Monday, 25 May 2020

Anxious activism or trustful waiting?: Easter 7

Audio version here

“I wish I had a magic wand”.  I don’t know how many times I’ve said that in the course of my ministry to people facing sorrows and troubles that feel overwhelming to them. I’d love to be able just to make it all better for them. But I can’t bring back the loved one they’re mourning. I can’t cure their illness. I can’t rebuild the relationship they’re struggling with. I can’t stop their business going bust. I can listen, and pray. It’s a huge privilege to do so, and it often seems to help. But there’s almost never anything I can do materially to change their situation.

I’ve come to the conclusion that that’s probably just as well, though. Trying to “fix” things for people usually fails, and often makes the situation worse. It’s what I call “anxious activism”, that frantic desire to do something – anything – whether it’s the right thing or not - in the face of trouble. When I find I am feeling like that, I usually have to ask myself who I’m trying to help. Is it the person in front of me, or is it myself? Am I trying to meet their genuine need, or just my need to be needed?

I’ve sensed quite a lot of that “anxious activism” in people at the moment, the desire to Do Something – capital D, capital S - in the face of the coronavirus. “What did you do in the war, Daddy?” said that famous World War one poster. Perhaps for us it’s “What did you do in the coronavirus epidemic?”  We wonder how we’ll feel about ourselves, how we’ll be judged at the end of all this, especially if we aren’t one of those key workers whose jobs are demanding so much courage of them anyway.

Many people I talk to feel frustrated that they haven’t been able to help as much as they’d like. Over 750,000 signed up for the government volunteering scheme, but apparently most haven’t been called on, and I think some have felt quite put out about this. There are probably all sorts of reasons for the apparent low level of call out. The bulk of the volunteers may not be in the same place as the bulk of the people who need help.  People may not know how to ask for help, or prefer to cobble something together unofficially. In many cases, people need professional help from people with the training and experience. Their needs are beyond the scope of volunteers to respond to, no matter how willing. And some things need structural change, political change, to sort out. For most of us, the help we can offer is always going to be undramatic, small scale, unseen by everyone except those directly involved.  Added together those small actions are just as important as the big things, but they feel like a drop in the ocean, insignificant in the face of this worldwide challenge.

The Bible story we heard today features some people who probably felt equally helpless. When Jesus led them out to Mount Olivet, to the East of Jerusalem, overlooking the city, they thought they knew what was coming next. Tradition said that this was where the Messiah would appear before he entered Jerusalem to announce the Kingdom of God. That’s why they’d got so excited when Jesus rode into Jerusalem from this same place on Palm Sunday. They thought the moment had come when God would intervene in history, throw out their Roman oppressors, restore Israel’s self-government. All it had led to then was a cross, but perhaps now things will be different. “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

I can imagine Jesus heaving a heavy sigh. Have they still not understood? They’re still expecting him to produce that magic wand for them. “Lord is this the time when YOU will restore the kingdom to Israel” they’ve asked, but actually it’s they who are going to be doing the work now. “No” says Jesus,”You will be my witnesses” says Jesus. It is their work in living out his Gospel message of love that will matter now, in Jerusalem and Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

Just at that moment, when they are trying to get their heads around all this, a cloud comes down, and Jesus is gone. No wonder they stand gawping up into the empty air … What are they going to do now? How will they go about this daunting, demanding task? Normally, they’d have asked Jesus, but he’s not here– definitely not here – nowhere to be seen, however they strain their eyes into the distant heavens.  

But what they do next shows that they have learned at least something from being with him. Because instead of rushing into that “anxious activism”, I talked about earlier, they stop, and remember that Jesus didn’t just tell them about the work they would be doing, but also about the power that would be given to them to do it. He didn’t just say, “you will be my witnesses”. Before that he said, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you”. Then, and only then, will they know what to do, and have the ability to do it. Before they act, they must wait.

