Writing in the sand for our young people

At the end of the school day my children reel off to me what has been going on and what lessons they have had etc. But recently I have heard a reoccurring report that friends in their forms have been experiencing panic attacks either in break times, lesson times, or at home. This is worrying to hear because we all know that school can be stressful but are we fully realising the amount of pressure and stress this Covid situation is putting on our children and young people?

Recent news reports have highlighted the apparent irresponsibility of young people. However more and more Drs are pointing to the long term affects that the lockdown and further restrictions will have on young people. Recent writings concerning the well-being of young people have concluded that the long term impact of loneliness on their mental health will be felt several years from now.[1]

Our denial of the huge trauma on our young people that the disruption and removal of education, socialising, and physically being together has, has untold consequences. Van der Kolk who authored a must read book on the topic of trauma, The body keeps the score, states that the “denial of the consequences of trauma can wreak havoc with the social fabric of society.”[2]

How we react to members of our society equates to consequences further down the line, are we continually reinforcing a message that ignoring stress and trauma is the way we do things, especially if you are deemed to be of blame.

Out attitudes towards young people are also part of the problem. We have a tendency as a country and culture to want to point the finger at a certain focal point to establish blame. It tends to make us feel better, especially if the group in trouble is not us, and it gives us something to unite and focus our energy on to overcome, or beat the problem.

I was reading the Gospel of John the other day, I’d just come to John 8, where the scribes and Pharisees decide to drag in a women to test and prove a point to Jesus. Jesus in this situation did something fantastic, the accusers say to him, “now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such woman. Now what do you say?” (John 8:5) Jesus bends down and writes in the sand and by doing so changes the way things are done, by not engaging in their process, he breaks the momentum of blame and punishment, and turns the old system back onto the accusers, “let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7 NRSV) 

Beautifully also in all of this, where the scene is taking place is in the temple, a focal point of unity[3]. Jesus had already shown his disciples how he is the new temple in John 4, where he gives living water to all who thirst, waters that bring life and healing. (John 4:13-14, Ezek 47:1-12) In this scene faced with a frightened woman and the accusers safe in the knowledge of their teaching, Jesus disrupts the process of blame and punishment by giving life and healing. Exactly what the function of the temple should do. He now becomes the focal point of unity, by showing how His people should be treasured and loved, healed and fed.

I had a thought whilst thinking about all this. Is this what we are doing to our young people, are we dragging them into our temple – the media pages, our social media, – and saying, “Ha I caught them standing in a group, talking, there were more then six of them, they were not doing what they were told, now, see, I told you, you cannot believe that our views are wrong!”

Jesus stands next to our young people and breaks the process of blame and punishment. He challenges us to dare to throw the first stone, who has not washed their hands, wore a mask, desperately hugged a friend?

We have a duty to stand up for our young people to ensure they are treated with compassion and concern.

And there is a duty here for us to stand up for our young people by breaking the process of blame and punishment. To also accept and acknowledge that there is untold unseen damage to our young people being done through unfortunate necessary restrictions to try and combat the virus.

I pray that I hear fewer reports of my children’s friends suffering such anxiety to the point of a panic attacks, and I pray for all young people during this awful time.


[1] Dr Maria Loades, “Lockdown loneliness in children and young people may continue to impact on mental health for years to come” in reachwell.org, July 22 2020. https://reachwell.org/2020/07/22/dr-maria-loades-lockdown-loneliness-in-children-and-young-people-may-continue-to-impact-on-mental-health-for-years-to-come/

[2] Bessel Van Der Kolk, The body keeps the score, (London, Penguin Books, 2015) 186.

[3] Mary L Cole, God dwells with us, (Minnesota, The Liturgical press collegeville, 2001); 122.

A new people built and fed on the body of Christ

Father, may these spoken words be faithful to the written word and lead us to the living word, Jesus Christ our Lord.

I bought some new bird feeders for my garden the other week. I adore birds so I filled them up with sunflower hearts and waited to see what birds came. Surely enough some blackbirds came and enjoyed the produce. Then a couple of days later I went to refill them and the squirrels had not only been at the seed but chewed around the hole where the birds could peck at the seed. The holes that they had made where now so big I couldn’t put anymore seed in and I couldn’t hang them up anymore – the squirrels had decided somewhere along the line they would take and protect what they thought what was their own and at whatever cost!

Today’s Gospel is rich in metaphor and imagery, of a landowner devastated by the breakdown of trust from the tenants, of tenants who believe they are owed more than what they think they are receiving.

They are blinded by keeping the produce, clinging onto the things they can see and protecting it at whatever cost. And what happens, they manage to kill the landowner’s son as they refuse to believe that there is anything more precious that what they can accumulate for themselves.

If we are honest we can see ourselves as the tenants in this parable. How tightly we hold onto things, onto possessions, positions, power, control, we love to have things our own way, why should anyone else take a produce that we have looked after ourselves, we deserve it, these are our rules and we reject any who tell us otherwise.

Paul in the letter to the Philippians speaks of the need for humanity to have status, to be confident in our own doings, in our own rules, and he says after the loss of all things, he regards all of that as rubbish, yes rubbish, because he has gained Christ and gained the knowledge that Jesus is in control.

The landowner who provides for the tenants who have faith in him, who trust that their reward for growing have a place in the kingdom.

After all in the vineyard, growing is the work, and we are called to work, growing a new people built on the cornerstone, a new people made from and built on the body of Christ.

We are being called to be a new people, made on the foundations of Christ, built on his body, sustained by his body, to be the body of Christ in the world.

This means stepping out of our human boundaries, to not seek the things we feel when we are most pressed, to step away from the need to feed ourselves on ourselves and our own produce. We need the bread that is the body of Christ, that bread which transforms and challenges our human desire for self satisfaction.

Paul says beloved I do not consider that I have made it my own, but this one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Paul shows the urgency of keeping moving forward walking with Jesus, feeding on him, so we can leave our sin and mistakes behind us, we cannot grow or build if we keep looking behind us, we must press on, working, growing, being re-focused on the will, the mission of God, realising that our ignorance because of self satisfaction is distorting our life and those around us.

The sorrow of the Gospel today cries out to us to reevaluate what we are doing, are we living only to satisfy ourselves, to stand and admire our produce in the vineyard?

Like the squirrels who admired their bounty, and not thought further than themselves, they have destroyed the thing that was actually feeding them.

We are being called to be a new people, made on the foundations of Christ, built on his body, sustained by his body, to be the body of Christ in the world.

As we take Jesus into us today, during this Holy communion, this indwelling of him in us and us in him, let us ask for the Holy Spirit to remind us of our love for Christ and of our trust in Him.

Amen.

Forgiveness parts the waters of the world

Father may these spoken words be faithful to the written word and lead us to the living word, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Who here knows the story of the crossing of the red sea? Excellent.

Now who here thinks that this story is still relevant today?

My favourite part of the Exodus reading set today is “the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea” now bear with me, you might be thinking what has this got to do with the Gospel reading today?

I will show you.

In the Gospel Jesus is teaching about forgiveness. Peter wants to know the limit on how much he should bear if another person in the church sins against him. Last week we heard from Katherine who taught us about the prescription of how we travel together to be a healthy church. And here Peter is asking for a little clarity about how often he should forgive. Jesus says not seven times but I tell you 77 times.

This seems like a very big challenge.

So I want to come back to the Old Testament reading, where the Lord tells Moses to stretch his hand over the sea and they will pass safely.

There is this wonderful image here of God paving the way of his people.

He spilt the sea to help them walk forward with him, to be close to him, to foster a relationship of intimacy, love, and trust.

There is another fantastic image of the water being moved to help God’s people keep walking forward, it is in the book of Joshua chapter 3. The Priests are carrying the ark of the covenant “God’s word” across the river Jordan. The Lord says to them that as soon as the Priests feet touch the water it will move. And sure enough it does and they again cross safely.

So lets go back to Peter and Jesus.

Jesus is giving Peter the advice he needs to keep walking forward, even when facing the sea of hatefulness and opposition. Forgiveness is the promise that Jesus gives to Peter, that if he keep forgiving the sea will part from his feet and he will continue to walk on dry land following the will of God and in his promise of love and ultimately a place in the kingdom.

I want you all to imagine that all the things we encounter, pain, anger, injustice, anxiety, loneliness, fear, is like facing a wall of sea. God promises us to help us cross this sea by the power of His love, forgiveness, that when we place our feet into those frightening waters they will spilt, and we can keep moving forward.

Forgiveness does not diminish the things that happen to us, or turn us into doormats, it makes us stronger because we lean on the Lord and be honest and tell Him how hurt we are.

Take heart that not long after the Israelites crossed the sea they started to complain! And the disciples themselves scattered at the Crucifixion. We all need the Father’s love, the Holy Spirit’s guidance, and Jesus’ power of forgiveness.

In these times of uncertainty it feels like we are facing a wall of water, but God promises to split the sea and help us to keep walking in the way of the Lord, to love and trust God, to forgive and keep on forgiving just like he does.

May we trust in God’s ways to forgive and keep walking with Him, may the seas that we face spilt, and may our hearts be open to his word.

Amen

Talitha cum

Watching the sun rise I felt you there, as the tight faint words that left my pained lips whispered your name. Minute by minute as the sky began to change I felt the light of your presence tiptoe into the darkness of my pain. How can saying a phrase over and over again bring such focus when my mind is occupied by the heat of firework-like pain.

Over and over again, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. Each pronunciation of each word causing more pain but still cuts through the sea of flames parting them for a moment of stillness, a strange sweetness in the bitter endurance.

Soon I realise an hour has passed, and although the pain hasn’t gone I feel my lips are stronger and more confident. Although my body doesn’t agree, with shaking legs I make my way downstairs in the new born light of the day. The kitchen isn’t dark enough to warrant a light yet not light enough to see clearly. The click of the kettle is loud – click, bubble, rumble, click – and the sound of my hot water battle filling up, a warm relief to hold.

I tip toe into my study, thin morning light casts shadows from the crucifix on my table. I draw my eyes up and see the growing light flowing over my statue of Mary. She stands there with arms open and I cast all my fear of the pain into them. The garden illumines more and more, I pace the carpet, and find myself swaying like I used to when settling my children when they were babies. Here I am trying to settle myself but being rocked in the rhythm of prayer, being fed by His sweetness, and comforted by the strength of Mary.

At some point it all became quiet.

And in that stillness a voice – “Talitha cum”

Sweetness in the bitterness of pain.

I have seen the Lord

I saw the feast of Mary Magdalene described as a little Easter in ordinary time on twitter today. I felt after the Lent and Easter that the world experienced this year this description of this beloved saint was very fitting.

I remember on Easter Sunday morning waking and watching the sun rise in such stillness perpetuated by the lockdown situation which hung thick in the air. The sound of a busy town silenced seemed a fitting way to imagine the echo of the loudness heard and felt after the violence of Good Friday.

After all the crowds had gone, after the body of Jesus was laid in that cold tomb, I imagine Mary Magdalene slipping down to its location, wrapped in the comfort of the thin dawn light to glimpse and hold the memories of the man who changed her life, who transformed her.

Mary hangs around the tomb weeping and it made me think about the things that we’ve wept over, the memories that we have stood next to and wept and poured ourselves out over. It made me think about the tombs in our lives have we have that we stand near and mourn, waiting, searching for light and hope

Jesus transforms Mary’s sorrow as he bursts into the present and calls Mary by name. Suddenly he reaches into death and pulls her from darkness into light, and there in the breaking dawn she sees the power of love that death cannot stop, love that cannot be drowned even in the streams of tears that fell from her eyes.

There in the new daylight, the sun burning aflame like Mary’s heart that beats with joy and love in her chest as she stands with the man who kept his promise, to be with her and us always.

And then after her adoration she turns and becomes the Apostle to the Apostles and she proclaims “I have seen the Lord”.

May the Lord greet us as we weep at the tombs of the things heavy on our hearts, that in this little Easter we experience the fresh light and love from the one who knows and calls us by name, drawing us from darkness to light, aflame in love.

By his wounds we are healed

And what is meant by the experience of physical pain in the hands at the mention of Christ hanging on the cross?

Is it a shared sympathy, a feeling that can compound the huge sacrifice laid down on that rugged tree? Is it an acknowledgement of the wounds that we share , that we are following the journey, the call that Christ calls us to, that we are ultimately crucified with Christ.

A vision of rough and sturdy hands forcing the arms apart, the body bucking and thrashing as each nail is driven into the palm. One by one, sharpness, sheer pain, followed by the never ending aches, throbbing from the palm, to the elbow, to the shoulder, to the neck.

An ache a yearning to escape from this suffering. God weeps as we writhe and thrash away from the cross, because His son willingly took the burden of humanity and poured out His blood and water to feed the ground in which we grow. Each of us a sacred seed, grown and made in the likeness of God Himself.

Feeling that ache in the hands, an echo of the shared suffering, the wounds we share, our secret knowledge that only God can know. And when I look down and see the colour changing in my palms, the purple flag that flies as death draws close, the paling of life that foreshadows the dying of sin, I see the victory over death. And in that pain I am shown that there is no way around the cross in ministry.

Christ can be seen through us so in turn we feel Christ dwelling in us. Not just the joy of re-birth, of resurrection, but of skin breaking on cold iron, on sharp thorns, on rough wood, and the welt from carrying the cross.

And from those aching palms blessings are poured out through the wounds made and healed through Christ.

We doubt that recovering from these wounds could be possible, yet quietly Christ approaches – ‘touch my hands and see my side’ and we fall down and declare in the realisation of such a sacrifice – my Lord and my God!

Look, your king is coming to you

I vividly remember my first Palm Sunday in church.

It was a Sunday evening in what was called “family church.”

The light was just moving into its evening glow and the hall was filled with the smelt of palm leaves that we were folding into crosses. I was pretty hopeless at folding the palm leaf. So I made a large paper palm leaf from green craft paper. It had that familiar texture to it that reminded me of primary school craft and choir practice.

We moved into church and stood in a circle and sang a hymn. Some started to wave their branches, some their crosses. I was stood a little motionless not sure what to do. I glanced over to my children and they were waving away. I thought I’d better make some effort and I started to sing and wave my paper palm leaf.

It was that moment when the sun broke through the stained glass, and I was overwhelmed by a sense that God loved me.

I questioned this feeling in mind, “really Lord, you love me?” the reply was a firm yes and hot tears ran down my face.

One of my favourite hymns captured this moment for me “amazing love, how could it be that thou my God shouldst die for me?” It was on that first Palm Sunday that Jesus rode into my heart and I welcomed Him with a paper palm leaf and tears of joy and thankfulness.

Today Palm Sunday is once again a new feeling. It’s a Palm Sunday that is happening with locked church doors, with no public worship, yet Jesus still rides onwards towards us.

Look your king is coming to you.

He is coming through the locked doors, through our isolation, through our sadness and grief and fear.

Look your king is coming to you.

He is coming in the breaking of the sun from behind the clouds, from the birdsong that cuts through the silence, in the breath of the wind that flows through the open window.

Look your king is coming to you.

He is coming in the text messages from your loved ones, in the FaceTiming of family, in the phone calls from friends, in the live streaming from The Church.

Look your king is coming to you,

May this Palm Sunday be one of confidence in the Lord’s love for us, let us welcome Him into our hearts afresh.

Amen.

Run with perseverance

When I started attending church regularly (which was around late 2013 early 2014) I remember seeing a small red badge that the clergy would wear. The same symbol was at my children’s school and it took me a while and a lot of squinting to figure out what it was.

Turns out it was a race track, an athletics track shaped in a triangle with the strap line “run the race look to Jesus” under it.

Catchy I thought!

I had no idea really what it meant. I didn’t know it was scripture. I didn’t know any theology about it but it kept asking me to join in.

Joining in is the first thought I had when I read the Hebrews reading this morning,

“let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfector of our faith

It reminded me that Jesus goes before us in all things. He is the one that is in front of us and we are joining in with Him, gathering others, running towards Him. Running towards the joy that He has set out before us made possible through the sacrifice of Himself.

It also reminded me that things take time. Yesterday felt a long day. We might be like this for a longer time than we originally thought.

I was annoyed by this prospect. Then I was annoyed by my own annoyance. How selfish can I be? How glad that I am forgiven!

But going back to that little red badge.

Was it there that God called me to join in the race?

Perhaps it was!

God is calling us all to join in and to keep going and even more so during these challenging times.

The good news is that we are not alone, that a great cloud of witnesses go with us. And as we wait in isolation and lock down we realise the great cloud of witnesses are not only heavenly, but those in our online communities too.

Let us run, let us allow our hearts to be moved, looking to Jesus for His peace and perseverance this day and every day.

Amen.

Take away the stone.

My mind has struggled this week to focus on anything apart from taking each day at a time. Normally I’m a big future planner, I like to know what I’m doing in good time. I like to plan things to look forward to. I like to see what is ahead of me so I can adapt and prepare myself mentally and emotionally.

All that has gone out of the window since the lockdown. I have got a dissertation to write and my mind just cannot hold my attention long enough to focus. As soon as I think of doing something my brain recalls all the latest news headlines, and reminds me of the fact I’m part of the vulnerable group due to my chronic neurological illness.

Then I add onto that encouraging the children to do their online school work, making sure they’re fed etc, thinking about slowly sorting the house for when we move, and remembering to look after myself. After all that I can’t even remember what I was going to read or write, it is like there is a large stone blocking me off.

I feel like the very dry bones described by Ezekiel and I only begin to move and operate when the daily offices breathe their life into me. I love the imagery of God’s word being the energy, the power, the life force that cause the bones to become part of a body again.

This theme of new being and resurrection is seen in the Gospel reading today as we see Jesus raising up Lazarus. We are told that he has been dead for four days. The body would have become decayed and damaged. Yet like in Ezekiel I imagine the flesh and bones reconnecting through God’s word, “Lazarus, come out!” breathed upon him.

But what I notice before Jesus speaks is that he asks the stone to be taken away.

I’m pretty sure Jesus could raise Lazarus without the stone being moved yet he says “Take away the stone”.

I want to think on this action a little – Take away the stone.

Ezekiel has a wonderful image earlier on in chapter 11 verse 19. He says “I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh.”

Here the stone symbolises the hardness of the heart that happens to us. We protect our hearts as much as we can. We don’t like to be hurt. We put up barriers to protect ourselves and over time the fleshiness, the softness of the heart suffers.

Those around Lazarus’ tomb doubted because it was natural to them. They were hurting because of the death of their brother, did they really want to experience more hurt if Jesus could not do anything? Could they face weeping even more than they had?

Jesus wept feeling the sorrow of His heart raging through his body. His most sacred heart filled with compassion for his people.

Jesus says “Take away the stone” and they still protest, but he says “did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

And so the stone is removed and they witness a miracle.

Not only in Lazarus being raised. They themselves being resurrected, flesh clinging to their dry bones as their hearts beat again in joy. Weeping turning into joy.

I believe in these testing times and as we start Passiontide walking closer to the cross, Jesus is calling us to “Take away the stone”.

He calling us to step away from the hardness of heart that doubt and fear threatens to create.

He is calling us in readiness to open our hearts to Him so he can resurrect our dry bones, and make our hearts fleshy and on fire with love for Him.

These are the times to take away the stone, to allow the breath of God to enter us, to feel our heart’s break with tears and beat with love and resurrected hope.

These powerful images of reconnected bodies speak clearly to us as a dispersed communion, where we cannot worship together or celebrate the Mass. In the words that we share in our prayer books, apps, and watching Mass being streamed online, we put flesh on our bones through the act of participating in God’s word and worship.

Our bodies are reconnected as the Body of Christ, though apart still together in deepest communion through the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Jesus’ heart tells us to “Take away the stone” and let him in amongst all the tears and fears.

This is my focus for the week. I will take away the stone and focus on Him. I pray that we all can, as we walk together towards Holy Week.

Amen.

You shall still deliver the same number of bricks

I don’t know about you but I have found this week so far really tiring.

It is a great compulsion of us all to keep going in the face of change, difficulty, and challenge. But how much can we keep pressing on without taking a bit of time to step back and realise the enormity of the situation we are all living in.

Some will say that pressing on is what we are called to do, the keep calm and carry on attitude. This is fine but there is an importance and a need to sit in the uncomfortable space of despair and grief.

We are all pressing on but we must remember that we can become our own Pharaoh, expecting ourselves to produce the same number of bricks when the situation has changed.

One of my favourite theologians Walter Brueggemann speaks of the importance of the lament in worship. By acknowledging our lament we push through the culture of denial and embrace grief. This is not a mere melancholy sulking but actually sitting in this space acknowledging the situation, vocalising it, and then turning to Him who listens and reorientates in a radical newness that only He can provide.

Remember we cannot deliver the same number of bricks.

God isn’t calling us to slavery but to service.

He calls us friends and we press on in that assurance and steadfast love.

Amen.