Sunday, July 26, 2009

Our Grandson's Baptism!

This is a bit special!

Leading a baptism service for your own grandson!

That really is special.

First it was the Saga magazine. Then it was noticing that Age Concern and Help the Aged do special events for the over 50’s! I always used to think they were good titles for those organisations. I’m having second thoughts!

And now a baptism service for your grandson.

I think there’s something special about family … and continuity in the family. There’s a chain of links from one generation to the next – Felicity has been very much into family history, a cousin emailed only this week to say she had added us into her family tree. There is something very special about what is passed on from one generation to the next.

So I have a reading from a part of the Bible that has become very special to me. My father preached from Paul’s letter to Timothy at my ordination – as it were passing something special on that he had received from his father and grandfather before him, I then drew on the same letter when it came to Dave’s baptism. From my father to son, from father to son, and now from grandfather to grandson. After all, Paul addresses his letter to ‘my dear son’.

When my eye turned to this passage again, however, I was delighted to see that grandparents come in for some praise too. Though actually it’s mother and grandmother who come in for Paul’s praise. See if you can spot the names of the Timothy’s mother and grandmother too.

From Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by God's will, sent to proclaim the promised life which we have in union with Christ Jesus —

2 To Timothy, my dear son:

May God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord give you grace, mercy, and peace.

3 I give thanks to God, whom I serve with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did. I thank him as I remember you always in my prayers night and day. 4 I remember your tears, and I want to see you very much, so that I may be filled with joy. 5 I remember the sincere faith you have, the kind of faith that your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice also had. I am sure that you have it also.

6 For this reason I remind you to keep alive the gift that God gave you when I laid my hands on you. 7 For the Spirit that God has given us does not make us timid; instead, his Spirit fills us with power, love, and self-control.

Your grandmother Lois, and your mother Eunice had a very special part to play in Timothy’s life.

Since Easter we have been exploring a theme of service, looking at ways we can serve each other and serve God through the church and in the wider world. Becky came across a video clip that celebrates motherhood. I found it moving, not least because of the way it brings together powerful music, and thought-provoking words. Indeed the piece of music is one I associate very much with my own childhood, and others of a certain age will find it brings back fond memories too. It’s the kind of music to pass on from one generation to the next.

YouTube video clip on being a mother

I guess motherhood … parenthood … is one of those things that you can’t do on your own – you need help. One of the things that happens in a baptism service is an acknowledgement of the help that is available from friends, from family, from church family too.

But a baptism service is about much more than the help that other people can give. At the heart of our baptism service is a celebration of the gift God gives to us of his love for us and of his presence with each one of us.

That gives us a strength from beyond ourselves that we can draw on when we feel overwhelmed by all the demands laid on us.

We can tap into that source of strengthening from God through the faith we have in God.

That’s what Paul recognised:

I remember the sincere faith you have, the kind of faith that your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice also had. I am sure that you have it also.

6 For this reason I remind you to keep alive the gift that God gave you when I laid my hands on you. 7 For the Spirit that God has given us does not make us timid; instead, his Spirit fills us with power, love, and self-control.

In a baptism service we also celebrate the wonderful thought that we belong not just to our own family … but also to a church family. The church family we belong to includes Lois, Eunice and Timothy – our celebration today is a celebration that Lake is part of that church family that goes right back to Timothy and to Eunice and to Lois as well, right back to Jesus.

Think how many people come between those three and Lake – so many!

And yet it is not quite so many as you might think!

The oldest person in our church family is Margaret Saunders – next month she will be 104! She’s thinking of us today! At Margaret’s baptism it is just conceivable there could have been someone that old around then as well … that’s just 20 people between Lake and Timothy, Eunice and Lois!

Thinking of that link between Lake and Timothy, his mother and his grandmother, I asked some of those in our church family who are around the hundred mark what their hopes and prayers would be for Lake and for all the little ones in our church family now.

Alice Brown was 12 years old when a friend called Nelly invited her along to Highbury. That was 1925, seven years before the church moved to this site. It wasn’t long before she was walking from Charlton Kings to our Winchcombe Street building for church in the Morning, to Grosvenor Street for Sunday School in the afternoon, and back to church in the evening as well.

