Pass the salt…

He’s the salt of the earth”…ever heard that said of someone? If you are a certain age it’s probably a bit of a cliche, but in a culture less and less biblically literate it won’t have any traction.

What might have been heard when Jesus first coined the phrase:

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

Matthew’s gospel

Or…

“Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; they throw it away. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”

Luke’s Gospel

You need to imagine yourself from a wee village in Galilee. Your house is like all your neighbours, a single room with an entrance that faces onto a shared courtyard. In the courtyard livestock meander: some hens, a cow, a goat or two; there is a millstone for grinding bread and an earthen oven with a stove. The oven needs fuel to burn – which is were the cow and goats come in handy – because the earthen oven is fueled by manure.

It’s supper time. You need to start a fire on the oven and keep it going. Somebody places something on top of the dung heap. What is it? A block of salt. Salt blocks make dung burn – in this village salt is a catalyst.

Salt blocks don’t last forever, eventually they lose their saltiness and are no longer able to keep a fire going. What to do with them then? Throw them away.

What did that crowd hear Jesus say about salt in this familiar task? What do you hear him say?

I’ll tell you what I hear Jesus say: You are the catalyst for change. Don’t stop being a catalyst for change – because when you do, what use are you to the kingdom.

That change is personal: bits of myself that I need to let go of – but it’s equally communal: ways of being human that qualify who is worth bothering about, or constitutes a good life.

You are the salt of the earth. Now before we start to panic over our poor salty credentials we need to keep something in mind. The you Jesus is referring to is not a person, but persons: it’s plural. That in itself is a reminder of something the early church understood, which most Protestants have forgotten: “One Christian, no Christian.”

As the Orthodox bishop Kallistos Ware explains: “One can’t be genuinely Christian in isolation. We are saved, not alone, but as members of the Body of Christ, in union with all the other members.” Or as I heard someone describe it, we are carried into heaven in each others pockets.

You are salt, a catalyst: not you or me in isolation but us together. A catalyst for what? Well, stop for a minute – what do you think? Because if its something we do together, then is it not something we consider together?

I suspect how we answer that depends on how much reality we can make room for.

Do you remember the movie the full Monty? It tells the story of a few men from a Northern town who are left unemployed and without any prospect of finding work. So, they decide to take matters into their own hands. They form a dance troupe of sorts.

There is a scene where Dave, who is at the wrong side of the low numbers on the weighing scale, decides to do something drastic about that. One night, he goes to his garden shed, wraps his torso in cellophane, and tries to sweat off some excess pounds. But then he does something else at the same time – he pulls out a chocolate bar and starts to eat it.

Human kind cannot bear very much reality.”

T.S Elliot -Burnt Norton

I listened to Rowan Williams recently, he described why we can’t bear too much reality, he said, “Living in reality ought to be the easiest thing, but it’s the hardest. Because our minds are really active fabricating a world we can cope with.”

When I was on the wards at Glasgow Royal Infirmary, I came into the company of people who were in denial of where their illness would bring them. That’s not an accusation or criticism, but an observation of how, sometimes, things are so difficult for someone that denial becomes a kind of psychological protection against what feels too much to cope with. We’ve probably all crossed that threshold sometime.

Climate change, refugees, homelessness, addictions all are part of a world that feels bigger than we can cope with. So we settle for pictures of ourselves, pictures of the good life, pictures of what brings security and happiness, pictures of why we are right or who we don’t have to bother with.

Rowan Williams went on to say: “Somehow connecting with the reality that is not just the one I make to keep myself comfortable That’s faith.”

So faith won’t lead you further away from what’s real, it will take you much closer into it.

If you have time, read this short article from today’s Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/18/librarian-moria-tales-hope-refugee-camp

…then ask yourself, what terms am I on, with what’s really happening in the world? What kind of catalyst for the kingdom does church need to move towards? How ready are we to touch a reality that’s more than the one I make to keep myself comfortable? What might we do together in the face of such reality?

At the very least does it not have to be moving in the direction the Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann points towards?

“The prophetic tasks of the church are to tell the truth in a society that lives in illusion, grieve in a society that practices denial, and express hope in a society that lives in despair”

Walter Brueggemann

A catalyst for truth. A catalyst for grief. A catalyst for hope…

salt any one?

Hymns to the silence

How many conversations begin: “How are you doing? busy…chasing my tail…meeting myself coming back.”

