Saturday, 28 March 2009

Are we nearly there yet?

Started out with good intentions
create some space, carve out some time
reduce the distractions
focus on God
take time out
in the wilderness
It worked - for a time
But then life crept back in
disrupted the quiet
obscured the purpose
and now its virtually lost
Its hard to sustain the discipline required
when so much clamours for attention
and its a long and winding road
Besides, we know the story
it all comes good in the end
why pretend otherwise
when its all so familiar
That's why
That's exactly why
Because familiarity breeds contempt
And we want to experience the story with fresh eyes
from a fresh perspective
We want to find new ways 
and new reason
to explore the amazing love of God
That's why
Even though the desert wearies us
and Lent seems never ending
its the price we have to pay
in order to be even nearly ready
to celebrate the miracle that is
Liz Crumlish 2009

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Laetare Sunday

The ashes have faded
the snow is melted
but what does the sun reveal?
Is there anything to show for our Lenten practice?
Did we get off to a good start
and maintain the momentum
or did we fizzle out somewhere along the way?
This midpoint is another good chance to take stock.
all is not lost - yet
Lent can be wearying
even with the best of intentions
But if the best we can manage
is to see from a different perspective
or feel with a tad more compassion
then that will be enough
the growth and change in us
affects all around us
and if our awareness of God is enhanced
then we have really struck gold
for where God is
there is life.
so lets not give up
let's blaze a trail
on through the wilderness
and out into the world
following the blazer of all trails
living and loving all the way
Liz Crumlish 2009

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Lenten detox

Sunday 15th March 2009

Readings: Exodus 20 v 1-17
Psalm 19

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Today, in our Scripture reading, we find ourselves back, wandering in the wilderness with Moses and the Israelites.
We’d left them behind for a few weeks to journey into the unknown with Abraham but, today, we’re back with them.
And, it seems, they haven’t got very far at all.
Still wandering.
Still grumpy.
Still getting into all sorts of bother.
So, as has become his wont, Moses goes off to consult with God.
By the time Moses had dragged himself up the mountain, he wasn't feeling so good and he'd had plenty of time to think on the way up. So he says to God: God - Its about time you helped me out. My life has been pretty rough - a mum who floated me on the river as a baby, a stint in the palace, trying not to get found out, bushes that burst into flames around me, all those plagues in Egypt, dodging the Red Sea and now I'm responsible for all these grouchy folk - my head is splitting... And God said - Here, take these two tablets, that should help.

I wonder if they did.
Those two tablets, containing the 10 commandments.
Did they have the impact that God intended?
If we read on in Scripture, we learn that, sadly they didn’t.
More intervention from God was required.
In fact, God had to send Jesus, before we even began to get the message.

As Rubenis says:

"The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. By following a straight line one can walk from Egypt to Israel in a few days.
Why did it take Moses forty years? Because his was not a path from one point to another, but from one way of thinking to another."

J. Rubenis

Moving from one way of thinking to another.
That would take considerably longer than a week.
It took the Israelites 40 years.
I wonder how long it would take us?
To get from one way of thinking to another?
I suspect it might be even longer than forty years.
We’re not known in the church for changing our way of thinking.

But that is precisely what God requires of us who profess to be followers.
We are required, not to be people who merely observe rules but people who think differently and, by so doing, live and love differently too.

As you are, I’m sure, well aware by now, I’m not much given to “giving up” things for Lent.
My rationale is that it is a time when we might do much more to nurture faith, for ourselves and for others.
However I am persuaded that Lent is a good time – or a good excuse to detox faith wise.
It never does any harm for us to look and see the things that we’ve taken on that make practicing our faith a burden and a responsibility rather than a response to love.
When we think of our church membership, for instance, do we see it as something that weighs us down.
Or do we see church membership as a privelege, something that’s a joy to be able to claim?

