Leaning into darkness

 

River

It is hard to believe that such peaceful place of quiet beauty can swallow a life. A hot July day, the first of the school holidays and youngsters kicking up their heels, their lives and the long lazy days of Summer stretching ahead of them. They could never have foreseen that the day would end in tragedy, with a 15 year old lad losing his life beneath the surface of this river. Today, four years on, I watch from a distance as they gather around his grave, my heart heavy for their grieving.

I can never forget. Days into my curacy, I was pitched headlong into this unfolding drama of loss almost from the first moments. Racing to the scene, talking to traumatised youngsters and worried villagers as we waited the many hours until the emergency services found and recovered his body. From the television interview to the funeral and beyond into the weeks, months and years of heartbreak and adjustment to loss that followed, it was my tender privilege to travel with the family and the community. The sudden tragic death of a teenager inevitably causes profound shock waves not unlike a major earthquake within the microcosms of family, village and school. Life can never be the same. It can only be slowly and painfully rebuilt.

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How I wish this was a rare, exceptional event, as no family should have to face this horror. Alas my heightened sensitivity has zeroed in on news reports over and over each summer of young lives lost by drowning. Innocent fun turning fatal in the blink of an eye. Over sixty children lose their lives in this way each year in the UK, and is the third largest cause of child deaths. In the last few weeks I have heard of at least four, one only yesterday. Five years old.

Sudden death of any cause has the same seismic effects on hearts and lives. Every day it seems we wake up to hear of yet more horrors and violent atrocities with communities and families ripped apart by terrorism and hate crimes. Each candle burning, each flower laid representing a precious individual gone from the lives of those who loved them. Grief that will go on – long long after the news focus has moved on. Worlds turned upside down. It is hard not to be overwhelmed by the darkness.

One of the most famous prophetic descriptions of Jesus comes from Isaiah 53, describing him as ‘A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief‘.  At its simplest, and from personal experience I know this to mean Love that sits with us in the dark. The darkness of grief and the darkness of unknowing. Watching, waiting, keeping vigil. Nail-pierced hands that hold ours. Tears that fall from God’s face.

Three years ago today, on the first anniversary of this young man’s death, I came across a timely prayer poem that spoke deeply to me and I offer it here. It turns out they are the lyrics to a song on an album called Take Heart by Velma Frye, co written with Macrina Wiederkehr.


LEANING INTO DARKNESS (M. Wiederkehr, V. Frye)

Draw me into the depths.
Take me down to the holy darkness to Love’s roots.
I lean into that darkness,
The darkness that surrounds me,
This nurturing room for my restless spirit.

Let me borrow your eyes, Beloved.
Then I shall see in the dark, though for answers I do not look.
It is enough to wait,
To wait in the holy darkness,
This nurturing womb for Love’s yearning.

Listening to the sound of silence,
And leaning into the song of darkness, I wait for You.
Waiting with purpose for who I will become,
Waiting without agenda for things I can not change,
I become one with the One I love,

For I have seen too many stars,
Too many stars to let the darkness overwhelm me.

I keep vigil:
with my heart’s eternal questions, and with my deep longings.
with those places in my being where the light has grown dim.
with those whose hearts are tired, & with those whose hope is lost.
for those who sleep and for those who can not rest.
for those with fearful hearts, and for those whose hearts are angry.
for those whose courage is waning and for those whose strength is growing.
for those who suffer, and for those who keep vigil.

I keep vigil. I keep vigil. I keep vigil. I keep vigil,

For I have seen too many stars,
Too many stars to let the darkness overwhelm me

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I am always so grateful for the gift of words or art that others offer, putting pain, blessing and healing into words or form that speak in a profound way. These gifts are often costly, self-sacrificial baring of souls. Someone who frequently does this for me is fellow priest, author and artist Jan Richardson  who blogs at The Painted Prayerbook. Her latest post, A Blessing when The World is Ending,  from her book Circle of Grace (which I can highly recommend along with her other work) seems to dovetail beautifully with the lyrics above.

Blessing When the World is Ending

Look, the world
is always ending
somewhere.

