Monthly Message from the Rector
Here are some of the recent letters that the Rector has written for the magazine Amber News.
I am struck on my travels around the parishes just how wonderful the villages are looking at this time of year and there are even glimpses of wonder too in the rectory garden with the apple blossom that heralds that the best is yet to come with its promise of a harvest to reap.
The best is yet to come is a familiar theme and one that is not confined to the world horticulture. The glimpses of the risen Christ by the followers of Jesus on the first Easter Day are a hint that not everything can be taken on face value; however helpful this approach to life is on a daily level. The sight of the finishing line for a weary marathon runner with the guarantee of rapturous applause, or safe arrival of a healthy child after an arduous labour are in their way examples that the best is yet to come - the victorious accolade for those who preserve when the going gets tough and the joy that replaces pain when a baby is born.
While a belief in the best is yet to come can inspire and encourage people to perform heroic feats like that of St. Paul who declared, that like an athlete he had engaged in the contest, finished the race, kept the faith and looked forward to God’s crowning glory; it can also be true that the hope that the best is yet to come is nothing more than a delusion, wishful thinking.
Sigmund Freud, perhaps the most influential psychoanalyst of the modern time certainly seemed to think so. He taught that life is hard, and our unconscious spins a web of fantasy – that there is a good God and a life after death – to make the here and now bearable. And of course Freud had a point. The tendency to wishful thinking is in most of us pretty strong, and therefore it is right to be on our guard.
But frankly, I find Freud’s assertion unconvincing for the simple reason that the view of life offered by the Christian faith is so wonderful. While accepting the need for honesty, because there is no point in deceiving oneself, although we probably do more of that than we probably admit, what could be more glorious and encouraging than the belief that the universe is created by loving wisdom; that this divine mind gives us freedom to build our own lives, but who shares all our struggles, pain and hopes; that he has taken the supreme step of self abandonment in uniting himself with human personality in Christ; that Christ’s presence continues with us and that this life is not all there is, but a first stage of the journey towards a final consummation of unimaginable happiness – that the best is yet to come.
Some human imaginings are of course only fantasies. But others provide inspiration, incentive, and yes, consolation.
Yours sincerely, Ralph
Last month I received information about Christian Aid’s work in some of the poorest parts of the world. A quote from Christian Aid’s booklet reads: “God’s kingdom is stronger than storms.” It is a neat way of saying that even if the noble efforts of the political process fails the ordinary person in the street can still influence things for the good. We only have to cast our minds back to the days of Band Aid, and the force for change Children in Need and Comic Relief have had to name just a few.
I recognise the need to be realistic when talking about charity, especially in the light of the cynicism which has developed due to donations not reaching those for whom they were meant. Jesus too was a realist, but for a different reason. He understood that some people were much better off than others and so what each person could give away was different. After all, if you have 10p and you give away 1p you have given away the same share of what you own as the person who has £100 and can afford to give £10 away. The important thing is for everyone to realise the needs of others and to help as much as they can.
One day Jesus was standing near the place where people could give money to the temple funds. He watched people come past and put large sums of money in the chest. They were giving very generously and were probably proud of their benevolent action. Later a poor widow came by. When she came close to the treasury chest she stopped to see what money she had. She took out two very small coins, worth about a penny and discreetly put them into the treasury. Despite her attempts to conceal her contribution Jesus noticed her and remarked upon her generosity to his disciples. He told them that he had seen the rich people give huge sums of money away but said that the poor widow had given more than any of the others because those that had given had more than enough, while she, with less than enough had given all she had to live on.
You may say foolish woman to render herself destitute, and there is something to be said for this point of view. She may however, have realised as people often do that “there is always someone worse off”. Whatever your opinion, the opinion of scripture is that “God loves a cheerful giver”. Our attitude to giving is more important than the amount we choose to give! With every good wish,
Yours sincerely, Ralph
Should any of us live to the ripe old age of ninety nine I imagine that at some point before we get to that mile stone in our lives we will have spent some time pondering on what it might be like to reach such a grand old age. Will we be living in a care home, will we still have any friends, by this I mean anyone we have shared an important moment with in our lives; or will we have outlived all those people who really meant anything to us? Will we still have all our faculties? Will we still be interested in reading the daily newspapers; could we still do the crossword?
It is a mercy that none of us know the answers to such questions. But to a greater or lesser extent we will all need to accept that we don’t live forever, in our current form. But at ninety nine I guess most of us will want to be living more sedentary lives than we do at the moment. You may think this is a rather ominous start to a letter. Well, it is in some senses. But the issue of growing older has never been more pressing. How are we going to look after more and more elderly people with fewer and fewer resources? And perhaps more important, what do we want from our old age?
I imagine the answer to that question might be: We want a good pension, a sound mind and a robust healthy body. We want security and comfort and someone to love us. Are these the sorts of things you want in old age?
Having said this I now want you to consider the story of Abram from the book of Genesis. It is a story we are probably familiar with but perhaps one we have not truly engaged with. Have we really met the main protagonists Abram & Sarai?
