Sunday, August 02, 2020

Wrestling with God - a sermon on Genesis 32 for "Welcome to Sunday" and the Cathedral Eucharist, Coventry Cathedral, 2nd August 2020

Poor Jacob. He really does struggle to get a good night’s sleep! Two weeks ago we thought about his amazing dream – the stairway to heaven – and his unexpected realisation that God was there, even amid his wilderness experience. Now he is on his travels once again – heading homewards, with understandable caution, since at journey’s end he will meet the brother whom he last saw the day he cheated hi of his birthright. Knowing that HE is responsible for the broken relationship...knowing that it is up to him to seek forgiveness and reconciliation...it is not perhaps surprising that he is suffering from insomnia. He has sent his family over the ford but stayed alone on the near side. The text is quite clear about that. Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled with him til day break You would think, wouldn’t you, that that one half or other of that sentence must be wrong. If Jacob is alone – there is nobody else there. If there is a wrestling partner – then Jacob is not alone. What are we to make of that? We can’t just imagine a virtual wrestling match...fightings and fears within, without… This is more than just the product of a guilty conscience and a healthy anxiety about confronting his own past. This is a real, physical struggle – one that marks Jacob for life. It turns out, indeed, that this is another point in his journey when, against all expectations, God shows up. Of course, Jacob shouldn’t have been surprised...and perhaps he wasn’t. God had said he would be with him right through until he had accomplished all God’s plans for him. This journey towards reconciliation is surely part of God’s plan – but they’re not there yet. Jacob still has work to do… And he starts with honesty. The last time he sought a blessing it was from his father Isaac – a blessing based on a lie, as he claims his brother’s name, and his brother’s place in the family. Now he admits to being himself, Jacob...and asserts his continued need for a blessing. The process of reconciliation is going to cost him – and not simply in the flocks and herds he already plans to send on ahead to deflect the wrath of his estranged brother. He knows the truth of this – the truth of who he really is...and now, beyond this – unlooked for – comes this experience of wrestling all night. Wrestling with God. His experience comes to define the nation of his descendants. Israel means one who wrestles with God – and so this is a description of all the People of God throughout the ages. They, we (the “new Israel”), are those who hang on to God no matter what...who will not let go until we receive a blessing. I don’t know how you’re feeling, but my experience of 2020 has most definitely been one of wrestling, both for myself and for the Church I love. Wrestling with fear – that I’ll die too soon to see my beloved grandchildren grow, that my children’s jobs will disappear in the inevitable recession and that I’ll be powerless to help and support them... With grief – that cherished plans have been obliterated, joyful celebrations cancelled, with no certainty that they’ll be recoverable at all With anxiety that the Church as institution will be so badly damaged by the impact of the pandemic that it won’t actually be around for me to retire from. With doubt, - that the whole faith thing might be a wild delusion, leaving me a child crying in the night with but the language of the cry... Much of that wrestling was not deeply rational – but it certainly led to a good few disturbed nights and weary mornings, when I may not have been limping visibly – but there was a definite lack of spring in my step spiritually and emotionally, if not physically. I wonder what you have been wrestling with through the past weeks and months? I wonder if you’ve found that God was part of the struggle after all? Perhaps, like Jacob, you are haunted by the past. By a failure or a sin, real or imagined, that we cannot forget...Reconciliation means acknowledging that; calling ourselves by our true name, with all the baggage of our history, and then offering that baggage to God for healing and transformation. That’s a good night’s wrestling – but if you get stuck, remember that the Church has a Sacrament to help you... Perhaps you’re wrestling with theology, with your understanding of God or of Scripture. Perhaps the faith you have relied on now feels like a boat that has sprung a leak...is not quite equal to your longing to make sense of our current predicament. Perhaps your struggle is with a threat of some kind: a real or imagined enemy, -the virus? Grief? Aging? Or a lost or broken relationship, an Esau in your life. In all of these wrestlings, the point is to hang on until the day dawns and the blessing comes. Do not let go. God IS there, your companion in the darkness...even if God’s presence feels not like a comforting arm round your shoulders but a relentless stranger whose legacy leaves you limping in pain. We know in Coventry, better than most, that to be reconciled – to ourselves, one another, to the reality of life on this beautiful, broken, transient planet – is a journey that involves pain and loss as well as hope and transformation. The wounds of history, collective and personal, are real and deep. Perhaps we cannot heal them ourselves – but we can limp on. We are here as the people who struggle with God. We may be limping, you and I...but we remain committed to the struggle. We will not let go, but wait in hope for the new name that God has for each one of us as we receive the promised blessing.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Romans 8 for Welcome to Sunday, Trinity 7, 26th July 2020


