Encourage one another and build up each other

As always, this month’s gathering at the Crask was relaxed, deeply spiritual and most enjoyable; not least because we marked the feast of St Margaret of Scotland who should be seen as such a splendid example to us all. During the course of our post-Gospel discussion, one of our number told a story that she first heard as a schoolgirl from Mother Theresa of Calcutta. This story can be found in many world cultures, Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Oriental, Chinese and more.

One version of what is called the Parable of the long chopsticks or Allegory of the long spoons goes like this:

A curious man once asked to visit heaven and hell. Expecting hell to be a terrible, frightening place, he was amazed to find people seated around a lovely banquet table. The table was piled high with every delicious thing one could possibly want. The man thought, Perhaps hell isn’t so bad after all.

Looking closely, however, he noticed that everyone at the table was miserable and thin.

They were starving, because, although there was a mountain of food before them, they had been given six-foot-long chopsticks with which they had to eat. There was no way to carry the food to their mouths with such long chopsticks, and so no one could eat a bite.

The man was then taken to heaven. To his surprise, he found the situation was exactly the same as he had seen in hell. People were gathered around a banquet table piled with food. Everyone held a pair of six-foot-long chopsticks in their hands. But here in heaven, they were well fed with everyone happily eating the delicious food. He asked what was different. The difference: in heaven they were using their extra-long chopsticks to feed one another rather than trying to feed themselves.

As Christians, we are part of a community of faith. In fact Christianity is a faith of relationship, focussed on the community and not on the individual. This is very clearly expressed in the writing of the Apostle Paul and is a constant theme in Jesus’s teaching. It can also come as quite a shock to many people in our society, where spirituality is increasingly seen as purely about an individual’s relationship with God, and nothing to do with anyone else. Without the corrective of the community of faith, it’s however so easy to build God in one’s own image – the most common form of idolatry.

In our life as Christians, there are many pitfalls that we might fall into. There are the clearly recognisable sins: murder, adultery, stealing, bearing false witness, but these are fairly easy to deal with, in that you probably know when you’re committing them. The more insidious ones are the ones that come disguised as virtue, these might be described as sins of the spirit.

As Eugene Peterson wrote “It is in our virtuous behaviour that we are liable to the gravest of sins. It is while we are being good that we have the chance to be really bad. It is in the context of being responsible, being obedient, that we most easily substitute our wills for God’s will, because it is so easy to suppose that they are identical.” It is in the course of being faithful Christians that we’re most likely to fall victim to pride, arrogance or insensitivity to what Jesus called “the least of these my brethren”. Ironically, it is those of us in positions of leadership, trust or responsibility that are often most at risk. In all the things that make up Church life, it’s so easy to lose sight of what is at the core of being a Christian – the business of loving God and loving our neighbour, no matter who that neighbour many be.

Even within our congregations or the wider Christian community, individual Christians can’t manage on their own, nor should they try. We’re all responsible to one another for encouragement and support in faith, love, and hope. Others need our support in being Christian, and we need theirs. This Advent, as we prepare to welcome the incarnation of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, coming into the world as a tiny, vulnerable baby, it would perhaps do each of us good to reflect on what it means to be a Christian in our congregations and in our wider community, wherever in this beautiful part of the world we might live. The hope that overcomes the uncertainty and anxiety about the future, that few if any of us are immune from, is fostered by encouraging each other in our faith and in the way we live our lives.

As a final thought, it’s no accident that the writers of our liturgies (both those in the Scottish Prayer Book and more recently) finish with a benediction: “And the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (or Ghost), be amongst you (not upon you) and remain with you (plural) always.”

To you the community of faith in the North-Eastern Highlands:

Blessings
James

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No God or Know God?

No God, No Peace.
Know God, Know Peace.

That’s what the sign outside the Church in the outskirts of Harrogate said. You know how these things are, you turn it over and over in your mind trying to decide whether it is rather trite, sacrificing truth to fit a formula or rather clever with considerable truth about it. In this instance, I’ll leave final arbitration on that to each of you, as you ponder it. I want to move on to what was on the box later the same evening.

