Thank you again for reading my letters. I have written, and you may well have read, well over 100 of them now. I will continue to write to you each Friday in Advent, right up until Christmas Eve and then again on New Year’s Eve and then perhaps we will have a break...........
My dear Friends,
"What do you mean I’m aggressive? I am not at all aggressive!" someone once snapped at me rather aggressively after I had had to have a gentle word about how their behaviour was coming across to people in a situation in a parish years ago. Sometimes our vision of ourselves is not quite as others see us. Advent, which begins this coming weekend, is a time when we are invited to reflect upon the reality of who we are, how we behave and come across to others and to repent and make adjustments as and when necessary.
"Humility is one of my great gifts, everyone knows that!" someone else famously said to me once, completely oblivious to the pride in her voice and thus the irony of her remark. It is fascinating isn’t it? And I loved, on a visit to the National Portrait Gallery some years ago, coming across the portrait of Dame Judi Dench, well known for her diminutive stature of I believe 1.55m. She is invariably towered over when standing next to her thespian colleagues and yet to most of us she is a giant in terms of her artistry, emotional intelligence and acting versatility. Amusingly and wonderfully the portrait of her is huge, she dominates the room in which she is displayed. A shining presence, the dimensions of which beautifully project the prominence she has in our eyes. Do go and see if when and if you can.
How others see us is not always as we see ourselves. How we see ourselves is not as others see us and sometimes I do wonder, given my profession, how God sees us too...
I remember years ago accepting an invitation by the Mother’s Union Branch in the Eastbourne Deanery, to lead a Quiet Day for them at the Parish Church. One of the things I thought we might do after my introductory address was to contemplate the reality of ourselves, who we really were beneath and beyond the mask we put on to face the world. I had taken with me four mirrors, each about a foot square, and after explaining the purpose of the exercise, I handed the mirrors to the first two people seated in the front rows of the north and south sides of the church, asking them to look at themselves, really look at themselves, at who they were beyond any pretence or protective layer and then pass on the mirror to the next person, as we then tried during the course of the Quiet Day to move towards a sense of God accepting, forgiving, embracing, loving, energising and using the person we really were within.
I would only have been in my mid thirties at this point and had estimated that, for the eighty or so ladies present, this exercise would last no longer than about 15 minutes. How naive was I. It went on for far longer than I had anticipated, lasting almost three quarters of an hour and I remember being hit by a sense of humility that these wonderful, trusting ladies had really taken to heart the challenge I had set them and had sincerely and honestly subjected themselves to the task in hand. I can still recall the almost shocked silence in which this exercise took place, it was almost deafening to sense the magnitude of what was going on, for each of them addressed the significance of the moment with truly impressive conscientiousness, and how challenged I was by the sense of responsibility I felt for what I had asked of them.
Their attitude of genuine reflection and self-honesty, self-doubt, self-realisation; their openness to knowing who they truly were and the implicit need to be found acceptable and redeemable by God, was one of the most privileged moments of my priestly formation. I am lastingly grateful to them for the trust they placed in me that day as they dared to expose the real, compromised, broken, needful truth of themselves to a God who also knew brokenness, a sense of failure, unpopularity and betrayal, and yet who continued loving and believing in others.
That ordinary gathering of eighty or so ladies in an ancient parish church and that experience with mirrors, stays with me still and helps me realise how profound is people’s need for opportunities to be allowed and encouraged to face up to the truth of themselves within the context of knowing that we are all of us compromised, incomplete, fragile, fallible human beings, needful of God’s and other people’s acceptance, love, forgiveness and understanding.
But what seems more prevalent by far than self-reflection, which we are especially encouraged to engage in as we await the coming of Christ, is self-justification: and not just from the politicians who populate our television screens with monotonous regularity. Aren’t we all hugely protective of ourselves, trying to promote an image of ourselves as being people who always get it right, never getting it wrong and always being in the right?
The Church has spoken profoundly for centuries about the need for genuine reflection, of daring to understand the unvarnished truth of oneself: of why we react to things in the way in which we do, nurse certain prejudices and hold certain opinions, of what provokes us to make the decisions we do, criticise people in the way we do, take issue with others, what makes us attracted to or appreciative of some and not others, what angers us with a feeling of unfairness or injustice, what appeals to our sense of what is commendable or right, why we like some people far more than others, why we like things done in a certain way and hate it, take it personally, when this fails to happen.