Busyness – sometimes it seems we can’t avoid it. Yet sometimes we like that there are no gaps in what’s coming next. We can become complicit with the frenetic pace even when it puffs us out. Why would we choose to be so busy when busyness easily becomes an inhospitable place?

Busyness never permits us to go to the quiet center of who we are. Maybe that’s why the depth Psychologist Carl Jung famously said busyness is not of the devil it is the devil. To never explore who we are is to become a ghost.

Why are we reluctant to step off the carousel of the next thing needing done? Because it distracts us. In his poem Burnt Norton, one of the 4 quartets, T.S. Elliot writes we are: distracted from distraction by distraction…

Distraction. Are we more than a little afraid of what slowing down might reveal – the deeper rhythm that lives in us: desire, dream, regret, sorrow, longing. What would they reveal to us about ourselves?

So the constant routine with a few extra things thrown in anesthetizes our soul.

But there is more below the surface of the next thing needing done. A deeper presence: the presence of our own life; the presence of God. The Psalmist puts us in touch with that presence when he writes of God’s invitation: Be still and know that I am God.

Stillness is the precursor to silence. We emerge from silence…the silence of the womb; we will return to silence…the silence of our mortality. Our deepest origins, our journeys end: are held in silence. Is it really so surprising that the One who calls our beginning from silence, the one who calls us into our silent end should choose silence as the place to meet?

Silence brings us to the deep well of presence where our being and God’s being come face to face.

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.

A solitary place, stillness, silence -it’s here we come close to the presence of God. The 14th century Christian mystic and scholar writes:

‘”When all things lay in the midst of silence

then leapt there down into me from on high,

 From the royal throne, a secret word.”

Meister Eckhart

Silence is the cupped hand around the ear of our heart where God speaks to us the open secret of love, the open secret of joy, the open secret of sorrow.

Silence, space, solitariness, stillness, each joins hands in a dance that transforms time from duration into depth. The dance of these partners invites us to become present to the world around us, present to God, present to ourselves, present to the dearest freshness deep down things, as Gerald Manley Hopkins wrote.

Is that why Jesus makes the effort to seek it out? Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.

Does silence guide to where time blossoms into eternity, where heaven’s wave laps against the shore of our living. Is this what the Celtic Christian’s called a thin place: as the world around and the world within speaks with a sacramental voice.

Very early in the morning – seems to be the only time Jesus could call his own. It was time that would be soon enough interrupted by demands. It was time were he gathered all the resources he needed for the day ahead. Jesus made time to pray. Jesus found a place to pray. I guess he could have nipped into Peter’s living room, he could have lay on his bed, but he rose and went to a solitary place. Jesus found a place to pray. And that place was a solitary one.

Now it’s true that we can pray anywhere and anytime. But do we glimpse in the life of Jesus the importance of finding a solitary place for yourself, somewhere that is your space, somewhere you can return to again and again over time to reflect and pray?

The picture at the top of the page is the space I’ve made. It’s a simple corner of a cluttered room. It has a chair facing a wall with Icons from the Greek and Russian Orthodox Church. There is a cross that belonged to the vicarage where T.S. Eliot once made a home.

This is my Solitary place.

Where would your solitary place be? It doesn’t have to resemble mine. It could be a familiar walk. I knew someone who made their solitary place the car journey on their way to work. Someone else made swimming their solitary place where they prayed. A runner creates stillness out movement: foot and breath moving together in the physical mediation that would be a great space for the Jesus prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me. Music makes a stillness by diving into the fathoms of who we are and carrying us down there, like a pearl fisher.

Where might you become still? What brings you into silence. What is your solitary place?

Could you play with making a solitary space of your own?

Come and find the quiet center

in the crowded life we lead

find the room for hope to enter

find the frame where are freed,

clear the chaos and the clutter

clear our eyes that we may see

all the things that really matter

be at peace and simply be”

Come and find the quiet center, Shirley Murray.

p.s this is the third attempt to post this and each one has gone missing hence the changes in the text!

fisherman's blues…

Otto Dix

Maybe the folks in Nazareth expected him to do what everyone else did, be dunked in the river and then come home. But Jesus doesn’t do that – he drips out of the Jordan river and walks alone into the wilderness.

40 days go by before Jesus emerges.

He doesn’t take the road back to Nazareth. He doesn’t go back home to his family and friends; he doesn’t take up his tools, mend fences, fix walls, make yolks for cattle. He walks off in the opposite direction to Galilee.

