Camas Lilies – ‘Gone to the fields to be lovely’

  Camas Lilies

Consider the lilies of the field,

the blue banks of camas opening
into acres of sky along the road.
Would the longing to lie down
and be washed by that beauty
abate if you knew their usefulness,
how the natives ground their bulbs
for flour, how the settlers’ hogs
uprooted them, grunting in gleeful
oblivion as the flowers fell?
And you—what of your rushed
and useful life? Imagine setting it all down—
papers, plans, appointments, everything—
leaving only a note: “Gone
to the fields to be lovely. Be back
when I’m through with blooming.”
Even now, unneeded and uneaten,
the camas lilies gaze out above the grass
from their tender blue eyes.
Even in sleep your life will shine.
Make no mistake. Of course
your work will always matter.
Yet Solomon in all his glory
was not arrayed like one of these.

Lynn Ungar

I stumbled across Lynn Ungar’s beautiful poem in recent years, and have used her lines

Gone to the fields to be lovely. Be back when I’m through with blooming”   as my out of office reply. A statement of the need and importance of immersing myself in the beauties of nature to fill my well. The demands of priesthood are a constant outpouring, and it is an ever essential need that I find ways in daily contemplative rhythms and time out, to fill that well. You can’t pour from a cup that is empty. ‘God’s Cathedral’ is where I go to source that sustenance, be it in my own garden or the breathtaking beauty of Norway, Namibia or the Canadian Rockies or anywhere in between.

I shared this poem with Cynthia a dear life-long friend from school days, who was coming to terms with a diagnosis of stage 4 cancer cholangiocarcinoma , and the natural re-evaluation of her life in the light of that diagnosis. Cynthia was Canadian, and she and I did a huge road trip when we were both barely 18, up through Eastern Canada in her father’s car. (What trust!) She and I shared a love of nature, of travel, of words and poetry and were very much on the same wavelength. We chatted often over this last year, and shared her journey of treatments, side effects, exploration and understanding.

The poem meant alot to her, and she mentioned it to me again in her last weeks. It was printed on her funeral service leaflet.  I had never seen Camas Lilies until May this year, when I rounded a corner on an evening walk around Victoria, BC. I had spent ten days in Canada’s most pristine wilderness, and was struggling with ‘concrete shock’, being back in a city environment. (Victoria is however as cities go, a small and very beautiful one, in a stunning setting) Coming out of city streets to the shoreline and the vistas of distant mountains,  I came across a meadow of wild Camas Lilies (pictured above) ‘gazing out above the grass from their tender blue eyes’   and my heart soared.

Even in sleep your life will shine’ ..  Cynthia died very peacefully surrounded by the love of her family, surrendering herself to Love eternal early on June 5th 2019.

Being on different continent, unable to attend her funeral, I wanted to remember her in a tangible way at that moment of farewell. I bought a rose – a rose called Roald Dahl– (a celebration of his centenary in 2016) Children’s author and genius imagination. Cynthia and I also shared a love of children,  and so it seemed to fit the bill perfectly. I planted it in my garden and had a slate plaque made.

‘Consider the lilies.. yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these’ words from Jesus lips, found in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:28) in his discourse on worry and perspectives. They appear to do nothing, but simply shine with their beauty, being what they are, where they are, blooming where they are planted.  A quiet lesson to us in our ‘doing/achievement/targets’ orientated world.

Even in sleep your life will shine

Rest in Peace dear friend.

Your life mattered, and I was the richer for knowing you.

 

Mary Magdalene

 

MagdaleneSIL

Mary Magdalene. Apostle to the Apostles. Passionate friend & follower of Jesus. Much maligned & misunderstood, both in her lifetime, & certainly down the centuries since. 

