Thoughts as we continue with COVID-19

22 The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. […] 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another. (Galatians 5: 22 – 23; 25 – 26; NRSV)

These past years have changed us. Yes, we long for a return to normal. But whatever normal we inhabit will be different, if only because we are different.

Life is inestimably more valuable now. We have come closer to death. Touched it perhaps – in family, friends or neighbours. Life has become fragmented. You in your small corner and I in mine.

I’m reminded of my mother picking up a remnant, a scrap bit of cloth, piecing it with another, sewing and making something good out of leftover material.

Biblically the remnant was that group of people who survived when times were rough, through famine or illness. Perhaps we are not unlike that remnant.

Our purpose now. To take broken lives, a broken world, and in our particular part of the world, at least, to begin the patchwork quilt of reparation, using what we have however little, who we are however frail, to work as stewards with God. Seeking the Kingdom is not something material. It is to do with living together as though every neighbour of every race, colour, creed, gender, orientation was as Jesus to us and among us.

The new hymn ‘Such a fragment, just a remnant’ reflects on this.

I have a friend who likes jigsaws. A thousand pieces make a picture. Just one missing and it is incomplete. Every person on this planet is as valuable. Each important. All of us have a place. That ought to affirm us. It also ought to open our eyes to affirm one another. All God’s children, ‘brother, sister, parent, child’ as the hymn ‘For the beauty of the earth’ has it.

Psalm 8 says, God has given humanity
 …dominion over the works of our hands;
    you have put all things under our feet,
all sheep and oxen,
    and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
    whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

This earth, this planet…our home has been lent to us. Others lived here before us, gathered a harvest, fed on the fruits of creation. Yet over the years we humans have become arrogant, kings of some evolutionary castle, top of the pile. Humanity, we, have seen everything as ours to use, from which to benefit, or to plunder.

Yet the Bible saying that we have dominion over creation is not suggesting we dominate and ruin, but nurture and conserve what has been handed to us. Others will follow us. What will be left for them, our children and our children’s children will depend on us. Whether there will be a harvest next year, in ten years, a hundred years at the moment is down to us, our generation of humanity.

But to care for the planet is just too big a task, and we are numbed by all the calls for climate change, for recycling and all the rest of it. You or I alone can’t achieve what is needed. But bit by bit together we can make a difference – separating out litter, walking when we might have driven, re-using what we might have thrown away, travelling less or in different ways, using different sources of energy.

God in his love for us lent us this planet. Let us love it as if it was our own, of infinite value. Because it is. But it is never ours to possess, but simply to share and value and hand on to those who come after.

May our faithfulness mirror that of God’s faithfulness toward us and may we be faithful one to another and to our neighbours and descendants on this earth.

(Based on a Harvest Festival Service at St Andrew’s Methodist Church, Winsford, Cheshire, UK; October 2021)

How a hymn was written – A Song of the Sea – Hymn of the Day – Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland

‘A Song of the Sea’ was published recently on this blog. It is the Hymn of the Day today 30th July 2021. The reflection on it tells how it was written and there is a link to it being sung – click here to follow to the reflection

Hymn of the Day – It was on a Friday morning – Sydney Carter – Andrew Pratt – The Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland

It was on a Friday morning Sydney Carter Commentary and recording by Andrew Pratt

Just passing through – Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch – conversion? membership of the church? accepting others

Just passing through…
Bristol evening © Andrew Pratt

Although the title of the latest Methodist hymn book, Singing the Faith, suggests that there is just one faith the more people I meet the more I feel that there are almost as many expressions of faith as there are people. As you read this, reflect back on how you came to faith. Who influenced you? How did you learn? In what ways is your life different because of your faith. 

The poet Dylan Thomas once said that he loved hearing about people’s stories, but they had better be quick or else he’d be talking about his. So excuse me if I indulge myself a bit. Though I didn’t go to Sunday School as a child I did go to church with my parents until I was eleven. I didn’t really go again with any regularity until I was in my twenties. In spite of this I remember two influences, impressions if you like, which have remained with me. Our head teacher was our RE teacher. I found him boring and not very sympathetic. On the other hand my botany teacher enthralled me. I still have little memory or knowledge of botany, but I do remember him saying, ‘I can see some good in any body’. We pushed him on that. He insisted that he could. Not only that, but he lived it out as an example to us. 

Why do I bore you with this? Simply because that impressed me and made me have a different outlook on others. Though I came to faith through something of a mystical experience (more of that another time perhaps) my ‘conversion’ was as much ethical as religious. I changed paths, pulled out of biological research. Attending a new church as I began to re-train as a teacher, after one visit, I asked the minister how I might join that church. I was just passing through – a one year teaching certificate, living partly in a bed-sit, partly commuting 20 miles home each evening depending on my parents’ health. 