We are told that Abram was ninety nine years old, and his wife a little younger but well beyond child bearing age. But Abram & Sarai, having been previously told by God that he would bless them, were in for a shock of gigantic proportions. In their old age and years after the promise that God had made to them, it was about to come true. And through their son Isaac the world would be blessed since God had told Abram that he would be the father of many nations. And to prove that it was all about to begin God gave Abram a different name – he became Abraham. Although there is no hint in the text that God was joking when he said this, Abram and Sarai saw the funny side of it. At a time in life when any self-respecting individual was winding down it appeared that God was winding Abram and Sarai up. No wonder they laughed at the prospect of becoming parents in their great old age. Lesser mortals might have had a heart attack. But they were just amused.
What conclusions can be drawn from this story? That God is someone who is unpredictable, someone who places impossible demands on people? Well we might draw that conclusion. Is he someone who likes to meddle in our affairs, someone who spoils our plans, who likes to interfere with our carefully constructed little worlds? Do we see in this ancient story the idea that God is just a nuisance, someone to be avoided at all costs?
We can, and some do, regard God like this; someone to be kept at a distance. If at ninety nine I felt God’s holy nudge intruding into my life I might give him the cold shoulder, especially if there was a hint that it was totally ridiculous.
But we don’t need to think of this story in such negative terms. How about reading it as an event in which hope is fulfilled. The moment when a promise comes true, from which gushes blessing.
Life is often sustained by hope. It is what keeps us going. It is what keeps us getting up in the morning, especially when one day appears to be much the same as the one before that, and the one before that; week in week out, month in month out. And sometimes year in year out. When life is hope-filled but sees no change in circumstances it is then that our faith is tested, and sometimes even destroyed.
Abram’s faith in God was certainly tested. As in the time when God demanded him to sacrifice Isaac, the human embodiment of all God had promised him. But in the fullness of time hope began to own what had not been seen - God was true to his word.
What does this tell us about God? The story tells us that God is trustworthy and true. He doesn’t say one thing and then do something completely different, as some humans beings are prone to do. God is all of a piece. His timing may not always be to our liking as Abram and Sarai discovered. But God having said he would do something is obliged to carry it out. If he did not then God himself would be divided and undone by a lack of consistency.
It is comforting to know that this episode in the life of Abram – with the emerging fulfilment of God’s promise to him - is a reminder to all of us, who like Abram are people of faltering faith, that we are continually blessed, as he was, by God.
Abraham despite his inability to see and to hold on to that which God had promised him was still held on to by God. And in time his faltering faith, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” was revealed and rewarded.
Yours sincerely, Ralph
It is Tuesday afternoon, the sunshine has retreated behind the clouds and winter it seems has returned once more. The deadline for articles for the parish magazine is Wednesday and I’m wondering what to write about, so what’s new! At moments like this I reflect on my favourite stories in the Bible and hope that they will provide me with some inspiration. Well, one has supplied me with an idea, but you must judge for yourselves whether it has been an inspiration.
Some years ago I asked a friend to sing the Beatles song, ‘With a little help from my friends’ during a family service. Partly because I wanted to shatter the illusion that music in church is staid and boring, and also because I had been inspired by a simple line drawing of two men carrying a friend which accompanied the song in a primary school music book designed for assemblies.
The lyrics and the line drawing instantly reminded me of the story in Mark’s gospel of the paralysed man who was brought by his friends on a stretcher to see Jesus. Arriving at the house where he was preaching, the friends discovered that the entrance was barred due to the number of people listening to Jesus. Undaunted by this minor obstacle to their faith they climbed the stairs at the side of the house, broke through the roof until they had made a large enough hole to get the man through and down to where Jesus was teaching.
This is gate crashing in the extreme. But there is no word of protest from the crowd recorded. Instead the only comment made about the friend’s action comes from Jesus himself: ‘Seeing their faith, he turned to the paralysed man and said “My son, your sins are forgiven.”’ From that moment the man’s life changed, he was healed, and from that moment the mood of the crowd changed. Hearing what Jesus had said they complained about his right to forgive sins. But the fact remained, the paralysed man who had been air-lifted in to see Jesus walked out of the house a freed man.
It is a wonderful story, one about faith. It is about what happens when ordinary people put their trust in Jesus. But it is also about prayer. It reminds me of the activity that numerous people find themselves doing, sometimes without them really knowing it. A prayer of intercession is what the church calls it. The moment when we feel drawn to pray for others, and there have been many such prayers prayed in recent weeks for the people of Haiti since their country was paralysed by a devastating earthquake. These people we may never personally know, but there are others from our own community who we do know; and the prayer of intercession is designed to carry such people into the presence of Jesus where like the friends of the paralysed man we lay them at his feet. Our prayers don’t have to tell Jesus what to do, our faith simply requires that we leave people with him. For it has been said that ‘more things are accomplished by prayer than this world knows or even dreams of’ and there are many who can testify to the power of prayer, and not all of them would describe themselves as religious.
The power and uniqueness of prayer is something I hope people will contemplate during Lent. To help with the process the church has produced a prayer calendar, a little booklet to be used daily during the weeks leading up to Easter, you’ll find one at the back of the church. The prayers are varied and some are intercessory but all in their way are like the two men who brought their friend to Jesus, steps of faith towards God.
Yours sincerely, Ralph