Articles

A reflection for Christmas I 26th December 2021 by Canon Dean Fostekew

It came as a bit of a shock the time I looked in the mirror and saw my mother looking back! When did I start looking like a badger? When did my hair start falling out – well apart from the 10cm long ones sprouting from the top of my ear. When did I become middle-aged and approaching 60?

Mentally, I still feel as though I’m 18 – my mind butterflying from one thing to another BUT my body with its aches and cracks certainly doesn’t feel 18 anymore. So this is what it feels like to ‘mature’?

Well, I am not sure that I really know what it does feel like to mature. All I know is what it feels like to be me. Me, a man stuffed full of memories and experiences half of which I have forgotten and much of the rest lying half-submerged in my sub-consciousness. Things that once seemed to have substance and great importance have gone passed away like; ‘Mists we on mornings see.’  to quote the poet John Clare.

Things that have in the past hurt or wounded me have dissipated and now I can’t think why they upset me so at the time. This probably sounds a bit depressing but actually I am not depressed at all by the changes in my body and mind.

One cannot halt the ageing process or even remember what one has forgotten, or regain the body one had as a youth. All one can do is celebrate who one is NOW and to give thanks to God for what is important, and what gives one joy while maintaining a desire to grab life by the lapels.

I suppose it is at this time of the year when I become conscious of what’s past. For all of us much will have happened over these past 12 months. There will be the events one wants to remember and the events one actively wants to forget. In this time of Covid memories seem a bit slippy - time has sort of expanded and contracted in different ways and what was months ago can seem like yesterday and yesterday can be long forgotten. Perhaps this is a good thing in these strange times?

The past may be remembered in a way that wasn’t quite as it was, for we do tend to remember selectively and often in our recall of those events we do embroider them. The Gospels are a good example of this. None of the four accounts are quite the same as each other. To get the full Christmas story as we know it you have to take bits from all four:

The Annunciation by Gabriel from Luke

The visit of the angel to Joseph from Matthew

Shepherds from Luke

Kings from Matthew

The Word made flesh from John

And bits of John-the-Baptist from Matthew, Mark and Luke

Each Gospel writer is sharing bits from the memories and stories about Jesus handed on to them. The bits they believed were important in helping them (and us) come to some comprehension of who Jesus Christ was. Today’s Gospel is a good illustration of what I mean. It is commonly believed that Luke was recording the memories of Jesus held by Mary, his mother. Verse 2:51b seems to be evidence for this:

“His mother treasured all these things in her heart.”

Mary was obviously remembering a time when she felt guilty for losing her son – leaving him behind in the temple. She was perplexed and amazed by what he said to her and Joseph when they did find him:

“Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my father’s house?”

Luke 2:49

This memory probably helped her come to terms with his later death but at the time it more likely confused her, so she just ‘tucked it away’ as many parents might. The fact that Mary and Joseph ‘lost’ Jesus is not that surprising, they probably assumed that he was with other members of the extended family and party of friends who would have journeyed with them to the temple at Jerusalem. The fact that Jesus wasn’t in the guddle of the pilgrims speaks of a rebellious spirit on his part – almost the behaviour of teenagers today. ‘I’m gonna do what I want to do, not what dad and mum want me to do.’ Well! Jesus certainly did his own thing.

Yet, once Jesus had been found and he had explained why he had been disobedient he dutifully went home and would appear to have been more considerate to his parents’ feelings for the next couple of decades. Apart from this account we don’t know much about Jesus’ childhood and young adulthood – his so termed ‘hidden years’. Obviously, he had a life but the Gospel writers did not think it of great significance that they needed to record it.

As I said earlier, we remember that which we believe to be important and that which we believe to be important and that which helps us make some sense of the jumble that life is. In fact, I find it quite comforting that the Gospel accounts, well all scriptural accounts, are selective in what they say and don’t say – you can’t take what they say as literal, you have to interpret them and read them in context – but also it tells me that it is okay for my memory to be selective too.      

What is important is what the Gospels, actually do say, for if only things of significance are recorded then they are recorded for a reason and it is that ‘reason’ that we spend our lives exploring. Theology is really nothing more than the exploration or thinking about of God but what a rich and exciting adventure that is and it is a journey of discovery that we live as much as think.