Lots of behavioural and demographic studies conducted recently tend to show that folk don’t join organizations in the way they used to.
If folk feel attracted to something, they may well attach themselves to a particular group that they find attractive but, often, the follow on commitment does not materialize.
Folk are, quite simply, happy to belong.
And that calls for more flexibility on the part of organizations to be welcoming and to foster that sense of belonging without imposing a whole set of conditions of membership.
In the church, we can only offer that hospitality of belonging if we ourselves are comfortable about our place and our obligation.
If membership has become, for us, a duty to be fulfilled or a list of dos and donts to which we subscribe, then there’s not going to be much to attract others.

The ten commandments, a list of laws, weren’t diluted by Jesus when he showed us how to live.
But they were summed up in Jesus command – to love God, love our neighbour AND love ourselves.
Being attractive to others is not about dumbing down but about loving up.

So how would we go about loving up our faith today?
What do we see in it that might attract others?
And where is the clutter that we’ve built up over time that could do with a spring clean?
In what areas do we need to detox?
How do we move from one way of thinking to another without it taking us 40 years to get there?
What if we start right here where we are this morning?
With our worship?
What decluttering needs to take place here to allow us to see God?
What obscures our view, stops us getting too close to the God we come to worship?

Is it the folk we share the pew with?
Are we irritated by the music – or the prayers, or the noise of the children?
Or is our mind too full of worry or hurt to allow us to experience the love of God in this place?
Lent is a good time to detox.
To lay down some of those burdens, to clamber over some of those barriers that stop us getting close to God.

Moving from one way of thinking to another.
Love God, love our neighbour, love ourselves.
What are the things that stop us doing that.
What are the things that stop us putting God first?
Are we juggling too much?
Are our diaries too full?
Are our emotions so stretched that we can’t handle any more relationship issues?
Or have we just lost track of how far from God we really are?
When we have a notion to detox.
When we’re conscious of how cluttered our life of faith has become.
And when the clutter keeps us away from God.
Its not simply a case of taking a couple of tablets.
Its not about following rules and regulations.
Its about changing our way of thinking.
Changing our way of loving.
If practising faith is not attractive to us then how can we possibly hope to attract others?

Ovid, an ancient poet, tells of a gifted young sculptor of Cyprus named Pygmalion. Pygmalion despised women and resolved never to marry. Ironically, he set about with hammer and chisel to produce the statue of a woman in order to display it as a mockery. For many days, and frequently well into the night, he chiseled. A form began to emerge which arrested him. The blows from the hammer became softer now. Finesse and devotion occupied his every movement. Beneath his skillful fingers, the figure became more and more beautiful, until at last, no further improvement could be made. Such grace, such beauty had she; so lifelike, was she, she must have a name, a name by which he could address her. Galatea would be her name and she must have a robe, and gifts, and flowers. Pygmalion had fallen desperately in love with a lifeless piece of marble. He would not pretend. He spoke to her, held her hands in his, and reached out in his heart to the very thing he had created. Such was his continuing, all-giving love that, according to Ovid, Pygmalion literally loved the lifeless form of Galatea into a living being.

God loved and loves each of us into being.
We were not made and then abandoned, left to our own devices.
God continues to love us and care for our well being.
And the commandments given to Moses were not given as a burden for God’s beloved creation but were lovingly revealed so that we might live in love.
Summed up in loving God and loving our neighbour.

Lent is not a burden when we must prove ourselves “proper” Christians by enduring some hardship.
But it is a good time perhaps to look closely at the loving command that God has given us and examine how well we are living that out – in our worship time together and in our daily lives apart.
And it’s a time to ask: do we make faith at all attractive for others?

Love God, love your neighbour, love yourself.
That’s a tall enough order to fill without being miserable about it.
Let’s aim, this Lent, for a change in our way of thinking.
A change that will make obeying the commands not a burden but a joyful way of life – for us and for those around us.
For the glory of God.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Take up your cross

I'm involved in a pulpit exchange this week with Annbank and Tarbolton.