  I’m not always the best of friends with St Paul. This may not surprise you unduly: there’s plenty in his writings that will never make my heart sing  as a woman believing herself called by God to serve as a priest in God’s Church, or as a passionate advocate for that Church to be fully inclusive, welcoming and affirming all who come through our doors. I love the story of his conversion – that amazing U turn from persecutor to proponent of the Gospel – but I am never comfortable when some Christians suggest that without such a conversion experience, you are somehow a second-order believer, not quite the real deal…and I really struggle with his certainty that he has got things right for God, has fought the good fight and finished the race. I think on the whole I’m just uncomfortable with his sheer, unbridled certainty, as the longer I live the more wary I become of those who know they are right.   But there is always an exception to every rule – and for me and Paul the exception is those words from Romans 8 37 -39 Let me share them with you once again – for they are the words on which I stake my all, the words which enable me to have hope even in times of grief or anxieity… I am confident that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rules, nor things present, not things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”.   Mindblowing, wonderful words. Words that remind us that however weighed down we are by our own shortcomings and sin However despairing we may be at the mess and brokenness of both Church and World God’s love is an unstoppable force.   When you look at the evidence around you, it may not look much as if all things work for good for those who love God…We all have our own stories of people of deep, shining faith whose lives have been beset by struggle and tragedy – and I can think of nothing more calculated to drive people away from God’s open arms than an insistence that even as they weep over a dying child “all things work together for good”…. With our current perspective, bounded by time, there are many things that do not appear to work for good at all. This year of grace 2020 would be an excellent example…   But – Paul is inviting us to a different perspective as he suggests that we take the long view. Here and now, there’s likely to be suffering aplenty…for ourselves, for people whom we love, for our poor beleaguered, mistreated planet. Christians cannot expect to lead charmed lives: our faith is not a get out of gaol free card, nor does declaring our faith in Christ guarantee us immunity from any of the changes and chances of this fleeting world, but – and this is important -  here and now is not the whole story. Of course this doesn’t dull the pain of parting with a loved one or alleviate fears that we might not, after all, be able to pay the mortgage or feed the family as jobs disappear and last year’s certainties crumble… These things DO matter – and God understands that…and grieves with us whenever our human love moves us to sadness for those things which are lost or broken in the world. I’m sure of that. Remember Jesus weeping at the grave of Lazarus..   But God stands outside time – and from there fresh patterns are visible. God knows that there is all of eternity in which to restore what has been damaged, to dry every tear, to make all things new – to see God’s perfect will fulfilled for each and every creature there has ever been. And what is God’s will? That each and every creature there has ever been should know themselves beloved of God…should experience for themselves the wonder that they are fully known, with nothing hidden, and yet, amazingly, they are fully loved.   God’s love will, in the end, find each of us – I’m convinced of that. Though for the moment we may find ourselves shivering in the darkness of our own doubts and fears, unable to believe that we will ever be reconciled to one another or to God, the love which impelled God, in Christ, to leave heaven for our sake , will ultimately ensure that we are gathered safely into those arms of love.   To glimpse the truth of this here and now is to save ourselves from all kinds of misery and terror along the way…but I do not worry about the eternal destiny of those who are driven away from God by the clumsiness of God’s Church or the complexities of their own life circumstances…because, like Paul I am convinced that ultimately nothing can separate us from God’s love. Not all the strength of human powers, not our own failures and disasters, not the things of time nor those of eternity… Nothing   God will never force us – but waits courteously for the moment when we recognise all that we are being offered and open ourselves to receive that love which has held us from the moment of conception, that love which will never, ever let us go.

Romans 8 for Welcome to Sunday, Coventry Cathedral in Diaspora 26th July 2020


  I’m not always the best of friends with St Paul. This may not surprise you unduly: there’s plenty in his writings that will never make my heart sing  as a woman believing herself called by God to serve as a priest in God’s Church, or as a passionate advocate for that Church to be fully inclusive, welcoming and affirming all who come through our doors. I love the story of his conversion – that amazing U turn from persecutor to proponent of the Gospel – but I am never comfortable when some Christians suggest that without such a conversion experience, you are somehow a second-order believer, not quite the real deal…and I really struggle with his certainty that he has got things right for God, has fought the good fight and finished the race. I think on the whole I’m just uncomfortable with his sheer, unbridled certainty, as the longer I live the more wary I become of those who know they are right.   But there is always an exception to every rule – and for me and Paul the exception is those words from Romans 8 37 -39 Let me share them with you once again – for they are the words on which I stake my all, the words which enable me to have hope even in times of grief or anxieity… I am confident that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rules, nor things present, not things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”.   Mindblowing, wonderful words. Words that remind us that however weighed down we are by our own shortcomings and sin However despairing we may be at the mess and brokenness of both Church and World God’s love is an unstoppable force.   When you look at the evidence around you, it may not look much as if all things work for good for those who love God…We all have our own stories of people of deep, shining faith whose lives have been beset by struggle and tragedy – and I can think of nothing more calculated to drive people away from God’s open arms than an insistence that even as they weep over a dying child “all things work together for good”…. With our current perspective, bounded by time, there are many things that do not appear to work for good at all. This year of grace 2020 would be an excellent example…   But – Paul is inviting us to a different perspective as he suggests that we take the long view. Here and now, there’s likely to be suffering aplenty…for ourselves, for people whom we love, for our poor beleaguered, mistreated planet. Christians cannot expect to lead charmed lives: our faith is not a get out of gaol free card, nor does declaring our faith in Christ guarantee us immunity from any of the changes and chances of this fleeting world, but – and this is important -  here and now is not the whole story. Of course this doesn’t dull the pain of parting with a loved one or alleviate fears that we might not, after all, be able to pay the mortgage or feed the family as jobs disappear and last year’s certainties crumble… These things DO matter – and God understands that…and grieves with us whenever our human love moves us to sadness for those things which are lost or broken in the world. I’m sure of that. Remember Jesus weeping at the grave of Lazarus..   But God stands outside time – and from there fresh patterns are visible. God knows that there is all of eternity in which to restore what has been damaged, to dry every tear, to make all things new – to see God’s perfect will fulfilled for each and every creature there has ever been. And what is God’s will? That each and every creature there has ever been should know themselves beloved of God…should experience for themselves the wonder that they are fully known, with nothing hidden, and yet, amazingly, they are fully loved.   God’s love will, in the end, find each of us – I’m convinced of that. Though for the moment we may find ourselves shivering in the darkness of our own doubts and fears, unable to believe that we will ever be reconciled to one another or to God, the love which impelled God, in Christ, to leave heaven for our sake , will ultimately ensure that we are gathered safely into those arms of love.   To glimpse the truth of this here and now is to save ourselves from all kinds of misery and terror along the way…but I do not worry about the eternal destiny of those who are driven away from God by the clumsiness of God’s Church or the complexities of their own life circumstances…because, like Paul I am convinced that ultimately nothing can separate us from God’s love. Not all the strength of human powers, not our own failures and disasters, not the things of time nor those of eternity… Nothing   God will never force us – but waits courteously for the moment when we recognise all that we are being offered and open ourselves to receive that love which has held us from the moment of conception, that love which will never, ever let us go.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Trinity 6, Proper 11A 19th July 2020 for Coventry Cathedral

