Tag Archives: Christ

Hail To Christ, The King

Hail to Christ, the King

Hail to Christ, the King

On Sunday we came to the last Sunday of the church’s year. It goes out with a bang, celebrating Christ as King. The evening brought a quieter more reflective time when we could think about just what sort of king Jesus is.

Using some of the liturgy from Liturgies for High Days by Dorothy McRae-McMahon, we thought about a different kind of royalty, one bereft of privilege and wealth, whose power lies in truth, faithfulness and grace for all people. We also remembered Jesus’ faithfulness to his calling, entering into the pain of our lives and yet able to leap free of all its bondages.

The cross that frees us from bondage

The cross that frees us from bondage

Our reading for the evening was one of those ones that lends itself naturally into a meditative retelling. Here is my version of Luke 23:32-43:

The journey through the streets had been tortuous, the crowd pressing in on either side. The sounds of jeering and weeping had mingled together to form a cacophony that heralded their progress. Now they had left the city gate and slowly climbed the skull-shaped hill called Golgotha. Three condemned men, each bearing the burden of a death sentence, brought out to this seemingly god-forsaken place to be nailed to a cross and hoisted high so that all might see that justice had been done.

Few people had made the effort to ascend the incline; there was a perfectly good view from the shaded city walls, and they were even more grateful for that distance as the midday sun rose to its zenith, its heat intensifying the stench of decay that hung in the sultry air over the place.

Jesus’ thoughts, however, were not for his own physical discomfort but that God might show mercy to those who had condemned him, and he cried aloud, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not realise what they are doing’. Some of those who heard these words felt a pang of guilt sweep over them and turned away, ashamed.

Are there times when we too turn away in shame?…

But beneath the crosses the guards, who had seen it all before, bickered over who should have his redundant clothing before drawing straws; the winner triumphant that he had obtained such a seamless tunic so cheaply. Whilst the representatives of the Jewish leaders, perhaps sensing the remorseful sentiments of the woman who had gathered there, tried to add justification of their part in the proceedings by scoffing at Jesus, pointing out that this man who claimed to be the chosen Messiah of God seemed incapable of saving himself despite his claim to have saved others. Hearing this, the soldiers joined in, offering a toast to the ‘King of the Jews’ with a sponge soaked in sour wine. Even so, they could see no glorious death of a king in battle, no pomp and ceremony, and soon grew tired of mocking this inaptly titled monarch.

When might our desire for ritual and symbols blind us from the simple truth?…

One of the criminals, hearing these things, turned and spoke in derisory tones to the man who hung beside him in silent sufferance, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ His thoughts were, that if this was the hope of Israel then surely he could save not only himself from this punishment but them also, however unlikely that was… and it was a slim hope that he would not die today.

However, the other rebuked him harshly; pointing out that self-preservation was not necessarily the main reason to call on God in these circumstances, particularly when they were both there for being condemned justly for their actions. It was clear to him that Jesus was a victim of a miscarriage of justice; what’s more he had recognised the holiness of this innocent man. Perhaps, he told the other, they should fear God’s ultimate punishment more.

Where does it leave us if we only call on God in times of crisis?

Turning to Jesus, an honest and heartfelt plea came to his lips, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ As the figure at his side turned to look at him with a full gaze, he saw not a broken and bloodied man but a saviour in all his resplendent majesty who spoke immeasurable words of reassurance, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’

IMG_5817

Back to the service then, as we sang ‘Jesus remember me, when you come into your kingdom’ as a prayerful chant and thought about our ‘king’ who calls us to have a more generous love for the world; to bravely dream of the future where we might be a new hope for better things to come and to remain steadfast in our faith in the possibility of Christ’s reign of love.

Hail to Christ, the King,
ruler who lays down the power to destroy,
leader who treads through the costly journey
and into the shadow places of life,
that we might find the rising of life before us:

Hail to Christ, the King,
born to be first witness to God’s truth,
whose might lies in mercy,
whose throne is placed in the midst of humble people.

Hail to Christ, the King

Some material has been reproduced from Liturgies for High Days, Dorothy McRae-McMahon ©SPCK. The meditation is my own.

The purple stole used in the service as a focal point was created by Deborah Ireland. See here for more information about her work

Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff?

Don't sweat the small stuff?

Don’t sweat the small stuff?

Readings: James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

May I speak and may you hear through the grace of our Lord: Father, Son and Holy Spirit

There’s an American idiom that you may have heard of, ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff’. It’s basically something that might be said to someone in order to tell them not to worry about things that are not important. It’s actually not a bad thing to suggest, because sometimes we worry about getting the small things sorted out and forget to look at the bigger picture. So are the small things unimportant?

