Message from Geoff Lanham on 5th August
I remember one of the most moving sites on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land back in 2017 being when we found ourselves peering into what archaeologists believe to be Joseph’s tomb. Seeing the giant circular stone rolled to one side and looking upon the shelf where the body would have been was very compelling. I don’t normally make a habit of peering into tombs, but it reminds me of an interesting bit in John’s account of the resurrection of Jesus. Mary came to the tomb in which Jesus had been buried and saw “that the stone had been removed from the tomb.” There was no body inside. Mary ran off to tell the disciples the shocking news. Only in John are we told that Mary made a second trip back to the tomb. She must have returned after Peter and John ran off to investigate themselves. They ran faster so she lagged behind. But then she stayed on longer than them, weeping. In her distress and bewilderment, she has the courage to look into the tomb again. As she bent over, she saw two angels who asked her “Why are you weeping?” Interestingly, Mary sees the empty tomb, but doesn’t yet believe that Jesus has risen from the dead. She’s not chided for as yet being unable to see. Instead the angels encourage her to express her devastation and distress; the bewilderment that’s been piled on the misery of her loss.
As I think about Mary, I wonder whether we’re prepared to look into the empty tombs of our lives again. Do we have the courage to look into the darkness of our situation, even though it may feel devoid of God’s presence? I guess some people working in the NHS must be feeling exhausted at the moment. As they try to process what has happened and as their compassion and empathy levels are drained, trauma might well be seeping into consciousness. For many of us, these last five months will have taken a toll at some level. We might be feeling numb or afraid or simply worn out. Heightened anxiety often produces spiritual disequilibrium. Often, we can’t always put our finger on why life seems barren or why we don’t seem to be making spiritual progress. Is God doing anything we ask ourselves. I don’t feel any different. It can be painful to linger in a place that seems dead and fruitless; waiting for who knows what.
I remember reading these words about Mary from a homily by Gregory the Great from the 6th century,
“Why did she stoop down again, why did she want to look again? It is never enough for a lover to have looked once, because love’s intensity does not allow a lover to give up the search. Mary sought a first time and found nothing; she persevered in seeking, and so it happened that she found Jesus.“
It strikes me that it was at the very point of looking again into the tomb that Jesus appeared. Maybe it’s true for us that it’s in the act of hanging in again (and again), waiting and being prepared to face the darkness of our own empty tombs that we find Jesus and his own tender renewing work. I know we much prefer to run away from the scene of our pain. Mostly I think it’s true to say we prefer to distract ourselves from having to think about pain. If we can escape it or anaesthetise it, all the better. If these times have been especially hard and bleak, it must be tempting to seek comfort in distractions. But what if we have the courage to peer into the tomb of our unsettledness and barrenness? What if we wait like Mary and have the courage to express our bewilderment and distress before God? Might Jesus take us by surprise in appearing afresh? God can give us the courage to be tomb gazers. The challenge is to wait in painful suspense, yet attentive to where Jesus might want to reveal himself.
This period of struggle may have brought to the surface hurts and wounds long ago dead and comfortably buried. What wounds and disappointments might we have been suppressing? Sometimes we can be too afraid or unready to face the empty tomb and allow the risen Christ to transform us. Yet, if Jesus really rose from the dead, then there may be places within us which He longs to transform and bring to new life. Maybe this is an opportune time when Jesus says, “Open up! Roll back the stone and let my light in, allow my healing and restoration to flow.” The risen Christ confronts us with our fear of change, of new beginnings. The risen Christ says “just as I bear the scars of the cross even in resurrection, don’t you know that my love comes streaming through your own wounds that you protect so much?”
I know that it’s not an easy thing I’m asking you to consider doing. It’s hard to embrace ambiguity and darkness. We much prefer answers and solutions. To be a tomb gazer we have to be prepared “To embrace the passivity of waiting”, as one writer puts it and to persevere in seeking. So I leave you with the metaphor of the empty tomb.
Let me finish with a prayer of St Dunstan,
I determine amidst all uncertainty always to trust.
I choose to live beyond regret, and let you recreate my life.
I believe you will make a way for me
And provide for me,
If only I trust
I will trust in the darkness and know that my times are
Still in your hand.
I will believe you for my future,
Chapter by chapter, until all the story is written…
Teach me to live with eternity in view,
Tune my spirit to the music of heaven.
