Remember you are dust….

One morning as I walked back through theological college after the early communion, I remember one of the students telling me I had a mucky mark on my face.  I knew that, as I had just come from the Ash Wednesday service.  The mucky mark was the remains of the sign of the cross which had been put on my head by the priest, as he reminded me that “you are dust, and to dust you shall return”.

I had first come across the ‘ashing’ ceremony at university some years before, as it wasn’t something which we did at the church in the community where I was brought up.  At university I remember the senior chaplain asking me on Ash Wednesday if we had any palm crosses. We didn’t, so he told me to burn the front page of the Church Times! Tradition says that the ashes used on Ash Wednesday are created from the palm crosses of the previous year.

20140718-221707-80227065.jpgOne of our church members brought me half a dozen palm crosses yesterday, so I burnt them this morning and replenished my supply of ash for the beginning of Lent which comes next week. Burning palm crosses isn’t easy.  They tend to smoulder rather than burn, and even when they do burn the resulting charred remains need to be ground down into a powder, suitable for the priest to dip his or her thumb in and make the sign of the cross on the foreheads of the people.

Partners together ….

I wonder whether, like me, you’ve attended conferences and training events and been put into a small discussion group and allocated a “facilitator”.  My linguistic background tells me that a facilitator should be someone who makes things easy.  That isn’t always my experience of facilitators.  Sometimes they seem to make things more difficult.

img_3939There are people who make things easy for others, and there are people who seem to want to make life difficult.  Today’s psalm at Morning Prayer was psalm 56.  The author had encountered some of life’s troublemakers.  It is the cry of one who feels under attack.  “They trample over me,” he says “they assault and oppress me”.  “Many are they,” he continues, “who make proud war against me”.  He complains that “all day long they wound me with words”, and “their every thought is how to do me evil”.  Not only that but “they stir up trouble, they lie in wait, marking my steps, they seek my life.”  Not content then, with making trouble, with making his life a misery, they want to end it!

That was followed this morning by a reading from Ecclesiastes 3 and 4.  Chapter three is that chapter which tells us that there is “a time for everything”.  The author points out that it is important for human beings to be happy in their work “I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.” “There is nothing better,” he says, “for a person than to enjoy their work”.

The author of Ecclesiastes tells us about the meaninglessness he finds, the vanity of so much of what he sees. “I saw that all toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.  Fools fold their hands and ruin themselves.  Better one handful with tranquillity than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind.”

The author goes on to write of the importance of partnership in our undertakings.

“Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labour:  If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.”

An interesting reading, which was chosen by a couple who were married last year. An interesting reading in the week of Valentine’s Day too, as we celebrate and give thanks for the love of our life.

If I read that reference to the cord of three strands correctly then we do well to thank God for His partnership alongside ourselves and our partner, as co-workers, as facilitators together of the coming of His kingdom in all its fullness.

“Here’s one I prepared earlier….”

I used to love to watch “Blue Peter” as a child.  The presenters would make things out of washing-up liquid bottles, cardboard tubes and sticky-backed plastic, amongst other things.  I used to keep a “useful box”, as I called it, full of such items which might one day be required.  I was often disappointed though, when I tried to reconstruct whatever it was that the presenters on the TV programme had made.  The well-known phrase was “here’s one I prepared earlier”.  They made everything look so easy.  In practice it wasn’t as easy as it looked, and my efforts turned out nowhere near as good as the ones on the TV.

p1380804We had a presentation at our local photography club in January about making reflection pools, for photographing birds and their reflections.  I decided to have a go.  Today, despite the poor weather, I went out into the garden and made a start. It wasn’t as easy as I had thought!  The reflection pool requires a metre-long plastic tray.  Once filled with water, the tray becomes less stable, and if it’s not perfectly level, the water runs out!  Lifting one corner, thinking it to be too low, seems to affect the diagonally opposite corner too.  The tray needs to be supported along its whole length.

Having initially set it up, I adorned it with a branch, and bits of variegated and green ivy, some slate chippings, and some moss. The moss turned out to be a mistake.  I discovered that the moss, which went right down into the water, was in fact acting like a sponge, and slowly but steadily syphoning out the water on both sides of the pool!

I managed a few photos, but later in the day found that the water had been draining out of the pool and so I had to take it all apart.  I shall have to look at a more stable way of supporting it!  “If at first you don’t succeed…” they say… “try, try again!”

