Severing, Salt and Fire

Image by Brett Hondow from Pixabay

Slow reading

The gospel reading this week has some deeply challenging images from Jesus, and they are not easy to make sense of or incorporate into daily living. You can listen to the audio clip below, or you can find all the lectionary readings here.

Mark 9:38-50

As you journey with this text – and I recognise that the knee jerk reaction would be to reach for the too hard basket and move on to something easier – here are some things it might be helpful to know:

  • Jesus is referring to the rubbish tip outside Jerusalem – Gehenna – not the ‘lake of fire and torment’ that are associated with the word ‘hell’ from descriptions in Revelation.
  • The ‘little ones’ is a reference to the children from the story directly before this one, which we visited last week.
  • Salt and fire were medicinal applications after amputation – the aim is healing once an infected area had been severed.

Some threads for reflection

Jesus invites us to identify those parts of our body which cause us to stumble or falter and to cut the connection. Obviously, this isn’t about parts of our body being responsible for our behaviour. I choose where my eyes look – consciously or unconsciously – I choose where my feet go and what I touch with my hands. So the issue isn’t about the looking or the going or touching, it’s about the motive and intention driving those.

Some commentators draw a connection here with going cold turkey as a way of getting clean from an addiction – moderation isn’t an option where we are compulsive and chronically engaging in behaviours that cause stumbling and faltering in our journey into healing, reconciliation and peace.

You may be in the clear for the classic addictive substances: alcohol, drugs, gambling, pornography etc. but check out this list of compulsive ‘numbing’ behaviours that Dr Brene Brown offers in her book The Gifts of Imperfection:

  • food, work, money
  • sex, relationships, affairs
  • caretaking, chaos, staying busy
  • planning, constant change, perfectionism
  • shopping and The Internet

Does anything strike you?

I’m not sure that any of this is lending itself to our 140th anniversary celebrations, but perhaps you might give some thoughtful consideration to this: what might we be doing as a community that ‘numbs’ rather than enlivens, or that gets in the way of moving into healing, re-connecting with compassion and compassionate action?

Photo by James Lee on Unsplash

An Evolving Faith

Call to worship

Come, let us give thanks to God!

We gather together to praise the One who strengthens the weak and hears the prayers of the forgotten.

Come, let us give thanks to Christ!

We gather together to tell of the One who calls us to serve those who are hungry and alone.

Come, let us give thanks to the Spirit!

We gather together to delight in the One who inspires us to love not only our family and friends, but the guest among us.

Come, let us give thanks to God!

We gather together to worship in our stories and prayers

Come, let us give thanks to Jesus the Christ!

We gather together to encourage acts of kindness and compassion

Come, let us give thanks to the Spirit!

We gather together to discover and learn and celebrate life.

Lighting the Candle

In our travels through Ordinary time we light this candle

The candle is lit

Its light symbolises that new life and light
is ever waiting to break through to enlighten our ways:

that new truth is ever waiting to break through to illumine our minds,
and that new love is ever waiting to break through to warm our hearts,

offering extra – Ordinary moments of possibility to us along our journey

May we be open to this light,
and to the rich possibilities that it brings us. 

A moment to check in

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

The gospel reading

Mark 9:30-37
They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

And the Acorn Allegory

As told by Rev. Dr. Cynthia Bourgeault in her book The Wisdom Way of Knowing:

Once upon a time, in a not-so-faraway land, there was a kingdom of acorns, nestled at the foot of a grand old oak tree. Since the citizens of this kingdom were modern, fully Westernized acorns, they went about their business with purposeful energy; and since they were midlife, baby-boomer acorns, they engaged in a lot of self-help courses. There were seminars called “Getting All You Can out of Your Shell.” There were wounded-ness ness and recovery groups for acorns who had been bruised in their original fall from the tree. There were spas for oiling and polishing those shells and various acornopathic therapies to enhance longevity and well-being.

One day in the midst of this kingdom there suddenly appeared a knotty little stranger, apparently dropped “out of the blue” by a passing bird. He was capless and dirty, making an immediate negative impression on his fellow acorns. And crouched beneath the oak tree, he stammered out a wild tale. Pointing upward at the tree, he said, “We … are … that!”

