Out in the Cold

Check out John 2:1-11

This can be a dull and dispiriting time of year, can’t it? All the brightness and busyness of Christmas gone, the days still short, greyness and dampness in the weather, bracing yourself for the ever increasing bills landing on the doormat. 

Reading this week’s passage put me in mind of a recent conversation with a friend whose partner is really conscious of the cost of things and turns the heating off at every opportunity, even though they are fortunate enough to be able to afford to heat the house well. My friend described how it leaves them feeling lonely and dispirited during the cold days when their partner is out at work. They were also feeling discouraged about a creative project started pre-lockdowns which they had hoped would bring light, life and hope to a lot of people. They were beginning to think that all their effort and expense has come to nothing.

Whilst my friend was speaking, I felt the loneliness but I also felt the warmth and love poured out into into their project and felt sure that there was meaning and purpose in what they had done, even if the results aren’t clear yet. The image of the woman pouring nard over Jesus’ feet came to mind, as did the gift of myrrh brought to the stable by the one of the wise men (a gift meant for the end of Jesus’ ministry, not his beginning). It resulted in the poem at the end of this piece.

In today’s passage we see Mary conscious of the wedding host, another who will be left out in the cold if the wine runs dry. She has faith and confidence that there is an answer and she directs the servants to, “do what he tells you”, even thought her son is telling her that it isn’t his time yet. The result: the savouring of the best and sweetest wine that was, “saved ‘til last”, and the joy and celebration that it brought to all present at the wedding feast. 

However bleak this time of year may feel however discouraged we might feel if our beloved projects are ‘on hold’, we can remember and have confidence that we have been invited to that celebration where the sweetest wine is saved ‘til last and never runs dry. We can’t always see where our path is heading but we can always follow the Light and the Life to that place of unending warmth and welcome.

Out in the cold?

Left out in the cold, a numb exile,

losing sense and sensation.

A cutting off and,

cutting out, the

thing most feared;         feeling.

A cold coming three kings  

once spoke of; ice-cold nights,

frosty receptions and cold

shoulders. Yet, they kept on 

following a cool, bright light

leading to warm welcoming, straw 

and swaddling and golden gifts;

like nard poured out with love, leaving

light, life;      healing.

“Not to be served but to serve…” Mark 10: 35-45

“Our greatest power is not the respect that others have for us, but the service we can offer other” Pope Francis Let Us Dream; The Path to a Better Future, p127. 2020 Simon & Schuster

Do you know the Greek myth about the Minotaur (half bull, half human) that was fed human sacrifices every year to avert plague? Its appetite was endless and, once you entered the labyrinth there was no way out. Pope Francis mentions it in Let Us Dream. He suggests that we have walked blindly into a labyrinth of our own making – climate change, economic crisis, global pandemic, marginalisation of those who are ‘not like us’ etc. He calls it existential myopia and we all have it to some extent, especially when the World draws us into ‘selfie’ – me first” ways of thinking. We are warned that carrying on this way only leads deeper into the labyrinth.

We are all interconnected: 

we are one, after all, you and I,

together we suffer,

together we exist

and forever will re-create each other.

(Pierre Teilhard de Chardin cited by John Fox in Poetic Medicine 1997, p231)

Our destiny is a shared one and, as Francis points out, it is short-sighted to want to go back to ‘normal’ post pandemic “ignoring that we weren’t so fine before” (p136). You may know that The Minotaur was eventually defeated by Theseus who then had to find his way out. He didn’t do it alone. Love came to the rescue and Ariadne gave Theseus a ball of thread to pull on and  Theseus and Ariadne sailed off into the sunset together.

 We need to find our ‘ball of thread’ to pull us out of our labyrinth. The suggestion from all our faith leaders is that we do it together. We can start, as Pope Francis suggests if we, “leave behind the ‘selfie’ culture and look at the eyes, faces, hands, needs of those around us and in this way, find, too, our own faces, our own hands, full of possibilities.” (p137). 

