Sunday, 31 January 2010

The unwelcome prophet

Luke 4:21-30
Jesus began to speak in the synagogue: ‘This text is being fulfilled today even as you listen.’ And he won the approval of all, and they were astonished by the gracious words that came from his lips They said, ‘This is Joseph’s son, surely?’
But he replied, ‘No doubt you will quote me the saying, “Physician, heal yourself” and tell me, “We have heard all that happened in Capernaum, do the same here in your own countryside.”’ And he went on, ‘I tell you solemnly, no prophet is ever accepted in his own country.
‘There were many widows in Israel, I can assure you, in Elijah’s day, when heaven remained shut for three years and six months and a great famine raged throughout the land, but Elijah was not sent to any one of these: he was sent to a widow at Zarephath, a Sidonian town. And in the prophet Elisha’s time there were many lepers in Israel, but none of these was cured, except the Syrian, Naaman.’
When they heard this everyone in the synagogue was enraged. They sprang to their feet and hustled him out of the town; and they took him up to the brow of the hill their town was built on, intending to throw him down the cliff, but he slipped through the crowd and walked away.

No prophet is ever accepted in his own country

It always surprises me how popular fortune tellers and psychics are these days. How people will pay quite a bit, and quite regularly, to be told that this or that will happen to them and those they love. Generally these bits of foretelling hold good news; long life, finding a loved one, a birth. So, maybe not so much a puzzle – the world we live in can seem somewhat bleak and the promise of a little light here and there may be worth paying for. Although the suggestion that this means that our lives are foretold, our future accounted for does give me some concern – I like to imagine that I have a choice in how my life is going; especially when it means a choice that move me towards God.

Prophecy is often confused with fortune telling. We think of prophets passing on God’s plan for us as if we have no say in the matter – the delight, of course, of apocalyptic film makers. But that’s not true – a prophet’s vision into the future is borne out of the vision of the world that they live in and the people they live with.

Unfortunately, they are decidedly less popular than fortune tellers.

Whilst there may be some prophets who are able to see only the positive and praise their people for the good that they do – these are not in the majority – and, you wonder, if they are prophets at all. After all, there is nothing any of us like more than praise.

In our own land, we stand on our side of the fence; the grass is greener side of the fence. We become the good example - blind to wrong turnings we are taking – because most of us are taking them. We agree, between ourselves, to look the other way; to overlook; to look out and protect our reputation. Our relationship with God fits where it touches because we are all looking in the same clouded mirror, patting ourselves on the back, and thinking things are not so bad.

Who is there better to stand up; to wipe the glass clean; to speak out; than someone living in the middle of it all; someone who has had the scales taken from their eyes so that they can become God’s eyes and speaks God’s words? And who is least likely to listen to them?

It is one of the many paradoxical actions of God that He sends the wrong person to do a task. ‘Wrong’ in our eyes; of course. Someone so off base that they seem a joke; a hoax; a misunderstanding.

So whoever they are, we don’t want to listen. We are more likely to shoot the messenger than believe the message. We are not so willing to be brought to task by someone we watched grow up; someone we grew up with; someone we consider unworthy, unqualified, unremarkable? We don’t hear ‘God in them’.

We look for guidance from above; and that above isn’t just God (it often isn’t even God) – it’s above us in stature, in status, in the establishment. They are the people we want to listen to; the people we want to tell us what to do. They are also ‘our’ people; on our side, loyal and committed to the status quo.

We don’t want to take instruction from the people living next door; the man
in the street; the woman in the pew. Those that see another way; that know the emperor’s new clothes for the spin doctoring they are.

This is where the prophet comes from – ‘at their own risk’ and utterly powerless, because they have given God their ‘Yes’. There is very little job satisfaction in being a prophet.

When the prophet talks to their own people it is too close. The prophet won’t be fooled – they have been there. God has shown them the error of their ways – has taught them about tough love- has impressed on them the need to speak out. Given them His Son as an example. And, like him, they are unable to force their belief, their message onto our lifestyle – it is always down to choice.

But when they speak –
It is the magnifying mirror held up to the truth when we’ve been happy with the lies;
The knowing of hidden secrets and furtive lives.
It is uncovering the layers of pretence and glamour to show the cracks and pock marks.
It’s the BIG question when we don’t want to admit to knowing the answer;
The direct approach when we play the avoidance technique on a grand scale.

