Sunday, 27 September 2020

Harvest sermon for Campfire Church today — Grace Garner

Jesus said, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions”, before proceeding to tell the Parable of the Rich Fool, in which the man builds ever bigger barns to store his grain, before dying in the night without having used any of it.
Many people have observed that, while money may not buy happiness, a lack of it certainly brings misery. I think the angst some of us feel about wealth and money, particularly in Western countries, can lead us to bring a certain amount of baggage with us when we hear Jesus’ stories that have to do with riches. When Jesus was alive, although money was useful, a person could also manage without it. It’s important to remember that in modern Western culture, money stands for food, clean water, shelter, healthcare and other necessities. A certain amount of money is vital for life. But what Jesus is talking about here is the pointlessness of hoarding wealth, of trying to prepare when you cannot know what is coming.
Sometimes when we think about this parable, I feel a ‘yes but’ rising in me. “Yes, but Jesus, are you saying we shouldn’t be prudent, that we shouldn’t make good use of what we have, that we shouldn’t ensure our provisions last through barren times? Are you saying we shouldn’t take responsibility for ourselves?” Only a few weeks ago we talked about Joseph, who saved Egypt and the surrounding lands by the building of barns and prudent saving of food – and that was all through God’s direction!
But Joseph had enough to meet the needs of the people. Once the famine was over, the saved food had been eaten. And Joseph shared. He was doing it for everybody, not just himself; not even just Egypt, in the end. In this parable, the rich man has more grain than one person can use and keeps it for himself. He has so much of it that he never gets the use of it, and nor do any of the people he could have shared with. This goes beyond mere prudence. And the Jews of Jesus’ time would have known the scriptures that instructed farmers to leave their excess for the poor to eat, that expressly tell those who have plenty that they should share it with those who are without. (And, by the way, there’s no question of people who do not deserve to be shared with. You share with those who are needy because of what *you* are like, not because of what they are like, or how deserving or not they may be.)
So the problem with the rich man in the parable is not that he’s rich, but that he chooses to hold onto his wealth in a way that benefits neither him nor anyone else. Better, says Jesus, to use your time and effort in more worthwhile things, and trust that God will keep providing for you year on year. Our future is in God’s hands, regardless of what we do or don’t do. The Harvest Festival is for giving thanks to God, who has faithfully provided for us once again. It’s an acknowledgement that we have received not according to what we deserve, but purely out of God’s goodness. As the character of Death says, in Terry Pratchett’s book ‘Reaper Man’, “OH LORD, WHAT CAN THE HARVEST HOPE FOR BUT FOR THE CARE OF THE REAPER MAN?”
“Do not be afraid, little flock,” said Jesus, “for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Jesus exhorts us to share what we have with each other and to trust in God; to create the Kingdom by taking care of one another, and thus also taking care of ourselves. He encourages us to focus not on what we have – like King John sitting in his tower counting out his coins (“Taxes! Taxes! Mwaha!”) – but instead on the world we seek to bring into being.
This week saw the Autumn Equinox, also known as Mabon or Alban Elfed. It is the point of balance, when the light and the dark are momentarily equal, before we step through the gateway of the year and head towards the long dark of winter.
The feast of Michaelmas, or St Michael and All Angels, on the 29th September, is placed at this time of year for a reason. In some Christian traditions, it was Michael the Archangel who led the Heavenly Host against Lucifer’s uprising, and cast down the Prince of Darkness. This is why you see pictures of St Michael with his foot on a dragon and holding a flaming sword. He is a Prince of Light, who looks at darkness and rides out to meet it. So it’s fitting that he stands within the gateway of year, as darkness begins to rise. And he faces into the darkness, unafraid, reminding us that the light has overcome the darkness and will do so again. And he holds up his flaming sword to light the way. ‘Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I shall fear no evil.’
Michaelmas also marked the beginning of the agricultural year, and was a time of reckoning the accounts, as well as celebrating the Harvest that had successfully been brought in at the end of the previous year. So it’s a time for taking stock of what has been, for giving thanks for the good and throwing out the bad. A time to accept sunk losses. A time to reset our course to manage any hardship to come. A time to look around and see whose harvest was wanting, to ensure that they will be OK. And a time to envision the year ahead. What will we create?
As well as the Harvest of the Land and Sea, we also take a moment to think about the Harvest of the Soul. So far, 2020 has been momentous indeed, and I don’t think it’s ready to settle down yet. I wonder what has happened this year that you are thankful for? I wonder what this year has taught you to set aside, to throw away? I wonder what values we would like to focus on as we shake the dust off our feet and step through the gateway into the coming dark? What we sow now will be next year’s harvest.
Let’s pray.
God of all mercy and goodness,
We give you thanks for the lessons of this year;
for the kindness and grace welling up in our communities,
for the revelations of truth, however bitter or painful,
for the fight for justice, the outcry of your children,
the knowledge gained, the humility grown, the determination developing.
We gaze into darkness, calling on St Michael and his flaming sword of truth,
knowing that the infant Christ will be born in the darkest hour.
With the heavenly host, we unfurl the banners of justice, peace, joy and grace, and ask that you will lead us in the way of righteousness for the year that is to come.
In Jesus’ name we pray.

