You who dwell in the garden with friends in attendance,let me hear your voice.
Song of Songs 8:13
Our next door neighbours are moving away. We will be sad to see them go as they have been in that house for the past seventeen years; their children were born and grew up there. Who will move in? Since this road is in the catchment area for three good schools they will almost certainly have children, but beyond that, who knows?
That makes me ask, who is my neighbour? Obviously the people who live next door qualify, but what about the little old lady who, because of her lack of height, was unable to reach the carton of cranberry juice from the top shelf in the supermarket? Was she not my neighbour, too? Being over six feet tall it was no problem for me to reach up to get it for her.
But perhaps the recent terrorist attacks have answered that question loud and clear. The aim of the attacks was to divide us as a community, to set one race or religion against another; to create discord, division and hatred, the exact opposite of neighbourliness. Yet the result was to show that we will not be manipulated in that way. The vast outpourings of solidarity, of coming together of people of different ethnicity demonstrated that quite clearly. The concert in Manchester last evening attended by so many people affected by the previous atrocity raising as it did millions for charity makes the point that we will not be divided, that we care for our neighbours. And of course there were numerous examples of individual of neighbourliness. For example, the homeless man who cared for an injured child until paramedics arrived. We may have passed him by sitting on the side of the street without taking notice of him but when he felt called to help he did just that. When asked, his comment was that just because he was homeless that didn’t mean he didn’t care. Or the off duty police officer who without a care for his own safety ran towards the London attackers to get innocent people out of harm’s way.
After the London attack Archbishop Welby said: “Anger is an understandable emotion but it must not be directed at those of the Muslim faith.”
God made man in His own image; He made no distinction as ethnicity. God made man and woman of all races and religions to live together as neighbours in peace and harmony; so let it be.
Here is an extract from a prayer I found this morning that I think is appropriate:
‘In a world that often and easily forgets you Lord, give me the Spirit’s gift of reverence; give me a spirit of profound respect for you and for all the people you call your own. Amen’*
No one quite knows how old the piano is, although it is likely to have been made 100 years or more ago. Whilst it has stood in its present position for over fifty years this was not its first home. It had once stood in the front parlour of the family home, where it provided pleasure to family and friends for many years. This was before the all pervading television demanded our 24 hour attention, in a time when we had to make our own entertainment. She would accompany her father who played violin. The whole house would echo with a beautiful rich sound of the piano as her fingers flew over its keys whilst he coaxed a melody from his favourite instrument. Of course there were times when she had to spend hours in the icy cold room practising for her music exams – no central heating in those days - up and down the keyboard endlessly playing scales. It all paid off when she received her diploma. Sadly it does not get played quite so much nowadays, arthritis having taken its toll on her fingers. Nevertheless the piano gets tuned regularly so it is in good condition; nearly as good as it was when it left the factory all those years ago.
So we can take from this the memories of the happy times or of the hard work needed to acquire her diploma. But what about the fact that the piano has to be tuned regularly? Do our lives need to be tuned up? Are we up to concert pitch or are there a few discordant notes in there? Or maybe we are not using the whole of the keyboard but just playing the black notes? Do we need to ensure that the focus of our life is where it should be?
Here is a quick five step way to check if you really are in tune with what God wants of you. Each evening try to spend a few minutes with this prayer review.
1 Thanksgiving. What am I especially grateful for in the past day?
2 Petition. I am about to review my day. I ask for the light to see myself as God sees me.
3 Review. Where have I felt true joy? What has troubled, or challenged me? Where have I found God today?
4 Response. In the light of my review, what is my response to God
5 A Look Ahead. As I look ahead what comes to mind? With what spirit do I want to enter tomorrow?
My Catholic friends will recognise this as a form of Examen but it really doesn’t matter what you call it, or from what tradition it comes. A regular tune up will ensure that we are all in harmony with God’s purpose for us. The beautiful rich sounds of God’s creation will echo through the house again. It will also help us to answer the next question; what more can I do for God?
