Creating a small pond

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Lunch with a view – a wonderful addition to the garden!

I’ve been sitting on the patio for lunch in the lovely autumn sun this week, admiring our new pond and watching the creatures already living around it.

We’ve dreamt of having a wildlife pond for some years. However, in effectively twelve years of ministry training, it wasn’t a priority, and there was always the significant likelihood that we’d rent the house out and move on. However God had other ideas, and having discovered this year that we’re staying put for the foreseeable future, it seemed right that a few home improvements were in order. Ponds are so much more interesting than new bathrooms (though we’ve done that too)!

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16th July 2018

We only have a small garden, so it had to be a small pond. We also know the ground we’re on well enough that layers of builders rubble lie under our garden, and with a gravel-bed geology, digging even a small pond was going to be very hard work. So, I’m afraid we found someone younger and fitter than us for that bit. The lovely Matt (son of a friend and colleague in ministry locally) even provided a pre-formed liner he and his father had never used!

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18th July 2018

However, we wanted a pond that hedgehogs could live with, without drowning, that insects could drink at, that might encourage damselflies and dragonflies, and host interesting creatures. So it needed a shallow-end of gravel. So we sunk the preformed liner an additional 3 inches below ground level, under the edge of the house near the patio, and not directly under the trees. It was dug and filled with tap water on 16th July, and allowed to settle for a couple of days.

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Bumblebee drinking 18th July 2018

This was I guess the other part of our wedding anniversary present to ourselves – the first bit being a trail-cam to video the hedgehogs! So, on 18th July we were able to add plants, gravel and pebbles, and start to see what happened. On that very first day, we had a bumble-bee drinking on the gravel, and I was a kid at Christmas… the project was looking like it was going to be a success.

Over the next two months, various things have been added. Some plants came home from a holiday visit to RHS Rosemoor. The collection of rocks was added to with fossils we’d collected on visits to beaches, favourite hills, and other significant places in years passed. Tidying out the shed allowed us to use our son’s cast-off wood (he carves greenwood spoons) to create a small woodpile that was accidentally positioned under a drip from the guttering where it will rot nicely we hope. Effectively it’s a pond of memories as well as for the future.

PLANTS:

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Rat-tailed maggot – the lavae of some hoverfly

Yellow water iris Iris pseudacorus – put on the shelf of the pond one end; the wind kept blowing it over, so eventually it was weighted into place by having some ‘fairy-stones’ wired to it. Chosen for the lava of dragon- and damselflies to crawl up to hatch.

Water mint Mentha aquatica – very attractive to insects, and should give shade, nooks and crannies for the water creatures to hide in.
Purple Loosestrife Lythrum salicaria – initially put on the shelf the other end, but it regularly got blown over too, and was really too close to the Water Mint. Dad has a plant in his flowerbed that has flowered endlessly this year, so we moved ours out into the ground surrounding to the pond.
Frogbit Hydrocharis morsus-ranae – went in initially floating on the surface, as a native oxygenator, but very quickly looked like it would take over in our small pond, and became home to a lot of snail eggs (see below) so that went after about a month.
Water-lily (for which the label is still in the pond!) A small specimen recommended by the lovely lady at Maidenhead Aquatics for our size of pond. Initially on a shelf, and then moved down onto an old roof tile in the bottom – the tile is curvy so will also provide a home for water-creatures that need to hide.
Lampranthus brownii, Coreopsis rosea ‘American Dream’, Dianthus ‘Whetmans Stars Supernova’, Agastache ‘Kudos Silver Blue’ and Ajuga reptans ‘Braunherz’ were all planted around the pond to attract insects.

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Greater-pond skater or Back-swimmer 27th September 2018

PONDLIFE:
We also imported some pondweed from a neighbours small pond, complete with two Great Pond Snails, from whence the snail-eggs came we guess. As it transpires, the weed (which has since vanished interestingly) may have contained fish-eggs. Another friend donated us some nymphs from their much larger pond, a couple of Common Pond-skaters, a Great Water-boatman (otherwise known as Back-swimmers), and one small fish that crept into their net.

As I’ve sat by the pond for my lunch this week, I’ve watched not one, but eight small fish (and no more mosquito lavae)!!! Our friends swear blind they’ve not been surreptitiously filling our pond with creatures, so we’re assuming there were eggs in the weed from the neighbour who also reputedly has fish. They will have to take their chance as we’ve not added a pump, as it’s not advised if you want dragonfly lavae – they tend to get stuck in it!

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European Hornet drinking 27th September 2018

Water-boatmen apparently fly at night and are attracted to light, which is why we put four cheap solar-lights round the pond; this seems to have worked as we now have three water-boatman! A dragonfly did a circuit of the pond but didn’t stop, but a Hornet has been a regular visitor, joining the hoverflies that sit in the sun on the pebbles.

To say we’re thrilled that all this has been achieved in a little over two months is an understatement. The big test will be whether we get frogs and toads in the spring, who hatches, and what more wildlife we’ve had visit by this time next year. I will of course, log all the excitement here.

 

 

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Security – Psalm 118:19-end Mark 11:1-11

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Security of faith – a cross of hope: on Holy Monday 200+ local children (plus teachers, pupils and parents) walked across the fields from Charles Kingsley School, were safely crossed over the main road by the local police, left their boots outside and came to worship in St. Mary’s Church Eversley together.

I preached this on Palm Sunday, a day when many remember the joy and hope that filled the hearts of many pilgrims in Jerusalem at the start of the final week of Jesus life. But, given all that has been going on in the world, I felt called to dwell on a slightly different theme, that of security: our security, others security, Jesus security, and the security of our faith:
In France, we could have been held hostage and shot in our local supermarket this week.

In America, at the very least we’ve possibly had our social media hijacked and our news-feed manipulated for political gain, even if our children have survived their schooling.

Here, at home, there has been poison on our streets, and we’re defining our borders as to whether they are hard, or soft.

Security is important to us.

As an island nation, or a nation of islands, or even as a nation of nations, invaded by sea over millennia and threatened by myriad other means in the last century, what we deem as “ours” is a highly contentious issue, and that’s before we even mention the ‘B’ word.

