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ADVENT LOVE (Advent 4, 2019)

Advent 4 Love

One of the greatest theologians that ever lived, Karl Barth, was asked to be a guest lecturer at the University of Chicago Divinity School. At the end of a captivating closing lecture, the President of the seminary announced that Dr Barth was not well and was quite tired, and though he thought that Dr Barth would like to be open for questions, he shouldn’t be expected to handle the strain. Then he said, ‘Therefore, I will ask just one question on behalf of all of us.’ He turned to the renowned theologian and asked, ‘Of all the theological insights you have ever had, which do you consider to be the greatest of them all?’ It was the perfect question for a man who had written literally tens of thousands of pages of some of the most sophisticated theology ever put into print. The students held pencils right up against their writing pads, ready to take down verbatim the premier insight of the greatest theologian of their time. Karl Barth closed his tired eyes, and he thought for a minute, and then he half smiled, opened his eyes, and said to those young seminarians, ‘The greatest theological insight that I have ever had is this: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”’

Love is at the very heart of the Advent/Christmas Season. The Apostle John, writing many, many years after the birth of Jesus Christ (and after many, many years of reflecting on the coming of Christ in human form) summed it up like this, ‘This is how God showed his love among us: he sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him’ (1 John 4:9). John here in this passage (vs. 7-12) does not separate the Incarnation from the Passion but clearly sees both these events as the head and tail of the same coin. He sees God’s gift of his Son as being to both the Manger and the Cross. As John tells us here, ‘This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins’ (v.10).

In the Greek language (the language of the New Testament) there are various different words for ‘love’ (in contrast to the English language), and the word John uses for ‘love’ here is indicative of the highest form of love – a love that gives and gives unconditionally and is not dependent upon the response it receives. It reminds us of John’s reflective comment in his Gospel on Jesus’ sacrificial love at Calvary: ‘God loved the whole world so much that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him will not perish but receive eternal life, For God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the whole world but that the whole world might find abundant and eternal life in and through him’ (John 3:16,17).

John goes on to remind us here that not only are we to be the recipients of this Godly love but sharers of it also: ‘Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another’ (v.11). In our daily devotions during Advent Julia and I have been using the excellent Journey to Christmas material produced by a team from 24-7 Prayer. This last week we have thought a lot about Joseph – one of the unsung heroes in the Nativity narrative – and his selfless love for Mary. As such, he is an example to us all, of the importance not only of receiving God’s love but sharing it with others.

‘If I speak in the tongues of Christmas materialism and greed but have not love, I am only a tinny Christmas song or an out of tune choir. If I have the gift of knowing what Aunt Agatha will give me this year and can even understand last year’s present, and if I have the faith that I won’t get yet more socks and ties this year but have not love, I am nothing. If I clear out the house and give everything to charity and my credit cards are snapped in half but have not love, what can I possibly gain? Love is patient when the fourth store you’ve tried doesn’t have a bottle garden. Love is kind and lets the couple with only a few items go in front of you and your bulging shopping cart. Love does not envy your friend who gets mega-presents from everybody. Love does not boast about the £400 bike, the Xbox 360, the TV, VCR, and computer your dad gave you. Love does not attempt to out buy, out wrap, and out give the rest of the family just to impress. Love doesn’t cut Aunt Flo off your Christmas card list because she forgot you last year. Love is not self-seeking and leaves a copy of your Christmas list in every room of the house. Love is not easily angered when the young girl at the checkout takes forever because she is just temporary staff. Love doesn’t keep remembering how many times your mum forgets you don’t like Brussels sprouts. Love does not delight in the commercial bandwagon but rejoices with the truth of a baby born in the stable. Love always protects the family from Christmas hype. Love always trusts that the hiding places for presents will remain secret for another year. Love always hopes that this year more neighbours will drop into your open house coffee morning. Love always perseveres until the cards are written, the presents all bought, the shopping done, and the Christmas cake iced. Toys may break, socks wear thin but love never fails. Where there is the feeling of the presents to guess their contents, and mum going on about being good so Father Christmas will come and searching through the cupboards to find your hidden presents, they will all stop. For we think we know what we are getting, and we hope we know what we are getting but when Christmas Day arrives all will be revealed. When I was a child I talked with big wide-open eyes about Christmas, thought that Christmas was all about me, I reasoned that Jesus should have been born more often. When I became an adult, I forgot the joy, wonder, and excitement of this special time. Now we just hear about the angels, shepherds, and wise men, then we shall see them all the time. Now I know as much as the Bible says about the first Christmas, then I shall know just how many wise men there were and where they came from. Now three things remain to be done: To have faith that the baby born in a stable is the Son of God. To hope that the true message of Christmas will not get discarded with the wrapping paper and unwanted gifts. And the most important to have a love for others like the one that God has for us.’ ~  Claire Jordan

