A thought for the day:
“God has a reason for allowing things to happen. We may never understand His wisdom but we simply have to trust His will.”
A thought for the day:
“God has a reason for allowing things to happen. We may never understand His wisdom but we simply have to trust His will.”
It has been a while since I updated you all about what’s happening with my spiritual journey so I thought today was a good day to share with you where I am up to.
You may know that I am currently in the stage of discerning God’s call and what it means for me and my life, and having gone through several stages of inspection and indeed introspection, I am now moving on to another stage of my journey.
I have been given a date to attend a Bishop’s Advisory Panel (BAP for short) in September, where I will go through a three-day “interview” process where I may – or may not – be recommended to go for further training in the church. As part of the process so far I have seen two vocational advisors and an examining chaplain as well as having several conversations with the Diocesan Director of Ordinands (DDO) about what God’s call sounds like to me. During that process, it has been highlighted that I have little experience of church outside my own circle, and so I have arranged to do a short placement with a neighbouring parish to see how they do things there.
I started my placement today at St Michael’s in Alkrington, and I am going to be there for the next three Sundays with a view to learning as much as I can from a different priest-in-charge and from the congregation there.
It has been a long day – my first service was at 8am this morning – but I have met lots of new people and seen three different styles of worship with three different congregations. First was a said Eucharist, which means that we shared holy communion but there were no hymns and all of the prayers and responses were spoken not sung. Next was a service at 9.30am which was a sung Eucharist, which you can probably work out is where we share communion but sing hymns and responses. Both services were very different from that which I am used to, but it helped me focus on the reasons why we “do” worship in church, and how we relate to each other as fellow worshippers.
I had a cup of tea after the service with some of the congregation members and I think I have found a new set of friends in the needlework group who meet on a Monday afternoon! The ladies there promised me a noisy afternoon of knitting and nattering so I’m going to take my crochet hooks with me and head off tomorrow for some fun and chats with them. I also spoke to a gentleman who at the grand age of 93 still plays euphonium in the church brass band, and with whom I have a “date” on Thursday evening at band practice.
Later on, I went to a Family Service which was a totally different service in terms of style for families who are looking to have their children in faith schools. There was over 70 children there and wow, what an experience!
I was introduced to all three congregations and prayers were offered for me and my vocational call. I was touched and humbled by the response of the church today because I don’t remember ever being the focus of attention quite so much before, and to know that there are about 200 people who prayed for me today was an amazing feeling.
I have learned a lot of things today – not least that 93 year old gentlemen can use a smartphone better than some children can! – and I am looking forward to spending the next couple of weeks with this group of lovely people and sharing ministry and mission with them for a short while.
So. My pre-BAP placement has begun and so too has the next stage of my discernment journey. I hope to keep you up to date with how things progress, and I’ll perhaps blog about what is involved with BAP too as things progress there.
Transcript of my sermon delivered on Sunday 29th January 2017
This sermon uses two passages from the Bible, and questions what are blessings, and how do we recognise blessings in our lives. The passages are Micah 6: 1 – 8 and Matthew 5: 1 – 12, and I began my talk by showing this piece of video from “The Life of Brian” – the Sermon on the Mount
It might seem a bit surprising that a clip from an anarchic film such as The Life of Brian could be used in a sermon in church, but I like this clip because it shows us so much about human nature, and the very real way that we can not only fall out over insignificant things, but also how if we’re not careful the Word of God can be misheard and mis-translated. It also ties in with our gospel reading today, where Matthew writes about Jesus’ sermon on the mount. If you know the film, or if you are familiar with parts of it, you will also know that later on, there’s a scene where the elders are all sat round and the conversation goes something like “pah, what have the Romans ever done for us?”. (Aqueduct, sanitation, roads, irrigation, medicine, education, wine, public order, health, peace etc)
The scene that Micah writes about in our first reading is not dissimilar: he speaks of the Israelites who are complaining about “what has the Lord ever done for us”, and Micah points out that God led them out of slavery, he sent great leaders in the shape of Moses, Aaron and Miriam, and he saved them from Balak’s plans to have them cursed by the magician Balaam in Moab. Not only that but when they were stuck in the sinful city of Shittim, God led them to safety by crossing them over the river Jordan to the safety of Gilgal. You can almost hear the answer “yeah, well, apart from all that, what has God ever done for us?!”.
