I originally prepared the following material for Passiontide 2019 when I was asked to lead Lent Reflections for the wonderful local Mothers’ Union group that has nurtured and encouraged my ministry over many years. The reflections focussed on various items, most of which were in a small bag given to each participant.
Obviously this was a group that met ‘in person’ and could share with each other in their thinking, singing and praying, something which sadly this year isn’t going to be possible for most people in Lent. However, some of the material may be useful to the spiritual context in which we find ourselves currently, so I’m making it available in .pdf formats below. Hopefully all the items you’d need could be made or created from items around your home or could be found when out for daily exercise. They include:
hand or body lotion
two penny pieces
three lengths of (preferably brown) wool or string, knotted at one end
Some written material in this material is from named sources, unattributed elements are my own original material. If you use any of it, please could you credit the appropriate person, and leave an appropriate comment on this blog post.
I am in the process of preparing some Lent in a Bag materials for distribution in our parishes this Lent 2021, starting with ash mixed with varnish and applied to a nobbly stone/pebble. I will share these materials when they are finished.
Last Sunday was the first in Lent, and time for a change of focus towards the Easter story and all that scripture challenges us with as we explore who Jesus is and what he came to do.
Many of us, old and young, still enjoy an advent calendar, opening the windows that tell the Christmas story, creating a sense of anticipation as we move closer to the festivities, perhaps consuming chocolate along the way, or enjoying cute pictures of candles, angels, an ox or a donkey.
Lent is a similar season liturgically.
I’m wearing the same purple stole, though with different symbols on it (because it’s reversible).
We are preparing for a great Christian festival, which we celebrate with much joy, and more chocolate.
But we don’t have Lent calendars in the same way. It would, after all be difficult to fit 40 windows across a picture at a scale sensible enough to be propped on the average mantlepiece (I struggled enough making 5 windows on one for the children).
There’s also the idea of fasting, as Jesus was forced to do in the desert, so even if we’re not abstaining completely, chocolate’s out, until we get to Easter.
The only animals that feature are wild beasts of the desert like jackals and snakes; no cute animals here, even if there are angels.
The story that leads to Easter day isn’t so cheerful either: Jesus, the baby in the manger, God made man, dies.
The idea of Lent is not to generate the sense of excitement and anticipation of Advent, but to enable Jesus to prize or tear open windows into our hearts that let God in. Through scripture, prayer, study, silence, reflection and repentance, we ask God to open windows into our lives and faith that help us understand the significance of who Jesus is and what he did through the cross and resurrection, so that we can encounter God afresh, and understand that his kingdom has in fact come near.
For Lent, my husband Graham is doing something he’s run for a couple of years now; hosting an online Lent Book Club through his blog, Facebook and Twitter. Anyone can join in if they’re social media inclined. There are some people with whom he interacts who are long-standing personal friends; some we only know through their on-line presence; several who struggle to articulate their Christian faith; some who have been damaged by ill-health or by church communities who have excluded them; some who have been faithful committed Christians all their lives and are now house-bound, struggling to find fellowship; and some with family or work commitments that make them recognise they need to take time out with God. By sharing in the Lent Book Club, all are opening windows for each other that let God in.
This year they, we, are using Janet Morley’s book “The Heart’s Time”, a book that uses poetry – religious, semi-religious and otherwise – to open up our hearts to God’s Kingdom, to scripture, to the work of the Spirit. In her introduction she writes
“Poetry makes us slow down… explore hard subjects head-on… uses irony, doubt, humour and idiosyncratic perspectives [in a way that our church liturgy doesn’t]… [allows readers] to appreciate different layers of meaning…in which each reader finds their own interpretation,… [and] examines the familiar… in a way that becomes newly strange.”
The first poem she uses to introduce the relationship between Lent and poetry is “The Bright Field” by R.S. Thomas, the famous Welsh priest-poet. It describes the relationship between a brief glimpse of sunshine through clouds on a showery day, and our own faith journeys. If, as is so often the case, we forget our brief glimpses of God’s beauty, the hope, mercy, light and fire of his love, then we are ignoring, even dismissing, the promise of the Kingdom of God.
God, in our fast-paced, news-packed, headline-filled Gospel from Mark this morning, where each story could be packed into the now 280 characters of a Tweet, is tearing open the windows of the Kingdom of God, and letting the brief shafts of light highlight who Jesus is, and what he has come to do for us.
At his baptism, in the form of a dove as well as through the voice of God, the window opens to reveal Jesus as God’s son, whose obedience is deeply please to his adoring Father. Jesus is the Messiah of manger-fame, the anointed one, God on the move. But in that Sonship, in language used by Mark only in relation to Jesus’ crucifixion, in the imagery of death and resurrection found in baptism, Jesus is also shown to be our Saviour, the one who will die and rise again, to remake our relationship with God.
In the wilderness to which the Holy Spirit then propels Jesus, the window opens to focus our attention on the paradox that Jesus is both God and man, and therefore subject to the adversaries and adversities of life, signified in scripture though their personification as Satan. Perhaps we know only too well that any period of temptation and the pressure to do other than what God desires feels like a life-time, and the outcome is always uncertain. But for Mark, the outcome for Jesus is so obvious it doesn’t warrant a mention, because other windows, shafts of healing and hope, will show Jesus’ authority over the unclean spirits that oppress this world, and we who inhabit it.
As Jesus moves out into the villages of Galilee, he opens a third window on this new Kingdom by sensing that John-the-Baptist’s ministry is complete so that now his work, and the proclamation of its purpose, has just begun. The time to fulfil all that was promised by his birth and baptism has come; in him and through him, God made man, the Kingdom of God has come near.
What new windows of understandings to who God reveals himself to be in Jesus are we hoping to tear open this Lent?
Or do we need to stop and be observant long enough for God to break open a new encounter with him?
Are there brief glimpses of the promises of his Kingdom that we run the risk of missing if we don’t keep some sort of Lenten obedience, commitment or devotional practice?
Now is a good time to stop, find new windows on what God is wanting us to do in our lives, and not to walk past and promptly forget the light that shines in, but stop and reflect, take them seriously, and be changed by them. Un-shuttered windows may open on an amazing vista of hope that we hadn’t otherwise considered, or let in a fresh breeze that blows away the cobwebs of doubt or despair. The glass of a window-pane may help keep out the wild animals of a life-style or thought-world that is prone to savaging us if we don’t keep alert, or if the angle of light is just right, form a mirror in which we see ourselves as God sees us, flawed, and yet his special, precious adored child.
Because that is what lies at the heart of Jesus proclaiming that the Kingdom of God has come near to you, and me. We, like Jesus, are his beloved children, and with us he will be well pleased, if in Christ-like obedience we commit ourselves whole-heartedly to the work of tearing open new windows between our lives and God’s and allowing the Holy Spirit to flow through them shining the light of Jesus into the places that only he can reach. We are seeking to know God and his Kingdom better and better each day, so we need to be looking as hard as we would for a hidden treasure or a lost heirloom, and expect to be changed by what we discover.
There are many ways in which we can open the windows of God’s Kingdom into our lives this Lent, and doing a Lenten study, either privately, in a local community like a Life Group, or even in an online context, is one way. It doesn’t have to be via reading poetry either, there are many other study guides. At our Pancake Party at St. Peter’s and at the Ash Wednesday service, Rev’d Lerys gave out different sorts of guides (including #LiveLentdaily readings from the Archbishops) to help us engage creatively in opening windows on what God is trying to do with and for us in Jesus.
‘The Bright Field’ by RS Thomas
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price,
the one field that had
treasure in. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
and imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
Back preaching in my curacy parish this week, and it’s Lent, a time to take stock of how we live by holding the mirror of Jesus’ teaching to our lives, and seeing whether we meet his expectations. The Gospel this week is the story of Nicodemus’ deliberate encounter with Jesus in John 3:1-17 but I’ve drawn from both the other lectionary readings too: Genesis 12:1-4a, and Romans 4:1-5 with 13-17.
I wonder how many of us, when we were younger, were taken on ‘duty’ visits to see relatives? You know the type of visit, the one where the parent say, “we know we struggle to find anything in common with Great Aunty Flo who will expect you to sit nicely at table, and Uncle Sam will spend the whole time talking about how to grow giant onions, but it’s Christmas and they do like to see the children.” Perhaps, we’ve even done that to our own children!
This sort of thing has a lot to do with family, and rules, spoken and unspoken; those invisible laws about how we should behave with and relate to our ‘elders’. It doesn’t necessarily have a lot to do with love, or grace, or spontaneous gifts, Christmas, birthdays… or whatever.
Nicodemus, as a Pharisee, was quite good on rules; how people’s relationship with God worked should, in his eyes, have been based on abiding by them. He wasn’t so blind that he couldn’t see that God was at work somehow in the miracles that Jesus was doing, but when Jesus started to relate his abilities to people – not just him – “being born from above” Nicodemus is utterly flummoxed. He doesn’t seem to know a rule that allows people to be born twice, and when Jesus explains the difference between physical and spiritual birth to him, he’s still mystified. The Pharisees had got so wrapped up in their rule book that they’d forgotten where the Jewish people actually came from, and how!
God called Abram (Genesis 12:1-4). There were no ‘people of God’ before Abram, and importantly, there were no Ten Commandments until well after him. There’s a lot else that happens in the story of the people of Israel between Abram and Moses; for starters they multiply from a family to a much bigger family – a nation of people. The Law, as those commandments and the man-made sub-clauses created around them, was not the defining symbol of the people of Israel. Nor was circumcision, which was something that Abram was instructed to do (Genesis 17) as a sign of this covenant relationship whereby he believed himself and his family to be called by God (Romans 4:3), something we call faith. That little iceberg word ‘faith’ is the crux of the issue; the nation of Israel were a people of faith whom God called, and not defined by circumcision, or the Ten Commandments and the Law. Their covenant was born of the Spirit of God (John 3:8), the same breath or wind that had moved over the waters of creation (Genesis 1:2).
As a Pharisee and student of Jewish scripture in which the law was contained, Nicodemus should have known and remembered this, and it is this that Jesus rather sternly reminds him of. The Pharisees’ focus on the Law had straight-jacketed them, and the people of Israel, into forgetting that they were a people of faith, and that faith is a living, breathing thing, a relationship built on love, and grace, and spontaneous gifts as the wind of the Spirit blows. Judaism had become a religion of rules, where what family you were born into defined who you would be, and what you would be able to do in life.