When she left home as a teacher she moved away from the church to return when her sister died about eight years ago.

Think how much that generation have been through in the last century.

“I don’t know what I would do without a faith – a faith that there is a God who is there to help!”

That’s the first of Paul’s comments – God’s Spirit fills us with power, strength from beyond ourselves – the help we need to see is through. Alice spoke movingly of the help her faith has been to her … and still is.

Recently, at the age of 96, Alice has started to teach an aerobics class at Lilian Faithful House, the care home, where she now lives. She was disappointed at having only 8 people turn up. The manager, came over to her one day to remind her – you’ll have to remember how old they are!” she said.

“Well, bless my soul,” Alice said, “none of them is as old as I am!”

God’s Spirit fills us with power and with love …

Alice has had a passion for helping people – when she came to worship with us regularly on Sunday mornings each month she would be away one Sunday – and she was in her late 80’s then because she was helping to make cooked breakfasts at Cheltenham Open Door, supporting people who are homeless, or in need of support.

What did she wish for Lake?

“That his life be a peaceful life … not harassed by worries.

“That he should try to be helpful and friendly to other people – not to get enemies – to keep friends with people.

“That we should all try to do the right thing, try to keep on the right path and not do wrong things.

“Most important to keep friends with other people, to help as much as you can, to keep good relationsh9ips with people.”

God’s Spirit fills us with power and love …

That thought was echoed by Ivy Saddler – whose husband died after nearly 70 years of marriage earlier this year, and who lives in a house called Hoe Met because they met on Plymouth Hoe.

She would pray for the little ones in her family, in our church family and specifically for Lake “A peaceful world, we want peace.”

And then she offered a verse giving a very practical guideline about the kind of love we should show to each other …

“Don’t look at the flaws as you go through life

Not even if you find them

It is wise and kind

To be somewhat blind

And look for the virtues behind them.”

God’s Spirit fills us with power, love.

It is intriguing that that was important to Paul as he thought of Timothy, Eunice and Lois.

Margaret Saunders was 9 when the first world war started. She had vivid memories of the first world war and of the second world war too. And like the others I was speaking to, a peaceful world was uppermost in her mind.

What is your hope for the little ones in your family, and in the church family? Was the question I put to Margaret.

“A peaceful world. No more wars, no more air raid sirens and raids that a lot of us went through.”

But Margaret did not leave it there. After pausing a moment, she went on with a further thought.

“Now does that mean, a less selfish world, a world where people think more of others and less of themselves?”

Maybe that’s the key to living that life of love that Paul spoke of?

Then it was that Margaret began to speak of the need for discipline, the value of rules and regulations, the importance of a moral code, the importance of making promises and keeping promises.

That too seemed to be an echo of Paul’s thoughts as well.

God’s spirit fills us with power, love and self-control.

“Rules of behaviour,” Margaret commented, “are actually for the benefit of everyone.”

There is so much to give thanks for as we share together family and friends, and church family in this celebration of Lake’s baptism.

The Spirit that God has given us does not make us timid; instead his Spirit fills us with power, love and self-control.

How can we keep to that – for Ivy the day is framed at the start and the finish by prayer …

This is the day which the Lord has made

And we will rejoice and be glad in it

For thou has given to me

The gift of a new day

Help me to accept it with a thankful heart

And to use it trustfully for Jesus’ sake


Now that the day is over

And the coming and going is ended

Grant to us a quiet night

And in the hours of darkness

Restore us in body, mind and spirit.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Worship in spirit and truth

Something happened in Nablus this week. The car parks were full, the coach station was busy and the shops were teeming. It was the first time that had happened for nine years.

Nablus is a major town and shopping centre in the West Bank. Why that news from Palestine and Israel caught my eye was that Nablus is home to a tiny remnant of Samaritans. They are still there … just!

It’s somewhere near there that Jesus met the Woman of Samaria at Jacob’s well and had a conversation that in all sorts of ways went to the heart of what the Christian faith is all about.

I want to take a close look at one little bit of that conversation and see what it has to say about the way we serve God and more particularly what it has to say about our worship.

