You who dwell in the garden with friends in attendance,let me hear your voice.
Song of Songs 8:13
Lent calls us to focus on three things: prayer, fasting and alms-giving. Leaving the other two aside for this week let us concentrate on prayer.
Like many people of my age my hearing has deteriorated over the years so that I now wear hearing aids to assist me. The immediate effect is quite miraculous as everything sounds much clearer. In a one-to–one situation I can hear and communicate just as before. However the difficulty arises in a crowded situation since the microphones dutifully magnify any and every sound they pick up. The result is a wall of sound from which one person’s voice is indistinguishable from another. Sometimes with all the noise around it is tempting to take the hearing aids out and enjoy the silence once again. After all, as Thomas Merton recognized: ‘silence makes us whole if we let it. Silence helps draw together the scattered and dissipated energies of a fragmented existence.’
Everyday life is full of noise; the noise of passing traffic, the commuter train, the office quarrels and politics, children screaming for attention. Sometimes we feel like clamping our hands over our ears and shouting “Just be quiet will you! I can’t think with all this noise!”
Even so as the psalmist reminds us we need to "Be still and acknowledge that I am God" (Psalm 46:10). Sometimes it can be difficult to find that quiet place yet as Henri Nouwens reminds us: ‘It is important to keep a still place in the "marketplace." This still place is where God can dwell and speak to us.’ So often when we find that quiet place we rattle through the well known prayers and think that is enough; but it is not. Prayer entails speaking to God, certainly, ‘real’ speaking, from the heart. But prayer is essentially a conversation and in any meaningful conversation there must be a time of silence; a time to listen to what God has to say to us. Unless we listen, how will we know what comfort He has to offer us in our times of distress, what encouragement in our times of difficulty, what mission He has for us? Ah, is that why we prefer not to listen? Are we afraid of what God will ask of us? If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. Matthew 16:24. We all know where that led! Yet if we do not listen we will not hear Him say “I love you. I will never leave you or forsake you.” How wonderful is that? However hard the journey, whatever task God has for us He will walk with us, we are not alone.
Seven times in the New Testament God says ‘He that hath an ear let him hear.’ To hear what God has to say to us requires that we listen. We do not need hearing aids to listen to the small still voice of God.
“The NHS is at crisis point” screams the media. “We have an aging population; there are 500,000 more people over the age of 75 in the UK now than in 2010 and by 2020 that figure will rise to 2,000,000. These people are blocking beds in our overstretched hospitals, because although fit to be discharged there is no care available from local authorities” they cry. What reaction would Abraham and Sara have received on arrival at their local NHS maternity unit?
It makes anyone over the age of 70 feel unloved, unwanted and an inconvenience to society. Yet are we really ready to be consigned to the scrap heap? After all, the President of the US is 70 and he has enormous power to do good in the world. Just because a person reaches that magical age he should not be cast aside like an old glove, for he still has a part to play. As the prophet Joel said: ‘And afterwards, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions’ Joel 2:28 NIV. Note that ‘I will pour out my Spirit on all people’ not just the young. Certainly as we age there is a limit to what we can do physically. Opening a child proof bottle of tablets can be a struggle or we may ask “Why am I standing on the stairs? Am I going up or coming down?” Yet God calls each of us to a unique mission. We are not called to save the world on our own but, as Henri Nouwen says: ‘Faithfulness to a small task is the most healing response to the illnesses of our time.’
So what is the message here? Is it “Honour thy father and thy mother” Ephesians 6:2? Well, yes. But perhaps the more important message is that to God age does not matter. Elizabeth and Zechariah were beyond child bearing age but God has a very important task for them, for example. And nearer to home God waited until I was 75 before calling me to write these reflections and I have no doubt He will call me to do more for Him in the future.
Each of us, whether 17, 27, 57 or 77 years of age is called to some unique purpose. Let us ask God to help us to see what that call is and to give us the strength to carry it out. We are not alone in this task for: God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.1 Corinthians 1:9 NIV. We are called to work in fellowship with Jesus. The call may start out as something small, but like the ripples on a pond it will spread.
