“REFLECTION FOR LENT” 1

Having now got into the first full week of Lent, the Church’s Lenten courses will be in full swing.  I intend to join an ecumenical group in one of our local churches.  The course, led by an Anglican Priest, is to be centred around the 17th Chapter of John’s Gospel.  This chapter is part of the high priestly prayer of Jesus immediately before his crucifixion.  It opens with Jesus praying to his Father about their relationship and then for the unity of the disciples and all future followers.  His death is imminent and the words of this prayer reflect the urgency of the hour.  He asks that God’s presence through Him will remain with his disciples and followers.  Later in the chapter he also prays that his followers then and for all time will know the presence of the Spirit . 

Reading this chapter my mind goes to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians  “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.  For in the one spirit we were all baptized into one body”.  The Body of Christ is a living organism through which God mediates his will and purposes in every age.

 As a Lenten reflection I want to share some thoughts based on the question “How well is the body of Christ that we are called to tend?”.    Lent is a good time for us to look at the health of our churches and  reflect on the ‘dis-ease’ that grips us. In our local area we are in the process of  joining two adjacent Methodist circuits together. This is a necessary step that must be taken because of the situation that we find ourselves in.  While this will be a cause of anguish to many of our folk, we need to remind ourselves that such  situations are not unique to us.  Throughout all  the main line denominations there has been from the 1960’s onwards a gradual decline which is now accelerating at an alarming pace. What is of paramount importance is the need to grasp this moment and to listen to what God is saying to us, through it 

DOES YOUR CHURCH NEED A DOCTOR”

       

When you are unwell you have first got to decide to go to the Doctor.  You know how it is.  You have a little niggle somewhere and you say “It will have gone by tomorrow”. But it hasn’t.  When you wake up the next day and the day after that it is still there.  You try to put if off but when at last you make an appointment with the doctor you know that perhaps you ought to have gone before.  The Doctor examines you and you wonder why he took so long.  You know when you look at his face.  Oh Dear!.   That is also true for us in the church.  We have all heard folk say,’ “O it’s just a dip”, “We need to pray a bit harder”.  And then there is the sigh of resignation,” We can’t do anything about it.

It may be that at least ten years ago we needed to take a” root and branch” in-depth look at where we were and where we were going.  The longer the delay the fewer the options that are left on the table.

OK, OK, we good mainline folk are now saying, “We are convinced, we are repentant and so on and so forth, but what exactly can we do”?  Our inability to imagine new possibilities is one of the reasons that we are where we are today.

Our God is in the resurrection business.  Truly God has given us many possibilities.  New ones will be discovered as we dig up the talents that we have buried and learn to use them in response to the Spirit’s direction.

I was regretting the past
And fearing the future.
Suddenly my Lord was speaking:
“My name is I AM”
 
He paused.
I waited.  He continued,
“when you live in the past
with its mistakes and regrets,
It is hard.  I am not there.
My name is not I WAS.
 
When you live in the future,
With its problems and fears,
It is hard.  I am not there.
My name is not I WILL BE
 
When you live in this moment
It is not hard.  I am here,
My name is I AM.
 
(To be continued)
 
John R
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“SATURDAY NIGHT AT EIGHT”

This coming week we have in our group of churches a meeting of preachers.  This is a quarterly meeting for everyone engaged in planning and conducting worship.  As well as the regular agenda business we devote some time to discussing and sharing among ourselves thoughts on a specific subject.  The one chosen for this particular meeting is, “The Use of Silence in Worship”.  This may be very appropriate in this season of Lent.  Wildernesses are places for quiet reflection far away from the noise and clamour of our ordinary every day life.  Also as we engage in our journey with Jesus to his Passion, there will be as we walk together long moments of silence in our conversations, that will say as much as our ‘talk-times’.

The late and much-loved Methodist Minister, Rev. Dr. Leslie Wetherhead wrote a book that bears the title “The Significance of Silence” (Epworth Press 1945).  In the opening chapter, that gives the book its title, he tells of an hour of silence that was for ever etched in his memory.  He wrote, “I was staying at Jordans, in Buckinghamshire, that lovely Quaker settlement.  It was always like Sunday afternoon at Jordans…….  One September morning I got up at a quarter to seven, walked through the kitchen garden, up through the orchard and through a gate into a meadow.  But not only into a meadow but also into a great silence.”  Then he says “I met God”.  Another experience he relates is of an occasion when he had been preaching in Lincoln.  After the meeting he was taken by his host for the night to an isolated farm-house.  After supper he was shown to his bedroom.  When he was alone he knelt at the open window.  The only sound he could hear was that of a very distant train being shunted.  “Chug, Chug, chug….., then a lot of quick chugs together.  He goes on to say, that the sound made by that distant train, interpreted the silence that lay all around. 