Somewhere
the sun has come
crashing down.

Somewhere
it has gone
completely dark.

Somewhere
it has ended
with the gun,
the knife,
the fist.

Somewhere
it has ended
with the slammed door,
the shattered hope.

Somewhere
it has ended
with the utter quiet
that follows the news
from the phone,
the television,
the hospital room.

Somewhere
it has ended
with a tenderness
that will break
your heart.

But, listen,
this blessing means
to be anything
but morose.
It has not come
to cause despair.

It is simply here
because there is nothing
a blessing
is better suited for
than an ending,
nothing that cries out more
for a blessing
than when a world
is falling apart.

This blessing
will not fix you,
will not mend you,
will not give you
false comfort;
it will not talk to you
about one door opening
when another one closes.

It will simply
sit itself beside you
among the shards
and gently turn your face
toward the direction
from which the light
will come,
gathering itself
about you
as the world begins
again.

—Jan Richardson
from Circle of Grace © Jan Richardson. janrichardson.com.

I think all I can add to these is a heartfelt AMEN.

Called by name

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Somewhere, under those very many, outstretched hands, is me.

It is a picture of the moment of my ordination as a priest in the Anglican Church. Under those hands, I was trembling like a leaf. A precious, holy moment, that I will never forget for the rest of my life. It still makes me tremble to look at the photo and remember. I hope it always does.

The next day, I was given another awe-filled, humbling privilege. I presided at the Eucharist for the very first time in the church in which I serve. It was an immensely moving occasion. I had been given leave to put the liturgy, readings and music together, and friends and family all took part. My husband, who is a Reader, preached. His words last Sunday morning, are what follows.

eucharist

“The gifts he gives are that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors, some teachers, (why?) to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” Ephesians 4:11

A few years ago the driving test had an additional part added to the theory test, referred to as hazard perception, the skill to look ahead and see what might happen in order to take avoiding action…

I think I may fail this test.
A few years ago now, I married a gorgeous nurse, who became a midwife, and then a mother, and then a palliative care nurse, but (as we have sometimes joked with each other,) we certainly didn’t see this one coming all those years ago!

And yet, it has always been the desire of both of us, to serve God in whatever way He wanted us to do. It can be quite scary to abandon ourselves completely to God’s will.

Yesterday Ruth reached a mile stone on the journey. A most significant moment in time- the end of a long journey, the fulfilment of a calling, but just the beginning of another journey, whose route and course has yet to be revealed. However, we do know that He who has called, is faithful and true, and will see this through to completion.

Today we celebrate with her, as she for the first time, stands as God’s representative to consecrate bread and wine into Holy Gifts of Christ’s body and blood, and shares these spiritual gifts with us. She will then stand as his representative in calling God’s blessing onto us.

Ruth choose the readings today very carefully, as they reflect her journey, and as you can see there is a clear link and theme between them.

Jeremiah 1: 4-9

Jeremiah’s Call and Commission

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,

‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’

Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.’ But the Lord said to me,

‘Do not say, “I am only a boy”;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the Lord.’

Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me,

‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.

Psalm 139 : 13-18

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
    Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
    My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
    intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
    all the days that were formed for me,
    when none of them as yet existed.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
    I come to the end—I am still with you.
Ephesians 4: 11-16

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
Mark 9: 33-37

Who Is the Greatest?

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’

But as we look at these more closely, I want us all to realise and take on board that what I am about to say applies to us all. Some have been called to the priesthood, some to a whole variety of other things. It is important for each of us to seek and know, that we are fulfilling that to which we have been called, as ALL HAVE BEEN CALLED.

The first two readings could be summarised in the following words;
known, formed, called, consecrated, (set apart), prepared, anointed (equipped).

Ruth has shared with me the sense she has of knowing this was what she was meant to be. God has known this, and of course known her, from before she came into being. Her life to this point has been a time of preparation, walking along a prepared path, right and fulfilling , but points on a road, and not the destination.

path-2

Like any journey, some bits are easy going and some are very tough, and we want to give up, we get major set backs, we doubt, we want to turn back to safety and security.
What is important for us to know, is that this journey for any of us is not unaccompanied. God is with us, beside us and like that poem ‘Footsteps,’ sometimes we are carried, but don’t know it.

