It is good to be in a country church at harvest time! I look around and feel close to the harvest and the natural rhythms of the earth. I have been able to watch the fields sown, grow, ripen and then be harvested. I can see the sugar beet in the field for later in the year. Before I even look into the fields I just have to look at the changes in the hedgerows. It’s clear that it’s now harvest time because I’ve managed to get a dirty face and stained fingers from the blackberries!
I always get a sense of security when I see ripe fields being harvested. I know we get food from all around the world but the act of seeing food coming in somehow reassures me that there will be food for the future.
But there’s another side too. Leaves fall and get wet making the road slippy as I ride around on my motorbike. Tree branches come down in autumn winds but still I wouldn’t choose to be anywhere else. I wouldn’t be anywhere else, but I need to remember that the countryside is not a natural idyll set up just for my pleasure. On our crowded island our countryside is all designed by human hand, the woods, the hedges, we even try to control river courses – with mixed results. The countryside is no less managed than the town, there is just more green and more space. The countryside needs to be that way or we would all starve.
I looked at the fields and I only saw the country idyll; that is until I started to really get to know a few farmers. Then I began to learn a little of the joys and sorrows of food production. The hours and the work, and the uncertainty. There are rich farmers but there are also many that are not. And when things go wrong on a farm you can be very isolated indeed.
Figures from Farming Community Network (http://www.fcn.org.uk/resources)
- One in four farming families are living on or below the poverty line.
- The average income for an upland tenant farmer is £8,000 per year.
- Debt of tens and hundreds of thousands of pounds is commonplace.
- Bovine TB is spreading fast around Britain. Last year almost 40,000 cattle were slaughtered in Britain in an attempt to arrest the disease. The effect on farmers and their family is devastating.
What can I do?
- I can support the Farming Community Network (FCN). The FCN has a Christian ministry in the farming community, with wonderful volunteers across the UK providing support and help to those who are in difficulty. They are showing the love of God to farming people in a very practical way. I need to consider joining them.
- I need to let the farming people that I know, know that they are valued; buy local food; ask FCN to keep me updated on its work;
- I need to consider whether I can donate; volunteer; and pray for the farming community and FCN.
So the realities of the world are here in the countryside too. People still need to make a living. After all you can’t eat the scenery!
In the countryside, like in the town, I need to remember Jesus words from Matthew 6.25-34:
I tell you not to worry about your life. Don’t worry about having something to eat, drink, or wear. Isn’t life more than food or clothing? 26 Look at the birds in the sky! They don’t plant or harvest. They don’t even store grain in barns. Yet your Father in heaven takes care of them. Aren’t you worth more than birds?
27 Can worry make you live longer? 28 Why worry about clothes? Look how the wild flowers grow. They don’t work hard to make their clothes. 29 But I tell you that Solomon with all his wealth wasn’t as well clothed as one of them. 30 God gives such beauty to everything that grows in the fields, even though it is here today and thrown into a fire tomorrow. He will surely do even more for you! Why do you have such little faith?
31 Don’t worry and ask yourselves, “Will we have anything to eat? Will we have anything to drink? Will we have any clothes to wear?” 32 Only people who don’t know God are always worrying about such things. Your Father in heaven knows that you need all of these. 33 But more than anything else, put God’s work first and do what he wants. Then the other things will be yours as well.
34 Don’t worry about tomorrow. It will take care of itself. You have enough to worry about today.
I need to look at the harvest, my bees and the apples in my garden and give thanks for the abundance all around me. At the same time I need to let the Spirit fill me and free me from the temptation to worry about what might happen tomorrow; will there be enough grain? will grain prices rise and food prices with them? have all the apples been spoiled by wasps? will the bees make it through the winter? All of these whispered questions sneak in under my guard, trying to rob me of the joy of now that God has given to me.
“Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” There are so many problems in the world, and I hope to do as much as I can to reduce them. Last harvestide I planned to contact FCN and see how my rural churches could help. I was snowed under with work and I forgot. So this year I will get in touch. If nothing else I can pray and I can encourage others here to pray.
