Monday 3rd August
It has been so good to be away for a break in the beautiful Scottish Borders, a place close to our hearts and one that is very familiar from many trips there. However, wherever we went and whatever we did this time had to be thought about and done in a different way due to the pandemic that is changing so much of the way we live. As I thought about this it struck me that a most appropriate psalm for these days is Psalm 137. The people of Israel had seen the loss of so much-their Promised Land, their loved ones, their way of life, the beloved and magnificent temple at Jerusalem. A small remnant had been carried into captivity in Babylon and when urged to sing by their captors they cry out…
“How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? “
We may not be in captivity to foreign powers, but it can feel that we are nevertheless in captivity to this virus. Some have lost loved ones; others have lost jobs and businesses. We have all seen our freedom curtailed and our way of living from day to day having to adapt to ever changing restrictions. How shall we, as God’s people living through this time, sing his song in this strange land?
Well, we have already seen so much that is good and creative. People coming together virtually in all sorts of ways- Zoom, Facebook, video calls, You Tube-people have connected with each other and with God. Phone calls, emails, letters, cards through the door, socially distanced coffees, meeting in small groups in houses, the list could go on. Reflecting on this- and especially on our current status here in St James and St Anne’s with two buildings that are expensive and costly to maintain-I wonder what God might be teaching us about singing his song in the future?
Our security should never be in bricks and mortar but in God who lives in us by grace. Singing the Lord’s song is something we do not need a church building to do-especially since we are not able to sing in any church at the moment! But we can all sing the Lords song wherever we find ourselves day by day. A song of thanks for all that we have. A song of praise for the beauty and wonder of the world God has created. A song of joy for the love and mercy given in Christ. A song of hope for the future we have through Christ’s death and resurrection. A song of God’s great love for the whole world- yes, a song even in this strange land. God does not mind how musical or not we may be. He does not mind if we sing in the bath or the kitchen or whilst out walking. What he does long for is that we all sing and praise him however we can and wherever we are. And maybe, as we emerge from this, we will discover that the new song we have learned is one that really does turn the world -and the church- upside down!
Sunday 2nd August
Norma’s reflection from this morning’s service
In today’s gospel we read that Jesus on hearing what had happened to John the Baptist, went away to a solitary place to try and get his head round what the events meant and to spend time reflecting and I imagine to share his sadness with his father. He often chose to go to solitary places to reflect, as do many people nowadays when wanting a break from their busy lives. He wanted to spend time alone with God, seeking peace and trusting in God to help him through whatever was happening because he knew God’s love for him and he put his faith in that great love. He knew that this was a time of waiting for him, for how long he didn’t know but he trusted God to lead him through it and he saw it as an opportunity to show God’s love in action.
How does this relate to what we are experiencing now with the coronavirus when many of us are forced into that solitary place, waiting for a time when it might be safe to interact with others, looking for some normality, some hope of it all ending. How do we deal with the solitude and in particular, how do we deal with the indefinite waiting of the lockdown restrictions. It is easier to wait and put up with something if we know how long it is going to last for, if we can see a light at the end of the tunnel. At the moment though, it seems like there’s no real idea of how long the lockdown will continue, and in what form. This uncertainty has the potential to create a lot of anxiety, which in turn can have a detrimental effect on our health, our relationships with those around us, and our relationship with God. Can we like Jesus trust in God’s great love for us and see all that is happening as an opportunity?
It can feel as if our lives are on pause at the moment or even worse, stagnating, even though we have plenty of other things to be getting on with, but it is in this waiting that growth can happen, in ourselves and in those we encounter albeit online. What feels like total isolation from all that is important to us in our church life can become an opportunity for us to come closer to God, to learn how to accept what life offers us, to wait on God to show us the way he wants us to be with other people and how we can help bring others closer to him by our patient trust in his love to help us cope.
In this time of lockdown, we don’t know how the world will look when the restrictions are lifted and the coronavirus is under control though it will never be completely gone. Our lives, our society and our world will not be the same. So how do we wait when we are not even sure what we are waiting for? How do we have hope when the life we are anticipating post-lockdown might be worse than the life pre-lockdown? In Romans 11:33 we read: “How great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible is it for us to understand his decisions and ways,” We can’t know how things will be but even though God’s decisions and ways may seem hard and difficult, they will always lead to a place of peace, hope and life, because this is what God does
for us. He gives us hope and creates much out of little as we see in today’s miracle story. There was so little food but it was enough because Jesus trusted in God to provide for all those who were waiting in hope. He knew that God wouldn’t let him down, and that was a lesson he wanted to teach his disciples too, to trust, have faith and to know that in love God would provide for them.
In this time of coronavirus we need to learn what it is that God is trying to teach us. In this time of isolation, fear and uncertainty we can begin to doubt our view of God. We must try not to let our circumstances shape our views, try not to let our fear make us think that maybe God doesn’t care about us after all, that we are really not that important to him. We need to remember the words of our Psalm today: “I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God; incline your ear to me, hear my words. Wondrously show your steadfast love…..guard me as the apple of your eye and hide me in the shadow of your wings.”
Words of comfort for us when we remember that God’s steadfast love is there to guard and support us through everything we encounter. We only need to call upon him and he will listen to us., he will hear our cry and be good to us and we shall be satisfied knowing his presence is with us. So, as we wait together, not knowing how and when this coronavirus pandemic will end, “may God, the source of hope, fill us completely with joy and peace because we trust in him and know he is with us in our solitary moments, in our doubts and in our fears and that he gives us his blessing always.”
Sunday 19th July 2020
Reflection on Psalm 139
I don’t know about you but there have been times in the last few months when I have simply thought, “what on earth is happening and what is the future going to look like”. I would like to say that it has been a time in which I have devoted hours to meditation, study and prayer; but at times it has been really difficult to pray and a great deal of my time seems to have been taken up with learning about new technologies! My relationship with Microsoft Teams remains deeply troubled and on occasion puts my computer at risk although I know it is not its fault!! Yet, in the midst of the turmoil of 2020, God is present, His loving arms around those who are lonely, bereaved, despairing, exhausted, confused. How do we know this? Well, through personal experience, faith, and reading the words of Scripture and Psalm 139 is a great place to start. This has been described as the “crown of all psalms”. It is about God’s love, knowledge, presence for the individual – for the psalmist, but when we read this poetry, we can own it; it is given to us as a blessing, as sustenance in a dry and parched land.
God knows you better than you know yourself. At those times when you may feel distant from God and perhaps faith is difficult, even then God is with you. God searches, knows, discerns and is familiar with everything about us and does not turn away from us. Indeed God will seek us out. The psalmist speaks of fleeing to the highest heaven or sinking to the lowest depths, of travelling to the furthest lands or hiding in the darkness; but “even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast”. The words suggest physical movement, but can also be a metaphor for the inward journey of sadness, despair or loss of faith. In all these situations God is still there and will never abandon his beloved children.
What does the week ahead hold? There is excitement as more of our normal life opens up, but there is also anxiety. We have to adapt to new ways of meeting friends, shopping, working. We now have a new fashion accessory in the form of face masks and they are really quite easy to make so you can have one to match every outfit! We could also have them in liturgical colours! Even so, at times that overwhelming sense of ‘what is happening’ can hit us, but read these words of the psalmist – God is right there knowing and caring and loving us and when you don’t know how to pray or haven’t the energy to pray just turn to the words Jesus gave the disciples – simple words, because God already knows your hopes and fears, so just turn to Him.
Our Father, abba father, let heaven flood the earth, your will be done – your will which is to bring all things back into your loving arms; let there be provision for all people from the resources of this good earth; thank you for forgiving us and let us forgive in the same way, and protect us from all evil; for eternity is in your hands.
St Paul captured the eternal truth of God’s constant presence in those fantastic words in his letter to the church in Rome, chapter 8, “for I am convinced that neither death, not life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”.
In the week ahead let’s read Psalm 139 together and take it to heart and let’s all say with the psalmist, “search me and know my heart .. and lead me in the way everlasting”, Amen.
4th July 2020
Where are we now?
It’s a question I have asked often when out in the hills. Walking for a period of time through mist with limited information from the landscape leads inevitably to that question “where are we now”? Having decided on the current location the next question is where next – continue with the original plan made during the bright sunlight of the previous day or adapt to the change in conditions and enjoy the ongoing journey safely. Does that sound familiar as we enter this unknown territory of emerging from “lockdown”?
It is easy to long for how things were, when we could gather together in church, hug, shake hands, sing, break bread, but we cannot remain looking back. Remember those words to the people gathered at the ascension of Jesus, “two men in white robes stood beside them and said, ‘…why do you stand looking up to heaven? This Jesus will come…’” A time will come when the mist clears, a time will come when we gather again, but we don’t know when and so we must move forward in a different way.
The psalmist who wrote psalms 42 and 43, knew only too well the longing to gather in a familiar way to worship God, “these things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go with the multitude, leading the procession to the house of God”. There is much we can long for and forget to look ahead.
Julia on Sunday asked us to think about what we had learnt in lockdown, not simply what new skills or languages we had studied, but what we had learnt about ourselves and our relationship with God. The Psalmist also challenges himself to consider why he is feeling so dejected and longing for what has been. He repeats a refrain in these psalms in which he challenges himself and asks that question and also finds an answer: “Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God.”