Security, is often about not risking what we have gained, corporately or individually, financially and materially, in independence or in familial relationships. It means checking that we’re password protected, logging-in, opting out, and possibly even changing our passports!

For some, personal security is about not being bullied, threatened or abused, because of race, religion, gender or because you are differently-abled.

For Christians, personal security in some places is more an issue of life and death. In India, a woman converting to Christianity risks being drugged and raped if she refuses to return to her original faith. In Iraq Christians are torn between the risk of death in their homeland, or life without that homeland. Either that or they worship in a church with its own security guards. In rebel-held areas of Syria, security might mean living underground to avoid the shells, or it might mean not admitting you’re a Christian; that’s a freedom only available in bombarded Damascus and other government-held territory. Security you see is not a simple issue.

For Jesus, as he asked his disciples for a colt to be untied and brought to him, in his name as their Lord, any ideas of protecting his security, or theirs for that matter, were dismissed. He’d tried, somewhat cryptically according to Mark’s Gospel, to explain who he was; and then told those that seemed to understand, not to talk about it (Mark 8:27-30)! He knew the leaders of his faith were out to get him, and the Gentiles to make whatever political capital they could from this perceived in-fighting within the Jewish faith (Mark 10:32-34). But it was now time for the Messianic secret to be so no longer. This time when he visited Jerusalem, he wouldn’t walk among the pilgrims as an ordinary Galilean as he had in the past (John 7:10).

But that didn’t mean he could afford to be diffident in proclaiming exactly who he was, what sort of Messiah he was, and what sort of victory would be his. As the rich man discovered when he sought to follow Jesus (Mark 10), Jesus had radically re-defined what it was to be Israel’s king. The colt that had never been ridden was a humble king’s conveyance, for when the message was peace, not war. But it still singled him out, made him noticeable, drew attention to him, compromised his security.

He had after all developed quite a following; a following who’d seen the healings, heard the teachings, and thought they knew what he was there for; to save them. They weren’t bothered about risking his security, if in doing so it bought them their freedom from oppression and injustice at the hands of Rome. They were more than happy to draw attention to him, by laying their precious pilgrim cloaks in the dusty road for him to ride over as a king. They were just as willing to strip the locality of its vital shady greenery to mark him out as being in the same mould as Judas Maccabaeus who had driven out a Syrian king 140 years before, and re-consecrated the Temple.

Psalm 118 had probably been written in that same era. Read as it would have been said in the Hebrew and Aramaic the phraseology of “Blessed in the name of the Lord, is he who comes” was both a traditional greeting to all fellow pilgrims, and shouted in this moment an announcement of the “One who is Coming”, the Messiah. Their expectation was that this was the renewal of the kingdom of David, and aligned with the shouted phrase Hosanna, which meant “Save us!” more than it praised God, meant that Jesus’ security was compromised still further. It would have been obvious to the authorities, Jewish and Roman that they at least thought of him as their national leader in the fervour of pre-Passover excitement; now was the time for God to bring them salvation from oppression, personal and national security.

Yet, this Kingdom was no more their father David’s, than he was a heroic and victorious leader. The salvation that Jesus was bringing was no more theirs to covert and protect, than it was theirs to proclaim if they didn’t really understand the consequences for both Jesus, and for the kingdom that he was really seeking to bring in. For as the Son of God, his place was God’s place, his kingdom, God’s kingdom, the salvation he brought a surrender of his own right to life, his sacrifice the opportunity to bring the world together in peace. Security for Jesus, as he surprisingly quietly walked the Temple courts, was a security in who he was and what he was there for; the redemption, the buying back, of the whole of humanity from their fixation with their own security.

We are, to some extent rightly, concerned with our security, as people, as families, as communities. It is not unfair to expect to be safe when shopping, secure online, free from the risk of sabotage, even if there are many millions in the world don’t have that security. But just as we need to acknowledge that the world is not a straightforward place where one group of people is right, and another wrong, one nation safe and another a risky place to be, so we must accept that where we live here, we aren’t at significant risk because of our faith in who Jesus is. But does that lack of risk compromise the security of our faith in Jesus, who he is, and what he came for?

The pilgrim crowds that shouted “Hosanna!… Save me!”, were the same crowds that shouted “Crucify him!” a few days later. Uncertain as to whether Jesus was who he purported to be, confused because his behaviour did not confirm to their idealistic picture of Israel’s Messiah, and with minds narrowed by a selfish desire for their own political freedom, they were easily swayed by those that feared an invasion of the traditions of their faith. The need for security expressed by a few, blinded the many to the goodness and mercy of their God (Psalm 118:29) revealed in human form, crucifying what hope he had held for them.

If we aren’t secure in our faith in who Jesus is revealed to be through his death and resurrection, there’s a danger that we too become hypocrites, turning our proclamation of Christ the cornerstone (Psalm 118:22) into a search for prosperity (Psalm 118:25) and the security of a pilgrimage that leaves us tied to an altar of our own making (Psalm 118:27), rather than his teaching and example.

Our task this Holy Week is therefore to refresh and renew the security of our faith, and not to allow ourselves to become distracted by the individualism of our society. It is a week of pilgrimage beside our Lord, that shares on Maundy Thursday in the refreshment of shared relationships without condemnation of those who doubt like Thomas, or could turn rogue like Judas. We may not physically carry Jesus’s cross of sacrifice, but as we encounter the nails that held him there, we can seek again to let go of what is “ours” for the sake of our neighbours who need to encounter the grace of the crucified Christ… our time, our money, our patterned lives, and our prejudices. Only if we can strip away the security of isolating ourselves from the suffering of others, and our Lord who suffered with and for them as well as us, will we be able to rightly encounter the freedom of our risen Lord, and the security of knowing him as our Saviour.

Can we sing like Mary sang? Luke 1:46-55

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The banner at St. Mary’s Eversley

Today we marked the Patronal Festival of St. Mary’s Eversley, and so the sermon is a reflection on The Magnificat:

Do you sing for joy?

When your emotions have been pent up, whether it be with confusion, fear and concern, or impatience to reach a longed-for goal, and they encounter something or someone which suddenly swings your emotions into a more positive framework, how do they release themselves? Do you sing? Or is singing an emotional release in and of itself? Are there hymns or songs that have a tendency to make you especially joyful, or reduce you to tears? Or is it that sometimes you go to football stadium, or come to church, all wound up with the cares of your life, and find release in singing?