There are so many problems in this world but I can’t let them act like a wasp or a worm in an apple, eating into your heart, spoiling the blessing. God’s blessings, including the beauty and abundance of harvest, are for us to celebrate. I need to let the colour, smell and texture of the autumn leaves make me smile. As worship of the Creator I vow to do all I can to enjoy all of the wonder of this time of year in this most beautiful of places. I will allow the Spirit to fill my heart so that I become a little more free to trust God; to enjoy and celebrate. I will let the Spirit fill me so you don’t have to worry about tomorrow, what I will eat or wear or anything else. I will bring my worries to God in prayer and leave them there… I wonder how I will get on.
I’ve been reading Jesus word’s from Luke 16.1-13 and I’m shocked. I’m shocked because he seems to be saying, “Blessed are the sneaky and dishonest!?” Read it for yourself and you’ll see what I mean.
Now, I know that in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus lists all sorts of people who are blessed by God (Matthew 5.3-12). He includes the peacemakers and the merciful, and even those who mourn but here Jesus seems to be adding another group: Blessed are the sneaky and dishonest. This is what Jesus said, “My disciples, I tell you to use wicked wealth to make friends for yourselves. Then when it is gone, you will be welcomed into an eternal home.” Luke 16.9
I have been thinking, pondering, worrying over this for a while. I’ve stomped around grumbling at Jesus. Why couldn’t he be simple and straight forward? Then I went back to what Jesus was saying. Particularly, my eyes were drawn to what he said right after these puzzling few words. My eyes were drawn to, “You cannot be the slave of two masters. You will like one more than the other or be more loyal to one than to the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Luke 16.13)
The light came on in my head, not a very bright light, but at least a light. Jesus isn’t saying that I should be sneaky and dishonest, to be wicked in the way I use money. No, Jesus is telling me not to worry about money one way or the other. I need to focus on serving God then all the ‘wicked money’ in the world can’t hurt me. I can spend money wisely, make shrewd use of what is given. I can use it… and let it go.
I am to love God with all that I am, then the love of money can’t get a hold of me. I need to remember that. I don’t think that I’m ruled by the love of money, but I do like having it around. I do like knowing that I have enough to pay the bills; or to fix the car if I have to. But I’m slowly learning that that healthy respect for the usefulness of money can go rotten. It can go from a healthy stewardship of the gifts given, to hording “what’s mine”! I keep slipping into this. The difference is so subtle that I fail so easily.
I’ve found that the only answer is to stop and spend some time with God. I can’t seem to fight it head-on, I just get stressed and more worried about money. But if I stop, and pray, and let the Spirit in, then and only then, do I find the worry about money losing its power. It is as though it is a bad dream that is fading as I wake up. There was nothing for me to worry about. I just needed to trust and be generous, and everything else falls into place. I know it, I’ve lived it. But still, I fall into that same old trap again and again. And God has to pull me out, again and again.
I’m now letting God calm me and the love of money is fading away. But still I hear a whisper, faint, at the edge of hearing, “You keep failing”, “Give up”, Give in”, “Love me more”. The whisper, louder now, says, “Blessed are the hoarders”, “Blessed are the rich”’, “Blessed are the sneaky and dishonest”… “Follow me and I’ll show you how”… “Just look at the news”… “Just look at those rich bankers, they’ve no cares”… “Just give up, give in and love me more”…
I’m now letting the Spirit fill me again, and the whispers become fainter… Strong in the Spirit, I laugh at the whisperer, the muttering fades and the Tempter retreats. I smile.
There is a saying that I’ve heard many times,
Question: “How can you tell when a politician is lying?”
Answer: “Their lips are moving.”
Now I’ve known a number of politicians, some very high profile and some just local. In the main they have been genuine in their desire to serve. But all have admitted that you, “Have to play the game”. They have to say the right things, otherwise we will elect the other one, the one who is telling us the lies we want to hear!