Although it rained quite hard on Wednesday last week, the water drained away quickly with no resulting puddles on the lawn. Imagine our surprise when early in the evening we saw two unexpected visitors to the garden. Two brightly coloured mallard ducks, (drakes actually), had flown down onto the new lawn. From their plumage they looked to be young male birds. But why had they landed in our garden? There was not enough wind to blow them off course. Perhaps they were lost, but then birds have a pretty good sense of direction. The most likely explanation is that they mistook the reflection of the sun on our neighbour’s glass conservatory roof for a pond or lake.
Like the birds it is easy for us to get disorientated by the hustle and bustle of everyday living. Spend your money buying this product, cry the adverts, it will make you younger/fitter/more wealthy/regarded more highly by your peers – you know the kind of thing. Often it seems enticing to follow a certain course even though the ultimate result proves illusory – a case of chasing shadows. Yet Jesus said ‘I am the way...’ John 14:6. To follow Him and to act according to His commandments is the way to true happiness, joy, fulfilment. What clearer instruction do we need? Nevertheless, how often do we go astray?
Speaking of spending money now is the time the credit card accounts fall due for payment. With the work on the garden and some other rather large bills over the last month we have run up some heavy expense. Now comes the time of reckoning. The bills have to be paid, but how? It is going to be tight. Yet perhaps the birds were reminding me of Jesus’ words: ‘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?’ Matthew 6:26 NIV. In other words, God knows and cares about the needs of all His creation. God takes care of the plants, the birds, even the ducks that have strayed off course into our garden, and so surely He will take care of us as well. We can rely on God to provide our needs. Note those words; God will provide for our needs, not necessarily our wants, unless our wants coincide with what God wants for us, of course. His unconditional love for us means that He cares for us even though we don’t always follow His way. That is no excuse for not trying of course!
Whatever the reason for their visit, the mallards spent a few minutes pecking at the grass, before flying away. We were delighted to see them, to recognise in them the glory of God’s creation but also to reflect on the messages they brought us.
Today some unexpected visitors may cross your path. Welcome them as they may have a message from God for you!
Recently I read Meeting God in Paul by Professor Rowan Williams, one time Archbishop of Canterbury. In its early pages he describes the environment in which Paul, a Jewish Roman citizen worked. One of the things that struck me was Professor Williams’ statement that there was no such thing as ‘a religion’ in the Roman Empire at the time. People did religious things and indeed there were countless deities but they were simply part of the universe. As one needed to be polite to people of a superior social status, since they could make life difficult for one, so it paid to be polite to the gods, as they could make life even more difficult! There were a variety of festivals at the various temples to attend if one wished but there was no sense of belonging to a religion – they were not what we might today call faith communities. Being religious was part of being a citizen. In other words our first century forebears did not make the distinction between a secular life and a spiritual one; to them it was all part of life. Our Jewish forebears were the exception that proved the rule for they attended synagogue regularly, but that was simply because they were Jewish. Indeed on the dedication of their first stone temple, “Solomon’s Temple,” the Shekinah glory of YHWH (fire and cloud from heaven) descended and filled the Temple (1 Kings 8:10-13), just as it had once filled the Tent of Meeting (Exodus 40:34-35). This naturally made Solomon’s Temple the centre of the whole world, in Jewish thinking.
Too often nowadays we tend to separate the secular from the spiritual. Too often we can think of God living in that Victorian monstrosity in the centre of town whose doors are locked throughout the week to prevent anyone getting in, but opened on Sundays to allow the select, privileged, invited few to perform their rituals. Yet God does not dwell in some plaster icon gathering dust on the wall of a church. For as St Paul loved to say, “You are the Temple!” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 2 Corinthians 6:16, Ephesians 2:21-22). In other words God lives in you! God is not distant or aloof; He wants us to have a relationship with Him. God is everywhere in every living thing. You do not need to go to a church to meet God, He is right there, before you, behind you, alongside you, every step of the way. Of course, you will meet God in the fellowship of your Christian family at church and of course you will encounter God in the Eucharist, which is vital. But you will also find God in the smile of a child, the thanks of someone you may have helped, or even in the plants of the garden. There is no division between a secular life and a spiritual one.
The most comforting message of all however is this: ‘And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age’ Matthew 28:20.
The other day I had to go into a nearby town and as parking there can be difficult I decided to take the bus. Part way through the journey we were told to get off the bus and join the bus following – don’t ask why, we never did find out! As a result a lady sat beside me and struck up a conversation. In the course of it she told me that on the following day she would take five buses as she would be attending her dance group in a village someway in the country. I remarked that it would take her all day. “Oh yes,” she said “I leave home at 10am and get back around 6pm but I meet up with some friends for lunch before we go on to our dancing.” Now it is impolite to ask a lady her age so I did not, but suggest that she may have been in her 80’s. However, she obviously looked forward to her day out!
Whilst in town I wandered round a book shop. Yes, I know that you can download books, indeed I have already downloaded Henri Nouwen’s Road to Daybreak, but I prefer to hold a book and to turn the pages. Here my eye was taken by his ‘Life of the Beloved and Our Greatest Gift’ in one volume. I already subscribe to his email Daily Meditation so I had to purchase this slim paperback. On the bus coming home I had only read a few pages before two points struck me. Firstly, Henri tells of a meeting with a journalist whom he convinces to follow his dream. He says: “... people can make choices .... according to their own best aspirations. I also believe that people seldom make those choices. Instead they blame ... others for their ‘fate’ and waste much of their life complaining.” I thought of my sprightly companion on the bus looking forward to her dance group tomorrow. She was not going to let age or tiresome bus journeys get in the way of her enjoyment. The second point came from Philip Yancey’s introduction where he says: “Nouwen has said that all his life two voices competed inside him. One encouraged him to succeed and achieve, while the other called him simply to rest in the comfort that he was the beloved of God. Only in the last decade of his life did he truly listen to that second voice.” I can relate to that since my call to discipleship came in what may be the last decade of my life. I will never be as influential as Henri Nouwen, but perhaps that does not matter, for though we may think that our lives are too insignificant to have anything to offer, yet, with God, nothing is too small. The point is that whatever age we may have reached God has a purpose for us.
So, what will you do for God today?
To receive Henri Nouwen’s Daily Mediations go to http://henrinouwen.org/
The work on the garden is complete. The lawn is laid and the paving stones are firmly in place. There is a pleasant place to sit to soak up the sun – if we ever get any! Whilst all the work has been going on we have rather lost sight of what else needs doing in the garden. Since the lads have left we can see that the clematis needs tying in, the forsythia needs pruning, the firethorn needs cutting back or it will not produce berries for the birds this coming winter, and so on. In concentrating on the major work we have lost sight of the other bits and pieces that need attention. But we have also failed to see that the birds and animals have been getting on with their daily lives too.
Perhaps our lives are a bit like that. Are we too concerned with what seems important to us at the time? Does that stop us from looking around? Are we so caught up in the minutiae of everyday life that we cannot see what is before our eyes? In this week’s Lectionary reading, (Luke 24:13-35), the two disciples on their way from Jerusalem to Emmaus met up with a stranger along the way. However, because they were so tied up in their own world, their own thoughts, doubts, problems they did not recognise him. It was only when Jesus broke bread with them at their evening meal that they understood who their companion had been. They realised that Christ was not dead, He had risen! He was there walking the road beside them. Despite the lateness of the hour their first instinct was to rush back to Jerusalem to tell their fellow disciples the wonderful news.
When we stood in the kitchen the other day, mugs of coffee in hand, looking out at the garden planning our next move, we saw something rather strange. Two sparrows were dancing round each other on the lawn – well, to be precise one appeared to be dancing round the other. Whatever was going on? We eventually worked out that the dancer was the mother bird who was trying to teach her offspring how to forage for food for himself. Had we not paused to look out at that particular moment we would have missed seeing them, for as quickly as they had arrived they flew off again. God was there in those little birds, in that little display; but we nearly did not see it.
So, what prevents us from recognising God’s presence in our lives? What steps can we take to open our eyes to see Jesus in whatever disguise He takes on? Where did you see God today?
