Peace be with you

Todays reflection comes from Revd Norma Higgott, Deacon and Highland Hospice Chaplain

John 20: 19

19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”

COVID-19, and the period of lockdown which it created, has meant some major changes in the way we all do things in our lives, our work, in our social lives and in our spiritual lives.  However this moment of pause, no matter how long it is, should not change the way we show forth the love of God to those around us because, although the doors may be locked, Jesus is still with us, standing amongst us and still offering us peace and love and compassion. We like the disciples may be afraid but that doesn’t mean that we can’t care for those around us and for our wider communities and indeed for the world.  Jesus’s love can still reach out through us to those in need, the lonely, the afraid, the hungry, all those who need our prayers and our compassion. 

The world around us will still be very scary and we will still feel anxious, overwhelmed and helpless, not sure how or when things will get back to some sort of normal! We are in that in-between time, a time when we wonder what the future holds for us, for our nation and for the world.  A time when the future of our society and our church is unknown but for Christians we know that after Ascension came Pentecost but that there was a time of waiting in between.  A time when everyone was challenged to wait for the Holy Spirit to come.  It was a scary time for them all but life had to go on and they had to be creative and courageous in moving forward into the future and that is where we are too – in a scary time, being challenged to find new and creative ways to be emissaries of hope, and having to move forward all the time with courage, learning from our mistakes and creating a new and positive future – knowing that someday life will get better again and that we can do all this in the power of God and through God’s great love for us all.

Pentecost is here and we have seen some slight relaxation in our lockdown lives, so let’s move forward knowing that God’s spirit will guide, help and encourage us to show forth love as God’s people.

With love and prayers, Norma

Pentecost Window from Taize

Spirit

Todays meditation comes from Laura Symon, currently studying at Highland Theological College

On Sunday, we celebrated Pentecost – the birthday of the church! An excellent excuse for some cake to mark the occasion, I think! Pentecost is the day when the Holy Spirit descended to the first Christians, and their mission really began.

The Holy Spirit has many names and does many things – a guiding wind to our sails, a fire within us for justice and righteousness, a whispered balm to comfort us in times of pain. That first day, the Spirit came to give life and hope to a frightened group confined to a room, and filled them with power and the ability to speak life to many others – even those of different languages and backgrounds. They spoke of what had changed because of Jesus, and of what would change as men and women, young and old could dream and speak to the future.

It is a dramatic and inspiring story. But it’s not the only story of the Spirit celebrated this week– we also have the ’Visitation’, recounted in Luke 1:39-56. It feels very strange reading what feels like a Christmas passage in June, but it is a lovely story of women and connection. A pregnant Mary travels to the hills of Judea to greet her older cousin Elizabeth – who unbeknownst to her is also expecting a miraculous child of her own.

‘And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit,and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”’

In an instant, the Spirit opened Elizabeth’s eyes to see things as they really were. Mary’s pregnancy had significance beyond what could be seen at first glance. Even now, two centuries later, the Spirit still opens our eyes to see the world for what it really is – and for what it could be.

Many have said that while they look forward to the end of lockdown, they don’t want a return to the way that things were before. The pandemic has awakened community spirit, kindness and a return to a slower pace – lessons that we hope to carry with us into a post-COVID life. As the Spirit breathes new life and understanding into our hearts, we can dream dreams of a more loving future – the world as it could be, marked by the kindness and goodness of God’s love. The Comforter and Guide will give us eyes to see what is broken in the world, a hope for better, and the drive to work for restoration – we have only to do as Mary did, as the disciples did, and say yes.

I leave you with a hymn – a relatively new one by the Gettys, ‘Holy Spirit, Living Breath of God’.

Whatever comes…

As we begin to ease our way out of lockdown, the guidelines that are being issued are somewhat more complicated. Instead of a simple, stay at home, we are now being told…depending on where you are in the United Kingdom- different messages. How many people we can meet up with and how far we can travel and what we are and are not allowed to do -so many more things to get to grips with and manage sensibly. In addition, after such a long time of being restricted in all our movements, many are finding the increase of freedom actually rather frightening and worrying. You can listen to conflicting advice from the government, from scientists and from health experts and end up feeling even more confused! When we were told to stay at home, although hard to adjust to, there was an element of security in the very clear-cut message. Now we have to start making far more nuanced changes in our lives whilst all the time being reminded that the virus has not gone anywhere and is still out there. In all these ups and downs, questions, fears and uncertainties I am greatly encouraged – and challenged-by Pauls words to the church in Philippi;

“ . I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me….

