Thought for the week, 10th February; Valentine’s Day and Lent

This year, Valentine’s day falls on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Anyone for a romantic candlelit dinner with the beloved, but no wine and certainly no chocolate? I suppose, if it were all by candlelight, your beloved might not see you surreptitiously drinking a glass of wine and eating a chocolate bar. Perhaps thoughts like that explain why I’m single… There is not an obvious connection between Lent and Valentine’s Day, but fortunately my colleague, the Rev Val Smith has been thinking about this and, slightly adapting her musings, I think I can see a link.

On Valentine’s Day, we celebrate romantic love which is grounded in commitment between two people. It is not about a one-night stand; all passion but no love.  It celebrates love that involves commitment, that requires work and sacrifice and it is not to be entered into lightly.  Likewise Lent  is a celebration, of commitment, in this case, commitment between God and ourselves. It is a time when we are encouraged to explore more deeply our own spirituality; to recognise it needs discipline and perhaps sacrifice. But from a Christian perspective, it is about mutual love and a God who, through the man Jesus, sacrificed himself out of love for us.

Thought for the week, 3 February; Singing

Many years ago, I used to attend a church in Finchley in London. One Sunday, the vicar, Pat Brock, preached on the valley of the dry bones; the prophet Ezekiel has a vision of a valley full of scattered human bones that miraculously come together to become again living people. Pat was a marvellous preacher and he finished his vivid description of this with a detail of his own; “I know, that once it had happened, there would be singing”. Pat was drawing on his own experience as a soldier in the “Desert Rats”, the 8th army that fought in North Africa in the Second World War. He had been in the great battles, for four days he had been adrift in boat, escaping the advancing German army. Pat knew how people respond to crisis, death and danger. Snging is an important part of that; it releases emotions, binds us to others. Through the music, it communicates in ways that spoken words alone cannot, it connects those singing. There is no such thing as a person who cannot sing; some may be better able to hold a tune than others, but we all can make our own music when we open our mouths and that is precious.

We sing hymns in church for a reason. There have been many services where the only thing that has spoken to me has been the hymns. We of course, do not need to go to church to sing; just go to a football match to see the power of singing. And in church, we do not restrict singing to services. Some churches host community choirs, where people can sing all kinds of music, simply for the joy of singing. In our local churches, we have the Daddy’s Hat events. From Spring to Autumn, usually on the 3rd Saturday of the month, for an hour from 3pm, local musicians will come to one of our churches to perform. They do so for the joy of making music. And at all those events, we sing together; it may be a hymn, something from Leonard Cohen or the sounds of sixties; it has even been “Just one cornetto”. It really does matter. It uplifts all of us who take part. Just sing.

Thought for the week, 20th January; Judge not?

The scandal of the sub-post masters continues to unfold; as I write this, the latest revelation is that people at Fujitsu, the company that supplied the software to the post-office, were always aware that it had faults. It also seems incredible that nobody at the post-office suspected this when the number of sub-poster masters being investigated reached getting on for 1000. There are calls for repercussions for those in authority, especially at the post office.

I can understand the anger of a person wrongly convicted who wants justice and I have no problem with those who have been found to be negligent or worse having proportionate action taken against them. I do however have some unease at the way there seems to a rush to judge and condemn some individuals before due judicial process has taken place, particularly when the cheer-leaders are politicians who seem to be chasing popularity rather pursuing justice. Jesus condemned those who condemned others without first reflecting on their own shortcomings. Humility is a virtue and my personal opinion is that the court of popular opinion is not always the best forum for justice.

Thought for the week, 13th January; Friendship

As I write this (12th January), I see that in the church’s calendar today we commemorate Aelred of Hexham, Abbot of Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire, who died in 1167. Aelred is chiefly noted for his writing on friendship; the value of a deep relationship between two people. Friendship, as a virtue, has been elevated above love; and there is something special about a bond that draws two people together, so they feel that they gain from being in each other’s company. This of course can have sexual aspects; their have been attempts to portray Aelred’s attraction to his closest friends as such, but these seem to me to be misguided. Whatever Aelred’s sexuality, he celebrates the way two people gain strength and can even find a new, mutual identity as they celebrate each other’s company. As a person not in a relationship, I am especially dependant on those who offer me friendship and  that carries me in good and bad times. Aelred saw in our human relationships a model of what he considered to be the ultimate friendship; that between Christ (or God) and the individual. As a Christian, I agree with this, but even those who do not call themselves Christians can celebrate the joys of friendship.