How many of us can say, hand on hearts, that we have never said something similar? How many of us have felt that we are hard done-to, or downtrodden, or that we deserve all the misery that is in our lives at the minute? I think it’s fair to say that at some time or another – some probably more than most – we have all failed to see what God has done for us, and we have simply not acknowledged his presence in our lives. Through Micah we are reminded that the Lord has done, and continues to do great things for us.
It’s the same message that we hear from Matthew too. The Beatitudes – a collection of blessings that Jesus is reported as saying in his oft referred to “sermon on the mount”. Scholars now argue that what Matthew wrote here is more of a series of headlines or soundbites rather than a word for word account of a single address given by Jesus on a hillside. I don’t know either way – I’m not a Biblical scholar and I have still got a lot to learn about the teachings of Jesus – but if these are really just headlines, then I feel it’s up to us to put the meat on the story, so to speak.
So what is a blessing then? What does it mean to be blessed?
It’s perhaps easier to think about what a blessing isn’t. It isn’t the same as being happy, for example. If that were the case, then most of the beatitudes are nonsense. Can you imagine saying “happy are those who mourn?”. Nope, that doesn’t work for me.
Tom Wright says we can understand “blessed” to mean “good news”. That works a little bit better for me – “good news for the poor in spirit…” does feel a little closer, but it’s still not quite right.
We drop the words “blessing” and “bless” into our everyday language and conversations with each other. If I were to sneeze now, how many of you would respond by saying “bless you”? How many times have you heard or said “aw, bless him”, or “that’s a blessing in disguise”? In the words of the Johnson Oatman hymn “Count Your Blessings”, we are encouraged to think about our blessings in terms of what the Lord has done for us and to acknowledge his touch on our lives. For me, this is getting a bit closer to the real meaning of blessing, that when we are blessed, we have received the touch of God.
For those who mourn – the touch of God will comfort them; for the meek, the touch of God means that they will inherit the earth.
You see where I’m going with this?
It doesn’t quite go all the way, and it starts to go awry for me when we hear about those who are merciful, or those who are peacemakers and the righteous because the point is that we can only ever be these things by God’s touch in the first place. Peace-making, showing mercy, righteousness – without the touch of God we cannot be any of those things. We need God’s touch, his presence, throughout all aspect of our lives so we can be those things in his name. It doesn’t come naturally to us to be merciful or righteous – those are gifts from God and we must acknowledge that. We must be honest with ourselves when we claim to be righteous, or humble or any of the things we are called to be, because no matter how hard we try to convince ourselves otherwise, we are only ever at the beginning of a long pathway, and even then, it is only with God’s grace and touch that we can even begin to see the first bend in that pathway that leads to him.
I feel that even though it has a flaw, my interpretation of what it means to be blessed is close enough for us to understand what a blessing is, and in such a way that enables us to be able to share with others the gospel message.
Because after all, what are we doing as Christians if we don’t share the good news with other people? How do we let the meek, the persecuted, the bereaved, those who are poor in spirit know that there is good news for them? How else do we let them know that Jesus Christ lived and died and lives again so that we can be part of God’s kingdom, that we can enjoy fruitful and meaningful lives here and now even though life feels hard and bleak sometimes. That with the touch of God and the blessings of God, even the most dismal and heart-breaking of situations are transformed, if only we take the time and trouble to acknowledge them.
Too often we find comfort in being down, and miserable. Sounds daft, but we do. We would rather put up with a poor situation, or a hurtful relationship, or stick with the old, destructive patterns of thinking because we take comfort from their familiarity. We know where we’re up to with that friend who always puts us down, and we know that if we always have the same reaction to situations in the news – immigration, poverty, injustice for persecuted groups – we don’t have to think too hard or put too much effort in to speaking out against them and those who inflict them.
I’m not just talking about straightforward pessimism and optimism here; people are far more complicated to be labelled either a pessimist or an optimist.
[Hold up glass half filled with water]
Is the glass half full, or half empty?
Your answer shows if you have a pessimistic view of life, or an optimistic one depending on whether you see the glass as being filled or emptied; but as a Christian, you should have a third answer up your sleeve; that with God’s touch on your life, with his grace, his love and with his blessings, this glass is infinitely refillable.
Are you in mourning? Do you grieve for someone, or something you have lost? You are blessed by God! [Fill up the glass to the brim/overflowing]
Do you show mercy to others? Do you let compassion and love for others flow out of you? [Emptying glass part way]
You are blessed by God – Jesus told us so! – and you will receive more mercy than you will ever need [fill glass to overflowing].
