Well here we are, the 1st September is upon us, and in Methodism that means a new church year. I start it in the strangeness of being “laid aside” ( read our Covenant prayer for context), and while I am working towards a phased return to work I am not there yet, and have a meeting with occupational health to discuss what a return to work after a prolonged illness looks like.
This has been a very strange and disorienting time within what is a strange and disorienting time, I find myself in the rather peculiar position of moving from knowing nothing, to knowing bits and pieces, which I must confess feels more anxiety inducing than knowing nothing. Right now I have nothing to say and nothing to share. In some senses it feels like Holy Saturday, that strange and empty day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday where there is nothing to be done, so I wait.
I wait, and I don’t wait alone, I wait with my doubts and my fears and my questions, and there is nothing to distract me from them, they wake me up in the night and they whisper over and over during the day reminding me of my faults and flaws and introducing wild scenarios of strange and probably unlikely situations, but they are vivid in my minds eye. This is a lonely place, lonely because my friends and family mostly live elsewhere, and the strangeness of these strange times has meant much less contact than usual.
I ask myself if I am wrong to share this, I have been told before now that I should only share good news, and at one point was told that “nobody wants a depressed minister”, and yet I also know that I am not the only one who has ever been in this position, and that the constant clamour for good news and positive messages can be wearing in itself when you are in a dark or shadowed space.
I find myself in a shadowed space, I am not depressed, but I am uncertain, I am uncertain about both my short-term and my long-term future, so I am having to learn to live in the moment and from moment to moment, in this moment I choose to share my story. It is not a story of doom and gloom, but rather a story of possibility, but a possibility that in this moment I can neither wonder about or work towards yet. Yet, is the key word here, for I will return to work, and I do have a future, but now is not a time for decision making, especially when it may come at the behest of the voices in my head and the strange scenarios conjured up by my imagination.
So, despite my dis-ease I am choosing to receive this time as a gift, a gift of waiting, not even of anticipating. I have lamented, I have berated myself, I have faced regrets over decisions and broken relationships, in the midst of all of this I have tried to remind myself of the good stuff, but I am much better at wallowing if I am honest, and I cry with the psalmist “how long oh Lord”.
On this day of new beginning I pray for those like me who are stuck, who have nowhere to go and nothing to do. I say this as I prepare to move across the city so I appreciate the irony of my words, but I will not be moving with the energy that new starts often bring and demand. So I will wait, I will watch and wait. And I hold to the promises that rise in my heart;
Be still and know that I am God.
I know the plans I have for you.
Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.
For over a year now we have lived with almost constant uncertainty, many of us have been isolated from familiar support networks, we couldn’t really describe it as a mystery, for the Covid-19 Virus is not a mystery, we can’t see it, but we feel its effects and we see the results of contracting it. For over a year our new bulletins have rarely been without mention of virus, pandemic, vaccine or the dreaded words “new strain”. I wonder how often our prayers have contained the words, or at least the sentiments “how long O Lord?” (Psalm 13 & Psalm 89)
There are other things of course that should draw that prayer and those words from our hearts and our lips and stir them in our minds. As we pause today on the anniversary of the death of George Floyd, I hope that we are able to give the anniversary more than a passing thought. That said, we’d be forgiven if we don’t do little more than note the date, yet still we should cry “how long O Lord?”
Today our news ( here in the UK anyway) is focused on the interview conducted by Martin Bashir with Princess Diana, and while I don’t believe he was innocent it does seem that we are in some senses both dealing with long lived grief that has appeared as deep rifts ( so we are told) within our Royal family, and an event that in many senses continues to rock our nation in the death of one so many had taken to their hearts, maybe amongst the angst of so much pain and grief and uncertainty we need someone to blame when what we should be doing is acknowledge that we have simply shifted some of the locus of our grief and pain and have been given somebody to aim at! And while I am not saying there should be no investigations, I have to ask why this is the focus of our news. Can we not reframe our comments with the cry “how long O Lord?”
There are other things to that should draw such a prayer from us, the war and tentative ceasefire between Israel and Palestine, the rise in the “need” for food banks, and so many other matters of justice, or human rights, that include not only race but rights associated with gender and sexuality, then there are matters of poverty, and the of fair sharing of wealth which require an adjustment of values for many… “how long O Lord?”
This is a very real cry, a cry of anguish, and as St Paul writes in his letter to The Romans, it is not just us but “all creation groans with us.” Just hear that, all creation groans, and he goes on to say “as in the pains of childbirth” (Romans 8:22). The pains of childbirth, I remember can be both overwhelming and seem to be never ending but they do ( hopefully) end well and with new life. These words “how long”, these deep groans of discomfort can and dare I say should lead us to a place where we dare to see and say that hope is possible. Not that we should ignore the pain, nor that we should not express the anguish, but we can draw from them and through them a sense that this not need to be how it is always. Our hope is that all will be, all is being made new, and as Christians invited upon the path that Jesus walked, the path of Christ, Spirit equipped and with the words “you are good ( see Genesis 1) ringing in our ears, we should be able to begin to participate in the new things to come by becoming new, by being transformed, (being saved) , as we choose that path day by day, and moment by moment.