Jesus ‘left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.’

Israel was a united monarchy under Saul, David and then Solomon – and then there was a big bust up. The southern kingdom came to be known as ‘Judah’ and was the small area around Jerusalem. The dynasty of David continued uninterrupted until the eventual downfall of Judah and destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC by the invading Babylonians.

The Northern Kingdom came to be known as Samaria. Its history was more chequered with coups d’etat and often corrupt governments. It didn’t last as long and fell in the 700’s to the Assyrian power.

While the worship of the people of Judah focused on the Temple in Jerusalem as the place where the presence of God was focused, the covenant relationship with God was symbolised, and the sacrifices that secured that relationship were carried out, for the people of the North there were other holy places, other temples, and one in particular associated with the holy mountain of Shechem, here known as Sychar, not far from the modern city of Nablus.

When the exiles from Judah and Jerusalem were allowed to return to Jerusalem and rejoin those who had stayed all along they rebuilt the temple, and that was again the focus for the presence of God, the covenant with God, and the sacrifices to God.

Other exiles returned to what had been Samaria, and settled in the territory immediately around their holy mountain and temple in Shechem as far as they were concerned the focus for God’s presence, the covenant with God, and the sacrifices to God was on that holy mountain, in that holy place.

They had preserved a slightly different rendering of the five books of the law and what’s more they did not regard any of the prophetic books as being part of their holy scriptures. The scriptures just amounted to the books of the law.

Not a lot of love was lost between the Samaritans and the Jewish people. But the Samartian territory cut right across the middle of Palestine. To get back from Jerusalem and Judah to Galilee you either had to walk up the Jordan valley, or you had to go through the Samaritan territory.

Jesus chose to go through Samaritan territory. He was making his way from Mount Zion and the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, the holy mount that was for the Jewish people the focus for the presence of God, the covenant with God and the sacrifices to God, up north to his homeland of Galilee where once more he would be with fellow Jewish people.

It was near the site of Jacob’s well, not far from Shechem and the holy mountain of the Samaritan people that Jesus met up with this woman from Samaria.

The conversation touches on personal things and the life that Jesus has to share with all people, Samaritan and Jew alike. For the Samaritan woman that was a divide too far.

The chasm between the Samaritan people and the Jewish people was one that was not possible to bridge.

So she says these words to Jesus …

‘Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’

That’s the divide in a nutshell.

Samaritans and Jewish people alike were convinced that The Presence of God, the Covenant with God and the Sacrifices to God were focused in one particular location. For the Samaritans it was and still is at Shechem – modern-day Nablus, for the Jewish people it was and still is in Jerusalem.

Jesus then challenges the assumption the woman makes. He challenges her assumption that that divide is unbridgeable. In doing that he voices the unthinkable. He offers something that is recognisably in continuity with all that had gone on in the past, but at the same time is something new.

Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.

Woman, Jesus addresses her directly. Believe me. He has something to offer, but it calls for her to step out in trust towards something new.

The hour is coming … that was a phrase that immediately would ring a bell – it was the phrase used to speak of the fulfilment of ancient hopes. That hour is coming. Believe me.

The point of continuity with the past is in the worship. You will continue to worship. But your worship will now find its focus somewhere different.

The presence of God, the covenant with God, the sacrifice to God will no longer be location specific – it will no longer be focused on the Temple in Jerusalem or on the Holy Mount of Shechem.

The God at the heart of the temple worship was an awesome God whose name could not be uttered – the location was in the holiest of holy places – no one could enter.

Jesus is opening up a new sense of the presence, a new covenant relationship and he will be the sacrifice to end all sacrifices – and the God who is the focus of this worship people will regard not as YHWH, not as Lord, but as Father. Abba. Father.

Something special is opening up here.

This new way of worship creates a bridge that will span the divide between Samaritan and Jew.

Then comes a curious statement from Jesus. And yet it is a fundamentally important one for us to realise … especially if we are drawn to the process of bridge-building.

At first sight Jesus seems to be arrogant, rude even, in what he says to the woman.

‘You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.’

Jesus the bridge builder is being honest. He does not pretend that he occupies the middle ground. He is clear about his own roots. Jesus is Jewish.