As we confront an uncertain future in many ways, God has a path set out for us. One of the skills of navigating in mist is to take bearings over short distances only, but rejoice in that. Six months ago, meeting for a coffee was nothing special, now it is precious and treasured. Meeting in the garden will soon be extended to meeting within the house and that will be very special indeed. Can we take the opportunity we have been given and build on it. Rather than focusing on when we might be able to gather in church again, can we think about how we can “be church” in our homes? As we begin to meet, could we pray together, it doesn’t have to be scary or complex, or give that somewhat embarrassed, uncomfortable feeling! Perhaps just sharing a blessing as part of a greeting, committing any shared worries to God, sharing words of praise for the beauty of a garden, promising to say compline later that evening individually but together. Whenever we pray there will be someone, somewhere also praying and we join with them and the whole company of heaven. In the near future we will be able to meet another household and eat together. What about giving thanks at the start of a meal and breaking bread, remembering it was in just such an action that those travellers on the road to Emmaus met Jesus. Perhaps we can learn to “be church” in a new way, not dependent upon a building, but dependent on being a community of believers. Let’s really take to heart and put into practice those words of St Paul to the Colossians church, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him”.
15th June 2020
Two roads diverged in a wood and I –
I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference. Robert Frost
What is the new normal going to be like?
There is no shortage of competing facts and predictions.
On the one hand – over 40,000 UK Covid 19 related deaths, a dramatic economic downturn and increasing levels of unemployment along with warnings about a second virus spike, some sort of social distancing for the foreseeable future, increasing mental stress and domestic violence, a backlog of delayed hospital treatments and deepening social inequality.
On the other – cleaner air, the success of working from home and on line meetings, dramatic reductions in the use of coal, huge demonstrations for racial justice, the news that 80 organisations have requested the Scottish Government to use this crisis as a springboard for improved socially equality and 200 top UK firms and investors have demanded that the UK Government build a green recovery.
Jesus also lived at a time of crisis. Roman rule was spreading out into all the known world. It brought an end to a long sequence of civil wars and invasions. The Pax Romana was good for trade and business flourished and a self-congratulating Caesar Augustus claimed to be Son of God, Prince of Peace and Light of the World! But Roman rule was ruthless – taxes rose steeply especially for the poorest, and exploitation of the weak by the rich and powerful was both expected and easy for those in power. For the poorest life was increasingly unsustainable. More and more homeless and workless people, like Lazarus, lay starving at the gates of the rich Sadducee families, tax farmers and temple bureaucrats. In this polarised situation Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God, a cumbersome English phrase trying to convey a transformed society in the world; a new creation governed according to God’s will. In this Kingdom, which Jesus saw himself inaugurating, social justice and personal integrity (righteousness in biblical language) are as central as faith.
In our coronavirus crisis it’s obvious that we should be concerned for and pray for those who are sick and dying, for the bereaved and those suffering acute mental stress because they work on the front line or are lonely and isolated in lockdown or facing unemployment or the ruin of cherished dreams. And it’s also easy to long for a return to the normal we knew before all this started. But can we also hold on to that bigger, wider vision of a world transformed into God’s Kingdom, a world of social justice and personal integrity, where exploitation of people and exploitation of the planet are reduced?
Crisis – from the Greek krisis meaning the moment of decision, a crossover, time to choose. But what do we choose, as individuals, as a church, as a nation?
- A return of the old, safe and familiar normal in spite of all its growing inequalities and injustices?
- Or do we risk going down the road less travelled, the one that leads towards the Kingdom, God’s transformed world?
The first may well be impossible anyway, but the second demands an unusually high level of political will and leadership if we are to rise to that challenge at a more than personal level. A lot to pray for but all encapsulated in some words we know well –
Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done – on earth
9th June 2020
Todays meditation comes from Laura Symon
Today is the feast of St Columba – or Colmcille, as we call him at home. Credited with spreading the gospel throughout Scotland, Columba spent some of his early years at Movilla Abbey, only 4 miles away from where I grew up and is perhaps most strongly associated with Iona Abbey, that wonderful community devoted to peace, prayer and social justice. As an Irish expatriate to Scotland, he is very dear to my heart – I think of him when I sit on the Stena Line, though his journey in a wicker currach was neither so direct nor so comfortable!
The stories of Columba’s life are colourful – full of political intrigue, dangerous seafaring and even a rumoured face-off with the Loch Ness Monster! Columba himself was devoted to prayer, and delightful stories of his prayer life are still in existence. He would frequently steal away from his community at night to spend time with God, would pray all night long in vigils, and even experienced visits from angels! Several of his prayers and poems have been recorded and within them, one can find this lovely line:
‘Delightful it is to live on a peaceful isle,
in a quiet cell,
serving the King of kings.’
Like those in other monastic communities, the monks of Iona had their own dedicated space, or cell. These little unadorned huts were not merely living spaces, but centres of their personal devotion and prayer. The stone foundations of these small homes can still be seen dotted around the island.
These words of Columba offer us something during this time – though our isles may not feel quite so peaceful these days. During lockdown, our worlds have shrunk. Pre-COVID we had workspaces, cafés, shops, hill walks, visitors, church – now, we live in semi-seclusion, each in our own quiet cells. Working out how to live life fully in that space doesn’t always come easily.
Yet for many years – and still today – men and woman have been making something beautiful of that quiet time in a single place. Even when we are alone in a room, there is still work being done in serving the King of kings through our prayer and praise. Perhaps we hum a hymn while we cook or thank God earnestly for the birdsong that comes through the window. Perhaps, like the monks, we follow a routine of daily prayer and intercession for others. All of this is important work in God’s kingdom, and like Columba, we can learn to take great joy in it. The task of serving the King of kings is still possible in our own small spaces, and perhaps we can use this experience to see new ways of doing so as we spend time with Him, who is always ready to join us in our homes. May we use this time in our own quiet cells to learn to ‘pray without ceasing’ to the God who was so present for Columba, and still is to us today.
3rd June 2020
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
2nd June 2020
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’.
30th May 2020
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!
25th May 2020
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
stark against the bare crossed limbs of a tree…”
20th May 2020
‘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
19th May 2020
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’:
18th May 2020
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!
16th May 2020
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!
13th May 2020
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.
12th May 2020
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.
11th May 2020
Last week we had the most beautiful sunny days, cloudless skies and temperatures well over 16 degrees. Yesterday we had a bitterly cold wind and snow showers. Today is not quite so cold but I have not yet dared to put my baby tomato plants out again as they will be shivering in their beds!
The weather is always a great topic for conversation and even in lockdown it remains so- perhaps more so, as we all have so much more time to notice it, even if we are out in it less that in normal! But the changing nature of the weather led me to think about one of my favourite verses from the Bible
“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning.”
This text comes from the book of Lamentations which is, exactly as you might imagine it to be, a bit of a moan. In fact, it is quite a serious moan that runs to five very depressing acrostic poems! But right in the middle of all the woe is this gem about God’s faithfulness, his mercy, and his love. It is a line that is perhaps best well known as a hymn and is often a great favourite with congregations…
“Great is thy Faithfulness, O God my Father,
There is no shadow of turning with thee.
Thou changest not, thy compassions they fail not,
As thou hast been thou forever wilt be.”
The steadfastness of God, his total reliability and his unchanging love have been testified to by countless disciples through the ages. Unlike the weather, God does not change. He does not blow hot and cold. We, on the other hand, go up and down. We have good days and bad ones, high days of sunshine and laughter and then black days of rain and gloom. Particularly in lock down, you may have noticed your mood swings more. Without many of the distractions that so often help us and, with a general undercurrent of anxiety and fear, many are discovering that they are far more prone to emotional fluctuations. This is quite normal and whilst we may find it difficult and uncomfortable, we can take comfort from the fact that God never changes. He is always the same, ready each new morning to offer us his love and mercy, compassion, and presence. Little wonder that the Psalms often refer to God as our rock, a fortress and stronghold. He does not alter, he does not fail us, he does not give us misleading signals like the weather. He is the same, yesterday, today, and forever.
So, whether we have winter or summer today, whatever our mood, be it up or down, may we experience the peace that comes from knowing we have a constant and faithful God. Let us come to him who will grant us his love, mercy, and all that we need, this day and new every morning.
8th May 2020
We have been blessed in the Highlands with some wonderful weather this week and it has been a great pleasure to exercise in such lovely conditions. It also has given me time to take some photos whilst walking and to try and capture some of the beauty that we are surrounded with. This week it has been the Whins that have caught my attention. Whins, as I now know, is the Scottish name for the gorse bushes that are prolific across the Highlands. Their blooms are at their best at this time of year and they light up the landscape with their bright yellow colour.
Looking at the sea of sunshine that met me as I walked up on the hills I was reminded of Moses and the burning bush. You will remember that Moses was out looking after the sheep when he saw a bush that appeared to be on fire yet was not burning up. Moses says, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight….”
It is when he turns aside that he then hears God calling to him. God warns him to take his shoes off as the ground he is standing on is holy ground. It is then that God commissions Moses to go and lead his people out of slavery in Egypt.
It is a wonderful encounter that leads to a dramatic Exodus and freedom for the Israelites. It changes Moses’ life for ever as he, albeit somewhat reluctantly, take up the role of leader that God calls him to. It is indeed a holy moment, but it begins with such a simple thing…turning aside to look.