Do you feel pure in heart? [hold up full glass]. With God’s touch you will see him in everything you do! And if you see him in everything you do, then others will see it in everything you do too.
And for this grace, these blessings, this full glass, these touches of God which transform our lives, what does God ask of us in return? How on earth can we ever say thank you enough to him for his blessings? How can we ever repay him?
As Micah says, it won’t take the sacrifice of your first-born, nor ten thousand rivers of oil, nor the masses of calves and rams as burnt offerings, nothing like that. All God asks of us in return is that we act justly, that we love mercy, and that we walk humbly with him.
So as we go from here today, let’s think about what it means to be blessed by God, to have his touch on our lives in the darkest and bleakest places as well as in the joyful and bright ones. Think about how your lives are blessed by him every step of the way, and how those headlines on that mountainside are as alive and meaningful to us today as they were to those who heard them two thousand years ago. But more to the point, think about what God asks in return from us; not a lot really – simply that we act justly, that we love mercy, and that we walk humbly with him.
Over two days this week I have been involved in four funerals. When I say “involved” I mean that I have provided the music for one, delivered the eulogy and address at one, supported a friend who was delivering his first eulogy at another, and at one to mourn the passing and celebrate the life of a friend. It might seem that to go to four funerals in two days is a bit much, but to be honest, I found those two days a journey of personal and spiritual growth, and I have learned more about myself and the relationships I have with people around me after reflecting on the lives of the four people I said farewell to.
For the first funeral (Wednesday), my role was to play the music during the funeral of Daniel*. He was an elderly gentleman whose family had chosen to have a church service and burial, and his funeral was attended by lots of family, friends, neighbours and colleagues. He was a big Blue (a big Manchester City fan in case you didn’t know) and he was brought into church to the beautiful singing of Mel Torme and “Blue Moon”. In the congregation was Fred Eyre who used to play for City and who now provides match commentary on Radio Manchester. The tributes were read by Daniel’s friend, and by an 11 year old little girl, who lived next door to him. It was very moving to hear an 11 year old child speak about the gentle giant that Daniel was, and she brought me to tears with her emotional speech.
On Thursday morning I attended three services at the crematorium, one in each of the three chapels there. I had the privilege of giving my very first funeral address. It was for William*, who had died in October and whose family were unable to organise the funeral for him. I did manage to speak to a couple of people who knew William and I learned a little of his life and the manner of his death, and I drew on that information and the gospel message to be able to write an address for him. I didn’t expect many family members to be present, but as it turned out there were about 50 people there to hear the funeral service and to mourn William’s passing.
Straight after William’s funeral was the service for George*. My role was two-fold, first to be a support for my friend Nick, who was also delivering his first funeral address, and also to be a mourner for George who had only two distant family members there for him.
After George’s service was the funeral of one of my own friends, Bryce. He was a cornet player and involved in many brass bands over the years so the chapel was full to the brim, with standing room only at the back and down the sides. I estimated over 200 people were there for him today, and the tributes were rich and emotional, moving and joyful. The band played “Nimrod” as a piece of reflection music, which again was very moving, and there were lots of tears shed at the very end when Bryce’s own cornet playing was relayed to the gathering in a recording he made about 18 months ago of “Ave Maria”.
So, four very different funerals. Four very different people, and four different views of death and saying goodbye to them. When I look at them as a group of four, I see the differences that life throws up to us. One man drew a couple of hundred mourners, another drew just two; one man’s family had split down the middle and didn’t really know about each other – not because of any argument but by a simple drifting apart and not speaking to each other; one man had no family to even fall out with and was truly alone in the world.
The differences go on and on, but it’s the similarities that strike me.
All four men at some point in their lives had met with hardship and struggle. With health, with learning difficulties, with failed marriages, with family splits. They had all loved and lost in one form or another, and yet they still managed to survive into later years, to about 70-80 years old each.
Another similarity is that they were all loved. Love is love, and to me it doesn’t matter whether there are just a couple of family members and “staff” from the local church to mourn you, or whether there are 200 people and a big brass band gathered to send you off, the fact is that these men were all loved and were mourned.
But it’s not just love that we understand in human terms that these men experienced, they are loved by God our father who loves us all, no matter how lost or broken we may feel, or how messy and chaotic our lives may be, or how we view ourselves as failures and so on. The love that sustained these four men sustains us all too, and we all have the promise of resurrection in glory at the end of days.