Let us open our eyes to see God and to recognise that He is always with us. He will walk with us, wherever we may go or whatever problems beset us. As the disciples discovered Christ is not dead, He has risen as He promised He would! Thanks be to God!
On Easter Monday our son, his wife and our granddaughter came to see us bringing with them several pots of bedding plants for the garden. Given the mess the garden was in at the time we placed them on the window ledge in the back lobby where they would catch the sun whilst we decided where we wanted to plant them. This morning I saw a blackbird fluttering outside the window. He had seen the plants and recognised that there would be nourishment there for him. What he hadn’t reckoned with was the glass window between him and his desire!
This week’s Gospel reading, John 20:19-31 tells of Thomas refusing to accept Jesus’ resurrection "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe." (v25) Now I have sympathy with Thomas. I have no doubt that he wanted to believe; no doubt he had been with the other disciples when Mary came back from the empty tomb on Easter Day and heard her news. He had heard, too, Peter and the beloved disciple’s report and knew what the disciples on the road to Emmaus had told them. Yet there was something inside him that said, “No, it is just not possible for a man to die – to be killed as Jesus was – and to rise again from the dead. It is just a physical impossibility. No-one has ever survived crucifixion.” Anyway, how could anyone enter a locked room without breaking down the doors? Maybe he wasn’t too sure what had happened to Lazarus; but that’s another story. The simple fact was that there was too much that didn’t make sense at present for him to get his head round. Yet the clear message of the gospel story is that believing that Jesus is risen and alive is not dependent on physical contact with Jesus (Thomas makes his profession of faith without touching Jesus), but coming to believe does depend on personal encounter.
Now, are we like Thomas? If Jesus were to come to us today, through what locked doors might He have to pass? The blackbird could see the brightly coloured bedding plants but couldn’t get to them because of the glass window. But, the window has a latch on the inside by which to open it. So what stops us from throwing open the glass window of our hearts to let our Blessed and Saviour into our lives? After all, He is there waiting patiently for us to invite Him in. But something prevents us from crying as Thomas did “My Lord and my God” John 20:28(KJV)? In fact we are more likely to say: ‘Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief’ Mark 9:24(KJV). Yet what stops us from embracing Him wholeheartedly? Coming to believe more deeply that Jesus is risen and alive is the work of the Spirit within and among us.
The garden looks a mess at the moment. The lads have laid the paths and scraped off the old lawn but have still to lay the new turves. The birds are quite unconcerned by the mess, they are just happy that someone has turned the ground over to reveal more bugs and insects for them to eat. They are not worried, indeed do not realise, that the garden does not look as neat and tidy as it will eventually be, and as we want it to be.
Are our lives like that sometimes? Are we quite happy so long as there is food on the table and enough to get by? Are we happy just plodding along as we have always done? After all, the poor are always with us and people have been refugees for as long as time itself. Adam and his wife were cast out of the Garden of Eden - surely they were the first refugees, the first to be made homeless. Anyway, what can we do about it? There will always be some “do-gooder” somewhere to take care of them, so let them get on with it. We can send a donation to a charity if it will salve our conscience but what more can we do? There is too much else going on in our busy lives to worry too much about refugees in a far off land. But for all that are we happy with our lives? Is there something missing? Oh, God you mean? Well, there are enough “God botherers” out there already wearing out the knees of their trousers and some of them have some very peculiar ideas. Do we really want to get into all that? Of course, our lives do not need to be like that. The darkness of the night does not last forever, there is always light that follows. This weekend we remembered the death of Our Blessed Lord and Saviour, the darkness of Good Friday and the horrible blackness of Holy Saturday that followed. And yet yesterday we celebrated His Resurrection. Christ is risen!! That very fact gives meaning to our lives. God is not dead, He is with us now, as He always has been, and will never leave nor forsake us. We simply need to Ask, Seek and Knock to receive a fuller, richer, more fulfilling life with God.
When I wrote last week I wondered if this was the right time to sort out the garden. Now I think the Easter message illustrates that it was. After looking like a bomb site for a week, by the time I next write the garden will be a safer, more comfortable, more welcoming place. We will be able to sit out there without having to prop up the leg of the table, whilst Mr Robin will still be able to enjoy all the bugs and insects he can dig up.