The calling of Jeremiah, also shows us how none of us can do anything without the anointing and empowering of God the Holy Spirit, any of us who preach will tell you that almost every time we get up to preach we ask
“What am I doing? Who am I, to be standing before God’s people and preaching?

And the answer is always very clear.
“Because I have called you and anointed you to preach my words, I have put my words in your mouth”

The problem of calling is that we all have choice. we can choose to accept that calling, but of course we can say also say no. The ‘no’ maybe for all sorts of reasons- we only need to look at Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah to name but three, who wriggled and wrestled said “I can’t do that, sent someone else”
There can be a host of reasons why any of us may turn away from our true calling and purpose.

Lets go back to preparation, what I referred to previously as ‘the journey’. This can be long, hard and frustrating. I promised to not to say how old Ruth is, but the journey has been..shall we say, a while…
Was the time before this, wasted? Absolutely not. It was all part of preparation and all part of the priest that is now with us.
I was struck forcibly by the screamingly obvious point, that Jesus, the Son of God waited for thirty years before his ministry started.

What was going on in his life during those years? We know very little, other than a few glimpses- a twelve year old in the temple, for example, but we can be sure he was being prepared for the right time, of what was to be a very short ministry. Clergy often say how brief a curacy is, ‘what can you do in three years?’
Well, Jesus did quite a lot!
Known….formed…..set apart(consecrated)….called(choice)……prepared…..anointed (equipped)

Then comes two more highly significant points. The disciples were arguing about who was the greatest.. you know the sort of thing.. “Is it the Rector, or the Archdeacon or ..perhaps the Bishop? ”

Jesus makes this profound statement, which was the foundation of the Kingdom, an upside down principle of power and authority.

Whoever wants to be first, must be last of all, and the servant of all.
The servant King who was the Son of God, yet  he washed his disciples feet, the job of the lowliest servant.

The call to service in God’s kingdom must surely be that of being the servant of all.    The greatest is the least.

baby hand

To come back to where I started, in the reading from Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus…

As a doctor I have always loved Paul’s illustration of the body. We all, as individuals makes up the body of Christ, and like the human body all the different bits have different functions, but all are important for the health and function of the body.

I have always had a little chuckle at the arrogance of doctors, I was taught at medical school that the tonsils had no function, along with adenoids and appendixes for that matter, yet we now know they serve an invaluable role in teaching the immune systems to respond to a raft of infections, and the body, whilst it can function without them, is not quite as good as it was with them.

I have realised every bit of the human body is important, however small and seemingly insignificant, and if we don’t know what it does, it’s only because we haven’t found out yet. So it is with the church.

Every bit of the body has a function and purpose, and plays a part in the whole, and it is no good trying to be a different part of the body. Imagine if the ears suddenly thought ‘we would like to be toes’. We would have a lot of trouble walking, let alone trying to hear when we had shoes and socks on!

So, God has given that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors, some teachers. This list is,of course, for illustration and is not exhaustive.

As we celebrate Ruth reaching this fulfilment of calling, and the beginning of the next part of the journey, let us all ask ourselves and ask God:

For what purpose have I been known, formed, set apart, called, prepared and equipped? And where on that journey am I ? Do I have no idea why I have been formed? Do I think so little of myself that I can’t see God has any purpose for me?
Have I been called, but not responded?

What I am sure of, is all have been called, not all have responded, and all of us are still a ‘work in progress’ .

Are we ready to seek God, for our calling? Are we ready to be called off the road we are on, onto a completely different one? Or are we ready to stay on the road we are on, even if we don’t want to be on it?

The body has many parts, some seem to be more prominent and important than others but ALL parts are essential for health and proper function of the body of Christ.

As Paul says, this calling is to equip the saints for the work of ministry for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.

