Land and Promise – Advent Book Club 2013 Day 9

Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.

Genesis 12:5-9

I really enjoyed reading Maggi Dawn’s comments on today’s passge. I’d never quite taken on board the implications of a nomadic lifestyle, nor the “live and let live” implied in these early narratives. And I am reminded by her challenge regarding our own material clutter of previous (failed) resolutions to live my life more simply, with fewer possessions.  I am also challenged by her final question – “in our personal lives, we might ask ourselves what we are powerfully attached to as an idea of promise. Is it an idea that needs disentangling in order for us to discover what our true priorities should be?”.

However, another aspect of this passage also struck me forcibly, and has been growing within me as I’ve gone through today.

For sure, nomads travel light. They’d be crazy not to.

Me, I’m crazy… I’ve never learnt how to travel light! When we moved house 18 months ago it took two large vans and 4 days for a 4-strong team of professionals to move us a mere 100 miles! Of course, the 40+ large terracotta pots for the greenhouse and garden might have had something to do with it, along with the thousands (I do not exaggerate…) of books which the three of us owned between us. I now own even more… including our Advent book! And we’d taken a lot of stuff to charity shops and the tip before the vans arrived…

Nevertheless, there’s one thing we can never leave behind, try as we might – and that’s ourselves. Many of us spend our entire lives trying to escape from ourselves because we are so uncomfortable with the truth of who we are. Because the truth, for all of us, is that we are damaged, broken people who get hurt and who hurt others – and that truth can be intolerably painful to face.

It’s a truism that simply getting divorced and remarrying won’t solve anything unless you are aware of what brought the previous relationship to its end. Equally, moving house to a new area won’t of itself solve any of our deep-rooted personal darkness and damage. Indeed, it can serve to expose it, bring it painfully into the light. What then? run away again? attempt to rebury it? or face it and, by the grace of God, find a way of making peace with ourselves and with our past?

This is a challenge which faces us constantly as individuals. Abram, I think, had the right idea – at every turn, he built an altar, prayed to God… he didn’t try to go it alone.

And it is also a challenge which faces us constantly as societies. This week alone the death of Nelson Mandela has reminded us of the choice which South Africa faced when the years of apartheid finally drew to a close – to build a new society based on openness and forgiveness of one based on revenge and more bloodshed. In a different way, the Church of England is facing a similar challenge as its disparate theological groups struggle with the issue of the consecration of women as bishops. Dare I say that the challenge is not so much how to progress the cause of justice for women but how to move ahead in love? Or, if you disagree with the ordination and/or consecration of women as priests/bishops, not so much how to ensure that the status quo is protected as how to move ahead in love? And by ‘love’ I do not mean wishy-washy happy-cosy feelings… to understand what I mean by ‘love’ look to the cross…

This Advent, may God grant us the grace to hear clearly His call to us, both individually and corporately, and may He grant us the grace to respond positively to that call, if necessary letting go of long-held and much-cherished personal preferences and beliefs. And let us remember Abram, and build an altar to our God and pray to Him at every turn, remembering that an altar is the place of sacrifice… the sacrifice of our will to His in response to His sacrifice of HImself for us.

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Abraham’s Call

Terah took his son Abram and his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, his son Abram’s wife, and they went out together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan; but when they came to Haran, they settled there. The days of Terah were two hundred five years; and Terah died in Haran.
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan.

Genesis 11:31-12:5

This story makes me curious. What made Terah decide to leave Ur? Was it, maybe, a reaction to the death of his son Haran, Lot’s father? Did he simply want to get away from a place that had such painful associations for him? We’re not told that he also sensed a call from God to go to the land of Canaan. Maybe he did, and was disobedient by stopping short of that goal. Or maybe he didn’t – maybe it simply seemed like a good idea at the time, and then when he arrived at Haran that seemed like a better one. We’ll never know…

And then, what about Abram? I wonder whether wanted to leave Ur in the first place but was given no choice and simply had to tag along with his father. Or just maybe, had he sensed a call from God and was the journey his suggestion in the first place? “Hey, Dad, why don’t we leave Ur and go to Canaan? I think God wants us to do that” and Terah decided to go along with it, but then got weary of all the travelling and when they got as far as Haran dug his heels in and refused to go any further, leaving Abram frustrated but still loyal to his father and doing his duty by him, caring for him until his death. Once again, we’ll never know.

However, what we do know is that, after the death of his father, Abram senses that God wants him on the move. And of course, with the death of his father, he is now the one who calls the shots and wife, nephew and assorted household personnel simply have to get on with it and go with him. I wonder what they made of it?

So often we take for granted our freedom to choose. But what about when life denies us that freedom? Abram, in the culture of the time, had no choice about leaving Ur. Similarly, Sarai, Lot and others had no choice about leaving Haran and journeying into the unkown. Because the unknown is what God was calling Abram into. “Go from your country ………. to the land that I will show you.” Not “Go to Canaan”. Abram set out for Canaan because that had been their earlier destination and he had to set out for somewhere

I wonder what it felt like for Sarai and Lot and the rest of Abram’s household…

How many times does life seem to force a particular direction on us, just as it did for them?

Nearly 18 months ago now, we moved house. Although I had a strong sense at the time that the move was, somehow, very, very “right”, I was an extremely reluctant house-mover as we’d lived in the previous location for 27 years, 25 in the same house. I remember saying to my husband “if anything happens to you, I’m moving straight back!!” Now, 18 months on, I look back and realise that the move was the best thing that could have happened to me at that stage. Now, I’d not even dream of going back. New vistas previously unimagined are opening up before me. I, like Abram, am journeying into the unknown, seeing just one step at a time and taking each step blindly trusting that this journey is of God.

Others might be forced into a new life, a new location, a new ministry, by physcial illness and incapacity. Not what would have been chosen but nevertheless rich with God’s blessing. Or a sudden bereavement can throw our life into disarray and necessitate a change in the way we live, sometimes in where we live. Clergy, for example, live in a “tied cottage” and when a member of the clergy dies unexpectedly in service their family have to move from their home just when they might most want and need to security of staying put.

And only this morning I had the privilege of attending the morning chapel service at the Immigration Removal Centre just a mile or so down the road from my new home. I was last there a month or so ago, and approximately 10 detainees came to the service, only 1 of whom I’d met on my previous visit a couple of weeks earlier. Today there were 15 – but only 2 of them were there last time. The turnover is rapid as people are either deported or win their appeal and move back into the community outside. These men (who are by no means all convicted criminals) live with extreme uncertainty, often having only 24 hours notice that they are flying out of the country.

Faced with an unknown future we have all of our securities stripped from us. Reluctant relocation, physical incapacity, bereavement, unexpected unemployment, deportation… all of these force us to journey into the unknown. Sometimes we are blessed, as I was before we moved, with a sense that it’s somehow the “right” thing to do (and boy, did I cling to the memory of that sense when things got really tough after the move!). More often we aren’t and simply need to step out in blind faith that the God who has called us to life is alongside us in the fog.

Sometimes we need to have all our securities stripped from us in order to begin to hear the new thing to which God is calling us. As Maggi Dawn says, usually we only feel our way a bit at a time into the new life to which God is leading us.

And whenever I visit the Immigration Removal Centre I am humbled by the faith of the men there, who have no inihibitions in pouring out their hearts to God and claiming His promises for themselves. They cling to God because that’s all they’ve got left. They trust God for their future. And they and we are blessed when everything is stripped from us because then we learn, in a way that is rarely if ever possible when our lives are going swimmingly, just how trustable God actually is!

Postscript: If you value your comfort and security and familiar routine, don’t ever, ever pray “Lord, increase my faith”… because God will always answer that prayer. And He will probably do so by removing our securities one at a time until we trust Him and Him alone. And boy, is He trustable!

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Adam and Eve: the end of the beginning

Excuses, excuses. “It wasn’t me, it was her.” “It wasn’t me, it was him”. As a teacher… I need say no more! these cries are the warp and weft of my working life.

And as for choosing to gratify their own desires and thus sacrificing for us all the possiblity of living moment by moment in complete harmony with God and with all that is… well, that explains it then! It’s all their fault!!! Adam and Eve’s fault. Not mine. Never mine. Because, of course, I would never choose self-gratification over living in perfect relationship with God. Never. There’s nothing I desire more than to be utterly in harmony with God.

And therein, as the Bard almost said, lies the rub! Because the truth of the matter is that there’s quite a lot that, in a particular moment, I desire more than to be utterly in harmony with God. Our living in that harmony ends with every moment of self-gratification at another’s (and therefore God’s) expense. And to blame another for our own wrongdoing… if that’s ever happened to you, you’ll know how that causes alienation like no other. What we might not realise is that if we do that to another, however subtly, we are ourselves alienated not just from that person but from God.  Our journey towards salvation begins with God’s response to all those moments of rebellion. God doesn’t beat about the bush – He faces each of them with the truth of their action and the implications for themselves.

That’s also what He does for us. He turns the spotlight of His love on us and shines it into all those dark recesses of our lives. And as we see the truth, if we will allow it to, it will set us free – free from self-delusion, free to admit “it’s my fault, no-one else’s” and free to repent (that word again – see my post from yesterday) and turn back towards Him and re-enter that harmony which was lost at the moment of our rebellion

The choice continues, moment by moment. God, Grant me the grace to accept Your light shining into the dark recesses of my life. Gant me the grace to turn back to You today, as many times as I need to. Lord, have mercy.

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Mark – where the action is

Repentance – now there’s a word worth exploring!

As a child, I got the distinct impression at Sunday School that repentance was all about being sorry. If I was only sorry enough for all the naughty things I did then maybe I wouldn’t go to hell… it was that kind of Sunday School… plenty of hell-fire and the threat of damnation kept me very “good” and compliant, specially as my mum used to say to me, when I’d been found out in some minor misdemeanour at home and was grovelling, “being sorry’s no good!”  All of which might be why, in my more mature years (well OK then, now I’m old!) I set so much store by the overwhelming generosity of God’s grace, love and forgivenss, which can never be earned and is a free gift for us all at every moment.

Repentance is in fact nothing to do with feeling very sorry and remorseful, although such feelign can bring us to the point of willingness to repent. The Greek word translated as repentance in this passage is μετάνοια (metanoia), implyinga change of heart and mind. As Wikipedia says, “The repentance (metanoia) called for throughout the Bible is a summons to a personal, absolute and ultimate unconditional surrender to God as Sovereign. ….. It is a call to conversion from self-love, self-trust, and self-assertion to obedient trust and self-commitment to God.”

Now that definition makes perfect sense. It also explains why Jesus, of all people, came to John to be baptised. For John was offering a baptism of repentance and in submitting to baptism Jesus was demonstrating both His complete identification with us in our sinfulness and His complete turning towards God in submission to God’s will.

The result of this complete submission was that He heard the voice of God declaring “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”. This was the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and was followed immediately, as you may recall, by the Spirit driving Jesus out into the wilderness, where He began to understand the full impact of the commitment He had made and what it would mean to live His life God’s way and to bring in the Kingdom God’s way and, indeed, the very nature of the Kingdom of God which is so very different from any earthly kingdom.

I don’t know whether any of you are familiar with the writings of Terry Pratchett. I’m not addicted to them – honest – it’s just that I happen to have all of his books on my bookshelf and reread them regularly. For those of you who don’t know already, the majority of his books are set on the Discworld – a flat world carried on the back of four elephants which are standing on Great A’Tuin, an enormous turtle swimming through space. (Did I mention he’s a fantasy writer?). This is a world which runs on magic rather than following scientific principles. One of the characters is Rhincewind, a failed wizard. Suffice to say that Rhincewind is a survivor – born lucky, you might say – whose main goal in life is to stay alive. He achieves this by knowing when to run from trouble, and more than once explains to bewildered companions who ask “where are we going?” ” ‘To’ doesn’t matter. All that matters is ‘from’ – ‘to’ will take care of itself!”

However, in the case of repentance, I venture to suggest that “from” doesn’t matter – “to” is the most important thing. we repent to God’ will rather than our own. And as we turn to God and away from our self-will then we too enter into His Kingdom.

Each act of repentance – of μετάνοια (metanoia) – will bring us to a new beginning in our lives. Our past rebellion ended and a new submission begun.

God give us the grace to repent continually – to turn continually towards Him and the light of His love. And may our repentance – our turning to – cause us to shine ourselves with His light and equip us to share His love with all.

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Matthew: what’s in a name?

There’s a lot of death around at the moment.

Typhoon in the Philippines, a crashed helicopter in Glasgow, two young teenage girls mown down and killed by a car driven by an aquaintance, a 5-year-old boy diagnosed just 2 months ago with an agressive cancer who died this week, a pupil at school whose dad is dying of a brain tumour, two more pupils taken out of school yesterday to say their last “goodbye” to their great-grandmother to name but a few.

There’s a lot of death around at the moment.

Death is a taboo subject in our society and yet, as this second geneaology (Matthew 1:1-17) coming hard on the heels of the one in Luke’s Gospel reminds us, there is one thing which is certain in this life – we will all die, as will those who gave us life and those to whom we have given life.  Genealogies are in a way a list of endings and beginnings.

Life is not linear. We tend to think it is, living out as we do a succession of moments in time. We think of it as a journey from A to B – or should that be from B to D, from Birth to Death… and in one sense, maybe our own individual time-lines are just that – lines. However, in another way life is circular. We also speak of life-cycles and within our individual lives there are times and seasons which recur.

I’m a teacher. My working life is governed by terms – Autumn, Spring, Summer – and by a timetable which recurs on a regular pattern. I’m also a gardener. That part of my life is governed by seasons – Winter, Spring, Summer, Autumn. My husband is a sailor. That part of his life is governed by the phases of the moon and the tides – Spring and Neap tides come round regularly twice a month.  And in these genealogies we see that the larger life of our societies are governed by the cycle of birth and death – an endless succession of beginnings and endings.

