August 1st 2020 – Uncertainty Continues ….

Dear All,

Yesterday’s announcement by the Prime Minister that far from allowing new activities and freedoms to take place some would need to be postponed – such as wedding receptions – and other new and tighter ones introduced – such as the compulsory wearing for face coverings in church from the 8th August (for those not exempt) didn’t come as a surprise. It underlined the continual threat of the virus and that life will have restrictions for months to come. We are about to start Sunday worship in St. Mary’s church (All Saints, Drinkstone, has to remain closed until the window project is completed) and suddenly there is the feeling that we need to make the most of gathering in church as this too may go again, if the virus spread continues.

Other events of the last week or so also have made me feel helpless.

All this has drawn me back to one of my favourite prayers – the Methodist Covenant Prayer. We used to use it at New Year in the churches but I think it is perhaps even more relevant in our current times. It is a challenging prayer to pray and really mean but one that we need to be praying at this time.

‘I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing,
put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you,
or laid aside for you,
exalted for you,
or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.’

When I gave my life to Christ I surrendered my control and asked him to be Lord of everything. However, I have a very bad habit of trying to wrest control back from the Lord and take over myself. So I want to control what happens to the people I love and in the churches that mean so much to me. I want answers to be ‘yes’ and people to be healed and the freedom to worship in the way I want, where I want. Then I come back to this prayer. It is no longer my life but God’s and if, for a time, he doesn’t want to use me as I want to be used or he says ‘no’ to my prayer  I must accept it. I have given him my life so I know and trust that, with him in control, it will be his will that is done, not mine, and it will be his kingdom that comes – not the petty, selfish kingdom of Ruth.

This prayer is an aspiration. It is how I want to live my live with God. I won’t get it right all the time, or even much of the time, but if I keep aiming to allow God control of every part of my life, and keep handing back those things that I grab onto then I will see his glory at work – in me and in his creation.

Back in church

Services in St. Mary’s:

We have now received some guidance from the Church of England and our bishops. Basically, it is as I had suggested in my last letter – social distancing of 2 meters, no singing and advice to keep our services as short as possible.

While a few people would like Sunday church services to resume the majority of you who responded said you would prefer to keep the Sunday Zoom service at present, with many agreeing that a Wednesday service would be a suitable addition.

Consequently the decision is:

We will keep our current pattern of Sunday Holy Communion at 10:30 am and an Evening Service at 5:00 pm on Zoom.

From Wednesday 8th July we will start a service of Holy Communion in St. Mary’s at 11:00 am – receiving in one kind only and with careful social distancing and hand sanitising in place. I won’t be putting tape on the floor – out of respect to our Victorian Webb tiles – but please do make sure you maintain distance when coming in and going out – just as you would do within the church. Hand sanitiser will be used before we come in and as we go out.

The church will be kept locked on a Wednesday until 10:30 am then cleaned and shut again after the service until Thursday, to ensure it is as clean and safe as possible.

It will feel very strange coming back together and please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions or queries.

I will still be taking home communion to people, in their gardens, for those who will feel safer that way.

We will be reviewing what we are doing very regularly and I will, of course, keep you informed.

Lost and Found

Both my tablet and my mobile phone are Apple products and they have a very useful feature, which is ‘find my device’.

When I mislay one or the other I can activate the app and it immediately gives me a rough location for the missing device – enough of a guide for me to know that I’ve left my ipad in someone’s house or my phone in the car. It saves a lot of fruitless searching or, at least, directs my search in the right places.

Perhaps it is just as well these apps weren’t around in Jesus’ day or we might not have the three wonderful parables of searching for the lost that come in chapter 15 of Luke’s gospel. Jesus told three stories of loss and recovery which have become some of our favourite parables. The first two, beloved of Sunday School teachers in the past and of any of us work with children now, used simple, everyday situations – a lost sheep and a lost coin – to speak of God’s willingness to go to any lengths to find those who had strayed or were lost. At the time he told them Jesus’ audiences would have felt reassured and loved by the God who would not let them be lost forever. After all, those listening to the stories, the first time they were told, were Israelites who knew that they were God’s people. Although under Roman rule they may have felt that they were lost or abandoned Jesus’ stories reassured them that they were never out of God’s searching care and He would stop at nothing to bring them home safely.

