Easter Retold – Palm Sunday

Over the next week, I shall post extracts from The Bible Retold and Prayers and Verses which I hope will be useful to you in your preparation for Easter.

Please feel free to use my material if it helps you, saying where it is from.  I love to hear that groups, churches and schools have enjoyed these retellings and prayers.

palm_sunday_lg

 

INTO JERUSALEM  (John 12:12-36)

The next day, word spread that Jesus was going to enter Jerusalem.   People poured out of the gates, and those who were with him gathered, waiting to see what would happen.  Jesus sat on a young donkey, and began the ride towards the city as people cut palm branches from the trees and went out to meet him on the road. The crowds were bursting with joy – shouting and cheering to see Jesus, at last, coming into Jerusalem.  They remembered God’s promises from long ago, and they believed their eyes would see them fulfilled.
“Hosanna – God saves!” they cried. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Blessed is the king of Israel!” The disciples followed, astonished, and laughing with joy.  At last, the kingdom was coming.
But there were those in the city who looked down from shadowy windows, and would not listen to the words of those who had seen Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead.  They drew back from the laughing, shining crowds that poured through the open gates in dazzling sunshine. The Pharisees were afraid.  They said, “Look, the whole world is following him now!”

Jesus tried to explain that his kingdom was not as his followers expected, and tried to warn them of his death. “You are going to have the light with you for only a little while longer.  Walk while you have the light, before the darkness overwhelms you.  Put your trust in the light.”

 

palm sundayFlyer

From the Orthodox tradition

 

The road to Good Friday

Dear God,
May I welcome you as my king:
King of peace,
King of love,
King in death,
King of life.

O God,
Put an end to death.
Put an end to grief and crying and pain.
Make all things new.
Lead us to heaven.
From  Revelation 21

 

palm_crosses

May the King of Peace bless you with his peace.

 

Otley Hall Quiet Day – 12th April

Here is some information about my next event, a day at the stunning Otley Hall in Suffolk on the Wednesday of Holy Week.
Otley Hall in the spring is a beautiful place.
It would be lovely to see you there!

Otley Hall Quiet Day
Wednesday 12th April 2017 10am-4pm

Entering imaginatively into the Bible

mary-anoints-the-feet-of-jesus-by-frank-wesley

We will read gospel stories, imagining ourselves into the scene, and then be free to respond however seems best  – quietness, poetry, prose, media of choice.  For those who wish, we will also think about how to communicate the treasures we find with others.

To book a place on the Quiet Day (£25 including lunch), contact Otley Hall
Otley Hall’s website
01473 890264

I will have a few copies of my books available to buy, thanks to Browsers Bookshop of Woodbridge.

 

Sunday Retold – The Woman at the Well

Part of the  Sunday Retold  series, based on the readings some churches follow week by week.:

This week we’re looking at

John 4:1-42

Please feel free to use any of my material if it helps you, saying where it is from.

This is a powerful and extraordinary story early on in John’s Gospel, one of the important conversations he has with just one person that are recorded for us.  It is a story I have turned over in my mind for a few years, and at present it forms the basis for a chapter I am writing in my next book on the I AM sayings  – not one of the classic seven I know, but I have been exploring a little beyond those, and find this story too interesting and too significant to overlook.  What follows are some of my reflections as I prepare this chapter, a very early share before I have gone through my editing process.  I hope you find it helpful.  I hope it gives you living water.

 

The bible scene with Jesus at the well with the Samaritan woman shows signs of damage and peeling of paint.jpg

Mural by  Emmanuel Nsama

 

At a time when our politics is increasingly divided and divisive, where people divide each other into categories, and make some lesser than others, this is a particularly relevant conversation.

John the Evangelist is preparing us for this story very carefully, for it is profoundly counter-cultural. Jesus stops to rest near the plot of ground that Jacob gave his son Joseph.   Jacob’s other name was Israel – one who wrestles with God.  We are going back to Israel’s common spring, common source, at Jacob’s well.  We are being reminded of a time long ago, before the time when and the Jews and Samaritans became peoples who saw themselves as separate.    It is a place that holds meaning and memory for Jews and Samaritans – of their common father, and their common salvation story.  John is placing us on common ground……

 

I think it is no coincidence that John begins this story by setting it against an atmosphere of potential conflict – between cousins, between related nations.  We see Jesus acting out his mission to be a peacemaker, a reconciler.  “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” Eph 2:14.  Jesus himself is common ground,  and his presence changes things.  If we look carefully at how we are prepared for this encounter, we can see that we are being led away from conflict, towards reconciliation, to inclusion, and to hope…….

And so, as Jesus waits for the disciples to find food, as he waits by the well in the heat of the day, a woman approaches.  We can only imagine what it must have been like for her, in a culture where a woman could be divorced “for any and every reason”.  We often think of her as one utterly disgraced in her community, having to visit the well at such a time.  That may well be so.  It is a highly plausible explanation.  Her multiple husbands are hardly a marital model, but, we must remember that at this time divorces were easy for a man to come by, and early death not uncommon.  However her situation came about, she had most certainly known her share of tragedy and disappointment.  She may have known deep shame and disgrace.  If we are thinking in terms of barriers and divides, she has many to cross.

And yet she, like everyone else, gets thirsty, and needs water to drink, and water to wash with.  She is as human as everyone else.  So often, we do not see people like this.  So often, we make quick judgements, build fences, wonder about people’s worthiness, and in our own pride and insecurity, seek to feel superior, safe, chosen, righteous in some way.  Not so Jesus.

His question bursts through all our categories and barriers in its gentleness, its humanity.  It is a question that changes everything for this woman, and for her community.
“Will you give me a drink?”

It is not just that he recognises her thirst, but that he humbly admits his own.  He speaks, not to rebuke a sinful woman, not to point out what she needs to do to straighten out her life, but to make himself vulnerable before her, and to call out her goodness.  For this is what the question does. It recognises her goodness.  It recognises and awakens this truth about her – that she is made in the image of God, she is a God-bearer in the world.  That image can be buried beneath layers of hiding, of shame, buried under words of condemnation that have been spoken over a person, it can be twisted by hatred and fear and darkness, but it is always there, and Jesus sees it.
If we have  come across the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 this question opens up others – the thirsty person before us, asking us for water, for help, is Jesus.  How do we respond?  Do we give?

 

samaritan-woman

She does not know who is speaking to her. Of course not!  Neither does she know the gift of God.  But Jesus is revealing both of these things to her.  Jesus is the greatest gift. And he has living water.  We are diving deeper now.  We know that in John, there is often an association between water and Spirit.  Jesus’ previous encounter with Nicodemus (Ch 3) touches on that…. and it is such a beautiful counterpoint to this one.  Here we have a woman, an outcast, a Samaritan, in the heat of noon – there we had a man, a Pharisee, member of the ruling council, at night.
This water that Jesus gives, it can become a spring in us, as indeed the Spirit in us is a spring, bubbling and welling up to life.

 

From The Bible Retold

LIVING WATER 

It was hot when the woman went to get water from the well, near her home town of Sychar in Samaria.  As she drew near, she saw a Jewish man sitting there, in the shade.  She hesitated a moment, nervous of this stranger.  For the Jews and Samaritans had been enemies for centuries, since the time of the exile.  “But,” she thought, “I must have water,” and she carried on walking to the well.

The man was Jesus.  He had left Jerusalem and was making his way back to Galilee.  His disciples were buying food, leaving him to rest from the burning sun. He looked up at the woman.
“Will you give me a drink?” he asked, with a thirsty smile.   Jews and Samaritans never ate or drank together: it was against all the laws and customs.
You, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan for a drink?” She was so startled she nearly dropped her water jug.
“If you knew who I was, you’d ask me, and I would give you real, life-giving water!”
“How can you get water?  You have nothing to hold it in!”
“If you drink from the well, you’ll be thirsty again.  If you drink the water I offer, it will become like a clear spring within you, bubbling over with eternal life!”
“Sir, I would like that water!”  she replied.  But Jesus questioned her about how she lived, and amazed her by revealing her secrets: things she had kept hidden, for shame.  Could this man be a prophet?
She ran back to town, telling everyone.  They invited Jesus and the disciples to stay, and he taught them for two days.

The people of the town said to the woman, “Now, we don’t just believe in Jesus because of what you said.  We’ve heard the truth for ourselves!”

 

“The well is deep”  What does that mean for you?

Meditation suggestion:

Pour out a large jug of water, and set it before you, together with a glass or glasses.
Consider the water, and ask yourself what you thirst for right now?  Try to allow honest answers to rise in your mind, and note them.  Are there places in your life that feel dry and unproductive? What would bring them life?

 

Take a look at the photographs drawn from different cultures.  How do you respond to them?
You might like to place a picture reminding of of this story above a place where you wash, or your kitchen tap.

 

WP_20170317_15_18_38_Pro.jpg

Detail of stained glass at Gloucester Cathedral, above the place in the cloisters where the monks washed.

 

This is what God says

“I myself will look for my people and take care of them in the same way as shepherds take care of their sheep.

“I will bring them back from all the places where they were scattered on that dark, disastrous day.

“I will lead them to the mountains and the streams of their own land, so they may make their home amid the green pastures.

I shall be their God, their Good Shepherd; they will be my people,  my flock.”

From Ezekiel 34

From Prayers and Verses

 

May your week be bubbling up with life-giving water

Sunday Retold – Abraham, and Nicodemus? March 12th

Part of the  Sunday Retold  series, based on the readings some churches follow week by week.

They are:
Genesis 12:1-4

John 3:1-17

Please feel free to use any of my material if it helps you, saying where it is from.

Abraham and Nicodemus?  It’s intriguing the way passages are put together.  They shine a light on each other, helping you see them in a different way.
Both of these passages speak of a new kind of beginning in God, stepping out perhaps into a radically different kind of life.  There is uncertainty, too, in the way ahead.  Abraham will be shown the way to go, but he hasn’t been so far.  The wind  blows where it will, we don’t know where.  These two stories together tell us something important about this walk, this life of faith.  Both speak of setting aside our competencies and certainties and desire for control.  Both put us in the place of learners, students, disciples even, having to be open and listening, because we have no blueprint, no map in our minds to impose on the outside.
To begin again as a little child, to set out from all you have known for – who knows?  Life made new requires courage.

From The Bible Retold

“Get up! It’s time to go!” God said to Abraham.  “You must leave your father’s household and go to the land I will show you, the land of Canaan.  I want to bless you, and make your family into a great people.  Through you my blessing will flow to everyone on the earth.”

So Abraham set off for this unknown land, with his wife Sarah and nephew Lot, and all their possessions and animals and servants.  Their long convoy travelled slowly.  Sometimes they followed great river valleys, where the grass grew green.  Other times they travelled across wide plains, throwing up clouds of dust from the hot earth.  They journeyed through many lands on their way to Canaan, and drew more people to them as they went .  When they camped at night, it looked like a town of tents

img_0682

It’s not always easy to see where we are going

The story of Nicodemus visiting Jesus by night is well known, but some of the ideas it contains have lost their anchorhold in the story, and rolled around gathering new associations as they go.  When I came to rewrite it, and when I came to rewrite it again and again with the editor, some of these difficulties surfaced.  It was one of the hardest parts of the gospel to attempt.  It contains ideas which were difficult for Nicodemus to grasp, let alone us, but it seems that the pictures Jesus painted stayed with him, gradually unfolding their meaning, until we find him and Joseph anointing Jesus’ body on Good Friday as darkness gathered.
I remember getting up at night, unable to sleep, with no idea how to tell this story.  But  I lit a fire and a candle, and prayed, and imagined what it would be like to go to Jesus at night, as Nicodemus did.

From The Bible Retold

NICODEMUS THE PHARISEE

One night, Nicodemus slipped through the dark streets of Jerusalem to visit Jesus, who was staying the city.  He came alone, not wanting to be seen. Nicodemus was an important man: a well-known Pharisee, and a leader of the Jewish people, and many of the Pharisees did not approve of Jesus.

Nicodemus came to the house where Jesus was staying, and went in.  He stepped into a room lit by a small lamp which threw a warm circle of light into the shadows.  And there was Jesus, sitting in the lamplight, ready to welcome him in.  Nicodemus joined Jesus and began to speak the words that were running through his mind.

“Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God.  The miracles you do prove that!”

As Nicodemus spoke Jesus looked into his face, searching his eyes by the warm light.  He knew this man was wise, so when Jesus broke the silence, he spoke to Nicodemus of the deep truths of God’s ways.

Nicodemus listened as Jesus spoke of God’s Spirit: how it could not be seen, but could be felt, as the wind is felt as it blows.  Jesus spoke too of a new type of birth: a birth of the Spirit, giving another chance to become like a child and to see God’s kingdom.

Then, Jesus spoke of how much God loved the world: enough to send his only son to die, so that everyone who believes in him could have a new life that would last for ever, a life full of light and truth.

Nicodemus listened, opening his mind to take in these extraordinary words. And as Nicodemus stepped out of the circle of lamplight, and walked home through the shadowy streets, he turned Jesus’ words over in his mind, beginning to understand.

WP_20170224_14_26_44_Pro.jpg

The after-effects of Storm Doris at Whitby

Perhaps you would like to do a similar exercise – imagining yourself in Nicodemus’ place, seeking light in the darkness.
You could look at the two pictures, and use them to help you as you pray through your response to these two stories.
You might like to read the  A Poem for the road – Returning  in the light of these passages, and see how they connect for you.

As Abraham set off for an unknown land,
so we begin each day, and each journey,
knowing you are with us.
Bless us on our way,
and make us a blessing to those we meet.

Dear God,
Help me to find the right way to go,
even though the gate to it be narrow,
and the path difficult to walk.

Trust in God
Let nothing disturb you,
let nothing frighten you;
All things pass;
God never changes.
Patience achieves
all it strives for.
He who has God
finds he lacks nothing,
God lone suffices.

Theresa of Avila, 1515-82

I am a pilgrim
on a journey
to the place
where God is found;
every step
along that journey
is upon
God’s holy ground.

 

 

Where are you going today?
God Bless you on your way.

Sunday Retold – The Presentation at the Temple

Feb 2nd is Candlemas – the official end of Christmas.  This year, for the first time, I have left out my nativity scene till now, with the Wise Men arriving late, at Epiphany and then standing near the front, clustered around the manger with their camel.  I think I shall keep the season like this again – starting later, running later.  It has helped in the quietness of January, the cold and the fog, to hold the story of Jesus coming into the darkness a little longer.

The season ends with many remembering Jesus being brought to the Temple, which you can read about in Luke 2:22-40

800px-Bellini_maria1.jpg

Presentation at the Temple -Bellini

rembrandt-simeon.jpg

Simeon and Anna – Rembrandt

There are many striking things about this story.  Firstly, there is the contrast of age and youth – Rembrandt, in this picture painted in his own old age, captures that so well.  Look at Simeon’s hands, unable to cradle the baby naturally, but instead open in a kind of frail prayer.   Also marked in this picture is the light – the contrast with Simeon is again striking, as his eyes appear sightless.  For this is about Jesus being the light to enlighten all people.   This is the way the Glory returns – not to a grand building, but in a person – a child of poor parents, at that.

At this moment, at this time, when we are thinking much about the plight of refugees , when there is so much despair and anger and confusion in our politics and national life, it is good to remember that Jesus comes to show another way, to be a light to lighten us all. He will break down the things that divide us from each other,  and perhaps then, we will see clearly. (Eph 2:14)
Not that, suddenly, everything is going to be all right, all light, though.  There is pain in the path ahead – pain for the young mother who will see the suffering of her child.  When all she can do is watch.  There is a place in this story for all who watch the suffering of those they love. This hope is not all blithe and sunny, it knows the path will be hard.

Whether we are old, and despair that we will never see what we hope for, or young, and see the future slipping into chaos, we remember the power of light to overcome darkness.  Of hope.  There is a better way.  There is a path of love, and hope and peace.  It turns its back on violence as a solution to problems, but that does not mean it will not suffer violence.  The path is costly.  It leads to the cross. It will pierce Mary’s heart.
The way is down and through. (John 13:3-4)

What do you hope for?

What light do you need?

 

From The Bible Retold

Mary and Joseph took the newborn Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem, as God’s Law required.  They gave thanks for him with an offering of two doves.  Now, in the city at that time were two people who had been waiting for the Anointed One.  The first, Simeon, held on to God’s promise that he would see the Messiah before he died.  And on the very day that Mary and Joseph came, he was moved by the Holy Spirit to go to the Temple.  He went straight up to them, took Jesus in his arms, and said, “Now I can leave this life in peace, for my eyes have seen God’s plan to save all people, God has sent his light to everyone, even to those far away from Israel.  This light will shine on us and fill us with his glory.”   He spoke to Mary, too, of the pain that would pierce her own heart in years to come.

The second person was Anna, bent with age, but always worshipping, and always praying.  The Temple was her home.  As Simeon was speaking, she came up and praised God, knowing Jesus was the one they had all been waiting for, the one who would set them free.

 

From Prayers and Verses

Grant me to recognize in other men, Lord God,
the radiance of your own face.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin   (1881-1955)

Help me, Lord Jesus, learn who you are.
Help me learn as I try to love, and forgive,
and help others as you did.
Thank you most of all for loving me just as I am.

 

Even if it is not your practice to keep the old festivals, this feels to me like a time when it is good to light a candle,  and know that the darkness will not put it out.

 

Candles_flame_in_the_wind-other.jpg

Epiphany Retold – Looking out for stars

Part of the Sunday Retold series, with my version of the reading Matthew 2:1-12

Please feel free to use any of my material that helps, saying where it is from.

Last time, I shared with you the story of Christmas Retold – Escape to Egypt, where we read of the terrible suffering that resulted from Herod’s fear and jealousy and love of power.  This time, I have been thinking smaller, more hopeful, something that might help today, and tomorrow, and the next.  We need to see the darkness, and the light.

IMG_0773.JPG

 

Epiphany – the new season we enter on 6th January – can mean  a sudden encounter with God, an intuition into the heart and meaning of things, a burst of enlightenment, an event which shows things as they really are at their deepest level.  As a season, it covers some key turning points in the story of God wooing us, seeking us, expanding our always limited understanding as much as we can bear at any time.  As such, it carries on from the Christmas narratives well.  After all, the good news here is that God has come, God is with us. The Message tells John’s words like this:
The Word became flesh and blood,
    and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
    the one-of-a-kind glory,
    like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
    true from start to finish.
John 1:14

So, how might we see this glory?  How might we experience this generosity and truth now?

One of the things that always strikes me about the Christmas narratives, including this one, is the great variety of ways they record people receiving a revelation, an epiphany, from God.  There are dreams, visions of angels, and here, a star.  There are other ways God seems to be at work.  Elizabeth feels the child growing in her womb, and then feels the child dance.  Simeon and Anna, too, are prompted and moved.  In each case, the way the person senses, or hears, or experiences the promptings of God seems to be appropriate for them.  The gospel writers seem to have slightly different emphases in how they record what these revelations from God are like – it is hard to talk about.

I remember once standing at the front of church and trying to give an account of what had felt a real encounter with the love of God, and been very aware that my words were so inadequate.  I remember too how, many years ago, our church hosted firemen and their families from Chernobyl, following the terrible nuclear accident, and gave them a holiday by the sea.  One of the firemen wrote a song.  I wish I could remember it all, but the meaning of it, as far as I can recall, was –

I long to tell you about the love of God, what it is like to know the love of God, but my song cannot hold the meaning.  It is like, when I go home from here, I will try to tell people about the sea, how wild and salty and cold it is, and all I have to show them is a bucket of murky water I have carried away with me.

All our words cannot carry the full meaning, but they can hint at it, stir up a hunger for such love and depth of encounter, and reassure each other that we are not alone when we think there is more than the surface, more than “getting and spending” (Wordsworth)

As we enter a new season, maybe it will help to look at the stories we encounter of epiphanies, of experiencing a revelation, a seeing clearly, noticing how varied they are.  Perhaps God is seeking to gain our attention, and maybe that happens differently for different people at different times.  It is easy to think there is a way we should do it, but it seems that God is unconstrained, generous, abundant.  We need to be open.

My own experience of encounters with God, with new insights, is varied. I sometimes have little epiphanies in prayer and worship, reading the Scriptures moves me to a place where I can go deeper, but  I also hear through nature, through poetry, through art, and – perhaps most especially – through the love and kindness of people around me, including strangers I encounter.  It’s worth looking, I think, as we go about our days, doing our normal things, expecting that maybe our lives have something to teach us, to tell us about the love of God and the love of neighbour.  Our lives can speak to us like parables, and they can contain moments of transforming beauty and clarity, that open us up to something far bigger than we can comprehend.

These Magi, probably Astrologers – we do not know how many, or what gender they all were – do not have a straightforward time of it trying to find the new king.  God is not always found the places we expect.  Who would look for a king in a small town away from centres of power and wealth?  God tends to surprise us all by being in the small, the outside, the unexpected, the unimportant places.   I chose the Witz picture (between the two extracts below) because it places the family in a fairly ordinary setting.  Traditionally, they sit in the ruins of a Greek or Roman temple, showing how the old beliefs are crumbling and dying as something new and glorious takes place.  This one is quite an early example of a more small-scale setting, but even so, it is rich in meaning and symbol.  You might like to take some time to look at it carefully.

Herod’s palace was a desolate place to look for this new king. This child would indeed be a king of a different type. We can see, too, that although Herod used the scribes and the scriptures to find out information, he used that for his own ends.  It did not lead to encounter, or worship, or knowing God. There is a lesson here, too.

IMG_0592

As we look out for our own moments of epiphany, it might be worth looking for treasure buried in the dirt (Small Seeds, from Luke 17), and for unexpected people, such as a young girl, or an old widow, or a carpenter.  Epiphanies can burst in on us whatever we do, but my experience is that small, daily steps towards seeing God work their slow transforming changes in us, and that for these, we need to be open, we need to engage in a  quiet, contemplative way of praying and seeing as we live out our lives.  And then, in that new light, we find our lives begin to change, we better learn love, and compassion, and patience, and joy.  As we begin a new year, I am turning my attention to this way of thinking and being.

The Magi were doing what they did – studying the stars.  And they noticed something.

There may be stars out there that would guide us, if we looked.

What might your stars be?

From The Bible Retold

 

They Followed a Star

Far away from Jerusalem, in a land to the east, wise men looked up at the clear night skies above the desert and saw a star rising.  For years they had studied the movements of the stars and planets, and they had never seen anything like this before.  They unrolled their charts and plotted its path.
“This means a new king has been born to the Jews!” they said to each other, as they gave hurried orders to their servants to prepare for a journey.
When these strangely dressed foreigners arrived in Jerusalem, they began to ask “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” Troubled rumours spread through the city, for there had been no proclamation of any birth.
King Herod the Great’s advisors approached him nervously.
“Your Majesty, strangers from the east have arrived in Jerusalem, they began to ask, “Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews?”.  Troubled rumours spread through the city, for there had been no proclamation of any birth.
King Herod the Great’s advisors approached him nervously.
“Your Majesty, strangers from the east have arrived in the city. They are searching for a child who they say has been born King of the Jews.  They saw a sign in the heavens!”  Herod caught his breath, and turned white with fear. He had been given that title himself by the authority of Rome, building palaces and the great Temple to spread his fame.  What kind of king was coming to challenge him?
Then he asked his advisors “Where is the Messiah, the Anointed One, to be born?”  The scholars unrolled the scroll of the prophet Micah, and read out loud:
“Bethlehem will no longer be
the least important of the towns.
For from it will come a leader
who will rule my people Israel
like a shepherd-king.”

“Bethlehem, eh?” murmured Herod. He gave orders for the wise men to be invited to the palace.  He listened to their tale of the star with keen interest, nodding and smiling as if he were delighted at the news.  He told them all about Bethlehem.  “Go and find the child, then please send a message so I can join you in your worship.  What wonderful times these are!” Herod hid his crooked smile.
As the wise men set off from the cool marble and mosaics of the palace, they looked up at the sky once more.  And there was the star, guiding them to Bethlehem.  They followed, and found the child with his mother, Mary.  She was astonished to receive such guests – who bowed low, and spoke of her son with reverence, and unwrapped precious gifts to lay at their feet.

She unclasped the caskets one by one.  The first shone, it was full of gold.  The second opened to a rich, sweet smell.  “The smell of the Temple,” Mary murmured to herself.  It was frankincense, used in worship. The third contained an earthy, dark, resin.  It was myrrh, more valuable than gold, used in burials, and for healing.  Mary looked up at her visitors, and thanked them for these extraordinary, extravagant gifts as the smell of the incense and the myrrh hung in the air about them.

The wise men did not send word to Herod in Jerusalem, for that night, they were troubled in their dreams about him.  They paid attention to the warning, as they had to the star.  So they slipped away, avoiding the city, to cross the desert once more.

 

the-magi-konrad-witz

The Adoration of the Magi, by Konrad Witz

 

And from Prayers and Verses

Gifts

Lord Jesus,
The wise men brought you gold:
Let us use our riches to do good.

The wise men brought you frankincense:
Let our prayers rise like smoke to heaven.

The wise men brought you myrrh:
Let us seek to comfort those who are sad and grieving.

 

Let there be little Christmases
throughout the year,
when unexpected acts of kindness
bring heaven’s light to earth.

 

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
Yet what I can, I give Him –
Give my heart.
Christina Rosetti 1830-1894

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love Divine,
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and Angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead,
Love Incarnate, Love Divine,
Worship we our Jesus,
But wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token,
Love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.
Christina Rosetti 1830-1894

 

From Frederick Buechner:
“Listen for Him

The question is not whether the things that happen to you are chance things or God’s things because, of course, they are both at once. There is no chance thing through which God cannot speak — even the walk from the house to the garage that you have walked ten thousand times before, even the moments when you cannot believe there is a God who speaks at all anywhere. He speaks, I believe, and the words he speaks are incarnate in the flesh and blood of our selves and of our own footsore and sacred journeys. We cannot live our lives constantly looking back, listening back, lest we be turned to pillars of longing and regret, but to live without listening at all is to live deaf to the fullness of the music. Sometimes we avoid listening for fear of what we may hear, sometimes for fear that we may hear nothing at all but the empty rattle of our own feet on the pavement. But be not affeard, says Caliban, nor is he the only one to say it. “Be not afraid,” says another, “for lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” He says he is with us on our journeys. He says he has been with us since each of our journeys began. Listen for him. Listen to the sweet and bitter airs of your present and your past for the sound of him.”

~ from The Sacred Journey and Listening to Your Life

 

Christmas Retold – Escape to Egypt

Part of the Sunday Retold series – for the first Sunday of the Christmas Season.The readings many churches will be following this week are Matthew 2:13-23 and  Isaiah 63:7-9
Today, 28th December, is also the day the church remembers those who suffer in the Matthew story – the children who are killed at Herod’s order, and all those who weep for them.

It is one of the hardest stories to read in the gospels – that of Herod’s terrible plan to put to death all the tiny boys in Bethlehem.  It calls to mind Pharaoh’s instructions that all the newborn boys should be killed, and that calling to mind is no accident  (Exodus 1).  Matthew’s account is full of reference to the earlier story. The family run to Egypt, across the wilderness, later to retrace the journey, like a second Moses.  All these elements of Israel’s suffering and saving are bound up in the life of this fragile child. More than that – the trials and difficulties of all people are bound up in this one life.

Once again, we see that our saccharine, shiny, perfect hopes for Christmas are very wide of the dark realities of the original tale.  Our nice Christmas card illustrations and nativity plays lack the shadows that we see in older , and contemporary, works of art.

jandebray_theadorationofthemagi.jpg

Adoration of the Magi, Jan De Bray

This painting is quite unsettling, for all its gold and beauty. It’s centre is the gaze – what emotions does that gaze convey?- between the child and the old man bowed before him. The Magi came to bring gifts, and we rightly honour them for that, but, but…. They are framed by a military helmet and spears visible in silhouette in the background, and the face staring out at us from the foreground. This visit of the Magi brings in its wake betrayal and death..  The involvement of Herod was a catastrophe for Bethlehem.

The involvement of the powerful continues to be a catastrophe for so many caught up in conflict.  Peace on Earth seems slow in coming.  We have been able to watch heartbreaking phone footage from inside Aleppo as it fell, we have see the trauma of children displaced, we have heard the weeping of mothers for whom no comfort is possible.   In the face of such pain, what can we do?

There are clues to answers, but it is not easy, or glib, or superficial.  Firstly, I think we can see a glimmer in the fact that these birth narratives of Jesus do not pretend that all is well, that all became well with this birth.  Jesus and his family went through the trauma of becoming displaced, their lives were under threat.  They had a time in Egypt, and found there a place of refuge.  Places of refuge are possible.
The distress of those who remained is not glossed over.  Their pain is very real.
Any account of Christmas joy which makes us feel that our pain, our losses, our difficult circumstances are out of place in the season is a mistaken, damaging untruth.

There are lessons here, too, about the betrayal of the weak by the strong. The magi were not so wise about power, when they went to the palace.  Asking the powerful for help did not go well. It did not go well for the people of Bethlehem, or the soldiers who were sent to do that terrible work.  Herod remains above this cowardly deed.  Those who suffered for it, either at the hand of the soldiers, or because their hands are soldiers hands, were not.

We can, in democracies, hold our leaders to account, not allowing them to remain distant from consequences, and we absolutely must do so, but we should not be surprised when those who seek worldly power act in ways which are worldly and powerful, when they look to their own interests ahead of those of their people.  In those circumstances, we must join in with the cry of the mothers against those who abuse power. The voice of the mothers is the one we hear in Matthew.  These are the cries that God hears (Exodus 3:7).   Simeon’s words to Mary, that a sword will pierce her own heart, will have their time for fulfillment (Luke 2:33-35)

We can know, too that this great promise of God with us is no empty phrase.  That God should take such risks to share the darkness of humanity is extraordinary.  This is the heart of the Christmas story, the astonishing revelation.  That Jesus came, emptied of power, stooped down to the level of the lowest, the most vulnerable.  Endured the worst that humanity could dish out, suffered affliction with us, and transformed and redeemed it.  For people of power did not kill him now, but they will, in time.

It is the testament of many who have undergone dark times that they have seen, sometimes years later, that God was with them. A God who walks in the dark with you, is  very different from who sits distant on a throne.  We are not, in truth, alone.  That however low you can fall, “underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deut 33:27).

The reading from Isaiah placed alongside this dark and terrible tale shows this, too:
And he became their Saviour.
 In all their affliction he was afflicted,
    and the angel of his presence saved them;
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;
    he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.

There are unexpected sources of comfort and help.  There is light, even in the darkest night.

We can remember too, how Job’s fortunes seem to have been restored – they were restored, like this – people came and offered him comfort, and offered him gold.(42:11).
There are many who are offering comfort and resources.  We can look for ways of joining them.
When the darkness seems most dark, it can steel our determination to offer light, and hope, in the many small and not-so-small ways that we can.

europe-migrant-crisis-greece.jpg

Picture from Lifeline Syria

ESCAPE TO EGYPT (Matthew 2:13-18)

Every day Herod asked “Well?  Is there any message for me from Bethlehem?”

And every day his attendants bowed as they answered. “No, Your Majesty, there is no message.”

Herod’s plan to be rid of this rival king was failing – and so another thought, chilling and terrible, began to circle in his mind.
Back in Bethlehem, God spoke to Joseph.  An angel came to him in a dream.
“Get up now, Joseph! This minute!  Take the child and his mother and run for Egypt.  Herod is out hunting for the child – he wants to kill him!”

And so, under cover of night, Mary and Joseph bundled their belongings together, and slipped away from the town, carrying the sleeping child.  They started out on their journey through the wilderness to Egypt.

After they left Bethlehem, great sorrow overtook the town. Herod’s soldiers came and killed all the little boys under two years old.  The mothers turned away from those who tried to comfort them, and wept bitterly for the loss of their children.

You may wish to use either or both of the pictures above as a prompt to meditation.  Open your heart and your eyes before them, and ask – God, what are you drawing my attention to here?  What do I see?  How can I live more fully in love of God and my neighbour in the light of that seeing?

And some prayers to help us find words for ourselves, and others, when in such dark places,   from Prayers and Verses

Lord, watch over refugees, their tired feet aching. Help them bear their heavy loads. May they find a place of rest,  may no fears awake them. May you always be their guide, and never forsake them
*

Lord God, Who saw the hunger and loneliness of Ruth and Naomi, and brought them to a place of plenty, and gave them a home, help us when we are lost and hungry; and help us to reach out a hand to those in need.

*
Dear God, We pray for the casualties of war: for the young and the old, for the parents and the children; for the birds and the animals, for the fields and the flowers; for the earth and the water, for the sea and the sky. We pray for their healing.
*

We thank you, Lord God, that you hear the prayers of people who carry heavy burdens. Thank you that the prayers of the slaves in Egypt were answered. Help us to pray for those whose lives are hard.

*

Dear God, Give us the courage to overcome anger with love.

*

This is what God says:

“I myself will look for my people and take care of them in the same way as shepherds take care of their sheep.

“I will bring them back from all the places where they were scattered on that dark, disastrous day.

“I will lead them to the mountains and the streams of their own land, so they may make their home amid the green pastures.

“I shall be their God, their Good Shepherd;
they will be my people, my flock.”

From Ezekiel 34

*

Dear God, We have arrived at this, our new home, feeling as lost as windblown seeds that are dropped upon the earth. Let us put down roots here where we have landed, and let our lives unfold in your love and light.
*

When we find ourselves somewhere strange, and new,
help us to pray for the place, and the people,
help us to work for their good

*
O God, Settle disputes among the nations, among the great powers near and far.
FROM MICAH 4:3

*
Dear God, Take care of those who live in war zones: Afraid of noise, afraid of silence; Afraid for themselves, Afraid for others; Afraid to stay, afraid to go; Afraid of living, afraid of dying. Give them peace in their hearts, in their homes and in their land.

*

Who, then, can separate us from the love of Christ? Can trouble do it, or hardship or persecution or hunger or poverty or danger or death?
Romans 8:35
*

Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; Where there is injury, pardon; Where there is discord, union; Where there is doubt, faith; Where there is despair, hope; Where there is darkness, light; Where there is sadness, joy.

ATTRIBUTED TO ST FRANCIS OF ASSISI (1181–1226)

Readers in Suffolk may have a particular interest in this organisation, which is well worth supporting for all.
Suffolk Refugee Support

Most of the major relief charities work with refugees.  Among the many charities who do good work are:
Refugee Action
Red Cross
Oxfam
Medecins Sans Frontieres

Please feel free to use any of my material you find helpful, saying where it is from.

Christmas Retold – Joy to the World

 

nativity

Caravaggio

Welcome to a Christmas Special from Sunday Retold

In these last few days of preparation, I thought I would share with you a Christmas retelling, and some prayers.  For several years, the “Shepherds and Angels” part of the extract below was read out at All-Age Christmas worship in my church.

If you would like to use any of the material below, please do feel free to do so, saying where it is from.

 

 

From The Bible Retold

The Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, had ordered a census throughout the whole empire, when all the people would be counted, and taxed.  The orders spread along straight Roman roads, and were proclaimed first in the white marble cities and ports, and then in the towns and villages of the countryside.

Even quiet Nazareth heard the news, and Mary and Joseph began to gather together their belongings, ready to travel to Bethlehem.  That was Joseph’s family home:  he was descended from King David, of Bethlehem. They set off south on the crowded road, for the whole empire was travelling.  But, for Mary, the journey was especially hard, and the road seemed never ending. It was nearly time for her baby to be born.

At last they came to Bethlehem, but it was not the end of their troubles.  The city was noisy, bustling, and heaving with crowds, and Joseph searched anxiously for somewhere quiet for Mary to rest – her pains were beginning, and the baby would be born that night.  The inn was already full of travellers, and the only place for them was a stable.  There, among the animals, Mary gave birth to her firstborn son, and wrapped him up tightly in swaddling bands and laid him in a manger full of hay.  Then, she rested next to the manger, smiling at the baby’s tiny face.

There were shepherds who lived out on the hills nearby – the same hills where King David had once watched over the flocks, long ago.  The sheep were sleeping in their fold under the shining stars, while the shepherds kept watch.  Their fire flickered and crackled, and the lambs would bleat for their mothers, but they were the only sounds. All was peaceful.  All was well.

Suddenly, right there in the shepherd’s simple camp, appeared and angel of the Lord, shining with God’s glory and heaven’s brightness.  The shepherds gripped each other in terror, their skin prickling with fright.
“Don’t be afraid, I’m bringing you good news – it will bring joy to all people!”  The shepherds listened, awestruck, their faces glowing with the angel’s light.  “This is the day the good news begins, and this is the place.  In the town of David, a saviour has been born.  He is Christ, the Anointed One, the one you have been waiting for.  And this is the sign that these words are true: you will find a baby wrapped tightly in swaddling bands, lying in a manger.”

The shepherds watched as light was added to light, voice to voice, until they were surrounded by a dazzling, heavenly host of angels, all praising God and saying
“Glory! Glory to God in the highest,
And on the earth be peace!”

And then, in an instant, the angels were gone, and the shepherds were left in dark night shadows, listening to the sound of a distant wind. But their eyes still shone with heaven’s light.
“Let’s go and see for ourselves!” they called to one another as they raced over the dark, rocky fields to Bethlehem.  There, they found Mary and Joseph, and, just as the angel had said, they found the baby wrapped tightly in swaddling bands and lying in a manger.  They saw him with their own eyes, and spread the angel’s message to all they met.
“The Promised One has come! The Christ, the Anointed One, has been born!” The angel’s words were on everyone’s lips that night in Bethlehem.  And, as the shepherds made their way back to their sheep, bursting with good news, Mary kept their words safe, like treasures, in her heart.

And something from Prayers and Verses

Let us remember Mary this Christmas
And may God bless our mothers.

Let us remember Joseph this Christmas
And may God bless our fathers.

Let us remember Elizabeth and Zechariah and
John this Christmas
And may God bless all our relatives.

Let us remember the shepherds this Christmas
And may God bless all those who will be working.

Let us remember the wise men this Christmas
And may God bless all those who will be travelling.

Let us remember Jesus this Christmas
And may God bless us all and make us his children.
What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
Yet what I can, I give Him –
Give my heart.
Christina Rosetti 1830-1894
Lord Jesus,
The wise men brought you gold:
Let us use our riches to do good.

The wise men brought you frankincense:
Let our prayers rise like smoke to heaven.

The wise men brought you myrrh:
Let us seek to comfort those who are sad and grieving.

 

Love shall be our token,
Love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.
Christina Rosetti 1830-1894

May God’s blessing and peace be with you, and with all, this Christmas.
Thank you for joining me here.

A Christmas poem, written in childhood

trees

 

Primary school was not a happy place for me.  I am dyslexic, but hadn’t been diagnosed at that point, and found a fairly traditional education involving spellings, handwriting, and learning tables by heart almost impossible.  I spent much of the time looking out of the window, and imagining.

While I couldn’t copy of the board, I did go home and write – often long epic misspelled poems – and occasionally, when we could write freely at school, I was brave enough to just do that, write freely.

My teacher, unknown to me, entered this poem in the high school Christmas Poetry competition, and it was commended.  That was such an important moment for me.  It was the first time I felt a sense of possibility at school – that I could do something, and maybe do it well. I am so grateful to that teacher for believing in me.  I showed her some of my scribbly notebooks after that.  Words and actions that encourage, that show you believe in someone, can seem such a small thing to the one doing them, but they can change the world of those who receive them.

 

When I was compiling Prayers and Verses I decided to include this Primary School poem, as it meant such a lot to me at the time.  I hope you enjoy it too.

 

The dawn is breaking, the snow is making
everything shimmer and glimmer and white.

The trees are towering, the mist is devouring
all that is in the reaches of sight.

A bell is ringing, the town is beginning
slowly, gradually, to come to life.

A candle is lighted, and all are excited,
for today is the ending of all man’s strife.

 

Let us encourage one another this Christmas, look for the good even in unlikely places.