The bigger picture as far as Jesus was concerned was teaching people what their attitude needed to be in relation to God, not whether they had dotted the ‘I’s and crossed the ‘T’s on their membership application to the Christian faith.

In this section of Mark’s gospel people are flooding to him – he has just fed the five thousand, had a brief respite in prayer; and then walked out to his disciples in their boat, when they were fighting against an adverse wind, to calm the weather and their fears. On landing he has been immediately recognised and word has spread and people are rushing about the region, bringing to him their sick, begging for and being granted healing.

Now in this passage, the Pharisees and scribes, who had no doubt been sent out from Jerusalem to gather evidence against him are interrupting a well-deserved meal break to tell him that he’s breaking Jewish law by eating with unwashed hands. No wonder he decides to tell them as it really is! ‘Stop sweating the small stuff!’

To the Jews, and in particular the Pharisees, however, the small stuff was important. They believed that, alongside the written Torah, there existed another body of oral laws, interpretations and traditions transmitted by God to Moses orally and then memorised. In fact there are 613 statutes stated in the Halakhah, or Jewish Law, most of which are derived from the Torah’s books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy … never easy reads!… but some are laws that have been enacted by the rabbis, who have interpreted the Torah over time.

A few of them are related to particular groups of people such as the Nazarites, whilst a large proportion of the others relate to sacrifices and offerings which can only be made in the Temple, which no longer exists. There are some that sound rather quaint to our ears, such as ‘not to make a bald spot in mourning’ or ‘not to eat worms found in fruit once they have left the fruit’… presumably it’s okay to eat them whilst they are still in the fruit then! But there are some that are abhorrent… that a rapist must marry his victim if she is unwed and is never allowed to divorce her. Certainly tells us a lot about the status of women if nothing else.

The laws to which Mark was referring to, and which he explained in some detail to his mainly Gentile audience, are part of the Kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws concerning kosher foods and its preparation and handling, and were part of a highly complex and developed system of purity regulations. For orthodox Jews even today they throw up problems, such as how you are going to use a dishwasher for both meat and dairy utensils in a kosher home. Still sweating the small stuff!

Kashrut symbols blog

For many modern non-orthodox Jews, however, they believe that the laws of kashrut are simply primitive health regulations that have become obsolete and that the legalistic aspect of traditional Judaism reduces religion to a set of rituals devoid of spirituality, which was not the intention of Halakhah, which can be translated better as ‘the path that one walks’. So they no longer see the need to sweat the small stuff, perhaps having been persuaded by changes in society that these laws are no longer important or relevant to their faith.

However, back in first century Palestine, Jesus points out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, in that by interpreting and applying scripture in this way they are only honouring God with what they say rather than what they do. His kingdom message has nothing to do with how and what you eat, that is not what will stop you becoming pure. Rather the challenge of the gospel is much more a challenge of the heart. He is insisting that good and bad external and physical actions come from internal and spiritual sources, and that it is human motivation that is the real problem.

His list of evil intentions seem full on, and perhaps it is easy for us to glance at the list and feel comfortable with the fact that on the whole we’re fairly sure we haven’t indulged in many of them, especially the biggies like fornication, murder or adultery. Yet can we be quite sure that in some small way we haven’t practiced theft… the pen ‘borrowed’ from work and never taken back; or licentiousness… the extra packets of cakes or food bought which never got eaten and which had to be thrown away; or slander… the sarcastic insult offered veiled with a smile? What about envy, pride or avarice?

Yes, we might say, but that’s only the small stuff… even so, Jesus doesn’t seem to rank them in order of importance; they are all equally said to be possible evil intentions that are present in and come from the human heart.

He also at this stage doesn’t seem to offer a solution as to what we can to do to either avoid or resolve this problem, we are simply left to infer it… of course later on and with our gift of hindsight we do know what the solution will be, through Christ’s ultimate revelation of the kingdom. However, our reading from the letter of James, does give us something concrete to act upon. It tells us that rather than drawing from our hearts those things that make us sordid that we should listen to that part of us that God has already placed within us.

We are to be quick to listen so that we can exercise self-control and know what the right thing to do is; take time to consider what the effect of our words might be on others so that we act with kindness; to be patient so that our actions are those of love rather than hate.

Christians are called to be above reproach and yet we are only too well aware that we so often fall short. But despite this we can’t casually set aside bits of scripture that we don’t like or understand. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to justify our actions because society around us doesn’t seem to worry about the small stuff; that’s how we become tainted by the world.

