You who dwell in the garden with friends in attendance,let me hear your voice.
Song of Songs 8:13
I can just imagine the look on Joseph’s face when these obviously very wealthy guys turned up in the rough, scruffy neighbourhood in which he had managed to find a temporary shelter for himself, his wife Mary and her baby son. If the neighbours had had curtains at their windows they would be twitching like mad now to see what was going on! Bedecked and bejewelled men definitely of some status with camel trains, drivers and a host of servants, all richly dressed. Whatever were they doing in this neck of the woods? Clearly, they were passing through having taken a wrong turn somewhere. But no, they stopped outside the Joseph’s house, well cave really, but at least it was somewhere to stay until Mary was fit to travel. And having stopped the princes, kings or whatever they were, dismounted from their camels and asked if they could enter Joseph’s home. Well, what could he say? “Of course, come in you are most welcome but I'm afraid we have little to offer you.” Anyway, they went in and as St Matthew’s gospel tells us: ‘they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh’ Matthew 2:11(NIV). What was Joseph to make of that? He really couldn’t get his head round what was going on here. The gifts were for the baby Jesus whom the wise men had rightly recognised as the Messiah: gold to celebrate the Wealth of God’s creation; Frankincense to celebrate his Power in the World and Myrrh to symbolise his approaching death.
The question then is what gifts do you have to bring to the Messiah? St Paul sets out quite clearly what we are called to do in his letter to the Romans where he says: 5 so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. 6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; 7 if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach;8 if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully. Romans 12:5-8 NIV. Don’t feel confident about that? Then there is one thing, one gift that God has given to us all, the most precious gift that we can offer to God, our lives. But how? Remember: ‘And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.’1 Corinthians 13:13 NIV.
Since there is far too much anger, hatred, violence, corruption and madness in the world today, let us strive to love God and our neighbour, whoever he may be, with all our hearts, minds and bodies. That surely is the greatest gift we can offer to God.
Here we are at the first day of the New Year! Where has the past year gone to? The time seems to have flown by! Have you made your New Year’s resolutions yet? What is on your list? How will 2018 be different from 2107? What are you going to change? Remember that whatever resolutions you make for the coming year to improve you physical well being, look at your spiritual life too. How does that need changing?
The fact that you are thinking about making New Year’s resolutions shows that you feel that there is something you could do to improve your life, yet change is not always easy to embrace. The very word can send shivers down your spine since it normally refers to new beginnings but it can be difficult for many people, certainly as we get older when many of the familiar things seem to have disappeared. Maybe we are looking back at the ‘good old days’ through ‘rose coloured glasses’ but the old familiar ‘comfort blanket’ is well, comfortable, and safe; why would anyone want to change it, to venture into the unknown. To take that step into the darkness requires patience, guidance and the freedom to let go of familiar things rather than gripping on to them more tightly. It is not easy but then Jesus realized that when He said: ‘ ‘strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.’ (Matthew 7:14KJV) In making changes there is always the danger of throwing out that which is good and useful along with the bad and unhelpful; but then you are making New Year’s resolutions so you want to change. In any case, the alternative, carrying on in the old way, is not really making any progress at all, just continuing in the same old rut.
Yet whatever changes you make, it is important to hold on to the fact that in the midst of this turbulent, chaotic, ever-changing world there is one constant. Many years ago the prophet Isaiah said: ‘Therefore, thus says the Lord God: See, I am laying a stone in Zion, a stone that has been tested, a precious cornerstone as a sure foundation; he who puts his faith in it shall not be shaken.’ Isaiah 28:16. So take comfort that whatever the world throws at you, or whatever changes you choose to make in your own life, God is that cornerstone; that Anchor of hope, the one safe, firm foundation on which you must build your faith.
Before making any resolutions pray for God’s guidance, and then ask yourself two questions: what have I done for God in 2017 and what more can I do for Him in 2018?
8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
15 And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.
16 And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.
May I wish you and all your family peace and joy this Christmas, and many blessings in the New Year.
At this time of year across the country, in schools and church halls, children are rehearsing their parts for the annual Nativity play. Whilst some will take the starring roles, others will play what seems a lesser role, for example as sheep. Of course, each part is important since without sheep there would be no shepherds and thus no angel to bring them the Good News! It is always a joy to see the happy, excited faces of the children as they take their places on stage to bring the age old story to life once again. Each performance will be different and perhaps that is part of the joy of it. What is more important however is the impact the Nativity play has on the performers and those in the audience watching as together we sing the old favourite carols, and a few new ones as well.
It is a joy too, to open the Christmas cards that come through our letter box and to read the messages and the news of friends far away; news of births, marriages, new careers, new opportunities opening up for them or their children. Sometimes, however the joy is tinged with sadness as we open a card signed this year by just one friend as their husband or wife has died or perhaps is now looked after in a care home as dementia has taken its toll.
For many this season will be tinged with sadness as there will be an empty place at the festive table. Sadly, too, there are some who have no one with whom to share their Christmas meal, who will receive no cards and indeed have no-one to send a card to. For them this Christmas time will seem as empty as every other day with only their “friends” on the TV screen for company. And spare a thought for those whose worldly possessions are contained in a carrier bag, who have no home and are struggling to survive. Yet at just such times our faith teaches us that only the healing and peace that Christ brings can ease our burdened hearts, and it is for Christ’s coming we pray.
As we light the third (rose) candle on our Advent wreath let us pray for the joy of Christ’s coming; for the joy in the children’s hearts as they perform the Nativity play. Let us pray too for the joy in receiving cards and messages from our friends and loved ones far away. And let us not forget to pray for those for whom Christmas will be just another lonely day.
