Friday, 26 February 2010

Lent 2 Yr C/ Epiphany 3A Behold the beauty of the Lord...

A sermon for Sunday, 28th Feb, 2010.
Based on Ps 27.

What is beauty?

Apparently, beauty is in the eye of the beholder;
Beauty is only skin deep.
Or there’s the alternative version:
Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes clear to the bone!
A Beauty Parlour, according to the old joke, is apparently a place where women curl up and dye…
And in response to that, there’s the question:
if love is blind, why is the cosmetic industry still making so much money? 
What is beauty?

How do we measure it?

As I’ve looked over the bible readings we heard earlier, one phrase in particular has stayed with me over the course of this week…
it comes from Psalm 27, verse 4:
The Psalmist says:
One thing I ask of the Lord, one thing I seek:
that I may be constant in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord,
and to seek him in his temple
And the phrase I’ve been thinking about?
‘To gaze upon the beauty of the Lord.’
To gaze upon the beauty of the Lord? 

Beauty is not a word that’s often used to describe God.
In fact, when beauty does get a mention in the bible, it's normally associated with warnings about vanity,
or with describing the house of the Lord – the temple. 
Not of God…

Beauty, as a descriptive word, is more associated with 
sunsets or sonnets,
or songs and symphonies.
Beauty can be detected in the scent of a perfume
seen in the shimmering of sunlight on snow,
or the strands of colours that make a rainbow…
But God…?  

When we think of God is this the automatic description we’d apply?
And so I’ve pondered over this idea of God’s beauty through the week and I’ve gone back to reading the Psalm several times for some clues to help answer the question.  

In the translation of the Bible I use, the Psalm has a wee preface noting the theme.  It states that the Psalm is a ‘triumphant song of confidence’.  Maybe it’s just me, but as I’ve read the Psalm this week the words ‘triumphant’ and ‘confidence’ don’t quite fit with the way it comes across. 
I sensed the Psalm spoke more of vulnerability and yearning,
and perhaps because of that, it has a powerful and strange beauty.  

Listen to the description of God throughout the Psalm:
The Psalmist describes God as his ‘light and salvation’…
his ‘refuge’. 
It’s followed by the question ‘whom shall I fear?’
And he makes statements about ‘my heart shall not fear,
‘I will be confident’
Now, I strongly suspect that those who are triumphantly confident don’t tend to feel the need to remind themselves about not being afraid.
The Psalmist further describes God as the one who will hide him,
shelter him,
conceal him under the cover of His tent…
who will raise him beyond the reach of distress.
God is seen as his helper,
the One who is faithful,
and who acts in the present –
God is not just the ‘pie in the sky when you die guy’…
And …he describes God as …beautiful….  

And there’s a yearning in that description.
In the midst of feeling surrounded by enemies ready to destroy him, the Psalmist expresses the deep-felt yearning to live in God’s house,
to seek God,
to talk with God,
to look upon God …
who in comparison with all other is utterly beautiful. 
His response as he thinks of the faithfulness of God, in who he can trust…
is to realise that God is wonderful.
His response is…
to worship.  

All through the centuries, Jewish people, and then Christians, in response to God have done just that:
And have tried, as they’ve talked about God, to convey a sense of God’s wonder,
God’s faithfulness,
God’s … unutterable beauty, 
so that others might behold God’s beauty, might get a glimpse of heaven.

I’m hoping, at this point, that you all received a small picture when you came into church this morning… and if you haven’t, I’m sure the person sitting next to you won’t mind you looking at the picture with them… so, this is your cue to find where ever you put the picture you were given because we’re going to talk about it for a little bit!  

This is an icon created in the early 15th century by a Russian monk called Andrei Rublev: 
Rublev was a man captivated with the idea of the beauty of God, so much so, that he tried to convey that beauty with paint.  It is part of what was a set of icons that were created for a Cathedral in town called Zvenigorod – about an hour’s journey from Moscow.

Now as some of you know, I seem to spend a lot of my time with a certain Mr John Knox as he’s a major part of the thesis I’m working on…
I have a strong hunch that John would be a little disturbed that we’ve got an icon in church, and that he’d possibly use the word ‘idolatry’…
but I think that’s a tad harsh on John’s part, so let’s live a little on the edge today.
It’s important to remember that as we look at icons, we are definitely not worshipping them…
an icon in itself is not a god, it merely points to God…
Icons are aids that can sometimes lead us to a deeper prayerful conversation with God,
Or another helpful way of thinking about icons is that they have been described as ‘windows’ to God…
as we look at an icon, we are meant to be drawn beyond it…
it is designed to help bring us into God’s presence,
to think on God’s beauty…
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord. 
So, with John Knox’s reservations aside, let’s think a little more on this particular icon.  

