Isaac, Abraham’s second son and the achingly longed for first child of Sarah, was born, according to the story, when Abraham was a hundred and Sarah in her nineties. We had our first child in our twenties and while we looked forward to her birth with that strange mixture of trepidation and excitement that is right and proper for a first child, I don’t ever remember the almost desperate longing that some have if their wait is longer. Isaac was a longed for and loved child. And then there is in Genesis 22:1-19 the story of Mount Moriah. It is almost impossible to comprehend the kind of feelings that would arise in such a situation, but I believe the storyteller wants us to do exactly that. We are meant to feel the conflict between obedience to God and love for your child and get a grasp of what trust really means. How could Abraham possibly go through with the sacrifice of this precious young man? How could a loving God test his servant in such a way? And what on earth did this story do to Isaac and his relationship with his father? I wonder what you make of the story. Perhaps our immediate reaction is that it is a totally alien world and utterly beyond anything we have experienced. ‘Child sacrifice’. Surely no one would treat their children in this way, but I wonder if that is so? We live in a world where children are constantly abused and hurt by deliberate act or simple neglect.
Despite the fact that many people believe that slavery no longer exists, the ‘International Labour Organisation’ estimated that there are some 5.5 million children in slavery or practices similar to slavery. The Forbes website covers a story that in 2012 there were as many as 300,000 child soldiers active in conflicts around the world. The account also claimed that 40% of armed forces (including national armies, militias, gangs, terrorist organizations and resistance forces) in the world use children. Studies in the USA by David Finkelhor, Director of the Crimes Against Children Research Centre’, show that: 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys is a victim of child sexual abuse. The organisation, ‘International Centre for Research on Women’ has found that one third of girls in the developing world are married before the age of 18 and 1 in 9 are married before the age of 15. This means that in 2012, 70 million children were married. This number is set to increase in the next decade and if present trends continue, 150 million girls a year will be married before their 18th birthday.
Children’s lives seem so cheap and their happiness so unimportant that somehow Abraham’s dilemma has a horribly relevant feel. In some ways the safety of the child has only recently become an important consideration in family decisions.
The needs of children are not always the primary factor even for Christians seeking to respond to God’s calling. If you are in doubt talk to my mother, Rosemary, on the anguish she felt with three little ones in West Africa! How much does God require of us and our children?
The story of Abraham is about trust in God, and in the story, his faithfulness is affirmed as ‘God Provides’. The tensions of the story are resolved by the provision of a loving God and the possibility that Abraham will become a blessing for others. Our feelings, as we read the story, become a sounding board for a message of encouragement for all who choose to be obedient. As we offer ourselves in the Covenant that may be enough for this reflection on a child in the Bible. God’s love is enough, God will provide.
But perhaps we might also listen to the challenge of how we treat children and young people. I’m writing this as I am overwhelmed with the sadness that we are now dropping bombs in Syria and so I end with ‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’ Wilfred Owen 1893-1918.
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
Happy New Methodist Year! September 2015
It’s not quite started as I expected with not being too well, but it has come and I’m genuinely looking forward to being with you. It has been good. This is my second year with you and as I look back I realise that it has been challenging. I’ve been a minister for 33 years but the last 19 of them were not in local circuit appointments. Therefore I’ve spent a good deal of time out of my depth. It has helped me realise that Judith and I have landed on our feet among people who are quite prepared to forgive mistakes and the kindness to help us get it right. We both feel very grateful. Thank you. I think you have all been on a learning curve as well. Getting used to a new member of the ministry team isn’t easy. However, I think we are all in a better place to enjoy the journey ahead, and I hope you feel that even if your ‘new minister’ isn’t all that you could hope for, there is enough hope to make a go of it! If not, as some have reminded me, ‘He’ll go eventually!’ This is the strength of Circuit Ministry. We are invited for five years and move on. The invitation can be extended, and we are all delighted that Nik has accepted an extension for her ministry among us. But even extensions run out and ministers are ‘temporary’ creatures – their role is to hold the individual churches within the wider family of the Church. I’m convinced that they should not ‘rule the roost’ or dominate the direction the local church should take. It is instead the task of the circuit minister to encourage the lay leadership of the Church, to help the Church as a whole, see what God wants of us, and what God has given to us to help us achieve it. Nik and I share the role of ‘pastoral charge’ – but we do so with a Church that is very good at pastoral care. We both share in the leadership team – but we do so in a Church that has some outstanding leaders. We preach and teach and lead worship, alongside Local Preachers and worship leaders.
