The Baptism of Christ

Today in the Christian calendar we celebrate The Baptism of Christ, here depicted in the wonderful painting by Piero della Francesca in the National Gallery, London.

You can read the story in the Bible here: Luke 3:15-22

I’m reading Dave Grohl‘s book The Storyteller that Naomi bought me for Christmas. In it, he describes when his eight-year-old daughter Harper asked him to teach her to play the drums. His response was one of fatherly pride and humility, the latter because he was self-taught and didn’t have a clue where to start.

In the story of Jesus’ baptism, we are told that God was well pleased with his Son. By implication, God is pleased with us when we walk and live in the footsteps of Jesus. May we live like that in the coming days, not judging people but coming alongside them and loving them with the parental love of God.

Piero was the first artist to write a treatise on perspective – that is, creating an illusion of three-dimensional space on a flat surface. Here, he has painted objects in proportion, so that they appear as we see them in real life. This emphasises the depth of the landscape, but also the harmony of the figures and natural features within it. Christ stands in a shallow, winding stream as John the Baptist pours a small bowl of water over his head. Three angels in colourful robes witness the event. At this very moment, the voice of God was heard – ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased’ (Matthew 3:16) – and the Holy Ghost, shown here as a dove flying over Christ’s head and towards us, descended upon him. This painting was made for the small chapel dedicated to Saint John the Baptist in the Camaldolese abbey of Piero’s hometown, Borgo Sansepolcro. Source

Saying ‘NO’

It’s not always easy to say no, but often it’s essential to retain the balance of our everyday mental health. People will make demands of us, asking for this or that. They’ll ask nicely and this makes it difficult to refuse their reasonable requests, because we all want to be liked. Often people’s requests for your time or expertise can flatter, and this also makes it difficult to say no.

But we can’t say yes to everything or everyone without losing our own equilibrium. We can only help others when we look after ourselves. I want to be there for my family and friends, but to do that I have to be there for myself. An empty vessel has nothing to give. It’s not selfish, it’s inherent to human life.

One danger is when you say yes to those with the loudest requests and feel bad afterwards. Then you’re not able to spend time with those who you want spend time with, or with those who might benefit more but are less inclined to ask. Learn when to say no and when to say yes. Saying no to loud people gives you the resources to say yes to important opportunities.

Also beware of ‘distant elephants’ – saying yes to something next year that you wouldn’t say yes to if it was next week. It’s still an elephant when the time arrives, even if it appears small now!

Remember, you can say no with respect, you can say no promptly, and you can say no with a lead to someone else who might say yes. Saying yes because you can’t bear the short-term pain of saying no is not going to help you or others.

The Gifts of the Wise Men

Bible Readings: Matthew 2:1-12 & 2 Corinthians 9:6-11

Christmas celebrates the coming of God’s gift, the birth of Jesus as Saviour of the World. Epiphany celebrates our giving to God, symbolised by the wise men bringing their gifts to the baby Jesus. It’s traditionally celebrated on the twelfth day after Christmas (January 6).

We know very little about them, and only assume there were three because there were three gifts. Those three gifts represent three distinct aspects of our lives that we need to present to Jesus.

Gold represents everything of material value; our money, our property, our belongings. It’s good to recognise that everything comes from God, and as Christians we offer it to Jesus. We may not have much, but let’s make sure give our symbolic gold to Jesus, for God to use.

Frankincense represents something less tangible than gold. It symbolises our inner treasure of thought and influence; our education, our talents, and our personalities. By offering these to Jesus we have a reference point for our actions and behaviour, recognising something greater than ourselves.

Myrrh, partly because of its use in embalming, has been identified with sorrow and suffering. We can bring the challenging times in life to Jesus, and experience God’s comfort.

Myrrh is mine; it’s bitter perfume.
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing. sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in a stone-cold tomb.

A fourth wise man called Artaban belongs to the realm of myth and legend, but he is imagined having brought a gift representing the happier things in life. A reminder that Jesus:

…feeleth for our sadness,
And he shareth in our gladness.

The whole of human life can be symbolised in the three (four) gifts, personal gifts of ourselves that we can bring to Jesus.

