Beauty surrounds us, but we usually need to be walking in a garden to know it - Rumi
The blackbird, the robin and the wren are all favourite garden birds since each has a lesson to teach us. Whilst they are utterly different in size, colour and habits, all have one feature in common – a loud voice! The blackbird is the first to wake in the morning so that his calls arouse the other birds to join the dawn chorus. The robin has a distinctive call which will scare off any intruders to his territory, whilst for one of the smallest of our garden birds; the wren has a remarkably loud voice.
Unlike the garden birds we in this country often tend to keep quiet about our Christianity. “We don’t want to offend anybody” we say, or maybe “They won’t understand” or perhaps “I am not confident that I have the ability to discuss it with someone who has other ideas”. And so we slip out unnoticed to church and return to carry on our daily life. No one is the wiser and no friends are lost. But is that what God calls us to do?
Let us look at these statements one at a time. Firstly, how can God’s commandments to love God and to love our neighbour offend anyone? Indeed ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’ John 3:16 NIV sounds like a wonderful and most precious gift to me, not something that is likely to offend anyone. Secondly, in order that they do understand what we say we need to prepare ourselves; here a good adage is, ‘think before you speak and pray before you think.’ Take comfort from the prophet Isaiah ‘Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.’ Isaiah 41:10. Thirdly, as to the idea that we do not have the ability to speak about our faith, I know from personal experience that God will give us the words we need at the right time. As Jesus said: ‘do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say’, Matthew 10:19 Lastly, and perhaps this is the whole point, remember: ‘Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.’ Matthew 5:15 (NIV). Of course, we must be careful not to appear as the Pharisee in the Temple, who prayed to show everyone how righteous he was; in other words he prayed for his glory rather that for the glory of God.
Yet surely, as God gave the birds loud voices to proclaim His glory each and every morning, we are called to proclaim our faith in God clearly so that everyone can hear?
Last week as our American cousins celebrated Martin Luther King Day my attention was drawn to a quotation by the great civil rights leader of the 1960’s. He said: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Now that is a challenge indeed. Where you stand on that point is for you to discern but as you might expect I turn to the garden birds for a lesson.
Though small the robin is quite fearless around human beings, indeed he will happily sit on the handle of the garden fork watching for the worms he thinks I have dug up for him. Yet he will, if threatened puff up his feathers to make himself look a lot bigger. He has a bright red breast, is fiercely territorial and will aggressively drive away intruders. He also has a loud distinctive voice. Perhaps we can guess where he would stand! The wren, one of our smaller brown, perhaps dull looking, birds will naturally respond if threatened, but prefers to hide away in the leaf litter at the back of the garden seeking insects and spiders for food. She adopts a different and perhaps more comfortable option. Interestingly although she has a remarkably loud voice for such a small bird I doubt if many people would recognise the wren’s call. However, at dawn all the birds of the garden will sing together; a wonderful chorus to the glory of God.
In relation to Dr King’s probing question we, no doubt ask ourselves: can we as human beings really achieve that much on our own. Can our solitary, small voice make any difference to the world? But is that simply an excuse to do nothing? After all, we have a responsibility to work together, to speak the truth, to peacefully stand up for the rights of all men, especially those who cannot speak for themselves. (Note those words, ‘peacefully stand up for’.) Whilst alone we can do little, remember that in his Epistle to the Corinthians; St Paul reminds his audience that although they each have their own characteristics nevertheless they are all part of the same body. More importantly he reminds us that “Now you are the body of Christ and each of you is a part of it” 1 Corinthians 12:7(NIV). That then is the answer. Each of the birds has an individual voice, some louder or more easily recognisable than others yet at dawn they sing a beautiful chorus together. In the same way, together with our fellows we can achieve something. But with God’s help and in God’s name we can achieve that which we are called to do; to stand up to the challenges of the day. As Jesus said: ‘For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them’ Matthew 18:20(NIV)
Let us pray for God’s assistance to meet the challenges of the coming day, together, peacefully.
It’s January again! All the excitement, fun and fervour of Christmas is over. For our American cousins Thanksgiving Day must be a distant memory. There seems nothing to look forward to now; the summer holidays are a long way off, if we can afford one. Now the credit card bills that funded Christmas are dropping through the letterbox demanding payment. So far as the weather is concerned rain turning to snow is forecast, with gales and icy road conditions. Flooding is likely in some areas so that villages on the east coast of England are set to be evacuated. The garden is bare and brown. All seems doom and gloom.