Eating cheese late in the evening is not on….

I try not to eat cheese in the late evening as I reckon it gives me nightmares.  My dreams are weird enough as it is.  Last night I dreamed I saw a flock of kingfishers.  I went back to the coach as I had only binoculars with me and needed my camera, but then I couldn’t get through or over the gate to where the birds were.  A weird dream, because one might occasionally see one kingfisher, or rarely, two, but birds of this particular feather do not ‘flock together’!  Last week an Archdeacon I know suddenly appeared in one of my dreams. Quite why, I don’t know.  I remember asking if he wanted tea or coffee, but since it was (in the dream) four o’clock, I suggested it had to be tea.  I know he expects tea at four!

There are dreams, of course, and there are dreams. We might talk about things we’d like and someone will say “In your dreams”.  Sometimes we might be tempted to aspire to a particular lifestyle which is “the stuff of dreams”. Sometimes we are encouraged to look to the future and to dream about what we’d like the future to look like.

In 1963 the American civil rights activist Martin Luther King famously delivered his speech which began “I have a dream”, and spoke of freedom and equality arising from a land of slavery and hatred.  More recently, in 1979 the Swedish pop group Abba sang about a dream “a song to sing, to help me cope with anything….. a fantasy to help me through reality.”

Sometimes our dreams might in some strange way reflect the reality of whatever is going on in our lives.  At other times they might be completely inexplicable.

4aIf we look at our Bible, we read of God speaking to His people through dreams.  A few weeks ago we were hearing about the angel of God who appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife.  The wise men, having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, went home by another route.  Joseph had another dream in which he was told to take Mary and the child Jesus to Egypt, and he stayed there until another angel in another dream told him it was safe to go back, albeit not to Bethlehem, but to Galilee now, in order to avoid the reign of Archelaus. In the photo (of a window a Little Bradley) you can see the pyramids of Egypt in the background over Joseph’s right arm.

The Old Testament too tells us about various people who had dreams.  Jacob dreams of God’s angels ascending and descending from heaven on what has become known as “Jacob’s ladder”. Joseph (he of the “coat of many colours” is known to his brothers as a dreamer.  He has dreams about Pharaoh’s officials, with whom he is in prison, and eventually he is drafted in to interpret dreams for Pharaoh himself. Then there’s Daniel, who interprets the dream of king Nebuchadnezzar and tells him in effect “Sorry, old man, but the writing’s on the wall for you”.  The writing was, literally, on the wall, in the King’s dream.

The prophet Joel spoke of the pouring out of God’s Spirit on all people. “Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.”

The peoples of the Bible were used to seeing angels, the messengers of God, and used to receiving messages from God through their dreams. In some ways it would be much easier for us if God spoke to us with such directness today.  It’s not at all easy to discern what the will of God is for us.  May some of your dreams come true.  The ones you’d like to, of course!

Good Morning….

There are a few texts, I carry around with me in my diary.  As I transferred them across to my new diary, I came across this one.  I don’t know the author, or where I found it, or I would gladly attribute it….

window 2“Good Morning.  I am God and today I will be handling all your problems.

Please remember that I do not need your help.

If life happens to deliver a situation that you cannot handle, do not attempt to resolve it.

Kindly place it in the “something for God to do” box.

All situations will be handled in my time, not yours.

Once the matter is placed in my box, do not hold on to it, worrying about it.

Instead, focus on all the wonderful things that are present in your life now.

If it is a situation you think you are capable of handling, please consult me first, to make sure it is the proper solution.

Remember I neither slumber nor sleep, so there is no need for you to lose any.

Rest in peace, and remember I am only a prayer away.”

New Year’s Day

“One thing I do, forgetting what lies behind, and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Some words of Saint Paul to the Christian community at Philippi. “Forgetting what lies behind, and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Here we are at the beginning of a new year, a secular new year. The Church traditionally regards its year as beginning in Advent. But at the beginning of January, the talk is inevitably about New Year’s Resolutions, about conscious decisions having been made before the end of the old year, to be implemented in the course of the new year. The idea, I suppose, is that each new year begins a new chapter in the book, that we start with a new sheet, a blank page. What has gone before no longer matters, and the incentive is there to start off a new year with the best intentions about our conduct, about the way we intend to live our lives. Also at this time of year there’s a lot of talk about what the next twelve months might have in store for us. Predictions for 2017 in horoscopes and such like abound. None of us knows what the next few weeks might bring, let alone the next twelve months, and it’s probably just as well that we don’t. If the last twelve months have been difficult for you, as I know they have for some, including some in my own family, then you will be glad to see the end of 2016, to put the whole year behind you, to close that chapter, and to look ahead to 2017, to a new year, which, we hope will be a happier one.

