You who dwell in the garden with friends in attendance,let me hear your voice.
Song of Songs 8:13
Christmas is only 35 days away!
Are you prepared for it? Many of us make lists so that nothing is forgotten. Have you bought all the cards, the presents, the food, and all the trimmings? Then what about the practical organisation? Who is going to fetch Aunt Maud this year for Christmas dinner? Do we have to invite Uncle George? And what about the latest TV adverts imploring you to part with your hard earned cash. Spend, spend, spend on the very latest hi tech gizmo that you never realised that you always needed (wanted). What about the kids? “Why can’t I have the latest Smartphone? All my friends have one!” “Is it all worth it”, I hear you say? Nowadays it all looks very much as if we are celebrating the pagan mid winter solstice. Yet it seems to me that we are missing the point here. Surely the true meaning of Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Our Blessed Lord and Saviour in human form, and there is nothing pagan about that! Of course, God does not just appear on December 25 and then disappear again until brought out with the Nativity scene next year. God is with us today and every day of our lives.
As we need to make our preparations for the festive season, so Advent, like Lent is a time for us as Christians to prepare; at this time for the birth of Christ, the Messiah.
‘The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light.’ Romans 13:12 NIV Preparation must include reflection. Much will have happened over the past year, some good but some bad. Let us make a list of all those things, to discover where we have seen God in them; to ask what have we done for God over the past year and what, selfishly for ourselves? Perhaps the more important question we should ask is what ought we to have done, or not done for Him? Yet the past is just that past; it cannot be altered however much we may wish it could.
Our preparations for the celebration of Christ’s birth then must include a resolution for the future; to serve God better than we have done over the past year. Yet the only way to know what is God calling us to do for Him in the next year, the next month, tomorrow is to ask Him. A brand new Smartphone is not necessary since keeping in touch with God is much simpler than that – just ask, speak to Him in prayer and listen to what He says. That way you will be prepared, for He will guide you on the course He has laid out for you. And then, be assured, God will walk with you every step of the way. How’s that for a Christmas present?
November is traditionally the month of remembrance; a time to remember, not only our loved ones, but all who have passed to their eternal rest. At St Mary Magdalene a service of remembrance for relatives and friends passed was held last Sunday. This Sunday, people up and down the country gathered round their local war memorials to remember and honour those who have sacrificed themselves to secure and protect our freedom. The National Service of Remembrance held at The Cenotaph in Whitehall, ensures that no-one is forgotten as the nation unites to honour all who have suffered or died in war. However, despite the military parades, it is important to emphasise that it is not war that is being celebrated here, but the sacrifice made by those who died or suffered in war. As a symbol of remembrance and hope many people wear a red poppy at this time. It reflects the natural colour of field poppies. It is not a symbol of death or a sign of support for war, a reflection of politics or religion or red to reflect the colour of blood; simply remembrance and hope. Wearing a poppy is, of course a personal choice and reflects individual and personal memories.
But how did the poppy come to be such a powerful symbol? The Royal British Legion website http://www.britishlegion.org.uk/ gives the answer:
‘During the First World War (1914–1918) much of the fighting took place in Western Europe. Previously beautiful countryside was blasted, bombed and fought over, again and again. The landscape swiftly turned to fields of mud: bleak and barren scenes where little or nothing could grow. Bright red Flanders poppies (Papaver rhoeas) however, were delicate but resilient flowers and grew in their thousands, flourishing even in the middle of chaos and destruction. In early May 1915, shortly after losing a friend in Ypres, a Canadian doctor, Lt Col John McCrae was inspired by the sight of poppies to write the now famous poem 'In Flanders Fields'. This poem inspired an American academic, Moina Michael, to make and sell red silk poppies which were brought to England by a French woman, Anna Guérin. The (Royal) British Legion, formed in 1921, ordered 9 million of these poppies and sold them on 11 November that year. The poppies sold out almost immediately and that first ever 'Poppy Appeal' raised over £106,000, (equivalent to £4,888,610.70 in 2017), a considerable amount of money at the time. This was used to help WW1 veterans with employment and housing.’