Message from Geoff Lanham on 29th July
I’ve been looking out of my study window and feeling concern recently as I’ve reflected on the trees opposite me. Some of the leaves are already beginning to turn yellow. I’m thinking “Wait a minute we haven’t even quite reached August yet. You can’t be moving prematurely into Autumn already! It’s not time.” I always find myself wanting to hang on to summer. Some things we want over quickly, other things we long to slow down so that we can continue to enjoy and appreciate them. My kids used to love the children’s book “How many days to my birthday”? Children look forward with joyful anticipation to their birthday celebration. I used to find it slightly concerning that they’d still want me to read the book to them the day after they had just celebrated their birthdays. Of course, as you get older, the rush to fast forward life diminishes considerably!
I’m sure that we’re all desperate to see this pandemic over. It’s been going on so long and there have been so many frustrations and limitations to cope with that we’d love to fast forward to a post- Covid world. A bit like the Psalmist in Psalm 90, we’ve cried,
Relent, Lord! How long will it be?
Have compassion on your servants.
Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love,
that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.
The longer it’s gone on, maybe you’ve found yourself slipping into a slightly lethargic state spiritually. The enthusiasm for online services has waned, the daily exercise no longer brings you so close to nature, the yearning for human touch has reached an unbearable intensity. Maybe God has begun to slip off the radar and we’ve lost something of the sense of dependence we first had when the fear of the virus gripped hold of us. Some of us are tired of not being able to meet as a church family.
Does this mean that God has taken his eye off the ball and left us? Has he gone on holiday as many are preparing to do? Or is the issue more our inattentiveness to his presence?
Philippe, Jacques writes in “Interior Freedom”,
“God is the eternal present. Every moment, whatever it brings, is filled with God’s presence, rich with the possibility of communion with God. We do not commune with God in the past or the future, but by welcoming each instant as the place where he gives himself to us.” Whether the experience is superficially pleasant or difficult, God is always coming to us in the now of each moment. How are we going to respond to him? For us in this maddening in-between time of waiting for a vaccine, rather than living with anxiety, we need to learn to receive life moment by moment. Perhaps if you’ve felt your spiritual senses dulling over recent weeks, it might be good to pray “Lord renew my trust that you can be found in my present. Open my eyes to perceive your presence and goodness. Help me to receive all life (in its minor and major keys) as gift.” The cycle of the seasons and the liturgical calendar show us that we can never simply stand still in time. What matters is that we are living fully with God in the moment. Each season can be an opportunity to encounter God and learn from him.
And what of dear old church services? Are they past their sell by date in these times?
Some of you may be reluctant to come back for good health reasons. Others may be holding back to let others have first crack. Perhaps some are feeling listless and weary and the prospect of socially distanced services without singing doesn’t get the spiritual juices flowing. Let’s remind ourselves that God is still God. He is still enthroned on the praises of his people, even if those praises are said. If we’re used to encountering God in corporate worship in a certain way and in a particular tradition, this season offers us the chance to meet with him through different means. Perhaps Covid services provide us with an opportunity to be stretched and refined. Coffee on the sofa in front of a computer is great, but something important happens when people gather under the same roof to praise and honour God. I received this from one of our congregation this week,
‘It was with some apprehension that I returned to church last Sunday morning! What would it be like in our new world of social distancing, sanitiser and face masks? Would it have meaning or simply be an impersonal ‘going through the motions? In truth, it was a very uplifting experience, listening together to God’s word, sharing worship and catching up with each other. I know God doesn’t need buildings but I felt His presence in a very real way. It was good to be back!’
Finally, as we think of seasons, it’s true that churches go through seasons and cycles too. The prospect of seeing two much loved clergy moving on with a matter of a 7 weeks might feel disorienting and unsettling to you. That is natural. Congregations can often feel destabilised when leadership changes. I remember in my previous church that there were genuinely people who imagined that I would be there for ever! But God knows that different leaders bring gifts and skills that can take God’s people to places that previous ministers weren’t quite able to. That’ll be true of my successor at Selly Park whenever they are appointed. So, we have to believe that God will be calling new leaders to come and join our team. And in the waiting period, may God find us expectant, hopeful and prayerful. He knows full well what we need for this next exciting season of our life.
To quote a line in a poem by Elizabeth Dunford,
“Observe the seasons: this too shall pass.”
29th July 2020