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MARCH 29th – Psalm 30: How long to sing this song?

As you have read or listened to Psalm 130 – what word or phrase speaks strongly to you right now? What rings true to how you feel, or to your own situation?

 

I’d like to share some brief thoughts on three of the words or phrases in this psalm and how they might speak to us in the times we live in. In almost all societies around the world you’ll find three kinds of songs – there are lullabies, songs for weddings and laments. Today we are going to look at Psalm 130, one of the so-called Psalms of Lament. These songs have been used for hundreds of years to help people navigate through personal or national suffering. I hope you will find these thoughts helpful as we navigate our own unique situation.

 

Out of the depths

The first is the extraordinary phrase we read at the beginning of the psalm: ‘Out of the depths’ – ‘Out of the depths I cry to you’. It comes from the Latin phrase ‘De Profundis’ and is from where we get our English word profound. Many poets from Lord Tennyson and Christina Rossetti to Federico Garcia Lorca have been inspired by these words and written poems entitled De Profundis. For some of us, we might be feeling (or might later feel) a profound sense of loss, despair and anguish. For me it’s the basic things that I took for granted that I miss and long for: being able to hug my sons and my parents, playing music with my friends, sharing the peace and communion with my church family.

The laments remind us that we can be honest in how we feel, to God and with each other. It’s a cry out to God as we struggle to live with unanswered questions and unexplained suffering. I find it soothing that within the Bible we are given words that can be shockingly brutal and brutally honest in expressing how we feel to God.

 

I’ve recently been reading a book on the psalms called ‘It’s ok to be not ok’. It’s written by a Philippine Christian who was caught up in 2009 in Tropical Storm Ondoy, where over 700 lost their lives. He speaks of how he went to church the next Sunday and was struck by how the church had no songs to help express the grief the congregation were feeling. There were many ‘happy’ songs of praise and thanksgiving sung, but he went away with the question ‘Why is there nothing in our worship about what we have experienced?’ The theologian Walter Brueggemann in his book The Psalm & The Life of Faith calls it ‘the costly loss of lament’. If we are not allowed to lament, then all we have in times of trouble is an empty celebration of joy and well-being, completely disconnected from our present reality. The lament states that things are not right, that they should not be as they are now, and that there is a longing and hope they won’t remain so forever. They are a plea to God for help in a time of intense trial. They also suggest perhaps controversially, it is God’s obligation to change things.  ‘Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord: O Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.’

 

Waiting

The second word that stood out for me is the word ‘wait’. It’s perhaps not surprising, as it’s repeated five times in just two sentences: ‘I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope. My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.’

There is one question that is repeated time and time again in the lament psalms: How long? How long must this go on?’ In this psalm there’s a sense of yearning and longing that you can see in how the psalmist repeats that phrase ‘more than watchmen wait for the morning’. A longing we may feel as we yearn for an end to this isolation.

You might have read a Facebook post by our vicar Claire on Wednesday, celebrating the feast of the Annunciation – when the angel Gabriel told Mary that she was to be with child and to give birth to a son, called Jesus. Alongside the painting of Botticelli’s Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, Claire posted these words:

‘Today the Church marks the Annunciation by the angel to the Blessed Virgin Mary – I guess because today is exactly 9 months till Christmas Day and that’s the length of a pregnancy. The planting of a seed, in silence and obscurity, that will bear the most amazing fruit later. I’m wondering today about how this could be a message of hope for us in these weird and difficult times when we just want it all to be over as soon as possible. But it’s always in the waiting that we grow, and then always (and only) through great love and great suffering, such as Mary underwent.

It’s always in the waiting that we grow, and then always (and only) through great love and great suffering, such as Mary underwent.

 

Hope

The third word that stood out for me in this psalm is ‘hope’.

You might have noticed this word appears twice in the psalm.

‘I wait for the Lord, my soul waits and in his word I put my hope.’

And then the focus at the end of the psalm in the words:

‘O Israel, put your hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption.’

I don’t know about you, but I’ve found myself often waking up early in the morning, just before dawn and being amazed by the sound of the birds heralding in the new dawn. There are signs of hope around us, in the natural world, in the kindness of friends and strangers, in the amazing work of our NHS and front-line services. But, of course, the greatest hope we have is in our Lord that we serve. In our gospel reading we heard the story of the raising of Lazarus. I was particularly struck in reading this next to Psalm 130 how Jesus embodies the answer to the lament – that Jesus experienced the sorrow and pain of loss and the longing for it all to change. In him, God has come alongside us. In him there is hope through this pain and the hope of a resurrection of our world from our present sorrows.

 

I pray for all of us that we would encounter this living God of hope in whatever we encounter in these coming weeks – in the depths, in the waiting and in the hope that is to come.

Keep us, good Lord,

under the shadow of your mercy

in this time of uncertainty and distress.

Sustain and support the anxious and fearful,

and lift up all who are brought low;

that we may rejoice in your comfort

knowing that nothing can separate us from your love

in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Amen.

 

Hamish Bruce – Sunday March 29th 2020

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Our Response to COVID-19 Restrictions

IMPORTANT NOTICE

 

IMPORTANT NOTICE

 

For the time being our church building is closed.  We are unable to offer public worship on Sundays. All our usual weekday activities are also suspended.

 

However, we can connect in other ways:

 

  • You can request prayer
  • You can ask to speak to one of the clergy
  • You can find out how to access one of our virtual acts of worship
  • You can receive weekly updates

 

Leave a message on the church answerphone on 0118 926 3633,

or email office@stjohnandststephen.org.uk

 

Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible!

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Living water

St John and St Stephen’s Church, Reading, March 15th 2020, Lent 3

Psalm 46, John 4:5-42

 

 

What a strange time. We can’t go anywhere, talk to anyone, turn on the TV, radio, internet or look at your smartphone without a blaring mention of coronavirus. Now let’s add to that the now visible effects of global heating – flooding, Antarctic melt, rising sea levels, and then the uncertain impact of Brexit (which we’ve almost forgotten now!). I’m feeling a bit like I’m on a ship going through very choppy waters: the ship has been sailing pretty steadily, got a bit rocky in the last couple of years, now it’s going crazy, the deck is shifting under my feet. Where are we going? Which coastline are we sailing to? We have got used to safety and security in our little island for years. But it’s changing. I want to acknowledge all of this, as we are, I am sure, all feeling and thinking it. What do we do? Well, we do the right things – handwashing, reducing physical contact and so on. We also continue to trust in God, that’s why we are here this morning. Not just a pie-in-the-sky hope but trust in his presence here and now.

 

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns. The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire. “Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.” The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. (Psalm 46)

This Psalm reminds us that the sensation of uncertainty and fear is not a new one – in fact, it is normal. The Psalm directs us to God. That is exactly where we need to go. To find him, let us go to a small corner of the near East, to a country under a brutal occupation, whose kingdom has indeed tottered and fallen, to Samaria, whose people were neither Jewish nor pagan, but a mixture of the two; to a well at midday; where we can find a woman in her middle age or maybe a bit more, who has lived perhaps a bit too much. She’s feisty, spirited, ordinary, and she has come to draw water: but not at the usual time, in the morning, but at midday, because she’s a bit of an outcast, a pariah, so she has to come when the other women aren’t there. She is a bit socially isolated. She’s ritually unclean to observant Jews: they wouldn’t touch her. Ring any bells? She finds a man sitting on top of the well, a Jewish man, without a bucket, who speaks to her and says, simply, ‘Give me a drink’. She’s amazed. Jewish men don’t talk to Samaritan women, especially women like her. In shock, she blurts out, ‘What? You’re talking to me, a woman from Samaria, and you’re a Jew?’ Then the strange man begins talking about living water, if you knew who it was that asks you for a drink, you would ask him for one! She’s lost. Confused. Thrown off balance. She begins to babble that you haven’t a bucket, it’s a deep well, what are you talking about? where do you get that living water? But the man, (BTW it’s Jesus) goes on – he’s raving now – about how if you drink the water I will give you, you will never thirst again. What, can that be true? Surely not. Well, now I think about it, that would be handy, I’d like some of that! Then, out of nowhere, he asks me to call my husband. I haven’t one just at the moment of speaking. And he goes, no, you haven’t, you’ve had 5 husbands, and the man you live with now isn’t your husband. How did he know that? This is getting embarrassing. Seems like he’s some sort of prophet. Let’s change the subject. We have a bit of a back-and-forth about where the best place is to worship God. At least it stopped him talking about my crap life. To cap it all, finally, he claims to be the Messiah, the Christ. Can that be true? My head is spinning!

Last week Claire spoke about Nicodemus the Pharisee, who came to Jesus by night to try and understand him. He ended up being more confused than when he started, when Jesus told him that he needed to be born again, and poor Nicodemus, this learned teacher, took it all too literally and just couldn’t get his head around the idea of entering into his mother’s womb a second time. Who could? He could not comprehend the metaphor, the idea of re-birth. Jesus was talking, as Claire reminded us, of the inner life. This story of the woman at the well, which immediately follows the Nicodemus story, is also one of confusion. Only this time the character is an unnamed, ordinary woman, not an important man with a name; a Samaritan not a Jew; it’s daytime, not night; and instead of Nicodemus, who came to Jesus deliberately, this woman comes to Jesus ‘by chance’. But the confusion is the same. The woman cannot understand what Jesus is talking about when he offers her ‘living water’. Only when Jesus touched on the matter of all the men she had lived with in her life, she got that pretty quickly, and tried to change the subject.