Jim Binney

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ADVENT JOY (Advent 3: 2019)

Joy

The first Salvationists literally jumped with joy. General William Booth told them that if they felt the Holy Spirit move them they could leap in a hymn or a prayer. They leapt! Dr John Farmer, the organist at Harrow School, used to tell how he adjudicated once at a great music festival and heard a Salvation Army band in action. His musical soul was offended by the drummer and the man with the French horn. He is said to have appealed to the drummer not to hit the drum so hard, to which beaming bandsman replied, ‘Oh sir, I’m so happy I could burst the blessed drum!’ When Dr Farmer turned with a word of similar appeal to the man with the French horn the enthusiast held up the much-twisted instrument and said, ‘But Sir, I’m so full of joy I want to blow this thing quite straight!’

There are several words for ‘joy’ in the New Testament but the most common word (that has the same root as the word ‘grace’ perhaps giving us a clue as to the source of such joy) signifies an overwhelming sense of ‘gladness’ (in contrast to weeping and sorrow). Rick Warren helpfully defines Christian joy as ‘the settled assurance that God is in control of all the details of my life, the quiet confidence that ultimately everything is going to be alright, and the determined choice to praise God in every situation’. This kind of joy is at the very heart of the Advent/Christmas Season. When the angel announced the birth of the Christ-Child to the shepherds in the fields outside of Bethlehem he did so by announcing, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that is for all people’ (Luke 2:10) – the same kind of joy illustrated above. The Apostle Paul tells us in his Letter to the Galatians that this kind of joy is not something worked up from within, not something dependent on favourable circumstances, but something welling up from within born of God’s Spirit (Galatians 5:22,23). Difficult to describe such joy is a ‘felt experience’ that stems from the presence of the Holy Spirit at work within us in our hearts and lives. It is ‘better felt than tellt’ as a Scottish divine once put it.

The lot of these shepherds in the Nativity narrative was not a happy one. Their job was to look after the Temple flocks of sheep (used in ritual sacrifices) and they were held in low esteem even amongst their own people, considered unclean they were ostracised and excluded, and yet it was to such people that the ‘Good News’ was first announced (which should encourage us all, especially those of us who feel rejected by others or who suffer from low self-esteem). The supernatural origin of this joy we are speaking of here is evidenced by the fact that (having immediately gone to see this Child for themselves) they ‘returned glorifying and praising God for all the things they had seen and heard’ (Luke 2:20). What is more we too can experience such joy for ourselves because, as the angel announced, it is ‘for all people’ (Luke 2:10) and not just for the chosen few. As William Barclay suggests, ‘In a worried world the Christian should be the only person who remains serene. In a depressed world the Christian should be the only person who remains full of the joy of life. There should be a sheer sparkle about the Christian life!’ It is not only members of the Salvation Army that can ‘leap for joy’ … it is for all who will receive the good news of the Gospel for themselves.

Amy Carmichael (1867-1951) was a Protestant Christian missionary in India, who opened an orphanage and founded a mission in Dohnavur in India where she served in India for 55 years without furlough caring for hundreds of girls originally dedicated to temple service as prostitutes. For the last twenty years of her life she was bedridden. Rather than believing that her significant years were now over, and giving in to her circumstances, Carmichael actually was to discover that the best years of her life were ahead of her, such was her genuine joy in the Lord. During these twenty years she wrote many books that have blessed millions and entertained many visitors in her room. It is said that joy so filled her sick room that everyone who visited her came away praising God. In her book Gold by Moonlight, Carmichael testifies that ‘Where the things of God are concerned, acceptance always means the happy choice of mind and heart of that which He appoints, because (for the present) it is His good and acceptable and perfect will!’

O happy day that fixed my choice
On Thee, my Saviour and my God!

Well may this glowing heart rejoice,
And tell its raptures all abroad.

Happy day, happy day,
When Jesus washed my sins away!
He taught me how to watch and pray,
And live rejoicing every day;
Happy day, happy day,
When Jesus washed my sins away!