Paul may not have lived through Covid-19 but his life was certainly never easy!  From shipwrecks to persecution, hunger to prison, beating and stoning, adrift on seas and rivers, cold and sleepless, Paul endured far greater hardship and uncertainties that we ever will. And yet, through all of that his faith remained. He may have struggled, as do we all at times with doubts and questions, but in the end his trust in God meant that he found strength for each new challenge, each new set of circumstances and with them  the God given gift of contentment. How encouraging to know that God continues to offer each one of us those same gifts of strength and contentment in our uncertain world today!

Absence

One of the joys of walking in the countryside is being able to see where animals have been. I love to see the passages that have been made-the grass hollowed out by some unseen creature- a fox probably- that has made this path their own. The scratchings where rabbits have been and their burrows, the tiny holes left by voles and the much bigger mounds left by moles. The sight of an empty nest perched high in a tree or the footprints of deer in the fresh mud. Occasionally I will actually catch sight of one of these creatures but, even if I do not, their tracks and signs tell me that they have been present.

This sense of presence in absence often helps me when I am struggling to connect with God in prayer. When I feel as though maybe my prayers are just words that go nowhere or have no meaning or effect. Times when it is difficult to find and know the presence of God. I know that I am not alone in struggling with prayer, indeed anyone who has ever tried to pray regularly will know exactly what I am talking about!  Yet, even in the absence of any sense of God’s presence, any feeling that he is hearing or even interested in my stumbling words there can be an echo, a shadow almost, just like a footprint or a tunnel in the grass that speaks of a presence that was there.  One of the poets who best captures this for me is RS Thomas.

“It is this great absence

that is like a presence, that compels

me to address it without hope

of a reply. It is a room I enter

from which someone has just gone…” ( RS Thomas  The Absence)

I am sure that many of us have had that experience of entering a room that is now empty but in which we sense people have just recently been. A trace of warmth, of perfume, of the air disturbed-subtle but real, presence in absence. It is ironically this very sense of absence that can draw us nearer to the mystery of God. We cannot comprehend God, except as St Paul reminds us, as in a mirror dimly. Such struggles in prayer remind me that God cannot be categorised, labelled, tamed or in any way managed by me. His absence reminds me of who it is I am addressing, who I am daring to call upon. Not a God who runs to my timetable or even my best efforts at prayer but a God who is beyond what man can grasp or understand. And so,  I continue to struggle on in prayer and allow that sense of absence to speak to my heart of God who has made his home there.

Another poet puts it like this:

“…..often there is no sign of you

no gentle breeze to touch my face

no parting of the dark wood to reveal your shadow

but still I look-

for once I saw you there in the dying light

and imprinted on my heart is your

silhouette

stark against the bare crossed limbs of a tree…”

Todays meditation from Rev Gordon Sleight.

‘Believe those who seek the truth;

Doubt those who find it’   

So wrote the French novelist Andre Gide. 

Faced with the Coronavirus some religious groups have shown the wisdom of his words with tragic consequences.

  • In the English midlands a prayer meeting went ahead in spite of Coronavirus restrictions after the group was assured by its leaders that God would protect them. Two died and ten ended up in intensive care.
  • A pastor in a town further south was instrumental in popularising the bogus theory that 5G masts were the source of the outbreak having used the internet to spread his claim that God had enabled him to pull all the evidence together and arrive at a special revelation.
  • And in the USA another church leader has been offering a special healing oil that would protect or heal those anointed with it.

All of these cases absorbed the time and energy of front-line workers and put them and those who believed these things in danger.

Yet for many of those involved in these cases this has been about faith. For them, to believe otherwise, to trust the science is to not trust God, to follow the restrictions imposed by unbelievers is to display lack of faith, to be like the apostle Thomas, faithless doubters rather than true believers. This understanding of faith sees faith as certainty, but that is to misunderstand the story of Thomas.  It is not Thomas’s doubts and uncertainty that are the problem but his demand for proof.  To demand proof is to demand certainty and certainty is the very opposite of faith.  Thomas found faith when he gave up his desire for certainty.

In these strange times facing multiple uncertainties, we probably all wish things were clearer, less confused and uncertain.  It is uncomfortable and distressing to live with all the restrictions and to have no clear picture of how we get out of lockdown, what the next few months will be like and what the long-term future is going to be for us, our families, friends, country, planet. We don’t usually have to face so many levels of uncertainty all in one go and to long for more certainty is understandable.  But as the story of Thomas shows us faith is not the same as certainty.  Faith is living with the uncertainty but faith is also a trusting and hopefulness in that uncertainty. 

