Lent: Jesus said I Am…. Week 7, True Vine

IMG_0840This post – for Holy Week – is the next in the series based on my book, Jesus said, I am – finding life in the everyday.

I do not have a vine in my garden, but I have so many other plants that are just opening up to new life.

This morning, I have been out planting seeds.  My veggie beds, rebuilt a few years ago by my son and a friend, have not been productive.  I suspect it was due to the shade, and the acid leaves, of a large conifer.  Last year’s drought finished it off, and I am hopeful that the new light and air around the beds may mean that we’ll have fresh salad leaves before too long. Something good may come of that loss.

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I’ve also been thinking of the wisteria, and the corkscrew hazel, in the light of this reading which tells of vines and gardeners.

This year, the wisteria is covered in long purple buds, and will soon be heady with scented flowers.  Last year, my gardener worked hard to cut back the unproductive growth, to focus the plant’s attention on the buds of  this year’s flowering.

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The corkscrew hazel requires less skilled intervention – I can manage to tell which stems are coming up straight, and need removing so the wild disarray of the corkscrew can grow freely.

These moments of intervention  are part of what happens here – I also love the wild flowers – or weeds, I love to watch what happens, what grows of its own accord. It is a hospitable place.  I love the rhythm of managed and wild.  I love the crowds of birds, the insects, the butterflies and bees that seem to thrive here.

Our Father is a gardener, we read.

John 15:1-17

Once again, we will just touch on some of the themes this image opens up for us.  There is always more.  Here are a few things, offered for your reflection – and some suggestions of how we might live inside this  song of the vineyard.

There is a way of seeing the overarching narrative of the Bible that looks like this: three gardens – the garden of Eden in Genesis, the garden tomb of the resurrection and the garden city of Revelation.  If we hold this narrative in our minds, we see a story of flourishing, of hope, of new growth despite the winters we encounter.  Gardens and their gardeners are a theme that runs through the whole Bible text.  Gardens are both beautiful and necessary, a sign of a settled life, a sign of peace and security, a promise of plenty.  And within the garden, the vine winds and trails its way through scripture, a sign of the people of God in both testaments, their frailty and fruitfulness, their need of a gardener to bring out their best flourishing, their provision of fruit and, more especially, wine to gladden the heart, wine soon to be poured out.

We are invited to be part of this fruitfulness and flourishing.  We are invited to be part of something bigger than ourselves, joined to others as well as to Jesus. We are invited to participate, and to contribute, to give and to receive.

As Jesus and his friend walked in the dark past vineyards, the image of the vine was real, fragrant, touchable.  This song was no distant allegory.  It was before them.  What would they have glimpsed, in the thin light?

A winter vineyard looks as dead as dead can be.  The bark flakes and pulls away.  But, here, in the spring, buds would have been bursting out.  What appeared dead was returning to life, throwing out tendrils, leaves, maybe blossoms.  They knew the importance of the vine, and the care and wisdom needed to tend it and make it fruitful. Passover required the drinking of four cups of wine…. Their blood was warmed with wine as they walked through the chill of night.

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And in the spring, sap runs through its veins like blood – it pours through, swelling the hidden buds.  This is a kingdom vine.  The way life flows through it is like the way the Spirit will sustain Jesus’ followers after he has gone.  The vine is loved and cared for by the Father.  God alone is the gardener of this vine.

 

Remain

To a group of people who will soon be scattered in the darkness, who will abandon him, Jesus talks of remaining, abiding.  He talks to them, assuring them they are already connected to the vine, already clean.  What will happen does not change that for them  He says this first, at the beginning of the song.  All else that follows is held within the certainty that they are part of the vine.

Here is the melody of the song, and this is what we need to treasure – that we are also part of this vine, the sap flows through us.

The heart of it all is remaining in Jesus, as Jesus remains in the Father; remaining because of love, so that joy may be complete.  We may not understand, but we an hold open the possibility of this love and grace and belonging.