“O Sabbath rest by Galilee
O calm of hills above.
When Jesus knelt to share with thee
The silence of eternity,
Interpreted by love”.
 

A dictionary definition of silence is  “A complete absence of sound”.  If anyone thinks I am going down the path where that leads, they have another think coming. 

 My silences have a bit of colour and body about them. 

I have pregnant silences – full of meaning fraught with possibilities, though often they are stillborn.  Sometimes my silences are coloured golden for the times when it is better to say nothing – Rare!!!

There are times of awesome silence, such as described by Kenneth Graham in “The Wind in the Willows”.  There is the moment when Mole and Rat are on an island at dawn, when they feel the August Presence around them. 

Most dramatic of all is ‘Sheer Silence’, such as Elijah found on a mountain and the moment at Christ’s crucifixion, when according to Mark, “When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon”.

“Vulnerable silence”

The music finishes.
It is the quiet of night
Broken by the ticking of a clock,
The hiss of rain,
The growling of a distant car.
The silence of this interval
Is not for doing,
Not for resting
But to wonder in;
A vulnerable silence
Given back to us.

(W. S. Beattie, Liturgy of Life, NCEC 1991)

A thought that will not, I think, feature in our preacherly discussions next week, is that silence is necessary to break things up and give them meaning.

What do you make of this sentence:  “justasiamwithoutonepleabutthatthybloodwasshedforme”  –Gibberish!! What is missing are capital letters, punctuation marks and spaces.  If we put what I will call ‘silences‘ in it  immediately makes sense.Just as I am without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me.”

In music there are things called ‘Rests’, which are as vital as any note that is played.  These “Silences” interpret what has gone before and what will follow.  Interestingly, there is a composition by avant-garde composer John Cage, which contains just over four and a half minutes of silence.  It has four movements, the length of which are not fixed by the composer and during which not a note is played.  You are supposed to perceive the sounds of the environment around you as it is being ‘played’.

That thought takes me back to the hymn verse I quoted earlier. 

“The silence of eternity
Interpreted by Love.”

Just what we shall say about the use of silence in worship at our discussions next week, I don’t know.  Perhaps it will be best if I remain SILENT.

John R.

“LOOKING TO SUNDAY” Lent 1B

Lectionary Readings:

Genesis 9: 8 – 17
Psalm 25: 1 – 10
1Peter 3:  18 – 22
Mark 1:  9 – 15

From the beginning of Lent to Trinity Sunday the lectionary texts compliment each other with the Gospel reading being the centre-piece.  While we may focus on a particular text all the others have a contribution to make in a well-rounded act of worship.

Water abounds in the OT reading and at the beginning of the passage from Mark 1, yet it is in the wilderness, a dry and barren place that our Lenten journey begins.  Mark again is less talkative than the other gospel writers, but for me it is the staccato like verses that seem to have an added impact.  For the Epistle reading we have an excursion into 1Peter, (during the weeks of Lent we pop here and there through the different letters in the New Testament like demented chickens!!)  Though this reading is only five verses long it is a very dense passage and the reason for reading it needs a careful introduction.

Genesis 9:

Rainbow World:

The Flood story is conveniently left out, so I will pass on what that was all about.  Everybody likes a story to have a happy ending.  A few chapters back it was all about the world’s greatest tragedy, now we have the promise of all promises.  “Never again” God says, “will I do it again”.  This promise of God is not just contained in a legal covenant document, it is also given in a visible sign – the Rainbow.  It is as if God has hung up ‘his tools of war’.  Like a hunter putting his arrows into their sheath, the Bow of God is to be hung (upside down?) in the sky for an everlasting sign.  Not just a sign for its people but a sign for all creation. Noah, as representative of all people is told by God, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you and with every living creature that is with you…….”  (Gen  8 & 9).  In our technological age this is very much like God hitting the “Reset Button”.  Rainbows are illusive.  You cannot touch them and you have to be in the right place to see them.  In the latitude where I live a morning rainbow is a fairly rare thing.  We might think of God’s rainbow as a “Bridge Over Troubled Waters”.  It extends from God’s covenant with Adam, Noah, Abraham and Moses and on into the NT.  Jesus Christ is the ‘Bridge Builder Extraordinaire, whose promise is “Whosoever believes in me shall not perish but have everlasting life”.

Noah made it safely across his troubled sea.  Perhaps he celebrated a little too much with the strong drink.  He and a zoo full of people and animals saw God’s mercy writ large in the sky on a clear sunny day.

