John the Baptist would have been a difficult character to be around. A camel-hair shirt-wearing, locust-eating prophet whose words came straight from the hip.
If I was preaching this weekend, I might seek to avoid the Gospel reading and concentrate much more on the more palatable Philippians reading – Rejoice and pray. Now I can do that – and it will cause me little harm – I can rejoice and pray with the best of them.
However, would John the Baptist be shouting at me and others – ‘you brood of vipers’? Would he be saying just because you come to Church and wear a dog collar what makes you think that you are safe? John the Baptist makes us feel uncomfortable just as he made King Herod uncomfortable enough to have him beheaded. So rather than ignore John’s words in our Gospel, I think Advent is time to lean into the readings to help us prepare to celebrate the coming of the King.
Advent has become a word that lost its power and seems old and archaic. However, to me Advent should be an important season of preparation and anticipation. Preparation – that we are able to do by leaning into the words of John’s warning and checking our own hearts in the light of them, to ensure that we are not sitting smugly behind a dutiful type of faith but have hearts that are transformed by the following of Jesus Christ. If we have self-reflected, as some did on our Quiet Day and prepared properly for Advent – then we can be full of joyful anticipation for the coming of Jesus.
It is only when we are prepared and in a state of anticipation that we are more likely to see God’s glory now in the everyday and in the ordinary. To see God’s glory in those that God has placed around us.
Liz fears this word in our house. It comes out of lips at the meal table in our kitchen or we are just about to go out as a family or in mid conversation in a coffee shop. I do it sub-consciously (but occasionally consciously). It signifies to Liz and the girls that I have had enough of waiting and this is the time for action. Right! Time to leave a meal table and get on. Right! Time for us to actually try to leave the house somewhere near to the time we actually agreed we would (I live in a house of girls!) or Right! I have just done my mental to-do-list in my head and unless the day has 36hrs I need to get going.
That is how it feels to me as I enter the season of Advent. Right! Here we go – time for action – if I thought I was busy before Advent then just wait for the next few weeks. There will be lots of ‘Rights!’ My very summarised to-do-list looks like this
- lots of services
- six School Nativities
- advertise this and that
- last Alpha meal/talk
Oh and Christmas, buy presents, work out what we are eating and write cards! The pew sheet just isn’t big enough. I think if Jesus returned, as described in Luke this week, I might, if He was lucky, find a slot in my list (but way down the bottom). All these things are important but are they the most important and what should I be saying “right” to?
In Advent, we should be giving ourselves space and time to prepare for the birth of Jesus. The Advent Quiet afternoon on 5th December is much needed time and space in order to re-evaluate my to-do-list, so I can focus on the most important aspect of life in Advent or any other season – my relationship with God through his Son with the power of his Holy Spirit.
I can’t quite believe that it was a year ago that we all experienced those dramatic, beautiful and thought provoking images of the ceramic poppies outside the Tower of London. They cascaded down out of an office window and then spread like a flowing river across the moat around the tower. We took the girls up to see them and as we queued, I noted that for the number of people, there was an atmosphere of reserved dignity as the beauty of the image was interjected with the stark realisation that each poppy represented a young life that had been lost in the First World War.
I often pause and read the list of names of the fallen on Phil Mann’s display to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the First World War in the window of the Lady Chapel. Today as I type these few words at my desk, I have three orders of service of funerals I attended next to my laptop. They are for Tony Hiscock, Theo Ball and Jean Winter respectively; all dearly missed members of our congregation who have died in the past year. All of them connected by their service during the Second World War within the armed services.
It made me think that I not only wear my poppy to remember those that died and continue to die in war, but also to remember those that survived and then wore or continue to wear visible and invisible scars of their military service. To remember them and continue to tell their story so that its echoes can stop us from making the same mistakes as before and to remind us to continue to help those struggling with the impact of conflicts that still occur too frequently across the world. The Poppy, a symbol, yes, to remember sadness, but also to remember there is hope.
I think that there are two types of people the ‘saver’ and the ‘thrower’ and I think that in relationships that there is one of each. In Liz’s and mine, I am probably the ‘saver’ and Liz the ‘thrower’. If you look in our garage you will see about 4 pairs of my old trainers. Each at different stages of wear and all kept just in case. However, Liz has the pair she wears now and a pair for when she walks the dog. All others are thrown away. If it is broken in our house then Liz will want to throw it away while I will live in hope that it might be repaired – although I do nothing to facilitate that! (Liz throws it out a few weeks later without my knowledge to avoid protests).
