14th December 2020 – Rev Paul Bettison
They’re only small but, they can cause havoc. Barnacles attach themselves to the hulls of boats and ships and can, over time, almost completely cover the surface, resulting in significantly impeded performance. Hence the need for their regular removal.
Richard Holloway, in his book, Doubts and Loves, writes;
‘Like an ancient galleon that has spent ages at sea, Christianity is encrusted with customs and attitudes acquired on its voyage through the centuries and it is making the mistake of confusing accidents of theological and cultural history with eternal truth’
Whether the barnacles happen to be a belief in a flat earth or the necessity for women to wear hats in church, some have been scraped away. Yet as, for example, we prepare to debate the matter of marriage and relationships we would do well to ask of ourselves the question ‘what customs and attitudes still encrust the church?’
Another thought; maybe the pause in our normal activity occasioned by this pandemic is providing an opportunity for the church to be, as it were, de-scaled. What barnacles need to be scraped away?
The bible doesn’t tell us whether Jesus helped his fishermen friends to de-scale their boats, but it does reveal that he was in the business of scraping away from the Jewish Faith, the customs and attitudes that hindered the progress of the Kingdom of God.
Thank you, O God, for the time that is past,
For all the values and thoughts that will last.
May we all stagnant tradition ignore,
Leaving behind things that matter no more.
16th December 2020 – Rev Paul Bettison
‘Live simply. Laugh often’
‘Welcome to our home. Please remove your shoes’
‘Home Sweet Home’
Maybe, in your home, you have a plaque, or perhaps several. We have one – ‘What if the Hokey Cokey really is what it’s all about!’ The mottos, phrases, and sayings seem to be endless. Some are corny, some profound.
The Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, is reputed to have had, hung by his door, a plaque. Its message, ‘Bidden or unbidden, God is present’. The phrase comes from a work of Erasmus, a philosopher around at the turn of the 14th Century, and truly is profound. A timely reminder that, whether we yearn for it or not, the presence of God is always with us. God is closer than we realise.
Words in the hymn by Henry Van Dyke echo those of the apostle Thomas Didymus, recorded in “The Sayings of Jesus” from the Dead Sea Scrolls;
Never more thou needest seek me,
I am with thee ever-more;
Raise the stone and thou shalt find me,
Cleave the wood and I am there.
In these days of lockdown and loss, why not consider hanging, somewhere in your home, a plaque bearing those words of assurance reassurance –
‘Bidden or unbidden, God is present’
Even if you don’t need reminding, there may be others who do.
I am amazed, I am humbled, I am grateful
that you know me and still want me.
You see me wandering in desert places,
you read my heart-thoughts,
my hopes and dreams, my secret shames;
and yet, knowing even what I hide from myself,
you bring me into your family as a beloved child.
In suffering or in ease
you are with me
even when I do not feel it.
On Sunday and on Monday
and on every day,
you are with me,
Even when I do not remember it.
When I stray from you and when I return
You are with me
even when I do not recognise it.
may I so deeply know you.
Based on a prayer by Fay Rowland
(URC Prayer Handbook2020)
18th December 2020 – Rev Paul Bettison
How, in only four hours, do they catch a likeness? Week by week the competitors on Sky Art’s ‘Portrait Artist of the Year’ respond to the challenge of creating a portrait of their celebrity sitters. Some with more success than others, but I’m full of admiration for them and their skills.
Time and again we hear the judges comment of whether they have captured the likeness. Or not! But, as is acknowledged, there is much more to the sitter, and their image, than their physical likeness. The portraits that really do catch the eye, and attract praise, are those that capture the personality, character, and inner-being of the sitters. There is more to all of us than meets the eye.
It seems that Jesus was able to see into the very hearts and souls of the people he encountered. The Gospels are full of examples. Have a look, for example, at the story of the paralyzed man. It’s in Matthew Mark and Luke and tells of how Jesus wasn’t fooled into thinking that the problem lay in the physical disease, but rather in a dis-ease of his soul.
We are all made in the likeness of the God who created us. That same God sees into our hearts and souls, and yet loves us just the same.
Lord, you have searched and known my ways
And understood my thought from far;
How can I rightly sound your praise
Or tell how great your wonders are?
Besetting me, before, behind,
Upon my life your hand is laid;
Caught in the compass of your mind
Are all the creatures you have made.
Such knowledge is too wonderful,
Too high for me to understand
Enough that the Unsearchable
Has searched my heart and held my hand.
Peter G Jarvis#
21st December 2020 – Rev Paul Bettison
If it doesn’t jump out of the cupboard into my hand, it’s not there! I’m told that I suffer from the complaint to which many men succumb; ‘It’s-under-your-noseitis’. I well remember feeling rather silly when, having spent a good ten minutes in the cloakroom searching for my school cap at the end of the day, I discovered that it was on my head. Mind you, the teacher had been helping me look for it.
I guess that, if we’re honest, we all have bouts of the same disease, and when we’re not even looking for something, the chances of us missing it increase ten-fold and more. Yet have we, during these very strange times, noticed something that we have before so often failed to see?
One of the messages of the Advent season, found for example in St Mark’s Gospel, is ‘keep alert’. He’s talking about the coming of the Son of Man – the Messiah – and, as we’ve been reminded in recent on-line sermons, bible studies, and conversations, that coming can so easily be missed. The story of the sheep and goats reminds us that the God in our midst often goes unnoticed.
So, this Advent season ‘keep alert’ and watch out for Emmanuel, God with us. And remember, there is a simple cure for ‘It’s-under-your-noseitis’ – look around, with eyes and heart open.
Christ of the cosmos, living Word,
in your quiet hidden way,
you come to heal and save.
