Sunday, December 17, 2017

Pure Joy: The Dance of the Turkey Vultures.

Today, the third Sunday of Advent, the pink candle in the Advent wreath is lit. It represents joy. It stands amongst the purple candles as a reminder that even in a season of expectation and preparation joy can burst forth.

A few weeks ago, as the early morning darkness turned to light, Andy and I were treated to the dance of the turkey vultures. It happens only once or twice a year. Our garden must be on their flight path and they roost for the night in our tall pine trees. We are unaware of their presence until dawn breaks then suddenly two or three appear, followed by another small group, then another and another, perhaps thirty in all. Then they dance, they loop, they twist, they glide and soar on the thermals. It is a display of pure joy. An early morning dance that we count a privilege to watch. It lasts, perhaps, fifteen minutes followed by an odd few stragglers. Then they are gone.

As I ponder the lectionary readings and reflect on this day where joy is the focus I am reminded of the dance of the turkey vultures. For me, it captured joy. Joy often breaks in unexpectedly as darkness turns to light. It is a moment, an instance in time, captured by an intensity of well-being and happiness that can only be described of as joy.

The readings today encapsulate that feeling of joy. The texts include the reading of the Magnificat which is an account of the wonderful meeting of Elisabeth and Mary (Luke 1: 39-56).

As Elisabeth hears Mary greet her on arrival, she feels the quickening of her baby. She acknowledges it with those well-known words, “the child in my womb leaped for joy.” This is followed by Mary’s rejoinder, “My spirit rejoices in God my saviour.” It is a moment of joy for both women. Although, the breaking in of joy was a moment in time as the baby danced in the womb, the impact was huge in the lives of both women. It brought forth an outpouring of praise. I’m sure the experience remained with both women for a lifetime.

Joy always seems to elicit a response in others. As we watched the dance of the turkey vultures we, in turn, shared their joy. As Mary arrived it evoked a joyous response from Elisabeth, which in turn, brought forth a further response from Mary. Joy seems to bring forth more joy.

During this third Sunday in Advent, and in the approaching Christmas season, I hope many will be amazed by joy. I hope there will be moments to treasure. I hope the privilege of those experiences will bring deep and lasting enjoyment. It may only be a moment in time, a fleeting happening, yet the memory is precious. Joy came, and because of it, life is a little richer.

(Photo: North-East Ithaca, JPF)

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Expectation, Preparation and Hope

I can feel expectation! It is in the air. It manifests as a sort of excitement, preparation and hope.

The squirrels feel it. From our daily practice of starting the day in the hot tub Andy and I watch them scurrying up and down trees carrying pine cones. We watched one little one yesterday with a pine cone in its mouth racing at the picket fence. We expected it to crash as there was no way it would get through, yet without hesitation the little creature turned its head sideways, went through the fence and continued, hopefully, to build a good supply of food to get through the cold weeks.

Then as we walk the pugs in the evening the darkness is broken by the full moon, the twinkling stars and myriads of coloured lights adorning houses and gardens. Light is shining through the darkness. We talk about how lovely they look. Somehow it seems that this year there has been more lights, even earlier than usual, it feels part of the expectation that is in the air.

It is not surprising then that today, the first Sunday of Advent is celebrated. The season of Advent, is full of expectation, preparation and hope. The first candle in the Advent wreath is lit, a purple one that represents hope.

It is with hope in our hearts that the four-week journey to Christmas is begun. It is a time for preparation. It is a time to be full of expectation. The lectionary today is apocalyptic writing (Mark 13: 24-37). I think it is a mistake to take this sort of writing and look for detail, or try and impose a timeline on it or, even, look for disasters that point to the end of the world.

I would add as an aside here that I have read interpretations that say that apocalyptic texts in this gospel point to the crucifixion and passion week. There is an interesting play on words here with cockcrow, dawn, sun going dark, etc. (see Mark 15:33 for example). Certainly, would be worth pursuing but not for today.