I had a cold last week and felt a bit broken – but I didn’t tell Liz just in case. I think that fortunately God is a ‘saver’, but a ‘saver’ that unlike me does something about things that are worn out or broken – He actually heals them just as the reading in Isaiah states ‘the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy’. The healing might not be when or the type of healing we want or expect, but He nonetheless heals if we turn to Him and open ourselves up to Him. God healed and transformed St Paul from the Christian persecutor to someone who could fight the good fight and run the race well for Christ, yet his physical thorn in his side remained. His healing was not what he expected but he began to trust God the healer and find peace. My question today – is there a hurt, pain, illness, grief or brokenness that you need God to heal today? God doesn’t throw away – he restores and heals
This is our second Harvest Celebration in Worth Parish – where oh where has the time gone? The vast majority of our time has been wonderful, joyous and energising; however, there have been some low, dark and exhausting times. In the joyous times, I can praise and thank God with the best of them, but in the bad times, it is all I can do to say the words of praise mechanically at Morning Prayer.
Faith is a rollercoaster ride with great rises and falls. God has sometimes helped me drag myself from the falls by the gift of perspective. I have to deliberate and list the things that are good in my life – that might be as simple as I can breathe, that my body works relatively well, that I have a family, a house, a bed, food and that no matter what I am loved by God. All our gratitude lists will be different, but if we think hard enough we will all be able to fill them. When they are filled and we look at the problem we face, then slowly we see the light of Christ shining in the darkness – the Hope that we have closed our eyes to in our despair.
The gift of perspective helps us to see our blessings so that we can say thank you to God and from this position of gratitude give to others in need. I think this letter home from a female student sums up the gift of perspective:
Dear Mum and Dad,
Because of the fire in the dorms caused by the riots, I had lung failure and was taken to hospital. Here I fell in love with a porter and we have moved in together. I have left Uni and I am pregnant and we are moving to Scotland and getting married.
Your loving daughter
P.S. None of that really happened, but I did fail Chemistry – just wanted you to keep it in perspective.
Once again it seems that we have faced a very challenging week. As we celebrated in fun and laughter in the glorious sun of the last Saturday’s St Nicholas fete, news slowly trickled through of the terrible tragedy at the Shoreham Air Show and then the heart-breaking news of the death of Pam’s granddaughter who was struck by a car.
As I watched the news and spoke to colleagues who were ministering to those affected in Shoreham there has been a tremendous outpouring of grief. A few people came to Church to find comfort but the focal point has become the floral tribute on Shoreham footbridge near to the crash site. This has become a familiar scene along our roads with smaller tributes marking the site of fatal car accidents. One of the things that such sites and the Shoreham Bridge demonstrates is our human need to gather at a place in our grief. Perhaps in the past this place was the Church but increasingly in today’s society this has not been the case.
One reason could be that just as the Pharisees were more concerned with religious rules of how people should behave rather than what was in people’s heart, churches have become unwelcoming, worrying too much that people should behave and do things in a certain way rather than holding out our arms in all embracing love in order to welcome newcomers and regular attendees in the same way. As we enter this season of welcome in the Church’s calendar, if we do welcome everyone then Churches may remain a safe place to gather to be comforted by one another and by God in our times of grief as well as joy.
I know that it seems very hard to believe (or maybe it doesn’t), but I have been on a few diets in my time and the diet market is going strong as a growth (ironic really) industry in this country with most magazines promising quick fix ways to shed the pounds that will then make you truly happy. Let me see – for me there has been the Rotation Diet, the Atkins Diet – (high protein and no carbs – I got sick of it – for a time I couldn’t face seeing someone eat let, alone me eat, another Ham and Cheese Omelette in a police canteen), Weight Watchers (and its point system), the Fasting Diet (surely I should have been good at this one – but I wasn’t!) and the latest that I have yet to try the Dukan Diet (a hyper protein one, healthy and natural – apparently).
Then there are the diets offered in our readings – a fine flaky substance/manna from heaven and the bread of life – Jesus. These diets don’t promise to make us thin, but if grasped and taken they will sustain us through thick and thin (like what I did there?).
