Pause for thought mid-Advent…

When I was a child I used to sleep facing the wall. I lived in a place of comings and goings. We had a guest house. The people around me for half the year had different accents, came and went. Perhaps I’d never see them again. But my parents were constant. Somewhere I’d picked up the idea that people never got shot in the back, that there was an innate ethic even held by bad people. So I slept facing the wall. It was safe. I was hiding my face from the world, and if I could not see it, it could not hurt me. Such is the logic of a small child.

Some of us never grow up. St Paul spoke of seeing through a glass darkly. Sometimes the veil is drawn back and we see the world as it is. It can be the slow drawing back of a curtain on a glorious sunrise, or a lightning flash. But we learn to see the world as it really is. Occasionally we even get to see ourselves, but for that to happen we usually need help.

John the Baptist not so much drew back the curtains as tore them apart. And behind them was a mirror. And the people saw themselves. It was not a pretty sight.

I imagine they had heard about this man, out in the wilderness, wild, unkempt, perhaps a bit of a rogue. Some probably thought it would be entertaining to see him, perhaps a bit of a tease. Some had thought he was a prophet. And so the proud, the pompous, the pretentious gathered by the river. Unusual then, as for us perhaps, the poor and needy mingled with them, pushed and jostled.

And John, this ‘prophet’ spoke. Loud, contentious, not what you’d want to hear in church, not in polite society, not how you, or I, would want to be addressed, no ‘Lords, Ladies, and Gentlemen’ but…

You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.
Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Luke 3: 7 – 9)

Bit of a shock that. Necessary, though, in preparation for meeting Jesus, the one of whom John said, ‘I baptise you with water, he will baptise with fire’. Jesus would pick up on that message bringing good news to the poor, release for captives and so on. But for now eyes needed to be open. “And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’” (Luke; 3:10).

So before we continue headlong into the parties, if we dare hold them, the carolling and feasting, unless we’ve already begun, a time to pause. A time to turn our faces from the wall to the world, from our self-satisfaction and security to what it might actually mean to follow Jesus. ‘What then, should WE do?’

This will not be a return to the old ‘Normal’, but a new beginning that will burst the bubbles of our self-centredness and open us to the love of a God who trusted humanity sufficiently to become a child, to be suckled by a human mother, held by a human father. This vulnerable baby is the God, from whose love neither you, nor I, nor those we might seek to judge as unworthy can be separated, now or in eternity.

So let us pause for thought, and only then let us celebrate…

Remember what was ahead:

When Jesus came to Bethlehem there was no harsh a day,
they say a census had been called, there was no place to stay;
this baby who would shake the world, would first lay down his head,
not in a royal house or hall, but in a manger bed.

When Jesus went to Nazareth his father had a trade,
a carpenter now had a son and business plans were laid;
but soon within the temple courts, this lad would have his way,
dissenting from his parents’ wish, they’d looked for him all day.

The path that he set out to tread from Jordan’s crowded bank
would take him him through a wilderness with neither power nor rank;
returning he would scourge the ones and verbally deride
a viper’s brood, these hypocrites, who dressed themselves in pride.

Returning to Jerusalem, but not in regal dress,
he’s seated on a donkey’s back, not here to rule or bless;
the temple tables were upturned, but more disturbing still,
his challenge to authority would cause the air to chill.

That chill was in Gethsemane when he knelt down to pray,
and all the pain of all the world seared through him on that day;
the time of crisis had arrived to turn from what was right,
or walk with soldiers on to what now looked like endless night.

The trial came and ones that he had scourged with words scourged him,
and this was brutal vengeance now, not wondrous, simply grim:
his flesh was ripped, his sinews torn, his body hung to dry,
and as the darkness gathered round the whole world seemed to sigh.

That ragged child that Mary bore was taken from the tree,
the women waited through three days, covertly went to see:
they found the tomb was empty now, the one they sought had gone,
and as they raced in fear away, the mystery lingered on.

Yet through two thousand years and more the influence of that man
has rippled down through history from where it first began;
his spirit stills inspires a faith that trusts to what is right,
to seek for truth, to live in love, keep justice burning bright.

Hymn words Andrew Pratt © 2015 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.

Reflection originally written for the Mid-Cheshire Methodist Circuit 2021

Pentecost resources – hymns, song, poem, monologue, reflection, drama

The following items are all written by Marjorie Dobson or Andrew Pratt.
More of Marjorie Dobson's writing can be found at Stainer & Bell Ltd - Marjorie Dobson
More of Andrew Pratt's writing can be found at Stainer & Bell Ltd - Andrew Pratt

Hymn: It was a new beginning on the day the Spirit came

It was a new beginning on the day the Spirit came.
The house was filled with roaring wind and heads were touched by flame.
Their lips were blessed with languages that all could understand 
and Peter led the charge into this new uncharted land.

It was a revelation when the doors were opened wide 
and all could see what happened to the ones who were inside.
“These men are plainly very drunk, at only nine-o-clock.
It’s surely very clear they’ve had a monumental shock.”

It was a new translation when the Spirit led their speech 
and Peter stood in front of them and then began to preach.
The people were amazed because they understood each word 
and, what is more, they acted on the message that they heard.

It was a new beginning, but the story carries on, 
as people still find inspiration, though the years have gone.
For Pentecost is permanent, the Spirit still holds sway 
and helps us to translate God’s word and challenge for today.

Marjorie Dobson	
© Words © 2019 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.
Metre: 14 14 14 14

Poem: Common language

Confusion – 
as the Babel-babble of languages 
ripped apart a proud people
and scattered them in misunderstanding.

Resolution – 
as a Spirit-filled language 
swept swiftly through a listening crowd 
and united them in understanding and community.

Same God.
Same Spirit.
But now in longed-for reconciliation, 
as the word of death defeated by the love of God 
was spoken with Pentecostal power.

©Marjorie Dobson

Hymn/Poem: Simultaneous translation

Simultaneous translation, 
Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, 
all the world, it seemed, was listening, 
here the Spirit cheers, unites. 
Awe and wonder stunned the people, 
something new had come to birth, 
now the Holy Spirit, flaming, 
spread God's grace across the earth.
Faith's foundations shudder, quaking, 
preconceptions shift and shake, 
people share anticipation,
joy has come and love will wake!

Andrew E Pratt (born 1948)
© 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.
Metre: 8 7 8 7

Inspiration: I hate balloons!

I hate balloons!
Ever since that day
one horrid child
burst one behind me
at a party, 
when I was only four,
or thereabouts -
I’ve hated balloons.

And yet ……

a street-seller
captivates children –
and me –
by making shapes and animals,
as he breathes life
into long, thin balloons
and curves and twists them
in his hands.
Then, suddenly, a dog!
And a delighted child
sees, not breath encased,
only a new friend
to carry home with glee.

balloons are nothing.
they live.

Come Holy Spirit,
pour new life into me,
that I may fill
and change
and live and grow,
by the very breath of God.

Marjorie Dobson
© Words © 2004 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.

Song: Lithe spirit you're bounding and leaping

Lithe spirit you're bounding and leaping,
stars shimmer and flash from your heels,
until the whole world burns with pardon and praise,
until the lost know how love feels.

O harlequin dazzle by dancing,
let joy spring like sparks from a flame,
until every person consumed by your love
comes blithely to join in your game.

Come juggler, spinning and turning
our chances and dreams like a top,
until all our values are turned upside down
whirl on through the world, never stop.

Andrew E Pratt (born 1948)
© Words © 2002 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.
Metre: 9 8 11 8
Tune: LITHE SPIRIT – from Reclaiming Praise & Whatever Name or Creed ( )
This can be heard with different words at 

Drama: Pentecost People – Acts 2: 1-21
(Could be used as a substitute for a sermon, or in an interactive service, or in a discussion group. The characters could lead into topics for discussion or conversation.)

Reader - Acts 2: 1-21

Narrator: Can you imagine what it must have been like on that day? It must have been sunny – and very hot. What would you have been doing if you were in that crowd? They were mostly Jews from all over the world and this was a religious festival for them.
Maybe imagining how you would have felt then is not easy. For that reason, each of the following characters has brought the story into their own time – our time, maybe?

Maybe this was your regular visit to Jerusalem and you wouldn’t want to miss it? 

Regular attender: Do you know I’ve never missed a Sunday at church for the last forty years – apart from holidays and illness, of course. It’s just a part of my way of life. Every Sunday, get up, get dressed in my best, and off I go. I meet my friends, we have a gossip and coffee after the service and it’s all very pleasant and starts the week off on the right note. The service is OK, so long as the hymns are right and you don’t have to listen to the sermon if you don’t want to. I’ve heard it all before anyway. But these extra visitors are not like us regulars.

Narrator: Maybe you’re local. You live here and have to put up with the visitors. 

Local worshipper: I’m not really comfortable when we get too many visitors crowding our church out - like at Christmas, or Harvest Festival – but I reckon they’re not really serious about the service, so I don’t pay them much attention as long as I can be first in the queue for coffee. I’m not sure why these people come, even if it is a special occasion. We’re not a very adventurous kind of church. We know our own ways and like them and nothing exciting is ever likely to happen round here, so we just carry on as usual and they can make of it what they will.

Narrator: Maybe you’ve travelled a long way – you’re a Jew, but this isn’t even your country. 

Stranger from another place: I’m not from round here. My country is very different to this. So I came here to look for safety and security, but it’s not always easy being here. I hoped the church would offer me some kind of refuge, that’s why I came at this special time. I believe in God, so I should be as much a part of this company as anyone else. I struggle with the language sometimes and some people don’t seem very comfortable because I’m here, but I hope that God will speak to me wherever I am, even if the language is different.

Narrator: Maybe you think all this is a rip-off. People making money.

Cynic: I reckon there’s something fishy going on here. You come to church only because you’ve had your arm twisted up your back by the girl friend to be here for this celebration thing and then it’s just like any other big crowd anywhere. There’s always somebody making a noise, or acting funny, or talking about strange things happening at the front that you can’t see or understand. There are rumours that something’s going to happen and then nothing seems to – not that I can see anyway! I wonder who’s making money out of this and is all this talking and singing just a way of getting you in the mood to hand over even more money

Narrator: Maybe you feel others should recognize that it is a privilege for them to be here with you? 

VIP: It’s really difficult for me when there are all these strangers milling about. Some of them even try to talk to me. But do they know who I am? I have been a pillar of this church and taken on every office I possibly could and given loyal service to this building over many years now. My name has even gone down in its local history and when I speak in a meeting, most people take note of what I’m saying. But it’s so difficult to command respect in a crowd that doesn’t know you. They only come on these special occasions, so I think I should just keep my distance and maybe some of them may recognize that I’m a person of some importance and a force to be reckoned with.

Narrator: Maybe you are panicking because you feel out of control?

The anxious one: I don’t like crowds. I have never liked crowds. I get panicky and afraid because you never know what might happen. That’s why I keep myself to myself – even in church. I don’t want anyone to know how I feel, so I hide it. And who would be interested in my worries and anxieties anyway? I do try to pray about them sometimes, but I’m not even sure that God would want to listen to someone as insignificant as me. So I just keep quiet and hope that I can get away by myself as soon as possible. But it’s so difficult in this crowd. And I’m so easily frightened.

Narrator: The city is hot and noisy and dusty and sweaty and you’re lost and simply moving with the crowd. 

The lost one: I have no idea of how I got here, or why I should be here. I never do have much idea of who I am or where I’m going. I just keep looking for something new, or interesting and seeing where it leads me. Most times, that means nowhere. I don’t suppose this day is going to be any different. I’m sure there must be lots of people who have definite ideas of where they’re going in life and I sometimes envy them. But, for the moment I’ll just drift along following the next craze and not really caring very much about anything. These people seem to be finding something interesting. I suppose I might as well go along with them. For now.

Narrator: Then they come to a standstill outside one particular house. You hear the rumours about the strange people in it. You wait because you’re curious – or simply because you can’t move anywhere else.

Then, suddenly –

Cynic: What did I tell you, Drunk as lords, they are!

The anxious one: Somebody said there was fire somewhere. I’ve got to get out of this!

VIP: Oh dear, what a dreadful noise. This isn’t the sort of behaviour you expect from church people. And they tell me he is a common fisherman!

Local worshipper: They can’t do that kind of thing round here. It’ll give the neighbourhood a bad name!

Regular attender: That man seems to be preaching a very long sermon. I do hope that kind of behaviour won’t catch on!

Stranger from another place: Why are they talking like that? Hey, I can understand that! What does this mean?

The lost one: What that man’s saying really makes me think. Maybe I ought to start taking things seriously. He’s down to earth, but he’s certainly a powerful speaker. This could be the start of a whole new life!

Narrator: All those strange events and Peter filled with a new Spirit of power – surely that was bound to have a tremendous impact on the people there.

It certainly did!

For one thing, three thousand people were added to the church on that day, as they responded to the message that Peter was giving. 

Because it was powerful and they could understand it, as it was being explained in their own language.

Is there some lesson in this for us – HERE and NOW?

©Marjorie Dobson

Hymn: Wind of the Spirit, move us on

Wind of the Spirit, move us on,
drive us before your force.
We need that power to strengthen us
of which you are the source.
Blow off the cobwebs of the past
and set us on your course:
O come Holy Spirit, move us on, move us on.
O come Holy Spirit, move us on.

Fire of the Spirit, burn in us,
surround us with your light.
Destroy our sense of apathy,
give us the will to fight.
That with our hearts on fire for Christ
we set the world alight:

Voice of the Spirit speak to us,
give us your words to say.
Inspire the language of your love,
help us to preach and pray.
That all may hear of saving grace
translated for their day:

Christ, let your Spirit sweep through us,
your serving church renew.
Give us new hope and confidence
in all the work we do.
That those who seek for faith today
may find their way to you:

Marjorie Dobson
© Words © 2004 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.
Metre : & Refrain           

Monologue: Three thousand – plus one!

He certainly got through to me, that Peter bloke. I’ve never heard anyone be so forceful and so sincere in what he was saying. It was amazing.
I don’t know where he got the courage from. After all, he’d been hiding away with the others for weeks and I don’t blame them. They knew the authorities were out to get them if they showed their faces and tried to stir up trouble. The Romans and the religious leaders thought they’d settled their problems by killing Jesus, but they certainly knew that they had to keep his followers under control, or everything would flare up again.
So when things seemed to be happening in the hideout, it wasn’t long before a crowd gathered and I was determined to get as good a view as I could.
Everybody thought they were drunk when they spilled out of the door. The general opinion was that they’d been drowning their sorrows while they’d been locked away, but now the drink had given them enough courage to get outside again.
Then Peter started and we couldn’t believe what he was saying, or his confidence in saying it. By the time he’d finished, he’d totally convinced us that it was our fault that we hadn’t recognized Jesus as the Messiah and so we were the ones who’d crucified him. We’d rejected the very person we’d been expecting for hundreds of years and God wasn’t best pleased with us.
All around me people were crying out and asking what they could do to make things right again. As if we could? How could anything change the situation? He was dead and gone and according to Peter, he’d already been taken back to heaven. What difference could we make to that?
But he had an answer for that too. If we were really sorry for our mistake and were prepared to be baptised into the name of Christ, as a sign of our repentance, then God would honour that act and be a part of our lives for ever.
It reminded me of those days at the Jordan river, many years ago, when that odd, hairy prophet, John was pushing people under the water as a sign of repentance. I didn’t fall for that one then and I wasn’t going to be caught out by this Peter either.
All over the place people were falling on their knees amd begging God for forgiveness. I found it really difficult to get out of the crowd; pushing my way through distraught and supposedly repentant people. But I had to get away. I was in danger of being dragged into all this emotion and I didn’t like the idea. So I escaped down a side street and ran home. A little later one of my sons came back  and told me that apparently three thousand people had been baptised into this new group. It was unbelievable.
I didn’t sleep. I couldn’t. I spent the night pacing up and down, talking to myself and trying not to talk to God. Because I knew, deep in my heart, that Peter was right and I was wrong. And,until I admitted that, I would have to keep God at a distance. So, as day dawned, I knew I had to do something about it.
That’s why I’m off now to become number three thousand and one!

©Marjorie Dobson

Hymn: A commonwealth of love 

A commonwealth of love 
where all are held by grace, 
it seems idyllic on the page, 
could it infect this place?
Within that upper room
were people just like us, 
but meeting Christ in faith and love 
transformed their depth of trust.
And when we meet with God 
we cannot but be changed,
for God confronts our doubt and fear
as lives are rearranged.
This day the change begins, 
the vision is fulfilled, 
and life will never be the same 
where love can be distilled.
So let us grasp this hope
that set the world alight,
that love can never be destroyed 
and fear is put to flight.
A commonwealth of love:
let's risk a seed of grace
to bring this vision into life
within this time and place.

Andrew E Pratt (born 1948)
© 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.
Metre: DSM

Good Friday to Easter

(commissioned for the Mid-Cheshire Circuit of the Methodist Church in the UK, for March 31st 2021 - Humanity into eternity or Death into Life - this is a personal reflection of the author)

Read by Andrew Pratt - click here

This week leads us up to the excitement of Easter Sunday, but to get there we need to get through Good Friday. Far from the hymn language of ‘glorious scars’ and a ‘wondrous cross’ this day is almost impossible for me. You see, I do not believe in a vindictive God who sacrifices his Son. I do trust, through faith, in the incarnation – God being human. The language we use to explain this enigma is taut, strained – a baby in a manger, ‘the Word made flesh’. But if this is our starting point then it is God who hung on a cross on that first ‘good Friday’. I cannot cope with some vast plan of salvation that requires the sacrifice of a child, even an adult child. What I can understand is a God of love, from whom we can never be separated (Romans 8, 38).

So where does that leave us? For me Jesus embodies God’s love completely. 