Today, I want to remain with the air of expectation, preparation and hope. I want to savour the season. I want to enjoy the moment.

Yet, it must be tinged with a little realism. Christmas time has over the last few centuries been hyped up into an art. Paintings, Christmas cards, tableaus and TV commercials often portray the ideal Christmas. Families together, overflowing tables and an abundance of gifts around a brightly lit tree.  This depiction falls far short of the realistic situation for many people.

There is an increase in reported domestic violence (, children go even hungrier ( and think of the turkeys, 300 million are killed most of them after living short lives in unspeakable conditions (

In our home, as foster parents, we have had many children who have only dreaded Christmas. There have been no presents, not much food and a lot of fear. Therefore, in my excitement, my expectation, my hope, I cannot ignore the plight of others. I need to hold these things in tension.

The message of the lectionary text is to be aware, as it is phrased to “keep awake” (37). It is the message of advent, part of the expectation, part of the preparation and part of the hope. This advent I want to live in the moment, I want to be filled with great expectation and hope yet I want to be awake to those around me. To notice their lives, maybe in some small way to bring a glimmer of light into their darkness.

“May God’s goodness be ours this day.
And well and seven times well
May we spend our lives.”
(Way of Living, 55)

Photo: The little red squirrel in our garden earlier in the year.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Money, Gains & Rejection

The lectionary gospel today is part of a series of parables in Matthew seeking to illustrate what the realm of heaven is like. I understand the realm of heaven not as some future event but as a way of life for now. These stories in the gospel often expose selfish and uncaring ways. They become pointers towards a better way of living; directions for a good life. Realistically, the goal, the desired outcome, will never be reached, humanness is far from perfect. It is something to be strived towards.

Today’s story is about a rich man (Matthew 25:14-30). He was going to undertake a journey so entrusted his money to his slaves. He gave them five, two and one talent respectively. When he returned, the two slaves with the larger amounts had both doubled their money and received praise. The third had kept the money safe but received scorn.

I have often heard it interpreted that God gives talents and it is the responsibility of the recipient to increase those talents. However, today I am rejecting that interpretation and subverting the parable. I read it as a critique of practices of the day, with lessons to be learned for contemporary society.

I want to start by saying, and I have said it many times before, that it is a mistake to assign roles for the characters in a parable. In this parable to read God as the rich landowner leads to problems. The character of the landowner is not how one would want to envisage in a divine being.

Firstly, the landowner was absent —he was going away and leaving his people. Secondly, the landowner is described as a harsh man. Thirdly, the man gets rich through the work of others, “I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter” (26). Therefore, if it is assumed that the landowner equates to God, it can also be assumed that these attributes belong to God. I find it much better to see the parable simply as a story told to illustrate a point.

In the time this story was written a talent was a unit of money. It is not about whether one can sing or is a good artist. That is a contemporary usage of the word talent. This is not a parable about using one’s gifts but about money-making.

The value of money was equivalent to its weight. One talent was worth 3,000 shekels. It is estimated that it was equivalent to about twenty-years wages for an ordinary worker. Therefore, it was an enormous amount of money the landowner entrusted to the slaves. Together the eight talents would equate to approximately one hundred and sixty years of wages.

Money-makers were not held in high esteem. It was often the case that the rich, the person who owned property, got richer through the work of the poor. Often the workers toiled long hours to enable them to eat and feed their families.

The third slave in this story kept the money safe. He wasn’t dishonest with it. He or she followed the common practice of the time, to bury one’s money to keep it safe. When the landowner discovered what had been done he was angry. He told the slave that he should at least have taken it to the bankers to invest it, thus making some extra money on it as it was lent out. Interestingly, this was a practice that was considered dishonest. It was discouraged and held in disdain particularly as the money was often lent to the poor (Ex. 22:25, Lev. 25:37, Neh. 5:10-11).

