Clenched Fists to Open Hands

Hello – I have been musing about the church festival celebrated today which I love. Today is the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, often know as Candlemas and it ends the Christmas and Epiphany season, and you can read all about it in Luke 2 22-40.

One reason why I love this festival, is that it’s a wonderful excuse again to go over the top with candles, to fill the church with candle light as we celebrate the one who is the light of the nations. It is good and proper to go over the top!

The encounter of the holy family with Simeon and Anna is deeply moving and the long wait for them to see the Messiah is at last fulfilled. Simeon, in the Orthodox Church, is referred to as St Symeon the God-Receiver, as the Greek text indicates that he receives Christ into his arms. It is a beautiful and vulnerable encounter. Simeon in the fraility of his old age receives in his arms the vulnerable, totally dependent Christ child. Simeon’s arms are open to receive Jesus, there is a willingness to receive, to hold close, the “consolation of Israel.”

When thinking about Simeon’s encounter as the God-Receiver it led me to consider my prayers and my willingness to be open to Jesus, to hold me and receive him. I’m not sure I’m that good at it. Henri Nouwen in his book “with open hands”, says that prayer is no easy matter, and that the first challenge we face is to open our hands which are often clenched (metaphorically and literally). It is difficult, if not impossible, to receive when our fists are clenched. So why do we have clenched hands? Well for all sort of reasons, we could be holding tightly to jealousies, resentments, anger, our ambitions, failures, perhaps our need to be in control. Whatever we are holding tightly, seem indispensable and they begin to shape our lives.

When we dare to open our hands we are making ourselves vulnerable, as we begin that long journey of trust that all Jesus has for us is unconditional love, for as he gives himself in this love it is vulnerable, generous, self-giving and transformative.

I pray that you and I might be like Simeon, a God Receiver, hands and arms open to receive all that God has for us – I think we will be joyfully surprised! And as we are to able receive we will begin to shine his love to those around us, yes perhaps like a flickering candle, vulnerable and inviting.

candle lit in the hands

A tentative question, a surprising answer

So, one final blog on 2 Kings 5. It is a story of healing, grace, unexpected unsung heroes, and a surprising answer to a tricky situation. Check out the story if you haven’t read it yet.

The story so far – Naaman has gone down to the River Jordan, swallowed his pride, (and who knows what else!) and dipped himself seven times. He comes up cleansed from his skin disease, grateful, with a changed heart, acknowledging Elisha’s God ‘that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel’. And of course, it was this exclamation from Naaman that made him realise the difficult and complex situation he was going to have to face when he went back to Aram.

He tentatively and apologetically asks for forgiveness for when he goes back he will have to go with his King to the house of Rimmon and bow down while the King leans on his arm. Poor Naaman, having just experienced and realised the truth about God he finds himself in a place of compromise where he would be outwardly going against his earlier emphatic declaration. Adrian Plass, who writes on this wonderful passage, says, “Well is it OK to do that? Or not? Or what? Have I got to make a stand?”

Elisha’s response is surprising, liberating, and gives hope to all of us faced with on-going difficult times or impossible situations, ‘Go in peace’. Not exactly the response he expected yet what beautiful three words they are! Adrian goes on to say, “that was all Elisha said and it seemed to be all that was needed on that particular occasion. Through a prophet, who is more interested in hearing the authentic whisper of the Holy Spirit than blindly following patterns and pre-conceptions, God was cutting Naaman a little slack, and this new follower of the one true God was probably even more grateful than before, don’t you think? How lovely to be told that you can go in peace when you are expecting a thick ear or a thunderbolt.”

The wonderful truth about these words ‘Go in peace’ is that it gives us opportunity to have a dynamic, life-giving dialogue with God. These three words are not closed but are open and spacious words.

Elisha cut Naaman some slack, and Jesus cuts us slack too. Our community promises has the response – “with the encouragement and guidance of the brothers and sisters who share this pathway, we will try our very best to follow the example of Jesus”. Each night I reflect on my day and sometimes I realise how my relationships or attitudes has not lived up to the promises I have made. I have messed up, and I can’t quite get it right at the moment. Jesus forgives, he says have a good night’s sleep, lets work together on the difficulties, ‘Go in peace’. And he says this with affection and love.

Elisha begins to give us an understanding of God’s compassion and Jesus shows it to us fully. I pray that we will learn to live and move in it.
In the All Age services during SummerFest we sang our Naaman song – words by Bridget and Adrian Plass, sung and produced by Anna Andersson on the attached music file – enjoy! We had three weeks of it!

God of the Humble

I love Summerfest! I love the variety of ages (grandparents, grandchildren, teenagers, parents, singles, babies – in fact I love the lot). I love to see people being able to express how they feel. I love the laughter and silliness. I love the sense of community with Jesus at the heart that grows within a few days. And now we have finished Summerfest 3 and it has been a wonderful time.