Delusional thinking, obviously, the other acorns concluded, but one of them continued to engage him in conversation: “So tell us, how would we become that tree?” “Well,” said he, pointing downward, “it has something to do with going into the ground … and cracking open the shell.” “Insane,” they responded. “Totally morbid! Why, then we wouldn’t be acorns anymore.”

I think the acorns in the story act very much like the disciples in the gospel when Jesus attempts to teach them about the way of the Kingdom of Heaven. The disciples haven’t grasped this teaching because they are convinced that they know and understand what is important, how to be good and what success looks like. Like the acorns, they don’t want to hear that the things they have spent so long building up and taking care of aren’t the things that are of true and lasting value.

The child is the very opposite of what the disciples value, and Jesus embracing the child is the equivalent of him pointing down to the ground and saying “it has something to do with cracking open the shell of status, of entitlement, of ‘being right'”. Jesus’ act reveals and embodies where God’s attention is, showing us the way of true discipleship and true growth.

But, like the disciples, we can easily find ourselves aligning our values with the norms of success in our culture. Many in the church have become accustomed to measuring “effective discipleship” by growth, and growth by numbers – by popularity and cash flow. This is probably at least in part because we have become accustomed to thinking of faith as a destination – once you believe the right things, you are destined for heaven.

But the journey of faith is actually a deepening cycle of growth, not a tidy line we cross by making a decision, and maintain with regular attendance at church and some good service evangelism.

Image by Benjamin Balazs from Pixabay

As I think about my own journey of faith in light of the acorn allegory, I can identify several ‘cracking open’ experiences, and if I think about what happens after those, it seems to me that there are various stages of growth:

Sprouts – vigorous early growth, fuelled by enthusiasm from an encounter with Love

Straplings – building root systems, leggy growth, spindly, reaching for light, figuring out how things work…

Seasoned – established roots, filling out canopy, pliant growth, incorporating and accommodating challenges

Stumps – returning resources to the earth, providing shelter to young growth, supporting inner life

I don’t think these stages necessarily flow naturally into each other, though. It seems more like each one often requires another cracking open experience to propel us onwards. We get comfortable with what we know and reluctant to move out into the stretch zone again. We can resist our own evolving faith.

So as we move through this faith journey, it seems likely that we may become stuck for a time, or we may find that we embody many of these seasons at once. One who is actively establishing roots can also be offering shelter and supporting the unseen inner life.

When Jesus takes the child and embraces her, in this one act he questions every assumed value, every ‘norm’ of society, every cultural ‘given’. In doing this Jesus embodies how God is with us and how we are to be with each other and all of creation. And the bottom line is this: Welcome.

Welcome the truth that life is messy and we don’t know as much as we think we do. Welcome the truth that growth is untidy and often unpredictable and can come through unexpected and painful means.

Welcome the seasons and stages and embrace the awkwardness of learning to let go, to step into newness and most of all, welcome the awkwardness of learning to attend to the discounted ones, the ones on the edge and the outside – to the voiceless. And that includes the voiceless forests, oceans , deserts and tundra. Whatever and whoever we are overlooking or taking for granted – that’s where God is, that’s who God is with.

Reflecting Together

What struck you from the two stories or the reflection?

Who – or what – has helped you grow on the journey of faith? What has drawn (or pulled) you into the ‘stretch zone’ of growth and learning?

What are the practices that have helped you welcome change or the experiences that have made you cautious?

How do you see the congregation of St Peter’s evolving and growing in the coming years? Where is our ‘stretch zone’ for learning? How might we lean in to this?

Prayers of the People

Blessing

As we close our time together, may we embrace the challenges
of our lives, our world and these times…
As we prepare to move on into the day,
may we live lives of hope,
be nurturers of a vision of wholeness,
and serve as healers in a wounded world.
Grant us wisdom.
Grant us courage.
Grant us peace. 
May God’s wisdom guide you wherever you walk in this world.
May God’s wisdom encourage you in your daily work.
May God’s wisdom work in you like yeast, and rise in you like hope!

May you taste and see God’s goodness
and may God’s wisdom be your delight
now, this day, and for evermore. 

