27 January 2021
'Marmalade and the love of God'
This week I have been making marmalade. So far there are jars of Oxford Marmalade, dark with black treacle, and a golden Dundee Marmalade, shining brightly and with a hint of orange liqueur to further brighten the taste. I will be making other marmalades as time allows. There is something soothing about marmalade making, particularly on a cold January day. The gentle rhythm of chopping the peel, of taking time with it (marmalade cannot be rushed) makes it almost a ‘mindful’ exercise.
After squeezing out the juice of each orange, I slice the skins, carefully removing as much of the white pith as possible before finely slicing the peel by hand. This takes time. But it is enjoyable, smelling the warm citrus aromas fill the kitchen and attending to the rhythmic cutting of the peel before boiling it till soft with water, and then, only then adding the sugar. Then there is the waiting while the sugar and juices do their work while boiling and reach ‘setting point’. It is hard to resist trying a taste while testing that setting point has been reached, dolloping a little hot liquid onto a cold plate and waiting to see if a skin forms, or if the surface wrinkles when I run my finger over it.
Recipes for marmalade exist from the Tudor period where it was considered a great delicacy, but it wasn’t until the 18th century that it was produced commercially. I love the story of Keiller’s Dundee Marmalade. The legend is that James Keiller speculatively bought a consignment of oranges for his grocery business. Unfortunately, the oranges were Sevilles, not the sweet oranges he was hoping for. Being bitter there was no market for them. It was his mother, Janet, who took the whole consignment and made them into marmalade, which did sell, at a premium. Thus she saved business from what could have been economic disaster.
What I love about this story is how something seemingly worthless is transformed into something of beauty and value. It reminds me of how God takes us, when we might feel broken or worthless, and, by his grace, transforms us, uses us, accepts us, as we are, complete with all our idiosyncrasies. God never waits for us to change or be perfect before we are loved. Like the father in the story of the Prodigal Son, God loves us just as we are, never stops loving us, even when we mess up.
There is a phrase that I have often heard in many a prayer meeting which rather disquiets me. It runs along the lines of; ‘Lord, I am unworthy, how can you look at me, let alone love me? I am not worthy to come into your presence’. There is a problem with this. God has always considered us to be ‘worthy’ of his love. We are always objects of God’s love. In fact, there is never a time when God doesn’t, or hasn’t loved us. As it says in the Wisdom of Solomon, there is nothing that God has created that God does not love: God cannot hate anything that he has created.1 And Paul reminds us that God ‘demonstrated his love for us in that ‘while we were still sinners Christ died for us.2
This then is in direct contradiction to the teaching I received as a young Christian. I was taught, as I know millions of others were, that because of my sin, because I hadn’t said a prayer ‘inviting Jesus into my heart’, because of God’s utter holiness, God couldn’t even bear to look at me. I remember a big evangelist explaining that when we have said the sinner’s prayer, we are covered by the blood of Jesus so that God doesn’t see us but sees Christ’s sacrifice. Only when I had said the ‘sinners’ prayer’ could God turn his face toward me, until that point I was unworthy, destined for an eternity of conscious torment in hell.
When we look through the bible we don’t see God acting like this. Nowhere does it say we have to ‘invite Jesus into our hearts’ before God can love us. Nowhere does it say that I am unworthy of God’s love, that God couldn’t love us as we are as his creation. Think about some of the characters: God didn’t wait for Jacob to stop being a conniving, deceitful and supplanting grabber before he was loved and blessed by God. Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian slave might not have been the matriarch of Israel, but God spoke directly with her, which he didn’t do with Sarah. (In fact there is no record of any direct speech between God and Sarah recorded, whereas with Hagar spoke directly with God in Genesis 16 and again in Genesis 21). God promises that Hagar will be blessed, and that through her son another nation will be born. She was blessed and loved. The list goes on and on, even in the New Testament there is no record of the disciples, Peter and the others ‘becoming Christians’, saying ‘the prayer’ before they are loved and accepted. Instead, they are called to follow, as they are. Goodness, Peter denied Jesus, Judas betrayed him, the others simply ran away when the going got tough, and Paul is out to persecute and kill them, all because he believes that the followers of Jesus are unworthy of God’s love and therefore life! Yet God loves each passionately, seeking to bring blessing, life and longs for each to reach their full potential as beloved children of God, longing for each to become more like his Son, Jesus, not through their efforts alone – we can never pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, but through the graceful working of the Holy Spirit in us, transforming us as we live in obedience to God. And even when we fail, God is never done with us, but picks us up, dusts us down, heals and restores us before sending us on our way.