 

She stayed. How could she leave? She had watched every excruciating moment of his stumbling journey through the narrow streets of Jerusalem, staggering under the weight of his cross. The lashes across his back, freshly open & bleeding. Had stood & felt every blow of the hammer striking his flesh. She did not look away when they raised the cross and left him hanging in agony that went far beyond the physical. She could not reach him with her hands, but her eyes were locked on his face as he struggled to breathe, to speak. This man who had set her free, was held by cruel nails to rough hewn wood. Held by love that kept him there more than any rusty iron. She was helpless to ease his suffering, and that tore her apart, splintered her soul into jagged shards. He had given her back her life and now he was gone. Her mind was blank with grief, her limbs heavy with heartbreak. She had helped his mother wrap that beloved body in clean linen, flesh of her flesh, blood of her blood. Their tears had washed the blood and sweat from his too still, face. His extraordinary eyes dull and closed forever. Eyes that had looked deep into her being with recognition and acceptance such as she had never known. Eyes that had sparkled with laughter and wept with compassion, now dull.

 

Joseph and Nicodemus had carried his body between them to the nearby garden and tomb, hewn deep into the rock of the hill of death. Between them they laid him gently in that place of forever rest. Of quiet dark. Wrapped the grave clothes around his head and backed out on their knees. The men rolled the stone in front of the yawning dark that enfolded his broken body. It was finished.

 

They hurried away into the lengthening shadows of evening, but she stayed on. Keeping vigil. Watching as the darkness fell around her feet and heart. Waiting even as her world tilted and all hope extinguished. Remembering. Turning over in her mind the memories of being brought to life with grace and soul-lifting mercy, that had breathed new life into her beaten down being. This extraordinary man had changed her life forever beyond recognition, and now he was gone  -violently ripped away from them by jealousy and fear. She could do nothing more for him, but she could watch, keep vigil through the long cold hours.

 

She returned early on the first day of the week. Her feet finding their own way in the darkness to the grave. She would pour out her love for him one last time. With no mocking words or sneering faces to watch, she would tenderly anoint his beloved body with precious perfumed oils. Her last gift.

Stopped in her tracks by the grave’s yawning emptiness, her heart plummeted at this fresh assault – they had stolen even this last goodbye. Removed/ desecrated? His body dumped somewhere? She daren’t begin to imagine. Fast flight with heart hammering, to Peter and to John, bearer of fresh agony that burned and seared. They ran too – looked and left. Unable to deal with themselves, and unable to deal with her.

She stayed. Rooted by grief, anger and confusion, she could not leave. Seeking the comfort of at least holding his grave clothes, she leant over to look into the emptiness of the open cave. Two men were sitting at where his head and feet had laid and her stupefied mind couldn’t take in who they might be, or why they were there.

They asked her a stupid and intensely irritating question. “Why are you crying?”

As if it wasn’t blindingly obvious! What else do you do at a grave?

She wanted to scream her anger at them –“ they have taken him away- they have taken away my hope, my life- my reason for being!”

 

There was a sound nearby, the sound of footsteps. She spun around conscious of another person approaching, and saw the figure of a man outlined in the radiance of the rising sun. Her tear filled eyes made no sense of what she saw.

“Why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?” The same question, but this time it didn’t make her want to scream. The questions found their way into the depths of her heartbreak, and somewhere in that deep and broken darkness there was the faintest shimmer of light.

Thinking him to be the gardener she stammered

“If you know where he is, if you have moved his body –please tell me!”

There was the faintest whisper of hope that she might find him after all. He didn’t answer, and she still couldn’t see his face through her tears. His expression obscured by the brightness of the dawn. Silence. A pregnant pause in which she breathed in hope despite herself.

 

“Mary”

 

No one else said it like that. No one else had ever put such unconditional love into the simple saying of her name. That beloved voice called her a second time out of a nightmare of darkness, bringing her back to life. It couldn’t possibly be – and yet it was. She had been looking for a corpse, and she had found a living Lord, who knew her, and called her by name. “Rabbouni!” was all she had breath to say. She fell at his feet. The feet she had anointed with her tears; the feet she had seen hammered to the rough wood of the cross. Reaching out to hold them – she wanted to stay in this moment forever. Be sure it was real. That he was real. That her teetering mind hadn’t tipped finally, over the edge.

