Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Xmas and Christmas

In a week when Rage Against the Machine have stopped X factor winner Joe McElderry from gaining the Christmas no. 1 spot and Times cartoonist, Peter Brookes produced this masterpiece, I've been speaking in local schools about the X factor in Xmas. There are many reasons we should be happy to see Xmas used as well as Christmas. Contrary to the way my church friends reacted when I was younger, X, the first letter of Christ's name in Greek and a symbol, for many, of love, actually reinforces the place of Christ in this festival and serves to remind us of the love God demonstrated sending Jesus into the darkness of the world. Unlike Tony Blair, that X becomes for us not a cross we have to carry but a love we celebrate.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Song of the Arctic tern

We didn't notice these eggs, so well they blended into their surrounds. However the mother was making sure we knew about them, swooping time after time with her startling call. She could only be ignored at great peril. It was a sacred moment, tiptoeing around this gift of life not yet born. That sacredness came back to me today as I reflected on this week's gospel from Luke - The Magnificat - sung by Mary in response to the weighty news that she should bear God's son. That gift of life crept into Mary's womb and made its way to a well hidden stable where the Son of God was born. And unless we continue to herald the good news, it will go unnoticed today. And the gift of life will remain unborn. So much potential lost for the lack of a song.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Threat or promise?

So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people
Luke 3:18
Reading this Sunday's gospel, it's tempting to ask: So where was the good news of John's preaching? It requires a lot of careful searching to find it in amongst the accusations flying, the name calling and the downright frankness. No wonder many churches slot in the children's Nativity presentation for this week or skip ahead to focus on Mary and her willingness to bear the Son of God.
JBap comes a little too close for comfort, is much too frank for our polite church circles.
Contemporary Advent worship comprises warmth and joy and cuteness supplied by children.
Our stables are warm and dry and smell of baby powder. Our angels are snuggly and our shepherds, though they fidget, are important, not banished to the hills.
But isn't the starkness of John's message more useful for a world and a people whose everyday experience is not of unremitting joy? Contrary as we are, wouldn't we rather find a chink of light in the dark than be enveloped in cloying sweetness? We simply don't trust that which is too fuzzy. We yearn for challenge.
We need JBap more than ever.
For a few years now, I've been waiting on some enterprising designer to bring out a JBap for our crib scenes. He'd probably always look a bit strange, out of place in the domesticity of most of our nativities with his wildness.
But let's pray that JBap is never diluted in such a fashion.
Because then the baby in the manger would be left there for folk to coo over.
Or ignore.
And would never be allowed to grow and challenge and change the world.
We do indeed need the preparation of JBap to confront us with reality- the need for repentance, the need to shake off our complacency and welcome God who drags us screaming and kicking to build the Kingdom.
It's worth looking carefully for that good news that John preaches.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Preparing with terror?

A sermon for the second Sunday in advent: Feasting on John the Baptist

Reading: Luke 1 v 68-79

Luke 3 v 1-6

Preparation features on all our agendas right now.

However much we might want to avoid it.

However much we might wish to ignore it.

However little we feel inclined.

All of us get caught up in preparing for Christmas.

Somehow, at this time of year, our socio-economic status is ignored.

At the very time when you might think that we’d be more conscious and more sensitive to those struggling with social and financial burdens, with lack of opportunity, with hardship of all kinds, everyone becomes lumped in a common mass of writhing humanity, lunging haphazardly into preparing for Christmas.

Our gospel readings this morning focus on preparation.

I think, technically, we should only have read one of those passages from Luke’s gospel today but, since I couldn’t decide which one to read, I did that typically woman thing and chose both!

Firstly, we have Zechariah, giving glory to God over the birth of his son, the one who was born to prepare the way for the Messiah.

Zechariah had been struck dumb from the time he was told about the pregnancy but, after the birth, his tongue was released and what a speech.

I don’t recall Idris being quite as eloquent when he beheld our first born!

What is even more amazing is that, filled with the Holy Spirit, Zechariah was waxing eloquent and praising God that his son was going to be allowed to play second fiddle, that his son was going to be allowed to prepare the way of the Lord.