Death is a great leveller, and I realised on Thursday that no matter what our life’s achievements are or what may try to accumulate in material wealth, we all end our days on earth here the same way.
*Names have been changed to preserve the privacy of the individuals concerned.
I led the prayers in our Sunday worship this morning, and for a change I used a couple of props. I chose to pray around four items that are traditionally used on New Year’s Eve in Scottish households – coal, “black bun” (or fruit cake), salt and whisky.
Here’s what we prayed:
Coal – small, dirty, seemingly useless. Coal has taken millions of years to form.
Heavenly Father we pray that this piece of coal represents to us your staying power and long term commitment to us; that even in situations where it seems things are longtime dead, with your redeeming love and grace, there is the power to transform.
Remind us that even though things may appear hopeless, lost or worthless, with the application of time and even a little pressure, good things will come.
This piece of coal reminds us we are never alone, no matter how far buried we feel, and you are with us for all the age.
Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.
“Black bun”/Fruit Cake – filled with lots of different ingredients; some sweet, some not to sweet; some dry and in need of other ingredients to help them do their job; some nuts and some things we don’t expect to find.
Father, as we think about this piece of cake, help us be reminded of your church. Made up of different, exotic or downright odd ingredients, when we as individuals come together in your name something deep, rich and nourishing happens.
We pray for all your church around the world, and we ask that you strengthen it, guide it and we ask for your continued blessing.
Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer
Salt – can be used in lots of ways; as currency, to cleanse, to add flavour, to preserve, to tenderise.
May this salt remind us of your love, your grace in our lives. How, without you at the centre of our lives Father, we lack so much.
We pray that through this coming year, we continue to put you central to everything we think or do.
We pray too for those whose lives lack flavour or interest through sickness, despair, poverty, homelessness, grief. We ask that you put us in those places where we can help.
Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer
Whisky – made from the same ingredients as bread – grain, yeast, water.
Heavenly Father remind us that Jesus is the bread of life. He is the source of all our hope and we pray that we continually feed on him in our hearts.
This whisky is a reminder too of the Holy Spirit – the one who breathes fire into our hearts, who unites people, who stirs up passions and without whom we are weak, and useless at being your hands and voices in our world.
Father we pray that this tiny bottle reminds us that your power in this world cannot ever be contained.
Merciful Father, accept these prayers for the sake of your son, our saviour Jesus Christ, Amen.
For Today… the last day of 2016
Outside my window… I can hear some isolated bursts of fireworks going off locally. The weather is mild to cold but not frosty yet.
I am thinking… about some changes I need to make in myself, my outlook, my worldview and my expectations.
I am thankful… for so, so much! Where to start? Well, first and foremost I am thankful for the ever present grace and love of God in my life. My faith in him (and his in me) has got me through so much this year and I am thankful to have reached this point still in one piece.
I am praying for… Charlotte and Kieran who are dealing with the most heartbreaking loss anyone can imagine; my brother who is going to be having an operation in a couple of weeks and is facing a long recovery time afterwards; Roy, Margaret, Iain and Megan who will be taking a big step next week; Emma who is starting a new job on Tuesday; Ethan who has got a high-pressure time ahead this term.
I am wearing… a happy smile this evening as I look back at what has happened this year.
I am creating… a new way of thinking. I have come to realise that my thought patterns and behaviour patterns need an overhaul if I am to ever make progress with my life. For example, I am desperate to write a full length novel but fear of failure is holding me back. I know I have the skills (talent is as yet still untested), but I keep talking myself out of doing anything about it because I think my story is not good enough, or that people won’t want to read it and so on. I am trying to create a new way of thinking about myself where I concentrate on the positives of what I’m doing rather than worrying about the (unknown) negatives.
I am going… to put my new thinking into action over the coming weeks and let’s see where we are by half term.
I am wondering… whether I ought to do something about my physical health as well as my mental health this year…
I am reading… “Speaking in Bones” by Kathy Reichs. I was fortunate enough to receive an Amazon gift card for Christmas which I have already bitten into and bought this latest one in the Temperance Brennan series. I have had my eye on it for a little while and I was really chuffed to be able to buy it on Boxing Day. I’m nearly at the end of it and to be honest, I can’t wait for bedtime tonight so I can go and finish it!
I am hoping… that our financial difficulties will be eased this year, if not resolved somehow. I have faith that we will be ok.
