Tag: Piers Northam

Ephphatha – ‘be opened’

Photo: detail ‘Art & Faith Matters’ Lynn Miller

Ephphatha – ‘be opened’

A Meditation by Piers Northam on last Sunday’s readings: Isaiah 35:4-7a James 2: 1-10, 14-17 Mark 7: 24-37

Over the years in my design career I’ve worked on quite a few projects in Kuwait and, along the way, I picked up one or two Arabic phrases – mostly to do with food, numbers or building sites.  One expression – and I can’t remember why I learnt it, though I think we might have been playing games with one of our clients’ children – was the Arabic for ‘Open sesame!’ which is ‘iftah ya simsim!’ [افتح يا سمسم  ]

And of course that word iftah (open) comes from the same root as the word that we hear Jesus say this morning as he opens the ears and loosens the tongue of the man in our story.

Ephphathà!  [’eφφαθά] – be opened!  

I’m drawn to this word because it seems to me to be what God is all about: openness.  Openness to us and to our concerns; arms stretched open on the cross in an embrace for the world and all humanity; a heart never shut to us – always open to welcome us when we turn to him; ready to come running down the road to meet us like the prodigal son’s father.

And it seems to me that it’s what God asks of us too: openness to him, but also openness to each other.

’eφφαθά – be open! 

It’s why I pray the prayer I always pray before my sermons – that our eyes be opened to God’s presence, our ears to his voice and our hearts to his love – because it seems to me that that’s what God is asking of us.  That we are aware of his presence in the world and in each other; that our hearts are open to others just as his is open to us. 

’eφφαθά – open your hearts! 

These last weeks the crisis in Afghanistan has once again highlighted the agony of those who are forced from their countries and livelihoods, their families and familiar surroundings to flee; to undertake dangerous journeys and to leave everything that they’ve ever known behind – to become refugees because the alternative is simply too dangerous or too awful to contemplate.  As the world seems to become ever more troubled – through war, tyranny, oppression, economic collapse and natural disasters brought on by climate change – the  numbers of refugees leaving their homes and seeking asylum and the chance of life elsewhere are on the rise – and this poses a real challenge.  How do we deal with these people?  Where do we put them?  How might they impact on our own lives?  Our instinct is to think of people of different nationalities as ‘other’. 

And yet, as we read in James’s letter, we must beware showing partiality: treating people differently and favouring some whilst disadvantaging others. 

We find it a lot easier to deal with people who are clean and fed than people who are grubby, hungry and needy.  But God is shockingly blind to all of that.  He doesn’t hear their accent or notice the colour of their skin.  He simply sees a beloved child.

Our reading from James last week told us to ‘be doers of the Word, not merely hearers’.  And here he is again, underlining the importance of actions alongside our faith.

Jane Williams sums it up rather well:

‘ “Faith changes the way you live”, James says, in that obnoxiously black and white way of his.  You might feel tempted at this point to turn to that nice St Paul, who really understands the importance of faith, and doesn’t go droning on about having to do things as well.  Dream on.  Try reading Romans 6.  There is no escaping the New Testament conviction that faith is a commitment to a changed way of life because it is a commitment to trying to see the world with the eyes of God.’ 

We have to open our eyes to the world – and to those refugees around us.

’eφφαθά – open your eyes! 

The first half of our Gospel story is interesting though – Jesus is in the region of Tyre when the Syrophoenician woman asks for his help for her daughter.  Remember, she’s a Gentile, not a Jew.   Jesus’ words sound rather like some of the rhetoric that we hear at the moment much closer to home:

‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ 

In other words, he’s suggesting that the Jews should come first and merit his attention and his help before anyone else.  But the woman challenges this, certain that God’s provision is for everyone and that there’s enough to go round. 

I can’t work out whether she really is opening Jesus’ eyes to the breadth of his Father’s love, or whether he draws her on to say this as a test of her faith and so that others might hear it.  But whichever way, she’s unafraid to open her mouth and challenge the view that some are more important and deserving than others in God’s eyes.

And it seems to me that it’s incumbent on us too – that we open our mouths to challenge these attitudes.

’eφφαθά – open your mouths! 