‘All shall be well and all manner of things shall be well’ in the words of Julian of Norwich at the time that the Black Death raged across the world.

The Welsh poet and Anglican priest R S Thomas lived with doubt and uncertainty more acutely than most, and he beautifully captured the fragile and intangible nature of faith in these six lines –

I think that maybe

I will be a little surer

of being a little nearer.

That’s all.  Eternity

is in understanding

that that little is more than enough

Todays meditation comes from Colin Page.

Difficulties in our Jacobite Past

As many of you may know I have been training for the Readership with SEI. During the year we have a residential week and a number of residential weekends which take place at St Mary’s Monastery at Kinnoull, Perth.  Our last weekend was reduced to a residential ‘virtual’ day, but it was good to see those in training if only online, just as it was good to see people from church at the Wednesday morning virtual coffee morning. While it might become tiresome as the weeks pass, I am sure that the message to stay at home has all our best interests at heart.

                                    St Mary’s Monastery, Kinnoull, Perth

Many people have commented on how strange it is to have the churches closed and how they can never remember this ever happening before. That got me thinking, this is not exactly true, at least as far as our own congregation is concerned.  Bishop Mark in his latest letter has started to outline something of our churches history and this is important, as it is very distinctive. We are in communion with, but we are not some outpost of the C of E, our history has nothing really to do with Henry VIII and his divorce. I thought it might be the right time to say something about an earlier occasion when our church was closed down.

In Dingwall Parish the last Episcopalian incumbent was the Rev John Macrae who died in 1704, yet it would be 1716 before the Rev Daniel Bain was settled as the first Presbyterian minister of Dingwall. Why had this happened? Basically, the Scottish bishops had not given sufficient assurance of loyalty to King William of Orange. Had they done so; this might have avoided their removal from the established church. As a result, for most of the 18th century the Scottish Episcopal Church was to be closely identified with the Jacobite cause in its support for the exiled Stuart Dynasty.

                 My specimen of Rosa Alba Maxima ‘The Jacobite Rose’  last June

Early in 18th century, a meeting house was opened in Dingwall High Street. I was told some years ago, by good authority i.e. Canon Bill Gow, who was the incumbent from 1940 to 1977, that it was the house next to the Bank of Scotland. This was to be our place of worship until a chapel was opened in 1806 on the site of the present-day St James.

In the aftermath of the battle of Culloden in 1746, many Episcopalian meeting houses were closed down, being regarded as centres of Jacobite propaganda. This is what happened to the meeting houses served by Rev James Urquhart here in Dingwall and also that of his larger congregation at Urray. The Penal Laws were to reduce the Episcopal Church to what Sir Walter Scott in his novel Guy Mannering referred to as the ‘Shadow of a Shade.’ Under these laws it was illegal for an Episcopalian clergyman to meet with more than four other persons, beyond that of his immediate household. All sorts of ingenious solutions were used to get around this, the most common being to meet with the legal number in one room while a larger group would listen to the service from an adjacent room. It was to be as late as 1792 before the Penal Laws were lifted. Perhaps as we move out of lockdown, we might discover some ingenious ways to allow us to worship once again. 

Before the Battle of Culloden in 1746 some of the troops are said to have sung Psalm 20 in its metrical version. A very appropriate psalm for an army just about to do battle in the name of their King.(James of course not George!) Have a look at it and you will see what I mean.

Turning to the Psalms is often a source of solace in difficult times and I feel just now that  Psalm 46 has much to say to us. This psalm was of course the inspiration for Martin Luther’s great hymn “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott’:

God-sense

I have been bewitched this last week by the lilac tree in my garden. It has come into full bloom and is absolutely laden with heavy blossom. Despite the rain and the strong breeze, the blossom continues to flourish and delight. The sheer abundance and extravagant nature of it amazes me. Looking at it today as it rode the quite strong winds, seeming effortlessly, I was reminded of some words by Evelyn Underhill. I cannot track the exact quote, but I know she talked about “beauty beyond sense.”

 I was so struck by this aptness of this phrase as I gazed then, several years ago now, on a beautiful flowering clematis. Looking today at my lilac tree has brought it back to mind. It makes me think of the abundant love and care that God lavishes so generously on his creation- and on each one of us. Of the overflowing goodness and gifts that he has for us if we would but turn with eyes to see and hearts to receive. How blessed are we to have as our loving heavenly Father a God who loves us far more than is ever sensible!

