You who dwell in the garden with friends in attendance,let me hear your voice.
Song of Songs 8:13
Last Sunday at church Gwen reminded me, gently, that Lillian usually sat in the seat I was occupying. Of course she intended no malice. I suppose the ladies had been sitting together in those particular seats for so long now that it felt a little strange to have someone else sitting there.
Yet her words reminded me how we often jealously guard our own space. Just watch the efforts of the crowds on the High Street as they dodge about trying to avoid bumping in to one another; you can almost see the walls around them. The problem with walls is that they separate – that is their function – they enclose and they exclude. Yet we all tend to build walls, consciously or subconsciously; walls to keep Them out. Not that any of this is new of course. Consider for a moment William Shakespeare’s play, the Merchant of Venice written in 1596 around the time the Inquisition forced the expulsion of all Jews from France, Spain and Portugal. In Act 3 Scene 1 he has Shylock say; ‘I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?’ Shylock’s plea still rings true today, but has society changed over the last 500 years? Governments have passed legislation regarding to race relations, religious tolerance, and sexual equality but has any of that changed our personal attitudes? Are we any more understanding now of those of a different ethnic origin, religion or sexuality? I am not sure we are. We can see Them as awkward, demanding, difficult to understand so that getting along with Them may not be easy. But then Jesus set us an example; He mixed happily with tax collectors – the scum of the earth – prostitutes and some really not quite nice people. Indeed, St Matthew records Jesus as saying ‘love your enemies’ Matthew 5:44, and goes on: ‘Be perfect therefore as your heavenly Father is perfect’ Matthew 5:48. Now God knows I am not perfect and I doubt if many of you are either, but since that is what Jesus is calling us to do should we not at least make the effort? After all as St Paul wrote: And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love ’. 1 Corinthians 13:13 KJV - a love for Them.
Let us break down all the walls that separate, that enclose and exclude. Let us Love our neighbour as Jesus commanded us.
This Sunday I made sure I left Lillian’s seat unoccupied but, you’ve guessed it, she was on holiday
Have you noticed that there do not seem to be as many birds about as there were in the last few months? Where have they all gone to? After all the fuss and bother of mating, laying eggs and feeding the newly hatched offspring, it is time for them to take a rest before getting down to the business of stocking up on food for the coming winter months.
In a similar way at this time of year many of us will be taking a well earned holiday, a break from our everyday work. Perhaps we will visit friends or relatives, or take a trip to a favourite place, whilst the more adventurous may venture further afield. In any case, it’s all a welcome respite from the daily routine.
Can we take a break from this ‘God bothering’ stuff, too? No! Since God is with us, and within us we cannot leave God at the airport check-in desk, to pick Him up in the Arrivals lounge on our return. God is coming with us, wherever we go! In fact, God invites us to step aside from the busyness of our daily life precisely so that He can make himself known to us. Rest from the daily grind is essential, but just as important is spending time recharging our spiritual batteries. So, will we spend the boring flight reading a trashy novel from the airport bookstall? Why not download one of the countless Bible Apps to our mobile phone to read? Much more edifying! Anyway, when was the last time you really spent time reading the Bible? Remember listening to God through Scripture will transform our lives. And why not use some of the time spent lazing on the beach as an opportunity to reflect on our relationship with God? How can we deepen it? Again, with all the night life at the resort there may seem to be no time for prayer. Yet, the simplest prayer is to say thank you God, and there will be so many reasons to express our gratitude to Him; maybe for meeting new people, renewing old acquaintances or perhaps just the fact that the daily pressures are not there. There is always a reason to offer a prayer of gratitude.
Some will not able to get away from home this year. Yet just looking out of the back window to see the neighbour’s cat stalking across the yard after the birds, listen to the kids playing in the street, the sun shining on the pot plants, perhaps the sound of the air conditioning unit keeping our neighbour cool, even here we can offer a prayer of gratitude.