’Tis done—the great transaction’s done;
I am my Lord’s, and He is mine;
He drew me and I followed on,
Rejoiced to own the call divine.

Now rest, my long divided heart,
Fixed on this blissful centre, rest;
Here have I found a nobler part,
Here heav’nly pleasures fill my breast.

High heav’n that hears the solemn vow,
That vow renewed shall daily hear!
Till in life’s latest hour I bow,
And bless, in death, a bond so dear.

~ Philip Doddridge (1702-51)

Jim Binney

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ADVENT PEACE (Advent 2: 2019)

 

Christmas Peace

Telemachus was a monk who lived in the 4th century. He felt God saying to him, ‘Go to Rome’. He was in a cloistered monastery. He put his possessions in a sack and set out for Rome. When he arrived in the city, people were thronging in the streets. He asked why all the excitement and was told that this was the day that the gladiators would be fighting and killing each other in the coliseum, the day of the games, the circus. He thought to himself, ‘Four centuries after Christ and they are still killing each other, for enjoyment?’ He ran to the coliseum and heard the gladiators shouting, ‘Hail to Caesar! We die for Caesar!’ and he thought, ‘This isn’t right.’ He jumped over the railing and went out into the middle of the field, got between two gladiators, held up his hands and said, ‘In the name of Christ, forbear!’ The crowd protested and began to shout, ‘Run him through! Run him through!’ A gladiator came over and hit him in the stomach with the back of his sword. It sent him sprawling in the sand. He got up and ran back and again said, ‘In the name of Christ, forbear!’ The crowd continued to chant, ‘Run him through!’ One gladiator came over and plunged his sword through the little monk’s stomach and he fell into the sand, which began to turn crimson with his blood. One last time he gasped out, ‘In the name of Christ forbear!’ A hush came over the 80,000 people in the coliseum. Soon a man stood and left, then another and more, and within minutes all 80,000 had emptied out of the arena. It was the last known gladiatorial contest in the history of Rome.

Jesus taught us that ‘God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God’ (Matthew 5:9). Statistical evidence suggests that since 3,600 BC the world has known only 292 years of peace. During this period there have been 14,351 wars, large and small, in which 3.64 billion people have been killed. The value of property destroyed is equal to a gold belt around the world 97.2 miles wide and 33 feet thick. Since 650 BC there have also been 1,656 arms races, only 16 of which have not ended in war. The remainder ended in economic collapse of the countries involved. Having the wisdom to face the truth, however unpleasant it is, will bring us closer to peace, and we all need to recognise, as Eliezer Wiesel (1928-2016), the Jewish writer, academic, activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, suggests, ‘peace is not [just] God’s gift to his creatures, peace is our gift to each other!’ When it comes down to being peacemakers we are not spectators watching the game but players on the pitch. As Mother Teresa reminds us, ‘If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other!’

Peace is very much at the heart of the Advent/Christmas Season. When the angels announced the birth of the Christ-child to the shepherds guarding the Temple flocks in the fields outside Bethlehem they did so praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests’ (Luke 2:14). The Greek word for ‘peace’ used here signifies a very special kind of peace, ‘the peace that comes from knowing that our lives are held securely in the palm of God’s hand’. In order to genuinely be distributers of this special kind of peace – to be the blessed peacemakers’ Jesus exhorts us to be in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:9) – we have to first know ‘peace with God’ (Romans 5:1), the peace Jesus himself gives (John 14:27), that comes though personal faith in Jesus Christ. Only in this way can we know true peace ourselves and change our world into a place where peace is a priority.

Horatio Spafford (1828-1888) was a prominent American lawyer and Presbyterian church elder. He is best known for penning the Christian hymn It Is Well With My Soul the theme of which is knowing the kind of peace we have been talking about here. This hymn was written after a series of traumatic events in Spafford’s life. The first two were the death of his two-year-old son and the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which ruined him financially (he had been a successful lawyer and had invested significantly in property in the area of Chicago that was extensively damaged by the great fire). His business interests were further hit by the economic downturn of 1873, at which time he had planned to travel to Europe with his family on the SS Ville du Havre. In a late change of plan, he sent the family ahead while he was delayed on business concerning zoning problems following the Great Chicago Fire. While crossing the Atlantic Ocean, the ship sank rapidly after a collision with another sea vessel and all four of Spafford’s daughters died. His wife Anna survived and sent him the now famous telegram, ‘Saved alone …’. Shortly afterwards, as Spafford travelled to meet his grieving wife, he was inspired to write these words as his ship passed near where his daughters had died. 

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

Refrain
It is well, (it is well),
With my soul, (with my soul)
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.

My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live:
If Jordan above me shall roll,
No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life,
Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.

But Lord, ’tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal;
Oh, trump of the angel! Oh, voice of the Lord!
Blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul.

And Lord, haste the day when faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
A song in the night, oh my soul!

~ Horatio Gates Spafford (1828-1888)

Jim Binney

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ADVENT HOPE (Advent 1: 2019)

Advent hope

Luke Veronis tells a deeply moving story of the Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union Solzhenitsyn spent many years in the prison camps of Siberia. Along with other prisoners he worked in the fields day after day, in rain and sun, during summer and winter. His life appeared to be nothing more than backbreaking labour and slow starvation. This intense suffering reduced him to a state of despair. On one particular day, the hopelessness of his situation became too much for him. He saw no reason to continue his struggle, no reason to keep on living. His life made no difference in the world. So he gave up. Laying his shovel on the ground, he slowly walked to a crude bench and sat down. He knew that at any moment a guard would order him to stand up, and when he failed to respond, the guard would beat him to death, probably with his own shovel. He had seen it happen to other prisoners. As he waited, head down, he felt a presence. Slowly he looked up and saw a skinny old prisoner squat down beside him. The man said nothing. Instead he used a stick to trace in the dirt the sign of the Cross. The man then got back up and returned to his work. As Solzhenitsyn stared at that Cross traced in the dirt, his entire perspective changed. He knew he was only one man against the all-powerful Soviet empire. Yet he knew there was something greater than the evil he saw in the prison camp, something greater than the Soviet Union. He knew that the hope for all people was represented by that simple Cross. Through the power of the Cross, anything was possible. Solzhenitsyn slowly rose to his feet, picked up his shovel, and went back to work. Outwardly, nothing had changed. Inside, he had received hope.

Seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus Christ, Isaiah prophesied that when the Messiah, God’s chosen one, was born he would come as a servant not as dictator, as one anointed by God, one who would restore a sense of justice in an unjust world, one who would treat others with compassion and kindness, one who would inspire hope in human hearts and lives (Isaiah 42:1-4). It was this prophecy that Jesus applied to himself in the course of his public ministry (Matthew 12:15-21) in declaring himself to be that promised Messiah. And it was this wonderful truth that Mary recognised following the angelic revelation that she was to be mother of this unique child (Luke 1:26-38) which (despite all the challenges and difficulties she would have to face in embracing God’s plan and purpose for her life) led to her gloriously positive response known as the ‘Magnificat’ (Luke 1:46-55) which epitomises the wonderful God-given hope already referred to.

Although our English word ‘hope’ has essentially positive connotations we have something of a tendency here in the UK to dwell on what has been called the ‘darker side’ of hope seeing it largely as ‘a cruel and bitter emotion’ that ‘more often than not lets you down at the last’. Perhaps this has something to do with our Britishness and the inclination to see ourselves as glass half empty (rather than glass half full) people. In contrast to this the Bible underlines and affirms the positive nature of hope. There are various Hebrew words for ‘hope’ in the Old Testament but all of them (including the word Isaiah uses in Isaiah 42:4) are indicative of a positive spirit of ‘trusting in, waiting for, looking for, expecting something beneficial in the future’. Equally, the Greek word for ‘hope’ (that Matthew uses here in Matthew 12:21) is indicative of ‘a favourable and confident expectation with regard to the unseen and the future; a happy anticipation of good’. Hence Martin Luther famously translates the phrase ‘the God of hope’ (Roman 15:13) as ‘the God of the guarantee’.

