Grown up faith…

Last night as I hurried in from seeing a wedding couple I caught the tale-end of a TV programme called ‘The Secret Life of 4 Year Olds’.  It was fascinating watching, an unprecedented look at the conversations, the interactions and the behaviour of a number of 4 year olds in a nursery. I was hoping to gain some insight from it that might help me to be a better Dad, but as I only caught the last 5 minutes I will have to Sky + it to watch it properly.

At the end of the programme there was a montage of the children saying what they wanted to be when they grew up.  The sweetest little girl you ever saw wanted to be a nurse, one little boy wanted to be a fireman, another little girl wanted to have babies and another boy wanted to be a boxer (a fact which he then demonstrated by air boxing viciously whilst shouting “POW! POW! POW!”)

It was the last little girl that struck me most.  She thought for a second and then said, “But I don’t want to grow up.”

WOW!  I thought.  Good answer!  Why would anyone want to grow up?  Why not stay a child and have none of the responsibility, none of the worry, doubt or fear.  Why not stay untainted by these things, innocent and uncaring about everything except where Mum is and what’s for tea.

Let’s face it, our lives are filled with stresses and strains, pressures from all kinds of things, family, money, work, a want to ‘better’ ourselves or have more things, bigger houses, faster cars, ‘better’ bodies…. It’s all too much!  As I grow older I can increasingly see the truth in the phrase ‘youth is wasted on the young’, and can testify that young people seem far too keen to be adults these days.  As Guy Garvey of the group Elbow wistfully contemplated whilst watching a group of ‘lippy kids’ playing on a street corner, ‘Do they know those days are golden…?’  Why not stay a child forever and have none of the worry and stress, have someone take care of all of that for you and stay in the golden years of childhood.

As Christians we see ourselves as God’s children.  God is our parent, there to protect and defend us.  To ensure that nothing will harm us and to take responsibility for us.  Some Christians see that as the perfect excuse never to ‘grow up’ in their faith.  These Christians display the characteristics of small children in regard to faith.  Their faith is self-centred, (‘Jesus is my personal Saviour’) it is emotionally driven (all about how it makes me ‘feel’) and it is intellectually empty.

Is this what Christ meant when he said we should become like little children?  I doubt it.  I always took that to mean that we should come to Christ with open hearts, ready to receive the change, growth and transformation that the presence of Christ brings.  This is proper growing up in faith, proper spiritual maturity.  It is acknowledging that a faith in Christ brings responsibility.  For oneself, for others and for our relationship with our Creator.

Lent begins on the 18th February with Ash Wednesday. It is hard to think of a more grown-up occasion in the church year, than that moment when ashes are smeared on the forehead of the believer and the words, ‘Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return…’ are uttered sotto voce.  It is both sobering and revelatory.  We are not the centre of the universe.  It is not all about us.  Grow-up!  Take some responsibility.

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We do have much to learn from our children about all kinds of things.  About unconditional love, about how to laugh and how to play and how to be open hearted.  How to be non- judgmental and unprejudiced.  Part of the challenge of maturity and of growing up into adulthood is how not to lose these precious things as we grow older and greyer and more cynical.

So perhaps we might use the season of Lent to grow up a bit in our faith.  To think a bit more about it and to take some responsibility for it.  We would do well to heed Paul’s advice to the Corinthian church as they struggled with becoming mature in their newly found Christian faith:

            ‘Brothers and sisters, do not be children in your thinking;

            rather, be infants in evil, but in thinking be adults.’  1 Cor 14.20

Have a blessed and holy Lent.

Fr M

 

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The Meaning is in the Waiting

Tonight we begin our Advent Reflections with an Advent Supper, reflecting on Paula Gooder’s book, ‘The Meaning is in the Waiting’. Throughout Advent we will be preaching about the four sets of characters that Paula studies in her book, characters that enter into the task of waiting, and therein find meaning:

Week 1 Abraham & Sarah
Week 2 The Prophets
Week 3 John the Baptist
Week 4 The Blessed Virgin Mary

Advent Reflections 2014 colour

 

The title of the book is inspired by a wonderful poem by R.S. Thomas – Kneeling. I share it with you and hope that it might enrich YOUR Advent wait.