Galilee, home of hardworking fishermen and their Herodian tax collectors…Galilee, where the hillsides hid Barabbas and those like him, aching to revolt against Rome…Galilee, where pious Jews rubbed shoulders with forbidden gentiles and dirt-poor day labourers worked the land kept by a wealthy Jerusalem elite.

Arriving in Galilee was a turning point for Jesus. For Matthew’s gospel it was a turning point for the world: Like the deepest darkness scatters under a full moon…like those on death row are shown out of prison…like the last place you expect God to show up is where he takes your hand. For Matthew when Jesus walks into Galilee an ancient promise is being kept.

What are the first words Jesus says? “Repent…for the kingdom of Heaven has come near.

How near? So near it has a hand on your wound…

How near? So near it wants to come and eat at your table…

How near? So near it accepts and forgives you before you ever believed you could ask.

Repent…is the first word Jesus says. What does that wee word call to mind? Does it take you to Buchanan street where a soap box preacher harangues the passing shoppers to reconsider their destiny? Resting beside his portable amplifier is the placard in bold capitals: REPENT. Is that what the folks in Galilee heard that word say? A call to be sorry for their sins?

You might be surprised how someone in Galilee heard that word.

The historian Josephus belonged to a wealthy Jerusalem family. In 66 AD, he found himself down in Galilee, trying to talk some hot heads out of picking a fight with Rome. Do you know how he tried to convince them? He said: “Repent and believe…”

Sound familiar? Was he asking these rebels to feel sorry about something they’d done in the past?Was he asking them to do anything religious? No, he was asking them to change their mind and trust his judgement, turn away from war with Rome.

If we heard Jesus say Repent and believe in 1st century Palestine, we would understand he wasn’t asking us to feel bad about something or to do something religious. Repentance invited a change in direction –Don’t go that way but come this way with me instead. Repentance was a turning point.

follow me…

Fishing wasn’t easy work but there was a thriving market for fish. After paying up to 40% of their catch for a tax permit, fishermen made enough to get by. Nets and fish and making a living, who mattered to you and who didn’t – the fishermen had all of that sorted out.

And then Jesus arrives at their work place, just as they are washing and stretching the nets, ready for a night shift. He says follow me…

Change your mind about what matters to you: drop your nets, beach your boat, leave behind what you’ve settled for and follow me. Jesus invites these fishermen to step into a different way of seeing God, themselves, and other people. If they go then what matters and who matters will all begin to change shape in the light of Jesus.

When Zebedee went home that night I wonder how he answered his wife when she asked after her sons: “Where are James and John?”

They’ve gone.

Gone where?

To fish for people…

Where do you fish for people?

And I imagine Zebedee doesn’t look up as he finds himself saying:

Where do you fish for People? In the deep waters of what your helpless by yourself to change; in the open waters where the poor, and the weak have been thrown overboard by the wealthy, religious and powerful.

when will they be back?

Zebedee doesn’t have an answer.

James and John, Peter and Andrew have repented: changed their mind; they trust Jesus at his word. Now among the poor and cast away, the hurting and lost, Jesus will make them fishers with nets of love. All they need bring is a willingness.

At the shore of Galilee we see a turning point as 4 men repent: not feeling sorry they were fishermen but going in the new direction Jesus is taking them.

turning points…

She spoke of her day being incredibly long in the hospital. Being a drug user, the hours passed quickly but not in here. She said: “For 20 years I’ve been chasing something that doesn’t exist, to run away from who I am.” When I met her she had stopped running.

I am tired of living this way – there is something deep within me that wants to change.”

She struggled with self-doubt, saw herself through the eyes of others and didn’t like what she saw there. But what I saw was an intelligent woman who had lived what I could barely imagine, who had the integrity of being honest with herself, and the courage to want to change.

She didn’t think it would be easy to see herself differently. But for the first time she could remember she wanted to change. Over the weeks waiting on a place at a rehab that would be vital step in changing she said: “I know it sounds cheesy but thinking through my journey everything feels like its being leading up to this moment.”

I didn’t think it was cheesy at all. I thought it was a hard-won wisdom on her part. She said she was now in a place where she could hear me say that and not feel embarrassed.

I was in the company of someone changing how they had lived, changing how the saw themselves, changing what they hoped for, changing how their past could be reclaimed differently.

I was in the presence of someone repenting, someone who’d reached a turning point. I have no doubt, Jesus would have said “Go in peace: daughter of the kingdom.” Was that not a holy place?