There is so much that could be said about this wonderful encounter. I am struck by how Jesus asks for help because he is in need – he is thirsty. It is very human. It’s midday, it’s hot, his disciples have gone off to find food and taken with them the leather bucket that you would need to get water. Wells in that part of the world didn’t have a bucket attached to them, you had to have your own. So Jesus asks this woman for help. Quite often, we Christians in an effort to do good like to give help – which puts us, subtly or not-so-subtly, in a position of power; we have something for you. Your job is to receive. In this story, it’s the other way around. The unnamed, socially outcast Samaritan woman holds the cards: or more accurately, the bucket. She has the power to help Jesus. The dynamic of the encounter is inverted.

And what happens? How does this apparently chance meeting play out, in its essence? An unnamed person with a messy life, a social outsider, receives, in exchange for a bucket of water and some conversation, an offer of a spring of water gushing up to eternal life. It’s no wonder she had trouble understanding. Whoever spoke of anything like that to her before? She could not understand the metaphor, the symbol. Why did Jesus use this kind of language? Why couldn’t he be more literal, more concrete, black-and-white, easier to understand? Well, how could he? This is heart language, it’s about something that takes place in the heart, the soul, the inner life: the springing up of living water, gushing up to eternal life, refreshing the spirit, cleansing the soul, bringing joy. When the Spirit of God moves in our hearts, there will be some kind of felt experience. The mind doesn’t really get this, and our Samaritan lady was stuck firmly in her mind with literal thinking about water that you put in buckets and drink. Then, perhaps surprisingly, Jesus asks her to call her husband and she’s on the spot. Her personal life is a wee bit messy. She changes the subject, opening a theological conversation about where the best place to worship God is – this mountain or Jerusalem? Again, this is all in the mind, and she is resisting where Jesus is going. I wonder whether Jesus, in saying what he did, was trying to open up her heart by going directly to an uncomfortable area of her life. A bit of self-examination. Did it work? Maybe it did! He goes on to answer her theological question by telling her that ‘God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth’ (24). Again, this is heart language. Then in response to the question about the Messiah, Jesus tells her straight, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you’ (26). Wow. Well, something has moved her, quite literally. The woman who came to draw water actually leaves her own water-jar behind (28), in her excitement to get back to the city of Sychar and tell people she has ‘met a man who told me everything I have ever done! He can’t be the Messiah, can he?’ (29). Seems like something touched her quite deeply. She becomes the first female evangelist – the story tells us that ‘many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony’ (39).

 

This encounter is one of sheer, undeserved, unsought-for, unexpected grace. It is so like God. Here are some lovely words written by St Ignatius in his spiritual exercises that ring very true, considering all of this: ‘It is characteristic of God and His Angels, when they act upon the soul, to give true happiness and spiritual joy, and to banish all the sadness and disturbances which are caused by the enemy. God alone can give consolation to the soul without any previous cause…It belongs solely to the Creator to come into a soul, to leave it, to act upon it, to draw it wholly to the love of His Divine Majesty’[1] These moments come to us often when we are off-balance, surprised. Something catches us – a piece of music, poetry, a beautiful sunset or a plant, a word of scripture – and we are touched, moved and drawn to God.

Much to ponder on here. Jesus speaking across so many barriers to this woman. Jesus in need, thirsty, asking for help. The promise of living water to quench another kind of thirst. The awkward question. Her messy life. Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah. The move from the mind to the heart. Her excitement. Leaving behind the water-jar. Rushing to tell people.

Are you thirsty?

Richard Croft

[1] The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, #329, 330

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Crib talk for Carols by Candlelight

 

This is a first for me, leading a carol service that properly features a crib.

It’s great to have a visual focus like a crib, at Christmas.

We can experience God in a different way when we really focus visually on something, rather than hearing words.

I invite you to look and really LOOK into the crib this evening, and see what it says to us about Christmas time.

The nativity is a hugely iconic image that still resonates today.

I’ve been thinking a bit about Christmas adverts this year – the Mulberry ad (high end handbags) from a few years back showed a young middle class couple sitting by the fireside as she gently unwraps a gift that he has given her.

She is so excited because it’s a very special gift, a gift she’s been longing for for a while.

It’s a Mulberry handbag – in soft red leather.

She praises the gift over and over and she thanks him, and it all feels reasonably normal (except I’m thinking that I could never afford a Mulberry handbag and even if I could I wouldn’t want one).

Then there’s a knock at the door – a couple of guys with a sheep come in and approach hesitatingly and kneel, and wonder at the gift of the bag.

Another knock on the door and three guys with paper hats come in, carrying wine and perfume, and look on in wonder at the bag.

