Return to wonder.. a psalm of longing

I want to return to wonder

beyond the cynicism that envelopes me,

every year at this time….

the pressure,

the commercialism,

the expectations

they are all back,

adverts abound filled with the things we (don’t) need.

Once again perfection and presentation are demanded….

but…

I want to return to wonder

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I want to return to wonder,

to move beyond the cynicism that envelopes me,

I want to find solace

in the story of ultimate vulnerability,

God become flesh, and not just flesh,

vulnerable flesh,

dependant flesh…

new life given,

eternity encased in flesh…

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I want to return to wonder,

to breathe in and believe in the miracle afresh,

a light shines in the darkness,

and the darkness will not,

cannot overcome it…..

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I want to return to wonder,

for right now I find myself in the dark,

I need that gentle, vulnerable light

to be kindled in my heart again…

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I want to return to wonder….

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The power of words- pondering thank you…

Some of my blog readers will know that I am a great fan of the Enneagram, it helps me to understand myself, and leads to some understanding of others too. Having done much study, I would recommend study over taking tests, I have come to the conclusion that I am definitely a type 9, I have wondered if that might not be so, and looked at other types, al of which lead me back to knowing that I am a type 9, as type 9’s can be a bit like a chameleon!

So, why am I telling you this today? Well because we type 9’s often have difficulty accessing our feelings, particularly our anger, and will do all that we can to smooth things over, to be positive and we are actually quite good at seeing another viewpoint, the problem comes in making sure that we don’t assimilate it as our own! If we do, assimilate another’s viewpoint we may often simply go along with that, but sometimes we come to ourselves, really wake up, and then speak up! If we speak up from a healthy place all well and good, if not it can be a bit overpowering.

Recently I have spoken up, and had the sense to ask some wise friends for their thoughts before doing so! Today I am gathering my creativity to use poetry to express how I am at the moment in order to share a response. This then is my conversation with the institution. Please don’t read it as a conversation with the divine, my trust in God is quite simply that at the moment she is carrying me gently, and taking time to wipe away my tears!

Thank you- a conversation with the institution

We said thank you, as we brushed you aside,

criticisms piled high, and you know it is not personal…

We did say thank you…

We hope you heard that….

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Thank you… well actually you said, we give thanks,

but yes, it’s the same thing,

Please hear from me though, how hollow those words sound

when presented against a bleak, and damming background…

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But, we did say thank you,

and, we do value you….

So, how will you use your gifts

to serve us now?

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(I sigh)

Are you really asking me that?

Now at this moment?

Right now I bear too many wounds,

wounds from your words…

so, thank you, for thanking me,

right now I need some time to heal…

I claim a Holy Saturday.

Pieta by El-Greco

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Preparing a way- pondering advent 2

I am preparing my advent 2 service for Sunday, and am struck by the themes of preparation in the readings, these are not the preparations of gift lists, of planning menus, of decorating, and then as often in my case redecorating the tree. There are no trimmings in our readings, and certainly no carol sheets, candles and window decorations.

I set up my nativity set this morning, posted a photo on Facebook , beginning my often used Christmas myth buster that there is no donkey mentioned in the gospel narratives, nor as a friend added is there any mention of a stable, and while there are plenty of angels around they appear beginning their messages with the phrase do not be afraid, so they certainly aren’t tinsel bedecked and sweet!

This weeks readings are about preparing a way, making smooth paths, clearing boulders, levelling mountains and filling valleys so that a rough way might be made passable. They are also about preparation of hearts and minds of the people who will walk these paths, words like repentance and refining, purifying and cleansing rub shoulders, with the potential for making us shudder. Do I need to repent, do I need refining, do I need cleansing and purifying? The answer to all of those is probably a resounding yes! Yes I do, and of course advent gives me a chance to step into a space where I can look to my soul, but first of course I will need to make space in amongst the lists and activities that can so easily clog December in order to do so.

I reflect too that the readings speak not only to individuals but also to communities:

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years. Malachi 3: 2-4

And not only to the elite, it seems that God chooses to work on the margins, or from the margins:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah… Luke 3: 1-3

So what do these readings say to the church today, and how do these readings inform and help us to share the gospel message? Maybe they offer us real reflection space, to consider our direction of travel honestly and soberly, as the world plunges in and out of the global pandemic many of us are left asking questions regarding lifestyle and former ways of being, the highlighting of the global disparity in vaccine availability has been a real challenge to justice and fairness. We have also been looking to issues of climate change and sustainability, the Black Lives Matter movement highlighting issues of racism, and the Methodist Churches vote on the God In Love Unites Us resolutions have caused us to think about the fullness of human flourishing in regard to sexuality and inclusion. Inclusion may well be the key word here!

To include the excluded we need to create a clear way for vaccines to be offered to all! To include the excluded we need to consider how consumption fuelled by consumerism is accelerating global warming, did you know that one of the most polluted places on the planet is the middle of the English Channel, the cause? Container ships! Check it out if you think that may be untrue!

To include the excluded means to value all life as equal, regardless of gender, colour, sexuality and ability, all should be given space and a place to thrive, to live safely, and not to be wondering where the next meal may be coming from, or whether your home will be under water next year!

John the Baptist called people to repentance and to the cleansing ritual of Baptism, which while symbolic was an outward sign of an inner decision to change, to live differently, thus becoming different. I have been in so many meetings where we have talked about getting back to normal, and fewer meetings where we have pondered what the new normal might be, even fewer are looking to real change, refusing to settle or to look to settle somewhere a little further along the road, but articulate a call to be roadbuilders, and way makers, moving the boulders, dealing with the specks in our eyes that we might see clearly. This is hard work, but a work that we must do individually and together…

I wonder what we might start with today? Do you hear the call in the wilderness?

‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
   and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
   and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
  Luke 3: 4-6

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On certainty and being in control…

Following my blog post yesterday a friend sent me a lovely message, it said this:

Sally, reading your eternal footsteps post, I get the picture of you emerging from a chrysalis as a butterfly!!!!
You have retired from life as a caterpillar and are undergoing a complete reshuffle within the cloistered wall of a cocoon. Bet the caterpillar feels disoriented and asking what’s going on! God will use all the bits that make up you and put you all back together in a different shape and far more splendid to enjoy the freedom of his garden! Excuse my fancifulness but the picture was so bright I just had to share it
!

I can certainly identify with the soupiness of being recreated, the messy process of transformation from caterpillar to butterfly can be seen via time-lapse in many YouTube videos like this one, and is a well documented and often used illustration. It is a slow process in many ways, and the caterpillar is completely unmade, or undone before becoming something new, and yet it remains the same while being completely different. As I pause to reflect over the last three years, years that have brought so much change to my life I know that I have been undone in many ways, and have even participated in my undoing! It wasn’t long ago that I wrote a blog-post on Coming out at 57, in support of Philip Schofield, but also telling a part of my story, revealing a part of what had been hidden before is to make yourself vulnerable, even if it sets you free in many ways!

Along with the Covid-19 pandemic the years from late 2019- to the current day have brought many other changes, celebrations of family weddings and new-born babies have sat alongside lockdowns and isolation, I struggled with being alone so much, not helped at all by two bouts of an illness that put me in hospital as well as other lesser infections. Hopefully with a new diet the infections are now under control as I still wait for an operation, and in the meantime I can get back to doing some work, today’s meeting certainly indicated that.

Most of all though I am left with the knowledge that I hate being out of control of my own life and that these last two years particularly have brought with them quite a lot of that, my own body rebelled against me, and my usual stress relief of walking in the hills was at times restricted by lockdown and by my own health. My working life has changed in my absence, and that is a tough thing to deal with, even though I can laugh at myself because if I had made the decision I would have been happy with it. That teaches me something about me!

Earlier this year I reflected upon the Methodist Covenant prayer, which contains the words, “let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you”, pondering my struggle with being laid aside, even temporarily. I wonder to myself if I want to be busy and to be seen, I want to show up and do stuff, and I have to ask myself if there is actually any humility in that, perhaps that question needs to play a large part in my recreation, perhaps it too will set me free! Maybe life has just held up a mirror for me to look into, and asked me “what’s so great about being in control anyway?”, especially when you go around talking about being centred in Christ, and giving your life to the divine…. you just can’t have both!

For someone who wants to be a free spirit I am aware that I want to be in charge of my own decisions, but I am also becoming more aware that I must give myself to the soupy- messiness of this time and allow it to do its work. I come back to the raw grief of Holy Saturday as a helpful focus, and also to the newly pregnant Mary, remembering my favourite quote from Barbara Brown Taylor from her book Learning to Walk in the Dark; “…..new life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.” Darkness brings with it mystery, uncertainty and a sense of unknowing, or being out of control, uncertain. It also brings many gifts, rest and restoration, a place and space for questioning, as Taylor-Bradford says: “I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.”