A number of challenges lie ahead of us, that I personally face with enthusiasm and confidence. I hope in the coming year that we will continue to develop the leadership teams, of stewards, pastoral visitors and property and finance so that we increase a common sense of our Godly purpose in Epsom. I also hope we bring together our outreach work into a more coherent ‘mission’ team – people who want to help the whole Church reach out with God’s love into the Community. I would also like us to look back on this year and see that we have a more coherent view of the excellent work we do alongside young people in both the uniformed and informal areas of that work.
A huge blessing for our Church has been the growth of Chinese and International congregations and this is an area where I think we can develop a much closer, prayerful, fellowship within the whole leadership to discern God’s direction for us.
Epsom Methodist Church is a Godly and loving fellowship. We can only grow in this together. We have had much bereavement in the last year and our hearts go out to those who have lost loved ones. This is part of our story as well, and will continue to be so. But our faith will prove stronger than our sadness for the promises God makes are true in life and in death. I wonder, as you look back, how your Methodist Year has been, and as you look forward, what you are looking forward to?
Choices, August 2015
Choices, a meditation on Galatians 5:22, written by Max Lucado (adapted by Nik Wooller)
It's quiet. It's early. My tea is hot. The sky is still black. The world is asleep. The day is coming. In a few moments the day will arrive. It will roar down the track with the rising of the sun. The stillness of the dawn will be exchanged for the noise of the day. The calm of solitude will be replaced by the pounding pace of the human race. The refuge of the early morning will be invaded by decisions to be made and deadlines to be met. For the next twelve hours I will be exposed to the day's demands. It is now that I must make a choice. Because of Calvary, I am free to choose.
I choose Love.... No occasion justifies hatred; no injustice warrants bitterness. I choose love. Today I will love God and what God loves.
I choose Joy.... I will invite my God to be the God of circumstance. I will refuse the temptation to be cynical...the tool of the lazy thinker. I will refuse to see people as anything less than human beings, created by God. I will refuse to see any problem as anything less than an opportunity to see God.
I choose Peace.... I will live forgiven. I will forgive so that I may live.
I choose Patience.... I will overlook the inconvenience of the world. Instead of cursing the one that takes my place, I will invite him to do so. Rather than complain that the wait is too long, I will thank God for the moment to pray. Instead of clinching my fist at new assignments, I will face them with joy and courage.
I choose Kindness.... I will be kind to the poor, for they are alone. Kind to the rich, for they are afraid. And kind to the unkind, for such is how God has treated me.
I choose Goodness.... I will go without a pound before I take a dishonest one. I will be overlooked before I will boast. I will confess before I accuse. I choose goodness.
I choose Faithfulness.... Today I will keep my promises. My debtors will not regret their trust. My associates will not question my word. My husband will not question my love. And my children will never fear that their mother will not come home.
I choose Gentleness.... Nothing is won by force. I choose to be gentle. If I raise my voice, may it only be in praise. If I clench my fist, may it only be in prayer. If I make a demand, may it only be on myself.
I choose Self-Control.... I am a spiritual being. After this body is dead, my spirit will soar. I refuse to let what will rot, rule the eternal.
I choose self-control. I will be drunk only by joy. I will be impassioned only by my Faith. I will be influenced only by God, I will be taught only by Christ.
Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness and Self-Control. To these things I commit my day. If I succeed, I will give thanks. If I fail, I will seek God’s grace. And then, when this day is done, I will place my head on my pillow and rest.
All things work together for good? , July 2015
Dear EMC and Friends
I am writing this is in the middle of a difficult week. None of the difficulty comes from being a Minister at EMC, but such weeks happen in the best regulated lives. I don’t enjoy difficulties but I don’t suppose one is meant to. The physical, mental, emotional and spiritual resources that you possess are strained, and straining hurts. The experience of pain is normal, however unpleasant, and while it must be coped with, it cannot be taken as a sign of weakness or failure. This is how humans bear things! Humans hurt at times and we’ve got pretty good at it over the millennia.
So I am having a muddle of a week with bereavement, misadventures, misfortunes and mistakes to work through (not necessarily my own!). To take such a path is to be human! To be here, however, is also to be aware of God in a particular way. It is not the easy God of the ‘green pastures and still waters’, or even the challenging God of ‘right paths’; it is the very present God of, ‘dark valleys’. Now I mustn’t overstate the muddled nature of where I am – I make no appeal for cards and flowers or oodles of sympathy. I simply acknowledge as one human being to another that sometimes life is harder than usual and that in such moments God is still here with me.
I’ve never been comfortable with a philosophy of ‘destiny’; that somehow God has sorted out your life in every detail, and that you are on a tramline known only to God that you must discover. Such a concept may say something about the extraordinary nature of God’s knowledge of me, but it says little about a creative God’s gift of free choice and love for me. I prefer to think in terms of Romans 8:28 – that God ‘works together all things for good for those that love him’. Here is the creative God who never gives up on us, who doesn’t despair at our folly or sorrow, but patiently keeps healing, reshaping, mending and working with us. The idea of ‘everything’ is hard to digest – but I do try to!
God works with what we give him, and that must include our difficulties as well as our strengths. Perhaps God will even use my confession of having a difficult week to encourage someone else that knows, ‘just what it is like at the moment!’ If you are struggling – my empathy, you too are human. But if you are truly struggling, then this encouragement; even where you are will be shaped by God into something wonderful and you with it.
Kindest regards Yours sincerely
A Time to Celebrate, June 2015
A class of eleven year olds were asked to bring something special in for the next “Show and Tell” session. As it was a multi-faith school they were asked to bring something that represented their faith. Joseph showed a star to the class, “I am Jewish so I have brought in the Star of David.” Maria came to the front of the class with some special beads. “I am Catholic and this is my rosary”. Then Charlie came out to the front, “I am a Methodist and this is a cake.” This is an old joke and I apologise if you have heard it before, but it still makes me smile! I believe that it is always good to have the excuse for a big celebration and it is also great to celebrate some of the little things in life. When we are in hospital, ill at home or are feeling overwhelmed with life, all we long for is to do the simple, ordinary things like going for a short walk or sitting in the garden listening to the birds. Such things can become a real celebration of everyday life if we do them with awareness. Sometimes it is important to stop and really see the things around us, to look in detail at the beauty of a flower or the pattern of the clouds, to allow ourselves to celebrate the beauty of everyday life and to thank God. I’d like to share this simple prayer with you all. It was used during my recent retreat and I found it quite thought-provoking. Lord, help us to accept this day as a gift to be treasured, a life to be enjoyed, a trust to be kept and a hope to be fulfilled. Amen. As well as celebrating the small things in life, bigger celebrations, birthdays, weddings, anniversaries family parties (and cake of course!) are great because they give us a chance to review what has happened in the past and take time to be thankful. So let us all take a moment, this month, either on our own or with friends - maybe even with a cup of tea and a piece of cake - to thank God for the work we try to do here in Epsom, for the people both now and in the past who have worked for this church and to pray for the years ahead. Nik
Waiting! May 2015
Between Easter and Pentecost there is ‘waiting’. It is a hard word for any of us to hear because what comes is something we long for or perhaps because we dread it. And yet waiting is what the disciples are commanded to do (Luke 24:49).