To really look at something or someone requires focus, patience and above all a willingness to give our time and heart fully to someone or something outside of ourselves. These are skills that we can so easily lose, especially in our world where digital machines tick away the minutes of our lives. Our attention is too quickly diverted by the constant barrage of information, the incoming email, post, or twitter feed. When we are constantly distracted then we miss out so much, our lack of awareness impoverishes us, those around us and the wider world. To turn aside, to truly give our undivided attention and heart is to discover the sacred in the mundane, the beyond in the present and the holy, yes, the holy, in a gorse bush! Like the poet, we may come to realise that we are in fact surrounded with signs of Gods presence everywhere and held in his loving, undivided gaze eternally.
Earth's crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God: But only he who sees, takes off his shoes; The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries... Elizabeth Barrett Browning Aurora Leigh:
4th May 2020
I want to share with you a story about this beautiful blue bowl that sits in my study. As you can see it has been broken and then mended with gold glue. it is actually a piece of pottery known as Kintsugi and there is a wonderful legend from Japan where this art form comes from.
Once there was an Emperor who loved the beautiful pots and vases made by craftsman in his country. He had a wonderful collection that he loved to show off to visitors. This year there were to be many visitors as his son was to be invested as crown prince of the Empire he had created. For the occasion, the Emperor had a beautiful new bowl made which took pride of place in one of this cabinets.
The day before the investiture however there was a tragedy. The beautiful bowl was found broken in several pieces. No-one knew how it had happened, but the Emperor was devastated. He showed the broken pieces to his son and together they mourned its loss.
Later that day the courtiers came in distress to the Emperor. The broken pieces of the pot had disappeared along with the royal crown that the prince was to be given the following day. Moreover, the prince had locked himself in his rooms. Smoke was seen coming from the chimney of his apartment, but he would admit no-one.
The day of the investiture dawned. Early in the morning the courtiers went to wake the king with the news that the pot and the crown had both been returned. The Emperor hurried to the cabinet and sure enough there was the pot. It had been beautifully mended with pure gold holding the broken pieces together. Next to it the crown that was to be laid on his son’s head was slimmer than before, but more beautiful in its simplicity.
The investiture went ahead and as the son reached up to take the crown the Emperor could see the marks and scars on his son’s hands. The Emperor knew then that the kingdom had a most worthy prince.
In Kintsugi what has been broken is not discarded but rather the pieces are recrafted into something more beautiful, something that tells its own unique story and history. Surely that is a lesson for us today. Many are finding that this period of global pandemic has given us a chance to really see how much is broken in our world. Our selfishness, our endless pursuit of money and possessions, our driven lifestyles and pollution of our beautiful planet-the list could go on. At the same time we have seen so much that is good, the sacrifices made by so many on the front line, the sense of community, looking after our neighbours, spending time with our loved ones, breaking out of the cycle of materialism and pressure. Giving the planet time to breathe and recover from the harm we have inflicted on it and seeing again just how beautiful it can be.
In the hands of a skilful potter what has been broken can be mended. May we offer up our brokenness to the wounded hands of Christ. His love, like gold, will gather these shattered pieces and remake them. All that is good will be kept and used as by his grace he moulds each one of us afresh into something beautiful to behold.
1st May 2020
Today I have been thinking about sheep in preparation for our streamed worship this coming Sunday. The text this week from John 10 is about Jesus as the shepherd and, alongside that, the beautiful and well known 23rd Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd.”
You will be able to hear my thoughts on “sheepy” things if you join me here on the website on Sunday at 10.30 on the worship page. In the meantime, I want to share with you a lovely story about the 23rd Psalm that has stayed with me for many years.
Once, there was a great orator who was asked to speak at a public gathering. He was met with great acclaim and applause and asked to come back on for an encore. When he did so he asked the audience to suggest something he could recite. An old minster in the audience asked him for the 23rd Psalm. He agreed on the condition that the minister also recited the same piece. It was agreed, and the orator stood up and read the psalm in his wonderful voice. He was again given rapturous applause. Then the old minister stood up. His voice was weak and worn but he began.
“The Lord is MY Shepherd…”
At the end there was a very long, emotional silence and then the orator with tears in his eyes stood up,
“I know the psalm, he said, but you, you know the Shepherd.”
29th April 2020
On my weekly trip to the supermarket I tried again today to buy flour and brown sugar. Again, the shelves were bare, and I know the reason why. With everyone in lockdown the nation has suddenly become an army of bakers and cooks, everyone turning to their recipe books or the Bake Off for inspiration. And it is not just baking. With time on their hands people are again rediscovering all sorts of old hobbies and starting new ones. From sewing to woodwork, art to collage, DIY to gardening, reading to growing veg it seems we are again finding pleasures in the simple things of life. I am enjoying baking more -even if my flapjack was so hard you could break your teeth on it! I am playing my piano more and reading more- finding new treasures on my bookshelves and rereading much loved books. I am enjoying the pleasure of seeing a newly weeded garden bed and the smell of soup rising in the kitchen. Small things but things that should not be despised nor taken for granted. And from small beginnings great things can grow. I am sure there will be many of us who hope that what we have learned about the value of small things during this time of lockdown will change the way we live in the future. Getting off the treadmill of daily life and allowing the grass to quite literally grow under our feet has certainly given me time to pause, reflect and realise just how important the little things can be in bringing joy and a sense of God’s peace into my life.
There is a Bible verse that comes to mind. After the Exiles returned to Jerusalem, they set out to rebuild the Temple which had been destroyed. They were grieved at how small and insignificant they and their efforts seemed. But God came to encourage them with these words.
“Do not despise the day of small things….”
The small beginning did eventually lead to the temple being rebuilt, the Temple that Jesus himself was to come to and teach in. From beginnings small as mustard seeds, great things can grow in God’s kingdom and in the lives of those whom He has given so many simple good things to enjoy.
I asked the people of St James and St Anne’s to send me photos of the things that they were doing in lockdown. These photos show just how many of us are finding real joy in the small things of life.
27th April 2020
“The world is charged with the grandeur of God….”
So begins one of my favourite poems from Gerald Manley Hopkins. The question then is this:
“Have I noticed?”
One of the joys of living in the Highlands at this time of year is the sudden lengthening of the days. From the very, very, short hours of daylight in winter, we are suddenly blessed with ever longer hours of light. (The view below was taken at 8.45pm out of my house capturing the sunset over our lovely St James Church.) And not only longer hours of light but what an amazing light it is! The evening sky is a constantly changing palette of blues, turquoise, dusky pink, red, shade of green and graduated greys. And then the first stars start appearing, small celestial fires lighting up the dark and gladdening the heart. Even on days when the sky is overcast if you look closely you can see hundreds of variations in shade and pattern.
And then there is the whole panorama of nature and wildlife to take note of. From looking out the window into the garden I can see green everywhere…grass, hedges, trees, all bursting into life. Blossom on the hedges, flowers in full spring outfits, blackbirds nesting, sparrows and robins coming to join me as I garden. Everywhere, if I but take time to look, really look, I can see signs of life, hope and newness. And more than that, signs of God.
When Jesus wanted to talk about God, he did not use long theological terms, he did not expound theories or doctrine. Nor did he sit inside a temple or synagogue. He sat outside in a field, or in a boat at the shore, or on a hill. He pointed at the birds of the air, the flowers of the field, the woman sweeping her house or baking bread, the gardener, the shepherd, the fisherman at work. Everyday people and places and things that could become opportunities for learning about God if people would but pay attention.
With lockdown it seems to me that we have so many more opportunities to “consider the lilies” as Jesus put it. More time to look at the sky, the trees, the world around us. To see signs of God’s grace in the friendly face at the checkout, the wave from the neighbour, the fresh eggs on the doorstep from a friend. A fresh chance to re-orientate our lives, to take stock and to learn to pay attention to the signs of God all around us. Try switching off the endless news cycle and see if you can read instead the daily news of God’s care, love and help by really paying attention to the world around where you are.
According to the Jewish Talmud, every blade of grass has an angel bending over it whispering, “Grow, grow.” Maybe we all just need to start looking a bit more closely……..
26th April 2020
The world around us is still very scary and we are all feeling anxious, overwhelmed and helpless, not sure how or when things are going to get back to some sort of normal! However there are also signs that perhaps we don’t want to go back to that old normal, signs that the world and those around us are beginning to appreciate that life is better in many ways, families are spending time together, communities are pulling together like never before and creation is being restored to its original beauty – rivers and oceans are clearer, the air is fresher and nature is coming alive again – we can hear the birds singing! So much that is better because we have had to put life on hold – had to leave our cars at home, had to stop shopping continuously and had to take time for ourselves. At this time I reflect on Henri Nouwen’s words in “The Way to the Heart” which seem particularly pertinent:
Small signs of friendliness can create much joy, and small disturbances between people much sadness, while the “great events” of the day often do not touch us so deeply. An unexpected note from a friend or the passing remark of a neighbor can make or break your day emotionally….But how little do we use this knowledge? What is easier than writing a thank you note, than sending a card “just to say hello” or give a call “just to see how things have been”? Still, I realize that every time someone says, “I liked your talk” or “I appreciated your remark” or “Your note really helped” or “You really seem to feel at home here” – I feel my inner life being lifted up and the day seems brighter, the grass greener, the snow whiter than before. Indeed, the great mystery is that a small, often quite immaterial gesture can change my heart so much.