Gentle hands lifted her up. His smile was as wide as the sea, and the eyes she thought had closed for ever, twinkled with life and laughter. A name, a smile. A smile that reached out and found all the shattered pieces of her heart, and drew them together again, into a new whole.

 

Now go– and tell my brothers who you have seen” he asked of her.

Be the one to tell them I am alive. Be the Hope Bearer. Turn their lives upside down, as yours has been”

 

She didn’t hesitate. No need to stay.

Carrying the Gospel – the good news- she ran with joy, in the glory of the rising sun, that was lighting up the world.

Climbing the rainbow

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What a difference a single word can make.

I have sung this well loved hymn all my life.

O Love, that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in Thee;
I give Thee back the life I owe,
That in Thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.

O Light, that followest all my way,
I yield my flickering torch to Thee;
My heart restores its borrowed ray,
That in Thy sunshine’s blaze its day
May brighter, fairer be.

O Joy, that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to Thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain
That morn shall tearless be.

O Cross, that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from Thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.

Written in 1882 by George Matheson on a day when he was left alone, his family all gone to his sister’s wedding.  A moment of personal anguish. A heart-breaking memory of abandonment that had never healed, broken open afresh.

He was a bright young man and graduated from Glasgow university at age 19, destined to be an accomplished academic. He began theological studies, but his eyesight which had been failing since he was 15, let him down badly and led to errors in his work. His book The Growth of the Spirit of Christianity failed his early promise, and was harshly criticised for inaccuracies.  George was crushed. A friend wrote, ‘When he saw that for the purposes of scholarship his blindness was a fatal hindrance, he withdrew from the field, not with out pangs, but finally.’  Death of a dream, and all his hopes.

At university he had fallen in love, and was engaged to be married. When he revealed his prognosis of blindness to his fiance, her response was immediate and abrupt. She could not see herself going through life as the wife of a blind man. Devastation, and abandonment, by the one he loved and trusted most.

His sister who had helped him with his studies, even learning Greek, Hebrew and Latin to do so,  enabled him to take up life in the ministry. He became the minister of a church in Innellan, Argyllshire and later of a much larger church (with a 2000 strong congregation) in Edinburgh. He became famous for his preaching and writing.

Love was later to call for his sister, who became engaged to be married, leaving George for her own husband and household. He didn’t attend the wedding, feeling abandoned by the one who had stood by him, perhaps? Naturally, memories of earlier heartbreak and loss washed over him.  He wrote in his journal (not disclosing the cause of his distress)..

“My hymn was composed in the manse of Inellan on the evening of June 6, 1882.  I was at that time alone.  It was the day of my sister’s marriage, and the rest of my family were staying overnight in Glasgow.  Something had happened to me which was known only to myself, and which caused me the most severe mental suffering.  The hymn was the fruit of that suffering.  It was the quickest bit of work I ever did in my life.  I had the impression of having it dictated to me by some inward voice than of working it out myself.  I am quite sure that the whole work was completed in five minutes, and equally sure that it never received at my hands any retouching or correction.  I have no natural gift of rhythm.  All the other verses I have written are manufactured articles; this came like a dayspring from on high.  I have never been able to gain once more the same fervor in verse.”

(Albert Lister Peace, organist wrote the tune associated with the hymn, also in five minutes.. finishing it ‘before the ink had dried’. )

Thus much was known to me. Matheson’s heartbreak poured out in the words of a hymn have spoken to hearts broken and crushed across the world, and generations  in the hundred and thirtyfive years since they were written. Pain and heartbreak know no boundaries, and many tears have fallen to these words.

I woke to the view above the other morning. A double rainbow. The words of Matheson’s hymn came to mind, and I looked up the words to refresh my memory. I stumbled on an insight that blew me away.

“The original 3rd line of the 3rd stanza said “I climb the rainbow through the rain”.


