Down in Yon Forest

Here is a new 2014 recording of the old Appalachian carol ‘Down in Yon Forest’; this is my Christmas song for 2014 and comes to you with my love and best wishes and prayers for a wonderful Christmas for you and yours. If you have not already received it in your email inbox, please feel free to visit the Reverberation site below and take advantage of the free download.

This song is a descendant of the old English ‘Corpus Christi Carol’ or ‘Falcon Carol’ (the original dates back to at least 1506, when it was discovered by a clerk named Richard Hall). This particular version of it was collected in North Carolina in the early 1900s by the folk song collector John Jacob Niles.

Hope you enjoy it, and have a wonderful Christmas.

‘Cast Away the Works of Darkness’ (a sermon for the first Sunday of Advent)

We’re in the middle of a season of getting ready right now, and if you’re taking your cues from the retail industry, your mind has been on Christmas since before Remembrance Day. The joys of Christmas are on everyone’s mind, of course: presents to buy, cards to send, parties to arrange, visits to plan, food to prepare, turkeys to stuff and so on. Personally, I love Advent and Christmas, so I’m a sucker for this time of year.

However, if we’re taking our cues from the scriptures and from our church calendar, there’s another type of preparedness that should also be on our minds. It tends to get lost these days, because the Christmas season starts earlier and earlier, and so we forget that Advent is not the same as Christmas. Advent isn’t just about looking forward to the manger at Bethlehem, and the shepherds and the wise men and the little drummer boy. In Advent we’re not just putting ourselves back into the Old Testament and looking forward to the coming of the Messiah; we’re looking forward to our own future, too. The Creed says, ‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end’. The Christian church teaches us that if there’s a judgement coming, then it’s wise to spend some time getting ready for it. And it’s wise not to put it off; usually it’s not smart to start your studying for the final exam the night before!

This Advent, when I’m preaching, I want to spend some time thinking with you about the prayers we pray each Sunday. We call them ‘collects’, because they collect together the themes of our scriptures into short little prayers that we can easily memorize. It used to be the tradition in the Anglican Church that the Collect for the First Sunday of Advent was repeated on every Sunday of the Advent season until Christmas Eve, and so it was especially easy to memorize, as you heard it again and again through the four weeks of Advent, year after year. I’m going to read it to you again, but I’m going to use the version found in the old Book of Common Prayer, which is slightly different from our B.A.S. version.

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, now and ever. Amen. (BCP)

This prayer helps us think about two questions, and you might at first think they’re a little strange. The first question is, ‘What time is it?’ We have to answer that one first, because the second depends on it: ‘Okay, given the time, what should we be doing about it?’

The answer to the question ‘What time is it?’ is ‘It’s in-between time’. In between what? In between two comings of Jesus. The Collect describes them for us. There’s his first coming, which of course is the theme of Christmas; the Collect refers to this as ‘the time of this mortal life, in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility’. Viewed chronologically, of course, that coming is behind us, in the past. But there’s another coming, which is still ahead, on ‘the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the living and the dead’, the time when ‘we may rise to the life immortal’. The Collect contrasts these two comings: long ago, Jesus came to visit us ‘in great humility’, but when he comes again, it will be ‘in glorious majesty’. Furthermore, at his first coming, he entered ‘this mortal life’, but at his second coming we will ‘rise to the life immortal’.

What does the Collect teach us about these two comings? One of the reasons I like the old prayer book version is that it uses the word ‘visit’. The B.A.S. says ‘when your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility’, but the prayer book has ‘in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility’.

Why is this important? Well, if you read the Bible, especially in the King James Version, you’ll notice that a visit from God is always a significant thing. He never shows up empty-handed; he always brings something with him. It might be plague and suffering and judgement, or it might be blessing and salvation. So in Jeremiah 9:9 the Lord sees all the wickedness of his people and says, ‘Shall I not visit them for these things, says the Lord? Shall not my soul be avenged on such a nation as this?’ And in Ruth 1:6 old Naomi hears that the famine is over in Israel, because the Lord has visited his people and given them bread.

So what’s this visit at Christmas time all about? Well, in Luke 1:68 old Zechariah reflects on it; he says, ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people’, or, in a modern version, ‘he has come to his people and set them free’. This is definitely a visit to bring blessing. This is a wonderful visit!

But how did he come? The Collect says, ‘in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility’. This reminds me of what Paul has to say in the second chapter of his letter to the Philippians:

‘Let this mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross’ (vv.5-8).

This is what Christmas is about: Jesus shares the divine nature – he is equal with God – but he lays aside all his divine prerogatives. The one through whom all things were created humbles himself to become part of his creation; the one who is immortal by nature puts on mortality, and goes on to become obedient to the point of death on a cruel cross. And he does all this out of love, to serve his creation, to show us what God is like, to show us God’s will for our human life, and to deliver us from sin and death.

So we stand in time after this first great event; we live on what C.S. Lewis calls ‘the visited planet’. But we also look forward to a future event. The collect speaks of ‘the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the living and the dead’.

This is a message of hope. We live, as human beings have almost always lived, in a time when the power of evil seems enormous. I’m not just talking about the fact that terrorists can behead people or fly aircraft into tall buildings and kill thousands of people in one go. I’m talking about the fact that the world economic system seems to be set up in such a way as to provide cheap goods to the richest people on the planet, while denying the poorest people on the planet the right to a fair living wage. I’m talking about the fact that in the average multinational corporation the highest paid individual in the company earns more than three hundred times what the lowest paid individual earns. I’m talking about the fact that the single most common category of websites on the Internet is pornography.