This is one of the most explicit statements of that in the Gospel.

How tragic that the church lost sight of that truth down through the centuries.

The Jewishness of Jesus is something we need to constantly remind ourselves of.

And Jesus knows his Judaism.

What is he getting at when he says, ‘Salvation is from the Jews’.

Jesus is laying claim to the entirety of the Jewish story of salvation as it is told in all of the Hebrew Scriptures.

The Samartans had their own version of the first five books and regarded only those books of the law as Holy Scripture.

They had not kept any of the writings of the prophets, let alone the miscellany of writings that make up the third part of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Jesus counted himself among those Jewish people who regarded the Prophets and for that matter the writings as part of the Holy Scriptures of his people. For him the prophets had to be read alongside the law. The prophets were as much part of the story of salvation, the salvation history, as the books of the Law.

The prophets had in turn taken up the mantle laid down by Elijah, John the Baptist had taken up the mantle of the prophets … and Jesus had taken it up too. The woman at the well had just before in the conversation recognised Jesus as a prophet.

The story of God’s salvation comes through the whole of the Jewish Scriptures: Jesus claims to be the fulfilment of the law and the prophets.

To build bridges he does not deny his heritage, but he affirms it.

Often when people seek to be bridge builders they imagine that it involves denying what you stand for and who you are.

In building bridges with other churches it is important to know where you stand and what has made you the Christian you are. In building bridges across the divide between religions, it is much more effective to stand firm in your own convictions as a Christian and to start from there.

As he bridged the divide between Jew and Samaritan Jesus did not deny his Jewishness he affirmed it. And he did so for a very specific reason.

That reason now becomes apparent.

Once again he uses that phrase that indicates the fulfilment of ancient hopes. Now he is even more explicit.

But the hour is coming, and is now here,

Notice how the drama increases, he ups the ante. The hour is coming and is now here!

when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.

What a wonderful statement Jesus makes.

It has to be one of my favourite verses.

Now we are coming back to the very heart of worship.

But how do we worship in spirit and truth?

What’s involved? What is Jesus getting at?

Let’s pay careful attention to the line of thought …

The woman gets the point Jesus is making, though at first sight it is maybe difficult to see the connection with what she says next.

She goes on to say,

‘I know that Messiah is coming (who is called Christ), when he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.”

The reference to worshipping in spirit and truth prompts the woman to think of the prophets and their talk of a coming Messiah.

And Jesus says, You’ve got it! That’s right. That’s what I’m getting at!

“I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

That phrase he uses – I am – is the emphatic I am that is the very name of God in the books of the law.

This is life-changing for the woman.

This is the moment of breakthrough … the bridge-bulding complete. So much so that she wants to share it with her friends back home in the Samaritan city.

So what is Jesus getting at when he asks us to worship in spirit and truth.

If the comments of Jesus about worshipping in spirit and truth trigger off in the mind of the woman thoughts about the prophets what do we make of that?

We have just encountered a reference to the whole of the Jewish story of salvation – including the Prophets as well as the books of the law.

Jesus has been described as a prophet.

The nuts and bolts of what to do in worship are spelled out in the books of the law. It is the prophets who go to the spirit of worship, and they challenge the people to think of the truth of what they are doing.

Nowhere is that more powerfully expressed than in Amos 5:21-24

I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Amos 5:21-24

James saw it.

To worship in spirit and in truth we must be doers of the word and not mere hearers. Those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act – they will be blessed in their doing. James 1:22-25

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world. James 1:27

Paul saw it

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one

Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

To worship in spirit and truth we must, in more words from Amos.5, seek good and not evil, we must hate evil and love good and establish justice in the gate.

Which takes us back to Nablus this week. The car parks are full, the coach station crowded and the shops bursting at the seams for the first time in nine years because soldiers at the Israeli road blocks have waved people through. And that has to do with the new policies of President Obama … and the pressure he is bringing on the state of Israel.

How are we going to worship in spirit and truth as this week unfolds: what is the justice we take our stand on as we live out our faith and are doers not merely hearers of the word.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Christianity in the Workplace

It’s great welcoming Hy-Tec to our service this morning – Hy-Tec meets on Sunday evenings and each term – very roughly has a theme to follow.

On Sunday mornings we do much the same and follow a theme – we’ve been looking at Serving God. We’ve been looking at the way we can serve God and serve the world around us through the church – we can identify what we are passionate about, what gifts we each of us have, what kind of a person we are – and then we can pool all the things we can do together.

This morning we are looking at ways we can serve God in the work place, in the ordinary every day world we are in through the week.

How does being a Christian for you make a difference in your work?

Let’s go over to the hospital … and ask that question of Adrian

Adrian spoke of the way in which he felt it wise in his work not to be explicit about his Christian faith; he felt it would not be right, for example to pray with a patient. On the other hand, he felt it was important to ‘live out’ his Christian faith. He found it prompted him to empathise with his patients, to feel for them and their thoughts, and to give them a sense of hope. He felt it was important to give them time and to listen to them, to allay their fears when they were facing times of uncertainty.

Adrian’s not the first person from Highbury to work in the eye department at Cheltenham General Hospital.

Caroline Gregory was in that department for many years and before retiring was the sister of the eye ward.

When I put that question to her earlier this week she came up with a very interesting response.

First, she identified three characteristics – it makes you more sharing, more giving, more thoughtful towards others.

Then she reflected on what that meant to her as she was in charge of a ward. ‘As a sister my Christian faith made me more understanding of people’s feelings and thoughts.’

Caroline spoke of ‘the need to be understanding of other people, even when, perhaps particularly when they did things in way that was different from the way you thought they should e done – I remember someone saying to me that everybody has a way of doing things that you might not approve of but at the end of the day you achieve the same results. You may disagree with the way it’s being done but you must respect that because things get there in the end.’

Then I asked Caroline whether there was one thing in particular she could recall. To get to the eye ward you go in through the main entrance to the hospital on College Road and turn right – you pass a restaurant on the left and on the right – and opposite the canteen there is the Hospital Chapel. Caroline spoke of her ‘disbelief at the way the hospital authorities had spent so much money doing up the dining room opposite the chapel when the chapel itself was in such a terrible state.

‘Something was telling me that something should be done for the chapel.

‘I remember it was almost like a calling I had. I remember taking our dog round the fields at Gotherington. As I was walking around the fields I almost could hear God talking to me, saying you must write and you must get the chapel re-vamped.

‘And I am so glad I did it!’

I then commented how well the chaplaincy is going in the hospital under Katie McClure and how people from Highbury are part of the chaplaincy team Katie has put together. Caroline went on to say,

‘I am so glad it is being used well and that it became my baby. I would make sure it was cleaned and take home all the brass to clean it just before Christmas.’

Paul had a very different kind of job.

He made tents.

He was passionate about telling as many people as possible all about the love of God in Jesus Christ. He had the kind of gifts that enabled him to explain the Christian faith really well, and persuade people to follow Jesus. And he was the kind of person who didn’t mind taking risks wherever he went – a really active kind of person who thought nothing of travelling.

On one occasion he wrote a letter to Christians in a place called Colossae. He spoke of all the kind of things that Christians need to take to heart throughout the whole of their lives, not least in the work place.

Listen to the reading from Colossians 3:12-17 that Jonquil is going to read – in it Paul lists quite a number of words that sum up the values we as Christians should have.

Listen carefully, and see if you can spot the words Paul uses. We will then see how many we can list.

Colossians 3:12-17

You are the people of God; he loved you and chose you for his own. So then, you must clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.

13 Be tolerant with one another and forgive one another whenever any of you has a complaint against someone else. You must forgive one another just as the Lord has forgiven you.

14 And to all these qualities add love, which binds all things together in perfect unity. 15 The peace that Christ gives is to guide you in the decisions you make; for it is to this peace that God has called you together in the one body. And be thankful. 16 Christ's message in all its richness must live in your hearts. Teach and instruct each other with all wisdom. Sing psalms, hymns, and sacred songs; sing to God with thanksgiving in your hearts.

17 Everything you do or say, then, should be done in the name of the Lord Jesus, as you give thanks through him to God the Father.

Compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, tolerant, forgive, peace, wisdom

The last verse sums it all up …

Everything you do or say should be done in the name of the Lord Jesus, as you give thanks through him to God the Father.

‘Kindness’, I guess sums up what Barbara Murrell shared with me in the next of my visits.

Barbara is one of our older members who lives on her own not far from here. I called the other day to find her out. I was just reversing the car off her drive when who should I bump into … thankfully only metaphorically, but Barbara.

She was coming back from a day’s expedition to town, I took her bag – it was quite a weight and carried it into the house.

She had caught the bus into town that morning, done some errands in Cheltenham, caught the bus back to one of our local supermarkets on the way home for some more shopping and then caught the bus home. And at 4-30 she was arriving home … and ready for a cup of tea.

In the kitchen Barbara opened the door of her pantry. Would you take these into church, please, she asked me.

She proceeded to empty one shelf into a supermarket bag.

In Highbury News each month we ask people to buy something extra with their shopping each week and put it into the box so that County Community Projects can make up food parcels for use through the town.

Barbara keeps a shopping list handy with her of the goods CCP wants and always puts one thing extra into the bag which she then has to carry home.

In a couple of months she had accumulated a shelf-full and I took the tins and added them to our box.

That’s kindness for you – especially when you think Barbara has no car and carries her shopping in a shopping bag.

I asked her how she gets on when she does her shopping. She uses One of our local supermarket. This is what she said … I took it down, because in a moment you will see its relevance.

‘When I get to the till,’ Barbara told me, ‘I like to pack my own things. I do pack my own things as they come through the till … but some of the girls automatically pull a carrier bag out – but it’s not necessary!’

Barbara got quite agitated at that point and explained she cannot stand the waste of plastic bags – anyone who remembers Tom Murrell will know how passionate Barbara and Tom have been for many years about re-cycling. Any plastic bags she is reluctantly foisted with she takes to the local shop which probably explains why you come away from that local shop with supermarket bags from time to time!

‘Some of the girls don’t attempt to and leave it to me which is what I prefer because I don’t mind dealing with it myself.

‘When they whip things through I cannot cope with it in my bag – I then have to go and re-pack my bag to make it comfortable to carry home.’

I had not told Henrietta’s story before Barbara told me hers!! But I had heard it! Straightaway I made the connection.

Henrietta works behind the till at One of our local supermarkets, it is in fact the very same local supermarket!

When I said in church a couple of weeks ago that I was going to preach on this theme and I invited people to share their stories, Henrietta told me hers.

Henrietta has observed over the years that older people for the most part actually like to pack their own bags – it is part of what makes them feel independent.

So, what Henrietta does, is to time the things she puts through the checkout to the speed at which the person she is serving can pack their bag.

Because of this approach, and I guess because of that smile and helpfulness that Henrietta has as well!, she is quite popular especially among older people because of the way she serves them.

In telling her story Henrietta linked what she did in that way to that theme of service we have been talking about. She feels in doing that job that this is one of the ways she can serve people and so live out those Christian values in her work place.

We could leave it there. But Henrietta’s story now carries with it a sting in the tail.

At the checkout Henrietta of course scans each item into the till. The scanner is then linked to a computer and times the throughput at each checkout. Henrietta has targets to meet and the team leader will be observing the speed she puts things through. But the scanner will not take into account the person being served. The person on the checkout has to put things through as fast as possible.

And so the team leader has challenged Henrietta that she is not putting things through quickly enough. At this point Henrietta began to talk about the dilemma she finds herself in. That element of service has always been important to her as a Christian – and so she smiled at me and said, she ‘had a word with him up there’, and after her prayer she has decided to carry on serving people in the way they want to be served.

That has some implications for us as we do our shopping.

We need to remember Henrietta in our prayers as she faces a dilemma as a Christian in her workplace and give her the support she needs.

We perhaps ought to think twice again at the checkout as we head for the shortest queue and are impatient with that maybe older person in front of us who is taking a little longer to pack their bags than we would like.

After all, that list of values Paul puts together has a lot to say in the context not only of Caroline as a sister in charge of a ward in the hospital but also in the context of Henrietta behind the checkout at One of our local supermarkets – it is precisely those values of compassion, kindness, humility and gentleness that marks the work of both, indeed of all those we have been speaking of.