"God is here as we his people meet to offer praise and prayer…" I’m rather fond of that hymn (not just because it’s set to Blaenwern) and though we can’t sing in our worship at present, it has been going round in my head as I prepared my thoughts for today, when I will share them both at the online Welcome to Sunday and face to face at the Cathedral Eucharist. Two very different contexts to shape and form our thoughts about place, presence, engagement. The story of Jacob speaks loud and clear into our current situation. He’s really in trouble. He has fled from the family home to escape the righteous wrath of his brother, whom he has cheated of his birthright. Ironic, when you come to think of, that his theft of the privileges of the elder son has actually forced him into exile from the family altogether. We don't have to look far, either, for stories of family separation, of loss and grief...of sons and brothers stranded far from home in an alien landscape where nothing seems quite as was hoped or imagined. Jacob, our fugitive, finds himself overtaken by night in the wilderness. Things must be pretty bleak if picking a rock as pillow is your best hope of an easy night. Small wonder his sleep is filled with dreams…So many have reported vivid, extraordinary, troubling dreams during the pandemic…perhaps inevitable given the degree of collective anxiety abroad…but Jacob’s dream is of a different order. A ladder reaching up to heaven – the angels from our West Screen and beyond making their way ceaselessly from heaven to earth and from earth to heaven…a picture of an unbroken connection which exists whether we are attentive or not. And God. God standing there beside him, in that place of desolation and fear, to confirm the promise made first to his grandfather Abraham…a promise of homecoming and of future blessing. Amazing, baffling, wonderful words that spoke the comfort Jacob surely needed most “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. And I will not leave you til I have done what I have promised…” Suddenly a barren place of exile and despair is transformed. Just like that. "Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it." Perhaps, like me, you’ve been on a similar journey of discovery in recent months. In the Cathedral there are so many cues, so many concrete reminders of God’s presence, the endless love affair with humanity, the divine initiative to reconcile all things and make them new…When we closed the doors on 23rd March there was such a strong sense of exile…I left the cathedral to take a funeral and as I said the words of committal that day, part of me was also laying to rest our old ways of being, our former practices of community and worship. Whatever lay ahead, it was clear that one chapter had ended. Then, of course, we had to find new ways of being Church…of gathering for worship together though apart…of singing the Lord’s song in a strange land. And at times, if I’m honest, it felt as if that ceaseless stream of heavenly beings travelling between here and there, between fearful broken humanity and the presence of the most high, had in fact taken the opportunity of lockdown to have a break. Were we still connected with God, as we anxiously explored ways of connecting with each other? What was God up to, in this barren, stony landscape that we’d never expected to arrive in? We started livestreaming worship from our homes and a new way of being emerged, as the cathedral family was enhanced by people we’d not met before, who began to engage with this new ministry, to ask for prayers, to share something of what was happening for them as we all began to find ways axross our stony ground. But it was bleak for all that, not a place to linger for the night if we could help it. It seemed, though, that we had no choice but to be there in the moment, regardless. Easter approached and we agonised about how we might celebrate it “properly” away from our beloved buildings. My dining table was all very well but…it wasn’t really church, it wasn’t anyone’s spiritual home. But in Holy Week, things changed for me. And like Jacob, it was as things were lost or laid bear that I discovered something really important. At the end of an impromptu Maundy Thursday Eucharist, shared online with a couple of friends, we read the Gospel of the Watch and then I stripped the altar, extinguished all my candles, took down each icon, removed everything that spoke of "church" and left it heaped to one side. I listened to Psalm 22 to the Wesley chant, as I do every year and as I unmade church that evening in the gathering dusk, that very ordinary dining room in my suburban semi became non-negotiably holy ground, as much church as anywhere I've been. I left the room in darkness at the end of the Watch on tiptoe - not wanting to disturb the deep layers of God's presence that I was suddenly and wonderfully aware of. And all through Good Friday and Holy Saturday I passed the dining room door reverently, removing my shoes, knowing that this was holy ground. Surely, the Lord WAS in this place – and I knew it not. Extraordinary. The bottom of that heavenly ladder propped up in my dining room. God’s angels heading up and down from my house, that connection as lively and unbroken as ever And, of course, what I found in my home is true of yours too. That traffic from earth to heaven, from sheltered flats and noisy family kitchens, from care homes and hospital wards where weary staff draw breath and pray to escape a second wave of the pandemic. And from the shanty towns where the virus is having its way. A constant stream of messages, pleas and praises rising to God, an unbroken flow of love coming down A reminder that there is nowhere – NOWHERE – where God does not stand beside us and assure us “I am with you and I will keep you. I will not leave you” For now, some of us are back in this precious, demanding, beloved building…and some of us need to remain at home. "Surely the Lord is in this place." And this one. And this. That traffic from heaven to earth is as constant as ever – its tides diminished neither by lockdown nor by the ebbing faith of humanity. Wherever you go – you are walking on holy ground. Set up a pillar if you like, to remind you – but expect to meet God as you go forward too, whatever our future landscape may suggest...God's love poured out unstintingly, transforming the ground of our desolation to a fertile bed of hope that heaven is at hand, that surely the Lord IS in this place that this, this very spot, be it kitchen or cathedral, is none other than the house of God and the gate of heaven. Wake from your dreams and see for yourself.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Welcome to Sunday 12th July 2020