In the words of the old hymn let us: “Rejoice, rejoice Emanuel shall come to thee, O Israel”
Peace and joy to you all this Christmas.
In St Matthew’s Gospel we learn that the crowds were coming to Jesus to hear him teaching the good news of the Kingdom of God and to be cured from ‘every disease and every sickness’. Matthew 9:35 (NIV). Clearly there was too much work for him, in human form, to do alone and so he instructed twelve of his disciples to go out amongst the Jewish people to proclaim the good news, to cast out unclean spirits, to cure every disease and sickness as well as raising the dead. Quite a tall order for a bunch of untrained fishermen, tax collectors and the like! Now, of course, Jesus was well aware that the time would come when he would not be around on earth, yet people would still need to hear God’s message and to receive God’s healing power. Thus he instructed his disciples; a trial run, if you like, whilst he was still with them. That they succeeded in their mission is amply illustrated in the Acts of the Apostles; but also in the fact that, 2000 years after His death His Will and Word are still a powerful force in the world today.
The original twelve disciples are long dead but we are called to take their place, to be God’s disciples today. We may not all be able to cure the sick or raise the dead but we can proclaim the Gospel. As St Francis of Assisi is reputed to have said “Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary use words”. Whilst there is no evidence that he did use those words his life and actions certainly demonstrated their import. And really we have no excuse since we received the Holy Spirit at our baptism just as the disciples did at Pentecost.
So, in the midst of all our preparations for Christmas, all the shopping for gifts, food and etc let us make time in prayer and reflection to prepare ourselves for God’s mission for us on earth; to proclaim the good news, to show God to all people at all times in our lives and actions.
In this last week we have seen what can only be described as an incitement to racial and religious abuse broadcast across social media networks. No doubt it is always there but this week it was given greater coverage. At the same time we are supposed to be preparing to celebrate the coming of the Prince of Peace into the world. How can those two diametrically opposed positions be reconciled? Quite simply they cannot. We need to remember that “All peoples comprise a single community and have a single origin [created by one and the same Creator God]. . . . And one also is their final goal: God.” These words are taken from Nostra Aetate, the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions of the Second Vatican Council. This must have taken great courage and brilliance to write this in 1965 when very few people thought that way.
Thomas Merton in his writings speaks of our True Self and our False Self. The False Self is sadly the side of us that we most often display. It seeks material happiness by the acquisition of wealth, status, power, control of those less able to look after themselves; in other words the worship of the Great God ME. It is a rather shallow and unlovely picture to present to the world, but it is the picture displayed by those messages on social media. On the other hand the True Self is the God- with-us, God within us, Emmanuel, whose coming we anticipate with joy in Advent. And since Deus caritas est, God is Love, then our True Self, being Love cannot, will not, tolerate such abuse. Rather it calls us to follow the path laid down by the Prince of Peace; to speak out against it. As St Luke said: ‘ because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.’ Luke 1:78-79 New International Version - UK (NIVUK)
Let us then use Advent as a time to prepare our hearts and minds, to ask for God’s help to put aside those words and actions that foster our False Self, to make room for our work on developing our True Self, the God within us; to show the world that there is a better way, that material happiness is illusory. The False Self will die but the True Self will live since the death of the Saviour whose coming we celebrate at Christmas has overcome Death. Let us follow St Paul’s advice to the young Church at Rome: Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:21 New International Version - UK (NIVUK)
Bill was one of the first members of our little group. Over time we’ve all grown used to his ways, cantankerous at times but always willing to help wherever required. Indeed, he is always the first to volunteer even for those jobs no one wants! He has a heart of gold really. Many have benefited from a quiet word of reassurance, comfort, encouragement or support from him. He is well respected and well liked by us all. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen him for a while as he has been rather unwell. In fact, from the latest news we had of him we entertained doubts as to whether we would ever see him again. He has a cancer.
Imagine our surprise and delight when he walked in to Thursday’s meeting large as life and apparently full of energy! Just like the old days, it seemed. Well, not quite as large as he once was, for he had lost an awful lot of weight, and most of what little hair he had left had departed, too. In fact, his skeletal features showed him to be a shadow of his former self, but it was still Bill. “What do you want me to do?” was his first question, before anyone could ask how he was. We found him a job in which he would not need to exert himself overmuch. He did it with his usual efficiency but that was not enough for him. He crept back into the meeting and took a full part in the proceedings just as he had always done. When we sat down to eat he appeared to tuck into his meal heartily, although he passed on the syrup pudding dessert. I tried to speak to him but as usual he was holding three conversations across the table at once. When I did attract his attention he told me that he had seen the doctor on the previous day and that he was satisfied with Bill’s progress. On Friday he was to go to hospital for a scan, but he dismissed that lightly as if it were of no consequence. The good news, he said, was that he had gained one stone in weight. Maybe he was putting on an act, if so it was deserving of an Oscar, and no doubt he will have been wiped out by the time he got home; but Bill was back with us. For how long no one knows. We pray that he is on the road to a full recovery but his fate, like that of all of us is in God’s hands.
For our cousins in America Thursday was Thanksgiving Day. This Thursday our little group had much to be thankful for; a good meeting in company with friends, some not seen for a while and of course, Bill was back with us. Today remember the reasons you have to be thankful. Praise and thank God for them. As Meister Eckhart once said; “If you only make one prayer in this life let it be Thank You.”
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.
Peter is a father and a grandfather who has been retired from full time work for a number of years