These are just a few of the symptoms of the power of evil in the world today. In the face of such great evil, I’m always surprised when people tell me that they don’t like the message of God’s judgement. Surely the message of God’s judgement brings hope! It tells us that the day is going to come when God will bring this evil to an end. God cares! He cares about the children who have been stolen from their homes and forced to become child soldiers; he cares about the children who never had a chance because they were born in refugee camps where there was never enough food to go around; he cares about the people who spend their lives slaving away for starvation wages growing cash crops for people who live thousands of miles away.

God is not prepared for this state of affairs to continue. As we heard in last Sunday’s gospel, the day will come when the king will sit on his glorious throne and gather the nations before him, and he will separate them into two groups as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. On one side will be those who recognized Jesus in the hungry and thirsty, in those who have no clothes to wear, in those who are sick or are refugees or immigrants or prisoners; their conduct will be affirmed and rewarded. On the other side will be those who had the opportunity to do good for all these people and refused to do so; their conduct will be judged.

This is our Advent hope: that the last word will not go to the forces of cruelty and hatred, selfishness and prejudice. The last word will go to God, and Jesus would seem to indicate that the vital evidence of our faith in him will be practical love. And so the Kingdom of God which Jesus proclaimed will be the only reality in God’s creation, and the prayer we have prayed for the last two thousand years will finally be fully answered: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

So this is the in-between time we live in. We look back on that first coming, when God’s Son Jesus Christ ‘came to visit us in great humility’. And we look forward to ‘the last day, when he will come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead’. On that day, every one of us hopes to be among the number of the saints who will ‘rise to the life immortal’, as the prayer says.

So as we look back on Christ’s first coming and look forward to the day when ‘he will come again to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end, what should we be doing’? The prayer says, ‘Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and put upon us the armour of light’. What’s that all about?

When Archbishop Thomas Cranmer wrote this prayer for the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549, it was immediately followed by an epistle reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 13, verses 8-14. Here it is in full:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

So you can see where Cranmer got the language about casting away the works of darkness and putting on the armour of light. I like the way the New Living Translation puts it: ‘So remove your dark deeds like dirty clothes, and put on the shining armour of right living’.

The dirty clothes are plain enough: again, here they are in the New Living Translation: ‘Don’t participate in the darkness of wild parties and drunkenness, or in sexual promiscuity and immoral living, or in quarrelling and jealousy…Don’t let yourself think about ways to indulge your evil desires’ (vv. 13b, 14b). But the armour turns out to be a bit of a surprise. ‘Armour’ is a military image, so we might think of it as being something like courage, or strength, or self-discipline. But once again, what Paul actually focuses on is love. All the commandents, he says, ‘are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbour as yourself”. Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law’ (vv.9-10).

We’re back with the sheep and the goats, aren’t we? As Bishop Jane reminded us last week, the sheep are the ones who notice the suffering of others, and then do what they can to help. Love isn’t just a warm fuzzy and it’s definitely not just words; it’s being there for others, spending time with them, doing what we can to be a blessing to them, whether we especially like them or not, whether we feel like it or not. This is what God is like; the Old Testament talks about his chesed, a Hebrew word that our New Revised Standard Version translates excellently as his ‘steadfast love’. I like that word ‘steadfast’: love with muscles on it, love you can depend on, love that’s unconditional, love that never gives up. That’s what we’re called to imitate.

Shall we pray this prayer through the Advent season? Shall we remember how God’s Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility? Shall we look forward to the day when he will come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead? Shall we ask God to help us to cast away the works of darkness like dirty old clothes, and put on the new life of steadfast love? Are you ready to pray that prayer, and to expect God to answer it?

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, now and ever. Amen.

Clive Staples Lewis (November 29th 1898 – November 22nd 1963)

(Repost from last year, slightly adapted)

On this day fifty-one years ago, the great C.S. Lewis died.

Because of the assassination of President Kennedy on the same day, the death of Lewis has always been somewhat overshadowed. Far be it from me to downplay Kennedy and what he stood for, but for me, Lewis was by far the more influential man.

In the early 1990s I lent a United Church minister friend a copy of Lewis’ Mere Christianity; when he gave it back to me, he said, “Do you have any idea how much this man has influenced you?” Mere Christianity came along at just the right time for me; I was seventeen and had begun to feel the lack of a rigorous intellectual basis for my faith. In this book, Lewis gave me just that. I went on to read pretty well everything he had written, including the various editions of his letters which seem to me to contain some of the best common-sense spiritual direction I’ve ever read. I’ve parted company with Lewis on a few issues (pacifism, Conservative politics, the ordination of women), but for the most part I still consider him to be one of the most reliable guides available to a rigorous, full-orbed, common-sense Christianity.

Lewis was a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and, later, of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and in his professional career he taught English literature. Brought up in Ireland in a conventionally religious home, he became an atheist in his teens. Later, in his late twenties and early thirties, he gradually came back to Christianity (he told the story himself in his book Surprised by Joy) and went on to become a popular writer and speaker on Christian faith. He claimed for himself Richard Baxter’s phrase ‘Mere Christianity’; although he lived and died entirely content to be a member of the Church of England (‘neither especially high, nor especially low, nor especially anything else’, as he said in his introduction to Mere Christianity), he had no interest in interdenominational controversy, preferring to serve as an apologist for the things that most Christians have in common.