Creation and the welcome of the little ones

The gospel reading for this week offers us a lens to engage with the season of creation theme. As you listen with this theme in mind, what insights arise for you? What catches your attention?

Mark 9:30-37

As Jesus continues to try and open the disciples minds to understand God’s version of Messiahship – not the conquering hero but the suffering servant – the disciples have instead been preoccupied on the way, caught up in a dispute over who is the most important among them.

The way of discipleship is the way of service, of welcoming the least as a means of welcoming the divine one.

What does that mean to you and your relationship with creation – the resources of the planet earth, air and waters; the hairy, scaly, oozy and smooth skinned creatures; the vegetation and micro-organisms as well as all of our fellow human beings? Who are the little ones? What would it mean to you to welcome, hold and embrace the least of creation – the different, the downtrodden, the so-called unlovely of creation – as a means of welcoming the presence of God?

What would it mean to seek to serve creation as an expression of your discipleship on The Way of Jesus the Christ?

You can find the gospel reading and all of the texts for this Sunday’s lectionary readings here.

Art and faith

GET thee behind me, by Tissot, watercolour. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56514

Call to worship

Lord, where should we go if we did not follow you? You have the words of eternal life.

Let us come and follow the one who gives us life, who calls us by name, and delights in our presence, Jesus the Christ.

Let us join together in worship.

Candle Lighting

We light this candle in the name of the Maker, who lit the world and breathed the breath of life for us.

We light this candle in the name of the Son, who saved the world and stretched out his hand to us.

We light this candle in the name of the Spirit, who encompasses the world and blesses our souls with yearning.

An opportunity to check in and reconnect

Reading Scripture

Mark 8:27-38
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”
And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”
He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?
Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Who do you say…what do you see?

This story of Peter’s amazing insight followed by his spectacular fall from grace offers a number of interesting openings for our reflection. First of all, I was fascinated to discover that the rebuke ‘Get behind me’ is a translation of the same word Jesus used to call Peter from his nets. Get behind me ….follow me…same word. I think that puts a much softer edge onto the rebuke and an interesting ‘returning’ aspect to it.

Nonetheless, the nose dive from top of the class to dunce is still quite dizzying.

What do you see? Jesus asks. And even though the answer – the Christ – is technically correct, if the follow up question was: What do you understand about the Christ? The answer to that would be: Nothing, apparently.

The many images of Jesus in Christian art show that what we see – what we have seen through the ages – has changed, is changing still.

What we see depends on who we are, and where we stand, and maybe also on what we need to see. Our view is always limited and surely it is also possibly – probably – as faulty and filtered as Peter’s.

Sometimes we, too, understand nothing, apparently.

The beauty of this is that there is always more to discover, more depths to be revealed, more mystery to dwell in and to ponder.

God remains unboxable and therefore as open to us as our capacity to hold what we think we know gently and with humility, along with a willingness to see more. It also means that when others share their perspective, our own view can be enriched. Other people can offer us a view we have never seen before, a facet of the Christ, of the cross, of the journey of faith that has been out of our experience and so out of our sight.

Show and tell

I wonder what images of God, what metaphor, story or symbol has been a significant piece of your journey of understanding? I wonder how those images have changed or your perspective shifted as you have matured and your faith has been shaped by your life experiences?

I know that for some, image and metaphor, story and symbol are more foreign language than flowing links. I understand that for those with a practical, action oriented approach to life and faith, this can all seem a bit airy fairy and unnecessary navel gazing. So, although I freely admit my bias in favour of artsy story stuff, I also am convinced that story can be a shortcut to the most gutsy reality of being human , that art cuts to the very heart of superficial ‘busy’ things and often shows us the most effective way to act, change or serve.

For the journey

The quote below is for you to consider over the week- what helps you to see? What teaches you to slow down and pay attention? How are you learning to look at your failures and successes with perspective?

The arts don’t just fill our time with uplifting stories and pretty pictures. They don’t just distract us with things to look at; they teach us how to look. 

Art can teach us…. how to see a suffering world in the context of grace. How to recognize the humanity of a character who seems like an irredeemable villain. How to slow down. How to pay attention not just to the notes but the silences  between  the notes…… How to look at our own failures and successes with perspective, even laughter. The arts ask us to use the full range of our senses. And they can restore us to our full, God-given humanity.

