Lent: Jesus said, I Am ….. Week 1, The Woman at the Well

 

 

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

Mural by  Emmanuel Nsama

If you are following my Book for Lent, welcome! I hope you find it helps.
If you’d like to begin at the very beginning, you could take a look at the chapter on Moses, and the burning bush – the first I Am. You can find a link to my post about that here.

 

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John 4:1-30, 39-42

It may seem a strange place to start, with this deep conversation that is not normally mentioned as one of the I AM sayings – and indeed, it isn’t one of the classic seven.  However, it is a story which has intrigued me for years, and when I found that this is the place where Jesus first says “I am”, I wanted to explore it more fully.  It is the longest recorded conversation Jesus has with one other person – and it is with someone who was on the other side of so many cultural barriers.

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

John the Evangelist prepares 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 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” (Matt 19:3). We often think of her as one utterly disgraced in her community, having to visit the well at such a time.  That may be so, but we must remember that at this time divorces were easy for a man to come by and early death not uncommon.  Whatever her circumstances, she must have known more than her share of tragedy and disappointment.  She may have known deep shame and disgrace.  She may well have been a rejected member of a rejected community.

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, 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?”

Jesus humbly admits his own thirst, his own need.  If we have heard the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt 25:31-46), this question may have a deep resonance for us, for there Jesus says that whoever gives a thirsty person water, gives it to him.  This story in John gives us a way of thinking about the needs before us.  How would we respond – how do we respond – if a stranger asks us for a drink?

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And from the Reflection and Response section.

Pour out a jug of water and set it before you, together with a glass.
Ask yourself what you thirst for.  Allow honest answers to emerge and note them.  Where does your life feel dry and unproductive?  What would help?

 

“I was thirsty and you gave me a drink”
….If you buy drinks out, perhaps you could fast from one or two a week, and give the money to a charity instead………

You could carry extra bottles of water to give to the homeless or buy tea or coffee for those you encounter and drink with them.  I have gift vouchers for coffee shops in my bag to pass on………

 

 

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Think about this picture – look at the two trees, and the fence.
Where do you find connection in your life, and where separateness?
Are there ways you can reach across divides?
Pray for wisdom.  Remember how Jesus slipped away from potential conflict with the religious leaders.

“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.
What comes to mind as you meditate on this verse? Does it speak into an particular situation for you?

 

If you’d like a copy of the book, you can ask your local bookshop, or order online.

Here are a few suggestions:

The publishers, BRF

Amazon

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This blog post also draws on the Sunday Retold series.

Thank you for sharing this time with me.

 

Norfolk coast path – a poem about the bus.

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This year is a year of walking.

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Peter, my husband, is doing the Country Walking 1000 miles  challenge. He’s well ahead of schedule, and it’s a brilliant project, doing him much good. I don’t tend to sign up for things that have quite such a big commitment to exertion, but I seem to be covering a great many miles, even so!  I just reserve the right not to, for instance now, when evening walking leaves me too hot to sleep….

We thought we might give the Norfolk Coast Path a go – Hunstanton to Cromer, as it’s not too far away, and flat, and beautiful, and dotted with lovely B and Bs and tea shops and pubs for rest stops….

And we did!  Before the weather got to be quite as hot as it is now, we walked the distance, with breezes and the cool brown North Sea to keep us going.  Taking on such a, for me, long walk was made all the sweeter by the memory of illness recovered from, health restored.  How good to feel the strength of your body, to rejoice in its ability to just keep on going.  How good to let your feet take you over sand, and marsh, and boardwalk, and lane. It felt good to rejoice in being upright, and in seeing such beauty.

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I’m hoping to write up some more of what filled my notebooks as we went, but, for now, I’m just dipping my toes back in with a poem about a key part of the walk, the coast bus, which made it possible.  You can walk one way and get the bus back, or to wherever you need to be that night.  It’s a bus well used by the locals, who are happy to tell you about good shops, and places to see marsh harriers, and other useful things.  It’s cheerful and kindly as community services often are.