Whatever holiness meant to Jesus it couldn’t be separated from being made whole. For Jesus the only holiness that matters is a human life restored by the goodness and love of God. For Jesus holiness is being made whole.

Among the lost, the broken, the possessed, with the sick, the hurting, poor and rejected, comes Jesus:

with an acceptance

delight

tenderness…

listening to the unheard…looking at the ignored…touching the untouchables…forgiving the fallen short. Whatever holiness is to Jesus it can’t be separated from being made whole.

In my experience being made whole is seldom an instant thing. Like the girl I met in hospital, The world has many ways, as does our heart, of keeping wholeness out of reach. 

We can’t be made whole if we believe God is distant and just wants to punish us…we can’t be made whole if deep down we don’t believe we are lovable…we can’t be made whole if guilt and shame about our past are the loudest voices in the choir of our thoughts…we can’t be made whole if our ego wants to blame, judge, and always have its own way.

Wholeness needs more than a single act of repentance, more than a single turning point. Following Jesus will take us to many moments of change, many turning points throughout our lives. That’s what Peter found out after he dropped his net and left his boat.

There was a turning point when Jesus revealed the kind of messiah he will be was very different from the one Peter wanted him to be…a turning point when Jesus refuses not to wash Peter’s feet…a turning point when at an open fire Peter denies ever knowing Jesus to a Servant girl, then finds the love of God comes looking to restore him…a turning point when Peter can see the crucified Jesus is not abandoned by God but the cross is where all suffering finds in God an undefended solidarity…a turning point when Peter meets the risen Jesus and discovers death is no longer his keeper…a turning point on a rooftop in Antioch where God whispers to Peter: I have no favourites – The good news is for everyone.

Peters life had many turning points. From the moment he let go of his fishing nets until he stretched out his own arms to be crucified himself.

Are you at turning point? Is Jesus inviting you to know God differently?To know yourself differently, or those around you? Repentance is a recognition that there are always choices to be made, good things to let go of for better, old ways of being us that no longer fit with who God wants us to be.

Without such turning points there can be no new life, no being made whole, no entry into the kingdom…

Wherever we find ourselves and whatever needs the new direction of repentance in our lives, let it be with the arm of these words around us:

To repent is not to look downward at my own shortcomings,

But upward at God’s love…

Not backward with self-reproach, but forward with trustfulness…

It is to see, not what I have failed to be,

but by the grace of Christ

who I can yet become.”

Kallistos Ware

Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near…

fathoming the deep

(Otto Dix)
a wee reflection on Jesus baptism

There’s nothing there: no bird or tree, fish or sea, land or feet to walk there. Only darkness and a formless, watery deep – fathoms of chaos. That’s how Genesis begins. But over the disorder and confusion of the waters, the spirit of God hovers ready to transform chaos into something beautiful and good: creation.

Fast forward in time. The bubble and flow of a muddy river. The world that once was beautiful and good is full of chaos again. Standing here is John the baptizer. People bring to John their disorder, confusion, shortcomings, each hoping for something more.

John dunks them in the river – a sign to themselves and God of a willingness to change. Like an ancient wash-house of the soul, you come here to the Jordan with a lifetimes dirty laundry. You come in anticipation of something new. It’s a baptism for repentance of sins.

Who was in the straggling queue that day waiting for John to wash them in the water and clean up the unpaid debt of guilt and regret; waiting for the water to be a sign of how they weren’t going to be their old selves anymore.

We know who was in the queue – people like you and me – the man who wasn’t sure why he’d come along but knew he needed a new direction before the dim wick of his days blew out; the woman whose past was a jotter full of sad stories, a bruised reed if ever there was one; those tired of billionaires gathering at Davos while locusts eat their way through African crops, while refugees are stuffed into overcrowded camps on Lesbos, and Australia becomes it’s own apocalypse.

Jesus was there. Simply waiting in line, as the queue inched toward the water until it was his turn. When John saw him he said: “It’s me who needs your help to turn towards God and do you come to me?

That question of John’s “And do you come to me.” Is that not a question we instinctively want to ask Jesus: And do you come to me -when I am a living contradiction? And do you come to me – who so often wants change without the growing pains change will ask of me? Do you come to where my faithfulness is a bent and bruised flower stem that a puff of wind could break? Do you come to me whose hope is a candle flickering in a gale?  