Yes, we make mistakes and get it wrong… yes we can seek forgiveness… and yes we will be forgiven; but we need to take an honest look at how we behave and change the things that make us follow human traditions rather than being doers of the word.

‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets;
I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them’. Matthew 5:17

The important thing is that Jesus came not to set aside the law but to fulfil it. The scriptures were not necessarily irrelevant then or now. They act as signposts to the reality that was Jesus. Everything that they were getting at reached a climax in Jesus Christ, and from then on everything was different. He became the perfect law, the law of liberty. So by keeping his law we can constantly remind ourselves of our relationship with the divine so that it becomes an integral part of our existence.

The Pharisees were more concerned that the rules were followed and that keeping the laws was more important than how people were treated. Jesus was more concerned with how we treat others; that we were love God and our neighbours as ourselves, because on those two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Should we sweat the small stuff?… I’ll let you decide.

Amen

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil' Matthew 5:17

‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them’ Matthew 5:17

 

Salt and Light

You are the salt of the earth... the light of the world

You are the salt of the earth… the light of the world

A fifth Sunday at St James, West End provided the opportunity to come together for evening worship in the style of Taizé. Prayer and silence are at the heart of Taizé worship along with the singing of repeated prayer chants, often highlighting simple phrases from the Psalms or other pieces of scripture, which are designed to help meditation and prayer.

A  candlelit San Damiano Cross, a large Romanesque rood cross, is usually the central focal point and is the cross that St. Francis of Assisi was praying before when he is said to have received the a divine commission to rebuild the Church. St James is lucky enough to have its own copy and was placed in the centre of the chancel steps for our service

Focusing on the San Damiano Cross

Focusing on the San Damiano Cross

What follows is excerpts from the evening service, including a meditation on Salt and Light.

Opening prayer (said together):

God our Father, be with us in our time of worship. When we pray, help us to concentrate our thoughts on you; when we listen to the reading of the Bible, help us to understand it; when we sing your praise help us to sing because we really love you: help us to worship you in spirit and in truth, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.  

Opening Chant:
Confitemini Domino quoniam bonus.
Confitemini Domino. Alleluia!
(Give thanks to the Lord for he is good).

Psalm 27:1-6, 13-14 was read, with a special emphasis on verse 14

Wait for the Lordbe strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!

Before the next chant:

Wait for the Lord, his day is near. Wait for the Lord: be strong, take heart!

Our reading Matthew 4:23 – 5:16 then led us into our meditation, that was in two parts. Firstly concerning salt

13 ‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.

 ‘You are the salt of the earth!’

Salt, that precious commodity that purifies, preserves and penetrates;
and we are called to be as salt into the world of human society
to purify, preserve, and penetrate that society for the kingdom of God

Who hasn’t felt the tiny flecks of salt on their skin when next to the ocean?
Or maybe you remember the jars packed with salt and green beans at harvest time
to provide a delicious treat in the depths of winter;
or licked your lips and tasted the saltiness after physical exertion?

Silence

Salt – as precious as gold
It paid the Roman soldier his salarium
and indicated your standing in society
as to whether you sat above or below the salt.

Salt – to purify and to heal
A gargle for sore throat, a soother of stings and burns,
a pain reliever for toothache and sore gums
a natural ‘miracle’ medicine

Salt – to preserve and penetrate
Adding flavour and preventing food from spoiling
and saving people from starvation
A symbol of fellowship and the common meal

Yet salt can become contaminated,
often burnt in ovens to increase the heat,
then no longer useful it is thrown out onto the ground
and mixes with the dirt and gets trampled underfoot

Silence

Therefore, God calls us, his precious creation,
to be like salt, to penetrate society
and show in our lives and our dealings with others
how in living differently and seeking purity
that we can bring healing and hope,
both now and for the future through Christ;
and to avoid those things that would contaminate us,
and seek ways of making life liveable, healthy and good

Silence

Taste and see...

Taste and see…

We are also blessed with special receptors on our tongues that can detect saltiness and know when things are good;
so take your pinch of salt, and if you want dip your finger in and taste and see that the Lord is good [small glasses with a pinch of salt had been given out to everyone at the beginning]

Our service continued by singing, as a chant, the chorus from the beautiful anthem ‘Taste and See the Goodness of the Lord’ by James Moore Jr. I am sure we didn’t do it as much justice as the soloist at the Washington National Cathedral*, but it provided a special moment in the midst of our worship.