That said, it is a dangerous thing for a country to have such a low regard for the integrity of its elected officials. When the expenses scandal hit a few years ago I was struck most by people being shocked that the politicians were being punished, not shock that they were fiddling their expenses in the first place!
Yesterday I read that the popularist MP and former mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has stated that he won’t be pursuing a points based immigration policy for the UK; one of his key campaign promises during the Brexit referendum. All seem tainted.
This as I have said is dangerous. People don’t trust their politicians to deliver on their promises. So people lose faith in the political system that brings stability to our country. Many people voted to leave the EU, for well-thought-out reasons, some though said that they just wanted to attack the ‘political classes’. Desperate people do bizarre things. Far more worryingly some don’t trust those ‘political classes’ to deliver their Brexit promises so they are attacking Eastern Europeans or anyone not obviously white-British, to drive them out. There have even been attacks in the next market town up the road from me. Sad times – All seem tainted.
Then I remember, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3.23). So why be so surprised? I know that, along with all human beings I made in the image of my creator, and so I am naturally capable of so much love and goodness. I am also fallen and capable of so much corruption and evil (I’m what the Bible calls a ‘sinner’). That is what the world is, good and bad, all mixed up together.
I also remember that, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1.15). So all is not lost. Jesus came so that imperfect people like me (sinners) could have hope of being better, happier, more content, more loving, more forgiving, and “keeping no record of wrongs” (1 Corinthians 13.5).
I remember that those politicians and even those carrying out those attacks are just human beings like me. I can’t judge them, I’m fallible too. Indeed, I’m told explicitly again and again not to judge (e.g. Matthew 7.1-5 & James 4.11-12). I can only weep and pray. I need to pray for myself. I also need to pray for my politicians; those I agree with and those I don’t. I know prayer is powerful, so I pray for wisdom and integrity. I pray for compassion too.
All of this has prompted me to pray harder for this world, not to give up on it. To pray for God’s new Kingdom to break through into this world, to make this world more like it was made to be, the people too. I need to keep on doing what I can too, to show that there is a better way. Part of the prayer for myself is to ask the Spirit to show me the good, the Godly, in these politicians that I am finding difficult. Also, to feel the love that God has for these people. Then most of all I pray for Jesus to return, for the Kingdom to break through fully and for ever.
Or in the words given by Jesus to Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well”.
I’m just getting ready to preside at two weddings. Two lovely couples have prepared and are ready to commit the rest of their lives to each other. These commitments are commitments of love. This love, strengthened by God, is given as the foundation of not only marriage but also of family life. There is a beautiful passage from the preface to the marriage service which sums this up well:
“Marriage is a gift of God in creation through which husband and wife may know the grace of God. It is given that as man and woman grow together in love and trust, they shall be united with one another in heart, body and mind, as Christ is united with his bride, the Church.”
I’m back again. My mind’s been wandering. I’ve been remembering the two rehearsals earlier in the week, all the excitement and expectation with just a drop of terror! I’m smiling.
Then Sunday’s reading comes to mind and my smile goes. I remember these words, “‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters – yes, even their own life – such a person cannot be my disciple.’” (Luke 14.26 NIV)
How do those words from the preface fit with Jesus telling them to hate their wife, husband, children, mother and father? It doesn’t make sense. I’ll have a look at the Bible again, I really need some help. I read and I find Psalm 127.3 where children are clearly a blessing from God. I read the 10 Commandments (Exodus 20.1-17) again and straight away I’m told to honour my father and my mother. I can’t find anything telling me to hate my family. I read the sentence from the Bible that I’ll read just as we start those wedding services, “God is love, and those who live in love live in God and God lives in them” (1 John 4.16). Again I only find a God who calls me to love.
I read and I struggle. I struggle because I thought Jesus’ commandment was to love not hate. I struggle, I worry and I suspect that I’m not alone. What is Jesus doing? Has he lost it? Has the heat and the pressure got to him?
So I step back again and pray. I wait on the Spirit. I pray some more and my mind goes to a little earlier in Luke’s Gospel, to Luke 10.27 where Jesus summed up all the law of God as, ‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind”; and, “Love your neighbour as yourself.”’
