Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Road behind and ahead

Nikon D70s, f25, 1 sec, ISO 200, 60mm equivalent

Holy Week is perhaps the busiest of the year.  There are lots of visits to be made to those in Nursing Homes and the Hospital and numerous housebound parishioners, most of which (I think) appreciate a visit in the days before Easter.  It is interesting how the run-up to Easter is done slightly differently in each parish.  I'm not the sort of person to say "We'll do it my way", I like to learn what has happened before and try to build on that (at least that's in theory).  

I think back over the past five months since our arrival and I have learnt so much just simply by observing how things are done and have been done here.  My predecessor was (and is) a very gifted person and also a very thoughtful one.  He has left me really helpful notes on what was done before so now for example I can look at the Holy Week services from last year and not copy them but use them as a basis for this year also.  Over time things will change as we all learn and grow together on the Journey...  

For any that are interested in the photo, it was taken as I was driving (slowly and carefully) along the road past Kilmalooda church.  I had previously set up the camera the way I wanted it - an exposure of one second to give the blur and sense of movement and a polarising filter to enable the longer shutter speed.  Of course the result may look like a mistake but it is something akin to the image I had in my mind beforehand - like an impressionist painting.  

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Garden Colour

Nikon D70s, f4.5, 1/30 sec, ISO 220, 127mm equivalent

Nikon D70s, f4.5, 1/60 sec, ISO 200, 127mm equivalent

Nikon D70s, f8, 1/250 sec, ISO 200, 112mm equivalent

It's wonderful to have a stroll around the garden and see everything coming to life, especially after such a long, cold winter.  There are of course the great parallels with Easter - New Life, New Beginnings etc.  It is as if the whole of Creation points us towards God:
Open your eyes and there it is! By taking a long and thoughtful look at what God has created, people have always been able to see what their eyes as such can't see: eternal power, for instance, and the mystery of his divine being.  (Romans 1:20 The Message)
St. Augustine said:
Ask the earth and the sea, the plains and the mountains, the sky and the clouds, the stars and the sun, the fish and animals, and all of them will say, "We are beautiful because God made us." This beauty is their testimony to God.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Church on the HIll

Nikon F100, Nikkor 18-35 f3.5-4.5 D, Ilford FP4 Plus (ISO 125)

I thought it was about time I put up a picture of some of the church buildings in the parish.  Others to follow in due course but first up is Kilgarriffe Church in Clonakilty.  This photo was taken on St. Patrick's Day and I have just developed the film so it is only appearing now.  The building dates from 1818 and is situated on a hill (and so is known locally as "The Church on the Hill").  What more can I say - the people who go there are far more interesting than the building itself!

Regular visitors to this blog will have noticed a slight redesign - this was forced upon me when I was trying out Google's Chrome Browser.  Somehow it managed to make a few layout changes without my telling it to.   I'm a bit scared of tinkering with HTML and have not managed to undo all the damage but I am pleased with the slightly new layout for the moment.

Friday, March 19, 2010

A Precious Perfume

Note: I don't have any pictures of Spikenard, so this Lavender photo that I took at the Eden Project a few years ago (that I have Ortonized in Photoshop Elements) will have to do ;~)

Today's Sermon: John 12:1-8

What is the most precious object that you own? How special is it to you? Would you be prepared to give it away in order to say 'thank you' to Jesus? That's a tough one isn't it! Not long after we were married, my wife and I were given a car by some friends of ours - it was a fairly old car though it was in good condition. It was an amazing act of undeserved favour - our friends had very little money and they wanted to give something that not only would be of great help to us but would be a way of saying 'thank you' to God for the many ways in which he had blessed them. To this day, that couple and their children are amongst the happiest people we know. It's a principle that I see time and time again, that the happiest people are also the most generous people and of course the reverse is true also, the more we try and hold on to things for ourselves the less happy we will be.

In today's reading from John's Gospel, the Lord Jesus is welcomed as Guest of honour at the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha. We know Mary and Martha from the time when Jesus went to their house before and Martha was rushing around preparing food and tidying whilst Mary sat at Jesus' feet and listened to what he had to say. Of course we remember too the story of Lazarus, where Jesus raised him from the dead after he had been in the tomb for four days.

So they have this special dinner for Jesus and there are a number of other guests there also. True to form, it is the busy Martha that serves them and John tells us casually that Lazarus was one of those sat around the table with Jesus. It's funny how relaxed it all is, here is a man who was dead and in his tomb and yet now he is alive again. He is not a ghost or some kind of apparition, he is able to sit down and walk around and breathe and talk and eat! Lazarus is a walking talking miracle!