In our culture of winners and losers, of humiliating reality TV shows where everyone wants to come out on top, Zechariah’s attitude seems all the more amazing.

He was honoured to have fathered the child who would grow and who would be called to be a prophet of the Most High.

A wonderful speech, filled with the spirit and with the grace of God.

And so we move on to the second gospel reading.

That baby has grown.

And now begins to fulfil the purpose for which he was born.

Going ahead of Jesus to prepare people for his advent.

A ministry of preparation.

How many of us would settle for that?

How many of us would be content with never actually seeing the fruits of our endeavours, content with the knowledge that we’re doing our bit, we’re sowing the seed that others will harvest.

In the church, that is our calling.

To faithfully prepare the way.


To keep on listening for God’s voice coming from the wilderness.

And to follow God’s instructions.

But what is the way to prepare?

It involves today, as it did then, repentance.

A turning around, taking a new direction.

And that puts preparation into a whole new light.

A new and difficult light.

For who among us wants to change course?

Who among us wants to leave all the things we’ve grown accustomed to?

Leave the patterns we’re used to, to follow a new and unfamiliar route.

We don’t do repentance in the church.

We don’t do change.

And yet, unless we’re prepared to embrace change.

Unless we’re prepared to get to grips with repentance, any preparations we make are only half hearted, scratching at the surface.

So much glitter and tinsel.

Icing on the cake instead of the richness underneath.

The problem is that, for so long, we’ve been selling the icing as the thing to aim for.

We’ve marketed the icing as the big prize and neglected the crafting of what is underneath, of what is foundational.

The bits that aren’t seen.

The bits that really make a difference because without their preparation and their solid grounding, the icing would have nothing on which to rest.

John the Baptist was, like it or not, awkward message and all, a vital part of the ministry of Jesus, Son of God.

John’s unpopular message of repentance was needed to herald what was to follow.

And, in this season of preparation, as we seek to welcome Jesus again into our world, we would do well to hear again that message.


Turn around.

God’s kingdom is near.

Let’s stop papering over the cracks, covering up the flaws with icing.

Let’s look, with honesty at what lies beneath the image we imagine that we present to the world.

No matter how we package things, no matter how we ignore the gaping holes, we cannot keep on running from the call to change.

The season of Advent is not a restful, cosy, glowing time for us in the church.

It’s a time to look with honesty beneath the surface of our preparation, to discern what needs changed, what needs turned around.

The paths that need straightened before the kingdom of God can come, before the Son of God can truly be born in this place.

It’s a time to accept the challenge of a call to play second fiddle, second fiddle to a God who’s full of surprises.

To acknowledge that there is much in us that needs to be levelled and smoothed out to enable us to be up to the challenge.

Jesus advent 2000 years ago heralded a whole new era.

As does his coming into the world today.

So it’s not just a case of dusting off last year’s decorations, or re-arranging last year’s cards.

It’s time to find a whole new way of doing and being.

It’s not something we can ever be familiar with or feel comfortable with.

There is too much at stake.

Mediocrity will not suffice.

Here is something that Deitrich Bonhoeffer said in an Advent sermon he preached over 80 years ago about the offence of God’s coming to earth in a child.

"It is very remarkable that we face the thought that God is coming, so calmly, whereas previously peoples trembled at the day of God . . . . We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God's coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God's coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for every one who has a conscience.

Only when we have felt the terror of the matter, can we recognize the incomparable kindness. God comes into the very midst of evil and of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us, comes to us with grace and love."

Pleasant and agreeable.

Is that how we see God’s coming?

Or does it strike terror into us and not jut because of what we shall spend or how frantic we will be.

But terror, because God, who knows our hearts, comes in love, to turn us around and make us different.