And that’s what they do. They don’t start flapping around making action plans or arguing about who is working hardest or being most heroic. They wait, and while they wait they “constantly devote themselves to prayer”.  They pay attention to their own inner lives. They spend time with themselves and with each other in the presence of God. They listen for what God is saying to them. They recall what Jesus has taught them.  They give themselves time and space to acknowledge that they don’t know what to do, or how to do it, that this work can’t be done in their strength, but only in God’s. They listen for his call, which will be different for each of them. Some will be called to work in their own backyard – in Jerusalem and Judea, in their own home towns and villages. That may not feel dramatic, but there’s a real challenge in living out our faith among the people who know us best.   Some will be called to Samaria, a place they’d normally try to avoid. Samaritans and Jews didn’t get along. The challenge there will be to overcome their prejudices. And some will be called to go to the ends of the earth, to strange places they have no experience of at all. One calling isn’t better, or worse, than another. All are needed.

This time between Ascension Day and Pentecost was a time of waiting for the disciples, and it’s good if it is for us too. I’ve created a series of reflective podcasts you can use to help you spend time with yourself and with God - links are on the church website – but it doesn’t matter how we do it, so long as we do. It’s not time wasted. It’s not self-indulgence. It’s the way we guard against anxious activism, and make sure we are listening for God’s call, the call that is right for us, the call we were made for. That might be a call to do great things, but for most it will be a call to do small things with great love, to be faithful in supporting others, to be patient with those around us, and patient with ourselves, to be content with what we have and who we are, and trust that God will do the rest.

Thursday, 21 May 2020

I will not leave you orphaned: Easter 6

“I will not leave you orphaned” says Jesus to his disciples, speaking on the night before he is crucified. It’s a poignant phrase which touches one of our deepest fears, the fear of having to face the world alone when we aren’t ready to do so.

Here in more privileged Western Europe we’re probably not as aware of orphans as our forebears were; Unicef estimates that there are about 15 million orphans around the world today – children under 18 who have lost both parents - and 140 million who have lost one parent. Of course there are many more who don’t have the love and care they need for other reasons. The orphans who come to our minds most readily may be the ones in literature, like those in the novels of Charles Dickens, or the children’s stories many of us grew up with – Anne of Green Gables, The Little Princess, Kim, Heidi, Ballet Shoes. They are usually stories where it all comes right in the end, but the reality is, as it always has been, that many orphans don’t triumph over adversity. They don’t even live to grow up and tell the tale. Their lives can be desperately precarious.

That’s why the Bible so often hammers home the importance of caring for them, along with the other two most needy groups in the ancient world, widows and foreigners. “You shall not deprive a resident foreigner or an orphan of justice,” says the book of Deuteronomy (24.7) “When you reap your harvest … and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the foreigner, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings.” (Deuteronomy 24.19)
Again and again, the Old Testament prophets denounce those who fail to protect orphans. (Malachi 3.5, Zechariah 7.10, Ezekiel 22.7, Jeremiah 5.28, Isaiah 1.23) The letter of James, in the New Testament, mentions orphans as part of a sort of litmus test of the genuineness of faith., “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this “ he says to care for orphans and widows in their distress”(James 1.27) If you don’t do that, any claim to be following Jesus is meaningless. In an age when there was no welfare state, it was very difficult to live without a family or clan around you for protection and practical support. Everyone needed to belong somewhere, to someone. Having no family around you could be a death sentence, as it still is in many parts of the world.

That’s the fear that Jesus touches on when he uses this word, orphan, on the night before he dies. Of course, he isn’t speaking to small children. He’s speaking to his disciples, grown adults, burly fishermen who’ve sailed through stormy seas, tax-collectors who’ve had to deal with the Roman political and military machine, women who’ve had to live off their wits and their courage in a male-dominated world. Yet he recognises that when they lose him, first to crucifixion and then as he ascends to his Father in heaven, they’ll feel bereft and uncertain. They’ll have to make their own decisions as they take on the work he’s called them to. And it won’t be easy. They’ll face persecution and maybe even death. Some may be cast out of the families they’ve grown up in, rejected by others. They’ll feel like orphans adrift in a wide and scary world.

