Monday, 31 August 2009

Easier said than done

James 1:17-27

If you were in church last week you might remember Frank explaining in his sermon what the disciples meant when they complained that Jesus’ teaching was a ‘hard’ teaching. Frank said that the Greek word translated to the English word ‘hard’ meant not so much that it’s hard ‘to do’, but that it’s ‘hard to take in’, regarding the difficult concept of eating the flesh and blood of Jesus.

The teaching from today’s New Testament reading, from the letter of James, is also a ‘hard’ teaching, but in this instance it’s not that it’s difficult to understand, but it is difficult to DO: taming the tongue, looking after orphans and widows, and keeping ourselves from being ‘polluted’ by the world. These three things are very hard to do. But according to James, these three things represent ‘true religion’. In fact much of James’ epistle is about the ‘doing’ of our faith: ‘Do not merely listen to the word… DO what it says.’

Words are important. Most of us do try to control what we say to others and about others, but we slip-up, don’t we? There’s a common phrase for it: ‘a slip of the tongue’; which just goes to show how easily and possibly how often harmful words can slip right out of our mouths and into the world, adding to the world’s ‘pollution’, which is something we’ll come back to in a moment. But ‘taming the tongue’, which James further defines later in ch. 3, being able to tame the tongue is a good indication of self-control.

Self-control: We all struggle with it at times. By definition, the responsibility for self-control lies directly with us, and we should have the self-control to submit ourselves to God, as James states further on, in ch. 4 v. 7. It’s easier said than done, isn’t it? Allowing God’s will to be the driving force of our life isn’t easy, because we don’t want to give up our own will and our own desires. It’s certainly a challenge for us as Christians, and one we encounter daily, because it seems that each time we look into the mirror, we see the image of our former self - and we keep forgetting what we now look like in God’s eyes, because of Christ.

Because of Christ, in God’s eyes we now look like God’s holy children, loving him in perfect obedience as Jesus did when he walked on this earth. On our own, we cannot be perfect. But out of our thankfulness for the grace of God, we want to work at becoming more like Jesus. And by practicing James’ three disciplines of true religion (taming our tongue, caring for orphans and widows, and fending off the pollution of the world), these work together in us, with the Holy Spirit, building up the strength we need to follow Christ. So let’s now look at the second element: looking after orphans and widows.

James points out to his listeners that they (and we) must do the work of Christ by caring for people in need. Earlier this year, both my mother and my sister became widows and I flew back to California to be with them. Thankfully, neither of them needed financial help, but they both needed a listening ear, and the simple act of being there, providing emotional support and a sense of calm strength when everything in their world felt like it had collapsed. It's not too difficult caring for those we know well, but what about those who we don't know well? And of course, it is not only orphans and widows that are needy, but it’s also the homeless, the mentally ill, drug addicts, and anyone who has lost some aspect of their life that had provided security and wholeness.

We know this is how Jesus wants us to love – his parables and his example teach us this. We still find it so hard to do to the point that he wants us to do it – to the point where it becomes uncomfortable. He showed us that he was willing to give his life for us. That's what he wants us to do for others; and that is a hard teaching. We would rather be comfortable. We would rather love those who are easily loved – those we are related to; those who are clean; those who are touchable. But Christ calls us to love those who are difficult to love – the stranger; the shabby; the outsider. It's easier said than done! This isn’t what the media tells us we should desire to do with our lives. This is a hard teaching. And this brings us to the third aspect of what James tells us ‘true religion’ is about: keeping ourselves from being ‘polluted’ by ‘the world’.

I mentioned before about those harmful, hurtful remarks that can ‘slip’ from our mouths either carelessly or intentionally, which add to the pollution of the world. We all know what pollution is. We have it in the air, in the water, on the ground. We also know the world is not only polluted in the environmental sense, but also in the ethical sense, and this pollution is caused by sin. Sin is not a popular concept in today’s world, where the ethos by which many live is ‘whatever turns you on’, and ‘as long as it’s not harming anyone else’.
How can we keep ourselves from being ‘polluted’ by the world? It’s no good saying it’s ok to allow just a little bit of evil into our lives – here’s a story to illustrate this:

One day some children asked their father if they could go to the cinema to watch the latest film. But the father knew that this film contained some dodgy things that would be harmful for his children to watch. The kids tried to justify seeing the film, claiming there were only a few bad aspects which they could easily ignore, but they couldn’t convince their father.

A little later that evening the father asked his children if they would like some brownies he had baked. He told them he had used the
family’s favourite recipe, but that he had added a little something new. When the children asked what it was, the father calmly replied that he had added dog droppings. However, he quickly assured them, it was only ‘a little bit’. All the other ingredients were gourmet quality and he had taken great care to bake the brownies at the precise temperature for the exact time. He was sure the brownies would be superb.

Even with their father's promise that the brownies were of ‘almost perfect’ quality, his children would not take any. The father acted surprised. After all, it was only one small part that was offensive. He was certain they would hardly notice it. Still the kids held firm and would not try the brownies. The father then told his children how the film they wanted to see was just like the brownies. Our minds fool us into believing that just a little bit of evil won't matter. But, the truth is even a little bit of droppings makes the difference between a great treat and something disgusting and totally unacceptable.

Becoming damaged by pollution can happen even with the small amounts of muck allowed into our lives. It’s hard to avoid the pollution of the world’s ethical sense, because it pushes in on us from all sides. The world’s polluted ethical sense says that ‘whoever dies with the most toys, wins’. It values things over people. The world’s polluted ethical sense says that it’s ok to see people as objects to be used and even abused. The world’s polluted ethical sense says, ‘I’m alright, Jack’. The world’s polluted ethical sense says that life’s goal is to be comfortable and content. These priorities pollute our relationship with God and with people.

We can’t completely escape the pollution of the world, because it has infiltrated the entire planet. But we can keep ourselves from being ‘polluted’ by the world by continually submitting our will to God's will. And we can keep ourselves from adding to the world’s pollution by taming our tongues, and by doing the uncomfortable work of looking after those who’ve slipped through the net. It is a hard teaching. Let us pray for the strength and the ability to accept and to do the word which has been planted in us, which can save us: keep a tight rein on our tongue; help orphans, widows, and anyone else in need; and keep ourselves from being polluted by the world. And always be thankful for the grace of God which overcomes our weakness. Amen.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

heaven on earth

I'm sure there must be something like this in heaven, anyway...

There is a bakery in my new parish which is owned and run by a couple from church. Walking into this bakery is a delight - a feast for my eyes while I'm deciding what to purchase, and a feast for my stomach when I return home (I do share, really). Honestly, the cakes, flapjacks, creamcakes, scones, and pastries are so beautiful to look at, nevermind to eat (and they are gorgeous to eat, too). Today we also tried the cornish pasty... lovely. Deli sandwiches, bread loaves and rolls - I think I'm going to be spending lots of time there. OK, I know gluttony is a sin; you don't have to remind me.

We're away for three days from tomorrow, on a short family break. I'm so excited - we're going to 'Go Ape'! It looks so exhilarating and a bit scary. My adrenaline will be on overdrive. We're also going to Legoland (we've been twice before - love it!), and the Midland Air Museum (gotta fit in an air museum to keep the 'other half' happy).

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Honest Scrap

Rachel at Re vis.e Re form has nominated me for an award! Now before everyone gets too excited, this award is called the 'Honest Scrap' award, and will be awarded if I simply share 10 honest things about myself and nominate 7 other bloggers for the award. Not too difficult... right?

First, 10 honest things about me:

1. I drive a red Peugeot 406 diesel that is 12 years old. My husband also drives a Peugeot, as do my in-laws. Our previous two cars were also Peugeots. To be honest, I am tired of Peugeots, and I can't wait until this car falls apart so that I can buy something else! My son wants a Lambourghini, and my daughter wants any kind of 4 x 4. I want something with automatic transmission.

2. I don't watch much TV apart from the news and religious documentaries (of course), but I am known in my household (and now in cyberland) to be addicted to the 'X-Factor' when it comes on. The others in my household are addicted to 'Top Gear', though, so I'm not the only sad person.

3. I play the guitar (though not very well). I began my university studies majoring in music, but changed to biology after only 1 year because I really wasn't good enough. I actually wanted to be a rock star! Now, I love getting the chance to play guitar in worship for the Lord in a music group.

4. hmm... only at number 4 and already I'm honestly finding it difficult to think of honest things that I can write about myself, knowing that these things will be made public... and that is the fourth honest thing I can say.

5. I put on 20 pounds during my three years of theological college. This was due to three things: Chocolate during essay writing; sitting for long periods whilst writing essays; and not taking exercise (because of writing essays).

6. On the Myers-Briggs personality type indicator scale, I am an INTJ, but only just. Basically I'm in the middle between the I/E, the T/F, and the J/P, but more definitely 'N' rather than 'S'. If you don't know what all this means, you can google it.

7. I have parachuted from an airplane. Once. It was absolutely fantastic, but I don't think I'll ever have the bottle to do it again.

8. I have been scuba diving in the presence of sharks. More than once. It isn't as scary as jumping from an airplane.

9. I've had a bumper crop of vegetables this summer so far: at least 5 small heads of lettuce, 3 cucumbers, about 20 tomatoes, 10 green peppers, 3 pea pods, hundreds of chili peppers, and 2 cauliflower plants (which have been sacrified to the butterflies for their caterpillars).

10. I prefer coffee to tea. But you probably already knew that.

Now, the 7 bloggers that I am nominating for the 'Honest Scrap' award (I don't think I know 7 bloggers, but I'll try - if you've been nominated here, it means I do read your blog from time to time):

June Gillam's blog
Cognitive Blindspot
Ben Edson
Ad Dominum
Sarcastic Lutheran

What an eclectic bunch! (I love diversity...)

Monday, 17 August 2009

On being assessed

Yesterday I led Morning Prayer at one of my churches. Before the service began, I was waiting in the wings with the choir and the Reader - waiting for the vicar to join us. I asked the others whether the vicar had arrived yet, and they said, 'Yes, but he is sitting in the congregation today. He's assessing you'.

Assessing me? That was surprising news to me - the vicar hadn't told me he was going to sit in the congregation and 'assess' me. I felt shocked and a bit betrayed! My knees began to shake and I became hot under the collar! I stammered my way through a vestry prayer, and we processed out. I tried to look like I knew what I was doing (and I was thankful for encouragement from the Reader)! This was the first time I had led Morning Prayer here, and the first service I was to lead on my own. I spotted the vicar in the congregation and he appeared to be making notes! I managed the service ok (it isn't a difficult one, really, is it?!), though I didn't feel relaxed at all. After the service I expressed my feelings to the vicar, and much to my relief he was as shocked as I was that he had been 'assessing' me! In reality, it had just been a joking comment made by the choir. He wasn't actually assessing me at all! He did bring me a cup of coffee 'to make amends', though, which works every time for me.

Later I reflected on how the prospect of 'being assessed' made me feel. It wasn't a comfortable feeling, but it was probably a beneficial experience after all, and one in which I have learned something. There will be things that will happen immediately prior to leading services that will catch us off guard and perhaps throw us off a bit. Someone will do or say something that causes us to wobble. But we must carry on. And really, the whole three years of curacy are an assessment of sorts. It's about learning how to worship and lead at the same time, and sometimes we just have to fly by the seat of our pants.

(Oh, and take the choir's comments with a pinch of salt...!)

Friday, 14 August 2009

informal worship

So the upcoming challenge is to create an informal worship service that will help people in some way to connect with God, while at the same time (I hope) enable some insight into what God is asking of us in terms of a response. I've been given this remit with the added encouragement that anything goes! They are open to different and creative ways of worshipping - so that is great.

The theme I've decided upon is 'Celebrating Community', with a focus on embracing the gifts we all have to offer to each other and to the community at large. I'm excited about this. I just hope enough people come so that it will actually feel like the community is represented. I think I'm having 'attendance anxiety'... :/

It's a leap of faith, hoping that people will relate to what you put forth; hoping that you have heard the Spirit's leading and considered the congregation rightly.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Wonderful words

I love singing at Church. Some people say that singing together is not something people like to do these days. I suppose that might be true for some people. Personally, I think the act of singing does something for us in a physical, biochemical way, which then opens up our ability to praise God more deeply within our souls. I like both traditional hymns and modern praise songs. We sang the following hymn last Sunday at one of the two churches where I am placed. I love these words:

There's a wideness in God's mercy
like the wideness of the sea;
there's a kindness in his justice,
which is more than liberty.
There is welcome for the sinner,
and more graces for the good;
there is mercy with the Savior;
there is healing in his blood.

There is no place where earth's sorrows
are more felt than in heaven;
there is no place where earth's failings
have such kind judgment given.
There is plentiful redemption
in the blood that has been shed;
there is joy for all the members
in the sorrows of the Head.

For the love of God is broader
than the measure of man's mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more faithful,
we should take him at his word;
and our life would be thanksgiving
for the goodness of the Lord.

Frederick William Faber, 1862

Sunday, 9 August 2009

John 6:35, 41-51

In a moment of madness, one time I foolishly tried the ‘Atkins’ diet – that’s the one where you eat only proteins and fats, and no carbohydrates – no bread, no pasta, and definitely no biscuits. In the first week everything went well. In the second week there was a sharp increase of bad temper: I was fed up with eating only meat and cheese! By the third week I developed kidney stones from the high protein and lack of carbohydrates in the diet. I learned the painful way that our bodies actually DO need carbohydrates! This is the way God designed us! And Jesus knew this, for in John's gospel, chapter 6, he gives us this wonderful image of Himself as the bread of life.

Bread – it’s an important staple food for people all over the world. Bread gives us nutrients for the growth and well-being of our bodies. It’s healthy for us! In the west we consume so many things that are unhealthy for us. (Personally, I consume way too much chocolate!) But not only do we ‘feed’ ourself through our mouth, we also ‘feed’ ourself through our eyes and our ears. Depending on what we choose to look at and listen to, these things can be healthy for us, or they can be very unhealthy.

We can become addicted to non-nutritious things that don’t really satisfy. We compulsively consume things which temporarily make us feel better, but then after a while, the buzz wears off and we need more. We live in a consumer society. We’re encouraged to buy more and more, whether we need it or not - to keep the economy going - or are we trying to fill an emptiness inside? In our heart of hearts, we know what is good for us and what is bad, because as we can read in Jeremiah ch. 31 v. 33, God has put his law in our minds and written it on our hearts.

The bread of life: that’s the kind of everyday familiarity Jesus wants with us. By taking Jesus into our life, the Spirit can use us as instruments of God in the world, feeding and nurturing other people with the good news of God’s eternal love. The metaphor of bread shows just how fundamental our need is for Jesus in our life and in our soul. Jesus is the bread of life, and eating this bread means putting Jesus into the centre of our being – letting Jesus become our closest friend, regardless of who we have been in the past, or how unqualified we might feel.

Through living the life of faith, Jesus becomes our staple food - not a side dish, or something left out too long which goes cold or gets mouldy. That emptiness we feel inside is real, and we all have it, and at times it can feel very intense indeed. That is what St. John of the Cross calls the ‘Dark Night of the Soul’. But there is only one person that fills that darkness – he is the Light of the World. And there is one person that feeds us truly satisfying nourishment: he is the bread of life that came down from heaven.

Jesus teaches that we need to consume him, everyday. We need to keep feeding ourselves with Jesus to see growth in our own lives and in the life of the Church - daily prayer; reading the bible; breaking bread together, and having faith in the power of God to transform our lives. And by doing this we grow into Jesus, and he grows in us, and our lives are transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit: as we share in the joy and the challenge of being the body of Christ: bread for a hungry world, and drink for those who thirst for justice, fullness of life, and even eternal life.

Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and then gave it out. And we who have received are now the distributors of the bread of life.

All this sounds like an impossible burden, and it would be if we had to bear the weight of it in our own strength. He knows we are weak. But he shares all our burdens when we allow him to. And the bread of life gives us the nourishment we will need for the entire, eternal, journey.

Some foods are available only in season. Some foods are made only at certain times of the year. Not so with bread. And not so with Jesus. He has already done the breaking, the giving and the blessing. We just need to give thanks, take and eat, and as much as we are children of God, we must never forget… to share.