The sad thing is, many of us struggle to participate because what we hear are not the words “you are good” but the opposite, you are not good, not good enough, indeed you are bad, rotten to the core, and this can cause us to either withdraw, putting on masks of compliance when we do dare to enter the world, or to fight, too often excluding and blaming others. I must admit at I can and do struggle with both of those, but I want to learn and am learning to walk another way. I am crying “how long”, but I cry how long with hope, for hope says that love will win, and I have to put my faith in that (see 1 Corinthians 13).
I find myself returning again to the invitation of Jesus in Matthew 11: 25-30, who despite his frustrations and his anguish both felt and expressed about those who were simply unable to see, turned first to God in prayer, and then to those surrounding him in invitation:
Abruptly Jesus broke into prayer: “Thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth. You’ve concealed your ways from sophisticates and know-it-alls, but spelled them out clearly to ordinary people. Yes, Father, that’s the way you like to work.”
Jesus resumed talking to the people, but now tenderly. “The Father has given me all these things to do and say. This is a unique Father-Son operation, coming out of Father and Son intimacies and knowledge. No one knows the Son the way the Father does, nor the Father the way the Son does. But I’m not keeping it to myself; I’m ready to go over it line by line with anyone willing to listen.
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
We are invited to participate in the unforced rhythms of grace, to be ambassadors of hope, and while we cry “how long” we can know we cry it not only with one another but with all creation and even with Jesus himself. Maybe it is a good thing that God’s timing is not ours, for so much greater glory might be revealed if we give ourselves to the waiting.
Every year members of the Methodist Church participate in a service where they purposefully renew their covenant with God, they do so in the knowledge that by grace God’s covenant with is is sure and true and holds us in a place where we are able to say with openness and vulnerability these words: (The Covenant Prayer)
I am no longer my own but yours. Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you, exalted for you, or brought low for you; let me be full, let me be empty, let me have all things, let me have nothing: I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal. And now, glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, you are mine and I am yours. So be it. And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.’
Well that is the aim anyway. I have to admit that there are times when I have done so with openness of heart and a willing spirit, and times when I have gone through the motions. I have been reduced to tears by this service and this prayer particularly and been totally unmoved by it, but I have still chosen to enter into it no matter how I have been feeling, because the bottom line is, it is not about me! It is about God’s grace and the community of faith choosing to say this prayer together, to renew the covenant promise and to support one another. One of the churches I have served in the past chose to make the covenant prayer on behalf of the wider community, stretching out the arms of their prayer in welcome to all who would come and be with them, and even to those who would not. For me this was deeply moving, a reflection of prevenient grace, including us all, before we knew it .
We usually say this prayer in either January or September ( the beginning of the new Methodist year), so why am I thinking about it now? Well partly because I choose to think about it often, and because parts of it resonate for me at different times, at the moment the words, “let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you” speak to me strongly. I have been laid aside, and I keep having to make peace with that.
Being laid aside is temporary for me, and I know that, for some I know it is more permanent, and that is entirely different. One month ago I was discharged from hospital with some serious antibiotics and painkillers following an infection, which I am told could easily have turned to sepsis! I am now waiting for an operation and have been instructed not to work until that has been completed, and even then I will need 6 to 8 weeks recovery time. The operation is set for a few weeks time.
So, I am laid aside, I have been reading, and am now beginning to do some light exercise, I am being very careful with what I eat, and fighting my own feelings of inadequacy and uselessness, all exacerbated by the fact that I have nobody to tell me to stop being daft because I live alone! I battle feelings of guilt too, I had planned to visit family today but woke late (I needed the sleep) and am feeling out of sorts, not something I can put my finger on, but a signal to rest, something I am not very good at!
My battle is with the voices in my head, voices that say I am not enough, not good enough and that that will soon be seen by everyone because everything carries on perfectly well without me, which I would normally be the first to say, should absolutely be the case!
Are there benefits to being laid aside, well yes, firstly rest, rest physically, emotionally and mentally, if I am honest I needed to step off the treadmill for a while, and my body saw to it, that, that should and has happened. Second time to read, I am always bemoaning that I don’t have time to read, and have now read 2 1/2 novels and am getting to grips with some soul feeding theology. Lastly ( though the list could go on) I am finding a different perspective, it is so easy to get caught up in the urgent and the demands of day to day work and life that you fail to see the bigger picture, and I say that as a big picture person.
In the Covenant prayer, we accept that being laid aside might be part of our calling, and I find that in these days I am simply need to accept and go with that, to accept the fact that being laid aside does not make me any less in the eyes of the divine, I am not useless, I am not unwanted, I am not put out of the body of Christ, I am still a part of it and have a place to take.