As we live our lives, our experiences help shape who we are and how we interpret the world around us and how we discern who God is, in it all. Jesus is the key to our understanding because he like us lived a human life, exploring who he was and who God is. If Jesus is the template for humanity that we Christians use to make sense of it all then we should pay close attention to what he said, did and has inspired others to do and say. St.Paul, in the Epistle to the Colossians encourages us to:

‘Let the Word of God dwell in you richly.’    Luke 3:16a

and to do everything in the name of Jesus. Paul had sussed that by following Jesus we are given a framework around which to build our lives - a framework that could enable us not to make too much of a hash of it either:

'To love one another with patience, fore-bearing and forgiveness..’

and to love oneself as well. For unless you can begin to do that you can’t fully love anyone else including God.

There is one thing more, as I read them, today’s readings also tell us that we can always start again, that we can wipe the slate clean of past mistakes and have another go. Like Jesus being forgiven for wandering off, we too are always give another opportunity to get things right, to start afresh – why? Simply because we have worth, we are valuable to God and loved unconditionally.

Let the coming year be a new start for you, another opportunity to have ago at making sense of this life we live. Go into 2022 with hope and an expectation that you might get it more right than before, but don’t worry if you don’t – you’ll always have the opportunity to have another go. Because we have a God who loves us so much that we are always given a second chance again and again to get things right. Jesus learned his lesson and didn’t distress his parents again until began his ministry as an adult and his parents learned that their son was more than special and was someone who would always surprise them.

A reflection for Christmas Day for the Rev'd David Warnes

Luke 2:1-20

My father was a legendary wrapper of presents. We learned over the years that he would put as much trouble and artistry into the wrapping of a tiny gift, including the single walnut whip which he knew was my mother’s favourite Christmas chocolate treat, as into any more elaborate or expensive offering. We came to understand that the size of any parcel which he presented to us was not necessarily a guide to its contents. One spectacular example, a feature of either my seventh or my eighth Christmas, was what appeared to be an enormous package. Excited investigation, constrained somewhat by my mother’s view that Christmas wrapping paper should most definitely be recycled, revealed a sequence of nested gift-wrapped parcels, one inside the other and each, like Russian matrioshka dolls, smaller than the last. The enormous package eventually turned out to contain my very first wristwatch.

Christmas presents us with a gift which is the opposite of the one I have just described, the gift of a new-born baby. A tiny parcel, easily underestimated, but with world-transforming potential. The importance of his birth would not have been apparent to the shepherds had not the angel given them a sense of its cosmic significance, a glimpse into the future.

“…to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

The angel’s message to the shepherds, and to us, is that this is a gift which will grow in greatness and significance. Every stage of the life and ministry of Jesus presents us with a larger and more wonderful gift, culminating in his self-giving on Calvary, his Resurrection and Ascension and we shall unwrap and contemplate these gifts in the coming months.

Returning to my first wristwatch, that gift seemed to offer a kind of certainty about time. From now on, wherever I might be, a glance would show me what time it was. I was soon to discover that Time is more mysterious than that. For a child, anticipated joys, the end of term, birthdays, Christmas itself, always seem a long time coming. As we grow older, time seems to pass more rapidly though certain experience, notably enjoyable holidays, seem to slow it down and other experiences, including the present pandemic, can make the recent past seem oddly remote.

Time is a mystery which we inhabit without understanding it, and our only way of engaging with the mysterious is through metaphor. There are two metaphors concerning time which can help us to celebrate Christmas, God in Jesus coming alongside us in time and experiencing its changes and chances as we experience them. Both these metaphors can, I believe, help us to grasp why the birth in obscurity of a particular baby just over two thousand years ago is an event that changed the world, an event that shapes and sustains us.

The first metaphor is music. The French philosopher Henri Bergson likened every human lifetime to a melody – each unique and distinct, containing more than a few bum notes and yet contributing its voice to something much greater, the whole music of creation. The minutes and hours in which our days are measured slip irretrievably into the past but when we listen to music, we experience time in a different way. We don’t think that the first few notes of a tune are lost to us, for we experience them as part of a whole. In Jesus we see the perfect human life, the perfect melody. Nothing can silence that melody, and we who are willing to listen can be enriched, encouraged and strengthened by it. The baby of Bethlehem, the man of Nazareth, the preacher and healer of Galilee, the victim on Calvary and the Risen and Ascended Christ are part of our present.