In the first programme that I caught a brief ‘slice’ of, Sue Perkins was in India, travelling to the source of the Ganges in search of spiritual enlightenment and yes, Peace. In the segment that I saw, s he talked with a number of people, but always there was a slightly flippant commentary, which was more Sue Perkins the comedienne, than Sue Perkins the seeker after the Spirit. She was bewailing the ‘fact’ that she had to travel 5000 miles to the source of the Ganges, to find peace in the orbit of the God – Mother Ganga. Apparently such peace is not available to those of us who live in the Western World, because of the noise, the bustle and the connectedness. I did pause to wonder if Sue had ever been to Caithness, Sutherland or Ross-shire, but then of course it also begs the question “What is Peace?.

In a rare glimpse of the Sue that lies behind the comedic front, it emerged that she had lost her father about six months previously and had kept herself very busy, quite explicitly to avoid having to deal with her grief at the loss and the empty space that his death had left. Sadly death has become very much a taboo subject for many in Western Society and there are consequently many people who feel uncomfortable talking about it and dealing positively with the loss of someone close and who do exactly what Sue did, hide from it in business. Her comment when communing with Mother Ganga “I’m not a religious person, but I do have a sort of spiritual sense here.” is probably representative of the thinking of many on this subject. I wonder how we as the Christian communities in this part of the world might help people to come to a better understanding of what religious and spiritual practice might do to help them. Recently, I read an obituary of Monsignor Augustine Hoey who, as an Anglican Priest in deprived parts of England, opened the doors of his dimly lit church to local people, where he had placed an open coffin with a mirror in the bottom of it. He invited them to look into the coffin to see who was inside. They were astonished to see themselves and he said: “One day this will be you.”, then after a dramatic pause: “Are you ready?” and after another pause: “Come to confession.” It apparently had a positive effect, though I am not sure that emulating the good Monsignor would work in all of our communities.

The second programme that I caught a snatch of was ‘Bad Habits, Holy Orders’ in which five 19-25 year old, hard living, hard drinking, hard spending, hard partying girls, had somehow agreed to spend a month in a convent in Norfolk, with just £25 for pocket money, no booze and chapel several time a day. The snatch that I saw was the first of four weekly instalments on Channel 5 on Thursdays at 10pm. The newspaper reviewer that I read on Friday was horrified: “How did a show about naughty nuns end up so dull? It’s almost inconceivable how a premise such as ‘Bad Habits, Holy Orders’ could result in TV duller than a four hour sermon, but somehow Channel 5 managed and achieved the seemingly impossible, which is itself a minor miracle.

For me that’s the point. The miracle is that the elderly members of the Daughters of Divine Mercy, even though they espouse pretty much the opposite values of a lingerie model, an exotic dancer, a nightclub hostess, a clubbing addict and a secretary, simply by the lives that they lead are serving as agents of God’s Grace to five very lost souls. By the time I switched off, one of the girls had said to her diarycam: “I’m not sure if I’ve got the wrong reaction, but I feel like I could make myself at home in this bedroom. Its very calming and very relaxing.” and two had used some of their ‘pocket money’ to buy small gifts for nuns, from a local charity shop. And in all of this none of them had to travel 5000 miles to the source of the Ganges as part of their spiritual journey of transformation, how cool is that?

Finally back to peace and knowledge: May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep you hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God and of His Son Jesus Christ.

Blessings to you all
James

Thresholds of Growth

Yesterday in Tain, we hosted the Easter Ross Inter Church Group’s annual Songs of Praise. The theme that we chose, a couple of days after the autumn equinox, was Harvest. There was a very good crowd who were in fine voice, St Andrew’s church was suitably decorated and there were lovely things to eat afterwards as we shared fellowship in the hall. It was a fitting celebration to mark the end of summer and all the good things that it has brought.

However, the end of one thing marks the beginning of something else. In the case of the seasons, what is beginning is obvious, the end of summer marks the beginning of autumn; but at other times, the end of something seems very much the end and doesn’t readily seem like a beginning. These points are what the spiritual writer Margaret Silf calls ‘Crossing-Places’ and she lists bridges and gateways, causeways and burial grounds – yes burial grounds. Whilst all these types of place can be found in a literal sense, they can also be found in metaphors of what we are facing in our lives; those places where we are crossing from one world to another.