It was a prosy hymnal committee of the Church of Scotland that insisted it be changed to “I trace the rainbow through the rain.” The members of the committee could not imagine anything so fanciful and farcical as climbing a rainbow! …
Finally, Matheson consented to the change with regret, permitting a line he would never have written. How sad!

A close friend of Matheson, J. Morrison of Colinton, Scotland, expressed in an article for “The Scotsman” years later:

When “climb” was altered to “trace”, the figure of a victorious ascent of the spirit toward its divine source (a purely inner experience) was changed to passive contemplation of an external phenomenon mentally envisaged – pious and beautiful in its way, but quite different from what was originally implied.” .

For Matheson, the rainbow was like Jacob’s ladder let down from heaven for the poet’s ascent into the glory of God.

James Black, in a book published 54 years after Matheson’s death, wrote:

It is merely silly to think of Matheson ‘tracing’ that rainbow through the rain; his eyes were shut forever! But in his own fine imagination, he could picture himself stumbling forward blindly till he actually touched the rainbow with his groping fingers! And when he touched it, he could grasp it and climb it.”  

Climbing the Rainbow by Loyd J. Ogilvie ”

That metaphor of stumbling towards the rainbow, grasping it with both hands and actively climbing towards ‘its Divine Source’  is breathtakingly powerful. It transforms the hymn for me. The idea of reaching out to lay hold of God’s promises (the rainbow being the symbol of promise) hands clutching at colours, spilling through fingers is mesmerizing. Reaching out of pain to climb toward God. Laying hold of the Love that no matter what, would never let him go.

rainbow_in_my_hands_by_vvens

I don’t believe for a minute Matheson was triumphalistic. His words spell out the pain and heartache in bleak reality. Pain and Hope side by side, not one over the other.

He would never see another rainbow, but he would climb one instead.

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You can listen to the hymn here:

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.

A Mother’s Heart (sword pierced)

She had trembled when the elderly priest took her new-born son from her arms.

She had trembled at his words. Words of wonder and fear.

Her heart riven from the moment the angel stepped across her threshold, cracked open, wider still.

‘A sword will pierce your heart also’

As this child of Light kindled a flame of life with her body and her soul, the fire burned. Branded forever, with the name of God seared upon her being.

The Word of God stirring within her.

 

Like every mother before and after her, this daughter of Eve carried both the joy and the pain with the gift of new life. Like many young women down the millennia, she had known scandal and stigma, the sneers of assumption and misunderstanding.

The angel had sent her to Elizabeth’s door.

An older woman hollowed out with longing for a child, now full-bellied with spirited energy. The shame of barrenness had drawn lines upon her face that crinkled now with joy as Mary stepped within her arms.

Mary felt the child leap, as heart met heart, and tummies touched in the embrace.

‘Mother of my Lord’

A gasp of recognition.

A new name that rang in her ears and shivered down her skin. She rested her hand on the tiny child within, and reeled afresh at what this could mean.

His birth had been a journey of fear and joy, and stepping out into the unknown.

No familiar faces, comforting surroundings, no mother’s touch of hand to guide her through. Almost a child herself, she’d birthed him on a squalid floor, an outcast from the start. Shepherds had gathered to gawp in wonder at this baby in the straw.

Strangers from the East had come..

What did they know? What gifts were these they had brought?

Gold for a king… for one whose brow

would only know a twist of scorn and hate

whose proclamation writ upon a cross..

And yet they knew that He was more

than just an earthly king, as low they knelt

before the child, in worship and in awe.

Frankincense, the oil of homage, honour

given with Myrrh, the spice of death and grief;

strange gifts , indeed, to give

a tiny child who lay beneath a star.

 

A flight in the dark, refugees of murderous hate, she’d carried him mile upon weary mile towards an alien land. A place of safety she could rock her child to sleep. She would have walked forever to protect the trusting arms about her neck, the small head lying heavy on her shoulder.

