Advent 3 – Stars in a dark place – Saturday 16th December  – Habakkuk 3:13-19

advent star small

Yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation.v18

Habakkuk was saddened by the corruption he witnessed, and that Babylon’s riches came from the misfortunes of others.   Money became an idol to desire, and people had an appetite for money instead of an appetite for God. Habakkuk’s feelings were not being controlled by the situation around him, but he kept his faith by focussing on God and God’s desire for restorative justice. As I read the news and listen to media reports, it saddens me and many ask the question ‘why do some people prosper and the righteous suffer?   We cannot see all that God is doing, but knowing that God is there brings us confidence in the midst of a confusing world.

Lord, I dare not ask ‘why’ again, for the many times I do, you show me peacemakers, encouragers, and mediators. Be with all people who are alone in their suffering, especially those who are far from their homeland. Amen

 

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Psalm 23 ….a mixture of emotions.

clown-with-mixed-emotions

For me, this week has been a mixture of grief, reminders of past events, and consequences of actions…… and one Psalm has been reeling in my head….Psalm 23

It’s the most well-known Psalm in the Bible. We all know it, we have sung it, read it, maybe have a book mark with it on .. Some of you here may want it sung at your funeral, some of you may have had it at your wedding … It’s a firm favourite of the Queen …. to the tune Crimond.

I’ve read it a thousand times, memorized it as a child, preached and used it as a focus in prayer groups and have even sung several settings of it in a choir…. the most famous being Howard Goodall setting to the ‘Vicar of Dibley’.It speaks of a place where through trials and temptations, the Lord is there to guide us to a place of safety and security, a place where we be healed and anointed, a place where we will rest and find peace … Dwelling in the house of the Lord forever … Many envisage this as heaven, whatever it is like to you…we are yet again reminded that we live in a chaotic world, a world of pain, of mess, of tyranny and evil.

The Psalm has an enormous capacity to absorb the imagination, because it is a Psalm that was made for terror, yet it is  typically read as a Psalm of comfort, and that is surely still there, but there are also at least two penetrating verses.

I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”…The Psalmist doesn’t deny fear and the reality of evil, nor its capacity to wreak havoc…. but the Psalmist has adopted a resolute stance in the face of this real threat–No Fear.

You spread a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows.”

If our first impulse is fear in the face of terror, our second impulse is vengeance.  I mentioned earlier that I have been recalling past events and consequences of actions, especially to those people who have are innocent bystanders. I want to get even with those who have hurt the people I love. Yet this passage can give comfort, to the troubled, guidance to those who seek a path, but by opening up the Psalm deeper we can reveal that it is a comfort borne out of pain and grief, and we all here are familiar with those emotions… for it is

  • where the ordinary meets the extraordinary,
  • where God encounters the rawness of humanity.

Christians and the Church need to lead society by re-framing this Psalm, not as a wishy washy psalm but a psalm with backbone….. then and only then can we stand alongside our brothers and sisters and say we will fear no evil for God is with us, and he will wipe away every tear away from our eyes, for God anoints our heads and then our cup will overflow.

God of mixed emotions

When we feel troubled, carry us to a place of safety

When we feel angry, carry us to place of peace

When we feel hurt, carry us to place of blessing.

When we fear evil, carry us to place where your Spirit dwells

When we feel confronted, anoint our heads with oil

God of mixed emotions ….Shalom

 

 

 

‘All Saints day’ with our inclusive God

communion of saints

 

For those who have visited my blog previously .. It is a called ‘a saint in the making’. It is a concept that I hold dear to my heart. Let me explain … All Saints’ Day is one of my favourite celebrations in the whole liturgical year. It ranks right up there with Advent, Christmas Eve and Easter in my spirituality and I treasure marking its observance. It also invites us to quietly and prayerfully recall the blessings of God shared with us through the communion of saints – that great cloud of witnesses as the book of Hebrews puts it – who form a celestial crowd too huge to number from every nation, tribe and race – who are gathered in love before the presence of the Lord to sing praise to God and bring us encouragement and blessing until we are reunited with them in the realm that has no end. It is one of our most exquisite celebrations – and sadly, most of us in the Reformed tradition don’t really know what to make of this incredible feast day.
Saints are people who are ‘windows in this world’.  The light of God shines through them so brightly that people say they have seen salvation in them, and in the household of their lives.  A remarkable thing about them is that many were scapegoats early in their lives, bullied and called contemptible by folks around them.   To mention a few:

St. Francis of Assisi’s father dragged him into court in the town square, enraged because his son had secretly arranged to steal his father’s valuable assets, and given them to monks to sell for support of the poor.  He was found guilty.  Then, as a monk himself, he angered the local bishops by saying Mass without being ordained, creating his own liturgies, including animals in his congregation.

St. Teresa of Avila was considered a nut and way too outspoken for a woman, and shocking in her opinions.

Julian of Norwich lost her entire family to the plague, and had visions so extraordinary no one knew what to make of them.

Mother Teresa expressed her strong doubts about God, in writing.  And became a nun to escape life in her small town in Italy, where she was very unhappy.

Oskar Schindler, who saved Jews from death in World War II Germany, was a Nazi, womanizer and a drunk, who used his popular and deserved reputation as a scoundrel as a cover for what he was doing.

Nelson Mandela was considered a public enemy by the government of South Africa, which put him in jail for 27 years, during all of which he was a beacon of hope for black South Africans.

These saints, and so many others, flouted public conventions in ways that were painful for them, but also allowed them to let God’s light into this world.

So let’s take the first insight…..In our tradition, most of us aren’t aware that the celebration of All Saints’ Day is almost as old as Christmas. Scholars are certain that believers have been returning thanks to God for their martyred dead since 359 CE in Edessa, Turkey and 411 C in Eastern Syria. And by the 7th century the feast had come to include the faithful non-martyrs, too. That means that the celebration of All Saints Day has been going on for 1300 years.
There are at least three ways of categorizing saints.

1.We might even want to expand the New Testament and call all people saints since all, not just Christians, are children of the inclusive, all-embracing God.

2. Another category of saints is that of those special people from ages past who are placed on the calendar of saints and are held up for the world to emulate, like the people I have just mentioned earlier.  But let us not forget that each and every one of us here this morning are called to be extraordinary even if history does not remember us.  We can be extraordinary mothers, astonishing farmers, amazing nurses, outstanding grocery clerks, exceptional bankers, stupendous bakers, just plain amazing people aside from our jobs.

3.Thirdly, there are saints not yet born, those still to come.  God is not bound by our time sequence issues.  Right now God is gracing these people not yet born into sainthood, into holiness, into blessedness, into happiness. All three together, those from the past, those of us alive now, and those yet to come, we call the communion of saints

 

So what does it mean to honour the saints and mark this day reverently? What’s more, what is the spiritual wisdom of All Saints’ Day all about and why does it matter for you and me?

One clue comes in the very word saint… Literally the Greek word we translate as saint – hagios – means the ‘holy ones’: those who have dedicated themselves to God – those who are set apart from what is ordinary – those who have claimed God’s blessings in a deep and profound way. That means that the saints are not only those who gave up their lives for the love of God as martyrs, and this is the crucial point…..but those who lived their ordinary lives with an extraordinary awareness of God’s grace.
So the first truth is that Saints are not just ancient souls who have made something of God’s light visible in the darkness, they are also those we have known in our own time who have been open and alive to making God’s love real.

Saints are those who have been blessed by God, to be blessed by God, seems to me, is to be opened to grace and to respond by giving shape and form to the way of God in our ordinary lives. This is what saints do – and saints are you and you and you and you and all of us.
Yes , being a saint IS too hard, too demanding, too high – that’s why Jesus told us we cannot become saints – or disciples – or people of faith all by ourselves. We have to open our hearts to God when we are empty. We have name and own our sin or selfish traits and ask for forgiveness over and over again. And we have to trust that God is God…… and loves us with a love that never gives up.