Kneeling
BY R. S. THOMAS

Moments of great calm,
Kneeling before an altar
Of wood in a stone church
In summer, waiting for the God
To speak; the air a staircase
For silence; the sun’s light
Ringing me, as though I acted
A great rôle. And the audiences
Still; all that close throng
Of spirits waiting, as I,
For the message.
Prompt me, God;
But not yet. When I speak,
Though it be you who speak
Through me, something is lost.
The meaning is in the waiting.

Greater Love – Commemorating WW1

‘God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble…’ Psalm 46.10

I want, in the main, in my talk to you, to make the focus not my words but the words of three veterans of the First World War. Words that were recorded in the 1960s for the BBC series The Great War.

They are the words of three individuals whose part in the war was small, but whose experiences were typical. Their stories are honest and true, said with feeling, but without hyperbole. They are shot through with dignity, understatement and a self reflection that gives us, viewing these stories over such a great length of time, insight into the human condition and the horrors of war.

We begin with the words of Edward Glendenning, a Private in the 17th Sherwood Foresters, who joined up at the tender age of 17. He begins by describing the night before they were ordered to advance over the top of their trenches…. and ends with a regret….

One cannot begin to imagine what these young men went through in the trenches. Those that were lucky enough to return were not the same men as they were when they left.

Indeed the course of the war on the home front was not easy. There was the agony of watching and waiting. The longing for news and yet the agony of receiving THAT letter. The letter that meant hope was crushed. Our next voice is that of Katie Morter, a civilian, a wife of a serviceman, living in Manchester. Here she recalls the letter that she received in July 1916, when she was eight months pregnant, that broke her heart…

Our final veteran is Stefan Westermann, a German Infantry Division Corporal. In his graphic account, he describes the killing of a French soldier— he also is reflective about what it is that drives ordinary men to kill in the bloody horror of war…

“The culture we boasted so much about, is only a very thin lacquer, which chips off the very moment we come into contact with cruel things like real war…”

Westermann’s words are hard to hear. War dehumanises us and makes us miss the commonality of flesh, blood, sinew and spirit that binds all of humanity together. The thin lacquer of civilisation is easily chipped when we come face to face with the terrible evil present in such violent conflict.

But even Westermann knew that there where some shafts of light that shone in the great darkness of the trenches. Here he recalls just such a time…

I believe that it is this ‘generosity’ this spark of light, is what ultimately sustains the human spirit in times of great adversity. The Christmas truce of 1914, the football and the swapping of cigarettes, rum, schnapps and greetings, though undoubtedly exaggerated over the course of time, was another symptom of the fact that despite everything, despite the grip of the dark forces of human nature, light shines and humanity is capable of hope and redemption.

‘God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble…’ Psalm 46.10

If these words are true (and they have sustained many in the trenches and in conflicts and wars before and since) then there is hope and redemption. If there was no hope and no redemption from the horror of war, then why are we here? Isn’t it better forgotten and not talked about, if by remembering and talking we just remind ourselves of the hopelessness of our situation?

No! We remember and we talk because we believe that love does conquer all. We remember those from this community and thousands of others like it who gave their lives because we hope and we pray that we might learn from it all. That we might find the light of redemption in the darkness. That we might, despite the apparent hopelessness of our own age, work together for peace, justice, and our common good. That we might put aside the differences that wealth, power, land or possession saddles us with and find…. An outstretched hand, a full glass of warming rum, a football passed to us in a gesture of playfulness across a sea of mud, a shared photo of loved ones at home, a laugh at a joke… anything that enables us to see in the eyes of another and see another human person filled with divine life.

God does not give up hope in us, despite the mud, gas, blood and death of the trenches. God does not abandon us despite the shelling of Gazan civilians and the shooting down of MH17 . So let us not lose hope in both God, and in human nature. For there are always shafts of golden light that break through the darkness. Faith, love and hope, ultimately, conquer all.

Those who were there can say it better than anyone. I will end with the end of a letter from Private J.F. Coull to his little son, that was given to him after his father was killed in the trenches in 1916…

Goodbye dear boy and if it is that we are not to meet again in this life, may it be certain that we shall meet in another life to come, which faith I trust you will hold on to and live up to.
I remain ever Your loving Daddy J. F. Coull

Serving at the Altar – Serving the Divine

A sermon preached by Fr Martin at the meeting of the Guild of the Servants of the Sanctuary where three members of our serving team were admitted.