Such love has to be totally selfless and this is what I see in Jesus. It is the sort of love that challenges all hypocrisy, injustice and indignity to which we are exposed, and which we still experience. But there is a problem here. The moment we start to love those whom others do not, or cannot, love we become a threat to them. We either have to acknowledge that love and ally ourselves with it, or ignore it, oppose it. We are inherently selfish. Humanly we seek our own preservation. That is a biological imperative. So when Jesus challenged the powers, those around him by challenging their economy, their culture it was threatening. You remember the story of Jesus turning over the tables of the money-changers? But they were only going about their normal business. Or his emphasis on the importance of the widow’s tiny gift; surely the gifts of the rich were more important? Or again, when he paused to heal a woman, whom religion said was unclean, who had touched him in the crowd. And he had been called to heal the daughter of a leader of the synagogue! His priorities seemed all wrong. In all these ways it felt as if he was a threat to the culture and religion, the very economy of the people. He was a threat to their way of life. How they behaved was no different from how we, in similar situations, behave today. They and we behave, literally, naturally. 

And Jesus response was the only possible response of complete and utter, unconditional, all-inclusive love: that is forgiveness – ‘forgive them for they literally don’t know what they’re doing’! And we, for all our protestations, are so often no different.

And the cross becomes wondrous, not as some great theological bargain, or the culmination of a cosmic plan of sacrifice, but in the revelation of the nature of total love that we are called to follow. And the human response to this call to love, because of all the sacrifice it requires us to make, is at best half-hearted, at worst vicious, for here, in our neighbour ‘spurned, derided God is dying…

Tortured, beaten, scarred and tainted,            
not a picture deftly painted,
more a tattered, battered being,
torn, disfigured, stark, unseeing.

Muscles twisted, strained, contorted,
body dangling, bruised, distorted.
Life blood drying, sun-baked, stinging,
hatred, bitter hatred, flinging.

Crowds insensate, tempers vented,
full of anger, discontented.
Curses scattered, insults flying,
spurned, derided, God is dying.

And the world is shrouded in darkness, inevitably for in darkness we cannot see. If God is dead this really is the end. And this is why theologians, then and now, you and I, seek to explain away this horror. Yet Jurgen Moltmann, some years ago in a book which still deserves to be read, The Crucified God, sees the cross as the test of all that deserves to be called Christian, rather than the resurrection. Here we see God’s utter love and willingness to be vulnerable, even unto death in order to be one with us, in order not to deny love even for those who killed him. And the scandal and uniqueness is that gods are not meant to die! Wondrous love! Wondrous God, indeed! Love divine, all loves excelling!


So where does that leave us on that wonderful dawn of Easter Sunday, when round the world people will greet the sunrise with hallelujahs? Firstly, that death is not the end! NOT THE END OF LOVE! An empty tomb was not, in the first instance, assuring. Read what Mark says: ‘Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid’ (Mark 16, 8). In another gospel Jesus, mistaken for a gardener speaks:
He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
Jesus said to her, “Mary.” (John 20: 15-16)

Jesus continues …’Do not hold on to me...’ (John 20: 17). The language is that of leaving and, for the moment we put aside the stories of Jesus appearing to other disciples, women and men, the ongoing message is one of ‘what next’? And the answer of the gospels and Acts is not the recollection of a dead God but the continuing active living out in humanity of the sort of life that Jesus showed was possible for every human being, that risky life of utter love of neighbour of every race or creed, of those like us and unlike us so that as Brian Wren wrote, ‘there’s a Spirit in the air…when a hungry child is fed’. And yet in this past year it has taken those outside of government and the church to prompt those of power to remember that simple message. Resurrection was not a one off theological ‘thing’ but comes about every time someone Christian, or other, offers a simple gift of love. For me this reality came about after an operation when, in its aftermath, a nurse, whose name I do not know, put her hand on my shoulder saying, ‘it will pass’…and the sun streamed in the window:

Each hour marks a mighty resurrection, 
a time of overcoming fate and fear, 
the dawning of a common understanding 
in which the grace of God is drawing near.
Each morning brings a sense of new creation.
New life, new love, encompasses the earth.
New time, new light illuminates the distance,
as though the world is coming, fresh, to birth. 
Each evening brings a stunning revelation, 
as stars and planets hove into our view, 
beyond imagination and reflection, 
these scattered bangles flung against the blue.
Each season brings a sense of co-existence, 
relatedness of heartbeat, rhythm, rhyme;
and every year the cycle goes on spinning, 
affirming faith and love through endless time.
Reflection, text and audio: Andrew Pratt; Poems: Andrew E Pratt © Stainer & Bell Ltd; Paintings: © Andrew Pratt from Words, Images and Imagination.