The prophet in our midst only ever wants one thing – what God wants –
and they both know us too well to take ‘No’ or even ‘Yes, but…’
for an answer. And that doesn’t make it easy – for them or for us.


And again, Snow

A smattering is the idiosyncratic parlance of the Met office. A smattering of sharp, cold, ice white flakes dancing in the easterly wind ; a dusting of sparklingly bright crystals fallen from a heavy pink clouded sky; outlining the angles and convolutions of the landscape; catching the eye again –‘Look, look’.

This was a sudden smattering, and, as such, has had a dramatic effect. The radio warns of hazardous driving conditions and recommends only necessary journeys, sports events are cancelled, shoppers with empty pockets, still suffering from the Christmas excess, decide it is a day for the fireside.

God claims His Sabbath back as a day of rest.

Later in the day only a hardy few regard a walk in the frozen countryside as a ‘rest’; and are favoured witnesses to a pageant of stark beauty – browlines of skeletal trees outlined against the hard china blue sky – a pictogram of ‘Winter’.

Walking among the trees, the suffering is apparent; bark turned ashen grey, evergreen leaves tinged with red and brown - signs that the heartwood is clawing the last of the summer down into itself, the life force knowing what to sacrifice; knowing survival techniques learnt over thousands of years; to curl in on itself and wait.

The stillness demands silence; voices grate on the ear –

Life in Black and White waiting, waiting – a world on ‘pause’.

From nowhere - movement – flashing, too rapid to pin down, to register on the eye; then, the sharp, high pitched ‘chack’ of a blackbird. Still, moving, darting; sharp eyes seeing details, sharp beak picking at twigs and leaves. The ‘chack’ turns into a rising crescendo of notes, claiming territory. Then, from the same nowhere a rival appears and they throw themselves into battle. Cavaliers, they fence up and through the haphazard stairways of the branches, wings flapping like ermine cloaks. Each determined to be king of this castle. A silent call and they both fly off as if to some previous engagement.

But it is enough; a spell is broken - the monochrome reveals itself as a backdrop to the pioneer accents of Spring. Golden catkins have quietly unfurled themselves and adorn the hazel and willow, soft as rabbit fur. The pearly gleam of the first snowdrops nestle in the bulwark roots of a sycamore; tissue paper flowers of cherry and blackthorn, impossibly fragile yet, knowing the time has come, have come. Acid green shoots of spring flowers lie close to the ground, like the helmets of soldiers waiting to go ‘over the top’.

Spring knows about waiting. She has been here through many ‘before’s. It has been a Winter worthy of the name and is not yet over. She does not easily sacrifice her bounty to late frosts and arctic winds; better to be patient. To let Winter live out his last days as Regent; there is still nobility to be earned in the trials of ice and cold.

No need to hurry; there is a lesson to be learnt; there is a time to every season.


Sunday, 24 January 2010

Be extraordinary

Luke 4;14-21

Jesus, with the power of the Spirit in him, returned to Galilee; and his reputation spread throughout the countryside. He taught in their synagogues and everyone praised him.
He came to Nazara, where he had been brought up, and went into the synagogue on the sabbath day as he usually did. He stood up to read and they handed him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Unrolling the scroll he found the place where it is written:
The spirit of the Lord has been given to me,
for he has anointed me.
He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor,
to proclaim liberty to captives
and to the blind new sight,
to set the downtrodden free,
to proclaim the Lord’s year of favour.
He then rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the assistant and sat down. And all eyes in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to speak to them, ‘This text is being fulfilled today even as you listen.’

‘as he usually did’

So, there was a time when Jesus was just one of the crowd – an everyman in the everyday; versed in the scripture and the tradition of Israel. A good Jew, an ordinary Jew, who fitted into the society that he belonged to. Like us, he had gone to school, learnt to pray and to worship, he had been shown how to include God in his daily life. Like us, and Luke is very clear about this, Jesus was ‘ordinary’, in his life and in his faith.

