You who dwell in the garden with friends in attendance,let me hear your voice.
Song of Songs 8:13
For the last few years blackbirds have nested in the bushes in our garden. Last year we had two nests at opposite ends of the garden. However, we were rather concerned that they might not do so this year as our neighbours have a cat. Cats and birds do not mix. Nevertheless, this morning I saw a young male blackbird in the garden. He was happily feeding on the bugs, worms and insects the overnight rain had brought out, whilst keeping a wary eye on me watching him from the kitchen window. I hope he was scouting for a suitable nest site but only time will tell. Sure enough come evening there was a female blackbird busily feeding in the borders. It looks as if they are preparing to build a nest in which to lay their eggs, hatch and fledge their offspring. They will both need to stock up on as much food as they can to provide them with the energy needed for that task. As any parent knows raising a family is no easy job!
Yesterday was Palm Sunday which marks the beginning of Holy Week leading to the climax, the greatest feast of the Church’s year, Easter. The disciples welcomed Jesus in to Jerusalem with cheers, making sufficient fuss to cause consternation among the authorities, whilst laying down palms to smooth his way. This was the Messiah of whom Isaiah spoke, who would lead them to overthrow the hated Roman tyranny and re-establish the Jewish nation! His entry into Jerusalem fulfilled the prophecies: “Look, your king is approaching, he is vindicated and victorious, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” Zechariah 9:9. They would also have remembered from the scriptures that Solomon, the son of David made his royal entrance into Jerusalem seated on a mule. (1 Kings 1:38). Like the blackbirds the disciples were preparing for a new era, a new beginning, new life. And so it came about, although not in the way they had expected.
The question then is simply this: How are your preparations going to receive the Messiah into your life? Are you ready to accept Him, to do His will and walk in His ways? If not, what is holding you back?
The clematis that covers the back wall of the house in summer with deep purple blooms has been in place for a number of years and so is well rooted. This means that after flowering we were able to cut it down to a few inches from the ground to enable it to conserve energy for the coming season. In the last few weeks it has been sending up stems enthusiastically towards the sky. To support itself the plant will use its tendrils to grasp onto anything in its upward path. We have provided a wooden framework against the wall to assist it, but nevertheless, it will just as happily take hold of the rose bushes growing alongside or indeed anything else within reach! To get it into some kind of shape in order to show itself off to the best advantage it does need tying in to the firm supports provided for it. A never ending task that I must get on with when the rain stops!
Perhaps our spiritual lives are a bit like that. In our race for the skies; to be recognised as someone, to acquire wealth or status, do we grasp on to anything that appears strong enough to support us, only to be disappointed when it fails? We may feel our faith is well rooted but do we need some training, some tying in to the strong support of God to support us on our journey? Almost certainly!
Now is the season of renewal so that like the tying in of the clematis bush, the disciplines of Lent will bring with them the promise of renewal. The bush will not flower for several months yet but the attention given to it will, I hope produce a much better show. In the same way, Jesus offers us that same possibility, a truly better and more fulfilling life in Christ, when we approach him with a contrite heart. As St Paul wrote from prison: “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14).
As we live in the catchment area for good infant, primary and secondary schools it is not surprising that there are a number of parents with young children living in the road, as well as older folk like us. For example, our next door neighbours have four children, two teenagers and two a bit younger. They have never been any trouble and we get on quite well with them.
However, on Thursday last week a marquee was erected in their garden. Oh joy! A teenager’s party! That will be noisy and will probably go on all night! No sleep this weekend then, we thought! But later in the evening a note dropped through the door explaining that yes Jane, the eldest girl, would be having a few friends round on Friday evening and again on Saturday but that the music would be turned off at a reasonable time and they hoped we would not be too inconvenienced. Of course, there was noise as the youngsters enjoyed themselves doing whatever it is they do to the strange sounds that nowadays pass for music. Anyway, the music was turned off at the stated time, the revellers departed, apart from the select few who slept over but there was no disturbance from them and so everyone was happy.
Do you know, I think that is where I saw God over the weekend, in the thoughtfulness of our next door neighbour?
For my birthday my daughter bought me a wireless keyboard for my tablet computer. An excellent gift and one I will use a lot. The only problem is that for me technological things seem to have a mind of their own. They are most useful when set up, but it is the setting up that I sometimes find difficult. However it seems that God is aware of my technophobia for today’s retreat takes as its text Luke 1:37 ‘For with God nothing shall be impossible’ and asks the question: How do I respond to unexpected struggles or challenges? Do I lean on my faith in God or do I try to cope alone?
