Today’s song has long spoken into the very depths of my heart of the presence of God in the high and low places of my life.
When I am down, and, oh, my soul, so weary When troubles come, and my heart burdened be Then, I am still and wait here in the silence Until you come and sit awhile with me
You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains You raise me up to walk on stormy seas I am strong when I am on your shoulders You raise me up to more than I can be ….
You raise me up, today’s version performed by Josh Groban
It evokes, particularly, memories of many trips down from the inland plateau of the Highveld in which Johannesburg is located to the southern coast of Kwa-zulu Natal – for family holidays (both as a child and as a parent), formation for ministry, and silent retreat.
The long drive alone was often a wonderful time of contemplation and quiet as I watched the rolling plains give way to flat fields of wheat and sunflowers to the steep and winding pass through the mountains.
Always, I would stop for a cup of coffee and to stretch my legs just off of Van Reenen’s Pass … and to get my playlist ready for the next part of the journey. Always this song would play (very, very loudly and on repeat) as my eyes took in the wondrous beauty of God’s good creation in its green and browns and the play of light and dark on the open hills and leafy valleys.
Always, the words of the Psalmist would come to mind:
I lift up my eyes to the mountains— where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.
Psalm 121:1-2, New International Version
As you listen, may you feel the hands of God enfold you gently, offering you sufficient help for this day, and leading you into life in the wide open spaces of mercy and grace.
As I sat down to write this morning, I was quite convinced that I would offer in this space today something meaningful and important around the practice of silence in centering our lives around the wellspring of God’s Spirit.
Instead, Rory – my very adorable, very neurotic border collie-kelpie cross -rushed up the stairs to find me and ask what we were doing next. She was delighted to discover that I was about to settle down to work and promptly rushed off to find something of her own to occupy herself with ….
… a much loved half-chewed green squeaky toy that has lost its head but not, miraculously unfortunately, its ability to squeak.
As she threw it into the air and pounced upon it as it landed, I noted the irritation rising within me at each “squeak, squeak. SQUEAK SQUEAK!” I was trying to start my day off right. I was trying to have a quiet moment. I was trying to draw near to God.
As her toy flew in yet another wild arch across the bedroom, I heard deep within me the words “But I’m already here” and felt a sense of wonder and relief suffuse my spirit.
In trying to orchestrate a meaningful encounter with God, I was missing out on a special moment of companionship and unconditional love, of spontaneity and simple laughter.
As she lies quietly at my feet right now, I take a moment to appreciate how the light streams in through the bay windows. To listen to the birds singing just outside in the branches of a jacaranda tree. To smile at the mother walking past with two little ones on bicycles. And to see the presence of God in them all.
There is nothing that I need to do to make God draw near for God is here. This is what resurrection means.
So … the invitation today, the discipline for us to cultivate as we seek to live the resurrection life: be attentive. God is with you. Open your senses to what is happening in the world around you in this very moment and let that be the basis of your prayer – with or without words.
If you are reading this post, welcome to the first ever offering of “Saturday’s spirit” which focuses on tapping into the Spirit of God in our creativity, experience, and play. The language of these posts is deliberately family-friendly and draws on stories, prayers, and activities that I have accumulated over many, many, many years of wonderful engagement with youth and children but, speaking as someone well into her forties, no one is ever too old to get their hands dirty.
As we get ready to enter into Holy Week, today is all about palms. Normally, these refer to the branches that people laid before Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and which we often use to decorate our sanctuaries on Palm Sunday. Given, current circumstances, we will use the palms we have at hand – don’t excuse the pun!
A playful prayer:
Before this prayer is offered, you may want to talk about tomorrow being Palm Sunday and what that means. Acknowledge the ways in which we normally celebrate it as church and how we can celebrate it this year using the palms of our hands. As you pray (you can repeat the prayer two or three times to get into the mood of it), wave your hands about, clap, and cheer.
We sing and clap and wave and cheer for Jesus, who come riding near.
