‘I still and quiet my soul…’

…that was the title of the retreat that we attended recently at the Northumbria Community. Based on a phrase in Psalm 131:2, it describes the aim of the retreat where we were joined by a fascinating mixture of characters, ranging from an Anglican priest about to start a new role, to a wandering nomad travelling the world!

Life during that week was centred around the meal table where community was built up as we talked together; and around regular, short services or ‘offices’ held at 9am, 12 noon, 5.30pm and 9.30pm. Being a non-guided retreat, the rest of the time was our own to use as we saw fit, for reading, reflection, or simply resting in our (very comfortable!) room or enjoying the surrounding Northumbrian countryside.

As we read and rested, both of us were reminded of the priority that God places on rest. In his book ‘The Day is Yours’, Ian Stackhouse (senior minister at Millmead Baptist Church in Guildford) describes rest, and not humanity, as the climax of the creation account. And in a world where so often our identity is tied up in what we do, I was particularly challenged by John Ortberg’s conclusion, in his book ‘Soul Keeping’, that doing nothing is a valid and essential part of Sabbath rest.   ‘Doing nothing is doing a lot’, he concludes. As we strolled slowly through the fields one afternoon, we understood a little of what he was saying. We noticed some of the local wildlife out of the corner of our eye, which we simply would have missed had we been busy or in a hurry. It was as if God was saying, ‘don’t forget to spend time walking slowly enough to notice what I’m doing out of the corner of your eye!’ Because it’s only by seeing what God is doing that we can join him in it.

Of course, Sabbath rest is not a privilege reserved solely for ordained ministers; nor is it something to be enjoyed just once every seven years! All of us need times of rest on a daily, weekly and seasonal basis. As Vince Havner wrote, ‘if you don’t come apart for a while, you’ll come apart in a while’ – it’s why Jesus set aside times of rest, and encouraged his disciples to do the same. So… when was the last time you did nothing? And when was the last time that you didn’t feel guilty doing it? Doing nothing is one of the most important things we can do, because it’s in those times that God, as he restores our souls, becomes our focus of attention once more. After all, as Christians our identity is found, not in what we do, but in Christ… in who we are.

With our love and prayers
Matthew & Pauline Scott

Hidden Beauty

Dear Friends,

As you enjoyed (or endured) 35oC heat last month, Pauline and I were relaxing in the Scottish Highlands, appreciating the fact that temperatures about 20o cooler made it much easier for us to sleep comfortably… and that it created ideal conditions for walking and exploring some of the most stunning scenery that the British Isles has to offer.

Ideal, that is, except for the one or two occasions when the weather closed in from the Atlantic, the rain came down and the sea mist obscured the views… most frustratingly on the day when we visited the Isle of Skye en route to our eventual destination further north.

As we visited the beauty spots that we were aiming for, hoping in vain that the rain would stop, Pauline commented how frustrating it was not being able to see the views of the mountains and islands that we knew were there. And it occurred to us that the weather that day was a parable, or a picture-story, of our human nature.

Rain and mist might sometimes hide the beauty around us… but that beauty is actually still there – it just needs the rain to stop and the mist to clear in order for the true beauty of the landscape to be revealed.

As human beings made in God’s image, we too have built-in beauty waiting to be revealed. Our problem is that in a broken world, our beauty is sometimes hidden by the rain and murk of the selfish attitudes and actions that the Bible uncompromisingly describes as sin, and by the hurt caused by our circumstances or the selfishness of others.

However, the Bible also reveals that in Jesus we have a Saviour, a rescuer, who came to deal with our sin and pain. He is described as the Light of the World (John 8:12), because he came to shine his light into our lives, so that remarkably we in turn can be the light of the world (Matthew 5:14).

Thankfully for us, the Scottish rain stopped, the mist cleared and for the rest of our holiday we were able to enjoy the beauty that had been there all along. As Jesus shines his light on your life, may more and more of the hidden beauty of God’s image in you be revealed for others to enjoy!

With my love and prayers
Matthew Scott

What shape is God?

Dear Friends,

As we prayer-walked around Dedworth last week as part of our response to the ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ prayer initiative, I was struck – not for the first time – by the large number of interconnecting footpaths running through our community. I really don’t think I’ve ever lived anywhere with so many hidden pathways.

It occurred to me that this could be a picture of the hidden places that we all have in our lives. Sometimes these may be achievements or positive qualities which, out of modesty, we are reluctant to draw attention to. Often, though, these hidden places are the darker places within us that we would rather not acknowledge because we are ashamed of them – secrets that we keep in the shade, for fear of being hurt or judged.

As we walked along a footpath, shaded by the houses on either side, I realised that God came to shed his light on these darkest corners of our lives, so that we can see the way forward – and that he calls his Church to join him in that work. Returning to the church to share some of our insights from prayer-walking through the community, someone else wondered how many of our family, friends and neighbours realise that we all have what we often refer to as a ‘God-shaped hole’ in us.

Drawing those two reflections together, it suddenly occurred to me that our ‘God-shaped hole’ is not some mysterious, perfect gap waiting to be filled by God. Rather, it is the messy shape of our deepest wounds; our most painful hurts; our greatest losses; our most embarrassing failings; our greatest weaknesses and our deepest needs. The apostle Paul learnt this when he brought one of his ‘dark places’ to God in prayer, and God responded by saying ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ (2 Corinthians 12:9).

This Pentecost Sunday, may God’s Holy Spirit shed his light into our darker corners, bringing the rule of his Kingdom to places that had once seemed beyond hope. May God’s grace in filling our ‘God-shaped holes’ – whatever they may be – become part of our story which in turn offers hope to friends and neighbours, as they see that the darkest corners of their lives are places that God is perfectly shaped to fill.