No wonder we never heard anything about him. All the wonderful mysticism and prophecy around his birth seems to have been forgotten. How? I often wonder. Why weren’t there tales of angels and wise men enlivening the words of the storytellers? Why did no-one listen when he was brought to the temple as a baby? Whether it was a choice to disbelieve – after all,’ nothing good has ever come out of Nazareth’ – or a smokescreen by God to guarantee his Son this anonymity – it worked. Jesus was no –one special when he left his village in search of his fortune.

We all have to start somewhere, and that somewhere should have something to teach us. The idea that, without any basics of faith, we can decide about God all by ourselves is very suspect. Imagine suddenly trying to decide if God is:
Love, Hate, Power, Revenge,
all of the above –
none of the above
don’t really know

All based only on however you feel at the moment and your own jaundiced view of the world. You can’t - you need a starting point – an a,b,c of God that hopefully gives us all a language we can understand and use with God and between ourselves. A way of life that makes faith so much a part of ourselves that it seems commonplace, ordinary….

with the power of the Spirit’

Jesus didn’t stay ordinary. With the foundations put in, the walls and roof built – with his faith that had taught him love, trust and integrity – he had, within him, a place of invitation, a place waiting to be filled. And he set out to find the One who would change his life. Then Jesus became Extraordinary.

The Holy Spirit could have come on him in Nazareth, while he was in the workshop, John the Baptist could have come and found him. But God appreciates people making the effort – even His Son; the journeys of Abraham and Moses, pilgrimages that feed the body and the spirit through experience, trials, failure and fulfilment. We need to make this same commitment. Our spiritual journey can take many forms –prayer, meditation, study, retreat and pilgrimage – it informs our daily lives and relationships, once we have the eyes and understanding to see it.

As human beings we grow through the achievements and failures of journey, becoming more and more aware of our own personal strengths; and realising our need for an intimate relationship with God. God holding us and God within us. Armoured and fed by God we become less reliant on ‘what the world thinks’.

The Holy Spirit always finds a way –whether it is the drip, drip, drip of a prayerful life, or a dam-busting conversion when there is nowhere else to go – the Spirit comes upon us - and we become filled with God’s power – we become like Jesus - Extraordinary- filled with Grace, we become linked to the One who is greater than us – but who needs us to be His hands, His eyes, His mouth– to bring liberty to the captives, Good News to the poor and proclaim the Lord’s favour.

Jesus speaks Isaiah’s words – a man speaking man’s words because he shares our humanity and our destiny with us. The responsibility is now ours. The Word is fulfilled every day that we remember this – that even as we speak, see, hear and act we do so as the Body of Christ.


Saturday, 16 January 2010

Stone Jars

Sunday Gospel - John 2-11

There was a wedding at Cana in Galilee. The mother of Jesus was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited. When they ran out of wine, since the wine provided for the wedding was all finished, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ Jesus said ‘Woman, why turn to me? My hour has not come yet.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’There were six stone water jars standing there, meant for the ablutions that are customary among the Jews: each could hold twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, ‘Fill the jars with water’, and they filled them to the brim. ‘Draw some out now’ he told them ‘and take it to the steward.’ They did this; the steward tasted the water, and it had turned into wine. Having no idea where it came from – only the servants who had drawn the water knew – the steward called the bridegroom and said; ‘People generally serve the best wine first, and keep the cheaper sort till the guests have had plenty to drink; but you have kept the best wine till now.’

This was the first of the signs given by Jesus: it was given at Cana in Galilee. He let his glory be seen, and his disciples believed in him.


Sometimes words are just not enough; I would love to have been there when Jesus ‘rebuked’ his mother: the body language, the exchanged glances. Mary’s head held high as she goes over and speaks to the servants gesturing back to her son ‘ Do as he tells you’. Then Jesus’ raised eyebrows and tiny shake of the head and the ‘sigh’ because ‘it’s his mum’. If there was ever any evidence that this was a real, human, mother and son relationship then this tiny unspoken ‘pause’ is it.

Ok, we are three or more days into this wedding party and, obviously, a good time was already being had by all; and, culturally, it was not proper for a woman (even a mother) to approach the men in public. And maybe, you could even argue, that this is not the most appropriate of times for Jesus to be making his debut.

