27th February George Herbert, Priest, Poet (1593-1633)

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Montgomery, Powys, Wales is a very special place. It is associated for me with  my family and with some wonderful people. It was also the birthplace of George Herbert, whose life and work is commemorated today.  SONY DSC

Herbert was born into an aristocratic family and had a brilliant career in academic and public life. However, he withdrew from both in order to serve the Lord devotedly in a rural parish. His poems are jewels of English Christian verse.

Here is one of Herbert’s best known poems. I recommend reading it aloud.

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.

“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”;
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I…

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An epiphany at Cana

Malcolm Guite

Photo by Margot Krebs Neale

The set readings for this third Sunday of Epiphany tell the story of  ‘the first of the signs that Jesus did and manifested forth his glory’; the transformation of water into wine at the wedding at Cana. (John 2:1-11). I love this miracle, though John doesn’t call it a miracle, he rightly calls it a sign. It is a sign that points to so many profound and liberating things about the God whom Jesus reveals to us; His delight in and concern for our own personal life and loves, attested by His presence at the wedding feast, His abundant generosity in more than meeting our needs in the midst of everyday life, His call to us to move from the mere outward purity, symbolised by the water for ritual washing, to a transformation of inward joy, symbolised by the wine. But most importantly,  this sign…

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Thank you

Thank you to all who came yesterday to the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols in celebration of the birth of Christ: all who read lessons, Anita and Emil who accompanied the carols so beautifully and everyone who joined in the singing. We were also delighted that ks. Prezbiter Sebastian Maria Niedźwierdziński and members of the Parafia Ewangelicko-Metodystyczna w Gdańsku, Sopocie i Gdyni joined us and contributed to the celebration. It was lovely to feel part of the wider Christian community and to experience a coming together of English and Polish in our hymns, prayers and readings.

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Panel of Protestant Pastors

thumbnailLast Thursday Richard Washington (of our Warsaw congregation) and I contributed to the Panel of Protestant Pastors, part of the “Reformacja i ewangelicyzm nad Bałtykiem,” project hosted by the Nadbałtyckie Centrum Kultury.

The topic for discussion was “The problems and challenges facing Protestants today” and it was a welcome opportunity to share experience with representatives of other churches in the area. Richard and I are, of course, lay workers in the Church of England, but our Chaplain was present to keep an eye on us.

We are grateful to Prof. Cezary Obracht-Prondzyński and Dr Krzysztof Ulanowski of the Institute of Philosophy, Sociology and Journalism of the University of Gdańsk for chairing and stimulating the discussion with tact and efficiency.

“O Lord God, you know”

Jesus’ promises of life, powerfully demonstrated by signs, have for me made for a thrilling and challenging journey through John’s Gospel during Lent. Now, however, we are confronted by dry bones in Ezekiel 37 and by illness, death and grief in John 11. The sisters at Bethany had believed wholeheartedly in Jesus and his healing power and the Martha’s “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11.21) is heartfelt. In contrast, her reply when told that Lazarus will rise again sounds less so and more like a lesson obediently learnt from the rabbis (“I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day”). With death comes corruption. Who does not “wobble” sometimes? 640px-Cemetery_of_the_Lost_Cemeteries_of_Gdańsk_-_12 (2)

Those wonderful promises to Nicodemus (in John 3.16) and to the Samaritan woman (in John 4.13-14) include the two word “eternal life.” In the end we either trust Jesus or we don’t.

We live in time and in eternity

The promises mentioned in John 3 and 4 were both linked to teaching about the Spirit, the “Breath of God,” taking us right back to the first sentences in the Bible. The bottom line is that the Creator can also recreate. The breath came into them [the bones] and they lived (Ezekiel 37.10). We are not asked to understand how. After all how can the mortal understand the immortal? When asked “Mortal, can these bones live?” Ezekiel answered “O Lord God, you know.” (Ezekiel 37.3).

Faith – not in a proposition, but in a person

Let us go with Jesus to the tomb as the sisters did. Jesus’ tears showed, as the onlookers remarked, his love for his friend, but also, surely, his love for the whole human race facing death. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life (John 3.16). Martha’s fear at the prospect of the removal of the stone acknowledges physical fear at the horror of death. Illness is real, shock is real, loss is real, grief is real and, yes, death is real. Yet the sign of the unbinding of Lazarus is one of release from the fear of death: Unbind him and let him go. Furthermore, in death we go, trusting,  where Jesus himself has gone before: “O Lord God, you know.” And we know that death was conquered and a new kind of life opened up.

And eternal life …?

Lucy said, “We’re so afraid of being sent away, Aslan. And you have sent us back into our own world so often.”

“No fear of that,” said Aslan. “Have you not guessed?” […] “There was a real railway accident,” said Aslan softly. “Your father and mother and all of you are – as you used to call it in the Shadowlands- dead […] The dream is ended: this is the morning.”

[…] the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. […] now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read…

(C. S. Lewis The Last Battle)

Words and knowledge fail, of course. But the signs given in John’s gospel during Lent prepare us to contemplate the death of the Lord and His victory over death itself.

“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live,  and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Notes and Queries 3

Dethroning Mammon (by Justin Welby)  Chapter 3  Bible Focus: John 12

What we have we hold challenges us all to let go, or at least to loosen our grip on what we think we have. The chapter encourages us to consider into what or whom  we pour our time, energy and money. To do this we need to see and value rightly, to begin to understand the meaning of God’s economy and to respond to God’s bondless love.

Notes

  • After three weeks of thinking about the power wielded by Mammon I am continually aware how dominant it is. The clinching arguments in many of the debates of our time are perceived to rest on money. Examples that come to mind are the relationship of the USA and Europe, or Scotland and the United Kingdom, where economic gain and loss are often seen as paramount. The danger here is that we all become guilty of ‘tunnel vision’ and fail to appreciate and give due weight to the fact that our fellow human beings may have other, less tangible, priorities.
  • In Chapter 2 of Dethroning Mammon Archbishop Justin points to the fact that costs far into the future are ‘discounted’ both corporately and individually. Something that our great-grandchildren will have to pay in a hundred years from now has little impact on our present financial situation. What about ‘discounted’ travel? A flight costing 36 zł from Warsaw to Gdańsk may clinch a decision about how to travel, but what are the real costs of the large carbon ‘footprint’? My son once bought a flight from Birmingham to Gdańsk for £1, an example of gross undervaluation of the true cost to others. I’m also more conscious now of the intangible costs, the health and youth of factory workers producing ‘cheap’ clothing, which may similarly be grossly undervalued by the shopper as well the manufacturing business. And chocolate…?
  • The chapters in Archbishop Justin’s book often seem to apply the lectionary readings for that Sunday! Nicodemus had a lot, not necessarily in financial terms, but in social standing and achievement. It was seemingly not easy for him to understand that he could not bank credit with God, but needed to accept in simple trust the free gift of new life that the Creator was offering him. By contrast the circumstances of the woman of Samaria in John 4 showed that she had little on which to count. It was she who was enthusiastically responsive to the Lord’s promise of ever-abundant ‘living water.’

Queries

  • Speaking personally, I hope I don’t hang on too much to the trappings of Mammon, but I know that I am probably deceiving myself. I was once in a serious fire. While watching (from outside!) the flames leaping from a window on the second floor of the building I lived in, I faced the possibility that all my possessions might be lost. However, I remember the experience as one of thanksgiving for my life rather than a sense of loss. When I prepared to come to live in Poland permanently in the 1980s, I actually gave away most (but not all) of my possessions, not out of generosity, but because I was not able to bring them into my new country. Both these situations were matters not of necessity. I experienced the joy of letting go, but the experiences themselves were gifts and not my own choice. Bishop Justin, while encouraging us to let go, also warns against the ‘grand gesture,’ the generous gift which is actually the exercise of control and can become a source of pride. I fear that the motivation for ‘generous’ giving away can be complex and our own motives difficult to be sure of. How can we be honest with ourselves about this? We may say that it is all God’s and not really ours at all, but how do we prevent our ‘stewardship’ becoming an end in itself (as in the case of Judas in John 12)?
  • Archbishop Justin points to worship as the key. Lots of questions bubble up. How do you shape your life in order that worship of Jesus comes first? (Justin Welby)

Streams of living water

“Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again,  but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4.13-14)

I can count on one hand the times in my life when I have been properly thirsty. Many of us are so blessed with good things that it is a rare experience. The same may be true in the spiritual sense. Indeed we may not even be able to identify our problem. In western countries it is all too easy to turn aside from spiritual thirst and dryness, seeking a panacea, a distraction or a quick fix. Some of us may ‘treat ourselves’, seek out ‘comfort food,’ decide we need a holiday or some entertainment to lighten the mood, watch a box set, perhaps escape into ‘retail therapy’ or decide that the cure lies in a nice cup of tea. Yet these strategies, helpful as they may be in the short term do not solve the problem when strength is sapped and morale sinks (nor, of course, does escapism cure the suffering of depression). At worst this turning aside can take the form of rebellion against God and the idolatry of materialism, as was the case with those of the Israelites in the wilderness who, experiencing real thirst, denied God’s work among them and wanted to return to Egypt.

If Nicodemus in last week’s gospel was pointed forward to the cross, the Lord’s discussion with the woman of Samaria looks forward beyond this to Pentecost. Nicodemus, a man who seemed to have his life under control, struggled with the sheer simplicity of the call to accept a free gift and be born again. New birth is the beginning of new life, but now we are made to consider how spiritual life is to be sustained, grow and flourish. The unnamed woman at the well seems to become aware that her life, and indeed her religion, were stagnating and responds to Jesus: “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. mit_tzt_im_fluss.gifShe leaves her water jar (and remember that set of enormous water jars at the wedding at Cana!), understanding what is meant by “living water”, an endless stream bubbling up from the source that will transform the staleness of her life.

Many in religious communities have deliberately turned their backs on the avoidance tactics that the materialistic world offers. To do so is not a kind of self-flagellation, but trust, and those who have done this often describe periods of spiritual dryness followed by a discovery of the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit. Those who accept the challenge to trust, find the streams of water in the desert. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert (Isaiah 35.6)

When in the noonday heat we may be tired (as Jesus was), when in suffering we may thirst for God (as did Jesus, unimaginably, on the cross when he bore the sin of the world), we are not abandoned in the wilderness, as individuals or as a people, if we go forward in trust instead of turning aside. The living water bubbles up from the source, ultimately filling everything. It is from the source that this life-giving sustenance comes, by contemplation of what the Creator has done, by prayer, which is the daily centre of our relationship with God, the Bible and the sacrament. This may be experienced as we pass through green pastures or, through perseverance and trust, in the wilderness.