The young girl who sings the song that forms our Gospel today, had had her life turned upside down in the days immediately before she decides to hurriedly trek into the hills, to visit a cousin for a little mutually supportive break. For them, as for many women, pregnancy brings with it a raft of emotions that hormones bring rather closer to the surface than they might otherwise be. But given that both Elizabeth and Mary had conceived through the miraculous power of God’s concern, not just for them, but for the whole of humanity, it was unsurprising that the pleasure they experience of encountering the evidence of each other’s story is released in shouts and songs of joy.

Mary’s song is known as the Magnificat, after the opening phrase “My soul magnifies (or extols) the Lord”. And what strikes me, given the situation in which Mary finds herself, is how little of the song is about herself. Yes, her spirit rejoices because of the favour shown her by God, but it was a blessing that she had received with initial trepidation and some significant angst for her relationship with Joseph, so wanting to proclaim God’s part in proceedings is socially significant in the first place! As a unwed teenager in a religiously-conservative community, how stunning is it that Mary finds the courage to sing, “from now on all generations will call me blessed. For you, Mighty One, have done great things for me, and holy is your name.”[i]

Then, Mary places her pregnancy not within the context of her own short life and the changes being wrought upon it, but in the context of the history of her people and the world at large – a mercy that stretches from one generation to another, the dream of ancient Israel. God had promised that all nations would be blessed through Abraham’s family. Mary was soaked in the psalms and prophesies that had carried the hope of God’s mercy, revolution and victory to the era of servitude. That is why there are so many echoes of Hannah’s song over another small boy in 1 Samuel 2.[ii] How awesome is it that amid the shock of her pregnancy, both the fact and the means of it, she recognises that the son she now carries, is the fulfilment of those dreams, and that hope?!

As Mary sings a fresh prophesy over the son growing in her womb, it’s almost like she is the first to tentatively grasp that this child will bring a mercy and a revolution that is quite unlike what her people are expecting. In this “overture to the Gospel of Luke… [the] lyrics set the tone for Jesus’ radical and controversial ministry”[iii]…:

  • He will fill the hungry with good things both spiritually (e.g. The beatitudes, Matthew 5:1-11) and practically through his miracles (Feeding 5000 e.g. John 6:1-14), and send the rich man away empty, until he can set aside his wealth to live generously (Matthew 19:21-22).
  • He will bring down the powerful from the protected thrones of self-satisfaction (Isaiah 40:23 fulfilled in Pilot’s washing of his hands, Matthew 27:23-24), and lift up the lowly who are sat blind (Luke 18:35-43) or disfigured (Mark 2:1-12).
  • He will scatter the pride of the faith leaders whose hearts and actions show the hypocrisy of their words (Matthew 23).
  • He will show his strength, as the Son of God, the Messiah, in humble arms flung wide upon the cross (Luke 23:32-43).

Mary is singing about everyone but herself. She is praising God for the gift of this son, and offering her understanding of both her place, and much more importantly his place, in the context of God’s revelation through the people of Israel, for the whole world. The very fact that this hymn of praise and prophesy has been treasured in Elizabeth’s memory to be repeated and retold down generations until it was captured in the amber of Luke’s Gospel for perpetuity as an offering us, suggests that it should have similar significance for our lives. We who profess ourselves Christians, carry the Christ-child within us. Could we sing a song like Mary’s, focused not on ourselves, but on what God has gifted us with, and its purpose for the world?

The cost of Mary’s song would be fulfilled throughout her life:

  • we hear it in the trauma of becoming a refugee in an effort to protect her child (Matthew 2:12-14);
  • we listen to it in the frantic searching of a hysterical parent for a lost child whose wisdom and knowledge rapidly grows beyond her apron strings (Luke 2:41-52);
  • in silence we witness it at the cross in her mute acceptance of the protection of a new child, the beloved disciple (John 19:25-27)
  • we even encounter her whispered prayers, with the others gathered after Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension (Acts 1:14).

Forget whether we can actually sing in tune or not, that’s not the point here. If we think of our lives as a song, are our lives singing with the prophetic passion with which Mary sang? Are we paying the price for carrying Jesus that she paid, and are we still praying, with her?

We are all very good at focusing on ourselves; I know I catch myself doing it, time and time again through each and every day, as my mind slips back from what I’m meant to be doing for others, to what I want to do instead, what I think is right, what my dreams are.

In a world context, collectively humanity is also very good at focusing on the present, and forgetting the prophesies and lessons of the past: otherwise we wouldn’t be looking down the barrel of a nuclear war, forgetting washed up refugees on distant shores, wasting millions with interminable arguing over political relationships whilst people wait for hours on hospital trollies.

But

  • If our lives sing a song that feeds the hungry, both physically and spiritually,
    we’re singing Mary’s song.
  • If our actions lift up the lowly, and puncture the self-satisfaction of the powerful,
    we’re singing Mary’s song.
  • If our voices challenge pride and hypocrisy among our leaders, including if necessary those of faith,
    we’re singing Mary’s song.
  • If our arms are flung wide in sacrifice,
    we’re singing Mary’s song.
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Flowers in front of the Chancel screen for St. Mary’s Eversley, Patronal Festival.

Mary was one, lone, pregnant teenager, and because of her humility, and her understanding of what God wanted of her, for the good of the whole world, she sang a song that changed the world.

Can we sing, like Mary sang?

[i] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2011/12/magnificat-learning-to-sing-mary%E2%80%99s-song-a-progressive-christian-lectionary-commentary-on-luke-146-55/

[ii] Tom Wright ‘Luke for Everyone’

[iii] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2011/12/magnificat-learning-to-sing-mary%E2%80%99s-song-a-progressive-christian-lectionary-commentary-on-luke-146-55/

 

Focus on today Romans 8:18-25 and Matthew 6:25-end

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The ‘lilies of the field’ at St. Mary’s Mapledurwell… there’s an even better show up this path. In fact many local churchyards have stunning displays of snowdrops at present. Try Tunworth and St. Mary’s Old Basing if you’re interested.

