Saturday, 30 March 2019

The Cross: conflict and suffering

Hazel's beautiful table piece: Road to the cross - used at Cores End
Over the next three weeks I'll be posting the three talks I gave at The Chiltern URC Group Lent Quiet Day at Cores End URC near Marlow on Saturday 30th March 2019.  Here's the first...

As we meet during Lent I thought it might be appropriate to entitle today’s theme: Cross Roads.

On a journey a crossroad is a moment of decision.  The choice we make determines our destination.

These days I rely far too much on the sat nav on my phone.  I rarely plan out the route and I’ve noticed that just occasionally the signal of where I am can be two or three seconds behind exactly where I am!  That doesn’t matter until I’m at a crossroad or roundabout and those seconds make a huge difference as to where I end up heading.

It seems to me that Jesus grasped the essence of how his life was going to pan out quite early on.  That last journey to Jerusalem seems one full of quiet yet dogged determination to leave the security and safety of Galilee and willingly enter the swirl of controversy and conflict that would await him upon arrival in Jerusalem.

Yet Jesus deliberately makes this choice.

I know of a church which, in its reordering project, made a radical decision about its processional cross.  The new cross would be two pieces of drift wood collected from the beach and clasped together.  This was wood that had undergone the ravages of tempest, storm and wind.  This wood wasn’t pristine, it was disfigured and roughly honed.  I can see why this cross was made the way it was.  It spoke truthfully about life.

But then a wealthy benefactor came along and heard about the driftwood cross.  Perhaps for all sorts of reasons his offer couldn’t be turned down, an offer to cover the cross in gold leaf.  Well, now it shimmers with a different sort of palatable beauty.  In one sense it’s a more precious object, yet in another it’s lost some of its deeper value.

The truth is there have been many attempts, perhaps we have made them ourselves, to sanitise the cross.  All too quickly it becomes an empty cross.  A glorious cross.  A triumphant cross.

Yet I’m not sure Jesus saw it that way, the one who hung and suffered there.  He shouts a cry of dereliction from it.  He feels forsaken by it.

I sense more and more that to Jesus and his friends Calvary was a tremendously bleak and confusing day.  It was a pain-filled day.  Blood flowed, and friends deserted, so the suffering was physical, spiritual and emotional.

You cannot suffer ‘theoretically’.  When the bereavement comes the loss can leave the deepest void.  When families split the ripples keep spreading for a lifetime.  When friends betray us, or we them, the sense that something beautiful has been corrupted can feel irrevocably final.

Suffering is real and there is nothing inevitable that Kierkegaard’s dictum is always right when he said: life can only be understood backwards but must be lived forwards.  Sometimes even hindsight doesn’t obliterate the pain.

Jesus seems to choose this road, this cross road. 

He sets his face to Jerusalem and he meets with conflict.

His message is toxic to tetrarchs who are puppet kings and to governors who feel Israel is just about the worst posting the Roman Civil Service ever had to offer.

Put this civil opposition alongside the religious self-interest that made genuine debate or fresh insights a complete no-go area and Jesus was a dead man walking even on Palm Sunday.

Part of my journey this Lent has, I think, simply been to name that sense of conflict that dominated the life of Jesus and that sense of confusion, suffering and even failure that was so central in his death.

At that other season of the Christian year when the liturgical colour is purple: Advent, some of us at AFC play a little game as we sing that beautifully haunting hymn; O come, O come Immanuel.  It’s in a minor key.  That somehow fits the sense of intense longing that’s at the centre of the hymn.  We have a rota of organists and it’s interesting to see which ones cannot bear to leave the final chord of the final verse in the minor, instead they just have to resolve it back into the more comfortable major. They can’t linger in the un-resolved.

The opposite is true of a Tenebrae service when the lights are extinguished and the congregation leaves the church in darkness and silence – holding the questions, living with the waiting, not rushing to a forced and maybe too easily explained resolution.

It’s the essence of Holy Saturday.

So, as we ponder the cross today and the road that Jesus took towards it – my first thought is that it can speak of the suffering and conflict that is surely a characteristic of every life.  Suffering and struggle is a normal part of living, it’s not exceptional or unusual.


And to know that conflict and suffering was part of Jesus’ life maybe helps us to own those moments rather than run away from them.

Friday, 22 March 2019

Lessons on Wilderness - from Serengeti


Lent is a time when we think about Wilderness.

