A heart that shrivels or grows…

thoughts from sunday…

Some years ago now the singer songwriter Peter Katz came to stay with us at the manse in Stonehouse while he was over playing the liquid ship in Glasgow. This is one of his songs.

From one Peter to another…

Peter got up the nerve to ask, “Master, how many times do I forgive a brother or sister who hurts me? Seven? Jesus replied, “Seven! Hardly. Try seventy times seven.

Matthews Gospel (the message)

Many of us are kept prisoner by memory. What we’ve done or has been done to us becomes a kind of permanent captivity. We can’t imagine a life free from constant reference to what once happened. Forgivness sets us free. But who finds it easy to forgive?

Peter thinks he can hold out maybe 7 times. Jesus says there’s no limit on the number of times Peter should forgive.

How do we hear Jesus’ answer? Do we hear: “Whatever is done to you just let it pass – forget it?” Because permitting people to treat us badly and then not holding them to account sounds like an invitation to become a victim.

the memory of forgiveness…

Forgiveness is much more than letting someone off and trying to forget. Forgiveness doesn’t immediately forget what’s happened. What happened matters. Forgiveness wants to name what’s been done because only then can we begin to find a way of moving on. Forgiveness invites us into an honest conversation with God, with ourself, with someone else. A conversation that leads into a way of being free.

The forgiveness Jesus embodies and teaches is a way of being free…

Free from the past as final judgement

Free from memory as constant accusation

Free from the burden of anger, hate, guilt and shame

Forgiveness, as Jesus lives it out, brings freedom.

But this way to freedom is not a cheap, painless or easy road to take. And sometimes we are so wounded that we don’t feel we have the strength to walk the way of forgiveness. Forgiveness as the road to freedom doesn’t come easily for us.

Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness

it took me years to understand

that this too was a gift.

Mary Oliver: the uses of sorrow

What do we do with the box full of darkness given to us? If we allow forgiveness to happen, however slowly, we grow into something more than the darkness has allowed.

When we forgive, an incredible power for new possibility is released. That possibility doesn’t forget the box of darkness, less excuse it, but finds a way of being free – no longer confined and defined by the darkness I becomes more than the box allowed. My life is no longer a victim of it’s power.

Mercy- who needs it anyway?

Jesus follows Peter’s question with the parable of the unmerciful servant. He tells his disciples about a hard human heart that wanted release from it’s own debt but refused to release the indebtedness of another.

It doesn’t turn out well for the hardend heart. It’s a story full of massive exaggeration about the debts involved (in the untranslated Greek) and the punishment meeted out. At the end of the story Jesus says:

“…that’s exactly what my Father in heaven is going to do to each one of you who doesn’t forgive unconditionally anyone who asks for mercy.”

Matthew 18: the message

It might be hard to forgive someone who asks but not forgiving has a cost to our humanity. It imprisons and tortures us. It shrinks our heart.

Mercy intuitively knows the complexity and contradiction in the world finds a similar complexity and contradiction in us, mercy knows its own complicity. My life needs mercy too. And doesn’t that widen my heart just enough to offer that to you.

a community of forgiveness

It was in Ireland, at Corrymeela, I began to better understand. I was at a conference given by the theologian James Alison. The Corrymela centre is Nothern Ireland’s oldest peace and reconcilliation organisation. It’s history stretches back before “the troubles.” and they describe their community as:

teachers, writers, people looking for work, retired people; we are young, middle–aged and old; we are people of doctrine and people of question. We are people who seek to engage with the differences of our world.

We are people who disagree with each other on matters of religion, politics and economics. We are people who wish to name our own complicity in the fractures that damage our societies. We are people of dedication and commitment.

We are people of prayers, conversation, curiosity and questioning. We are people of truth telling and hope. We are Corrymeela. And you are always welcome. 

Corrymela community: who we are

That’s soil out of which genuine forgiveness can grow.

It was here in the course of a group conversation I began to better understand how as I receive forgiveness from God, and offer forgiveness to another, the power of God’s forgiveness comes to and through me: Blessed are the merciful, they will be shown mercy…

the nature of forgiveness…

I receive forgiveness from God as I give it away -that’s not a clause in a contract: “If you don’t forgive then God will refuse to forgive you.” I think it’s more like this. We will struggle to hold forgiveness for ourselves if we refuse to give it away to someone who asks for it.

