Thursday, 9 April 2020

Holy week in a time of lockdown

This is what I have just written for our Synod newsheet:

It is Holy Week. I’m reminding myself that, because at the moment it’s hard to keep track of what day it is, let alone what week it is. Holy Week without waving palm crosses in church, without a version of the ‘last supper’ with friends around the table, without hoping for warmer weather for the Good Friday walk of witness, without the anticipation of the joyful service on Easter Day as we tell each other “he is risen”.
Instead, a week of minimal outside contact and trying to find ways to support other people so that isolation does not tip over into loneliness or even desperation. What kind of Holy Week is that? 
I think it must have been on the radio that I heard someone mention the increasing isolation of Jesus in Holy Week. It’s worth thinking about as we reflect on the familiar story:
The disciples falling asleep in the garden of gethsemane, as Jesus prayed alone.
The betrayal by Judas Iscariot – one of the twelve, one of his closest friends.
The denial by Peter – three times.
The desertion of all the disciples – as they run away from Jesus’ trial,
The crowd shouting for the release of Barabbas, and the crucifixion of Jesus.
The mocking of the soldiers.
The jeering of the crowd.
The physical agony of being lifted on the cross.
And then the silence of death and the darkness of the tomb.

We may all be more used to a Holy Week that is busy and filled with activity and services, but for Jesus, this week was one of loneliness, pain and bitterness. 
God being made flesh in Jesus Christ means that our God has experienced, from the inside, what this life feels like. Even this time of enforced isolation is something that God, in Jesus, knows and understands.

So this Holy Week, can we allow ourselves to imagine Jesus with us, in our homes, at our side, knowing our pain and frustration?
Can we allow our hearts to still leap with joy on Easter Day as we hear the voice of the risen Jesus, saying “peace be with you”?
Can we believe that the love of God is stronger than our isolation, our confusion, even stronger than death?
Then we can we pray, as never before, the words “May the grace of our lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all, evermore. Amen.”

Thursday, 2 April 2020

Week 3 thoughts

When my daughter, Ellie, was at the stage of life to be contemplating university courses and a possible “life path”, she was studying biology, chemistry and maths. Not surprisingly, some of her teachers wondered whether she might consider a career in medicine. Very wisely she said to me “It’s not for me, mum, I know I couldn’t save everyone, and I wouldn’t be able to cope with that”. Our current NHS staff are certainly facing the truth that they cannot save everyone who contracts the Covid 19 virus. My heart goes out to those who run the risk of ending the day either feeling useless and sick-at-heart, or else physically sick -  contracting the virus themselves.

Those of us who are not in the health service still have to face a sense of uselessness. The father who cannot calm the fears of their frightened child; the teacher who is furloughed or self-isolating; the minister who cannot visit a bereaved family, or conduct a normal funeral.
We feel useless, adrift, and lost. We cannot do what we would usually do.

But many years ago now a teacher first told me “we are not human doings, we are human beings”. I have just googled the phrase and found it attributed to everyone from Rob Bell, through Rick Warren to the Dalai Lama. I suppose like all good quotes it resonates.
We often ask ‘what can I do?’ and when we reach a point in life when the answer to that is ‘nothing’, we are left with a sense of uselessness. But the question ‘what can I be?’ can still be answered. The right answer depends on the situation we are in, of course.
What can I be.. when everyone is angry and critical? Loving
  when people around me are overwhelmed? Joyful
  when there is competition for resources? Peaceful
  when tempers are frayed in ‘lockdown’? Patient
  when it feels like it’s every person for themselves? Kind
  when everyone is struggling to survive? Generous 
  when hard questions are asked about where God is in this? Faithful
  when the life we can live feels harsh? Gentle
  when we are at our wit’s end? Self-controlled.

You don’t have to be eagle-eyed to spot the fruits of the Spirit there – a reminder that we are called to be conduits of God’s loving Spirit.
But the Spirit doesn’t come to enable us to sit around being. The Spirit comes as a gift of love to help us to be God’s holy people with all our hearts, minds, souls and strength – in what we do as well as who we are. 

We cannot, in the end, separate doing and being. And so some of us are left feeling useless, whilst others fill our days with activity because we fear the feeling of inactivity. Maybe we just need to stop more and .. breathe.