However, the final story of the trilogy was not as easy or comfortable. We often call it the parable of the prodigal son, and focus mainly on the story of the younger son, but Jesus deliberately told a story of two sons – and two different ways of being lost. The parable also showed an image of God whose behaviour was shocking and forgiveness outrageous.

In asking for his inheritance early the younger son was telling his father he wished he was dead – and taking all his money and going far away from home he behaved as if his father had already died.  For such behaviour the Jewish law in Leviticus said that a child could be stoned to death. But instead of exacting punishment or at least crossing the son’s name out of the family tree the father waited and watched for him. That was shocking enough to those listening to the story but then Jesus said that when the son appeared in the distance the father ran to him – losing all dignity, all respect. Jesus’ audience must have asked themselves, ‘what sort of God did Jesus believe in?’

The story continued to shock as Jesus told of the older brother – in every way someone who was righteous in the eyes of the law – who wasn’t the recipient of the father’s outrageous and lavish love. I suspect that many listening to the parable, and later thinking it over, were at the very least puzzled and perhaps some, particularly the Pharisees and rigorously law abiding people, alienated by Jesus – unable to comprehend the idea of a God who loved beyond bounds, forgave appalling sins yet didn’t appreciate those who worked hard for his favour. Yet there would have been some – at the fringes of the crowd – who took hope from the story. They were the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the shepherds and all those who had been forced to make lifestyle or work choices that left them outside the Jewish law and excluded from Jewish worship.  For them this parable must have brought profound hope. God could and would never stop seeking them and would welcome them into His home with extravagant forgiveness and love.

To Luke these three parables were important. He wanted Gentiles to know that Jesus knew their inclusion into the kingdom of God was part of God’s plan. He wanted them to understand that God had sent his Son as the shepherd, the woman, to seek the lost, and that they were too would be the recipients of God’s overwhelming love and grace. No-one was or is outside God’s love – all they have to do is turn to him and accept him as their God and Lord.

What does that mean to us, today? First, that we are precious to God and He sent His son to show us how much. Also, that we don’t have to earn His love – all we have to do is turn to Him and He is there, holding out His arms to us. Finally, that although we may think that there are some people who, due to their actions, their life style or their race, could never be acceptable to God, it isn’t for us to judge. God knows the secrets of everyone’s hearts and He knows who has or may returned to Him.

After all, He is the father who watched for us to turn to Him and Jesus tells us He will never stop watching, reach out and running towards each of His children – whoever they are.

Open for Private Prayer

From Monday 15th June 2020, St. Mary’s Church will be open for private prayer daily from 9:00 – 5:00 pm. We ask that all visitors respect strict social distancing and maintain good hand hygiene.

We rejoice that St. Mary’s can again welcome those who come to seek the Lord or just want a quiet place to be still and reflect.

Prayer sheets will be available and we ask that people take these home or dispose of them in the bin provided. They must not be put back in the pile.

Reflecting with Martha and Mary – 9th June 2020

One of our bible readings for Morning Prayer this morning was Luke 10: 38 – 42. It is the story of Jesus’ visit to the home of Mary and Martha.

Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’

It is a lovely story, and one of my favourites, but it has also been a reading that has troubled us all at different times, challenging as it does, our priorities between doing the tasks that our lives demand and spending time with God. I know it has the ability to make me feel guilty – I am someone who is an activist rather than a reflector. I find it much easier to get on with the tasks at hand than it is to spend time in quiet prayer or contemplation and I am profoundly envious of those who have a natural inclination for meditation and are able to spend time easily in God’s presence.

Of course this was even more so in a Middle-eastern household such as the one Jesus visited in this passage. There was almost a sacred duty of hospitality demanded of the family. The arrival of Jesus, with his friends and disciples, would have put a strain on the household but Martha knew it was her duty to feed and care for them. The indications are, gleaned from other gospels stories, the family wasn’t poor so Martha may well have had a servant to assist her but it was the duty of all the women of the household to tend the needs of the visitors. Mary should have been by her sister’s side, grinding the corn for bread or preparing food in other ways. To Martha, Mary was showing a lack of care to much loved guests by not helping to serve them. Martha may also have really worried about the reputation her sister would get if she was seen to be a person spending time with men, rather than doing the tasks demanded. So she approached Jesus and asked him to intervene.  Did Martha really expect her much loved friend Jesus to respond in the way that any other man of the time would have done? Martha understood, much more fully than even many of Jesus’ male followers, who he was but she was distracted and flustered so she turned to Jesus for back up.