Mary, Martha and Lazarus love Jesus. People express their love for Jesus in different ways. The way that Mary expresses her love is very special and beautiful. She expresses her love and gratitude to Jesus using a pound (that is nearly half a kilogram) of perfume made of pure nard. Now Nard (or Spikenard as it is sometimes called) is no ordinary perfume. It is a flowering plant of the Valerian family that grows in the Himalayas of China, India and Nepal. The plant grows to about 1 metre in height and has pink, bell-shaped flowers. It has rhizomes (underground stems), which can be crushed and distilled into an intensely aromatic amber-colored essential oil, which is very thick in consistency (from Wikipedia). So imagine in those days getting a perfume from the Himalayas overland on camel-back thorough countless mountain passes some 3,500 miles to Israel! No wonder it was a very expensive and very precious perfume.

In those days the men would have eaten separately from the women and they would have been inclined on couches around a low table. Mary is probably standing as an attendant, she comes from behind Jesus and breaking open an alabaster jar pours this very precious oil over him and especially on his feet. She then unties her hair and wipes Jesus’ feet. There is such an abundance of oil that it has to be dried up!

This is a truly wonderful act of worship. Mary doesn’t care about what the other guests might think as she pours out her heart and her soul and her most expensive possession as an act of worship. It is wonderful when we can do that too, when we can worship Jesus with every ounce of our being and not let any inhibitions get in the way.

The moment of transcendence is broken by the voice of Judas who says:

“Why was the perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (v.5)

A legitimate question perhaps. This was after all very expensive perfume. I did a bit of maths. A Denarius was the amount a laborer was given for a days work. So the minimum wage today is €8.65 an hour so say at 37 hours a week and with six weeks unpaid holiday a year that is roughly €14,000 in today’s money. That was one very expensive jar of perfume and one very extravagant act of worship! To Judas this looks like unjustifiable extravagance. He gives the impression that he cares for the poor but John sadly tells us that he was, in fact a thief.

So Mary is now surrounded by disapproval, Mark tells us in his account that others joined in Judas’ indignance. Yet amid all those stern faces and mocking tones there is One face and One voice which approves of what Mary has done - and it is the only voice which matters, that of the Lord Himself. Jesus knows why Mary did this incredible thing, he says:

“Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” (v.8)

Mary knew what she was doing. She knew that there were many who wanted to kill Jesus, many who were jealous of Him. She knew that it was only a matter of time before He was killed by His enemies – had He not said so Himself numerous times? She had bought this jar to anoint Jesus’ body for burial. This might be her last chance to do so, her last opportunity; she might not be able to get this close to him again. Mary knows that she owes so much to Jesus; she owes him her salvation and the recovery of her brother Lazarus from the dead. Her whole life has been utterly transformed by Jesus, the pouring out of fragrant perfume was both a natural and from the heart act of devotion and worship. Having freely received, she freely gave.

Jesus makes it clear that His time is coming to an end. The poor will always be with them, He would not. Just now, at this moment, anointing Him for burial was the more important thing to do. The responsibility and privilege of caring for the poor would be for the church through the ages. Matthew and Mark in their accounts of this story add Jesus’ beautiful promise:

“I tell you the truth, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” (Matthew 26:13)

There is an unfortunate contrast between Judas and Mary. It is natural for the reader or listener of the story to ask themselves the question as to which character most represents them. Unless we can appreciate what Christ has done for us we can have no sense of the level of debt that we owe Him. Even if we were the able to give the whole world and all its riches it would not be sufficient to pay the debt we owe. When the penny drops, when we finally realize, then we will hold back nothing from the One who gave His everything, even His life for us upon the cross.

So as we consider our possessions and the most precious things that we own, suddenly they don’t seem so valuable any more. How can we not love Jesus? How can we not feel as Mary did when we know that our sins are forgiven, when we know that we have peace with God when we know that we shall be with Him in heaven for eternity?!

Let us pray that our faith will not be like that of Judas, a mere temporary impression, like the morning cloud and early dew which lasts only for a season. Let us pray that our faith will be like that of Mary: real, true, genuine and sincere, a faith free to express itself, not caring what others will say or think, a faith that is the result of accepting God’s love, God’s grace, and a faith that is the result of a living relationship with our Lord, Saviour, Master and Friend, Jesus Christ, Amen.

See also:

J.C. Ryle, “Expository Thoughts on the Gospels”, John Volume II, James Clarke & Co. 1969.
William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary, John, Banner of Truth Press, 1998

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Watching and Waiting

Nikon F100, Nikkor 28-105 f3.5-4.5 D, Ilford FP4 plus (ISO 125), (Click to enlarge)

We were putting out some old dried bread onto the bird table with the unmistakable feeling of being watched. I turned around and there they were, waiting for us to leave so that they could tuck in! Someone commenting on this picture on photo.net said it was like something out of a Hitchcock film, maybe the black and white makes it look a bit sinister but in reality it was quite funny - we weren't attacked by them or anything.

Waiting patiently for things is not a forte of mine so maybe these birds have a lesson to teach me. Also I am reminded of some lovely words from Psalm 130
I wait for the LORD, my whole being waits,
and in his word I put my hope.

I wait for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The return of the "Prodigal Son"

Nikon D70s, 1/500 sec, f10, -1/3 EV ISO 200 (Bigger)
"Waiting on Shore", Rosses Point, Co. Sligo

Today's Sermon, Text Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 (Mothering Sunday)

Facebook is sometimes in the news for bad reasons but there is also plenty about it that is good too. One of the good things about it is that it brings people who had lost contact together again. Here’s an example: When Avril Grube's marriage came to an end in 1982, she decided to remain in her hometown of Poole in Dorset, while her husband returned to his native country of Hungary. The couple had one son, Gavin, of whom Avril was awarded sole custody. Avril's husband was only given visitation rights.
One day, while in town to visit his son, Avril's ex-husband asked to take Gavin to the local zoo. Avril agreed, and off the two went for a day of fun. As day turned into night, however, Avril became worried. She waited and waited for them to return, but they never did. She would soon learn that Gavin's father had taken the boy back to Hungary.
For years Avril and her sister searched for Gavin, going so far as to take up their case with former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the authorities at the Hungarian Embassy. But their efforts were fruitless. Over time, Avril slowly lost hope of ever seeing her son again.
But 27 years later—27 years—she found him.
In March of 2009, Avril's sister typed Gavin's name into an internet search engine and found his Facebook profile. Avril and her sister immediately started sending him messages. When Gavin didn't respond—they later learned he doesn't use his account much—they started messaging his children, who also had Facebook accounts. Eventually, the two finally reconnected after so many years apart.
"She is absolutely on cloud nine," Avril's sister told a reporter for the BBC. "They have been hugging—really, really happy."
Brian Lowery, managing editor, PreachingToday.com; source: BBC News, "'Kidnapped son' found on Facebook" (5-29-09)

The parable of the ‘Prodigal Son’, (as it is often known), is probably familiar to most of us. It is a very powerful, moving and challenging story about a Father and his two sons. This being Mothers’ Day, it is not too hard to apply the role of the Father to that of the Mother also. Most parents of grown-up children will be able to relate (at least a little) to what the Father goes through, and all of us (as God’s children) know what it is like (at least a little bit) to be like that ‘Prodigal son’. The older son is typical, taking responsibility and protocol seriously and the younger son too is typical (perhaps stereotypical) as carefree and with little or no understanding of duty or respect.

So we begin with the younger son saying to his father ‘give me my share of the estate’. He wants his inheritance NOW! He is naive and has little or no sense of worth or respect. He seems to be only thinking about himself and what he wants. Why does the Father agree to this very unusual request? Perhaps we wonder why God lets the sinner go his or her own way. Why doesn’t God stop them, we ask? Perhaps sometimes the only way we can learn is by learning the hard way.

So the property is divided between the two sons. The younger son collects together everything he has and sets off for a distant country. What does he do? We are simply told that he ‘squandered his wealth in wild living.’ In the original language it reads that he ‘scattered his resources’, it is like he literally throws his money away. Now he is penniless things get even worse. A severe famine comes over the foreign country where he is. Desperate for a job, the only thing he can find is one feeding pigs (a job that would have been very dishonouring for a Jew, for whom pigs were ‘unclean’ (see Leviticus 11:7)). So he has hit rock bottom, even the food that the pigs are getting is better than what he has. Here is the lostness of a sinner - but at least he realises it, many people today are lost and do not realise it.

At last, in the hour of his deepest need, he begins to come to his senses. Even his Fathers servants have a much better life. To be outside of God’s family is to be utterly alone. So he makes plans to return home. It was only a short time ago that he couldn’t wait to get away from home, now he can’t wait to return, no matter if he is only hired as a slave when he gets there.

He has a thin thread of hope that his Father will take him on a a slave, perhaps after a severe telling-off and punishment. Little did he know what was about to happen. He might have for a time forgotten all about his Father, but his Father never forgot about him. There may have been times in our lives when we have forgotten all about God as we have gone away from Him, but he never forgets about us.