Hope (along with Peace, Joy, Love and Light) is one of the major themes that runs through Advent Season, the four weeks leading up to Christmas (an ancient tradition dating at least as far back as the 5th century) during which the Church seeks to prepare the hearts and minds of its people for the coming of God’s Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ. The word ‘Advent’ means ‘to come’ and the Advent season focuses on remembering Christ’s first coming at Christmas, but also anticipating his Second Coming and soon return. In this Advent season I will be sharing a series of short reflections on these various themes represented by the five candles on the Advent Wreath, a fairly recent tradition in church history, first devised by a German Pastor back in 1839 in response to the children at the mission school who would ask every day, ‘Is it Christmas yet?’ His original Advent Wreath was made it out of an old cartwheel he had lying around and actually had twenty-eight candles – twenty-four small red candles around the rim interspersed with four larger white candles. The children lit a new candle each day to help them count the days until Christmas. The larger candles were lit on Sundays and the smaller candles on the days in between. As the tradition spread the smaller candles were discarded in favour of a wreath with just the four larger candles and a fifth candle in the centre, the four outside candles are lit on each successive Sunday of Advent while the centre candle is lit on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. There are various interpretations of the candles but the most common scheme is where the first candle represents hope, the second candle peace, the third candle joy, the fourth candle love and the fifth and centre candle representing Christ the Light of the World (John 8:12). Even though the Advent Wreath is a fairly new tradition in church history, these themes of hope, peace, joy and love stretch all the way back to the first Christmas and beyond. They are deeply rooted in Scripture, and so it is very appropriate to take some time each Advent season to reflect on these various themes in light of Scripture and the Christmas story.

Advent begins with hope and hope, as we have seen, is an important theme relating to the coming of Christ.  Our world is in desperate need of hope. Many people today live without hope or have given up on hope. But Jesus Christ came at Christmas to bring us hope, indeed ‘the mere sound of his name will signal hope, even among far-off unbelievers’ (Matthew 12:21 The Message).

The Advent/Christmas season is a wonderful season for so many reasons, but one of the most important reasons is the hope Christ brings to hopeless, helpless people like you and me. As Paul was able to testify: ‘Here’s a word you can take to heart and depend on: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. I’m proof—Public Sinner Number One—of someone who could never have made it apart from sheer mercy. And now he shows me off—evidence of his endless patience—to those who are right on the edge of trusting him forever’ (1 Timothy 1:15,16 The Message). And the way Jesus made this possible for us was not primarily through the manger but through the Cross. The Incarnation is only one side of the coin – Christ’s Passion is the other side – and both sides are essential. This, of course, is why the old man’s tracing of the sign of the Cross in the dirt proved to be the catalyst of renewed hope for Alexander Solzhenitsyn. As one of the (many) great quotes from one of my favourite films, the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption, says: ‘Fear can hold you prisoner. Hope can set you free!’

Through the love of God our Saviour,
all will be well.
Free and changeless is his favour,
all, all is well.
Precious is the blood that healed us,
perfect is the grace that sealed us,
strong the hand stretched forth to shield us,
all must be well.

Though we pass through tribulation,
all will be well.
Ours is such a full salvation,
all, all is well.
Happy, still in God confiding,
fruitful, if in Christ abiding,
holy, through the Spirit’s guiding,
all must be well.

We expect a bright tomorrow,
all will be well.
Faith can sing through days of sorrow,
‘All, all is well.’
On our Father’s love relying,
Jesus every need supplying,
in our living, in our dying,
all must be well.

~ Mary Bowley Peters (1813-56)

Jim Binney

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MEMORIES (Views from the Abbey 10)

According to Ken Galbraith, a Canadian economist (1908-2006), ‘nothing is so admirable in politics as a short memory.’ Memories appear to have indeed been alarmingly short in politics of late, but I am not sure it can ever be described as admirable! As a race, we humans so easily fall into the trap of forgetting our history. This is to our peril as we are in danger of not learning the lessons of the past and risk making the same mistakes over and over again. The writer Tobias Stone argued that most peoples’ perspective of history is limited to the experience communicated by their parents and grandparents, so 50-100 years. His theory acts as a warning: ‘without making the effort to remember, new demagogues will rise, votes will be extinguished, wars will break out. And new walls will be built.’ Evidently, science supports this hypothesis. The ecologist, biologist and mathematician Peter Turchin has pioneered the study of cliodynamics that looks for meaningful patterns in history. According to his recent study of US history, periods of violent, chaotic unrest, including major wars, were the inevitable result of a 50-year cycle that peaks every other generation. Several other historians have also found that going to war, voting for tyrants and exterminating each other happens in tragically predictable cycles. As Jo Ellison commented in a recent article in the Financial Times, ‘becoming complacent about our past can have dark consequences.’

November is the month of Remembrance. Armistice Day on 11 November also known as Remembrance Day marks the day World War One ended, at 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month, in 1918. What began to mark the Armistice at the end of the first world war has been repeated every year since and on the nearest Sunday in acts of remembrance in communities and church services around the country. The anniversary is used to remember all the people who have died in wars – not just World War One.