It is good to spend part of each day looking at ourselves as we truly are, in the mirror or otherwise. Rather than reacting to things, to initially reflect on things, considering before condemning, assessing before acting. More than one of you have mentioned to me the guidance given to you by a parent when you were a child, to consider these three questions before speaking in certain situations: 1) Is it true? 2) Is it necessary? 3) Is it kind? Perhaps in a more contemporary context we might add: 4) Will more positive things than negative results be created by my contributing in this way? For anything which creates more darkness, more division, more conflict, more negativity, we certainly do not need. You and I are called to be children of the light, who are called to create reconciliation and harmony, positivity and peace, healing and encouragement.
Perhaps we would all do well this Advent to contemplate the truth of ourselves: not how we think we come across to others or how we would like to come across to others, but how we actually project our personalities, prejudices and priorities to others. To think through what motivates us, what finds a voice within us and then to lend such energies as we have not to the things of darkness but only to the things of light; not to the things of hostility, but to things which contribute to other’s healing; not to expend our energies on what leads to more division, but to greater unity; not to participate in what leads to condemnation, but to encouragement and enablement.
None of us can really ever know the truth of what it is to be someone else, enjoyable though it is to try! Many of us have got it wrong about others in our lives, sometimes to our cost. Indeed, many of us have enough of a job trying to understand who we are, leave alone others, though of course we don’t leave others alone, as it is sometimes so much more convenient to be distracted by the speck of dust in another’s eye, rather than try to deal with the log in our own. Most of us find it challenging enough to know the truth of ourselves, repenting of traits which need amending or dealing with, learning to accept with humour and humility other traits which are simply part of the reality of who we are.
What we all surely hope is that when God looks at us, really looks at us, into the truth of us, into the heart of us, He can find something there which doesn’t make Him want to give up on us completely. Do we not all hope that He can find at least find something within the story of who we are which makes Him give us the benefit of the doubt when it comes to sorting out the sheep from the goats? Something within us which makes Him love us, believe in us, forgive us, find within us something He considers endearing or even amusing...
It is such a personal business, having been created by a God who seeks communion, intimate and involved connection, with who we are. On top of which, having dealings with a God who can see past the pretence of who we may think we are or pretend to be, into the truth within. Jesus shows us the face of God in the Gospel and there we see someone who is fascinated with the intricate detail of who we are, how we relate to others, what we value, wrestle with, wonder and worry about.
I am so grateful that in Jesus Christ, the man who was God, broken but beautiful, we can know that it is someone who lived a human life who looks at us in our stumbling attempts to deal with our own humanity and who reaches out to us with the compassionate hand of friendship, who smiles at us and says, "Come on, I’ll help. Let me, won’t you?" Thank God for that!
With prayers and blessings for Advent. Jeff
WELCOME to our worship at St Mary’s at this, the beginning of ADVENT, as we worship in church and on Zoom.
Today at both the 9.30am Eucharist in church and the 5pm Zoom service online, we shall be reflecting on the Gospel passage, which this week is Luke Chapter 21 verses 25-36
Today’s Collect, Almighty God, Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness And to put on the armour of light. Now in the time of this mortal life In which your Son, Jesus Christ Came to us in great humility: That on the last day, when He comes again in His glorious majesty To judge the living and the dead, We may rise to the life immortal; Through Him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and for ever. AMEN
You can find the names of those we shall be remembering in our prayers by following this link to our website "Services" page https://www.stmarytwick.org.uk/services and clicking on the button for 'Our Current Intercessions List'.
The hymns we shall be singing at our Eucharist today are 358, 307,78. No booking is necessary for the 9.30am church service. Please use the hand sanitizer provided before entering the church. We would ask that you place your collection envelope in the basket as you enter the church which will be brought up to the altar at the Offertory (or use the contactless/tap payment card facility close by). We would strongly recommend the wearing of facemasks throughout the service for all other than those exempted from doing so on medical or age grounds. Please do not come to the church if you are displaying any Covid symptoms and please seriously consider whether it is wise to attend if you have cold or ‘flu symptoms, in fairness to others. Communion will be offered in the form of the consecrated host, which you may receive in your hands and which we would ask you to consume immediately. You are welcome to join us in the Parish Hall for refreshments after the service.