And that is why trusting the ‘communion of saints’ – opening our hearts to their constant prayers for us when we have only sighs too deep for human words – can be so healing. We don’t have to do it all – that great cloud of witnesses is praying for us and encouraging the Lord to meet us where we need God the most.
That is what we claim by faith on All Saints’ Day: that God is with us in love in ways that we cannot comprehend.

 

Prayer

 

Lord as we gather on this special all Saints Day.

we ask that you would bless us as your saints of today

Enable us to show the Light of Christ,

and may our lives be windows to world of your love, grace

and wisdom

This we pray, through Christ Jesus

Amen

Straddling the sacred and the secular

thomas merton

We are living in a world absolutely transparent, and God is shining through all the time’ Thomas Merton 

 I love this quote from Thomas Merton…the thought of God’s piercing light radiating in our world … shining in places and people, where hurt and fear prevail. Straddling the spiritual and the physical realm can be a difficult achievement. Yet one man in the 20th century has shown us the way.

Out of all the 20th century mystic spiritual writers, the most influential is Thomas Merton. His early life was a tumultuous one, and he became a Roman Catholic through the influence of a Zen Buddhist master. He affirms that ‘contemplation’ is the gift that God gives us…and through contemplation our Love for God increases. However, he warns that contemplation will not be given to those who willfully remain at a distance from God. His story is one that touches the hearts of most people, as he brings all of his life’s experiences to God and is rewarded by being one of the most prophetic voices in the 20th century.

Thomas Merton was born in 1915 in France, and was educated In France, America and England. He grew up in the 1920s and 1930s and tried his hand at many pastimes. While in England he attended Cambridge University and his peers often called a womanizer and philander, enjoying company in the clubs.( he is supposed to have fathered a child at this time ). For a short time he embraced communism, yet it was Catholicism which in turn catapulted him to a strictly cloistered life in a rural Kentucky monastery.

The writings that flowed from his monastic cell over the next 27 years examined spirituality (of the west and east), the Cold War, the civil rights movement and the challenges for the individual in the post-modern world. In short, Merton’s writing took on many of the struggles of the 20th and 21st century. And it is for this reason that many people turn to him for guidance and inspiration.

Thomas Merton died by accidental electrocution while traveling in Asia but remains one of the most widely read and written about spiritual figures of the modern era. On a personal note, I find the spirituality of Thomas Merton refreshing. He does attempt to straddle the sacred with the secular, and in doing so he enables us to see the radiance of God’s Love in the most unexpected places.

Radiating God,

In the times when we falter, steady us

In the times when we doubt, inspire us

In the times when we feel disappointed, embrace us

Radiate your love in the shadow places of our lives.

So all may witness your glory

As we turn radiate your love to others.

Amen

Difficult relationships

difficult relationships

Do to others as you would have them do to you. Luke 6: 31

Relationships !!…..my they can be difficult … but not all of them are thank goodness!!.

However, there was a young girl during my time at senior school, who made my life a misery. At any and every opportunity, she would humiliate and verbally abuse anyone unfortunate enough to cross her path. She was a bully, and like many others, I lived in fear of her approaching me. One day, about 10 yrs after I left school, I saw her make a beeline over to me. I was nursing by this time, but you can imagine how I felt … petrified and sick in my stomach !! My mouth became dry and my hands clammy the closer she came towards me. Then she greeted me with a smile, clasped hold of my hand and started to apologise for her behaviour at school. I was convinced that this sudden friendliness was just a front to conceal a plan. But it wasn’t…. it was real. And even when she was friendly towards me I still flinched and became suspicious of her intentions.

Love your enemies?

It’s hard enough, even when they extend the hand of friendship. To love those who continue to hurt us – its asking a lot isn’t it ?

Yet that is the way of Christ…….. It does not mean liking them, but it means ready to forgive…..,

to put the past behind and to start with a clean slate….

to meet rejection with acceptance,

to wish good rather than evil

 

Can you do that?… I i know i find it difficult, but I am sure I should.