In this parable, I am not seeing God reflected in the harsh landowner who sought to get richer. I am not seeing God in the two slaves who made more money to receive praise from the landowner. I find God in the slave who kept safe that entrusted to them. I find God in the one who refused to allow the money to be used to exhort from others. I find God in the one who was rejected and thrown out.

This parable was told by Matthew as a prelude to the crucifixion story. A reflection of a God who, in human form, spoke against those who harmed others and was ultimately abandoned and rejected.

(Photo: Casowaco Retreat Centre, June 2017)

Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Fragility of Life

On Friday I was once again brought face-to-face with the fragility of life. 

Two separate incidents, a continent apart, devastating for the families and friends. It was a sad day, a sad weekend. Sickness often takes a grip when least expected and suddenly everything changes. The trivia that a few days before seemed important no longer are. Life is precious and fragile. 

I turned to the lectionary passages to see if they would bring comfort and hope. As is my wont I turned first to the gospel (Matthew 23:1-12). 

It talks about people spending their lives being hypocritical or trying to be important in the eyes of others. What a waste of time! The writer of the gospel clearly thought so too. The punch line is “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (12).

Of course, it is not talking about a false humility as demonstrated by Dickens’ famous character, Uriah Heep, in David Copperfield. As one of the antagonist, Heep was completely insincere demonstrating false humility yet continually talking about being ‘umble. 

In the text the people who are exalting themselves are not demonstrating the claims they are making for themselves. Their concern is only to make themselves look good regardless of how it affects others. What a waste of life! 

The gospel passage certainly shows how a life shouldn’t be lived. This week the epistle is more hopeful. The passage (1 Thessalonians 2: 5-20) gives a clue as to how to live. The author of the letter talks about thankfulness and living a worthy life.  Yet I think the key verse is where the writer talks about the attitudes of himself and his companions, “we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children” (7). What a contrast between this and the lives depicted in the gospel passage. What a better way to live — gently caring for others. 

This week, as I was once again brought face-to-face with the fragility of life, it caused me to ponder. What do I want my life to look like? One of self-importance or one of caring. The contrast in these two lectionary passages is stark. Life is precious and fragile, no-one knows how long their life will be. I want to make a good and worthwhile choice about how to spend it.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Sacred or Secular?

 “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21)

This is the lectionary text, and a very well-known, oft quoted one it is. I confess I remember it in the language of older translations of the Bible —“Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”.

In the story, Jesus had been asked if it was lawful to pay taxes to the emperor. His response had been to request a coin and asked of those questioning whose head was depicted on it. This elicited the response quoted above.

A seemingly simple statement, yet so complex. In the United States separation of church and state has long been accepted. It is part of the first amendment to the constitution (adopted 15 December 1791).

Thomas Jefferson reinforced it in a letter to Danbury Baptist Church, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” 1 January 1802. (

It has been challenged several times in the Supreme Court. Perhaps one of the more significant times was in 1971 when Lemon v. Kurtzman was argued in the Supreme Court. Very simply the case was about salaries and other payments in religious schools. The crux was should government money be used to fund programmes that teach religious-based lessons? In 1968 Pennsylvania had passed a law that allowed this. Lemon contended that the state was in violation of the first amendment as the state’s general population did not benefit from these preferential religious programmes.  (

Lemon won the case. The Supreme Court found that it was a violation of the first amendment to enact state laws that establish a religious body. This case led to the establishment of the Lemon Test which sets criteria to help determine whether state laws regarding funding for religious bodies violate the constitution. (

I think the separation of church and state is a good thing. It is another safeguard that protects minorities. It prevents any religious entity from getting too powerful.

Now I want to jump —and I know it is a huge leap—to thinking about the idea of giving “to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” in my personal everyday life.

Do I make a separation there?
Do I compartmentalize my life?

This bit of my life is for God (or a higher being) and this bit is for the state (or the people).

