You who dwell in the garden with friends in attendance,let me hear your voice.
Song of Songs 8:13
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).
Each year over the last weekend of January the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds invites the general public to spend an hour counting the number and species of bird visiting their garden. You may think it a strange time to conduct such a survey. Given the inclement weather at this time of year surely no self-respecting bird is going to stand up to be counted. But for any survey to be of any use it has to be consistent and so carried out at the same time each year. In any case birds need to venture out to try to find food regardless of the weather. Sadly over recent years the number of many common species of bird and indeed animals too, have declined with some placed on the Red List (endangered) for the first time. Now, since from the very beginning God appointed us stewards of the environment we have a duty to do what we can to ensure that trend does not continue. And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. Genesis 1:26 AKJV
Let us be clear about one thing, global warming, which has a disastrous effect on the world’s climate is in no small measure directly affected by man’s activities. In its Fifth Assessment Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of 1,300 independent scientific experts from countries all over the world under the auspices of the United Nations, concluded there's a more than 95 percent probability that human activities over the past 50 years have warmed our planet. https://climate.nasa.gov/. If we do nothing now then the world will be a very much poorer place for our descendants. It is up to each of us, then to consider carefully how we use our valuable natural resources, which are after all, not inexhaustible. Are there, for example more environmentally friendly ways of carrying one’s shopping than using plastic bags that will never degrade? What about alternative sources of power. Should we perhaps consider buying an electric car next time rather than petrol or diesel? Again, rather than such a heavy reliance on coal, gas or oil should we not demand that industry actively seek other, cleaner, ways of working? And should we be lobbying our governments to invest in and promote the use of wind and water power?
So whilst we sit in the warmth of our living rooms counting the birds let us not forget our wider responsibility to future generations of mankind. Let each of us make a conscious effort to do something about reducing our personal carbon footprint on the planet and encourage others to do likewise.
I had an appointment that I was not looking forward to the other afternoon. As car parking was always difficult at the venue I decided to take the bus. It was bitterly cold with sleet stinging my face as I walked to the stop and I was more than a little worried about what might happen at my appointment.
Whilst waiting at the bus stop a man, about my age, came up and studied the timetable. From the way he looked at it his eyesight was clearly failing. I told him that the next bus was due in 5 minutes for which he thanked me. He said that he had had to give up driving as his eyesight was not good enough. As he was living alone now there was no one to drive him anywhere, so that he had to rely on the bus. We struck up a conversation from which it became obvious that he was rather lonely, although he did not admit as much! We continued to chat through the journey as we sat next to one another, nothing in particular but generally putting the world to rights. We shook hands when he alighted one stop before mine and wished each other well. And that was that. Yet, when I got off the bus I had quite forgotten any apprehension I had about my appointment, thinking only of the camaraderie I had recently enjoyed. I hope too that I had been able to relieve my companion’s loneliness just for a while anyway.
Strange the way God works; putting two old men together on a bus to cheer one another up.
That’s where I found God that day. Where will you find Him?
Over the last few weeks I have been called or texted innumerable times by my mobile phone provider offering me the latest, and probably the most expensive handset. You would be surprised at the wonderful, not to be missed, features that the new phone has, apparently! Now, my phone is not the latest version but it does what I need it to do. I can call someone or text them and even send an email, and it has a camera. What more do I need? I could probably use it to tweet at someone but I am not that important so I try not to be a twit.
Anyway it seems that we live in a throwaway society. Nothing is saved, nothing is built to last or treasured nowadays. We never seem to be content with what we have, always wanting something different, something more. The general view is that when it breaks down or becomes out of fashion, throw it away and buy a new one. Yet do we really need the very latest clothes, gadgets, or whatever? Do we not realize that God will provide for all our needs; note, needs, not necessarily wants. Many years ago the psalmist wrote: Thou openest thine hand, and satisfiest the desire of every living thing. Psalm 145:16 AKJV, whilst later Jesus reminded his followers, and us to consider the lilies of the field (Matthew 6:28). Is that not enough?
And remember that throughout this transitory life with its constant changes and upgrades, there is one thing that will remain constant. Returning to that same Psalm we read: Thy kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and thy dominion endureth throughout all generations. Psalm 145:13 AKJV.
Let us rest in that assurance and give thanks to God for all He has given us. Let gratitude be our watchword not greed.
Do you sometimes find that your prayer is, well, rather dry, perhaps even seemingly irrelevant? Do you ask yourself why am I wearing out the knees of a good pair of trousers rattling off words that, whilst familiar frankly do not seem to mean very much? You know that prayer is a conversation between two people, but is God listening? Then try another approach.