But of course, although Jesus was a man of his time and culture, he was also the Son of God who knew that in the kingdom of God there is a profoundly different concept of hospitality. In God’s kingdom we are all welcome and all equal in his love. In his kingdom we all feed on his word and share his generosity. All gifts come from God and in his kingdom all are celebrated.  When Jesus entered the house in Bethany the kingdom of God was at hand. So Martha’s gift of hospitality was precious but so too was Mary’s gift of listening and learning. Mary’s radical action of sitting with the men by Jesus wasn’t shocking or lazy. It was a sign that she was in the kingdom – welcomed and equal. The invitation was to Martha to join into this understanding of God’s hospitality and welcome.

The challenge for us is to also live by kingdom values and not allow ourselves to behave just as society would want. We are to conform not to this world but to the God’s kingdom, which is at hand and of which we are citizens, now and forever.

Somewhere between Pentecost and Trinity with Psalm 139

Last Sunday was, as you know, Pentecost. The imagery of Pentecost was even more powerful this year, in our context of social isolation, than usual for as we read from the Acts of the Apostles we heard how the Holy Spirit came into the locked upper room and brought God’s power and fire into the lives of the 120 or so believers who were gathered there. We needed the reminder that there are no doors that are locked against the Holy Spirit, no restrictions of the presence of God’s power.

The archbishop of Canterbury, in his Pentecost service, used as one of his readings a passage from Psalm 139.

Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
    if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
    your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
    and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
    the night will shine like the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

I strongly recommend you re-read the whole of the psalm again.

I have loved this psalm for as long as I have known it. It was a guide and reassurance in the days when I was back-packing around Europe on my own, it was strength in dark days when depression could leave me feeling profoundly isolated and now it is the promise that no one – however isolated by lock down, shielding or illness – is separated from God’s presence. The whole psalm celebrates the uniqueness of each person and reminds us that everyone in the world – whoever or whatever they are – are part of God’s loving creation. (A message we need particularly at this time as we are challenged by what is happening in America at present.) It speaks of God’s Spirit seeking and finding us but I believe it also speaks of Christ reaching out and holding us. Jesus is the eternal light that no darkness can ever overcome. So this psalm is not only a wonderful reminder of the presence of God’s Spirit at Pentecost but it also leads us forwards to the celebration of God as Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The Trinity is the mystery that is our God – one yet three – and this psalm helps us glimpse a little of what that means. God the creator, utterly involved in his creation and loving it completely; God the Son, the light that shatters darkness and the love that draws us into an everlasting relationship with the Father; and God the Holy Spirit who searches for us and guides us, where ever we go.

Although lock down is easing and many of us are now able to enjoy a little time with friends and family, with great care, it stills feels as if the way forward is hidden from us.  So Psalm 139 is a perfect psalm for this time. It teaches us to trust in our God who knows our path and is there before and behinds us; who is our light even in the darkest time and in whom there is no darkness; and whose Spirit will be with us – now and always. So let us trust him to lead us in the way everlasting.

Grace

One of my favourite Christian words is ‘grace’ – often explained by the mnemonic  – God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.

Grace tells us of the unmerited love and forgiveness that God pours out on us, as we turn to him. Love demonstrated in the life and death of Jesus Christ and confirmed in his resurrection.

The other day I came home to find on my doorstep a large box. Not unusual in this time when we are getting so much of our shopping through Amazon or other online delivery companies but on this day I wasn’t expecting anything so I was a little puzzled.

When I opened the box I found a carefully packed arrangement of stunning flowers and a card, thanking me for what I was doing, with no signature or sign of who had given them. A moment of incredible grace as I received a gift that was completely unexpected and unmerited. Thank you, to who ever gave me the flowers. They really are glorious.

One of the joys of this time is how many acts of grace we have seen or been the recipients of. These small, and sometimes not so small, acts of kindness have helped transform this potentially painful time into one which has been a time of blessing to many of us. It has been a joy to see how caring and considerate our community and wider society has been. However, we know that there are many people who are still finding this time very difficult. Families who are struggling to make ends meet or cope with children who don’t want to do their home schooling, or for lack of resources, aren’t able to do it. We know there are people trapped in abusive households and others trapped in their homes who are having to shield – and live with the anxiety that compromised immunity causes. How can we show God’s grace to them?