So for now I will accept rest, accept that maybe I have been led beside quiet waters, to have my body, mind and soul restored ( see Psalm 23), and here the words at the beginning of the prayer come into their own, “I am no longer my own but yours, put me to what you will”, here I am Loving God, only help me to rest in you… (even in my grumpy restlessness)
First as always I hope that this letter finds you well and is as good spirits as you can be in these times, I must admit that the continued good weather and sunshine has helped to raise my spirits, as have the ever increasing signs of new life! This weekend though, we are at the edge of Holy Week, with its difficult themes of betrayal and death. This Sunday is Palm Sunday, or Passion Sunday. Both point us in different ways to the events that are to come. Palm Sunday always feels a strange day to me, we often greet it with celebration, cries of hosanna and the waving of palms, one of the Children’s Bible’s on my bookshelf calls this passage “The great parade” with echoes of hope and celebration. There was of course a celebratory feeling gathered crowds that day, they were certainly hopeful, many would have heard the stories of the raising of Lazarus, and of the many other events of Jesus life and ministry, and anything that challenged the tyranny of Rome was welcomed. Jesus was making a point though, and it was at heart both a challenge to the political and religious elite of the day which were very often intertwined! As he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, across the city the changing of the Roman Guard was taking place with Pilate entering on a war horse and much pomp! No wonder the religious rulers were worried, Jesus was challenging the might of Rome! Both of these “parades” are document historically!
The theme of Passion Sunday gives us a different way into Holy Week, it invites us into the depths of the story, to take a walk through the whole narrative stopping just before the Easter accounts before we walk through it day by day. It looks specifically at the passionate struggle of Jesus in Gethsemane and on the cross, and it starts with a look at the woman who came to anoint Jesus and the reaction of those around him:
While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. But some were there who said to one another in anger, ‘Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.’ And they scolded her. But Jesus said, ‘Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’ (Mark 14)
This is one of two accounts of Jesus being anointed, just before he was to be crucified, in the other account it is Mary ( the sister of Lazarus) takes costly perfume, pours it over Jesus feet and wipes them with her hair, in this shocking act she like the unnamed woman from Mark is also criticised.
Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’ (John 12)
Were there two anointings by two different women, we don’t really know, of course it is possible, but then it is also possible that the two gospels written many years apart to different audiences record the incident differently. That said there are similarities, in both cases Jesus received the ministry of these bold women who with extravagant gesture pour costly perfume/ ointment over Jesus, daring to break convention, daring to show love and devotion in a way nobody has before. For a woman to approach a man in this was shocking, for Mary to let down her hair was an intimate act, as for the male disciples and specifically the named Judas they seem to miss the point and take their annoyance out on the extravagance of the women, but I suspect they were just as perplexed at the acceptance, and attitude of Jesus, perhaps these encounters best set the scene for us as we enter into Holy Week in these strange days. We are living in extraordinary times, and seeing extraordinary events, alongside the deep grief that the world is bearing in the numbers of people who have died during the pandemic there have been amazing acts of kindness and generosity. There has also been the amazingly fast development of several vaccines, none of which have been without controversy, questions about how this has been achieved so quickly, questions about safety, questions about fair distribution all surround these vaccines alongside the hope that is engendered as the vaccines are distributed. This is something that will change the world, but of course it would be way too far a stretch to suggest that the vaccine is our saviour, but it can cause us to reflect upon the ongoing nature of salvation, and how in giving ourselves to the story and allowing it to join with our story so we enter into the ongoing action of God who did not in Christ-Jesus hold back from suffering and death but poured out life for us all. The question is are we ready to receive it, openly and humbly as Jesus did the anointing offered by the women? To receive the life of Christ in our lives means setting aside our egos and being willing to be served that we might be those who serve with the love, with the courage, with the passion that we encounter in these women!
I leave you with a short meditation and a picture:
love poured out for love
first given, love
anointing death for life,
filling the air,
seeping into every pore,
assaulting the senses, here
heartbreak and hope
mingle and flow free,
soaking and searching,
an insistent anointing
of love mirroring love’s
love poured out for love,
anointing death for life…
As we prepare to enter into Holy Week may we be those who are ready to receive the all extravagant divine gift! May God bless and keep you.
As always I want to ask how you are as we continue our journey through Lent in lockdown, March seems to be passing quickly, and in just one more week we will be preparing for Palm Sunday and then Holy Week that follows. Time for me seems to be passing both quickly and slowly, I still do a double take as I write the year 2021, as I remember vividly celebrating the new millennium, and yet over 20 years of it have already passed, for me they carried many life changes and no less than six moves all over the country.
In these days we are living with the governments “road map” to ease us out of lockdown, I am beginning to receive enquiries about weddings, and other events, which can be held once again in our church buildings. Some friends have celebrated the arrival of text messages from their hairdressers saying that appointments will soon be ready. All of this and signs of spring all around us, this week my daffodils all flowered, may well lift our spirits and give us hope.
Signs and symbols are important, and can point us to a decision, or be a confirmation of an event, or Jesus as the story unfolds in John’s gospel the arrival of the Greeks wanting to see him was a sign.