‘Very truly I tell you, servants are not greater than their masters…’

Franes Cartoon

I am reminded the cartoon above from Punch magazine where two art critics are looking at a huge painting in a large ornate frame in a gallery.  It is a nude woman, and the painting is so big it dwarfs the two figures.  One of the critics is saying to the other, ‘They don’t make frames like that any more!’

You don’t go to an art gallery to look at frames do you?  But the art of a good picture framer is to highlight, to draw the eye into the picture.  Colour and style of frame, mounting, double mounting, the colour of mounting all help to focus the eye on the picture within.  The frame draws our attention in to that which the artist wants us to see.

Very truly I tell you, servants are not greater than their masters…’

The reading for today could not have been more appropriate for our Mass this evening and our celebration at the admission of some new members.  Serving at the altar is a particular calling and charism of the church.  It is both a practical and a spiritual exercise in which one serves not simply the priest or the congregation, but Christ himself.  Made present in the Sacrament, Christ is honoured and shared by the actions of altar servers and ministers, readers and intercessors.

As such it is a sacrificial ministry.  I have been ordained for nearly 14 years and I still find it hard to both lead worship and worship myself.  My mind is constantly racing ahead to the next thing I have to do, instead of dwelling in the moment.  So it may be with those who serve at the altar.  By your actions you enable the worship of others, often at the expense of yourself being fully engaged in adoration and worship yourself.

A good altar server completes their tasks unobtrusively, calmly and with grace.  Like a good picture framer it is their task not to be the focus of attention themselves, but to draw the eye and the heart of the worshipper to the reality of Christ’s presence in word and sacrament.  To frame the mystery of the Mass in such a way that the gathered congregation can enter fully into the contemplation of the divine.

After all this task of drawing others into the presence of Christ is the task not just of servers, or priests, but the task of the whole Body of Christ, the whole church.  All of us are called to make Christ known through our words and actions.  We proclaim not ourselves or our own wisdom or understanding, our own holiness or devotion at this altar,  we proclaim Christ crucified.

‘Very truly I tell you, servants are not greater than their masters…’

As we admit new members to the Guild we give thanks for their particular part in the task of the whole church, to make Christ known, loved and worshipped throughout the world.  We give thanks that Christ has entrusted this great commission to us all, and we remind ourselves that, following the example of the Servant King who washed the feet of his disciples, we are here to serve one another in love.  For it is Christ we’re serving when we serve others.

 

AMEN

 

 

 

 

The Christmas Tree Cross

The tree that heralded the Saviour’s birth, now stripped, ready to remember his death…

We meet at the Rectory, Field House, Church Rd, Aldingbourne at 10am on Palm Sunday to follow the cross to church.  All are welcome as we begin the most Holy Week in the church’s year, journeying with Jesus to the cross and beyond to the empty tomb.

Click HERE for our Holy Week services.

Christmas tree cross

Leave the Church and get down the Pub!

I don’t know about you, but my heart sinks like a lead elephant whenever I am at a church gathering and the person leading the session says something like—and now let’s turn to our neighbour and talk about this for a couple of minutes—CLANG!

Having said that I do do that quite often in my sermons—you have been warned!  But I have found actually that I have had some of the most engaging and interesting debates about theology, God, faith, religion and all that kind of stuff, not in a university common rooms, or a discussion groups, or in small buzz groups where we had to chat to our neighbour—but in pubs.  With a pint in my hand, some pork scratchings, and the comforting murmur of chatter and clink of glasses.  Something about that brings out the best in theological debate.  That is part of the reason I am hoping to start a thing called ‘Pub Theology’ open, honest debate over a pint (or two) in a local hostelry.

Pub Theology Website

If this sermon had a title it might well be, “Leave the church, and get down the pub”.  I read with interest this week that the happiest profession (according to the Cabinet Office) is that of vicars and priests.  The least happy is Publican.  So perhaps us Vicars should share a bit of our happiness…

For we meet all kinds of people when we venture outside these sacred walls and we find many opportunities to share, debate and grow our faith too.

