Wednesday, 30 March 2011

The Good That I Would

I have been continuing with Augustine's Confessions.  Unsuprisingly, there is a lot about the tension between how he was living and how he should have been living.  For most of us, at times, that's life - but how important it is, both individually and communally, to struggle with that tension.

In one section he states it particularly strongly.  He writes: "In this warfare I was on both sides, but I took the part of that which I approved in myself rather than the part of that which I disapproved.  For my true self was no longer on the side of which I disapproved, since to a great extent I was now its reluctant victim rather than its willing tool.  Yet it was by my own doing that habit had become so potent an enemy, because it was by my own will that I had reached the state in which I no longer wished to stay."

We all end up there sometimes - but the Good News is that, even then, God is alongside us, helping to pull us out of what the psalmist calls the "miry clay" or "deadly quicksand" (Psalm 40:2).

Monday, 28 March 2011

Common Clay Pots

Writing to the Corinthian church Paul says: Yet we who have this spiritual treasure are like common clay pots ..... (2 Corinthians 4:7)

We are like common clay pots. In Paul's terms this was ordinary kitchenware and yet, as such, it played a crucial role in everybody's lives. This is interesting. If we are hosting a special dinner party we are likely to get the best crockery out. Paul talks about treasure, the treasure that God gives us - but God is content that we are the vessels for this treasure, even though we are the equivalent of "common clay pots".

Many times in the Bible it is stressed how God is in partnership with us. When we are feeling like fragile, chipped, and very ordinary, clay pots - let's remind ourselves that God uses us as containers of his treasure. Then, let us - confidently - get on with the task of being the church!

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Forgiveness and Being Forgiven

Frederick Buechner has said: it is as hard to absolve yourself of your own guilt as it is to sit in your own lap. In other words, it is impossible.

We need to be forgiven - we need to be ready to forgive. The church works on forgiveness - thank God that forgiveness is always on offer.

Friday, 25 March 2011


Elmer is one of my favourite story characters. A few years ago I would often be reading Elmer stories to my daughters. Now they have grown past that, but I have inherited the "Elmer" one of them once had. Elmer is an elephant with a difference. He is multi-coloured. But Elmer doesn't like being different - and so one day he paints himself grey, so that he will look like all the other elephants - and he does - until it rains and the paint is washed off. The other elephants like Elmer and they feel for him. So they respond by decorating themselves in all sorts of multi-coloured patterns. Of course, the result is the same. Everything is fine, until they get wet. Are we willing to be different in the ways that we should? Equally, are we ready to recognise that there are some things about ourselves that we just can't change. We can put on a show and pretend that we are different - but, deep down, we are who we are. But God loves us as we are. God wants us as we are - and God has a role for us where we are, being who we are. Sometimes we want to change things - when God is telling us 'just be yourself - but do those things that I am calling you to do!

Thursday, 24 March 2011

On The Road

At the bend of the road I looked back again and saw the gold light die behind her; then I turned the corner, passed the village school, and closed that part of my life for ever. ...... I was propelled, of course, by the traditional forces that had sent many generations along this road - by the small tight valley closing in around one, stifling the breath with its mossy mouth ........ And now I was on my journey, in a pair of thick boots and with a hazel stick in my hand. ... These words come from the opening pages of Laurie Lee's autobiographical travelogue "As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning". Journeys of all shapes and sizes are a big part of life for all of us. The journey is also often used as a symbol of life in so many different ways. Jesus calls us to follow him. That means going on a journey. He also tells us to travel light which tells us something about how we should be. In "Cave Refectory Road" (Canterbury Press, 2010) Ian Adams suggests that we need to live out our faith "in the open, in the market place, on the street" (p. 12) and he uses the road as an image of this. He makes a number of interesting comments about this, but I was particularly struck by something he says about our vulnerability on the road p. 36/7) - "We are vulnerable on the road. 'Have a safe journey', we say. 'Call us when you get there,' urge anxious parents. Travel can be an anxious business. Home is so much safer. But there is something vital about this human experience of stepping out into the unknown with little but our equivalent of Laurie Lee's 'small rolled-up tent, a violin in a blanket, a change of clothes, a tin of treacle biscuits, and some cheese.'"