He’d grown as children do, and ran from the shelter of her arms, scraping his knees and bruising his heart and hers. She’d lost him in the crowd. Fear clutched and speared as pushing through the throng, she’d searched for that beloved face. His tousled hair. How could she have failed him, let him slip from her sight? Angry with herself, and wound up with worry, she chanced upon him in the temple courts. A slight figure of a boy, surrounded by aged men. Deep in discourse, he’d not even noticed she was gone, seemed puzzled at her distress. The more she knew this child of her heart, the less she understood. The sword pricks drew blood & smarted.

 

He’d left her home, his father’s trade, an itinerant with nowhere to lay his head.

She worried, even as she witnessed the wonders and the growing crowds.

Worried as she heard rumours and tattles of the marketplace and synagogue.                     The whispers that kept her eyes staring at the dark.

She’d joined the press and push of the multitude that swarmed around her son.

Called to him from outside the close-packed dwelling that separated them.                   Called in vain. Deaf to her pleas, he did not come.                                                                                 Sharp sword that sliced through frail flesh.

All her worst nightmares had come to pass. She’d watched them take her boy and scourge the skin that she’d caressed. Nailed the hands she’d held, the feet she’d kissed to rough-hewn wood. Watched his agony, as her own heart bled.

Dared to stay when others fled. Dared to meet his eyes, although it took all the courage in her soul. Helpless before his pain, his dying breaths.

The sword cleaved her motherhood, her very core.

He spoke. Voice a raspy whisper, but no less beloved, no less familiar than his first stumbled syllables as a tiny tot. His eyes that had held her own, flicked to the man at her side. His closest friend, standing with her in the dark.

“Woman, here is your son”

with fierce intensity beamed his meaning to the disciple that he loved.

“Here is your mother’’

Take care of her, take care of her for me.

Her pain was harder than his own to bear, as his for her.

The old priest had spoken true. As broken bread, her heart was held in God’s nailed pierced hands.

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Holy Gifts.

Taken

Chosen

A life lifted from obscurity

Held in hands that hefted galaxies

Hallowed by an ask

To sustain

The Word

 

Blessed

Given grace

To bear the weight of favour

Daughter of Eve,

Giving God a thankful heart

By holding His, within

Her own

 

Broken

Lanced by sword

That pierced Father, Spirit, Son.

Blood of her blood

Poured out for those

That clamoured for

His death.

 

Given

Her whole life

Offered on the altar

Of surrender

A readiness to be God’s Yes

Shared out to hungry hands

To feed a world

With grace

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Journey to joy

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Gaudete Sunday. Avent 3.

How do you get to joy when three days ago you buried a much loved pillar of the church and community, our churchwarden, Diana? How do you do the journey to joy in the tears, the the dark days and the loss?  The following is my sermon from this morning, as I tried to answer..

(The readings from this am were Isaiah 61.1-4,8-end 1 Thessalonians 5.16-24 and Gospel John 1: 6-8, 19-28)

Isaiah 61 (NRSV)

61 The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
    to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
    and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
    and the day of vengeance of our God;
    to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
    to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
    the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
    they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
    the devastations of many generations.

For I the Lord love justice,

    I hate robbery and wrongdoing;[b]
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
    and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
    and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
    that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
    my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
    he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
    and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
    and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
    to spring up before all the nations.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise the words of prophets,[a] 21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22 abstain from every form of evil.

23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound[b] and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.              24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

You shall go out with joy.

We sang that through our tears on Thursday. It was Di’s favourite hymn and she would have loved it that we sung it as she left this place. Paul in writing to his beloved brothers and sisters in Thessalonica is for once in his life very succinct, in the passage we have today. You will be glad to hear that I intend to follow suit..

Paul fires off 8 imperatives in 7 short verses and they could sum up all of his many many words and teaching about the wholeness that is at the heart of our life of faith. Wholeness, because if you over emphasise one aspect without the others you can end up on the floor.