P1030156I don’t believe in horoscopes, and I’m not one for making New Year’s Resolutions. If you do make them, then you have to have the will power, the determination and the commitment to put them into practice, to see that they are not broken. For us as Christians there are ample opportunities to make new resolutions, to increase our commitment, and we should continually be striving to better serve God in our lives. Nowadays many people, instead of giving something up for Lent actually take up something for Lent. So Lent offers us the opportunity to give up or take up something, an opportunity for new resolutions. In fact every week as we come to church and every day as we say our prayers we confess the ways in which we fall short of the kind of behaviour which is expected of us, and we recommit ourselves afresh to the service of God. God forgives our wrongdoing, provided that we confess what we have done, and that we are determined with His help to try to do better. So in fact as Christians we are continually striving to live better lives, striving to conform better to the pattern which Jesus left for us to imitate, to be the kind of people God wants us to be, living the sort of lives God wants us to lead, and whether it’s New Year’s Day or just any other day doesn’t matter.

Every so often I have to have an appraisal. They’ve never been necessary before for Vicars, but the Church keeps on taking up ideas from the secular world, the world of industry and commerce, and trying them out within its own structures. At the end of the process, in conversation with a senior clergyman I am supposed to come up with a number of objectives, a number of areas which should receive attention from the point of view of my ongoing professional development. On one occasion we only came up with one. My appraiser made the point that this was not necessarily a bad thing, to have one objective rather than a list of half a dozen or more. For with one objective and one area to look at, there was more chance of something being achieved, more chance of the exercise bearing fruit. There is something to be said for having a limited purpose, a clear aim, a single objective. Many training sessions and meetings nowadays seem to start out with a statement being made about their aim. I remember some time ago at a meeting of clergy we were asked “What is your aim for the next few years.” One of my colleagues replied that his aim was quite simple “to survive”, he said.

As Christians our aim should be to strive to do the will of God with all the resources at our disposal, our heart, soul, mind and strength. The shorter of the two Westminster Catechisms of 1648 asks the question “What is the chief end of man?”, to which the answer is given “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him for ever.” I began with those words from Saint Paul about forgetting what lies behind, and straining forward to what lies ahead. All the weight which we carry around from the past should be laid aside, should be discarded in our efforts to press on ahead towards the ultimate reward with God in heaven. The author of the letter to the Hebrews wrote “Let us also lay aside every weight and the sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” Saint Paul had his heart set on reaching heaven, that was his goal, that was what for him lay at the end of the race, the place where he would receive the victor’s crown of gold.  It is interesting to see the image of a race being used more than once in the New Testament. Going to the local athletics meetings and watching the races was clearly a popular form of entertainment, and so it’s an image which is used two or three times because it would mean something to the people to whom the New Testament letters were being written.

In the first letter to the church at Corinth, Saint Paul points out that all the runners in a race compete, but only one wins the prize – and he says “So run that you may obtain it.” He points out that athletes run to receive a perishable wreath, but that the wreath we run to obtain is imperishable. In running to obtain that reward, we need, as the current jargon says to “stay focused”, and forget some things in order that we may press forward. One author says this “The gathering of wayside flowers is not to be the interest of the man running a race.” His eye must be on the goal, and all attention must be directed towards that end. While some things must be completely renounced, other interests must be definitely disciplined in order to run well. We must needs be temperate in all things.” The Christian must exercise real control over both body and mind, harnessing the time and talents available. Most important of all is not the pace we set up at the beginning, but that which we maintain throughout the coming days. We are to run with patience, to keep on pressing toward the mark. If we do then a crown awaits us, a crown which will not fade like that given to the Greek athletes. But to obtain that reward demands nothing less than our very best effort and our all. The love of God demands it as the hymn says “Love so amazing, so divine demands my soul, my life, my all.”