So, back to my marmalade. The bitter oranges regarded by some as worthless are indeed precious jewels. Their skins are not bright and shiny, but dull and sometimes knobbly. There are more pips than juicy flesh, and the juice is extremely bitter. I do not have to wait for the oranges to become sweet before I will give them value, they are valued and cherished for what they are, just as God cherishes us and values us for who we are, As has been said many times before; ‘There is nothing we can do that will make God love us less, and nothing we can do that will make God love us more.’ We are loved, we are regarded as being worthy of God’s infinite love which is ‘lavished upon us in Christ Jesus.’ When I claim to be unworthy of God’s love, I am denying God’s intrinsic character, I am deciding whether or not God could love me, or others. In fact, I am telling God what he can and cannot do and therefore perhaps asserting my own dominance over God’s character, trying to elevate myself above God.
We can accept that we are valued, precious, created and loved for who we are now, not what we will be, We don’t have to do anything to earn or deserve God’s love. God doesn’t wait until we are ‘Christians’ before he loves us and blesses us. Through the creative work of the Holy Spirit in our lives we will be transformed to be who we are really meant to be, (not what others think we should be) and we can shine like bright jewels in a world that has forgotten how much they are valued and loved for simply being who they are. Perhaps we are all like the Seville Orange: seemingly useless, but actually precious, useful and able to reflect God’s glory in a dark world.
Remembrance Sunday 2020
This year there is no great show of corporate remembrance. We are unable to have the processions of local armed forces or gather en masse in churches and halls to remember with patriotic words and music. We will not see local dignitaries displaying their civic pride as they turn out, neatly pressed to lay a wreath made by others, adding gravitas to the proceedings. Do I sound rather cynical? Perhaps.
I remember listening to the complaints of the elderly, survivors of WW2, who had lost relatives in the conflict, being left out in the cold November rain while young cadets, civic leaders and local dignitaries took their places in the cramped hall for the act of remembrance. To me, that makes a mockery of this act of remembrance, when we choose to make a show of remembering the dead without remembering and caring for the vulnerable living.
This year there is no civic service, remembrance becomes more personal and we are, at last, allowed to remember without the trappings of nationalistic civic patriotism. That is not to say that being faithful and proud of our country, of seeking the best for our communities, are not important. But we can, this year, remember with sadness the event that have taken and changed so many lives. We can reflect the irony on so many war memorials: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. Wilfred Owen, the first world war poet was right. Dying in a sea of mud, blown apart by splintering shells, drowning in mustard gas having been conscripted to fight for a cause that was barely understood, or fed the lie that it would all be over by Christmas was not noble or glorious, but squalid, senseless and inhumane.
For myself I remember in particular two members of my family who died in WW2. My maternal great-uncle, Frederick George Costar (1896-1941) was lost at sea during the Battle of Crete. His ship, HMS Kashmir took a direct hit from a stuka dive bomber and sunk within 2 minutes. Fred had been due to retire in 1939 but the war forced his continued service in the Royal Navy. He is commemorated on the Southsea War Memorial. Meanwhile my paternal uncle, George Perry was a civilian who died in December 1940. He was a firefighter who sacrificed his life while trying to save two elderly women from a fire during the Bristol Blitz. As a civilian, until very recently, his death was not remembered by the British Legion’s red poppy, that was reserved for British military personnel only. Hence I choose to wear a white, peace poppy. Not only do I wear it to remember George Perry, and millions like him, but to pray for peace and an end to the industry of warmongering.
Perhaps our remembering shouldn’t be reserved for a couple of minutes in November, but we should always remember and always look for the ways that make for peace. In our remembrance we should be caring for the most vulnerable in our society, comforting those who truly grieve. Jesus said ‘blessed are the peacemakers’, and peace-making begins with us, in the small acts of kindness and solidarity with the most vulnerable in our world. Today, and tomorrow, I will remember and pray for peace.
10th May 2020
I am the way…a poem of sorts
I was reflecting on John 14:6, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’, and I was thinking how often we interpret Jesus’ words to mean that it is only by ‘believing in him’, that being a signed up, church going Christian that we have eternal life. But I wondered if that is what he meant, or, like with so much of what Jesus said, is there more. Is Jesus being ‘the way’ less about him being a gate (although he is - John 10:7), but his life is the way, and we are called to travel the same path. That is perhaps an altogether more challenging proposition, but one which we are called to, knowing that he walked the path before us, and walks with us on the journey.
Ego eimi odos
You are the way, the path, the road
Not an entrance, not in yourself
But in your life is the road
The path, the way to the Father.
