Articles

Reflection for Sunday 7th February 2021 by the Rev'd David Warnes

Submitted by Dean on Sat, 06/02/2021 - 11:43

" ... but those who wait for the Lord, shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

Last year the dogged determination of Captain Sir Tom Moore, who sadly died on Tuesday, lifted our spirits during the first lockdown and raised millions of pounds for NHS charities. He achieved this by walking. His pace was slow, and he needed the support of a rollator, but his quiet persistence achieved great things.

Today’s reading from Isaiah uses walking as a metaphor for the spiritual life. At first glance it’s an odd piece of writing. The Prophet offers three metaphors to describe how God renews people’s strength – flying, running and walking. It’s the reverse of what we might expect. Surely to “mount up with wings like eagles” is much more impressive and desirable than to “walk and not faint”. Yet flying comes first and walking last. The verse doesn’t appear to build to a climax. Rather it seems to descend into bathos. Yet in ancient Hebrew poetry, sequences of three images such as this one, known as triplets, always placed the best and the most important idea in third place. So Isaiah is saying that being able to “walk and not faint” is the most valuable gift.

For many of us, the life of prayer is like that most of the time, a steady plodding, with only occasional bursts of running and flying. Isaiah is reminding us not to undervalue that quiet persistence and reminding us also of the way in which God can empower us to “walk and not faint”. His words were addressed to a people living in exile in Babylon, far from their homeland and aware that the Temple which had been the focus of their worship was in ruins. They have a resonance for us at a time when it is not possible to gather for worship in church. They also have a broader resonance, for the restrictions and limitations under which we are all living feel like a form of exile, of deprivation and disempowerment. Those feelings must be particularly acute for children and young people, many of whom are used to a range of activities and a richness of experiences far greater than those of us who are of ripe years enjoyed when we were their age. For them, famine has abruptly replaced feasting and that change is having a marked impact on their mental health. Let us keep them in our prayers.

We didn’t choose to be in lockdown, or to be cut off from family and friends. Nevertheless, we may be able to learn from the experiences of fellow Christians who, down the centuries, have voluntarily given up the ties, commitments and pleasures of life in order to draw closer to God. The pioneers of this withdrawal were the men and women in the early Christian centuries who abandoned city living because they saw its variety, richness and complexity as distractions and moved into the Egyptian desert to devote themselves to prayer. These Desert Fathers and Mothers discovered that living a simple life of prayer and attentiveness to God was very difficult. They learned that when you try to live that kind of life, your irritation and anger will focus on the smallest and most trivial things. They experienced frustrations and feelings of depression and they expressed these emotions in colourful language. At this stage in the third of a series of lockdowns most of us have a strong sense of how they felt.

One of them, Abba John, spoke of these negative feelings and thoughts as dangerous wild animals, intent on attacking him. He taught that, just as you would climb a tree in order to escape from danger of that kind, the right thing to do was to climb the tree of prayer. He encouraged younger monks to do exactly what Isaiah recommends, to “wait on God”; to be attentive to God.

Abba John’s was a special calling. Most of us are called to live and work in the world. Yet we also need to “wait on God” and today’s Gospel reminds us that, in doing so, we are following the example set by Jesus. After a day spent healing the sick, we read that

For Jesus the starting point for prayer was the understanding that he was listening to and speaking to a God who loved and affirmed him. His teaching developed Isaiah’s insight that the God

the God whose viewpoint might make human beings seem as insignificant as grasshoppers is also the God who, far from disregarding us, knows us more intimately than we know ourselves and loves us. Today’s Psalm also speaks of the God whose scope is cosmic and whose care extends to all humanity:

God heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds. God determines the number of the stars; and gives to all of them their names.

That verse and today’s reading from Isaiah teach that God is both immanent – involved in creation, accessible in prayer – and also transcendent – the uncreated Creator. The immanence is not obvious. Yet for the believer, God is hiding in plain sight. The Cistercian monk Thomas Merton, a spiritual writer and poet, put that beautifully.

“For, like a grain of fire

 smouldering in the heart

 of every living essence

 God plants His undivided power

 – Buries His thought too vast for worlds

 In seeds and roots and blade and flower.”