In our pursuit for rest and recuperation we must never forget our time for prayer and reflection. Gratitude and thanksgiving for God’s gifts will surely be the most significant prayers at this time.
Oh, and keep an eye out for the birds as they return to the task of refuelling for winter.
I am not an expert gardener I just enjoy spending time outside; sowing seeds in pots, nurturing them before finally planting them out and watching them grow. There is always a lot of pruning and tidying to do around the garden but that is half the fun of it.
Some of the early flowering plants have finished blooming now. It is time to collect their seeds for next year. The technique is very simple; just cut a stem and place it in an envelope, head down so that the seeds collect in the bottom - and don’t forget to label the envelope! But as long as those seeds remain in the envelope at the back of the drawer they remain just seeds. Only when they are sown in pots and eventually planted out do they show their full potential. After flowering they will in their turn produce a further abundance of seeds and so the cycle continues. It always amazes me how many seeds one plant will produce, but each seed has the potential to grow into another beautiful plant. And still there are enough seeds left over for the birds to eat. An example of God’s gracious bounty! Jesus had something to say on that score: Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. John 12:24 NIV. So, I can sow seeds, feed and water them but they will never achieve their full potential until they are planted out and receive the sunshine and rainfall they need to develop that only God can provide.
Is our life like those seeds? We may think we have all we need; health, wealth, family and friends. What more do we want? Yet sometimes we may feel that there must be something missing in our lives. What is that deep ache that comes on every so often? The answer is quite simply a yearning, a need for God. God does not want us to remain simply dull, dry, brown seeds packed tidily in an envelope never displaying our full potential; God wants to be a part of our lives. God has a plan for each of us, even if we were not aware of it before. Indeed we may never know what that plan is but since God made us, cares for us, loves us and promises to walk with us every step of our journey through life it must be for our benefit.
We all have the potential to make a difference in the world, even if something quite small. Let us ask God to help us to develop that potential for the greater glory of God. After all: ‘The Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream at night and said, “Ask something of me and I will give it to you”’. (I Kings 3:5). If God was prepared to help Solomon He will surely help you and me.
‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’ the Gospel says (Matthew 22:38), yet if I were to ask you who your neighbour was I suspect you would reel off the usual suspects, the sick, the hungry the dying and those in need. Yet is that a complete list?
I am not very good with things mechanical or electronic, mainly because they often seem to have a mind of their own. As I was born in an age before computers were anything more than an idea in some boffin’s mind, it is amazing to me that you are able to read this on the World Wide Web – which again hadn’t been invented at the time. I remember reading that someone once said that one day we will need four computers to run the world! Now everything seems to have a computer inside it. Yet they can be so frustrating. For example, the other day I lost all Wi-Fi connection. Not a major concern in the scale of the world’s problems, I know but frustrating and annoying all the same. Equally worrying was the strange message on screen asking me to log in to an unknown site. Don’t do that!!! How to solve the problem? My wife had an idea. She rang Sally, who used to live next door, to ask if her husband could ring sometime to advise me. No problem, Sally replied. However, Kev didn’t ring; he appeared on the doorstep before we had placed the dishes from the evening meal in the dishwasher. Now since he works in London and having finished work, travelled home on a crowded train, and may not have had a meal yet, for him to make the effort to come round so promptly was I thought going the extra mile (Matthew 5:41). He quickly diagnosed the problem and resolved it – the unknown site turned out to be essential to solving the problem, not a scam after all. A quick cup of coffee - all he would take - and he was on his way home.
In a way, his kind, prompt and helpful action reminded me of the parable of the Good Samaritan Luke 10:2 9-37, though my difficulties were nowhere on the scale of the poor chap beaten up and left on the road, of course!
Now let me ask you the question again: who is your neighbour? The clue lies in Luke 10:36-37 where Jesus asks: 36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” 37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” In the same way, by figuratively crossing the road to help me, Kev is just as much my neighbour as those on the earlier list.
What neighbours do you have to thank God for today?