Taste and see, taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
O taste and see, taste and see the goodness of the Lord, of the Lord.

Then concerning light:

14‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

‘You are the light of the world’

Light is vital to enable us to see in the darkness
and to help us to avoid stumbling.
Light is also an expression of inner beauty,
truth and the goodness of God.

Who hasn’t stood under the night sky and gazed up at the infinity of space
and seen the pin pricks of light of a million stars?
Or been awakened by the sunlight creeping in through their curtains;
or come home on a winter’s evening to a darkened house and been grateful to flick on the light?

The psalmists tell us that ‘In [God’s] light we see light’ (Psalm 36:9) and that
‘[His] word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path’ (Psalm 119:105)
Through God’s grace our darkness is illumined and banished
and we are filled with spiritual light, joy and peace.

Silence

Light dispels the darkness and nothing can be hidden;
From others, from ourselves, from God
Everything is known to God, who sees all.
Yet there is great freedom and joy for those
who live in God’s light and who seek his truth.

As believers that light shines in our hearts
and we are called to act as light-bearers of Christ
so that others may see the truth of the gospel
and be set free from those things that blind them

Silence

We should seek to show light and healing in every part of our lives
to every relationship, every activity, every word;
to bring Christ’s light and hope, joy and peace
to those who need it the most;
as well as discovering God’s light shining in unexpected places
revealing his glory.

Silence

glory of god blogSo let us light our candles and place them at the foot of the cross
to better illuminate that glory.

During the following chant, we were invited light a candle and place it in the bowl of sand at the foot of the Taizé cross.

The Lord is my light, my light and salvation: in God I trust, in God I trust

There followed five minutes of silence, introduced by saying together:
Lord, you are living water, You are light and fire, You are love.
Come, O Holy Spirit! Come, O Holy Spirit

Our service concluded with intercessions and a final chant:

Within our darkest night, you kindle the fire that never dies away, that never dies away. (repeat)

 and a final prayer:

Be with us Lord as we go out into the world. May our lips that have sung your praises always speak the truth; may our ears which have heard your word listen only to what is good, and may our lives as well as our worship be always pleasing in your sight, for the glory of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.  

Before we departed, having said the Grace.

There are not many fifth Sundays during the year, so it was nice to be able to be part of something special , something that was beautiful as well as uplifting, exactly what worship should be like.

Salt and light reveal the glory of the Lord

Salt and light revealing the glory of the Lord

*YouTube link to a soloist singing Taste and See The Goodness of the Lord at the Washington National Cathedral © James Moore Jr.  

The Service was put together by David Forster and Linda Galvin using both resources from the Taizé community and original material.

Servanthood – A Call To Serve

Based on Readings: Acts 11:27-12:2; Matthew 20:20-28

Your first sermon in a new church is always a tricky affair. How will the congregation react? What’s it like up in the pulpit? Is your style of preaching appropriate? Although you may have preached many times before, when you have been doing so in one particular church, in one particular place, to one particular group of people, you know that you have built up a relationship and a rapport over many years. Suddenly, the people looking back at you from your new viewpoint are strangers and this is the first time they have heard your thoughts and are eager to see what the new Curate has to say.

Add to all of that the fact that it’s the church’s Patronal Festival, when the life and character of the particular saint that the church is dedicated to has probably been discussed, dissected and generally mulled over for many years and you feel you have to come up with something new?

Sunday 26th July 2015 saw me climbing up into the pulpit at St James, West End, Southampton, to do just that. Here then is an abridged version of my talk.

May I speak and may you hear through the grace of our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit

Today we are here to celebrate the patronal festival of St James. James the fisherman, not to be confused with James brother of Jesus or James the author of an epistle. He is one of the closest companions of Jesus, alongside Peter and John, and together with them he is one apostle about whom we know quite a lot about his background and character. We know his father was Zebedee, a Galilean fisherman from whose boat James and his brother John answered Jesus’ call, and biblical scholars have reasoned that their mother was Salome, about whom we’ll hear more about in a minute.

I wanted to find out some interesting facts about James, but I suspect that you may have heard them all before… however, they are all new to me and here are a few I found especially interesting.

St James 'Son of Thunder'

St James ‘Son of Thunder’

 James has a nickname… ‘Son of Thunder!’ Whoa, that’s great… ‘Son of Thunder!’ …makes him sound like he should be in an Avengers movie. Apparently he got this after John and he asked Jesus if they should ‘call down fire from heaven’ to destroy a village and its inhabitants who had been less than welcoming. Needless to say his offer was declined.