Only later did I come across the story of Philip and an Ethiopian (Acts 8: 26-40). The Ethiopian was a government treasury official. He was also a eunuch. He would have assumed that, in a religious sense, he had no ultimate hope. But he was curious. As he travelled he had been reading Hebrew scripture, as we now know it. Philip explained something of what he was reading. It was a passage from Isaiah. It spoke of someone led to the slaughter, who would not open his mouth, to whom justice would be denied, whose life had been taken away from the earth. Hopeless. 

Philip explained that this spoke of Jesus and that Jesus, in some way offered hope. If you read this passage in some translations verse 37 is missing. Let me explain. The Ethiopian, we do not know his name, asked what could prevent him from being baptised. The missing verse says this: Then Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may. And he answered and said, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’” The reason that this verse is missing from, the New Revised Standard Version and other translations, is that it is not in all the original manuscripts from which our New Testament has been translated. Some scholars, and I would agree with them, feel that the original is just too scandalous to be accepted. How can anyone be baptised without a confession of faith? and, no certainty of the belief of the person? See how it reads without the missing verse:

v. 38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.
v. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.

It has often passed through my mind that if Philip had been a Methodist he would surely have offered a course of study, have asked the Church Council whether they were accepting of this person. Of course, he’s black, that might have been a problem. I hear you saying ‘of course not’. Listen to black people sharing their experience of the ‘welcome’ they have so often experienced in our churches, not to mention the recent disclosures about racism in the church of England (a similar story might be told in many other churches). Don’t dismiss what has been said and what people say they have felt. But this story speaks of someone of a different language, colour, ethnicity, faith.

And so I return to a bedsit in Exeter and a minister sharing coffee with me, this student ‘just passing through’. We spoke for an hour, I suppose. Apart from attending one service we’d never met before. There was no confession of faith, not that you’d recognise as such. And what did the minister say, ‘Ok I’ll make you a member’. I asked what people of the church might think? He answered that what they thought didn’t matter, it was between me and God. I never did find out what they thought, or said to the Minister.

I wasn’t going to be involved in that church, not for long anyway. But I’ve been in the church ever since, moving from place to place, some more welcoming than others, some where I’ve felt at home. Some not. Strange though, those that have mirrored best that open, trusting attitude of Philip, not counting numbers or treasuring buildings, just accepting anyone even if they are just passing through, seeing something good in everyone; those places felt most loving, most Christian. And the others, so often, sadly, seemed to want people like themselves and to control who could belong, and who they’d prefer not to. I think it was Jesus, of all people, who said, ‘My father is the gardener’ the one who chooses, who prunes, who casts dead wood on the fire. Not you or me. 

I thank God for the minister who welcomed me and who I learned much later, behaved like Philip with the Ethiopian. He didn’t know me or where I had come from, nor where I would go, but accepted me as I was. Without him I would not be writing this fifty years later. As the author of Acts records it, as the Ethiopian ‘came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing’. 

I’m still here in the Methodist Church. And I pray that we might continue to welcome strangers, no questions asked, no hurdles of belief or creed to jump over – something good in all of them, sending them on their way rejoicing…

And may the community where you meet be one of unconditional love…

A temple where all people will be welcome, 
a city where all poverty will end, 
a promise of an unexpected future, 
a depth of love we cannot comprehend.

For love is all we ever need to offer, 
no vast cathedral, pinnacles of light; 
but shining love illumines every morning 
while scattering the shards of dying night.

New every morning is this love's creation;
new every day, our hope will be reborn, 
until Your people stumble from the darkness 
and recognise that this is love's new dawn.

And seeing how such love infects our being, 
transforming fear, eradicating hate, 
we praise You for your loving understanding, 
and pray our loving may not come too late.

A Prayer: May we see good in everyone, meet Christ in all and offer love without question to every person so that when we sing ‘All are welcome’ it will genuinely reflect what we live in our lives. Amen.

Poem/Hymn Andrew Pratt © 2016 Stainer & Bell Ltd, London, England, 
Please include any reproduction for local church use on your CCL Licence returns. All wider and any commercial use requires prior application to Stainer & Bell Ltd.

LENT 5 – Two Monologues and Two Hymns

Hebrews 5: 5 – 10 

Monologue: The order of Melchizedek

Now there’s a great name for a High Priest, if ever I heard one.
Good strong name. Starts with an ‘M’ – a thrusting letter – pushing the word out into the waiting world.
And it’s got four syllables – very impressive, that. Knocks all those single syllable names, like Tom and John and Will, for a six.
And it’s difficult to spell.
And not easy to say.
And it’s got both a ‘Z’ and a ‘K’ in it.
Certainly a magnificent name for a High Priest. 