A Grain of Wheat Must Die
20-21 There were some Greeks in town who had come up to worship at the Feast. They approached Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee: “Sir, we want to see Jesus. Can you help us?”
22-23 Philip went and told Andrew. Andrew and Philip together told Jesus. Jesus answered, “Time’s up. The time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.
24-25 “Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal.
26 “If any of you wants to serve me, then follow me. Then you’ll be where I am, ready to serve at a moment’s notice. The Father will honour and reward anyone who serves me.
27-28 “Right now I am shaken. And what am I going to say? ‘Father, get me out of this’? No, this is why I came in the first place. I’ll say, ‘Father, put your glory on display.’”
A voice came out of the sky: “I have glorified it, and I’ll glorify it again.”
29 The listening crowd said, “Thunder!”
Others said, “An angel spoke to him!”
30-33 Jesus said, “The voice didn’t come for me but for you. At this moment the world is in crisis. Now Satan, the ruler of this world, will be thrown out. And I, as I am lifted up from the earth, will attract everyone to me and gather them around me.” He put it this way to show how he was going to be put to death.
(John 12: 20-33 The Message Version)
Now it is important to note that it was not unusual for Greeks or other Gentiles to be present in Jerusalem, . First-century synagogues welcomed gentiles, so it is not surprising to find Gentiles in Jerusalem for Passover as well, what is significant is that they are looking for Jesus, while others would be admiring the temple the news of this new teacher, this miracle worker, this possible Messiah had piqued their interest, they want to see Jesus, and we hear the frustration of the Pharisees in the verse immediately preceding this passage “look the whole world is going after him”. The Greeks want to see Jesus, and it is to them and the gathered crowd that Jesus gives his last piece of public teaching before his arrest and crucifixion. A grain of wheat he say must fall to the ground and die if it is to produce fruit, sacrifice and death will bring about fruitfulness, let go of your life he says, having already declared that for himself the time has come. He calls others to follow his pattern, and shares his anguish, and the crowd all hear a voice from heaven, was it an angel, was it God? I will leave that to your imagination, but there was no doubt in the minds of those gathered that something was going to happen! I am sure if it had been explained to the what, if they’d had a road map for passion, crucifixion and resurrection they wouldn’t have believed it. Jesus was about to die on behalf of the nations, and not only on behalf of all nations only, but so that the dispersed children of God might be gathered together as one” All those excluded by race, gender, ethnicity, you can keep writing the list, are to be made one, Jesus death and the resurrection of the universal Christ, made flesh in the church throughout the world will see this come about, the grain of wheat is about to fall.
In these days we have seen a lot of death, and are probably wondering where the fruit Jesus talks about might be, there have been good things arising from the pandemic, communities and neighbours coming together, and much more, I am sure we could write a list quite quickly. There has also been great grief, and I suspect that there will be more, these are dark days, and as we emerge from them I suspect we will have many questions and will be asking ourselves what comes next.
As people who have faith in Christ we can in our minds skip forward to Easter Sunday, which began for Jesus disciples behind the doors of a locked room, where they gathered in grief and disbelief, when the women went to the tomb as the dawn was breaking they were dismayed to find the tomb empty, and it took a long time for what had happened to sink in, and still there was doubt and confusion among the disciples. As you prepare for Holy Week you might like to read the gospel accounts of the resurrection and allow yourself to consider the mix of emotions they reveal. The road was not easy, and Easter morning was not greeted with Alleluias! As we find our ways forward through this time I think that first Easter has a lot to teach us.
I leave you then with a poem, it is an invitation to Holy Week, and even though we are not there yet, this weeks gospel passage is set after the Triumphal Entry.
Invitation to Holy Week ( for Palm Sunday)
What have you seen
that draws praise
so easily from
your lips today?
what have you heard?
Has he touched your
Have you known
and do you know the wonders
of his love?
Is it enough to keep you close
even though he leads you to his cross?
Is there another
you could go to,
one you could turn to
whose peace would match
the peace that he gives?
Will you watch with him
will you enter his story afresh,
and walk with him along the way,
beyond the cheers and palms
to Gethsemane’s depths, with
blood filled sweat and tears,
and prayers where groans replace words
for the anguish
is too deep?
Will you come to the hill
where surrendering to nails
beaten and bloodied he gives
his all for you?,
walk with me,
and I will lead you
through death to life again….
it is a cycle
that bears repeating
As you continue your Lenten journey, may God bless and keep you, this day and always. As always if you would value a conversation please don’t hesitate to call me.
As always I wonder how you are, I am writing to you after a very busy week, listening to the wind rattling the roof tiles above my head I am aware of the wildness of the elements and my inability to control or contain them. Talking to a friend today we mused that although the government have given us a “road map” through the next few months nothing is certain.