Greg Pennoyer

Prayers for the world

Blessing

May you awaken to the mystery of being here and enter the quiet immensity of your own presence.
May you have joy and peace in the temple of your senses.
May you receive great encouragement when new frontiers beckon.
May you respond to the call of your gift and find the courage to follow its path.
May the flame of anger free you from falsity.
May warmth of heart keep your presence aflame and may anxiety never linger about you.
May your outer dignity mirror an inner dignity of soul.
May you take time to celebrate the quiet miracles that seek no attention.
May you be consoled in the secret symmetry of your soul.
May you experience each day as a sacred gift woven around the heart of wonder.

~ John O’Donohue ~

When art tells our story

Who do you say I am?

Mark 8:27-38

This week’s reading from the gospel according to Mark is a pivotal point in his narrative. Up until this point, Jesus has urged everyone to keep silent about his miraculous power and healing presence.

Now he asks his disciples directly, “who do you say that I am?” and when Peter makes his confession, he is told again to keep it quiet. But then, in the middle of this story, and the middle of Mark’s whole narrative, Jesus starts to speak openly about being the Christ, and what that means.

As you listen, notice what this stirs up for you. What does it mean to you that Jesus is the Christ?

At the top of the page are a selection of images of Christ, each of these faces portraying something different, an emotion, a stance, an understanding, a belief, an ethnicity… the art tells a story of faith in different places at different times. We’ll be sharing stories of faith through art when we gather on Sunday, so if you can, take some time this week to reflect on what you would like to bring and share/show and tell. Art, in this instance can mean any artistic expression (poem, music, dance…)

Here’s the text if you prefer to read:

Mark 8:27-38
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”
And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”
He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?
Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

STanding in the gap

Call to worship

Faithful God, come walk with your people

for in you alone are our hope and mercy

and we put our trust in you.

Faithful God, come walk behind us, beside us, before us

for you alone are our shelter and direction

and we put our trust in you.

Faithful God, come seek and find and lead us into grace

for you alone are the light in our darkness

and we put our trust in you.

Faithful God, we know you are near

the sound of your footsteps sets us dancing

help us to praise and worship you.

Candle lighting

We gather as children of God:

Many faces, many stories,

And yet we are all part of God’s family.

So we light the candle

and remember

that God who is Mother and Father

to us all is here with us.

A moment to pause

A chance to come to quiet as we prepare to listen to scripture

Photo by Heather Chapman

Gospel Reading

Mark 7:24-37
From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin.

She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go–the demon has left your daughter.”  So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue.
Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.”

And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

Pulling some threads

This week’s gospel reading is so rich with layers that it’s had me going in many different directions. I didn’t even get to the second healing story, I got so caught up with the conversation between Jesus and the woman.

I was struck by the otherness of the Syrophoenician woman – here she is, woman, non-jewish, uninvited and insistent. She might be bowing down and saying ‘sir’, but she is staking a claim on grace that is not going to back down. And for me, this connects with the Black Lives Matter movement, with the same bold insistence that partiality and bias and privilege do not fit in any way with grace and love and justice.

I was struck by the fierce determination of a mother’s love to risk, to plead, to challenge for the sake of a vulnerable and cherished child. And for me, this connects with my own experience of my parents – perhaps more on my mind because this Sunday is Father’s day.

I was struck by the sharp barb of Jesus’ reply, insulting her – really there’s no way to soften or re-frame that – and the clear wisdom of the woman’s response that doesn’t argue against the insult, but uses it as leverage to crack open the closed circle of The Chosen People. And for me, this connects with the issues of worthiness, belonging and inclusion.

I’d love to have conversations around each of these three threads because they are each rich and multi-layered and because I’d love to hear your experiences of and thoughts on these. But since it is father’s day, we’ll focus in on that middle thread and explore together some of the aspects of a parent’s dedication and determination.

Small group connections

In the reading, the woman is standing in the gap for her child – she is a passionate advocate, a faithful petitioner, a resolute guardian. I wonder if you remember an occasion where one (or both) of your parents stood in the gap for you? Share the stories.