We cheer and wave and clap and sing to welcome Jesus as our King.
The Lion Book of a 1000 prayers for children.
The story of Jesus entering in Jerusalem can be found in Matthew 21:1-11. You can read the story together or watch a short youtube clip:
Jesus and his followers were coming closer to Jerusalem. But first they stopped at Bethphage at the hill called the Mount of Olives. From there Jesus sent two of his followers into the town. He said to them, “Go to the town you can see there. When you enter it, you will find a donkey tied there with its colt. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone asks you why you are taking the donkeys, tell him, ‘The Master needs them. He will send them back soon.’” This was to make clear the full meaning of what the prophet said:
“Tell the people of Jerusalem, ‘Your king is coming to you. He is gentle and riding on a donkey. He is on the colt of a donkey.’”
The followers went and did what Jesus told them to do. They brought the donkey and the colt to Jesus. They laid their coats on the donkeys, and Jesus sat on them. Many people spread their coats on the road before Jesus. Others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.Some of the people were walking ahead of Jesus. Others were walking behind him. All the people were shouting,
“Praise to the Son of David! God bless the One who comes in the name of the Lord! Praise to God in heaven!”
Then Jesus went into Jerusalem. The city was filled with excitement. The people asked, “Who is this man?”
The crowd answered, “This man is Jesus. He is the prophet from the town of Nazareth in Galilee.”
International Children’s Bible
An Easter bouquet
Today’s activity is as messy as you want to make it. It can be done using poster paints and a large piece of cardboard – all together – or individually with pencils and pens.
If you are working collaboratively with paint, start by painting the vase/pot and as many stalks as there are members in your family. Once they have dried, have each person dip their hands into a shallow bowl of poster paint and then carefully press it on to form a “palm” flower. If you would like to use this as a more prayerful activity, have each person name someone that they are thinking of at the moment and miss having physical contact with.
Alternatively, the pot and stalk can be drawn in pencil with hands traced to create the flowers. The picture can then be coloured in. Make sure that your Easter bouquet goes on display!
God, we weep – we weep for we have no words to adequately express the worry that sits so heavily within our hearts: worry for infants that live but a few days, worry for the elderly who will not see out their lifetime, worry for those whose current health issues or socio-economic circumstances place them at great risk ….
Hear our cry of distress and help us to hear again Your promise: “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.”
Offer us this day, a moment of joy, a minute of delight, that we may look ahead with hope and longing to the forever-song that we will sing with gladness as we feast at Your table.
Welcome friends, fellow pilgrims on the way to God’s promised end in this time of disaster, disease and dis-ease when many of us feel truly anxious and alone in the wilderness ….
Yet, as we gather in new ways and in new times and in new spaces like this one, we remember that it was through the ascension of Christ and his return to the Father, that we have received the gift of the Holy Spirit who dwells within each one of us and is with us even now, ensuring a deep and spiritual connection with all the heroes of the faith who have gone before us and with the whole host of heaven. So, in faith, let us pray:
Gracious, gathering God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, from the beginning, connected, and through the connection, creative, and in all creation, communing
with Your children who You fashioned in Your image, wove together with Your own hands, named “beloved,” and called according to Your good purpose and plan, how wonderful, how truly delightful it isto enter this day into the sweet harmony of Your salvation song:
Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
As we gather together in this moment with all our sisters and brothers across time and space, may the togetherness of our spirits be a source of blessing and a sigh of our deep yearning for the day when You will gather all things up in heaven and on earth into Your perfect peace -forever and ever. Amen.
Our Good News comes today from John 9 and I read from The Passion Translation.
Afterward, as Jesus walked down the street, he noticed a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Teacher, whose sin caused this guy’s blindness, his own, or the sin of his parents?”
Jesus answered, “Neither. It happened to him so that you could watch him experience God’s miracle. While I am with you, it is daytime and we must do the works of God who sent me while the light shines. For there is coming a dark night when no one will be able to work. As long as I am with you my life is the light that pierces the world’s darkness.”
