Thursday, 24 May 2018

Trinity Sunday

My sermon for the Sunday ahead . . .

Vicars mostly don’t look forward to preaching on Trinity Sunday. We find it hard to preach on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity without getting tied up in theological knots! Thinking about it, it’s probably no easier being a member of the congregation, and having to listen to us.

The fact is that we vicars don’t actually talk all that much about God when we preach. We talk about what God wants of us, and we talk about what God does for us, but we don’t talk a lot about who God is.  And when we do try to say stuff about God, who God is, what God is like, language quickly begins to fail us. How do you express the inexpressible? God who made all things, God by whom all things are held in being, God the source of light and life: how do you define and describe God in mere words? But there comes a point - today - when we do have to try.

I would say that these days we’ve mostly forgotten what the word 'God' really means. God has become just a word; I suspect that’s why on the telly certain Anglo Saxon words are largely still banned, at least before the watershed, but it’s OK to say “Oh God!” at moments of stress, even on daytime TV. I actually get more offended by that than by the F word, but most people don’t. For most people, the word 'God' doesn’t mean anything much; not the terrible and remote figure that so filled Isaiah the prophet with awe and fear in the Temple; and not the God that Jesus taught us we can call “Our Father” when we pray. So in fact it’s not a bad thing to do some talking about who God is - at any time, and certainly on Trinity Sunday.

But we will struggle to find the words; how can God be summed up or pinned down? It’s a matter of finding words that can point to what’s beyond words, I suppose. However carefully my words are chosen, God will always be somewhere beyond their reach. But historically the Church has agreed on how to talk about God; and when we say the Creed, we say we believe in God as Father, as Son and as Holy Spirit.

In other words, we speak about God as being those three Persons, and yet the Three are together one God. God is Trinity. Just said or sung quickly, it sounds quite a neat formula: “Three in One and One in Three, Ruler of the earth and sea.” But how, in reality, can anything or anyone be both three and one?

We could start to tackle that by thinking about how else we can say who God is: like the statement the Apostle John makes, when he says that God is love. I could be tempted to say that that’s all we need to say about God: that God is love. Perhaps, though, we should unpack that little word 'love'. It’s a little word with a wide range of meanings. One word in English to translate a whole lot of different words in Greek, the language of the New Testament. If I say that I love cake, I really just mean that I like it a lot. If I say that I love my brother, I’m saying something about the way I feel we belong to one another in a family. If I say that I’ve fallen in love, then that’s another love again. Love can be anything from liking, through sentimental attachment and family identity, to an involvement so passionate and complete that it almost excludes the rest of the world.

So what sort of love do we mean when we say that God is love? I want to start by looking at the very first words about God in our Bible, Genesis, chapter 1, a story of creation, one of the two stories of creation in that book. God speaks to create - he speaks and things appear. And order is formed from chaos, and all that is made is good. I tend to think of God speaking a word of love, that God loves each new aspect of creation into being. God creates the world in love, and the creation in Genesis begins a love story we can trace through the Old Testament and into the Gospels. We may reject God and spoil our own lives and spoil his world, but God continues to love us and acts to rescue us from the bad stuff that would otherwise drag us down. We see that in the words of Isaiah and the other prophets to Israel. And we see it in Jesus, as God sends his only begotten Son.

And here is the climax of the love story: the man who alone can show us divine love within a human life. Jesus lives with us and dies for us, and in him we see death itself defeated. Then last week at Pentecost we saw how the story continues: God comes to be present with his people in a new and different way, in the power of the Holy Spirit, with a new command to take the story of his love out into all the world, a story that’s our story too.

So God is self-giving love. God gives himself in Jesus Christ in costly self-sacrifice to free us from the impact of our sin. And he gives himself as Holy Spirit to lift and inspire us, bonding us in fellowship and service. When we say that 'God is love' we’re saying that God always and eternally gives himself - in creation, in redemption, in inspiration. And as the Church tried to tell that story it found it could do so only by speaking of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The single word that sums this up, other than the word love, is “Yes”. God’s “Yes” in creation brings life into being - we can think of that as the Fatherly love of God; God's “Yes” in Jesus saves us from ourselves - we can think of that as the Brotherly love of God; God’s “Yes” at Pentecost makes us his partners in mission and service and joy - we can think of that as God's love planted within us, inspiring us to live in such a way that God's love is at the heart of all we do.

So in order to say fully and truthfully that God is love, the Church found it needed three ways of talking about the one God. God reveals himself to us, works for us and within us, in three distinct ways. The Doctrine of the Trinity is our attempt to tell the love story of creation and re-creation, of God's love for the world. But it’s only an attempt; the truth is beyond words. Trinity isn’t God sorted out and boxed up. It’s not the last word about God, just a starting point - a way in which we begin to engage with the mystery of God.

For if God is love, then that love is much more than just his love for us. In a sense, that would be to make us the centre of the story, and therefore more important than God. No: God is love in essence, love is his very being, and that was true before creation began. God’s creative love for us is just one expression of the love that God eternally is. No mere formula - not even the inspired doctrine that is the Holy Trinity - can bring God within the grasp of our minds. God will always be more than we can comprehend.

One last image that works for me comes from a prayer I use when I take weddings, asking that the love between these two people, and within the family they form, may flow out into the community around them, making a positive difference to other lives too. Now I think the doctrine of the Trinity says something like that about God. God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, separate and yet bound together in a love that flows out and touches us.

Think of it this way. A family could be a closed circle, so that what connects its members does so by excluding others. But some families I know are open circles, in which the love within the family is constantly being released to be shared with others. People coming into their circle feel instantly welcome, and they quickly feel they're part of the family. I think it’s like that with God. The eternal love within God, the interplay of love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is a love that flows out for us to share. In the yes of Creation, and the birth and life and death of Jesus, and the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, God opens up his own life of love for us to share in, and we are welcomed in, and made part of the family.

We think of God as Trinity, and the Trinity model works because it’s a way of saying that God is love - love that creates, that redeems, that transforms. And yet the mystery of God remains, beyond our words and doctrines; we can’t know God, except as he reveals himself to us: as the mystery and wonder of love.

Monday, 14 May 2018

Some Thoughts on Waiting

I am quickly bored. I don’t find it easy to sit around and wait. And when I had to go into the treatment unit at the Royal Shrewsbury last week, while I wasn’t looking forward to the actual treatment (needn’t have worried, had sedation, don’t remember a thing) - mostly what I didn’t fancy was the waiting around. Fortunately, there was only one person in front of me, and there were some interesting magazines in the waiting room, so I didn’t have to wait too long, and I now know more about the state of our air defences than I ever expected to.

When you’re in hospital, however briefly, you’re placing yourself in the hands of people who know everything (or at least, you hope they do), while you know nothing. You’re quite helpless to help yourself, especially once they’ve got the line inserted and the sedative is flowing. That can feel a bit uncomfortable, but the staff were very reassuring as I checked in.

I’d travelled in by bus, and as I waited for it, I could feel I had some control over my own immediate destiny. After all, I knew what time the bus was due, and what route it would take, and if there was any great delay I had my phone and I could make other arrangements. It was a bit late, as it happens, and I got a bit annoyed as I watched for it without seeing it come. But then the driver kept his foot down, and the roads were fairly clear, and I was still on time at the hospital.

How in control of their own destiny were the disciples as they waited in Jerusalem, having said farewell to their Master on the hill outside the city? Not at all, really. Over the period from Easter Day to the Ascension they had offered themselves to him completely. They were, as Paul later described himself, his people, his possession, and no longer their own. So was their waiting worrisome or frustrating? No. They waited joyfully, and purposefully, and prayerfully. Whatever they thought might happen at the event we celebrate next Sunday, the first Christian Day of Pentecost, nothing could really have prepared them.

On that day they were so overtaken by the joy of knowing God’s active and dynamic presence right where they were that they could only describe what happened to them using images like wind and fire, things that are essentially wild and uncontrollable. So the Church was born in an explosion of joy. But before that could happen the disciples needed to wait, and to pray as they waited. Christian action needs the stillness of prayer as its starting point, for prayer is about tuning ourselves in to God.
“Go into all the world, and make disciples of every nation.” That was a big ask for a tiny group of people who just a month and a half earlier had been hiding behind locked doors, full of fear, with nothing to do but to try and pick up the pieces of their old lives. Things had changed for them, even before the dramatic gift of the Holy Spirit? And a single word - trust - sums it up.

Waiting in hospital the other day, I needed the reassurance with which I was greeted, because I needed to trust the doctor and nurses who’d be examining and treating me. Actually, I was a bit nonplussed to be asked if I’d mind a trainee doing the work - to be honest, the image that floated into my mind was of some young spotty oik on work experience. “Don’t worry,” said the check-in nurse, no doubt seeing the expression on my face, “the doctor will be there the whole time.” I didn’t actually spot any trainee - but I didn’t know who anyone was, so I needed to trust the uniforms and the name badges and the assurances I’d been given.

We take a lot on trust every day, when you think about it. Even on the bus in, I needed to trust the guy behind the wheel to convey me, and quite a few other people, safely and speedily to where we were going. There are multiple checks in hospitals, and I was asked by several different people for my full name and date of birth, which they checked against my wristband. That helped me to trust I wouldn’t get mixed up with someone else, but you still have to trust they’ll be doing the job right.

As they waited in Jerusalem, the disciples had trust in Jesus - and it was a different trust from how they’d trusted him before, as they followed him along the road, village to village. They trusted then him as their teacher, as a rabbi, a man of God. But now they trusted him as something more, and it was Thomas who said it first, when, on the Sunday after Easter, he declared, “My Lord and my God.” Now they trusted that all that had happened - the cross and what looked like a final defeat - that all of this had been God’s plan of salvation being decisively worked out, a great battle won - not only for them but for all the world. They had thought he would restore the Kingdom of Israel and be a new King David: now they knew that in him new life and hope and freedom was being offered to all people everywhere. And they could trust the promise he now gave them: that what they waited for would be given - the power and vision and authority to carry through the immense task entrusted to them - to go out into all the world, and make disciples of every nation.

That work still continues; the Church exists to do mission, and to live a faith we’re called to share with all the world. We’re small and few, but no smaller and fewer than the group of men who started this ball rolling. And the promise still applies. I’m not good at waiting, but I know I need to do it, because I know I need to pray. Each celebration of Pentecost begins a new chapter in our life and ministry; and to be part of that I need to be tuned in to God, and open to his will and to the gift of his Spirit. So in these days of waiting I need to set aside time to reflect and to pray and to get right with him, so as to hear what he’s saying to me, and to accept what he’s offering me, and to be fruitful in his service.

Friday, 11 May 2018

A Few Precious Days

The few precious days of warm sunshine we had at the beginning of May for the Bank Holiday will stay with me whatever the rest of the year might do. On the Saturday I was working, but in the beautiful Ithon Valley at Llanbadarn Fynydd, not far from Llandrindod - and with time for a walk! At this time of the year everything sparkles, and of course I was surrounded by birdsong. Primroses and celandines were prominent along the hedgerows, with some stands of garlic mustard or Jack by the hedge, its flowers just opening and so at their very best against the particularly fresh green of the leaves. Blackthorn was still out in the hedges, with bumble bees busily prospecting the flowers. Earlier I rescued a very large queen from the church, and placed it on flowers outside, where it soon recovered. These large insects use a lot of energy in flying, and need very regular toppings-up with nectar. If you find one looking sad and exhausted, feed it with some sugar syrup and restore it to health!

My walk took me high above the river and the little village beyond, then, later along the side of the river itself. There were swallows everywhere, and plenty of insects for them to catch. The twittering song of swallows is one I always enjoy. A large brown bird flew across to land out of sight by the river. I’d no field glasses with me, so I couldn’t identify it - it would have been nice if it was a curlew down from the moors, but I can’t be sure, though the flight looked right.

Down by the river itself, with the bank studded with widely open celandines (and a fair few dandelions too), a patch of more vivid golden yellow proved to be marsh marigolds or kingcups, among my very favourite flowers. I do like it when a patch of colour turns out to be something special. On the Bank Holiday Monday, a bright patch of purple along the lane near Gaer Fawr, by Guilsfield, turned out to be early purple orchids, five or six flower heads, lovely to find.

We walked into the woods, and along the paths fern fronds were unfolding, and white stars of stitchwort were beginning to open. There were plenty of wood anemones out, their flowers varying from white through pale cream to a few that were very pinkish, and here and there a few clumps of the smaller and gentler wood sorrel, but what we were really there to see (and to smell) was of course the carpet of bluebells that you find especially towards the top of this ancient hill fort woodland reserve. We were not disappointed! Individually, the scent is much fainter than that of (say) a pot hyacinth, but when there are so many together it can be quite heady.

Bee flies were everywhere, little round bundles of ginger fuzz, with a long straight proboscis. They are able to just stop in mid air and hover on the spot, then quickly jerk away, often returning to exactly the same point. Butterflies included lots of combative speckled woods (very territorial), orange tips, holly blues and a bright orange comma. I had hoped to see the sulphur yellow of a brimstone, but I was disappointed. I was far from disappointed by the birdsong, though, with blackcaps, chiffchaffs and other warblers adding their voices to the resident species.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Lord of the Dance

The writer and speaker Kurt Vonnegut memorably said: “If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph: ‘Music was the only proof he needed of the existence of God’”. Spike Milligan said of music that “It’s natural, we can’t help but do it.” Not everyone would claim to be musical, but for me music is, if not an essential to faith and worship, very very important, and a precious gift for us to use.

Listening to the birdsong in the early morning - the dawn chorus is at its very best just now - I’m reminded that we’re surrounded by music; it’s a fact of nature. I’ve met very few folk who aren’t turned on by birdsong, and it features in many a classical composition, such as Beethoven’s great Pastoral Symphony, Vaughan Williams’ haunting ‘The Lark Ascending’,  Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ - plus many more besides. What would spring be without birdsong?

What about the human origins of music? Some classical musicians might well regard birdsong as a higher form of music than the drums and bongos of popular human culture, but the beginnings of human music have more to do with rhythm and beat than with clever melody or complex harmony. Back then, music wouldn’t have been something merely performed and listened to, it was there to be moved to, to be danced to. And those rhythms were already inside us.

Rhythm is vital to us living beings; if my heart were to stop beating or if I no longer remembered to breathe in and out, I’d be in deep trouble. The earliest forms of music began with the rhythms that are already within us, and those we see, hear and feel around us. Music speaks of us, and it speaks to us; that we can enjoy music and make music is surely part of what it means to say that we’re “made in the image of God.” To make music is a fundamental creative impulse. Back in the days of Moody and Sankey, their mission campaigns required and used music to lift hearts, to inspire, to call. As my fridge magnet reminds me, music continues to speak where words fail.

So please don’t think of music as a sideline or an optional extra in our Christian life and worship. For me, it’s a fundamental. The better we do music, the better we do everything, I think. So I thank God for the gift of music and song, and for those - Byrd, Tallis, Gibbons, Handel; Charles Wesley, Isaac Watts, John Newton; Timothy Dudley-Smith, John Bell, Stuart Townend (to name a very few out of thousands) - who in Christian song conspire to lift us, challenge us, enthuse us, enable our praise. The more we value music, and the better we learn to use it well, the more effective we’ll be in the mission to which we’re called. I’ve heard God’s creation described as “The Great Dance”, and I enjoy Sidney Carter’s great folk-song hymn that describes Jesus as “the Lord of the Dance”; maybe we should dance a bit more in mission and service, both metaphorically and literally! Music may not be the only way to express and share our faith, but it certainly works for me!

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Dandelions . . . and more

Despite the cold start we’ve had to Spring this year, we’ve arrived at last at the best time of the year for flowers. They're all over the place and they're lovely. Once again, it’s a splendid year for dandelions! They're an utter pest when they're on your land, but when they’re on someone else’s or along the road sides they look fantastic. And the bees like them, too. Friends who keep bees assure me that dandelion flowers make very good honey. 

But what exactly is the point of flowers, what are they there to do? For they don’t exist to please us, even though we are pleased by them. They exist purely to enable the perpetuation of their kind, by producing fruit and seed. So every flower we see is essentially a mechanism designed to ensure the plant it's on will have children and grandchildren. Its flowers enable a plant to colonise its own bit of the world and then hang on in there. So flowers aren’t bothered about being attractive to us; in fact that could be counter-productive if we pick them and stick them in a vase somewhere. But they do their best to be as attractive as they can be to whatever pollinates them: bees and hoverflies, or maybe moths or beetles, and in more tropical climes even bats or humming birds. 

They do that by colour and shape and also by smelling nice. That sweet smell promises a supply of nectar and pollen, a reward for the creatures that visit. Some flowers even have special markings to guide a bee in, like the lines on an airport runway. So petals often have lines directing inwards (not always visible to us, as bees can see into the ultraviolet part of the spectrum). Foxglove flowers have little splodgy foot-prints that do the same thing. 

And if flowers don't need us to find them attractive, for that matter we don’t need to find flowers attractive. We don't eat them or use them for any practical purpose; not for the most part, anyway. And yet, though we don’t need their beauty, we recognise it and admire it.