I thought this sermon, preached this morning in Odiham and Mapledurwell an a rather peripatetic Sunday, was a bit weak and as much for me as for others. Yet, I was stopped at the door of both churches for people who felt it ‘spoke’ into a situation in their lives, and for one I’ve just emailed a copy for a third party. It is such a huge encouragement for preachers when people do this, so my thanks to them for being brave enough to tell me their stories afterwards. Prayers too for the situations concerned, and in grateful thanks to the friend whose story I share anonymously (but with permission) – I hope I got it roughly right; God seems to made good use of it!

I wonder how many of us would admit to being more anxious and worried about the state of the world, and the quality of life that our children and grandchildren will inherit, than we were a year ago? I certainly am.

We are reminded by today’s Gospel from Matthew, that Jesus lived very much in the present, the today. He knew his ultimate task was the salvation of all people through the cross and resurrection, but by focussing his attention on the situation presented to him, his words and actions celebrated the goodness of God in the here and now, whether it be by bringing healing where there was suffering, or harnessing the beauty of creation to make a well worked point. He recognised and worked towards the future through his focus on the present.

It is very easy just now, to relate to the spiritual leaders of Jesus time who were largely gloom and doom merchants. All was shadows and vanity; perceived in others, like their Roman rulers, and then proclaimed in their own blinkered view of how to be religious. Philosophers were at it too; focusing on taking people outside of their own troubles into another place; what we might now call the cult of escapism. They were so worried about jockeying for their own future positions, that they forgot to stop and look at the beauty and importance of what God was revealing in the present, through Jesus.

Our reading from Romans this morning, explains to us what that present reality was, and is; it is a journey to the perfection that God intended for creation, and an understanding of our role in that. The biblical narrative is full of the broken-ness of the people Israel, and their relationship with God. Likewise God uses the creation he gave humanity dominion over, to make possible their freedom, their healing, and their understanding of God’s promises to them: think of the plagues in Egypt, the parting of the seas, the stilling of the lions’ mouths to save Daniel (Daniel 6:22), the promise of the river of the water of life (Rev 22:1). With us, creation is yearning and eager with hope for the time when we are fully and finally redeemed in the new creation of God’s Kingdom, when the lion shall lie with the lamb (Isaiah 11:6). But Jesus is telling us in Matthew that unless we stop and focus on the present, we will not be aware enough of what God is doing around, in and through us. Therefore, we will not be right with God (i.e. live in righteousness), and not have taken our part in the ‘now and not yet’ of the revelation of his glory.

We progress towards the full revelation of his Kingdom one day at a time. This is why Jesus wants the people that follow him to live predominantly in the present, for the benefit of the future. By making God the creator, God the healer, God brimming with good things, the focus of our attention today, it fills today with beauty, and energy, and excitement. This helps us and others, to love him, and express our faith in him. Looking for God in the here and now, breeds positivity, and means we don’t worry as much about tomorrow. Celebrating what God is doing today and seeking to share that with others, is building the Kingdom of God: “Put the world first, and it gets moth-eaten in your hands. Put God first, and you’ll get the world thrown in.” (Tom Wright)

Yet living without worrying about the future seems an impossible task today, and for some living with constant anxiety is a significant health concern. The anxiety that is most dangerous, is a constant that infects everything someone sees themselves as, and everything they do. It is unrelated to the obvious causes of anxiety like work strains and family life. I spoke to someone this week who described from personal experience how difficult the journey is for a chronically anxious person to accept Jesus’ second commandment to “love your neighbour as you love yourself”; in other words that they are called to love themselves, and therefore be kind to both themselves and others. For them it meant they gave themselves a window in the day when they were “allowed to worry” and outside of that they had to constantly tell themselves that they could worry in that time window, but just now they needed to set their anxiety aside, remember God loved them, and focus on the beauty and tasks in the present moment. Some days, they admitted, they were better at this than others, but over years of patience and practice, it helped.

Given the news stories that we are bombarded with, it is very easy to want to change the world ourselves, or simply become depressed and frozen into inactivity because we know we can’t. But we can change ourselves, a little bit at a time, a day at a time. Today, and each day, Jesus is asking us to live in the present. Let us pay attention to what it is that God has given us to focus on, today. That might be sharing the beauty of spring bulbs in our garden, or the countryside and its wildlife, with friends or family members. It might be writing letters of gratitude to people who have helped us through recent life-changing circumstances. It could be the busy-ness of bringing others to church so they too can worship and pray. It might be showing our vulnerability by admitting to another person that we are overly anxious and perhaps in need of external help; or listening to someone else in similar circumstances who needs our support. These, and many others, are Kingdom building actions. Yet it may be that by simply resting in and enjoying the now, and being assured that God will restore our strength, we will be equipped with the energy and enthusiasm to recognise and achieve what God is asking us to contribute to his Kingdom now, for the future.

 

Facing our fears this Christmas – Isaiah 35:1-10 and Matthew 11:2-11

 

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St. Nicholas, Newnham in the North Hampshire Downs… that existed long before the larger village nearby, Hook. (Cameraphone photo by Graham)

This morning involved a first. It was the first time I’ve led Sung Matins, and I don’t think the little congregation at St. Nicholas, Newnham twigged, so I feel relatively pleased as to how it went.

And here’s what I preached:

We’ve got two weeks. Exactly two weeks.

For those of us who have not yet written a Christmas card, wrapped a present, iced a cake, nor hung up a decoration, Christmas still seems like something that lies a little beyond our anticipation, wrapped more in stress than holiness.

For those of us who know they’ll be alone, or sharing Christmas around strained and broken relationships, who are concerned that this might be the last Christmas with a loved-one who is ill or frail, or who are worried that celebrations will be tempered by physical pain and the drugs required to mediate them, the holiness of the season isn’t just marked by stress, but by fear.

Fear of isolation.
Fear of the emotional turmoil.
Fear of imminent bereavement.
Fear of admitting we aren’t coping with life, let alone Christmas.
Fear that the Messiah isn’t who we thought he was.
Fear that Jesus isn’t coming for us.