I am learning… to ease up on myself, to lower my expectations, and to celebrate the small things.
In my garden… we have a gazebo erected over our deck area at the back of the house. We put it up there for Christmas Day so we had somewhere dry to put the settee out while we had the long tables set up for dinner. We haven’t got round to putting it down yet but I rather like it and might persuade Kevin to keep it for a while.
In my kitchen… we have some snacks and treats waiting to eat while we watch the final Harry Potter film later on tonight.
A favourite quote for today…
A peek into one of my days… I’m going to cheat here and show you a few photos from December as there’s too many to choose from!
A bonus little video for you: filmed outside our house on Christmas morning as we played for our neighbours before church. Hope you enjoy it!
One of my favourite things… is planning and researching things for writing about. One of my least favourite things is spotting when “research” becomes “procrastinating” and getting a move on and to get writing.
Post Script: This year has been a year of spectacular highs and devastating lows, and this is my chance to acknowledge those difficulties and joys and to say a public thank you to everyone who has got me through it all.
Those of you who have followed my blog over the months and years will know that from time to time my mental health takes a hit, and that my family’s financial situation is not particularly secure or hopeful. This year has been the worst we have endured and we have come close a few times to crossing the line. However, we have been blessed on so many occasions by the kindness and support of family and friends who have seen us through. With gifts of food and other necessities, and on more than one occasion the gift of money, our family and friends have literally saved the day. Ethan would not have been able to go on the trip of a lifetime with the music centre had it not been for an anonymous gift of a substantial amount of money which was put through our front door the day before the deadline for payment. More recently, we were facing a very lean Christmas with no spare cash to be able to buy any presents for anyone but again, from anonymous gifts, we not only were able to get some gifts for our children but we have enough now for both Kevin and I to be able to replace our glasses in a couple of weeks. We are both desperate for an eye test and new glasses but until this money came in, we were getting very anxious about how we were going to pay for them. As I said, we have been extremely blessed and we are so grateful for everyone who has helped us in 2016. The grace of God has been in abundance in our family this year!
Some high spots have punctuated the seemingly endless struggle to “get by”, such as our family camping holiday in Wales this summer (again, paid for as a gift to us – and boy are we glad for that gift!). We were joined by my brother and his family for a few days, which was a great experience, and I got to enjoy some spiritual time in a very special part of the world. I finally finished my studies and I got my degree this summer which is an achievement I never in a million years thought I would ever do. Kevin and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary this year too, which, as with my degree, is an achievement and milestone I never thought I would ever see. But we did and I am proud to have made it with my best friend and partner in life.
Everybody needs time to be still. Stillness implies stopping something – moving, talking, eating, worrying, crying, laughing, agitating – whatever it is, we all need to stop and be still.
But how difficult is it to stop yourself and just be in the moment, in the presence of something bigger than yourself and not to fret about what you are not doing?
I suppose the answer lies in the difference between being and doing, and sometimes, when we are so wrapped up in doing we forget what it’s like to simply be.
When are the best times to be still? Anyone can be still when they are relaxed or comforted, restful and happy, but what about the times when you are stressed and angry, or agitated and sad?
Are you like me, who when I get stressed and bogged down with things to do, I turn into a ball of spiky energy and get so wrapped up in myself that I can’t function? If you are, then you’ll recognise the added angst I feel when someone tells me to ‘calm down’. The worst two words in the English language!
But what happens if you can calm down, and you can stop yourself getting tighter and tighter wound up into a ball? I had a wonderful opportunity this evening to be still, and to be calm, and to not be distracted by the jobs and tasks mounting on my my ‘to do’ list and it was wonderful. For the space of an hour and a half I was in fellowship with some of my church family, which in itself is a calming atmosphere, but in that time we spent just 3 minutes or so listening to some music with the lights low which was like a shot in the arm for me. I didn’t really focus on the music and I didn’t even focus on the things I’d left at home but I did manage to just enjoy the moment and to feel a connection to the world that gets lost in the stress and anxiety of living.
I feel better for it too. The things that were making me so angry have simmered down and don’t seem so prominent now, and I have been able to get a grip on my sliding anxiety. I still have a lot to do but it somehow doesn’t feel so frightening now.
What ways do you find to be still? Do you find it difficult to justify the time to yourself if you do take some time out? How do you recognise the need to be still?
Or is it something you hadn’t thought about before?
If that’s you, then take some time to be still and let yourself simply be, not do. Let me know how you get on.