Reading the gospels,  there are so many times when I wish I’d been there. To have really got to know Jesus the man, to discover what made8 him laugh, or cry, whether he preferred lakeside or mountain-top, fish or vegetables, cats or dogs… But there are other times when my envy of the disciples is balanced by sympathy with their predicament ….They get it wrong so often and hearing that they’ve failed again, I’m kind of relieved that I don’t have to face the disappointment in Jesus’s voice, as he realises that i’ve missed the point once more. Because, his teachings aren’t always that clear are they!

Let’s think about that story of the Sower, we call it. Jesus seems to think it’s obvious….and that’s where I’m suddenly very very glad that I’m not part of the crowd. I'd feel so stupid
Let anyone with ears listen.
Are you listening, Kathryn?
What did I just say???
Cue shuffling feet...embarrassed looks...because honestly, I’m not sure.
That’s the trouble with parables.
When introducing Scripture to children, it’s tempting to say that Jesus taught in parables to make it easier for people to understand the huge and abstract concepts of the kingdom of God. Parables provide hooks on which we can hang concepts that are beyond our everyday experience...in the words of the old definition...A parable, is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.
But the trouble is that parables don’t always have an exact one to one equivalent meaning….
If they are a code, well, sometimes the key isn't immediately obvious. Know what I mean?
Never mind.
Let's go back to the story.
The image of the prodigal sower, just chucking the precious seed to the four winds regardless is really attractive. It might seem a tad irresponsible but it’s his seed, and clearly he has full confidence in the harvest…
It's a wonderful illustration of God's reckless grace....
perhaps That could be something to hang onto, but it's not quite enough...It sort of prompts a “So what?” question
I guess in the original story we're intended to think of the sower as Jesus, scattering words of hope, love and transformation whether people are ready to hear them or not. He has just illustrated it, really, preaching to a crowd so huge that he has to take refuge in a boat to avoid being crushed as they surge forward to hear more...and we have no idea what they did with the words of life that were offered to them that day. Some people may have been changed in an instant...Some may have wandered off, bored, focussed on a beetle creeping over a rock...Some may have reflected on his words for many years before finally coming to a decision, for or against the gospel.
We don't know...and at that moment, I’m guessing, neither did he.

If you judge labour by results, it does sound as if our famous sower was a bit rubbish though. Three-quarters of the seed – 75% - is set fair to amount to nothing.
He has to sow – if he doesn’t, how will people be fed – but he’s not getting a great return...so is this a good use of resources?
That’s quite a question for us to ponder in a season when the Church is wondering how best to use (“deploy” is the popular verb) HER resources – of money, yes, but also of people.
It’s so tempting to invest where there are likely to be measurable, successful outcomes. It’s just common sense, really and
I don't think that either farming or management gurus would think the sower was doing too well...for the ratio of return to investment seems pretty useless in some quarters, though there are signs of promise in that “30, 60, 100 fold”.
So – what are we to make of that.
Would a wise sower focus only on the most promising soil?
Perhaps he would…but I seem to remember St Paul saying something about the relative wisdom of God and humanity...

It might be tempting to smile and congratulate ourselves on being GOOD soil...We are here because we've heard God speak, even if we're not always certain exactly what He said....We're trying to live with at least one foot in the Kingdom. Maybe, on a good day, we think we're even bearing fruit for God.
Hooray for us!
But I don’t think that’s the point, do you?

Of course, this is our story – the gospel is ALWAYS our story - ..but it's not one in which we can just wait passively, content to be the soil
We're living in the age of the Spirit, and Jesus calls us to be his witnesses throughout the whole earth.
And that means, that we- you and me- are now cast in the role of the sower, charged with sharing the word of the kingdom.

So...what are we to do? As individuals and as a Church?

Well – SOW of course.

It's our turn...our turn to sow the seed, to squander the gifts of the kingdom, to share God's good news not just with a receptive audience but with those who will obviously ignore it, or reject it or even be openly hostile to it.
It may not be that telling them the good news in as many words is always the best approach – nobody likes being beaten over the head with even the most beautiful of truths...but we do have to make absolutely sure that they are aware of it, one way or another.

So – my invitation to you this week is to think about what difference it would make to your way of being if you were deliberately trying to show everyone you encountered something of that wild, profligate love that God lavishes upon us...how might you change your behaviour if you were the only version of the gospel that your neighbour would ever encounter?

Because the truth is – you might be.

We're not told to be successful...
We can't actually control the soil (maybe that's up to God)...
All we have to do is to Keep. On. Sowing.

The danger is that we'll get discouraged - will say to ourselves, well, it's just not worth it..... the last time the birds descended...the place was overrun with brambles...nothing came of our efforts. Forget it...
If that's the case, then we need to listen to another voice...the one that says
“Yes, but this time might be different. God never gives up on us...so how can we give up on one another?”

