Next month, I celebrate a melancholy anniversary. It’ll be a year since I saw my father. He celebrated his 94th birthday at the end of last month, and shortly afterwards he met his great-granddaughter. I have no real idea when I shall see either of them. I speak to Dad every day, and my brother’s family keep me in touch with Eira-Lily’s rapid development. And yet…
Realizing I’d miss Dad’s birthday got to me. Realizing it will shortly be a year since I saw him got to me. I hadn’t realized the extent to which the anniversaries would. I would imagine you’re having similar experiences.
“We should have been…” One of the team who offer the worship we upload weekly to the UCB YouTube channel asked me yesterday “What’s happening with Harvest this year?” – and I was stunned. I hadn’t given any thought to it! It wasn’t on my radar despite the fact that it recurs every year. It’s in that sense an “anniversary”.
And I was surprised at the emotions this stirred in me. We decorate the Communion Table rather than the church nowadays, but in a way, that has let us bring out the global and pan-human themes much more strongly.
And we last did this a year ago., The anniversary is upon us. We’ll be celebrating harvest home the Sunday after next – and I’m not sure how to do it yet! But what felt like shock and disappointment – and “We should have been…” suddenly feels like a liberation into new possibilities of thought, and symbolization, and thanksgiving.
But it also weighs heavily. “We should have been…” “A year ago, we were…” The anniversaries are painful, and as a winter second wave seems to grow in likelihood, and the virus finds ways of asserting that we aren’t on top of it yet, we see some of the really significant Christian anniversaries coming. Christmas. “We should have been…”
As Christians, we must, of course, “rejoice in all things” as Paul tells the Philippians. But was there ever a more challengingly honest thinker in the Christian tradition than Paul. From him we learn that rejoicing must never become denial, or we let our refusal-to-look-at-things-as-they-are steamroller, and hurt, people who are hard-put to find things in which to rejoice. And maybe, each one of us is sometimes among such people. If you are finding the times difficult, especially as the anniversaries come round, you are in all our prayers, as I always know I am.
Blessings, and the strength God gives in Christ,
When you come into the land which the LORD your God gives you for an inheritance, and have taken possession of it, and live in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from your land that the LORD your God gives you, and you shall put it in a basket, and you shall go to the place which the LORD your God will choose, to make his name to dwell there. And you shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him… Deuteronomy 26:1-3
Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to him for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them. Nehemiah 8: 10-12
For no such passover had been kept since the days of the judges who judged Israel, or during all the days of the kings of Israel or of the kings of Judah; but in the eighteenth year of King Josi’ah this passover was kept to the LORD in Jerusalem. 2 Kings 23:22-23
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let all men know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand. Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:4-7
We sometimes forget, Holiest God,
More than that, we often cannot rise
to the heights of living
from which we can look out and marvel –
marvel at creation,
and, utterly inadequately,
at the Creator who sustains all things.
Time runs away with us,
events press in on us,
our time for prayer is compressed and constrained,
or sapped by the day we have had,
or the day ahead, and its duties and difficulties.
And we have been sapped by the strangeness of these times.
And then we grasp it:
- the things we forgot to look at – and the strength we could have drawn from them;
- the things that do not change, which are reassuring, and point to you;
- the things we did not, do not, cannot acknowledge, because it is painful to do so, in times like these.
What shall we confess before you, loving Lord?
You do not wish us to “confess” our pain – you wish only to salve and heal it.
You do not wish us to “confess” our smallness, in a huge, challenging landscape of challenge –
Because you know our smallness, and wish only to call us into the largeness of life in Christ.
You do not wish us to confess the littleness of our faith – because you know we have faith; it is your gift.
So we confess our denial,
Our resistance to the idea that “things get to us”,
And above all, our insistence to others
That they should not let things “get to” them.
Lord, have mercy on us.
Christ, have mercy on us.
Lord, have mercy on us.
Especially now, as the anniversaries come around,
As our congregations approach them in radically different ways –
Distanced, some even (necessarily, we know) denied attendance on that Sunday,
No singing of harvest hymns
Perhaps no singing of carols,
Your apostle tells us “rejoice in all things – again I say, rejoice!”
We thank you for the Paul who looks at things as they are,
at hard, bruising reality for the congregations he knows so well,
and then tells them “in all these things, we are more than conquerors,
through the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord!” –
and tells us exactly the same thing!
Help us in these unsettling times
To acknowledge the impulse to say
“We should have been…”
Help us to respond with compassion and understanding when our members say it –
Help us to own their sadness.
And then let us bear witness to them,
By grasping for ourselves,
That the strangeness strips away the peripheral things,
And lets us penetrate to the heart of what we celebrate, and remember
In the recurrent things – the anniversaries.
“We should have been…”
and we cannot –
but you, Lord, open to us this possibility,
truer to the times,
authentic, and full of hope,
not looking back to last year, and every year before,
but forward into a changed world,
in which, in Jesus Christ, we shall still be
more than conquerors.
So let us approach Harvest Thanksgiving,
for there is a harvest,
there is food, even abundance.
there is consoling reference
to the regularity beyond this intrusive strangeness.
And there are the urgent themes
that command us, we know, to look beyond COVID:
what we have done, what we are doing,
what we must as a human family do,
to save and protect our blue, orbiting home.
There is the irony, we know,
that we have collectively lost sight of these things,
distracted by a serious virus which, it seems,
may have arisen from the way the human species has been feeding itself,
and farming its animals.
In the midst of this strangeness,
Let our Harvest Thanksgivings this year
Be grounded in truth,
Joyous in celebrating your creation,
Honest and penitent in contemplating what we have done to it,
And bracing, consoling, energizing and full of hope
In inviting our folk to keep the feast.
Let our strange, honest, faith-filled Harvest
presage the strange, honest and faith-filled feasts
which may lie ahead this winter.
In the holy silence, we bring our prayers
For those whose needs we know
Or think we glimpse, or can guess at.
Open our minds in this silence
To possibilities of prayer which can only come from the Spirit’s work within us…
WE KEEP SILENCE . .
And as Jesus taught us, so we pray: Our Father…
Hello again, everyone
I’m writing this on a bitterly cold November day. It’s a pity it’s the eighth of September! I’ve been thinking a lot about the weather lately – well, we all have, and one of the things we’ve perhaps missed without noticing it has been the casual conversing with strangers about the weather which is such a deep cultural thing with all the people of this archipelago!
Jesus taught us to look at the weather. More specifically, he urged his disciples to read the times as they were accustomed to reading the weather. Anyone knows that weather forecasting is not a form of prophecy! But weather forecasting, like prophecy, is immersed in present realities, in the flux of change, in the pointing-out of trends and tendencies – and how the pre-exilic prophets indicted the trends of their times!
In a September that feels positively Novemberish, except for the days that feel like a late-delivered parcel of tepid summer, maybe it doesn’t seem odd to dwell on a thaw, when the winter is before us. In a sense, that’s precisely where we are as a society.
As I write, lockdowns are occurring and spreading – Glasgow, East Dunbartonshire, East Rernfrewshire, and, now Renfrewshire. As the First Minister reminded us, these things are not happening in the same context as they were in May; we have moved on. But we are justifiably anxious about the winter.
Yet there is a sense of a thaw. In a sense, it’s the privilege of the Church to be a marker of that. Cautiously, and with model care and responsibility, we are reopening. As we are called always to be, we are a sign that there is a “beyond” to this.
But then, our calling is to be a sign that there is always a “beyond” to things as they are. That’s the shape of the hope of the Kingdom. You can’t get as far into the Christian faith as the end of the Lord’s Prayer without discovering that!
