Lost Sheep on Good Shepherd Sunday

What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.”  Matthew 18:12-14

This morning (Good Shepherd Sunday) our Collie Moss and I went for a government-approved, socially-distanced walk in the sunshine. The birds were singing (especially a very vocal cuckoo) and there was the sound of sheep being fed in the distance.  On our way back along the track, Moss stopped and lay down, in the way that he does when he’s heard a vehicle.  Sure enough along came our neighbouring crofter on his quad bike. He told us that one of his sheep had disappeared and he was out searching for it and asked us if we had seen it.

Let my prayer be counted as incense

I call upon you, O Lord; come quickly to me;
give ear to my voice when I call to you.
Let my prayer be counted as incense before you,
and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.

Psalm 141:1-2

Adapting to self-isolation

Advice from Trisha Waugh, a retired probation officer:

Back in NZ when I was a Probation Officer, I was a Home Detention specialist – managing offenders ‘tagged’ to stay at home, (up to 12 months) who would otherwise have received a prison sentence. I managed a wide variety of people, but they all went through distinct stages of their sentence, that I monitored closely.

Since we are all now effectively on Home Detention – I thought it worth sharing these stages so you are aware of the very real impact this sort of confinement will have – I know I’m feeling it & have a genuine appreciation for what my ‘offenders’ went through.

  • First two weeks – bit of a novelty, settling in & doing lots of odd jobs round the house – becoming aware of the domestic relationship dynamic (at least other household members were able to come & go) – getting used to the ‘territory’ restrictions – some were accepting – others really resisted & argued & pounded the ‘fence line’.
  • Week Three (this is key! & happened pretty much like clockwork) – a real malaise hit (acute confinement depression) – this was the week I really had to watch as people would all cope with it differently- a real despair & feeling like a loss of their entire world – defeat would set in.
  • Week Four onwards (this is also very key!) Adapting – The penny would drop about all the new opportunities that presented themselves from this new way of living – I saw creative minds start mapping out a more productive future- studying – business ideas – self improvement- relationship challenges – finally addressing the internal issues that got them where they were etc. etc. This was when the ‘good work’ started & their nearest & dearest really started to notice significant change.

The planet has been given a ‘wake up call’ – we’ve all got the opportunity to dig deep & examine the issues that got us here & how we can expand more as individuals- lets all make it count.

Just watch out for Week Three people, & look after & support one another.

With the people on his heart

During this time of crisis, Simon and James are separately celebrating the Eucharist each week, each “standing before God with the people on his heart“.  It’s difficult for both us and you not being able to share the Eucharist together.  However we should be clear as to role of the priest in the Eucharist as (in some sense) representing Christ to the people, and also as representing the people to God (“standing before God with the people on his/her heart“).

No priest does this because of inherent goodness or other qualities they possess or because of any dignity or status.  Priests who preside at the Eucharist do so in the full knowledge of their own unworthiness and as participants in the sinfulness of the world. In the Liturgy, the priest represents the incarnate Christ in His identification with the people, not as someone standing over them, but as belonging to them, and they to him/her.

Michael Ramsey, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1961-1974, wrote in his book “The Christian Priest Today“, that “Being with God with the people on your heart is the meaning of the daily office, of the Eucharist and of every part of your prayer and service of people.”  Sound advice, which is why the book, first published in 1972, is still on the recommended reading list of those in training for ministry in the Church.

As we celebrate the sacrifice of our Lord and Saviour in this ‘socially distanced’ way, it’s instructive to read the rubrics in the service for “Communion of the sick” in the Scottish Prayer Book, dealing with the situation where someone is unable to “receive the Sacrament with his mouth“:

“If a man, either by reason of extremity of sickness, or for want of warning in due time to the Priest, or by any other just impediment, do not receive the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood: the Priest shall instruct him that if he do truly repent him of his sins, and stedfastly believe that Jesus Christ hath suffered death upon the cross for him, and shed his Blood for his redemption, earnestly remembering the benefits he hath thereby, and giving him hearty thanks therefor; he doth eat and drink the Body and Bread of our Saviour Christ profitably to his soul’s health, although he do not receive the Sacrament with his mouth.”

Rubrics in Communion of the sick” in the Scottish Prayer Book 1929.


The Annunciation – a reflection by Rev Nicholas Court

On Wednesday this week, it will be exactly 9 months to go to Christmas – and I have been invited to share a few musings with you, reflecting upon the lovely Feast of the Annunciation which this Wednesday brings us. It is a feast of great encouragement, because centre-stage is Mary, and it serves to remind us that we find in Her the sort of disciple weare all called to be. We see in this teenage Mother our own potential as Christians – all that we can be and become if we only open our hearts in loving trust to God as She did, despite the human doubts and weaknesses that are part of who we are. Mary is full of questions – when Mary receives the visit from Gabriel at the Annunciation – ‘How can this be?’ is Her questioning response. And She continues to question when Her Son wanders off into the Temple – ‘Why have you done this?’

At Cana She offers us the perfect model of prayer – “They have no wine” – and during His public ministry Jesus does not single His Mother out for honour because of Her biological role, but responds to Her as someone who hears God’s word and gives it flesh and bones.