Whilst Jesus had been born of the royal line and lineage of David, who and what he was called to be and do was defined by his relationship with God his Father, his calling as God made man, the Messiah, God with us. God’s relationship with us the people of the world, was never designed to be limited to the people of Israel in the long-term, as Abram’s original calling and his covenant with God testified: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed (Gen 12:3), and “I have made you the father of many nations” (Genesis 17:5).
Ordinary birth into the extended family of the people of Israel, or even a specific family within that, wasn’t enough to convey membership of the new covenant and Kingdom of God that Jesus was initiating. It is God’s loving initiative in sending Jesus, and people’s belief, their faith, that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,…”, conveyed through baptism by water and the Holy Spirit, that initiates our inclusion in the Kingdom of God.
So what of the Ten Commandments which we in Lent are prone to recite, and the other rules in which Nicodemus was well schooled? The function of the Law at it’s original and best, could perhaps be described as a mirror, which the people of Israel could hold up in front of themselves, and in which they should see every spot and pimple in their own lives. The Ten Commandments didn’t define the people of Israel, but highlighted where they fell short of the ideal of a faith-filled relationship with God. They were a means to the end game of a covenant relationship, not the end in and of itself. The Commandments, distilled into the two that Jesus taught – love God, and love thy neighbour as thyself – are a mirror by which we explore the extent to which we are managing to live out our faith in God, our relationship with Jesus; the extent to which our baptism in water and the Holy Spirit are bearing fruit.
But the additional rules that had accreted around them weren’t even achieving that! When the people, the family of God, start making the rules their god instead, the family becomes closed to its expansion to and inclusion of others in the world, the very purpose for which God breathed and called them into existence. It’s as true now, as it was then.
Jesus is helping Nicodemus to understand that what Jesus is doing actually comes through his relationship with God, helping Nicodemus return to a properly Abrahamic belief in God. We don’t see it in our Gospel today, but these words must have struck home, because later Nicodemus will speak up for Jesus’ right to a fair hearing under the Law (John 7:51) using it as a tool, not an end or judgement in itself. Later still when we come to Good Friday, we will see Nicodemus respond to the Jesus whom his compatriots have crucified, by accompanying Joseph of Aramathea in the preparation of Jesus’ body for burial (John 19:39-42). The Law now forgotten, the relationship with Jesus is all important, exemplified in loving care and compassion even at the time of his death.
But Jesus is speaking to our time too. Where in the world, and in what context in this country, are we seeing rules becoming the thing to be lived by, rather than the love, care and compassion that those of us who are baptised Christians are called to live by? We can’t just stand idly by when this happens, we are called to speak out just as Jesus spoke to Nicodemus. Are we living by a set of rules, or ruled by the Spirit of God? In recent weeks our own family, the dear old Church of England, has given us some glaring examples of what happens when relationships are confined or defined by a set of human rules through which the Holy Spirit has not necessarily been allowed to blow. Have we remembered that as co-inheritors of the promises made to Abram for the whole world, we are called to live as a faith-filled mirror of God’s inclusive love for all?
Perhaps Jesus is saying to us today that if we’re not careful Great Aunt Flo and Uncle Sam will recognise that our duty visit is only paying lip-service to a loving relationship, and they may well make the fact that we’ve been rumbled abundantly clear, to the discomfort of all concerned! Relationships that work only by a set of rules are prone to cracks, and pain, and family breakdown; and there needs to be honesty, repentance and then forgiveness when that is the case, so that duty is set aside, and relationships of love are rekindled as a testament to our love for God in Jesus, and our baptism by water and the Spirit.
I was brought up with Lent being marked by church furnishings and vestments in a deep purple colour, the same as are used in Advent (and by some for funeral services).
St. Mary’s Old Basing and Lychpit however is a church that has turned to an older tradition, as I have discovered that the purple is a relatively modern (19th century), originally Roman Catholic tradition. Instead, we use the more ancient custom of the Lenten Array where we cover the altar and decorative elements of the church in unbleached linen (or in places, it’s modern equivalent – best not look too closely!) The candles held by angels around the altar aren’t lit either.
The idea (as I understand it – feel free to correct me if you know better) is that we focus on the suffering of Christ (which is why the red motifs), our need for repentance, and is a reminder perhaps of the sackcloth of the ancients for whom it showed grief when someone died (Lent being a time when we try to be dead to our sins, of omission and commission).
In our large Grade 1 listed church, the Lenten Array means that the various furnishings of the church fade into the background of the whitewashed walls, and I am aware there is much less to distract the eye than at other times of year. One of my Twitter pals (@Turkeyplucker) suggests that this was something that Percy Dearmer was aware of when he revived the Sarum rituals at the turn of the 20th century in his search for a more authentically English catholic sense of ritual in the Church of England.