Incognito, in our streets,
beneath the concrete, between the cracks,
behind the curtains, within the dreams,
in ageing memories, in childhood wonder,
in secret ponds, in broken hearts,
in Bethlehem stable, still small voice,
Word of God, among us.
Open my eyes that I may see you
and my heart to welcome you.
Advent Readings from Iona (adapted)
23rd December 2020 – Rev Paul Bettison
People travel great distances to find holiness.
There is a story of a boy who lived in an isolated cottage on a hillside. A lonely place for a young man. One thing fascinated him. Each night he would look out into the darkness and see a light. It was on a far-away hilltop, but this sign of life gave him hope.
One Christmas Eve he decided to go in search of it. It was a long and wearisome walk, and it was already dark when he found himself on the outskirts of a village. Tired and hungry, he knocked at the first door he came to, and explained his search for the mysterious light that had always given him hope.
‘I know it!’ replied the woman who had answered the door. ‘It gives me hope too.’ And she pointed back in the direction from which he had come. There, on the far-away horizon, was a single light shining. A sign of life in the darkness. The light was from his own home.
Based on a story from Iona
As you read this reflection, think of someone to whom you are close;
My light is burning bright
My stride is long, my head is high.
Don’t go; I need the humility of your low light.
Stay near and, if by chance you see more clearly to take your next few steps
We shall have served each other well,
But now my light is glimmering low,
I stumble and barely see the way
I need your light which now is burning strong.
Dare I believe you still need mine?
And now my light is out I think;
I cannot find the way at all
But stand in darkness, lost, afraid…
Until I see your light and trust your reassuring hand
And strength returns and fear is gone.
And now again, somehow, my light is burning bright.
Yet I did not see your light touch mine.
We are a gift and a miracle, you and I.
In St John’s Gospel we learn of the source of Life and Light;
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
John 1 vv 1-5
28th December 2020 – Rev Paul Bettison
St Matthew, in his version of the story of the birth of Jesus, mentions three gifts as being presented by visitors from the East. It is a short jump in the imagination to picture the three gifts being presented by three Kings, Wise Men, Magi, call them what you will. Hence, ‘We Three Kings of Orient are’. Henry van Dyke in his short novel, ‘The Other Wise Man’, introduces us to Arteban, the ‘Fourth Wise Man’. Like the others, he sees the star announcing the birth among the Jews, of a king. Bearing gifts of a sapphire, a ruby, and a pearl of great price, he prepares to journey, by the light of the star.
As he journeys, he stops to help first a dying man, then a sick child, arriving in Bethlehem after the others and too late to see the child. To compound it all, in order to carry out his kindly acts, he has had to sell two of his treasures. The story continues as, for 33 years he searches for the child. He does eventually find Jesus, in Jerusalem, but only to see him being led out to the cross. His one remaining treasure, the pearl of great price, he sells in order to save a young woman from slavery.
The wise men to whom Matthew refers came to Jerusalem asking “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” In his story, Henry van Dyke suggests an answer. Thomas Merton, 20th century Trappist monk, offers his;
“Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it – because he is out of place in it, and yet must be in it – his place is with those others who do not belong, who are rejected because they are regarded as weak; and with those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, and are tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst.”
So, back to Arteban. Thinking about it, surely, he did present his gifts to the king after all!
When a young unmarried couple
Tried to find a place to stay,
Then a Middle-Eastern village
Had no space, ‘No, not today.’
Mary’s pregnancy was clear
‘Go away! There’s no room here!”
Songs that paint a cosy Christmas
Miss the truth of God above!
See how God, rejected, homeless,
Came a child with wide-eyed love.
Love transforms and brings release!
Love brings justice, joy, and peace!
Here’s good news: our God is with us,
Friend for life, in joy and need!
In rejection, pain and trouble
Jesus is our Friend in deed.
Baby child and dying Friend,
Living Lord: love without end
Peter Relph in Singing the Faith
30th December 20020 – Rev Paul Bettison
Well, boundaries are in the news and what a kerfuffle it is. Should we, or they, be in areas designated as Tier One, Two or Three? And what happens if we are on the edge of one area, and, in order to meet with someone in our bubble, just want to hop over into another? The designation of Tiers is, to say the least, controversial and the ways in which the rules might be circumvented are many and varied.
I also picked up that there is a move to install more signs to mark the Yorkshire boundary. A Stockton-on-Tees councillor is on a mission to ensure that historic county boundaries are not, in his words, ‘washed away’.
In the season of Advent we reflect upon how, by the birth of Jesus, the boundary between earth and heaven was, as it were, washed away. And Jesus went on to challenge boundaries erected between rich and poor, enslaved and free, holy and profane. Remember the words of the Advent hymn, ‘He is breaking down the barriers…’ Jesus heralded the arrival of a kingdom without boundaries. A kingdom in which, in the words of the Magnificat, ‘the lowly are lifted up and the hungry are filled with good things’. Does this not have something to say about our experience of the pandemic?
Whilst some boundaries are necessary, those relating to tiers being an example, others are inappropriate. There are no boundaries around the Kingdom of Heaven and our mission is to be heralds of that Kingdom where all, as Bryn Rees writes, ‘are welcomed, God’s banquet to share’.
you came to this world
for the poor in spirit,
the broken hearted,
and those held captive.
You came to this world
to bring good news
and wholeness into lives,
to bring release,
and to forgive.
You came to this world
to guide your people
from a desert place
to a kingdom
of love and grace.
You came to this world
to show how far love
is prepared to go,
and, on a cross,
showed heaven on earth.
So help me, I pray,
to herald the coming of your kingdom
– a kingdom without boundaries –
on earth as in heaven.
John Birch (adapted)