Am I two separate people?
Am I different in varying settings?

We have long talked about no division between sacred and secular. It is the Celtic Way. That life is lived as a one whole complete span not a dichotomy.

In the Understandings of the community number six says “. . . There is a need to break down the difference between the sacred and the secular; to be the same on Monday as Sunday; to be the same at work as at home; to be the same with our family as with our friends and colleagues.” (Way of Living, 19)

So, as I ponder “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” My conclusion is that for the nation I welcome the separation of church and state, but in my personal life I don’t think I want to make that division. I want to live my life the Celtic way making no distinction between sacred and secular. Striving to live the best life I can. To quote our community prayer a life trying to be “as Christ to those I meet” and “to find Christ within them.” (Way of Living, 16)

(Photo: Sunset NE Ithaca: 22 October 2017)

Sunday, October 8, 2017

No Winners, Only Losers.

Today’s lectionary reading is the parable which has often been termed the parable of the Wicked Tenants. It is a difficult parable to understand, full of violence and hatred.

Quite simply the story is of a person who bought land, fenced it, built a winepress and a watchtower. Thus, the owner created a safe environment for the workers. The vineyard was leased to tenants and the owner left, possibly to continue his business exploits elsewhere.

I would imagine that is quite a normal way of conducting business. It is a model that happens all the time in big business. Owners have multiple investments, they put managers in to run them and scoop up the profits as a return on their investments. Perhaps, one could critique this model of business and talk about enormous profits made while workers toil for a pittance. It is certainly worth considering when this parable is explored.

I have, in the past, enjoyed a book by Peter Mayle, it is autobiographical about a year spent in Provence, France. The style is a little bit too patriarchal for my taste nevertheless it is an interesting read. In one of the chapters Mayle talks about his venture into wine-making, although like the owner in the parable today he does little hands-on work. His property in Provence has six acres of vines. In the book, he describes the system used in the region which is known as metayage. The owner pays all the capital costs, of new stock, fertilizer, etc. While the farmer does the actual work, planting, spraying, pruning, harvesting. When the grapes are converted to wine the farmer takes two-thirds of the profits while the owner takes the remaining third. This system came to mind as I read this parable.

When reading parables, I resist the temptation to assign roles to the characters. I believe that is always always a mistake. I think one should read them simply as a story told to make a point. If one assigns roles then the characters often exhibit characteristics that are unfavourable. In this parable, the landowner has sometimes been equated to God. If that reasoning is followed then in this parable God is portrayed as vengeful and one who will cause suffering. (“. . . will put the wretches to a miserable death” 21:41).

Is that an image of God that is acceptable? It is certainly an Old Testament image, but the gospels and epistles have tended to change the interpretation of the image of God from a violent defender to a loving parent, a view which has increased in contemporary times. If God is put into the role of landowner then the violent image is affirmed.

In addition, roles would have to be assigned to the tenants, the servants and the son. The most common interpretation would see the tenants as the Jewish people (Sadducees, Pharisees), the servants as prophets and the son as Jesus. I would also want to reject this. I dislike the Anti-Semitic emphasis this would bring.

So, that leaves me with a story that has no winners, only losers. The landowner lost profits and a son. The servants and the son lost their lives. The tenants lost their vineyard (at, least that is hinted at, 21:41). No solution is given in the parable, there is no real ending.  

I don’t have any great interpretation or profound thoughts. Much of it just leaves me feeling it is an unpleasant and disturbing parable.

Perhaps from the tenants point of view I could explore themes of possible exploitation, injustice, unrest which results in anger and violence in their desire for change. From the landowner’s view-point there could also be feelings of injustice, of being used, taken for granted, dishonoured, great loss and ultimately wanting to turn to violence.

I suspect each of us have shared several of those feelings at some point in our lives. At those times, hopefully, most of the time ,violence is not the result. Other ways of dealing with those feelings have been pursued.

