The salt of the earth

You are the salt of the earth (Matthew 5.3)

Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven (Matthew 5.16)

Looking back on his many years working in hospitals, our Chaplain recalled how just one patient could life the mood of a ward or, alternatively, sour it. This did not appear to be related to the severity of the patient’s medical condition.

I too have been struck by the effect of contentment or discontent. As a young ‘Meals-on-Wheels’ volunteer in Croydon I had to deliver hot (although by present standards not exactly appetising) meals to the elderly and housebound. The atmosphere in one house or, more often, small flat, was frequently in complete contrast to the next one visited. All those elderly people had known hardship and probably loss, having survived wartime conditions, yet one would greet me with pleasure, cheerfulness and gratitude, while another would find in my appearance a pretext to grumble at everything. Who can guess what experiences lay behind their obvious discontent? It was clearly not dependant on their physical condition. This memory has served as a warning!

Is this another case of optimism and pessimism (see last week’s blog), personality or family legacy? A hidden worm, eating away at the personality over many years? Perhaps. In some ways a sense of injustice may generate hopelessness that is as hard to bear as chronic disease.

Last week’s Gospel reading told of abundant hope, of God’s mercy, infinite grace and love, as revealed in the ‘sign’ of the turning of the water into wine. It was not just ‘enough’ for the feast but more than enough. The ‘good works’ of the followers of Jesus are, after all, also the grateful overflowing of his love into the lives of others. The effect on us of those whose lives are beacons of humility, contentment and joy testify to this.

The Chaplain’s visit to us on a rather gloomy February evening was, in fact, an illustration in itself.

Not by halves

Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now. (John 2.10).

Disappointment. Who does not at some time experience this with regard to pfo59191situations, people, the Church or ourselves? Our expectations constantly exceed reality and there is a falling off, whether sudden or gradual, a fading into greyness and boredom. This may turn to bitter cynicism or even depression and despair.

The often cited ‘glass half full’ against ‘glass half empty’ approaches do not help, representing as they do optimism and pessimism respectively, states of mind that are often without basis, although they may make the present more or less bearable for a short time.

Christian hope is, in contrast, realistic, the resources are unlimited and it is forward-looking. In the story of the marriage feast at Cana (John 2.1-11) this is illustrated by Jesus’ mother. Her hope was grounded on her relationship with Jesus. She knew him!

They have no wine.

Whether a ‘lack’ or a ‘need,’ the situation can be brought to Jesus in the knowledge that it is in his power to change it without trying to tell him how this should be done

Do whatever he tells you.

  • Acceptance of God’s timing (Jesus had replied ‘My hour has not yet come’). Individual events are part of an eternal plan, a bigger picture, which we may not be able to comprehend.
  • Acceptance that we have no claim of our own and cannot force God to act as we wish. This applied to his mother too! Are we sure of God’s power and mercy or of our own entitlement?
  • Trust and obedience. Mary’s response recalls her earlier acceptance ‘Let it be to me according to your word’ (Luke 1.38). Nor should we forget the effect of her trust on the servants, who took the contents of a water jar to the chief steward! Trust is not a passive matter.

It is a picture of the creative abundance of God, and points to the nature of Jesus as God himself,’ writes Archbishop Justin Welby in his new book Dethroning Mammon, referring to this story.

The best is yet to come.

Epiphany: knowledge, wonder and a search

The wise men from the East were astronomers, scientists and scholars but they did not make an idol of knowledge. They observed, they wondered and they embarked on a personal quest to find the One under whose rule they would commit their lives:

For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage. (Matthew 2.2)

How easy it is to make knowledge a goal in itself! How sad it would be to think you had arrived at your destination when in fact you had hardly set foot outside the door!

I was greatly encouraged to read the account given in ‘Eurobishop’ (see ‘links’) by Rt Rev. David Hamid, suffragan bishop of the Diocese in Europe, of his participation in a programme entitled “Equipping Christian Leaders in an Age of Science.”

Christian leaders were encouraged to turn their gaze on the stars and contemplate the meaning for Christians of SETI, the search for extra terrestrial intelligence. The lecturer was astrophysicist and theologian Revd Professor David Wilkinson of St John’s College Durham, who is, it seems, to be a speaker at the Readers’ Conference this year. I can’t wait!

Further topics for exploration by Bishop David and his colleagues included issues raised by research into artificial intelligence. Such thinking is vital for Christian theology and ethics and is not simply a matter of being in possession of facts, but of engagement in the Christian search for their meaning.

I was also pleased to learn recently that Canon Joanna Penberthy, Bishop elect of St David’s in Wales is currently studying for a PhD in quantum physics. Excellent preparation for a bishop!

In following the example of the wise men, such searching cannot be conducted in a vague, circular or random manner. It involves trust, the leading of the Holy Spirit and a clear statement of the goal: to find and worship the King.

J.R.R.Tolkien’s inquisitive character of Gollum and his fate is indeed a warning to us:

…he ceased to look up at the hill-tops, or the leaves on the trees, or the flowers opening in the air: his head and his eyes were downward

Let us not forget the wonder!