What is God calling you to do for Him today? Just ask Him and be open to listen carefully for His response.
Recently we re-planted one of our camellia bushes into the garden as it had been in its pot for some time and was not flowering as it should. When we took it out we found that its roots were tightly bound together so that it was not getting the nourishment it needed. We teased the roots out and planted it in a freshly dug and well composted hole. It can now spread out and hopefully will benefit.
Are we a bit like the camellia? Are our Christian roots pot bound? Do we profess a Christian faith but keep our beliefs to ourselves for fear of what others might think, or of offending anyone? Do we attend church regularly and if asked will help arranging the flowers or stacking the chairs after the service - don’t get me wrong these acts are still service to God. But then we go home to put our Christianity into a drawer until next Sunday. Are our churches like that? Do we direct our parish resources and energies to providing a nicer, more comfortable place for fellow members of the congregation? Or do we make an effort to go out into the community and extend God’s welcome to those who have never been near a church in their lives? Look at Isaiah 58:6-14 to see what God has to say. A holy place is a place of refuge, and where refuge is provided, there the living Spirit of God dwells for God’s will is done.
As we nourished the roots of the camellia on replanting it, so must our spiritual life be nourished. Lent is a good time to do that for it calls us to leave behind our bad habits, our faults and our failings. But God also wants us to grow closer to Him, by inviting Him into our lives and being drawn more deeply into his love for us. Thus we pray for His help and guidance. However, most importantly, Lent also calls us to reach beyond ourselves and our own wants to be of service to others, especially those most in need. Thus we give alms in Lent; but is that enough? We are also called to give of ourselves to the service of others.
In Luke 9:1-6 we read: ‘When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, 2 and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal those who were ill.’ We may not be able to heal the sick but like the newly planted camellia we can spread our nourished roots. Then we can go out into the world to proclaim the Kingdom of God.
Let us use this Lenten period to prepare for the mission God has for us; to let the world see what true faith in God means by our words and actions. We cannot do this alone but with God by our side anything is possible.
Last Thursday Storm Doris hit our shores causing untold damage. Power lines were brought down by fallen trees. Vehicles were damaged. Rail travel was disrupted. The gale force winds overturned lorries on the open roads across Lincolnshire. Sadly, too at least one person was killed by flying debris whilst walking in the street.
With so much vitriol, incitement to racial hatred lies and deceit in the world we need something to cling on to. (And whilst we are on the subject remember Jesus said: ‘Why do you look for a speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye with never a thought for the plank in your own?’ Matthew 7:3 (RSV)) Don’t forget that this is God’s Creation we are messing up! But if: ‘ God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that everyone who has faith in Him may not perish but have eternal life’ John 3:16 RSV would He leave us without any hope at all? The answer surely must be NO and there are numerous examples in the Bible to support that statement. Perhaps the one that gives us most hope must be when we read: ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’ John 1:5(NIV). Whilst everyone who does evil hates the light yet evil cannot overcome that light.
Then right on cue we read: ‘ See! The winter is past; the rains are over and gone.12 Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come, the cooing of doves is heard in our land’ Song of Solomon 2:11-12 New International Version. Yes, despite the storm, the daffodils are coming into bloom in the garden and the crocuses are in full flower. Our old friends Mr and Mrs Blackbird are searching the bushes and hedges around the garden for a suitable place to build a nest. Spring is on its way. Indeed apart from marking Ash Wednesday March 1st is officially the first day of Spring. By Friday morning Storm Doris had died down and the clearing up could begin.
God in His mercy calls us out of darkness and asks us to follow Him in the light. God is with us and will walk with us through all difficulties and dangers. With God by our side who or what can overcome us? After all, as Moses said to Joshua: ‘The Lord himself goes at your head; he will be with you; he will not let you down or forsake you. Do not be afraid or discouraged’ Deuteronomy 31:8(RSV) Hope leads to faith and however dark the world may seem a firm faith in God will see us through.