After a moment the woman’s boyfriend (looking slightly uncomfortable) says “guys, it’s only a bag”.

Everyone looks puzzled, then they laugh and the music fades and pans to a bright light shining over their fireplace.

The ad works because it suggests that the bag is not a proper object of worship, but also subtly suggests that it could be.

When we look into the crib today we see what is often called “The Holy Family”.

I’ve always found that term slightly off putting!

I wonder how you view family at this time?

We’re acutely aware at Christmas that not having a family, or having fled from a dysfunctional one, is a main reason that many feel lonely and isolated at Christmas.

The Church family is an alternative and very effective and loving one (when it works) for those who do not have actual family.

For those of us lucky to spend time with family at this time, it can also be a source of stress (let’s be honest).

I don’t think the Holy Family was without it stresses.

In one sense, their stresses might sound quite familiar!

I wonder how many you identify with?

Firstly there was the gossip about how Mary got into that state in the first place.

And there was misunderstanding.

And there was marital tension around how to handle the situation.

Then they had to travel at a difficult and busy time of year, when everyone else was also travelling.

Their accommodation plans were thwarted and they had to think on their feet.

They had to deal with physical, emotional and spiritual pressures that were at times overwhelming.

Their new surroundings weren’t really all they had hoped for.

They would like to have remained at home in a place that was familiar.

The place wasn’t as clean as she would’ve liked it!

They had unexpected visitors.

Some of the visitors stayed longer than expected.

They were given things that weren’t on anybody’s list and that couldn’t be returned.

 

But also, for the Holy Family, there were unlooked for blessings:

I hope, by God’s grace, you can also identify with some of these:

 

Despite everything, they experienced the guidance of God.

Despite everything, they experienced the provision of God.

They were given one message loud and clear: “Do not be afraid”.

They found themselves right at the centre of God’s good purposes.

They discovered God was with them.

Their experience was a source of blessing for other people.

They were surrounded by joy.

God was glorified through their obedience.

When all was said and done, there was much to ponder and be grateful for in the stillness and quiet of one human heart.

 

May we all know God’s blessing in our holy families this Christmas.

 

And now a blessing for the crib.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Advent nourishment

At this time of year we get to enjoy seven “Advent Antiphons” when we say Morning Prayer, and I always look forward to them.

The ‘O Antiphons’ developed in the early church as sung prayers before and after Mary’s hymn, the Magnificat. They refer to different names of Jesus from the Old Testament Wisdom and prophetic books.

And like hymns, they do sing. Even if you don’t know any Latin, having them interlace the daily Office is like having swallowed something rich and fulfilling that will last you throughout the sometimes tiring preparation for Christmas. They’re a veritable feast of linguistic/poetic/theological allusions.

O Sapientia: 17 December.

Sapientia is wisdom. The feminine divine perhaps. The word drips juice, like sap. Sapientia…’Sweet the rain’s new fall, sunlit from heaven, like the first dew fall on the first grass…’ Wisdom – she was there at the beginning.

O Adonai: 18 December

Adonai is Lord. Adonis. Beautiful One. Christ identified as beautiful man and God Almighty. A trinitarian allusion and a fairly clear one at that.

O Radix Jesse: 19 December

It means Root of Jesse. Jesse’s more famous son was King David. Like in Cinderella, Jesse was asked ‘are these all the sons you have?’ after he paraded out all his older strapping lads. But there was still David the shepherd boy:’Great David’s greater son’, and a pre-echo of God’s only son. Radix: root. Radishes. Radical. Allusion upon allusion.

O Clavis: David: 20 December

Clavis means key. The key which opens and no one can shut. The key which locks and no one can open. Better to be on the right side than the wrong side of that key then, because once he opens up something, there’s no stopping it, despite all the depressing church attendance statistics you might read of.

O Oriens: 21 December

Oriens is the Morning Star: ‘O Morning stars together proclaim the holy birth, and praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth.’
Then there’s Venus, the Morning Star, hanging there in the dewy mist as the day breaks…

O Rex Gentium: 22 December
It means King of the people, as in: ’God rest ye merry, Gentium, let nothing you dismay…’!

O Emmanuel: 23 December
Easy, this one. God with us.’O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.’

I think of the O Antiphons like a plum pudding – rich and full of goodness; ancient and long lasting. A wonderful mixture of things which fill and nourish in ways supermarket Christmas food adverts cannot compete with.

Happy munching.

NEWS

A New Priest in Newtown

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St John And Stephen’s church is very excited to soon welcome the Revd Claire Alcock as our new Vicar.

Claire’s installation service will be held on the 2nd October 2019, in the evening. Further details to be announced. All are welcome!


 

If you want to know what attracted Claire to this exciting parish then you can look at our Parish Profile found here

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