Again I find Jesus telling me and my wedding couples to love, not hate. Even one of the other readings for tomorrow says, “Although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love.” (Philemon 8-9 NIV) Paul realises that love is so much at the heart of being a follower of Jesus that he trusts to love above his rights as an apostle.
So how on earth does this fit with Jesus saying, “‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters – yes, even their own life – such a person cannot be my disciple?’” (Luke 14.26 NIV)
Has Paul got it wrong?
Then it came to me. I looked around and got the feeling that the Spirit was laughing at me. I can be so slow, so stupid. Jesus is laughing too. His words have done what they were intended to do. They gave me a shock; they made me stop and think.
I could explain what I’ve just realised but I’ll let a different Bible translation say it for me, “You cannot be my disciple, unless you love me more than you love your father and mother, your wife and children, and your brothers and sisters. You cannot come with me unless you love me more than you love your own life.” (Luke 14.26 CEV)
Of course Jesus doesn’t want me to hate Viv, or my daughter. Of course Jesus doesn’t want those wedding couples to come into church all full of love and smiles, only to leave again hating the sight of each other! Jesus, just wants me (and everyone who wants to follow him) to realise what that following him might cost. Jesus is saying that if I follow him I need to love God first above all else. That’s radical enough. Then I think back over the years that I’ve been following Jesus. I think back and realise that I’ve become more loving over those years. I love God first but I’ve been given far more love in return. Moment by moment, year after year the Spirit has been pouring love into me, infinite love, not my puny human love.
All becomes clear. Jesus wants me to love and to be filled with love. He knows that if I’m half-hearted I will get in the way of his love.
So, now I can smile and let Jesus’ words sound loud and clear, “You cannot be my disciple, unless you love me more than you love your father and mother, your wife and children, and your brothers and sisters. You cannot come with me unless you love me more than you love your own life.” (Luke 14.26 CEV)
I had to pause to take those weddings before I could upload this post. They both went so well; lots of tears and smiles, lots of laughter too.
I’m just about to press “Publish” and I hear a faint chuckle. It’s good to make Jesus laugh. I’m relieved about that – I seem to be doing it a lot lately!
I like to talk. In fact it’s hard to shut me up at times. I get excited about so many things; God, my family, creation, bees, motorbikes, good food, and the list goes on. I get excited and animated as I talk. My arms wave about, more and more wildly as I get more passionate – even on the ‘phone. I have a theory that if my arms were tied to my side I’d be mute!
I love to talk, but I also love quiet and above all silence. Silence around me, but more importantly, in me. In public ministry this silence-loving part of me often takes a back seat. That’s why a week or two ago I went away for a four day silent retreat. I took a six hour drive right away from any distractions and arrived at Abbey House, the Bath and Wells Diocesan Retreat Centre in Glastonbury. A beautiful spiritually refreshing place for a time considering “Sustaining Joy” in ministry.
As I packed I had serious second thoughts. Did I really want that long drive? Surely, I could just be quiet here at home? My wife was coming with me, how was that going to work out? What if I didn’t like Paul, the person leading the retreat?.. But once I arrived I realised just how much I needed that retreat. I love the ministry God has given me but it can be tiring. There is certainly a temptation to get lost in the business and lose sight of God; or more accurately let the noise around drown out the voice of the Spirit. I realised that the joy of ministry can be leached away; almost imperceptibly. Joy and even hope can be drained completely, leaving a dry human husk vainly seeking to show the wonder of knowing Jesus.
When I left I was far from drained, but I was also far from full. I was indeed tired, mentally and spiritually. Then I felt like a failure for not being stronger in the Spirit. That’s such a destructive temptation for me: letting guilt goad me into pushing on in my strength alone.
Getting away to sit in silence with God allowed the Father to deliver me from that temptation, and many others. The Spirit moved in and I smiled, and I laughed (silently). Then I remembered that even Jesus, “would often go to some place where he could be alone and pray.” (Luke 5:16)
I smiled some more.