Has there been a time when you have been the one standing in the gap – perhaps for a friend or for a bigger issue or cause? What happened and what was that like for you?

This kind of stance can be deeply inspirational and effect great change in a life and in a community. Are there other stories that come to mind of those who have stood in the gap – perhaps stories in scripture, in your family history, or in the wider community on the world stage? What, if anything, can you take into your own life and awareness from these stories?

And for your ongoing reflection during the week: does anything from these reflections connect with and help to expand or reform your image of God? ‘Father’ is perhaps one of the most frequently used names for God – what does the image of a father mean to you and the way you relate to God? How has that changed over time as you have grown and deepened in your faith journey?

Prayers of the people for the peoples

Blessing

May God bless you.

May you be holy and strong and creative

May you know the joy of Jesus

May you dance in the wildness of the Spirit’s breath.

May God’s glory continue to grow in you

gently, powerfully, tenderly.

May you be cradled in warmth and healing

May you be held in God’s wisdom and love.

An Iona blessing

gone to the dogs

Stories to journey with

The gospel reading this week offers us an interesting conversation and two healing stories.

Mark 7:24-37, NRSV

I know it’s more usual to read a passage once, glean something new from it if possible, and then move on to another passage. There is a lot of Bible to cover, and going slowly is not a ‘normal’ way to approach scripture.

But I find that when I slow my pace and re-read the same passage (most days) for a week, I notice all kinds of things – both in the text and in my own life and relationships – that I would have missed if I’d rushed on to tomorrow’s reading.

So once again, I invite you to slow down with me and to let scripture have a proper conversation with your life.

As you listen and reflect over the week, watch for thoughts, feelings and sensations that rise in response. This may give you plenty to reflect on, but you might also consider:

What have you been told or taught about the conversation between Jesus and the Syrian woman? Might there be more to consider here? How would you feel in the woman’s shoes, bowing down and begging? How would you feel in Jesus’ shoes?

What do the healing stories say to you? How do you understand what is happening with the differences in the way that healing is facilitated in these two stories?

If you prefer to read the text, here it is:

Mark 7:24-37
From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin.

She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go–the demon has left your daughter.”  So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue.
Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.”

And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

Who do we think we are?

Candle lighting

Photo by Jaclyn Moy on Unsplash

We light this candle as a people of faith,

Remembering that we find belonging in family and in community.

May the burning flame remind us that, in this virtual space, as we join together to worship God

All are welcome;

All are bearers of God’s light;

Everyone and everything belongs here.

Opening responses

God of grace, as we enter into this gathering

help us to put away the shoulds and the ought tos,

help us to be present as we are,

courageously, honestly, imperfectly.

May we learn together to trust in you and in one another, so that we may grow to be a community of compassion and welcoming. 

We bring all that we are and all that we yet can be,
to this safe and holy space.

Reading Scripture Together

Mark 7:1-8;14-15;21-23

Thoughts and prompts

There are three movements in this passage.

The first is noticing and judging – the pharisees notice and compare the behaviour of the disciples with their own behaviour. They speak up and ask a question. There’s nothing inherently wrong in this behaviour – noticing difference and asking a question is a great way to discover, explore, deepen understanding and connection. The problem is in the lack. The Pharisees find the disciples behaviour lacking, but they lack humility here, which they do not see. Instead, they see their behaviour as the gold standard and look down on anyone who doesn’t measure up.

In my experience this kind of thing starts as “I wouldn’t do that”, and then moves to ” I would NEVER do that” and from there it is no distance at all to “What kind of person does that??”

So they set themselves up as models and then ask the rule breakers for an explanation.

The second movement is Jesus’ response, which is neither a defense nor explanation, but rather it reframes the whole issue so that it isn’t about doing the right thing, but about integrity of motivation and action. The inside and the outside have to match and be in harmony before doing the right thing is truly right.

If there isn’t integrity of motivation (inside) with action (outside) then there is hypocrisy, possibly enabled by self-deceit and/or mindless compliance.

Did the Pharisees intentionally follow the rules and then, like a canny accountant or tax consultant use the rules to find loopholes to their own benefit?