We may not face challenges as great as those, but however old we are, however much we’ve been through, we all come to points in our lives when we realise we can’t handle the stuff life dumps on us on our own. We look around for the adult in the room, and we’re a bit horrified to find that it’s us. We may be grown up chronologically, but there’s always a small child within us, looking for help and guidance.

The comforting thing about this passage is that Jesus doesn’t tell his followers to “grow up and act their age”. He doesn’t tell them that they really ought to know what they are doing by now. Instead he says to them, “I will not leave you orphaned”. He affirms that it’s ok to feel bereft. It’s ok to feel out of our depth. It’s ok to feel that we don’t know what we’re doing. It’s ok to need help, to need others, to need God. In fact if we don’t accept our need of God and of one another, we cut ourselves off from so much that might have blessed us. If our hands aren’t open, how can anyone put anything into them?

Jesus promises his disciples, and us, that though we may sometimes feel alone, we are not alone. He talks about the Holy Spirit, God’s presence here and now, where we are.  Up until now, he says, his followers have had to be with him physically to see him and hear him. But when he’s gone from their sight, he promises that they’ll discover the wonderful truth that, actually they can never be separated from. “I am sure,” says St Paul ” that neither death, nor life…nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8. 38). They’ll discover that God is within them, like the sap that rises through the grapevine, like the blood that circulates through their veins, closer than their own heartbeat. They’ll know the Spirit not only personally and individually, but in their community too, in the love that draws them to each other. They’ll discover the ever-present love of God who, as our Psalm puts it “holds our souls in life, and will not allow our feet to slip”, just as a loving parent holds and helps us when we are taking our first steps, wobbling and uncertain.

Today’s readings invite us to be honest, to stop pretending that everything’s fine, to drop the make-believe that we can live independently of one another or of God, never needing help, always being the one who is in control. This time of lockdown, although it has distanced us physically, has underlined how much we need each other, whether it’s the delivery drivers or supermarket shelf stackers or the friends and family who phone or email or skype or zoom or write cheering us up and supporting us. Human beings hunger for connection with one another, and I’m also finding, from my conversations with people, that people are hungry for connection with God too, reaching out in prayer and reflection for something beyond themselves.

This Thursday is Ascension Day, the day when we recall that strange story of Jesus disappearing into a cloud, taken from his followers’ sight. It begins ten days of preparation for Pentecost – Whitsun – the day when we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit, God within us and around us, God at work in the world. We can’t meet to celebrate the day this year, but each day between Ascension and Pentecost there’ll be a short podcast – links on the church website– just a few words and time for reflection to help us be aware of God and discover that his promise is true, that he has not left us orphaned. 

Sunday, 10 May 2020

The way to where? Easter 5

“You know the way to the place where I am going” says Jesus in today’s reading from John’s Gospel. “You know the way to the place where I am going”.

He’s speaking to his disciples on the night before he dies, but although he has told them many times that he will be arrested and killed, they still don’t get it. Thomas asks the question that the others are probably thinking. “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

These disciples have been travelling with Jesus for several years by this point, going from village to village, town to town, healing, preaching, teaching. But now Jesus is talking about a journey he’ll make on his own, and they can’t work out where is he planning to go. It sounds as if he’s expecting them to join him, but if they don’t know where he is going, how can they? How can we know the way, if we don’t know the destination? It’s a perfectly sensible question. If we plan to meet a friend – remember those days when we could just do that! - we need to know where, otherwise we’ll just be wandering round at random and the chances of coming across them, when they could be anywhere in the wide world, are pretty remote. Thomas doesn’t understand what Jesus is saying, and he won’t be able to until much later, after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. For now, all Jesus can tell him is “I am the Way”. Eventually he will discover that was all he needed to know anyway, all any of us need to know for the journey that Jesus calls us out onto.  

I love maps. I love them not just because they show me how to get from A to B without getting too loss, but for all the other information they give about the landscape – an intriguing place name, an ancient burial mound, a hidden valley, a sacred spring – all there to be discovered. But there are no maps that can show us the journey our lives will take, no maps that show us what the terrain ahead of us might look like. We can look back and trace the hills and valleys we’ve passed through, the places where we seemed to wander in circles or got lost completely, but the future is a blank. That map can only be drawn as we walk it. Will the landscape ahead of us be sunlit uplands or  somewhere we’ll label afterwards “here be dragons”? We can’t know. We can only live in the present, however much we hanker for the past or plan for the future. All we ever really have in our grasp is now, this moment, this place and time. Maybe we’re especially aware of that now, when the future seems even harder to predict than it usually is.