One day, we were done as the schools closed, and it was so good to share a few miles with kids who were clearly happy to be on their way home again.  It prompted another small poem, which I share with you now.

 

Norfolk coast bus

Sitting on the coast bus after
the wild open walking,
the huge sky,
the oyster-catchers,
The saltmarsh, and the reeds,
my legs stick to plastic seats,
the sun strikes hot through glass,

But as I breathe and cool, I hear the
young voices all around me,
laughing, wrestling with
musical instruments,
sports kit,
bags of files,
the weight of
home-from-school.

And when anyone reaches their stop,
one boy, near the front,
says goodbye to them,
each in turn,
and the partings ripple
back down the bus –
he, young as he is,
sets the tone.

You see the web
woven between them,
hot in nylon blazers,
and feel the life of them,
the kindness of them,
despite their loads.

For these few miles
I feel I am in community,
connected,
as I take off my straw hat,
and loosen the damp hair
from my head,
as the sound of voices
surrounds me
as the bonds of friendship
surround me,
I am restored.

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Poem: Lent 1 – Scream

 

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Hunger.

The first of Jesus’ temptations, Luke tells us, was to turn stones into bread.  Our hungers are real, even those of us who live in places where food is abundant, where we eat too much for our own good, and the good of others. Deep hungers drive us without our even knowing.

The lent discipline of fasting has never been one I have observed much.  I have, from time to time, tried giving up some kind of treat, but so far it has always been a form of self-indulgence all the same.  For my own good, for selfish reasons, for reasons of vanity, even.  This year I have been trying to open my eyes to the impact of my appetite on others.  I have been attempting to do so with gratitude for all the things that sustain my life, but I have dared to try to consider those things that were hidden – the hidden impact of my buying and eating in all its various forms.  Too much all at once would be too much for me, overwhelming, but……
but, today, this happened.  It pulled me up short.

 

Lent 1 – Scream

The sound unsettled me
before I knew I heard it –
Standing up straight, skin prickling,
I turned – what was it?
so like a scream,
like many, many screams.

Not the cry of waders on the river –
louder, larger, full of terror,
one to the other
passing the fear, rippling
back and forth.

And then I saw, stopped
at the traffic lights,
a galvanised lorry
dark slits along the side,
the occasional flash
of pink flesh.

Pigs. To market,
to slaughter.
I had been on my way
to the butchers to buy
gammon –
not now, not tonight.

Mushrooms, peppers,
herbs, garlic, roasted, yes.
We do not know what we do.
 

Sunday Retold – Lazarus raised from the dead

Part of the Sunday Retold series, based on the readings some churches follow.
This week it’s

John 11:1-45

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

We are preparing to enter the season of Passiontide, towards the end of Lent when we turn our attention more fully to the coming of Easter.  This strange and powerful story is at such a  turn in John’s Gospel, a turn of the road that will take Jesus through death and into life.  We have had hints of what will come before, but this is something much more significant, which attracts much more attention. Crowds pour out of Jerusalem to see Jesus, and Lazarus, and the religious leaders are afraid, and their resolve to be rid of him hardens.

It also contains one of the great I AM sayings which form the backbone of my  next Book

 

Lazarus

By Jacquie Binns

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Jesus is now close to Bethany, when Martha, Lazarus’ sister, comes out to meet him.

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,”  she says, the same phrase  Mary uses later.  They have such confidence that Jesus would have healed their brother, if he had been there.  Then, Martha continues….”But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”

Martha’s confidence in Jesus seems to hold even in the face of his delays, and her brother’s death.  We do not know what she expected might happen – maybe she didn’t know herself, speaking in fresh raw grief.  Perhaps she was simply throwing her whole self, her whole confidence and trust, on this dear friend who was unlike anyone else she knew.
“Your brother will rise again”
“I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
To Martha, this talk of rising may have sounded like a conventional consolation, and  Martha takes it up, this hope, and places it on the Last Day, a day when the dead will rise. It is hope that death is not the end.  It is a distant hope, though, for a distant future.
“I am the resurrection and the life.”   Jesus moves that distant hope – a time, an event, a particular future thing, and says this instead:  He is the resurrection and the life .  Now.
In him is life.

