The Parishes of Crail and St Ayle

Reflections for the Locked out - Locked Down Church from Peter Neilson 

Sunday 28 June 2020

Good morning and shalom to all my friends in Crail and St Ayle.

Grace and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

We have wandered far and wide in recent weeks as we have reflected on and prayed about the world around us and the place of the church amidst a pandemic that has touched nine million people around the world.

I wonder if you remember that our first reflection began with words from St Bernard of Clairvaux: “Every person must learn to drink from their own well.”

I felt that the most important contribution I could make was to help us to go deeper with God at a personal level, while being aware that we were praying and worshipping “alone together” – a phrase from the contemporary monastic tradition which gives another meaning to the clinical language of “social distancing”.  To weather the storm, we needed a strong anchorage in the grace of God.

Over these past weeks, we have used a range of approaches to prayer: The Lord’s Prayer prayed slowly and reflectively, praying a Psalm or a hymn, encouraging periods of silence, using written prayers (my own or by others), imaginative contemplation of Scripture. I have introduced you to the Northumbrian Community Morning Prayer and other spiritual writers.

Through it all, my desire has been to help us all draw closer to God.  Today we will let St Bernard be our spiritual guide as we reflect on some of the teaching on prayer which he gave to his monks – sometimes ending abruptly because “we have work to do in the kitchens” or “there are guests at the door.” Prayer and life are never to be separated.

So be still. Know that God is closer than you know. Before you find Him, He has found you. Invite him to come close and enjoy his presence. If he feels distant or absent, invite him now to return.  That is another word of counsel from Bernard.

Gathering into the Presence of God

Come I this day to the Father,

Come I this day to the Son,

Come I this day to the Holy Spirit, powerful One;


Come I this day with God,

Come I this day with Christ,

Come I this day with the Spirit of kindly balm.


God, and Spirit and Jesus,

Come I this day

From the crown of my head

To the soles of my feet;

Come I with my reputation,

Come I with my testimony,

Come I to Thee, Jesu;

Jesus, shelter me.


Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gaedelica No 27


Listening for the Word of God

A psalm of longing for God – a mixture of confidence and deep yearning

Is there a particular phrase where you want to linger and pray with the Psalmist?

Psalm 27

Jesus teaches on prayer – a pattern, a parable, a promise and His Presence.

What word of encouragement will you carry away with you?

Luke 11:1-13


Reflecting on the God’s Word for Us

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth – for your love is more delightful than wine.

(Song of Songs 1:1)

Since stumbling on the words of St Bernard about drinking from our own well, I have been dipping into the well of his writings.  Many of his sermons were based on the Song of Songs which is a love poem that can be read in various ways.  It is an affirmation of romantic love as God’s gift to us.  It has been seen as an allegory depicting the relationship between Christ as the Bridegroom, and the church as his Bride.  Bernard reads it as a description of the love between God and the human soul.  God is the Lover and we are the Beloved.  He uses the vivid imagery of “the kiss of God”.


Bernard uses the imagery of the kiss to describe how our relationship with God grows.  Remember that he is writing in the early 12th century so his writings reflect some of the customs of that time.


The Kiss on the Feet


First of all, he speaks of kissing the feet of God – as a sign of confession and penitence, much as the Prodigal Son imagined his return to his father.  Throughout Scripture we are encouraged to come clean with God, to be honest about our faults and failings, and to return home to God where we belong.  The story of the Prodigal Son assures us of the Father’s welcome.


From the outset of this pandemic, I have sensed that this is about a “Great Cleansing”.  The brokenness of society has been exposed.  What has been hidden is being revealed.  The light of God is shining into dark places if we have the eyes to see and respond.


This is a time to kiss the feet of God in personal and corporate confession and repentance.


The Kiss on the Hands


Bernard’s second “kiss” is on the hands of God.  This is the gesture of a servant bowing before the King of the Universe.  Bernard speaks of God having two hands – one open hand of generosity, and the other that lifts us up to “help us aspire to greater things”.  Which of us does not need a hand up from God from time to time?


Bernard has an interesting caveat about this “kiss on the hand”.  He points out that we are usually looking for something in return: “the slave wants his freedom, the hireling wants payment, the pupil wants learning, and the son looks for his inheritance”. 


This is prayer as a transaction.  “God, I will love you if....”  When things turn out as we want, we are happy.  When God does not appear to answer our request, our allegiance fades like the setting sun.


Of course, Jesus gives us clear instructions about asking and trusting God for what we need, but the culmination of Jesus teaching (Luke 11:13) is that we receive nothing less than the Holy Spirit – the very presence of the living God with us and within us.  God gives us Himself.  That is where Bernard takes us next.