Jesus answers John’s protest: Let it be

And immediately as I hear those words I remember who they belonged to long before Jesus ever spoke them. Words a peasant girl once offered an angel, that day when Gabriel arrived out of nowhere and invited her to become the site where salvation found a way into the world.

Mary answered “Let it be…”

Let it be that this child will grow in me; let it be even though I’ll be submerged in the pain of false accusation and misunderstanding, as the world considers my growing belly a cause for shame; let it be as you say. That was his mother’s baptism.

John, relents and Jesus submerges in the waters of the Jordan and the deep complexity of bringing humanity back to God.

John’s baptism is a baptism for repentance of sins so what’s Jesus turning away from?

Nothing. When he steps into the waters muddy flow there is a turning happening, a turning of God towards us. At his baptism Jesus plunges into the chaos of a world: the pain and meaninglessness of what people must live, the hurt and horror of what invades our heart – not to condemn or destroy what he finds there but to transform it. When Jesus spoke those words to John he was unafraid of numbering himself among those who have failed, are flawed and carry more than they can manage.

On the river bank of wherever life has brought us between what is not working anymore and what needs to change Jesus draws our story into his so that what God says of Jesus is spoken over us: You are my beloved…I delight in you.

Now come and share that belovedness with the world.

If you grew up in Jesus’ village and went to school in the world of ordinary folk in Galilee then by the time you were 6 a third of all children in the village have been carried away by illness and disease. 60% of your class mates wouldn’t make it past their teens. By the time you are in your mid 20’s 75% of your class mates are gone to their graves. If you make it to your mid-forties 90% of the people you grew up with are gone. That was the reality of being a day labourer, a fisherman, a mother a child in rural Galilee.

Jesus is in his early thirties when he dunks into the Jordan. Few ordinary people in Galilee make it to that age –so the Jesus standing on the Jordan is not a young man. He has lived most of his life and more than most. I find that moving for reasons I’m not sure why. But at the very least it says we who are no spring chickens are never too old to fathom the depths of suffering, the depth of love, into the chaos of the world and human heart.

Jesus says, come with me and bring what you’ve lived, who you’ve loved, what you’ve lost and learned on the way, and trust all of that to me. I will transform your wound, loss and chaos into something you can share with others. Share the good news that there is no single life that God does not delight to reach out and redeem: No one who is not beloved by the love that spoke over Jesus:

you are my beloved child- in you I delight

When heaven opened and the spirit hovered over him like a dove.

Wrestling with Jacob

Gauguin, Paul ( 1888) Jacob Wrestling the angel

I don’t know why it happened that way,” she said, “I’ve asked myself why was I there at that moment? What if I’d been five minutes later? Is that the moment that changed everything for me

Human beings are like living question marks. And there are few easy answers to the most meaningful questions we ask: Questions about ourselves, the roads we’ve traveled,  and what that journey has made of us. Questions to and for and about God.

Like Jacob wrestling that mysterious stranger in the dark, wrestling the whole night long, we wrestle with our questions: Am I loved? What will happen to me? Can I be forgiven for this? The night is an inscrutable audience for the hungry questions that chirp around us like birds to be filled.

And mostly we don’t get instant answers or the kind of answers we expected. Like the old prayer that begins: I asked for strength that I might achieve and I was made weak that I might humbly obey. I asked for health that I might do greater things, I was given infirmity that I might do better things…

Life becomes a journey exploring questions like who will I be, what will I do, will the world make room for me? Questions that slowly find an answer in ways we never expected. Like Jacob’s questions aren’t answered directly but by the time the sun rises he is both blessed and wounded by the struggle, finding enough to go on and do what we has to do.

Faith, hope and love are more than just words, they give us the strength to wrestle with what should overpower us.

When I was on the threshold of being an adult I don’t think I ever imagined how my most meaningful questions would find their answer in the way they have. I didn’t discover a set of ready made answers but, in all I’ve lived and tried to love; through all I failed at or never found, I was given the strength to be picked up and go on, both blessed and wounded.

No ready- made answers but wrestled out of our experience in all we live, in who love, in the hurts we receive and beauty that’s left us breathless w,e find the strength to hold onto life until it blesses us.

The story of Jacob wrestling by the Jaboock River is one always feels fresh to me.

Jacob: A man who has bluffed and schemed his way through life, not a good man, not someone you could easily trust. He deceived his father, robbed his brother, swindled his father in law. And yet there was a part of Jacob that could fall in love, and his crooked heart could recognise and be moved by the innocence of holiness, Meeting God in his dreams, wanting God’s blessing.

I like Jacob because like us he is made up of contradictions.

We meet him at nightfall with only the sound of the river and the hearts tight drum beating to the news that had reached him: his brother Esau was on his way here; a brother who promised his mother: if ever I see his face I will kill Jacob.

Jacob is out of options. He has no-where to run except back to the home he fled and Esau is coming, the man who wants Jacob dead. Nightfall is no company and alone Jacob begins to wrestle:

Wrestling with what he’s done and all he might have done differently…wrestling with the threat ahead and if anything might still save him. It’s here God comes and meets Jacob. God Incarnates himself into this wrestling:

In a headlock, twisting an arm, throwing a hip out of joint, as Jacob wrestles with his circumstances, as he wrestles with what to do next…its here God comes to find him; in the struggle of what was happening Jacob sees the face of God -Although he doesn’t recognise it in the wrestling match.

As we struggle to make sense of our lives, in our wrestling, the face of God is made known to us. God bares his arm and rolls around in the dust of unanswerable questions, in the sleepless ring wrestling with our sadness, wrestling with regret wrestling with our longings, wrestling with our guilt, trying to win a way forward, to win a breathing space.

The face of God is shown to us, we see God here, with us, wrestling, though like Jacob do we fail to recognise God in that place and time?

wrestling with meaning: what has my life meant, what can it still mean? Where are you God? In the questions we wrestle we discover who we are.

Jacob is changed by his wrestling, given a new name in the wrestling match. He finds a new identity. Blessed and wounded he goes on. As we walk with God, as we learn to struggle with faith, as we learn to live by hope, as we try and practice love we are given the gift of who we are by God, we find the meaning of our lives.

But we also know that won’t come without some hardship – life leaves us with a limp. We are marked by what we are wrestled with.

God is with us and all things must work for the good of those who love the lord is the promise we are given by saint Paul. A promise we can trust because Jesus has wrestled in his flesh and bone all that would master or destroy us; on the cross he wrestled sin and death; he wrestled open the gates of hell That all may be welcome, forgiven, and made whole.

Come the morning we walk with a limp, but we are blessed to go on none the less.

Hope…

reflecting on Isaiah 65. 17-25 & Romans 8. 18-25

We are old hands at life. We’ve been at it too long, and sometimes too sorely, to whip up enthusiasm over cheap or easy happy-ever-afters. The former things in life that Isaiah’s poem no longer remembers still visit us – sometimes as regret, often as loss, leaving us with questions we can’t easily answer.

We’re still close enough to the sound of weeping that Isaiah no longer can hear: lately as it comes from those gathered with candles around photographs of family and friends accidentally shot down a moment after take off in Iran.

Isaiah’s words aren’t as a sedative for pain and grief. Isaiah’s words are not the equivalent of dry your eyes it’s going to be okay.

Like wise, if we tell someone to “wipe their tears; it’s all going to be alright” we need to be sure that’s not simply an expression of our discomfort at someones sadness, rather than an attempt to comfort their sorrow.

Israel understood that loss always needs to be aired as the only trusted way towards comfort -that’s why there are psalms of lament. But that’s not what Isaiah is doing here. these words aren’t a lament.

It’s a poem that works the way all good poetry does by allowing its readers to look up and see more than is obvious. Who is this poem for? Isaiah’s poem is for a particular audience:

  • The disappointed…
  • The long suffering…

It’s originally for folks tempted to conclude how in the end disappointment and suffering is all that’s ahead of them. Isaiah’s poem was written in years after the exiled people of Israel had returned home from Babylon. They were now free from captivity – yes –but it was a cold, hungry, messy freedom. Coming back home to Jerusalem hadn’t lived up to the long-held dream of the exiles.

Isaiah’s poem is a word to the disappointed and long suffering, a word that says there is more to your story still to come. And the source of that more is Israel’s God: YHWH:

six times Isaiah names God in this poem and each time God is doing something…

I am about to create…I am creating…I will delight…I will rejoice…I will answer… I will hear…

The poem gets to work on Israels imagination: look – far from being absent – God is working towards not just the remaking of Jerusalem but the making of a new world, a world where life has a bigger voice than death, where what you give your days to building, living, planting is never a waste of time.

Isaiah’s poem invites hope for the future: God will safeguard life, bless what they build and plant, take pleasure in the happiness they share. God will listen and answer. What they are now living is not imeaningless, it’s moving somewhere. Isaiah asks them to imagine what the arrival in that future will look like.