The icon tells a story of 'lost and found'.
It was hidden away in the middle of the chaos of war when the Napoleonic French forces were marching through Russia. 
A wise move, as the French apparently camped in the cathedral itself and caused quite a lot of damage in the process. 
But in the aftermath of war,
in the chaos that followed,
whoever had hidden it away disappeared or died and the icon was lost…
A generation came and went and another war came –
A war and a Revolution….
In 1918, in a dusty barn in Zvenigorod, a man happened to trip over a stair, which came loose, turned over…
and in that dingy, dusty barn, he gasped with amazement at what he saw:
he gazed upon the beauty of the Lord. 
He found himself held by this face, these eyes. 
Rublev’s long lost icon of Christ the Saviour. 
Also called ‘the Peacemaker’.  

And so, quietly, let’s really look at this picture…
As you look at it, what is the first thing you notice?
That strikes you?
Look at the surrounding, …
notice the colours, …
the clothing – the red underneath representing Christ’s divinity
the blue representing his humanity.
Look at the way Rublev has positioned the body:
there’s movement to it, as if Christ has been walking and, noticing you, turns his gaze upon you.

Finally, look at the face…
under the eyes there is almost a heaviness…
perhaps a weariness and sadness caused from seeing so many terrible things and from the carrying of the weight of the world on his shoulders.
And as you gaze into the eyes,
eyes that are looking back at yours…
they search you,
they know you,
they see you for who you are,
and love you with such compassion…
They see you as beautiful too – created in the image of God.  

The writer, Henri Nouwen, says of this icon that when he saw it for the first time, that what struck him initially was how damaged it was. 
The discolouration around the edges,
the cracks and tears on the face and the chest…
And yet, the more Nouwen gazed upon Christ the Peacemaker
the more he realised that is was as if ‘the face of Christ appears in the midst of great chaos…
a sad but beautiful face looks at us through the ruins of our world…
a face that expresses the depth of God’s immense compassion in the midst of our increasingly violent world.’

This is what the incarnation is about:
God made flesh,
who walked among us as one of us…
getting dust-caked feet from travelling along so many roads,
to so many places,
meeting folk where they were,
loving them.
Teaching by word and action what it was to live fully,
Eating, laughing,

Many icons have faces that look stern, almost severe - meant to evoke awe and fear:
this face is calm, quiet, human and humane.
Something different is happening here, something new…
It’s as if Christ comes down from his throne,
touches our shoulders
invites us to stand up
to look at him
to gaze upon his beauty.  

The icon is drawn to evoke love not fear.
To evoke within us a desire, as we gaze upon the beauty of the Lord, to worship.
To evoke a little glimpse of heaven so that we might realise, as Paul does in his letter to the Philippians, that we are citizens of heaven…
to remind us that while we know that this life is a gift and a joy, that there is so much more…
and that our inner restlessness, our inner yearning is there because our lives, like Abraham’s, are spent travelling:
travelling towards that promised land,
travelling to that place where we will be with God,
where we will see him as he is,
where we will gaze upon his beauty forever
and worship face to face. 

One thing I ask of the Lord, one thing I seek:
that I may be constant in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord,
and to seek him in his temple

Let us pray:
Holy God
Source of all beauty
Lover of us all
Kindle the yearning deep within us
Reminding us that you are our true home…
Inspire us to seek for you
So that we may gaze upon your beauty
In worship, awe and love
In Jesus’ name

based upon a meditation by Henri Nouwen, from his book 'Behold the Beauty of the Lord'

Sunday, 21 February 2010


Into the wilderness...  a picture journey of today's gospel passage - Luke 4:1-13

Friday, 19 February 2010

Is this the fast I choose?

Is not this the fast that I choose: 
to loose the bonds of injustice, 
to undo the thongs of the yoke,                            
to let the oppressed go free, 
and to break every yoke?   
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, 
and bring the homeless poor into your house; 
when you see the naked, to cover them, 
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?                         
                                                         Isaiah 58:6-7                         
I’ve been spending quite a bit of my time with John Knox this year.  We’ve been chewing over the matter of the Scottish Protestant practice of public fasting in 1566.  For Knox, public fasting was a sign of the covenantal relationship between God and the people of God.  Its basic aim, like most Protestant disciplinary rituals, was to effect reconciliation.  And yet, it was also a very political act. 
In the Order of the General Fast, 1566, Knox railed against a whole host of matters and, in the midst of these, there is a highly critical rebuke to a society that he believed  encouraged injustice.   
He cried out against merchants who grew fat by cheating the public through the use of falsely balanced scales; 
he blasted  the  aristocracy —earls, barons and lords who oppressed their labourers just because they could; 
he condemned greedy property owners who forced their  tenants into homelessness. 
Knox called on the God of justice to intervene but he didn’t merely leave it up to God: he understood covenant relationship as something which required action not only by God, but by the people of God.  Fasting in the face of the public was an act of witness—a witness to the injustice of  humanity compared to the justice of God.  Those made invisible and silenced by injustice were  able to be seen and heard through this act of witness.  It was the fast Knox chose to highlight the iniquity of  inequity; a fast that was both spiritual and political.  Although Knox was no fan of the traditional seasons of the church year, the timing of the General Fast did just ‘happen’ to coincide with the start of Lent—perhaps a subtle attempt at continuity in the midst of change?!!
What is the fast we choose?  This Lent, rather than giving up something perhaps the fast we choose might be to take on challenging systemic structures of power—structures that reek and creak and are rotten to the core.  Structures which dehumanise those created in God’s image.  In this, I’m reminded of  Iranaeus who said ’the glory of God is a human  being fully alive, and the life of that human is the image of God.’   
God of Justice, God of compassion,                       
show us your image in those we encounter.  
Help us to be your people of justice and compassion;
Give us courage to stand up for those bowed down by the weight of injustice. 
Free us from the temptation to collude and ‘be comfortable’.  
May the fast we choose be life-affirming and love-giving, 
shining your light of hope into the world.              Amen.   

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Marked by Ashes

A poem by Walter Brueggemann for Ash Wednesday:

Marked by Ashes
Ruler of the Night, Guarantor of the day . . .
This day — a gift from you.
This day — like none other you have ever given, or we have ever received.
This Wednesday dazzles us with gift and newness and possibility.
This Wednesday burdens us with the tasks of the day, for we are already halfway home
     halfway back to committees and memos,
     halfway back to calls and appointments,
     halfway on to next Sunday,
     halfway back, half frazzled, half expectant,
     half turned toward you, half rather not.
This Wednesday is a long way from Ash Wednesday,
   but all our Wednesdays are marked by ashes —
     we begin this day with that taste of ash in our mouth:
       of failed hope and broken promises,
       of forgotten children and frightened women,
     we ourselves are ashes to ashes, dust to dust;
     we can taste our mortality as we roll the ash around on our tongues.
We are able to ponder our ashness with
   some confidence, only because our every Wednesday of ashes
   anticipates your Easter victory over that dry, flaky taste of death.
On this Wednesday, we submit our ashen way to you —
   you Easter parade of newness.
   Before the sun sets, take our Wednesday and Easter us,
     Easter us to joy and energy and courage and freedom;
     Easter us that we may be fearless for your truth.
   Come here and Easter our Wednesday with
     mercy and justice and peace and generosity.
We pray as we wait for the Risen One who comes soon.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

pancakes of paradise...

How do you like yours?
Dripping with butter and ladled with jam?
Spoonfuls of cream and lots of fruit - the 'one of your 5 a day' option, so healthy?
With scoops of icecream and covered in butterscotch sauce?
Or, Canadian - with bacon and maple syrup?
Maybe all of the above?

It's 'Fat Tuesday'... aka Pancake Day... aka Shrove Tuesday.
A day to celebrate before the start of the penitential period we know as Lent.
As a good Reformed Church of Scotland person, perhaps it is slightly dodgy territory to be wandering into, journeying along the traditional liturgical maps.
On the other hand, I could just claim I am embracing ecumenism.  Truthfully though?
Tch, it's about the pancakes of paradise every time.  I like the idea that we taste a little of paradise before we enter into a season of denial - a strengthening for the journey ahead perhaps.
I also am firmly convinced that there will be pancakes at the banqueting table in heaven, it's in Calvin's Institutes I'm sure I read it in there somewhere.
Alas...this afternoon's jaunt with friend and friend's children to a popular local eating establishment specialising in ice creamy goodness, in pursuit of plates filled with paradise, turned out to be a pre-Lent voyage into the void: they were all out of pancakes.  Sad faces around the table... but chips brought smiles to smaller people whilst I, with stoic heroism, endured a mountainous praline parfait of joy.
It's a sacrifice, but one worth taking....  ;)

Monday, 15 February 2010

and now... for a little Lent praise

Following from yesterday's highbrow cultural post...

Prior to my life in the halls of academe, I used to run a cute wee bookshop/resource centre.  It was a place where the liturgical seasons of the year would get very mixed up when it came to placing orders and selling stuff.  Customers would breathlessly ask me in September about forthcoming Lent materials when we had not even quite got the Advent stuff out.  This was a small bone of contention and minor stress creator, as not even publishers had produced the stuff at that point of the year... understandably.  And of course, I understood from customer perspective, that there were folk who were just keen to get organised for ecumenical /house / study groups, but...!!

And why has this come to mind...?
Well the Lenten time is coming 'round again [whip crack-away, whip crack-away, whip crack-away?] and I remember a certain day [gosh, in 2003, time flies] in said bookshop when the Lent display was due to be created.  Gleefully I gathered all the 'props' and boxes of books. Unpacking a relentless stream of penitential paperback after penitential paperback began to tell on my psyche.  In a moment of rebellion I balanced the books on a knee, looked at my colleague Linda and exclaimed 'oh for goodness sake... what we need is a little Lenten praise!'
Grinning, we spent the next several hours, in between other duties of course, composing a Lent praise song.   It is quite 'Anglo-Cath' in flavour... I suspect I'll come back one day and write a Reformed version.

Mother Ruth, having unwisely invited me to come to her then 2 churches to preach on the 1st Sunday of Lent, got to hear the finished product... twice.  It seemed a 'suitable' introduction to the sermon.  It was also inflicted upon a poor, unsuspecting congregation in the States by an online lectionary collegue, who reported back in glee that the congregation were somewhat stunned.  He chose to sing it... I, at least did not inflict the added punishment on Ruth's congregations by warbling it!!
And so, in this run up to Lent, I thought I'd inflict it upon blog readers and give it another airing.

[based on the tune 'My Favourite Things']

A Few of our Lenten Things

Sackcloth and ashes and psalms penitential,
Bowing and scraping, looking deferential,
Ashes on foreheads, repenting of sins  -
These are a few of our Lenten things.

Downcast expressions and copious masses,
Beating of breasts and whipping of lashes,
No chocolate, no fun, no drinking of gin -
These are a few of our Lenten things...

When the sun shines,
When our hearts sing,
When we're feeling glad,
We simply remember our Lenten things
And then we feel... quite bad.
                                   c. Nikki Macdonald 2003 [with a little help from a 'Frosty' friend]

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Sunday song: proferring proper pre-Lent praise...

Sing those hallelujah's while you can... Lent is just 'round the corner boys and girls

Saturday, 13 February 2010

notes on the letter 'p'... the sequel

Professor pleased with Protestant penitential performance paper.  Phew.  :)     

Writing the paper [on the General Fast of 1565/66] for the 'conference' has been very, very helpful.  Test-drove a theory on performance and it didn't veer off into a ditch but, rather, seemed to work.  And has made me realise that the current chapter I'm writing will need to be totally re-written, but this is okay.  Has also made me rethink my whole overall approach to the thesis, which is useful.  I realised I'd got bogged down in the overall text and forgotten to focus in on the actual performance stuff that crops up within the text.
Muddied the waters.
But thinking is perhaps becoming clearer now.
I hope. 

Talking to my most excellent supervisor, I recognised that the difficulty has been that I feel like I am essentially trying to discover a whole new language in which to write.  And because I haven't yet got to grips with the language myself, I'm toiling to communicate in a meaningful way with her.
And this is odd.
Normally we are very much on the same wave-length, or think along a similar line - themes, big pictures, that sort of thing: there's a shared language.
But this research is proving to be different.
And so ... we struggle to communicate, roll our eyes, laugh, some hair is ripped out, and we keep plugging away.
I'm incredibly fortunate to have her as a supervisor: she's superbly generous, diligent, and such an all-round good egg.  I look around at some other PG's and know it's not the same for everyone.

It's a funny [well, sometimes ripping-head-out-of-hair actually, as noted above!] experience this whole PhD lark.  I keep realising the more I find out about something, the less I actually know.  I also wonder if on my death-bed I will utter the words 'I spent my whole life learning I know nothing' - ahhh, such a cheering thought.  Ah, actually, I don't mind at all - maybe realising you know nothing is perhaps the beginning of wisdom? 
The thing also seems to grow legs everywhere and run all over the place - need to practice the art of using a lasso.
And I get so mind-achingly tired. 
A friend observed the other day that when he asks how I am, I always reply within the context of the current state of play of the thesis.  Oh dear.  The thesis and I have this weird symbiotic relationship now.  I feel I'm in some bizarre academic version of Deep Space Nine, or some such.