And so are the rejoicing angels of today’s Gospel:

“Still through the cloven skies they come
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heav’nly music floats
O’er all the weary world;”

Edmund Sears, who wrote that carol, also offers us the second metaphor:

“beneath the angel-strain have rolled

Two thousand years of wrong.”

For the verb “rolled” suggests a stream or a river and I think it is very helpful to think of time in that way. Wristwatches may divide time artificially and conveniently into seconds, minutes and hours, but rivers cannot be thus divided. They flow continuously, and the water we taste is flavoured by whatever has entered the river upstream of us.

The coming into the world of Jesus, his life, ministry, death and resurrection are upstream of us in time but nourish and sustain our present.

Contemplating the mystery of Time, the poet W.H. Auden wrote these words”

“Time is our choice of How to love and Why”

At Christmas we welcome once again the coming of Jesus, who supremely shows us how to love and why and, in so doing, encourages us to make best use of the gift of Time.

May your Christmas time be blessed and may it lighten the obscurity of a future which is safe in the loving hands of God.

 

 

Reflection for Advent IV Sunday 19th December 2021 by the Rev'd Russell Duncan

And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by her Lord (Luke 1:45)

One of the exhibitions which is presently on at The British Library, London is entitled “Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens”. In the introduction it entices us by saying “step back into a dangerous world of plots, espionage and treachery to explore the turbulent relationship between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots in their own words”. Although they never met, their fates were intertwined.

In our gospel reading we have two women, also named Elizabeth and Mary. Unlike Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, their lives could not have been more different.

Luke records that Elizabeth is a member of the priestly house of Aaron, and therefore appropriately married to Zechariah, also of a priestly family. She is a relative of Mary, although the exact relationship is not spelled out.

The Bible gives us very little biography for Mary. She is a “young girl” newly betrothed to Joseph when the visit of the angel turns her world upside down.

As we discover, Zechariah and Elizabeth had not been able to have children, until in old age Gabriel announced the promise of the birth of a son who would become John the Baptist. Elizabeth appears to be more trusting than her husband giving thanks for the quiet work of God’s grace.  Gabriel then reveals Elizabeth’s pregnancy to Mary as a sign that God’s promises are to be trusted and will be fulfilled. Did you notice that Mary went in haste to visit Elizabeth when she heard this unexpected news?

In his recent book “An Advent Book of Days”, Gregory Cameron, Bishop of St Asaph, Wales, writes that “the story of the obvious love and compassion between these two women may cause us to think of the rewards of links in our wider families, but it also reminds us that great comfort and strength can be derived from finding fellowship with those who are walking the same path in life – whether joyful or sorrowful. There is a sense in which God does not wish to leave us abandoned and lonely in the story of our lives, and we can look for, and be ready to offer, hospitality with those who share our experiences”.

The theme in the early chapters of Luke’s Gospel is that God is faithful and keeps his promises – to Zechariah, to Elizabeth, to Mary, to the people of Israel themselves. These stories of faithfulness reinforce one another: as God has been faithful in providing for one, so he will provide for the other.

In Advent, Mary and Elizabeth greet each other and invite us to take comfort in their hope and their witness to God, the life-giver, who has come to be with the humble and meek.

As we celebrate the Visitation and Mary’s response to Elizabeth’s greeting in the unexpected and gracious words of the Magnificat, may our hearts be filled with praise for God’s faithfulness.

And as we approach Christmas this year with its various uncertainties and challenges, may we too take delight in those words spoken by Mary “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord. My spirit rejoices in God my saviour”.   

Lord God, who enabled Elizabeth and Mary to recognise in one another the work of your faithfulness, give us companions in our journey through life, who may encourage us, and whom we may encourage, for in the giving and receiving of life, friendship and mercy there are reflections of your own goodness.

Advent III Sunday 12th December 2021 - a refection by the Rev'd David Warnes

Luke 3:7-18

At my rather austere Methodist boarding school in the 1960s we were perpetually hungry. If the interval between the saying of grace and the arrival of the trolleys of food in the dining hall seemed too long, we would break into a chorus of “Oh why are we waiting?” – sung to the tune which we use for O Come, all ye faithful, to which it is not a very good metrical fit. If I had a voice as good as Dean’s, I would give you an a capella rendition and invite you to join in, as he did last Sunday.