The way of life that loves
Worships God with whole of life,
Obedience in every aspect
Listening to God’s voice
Meditating 24/7 on the Word
Praying for the the world
A living, joyful sacrifice of praise.
The way of life that loves
Neighbour, friend and family
Outsider, sinner, enemy the same,
Not as objects for conversion
But loved, as you loved yourself,
Listening, noticing, with compassion,
With righteous anger against injustice
Challenging the status quo that diminishes,
Demeans and deliberately destroys.
The way of life that loved
With self-emptying kenosis,
Putting aside privilege, power and place.
Raising the other, the dead, the fallen,
The bend and bowed, blind and bedridden.
Sacrificial, self-giving love
Fully obedient as fully loved.
The way of life that calls,
Inviting us to follow your path,
To be like you, ‘little Christs’.
God with boots on, in a broken world
With blistered hands and feet
Tear-stained eyes and open arms
Revealing nail prints and wounded sides
Facing humanity’s wrath and rage.
You are the way,
The different path to life.
Not future, as each is self secure,
But life for all, hope for all,
The Kingdom is here, come on earth
As we tread the path you laid;
A narrow road, life-giving, self-giving,
Following the path as your disciples,
Following you into abundant life.
30th April 2020
Today I gave a small pot of sourdough yeast to a neighbour. With bread yeast being almost unobtainable during this time of lockdown, it is a precious commodity. And yet, yeast micro-organisms are everywhere. Just leave flour (carbohydrate) in the warmth with water and eventually natural yeasts will grow, feeding on the sugars in the flour and releasing carbon dioxide into the mix, causing it to rise with little bubbles.
Growing, or cultivating yeast for baking takes time, patient feeding and watering, keeping the ferment at a steady, ambient temperature. To enable the ferment to be strong enough to raise a loaf takes days, not hours, and, once the ferment is added to the flour and water to make bread, it takes longer to rise. I generally leave my dough to rise for at least 12 hours or longer, and then after ‘knocking back’ and shaping I leave it for at least another 6 hours or overnight in a warm place.
Bread is the gift of time, of patience, of steady nurture. In the Middle Ages yeast, or barm, was also known as Godisgoode. It was seen as a miracle, an act of God’s grace and mercy that the yeast caused the bread to rise, the beer and wine to ferment, bringing lightness and flavour.
But, not all yeast is good. Some yeasts are harmful to our health, - thrush, (candida albicans) can be fatal in certain cases. Just like bread yeast, it feeds on warmth, sugars and moisture in the body.
Yeasts can be killed, and that is what happens in the baking of the bread. The dough has to reach 130-140 degrees F to be killed. In baking the bread will generally reach 200 degrees F, and so will be killed. When bread is undercooked the yeasts are still active and will continue working and growing, even when digested, leading to flatulence and stomach aches. So, yeast is good, but needs to be treated with care and respect.
I was curious then why yeast seems to have such a bad pressing the bible, with commands to rid the house of yeast for the Passover (Ex. 12:14-20) and to beware of the yeast of the Pharisees (Matt.16:6 ). In a quick internet search it seems that ancient Egypt was one of the first cultures to embrace yeast leavened bread. When the Israelites left Egypt in the Exodus they were to leave everything that was associate with the empire and slavery behind, including yeast. When they left in the Exodus they didn’t have the luxury of patiently feeding the ferment, protecting it from drying out, overheating or getting too cold. It is also said that yeast stands for a metaphor for our sins, the small seeming inconsequential things that can, without care cause great harm. This is Paul’s meaning in 1 Cor 5:6-8. It is those small sins, our jealousies, pride and lack of love that leads to trouble. Yeast, without care can cause harm. Think of exploding ginger beer or elderflower champagne bottles.
Jesus does tell us to beware of the yeast of the Pharisees, the thing is, it looked good. The Pharisees were the mainstream, evangelical, religious leaders of their day. They were looking for spiritual revival, for God’s blessings, for cultural renewal through attention to God’s word in scripture. The problem was that they interpreted the Mosaic law very rigidly, Jesus accused them of adding so much to the Law, that it was a heavy burden rather than being liberating. It was persuasive and enticing, speaking peace and promising God’s blessings in a troubled world, but it was a quick fix for righteousness, looking good, but lacking grace, mercy and love. Without love and mercy this rule keeping caused spiritual indigestion and pain. By contrast Jesus also said that the Kingdom of God is like a little yeast that is kneaded into the dough and slowly, over time works unseen, bringing life and lightness to the whole dough. A little love, grace and mercy tenderly cultivated with patience has the ability to bring life and hope into our communities, to bring ‘heaven to earth’.
In this time of lockdown I have noticed lots of examples of love and grace being shared in our communities, even simple neighbourliness, calling out greetings to our neighbours as we ritually applaud the NHS and essential workers. I have noticed how food banks and other community initiatives are helping the most vulnerable. But these acts of kindness must continue to be cultivated, particularly when this Covid-19 crisis is over. I have also seen questions as to how we ‘evangelise’ at this time, and sadly, some downright disturbing media posts condemning all with gory and hell-fire language. Yeast takes time to work invisibly through the dough, it takes care and attention, and the results are not immediately evident. The kingdom of God is no quick fix but a patient ferment of love and grace in the world.
So, Godisgoode, and I will continue to share my little pots of sourdough where they are wanted, praying that like God’s grace, they will grow and bring hope and joy into our world.
26th April 2020
Sabbath Rest: Being Still.
We are five weeks into lockdown. It seems to be an enforced Sabbath where we are told to stay in, not going out except for essential foods, medicines, exercise and work if we are unable to work from home. We have been forced to stop. But despite being in lockdown for 5 weeks, stopping is proving difficult.
Sabbath means rest, not just for our bodies, but for our minds as well, and our spirits. But it is hard to stop, it is hard to rest. We cram our minds, our lives with busyness. We fill our lives with noise and activity. As TS Eliot noted, we are ‘distracted from distraction by distraction’. We have forgotten contemplation, meditation and simply being still in the presence of God.
Even our worship is filled with frenetic activity and noise, either from our rituals or our music, we fill our worship time with sound and vision and stillness and quiet are very rare. Silence is painful in our busy-crammed lives. Even the Two Minutes Silence is a stretch as our minds wander, counting the seconds while we try to remember. Silence is simply not part of our world or our Christian experience.
In our discipleship we are called to be like Christ, following the things that Jesus did. Jesus who regularly went into remote places to be still and pray. Jesus who said ‘consider the lilies’, inviting us to stop and really look, to gaze, to know, to examine closely. Jesus who rested during the storm and told the wind and waves to ‘be still’. Jesus who silenced the demonic with their prattling cries. Jesus who not only read the Hebrew Scriptures but meditated on them day and night. Jesus who knew how to ‘be still and know God’.
How can I be still? In Christian mindfulness we are encouraged to simply take note of the little things, of our breathing, focussing on a single thing, remembering that our breath comes from our God who gives life, the Holy Spirit. We are called to listen, to look, to touch, to feel, and taste, using all our senses to sense God’s presence with us. So often in our worship we rely solely on our hearing, or visuals, but we have five senses, it is our whole body that comes to worship, not only in activity, but in stillness as well.
There is a Celtic prayer that runs:
‘Silence is the solitude of the heart
Silence is the soul’s healer
Silence is the speech of lovers
Silence is the saint’s shelter
Silence is the strength of the faithful
Silence is the search for God who comes to meet you’
‘I weave a silence on to my lips
I weave a silence into my mind
I weave a silence within my heart
I close my ears to distractions
I close my eyes to distractions
I close my heart to temptations
Calm me O Lord as you stilled the storm
Still me O Lord, keep me from harm
Let all the tumult within me cease
Enfold me Lord in your peace.’
As I learn to be still, to be quiet and silent before the Lord I can open my eyes and ears to see and hear God. I can get to know God and worship in ways that I haven’t experienced before, a deeper relationship.
During this time of lockdown I have noticed a number of folk posting beautiful pictures of the spring flowers on social media, we are collectively perhaps learning to be attentive to God’s creation, and in the we can reflect that as God clothes the ‘lilies of the field’, as God is with and in creation, God is with us. Being still doesn’t come easy, it is a discipline, but perhaps after this lockdown is over we will have the mental, physical and spiritual strength to be still and know the presence of the Lord.
8th April 2020 - Waiting for Easter in ‘Lockdown”
One aspect of this ‘lockdown’ is that we supposedly have ‘time’. And yet rather than enjoying the space to read and study, to meditate and contemplate at this time of Easter, I am so easily distracted. Or I am trying to fill my days with stuff. On Facebook a post doing the rounds talks of doing the ironing…but at the end of the lockdown the ironing will still be there, because really, we didn’t want to tackle it anyway.
This is the problem with our isolation. We have time, we have the wherewithal, and yet we do not have the heart. We try to cram so much in, and then when we have the chance to stop and reflect, we are so out of practice that we find it impossible. I am reminded of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: in the quest for the Holy Grail Indiana falls over a cliff and we are led to believe that he has died. His father, Henry Jones suddenly laments: ‘and I never got to tell him anything’. As the story unfolds we discover that really Henry Jones didn’t need to tell his son anything, he knew the various steps along the way as he faced the maze of obstacles which had to be overcome in order to reach the grail, and then rescue his father. He had to be still, attentive and remember.