Today we celebrate Ruth’s journey from beginning to now, watched over throughout by her (and our) loving Heavenly Father. We commit her to God, continuing that journey with her, knowing He is faithful and true.

Let us also pause and consider our own journeys and our own calling, and listen together as a body, the body of Christ.

‘It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are, the privilege of a lifetime is being who you really are.’ E.E. Cummings

I pray that our prayer today would be;

Lord here I am, wholly available to you. Take me and use me as you choose, for your purpose and for building up your kingdom, as I find and function in my place as a part of the whole body.
Let me always be a servant of all.

Asking the big questions

I , along with half the world, watched Pope Francis’ inauguration yesterday. Beautifully filmed, it was a moving occasion, and compelling drama. ++Justin Welby will be enthroned tomorrow, and I am sure it will be an equally momentous occasion, though perhaps with a smaller crowd.

The last time both heads of the church changed, at almost the same time, was in 1294. They were two weeks apart.

pope-francis-archbishop-of-canterbury-justin-welby
Both men seem to have a fair bit in common, and even look uncannily alike. They both demonstrate a humble, almost diffident approach to the positions of power they have been chosen to take on. They both eschew the ostentatious trappings of their roles, and embody Jesus’  foundational teaching of service – that ‘the first shall be last’.
Let us never forget that authentic power is service, and that the Pope too, when    exercising power, must enter ever more fully into that service which has its radiant culmination on the Cross.
It is an upside down world view, that the world will never understand.

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It may be an apocryphal story, but it is said that St Francis was overheard at prayer. The cry to Heaven from Francis lips was in the form of a crucial question..
  “Who are you and who am I, that  you should choose me?”
I don’t know whether he ever received an answer, but certainly history has answered in full why God chose that particular young man.

It is a question that I imagine both Pope Francis, and ++Justin may have asked themselves of God, in recent days. Not only the inevitable ‘why me?’ cry, but the deep, important questions about who they are, and what is the nature of the God who has called them to serve.  History in time, will tell us too, what God has been about in selecting these men but the signs so far, would seem to indicate a  fresh wind of the Spirit blowing through the church.

St Francis’ prayerful cry was the subject of a talk given by the person leading my BAP (Bishop’s Assessment Panel)  three years ago. It struck a deep note within me, and I have never forgotten it. I am now approaching my priesting in the Summer, and the question is as relevant now as it was then. It is one I have to keep on asking, and keep listening for the answer. History, I suspect, will have very little to say about me, but what God has to say when I get through Heaven’s gates, is what really matters when all is said and done.

Stepping Stones

I was given this beautiful picture today, by a friend of mine. He is a fellow ordinand, and it is the picture on his Ember Card (cards sent out by people about to be ordained, asking for prayer for themselves, their families, their new parishes and  incumbent)

It struck a deep chord with me, and I have sat with it for some time, letting it speak to me. It is highly symbolic of just where I am, at the moment. I can see the other side of the river from here.  The far bank is suddenly, very close. There are still some ‘stepping stones’ to get there, of course.. and some of them have the potential of being quite wobbly. Like saying goodbyes to those I have lived with, learned alongside, laughed and cried with, in all the twists and turns of this crazy journey towards ordination.  I expect there maybe more wobbly ones too, and perhaps ones that catch me by surprise.

It has been a strange week in the Lectionary calendar. Several people have remarked to me how we have heard the same passage 4 or 5 times over the last few days. Very significant words too.

“You did not choose me, I have chosen you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.” John 15:16 

They are especially significant, as we see them in chapel, two or three three times a day. Inscribed on the College icon, on the back wall of the chapel, the message of those words becomes almost a subliminal reminder, etching themselves in a deep place within. Since the icon was commissioned by the Common Room and written by Marianna Fortounatto in 1981, it will have been imprinted on many hearts through the years, in the ‘generations’ of students since then.