Jesus doesn’t sound anywhere near as impressive a name as that.
Very common, for his day, was the name, Jesus. Still is in many parts of the world – which comes as a shock to people who think the name is confined to only one man.
Doesn’t matter, though. ‘Cos Jesus – the Bible one - never claimed to be a High Priest. Didn’t want anything to do with that hierarchy, juggling for power and trying to make a name for themselves.
No, Jesus was just an ordinary man. Different, but ordinary. He mixed with all sorts and got a reputation for it. 
But he did know how to take on the authorities – especially the religious ones - who should have been doing a good job but were really just full of self-importance.
He really got their backs up. Which is why they made him suffer and eventually killed him.
But the irony was that, because he had given his all for God and the people, God then named Jesus as the greatest High Priest of all time – the one who would always be a way back to God for those who needed to find that.

Now that’s what a High Priest is meant to be – even if his name isn’t Melchizedek!
©Marjorie Dobson

Psalm 51: 1-12

Hymn: We each hold within us a trace of the God-head 

We each hold within us a trace of the God-head, 
the grace of forgiveness, the power to plead;
the crisis before us the choice and the challenge: 
to cultivate hatred, or nurture love’s seed.

It's not that we're guilty, You made us for goodness, 
but having the will to build up or break down.
We need to admit in the light of your presence
deception, hypocrisy – part of our ‘crown’.

And so God we worship, not courting your mercy,
but owning quite openly all that we are. 
God take us, forgive us, renew our intention, 
to live by your spirit; God heal every scar. 

Andrew Pratt
Words © 2012 Stainer & Bell Ltd, London, England . Please include any reproduction for local church use on your CCL Licence returns. All wider and any commercial use requires prior application to Stainer & Bell Ltd ©  Stainer & Bell Ltd

John 12: 20-33

Monologue: Those poor Greeks

Those poor Greeks must have got a bit of a shock.
Granted, they were in town for the Passover festival – and strange things often happened at festivals.
Granted, they were Greeks – and their thirst for knowledge was well-known and, mostly, respected.
Granted, they were curious – wanting to see this remarkable teacher.
Granted, they approached him in a respectful way – going first to Philip, who had a reputation for being open-minded and not being biased against foreigners, whether they were Jews or not.
Granted, they were probably prepared to listen to anything that Jesus had to say – however strange, or progressive it may be.
But it still must have been a shock when he suddenly started talking about death and glorification and others losing their lives for the sake of following him.
On top of all that there was the booming voice from heaven – rather indistinct to most people, who thought that it must be thunder.
But they must have been near enough to make out the words. They clearly heard Jesus say, ‘Father, glorify your name.’
And that was strange in itself. What right had he to call God ‘Father’?
Stranger still was the reply – ‘I already have and will do so again.’
What on earth did they make of that?
Did they wait long enough to hear Jesus say that when he was lifted up – even if it was in death – that he would draw all people to him?
It must have given them hope if they did – foreigners as they were.
But it could be that they’d slipped out of the crowd long before that – puzzled by what they’d heard, apprehensive of what they’d seen and needing to give the matter a great deal of thought and discussion before they made any decision about their response.
Jesus still affects people like that.
His words are not always easy to swallow.
But those who never listen, never learn.
And the truth is that the suffering and death of Jesus was inevitable.
But so was the resurrection.
©Marjorie Dobson

John 12: 20-33

Hymn: A troubled soul, the Christ of God

A troubled soul, the Christ of God, 
humanity exposed, 
with all the turmoil that we feel, 
when choices are proposed.
The monumental choice he faced, 
the crisis must be met, 
to take the path of love to death, 
or turn away, forget.

The riddle of the grain of wheat 
was told with fear and dread, 
yet mention of new fruit gives hope 
that God might raise the dead. 
The loss of life, the gain of life 
are tangled in this game, 
yet those who live in love of God 
are held within love's frame.

So Jesus chose and we must choose, 
which path we are to take, 
the one which will deny God's love 
or cause the earth to quake.
God give us courage to deny 
the self that harbours hate, 
to trust in your eternal grace, 
before it is too late.

Andrew Pratt
Words © 2012 Stainer & Bell Ltd, London, England . Please include any reproduction for local church use on your CCL Licence returns. All wider and any commercial use requires prior application to Stainer & Bell Ltd ©  Stainer & Bell Ltd
Tune: DCM