As we approach Easter it struck me that there is so much in the story, we know the story, particularly if we have been brought up within a Christian environment. But so often we fail to simply pause and reflect on the story. We fail to watch with the sleepy disciples in Gethsemane (we would rather rush to the next thing), we fail to wait at the cross, those six, long, agonising hours as Jesus hung between life and death, we would rather Good Friday be over and simply celebrate our salvation. And we would rather rush on Saturday, rather than wait with uncertainty and our questions..
In our rush towards Easter Sunday, my mind is occupied with hot cross buns, roast lamb, chocolate eggs, and the joy of resurrection, and I haven’t stopped to consider how the cross demonstrates humanity’s violence, exploitation of others, hatred and greed. I haven’t stopped to consider how I am complicit in the evil that besets the world, and that I am forgiven. I haven’t stopped to consider that amazing fact that God was on the cross, the one who holds the universe, created the stars and the daisies was willing to be fully human and suffer all that humanity can throw at him.
As I stop, as I try to take time to reflect on the liminal, now and not yet aspect of Easter, the time in-between life and death, hope and reality, perhaps this time of lockdown will bring the truths of Easter into sharper focus and I will, like the women waiting to go to the tomb, learn to wait.
In our kitchen I have an old coffee sack as a wall hanging. I love the picture of the snail and the caption: SLOW FOOD. As chief cook in the family, the familiar cry towards meal times was: ‘Is it ready yet?’. But good food takes time. If I rush when making bread, not giving enough time for the dough to rise slowly, then the loaf is either dense in texture or it splits during the cooking. There is a ‘Slow Food Movement’ where traditional farming and production practices are employed in the production of food, so animals are not fed high protein foods and growth hormones, they are allowed to fully mature before slaughter. Wine and breads are allowed to slowly ferment and vegetables are grown slowly and in season. Slow food means we must wait for it.
This period of lockdown is a time of waiting. We are waiting for it all to be over, for life to return to normal. But waiting is difficult, we are used to the frenetic rush of daily life. We hate waiting in our ‘instant access world’. We now have to wait in queue to enter the supermarkets, we have to wait for the post, for our on-line delivery slots, for appointments.
Long ago I was reminded that Moses waiting in the wilderness for 40 years before he heard God call him out of the burning bush. He wasn’t sitting around, he was tending his father-in-law’s sheep. Waiting involves getting on with our daily lives. But I was also reminded of the function of a waiter in a restaurant: to serve, to attend to our needs, our safety and well-being, to be hospitable.
Noah and his family waited. They were cooped up in the ark, with all those animals, for over a year! We are complaining about months, yet Noah had to wait for over a year, waiting while the rains came down, while the earth flooded and then waiting while the waters subsided and then waiting some more. But within that time of waiting they cared for the animals, for each other, and undoubtedly they listened for God’s voice.
It is hard waiting. But we can look at those people in the bible who waited. Noah and his family, the Israelites huddled in their houses waiting for the angel of death to pass over their homes, for God’s liberation and newness of life. They were fearful, leaving Egypt would mean living a new life, a different life. They were not going to return to the old ways of slavery, of meeting ever increasing demands on their time and energy. When they left Egypt God commanded them to keep the Sabbath, to slow down, look to the interests of others and to wait on the Lord.
Over the last few weeks the world has changed, familiar businesses are no more, many have lost their jobs and livelihoods, we have become used to social distancing. When we emerge from our quarantine and lockdown, we will be entering a new world, familiar yet very different. But for now we are told to wait.
And as we wait we can prepare ourselves for that new world we will enter. We can learn to wait and listen to God’s voice in the quietness and lack of rush. We can learn what community really means, looking out for one another, loving our neighbours as ourselves (even if it means protecting them by our staying indoors). We can learn patience and kindness. We can draw strength from God by spending time in prayer and contemplation.
One of my favourite bible verses is Is 40:31. In the NRSV it reads: Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength. The NIV reads: Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. Our waiting is closely tied with our being hopeful, hoping in the Lord that He will walk with us through this time, that He will bring us out into a new world, that He will bring us back together. And as we wait, we rest, build up our strength through Him.
So back to my coffee sack. I am reminded that it is in God’s timing, I cannot rush. It is slow, patient waiting. As we wait, we are like the early church which placed far more emphasis on patient waiting on God, prayer, worship and understanding the faith than they did on evangelistic stratagems, and yet the church grew.
And so, we wait.