Sunday, 27 March 2011

Grumbling on

Exodus 17 v 1-7

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” 3But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” 4So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 5The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

I love the stories of Moses and the Israelites wandering in the wilderness. It’s definitely a case of 2 steps forward, 3 steps back.
Every time they seem to be getting somewhere, something else goes wrong, The people forget all about the times that God, through Moses their leader has rescued them, seen them through. They lose faith and so end up going backwards again.
Here, we find them complaining to Moses that they have no water.
It feels so bad to them that they long to be back in Egypt.
Back in Egypt where, although they were slaves, they had water to drink.
Back in Egypt where, although they were abominably treated, at least they were never short of water.
Moses rescued them from slavery in Egypt.
Moses led them across the Red Sea,
But the people seem to have very short memories.
Because now, that there’s no water, they just want to be back in Egypt, back in the oppression that they knew there.
Why did you bring us out here to die, they ask Moses?
And then we get a sense of Moses’ frustration as he turns his eyes heavenward and asks God – “What am I to do with these people?”

Alls well that ends well – until the next time.
God provides water from a rock and the people are satisfied.
For now.

That story of Moses the leader and the people grumbling against him is a story we see repeated in so many guises in Scripture.
No matter how much God is revealed, memories are always short.
And it seems that a leader is only as good as the last miracle.
It’s a story that we see repeated time again today –
In business, in education, in politics.
Leaders are constantly being expected to improve on their previous performance – no matter how wonderful that performance – and folk are not satisfied but are always upping the stakes.
And it’s a picture we see even in the church.
Still eyes are raised heavenward as leaders ask: God, what am I to do with these people?
It’s called scapegoating.
As long as folk have someone to blame for all that is wrong, they are absolved of responsibility.
And if we can place all that seems wrong on the shoulders of leaders, then we ourselves don’t have to do anything to change.
It’s much easier just to stay in the wilderness and grumble than step up to the mark and try to make things different.
Stepping up might mean putting ourselves in the firing line.

It’s very tiring sitting in groups listening to folk complain that the church, as an institution has got it all wrong when there is no real will to work to make things different.

Grumbling may well do wonders for stress levels.
Grumbling helps to get things off our chest.
But, unless the grumbling is accompanied by action that ensures change, it’s a waste of everyone’s time.
Grumbling really wears you down, doesn’t it?
Think of the folk you know who always have something to grumble about.
Even when things are good.
You know, if it’s a lovely spring day – like the days we’ve had this past week – the sun shows up the dirty windows.
(They do in my house anyway)
Or, if there’s a bit of warmth in the air, the grumblers will bemoan the fact that it’s too early to start shedding clothes, or start putting in new plants – because there’s bound to be another cold snap to spoil everything.
We all know people like that – perhaps we even recognize ourselves – looking for something to grumble about.

So what did the children of Israel have to grumble about?
Well, quite a lot it seems.
They’d been rescued from slavery.
Seems a good thing.
But they missed that slavery that had become a way of life for them.

Moses dragged them out of Egypt and took them on a journey to a land that God had promised.
The journey shouldn’t have taken the 40 years that it did.
But, perhaps the reason that it took so long is that God wanted to teach the people a thing or two before they entered that promised land.

One of my favourite T shirts – one that I wore last month when I met up with my American friends says:
You can take the girl out of Scotland but you can’t take Scotland out of the girl.
IT seems that, though God had enabled Moses to take the Israelites out of Egypt, it would take a lot longer to take Egypt out of the people.
They kept harking back to their old ways.
They wanted to hold on to the ways – the foreign ways they had adopted in Egypt.
Because those were the ways they knew.
The customs that had begun to feel safe.
And so, in spite of everything. in spite of the slavery and oppression they had endured in Egypt, when they left Egypt, they yearned for it.
Human nature is just perverse at times.
It seems we’re never happy unless we have something to grumble about.

We, who are God’s people today are no different from the Israeiites.
Called by God into discipleship, instead of going forward, led by God, we keep looking back.
Instead of looking forward to the wonderful opportunities that God has in store for us, we complain that nothing ever stays the same.
Instead of opening ourselves up to new experiences and new horizons that God sets before us, we close ourselves down, we want to play safe.
The plight - or blight of the Israelites is our blight too.
We cannot let go of the past and look forward to the future that God has planned for us.