We can try to guess how the current crisis might eventually be resolved, and what the world might look like afterwards, but none of us can know for sure, not the scientists, not the politicians, not the leaders in business or any other field, including the church. That’s why their jobs are so difficult. That’s why they need our prayers. We’re all travellers in unmapped territory. We may know there is a mountain ahead of us, but we can’t know what’s on the other side of it.

But the good news of this Gospel story is that, although there is no map for these strange times, we do have a guide, someone who knows the lie of the land, who has travelled through the worst of times, and can lead us through it, and that may turn out to be far better.  That’s what Jesus is saying to Thomas. They don’t need to know the way, because he is the Way. They don’t need to know where they are going, so long as they know who they are going with.

“Lord, show us the Father” says Philip, but Jesus reminds them that they’ve seen the Father in him, God at work, in his love for those around him day by day. As they looked back, after Jesus resurrection, they began to understand that he had embodied God for them, showing them what God was like.

In Jesus’ company they’d seen the welcome of God for people they’d normally have run a mile from.  They’d discovered God’s generosity; somehow there could be enough food for everyone, even if all you started with was five loaves and two fishes. They’d found that even in the wildest storm, they could feel ultimately safe, because God, in Christ, had chosen to be in the same boat they were. They’d seen God’s glory, not in great things, but in small things done with great love. Eventually they learned, through Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection that even death wasn’t the end with God, that what looked like complete failure in the world’s eyes could be the gateway to new life.

People have often reduced Christianity to a set of doctrines and intellectual ideas, or  rituals to go through. If you believe certain statements about Jesus, if you get baptised or say this prayer or that, then that’s faith done and dusted. These first disciples of Jesus knew differently. That’s why they called themselves followers of the Way. They discovered that faith only made sense if you lived it. You could only draw close to the heart of God as you walked day by day in the way of love and sacrifice which Jesus had shown them; there’s no other way to God but this way, says Jesus here. But as they walked with Jesus, they found their lives reshaped, reoriented, recreated. They didn’t know where they were going. They didn’t know where this walk with Jesus would take them. For some it led to execution, as it had for him. But they carried on walking it because they found this way to be a true way, a way of integrity and wholeness, a life-giving way, a way that led to life in all its fullness. It might lead through pain and sorrow, but they discovered that pain and sorrow didn’t have the last word.

Our future is unknowable. It can’t be anything other than that. We never really know where we’re going, even if we think we do, and that’s especially true now. We don’t even know what’s around the next corner. But we can know the God who goes round that corner with us, and the corner after that, the God who slogs through the mire, and over the mountains, and across the deserts, patiently keeping company with us until the journey’s done. And when we know that God, we can face whatever comes with courage and find his blessing in it.

A poet called Minnie Louise Haskins said all that in far better words than I can, in the familiar words which George VI quoted in his Christmas broadcast of 1939, at another frightening time for the world. I’ll finish with them, because even if you already know them, they are always worth hearing again.

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.
And he led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.


Saturday, 2 May 2020

A New Church - Easter 4

Audio version

Acts 2.42-47,  Psalm 84

A New Church

Are you getting used to the new normal? This form of worship where we listen and pray but can’t see each other, can’t say psalms and sing praise together, can’t kneel and receive bread and wine together.

We know that the church is not the building, it’s all of us, but let’s be honest Seal Parish has a cracking church building, in which we love to gather, so there’s no shame in saying that we miss being able to do so. There’s no shame in admitting that, for many, this deprivation is getting difficult and is made no easier by the uncertainty as to when it will be wise to resume our previous patterns of worship.

I hope that acknowledging these facts doesn’t make us feel down, but lets us review where we find ourselves from a point of realism, and then continue to innovate, try new things and find strength to persist in each other.