So whilst a humble, yet tough, little flower has become a symbol of remembrance of those who have died in the service of their country; let us not forget that other simple, though ugly, piece of wood made in the form of a cross which symbolises the greatest sacrifice of all: ‘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)
Some nights I don’t sleep well It is then I try to visualise a quiet place, a beach scene or maybe the garden, although that always reminds me of all the jobs I need to do out there!
One night the picture of a forest scene came to mind. There were several tall trees, with bark cracked and peeling, reaching to the heavens whilst the forest floor was covered with small bushes and bracken, some dead, others living. I seemed to hear the thousands, maybe millions of creatures living in the cracks in the tree bark and in the undergrowth, all carrying on their lives oblivious to Man’s everyday problems; his screeching and shouting, threats and insults, abuse and the like. It did not matter to the forest dwellers whether the animal or insect with which they shared the forest was black, white, green or yellow, as long as it didn’t eat him. At dusk an owl swooped silently through the air in search of a small rodent or bird for her evening meal while occasionally a muntjac deer would trample the bracken looking for something to eat; otherwise all was peace and quiet. I wondered how many, different species of animals and insects inhabited the forest. Only God knows the answer to that, for He made and cares for each and every one of them. Here was a reminder of an old hymn we used to sing as children: ‘All things bright and beautiful’. It contains the lines: ‘Each little flower that opens, each little bird that sings, He made their glowing colours, He made their tiny wings.’ Then in the scene the silence was broken by someone knocking on the door of a deserted house: ‘Is there anybody there said the Traveller knocking on the moonlit door? And his horse in the silence champed the grasses of the forest’s ferny floor.’ the words from a poem, ‘The Listeners’, by Walter de la Mare (1873–1956) learned at school. The Traveller knocks several times but receiving no answer, although it is clear that someone is there, goes away.
As God made the birds, the animals and the insects of the forest He made us, too. He made our ‘glowing colours’, our ‘tiny wings’. He made us in His own image – how wonderful is that? Yet the amazing thing is that God did not need to make us – with all the trouble we cause to His Creation one is tempted to wonder why He bothered! He made us because He wanted to, because He has a purpose for us. And like the Traveller in the poem God knocks on our door yet how many times do we ignore His invitation to take up our cross and walk with Him?
With Our Lord’s words in mind: ‘Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.’ Matthew 11:28 KJV, a prayer of gratitude for God’s Creation and for His love for me, together with a resolve to answer His invitation to serve His Kingdom, sleep overtook me.
Uncle Fred kept bees on the smallholding on which he and Aunt Tilly had built their home, a neat and tidy little cottage on a large plot of land deep in the country. As a child it seemed to me to be miles from anywhere. Certainly it was well hidden from the road surrounded by fields for as far as the eye could see. It had no mains drainage, gas or electricity supply, the water came from a well in the yard, whilst the toilet was a chemical affair down the garden (!) but it was a warm, welcoming, loving home for all that. There always seemed to be something cooking in the kitchen, Aunt Tilly loved cooking. She was a large jolly lady, one of my grandmother’s sisters; there were six in all, plus at least three brothers. Fred and Tilly had first met at the village school as children; eventually they got married and brought up their family in this cottage where they had spent the whole of their life together. When we were young Dad would sometimes drive us over to see them. It was a fantastic adventure to play in the garden; not carefully manicured like ours at home, but to a child, wild and exciting. The geese could be very territorial but like the chickens had free run of the garden, so it was fun collecting eggs from all sorts of hidden places.
Uncle Fred had always kept bees so that what he did not know about them was not worth knowing. And he was always ready to share his knowledge with anyone who asked. I remember him telling me that one of his hives might contain around 35,000 bees in high summer dropping to 5,000 in winter. Each bee had his or her own particular task depending on its age, he said. A worker bee, (female, of course), would spend the first half of her life in the hive before flying out to pollinate plants, collect pollen, nectar and water; then she will only live for another 20 days. There was always a good supply of honey in the house; Uncle Fred reckoned he got 40-60lb a year on average, so that their neighbours, friends and family were well supplied and there was always plenty for their local Church Summer Fete. Aunt Tilly attended the village Church regularly each Sunday but could never persuade Uncle Fred to go; except for his wedding and that one last time.
The old cottage was pulled down a while back to make way for an estate of expensive new modern houses. The bees too are long gone, yet looking back, I find it quite remarkable that 35,000 tiny creatures can live and work harmoniously together for the common good, each performing their allotted task when we humans cannot.
There is a lot we can learn from these tiny industrious creatures that God created with the same love and care that He created you and me.
These days the world can look a bleak and frightening place, whilst in our own lives we have times of fear and worry. Sometimes we seem to be facing a long dark tunnel from which there seems no escape. Everything is getting on top of us. Sadly, pain is real and can’t be avoided this side of eternity. Some of us may have more years behind them than in front –sorry to remind you! Yet there is light, there is hope – just look out of the window.
As I was clearing some of the overgrown bushes in the garden yesterday I came across a deserted blackbird’s nest carefully tucked into the branches of the thorny cotoneaster bush. Such a neat tidy little nest formed of woven twigs and grasses with a lining of mud. How did you make that, Mrs Blackbird, having only your beak to work with? Where did you learn the skill not only to form such a sturdy structure, but how to place it on such a firm foundation? Is there a University somewhere that runs a Building and Construction course for blackbirds? Then across the garden I marvelled at the sheer skill involved in the design and building of the intricate and beautiful web that Sister Spider had woven. For such tiny creatures, having what we humans would describe as limited intelligence to be able to do this is, I think, pretty amazing. What is even more amazing is that God should have given these tiny creatures such skills. But He has, and for a purpose, for as the Bible tells us: “O Lord, what a variety of things you have made! In wisdom you have made them all” (Psalm 104:24). And, yes, that includes us!
With a heavy heart, I threw the now empty and unwanted nest into the bin. It had served its purpose of providing a safe home for fledgling chicks. It was now abandoned having outlived its usefulness. Yet as I did so I was reminded that new life will return. Next year Mrs Blackbird, or her daughter will return to build a new nest in the bushes of our garden where she will raise her young family. And next year too, Sister Spider will weave new webs between the shrubs to catch the insects to feed her offspring. The cycle will begin again. So you see, there is light, there is hope.
In the same way the old, empty husk of man will pass away but by faith it will be renewed into eternal life for as St Paul says: “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.” 2 Corinthians 5:1 NIV.
Whatever our worries, our fears, let us take comfort from those words. Deo Gratia.
We all worry at times. What sort of day will it be? Will my train be on time? Will the kids be safe at school or university? Will he or she get home safely? Will the money stretch to the end of the week, let alone the month? Do I have enough in my pocket for a meal? Where will I sleep tonight? How will Dad cope on his own now that Mum has gone? Will I make my appointment?
I had an appointment at our local hospital the other day, nothing serious, but still it caused a little concern, as any visit to doctor or hospital tend to do. On the bus home – it’s so difficult to park the car at the hospital, and expensive, too. Anyway, from the window I noticed that the trees were beginning to put on their glorious autumn clothing; their leaves quietly changing from greens to vibrant reds, golden yellows and velvety browns before dropping to the ground. The giant old oak trees lining the street had shed some of their little acorns so that many crunched beneath my feet as I walked the last quarter mile home An abundance of food that will keep every squirrel in the neighbourhood and beyond satisfied for a very long time, whilst leaving plenty to grow into new oak saplings - the next generation - and still some to spare!
Then I thought of Jesus’ words since they remind us: ‘And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: 29 And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? He goes on to reassure us that ‘... your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of these things’ and ‘all these things will be added unto you.’ Matthew 6:24-34 KJV (AV)
In those moments coming home I saw not only the beauty of God’s Creation but also its abundance. That is where I found God that afternoon. That is when I realised that He was there with me all along, at the hospital, on the bus and on my walk home! So why did I worry about the hospital appointment? What good did worrying about it do? In the event it all turned out ok.
You will all have worries today, its human nature, but take comfort in St Paul’s words: ‘Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.’ Philippians 4:6-7 (NIVUK)
Deo gratia. Thanks be to God.
How often we repeat those familiar words; but do we really mean them, or do we just repeat them by rote?
Recently, in a homily, Father Michael said: "If you really want God's Kingdom to come on earth you need to do more than pray for it." Prayer is the most powerful weapon in our armoury, of course but as St Teresa of Avila once said: “God has no hands but yours...” God needs you, me, all of us to do His Will. Yet with so much violence, hatred and etc., in the world today I can understand why some people simply pull the sheets over their heads muttering “Well, what can I do about it?” But we all have a duty, a responsibility to bring about God’s Kingdom on earth. Others will say: “I am not qualified do anything.” But God does not call the qualified He qualifies the called. Look at the motley bunch of individuals that Jesus gathered round Him to be His disciples; fishermen, tax collectors and the like. None of them was learned in the Jewish law as were the Sadducees or the Pharisees whom you might expect Jesus to call. They certainly were not qualified to heal the sick or preach God’s Word and yet that is exactly what they did and very successfully too! How then, did they manage that? The Bible tells us: ‘When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place..... All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability’ Acts 2:1-4 NRSV. That’s how! And since the Holy Spirit resides in each of us today; we received it at our Baptism and it is nourished at the Eucharist, it enables us to serve God just as those disciples did long ago. Jesus lives within us and fulfils his Divine ministry in and through us.
Still we say, “What can I do on my own?” St Paul returns to this question on several occasions in his Epistles to the young churches. Writing to the church at Rome for example, he says: ‘For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.’ Romans 12:4-5 NIV. So, although we may feel that alone we are not be able to achieve a great deal, together and with God within us then: ‘For with God nothing shall be impossible.’ Luke 1:37 KJV. Indeed, Jesus reassures us: “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” Matthew 17:20 NIV.
God’s Kingdom will come on earth, but only if we have faith, pray and work together, with God- in- us, to make it happen.
Last week’s Reflection spoke of our need for silence in which to reflect and to pray, but sometimes we need to speak out. This is not a political blog, but I make no apology for saying that as Christians we are called to speak out against social injustice in any form; especially on behalf of those unable to do so for themselves.
For example, there is conclusive evidence that the increased number of hurricanes that have recently devastated parts of the Caribbean and the US are the result of global warming – man’s abuse of the fragile earth of which we are stewards. In Siberia large areas of permafrost are melting producing quantities of methane that will damage the planet. Yet still there are those who deny its existence. But the need to diminish our carbon footprint is obvious. We can reduce our demand for fossil fuel by taking the bus, cycle or even walk instead of using the car, for example. But it is vitally important that we speak out against those who deny the existence of global warming, whoever they are.
BUT equally, we are called to speak out against those who incite violence, racial or religious hatred or intolerance of any kind. The love of our neighbour calls us to stand up in defence of our fellow man when he cannot. If we do not, then who will? Remember the words of Martin Niemöller (1892–1984), a prominent Lutheran pastor who emerged as an outspoken public enemy of Adolf Hitler and spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Various versions of the quotation, which stems from Niemöller's lectures during the early post war period, exist, but his point was that Germans—in particular, he believed, the leaders of the Protestant churches—had been complicit through their silence in the Nazi imprisonment, persecution, and murder of millions of people. Though there has recently been a worrying rise in support for far right in various guises, hopefully we have moved on from those terrible times. But evil still exists, everywhere: - ‘Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.’ 1 Peter 5:8 NIV - and there is a constant need for us, as Christians, to speak out against it, whenever and wherever it raises its ugly head. Are we afraid to do so? Take comfort in the Lord’s word to Moses: ‘Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say’ Exodus 4:12 NIV.