Merton came to believe that the sickness from which western civilisation suffers arises from an excessive focus on problems and on the search for solutions. The word excessive is important. On Monday I receive the first dose of the Oxford Astra Zeneca vaccine, and I am deeply grateful to the scientists who focused on the problem of Covid-19 and who came up with a solution. Problem solving is valuable and important. Merton was making two points. Firstly, to be human sometimes means having problems which cannot be solved. Secondly, he believed that the language of problems and solutions has infected the practice of prayer and that to pray in that way is to set oneself up for disappointment and disillusionment. When Isaiah urged people to “wait on the Lord” he was speaking about being attentive to God and receptive to God’s love, not about seeking the solutions we desire.

It will soon be Lent, a good time to “wait on the Lord”, making use of whatever aids to attentiveness work best, whether that is music, poetry, art, gardening, exercise or the enjoyment of nature. Elsewhere in the book of Isaiah you will find these words:

“In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.”

That is the kind of prayer than enables us to walk and not faint.

Reflection for Candlemas by the Rev'd William Mounsey

Submitted by Dean on Sat, 30/01/2021 - 13:11

A BABY’S EYES Candlemas Sunday 31st January 2021    Luke 2:22-40

What do you see when you look into a baby’s eyes?
To be honest, it’s hard to be sure how much of what you’re seeing is actually there and how much you’re just imagining. We don’t know all we would like to know about what goes on in the mind of an infant. We can document how quickly an infant comes to recognise mother, father, grandparent, older sister or brother. We know that traumas that happen to quite tiny children leave their imprint on the adult personality.

But who can say for certain whether that serious wisdom that we sometimes sense in a tiny person is really there, or whether the baby is waiting for life’s experiences to inscribe their teachings? Nature or nurture or a combination – the debate continues.

Our gospel reading today invites us to witness an encounter between an old man and a baby. It happens in a holy place at a very solemn moment. Mary and Joseph have brought their new-born son to the great temple in Jerusalem to dedicate him to God. Jewish law decrees that a first born son belongs to God. The custom was that parents would bring their first son to the priest as if to hand him over, but instead would make an offering of two doves or pigeons for the privilege of taking him home again.

They came to the temple, and as they entered they met an old man. His name was Simeon, a holy man, righteous and devout. He spent his days waiting and fasting and praying. He was led to the Temple because he believed the ancient prophecies and that he would not die before the prophecies were fulfilled. Today folk might call the old man mad. But in his day, Simeon was honoured. People took him seriously. When he reminded them of the ancient promises, they listened. It was as though he summed up in his own being all the waiting and longing of the whole people.

Simeon stood in the Temple, at the heart of Jerusalem, with the signs of his people’s humiliation all around him, as inescapable as the parade of Roman soldiers in the street outside and he waited for the consolation of Israel.

Do you suppose it was only the infant Jesus he reached out to hold, or had it become his habit to bless all the children faithful parents brought to the Temple? It was a thing any parent would have welcomed - to have their child blessed by such a holy man. Mary and Joseph did not object. They gladly put their baby into Simeon’s arms. But it was no ordinary blessing that Jesus received. Simeon looked into the baby’s eyes and what he saw there was the answer to his prayers. He had waited and prayed for the consolation of Israel and now he held it in his arms.

So his first words were words of joy. He praised God, Luke tells us, and if you picture the old man shaken to the core of his being, with tears springing to his eyes, you won’t be far wrong. In Simeon’s song you can hear echoes of all the prophecies that had been his lifeblood during those years of waiting:

“Now, Lord, you have kept your promise and you may let your servant go in peace. With my own eyes I have seen your salvation: a light to reveal you to the Gentiles and bring glory to your people Israel.”

How much did Simeon actually see that light in the eyes of the infant Jesus and how much of what he saw was a reflection of his own longing? We will never know. All we do know is that, that song is the song he had waited his whole life to sing.

But Luke tells us that before he handed the baby back to his parents he took a longer, deeper look and what he saw there was not what he expected.
He saw a future nobody would want to contemplate. It must have been tempting not to speak, to try and protect the two young parents from knowing. But perhaps Simeon realised that Mary and Joseph could not be protected and to be forewarned is to be forearmed.

After all, they too looked into the baby’s eyes day after day; they too perhaps saw what he was seeing. He would speak the truth as he saw it.

