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Breath – A Reflection for Pentecost

Pentecost 2020

Psalm 104: 24-34; John 20: 19-23

Breath

All the living beings on our amazing green planet, all the creatures that fill the earth and seas (Psalm 104: 24), depend on the Creator for breath: when it is taken away we die; when it is sent forth we are part of the living creation. In this respect human beings, latecomers to this extraordinary natural story, are just one part of the whole. The author of Ecclesiastes puts it with almost brutal directness: ‘the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity.’ (Ecclesiastes 3: 19)

Genesis chapters 1 and 2, with its two stories of creation, rejects the charge of ‘vanity’. It is not all vanity. For the breath of life was breathed into human nostrils by the Lord God (Gen 2: 7), and, according to the other account, humankind, male and female, bear the divine image (Genesis 1: 27); and this is all part of a great enterprise.

What has all this to do with Pentecost? It begins with the fact that human beings have a certain kind of precious awareness. Not only were we created in God’s image; by grace we may know it. And what is the test? The test is prayer. George Herbert, early 17th Century poet and parish priest, spoke of ‘God’s breath in man returning to his birth’, and this in his great sonnet entitled ‘Prayer’. As a Jewish scholar puts it, the Name of God is unutterable, but we may hear it in the sound of our own breathing (Lawrence Kushner, quoted by Dennis Lennon in ‘Turning the Diamond’, 2002). For Christians prayer is ‘our vital breath’ (James Montgomery, Singing the Faith, 529).

And why is this particularly true for followers of Christ? Because he shows us that all is not vanity, and he does this by giving us his breath – the breath he surrendered in death (John 19: 30) becomes the breath he imparts to his people in their locked room on the evening of that first Easter Day (John 20: 22). For the author of the fourth Gospel that is the start of the new age. “Receive the Holy Spirit”, he says to them, that the world which has treated me as a stranger may know what it means to be a fully human being living and serving in unbroken communion with the God of love.

In another poem George Herbert put all this into four short lines:

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life: Such a Way, as gives us breath;
Such a Truth, as ends all strife;
Such a Life, as killeth death.
(Hymns and Psalms 254)

Trevor Thomas (27th May 2020)

Hymns at Easter: We sing the praise

Ascension Sunday 24 May 2020
'We sing the praise' by Norman Wallwork (STF 315)

The final hymn in this series moves us from the close of Easter onto the threshold of Pentecost. It is We sing the praise of Jesus (STF 315) by Norman Wallwork who is a well-known liturgist and hymn writer and in this hymn sets out in a simple form what we can believe about the Ascension of Jesus.

  • Jesus arrives in heaven as a triumphant conqueror of death and evil
  • We sing his praises with heaven-given joy
  • Jesus prays for us
  • We pray in expectation for the ‘living fire’
  • We are being prepared to worship in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit.

The Ascension myth is a crucial transition stage in the development of the Christian understanding of God. We might remember the stories of Jesus. We may bow before the Cross. We marvel at the Resurrection but there is more going on than just historic events. The activity of God is not a good idea to be considered but an experience to be explored.

This is a special kind of exploration. It is the exploration of prayer. It is prayer based in the theology of love; for we are commanded to love God with all that we are and all that we have; not just believe in God. We know God through the love we are given and from Ascension Day we pray this prayer for all in the Church

Come Holy Spirit
Fill the hearts of your faithful people and
Kindle in them the fire of your love

It is this fire that can flame in our homes and our hearts. It is this fire which can re-create our devotion. A devotion that is not dependent on ‘what happens in church’. It is a loving of God which let’s each day be the Lord’s Day and witnesses ‘earth and heaven ring’ with the praises of God.

This reminds me of the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61) from her poem Aurora Leigh

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God
But only he who sees takes off his shoes
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.

This hymn and the season it serves invites us to see the Church as she really is created to be – a priestly community open to the world, open to God and connecting the grace of heaven and the need of earth. Truly a Church of the Ascension.