This reflection was inspired by a Daily Reflection on the website www.henrinouwen.org. Do visit it if you are not aware of Henri Nouwen’s work.
Recently I have wondered why God has taken so long to call me to discipleship. Why has he left it until I am in my dotage before asking me to write a blog? Why not call me at a younger age or indeed, choose someone younger. But perhaps these are the wrong questions. Should I not rather be asking, why have I not responded to God’s invitation to walk with Him, to work for Him earlier in my life?
At church last Sunday a lady welcomed me using my Christian name. As this was only my second visit I asked how she knew it. “I like to know what’s going on and who’s who, young man” she said – not unkindly, I hasten to add. Now it is a very long time since anyone has called me “young man” but then she did admit to being 95 so maybe I did seem young to her. However, her words reminded me that God’s timescale not ours and that God is a patient God. After all, how old was Abraham’s wife when she bore Isaac? Again, how long had Simeon waited when Mary and Joseph presented Jesus to him at the Temple? God invites us to join Him and waits for us to take up that offer. God does not exert pressure or make demands. God waits patiently for our response to His invitation and when we accept welcomes us with open arms and walks with us on the journey.
But, do you remember Jesus’ parable of the ten virgins recounted in Matthew 25? Five were prepared to greet the bridegroom with lamps and oil even at the late hour of his coming, whilst the others were not ready and so missed joining the celebrations. Indeed the final verse of the parable sounds a warning: “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour” Matthew 25:13. Now since none of us knows how long our lives will be on this earth we like the virgins in the parable, need to be prepared to listen for, and to respond to, His call whenever it comes. As Jesus said: ‘Blessed are your eyes because they see and your ears because they hear’. Matthew 13:16. Yet if we don’t keep our eyes and our ears open then we will never know what God is calling us to do for Him. More importantly we will not know God.
The God within us shows us that we all have a purpose and in God’s own time He will choose the man or woman He wants to carry out the task He has in mind for us, even though it may not be what we expect it to be. What we have to do is to keep our eyes and ears open so as not to miss God’s call and be ready to say, as the young Samuel did, ‘Speak Lord for thy servant heareth’ 1 Samuel 3:10 (KJV).
There was not a cloud in the sky on that beautiful bright sunny Sunday morning as I walked up the path from the car park to the North entrance of St Mary Magdalene, a church I had never attended before. It stands on one of the earliest sites of Christian worship in the county since St Cedd erected a preaching cross here. A wooden church was built in the seventh century, but the present building dates substantially from the 12th century. Its importance to the community is illustrated by the records and artefacts it holds. For example, it houses a 12th century oak Crusader chest, whilst church registers tell of the burning at the stake, in the nearby county town, of a local man and the marriage of Christopher Martin, who sailed to America on the Mayflower, whilst the Churchyard contains some early 17th century headstones and an ancient yew tree.
The birds were singing in the trees in the churchyard as I walked, the sun casting dappled shadows beneath my feet. It seemed as if just stepping into the church grounds I was surrounded by an aura of peace, away from the bustle of the outside world just a few yards away that had not yet properly woken up. On entering the church that feeling of peace was all encompassing. ‘Welcome home’, it seemed to say, ‘I AM so pleased to see you’. The early morning sun streamed its bright shafts of light through the richly stained glass of the East Window lighting up the whole church, as the candles were lit on the altar for the 8am Mass conducted following the 1662 Anglican Book of Common Prayer. St Mary Magdalene aspires to be an Anglo-catholic loving and prayerful church community – which it certainly is. The quiet simple service was conducted with dignity and sincerity by young Father Michael who spoke on the parable of the lost sheep. No doubt for centuries many lost sheep of the world have found the safe and welcoming embrace of God here. Indeed, there could be no doubt in my mind that Jesus was present for us all in the Eucharist that morning.