Then Jesus spat on the ground and made some clay with his saliva. Then he anointed the blind man’s eyes with the clay. And he said to the blind man, “Now go and wash the clay from your eyes in the ritual pool of Siloam.” So he went and washed his face and as he came back, he could see for the first time in his life!
This caused quite a stir among the people of the neighbourhood, for they noticed the blind beggar was now seeing! They began to say to one another, “Isn’t this the blind man who once sat and begged?” Some said, “No, it can’t be him!” Others said, “But it looks just like him—it has to be him!” All the while the man kept insisting, “I’m the man who was blind!”
Finally, they asked him, “What has happened to you?”
He replied, “I met the man named Jesus! He rubbed clay on my eyes and said, ‘Go to the pool named Siloam and wash.’ So I went and while I was washing the clay from my eyes I began to see for the very first time ever!”
So the people of the neighbourhood inquired, “Where is this man?”
“I have no idea.” the man replied.
So the people marched him over to the Pharisees to speak with them.
They were concerned because the miracle Jesus performed by making clay with his saliva and anointing the man’s eyes happened on a Sabbath day, a day that no one was allowed to “work.”
Then the Pharisees asked the man, “How did you have your sight restored?”
He replied, “A man anointed my eyes with clay, then I washed, and now I can see for the first time in my life!”
Then an argument broke out among the Pharisees over the healing of the blind man on the Sabbath. Some said, “This man who performed this healing is clearly not from God! He doesn’t even observe the Sabbath!” Others said, “If Jesus is just an ordinary sinner, how could he perform a miracle like that?”
This prompted them to turn on the man healed of blindness, putting him on the spot in front of them all, demanding an answer. They asked, “Who do you say he is—this man who opened your blind eyes?”
“He’s a prophet of God!” the man replied.
Still refusing to believe that the man had been healed and was truly blind from birth, the Jewish leaders called for the man’s parents to be brought to them.
So they asked his parents, “Is this your son?”
“Yes,” they answered.
“Was he really born blind?”
“Yes, he was,” they replied.
So they pressed his parents to answer, “Then how is it that he’s now seeing?”
“We have no idea,” they answered. “We don’t know what happened to our son. Ask him, he’s a mature adult. He can speak for himself.” (Now the parents were obviously intimidated by the Jewish religious leaders, for they had already announced to the people that if anyone publicly confessed Jesus as the Messiah, they would be excommunicated. That’s why they told them, “Ask him, he’s a mature adult. He can speak for himself.”)
So once again they summoned the man who was healed of blindness and said to him, “Swear to God to tell us the truth! We know the man who healed you is a sinful man! Do you agree?”
The healed man replied, “I have no idea what kind of man he is. All I know is that I was blind and now I can see for the first time in my life!”
“But what did he do to you?” they asked. “How did he heal you?”
The man responded, “I told you once and you didn’t listen to me. Why do you make me repeat it? Are you wanting to be his followers too?”
This angered the Jewish leaders. They heaped insults on him, “We can tell you are one of his followers—now we know it! We are true followers of Moses, for we know that God spoke to Moses directly. But as for this one, we don’t know where he’s coming from!”
“Well, what a surprise this is!” the man said. “You don’t even know where he comes from, but he healed my eyes and now I can see! We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners, but only to godly people who do his will. Yet who has ever heard of a man born blind that was healed and given back his eyesight? I tell you, if this man isn’t from God, he wouldn’t be able to heal me like he has!”
Some of the Jewish leaders were enraged and said, “Just who do you think you are to lecture us! You were born a blind, filthy sinner!” So they threw the man out in the street.
When Jesus learned they had thrown him out, he went to find him and said to him, “Do you believe in the Son of God?”
The man whose blind eyes were healed answered, “Who is he, Master? Tell me so that I can place all my faith in him.”