I’ve felt very disturbed by stories I have heard in the news recently – first about RNLI lifeboatmen being abused and criticised and possibly facing the threat of criminal proceedings because they continue to risk their own lives attempting to rescue illegal immigrants in trouble at sea.  And then by the actions of the Government in the last couple of months as they have put the Nationality and Borders Bill through parliament criminalizing people who attempt to seek asylum here and those who help them.  There are plans within the bill to imprison people for 4 years if they arrive illegally by sea in small boats for example – this despite the fact that the cost of housing a prisoner comes it at around £42,000 per year as against around £9,000 per year for putting someone through the asylum system.  People do not get into those boats lightly: it’s a last and desperate resort and our country’s response to this seems heartless in the extreme.  I say I’m disturbed.  I’m not.  I’m appalled and disgusted – and deeply, deeply ashamed that this sort of thing is going on in my name. 

And as Christians we should all be opening our mouths to cry out loudly against this behaviour which speaks of shut minds, shut hearts and the very partiality that James warns against.

’eφφαθά – open your mouths and cry out! 

There is no sense in the Government’s approach – it seems to me plain wicked if I’m honest – evidence shows that where we work to help people and do our best to integrate them into society, they fast begin to build new lives and to contribute to that society, socially, culturally and economically.  But it requires some initial generosity on our part.

In thinking about all of this, I came across a story of another Afghan, Sabir Zazai, who arrived in this country seeking asylum in 1999 in the wake of the troubles in Afghanistan then.  The joke was that he was ‘sent to Coventry’ but he speaks of the warm of welcome that he received there. 

‘I left home in search of peace and reconciliation and I found myself in a city associated with peace and reconciliation. […]  Coventry inspired me and especially its cathedral; both old and new buildings have been a real source of hope for me and many others seeking protection in the city.

One sunny day I sat in the cathedral ruins […]  My eyes were caught by the word ‘Forgive’ engraved behind the cross that was burnt during the [World War II air-]raids.  On reflection I thought forgiving is a gift from God, but only if we use it often to be more forgiving to one another and more welcoming and understanding of others’ needs.  This way, we can build a more welcoming and hospitable society in which people fleeing persecution and human rights violations can rebuild their lives in safety and dignity. 

Wise words.  Sabir – the 23-year-old refugee who came to the UK over 20 years ago in the back of a lorry with not a word of English – is now based in Glasgow where he serves those seeking asylum and refuge as CEO of the Scottish Refugee Council, and as chair of the City of Sanctuary movement. In Coventry, a city rebuilt after the Second World War on peace, reconciliation and sanctuary, he worked tirelessly to make life better for all those in similar situations to himself and became CEO of the Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre. His drive, energy, compassion and commitment have been extraordinary and were marked by his award of the Civic Prize for his efforts in bringing peace and reconciliation to the City of Coventry. 

The refugee who brought peace and reconciliation…

What would happen to him today?

‘Then, looking up to heaven, Jesus sighed and said ’eφφαθά’
– open your eyes to what is happening…
– open your hearts to the heart-wrenching stories
– open your hands to do what you can
– and open your mouths to speak words of welcome
   but to cry out against injustice! 

’eφφαθά! – be opened!

Amen.

Piers Northam
5 September 2021

Sabir Zazai with his father, after receiving an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Glasgow.

The power of place

A group of us at my church recently shared in a Quiet Day led by our Archdeacon Vanessa.

Her addresses were about different aspects of Prayer – Prayer and silence; Prayer and Place; Prayer and Time; Prayer and the Senses.

Each one has its own way of inspiring and creating reflection. We were encouraged to engage with the gift of silence to ourselves, each other, and especially to God. We were also encouraged to receive the Gift of prayer to us from God and seek the Holy Spirit at work within us. In a beautiful phrase we were to sense ‘God speaking to God from within.’

Looking at Prayer and Place, Vanessa prompted us to think of the places where God has been easily found. She herself, spoke to us of Lastingham in the Cleveland Hills in North Yorkshire. Here the Saxon monk Cedd, pupil of St. Aidan of Lindisfarne, set up a monastery. This same Cedd brought the Gospel to Essex, to Bradwell which was consecrated by his presence and his prayer.

I haven’t been to Lastingham for many years but Vanessa opened up the memory and the experience within me. Below is the poem that I felt encouraged to write.