Sunday, 20 September 2020

The Campfire Church ministry of the word for today: Farewell to Bitterness (Tony Collins)

Last week Grace read a passage from Hebrews 12, which includes the sentence, ‘See to it that no one misses the grace of God, and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble.’
It’s so easy to be bitter. Bitterness arises in your soul when something grieves you and you have no chance to set it straight. I am sure you are familiar with the flavour.
My heart was filled with bitterness last Sunday as I watched David Attenborough’s programme on the extinction crisis. For as far back as I can remember I have loved the earth, and have grieved over its destruction, most of which has taken place during my lifetime. How can we not be bitter to see thoughtless clearing of precious forest just to plant soya beans for cattle feed? How can we not react with bitterness when we learn, as the United Nations warned this week, that a million species are threatened with extinction?
It is tempting to look for someone to blame. Bitterness engulfs me when I think of national and world leaders who do so little to care for the earth, and who are so cavalier in their disregard for those who are hurt by their policies.
Bitterness arises when you look for acknowledgment and find none; when you have made a contribution, and it is disregarded; when your viewpoint is ignored and the issues you want to raise are dismissed as of no account.
The problem about bitterness is that it turns back on itself. Those who cause the bitterness sail blithely on, quite unaware, while your spirit curdles within you.
Bitterness eats you from within. It can render you angry and destructive, or depress you. It can also make you ineffective, the victim of your own passions.
Bitterness can destroy a fellowship, or a family, or a marriage. It can colour all your decisions and taint your responses to other people.
Bitterness leads to scapegoating – to thinking, ‘If only I could get rid of Donald Trump, or Boris Johnson, things would start to get better.’
Bitterness can also be a temptation, a refuge, a place of bleak comfort where we are absolved of responsibility, because the situation is out of our hands.
Bitterness provokes us to focus on the personal, and to miss the wider picture.
If bitterness is not addressed, it leads to despair. One of the qualities I most admire about David Attenborough is that he has not given in to despair, though he is better placed than most of us to see the scale of the devastation our species has committed in the last 50 years.
If bitterness fills your soul, what should you do?
How, for example, can you pray? Specifically, how is it possible to pray for those who are the source of your bitterness? Such prayer can feel like ashes in the mouth: how do I pray for the trawlermen who drag nets across the ocean floor, destroying what they do not catch? How do I pray for the politicians who turn aside refugees and prevent shelter and food from reaching them? How do I pray, even, for the man who saw fit to empty his trash out of his car into the gutter immediately outside my house?
Even to pray can be too much to ask, so we need to start further back.
Start, I suggest, not with the crimes or misconduct of those who have provoked your bitterness, but with your common status as creatures of the Most High. One of the points that is now being raised regularly by Extinction Rebellion and many others within the ecological community is that we are all in this together. ‘Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind,’ wrote the poet John Donne. ‘Therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.’ Donne was right, of course, but he didn’t go far enough. We and the planet are one: the wildfires of California and Oregon affect us. As Grace pointed out the other day, dust from the Sahara provides nutrients for the Amazon. Or, as the author Deepak Chopra puts it, ‘The trees are our lungs, the rivers our circulation, the air our breath and the earth our body.’
How, though, does the Almighty view us, part of one creation that we are? Working on the general principle that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, as Paul says in Romans, I am constrained to the unpalatable conclusion that I need the forgiveness of the Lord just as acutely as any illegal logger: more so, because I am condemning his actions whereas the logger may be simply seeking to feed his family.
Thankfully God’s grace extends even to me. As it says in Lamentations chapter 3:
The Lord’s loving-kindnesses indeed never cease,
For His compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
Great is Your faithfulness.
God’s grace is the theme of the 23rd Psalm. It is easy to overlook, because it is so familiar, but I find it a solace to my spirit to read lines such as:
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
for ever.
The writer Murray Watts, a distinguished screenwriter and dramatist who co-founded the Riding Lights Theatre Company, has made a practice, over years, of meditating on the 23rd Psalm each day. Of the Psalm he has this to say:
If your heart is open to love, then this song is for you. It is not about romantic love but it will bring far deeper love into all your relationships.
If you have no interest in religion but consider yourself spiritual, then this song is for you.
If your life is in deep trouble, then this song is for you. More than any song or poem it has been read in desperate times and brought comfort to the broken-hearted and the dying.
If your life is successful, happy and fulfilled, then this song is for you. For why wouldn’t you want to go deeper and further into a peace and happiness that is beyond your wildest dreams?
If I start at this point, rejoicing in the Lord who is my shepherd, then I have begun the day well. I am on the road away from bitterness. Perhaps there is room in my soul to start praying. But how?
At this point I need an illustration, and this morning I am pleased to inform you that we have a couple of celebrity guests. However, they are a little camera shy, so they won’t appear on screen. Let me first invite President Trump to join us. Step forward, Mr Trump, and take a seat. Tell me, have you ever read the 23rd Psalm? Ah. Well, give it a try. Now, tell me how I can pray for you. Help me to see past the manner to the man. I know, for instance, that you long to be liked. I long for that too. You are vulnerable to the hungers and passions of the body. So am I. You seem insecure. I know about insecurity. When I think about what you are dealing with, I owe you an apology, Mr Trump, because it is unfair of me to expect more from you than I expect from myself.
Once you go through an exercise of this kind Donald Trump seems more of a man and less than a monster. You may not want to have a drink with him, but it becomes possible to pray for him. Your sense of bitterness and outrage start to recede.
But what should we pray? To pray properly requires understanding.
Let me recruit, in turn, Boris Johnson to help our reflections this morning. Greetings, Mr Johnson. Do sit down. Take the weight off your feet. As the father of a young child I imagine you’re not getting as much sleep as you might. Tell me something about yourself which will help me understand you. Talk to me about your journalism, and your interest in classics, and your admiration for Winston Churchill. Tell me about your turbulent upbringing, and the smart set at Eton and Oxford among whom you moved. Perhaps you would share something about your liking for headlines. Yes, it was a good joke you told in the House of Commons last week. In return, let me admit to you that I too find it tempting to make people laugh, and to reach for the quick effect, and to skimp on the research, and to let my eyes linger on pretty girls. Once again, I have to say that when I get to know you, Mr Johnson, I cannot be disappointed in you without also being disappointed in myself. As I understand myself, I am the more able to understand you.
Both Mr Trump and Mr Johnson are prone to bluster, when their shortcomings are exposed. They have a tendency to employ volume to win their point. This is true of many men: my family know perfectly well that I will override others, if permitted, in order to carry the argument.
Once we have gone through such an exercise, and acknowledged that none of us is an emperor, but that all of us are wearing transparent suits, then the Trump-monster and the Johnson-monster are reduced to scale: they are bumbling humans like the rest of us, vulnerable and defensive, overbearing and cunning, easily manipulated by special interests. Their abiding weakness is that they are desperate for respect, but are members of a profession in which respect is often lacking.
The point of this exercise is to demonstrate that bitterness often arises when we look around for someone to blame. The solution is to refuse to play the blame game, to work intelligently to make things better, and to pray.
There is a further step to take, as you travel away from bitterness, and that is to love, which requires you to extend both candour and compassion to yourself. As Jesus put it, you cannot love your neighbour without loving yourself. As anyone who has maintained a close relationship for any length of time will know, you cannot love a cardboard cutout; nor can a cardboard cutout offer love. If you try to prop up a false self, in order to win love and respect, it will demand all your strength, and it won’t work, because people are not stupid, and will quickly discern if the image you present is fundamentally dishonest. It’s especially hard to love politicians, because they frequently trade in falsity. To love, or to receive love, you have to be honest.
To love requires us to perceive what is real, and to see past the sin to the sinner. This is not easy. To love the industrialist but not his pollution, the logger but not his destructive conduct: this may require more bandwidth than we can manage. This kind of discernment is costly in terms of time and effort.
Which is where God comes in. The task is beyond us. All we can do is to keep in mind that we wish, ourselves, to be understood, loved and prayed for – and to extend the same courtesy to the Trumps and Johnsons and Putins and Bolsonaros and Xi Jinpings of the world. As we understand, love and pray, the bitterness starts to recede.
And, just to bear in mind, the news is often more complicated than it first appears. Trump is certainly no environmentalist, and his dreadful rollbacks of environmental legislation will have long term impact, but four weeks ago he did sign into law the Great American Outdoors Act, a huge programme of investment and one of the most significant pieces of conservation legislation enacted in the States in half a century. Part of me wants to perceive him as the climate-gobbling oligarch presented by the media, but it isn’t entirely true. We can’t afford the luxury of believing in superheroes or supervillains. Trump is just a man.
In the name of Christ, Amen.

Tuesday, 15 September 2020

Thoughts for the days we're passing through

Hello. How're you doing?

Discernment is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and we need it in shovelfuls just now.

As I pick my way through the daily news, voices come to me like trumpet-blasts, offering denouements and revelations that most of the time don't amount to a hill of beans or offer anything useful in building a constructive life.

Last Sunday at The Campfire Church on Facebook our ministry of the word arose from the letter to the Hebrews, Chapter 12 and in particular this verse: "Lift up your tired hands, then, and strengthen your trembling knees! Keep walking on straight paths so that the lame foot may not be disabled, but instead be healed." That's from the NIV UK, but looking at several translations is helpful. It's talking about the fragility of the situation when something is out of joint, smoothing the way — "Make a straight path for your feet" — to protect and enhance the possibility of healing and progress, rather than loading the situation more and making everything worse. It seems to me we dearly need this advice at the present time.

Here's an example. In the UK, MP Angela Rayner is the First Secretary of State in the Opposition Party — which has my vote, but I find her pronouncements annoying because they so highly emotive as to be unconstructive. Yesterday she was all over Facebook slamming the government decision to exempt hunting and shooting expeditions from the new restrictions placed upon gatherings. In the UK we are now restricted to social gatherings of 6 people, though children can attend school and people can go to work. In other words, we are instructed to continue to be cautious and restrained when we meet for social and recreational purposes, but we are starting to re-establish interaction necessary for earning a living. Then, there are certain exemptions to what could be considered a social gathering, and hunting/shooting expeditions is one. Now, of course most of the people in the UK who go on hunting shooting expeditions are wealthier landowners, so Angela Rayner is blasting this exemption as classist and elitist cronyism and oppression, "Tories shooting our wildlife". 

But there are alternative ways of considering this measure. In recent times, going vegan has been advocated as a means of promoting the health of the Earth, but this is bad advice. Mixed organic farming (animals and plants both), with proper attention to the regeneration of the topsoil, lavish addition of hedgerows to offer a wildlife habitat, and correct movement of herds to mimic what animals do in nature, is what obtains the best result for maintaining and improving the health of the Earth. Here's an example of animal farming for the health of the land and protection against wildfire damage — and this is the kind of thing the Earth needs us to do.  As consumers and citizens we have both power and responsibility to get behind such projects at the local grass-roots level; this won't wait for government instruction, we have to start straight away. 

Now, one of the most constructive and Earth-friendly ways of obtaining the animal-based foods that most people need to support health (I don't want to argue about this, but check out the work of, eg, Nora Gedgaudas or Natasha Campbell McBride et al, in support of this assertion) is to conserve large areas where animals can be raised and herded in the most natural possible way, culling the herds under gamekeepers' advice in shooting parties. If we're going to eat meat (and most people need to for bodily health) the most human way to do so is to allow the animal to lead a free and natural life, then at the right time of year shoot selected animals. It is better for the animals, and for the health of the people eating them, than farm-raised animals fed on large quantities of grain and kept in barns and enclosed fields. Exempting hunting and shooting parties from restriction is not social elitism (though as it happens it does benefit social elites, but then, what doesn't?), it is a very Earth-friendly practice. Angela Rayner is talking nonsense when she speaks out against "Tories killing wildlife"; that isn't what happens in hunting season. It's the time of slaughter for animals raised in the most natural possible way. They are shooting grouse and pheasants and partridges, not blackbirds and robins and eagles. It's better for birds that sheds of densely housed chickens. 

Whatever your own opinion about eating animals, it's still important to think twice and refrain from spreading misinformation in a histrionic manner, particularly if you are an MP and the Shadow First Secretary of State. People won't take you seriously if your pronouncements are not intelligent and thought through.

In the same way, in recent times I've seen (I expect you have too) rumours of the Covid virus being all part of the government's master plan to control our lives, and the requirement to wear masks as integral to their efforts to dominate us and keep us in fear. I sincerely hope you can see this is just tosh. There are honest differences of opinion about the efficacy of wearing masks, that's quite true. There is disagreement over the correct way to manage viral spread — whether or not we should have lockdowns, what groups to allow, to what extent we should protect the economy from collapse while still trying to protect vulnerable people from the virus. It's difficult enough trying to pick a way through this without all the conspiracy theorists spreading panic over 5G and the government squirting mist up your nose to take over your mind! 

I do think our UK (and US) government is profoundly corrupt. It has been entirely evident that those in positions of responsibility have shamefully diverted billions from public funds into personal bank accounts and private interest, and this is appalling. But to the question, "What can I do about this?", the short answer is, "Nothing except vote them out at the earliest opportunity."

It seems to me that my primary focus and concern should be living a holy life. 

A holy life (according to the Law and the Prophets) is one centring on both reverence for God our Creator and social justice. This is expressed in three main ways:

1) Doing our utmost to reverence, respect and care for the Earth, because God has placed us here as stewards of it, and because despoiling the Earth is a crime against the human beings who live on it as well as a sin against God who made it. An integral aspect of personal holiness is educating ourselves about regenerative land-management and permaculture, and taking personal responsibility for walking as lightly on this Earth as we possibly can. This is serious, and we have to do it. The Lord sees.

2) Working in every possible way, according to our circumstances, to uphold and advance social justice. Aligning the detail of our daily lives and choices with what promotes equity for all people and justice for the poor. An integral aspect of personal holiness includes taking the trouble to educate ourselves about the effect on people far away of our government policy at home — thinking about the relationship between our investments and the arms trade, about who makes our clothes and grows our food, about where our fuel comes from and what effect that has on people living near mines and pipelines, about the pollutants and work force involved in products we buy; all that sort of thing. This is dauntingly complex, which means that living simply with few possessions and an uncomplicated schedule is imperative, otherwise we just drown in all the information, lose track, and fail to make a straight path for our feet.

3) Ensuring that our practice of holiness finds its way inwards as well as outwards — that our homes and families and close personal relationships shine with peace and kindness, that we are trustworthy friends and neighbours, that the vulnerable members of our families can rely on us for protection and support. I often see in the news reports of people in poverty who have even starved to death, disabled people who suffer terribly from lack of support, people who have been made homeless by family strife or divorce or financial problems. While I agree that government has a role to play in addressing these sores and griefs in our community, it is certainly true that unless we address them at the personal and family level things will never be put right. 

So, I offer you three scriptures to hold firmly in mind as we pass through these chaotic years (and it will be years, this won't all be done and dusted by Christmas):

Matthew 22.35-40 (my paraphrase): One of the Pharisees asked Jesus: "Teacher, what is the most important part of the Law?" Jesus replied: "The first and greatest is that you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind. The second comes to the same thing — that you shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets. 

Philippians 4.4-9 RSV: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let all men know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand. Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.Finally, my family, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you.

Hebrews 13.1-3 and 14-16 (RSV): Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them; and those who are ill-treated, since you also are in the body. . . . Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come. Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.  Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

So —

*Focus on the positive

*Choose the way of love

*Be discerning in what you believe and check the facts

*Live simply to leave yourself freedom to choose wisely and help generously.

*Remember your creation ordinances. Spend time every day in the hills or a forest or by the ocean or in a garden (you don't have to own it, a public garden will do). Make sure to be barefoot and to get your hands into contact with the living earth. Unless when you go back indoors they have great clods of mud on them, don't wash them. Also get some of that soap/handcream which replaces bacteria for your skin microbiome, and if for some reason you simply cannot go out of doors, get an earthing sheet for your bed.

Hold fast, kindred. We can do this, through God who strengthens us.

Sunday, 13 September 2020

Ministry of the word for The Campfire Church on Facebook today: Comfort, Confidence and Corage

We are living in troubled times. I expect you’ve noticed.

Listening carefully to the voices worth hearing, and discarding the salacious mud-slingers and armies of irascible Orcs, I detect two primary strands of opinion. 

Strand One: We’re all doomed; the southern hemisphere is turning to desert in short order; two-thirds of our wildlife is already lost; water wars are coming; fires, drought, flood, storms and pestilence will lay waste our harvests and our homes; fear and scarcity mentality will rise — leading to authoritarianism, territorialism, othering, hoarding, rioting, lawlessness, violence. The human race is, to use a technical Irish term, fecked. I see nothing one can honestly argue with in all of that, especially since it’s already unfolding before our eyes.  

But, Strand Two: These are the birth pangs of a new age. Hold tight, because something beautiful is being birthed. The turbulence we are experiencing is because of the death throes of the old order. There is a titanic struggle going on between the defenders of the status quo and the inevitability of a new era that will arise from the grass roots. The quality and character of that new era will depend heavily on what we envision now. We will imagine the new world into being, and what get will emerge according to where we put our focus in this time of transition. This gives us as individuals power as well as responsibility, and I most dearly hope the seers who are saying these things have the right of it. As it’s a more optimistic proposition than Strand One, it’s the option I’m going with — because I want it to be true and maybe that’s a good start.

We are, of course, sent here to learn how to hold our light steady in times of turbulence; that’s the point of earthly life. As a young woman I once went to stay at the Christian centre on the beautiful island of Iona — wellspring of the best expressions of the faith in the British Isles. It was October, the last week before they closed their doors for the winter. 

We gathered in the monastery chapel for evening worship, themed around bearing the Christlight into a dark world. As an act of faith at the end, we were sent forth each carrying a lit candle. Outside it was blowing a hooley. Every flame without exception was extinguished before we even got over the threshold. Ha! A better visual aid than was originally intended.

So, whether we are watching the destruction of the Earth and can expect terrifying suffering to find us in the near future, or we are seeing the intense contractions of the world that mothered us giving birth to the new, either way it is our calling and responsibility to hold our light steady as we pass through these times, to shelter and protect the flame, not let it be blown out by the weather.

With this in mind, I (who love tracing the roots of language) offer you three watch words.

The first is COMFORT. 

In some places a child’s dummy (also called a pacifier or soother) is known as a comforter, and “comforter” is also what we called a snuggly quilt.

Being comfortable is what we think of as a condition of ease, troubled by nothing. If you search for images of a person being comforted, I bet you’ll turn up pictures of people being hugged and cuddled, their tears dried, and arms around their shoulders.

But if you search on “Bishop Odo comforting the troops”, you’ll find a different perspective, because it is a caption from the Bayeux Tapestry, which shows Bishop Odo urging the Norman troops into battle with the assistance of a stout club, only because he wasn’t allowed to carry a lance and as a bishop he must not shed blood.

The root of the word “comfort” is nothing to do cosiness. “Com” means “with”, and “fort” means “strength”. 

This is what our reading from Hebrews touches on when, referencing Isaiah 35, it urges us to lift up our tired hands, steady our trembling knees, and make a path forward for our feet. 

We belong to the hosts of God, and our calling is to be resolute and unwavering. We are to comfort one another. The Holy Spirit is also called the “comforter” in the New Testament, but the word used there is “consolatio”, the light-bringer, the one who illumines our darkness, the sun that rises upon our desolation. Nevertheless, he *is* the Comforter, spurring us on in the way of life and the practice of holiness.

Comfort. With strength.

The second watchword for our times that I offer you is CONFIDENCE. Again, the “con” means “with” and the “fidence” means “faith”. 

From the psalms — “Thou, O Lord, art a shield about me; my glory, and the lifter of my head”; and “When I am most afraid, I put my trust in thee.”

Confidence is not arrogance, not exceptionalism, not cockiness or privilege or hubris. Confidence — quiet, humble, unshakeable — is the knowledge that we belong to, and are loved by, God. Regardless of who we have been and what we have done, even though we have got so much wrong and made such a jaw-dropping mess of everything — he is with us, he is for us, he has redeemed us. We are his, and he is our certain hope. Confidence. With faith.

And my third watchword is CORAGE. The word courage is clearly associated with it, but “corage” doesn’t mean bravery. It’s a medieval word — Middle English — that has no precise parallel in modern English. The nearest you can get to it is “heart”, as when you take heart, or are heartened, or put fresh heart into someone. It connects to the word “core” — the centre that holds the whole body firm (like when we speak of needing to work on and develop “core strength”). “Corage” is character, who someone really is; the firm and present reality of being. It is about the hidden depths of a person’s being — and this is where “courage” proceeds from it etymologically, because valour requires a person to draw on their hidden depths in order to stand strong.

Corage. Heart. It is to do with integrity; about “truth in the inward parts”.

These words belong together — comfort, confidence, corage — and I am hoping you can see that, for a time of chaotic turbulence, they do not make things worse by coming roaring in with a pugilistic attitude, fuelling antagonism and worsening conflict. Comfort, confidence and corage — an unshakeably firm core; strong, faithful and true — belong to no battle but to the work of peace. They are for reassurance, for healing, for protection; key elements in extending the reach of Christ.

Sunday, 6 September 2020

The Campfire Church ministry of the word from today ~ WE INTER-ARE (Grace Garner)

From dust you were made, and to dust you will return. That’s from Genesis 3:19. Every year, dust from the Sahara Desert and ashes from African wildfires are carried across oceans by the wind to the other side of the world. I expect there have been years where you’ve cleaned Saharan dust from your car, or seen the orange streaks in the sky. This summer saw a record-breaking, huge dust cloud, the biggest for about sixty years. Not great for humans to breathe in – and, perhaps a troubling reminder of the size of the African desert and what desertification means for our future?
But dust is not rubbish. Dust plays an important ecological role – and, in fact, is a bringer of life. Some of you may already know all about it! The biggest rainforest in the world is, of course, the Amazon, a place disproportionately teeming with life. Unlike in the Sahara, the rain falls in abundance – and washes nutrients out of the soil into the Amazon River and away. In particular, the rain rinses the forest of phosphorus. If you’re a gardener, you probably know that phosphorus is one of the most important elements for sustaining plant life. Every year, clouds of dust and ashes from Africa fall on the Amazon rainforest and provide replacement phosphorus, along with iron and other nutrients. The rainforest wouldn’t survive without them.
This year’s huge dust cloud headed northward towards the East Pacific, where it dumped nutrients into the iron-limited waters there, fertilizing the ocean biosphere. This may cause problematic algae blooms, but it will also feed the coral reefs. The dust storms also have hurricane-suppressing effects, soaking up moisture and sinking air currents, so that building hurricanes can be dismantled before they get going. The dust leaves its own kind of mess in its wake!
I learned about all this just this week, thanks to my 11 year old son, Michael, who loves the natural world and likes to teach me about it! It really made me stop and think about what a complex meta-organism the Earth (Gaia) is, and how capable of generating and regenerating life. We don’t know everything there is to know about her, by any stretch, or what she might be capable of yet.
In our reading this morning, we heard from Tony these words of Joseph: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” When one is undergoing great distress, it is not only trite but often actively hurtful to have someone suggest that God is using your suffering to accomplish good. When Joseph was thrown into a pit by his brothers, he didn’t know what was going to happen. When he was harassed by Potiphar’s wife and then thrown into jail, he didn’t know what would happen then, either. When he stood before Pharaoh, there was every chance he would be sent to his death. But he trusted God, and he placed it all in his hands. This perspective – that God used intended harm for good – is one gained through the passing of time and the restoration of comfort.
Nevertheless, we can see these patterns, given sufficient distance from them to afford us a vantage point to do so. The Sahara Desert always seemed to me an icon of destitution, the very opposite of the Amazon Rainforest, lungs of the earth and beacon of life. And yet it turns out that they are siblings, and that it is the Sahara that gives life to the Amazon, out of the death of whatever ancient forest lived there, and the burning of vegetation in sub-Saharan wildfires. Out of death comes life. Creation is telling the glory of God, indeed.
Our conversation here at our weekly circle has been about the changing and challenging times we are living in, about the creation of peace through our own actions, about our connection to the natural world and to each other, and about how we behave towards others, especially those to whom we are in opposition.
This week, I got into an argument on Facebook. Not news – it happens a lot! My friend posted a picture of angry far-right protesters, carrying boards painted with messages of hatred, their faces twisted into snarling, screaming grimaces. He asked what we would do with them once the leadership changed. I was a little shocked and dismayed to see a number of responses that suggested they should be thrown away or killed; that they weren’t human, but monsters. I suggested that it was imperative to find a way to bring such people back to the table with others; that if we took this attitude ourselves, we were no better than that which we decried; that we must see the humanity in others, however far they are from our own ethical norms.
Because what are we if we offer hatred to hatred; if, in our disgust at the tribalist, we permanently banish them? What hope is there for change if we pronounce people a lost cause? What hope is there to stop the excesses of violence we fear, if we ourselves give ground to the point of view that says some of us are not human and are fit to be destroyed? If we allow evil to seed itself into our own hearts, who then will stand for good? We cannot control others, but we can set a moral standard for ourselves, and we can keep a place at the table for those who have strayed far from us.
What did Jesus teach us? Love your enemy. Love your neighbour. (And who is my neighbour? Might it not be my enemy sometimes?) Treat others as you would hope to be treated yourself. If someone treats you badly, be so good to him that it’s like you’re heaping burning coals on his head – until he can’t stand his own badness any more. Forgive your brother, seventy times seven times – as many times as you need to. They are not the Other – they are you. Our lives are bound up together in inter-being. If we ignore these things, how can peace be accomplished, in ourselves or the world?
And yet there is evil, and there are people so steeped and mired in it that they are beyond our capacity to help. All we can do is try to protect ourselves and others from their behaviour – and pray for them, as we have been discussing. They need God; that much is clear. We are not here as arbiters of judgement but as agents of mercy. In the story of Joseph, from our reading, Joseph trusted God to take care of him. He didn’t – couldn’t – trust the people around him, even the ones who loved him. It was through God’s power that he became an architect of peace. He was God’s man. And he saved and forgave the brothers who had thrown away his life, seeing God’s hand even in their actions.
We cannot always see the big picture. Sometimes our part in the story might seem more to illustrate the calamity than the redemption. But we can see our fellow humans. We can know each one of them to be a child of God like we are, and an agent of God’s work in ways we don’t understand. No one is beyond God’s reach or outside of his love. And, in the kingdom of God, the lion and the lamb are able to live together. In the person of Jesus, the lion and the lamb are united. So we put our trust in God and continue to love each other in humility and hope. Let’s remember that the dust of death is also the cradle of life, and God’s surprising story is not over