Jesus replied, “You’re looking right at him. He’s speaking with you. It’s me, the one in front of you now.”
Then the man threw himself at his feet and worshiped Jesus and said, “Lord, I believe in you!”
And Jesus said, “I have come to judge those who think they see and make them blind. And for those who are blind, I have come to make them see.”
Some of the Pharisees were standing nearby and overheard these words.
They interrupted Jesus and said, “You mean to tell us that we are blind?”
Jesus told them, “If you would acknowledge your blindness, then your sin would be removed. But now that you claim to see, your sin remains with you!”
*** It’s an interesting way to start a story, isn’t it?
The disciples see a man afflicted from birth by blindness and their immediate assumption is that somewhere along the line someone in his family must have done something terrible to deserve this punishment.
Their question reveals as much about their culture as it does about their picture of God, their notion of justice, and the attitudes that they have towards others that have been ingrained since birth by teachers and parents and rabbis and priests. It is a wonder, actually, that they did not spit on the ground and curse at him as they passed him by.
Yet, Jesus does not just walk on without seeing both the need of this man and the opportunity to open the eyes of his disciples to shine a light wherever it is dark.
As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that the physical limitation of the man born blind is far more easily remedied than the disbelief of his neighbours, the rigid and enraged hearts of the religious leaders, and the fearfulness of the man’s family of being thrown out in the street – excommunicated from their faith community if they celebrate that something miraculous has happened to their son and publicly confess Jesus as the Messiah.
By the end of the story, we only hear account of one man – the blind man – seeing with new eyes Jesus, the Son of God, as the source of his healing and salvation and declaring, “Lord, I believe in you!”
I wonder what the disciples believed in this moment; how watching the interaction between Jesus and this so-called cursed creature and then Jesus and their Jewish leaders may have challenged what they thought they knew about the world and people’s place in it.
On Thursday morning, I felt that I had woken up in a new world as we, in the Uniting Church in Australia, have been urged – like churches in other denominations throughout the world – to cease meeting in person for the common good of all on our planet, but particularly the most vulnerable in our midst.
COVID-19 follows so closely after the devastating bushfires and a period of prolonged drought and other natural disasters that we must surely say, “This is the dark night when no one is able to work.”
Yet, as spit on the ground could be used to open the eyes of those who desire to see, this time in our life as God’s Church, challenges all who believe in the Son of God, to become signs of His presence with us and lights that pierce the world’s darkness.
As we are challenged by this dark time to forgo many of our religious traditions and rituals, to think about what we know of the world and people’s place within it, and to embody the healing and transforming power and presence of Jesus, let us be particularly mindful of those who feel forgotten as the public eye has shifted so quickly from the horrors of this summer and a long, dry season to this global pandemic.
Let us be mindful of vulnerable communities throughout the world whose little access to adequate healthcare or good nutrition or sufficient space to self-isolate or maintain social distance places them at great risk.
Let us be mindful of the elderly in our midst, and, especially, those on their own who already feel isolated, and who cherish the company offered in physical gatherings and in the peace passed by human touch.
Let us be mindful of those whose names we have forgotten, who have been on the margins of our Christian communities or ceased to worship a long while ago due to difficult family circumstance and ill health, and may slip through the cracks in our care
Let us be mindful of all who have already been struggling day in and day out with cancer, and depression, domestic violence, and addiction, broken relationships, and financial concerns.
Let us be mindful of those whose employment makes them vulnerable to infection and those whose employment and income are currently at risk.
Let us be mindful of individuals and families who can neither celebrate wonderful moments nor grieve great losses as they would normally do.
As I end with an encircling prayer, I invite you to write down some of the names of people and places that come to mind as we consider those who are especially impacted and to lay them out on a piece of cloth or a scarf which you will fold over them each time you hear the word “encircler” – just as Christ covered the man’s eyes with spit and mud his act of healing.