With it is a poem by Piers who was at the Quiet Day. Inspired, this time by the Abbey of Bec Hellouin in Normandy. Bec in the past supplied us with three Archbishops of Canterbury, Lanfranc, Anselm and Theobald. Bec still has a special relationship with Canterbury Cathedral. Today, only the tower remains of the Norman Abbey but a community of monks live in buildings near the tower. A sister community of nuns live in a convent a short distance away and on Sundays and Feast Days, the monks and nuns worship together. The serene and beautiful worship in their chapel inspired the first of the poems.

Both locations express the essence of what Vanessa spoke of to us. Thin places where heaven touches earth and God feels very near.

l’Abbaye du Bec

In my mind’s eye, I return:
cream quietness…
light bathing ordered stone,
the scent of sung prayer hanging low.

Immanence re-discovered.

Piers Northam
10 July 2021



Lastingham

I come to this place,
deep in the hills,
where silence and conversation
meld into stillness.

God is here,
his sanctuary a stone rainbow
over the seeker after meaning.

What am I looking for in this place,
where the one who drew others to their knees,
poured out his soul?

I sense and seek the company
of the one who prayed here first,
in the shadows of sweeping arches,
pillars and faint light.

Seemingly impermeable rock  
– steeped in suffering and joy;
pain and perfection; faltering hope
and confident determination – 
enfolds me as I kneel with Cedd:

exhaling uncertainty…
…inhaling God’s blessing and his love.

Geoffrey Connor
10 July 2021

Photos:
The Apse Chapel Pennant Melangell Church Mr.G
Abbey Church Bec Hellouin Piers Northam
Crypt, Lastingham Church. Parish of Lastingham

I have set My Bow in the Clouds

Rainbow over Lane. photo Piers Northam

Thoughts on Genesis 9: 8-17 from Piers Northam
Licensed Lay Minister at St. Mary-at-Latton, Harlow

I can never resist commenting on a rainbow if I see one.  They’re wondrous things, aren’t they?  And it doesn’t seem to matter if we’re nine or ninety, they still stop us in our tracks and invite us to marvel.
I remember once, many years ago now, driving through a very heavy rainstorm in France and turning a corner to see perhaps the most intense rainbow I have ever seen, bright and vivid against a background of thick, dark threatening clouds; a blaze of glory in the assault of the storm. We stopped the car to take a photo, but actually that image is vibrant in my mind’s eye – along with the wonder and the excitement of what we saw.

Of course rainbows have become prominent symbols of late – not least because they have been adopted as the symbol of the NHS and we have seen drawings stuck up in people’s windows; badges and the like.
Originally Gilbert Baker devised the rainbow flag in 1978 with eight colours as a symbol of pride for the gay community – the colours speaking of diversity and the various elements of life.  Over the years the flag has been adapted, the number of colours reduced and changed slightly and variations adopted to draw attention to different groups.  Its meaning has been broadened to include concepts of social justice.
The rainbow badge was originally adopted by the NHS to show greater understanding and inclusivity for LGBTQI+ people;
but it also speaks of being mindful of the various discriminations that people live with and over time it has evolved into a symbol of wider inclusivity; of an acknowledgment of the rich diversity of life and human experience and of the NHS’s role in responding to that sensitively and generously.  And during the pandemic, of course, it’s also become a symbol of our collective support for each other.

But in the story of Noah that we heard read to us just now, there are further connotations to the rainbow.  Here it stands as a symbol of hope and life after the forty days and nights of the Flood which wiped out all living beings other than those carried in the safety of the Ark – it speaks of release from hardship and confinement: of hope for the future.
And our reading from Genesis tells us that the meaning of the rainbow is one of Covenant – of a solemn and immutable promise that God makes with us.  Actually, if you listen carefully, of the covenant that God makes with every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth…
‘When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.’

So often, when we read again a familiar passage of Scripture, things pop out that we haven’t noticed before, and here, I was struck by the insistence that this covenant is made ‘with every living creature of all flesh’.  The phrase comes up three times in the passage we heard and God spells it out even further at the beginning:
As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark.’

When Noah takes all the different species into the ark to save them from the floor he is fulfilling his proper role as a steward of God’s creation; caring for and keeping safe the beauty and diversity of that creation; the finely balanced ecosystems that exist.

As we embark on the season of Lent, this reading helps us to ponder two questions – which Jane Williams suggests are appropriate questions for us to consider in Lent: ‘What are we for?’ and ‘What [or who] do we depend on?’ 

