Summer or winter?

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.

Turning aside….

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:

All these pieces….

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.

Knowing the Shepherd

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.”

The Good Shepherd Edward Burne-Jones- Holy Trinity Church Frome

The Day of Small Things…

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.

Taking notice

“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……..

Emissaries of Hope Rev Norma Higgott

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.

Connections by Rev G Sleight

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

Love will come again….

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”