If discipleship is a process, then sharing faith isn't always going to be a one-off either.
So just keep going.
Look back along the route that brought you to this point in your faith. For most of us, there will have been many twists and turns..
Though you may have encountered God in an amazing Damascus road experience, you may equally have found yourself moving towards Him, almost without noticing, as the words of friends, the life of a faith community, the silent gospel of love at work began to have an impact.
And what was true for you will be true for others as well.
Seeds can take a long time germinating...and it's not up to us to judge the quality of the soil.
We're just called to keep on sowing, no matter what, because in the end it is God himself who brings home the harvest.





Sunday, June 21, 2020

Trinity 2 at Coventry Cathedral 21st June 2020


Once upon a time there was a wealthy man who enjoyed a special relationship with God – so special that they agreed that God had chosen HIM to be a blessing to the whole world. Like many men of his day, -the cultural context is really important – this man owned a whole retinue of slaves, who did his bidding morning, noon and night.
This man also had a wife – but no children.
This perplexed and grieved the couple. In conversation with God, the words “Father of a great nation” had definitely come up…but you can’t be a father without a child to call your own. What was this man – whom of course you recognise as Abraham – to do?
From our perspective, the answer is frankly shocking. His barren wife, Sarah, commanded one of her slave girls to take her place in Abraham’s bed, and to bear him a child. She deliberately set out to exploit another human being – treated a person like a thing, existing only to meet her own need…Those who know Margaret Attwood''s Handmaid's Tale will have seen a chilling development of this theme, and here too, unsurprisingly, trouble followed.
Of course, at first it seemed like an answer to prayer when Hagar bore a son – hence his name. Ishmael – meaning “God listens” – is born…At last a son and heir…a dream come true. And they all lived happily ever after.
Except – in this story many of the worst aspects of humanity come to the fore. Against all the odds, another son is born to Abraham, a child for Sarah, who was said to be barren. And, just like that, Ishmael’s value plummets. He is no longer the treasured first born but a threat to Sarah’s longed-for child. He is last year’s toy – to be discarded now he is no longer needed. Abraham – the father of a great nation – the revered icon of faith and obedience – opts for a quiet life and allows Sarah to manipulate the future, yielding to her demand that he
Cast out this slave woman with her son”.
Notice how Sarah has begun to dehumanise her. She no longer has a name. A line has been drawn and mother and child are placed firmly on the far side of it. They are othered…no longer Hagar and Ishmael, part of the family, but “this slave woman and her son”…You can almost hear the venom in Sarah’s voice
And Abraham…He’s a patriarch, revered throughout history...of COURSE he’s going to stand up for justice for his child…to recognise that Hagar and Ishmael are already disadvantaged, since Isaac is the son of his marriage. This is flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone, right? Right?
Well, it’s true that he IS perturbed, distinctly uncomfortable indeed. Not only is he dealing with a request to banish Ishmael and his mother, he is also coming face to face with an aspect of his beloved wife’s character that he surely can’t be proud of. Perhaps, like me, he goes a long way to avoid conflict...He knows Sarah’s attitude is unfair – but he hopes that someone else will intervene – and indeed, he is reassured by God that all will turn out OK. On that basis he is somehow content to send mother and son away with only a loaf of bread and a skin of water, banishing the source of his discomfort rather than deal with the problem. He has bought in to the theory that some lives matter more than others…that it’s fine to prioritise the needs of your own nearest and dearest and exclude others, hoping that someone else will sort out their situation.
Actually, both he and Sarah have fallen fair and square into that trap which our Cathedral challenges in its very bones…They have divided the world into us and them, those who really matter…those on the inside…and those we push outside as somehow less deserving.
Remember the power of the missing word?…We say Father forgive – not Father forgive THEM – and that’s not just about shared culpability for the issues of the world...it is a clear reminder of our shared humanity – that there is NOBODY on the other side of the line because in reconciling the WORLD to himself, Christ has erased that line forever...
But we forget too easily, and when we do, we send Ishmael and Hagar out into the wilderness once again
We do so, too, when we deny the reality of racism, however unconscious, in our selves and in our society…We do so when we try to alleviate our discomfort and smooth over the passionate anger that is fuelling the “Black lives matter” debate by insisting “All lives matter”…Of course they do (no “us” and “them”) – but if you remember the parable of the lost sheep, the good shepherd could not rest til all was well for each and every one of his flock...and knew that at that precise moment he needed to pay particular attention to the one who was needed help..
We do so when we insist “I’m not racist” but refuse to recognise the layers of injustice that permeates our society, unnoticed and unchallenged. If you doubt their reality, there are many many statistics to make the point. This IS our problem, albeit in different ways from the experience in the States…
More widely, we do so when we suggest that there is no need to celebrate Pride month, because that battle is won – or even, perhaps, that “people like that” should not be free to celebrate their identity...When it takes a pandemic to make us aware of all those people who were not able to worship with us simply because they can’t get through our doors…
We are still adept at pushing those who make us uncomfortable out into the wilderness.
But, what happens to Hagar and Ishmael there?
They encounter God, who meets their needs and stays with Ishmael to see him grow up and find his place in the world...God who loves each precious child far too much to abandon even one...who will ensure that all that is covered up in our hearts and our lives and our society will be made known...who so cares for all his creation that he notices when a sparrow falls to the ground.
Our gospel reminds us that when we ally ourselves with God’s revolution, when we stand with the broken-hearted, speak up for the excluded, support the weak, it won’t make us popular. Here in the Church we have a tendency to try to be nice...to direct our efforts into upsetting nobody...It’s something I really struggle with myself...but it’s not the gospel invitation. Not peace, but a sword, because the struggle is REAL. We need to be ready to fight – to challenge injustice wherever we may see it, even within the hearts and minds of those we love...and to offer hope that God is already making all things new. Will you join me? Can we hold one another to account, so that we may come to live out the Magnificat wherever we turn, placing the first last, the last first and losing our own lives, with all their protective self-interest, to gain the life of the Kingdom?
The call is clear. Let’s pray for the courage to answer it.