Waiting is, of course, one of the key themes of Advent and a theme to which today’s Gospel speaks. It struck me that the words “Why are we waiting?” have two possible meanings. It depends on where you put the emphasis.

Why are we waiting? Means for what or for whom are we waiting. In the case of hungry schoolboys in the 1960s it was, of course, for food, however low in quality.

Why are we waiting? has a completely different meaning. Why don’t we get on with it? Why don’t we take action?

In today’s Gospel, John the Baptist addresses both those meanings.

For whom are we waiting?

The Jews who journeyed to the Jordan valley to be baptized by John the Baptist were, of course, waiting for the coming of the Messiah. They had begun to wonder whether John the Baptist might be the Messiah. His ministry was challenging. He wasn’t afraid to call them a “brood of vipers”. His methods were unusual. They knew that immersion was part of the ritual that Gentile converts to the Jewish faith went through, but John was linking the ritual of baptism with repentance, and that was a new idea. Might he be the longed-for Messiah? The political liberator who would free them and restore their religion to its original purity?

John understood this, and by saying

“I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

He pointed them towards the ministry of Jesus, which was about to begin. Jesus would prove to be so different from the generally accepted view of the sort of person the Messiah would be and the things that he would accomplish, that many would be unable to recognise him. To know for what or for whom one is waiting, and thus to be able to recognize and to receive is very important.

Advent invites us to recollect the answer to the question “For whom are we waiting” and John the Baptist points us in the right direction. We are waiting for the light that came into the world when Jesus was born, the light that shines in the darkness.

What are we waiting for?

Some years after we hungry schoolboys sang “Oh why are we waiting?”, the Glasgow-based rock trio Bis produced a single with the same title, and the words of the chorus go very well with today’s Gospel about John the Baptist.

Why are we waiting / Why can't we start changing?

Why are we waiting / Always so frustrating.

Why are we waiting / We need rearranging.

John the Baptist preached about repentance, and linked baptism with repentance. He didn’t mean saying sorry for past wrong-doing, though that is important.  The Jews had other rituals for that purpose. He meant changing and rearranging one’s life. He was saying that religion is nothing unless it is life-changing. In encouraging his listeners to share clothing and food with those in need, and to abandon corrupt practices and extortion, he was reminding them that religious beliefs which do not bear fruit in changes of behaviour and lifestyle are hollow and meaningless.

Don’t wait for the coming of the Messiah, John told them. Change now. Rearrange your priorities. The changes he suggested seem straightforward – he’s not asking tax collectors and soldiers to change jobs – even though most of his hearers viewed tax collectors and soldiers as people to be despised because they collaborated with the Romans. He’s asking them to be honest and just in their dealings. That doesn’t, at first hearing, sound like a big ask, though when one contemplates recent goings-on in Downing Street it seems radical. And his words about sharing food and clothing with those who need them challenge us profoundly about how we should respond to refugees and asylum seekers.

Going back to that song lyric.

Why are we waiting / Why can't we start changing

Why are we waiting / Always so frustrating

Why are we waiting / We need rearranging

Our Advent waiting is not frustrating because we have been changed and rearranged by our baptism, by the adult commitment that we have made to follow Christ and by the on-going changing and rearranging that commitment involves as we encounter new challenges, new opportunities, new worries and new dilemmas.

In Advent we look forward to Christmas, to celebrating the love of God coming visibly among us. In Advent we also look towards the Second Coming of Christ, the goal towards which history is moving, a goal which has already been scored in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. Our team is 1-nil up, but the match is not over and we are called to go on playing our part. Our waiting should not be passive

The eighteenth century French spiritual writer Jean Pierre de Caussade asked the question

“Why are we waiting?” and he definitely placed the emphasis on waiting.

His answer was:

“Let us set out at once, let us lose ourselves in the very heart of God and become intoxicated with God’s love.”

That’s an intoxication which can continue and deepen the changing and the rearranging and enable us radically to respond to the call to loving relationship with all our human sisters and brothers. Why are waiting? Because we know that God is present in Jesus in our human condition, and, because of that, present in the here and now and in the unseen time that is before us.   