And yet, I think that finally, I may be on to something.
And perhaps it may be vaguely useful.
And... oddly, nobody seems to really have done this before.
And that, in itself, is strangely exciting.
Perhaps I'm finally accepting and embracing my inner geek.
Just wish I didn't have a penchant for doing things the difficult way.  :)

Friday, 12 February 2010

this post possibly provided by the letter 'P'

Oh dear.  Oh very dear.  I suspect sleep deprivation has moved from the shattered brain-freeze state to that weird hyper space you can tend to morph into occasionally.
I'm perky... positively percolating with possibly pertinent and pithy 'p' words.
This state of being due to writing a paper for tomorrow's conference.
I've realised how ridiculously alliterative my research area is.
In a sense, what I'll be doing tomorrow will be...

presenting a paper on the process of Protestant penitential performance, in particular, provender prohibitions in 1565/6.
I'm sure I could find more words beginning with 'p', for example 'prat', which is what I suspect I'll look like after said paper tomorrow morning!!!
Illustrious academic supervisor will sit there despairing, I predict.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

A Sunday song...

or anytime really.  Came across this hymn yesterday and was completely blown away - enough to chat to the music director in church this morning and ask for it maybe as an anthem in a couple of weeks.  CH4 #395...
Particularly love this folky-Celtic version... enjoy!

Friday, 5 February 2010

Friday Five: staving off the gloom

Sally over at Revgals has posted a 'Spring' Friday Five challenge:
Candlemass is past, and Christmas is well and truly over, here in the UK February looks set to be its usual grey and cold self. Signs of spring are yet to emerge; if like me you long for them perhaps you need ways to get through these long dark days. So lets share a few tips for a cold and rainy/ snowy day....

1. Exercise, what do you do if you can't face getting out into the cold and damp?

Walk in a determined manner to the blinds, shut them, walk to bed.  Practice intentional hibernation

2. Food; time to comfort eat, or time to prepare your body for the coming spring/summer?
Just give me the chocolate of joy and it will all be okay... and nobody will get hurt

3. Brainpower; do you like me need to stave off depression, if so how do you do it?
See number 2

4. How about a story that lifts your spirits, is there a book or film that you return to to stave off the gloom?
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young woman in possession of cold, damp grey days must be in want of an Austen...

5. Looking forward, do you have a favourite spring flower/ is there something that says spring is here more than anything else?
A tie for 1st place: the fragile delicacy of the first emerging snowdrops and the bold, brassy wonderful riot of crocuses along the Meadows in Em'bra

Bonus; post a poem/ piece of music that points to the coming spring......  
Ahhhh, a little Vivaldi: Spring ... with some pretty pic's of spring flowers to look at:

Thursday, 4 February 2010


In the words of the Borg collective [and we're not talking Borg and Crossan] I have been assimilated, resistance is futile.
A ceremony.
Haddington in the heart of John Knox territory.
I am now a citizen of the U.K.
I think I grinned through the whole wee ceremony.
And the folk who had organised it were lovely: it was no perfuntory thing in a grey office.  The Provost and Lord Lieutenant of East Lothian gave speeches to the two of us who were becoming citizens.  We then made our affirmations [no oaths] and then an embarrassing moment when the national anthem came up on the sound system... and we all looked around waiting for the cue to come in... and there wasn't one.  Lord Lieut. quietly mumbled it under his breath.
Oh and along with the document of citizenship which was presented, there was also the presentation of a medal - the Council has only recently been doing this, they explained.  It was a really nice memento and they were pretty chuffed about their idea.
I was too.
Very fancy choice of cakes and liquid refreshments followed.
I do love East Lothian Council.
Given the warning that the citizenship application was sommat that was going to take up to 6 months to process it didn't take so long after all.
It's good to be home... :)

Monday, 1 February 2010

Looking for that 500th birthday present?

It's someone's 500th year birthday.
Let's celebrate!
Let's do ... lunch!!

The all-new, all-traditional John Calvin lunchbox and coffee flask.
The perfect present.
The perfect packaging for Presbyterian provender.
Buy now while stocks last.

[doctoral displacement activity -who me?]