Today’s society often views it as a sign of weakness when a person is not able to deal with everyday affairs. “Man up. Pull yourself together. You are a wimp. Get on with it” is often the reaction. Not very helpful and not what that person needs to hear, especially as he, or she may be feeling very alone in that situation. Indeed it might well put them off asking for the help that may be available.
I read recently of an ex-serviceman who having returned home descended into a spiral of drink and drugs eventually living rough on the streets simply because he was unable to cope with the pressures of everyday life in the UK after his experiences fighting in Afghanistan. He felt very alone and thinking he was the only one to feel like this he did not ask for help. In fact, he tried, unsuccessfully to cope on his own. Eventually, out of the blue he received an invitation to volunteer on a project to refurbish houses for homeless returning ex-servicemen like himself. This inspired him to turn his life around. He now runs his own business and dedicates himself to helping other returning soldiers in a similar situation.
The lesson here is that we all need help to get through the struggles and challenges of this life, whether they be simple like my technophobia or more complex as in the case of the returning ex-serviceman. And there is hope for as the psalmist said: When I called you answered me. Psalm 138:3 (NIV). Centuries later Jesus reassures us that we need to: ‘Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. Matthew 7:7-8 (NIV).
Trust in the firm rock that is our God for ‘with God nothing shall be impossible’
At the start of Lent we often make a promise to give up something; usually chocolate sugar in tea or coffee. Having done so we then continue with our lives in the same old fashion. But is this what God wants? The prophet Isaiah addressed the question many years before the birth of Jesus. He quotes the people as saying: 3 ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’ and goes on to give God’s response as:
“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers.4 Your fasting ends in quarrelling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Isaiah 58:3-4 NIV.
So it seems clear that God wants more from us than simply giving up something which is quite easy to go without. If we simply stop eating chocolate but carry on our lives as before, then who are we pleasing? Obviously we might get a rather nice warm feeling having made the effort, and we may feel a little healthier. But who else benefits? If we look at Isaiah 58 again we find that a fasting more acceptable to God involves ‘loosing the chains of justice and setting the oppressed free (58:6)’, ‘sharing your food with the hungry and providing the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe them’ (58:7). In other words we are called to give something back to our community, to our world. To do otherwise could be considered simply self - serving, some might say hypocritical.
So the question this week is: What effect will your Lenten practices have on your neighbours, your family, your church and the world in general? How will they benefit from your efforts; will they notice any difference? If not, why not?
Last week I picked up on the theme of hope during the period of Lent. I want to continue that theme this week with a seemingly unlikely story, but bear with me.
Storm Freya blew in over the weekend causing damage and disruption to parts of the UK. Nothing like the damage caused by the weather in other parts of the world , of course, but enough. Fortunately we were not affected too badly here, although the strong winds and rain made walking to the shop to buy some milk yesterday a bit of an unpleasant outing. But we needed milk and the shop is not far enough away to justify taking the car – just far enough! Wet through and wanting to get home as quickly as possible I was pleasantly surprised when on turning the corner I saw in a neighbour’s garden that their camellia bush had come in to bloom. A bit early? Well, the red bush always flowers before our delicate pink variety but it was good to see. It was like a light shining in the darkness.
In this life we encounter so many storms and disappointments. Just when everything seems to be going so well something turns up to disrupt proceedings. Yet the daffodils and the hyacinths are already in bloom and now the bright red camellia, just as they did last year and the year before at this time.
Surely the message we can take from all this is that despite the rain, the winds and the storms of life, there is hope.
Who needs you to show them that message of hope today
Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, is just a few days away. Last year during Lent I focused on the virtue of hope in these Reflections. It is that theme I would like to pick up this morning with a quote from a letter written by the poet Robert Browning to his secret fiancé Elizabeth in February 1846:
‘Slowly and gradually’ what may not be done? Then see the bright weather while I write—lilacs, hawthorn, plum-trees all in bud; elders in leaf, rose-bushes with great red shoots; thrushes, whitethroats, hedge sparrows in full song—there can, let us hope, be nothing worse in store than a sharp wind, a week of it perhaps—and then comes what shall come—”*
Elizabeth had written to him describing her dependence on morphine. He was keen to encourage her to reduce that dependence and to get outdoors more, as she had been housebound for some while. He was seeking to engender in her a feeling of hope; that a brighter future lay beyond the four walls of her rooms, without reliance on the drug.
Walking round the garden here I can echo some of Robert’s thoughts, the daffodils are coming into bloom, the birds are indeed ‘in full song’ and the ‘rose bushes [are] with great red shoots’.‘Let us hope’, he says. We can see that hope all around us, in the warm sunny Spring morning, in the garden plants and bird song, in the people we meet in the street or in our everyday lives. Easter Sunday will prove to us, and to the world, that the light that shines in the darkness has overcome it. Let us look forward in hope for that glorious day.