The move from cynicism to imagination, the move from giving up to going on, the move from just existing to living hopefully is where Isaiah’s poem wants to move the disappointed and long suffering people. It still invites us on that journey today.

What does hope taste like?

So what’s it like – living hopefully? Is it taking Monty Python’s advice, with accompanying whistle, to always looking on the bright side of life? It would be a mistake to confuse optimism with hope. Hope is far more real and meaningful than wishful thinking.

We don’t make hope for ourselves. We are given reason to hope.

For followers of the way we have reason to hope because the God Jesus reveals to us is infinitely merciful, whose goodness and love are never separated from his power. Jesus makes a way into a future where God shall be all in all.

Like Isaiah in his poem Paul writes how the whole of creation is hoping for that kind of salvation. The future is moving towards us when God will be all in all. So, Paul says we can persevere with all that happens as we anticipate the time when God will free everyone and everything from death and decay. Hope is presented here as holding onto until the time comes.

That is our hope. But is that all there is to living hopefully?

I met her through a referral from the palliative care team. A short time into our first conversation and tears began to surprise her. She found herself crying for who she was going to miss.

We got to know one another and she shared with me some of her story: The people she’d loved and lost, the worst that had happened, the dreams let go. Growing up she had wanted to become a nurse but her mother had a drink problem and circumstances did not allow for that. She did become a care giver at a nursing home where she got attached to the people she looked after. She did nurse her mother before she died.

Once I asked what she felt she’d learned about herself these past 7 months of her illness. “I’m braver than I thought I was.” She said.

I saw her the days she felt she was coping and the days she was afraid. On the afternoon she was being discharged she said to me: “I’ve decided to focus on the life I have left more than the death I’ will die.

This wasn’t a denial of what was happening to her, it was more than that, it was someone deciding to live hopefully. Her heart would remain open to the time left to her because life wasn’t finished gifting her little things.

Living hopefully would be living well the time she had left with the people she loved. I asked if there was a window in the room she would spend most of her time in? “Yes,” she said, “it looks over the Campsie hills. I like that.”

“When I get home tonight I’m going to try and make Macaroni cheese”.

Before I left the room I offered a blessing for her: I asked the God of all hope to give her grace to live each day as best she could and to keep her hard-won courage.

What does living hopefully look like? It’s finding courage you never guessed you had, to leave open the door of your heart so that the beauty of the hills from your bedroom window can still find you, even when there is less and less of you to find. What does hope taste like? It tastes like making macaroni cheese for the people you most love in the world.

Hope isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity. Our human spirit needs hope, the way our hearts need blood to beat our heart and keep us going. Without hope we feel forsaken, abandoned, unreachable, trapped in despair Like a fly paralyzed in amber.

Saint Paul says hope does not disappoint us because God has poured his love into our hearts. The love of God opens us up to living hopefully. That hope is not just anticipating the future, it’s the grace to find beauty and joy in the ordinary things of any given day, even when the loss we anticipate seems overwhelming.

Hope most often finds us in the presence of others. The strength we need to live hopefully is so often given us through relationships. In the company of others we know we are not alone.

Isolation is the great enemy of hope. When we avoid others for too long it undermines our hope and tempts us to despair. But God pours his love into our hearts and hope does not disappoint.

Our church here is to be a hopeful presence for the village. In the stories we share of what we have lived, lost come through; in the way we share the love of God poured into our hearts, we become the presence of hope among our disappointed, long suffering neighbors, who are afraid what they have lived or what they have lost is all there is. 

Voyage with my father

I’ve been away from the woolen cross site since late November when my father died. He was 84. The picture above was taken one Christmas around about 2010.

In the 1930’s growing up in the wild East of Glasgow’s Gallow-gate, Soho street was home to my father and even when his memory was a slippery thing he could still tell you about the bakers, the pub, the fire station and dairy that ran the length of the tenements.

He could tell you of roller skating down the flat tarmac street and rising at 5 in the morning to queue for rolls and butcher meat, or how his mum would go to the pictures and see Errol Flynn only to find her wee dog, Jackie, dodged the trams, to sneak into the cinema and sit in the dark at her feet.

His mum died when he was no more than 10. He remembered the wee dog refused after that to ever enter the house again.

His own father cared little for raising children, never mind dogs, and on the day my dad’s bed was sold as a gambling debt he chapped the door of an upstairs neighbour and asked if they would take him in.