3 legged stool

 I made this stool in a woodwork class, some years back, from scratch. Turning the legs and cutting and shaping the seat. It is just a humble 3 legged stool. Nothing fancy. Nothing complicated. But I had to make sure that all the legs were exactly the same length and that I made 3 of them. A two legged stool is a much use as a chocolate tea pot! Like I said, you can end up on the floor.

God who loves each of us so much, so longs for wholeness in our lives. Longs to touch our spirits, souls and bodies with his Peace, his Spirit and his Joy.

Paul starts with Joy. The three legs of his stool are joy, prayer and thanksgiving.

He tells his friends to start with joy. Joy as the fire in the steam engine of their lives that drives the rest. Using that analogy. Perhaps the water is prayer and the coal needed to keep that fire burning is thanksgiving… I don’t know a lot about steam trains – but I do know that shovelling coal is hard work! It also needs to keep happening or the train will simply grind to a halt.

I have a thing about 3’s this am, and the Trinity are of course the most important. 3 legs of a stool. 3 initials that should be applied to any and every sermon (by the preacher) YBHYES, BUT HOW?

HOW do you rejoice when your heart is broken or heavy? When you are tired and there is simply too much too do, and no time or energy to do it all in? When your faith is wobbly, and you are not sure where you are going anymore?

HOW do you give thanks in all circumstances .. ALL circumstances? What planet are you on, Paul? You can’t mean that, surely.

HOW can you pray without ceasing when you can’t find the words, or they stick in your throat or you want to shout rather than pray?

If I want to stand on this stool, I have to make sure it is set on a firm foundation. Slide your eyes down to the last verse of our passage to the Thessalonians..

The One who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

THAT is how. We can’t do it by ourselves. We can’t pull ourselves up by our bootlaces and make ourselves joyful, prayerful or thankful. But we have a God of Peace who wants to ground the very depths of our being in his LOVE and Faithfulness. Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me.. (we sang this prior to the Gospel reading)Touch me with your holy fire and set me alight , spirit, soul and body. Paul tells us not to quench the Spirit, because he knows that it is ONLY through the Holy Spirit that we can have joy, peace and thankful hearts. The other name for the Holy Spirit is Comforter. Jesus said he would not leave us alone, but would send us a Comforter. The Bayeaux tapestry has a picture of King Harold poking a spear at one of his soldiers – with the heading Harold comforteth his troops” The old English meaning of the word – encompassing comfort, encouragement, enabling.. but it can often feel like anything but- like a poke with a sharp stick!

How do we give thanks in all circumstances .. only because we know that God can use and transform even the toughest of circumstances for good. The sharpest, most pointy things can be used by him for good. Please note that I AM NOT saying that God sends hard things for our good. I am saying that if we offer those hard things to him he can transform them and us. There is a saying that goes: Life is 10% what happens to us, and 90% how we react to that 10%.                                                                                       We can react with bitterness, the oh,so dangerously, slippery slope of self pity, or by walling ourselves off from God or other people. OR with the help of God’s Spirit we can come to him Just as we are.(Opening hymn) On any given day. UP, down or in between. Fearful, doubtful, tired. Just as we are. We come. We come to the one with nail pieced hands who comes in to the darkest of places and sits with us.

I cannot tell how silently He suffered,
  As with His peace He graced this place of tears,
Or how His heart upon the Cross was broken,
  The crown of pain to three and thirty years.
But this I know, He heals the broken-hearted,
  And stays our sin, and calms our lurking fear,
And lifts the burden from the heavy laden,
  For yet the Saviour, Saviour of the world, is here.   (Closing Hymn)

We will sing those beautiful words at the end of our service this morning.                      ‘The Saviour of the world is here.’ 

Emmanuel. God with us. In it all. The hard bits, the good bits, the boring drudgery bits and the rest.

Emanuel. God with us -spirit, soul and body.  Touching our weary spirits with his peace, lifting our heavy souls and carrying us, in his faithfulness, fuelling our flagging bodies with his joy.