So what are we for?  Well Noah – as the representative of humankind – is fulfilling his God-given role as the steward of God’s creation.  And it’s a role that includes all living creatures – not just the domestic animals that are going to be of some specific use to him.  As we watch programmes such as David Attenborough’s ‘A Life on our Planet’ we need to remember the proper interdependence of all life forms and the way that we plunder the natural world so greedily and wantonly.  Part of what we are for is to work with God to care for the life-sustaining world that we have been given to live in.
And who do we depend on?  Noah’s story reminds us that we depend on God for everything – for it is through God’s mercy that Noah and his family survive and come through the flood safely.

In our Gospel story we see Jesus faced with similar questions as he withdraws to the wilderness.  In following the Spirit’s promptings he makes time and space to ponder what his calling is and to rely on his Father’s mercy; to make himself vulnerable and to depend on his Father.
Again, this is a familiar passage – although, as is typical of Mark, it’s pretty pared back, with few details – but three phrases did catch my ear:
‘The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.’
‘He was with the wild beasts’ and
‘the angels waited on him.’

In this time of Lent we need to allow the Spirit to drive us; we need to be open to the Spirit’s insistence as she drives us into the wilderness – a place where we have time and space to ponder; to go deep; to listen…  There’s an urgency and a vitality to the Spirit’s prompting here that we need to open ourselves up to because it’s important to be addressing those questions: ‘what am I for?’  And ‘who do I depend on?’  To find again our place in the world and our relationship with God.

So Jesus followed the Spirit’s insistence and went alone into the wilderness ‘where he was with the wild beasts’.  I’ve always thought of the wild beasts as being a threatening part of the story – a symbol of the harsh surroundings that Jesus find himself in.  And in part that’s true.  But seen in the context of Noah’s story and the Covenant that God makes with every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth, we might take it that Jesus is in his – and our – rightful place in the midst of creation; alongside the wild animals and reptiles and birds with whom we share in God’s rainbow promise.  It’s a strong reminder of how we are all interlinked.

And then that final phrase – ‘and the angels waited on him’.  Hitherto, I’ve rather dismissed that phrase – it doesn’t seem sufficiently Lenten really, does it?  Bit too comfy perhaps.  A trifle ‘Wilderness Lite’…  But actually, is it not a reminder that even in the most desperate and isolated of situations we are not alone; that God cares for us; sending his angels (in whatever form they may take) to be with us?  I think many of us will have witnessed or experienced examples of this in recent months.
Taken in this way, the wilderness – the Lenten wilderness – reminds us of our rightful place in the world and of our rightful relationship with the Father.  It gives us space to ponder and explore what God might want for us; what he is calling us to; but it also reminds us that in all we do, we are reliant on God.

One last thought. 
As I imagined the rainbow, two things occurred to me – first, that each colour needs the others to be complete – the one bright light is refracted by the rain into the colours of the spectrum: but take one away and the rainbow is incomplete; the rainbow dissipates without inclusive diversity.
But also, beyond the colours that are visible to the eye are those that we can’t see – infra red at one end and ultraviolet at the other.  And I am sure there’s much more hidden glory beyond in both directions.  In our creed, we profess our faith in things ‘visible and invisible’ for we believe in the things God reveals to us, but also in the hidden workings; the hidden glories that we cannot perceive…

Promise, covenant, hope, inclusivity, diversity, interdependence and the glories of creation – both visible and invisible – there’s a lot bound up in that seemingly simple symbol.
May your time in the Lenten wilderness give you space and time to ponder all these things – and may you glimpse a rainbow or two along the way.

Piers Northam
21 February 2021

All in it together

Elephant family in harmony with creation,
made, arranged & photographed by Piers Northam

Last Sunday at St Mary-at-Latton our Family Service had a Creation theme. Piers, the leader told a story based on A Year Full of Stories, 52 Folk Tales and Legends from around the world.

The particular story was called Elephant and the Rain Spirit which was sub-titled An African Bushman Story.