Is obeying the rules without understanding the intention and values behind the rules actually missing the point?

The third movement is Jesus’ teaching to the crowd where he draws their attention to the human tendency to focus on the appearance of religious observance and a rather unhelpful attention on bodily functions and religious purity (please note this is not the same thing as simple hygiene).

Jesus’ saying about from the human heart comes all manner of evils is open to many interpretations.

Worth noting though is that the list of undesirables is so varied – pride, envy and folly rank alongside murder, fornication and adultery. What does that say to you?

Also for context, it is worth considering the many, many lives being lived out in the midst of dire and dreadful conditions. This saying speaks to those whose story is of abuse, neglect, violence, addiction, abandonment –  and it says “this is not what defines a life, a heart, a being.” What you bring forth is what matters, not what is done to you.

Lastly, it is easy to conclude from this saying that human beings are, essentially, without a single good impulse. In this saying, the human heart (in the Jewish tradition, the place where wisdom, discernment and insight intersect) brings forth a multitude of evils and only evil. There is no mention of goodness within the heart here.

I would say, then, that it is worth exploring what you believe about being human.

I would say, too, that it’s worth remembering that in another saying, Jesus also used the illustration of an ordinary parent, who knows how to give good things to their child as an example of how good God is – like an ordinary parent, but more.

And I would say that we also need to remember the origin of all life: created by the will of God; created with a will-to-God, a restlessness and a longing for God.

This will-to-God is of God, and it is the seed in us that reaches for light whatever else may happen.

Whatever else may emerge from within, this also is in us, every one of us, and cannot be broken or even touched by us because it is God’s gift – it is God, given.

Breakout room conversations

  • If you spent time with this passage over the week, what has been speaking to you?
  • Which of the three movements is alive for you today? – noticing lack in others and judging/integrity of inner motivation and outer action/the contents of the human heart – what is striking or puzzling or delightful? How does it connect with your life?
  • What does this passage ask of you beyond thinking and talking? What is one thing you can do in your daily life to move towards that?

Prayers of the people

Blessing

May you move into the days and weeks to come with gentleness,

Humble and knowing your worth.

May you know and grow stillness and peace within,

so you may bring stillness and peace without.

May your words be in harmony with the Christ light

present in the depths of your being,

and may your life speak of integrity and bear the fruit of love.

In the name of the creator, redeemer and giver of life, Amen.

Leaning into lockdown

Slowing down with scripture

The gospel reading for this week is below if you like to read and/or you can listen to it here:

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them.

(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.)

So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”

He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

There is a lot to chew over in this scripture, so I suggest that you listen/read through a few times, and see what stays with you, catches your attention and draws you in – or catches your attention and repels you…both are an indication that there is something worth pausing with and dwelling over. Lean in. Ask some curious questions and some wondering questions like:

I wonder what this is connecting with in my story? What is underneath my reaction?

It is easy to stop with some obvious answers here. Slowing down with scripture is an invitation to move past the surface (the externals of observing laws) and to dig into the heart of the matter – what does lie within? And can you bring that gently into the light for transformation?

You might find it helpful to read this passage over several days and let it accompany you through the week. On Sunday, we’ll use it as a springboard to begin the work of bringing our personal and communal values into the light and then we’ll go on to exploring how we turn values into action.

This week the epistle reading is from James – a perfect fit – you can read it here.

Looking forward to gathering together on Sunday morning!

become like a child…

Joining together in the Presbyterian Support initiative: Praying for Children week

A bit of backstory…

So, a couple of months ago I was delighted to be asked to help prepare resources for the Praying for Children week. This is a way of focussing attention both on the needs of children and the gifts children bring so that as a faith community we might be more thoughtful and intentional about creating and maintaining those bonds of love and support across generations. The resources this year focus on the “like a child” as a model of discipleship and over the week we are invited to explore and reflect on seven childlike qualities that can enrich our understanding and growth as adults. Along the way, I hope you are also inspired to engage with the practices that help us to embody and live into these qualities – and that your prayers for all children are enriched by the insights you gain.

I had every intention of using these resources for our service this coming Sunday and was very much looking forward to engaging with the activities and conversation. We will do our best with our online gathering.