Monday, May 18, 2020

A Journal from the Plague Year: when the foundations are shaken...some thoughts for Mental Health Awareness Week

Health warning: These are very limited and partial observations drawn from my own experience. Please, please, please if you are struggling do not be afraid to ask for help. 
You can reach Samaritans on 116 123 or text SHOUT on 85258


An optimist by nature, with a plethora of blessings to count every day, I've always taken good mental health for granted. After all, I reasoned, if I could survive the loss of two parents in six months while taking A levels, and later deal with the grief of several miscarriages, it stood to reason that my psyche must be pretty robust.
Even when I realised, as I grew older, that "coping" was not always the wisest strategy, that there were times when the sensible thing to do was simply to shout for help, I rejoiced that occasional grey days when tears were not far away were always remedied by a good night's sleep. 
"God's mercies never come to an end, they are new every morning." seemed to ring true for me pretty much all of the time - even if I rarely managed to attend to quite how fortunate I was that this was my lived experience. I don't mean that I was always blissfully happy - but I was, and am, content. My job and my calling bring me joy, and I have an amazing family whom I love beyond measure, and a wonderful collection of friends with whom to laugh, cry and wonder. Honestly, I ought to be content, and at peace with my world!

Only - we are now seven weeks (or is it eight? maybe nine? time seems to have lost its meaning) into lock-down, and I, an extrovert, albeit a shy one, have not touched another human being since mid March. The hugs that I gave my family on our last outings together have had to last me rather longer than I'm accustomed to. Plans for spending Easter together, for launching my sabbatical with fish and chips and prosecco have, like that much anticipated sabbatical, long since gone the way of all flesh, and what had looked in January like a year to celebrate has been changed into a season to endure.

And the worst thing is - it's open-ended.

We have no idea when it will end so I can't comfort myself with "only four more weeks and we can be together", or even the hollow confidence of "It'll all be over by Christmas".
We just don't know.
Even if, in some madcap universe, the lock-down were lifted completely tomorrow, we all know enough of the ways of the virus to recognise that this would not mean that the world was safe again so we would be torn between longing to see those we love and fear that in doing so we might be risking their health and our own. Day by day, we feel that we are under threat, confronting the reality of our own mortality in ways that we have not had to in my lifetime, and that is deeply unsettling.

And all of this has made me realise how very conditional mental health is, how contingent on the prevailing environment. 
When my external points of reference are in the right place, it's easy to manage day by day, to ride the waves of even the more challenging situations at work, specially if there is something to look forward to.
Right now, though, there really isn't.
We dare not make plans - because that simply opens the way for more disappointment and frustration.
Even the prospect of returning to the Cathedral for worship is horribly clouded by the realisation that we probably won't be able to sing...
My children are 80 miles away in different directions so I can't hope to form a "bubble" with one of their households.
All I can do is sit it out - and sometimes that's fine, and I feel calm and able to look for signs of God's presence, signs of hope in the moment.
But not always.
Not by any means!

It all came to a head for me ten days ago, as we negotiated the complex jollity of the VE Day commemoration, and I began to realise that celebration felt like a preposterous concept. The days were running into one another, each day vanishing at an alarming speed but each week a stretch of formless grey that seemed set to last forever. I was not uniformly miserable, indeed I was finding tremendous joy in small things - in time in the garden, and birdsong in the city, in the sheer delight my dogs take in my presence at home every day, in music and poetry, in the sight of little hearts and thumbs floating gently up the screen as I lead live-streamed worship - each one a sign that despite lock-down I remain connected with a web of wonderful people joining me in praise and prayer...Yes, the moments were fine - it was the overall landscape that seemed so bleak.
When I caught myself quoting Hamlet
 "How weary, flat, stale and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world" it was like a bucket of cold water poured over my head.
"I think that's what depression feels like" I thought.
"Might that be where I'm heading? Sliding downhill into the slough of despond? Gripped by accedie?" (a state of spiritual listlessness whose dangers have been recognised for centuries)

I named to myself what was going on, and for extra accountability, (and because I'm an extrovert, so why waste a good crisis?!) I named it on twitter. 
And somehow, even the act of naming, of saying "I'm not sure I'm coping very well" made all the difference.
In taking that tiniest smidgeon of control, I suddenly realised that I still had agency...that though I couldn't do everything I longed to, there were nonetheless decisions that were mine to make that would actually make many things easier, that while this was not the way I had expected to spend my time this year, nonetheless the fact that I am here to spend it at all remains a gift which I am free to enjoy.

So, I'm trying to work round that sense of contingency on external elements...but also to cut myself some slack when those elements aren't in place. 
Heavens to Betsy, this is a global pandemic! Something that hasn't hit humanity for over a century...It's a collective trauma in which nobody is going to feel utterly comfortable and secure. Emotional resources will be spread a bit thin, and perhaps the best we can hope for in human terms is that we can operate like those weather houses where one figure emerges on sunny days and another on dull ones, so that within our networks there's always someone in a better place to offer smiles and suggest recipes for banana bread when we're having a grey day.