Let us pray (adapted from the Carmina Gadelica III):
My Christ! My Christ! My shield, my encircler, Each day, each night, each light, each dark: My Christ! My Christ! My shield, my encircler, Each day, each night, each light, each dark.
Be near us, uphold us, our treasure, our triumph, in our lying, in our standing, in our watching, in our sleeping.
Jesus, Son of Man! Our helper, our encircler, Jesus, Son of God! Our strength everlasting: Jesus, Son of Man! Our helper, our encircler, Jesus, Son of God! Our strength everlasting. Amen.
It’s good to be back in Pilgrim’s familiar sanctuary space after a couple of weeks on leave, to feel the soft comfort of the carpet beneath my feet, to watch the light dance in from the windows, to see crayons and cushions and kids’s books waiting to be put to use in Sunday’s worship ….
My heart thrills with the memories of a moving Advent|Christmas|Epiphany journey: ~ of a giant star and shepherds adorning the roof to proclaim the story, ~ of old carols sung with great joy, ~ of a bare Christmas tree brought to life with each week’s additions, ~ of children baking gingerbread biscuits for morning tea, ~ of seekers walking the labyrinth, ~ of heartfelt and spontaneous communal prayer for the world’s great need, ~ of hands stretched out in comfort and fellowship to those evacuated from the fires, ~ of a little church in Mangoplah absolutely packed on Christmas Eve with friends and families from across the Southern Region bound together by song and food and laughter ….
For us as a family, there has also been the usual jumble of emotions after the departure of visiting family, the announcement of long-awaited HSC results, two trips to the emergency room to patch up injuries, the death of a beloved pet, the long monotony of the school holidays punctuated sporadically by family outings and a seasonal cold, end-of-year cleaning out and tidying up, and a seemingly endless stream of washing ….
This is both the gift and the mystery of the Incarnation for me – that God is to be found not only in the sacred and the special but in this moment of this day: in the slow typing of text across this page, in the faces of the people passing by (some clearly happy and others decidedly unhappy), in mundane discussions about telephones and storage, in items checked off the to-do list, and a quiet moment in which to savour a sip of coffee and daydream for a while.
As Benedictine sister Joan Chittister prays:
Loving God, You who dwell in our hearts, make for us a cave there in which to hear your voice more distinctly, feel your care more tenderly, understand your will more clearly, and come to know your presence at every moment of our lives with new clarity and new courage, with new faith and new urgency.
May the presence of the Christ-child grow with and in you, today and always.
On Sunday, at Pilgrim, we encountered the prophets: people who come so close to God and who God comes so close to that they know the most important things.
In particular, the prophet Isaiah inspired us with the promise:
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The sanctuary was full of the colour purple to remind us that we have entered into a time of great mystery, and circles to show us that this is God’s time in which every beginning has an ending and every ending, a beginning.
The sanctuary was also full of laughter and conversation as we shared Harry’s story (keep an ear out for tomorrow’s blog post – and I do mean an ear), offered one another peace, ate together in Holy Communion, and coloured in a lovely little Advent calendar with all the characters of the Christmas story (mainly the kids, but I must confess that I’m still working on one that I brought home with me).
Our worship service was a wonderful start to the Advent season as we welcomed over 20 visitors who were part of the sacraments training held by the Riverina Presbytery. We were greatly blessed by their energy, their insights, and their company for morning tea.
Using name tags from last week’s High-Five Anniversary to which we’d added the names of our visitors and those who had been away, we prayed for one another in the simple act of holding each others’ names between our hands as a sign of the love, hope, peace, and joy enfolding each person.
We continue to pray for those in the place of pain due to bushfires and the ongoing drought.
God of gatherings, turnings and imaginings, you make all things possible through Christ. Inspire us with new vision, and the wisdom of ancient dreams. Give us strength to walk together until we come to our eternal home – the place of peace and plenty. In Jesus’s name. Amen.
We would love to have you join us next week as we travel a little further – this time with Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem where she gives birth to a little baby boy.