You may have also wondered why there is a scallop shell on the church logo. Well, I hope that today you will all be going home to dine on Coquilles St Jacques à la Provençale…no?

This delicious dish of scallops, white wine and mushrooms is traditionally eaten on St James’ feast day, a reference to the saint’s appearance at the battle of Clavijo in the 9th century, riding on a white horse and adorned in scallop shells. On that occasion the Christians were able to defeat the Moors and the rallying cry of the Spanish troops, from that time became ‘Santiago!’

In our New Testament reading, we hear of James’ violent death at the hands of Herod Agrippa. He was the first of the apostles to suffer martyrdom, just over a decade after Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. However, the Spanish have a special place for St Iago, as James is translated, as they believe that his remains were buried in Compostela, having been transported there in a stone boat by angels, a place that has become the third greatest place of Christian pilgrimage after Jerusalem and Rome.

Some really interesting facts and stories; speaking of a man of great loyalty, fiery of spirit but willing to serve Christ to the point of offering up his life. However, in our gospel reading he and his brother have to stand by and watch as their mother tries to secure a favourable position for her boys in the new earthly kingdom she believes Jesus is bringing about. In Mark’s gospel this incident sees the brothers themselves asking for this advantageous position, but Matthew, writing some 25 years later, distances the disciples from this overly ambitious request and chooses their mother to press their case. Interestingly, it’s possible that this was because of their family relationship, as Salome is identified by the gospel writer John, as Jesus’ mother’s sister, making her his aunt and the brothers his full cousins.

What it shows is that the disciples were still thinking about personal reward and distinction without personal sacrifice. Jesus, however, knows that the kingdom he is to bring about is not about earthly values, and that whilst he doesn’t doubt their faith and commitment, it will be the Father’s decision as to what that looks like in the long run. You can imagine what the other apostles, said to James and John afterwards, perhaps some of them chastised them that their mother had spoken out in such a way or they were annoyed that the brothers were trying to gain extra favour. Whatever, it was they were angry about, Jesus points out that being one of his followers is not about human leadership values but instead true greatness comes through servanthood.

I wonder though what we think of when we are called to become servants or even as Paul puts it slaves. I suspect we could have a vision of Downton Abbey and life downstairs, although this particular portrayal is certainly a rosier picture than what it was actually like for many servants. But it’s not really about being powerless at the mercy of others. Instead, we should think about what servants do… they serve… Only three weeks ago at my ordination service the role of serving was emphasised time and again throughout the service. Let me read just one bit from the declarations that we had to make – first the bishop read out the job description.

They are to serve the community in which they are set, bringing to the church the needs and hopes of all the people. They are to work with their fellow members in searching out the poor and weak, the sick and lonely, and those who are oppressed and powerless, reaching into the forgotten corners of the world, so that the love of God may be made visible.

This then is the role of a deacon, to be a servant and what my title is for this first year. However, I don’t stop being a deacon after the year’s up, in fact you never stop being a deacon. Thomas is still a deacon; Bishop Tim is still a deacon and Archbishop Justin is still a deacon*. Once a deacon always a deacon, but despite it being a clerical title every one of you here could also be called deacons.

We are all called to serve in a variety of ways. We are called to serve in the worship life within this church building, whether as ministers or choir members; as servers or sidespeople; as cleaners or flower arrangers for example – everyone offering their gifts and time to build up the church community. But we are also called to serve and to be available to our wider community finding out ways in which the church as a body can meet their needs and be a beacon of hope. The great thing is that we are not called to do it alone as individuals, but to work with and support each other, being proactive as well as reactive. Then, as we serve we will become the visible signs of God’s love to all his people.

Deacons scarf blogOne of the visible symbols of being a clerical deacon is that I wear my stole slightly different to Thomas, who has been priested and I know some of you wondered why. Again it is to do with servanthood. During the Last Supper Jesus removed his outer robe and tied a towel around his waist in order to wash his disciples’ feet. In the ordination service it was the bishop or in my case the abbot who did just that to me.

For Christ it was a way of showing the extent to which he was prepared to humble himself to take on the form of a servant. He was demonstrating to us that we have to set the needs of others before our own. When we remove our outer pride and clothe ourselves in humility then we too can bow down in readiness to serve others

To some people in our society nowadays that seems like an alien concept, where self-satisfaction counts for more than self-giving. Surely by becoming a servant we also make ourselves vulnerable to abuse – we become doormats rather than open doors. I would disagree – if we are serving God and actively seeking how we can bring about justice and mercy for the vulnerable then we will have opened the doors to Christ’s kingdom.