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Fruit

We have talked about abiding, remaining, but the purpose of the vine is the fruit and the purpose of the pruning is to increase the vine’s capacity to bear fruit.  As Jesus continues his song of the vineyard, we see this fruit linked to a circular pattern of love – it begins with the Father for the Son, flows from the Son to humanity, who are then, for the second time, commanded to love in their (our) turn. The outcome of all this is joy – Jesus’ joy will be in us and our joy will be complete.

Love, joy… from there, we are naturally drawn to another mention of fruit in the New Testament – the fruit of the Spirit.

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  There is no law against such things.
Galatians 5:22-23

The branches attached to the vine have the life of the Spirit flowing through them.  There is beauty in a fruitful vine, with its leaves, blossom and, in time, the ripening fruit.  Our lives, filled ith the flow of the Spirit, can have such beauty.  The life of Jesus, flowing through us, is transformative.  Maybe Jesus is telling us here how the Spirit works, how our lives can be part of something greater.  Connection to the soure of all life and love leads to flourishing.  We are not isolated, purposeless, lonely individuals.  We are part of the something greater, and we can live out our lives fruitfully.

Reflection and Response

Further Study

Read the account of the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-12). Reflect on the symbolic meaning of the empty jars used for religious cleansing, here filled with fine wine at a wedding.
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Colossians 1:15-20.  How does this image of Christ connect with your thoughts on the vine? How do al things hold together in Christ?

Prayer and Meditation
Lectio divina
meditation – rooted and grounded in love
Read Ephesians 3:14-16, asking God to speak to you by drawing your attention to a word or phrase.  Read the passage out loud, slowly, twice, leaving silence between and around the readings.  See where your attention snags, what strikes you, and ponder that.  If you are with others, hold a time of silence, then share your words or phrases.

Read again.  On the last reading, be alert to anything that applies to you or your situation directly, any place where the Holy Spirit may be moving or guiding you.  Thank God for what you have learned.

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.  Now remain in my love.  John 15:9

Have you ever experienced anything that felt like pruning?  What happened? What was that like?  Offer any loss, any gain, through that process to God in prayer.  Be alert to signs of new life that may emerge.

Life and service

Connection and community
Take some time to connect with people in your community.  Be on the lookout today, this week, for ways you can build connection with those around you.  It can be as simple as taking a few minutes to speak to a neighbour, smiling at a passer by or something more.

ways you might be part of making a stronger community.  Ideas could include:

  • using local shops, facilities, public transport
  • walking or cycling where you can
  • becoming involved in local groups, societies, politics, schools
  • with others, notice the needs in your community, and finding ways to bless and reach out – the elderly or housebound may require help, or young families, etc.
  • litter picking the streets around you, or clearing snow or leaves as appropriate

……..

Care for a garden, or a piece of land near where you are.  Work with others to enrich and bless growing and living things nearby.

Further reading – I recommend Richard Rohr’s book, The Divine Dance – the Trinity and your Transformation

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The Rublev icon

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

Here are a few suggestions:

The publishers, BRF

Amazon

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Lent: Jesus said I Am….. Week 6, The Way, Truth, and Life

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The photos in this post were taken last year, as the very short spring warmed up suddenly into summer.  We were walking the Norfolk Coast Path, which was my first long distance path – flat, and easy to navigate with the sea on one side.  It took us through many lovely, varied landscapes and small settlements.

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It helps to have an image in your mind when thinking about the Way, as we are this week.

As we enter the traditional season of Passiontide, drawing closer to the Cross, we enter too, in our reading, an intense dialogue between Jesus and his friends, in which Jesus seeks to explain the terrible thing that is going to happen.  To prepare them, and to show them the necessity for it.

We will touch on the themes of Way, Truth and Life here, and seek to work them into our days.
We are continuing this Lent series drawing on my book, Jesus said, I am – finding life in the everyday.