I guess Henrietta asks of us, and maybe those at work in hospital too, that we take to heart the last of the virtues Paul lists in that first listing of his in Colossians 3 … we need to remember that among the values that are important to each of us as Christians is ‘patience’.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Just as we are - God uses us all

It is the very fact that some Bible stories have a larger than life feel to them that gives them their appeal. The story of Jonah and the Whale is one of those larger-than-life Bible stories that packs an enormous punch and makes you think differently about the world at large.

Other Bible stories have a very different feel to them. Down to earth, it is that true-to-life feel that gives them their appeal. Maybe it’s because the story of Naomi has a true-to-life feel to it that it speaks to us at a very different level, at a much more personal level, at a very real down-to-earth level.

Naomi’s story is told in the book of Ruth and it is a tragic story. Growing up in Bethlehem Naomi marries into a family that has land and is able to live more than comfortably. Naomi and her husband Elimelech have two sons Mahlon and Chilion and they are comfortably set up.

And then everything goes wrong.

Famine strikes and no matter how much land you have it’s not much good if it bears no crops.

So it is that Naomi and Elimelech flee from Bethlehem. They become refugees and make their way down through the wilderness, over the River Jordan as it comes down towards the Dead Sea and they make their way up into the mountains of Moab seeking refuge and asylum.

They are fortunate and are taken in by the Moabite people who are kind to them. Then it is that tragedy befalls Naomi.

Elimelech dies.

Mahlon and Chilion marry Moabite wives – something of a mixed blessing for Naomi.

The prospects of her return home are gone. She is dependent on her sons, they in turn have become part of the Moabite community. She is far from home.

Then her two sons die.

Her loneliness is more marked than ever.

She decides to return home.

There must be something about Naomi that is kind and loving and has made its mark on the two Moabite women her sons have married. Orpah and Ruth accompany her.

Naomi gently explains to them that they will be better off in their own homes.

With sadness in her heart Orpah returns. But Ruth won’t leave Naomi. As she clings to her Ruth says those wonderful words of commitment

Where you go, I will go,

Where you lodge, I will lodge,

Your people shall be my people

Your god, my God.

The two return to Bethlehem.

And Naomi touches rock bottom.

“Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara [that’s the word meaning Bitter]

For the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.

I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty,

Why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me,

And the Almighty has brought calamity upon me.”

It is a debilitating feeling of God-forsakenness that brings Naomi so low.

The focus of the story turns now to Ruth and a member of Elimelech’s family, Boaz. Boaz takes Ruth under his wing.

He is responsible for the fields still in the family’s possession, but he recognises the Moabitess woman is at risk. At great risk.

You touch the underside of a community that is concerned only for its own. Now Ruth is the refugee – the one fleeing from Moab, seeking refuge with Naomi. And she is at risk from the predator males of the community who see her as easy picking.

Boaz offers a different way.

Boaz sees in Ruth someone different.

He sees in Ruth the person who has actually stayed with Naomi through those times of terrible and terrifying bitterness. Not only has she supported Naomi, but she has been prepared to sacrifice the security of her own home to accompany Naomi as she has returned home.

Boaz sees the God he believes in as one who has the capacity to take Ruth under his wings as she comes to him for refuge.

As the story unfolds the different mix of people in Bethlehem interact with each other, until at the end Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife and they have a son.

Then it is the women of Bethlehem who celebrate the restoration of Naomi

Blessed be the Lord who ohas not left you this day without next of kin

May his name be renowned in Israel!”

He shall be to you a restorer of life

And a nourisher of your old age.

There is a final twist in the tale, of course, as the Moabite Ruth’s son Obed in turn has a son, Jesse, who in turn has a son David who becomes the great King of David.

It is one of the great ironies of the Old Testament story that the great king David is desceneded from a Moabitess woman.

What strikes me about that story is that so many different people have a part to play as the story unfolds. So many people make a difference.

There courage of Naomi and Elimelech and their two sons to become effectively refugees and seek a refuge in a foreign land.

The welcome given them by the Moabite community. The willingness of the Moabite families to take Israelite men into their families.

Ruth’s courage as she accompanies Naomi; but also Orpah’s very different kind of courage as she returns home to be with her family. Each commended in their own way.

The courage of Naomi when feeling at her weakest to make the journey home, not knowing what lay in store for her.

The welcome given to the returning Naomi in her moment of deepest despair, and the welcome given to Ruth by Boaz and the family … in the face of the threat of those who were so opposed to receiving a refugee, a foreigner in their midst.

Each is making their own contribution all the way through.

There is a sense in which everyone is helping everyone else. There’s a wonderful interaction going on between so many people.

Among all of those people Naomi stands out.

Naomi is one of the tragic figures of the Old Testament. She loses so much. Her home, her husband, her sons, her safety. She loses her faith in God. She loses her self-esteem. She calls herself Mara – bitter.

Yet even at that point she too is interacting with others and what she does is impacting for good on them – Ruth may be helping her, but she too is helping Ruth, though one senses at that point of lowest ebb she doesn’t recognise it.

The great thing for Naomi is that people stick by her. It is through their support and the agency of those other people, together with the things that she herself does that impacts on those around her that God ultimately becomes to her ‘a restorer of life, a nourisher of old age.’

What a story.

There is a wonderful message there. No matter who we are, what kind of a person we are, God has a part for us to play. There is something for us to do: God will use us as the people we are.

It is not that he wants us to change so that he can use us. He uses us as we are and then change comes.

During the week Rob Lacey forwarded me a link to a piece that appeared in the Daily Mail telling the remarkable story of Nick Vujicic. Rob described it as a humbling story ... it is the story of someone born with no arms and no legs who has come to see that God treasures him as the person he is and has great things for him to do as the person he is.

Life without limb-its: The astonishing story of the man born without arms or legs... who plays golf, surfs, and swims

You can see Nick's video on YouTube by clicking here

Thinking of the life of the church here at Highbury at the moment we are asking questions. What are you passionate about? What gifts do you have? The idea is that we harvest the things we feel passionate about, and draw on the gifts we can share with each other.

In doing that we also need to recognise the people we are. And accept who we are in the knowledge that God can use as we are. There are all sorts of ways of recognising the people we are …some people were helped by the the Willow Creek Network course we did when we asked the question Who are we?

People prefer to interact with people and tasks in different ways. Some of us are more task-oriented and some of us are more people-oriented.

At the ‘task’ end of the scale are people who are energised by doing things. Task people are comfortable working with people who share their commitment to the task, and sometimes get frustrated or feel awkward with a lot of relational activities. In a church context their focus will be on accomplishing tasks that serve people.

At the ‘people’ end of the scale are those who are energised by interacting with people. They measure results in terms of relationships, and prefer to work with other people in a ‘team’ setting. They will focus in church on people and relationships.

That’s not to say that those who are people-oriented are not concerned with task accomplishment, or that Task-oriented people are not concerned with relationships. It is more a matter of priority and approach.

Another way to understand ourselves is to realise that some of us are Unstructured and some of us are Structured.

At the Unstructured end of the scale are people who prefer to have lots of options an d flexibility. They tend to enjoy moving between a variety of activities. The kind of service they share in church should be generally described, and their relationships with others will be spontaneous.

At the structured end of the scale are people who prefer to plan and bring order to their lives. They tend to seek decisions and closure. They are detail-oriented. What they do in a church context should be clearly defined, and relationships will tend to be consistent.

You can then bring those two together – some are people focused and structured; some will be people focused and un-structured. Some will be task-focused and structured, some task focused and un-structured.

And somewhere between.

Where do you locate yourself? Be the person you are. And play your part in the life of the church as the person you are.

And we need to affirm and value each one of us.

That’s the good news at the heart of our faith.

Once we accept that we are accepted that will open up all sorts of new possibilities for us.

Who are you like? What kind of a person are you? Where do you fit on the story line of Naomi?

Whoever you are and wherever you find yourself … there’s one Psalm that speaks to each of us …

Psalm 139

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.

You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night’,
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.

So much to pass on at Highbury

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