Perhaps we should all consider how we can become more like those visible signs of Christ to those around us. Are we prepared to offer everything so that God’s kingdom can be brought about both on earth and in the future? It’s certainly a challenge and not an easy one. Jesus knew this, but he had trust in his followers. He never doubted that James and John would maintain their loyalty; he knew they had ambitions and their faults, but they didn’t turn away from him – they were prepared to give their all. In the same way he has trust in all of us.

For those of us who were here on my first Sunday, we sang the words ‘Brother, sister, let me serve you; let me be as Christ to you; pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too’. We have all been called to serve in this place. God has placed us here for a purpose; to serve him and to serve one another. Unquestionably, in doing that we cannot fail to become those visible signs of Christ’s love.

Amen

*Reverend Thomas Wharton (Priest in Charge, St James, West End); Tim Dakin (The Right Reverend The Lord Bishop of Winchester) and Justin Welby (His Grace The Lord Archbishop of Canterbury)

©The image used at the top of this blog is copyright and permission to use it has been sought from and granted by the artist. For details of how you can purchase a copy of this or of any of Debbie’s other artworks please visit https://www.etsy.com/uk/shop/DebbieSaenz

 

As Our Prayers Rise Before You

As our prayers rise before you

The smoke of the burning incense went up with the prayers of God’s people – Revelation 8:4

Prayer is a powerful tool; it’s a tool that enables us to communicate with God either directly or through the advocacy of Christ, more often than not in the power of the Holy Spirit. If you were to dip your hand into your prayer toolbox you should not be surprised that at different times and in different circumstances you would find a diverse range of tools that you could draw out; yet each one of them would fit your purpose.

Throughout my training I have had opportunities to experience different forms of prayer; from the strict, traditional Prayer Book style to free-flowing extemporary prayer. However, the one constant is the discipline of saying Morning, Evening  and Night Prayer (Compline), although I have to confess that  the first of these has been more faithfully undertaken as against the occasional imperceptible mutterings as I drift off to sleep.

Morning Prayer, like most church liturgy changes with the seasons. There are moments throughout the year when certain phrases cause one to catch your breath or make your heart sing; in fact in Epiphany season I been known to break into song when reading the Jubilate – A Song of Joy; but just about all of them are preceded by an opening prayer that sets the right tone for the day ahead:

The night has passed, and the day lies open before us;
let us pray with one heart and mind.

Silence is kept.

As we rejoice in the gift of this new day,
so may the light of your presence, O God,
set our hearts on fire with love for you;
Amen

prayersrising2 blog

… so may the light of your presence…

Each morning and evening we are also given one or more of the Psalms to read. However, these too are prayers and throughout the Psalms, David and the other writers poured out their hearts to God in prayer, expressing honest feelings of anguish and desperate pleas for protection. They grieved painful confessions of sin, confidently expressed their hope and trust in God, and joyfully lifted praises to God.

In the same way they enable us to give voice to our feelings, whether of despair when we are at a low point in our lives or sheer exuberance at the scope and majesty of creation. They bring us into contact with the ancient people and places of our history – some long-lost civilizations; but they can also speak into current situations.

I suspect that we all have our favourites but for me Psalm 104 ranks high on my list as it sweeps through the beauty of creation; from the heavens spread out like a curtain to the deeps in which the Leviathan play; the springs and brooks that quench the thirst of the wild donkeys to the cypress trees where storks dwell and the conies and wild goats taking refuge on the stony cliffs. How food is brought forth from the earth with wine to gladden hearts, oil to soothe and bread for strength. A true prayer of thanksgiving!

May God hold you in the palm of his hand

Christ, as a light illume and guide me

Sometimes though prayer can be difficult; when we are tempted to ask, ‘Why me?’ So often we seek responses to our prayers in very exact ways, and when they don’t appear to be answered ‘just so’ we may become disillusioned and distrusting. As part of a sermon recently we were asked to look at it in a slightly different way. Instead of asking. ‘Why has this happened to me?’ try removing the ‘Why’. Suddenly it becomes, ‘This has happened to me.’ Now our prayer can be for strength and guidance on how we are going to deal with the situation and thus be able to move forward, even if we need to take it day by day.