Or maybe it was? Maybe, Mary, knowing exactly who her child was, saw this as precisely the place for his first public miracle; a place outside the Temple; outside the Law; with the common people, with communities celebrating relationship.

If you are going to be different – you may as well start now. If you are going to be where people need you – it might as well be here, and why? For the simplest of reasons - there need never be the thought ‘why would God be bothered with my tiny problems?’ Why would God be refilling wine jars at the end of a wedding feast? Because He wants to.

‘Know your place Son; know your people; know I believe in you.’

Mary acts as the precursor for all the others who call out to Jesus; who demand attention and healing; who shout after him; who touch his clothing and anoint his body. The people who will take themselves to Jesus knowing who they are and who he is; people who Jesus will allow to argue with him and challenge him.

And Jesus will allow himself to lose; to be persuaded; to be talked into and out of decisions – in public, by the lower classes, the outcasts and the women; to be criticised by those around him, including his own disciples.

Not a thing a Rabbi would allow – certainly not something God would allow – you would think.

We have a different kind of God.

And this same scenario tells us everything about needful prayer; maybe especially where Mary is involved. Because so often when we pray we not only tell God what the problem is but how to solve it.

We have to bring ourselves to God as we are; knowing that something has ‘ran out’ - there is something lacking in our life, that our life has run dry leaving empty jars of stone or clay. We may share our human problems with Mary, but Mary is not going to sort it out for us – she may listen sympathetically – but then she will gesture to her Son and say ‘Do what he tells you.’

But to simply expect God to refill us with wine, to solve our problem ‘just like that!’ is to expect magic and God is not magic.

‘What Jesus tells us’ - Jesus asks us to make the effort - to fill ourselves with water; the basics of prayer, meditation faith, action and fellowship, to be and to belong to ourselves, to others and to God. Then, with his help, the presence of the Holy Spirit and the Grace of our Father we again become more than we were by ourselves – we become filled with wine, with the fullness of life.A miracle – and it happens every day.


Wednesday, 13 January 2010

God I snow here II

There are always lessons to be learnt from a gift from God. They tend to be power packed, working on many layers; some deeper than others; some almost hidden and some we would prefer to keep that way.
The snow is definitely a case in point. It is difficult to keep up the enthusiasm, the sense of wonder, the simple physical and emotional energy that it takes to deal with such enchantment. It is hard to pay attention all the time; - to be warm enough, to eat well, to walk gingerly through furrows of snow over ice, to drive well on gritted roads and then to find yourself sliding uncontrollably, backwards, down a side street coated in black sheets of ice.
It’s impossible to stay home, the ‘snow-go’ challenges not the nation’s economy but the day to day living of families reliant on overtime, daily rate pay, self-employment. Sixth formers have exams to take; everyone needs an education; the local hospital is seeing 300 people a day with ‘snow’ injuries; clinics are closed; tragedies have happened. Snow brings its own contrasts – life becomes black and white – needs over wants. Which is not so bad when you can fulfil your needs – but what if you can’t.
I was in church, closed for the week because of the weather and our temperamental heating, but needing to be divested of its faded Christmas finery. Is there anything colder than an empty church on a winter night? Fingers froze and toes became numb as I moved around the space, clearing away the tinsel, the brittle Advent wreath and the gutted candles. And then the crib; each figure cradled in my arms as they were put away for another year; each character receiving its own escort to a place of refuge. The walk down the aisle towards the outside world framed in the glass doors; the solid black sky and the still deep and sparkling snow filled carpark; the orange glow of street lights and blue beams of the occasional car making its way warily down the still hazardous road. Winter inside and out.
Then a car headlight caught the gleam of bags filling the collection basket near door; we had been collecting food and clothing for our local shelter for the homeless. Then it struck me, I, we may have had to make changes in our lifestyles but we still had choices. We were doing with less, but we were not really doing without ; and despite the concerns and commitment to the shelter, the people we were helping were very much on the periphery of our thoughts; ghost people – ‘the homeless’. We were ticking a box marked ‘Acts of Mercy’ that caused us very little trouble. And what was I doing? Fussing over painted, plaster saints when flesh and blood brothers and sisters were out there; blood freezing in their veins; knowing the wildness of snow; its indifference; its bitterness. Holding one of the shepherds, I wondered what my reaction would be if a similarly rag-tag group knocked at the church door tonight, I hoped I would give them shelter; I believe I would; but would I have taken then home? What would I have done tomorrow?
And isn’t that the challenge? The wonder of what we are asked to do? There is another play on words often used to encourage us to prayer and contemplation – the idea that we are human ‘beings’ not human ‘doings’. Which is lovely when you are trying to justify to others that you need the time to be with God through silence and stillness; as Jesus often did – but not always. Because Jesus said ‘whatever you do to the least of these you do to me’ –‘doing’ is part of life too. And, out in the bleakness of winter, in the relentless arctic cold, there were people walking in God’s footprints, the Lord’s hands in their gloves, caring for the least of these and this night all I could do was sit with the shepherd and pray, giving thanks for those that ‘do’ for those who prove that God is not nowhere.