Jesus, we are told, spent forty days in that inhospitable and disorientating environment, being tempted by the devil.

It was customary in those days that stories of great leaders always had a sort of ‘Wilderness’ preamble describing a time, before they were famous, of struggle; during such days their character was formed.

‘Wilderness’ has become for us a metaphor for those times in our lives when our faith and character is tested.  Such a process isn’t exceptional but the normal route that life takes us. 

Whilst on a safari holiday last August in Tanzania we travelled through the Serengeti.  Just the sheer size of this National Park gives it something of a wilderness feel.  We drove for miles on dusty roads through the scrub and there was a sinister beauty about it all.

All of a sudden, we heard a loud thud from underneath the jeep and I think we all knew instantly that we were in for an interesting couple of hours.  We had broken down on the edge of the Serengeti on our way to our next game lodge outside of the Park.

What happened next, although not on the official itinerary, became one of the most memorable moments of our trip; and a sort of parable about how we might cope with wilderness.

We were certainly in something of a fix.  This wasn’t supposed to happen!  Indeed, some of our fellow passengers had already, in their minds, compiled a letter to the tour company to tell them so! 

How were we to get out of this difficulty?  Well, three aspects to the solution soon became apparent.

The first was that our driver, whose responsibility it was to get us to the next lodge safely, didn’t have to cope with this incident alone.  Even in the Serengeti he was able to use his mobile phone, contact a garage who sent out a van with three ‘mechanics’; and all of this just took half an hour. 

However, the truth is the next thirty minutes was spent with these four men fiddling with the broken wheel, scratching their heads, standing back from the van, and then having another fiddle!  For a time, this ‘community’ just shared the problem rather than solved it!  But that isn’t a bad lesson.  Sometimes we cope best with our struggles, at least initially, just by sharing them with others on the journey.  The fix may not be instant, but the fact that we have friends around us to help carry the burden is a blessing in itself.

Yet, eventually in the Serengeti, that sense of community did win through.  That’s because the group of mechanics needed a machete knife to finish the job.  They hadn’t brought one out with them but the third jeep they hailed down to ask for help just happened to have such a knife under the driver’s seat.

Facing the problem with others was stage one in finding a solution to our wilderness dilemma.

So with machete at hand our mechanics knew what to do – well it looked that way!  A new-found sense of confidence seemed to come over them and we sensed that maybe jeeps like ours had broken down in the Serengeti before!  Using the imagery of a journey we might even have said: people had walked this way before us.

Our own experience, or when that is missing, that of other people can be a great support in a time of crisis. 

I remember when one of our sons was taken to Birmingham Children’s Hospital under a blue light with peritonitis how relieved we were to hear the surgeon say to him: Matthew I’ve done hundreds of operations like the one you need, and now I’m going to do one on you!

Whenever we are in the ‘wilderness’ the comfort and counsel of others who have walked a similar path can be a great encouragement. Experience is a great teacher.  It can teach us not to panic and rush to premature conclusions.  It helps us deal with the moment calmly.

In the Serengeti wilderness I realised just how important facing our problems in community and drawing on experience is.

The last lesson I learnt that day was that often the resources closest to us are the best. 

You might be wondering what our ingenious African mechanics wanted with the machete?  We were puzzled to!

They went off into the scrub, chopped down a branch, honed it and then divided it into two. They inserted a piece either side of the wheel to stabilise it just enough to get us to the next lodge.  Incredible as it might seem it did the trick and we travelled the next 50 miles with our back wheel being supported by a scrub branch!

We often look for complex answers but sometimes the strength we need is closer to us than we think.  It often comes in the love and loyalty of those around us and in the everyday trust in God that can form the best backdrop to our lives.

This Lent, as I ponder ‘Wilderness’ my mind wanders back to the Serengeti where our challenge that day was faced by relying on community, learning from experience and using close at hand resources.  I suspect they are useful tools in any wilderness moment, whether the struggle be physical or spiritual.

Thursday, 14 March 2019

Goodies and Baddies

There is a moment in Sunday’s lectionary reading when the Pharisees become the good guys because they warn Jesus of the dangers awaiting him in Jerusalem.  It’s all so confusing when the baddies become the goodies!

All of us can, and do, come to either premature or permanent judgements about people.  Thank God we can be wrong.