Part of me wants to say it’s fussy covering everything up; in many of the churches I’ve worshipped in, we’ve struggled to have liturgical furnishings of any sort – in a school hall, you’re lucky if the tressle table doubling as ‘holy table’ has a covering of the correct seasonal colour! However a church like St. Mary’s is very different, and I am finding I like this particular tradition; when Easter arrives it means the sudden colour of golden vestments, floral decorations and candlelight are a much more significant echo of the Resurrection.
(When I remember to take the camera, I’ll try and get some better photos than these taken on my iPad.)
My sermon last Sunday 7th Feb 2015 (using the lectionary readings Exodus 34:29-end, 2 Cor 3:12-4:2 and Luke 9:28-36 [37-43a]) was the only ‘ordinary time’ sermon of this spring, since the distance between Candlemas and Ash Wednesday was a matter of 7 days.
In only a third of the weddings I’ve had the privilege of taking, has the bride worn a veil that was down as she entered the church on her wedding day. Since my survey currently only covers three weddings, to extrapolate the assumption that veils aren’t very popular with brides today, is possibly a distortion of statistics, but I think it might be safe to say that there have been times in the history of western culture when the wedding veil has been more popular.
In the Roman era they were red to ward off evil spirits! At times they have been used to cover the ‘goods’, lest a bridegroom renege on the deal at the last minute!! Thankfully, arranged marriages are now illegal. At times veils have emphasized on the chastity the bride, and they weren’t lifted until the end of the ceremony, as a symbol we might suggest, of things to come. Today, a veil retains a little secrecy, keeping the beauty and hopefully happiness of the bride hidden from the gauping throng as long as possible. As the veil is now raised BEFORE the service starts, the symbolism is more about the bride freely giving of the inner beauty of her personality and reflecting the love she is receiving from the groom. All suitably romantic. It is nearly Valentine’s Day after all!
In our Old Testament story today, Moses is no blushing bride, but rather is forced into wearing a veil, almost permanently. He has been away from the people of Israel, talking, on their behalf, with God. Actually IN the presence of God, something that no human alive had experienced. He comes away radiant, shining with the joy and glory of the encounter. And, the people of Israel? They can’t bear to look.
Moses has with him a SECOND set of tablets on which are engraved The Commandments. They are, as it were a replacement set, for Moses had broken the first two in frustration when he had returned from a previous mountaintop consultation with God to find the people of Israel had made a Golden Calf. Frustrated by their endless wandering in the wilderness they had thought it might offer better guidance and protection for their journey, than the distant seeming Lord with whom Moses kept conferring. But they had been firmly shown that the only thing keeping them from understanding God’s constant care over their travels, was their lack of trust in the one who had brought them to freedom.
Now, seeing the reflection of God’s presence on Moses’ face was more than their guilt-burdened hearts could bear. Gradually their leaders, and then the rest of the community come close enough to hear the words of guidance and protection that will really protect them: commandments to love God, respect each other, avoid idolatry and return as gift the best of everything God gives to them. Moses’ radiance confirms that what he is saying is authentically from God, but whilst they’re willing to accept the rules, they can’t live with such constant proof of God’s presence. So it is ironic perhaps, that it is not the people who take up veils to shield themselves from the glory of God, but poor Moses who is forced to hide from them the impact of his encounters with God.
St. Paul wants nothing veiled. In our second reading today, he has no truck with the idea of hiding the impact of God’s presence on people’s lives. Of course, he too had seen God’s glory – and in his case a veil, as of scales, had fallen over his eyes after his vision of the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. For three days they had reminded him of his dependence on God as he grappled with belief in who Jesus really was. With his baptism into that faith, the glory of God which was the boldness of Paul’s ministry was given its freedom, transforming one degree of glory to another, changing the lives of those who heard him and saw for themselves a radically changed man. For him, there could be no cloak of secrecy about the Good News of Jesus that had revealed the forgiveness of God.
It is a brief revelation of the grace-filled glory that would be brought about by the cross and resurrection of Christ, that forms the start of this morning’s Gospel. Peter, John and James are witness to Jesus being gloriously soaked in the presence of his Father God. At the very moment when he is consciously turning his face toward Jerusalem, and another, more ugly hill, Jesus talks with Moses, who had carried the Law of the Lord to his people, and Elijah, the prophet who had challenged them to be faithful to that law. Jesus was of course to be the fulfilment of all that these two men had strived for: a new covenant relationship between God and his people that enables each of us to lift the veils we place between ourselves and the love of God.
So much of Jesus’ ministry was about healing wounds, injustice and prejudice caused by human idolatry, not perhaps of a Golden Calf, but of money, wealth and a craving for power and control. They are the reason His death, resurrection and, glorious ascension are the permanent lifting of the veil of slavery to things which harden people’s hearts, to reveal for each of us that we can be made a new, radiant creation through faith in him. As Christ died on the cross, the curtain or veil of the Temple in Jerusalem was torn in two, because with his death went the last barriers to the freedom of which, and with which, St. Paul later spoke.
Moses removed his veil when he went into the presence of the Lord God to take counsel. The cloud that veils Jesus’ glorious encounter that the three disciples fail to fully comprehend, is lifted by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, when they are equipped with the boldness to speak about Jesus as the Son of God. Likewise Paul writes to the Corinthians, that when anyone turns to belief in Jesus and receives baptism, their veil is also removed because their faith places them in the presence of God. If we believe in Christ, there is nothing of which to be ashamed.