Forgiveness gives the freedom of God a place to stand in the world. As we receive mercy we become a source of mercy for others. It’s not a transaction. It’s just the nature of how forgiveness works. In the same way if I throw a ball up the nature of gravity will always draw it down. That’s how it works.

Jesus is not saying, “if you don’t forgive then I’m going to withhold forgiveness from you.” That’s not how forgiveness works. Isn’t it more as I am forgiven by God, that forgiveness comes to me and through me wants to reach out.

forgive us our debts…

So where are you with this forgiveness thing? Have you ever given someone the slow torture of accepting their apology? I’ll forgive you but I’ll make sure with every gesture, silence, we don’t forget what you did and that I am forgiving you.

That’s not releasing someone that’s making them indebted. Forgiveness is a release from debt: Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.

Forgiveness helps us be honest with one another in a way that opens up a future that the past closed off. It’s not easy. It’s not pain free. But it is life giving.

No one can force you to forgive or has the right to even try: ” Your a follower of Jesus so you better forgive...” Forgiveness won’t come by way of that kind of moral blackmail.

How are you doing with this forgiveness thing – I don’t find it easy. But neither is it easy to live with the torture of a heart indebted to anger, hate, guilt and shame.

the flower of mercy…

Somedays it’s all we can do just to be willing to forgive, willing to move in the direction of forgiveness and to say have mercy on me because I’m struggling to forgive, because the person who hurt me doesn’t care or isn’t around. To say to someone I’m willing but I can do it yet.

Sometimes forgiveness is a flower that slowly opens and needs plenty of time and space and nurture, before it gradually opens up it’s beauty to the light. You can’t force it’s petals open.

learning to forgive…

The beatitudes say that in the company of Jesus we will find people learning the power of forgiveness. Learning how to practice it with one another. Making space in their heart for mercy to grow. Learning is not an insignificant word here.

Church gives us plenty of opportunity to practice forgiveness and find ourselves on the road to freedom. Church is committed to practicing forgiveness. We have received mercy and that mercy works on us and through us. We become a place where God’s forgiveness finds room in the world.

it is no secret…

Jesus says one day what was kept secret will be shouted from the roof tops.

One day the whole human story will be told and known for what it is: where the hurted get to say what was done to them and what that meant; where the hurters are shown what they did and what it cost someone.

And then we shall all fall silent as we are shown how God reconciles the debt between hurted and hurter and himself…Jesus body hung on cross. The price and gift of God’s forgiveness cancelling our debt -the debt of hurted and hurter. And who is not at one and the same time both of these.

Blessed are the merciful

For they shall be shown mercy

And they shall show the mercy of God who died that we might be free.

There’s always more to be said. So these words are no more than pointing in the direction.

Everybody has a hungry heart

thoughts shared from sunday…

Sieger Koeder: Woman at the well

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righhteousness, they shall be filled.

Hungry, tired, thirsty, Jesus sits alone by a well. He is approached by a woman no one has time for, no one respects, no one values, a woman who never looks at her face for longin the mirror of public opinion.

That much we know from telling the time. She comes to the well at mid-day when the sun is hottest. Nobody chose the hottest part of the day for the tiresome job of fetching water – unless they want to be alone.

Jesus is at the well. And he is thirsty. Thirsty for more than water. That’s why he does something nobody else in her entire village would have done. He asks her for something.

He treats her like she’s there, like she is a person, and not just a walking object lesson in shame. He respects her by asking for something: a drink of water.

In a 1st century world of tightly patrolled boundaries between men and women, Sarmatians and Jews, sinners and the so called holy – don’t miss how shocking this is. Not least to the woman: “You ask me for a drink?”

Jesus is laying aside his maleness

He is laying aside his Jewishness

He is laying aside the right to condemn

He is laying aside everything that gets in the way of allowing a meeting to take place and a conversation to happen. A conversation that she’s quickly drawn into, drinking in his acceptance of her. So much so that she can hear the truth about herself without feeling ashamed: because it’s not spoken as an accusation against her but just for what it is, the truth.

