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.


Saturday, 10 October 2009

Just one more thing

Reflecting on the gospel this week (Mark 10: 17-31), I was intrigued by that "one more thing" of which Jesus speaks and pondered on what it might be. Here is just one suggestion:

To enter the kingdom requires...
loving that neighbour who has outgrown the church
spending time with folk just because they are our neighbours
no hidden agendas
perhaps no agenda at all
except an encounter filled with unconditional love
In between the meetings
of boards and committees
and coffee fueled talk shops
meeting God's children
right where they are.
Visiting the sick, the dying,
the bereaved and the lonely
the folk who make us feel good
the folk who cut us down to size
carrying the love of God as an offering.
And if it seems like an endless round
of demands and expectations
from ourselves and others
weighing heavily on our shoulders
perhaps it's that one more thing
that will make all the difference to us.
Carving out the space
to experience God's love for ourselves
finding that corner in which to chill out
and allow ourselves to be smothered
by the breath of God
breathing deep into our souls
oozing out through our pores
so that, once again we are sure of our ground
and able once more to share
without counting the cost.
But that one more thing
makes all the difference
to everything else.
And let me tell you
for a giver
taking that time
grasping that love for ourselves
is almost as hard
as a camel going through the eye of a needle

Monday, 5 October 2009

Harvest Meditation

Harvest of what?

We plough the fields and scatter

The good seed on the land

Well, not us. Not for some time either.

We don’t get our hands dirty,

preferring instead to buy pre packaged,

pre- washed, pre- prepared everything,

from sliced white bread to

ready chopped carrots .

Never mind that our choices

are flown half way across the world.

We like quality.

And, on occasion, we’ll even pay for it.

Harvest is something we’re prepared to leave to others.

The physical harvest –

Is someone else’s worry.

If the weather’s bad.

If crops fail.

We’ll simply shop elsewhere,

Move on, pay more.

We certainly won’t starve.

We’ve not been that close to the land for a long time now.

It’s nothing new.

To reflect modern life,

contemporary culture.

Perhaps our harvest celebration

needs revamped.

Needs to reflect our experience.

Of work and toil.

Our experince

Of sweat and tears.

Isn’t harvest about celebrating our gift,

our skills,

All that God has given us

To make life good?

Isn’t it about

giving thanks for the comparative luxury we know.

And that we protect at all costs.

That’s so far removed from work on the land

So can’t we find another way to celebrate?

We plough the fields and scatter?

Not us, not any more.

Come, ye thankful people come

Raise the strain of harvest home

Oh yes.

It’s good to give thanks once a year.

Thanks for all those little luxuries.

Thanks for God’s blessings.

Once a year

It’s good to give thanks.

For the Lord our God shall come

And shall take his harvest home

Now that’s sounding a different note.

God harvesting people.

But we won’t worry too much about that.

We’re simply here to give our thanks for now.

Don’t need to worry about the future at harvest.

We’ll just celebrate the present.

And leave the future to God.

That’s part of harvest too, isn’t it

That God takes care of the future.

Come, ye thankful people come

Raise the strain of harvest home

Moving on:

For the fruits of all creation

Thanks be to God

We’ll celebrate all that we can see around us

We’ll congratulate ourselves on being so well off

That we can sing heartily the words:

In our world wide task of caring

God’s will is done

In the harvest we are sharing

God’s will is done

Yet, to make our words ring true today

We have to see beyond our shiny colourful display of fruit

To the responsibility that God places

on each of us

To make the kind of harvest we celebrate

Alive with meaning for the world

Alive with meaning

for those who’ll sleep rough tonight

alive with meaning

for those who will go to bed hungry

alive with meaning

for the poor all around us

and, yes alive with meaning

in Iraq and Afghanistan

in Sumatra and Zimbabwe

in all the hovels where God’s children are to be found

to know that our world is not as God intended

that in creation there is more than enough to go around

if we could only share.

And so, in our plenty,

it’s not that we should waste time on feeling guilty

but that we should turn God’s goodness to us

into a call to serve the world

by our sharing

Our God, who stretched out the heavens

and created everything in wisdom

relies on us

to care

and gives us what we need

to do just that

and so we will take our fruit this morning

symbol of all the goodness of God

we will take our fruit,

symbol of the power of God

we will take our fruit

symbol of the call of God

we will give thanks

and we will share

from our place of plenty

we will give thanks to the God of the harvest

and we will share God’s food for God’s world.