Monday, 11 January 2010


God is nowhere
In the walking past of Big Issue Sellers
In the jangling of Christmas frenzy
In the rush to the January Sales
In the slamming of doors
In the closing of hearts
In ignoring need
In saying ‘No’

God is now here
In coming together in community
In the smiling face of a stranger
In random acts of kindness
In the words ‘after you’
In hearts open to love
In relationships
In saying ‘Yes’

This was our parish Christmas Card this year – a clever visual word trick that contrasts the manic worldiness of Advent against the real reason for this season of preparation – preparation of the ‘self’ rather than the selfish; a criticism of an attitude that thinks ‘Christmas would be much more fun if we didn’t have to think about God’

Trying to be clever, myself, I picked out another wordy option
‘God I snow here’. And God decided to play along. I have always thought that, if God goes to all that trouble of making every snowflake unique, He must like snow too.

Now I apologise to all those people living with the extremes of climate each and every year – but this was a big thing for us – it snowed! And it didn’t just snow; it snowed and snowed and snowed until, God bless Britain – within less than 24 hours we were brought to a standstill. A forty minute commuter drive into school became a return arctic expedition that took three hours; crawling; sliding; waiting; skidding. Buses slid backwards down main streets; motorways and airports became car parks; shops, schools and offices were closed. People gratefully reached the refuge of their own front door and stayed there, living on hot chocolate and Christmas leftovers; accepting the advice to ‘stay at home’.

By the next day the world had become becalmed; few people argued with the advice ‘not to travel’. There was nowhere to go and no safe way to get there. But it almost didn’t matter - the snow was having an effect, not only on the outward busyness of life but on the interior world as well. Snow had fallen, as it does, on the just and the unjust – just the same. The beautiful; the natural;
the concrete; the ugly had all had their blessing of manna from Heaven. And there was the magic, the transformation, the something in the light, the quiet, the presence that only snow can bring. The presence that said ‘Look’ and we did and we saw the expanse of fields, the dark silhouettes of trees, the contrasts of light and shade, the sculptural beauty of a fence or a whirligig washing line. The everyday made exquisite; the mundane magical; the commonplace captivating. Look, look, look.

And, seeing a lesson being learnt - the snow stayed. Staying in became unbearable – the snow tapping at the windows ‘can you not see me? how lovely I am?’ –the computers, tv’s and wi fi’s left to one side; people bundled themselves into thick winter woollies, the Christmas presents of scarves, hats and gloves, and boots and wellies retrieved from the back of cupboards and corners of sheds. The search for sleds or anything that would slide bumpily down a roadside slope. Then, travelling further afield into country parks and playgrounds. And not just children, but families; fathers and mothers given a ‘snow day’ to be children again – to build snowmen, angels, throw snowballs – to be foolish, to play and to laugh.

Life’s pace slowed- difficult to drive at any more than ten or fifteen miles an hour – and people did; patiently, considerately. Rows of neighbours came together to clear the paths and move stranded cars. Questions were asked on tv ‘Why weren’t we ready?. Questions were asked in the street ‘Are you all right?’, ‘How are you getting home?’ We went back to basics – to sensible clothes, to the corner shop, to warming food and sleep. And there was time; to read; to catch up; to think. The winter of our ancestors – a gift to today.

And the Bishop spoke on the radio and said that people didn’t have to come to church on Sunday – but they did – because they knew - God is Now Here.