 

Rainbows End?

 God gave us the radiant rainbow
The splendour and spectrum of love,
The message of Covenant mercy,
The olive-leaf borne by the dove.
 
 
We clutch in our terror and trembling
This delicate blue crystal ball;
Now high with the pride of possession;
Now desolate dread of its fall.
 
 
O Lord come again to your People
Forgive us and cleanse us we pray
That purged by the fire of you Spirit
We may waken to see your new day.
 
 
Come show us afresh in our yearning,
The truth of your Cross and your strife,
That Easter is not for our earning,
That love is the lesson of life.
 
(These four verses were written by the Rev. Kenyon E Wright and are quoted in a book by Donald Hilton called ‘Liturgy of Life’.  Now an Episcopalian priest, he was formerly a Methodist missionary in India.  Many years ago I had the privilege to hear him speak in one of our local churches.  During his ministry in Scotland he has been closely engaged in the Devolution Process in that country).
 
Psalm 25:

We need songs to sing while we make our Lenten journey.  Something to keep us going and growing as we take our ‘wilderness walk’.  The theology of this Ps. might seem a bit basic, yet it expresses much of what we often feel.  The Psalmist is hoping God will not forget who he is, while he is trudging through the swamps and waste places.  “To you O Lord, I lift up my soul.  In you my God I put my trust”.  God’s covenant promise is that he will never forget.  It is our amnesia that needs attending to.  Jesus is God’s ultimate sign that he remains true to his Promise.  There are no Route 1 highways in the wilderness.  At best there are only ill-defined paths and tracks.  We will need to keep singing this song about God’s faithfulness and love for us if we are to reach our Easter destination.

 
Mark 1
 
 

When Mark sat down, with pen in hand, to write his story of life of Jesus., he had no other writings to consult. He, with his fellow believers only held an an oral story in their minds. This story, Mark  was convinced had to be written down and he does it in an urgent, almost breathless fashion. One of Mark’s keywords is ‘immediately’. He has no time to record any birth stories or to establish Jesus in any geneology.  This comes over in this Sundays reading. In 7 short verses, Jesus is baptized, driven into the wilderness and begins his ministry in Galilee. Unlike Matthew’s and Luke’s  gospels, we have no full narrative of the temptations of Jesus. All Mark says is, ” He was in the wilderness for 40 days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him”.

 

The wilderness is uncharted territory, a place of exposure. Stripped of all the props with which we usually support ourselves, we have to put into operation basic survival techniques. One cannot ‘Ring a Friend’, call out the ‘Spiritual Rescue Service’ or even consult a theological map. The journey through the wilderness as got to be ‘All Your own Work.

 
Christ of His gentleness
Thirsting and hungering,
Walked in the wilderness;
Soft words of grace He spoke
Unto lost desert-folk
That listened wondering.
 
( Extract from Robert Graves poem, “In The Wilderness”)
 
John R
 
 
 
 

“ASH WEDNESDAY AND INTO LENT”

Ash Wednesday is the start of the 40 weekdays of Lent.(Monday through to Saturday) of the Lenten journey,that takes us to the eve of Easter Saturday. Sundays are not included because they are celebrated throughout the Christian year as ‘Little Easters’.

Ash Wednesday marks the start of a season of reflection and penitence. The reading from Joel for this day sets the tone, “Rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful,slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love”(RSV). Though the scenario is  grim and stark, it also contains the hope that we shall come out at the other end of Lent, a more focused and faithful people because of our experiences.

Lent is more than just  a season for giving things up. The Rev Harry Williams, the radical theologian, wrote in his book, “The True Wilderness, “It is a pity that we think of Lent as a time when we try to make ourselves uncomfortable in some fiddling but irritated way. And it is more than a pity, it’s a tragic disaster, that we also think of it as a time to indulge in the secret and destructive pleasure of doing a good orthodox grovel to a pseudo-Lord, that  Pharisee in each of us we call God and who despises the rest of what we are”. A more positive approach to Lent, is to engage in discovering  those things that are  inside us and around us that need remaking and reshaping. Wilderness experiences strip us bare of the clutter that accumulates in our lives and  opens us up to new God filled opportunities, both for ourselves and for the world.

Robert Herrick’s poem, “To Keep a True Lent” , though of another age, strikes for me the right note.

“Is this a Fast, to keep
The larder lean,
And clean,
From fat of veals, and sheep?

Is it to quit the dish
Of flesh, yet still
To fill
The platter high with fish?

Is it to fast an hour,
Or ragged to go
Or show
A downcast look, and sour?

No; ’tis a fast, to dole
Thy sheaf or wheat,
And meat,
Unto the hungry soul.