But – there is hope.
There is hope for us.
Because God persevered with the Israelites.
God stuck with them.
Though often it seemed as though they just didn’t get it.
Though they often rebelled against the leaders that God placed before them.
They were God’s chosen people.
These people who argued.
These people who constantly complained.
These people who seemed to be very slow learners.
Were the people that God chose.
Surely, then there is hope for us.
Let me share with you two reflections of the fickleness of folk:

lovely clean water
dripping down our beards
cooling off our dusty, weary feet
purifying us before we worship.
The very stuff of life.
But now it’s just the stuff of dreams
in this place that reeks of death.
Day after day
we long for what we knew
even though it wasn’t perfect
at least it was life
not this slow slide into death
Reduced to remembering what was
we cannot see what will be
our senses are dulled
by want and longing.
We followed the leader
expecting miracles
expecting freedom
But we backed the wrong camel
and now we’re paying the price.
Better the devil you know
than a promised land you’ve only heard about.

I knew it
I knew Moses (and God) wouldn’t let us down
They didn’t drag us all the way here
to let us collapse in a heap in the wilderness
I knew that, together, they’d have something up their sleeve
But water – from a rock?
I didn’t see that one coming
I suppose that’s why they left it
to the last gasp
I suppose it would have been
just another miracle
if we hadn’t been so desperate
but now we have a special place
that will always feature in the lives
of our people
the place where God produced water
from a rock
Just in the nick of time.

People are fickle – even – and maybe especially – in the church.
and leaders are easy targets.
If things are not going as we’d like – or as we’d expect, we blame the leader.
But what if, instead of grumbling at our leaders, we spent some time working out how to change things, how to get involved and make things different.
Rather than wait on someone else fixing things, what if We were to lend a hand and make a difference.
That’s the hard part.
It’s so much easier to complain about others than to pitch in ourselves.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time recently working with a number of different congregations, helping them to formulate a vision for the future.
It has been the trend over the years, for churches to undertake envisioning, spending considerable time and energy in the exercise.
But then, once plans are formulated, folk often take a back seat and leave things to just a few people – and then grumble when plans do not come to fruition.
What I’ve been encouraging folk to do is not just come up with plans for the future but also to work out how those plans come to be.
As a friend put it recently: imagine the future, not as a sketch or even a plan but as a video – moving along to completion.

In the story we read from Exodus today, God produced water from a rock – flowing water – that made all the difference.

As God’s people today, where are we?
Are we still roaming in the wilderness, thirsty and grumbling at our leaders on whom we blame our predicament?
Or are we seeing a video rolling – a movie in which we can play a part?

God calls us out of Egypt, out of our standing on the sidelines, out of our propensity to grumble – out of our thirst and offers us flowing water.
May we be prepared to act and change and move forward beyond all that is comfortable and familiar.
May we drink of that water of life and be drenched in life giving spirit.
For the glory of God.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

And what next...?

When the war planes have finished
wreaking their peculiar blend of destruction
and the civilians who still had some fight left in them
have been ground into submission
- those that survived, that is -
what next?
When the bodies of the innocent
have been gathered
and disposed of tidily
what next?
When one dictator has been deposed
making room for who knows what
in his place
what next?
What next for ordinary people
who love their home
and their country
whose surroundings have been decimated
by allies ganging up
claiming just cause,
choosing one cause, strangely
out of so many others.
what next?
Leave them to pick up the pieces?
to rely on their own devices
and their well developed
strategies for coping
in the midst of carnage
perpetrated by whoever chooses
to intervene
and make things worse?
What next?
Impose an alien regime
that they neither asked for
or wanted?
What next?
Clearly, those who take decisions
to go blithely to war
even for so called just causes
failed miserably
to plan that far ahead.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

All we can't leave behind

Reading: Genesis 12 v 1-9

Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’
 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. And Abram journeyed on by stages towards the Negeb.

This Old Testament passage is one that many of you have heard often – the call of God to Abram, when Abram was 75 years old, to leave all that he was familiar with and travel to a new land.
God didn’t even tell Abram what or where that new land was. God just asked Abram to start out on a journey.
So Abram started out.
It would seem that he didn’t travel light – he took his immediate family, all the possessions he had gathered and all the people he had acquired.
At each stage of the journey, we read that Abram took stock of where he was, listened to God’s prompting – and moved on.
He built altars to God.
He spent time communing with God.
By all accounts, he left a trail.
But he kept on moving at God’s prompting.
And, it seems, though God didn’t give Abram a map, though God didn’t let him in on what the destination might be, God did keep on checking in.
God kept on affirming Abram’s faith and obedience.
And, often, that’s all we have to go on.
For Abram, it was enough.
Faith and obedience.