The other evening we had a power cut. The electricity supply was cut off completely. Suddenly everything was darkness, the central heating shut down and, of course no power means no kettle so no cup of tea. Panic ensured for a while. Suddenly things were out of control. There was nothing we could do. Yet since my wife had prepared for such an eventuality it was not long before torches, battery lights and candles were found. Some measure of sanity returned. At least we could see.
We all need preparation for our spiritual life too. Lent begins early this year; Ash Wednesday falls on March 1st. During Lent some will undertake pilgrimages to a holy place. They will prepare taking, amongst other things, bibles, spiritual books, prayers and intentions plus quantities of foot salve to ease the blisters. In the same way we must prepare for our Lenten journey. For most of us, I suspect it is more likely to be giving up something, perhaps sugar in tea or coffee or that tempting chocolate biscuit at 11am. That may not be as simple as it sounds, - tea without sugar tastes awful, to me anyway - it may require effort, commitment, a decision to take a certain course which will need preparation. Then having made the decision to give something up, what are we going to do with the time saved by not finding the sugar bowl or queuing up to purchase those chocolate goodies? The answer must be to use that time to prepare, to use the time to deepen our relationship with God and to recommit ourselves to following Christ which is the aim and object of pilgrimage.
Now here’s a thought. Everyone says that they know the Easter story so why bother reading it again. But is that really so? Would we not learn something new by revisiting those events of 2000 years ago? There is absolutely no doubt that we will find something new in the Bible, something that hadn’t been obvious to us before. Perhaps more importantly we need to ask, what message in that story does God have for me today. It may well be different to the message God has for you. The only way to find out is to ask Him. “What are my spiritual needs?” Just ask Him, and wait quietly. Our ideas may not be what God wants so we will probably need to make that same simple prayer on more than one occasion. But God will tell us.
As a result of Jennifer’s preparation, light was soon restored to us – material light, that is. Let our Lenten preparations restored spiritual light to us as well. Let us turn away from our sinfulness and recommit ourselves to following Christ. That will not be an easy course but then nothing worthwhile ever is easy. But we have God on our side to guard us, to guide us and to support us. Thanks be to God.
These words led me to reflect that in autumn the birds and animals in our garden busily stock up on food for the fast approaching winter. The squirrels collect and bury nuts for the coming days, whilst the birds and other animals simply eat as much as possible so as to live off their fat during the cruel winter months ahead. Having eaten their fill some birds migrate whilst the hedgehog and other creatures will hibernate until the warmer weather arrives. The animals, then, have their fears since, for them a harsh winter is quite simply a matter of life or death. They must do what they can to prepare for the worst.
We too have fears, doubts and worries that we face every day. Maybe something major like a terminal illness diagnosis, a relationship that is on the rocks, or perhaps the loss of someone we love. At times like these we can feel very lost and very alone. Then God appears to have forgotten us completely. Maybe though our fears are -- well, you fill in the blanks since you know what fears you face at this moment in time. But where is God when we need Him? No doubt He has better things to do than concern Himself with our troubles.
The Israelites had doubts and fears as they endured famine, slavery, exile, not to mention wandering in the desert for 40 years! Like us they cried out: ‘How long, Lord? Will you forget me for ever? How long will you hide your face from me? 2 How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?’ Psalm 13:1-2 (NIV).
Yet God knows each of us more intimately than we know ourselves and He cares for us. If He did not care why would He promise: ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.’ Matthew 11:28(NIV). Hold on to that, but remember we cannot overcome our fears, our doubts our worries on our own. With God, however, everything is possible. Did He not say: ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you’ Hebrews13:5(NIV) God is there - and always will be - waiting for us to call on Him. I recall the words of a hymn that says: Take it to the Lord in prayer, and that is exactly what we must do.