At the end of those few days I didn’t want to leave. I just wanted to stay, surrounded by the beauty and silently resting in God’s presence. I didn’t want it to end. But then the Spirit sent me out, reminding me that he would always be with me and in me (Hebrews 13.5&6):
“The Lord has promised that he will not leave us or desert us. That should make you feel like saying,
“The Lord helps me!
Why should I be afraid
of what people
can do to me?””
Now I’m back in the town I love, less distracted by the daily noise, and filled a little more with the joy of the Spirit.
It’s good to go away but it is also good to be home!
Having a curate around has taken my mind back to when I started out as a minister. I remember my ordination in particular. York Minster was packed with people; happy smiling people. There were lots of people, family, friends, strangers, priests, bishops and even an archbishop. All were there to wish me and my fellow ordinands well. They were there to pray and ask God’s blessing as we were being dedicated to serve God in a new way.
That description makes it sound a bit like a party but that’s not how it felt. To be honest I was terrified. I was terrified to be the focus of so much attention. But most of all I was terrified that I would not be up to what lay ahead. What if the Church had got it wrong? What if I was mistaken? What if God wasn’t calling me to this? Then I remembered the rehearsal. I had to walk up and down steps in my new cassock, I’d caught my toe in my cassock, tripped and nearly went over. Should I run now? – no, I’d only fall flat on my face!
In the end all went well. I got lots of hugs from friends and family. In short it was a beautiful and memorable day. I even managed not to trip on my new cassock. I remember all of that lovely day, I smile; but only after experiencing a bone deep tingling of terror. Rightly so, I love what God is leading me to be and do, but I am still in awe of the God who trusts an idiot like me to do it!
That thought then takes me to the Bible, to the letter to the Hebrews 12.18-24:
You have not come to a place like Mount Sinai that can be seen and touched. There is no flaming fire or dark cloud or storm or trumpet sound. The people of Israel heard a voice speak. But they begged it to stop, because they could not obey its commands. They were even told to kill any animal that touched the mountain. The sight was so frightening that Moses said he shook with fear.
You have now come to Mount Zion and to the heavenly Jerusalem. This is the city of the living God, where thousands and thousands of angels have come to celebrate. Here you will find all of God’s dearest children, whose names are written in heaven. And you will find God himself, who judges everyone. Here also are the spirits of those good people who have been made perfect. And Jesus is here! (Contemporary English Version)
This description of being a Christian sounds a lot like my ordination, but instead of a Minster there is the City of God, with thousands and thousands of celebrating angels, all my family (all of God’s dearest children). And there instead of a mere archbishop is God himself… and look Jesus is here!
I don’t know about you but my first reaction to this description is very like my reaction to my ordination: Terror. The terror may be different from that of Moses and the ancient people of God, but it’s no less powerful. But then I am to live with this reality. All Christians are to live with this reality. I am to live, day by day, knowing that I have constant access to that Holy Place. Indeed, it is my home, my true Home.
Over the years I have entered that Holy Place countless times: In prayer, in worship, sometimes in despair, sometimes just smiling at the wonder of God in people and creation. Most of the time the terror is gone. I walk in like I do at my earthly home: I walk in hang up my coat, shout, “I’m home”, and drop into an armchair. That is why I need the words that follow, especially Hebrews 12. 28-29:
In this kingdom we please God by worshiping him and by showing him great honour and respect. Our God is like a destructive fire!
I need to remember that terror that I felt before my ordination, to remind me of the greatness of the gift that I have been given. I am a child of the God who is like a destructive or consuming fire. My heavenly Dad is a consuming fire who burns away all the spiritual dirt that clings to me. This God I am called, day by day, to love, worship but also honour and respect. Then I smile again as the love drives out the fear.
I’m smiling again now; praying off my coat and shoes, flopping into an armchair and shouting, “Hi Dad, I’m home!”
