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!

barleyfield

 

 

Sunday Retold – The Woman at the Well

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

This week we’re looking at

John 4:1-42

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

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

 

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

Mural by  Emmanuel Nsama

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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

 

Epiphany Retold – Looking out for stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What might your stars be?

From The Bible Retold

 

They Followed a Star

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

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

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

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

 

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The Adoration of the Magi, by Konrad Witz

 

And from Prayers and Verses

Gifts

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

From Frederick Buechner:
“Listen for Him

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

~ from The Sacred Journey and Listening to Your Life

 

Sunday Retold – Naaman and the river

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It’s time for the next Sunday Retold, and this week’s readings include the story of Naaman from Aram.
You can find all the readings following these links:

2 Kings 5: 1-3, 7-15;2 Timothy 2.8-15; Luke 17:1-19.

The story of Naaman is rich in so many ways.  Reading it alongside the Luke passage – the healing of the ten lepers – brings two aspects into particular focus:  how we view those not of our tribe, or group, or belief system; and the practice of gratitude.

It’s easy to favour people who are like us, who are part of our group, whatever that may be. It’s easy too for us to slide into hostility, a feeling of superiority, a certainty that we alone are right.  In both of these stories, we see God not limited by our categories and barriers, but working in the lives of two people who were regarded as outsiders, enemies even.

Naaman was leader of the armies who were fighting against Israel – as clear an enemy as you could imagine.  Yet, he was a human being with a secret need, and a secret fear – of leprosy, which would have put an end to his military career, and made him an outcast.  That the enemy of God’s people should be stricken in this way might be something to  rejoice over – but not for the young slave he had captured.  She had reason to ill-wish her master, but she did not.  She conspired to bless him instead.  It was three servants, or slaves, who play a key role in this story.  They are the ones who move the narrative forward, who nudge the powerful towards right action.  The general does well to listen to the one who apparently has no power.

Naaman, who arrived in great power and pomp, causing a diplomatic incident, was not greeted by the prophet in the way he expected – but by a servant.  He was asked to take off his robes, his armour, his signs of status, and expose his vulnerable flesh.  He had to wash in a foreign river, when he had fine waterways of his own. He would have to bend down, bow into the water.
And then, he was healed, and then, what ripples flowed out from that action. The fates of nations hinged on this act which began with the words of a slave-girl.

One of the ripples was gratitude.  And that is the theme of the Gospel story.  The gratitude of one who was not part of Israel, had a different theology, different worship practices.  Nonetheless, he sought and found healing with Jesus, and was the only one of the ten who returned to say thank you.  The nine who were on home territory did not.  Perhaps the foreigner could teach us something, here.

Gratitude is a powerful and life-affirming discipline – and it is a discipline.  Gratitude sometimes flows naturally, but most of the time, we need to remind ourselves to be thankful.  We are so used to problem-solving, that we only see the things we think are broken, and cease to see what is good.  When we do, things shift.  Gratitude to God and to others can transform things – and not just for us, but for those around us, too.

And, to pick up the earlier theme again, perhaps we can consider how to bless those we think of as not like us, how to break down hostility – even if we find it in our own hearts – and do good to others.  Perhaps, like Namaan, we can also learn to receive good from the foreigner, the one we might regard as of low status.

What would the world be like if more of us lived out these two disciplines – blessing the other, and gratitude?

The following extract is from The Bible Retold

Please feel free to use these extracts if they help you, saying where they are from.

  NAAMAN FROM ARAM (2 Kings 5)

The little Israelite slave-girl was brushing out the hair of her mistress – the wife of Naaman, whose armies had captured her and brought her to Aram.
“My lady, why are you sad?” she asked.
“My husband the general’s skin is growing worse.  It must be leprosy.” She replied, weeping.
“If only my master would visit the prophet of Samaria – he would be cured!”  So Naaman went in great state, with his horses and chariots, attendants and guards, through enemy territory to Elisha’s house.  But Elisha did not go to greet his mighty guest.  He sent a slave with a message “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and you’ll be healed.”  Naaman shook with fury.
“What kind of service is this from a holy man?  I expected prayers and the laying on of hands!  But he just sends this puny messenger!  I could have washed at home!”  And he turned on his heels to leave.  But his servant intervened
“My lord, if the prophet had asked something hard of you, would you not have done it?  So why not do this simple thing?”  And so Naaman did.  He washed in the Jordan seven times, and as he came out into the bright sunlight, he looked down at his skin.  It was smooth, perfect, like that of a child.  Beaming, he rushed back to Elisha, opening his treasure chest. “Now I know that the God you serve is the true one.  Nothing else comes close.” “That is reward enough – you may keep your gold!” Elisha replied.  And Naaman went home, telling everyone of God’s great goodness.

 

And, from Prayers and Verses

May we learn to appreciate different points of view:

To know that the view from the hill is
different from the view in the valley;
the view to the east is different from the
view to the west;
the view in the morning is different from
the view in the evening;
the view of a parent is different from the
view of a child;
the view of a friend is different from the
view of a stranger;
the view of humankind is different from
the view of God.

May we all learn to see what is good, what is true,
what is worthwhile.

 

O God, help us not to despise or oppose what we do not understand.
William Penn 1644-1718

The olive tree I thought was dead
has opened new green leaves instead
and where the landmines tore the earth
now poppies dance with joy and mirth.

The doves build nests, they coo and sigh
beside the field where corn grows high
and grapes hang heavy on the vine,
and those who fought share bread and wine.

 

Lord, because you have made me, I owe you the whole of my love;
because you have redeemed me, I owe you the whole of myself;
because you have promised so much, I owe you all of my being.
I am wholly yours by creation: make me all yours, too, in love.

Anslem, 1033-1109

May we enter into God’s conspiracies of blessing this week.
Keat’s Autumn is on my mind at the moment, with the wonderful phrase, “conspire to bless”!