We can’t move on unless we are honest about our contradictions and treasured deceptions, honest about the wounds we never asked for or deserved and have tried to badly bandage over.

The disciples return at the end of the conversation. Their presence is awkward at the scene and drives the woman away. She doesn’t run back to the old way of being herself, doesn’t run behind the shadow of whoever she’s living with, but runs to the village and the doors of people she was trying to avoid:

“Come and see a man who told me everything I did…Could he be the Messiah?”

Jesus brought her out of hiding, beyond just getting by, beyond the same old same old. She is in touch with what it feels like to be treated as a person again. Jesus has fed the hunger she had in her heart.

Everybody has a hungry heart…

Bruce Springsteen

What do you hunger for? I mean really hunger after? Human beings have hungers so deep we can’t be separated from them:

We hunger to be known

Hunger to be loved for who we are

Hunger to be respected and valued

Hunger to be forgiven

We hunger to really matter to someone.

The disciples say to Jesus at the well: “You need to eat something“. And he says:” I have bread you don’t know about.” Something inside Jesus is nourished by helping to restore a life that was cut off, by bringing back someone cast out, by helping something flourish and grow in the trampled heart of a nameless woman no one wanted to know – a woman with the same hungers in her heart as all those who shunned her.

Blessed are you who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

The beatitude recognises how the deepest hungers in our own heart for love, for friendship, to be valued and respected can’t be separated from the same hunger in our neighbours heart, hunger for the very same things. I can’t flourish if I don’t care about our neighbour. And who is my neighbour?

Beyond gender

Beyond religion

Beyond morality

It is whoever stands before us.

Working for the well-being of our neighbour is what feeds our humanity and if we don’t seek that something inside us will starve. This is the bread Jesus says his father has given him that the disciples don’t know anything about.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after their neighbours well-being – for they shall be filled. Those who hang around Jesus grow hungry for more than their own flourishing, they begin to hunger for the wholeness of the whole world.

In feeding others we are fed. Our deepest hungers can’t be separated from our neighbour’s hungry heart.

I am thirsty Jesus said to her at the well.

I was thinking where else in John’s gospel do we read about Jesus’s thirsting? Where else are we told by Jesus he’s thirsty…

On the cross.

Abandoned and rejected, unfairly condemned, pinned like a piece of butcher meat on two bits of Roman wood, Jesus cries out: I thirst….

…Thirst with the burden of every life trampled into the ground…thirst with the wound of every person discarded and abused…I thirst to bring the whole human family that is violent, dysfunctional, vain and lost

Into the love that will heal

Into the love that will feed

The hungers in our hearts that nothing else can fill.

On the cross God tells us he is thirsty for us.

Thirsty to make us whole. Thirsty to bring our restlessness into his rest. Thirsty to forgive whatever gets in the way of our being being welcomed.

The church is blessed whenever the hunger and thirst of Christ lives inside us

a hunger that is filled as whoever stands before us

sees something of their own worth reflected in our eyes.

loved the bleeders

music: paul, Brandy & Sarah Jane
picture: Otto Dix- the calling of Peter (1960)

I love this drawing by Otto Dix. I have it pinned to the wall of my prayer space. Peter is sat getting on with what has to be done before a night shift, out in the dark, searching the sea by moonlight for shoels of silver darlings -musht – the little fish you couldn’t catch by day; the little fish needed to feed his family, pay the taxes, see them through another day. We have our own nets to stretch and shifts to work through.

To the left of Peter stands Jesus, his hand on the shoulder of this hard working fisherman. After it’s been said. After the words have left Jesus’ mouth.

Andrew stands to the right under the weight of what’s just been asked.

No explanation. No rationale. No prospectus. Just what’s to be done. If they want to come that is.

Peter looks up. What does his face say? What do you see in Jesus stillness? In Andrews body?

More than fascinated I’m moved by these dark lines that are a rendering of who we are and who Jesus is. A moment that stretches between what is asked, what is heard, and the space before a decision.

A moment drawn by hands that shoveled make shift graves, scraped out of shell holes, cut by razor wire, that fumbled over a gas mask in the trenches of World War One.