Rev. John Rackley

20th May – A Prayer for Today

Today we hold in mind all those
who on this warm day must wrap themselves
in plastic PPE.
Those who tend to the sick
in hospitals and care homes;
those who diagnose and prescribe;
those who dispense
medicine and kindness;
those who deep clean,
fetch and carry.
May all who step up
rather than step away
be wrapped, too, in your love.

Michael Mays

18th May – A Prayer for Today

Help us to remember
what, too easily, we forget:
that hope can’t be contained,
that kindness can break down barriers,
that prayer is powerful
(even when we struggled for words).
That life and death are separated only by a breath,
that beyond all this there will be joy
and that love is eternal.

We know all this because of Him
who came to live as one of us.

Michael Mays

Hymns at Easter: Hail the day that sees him rise

Sixth Sunday for Easter 17 May 2020
'Hail the day that sees him rise' by Charles Wesley (STF 300)

Our hymn this Sunday is a quintessential piece of Charles Wesley bible rhetoric. See if you can find all the scripture references. There is almost one per verse and in some more than one. This is how the first Methodist congregations would have come to know the bible. They sang the words of scripture.

We stand with the disciples on this Sunday betwixt and between the Resurrection and the Ascension. Wesley invites us, like them to watch Jesus go to the Father. Jesus is ‘ravished from our eyes’. This is an uncomfortable analogy. Is it the Father doing the ravishing or is it the experience of the disciples and Mary Magdalene? Jesus is torn from our grasp. We have a different relationship with him now. Does this work for you?

The hymn is comfortable with the biblical view of the universe even though by the time Wesley wrote it a heaven-above, hell-below and earth in the middle view was questionable. What do we do about this?

One way is to spiritualise it all. We say that it is about mystery and symbol. We do not need to take it literally but make a parable of it.

Yet another way is just not to sing the offending material. I did that for years till I found some hymns I could not sing at all and then I entered, what some call ‘the second naiveté’. We let the bible and Wesley just be of their time. They are part of the tradition. We use them because they help us interpret matters now. We do not try to push ourselves into a way of thinking which does not actually make sense but we try to understand why it made sense then and wonder how we make our own sense of it now.

For the Ascension raises the question of transcendence. The hymn is like the effect of a great cathedral. We are made to look up. Christ ‘reascends his native heaven’ and ‘highest heaven receives him’ and we implore him ‘grant our hearts to you may rise’.

Over the past few decades we have been encouraged to look in and look down for spiritual nurture. God is in the depths of our souls. God is the ground of being. It works for many. But something has been lost. It is the sense of something greater, beyond us. A force, a power that is strange. Intimate yet intangible. Immortal and invisible.

The Ascension stories in Luke 24, John 20 and Acts 1 are wonderful mythic creations which seek to describe the indescribable – they put us in our place – helplessly looking up and away from ourselves into the skies, infinity and beyond – yet knowing ‘still he loves the earth he leaves’ and me and you.

Hallelujah! Amen!

Rev. John Rackley

DIY Bible Study 43

Luke - The 'Social Worker'

Introduction

A commentator on Luke's Gospel has suggested that had Luke not been a doctor, and had they existed back in the first century, he might have been a social worker. He certainly was interested in all kinds of people, including the very vulnerable - so much so that his account has been called "the Gospel of the underdog". We shall consider some of the groups that he highlights.

  1. The Poor

    1. The following are just a selection of passages where Luke refers to 'the poor'.

      Read them and comment on their significance:

      • 1:53
      • 2:24 (refer also to Leviticus 12:7-8)
      • 6:20
      • 7:22
      • 14:11-14 & 21
      • 16:19-25
      • 21:1-4
    2. Warnings for the wealthy are implicit in some of the above, but also look up:

      • 6:24
      • 12:13-21
      • 18:18-27
  2. Outcasts

    There are references to 'publicans' (tax-collectors) and 'sinners' in the Gospels. Jewish society at that time excluded a number of categories - including shepherds who often could not attend synagogue or Temple because of their duties.