So I'm going to try to remember that the Spirit is often described as breath – giving peace, energy, hope.

Thursday, 26 March 2020

One week on.

Have not had nearly as much time as I expected to write on this blog. Perhaps that will change in the next weeks, as so much is changing , so quickly .

Here is what I've just written for our Synod Newsletter:

"“The church is closed” -  “the building is closed”. We are the church.

The speed with which things have changed in the last week has been dizzying. We are now far more restricted than we ever thought possible and of course our church buildings are closed. We may be feeling isolated, confused, uncertain. But now more than ever we need to dig deep in our faith and ask how, as Christians, we can face the future with hope.

We are still able to follow Jesus
It is hard to come to terms with the loss of the ability to gather together in church, but Jesus said ‘follow me” not “go to church”.
I am trying to use some of this strange time to read, pray and reflect more and be more deeply aware of God’s presence in my home.. since I cannot go to church.

Even from our homes, we can deepen our discipleship by asking how we can follow Jesus more faithfully. For those with access to the Walking the Way pages of the URC website, the ‘Resource map” has lots of ideas and suggestions as to how to walk our personal walk with Jesus.
We can read a book of the Bible chapter by chapter, pray the Lord’s Prayer slowly and thoughtfully, read the words of hymns (or even sing them)…

We are still able to be connected
There are many online opportunities for prayer and worship springing up. Just some of them can be found listed on the URC website

Yet the oldest way to be connected to each other and to God is through the Holy Spirit and in our prayer. I am saying a simple evening prayer at 7pm every day – lighting a candle, reading the Bible (I am working my way through St John’s gospel), praying for those whose needs I know, and asking for God’s strength.
Many people are using the URC’s daily devotion
and there is now a Sunday service, too.

The synod office staff are all now working remotely, but can be contacted by email. If you contact me  I am happy to get back to you to talk on the phone, or arrange a skype call in you would rather me as “face to face” as we can be for the moment.

We are still held in God’s arms.
Yes, these times are unprecedented, unimaginable, and strange. It is understandable that we are all experiencing waves of fear and even dismay in all this uncertainty.

I have continued thinking about the experience of the people of God during the Exodus. Their 40 years in the wilderness began with God leading them out of slavery through the Red Sea. Their wanderings ended when God brought them across the Jordan to the promised Land. Yet as they wandered in uncharted territory the people forgot or even doubted and grumbled about God’s care, and had to be reminded time and again that God had not abandoned or forgotten them, but that God’s love would always remain and would see them through their trials and tribulations in safety.
Deuteronomy 33:27 states “The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms”. May we all know this eternal truth in the weeks to come. God be with you.

Your sister in Christ,

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Covid19 virus

Life is suddenly very different. Yesterday we asked all Synod Office staff to work remotely and I sent out a letter to all local churches in the SW Synod recommending the closure of church buildings for hirings, to protect the public, and that church communities should think hard about whether to gather for worship. Most are now closing their doors. We don't know for how long and we don't really know what church life will look like when this is over.
Instead of posting sermons here (which Ive been really bad at lately anyway!) I have decided to post some thoughts about theology and church as the situation in the UK changes and evolves.
I begin by posting the close of my letter to churches in the South Western Synod:

"Being a church is about more than just gathering for Sunday worship.
We can continue to pray together: you might like to join me in prayer each evening at 19.00 to pray for all those affected by Corvid 19; there will be news of ‘streamed’ service coming from the central URC very soon; the Daily Devotions from the URC are valued by many; and we all have our Bibles at home to read, reflect and pray.
Local churches will also be an important source of support for one another – please think about how the most vulnerable can be supported, emotionally and practically.
We can face uncertainty with faith. The people of God in the Hebrew Scriptures found their existence as God’s own people tested but ultimately reinforced by their time in the wilderness. God’s love and care is as sure for us as it was for them – we may not see the “fire and cloudy pillar” but we sing of it (in the hymn “Guide me oh thou great Redeemer”). Jesus has promised “I will be with you always” and although we may have to celebrate Easter in our homes, the truth of the resurrection of Jesus from death is undiminished by whatever we may live through. I offer this prayer for the days to come -

May God the Father hold you safe in arms of love
May Christ the risen Lord shine in your homes
And may the Holy Spirit be with you as comforter and strength. Amen.

Yours in Christ,


Friday, 13 December 2019

Advent 3 - God is at work.

Matthew 11: 2-11, James 5: 7-10

How great it is to stand on the brink of a great new chapter for our world. A new start, a new government, a time of peace and prosperity and goodness for all people.
Not a reference to Thursday’s General Election result – but a reflection of what our Bible readings have to say about the kingdom of God.
However we feel about the new government, we can all agree that through the human decisions that are made at Westminster we want to see a country – even a world – where God’s will is done, where the values of the kingdom are honoured, where God is in charge, for the good of all God’s children.
But how do we know what God’s kingdom looks like, and how do we become part of it?

The passage we heard from Matthew comes from a time right at the start of Jesus’ ministry, when John the Baptist, who has been put into prison, is wondering about God’s kingdom .

Specifically, John asks whether Jesus is here to bring in God’s kingdom. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

The answer Jesus gives -  to John, through his messengers, and to the crowd around is all about looking.

1.   What do you see?
“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

The first thing to do if we want God in charge of our world is to look around for those places and those people in whom God’s good work is being done. Where lives are better, fuller, healed – God is there. And did you notice that the blind will see – one sign of the kingdom is that more & more people will see it as it grows and as people flourish.

I’m not suggesting we ignore the difficult things in our world – but I am suggesting that we should be the first to notice the good things, and be ready to point out to others that God is at work to bring healing, hope and joy.
I love Isaac Watts’ hymn with which we will end our worship today ‘Joy to the world’ – especially the verse ‘No more let thorns infest the ground or sin and sorrow grow’. The kingdom is like a garden: we need to look and root out the weeds, but we also need to look for the fresh growth of good plants and encourage them.

2.   What did you expect?
Back in Matthew’s gospel - Jesus then turns his attention to the crowds around him
 “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, and more than a prophet..”.

Recognising signs of God’s kingdom involves recognising our expectations of the kingdom. The people of Jesus’ day went out to listen to John the Baptist because they recognised that, like an Old Testament prophet, what he was saying was a message from God. That message wasn’t an easy message, nor did it come from a place of privilege or earthly power, but it came with the conviction that God was with his people, out there in the desert.

What do we expect to see when we look for signs of God’s kingdom? Surely something of God’s peace, justice, joy, healing. But where should we look? Not just in any royal palace, nor even in the palace of Westminster, but anywhere where God’s promises are fulfilled.

In my Christmas letter to ministers of the synod, I mentioned some unexpected Good News, delivered this December by a group of artists.
The four artists nominated for the 2019 Turner Prize will share this year's award after urging the judges not to choose any of them as a single winner.
Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Helen Cammock, Tai Shani and Oscar Murillo got together to write to the prestigious prize's panel. They said they wanted to make a "collective statement" at a time when there was "already so much that divides and isolates people and communities".
The BBC, reporting this, have suggested that ‘Maybe annual awards … are reaching their sell-by date: an anachronism from a bygone binary age of winners and losers.’
Maybe for us, as we look for the Good News of the kingdom, we will find that with the birth of Jesus Christ, God with us, God has also declared an end to the bygone binary age of losers and winners.
The figures collected around our Christmas crib show us the endless reach of God’s inclusive grace – the young and powerless are there, with the old and faithful; foreigners and outcasts; high-born and lowly; the desperate and the seeking ones; even the beasts of the fields and those who tend them. All are drawn together by angels, star and circumstance, and at the very centre, God made flesh. The kingdom of God is here.
Sometimes we see signs of God’s kingdom where we least expect them.

3.   See – I am sending my messenger
Jesus says of John the Baptist:
“This is the one about whom it is written,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’
Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

Jesus tells the crowd around him to keep looking, keep watching, keep waiting for the ever-unfolding signs of God’s kingdom.

If the main message of Jesus is to look and see – then the letter from James mainly tells us to be patient (no less than 4 times in that short section).
However pleased some of us may be by the make up of our new government, we know this is not yet the kingdom of God fully come on earth.
But be patient, people of God, and know that God’s purposes will unfold -  that God will one day bring total peace, security, wholeness, and joy to his creation.

And in the meantime, prepare to celebrate the coming of Jesus, once and for all, as the child of Bethlehem.
So sing with the angels ‘The Lord is come! Alleluia’.