I wrote and recorded the accompanying song, loved the bleeders, some time ago now. I didn’t have this image in mind. But it echoes with some of the places their answer took them…

… like the breeze before the rain brings a copper smell of loose change.

click on the link at the top to hear the song.

a space to hear and be heard

thoughts shared on sunday…

Blessed are the meek , they will inherit the land…

Blessed are those who trust God with who they are, with the little they know, with the much they don’t know. Blessed are they who meet God where they are and invite him in. They will be given

a place to stand,

A place to grow,

A place to become their true self.

That’s what we thought about meekness on Sunday: the humility to depend on God’s gentle presence –

Not less real than what the day brings

Not less real than what must be faced or waited through.

Blessed are those who make room in their life to trust in God’s gentle power, for they will receive the gift of somewhere to rest, somewhere to shelter, a place to live and grow and become their true self: now and forever.

That happens as we share our lives with God, if we take time and make space to allow God to know us. The depth to which we are willing to share our lives – what matters or hurts, what we love and hope for, is the depth to which we really get to know one another.

Over time we build up trust to know and be known. Why should Knowing God be any different from that? We need to make space and take time to hear and be heard, to be with God. It’s here we will find out who we truly are.

It can be a helpful thing to set aside a time that’s good for you; to set aside a place that’s good for you. The picture above is my space. I come here in the morning to seek the will of God:

The will of God not as a secret

The will of God not as a puzzle

But the will of God that will open up

As I share my life

And live out that day.

So into this space I light a candle and offer who I am.

I name what lies ahead. I remember those in need. I read and listen and then I go and live, because the will of God only unfolds as I live – it’s not known before hand -it’s who I let God shape me into as I seek help, as I love, in whatever happens.

And then I come back to that space and bring what I’ve lived, what I’ve learned, what I got wrong and I discover who I am.

We invited one another to make a space like this in the coming week -let me know about your space and time and how you get on 🙂

one small step…

view from Anstruther road

We took Oscar out for his evening walk just as the sun slipped behind the distant hills. The burst yolk of it’s light spread out across the northwest horizon. The cobbler, Ben lomond and the sleeping giant of the campsie fells basked in the burnt orange like they’d been given a standing ovation. I turned around to the south and there behind us in its borrowed light was the moon, a silver penny rising.

This saturday celebrates 50 years since the first human feet stepped onto its surface.

One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind (sic)

Neil Armstrong

Was how the owner of those feet described the landing.

This week our wee church takes its own first step into the future. On wednesday night we begin the journey of re-shaping our building. The consultants from catch the light are coming to meet with our leadership team. One giant leap of faith towards better reflecting who we are: a parish church. A people who in our ordinaryness and loose ends reflect the burning love of God in the village we belong to. A church shaping itself into a welcome for all. A church where mending touches the hurt that always accumulates around living. A place where the risen Jesus meets us as we are. One small step. A beginning….

…and it’s from the old we travel to the new

keep me travelling along with you…

Bread for the journey

house of bread

Bethlehem means house of bread. The story of Ruth opens without a crumb left on the table; not an ear of corn growing in the fields. The sound of grinding millstones had all fallen silent.

In Bethlehem there isn’t a morsel on anybody’s lips. Bethlehem knows only famine.

Her name was Naomi, which means beautiful. She was married to Eli. Bethlehem was their town. But when the town ran out of bread they decided it was time to go somewhere else for a while. So they readied their boys Mahlon and Kilon, tied the furniture with rope to the van, kissed their relatives goodbye and backfired their way out of town.

Just until the famines over. Then we’ll come home. They drove to Moab. Eli and the boys found work and they made the best of their move.

It was a sudden, unwelcome surprise that had Naomi turn from wife to widow.

Left with 2 boys to sort out she offered up prayers to Israel’s God.

Naomi found good wives for them among the Moabite women. She still had a voice as a mother, still had a role, still had the protection of two sons. And life went on…until she could hardly believe it had been 10 years since they left Bethlehem: the house of bread.

She would return there again but not as she’d planned, not with her children and grandchildren like riches around her. Not now.