Take our Gospel reading this morning.  When Jesus met the Samaritan woman by the well at Sychar, he engaged in a keen theological and ecclesiological debate with her.

And just like those crusty Victorian Christians who would raise an eyebrow at the very thought of a vicar in the pub, interacting with this woman would have raised a few eyebrows in his own day.  He breaches the conventions of polite society by even talking to her.  Then he asks her for a drink, Samaritans and Jews did not share things in common—John reminds us.  Jews were forbidden to drink from any vessel handled by a Samaritan.

But talk to her he does and the woman is hooked by the fact that Jesus knows her history, and immediately eager to talk more with him. She recognises that there is something special about him.

But he’s not a Samaritan, like she is. His temple resides in Jerusalem; her sacred site is on Mount Gerizim. Their people read different scriptures. Their rival religious traditions make competing claims about who belongs to God and how God can be known. The divisions between her and Jesus appear insurmountable, according to the terms of their contemporaries’ religious debates.

Once she raises the tangled and divisive issue about the parameters of true and false forms of worship, Jesus cuts the knot. Authentic worship happens, he says, not in a specific, designated place but in specific relationships.

Authentic encounters with God occur “in spirit and truth.” They occur with Jesus, where he chooses to be, freely roaming among Jews, Samaritans, and the rest of the world.

Jesus’ disclosure about where and how we meet God reframes the whole issue. It’s a change so disruptive, so different, it sounds like the kind of thing the Messiah might bring to pass. The woman senses this.

“I’m glad you mentioned the Messiah,” Jesus seems to say in response. But the words he uses to introduce himself as such are simpler and more stunning: He tells her, “I am.”

Numerous English translations render Jesus’ line as “I am he,” but there is no “he” in the Gospel’s original Greek text. As far as the Gospel of John is concerned, Jesus utters the name of God: “I am.” It’s a name first revealed to Moses in the book of Exodus.  Jesus’ point is this: “If you want to know how and where God can be authentically known…well, I’m right here. Not limited to a temple, but here, sitting with you, beside this well.”

In cutting through the debate between Jews and Samaritans about where to worship, Jesus punctures traditions and expectations about the right way to be religious. In Jesus, God shows a commitment to know and to dwell among people. Not only is God present outside the walls; God promises also to be found there.

This scene asserts that God is not confined to churches — neither to architectural structures topped with steeples, to set-apart “sacred” sites, nor to communities of Christians. Therefore, not only is God served or honoured by our activity “out in the world,” God is encountered there, in our interactions with friends and strangers.

People of faith ought to leave their churches every now and then — not to abandon their communities or religious institutions, but to venture out in expectation that God will appear in a different setting.

When a Christian works in a food-bank, or sits in a pub or a park or a school, whether they work in a in a factory or an office or a board room, wherever Christians are and wherever they witness to their faith, they provide a tangible expression of God’s presence. Such a Christian presence makes a bold statement that God can be anywhere and everywhere, but most particularly God can be found in person-to-person interactions.

And if God is not confined to churches, or to gatherings of like-minded individuals, then we may need to reassess who God is and what a life of faith looks like. A God encountered outside the walls, encountered “in spirit and truth,” must be a God who dwells among flesh and blood, among pint pots just as much as among silver chalices. Jesus insists that God has come to be with us. All of us. Priests and publicans alike. Thanks be to God for that.

Ash Wednesday Sermon

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

I don’t know if you watched Professor Brian Cox’s series called the Wonders of the Universe.  It is fascinating stuff, and the way he presents what could be dry and sterile science is very watchable.

The first episode is called Destiny.  In it Professor Cox outlines the fact that ultimately, time is not characterised by repetition but by irreversible change. That everything in the whole universe changes.  He demonstrates this by visiting the edge of a glacier where millions of tons of ice shift continually down a mountain and ultimately fall into he sea to melt and float away. He visits an old mining town in Namibia, the ravaging effects of time and the march of the desert sand and wind has all but destroyed the buildings.  All of this demonstrating that the arrow of time marches only ever forwards and so things change and decay.

The vast universe, he tells us, is subject to these same laws of change.  This picture below may seem like a pretty boring picture of space to us.  It doesn’t seem to show much, but, it reveals to us the nature of time and the change that time brings.  Scientists get pretty excited about this picture, but then perhaps they need to get out more!