For some, this idea smacks of, well, servility; giving in, being ‘less than’ etc. This is the logic of the labyrinth, our existential myopia at work. Yet, as we talked about in a recent sermon, we can serve through doing things that give us joy due to the different gifts that God gives each one of us. 

During the sermon we asked folk to write down their answer to the question, “What gives you joy?” Their answers:

  • Caring, nurturing, helping, cooking, making, crafting, building, designing, making people laugh/smile, telling stories, writing, walking, dancing, playing music, analysing systems, travelling, meeting and getting to know people, listening…

Herein are all the gifts we need to serve each other, serve our communities and serve God. We may not know where or how to begin. How about this:

“Call up, go visit … say you don’t have a clue what (to) do but maybe you can help. Say you’d like to be part of a different world and you thought this might be a good place to start”? (p137)

As Samuel said, “Here I am, for you called me … Speak, for your servant is listening” 1 Samuel: 8-10

How Silently

Luke 21:25-36

My laptop’s ‘delete’ button has been busy recently. First, there was Back Friday and now it’s Cyber Monday. It seems anyone I’ve ever bought anything from wants me to know how cheaply and easily I can get the latest ‘must have!’. They tell me to “Hurry!” and some even do a countdown of the hours left before the offer runs out. Weeks down the line, I wonder if any of these ‘must haves’ will really have filled the nagging, empty hole within us that so many seem to feel. It reminds me of the time I asked a colleague what they would do if they knew the world was definitely going to end in four days’ time. The answer? “Go shopping”, as if shopping is a way to feel in control in a world increasingly out of balance.

Late last Sunday afternoon, I walked to All Saints through the soft blanket of  newly fallen snow. A solitary blackbird, silhouetted against an ice cream sky, sang its heart out in the bones of a tree as I passed through the hospital grounds. And then I walked into ‘heaven on earth’. No electric lighting, just row upon row of candles down the aisles and in each stained glass window, casting a new light on the stories depicted there. All the stuff and busyness fell away into a hush that didn’t feel empty, more like “God’s presence even in loquacious silence” as Carys Walsh puts it in her account of D.S. Thomas’ poem Kneeling.

In the poem Thomas, who was an Anglican priest and poet, moves from his own actions of kneeling and praying (expecting to be in control of his encounter with God) through to realising that he can only present himself, ask and wait with the questions. The point being that all of us, even clergy, can get wrapped up in all the busyness of this time of year but, really, the meaning of it is found in the waiting, the bit we find hard to do. 

In that lovely prayer from the Sarum Primer, “God be in my  head and in my understanding…” I often feel that a line has been missed out and, perhaps, it should also include, “God be in my ears and in my listening”. Jesus warns his disciples not to get “weighed down with the worries of this life”. Until His second coming, which will be so huge an event that ALL will notice it (Luke 21:27),  our answer lies in that still, small voice heard in the space we make to listen. And, when we hear it, then we can lift up our heads in greeting and thanksgiving and know truly that ‘unto us a child is born’. Unto us the best, real, and most precious gift of all has already been given! 

Kneeling

Moments of great calm,

Kneeling before an altar

Of wood in a stone church

In summer, waiting for the God

To speak; the air a staircase

For silence; the sun’s light

Ringing me, as though I acted

A great role. And the audiences

Still; all that close throng

Of spirits waiting, as I,

For the message.

              Prompt me, God;

But not yet, When I speak,

Though it be you who speak

Through me, something is lost.

The meaning is in the waiting.

R.S. Thomas cited in Walsh, C.  (2020) Frequencies of God: Walking Through Advent with R.S. Thomas, p16. Canterbury Press.

Faith Hope and Love

Faith, Hope and Love

1 Corinthians 13: 12

Since the pandemic started, we have been hoping for a day when all will return to ‘normal’. Even though all restrictions have been lifted, it does not feel as though we are at the point of heaving a sigh of relief and waving Covid “good bye”. 