Let me dwell on that for a moment or two, because I think the fact that we find flowers beautiful is a big part of what makes us human beings special. More than that, the fact that we find all sorts of things beautiful and are moved by them, maybe to write a poem like Wordsworth and his daffodils. We take a delight in things, we fall in love, and that’s surely part of what’s meant by saying we’re made in the image of God. We find things beautiful: that’s one way in which we share God’s creative vision. Chapter one of the Book of Genesis tells us that our Creator God delighted in each thing he made. And so can we.

The prophet Isaiah wrote: "I delight greatly in the Lord." One way in which we can delight greatly in the Lord is by delighting in what he’s made, enjoying and marvelling at the beauty and majesty of creation, and in the flowers and other living things with which we share this planet. 

But, as I’ve said already, flowers are beautiful for a purpose.  They have a job to do. The aim of each flower is to become a fruit. Not that a flower has to do an awful lot in order to be fruitful; really it just has to be there, looking lovely to the bees or moths or whatever it takes to pollinate it. Jesus of course said to his disciples: "Consider the flowers around you. They don't toil, they don't weave or spin, you don't see them running about wondering what clothes to wear. But God gives them clothes more beautiful than Solomon, so they can just get on with being what God’s calling them to be."

And it needs to be just the same for you as well, Jesus went on to say. Don't worry about things that really don't matter much, like what to eat and what to wear. When you spend your time doing that, you end up looking inwards instead of outwards. You lose touch with the important stuff, with the things that really matter. No, he said: set your minds on God's kingdom - and everything you need to serve God will be provided. 

What does it mean in practical terms, to set our minds on God's kingdom? While it surely begins with our honouring him as Creator, delighting in the beauty of his work and praising him for giving us so much that’s good, we need to go on from there. For we too are called to be both beautiful and fruitful, like those flowers of the field. I was talking to an old friend about what I’d be talking about this Sunday, and he responded, "Well, it’s a bit late for me to be beautiful!" But it isn’t, for beauty isn’t only our outward appearance, there’s beauty within us as well. We may work very hard on the outward show, and the TV ads certainly encourage us to do that; but we need to work just as hard on the inward beauty that really is much more important. When we’re caring, loving, considerate, generous, then we’re beautiful, beautiful in a way that helps our world be a more beautiful place.

This coming Thursday is Ascension Day, and the nine days between Ascension Day and Pentecost were days in which the disciples in Jerusalem waited prayerfully for the gift of the Holy Spirit that Jesus had promised they’d receive. The Church ever since has seen this time as a chance to think more about prayer than we usually do. Our life and growth and mission depend on it. Prayer can sometimes feel like a bit of a waste of our time; after all, we’re just sitting there, or maybe kneeling there, when surely we really ought to be getting out there and doing stuff. I often need to remind myself of the sign above the door to the chapel at Lincoln Theological College where I trained. It read “Orare est laborare” (in other words, to pray is to work). For when we pray we’re training ourselves towards God, bending our hearts and minds to his will, rather like a sunflower which turns its head through the day to follow the sun.

Now if our prayer is a work we can offer God (orare est laborare), so all our work should also be prayerful (laborare est orare - to work is to pray). And this season of Rogation leading up to Ascension Day is a time to reflect on this.

Our prayer should encourage our work, and our work should be prayerful, done with God’s will in mind. The days immediately before Ascension Day are kept as Rogation Days, and the word rogation just means prayer, or more specifically, “asking prayer”. Back in pagan times, the people of ancient Rome used to walk through the crops at this time of the year, praying that they would grow well. Christian communities continued to do this, and one particular theme of Rogationtide is that we pray for farmers and gardeners, and give thanks for God’s creation. The hymn “We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land that we sing every year at harvest was in fact written to be sung this Sunday, as a Rogation hymn. To the asking prayer of Rogation we add our praising prayers - we praise God for the beauty and goodness of the world about us, and we even praise him for things like flowers and birdsong, which aren’t needed by us but do please and impress and inspire us.

But our prayer needs to be more than asking and praising. To them we need also to add a prayer of commitment. We are stewards of God’s creation; our knowledge and power - and our faith - bring with them a responsibility. We are to keep our world beautiful by being beautiful ourselves, in the things that matter. And God’s kingdom of beauty will be proclaimed and built wherever we are when we are trusting in his love and in Christ’s victory over death and sin, and when the way we live reflects his truth and mercy and love. When we are working prayerfully, working as he desires, and when we are motivated by the mind of Christ, then in our caring, our loving, our mutual concern, our fruitfulness in good works, our generosity and forgiveness, we will shine into the world the light we’ve seen and found in him; and like the flowers, we will be attractive and persuasive in our beauty.