While away I would like to share an offering from Wordlive.org:
The Eternal King
As you spend time in the presence of the Lord, worship him as the King of kings. Pray that you may share his compassion for the broken and marginalised…
Cheerful book Ecclesiates: ‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless’ (Ecclesiastes 1.2). I don’t know about you but I normally turn to the Bible for encouragement, or wisdom or perhaps guidance. I don’t tend to look for a big slice of depression; with cream and a cherry on top, but that’s just what I find in Ecclesiastes.
The writer is rich and successful but is bored with life. He has children but he obviously doesn’t think much of them because he resents leaving his wealth for them to enjoy. He is bitter and twisted, which begs the question, “why have this in the Bible”? Why indeed?
Well for a start, it chimes with how most people feel about life, at least at some point. No matter how positive I want to be, at times life will get me down. Then these passages are strangely comforting. They say to me that I’m not alone, that I at least have company. What’s more, they say that I have God for company because he has allowed Ecclesiastes to be part of the Bible.
I can be depressed and I am still not cut off from God. I can be depressed and there is a passage of the Bible that is not saying to me, ‘cheer up’, or ‘pull yourself together’, or ‘count your blessings’, or all the other well meaning but pointless things people say to those who are depressed. No, I hear words that describe how depression feels, “‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless’”. That is the reality of depression. No matter how you try, the world remains grey and featureless, and here in this passage I discover that God understands; I discover that God is there in the darkness.
This reassurance is important because most people find it hard to cope with someone who is depressed, and Christians are not exception. There can also be the implication that depression equals a lack of faith, or a refusal to trust in God. But here we have a book of the Bible that deals with depression and deals with it head on.
Ecclesiastes faces down the argument that if you have good things then you shouldn’t be depressed; that you should, “Count your blessings”. The writer of Ecclesiastes has everything, he is king, he is rich, and he is well educated. He has all this and yet, “Everything is meaningless”.
Ecclesiastes is often used to teach the fact that earthly riches do not bring ultimate contentment, before pointing to the need for spiritual riches. This point is true but it is not what Ecclesiastes is about. If it were about this then the author would say so but he does not. Ecclesiastes ends as depressed as it starts – all is meaningless at the end of the book, just as it is at the beginning. No, I believe Ecclesiastes is about depression. It is about a man who has everything and still it is as though the colour, texture, and savour of everything has leached away leaving all grey and tasteless.
With this in mind I don’t think this book should be used to make points about spiritual wealth. It should be taken seriously for what it is. For those who are depressed it should be seen as a lifeline; a way into the Bible and the hope that it can bring. Ecclesiastes brings far more hope than all the platitudes put together.
So if you are prone to depression, then I recommend that you read Ecclesiastes. You may find that it speaks for you. If you are never weighed down by depression then read Ecclesiastes, let it sink into you so that you can better understand and support those who are weighed down.
Ecclesiastes is also valuable when your world falls apart. When you lose someone close to you, or perhaps when your health fails. Ecclesiastes can express what is inside at these times, it can allow me to be honest about how we feel. Ecclesiastes gives me permission to say to God, “Meaningless! Meaningless!’ ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless”. Ecclesiastes allows me to say this without feeling guilty that I’ve let God or anyone else down. Ecclesiastes can lead to the cross, where Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
I have said these words before but I feel I must say them again.
Ecclesiastes – the most miserable of the books of the Bible, but at times it may just be one of the most valuable.
I thoroughly enjoyed the short program on Julian’s manuscript. My library is growing… is that banana I smell?
Lost books, L-space, libraries and the odour of bananas
I have a recurring dream of a lost book that I have somehow found. It’s a beautiful book, filled with marvels, hand-written in quirky calligraphy as if by someone who has seen how calligraphy looks but has never been taught how to do it “properly” (bit like me, actually). It has drawings in it that remind you of illuminated manuscripts, and some which are entirely different. It has some resemblance to Jung’s famous Red Book, but the writing is in English and the drawings are not the same. Each time the book pops up in dreams, I wonder whose book it is, whether it exists in our ordinary reality or whether it is something that may one day exist or has once existed and exists no more.
A few nights ago on British TV, there was a programme on BBC4 on…
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