After winter, spring comes, the hibernating animals awaken, the migrating birds return as God provides food for His Creation; their fears are overcome. In the same way when we take our fears to God in prayer despair evaporates into hope and our trust in God is rewarded.
God knows our fears and will free us from them when we call upon Him, about that there can be no doubt. Thanks be to God.
During World War 2 London suffered extensive bombing. Since the London docks and much of the associated industry was in the East end of the city, that area was hit harder than most. As a result many people were made homeless as their homes, schools, shops and factories had been destroyed or made uninhabitable. After the war ended pre-fabricated buildings were put up to provide housing as a temporary measure. They were often damp and draughty, but they provided somewhere to live. A more permanent, though radical, solution was to build entirely new towns in the countryside outside London to house those made homeless by the war. One of those New Towns was Harlow in Essex. The reaction of those lucky enough to be offered a house was mixed - a new house – great, but: “Where is Harlow? Its miles away! What about our friends? How will we get back to see Aunt Dorothy? Dad will have to find a new job; he can’t travel back to the Docks every day and Jack will have to go to a new school.” Thus it was with some trepidation that they boarded the train to take them to their new home which seemed a long way off in the country. When they got there everything was so different. Each house had spacious bedrooms and a bathroom. (No need for tin baths in front of the living room fire or trips down the garden to the outside toilet!) Each house had its own garden with a lawn. The roads were wider with more space between the houses. But there was no corner shop at the end of the road at which to chat with friends. Now there were walkways to get to the new shopping arcade. The new neighbours took some getting used to as well. It was all so different some wanted to go back to the old house, the old ways.
Jesus offers us a new home, a new way of life, although, that new way is not easy and some will return to their old ways, their old home. He asks us to give up our old bad habits, our pursuit of power and riches, to follow Him. “Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’” Matthew 16:24(NIV). He knows how difficult that will be, yet earlier He says: ‘Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Matthew 10:38 (NIV). But God also says: ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you’ Hebrews 13:5(NIV) for which we must be eternally grateful.
Are we ready to move to a new life; a life with Christ? As the people of the New Towns found, that new life may be difficult at first, yet it is a much better, more rewarding life.
This year Harlow celebrates 70 years since it took its first new resident. Happy Anniversary Harlow.
The blackbird, the robin and the wren are all favourite garden birds since each has a lesson to teach us. Whilst they are utterly different in size, colour and habits, all have one feature in common – a loud voice! The blackbird is the first to wake in the morning so that his calls arouse the other birds to join the dawn chorus. The robin has a distinctive call which will scare off any intruders to his territory, whilst for one of the smallest of our garden birds; the wren has a remarkably loud voice.
Unlike the garden birds we in this country often tend to keep quiet about our Christianity. “We don’t want to offend anybody” we say, or maybe “They won’t understand” or perhaps “I am not confident that I have the ability to discuss it with someone who has other ideas”. And so we slip out unnoticed to church and return to carry on our daily life. No one is the wiser and no friends are lost. But is that what God calls us to do?
Let us look at these statements one at a time. Firstly, how can God’s commandments to love God and to love our neighbour offend anyone? Indeed ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’ John 3:16 NIV sounds like a wonderful and most precious gift to me, not something that is likely to offend anyone. Secondly, in order that they do understand what we say we need to prepare ourselves; here a good adage is, ‘think before you speak and pray before you think.’ Take comfort from the prophet Isaiah ‘Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.’ Isaiah 41:10. Thirdly, as to the idea that we do not have the ability to speak about our faith, I know from personal experience that God will give us the words we need at the right time. As Jesus said: ‘do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say’, Matthew 10:19 Lastly, and perhaps this is the whole point, remember: ‘Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.’ Matthew 5:15 (NIV). Of course, we must be careful not to appear as the Pharisee in the Temple, who prayed to show everyone how righteous he was; in other words he prayed for his glory rather that for the glory of God.
Yet surely, as God gave the birds loud voices to proclaim His glory each and every morning, we are called to proclaim our faith in God clearly so that everyone can hear?
