Beauty surrounds us, but we usually need to be walking in a garden to know it - Rumi
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).
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.
Peter is a father and a grandfather who has been retired from full time employment for a number of years