What are we waiting for? Jesus says in Luke that we are waiting to be clothed in the power from on high. The death and resurrection of Jesus tell us a little of what this power is both like and for. It is not power over others but for them. It is power most clearly expressed in the willingness of Jesus to suffer and die. It is this suffering that the resurrection affirms. To wait for this power is to wait for God’s love to clothe us and fill us. We also know that this power was in the beginning of all things, shaping and creating the world. We wait to be given the gentle power of a loving creator so that we can share in God’s work of healing and mending.
How do we wait? A simply answer would be, ‘impatiently and nervously!’ Such a gift of love for others is both extraordinarily wonderful and wonderfully extraordinary. How we long at times to make the world a better place, and perhaps even for us to be better people! But a more complex answer would be a play on the word, ‘waiting’ – to wait as a Waiter waits. As such we pay close attention to what God wants, ready to help – obedient and patient. We wait as the disciples waited because until God gives us the resources all our efforts are in vain.
There are always such rhythms in life – a time to wait and a time to act! (Ecclesiastes 3). It is often important to simply get on with things – not to wait too long until everything is right, everything ready, and you feel on top. You have to get on with forgiving someone even if you feel terrible, to care about someone even if you feel tired and worn out, to get up in the morning when you simply want a duvet day. However, sometimes, and perhaps now is that time, we need simply to wait for the resources to be available.
People’s experience of the Holy Spirit is as varied as people. There was a huge emphasis a few years ago on what some people found strange. They were experiences that shaped the early church, ‘prophesy’, ‘speaking in tongues’, ‘signs and wonders’. In a way the Church got distracted by them – they stopped being ‘signs’ pointing towards something and became something in themselves. As if all the race enthusiasts set up their picnic hampers at the large traffic signs to Epsom Downs and didn’t actually get to see the races! What makes something wonderful is not that it is strange, or inexplicable – but that it is from God even if, in our view, it is quite ordinary. I wonder if we would be better focusing on the consequences of God’s gifts so we put them into perspective! (Galatians 5:22-23)
The experience people have of receiving God’s Holy Spirit may be difficult to describe – but the consequences are extraordinary and in some ways more wonderfully ordinary. People feel loved, valued and precious. They gain strength to love others, journey through hurts and old wounds and ‘be there’ for people in new ways. Attachments to ‘things’ and ‘ambitions’ and unhelpful longings are diminished as the power that made the universe takes an increasingly important place in their hearts and minds. We are restored, healed and forgiven.
God transforms us by the Holy Spirit. The creative force of the Universe that we know through Jesus continues the work of creation, and God’s loving desire to make us whole and happy. The Spirit of God that is ‘for us’ helps us to become the people who are ‘for others’.
Now there is for me a temptation to either ‘wait until I’m OK’ before I try and do anything new, or ironically, to rush in and get on with it’ and be braver and harder working, and less of a wimp. However, at my wisest – I know that there is a rhythm – a moment to have a go, a moment to wait to be filled.
Let us wait a little for God’s Spirit to blow through our Church and our community, and turn little sparks of light into warm fires of love. Let us be brave to give the creative force of the Universe space in our hearts and minds to help us become the women and the men we were designed to be. Let us be like sprinters in the blocks – waiting – but waiting ready to go and be part of God’s work of creation and healing!
Come Lord Jesus Come!
Reflecting ... , April 2015
First I would like to thank you all for the cards, flowers, chocolate and messages of love that have been sent while I have been off sick. I’m not very sociable when I feel ill, so thank you too, for not hassling me and for allowing me the space I have needed to recover.