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In the centre of the picture is a tiny red dot.  That dot is poetically named GRB090423.  It is a star roughly 40 or 50 times bigger than our own sun that has exploded.  When we look out into the night sky we are looking into the past, because it takes time for the light to reach us.  GRB090423 is the oldest star in the visible universe.

We are witnessing it’s explosive death 13 Billion years ago, that’s almost the entire history of the universe, a mere 600 million years after the big bang that created everything.

Everything, Professor Cox, tells us changes and decays.  Everything will one day come to an end.  The destiny of our own sun is the same as the destiny of GRB090423 and all the other stars.  One day, in billions of years time the universe and time itself will cease to be.

In a moment I am going to mark you with the sign of the cross in ash and say to you: ‘Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return’.  There is no getting away from it.  Change and decay is in everything around us, from the tiniest blade of grass, to the vastness of the universe everything will one day cease.

There’s a depressing thought to begin Lent with!  One day all of everything will no longer be.  Thanks Fr Martin, I feel great now, ready to see out Lent and meet Easter with great joy!

But that is not the end of the story for us.  Professor Cox, though not a Christian, remains full of excitement and hope about the universe and it’s wonders.  And that is primarily because there is life.  There is only a very brief window in which life can exist in the universe.  In terms of a fraction of the whole life span of the universe life can only exist in 1000th of a 000,000,000 000,000,000 000,000,000 000,000,000 000,000,000 000,000,000 000,000,000 000,000,000 000,000,000th  of it’s entire life.  And that moment is NOW.  Life is happening now.  And it is happening now precisely because time has passed.  It takes time for matter to form and for gravity to pull it all together.  It takes time, and time means change and decay.  So if you want life, you have to have death.

Death then is a natural part of life, a bitter irony indeed.  Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return are not just some depressing words to make you feel miserable for Lent.  It is an eternal truth.

But more than that it is a call to change.  To put your house in order. To make ready for the future and the change and decay that the inevitable march of time will bring.

Change and decay in all around I see…

How can you do this?  Well you might begin by giving something up, or by joining one of our Lent activities.  That’s a good start.  But the bigger picture is that we need to use Lent to change the behaviours and activities we do which are destructive.  Destructive to ourselves, others and the world, and perhaps most of all in this Holy season, destructive to our relationship with God.

Yes we know that God never turns away from us. Yes we know that his love endures and it hopes believes and outlasts all things.  We know that his grace descends on us like an ever flowing river.  We say prayers thanking God for it.  We sing hymns and endless choruses about the generous love of God and  his overflowing mercy and forgiveness.  We know that God’s love is never ending.  So when are we going to start acting like we know it?  When are we really going to offer our thanks to God rather than simply singing it or praying it as empty words and then not living like it? 

Because to live like we are bathed in God’s loving mercy and forgiveness is what we are called to do today as we begin this Holy season.  We are to give thanks, not just with bland words of praise, but our hearts, minds, our actions, and those words which come not from a book or a Hymnsheet, but our very souls.

Lent is rightly held up to the church as a season for penitence for confession of our sins and failings and pleading for God’s forgiveness.  But I believe that confessing our sins is not just pleading God for forgiveness, but thanking God for it.  When God forgives our sins he is not changing his mind about us.  He is changing our minds about him. He does not change: his mind is never anything but love. He is love.

Change and decay in all around I see, O thou who changest not, Abide with me.

We have faith in something that is beyond the realms of science.  That cannot be observed through a telescope or mapped out in the complexities of mathematics.  We have hope in the eternal.  The everlasting, the never ending love of God who changes not.

So we can make ready to meet Jesus joyfully risen from the tomb on Easter Day, knowing that though change, decay and death are an  inevitable part of life, the incredible power of God’s love breaks through all of that into a new life, a life resurrected, changed from glory to glory, bathed in the light of our God.

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return… thanks to the wonders of God’s love, that is by no means the end of the story…

Pub Theology

Good things happen when we sit down at the same table together and talk honestly about things that matter—and frankly, having a beer doesn’t hurt.

Berghoef, Bryan Pub Theology: Beer, Conversation, and God

I love beer, not just from a drinking or taste perspective, but from a philosophical perspective too.  It is the drink that defines our nation and is as important to Britain as wine is to France.  (For more on why beer is important you can read THIS that I wrote some time ago).