“This child is chosen for the destruction and the salvation of many in Israel. He will be a sign which many people will oppose, and so reveal their secret thoughts. And sorrow, like a sharp sword, will break your own heart.”

And so, over the infancy of Jesus, already there is that shadow of foreboding. In that baby’s eyes was an answer to all of Israel’s longings and prayers, so vivid as to make an old man weep for joy. But the salvation promised there would not be won without a cost. There would be times when it would seem that Jesus had come, not to bring peace, but a sword. Encountering him, people would find themselves having to choose, between their old world, with everything that was familiar and a new world where they themselves might have to take up a cross.

Many people did choose to follow Jesus. It is because of their courage that we are here today. They showed us that abundant life wasn’t just a matter of pretty words, it was a reality so powerful that it still touches us now, and the invitation is open for us to join them and find out for ourselves.

But many more people rejected Jesus. His invitation to a life of new priorities challenged their security and authority; his new band of followers challenged their power. They struck out in hatred and it is just as Simeon predicted. The sharp sword of sorrow struck many people, including Jesus himself and Mary was not spared.

This story is rich in invitation. It invites us, you and me, to step into Simeon’s shoes, bringing our own longings with us and to hold that child and look into his eyes.

What do you see?

There is love there for us, and for our world: tenderness and gentleness and promise and an eagerness to forgive and accept that always exceeds our expectations. The promise of new priorities for us and our world is there, speaking to us through those eyes.

It is never too late for us to choose the way of Jesus for ourselves and the church. In the choosing we can still offer the world what it needs most - an end to selfishness, greed, hatred; a new dedication to compassion, justice and hope.

It is all there. Just look.

The Rev’d William Mounsey Candlemas 2021

Reflection for Epiphany III Sunday 24th January 2021

Submitted by Dean on Sat, 23/01/2021 - 11:47

Epiphany III Year B 2021

The three readings set for today, I have often thought could have easily been set in Advent. You have Jonah preaching repentance in Nineveh, warning the people there to be aware that God is watching them. Paul in his epistle to the Corinthians telling them to stop doing what they were doing or had planed to do for the return of the Lord is nigh and in Marks’ Gospel we have John-the-Baptist announcing that the Kingdom of God has come near and Jesus calling his first disciples to help him in his ministry. Three readings from different times in our history but with a common theme - be prepared to meet God at anytime.

There is more than a taste of the ‘end time’ in these readings. They are a reminder that all things will come together in the return of Christ and we need to be on our guard watching and waiting for Christ’s return. But, how to prepare ourselves?

Firstly, we need to know that we need to be prepared! Look at Nineveh, the people were having a great time, living a hedonistic life. Everyone doing what they wanted to regardless of the effects their actions may have had on others. Nineveh was living a completely selfish life-style and it needed a prophet, spewed up from a whale on its waterfront, to bring it to its senses. It was a pretty dramatic way to gain their attention but God knew it required drastic action to jolt that city into changing its ways. When one looks at some of the behaviours around the world today, one wonders what it might take to do something similar?

Secondly, St.Paul tells us that time is very short. Although he was writing some 2000 years ago, the urgency in his writing remains. Time is short for all of us to change our ways and to do things differently for none of us know when our lives will end. If God calls us to him, we go and nothing we have planned or hoped for will change that fact. As our National Poet Robert Burns wrote:

“The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men Gang aft agley…”

The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. How true those words are; no matter how much we plan or prepare for something the outcome maybe very different to what we thought it might be.

Thirdly, in his Gospel account St.Mark has the Baptist jailed for his missionary work and Jesus calling all to repent for the Kingdom of God is nigh. Some listened and many ignored him. Jesus knew the task ahead of him was daunting and he has the sense to call others to help him and however he did it, those four fishermen immediately gave up everything they may have had planned to follow the preacher. I bet when they woke up that morning they did not expect to give up fishing for a living later that day. Their ‘best laid plans’ certainly changed.

Underlying all these readings and the message they contain is the process of conversion. The people of Nineveh were converted back to the ways of God by Jonah’s call to repentance. The Corinthians were warned that they needed to convert their souls in order to be true to the ways of God and those frost disciples were covered to following Jesus by what they heard and saw. In all these conversions what seems to be apparent is the fact that we are called not to cling to the familiar when it is doing us no good but to take a risk and do things differently.