    Read the following and note what Luke says about various 'outcasts':

    • 2:8-10
    • 5:12-14
    • 5:27-39
    • 7:36-40
    • 8:43-48
    • 9:52-56
    • 15:7 & 10
    • 17:11-19
    • 18:9-14
    • 23:39-43
  3. Women

    There was a Jewish prayer - 'Thank God for not making me a Gentile, slave, or woman.' Glance through the following passages and list the women included by Luke (most are not mentioned or only briefly referred to in the other Gospels):

    • 1:5-56
    • 2:36-38
    • 4:38 & 39
    • 7:11-17
    • 7:36-39
    • 8:2-3
    • 8:43-48
    • 10:38-42
    • 13:10-13
    • 23:27-28
    • 24:9-11
  4. Children

    Luke includes more information on children, especially Jesus' attitude towards them, than is found in the other Gospels. Notice the length of the birth stories in chapters 1 and 2 and note the significance of the following verses:

    • 7:12, 8:47, 9:38
    • 9:46-48
    • 18:15-17
    • 19:44

Conclusion

So we see Luke's wide interest in all groups within society.

Does this shame our attitude to others within society today?

Any improvements we need to make?

Any particular groups we need to pray for?

Eileen Bromley

15th May – A Prayer for Today

Earthrise is truly an iconic photograph. It was taken from lunar orbit by astronaut William Anders in December 1968. The Apollo 8 mission was the first crewed voyage to orbit the Moon.

Earth Rise

The craft had just emerged from the dark side of the moon to be met by the awe-inspiring sight of the earth, our home.

There are times in each and every life when we find ourselves in deep darkness. For some the journey through the darkness is long and arduous. Many are going through this experience right now – when separation, isolation and loneliness overwhelm; and where parting and grieving can’t take their ‘natural’ course.

Lord,
We hold in prayer all those who are in a dark place right now.
May they sense that they are not alone.
May they know that they are held in your love.
May they find their way to the light of a new day.
And may we all, in the end, be filled with awe and wonder.
Amen.

Michael Mays

Knowledge as God’s gift to us

A reflection by Revd Trevor Thomas

We long for knowledge – not to answer quiz questions, but because our lives depend on it!

And sure knowledge is what we currently are denied. Here’s an extract from last Saturday’s paper: ‘How many people have Covid-19 now and how many people have had it? The only thing we know for sure is that the daily number of positive tests announced by ministers is inaccurate. Knowing the infection level is important to work out the level of pressure likely to be put on the NHS and how feasible plans to track down cases and isolate contacts will be. When a reliable blood test for antibodies becomes available, it will let us know how far the virus has spread and give us more information on how dangerous coronavirus is by letting us work out what proportion of infections need hospital treatment.’ (The Times, May 9, 2020 – my italics)

There is another side to this which, in itself, should give us some reassurance. The commitment in modern medicine to evidence-based practice is a foundation of the health professions. Last Sunday, and again last Tuesday, we were reminded of the great contribution to the development of nursing which was made by the committed Anglican Florence Nightingale – ‘the lady with the lamp’. She worked tirelessly with injured and sick troops during the Crimean War. In the years and decades that followed that conflict Nightingale insisted on the highest standards of hygiene in hospitals and a rigorous commitment to the collection of reliable data in public health. So, today the lamp that is passed on from one nurse to another is the lamp of knowledge. And we recall the way in which hospital patients today are subject to regular and careful testing, with the data passed on from one practitioner to the next. Knowledge is precious, so when it is missing, or knowledge claims are unreliable, we naturally register great concern. But the concern itself is evidence that responsible professionals are ‘on the case’, and with a sense of urgency.