Nowadays evangelicals (especially in the United States) have claimed Lewis as a defender of a rigorous Christian orthodoxy (despite the fact that he did not believe in the inerrancy of the Bible and was an enthusiastic smoker and imbiber of alcoholic beverages). Likewise, Roman Catholics have sometimes pointed out that many fans of Lewis have gone on to convert to Roman Catholicism (something he himself never did, because he believed that Roman Catholicism itself had parted company on some issues with the faith of the primitive church), and have resorted to blaming his Irish Protestant background as somehow giving him a phobia about Catholicism that made it psychologically impossible for him to convert to Rome. Lewis himself, I believe, would not have approved of these attempts to press him into the service of advancing a particular Christian tradition or denomination. I believe we should take him at his word: he was an Anglican by conviction, but was most comfortable with the label ‘Christian’.

What about his books? Well, there are many of them! In his professional discipline of literary criticism he wrote several influential books, including The Allegory of Love (on the medieval allegorical love poem), The Discarded Image (an introduction to the world view of medieval and renaissance writers), An Experiment in Criticism (in which he examines what exactly it means to take pleasure from reading a book), A Preface to Paradise Lost (in which he introduces us to one of his favourite works of literature, John Milton’s famous poem Paradise Lost), and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama (this is only a selection of his works of literary criticism).

Turning to his more specifically ‘Christian’ works, in The Screwtape Letters Lewis gave us an imaginary series of letters from a senior to a junior demon on the art of temptation; along the way, as Lewis intended, we get some penetrating insights into practical, unpretentious, daily holiness. Miracles and The Problem of Pain are intellectual defences of Christian truth (the first examining the question of whether miracles are possible, the second dealing with the issue of evil and the goodness of God). Reflections on the Psalms is a series of meditations on the issues raised by the psalms (including an excellent chapter on the ‘cursing’ psalms), while Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer gives us accurate guidance on what a life of prayer is really all about. In the ‘Narnia’ stories and the Space Trilogy, Lewis baptizes our imagination, using the genre of fairy story and science fiction to present Christian truth in a fresh and compelling way. And in Mere Christianity he presents his case for the truth of Christianity and a good explanation of its central ideas.

These are just a few of his books; there are many websites that give exhaustive lists.

This website by Lewis’ publishers is of course focussed on trying to sell books – Lewis’ own books, collections of his writings published since his death, and many of the books that have been since written about him. Personally, I like Into the Wardrobe better; it isn’t trying to sell me anything, but includes a biography, a collection of papers, articles, and archives, and some excellent links.

Since his death Lewis has become almost a cult figure, especially in the U.S., and the number of books and articles about him continues to grow. He himself was uncomfortable with the trappings of fame, and I believe he would have been horrified with the growth of the C.S. Lewis ‘industry’ today. It seems to me that the best way to observe the  anniversary of his death is to go back to his books, read them again (or perhaps for the first time), ponder what he had to say, and pray that his work will lead us closer to Christ, as he would have wanted.

Rest in peace and rise in glory, Jack. And thank you.


Are we failing at our primary mission?

The thing that troubles me the most about the condition of the Christian church in 2014 is not our conflicts over gay marriage, or the fact that despite the best efforts of our most knowledgable liturgists we still haven’t managed to produce a liturgy that’s good enough to satisfy their perfectionism. It’s not the fact that most of our members appear to be too busy for anything more than Sunday church attendance once or twice a month, although I confess I find that irritating. It’s not even the fact that we seem to be unable to connect with younger generations in anything more than a superficial way, although I admit that this worries me a great deal.

No, the thing that troubles me most of all is that we appear to be failing across the board at our primary mission of forming disciples for Jesus.

I’m not talking about evangelism here – although I think that for the most part we’re failing at that too. I’m taking about what we do with people after we evangelize them. What happens to a person in our churches after they decide to put their faith in Christ? Or, if we want to put it in terms that most timid mainline churchgoers will find more congenial, after a person decides to become a churchgoer, what’s our plan for forming them as disciples of Jesus?

I take it that we can define a disciple as a person who makes it their primary mission in life to put the teaching and example of Jesus into practice. And I also take it that one of the clearest discipleship manuals in the New Testament is the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew chapters five, six, and seven, where Jesus spells out exactly what the daily lives of his followers are meant to look like.

Well, let’s take a hop, skip, and jump through those chapters. The Sermon tells us not to lay up for ourselves treasures on earth, but it appears to me that we North American Christians lay up for ourselves treasures on earth at exactly the same rate as those who do not claim to be followers of Jesus. The Sermon tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who hate us, but it seems to me that we North American Christians hate our enemies and act toward them in just the same manner as non-Christians do. The Sermon tells us to avoid divorce, but divorce statistics for North American Christians are practically identical to non-Christians. The Sermon tells us to influence the world around us like salt and light, but I would suggest that most of us are far more likely to let the world around us influence us.

I could go on, but I won’t. Have a look for yourself, and ask yourself how your church is doing.

We Anglicans pride ourselves on our liturgies and we have made corporate worship the centre of our life; that’s why the thing we seem to want more than anything else is to get people to come to church, and why success in our eyes appears to consist of persuading more people to join us for worship. But my question is, if our worship is so wonderful, why isn’t it forming us as disciples of Jesus? It may be inspiring us, giving us a shot in the arm, but is it helping us become people whose lives remind others of the Sermon on the Mount? And if not, what are we doing wrong?

Please note that I am including myself in this criticism. I’ve made preaching the primary task of my ministry, and I like to think I do a conscientious job of it. But the older I get, the less confident I am becoming that listening to a fifteen or twenty minute expository sermon on Sunday is actually transforming people into more consistent Christian disciples. And I’m not convinced that putting on more midweek courses will do it either; my experience in churchland is that the vast majority of churchgoers can’t – or won’t – make the time to attend them.

