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

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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

Blessed are those who know their need of God

God Experienced through the Trinity

In the New English Translation of the Bible, the first Beatitude is translated not: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” but “How blest are those who know their need of God, the kingdom of Heaven is theirs.”. When people get to the point of knowing their need of God, they give up trying to rationalise our Trinitarian God through illustrations and metaphors, and just accept God as somewhere in the Grace, Love and Fellowship that happens in the ordinary, frustrating and everyday events of their lives. As Richard Rohr puts it: “Trinity leads you into the world of mystery and humility where you can’t understand, you can only experience.”.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,
the Love of God and the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit

be with us all now and forever.  Amen.

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

The Parable of the Sower

In the parable of the sower (today’s Gospel), I’m struck by the image of the sower sowing so recklessly. He just chucks seed around all over the place, with no regard to the soil or conditions for growth. There’s no plan, no strategy, no technique for ensuring optimal positioning of the seeds; nothing that in any way looks like the marketing, results-driven approach to Mission and Church growth that seems so prevalent today. In Jesus’ world, like the ‘helicopters’ from sycamore trees, the fluffy seeds from willowherb, or the seeds from dandelions, God’s word just blows wherever it will. Jesus’ approach to mission is equally reckless. In doing so, He gives us the freedom to take risks and He endorses an extravagant generosity in sowing the word.  Though we may wonder about the wisdom or efficiency of his methods and the ordinary everyday encounters with who ever you come across, on the telephone, in the street or wherever else, might not sound like promising mission fields, but you just never know what might happen if you adopt his reckless methods.  The end result might just be a bumper crop.

How many ploughshares?

He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

Isaiah 2.4

So exactly how many ploughshares does it take to make an aircraft carrier?

On Absence and Separation

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing from his prison cell to Renate and Eberhard Bethge on Christmas Eve, 1943, fifteen months before his own death by execution:

There is nothing that can replace the absence of someone dear to us, and one should not even attempt to do so. One must simply hold out and endure it.

At first that sounds very hard, but at the same time it is also a great comfort. For to the extent that the emptiness truly remains unfilled one remains connected to the other person through it. It is wrong to say that God fills the emptiness. God in no way fills it but much more leaves it precisely unfilled and thus helps us preserve — even in pain — the authentic relationship.

Furthermore, the more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy. One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer