It’s great to receive a gift… and it’s even better to give one. This is a truism often said, but this doesn’t diminish the truth – it really is better to give than receive! You see, when we give away something we get something back… something not easily defined but something very real. We feel so good – yes there may be a bit of smugness in that feeling, but the feeling really is good! Giving away, whether its time, something material or a conversation – always does us good. Never fails. As surely as night follows day, the practice of ‘giving away’ enhances the experience of life. Wow!
Our religion is not really a belief system, but a life and death system which shows us how to give away our lives, how to give away our love, and eventually how to give away our death. The ‘believing’ part of our religion is always secondary to the practice of ‘giving away’.
We are told in one of the earliest hymns in the Christian church, that Jesus ‘emptied himself’ and ‘humbled himself’… ‘to the point of death – even death on a cross’. In this Jesus shows us the pathway. To find the secret of this life, you have to ‘give away’. The language used in the hymn cited above (from Philippians 2) pulls no punches – Jesus is ‘emptied’, he is ‘humbled’ in this giving away. And in it all there is salvation. This ‘giving away’ as demonstrated in Jesus is something so real and tangible and yet something so beautiful. His mother Mary, we are told, just looks on as she sees what her son is doing – the emptying of himself.
In Jesus teaching he is explicit about what we have to do – we have to lose our lives in order to find them, to be a disciple we must carry our cross (referring to this emptying). The emphasis placed on loving God and our neighbour (even our enemies) again underlines the requirement to ‘give away’. You cannot love without ‘letting go’. To love means to give away our time, our attention, our preoccupations – without any regard for getting anything back. When we catch this truth and it becomes the practice of our lives, we are blessed in ways we wouldn’t even imagine, but when we miss it and continue to ‘hold on’ to our need to ‘control’ and ‘order’ events, people and just life, well we do grievous damage to ourselves, to those around us and the bigger environment of our lives.
This is what our religion is really all about. The courage to ‘give away’. We love to set the agenda, and order the things we have to do. In life this will invariably form a major part of our lives, but when it becomes necessary to our well being, we’re in deep trouble. The need to control, to set the direction will gnaw away at something integral to us. We will be diminished. But when we learn to be comfortable in releasing the reins, to just ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’ we connect with something so powerful. It’s the creative force of the universe. It’s in every atom, every relationship and even, we are learning, in every galaxy.
The Christian church, well, we are simply a company of people, a fellowship, learning to ‘give away’. We believe because we dare to give this a go. Even by ‘giving away’ just a little we feel the difference in the quality of our lives. We just feel better. Jesus is prompting us – in amazing grace and patience – to ‘give away’ a bit more.
Following his pathway, walking his way, we learn to believe it is the truth and it really is the life.
If you want to know more about catching this in our daily lives – do get in touch…
When something gets ‘handed over’ it gives a sense of something serious has just been accomplished. A contract is signed and ‘handed over’, the cost of an item is priced and the money is ‘handed over’. A parcel previously ordered is ‘handed over’ at the doorway… yes, when something is ‘handed over’ something which matters is taking place.
In the wedding service there is a ‘handing over’ as the couple give to each other a ring. These rings are ‘handed over’. The bride and the groom say the words ‘all that I am I give to you’ when this ‘handing over’ takes place. It’s serious, it matters and it’s full of joy and grace. Often at this time there will be tears of love, as the ring is placed on the finger. This is a ‘handing over’ of life and this really does matter.
December marks the beginning of Advent where we get ourselves ready for the ‘handing over’ of divine life. In these December days, in all the shortness of daylight hours, in the chill of the breeze, the dampness and all the darkness we are invited to consider and feel the gift of life. Slow down, learn not to rush, step cautiously and begin to feel this life we hold in our flesh and bones. The vitality, the breath, the very physicality of it all is a gift, one amazing gift and it’s been handed over to us. We have people – family and friends – around us who help us to grow and appreciate – but in the end it’s down to each one of us to take responsibility for the life entrusted to us. And this matters!
It matters, because when we take it all for granted, we lose perspective and get irritated and frustrated by things that really don’t matter. When the days just roll into each other, when there is no welcome given to each new day, when one day could really be any old day, we inhabit a gracelessness which creeps up on us without us knowing.
In the darkness of the Advent season we switch on our hearts and brains to the fact so obvious yet so unnoticed – we have been given life for at least this next day – don’t take it for granted!
When the Christmas season arrives, on the night of Christmas Eve, this gift of life is acclaimed and underlined in capital letters… candles lit, carols sung, gifts unwrapped. In the baby born to Mary,God hands himself over. The God-life is helpless, born in a manger, cradled by the working shepherds… God is ‘handed over’.
Here begins the blueprint for the way to live our lives. Dare to be the person who ‘hands themselves over’ to each new day. Yes we may have a schedule, things on the ‘to do’ list, but let’s live each day with that sense we are ready for the unexpected – be that a chance encounter, a rainbow in the sky, an interruption… Each new day is ‘handed over’ to us – it’s a gift and it has come from heaven. It matters, it’s important and it’s overflowing with a joy and grace beyond our wildest imaginings.
Many people just don’t understand it, they believe and act as though this gift of life is a ‘right’ and not a ‘gift’. For these people they will be forever entangled in the frustrations and irritations of a fragile yet utterly sophisticated thing called life, but for others, for those who recognise and allow an appreciation of the gift there will be blessing, gratitude and an energy both real and tangible.
Something really precious and important has been ‘handed over’… receive it and be forever grateful… Amen!
In this Autumn season there is a ‘falling’, as we watch the leaves make their descent, swirling and twirling in the breezes. In this time we also celebrate the gathering of the harvest, giving thanks to God for the provision of the earth in all its goodness and abundance.
Incarnation is a lovely word which describes a kind of ‘falling’ – the falling or descent of God to earth… the revelation of God in our material world. We often use the word in relation to Jesus as one who makes God known to us. But there is an incarnation which preceded the Bethlehem birth, and that is the very act of creation when God pours out himself into every material thing. ‘It is good!’ God acclaims in Genesis 1 and St. Paul in Romans 1 writes ‘ ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made’. Sometimes I think we don’t really catch what St. Paul is saying here!
This prior incarnation is still with us, and we have opportunity to see each new day God with us – right in front of our eyes. In every little thing, and big thing, God is here. We just need to see… and that’s the problem for many of us. We see, but we don’t see. Jesus would make a similar observation in the gospels – and it’s true for us today. Yes we see creation – the trees, the vegetation, the ponies, the cattle, the fish, and clouds in the skies… but perhaps we don’t see. They just pass us by!
The Christian faith is an incarnational faith. It is founded on God making himself visible, touchable, and it is accessed first and foremost by our experience of it. By this I mean how it makes me feel – when I pat my pet dog Nahla, when I taste the beetroot in the salad, when I feel the sun rays on my back or the raindrops on my face – these experiences are the doorways, the windows into absorbing the very presence of God into me.
Clearly we are lost for words when we try and sum up this in any description. This is beyond our language – although we do give it a real good go! But as we absorb this presence something very real happens in us. The Russian author Leo Tolstoy describes it as ‘something that had been slumbering, something that was best within, suddenly awakes joyful and youthful’. Here Tolstoy is describing the experience of one of his protagonists, Andrew Bolkonsky, in War & Peace experiencing the incarnation. This waking up inside us happens every time we consciously offer gratitude for the ordinary material bits of life. And that’s what we do as a gathered community at Harvest.
And the ‘falling’ of the leaves this autumn reminds us that the incarnation of creation never stands still – it is still unfolding even when it looks as though it’s coming to an end!
‘Just show me!’ Its often heard when something new is being learned. Many today learn by tutorial – ‘Youtube’ is filled with visual, step by step instructions on how to complete a task – from learning a guitar finger technique, to bowling a googly in cricket, to fitting a washing machine, to pressing flowers – the visual tutorial could not be more popular!
Becoming a Christian is no different – the visual tutorial beats them all! ‘Youtube’ is a little bit more limited however in learning the practice in becoming a Christian, there aren’t too many visual, step by step, videos which do the job… the capability to live life with a gentleness and resilience, not resisting but always giving thanks for every little bit, yielding that nerve centre where we feel consent or the withholding of it, knowing forgiveness and giving it without restraint, seeing the ordinary bits of each day from somebody else’s shoes… becoming a Christian is not easily accessed simply through an internet connection no matter how fibre optic it is!
We have the four gospels in our New Testament – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. In these we have simple, vivid descriptions of Jesus – his actions and words. In church on a Sunday we all stand as these words are read : as a deliberate mark of respect as these words become the presence of Jesus right in front of us. So we stand. We are ready to learn, we want to be shaped in the way we think, say and do into the very likeness of Jesus. We believe Jesus offers us the very life of God made flesh – ‘he was in the beginning… and through him all things have come into being’ (John 1).
Also we are blessed with this amazing created world and universe. God’s presence has been poured out into every material thing : ‘in him all things hold together’ (Colossians 1). So we only have to look; to look at the skies, at the trees, every plant and flower and creature that walks, squirms and swims! To look again with that wonderful sense ‘I don’t know everything’. As we really look – something simple yet so deliberate- we find wisdom and understanding imparted to us. A wisdom and understanding which comes from heaven – it just happens. Our hearts become bigger, more open, tolerant, generous and grateful. We walk the journey of ‘becoming a Christian’.
And also we are blessed with human examples, people who live with an enjoyment, grace and a love for life. We learn to really appreciate them, and then maybe imitate and copy their example. These people are incredibly important. They might be people we bump into on a daily basis, or every so often, they might be people who have been part of our lives and who for one reason or another are not now as immediate as they once were. They might even be people we have never met… people we have read about in books or whose story has been passed down to us through stories and narratives. ‘Ah! thats how it looks!’ we say to ourselves.
In a similar way we do this with our saints. We have a Patronal Festival (8th September) when we hear again the example of Mary, the mother of Jesus. In the Festival we acclaim her example, we make our appreciation vocal in the praying of prayers and the singing of songs – and we are grateful for these example of what ‘becoming a Christian’ looks like.
Ordinary life is crammed full of tutorials – God gives them ‘new every morning’ this is what ‘becoming a Christian’ looks like. And these are tutorials which never tire or get out of date … accessed over and over again, readily available and with no charge!
The sound of running water, from a mountain stream to a garden water feature, brings a wonderful sense of energy and life to the hottest of days. Perhaps, that’s why walking along a river in full flow is one of life’s greatest pleasures. I know our springer spaniel, Nahla, loves the sensation of moving water and the delight in swimming with the current – yes, she jumps into the most stagnant of waters, but when it’s flowing…. well you just can’t get her out!
Similarly, when encountering people who live ‘with an internal flow of life’ – we are incredibly blessed. These people have the capacity to see life as it really is and yet not be diminished by it in any sense at all. They live with a paradoxical exuberant patience, a dynamic kindness and an effervescent ability to listen and be part of any moment. God has given us life, he is the source of the vitality of life itself, and his energy is given to every plant, creature and human alike. It is only us humans who have the dismal inclination, time after time, to refuse the energy, and build walls of separation. This results in the inevitable weariness, discontent and dissatisfaction of much of contemporary life. We see it etched on people’s faces, we even feel it in our hearts and we catch it in the systemic competitiveness of our driven success culture. We find it so painstakingly difficult, in the words of Martin Luther King ‘to just get along with each other’. To refer to Nahla once more, she has no desire whatever to compare herself with any other living thing, she is happy as can be in just being Nahla. Within her spaniel soul, there is an unbridled ‘internal flow of life’. Meeting Nahla on a forest path, or emerging from the long grasses, or running with abandon across the beautiful landscapes of Longdown or Deerleap – all evidence this perpetual ‘yes’ to life.
Yet for us humans we make everything so complicated. We over think our lives, we live in our heads and end up believing our thoughts really are us. This is really sad – especially as we find it so easy to think – over and over again – on the problems we all face, but give so little attention to the goodness of life in all its abundance. We mentally chew over encounters which do not go well, when things happen not to our liking, our conversation is energised when life goes wrong. Nahla has no such problem! When her paw is bruised or there is a wound which makes running really difficult – she just adapts and accepts it. This is just how it is, it will pass, and so the tail just keeps wagging. Not for her is the thinking what this might mean for her future life, not for her is the raking over the past as to when and where this wound was inflicted and who was to blame. None of this! She just gets on with everything.
People who live with ‘an internal flow of life’ within them are those who go with what is in front of them. There is no question of blaming, or analysing and agonising over future implications. These are the things which cause life to get blocked – culminating in a stench of stagnation which bears little resemblance to the vitality of what could have been. God gives us life, he wants us to be blessed by it and to in turn bless others. He wants us to give praise in all circumstances… to love life even when it is plain humdrum. This is the flow we are each called to live. As we take personal and then communal responsibility for this – the earth and all of life is cherished… and this is good – very good!
We all have dreams – either for ourselves or loved ones. Dreams that if everything works out, this is how it might look. Maybe the dreams include a holiday or two, families settled and happy, Saints making the top four (!!?), efficient decision making in Parliament… the list goes. Dreams provide us with a goal to aim for, and as it becomes more than a pipe dream i we then need to know what it will take for the dream to make reality.
We hear many times over in our bible texts God’s dreams, including famously ‘the wolf shall live with the lamb’ from Isaiah 11. We hear the Kingdom of God being established among mortals, that the time for weeping will be no more – but what will it take for this to be more thana pipe dream and to be reality? If this question is side-stepped Christians live in a perpetual haze of vague longings which are never really believed in – more a ‘hoping for the best’.
During the month of June we celebrate the great Pentecost feast (9th June). It is a feast day when we acclaim the gift of God’s Holy Spirit poured out on all flesh. We acclaim a spirit which transforms existence – it is no coincidence it is likened to a mighty wind and tongues of fire. This period of the year the church is invited to give attention to this gift, to look for it, to feel it, and to believe in it.
The sadness, perhaps even the tragedy, is that for many of us we give the Holy Spirit no attention, no time and no appreciation – which means we end up not believing in it. And this has the knock-on effect of losing faith that any of our dreams, or God’s dreams for that matter, can ever be realised. This is a real sadness as it means people and institutions become weary and tired, ever circling in a downward momentum.
In Ezekiel 47 the Spirit of God is likened to a river. The flow of this river is deep and wide and it brings life and vibrancy to all in its path. It is a wonderfully inspiring chapter of scripture. And it prompts us, as we read it, to be those who stand in the flow of such a river today. In other words to be those who sense and experience the flow of goodness and grace that is being poured out on all creation. In that same chapter of scripture it describes the impact of not standing in the river’s flow – there is a stagnancy where everything just gets blocked, cluttered and ‘left for salt’.
When we stand in the flow of this Spirit, meaning is given, energy is supplied and a lightness of our own spirit is experienced. This standing in the flow begins with individuals – making it their priority each day to sense this gift of life. And as individuals make it integral to their lived life, so the institutional life of our nation slowly changes.
For Christians praying is our integral action to make this real in our lives – for praying is really connecting with this flow which is in each one of us already. Praying regularly – even for only a few moments each day, unlocks the flow. This praying will take many different forms for each of us – it might be a careful recitation of the ‘Our Father…’ , it might be the fully attentive appreciation of the skies above our heads, it might be the asking for blessing on loved ones… but in whatever form we open possibilities for the dreams of heaven (as articulated in Isaiah 11) to move from fantasy to our own experience.
It is the Holy Spirit which makes the dreams come real. So yes, we give the Spirit attention, we look for it, we feel it… and we then really believe in it!
Many times I hear people remark, ‘I just can’t take it in’. In a whole variety of contexts this remark is made – in times of unbridled joy and in times of heartbreaking anguish. When something happens which changes everything – we need time to work out just what is going to change and how this change impacts my ordinary day to day life.
These occasions don’t happen every day – sometimes ‘out of the blue’ they arrive and irrevocably alter the landscape of our lives. It might be a new addition to the family, an unforeseen opportunity at work, a loss of a loved one, or the news of an illness… whatever it is… time is required to gauge the truth and implications.
So, it is not surprising the Easter season lasts 40 days, 50 days if you run it through to Pentecost. Yet in our culture Easter is a week-end of chocolate egg overdrive! I love the chocolate eggs, but the implications of Easter go far beyond the feelings of guilt (and pleasure) in the consumption of all the Easter goodies on offer! Easter is the ultimate event which changes the landscape – this is why we are given a generous portion of time to begin to make sense of it, see the impact in our ordinary day to day lives, and to feel the surge of energy this connection with the resurrection life makes in us.
The appearances of the resurrected Jesus are intimate, fleeting and powerful beyond words. He expressly tells Mary on the first Easter morning not to cling on to him. In this encounter it was the recognition which was integral to the experience. The gardener (for that is who Mary thought he was) recognised Mary by saying her name. This recognition of Mary I imagine went straight to her heart – here was somebody who knew her and loved her. She then just knew – this was not the gardener but Jesus! No wonder she ran to tell the disciples the news.
The calling of a name can be a beautiful yet simple expression of recognition. ‘I know you…’ and the name is said. When we baptize or christen in church, we name the person – the name is a statement of who they are, it carries a meaning beyond the phonetics.
The Christian community is privileged to believe Jesus walks with us – the dead man who was buried walks with us (as in the resurrection story of the walk to Emmaus). He walks with us and eats with us. Not only that, but he knows us, he recognises us – who we really are. When Christians pray it is this we look to hear and sense. As we bow our heads to pray the ‘Our Father…’ we consciously direct our attention to this divine recognition.
And then we are invited to recognise Jesus – in the bread and the wine, in the ordinary day to day stuff of life, to recognise and to name him ‘My Lord and my God’ – the recognition of Thomas. When we hear the rustle of the leaves in the trees, when the sea waves break on the seashore, when a friend or a stranger smiles and connects with us – ‘it is the Lord’, we echo Mary. By not clinging to the recognition we receive it as a gift – and we walk on with our heads and hearts alert to the next recognition. 40 days to walk this journey changes everything, the landscape, no matter how disfigured, is re-arranged, re-configured in ways we will never have anticipated.
Have a blessed and happy Easter – really and truly!
It can sometimes seem remarkably odd that salvation is accessed through a story of betrayal, intimidation, crucifixion, burial and resurrection – how can this be?
Everything in this story appears to be back to front. The Jesus who was ‘in the beginning’ – ridiculed and publicly shamed, death labelled as ‘good’ in the Good Friday name, and then there is the rising from the dead – so enigmatic at times, and yet plainly physical and undeniable at other times.
All of this can leave us scratching our heads – how can this be celebrated as ‘salvation’… or ‘the way’ to life in all its fullness?
There is a very beautiful passage of scripture (John 14), often read at funerals, where Jesus tells his friends not to worry, because ‘in his Father’s house there are many dwelling places’ or ‘mansions’. Jesus then says he will go to prepare a place for us, and we ‘know the way to the place where he is going’. This is all really encouraging, and lifts the spirit! But Thomas cuts in – ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’ Thomas, I imagine, is speaking for the other friends… ‘Jesus, we just don’t know…’
Some people depict the disciples, the friends of Jesus, as being a bit slow on the uptake… but I think their ‘not knowing’ and Thomas’s confidence in articulating this, is an important signpost for us in finding ‘the way’, in accessing ‘salvation in Jesus’, in embracing ‘the fullness of life’ Jesus promises us.
In our modern culture there is an urgency ‘to know’. Don’t be caught out, don’t be left looking stupid when you didn’t have the information to hand… make sure you give the appearance of knowing even when you don’t. Our professional services rely heavily on the confidence provided by a knowledgeable expertise. There’s no denying that certain bits of knowledge, and ‘knowing it’ can be really important and necessary. But when it comes to enjoying life and catching the fabulous wonder of human existence, then maybe ‘knowing it all’ may not be helpful at all!
Thomas is a great example to us. He was not afraid in the John 14 conversation to say he didn’t know. Again after the resurrection, he wanted to touch the wounds of Jesus before he could say he knew. Thomas was not afraid of admitting he didn’t know. Perhaps that’s why, when he met the risen Jesus, but didn’t touch the wounds, he was able to exclaim so fully ‘My Lord and my God’.
Just imagine if we were to start each day with the acclamation ‘I don’t know…’ – waking up, being fully committed to the day… to the people we are to meet, the events which will come our way… and to still say ‘I don’t know…’ You see the people who have the confidence to say they don’t know, are the same people who find new things, new truths, and new horizons on a daily basis. But those who know everything, end up knowing nothing – because with them there is never any adventure, any exploration, any openness to something new.
The friends who buried the body of Jesus didn’t have everything sorted in their heads. In their minds and hearts, I imagine, there were some big, aching gaps. Mary in the garden, on that first Easter morning, plainly didn’t know. So today, don’t be a tedious know-it-all, let’s re-find the capacity ‘not to know’ while at the same time being entirely committed to life … paradoxically giving ourselves every chance to know! Great is the mystery of faith : Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again!