In these days of “social distancing,” “shelter in place” and quarantine, reaching out to encourage someone else is the best antidote to isolation, distress and fear. A note, a card, a call, even just a comment (and certainly a prayer!) can be a ray of sunshine into the heart of someone else. The inner life of another can be lifted up and their day can be made brighter by just a small effort on our part. Let’s all be emissaries of hope, reflecting the grace, mercy and love of God in the midst of troubled times.
22nd April 2020
This monastery is in central Greece and some years ago we went to stay at the invitation of one of the monks. We arrived on 1 May, a feast day of its founder, the 12th century St Klemis (Clement) and went along to the special evening service. It concluded with the saint’s silver encrusted skull being brought out and everyone present was invited to come forward to kiss the skull. Being very much a product of the Church of England I had a rooted suspicion of relics and even more of kissing them! But I did not want to offend our hosts and so I took part. It proved to be a very memorable moment; an unexpected and very strong sense of continuity, of connection over the centuries, of a relationship with Klemis and all those who had lived, worshipped and prayed there. That sense of continuity with the past is something almost every professional or amateur archaeologist also feels when they dig up something that was last seen and held by someone hundreds or thousands of years ago. I recently came across a poem which sums up that experience beautifully. It tells of the accidental discovery of a Viking burial under the kitchen of a Hebridean croft house and concludes with these words:
Their own under-floor Viking,
An unsuspected silent witness
To long centuries of habitation,
To the generations’ ebb and flow,
To each current and cross-current.
And now at last they meet up,
As the penannular centuries
Converge, close and connect.
St Klemis’s monastery sits on top of a high and isolated mountain with magnificent views over the fertile fields that spread in all directions. It’s a breathtakingly airy place where it’s easy to become aware of another connection, that sense of being at one with the whole world, the whole universe. No wonder Klemis and hundreds of followers chose to live and pray there. Down the centuries the monks built the Catholicon, the main church, and like most Orthodox churches it is designed and decorated so that to enter it is to be surrounded and enfolded by icons, frescos, mosaics – visual glimpses of eternity, of the colliding and collapse of our distinction of time into past, present and future.
All these are moments of connection or places of connection – and there are many other, different examples. Such experiences are pointers to a deeper connection to that which lies both within all and also behind and beyond all, to God.
At this time when the more normal connections of meeting and greeting, talking, praying and worshipping, sharing in the Eucharist together are on hold, it can help to recall our past experiences of connection and to seek out those which are still available to us and thus renew our connectivity in order that, as Eunice Tietiens put it;
Yet having known, life will not press so close,
and always I shall feel time ravel thin about me;
For once I stood
In the white windy presence of eternity
21st April 2020
The weather in the Highlands has been glorious these last few days. Blessed with a few days off after Easter I was able to walk and enjoy the sudden arrival of Spring. Everywhere I looked there were signs of new life, crocuses and daffodils, birds nesting and trees budding into life and, best of all, the “new-green”, as I call it. That distinctive shade of green that tells you it is fresh and new, a green that can be seen even if there is a late frost or a cold wind. A green that shines in the sudden warmth of the sun and reflects under blue sky. A young green that is full of hope and promise.
In this world of Covid-19 in which we all find ourselves, we have had to face so much unexpected death and grief. Our hearts feel perhaps as though winter will never pass, that the season of mourning, sadness, and fear in which we find ourselves may linger forever. It can be hard to see the new life springing around us when loved ones are lost, when life as we know it has been halted, when fear is rife, and uncertainty clouds our future. Yet, even in the midst of death, God comes to bring us comfort and hope. To remind us that although we walk through dark valleys of death and fear now, He can and will bring us out to still waters and green pastures again.
Life will never be the same for any of us. For those who have lost loved one’s, life can never again be as it was. For those who have lost income, livelihood, independence, there is a different kind of grieving. For those who are serving on the front-line images and memories that will continue to linger and possibly haunt long after this is over. For those who are isolated and alone, those who are afraid…for none of us life can be the same again. But there can be a new season, a new greenness. The poet George Herbert puts this so beautifully in his poem “The Flower”. His shrivelled and grieving heart had given up hope. He had gone into the darkness underground and been lost to life and light. Yet, Christ his light comes and again he knows that new green of life springing up again in him.
How fresh, oh Lord, how sweet and clean
Are thy returns! even as the flowers in spring;
To which, besides their own demean,
The late-past frosts tributes of pleasure bring.
Grief melts away
Like snow in May,
As if there were no such cold thing.
Who would have thought my shriveled heart
Could have recovered greenness? It was gone
Quite underground; as flowers depart
To see their mother-root, when they have blown,
Where they together
All the hard weather,
Dead to the world, keep house unknown.
And now in age I bud again,
After so many deaths I live and write;
I once more smell the dew and rain,
And relish versing. Oh my only light……
That lovely Easter hymn “Love is Come again” reminds us that Christ rose from the dead and that out of death and darkness he can bring light and life and greenness to our hearts again.
“When our hearts are wintry, grieving or in pain
Thy touch can call us back to life again,
Field of our hearts, that dead and bare have been….
Love is come again,
Like wheat that springeth green”
11th April 2020
Great Lord of Life-
Yet, on this day
There is no stirring in your grave.
No sound to break
The silent stone
That holds your body, cold, alone.
No ray of sun
Can enter here
To pierce the age-old dark of fear.
No breath of air
To halt the rush
Of your decaying flesh to dust.
Great Lord of Life
You come no more
To knock upon my hearts’ closed door…
Yet bitter irony indeed
My heart lies bare, your Cross the key
Dead Lord of Life to thee!
10th April 2020
Two quite different pieces of poetry and a painting to contemplate
In My Beginning, My End
even at that moment
as you entered the world you had made
a shadow of the death to come.
As your young lungs gasped for air
that so also would be your last breath
struggling for life in a suffocating body.
And in that cry-
for all babies cry when they leave the security of their mother’s womb-
an echo of another
as you were
by your Father
to a cruel world’s murderous intent.
when they laid you in a borrowed manger
swaddled, as in grave cloth
did your yet unfocused eyes
see the myrrh
lying on the stable floor.
From the Dream of the Rood
” ……I saw the Lord of Hosts
Outstretched in agony, darkness had covered with clouds
the corpse of the world’s ruler
the bright day was darkened by a deep shadow
all its colours clouded; all creation wept
keened for its King’s fall; Christ was on the rood.”
The Dream of the Rood is one of the earliest Christian poems and in the genre of dream poetry. Rood is from the Old English word rod ‘pole’, or more specifically ‘crucifix’. A part of The Dream of the Rood can be found on the 8th century Ruthwell Cross.
In My Beginning anon
Christ on the Cross 1632 Diego Velazquez
8th April 2020
Today I have been thinking about the passage we find in John 12 v 1-8 where we find Jesus at the home of Mary and Martha again. We have already met with them earlier in our series of meditations, and here we again find Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus. This time however she doesn’t just listen, she acts. She takes a box of perfume, worth about a year’s wages and anoints Jesus feet with the perfume. Then, she lets loose her hair, and in a very intimate and unorthodox fashion she wipes the perfume into his feet with her hair.
I wish that I had seen her…right there in front of her brother and sister, in front of all the disciples and possibly others besides. It was very much against the Jewish tradition for a woman to appear with her hair unbound in front of men, yet, in a room full of men, Mary does just that. Freed from the conventions of her time by her love for Jesus she anoints him with perfume and in so doing fills the whole house with the scent.
Mary showed her feelings for Jesus…and we should not be afraid to do the same. In our strange, broken and grieving world today we can, like Mary, pour out our hearts to him. Words are not necessary. Jesus hears the unspoken cries of our hearts. Hearts that are broken with grief, hearts that hearts that are full of fear and anxiety, hearts that are uncertain what the next day will bring. Hearts that are exhausted with caring, hearts that are heavy with loneliness and isolation, hearts that fear death. Pour them out onto Jesus feet, wash them with your loving tears. And then know this. That Jesus will take all that suffering, fear and pain, all that sin and sorrow and bear it for you. He will carry it with him to the cross and there he will die for it. And then, on Easter Day, he will come through that death to offer you hope and healing, peace for today and strength for tomorrow and the promise of a new heaven and earth. Wherever and however you find yourself today- be like Mary, go and pour out your heart to Jesus.
7th April 2020
Today I have been thinking about Jesus cleansing the Temple. In some ways this follows on from my comments last week about how Christ dwelling in us means that we, in a mysterious way, become the temple of the Holy Spirit, Christ in us opening up our whole lives to the presence of God as an ever present reality. This is a wonderful truth but also, as I look at this painting of Jesus cleansing the Temple, a very challenging one. What is there in the temple of my heart that needs cleansing? What have I in my life that needs to be swept clean so that Christ can more fully enter?
Hard questions to answer, challenging ones. As I look at this painting by Carl Heinrich Bloch, I am reminded that our God is a holy God who calls on his disciples to also be holy, to worship only him. How often do I worship at the altars of commerce, popularity, success, possessions? What would Christ overturn in my life if would let him in more fully?