So is there a way to do this? This is a genuine question. Where are the churches that are doing a decent job of forming their members into growing disciples of Jesus – people who are putting the teaching and example of Jesus into practice in their daily lives? And if you know of such a church, what are they actually doing to make this happen? I’m asking this out of intense personal interest. I turned fifty-six earlier this month, so God willing, I have about ten years of full-time ministry left in me. I would like those years to be fruitful years. I would like to use them as effectively as I can to help form people as disciples of Jesus. But I’m not at all sure that the ways I’m attempting to do that job at the moment are as effective as I’d like. So I would like to hear about places where it’s being done, and being done well.

Can anyone help me?

St. Margaret of Scotland (a sermon for Nov. 16th 2014)

Scripture referred to is Luke 10:25-42.


Many of you will have heard me tell the story of Queen Margaret of Scotland in years past. Some of you, however, have joined us since the last time we did this, and many of you will have been away on this Sunday in previous years, for one reason or another. So I’m going to briefly tell the story again this morning, and then I’m going to lay it beside our gospel reading for today, to draw some lessons for us as we join Margaret in following our Lord Jesus Christ.

Margaret died on November 16th 1093, nine hundred and twenty-one years ago today. She was a member of the aristocracy, and she came into a position of great influence as Queen of Scotland, but she is not remembered today because she was a person of power; rather, we remember her as a person who lived a balanced life of prayer and service to others.

Margaret was the granddaughter of the English king Edmund Ironside, but because of dynastic disputes she was born in Hungary, in the year 1047. She had one brother, Edgar, and a sister, Christian, and many people in England saw her brother Edgar as the rightful heir to the throne of England. In 1054 the parliament of England decided to bring the family back from Hungary so that they could inherit the throne when King Edward the Confessor died, as Edward had no children. So Edgar, Christian and Margaret were brought up at the Anglo-Saxon court under the supervision of Benedictine monks and nuns.

The influence of these Benedictines was tremendously important in Margaret’s life. She learned from them the importance of balancing times of prayer and times of working for the good of others; this would be a good description of her later life as Queen of Scotland. They taught her to read the scriptures in Latin, and she also knew the teachings of the church fathers from the early Christian centuries. Her sister Christian went on to become a Benedictine nun herself.

Eventually King Edward the Confessor died, and soon afterwards William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066 and claimed the throne for himself, so Margaret’s brother Edgar didn’t get to become king after all. Edgar and his sisters were advised to go back to Hungary for their own safety. However, the ship carrying the three young people was blown far off course by a fierce gale. They spent some time in northern England and then sailed up the coast to the Firth of Forth in Scotland, where King Malcolm gave them a warm welcome to his court at Dunfermline – a little more rustic, perhaps, than the English court, but I’m sure they were glad of the hospitality.

Margaret was now about twenty years old; King Malcolm was forty, and unmarried, and he soon became attracted to young Margaret. However, she took a lot of persuading; she was more inclined to become a nun, and Malcolm had a stormy temperament, despite his other virtues. It was only after long consideration that Margaret agreed to marry him, and their wedding took place in the year 1070, when she was twenty-three. In the end, although she was so much younger than him, she was the one who changed him; under her influence, he became a much wiser and godlier king.

Margaret was now in a high position in society, and very wealthy according to the standard of the day, but she lived in the spirit of inward poverty. She didn’t see her possessions as really belonging to her; everything was to be used for the purposes of God. As Queen, she continued to live the ordered life of prayer and work that she had learned from the Benedictine monks. She was only the wife of the king, but she came to have the leading voice in making changes that affected both the social and the spiritual life of Scotland. She had this influence because of the depth of her husband’s love for her. Malcolm was strongly influenced by her godly character, so he tended to follow her advice a lot – not only for his own life, but also for the life of the church and people in Scotland. It’s actually quite remarkable that the Scots accepted the church reforms that this foreign queen proposed, but she herself lived such a simple and Christ-like life that they seemed to feel instinctively that her way must be a good way.

We’re told by her biographer that Margaret would begin each day with a prolonged time of prayer, especially praying the psalms. After this, orphan children would be brought to her, and she would prepare their food herself and serve it to them. It also became the custom that any destitute poor people would come every morning to the royal hall; when they were seated around it, then the King and Queen entered and ‘served Christ in the person of his poor’. Before they did this, they sent out of the room all other spectators except for the chaplains and a few attendants; they didn’t want to turn it into what modern politicians would refer to as ‘a photo opportunity’.

The church in Scotland at that time looked more to the old Celtic way of Christianity than to the way of Rome. Margaret had been raised in the way of Rome, and was keen to bring Scotland into unity with the rest of the world, but she didn’t do it in an overbearing and proselytizing way. She often visited the Celtic hermits in their lonely cells, offering them gifts, and caring for their churches. But she also held many conferences with the leaders of the Church, putting forward the Roman point of view about things. Eventually she convinced them, not because of the strength of her arguments so much as by the power of her holy life.

In those days many people in Scotland used to go on pilgrimages to see the relics of St. Andrew at the place now called ‘St. Andrew’s’, just north of the Firth of Forth. Margaret wanted to help the pilgrims, so she had little houses built on either shore of the sea that divided Lothian from Scotland, so that poor people and pilgrims could shelter there and rest after their journeys. She also provided ships to transport them across the water.