Acts of Remembrance are not a glorification of war rather a remembrance of the horror of war and a determination that it will never happen again – ‘Lest We Forget.’ This phrase was first used in an 1897 poem written by Rudyard Kipling  called ‘Recessional’. The phrase occurs eight times; and is repeated at the end of the first four stanzas in order to add particular emphasis regarding the dangers of failing to remember.

‘God of our fathers, known of old,
Lord of our far-flung battle line,
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!’

The poem is often quoted in Remembrance services and is based on the biblical concept of ‘being careful not to forget’ from such verses as Deuteronomy 4:7-9: ‘What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him? And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today? Only be careful and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them.’ The point being made is that if a nation forgets the true source of its success (the “Lord God of Hosts” and his “ancient sacrifice” of “a humble and contrite heart”) – whatever it trusts in, such as material possessions and military power, will be grossly deficient in times of difficulty, hardship and war.

Our memories are certainly selective. Jim talks about having a good ‘forgetory’ rather than a good memory. But maybe for our peace of mind our memories need to be short. We tend to remember only the good times like the famous song from Cats illustrates: –

Memories light the corners of my mind
Misty water-coloured memories of the way we were…
Memories may be beautiful and yet

What’s too painful to remember
We simply choose to forget…
So it’s the laughter we will remember
Whenever we remember the way we were.

There are, however, some things we need to remember no matter how painful. So at this time of year we remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice of the giving of their lives in war.  Jesus knew how easily we can forget. He gave us the Lord’s Supper, Communion, the Eucharist, whatever we choose to call it so that we will regularly remember his sacrifice on the cross for the sin of the world. ‘The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me’ (1 Corinthians 11:23-25).

Lest we forget.

Julia Binney

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EASTER PEOPLE (Views from the Abbey 9)

Easter 2019

John Foster tells how an enquirer from Hinduism approached an Indian Bishop. Unaided he had read the New Testament, and the story had fascinated him. In particular he was gripped by the person of Jesus Christ. He felt he had entered a new world. In the Gospels it was all about Jesus … his works, his suffering. In the Book of Acts it was all about the disciples of Christ … what they did, what they taught. They had taken the place Christ had occupied. The Church continued where Jesus left off. ‘Therefore’ this man said to the Bishop, ‘I must belong to the Church that carries on the life of Christ!’

When working through its call with integrity, the Church does indeed carry on the life of Christ at work in the world. There have been times during the last 2,000 years when the Church has lived up to being this kind of Church. There are parts of the world where the Church is growing phenomenally – China, South America, Africa – primarily because it is carrying on the life of Christ. We need to recover what it truly means, as Christians, to be an ‘Easter people living in a Good Friday World’!

This poignant expression, ‘We are Easter people living in a Good Friday world!’ was first coined by Barbara Johnson in her devotional book, Splashes of Joy in the Cesspools of Life, and she should know. There was sorrow and tragedy connected to each of her three sons, her husband endured a long recovery from a near-fatal car accident and she fought cancer for six years before succumbing in 2007. She persevered through her life’s difficulties with faith and a strong sense of humour.

As Christians we are indeed an Easter people! We live this side of the historic and significant events of that first Easter. Christ has died, Christ has risen! As a result everything has been changed, for all time. A power has been released into the world sufficient to change everything, to change all of us, for the better! The Bible tells us that it was through the power of the Holy Spirit that God raised Jesus from the dead and that this same power also lives in us as believers. The Apostle Paul wrote that ‘if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you’ (Romans 8:11).

But we live in a Good Friday world. Good Friday is a symbol for the darkness in our world. This is the time of year when we, as those who seek to walk in the way of Jesus, especially reflect upon his death on the cross. The cross was a means of torture and death used by the Roman Empire to keep the occupied territories in check. Jesus was seen as a threat both to the security of the religious authorities and the domination of the Roman occupiers. Good Friday remains a symbol for the violence of hate of our own time. What Jesus endured and experienced that first Good Friday perfectly portrays the kind of world we live in today; the brokenness, the suffering, the pain, the hurting, the rebellion, the deceit, the corruption, the hypocrisy, the sin, the unfairness, the victimisation and so on. Two years ago on Palm Sunday ISIS suicide bombers struck hours apart at two Coptic churches in northern Egypt, killing 44 people, injuring hundreds more and turning Palm Sunday services into scenes of horror and outrage. How many mindless, senseless acts of hate-driven violence have there been in the world since then? In March this year 50 Muslim people died in two shootings in Mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The man who perpetrated these horrendous murderous crimes attempted to find justification from the current hate-filled politics of America. Britain is still in the midst of Brexit negotiations. One of the appalling unforeseen consequences of a possible exit from the EU has been the legitimacy some seem to find from it for racial and religious prejudice. We live in Good Friday world!