I recently spoke to some friends from our caving club. One is a nurse who caught Covid on the ward. She is experiencing Long Covid symptoms but has returned to work to support her short staffed colleagues still caring for very poorly people. Another is a deputy head who outlined the struggle to keep staff, pupils and parents going whilst sorting out food parcels for families in need during the long holidays. Then, there was an elderly lady in Greenhow who I haven’t seen since Christmas 2019. She thanked me with tears in her eyes for remembering that, last time I saw her, she had just come out of hospital following an operation. She has barely seen anyone due to shielding and I could tell that she feels invisible sometimes.

Talking caving again reminded me of a piece I wrote at the start of the first lockdown. We have made great strides forward since then but there are a lot of people still feeling worried and uncertain about health, about jobs, about managing the  huge backlog of delayed ‘stuff’ we have to deal with. Some of what I wrote then seems just as relevant now:

Any new climber is advised to maintain three points of contact with the rock, giving optimum stability and reducing your risk of falling. The first time you are told to, “let go and trust your rope,” is a revelation; that something only millimetres thick can stop you falling into the abyss. 

When climbing you often have someone holding you on a lifeline, talking you through the tricky bits; giving you slack rope and freedom to climb whilst the going is good, or tightening the rope to hold you close in when the scary bits come. 

Now, faith as small as a mustard seed can move mountains; and hope as slim as that rope has seen people through the darkest of days. Love is the lifeline that takes in the slack and holds us when the going is rough. We may have human life liners such as family and friends, pastors, carers, medical staff, keyworkers, neighbours etc. doing that for us. Even if we haven’t, there is a greater Life Liner still.

It’s time to, “Just let go and trust” the rope of Faith, Hope and Love; our three points of contact. The greatest of these is love and, even though the rope might fray and break… Love never fails!

Carol

Light shining through darkness

John 1:1-9

St Peter by Candlelight hangs in Cartwright Hall Gallery in Lister Park. If you haven’t been, the Gallery is well worth a visit. Or, you can check out this painting on vads.ac.uk/digital/collection/NIRP/id/28795. 

Godfried Schalken (1643-1706) painted it around 1700-6. Schalken trained with the Dutch masters who liked to play with the effects of light and dark in their work. He came to England after the coronation of William of Orange and produced lots of  paintings of the English court.

Dr Phillippa Flock tells us that this painting is typical with its candlelight in a darkened room. St Peter is recognised by the keys he is carrying following Jesus commission to him as the rock upon which the Church is built. Many believe that he holds the keys to the  big, shiny, ‘pearly gates’.

When you see the painting, you’ll notice that Schalken paints Peter as a common man, not in the shiny robes and ‘bling’ of a pope as was the earlier tradition. It hangs at one end of a long gallery. What I noticed as I walked towards it from a distance away was how it was the flame that draws your attention. Peter, in shadow with a faint red reflected glow on his face, can barely be seen until you get much closer.

He’s turning his head as if he’s just heard something (a still, small voice perhaps?) and he holds the large keys very securely in his right hand. He does not look like a great and powerful man, just an ordinary one going about his business, But oh, what business!

I was moved by the painting and went back to have another look on my monthly writing day with Gillian, a fellow Christian and writer. Contemplating the painting and what its possible meanings were (there is always more than one perspective and your response could be very different to mine. That’s OK!) I started to write. Here is the poem that emerged: 

Master of shade and light

Schalken paints Peter.

No shiny Saint, just

an ordinary one

pulled constantly

left and right.

Walk towards him and

it’s not Peter you see.

It’s the light, shining 

through darkness as 

always, from the beginning. 

Darkness cannot 

overcome it.

Peter stands, keys to the

Kingdom of Light

in his right hand.

Seeing how huge are

The Keys

How wide must be

The Door!

 

 

Information about St Peter by Candlelight taken from: Dr Phillippa Flock vads.ac.uk/digital/collection/NIRP/id/28795(Accessed 19/08/2021) and from information sheet beside painting in Cartwright Hall Gallery, Bradford Museums, Lister Park. (Free entry)

August 21

1 Corinthians 13: 12

Since the pandemic started, we have been hoping for a day when all will return to ‘normal’. Even though all restrictions have been lifted, it does not feel as though we are at the point of heaving a sigh of relief and waving Covid “good bye”.