I think it’s fair to say that most people recognized as saints by the Catholic Church were monks and nuns who lived lives of celibacy, far removed from the demands of the world and the pressures of family life. Margaret, however, is remembered as having a happy family life. She had eight children, six sons and two daughters. Her oldest son Edward was killed in battle, Ethelred died young, and we’re told that Edmund didn’t turn out too well. But the three youngest, Edgar, Alexander, and David, are remembered among the best kings Scotland ever had. David I, the youngest son, had a peaceful reign of twenty-nine years in which he developed and extended the work his mother had begun. The two daughters, Matilda and Mary, were both brought up under the guidance of Margaret’s sister Christian in the Abbey of Romsey, and both went on to marry into the English royal family. All of them we’re told, were also taught to follow Christ first – although I find it a little reassuring that even a saintly parent like Margaret didn’t have a 100% success rate with her kids!

Margaret was not yet fifty when she died. As she lay dying, her son Edgar brought her the sad news that her husband and her oldest son had been killed in battle. Despite this grief, we’re told that her last words were of praise and thanksgiving to God, and her death was calm and tranquil.

So what does Margaret have to say to us today? To answer this question, I want to turn to our gospel reading, where we hear two famous stories about Jesus.

In the first story, a lawyer comes to Jesus and asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus says to him, “You’ve read the Law of Moses, haven’t you? What does it say?” The lawyer replies, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself” (Luke 10:27). “That’s it”, Jesus replies; “Do that, and you’ll live”.

“But who is my neighbour?” the lawyer replies – a funny question until you realize that his focus isn’t on helping other people, but on inheriting eternal life for himself. After all, if there are fifty people in his village and it turns out that only twenty of them are actually his neighbours, why should he go to all the effort of loving the other thirty? There’s nothing in it for him!

Jesus replies with the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan, about a man who is beaten up by robbers and left for dead on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. A priest and a Levite pass by on the other side and refuse to help him, but a Samaritan stops to help him, binds up his wounds and arranges medical care for him. “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” Jesus asked. The man replied, “The one who showed him mercy”. Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise” (vv.36-37).

I find it interesting that Jesus never actually answered the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbour?” What he did instead was to teach the lawyer how to be a neighbour. It’s not complicated; it just means walking through our day with our eyes wide open, so that we actually see the people in need around us and do what we can to help them. Nowadays, of course, with modern communications technology, we can ‘see’ a lot further, and so we have far more opportunities to help, but let’s remember that this is not just about giving money; it’s about being willing to be interrupted in the course of your day, and to invest your time in helping another human being.

This is what Margaret did. Her situation was very different from ours; she was the Queen of Scotland, we’re just ordinary people, working our jobs, raising the kids and grandkids, paying the mortgage, trying to put a bit of money in our RRSPs. But no matter whether we have power and influence or not, we’re all called to invest our time and resources in helping those who are less well off than we are. And let’s remember that the right question is not ‘Who is my neighbour?’ The right question is, ‘How can I be a good neighbour to those who need me?’

So Margaret undoubtedly sets us a good example of helping the needy. But that’s not the end of today’s gospel reading. Luke goes on to tell us the well-known story of Mary and Martha. They are sisters, and we know from John’s gospel that they live in the village of Bethany, near Jerusalem. Jesus comes to visit, he’s sitting in the living room with the people who’ve come to discuss things with him – probably, in that culture, all men. Martha is the capable host, she’s out in the kitchen getting everything ready to give Jesus the kind of meal he’ll remember for the rest of his life. But what’s Mary up to? She’s invaded the men’s space! She’s in the living room, sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to what he has to say. Eventually Martha gets frustrated and asks Jesus to tell her sister to smarten up. But Jesus refuses to do that; “Mary has chosen the better part”, he says, “which will not be taken away from her” (v.42).

There’s a time for doing, and being busy, but there’s also a time for sitting quietly and listening to Jesus. The Benedictine monks and nuns taught Margaret that balance: the day should include acts of mercy to the needy, but it should also include times of meditation and prayer. Today we live in an activist world, and I’d be surprised if the average amount of time spent in prayer per day in our church was more than about five minutes per person. So we need to recover that balance.

Speaking for myself, I can say that starting each day with a time of prayer together is a real blessing for Marci and me. We read scripture together and talk about it; we pray for family and friends, for people in our church, and for those who are in special need. We bring the work of the day before the Lord before the day starts. And doing it together helps to keep us steady in prayer; when you’re committed to praying together with someone else, you’re less likely to skip it because you ‘just don’t feel like it today’. Our time of prayer isn’t long – probably only about twenty minutes – but it sets the tone for the whole day.

So Margaret can remind us of the important of keeping things in balance. We’re called to follow Jesus in caring for the poor and needy, but we’re also called to spend time listening to God’s word and praying. Of course, there was a third thing for her too – the work of being a wife to Malcolm and a mother to their eight children, which was no doubt a demanding job as well. These three things are all part for our lives as Christians today, too: providing for our families, caring for the poor and needy, and spending time in scripture reading and prayer.

How is that balance in your life? Does it need a little adjusting? Why not pray about that, and ask God to guide you about getting a better balance?

So let’s remember with thanksgiving today our patron saint, Margaret, a woman of prayer, a woman who lived a holy life, a woman who loved her family and served the poor, a woman who used her influence in a Christlike way to do good for all people. As a congregation, let us pray that God will give us the strength by his Holy Spirit to live up to the name we bear. Amen.

What I Will Remember on Remembrance Day

This is a repost from last year; I thought of writing something new, but realized that this still says what I want to say.

386302_10150434245270400_1399354246_nRemembrance Day is often promoted these days as a day to remember the sacrifices of military personnel who served our country in time of war.

In fact, the original Armistice Day, after World War One (the ‘Great War’ which was also called, optimistically, ‘the War to end all wars’), had a wider focus; it was a thanksgiving that the guns had fallen silent after four years of butchery and carnage on a scale the world had never seen before, and a silent remembrance of all who had lost their lives, military or civilian. It was also a day to pray fervently for peace and to commit oneself to a simple message: ‘Never Again!’