For fourteen centuries the church has stood on that hill, a beacon of hope proclaiming the Christian faith to all; visible not only to the local community but to passing travellers for miles around. A safe haven and an unchanging presence in an ever changing world, offering God’s invitation and words of welcome: Come unto me all ye who travail and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. Matthew 11:28 KJV. I am reminded of words found in the breviary of St Teresa of Avila after her death:
Let nothing disturb thee,
Nothing affright thee
All things are passing;
God never changeth;
Attaineth to all things;
Who God possesseth
In nothing is wanting;
Alone God sufficeth.
The only possible response must be one of gratitude: Deo gratias – Thanks be to God.
The other day I was browsing in a second hand book shop – anything to do with books or book shops and you have lost me for hours! There is just something about the smell and feel of old books that I love, and there is always something interesting to be found amongst the assortment of donated books. This time I came across a paperback The Sign of Jonas by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton which I had to buy. On the frontispiece inside the book I found the Latin words Ad Usum. Not being a Latin scholar I was at a loss as to their meaning. More importantly I wondered why the previous owner had inscribed these words in a paperback in such careful copperplate handwriting; the words obviously meant something important to him. A bit of online research revealed that literally they mean ‘for use’. That doesn’t help much. Further digging showed that in the past novice monks were sometimes required to write these words inside every book given to them. The idea was to instil in their minds the idea that although the book was given to them for their temporary, personal use, ultimately it did not belong to them.
Now this is quite a sobering thought since even a few minutes reflection of the words Ad Usum will bring home the realization that in this life we do not own anything really, not our books, our cars, our computers, our homes, our gardens, not even the clothes we stand up in. Everything is a gift, a gift of God. Ultimately we do not own anything whatsoever. Therefore struggling to achieve more; more wealth, more power or more recognition is a useless waste of time. Remember: ‘For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.’ 1 Timothy 6:7 (AV) and ‘Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ Job 1:21 AV. All we have, and all we think we own, is a gift God gives us for our use on this earth. Thus we must take care of it, treasure it, as we would any gift. But whilst a material gift will rust or crumble away there is one gift God gives us that will remain with us for eternity; a gift more valuable than any other: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. John 3:16 AV And remember God gives us gifts in abundance not because we have been good but because God is good.
So those two simple words found inside a second hand book in a charity shop remind me of the depth of gratitude I owe to God for everything He has given to me. What do they mean to you?
A week or so back I wrote about the idea attributed to St Francis of Assisi; ‘Preach and if necessary use words’. I want to explore this idea a little further today. When taken it in conjunction with a comment I read recently by the Franciscan Richard Rohr ‘Nature itself is the first Bible’ where better to look for inspiration than in my own back garden?
Here is a photo of an evergreen climber scrambling through the forsythia, the lilac and the rose bushes. Its Latin name is Passiflora caerulea, but is more commonly called the Passion Flower. Have a look at the flower – take as long as you like. Reflect on what you see. What is God showing you, telling you in this flower? Are you struck by the intricate design of the flower, the pure white petals or the stamens? Do you see them as the 15th and 16th centuries Spanish Christian missionaries did as symbols of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ? Perhaps God has another message for you.
And what about the little insect on the stem, perhaps too difficult to see? God gave that little insect eyes to see, feet, wings, a heart and a brain to carry out the task He set for it. If God takes such care with so tiny an insect how much more does He care for you? Remember ‘So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.’ Matthew 10:31NIV. OK, sparrows are bigger than this tiny insect but you get the idea. If God can design and create such beauty in such tiny creatures and flowers, yet also created the Sun, the moon and all the stars of the heavens – and you and me - how can anyone say there is no God? There most certainly is and He lives everywhere – Emmanuel – God-with-us, God-within-us.
But what do you see in this photo? What is God telling you today? Look, see, reflect and then offer a prayer, certainly a prayer of thanksgiving but also a prayer asking God to tell you what more He wants of you.
It is very difficult nowadays to find some peace and quiet. Yet we all need a quiet place, somewhere to step back from the constant noise of the world, to think and to pray. But everywhere there is noise; traffic noise, dogs barking, neighbours shouting, kids screaming, and music blaring. Not to mention the wall to wall coverage of world events on TV and the constant demand for attention from social media. Who invented Twitter, by the way - and, why?