One look at the world with all its tensions and conflicts and divisions and prejudices ….give us a bleak picture of the alternative.

 

Prayer

Forgiving God

You ask us to turn the cheek,

to love our enemies,

are you sure you mean that  ?

 

It is so difficult when they hurt me,

Humiliate me,

Destroy me.

 

Help me to love and forgive all your people,

Even those who would wish me harm.

Soften my heart,

For the sake of Jesus, your Son, my Lord

Amen

Julian of Norwich and the ‘three windows’

julian of nowich

A little known fact about Julian of Norwich is that she was the first woman to write a book in English. Again I am astounded how a woman, an anchoress could influence the community and the world she lived in, especially in a male dominated society….. when she was incarcerated in a ‘cell’.

In her ‘cell’, or stone room,  she had three windows where she encountered God.

The first window was where she received the sacraments, as the window looked directly into the church. The priest would visit her with the ‘daily office’, and she could observe the church in worship.

The second window was where she received Food and Water to maintain her existence and also where the carers removed her waste. She kept in fairly good health throughout her time in the cell .

The third window was where people from the local community came to seek her advice on matters which concerned them. She chatted to them and formed deep relationships with individuals. Her fame spread and was visited by many wealthy and poor people.

Remembering that this was the Middle ages , where the plague had ravaged families and death and disease were rife , Julian maintained that God was with them  in there suffering . It was in this world of chaos, that she utters the words .. All shall be well, and all shall be … and all manner of things shall be well. This is in direct opposition to what the male priests were telling the parishioners; she stood her ground, as she had gained respect being an anchoress. The thought of God being close to people was a new concept, and Julian encouraged this as she shared her Theology , as God as Father, God as Mother , God as Creator and God  Suffering  just has she witnessed God’s people suffering.

This is even more remarkable, as although little is known about Julian (this is not her true name, but the name she took from the Church she attended ) she could have been a nun or a laywoman , maybe a widow who lost her child and husband to the Plague. She was extremely ill when she was 30yrs old, and it was when she recovered she wrote her book ‘Revelations of Divine Love’ , but her faith in God never wavered . She instilled Hope to people where suffering and pain was their constant companion.

Learning about Julian’s life again, has helped me reflect on ‘the windows’ I use to encounter God . The church to which I belong, the people care for me and support me, the friends and strangers I meet along life’s diverse path, the joys and sorrows that Life brings.

I hope I am bold enough to speak with authority about my faith as Julian did … to articulate my faith to encourage ,to challenge , to boldly go where many fear to tread .. and with God’s spirit as my companion.. all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.

Prayer

Let our God of Goodness be enough for you.

Ask for nothing less,

for if you ask for less than God

you will always be left wanting.

In God:

All shall be well

and all shall be well

and all manner of things shall be well.

(Julian: Revelations         of Love)

‘God-centered’ Families

the beauty of sand

Family trees…… more to the point tracing family trees. Who has traced their family tree?. There are even books and leaflets you can get on how to do it properly. The TV schedules have really gone to town on this; many celebrities have traced their families. The newsreader Moira Stuart, and David Tenant otherwise known as Dr who, Deidre Barlow from Coronation street to name but three… and we also have Long Lost Families, where individuals attempt to find long lost relatives.

My cousin traced my grandma’s family back about 4 generations, and found out we came from Gloucester.We put such importance on our names. It gives us our identity, our heritage, our individuality, or uniqueness.Another example is …..family doctors . How is it that some families have a series of doctors, vicars, or plumbers  in past generations?

Having an identity, a base, a family is vitally important.

But in our society  there are people who are struggling with identity; with where they come from and …who is their family

  • Homelessness where many thousands of people whom roam the pavements and seek to find shelter from the harsh realities of our world .
  • Leprosy where who have been alienated from society, rejected by family members because of a skin disease and the effects of that disease of their bodies
  • Refugees and asylum seekers where those speaking out against injustice, conflict and people who have been displaced particularly those is war-torn countries who have lost their family roots.

