A reflection written for Marlborough’s Tower and Town
Old friends, old scenes, will lovelier be, as more of heaven in each we see; some softening gleam of love and prayer shall dawn on every cross and care.
After six years in Marlborough, I am writing this last clergy letter for Tower and Town amidst packed moving boxes, in front of the computer screen used for leading Sunday worship in the past three months, when our Churches were closed.
As for many others, these weeks of lock-down have given me a lot of time to reflect – or to overthink, depending on the day. There are two thoughts that keep coming back to me. Firstly, how lucky I have been to have something to be looking forward to: a new job, and a new place, new challenges and opportunities. Secondly, how my time in Marlborough, spent with you, has made me so much better prepared for whatever lies ahead of me.
Reflection on the story of the Good Shepherd Fourth Sunday of Easter: Psalm 23 & John 1.1-10
Our readings this morning make us reflect on God in the familiar image of the Good Shepherd. Although not many of us still live in a place where shepherding is a common profession, the Biblical stories have become very much part of our Western narrative, even for those who would not call themselves Christians.
That of course comes with its risks, because the way we imagine a shepherd nowadays, will have been very different from what they may have looked and behaved like two millennia ago. However, I don’t want to dwell on that thought too much, but rather share a story that made me think of the Good Shepherd a few weeks ago. I was out on my daily round of exercise on Granham Hill, just around the corner from where I live. Usually there are sheep roaming around at a distance, and the only interaction between them and me is a curious look at one another.
However, on this particular day, one of the sheep was stuck in some barbed wire. Being reminded of my pastoral profession, I felt a duty to see if there was anything I could do. Slowly I approached the sheep, at the same time not trying to scare it as well as thinking how I would go about freeing it. Whilst I was still at a good distance, the sheep was so shocked by my appearance, that this in itself was enough for it to free itself, and quickly it ran away.
For many of us – we who are not on the frontline in medicine, care or retail – the experience of the global pandemic could be described as a prolonged Holy Saturday. A time of waiting, without knowing what lies ahead of us; without being able to do very much. This inability to help is hard for many of us, whether we have children who we desperately want to help, or elderly relatives, or people we know who depend on help in our local communities.
I suspect that it is very much like the experience that the early disciples, Jesus’ friends and followers and his family had. Still in shock after the events on Good Friday, his sudden arrest followed by his brutal crucifixion, now there is nothing they can do.
Good Friday is a day on which I often feel torn. It’s in many countries the start of a long bank-holiday weekend, so the ideal time to visit friends and enjoy the time together. Yet, today of all days in the year, I find it hard to enjoy myself. I feel disturbed: somehow it feels inappropriate to have fun. Yet, should I really let this event from the past – an event at which I was not even present – control my feelings, rather than what is happening today, in the present?
I suspect that this is a feeling to which many can relate, particularly in a time of grief. When we mourn the loss of a loved one, it can feel wrong to continue with our daily tasks. It can become hard even to eat, to get up, let alone to read the newspaper or to smile at a funny comment. For me, it is one of the most compelling reasons that the famous line in the poem ‘death is nothing at all’ is plainly wrong.
A reflection for Maundy Thursday John 13.1–17,31b–35
Today is Maundy Thursday. The word Maundy comes from the Latin ‘mandatum’, commandment, as this is the day on which Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment: “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another (John 13.34). This day is the last day of Jesus’ life as a free man. After his last supper with his friends, when he washes their feet, breaks the bread and blesses the wine, Jesus will go out to pray. It is here that he is betrayed by Judas and taken by the authorities to be crucified the next day.
I suspect that for many of us this year, the thought of death and dying has been in our minds. Maybe today is an opportunity to think a little bit about our own mortality. For those of you who know me, I am not the person to make it too heavy, but there is a time and a place to consider the transition from our earthly life, shared with those whom we love, to our heavenly life, where we will find ourselves in the presence of God.
A reflection for Wednesday in Holy Week Luke 22.54-end
As I already wrote in an earlier reflection this week, accepting our own limitations is one of the spiritual challenges that we face in these weeks of uncertainty, loss and isolation. A letter written from Italy in the Guardian last week put it rather well and in Luke’s Gospel this morning we hear the story of Peter, the disciple who epitomises our inability to be committed and faithful.
I am sure that I am not the only one who finds it very easy to relate to Peter’s story in which he denied Jesus three times before the cock crowed. Peter was one of Jesus most faithful followers; knowing that he would deny Jesus must have grieved him deeply. Indeed, it had a great impact on both men, as we hear that also Peter himself wept bitterly when he realised that Jesus’ predication had come true.
A reflection for the Tuesday of Holy Week Luke 22.24-53
In countries across Europe exam boards have decided to cancel all school exams. In England this means that pupils will get teacher-assessed grades this year. There has been much controversy over the decision to cancel the exams, rather than postponing them, and the debate on how precisely teacher should assess their pupils is still on-going.
Some have mentioned that cancelling the exam was unfair: you cannot change the rules of a game this late on, so the argument goes. Pupils have a right to exam-assessed grades, as this is the goal to which they had worked. This comment made me think. Of course, it is not fair to change the goal posts at this late a stage. Most of us will remember the indignant feeling as children when our peers did exactly that: changing the rules of the game we were playing. However, we also have to admit that some situations require the rules to change, and we find ourselves in one of those situations.
A reflection for the Monday of Holy Week
I have to admit that yesterday’s speech from the Queen made me cry. Indeed, particularly when she referred to her first radio broadcast together with her sister in 1940. However, being honest, the words ‘The Queen’ on the screen and the camera shot of Windsor Castle were enough to set me off. Talking to a couple of friends afterwards, I was not the only one.
Why does a speech like the one on Sunday has the capacity to move people so profoundly? I would like to suggest that it is because it reminds us that we matter; that we are part of a story with cosmic significance and each have a part to play. That story is the story of humanity, the story of God with us.
The story transcends our time and space: it is not just a cultural phenomenon which can be explained entirely sociologically – although others may disagree. To illustrate: notwithstanding my great respect for Queen Elizabeth and having sworn an Oath of Allegiance to her, she has not been my Queen from young age, as I grew up in The Netherlands. So we see, at least for me it is not the language of nationhood, a belonging to the Commonwealth, that matters, but something greater.
Possibly the most important thing I have done in my life, I did on a Palm Sunday. I was on my way to church, particularly looking forward to receiving a fresh green palm branch, sprinkled with the water of Baptism. As I cycled the short distance from home to church, I passed a friend, also member of our congregation, who was talking to a young woman.
Something made me turn around, and ask if they were ok. The young woman had fallen of her bike and my friend, who was training as a medic at the time as well as being church warden, said it would be better for her to be checked out at the hospital. I offered to pick up my car and drive her, and that is what happened. She wasn’t badly injured, and it took a little persuasion to tell her not to go home. After having dropped her of at A&E, I went back to church, just in time for the last hymn – and the coffee!
As I am writing this, it is the Saturday before Palm Sunday. This year, Holy Week will be very different from the previous times we have prepared for our Easter celebrations. Our experience this year will bring us closer to the experience of the first followers of Jesus: they too saw a crisis unfolding in front of them, without knowing where it would lead them. I suspect that this is the first time that we really share in their uncertainty, rather than knowing the outcome of the story already.
One of the questions I asked myself today was what the disciples were doing on the day before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem? What were they doing to prepare for the unknown as they travelled towards the city?