May our preparation this Advent involve terror and repentance in response to that incredible love and grace of God.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Provoking love

Let us consider how to provoke one another to love. Hebrews 10:24
This statement jumped out at me from this week's lectionary readings. How can we provoke one another to love?
Church gatherings are full of provocation. But provocation to love? Mmmm. Not the first description I would choose to describe many church encounters.
But just imagine if that were our focus - provoking one another to love.
Wow! The consequences are unimaginable.
It's conjuring up for me a whole new form of social networking.
On facebook, you can poke someone to get their attention.
Consider the next church meeting, whether with coffee in hand in the fellowship area or row on row at the officebearers court - provoking love would be an attention grabber.
Just think of the fun it would be to set that ball rolling:
You provoke one person to love and they, in turn, have to provoke someone else. It would be like a house of cards or a stack of dominos. Not so much in the fragile waiting to collapse sense but in the chain reaction sense - your little act of provocation grows and gathers momentum as it is passed along until there is a great whoosh of love exploding all around.
That would certainly be church - but perhaps not as we know it!

Saturday, 7 November 2009

The pity of war

My offering for Remembrance Sunday:

Readings: Micah 4 v 1-7
Luke 1 v 68-79

Remembrance Sunday always brings a stramash of emotions.
From grief to bewilderment, from pride to anger.For while the war that led to the instigation of this day of remembrance ended more than 90 years ago, conflict today is almost a matter of course.
Since the end of the Second World War, there hasn’t been a single day of peace: not a moment when someone, somewhere hasn’t been waging some kind of conflict.
Far from negating the sacrifice of those we remember today, this must stiffen our resolve. We must recognise that peace is a fragile, delicate butterfly, which can be blown about on the winds of history. As we enter further into conflict in Afghanistan, and against that shadowy, imprecise enemy in the “war on terrorism”, we should look both back with gratitude on the past, and look forward with the Christian hope written on our hearts.
The prophet Micah spoke of a time when disputes among nations would be settled. When people will live in peace.
A few years ago, I did some chaplaincy at Erskine hospital for disabled ex service men and women.
One of the concerns expressed then, in the early 90s was that, as time dragged on, as folk who could remember the first and second world wars grew fewer in number, that there would be little incentive to remember.
How wrong they were.
Our young folk are all too familiar with images of war.
They are a part of our everyday.
Even those too young to remember the gulf wars, have seen war in Iraq, in Afghanistan and countless other areas of conflict.
And while we might assert that war can never ever be justified, while we might want to cry – not in my name – every day our country sends young men and women to areas of conflict.
Every day, lives are lost and others are irrevocably scarred through engaging in war.
Every day public opinion is overridden and our nation makes an unholy alliance with other nations and might destroys right and more young lives become casualties of war.
So how can our remembering really make any difference when it seems we are hell bound to continue the sacrilege that is war.
And how can we ensure that remembering our own dead does not dehumanise the dead who were considered our enemies.
This week, I watched Sam Mendes film: Jarhead – a gruesome account of the gulf war of 1991.
The Jarheads are American marines doing a tour of duty in the desert.
They are young men trying to make sense of going to war ‘in a country they don't understand against an enemy they can't see for a cause they don't fully fathom'.
Watching the film, you feel the disorientating effects of the relentless heat and the vast lonely desert spaces.
You feel the boredom, the tension, the fear as the waiting goes on and on, then the sudden rush when the action finally erupts.
As one of the jarheads put it:This is our labour – we wait.
Jarhead seems an all too real depiction of a modern war.
What disturbed me, however was how close this depiction came to the description Robert Graves, a poet of the first world war gave at the end of 1916, after the battle of the Somme:
He said: ‘This is a dreary flat place... with the intolerable boredom of mess and not enough work to do, and people waiting their turn to go out again. No one is at his best here... The year is dying of atrophy... and the war is settling down on everyone - a hopeless, never-shifting burden. While newspapers and politicians yell and brandish their arms, the dead rot in their French graves, and the maimed hobble about the streets.'
90 years on, service men and women wait. They are unable to fathom the reasons for their being on foreign soil but they follow orders as they have always done.
Another war poet, Wilfred Owen spoke of “the pity of war”.
“What passing bells for those who die like cattle” he asked providing a pointed reminder that when slaughter is relentless and indiscriminate, we need to give even more value to each individual, recognise the humanity of each as someone's parent, someone's child, someone's brother or sister, colleague and friend. Men and women, individuals caught up in something over which they have no control. Each time we see one of these individuals brought home by plane , their coffin draped in their country’s flag, the question we must pursue is: what does it all mean?
And to know that the reality is that for each of those carried with such ceremony, there are countless others we never see, the innocent civilians wiped out trying to go about their daily lives in countries controlled by occupying forces.
And those occupying forces are ours.
Remembrance Sunday focuses very sharply this contrast between the terrible and merciless forces of armed conflict and the lives and destinies of the individual human beings who are caught up in them.
We are too aware, in a way that previous generations perhaps weren't, of the despair of so many of the world's peoples: innocent civilians whom the correct jargon callously calls the ‘collateral damage' of war; the poor who are always its forgotten casualties.
A once proud calling – to give ones life for one’s country has been desecrated by the pity of war, by the apparently pointless, avoidable suffering, by the tragedy of a broken world and the sense of helplessnes in the face of war mongering politicians who refuse to listen to the voice of reason and the pleading to find other ways to resolve issues.
So how do we restore some meaning to all those names on the war memorials around which we will gather today?
How can we ensure that all these folk and the countless others whose names are not recorded anywhere, did not die in vain?
The American poet George Santayana, once said
"Those who do not learn from history - are doomed to repeat it."
Our task this morning is to remember – to remember that each life is valuable.
The passage we read in Luke’s gospel was a celebration of John the Baptist. John’s father recognized that his son was going to be another step towards God fulfilling the promise to bring peace on earth. John the Baptist prepared the way for Christ, the son of God.
John was not the promised messiah, the one to set all people free but he had a part to play in that liberation.
You and I, today have a part to play in bringing peace.
And the first step to peace is restoring hope.
Hope that the world can be different.
Hope that, one day there will be peace.
So, as we remember those who have died, as we remember those who fought with pride, as we remember those who fought because they had no choice, as we remember those who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, caught up in the atrocity of war, we bring with our remembrance hope and resolve.
We could be the generation that learns from history.
We could be the generation that looks on the pity of war and seeks other ways to resolve conflict.
We could be the generation that makes a difference.
The God whom we worship today, who gathers with us round countless memorials is the God who knows those whose names are not there, the God who is present in every war zone and refugee camp and who wills peace for all nations.
May the God of hope and of peace help us in our remembering to learn the lessons of war and to find ever new ways to fight for peace.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Honouring the brave

As we prepare for Remembrance this weekend, I find myself, unusually, treading on eggshells, trying to strike some kind of balance that will, hopefully, satisfy folks who come from many different perspectives, wanting to hear something that will help them to a place of remembrance. From the octogenarian veteran to the young teenage pacifist. Like Wilfred Owen, the World War 1 poet, killed as armistice bells tolled, I want to preach the pity of war.
"My subject is war and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity"
For me, no war can ever be a just war. But it is only as we honour the fallen and revere the courage of those who gave their lives as well as pledging ourselves to assist those forever scarred mentally and physically by war, it's only then that we can have any hope of finding the path to peace. No matter how much we condemn war, to practice mercy and compassion, to do justice requires that we care for all those, military AND civilian caught up in war and in the pity of war.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

What do you want me to do for you?

Reflecting on this week's gospel: Mark 10: 46-52 - Blind Bartimaeus encounters Jesus.
I imagine Jesus being persistent in his questioning until he gets to the heart of the matter.

What do you want me to do for you?
Well, Lord, where do I start?
The roof needs replacing
The windows are draughty
We could do with upgrading the equipment
so that folk can hear better
and see better
What do you want me to do for you?
Some beanbags for the youth group
and soft play for the wee ones
Cushions for the pews
so the old folks don't get numb
What do you want me to do for you?
More helpers for the youth groups
and carers for the seniors
companions for the shut-ins
so they don't feel alone
What do you want me to do for you?
More seekers on the journey
exploring faith together
new folks and the auld yins
travelling down the same worn path
What do you want me to do for you?
More love for the difficult ones
and patience for the cantankerous
and room for the misery guts
who need a place to be
strength for the weak ones
and faith for the doubters
joy for the gloomy
space that all may simply be
What do you want me to do for you?
Me, Lord?
Oh I just need a hug.

Liz Crumlish October 2009

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Where were you?

Goatfell - October 2009

Job 38 v 1-7; 34-41

A few weeks ago, I was invited to be chaplain at a church probationer’s conference.

It was an invitation I was very happy to accept and, indeed, was flattered at being asked.

As well as providing some support for the probationers, my remit was also to provide worship throughout the weekend.

This was slightly daunting as the theme of the conference was : worship.

The probationers spent each session listening to theories on worship, sessions on remembrance and preaching and music , on communion and on lots of other aspects on worship.

I imagined them arriving fresh from a session, full of theories, to engage, rather critically with the worship experiences that I had prepared.

Of course that wasn’t the way it was.

They were far too gracious for that.

However, as I drove through to Tulliallan, where the conference was being held, my anxiety seemed disproportionate to the task in hand.

Halfway through the first evening, listening to some of the questions being raised by the probationers in the preaching seminar, it dawned on me what that anxiety was all about:

Some 15 years ago, when I was a probationer, looking forward to the challenges of ordained ministry, I knew a whole lot more than I do now!

Somehow, back then, things seemed much clearer, much simpler, maybe even -more black and white.

The experience of ministry had not yet muddied the waters and shaken the certainties that I held at a safe distance.

It was only as I journeyed with people through the profound and the mundane, through some of the highs and lows of life (theirs and mine) that I learned, sometimes painfully, sometimes humorously, that things were rarely straightforward, that there were few certainties and that I really didn’t have answers to most of the questions being asked nor platitudes to offer for the roller coaster journeys on which folk were travelling.

This morning we read some of the most beautiful poetry in the Scriptures – the last few chapters of the book of Job contain wonderful imagery of creation extolled by the creator.

But the whole book of Job deals with that age old problem of suffering:

Why do bad things happen to good people? in the words of Rabbi Harold Kushner.

In the book of Job, there are no answers to the questions that suffering raises – but there is an acceptance of the reality that exists for many people.

We have so many trite sayings that we trot out in the face of suffering:

“God never gives us more than we can handle” is one of those.

However experience tells us that that is simply not true, having seen folk utterly destroyed by their suffering.

“Suffering makes us stronger” is an equally false assertion.

Opinion sways between the assumption that folk going through a hard time must have done something to deserve it to the premise that life is totally random and that we are carved out and moulded by our suffering.

When my father dropped dead at the age of 55, midway through my formal training for ministry, numerous colleagues comforted me with the statement that I would now be a much better minister having experienced, firsthand, the trauma of sudden bereavement.

Then – and now – I rejected this wisdom.

And I would have happily settled for being a poorer pastor and still have my father around.

Wisdom like that is wisdom that we can well do without.

It is the kind of wisdom that abounds throughout the book of Job as his friends try to comfort Job in his catalogue of losses and personal physical suffering.

It’s the kind of wisdom that we still hear perpetrated in the church.


Because we cannot handle the fact that we might not have an answer.

Or that, in the face of suffering, our omnipotent God, breathes a deafening silence.

Rabbi Kushner’s book: Why do bad things happen to good people? Has become a classic on the topic of suffering.

But a fairly new book that has been featuring recently on many of the bestseller lists is a book called The Shack, by William Paul Young.

I usually avoid books that become trendy.

And The Shack has become trendy.

Every Christian book club and study group and online forum seems to be punting The Shack.

But, eventually I caved in.

And found it a most profound and moving take on the problem of suffering.

It’s not the most classic writing.

And it has some uncomfortably sentimental bits in it.

But it deals helpfully with the presence of God in a world where there is so much suffering.

It acknowledges the reality of a world in which pain and sorrow and death are constant realities.

But it also acknowledges the reality of the presence of God in that world – God in all the power and weakness of love.

On one level it seems really simplistic but on another it plumbs the depths of truth.

At one point an interesting parallel is drawn between expectancy and responsibilities in relationships.

While expectancy allows for life and uniqueness in a relationship, it is only a small shift that turns that unpredictability of expectancy into expectations that introduces the legalism of responsibility.

In other words, the excitement and the freshness in a relationship is suffocated by the drudgery of having to measure up and deliver the goods.

It seems to me that what many of us have done to God is we’ve placed a whole load of responsibility on God for the suffering we see in our world today and for the knocks that we experience in life.

We place on God the expectation that we will be rescued from our depths.

God, however, operates on a whole other dimension.

A dimension to which we do not relate comfortably.

We like things to be concrete and defined.

We want to be able to predict how God will act and are disappointed when our expectations are not met.

But God’s relationship with creation is based on love that cannot be pinned down or enslaved.

Love that doesn’t conform to our parameters.

Love that just is.

God, seemingly impotent in the face of human suffering, holds out what only God can – the reality of love.

Neither of these books: Why do bad things happen to good people or The Shack answer the questions raised by suffering.

Nor does the book of Job.

But all help us to raise the questions and come to terms with the realities of life.

Suffering exists.

Alongside the amazing love of God.

Suffering is neither deserved or undeserved.

It does not of itself make us stronger or better people.

But it does make us real.

And the knowledge of the love of God present in our suffering lends hope to our reality.

As a hospital chaplain, I used to spend a lot of time talking about and explaining my work to folk, many of whom couldn’t see how a minister could possibly be involved whole time in a hospital.

One of the stories I used to use to try to illustrate the task of chaplaincy, comes from The Velveteen Rabbit a story about a stuffed toy who, through nursery magic has a conversation with The skin horse, an older, wiser inhabitant of the nursery:

I called the story - Making things real:

“What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day… "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?" "Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you.” "Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit. “Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt." "Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?" "It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand." "I suppose you are real?" said the Rabbit. "The Boy's Uncle made me Real," he said. "That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can't become unreal again. It lasts for always."

In any suffering it is important to hold on to something real.

And the reality is-that God and God’s love is present even in the midst of suffering.

That is why when Job questions God, God does not answer Job conventionally.

Instead, God dramatically reminds Job of the bigger picture.

Of the reality of life.

At this point in his life, in the midst of all his suffering, Job knew that he was in pain.

He knew that he had spent his life trying to honor God.

But once God spoke to Job, he knew a whole new world.

The suffering didn’t immediately vanish.

But God spoke.

And then, Job knew that God is God.

God is sovereign, ultimate, all-powerful, all-knowing, and holy, holy, holy.

Job’s many questions of God remain unanswered.

But what Job discovers is: that the Almighty God is intimately aware of and involved in his life.

And THAT makes all the difference.

Job can now cope with his situation.

Because he knows God is in control.

Yes, there can be suffering aplenty.

But in all of that suffering still there is the reality of God.

God who created all that exists.

While Job might want to question why he has suffered so much, God brings him back to the reality that the question is not why? But who?

Who is present wherever there is suffering?

Who created the world in all its beauty and cares profoundly when any part of that creation suffers.

Who is always present, holding out love, holding out hope, making things real.

The God who does not magically make suffering disappear but who, in the face of suffering, is intimately involved, holding out love.

It’s OK, even in church, maybe especially in church to admit that, sometimes, life sucks.

But to realize , even then that still God is in control.

God who sees a much bigger picture than we will ever see.

It’s to that bigger picture that God beckons us.

Not so that we will have any more answers.

Not so that we can grasp some certainty.

But so that we can acknowledge that God is God, the God of suffering, the God of love, ever present, involved in reality.

Thanks be to that unpredictable God who loves us as we are, who places no demands on us, who offers us a relationship based, not on expectations but on the freedom to be as we were created, fearfully and wonderfully made.

Thanks be to God, who, in all our suffering, holds out love that makes us real.