John 13- 14

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Jesus knows that the time when he will be abandoned and betrayed by his friends, and then crucified, is getting close now.  Knowing this, despite this, he loves them to the end.  Knowing that the Father had put all things into his hands, he strips and kneels and washes their feet.  He gives them bread.  In doing so and by what he says, he tries to prepare his friends for what will come – must come.  He does so with sadness and compassion.  These are dark and difficult words.  But, there is more.  There is also a vision of love, service and life itself – the way of the Spirit, the Comforter. It offers them a way they can live when Jesus is no longer with them  They do not want to see ahead to such a time.  This next ‘I am’ saying is part of all this preparation – showing them a way forward – a way that will endure.  Jesus is that way.  He will remain that way, even after.

We are not there yet, though.  We need to stand back a little and see more clearly.

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Jesus Washing the Feet of his Disciples, 1898 (oil and grisaille on paper) by Edelfelt, Albert Gustaf Aristides (1854-1905)

© Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden
Finnish, out of copyright

The towel

Jesus gets up from the table, strips off his outer clothes, wraps a towel around his waist and kneels to wash his friends’ feet.  This is part of the way ahead – the way of love and service.  It is an instruction for how they are to live when he is gone.  They are to imitate this act – and a concrete task can help us through a difficult time.  It is hard for them to receive it.  This kneeling and washing, acting like a humble servant, is part of the self-emptying way that Jesus is following, a small foreshadowing of the self- emptying of the cross.  The way of love and life passes through the darkness of death.

………

Glory

No wonder it was hard to grasp.  This is what glory looks like: tying a towel around your waist, a friend leaving to betray you with the taste of bread still in his mouth, being lifted up on a cross.

What might it mean for us, to know there is glory even here?

This encounter between Jesus and Judas – as he washed his feet, as he shared bread with him – has given me much to think about.  I wrote about it here.

However much they did not understand, his friends did seem to grasp that he was going to leave them.  That this leaving would be for them – that it would bring them the greatest good  – was beyond them.  The loss of Jesus could not be but terrible in their eyes.

And so, he tries to frame it for them.

Something profoundly essential is happening – terrible as it is – that will ultimately work for the good.

This is the only way.

A spacious home

Jesus gives them a picture of what the good will be – a picture of the host going on ahead to prepare rooms, or dwelling places. This is why he must leave, to unlock the door, to get things ready, to open and air the rooms.  It is a large and spacious illustration, one that would conjure up Middle-Eastern principles of hospitality and welcome…..

There is an expansion in these pictures, and a deep sense that Jesus will go to considerable pains, even to the loss of his life, to bring home the sheep, to make a place in the Father’s house.  Images of hospitality abound in the other three gospels, for the kingdom – images of banquets and wedding feasts and wide tables. Here, we find these: a large and hospitable house, a generous sheepfold.

It is entirely understandable that Thomas replies, “We don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”  Now is the ‘I am’ moment: “I am the way, the truth, and the life”.  Can we think of a person as a destination? For that is what we are invited to do. ….

As we seek to walk along the way of love and service, we walk along with Jesus.  We remember that the earliest name given to Jesus’ people was not Christians, but followers of the Way.  We walk with Jesus, and with each other, on this path.  That is the way.

It is Jesus who is Way, Truth and Life all. That begins to shift us to a different way of understanding what these things might be.

The reality behind it all, the reality we can trust, is love.  That is why Jesus goes on ahead through what we cannot, and then comes back for us again.

The way of love is not soft, comfortable or secure.  It will take Jesus to hell and back.  It will take him to the very worst that can be done to a human being. This is the way that humanity will see God’s outstretched arms, and be liberated to enter abundant, overflowing life.  Jesus is making the way.

Way, truth and life are here.

“In him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” John 1:14

Reflection and response

John often has parallels, patterns in his Gospel.  You might like to think about Mary kneeling to anoint Jesus’ feet (see last week’s post) and Jesus kneeling before the disciples.  You can use the pictures in each post to imagine what it would have been like to be there. You might like to think about what they have in common.

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Further Study

Exodus 12:1-28
Consider more deeply these themes of the Passover: slavery and servanthood; a meal overshadowed by death and departing. Do these help your reading of the last supper?

I am struck by the fact that the Passover celebrates liberation from slavery, and this newly formed Passover – the Last Supper – includes a command to imitate the actions of a slave – washing feet – in free loving generosity.
How do you respond?

