My dear Friends,
Most of us had anticipated a return to church for worship by now and therefore an end of these letters. However, for reasons you may have read about in an earlier letter, it was decided that we continue to celebrate Communion in church at 6pm on Sundays and also to Zoom at 9.30am until such time as the rise in the Covid infection rate has reduced and stabilised. And as we needed to send out an email with the Zoom log in information anyway, here’s another letter!
You could, of course, just skip to the end to where the log in information is contained and I would not blame you at all. But should you wish to read on, I am borrowing from what I said at last Sunday’s services when we looked at that wonderful passage from Mark Chapter 6, verses 30-34 and verses 53 to the end, which you might like to re-read before reading on. I thought it might be good to reflect further on this passage because it very much speaks to us in our current situation and as we prepare ourselves for the future.
I draw particular comfort and strength from one line in that sequence of verses, namely: "Christ had compassion upon them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd". It is that abiding and powerful sense of a compassionate Christ who, like any shepherd, wants to keep His flock safe that I have sensed more strongly over this past year or so than at any other time in my ministry. As someone who has been invited to share in Christ’s priestly love for His people, that priestly love from Christ the Good Shepherd has been like a bright, warm, light, igniting my path and my prayers for the past year. And, partly promoted by this vision of the need to keep united and be supportive and protective of one another, which has led so many of us to make an especial effort to keep in touch with others over this past year, send emails, make phone calls, join together on Zoom or in church every Sunday to be strengthened and inspired by a deeper awareness of that core truth which sets us free: that God loves us. That He cares about us personally and passionately. That He wants to reassure us and accompany us though all the things which we are experiencing.
I have been struck by something more than just a few of you have said to me over recent months, that it has been a powerful revelation to find that, lovely as it is when we do, we have not needed to meet in church in order to "be" Church; we have not needed to meet in a designated "sacred space" in order to experience a sense of the Spirit; we have not needed to physically take Communion in order to feel the presence and refreshment of Christ feeding and flowing into our lives. The power of the Holy Spirit has not been limited or restricted by the limitations or restrictions imposed upon us as He has helped us feel united as members of His sacred flock.
And may that sense of a compassionate Christ grow, deepen and become ever more real to each and every one of us as we deal with the circumstances in which we find ourselves; as we perhaps miss seeing those we love as often or as freely as we would wish; as we feel anxious still about mixing in busy places; as we worry about the rise in the infection rate despite the vaccine roll out; as we hear of the increase in number of those in hospital due to Covid; as we feel frustrated with the caution we still need to observe in order to protect ourselves or those we care about. Like you, I am just so glad I didn’t know in March 2020 that we would still be affected by this virus to the extent to which we are, in July 2021!
But this passage from Mark tells us more. Christ loves us, cares about us, has compassion for us, but He also has things for us to do. He chose not to do everything Himself, He shared the work, the responsibility for building the kingdom, with others. We find here the disciples coming back to tell Him all that they had been up to. One of them, with whom I can particularly relate, says, "we didn’t even have enough time to eat, we were kept so busy!" And it is this connection between the work of the Spirit and being resourced and refreshed by the Spirit which I would like us to think about as we prepare ourselves for the work which awaits us as our community, country and world begins to recover from the Pandemic and rebuild lives, economies and hope.
Katherine and I have recently filmed a sequence of sessions for the school based on the life of St Benedict. A major part of his contribution to the life of the Church was helping us to realise that in order for us to live our lives in the light of Christ and in the strength of the Spirit, there has to be a balance. We can’t just work all of the time, else we would just collapse with exhaustion. We cannot just rest all the time, for that would be sheer indulgence and a waste of the gift of life. We cannot even just pray all the time for that would be not to acquaint ourselves with what and who to pray for in the world and to see and serve Christ in the lives of others. Thus Benedict constructed the monastic day to be a balance of all three of these things. A third of the day would be spent doing some sort of work: social, physical, intellectual. A third of the day would be spent in prayer, adoring God and allowing Him to adore us and bringing into that presence in our prayers, the needs and troubles of others in the human family for whom we wish to intercede. And a third of the day would be spent in relaxation and sleep, the better to be equipped and resourced for the continuing challenge and opportunity of living.
Though you and I do not spend our lives in monasteries, convents, cloisters of cells, we would do well to ensure that there is a creative balance in our lives for us to live full, useful and fulfilling lives. I will leave you to ponder the rest and sleep element, I am sure you will be able to work that out for yourselves, but what of the work you and I are called to as followers of Jesus Christ and how might we find the resources for doing that work? There has to be a balance, a creative relationship, between these for us all. I have mentioned to you before that time when I was doing parish experience in Sussex before being Ordained. I was as enthusiastic and energetic as a young puppy. I hardly stood still, I was always visiting, taking part in discussions at the local church, doing people’s shopping for them etc. I rushed back into the flat where we were living one morning to collect a book I had promised to lend to someone. I was just dashing to the door when I suddenly heard this authoritative voice resonating in my soul, it clearly said, "Jeff, when did you last enter into my peace?" I felt so crushed. Of course I had been doing things in my own strength and probably to my own glory, not in God’s strength and not to His glory. It was a lesson well learned. I crept into the prayer room and crouched, humiliated, in prayer. Humbly I offered myself to God that I would do His work to His glory, not what I considered worthy of my attention, not what would make me more popular. And this has been something I have tried and failed and tried and failed and tried again to do throughout my ministry: to live, work, prioritise, as God would have me do and to rely not on my own strength, but rather, on the strength of the Spirit for so doing.
In this passage from Mark’s gospel Jesus is concerned that His disciples spend time recovering and receiving as well as generously giving. He cared about them in their humanity, vulnerability, weakness. He cared about them compassionately and caringly. And that is how He looks at us too. But resourced for what? What is the work He calls you and me to now in 2021 and beyond?
Perhaps: To transform the world. To make His love known to all. To challenge injustice and unfairness. To celebrate the healing effect of reconciliation. To ensure that the poor are adequately clothed. To ensure that the hungry are fed. To ensure that those without access to clean water, have it. To offer support to those who find life a struggle. To nurture and encourage, educate and protect, children and young people. To play our part in ensuring that the issue of climate change is addressed properly and effectively. Actively to ensure that the exploited have their dignity and freedom given to them. To see that the lonely are loved. That men and women of integrity stand for public office. That financial resources are seen as potential for helping others and not for being kept as something to offer comfort for ourselves alone. That we find kindness in our hearts for that person we find impossible to like. And so many other things besides.......
For each of us Christ’s calling will be slightly different, depending on circumstances, history and opportunity, but it is for each and every one of us to seek a practical application for the gospel imperative to make our discipleship count.
The need for followers of Jesus to take their place in celebrating the dignity and purpose of human life and contribute to the rebuilding of hope in the world, is acute. We are also called to offer to society a vision, not a random collection of self serving individuals, but a vision of the Christian understanding of community, equal and complementary, the stronger for it to become. The work to which Christ calls us is fundamental to the wellbeing of our planet and its people and Christ offers us the creative energy of His Spirit that we may build His kingdom in the opportunities and challenges which await.
As we are able, let each of us say a resounding YES to His invitation to be a constructive and creative, caring and compassionate component in the communities and in the creation in which He has placed us. Let us continue to support, encourage and pray for each other as we play to each other’s strengths, to make that creative difference to a world which is in so much need of such influence and inspiration.
With renewed blessings and best wishes