It may be Holy Week, but it has been the lines of a Christmas carol that have been running through my head as I pondered this. Not, perhaps, a carol that you may know, but one that in my Methodist childhood I loved to sing. The carol is “Cradled in a Manger Meanly” by George Rowe and I leave you with these words to contemplate as you walk with Christ as He enters the Temple and sweeps clean God’s house, Gods house of prayer.
Evil things are there before Thee;
In the heart, where they have fed,
Wilt Thou pitifully enter,
Son of Man, and lay Thy head?
6th April 2020
Today’s meditation from Rev Barbara Chandler currently working with Covid-19 patients in Raigmore Hospital, Inverness.
1 As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.
2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?
3 My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, ‘Where is your God?’
4 These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I went with the throng and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival.
5 Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.
My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar.
7 Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts; all your waves and your billows have gone over me.
8 By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.
9 I say to God, my rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me? Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?’
10 As with a deadly wound in my body, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me continually, ‘Where is your God?’
11 Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.
The manner in which we are preparing for Easter, the manner in which we live our every- day lives is a world away from how we prepared for and celebrated Christmas. Do you remember the days in which you could meet for coffee, wander into the supermarket without the slightest concern that there might not be any toilet rolls? The queues at checkouts were annoying because it was crowded and you would jostle against other people!
We now live in an alien world and connecting via the internet is good, but it is not the “real thing”. It feels as if we have already been in this strange land for years and yet it is only a couple of weeks and it will not last for ever, but it may seem at times to be never ending.
The psalmist recognised the longing of the soul to feel “at home” again. We don’t feel at home in this internet-based community and that in turn can lead us to ask, ‘how can I meet with God’.
Holy week would have brought us together to walk, as a family, the journey of Christ to the cross, supporting each other through our reflections at evening prayer, through the Good Friday services and into the joy and celebration of Easter Sunday. We will make this journey together, but as a dispersed family. As we try and adjust to this strange land we may cry out with the psalmist in verse 2, “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God”. Similar words cry out in Psalm 137, “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” In addition to our own lament we may face questions from others, “Where is your God” verse 3 and 10. Where is God when the hospital fills and people are frightened. Where is God when relatives are turned away and told to remain at home. Where is God when a staff member is exhausted and the tears come. Where is God when the longing to just meet with someone face to face is a physical pain.
Two thousand years ago where was God as people turned from the law of love, to paths of cruelty, greed, self-interest and pride? God was in Jesus, walking the path to the cross, bearing all that was wrong and redeeming the world. God was, and is, in the midst of the mess.
Today God is in the hands of the health workers, clad in gowns and masks looking anything but human and yet a gloved hand gently squeezes the hand of frail and frightened patient and says “you are safe, I am here with you, we won’t leave you on your own”. God is there as medication is discussed, “how can we make this person comfortable and allay their fears”. God is there in the words of comfort given to relatives over the phone. God is there as a colleague seeing someone at the point of exhaustion says, “when did you have a break, come and have a cup of tea”. Acts of compassion that are not text book management of covid infections abound and each act of compassion is an act of love, an act in which as a Christian I see the work of the Spirit, the love of God. Northumbria Community morning prayer includes the plea, “…be in the heart of each to whom I speak; in the mouth of each who speaks unto me.” We are all made in the image of God and within each person, God is there, perhaps not recognised, but nevertheless the spring-water of the soul longs to flow forth. Kindness and goodness, fruits of the Spirit are bursting forth everywhere. Look at the dedication of all the shop workers, delivery drivers, police, fire service, the kindness of neighbours, of young people, the list could go on and on.
And so like the psalmist who asks, “Why are you so downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me?” Can we reply “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God.”
5th April 2020
A Reflection on Gethsemane By Revd Norma Higgott- Chaplain at Highland Hospice, Inverness.
36 Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
40 Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. 41 “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
42 He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”
43 When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. 44 So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.
45 Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour has come, and the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners.
As we begin another Sunday on lockdown I thought I would just share a short reflection on the passage I was preparing to preach on this Sunday. Our lives at the moment are so very different, as I drove to work at the Hospice today I was very aware of the empty roads, apart from a few very necessary delivery lorries, and of the lack of people moving about. However I was also aware of the birds singing and the sounds of the wind and rain as I walked into the Hospice and I was very aware of the tensions that abound as I talked to folk who like me are continuing to work and bring comfort and compassion to patients and that is so very hard for some folk to cope with – we are fearful of what might be about to happen to us, although prepared to be there for the folk who rely on us and need our care. We are all, whether we are out working or staying at home, seeking some way of coping with that fear and the unprecedented changes that are happening around us!
Today’s passage talks to us in this situation because Jesus here is also afraid, he is sorrowful and troubled and overwhelmed, just as we are, and while he is feeling that way he shows us one way to cope with it – he goes apart a little way from his disciples with just a few chosen ones and he goes to pray. Now we may not be able in the current situation to go with others but we can all pray with others at a distance – we can pray at the same time – we can go online and hear others praying with and for us all – we can pray quietly by ourselves knowing that others are doing the same.
But what should we be praying? Perhaps again exactly the same as Jesus – , “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” Maybe we won’t be able to escape this virus, even if we really want to and do everything we can to make that happen, but if we can pray as Jesus did, not as I will but as you will – we can then likewise commend ourselves to God’s loving mercy and support through what may happen. Jesus knows what is about to happen to him and he would really like for it to pass him by but he knows that he can’t control things and he freely offers that control to God, to his loving, compassionate Father with the words “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.” Perhaps we too may have to drink the cup but if we do, let’s do it in the sure knowledge that God loves us and will be with us each step of the way.
Prayer is a wonderfully powerful thing and shared prayer is incredibly healing and comforting but at times like these we sometimes forget that even if we are not in the same space we can all be in the same place as we pray together/apart. Let us hold one another and all those affected by what’s happening in loving, healing prayer and look to Jesus who truly is the best example we can have of how to accept what is happening while commending ourselves and the situation to God.
Holding you all in loving prayer with some words sent to me recently by one of my fellow hospice chaplains as encouragement in this time of fear and anxiety.
God most high and holy,
all things are in your hands.
Your holy Word invites us to trust in you
and to be fearless
even when the earth gives way,
when the mountains fall into the sea,
when the waters roar and foam,
when nations are in an uproar,
and even in the valley of the shadow of death.
Hear the cries of your people
as we live in a world full of fear.
With your unlimited power,
with your boundless presence,
with your knowledge of all things, fill our hearts
with your peace that surpasses understanding.
When things are uncertain,
and crises are unseen, draw us to you,
to your certain Word and promise,
to your dear Son who suffered for us,
and to your enduring promise
never to leave us or forsake us.
and uphold us
in these difficult
and confusing times.
Fill us with faith in you,
with desires to serve our neighbours in love,
and to be strong and take heart
as we wait for you to work your good purpose
for the good of those who love you;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Source: Paul C. Stratman, A Collection of Prayers, March 16, 2020, during the COVID-19 / Corona Virus crisis.
With love and prayers. Norma (Revd Norma Higgott)
4th April 2020
I have today been thinking about his strange new world in which we find ourselves. Yesterday I took a funeral service by Skype. The family were unable to be present, so, the service was streamed live to them. Hard yes, but also moving as those working at the firm came to sit in the service to be present and offer their respects, to share in the sense of universal grief of humanity. As John Donne so eloquently put it “any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind.”
I also had the strange experience of blessing palm crosses in an empty church and then stuffing them into envelopes. – all done wearing disposable gloves! After that I walked down the deserted high street to the post office. Here I engaged in the new dance- otherwise known as social distancing whilst getting stamps. I then discovered that trying to put self-adhesive stamps on envelopes whilst wearing disposable gloves is tricky!
Everything is somewhat surreal, and we are all having to work out new ways of living and being in this strange place. What it brought to mind for me was a line from Psalm 137. The people of Israel have been carried away into captivity in Babylon and their captors taunt them, asking them to sing songs of mirth. The people reply…
“How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”
They remember how they used to sing as they went with joy and in procession up to the temple at Jerusalem, how they sang God’s praises in that holy place. Now, exiled and far from home they long to be back where they belong, they long to worship as they once did.
As we enter Holy Week, we may find ourselves feeling something similar to those Israelites long ago. We cannot worship as we had planned to here for our special Palm Sunday words and music. We cannot come to Compline to be still and quiet as we journey through these last days of Christ. We cannot participate together in the moving drama of Maundy Thursday, nor gather around the foot of the Cross on Good Friday. In this strange and alien world in which we find ourselves, how shall we sing the Lord’s song this Easter?
Well, I think with new songs of worship that are open to us precisely because of Easter! We no longer need a temple to worship in, for Jesus Himself is the new temple, the one in whom we can all meet with God. He has opened the way into the presence of God and invites each one of us to come in and worship God in spirit and in truth. Of course we will all find it very hard not to worship together, to be a pilgrim people journeying with one another through Holy Week, but that does not mean that we cannot draw near to God in our own homes. We can pray, read the Gospel accounts of Jesus final week, sit with him at the Last Supper, follow him to Gethsemane. We can sing the old familiar Easter hymns and worship in our hearts and lives, knowing as we do so that we are one in Spirit, if not in body.
