Sunday, August 9, 2020

Don’t Look Down!

Today’s Gospel lectionary reading (Matthew 14:22-33) is the story of Jesus walking on water. The text relates how the disciples were in a boat battling a storm. It reads like they were having a real struggle. It must have been quite scary. 


Many years ago, I was in a small open ferry in Wales, travelling from Tenby to Caldey Island. It is a short journey which we had undertaken easily in the morning. We had spent a wonderful day wandering on the island. Mid-afternoon the sky started to darken so we hurried to the beach to catch the ferry back to the mainland. We were told that due to the storm approaching this would be the last ferry of the day. As we made the crossing the storm hit. I could describe it in much the same way the author of the gospel did, “the boat battered by the waves, was far from land, for the wind was against them.” In our little ferry I was terrified. However, we made it safely thanks to the skill of the young man operating it —although as his colleague on shore helped him tie up, we did overhear him say that at one point he thought that he had lost the boat!


In the story today, in the midst of the fear and chaos of the storm Jesus came walking towards them. It is a great story, the subject of many pictures and children’s books. Many studies and much discussion have been undertaken by scholars on the subject of walking on water — ice on the lake, rocks under the surface, etc. I read a few, they are readily available on google. 


The text for today continues with Peter getting out of the boat to walk towards Jesus. And, as I thought through the story, this is where I want to pause and ponder. I think this is where I can find relevance for my life. 


In the narrative, Peter left the boat presumably full of confidence, but fear of the waves and the wind overtook him, and he started to sink. Peter looked down. He looked at the circumstances, he looked at difficulties and fear overwhelmed him.


As I pondered it, I thought of destinations, goals and direction. I know in the past I have talked many times about enjoying the journey —and that still holds true. So much can be missed if a journey is rushed, forgetting the beauty and the experiences encountered while travelling.


But today, I want to think about destinations, about dreams and visions, about goals. This story illustrates that beautifully. I want to hold in tension enjoying the journey and keeping the focus on the destination.


Focusing on the goal is another important aspect of life. Or, to express it differently, not losing sight of the vision or holding onto the dream. Or perhaps, a deep inner knowing of where one wants to be at any particular stage of life. 


If that is kept in forefront of one’s mind, then when the storm comes —when the boat is being battered by waves and the wind is strong — it won’t overwhelm.  Lots can be learnt from this story — don’t look down, keep eyes steadfastly on the destination until the calm is restored and the journey continues in peace . . . until the next storm!  I love the cyclic rhythm of life.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

The Expansiveness of the Realm of God.

Expansiveness — that was the word that came to me as I read the lectionary gospel for today. The text (Matthew 13:31-52) records five short parables, I loved what an expansive picture these parables are giving of the realm of God. 

I rarely look words up when writing a blog but today I did and loved the definition given. Expansiveness: magnificence of scale. What a great definition?

I think these parables will be familiar to all but today, I’m just going to linger with the first one.

The realm of God is likened to a tiny mustard seed which produces a tree where the birds can nest and find protection. I have spoken about this parable before and make no apologies for some repetition as I find this such a rich picture of the realm of God.

When Andy and I lived in the UK we sometimes went camping in France — I had also camped there in my childhood. One of the delights of the journey was seeing the mustard fields. They stretched, bright yellow, for what seemed like miles and miles to the horizon. From them is harvested the mustard that one eats as a garnish. 

However, I don’t think it was that sort of mustard which was in the author’s mind when this gospel was penned.

I believe the story is talking about the mustard tree which is native to Israel and several other countries in the Middle East and Africa. It thrives in hot, dry conditions.  Salvadora Persica is a shrub which grows up to thirty feet tall. It is known as the mustard tree or toothbrush tree. In addition to shelter and nesting for birds it has many uses. The leaves are said to help cure many diseases including coughs, asthma and rheumatism. The fibrous branches are used for teeth cleaning. The small berries are eaten, both fresh and dried, whilst the leaves are used to make salads.

I thought it was such a great picture of the expansiveness. In this one parable, through the image of the mustard tree the realm of is depicted as a place of refuge, a place of new life, a place of healing and a place of nourishment. 