With my love and prayers
Matthew Scott

Hallowed be Thy Name

Dear Friends,
Last Sunday morning, we started a short series of sermons on the Lord’s Prayer by reflecting on the opening line of the prayer. We realised that as human beings in whom God longs to restore his image, we are called to reflect the holy nature of his name because we belong to his family. Now, that’s a challenge if ever there was one! So we also highlighted the need to find times and places when we can ‘shut the door’ on the world around us in order to enjoy spending time alone with God.

Reflecting on what the word ‘hallowed’ means, David Runcorn, in his book ‘Dust and Glory’, notes that ‘the twelfth-century saint Bernard of Clairvaux taught that there are four movements in the life of faith.

We begin by loving ourselves for our own sake.

Then, when faith awakens, we love God, but still for our own sake, as one who blesses us and meets our needs.

Thirdly, we must come to the love of God for God’s own sake—as gift, for nothing, for the hallowing of the divine name alone.

Bernard then identifies one more movement. It is too easily missed, though perhaps with the best of intentions. In the loving of God for God’s own sake, we come to love ourselves truly for God’s sake. There is no contradiction here. God is the life of heaven and earth: it is all sustained in the love that is God’s own being. When his name is truly hallowed, all things find their true place, hallowed in their own name and calling. So we pray those ancient words once more: ‘Hallowed be your name’. And, did we imagine it? The echo of the prayer returns to us: ‘Hallowed be your name’.’

This is not easy to understand, but it is worth the effort of trying. These words connect strongly with our recent teaching that the Hebrew word ‘shalom’ is a prayer that all aspects of life should be as they ought to be; and also with Jesus’ teaching that he came so that we may have life ‘to the full’ (John 10:10). So, as you find times and places to ‘shut the door’ and be alone with God, may he continue to restore his hallowed likeness in you so that you may enjoy fullness of life, whatever your circumstances.

With my love and prayers
Matthew Scott

Be still; stand firm

Dear Friends,
Several times this term we have reflected on God’s call to us to ‘stand still’ or to ‘stand firm’, as found in the story of Jehoshaphat in 1 Chronicles 20. Is it a passive act of submission, as implied by the translation, ‘stand still’, or a proactive stance of defiance and determination, as implied by the alternative translation ‘stand firm’? Either way, what does it mean to ‘be still and know that I am God’? (Psalm 46:10).

This Easter, we can do no better than look to Jesus for our example.

Sometimes it means getting away from the battles of everyday life for a few minutes, hours or days, as Jesus often did during his ministry, so that we can listen to God and hear what he’s saying to us.

Sometimes it involves battling in prayer for something or someone, as Jesus did at Gethsemane, so that we can say with him, ‘your will be done’.

And sometimes it means carrying whatever cross or burden God gives us to bear, as Jesus did at Calvary, even if it means feeling that God has forsaken or deserted us, so that in the end we can say with him, ‘it is finished! I have done what you called me to do for you.’

Whatever it means for us, this Good Friday offers us an opportunity to stop and to stand still and firm in the midst of life’s battles. Whether you need to hear God’s directions, to pray ‘your will be done’ or to give something over to God having done all you can, the church will be open for personal prayer and reflection throughout the hours that mark Jesus’ crucifixion. There will be brief readings at the relevant times, covering the crucifixion events of 9am, 12 noon and 3pm; and there will be a short service at 10am for us to reflect together on the cross.

The events of Calvary offer us an opportunity to stop, to reflect on the depth of God’s love for us, and to ‘see the victory of the Lord on [our] behalf’ (2 Chronicles 20:17). Whatever other Bank Holiday commitments you may have, I encourage you to spend at least some time that day being quiet and finding out what it really means to stand still or firm while God does what he does best and brings the new life of Easter!

With my love and prayers
Matthew Scott

Lent Reflections

Dear Friends,

So, the big news this week is… that the Prime Minister has given up crisps for Lent! As a typical non-conformist Christian, I have often wondered what all the fuss is about Lent… why give up chocolate, social media or crisps for a few weeks, only to return to them afterwards? Actually, if I’m honest, I’ve never even given it that much thought.

Over recent months we have spent time reflecting on the changes that God wants to make in us and on the spiritual disciplines that help us to focus on our call to love God, to love people and to keep going in the Christian walk. Interestingly, fasting (going without something for a season) was not one of the disciplines that we considered. Continue reading

All change please … further reflections

Dear Friends,
As we return to our reflections on God’s constant challenge to us to change, I am reminded that one of the things we sensed was that God is calling us to commit ourselves wholeheartedly to worship him together, with more of an expectation that we will see him at work amongst us.

It is part of God’s work of restoring his image in us, which we looked at last week. We remain ‘works in progress’ until the day we die, but that does not mean that we should give up! Every time we become a little more patient, or show a little kindness or self-control – or any of the other attributes that reflect something of God’s character and love – we introduce a sign of God’s kingdom to the world around us, and we participate in God’s Gospel mission of bringing his hope and love to broken lives. Continue reading

The power of praise

Dear Friends,
My readings this week took me back to one of the passages that I referred to last Sunday morning, when we reflected on the thought that God comes to us so that we can put on… a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.’ (Isaiah 61:3) We found that the reaction of Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:22-38) and the wise men (Matthew 2:1-12) to encountering the new-born Christ-child teaches us that our first response to God’s love, whatever our circumstances, should be the response of praise. Continue reading