You can find the Praying for Children Week resources here and if you subscribe using the button at the bottom of the page, you will receive a daily email over the coming week of prayer prompts and practices to dive into – or just pick up the ones that you have time for.

A Service of Worship

Call to worship

Listen! There is an invitation for you to open this morning,

The one who loves us is seeking our heart.

The breezes are whispering it;

The sunrise announces it;

The earth trembles with the energy of it:

Let us be still and quiet so we may hear,

and hearing, let delight overcome our caution;

let our hearts resonate with the joy of God’s call.

The call to receive love,

the call to offer love,

the call to know grace,

the call to show grace.

There is an invitation for us to open this morning – 

We are here, we are listening.

Reflective prayer

We give thanks for those things
which keep our hearts light
and our minds excited and stimulated by life.
Not that we may be heedless of the brokenness of our world -
but that we may also be truly thankful
for all that is good and hopeful in our lives.

We give thanks for those things 
which keep our curiosity alight 
and foster openness to new discoveries.
Give us grace and wisdom
for the right use of power and imagination.

We give thanks for the people who inspire us
by their actions and creativity.
O God of community and connection,
We are your children.
In every season of our lives, 
may we stay alert to the patterns of growth -
and those things which the young can teach us
about the world because of the wonder
which they feel in seeing things for the first time.

O God
We praise you
For the blessing of new relationships and enduring partnerships;
Which teach us that our knowledge of each other,
And our knowledge of you,
Grows and moves and changes over the course of our lives.
Amen.

 Rev Karen Watson Church of Scotland - adapted

Scripture reading

18 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

Matthew 18: 1-5

Turning the tables on status and power

Jesus turned many of the norms upside down in his teaching stories and also in his choices about who to talk to, who to eat with, who to touch, who to forgive, who to call and who to call out.

But perhaps this turning of the tables is most surprising. Greatness is almost always associated with power over resources, strength to subdue rivals and the capacity to prevail against challenges. Children and greatness did not seem a natural pairing then and they do not now.

Here’s why: children are vulnerable and dependent. A child does not have the physical strength to subdue rivals and secure resources. Children are inexperienced, their view of the world is limited so there is naivety of judgement and their reactions are immature – of course!

And yet, the child is the model of discipleship we are offered by Jesus – what might he pointing us to?

Conversation starters

  • in small groups, brainstorm together the childlike qualities that you think might help to make us good disciples – Jesus mentions humility in this scripture, but what other qualities do you associate with childlikeness? You might like to feed these qualities back into the large group before moving on to the next piece.
  • then consider together: how might these qualities help us follow Jesus and be participants in the work of the Kingdom of Heaven? What difference might it make if we were more willing and able to embrace humility, for example? Another opportunity for large group feedback here if you want.
  • take turns telling a story from your childhood where you remember living out any one of the qualities you have come up with in your brainstorm – what was that like and why do you remember that story, do you think?

Wake up to Wonder

One of the remarkable things about children is that they have the capacity to go at a million miles an hour AND they can go so slowly it’s like they are almost in rewind. As we get older, we tend to pick a pace and more or less stick to it, and for many of us that pace is almost always about moving forwards, advancing toward the next goal, looking for short cuts if possible. That’s what a results based economy is interested in – maximum output and maximum gain. That’s what our culture seems to value and that’s often what we are judged against if our lives don’t reflect a busy, success driven attitude.

The freshness of a childlike approach means that there is no jaded ‘been there, done that, seen it before’ when life offers us opportunities to wonder, to slow down and really look, really focus and sink in to the beauty of a butterfly, to the reassuring comfort of a hug, to the fascinating retractable stalk eyes of a snail.

Play dough all age activity

You can make your own play dough – it’s super easy! There’s a recipe for you here:

MATERIALS LIST: Play-dough (enough for a small fist-full for each person)

INSTRUCTIONS:

Just play a little first. Perhaps you might like to use the play dough to form a prayerful response to the scriptures and/or the conversations around childlikeness….perhaps sculpting a childlike value you would like to explore more….perhaps shaping something that expresses your relationship with God… take some time for simple, prayerful creative play, for noticing what thoughts, feelings or associations arise, what fears or enjoyment may be present. This can be a meaningful re-connection with childlikeness.