* from “The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, Vol. 1 (of 2) 1845-1846”, available on Kindle or online.
On 24th February the Anglican Church celebrates the Feast Day of St Matthias. Rather confusingly the Roman Catholic Church celebrate his life on 14th May, but it does explain why his name appears in my diary in two places! Why do I mention him here? Because I are reading Acts 1:15-26 at Mass next Sunday.
So who was St Matthias and what do we know about him? The short answer to that is very little beyond a couple of references to him in the passage from Acts of the Apostles that I am to read. Indeed, the general consensus is that ‘all further information concerning his life and death is vague and contradictory.’ Anyway let us look at what we do know to see what lesson we might draw from it.
It seems that in the days following the Ascension St Peter called together one hundred and twenty followers of the Way to choose someone to fill the place in the Apostolate previously held by Judas Iscariot. Two names were put forward, Joseph called Barsabas who was surnamed Justus and Matthias. Matthias, whose name is derived from the Hebrew Mattithiah signifying ‘gift of Yahweh’ had been one of the seventy disciples of Jesus who had been with Him from His Baptism by John to the Ascension and was thus well qualified for the role. We know nothing of Joseph’s qualifications. After prayer for God’s guidance as to whom they should choose, lots were cast. The lot fell to Matthias.
This seems to be a simple administrative exercise, to fill a vacant post, so what lesson can we draw from it, if any? I invite you to study the Bible passage for yourselves with prayer to come to your own conclusions. However I offer you this thought.
Judas Iscariot was a man with the same human strengths and weaknesses that all humanity has. Despite his position as an Apostle, he betrayed his trust by yielding to temptation, seeking to enrich himself with earthly wealth wherever he could. Yet his greed came to nothing, as even he realised at the end. Like Judas and the rest of us, Matthias was only human; and which of us can say honestly that we have never been faced with temptation of some sort or another? True he was a faithful disciple of Jesus but he was still just a man. Yet God guided the assembly to appoint him to take Judas’s place in the Apostolate, or bishoprick as the King James Version has it, a very senior position indeed.
Now despite everything that had happened, humanity’s betrayal of God by crucifying His only Son, the message I take from this reading is that God was forgiving mankind and giving him a second chance. Read again Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32).
This week’s question then is: What are you going to do with the second, third, fourth or seventy times seventieth chance God has given you?
In the course of any day we will interact with a number of people. Some will be friends, some acquaintances and some merely passers-by. Yet they are all our neighbours whom we are called to love, even though at times some people are reluctant to ask for help, or even admit they need it. Such cases need to be dealt with tactfully, of course. It is important to respect the other person’s wishes although that might lead to an awkward situation further down the line, as happened recently.
Ernie was manager of the hall where we meet sometimes. He was a hardworking, efficient and conscientious sort of chap. Nothing seemed too much trouble for him. The hall was always clean and tidy; laid out as we needed it to be, the right number of chairs in the right places. The committee rooms always had a supply of pencils and paper, a jug of water and glasses on the table and the sound and video system set up for use if required. After the meetings Ernie would be serving behind the bar. He had a cheery word for everyone. “How’s the wife?” he’d ask, “All well at home?” When asked how he would always say: “No problems. I don’t have time to be ill!” He was first in in the morning and last to leave at night after the glasses had been washed and put away and everything safely locked up. We had known Ernie for so long that we all regarded him as a friend. Yet as he did not give too much away about himself we soon discovered nobody really knew him that well. Alan happened to be standing at the bar and so took the phone call from the hospital. Putting down the receiver, white as a sheet, he turned to announce: “Ernie has just died!” No-one knew he was ill, let alone in hospital! “Why ring here” we asked “Why not ring his family?” Apparently he did not have any family. We later found out that he had never married but lived in his parent’s two up – two down house as the only child, all these years. The hall, his historical research, the books articles and newsletters he wrote were his life and we were the only family he had. We paid for his funeral and made sure that he had a good send off. That was the least we could do for him. But there was still a nagging doubt; could we, should we have done more? For all his outward appearance Ernie was a very private person, reluctant to accept help but, yes, I think we could have made a greater effort to get to know him better. After all, he didn’t deserve to die alone in a hospital bed.
Our friends, our neighbours are valuable gifts of God to us. Let us not take them for granted but as Jesus commanded us: Love your neighbour as yourself Matthew 22:39(NIV).
Peter is a father and a grandfather who has been retired from full time employment for a number of years