Paying attention: a prayer of confession

In response to Isaiah 40:21-31

O True Light,
our Constant Companion,
we confess that we have not always paid attention to the signs of Your presence with us;
that, often, we have failed to grasp the immense gift of Your eternal love.
We spend our days scurrying after the insignificant and insubstantial –
worrying about how to get by,
how to compete
how to get ahead,
how to move on,
how to afford what we have,
how to get more,
how to find balance,
how to juggle it all
until we are burnt out, exhausted,
wondering where You are
and why You’ve lost track of us.

Great God who marches out an army of stars each night,
counts them off, and calls them by name,
forgive us for our foolishness
and set us in the firm foundation of Your faithfulness.
Remind us that You have not overlooked a single one of us,
nor a single moment of our circumstances.
As we wait upon You now, give us fresh strength
to persevere,
to hope,
to flourish
in Your presence
and through the power of Your love.
Amen.

Light Blessings

A Call to Worship/Candle-lighting prayer, including a responsive reading of Psalm 147:1-11, 20c (NRSV) 

Blessed be you, O Holy Light-fitter,
who set the sun in its proper place
and scattered the stars across the skies
to brighten up our way
(the first candle is lit).

Blessed be you, Bright Morning Star,
the hope of our salvation,
dawning in our lives,
drawing nearer in this very moment.
(the second candle is lit).

Blessed be you, O Sacred Flame,
who gives us life
and tends our growth
through Your constant, gentle presence
(the third candle is lit).

Blessed be You,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
light with and within us:
~ in a world torn apart by hatred, fear and greed;
~ in a time governed by self-made truth and wealth-mad leaders;
~ in the rubble and ruin of cities and countries in which conflicts rage
and in the panic and pain of those who have no place to call home or safe haven;
~ in the broken hearts of those who no longer feel loved or who find themselves alone,
and in the bleeding wounds and bruised faces of those harmed by loved ones;
~ in the barrenness of the earth, burned and blasted, to make space for our ever-growing population and in the widening gap between those with too much to eat and those with nothing;
~ in the darkness of our delusions of grandeur and in the relentless drudgery of our pursuit of power, popularity, and plenty.

In the midst of all our troubles,
we gather together this day to proclaim
to gift of God-with-us:

“How good it is to sing praises to our God;
for he is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting.

The LORD builds up Jerusalem;
he gathers the outcasts of Israel.
He heals the brokenhearted,
and binds up their wounds.
He determines the number of the stars;
he gives to all of them their names.

Great is our Lord, and abundant in power;
his understanding is beyond measure.
The LORD lifts up the downtrodden;
he casts the wicked to the ground.

Sing to the LORD with thanksgiving;
make melody to our God on the lyre. 

He covers the heavens with clouds,
prepares rain for the earth,
makes grass grow on the hills.
He gives to the animals their food,
and to the young ravens when they cry. 

His delight is not in the strength of the horse,
nor his pleasure in the speed of a runner;
but the LORD takes pleasure in those who fear him,
in those who hope in his steadfast love.

Praise the LORD!”

Day Thirty Five: Enter The Mystery

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Isaiah 60:1-6
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

Embodied God,
on the ladder between the home of heaven and earth’s dwelling place,
the crack between the worlds,
a baby journeyed, belonging to both.
Tess Ward

Epiphany is the story of the Wise Men – philosophers, astrologers, or mystics – who travelled across countries from the East in response to the sudden appearance, the showing forth of a star, the sign of long-awaited King; bearing with them all the way precious gifts fit for the One whom they sought:
~ gold, symbolising his wealth and, some scholars speculate, financing the holy family’s exile into Egypt before the Massacre of the Innocents;
~ frankincense, representing his holiness;
~ and myrrh, foreshadowing his early death.

Occurring on the Eastern date of Christmas, January 6, it celebrates the gift of God to all people and reminds us, particularly while the year is fresh and new, of our own journeys:
what has brought us to this particular place
and point in time,
and what unchartered territory we might well venture into if we truly long for and look for the signs of God’s guiding presence in our lives.

Having been given a glimpse over this season into the enigma of a God too big to know or truly comprehend who becomes small enough to hold in human arms,
we are invited to enter fully into the unfolding mystery of God’s love for us,
and for the whole world;
and to walk boldly, decisively, faithfully
in the light of God’s glory –
long after the tree has been taken down
and the ornaments packed away
and the final guest has gone
and the merriment has passed ….

“Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.”
Isaiah 60:1

This day, and every day,
the star(s), reminds us to step out of the ordinary confines of human existence into the extraordinary adventure of a life filled with the power and creativity and movement of God’s presence;
to move beyond the boundaries of the seen and known, of reason, of geography, of budgets, of daily routine into the realm of hope and possibility;
to examine whether we living our best possible life:

… a life lived with a deep awareness of our connection to God, to one another, to the world around us, to enemy and to stranger …
… an open-eyed life in which we look constantly for evidence of God with us, in the familiar and in the unexpected …
… a life in which we are not bound by rules and routines so much as liberated by Love, to love – in simple acts of kindness as well as extravagant, outrageous, generous gestures …
… a life in which work is a joy and a reward, and rest is protected and savoured …
… a life in which our immediate answer is not “No” when we are confronted by the uncomfortable, the unknown, the unplanned for; nor “Yes” to everything that is simply expected from us …
… a life of seeking and searching, sitting with questions, sharing stories, seeing new perspectives, standing steady on what we know to be true: “See! I am with you! I am here in your midst!”

Light of the World,
Sun which does not go down,
Bright Mystery,
give us each day a glimpse of Your glory;
an epiphany of where we fit
into Your heart and Your plan.
Amen. 

Day Thirty Three: In Spite Of

Psalm 110
Proverbs 3:1-12
James 4:11-17

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about how often
God’s power,
God’s presence,
God’s purpose,
is made manifest in spite of,
rather than because of,
me ….

I know, as Christians, we are called to be light to the world
as we walk in and with and through the Light of Life;
I know, as God called me into ordained ministry,
it was with the command to watch my life and doctrine closely that those who listened might be saved;
but I also know that countless people have experienced the church as a hurtful and unwelcome place,
and that, many times, my own service has been offered from a space of brokenness, exhaustion, distraction, and/or poverty.

The grace of today’s Scriptures
is that God continues to be God
in spite of …

… external circumstances that threaten to overwhelm
or destroy us:

“You were forged a strong scepter by God of Zion; now rule,
though surrounded by enemies!
(Psalm 110:2) …

… our fickleness and forgetfulness:

But don’t, dear friend, resent God’s discipline; don’t sulk under his loving correction.”
(Proverbs 3:11) …

… our preoccupation with our own life plans and the accumulation of power and possessions:
“yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.”
(James 4:14) …

… our words – so concerned with pride and judgement rather than peace and affirmation:
But who are you to judge your neighbour?
(James 4:12b).

Time and time and time again,
we get it wrong; we let what is happening around us detract from or destroy what is happening within us; we fail to live up to the purposes for which we were forged; we commit, as James points out in verse 17, the sin of knowing what is right but neglecting to do it.

But being good – and, in turn, good ambassadors of the Gospel – does not begin with the best of intentions or a to-do list of right behaviours.

It starts with and is sustained by an intimate friendship with God
(see Proverbs 3:5-6)
who will make straight our paths,
and speak through our poverty,
and transform our tiredness,
and use our brokenness,
and receive our “sorrys,”
and cover our inadequacies and excuses,
and correct us when we head off
in the wrong direction …

… and the very evidence of God’s power, presence and purpose at work in spite of all of this is precisely the light
– the lifeline –
that others need in the midst of their own struggles.

Trust God today
with where you feel weak,
or broken,
or tired,
or inadequate,
or distracted.

Feel His/Her favour resting upon you in spite of everything else that is happening in and around you.

Receive the gift of healing, of nourishment, of peace. 

Day Twenty Three: Light Dawns

Isaiah 62:6-12
Psalm 97
Titus 3:4-7
Luke 2:8-20

As we embarked on our Advent journey, I offered the simple story of how my children used to mark their birthdays with the words:

The earth goes round the sun,
The earth goes round the sun,
Three hundred and sixty five days a year
the earth goes round the sun. 

Well, three hundred and sixty five days have passed since we last remembered the story of God entering our story; our life, our days, our death in human form.

For three hundred and sixty five days, the sun has come up each morning; banishing the darkness and offering the gift of a new day – full of new opportunities, new beginnings.

But this is the morning, the day that we celebrate the angel greetings: “Don’t be afraid.
I’m here to announce a great and joyful event that is meant for everybody, worldwide:
A Saviour has just been born in David’s town,
a Saviour who is Messiah and Master.
This is what you’re to look for: a baby wrapped in a blanket and lying in a manger”
(Luke 2:10-11).

Light dawns …

the Light
from which all life dawned:
the Great Let-It-Be
who christened the vast expanse of space
with millions upon millions upon millions
of stars
as signs of God’s strength
to do the impossible
for us
and with us
and through us

now nestled
in a manager,
in a stable,
in an obscure town;
too busy and too full to notice
the Great I AM
whose hands laid the earth’s foundation,
gripping tightly to his mother’s finger –

a reflex
– surprisingly solid, firm –
rehearsed within the virgin’s womb;

Dependable God
now dependent
on a nothing, from no-where really,
who gazed in wide-eyed wonder
at those who came to see
and marvel
at how God completes God’s promises.

Light dawns …

… the light of our salvation.

Named Jesus (God saves),
Immanuel – God with us
that we might be re-named:
Holy People,
God-Redeemed,
Sought-Out,
City-Not-Forsaken
.

Light dawns …

… the light of realisation:
such mystery,
such wonder,
such love,
such joy,
such peace,
such promise,
such hope of eternal life
is too much for us to make sense of

yet,
through the Christ-child,
within our grasp.

This Christmas,
may light-seeds be planted
in us,
and in all people;
the Light of Life
alive in us.

Light dawns ….

Day Sixteen: War Cry

Psalm 125
1 Kings 18:1-18
Ephesians 6:10-17

There are certain passages of Scripture – particularly stories of conquest in the Old Testament – that always summon the words of an old hymn now long out of favour for its militant imagery and  imperialistic associations to mind.

Today’s texts do the same.

As I read of the prophet Elijah’s deliberate encounter with the evil king Ahab after months in hiding, and anticipate that epic showdown between the prophets of Baal and this faithful servant of God, the refrain begins:

Onward, Christian soldiers!
Marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus
Going on before.

As I imagine the stamping feet of hundreds of pilgrims heading towards Jerusalem, praying (Psalm 125:4-5),
O Lord, do good to those who are good,
whose hearts are in tune with you.
But banish those who turn to crooked ways,
O Lord.
Take them away with those who do evil,

the rhythm builds:

Onward, Christian soldiers!
Marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus
Going on before.

As I hear the apostle Paul urging the Christians of Ephesus to put on the full armour of God so that they might stand firm in the spiritual battle in which they were engaged against their old paganism with its dark thoughts, dirty talk, and immoral ways, the cry resounds:

Onward, Christian soldiers!
Marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus
Going on before.

Unpopular, outdated, uncomfortable as the metaphor may be, in this season of watching and waiting for the Christ-King, today’s Scripture (the sword of the Spirit) opens our eyes to what is going on in the vast unknown of the spiritual realm.

There is a spiritual war going on; a showdown between God and Satan in every part of the cosmos, in earth and in heaven; forces of darkness and evil at work in the world even as we celebrate and long for the True Light of Life; an unholy influence evident where dictators usurp power and the human institutions created to protect and preserve life become instruments of corruption and oppression.

What are we to do in the face of such an intimidating foe?

Trust in God,” the Psalmist answers. “Like Mount Zion, nothing can move Him; nor those who are encircled in his arms forever,” (Psalm 125:1-2).

Stand firm in the power of the God-of-Angel-Armies, as Elijah did when he defied Ahab’s accusations: “It’s not I who has caused trouble in Israel,” said Elijah, “but you and your government—you’ve dumped God’s ways and commands and run off after the local gods …” (1 Kings 18:18).

Put on God’s armour and take your stand in God’s strength – the same strength that God used to conquer death and raise Jesus from the grave!

“Truth, righteousness, peace, faith,
and salvation are more than words.
Learn how to apply them …. God’s Word is an indispensable weapon …. prayer is essential in this ongoing warfare …. Keep each other’s spirits up so that no one falls behind or drops out”
(
Ephesians 6:14-18, The Message).   

Today, pray long and hard for brothers and sisters in the faith …

… for those who are going through a particularly tough time …

… for those whose spirits are low or who are struggling with their faith ….

Day Nine: Expand Your Borders

Psalm 27
Isaiah 26:7-15
Acts 2:37-42

I love the opening verse to Psalm 27 from The Message:

Light, space, zest—
that’s God!
So, with him on my side I’m fearless,
afraid of no one and nothing.

Light,
space,
zest …
… that’s what life with God is all about.

Would you use those three words to describe your sense of life as it is at the moment – especially with the holiday season so nearly upon us?

Or can you relate more to the image of vandal hordes riding down upon you; devouring your energy, your time, your money, your peace of mind?

Perhaps you are particularly conscious at the moment of the bullies and toughs putting pressure upon you in subtle and not so subtle ways to conform to their plans or desires or schedules at this busy time of year at the expense of your own heart’s longing.

Maybe the words “enemy” or “wicked” bring to mind a distinct face despite your best attempts to love your neighbour as yourself.

Quite possibly the Psalmist’s reference to parental abandonment might trigger feelings of loneliness or neglect quite contrary to the proclaimed love and peace of the Christmas period.

Light,
space,
zest,
a level road to walk on,
a smooth path at our feet …

… this may not look at all like the life that you are living but it is the life that God longs for for you:

a peaceful and whole life where we can linger unhurried in God’s presence and find certainty and security far from the noise of the world and the buzz of the traffic and the clamour of our “it’s-never-enough-you’re-never-enough” culture …

… where who God is and what God’s done are all we ever want; and the rest of it – well, the rest of it unfolds and falls into place as we seek to live with a deep and abiding sense of the sufficiency of God’s presence to see us through all things.

As the prophet Isaiah (in chapter 26:15) speaks of God’s glory in enlarging the nation, in expanding the borders of the land, he offers a prophetic vision not only of the love of God breaking through the geographical and cultural boundaries of the nation of Israel but of Christ coming in order that you and I might have life to its fullest ….

Light, space, zest,
a living that is larger than our current experience of life ….

And it all begins by replying to that whisper in our hearts, “seek God!” with the whole-hearted response, “I’m seeking him right now!” (Psalm 27:8).

Those in the early church deliberately allowed God to enlarge their life experience by devoting themselves to times of teaching, fellowship, meal-sharing and prayer (Acts 2:42).

They reveal an intentionality about seeking God from which we can learn if we truly long for a life full of light, of space, of zest.

Begin to think about moments in this season and the year ahead in which you can express your longing for God.

You may want to protect some space by putting into your year plan and diary times that you will intentionally seek God’s presence and linger in God’s light.

Of this I am sure

*a reflection based on Ecclesiastes 12 and John 12:44-50*

I want you to think for a moment of something you’re sure of; something you know deep down inside to be absolutely infallible, 100% certain and true.

Perhaps you want to share it with your neighbour or your friend ….

If you don’t, or if you hesitated for a moment, I wonder why. Did you suddenly think that your sure thing was too silly? Or did panic and doubt flare up in you briefly the moment that I asked you to express it rather than just think it that it might not actually be 100% true? Were you worried that it might begin a debate or elicit an opinion contrary to your own?

Perhaps your sure thing was a scientific fact, like the earth is round or the grass is green. But while the world may look like a perfect circle from space, it is more accurately a bumpy sphere; and I don’t know about yours, but my grass is looking decidedly brown beneath the sun’s recent unrelenting heat.

Perhaps you’re certain that butter is bad for you, but these days the processed trans fats found in margarine are regarded as far worse and coconut oil is the in thing for the health conscious. And here’s three cheers to chocolate and caffeine now being linked to increased longevity but you’ve only really got until the next sponsored nutritional study to enjoy that “fact”.

Perhaps your conviction lies among more spiritual lines: in the wonderful assurance of God’s eternal love for you; yet, if you have ever questioned that unconditional love for a pimp; a paedophile; a person from a different race, religion or sexual orientation, then you’ve inadvertently opened yourself up to an uncomfortable little niggle of worry that perhaps there are limitations on God’s welcoming embrace – even for you.

As the season of Advent approaches, our lectionary readings offer a profound word to us in this post-modern era of shifting certainties, fake news, and relative truth; of – as the Quester puts it throughout the book of Ecclesiastes – the insubstantial, swirling smoke that clouds our vision of what is truly important and trustworthy.

It’s all smoke, nothing but smoke.
The Quester says that everything’s smoke.
~ Ecclesiastes 12:8 (The Message)

The fun, the freedom, the exuberance of our youth quickly fades beneath the burdens and worries of adult responsibility. Between bills to be paid, houses to be maintained, children to be raised, the best years seem to fly by until we’re left tired yet unable to sleep; up with the birds yet unable to hear clearly the sweet songs they’re singing; with an abundance of free time to do the things we’d once dreamed of doing, yet unable to come and go as we will as physical limitations and fear of the rapidly-changing world take over.

Life, lovely while it lasts, is soon over.
Life as we know it, precious and beautiful, ends.
The body is put back in the same ground it came from.
The spirit returns to God, who first breathed it.
~ Ecclesiastes 12:6-7 (The Message)

Yet the Quester, as he laments the meaninglessness of life, the futility of our toil, and the fickleness of pleasure so dramatically, does not want us to throw our hands up in despair and wonder if there’s even a point to getting ourselves out of bed tomorrow.

I remember quite clearly telling my husband in the early years of our marriage that I fully intended to take a handful of sleeping pills or fall elegantly off a rooftop just after my fiftieth birthday because I didn’t want to experience any of the frailties or the illnesses or the losses that I associated with old age at the time, and I didn’t think God would mind too much getting me back early. Now that I’m in my forties and have been touched by the dignity, the memory, the wisdom, the authentic love of those significantly older than myself, I’m all too eager to revise my position on the matter ….

… because life – lovely while it lasts – is too soon over.
Life as we know it, precious and beautiful, ends.

As he offers these words, the Quester longs to rouse us from our apathy so that we remember the remarkable gift of each new day and honour the One who has given it. He wants to shake us free of the smoke that has suffocated our passion, our vigour, our vision – those people, those “priorities,” those possessions that have actually just filled our lives with clutter and kept us from pursuing the precious and important. He wants to goad us to become people of substance in a world that has lost its way in its pursuit of power, prosperity and pleasure. He wants us to live well.

And of this I am sure: that Christ came into the world to make that good life, life real and eternal, possible for all people.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus says of himself:

I am Light that has come into the world so that all who believe in me won’t have to stay any longer in the dark.
~ John 12:46 (The Message)

“Won’t have to,” “should not,” “would not continue to,” “shall not remain …” different Bible versions put it in different ways: that through his love and sacrifice, Christ has enabled us to live differently; through his teaching and actions, Jesus has made possible an alternative way of being in relationship with God and with one another and with the world at large.

But ultimately – and this is another thing I’m sure of – the choice is ours: to live and work and love and play and pray in the light of God’s all-encompassing, liberating love; or to stick to the shadows with which we have been acquainted for so long that we don’t even see them; or even, happily hide within when we begin to speak or think or act in a way that we know falls far short of the measure of God’s love for us and for the Other that we may be judging, deceiving, manipulating, disrespecting, or betraying at the time.

We don’t have to stay any longer in the dark. We don’t have to chase the fleeting, insubstantial smoke of this world of which the Quester so passionately warns us. We don’t have to ….

Yet if we choose to be children of the Light, to honour and make the most of each short day, here’s a sure thing to hold onto in the midst of the uncertainties and distractions of life – the last and final word, the conclusion of the matter, as the Quester puts it:

Fear God.
Do what he tells you.
~ Ecclesiastes 12:13b (The Message)

Jesus says it too, right before his final Passover Feast:

I know that his command leads to eternal life.
~ John 12:50a (NIV)

Fearing God is not about being afraid; it’s not the dread of a sinner or a slave.

It’s the reverence that we have as children for a Father who has consistently and unconditionally demonstrated love for us.

It’s the certainty that our respected Teacher has our best interests at heart that gives us, as lifelong students, the courage to try and to obey.

It’s the wide-eyed wonder at how giving and forgiving our Gracious God has been that inspires us to be giving and forgiving ourselves.

It’s the awe that brings order to our day – replacing appointments in diaries or tasks on to-do lists with opportunities to encounter God’s grace.

It’s the sacrifice of  worship that we offer, unrushed by the work of the kingdom and unhindered by the lack of workers for the harvest, but flowing from the deep desire to connect and reconnect with the Spirit who sustains each breath.

It’s the very real wrestling with how hard it is to be people of substance when others get to do whatever they desire – without judging them or resenting them or pitying them.

***

In his concluding chapter, the Quester writes that:

The words of the wise prod us to live well.
They’re like nails hammered home, holding life together.
They are given by God, the One Shepherd.
~ Ecclesiastes 12:11 (The Message)

I pray that his wise words might prod us to live well, and that today, these three nails have been hammered home:

  1. That Christ came that all might enter into life real and eternal.
  2. That it is ultimately our choice to live in His light or give in to the smoke and the shadows.
  3. That living in His light begins by honouring and enjoying the One who first breathed life into us and to whom our spirit will return.

Life is precious. But it is also fleeting. May we make the most of every moment all the way to our eternal rest and may the Christ who is the same today as he was yesterday and will be forever, keep us standing sure-footed through the trials and temptations of life; and, as we walk in the certain love of God the Father, and the clear leading of his Holy Spirit, may others come to know through our words and deeds the assurance of Christ with them, always.

Amen.

It’s nothing but smoke

* contemplating in community Ecclesiastes 1:2-11 and James 1:2-11*

You will need:

  • a central altar or table,
  • a black table cloth,
  • a large candle (with three wicks is helpful to invoke visually the image of a Triune God),
  • smaller tea lights (sufficient for the group),
  • a lighter or matches,
  • copies of the service, one per participant.

Ritual actions indicated in red and congregational/group responses in purple. 

Part 1: Nearing the light
1.1 Welcome and an invitation to silence

1.2 A suitable piece of music is played or sung e.g. Be still for the presence of the Lord, the Holy One is here

1.3. Praying the Psalms (based on Ps. 119:145-152) 

<the black tablecloth is placed on altar and unfolded >

Like those watching and waiting for the sunrise,
we cry out to You, O God, – our Help and our Salvation –
for our eyes have seen the darkness of night
and the gloom that grows 
as the world wanders
farther and farther from Your truth.

<the large candle is placed in the centre of the altar and lit>
Our deepest desire is to come closer to You,
to live in Your Light,
to learn from the Word that will last forever.

In Your love, hear our voice;

in Your justice, keep us alive;

in Your mercy, draw us near.

1.4 A suitable piece of music is played or sung e.g. So you would come

during which <people are invited to bring their candles forward, light them from the central candle and place them upon the altar>

Part 2: Seeing the smoke
2.1 Old Testament reading – Ecclesiastes 1:3-11 (The Message)
Smoke, nothing but smoke. [That’s what the Quester says.]
There’s nothing to anything—it’s all smoke.

<the candles that each participant has lit are blown out and a moment of silent kept as they smoke>

What’s there to show for a lifetime of work,
a lifetime of working your fingers to the bone?
One generation goes its way, the next one arrives,
but nothing changes—it’s business as usual for old planet earth.

The sun comes up and the sun goes down,
then does it again, and again—the same old round.
The wind blows south, the wind blows north.
Around and around and around it blows, blowing this way, then that
—the whirling, erratic wind.
All the rivers flow into the sea, but the sea never fills up.
The rivers keep flowing to the same old place, and then start all over and do it again.

Everything’s boring, utterly boring—no one can find any meaning in it.
Boring to the eye, boring to the ear.
What was will be again, what happened will happen again.
There’s nothing new on this earth. Year after year it’s the same old thing.
Does someone call out, “Hey, this is new”?
Don’t get excited—it’s the same old story.

Nobody remembers what happened yesterday.
And the things that will happen tomorrow?
Nobody’ll remember them either. Don’t count on being remembered.

2.2. Prayer of confession
Lord of Love, of Light, of Life 
how grateful we are for the gentle whisper to draw near;
to leave at the door, the busyness and the burdens of the week gone by;
to bring to the cross, the brokenness and the bitterness both inflicted upon us and by us,
in thought and word and deed;
to see through the darkness, the bold blaze of Your Spirit at work – with and within us.

<silence>

Yet even as we unwind in Your presence,
even as our lives are renewed by Your love,
we know too well how quickly this hour passes
and how easily our delightful dance with Your Spirit
 is replaced
by the relentless pursuit of smoke
that is such an accepted part of daily life.

Forgive us this day/night for the shortness of our attention 

and the shallowness of our commitment to walk in Your light;

show us how insubstantial the power, the popularity,
the possessions we pursue really are

against Your eternal promises;

guard us against the disease of dissatisfaction that demands we give in
to our greed, our laziness, our pride, our lust;
And help us to persevere in the way of humility, justice and love.
Amen.

2.3 A suitable piece of music is played or sung e.g. Create in me a clean heart ...

Part 3: Reigniting the flame

3.1 New Testament reading: James 1:2-11 (The Message)

Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way.

If you don’t know what you’re doing, pray to the Father. He loves to help. You’ll get his help, and won’t be condescended to when you ask for it. Ask boldly, believingly, without a second thought. People who “worry their prayers” are like wind-whipped waves. Don’t think you’re going to get anything from the Master that way, adrift at sea, keeping all your options open.

When down-and-outers get a break, cheer! And when the arrogant rich are brought down to size, cheer! Prosperity is as short-lived as a wildflower, so don’t ever count on it. You know that as soon as the sun rises, pouring down its scorching heat, the flower withers. Its petals wilt and, before you know it, that beautiful face is a barren stem. Well, that’s a picture of the “prosperous life.” At the very moment everyone is looking on in admiration, it fades away to nothing.

3.2 A brief meditation is offered or participants are invited to share the grace that they have received through the passages.

<silence>

3.3. Prayers for one another and/or the world
The apostle James challenges us to consider the tests and challenges that life brings our way as a gift for they force our faith-life into the open. But he also reminds us that we do not face them alone but with the help of the Father who loves us and listens to what we ask. So we pray this day – boldly, believingly – for those who are wilting and withering under life’s pressure and problems.

<as prayers are offered by the members, the candles are solemnly lifted up one by one and relit from the central flame as an invitation for Christ’s love to shine in the places of darkness and pain;>

The leader concludes:

Great God who set the sun in place and flung the night’s stars into space,
shine Your light upon our world with such power and compassion 
that the shadows of sin and shame, of worry and uncertainty may fade away;
touch the deep places of pain, of disappointment, of broken relationship 
with such healing warmth that hope and wholeness and health may bloom;
and colour our lives like sunset skies with perfect peace and joy everlasting.

Part 4: Bearing the light

4.1 Sharing the peace

<the peace of the Lord is shared with each person collecting a candle and offering it to another>

4.2. Benediction

<when all the candles have been given, the group blesses one another with the words:>  

The light of God surrounds us.
The love of God enfolds us.
The power of God protects us.
The presence of God watches over us.
Wherever we are, God is.
May we bear God’s light well.

4.3 A suitable piece of music is played or sung e.g. We’ll walk this land …

 

Salt, light, law alive – a starting point for educational reform

Pretend for a moment that you’re writing a Maths test. After struggling through it you come to a question which seems easy to answer and you breathe a deep sigh of relief that at least you’ll get these three marks. The question reads, “Bob has 39 slabs of chocolate. He eats 26 of them. What does Bob have now?”

Your answer? Brilliant! 39-26 is, indeed, 13. And you have guaranteed yourself 3 out of 3.

But suppose for a moment that you’re a a Primary School student who has never been very good at Maths, who has never had a regular, dedicated teacher, who feels anxious and ill-prepared before getting a paper full of questions in a language which he or she barely speaks at home. Suppose you miraculously remember that your uncle who is always in trouble with your aunt for eating too much chocolate because he has something called diabetes and you write that answer down confidently – what mark would your very inspired answer earn you?

And how would you feel … when your teacher asks you how you could have been so stupid, when your classmates laugh at your way of thinking, when you mom shakes her head in despair at yet another failure?

John Holt in his book in his famous book on education reform entitled “how children fail” writes:

When children are very young, they have natural curiosities about the world and explore them, trying diligently to figure out what is real. As they become “producers ” they fall away from exploration and start fishing for the right answers with little thought. They believe they must always be right, so they quickly forget mistakes and how these mistakes were made. They believe that the only good response from the teacher is “yes,” and that a “no” is defeat.”

The spin doctors in our country will tell you that our Department of Education is victorious in year-by-year overcoming the legacy of apartheid. Last year, for instance, we had a 78% pass rate for Matric which sounds fabulous but in reality that 78% is calculated from the approximately 50% of children who have made it all the way through from Grade 1 to their Grade 12 year. So we’re actually looking at about 42% of our young people who have not been labelled throughout their schooling as stupid, as failures.

And – of the 78% who passed – only 30% obtained university exemption. How many of that 30% can afford financially to take their hard-earned place at a tertiary institution?

Despite the fact that we spend about 6% of our GDP on Education, we are ranked almost last in the world in Science and Maths and also close to last in terms of our overall quality of education.

We are failing our children but, in the Good News, Matthew 5:13-20 proposes a way forward through three familiar images.

The first image is that of salt-seasoning. Jesus says to those who follow him,

Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavours of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage.

Educational reform does not begin with overhauling the Education system. It begins with people like you and me realizing that, as Christ followers, we have a unique flavor to offer society and, in particular, our youth and children.

As Christians we should stand up for and assert:

  1. the value of every individual – especially every child from whom we learn how to enter the kingdom of heaven, regardless of race, gender, language or sexual preference, socioeconomic class, or learning disability;
  2. the transforming nature of God’s redemptive love – including for the drug addict, the gang leader, the social outcast, the bully, the school slut sitting in our kids’ classes with whom we do not want them to associate;
  3. how all are called to love and care for each other and be active citizens in the Kingdom of God on earth. For John Wesley education at its best was a life-long process guided by the Holy Spirit towards personal and social holiness, and it was the best possible tool for evangelism, for training in godliness, and for the betterment of society. Learning may have started with the ABC’s but it didn’t stop until it had encompassed the growth of a whole person – morally, culturally, spiritually, as well as physically and intellectually – until each person had discovered what it means to be the full human beings that God intended us to be.

That’s a completely different paradigm to the competitive climate in our classes, to the culture of labelling and judging and ranking others, to our emphasis on regurgitating facts and meeting expectations rather than engaging with the world with curiosity and wonder.

But most of us have, as the Americans say, drunk the Kool-Aid; we’ve bought into a broken system which left most of us feeling bored, anxious, unworthy and tell our own kids how important it is that they fit in, shut up, settle down, and do what is expected – or they’ll never find a decent job, never be able to support a family, never make anything meaningful of their lives.

John Holt says:

We can best help children learn, not by deciding what we think they should learn and thinking of ingenious ways to teach it to them, but by making the world, as far as we can, accessible to them, paying serious attention to what they do, answering their questions — if they have any — and helping them explore the things they are most interested in.

And that’s where the second image of light-bearers comes in for, quite frankly, while we might acknowledge that we as Christians have an alternative way of looking at the world that can enrich our children’s experience of it, most of us abdicate any form of personal responsibility to the Christians in government, in school, in the teaching profession.

Yet Jesus said to those that he was teaching,

If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand – SHINE! Be generous with your lives.

One of the most prevalent issues in the children failing at school is a lack of parental involvement. During my years as a teacher I have listened to parents state categorically that due to the number of hours that their children are at school, teachers have primary responsibility for teaching not only skills like reading, writing and arithmetic but also for instilling the necessary values and for helping them with their problems. I’ve seen a father attack his son physically for failing a term though until the parent-teacher conference at which he received his son’s report, he had never once enquired as to how his child was doing or responded to requests that he come in and see me. I’ve heard tired, frustrated single moms admit that they would rather work longer shifts to pay for aftercare than have to sit down and help their children with homework at the end of a hard day.

And yes, within the church as we’ve appealed for people to help with our youth and children, some of us have laughingly said time and time again that God only calls special people to teach, that we don’t have the patience, and even that we come to church for some quiet time with God and don’t want to be bothered by our kids while we’re worshipping.

But just like salt that is useless if it loses its flavour, what is the point of having the light of Christ within us if we hoard it to ourselves? What is the value of being knowledgeable, if we will not pass that knowledge on? What is the purpose of attaining degree after degree if we’re not going to make a difference in the life of someone who is still learning? What is the significance of mastering a skill but being unable to master our impatience, our irritation, our dismissive attitudes towards young people?

We may not all feel called to be teachers. We may not possess the information or the ability to help someone with a Science project or to tutor an extra Maths class but we all have valuable life experience and a light that we are commanded to shine, to shine generously.

Surely, we can find an affirming word to offer. A smile for the child seated in the sanctuary. A question that we can answer. A story that we can share. A prayer that we can offer. A book that we can pass on. A skill that we can transfer. A half-an-hour that we can read to or be read to by a child who has been written off as slow or stupid. A garden from which children can pick flowers. A kitchen in which boys and girls can bake and share something delicious. An errand we can send an unsettled child on. A space beside us which a young person would fill if they knew they were wanted.

You see, one of the distinctive of the Gospel is that  a little seems to go a long way. Faith as small as a mustard seed is enough to move a mountain. A fisherman becomes the foundation of the church. 5 loaves of bread and 2 fishes feed a multitude of people. A pinch of salt flavors the whole pot. And a light, unless hidden under a bucket can illuminate a life.

We all have something to offer our children, our young people, so rather than empty excuses, may God show us how to be open and generous with our lives.

The final image is of God’s law alive.

Jesus cautioned his listeners:

Trivialize even the smallest item in God’s law and you will only have trivialized yourself. But take it seriously, show the way for others, and you will find honor in the kingdom. Unless you do far better than the Pharisees in the matters of right living, you won’t know the first thing about entering the kingdom.

John Holt, again, says that “We ask children to do for most of a day what few adults are able to do for even an hour. How many of us, attending, say, a lecture that doesn’t interest us, can keep our minds from wandering? Hardly any.”

And for most of our children – “our” meaning the children in our community, the children in our church, the children who are regularly in our presence – there is a huge disconnect between what we say as adults, what we actually do, and what we tell them to do.

It is a disconnect that contributes to their failure, their anxiety, and their confusion. It is a disconnect that leaves many adolescents questioning the authenticity and the value of our faith. It is a disconnect that leaves many, as soon as they are old enough to make their own decisions, walking away from the church and telling their friends for years to come about the hypocrisy that overshadowed any sense of God’s love for them.

If we want our children to grow up into honest, open-minded, compassionate individuals then they need to experience honesty, open-mindedness and compassion in the way that we deal with them. If we want them to take on the God-flavours and the God-colours of love and forgiveness and justice, then we need to offer them love and forgiveness and justice. If we want to cite God’s law at them to keep them from getting a tattoo or to teach them respect for the elders, then we’d better be prepared to talk about God’s commandments regarding sex, and drinking, and divorce. If we’re going to insist that they keep to the right and narrow way, then we have to make sure that that’s the way in which we’re walking. If we want them to know the Lord’s prayer, we shouldn’t be looking to send them off to a Christian school, we should be praying it with them, regularly!

Yet because they are children, they are expected to listen and obey rather than imitate and interrogate. We tell ourselves that one day, when they’re older, they’ll understand the nuances and the reasons why we could not always live up to what we said they should, that it’s in their best own interests that they just do what we say and not what we do to spare themselves some of the heartache and pain that we’ve experienced. But in making light of God’s law or of the innate ability within each human being – young and old – to know the difference between wrong and right, we simply make a mockery, a fool of ourselves; we invalidate our witness, we damage our credibility, and we distort our children’s capacity to trust us and, in turn, to be trusted.

***

This Education Sunday, I believe that God calls us not simply to partner with government or schools or teachers in improving the quality of our education but that in the images of salt, of light, of God’s law alive each one of us is being personally invited:

  1. to begin valuing our young people, our children as God’s unique and precious creations;
  2. to start considering what good thing we have to offer them;
  3. to honestly evaluate how our personal example brings them nearer to a loving God who calls us into a fulfilling life or pushes them further away.