These genealogies put the life of Jesus into context. He was a real man, born in a real place and at a real time. He was part of that unending cycle of births and deaths. And that is awesome – God comes to us and takes upon Himself the same limitations as we live with day in and day out. And by taking that specific identity upon HImself – a particular man in a particular place and from a particular line of ancestors – and transcending it and becoming the Man for all peoples, not just those who shared His cultural and religious context, He shows us that we too can transcend our backgrounds and find a larger sense and meaning for our lives than would otherwise be possible.

And His willingness to enter fully into our humanity gives us a starting point when walking alongside the relatives of victims of typhoons, crashes, hit-and-run deaths, childhood and other cancers… He is in all of the beginnings and endings and new beginnings, helping us to find meaning and hope in the face of the agonising scream of despair “why? why me? why my child/parent/friend? why?????”

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Luke: flashback

Family trees are fascinating and origins give a sense of rootedness.

A pupil of mine can trace his antecedents all the way back to a mediaeval king (I forget which one). I, on the other hand, can trace my ancestry on my mother’s side all the way back to a 16th centruy Cornish tin-miner who left Cornwall for London due to the lack of work in Cornwall. And apparently the spelling of her (maiden) surname is so rare that anyone with that surname who spells it that way is related to anyone else with the same name.

And I love the genealogy with which Luke begins. It reminds us that Jesus was a real man, with real ancestors. Luke reels them off at lightning speed, ending with the triumphant “son of Adam, son of God”. Because unlike my pupil, whose family tree is known only as far back as the Middle Ages, and myself, whose family tree is known only as far back as the 16th centruy, Jesus’ family tree is known as far back as God Himself. And right at the outset of his Gospel, Luke establishes that Jesus is God’s son.

As I allowed that short phrase “son of Adam, son of God” to resonate with me yesterday (sorry, still running a bit behind on this book club!) the awareness gradually grew in me that as we can all in theory trace our family tree back to Adam, the first man given life by God, the archetype for humanity, surely by implication we also are therefore sons and daughters of God.

Yes, we also – all of us, all men and women and children who have ever drawn breath, are sons and daughters of God. In the Eternal Now that has always been so and will for ever be so.

May this Advent season be for us all a journey into a deeper knowledge of our relationship with God in Christ, and may He open our eyes and hearts to see and know that everyone we meet, whether they know it or not, is also a son or daughter of God.

God give us grace to live as your sons and daughters, and to treat all who cross our paths as our brothers and sisters. Amen.

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Luke: let me tell you a story Advent Book club day 3

OK, OK… I know this is the beginning of Day 4 and I’m posting about the readings for Day 3…

Maybe if I tell you that Day 3, for me, began with a 5am alarm, continued with “in the car before 6.30 to drive to school” and ended with “collapse into bed utterly exhausted at 10.45pm after wall-to-wall work” you’ll bear with me! And let me tell you, that partiuclar ending was wonderfully welcome.

Yesterday all I managed was to read the scripture passages suggested – the opening verses of Luke’s gospel – before setting out on my long commute. Those words stayed with me, however, throughout the day and the question which grew and grew in my mind was “why?”.

“Why did Luke, having read and considered other accounts of the significance of the life and death of that carpenter and wandering rabbi from Nazareth, decide that he too would write his own version? He says that all the others undertook, as he says he also intends, “to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.”

Is he implying that despite their undertaking, their accounts were after all not orderly? or not accurate? or incomplete? or was it that he thought he knew information to which they hadn’t had access and which would augment the narrative? or was it simply that he wanted his voice to be heard with all the others?

Because our response to a situation is always, and inevitably, very personal. Eye-witnesses to an incident never give identical accounts of the events. As a teacher I am deeply, deeply suspicious if, when attempting to get to the bottom of an incident, I receive identical statements from each pupil involved… conflicting reports are a far better indicator that each is (probably) telling the truth as they saw/experienced/understand it.

However, I kept on returning yesterday to the idea that maybe Luke simply wanted his own voice to be heard. Because isn’t that what we all want? Isn’t that a large part of what we’re about in this book club? and in all interactions we have with others? We want our own voice to be heard.

And as for Luke, so for us – if we also take the time and trouble to listen carefully to the voices of others, the whole will be so much greater than the sum of the parts. Because I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to be without any of the four Gospels, with their very different accounts and emphases. Just as I wouldn’t want to be without any of the very varied expressions of Christianity that abound in our world, from Evangelical Free Church to high Catholic (whether Roman or Anglican), from Methodist to Coptic, from URC to Orthodox and all stations in between. And more than that – I also wouldn’t want to be without any of the very varied understanidng and expressions of the Presence of God in our lives that abound in our world, from Muslim to Sikh, from Jewish to Buddhist, and yes – from atheist to Christian to name but a few.

Here ends my (very radical, it turns out) thought for – er – for yesterday…

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