  • Then here’s the invitation: as a response to the Word make a play-dough snail. This snail will be a companion and guide as we begin the week in wonder and explore child-like characteristics throughout this ‘Praying for Children’ week.
  • If you want to make your snail your way, go right ahead.
  • For those who like Step-by-Step instructions: here you go…. (there’s a video you can pre-watch here.)
  • Once you have your play-dough in hand, roll it within your hands to make a long rope
    • Take your long rope shape and roll it up to form the spiral shell of the snail, leaving a little bit of the rope shape at the end
    • Form the last part of the rope shape into the snail’s head
    • Have fun making it your own! You could mold part of the head into antennae or use a pencil or pen to etch some eyes (for fun!) or some designs into the shell.
    • Take your snail with you, placing it somewhere in your house where you will see it.

The most beautiful experience we can have is of the mysterious. The person to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead.

Albert einstein

Prayers of the People

ONE: thank you, God, for our families. For the people we live with and for the grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins who belong in our family too. Thank you for our church family, where we have people of all ages who care about us and who help us live life full on. Thank you, God for each one.

May we all know the blessing of belonging and being loved.

TWO: We are sorry, God, for when we cause hurt to each other or to your beautiful world. Help us to notice when we are in the wrong and to be courageous in admitting it. Show us ways to work for good and to act out of love alone.

THREE: please, God, we pray for families where there is fighting and where people don’t feel safe. We pray for all the people where countries are at war, we pray for peace – for the peace of listening and forgiveness, for the peace of love and comfort, for the peace of courage and generosity.

FOUR: One last thing, God, help us to know you are with us always. Help us to remember we can talk to you anytime we need to, and say whatever we need to. Help us to notice the good things we have in our lives, and to open more to joy, to give ourselves to wonder and to let love and forgiveness flow in our lives.

We ask all these things in Jesus’ name,

Amen.

Blessing

Now is the time to free your heart,

to free the joy inside,

and to awaken to the wonder of your life.

Now is the time to let go of busy-ness as a measure of success,

to free yourself of rush and hurry

and to know steadfast kindness

and the long, slow gaze of love are your heart’s true home.

So may the grace of God direct you along the road of life;

May the peace of Christ embrace you;

and the breath of Spirit bless you, restore you and keep you, always.

Amen

Take it home – Practicing wonder

Take your play dough snail home and put it somewhere that will catch your eye at least once or twice during the day – perhaps find a spot that will give you a bit of a surprise…in the fridge? Where you normally keep the car keys? On the tv remote?

Let your snail remind you of the intention to slow down this week, to wonder and give attention to the challenge of childlike discipleship.

Here are a couple of books you might enjoy – with the young, the young at heart and the young ‘un in all of us: The snail and the whale ; Escargot

Awaken to awe

Take some time over the next few weeks to go out in the evening when it is good and dark. Wrap yourself in a blanket and stand outside for 10 minutes.

Get as far away from lights as you safely can. Look up at the sky and see what you can see. Just stand quietly and take it all in. Read the version of Psalm 8 below when you get back inside.

Alternatively, get up just before dawn and take in the sunrise as a fresh new day dawns.

A version of Psalm 8

Wonderful Creator, the universe demonstrates your greatness.

The scale of creation is beyond our comprehension,

     yet babies and children wonder at its detail.

Creation is ordered by you;

     there is no power beyond your control.

When we look at the stars set in the night sky,

     even the moon, where humans have set foot,

     we know we are insignificant,

    and wonder that you care for us individually.

Yet, you have given us the power to investigate our surroundings,

     and learn a little of how matter is formed.

You have offered us shared responsibility

    for other living creatures, for plants,

    for preserving the beauty of landscape,

    and to work with us to complete your creation here on earth.

Wonderful Creator, the universe demonstrates your greatness.

From A Heart for Creation:worship resources and reflections on the environment Chris Polhill (2010) Wild Goose Publications. Administered in Australia and NZ by Willow Publishing Pty Ltd. www.willowpublishing.com.au. Used with permission. All rights reserved.