Yet spare a thought for those who have a hearing difficulty; whether profound deafness or an inability to hear clearly. They often suffer a sense of isolation, of exclusion, a frustration at not being able to join in. Perhaps also a sense of fear; what are they saying that I should know about? I recall spending a night in a hotel when the fire alarm went off. All guests were accounted for bar two, a husband and his wife. Someone, perhaps wrongly went to investigate and found him fast asleep whilst his wife who was profoundly deaf sat up in bed reading. Neither had heard the alarm and so they were blissfully unaware of the danger! Fortunately it turned out to be a false alarm.
I wrote much of this, in my head at least, during the week but could not think of an ending, a message. Then about five o’clock on Sunday morning I seemed to hear someone say: “Are you still moaning because you can’t hear as well as you could sixty years ago? What about all the other gifts and talents I have given you? Don’t they count for anything? I have given you a family, friends, oh and a garden too. You can see, touch smell and taste. I have also given you the ability to write. Just because you are 77 years old don’t think you can just sit back and watch endless repeats of mindless day time TV. I have called you to be my disciple. I have given you a task; to tell people about my Creation and to tell them where you have found me today. And I have given you the tools to do it. So what are you sitting around moaning for? Get on and spread My Word. And stop worrying about what to say. St Paul reminded you that: ‘Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father.’ Galatians 4:6. So, MY Spirit will guide you.” Yes, OK Dad, Abba. Well it was Father’s Day.
The point is that whatever disability we may, or may not have God has a mission for us, a task. We just need to ask Him what He wants us to do today. After all as Jesus said: ‘Ask and it will be given to you...’ Matthew 7:7(NIV). We do not need perfect hearing nor do we need a social media account. Just listen God will make Himself heard.
This week I offer a verse from the Old Testament for you to think about. ‘The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it.’ Genesis 2:15 Look at those words again ‘to cultivate and care for it.’
Whilst the Garden of Eden refers to the whole of God’s creation, even a quick look from the kitchen window will show what a wonderful gardener God is! Each year, at the right season, the plants flourish bringing beautiful flowers for us to enjoy, or wholesome fruit and vegetables for us to eat. God’s boundless bounty provides for all our needs and man was settled in God’s creation to take care of it. Thus we all have a moral responsibility to do just that. In fact, we have a twofold responsibility.
As I have said before, climate change is a reality; the world’s resources are finite. Our planet is in very grave danger, largely due to our greed, overconsumption, and reckless exploitation of those limited resources. Of course, the very nature of greed is that there is never enough, yet as St Francis of Assisi pointed out nearly nine hundred years ago, there is enough; enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed. So we must all make choices and decisions about what action we need to take. Should we use up the dwindling and polluting stock of fossil fuel, for example, when renewable energy is not only cheaper but a good deal less harmful to the planet? It seems a vast majority of countries in the world think so. Would we not be wiser to heed the words of an unknown speaker: “live simply so that others may simply live”?
But we must also remember that caring for creation includes not only caring for the environment, the plants and animals, but also for one another. The decisions we take regarding care of our planet will affect the lives of our grandchildren and great grandchildren; but can you imagine a world in which everybody treated one another with equal respect and dignity regardless of ethnicity, religion, gender, nationality, appearance or social class? Would that not be much better place in which to live? And man is capable of showing care and compassion in the face of terrible tragedy; a love for one’s neighbour as I illustrated last week.
Remember that: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life’ John 3:16 KJV. This surely is the central point: God loves the world, His Creation – He would not have sent His Son otherwise. Thus the whole of creation, people, animals and indeed the earth itself are to be respected for their own sake. I believe that we are called to show our love for God and care for His creation in our everyday lives and actions.
Preach the Gospel and if necessary use words!
Peter is a father and a grandfather who has been retired from full time work for a number of years