This Sunday, we turn from our consideration of the birth and early life of Jesus, to a greater awareness of the purpose of his death, resurrection and ascension. As we prepare for Ash Wednesday we are asked to look into our own lives, picturing ourselves perhaps as penitent Israelites or confused disciples, and consider where we may have placed a veil between us and God. Perhaps we have made an idol of something that has become a greater priority than giving time to loving God’s people and his creation. Perhaps we can’t quite bear to look closely at who he reveals himself to be in Christ, so we ignore the need to search for a better understanding of what he asks of us. Perhaps we are confused, unsure of what all this means and frightened of where it might be leading us.
We are called to lift those veils by setting aside our idols,… by study,… and by simply trusting God, even when he might seem absent. God sent Jesus into the world, so that through faith in him we could be transformed into his image, changed from one degree of glory to another, to become more like him, day by day. We need to be willing to keep our focus on the law, the love and the glory of God, and allow it to change our lives so much that we can look at ourselves and see the character of Jesus starting to be reflected in what we think and how we act. That will be our assurance that we are soaked in God’s presence as we journey on through life.
Right down in the depths of his soul, the humanity of Jesus was troubled.
The friend, the brother, the healer, the preacher, the teacher, the comforter;
all that Jesus was – even as Son of God – shrank from the suffering that at this moment in his ministry, suddenly became very, very, real; the climax of all he was on earth to do, that would take his all, his very life.
Does that bother us?
Does it bother us that the divine one got nervous about what he knew was coming; the rigged trial, the torture, the ridicule, the crucifixion – death itself? Or, is it somehow reassuring, to face those grim moments in life when we have to make decisions that are going to cause us hassle, cost us money, lifestyle, time, peace of mind, possibly even make us look like fools for sticking to our Christian principles – is it reassuring that Jesus too was troubled by the price he had to pay for who he was, and who WE are, with HIS life?
Or again, does it make us wonder, what was it that really bothered Jesus at that moment when a bunch of God-fearing Greeks, sought him out for an interview, and his disciples got all uncertain about whether they should let them near him or not?
I wonder what it was that really bothered Jesus?
It may have been the very fact that these God-fearing Greeks were seeking him out at all, signifying that the time was right for him to redeem the whole world, not just his own people, whose leaders would condemn him, lift him up from the earth, crucify him. He had “come unto his own, and his own had received him not”. Now, it was only through being nailed up that those that sought him out – whether Greek or indeed Jew – would not just see, but really encounter and recognise the truth, the fullness, the glory, of who Jesus was.
It may be that what bothered Jesus was the uncertainty with which the disciples, the people who he had taught, led, corrected and explained stuff to for three long years, welcomed the Greeks. Had they still not got it, even now, when the time for all to be completed was so close at hand; when they would need all the teaching and resources of faith in who he was to understand the importance of the terrifying, distressing, amazing, unbelievable events that they were about to witness?! If THEY still didn’t get that, what chance had the rest of the world got of understanding and living out his message of unconditional love for all people, regardless of their ethnicity?!
It could be that what bothered Jesus was whether anyone would take his sacrifice, and the glory that gave to God, seriously enough to follow in his footsteps? Would anyone ever again give God the sort of sovereignty in their lives that he was about to, so that his sacrifice would not be in vain? He was going to be physically broken on the cross, and remade in obedience to his Father’s will, but he may have doubted that anyone who followed him would allow themselves to become as broken, and as remade, for others in God’s name.
It may be, that whilst he’d lived and taught that God’s Kingdom had come with abundant grace and love, he was bothered that those who did follow him hadn’t really understood that this new covenant relationship with God came as a judgement on a human society that was capable of thinking so much of itself that it rebelled against it’s creator to the extent that it could kill him, him who gave them life. Whilst the tyranny of evil WOULD be broken on the cross, Jesus knew that until he comes again, the self-delusion of the power-hungry would still be a force to be reckoned with, against which God would need to strengthen us in the spiritual realms.
Yes, it was probably all those things that troubled and bothered Jesus as he prepared for his death, alongside the very human reaction of shrinking from the physical agony of torture and crucifixion; but do those things bother us today?
Does it bother us, that there are those who come looking for Jesus, but don’t really get to see him for who he really is? Who need perhaps a little encouragement to pray and seek God among the pain life has dealt them; who are concerned that church is just for people with too much time on their hands; or think that faith in Jesus is just some spiritual crutch they don’t need to motivate them to help others? Do we know people, who with a little encouragement from OUR friends, WE can be brave enough to draw into the presence of Jesus this Holy Week?
Does it bother us, that whilst Jesus lived and died a message of unconditional love, we’re still enveloped in a world that at best stifles love for our neighbours, and at worst seeks to cut them off from riches not just of the world’s resources, but from our own God-given capacity for love? God’s desire for reconciliation with and among all people, lifted his son up on the cross. So will we respond not just by reaching out to those we see and know with a helping hand, but by making sure that EVERY cross we might be asked to make in the next few weeks fulfils that same message of love and reconciliation?