Jesus is more than the one who rises from the dead on Easter Sunday, for others to look on and marvel, and believe if they can.  He himself  is resurrection, and that means something transformative for Lazarus, and Martha, and Mary, and all of us.

After Martha makes her extraordinary statement, she quickly moves on.  Her sister, Mary, is still shut inside.  She must be told that Jesus is here.

Jesus  meets Mary, and the raw grief that she and the others bring with them.  She says the same thing as her sister –
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  She says it weeping.  She says no more words beyond these.  The tone, therefore, feels different.  Her words sound desperate, almost accusing.  Maybe they are accusing.

“Where have you laid him?”
“Come and see”

The pain of the moment now is overwhelming.  Jesus is described as being greatly disturbed, deeply moved.  There is no talk here of denying the hope of the resurrection by grieving.  No accusation of lack of faith for being overcome with emotion.  Grief here is fully experienced – for his friend, and for those who love him still.  Grief too for all the death and loss that are caught up in this, and in the death that Jesus himself will face very soon…..

Jesus moves to stand by the grave with those who weep, and weeps too.

Perhaps we can learn from this “come and see”, to invite Jesus into the darkest places in us.  It is the same phrase Jesus uses to answer “Where are you staying?” right at the beginning, inviting Andrew and another to follow him (1:35-39).

He will follow us too, even to the grave of one we love.

And then, and then…….

JESUS AND LAZARUS 

Jesus followed the road on towards Jerusalem, stopping at the desert place by the Jordan where John had baptized him: where the sky had opened and the Spirit had come down like a dove.  Many people came to him there, and many believed.  While he was by the Jordan, a messenger arrived.
“Teacher, I bring word from Martha and Mary of Bethany.  Your dear friend, their brother Lazarus, is very ill.”
“This sickness will not end in death, but in God’s glory!” Jesus replied.  But he did not follow the messenger back.   Two days later, he stood up and turned to his disciples.
“Come on, let’s go!” he said.  But they were afraid to go so close to Jerusalem, remembering how Jesus’ life was in danger there.
He stepped forward into the sun-baked road. “Now it’s daylight.  Lazarus is asleep, and I’m going to wake him up!”  And the disciples followed Jesus despite their fears.

As they came close, they saw Martha running towards them.  “Lord,” she called out, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Sobbing shook her as Jesus stepped towards her, steadying her. “But I know,” she carried on, quietly, “even now, God would do anything you asked.”
“Your brother will rise again,” Jesus said.
“Yes, I know, on the Last Day – the day of resurrection, of new life.”
“I am the resurrection, I am the life.  Whoever believes in me will live, and will never be swallowed up by the dark emptiness of death. Do you believe this?”
“Yes, Lord, I believe you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was promised from long ago!”  Then she went back to find Mary.
“Sister, the Teacher is here!”  Straight away Mary got up and went out, followed by those who had come to mourn with her.  She went up to Jesus and fell weeping at his feet. “Lord!” she said. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died!”   Jesus saw her sorrow, and looked at those around, draped in black, and weeping. And he, too, shuddered under the heavy weight of grief.  “Where is he?”  Jesus asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they answered. And Jesus wept. “See how he loved him!” said some.

“Could he not then have saved him?” questioned others.

They came before the tomb – a cave with a stone rolled across the entrance.
“Take away the stone!” Jesus said, but Martha hesitated.
“Lord, he has been dead four days.  The body will smell,” she said.

“If you believe, you will see God’s glory!” Jesus answered, and they rolled the stone away.  He prayed in a loud voice, and then, he looked into the deep darkness of the tomb. “Lazarus, come out!” he called.  And Lazarus came out, wrapped in linen grave clothes, with a cloth around his face. “Set him free from his grave clothes!”  Jesus said to those around him, who stared in astonishment as the man they had been mourning stood before them, alive again.

