You who dwell in the garden with friends in attendance,let me hear your voice.
Song of Songs 8:13
On Easter Monday our son, his wife and our granddaughter came to see us bringing with them several pots of bedding plants for the garden. Given the mess the garden was in at the time we placed them on the window ledge in the back lobby where they would catch the sun whilst we decided where we wanted to plant them. This morning I saw a blackbird fluttering outside the window. He had seen the plants and recognised that there would be nourishment there for him. What he hadn’t reckoned with was the glass window between him and his desire!
This week’s Gospel reading, John 20:19-31 tells of Thomas refusing to accept Jesus’ resurrection "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe." (v25) Now I have sympathy with Thomas. I have no doubt that he wanted to believe; no doubt he had been with the other disciples when Mary came back from the empty tomb on Easter Day and heard her news. He had heard, too, Peter and the beloved disciple’s report and knew what the disciples on the road to Emmaus had told them. Yet there was something inside him that said, “No, it is just not possible for a man to die – to be killed as Jesus was – and to rise again from the dead. It is just a physical impossibility. No-one has ever survived crucifixion.” Anyway, how could anyone enter a locked room without breaking down the doors? Maybe he wasn’t too sure what had happened to Lazarus; but that’s another story. The simple fact was that there was too much that didn’t make sense at present for him to get his head round. Yet the clear message of the gospel story is that believing that Jesus is risen and alive is not dependent on physical contact with Jesus (Thomas makes his profession of faith without touching Jesus), but coming to believe does depend on personal encounter.
Now, are we like Thomas? If Jesus were to come to us today, through what locked doors might He have to pass? The blackbird could see the brightly coloured bedding plants but couldn’t get to them because of the glass window. But, the window has a latch on the inside by which to open it. So what stops us from throwing open the glass window of our hearts to let our Blessed and Saviour into our lives? After all, He is there waiting patiently for us to invite Him in. But something prevents us from crying as Thomas did “My Lord and my God” John 20:28(KJV)? In fact we are more likely to say: ‘Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief’ Mark 9:24(KJV). Yet what stops us from embracing Him wholeheartedly? Coming to believe more deeply that Jesus is risen and alive is the work of the Spirit within and among us.
The garden looks a mess at the moment. The lads have laid the paths and scraped off the old lawn but have still to lay the new turves. The birds are quite unconcerned by the mess, they are just happy that someone has turned the ground over to reveal more bugs and insects for them to eat. They are not worried, indeed do not realise, that the garden does not look as neat and tidy as it will eventually be, and as we want it to be.
Are our lives like that sometimes? Are we quite happy so long as there is food on the table and enough to get by? Are we happy just plodding along as we have always done? After all, the poor are always with us and people have been refugees for as long as time itself. Adam and his wife were cast out of the Garden of Eden - surely they were the first refugees, the first to be made homeless. Anyway, what can we do about it? There will always be some “do-gooder” somewhere to take care of them, so let them get on with it. We can send a donation to a charity if it will salve our conscience but what more can we do? There is too much else going on in our busy lives to worry too much about refugees in a far off land. But for all that are we happy with our lives? Is there something missing? Oh, God you mean? Well, there are enough “God botherers” out there already wearing out the knees of their trousers and some of them have some very peculiar ideas. Do we really want to get into all that? Of course, our lives do not need to be like that. The darkness of the night does not last forever, there is always light that follows. This weekend we remembered the death of Our Blessed Lord and Saviour, the darkness of Good Friday and the horrible blackness of Holy Saturday that followed. And yet yesterday we celebrated His Resurrection. Christ is risen!! That very fact gives meaning to our lives. God is not dead, He is with us now, as He always has been, and will never leave nor forsake us. We simply need to Ask, Seek and Knock to receive a fuller, richer, more fulfilling life with God.
When I wrote last week I wondered if this was the right time to sort out the garden. Now I think the Easter message illustrates that it was. After looking like a bomb site for a week, by the time I next write the garden will be a safer, more comfortable, more welcoming place. We will be able to sit out there without having to prop up the leg of the table, whilst Mr Robin will still be able to enjoy all the bugs and insects he can dig up.
Christ is risen! Christ is with us - and will never leave us! Thanks be to God
Over the winter we talked about replacing the worn out lawn and renewing the old broken and the dangerously sunken stone paths. Once upon a time we would have been happy to tackle that job ourselves but as we are getting on a bit we decided to get a professional firm to do the work. “I’m away for a few days but will ring you when I get back” Bill said when we rang him. Some months later he turned up on the doorstep saying that he could start this week but realised that he hadn’t phoned us or actually seen the job to price it. He did so then and there with the result that Ron and Dave turned up and set to work at 8.00am this morning. Work has finally started; not really the best time since the plants are coming into bloom, but we need the work done. Anyway as we have used the company before we know they provide a good quality of work. A new and safer garden is in prospect. I’m sure it will be fine when completed it’s just the hassle of getting it done.