But the son doesn’t even get near his home before something extraordinary happens. The Father couldn’t care about protocol, with unconditional loving abandonment, not caring what anyone else thinks or says he runs, yes he runs to his son. His heart is overflowing with love and compassion. He drapes his arms around his child and kisses him. The son manages to begin his long-rehearsed apology which no doubt is now from his heart but his Father doesn’t notice it - he is too overcome with joy.

You know, I have met people who think that God can’t or won’t forgive them. People often see God as stern, an old serious man with a white beard and a pointing finger. This is very different to the Father that Jesus told us about, who actively seeks out the sinner and goes looking for the lost, or as Francis Thompson describes him in his famous poem, He is “the Hound of Heaven”.

The celebration begins. The Father calls for the best robe to be brought and a ring and sandals, for the fattened calf to be killed and for a celebration to begin. O what rejoicing there is in heaven Jesus tells us over one sinner who repents (Luke 15:7). What celebration there was in heaven the day you gave your life to Christ / what celebration there will be for you the day you decide to give your life to Christ if you haven’t yet done so.

The elder son had been working in the fields. He hears all the music and dancing and wonders what is going on. A servant tells him that his younger brother has come home and they have killed the fatted calf and are celebrating.

The elder brother is enraged. He refuses to go to the party. His Father comes out and pleads with him. Here is a great irony. The son who was on the outside (the younger son, is now on the inside and the son who was on the inside (the elder son) is now on the outside! This is what Jesus means when He talks about the first being last and the last being first. Where are we on that scale - Do we resent God for forgiving those who we think we are better than? God will lavish His grace on the undeserving and that included us - none of us deserve God’s love, none of us are ‘good enough’ to ‘earn’ His forgiveness. Who are we to think like the older brother - and yet we do - and if we do we need to be careful, very careful.

The Father explains to the elder son that there is no need to be angry, everything he has belongs to him. The elder son has always had reason to celebrate because everything will one day be his. One of the things that makes this such a powerful parable is that the story is left hanging - we don’t know what the elder brothers response is. Of course the whole point is to provoke a response from us - what would we do in his place?

God’s grace is unfair and that means it is is unfair for us all. We don’t deserve God’s love, we don’t deserve His forgiveness. Yet once we experience it, who are we to question who God should forgive.

God’s open arms extend to all who will come to Him, they are open for you, for me and for anyone who will turn around from their old way of life. All of us are in this parable somewhere, are we the younger brother before he leaves home, are we the younger brother who has gone away are we the younger brother who is at last beginning to come to his senses? Are we the younger brother fearful of what the Father will say, are we afraid to go home? Are we the older brother? Do we have a superiority complex!? Do we think of ourselves better than we ought? Whoever we are and wherever we are we need to come to the Father and trust that when we do so it will have been the best and most important decision we have ever made... Amen.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Keeping a curse at bay

Nikon F100, Nikkor 28-105 f3.5-4.5 D, Ilford HP5 plus (ISO 400), (Bigger)

There's a pub nearby with an interesting history. Noel Phair's was owned by a well-off family in the late 1800's. They brought the bailiffs in to evict a widow from one of their tenant cottages. Justifiably upset she pronounced a curse on the premises, saying a time would come when grass would be seen growing in the door. To stop the grass, the owners had a metal plate set in the threshold. As you can see from the photo the metal plate is still there. (From Damien Enright's book "Walks of Clonakilty Town & Country" ISBN 1 902631 021)

"...but no one can tame the tongue. It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison. Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. Surely, my brothers and sisters, this is not right!"
James 3:8-10

Sunday, March 7, 2010

What's the word?

Taken with an iphone (enlarge)

I've been trying over the last day or so to think of the word or term in literature where the weather or environment reflects the human emotion or condition being displayed. So for example, when a person is broken hearted it is raining outside, lightning erupts when they are angry, it is sunny when they are full of joy etc.

This all came to mind as I was coming away from the meal after a funeral. We had earlier buried someone and spent the hours since trying to come to terms with the ending of a long, good and happy life and pledging our ongoing support to those left behind.

As I walked out the door the sky was clear and the sun was setting. But it was more than the sun that was setting that day. To me it was a display of something beyond words, yes a life had set but it would rise again in eternity...

The best term I can come up with thanks to a search on the internet is "Pathetic Fallacy". That does not seem to be the term that we learnt in school though - it seems too harsh to describe something that can be so powerful and beautiful and ... numinous.