I recently spoke to some friends from our caving club. One is a nurse who caught Covid on the ward. She is experiencing Long Covid symptoms but has returned to work to support her short staffed colleagues still caring for very poorly people. Another is a deputy head who outlined the struggle to keep staff, pupils and parents going whilst sorting out food parcels for families in need during the long holidays. Then, there was an elderly lady in Greenhow who I haven’t seen since Christmas 2019. She thanked me with tears in her eyes for remembering that, last time I saw her, she had just come out of hospital following an operation. She has barely seen anyone due to shielding and I could tell that she feels invisible sometimes.

Talking caving again reminded me of a piece I wrote at the start of the first lockdown. We have made great strides forward since then but there are a lot of people still feeling worried and uncertain about health, about jobs, about managing the  huge backlog of delayed ‘stuff’ we have to deal with. Some of what I wrote then seems just as relevant now:

Any new climber is advised to maintain three points of contact with the rock, giving optimum stability and reducing your risk of falling. The first time you are told to, “let go and trust your rope,” is a revelation; that something only millimetres thick can stop you falling into the abyss.

When climbing you often have someone holding you on a lifeline, talking you through the tricky bits; giving you slack rope and freedom to climb whilst the going is good, or tightening the rope to hold you close in when the scary bits come.

Now, faith as small as a mustard seed can move mountains; and hope as slim as that rope has seen people through the darkest of days. Love is the lifeline that takes in the slack and holds us when the going is rough. We may have human life liners such as family and friends, pastors, carers, medical staff, keyworkers, neighbours etc. doing that for us. Even if we haven’t, there is a greater Life Liner still.

It’s time to, “Just let go and trust” the rope of Faith, Hope and Love; our three points of contact. The greatest of these is love and, even though the rope might fray and break… Love never fails!

Carol

September 2021

John 1:1-9

St Peter by Candlelight hangs in Cartwright Hall Gallery in Lister Park. If you haven’t been, the Gallery is well worth a visit. Or, you can check out this painting on vads.ac.uk/digital/collection/NIRP/id/28795.

Godfried Schalken (1643-1706) painted it around 1700-6. Schalken trained with the Dutch masters who liked to play with the effects of light and dark in their work. He came to England after the coronation of William of Orange and produced lots of  paintings of the English court.

Dr Phillippa Flock tells us that this painting is typical with its candlelight in a darkened room. St Peter is recognised by the keys he is carrying following Jesus commission to him as the rock upon which the Church is built. Many believe that he holds the keys to the  big, shiny, ‘pearly gates’.

When you see the painting, you’ll notice that Schalken paints Peter as a common man, not in the shiny robes and ‘bling’ of a pope as was the earlier tradition. It hangs at one end of a long gallery. What I noticed as I walked towards it from a distance away was how it was the flame that draws your attention. Peter, in shadow with a faint red reflected glow on his face, can barely be seen until you get much closer.

He’s turning his head as if he’s just heard something (a still, small voice perhaps?) and he holds the large keys very securely in his right hand. He does not look like a great and powerful man, just an ordinary one going about his business, But oh, what business!

I was moved by the painting and went back to have another look on my monthly writing day with Gillian, a fellow Christian and writer. Contemplating the painting and what its possible meanings were (there is always more than one perspective and your response could be very different to mine. That’s OK!) I started to write. Here is the poem that emerged:

Master of shade and light

Schalken paints Peter.

No shiny Saint, just

an ordinary one

pulled constantly

left and right.

Walk towards him and

it’s not Peter you see.

It’s the light, shining

through darkness as

always, from the beginning.

Darkness cannot

overcome it.

Peter stands, keys to the

Kingdom of Light

in his right hand.

Seeing how huge are

The Keys

How wide must be

The Door!

 

 

Information about St Peter by Candlelight taken from: Dr Phillippa Flock vads.ac.uk/digital/collection/NIRP/id/28795(Accessed 19/08/2021) and from information sheet beside painting in Cartwright Hall Gallery, Bradford Museums, Lister Park. (Free entry)