In our Gospel reading this morning, with just two weeks to go until Christmas, we are quite deliberately taken away from our preparations for and anticipation of the Christmas story, and asked to confront our fears. Our fears, and those of John the Baptist who we visit this morning not in the desert proclaiming judgement, but locked in a prison cell, awaiting a fate that we know ends in his beheading.

The rufty-tufty desert man, who announced the coming of God’s kingdom and proclaimed Jesus as God’s anointed, expected the world to change with the fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel. Now caged, John, wondering why he hasn’t yet heard that promise is being kept, is probably disappointed, definitely vulnerable to doubts, but still gutsy enough to voice them to the one they are concerned with.

John, who after all is cousin to Jesus and will have grown up with the prophesies that were spoken around the births of both of them… John is having his doubts about the identity of the Messiah because Jesus isn’t living up to expectations. Even in his response to John’s question, Jesus doesn’t seem to be talking like a strong leader strengthening God’s people (Isaiah 35:3) for battle, or a saviour come to bring vengeance (Isaiah 35:4) on an oppressor.

Yet, Jesus, in word and action, DOES fulfil the prophesies about him, the ones that say he will heal the blind, the deaf, the mute and the lame (Isaiah 35:5-6). Indeed even the dead are raised (Matt 11:5), though when John receives Jesus’ return message, I wonder if he might again have been disappointed, wishing that Jesus could also set the prisoners free (Luke 4:18) – starting with his cousin John!

And yet, Jesus is trying to set John free, to bring him some joy. Free from the doubts as to whether all the locusts and honey, the rough desert living, the run-ins with the authorities, and indeed the imprisonment, have been worthwhile. John hadn’t been failed, nor had he failed, or let God down. Jesus is affirming that he is indeed the Messiah, fulfilling the prophesies that had been spoken down the centuries about him, including John’s. But with the new Kingdom comes new ways, and they put the weak, the lonely and the broken first, the new covenant before the old which in effect has been closed with John the Baptist’s work.

Jesus the baby in a Bethlehem manger, Jesus the itinerant healer, is also Jesus of the cross, and it won’t be until the temple curtain is torn in two and then the stone is rolled away, that the saving power of Jesus the Messiah, will be fully revealed. Sadly, John doesn’t live to see and hear that revelation. But we do.

While Matthew’s portrayal of John and his doubts is striking, maybe it’s not so odd to hear about them in Advent, when we, too, at times, may feel stuck between God’s promises made and God’s promises kept. Like John the Baptist, we may feel we are are hung-out-to-dry between Christ’s first coming at Bethlehem and his second in glory; disappointed by ourselves, the world, and even God; fearful that we’ll not be released from the prison of our fears.

We regularly try to hide our insecurities and fears behind our houses, our careers and (dare I say it) church attendance or, for that matter, our failings and infirmities. Until, that is, the word “cancer” or “redundancy” or “divorce” is breathed within our family circle and we know ourselves to be just as fragile and vulnerable as anyone else. Even the word “vacancy” can set up a myriad insecurities and fears within a Christian community! And at these moments – the impact of which is heightened at this time of the year – we need to turn again to the words and actions of Jesus for comfort, hope and joy, all the more because we know they are accompanied by the cross and resurrection.

If ‘the hopes and fears of all our years’ are to be ‘met in him’ not just tonight or in a fortnight’s time, but ALWAYS, then we have to view the babe in a manger in the light of the whole of his story. When God became incarnate as a human baby, he took on our hopes and fears and not only moved to heal those he could in Jesus’ earthly life, but then watched them get nailed with the Christ-child to a cross on Good Friday, breaking the hold of any sense of failure that first Easter morning.

That wasn’t just for then. It is for now. Whatever our disappointments, we don’t let God down by having or expressing them. God comes to us anyway, eager to join us in our weakness, to hold onto us in our insecurity, and to comfort us in our fears. For God in Jesus came not for the strong and the proud, or to fight physical battles on the fields of history, but he comes the weak and the vulnerable, the lonely and ill, and the broken. We, who may feel that we’re the ‘least in the kingdom’ and out in a desert place, by grace have an honoured place at Jesus’ side, because he comes to us where we are, offering us the strength to withstand the winds and rough cloth of our lives, bringing the joy of his presence into our lives.

There is no reason why we shouldn’t admit our hopes and fears, and like John, question him with our doubts, but God in Jesus, comes for us.

[With thanks to the Working Preacher for inspiration: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2911]

 

Silk and batik clergy shirts – from bridal designers Nortier Shallow

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Silk clerical shirt – I know the sleeves look long, but that way they cope with a multitude of needs.

I don’t profess to be in the slightest bit stylish, being happiest when comfortable, and am no model, so apologies for the grim photos (courtesy of my husband). I work in a variety of environments which tend to the cold and drafty at times, and require the wearing of a top layer of long, flowing robes in which I tend to wave my arms around a lot (aka: the ‘manual actions’ of the Eucharist Prayer and sharing God’s blessing and forgiveness)! Thus I like my clerical shirts to have ample room both for the arm waving, and the ability to hide a layer of thermals!! I’m basically just a little,… quirky.

I inherited some silk remnants that Cross Designs successfully made into a dress and shirt for my ordination as Deacon, but they tended to the ‘close fitting’ and they’re too far away for easy fitting sessions. Then I found some similar silk in CandH in Winchester, so for my ordination as Priest I got Ben and Adrien (Bahbua the designers at my local bridal shop BOO) to come up with something that fitted my quirky requirements. It was fantastic fun, and they fully entered into the spirit with which the material had been chosen.

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My ‘pentecost’ clerical shirt – in cotton batik.

I was delighted, so when we found some batik cottons in wonderful colours at a quilting shop called Step-By-Step Quilts in South Molton whilst on holiday, I just had to get Ben and Adrien to have another go, the only alteration to the pattern being to reduce the depth of the collar, so that a standard collar insert fits without falling out. Once again I’m thrilled with how they’ve turned out, and the orange/green/pink shirt has already been christened my ‘pentecost’ shirt by the locals where I’m on placement. I also have red stars, which I’m saving for Christmas – no surprises there!

I’m hugely grateful to Anna at Boo, and particularly Ben and Adrien for making the whole experience a delight and coping with an eccentric cleric in their bridal shop.