Readings: Genesis 17 v 1-7; 15,16
Mark 8 v 31-38

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

At Castlehill just now, we’re having midweek Lenten services. We’re focussing on journeys as we journey with Jesus through these 6 weeks of Lent.
On Wednesday night, we read about God calling Abraham, at the grand old age of 75, to pack up all his belongings and follow God to a new land.
God said to Abraham: Leave your country, your relatives and your Father’s home and go to a land that I am going to show you.
So Abraham did as God asked.
When we encounter Abraham in our reading this morning, its time for God to fulfil the promise that he made to Abraham in calling him: I will give you many descendants and they will become a great nation.
But now, Abraham is 99, not 75!
No wonder Abraham laughed.
Abraham’s laughter was like that good Scottish statement: AYE RIGHT!
Its only 6 months since I moved to Ayr to be minister at Castlehill.
When I finished University and was halfway through my probation for ministry, I realised that I didn’t feel called to parish ministry.
I was, in fact, ordained into hospital chaplaincy.
And vowed I would never be a parish minister.
Six years later I was called to serve in the parish of Inverkip.
When I moved there, from hospital chaplaincy, I felt sure that God was calling me to be there for some time.
Much longer than the seven years I served there.
And, indeed, just two months before I was approached by the vacancy committee from Castlehill, I spent some time with my spiritual director, trying to discern God’s will for me in Inverkip.
It seemed clear then that there was a lot more work for me to be involved in in Inverkip.
Two months later I was considering a call to move on.
And here I am in the presbytery of Ayr.
Often, just when we think we’ve got God sussed, God surprises us, confounding our certainties, upsetting the plans we have made.
And we too want to respond: AYE RIGHT
Its like the divine sense of humour just likes to challenge us, call into question our certainty and confront us with an ever new reality.
God certainly keeps us on our toes. 

Making journeys is not so unusual these days.
People move to find work.
People move to study.
Young folk think nothing of travelling for gap years.
We’re a very mobile society.
Not so in Abraham’s day.
What a statement of faith that he should pack up his whole life and, with his family, go where God called.
So I have great sympathy with Abraham when it seems like one more incredible stretch, one more demand that God was making on him – to believe that he could start, not just a family, but a whole nation.
AYE RIGHT just about sums it up.

Once there was an old man who lived in a tiny village. Although poor, he was envied by all, because he owned a beautiful white horse. People offered fabulous prices for the horse, but the old man always refused. “This horse is a friend, not a possession,” he would respond.

One morning the horse was not in the stable. All the villagers said, “You old fool. We told you someone would steal that beautiful horse. You could at least have gotten the money. Now the horse is gone, and you’ve been cursed with misfortune.”

The old man responded, “Perhaps. All I know is that my horse is gone; the rest I do not know. Whether it be a curse or a blessing, I can’t say.”

After fifteen days the horse returned. He hadn’t been stolen; he had run away into the forest. Not only had he returned, he had brought a dozen wild horses back with him. Once again the village people gathered around the old man and said, “You were right – what we thought was a curse was a blessing. Please forgive us.” The old man responded, “Perhaps. Once again you’ve gone too far. How do you know if this is a blessing or a curse? Unless you can see the whole story, how can you judge?” But the people could only see the obvious. The old man now had twelve additional horses that could be broken and sold for a great deal of money.

The old man had a son, an only son. He began to break the wild horses. Unfortunately, after just a few days, he fell from a horse and broke both his legs. Once again the villagers gathered around the old man and said, “You were right. The wild horses were not a blessing; they were a curse. Your only son has broken his legs and now in your old age you have no one to help you. You are poorer than ever.” But the old man said, “Perhaps. Don’t go so far. Say only that my son broke his legs. We have only a fragment of the whole story.”

It so happened that a few weeks later the country went to war with a neighbouring country. All the young men of the village were required to join the army. Only the son of the old man was excluded, because he had two broken legs. Once again the people gathered around, crying because there was little chance their sons would return. “You were right, old man. Your son’s accident was a blessing. Our sons are gone forever.” 

The old man spoke again. “You people are always quick to jump to conclusions. Only God knows the final story.”

Its clear that Abraham seldom had much clue about what God was up to.
And yet, Abraham has become one of the exemplars of faith.
Maybe precisely because of his cluelessness.
For although he didn’t know why.
Yet he did as God asked.
And sometimes the asks were huge.
Asked to pack up his whole life and travel.
Asked to believe that he could father a nation.
Asked to sacrifice his one and only heir with no idea that God would provide an alternative.
Abraham might well have been clueless about God’s plans but he certainly wasn’t found wanting in his faith.
He didn’t always get it right.
At one point he tried to expedite God’s promise of an heir by sleeping with Hagar, the family servant, a perfectly acceptable practice in those days – EXCEPT when God has other plans.
He made a few mistakes along the way.
But the bottom line is that, instinctively, he trusted God.
I find it comforting to find that Abraham did, on occasion succumb to the quick fix.
That occasionally he thought he could speed things up or resolve things on his own, but God stuck with him.
God didn’t take the huff and leave him to his own devices.
God stuck with him and kept on revealing more amazing things.
How often have we been impatient waiting for God to reveal things, wanting clarity when all seems to be misty.
But even when we do jump the gun, God doesn’t write us off, but sticks with us and helps us learn new things and, above all, teaches us patience.
At various junctures in the Abraham story we find Abraham taking time out, building altars, offering sacrifices, spending time with God in discernment.
And those are the times that Abraham’s walk is closest to God, the times when he gets it right.
But its comforting to know that when we don’t do that, when we’re impatient and when we rush in, still God honours our intentions and helps us to retrieve the moment.
I’m sure there are even times that God’s plans become slightly skewed in order to accommodate our sometimes flawed efforts.
God is big enough not to have to exert authority but to use us even in our misguidedness to achieve good.
God honours our imagination and freewill.
But its good if we too can honour these as gifts from God and ensure that we employ them wisely.
It was Martin Luther who said: ”Love God and do as you please.”
The fact is that if we put our love for God first then what we want will also be what God wants for us.
Sometimes we can see clearly what God wants – and that’s the time to act.
When we’re not so clear is not an excuse for doing nothing but we have to move more cautiously.
We have to test the waters as it were to check out that we’re on the right lines.
This second Sunday in Lent we’re reminded that Jesus took time out before beginning his ministry.
Faced with temptation, he did not take the easy way out but persisted in seeking God’s will.

In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus journey to the cross has already begun.
That is why he gets angry at Peter who tries to distract him from the painful path he must take, encouraging him, instead, to choose an easier route.
His words to Peter sound harsh – Get thee behind me Satan.
Words that have found their way into common usage.
Words that every woman knows when confronted with the temptation of buying just one more new outfit to hide at the back of the wardrobe.
Last time it happened to me, I had got as far as trying on that little black dress.
For the briefest of moments, economic sense prevailed and I uttered those words: Get thee behind me Satan. But Satan said: I have and let me tell you - It looks just as good from here.

Jesus and Peter had gone through a lot together.
Peter had come so far in faith.
So it must have really stung to hear Jesus say: Get thee behind me Satan.
But Peter is misguidedly trying to distract Jesus from the difficult path he must follow, from that road to the cross – and that, Jesus cannot tolerate.
Jesus said: IF anyone wants to come after me, he must forget self, take up a cross and follow me.
Jesus is not being mystical in that instruction.
Unequivocally he tells us that the path we must follow is one of self denial.
Lent is a time when many Christians make attempts at self denial – giving up things they like.
Indeed I was in one of the local primary schools this week.
When I asked the youngsters, aged 5-8, what Lent was about, they told me that it was about giving up the things that you like – things like chocolate and wine and cigarettes. (5-8year olds!)
That, however is not the kind of self denial of which Jesus speaks.
The way to which Jesus points is a way of real sacrifice, a whole different way of living.
I tried to sum up something of our inability to understand the real meaning of sacrifice and the real cost of taking up our cross at the beginning of Lent with these words:

Chocolate or wine
Chocolate or wine?
Wine or chocolate?
Which should I renounce?
Or should I really push the boat out and renounce both?
I mean it is only for 6 weeks
Even I could manage that
And I’d emerge smug and self righteous
My halo extra shiny
After being so self denying
I mean that’s going to make all the difference, isn’t it?
That will really change the world
If I indulge my lack of self indulgence
Besides, I’d probably lose about 20 pounds too
A new figure and a shiny soul
Not to be sneered at.
Is that what its come to?
Is that what its all about
Giving up and then self- congratulating
That’s what God surely wants
No, its what God demands
That we all make ourselves miserable and short tempered
and renounce all our coping mechanisms for 6 weeks
so that we too can emerge again from our self imposed tombs
all the better for our “suffering”
God help us when we trivialise sacrifice.
When we dare to imagine that a little self denial
Helps us identify with love in its extremity.
God, the last word in party excuses
Who came up with every reason ever invented to party
Must shrivel and die
When confronted with our pathetic attempts at Lent
Repentance occasions rejoicing
So why do we fail so miserably to capture that
Life giving season
Why do we make a drudgery
Of something beautiful-
getting ready to celebrate such love
and being transformed by such life.
How about throwing our all into love?

Love costs.
And so does following Jesus.
We cannot merely play at carrying our cross.
As we go on with the journey that is Lent, may God give us understanding and patience to discern God’s will for our lives and then courage to take up our cross and follow Christ.
For the glory of God.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Revealing the signs

An offering for the first Sunday in Lent:

Readings: Genesis 9 v 8-17
Mark 1 v 9-15

It seems no time since the start of the year when we considered part of this morning’s gospel reading from Mark – the bit where Jesus is baptised and a voice from heaven says: This is my beloved child. I am pleased with him. And, though I know I’m repeating myself, I want us to take just a moment once again to hear God speak those words to each of us : You are my beloved child. With you I am pleased. That’s a message of love that can never be repeated too often. A message that gets to the very heart of God.
Remember, those were words that God spoke, before Jesus had accomplished anything.
Those were words that God spoke at the very start of Jesus ministry.
But, having heard those words again, having been reminded of the amazing love of God, let’s look at the passage as its told today in the context of our Lenten journey.
Somehow, the perspective of Lent puts this gospel reading in a new context.
The love of God hasn’t changed.
But today, we read on and consider Jesus response to that love.
The same Spirit that led Jesus to the Jordan and to his baptism, also led Jesus to the wilderness.
And while Matthew’s gospel gives us fairly elaborate detail of some of what went on for Jesus in the wilderness, telling us about the temptations that were placed before him, Mark is pretty sparing in his information.
It lasted 40 days, Satan was there, as were wild animals and angels.
That’s it.
Because Mark is keen to get on with the story of Jesus ministry.

This week it has dawned on me that, certainly from Mark’s account, you could be forgiven for thinking that Jesus appeared in Galilee, was baptised, spent time in the wilderness and then made his way to the cross.

Its something I haven’t quite developed here in Ayr yet but, in my last parish I was involved in what I liked to call pub evangelism.
As you know, Inverkip is a small village with a school, a church and a pub.
So the pub was a good place to meet locals and I made it my business to do so!
There was many a good going debate with the regulars about the affairs of the church.
One year, in Lent, one of the bar staff wanted to know:
So, after his baptism, did Jesus spend 40 days in the desert and then, when he came out, it was holy week?
It certainly made for a good discussion – and an opportunity to share faith with folk who were a lot more interested than the folk who worshipped in the church Sunday by Sunday.
But, when you think about it, the way we observe Lent and then Holy Week, its not such an odd conclusion to draw.
Indeed, on running that past some colleagues this week, they were saying how some children have the notion that it was the baby Jesus who died on the cross because we celebrate Christmas and then, before you know it, its Easter.
How often we assume that it’s an old, old story that everyone knows when there are so many opportunities to share the story for fresh hearers.

And so here we are, the first week in Lent.
We could do worse than ask:
What’s it all about?

Jonathan Edwards, former Olympic gold medallist was, for a time, involved in presenting religious affairs programmes.
In one series he presented, folk tried out various religions to see which appealed to them most.
Jews teased the palates of enquirers by introducing them to the Sabbath meal.
Muslims whisked the enquirers off their feet by introducing them to their Sufi dancing
A Church of England vicar epitomised Christianity by trying to persuade the young women in the group to give up using their hair straighteners for Lent.
That just about sums it up doesn’t it?
The more miserable our faith makes us, the more good it must be doing us.
And what better time to exercise that misery than Lent.
A time for giving things up.
A time for denial.
But what if all we are denying is the joy of our faith?
Surely our Lord, who revelled in relationships does not desire that each of us should go into our own wee corners and be miserable for 6 weeks just to prove that we are capable of self denial.
Surely the emphasis is not on individual misery but on community celebration, not life denying but life affirming.

On Wednesday, here in church, we reclaimed an old ritual that’s been lost in many Presbyterian churches.
We shared ashes.
Symbolising not only our commitment to Lent – to journeying with Christ through this season.
But symbolising also our commitment to doing something different.
To waking up to the signs of God in the world around us.
Signs of change.
Signs of a call to newness.
To walk paths that maybe aren’t familiar to us but that are well trodden nonetheless.
They are paths that Christ has walked before us.
And the call to newness is a call to which our Lord responded – choosing not to fit in with what was expected of him but to find new ways.
Choosing not to be sanctimonious but to be sacrilegious.
Still we are encouraged to find new ways to celebrate God in our every day, new ways to make God visible for others.
New ways to celebrate faith.

After the flood, our other Scripture reading for today, God found a new way to remind people of God’s love and God’s promise that never again would the earth be destroyed with violence.
God sent a rainbow.

In this part of the world, we are blessed with the sight of rainbows frequently.
But did you know that for a rainbow to appear, certain conditions must co-exist?

Firstly, the sun has to be lower than 42 degrees from the horizon.
Secondly, we have to be facing towards rain with the sun at our backs.
And, thirdly, the sun has to be hitting the raindrops to produce the prism of colors that make up the rainbow.
So every rainbow we witness is a miracle.
A miracle that speaks of God’s love.

Today, we all need signs to remind us that God is present, showing us the way, present in our world and present in our lives.

Occasionally the signs are easy to see.
More often than not, we have to really look for them.
And, if one of our Lent disciplines involves looking harder for signs of God at work in the world, at work in our lives, then that will be good.
And, hopefully, in this springtime, those signs are all the more apparent.

But sometimes, we have to help create the signs that show God at work.
And this sacrament that we share this morning is just one such endeavour.
Its an outward sign of a loving mystery – that the God of all creation comes anew to embrace each of us, to call us God’s children and to show pleasure with us.
As we use the symbols of bread and wine, symbols of everyday work transformed into symbols of Christ’s body broken and poured out for us, our Spirits are nourished.
We are fed as was Jesus in the wilderness.

And so this time of Lent, from the sharing of ashes on ash Wednesday through the long weeks of journeying with Jesus to the cross on Good Friday can be a time for us of looking at the dark places in our lives and finding, even in all those dark, unswept corners of our lives, even in those buried hurts and still painful losses, we can find the light of God’s love still shining, still suffusing our lives with that rainbow effect, reminding us that God’s love is at work in us.

The Old Testament story of the flood seemed, to me a strange reading to be considering at the beginning of Lent.
And yet, its message of a loving God promising never again to destroy the earth and placing a rainbow in the sky to remind us of that promise fits in well with the contrasts that are inherent in our season of Lent.
A promise that needs to be heard again and again in the world in which we live.
The words of Ash Wednesday: Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return set in the context of a God who conquers death and promises new life.
A God who accompanies people through whatever wilderness they find themselves in and who sends angels to minister to them.
A God, who every day, finds ways to remind us of love at work in our lives.
May this Lent be a time for all of us, wherever we find ourselves in the wilderness, when we rediscover too signs of a loving God at work in us.
And may this sacrament be for us today just the beginning of our creating signs that show others that wonderful love of God.
For the glory of God.