Rowan Williams, in his book, “The Dwelling of Light: Praying with Icons of Christ” (Canterbury Press, 2003) bases his chapter on the Pantocrator on the Westcott icon, writing, “the icon of the Pantocrator in the chapel of Westcott House, Cambridge, was and is for me and many others a profoundly significant image.” Of its meaning he writes,

“The point is simple: face to face with Jesus, there and only there, do we find who we are. We have been created to mirror his life, the eternal life of the one turned always toward the overflowing love of the Father; but our human existence constantly turns away. When we look at Jesus, we see in some measure what he sees, and are drawn to where his eyes lead us… we look at him looking at us, and try to understand that as he looks at us he looks at the Father. In other words, when he looks at us, he sees the love that is his own source and life, despite all we have done to obscure it in ourselves. When we look at him looking at us, we see both what we were made to be, bearers of the divine image and likeness, and what we have made of ourselves.”

If I hear the same passage four or five times in almost as many days, it feels like God is underlining something in red.. “This crazy journey was my idea.. and it is me who is sending you out from this place to go and bear fruit that will last” , perhaps?

Just as well He is going with us too.. ( I seem to remember Moses saying something similar.. ” If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here” Exodus 33:15 NIV) Amen, Moses.

This is my ember card. The images I have used are taken from my stoles.

I will, God willing, be ordained as a deacon on the morning of July 1st 2012 . As I mentioned in my last post, all prayer much appreciated for those steps across the river. There is another whole journey, of course, that begins on the far bank.


The power of Story

The Oscars.  “The movies have always been there for us. They’re the place to go to laugh, to cry, to question, to text. So tonight, enjoy yourselves because nothing can take the sting of the world’s economic problems like watching millionaires present each other with golden statues.” Billy Crystal. Since the advent of the cinema, celluloid has been an escape, a storybook come to life. However, stories can hold our dreams, our griefs, and our questions, like no other medium of communication. Skilled writers, photographers and actors can slip past our defences and reshape the way we think and feel, through the power of story. Nick Baines has also recently reflected on story.  Jesus may not have had cinema, but he spoke in stories. No wonder they said of him, “No one speaks like this man”.  The more I study them, I am sure that the parables we have, are merely the bones of the stories he told. Like the best of storytellers he would have fleshed them out with passion and imaginative details, with colour and tone and dramatic pause. He was the master of surprise, speaking of familiar things, readily accessible and adding a very different twist.

I love films that move me and make me think. ( I also love films that you bury your brain under the seat and enjoy fun and laughter)  I have seen a few recently, that made a deep impression on me. No surprise to anyone, of the first of these was  ‘The Artist’ , which in my view, deserves all the accolades it gets. A beautifully crafted film, creating so many layers of meaning and depth. I went, expecting it to be a light hearted ‘fluffy’ film about the 20’s and 30’s, the time of the transition from Silent Movies to The Talkies. What I got was a touching film where communication was by expression and micro-gesture. The absence of words left a lot of room for thought and interpretation.  It spoke alot to me about priesthood. Being a public person,  and handling both sides of  ‘fame’. How you view yourself, and how others see you, good and bad. Being a ‘rising star’ a newcomer, or a ‘has been’ where all you trained for is suddenly disappearing beneath your feet. Adapt or you are last weeks news. The touches of humour sprinkled through it heightened the pathos. You can take it at any level you like, and I defy anyone not to enjoy it. Definitely a ‘must see’.

The next film was Shame.  A sensitively produced picture of  the very real and complex problem of sex addiction. A review said, “Shame is captivating and intensely intimate. McQueen has followed up Hunger with an unflinching and compelling film that explores the depths of addiction and the consequential destruction and demise of the mind and although it is sometimes difficult to watch, you won’t be able to keep your eyes off it.”  I couldn’t agree more. Not an easy film, not an easy subject, but that was the point. Like his film Hunger, the co-writer and director Steve Mcqueen intended to bring out into the light a hidden and painful issue.  Michael Fassbender, McQueen’s acclaimed lead actor in Hunger, was apparently, the first and only choice to play the lead role in Shame. He played it exceptionally well, with great depth and insight. Anyone who came expecting cheap titillation would have left disappointed, from this intensely moving film. I applaud McQueen’s compassionate motivation in writing and directing this story and for crafting it with such sensitivity and skill.