Next Sunday’s New Testament passages for the Sixth Sunday of Easter (17th May) are also concerned with knowledge. According to Luke’s account in Acts (chapter 17, verses 22-31), Paul found an altar in Athens with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ The apostle went on to fill in the gap in knowledge as he addressed the Athenians on Mars Hill, speaking of God the creator, Jesus, and the resurrection.

In the Gospel passage Jesus also speaks about knowledge in his conversation with the disciples. After his departure in death, at Easter they will see him again. On that day, as he says, they will know that “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” (John 14: 20)

In his brief address on Radio 4’s Sunday Worship on May 10th Rowan Williams spoke of the eternal purpose of God; at its heart is healing and life. But, how are we to know that this is a reliable foundation for ourselves? John’s Gospel offers us the answer. The evidence that God is real comes from the promise of Jesus to take us up into the relationship with his Father that he already enjoys, and from the fulfilment of that promise in the gift of the Spirit, the Spirit of truth.

This is what underlies the knowledge of the believer. It is not something we work up for ourselves; it is God’s gift to us. And God’s gift also to those with whom we are called into dialogue (the Greek word that describes Paul’s work in Acts 17: 17 is ‘dielegeto’). Some of those dialogue partners will come with their own awareness of the Divine, and their own desire to bear witness to what they have received and to listen to what we have to share. Many others will be open enquirers, though not all of course.

In the Acts passage (chapter 17, take as a whole) dialogue is what is going on in Athens, in the synagogue with Jews and in the marketplace with others. There is plenty of ‘cut and thrust’, but also serious attempts at discernment. For Jesus and Resurrection are not ‘novelty’ idols, but the key to what Paul has to declare about God and God’s eternal purpose.

In all our uncertainties today this remains absolutely ‘solid ground’.

Trevor Thomas (13th May 2020)

Pray for Sierra Leone

We are rightly concerned at present with what is happening here, in this country, and especially concerning the sad and difficult situations that some of our friends and family are facing.

I am aware through correspondence with the Methodist Church in Sierra Leone that there are ongoing outbreaks of violent unrest occurring which is very worrying.

This is an extract from an email from Mark (the Bishop) today:

——— our situation is not yet calm as it should be. For even this morning through our local news it was said that the youth are not happy and so they are trying to regroup for another attack who knows where.

But I know and believe that they will not succeed by the grace of God.

For we have suffered for too long. From war to Ebola to mudslide flooding and now COVID19. Pray for us. Once again thank you and stay safe.

Mark

Anita Beer

13th May – A Prayer for Today

Sometimes it’s the small things that get you down – my hair hasn’t been this ‘wild’ since my student days and the streets of the village have become too familiar.

Last night I listened to a talk by a poet who I admire. It was a recording made at a festival I attended a couple of years ago. I’d been disappointed to have missed hearing him speak at the time but the venue tent had been overfull, so I’d moved on.

His talk was good: funny, sad, reassuring and challenging – but what was best was that the microphone picked-up the background noise, the sounds from other sites – laughter, applause and music from other tents: it was almost as though I was ‘there’.

Greenbelt, like many other summer season events, has been cancelled this year, as a family we will miss it enormously but it will be back in 2021 and in the mean time they have made available their back catalogue of recorded talks to listen to at home.

Dear Lord,
everything is so uncertain
so much we were looking forward to
simply can’t happen.
Our world seems to have shrunk,
our horizons narrowed.

Help us to recognise that in unforeseen ways
the world – in virtual form – has come to us:
So that we may ‘visit’
the New York Metropolitan opera house,
look closely at the pictures in the Rijksmuseum,
enjoy a West End musical
or follow the wildlife on the Galápagos.

And on those days when we have the courage,
the inner resolve,
challenge us to ‘explore’ other places, perhaps:
the deforestation of the Amazon,
a refugee camp in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon
or the perilous journey of a polar bear near Hudson Bay
So that our horizons are stretched
that we might be better informed and prepared
to re-shape our world.
Amen.

Michael Mays