Perhaps, this is simply a story to illustrate that a time of change is coming, reflecting the unrest in society. And change always comes from those who see injustice and are bold enough to stand against it. It has happened with every generation. Hopefully, as this story is read it will show the futility of trying to bring change through violence. With violence there are no winners, only losers.

Photo: Cornell Plantations, October 2016,  (J.F-G)

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Generosity or Jealousy?

Generosity is one of the values of the community. The lectionary passage today is all about generosity. In the story (Matthew 20:1-16) a landowner went out to hire workers to work in the vineyard.

 The process, at that time, was that people who wanted work gathered in the marketplace. Those requiring workers came and hired them.

I remember as a teenager doing the same thing. At school, we always got “potato-picking” week off. Many of the teens worked the week on the farms. Either a job was secured in advance or one went and stood at a certain place in the village where the farmers came to pick up teens. I was fortunate, a school friend lived on a farm so I had work with her. It was hard work, a tractor turned the soil and the group of teens followed on foot picking up the potatoes. At the end of the day we received our daily pay. I remember picking potatoes as fun but my sister got beetroots! Even today, almost 50 years later, she still hates beetroot.

Of, course, it isn’t really the same at all. We worked to get a bit of extra spending money. The people in today’s story were sustenance workers. They needed the wages to survive. It was to put food into the mouths of their children. These were amongst the lowest class in their culture. Being hired daily was the only thing that prevented them being beggars.

The landowner in today’s tale visited the market place several times, each time hiring additional workers. The last time was only an hour before the end of the work day.

As I think about the workers I wonder who was left at the end of the day? I can only surmise that it would be the weaker, older, possibly infirm people. I assume that when one is choosing workers one would look a little at physical appearance. Strong people who could do a good day’s work in far from ideal conditions would probably be chosen first. I can imagine those who were left were considered the dregs of society. Yet, they obviously had determination. They wanted to work. They had waited all day hoping to earn even a little bit.

Here the story twists and subverts. Many stories in the gospels are designed to do just that. Although we read through them without any surprise, I suspect they would send a ripple of shock through the listeners of the time. A gasp of horror as something outside the norm was advocated.

At the end of the day all the workers went to receive their pay. Those who had only worked for the last hour went first and received a full day’s pay. Not the one-twelfth which was probably expected. Imagine their delight, they could feed their families. No one would go hungry that day. What a generous landowner.

Each worker in turn received their pay. They all got the same amount. All could eat and survive another day. However, those who had worked a full day grumbled. They thought they should have more. Yet, they had been paid exactly what had been agreed. They hadn't been cheated at all. They would have been happy with their pay if they hadn't seen those who were more unfortunate getting the same.

They were jealous. Being jealous is not a pleasant trait. It leaves one feeling all discontent, unsettled and sometimes angry.

It made me wonder about jealousy and generosity.  I leave these as open questions to ponder this week.

Why was it so hard to rejoice in another’s good fortune?
Why could these workers not rejoice that everyone had enough that day?
What does it say about human nature?
What does it teach about generosity?
What does it say about equality of all people?

I know many people who are amazingly generous. They are wonderful company. Their lives reflect their attitude of sharing and caring for others. I, also, have from time to time met those who are not so generous. Much harder to be around.

Generosity is included in the community’s understandings. The understandings are things to be aspired to, not those which have already attained. The introduction to the understandings describes them as “shining, precious gems, winsome, lovely, drawing us out of ourselves . . .” Number twelve reads,

“We are called to a generous, self-giving life. In order for that to happen, we try not to hoard our time, talents, money or gifts; developing the habit of giving things away. In the Lindisfarne Community we encourage members not to be limited by the tithe, but to be expansive in our thinking about generosity; listening to the gentle promptings of the Spirit. We are often surprised how giving God wants us to be.” (Way of Living, 20)

(Photo: Blue Tit, Culcheth, August 2017)