In me!

Yesterday I wrote my sermon for this coming Sunday. No spoilers here-😉 but suffice to say that I was thinking about what it means to have Christ in us. I had been a Christian for a long time before I really started grasping this simple but transforming truth- that Christ has chosen to make him home in me. “Christ in you, the hope of glory” as St Paul so wonderfully puts it in Colossians. Something that helped me to grasp this truth came in a most unexpected way when I was watching the Disney version of Aladdin with our boys many years ago. The late, great Robin Williams voiced the genie brilliantly and explaining who he is to Aladdin he comments;

“phenomenal cosmic power in an itsy, bitsy, living space!”

Now, I do not want to suggest that God is like a genie, there to fulfil my every wish…far from it! But the simple, yet life changing truth  that the Almighty, all powerful Creator and Redeemer of the world should make his home in such a frail and human vessel as me…well that really  is something far beyond my wildest dreams- and altogether more humbling and awe inspiring than any genie!

Jigsaws!

Carrying on from yesterdays thought about perspective I wanted to share with you something that I have been doing whilst in lockdown and that is jigsaw puzzles. I loved jigsaws as a child and in particular jig—maps.  They were shaped like the outline of a map with different buildings and names on oddly shaped pieces. Anyone else remember those?

I still enjoy jigsaws and usually have one on the go around Christmas but lock down gave me the perfect excuse for getting a couple of new ones and swapping some with friends. Jigsaws come in so many different forms these days. You have your traditional rectangle with straight edges on the outside. You have your very quirky ones like the one I did the other day with pieces shaped like cats, pens and even scissors! If you are feeling very bold you can try a 3D one! Then there is the huge variety of sizes and images. But they all have one thing in common. They are all pictures that are made up of small, different pieces. By themselves the pieces often resemble nothing in particular but put them together in the right place and they help to make the whole beautiful image. But how frustrating it can be to discover a missing piece right at the end!

Each person’s life is somewhat like a jigsaw-made up of so many different events, places, people, gifts, emotions. Some things that fit well together and others that do not.  Perhaps because I have been doing more  puzzles recently,  I have been reflecting on the fact that whilst a lot of what we seem to be doing in lockdown may feel like not very much, these days are pieces that can be put together by God to form an integral part of our life picture, our church and community picture and even the bigger world picture.  In his hands nothing is ever wasted or lost. God can and will put the pieces of our lives together and we may well discover that some of what we have done, some of the things we have learned about ourselves and about the world around us is crucial. It may not look like much now but with God at work we can be sure that these pieces…perhaps dim and boring looking to us- can and will be part of a much greater and beautiful image.

A change of perspective

Yesterday on one of my regular dog walking routes I noticed a path that I had not gone down before. It was very definitely a Robert Frost moment.

“two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less travelled by,

And that has made all the difference.”

     It is a poem some of you are no doubt familiar with and has long been one of my favourites, but yesterday it came home afresh to me as I travelled down the unknown path. At first it climbed up through muddy tracks, but soon levelled off into a grassy plateau. Here the trees were far more widely spread -good social distancing I thought! – and far taller than many of the others in the lower woods. Here was the familiar flaming gorse but more sparsely distributed and in between green of every shade and hue. The new green that I love of the leaves, the darker green patches of grass, bright with bluebells, and the swampy brown green of damp moss.

    It was almost as if I had been transported to a different part of the world altogether. Allied to that was the sudden stillness that engulfed me. The cold breeze dropped, the sun came out and the odd distant sound of traffic melted away. But what really took my breath away was the sudden vista that opened out before me. The majestic hills, still wearing their winter white caps, the river with its wide, curving arcs, bright in the sunshine. The green pastures and in between the bright gold of the rape.

     I felt at once both tiny and insignificant in such grandeur and space, but also so loved and blessed as God, once again, reminded me that from his perspective everything looks different. I can only see the here and now, the short road ahead where everything is so uncertain. The days yet to come still in lockdown, the fears for loved ones, the grief of those mourning, the  pressing concerns of this day, of tomorrow and the future in my small world.

    But God has a much greater perspective. God takes the long view, the wide camera angle that looks at how everything holds together in His way and His time. His clock is not set to today but to eternity and one day we shall all see our lives in that context. The road less travelled did indeed make all the difference.