Ron brought his son along to help which means they will have some father/son time together. That will be a good thing since sometimes circumstances make it difficult to spend time with family members. Our neighbours fly out to Houston Texas tomorrow to spend time with their daughter and her family, for example.
Lent is in its final week –Holy week – so perhaps now is a good time to reflect on what progress we have made with those good intentions we set for ourselves on Ash Wednesday. Of course life goes on at the same hectic pace as before Lent. There is never a convenient time to focus on the task in hand – there is always so much else to do, but how is our relationship with God today? Are we sharing more father/son time with Him than in the past? Has Lent drawn us closer to God our Father each day? Are we allowing God to draw us more deeply into his love? Are we making time to pray to Him but more importantly are we listening to what God has to say to us?
In due time the garden will be fine with a new lush lawn and safe paths, but it requires a great deal of hard work to get it into shape; there is no easy way. Likewise if our relationship with God is to flourish we need to put in the hard work, the preparation, the ground work. That means making time in this hectic whirl that is everyday life to pray, to read scripture – not just as a paperback on the flight to Houston - but deeply thinking and praying about God’s Word and its meaning for us. And then putting into action God's Will and Word.
I love this time of year so far as the garden is concerned, for it is a riot of colour. There are yellow daffodils and white narcissus trumpeting the bright spring days, primula adorn the borders whilst the golden forsythia bushes smother the side fences. In honour of Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday in Lent – Laetare means Rejoice, I understand - the camellia bush has donned her pale pink dress whilst the Pieris japonica is starting to put on his bright red bracts. And the young robin is still hopping around seeking the bugs and insects I have disturbed. Truly the glory of God’s creation in abundance! However, in the midst of all this glorious colour and exuberant growth I am aware that I am a mere steward, my time here is limited and my garden is a tiny speck on the face of the earth that will continue in existence as long as God wills it.
I can understand St Francis of Assisi speaking of Brother Sun and Sister Moon. To him, and to me Brother Robin is just as much part of God’s Creation, part of God’s family as we humans are. Thus we humans all have a responsibility to take care of the planet for future generations. Yet in his Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ Pope Francis said: ‘This sister [the earth] now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will.’ Note those words ‘our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her’. He makes it very clear that we humans are responsible for the harm done to planet earth. He calls each one of us to do more to repair the damage we have caused.
So it is horrifying to learn that America is going back on its commitment to work with the rest of the world – indeed, to lead it - in reducing the effects of harmful ‘greenhouse gases’, caused by burning fossil fuels, on the environment. CO2 is acknowledged to be a danger to the environment and to human health, yet it seems that the country would rather spend the money allocated to environmental protection on increasing its nuclear arsenal, even though there are already enough armaments in the world to destroy the planet several times over. Do we want to live in a permanent post nuclear winter where birds no longer fly and where the earth is too contaminated for plants to grow; or do we want a good healthy planet where Brother Robin sings and God’s good earth provides food and clean water for all?
As Christians we are called to treat others fairly, with respect and to think about how our actions will affect them. That surely must include taking greater care for God’s Creation, the earth and His wider family, the creatures and plants that inhabit it.
I have been asked why I write so much about the garden. Surely there are other more important things to write about? Well, maybe there are, but there are wiser men out there who can write far more eloquently on deeper subjects. I’m just a simple man so I write on simple matters.
Looking back over my reflections the message that comes across most clearly can be summed up in Isaiah’s prophesy : ‘Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel –which means God is with us’ Isaiah 7:14 NIV. That I take to mean God is with us at all times.
To my mind, God does not live in that elaborate, highly decorated building in the centre of town that we call ‘Church’ though, of course, we are called to join our fellow Christians there in communion with God. Neither does God live in a box that we can keep on the mantelshelf to be opened when we want to ask for something and then swiftly closed before He asks something of us. The simple fact is that God lives in the messiness of our everyday lives; in the small things as well as the large. He is present at the wedding of a daughter, the birth of a child, and the Golden Wedding celebrations of our parents just as much as in the darkness of the chemotherapy unit. And no doubt you remember clearly the time you were woken at 3am by the slamming of the front door to see Dad walking down the street in his pyjamas on his way to work – from which he had retired some 20 years ago but which his fuddled brain has forgotten to tell him. God was with you then as well – what woke you up? We can try to ignore Him, we have the free will to do that – another of God’s gifts to us, by the way, but we cannot escape His loving presence. As the psalmist says: Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. Psalm 139:7-8(NIV)
So where did I find God on Saturday? Unsurprisingly, in the garden. As I collected grass clippings and weeds a young robin flew down and perched on the side of the box less than a foot away from me. He looked at me, put his head on one side as if to ask “Do you mind if I see what you have in your box?” and then when he thought I was not watching him started feeding from the bugs in the litter. God was with us both at that moment.
It is the ability to share times like that with you that I am called to write about the garden. Thanks be to God.
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.
Peter is a father and a grandfather who has been retired from full time work for a number of years