P1030155Some of you will be familiar with the prayer of Saint Richard of Chichester “0 most merciful redeemer, friend and brother, may we know thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, and follow thee more nearly.” Richard of Chichester died at Dover in the year 1253 at the age of 56. He was one of the most loved and respected bishops of his day. The son of a farmer in Worcestershire, Richard began his life as a ploughboy, but eventually secured a place at Oxford, and later on became Chancellor of the University. He was not ordained until after the age of forty, but within a year or two was elected as Bishop of Chichester. His well-known prayer was originally written in the singular, but is often now used in the plural to give it a corporate character. In recent years it has become more widely known than previously through its use in the musical “Godspell”, where the final line “day by day” is added. In that prayer, we ask that we may know Christ more clearly, love him more dearly and follow him more nearly. To know Christ is the first prerequisite of salvation. We must know Christ to be able to attain the reward of salvation, and to receive the benefits which the earlier part of the prayer remind us that he has given us. We must know Jesus, not just know about him, but feel that we know him as well as our closest friends, as members of our own family. To be content with the level of knowledge we already have is not enough. Our prayer is that we may know him more clearly, and gain a deeper insight into who he is, and what he can mean to us as our risen Lord and Saviour. Saint Paul, in that letter to Philippi, expressed the desire, the longing that “I may know him, and the power of his resurrection.” Hundreds of years earlier the prophet Hosea had said “Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord.” Such is the sentiment echoed in the prayer of Saint Richard, that we may know Jesus more clearly. As our knowledge of Christ deepens and grows, the natural consequence, as with many relationships, is that we come to love him more dearly. To grow in the knowledge of Christ is to grow in the love of Christ, for as we learn more about him we understand come to understand more and to appreciate more about what Jesus has done for us. The practical outcome of all this is clear from the final petition, that we may follow him more nearly. To follow Christ is to translate our knowledge of him and our love for him into action. To follow him is to walk in his steps, to obey his commands, and to imitate his example. The pattern which he set for his friends, his disciples to imitate was summed up in these words, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give up his life as a ransom for many.” To follow Jesus more nearly does not simply mean becoming more religious, it means treading with him the way of sacrificial love. I’ve heard the Cross, the great symbol of the Christian faith as a big capital letter ‘I’ crossed out, reminding us of the selflessness of Christ, that Christ abandoned self interest in favour of us, abandoned self interest in our interest. The cross can remind us of his example, and can encourage us to think about making sure that in our lives there is less of self and more of Christ, less of sell’ and more of God. What better resolution for our lives, not just for New Year’s Day but for every day than to seek to embody in our lives that aim “les of self, and more of Christ ?”

All I want for Christmas is….(complete as required)

A sermon preached at Christmas 2016

THAT THING ON THE TREE by Stella Johns

“At the end of the party, when our mothers came to take us home, they said we could all have a present off the Christmas tree. They said I could choose first because I was the smallest.

img_3713I said I wanted that thing on top of the tree, that shiny thing. I’d been looking at it all through the party, all through the hard white coconut cake that had taken me all teatime to eat; all through the games that I didn’t know how to play; and all through the funny man with the cardboard nose who’d made me cry. I said I wanted that thing on top of the tree, that shiny thing.

Ah no, they said, I didn’t want that. It wasn’t a present. It was just to make the tree look pretty. Wouldn’t I like this grand blue motor-car filled with sweets?

I said I wanted that thing on top of the tree, that shiny thing.

But I wouldn’t be able to play with it or anything, they said. It was made of very thin stuff that broke as soon as you touched it. Wouldn’t I like these pretty pink beads to put round my neck?

I said I wanted that thing on top of the Christmas tree. That shiny thing.

But what would I do with it, they said. Now what about these nice red gloves to keep my hands warm on cold days? What would I do with that thing on top of the tree?

I said I’d keep it in a cardboard box and look at it.

Then someone said, oh, give it her. When it’s broke she’ll be sorry she didn’t have the blue car or the pink beads or the red gloves. So they put the shiny thing in a box and I carried it home and I looked at it. It was like having a star in a box, a star all of my own. Next day I lifted the thing out of the box and it broke into a thousand pieces. But every piece was shiny so I put them all back in the box again. And now I had a whole boxful of stars.

That was forty years ago, but some people never learn. Every time they ask me to choose I say I want that thing on top of the tree, that shiny thing.

So I’ve never had a grand blue motor-car or pretty pink beads to put round my neck or nice red gloves to keep my hands warm on cold days.

But I’ve got hundreds of thousands of cardboard boxes. And every box is full of a thousand stars.”