Have you, for example considered praying with scripture, either Lectio Divina, which we can consider at another time, or with the imagination? One way of doing this is to place yourself in a Gospel story; to take the part of a character, being with Jesus and being aware of what’s going on and how you are feeling. Now it is important to remember that you are not trying to recreate history. It doesn’t matter if your imagination takes the story in a different direction to the Scripture. Equally it doesn’t matter if the story takes place in 1st Century Palestine or 21st century England, or wherever you happen to live. What is important is what God wants to say to you through this passage. Some people initially have difficulty praying this way but stay with it for it is worth it.
Here is a personal example that I would like to share with you.
On Sunday I looked at the Gospel story of Jesus reading in the synagogue from this perspective.
‘And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the Sabbath day. And he stood up to read; and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found the place where it was written,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.
And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” —Luke 4:16-21
In my prayer I placed the story in 21st century St Mary Magdalene church rather than the synagogue at Nazareth. Having done so immediately I realised that I had read the Epistle at 8am Mass on the day our Catholic brothers and sisters celebrate the Baptism of Jesus. At His baptism Jesus’ ministry on earth began as the heavens opened and a voice was heard saying “This is my beloved son, listen to him”. Luke 3:21.
Is this what God was telling me in this prayer, that I am beloved of God and that He has a mission for me? I believe so.
So what will God say to you if you pray with your imagination? Try it and see.
I’ve often wondered what the neighbours thought when the Wise Men turned up with their entourage at Mary and Joseph’s temporary home where they were resting, after they had moved out of the stable, but before embarking on their journey home to Nazareth. I am sure there would have been a few curtains twitching there, if they had any! Just imagine the scene, fabulously rich men on exquisitely decorated camels, with servants, guards, trumpeters; a whole caravan of attendants. All quite out of place in this humble little village! And the gifts they were taking in to give to the baby! They were priceless! Gold, frankincense and myrrh. I doubt the villagers had ever seen such wealth.
That leads me to ask; what have you to give to Jesus, to God?
In 1872 Christina Rossetti, one of the finest English Victorian poets, considered that question in a poem that later became the well known carol In the bleak midwinter. She wrote:
What can I give Him,
Poor as I am? --
If I were a Shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man
I would do my part, --
Yet what I can I give Him, --
Give my heart.
Give my heart? At first glance that sounds impossible since the heart is a muscle that pumps the life giving oxygenated blood around the body. Without it quite simply I would die so giving God my heart is really a big deal – I will die! But that was what she was suggesting; that the only gift she (we) could give to God was her (our) life sustaining heart. However, in his book You are the beloved Henri Nouwens reminds us that: In the biblical understanding, our heart is at the centre of our being. It’s not a muscle, but a symbol for the very centre of our being. The point to remember here is that everything we own, everything we are is a gift of God, and that includes our free will. It is this free will that can lead us away from what God wants for us; by tempting us with illusions of wealth, power and etc. By offering our heart to God we are effectively resisting that temptation by putting our old life behind us and starting anew on the path God has laid out for us. As Jesus said: ‘For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.’ Matthew 16:25 NIV. It is still quite a challenge and that path will not be easy but it will be so much more rewarding than continuing in the old way. And remember that God has promised that He will never leave us or forsake us. He will walk with us every step of the way; take comfort in that.
So, are you prepared to give your heart to God? And will the neighbours’ curtains twitch when you do so?
I have tried over the last year or so to publish on a theme of gratitude. I hope to be able to continue to do that and so I will start the New Year on a note of thanksgiving.
God turns up in the most unexpected places. It is just a matter of opening one’s eyes to see as you will find in this little illustration:
Over the Christmas/New Year holiday period Network Rail takes the opportunity to carry out major engineering work. All well and good for the future but it does make rail travel during this time very difficult. For one thing trains may be cancelled at short notice, or start and terminate at unexpected stations, with the rest of the journey is taken by bus. Members of our family travelled down by train to be with us at Christmas. They were expected to arrive in the evening. Of course we intended to collect them from the station. Due to engineering work the train would terminate at a nearby station. It was not one with which we were familiar. My wife suggested that we should check out the station earlier in the day to ensure we knew where to pick them up. Just as well she did! On arrival marshals on the station gate refused entry to cars as the car park was full with rail replacement buses taking passengers on their onward journey. We explained that one of our family was disabled, not expecting to sway the decision. However, the marshal took a note of our car number plate which he said he would pass to his colleague who would be on duty that evening. He assured us we would be allowed to enter to pick up our visitors. I did not hold out too much hope that he would do as he said.
When we returned that evening it was cold, damp and foggy. The marshals would have been standing outside for a long boring period of time. Nevertheless, the message had been passed on. His colleague had our details and insisted on walking in front of us as we drove through the car park avoiding the buses, to the station entrance where we were able to collect the family.