Which leads us to the evening of the day, when with that same one heart and mind that we started the day with we ask that the end of the day may be holy, good and peaceful, as our prayers rise before God; before finally, looking for a quiet night and perfect end to our day in a responsory prayer:

In peace we will lie down and sleep:
for you alone, Lord, make us dwell in safety.
Abide with us, Lord Jesus,
for the night is at hand and the day is now past.
As the night watch looks for the morning,
so do we look for you, O Christ.
The Lord bless us and watch over us;
the Lord make his face shine upon us and be gracious to us;
the Lord look kindly on us and give us peace
Amen

 

Heights & Depths blog

And for those who are still out there seeking, this beautiful prayer is taken from Celtic Daily Prayer, Morning Prayer from the Northumbrian Community:

May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you,
wherever He may send you.
May He guide you through the wilderness,
protect you through the storm.
May He bring you home rejoicing
at the wonder He has shown you.
May He bring you home rejoicing
once again into our doors.

Prayer, as I said at the beginning is as different and individual as we are, and whether our prayers are whispered in the dark or shouted from the rooftops, whether they come in fancy words or stuttering sobs, know that each and every one of them is heard. So never feel that your prayer time is wasted or that you don’t have time to pray. Those few precious moments could make all the difference to your day. Amen

Prayers have been reproduced from Daily Prayer ©The Archbishops’ Council 2005 and Celtic Daily Prayer ©2000, 2005 The Northumbria Community Trust

What Does It Take For Us To Believe?

'This is impossible' said Alice

‘This is impossible’ said Alice

Readings for the Second Sunday of Easter: Acts 4:32-35; 1 John 1:1 – 2:2; John 20:19 – end

On the second Sunday of Easter we find out that not everyone was yet ready to believe the incredible Easter news that Jesus was alive. Some people still had their doubts, including the apostle Thomas. We also hear how another apostle, John, was persuading a group of Christians that what he had witnessed first hand was the truth. Put that alongside the growing number of believers who were learning a new way of living as a community and suddenly the question of what it would take to enable us to believe is one that we might ask; which is exactly what I did in my sermon this morning

May I speak and may you hear through the grace of our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

If you don’t mind I’d like to start by conducting a straw poll with a show of hands. There are two main choices, but possibly an infinite number of circumstances and experiences that could fall into either of those categories.

I want you to think about your journey to faith, from when you first took an interest in Christianity to a point when you knew you believed. I wonder whether this was a sudden and datable experience or whether it was more of a gradual process, where you can perhaps remember a time when you didn’t believe and now you do but you don’t know exactly when that happened. Perhaps you’ve always believed or maybe you’re still on that journey.

None of these choices are better than the other, but it would be interesting to know, if you’re willing to share. Put your hands up [Reader, you too can join in, although remember that statistically the result will be 100% for whichever choice you raise your hand to] if your belief followed a sudden, ‘Damascus road’ type experience…… and now if your belief has been more gradual…… We’re actually quite representative of the average, which is about three-quarters describing it as gradual and a quarter as sudden.

I’d actually quite like to stop and hear from some of you about your journeys but I suppose I better carry on… because the really interesting bit might not be when it happened for those already there, but what it takes for us to believe.

The Incredulity of St Thomas blog

The Incredulity of St Thomas, Benjamin West (1738 -1820)

For Thomas it was the sheer physical proof of placing his hands on a man with whom he had spent the best part of the last three years and who he knew had been crucified, had died and had been shut up in a rock tomb and was now according to his friends and fellow disciples very much alive again; a man who was speaking to him and asking him not to doubt but to believe. This apparently indisputable proof led Thomas to publicly declare that Jesus was indeed ‘My Lord and my God’.

Where then does it leave those of us who will probably never have the opportunity to physically encounter Christ, at least not in the same way that those first disciples did? We are told that we are blessed more if we come to believe without seeing. Do we, therefore, come to belief because there are first-hand witness statements available to this event?

The First Letter of John

The First Letter of John

We don’t know for sure who the author of the first letter of John was, but from the very earliest of times it was believed to have been written by John, the fisherman and apostle of Jesus and bears striking similarities to the Gospel of John. Here is someone writing to one of the first group of Christians, who are somewhat unsure as their faith is being tested by spurious claims about whom Jesus really was; that he wasn’t actually human and didn’t really suffer on the cross; that he only ‘seemed’ human.

John writes to reassure these believers, that as a first-hand witness of Jesus’ ministry he and his friends saw and heard and touched Jesus when they became his disciples and shared his life. In this way their testimony is very convincing – they believed that Jesus was none other than the ‘Word’ of God – the source and meaning and purpose of life.

Even so, an eyewitness account is not quite the same as having concrete facts and figures, to inform our belief. Now before you get too excited I am not going to pull the ‘white rabbit’ of incontrovertible evidence out of my theological training ‘top hat’ but in amongst the minutia of historical data plenty of scholars and historian have investigated what might be myth and what could be reality.