From The Bible Retold

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Henry Ossawa Tanner

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Vincent van Gough

What would it mean to be a resurrection people?

To follow Jesus into this experience too? To participate with Jesus in this walk down to the darkest, deadest places, and participate in this bringing of life and hope,  of making things new.  To be part of the new heavens and new earth, to pray and work for his kingdom to come now, on earth, as it is in heaven.  Is it possible to move from discussion of the meaning of resurrection, important as that is,  to beginning to practice it, to live as if it were the way things were meant to be and were becoming?  In any experience of darkness, perhaps we can take courage  to walk through the valleys of the shadows (Psalm 23), to not be afraid, to trust there is a way out the other side.  And, when we are ready,  to look up, to look for signs of light, and life.

Here is a poem, one of a series.  You can find the first, and follow them through,  here

Mary, sister of Lazarus, at your feet a second time

She sits in the shuttered room,
the room where her brother had laid,
dying, dead, the messengers sent out
returning empty, with no reply,
like prayers that bounce  off ceilings
or stick to the roof of the mouth,
choking with sorrow.
When you stay by the Jordan
that shuttered room is where Mary stays.

This is her shadowed valley, the dark forest of her path,
foreshadowing yours, it is all foreshadowing you.
The room where her brother had laid,
how can she ever leave it now?

But leave she did, at last, when you called for her,
she came quickly, running, trailing darkness behind
her weeping.  Mary, once more at your feet,
and when you saw her weeping, you wept too.

You know us in our grief.  You come to us, call to us.
In our darkest, most shuttered places,
your spirit moves, breaks with ours.
Death lay heavy upon you, too, and all the sooner for
this, what you do now, standing before that tomb.

For now, you who are Life,
Word made warm and beating flesh,
and weeping,
call Lazarus out,
You, who are life, and will rise,
call out one who is dead from the cold tomb.
You watch as they run to free him from the graveclothes,
pull darkness from him, calling in strange bewildered delight,
and you see Mary’s face as she sees now,
her brother, who was dead, once more in light,
astonished, seeing your glory, part of your glory,
as she weeps again, is weeping again
breathless with joy.you staying, right at the beginning, inviting Andrew and another to follow him(

Come, O Joy:
Let heaven break into my dark night of sorrow
like the early dawn of a summer morning.

From Prayers and Verses

 

1:35-39).  He will follow us too, even to the grave of one we love. 

The one coming into the world.  This is an interesting bit.  I like the continuous tense.  It is not just the one who was promised, although it holds that meaning too.  It is one who is coming into the world.

Poem – First Taste

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The first day of Spring, the first day of Lent –  this year, the first of March marks many beginnings.  I was struck today, as I pulled weeds out of the cool, damp earth, and listened to the birds singing, how strange it was to be entering a season of giving things up, setting things aside, going into the wilderness, when all around is bursting, expansive, beginning.  This is a strange time for dust and ashes, when my hands are covered in the richness of earth, my nose full of the smell of new green.  It feels like holding onto winter.  I am abandoning the patience winter requires, racing ahead in my imagination to new life.

While turning Ash Wednesday over in my mind, I think I shall try to see how this deliberate setting aside may be of some use in understanding the three temptations that Jesus faced at the end of this time  and the role it all plays in preparing for Easter. Self-examination, sharing in some measure of deprivation or self-denial, at a time when hope is bursting out a around us, may help us understand the way of Jesus better.  If we are to love God and love all people, then might this deliberate self-giving, setting aside power, plenty, self interest, really help us do that better?  I am holding questions in my mind, seeing if living things out might help with the answer.

So, this poem hasn’t quite let go of the darkness of winter, but marks the first taste of something new.  The woods near my home are beginning to overflow with ransoms –  to young to fill the place with the smell of garlic, still fresh and very vibrant.  I love foraging, and seek to do it sustainably as a good guest in this beautiful wood.  So, I pick some leaves, and taste.  It is good to feel so connected with the spring, with living growing things.  It feels like a kind of thanksgiving for the winter past, a form of prayer.
I dress my wintery beetroot soup with the leaves, and hold both seasons in my mouth together.  They taste full and sweet and sharp.  A good taste for Ash Wednesday

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FIRST TASTE

This winter has been long,
so long.  The grey sky,
the darkness, have
pressed down on us
like a grindstone,
leaving these woods dusted
with dull ice.