That is where I saw God that day, in the kindness of strangers.
Do keep your eyes and ears open this year as you never know where God will appear in your life. It may be in something quite simple. But when He does then your response must be one of gratitude; which I think is where we came in.
I wish you all a New Year in which peace will prevail.
Throughout Advent we have been waiting with joyous hope and anticipation for the coming of the Christ-child. This last week our evening prayer has included verses from the book of the prophet Isaiah. Each day Jesus is addressed by a different title: Wisdom, Lord, Root of Jesse, Key of David, Rising Sun, King of Nations and finally yesterday’s Antiphon, O Emmanuel (God is with us). In the Revised Standard Version of the Bible today’s verse reads: ‘Because you do, the Lord of His own accord will give you a sign; it is this; a young woman is with child, and she will give birth to a son and call him Immanuel.’ Isaiah 7:14
Like Christian communities across the world the congregation of St Mary Magdalene will gather at 11.30 tonight for Midnight Mass. The preparations have been made, all is now ready for as St Matthew writes: “At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ Matthew25:6(NIV). Isaiah’s prophecy has been fulfilled! God is with us! Of course, Christ was not born some 2000 years ago never to return, God is with us now and will remain with us all the days of our lives. Yet remember that Jesus did promise that He will return again in glory to take us to Himself. 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. John 14:3 (NIV) The baby Jesus can now be placed in the crib in the Nativity scene as a reminder of that wonderful gift and promise of God.
Our only reaction must be to join with St Paul and cry: 4 Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice.5 Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand.6 Be careful for nothing; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.7 And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:4-7(NIV)
That said let us not forget those who will spend this Christmas without loved ones, especially for the first time, or are facing illness or poverty. May the peace of God that passes all understanding find a way into their hearts.
I wish you all a blessed Christmas and a New Year where peace prevails.
This week I want to continue the theme of praying with the imagination since I believe that placing oneself at the scene in a biblical story can bring home a message for each of us.
Maybe you will better be able to understand the emotions and turmoil that Mary went through once the Angel Gabriel had given her God’s message but this is my take on events.
‘Once Mr Gabriel had left, Mary’s head was spinning. What was that all about? Who was that man and more importantly what have I agreed to? She decided she needed to talk it over with Joseph although, whilst a just and kind man, he did have a fearsome temper so she was more than a bit afraid as to what he would say. Sure enough when she met him coming out of his father’s workshop at the end of the day he flew into a rage at her news. He told her the wedding was off and he never wanted to see her again. She ran home in floods of tears. Mother suggested that she should go to spend some time with Cousin Elizabeth. After all with a few months apart it might all calm down, she thought to herself, although she doubted whether the wedding would ever take place. Next morning Mary packed a few things into a suitcase and caught the early morning train to the hill town where Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah lived. It was a long journey and so it was evening before she arrived, by which time Mary was quite tired. Elizabeth was in the neat well-kept garden gathering some flowers for a vase in the living room. When she saw her young cousin approaching she ran to welcome her with open arms. “It’s lovely to see you,” she cried, “Come in and tell me all your news!” It was as if a weight had been lifted from Mary’s shoulders. Elizabeth would understand and could surely help her. “Looks as if you’ve news of your own!” she laughed patting her cousin’s enlarged stomach. “Indeed! We both thought we were far too old to have a child but it seems God has other ideas! Anyway, come on inside I will make some tea and we can chat.” Over a pot of tea and cakes in front of the kitchen stove it all came tumbling out. Mary told her all about the visit of the strange old man, Mr Gabriel, what she had agreed to and Joseph’s reaction. “What I can’t understand,”she said, “is if they wanted a king to reign over Israel, why choose me? Surely they would have chosen the daughter of some wealthy family. I am not worthy or qualified to undertake such a task” Elizabeth listened in silence. Then, quietly she explained, “God works in mysterious ways. He does not call the qualified, He qualifies the called. After all, I didn’t know what to think when Zechariah told me that whilst serving in the Temple an angel came to him, - yes, your Mr Gabriel is an angel, - to say that we would have a child who would bring people back to God, that he would prepare the people for One who was to come after him, but it has happened.” She paused, and then said,“I believe that the child in your womb is indeed that holy child who will be called the Son of God. If you want further proof, my unborn child gave me a good kicking when you called out to me! Anyway we can talk more later. Come and give me a hand to make up a bed for you.” Mary stayed happily with her cousin until John was born.
Mary prepared for the birth of her child by spending time with her cousin. How are you preparing for the coming of the Christ Child into your heart?
Peter is a father and a grandfather who has been retired from full time employment for a number of years