Perhaps it bother us, that whilst we’re eager to encounter the risen, glorified Christ of Easter morning, actually we still feel like slightly trampled grains of wheat who haven’t yet found the purposeful growth that comes with putting down strong roots into the soil of following Jesus through Holy Week? How much would it cost us in time and effort to be open to Jesus’ presence this Passiontide?
And finally, does it bother us that each time we make a judgement on the actions of another, we’re forgetting to recognise that in doing so we’re falling into the trap of seeking to place ourselves on an equal footing with God, rather than at the foot of cross?
What troubled and bothered Jesus most, was that his thoughts, words and actions should glorify God, point to his love for all people, lead them into a new relationship with him, reconcile one group of people with another, and encourage all to follow him and grow in humility.
The question is, if we say we’re following Jesus, and seeking, like him, to glorify God in our lives, are those things bothering us?
There are probably very few of us that haven’t had one of those moments when we see something amazing, and promptly say something that sounds, well, rather stupid, at least to the ears of others, even if it makes perfect sense to us.
My husband and I well remember an occasion when we welcomed a friend’s sister-in-law at Gatwick, on her first ever trip outside Zimbabwe. It was December 21st, and there were flurries of snow. Comfort, that’s her name, was incredibly excited. Excited to be in England, and excited to see snow, something she had only heard of previously, as existing in the mountains. After the excited chatter of the journey to our home, and having got her bags inside, we made her stand outside, and catch some snowflakes in her hand. “Its’ soooo coooold” she squealed, immediately shaking them from her hand. “Well of course” we said, “It’s snow; frozen water!” We tried to catch some flakes to show her the minute and amazing detail of a snowflake, but all she could repeat was “Its’ soooo cold!”
Peter, it couldn’t have been anyone else really, could it – Peter makes a similar sort of comment in our Gospel reading this morning, when he, together with James and John, is witness to something truly awe-inspiring, far more awe-inspiring than a mere snowflake. To us, with the advantage of hindsight because of course we know [sarcastic voice] so much more now than Peter did then, to us, Peter’s comments about the booths seems daft. Yet, he was simply trying to ground what he was seeing in a context he could understand, and perhaps capture the moment for posterity: if these transcendent beings, wrapped in a cloud of God’s presence, and arguably the two greatest prophets of his faith with the man that seemed to be surpassing them, where coming to commune together, they would need protection from the elements! Or else, a physical marker as to the place of their encounter, a monument to the moment.
So, we think we know so much more now than Peter did then, don’t we?!
WE KNOW that a few seconds later, Peter got possibly the biggest put down of his life, direct from God! “Hey,” says God. “This is my Son all lit up in glory here. Yes really, just like you guessed at a few days ago, but seem to have forgotten. Now if you really want to understand what you guessed at then, and are witnessing now, shut up and listen. To him.”
WE KNOW that the reason why Peter, James and John (among others), really still don’t get who Jesus is, and why he promptly swears them to secrecy, is that the ultimate breakthrough moment for the Kingdom of God to which this vision is hinting, won’t happen until Christ has died, and rises to new life, a fully transfigured life, the start of God’s new Kingdom in which Peter and the others’ will play a crucial role.
WE KNOW that some things in the Bible, simply can’t be neatly explained, because they are ‘of God’. We might not have had a vision of the Divine ourselves, but we know that others through history have had profound revelations of the nature of God, and we have learnt to trust their witness, their wisdom and the spiritual truths God has revealed to us through those encounters. For example, Julian of Norwich famously found a revelation of God’s overwhelming love and concern for all his creation, in a tiny hazel nut, such as we might find in the churchyard, if the squirrels didn’t get them first!
So if we know all these things, what then, like Peter, are we missing? I can’t see a cloud signifying God’s presence amongst us this morning! There’s no back-lit, ultra-violet induced, light show worthy of a camera-phone snapshot that I can see! Where are the Old Testament prophets or medieval mystics in our company to point us to the divinity of Jesus, and the breaking in of God’s Kingdom in our own time?!
If we can’t see or always make sense of the significance of Jesus for our own lives, or the world at large, then firstly, I think it’s important to realise, we’re not alone. We know Peter’s been there before us, and to be honest, even if we’ve had moments of revelation that have helped our faith in Jesus before, it’s a tough ask to hold on to that faith once the moments past, as Peter would become all too aware, come cock crow on Good Friday.
But as we prepare to enter a Lenten search for a revelation of Christ’s divinity, or the presence of God’s Kingdom in world torn apart by suffering, there are, I think, two main approaches that we can take; at least two that I’m going to be contemplating this Lent.
The first is to look at the details. Peter and the others took in the detail the appearance of Jesus, Elijah and Moses, the cloud, even when it comes, God’s command. It’s a bit like a scientist looking through myriad super-computer telescope images for signs of the birth of a new star or universe, we need to look at the detailed picture presented by scripture of how Jesus was revealed as more than the ultimate in Old Testament prophets, both God and man, suffering servant and glorified Son, crucified scapegoat for religious zealots and risen Lord. What our specific focus is might vary hugely, and depend on what we’ve learnt in the past, or what we are struggling with in our personal faith journey, but looking at the detail carefully is key.