I know if I were to ponder the other four parables, I would see more images of the expansiveness of the realm of God. However, today, I want to linger on the image of the tree. I am writing this surrounded by trees. They are sheltering me from the sun, the birds are singing in them, the squirrels are running in them. Trees are such a picture of life and as I sit among them it seems fitting to ponder the magnificence of scale of the realm of God.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Life is a Journey

Life is a journey. I’ve said that before and probably will say it many more times. It is how I like to view life. A journey has a beginning and a destination —note, not an end but a destination. An end has a finality about it, a destination is the beginning of a new adventure, the beginning of a new journey.

Actually, to describe more accurately how I look at life would be to say it is an over-arching journey. One big journey that encompasses many smaller journeys —childhood is a journey, parenthood is a journey, each phase of ministry is a journey, each career is a journey, retirement is a journey. . . 

Even within each of my examples are multiple journeys. Journeys within journeys!

Today is Ascension Sunday. As I read the various lectionary readings I thought how in the church’s calendar, the time between Easter and ascension typifies a journey. Ascension is celebrated forty days after Easter. I’m not sure that this is a literal number, as forty is a typical Biblical number for significant events —forty days in the wilderness, forty days of lent. 

Regardless, I want to look briefly at the forty-day journey that began at Easter and reached its destination with ascension. Journeys are not usually straight roads, but full of highs and lows, twists and turns. I want to think about this journey from the viewpoint of those early followers of Jesus. Those people who had been on a journey accompanying Jesus for a few short years. They had left families and careers to do so, they had seen miracles, they had been taught and trained, they’d been exalted and ridiculed. What a journey!

Yet, the destination had not been what they expected. The destination had been death and crucifixion. So, their next journey which was to last only forty short days started on an incredible low. I cannot imagine the depths of despair they must have reached as their hopes and expectations of a Messiah ended on a cross. 

Sometimes that happens in life, one embarks on a journey full of excitement and expectations only to reach an unexpected destination. It can be quite devastating, but often, like the mythological phoenix, something rises from the ashes —a new journey begins with all the hope and expectation rekindled. I have always loved the way C. S. Lewis expresses in in The Last Battle —"Their hearts leaped and a wild hope arose within them” (228)

For those early followers, Easter Sunday began that new journey. Hope and expectation were rekindled. The scriptures only give a glimpse of those forty days —some walks together, some conversations and a shared meal. What an adventure those forty days must have been! 

But like all journeys it reached a destination, yet another unexpected turn. The risen Christ ascended. This time maybe it was not so devastating. They had been given hope and promises for the future. So, in great anticipation those followers left the place of ascension and returned to where they were staying. There they would wait for empowerment, full of expectation the next journey was soon to begin. 

This, too, happens in life. I have also experienced it. Sometimes the destination is planned and reached. It is time for the next adventure to begin. But, as in the experience of those present at the ascension, the destination can be unplanned but not devastating, unexpected but not traumatic merely different than assumed. It is time to wait for the next journey to be embarked upon. 

Life is a journey — enjoy the adventure!

(Photo: Holocaust Memorial, Cornell Botanical Gardens)

Sunday, May 10, 2020

“Do not let not your heart be troubled.”

“Do not let not your heart be troubled.”

These words open the lectionary gospel passage today (John 14: 1-14). As I read them, I paused and mused them over. Just eight short words yet so relevant for today when such turmoil is surrounding the nations of the world.

My immediate response to reading these was —how? How do I prevent my heart being troubled, day by day, moment by moment?

My heart is not troubled constantly but worry rears its head several times a week.  I’m sure everyone experiences this. Perhaps, more especially during this time of universal crisis. 

On a personal level my heart is troubled when I think about my children all of whom are still travelling to their places of work during the pandemic thus being exposed. I think about other family members including a 93-year-old mother who is isolated but still vulnerable. I think about my dog who is suffering an illness that he won’t recover from. I think about the unemployment and loss of businesses that is affecting family members. 

On a wider level my heart is troubled by what is happening in the world. As time goes on —we personally have been in social isolation for forty-eight days — uncertainty seems to be the underlying message. Often those leading nations and the medical advisors seem to be in conflict as to the best way to proceed. As always crisis seems to bring out the best in people and the worst in people. 

Of course, my heart is troubled by far more than the brief things I have mentioned. I wonder, what other people’s hearts are troubled about?