Life is – to some extent at least – what we make of it.  I wonder what you want this Christmas. What, for you, is that “shiny thing” at the top f the tree, the thing you’d really really like.  It’s an interesting little story isn’t it, of the little girl wanting something shiny, something out of reach on the top of the tree, that isn’t actually there to play with but merely for decoration. And yet something she really has set her heart on, she really really wants. That thing on top of the tree, that shiny thing. People try to encourage her to want something else. That thing isn’t a present, it is just to make the tree look pretty. She won’t be able to play with it. What would she do with it?  In telling the child she could choose a present off the Christmas tree the adults hadn’t expected her to choose that!

What would you really like for Christmas?  Sometimes we hear “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me”.  Well we may be able to achieve a measure of peace “with me”, so to speak, but I reckon peace on earth is like that thing at the top of the tree, out of reach, and in any case, were it even within our grasp would be flimsy and fragile. Other things too we might wish for ourselves are just not within our grasp.  Good health and happiness in our homes and families, for example. These are things we might long for and wish for and hope for, but things which money just cannot buy.  They are not within our reach – like that thing on the tree – and as we think we grasp them, these hopes can all too easily shatter into a thousand pieces.

Among my favourite TV programmes have been the two series ‘Yes Minister’ and ‘Yes Prime Minister’, and one evening some years ago, after signing what seemed like an endless pile of Christmas cards, I retired to bed and re-read the scene where Jim Hacker, as Minister in the Department of Administrative Affairs was faced with numerous piles of departmental Christmas cards, as well as a large batch of constituency cards, and a bulging carrier bag containing eleven hundred and seventy-two personal cards. Apart from the cards waiting for him at Party Headquarters, Needless to say the whole thing is exceedingly complex there are departmental cards, and there are House of Commons cards, and cards to different people to be signed in different ways, Later on, the discussion focuses on Christmas presents,, and Jim Hacker asks Bernard, his Principal Private Secretary what Christmas presents it would be appropriate to give to the private office,

“Bernard said that it was entirely up to me. But he recommended bottles of sherry for the Assistant Private Secretaries, large boxes of House of Commons mints for the Diary Secretary and the Correspondence Secretary, and small boxes of House of Commons mints for the rest. ‘What about the Principal Private Secretary 7’ I asked absent-mindedly. ‘That’s me,’ he replied, slightly startled. I explained that I knew who he was, but I wondered what I should give him. ‘You don’t have to give me anything, Minister’. I know that, ‘ I said with real warmth, ‘But I’d like to,’ Bernard seemed quite touched, ‘Oh Minister,’ he replied, ‘Well?’ 1 asked, ‘Well, anything really,’ He obviously didn’t want to say. But I had no idea what he’d like, ‘Such as ?’ I prompted ‘Really,’ he said ‘I’d like a surprise. I still didn’t have a clue, “what sort of surprise should I give you ?’ Well he said cautiously, a bottle of champagne is the customary surprise.”

I don’t know what your presents will include this Christmas. I hope that you will receive at least one or two of the things you were hoping for, and that any surprises will be pleasant ones.  Think back though to that story of the small girl with that thing on the tree.  The Old Testament tells us how time and again God’s people disobeyed His will, right from the disobedience of Adam and Eve in Genesis, wanting a level of knowledge which was not rightly theirs, through the centuries of disobedience as God’s prophets told his people how God wanted them to live their lives.  They were in effect told that they were not to want that thing on the tree! But they still wanted it.  But if you remember even when that ornament broke the girl finished up with a box full of stars.  The disobedience and waywardness of mankind results in the separation of mankind from God, but God still loves His people, despite them having shattered His perfect world.  And just as the girl can see a whole box full of stars in that shattered ornament, so too God intervenes at Christmas, sending his Son Jesus to be born for our sakes to restore mankind to a right relationship to Him, and to point mankind back in the direction of God. We may want that thing on the tree, we may want what is out of our grasp, what is not good for us to have, we may break it and watch it shatter into a thousand pieces, but with God, even this imperfect and broken world can be redeemed through the one who was born for us in Bethlehem, Christ Jesus, our Saviour and our Lord.

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“That thing on the tree” by Stella Johns, published in “The Christmas Road” an anthology, ISBN 0 7151 0440 3   Church House Publishing 1986

“The Complete Yes Prime Minister” ISBN 0 563 20773 6 BBC 1989