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

God Is Great

Often we think we know it all, or something close to that. We need to learn that God is beyond what we can know. Augustine's "Confessions" make the point - "A man (sic) who knows that he owns a tree and thanks you for the use he has of it, even though he does not know its exact height or the width of its spread, is better than another who measures it and counts all its branches, but neither owns it nor knows and loves its Creator. In just the same way, a man who has faith in you owns all the wealth of the world, for if he clings to you, whom all things serve, though he has nothing yet he owns them all. It would be foolish to doubt that such a man, though he may not know the track of the Great Bear, is altogether better than another who measures the sky and counts the stars and weighs the elements, but neglects you who allot to all things their size, their number, and their weight." (Book 5, Section 4)

Monday, 21 March 2011

Living Letters

Writing to the Christians in Corinth, Paul describes them as "living letters" - You yourselves are the letter we have written, written on our hearts for everyone to know and read. (2 Corinthians 3:2). Paul continues: It is clear that Christ himself wrote this letter and sent it by us. It is written, not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, and not on stone tablets but on human hearts. (2 Corinthians 2:3). In verse 1 Paul additionally refers to letters of recommendation. For what kind of things do we end up being a recommendation? If we are 'living letters' what are we saying? Those are interesting questions, particularly when we remember that God indeed wants us to be living letters, telling the story of the light and love that is found only with God.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Messy Church Last Tuesday

It has become fairly unusual for me to lead worship other than on a Sunday morning – but this was one such time, the monthly Messy Church at Dovercourt (Harwich). Messy Church has been going for about three years at Dovercourt. When I arrived all sorts of things were happening. Some people were doing a kind of treasure hunt, identifying various things around the church premises. Other were making models out of wooden spoons. Some folk were just drinking coffee. Others were just playing – and there were other bits of craft work going on. As is often the case, it was someone’s first time. Most of the around 15 to 20 children were quite small, but it is geared for that. And the adults were partly members of the traditional church and partly parents. I got there about 4.30. A little after 5 we all went in to the church for a brief service – 15 minutes – when I told the story of Communion and how it started, using a very approximately Godly Play format (for those who know what that is). We sang a hymn about the disciples and Jesus inviting them – and us – to the table – then went back to the hall to share a meal – lambburgers, chips and salad, followed by jelly and ice cream.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

God's Extravagance

Some more thoughts drawn from Augustine's "Confessions" ...... Augustine talks about the wonder of God's love and the way in which that exceeds, and so contrasts with, the best that we can do. God's love for us is abundant - what God offers us is extravagant. As we receive God's blessings, may we respond somewhere around where we should! Addressing God, Augustine writes: "Extravagance masquerades as fullness and abundance: but you are the full, unfailing store of never-dying sweetness. The spendthrift makes a pretence of liberality: but you are the most generous dispenser of all good. The covetous want many possessions for themselves: you possess all. The envious struggle for preferment: but what is to be preferred before you? Anger demands revenge: but what vengeance is as just as yours? Fear shrinks from any sudden, unwonted danger which threatens the things that it loves, for its only care is safety: but to you nothing is strange, nothing unforeseen. No one can part you from the things that you love, and safety is assured nowhere but in you. Grief eats away its heart for the loss of things which it took pleasure in desiring, because it wants to be like you, from whom nothing can be taken away." (Book 2, Section 6)

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

How Did We Do?

Have you noticed how many companies now ask us how we think they did? It's there at the top of my supermarket receipt. After our holiday I got an email from the company we booked through. I got my car serviced and the garage sent me a letter. They are all asking the same question: how did we do? Sometimes I wonder whether they really mean it - but today's marketplace is competitive and customer satisfaction is important - so I think the question does matter: how did we do? And I wonder what kind of realistic response to such a question might be offered to a first-time visitor to our church. How did we do? This afternoon I was at a 'Messy Church'. Someone was there for the first time and I heard someone ask her: did you enjoy it? But now I am wishing I had asked that slightly different question: how did we do?