I’m not sure that having an untroubled heart will ever be attainable. It seems to me it is unrealistic to expect that. In life things will happen that will cause unrest and anxiety. These are often unexpected and unplanned for. Andy and I planned what a great summer this was going to be. My sisters were coming in June, it is more than a dozen years since they have been here. Then family from Thailand were coming in July. Now the plans have changed, of course I prefer everyone staying safe, but my heart is sad and troubled by it.

So, I don’t think having one’s heart troubled can be avoided. It feels unrealistic to say that. I think it is part of our humanity, thus, I have to say, God-given. Therefore, when I read “do not let not your heart be troubled “, I view it more about how it shouldn’t overwhelm me. How can I ensure that my heart being troubled doesn’t move from a normal part of human-ness to an unhealthy preoccupation?

I find it helpful to set this verse into context. It was placed immediately after discourses about very troubling things — the prediction of Jesus’ death, the betrayal and the denial. Heavy stuff that would unsettle anyone. 

Therefore, the rest of the text is penned to offer comfort to the disciples. I gleaned two ideas from the passage which may be helpful in the midst of troubling times

The first is hope in the future. In the passage this is shown in the conversation between Thomas and Jesus (2-7). Hope is always important in trying not to let a troubled heart overwhelm one. Hope brings about a confidence for the future. 

The second is in the exchange between Phillip and Jesus (8-11). Jesus is recorded as talking to Phillip about finding the father-mother in him. As I read it, I mused about finding Christ (God) in all things and all persons — not the easiest thing to do sometimes. Yet, if my heart is troubled and I look and find Christ in the situation — however tenuous that might be —it is a way forward. A way not to let a heart be overwhelmed by sorrow. 

Talking about troubled hearts is all a little depressing therefore I will end with some words from the lectionary psalm for today:

[God] you are my rock and my stronghold (31:3).

Sunday, April 26, 2020

A Challenge to the Patriarchal Mindset.

Today, as I read the gospel lectionary passage, I want to use it to think about how scripture is approached. I think it is an important subject and one which I find intriguing. Before I delve into the passage, I want to add a quick general principle.

The study of hermeneutics has for a long time been a fast-growing area of the study of the ancient texts. There are many different ways of interpreting scripture. I’m not going to go into them today. I do cast a fairly brief glance at them in the chapter on interpretation in my book Corporal Punishment, Religion and US Public Schools for any who are interested. 

For today, I’m going to simply say that it is a person’s best effort to grapple with scripture and come to an understanding which is meaningful. There is always a danger in interpretation of thinking there is one correct way of understanding a text. It is even worse when it is written or spoken about as if this one understanding is the absolute truth. Then there is an implication that anyone who thinks differently about a passage is wrong. Over the years — even over centuries — this has caused much division. 

So, when reading or studying scripture it is much better to offer an interpretation as personal thinking with the expectation that others may think differently —and that is okay. It invites dialogue which, hopefully, will enrich all. 

When I approach a text I like to read it “against the grain”. This is a little phrase that I first read in Anne Thurston’s book, Knowing Her Place. Reading against the grain is looking beneath the most common or most obvious understanding of a text. I like to think about it as challenging assumptions. It is really helpful in opening the mind to other possibilities. 

Today’s lectionary gospel passage is a really helpful passage in challenging assumptions (Luke: 13-35). It is the story of the two people on the road to Emmaus. They were walking the seven miles home from Jerusalem when a third person joined them. When they arrived home, they urged the stranger to stay the night with them as it was getting late. Over bread they realized it was the risen Christ who had joined them. Ultimately, they returned to Jerusalem to tell others of their experience.

It is a great story and one which is commonly depicted. The assumption I want to challenge today is that these were two men. Often the scriptures are approached through a patriarchal lens. So therefore, the assumption is these two who the risen Christ walked with must be men. Why? 

I googled “Old Masters + Road to Emmaus” (try it) and loads of famous and not so famous painting are shown. All depict two men with the Christ. I also tried it with children’s book — also two men are usually illustrated although I did find one cute YouTube video that included a woman.

Anyway, back to the text. Only one person is named in the Gospel of Luke. That is Cleopas. The other remains unnamed — sadly often, in the scriptures, the women are left unnamed. Therefore, it is possible that the second disciple on the Emmaus Road was a woman. Furthermore, I think that it is very probable that it was Cleopas’ partner. Actually, Mary the wife of Clopas is noted as one of the women at the foot of the cross. 

“Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala.” (John 19:25)

I know the name in the Gospel of John is Clopas rather than Cleopas but it is accepted that this was the same person. Clopas is the Greek form while Cleopas is the Aramaic form of the same name. In the same way Paul is the Latin transliteration of the Greek name Saul. 

To my mind, it makes much more sense to assume that the two on the Emmaus Rd were Cleopas and Mary. It is clear from the text that they share a common residence in the village where they lived. 

I just want to offer this interpretation to challenge the status quo. Ultimately, after studying, some reading this may still prefer to accept the more common interpretation —that it was two men journeying and living together. That is absolutely fine. The important thing is to let any text challenge the patriarchal mindset and to enrich beyond the accepted norm. 

That is the beauty of reading against the grain. 

Sunday, April 12, 2020

A New Day is Dawning

Christ is Risen
Christ is Risen Indeed.

A very happy Easter to all who are reading this.

Easter will be different this year. 

Regardless of how Easter has been celebrated in the past there will be changes this year. Covid-19 has put a stop to large and small gatherings. Therefore, church buildings will remain empty and rightly so. (I must confess to having little patience for those who flout the advice and put others at risk). Family gatherings will be curtailed. Public Easter Egg hunts will be cancelled. Easter will be celebrated at home, alone or with the nuclear family.

Easter will be different this year. 

Yet, the message remains the same. Death and resurrection. It is the cycle of life that is seen reflected in nature. My job ended with the lock down —I miss it. I am home all the time and, weather permitting, have been spending a lot of time in the garden. Most of the work is raking leaves—we have a lot of them! As I am raking, I continue to marvel at the cycle of life. Green shoots are revealed as I remove the dead leaves which have provided a protective cover over the winter. 

As well as seeing these tender green shoots, I enjoy the early snowdrops and crocuses which are starting to bloom. I watch the birds dancing as they choose mates, then carrying twigs to make nests. The buds are on the trees, some starting to show a hint of colour. All around me are signs of life bursting out.

The events of the Easter story remind us of this cycle of life which is reflected in nature. It is powerful story. It is important story. It is a hopeful story. It is a story that has shaped our lives. 

It is a new day dawning. The lectionary passage for Easter Sunday (Matthew 28:1-10) begins with the words, “as the first day of the week was dawning”. 

Something significant happened on that day —history changed forever. The Easter event has never been forgotten. It was a new beginning, nothing would ever be the same.

Currently, the world is in the middle of the worse pandemic for a century. Many lives have already been lost and will continue to be so — our prayers are with all those who are suffering and their families. 

It is a hard time for everyone. The photographs in the media of essential workers and mass graves are harrowing. People will be forever changed — how can they not?

There are certain events that remain forever in history. These are key points which caused society to change. They will never be forgotten — for example, the holocaust or September 11th , 2001. 

Society has now been locked down in USA for about four weeks. In some countries it is even longer. Will this change society? I was listening yesterday to LBC (Leading Britain’s Conversation, our favourite radio station). It was a phone in format. The question had been asked,  had the lock down changed people in positive ways. I found a few answers particularly insightful. 

One person said that because of the business of their lives they had never spoken to their elderly neighbours, since the pandemic they had exchanged words —at a distance —and continually checked to see if they were okay. Another said that their drive to work was two and a half hours daily along a busy motorway and they were loving not being part of that rat race. He added that he was actually getting more work done at home. A third person said they lived near an airport and with fewer planes for the first time in years birds had returned to their garden. 

On our walk with our dogs, Andy and I have found that people are more friendly. Everyone says hello while maintaining a safe distance. I also noticed siblings in a couple of gardens. I commented how nice it was to see siblings learning to play together.

A new day is dawning 

In many ways it is still the Good Friday of the pandemic. It is a dark time and will probably continue to be so for several more weeks.

Yet, glimmers of a new kinder society are shining through — kinder to each other, kinder to nature and kinder to the nonhuman life we share the planet with.  Glimmers of life are starting to break in through the darkness.

I can say with assurance that Easter Sunday will come eventually. The light will overtake the darkness. It is the cyclic nature of life. 

Will we go back to life as it was before?  I hope not, I hope this is one of those key moments in history which brings about far reaching changes.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Life Always Finds a Way

 A few days ago, we were in the hot tub —our usual morning routine—watching shadows emerge as light pushed away the darkness of the night. 