Finally come Easter Day we can declare again that Jesus Christ is risen, he has conquered death, sin and fear. And we can join with countless men and women of faith across the whole world and with those who now worship on another shore….. a new song, a song of trust in Jesus Christ, the one who was and is and is to come, the Lamb upon the throne. To him be glory for ever!
2nd April 2020
I was reminded this morning of a curious phrase in Luke’s Gospel where we read that Jesus “set his face towards Jerusalem.” (Luke 9 v 51). It quite simply means that Jesus was determined on his course of action. He knew what he would meet: betrayal, arrest, beatings, mocking and an agonising death. And yet, knowing what lay ahead, he still set his face towards Jerusalem.
What Jesus faced was a battle with the powers of sin and evil for the whole world – a battle against death itself. And Jesus had an option. He could have chosen not to go to Jerusalem. He could have remained safe by staying away from the city. He could have gone on travelling around teaching and healing the sick. He could have gone on to train up more disciples, to enjoy friendship and laughter, to eat at the home of Martha and Mary, to look after his mother and the other women who had gathered around him. But Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem.
Why? Because of love. Because of grace. Because of mercy. He alone could conquer sin and death and for that to happen he had to go to Jerusalem.
Like Jesus on that road we, his creation, find ourselves on a long and difficult road in the grip of this virus. Behind the grim daily death toll lies a world suffering, afraid, a strange world of isolation and for some death. But it was precisely to save us from this that Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem. To face down the powers of sin and evil and conquer them. To offer a way of through suffering and bring redemption. To defeat the final enemy of death itself and rise victorious.
Covid- 19 may stalk the world, but it will not have the final word. The final word belongs to Christ on the cross; “It is finished.” And on to that glorious Easter morning, the death of death and the path to eternal life open for all who will follow.
As we walk through this difficult time let us remember this Passiontide, that Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem for our sake precisely so that we should not walk this path alone. He has gone before us; he has already defeated the enemies of sin and fear of sickness and death. He meets us, and just as he said to his disciples on the lake as they struggled with the waves that threatened to overpower them:
“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
March 31st 2020
Today has been a busy day for me trying to master new technology and produce various things for the parish. I also went out on my weekly shop and learned how to keep my distance in the aisles at the supermarket. It struck me that we must look quite amusing-as though we are all engaged in some new dance that no-one quite knew the steps for!
It was, however, very encouraging to see that people were being so aware of others, making space for them and everyone seemed quite calm as they adjusted to this new way of getting their groceries
We are all having to learn new ways of living at the moment as Barbara so aptly commented in her meditation yesterday. For some that will be an increased work- load, for others a much slower one, for others a different way of working, for many frustration that they cannot be doing more. As I reflected on her words, I found myself drawn to this prayer which I share with you. It is taken from the Book of Common Prayer (1940).
“This is another day, O Lord. I know not what it will bring forth, but make me ready, Lord, for whatever it may be. If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely. If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly. If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently. And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly. Make these words more than words; give me the Spirit of Jesus. Amen.”
It reminded me of something St Paul said;
“I have learned to be content with whatever I have. 12I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
Philippians 4 v 11-13
30th March 2020
Todays meditation comes from Rev Dr Barbara Chandler. Barbara is a member of the ministry team at St James and St Anne’s who works as a consultant at Raigmore Hospital, Inverness.
The gospel set for Sunday 29th March is John 11:1-45. It is the familiar account of Jesus’ friends Martha, Mary and their brother Lazarus. We are familiar with the caricature of the two sisters one always busy, busy, busy; the other reflective, dreaming, pondering.
As we enter the second week of lockdown I know that many are struggling, some because they are too busy and some because they are at home with none of the usual daily activities. I wonder if within each of us there is a Martha and a Mary side to our character? Sometimes one should take precedence over the other and sometimes we get it right and sometimes we get it wrong.
When Jesus visited the sisters as described in Luke chapter 10, Martha kept on with the household tasks rather than sitting for a moment and listening, accepting the invitation to cross the social taboo and as a woman to sit and be taught. I do wonder at other times, when Mary was sitting reflecting, a better form of worship would have been cooking or doing the dishes!
It’s not easy, but I just wonder if we can give thanks for the particular place we find ourselves in just now – if you have more time than you know what to do with, use some of it for prayer. If you have no time because you’re now home schooling, working in one of the many essential jobs and coping with staff sickness, then know that the work of your hands can be prayer and worship, and know also that others are holding you in prayer.
It’s not easy but let’s try and hang on to St Paul’s words
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
29th March 2020
Those two words jumped out at me today as I joined the Bishop of Edinburgh for the online service from his home. These simple online services that bring worship, word and witness into our homes are, for those who are fortunate to be able to see them, very comforting and oddly moving.
The phrase “come and see” is part of the Gospel reading for today and comes from John 11 -the account of the raising of Lazarus. Jesus has arrived too late to save his friend it would seem. He finds Lazarus’ sisters weeping and asks where the body has been laid. “Come and see” they say to him. Jesus follows them to the tomb, greatly moved and disturbed in spirit. He sees the grief and tears, he hears the anguish and sorrow. Then, in two of the most powerful words in the Bible, we read:
For the last few days, I have had an image. It is of Jesus walking the streets of our empty towns. It is of Jesus walking in our deserted schools and playgrounds, in our empty businesses and offices. It is of Jesus walking in our care homes and hospitals. It is of Jesus in intensive care units all over the world. It is of Jesus in morgues and at gravesides. And in each place, Jesus is weeping.
Jesus weeps with those who weep today in fear, sorrow and uncertainty. He weeps with those exhausted, mentally and physically on the medical font line. He weeps with those who cannot visit their loved ones in hospital. He weeps with those who are alone and those who are far from family. Jesus weeps with those who weep today.
It is a profound moment in the life of Jesus as he shares our human sorrow and grief. And we, as his disciples, are called also to share one another’s sorrows, to bear one another’s burdens, to weep with those who weep. (Romans 12 v 15). Like many of you I am sure, I have found myself in tears at times this week seeing the heartache and grief and fear that is stalking our world. I have also been moved to tears by the courage of so many doctors and nurses, carers and front line workers. By the goodness and community spirit shown, by the simple acts of kindness and humanity shining through. The psalmist gives us that lovely image of God watching over us and gathering all our tears into a bottle. Christ weeps with us and keeps count of all our sorrows.
But the phrase. “come and see” also comes at another crucial place in the Bible.. It comes at the tomb on Easter morning. The women come to grieve at the tomb of Jesus, to weep and mourn. But they are met by an angel of the Lord who says:
“Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has ben raised, as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.”
Come and see-see the risen Lord Jesus, the one who has conquered death is here. Come and see -the one who loves you and who is alive for evermore is present with you now. Come and see the one who can bring healing and hope to the fearful and comfort to those who mourn. Come and see- for the one who walks our town and villages in tears is also the risen Lord who brings new life, hope and the promise of peace. Come and see, for the door is open wide and Jesus waits for you.
Come and see
“Do not be afraid, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead and see!I am alive for ever and ever.” Revelation 1 v 17
28th March 2020
So, for the last couple of days I have been thinking about the Sabbath. As many of you will know, that is the name of the Jewish holy day of rest which begins at nightfall on Friday until just after sunset on Saturday. The word sabbath comes from the Hebrew verb Shabbat, meaning to rest from labour, and that takes us back to Genesis 2.
“2And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. 3So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.”
In the Ten Commandments God commands his people to observe the Sabbath and keep it holy. It was a way of life that was, and still is, embedded in Jewish life, culture and faith. Jesus himself taught about it and there are various Sabbath related incidents in the Gospels.
The transition from Sabbath to Sunday is an interesting one. Because the Resurrection, and the new creation that we are in Christ, began on a Sunday, soon the church observed that day instead. Today we still gather to worship on Sundays but the practice of keeping one day of rest, of stopping work, closing shops and businesses, has completely changed in my lifetime. Instead, Sunday has become another day of work for many,of retail, business and leisure opportunities, a major day for sports fixtures and clubs, things on a Sunday undreamed of by a previous generation.
Or perhaps I should say had become, because today and for the foreseeable future many of us will be having an enforced sabbath. We cannot go out to the cinema, to the football match, to wander round a shopping centre. Our lives have been radically changed by Covid-19. It is a horrifying situation, but do you think maybe we are learning from this that we can survive without shopping, working, trading and even, dare I say it, sport, seven days a week? That we can withdraw from ceaseless activity every seven days to rest, to recharge and refocus. To stop the endless round of consumerism and make do with what we have in the house for just one day a week? To spend time together round a table with family sharing a meal instead of rushing out in different directions. To learn that we can face Monday morning so much better because we have had a rest from continual work. That having stepped away from our emails and websites for one day we can actually see with clearer vision and purpose in our work.
Many of you will have seen the reports on how the coronavirus has had a positive effect on our environment. Satellite data from the European Space Agency is showing reduced air pollution in areas hardest hit by the virus. Surely our planet is showing us that, as God ordained, it too needs to rest. It has been trying to get our attention, but this really has brought into focus, on all sorts of levels, that we ignore it’s need for rest at our peril. Of course, as soon as the economy starts again then pollution levels will go back up, but what if we returned to that just six days a week instead of seven?