Our theme has been Naaman’s story from 2 Kings 5 – check it out it is a good read. It is the story of Naaman’s healing of his skin disease that came in a very unexpected manner, it is a healing, which was far more than skin deep, it was conversion of his heart. It was a radical and life-changing experience.

We read that Naaman arrived outside Elisha’s house with all his soldiers and chariots, and mules laden with gold and silver. Naaman’s identity was bound up in his wealth, his position and his success. He came to Elisha displaying how powerful he was, desperately wanting to buy his healing. You can imagine that Naaman was well put out when Elisha would not come to greet him as he felt his rank deserved and, adding insult to injury, he is told by Elisha’s servant to go down to the murky Jordan and dip himself in it seven times if he wants to be healed. Naaman was besides himself with anger. He was a huffy old Naaman! Yet with the courage and love of his servants he is persuaded to go down and dip himself in the Jordan. Isn’t it good that we too can have friends who are able to speak the truth in love, to save us from messing up?

It is very significant that Naaman ‘went down’ into the Jordan. He had to make himself small. He had to give up his identity that meant so much to him. He went down as a proud and successful general with a serious skin disease and came up with the skin of a young boy, with a childlike heart, declaring, “there is no God in all the world except in Israel”.

It is a story peppered with grace, yet it is grace that could only be received if Naaman was willing to go down. John Stott writes, ’Pride is your greatest enemy, Humility is your greatest gift’. It is true for us all that if we want to discover the grace God has for us we have to make ourselves small, we have to go down. If you are ever privileged enough to go to Bethlehem to visit the Church of the Nativity you have to bow down to get through the doorway.

So like Naaman when we go down, bow down or make ourselves small we understand a bit more of who God is, and what He is about. As it says in the Jerusalem Bible, “The fear of Yahweh is a school of wisdom, before there can be glory, there must be humility.” Proverbs 15:33

Mad Hatter's Tea Party at Summerfest with good friends from St Stephen's - great fun!

Mad Hatter’s Tea Party at Summerfest with good friends from St Stephen’s – great fun!

A Tale of the Unexpected

Summerfest joyfully invades Scargill during August which is our 3 week all age fun-packed arts festival where about 100 guests join the community. Along with the rest of the Community, I love it!

Every year we have a different theme from the Bible and this year we have been looking at the story of Naaman the Aramean General seeking healing for his leprosy. It is a great story – why not check it out in 2 Kings 5.

It is a story full of surprises and unknown heroes, with kings, prophets and servants and it is one of these servants I want to focus on. The story tells of a servant girl captured by an Aramean raiding party. We don’t know her name, or where she came from, but we can only imagine the heartache and trauma she must have felt being literally trafficked from her family to a foreign country and culture into servitude. Yet she does not allow herself to be defined by this part of her history and is gracefully able to offer words of hope into the household she is now serving which just happened to be Naaman’s. She knew from her own country that there was a prophet who would be able to help Naaman in his desperate need. I am not sure that I would be able to offer such words of hope if I had been held captive. I reckon I would be full of resentment.  Sheridan Voysey, a recent speaker at Scargill, commented  ‘the greatest tragedy is not the broken dream but being forever defined by one.’ This gracious attitude was within this slave girl and she truly is the unsung hero in this story of restoration.

What is also remarkable about this story is that Naaman listened. Perhaps there was something in this slave girl that made people listen – people who are grace filled are attractive. St Paul says ‘be wise in the way you act towards outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.’ Colossians 4:5-6. Perhaps this grace filled attitude lived within this young slave girl.

Being channels of grace will at times be costly and may go against our better judgement and yet Jesus would call us to be people of grace in our words and actions. The little slave girl ,who had a conversation with Naaman’s wife, led to restoration in Naaman’s life beyond his wildest dreams.

Martin Luther King said that anybody can be great because anybody can serve. He goes on to say, “You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

A bit of All age Summerfest worship in the Chapel

A bit of All age Summerfest worship in the Chapel

The Tale of Two Good Friends

This last week Di and I have been in London and Canterbury, where we have experienced a cocktail of emotions.

On Wednesday we were in Canterbury where it was a privilege and an honour to be at the consecration of two women bishops, one of them being a good friend Rachel Treweek. It was very moving and a truly joyful occasion.

On Friday, we were at the funeral of a close friend, Malcolm, and I was given the privilege of giving the address. Malcolm and his wife Caroline had been great friends of ours while I was vicar of their church in London, and since we have been at Scargill. The service was a celebration of a life well lived, with grief at the loss of someone we loved dearly.

You may ask, “What does a consecration and a funeral have in common?” Unsurprisingly, yet joyfully, we caught up with old friends and had time to share laughter and tears, but most importantly the tale of these two friends is a tale of hope.

Rachel is now the Bishop of Gloucester – the first woman Diocesan Bishop in the Church of England! It has been a long struggle with a great deal of patience and perseverance, often much heartache, which has now culminated in this most joyful celebration – and it is full of hope. Having worked with Rachel, when she was our archdeacon in London, it is wonderful to see that her gifts, and the person she is, can be experienced within the Episcopate. There is hope for the Church as Rachel and other gifted women are called by the Holy Spirit to become bishops. It will be so life giving for the Church!