Like all the disciples of Jesus, the Mary we meet in the Gospels walks by faith and not by sight. She treasures what words She has received from and about Jesus, and ponders them in Her heart. You can hear the Mary of the Magnificat glorying in the power of God who lovingly overturns all the signs of toxic power within society. The Mary of the Magnificat is not some simpering waif of a virgin but more like a warrior queen, robustly challenging the forces of sin and human greed in the name of the God whose power transforms our world. It’s as if Mary says, “Make my song yours too, because as Gabriel told me – ‘With God no thing shall be impossible’.”

We were reminded in last Sunday’s Gospel of that devastating scene atop Calvary, where She stands grieving at the foot of Her Son’s cross. The beloved disciple, another model for all followers of Christ, is told by the dying Jesus to cherish Mary as his Mother, and She is told to care for him as Her own. When the church is born with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, Mary is there again, at the heart of the community, no longer grieving, but worshipping Her Son.

Mary’s questions at the Annunciation are our questions too – how is it that God can work through such weak instruments as we too often feel ourselves to be – something we feel particularly acutely as we face our current crisis? Well, just look where else we encounter Mary. She is there, watching as the tasteless water of our lives is turned into the life-giving wine of Her Son’s grace. Like Mary, we are invited to treasure all that we know of Jesus and ponder it in our hearts. Her Magnificat blesses us, not because by some accident of birth we are members of the Church, but because we too are part of the humanity in which She and Her Son shared – and this is something to really celebrate!

Before I conclude, I’d like to leave you with a lovely and whimsical poem, written by an Anglican Priest called Penelope Dent – whom it is my guess may not a fashionable size zero (but I may be wrong)! She conjures up a Mary who is so very human – much more of a Mother, and less of a queen – a Mary who knows what it is to be thoroughly human, and who like a best friend, prays daily for us, out of love, to Her Son. It’s called My Fat Virgin Mary:

I’m tired of skinny Virgin Marys,
Medieval, milk-mild.
The one I want has a bosom and a heart.
Brooding, maternal and magnificent.
You listen, you love
And you understand.

O most funny,
Glorious, vulgar fat Lady.
I love you
And the God who made your commodious bosom,
Head rest, heart rest
For the uncomforted.

Hold us and love us,
You who dare to be big
And despise corsets.
You who love life
And bottles of stout, pork pies
and bags of greasy chips,
Wrapped in newspaper.

Belligerently beautiful,
Queen of all fat women,
Defender of the unloved.
Accuser of the small-minded, sawdust people,
Who never get involved nor find the time to love your Son,

Wrapped in themselves.
O most funny Lady, most funny Lady,
Mother of mothers,
Praise be to you for showing us your acceptance,
Your grief and your rejoicing.
Praise be to you for daring to be big,
Proud of your girth
And all Glorious within.

Be a Flower that Blooms

Most people will have realised that this coming Sunday (22nd March) is Mother’s Day – or to give it the ‘proper’ title, Mothering Sunday. Mothering Sunday is a good occasion to think about the nature of God – for, as Julian of Norwich said in the fourteenth century, ‘as truly as God is our Father, so also is God our Mother’.

People sometimes think that feminine imagery for God is very new, but it actually goes way back to some of the early books of the Bible. The prophet Hosea described the way God cared for his people in a very maternal way.

It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms, but they did not know that I healed them. I led with cords of human kindness, with the bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.’ (Hosea 11.3-4).

Now, we don’t have to start calling God ‘Mother’ – that isn’t necessarily any more helpful than ‘Father’. But it is worth noting that there is this element in the biblical tradition, and it has been picked up by people in the centuries since.

So how can we respond to this God who is mother and father and so much else besides? On Mothering Sunday, like so many others do, perhaps we could say it with flowers.

How on earth can we do that? No floral delivery company has a way to cope with it! But we do talk about offering ourselves to God. I don’t suppose you have ever thought of yourself as a flower, even though flower allusions abound in our language; we talk about being ‘fresh as a daisy’, or we describe someone as being ‘a shrinking violet’. People are sometimes ‘prickly’.

But when you think about it, what kind of flower are you? Are you like a camellia, rather startlingly beautiful? Or like rosemary, starting to bloom right at the beginning of your life and continuing year on year? Are you one of those plants that doesn’t flower often? Or one that props others up? Are you a plant with rather insignificant flowers, but always there in the background to help others give of their best? Do you fill the world with fragrance, or give flavour to life?

Are you one of the plants that bring hope in the dark days of winter? Some plants are very beautiful when their flowers are dead – some people come into their own towards the end of their lives.

Sometimes we put a single flower into a vase and enjoy its beauty. At other times, we put many different varieties together in an arrangement. There is an important place for our individual response to God, but when we come together as a church we discover new things about ourselves as we relate to each other as well as to God. Like a flower arrangement, we can bring out the best in each other, and complement and support each other.

On our own perhaps we don’t look very exciting – that doesn’t mean we don’t have our own beauty – but put with others, the ones who are a bit shy can find support, and those who are rather exotic can lend their colour and perfume to the more retiring. Even those who are prickly can be a great support to those who are fragile.

So we can give God quite a bouquet – and it we listen carefully, we’ll hear God say, as every mother does, ‘Thank you dear, that’s just lovely!


To Keep a True Lent

Tuesday was Shrove Tuesday, or to give it its more common name, Pancake Day. It’s traditionally the last day of indulgence before the start of the season of the Church year called Lent. This season lasts for 46 days (or 40 if Sundays are excluded, as they traditionally are). For many people Lent’s a time for abstinence and when I was a boy, there was no chocolate, no cakes and no biscuits from Ash Wednesday until Easter Day. As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to see Lent as something far richer than simply a time of giving up treats. This isn’t of course a new idea, as long ago as 1648, Robert Herrick wrote a poem called “To Keep a True Lent”. The first verse of which is:

Is this a fast, to keep
The larder lean?
And clean
From fat of veals and sheep?

His initial reply to the question is:

No; ‘tis a fast to dole
Thy sheaf of wheat,
And meat,
Unto the hungry soul.

And he finishes:

To show a heart grief-rent;
To starve thy sin,
Not bin;
And that’s to keep thy Lent.

He attaches importance in attending to the physical needs of those less fortunate than oneself and then to one’s own spiritual needs – “to starve thy sin not bin”. Giving up treats can of course serve both purposes. In the case of the former, we can spend the money saved giving to the food bank or to charity and in the latter, the discipline of refraining from and refusing treats serves as an all too frequent reminder of this particular goal.

You don’t have to be religious to see a need to examine your life and the way you live it; to examine your relationships and how you interact with others; to strip away the masks that you hide behind and the stories that you tell yourself to justify what you do and think. The main difference for those who believe in God is that there’s nowhere to hide. You can tell yourself that your actions are always entirely justified, as much as you like, but there’s simply no hiding from the scrutiny of an all-seeing, all-knowing deity.

Some say we’re now living in a surveillance society, with CCTV cameras everywhere you turn, but for those with a faith in God, it’s always been like that. Consequently it means we have to live life., as Paul wrote to the Ephesians: “as children of light— for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible”. The difference for me between CCTV and God is that I’d rather be judged by the creator of the world, than by the creator of the webcam and whoever may be watching it on youtube, twitter or facebook.

Seven weeks a year of spiritual spring-cleaning through self-reflection and increasing self-awareness, might be helpful to anyone, religious or not, as they strive to become a better person. As the Scottish Prayer Book describes the penitent in the invitation to confession: “Ye that do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead a new life”. That just about sums up for me what Lent’s about. Have a fruitful time between now and Easter and enjoy the Easter Eggs all the more.


Be Still and Know that I am God

Whilst reflecting on how we might structure our Lent Study on Prayer, I came across this quote by one of my favourite spiritual writers Henri Nouwen:

Deep silence leads us to realize that prayer is, above all, acceptance. When we pray, we are standing with our hands open to the world. We know that God will become known to us in the nature around us, in people we meet, and in situations we run into. We trust that the world holds God’s secret within and we expect that secret to be shown to us. Prayer creates that openness in which God is given to us. Indeed, God wants to be admitted into the human heart, received with open hands, and loved with the same love with which we have been created.

I remember that school prayers were always things with words and not much silence. Also we had to put our hands together and close our eyes tight shut, and woe betide anyone who tried to peek, because strangely teachers seemed to be able to pray with their eyes wide open. Looking round our congregations on a Sunday, I get the impression that most people must have been taught about prayer in much the same way and, of course, old habits die hard. So it comes as rather refreshing to read an article by another of my favourite spiritual writers Eugene Peterson who in writing about a third favourite writer says:

Annie Dillard prays with her eyes open. She says, Spread out your hands, lift up your head, open your eyes, and we’ll pray… She gets us into the theater that Calvin told us about, and we find ourselves in the solid biblical companionship of psalmists and prophets who watched the ‘hills skip like lambs’ and heard the ‘trees clap their hands,’ alert to God everywhere.

When we celebrate the Eucharist together, our celebration is part of entering into the mystery of God. Rudolf Otto, a German theologian, wrote: We experience God as Mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Basically, the unfathomable Mystery before whom we’re awestruck and stand trembling, yet find ourselves inexorably drawn into a relationship that’s also gracious and loving; attracting and fascinating us in ways we can’t fully explain.

It’s quite beyond us to have a loving relationship with the mysterious invisible God, through our own efforts. But because God wants to relate to us individually in love He’s given us the perfect helper in His Son Jesus Christ. Through Him God invites us into the love that we see demonstrated in the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the Holy Trinity. The Son shows us the way to the Father through the power of the Spirit. God however remains a mystery.

Prayer is the mechanism through which we try to enter into that mystery. Prayer works through the power of the Spirit, rather than anything that we could possible achieve on our own. In prayer, the Spirit calls and we respond rather than prayer being something that we initiate. As St Paul says in his letter to the Romans:

The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” Romans 8:26-27

Come and explore these things in our Lent Study Groups on Prayer.