s, St Andrew’s and St Columba’s will focus on the Saints this Sunday and we will have the opportunity to hum some well known tunes and we celebrate the Saints.

Grant us your light, O Lord,
so that the darkness of our hearts may wholly pass away,
and we may come at last to the light of Christ.
For Christ is the morning star,
who when the night of this world is passed,
brings to His saints the promised light of life,
and opens to them everlasting day. Amen.

On All Souls’ day, this Monday (2nd November) we remember those that we love but see no more, our parents and grand-parents, siblings and other family members, our friends and all those that we have held dear. As we remember, we give thanks for all that they have meant to us and for the specific ways that they have touched our lives and our lives have been formed and enriched by them. Traditionally a list of those that we love but see no more is read at a special Requiem on All Souls day and Simon and I will be reading lists of names at services in Tain and Brora on Monday. We have lists from previous years for all the Churches in the DLBTT group, but in you wish to add any additional names please let me know as soon as possible.

God our redeemer,
you know the secrets of our hearts.
You bear our pain and our anger.
You bear our tears and our loneliness.
You bear the questions that have no answers.
Comfort us and come close to us
whether or not we call you by name.
And in the darkest places give us hope and love. Amen.

On Remembrance Day (11th November) and/or Remembrance Sunday (this year on 8th November) we remember and give thanks for the lives of those who have died in the service of their country and all those who have served their county and suffered life-changing effects as a result. Usually, there are well attended Services at War Memorials up and down the country, but this year such gatherings will not be taking place in that form, but we can still mark this day. We will hold Acts of Remembrance in St Finnbarr’s, St Andrew’s and St Columba’s as part of our usual Sunday Services. Perhaps we should also light candles in our windows as we reflect on all that war means and why we need to work to reduce conflict so that war will not claim the lives of so many in future.

Almighty God,
from whom all thoughts of truth and peace proceed:
kindle, we pray, in the hearts of all, the true love of peace
and guide with your pure and peaceable wisdom
those who take counsel for the nations of the earth
that in tranquillity your kingdom may go forward,
till the earth is filled with the knowledge of your love;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.

Blessings
James

The Butterfly effect

The current Sunday evening drama on BBC1 called “Us” is about a couple who have arrived at that stage in life when their son is about to go to University and they are wondering about their future together. Douglas (the husband) has organised a ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe for the three of them … and then Connie (his wife) tells him that she wants to leave him. Douglas plans every aspect of what he does with meticulous precision and Connie leaving is definitely not part of his plan.

It set me reflecting on just how much control we have in our lives. Whatever the answer was at the beginning of the year, for most of us it has decreased in the last six months and for those who had the least control before the pandemic it has probably decreased the most.

Much of the time, what we see as our freedom to control what happens in our lives is illusory. We can, like Douglas, make plans but any plans that we make are only provisional, just ask anyone who’s tried to organise a holiday abroad this summer. Weather, illness, company failures, unemployment and so many other things can interrupt he ‘smooth running’ of our lives and throw our plans into disarray. “Us” was written and made before the pandemic, but given Douglas’s reaction to setbacks, I can only imagine how the present COVID-19 outbreak would have affected him, as his carefully laid plans crumbled before his eyes.

Not having complete control over our lives, doesn’t mean that there’s no point in having plans, just that we have to be prepared to accept that changes will likely be required. Everyone experiences twists and turns in their life, from everyday challenges to traumatic events with lasting impact, like the death of a loved one, a life-altering accident, or a serious illness. Each change affects people differently, bringing with it a unique mix of thoughts, emotions and uncertainty.

Adversities like these are sadly part of life and trying to live our lives in the illusion that we can control all aspects of our existence, only leads to pain and anxiety. However we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that what we do doesn’t have any effect on the lives of others. For instance my failure to take appropriate steps to limit the spread of COVID could quickly result in the spread of infection to people that I come into contact with and move from one end of the country to the other very fast. On the way, it could well have serious and lasting consequences for many people who I’ve never even met.

The smallest of actions can ultimately have huge consequences. This idea is sometimes known as the “butterfly effect”, after the American mathematician Edward Lorenz who suggested that the flap of a butterfly’s wings in the Amazon might ultimately cause a tornado in Texas. A bit far-fetched perhaps, but Lorenz’s illustration helped him explain why forecasting the future is so difficult.