Friday, 11 March 2011

Bitter Sweet

I have been reading on in Augustine's "Confessions". There are many times in life when contrasting perspectives come into play. Happiness and sadness sometimes need to go together. So do valleys and mountains. Augustine reminds us of how bitterness and sweetness can be usefully mingled. The reference is to reflecting on wrong things he has done - "The memory is bitter, but it will help me to savour your sweetness, the sweetness that does not deceive but brings real joy and never fails. For love of your love I shall retrieve myself from the havoc of disruption which tore me to pieces when I turned away from you, whom alone I should have sought, and lost myself instead on many a different quest." (Book 2 Section 1) Augustine doesn't hold back as he goes on to say - "In your eyes my beauty vanished and I was foul to the core, yet I was pleased with my own condition and anxious to be pleasing in the eyes of men (sic)." Are we working in a way that will give us bitter memories - or will they be sweet?

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Godfrey's Mushrooms

Godfrey Diekmann (1908-2002) was a Benedictine monk with a love of the liturgy. He was, apparently, well known for gathering mushrooms - and many who encountered him found themselves doing just that. I have been reading Krista Tippett's Speaking of Faith (Penguin, 2007) in which she describes meeting him just the year before he died. He wasn't able to gather mushrooms any longer, but he had loads of stories to tell. He stressed to her the need for an "incarnational theology - a back-to-basics understanding of the implications of belief in a God who threw himself whole into the light and darkness of life with us." (p. 132) She goes on to comment that his mushrooms "were the perfect metaphor for his theology: a common slogging through beauty, getting rained on, getting dirty, taking in the fields' and forests' silent declaration of God, anticipating the delicious meal to come." (p. 133)

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Lenten Reflections

Today is Ash Wednesday, and so the beginning of Lent. I always like to use Lent as a reflective period in a variety of ways and, in particular, to do some appropriate reading. This year I have decided to read Augustine's "Confessions". I have had a copy of the book for many years - indeed, I used to put the date I obtained a book in the inside cover and this one carries the date of 20/4/77 - but I have never got round to reading it. Near the beginning (Book 1, Section 4) there is a great segment which describes the contrasting greatness of God - "You are unchangeable and yet you change all things. You are never new, never old, and yet all things have new life from you. You are the unseen power that brings decline upon the proud. You are ever active, but always at rest. You gather all things to yourself, though you suffer no need. You support, you fill, and you protect all things. You create them, nourish them, and bring them to perfection. You seek to make them your own, though you lack for nothing. You love your creatures, but with a gentle love. You treasure them, but without apprehension. You grieve for wrong, but suffer no pain. You can be angry and yet serene. Your works are varied, but your purpose is one and the same. You welcome all who come to you, though you never lost them." That - is the wonder of God!

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Receive the Holy Spirit

We all need God's help - and we all know that. How does it happen? It happens in all sorts of ways, but one of the ways in which we most often explain it is with reference to the empowering of the Holy Spirit. God, the Holy Spirit, enables us. John, near the end of his Gospel, records how Jesus leaves the first disciples with the Holy Spirit - Then he (Jesus) breathed on them, saying, 'Receive the Holy Spirit!' (John 20:22). What was possible then and there is just as possible now and here. If we put that in context, we are with a group of frightened disciples, not knowing which way to turn, to whom Jesus gives direction, transforming the situation. In his little commentary on John, Richard Burridge ("John" by Richard A. Burridge, Bible Reading Fellowship, 1998) makes some interesting and helpful comments as to how we can see this: "It is like God breathing 'the breath of life' into Adam or breathing upon the valley of dry bones (Gen. 2:7; Ezek. 37:1-14). C.S. Lewis depicts it well as Aslan breathes upon the children in Narnia whenever they need strength for the tasks he gives them" (p. 233).

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Seeing The Other View

One of the things that I often say in preaching is that God meets us where we are. I firmly believe that. It doesn't mean that God doesn't challenge us to move, but it does mean that God takes the initiative in our encounter with God. As we seek to be the church, God's people, we do well to learn from that. We need to see things from the perspective of other people. Krista Tippett cites a challenging example of this in her book "Speaking of Faith" (Penguin, 2007) when she talks about Elie Wiesel, the well-known writer who survived the terrors of the Nazi Holocaust. Visiting Berlin for the first time since the Holocaust as a guest of the German government, he asked to meet a group of young Germans - "I had never before considered," he said, "that it could be as painful to be a child of those who ran the camps as a child of those who died in them." (p. 31/32)