So on Remembrance Day this year there will be many things I will remember.

First and foremost, of course, I will remember family members who were impacted by the ravages of war.

I will remember my grandfather, George Edgar Chesterton (1895-1963), who served with the Leicestershire Tigers from 1914-18. He was eventually captured and spent eighteen months as a P.O.W. before returning home after the armistice.

I will remember my Dad’s uncle, Charles Hodkinson (1912-1941), shot down and killed in a bomber over the Netherlands in 1941.

I will remember my great grand uncle, Horace Arthur Thornton (1896-1917), killed in action in France July 27th 1917.

I will remember Brian Edgar Fogerty (1924-1941), related to me through my grandfather’s sister, who served in the merchant navy during WW2 and died at sea Feb. 22nd 1941; he was just 17.

I will remember Brian’s uncles, Harold Edgar Fogerty (1892-1919) and Edward Ernest Vernon Fogerty (1901-1920), both of whom served in the Great War. They died of illnesses after the war ended, but are remembered on the war memorial in Cheltenham because it is felt that war injuries contributed to their deaths.

I will remember the many other relatives who served in the military in the two great world wars of the twentieth century, many of whom would never speak of their experiences when they returned, and lived with the trauma for the rest of their lives.

I will also remember the brave men and women who served in the enemy armies, many of whom were conscripted and had no choice unless they were willing to be shot. I will remember the people who died because of the bombs my Dad’s uncle Charles dropped. I will remember the U-Boat men who fired the torpedoes that killed Brian Fogerty; the U-Boat arm had the highest casualty incidence of any unit of the German military in WW2, and I expect that most of them died in terror as they heard the explosions of depth charges getting closer and closer; no doubt those who were religious prayed that God would save them, just as my relatives prayed to be saved.

I will remember the civilians whose lives were lost in carpet bombing: in the Blitz in London and other cities in Britain, in the fire-bombing of Dresden, in the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I will remember the residents of the towns and cities of Europe, Africa, and Asia, whose homes became battlegrounds and who lost everything they had, including (in millions of cases) their lives. I will remember the millions of children who became orphans, many of whom were institutionalized for the rest of their lives.

I will remember the ridiculous sibling rivalry between King Edward VII and Kaiser Wilhelm I, which was a primary cause of the arms race between their two countries in the lead up to World War I, and thus arguably contributed to the outbreak of the war. Britain and Germany had no history of aggression, but the Kaiser wanted battleships like his cousin King Edward, and the only excuse he could offer was to create the illusion that Britain was a threat to him. On such stupidity hung the lives of millions of young men.

I will remember the millions of people in eastern Europe who were condemned to forty years of communist tyranny because Britain and the U.S.A. needed the support of Russia to win the Second World War. Our nation’s victory was thus won on the backs of the freedom of millions; who were the ‘winners’ here?

I will remember the lies that have been told to justify war, from the lie that Polish soldiers had invaded Germany and killed men at a border post in 1939 (told by Hitler to justify his invasion of Poland) to the lie that Iran had weapons of mass destruction. I will also remember the appalling arrogance of western nations who assume that we have the right to impose our ideas of government on people who obviously do not want them.

I will remember how the words of my Lord Jesus Christ, ”greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”, have been taken out of the context in which he spoke them – in which he was about to lay down his life without resisting, loving his enemies and praying for those who hated him – and have been used to honour and glorify the deaths of those who were killed while they were fighting and killing others.

I will remember all of this on Remembrance Day. I will pray that this madness will end, that human beings may find better ways to resolve their conflicts than sending young men out to butcher each other, and that those who profit from war will have their eyes opened to their own wickedness, and repent. And I will pray that the Christian Church throughout the world may be alive to the call it has received from its master, to love our enemies and pray for those who hate us.

And, as always, I will find Wilfred Owen’s immortal poem ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ to be a penetrating aid to true remembrance of what war is all about:

Dulce Et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

– Wilfred Owen, 1917

Be Ready (a sermon for November 9th on Matthew 25:1-13)

I’m not sure how many of you have seen the movie ‘Almost an Angel’ which stars Paul Hogan of ‘Crocodile Dundee’ fame. His character is a bank robber who gets knocked down by a car in the act of saving a little girl’s life. When he comes face to face with God in the afterlife, God says to him “You aren’t very religious, are you?” He replies, “I was planning to get very religious just before I died!” The problem, of course, is that he has died unexpectedly, without time to put his plan into effect. He was not ready.

The three parables in Matthew 25 all have to do with readiness. We might sum them up with three titles. The first parable, in verses 1-13, could be called ‘Be Ready’. The second, in verses 14-30, deals with using our gifts for the Kingdom, and we might entitle it ‘Be Faithful Stewards’. The third, in verses 31-46, is the well-known parable of the Sheep and the Goats, which we might call ‘Be a Neighbour to Those in Need’.

So today we want to look at this first parable: ‘Be Ready’. And we need to start by thinking about the wedding customs in the time of Jesus, because they were very different from our own. A wedding was a great occasion and the whole village turned out to accompany the couple to their new home. The procession would take the longest possible route so that the couple could receive the good wishes of as many people as possible. The newly married couple didn’t go away for a honeymoon; instead, they kept open house for a week, and invited all their relatives, friends and neighbours to join the celebration. There was feasting all week long – which, of course, is why the wine ran out when Jesus attended the wedding in Cana in John 2.