Creative Response

Foot washing
You will need: water, washable pens, paper, kitchen paper.

Imagine Jesus kneeling before you to wash your feet.  Imagine you are there, in that upper room. What do you feel at first? What do you feel at the end? You might like to paint your response.

You could use washable pens on your hands, remembering things that do not fit with the command to love.  Then dip your hands in water and watch them become clean.

Thank Jesus for his loving sacrifice and his example.  Thank him for the gift of forgiveness.

Remember a time when someone offered you love, and practical service. What was that like? Remember a time when you did the same for someone else.

Think of what it means to be a leader like this.  Where do you have opportunities to lay aside status and simply serve?

 

Life and Service

Love
In every situation today, take this as your starting point: how can I best love and serve this person, these people?

My Father’s House
Think about times you have received hospitality, and given it.  What stays in your mind?
Can you expand your current practices of hospitality – even a small step?

 

Pilgrimage

You may wish to go on a journey with a spiritual purpose and particular destination in mind.  You could travel far or go on a walking tour of local places of worship and ancient holy sites. You could use maps and photos to imagine yourself on such a journey if mobility is an issue.  You can go with friends, or alone.

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In the current state of our news and social media, I think this one is particularly relevant.  I would add to it now, as we are all empowered to generate our own content, and to share stories….. what are we spreading?  Is it true, loving, kind? Does it promote understanding or division?

Truth

Be on the lookout this week for where and how you learn about the world.  Look at your news sources.  Consider how you listen to more personal news from friends and colleagues.  Whom do you trust and believe? If you do not already do so, consider fact-checking, and reading and viewing things from perspectives that differ from your own.  What do you find out?

Be particularly alert to this question: does this presentation of the facts encourage love and peace between people, or fear, hatred and hostility?
Does it help or hinder me in loving God and loving others?

 

Thank you for reading.

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

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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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.

 

A book for Lent – Jesus said I Am …. getting started.

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Here in the UK, it’s the second day of exceptional warmth in a row – the snowdrops are wilting, and you can almost see the blackthorn blossom opening before your eyes.  It feels more like late April, but it is the week before Lent begins.

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I am very pleased that various groups, churches, and groups of churches are going to use my book as guide through Lent, and, if you would like to follow, here is a suggested programme.

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Getting Started: Chapter 1, Moses and Abraham.  This is a shortish introductory chapter – you could fit it in the week before Lent, or as an extra piece of reading as Lent begins.

The woman at the well: week beginning Sunday 3rd March 2019.  Ash Wednesday is 6th March this year.

I am the bread of life: week beginning 10th March.

I am the light of the world:  week beginning 17th March.

I am the good shepherd, I am the gate for the sheep: week beginning 24th March.

I am the resurrection and the life: week beginning 31st March.

I am the way, the truth and the life: week beginning 7th April.

I am the true vine: week beginning 14th April, Holy Week.

I am he: Maundy Thursday, 18th April, or another day this week.

 

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That means that this week is a good time for me to share with you a little of the first chapter – I am: Moses and Abraham.  It’s short, so I hope you’ll be able to include it in your readings.
Exodus 3:1-14

 

John’s gospel looks back to Moses’ ancient story, recording for us how Jesus called himself by this name – “I am”.  This name, which emerged from a burning bush so long ago, is one of the most identifiable features of John’s account. It resonated with his early readers and listeners in Greek Ephesus, and it stirs our imagination even today, millennia later.  Before we go deep into John’s account, and explore why that may be, we will look back to Moses’ story and see what we understand of this earliest “I am”.

…….

Nothing is wasted in God’s economy.  God used the rubbish – and the good – in Moses’ upbringing and his life as a shepherd.  He became ideally suited to his task.  As well as his circumstances and experience, God used his character; in this case, a sense of justice and an indignation at bullies.  What must have felt like failure and a downwards path was the place where Moses encountered God.

We do not know if he was seeking God when God appeared.  We do know that he was in the middle of his everyday, working life, and that God did something strange to arrest his attention, awaken his curiosity, draw him nearer.  Attention and curiosity can guide you, can awaken you to God in the burning bushes we pass every day.