The Kiss of the Mouth


All of these sermons of Bernard are based on the opening words of Song of Songs where “the Beloved” says: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth”.  Bernard sees in this most intimate of images, the invitation to a deep relationship with God that is one of love and adoration – not confessional, and not transactional, but profoundly personal -  loving and being loved.  We seek God’s face and experience “the full joy of his presence”.


The Way of Contemplation


At this point I suspect our Presbyterian souls draw back.  We are used to approaching God with our minds and serving God practically with our hands and feet. This language of intimacy feels alien.  But what if our intellectualising is our way of controlling the relationship – understanding God with our limited concepts rather than “standing under” the mystery of God?  What if our practical commitment to working for God, is a way of avoiding letting God work in us and through us by his Spirit? God does love us and births in us a capacity to love him in return.


This is the contemplative way.  It is the way that frees us from ways of thinking which have become addictive.  It is the way of moving beneath the waves of life’s surface activities, and our short term speculations about how things might be “when it is all over”.  It is a journey to the place of depth where all is still and we learn to be vigilant – watching for whatever God draws to our attention.


One of the great contemplatives of the 20th Century was Thomas Merton.  His monastery near Louisville, Kentucky, was rooted in the tradition of St Bernard.  He was a man devoted to seeking the face of God and enjoying the “kiss of God”.  His practice of seeking God in this way led him to a place where he was overtaken by a deep love for everyone which was “equal, neutral and clean.”  Live with these words for the next month and observe how they shape your view of people around you.


Contemplation leads to action.  Merton’s calling was to be a writer.  His prolific writings and letters have been an inspiration for over 50 years to people across the world in the pursuit of God and God’s kingdom of justice, peace and joy.  Seeking the face of God, he came to see people in a new light, “walking round shining like the sun.” 


These are the eyes of one who sees with the love-knowledge of “the kisses of his mouth”.


Responding to God’s Word and God’s Spirit

We return to Psalm 27 for our prayers of intercession.  Sometimes the psalms speak for us in our situation.  Sometimes they are the words of people in a different place from us, physically, emotionally or spiritually e.g. afraid, depressed, facing hostility or living as a refugee.  The words of these psalms allow us to enter into their world and pray for them by praying with them.  We will let Psalm 27 guide and shape our prayers today.


Lord, our light and our salvation,

Place your strong hand on those who live in fear today:

Anxious about facing the world again after lockdown,

Afraid of who might be travelling beside them,

Afraid of a virus waiting to ambush them.

                Be their light of reassurance and safety

                And their stronghold of protection.


Lord, our light and our salvation,

Surround those who live in a hostile environment

In their homes, on the streets or at their work

Facing criticism and constant put-down,

Enduring discrimination for being “different”.

                Grant them deep assurance of your enfolding love

                Lift them up and set their feet on a rock high above it all.


Lord, our light and our salvation,

Hear the prayers of those who seek you,

Longing to gaze on your beauty

And to seek your face

Out of joyful gratitude, or painful troubles.

                Set their hearts singing with praise

                And lift their souls with a new song to You..


Lord, our light and our salvation,

Draw close to those who feel abandoned

By father or mother, brother or sister,

And wonder if you have turned your face from them,

Lost in the dark night of the soul.

                Give them a sign of your goodness today

                And courage to wait for the Lord with a strong heart.  Amen


A Meditation before we Go



One night I dreamed a dream.
As I was walking along the beach with my Lord,
Across the dark sky flashed scenes from my life.
For each scene, I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand,
One belonging to me and one to my Lord.

After the last scene of my life flashed before me,
I looked back at the footprints in the sand.
I noticed that at many times along the path of my life,
especially at the very lowest and saddest times,
there was only one set of footprints.

This really troubled me, so I asked the Lord about it.
"Lord, you said once I decided to follow you,
You'd walk with me all the way.
But I noticed that during the saddest

and most troublesome times of my life,
there was only one set of footprints.
I don't understand why,

when I needed You the most,

You would leave me."

He whispered, "My precious child,

I love you and will never leave you
Never, ever, during your trials and testings.

When you saw only one set of footprints,
It was then that I carried you."

[Mary Stevenson]

A Blessing

We close by saying (or singing) the ancient blessing given to Aaron 3200 years ago to bless God’s

people (Numbers 6:24-26); and, of course, it is sung in our services of baptism.

It is the blessing of God’s face shining on us.

As we pray for each other, let this be a special blessing on our new minister, John Murray,

as we prepare to welcome him and his wife, Neilian, among us.


The Lord bless you and keep you.

The Lord make his face to shine upon you

And be gracious unto you.

The Lord lift up his countenance upon you

And give you peace.


© 2018 - 2020 by St Ayle