Christ is risen! Christ is with us - and will never leave us! Thanks be to God
Over the winter we talked about replacing the worn out lawn and renewing the old broken and the dangerously sunken stone paths. Once upon a time we would have been happy to tackle that job ourselves but as we are getting on a bit we decided to get a professional firm to do the work. “I’m away for a few days but will ring you when I get back” Bill said when we rang him. Some months later he turned up on the doorstep saying that he could start this week but realised that he hadn’t phoned us or actually seen the job to price it. He did so then and there with the result that Ron and Dave turned up and set to work at 8.00am this morning. Work has finally started; not really the best time since the plants are coming into bloom, but we need the work done. Anyway as we have used the company before we know they provide a good quality of work. A new and safer garden is in prospect. I’m sure it will be fine when completed it’s just the hassle of getting it done.
Ron brought his son along to help which means they will have some father/son time together. That will be a good thing since sometimes circumstances make it difficult to spend time with family members. Our neighbours fly out to Houston Texas tomorrow to spend time with their daughter and her family, for example.
Lent is in its final week –Holy week – so perhaps now is a good time to reflect on what progress we have made with those good intentions we set for ourselves on Ash Wednesday. Of course life goes on at the same hectic pace as before Lent. There is never a convenient time to focus on the task in hand – there is always so much else to do, but how is our relationship with God today? Are we sharing more father/son time with Him than in the past? Has Lent drawn us closer to God our Father each day? Are we allowing God to draw us more deeply into his love? Are we making time to pray to Him but more importantly are we listening to what God has to say to us?
In due time the garden will be fine with a new lush lawn and safe paths, but it requires a great deal of hard work to get it into shape; there is no easy way. Likewise if our relationship with God is to flourish we need to put in the hard work, the preparation, the ground work. That means making time in this hectic whirl that is everyday life to pray, to read scripture – not just as a paperback on the flight to Houston - but deeply thinking and praying about God’s Word and its meaning for us. And then putting into action God's Will and Word.
I love this time of year so far as the garden is concerned, for it is a riot of colour. There are yellow daffodils and white narcissus trumpeting the bright spring days, primula adorn the borders whilst the golden forsythia bushes smother the side fences. In honour of Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday in Lent – Laetare means Rejoice, I understand - the camellia bush has donned her pale pink dress whilst the Pieris japonica is starting to put on his bright red bracts. And the young robin is still hopping around seeking the bugs and insects I have disturbed. Truly the glory of God’s creation in abundance! However, in the midst of all this glorious colour and exuberant growth I am aware that I am a mere steward, my time here is limited and my garden is a tiny speck on the face of the earth that will continue in existence as long as God wills it.
I can understand St Francis of Assisi speaking of Brother Sun and Sister Moon. To him, and to me Brother Robin is just as much part of God’s Creation, part of God’s family as we humans are. Thus we humans all have a responsibility to take care of the planet for future generations. Yet in his Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ Pope Francis said: ‘This sister [the earth] now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will.’ Note those words ‘our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her’. He makes it very clear that we humans are responsible for the harm done to planet earth. He calls each one of us to do more to repair the damage we have caused.
So it is horrifying to learn that America is going back on its commitment to work with the rest of the world – indeed, to lead it - in reducing the effects of harmful ‘greenhouse gases’, caused by burning fossil fuels, on the environment. CO2 is acknowledged to be a danger to the environment and to human health, yet it seems that the country would rather spend the money allocated to environmental protection on increasing its nuclear arsenal, even though there are already enough armaments in the world to destroy the planet several times over. Do we want to live in a permanent post nuclear winter where birds no longer fly and where the earth is too contaminated for plants to grow; or do we want a good healthy planet where Brother Robin sings and God’s good earth provides food and clean water for all?
As Christians we are called to treat others fairly, with respect and to think about how our actions will affect them. That surely must include taking greater care for God’s Creation, the earth and His wider family, the creatures and plants that inhabit it.
Peter is a father and a grandfather who has been retired from full time work for a number of years