The second approach to searching for a Lenten revelation, is to simply stop looking. To stop. To stop and focus either on something else entirely, or nothing at all. When the three disciples climbed that mountain with Jesus there was nothing to suggest they were expecting what happened next. It was just a quiet moment with their teacher, and the dramatic scenery. There’s a lovely expression I encountered a few years ago which I really like, especially when I’ve had a rare opportunity to experience it – it’s the ability to “free-wheel with God”. To sit, or stand, and stare – not so much at something in particular but simply taking in the view, in a mind-emptying, spiritually calming, guilt free environment, where God can step in and fill the space in a way that only he knows we need. It might be that it needs a moment of free-flow creativity to help it happen, the gardening, a tapestry, a long walk; or it may be that a piece of writing, artwork or music might flow from it. It might be that just stopping, completely, is the key with no expectation of input or output.
The important thing, whether we’re looking at the detail of our faith in Christ, or simply stopping to experience God revealed in our own life and experiences, is to recognise what we’re seeing when we’re encountering it, and treasure it as something to come back to and reflect on again and again in the light of our future experiences. Because patently, that’s what James, John and indeed Peter did, else we wouldn’t have been drawn up short by their mountain top experiences this morning!
Some while back I took delivery of what I thought would be my ordination (white – Christmas/Easter/Weddings) stole and the green (‘ordinary time’) stole, and now my stole maker has completed the red (Pentecost and Saints Days) and Purple (Advent and Lent) ones. During the intervening time the red one has in fact become my ordination stole after the new Precentor and our Bishop came up with the change of plan in the middle of our Deacon’s Day!
Once again I am totally thrilled with the way that Deborah Ireland has turned my scribbled notes and photographs, along with snippets of significant material including more bits of my wedding dress, into the most amazing creations which will mean I carry the stories of my faith journey and some special people into my ordained ministry.
The red stole is all about the Holy Spirit – Pentecost being a deeply significant time for me, and if it wasn’t for the prompting of the Holy Spirit (both in my life, and in the lives of others who nudged me into getting my head round the possibility of a calling to ordination) I wouldn’t be just over two weeks from ordination – interview with my Bishop next week permitting! Hidden in the stitchwork is the music for a favourite chorus that will make some cringe, but is one that can move me to tears and remind me of my baptism in the Spirit at St. Mike’s in Aberystwyth (Pentecost 1988) as well as many years of leading or singing in worship bands. I’ll let you guess what it might be!
Pentecost was also about the people of God being enabled to do more than they could possibly imagine through the power of the Spirit at work in them – so there’s people there too, and though I didn’t design it with this in mind, everytime I look at one of the characters I think of my mother. The dove of peace is a bit of wedding dress, with one of the beads off the same to make it’s eye!
My purple stole is double sided and it’s probably easy to spot the bits of wedding dress; losely speaking Advent and Lent. From an early age flower arranging was part of life (or at least sweep up after my Mothers’ church flower arrangements was), so as well as the symbolism of anticipating the light of Christ coming into the world, there’s a slight nod in that direction on the Advent side. There are also stars – something are both a significant interest of my husband and some very long-standing friends as well as being a reminder of the need to follow Christ faithfully even when we can’t really see where he’s leading us!
The Lenten side used as its inspiration not only the crown of thorns placed on Christ’s head at the crucifixion but also the nails themselves – designed from a photo of some hand-made ‘crucifixion’ nails my Dad had made by a New Forest blacksmith a couple of years ago. Those familiar with the “Water Bugs and Dragonflies” book for explaining death to young people will understand why I wanted one on a stole I might well wear to take funerals – over and above the fact that they’re a big photographic passion of my husband and I. We are really impressed at the lifelike markings Deborah has created on this Common Darter that we photographed together with my Dad in a favourite place in the New Forest a couple of years ago (see below). The dragonfly’s wings are made of net from the petticoat of my wedding dress, and some of the material is taken from a gift received many years ago from a Nigerian Catholic nun aquaintance… I hope she appreciates the use I’ve put it too.
That’s me all set up with vestments then. I look forward to wearing them as reminders of so much of the past, but also the importance of making best use of past experiences and interests in my future ministry, such that God is glorified.
Common Darter dragonfly – the inspiration for the stole (photographed at a place known as Murray’s Passage, New Forest)
Lent was this year, a dark time. There was a lot of wrestling for me to do, and a lot of just getting through all sorts of anxieties and pain – mental and physical.
My husband and I gave up on our daily ‘Giving It Up’ blog conversation; not because we had a problem with Maggi Dawn’s lovely book, but simply because there weren’t enough hours in the day. He was up to his ears in coursework marking, and other secondary school related strain, and I recognised that it was taking me round in ever decreasing mental circles that weren’t particularly healthy, and were a distraction from the job in hand, namely writing my Old Testament portfolio. But, by late Good Friday this portfolio was complete, and handed in last Tuesday as term re-started.
Easter School marked a significant point for all of working to the end of our final year of ordination training, and brought together people from the OMC/RCC part-time and mixed-mode formats, and those from WEMTC also part of the Cuddesdon family. Since the other year groups have Summer School later in the year (after ordination season), this signals the beginning of the end for those of us due to be ordained this year.