Most of you know that at the end of last month I went on a journey.
It was a journey to somewhere I’d never been.
To meet up with folks whom I’d never met.
But I didn’t take my family with me.
I went on my own.

For a few years now I have been part of an online blogging community, a community that has been informative and supporting.
Blogging, for me, started out as a way to journal.
It began- and continues – as a form of spiritual discipline.
A means by which I could write about everyday experiences and see where God was and is at work in daily life.
It’s a discipline that I’ve maintained for the last 4 years.
It’s a bit like a thought for the day – only written on the computer and posted online for folk to read rather than listen to.
Once I post the reflection, others are free to comment on those reflections and offer encouragement and suggestions or share something of their stories.
I realized fairly early on that blogging could be a useful tool for outreach – and so it has proved to be.
There are lots of folk locally as well as globally who read the blog.
Its always a bit disconcerting to meet someone I’ve never actually met before and be asked about something that I’ve written about on the blog.
After a while I discovered that there was a network of bloggers who were also women ministers and who had formed a supportive online community.
I’ve shared with you before how, every week, we look at the prescribed Sunday texts and share ideas for preaching and teaching, ideas and activities for telling the stories to children and young people.
Often, as we’re sharing resources we also share a bit of what’s going on for us and so a supportive community has grown up.
That’s how it came about that, at the end of February I flew out to America to meet up with some of these women.
How strange to meet face to face, folk that you feel you know well because of all you have shared together online.
But I have to tell you, although the planning was fun, when it came to making the actual journey, my nerve almost failed me.
If I could have turned back halfway across the Atlantic, then I probably would have.
Because by then the thought of meeting up with 40 strangers, albeit strangers whom I felt I knew, was fairly daunting.
I am happy to tell you that the reality was much better than even I could have hoped for.
The community that had been born online proved even better face to face.

Of course I had a distinct advantage over Abram.
I was able to find out about the folk whom I would be meeting.
Before we travelled, we set up a google group where folk could introduce themselves and share some details.
I also knew where I was going.
I had a map – which is more than Abram had.
And so the unknown territory I was about to encounter could, in many ways be anticipated.
We also had a purpose in getting together as well as meeting up.
We wanted to explore together the idea of Reframing Hope  - finding vital ways to reach out to a new generation of people both in and outside our churches.
We had with us the author of a book entitled Reframing Hope – Carol Howard Merritt, who shared with us her experience of involvement as a Presbyterian minister in Washington.
Carol shared her stories and affirmed, for many of us, the vitality of mainline churches in reaching out to a new generation of spiritual seekers.

Of course, being women ministers, we did things in style.
Our meet up was on a cruise ship in the Caribbean.
Often our seminars were held in the ship’s conference room competing with the noise of a party going on in the bar next door.
But when we broke into groups to discuss things we would take ourselves up on deck and find various quiet corners to share.

The conference started with a session where we could introduce ourselves face to face.
Each participant was asked to bring along something that told a bit about themselves and where they came from.
A lovely way of learning about each other.
Whatever we took along went home as a gift with someone else.

I took along some haggis and some whisky and spoke about coming from the land of Burns.
Julia, who received those as a gift went home armed with instructions on how to host a Burns Supper in Alaska.

This week, as I reflected on Abram and his family leaving all that they knew, I wondered what items they carried with them that would speak of where they had come from.
And of all the gifts that they left in each place they travelled through.
As well as the gifts that they received from the folk they encountered as they journeyed.

I wonder what, for Abram, became the things that HE COULD NOT LEAVE BEHIND?

I’d like us to think about that question here this morning?
What, for us as a worshipping community are the things that we can not leave behind.
What are the things that we consider priceless?
The things that must move on with us as we endeavour to reach out to a new generation?

Is it our style of worship?
Visiting folk often comment on how much singing we include in our worship.
Is that one of the things we couldn’t leave behind?

Is it our sense of friendship and fellowship, our welcome of strangers?
People feel included when they come here.
Is that one of the things we couldn’t leave behind?

Is it our bright and airy sanctuary?
A sanctuary that many of you still have fond memories of raising funds to build.
Is that one of the things that we couldn’t leave behind?