When I was in training for ministry, we spent our summer schools at Kinnoull monastery near Perth and part of the week was a couple of days of silent retreat. I had been reading one of Margaret Silf’s books (Sacred Spaces: Stations on a Celtic Way) and I went for a walk down the hill from the monastery, through the park, part way across the railway bridge onto an island in the middle of the Tay. From the beach at the upstream end, I could seem the traffic on the road bridge, hear the trains on the railway bridge, and see the ford back to the mainland and the old cemetery. I suddenly realised that I was at the confluence of many crossing places and as I reflected I began to see that perhaps the lack of certainty about where I thought I might be heading in ministry might not simply be waiting on God, but a more active trying not to hear what God was saying and a failure to commit. Perhaps not quite in the same league as Jonah’s heading off in the opposite direction when God asked him to go to Nineveh (as we heard in the Hebrew Scriptures on Sunday), but a reluctance to accept God’s will all the same.

Crossing-places can be difficult, something to do with crossing into the unknown. Imagine how the disciples felt when the leader that they had followed and come to rely on was suddenly taken from them. They saw it as an ending, but never in their wildest dreams did they see it as a new beginning. Even when three days later Jesus started His post-resurrection appearances, it took them some time, and a certain persistence on Jesus’ part, to grasp the new beginning and run with it.

We arrive at crossing-places: when we come up against resistance along our chosen path or barriers which give us a choice – to fall back in despair or break through into something new. We arrive at crossing-places when we suddenly find ourselves in a new and perhaps frightening stage of our lives or face the challenge of new demands or loss of control over what we are doing or where we are going. We arrive at crossing-places when we are forced to face our own mortality, including the death of our dreams and wonder about what it all means and whether we have missed something in it all.

All the congregations in the north-east of our Diocese are at crossing-places, one way or another. New ministry is anticipated, just beginning or temporarily postponed. Any or all of the descriptions in the previous paragraph may apply and the challenge for all of us is to move beyond what has ended into what is starting to emerge as a new beginning. We stand at the threshold of the growth that those new beginnings offer. The nights may be “fair drawin’ in” as we move into autumn, but the autumn fruits in the hedgerows don’t just mark the end of the long days of summer, but the start of a new season full of anticipation and promise and an unshakeable hope in God’s goodness to us.

Blessings to you all

James

How good it is to dwell together in unity

I have been involved in two events in the past few weeks, which have been particularly uplifting and encouraging. The first was the Lairg Churches Together Summer Club, which attracted about 35 children to Lairg Community Centre from 7th-9th August. The second was the evensong to at which I was licensed as Priest-in Charge of the Episcopal congregations in Dornoch, Lairg and Tain on 20th August, which packed out St Andrew’s in Tain, somehow fitting in about 90 people. Both attracted large crowds, but I am much more interested in the fact that they were both very much ecumenical events.

The LCT Summer Club employed the talents of Church of Scotland, Free Church, Community Fellowship and Episcopal members to provide a wonderful mix of activity, games, singing, teaching and much more, in a profoundly spirit-filled atmosphere. The adult helpers had as much fun as the children, learned as much as the children and felt God’s love amongst them as much as the children.

He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.’” (Matt 18:2-5)

At my licensing there were clergy from the Church of Scotland and the Roman Catholic Church as well as from the Episcopal Church. There were lay people from pretty much every denomination and those who for all I know don’t count themselves as Christians. The 18 strong choir assembled by Jamie Campbell was drawn from many different backgrounds. … And a good time was had by all in (you guessed it) a profoundly spirit-filled atmosphere.

This last was in a week when we had heard so much in the media about division, hatred and prejudice, yet it was the lack of all three that struck me about these two wonderful and well attended events. Both remind us that we have so much more in common that we have dividing us, if only we allow ourselves to see it, to feel it and to live out our oneness in Christ.

At the service last Sunday evening, one of the intercessory prayers was a favourite of mine from the Scottish Prayer Book, that captures my feelings exactly:

O GOD the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Saviour, the Prince of Peace: Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions. Take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatsoever else may hinder us from godly union and concord: that, as there is but one Body, and one Spirit, and one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may henceforth be all of one heart, and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and one mouth glorify thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

May God bless you all no matter who you are.