Currently the Church of England is celebrating the 25th year since women were admitted to the priesthood.  Time and again I hear stories of folk who were so against having a woman vicar – until they had one!  Once they experienced such ministry their preconceptions melted away.

‘Changing our minds’ is rarely a personality fault in my book; instead I believe it’s generally the mark of an honest maturity.

Prejudice based on blanket statements often poisons us and can infect the groups we belong to. 

Today at ‘Great Sacred Music’, in St Martin in the Fields, Trafalgar Square, we heard some of the delightful and uplifting music of William Byrd.  In Medieval times Byrd sang as a chorister at St Paul’s and probably studied under Thomas Tallis.  Yet once he ‘defected’ and became a Roman Catholic he was immediately expelled from The Chapel Royal.   Ironic that today his music is probably heard in every Anglican Cathedral around the world.  Even the Church gets very confused at times as to who are the baddies and goodies!!

As Jesus made his way to Jerusalem and the cross we encounter him meeting and accepting all sorts of people.  He crossed the social divide and willingly, it seems, made time for the ‘wrong’ sort of people.  Of course, one’s definition of wrong is totally subjective and seen through the prism of our own prejudice.

So this Sunday, after the gospel reading perhaps we could have a different acclamation and shout: Three cheers for Pharisees!

Friday, 8 March 2019

A slow, yet deeper journey

Every Lent I get this stone out of the drawer and look at it again.  We picked it up from the Dorset coastline and it immediately reminded us of a freshly baked roll!

After spending forty days in The Wilderness Jesus decided not to turn stones into croissants.

I wonder if that first temptation wasn’t so much about satisfying hunger as much as overvaluing the ‘instantaneous’.  Jesus chose not to go down the ‘quick fix’ route.  Instead the stones stayed stones and he coped with his hunger for yet another day.

We live in an age in which so much can be done quickly; we can hardly keep up with the pace of it all.  Bit by bit we buy in to the idea that news can be obtained at the press of a button, meals are ready when the microwave pings and big political issues can all be solved with nothing more than a catchy and popular soundbite.  Yet quick news is rarely the whole picture, quick food is rarely a good and wholesome diet and quick solutions rarely stand up to the complexities which follow.

I grew up in a wing of the Church that emphasized ‘conversion’.  It was so important to the congregation of my youth whether you had been ‘converted’; could you name the date on which you ‘accepted Jesus Christ as your Saviour’?  Well, I can, but that’s not the point.  Although I will always feel a deep sense of gratitude for those days I’ve sinced realised that Jesus wasn’t so much interested in the day I became a Christian but the life I’ve lived as a Christian.  He asked those fishermen to ‘follow’ him.  It wasn’t a one-off event but a lifetime’s journey.

In that ‘lifetime’ we will all change, and that change can be good and positive.  We may barely notice it’s going on.  Our life experiences will change us and will change our theology; our view of God, faith and love.  It will happen naturally and inevitably.  It’s the growth of a person filled with the Spirit of God and I suspect it will rarely be quick.

Jesus, in The Wilderness, rejects the quick fix answers and decides to go on a slower route, one that embraces complexity and struggle, yet one that opens all sorts of unexpected possibilities.  It’s a slow yet deeper journey.


Friday, 1 March 2019

The Little Things

Happy St David’s Day!

A Welsh friend of mine emailed me this morning with such a greeting and, in preparation for March 1st, Radio 4’s Sunday Worship was broadcast last week from St David’s Cathedral in Wales.

My Welsh friend reminded me of those famous words by David about doing the ‘little things’ well.

Here at AFC we held a packed service of thanksgiving for a much loved and highly regarded member of our church yesterday.  He was exemplary in doing the little things well.  His tribute finished with this story:

Perhaps it would be appropriate to end this tribute recalling the time when Dowling, driving through Great Missenden, offered a lift to a man who was a little worse for wear after a rough night with a bottle. 

Dowling insisted on driving him on to where he needed to be in order that he might arrive home safely in one piece.  As he went to get out of the car his passenger offered to contribute to the petrol.  Dowling wouldn’t hear of it and instead told the man to ‘pass it on’.  ‘What do you mean?’ said the man.  ‘Pass on the kindness to someone you meet one day’, replied Dowling.

Our friend was a Scot, but I think his life summed up the essence of the Welsh Saint David in doing the little things well.

Friday 29th May 2020

People have been doing remarkable things during these last two months - often via Zoom and other 'platforms' which have enabled grou...