It is Christian Aid week and so we need to remember the work that Christian Aid does around the world for those whose lives are devastated by war, climate change or natural disasters. so many people are reliant on food banks at present. We might not be able to donate food as easily as in the past – although you may always leave donations on my door step and I will deliver – but you can give financially to them. The Women’s Refuge is working very hard to support those who aren’t able to get to them through phone contact and counselling. They too need our support. Although these acts of generosity may seem small on our part, yet they are all acts of grace – just are the cards, phone calls, what’s app messages that are such important ways of showing love.

God’s grace isn’t just for a brief moment. He didn’t stop pouring out his grace after the Ascension of Christ, nor does it stop even when we don’t acknowledge his love and forgiveness in our lives. So our acts of kindness and giving must not stop as lock down eases.

Let us be still for a moment and remember the acts of grace given to us – by God and by others. To give thanks for them and renew our commitment to being God’s ministers of his grace to our families, communities and the world: freely, generously and even where it isn’t noticed, continuously sharing his love, his compassion and his unmerited grace. After all, that’s what we received from him.

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you today and always. Amen.

The Peace of the Lord

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.                                                                   Philippians 4: 4 – 9

Paul could have been writing these words for a time just as this. And, I suppose, he was. Writing to the small group of Christian in Philippi – in the area we now call Asia Minor – he was encouraging them to remember what was important to them when life started to get difficult. Written either during the 50’s or early 60’s AD when Christians were just tolerated by the Roman authorities and had very little protection against harassment. They weren’t persecuted at the time, as they would be later in the century, but they were still a vulnerable group, without the protection of either the Pagan temple guilds or the Jewish synagogues.

Paul himself was in prison when he wrote this letter and earlier in the letter it is clear that he was facing possible death. He wrote that he might be ‘poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith …’  He was facing the very real prospect of death and yet he wrote these wonderful words, from the heart. It is clear, not only from this letter but from other letters he wrote at a similar time, he could indeed rejoice in all things. In the letter to the Philippians he not only rejoiced that his death would mean that he would finally be with Christ, but also that his imprisonment meant that more and more people were hearing the good news.

How good are we at rejoicing when we are facing these challenging times? Are we able to follow Paul’s advice to ‘rejoice always’ and ‘not to worry, for the Lord is near’? It can be very difficult – particularly at this time when we are separated from family and friends. Even harder for those who don’t have computers or similar technology so can’t see the faces of loved one – but rely only on phone calls and letters. All of us miss the touch of loved ones – a hug at the right moment or just the clasp of a hand. We miss times in church or at the tea shop or similar ways of being with people. For some people it is a pain similar to bereavement.

It is then we need to return to the second part of the passage where Paul exhorts us to think on the true, pure, just and good things and to hold these things in our hearts and minds. God has given us so much that is wonderful and, if for a time some of these things have to be put aside, they are still overwhelming gifts from God and we need to rejoice in them. Paul reminds us not only to think on these good things but also to keep doing the things that are pleasing to God. We miss our families – then we give thanks for them and pray for them. We are frightened for the future as lock down is slowly released – then we pray for that future, giving thanks that God is ahead of us in whatever is going to happen and will not desert us. So I pray that the peace of God is with you – now and in the days ahead. And that you can go into our uncertain future, rejoicing in all that God has given you and holding in your thoughts all that is good. So, the peace of God be with you, those whom you love and those for whom you pray.

Making the right investments …

Last week the fish and chip shop in Woolpit re-opened, much to the relief of many. I had my first proper piece of fish since the lock down began, this weekend – a really glorious piece of cod – and it was good to see the shop working safely and well. They put a fortune cookie into my bag, along the fish and chips, and having eaten my fish I opened it. The tiny slip of paper said, ‘You will make a prosperous investment.’ My initial reaction was that it was a typical Chinese fortune cookie with a motto about money, and a highly unlikely future for me – as I don’t make financial investments. That first response was immediately followed by the blinding awareness that there are more than finances that are invested.