As Easter people, we are called to live in the midst of this Good Friday world. During this Easter season, we remember that God’s love is more powerful than the forces of darkness. To be an ‘Easter people’, is a stance, a way of leaning into the world, hoping, trusting, believing that love expressed through forgiveness, reconciliation, inclusion, openness, welcome and non-violence will ultimately have the last word. Two thousand years ago hate and violence were overcome. Jesus died on the cross but rose victorious from the grave defeating the powers of darkness and all that which stands in opposition to God and his people. As Easter people, we continue to believe in the restorative power of God’s love at work in the world. As Church we continue to live out the life of Christ and his reconciling, renewing love in action. So despite all the Good Friday-ness of the world, as Pope John Paul II reminded us several years ago, ‘do not abandon yourselves to despair, for we are the Easter People, and “Hallelujah!” is our song!’

Julia Binney

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MURDER, MYSTERY AND MAYHEM (Loose in the Loire 4)

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I love a good murder mystery story. ‘It is the stuff of life!’ a fellow addict told me recently. Well, I wouldn’t go that far but everything from Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle to Dorothy L Sayers or J K Rowling make for good holiday or bedtime reading as far as I’m concerned. We have a couple more chateaux to visit before we come to the end of our short holiday here in the Loire, and both have ongoing stories of murder, mystery and sometimes even mayhem!

When we visited the Château de Chenonceau earlier in the week we were captivated by the story of the (understandable) ongoing rivalry between Catherine de’ Medici, the wife of Henry II of France, and the King’s mistress, Diane de Poitiers during the mid-16th century. Seized by King Francis I of France in 1535 for unpaid debts to the Crown, the château was given to Diane de Poitiers by King Henry after Francis’ death in 1547. Diane de Poitiers became fervently attached to the château along the river, and over the following years had a beautiful arched bridge built joining the château to its opposite bank and oversaw the planting of extensive flower and vegetable gardens along with a variety of fruit trees. After King Henry II died unexpectedly in 1559, following a duel (what was a King doing fighting a duel?), his strong-willed widow and regent Catherine de’ Medici took her revenge on Diane de Poitiers by forcing her to exchange it for the Château Chaumont. Queen Catherine then made Chenonceau her own favourite residence, spending a fortune on the château adding a new series of gardens and a grand gallery to the existing bridge that crossed the entire river. Quite naturally we wanted to follow up this story of mystery, intrigue (and possible murder?) by visiting Diane de Poitier’s new residence at Château Chaumont.

Château Chaumont was acquired by Catherine de Medici in 1550. Today, it is a beautiful place set high on a hill above the village of Chaumont overlooking the River Loire. We park at the top of the hill in the designated car park (we are glad we are visiting now and not in the height of summer when the château would be packed with tourists) and walk down through the beautiful grounds to the château itself. We are very pleased with ourselves in as much as since we are both ‘students’ (and have our student cards to prove it) we get a reduced rate for entry. The grounds are magnificent and the views amazing.

In 1550, however, Château Chaumont was not quite the place it has now become and was small recompense for Château de Chenonceau. Catherine de Medici did little to improve the place after she acquired it. History records, however, that whilst there the Queen entertained numerous astrologers, among them Nostradamus, before forcing Diane de Poitiers, to accept the Château de Chaumont in exchange for the Château de Chenonceau. Astrology in those days was very much considered a science – a way of divining the most appropriate way forward – rather than the kind of thing it has become for so many today. Julia and I have found that prayerfully seeking to know the mind of Christ, centring in on Jesus day by day, being guided by the teaching of the Christian Scriptures, and being sensitive to the presence and leading of the Holy Spirit, has been much more fruitful than reading your horoscope in the newspaper.