Maybe I can say that I have needed this period of uncertainty with it’s reminder that there is a divine presence, a holy creator holding all things, even me, one who in Jesus showed us what it was to be somehow utterly dependent and utterly independent at the same time, standing up for what was right, showing a new way to live, challenging the “powers that be” yet completely reliant upon God, the one who understands our struggles and meets us in the midst of them time and again. Today another Psalm speaks to me, Psalm 139:

Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;

    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
    if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
    your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
    and the light become night around me,”
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
    the night will shine like the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

Darkness may surround me, uncertainty and lack of control might be where I am at the moment, but I am not alone. My friend on the mother hand is more certain than me, I mused about what colour the newly emerged butterfly might be, her response made me smile; All the colours of the rainbow I’ve no doubt!

Bring it on!

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Disorientation….

Sunday morning, and once again I am wondering what to do with myself, I have listened to the service on Radio 4, a Harvest Service, listened to the news, prayed, read the daily devotions from my Northumbria Community Daily Prayer book…. I could go to worship, but am not sure where to go for various and complex reasons. I find myself in a state of disorientation.

As I write this I am reflecting that the last time I led face to face, in person worship was March 2020, the combination of the pandemic, and my own illness have meant that I have had a prolonged absence from any form of meetings, work related or otherwise. I have seen my family from time to time, but usual visits to friends in Norfolk and other outings have all been put on hold as I have waited for an operation, and operation that has been cancelled 3 times, and I now join the waiting group of approximately 5 million people! My life and health have undergone huge changes, and am disorientated.

In the last few weeks I have moved house, setting up a new manse, a place to live and to work from, but I am not yet working. Tomorrow I speak to a doctor for an Occupational Health Interview, and will be assessing with him what a phased return to work might look like for me over the next few weeks and months, but I will not be returning to what I left, and that is disorientating!

I have to reflect that I don’t do disorientation well, I have spun in all directions, been cross with life, with other people and with myself, sometimes all of those things at once, this might be because of prolonged periods with only myself for company, and I am my own worst critic, I also tend to invent scenarios in my head. I have struggled with depression, which has meant that getting out to walk, which usually helps, has been an immense struggle, even forcing myself into the garden has been hard. The world inside my head has been, and continues to be disorientating.

Sunday morning, and pondering the news and the theme of harvest, shortages of petrol high energy prices and empty supermarket shelves seem to be a theme, alongside that climate change and the need for action is high on the agenda as it should be. It feels like the world, or certainly the UK, is a strange place particularly with the Governments peculiar agenda seeming once again to be to save Christmas, placating the masses as if that is all that is needed! I suspect I am not alone in feeling disorientated.

In short, I am a bit lost, and am asking myself who I am and what shape my life needs to be… A bit of me wants to rush in and gather up as much normality as I can, while another wiser part is content to allow new and potentially creative things to emerge, which means allowing the disorientation to go on for a bit longer, something I am not comfortable with.

Of course the Scriptures are littered with people going through times of disorientation, through exodus and exile, loss, famine and radical reinventing of lives, on a personal and even national and institutional level. Psalms of lament offer radical expressions of loss and anguish as the psalmists pour out their hearts to God in an attempt to re-orientate themselves often only landing on the deep connection they find at rock bottom, God is good!

While praying yesterday I kept coming back to the words “I know the plans I have for you”, with a deep sense that striving and pushing and trying to scrabble my way to a semblance of normality is not going to be helpful at this time. I am disorientated, and right now there is nothing I can do but accept that, that is how life is right now. There will be a way forward, I just can’t see it, all will be well, I just can’t feel it. My struggle for certainty and a firm place to stand isn’t helping me when the place I am looking for has gone. So I will say with the psalmist;

Wait….. for God, Wait with hope.. Hope now, hope always (Ps 131- The Message.

Autumnal path- image mine
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New beginnings?

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.

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How long Oh Lord? – a bit of pondering!

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.

Longshaw Estate- photo mine
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On being laid aside….

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)

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Pastoral letter; Outrageous extravagance. Palm/ Passion Sunday

Dear Friends,

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:

A picture containing colorful, thread

Description automatically generatedCostly extravagance

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

unfettered 

unbounded abundance,

costly extravagance,

this is

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.

Reverend Sally Coleman

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Signs, and roadmaps- Pastoral letter 19-03-21

Dear Friends,

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

heart too?

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

this week,

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

and thorns,

beaten and bloodied he gives

his all for you?,

His invitation

is given;

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.

      Reverend Sally Coleman 

The bottom of Jacobs Ladder at Kinder Scout

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