As well as loving beer I love God.  And I love thinking about God, reading about God and reflecting with others about God.  I like to disagree, to hear new views and perhaps change my own.  I like to find points of convergence and agreement and feel affirmed in what I think or feel or believe to be true.

If you are like me (particularly with regard to the last bit – the beer is not essential) then you might like Pub Theology.  Pub Theology is going on all around the country and the world.  In pubs and bars everywhere people are meeting to drink (or not) to talk (or listen) and to enjoy informal reflection on life, faith and God.

41sOL5RnDiL

Of course people have debated this stuff over a pint for centuries, but Pub Theology as a movement began with this book by Brian Berghoef an American Pastor who leads an urban faith community called Roots DC.  It is born out of his frustration with rote teaching and learning, and a desire to reach those who wouldn’t necessarily come into a church.

The movement has spread around the world and there are groups meeting everywhere.  And, coming soon, there will be a group in the parish of ABE…

In ABE there is nothing definate yet… but if you find your interest piqued why not visit the Pub Theology Website and sign up for the newsletter.

 

Sermon: Candlemas 2014

When I was small I was always told to share.  Share your sweets, though you I never wanted to (you would then have less).  Share your crisps…(Dad’s big hands!) share your toys with your brother or sister.  Sharing toys actually means not playing with them yourself unless you break them up into little pieces!

Doing maths in school you often have to do ‘divide by sums.’  It used to be called ‘shared by’, you share the numbers out.  So 9 shared by 3 is?  12 shared by 4 is?  But when it comes to 10 shared by 3, er, well….You put that in a calculator and you get 3.33333333…ERROR.  Even calculators don’t like sharing sometimes…

But there are two things that can be shared which, as you share them, get more. Or at least don’t get less.

Ok, let’s have a competition.

In a moment I am going to half fill the cup at one end of the line.  You then pass the water in the cup along the line to the other end.  However, you must make sure that you have enough water left in your own cup to be able to swill it around a bit – just a tiny drop isn’t enough.  The winning team is either the team who gets the water to go furthest down the line, or the team with the most in the end cup.  If however someone earlier in the line has an empty cup because they gave all their contents away the whole team is disqualified.  You have one minute to play the game…go!  [A round of applause for the winning team!]

Have you worked out what can be shared without ending up with less yet?  The answer  might be love – it gets more as you share it around.  The other thing is something we have already shared this morning… candle light.

Notice how just one candle gives some light, but as the light is passed along it gets more, not less.  Candlemas is a time in the church’s year when we remember Jesus being brought to the temple so that Mary and Joseph could thank God for him.  At that time there was an old man there called Simeon, and when he saw Jesus he lifted him up high and said thank you to God for him because he would bring light to the world, showing the way to God, just like if you had a torch on a dark night on a road the light from the torch shows you the way.

Then there was Anna.  She shared the light too, but in a different way.  Instead of holding the light up for all to see like Simeon, she went about and spoke quietly to others, talking about Jesus to everyone she met.  She spread the light candle by candle, bulb by bulb lighting up in the heads and hearts of individuals coming to know the light of Jesus.

And in these same ways, you can share light, God shared his love with the world by giving us his only son Jesus so that we could get to know how much God loves us, and then to share that love with other people.  Whether we do it by holding it up for all to see, or we spread it little by little.

Today these 20 odd young people receive the sacrament for the first time.  This is food for the journey, the real presence of Jesus to help you and give you strength for your lives.  In this bread and wine Jesus shares himself among us all, he comes really close to us, so close that he becomes a part of us.  It’s that presence with you that will give you the courage to share the light with everyone.

The good news is that the light, the presence of Christ, doesn’t get less because we share it.  It gets more it gets bigger it gets greater, a far greater light than if we just stayed with one candle.  God’s light can fill the whole world if we share it…

 Let us pray
Thank you God for sharing your love with us, for giving us the light of Jesus so that we can get to know you Father God.We thank you for the gift of the sacrament, and pray for those who will receive your sustaining help for the first time today.Help them and us all to share your light with others, to bring light and love to all around us. Through Jesus your son, the light of the world. Amen