It told of an Elephant which was very proud of being the largest and strongest animal, the greatest in the land. Being a big animal no-one dared to argue with him. Until, that is, the Rain Spirit challenged the Elephant.
The Elephant wasn’t used to being challenged and began to protest. What about his great trunk and his fine tusks, not to mention his great big feet which made the earth tremble.
The Rain Spirit then reminded him that it was she who filled all the watering holes so that the animals can drink and watered the plants so that they could grow.
The elephant got quite annoyed at this and insisted that he could find his own food and drink.
The Rain Spirit said that the Elephant could therefore fend for himself and with a flash of lightning off the Spirit went. The Elephant laughed. He had seen the Rain Spirit off. He really was the greatest.

All went well until the Rainy season arrived but there was no Rain Spirit to fill the lakes and water holes, nor water for the plants. The other animals became thirsty and hungry so they went to the Elephant. They asked him to provide water for them to drink and water the plants so they had food to eat. The Elephant was a bit stuck so he told Crow to make water.  Crow did her best but very soon what little was produced was soon used up. Except for one watering hole that Elephant kept for himself. He told Tortoise to guard it which he tried to do.
All the animals tried to persuade Tortoise but to no avail. Until, that is, the Lion came. He moved Tortoise away with his paw and began to drink. The other animals took advantage until all the water was gone.
When the Elephant returned and saw what happened, he became very angry. The Tortoise tried to defend himself but the Elephant punished him by swallowing him up. The Tortoise wasn’t happy either and he made a great commotion in the Elephant’s stomach. The Elephant sunk to his knees in agony.
Then the Rain Spirit returned and the Elephant begged for help. The Rain Spirit said that surely, as the Elephant was the greatest in the land, why would he need help.

The Elephant then realized something. He told the Rain Spirit that though he was the greatest on earth, he wasn’t the greatest in the sky. The Rain Spirit laughed and laughed and the rain splashed down. When Tortoise heard the rain he gave Elephant a great thump and Elephant coughed him out again.

This delightful story has a big lesson. No one is more important than anyone else and that we all depend on each other. Gifts and food and water have all been provided for all of us by God. To enjoy this Providence all we have to do is share it with each other. That also means that we have to look after all of Creation. We are called Stewards which really means lookers-after. We have accountability for this stewardship. That goes for Mother Earth too. We have been given the work of caring for the climate and looking after this wonderful planet of which we are currently the tenants.

But we know all too well that we are failing.
Politicians, world leaders, those who exploit animals, rain forests, oceans, poor people and natural resources because they are greedy or who, like the Elephant in the story think they are the greatest are leading the world into extinction are all failing. So are we!

David Attenborough, the elder statesman of planet and nature conservation together with Greta Thumberg, one of our youngest activists have done more to alert and educate people of our Universal plight than any politician. Young voices are being heard in our own country. The proposed Future Generations Bill with its simple aim to put the well-being of those who follow us at the heart of decision making today. The Bill has been promoted by The Big Issue Foundation and Lord Bird who does so much for the homeless and vulnerable.

The Pandemic is a time when our own vulnerability as  the human race, is something we are being made to face. Whatever happens as we try to tackle the Virus, things are no longer the same and never ever will be. We are discovering that we aren’t the greatest and we never will be. There are truly vital lessons to be learned.

In the Christian religion there is a word – Repentance-  it means expressing sorrow for our mistakes and failings and self-centredness but most of all, out of this, there needs to come a turning round towards God, (The heart of what Repentance means) returning to the source of love and self-lessness. We are to return to the one who is our Provider – who gives and gives and gives all we need.

The Elephant had to learn a big, big lesson about our mutual dependency on each other. We all have a special place in the life of the world. However, that special place is not greater or better than anyone else. We have to try and help people to realize that and also, that together we can do lovely and wonderful and beautiful things.This depends on mutual care, love, acceptance, celebration and cherishing each other. Also, developing a growing recognition and gratitude that God who really is our provider, makes life (ours and all creatures that inhabit our Planet) very special.

Our picture above shows a family of rather gentle elephants. All those at the service made their own versions of it. May it remind them and us of how much better it is if we work together with others – human and otherwise!

[Mr.G.]


#The book, A year full of stories. 52 Folk Tales and Legends from around the world, is written by Angela McAllister and is wonderfully illustrated by Christopher Corr. Published by Francis Lincoln Children’s books 2016 ISBN 978-1-84780-859-2

#There are a few photos of the children’s elephants on the St. Mary-at-Latton Facebook page (under photos).