Malcolm, who was 60, struggled with cancer over the last eighteen months, and through his illness was such a person of hope. Malcolm lived in the knowledge that he was deeply loved by God, and however dimly or partially he saw it, he believed that he would know it fully. Malcolm died in this hope, being literally “sung into heaven” by those he loves, and those who love him.

And the hope in which Rachel lives, and Malcolm died in, is the hope that is gifted in the person of Jesus Christ. Paul’s words to Timothy (1 Tim 1 v1) ring with truth for whatever lies before us, “Christ Jesus our hope”. Shawshank Redemption (a must see film!) is full of great hope quotes – “hope is a good thing, may be the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” So the Risen Lord Jesus is our hope, that we live, move and have our being in, and it is this Hope that longs to make his home in our hearts for eternity.

Living Generously

One thing about living in community, that we have been learning here at Scargill, is to live generously. And what I mean by living generously is being willing to forgive, to go the extra mile, and have a desire to serve. A godly hospitality will be generous and open-hearted.

The life of Jesus was always abundant and extravagant, a generosity that never stopped at what was strictly necessary. For instance, a meal time with Jesus was wonderfully over-the-top such as the wedding at Cana with the miracle of turning water into wine, these six stone jars full of water would have been equivalent to 900 bottles transformed into the best red wine ever. How mischievous and wonderfully outrageous is that! Jesus picnics with 5,000 and there are 12 baskets left over. The resurrected Jesus, who not only cooked breakfast on the beach for his friends, preceded this by a miraculous catch of fish that was so big that they were unable to haul in the nets. Just 3 examples!

In Luke 15, we read the parable of the ‘Lost Son’ which could be better described as the parable of the ‘generous Father’, who is extravagant and lavishes his love upon the homecoming of his son. Jesus shows us an aspect of the Kingdom of God, which is one big heart of generosity – nothing stingy here!

And it is this that we are caught up in at Scargill, that in all our fragility and weakness, and at times getting it wrong, our desire is to reflect this generous heart of God to those who come through our doors. So what does generosity look like at Scargill? Chocolate on the pillow, beautiful flowers round the House, well kept grounds and gardens, a variety of cake on arrival, willingness to have a conversation as to how we can make a guest’s visit the best it can be, care taken over special diets, food made with love, willingness to carry suitcases on arrival and departure and an invitation to our guests to make our home theirs while they are with us.

Walter Brueggemann, in his inspiring book ‘Journey to the common good’, writes that the Church has been given a different narrative to that of the culture and society around us, which often speaks of scarcity. He says, “ that journey from anxious scarcity through miraculous abundance to a neighbourly common good has been peculiarly entrusted to the church.”

Living as Kingdom people, people of faith, creates a mindset of generosity. Let us remember what Jesus said, “freely you have received, freely give.” Matthew 10:8

And, of course, being generous is not about what we can get back, as Piero Ferrucci says, “Generosity is, by definition, disinterested.” Think about it.

Unforced Rhythms of Grace

Last Sunday afternoon, I was invited to preach at the service at Manchester Cathedral launching the Peregrini Community, on the Festival of the Baptism of Christ. Peregrini draws inspiration from Irish wandering monks and the Anglo-Saxon saints St Cedd and St Chad, who continued the tradition of moving from place to place sharing the love of Christ. Both were sent from Lindisfarne.

What excites me about the new Peregrini Community is their commitment to live by the unforced rhythms of grace (Matthew 11:28 from The Message). As they say in their little booklet, ‘it denotes a series of aspirational statements that, when embraced, will nurture spiritual growth, foster Christian discipleship and enable missional encounter.’

So, here are the 5 rhythms which all begin with ‘By God’s grace….:

– I will seek to be transformed into the likeness of Christ.

– I will be open to the presence, guidance and power of the Holy Spirit.

– I will set aside time for prayer, worship and spiritual reading.

– I will endeavour to be a gracious presence in the world, serving others and working for justice in human relationships and social structures.

– I will sensitively share my faith with others: participating in God’s mission both locally and globally.

Aren’t these just brilliant?

I have been thinking about The Message’s wonderful translation of Matthew 11:28 – living by the unforced rhythms of grace. I love it – but what does it mean?

I think we get an idea of what it means when we look at the baptism of Jesus as we glimpse the wonder of the Trinity. It is by God’s grace we are called to join in with the glorious love between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which is a community of self-giving love and joy. The early Christian Fathers used to describe the life of the Trinity as a round dance – a sort of Godly Celidh! It doesn’t matter if we have two left feet for we are all invited to participate. Thank goodness we are not talking ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ expertise here. As David Runcorn says, “it is a dance that is wholly possible because the life of the Trinity is one of pure giving. Nothing is claimed, nothing is demanded, nothing is grasped”.

It is this unforced rhythm of grace that you and I are called into. It is creative, full of self-giving love, and fun. Let’s do it!