 

A reflection for Advent II 2021 by Canon Dean Fostekew

“My old man said follow the van

And don't dilly-dally on the way.

Off went the van with me 'ome packed in it;

I followed on with me old cock linnet.

I dillied, I dallied;

I dallied, I dillied;

Lost me way and don t know where to roam.

Oh! You can t trust a special, like your old time copper, when you can t find your way  ‘ome.”

Today, is all about trusting the  old time coppers  or more precisely the old time prophets, the messengers of God.

Malachai, the last of the prophets to appear in the Old Testament tells us this morning, that:

“The Lord will send his messenger, who will prepare his way before him.”

St.Paul, similarly, encourages the Philippians to prepare the way forward by living lives which are pure and blameless.St.Luke, recounts the ministry of the last Old Testament prophet; John-the-Baptist and how he urged the Israelites to repentance and preparation in order to meet the Christ, face to face.

How well were these prophets of old heard?

How well do we hear their voices, today?

Luke also challenges us with his quote from Isaiah, in relation to the Baptist:

“ … like a voice crying in the wilderness.”

Is this the answer we give to my questions?

I don’t know how many of you have been into the desert? It can at first sight appear to be a dry, barren place where at night the silence is deafening. I have been into the Sahara, and into the area around Massada, in Southern Israel. Both places were wildernesses, desolate places full of unseen dangers, loneliness and death. These are the images that come to my mind when I hear John's voice crying in the wilderness.

It can, however, be just as desert like and desolate in the middle of the city or within a dying relationship - when you have no one to relate to. Think back to the times when you may have felt  a bit down  and longed to see someone, or to engage in stimulating conversation with a friend and no one has called. How painful and isolating that can feel. This is as much a barren, empty, wilderness as the desert.

Scripture, however, teaches us that in order to reach the ‘Promised Land’  we first have to cross the wilderness. We have to seek out and heed God’s word and respond to it. The wilderness we have to cross, is the one within our own hearts. We have to allow God into this barren place, so that he can renew us and liberate us from our guilt and fears, thereby enabling us to grow. To grow into him.

The Baptist’s call, this morning, is a challenge. He is urging us to repent of our sins and to open our hearts to the Lord. It is a dangerous challenge because if we open our hearts to God, we will surely be changed; and any change is scary, difficult to accept and not  always easy to deal with. It is easier and safer to stay as one is - it’s comfortable and secure.

BUT be warned!

If you do not change, you will not grow, and you will effectively keep God out of your life and never maturing into the whole person, that God calls you to be. It is hard to change and even harder to convince non-believers that they too need to listen to God's word. Being a Christian in the early years of the 21st century is a bit like living in the wilderness. The values that the church stands for, or should be seen to stand for are on the whole counter-cultural to the understanding of the majority of the population:

Honesty

Kindness

Gentleness

Respect for others

Unconditional love and acceptance of one s neighbour

Caring for the weak and needy

Putting others before self

All too often our values are dismissed as irrelevant or even totally rejected as being inappropriate. It is not true to say that all of Society is like this but there are people in our world who believe that 'Looking after number one' is the only important thing to so. Why care for the less fortunate? It is their own fault anyway. Don t worry who you have to step on in order to get to the top, just so long as you succeed.

Perhaps we Christians are the odd-balls, out of sync’ with everybody else? Well, if we are, then that's okay with me. I would rather try and follow the  ways of Jesus and meet God face to face in the faces of the people others reject or see no value in than to pursue a life of selfish and lonely self-satisfaction.

Jesus responded to the Baptist’s call and was baptised. We the baptised must seek to take our example from him. We must learn to pray and ponder Scripture, seek to spend time with God in prayer and put into practice those things which the Gospel commands us to do. Like Jesus, we must proclaim God’s love in both word and deed.

We are God’s prophets today and we have a Gospel to proclaim in our society. We have 'Good News' to share and we must ensure that this news really is good. We must be prepared to take risks for the sake of that Gospel and not to be over cautious and careful - for it is easy to end up doing nothing but staying in a comfortable rut.

John-the-Baptist, challenges us today to both listen and respond to God’s word.

Try and use this Advent season to ponder how it is that God is calling you to water the desert and to make the wilderness blossom.

How are you being led to journey through life?

What are you hoping for?

What path are you being shown?

What is the voice in the wilderness saying to you?