One of the things we discussed at the conference was the way we reach others in this age of technology.
An age where many people are more comfortable sitting in front of their computers than gathering in a building.
Where folk may be more comfortable writing about feelings than speaking them.
We can roll our eyes at the seeming absurdity of that.
Or we can choose to engage with it and offer appropriate forums for those for whom a different medium appeals.
I am not alone in feeling strongly that there can be as real a sense of community in the virtual networks as there is in face to face contact and, for many people today, virtual community holds a stronger appeal.

Research has shown that, though today’s generation might be reached in different ways from those of previous generations – though we might not, in the first instance encounter new members when they cross the threshold of the church building, still they seek traditional ways to explore and sustain faith.
And, in particular, what they seek is depth in their belief.
They may well come to faith by unconventional means, but once they have embraced faith, they want a more traditional sustenance – based on ancient practices and customs.

Contrary to many of the myths being perpetuated about traditional church, as we know it, having had its day, there is much to suggest that traditional church is actually regaining its place.
That folk are returning to tried and tested paths.
And the task for us is to become more aware of the new view that God gives us of the promised land.
It’s about journeying slightly differently.
Getting used to different surroundings.
Journeying on in faith and obedience.
Just as Abram did.
Abram discovered on his journey that God still surrounded him.

Abram’s task was not to re-create a faithful God but to rediscover that faithful God in new surroundings.
And so often that involved re-instating old traditions.
What we are called to do, in each generation, in each new time and place, is to sort through what we have, work out what is important, discover those things that WE CANNOT LEAVE BEHIND and use them in a new setting.
Yes, we do live in a different and changing world.
But much of what we have to offer is the very stuff that new generations are seeking.
If we are prepared reframe our hope for a new generation.
If we are prepared to take account of a changing landscape in which God’s presence and God’s guiding is still discernible, we can journey on in faith.

This is NOT about being trendy.
It is NOT about seeking a new relevance.
It is about valuing what we have and, in so doing, be assured that still God uses tried and tested ways alongside new ways.
What holds the two together is faith and obedience.
The sort of faith and obedience that Abram displayed when called and prodded and catapulted by God into a new landscape.

God has called and prodded and catapulted us into unfamiliar surroundings.
Will our response be one of faith and obedience?
Can we follow Abram’s example and become a blessing for the nations?

Can we respond to the different cultures to which we are exposed daily and, retaining the essence of our faith, journey on with renewed hope and vision?

I’m sure as Abram journeyed that he was changed by the folk he encountered.
God exposed Abram to new horizons.
New horizons that still contained the God with whom Abram was familiar, the God by whom Abram was known and loved.

For us, too, as we encounter new horizons, the presence of God becomes not blurry but clearer than ever.

And so the challenge is for us today.
Whether we are 75 like Abram.
Or older or younger.
God calls US to step out in faith and obedience, believing that even in a vastly changed landscape, as people of faith we have something to offer.
And we have much to learn from those we encounter.
But in all of it, we will see and be blessed by God.

Three things remain: Faith, hope and love.
We step out in faith.
We reframe our hope.
We rely on God’s love.
Taking with us on the journey all that we cannot leave behind – Faith, hope and love, ancient commodities for a God-filled future.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Distant God

God you are omnipotent
and lots of other big words
that mean that you have power.
So where was your power
when the fault plates shifted
and the earth moved for hundreds of thousands 
of your people?
Where were you when
the ocean
took up the vibes
and swelled and raged
and attacked the land
with such force,
wiping out cities 
and towns and villages
sweeping the board clean 
like a child
who has fallen out with friends
and refuses to "play nice".
Where were you as folk fled for their lives
with no warning
and so many had nowhere to go?
And where are you now
as folk huddle in makeshift centres
or trawl the streets
looking in vain
for loved ones.
Or jump in alarm 
at the slightest shudder, 
living in fear
of the very real threat
of after shock.
All powerful God 
where are you?
As we look on in horror
safe but impotent
open our eyes O God
to see you
crouched and slouched 
with your suffering people
broken and battered
and washed up in the carnage.
Huddling with the lost
and the grieving
and the confused
and the hurting.
Cowering before the forces of nature
that may strike again
with the same savagery
and the same unpredictability.
Simply because
you are NOT a distant God
but a God who dwells with God's people
 suffering the ravages
that affect humanity.
And, when we despair
that you share our impotence
remind us
that we would have you
no other way
but wholly involved
with your creation.
All powerful God
too close for comfort.