This past year has been a rather different year to anything most of us have ever experienced. In two days time the Church celebrates the conversion of St.Paul - a conversion to Christ that certainly changed Paul’s life and countless numbers of others since. From zealot and persecutor to follower of Jesus was a big change in Paul’s way of life. Our conversion to the faith may not have been as dramatic as Paul’s or those first disciples but whether or not we realise it we have all been converted at sometime. For some of us it might have been a ‘Damascus Road’ type conversion that stopped us in our tracks and set us along a new path following Christ. For others of us and I suspect the majority of us that conversion would have been more gradual and almost unnoticed. Can many of us actually remember when we decided for ourselves that we were a follower of Jesus? We have all done it at sometime or we would not seek to worship God as we do. Yet for most of us that conversion is sub-conscious but something we hold precious when we think of it.

All people of faith are on a journey towards God, a little closer every day and in this week of Christian unity we give thanks for our journeys and the different paths we tread towards that God through dedication to his Son. There has never been ‘one’ church every bit of the Early Church was different to each other and they didn’t agree on everything right from the start. The differences, however, enable more people to follow Christ because the church is not a ‘one size fits all’ (regardless of what some may think or say). The Church is a unity of different ways to God through Jesus and different ways appeal and attract different people - that is the beauty of the Church. Every one of God’s people can find a place in ‘the Church’ should they wish and choose it as there will be one of the expressions of church that speaks to them and converts them making them fellow pilgrims on the way to the Kingdom of God.

We are not called to be the same as each other but to be ourselves converted and renewed by the Good News of Christ and coming to God humbly and excitedly as we daily take that step closer to him and eternal life.

Reflection for Sunday 17th January 2021 Epiphany II

Submitted by Dean on Sat, 16/01/2021 - 12:56

Epiphany 2 Year B 2021 

The philosopher Immanuel Kant famously wrote these words:

“Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made."

The evidence that human beings can truthfully be likened to crooked timber is in plain view, whether we think of the recent disturbing events in Washington D.C. or contemplate the mendacity of politicians closer to home. And there is some wisdom in Kant’s warning, for it reminds us that utopian projects and dreams often end in bloodshed and tears because those pursuing them are all too willing to trample people under foot in pursuit of their dreams. Yet Kant’s view is not derived from Jewish and Christian thinking about humanity and today’s Gospel shows that very clearly and gives us grounds for hope.

In today’s reading Nathanael’s first response to Philip’s words about Jesus is a cynical and sceptical question:

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Nevertheless, he responds to Philip’s invitation to “Come and see”. The encounter with Jesus which ensues needs some explanation. When Jesus says “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit” he isn’t praising Nathanael for his bluntness, rather he is picking up on Nathanael’s question about Nazareth. Nathanael’s cynicism about Nazareth was geographical. Nazareth was an unimportant northern town, remote from Jerusalem. It’s as though an inhabitant of Edinburgh were saying “Can anything good come out of Dingwall.” And there’s nothing in any of the prophetic writings in the Hebrew Bible to suggest that the Messiah was going to emerge from Nazareth. Nathanael’s scepticism arises out of where he thinks that Jesus is coming from.

Jesus responds with a witty remark which focuses on where Nathanael is coming from in a sense that is cultural and religious, rather than geographical:

“Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”

In calling Nathanael an Israelite, he is reminding him of their shared descent from Jacob; deceitful Jacob who impersonated his brother in order to trick their father and gain his blessing. The story of how he stole his brother’s birthright supports the view that human beings are hewn from crooked timber. Yet Jacob went on to experience a very disturbing and painful encounter with God and to receive a new name – Israel – a name which means “the one who struggles with God.” Jesus was reminding Nathanael that God can work with the crooked timber of humanity and make something of it. It’s unlikely that Nathanael understood that immediately. His first reaction was to ask: “Where did you come to know me?” and Jesus says:

“I saw you sitting under the fig tree before Philip called you”.