But now, today, the trees
are black and slick
buds shining with water,
snowdrops and aconites
bright against the dead leaves.
And there, there, the ransoms,
so vividly green, are uncurling.
I stop and pick one soft new
leaf, and bite,
sharper than lemons,
stronger than garlic,
fresh and new.
The first taste of spring
rolling round my mouth for hours

 

Poem: Aldeburgh Beach, January

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Photos taken at Dunwich Heath beach, a little along the coast, by Peter Skevington

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I love the North Sea in winter – its wild brown, its keen winds.  The coast is unstable here, lumps of WWII concrete, of building materials, and old fragments of glass  are thrown onto the shore.  The pebbles hiss in the breaking waves.  The waves in turn sound like a vast heartbeat.

The wind blows you alive, if you wrap up warm!

The photos above were taken this Christmas holiday, with my husband and son, as we stood on the beach and let the waves chase us.  We were not far, here at Dunwich, from Aldeburgh, where I went with a dear friend for a walk on a different day.

I am so grateful for my friends, and my family.  It is so good to be able to spend time with people you can be real and true with.  I feel very blessed to be able to count quite a few people as those whose company is as free as solitude, but enriched by their unique ways of seeing and being and insight.  The poem below attempts to capture something of my walk with one of these dear people, and I hope it can also say something bigger about the power of friendship.

I have been reading Bandersnatch, a Christmas gift from my son, which explores the relationships which formed the basis for the Inklings group, including Lewis and Tolkien, and it has clarified for me how much I need the encouragement and shared thinking and being a close group of friends can provide.  Our differences can give new vision and perspective, our mutual support can get us through difficulties that are too much for us alone.

Thank you to all my friends, and may you, reading this, have such sources of goodness in your life.

Aldeburgh Beach – January

We stood there, friends, on the beach,
facing into the east wind,
being blown full of cold,
icy and alive,
by a wind strong enough to lean on.

We stood on a cliff of pebbles
new thrown up by storms,
near the edge,
where stones rattled down,

while the sea, high and brown,
roared and crashed,
mist and foam flung
with the generosity of joy,
into our faces.
Our lips were salt with it.

In the sound of the wind we brought
our heads close enough to speak –
of the breath of God, alive,
breathing into us,
the glory of God in the brown shining.
The power of each small thing,
each small thing,
as the spray and the pebbles
danced wild around us.

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.

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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.

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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.

The Little Christmas Tree and Mary’s Song

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Today was the first really frosty day of the winter,  so I took my camera out for a walk with me, through the woods to the river.  As I walked, I was thinking about the story of The Little Christmas Tree, and how it connects with the story of Mary, mother of Jesus.  It had been on my mind since going to a talk by Rowan Williams at Grundisburgh Church (you can listen to the talk here , it is well worth listening to).

The Little Christmas tree is not strong and proud, thinking itself important.  It knows it is smaller than the other trees, and far less imposing.  What it does have to offer is shelter, hospitality, for the small animals and birds who are blown about in the storm.  It also has a song to sing, a lullaby, at which “even the wind hushed to listen”.

Early in her pregnancy, Mary escapes from the storm that is brewing about her, to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who offers her refuge, caring for her as she shelters her growing child.  They, two women with unexpected pregnancies, offer the profoundest hospitality to each other, that of love and acceptance. On her arrival, Mary pours out her joy in a song traditionally called The Magnificat

Here it is from The Bible Retold

I’m so full of joy my spirit is dancing
before God, my Lord, my Saviour.
God did not turn away from me
because I am poor, and now
I will be called blessed by
all the generations yet to come
God, the great, the holy,
has done so much for me.
God brings down the powerful,
but lifts up the weak.
The well fed are empty,
and the table of the hungry
is piled high with good things.