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My ‘pentecost’ shirt hiding under robes – I can even toll a bell in it!

Adrien and Ben are in the process of re-branding and will be moving to their own premises in Basingstoke as Nortier Shallow in the near future. I can thoroughly recommend them for anyone wanting something a little different made ‘bespoke’.

Not the cheapest option in clergy shirts, but way more fun and a great way of getting to know local businesses!

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Another batik clerical shirt – Christmas stars!

 

Praying for our nations leaders and the leaders of all nations – 1 Tim 2:1-7 and Luke 16:1-13

I was back on the road this week, visiting two churches with contrasting services: a BCP Holy Communion in a church actively being re-ordered (there was a small digger in the nave), and a Family Communion. In the first place (Odiham) there is a theme of prayer encompassing their sermons at present, and the 1 Timothy passage lent itself to this. The Gospel on the other hand is apparently one of the hardest in the lectionary to preach on! So no pressure then!!

So, in the format in which I wrote it, with alternative starting modes for each church, and an additional ending for the second church, here is what I said. (In the second church it actually had people talking about who they were going to have to pray for, and it was really interesting who they found hardest.)
Intro for Odiham (BCP):

It is not unlikely that at some point in our lives we have lent
someone money, at least if we have had any to lend. It might
have been as part of a formal agreement, or something more
informal where repayment is taken on trust, and interest may
or may not have been charged. We have almost certainly been
lent money, by a bank or building society if by no-one else; and in those circumstances, we have almost certainly been charged interest. People like a return on the money that others
use; it makes the effort and risk seem worth their while. When
we are the debtors it is wonderful if the interest on the loan is discounted. When we are creditors, it may be more difficult to
waive.  

If it is not money that we have lent, we are very likely to have
committed time, talents or some other definable resource to
help family, friends, or a neighbour, and whilst we have not  perhaps done so with the anticipation of being paid back in kind, there is possibly a natural expectation that in some way
the relationship will be reciprocal when we experience a time
of need or crisis ourselves. With money and goods, time and talents we have a natural inclination to expect some return on our investments. And I  wonder if sometimes we anticipate the same when we pray? 

Simple introduction for Upton Grey (Family Communion): 

Some coins, and the remaining pictures of world leaders to be prayed for – there were more than this.

I have three bags with me today, and with the first let us
imagine for a moment that you have asked me for a loan of some money, and I lend you some. (Circulate bag of coins 2/5p) What might I expect in return?  

I might also, perhaps more realistically, imagine that you have
asked me to pray for you. I can indeed give you my prayers. (Second bag of ‘Can I pray for you?’ paper slips.) What might you and I expect in return? Nothing? But plenty from God, as we trust faithfully that in some way those prayers will be answered.  

Paul, in our first reading this morning, is asking us to pray
specifically for our leaders, the ones that grown ups elect into  power, and those that inherit what we might view as status or wealth, as in the case of Her Majesty Queen. But why should  we bother, if we don’t feel like we get any benefit in return?

Both:

In many places in scripture we are taught to pray. In the Old
Testament we are taught to “look to the Lord and his strength;
to seek his face always” (Hos 14:2). Jesus taught repeatedly
on prayer and among other things said to “ask for anything in
his name” (John 16:24), to pray for our enemies (Matt 5:44)
and of course left his disciples with what we know as the

Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13). St. Paul, elsewhere in his
letters teaches by example that we are to pray with thanks for
others (Eph 1:15-21). But in our passage from 1 Tim today,
Paul is exhorting us first and foremost to pray for our nation’s
leaders and the leaders of all nations.

The temptation when we read that we are meant to pray for
our leaders, those elected and unelected, may be to think in a
similar way to that which we would about making a loan ofmoney; what will we get in return? Prayer all too easily

becomes more like trying to broker a deal with God, reminding
him that he is known as a just God, but having our own image
of what that justice should look like. If we don’t agree with the
politics and policies of those for whom we are called to pray,
this may be a particular issue and possibly put us off doing it
all together!

But if we look at this ideal in the light of Jesus’ parable about
money, perhaps it can help us in some way. In itself, it is not
an easy parable to understand, perhaps because it was not
directly aimed at us, but at the community of Israel at the time
of Jesus. He was only too well aware that it has been under
the leadership of foreign rulers for many generations, and that
a time was coming when that rule would become particularly
ruthless and hard to survive under.

Jesus was not suggesting that devious financial practices
would help them through this, but that they should as it were,
think ‘outside the box’ with regard to their financial and other
relations with those in power who control their lives, so that as
his disciples they would live to tell the tale, and the good news
of his life, death and resurrection. And, it is not after all, the only time that Jesus exhorts his followers to be shrewd, as
shrewd as snakes indeed (Matthew 10:16)!  

St. Paul too has the expectation that we, with young Timothy,
will think shrewdly and laterally, but in this case about how we
pray. Paul doesn’t want our national, secular and spiritual
leaders to be an after thought behind our own more pressing
concerns, and that of our family, friends and neighbour’s. Like
Jeremiah telling the exiled people of Israel to pray for the city
of Babylon to which they had been taken, so that they will prosper within it (Jer 29:7), Paul knows that to live in peace, with godliness and dignity, requires us to pray for our leaders.
And on the world stage, I think we know only too well how much millions of other people need such peace and dignity?!

It is also about the propagation of the Christian gospel; as
ordinary people with limited power at our fingertips, we need to
live in as stable a situation as possible, so that we can thrive,
and so that the message of God’s love that we hopefully live  out, can be seen as a witness to the grace of God, and the sacrifice of Christ.  

The conclusion of our Gospel reminds us that money is not the
possession the master and steward regard it as in the parable;
but something whose use demands trust. In the modern world
we have to trust people with the care of our money, and whilst
that doesn’t always go as well as it might, we too are trusted
with the care of the finances of others, who place their faith in us. 

And just as we need to be faithful in such secular and  financial dealings, so too we are called to be faithful in the  matter of prayer. God entrusts us with the ability to pray, to turn to Jesus who is our mediator and advocate with the Father, with the focus of our prayers being first and foremost  those who lead, or seek to lead, the nation’s of the world, for  through their decisions and actions lies the welfare of all God’s
people.  