On our second to last day in the Loire we finally make it to the other château we want to visit, the one most local to us, the Château d’Amboise that we saw (from the outside) on virtually our first full day in the area and promised ourselves (like Jesus and Arnie) that ‘We will return!’ Built on a spur above the River Loire the château is very impressive rising, as it does, above the surrounding town. It turns out to be even more impressive when we get inside. Today we are early enough to go for coffee first. Our plan is to spend time looking over the château and then have a final lunch somewhere in Amboise. Once again, our student cards come in handy and we manage to save a few more euros that can now go towards the cost of our anticipated gourmet lunch!

Expanded and improved over time, more intrigue ensued when Château d’Amboise was seized by Charles VII of France in 1434, after its owner, Louis d’Amboise, was convicted of plotting against the king and condemned to be executed. However, the king pardoned him but took his château at Amboise as ‘compensation’. Once in royal hands, the château became a favourite of various French kings who developed it over the years. Other stories of murder, mystery and mayhem connected to this château abound. Charles VII died at Château d’Amboise in 1498 after he hit his head on a door lintel whilst playing tennis. Leonardo da Vinci came to Château Amboise in 1515 as a guest of the King, and lived and worked in the nearby Clos Lucé, connected to the château by an underground passage. When da Vinci died in 1519, he was buried in the nearby Chapel of St. Florentin which lay within the stone fortifications surrounding the property of the Château d’Amboise. After the French Revolution (1789–1799), the Chapel of St. Florentin was in such a ruinous state that the engineer appointed by Napoleon decided that it was not worth preserving and had it demolished. Some sixty years later (and 330 years after Leonardo’s death and original burial), the foundational site of the Chapel of St. Florentin was excavated and it a collection of bones were found together with an extraordinarily large skull, and fragments of a stone inscription containing some of the letters of da Vinci’s name. These were supposedly re-buried in the Chapel of Saint-Hubert, where a large floor-level marble stone bearing a metal medallion relief portrait of Leonardo da Vinci and the words LEONARDO DA VINCI seem indicative of his final resting place. Henry II and his wife, Catherine de Medici, also raised their children in the Château d’Amboise, along with Mary Stuart, the child Queen of Scotland who had been promised in marriage to the future French King, Francis II.

Most interesting to us (as Protestant-Christians) however, is what has become known as the ‘Amboise Conspiracy’. In 1560, during the French Wars of Religion, a so-called conspiracy by members of the Huguenot House of Bourbon against the House of Guise (that virtually ruled France in the name of the young Francis II) was uncovered by the Comte de Guise and stifled by a series of hangings, which took a month to carry out. By the time it was finished, 1200 Protestants were gibbetted, strung from the town walls, hung from the iron hooks that held pennants and tapestries on festive occasions and even from the very balcony of the Logis du Roy. The Court actually, eventually had to leave the town because of the smell of corpses. A so-called ‘Edict of Pacification’ was signed at Amboise in 1563, between Louis de Bourbon (who had been implicated in the conspiracy to abduct the King) and Catherine de Medici which authorised Protestant Worship Services (but only in chapels belonging to Seigneurs and Justices) and stipulated such services could only be held outside the walls of towns. Neither side was satisfied by this compromise, nor was it widely respected.

Read what you will into this cruel episode of murder, mystery and mayhem but Amboise never returned to royal favour after this and at the beginning of the 17th century, the huge château was all but abandoned. Following the French Revolution, and the later rise of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, a great deal of the château was eventually demolished. Towards the end of the 19th century, however, a major effort was made to restore what was left of the château and eventually it was made open to the public and remains so today – an absolute delight and well worth a visit should you ever be in the area.

Whilst we were at the château, and looking down from the walls at the lively little town below, we saw several locals visiting one of the restaurants opposite. Now it is always a good thing when in France to go eat where the locals eat – you can then be certain that the food there is top notch. So when we concluded our visit to Château d’Amboise we headed straight for said restaurant. It was packed but fortunately there was one table for two available, so they were able to fit us in. And what a wonderful meal we enjoyed – great food, flowing conversation (in French) with the locals, lots of laughter (especially at us photographing every dish before we consumed it), and great service from the owner and her staff. A fitting conclusion to a wonderful holiday in the Loire before we packed the car in readiness for a long drive the next day up to Boulogne (where we stopped the night) and then back to the UK via Calais and the Eurotunnel. With all the murder, mystery and mayhem surrounding Brexit we wonder if will we ever be able to make such a trip so easily ever again?

Jim Binney

 

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