What if, as Wendell Berry puts it in one of his wonderful sequence of poems about Sabbath, we just sit still for a while?
“I go among trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places
where I left them, asleep like cattle.”
Perhaps we too will then discover that Sabbath brings a new song, one of hope in our current crisis and a kinder way of living for the whole world. A way that that involves doing as our Creator has asked us to- and does himself-resting on the Sabbath.
“After days of labor,
mute in my consternations,
I hear my song at last,
and I sing it. As we sing,
the day turns, the trees move.”
~ Wendell Berry from Sabbaths
It is a beautiful piece and you can find the whole poem and the author reading it here:
25th March 2020
Today has been a very quiet day. A very, very quiet day. Sitting in the house listening to the silence is like hearing the world take a breath, pause, stop.
Where we lived in Hertfordshire meant that although we were in a lovely green spot, the noise of the M1 and the M25 was constantly in the background. Even in the midst of the woods in Mymms park, the hum of traffic was still audible. Since moving to the beautiful Highlands one of the great joys has been going out for walks and listening to the absence of man-made noise. Hearing only sounds of nature-birds singing, small creatures in the undergrowth, wind in the trees, these are gifts that I treasure and never want to take for granted.
But the silence that I have so enjoyed is usually not found in the house or the street where we live. People driving their cars, voices calling out, building works being carried out, the background noise of life going on all around. But not today. Today the streets are deserted, and all the noise of modern life has been largely stilled.
I like silence, but even I find this I this silence daunting. Of course, we can so easily switch on the TV or the radio or stream music to fill that space. But just maybe we can also try to allow God to use it. As I thought about this I was drawn back to the beginning of creation, to Genesis. I don’t think I had ever thought about just how quiet it must have been in the beginning. The first recorded sound in the Bible is breath of God moving over the face of the earth. Then we have the word of God…let there be….and then we have more and more sounds added. The sound of water running, the sound of things growing, seeds popping, twigs breaking and then all manner or sounds of animals and birds and creatures in the sea. And finally, the voice of man( I wonder what mans’ first word was?) And then Adam and Eve fall into sin. We all know the story and we know the consequences. But what drew my attention today was what we are told next. Adam and Eve are ashamed and they hide because,
“they hear the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze.”
They heard God. It is such a beautiful image -God walking around his garden in the cool of the evening. It is something we can all relate to, perhaps especially if you are a gardener! Looking to see what is growing, what perhaps needs a bit of sorting, enjoying the scents of the blossom and the sound of the birds, watching nature all around.
As the world around us falls increasingly quiet, can I encourage you to not rush to fill it with noise, but just take a few moments to dwell on that image. Listen for the footstep of God. He is still walking around his creation. Despite all that we have done to spoil God’s good creation, despite our lack of love and care, our greed and consumption. And yes, despite this virus and its devastating effects, God is still here. Listen for his footstep, take a walk with him, allow HIs silence to heal and strengthen you.
Be still and know that I am God.
Psalm 46 v 10
24th March 2020
Yet, I will rejoice..
So today we have spent our first day as a country in virtual lock down. The grim message delivered by the Prime Minister last night means that we are to stay at home as far as possible, to make no unnecessary journeys or social contact and to only go out once a day for exercise and essential supplies. I am sure you, like me, are trying your best to follow these guidelines. I am equally sure that like me, you are finding life strange and anxious. Nothing is normal and with daily routines and patterns thrown into disarray we have, for the time being, to adapt to new ways of living. Everywhere is deserted and everyone is feeling the fear and uncertainty of what might lie ahead. Many who live alone and those with underlying health issues are particularly vulnerable. What does God have to say to us as we seek to try and hold onto our faith in such circumstances?
As I pondered this, two things came to mind. First, that being people of faith does not mean that we are immune to fear and worry. When we read the Bible, many of the great men and women of faith struggled with fear. King David in the Psalms admits that at times his flesh failed him because he was so afraid. St Paul in Corinthians tells us that he was “troubled on every side, fighting without and fears within.”
Secondly Jesus himself in the Garden of Gethsemane wrestled with overwhelming fear and grief. We are not alone! It is not wrong for us to admit that we are worried or anxious or even walking the house at night because we cannot sleep. We should not berate ourselves for these fears or, in true British fashion, try to pull ourselves together! What we can do is to take our fears to Jesus.
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. Hebrews 4 v 15
Jesus understands and he is with us and will help us in our need.
What we can also do is to rejoice in our God who is far greater that Covid-19. We can rejoice by looking back to what God has done, in our lives and in the lives of countless men and women throughout the ages. We can rejoice in a God who will never give up on us. We can rejoice in a God who has come down himself to save us. This is what we rejoice in. This is who we rejoice in.
The prophet Habakkuk back in 7BC found himself in very troubled times. The country was on the brink of a devastating invasion and marauding armies were about to sweep through the land. In the midst of this terror Habakkuk has a conversation with God about what on earth God think he is doing. It is a short book, but it packs a punch! At the very end of the book Habakkuk realises that he may not understand but by taking his eyes off the circumstances and looking at God instead his begins to feel better. He feels that whatever may come he can trust in God;
“Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights.”
I say Amen to that!
23rd March 2020
Today I took some time out from learning how to become more proficient with websites, social media and streaming services to learn about something completely different-how to prune my blackcurrant bushes! We are very fortunate to have inherited a number of beautiful fruit bushes in the garden and have enjoyed a bountiful harvest of strawberries, raspberries, redcurrants and blackcurrants. As I love blackcurrant jam this has been great and allowed me to enjoy the simple pleasure of making-and eating!- my own jam. The drawback is that whilst I love gardening my skills are quite limited. I have a tendency to merrily cut things back far too drastically and usually at the wrong time of the year! Not wanting to spoil the harvest of soft fruits I took a look at some of the many you tube videos offering a step by step guide. What in theory looks and sounds quite simple was far more daunting when I went and looked at my own bushes, ipad clutched in one hand and secateurs in the other. Was this a one year old stem or a two year old stem? Which was the new growth and which could I safely cut off? At that point I decided it was too cold to stand there for any longer and I would tackle it another day!! But one very clear piece of advice was on all the sites I looked at, and that was to create a hole in the middle of the plant to allow light in and growth to occur that would then bear fruit.
As I thought about this it struck me that perhaps many of us at the moment feel as though there is a hole in the middle of our lives, an empty place which would normally be filled with a thousand and one different things. Things like work, commuting, socialising, shopping, entertaining, being entertained, many things which would keep our lives busy -and often too busy. With so much of our normal lives and routines disrupted we can feel as though our life suddenly has a hole in it. The circumstances that have led to this situation are tragic and together we must do all that we can to combat this dreadful disease by following government guidelines, being sensible and not putting ourselves and others at risk. But, let us also take this opportunity to allow that space in our lives to be a place which God fills. Let us see this as an opportunity to grow closer to God in prayer, in reading his word, in praise and worship. Read a good Christian book, meditate and allow God first and foremost to fill that empty space. So much of what we cram into our lives distracts and distances us from God, May this be a time to remedy that and find, as we do so, that God will give us his peace that passes all understanding.
I am reminded of the lyrics of “Anthem” by Leonard Cohen..”There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Just as tomorrow the secateurs and I will be attempting to let the light in to my blackcurrant bushes, so may the cracks in our world that have been caused by Covid-19 allow the light of Christ to fill the sudden hole in our lives more and more each day, because then, there really will be, a joyful and fruitful harvest.
” Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you…..” Revelation 3 v 20
22nd March 2020 Mothering Sunday
Today is Mothering Sunday, traditionally the day in the year when those working in service, or away from home, were encouraged to return home and visit their families. Often, they would take with them presents of cake and pick flowers from the side of the road as they travelled. It was also the day when people were encouraged to return to their mother church, the church in which they were brought up.
Times may have changed but the tradition of celebrating mothers continues. It is for many a very happy and blessed day, an opportunity to be with loved ones and share a meal, give flowers and enjoy family life. Sadly, for many others, Mother’s Day is a difficult and emotional time for a whole variety of reasons. But whoever we are and whatever Mother’s Day means to us personally, this year we all find ourselves in a different and difficult place where fear and anxiety are rife and where we are actively told to stay away from coming together-either as human or church family. In this time, I find it very comforting to look at this picture- another by Stanley Spencer. The painting is of Jesus encircling a mother hen who is looking after her chicks. One of the smallest chicks is tucked under the mother’s wing, the others are nearby, as is a small sparrow joining them within the circle of Christ’s arm. Those arms of Christ reach out to protect and hold within them the mother and her chicks. This is an image that we often find in the Bible and one that we shall be coming to shortly as we travel through Lent. Having entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday Jesus looks out and laments over the city with these words:
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem……how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gather her brood under her wings, but you were not willing!”
The longing of Christ to protect and gather his people is beautifully encapsulated in this image of a mother hen. But there are also many places in the Old Testament where this image is also to be found, one of which, from Psalm 57, is so fitting for our world today.
“In the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,
until the destroying storms pass by.”
Christ longs to protect and keep us, holding us within his love and encircling us with his presence and that is such a wonderful image to hold onto in our current situation.
Some of you may be familiar with caim prayers. Caim is an old Gaelic word meaning: “protecting”, “encircling” and these simple prayers of faith call upon God to circle us with his love and protection. Below is an example of an old caim prayer that you might like to use for yourself and for others.