God looks at us with kindness,
giving hope to the hopeless,
caring for those who trust him,
remembering his promises to our people.

You can read Luke’s account here

And from Prayers and Verses

O God,
be to me
like the evergreen tree
and shelter me in your shade,
and bless me again
like the warm gentle rain
that gives life to all you have made.
Based on Hosea 14:4-8

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

Earlier this year we spent a few nights in Canterbury, and made evensong at the Cathedral part of of daily practice.  It was as glorious as you might imagine!  One thing that made a profound impression was hearing Mary’s song, the Magnificat, every day.  It felt a powerful reminder how God does not favour the rich, even in the richest of cathedrals, but the poor.  It helped me to see the homeless, those lacking shelter, on the streets of Canterbury, it helped to soften my heart.  I picked up a stack of gift cards from various cafes to pass on to people, after I had sat with them a little and asked them their names and their stories.  A very small gesture, I know,  but perhaps a beginning.

Cold nights make me think of those who have no shelter.Perhaps it can be part of our Advent preparations to support those who do not have a room, and have to take shelter in the most inhospitable of places.  Some suggestions are below.

Hope into Action

Ipswich Night Shelter

Porchlight in Canterbury

Salvation Army

Shelter

Habitat for Humanity

christmas tree

The Good Samaritan

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The Good Samaritan  Vincent van Gogh

So, this week, we are surrounded by political and economic uncertainty after the  UK’s Brexit vote.  In a national climate of increasing distrust, and anger, and division, many churches will be given this reading to consider on Sunday – the parable of the good Samaritan.  It is strong medicine – at least, I find it so.  It challenges me deeply, differently each time.  Reading it again, now, its force comes home anew.

From The Bible Story Retold

WHO IS MY NEIGHBOUR?  (Luke 10:25-37)

The teacher of the Law stood up, narrowing his eyes in the bright sun.  He had heard people talk about Jesus, now he wanted to test him out.

He pitched his opening question: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

But Jesus offered the question back to him, giving him the chance to show his knowledge. “What is written in the Law?  How do you interpret it?” The teacher’s answer was to quote the scriptures word-for-word: “’Love the Lord your God with all your soul, strength and mind’, and ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself’.”

Jesus smiled.  “It’s a good answer.  If you do all that, then you’ll have eternal life!”  “But….” the teacher of the Law added in a loud voice,  “but who is my neighbour?”  Jesus answered him with a story.

“Once, a man was travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho.” The crowd could imagine this journey – the road’s steep rocky sides, its twists and turns, its dust and heat. “As he made his way along,  a band of robbers crashed down the rocky slope onto the road – they had him surrounded.  The man gasped, horrified, but there was nowhere for him to run. They stripped off his clothes and beat him to the ground.  They left him lying in the dust, half-dead, while they went to gloat over their takings.

“So there he was, lying helpless in the heat of the sun, when a priest came by.  The priest did not stop, he gave the man a wide berth, crossing quickly to the other side.  A priest can not touch blood, or a body – that would make him “unclean” by Law, unable to work in the Temple, wouldn’t it?” Jesus nodded towards the teacher of the Law, then carried on. “Next came another religious man: a Levite.  He, too, saw the man lying bleeding, and still.  He, too, walked by on the other side, lifting his robes a little to avoid touching the blood on the road, and peering anxiously into the rocky shadows.

“Then, in the distance, came the steady clop of a donkey’s hooves.  The donkey carried a third man, but this time, he had nothing to do with the Temple.  He was a Samaritan.” Again he turned to the teacher, who was looking smug now.  Samaritans didn’t keep to the law – so he wouldn’t know the right thing to do. “The Samaritan saw the broken figure lying bleeding on the road, and his heart was filled with pity. He leaped down, cleaned and soothed his wounds with wine and oil, and tore strips of cloth to make bandages.  He slipped his arms under the man and heaved him onto his donkey, leading him gently to an inn.  He sat with him all night, giving him sips of water and wine.  The next day, he spoke to the innkeeper. ‘Here are some silver coins.  Look after him, and if you spend more, I’ll pay you on my return.’