The results of these diets were for the Israelites a renewed faith and entry to the Promised Land, whilst to Christians a way never to hunger. We are only hungry when we take our eyes off of Him and try to fill ourselves from the worldly stuff that looks so tempting (like the Chocolate Brownie I am eating right now!) but never fills us. If we faithfully eat the bread of life of Jesus we are then promised the gifts of Ephesians – so as we go on holiday, rest assured I won’t be dieting from food but I will hope to feed always on the bread that Jesus offers
Over a year since we arrived as a family in Worth Parish (I know, how time flies!) it is probably a good time to rest and reflect on ‘What kind of priest am I or will I become?
Jeremiah’s reading this morning offers a sobering warning about shepherds (or priests) that get things wrong, who scatter rather than unite (as the Ephesians reading calls us to do) God’s people. I pray that I might be one of the latter shepherds that God will raise up for his people, that will keep the branch of David – Jesus Christ as the cornerstone of theirs’ and the people’s under their care, lives. I know I won’t be able to do this under my own strength and as my Home Group this week discussed I will need the guidance, gifts and power of the Holy Spirit to help. What does that actually mean?
These are all grand words but how do I live a life connected to God through the Holy Spirit? How do I discern what is God’s will and what is just my will? How do I know when not to pander to people’s desire in order to ‘people please’ and when to disciple with integrity and authenticity to the Gospel with words that might be come from love but might be uncomfortable and difficult to hear. I think that the answer might lie at the heart of all our responses to God.
To be a Christian I have to be willing to open my heart to the Holy Spirit and equally willing to let go of the worldly things I hold tightly onto in order to be transformed, spend time reflecting on the teachings of Jesus from the Bible, to spend time in prayer both talking and listening to God, to regularly rest and to know that I am loved for who I am not what I do. Then, and only then, might I be used by God to be a priest that unites people in Christ rather than scatters.
In the past few weeks the headlines have been dominated by two terrible acts of violence – a white supremacist gunman entered a Church Bible Study and shot dead 8 people and then an Islamic terrorist murdered 38 tourists on a beach (30 of which were British). And this coming week will mark the 10th anniversary of the 7/7 London Bombings. At 8.49am three bombs were detonated on three tube trains and almost an hour later a fourth bomb was set off on a bus in Russell Square, 56 people lost their lives.
As a serving police officer at the time, the events of 7/7 and its subsequent investigation changed me forever. It was from the amazing privilege of leading a body recovery team into the tube tunnels that in the darkest place I found the light of Christ dimly (I have to say) shining, but nonetheless shining. It was this recognition of God’s presence in the darkest places that convinced me to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. Yes, it is always shocking the capacity of cruelty that a human being can show towards another human being, but I firmly believe that our capacity to love one another (as Jesus taught us) will always outstrip our capacity to harm each other.
The stories of hope and a defiance to carry on that have emerged (and which we remember this Tuesday at Morning Prayer 8.30am at St Barnabas’) from 7/7 should inspire us to love more rather than retaliate in hatred, as will, I pray, similar stories from Charleston and Tunisia in years to come. The pain is too sore right now and the time is to grieve. It is often in this pain that God uses our weakness (as Paul writes) to make us strong if we place our trust and hope in God.
Well, it has been quite a week and now ends with the celebration of the Patronal Festival of St Barnabas – whose name literally means ‘son of encouragement’. Encouragement is something we all need. I was trained to give constructive criticism to a work colleague by means of the ‘soft sandwich’. Words of encouragement – then the criticism – followed by more words of encouragement.
However, current corporate thinking is that in order for anyone to hear any words of criticism and change that the person giving those words must have encouraged their employee with seven pieces of praise.
Clearly, encouragement is important and this week I have been able to reflect as I approached my Ordination to the Priesthood all those who have supported and encouraged me along the way. There are too many to name in full but I will just mention two.
The first is Lizzie – my wonderful steadfast and beautiful wife. Lizzie signed up and has been on the adventure of our married life with its ups and downs. She has encouraged me at times and also sat in silence in my pain (sometimes when we share our hurt we are not looking for advice or a quick fix – rather just someone to sit with us in our pain). The second is Paul Voke. Paul was my mentor as part of the Barnabas (Encouragers) Team at my first Church. Paul helped me grow in my ministry with wise words of encouragement – a true Saint.
Let us this week try to build each other up with words of encouragement,