Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Stirring it all up!

I'm thinking today about something almost all of us do multiple times every day.  But I'll keep you guessing for a few more lines while I tell you about my mother.  It's partly my fault, I confess, that her final years were increasingly lonely.  In her eighteen years of widowhood, I visited her as often as I could - no, let me be honest - as often as I was willing to do so but, of course, it could never be enough.  When we cleared her house after her death, we found her teaspoon ... with about an eighth of the bowl worn away!

It brings tears to my eyes as I remember the discovery; I can imagine her now, sitting at her table, gazing absently out of the window, stirring, stirring, stirring that cup of tea ...  It's an activity with a definite purpose, to distribute the flavour throughout the drink,  but in her case the purpose had long since been achieved and the action was just something for her hand to do while her mind was ... who knows where?

I apologise if the next comment seems unseasonable; I assure you it's not.  The last Sunday before the beginning of Advent - we're talking the end of November - used to be called 'Stir-up Sunday'.  In some households, I don't doubt, it still is.  I was told it was because that was the day when Christmas puddings would be prepared, and each member of the family was invited to stir and make a wish.  As good a reason is to be found in the Book of Common Prayer, where the collect, or set prayer, for the 'Sunday next before Advent' begins, "Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people;".

The prayer calls for those whose wills are thus stirred to be rewarded for bringing forth good works.  The stirring that is requested (who actually beseeches these days?) is that the fruits of the Holy Spirit - see Paul's letter to the Galatians (Gal. 5:22) if you can't remember what they are - should be sufficiently agitated as to penetrate every part of our lives so that anyone having anything to do with us would know that we had been touched by God.

On the seventh Sunday after Easter, we shall celebrate the feast of Pentecost, commemorating the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Disciples in the form of tongues of fire.  The traditional name for this feast - Whitsunday - is said to be derived from the white garments worn by those expecting to be baptised that Sunday, or alternatively new (white) summer dresses that might make an appearance that day.  Another theory, however, dates from the time of the Norman Conquest when the Old English 'hwitte' (white) became confused with 'wit' (wisdom or understanding) (which is known in modern English in 'half-wit' or sayings like 'hasn't the wit he was born with').  This latter offers a more direct link with the Holy Spirit which brought new understanding to the Disciples.

However you prefer to think of the derivation, the fundamental aim of the feast is to remind us of the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and encourage us to exercise those Spirit-derived fruits in our lives ... which is why that pre-Advent prayer is so relevant just now.  So when you next find a spoon in your hand for its drink-stirring purpose, let it also remind you of the reason the drink is being stirred, and of what might need to be stirred in your heart!

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

What Are You Here For?

In many ways, I suppose, my life has followed the same general path as many of my readers.  When I was at school, I had certain favourite subjects, those that I was good at, and those that I loathed, and in which I was rubbish.  Unsurprisingly, after a few false starts, I found a career in accountancy, matching my lifelong inclination toward things mathematical.  Later in life, I had a second career as a delivery driver, travelling the length and breadth of the country - and beyond, on occasions - and I realise that this, too, utilised a schoolboy strength: a liking for maps and my aptitude for geography.

Now again, in retirement, I find that the church - the broader church as well as the one where I worship week by week - has provided outlets for my skills: some that I was aware of during my working life and others that specific circumstances have drawn forth.  Each of us has a broad variety of talents and it's my belief that these are gifts from God through His Holy Spirit.  Often they are obvious, and we follow them up with no hesitation; sometimes, however, it takes an observant friend or maybe, as in my case, an unfortunate block to a career path, to bring to the fore something that has lain dormant for decades.

During our recent commemoration of the events of Holy Week, we may well have read the story of Jesus' three trials: before the Sanhedrin, before Pilate and before Herod.  One of the charges levelled against Him was that He was the King of the Jews, a title that Pilate didn't really understand.  "You are a king, then!" he said, as he tried to dig a little deeper into this Man who had been brought before him.  Jesus replied, "You say that I am a king."  And He added a few words in explanation of what that meant in His case.  "In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth." (John 18:37).  We were reminded of this particular verse in our service this week, as the preacher focused on why Jesus came to earth.

At this point, Pilate asked a rhetorical question for which he has become famous, "What is truth?" and, seeing that there was nothing about Jesus that would cause him political trouble, he abandoned the interrogation and sought the agreement of the crowd to release Him.  In the face of the furore whipped up by the Pharisees, it was a futile attempt.  But we're left with Jesus' statement of what He was here for.  It raises a question that poses a challenge to us all.  What are we here for?  What is being asked of each one of us in our lives?

Now, that's a question to which I'm not going to suggest an answer for anyone, let alone my readers, of whom I know nothing.  If you aren't sure what your purpose in life should be - and many of us aren't - I can only suggest that you pray and ask the Lord, or get a close friend to do so either with you or for you.

Someone said to me only this weekend, "You do a lot for the church, don't you?"  I suppose I do, and indeed, many things can sit comfortably beside one another, making it perfectly possible to do both X and Y as the demand occurs, but there are others that aren't compatible at all.  Usually because they are done at the same time, in different places, some tasks are mutually exclusive, and one person couldn't be expected to do them both.

St Paul gave a trio of things he might do for the good of others; in each case he stipulated a critical condition under which he ought to do them.  Unless this critical condition was fulfilled, he said of the first, "I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal"  Of the second, he said, "I am nothing" and of the third, "I gain nothing."  That critical condition was the presence of love in whatever he undertook ... and, by implication, in whatever we might choose to undertake, whether for the church or for particular individuals (1 Cor. 13:1-3).

If you're anything like me, this is a question to which you may never have given any specific thought at all.  There's nothing worse than feeling like a square peg in a round hole.  It's a fundamental need for each of us, to know our purpose in life and to make sure that what we're doing is the thing we were 'cut out for' in the first place.  Take your time, but ask the question sooner rather than later:

What are you here for?

Monday, 15 April 2019

A Balanced View

Sometimes lately I've had a definite problem hearing everything that was going on around me.  I don't believe that I'm going deaf, but rather that the problem is linked to a recent fall that left me with internal bruising connected with bent - I had feared cracked - ribs.  Three weeks later, I'm pleased to say that, in general, I'm much better but, when in sleep my body follows its natural instinct to turn over, there is sufficient pain to wake me up.  The result is that, instead of spending part of the night on one side and part on the other, the 'deaf' ear tends always to be the one I lay on.  I believe that balance is critical in all aspects of life; I'm sure that's how we are made to live: part asleep and part awake, part working and part resting, and so on.  As the old saying has it, 'all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy'. 

When it comes to church, some of the prescribed lessons are from the Old Testament and some from the New.  Although sometimes we can't quite make out how one relates to the other, we accept that it should be that way.  If we get carried away with the excitement of the stories of the Judges' wars, or the visions of the Prophets, it's easy to see these as an end in themselves.  Or we can be so entranced by the teaching of Jesus, his battles with the Pharisees or the story of the infant churches in Acts and Paul's letters that we consider the Old Testament an irrelevance.  Either way, we lose sight of God's overall plan for His people.  Early in His ministry, Jesus taught His disciples, "I haven't come to abolish (the Law or the Prophets) but to fulfil them." (Matthew 5:17).  Throughout the New Testament there are references to the Old, and in many places the Old Testament carries indications of the things that would be fulfilled by Jesus in the New.

Balance is important in everything.  It's all too easy for us to consider that our own point of view is the only one that is right, and to regard those who think differently as wrong, irrelevant ... or worse, evil.  Nowhere is this more the case just now than in regard to Brexit.

When a decision has been made and implemented - in whichever direction and by whatever means - and the dust has settled, there will be a significant portion of the population who will be, to say the least, dissatisfied.  Logically, it's impossible for half the population to be 'right' and the other half 'wrong', whichever way we might assign those labels.  We must accept that those who voted 'leave' in the referendum three years ago did so sincerely according to their beliefs, experience or guidance at the time.  Similarly those who voted 'remain' were equally sincere according to their values and perceptions.  Tolerance and a balanced understanding of the views and motives of either side is the only way that our nation can be healed from this devastation.

Like me, you may have been praying about this.  Naturally enough, our prayers will have been that the outcome is in accordance with our own views.  Not all prayers are answered by 'yes', however.  In some cases the answer is 'no', and in that case we are disappointed; we feel let down.  In His prayers on the Mount of Olives, Jesus prayed, "for those who will believe in me through (the disciples') message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you." (John 17:20-21).  This is a prayer that remains unanswered by 'yes': the church is far from united.  Mark's description of these events includes Jesus' plea that he might be spared the agony to come.  He concludes, "Yet not what I will but what you will." (Mark 14:36).  This is a useful 'condition' to add to any prayer, to avoid disappointment.

How willing are we, in all circumstances, to let God's will be done in our lives?

Monday, 1 April 2019

Trouble with the Plumbing

I'm having a problem at present with a leak from the flat above mine into my bathroom.  It's not the first time I've had trouble of this nature, but last year's activity on that stage was rather unusual.  Although it was very minor, I noticed that there was a steady drip into my bath, coming from where - if I were ever to overfill the tub - the excess water might leave.  Eventually, I decided to call for a plumber to investigate whether something serious were just around the corner.

When he arrived, the plumber was puzzled.  He removed the front panel and fumbled around the end of the bath.  "Well," - I could identify the amazement in his tone - "I've never seen anything like this before!"  Then he moved to the toilet cistern and adjusted the ball-cock.  "That should sort it." he said.  The cistern outflow was piped into a common outlet with the bath and that happens to slope very slightly the wrong way.  In the normal scheme of things, this wouldn't cause a problem because the other end of the outlet is below the top of the bath anyway but, with no overflow from the bath to counter it, the cistern's excess was making its way to the bath's plughole.

This concept of finding the solution to a problem other than where the problem manifests itself is not so uncommon as you might think.  A trapped nerve in the spine, for example, can report to the brain a pain in some other part of the body; conversely, a pain in the foot can be the result of some other problem causing us to walk badly.

I'm reminded of something I was told at college some forty years ago:  "Before we can appreciate and have a relationship with the God who is, we have to unlearn what we've been taught, misunderstood, or simply assumed about the God who isn't!"  Put another way, any wrong ideas we might have about God can hinder our understanding of who He really is. 

Last year, I read God Lost and Found by John Pritchard, the former Bishop of Oxford.  One section of his book is headed, "Faith not as locating God at a distance, but as recognising God in the midst."  Here he explores some of these 'wrong ideas'.  We might think of God as so vast, powerful and 'out there' that it's impossible to get near to Him.  He is cosmic; why - how, even? - would he bother with our tiny problems?  We think of Him present in spectacular events and emergencies, but not in the nitty-gritty of daily life.  If we do think of any connection between God and us, it might be as a kind of heavenly auditor, totting up good things and bad things, - after all, didn't Abraham believe, and it was 'credited to him as righteousness' (Gen.15:6)? - or we might see God as a kind of judge, jury and executioner: keeping an eye on what we're doing and punishing us when we do wrong.

Pritchard draws his readers' attention to many scriptures that can re-affirm God's closeness to us.  The Lord would speak to Moses, for example, "face to face, as one speaks to a friend" (Ex.33:11).  Isaiah tells of God's intense commitment to Israel, using words that have been turned into a familiar song (Is. 43:1-4).  Paul, as we might expect, is more direct.  "Do you not realise that Christ Jesus is in you?" he asks (2 Cor. 13:5); and, lest we should be any doubt, "God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory" (Col. 1:27).  Although the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) profess not to have doctrines, they do have a number of key principles, one of which reflects Paul's words and is expressed as "That of God in Everyone".

And finally, in case you're feeling that God is far away from you, let me quote the slogan from a 'Wayside Pulpit' poster that I saw locally many years ago: "If you're not close to God ... guess who moved?"  God doesn't change; His love is eternal and His commitment to us is written in the Scriptures.  Just as that plumber examined the whole bathroom to see why water was flowing the 'wrong' way into my bath, we have to examine our lives to see why we feel there is a distance between God and us.

Friday, 15 March 2019

What Wouldn't I Give?

I've just won a month's stay in a luxury apartment in the sun; all expenses paid, and with £1,000 of spending money thrown in.  "What's the catch?" I hear you ask.  There's no catch; it's simply not true.  But what if it were ... what would be your reaction to my 'good news'?  Would you simply congratulate me on my good fortune and wish me well?  Or would there be a little twinge of envy ... would you say, for example, "I'd give an arm and a leg for something like that!"

Of course you wouldn't really be considering a double-amputation ... if nothing else, that would mar your enjoyment of what you'd done it for.  It's just a metaphor people use to express a desire for something just beyond the reach of normality: a luxury holiday, the latest i-phone or a night out with <insert name of favourite celebrity>.  But come back (a little closer) to reality for a moment.  What would you give?  What would you really give for a prize like that, or better?  a month's salary ... or several perhaps? a year of your life? or even (we're heading into Faustian territory here) ... your soul?

Jesus told a couple of parables that described men who found themselves in just such a situation.  One man found some hidden treasure, the other a valuable pearl.  Each went away and sold all he had in order to possess what he'd found (Matt. 13:44-46).

At first glance these two seem to be saying the same thing ... but look closer.  In the first, Jesus likened the treasure to the Kingdom of Heaven.  Someone finding something so wonderful as eternal life in God's Kingdom might well sell all he had to possess it.  In the second parable, however, Jesus focused not on the object, but on the finder, the merchant who - like a shepherd in another parable (Matt. 18:12-14) - had been searching ... in this case for fine pearls.  Commentators have therefore suggested that the merchant is God himself, who gave his Son's life in order to redeem us.

A little further in his gospel, Matthew tells us of a young man who clearly embraced the worthy aim of eternal life, and asked how he might achieve it.  Jesus told him to sell his possessions and then follow Him ... advice that saddened him because of his wealth (Matt. 19:16-22).   Jesus' ensuing conversation with Peter and the others explained this somewhat unexpected demand on the young man.

It's not that God wants to deprive us of our possessions, or that the price of admission to His Kingdom is so high that few if any can afford it (as the disciples feared, v.25).  The problem is that the more possessions people have, the more they rely on them for their well-being.  The things they own - or their investments - are the focus of their lives; it is they that come to possess their owner!  It was the pull of the young man's great wealth that prevented him acceding to Jesus' call to follow Him.

A competition for an expensive holiday or cruise usually states that competitors must be available for travel on a particular date; there's no fee, but a condition.   Like prizes such as these, there's no actual charge for us to enter God's Kingdom.  Thanks to Jesus' redeeming death on the Cross, it's a gift: all we have to do is accept it; but in order to do so, we have to be free of other 'allegiances'.

What is it that rules your heart?

Friday, 1 March 2019

What is Your Candle?

People complain about the length of time that the Church of England takes to appoint a new vicar, but perhaps the delay is for the best in some ways.  No one likes change and, if there's a year between the departure of one priest and the installation of the next, it gives the people a chance to forget about the good points of - and maybe remember some of the bad bits about - the parson who has just left.  What's important is not the personality or habits of the incumbent (although it does help if they're easy to get on with), but their credentials and their spirituality.  We've just had a new vicar after just over a year without and she has been welcomed from day one! 

Two complementary factors last weekend highlighted this fundamental point for me.  On Saturday, our vicar was one of five from our church who, among hundreds of other entrants, took part in Muddy Mayhem, a 5 km obstacle race (with mud) in aid of the local hospice.  I noticed from one of the pictures I took that she was wearing her 'dog-collar'.  The next morning, over her normal robes, she was parading her finisher's medal from the event and used it to thank people for their support and promote the good work that the hospice does.  If you've dedicated your life - or just some part of it - to a cause or set of beliefs and have been given a badge as a sign of this, then you should be willing to wear it and make that allegiance known, rather than be ashamed of the fact.  

I recently read about the prophet Elijah in 1 Kings chapters 18 & 19.  Elijah had taken a terrific stand for God against the evil king Ahab and his even more evil wife Jezebel.  As a result Jezebel had made a sinister and very specific threat against his life.  Not surprisingly, we might think, Elijah fled.  He didn't just hide behind the hill in the next valley, either; sustained only by angels, he went 200 miles away to Mount Horeb, where Moses had been given the Ten Commandments centuries before.

There God said to him - twice - "What are you doing here, Elijah?"  He re-commissioned him, gave him instructions and identified others who would help him finish the job of defeating Ahab once and for all.  The implication was that, although exhausted, afraid and depressed, instead of running and hiding far away Elijah should have remained visible, stood his ground in the Lord's strength and completed the task he had been given.  

The Gospel tells us (Luke 11:29-36) how Jesus compared the teaching He was giving to His disciples to the mission of Jonah, who had been sent as a sign to Nineveh.  "No one lights a lamp," He said, "and puts it in a place where it will be hidden, or under a bowl.  Instead, they put it on its stand, so that those who come in may see the light." (v.33).  

If you have a badge or sign of belonging to an organisation of which you're not ashamed (and if you are ashamed of it, why do you still have its badge anyway?), you should be willing to wear it, making it visible to all who know you, and offering others the chance to comment on it or ask you about it.  

What's the candle you've been given?  Does it shine out?

Friday, 15 February 2019

When the Light Fades

In my Bible readings recently, I've been directed to some verses in Luke ch.6 (there's a similar passage in Matthew, ch.5); they're known as 'Beatitudes', from the Latin for 'blessing'.  You may be familiar with some of them, e.g. 'Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.' (Luke 6:21).  Verse 17 tells us that a large crowd had gathered, flocking in from near and far.

This was quite early in Jesus' earthly ministry.  People had heard that here was someone who could heal sickness, drive away evil spirits and perform other wonderful miracles; they wanted to see for themselves and if possible benefit from what he offered. Certainly the things he promised were very attractive to people like the Jews, who were living under the rigours of Roman occupation.  Then, just as nowadays, it was easy to be attracted by the apparent promise of something for nothing, the prospect of the hungry being fed, the poor inheriting this 'Kingdom of God' (whatever it might be in reality, it sounded like something worth having!), and what about those who weep suddenly laughing?

They heard His message in purely practical terms, food where there was none, wealth to replace poverty, and an end to sorrow. This Jesus was going to turn the world on its head!  How right they were.  The world would never be the same again after Jesus ... but not in the way they were expecting.    And is that how we see God, why we say our prayers?  Do we think of God, or Jesus, only as a heavenly magician, a purveyor of good fortune?

Jesus told a parable that we know as 'the Parable of the Sower' or 'the Parable of the Soils' (Matthew 13:1-23).  In it the reaction of people to His preaching is illustrated by seed sown on a variety of soils.  In particular, some seed fell on rocky soil and some among thorns.  The seed that fell on rocky ground indicates people who receive the message with joy but quickly fall away in the face of trouble ... or when they don't get what they pray for.

Then there's the seed that fell among thorns.  The thorns are all the worries of life, travelling through the snow, coping with the vagaries of  a railway system undergoing a change of timetable, or the threat of queues and shortages following Brexit; things that people find pre-occupying, choking the Good News that Jesus brings.

So what happens when things don't go the way we expect, when darkness comes into our world but it seems that the answer to our prayers appears to be 'no' ... or else there's no answer at all?  Prayer is not - as some people think - a way of controlling God, of getting Him to do what we need, or what would like.  It's not a means of invoking what we read in the scriptures as 'His promises to everybody'.  Instead it is a way of bringing us closer to Him, placing ourselves within His control.  When He was speaking to his disciples shortly before His death, Jesus warned them, "A time is coming ... when you will be scattered, each to your own home. ... I have told you these things, so that you may have peace.  In this world you will have trouble.  But take heart! I have overcome the world." (John 16:32-33).

Life with Jesus is not one in which everything goes swimmingly all our way.  He is with us, through the Holy Spirit, not to help us get around difficulties, but to show us the way through them, and to give us strength and encouragement to overcome them.  There's a wonderful story of a man who looked back on his life and saw it in the form of footsteps through the desert.  He was reassured to see two sets of footprints, his own and those of his Lord.  Then he realised that when he was going through the darkest places, there was only one set of footprints.  He asked, "Where were you, God, when I needed you most?"  And the Lord said to him, "That was when I was carrying you."

Where are you on the path of life just now?  Are there black clouds of misfortune - or worse, despair - overhead?  Have you prayed without success for a new car, a job or an extra '0' on your bank balance?  Try to share your worries with Someone who wants to be your Friend; ask Him how you can improve your own situation, or talk to someone who is already His friend.  Prayer is only complicated if we make it so; it's not only Busby of the BT ad a few years ago who says, 'It's good to talk!'