The focus was Mission, which I’m sure would please my diocesan bishop, and our wealth of visiting speakers were very good. What surprised me was the way they inadvertently drew together an important network of experiences, ‘loose ends’ in my past that I’d almost completely forgotten about during training, but were very significant in their contributions to me being there at all.
Ann Morisy was talking to us about community/neighbourhood mission, and started to tell the story of a Mothers’ Union group who, despite age and infirmity, travelled to Zimbabwe carrying old hand sewing machines safely to those who would put them to good use making a living, and teaching future generations, in difficult circumstances. It is unheard of for me to be reduced to tears in a lecture, but I was as she described the impact these ‘radicalised older ladies’ (who allowed nothing to stand in the way of their mission) had on their grandchildren. I remembered the photos our 17 year old son had recently chosen to have printed up which included a large selection of those taken on our trip to Uganda and South Africa when he was nine, largely in connection with Mothers’ Union, and my realisation that they and this, our only trip abroad as a family, has had such a big impact on his view of the world and I guess the purpose of church. It reminded me too, that without Mothers’ Union I’d not be where I am today, as they radicalised this younger woman to contemplate all sorts of things (including foreign travel, preaching… etc.) that I would never have done otherwise.
The second ‘loose end’ of my life, was when Steve Hollinghurst of the Church Army (who blogs here) was talking about the necessity for and growth in Fresh Expressions of Church. He talked about the early church plants, represented on the statistics he showed us from 1992/3 when they tended to be ‘church plants’ through to the present day. I sat looking at a quite boring graph (sorry Steve) thinking, ‘I was probably part of one of those statistics’ and remember spending a very important 4 years or so helping ‘plant’ the All Saints congregation of Warfield Church (which also included the Eternity youth congregation, which was much more of a ‘fresh expression, though were were planted into virgin community, so both were valid). That was 1993/4! I wish we’d known then, what Steve was teaching us now, as I think we might have done things at least a bit differently.
[Interestingly Steve’s sessions also touched, tantalisingly briefly, on contemporary pagan/Christian conversations, and his involvement with the Forest Church communities, that I shall be exploring in the next 8 weeks for my next (Mission and Evangelism) portfolio!]
In retrospect all these ‘loose ends’ of the past should all have been much more at the forefront of my mind during training, and I wish my memory for the details of my experiences was greater, but this reminders were very much God’s gift to me as Lent closed. So it seemed so appropriate when at the last Evening Worship of Easter School we were asked to do just that – and in doing so make a cross, which I shall treasure.
The last loose end that appeared in Lent, was news that Rt. Revd. John Cavell contributed to the series “Rev”. When this story was posted on Twitter, the name seemed familiar. When I read the article I remembered why – as Bishop of Southampton he confirmed me in July 1979! As part of my preparations for ordination I have today posted off various certificates to the Diocesan Registrar including my Confirmation Certificate. This is a rare beast many don’t have, and instead have to have certified copies of registers and the like. However, my Mother had taken great pains to obtain one for me from Bishop John many years later. She had been prompted by my uncle’s desperate pre-ordination search for proof of his Confirmation, to make sure her daughter had a certificate, just in case! Given this was October 1991 (before the vote to ordain women to the priesthood), and I have the letter to prove it, that was quite some loose end my Mother left for me to tie up!!!!
Apparently it is exactly 15 weeks until my ordination as Deacon, according to one of my cohort who dropped that little nugget into a Facebook post today.
How does that make me feel?
Frightened. Interestingly the fear is not for what comes after ordination, though there is a nervous anxiety mixed with the excitement for my new ministry in a new place, but instead fear of what needs to be accomplished in the next 15 weeks.
I have spent most of this afternoon working through a detailed commentary on Genesis 1:1-2:3 – the creation story (according to P, the priestly contributor to the Pentateuch saga). It was particularly interesting to note that even the most brilliant of Old Testament scholars can’t always resist the temptation to overlay their own theological views onto something they’re trying to be objective about.
In her lengthy reflection on the story of Abraham’s thankfully aborted attempt to sacrifice Isaac in Genesis 22, Maggi Dawn poses the question of whether our view of God is skewed by our pride and other misconceptions, or whether we are suitably aware of his abundant grace in our lives?
Today, mired in Old Testament theology, it feels like it will only be grace that will get me through this next 15 weeks to the altar. That feels like a far greater sacrifice is needed on my part in this next slog through two portfolios, than the weeks and years of ordained ministry that will follow, though I suspect this is far from true.
I need to look day by day to be obedient to the sacrifice that needs to be made, the level of sacrifice that I’ve probably not exhibited so much or so willingly in ordination training as I did in Reader training, so that I can hear God’s voice and experience his grace, directing me to more fruitful times ahead.
I still haven’t completely fathomed why I’ve been less willing to give up time and effort to climb the mountain this time round, though I think it started out with an expectation by myself and others that I carried a certain amount of useful past experience with me that would stand me in good stead. True though that might have been of ministry when I get there (and I’m not sure now), I think it has actually hindered the training process. But it’s really time to shoulder the burden good and proper now, before it’s too late.
Sorry, bit of a low post, of little use to others, but that’s sort of where I’m at tonight.