WDITFUTB_Lament over the Dead Christ blog

Lament over the Dead Christ, Giovanni Bellini (c1432 – 1516)

We know that without a resurrection Christianity is counterfeit. As the apostle Paul tells the Corinthians, ‘If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless’ 1 Corinthians 15:17. Accordingly, since a resurrection requires death, Jesus’ death by crucifixion has to be regarded as true. This ‘fact’ is attested to by a number of ancient sources, including the non-Christian historians, Josephus and Tacitus, who were therefore not biased toward a Christian interpretation of events.

We know that the chances of surviving crucifixion were very bleak and no evidence exists that Jesus was removed whilst still alive. The unanimous professional medical opinion is that Jesus certainly died due to the rigours of crucifixion, and even if he had somehow managed to survive, it would not have resulted in the disciples’ belief that he had been resurrected.

Il Precusore,

Il Precusore, Giulio Aristide Sartorio (1860 – 1932)

What about the empty tomb? Well its location was known to Christians and non-Christians alike. So if it hadn’t been empty, why would the chief priest have devised a plan to give a large sum of hush money to the guards, telling them to say that ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep’ Matthew 28:12-13. It would also have been pretty impossible for the large group of believers to have suddenly sprung up in the same city where Jesus had been publicly executed just a few weeks before and for those same believers to have been willing to die brutal martyr’s deaths if they knew this was all a lie.

Were people hallucinating when they encountered the risen Christ? Well, usually hallucinations are something that happens in an individual’s brain and not repeatedly on separate occasions and certainly not to groups of up to 500 people! 1 Corinthians 15:6 Even if they were visions, brought on by the apostle’s grief over the death of their leader, surely the body would have still been in the tomb.

Pascal's Wager

Pascal’s Wager

Convincing facts and figures? Well maybe. Or perhaps Pascal’s Wager might be the reason why people believe. Pascal was a seventeenth-century philosopher who theorised that humans live their lives by wagering that believing in God is a good bet because if when they die he does exist then they have gained the best of everything, on the other hand if they don’t believe and then find out he does exist then they made the worst choice and will have lost everything. However if they were to discover after death that God never existed then it didn’t matter what you believed.

So by believing, you are in a win-win situation. This sort of hedging my bets is just one accusation made against Christians who assume that because they believe in the right God, they are automatically good and have a one-way ticket to everlasting life. However, it also assumes that God would always reward blind faith above living a conscious Christ-centred life and all of the obligations that that might bring.

WDITFUTB_Belief is truth blogPerhaps belief and faith are different then… that belief is something that our logical, human minds hold to be true whilst faith is something that is felt deep within our hearts. Or could it be that faith is based on belief and that is why faith alone is not possible because belief always brings about actions and reactions?

Some people might even say that faith is truth held in the mind and that belief is a fire in the heart. Perhaps we just can’t separate the mind and heart, because as we heard ‘The community of believers were of one heart and one mind’ Acts 4:32

I hope you’ve been aware that I’ve been careful to never actually define what it is exactly that we understand and count as belief. Some might say that’s a cop-out; that the church is forever allowing so much laissez-faire around declaring what it believes and stands for that it nullifies any claims it might have to the truth. Well, I’m sure that for the majority of us it will include the belief that Jesus died and was resurrected in order that we might ‘have life in his name’, but that for each of us that might mean something slightly different depending where we are on our journey of faith.

As we walk together in fellowship with each other and with God, let’s make sure that we’re not only helping each other to increase in faith, but that we are sharing our beliefs with others so that God’s joy may be complete. After all didn’t Jesus say ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe’. So let’s go and open a few more eyes to the truth of what we believe.

Amen

John 20:29

John 20:29

Tree of Life

Tree of Life, © Mary Fleeson, 2009, www.lindisfarne-scriptorium.co.uk

Detail from Tree of Life, © Mary Fleeson, 2000, www.lindisfarne-scriptorium.co.uk

A poem inspired by Mary Fleeson’s ‘Tree of Life’, that was written for a series of prayer stations at St John’s Church, Hedge End for Easter Sunday 5th April 2015

Tree of Life

in the midst of death
there is life;
life drawn from the
living water
and anchored in
the spirit;
spreading branches
o’er the whole of creation
to revitalise and renew;
manifest in grain and vine
in sorrow and in joy;
to fall and rise
on celestial wings;
no longer earth-bound;
with wounded limbs
both glorious and sublime.