Conclusion for Upton Grey:

And so we are left with my third bag, and the challenge held
there-in: will you pray for these, the leaders of the world?  (Circulate bag of ‘leaders’ and the question, ‘Will you pray for me?)

Taking responsibility: Luke 12:13-21 and Colossians 3:1-11

I was back at base in Old Basing this week. It’s funny how somewhere you’ve been for two years, and an altar that you’ve celebrated Eucharist at for one, can suddenly feel unfamiliar! The message however, would be much the same, wherever I preached it, so I hope it challenges those who only read it, as well as those who heard it.

I have never had to face the repeated onslaught of shrill, wheedling requests that start: “Mummy, can you tell [insert name of sibling here] to… Stop hitting me… Give me my pencil back… Let me have have my turn… Etc.” But I’ve done my time at the school gate and with friends with multiple children, and I know that it’s a reality that I have been fortunate to escape.

 There’s something about human nature that means we don’t always grow out of the idea that we need to get other people to make decisions for us. Our political system seems to run on the idea: we elect people who will make decisions for us, and then when we think they’ve made the wrong decision, we can moan about it and blame them! One might say, that now we’re living with the consequences of a referendum where we had to take a collective decision for ourselves, we’re still blaming the politicians for giving us inaccurate facts on which to base those decisions… But perhaps I digress.

 

My stock of sporting knowledge is restricted, but our national footballers, cricketers and Olympic hopefuls all have to live with the consequences of each and every move they chose to make in their particular arena. If you’re Joe Root, then those decisions will be perfect almost every time; if you’re a member of the England football team, that is less likely. If you don’t have a clue who or what I’m talking about… Well done for avoiding sporting distractions, and I suggest you turn your TV off for the next month!

 

We humans are risk-averse enough to attempt the feat of metaphorically ‘putting our head in the sand’ as ostriches were once supposed to do when faced with danger, especially when WE are faced with the danger of having to take responsibility for dealing with a difficult situation for ourselves, and living with the consequences of how that works out. The person in the crowd around Jesus who wanted Jesus to tell his “brother to divide the family inheritance with [him]”, was not an unusual character.

 

Jesus of course, had more right than any other human to make such a judgement, and perhaps the person who asked the question understood that. But I doubt it. Jesus, the Son of God, recognised as such even by the demons who possessed Legion (Luke 8:28), would have known that he had both the authority to make such a judgement, and the power to see that it was carried through, but he refused to use it.

 

Instead, he tells a parable that talks about the dangers of greed, especially when it is combined with a self-assurance that sets aside the teachings of God, and forgets that no-one can avoid their own mortality. In other words, the Son of God expects us to grapple with tricky situations for ourselves, and we need to be prepared to take responsibility for the consequences of those decisions. Yes, as Christians we believe in a loving God who is in control. He is also the loving God who gave us freedom of expression, freedom of will; the ability to work together to make decisions for ourselves. But in Christ, we have the example as well as the command of this parable, to use our freedoms wisely. We are to put God, and our fellow humans, before our own needs and our own desire for comfort, relaxation and a good time.

 

St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians has a not unrelated message: alongside the Colossians, we are asked to set our minds on God, on clothing ourselves with a way of life that befits our professed faith, faith in he “who, though he was in the form of God,… emptied himself,… being born in human likeness… [and] became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8). Indeed the whole letter to the Colossians is about that new community learning how to bear the fruit that comes from following Jesus, setting aside any number of faults that show that by nature we humans too easily fall into the trap of putting our own desires before the needs of others, and are willing to cover our tracks with bad behaviour when we get caught out.

 

If we put ourselves in the place of the person who wanted Jesus to effectively take control of a tricky family situation, we may grudgingly recognise that there’s an element of immaturity on display, with perhaps a side order of buck-passing. Are we, like them, simply in the crowd around Jesus hoping he’ll make life easier for us, so that we don’t have to sort out our own problems?

 

If we place ourselves in Colossae, are we still struggling to get rid of old habits that haunt us, and in need of a fresh start that sees us being renewed so that we fit better with the image of our creator God, as revealed in Christ?

 

Whatever our age, by placing ourselves at God’s table this morning, we are saying that whilst we are children of a loving God, we are seeking to put away childish behaviour (1 Corinthians 13:11), to set aside our greed and our habitual faults, to stop playing the blame game, to put the needs of others before our own, to live by Jesus’ example.

 

We are not the England football team, we do not need a new manager. Neither do we need the ‘get out jail card’ that is having a high-performing, can’t do anything wrong at the moment, player on our team. We cannot only blame politicians at home or abroad for their acts of injustice, favouritism, and greed; we need the mature capability of showing by example the use of humility, sacrificial generosity, and love toward all people, not simply the ones we like.

 

We are called not simply to watch, or ignore, other people’s efforts at the Olympics, but to run our own race (Hebrews 12:1-2), individually and as a community of Christians. God has set us a challenge, and it’s no sprint. The goal, the inspiration, and the support team, is with God, in Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, and we have them already. It’s down to us to live up to their expectations and example, and take responsibility for our own performance in our own field of play!

 

 

Intercessions for 9th Sunday in Trinity

I realised about an hour ago that I have to lead intercessions at one of the churches I am serving tomorrow, so I quick dash into the study to review what I have prepared as a sermon (Luke 11:1-13… The Lord’s Prayer, and the idea of pilgrimage and perseverance). Here’s what I’ve come up with, which I post in haste in case it is of any use to anyone else.

[Sorry about the weird spacing – WordPress on the iPad won’t let me sort it out, and I really need to go and cook dinner!]

As pilgrims in a troubled world
We ask you Father,
To be with those whose journey’s have been forced upon them,
By acts of terror, injustice, violence, and greed.
May we, with Christ,
Walk with the refugee,
Feed the hungry,
Give shelter to the homeless,
And comfort the oppressed.

Lord In Your Mercy, Hear Our Prayer

As pilgrims in a confused country,
We ask you Father,
To be with those whose journey is in the field of politics.
Me we, with Christ,
Encourage them to act with justice,
To love mercy,
And to walk humbly with each other,
And with you, our creator and redeemer.