Families and particular ‘identity’ is important to us, for they tell us and those around us who we are.

Many people use a wonderful image to describe our ‘church family’… a dysfunctional family !… We have many relationships to consider, some positive and affirming, others can be very challenging and destructive.

Like the sand in the picture above, each particle of sand is unique and beautiful , yet different and distinctive. It can be risky living next to a particle of sand that has very sharp edges !!

We may speak the words of a Christian, but do we really open up and live a risky Christian life, where our words and actions are spoken in love… knowing that in doing so, our reputation will be judged and opinions formed for we are adhering the sacredness of God.

Living our lives in love… is risky; it means that we can never said we have got it right.

It means that love is source of strength and our life…or as a wise woman said to me a long time ago, love is the currency of eternity.

Love is the essential ingredient of our behaviour, but as I mentioned earlier it has a cost. The cost is that we must be vulnerable, exposed , not allowing the abrasive elements of our characteristics come to the fore but to allow God to speak for us

Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.’ Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.’

We may feel that we are not mature enough to speak for God, by the very nature of plucking, building and planting it means challenge and change, but God recognizes our fear and promises us to be with us as we step out in faith to obey.

Family trees…..whatever your surname, …..however you trace back your family, …remember that  we are all in the family of God, and being part of that family means that we live our lives in tension with the secular and the sacred world.

Next time you speak, next time you utter any words, ask yourself are they the sacred words of love from God.

Prayer

Lord like the grain of sand that is washed repeatedly on the shore .

Wash me in the waters of Love ,

That I may seek to do your will

That I may strive to walk the extra mile

That I may speak words of love as the ‘currency’ of a Christian.

Amen

Holiness

holiness

‘Holiness’ cannot be defined and can never be adequately described, as holiness means that God is present. In exploring the meaning of ‘holiness’ we are not only searching for God, but also the meaning and value of our lives. In coming to know God, we find ourselves, because it is in God that we live and move and have our being. Gerard Hughes book ‘God in all things’, gives indications to our own personal journey and spirituality to seek God and to find holiness.

  • Hunger for Knowledge and Truth is a sign of our holiness, as God beckons us into a deeper communion with him.
  • The gift of awe and wonder, enabling us to sense the sacredness of a particular place, or  glimpse the of depth in another person is also a sign of holiness.
  • Laughter as a sign of holiness is the ability to laugh at ourselves, and see the comedy of a situation. A spirit of joy and merriment has been one of the special hallmarks of those who are declared saints!!
  • Human Love and desire as a sign of holiness. Love can take us out of ourselves, but there is always a part of us where no person, no created thing can satisfy our inner hunger. Loving another person releases us from our self-centredness and draws us into the service of others.

My blog has a sub title … my long struggle to attain holiness…It is a subject  which draws me nearer to understanding God.

Holiness is cultivated, nurtured and emerges , as the more we recognise God’s presence in our lives….. the more our Holiness develops.

 

Holy God ,

May each day bring a new experience

where we can recognise your Love.

May each day bring a new joy

where we can recognise your grace.

May each day bring a new opportunity

where we can claim you as our God.

 

Amen

Prayer… hints and tips.

BXG_JasonHouse

Over the last number of years, I have never ceased to be amazed at how prayer can be answered, although often it is in the way we least expect it!!

Prayer is something of a mystery. (p.s thanks to Jason Ingram for reflective  artwork )

We don’t know exactly how it works but we can pray corporately in church if we are church attenders, as a small group or friends praying spoken or silent prayer, or as privately as individuals, yet in faith we pray!!

I often find that I am praying ‘on the hoof’… let me explain. Sometimes I can pray in the car driving to a meeting or a visit, asking God just to be with me and the situation that I will find myself in ; sometimes I can pray while on the phone being a listening ear to someone’s pain and hurt, other times I can be gardening thanking God the world we live in , or listening to the news on the TV or radio, to the  Suffering and Injustice, or the Joys and laughter. Jesus often spoke about prayer He gave examples of prayer, of occassioanly seeking solace, of discussing what prayer is , and even instructing his friends with what words to say.