So the focus of our prayers this week is the “Thaw.” In a sense, hope always makes things more complicated! Hopelessness is, at least, as simple as food in the freezer – nothing is happening, and nothing will happen until someone defrosts something. God is the God who defrosts the hopelessness of the world, and we are God’s witnesses to this, in Jesus Christ.
Yours in our shared calling,
He gives snow like wool;
he scatters hoarfrost like ashes.
He casts forth his ice like morsels;
who can stand before his cold?
He sends forth his word, and melts them;
he makes his wind blow, and the waters flow. Psalm 147: 16-18
And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, `It will be fair weather; for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, `It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. Matthew 16:1-3
Jesus taught us to seek
to read the signs of the times, Father,
as farmers and fisherfolk read the mornings, the evenings, the seasons.
We have come to an early thaw,
though there is still more winter before us,
and our apprehension is
that the winter may be hard.
Yet we are joyous, and our hope is in you.
Lord, teach us the lessons of these times,
that we may bring forward the things we have learned,
the things we have gained, the things we have been given,
that we shall need for what lies ahead.
Why is it, Lord, that the thaw is so much colder
than what we call “freezing cold”?
Why is the hope of a beyond to the winter
so damp, and half-lit, and uncertain?
Remind us that hope is real,
and that hope and faith pull us into the future.
Warm us against the chill of change
with the constancy of your love.
Our churches and congregations are emerging,
bringing with them the lessons they have learned.
We must learn new lessons now,
not least How To Do This –
and how to do it safely.
Ropes across pews,
A4 notices with instructions
where and were not to sit,
masks, sanitizers, one-way systems –
these are the signs of love in loving churches,
along with the cheery, encouraging faces
of teams trained to welcome and care
as well as to regulate, with meticulous love.
We pray, in love,
for the world you love,
which Jesus loved unto death,
even death on a cross.
We pray for a world so often love-lacking,
In which frustration leads easily to foolish defiance,
pride to the repudiation of protective masks –
protective of the other, whose needs are forgotten –
in which contempt for expert knowledge,
arrogance, and self-assertion fed by fear
lead the easily led,
like sheep gone astray.
We seek to pray lovingly
Through our own frustration
for those who see the thaw
as a return to what was, previously.
Things as they were
were not as you willed them to be.
Things as they were before –
you have given us to see more clearly,
and many to see for the first time –
could not, we know, be sustained.
The other side of this pandemic winter,
give our world to understand,
they are no more sustainable.
We take so much forward with us
as your people always do, when you liberate them:
Teach us that newness of thought,
burnished vision, a sense that losing things we loved can be,
sad but not tragedy, not deprivation but disencumbering,
a lightening of burden for the road ahead.
Remind us, in this week
that the lectionary invites us, if we use it,
to reflect on the Exodus,
that greater than the treasure the Israelites grabbed
as they left Egypt
(none of which served them in the desert,
save providing the gold for the Golden Calf!)
was and is the knowledge gained of you, Lord God:
- God who sets us free,
- God who brings us through all things,
- God of the Exodus,
and, as you have revealed,
- God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead.
Now we await our liberation.
Now we read the signs, and feel the thaw;
Lord, let prudence be the sign of our hope,
Caution, our confidence
As we embrace what now begins.
We know that, for all the raw, chill, exciting thaw
we are not done with this winter yet,
and what lies ahead will not be simple.
We pray for our congregations, as their lives unlock
We pray for our communities, as they take stock of what has happened,
And prepare for what lies ahead
We pray for our society,
amid changes barely known, not understood,
wrought by the times we are passing through.
We pray for Argyll.
We pray for those whose needs we know…
And those whose needs we cannot know…
Hear us in the Holy Silence, grounded in the peace the world cannot give…
And as Jesus taught us, so we pray: Our Father…
Lord, let the chill of the times brace us!
Let the rawness of this thawing fill us with hope!
Energize us to plunge into cold reality,
warmed by the warmth of your love to share! AMEN