Father, I place into your hands
The things I cannot do,
Father, I place into your hands
The things that I’ve been through.
Father, I place into your hands
The way that I should go,
For I know I always can trust you.

Father, I place into your hands
My friends and family.
Father, I place into your hands
The things that trouble me.
Father, I place into your hands
The person I would be,
For I know I always can trust you.

Father, we love to see your face,
We love to hear your voice.
Father, we love to sing your praise
And in your name rejoice.
Father, we love to walk with you
And in your presence rest,
For we know we always can trust you.

Father, I want to be with you
And do the things you do.
Father, I want to speak the words
That you are speaking too.
Father, I want to love the ones
That you will draw to you,
For I know that I am one with you.

Psalm 23 (A Psalm of David)

clouds daylight forest grass

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Psalm 23 from the King James Version (1611) of the Bible. For a more modern and accurate translation from the New International Version (1978) click here. See also: 10/05/20 Sunday Reflections.

The National Anthem (Radiohead)

The National Anthem (Radiohead)

There are times when you need an uplifting song to raise your mood, at other times a sad song can emotionally connect with particular feelings and be more meaningful. Indeed, many people consider sad songs better and deeper than happy songs, as they speak profoundly to the human condition.

Just sometimes though, we need to rage and let our feelings out, as this can be very cathartic. Here’s a Radiohead song does just that, it’s a song of rage from their album Kid A released in 2000.

Everyone
Everyone around here
Everyone is so near
It’s holding on
It’s holding on

Everyone
Everyone is so near
Everyone has got the fear
It’s holding on
It’s holding on

It’s holding on
It’s holding on
It’s holding on

Thom Yorke sings short, ambiguous lyrics, using voice distortion and a feedback echo that creates a sense of isolation and fear. The looping heavy bass line that leads the song was composed by Yorke when he was 16 years old. The early electronic instrument called ondes Martenot, played by Jonny Greenwood, was inspired by Olivier Messiaen. The free jazz-style brass section was inspired by the work of Charles Mingus. Added to that are some interlaced sound effects and mysterious samples creating quite a unique track.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

A controversial reading choice perhaps, but a book that is far more than its infamous descriptions of sex, and one that is extremely well written. By comparison, I had to force myself to read page 2 of Fifty Shades of Grey before giving up, it was so badly written.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a novel by English author D. H. Lawrence that was first published privately in 1928 in Italy and in 1929 in France. An unexpurgated edition was not published openly in the United Kingdom until 1960, when it was the subject of a watershed obscenity trial against the publisher Penguin Books, which won the case and quickly sold three million copies. Source

The edition I read (above) had one section missing that is particularly explicit, but I only found out because I was occasionally reading from a different Kindle edition. It doesn’t really contribute much to the book, and it’s not for the easily offended.

Arguably, not his best novel, but a classic of modern literature nevertheless.

You can find me on Goodreads (click the link), and see all my 2021 books here.

Maundy Thursday 2021

In the account of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane we begin to glimpse something of what he went through spiritually, mentally and emotionally before his physical suffering and death on the cross.

Bible Reading: Luke 22:39-46

But let’s go back to Palm Sunday as Jesus rode into Jerusalem in defiance of the people’s expectations, they misunderstood the nature of his coming and purpose. He came as the Prince of Peace, having previously set his face towards Jerusalem, resolved to go the way of the cross.

Jesus never took the easy way out of a situation; he wasn’t going to be turned from this final challenge. He knew the direction his life was taking, he wasn’t a weak-minded person overtaken by events, he was in full command of what was happening. This resolve was thoroughly tested in Gethsemane, but his mind had already been made up.

Holy Week is not just about the victory of Easter morning, but the victory Jesus secured when he set his face towards Jerusalem.

In Gethsemane we see both his humanity and divinity; his humanity telling him to escape the situation, his divinity telling him to obey. Luke tells us that Jesus, being in anguish, prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.

We can’t attempt to fathom the depths of his suffering at this time, as the hymn says, ‘We do not know, we cannot tell, what pains he had to bear’.

My music of choice on Good Friday is Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. It selects itself, and still has the power to shock and move the human spirit. This moment is powerfully expressed:

He is ready to taste the bitterness of death,
to drink the cup into which the sins of this world,
hideously stinking, have been poured.