I made the most important investment of my life when, at the age of 19, I committed my life to following Jesus. It hasn’t always been a smooth path from then on but, although it may have meant that I am not as financially well off as I could have been, it was and is the most prosperous investment I could have ever made. I have all the wealth that I need, for all time, stored in perfect security and where no fluctuations of the stock market are going to affect its value. In Matthew’s gospel, during the sermon on the mount, Jesus said, ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth where moths and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consume and where no thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.’ (Matthew 6: 19 – 21)

I think that it is a treasure that more and more people are coming to find is the only one of permanence during this time of lockdown. Investments in friendship, in community and in caring for the vulnerable are seen as having real and lasting value. Of course money matters profoundly and my heart and prayers go out to those whose jobs are insecure, whose firms are going to the wall and all who are fearful of a future of unemployment and debt. In the months and years to come we will have to as concerned and caring about them as we are of those who today are vulnerable to the virus. But at this time we need to really be thinking about the investments that will make us truly prosperous. Investments into loving the Lord and serving him, loving our neighbour – who ever and where ever s/he is – and caring for our fragile world with its damaged environment. You see, we have a God who invested into us. He invested his son, allowing him to be incarnate, to live a human life and die a painful death so that we may know just how loved we are. That was a serious investment – and one that God declares as prosperous as he sees us turning to him and giving our lives into his care.

The Chinese fortune cookie really did know my past and my future – it did, for a moment, seem facile, but actually spoke a profound truth. I have made my life an investment in the love of God and I reap the reward daily, in knowing that I am never alone, that his Spirit guides me and that one day I will find my home in him, secure forever. I pray that you too will be able to rest in your investment in the Lord and know that, as his precious child, you are rich beyond measure.

A prayer for others to find the way to God, in these troubling times:

Lord Jesus, we pray for those who are troubled today,
those worried about money, those looking for work,
those who don’t feel safe.
May they find in you a way forward.

We pray for those whose journey of life is testing,
those who live in places of violence,
those who are a long way from family,
those whose health is fragile.
May they find in you a place to rest.

We pray for those who feel unwanted,
those who have left their countries,
those who live on city streets, those who are neglected.
May they find in you a welcome.

Lord Jesus, we pray for all places of need,
and all people in trouble.
As we make room for them in our prayers,
may we make room for them in our lives. Amen.

Reflections on Luke 24 – The Road to Emmaus

What a difference a few weeks make. We have been living with Covid 19 for less than 2 months but these last weeks have changed our perspective profoundly, haven’t they?

I found myself listening to Sunday’s Gospel reading – Luke 24 – the road to Emmaus – in a way that was coloured by our current situation. So I was wondering if Cleopas and his companion were walking along the road maintaining social distance. Perhaps, I thought, the companion was Cleopas’ wife, Mary, and then they could have still walked together. But how different the story would have been, during this time of isolation. The stranger would have struggled to share the scriptures in a meaningful way, if they had had to maintain a conversation with a gap of 2 meters between them, and of course, there would have been no way Cleopas and his companion could have offered hospitality for the night to the stranger.

Of course I’m just being fanciful. Jesus was able to come alongside the two people and speak to them with love and concern – to listen to their pain and then share with them the hope of God’s overwhelming plan. Cleopas and his fellow traveller were eager to offer hospitality and draw their unknown companion of the road into their home and to their meal, so that in the sharing of the meal Jesus was revealed to them in his resurrection glory. And they could return to the crowded room where Jesus’ followers were congregated to share with them all the Easter joy.

While I’m being fanciful this story is still profoundly important to our time now.

Many of us feel as if we are journeying through this time alone – carrying the grief of families separated and the knowledge of loss and death close at hand. It is in these times that Jesus draws near to us – to walk along the way beside us, listening to our pain and, if we are willing to listen, help us learn and grow from this time. There are no rules of social isolation that prevent us from opening the doors of our lives to that welcome guest. Jesus comes to eat with us at every solitary meal we have – breaking bread for us and inviting us to share in the abundance that is his, and his alone, to offer.

With this in mind, remember that although you may not see him he is there beside you, listening, sharing, loving you and as you sit down to each meal through this time, remember that Christ is there, sharing with you, breaking the bread of his body for you so that you might share in his risen life.

Yours lord is the greatness, the power, the glory, the splendour and the majesty

for everything in heaven and on earth is yours.

All things come from you, and of your own do we give you.

1 Chronicles 29:11