Mental health is as much part of our overall makeup as the state of our bodies, and our experiences of frailty here are as valid and blame free as a broken leg, a tendency to migraine or any other physical challenge we might need to negotiate on our way through life. While past generation were dangerously inclined to see any trace of vulnerability in our psyches as a sign of moral weakness, we know better now.
The relationship between body mind and spirit is unutterably complex but the resounding message of this season for me is that we need to learn to be kinder - to others, of course, but also to ourselves.

That feels like a reasonable goal for this Mental Health Awareness Week. 
What do you think?
I know it would make God smile too.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Sermon in lockdown Easter 5 for Coventry Cathedral

I wonder if you’ve turned to any box-sets for comfort and consolation during these days of Lockdown. Beset with unreliable internet at the Canonry, I’ve been enjoying a happy reunion with Call the Midwife and Downton Abbey on DVD – but more than anything else I’ve immersed myself in the life and times of the fictional President Jed Bartlett and his team in the West Wing.
Bartlett’s signature catch-phrase is “What’s next...” - and I think part of the appeal of the series for me is the way he models the kind of compassionate leadership I long for – so that I feel that whatever IS next, he will power on towards it, making mostly good choices. His confidence in tomorrow is infectious and reassuring…

Whatever you may feel about current government, not even their most ardent fans could claim that we are currently able to look forward with that sort of certainty. Right now the question “What’s next?” would sound more as an existential cry of despair than an eager response to fresh challenges...We have no idea what’s round the corner. Even as we begin to imagine the gradual easing of lock-down, we are very aware that the world to which we will return little by little will not be the same one we left back in March. For some of us, this season has been a helpful exercise in perspective. Stepping back from some of the frenetic busyness that has been part of life for many in the 21st century West has enabled us to reflect on what actually matters most and I have been involved in many many conversations of which the gist is “I do hope we DONT just “get back to normal” “. There’s a widespread recognition that life needed some sort of “reset button” and while this is  not for a moment a route to reset that anyone would ever have chosen, nonetheless there are good and important things to learn from our experience

But still and all, this is a difficult season.
We do not know where we are going so how can we know the way?
There goes my good friend Thomas, once again daring to express the uncertainties that are often part of the journey of faith.
And this time it’s fair enough, isn’t it?
Jesus talks about going ahead to get things ready for us in his father’s house -and then returning to take us there...but we’re not really clear where “there” might be. It doesn’t sound as if he’s planning a trip to Nazareth and inviting his friends to follow…
It’s a bit too easy for us to spiritualise this passage (and not this passage alone) and to downplay the very real confusion that it inspires in those who meet it for the first time. It’s often chosen for funerals – that sense of a real home ahead offering huge comfort to anyone who is mourning someone dear to them – but it’s not an easy read if you look at it closely. Even that promise to “take you to myself” can encourage a view of a God who is capricious, plucking individuals out of life just because he can...I’ve met far too many people who have lost any sense that God is on their side as a result of those words and I’m sure that in the months ahead we will have to engage with the grief stricken anger of those who feel that God CHOSE to allow their dear ones to die in the pandemic.
And if that’s not problem enough, what are we to do we do with those apparently exclusive words
“I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No-one comes to the Father except by me”?

If  you and I have met, you may not be surprised to hear that I do NOT believe that this verse justifies a view of salvation that divides humanity into saved and  lost. I don’t read here the assertion that everyone has to have made a conscious personal decision to follow Christ in order to be welcome at the heavenly banquet. I know that this verse is often used to justify a belief that only card-carrying Christians will finally reach home in safety...but I cannot embrace that vision of Jesus as door-keeper, turning away all those whose faces don’t fit.
Nonetheless I am convinced that Jesus IS the Way, and in describing himself thus he confirms that the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday have opened a route for each of us to be whole and happy with God.
More, the model of self-giving, unconditional love which is revealed there is the way to which each of us must aspire….

This season has seen us stripping away so much that just doesn’t matter so that those things that are deeply true, deeply real, are thrown into sharp relief.
Surely this truth stands Head and shoulders above them all: that we are made to live in loving relationship with one another and with God...and that Jesus both models  and enables this.
To grasp that changes everything.

While I try to avoid cliches in my preaching, this gospel makes it practically compulsory to reflect on life as a journey...But notice that even here Jesus doesn’t spell out exactly where we are going. He says there’s room for everyone – an endless series of extensions surrounding the father’s house (a model that I was fascinated to see made real in  the ruins of 1st century  Capernaum)...but he doesn’t tell us much about the landscape or what we can expect to be doing with our time.
He does, though, make it clear how we’re going to get there.

If you’ve been finding it hard to love anyone very much in the frustrations of the current season...if you’ve decided you don’t much like, still less love, yourself, and heaven help your neighbour ...then be thankful that Jesus has cleared the path for us.
Listen, he says, I am the way. Let me hold your hand and take you...live as I do...in your personal relationships, in your political culture, as you respond to those whom might otherwise fear or dislike. Live my way. Seek to love and love and love again – no matter what it costs.


What's next?
I have absolutely no idea...except that there will be love.
Love as we journey, and love as we arrive.
Love lavished on us by the one who is ALL love…
So, do not let your hearts be troubled.
Believe in God. Believe in Jesus.
All shall be well.


A Journal from the Plague Year - Where it's at Part 2

DISCLAIMER These are my very personal ramblings...I need to think aloud to have any sense of what I actually feel so may not be totally coherent, am almost certainly NOT totally rational and would in no way set up my opinions, when I reach them, as in any way the last word....