Nathanael responds to this as though it was an astonishing piece of clairvoyance, as perhaps it was. He acknowledges Jesus as “the Son of God” and “the King of Israel.” Jesus reacts to this confession of faith by steering the conversation back to the story of Jacob, now putting himself in Jacob’s place:

“Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Nathanael would have immediately understood that Jesus was referring to the vision that Jacob experienced, his dream of a ladder linking earth and heaven and the angels of God ascending and descending on it and the promises that God spoke to him in that dream. Jacob recognized the place where his dream happened as holy and renamed it Bethel:

“How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

Jesus is saying that the encounter with God is not about place – not about Nazareth or Bethel – but about a person, about himself. In Jesus the earthly and the heavenly meet and can be encountered. In Jesus, the crooked timber of humanity is straightened and we are made aware of our true potential, a potential only to be realized through close encounters with God of the kind that Jacob and Nathanael experienced, and to which both of them responded.

Immanuel Kant believed that human beings cannot have any knowledge of God, that we are intellectually incapable of grasping the nature of God’s reality. In a narrow sense he was right – God cannot be defined or explained using human language and categories and all attempts to do so have at best remained incomplete or at worst have projected human desires and human anger onto the divine. There was evidence of that in the recent attack on the Capitol in Washington. The violence was shocking, and the fact that at least one of the protestors was carrying a placard showing Jesus wearing a “Make America Great Again” baseball cap was deeply disturbing. God cannot be defined or explained, and God should not be recruited to the crooked purposes of fallen humanity, though that all too often happens. The good news of Epiphany is that God can be encountered in Jesus, as Nathanael encountered him, an encounter which has the potential to dissolve our cynicism and selfishness and to make something good and enduring out of the crooked timber of humanity.

Reflection for Sunday 10th January 2021 "The Baptism of Christ' by the Rev'd Russell Duncan

Submitted by Dean on Sat, 09/01/2021 - 11:36

Epiphany 1 – Sunday 10th January 2021 – Baptism of Christ

You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased

I wonder how often we have been told that we are “beloved”? No matter how many times, I suspect that it is never enough.

An elderly acquaintance used to speak fondly of his “beloved”. His wife had died some years earlier. Although I had never met her there was something deeply personal and touching about how he spoke. There was a sense of something that had been lost, of something that would never come back and even a sense of deep longing.  All I could do was to listen.

In today’s gospel the one whom John the Baptist has proclaimed is here. It is as if John can now say with confidence “this is he of whom I have long spoken Look everyone. Take note. He has arrived”. There was no fanfare, no procession, no important officials.

If we look closer there is a lovely, intimate encounter between the members of the Trinity. There is a voice coming from heaven (whom we take to be the Father although not specifically identified in the narrative) telling Jesus as he comes out of the water that “you are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased”. The Spirit is also present descending on him like a dove. What wonderful affirmation and assurance.

Not surprisingly, the baptism of Jesus has been depicted since the earliest days in Christian art. We will all have our own favourite pictures or images.  One of mine is by Piero della Francesca, painted c. 1450 which is in the National Gallery, London. One art critic comments that “all is momentarily still in the light of revelation. It is that luminous stillness which the painting captures so well.

The theologian, Jane Williams, also comments that “As Jesus comes out of the darkness of the river, into the light, we see the one whom God loves, and through whom he shares his love with us. God’s creating word, spoken at the dawn of the world, is spoken again, to draw us into his community”.

The sacrament of baptism signifies our initiation or incorporation into Christ and his body, the Church, of which we are part. But how does it actually affect us each day?

The liturgist and former Bishop of Gloucester, Michael Perham, comments that “For generations people have undervalued their baptism. They know it was something that was done and is now long since past. What needs to be rediscovered is the sense, not that I was baptised, but that I am baptised. What happened then committed me to a style of living that is still being worked out. There is a sense in which we all need to be able to remember our baptism by being able to reclaim its promises and celebrate its meaning through the cycle of the Christian year”

I want to end with the Prayer of Petition which we all say together each Sunday from the 1982 Scottish Liturgy. It reminds us of our baptism and how it is being lived out by us, individually and collectively.

“Help us, who are baptised into the fellowship of Christ’s body

to live and work to your praise and glory;

may we grow together in unity and love

until at last, in your new creation,

we enter into our heritage

in the company of the Virgin Mary, the apostles and prophets,

and of all our brothers and sisters, living and departed”

You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased