Here are some of the recent letters that have been written for Amber News.
It may come as a surprise to some of you, as it did to some of Jesus’ disciples who witnessed the event, that Jesus commended sheer extravagance.
It began as an act of love, graciously accepted and highly approved. The story is well known because Jesus said that wherever the Gospel was preached it would be told. It is described with differing details in several gospels, but the essence of the occasion is agreed by all. Jesus was dining when suddenly a woman anointed his feet with a very costly and precious ointment and wiped them with her hair. The scene was sensual, but it was the sincerity of the act that moved Jesus to say, in answer to indignant comments from his disciples about waste, that this story of extravagance would not be forgotten.
The word extravagance denotes that normal limits have been exceeded; things have gone beyond what is expected. It implies excess and lavishness, and in the case of this story, why waste the ointment when it would have been better sold and the money given to the poor.
In response to such criticism Jesus did not question the need to minister to the poor; the gospel is concerned with the weak whatever the reasons for their weakness. But poverty he comments is a perennial problem – it will always be necessary to deal with it.
What the woman had done however was so special, so unique that it needed to be appreciated. Jesus understood it as a symbolic reference to his death. But, it was more likely, more human, an offering of affection; an offering of grateful love to someone she admired. There are times for love to be extravagant.
In John’s gospel the evangelist says, God ‘so’ loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. The word ‘so’ is a very small word but it tells us that God went beyond the bounds of expected behaviour to reveal his extravagant divine love, his forgiveness and compassion.
But some of you may feel that you have, in your personal relationships, loved too much and have been met with rejection, betrayal and pain. “Love hurts, love scars, Love wounds and mars, Any heart, not tough, Nor strong enough, To take a lot of pain, Take a lot of pain, Love is like a cloud, Holds a lot of rain Love hurts, Oh, oh, love hurts,…” is how the Everly Brothers sang about it. But can we ever love too much? To love and not to count the cost can be a permissible and proper extravagance. Such love has its roots in the Incarnation. Jesus is God’s expression of divine extravagance.
Yours sincerely, Ralph
‘The lamps are going out all over Europe, and we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.’ No, I am not referring to Brexit. Those words were spoken in the first half of the twentieth century by Lord Grey of Falloden with the approach of the First World War. In 2018 we remembered the 100th anniversary of that war to end all wars, but in 1933 the year Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of the Third Reich Lord Grey died. In time the darkness he spoke about came again.
There are times when darkness feels very dense. Such a time is recalled during Passion Week, the week before Palm Sunday which is followed by Holy Week when we remember Jesus’ journey towards Calvary and crucifixion. The Gospel writers Matthew, Mark and Luke record that when Jesus’ life moved to its close there was darkness over all the land for about three hours. It was gross darkness, significantly symbolic and silently overwhelming. Such darkness descends if not literally then, metaphorically, when people become victims of heinous crimes.
The Bible associates darkness with wickedness, sin and suffering. The crucifixion of Christ was all of these – the murder of an innocent man.
Yet the Cross is the focus of a glorious paradox that throbs at the heart of faith. Its genesis reaches back to the creation story: ‘Darkness was on the face of the deep,’ it says, but it goes on to say ‘The Spirit of God moved on the face of the waters. And God said ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light. It implies that God punched holes in the darkness. That he shares our pain. That Jesus, as St. John tells us, is the light of the world which the darkness has not overcome.
The corollary to all of this is unavoidable. Disciples, now as then, must follow their master’s example and ‘let their lights so shine before people that they see the good things they do and praise God who is in heaven.’ To be glory givers and not glory seekers.
Yours sincerely, Ralph
There is an old Jewish proverb which says “God could not be everywhere, therefore he made mothers”. Motherhood, at is best, reflects all that is good, and a good mother is priceless.
The significance of motherhood varies in different branches of the Church. This is most obviously seen in the importance that Mary, Jesus’ mother, plays. But whatever the attributes accorded to her, the Christian family today all agree that Mary is a good role model. The hymn “Tell out my soul” is a rendering of Mary’s utterance on learning of her unique place in God’s purpose to become the mother of Jesus. Her innate humility and sensitivity are wonderfully summed up in her reaction to the events that would involve her in the birth of Jesus, events that she is said to have pondered in her heart.
To remember Mary’s significance and goodness is an appropriate way of marking Mothering Sunday. Goodness is, essentially, the expression of God-ness. If God is love, then at the heart of goodness is love. Goodness is not something which we attain. It evolves within us through the miracle of grace, as does so much of life. Goodness is not an achievement, more a product - a fruit from the harvest of grace. It manifests itself in an individual who has been affected or influenced by the goodness they have experienced from others. Such goodness is more visible to others than to ourselves; we influence the world most when we are unaware of the goodness we have given.
Goodness is not a merit we create. It is that which develops in us through grace. And as such, as Mary made clear, it is a matter for profound humility.
Among the many blessings Jesus brought was his shining goodness. As Mothering Sunday comes again it is right to suggest that some of the Lord’s goodness was surely the result of the good mother he had.
Yours sincerely, Ralph
If someone says to us ‘prove that you love me’, our response may be to resent them. We may sniff emotional blackmail in the air and instinctively feel that their request is inappropriate between people who say they care for each other. You have to allow people to express love in their own time. You can’t force someone to love you, you have to trust them. If this is true between friends, then it is especially true in our relationship with God. People are sometimes tempted to make God show his hand. ‘If you are really there prove it.’ Such a request is often the beginning of a bargaining process. A crisis in the family, say with someone falling ill, may present an opportunity for an encounter with God which in more settled times would normally be avoided.
People who imagine that their faith is mature enough not to be tempted by such suggestions may be forgiven for not remembering that such temptations usually only come to those who care desperately enough about God. Christ, for example was tempted in precisely this way.
At his baptism Jesus heard the words ‘Thou are my beloved Son – with thee I am well pleased’. But soon after he heard them he experienced a crisis of confidence in the form of the three temptations. In his mind's eye he saw himself standing on the parapet surrounding the great temple in Jerusalem looking 450 feet below into the Kidron Valley. ‘If you are the Son of God throw yourself down, for God will make sure that you do not come to any harm’. This, the first temptation was designed to cast doubt into the mind of Christ. And on closer inspection it is easy to see why. Who wouldn’t doubt a conviction that he had been called to live as a divine Son? ‘Is it really God calling me or am I just deluding myself?’ So Jesus was tempted to get definitive proof that he was who he thought he was, not so much for others but for himself.
But Jesus recognised this voice for the insidious temptation that it is and remembered the words from Deuteronomy which state we are not to test the Lord our God. Trying to prove that God loves us is utterly inappropriate. We are not to test him but to trust him. And so it was that with much struggle and anguish that Christ pioneered for us the way of trust. Through rejection, betrayal, desertion, pain of body, mocking, humiliation and apparent failure, there was an underlying, absolute trust. And by so doing he opened up a route for us to follow: trust whatever our circumstances.
Yours sincerely, Ralph
I am not the only one who felt that the year 2018 came and went at such a speed that it appeared more like a blur than a full twelve months – long awaited, eagerly anticipated, but gone in a flash.
I don’t know what you expected from last year, but at the start of a new year there is always a degree of optimism in the air – that things might be different. But it is only people that change things for the better or worse and not the turning of a calendar page.
When I reflect on the events of last year I am saddened by the departure of so many friends and mindful that life is a journey. It has a definite beginning and an apparent end. Although I believe by faith that our earthly lives actually ends with fulfilment – “Eye has not seen nor ear heard nor the heart of man conceived what God has prepared for those who love him”.
We live by faith and not by sight. But faith is not a solution to life but a way of living it. It does not free us from the perplexity of life, rather it affirms the meaning of our lives and through the struggle gives us some assurance that God is with us, in the middle of it all.
When Jesus taught his disciples about himself he gave them a very firm assurance that part of his ministry was to give life its full meaning. But abundant life as he put it does not mean trouble free, painless, anodyne life. It means life lived to the full, sharing its mysteries, its pain and beauty with faith.
At the beginning of a new year our prayer should not be to avoid life, but one that asks for the courage and love necessary to face the future. Confident that we are not alone, but have a companion who not only knows the way but who is also our friend.
Looking for Adventure?
December sees the arrival of the Advent season when we look forward to Christmas by looking back to Bethlehem where God entered our world in human flesh. Advent is not just about preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus, but also looking forward to his coming again and focussing on getting ready for ‘the day of the Lord’.
We are using ADVENT as the start of a new ADVENTURE as we look forward to the future of the church. Would you like to join us in this fresh ADVENTURE in PRAYER? Maybe you have never thought of prayer as an adventure, but it can be!
Beginning on Sunday 9th December from 6pm – 6.45pm in the Bassett Rooms, we shall meet for prayer with a short reflection. This will happen every 2nd Sunday of the month and will be called SUNDAY AT 6. Somebody once said ‘Prayer is the engine room that drives the church.’ So we need to ensure that this engine is well oiled and maintained to empower the church in the vision of God for us and the vitality of the Holy Spirit in us.
Prayer is communicating with our Creator, so we want to engage with Him on behalf of those in need locally and the wider world and for the way ahead as a community of faith. We want to be ready to face changes that we have no control over, but we also want to be open to change if there are more effective ways that God wants us to do and be church. Through prayer we are investing in the future.
Coming together to pray is important in the life of a church as well as individual prayers. We are grateful that a few have maintained a corporate prayer time over the years. We now sense the time is right to give this fresh impetus in a different place and at a different time and encourage more to join us. Hence – SUNDAY AT 6. If you would like to experience this, but have never prayed in public before, the good news is you don’t have to! Praying quietly is just as important as praying out loud. Coming to pray is what matters. Come for part or all of the time.
Remember ‘more things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of’ (Alfred Lord Tennyson). May we enjoy the God of surprises as we pray!
Happy Advent and Christmas, David Russell
Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God”.
The twenty-first century as in the previous one has seen several occasions for the peacemakers to go to work, and I believe that while life on earth continues their services will always be needed. And here lies an important point. Let’s be honest, peace, real peace is not easy. There are many things to be achieved before there can be reconciliation. First, hatred needs to be extinguished because it can be like a fire. It may be trivial to bother with it when it is smouldering but it can be terrifying when it flares out of control. Jesus praised the work of peacemakers who try to put out the fire of hatred before it gets out of control. But how are we to achieve this?
It is often said that the first step towards peace is accepting ourselves – being at peace with who we are. When we hate we often blame and hurt others. When what is often needed is to accept ourselves as we are, as scripture tells us God does – upon our best he will build something better. But that is not as easy as it sounds. Real peace, and that includes peace with ourselves, is often achieved the hard way. We can see this idea in action when troops and aid workers stand in the gap between warring factions risking their lives in order to deliver vital relief supplies. And then by those who patiently negotiate a ceasefire.
This idea is not without precedent. We are taught that when Jesus came to reconcile humankind to God it led him to being crucified – he hung in the gap between people and God. For us standing in the gap may mean refusing to take sides when people have fallen out. But lasting peace cannot be imposed it must be longed for. There must be vision and a desire for a better way.
On the 11th November at 9.15am at Brackenfield & Wessington and 10.45am at Ashover & Handley we shall remember those who have been broken and lost by war and together we will agree to carry forward their vision of a better world. A better world will not be created apart from us, but when we become part of the peace process. Blessed are the peacemakers for they belong to God. Do we have what it takes to build peace - to be recognised as children of God?
Yours sincerely, Ralph
here has this year gone? The nights are already drawing in and soon the warmth of the summer will be replaced by the cool of autumn. In the country we are more aware of the seasons. Gradually the leaves turn yellow and begin to fall. The damp musty smell of autumn rises, with the morning mists, and there are often beautiful days of mellow sunshine and still blue skies.
It’s a natural time to look back and be thankful for the sense of richness life brings. In nature, and in our inner experience, many things have grown. Life has been fruitful. And it is natural to be grateful and thankful to God.
But autumn comes with a touch of sadness: ‘God sets the time for birth and a time for death, the time for planting and a time for pulling up’. (Ecclesiastes 3:2)
It is a haunting reminder that life is short and we do not live forever in our present bodies on this earth. So it raises questions about our future and how sure we are of the Christian gospel. How real is the hope of heaven in our hearts, and what can we do to cultivate it?
Jesus took the picture of the harvest and used it to teach about the end of the world and meeting with God. Both these things are as certain as the coming of autumn will be this year. For the Christian this is not a pessimistic thought. God has his time for each of us individually, and for this world as a whole. Spring will come again but not necessarily for all in this world.
So let’s take the opportunity of autumn and harvest-time to reflect on our lives, to be thankful for God’s goodness and to prepare for our future whether on earth or in heaven.
Yours sincerely, Ralph
Why would anyone want to give Jesus a hard time? Why would anyone want to kill him? You may think you know the answer to that question since in the minds of many Jesus was meek and mild. We forget, conveniently, that Jesus had a tough life. He seemed to possess little or none of the things that made life, even then, bearable. Yes, he had his family but frequently they too seemed to misunderstand him, and were at times even embarrassed by him. To use a tired expression, Jesus did not tick all the boxes for people. He wasn’t in the popular imagination an all-round nice guy, a decent bloke. He could be difficult to appreciate, incomprehensible and downright mysterious. Jesus may have been meek and mild in all the right senses of those words, but he wasn’t easy to get along with.
Jesus challenged and was sometimes rude to people. He didn’t mind upsetting people if upset they needed to be. He was always looking for an opportunity to tell people what God is truly like and he demonstrated God’s love for people not by judging them nor condemning them by very narrow standards, but by healing them, by returning their dignity which had been lost or compromised due to the fragility of their nature; by feeding them and by leading them to faith in him; the mark of which does not leave a person unchanged.
If we mean business with Jesus as he wants us to we will inevitably encounter struggles. But one thing is for sure - he will not leave us to struggle alone. We are destined for better things than that. Or to use the language of St. Paul in his letter to the Romans we are destined to become co-heirs with Christ. As God’s children born by faith in Christ we are destined to share everything Christ is and has, because it is within his gift to do so.
Yours sincerely, Ralph