Prayers for Bobby’  is another difficult film to watch.  The synopsis on the website for the film probably says it all.

“Prayers for Bobby is the amazing true story of a mother torn between her loyalties, challenged by her faith, and moved by a tragedy that would change her life, and the lives of others, forever.

Bobby Griffith (Ryan Kelly, Smallville) was his mother’s favorite son, the perfect all-American boy growing up under deeply religious influences in Walnut Creek, California. Bobby was also gay. Struggling with a conflict no one knew of much less understood Bobby finally came out to his family. Despite the tentative support of his father, two sisters, and older brother, Bobby’s mother, Mary (three time Academy Award nominee and Golden Globe winner Sigourney Weaver, Avatar, Working Girl), turned to the fundamentalist teachings of her church to rescue her son from what she felt was an irredeemable sin. As Mary came closer to the realization that Bobby could not be “healed,” she rejected him, denying him a mother’s unconditional love, and driving her favorite son to suicide.

Anguished over Bobby’s death, Mary finds little solace in her son’s poignant diaries, revelations of a troubled boy fighting for the love of his mother and God. Finding it difficult to reconcile her feelings of guilt, her conflicted emotions over religious teachings, and her struggles with understanding her son’s orientation, Mary finally, and unexpectedly, reaches out to the gay community as a source of inspiration and consolation. For Mary Griffith, it’s the beginning of a long and emotional journey that extended beyond acceptance to her viable role a vocal advocate for gay and lesbian youth. In 1996, twelve years after Bobby’s death, she was invited to address the Congress of the United States, establishing her as a major force in the fight for human rights.”

Prayers for Bobby

Image via Wikipedia

In a church where this subject is such a divisive issue,  I tread softly on what is very tender ground. I have seen the emotions on both sides of the debate, and this searingly honest  film shows a range of them.  Any hope of reconciliation of polemically held views, requires understanding of the other person’s perspective. To ‘walk a mile in their shoes’ and to feel the loads they carry. I feel this film goes some way to helping this to happen. The debate is not a safely packaged theoretical argument – it is played out very painfully within the realities and struggles of a real family who have to live with the consequences. I firmly commend it to anyone to see, and particularly to anyone in ministry or church leadership.   You can make your own mind up about how it leaves you, of course, but for me, looking away wasn’t an option.

Gatekeepers (via Nick Baines’s Blog)

Bouncers or welcomers?
This is a subject close to my heart, and +Nick has expressed my feelings on it beautifully.

Gatekeepers One of the things that I find most challenging about the Gospels is that they drive a coach and horses through easy assumptions about God and those who take God seriously. It’s no wonder that some Christians find Paul easier to handle (he develops arguments) than Jesus (he gives pictures). I came to the conclusion a long time ago that we should read Paul in the light of the Gospels and not the other way round. Discuss… Anyway, one of the glarin … Read More

via Nick Baines’s Blog

Who do you see?

Dinner with friends. Relaxed, familiar environment. No surprises. Or so we thought. I should know by now, it is always different with him. People react. All sorts of ways – they love him, they hate him, but they always react to him. It had been tense for a while. The rumours were flying. We were laying low. The authorities were muttering, and when they start muttering, somebody ought to start worrying. Well I was worrying. No idea what was coming next, but I had a bad feeling it wasn’t going to be fun.

John 12 (Amplified Bible)

John 12

1SO SIX days before the Passover Feast, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, who had died and whom He had raised from the dead.2So they made Him a supper; and Martha served, but Lazarus was one of those at the table with Him.

3Mary took a pound of ointment of pure liquid nard [a rare perfume] that was very expensive, and she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair. And the whole house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

4But Judas Iscariot, the one of His disciples who was about to betray Him, said,

5Why was this perfume not sold for 300 denarii [a year’s wages for an ordinary workman] and that [money] given to the poor (the destitute)?

6Now he did not say this because he cared for the poor but because he was a thief; and having the bag (the money box, the purse of the Twelve), he took for himself what was put into it [pilfering the collections].