Moses certainly didn’t seem to looking for a job, let alone a great mission.  It is easy to read his rather thin excuses and wonder why he spent so long arguing.  His unwillingness to respond seems to come from uncertainty.

Moses is uncertain about himself, and he is uncertain about God.

And from the Reflection and Response section

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God.
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning

As you start your day, pray for open eyes to see where God may be at work, or may be seeking to catch your attention today.  Set off with open eyes, a camera and a notepad.  Record anything that draws your attention.  At the end of the day, mull over what you have recorded in prayer.  What did you see?

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

Here are a few suggestions:

The publishers, BRF

Amazon

 

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Thank you for joining me in your reading.  There is more to come…..

Publication Day! Jesus said, I Am

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The day has arrived!  If you have ordered a copy, it should be on its way to you – online retailers dispatched it yesterday.

Thank you for your kindness and support.

Another little snippet, this time from Reflection and Response:

Good Shepherd, you know what lies before me today.
Help me to hear your voice, and remain close to you.
Guide me beside still waters, keep me at peace.
Nourish me with your presence, let me have enough to give.
Let me follow you this day, and always.

 

 

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

Here are a few suggestions:

The publishers, BRF

Amazon

 

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Jesus said I Am – finding life in the everyday….. Light

Just a few days to go now until the launch on Friday!

So, here is another snippet.  This one draws on a talk I gave a few years ago, the Sunday after Easter, when this memory seemed to speak of resurrection, of new life for things that were broken.  Beauty can be made out of even the most unpromising materials.

It tells of how we went to Wells Cathedral, and how the stained glass in the Lady Chapel was made of thousands of broken fragments, gloriously put together, after the windows had been destroyed centuries before.

 

They were a vibrant kaleidoscope of shape and colour, exuberant and abstract, scattered with recognisable pieces of face and clothing.  But this was nothing to the beauty of the light that poured through them, for they turned the morning light to wild splashes of colour, transforming all it touched – all that old stone and wood and metal – to vibrant life.

…….

All those broken pieces, all those jagged edges, all those lost pictures were put together in a new way, transformed into something glorious.  Something new was made out of the discarded, useless pieces.  And the light of the morning sun poured through them, making everything within shine, lit up with glorious colour.

I saw a parable in this glass, a kingdom story of the new creation.  We, broken and discarded and small as we may be, can be held up to the light…….
Christ, in whom all things hold together, can indeed hold us together.

 

 

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

Here are a few suggestions:

The publishers, BRF

Amazon

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Jesus said I AM – finding life in the everyday ……… Bread

Publication date is nearly here!
Friday 18th January is the day.

Thanks so much for your support and encouragement.

I thought I’d share with you a few snippets from the book, starting with something on Bread.

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And, so, the people all ate.  There was enough.  One of the many things this sign does is take our natural fear of ‘not enough’ and offer God’s ‘enough’ instead.  We find it hard to be generous when there are only a few small loaves and fish, and so many hungry people. With Jesus we see a picture of what it means to shift our perspective, to reframe our notions.

…….

What if we began seeing what we had – not in terms of what it was not, but in terms of what it was? Of seeing things not as our resource, but as a kingdom resource? This is food, these people need food, that’s what we’ll do – give.  Of course, the rational counting and measuring parts of our minds are not satisfied with that, and we are grateful for the stock control systems and emergency relief manages who count well enough to make sure all can be fed, but perhaps this is a different kind of lesson: one that turns our minds from what we see to a God of abundance.  Perhaps even this small act of generosity is magnified, amplified by a God who loves and longs to be generous.  What if each small act in the direction of goodness has consequences beyond our imagining?

….

And so, we see what Jesus does with the little he has been given by a child: he takes it in his hands, gives thanks, and then gives it away.

 

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

Here are a few suggestions:

The publishers, BRF

Amazon

 

I’ll share a few more snippets as we go along!

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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.

 

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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?

 

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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.

 

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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

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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.

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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.

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