And yet we know where we are time wise, we find ourselves at the fourth Sunday in Lent, more than half way through our journey towards Easter Day, and at a break for a feast day ( although every Sunday is actually counted as a feast day, a break in the Lenten fast so that we might not become overwhelmed). Mothering Sunday has become Mother’s Day in recent times, with flowers being given out an motherhood celebrated, which is no bad thing, but can also be a challenging thing for those who have difficult relationships with their mothers, or as mothers, humanity is often complex.
In the days of “service” my grandmother was one of those who served ( worked) in the home of the landed gentry, and would be allowed to go home on Mothering Sunday, often bearing a cake or gifts, but with the express purpose of returning to their mother church to worship ahead of Easter Day, because on Easter Day they would be required to work, serving the family they were indentured to in their celebrations. Nice social class snippet there!
That said we do pause to celebrate Mothering Sunday, and it does give us a chance to celebrate, and also to look for a different image of God, so often God is Father, and masculine, and we use dominant words like Kingdom and reign. Mothering Sunday grants us a different lens, and asks us perhaps to loo to the mother God, while still accepting that neither mother nor father is adequate for our mysterious creator who is in fact genderless, and Spirit.
So where do we find God as mother?
In creation, brooding over the deep?
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God[ brooded over the face of the waters. Genesis 1: 1-2
In the mother heart of Jesus the Christ:
How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! Matthew 23: 37b
There is a lot of female imagery given for God in both the Old and the New Testaments, and yet sadly it rarely finds its way into our everyday language or prayers. So I wonder, how do you relate to the God who mothers you, and what does that mean to you, is it an image that sits comfortably or uncomfortably in your thinking.
How do you respond to a nurturing creator with mothering traits?
I am aware that for some this may be unhelpful language, just in the same way that for others the metaphor of father is unhelpful and that we cannot capture or describe the divine or the eternal with language, but sometimes language is all we have. With that in mind I offer you a prayer:
Holy and eternal God Mother us
Wrap us in your arms of mercy, cover us with your blanket of grace, Mother us.
Hold us and help us, bind our wounds, heal our hearts, Mother us.
When our arms ache with emptiness, grief and longing, Mother us.
When our minds race with recriminations, unanswered questions, words said and unsaid, still the storms within us, pour your peace into our thirsty souls, nurture and feed us, help us to stand make us strong in you, Mother us.
So, in this week, where we turn our thought to Mothering Sunday, whatever it means for you I wish you God’s blessing, a time of quiet celebration and pray that you will find yourselves comforted by the nurturing presence of God however you encounter that in a helpful way.
As always, if you would like to talk please don’t hesitate to be in touch.
Once again I wonder how you are this week whilst reflecting on my conversation with a colleague where we both shared that we ask the same question over and over again! The of course we decided that this is an entirely normal greeting, surely we ask others how they are when we meet them, and so that greeting is not out of place, so I will say again that I hope this letter finds you well and in as good spirits as you can be at this time. I apologise for missing writing a letter last week, I quite simply ran out of time and space for writing, it was a busy week with several meetings and the representative Synod which looked at the God in Love Unites Us paper that will go to Conference this year all things being well. I will say a little more about that further on in this letter.
First I want to reflect on the fact that this is our second Lent in lockdown, and will likely be our second Easter out of our buildings. In my Easter letter last year I reflected on the words of Jesus to Mary on their encounter at the tomb in the garden, he said to her “do not cling to me”. At that time I asked the question:
“In these days what do you want to cling to that seems impossible, lots of us a separated from family and friends, all of us from our usual ways of living. Where do you need to hear Jesus calling your name, and what would you like to say to him, hear his words, do not cling to me, what in these days do you need to let go of so that you can encounter Jesus afresh?”
Of course at that time we thought we need only hold on a few more weeks and things would begin to return to something like normal, although many were expressing the desire to find a new normal, a new way of living and being, of valuing others, of caring for the environment of living less selfishly. The year has ground on and we have been in and out of lockdowns, moved through the dark days of winter, and perhaps begun in a new way to acknowledge how truly challenging and difficult this all is. We have moved from cheering for the NHS every Thursday to a much quieter way of being, and maybe just maybe that is the gift that Lent offers us. This weeks gospel reading challenges all of that though and wakes us up with a start! Here it is:
13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. 15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’ 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’ 18 The Jews then said to him, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’ 19 Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ 20 The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken. (John 2: 13-22)
So much for any notion of gentle Jesus meek and mild! So what had incensed him so much? It certainly wasn’t the worshippers who had made the journey to Jerusalem, making their way to the temple to make the required sacrifices that would make them ready to celebrate the Passover, Jesus himself would observe the festival and to do so carry out the required confessions and cleansing ( in that it could be likened to our Lenten fast). No, what incensed him was the injustice of the market place within the temple courts, the money changers and merchants making money from those who wanted to prepare themselves spiritually, he challenges the temple economy, questioning whether it was focused more on wealth than prayer in this he echoes the challenge of the prophets through the ages.