A man called Alexander Finlay witnessed a wedding in Palestine in the early years of the twentieth century. Here’s how he describes it:

‘When we were approaching the gates of a Galilean town I caught a sight of ten maidens gaily clad and playing some kind of musical instrument, as they danced along the road in front of our car; when I asked what they were doing, the guide told me that they were going to keep the bride company till her bridegroom arrived. I asked him if there was any chance of seeing the wedding, but he shook his head, saying in effect “It might be tonight, or tomorrow night, or in two weeks’ time; nobody ever knows for certain”. Then he went on to explain that one of the great things to do, if you could, at a middle class wedding in Palestine was to catch the bridal party napping. So the bridegroom comes unexpectedly, and sometimes in the middle of the night… so the bridal party has to be ready to go out onto the street at any time to meet him, whenever he chooses to come… Other important points are that no one is allowed on the streets after dark without a lighted lamp, and also that, when the bridegroom has once arrived, and the door has been shut, late-comers to the ceremony are not admitted’.

This gives us some real insight into what is going on here in Jesus’ story. The ten bridesmaids are waiting for the bridegroom to come, but his arrival is delayed. Five of them are prepared for that delay, but five are not.

It’s not difficult to read the main thrust of what Jesus is saying here. In the Gospels he often refers to the Kingdom of God as a wedding feast, with himself as the bridegroom. There will come a day, he teaches us – and no one knows when it will come – a day when he will come to take his bride, the Church, and carry her off to celebrate their wedding feast. As it says in Revelation 19:9 ‘Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb’. And again in chapter 21:2: ‘And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband’. The bridesmaids in Jesus’ parable are Christian people, or at least church members. Half of them are prepared for his coming, but half are not.

Why are they not ready? It’s not hard to understand this. A certain segment of the early church seems to have believed that what we often call ‘the second coming of Jesus’ would happen very quickly, within a few years of his Ascension. With this in mind the Church was very conscious of the decisiveness of the present moment; Christians lived every day with the thought that ‘It could be today!’ But as the years went by this hope began to fade, and some began to question it altogether. This is the situation Peter is confronting in his second letter when he writes:

‘In the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and indulging their own lusts and saying, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation”’ (2 Peter 3:3-4).

And if people felt that way in the time of Peter, how much more do we feel that way today after two thousand years of Church history!

But in fact the early Christians should not have been surprised at the delay, and neither should we. Jesus foretells it quite clearly in this parable. In verse 5 he says ‘the bridegroom was delayed’. But not everyone is prepared for the delay. Some Christians have signed on for the long haul and are prepared to be faithful over a long period of time. These folk are ready when the bridegroom arrives at midnight. Others, however, are caught unprepared.

There are three important lessons for us in this parable about readiness. Here they are.

First of all, there are some things you can’t see from the outside. On the outside these ten girls all looked alike. They were all waiting for the bridegroom; they all had lamps with them; they all got sleepy when his return was delayed. But there was one important difference between them, and that difference was decisive when the bridegroom returned: five had oil in their lamps, and five did not.

What might this mean for us? Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones was a Welsh Methodist preacher who for twenty-nine years was pastor of Westminster Chapel in London. Early in his life as a preacher, in the late 1930s, he came to Toronto for a summer to fill in at a great Baptist church for three months while the local pastor was away.

On Dr. Lloyd-Jones’ first Sunday at this church the local pastor was still there, and he led the service while Lloyd-Jones preached. In those days it was still common for people to go to church twice on Sundays, and so Dr. Lloyd-Jones announced that each Sunday he would be preaching two different sermons. In the morning, he said, he would be preaching to build up Christians in their faith, and in the evening he would be preaching evangelistic sermons aimed at helping those who had not yet found a personal faith in Christ to come to him and put their trust in him.

After the service the two pastors greeted the people as they left the church. A particularly well-dressed woman approached, and the pastor whispered into Lloyd-Jones’ ear “That lady is a pillar of this congregation; she’s been attending here for years, and a finer Christian you’re never likely to meet”. But he was in for a surprise. The woman shook Lloyd-Jones’ hand and said, “Did I understand you correctly, that you intend to preach in the mornings on the assumption that you are speaking to Christians, and in the evenings on the assumption that you are speaking to people who are not yet converted to Christ?” When Lloyd-Jones confirmed that this was his intention, she said “Well, having heard you this morning I will come again tonight”. She had never attended the evening service before; only the morning. She came every week, morning and evening, during Lloyd-Jones’ time in that church. She later admitted to him in private conversation that although outwardly she looked like a fine churchgoer, inwardly she was desperately hungry and had never discovered a personal relationship with God. Everyone assumed that since she had been coming to church for years she had oil in her lamp, but in fact she was empty inside, and willing to admit it to a pastor she came to trust.

So yes, it’s possible to sit in church week by week and wonder, “Why aren’t I getting it? Why doesn’t God seem real to me?” If you are in that situation this morning, don’t just accept it. It doesn’t have to be that way! Cry out to God to make himself known to you; press on to know and love Jesus. Don’t be satisfied with just having a beautiful lamp; make sure it has oil in it as well.

There are some things you can’t see from the outside. The second thing the parable teaches us is that there are some things you can’t borrow.

Years ago I used to work on the Red Earth Indian Reserve in northeastern Saskatchewan. I taught religion classes in the school there and so got to know the teachers quite well. One of the teachers, Freeman, was a nominal Anglican, although he never attended church and hadn’t done for years. There was a Pentecostal church in Nipawin that was quite interested in Red Earth; they had tent meetings there and would often take converts down to the river to do adult baptisms. One day Freeman was talking to me about this and he said, “What do we believe about that, Tim?” I knew what he meant, but I couldn’t escape the irony: here was a man who was asking me to tell him what his beliefs were, instead of thinking them through for himself!