Thought for the week, 6th January; here comes the sun

We can apparently anticipate a new sight in the sky for the next couple of weeks; a bright orange disc. For those who have forgotten, this is called “the sun” and it seems to have been largely absent for the last month of rain and gloom. Sunlight is welcome, both for our physical and mental well-being; there is something very enlivening about a bright winter day, with the sun shining through the bare hedges and trees and the promise of better weather ahead.

The return of the sun coincides with the Christian festival of the epiphany, on January 6th. This celebrates the visit of the wise men to the infant Jesus, but it is more than a chance to sing “We three kings” and the time to take down the Christmas decorations. The wise men were not Jews and yet they were called to worship the infant Jesus and the word epiphany has the meaning of a revelation of God’s light to all humanity. It is not easy to find causes for optimism in the world at the moment, but just as the days lengthen and become brighter, the sun increasingly shines throughout the day, epiphany reminds us to look out and celebrate in that whatever sustains us spiritually.

Thought for the week, 30th December; They said there would be snow at Christmas

Greg Lake’s 1973 song , “They said there would be snow at Christmas” has now received the ultimate accolade, in getting a choral setting and being played on Classic FM along with assorted carols. It has thoughtful words, as it charts the experience of the writer as he discovers how much of the Christmas is an illusion; he had rain at Christmas not snow, he saw through the disguise of Father Christmas and he dismisses as a fairy story his belief in “Israelite”. The final verse is more positive;

“I wish you a hopeful Christmas

I wish you a brave new year

All anguish, pain and sadness

Leave your heart and let your road be clear”

However, the last two lines end on what he would see as a final attempt at honesty:

“Hallelujah, Noel be it heaven or hell
The Christmas we get we deserve”

I wish that you have found hope over the last week of Christmas and that will allow you to be brave in the coming year. But, as a believer in the Israelite, I take issue with these final two lines. We do not get the Christmas we deserve, we are offered hope because Christmas is a gift, given to us regardless of what we do, think or act.

Thought for the week, 23rd December; The Bethlehem crib scene

Christmas would not be Christmas, at least in a church, without a crib scene with the baby Jesus in the manager. Billingsley now has three cribs, albeit one lacking Jesus. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bethlehem has created a very topical crib scene in their church this year; the baby Jesus rests on the rubble of a destroyed building, reflecting the situation in Gaza. In this scene, Mary and Joseph are not next to Jesus, neither are the shepherds and wise men. Apparently they are outside the ruins, apparently desperately seeking Jesus to see if he has survived the devastation. It is a powerful scene, speaking of the reality of life in a war zone, be it Gaza, Israel, Ukraine or countless other places where there is conflict. But as I reflect on what it shows, I find myself wondering who are the rescuers and who is being rescued? Is it that Mary, Joseph and the rest are the ones seeking the Christ child so they can be helped and healed? The day before I wrote this, I was moved by words of one of the chaplains to Aston University where I work; that a Jesus who only comes to those who are safe and happy is of no use to anyone. God came at Christmas in frail and vulnerable form to be with all and to save all.

Thought for the week, 16th December;

In 1940, amidst the bleakness of World War, T.S. Elliot wrote his poem, “East Coker”. It contains these lines;

“I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope

For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,

For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith

But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.

Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:

So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.

The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,

The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy

Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony

Of death and birth.”

I often struggle to understand Elliot, but I am always drawn to his words, for they have hints of great truth. In Advent we are waiting, but to wait without hope and to wait without love both sound bleak and to run against so much of what is instinctive and what is taught in countless sermons, including my own. But I think what Elliot is telling us is that it is simply enough to wait; we cannot know the future. Much as I may pray for peace in Ukraine, the Middle East and countless other places, my imaginings count for nothing. All I can do is to trust that “darkness will be light and the stillness the dancing”, but it will require the agony of death and birth. At Christmas, I see that death and birth made flesh.