Why is this important to us today? What can this story shine a light on? Where do we find injustice? On Wednesday the Chancellor shared with us the details of the budget, and amongst support packages for businesses and families for furloughed workers and a plan to get the economy moving again one thing was hidden, despite all of our applause, and the constant government affirmations of how wonderful the NHS has been is a 1% pay rise, yes just 1% for people who have given so much! I am not going to comment any further I am going to just leave that there, because it isn’t something I have heard raised in the news as we devour information about the Duke and Duchess of Sussex and Prince Philip. I wonder though how you respond?
In challenging the temple traders and the authorities who gave them space to operate, Jesus was also affirming the value of the pilgrims who had come to prepare, to make their sacrifices and to remember the Passover as they celebrated the festival. Jesus so often celebrated those that the religious elite considered unclean or unacceptable, he saw value in each one. He did not despise the leper, he included women in his followers and he told his disciples to love one another as he had loved them. Love is the central message of our Scriptures, proclaiming each one valued and unique.
As I said earlier in my letter last Saturday our Synod met in Sheffield to look at the God in Love Unites Us document and to give an indicative vote on the resolutions within it before it goes to Conference this summer. Love being the central theme of the document as it explored what it is to be made in God’s image and what constitutes healthy and life giving forms of human relating. It looks at themes of singleness, marriage, co-habitation, divorce and same sex marriage. It acknowledges that not everyone will draw the same conclusions but invites us to be united in the love of Christ. I would encourage you to take a look at some of the resources created for LGBT History Month available on the Methodist Church Website.
For the most part the meeting was measured and respectful, the indicative vote was in favour of all of the resolutions, recognising that for some they would agree to disagree in love. There were suggestions from time to time however that not all of us are made in God’s image, that not all are to be celebrated and that some are beyond the love of God. Words like bestiality and rape were used. This was particularly pertinent to the LGBTQI+ community, and there were a number of us in the meeting. It was hard to hear. The beginning of our Bible states that God has made ALL in the image and likeness of God, it also declares that God is not gendered. Jesus himself when questioned about a widow’s place in the resurrection states that there will be no marriage in heaven for we will be transformed (Luke 20: 27-40). Paul states that in Christ there is no male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, for ALL are one in Christ. (Galatians 3: 23-29). As for the texts quoted from Leviticus and the often quoted passages in Romans where Paul apparently speaks about homosexuality it might be shocking to some to know that the word homosexuality did not appear in English versions of the Bible until 1946, and that there are many different words that have been translated that way and all equate with some form of injustice or abuse. This article speaks challengingly to the use of the word homosexuality in the scriptures and is worth considering.
Now I know this is my view, and that many will not agree with me, and that many will, but the premise of God in Love Unites us is that we center ourselves on the LOVE of God in Christ, and seek the wisdom of the Spirit to guide us to love and serve one another. There has been a positive outpouring of love in the world this year, one of our Pioneer Workers told me yesterday how generous people have been to food banks in the city who have been overwhelmed by the generosity of the community towards those who are struggling. One worker on the checkout at the supermarket told me how people are much more likely to say thank you these days, or to enquire about the welfare of the one serving them. Our church buildings have been used as vaccination centres and people have actively considered how to serve and include one another. God in Love Unites us invites us to stretch our thinking perhaps and to include those who have formerly been excluded, those who wish to be a blessing to their community and to receive the blessing of God.
I will leave you with a hymn:
Let us build a house where love can dwell And all can safely live, A place where saints and children tell How hearts learn to forgive. dreams and visions, Let us build a house where prophets speak, And words are strong and true, Where all God’s children dare to seek To dream God’s reign anew.
Here the cross shall stand as witness And a symbol of God’s grace; Here as one we claim the faith of Jesus:
Let us build a house where love is found In water, wine and wheat: A banquet hall on holy ground, Where peace and justice meet.
Here the love of God, through Jesus, Is revealed in time and space; As we share in Christ the feast that frees us:
All are welcome, all are welcome, All are welcome in this place.
As we continue to journey through Lent, let us seek to be those who love first, who seek justice and mercy and the freedom for all to approach God in worship with nothing to hinder them.
I pray that your Lenten journey will be life giving, once again I offer a conversation to any who would appreciate it, and I acknowledge that for some what I have written will be challenging this week. You remain as always in my prayers
Well here we are in Lent 2021, this time last year, whilst in Lent we were still going to worship in our buildings, news was beginning to build from China, and then from Italy and other places in Europe, that something serious was going on in the world, I think at that point that some of us were more aware of it than others. In less than three weeks the country would enter into lockdown for the first time, and new words and thoughts were added to our daily vocabulary, Covid-19, social distancing, self-isolation, shielding and so many more. We washed our hands more than ever, supermarket shelves were stripped and toilet rolls became worth their weight in gold. We had entered a strange new world. I am fairly sure that at that point none of us had ever dreamed that almost a year later we would find ourselves in the same position, the new words less strange perhaps, but our awareness heightened to the threat to life, and the welfare of all. In that time masks have become compulsory in shops and enclosed public spaces, and regulations governing our freedom change on a regular basis.