For a third time Jesus looked at the teacher of the Law and asked him  “Now, you answer my question.  Which one was a neighbour to the injured man?”

The teacher of the Law shifted uncomfortably. “The one who was kind to him.” He answered quietly.  Jesus replied, “So go, and do likewise!”

It seems that the teacher of the law was opening a theoretical debate about what constitutes rightness in God’s eyes.  It doesn’t seem to have that much to do with God, or people, even though he correctly identified the commands to love as the highest ones.  Perhaps his question, “who is my neighbour”,  was an attempt to place a limit on the breadth of the command to love.  Perhaps this person is one I should love, but I can overlook another.

As was his custom, Jesus does not respond in kind, in debate, which can often stimulate the mind and bypass the heart.  Instead, he tells a powerful story.  Stories can change us.  They can reframe the way we see things, they can stir up powerful responses – outrage, pity, compassion, love.

And love is the aim, the way, the goal.   The teacher of the law was right about that.  Here, it trumps other laws – those who seek to maintain their personal holiness and safety while leaving a bleeding man in the road  are seen in sharp focus.

It is a foreigner who loves, and is commended.  So often, groups praise the good deeds of those who are the same as them, in nationality, or creed, or other ways, and overlook goodness where it is found elsewhere.  Jesus does not do that. Jesus, in word and deed, shows us what love looks like, and it is resourceful, and strong, and relentless even in the face of death. It overrides boundaries and borders.  Jesus commends the goodness of one outside the Jewish tradition, and asks the expert in Jewish law to learn from him, to be more like him. The teacher of the law seems to be open to the lesson, too.

If some in our national debate are speaking words that divide people from their neighbours, we can remember that each of us can seek to live differently, demanding as that is. It is a humbling thing.  There is no room for pride in the face of such a call to love – it is so often beyond our own resources.   But, what seems quite astonishing to me is how little it can take to make a difference. I am sure we can all remember people, known or unknown to us, whose gestures of love and solidarity, whose practical kindness, whose simple acknowledgement helped us when we were in trouble.  We can pray for open-hearted courage, we can pray for eyes to see the needs of those we walk past as we go about day by day. If we dare, we can ask God to move us to pity. But if that seem too much for us today,  we can remember that the smallest gift of lovingkindness bears the hallmark of God.

How good it is when we remember that each human being has dignity, infinite worth, and so offer to all our respect and compassion.  We can look for good in others, wherever they are from and whatever our differences. We can seek to overstep boundaries, and reach out a hand, remembering that love is from God.
Another way is possible.

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.  1 John 4:7

From Prayers and Verses

Lord Jesus,
Make me as kind to others as I would want to be to you.
Make me as generous to others as I would want to be to you.
May I take time to help them as I would want to take time to help you.
May I take trouble to help them as I would want to take trouble to help you.
May I look into the faces of those I meet and see your face.

BASED ON MATTHEW 25:37–40

Stamps

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I have been thinking about the apparently small things that connect us, that help, in times of trouble.  Living in a market town, you often see some of the same people in the street, and in the shops, as you go about running errands, dealing with the necessary things of life.  Sometimes the tiniest of connections can change your day, can make you feel closer the rest of your human family.  And sometimes, going out partly in search of such connection, you find you are able to give, as well as receive.
At least, I hope so.
So often, we underestimate the power of these small, slight gestures.
They matter.

 

Stamps

Two of the blinds were down,
Position Closed, but yours
hovered, unreadable, just
above your head.

There was   no queue,
and I approached you
cautiously,
clutching thick manila
envelopes.

Are you open? I asked.
As you raised your head,
I saw trails of tears down
your smudged cheeks,
such large heavy drops.

First class, two –
I’m so sorry.
You smiled, and
I stretched out my
hand and touched
fingertips to the glass,

Passed warm coins
through, which you
held a moment,
then gave me stamps,
straightening your back.