It is to fast from strife,
From old debate,
And hate;
To circumcise thy life.

To show a heart grief-rent,
To starve thy sin,
Not bin;
And that’s to keep thy Lent.”

Above all, Lent is a time to slow-down. The very busyness of much of our modern lives allows us  little time for reflection and contemplation. We need to  ‘take time out’ in order to recapture a spiritual perspective and reunite ourselves with the rhythm of God

“The Lord is my Pace Setter – I shall not rush –
He makes me stop  for quiet intervals.
he provides me with images of stillness which restore my serenity.
He leads me in ways of efficiency through calmness of mind
And his guidance is Peace
 
Even though I have a great many things to accomplish each day
I will not fret,
for his presence is here
His kindness now, his all-importance, will keep me in balance.
He prepares refreshment and renewal in the midst of my activities
By anointing my mind with the oils of tranquillity,
my cup of joyous energy overflows.
True harmony and effectiveness shall be the fruits of my hours,
for i shall work in the pace of my Lord
and dwell in his house for ever.

                                                              ( Toki Miyashina.)

PS:  Having today cleaned out our larder, the result was Pancakes for dinner.  All the rich fatness disappears on Shrove Tuesday and the spartan existence begins.  As they were so delicious I am wondering if, with the blessing of the ecclesiastical authorities, we could possibly have a couple more Shrove Tuesdays each year. 

John R

“SATURDAY NIGHT AT EIGHT”

I have got mountains on my mind tonight.  This is not said to moan about all the things that I have to do, but the real thing.  I suppose it has been brought on by tomorrow’s Gospel reading from Mark 9, were we read the  account of Jesus’ transfiguration.  Normally mountains are not much in the conversation in our area, which is as flat as my pancakes will be on Tuesday.  Some comedian in the past gave the name “England’s Hill” to the slight rise and fall in the road just outside of our town, but I think he was overdoing it a bit.  Having prepared a Power Point Presentation for the worship I am leading on Sunday, I choose at random a photograph of a mountain for one of the slides.  When I went through the Presentation with the gentleman who will be doing the projection, he looked closely at this particular slide and said, “I have climbed that”.  Until then I didn’t even know which mountain it was.

It was on May 29th 1953 that Hilary and Tensing reached the summit of Everest.  Many other unsuccessful climbs had been attempted before, often resulting in fatalities.  The succesful climb by Hilary and Tensing was also a close call.  When they got to the top their oxygen supplies were running very low and they could only stay for fifteen minutes on the summit.  The photographs that they took in that brief stay are familiar to most of us. 

A less well-known fact is that Tensing who was a Buddhist, buried some sweets and biscuits on the summit as an offering to his gods.

When does a hill become a mountain?  Now you would think that would be easy to answer, but no such luck.  It seems to be all in the ‘Eye of the Beholder’.  Hill walkers have tended to regard mountains as peaks that are over 2,000 ft, while historically, geographers regard mountains as hills greater than 1,000 ft. above sea level.  Whatever the correct definition they are in my mind , one way very much UP and when you turn round very much DOWN.  This man I think needs to get a pair of climbing boots!  In 1995 there was a film released with the title “The Englishman Who Went up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain”.  It could only have been an Englishman!

Biblical mountains abound.  The one in this Sunday’s lectionary reading is the subject of debate as to its name.  Traditionally it is referred to as Mt. Tabor, but that mountain is not in the right geographical location in relation to the place where Jesus and his disciples were at that time.  Mt. Hermon seems to be a more likely candidate, as it is situated in the northern part of Gallile,much closer to caesarea Philippi. It is also not so puny.  Tabor might in those days have been regarded as a gentle Sunday afternoon stroll, whereas Hermon is a more challenging proposition.

My favourite mountain though is Mt. Carmel.  This is where the very first “Match of the Day” was recorded.  The contest was in the Issy League between the Elijah Wanderers and the Baal Beafeaters.  Ground conditions during the match were at times somewhat soggy under foot, but that did not deter either side, who engaged in a truly memorable encounter.  First to kick off were the Baal Beafeaters. Passing the BULL neatly they impressed the purists yet failed to score.  In the second half  it was the Elijah Wanderers who gained the initiative, with their mascot performing heroically on the touch-line.  This resulted in a goal that has been declared the ‘Goal of the Century’.  After the match serious disorder broke out resulting in the death of many of the Baal Beafeaters supporters.  A certain lady by the name of Jezebel was not amused when she learned of the result.  No!  Andy Gray was not there to make any ‘off the air’ comments.

Ah well!, it is Saturday night.

John R.