1 Thessalonians 5 (The Message) 

23-24 May God himself, the God who makes everything holy and whole, make you holy and whole, put you together—spirit, soul, and body—and keep you fit for the coming of our Master, Jesus Christ. The One who called you is completely dependable. If he said it, he’ll do it!

Amen.

personroots

Silent Night

Christmas Truce 1914

Christmas Truce 1914

This Christmas Eve, 2014, sees the hundred year anniversary of that strange and wonderful happening – The Christmas Truce. A spontaneous Truce that broke out all along the Western Front, that first Christmas of the Great War, 1914. In many places the opposing trenches were only yards apart, shouting distance across the no go area known as ‘No Man’s Land’ strewn with unburied bodies, excrement and mud. There is so much about ‘The War to end all wars’ that looking back with the retrospectascope of a hundred years, makes us wonder ‘What were they thinking?’….

Thousands of Christmas trees had been shipped to the German Front line. A fictional account which picks up the facts and emotions portrayed in letters from those present as it unfolded gives a sense of the wonder. Phillip Maddison an English soldier in Henry Williamson’s A Fox Under My Cloak, found Christmas Eve to be literally a silent night.

‘His company, under the cover of moonset was to pick its way across the ‘frost-cobbled’ mud with posts, rolls of wirs, hammers and staples, to edge the line forward a few yards. Under the gleaming stars they walked easily. Although they risked being mowed down by machine-gun fire, Maddison ‘rejoiced that he was not afraid’.

Not a sound came from the Germans. The unbelievable became the ordinary, so that they talked as they worked, without caution, while the night passed as in a dream. The moon moved down to the top of the wood behind them; always it seemed, they had been moving bodilessly with their own shadows. Some time in the night Phillip saw what looked like a light on top of a pole put up in the German lines. It was a strange sort of light. It burned almost white, and was absolutely steady. What sort of lantern was it? He did not think much about it; it was part of the strange unreality of the silence of the night, the silence of the moon in the sky, of the silence of the frost mist…

Suddenly there was a short, quick cheer from the German Lines, Hoch! Hoch! Hoch! and with the others he flinched and crouched, ready to fling himself flat; but no shot came. Voices reached them across the dark void of No Man’s land. Then the Scots saw dim figures silhoutted on the German parapet, and about them more lights. With amazement, Maddison realised that a Christmas tree was being set there… They began to hear from the German parapet a rich baritone voice singing ‘Stille Nacht, Helige Nacht’ . The voice came across the mist and ‘It was all so strange; it was like being in another world, to which he had come through a nightmare…

This book is quoted in another called Silent Night, in which ‘acclaimed historian Stanley Weintraub reveals the truth of this inspiring episode and tell the story of those men whose goodwill, humanity and faith all too briefly prevailed over the madness of the Great War’

I will be using this remarkable episode in history woven in with the Christmas services I am taking this year. There is a very obvious correlation, and many gifted people have produced dramas, liturgies and materials to highlight the link for the Centenary.  I also write a poem most Christmases and have for many years now. The following is the result of some of my journeying with centenary commemorations.

Silent Night

Light in the darkness
It started with one.

A flicker of flame against the black of night
A pin-prick of hope in a canvass of hate and fear.
One became another, a host of mystery
Sprinkle of tiny lights
Ribboned out across the Front.

Light in the darkness
It started with one.

One star. One angelic flame fracturing the night.
herald of Hope to a people dwelling in darkness.
one became another, a host of mystery
Holy couriers ablaze
Phosphorescence of grace

Song in the dark
It started with one

A lone voice lifted into the silence, void of guns
Longing for home, a soldier’s strain of Christ child come down
One became another, a host of mystery
As voice echoed voice across
No man’s land, scarred waste of war

Song in the dark
It started with one

Orison of joy sung out to astonished ears
Singing of Home, an angel’s word of Christ child come down
One became another, a host of mystery
Incarnation of Love
God birthed in dung and trench

Light in the dark
It started with One.

christmas-star