I am no expert on Prayer, but prayer has been my companion through difficult times and joyous ones

Here are some hints and tips that I have used to help people in their prayer life

  1. Prayer is the means by which we can deepen our relationship with God. It is like a telephone line, and when we pick up the phone we have a one-way trunk call to God.
  2. Prayer is not just talking to God about people or situations for which we have concern; we also need to give God time to speak to us … and that means we need to listen as well.
  3. Prayers can be said anytime during the day or night…whatever you are doing.
  4. If it is helpful, praying can be done alone quietly in a room, or as a group.
  5. 5.   I doesn’t matter too much about the quantity of people praying, but what does matter is the quality of prayer … it needs to come from the heart.
  6. If we are serious about our relationship with God then we must be serious about prayer.
  7. Sometimes we may know individuals who cannot pray because they are bereaved, depressed, or ill. It is up to us as disciples of Jesus, to pray for them on their behalf. We should pray for God to bless them and give them strength and an inner peace.
  8. Other times we may see issues in the media, e.g. conflict, injury, and global disasters. Here we should pray to God for guidance, and wisdom.
  9. We must remember that God knows our hearts before we even ask, so even if we struggle to find words to describe what to pray for, God is there already.

10. Stick with Prayer.. even if you feel as though it’s a waste of time !! God never gives up on us !!

God that breaks bounds of time and space

In our prayer life Lord sustain us ,

when the words are hard to find ,

With your gentle Spirit ,

enfold us with your grace

as we open our hearts to you

Amen

Walking on the edge

walking on the edge

Every year, ministers in the United Reformed Church attend a Spring/ Summer school. This year is an opportunity to consider with colleagues what is means to be part of the ‘Leadership team’ in URC churches in the 21st century. .

The speaker‘s opening words caught my attention, ‘Leadership ..  is a risky place to be ,for  if you are too near the edge you can fall off into chaos, and if you are not on the edge you solidify and become stagnant’.

In past years, church members have been associated with the Church from cradle to grave ( many  over 60 and 70 years),  absorbed faith knowledge and then repeated it. Hence the phrase, it’s always worked, it was fine for me, so why change ? Change can mean uncertainty and anxiety, but if we are to be on the edge, then change must happen. By that I mean not just about Church buildings, but about a change of heart and understanding of what it means to be a disciple and be a relevant church in today’s society.

The question was posed that being ‘church on the edge’, means that we must appreciate that society has changed. In the last 40yrs, Medical knowledge has increased, so too has Technology, Engineering and of course  Theology. We live in an age where we have a choice, and vital to our choosing is discussion and discernment. Alongside that is journeying with people, who are trying to find out what God means to them, through discussion not blind acceptance.

Its seems to me that being in ‘Shared Leadership in Churches (and by that I just don’t just mean  the minister but the whole appointed Eldership as well) can easy be perceived as ‘Management’, however management is about problem solving. Leadership asks the question .. why are we doing this and is it the right thing to further the Kingdom of God..

For the church to have a viable future, the Gospel must not just be spoken about , but to be lived out, where forgiveness and inclusivity changes lives, and so transformation to hope and wholeness can be visibly seen.

I have no answers, save that I know that I believe the people of God need to know they are beloved and treasured by God, and that the rebuilding of trust, restoring confidence and renewing of hope must happen. I am grateful for David Grosch Miller for his thoughtful reflections, however he left a challenging call to all of us … we are called to be, not just pastors…. but prophets. I am grateful he used Moses in Exodus as an example of Leadership, with all his faults, flawed humanity and hesitations, he trusted God.

God who led your people out of slavery to a land flowing with milk and honey,

We pray that you would lead us to the edge,

Not so we can fall into chaos, but we can see the true landscape ahead of us

Be in our minds that we may reflect on issues of faith with clarity

Be in our mouths that we may speak words that bring wholeness

Be in our steps , so we may walk alongside the edge with confidence knowing you are there to hold us and guide us.

We ask this in Jesus name

Amen