James

Remember Me?

Remember Me Garden
We spent one day this week at the Royal Horticultural Society show at Tatton Park in Cheshire. We were surrounded by the many splendid creations of some of the UK’s finest garden designers. By the time that you read this, the gardens that they worked so lovingly on may well be just a memory, all cleared away with the place where they once were, returned to parkland. For me, there was an artificiality in the gardens, that were put together very cleverly to look ‘mature’, but which if left would probably have looked rather different in a few weeks, when the blooms, timed to perfection, had passed their best.

As the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes says:

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.

And again:

What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done;
    there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”?
It has already been, in the ages before us.
The people of long ago are not remembered,
    nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come
    by those who come after them.

There was a garden that in a way acknowledged this reality. It was a garden called ‘Remember Me’ which was created to support the Mid-Cheshire Hospitals ‘Everybody knows Somebody’ dementia appeal. The garden focused on evoking memories and was designed to spark memories of the past and trigger communication between those with dementia and their family and carers.

The planting itself represented the deterioration of memory. At one side there was bold colourful drifts of planting reminiscent of the 1960s and 1970s, but as one moved around the garden, the planting became more muddled with the colours becoming more muted with only flashes of bold colour representing the occasional recollection, finally a jumble of wild flowers and ‘beds’ of woodruff and camomile. The whole planting symbolising the dementia journey, right through to full-time residential care.

My experience of the RHS show at Tatton has set me reflecting on the ephemeral nature of earthly things and then on what lies at the heart of our existence, on what is not ephemeral. As people of faith, we believe that only God is eternal and that those things that really matter are the things of God. And “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” as John says in his Gospel.

But for a rather fuller description of our lives and how they fit into God’s purpose, we could do a whole lot worse than go back to the writer of Ecclesiastes:

I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil. I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by.

Ultimately people don’t remember, but God does and that is a cause for hope, for joy and for peace.

Blessings
James

When Darkness Descends

Last week we were away deep into England near Kidderminster for my niece’s wedding. It took place over the weekend and the happy couple very much did their own thing, not following some notion of how things should be and how much should be spent. Much of the proceedings took place on a camp site with the guests camping and the reception and dancing in a marquee. Their families made all the decorations, table cloths and table centre-pieces and everything had a bicycle theme. They are really serious about their cycling and spent 11 months cycling through the Far East a couple of years ago. If their relationship can stand that it can probably stand anything. We also visited my parents in Shropshire and saw how the other half live by visiting Chatsworth, which we have wanted to visit for some time.

Then we got home to the smell of burning and a note on the kitchen table from our neighbour assuring us that any burning smell was as a result of a fire that had raged for three days in the woods at Spinningdale. Sure enough, the fire brigade turned up for the third day running. It seems likely that someone camping by the side or the road or a carelessly discarded cigarette end might have set the tinder-dry vegetation alight and fanned by a very strong wind, the fire soon took hold and swept through a large patch of the broad-leaved woodland between the main road and the shore of the Dornoch Firth. What a contrast with our joyous camping weekend.

We walked through the woods this morning and it looks a mess. It will be some time before the full extent of the damage becomes clear – just how many trees have been damaged along with the devastated understory. It doesn’t take much to turn a peaceful scene or a peaceful life into something which looks bleak and hopeless. Just one little act or omission and things change in a very short space of time. A cigarette end beside the road, a bomb at the Manchester Arena, and light and joy turns to blackness and despair. As the summer progresses, new life will emerge from the blackened ground, and the kindness of strangers, friends and family in Manchester will show the love of God to those whose lives have been torn apart by the senseless action of a single individual. Things will never be the same again, some trees in Spinningdale Wood will die, just as 22 people have died in Manchester. Both will leave a huge hole. Young folk and their parents will have to live with the psychological trauma and lasting physical injuries. but we pray that the miracle of God’s healing power will be there and slowly new life and growth will happen. Our Christian hope is that good things will emerge out of tragedy, though the road will not be easy for many many people Meantime our prayer are with those who weep and watch and wait.