Lord In Your Mercy, Hear Our Prayer

As pilgrims in a community anticipating new beginnings,
We ask you Father,
To be with all who worship and live in this Benefice,     (in vacancy but having appointed)
That we, with Christ,
May be generous and united in our welcome,
Willing and helpful in our service,
And open to the challenges ahead,
That through the power of the Holy Spirit,
Your name might be glorified in this place.

Lord In Your Mercy, Hear Our Prayer.

As pilgrims who come with and carry our own burdens,
We ask you Father,
To be with those we know who need to hear your voice,
Especially….
That we, with them, may know the presence of,
Christ the comforter,
Christ the healer,
Christ the light in darkness,
And Christ who is the resurrection and the life.

Merciful Father, Accept our prayers…

“To be, or not to be?” A sermon on John 14:23-29

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them?.. (Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 1)

P1220906wIn the week in which the nation has marked not only the 90th birthday of a monarch with a very visible Christian faith, but 4 centuries since the death of it’s greatest bard, it seems not too inappropriate to reflect on the idea of words in our Gospel this morning; words, and the Word.

To be, or not to be…?
A follower of Christ… That is our question.

There was a wonderful sketch within last week’s RSC Shakespeare Live presentation, involving some of the most recognisable surviving faces of British film and theatre, and a certain Prince. It was about finding the correct emphasis for the delivery of the opening lines of Hamlet’s soliloquy. There are so many ways of saying the same thing, but where they are set and how they are said changes their meaning, their impact, their connection with the audience, and indeed with the rest of the play, which is the world those words inhabit.

Words. Jesus said a lot of them too. He played with them and on them, drew pictures and told stories with them. He questioned people’s integrity and prodded their consciences with some, healed lives and bodies with others. Jesus words came with power.

Jesus, the living Word; the living God, “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14), was not using idle words to create a theatrical presence and develop a story line, but rather, was using them to make a home in people’s hearts and lives, for God to dwell in. That is God the Father, God the Son and God “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit.” (John 14:26)

An Advocate is someone who speaks or writes words in support of a person or a cause. The Advocate who Jesus called the Holy Spirit, was to be poured out into the lives of those who recognised Jesus as the Son of God, and his resurrection as the beginning of a new way of relating to God. The Advocate is the one who daily teaches and reminds us of the words and actions of Jesus, and encourages us to live them out.

Jesus emphasised words that were to be key to living a life that reflected his teaching, his example, the very essence of who he was. “Those who love me will keep my word… Whoever does not love me does not keep my words.” Jesus words, at his command, were to be kept safe, but the only way to keep them safe, he says, is to use them. Use them, or loose them. Because to use his words, to bring them alive by living them out in our lives, is to love.

Hamlet’s famous soliloquy is full of anxious torment, an outpouring of confusion as to the most appropriate response to the circumstances in which he found himself; his father dead, his royal crown and his father’s marital bed usurped by his uncle. It is in effect a search for peace, peace with his situation and peace with the turmoil and madness that has become a place of seclusion and safety from which it seems almost impossible to step out. Peace, just a word, but something so much more powerful than a word, especially when it’s missing.

The peace that Hamlet was searching for was not I suggest, the peace that the world gives. The world is a funny place – funny peculiar, not funny ‘ha ha’. It tries to hold us all in the swirling waters which throw the perceived importance of the individual and their desires against the need to conform to one of a variety of colour washed viewpoints, made bland by a lack of nuance hidden in words of political rhetoric and vitriolic posturing.

To find the peace for which perhaps Hamlet searched, and of which Jesus certainly speaks, is to have our minds renewed by a constant awareness of the words God’s Advocate the Holy Spirit is whispering into our lives, so that we have the strength to step out of the spin-cycle in which the world works (Romans 12:2). We are to be conformed instead to the image of God’s Son Jesus (Romans 2:29), in whom we [have just/will shortly] profess our faith. Peace comes through hearing God’s living Word in Jesus, and responding in love to others, not through a constant striving to fit imposed models of behaviour or tradition.

Where are our spaces? Where can we meet with God? Some folk find a church a useful place and during our 24 hours of prayer there should be plenty of peace and gentle stimulus to hear the “still small voice” of the Advocate, but we can’t be here all the time. Some will speak with God whilst they do the washing up, or the ironing, or first thing in the morning with a cuppa. Some might do it in the car on the way to work: it’s perfectly possible to pray with our eyes open!

We have to find for ourselves the correct emphasis for delivering the lines of our faith, the living words of love to which Jesus called his disciples before his death. He did so in the context of a meal, in a house he didn’t own, and after a trusted friend had left to betray him. It was no safe place, nor safe space, much less the ancient Temple built by his forbears for the safe remembrance of his Father.

Likewise, we will find the constant fulfilment of knowing the peace of Christ not in the transient stillness or grandeur of a specific place but in the in-dwelling of the Father and the Son, welcomed to make their home with us and in us (John 14:23). As the Book of Revelation reminds us today, when the new heaven and the new earth come into being at the completion of God’s Kingdom, there will be “no temple in the city, for the temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (Rev 21:22). Until the day comes that we see that for ourselves, we are God’s temple (1 Cor 3:16), his dwelling place on earth, the lives through which his living Word must be recognised.

It is no co-incidence therefore that as St. Paul responds to the vision God gave him for the people of Macedonia, he takes Luke outside the gate of Philippi to the river, where they find a place of prayer in which to speak to those with hearts open to the Lord (Acts 16:13). If we truly have a home for God in our hearts, we must remember that we have to leave the safe spaces of our lives and seek other places where people are open to what God wants to say to them through us. Just as prayer is about both speaking and listening, unless words are carefully chosen and emphasized in an open non-judgemental atmosphere, they will not or cannot be heard.

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Family heirloom, dated 1867

“To be, or not to be, that is the question.” Words of soliloquy, spoken in a character’s mind, declaimed down four centuries for the world to hear. Words that need the right setting in which to be heard, and the correct emphasis for their delivery.

To be a follower of Jesus Christ, the living Word, we need to be able to multi-task: to have our minds constantly renewed by listening to his Advocate the Holy Spirit speaking words of encouragement and challenge into our hearts and minds; and we need to put ourselves into the place where the words the Holy Spirit speaks through us will be best heard, however unusual that stage might be.