Last week as our American cousins celebrated Martin Luther King Day my attention was drawn to a quotation by the great civil rights leader of the 1960’s. He said: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Now that is a challenge indeed. Where you stand on that point is for you to discern but as you might expect I turn to the garden birds for a lesson.
Though small the robin is quite fearless around human beings, indeed he will happily sit on the handle of the garden fork watching for the worms he thinks I have dug up for him. Yet he will, if threatened puff up his feathers to make himself look a lot bigger. He has a bright red breast, is fiercely territorial and will aggressively drive away intruders. He also has a loud distinctive voice. Perhaps we can guess where he would stand! The wren, one of our smaller brown, perhaps dull looking, birds will naturally respond if threatened, but prefers to hide away in the leaf litter at the back of the garden seeking insects and spiders for food. She adopts a different and perhaps more comfortable option. Interestingly although she has a remarkably loud voice for such a small bird I doubt if many people would recognise the wren’s call. However, at dawn all the birds of the garden will sing together; a wonderful chorus to the glory of God.
In relation to Dr King’s probing question we, no doubt ask ourselves: can we as human beings really achieve that much on our own. Can our solitary, small voice make any difference to the world? But is that simply an excuse to do nothing? After all, we have a responsibility to work together, to speak the truth, to peacefully stand up for the rights of all men, especially those who cannot speak for themselves. (Note those words, ‘peacefully stand up for’.) Whilst alone we can do little, remember that in his Epistle to the Corinthians; St Paul reminds his audience that although they each have their own characteristics nevertheless they are all part of the same body. More importantly he reminds us that “Now you are the body of Christ and each of you is a part of it” 1 Corinthians 12:7(NIV). That then is the answer. Each of the birds has an individual voice, some louder or more easily recognisable than others yet at dawn they sing a beautiful chorus together. In the same way, together with our fellows we can achieve something. But with God’s help and in God’s name we can achieve that which we are called to do; to stand up to the challenges of the day. As Jesus said: ‘For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them’ Matthew 18:20(NIV)
Let us pray for God’s assistance to meet the challenges of the coming day, together, peacefully.
It’s January again! All the excitement, fun and fervour of Christmas is over. For our American cousins Thanksgiving Day must be a distant memory. There seems nothing to look forward to now; the summer holidays are a long way off, if we can afford one. Now the credit card bills that funded Christmas are dropping through the letterbox demanding payment. So far as the weather is concerned rain turning to snow is forecast, with gales and icy road conditions. Flooding is likely in some areas so that villages on the east coast of England are set to be evacuated. The garden is bare and brown. All seems doom and gloom.
Despite all that, on looking out of the kitchen window this morning we saw a thrush in the garden. Now the thrush is not an uncommon garden bird but we have not seen one here recently. There is a family of blackbirds who regularly make a nest in the bushes and the tiny wren can be seen in amongst the leaf litter, whilst the robin will allow me to use “his” garden, but the thrush is a less common visitor. Yet there he was eating up the bugs and worms he needs to get him through the cold days to come – he would really like a few juicy snails but they seem to be in hiding. What a joy to see him though!
What, you may ask, has a common garden bird to do with unpaid credit card bills or anything else really? The answer is that the divide between our secular life and our spiritual one is artificial. God reveals Himself to us in the ordinary everyday things of life: the birds, the trees, the plants, in everything we see or touch - if only we are willing to open our eyes to see! He is not remote, only to be found in some “holy place”. More than that, not only does He show Himself this morning in the thrush, but He provides the food that bird needs. Then Jesus’ words as recorded in St Matthew’s Gospel come to mind: 25 ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? Matthew 6:24-27(NIV). If God is willing to provide food for one member of His Creation, surely He will care for us too.
‘Do not worry’ Jesus said. The icy storms will pass away, the people evacuated will return to their homes, the garden will bloom again and the credit card bills will be paid. Thanks be to God.
Peter is a father and a grandfather who has been retired from full time work for a number of years