I wonder, as you look back over the last year, which some are describing as one long Lent, how you are feeling? Have you become resigned to this new way of being and are seeking to keep your head down until it is all over? Are you fed up and frustrated? Are you mourning for what was, or perhaps for a loved one? These have been difficult days, and none of us can deny that, to do so would be to lie to ourselves and to others. There have been highlights of course, we have seen appreciation for delivery drivers, bus drivers, posties, supermarket workers, and those who keep the day to day wheels of life turning, those who often go unseen or unappreciated have become our heroes, not to mention the work of carers and the NHS. Martin have looked after neighbours, communities have come together to support food banks, to deliver medicines and shopping and to help the vulnerable. Alongside that though the demand for assistance from foodbanks has risen, many have found themselves furloughed or worse unemployed, Highstreet chains have collapsed, and that is only in this country. Across the world whilst we celebrate the roll out of the vaccine other countries still have none, those working with refugees and obviously the refugees themselves struggle with daily living. Covid-19, whilst once called the great leveler is anything but that, the poverty gap is showing starkly, and the world must cry out for justice.
So here we are, at the start of a new Lenten period, how then are we going to enter it, have we, as the text of Mark’s gospel suggests, been driven here? That is just one of the themes of this reading that I would like to draw out today, so maybe now is a good tome to pause and ponder it:
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good newsof God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news. (Mark 1: 9-15)
Notice the words used, after the affirmation of the Spirit, those remarkable words “ you are my Son, the Beloved” Jesus is driven into the desert, according to the text in Mark this is not a choice, it is simply a fact, the days that lay before him are not in his hands but in the hands of God. Is that how we feel at this time, Covid-19 would certainly not be our choice, in a sense we have been driven into isolation and lockdown, I wonder where we find God here? Maybe we note the next part of the text, Jesus was with the wild beasts and angels waited on him, could it be that the wilderness was not such an inhospitable place after-all, but a place of coming apart, even of resting ( though a forty day fast is extreme), and what does it mean to be with the wild beasts, or as Noel Moules puts it in his teaching with wild nature, a part of creation itself, creation we must remember that was spoken into being by the word, who is revealed to us as the Christ? Perhaps this angelic ministry and this oneness with creation is what sustained Jesus through those days and equipped him to set out into the short enfleshed ministry that fills our Gospel accounts over two thousand years later!
How do we respond now, we have been driven into our homes once again, where and how do we encounter God? If you were Jesus, I wonder how those words “You are my Son, the Beloved” sink into your heart and mind through those forty days? Are you able to receive them for yourself? For in the hardness and harshness of these days I wonder if repentance, that great theme of Lent is all about turning ( for that is what repentance is) towards God’s words of love for us, hear some of the words of Scripture:
You are fearfully and wonderfully made- Psalm 139
You are precious and honoured in my sight and I love you- Isaiah 43
I call you friends- John 15
I am sure you can add many more, so can I but those who print this letter to take out to those without email may not thank me for it! So, yes, Jesus was driven into the desert, but he was also ministered to, so perhaps you can use some of this time to allow God to minister to you, to receive for yourself some of those words of affirmation, for you are loved, the world is loved, and perhaps we need to remember that in order to share love we need to receive love, we love because he loved us first- 1 John: 4. It is from that focused and grounded centre that we are sent out. Yes Jesus was driven into the desert, but the text reveals that he was ministered to by angels and the wildness of creation, may the wild Spirit minister to us in these days. I leave you with a poem for the desert:
Show me myself,
reveal to me my deepest desires,
strip away my defences,
lead me within,
through my own eternal,
to connect with the
source of my truest life,
no longer distracted
by the lies of comfort,
the demands that clamour…
show me that I am loved,
and grant me the power to look
love in the face,
and see at last,
mirrored in my face,
a glimpse of your glory
You are loved, you are precious to God, you are beloved, fearfully and wonderfully made, and with you the whole of creation of which you are a part is filled with holy possibilities. As for the virus, this too shall pass, the question for us is how we will emerge. Will we like Jesus emerge from this time of testing in the power of the Spirit, in some senses the choice is ours, will we trust ourselves, in all of our griefs, doubts and frustrations to the one who holds the end from the beginning? The one whose desire is to make all things new.
I apologise for this being a long letter, I wish you many blessings for your Lenten journey, and as always I make the offer, if you would like to talk, don’t hesitate to be in touch.
I hope once again that this letter finds you safe and well, and I wonder what kind of week you have had, as I write the snow is still on the ground here having fallen earlier in the week, and there are some rather spectacular icicles to be seen. I don’t know if you like snow, I love it, well I love it for a while, though I must admit that I am less fond of it as it starts to disappear and gets rather messy. I find fresh snowfall magical though, waking to a world transformed and sparkling white is rather breathtaking! Snow lined branches give a whole new quality to winter trees.
