Walking on water: wisdom and the Christian family

Wisdom

A very personal reflection on this mornng’s service from John Dempster.

‘Wisdom’ and ‘family, were among the key themes at this morning’s service. Barry Dennis’s sermon a couple of Sundays go had prompted Duncan to reflect about how we acquire wisdom, and he shared some details about his own family background and the people – notably his grandmother – who influenced him and taught him priceless truths.

The context was one of this Sunday’s Lectionary passages – from Genesis 37 (1-4, 12-28) – which told the early part of the story of Joseph. It gives examples, Duncan reflected, of attitudes the wise person will avoid. The father Jacob foolishly makes a favourite of one of his children, Joseph. And though Joseph’s brothers are responsible for their atrocious behaviour towards him, Joseph himself is responsible for antagonising them by his arrogance.

The sermon prompted us to reflect on how we behave within our families, and also on the sources of wisdom which have made each of us the people we are. Duncan was fortunate in the family he was born into and the example of family life he enjoyed. There would have been folk at church this morning whose family experience taught them, as Genesis 37 teaches us, what to avoid rather than what to aspire to in our lives.

The characters in the Bible, who teach us through the mixture of wisdom and foolishness in their lives are, Duncan reminded us, members of our own spiritual family with God as their Father. We were thinking this morning of the wider Christian family today, and of those in Iraq who have been suffering so acutely over the last weeks in the face of the radical Islamic ISIS faction. These people – driven from their homes, stripped of all their possessions, cruelly murdered in some cases – are our brothers and sisters. Christ suffers in them, and we empathise with them, and pray for them, and do all we can to make a difference.

We heard briefly this morning from Doug McRoberts from St Andrews Church in Malta who spoke briefly about the work the church has done over the last few years in supporting refugees from Syria, Iraq, Iran and North Africa. He mentioned the start of this project, and the church’s need for 1000 euros to launch a particular initiative. Shortly before the day it was to begin, only 700 euros had been given. The leaders met to pray – and as they prayed and envelope containing 300 euros was put through the church door with a note saying, in effect ‘We feel we have to give this, but we don’t know why.’  It reminds you of the verse ‘Before they call I will answer’ (Isaiah 65:24) and was hugely encouraging to the team.

Now I have quite frequently heard stories like this, but nothing quite like this has ever happened to me, and it makes me wonder ‘Am I somehow deficient as a Christian?’, ‘Am I lacking in faith?’, ‘Am I too sceptical?’. ‘Am I reluctant to launch out trusting only God?’, ’Does this kind of thing only happen to people who are involved in some way in God’s front line?’  I don’t know the answer – there is probably some truth in all those statements. But then I remember that I have quiet encouragement in other ways which I interpret as a sign of God’s blessing. For instance, on Friday night I was struggling to write the piece for next week’s Highland News. I couldn’t get it to work in a way I was comfortable with. It seemed empty and lacking in conviction. And so I had simply to trust ‘Father, you know the words which will hit the streets next Wednesday evening, please show me them.’ Yesterday morning, the piece came easily – very similar to Friday’s draft, with a little restructuring and a few new thoughts – but the words came with a sense that this was ‘right.’ And that gave me a sense of thankful assurance.

It’s probably another reminder that in the Christian family we are all different – extroverts and introverts, different in the gifts God has given us, different in our experience of God, but one family, one Father. In the case of our family, it was our elder brother, not the younger one who was betrayed and handed over to the enemy.

This week, we’ve been thinking a lot about the Great War. One of the things the 2nd part of BBC2s Great War Diaries drama last night focussed on was the ‘ethnic cleansing’ carried out during the War by the Islamic Ottoman Empire who fought on Germany and Austria-Hungary’s side. The Christian Armenian people were driven from their homes into exile. Many were slaughtered. It seems to mirror the images we also saw this week, a century later, from Iraq. Which leads to the dis-spiriting reflection that we don’t draw wisdom from the past, simply repeat it.

In our attempt to draw wisdom from the example of the spiritual family we belong to we should be aware of our human tendency not to learn, to repeat the mistakes of our ancestors, once again to betray and reject the elder brother.

We live in a crisis-ridden world. Another of the Lectionary passages for today is the story of Jesus walking on the water towards the disciples in the storm-tossed boat. (Matthew 14:22-33) Which teaches us that Jesus remembers when we are in the storm and that the fact that Jesus remembers does not mean that the storm is immediately calmed. I was at Eucharist at the Cathedral on Tuesday, and the priest spoke about Peter walking to meet Jesus. The point which stayed with me was his comment that ‘Peter walked on water.’ That, for a while, until he took his eyes off Jesus, Peter made progress across the tossing sea. Sometimes God gives calm when we pray about the storm; sometimes God gives us faith and courage to walk on water.

The trouble is that families mess up, and we mess up as Christians. We aim very high, but we should not be surprised when those around us fail, and when we fail. Duncan finished with by reminding us that God turned the Joseph story round so that the rejected Joseph became, as Prime Minister of Egypt, the saviour of his people. For God brings light out of darkness. (Genesis 50:20)

Duncan quoted encouraging words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer who faced death in WW2 because of his faith. ‘I believe that God can bring good out of evil, even out of the greatest evil. For that purpose he needs people who make the best use of everything.’ And again ‘I believe that even our mistakes and shortcomings are turned to good account and that it is no harder for God to deal with them than with our supposedly good deeds.’

And Bonhoeffer adds ‘I believe that God is no timeless fate but that he waits for and answers sincere prayers and responsible actions.’

(As someone who struggles with prayer, I love that reminder that our actions call out to God as much as our words.)

This week may we discern the family we belong to, which is the body of Christ. And may each of us ‘make the best use of everything’ we have been given. And when the wounded elder brother comes to us in one of his children may we meet their needs as ministering to Him.

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