Here we have the paradox of a loving God and a suffering Christ, something we can’t fully explain, yet:

We believe it was for us,
he hung and suffered there.

Jesus quoted Psalm 22 on the cross:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Sin separates us from God. As Jesus took on our sin it separated him from his heavenly Father, a moment of true abandonment. But the psalm has a positive ending, it’s victorious. It foreshadows the Resurrection, and this was why Jesus was able to say ‘your will be done’ in Gethsemane.

Note: A reworking of material from here.

For God so loved the world

This week’s Sunday devotional is a reworking from part of a previous online worship service in preparation for Palm Sunday, Holy Week, Good Friday, and Easter. Bible Reading: John 3:14-21

This Bible reading contains one of the most well-known verses from the New Testament: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

But the short passage we shared is not the whole story, you might like to read the whole chapter for context. It had no mention of Nicodemus who came to Jesus by night seeking answers to his questions and no mention of being born again.

Instead, the teaching of Jesus is linked to the story of Moses in the wilderness having to deal with a discontented people found in Numbers 21:4-9.

Life used to be better for them, but now they have left Egypt. Under the leadership of Moses they have achieved freedom. They are no longer slaves. This was what they longed for, the fulfilment of their hopes. But now they are hungry. What food they have is boring. It’s not like the good old days in Egypt when at least they had good, interesting food to eat. The memories of their hardships have faded and all they know is that their bellies are empty and life is tough.

They are and should be people who are journeying towards a high destiny. They’ve been called by God for his purposes. They must reach out to the future and not dwell in the past, particularly on unrealistic memories of the past.

Moses is told by God to make a bronze serpent and to put it on a pole. When anyone who had been bitten by a poisonous serpent looked at this bronze serpent they would live. For many centuries this symbol has been used by those involved in healing and health care as their sign. One of the explanations of this clearly links it to the story in Numbers.

The symbol is still used widely today and maybe part of what it’s intended to convey is that health and healing are gifts. It was God’s gift of healing to an undeserving people, a rebellious, complaining, petty-minded people. Here it was a gift that would help them to become what they were capable of being, God’s chosen people that now includes all who name Jesus as Saviour and Lord.

In the Bible reading (John 3:14-21) Jesus refers to this passage from Numbers and sees it pointing to his own destiny. The Son of Man will be lifted up and whoever believes in him will have eternal life.

This is a recurring theme in the gospels, that believing is what brings about the change in people and in their situations. Believing is the gift of God, the grace of God, and with that gift of grace all sorts of things become possible in people’s lives.

God loved us so much that he gave his only son. But that’s in the past tense, it needs to be in the present tense, because the activities of God are always in the eternal now. God loves the world so much that he gives his only son. That love is from eternity to eternity and nothing can separate us from that love.

To be, or not to be (Hamlet)

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die—to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause—there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of dispriz’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovere’d country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

A means of your peace

This is an additional resource to go with An instrument of your peace posted yesterday (Sunday 14 March 2021). It’s an expanded version of the well-known prayer from Pax Christi USA. Please read it slowly, prayerfully, and reflectively.

Lord, make me a means of your peace.

Where there is hatred caused by fear and intolerance, let me sow love, in your gentleness.

Where there is vengefulness caused by injustice, let me sow forgiveness, which brings reconciliation.

Where there are doubts about the power of love over weapons in resolving conflicts, let me sow the faith that comes with knowing that you, who are mightier than all things, are love itself.

Where there is despair of being able to do anything to turn human hearts away from war, let me sow the hope that comes with realisation that we are not alone, for you are working with us and through us.

Where there is the darkness caused by the shadow of war, and where there is sadness caused by death let me sow the light of your wisdom that illuminates for us the way of peace.

In violence and conflicts, let me sow the joy of your promise of new and eternal life.

Father, we can do these things if you help us to realise that it is in giving them to others that we, in turn, receive them too, that it is in pardoning others who harm or upset us that we are pardoned by you. And that it is in giving our whole lives to you, be to spent bringing your message of love and peace for all people, and not just your friends – in short, dying to ourselves, that we are given eternal life in your kingdom.