Despite all that, on looking out of the kitchen window this morning we saw a thrush in the garden. Now the thrush is not an uncommon garden bird but we have not seen one here recently. There is a family of blackbirds who regularly make a nest in the bushes and the tiny wren can be seen in amongst the leaf litter, whilst the robin will allow me to use “his” garden, but the thrush is a less common visitor. Yet there he was eating up the bugs and worms he needs to get him through the cold days to come – he would really like a few juicy snails but they seem to be in hiding. What a joy to see him though!
What, you may ask, has a common garden bird to do with unpaid credit card bills or anything else really? The answer is that the divide between our secular life and our spiritual one is artificial. God reveals Himself to us in the ordinary everyday things of life: the birds, the trees, the plants, in everything we see or touch - if only we are willing to open our eyes to see! He is not remote, only to be found in some “holy place”. More than that, not only does He show Himself this morning in the thrush, but He provides the food that bird needs. Then Jesus’ words as recorded in St Matthew’s Gospel come to mind: 25 ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? Matthew 6:24-27(NIV). If God is willing to provide food for one member of His Creation, surely He will care for us too.
‘Do not worry’ Jesus said. The icy storms will pass away, the people evacuated will return to their homes, the garden will bloom again and the credit card bills will be paid. Thanks be to God.
This Sunday we celebrate the coming of the Magi to the Christ-child. It’s a familiar story so the temptation is to gloss over it quickly and move on. Yet it is really a very strange story that only appears in St Matthew’s Gospel. Since the other Gospel writers do not include the story we do not know if the event was real or if St Matthew invented it to emphasis the kingship of the Messiah.
Anyway, what do we know about the Magi? We know they were astrologers, learned men who studied the stars and that they were not Jewish; they came from the east, probably Babylon which was the centre of excellence for the study of astrology in those days. Then the line between astrology and astronomy was blurred. Since stars are normally orderly, predictable in their course round the heavens any unusual activity in their movement would have been the cause of great interest. It was often thought to foretell an important event – like, for example, the birth of a king. They were obviously rich men who could afford to indulge their interest since they were granted an audience with King Herod who took their information seriously. Whilst tradition has it that there were just three Magi St Matthew does not give us a specific number. In any case, they would not have travelled alone but would have had a retinue of attendants, servants and etc to accompany them. Naturally they went to Jerusalem first to consult with King Herod since they were looking for the new born King of the Jews. He sent them to Bethlehem where the star led them to a house - not the stable in which Our Saviour was born as our Christmas cards illustrate.
Now, bear in mind two things. Joseph was a poor man, he did not have land or property to support his family, and so he worked with his hands as a carpenter. Thus he could not afford a grand mansion or perhaps even a proper house. Indeed, the Holy Family may well have lived in a cave since many poor people in Nazareth did just that. Yet St Matthew tells us that the Magi, rich important men that they were, found the right house and went in. More than that, they ‘fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh.’ Matthew 2:11. Really expensive presents, fit for a king! How the Magi recognised the babe in this hovel as the Messiah for whom they had been searching is a question to be pondered but perhaps a more important question to ask is this:
When people come calling on you do they find Jesus?
13 When they [the Magi] had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. ‘Get up,’ he said, ‘take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.’
14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’[c] Matthew 2:13-15 (NIV)
On 28 December we remembered the day that Jesus and His family became refugees, fleeing their home land for the relative safety of Egypt. We do not know what conditions the Holy Family had to endure on their journey or whilst living there but many years earlier the Israelites had been slaves in Egypt – not a comforting thought! Anyway, they were strangers in a foreign land, a different culture; a fate suffered by millions to this day. Since that time many people have had to seek shelter, a new life in a country other than their own. Our Jewish brethren have been constantly harried from pillar to post, for example. And, how many ordinary folk emigrated from Europe to escape religious persecution, seeking a better life in the New World, settling in Australia, New Zealand, Canada or America? Indeed, the inscription on the Statue of Liberty welcomes immigrants with the words: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" Truly a noble sentiment.
Yet still as a result of war and religious discrimination millions live in camps many miles from their homeland with little prospects for the future. According to ITV News, there are many Christians among almost three million Syrian refugees in Turkey so that not all refugees are Muslim; there must be some of other religions or none at all. Again not every refugee who wishes to enter our country does so intending to kill us. Each refugee is a person, a member of a family with the same hopes and desires that you or I have. Every day our TV screens show harrowing pictures of refugees living in squalid conditions. Next time you see one do not turn the TV off – it’s not just another appeal for money. Look at the face of the child crying for food, for shelter, for his family, for compassion and remember you are looking into the face of your Lord.
Each and every day let our faith in Jesus give us the hope and love to turn to those outside – those who through no fault of their own are refugees - and to make a home for them in our lives since by doing so we welcome Emmanuel God with us.
Peter is a father and a grandfather who has been retired from full time employment for a number of years