It has been said that you cannot experience spring until you first experience winter and I’m certain that many of us are happily soaking up these first sunny days of spring and rejoicing at the sight of the buds on the trees, the sounds of increased activity and song among the birds and the flowers bursting into colourful displays in the gardens and verges. There are many times in our own lives when, no matter what the season, it feels like winter; when we experience bereavement, face a serious illness-either ours or that of someone we love-or maybe when something happens that causes a change in our circumstances, even if it’s an expected one, such as a child starting school or leaving home. These things, and many others can make us feel cold, lonely, bereft, as if winter has come. For some, it doesn’t take much to upset the balance of life so much that it begins to feel like C.S. Lewis’ land of Narnia where it is always winter and never even reaches Christmas.
In a similar way it has also been said, that you cannot truly experience Easter and the joy of Resurrection Sunday, until you first experience Lent. In the last few weeks each one of us has been on a Lenten journey, each in different ways; some will have done extra things, some will have given up things, but each of us will have journeyed with Jesus towards Jerusalem and the cross.
Many of us will have used this journey as an opportunity to take stock of who we are, maybe even looking through the shadowy places within ourselves and facing some of those things that we try and hide- things that hinder our relationship with God, with ourselves, and with those around us. Hopefully every one of us will have allowed God, through our prayers and studies, to take away those things that trouble us most, our doubts, sorrow, helplessness, anger, pride, extravagance and fear. And I am certain, deep within me that this year, maybe more than in previous years, many of us are truly anticipating the return of the light, warmth, colour and joy that comes with the end of Lent and the celebration of Easter resurrection.
What I have learned during my own Lent reflections this year is that it is much easier to talk about loss and desolation when one’s experience of that is confined to a story, in the Bible, which took place 2000 years ago. It is quite another matter to talk or write about these things when you are in the grip of sadness or desolation yourself. The disciples’ experience becomes more real and earthed in the present when personal grief or pain is still raw and occupying so much of one’s daily thoughts.
It has never occurred to me as deeply before, that the move from the desolation of loss on Good Friday to the joy of Resurrection on Easter Sunday is an almost impossible one to make. After all, how can any human make that jump in three days?
When this year I looked more carefully at the account of the Resurrection in Luke’s gospel, I found that, indeed, none of Jesus' followers could make that jump easily either. When they encountered evidence of the Resurrection complete with empty tomb and angels, they were frightened, perplexed, confused and even amazed at what they saw.
What I didn’t find, is immediate belief and faith. This it appears takes time to develop and come to terms with. In order to say that ‘yes’ to Resurrection faith, they first had to say ‘no’ to the grip of desolation and death, that held them fast. It all takes time, and different amounts of time from one person to another, because then, just as now, no two human reactions to a situation are quite the same. The gospel stories tend to speed up this process, but if you read them carefully you find, reassuringly in my opinion, plenty of hesitation and doubt in evidence amongst the followers of Jesus.
Of course we have an advantage over those first witnesses of Resurrection. We now know the end of the story. We understand that we serve a risen Saviour in Jesus Christ. We know where to look for hope in the middle of our desolation, our grief. We know where to turn, to feel the warmth of the sun again, in the midst of our winter experiences.
It was the experience of the disciples and it is our experience too, that eventually in Christ, grief and despair always give way as Resurrection breaks in. Winter will end and spring will always return- this is the wonder of our faith, this is our hope.
The overwhelming message of resurrection hope during this, and every other Easter, is that Christ died so that we might live, but no longer live for ourselves. He died that we might live for something bigger, that we might have life in all its fullness. The power of the Resurrection enables each one of us to transform a bleak today into a brighter tomorrow.
We should use that God given resurrection hope, which has been entrusted to us, just as those first disciples, to transform the world around us. When those around us grow weary and can only see winter, when they think it is finished, we can say with renewed vigour, No! NO! He is alive! We can show them the warmth of God’s love surrounding them, even in their darkest moments and remind them that spring will come again.