And God bless them, Jimmy and Lucy Campbell, welcomed him into the room and kitchen they shared with their own 3 children. Jimmy was a carter and Lucy a dinner lady and my dad never forgot they gave him a home.

Jimmy showed how a man could look after his family, iron and wash and clean the house, and Lucy who had a voice like a goose in the fog taught him the joy of singing. And there was a lot of singing in their house –especially on a Saturday night after a week’s hard working.

My father found his voice and he loved to sing: he would hoover the house to “Arividerchi Roma”; he would answer the door to “and I love you so.” And he sang to my mother from West Side Story, Maria: I’ve just met a girl called Maria…when first they met in the noise and heat and molten metal of the Saracen foundry.

He had just come from 3 happy years spent in Germany as an armorer In the Royal Air Force and was thinking about re-enlisting when he met my mum. They were married at Barmulloch church of Scotland on the 28th of March 1959, that night my father sang: the bells are ringing for me and my girl…

And throughout their married life those bells rang with gladness, faithfulness, laughter and hard work. Sometimes they sounded out a sadness, when their infant children Patricia and Steven were lost to cystic fibrosis.

How do you keep faith with kindness when the world is a rough hand on the scruff of your neck? How do you remain gentle when chance and circumstance is a callous thing –

My dad’s life was the lived answer to these questions: lived with a quiet dignity when all that can’t be changed keeps your happiness like a bird in a cage; his song remained kind, gentle and generous.

In his working life my dad had many jobs few of which meant much more to him than keeping the wolf from the door. But he loved running works football teams and raising money for them –and he was a good player himself trial-ing for Clyde before his national service began.

My dad also had an acute sense of fairness. One story enough to tell:

He and my mother spent a short spell in England and went to work at a sister foundry to Saracen. Travelling down with a group of fellow Scots, he discovered the Englishman he worked alongside was earning more for the same job.

He queried this and was told it was because the guy had been working there longer. There was a black man who worked along with them too and had worked there longer than them both.

My dad asked out of a matter of interest what he was getting paid and discovered he was on least of all. My dad told the man and let all the Scottish boys know and walked out the same day. When he returned to the foundry in Scotland the union rep asked him – “what you do down there – because they’ve all come out in strike.”

He loved telling that story.

He was the kind of dad who would come straight off from night shift and take you swimming; he’d make a 2-course breakfast for you and your sleepover pals, so early that you had to learn the art of eating it without waking up.

He loved being a papa to his grandchildren and in his garden would grow wishing strawberries for them (as well as being the reason they couldn’t eat their tea due to limitless supplies of crisps and pokey hats). No wonder they loved him.

After he moved to Stonehouse you could set your watch by him going to the cooperative: he was there so often the staff even bought him a birthday card.

As she grew frailer, more and more he was my mum’s carer and their mutual stubbornness meant these roles weren’t always acted out graciously – more than once I was the reluctant referee. But there was no question about his loyalty, patience and love for my mum, even when the cuckoo of dementia began to nest in his memory.

The year following my mother’s death was a struggle for my dad, and we kept him at home for as long as it was safe. For nearly a year he loved the runs we would go in the car where we would sing together: sometimes rhinestone cowboy, but latterly “we’re off to see the wizard” and occasionally the French national anthem.

He couldn’t easily grasp names of faces he loved, forgot words to the songs he’d sung by heart and each day he was in made less and less sense to him.

But he could still recognize kindness and love and there was so much of that around my dad.

As dementia unraveled him it never completely unpicked the dignity he had in facing what he couldn’t change; the smile he could still summon though he was less and less sure of what was going on around him.

The final gift my father gave us was his letting go of life…

We made up a play list of songs he once knew by heart and told him of how loved he was. Ally and I sat with him, anointed him with holy oil and in prayer commended him to the infinite mercy of God.

We walked him home if you like, for what is the love of God if it’s not the home we come from and return to.

Death didn’t come for my dad like a hungry bear from its hidden hibernation. It arrived like winters first snow, one flake then another, until its whiteness was silently everything.

Like the first disciples in a locked Jerusalem room, my dad’s wonderful surprise shall be how death is not an end but a threshold where the risen Jesus shows the wounds of his love and with a life that can never die says Peace be with you

From here my dad shall find there are other songs yet to be sung, songs he had never imagined. Songs we’ll one day join him in:

When we sing to God in heaven

We shall find such harmony

Born of all we’ve known together

Of Christs love and agony.

brother sister let me serve you…