So - having written in my last post about how it felt to discover I'd made a "church" in my dining room, and how that space is now sacred in a completely new and unexpected way, towards the end of last week the official C of E guidance changed, such that clergy could, if it felt appropriate, return to live streaming from their church buildings. There has been so much vitriol expended on clergy twitter in particular around the varying understandings of ministry of those who felt hugely disabled in losing access to their buildings (to the extent of defying episcopal instructions to vacate them) and those who embraced the new world of domestic liturgy, inviting anyone who happened upon their streaming into house and home...and I didn't think I had strong feelings either way. 

When our buildings closed as lockdown began I understood and shared the grief articulated by my historian son about the loss of the unbroken thread of prayer that had wound through our ancient buildings for centuries. I had loved that final week of opening the building for private prayer and standing in the midst each hour to offer prayer for the diocese and beyond as we headed into the crisis, not knowing who or how we might emerge...but already even before the Prime Minister announced lockdown that Monday night it seemed clear that something had changed, that what I had felt privileged to offer the week before was no longer appropriate. There are seasons in this time of trauma, whose nature we may not even grasp til they are behind us...but for me the role of the cathedral as an icon of faith, a focus of vicarious prayer in the best sense of the word, had shifted. Before the announcement came, I was already clear that I didn't want to continue with that model.

Then we found ourselves in lockdown, praying from home as the only option available - and after the gentle amusement of the early days, the moments when FB filters threatened to leave us all presiding in gangster hats and dark glasses or when dogs expressed their loud enthusiasm for the unexpected presence of their humans in the middle of the day, we settled into a new routine. We knew our spaces and inhabited them prayerfully and learned to cherish God's presence there in our little worlds...to understand the fragility of the incarnation in a new way...to stretch out a hand in the night and expect to find it held. Because we were live streaming worship, it often went comically wrong..sometimes the techi failures felt as if they were interrupting God but more often, for me at least, they underlined the utter impossibility of offering anything but the overwhelming evidence of those cracks in everything through which the light gets in...and it was all unquestionably REAL. This was God's people doing their utmost to learn to sing the Lord's song in a strange land, and for all the clunky changes of key and periodic husky voices, the music was alive and flowed through my soul.

However, after a particularly disastrous session last Sunday we had already begun to discuss recording worship. The initial thought had been that we would at least do that together...we would record ourselves worshipping in our different places at the same time...but because we were doing this in advance there was the opportunity to address those techi woes that seemed bound to beset us. I could imagine that working....but before we could follow through on our plans, the bishops spoke...and our bishop in particular was very keen to see the cathedral used once more. We entered a new era - in which I found myself delivering a sermon to the long-suffering Precentor alone, as he recorded my offering on zoom...this was DREADFUL. I felt deeply embarrassed by the whole process. Though I prayed as I always do before I started, it felt completely different, alien, uncomforable.
...We weren't exploring and listening for the Spirit together. Somehow the fact that it was being recorded seemed to bring with it a spurious claim to authority which I could not espouse...I spoke fast and the whole thing felt wretched (though I didn't and don't hate the content)

Then this morning I joined with the online congregation to view the recorded service - and have rarely felt more isolated or cut off. For me,the return of the Dean and his wife to the building, for all the beauty of their liturgical offering, prayed with grace and integrity, completely failed to engage me. I love our building dearly but it is a space designed to bring people together and today the fact that they were there alone (and rightly so - God forbid that in returning to our sacred spaces we should endanger others) simply emphasised a sense of priestly exclusion. The empty choir stalls behind them positively shouted that nothing, NOTHING about this was as it should be. Cathedrals are strange beasts - even for those of us who love them and have been called to serve God and God's people there - but to see the two of them alone in that building designed for thousands felt more like a historical re-enactment of the kind you meet in "living history" museums. It emphasised the dispersal of God's people as nothing had done before and seemed to emphasise the huge gulf between where we have been before and where most people are now. Cathedral worship needs music and crowds and splendour ....Sitting at my lap-top at the kitchen table I needed intimacy and consolation. 

Can I stress, this was not about the fact that I wasn't actively involved as President or Deacon, nor about the way that J & R worshipped. They lead worship really beautifully together and have often brought me to a place of deep engagement with God.
Equally, I have watched my colleagues preside daily from their homes and felt connected with them and with God in the moment - have found it easy and natural to make an act of "spiritual Communion" - and rejoiced that the Eucharist is in no way dependent on being together in one place. 

I understand that I may be in a minority of one, but it seems to me that there is something different going on here - something that smacks of clericalism (we are allowed in while you are not)...of anxiety that if people get too used to finding God at home they may never go back to church buildings, specially if those buildings no longer offer some of the experiences of music and ritual that we have valued in the past....and perhaps there's something about perfectionism too. It's much easier to aspire to that if you are offering a recording...it becomes a performance to be practised until it is as you feel it ought to be. 

A long time ago, a Bishop's Selector pushed me about a perfectionist streak she had thought I might be in thrall to. I was so much younger - and had an elevated idea of what I might offer, what the Church could offer...and talked passionately about the fact that if God had given us a garden full of roses, it was plain rude to simply offer a fistful of dandelions and wilting daisies - but that if those were all we had, then of course God would be delighted. I think right now the Church is in a place where fistfuls of daisies and cowparsley are a more honest expression of our common life and identity...and I shall go out and gather some to place in a jam-jar on the dining room table.