After everyone had partaken of the Eucharist a complete silence fell upon the Church. Not a sound was to be heard; no coughing or shuffling in the pews, no traffic noise outside, and even the birds in the churchyard trees seemed to fall silent. It only lasted for a few minutes but I think we all experienced a sense of deep peace – I know I did.
Sometimes we have difficulty with silence; we shuffle uncomfortably in our seats, twiddle our thumbs anxiously. As nature abhors a vacuum, so too, silence seems to need to be filled. In the busy, noisy world around us we feel unable to cope without the comfortable blanket of noise, where someone else is feeding us information, entertainment or whatever. At least then we do not have to think too deeply for ourselves. Silence gives us space, an opportunity to think, to reflect. And that can be the problem. What thoughts will come to the surface, to fill the vacuum? Are they things we have been trying to bury in the everyday noise? Do we really want to stand naked, (metaphorically speaking, anyway), before God to face up to our wrong-doings? We need not worry for God knows us better than we know ourselves!
Yet it is vital to make time for a period of silence each day, a time to be alone with God without distractions, to speak with Him and to listen to His words; a time to pray, to reflect and to contemplate. We need to make time to just be still; perhaps to look out of the window at the glory of God’s Creation. Look at the cotoneaster bush heavy with bright red berries for the birds to feed on before winter. See the little wren scratching about in the fallen leaves on the edges of the garden for any bugs she can find. Look at the moon, the stars - they are all part of God’s glorious handiwork. And reflect on Psalm 8: 4-6 When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you set in place, what are humans that you are mindful of them, mere mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them little less than a god, crowned them with glory and honour.
So whilst we are using our time of silence to reflect on the glory of God’s Creation let us not forget the second great commandment: Love thy neighbour. Take time to think, to ask; what does God want me to do for my neighbour today?
Of course, there is a time to put silence aside and to speak out, against wrong doings, against injustice. And perhaps we will return to that another day.
On that Sunday God was with us in the silence. Let us then, today each take time away from the hectic world we inhabit to spend some time in silent communion with God, our Father and our Creator.
Having read my Reflection last week, my friend Simon told me about a decision he had to make recently. He is happy that I share it with you as he felt it may help others. He said:
‘Listening to the Epistle being read at Mass the other Sunday it came to me, that I should volunteer to read in Church. How hard is it to read aloud a few verses from the Bible; especially as the Church needs a few more readers? But then came the Gospel reading from Luke 18, the parable concerning the Pharisee and the publican praying in the Temple. Now doubts arose in my mind. What was my real motive for volunteering to read? Was it to help the Church, the vicar, or was it so that the congregation would look at me as I stood at the lectern reading to them from the Authorised Version of the King James Bible? “Look at me standing here, on a raised dais above and in front of you all, am I not important? I can read these arcane words, can you?” Was it my own pride, my self importance leading me to volunteer? In other words, was I acting just as the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable? Then again, I thought of the difficulties of driving in the icy perhaps snowy weather. At my age could I commit to making the journey in all weathers? Supposing I forgot that it was my turn to read? Was I really offering to read to serve God or my own selfish ends? I spoke to a wise old friend who said: “In you I see a willingness to serve as called. Pride comes from a dark, evil place and that is not how I see you. Service and response to a call comes from God” In his words I recognised the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius where in the Call of the King exercise he pictures the risen Christ calling every person to follow Him. Suddenly the decision became clear. The voice I heard was God’s call to serve Him so my response must be to follow. If reading Scripture is what God has called me to do then that is what I must do, and to the best of my ability – ‘for the greater glory of God’.’
As a result Simon is now on the approved list of readers for his Church. But the question remains for us all: when God calls how do we respond? In his book What is Ignatian Spirituality David L Fleming SJ reminds us: ‘Our response occurs now. We are not to be inhibited by our own weakness and failure. We are not to ponder our unworthiness.’
But do we still put up barriers, walls, excuses? Or do we embrace His call whole-heartedly? Remember: ‘ Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you.’ 1 Peter 5:7 NIV and: ‘As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead’ James 2:26 NIV.
Peter is a father and a grandfather who has been retired from full time work for a number of years