Circle me Lord, Keep protection near, and danger afar.
Circle me Lord, Keep light near, and darkness afar.
Circle me Lord, Keep peace within. Keep evil out.
Circle me Lord, Keep hope within. Keep doubt without.
May you be a bright flame before me.
May you be a guiding star above me.
May you be a smooth path below me.
And a loving Guide behind me.
Today, tonight, and forever.
21st March 2020
Today I took a walk up Knockfarrel, an Iron Age hillfort near where we live. The views-as you can see- are spectacular but what it brought to mind was a passage from Isaiah one perhaps more familiar to us from an Advent setting;
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” Isaiah 52 v 7
How lovely it would be to hear good news instead of the bad news we are bombarded with from every direction at the moment! Every fresh news bulletin brings more grim statistics and more for us to worry about. It also brings sad news of how many are so afraid that they are hoarding food and supplies to the extent that shelves in shops are empty and some customers, often the most vulnerable and needy, are having to do without.
So, in this climate of fear and panic, I wondered, what would look like good news to you? That your local supermarket had suddenly got shelves full of toilet rolls and hand sanitizer? That the company you work for is going to keep on paying you despite shutting down its operations? That your loved ones are still well? That they had miraculously discovered a cure for Covid-19?
I am sure we could all come up with a list of what would be good news for us. But you know there is good news in all of this, and all credit to the news agencies that they are actually sharing this as well! At this time of global crisis so many people are reaching out to others, people offering help, support, doctors and nurses working every hour there is to prepare, people coming out of retirement to help…the list could go on. Simple acts of human kindness and love that bring encouragement and hope despite the grim news feeds.
And, as that text from Isaiah reminds me, the very best news is-quite literally-the Gospel. Gospel means “good news” and the one who bears and brings that good news is Jesus our Saviour who has come to be one of us. He knows what it is like to be human, he knows and understands our fear and he will be with us every single step of the way. He is the same, yesterday, today and forever, the God of love who comes to bear our sins and carry our burdens. The God who has overcome death and brings the promise of eternal life to each and every one of us.
May we daily give thanks for all the good that is being shown, may we do all we can to show human kindness and love and may we give thanks for the good news of Jesus, our help, our refuge and our Saviour.
20th March 2020
Today has been the most beautiful Spring day here in the Highlands. The sky looked newly painted in blue, so cloudless was it, and all around were signs of new life. Daffodils waving merrily at me from the riverbank, birds singing their hearts out as they flew joyously overhead and the trees beginning to show new buds as the sun warmed them. It was easy, just for a moment, to forget the troubles of the world and the threat that we all face from Covid-19 and just enjoy the wonderful gift of creation that God has given us. Despite our lack of care and love for this good earth it goes on living and giving because God upholds and sustains it. As that great poet Gerald Manley Hopkins so wonderfully puts it;
“For all this nature is never spent.
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.”
Seeing these harbingers of Spring and thinking about God’s presence in the world is both comforting and hopeful. It reminds me that God is present daily in our world and that he will help us to weather the storm that this disease has brought. He is not some remote God watching from a distance, but a God who is actively involved in our world, upholding and sustaining the natural world-and us-if we allow him to. He alone can bring new hope to our world and to us, renewing what looks dead to fresh life. As I looked at the trees around me, still with bare branches but showing new shoots and buds I was also reminded of the image in the book of Revelation where in the new heavens and the new earth the trees of life bear leaves for the healing of the nations. At a time when we so desperately need that healing may I encourage you to pray to the God who upholds the world and all that is in it. Ask him to reveal himself to you as you look out on his world. Ask him for peace to calm your fears and ask him for his creative, healing touch to come on each and every one of us.
“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” Revelation 22
19th March 2020
Light A Candle
Lighting a candle may seem such a small and insignificant thing to do and yet it can and does speak volumes to us if we have open hearts and ears. This coming Sunday- March 22nd– has been designated a National Day of Prayer in Scotland and at 7.00pm we are being encouraged to light a candle and put it in our window as a sign of the life and light that Jesus brings to all. In the words of the Gospel of St John
“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never overcome it”
In these days when the darkness of illness, fear and isolation is very real may we take heart and remember that no matter how dark it may seem, the life and the hope that Christ offers can never be extinguished, not by Covid-19 nor indeed anything else!
Since moving to the far north of Scotland I have come to appreciate in a new way just how great the influence of light and dark can be. The long, long daylight hours of summer when I can just about still sit outside and read at gone 11.00pm, has been a new and wonderful experience. The sense of freedom and tranquillity that those long evenings have brought and the special shade of light that comes with those days has been a joy -even if we had to buy blackout curtains to allow us to get some sleep! But the flip side, of course, has been the extremely short days of winter when dog walking had to take place immediately after lunch if it was going to happen-and with two beautiful golden retrievers giving me expectant looks- it has to happen! So much of our life is governed by light and dark and in true Jesus style he uses the images that we are all so familiar with to teach us.
John 8 v 12
“Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”
In the darkness it is so easy to get lost, to lose one’s sense of direction and to feel isolated and alone with no visible presence or familiar landmarks. In this current crisis it feels as though the whole world is somewhat lost in unfamiliar territory, struggling to find its way in a situation where there is no map or compass to direct us. What Jesus promises is that if we turn and ask him for guidance, he will take us by the hand and lead us. He will be the light in our darkness, and he will lead us to life-here and in eternity.
Many of you will be familiar with the beautiful collect for aid against all perils, which seems to be a most fitting prayer to end the day.
“Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of thy only Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen
18th March 2020
“Do not worry about your life…… do not be afraid, little flock” ( from Luke 12 v 22ff)
These words are repeated time and again in the Bible. As someone who has often struggled with anxiety, I know just how easy those words are to say and yet how hard to believe and live! Nevertheless, I do know that when I take my worries and anxieties to God, I find help and strength to carry on-one step at a time.
In our world today there is a huge amount of fear as we face the effects that this virus is having on the world as we know it. There is so much uncertainty and we are constantly being fed grim news, dire statistics and injunctions to do this or that to stay safe. Can I encourage you to keep turning your eyes upon Jesus at those moments when fear and panic grips you, to look at him and remember that He is with you and will give you all that you need if you will but ask. If prayer seems too difficult just simply say the name of Jesus and keep repeating it to yourself and you will find that after a while that Jesus will calm and restore you so that you can take the next step in your day.
The passage from the Sermon on the Mount that this text is taken from always makes me smile because of the image it conjures up. There is Jesus sitting on top of a mountain, surrounded by crowds and he looks up at the birds circling overhead and the flowers in the field around him and reminds his listeners that if God so looks after them, how much more will he look after us.
The painting below is a wonderful image of Christ examining carefully the daisies. Painted by Stanley Spencer in 1939 it shows Christ gazing intently at the simple daisies. He is giving them his total concentration and delighting in them. In just the same way I believe God looks at and delights in us. Spencer has substituted daisies for lilies and that comforts me enormously because not only am I not a great fan of lilies but also because I feel far more like a small daisy! Apparently, Spencer’s inspiration came both from this text and from watching his baby daughter crawling about on the grass examining the flowers. Simple, childlike, loving attention. That is what Christ offers each of us-his loving gaze, his total concentration.
May I encourage you today to look at the birds of the air and the flowers in your garden or park or home and remember what Jesus says each one of us.
Do not be afraid….
CREDIT: © THE ESTATE OF STANLEY SPENCER 2012. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED DACS Mountainous among the daisies: Christ in theWilderness: Consider the Lilies (1939) by
Stanley Spencer, in the State Art Collection, Art Gallery ofWestern Australia
17th March 2020
I will lift up mine eyes to the hills
From whence cometh my help?
My help cometh from the Lord
Who made heaven and earth.
Psalm 121 v 1-2
As a child I learned this psalm off by heart in Sunday school and it has remained a favourite of mine since then. The language of the psalm in the original King James is particularly beautiful but it is the thought that lies behind it that has comforted and encouraged me over the years.
The psalmist looks up to the high mountains and sees them in all their glory, their majesty and the fact that they have stood for generations. However, his help comes not from them, but from the Lord who made them. It is God alone who will guide, protect and watch over him, who knows all his comings and goings- be it by day or night.
Moving to the beautiful Highlands of Scotland has brought this psalm home to me in a whole new way. Surrounded by the breath-taking beauty of the hills day by day has helped me to realise just how great our Creator God is and how great is his love and faithfulness to his people. For this creator God, who formed the hills in their everlasting beauty, is also my loving heavenly Father who has counted the hairs on my head and who knows my every step and thought.
At this time of world-wide fear and uncertainty as we deal with coronavirus, can I encourage you to remember that our God is, as the children’s song so beautifully puts it, “a great big God and he holds us in his hands” Whatever happens God is with us. That is the wonderful message of this psalm, the message of the Bible, the joyous meaning of the Incarnation and the testimony of countless number through the ages. Whatever is going on in the world, whatever wars, crisis, fears and indeed whatever viruses there are, our God is with us and will hold us, care for us and watch over our every step.
So, be at peace, trust and when fears and anxieties threaten, look up at the hills and remember the God who made them has you safe in the palm of his hand and come what may he will be with you-always.