Consider Psalm 84 which is written from the perspective of one denied the opportunity to worship in the temple, the Psalmist is clear when he says’ my soul longs…for the courts of the Lord’. He envies even the small birds which are free to nest in the buildings.

The Psalmist longs to be in the symbolic place of God’s holiness and we should hope that this is because he comes away nourished, encouraged, loved and motivated to make God’s love known rather than because he misses empty ritual.

Our buildings where we gather to worship should not be places we go to escape the outside world but places where we reflect, seek guidance and prepare for our role in the outside world.

If the Psalm were rewritten for today would it be different? Perhaps something like I yearn to be among my brothers and sisters in Christ but the pain is eased a little by these podcasts and other initiatives. Also I hope you don’t mind God, that sometimes I have a cooked breakfast on a Sunday now and worship you a bit later in the day!

The Psalmist acknowledges his need for spiritual nurture and it’s no different for us. As we acknowledge how place can enhance our feeling of closeness to God we have been forced to find new ones where we celebrate our worship. For some it will be a quiet corner of the house in a comfortable chair, others may walk as they listen and even entire households gather around the player in scenes reminiscent of wartime broadcasts.

I will admit that much of my worship takes place as I listen to podcasts and pray in my greenhouse. There’s a sense of Easter hope all around me as new life springs forth from various pots and I’ve tied a couple of bits of broken bamboo together to make a cross. Last week as I listened to Philip playing ‘Morning has broken’ a Blackbird even appeared right on cue.      

As we find new ways to worship God together we also acknowledge that it is more difficult for some than others. Those living alone or without good access to technology are particularly worthy of any support we can offer.

The Valley of Baca which the Psalmist spoke of is taken by many as a symbol of drought and dryness, spiritual or physical. But those who are bound for Jerusalem, the Holy City, inspire us as they are determined to find a way through the challenge, discovering water and rather than tiring they are going on ‘from strength to strength’ as they realise more and more how God is journeying with them.

In our reading from The Acts of the Apostles we join Luke’s account immediately after around 3000 people are baptised on the day of Pentecost. In short something big, wild, joyous has just taken place.

The very same Holy Spirit which is alive and with each one of us today brings this early version of church together as people enlivened and excited to learn more about what God has promised to them go on a voyage of discovery through study, prayer and communion.

Does that bring back memories? Perhaps the time we first had that sense of awe in the same way we heard that those early Christians did or the yearning to know God’s presence that heightens our senses to all around us and strengthens our determination to complete our journey to him, in the way the Psalmist spoke of.

Remember those early days when we yearned to know more of how it could be possible that each one of us could be loved so much by God, just as we are? Enthusiastic reading whenever we had a spare moment, questions and affirmations shared with others, learning from those who had journeyed ahead of us and a new sense of security that we will never be abandoned.

For most of us this still continues in a less frenetic way though has found it’s meaning in the way we live our lives and relate to each other and the world.

The early Christians place of worship was important as they gathered together in the temple but they had also become much more than this, a body of people united in their new found identity and purpose. From now onwards the real temple is the body of the Risen Christ.

A colleague of mine who lives in a busy area of south London told me a couple of weeks ago ‘how he could now hear the birds in the morning and the leaves on the trees seemed sharper, the air cleaner and the sunlight brighter’, he finished by saying’ it makes you realise the damage our way of life causes.

There will be a time when we are able to move freely again, to gather to worship, celebrate and commiserate together.

In the meantime let’s make the most of this slowdown to gratefully breath the air which is cleaner and heighten our awareness of the beauty around us.

We need to follow the apostle’s teaching to form habits of prayer, study and fellowship which sustain our faith through challenges and look for the positive in each day as we witness acts of selflessness, service and sacrifice by the people of all faiths and none in our Health Service and many other areas of our lives.

We need to draw strength from our unity of purpose to make God’s love known and there is much inspiration to draw upon as acts of kindness and support abound.

Remember, the way those early Christians cared for and shared with those in need didn’t go unnoticed by others around them and we heard how their numbers grew.


Kevin Bright

3rd May 2019