It wasn’t meant to be this way. It never is. When Mahlon fell sick and then his brother Naomi was left in a house with no one of her own kin: no husband, no son, no one who remembered Bethlehem, the house of bread. No longer a wife. No longer a mother. Who was Naomi now?

She heard God had put bread back on Bethlehem’s table. It was time to return. She thought about bringing her daughters in law but what would Bethlehem hold for them?No house, no family, no men to be their safekeeping.

I’m going back my daughters – in Law -No you can’t come with me. I’ve not the strength left to look after your interests. There is nothing I can do for you now. Go home.

But Ruth would not go home. Would not leave her and resisted the sad logic Naomi tried to explain to her. The morning Naomi walked back into town the woman of Bethlehem saw her come.

Is that is that Naomi? It had been 10 years or more -Naomi is that really you?

Don’t call me Naomi, she said – for what beauty there was in my life has abandoned me. Call me Mara – call me bitter -because the almighty has dealt me a bitter blow. I left here a wife and have come back a widow; I left here a mother and come back alone. Tell me women of Bethlehem who am I now? God has brought me back with what? Nothing but the clothes on my back. Why would you call me Beautiful? God certainly does not. The almighty has ruined me.

And the whole town stood silent as Naomi’s anguish and anger accused God of her misfortune.

Fast forward to here, Law, the village of one syllable that people feel the need to add the definaite article to: the Law. Fast forward to here and now: How are you doing?

I think if we were to ask each other that then do you know what the answer would be:

Aye fine – no bad – getting there -hanging together with a strong thread.

But what lies behind fine, no bad, getting by? The wound we will not publicly show? The struggle to make sense of what’s happening when it was never meant to be like this? The exhaustion of being powerless to do something for someone we love?

How are you doing

Aye fine.

Why do we hide our hurt? I think it’s because to tell the truth about ourself would feel like losing control of the little we are left in control of. I think we are afraid of that. Afraid of losing control. Is thats why we apologise for tears in someone’s company?

We are not sure where honesty about who we are, what we are going through, would lead. It feels too exposed, too naked. It might mean admitting to the world my life has become a confusing mess.

How are you doing?

Fine.

Is that how Naomi answered the question? Naomi, who like most of us had never seen God in a burning bush, never heard God speak like Moses, never seen the parting of the red sea or bread fall from heaven, but in the blessings and wound of everyday life, tried to make sense of who she was and who God was in the ordinariness of living.

But now she has lost everything she was, everything that gave her a place in the world. No longer a wife or mother, she is an accumulation of pain and she has to witness to it:

Call me bitter – because God’s been bitter to me.

Naomi tells the truth she feels.

My life’s become a mess and God it’s your fault.

Is that an empty gesture or even a blasphemy? You would only ever think so if you had never read the psalms, like psalm 88:

I cry to you for help, Lord;
Why, Lord, do you reject me
and hide your face from me?

From my youth I have suffered and been close to death;
I have borne your terrors and am in despair.
Your wrath has swept over me;
your terrors have destroyed me.

You have taken from me friend and neighbour
darkness is my closest friend.

The psalmist knows how telling God the truth about how we feel is an act of daring faith that has to be risked, because truth is the only place where healing begins to grow. When Naomi stands and says: this is my life – and it feels like its God’s fault -telling God the truth about her deepest feeling, the truth about her deepest fear, that’s not blasphemy -that’s true faith, because we only do that if we trust we are in a genuine relatiohsionship. Telling the truth about ourselves to God is the first step on our journey, sometimes a long journey towards hope and healing.

Loss, bitterness, God-damned – that’s how I feel Naomi says. And Bethlehem is a faithful friend because it doesn’t challenge what she says.

I have heard many times the question: Why is God doing this to me? Please understand that’s seldom a question looking for a theological answer. In fact its less a question than it is an expression of anguish or confusion, an expression of disorientation and pain. Why is God doing this to me: not a question to be answered, or a moment to defend God’s reputation but a thread of pain to follow, all the way to where it lives.

How are you? Maybe you could answer that this morning:

I struggle with…

I’m tired of…

I’m grateful for…

I’m hoping that…

I’m angry with…

I’m in a mess about…

You might want to tell me about that. You want to tell God about it. And that’s what we will try to do in the song we now sing….here me dear Lord,