In the Old Testament we read that the people of Israel were afraid to approach God for themselves. When Moses went up the mountain and they saw the thunder and lightning they said “This god is too scary; you talk to him for us, Moses!” And this has always been one of the characteristics of religion; I call it ‘the cult of the mediator’. I don’t want to do the demanding work that’s involved in developing my own relationship with God, so I ask someone else to do it on my behalf. But what this parable is telling me is that I can’t get into the kingdom on the strength of someone else’s relationship with God. I can’t borrow someone else’s oil; I have to have my own.

That’s the explanation for a troubling detail in this parable. Weren’t the five wise bridesmaids being uncharitable when they refused to lend oil to the five foolish ones? Why wouldn’t they share? But that’s the whole point Jesus is making. There are some things it is impossible to share with others. I can tell you about my faith in Jesus, but I can’t give my faith to you. You have to find it for yourself. I can’t give you my oil; you need to ask for oil of your own from the only person who can give it to you, Jesus himself.

There are some things you can’t tell from the outside; there are some things you can’t borrow from someone else. The last thing we learn from this parable is that there are some things you shouldn’t put off until the last minute. It’s said that when Queen Mary of Orange lay dying in the seventeenth century, her chaplain decided he ought to explain to her the way of salvation through Christ. So he started doing this, but she stopped him right away: “Do you really think I’ve left this important matter to this late hour?” she said. She hadn’t put it off until the last minute. She was ready.

The words ‘Too late’ are terrible words. The job is lost; it’s too late now to say that you’ll work harder. The divorce has come through; it’s too late now to make amends and try to heal the situation. The exam is tomorrow morning; it’s too late now to start studying for it!

I once heard Bruce Smith, the former director of Threshold Ministries, tell a story of a young man who said to him “I want to become a Christian after I turn thirty – but I want to live first!” Tragically, of course, some people never reach thirty. Some people die a lot younger than that – and very few of them plan to do so. That’s why the words of Psalm 95 are so important for us: ‘O that today you would listen to his voice! Do not harden your hearts…’ (Psalm 95:7b-8a).

The point of this whole parable is found in the last line, where Jesus says ‘Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour’ (v.13). The Creed says, ‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end’. But we don’t know when that’s going to happen, and neither do we know the hour of our own death. How ought we to respond to this situation? The answer is obvious: to quote the words of an old hymn, we ought to ‘live each day as if it were our last’.

So let’s remember the three things this parable teaches us. Let’s not be satisfied with going through the outward motions of a religious life; let’s press on to a living relationship with God through Christ. Let’s not be satisfied with second-hand knowledge of God – ‘borrowed oil’, to use the illustration of this parable. It won’t do us any good in the end, so let’s press on to know God for ourselves. And let’s not put this matter off until it’s too late; let’s make it a priority now to trust in Christ, to live as his followers, and to walk in his company every day. Or, to sum it all up in the words of my title, let’s ‘Be Ready’ for the day when Christ appears.

Essential Traditional Folk Songs #7: ‘Blackwaterside’ performed by Bert Jansch and others.

Here is the late Bert Jansch performing his classic arrangement of the old Irish folk song ‘Blackwaterside’.

I first heard Bert’s distinctive style of singing and playing on the first real folk album I ever owned, Pentangle’s ‘Basket of Light‘. His website is here.

Bert learned Blackwaterside from Anne Briggs, but her version of it was quite different from his. It was Bert who transformed the song into a guitar classic, but Anne was a much better singer than him. Here she is:

Many have since followed in Bert’s footsteps. Here is Cara Luft, channelling Bert Jansch.

As usual, Mainly Norfolk has a good summary of the recording history of the song. Mudcat Café has an interesting discussion on the history of the song, though it gets a little heated in places. The late Malcolm Douglas gives a good summary:

The version on the Digital Tradition is from Jean Redpath’s recording; she doesn’t name a source, other than to say that it’s Irish.  Probably most people who sing it nowadays are using the version recorded in the 1960s and ’70s by, most notably, Sandy Denny and before her, Bert Jansch.  Jansch got it from Anne Briggs, who in turn -so far as I know- had it from A.L.Lloyd.  Lloyd may have got it from the BBC Sound Archives’ recording (made by Peter Kennedy and S. O’Boyle in 1952) of Paddy and Mary Doran.

Peter Kennedy gives a version, Down By Blackwaterside, in Folksongs of Britain and Ireland.  That one came from the traveller Winnie Ryan, (Belfast, 1952), and has pretty much the tune we all know.  Versions with much the same text (but different tunes) were collected in the West Country around the turn of the century by, among others, Baring Gould (The Squire And The Fair Maid) and Gardiner (Abroad As I Was Walking).  The issue is muddied by the fact that there are other, overlapping songs such as Captain Thunderbolt (Down By The Shannon Side) and Down By The Riverside and another song called Down By Blackwaterside (The Irish Maid) which has a quite different story.  19th century broadsides of most of those can be found at the Bodleian Library site. 

Essential Traditional Folk Songs #6: ‘The Lakes of Pontchartrain’, performed by Paul Brady and others

This is an old Irish/American folk song, done beautifully by many traditional singers. This live performance by Paul Brady is from 1977; Paul recorded the song on his 1978 album ‘Welcome Here Kind Stranger‘.


A more recent video of Paul singing the song:

Aoife O’Donovan also does a lovely version of this song, although I do not think she has ever recorded it.

There’s an interesting discussion on this song at Mudcat Café here. The page at Mainly Norfolk includes a video of Martin Simpson performing a very different and very lively version of the song.