We will of course see transformation in a different way over the next month or so as winter turns to spring, new leaves begin to bud and bulbs push through the earth and begin to flower. Transformation is often a theme that we find in Scripture, maybe particularly in the Gospels as people encounter the person of Jesus and their lives are transformed, for some it is an encounter with a love that accepts them as they are, for others healing, the blind see, the lame walk, the dead are raised (think of Jairus daughter, the man from Nain, or Lazarus) and the grief of their families is transformed into great rejoicing! To be transformed is a powerful thing, it might mean a change of attitude towards a particular issue, or even a new way of seeing yourself that enables you to live differently, to flourish.
Transformation is powerful, it is about change, and often complete change. It is a word sometimes used about this weeks Gospel reading, but I believe that we would be wrong to use that word, this week, as we move towards the season of Lent, we are invited, along with Peter, James and John to see Jesus differently, as he is transfigured, not transformed, before them. Jesus has been travelling with the disciples, his mind is now upon the journey to Jerusalem, today’s passage follows the feeding of the 4,000, the healing of a blind man in Bethsaida, and Peter’s declaration the Jesus is The Christ, the long hoped for Messiah, followed quite quickly by his attempt to stop Jesus speaking of his coming suffering and death. Let’s face it, all of this was a lot for the disciples to take in, and I am sure that Peter voiced what others were thinking! It was with all of this in the background then that sets the scene for what now follows:
2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one[b] on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings,[c] one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved;[d] listen to him!’ 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean. ( Mark 9: 2-9)
I wonder what you would have made of this experience, Peter is first to speak as usual, trying to capture and contain what he sees, declaring it “good to be here”, and yet at the same time babbling away because he was terrified, and probably rightly so, the Jesus they shared their day to day life with, was not only a miracle working healer, a wise teacher, but now suddenly glowing with all divine possibilities, perhaps for the first time they were seeing who he truly was, the veil of humanity had been lifted away and the divine shone through, and yet in human form. All the possibilities of God in flesh were revealed on the mountain side, and if that weren’t enough he was joined by Moses and Elijah, it is interesting that the disciples did not need to ask who they were!
How do you respond to this reading, to this story of transfiguration, this unveiling, this revealing encounter, and when might we experience such awe-filled wonder? Maybe it is in a glimpse of glory in nature, maybe in the sudden epiphany/ penny dropping moment as a scripture we have long grappled with becomes clear in a new way, maybe through music or art, or an encounter with another, the veil is drawn back and what is, is seen! I like to think that the whole world is charged with divine energy and potential, on that day the disciples simply saw what was, Jesus, in human form transfigured, revealing his true nature.
What then does this mean for us? We could look back to Moses encounter with God on a different mountainside, where he needed to cover his face with a veil so as not to dazzle the Israelites (Exodus 34), or maybe we could look forward to the vision of the new heaven and new earth (Revelation 21), or maybe we could begin to look for divine potential and possibilities present and active within and around us. I like one of the mission statements of the Northumbria Community, who state that they look for where God is at work and go to join in, that may require us to adopt an active awareness, an openness to finding God at work in the unlikely and the unusual. So I wonder, where have you encountered the divine at work, either within you, in your community or in the world? I had the joy of hearing a young couple’s delight on seeing their baby on an early scan this week, the amazingness of new life, the wonder of tiny fingers, and the potential held in all of that full of fragile possibility. As I write I am watching the sunrise, and am pondering how many centuries the sun has risen, and how many wonders, and horrors have been blessed by a new day, the words of Mother Julian of Norwich come to mind again, “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.” As you ponder that I offer you the words of a hymn:
Jesus calls us here to meet him
as, through word and song and prayer,
we affirm God’s promised presence
where his people live and care.
Praise the God who keeps his promise;
praise the Son who calls us friends;
praise the Spirit who, among us,
to our hopes and fears attends.
Jesus calls us to confess him
Word of life and Lord of all,
sharer of our flesh and frailness,
serving all who fail or fall.
Tell his holy human story;
tell his tales that all may hear;
tell the world the Christ in glory
came to earth to meet us here.
Jesus calls us to each other,
vastly different though we are;
creed and colour, class and gender
neither limit nor debar.
Join the hand of friend and stranger;
join the hands of age and youth;
join the faithful and the doubter
in their common search for truth.
Jesus calls us to his table
rooted firm in time and space,
where the Church in earth and heaven
finds a common meeting place.
Share the bread and wine, his body;
share the love of which we sing;
share the feast for saints and sinners
hosted by our Lord and King
Words John L Bell (b 1949) & Graham Maule (b1958) ; music Lewis Folk Melody
Jesus calls us here to meet him. If you were on the mountainside with Peter, James and John today how might you respond to the words of the voice from the cloud “This is my beloved Son, listen to him?
With that I pray that you will find many blessings as you go into this week, that you will encounter the presence and activity of God in your life and in the world around you. As always, if you would like to talk, need a chat please call me. You remain in my prayers.