In the Bible we meet many groups of people who face adversities of all kinds and who come through by placing their faith in a loving God. For instance, in trying to encourage the people of Israel in exile in Babylon, the prophet Isaiah writes:

Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

We may not know what lies ahead but we can all be strengthened and supported by each other and by God.

Cycles of Life

photo by JRP

Le Quattro Volte” is an idiosyncratic film by Michelangelo Frammartino. It lasts for an hour and a half, following cycles of life in the hills of Calabria. In four chapters the film successively chronicles a year in the life of an old man, a young goat, a tree and a batch of charcoal. There’s no dialogue, you do hear murmurs of human speech, but they’re unintelligible and there are no subtitles. There’s also the barking of a dog, the bleating of goats and clanging of their bells and the wind sighing in the branches of the gigantic pine that’s felled for a village celebration.

Perhaps watching such a film doesn’t sound like a particularly entertaining way to spend 90 minutes, but when I saw it in 2011, I found it captivating. In the same way I found watching a small cluster of fly agarics (Amanita muscaria) last week. They emerged, looking for all the world like iconic toadstools in a Walt Disney cartoon, but by the following day they looked more like plates, then like shallow bowls, after which they fell over and started to disintegrate.

They say that the one certainty in life is change and, as in both the film and the toadstools, change often occurs in cycles. The cycles may be over years, months, weeks or days, but there’s an inevitability to them, whatever the cycle length. Most of us find change unsettling, even when it is part of what one might call gentle cycles, as illustrated in my examples.

However over the last seven months we have had a great deal of a much more disruptive change thrust upon us. One of the more difficult aspects of change is the grief that we feel for what has been taken away. We recognise grief when someone that we love dies or suffers from a life-changing accident or disease. We may also recognise grief when we lose something that has been a familiar part of our life, or that hold precious memories for us. But we may also grieve for our way of life, the things that we are used to doing, the people that we are used to meeting or gathering with.

Grieving isn’t a well defined process with clearly delineated stages as is often written about in self-help books. Grief is individual and if there are stages, one may bounce backwards and forwards dealing with denial, isolation, anger, bargaining, depression before accommodating and accepting a ‘new normal’.

Over the past few months, I have found the cycles of nature very helpful in adapting to the changes that have happened and that may be what appealed to me about “Le Quattro Volte”. I have also found the psalms to be of great comfort, because the psalmist frequently found change and the circumstances in which he found himself troubling and God was always there at his side to comfort him.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.

Blessings
James

Rewilding the Church

I have been sent a book for review entitled “Rewilding the Church”. In it Steve Aisthorpe sees the Church as having slipped out of kilter with its head – Jesus. He uses the metaphor of the rewilding used to restore a balance between nature and its environment, to suggest the corrective that we need to get back on track. He writes: “The New Testament’s vision of Church is not a herd of people with common beliefs or shared behaviours. Rather, it is a community centred on Jesus [which] draws them together in a shared quest of Christward transformation.

The last six months have had a profound effect on all our lives. Gone are a lot of the certainties that we’ve come to rely on. One of those certainties was that there would be services of worship, according to a regular pattern, in eight locations around Sutherland and Tain.

For much of that time, there’ve been no services and, even though there has been a resumption in Dornoch and Tain and also three church buildings open for Individual Prayer, there are a number of places where we can’t yet meet and people who for many reasons can’t be present even though they would like to be.

We’ve all spent much of more time on our own with God these last few months and the gatherings online, the broadcast services and now the hygienic, distanced and masked services aren’t the same as the familiar experiences we were used to and it can all seem very strange indeed.

Increasingly in our society, there are people who used to go to church who now describe themselves as Christians who do not go to church. What does our experience of the last six months say about such a position? Have we not all been Christians who do not go to church? Overwhelmingly the people that I talk to in our congregations speak about missing the fellowship of worshipping and praying together. They’ve come to realise just how important community is in being followers of Jesus. We seem to be very keen to get back to meeting up for prayer and praise, rather than only engaging with God on our own. Far from being the end of the Church, lockdown seems to have made us all appreciate the time that we spend together as the Body of Christ, the Community of Faith.

The balance between being with God on our own and being together with God is described by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, always the one to express things neatly in just a few words: “Let him [or her] who cannot be alone beware of community … Let him [or her] who is not in community beware of being alone.

Steve Aisthorpe concludes that “Rewilding the Church is not about implementing our best ideas with unusual passion; it requires stopping or slowing down, a conscious setting aside of preconceptions and a determination to discern what God is doing and our role in that.” Now is probably an ideal time to do just that.

Blessings
James