7But Jesus said, Let her alone. It was [intended] that she should keep it for the time of My preparation for burial. [She has kept it that she might have it for the time of My [a]embalming.]

8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have Me.

9Now a great crowd of the Jews heard that He was at Bethany, and they came there, not only because of Jesus but that they also might see Lazarus, whom He had raised from the dead.

10So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death also,

11Because on account of him many of the Jews were going away [were withdrawing from and leaving the Judeans] and believing in and adhering to Jesus.

The above passage was the one I was preaching on to video camera earlier this week. ( An exercise in self/peer assessment, looking at your style, content and physical mannerisms when speaking- scary stuff.)  The thoughts below were my reflections, having spent time at this particular table, and watching my own reactions.

“Extravagant waste!” The Tuttting Club were having none of it. The sneer became an audible tut, that became a whisper, and because no one seemed to be taking any notice,  the harsh voice of Pious Reason broke the uncomfortable silence. “Should have been used for the poor!  (Think how many we could have helped!) Ridiculous thing to do!”

“And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume” Mary’s love and heart outpoured. Breaking open the costly perfumed oil, Mary held nothing back. She gave until it hurt.        Gave Jesus perhaps the most costly thing she owned. Gave him her dignity as she lavished on him a public display of love, affection and esteem . An ‘over the top’ unselfconscious gesture. The room may have been full of people, but it seems Mary was only aware of Jesus. She poured out the oil and then wiped his feet with her hair. She didn’t care what people thought. What it may have done to her reputation. Her passionate self giving was unstinting. Unreserved. She laid her heart at his feet.

Judas was affronted. His cold logic and cutting words were intended to put her down.            He wasn’t interested in the poor. He was thinking of his pocket, but in contrast to Mary, he was all about appearances. He wrapt up his bitterness in sanctimonious social concern. (You would have thought he had been around Jesus long enough to know how that would go down.) I imagine Jesus giving Judas a long sad look, before telling him to leave Mary alone.  You really don’t get it do you Judas? You have travelled with me, watched me, listened to my words- but none of it has touched you. You have been my disciple, but you don’t know who I am or what I am going to do. Love hasn’t touched your heart, or melted any of the ice there.

Mary had understood.She may not have grasped the whole picture, but she had listened deeply to his words, and his life, and seen him have power over death –  and her response was abandonment of self. Jesus was all she saw. The week before he got down on his knees and washed his disciples feet, Mary poured out her oil on his feet, in extravagant love. I wonder if they remembered and made the connection?  Smells create powerful memory associations in our brains- which is why  incense works so well when associated with worship. Those disciples in the house that night, and anyone else who was there, wouldn’t be able to smell Nard again without thinking of Jesus. ( and sacrificial worship)

The fragrance filled the whole house. It was overwhelming. Mary’s actions no doubt challenged those who witnessed them, which was probably why Judas reacted as he did.    She didn’t care if she was misunderstood . She could have given Jesus the perfumed oil in the sealed jar as a  generous gift. She could have done it discreetly with perhaps only her family present.  But it wasn’t perfume until it was spilt. She gave it to him in a way that she couldn’t take it back. She gave him far more than simply a precious possession, or a ‘nest egg’ for the future.   She gave him her heart. And Jesus received it. The week before he got down on his knees to wash his disciples feet, he let someone else wash his.

Both Mary and Judas’ reactions to Jesus challenge me . It is easy enough to look down my  nose at Judas, as he did to Mary, and dismiss him. To think that I wouldn’t belong to the Tutting Club. Mary’s lavish, public gesture of self- abandon asks big questions of me,              as to where my heart is, and who fills my vision? She both inspires and scares me.                           But then Love is a scary business. It requires uncomfortable amounts of vulnerability.

Judas saw Jesus, but didn’t see him. Mary saw Jesus and He was all she saw.

I can only pray as we sang this morning…

Open our eyes Lord, We want to see Jesus, to reach out and touch him and tell him we love him, Open our ears Lord and help us to Listen. Open our eyes Lord, We want to see Jesus.