“Look, Look,” I cried excitedly, pointing down our back garden. “I think it is a deer.”

We both stared, trying to focus at the shadow as the image became clearer. Eventually, we realized there wasn’t one deer but four of them. We were delighted and watched the creatures as they moved and grazed on the other side of our garden fence. As light increased it was obvious that these were two pairs each consisting of a larger mother and a year-old baby. We continued to watch in wonder.

Anyone reading this might be thinking why such excitement over seeing deer in Upstate New York. Over the years I have taken hundreds of photographs of deer. Several of them have been posted on Facebook! What may not be known is a few years ago this area decided to cull the deer. Cull—it is strange isn’t it how words are often used to mask an unpleasant truth perhaps murder or kill would have not been quite as acceptable. Many voices were raised in opposition, ours included, the debate lasted a couple of years but unfortunately the slaughter ultimately took place. It was sad, these felt like our friends, we had names for them, we had stroked them as had our grandchildren. Several years ago, one was even born in our garden in the early morning as we sat in the hot tub. The newborn remained in our garden for several weeks until big enough to jump the fence. What a joy to share those first few weeks of his life. 

Andy and I have not seen any deer for about three or four years and now we were looking at four of them. Life had not been extinguished. Life had found a way. 

It was a message of hope much needed in these days. The world is in the middle of a pandemic which will go down forever in the annals of history. I have never lived through anything like this, I suspect nor has anyone else. Today, America has the largest number of cases recorded anywhere in the world—at the moment of writing there are 123,781 cases with 2,229 deaths and 3.238 recovered. The predictions are it will get worse before it gets better. 

It is sobering to read the stories of those on the frontline in caring for those suffering. Many of the accounts highlight the severe shortages and desperate needs, as the country was and still is ill prepared to deal with a pandemic of this nature. 

I have heard and read some “this is the end of the world” theories. They are not helpful. Life will always find a way.

This Sunday’s lectionary readings give that same message. The Old Testament reading is the story of dry bones in a desert, life is breathed into them and they live (Ezekiel 37:1-14). And the gospel story is of Lazarus being raised from the dead after four days in the tomb (John 11:1-45). Popular, well-known stories. I, as many others, have talked about them often, giving them deep spiritual meaning. Today, I don’t want to look at details, I don’t want to pick out the verse or theme that spoke to me on this occasion. Today, as I read them, they gave me one message of hope — life will find a way.

I don’t want to in any way trivialize the pandemic. These are serious times, people have and will lose their lives. Yesterday, we were told that someone who was part of the congregation of the church Andy was minister of in Northumberland had died of Covid-19. Her children were the same ages as our children — we have not talked to her for over twenty-five years. Nevertheless, hearing a name of someone known in the past was a sober reminder of how serious this is. 

But for the world, the human race as a whole, life will find a way. It is a hope we can hang onto in difficult times.

 Life may be forever changed, a new consciousness has been raised in everyone about social distancing. I wonder will I ever want to be in a crowd again? Will I feel comfortable shaking someone’s hand?  Will I notice every cough I hear while out shopping? 

Our pugs are very friendly. We have deliberately socialized them to be so. We have encouraged them to meet other dogs when we are out walking. That has changed. Now when we do our daily walk, we pull the dogs close to us as we stay on opposite sides of the road from other dog walkers (although a distant wave and kindly greeting is exchanged with the humans). A couple of days ago, as we walked past another person walking their dog, our pug, Lucy, barked at it. She had never done that before. It was eye-opening as we realized, in just two weeks, we had taught her to be wary of other dogs. She will eventually need to be re-socialized. I wonder will it be the same for us humans.

But the message of hope is life may be different, but life will find a way forward.

As a final note I want to add that many people are on the cutting edge of the Covid-19 outbreak — nurses, doctors, chaplains, therapists, prison workers, etc. They are living as Christ to those they serve. 

There are also many essential workers shopkeepers, garbage collectors (dustbin people in UK), postal workers, they too are being as Christ to those they serve.

Others are accepting restrictions on daily life in hope of helping to stop the spread of this terrible disease to others. Perhaps, at home worried about family members and friends who are elderly or essential workers.

At this time, we need to uplift each other by our prayers, emails and discussions filled with hope that whatever changes, ultimately life will find a way.