May we, this Easter, have renewed confidence in that hope. May we claim it for ourselves, may we claim it for those we know and love and may the power of Easter morning enable us all in renewed faith and great deeds.
Happy Easter and God Bless
He is Risen
On Easter Day we will say, ‘Christ is risen’ and hear the bold response, ‘He is risen indeed’. We will be part of a Christian community that has shared such a response for over two thousand years. Our Faith Community rests on the validity of this claim, an historical fact and a present reality (I Corinthians 5:17). Christ is not only a teacher from long ago but he is the way we encounter God as a personal and loving God in the present. We used to sing when I was a child, ‘He lives, he lives, Christ Jesus lives today, he walks with me, he talks with me, along life’s narrow way.….. you ask me how I know he lives, ‘he lives within my heart’.
In what way is this true for us today?
You can only really answer this for yourself, but here is part of my answer.
I have to begin with this and simply say that Jesus Christ is a reality in my own life. He is, ‘within my heart’. When I was a young person I simply asked Jesus to, ‘come into my life’. I had the image of Holman Hunt’s Light of the World Holman Hunt picture in St Paul’s standing outside the door of my heart (Revelation 3:20). I understood the significance of the door that could only be opened from inside. I can’t claim this was the simple beginning of my journey of faith – but it is significant to me even now. I wasn’t just a Christian because my parents were, ‘God has no grandchildren’, I wanted to be a Christian in my own right. Jesus honoured that invitation and has been present in my life as a source of insight, courage, affection, encouragement, reprimand and, unless it’s just my imagination, also as a kind friend with the ability to gently laugh and make fun of me in my more pompous or self destructive moments.
Where two or three are gathered.
The promise of Jesus that he is with us when we gather, ‘in his name’, is a substantial promise that I know for myself (Matthew 18:20). The love, wisdom, challenge and hope of people who gather are the substance of my knowing Christ in so many ways. ‘In the Name’ is of course not a magical formulation – it is a statement of relationship, one of trust and obedience, and where I have been with others who are doing their best to follow him, then his presence has been the heart of the meeting itself. As I have grown older in faith I have increasingly wanted to add, ‘and especially where we break bread and share wine’. The communion of the Methodist Church may be rather straightforward and simple, but the reality of what Charles Wesley calls, ‘the real presence’ puts our meeting in his name onto a substantially new level.
When God’s Word is studied.
I’m fond of challenging very literal and dogmatic claims of Scripture with the reminder that in John’s Gospel we are told that the Word of God isn’t a book, however holy, but a person – the ‘Logos’ that was in
the beginning with God and was God (John 1:1). But the Bible, recording as it does, humanity’s search for God, and God’s search for humanity points to and reveals the real person of Jesus (Psalm 119:105).
Without the Bible my experience, ‘within my heart’ would be unrecognizable, no more perhaps than a flight of fancy. With Scripture my encounter with Jesus, ‘within my heart’ and ‘where two or three are gathered’ is given authenticity and substance.
When I struggle to follow.
The angels tell the disciples, ‘he is not here, he is risen and gone before you into Galilee’ (Mark 6:7). The Jesus who breaks out of the tomb is not confined by the Church, or limited to profound personal experience. Jesus is risen – he is out there getting on with the things that Jesus gets on with. He is alongside the poor, the sad, the rejected and the angry. You meet him as you follow. Indeed my early response to ‘accept in my heart’ isn’t half as biblical as John Vincent’s ‘follow him with your feet’.
If you want to know Jesus – go where he goes, do what he does, get cross about things he gets cross about, and love the world he has come to heal.
I am looking forward to the drama of Easter – walking through it with our various services and activities. I look forward to Easter Day and for the first time saying to you as a congregation, ‘Christ is risen!’ I look forward to you replying with confidence and happiness, ‘He is risen indeed’. My prayer is that we will get to know him better, love him more, and follow him more eagerly as this ancient claim keeps on proving its truth through our experience together.