Sunday, November 29, 2015

Wake Up

This will be my 3rd year, I think, of trying to post an Advent photo a day as part of a Facebook project...but I'm hoping that the discipline of doing this might encourage something close to a daily blog post, however brief.
No promises, mind...
This morning the theme set was "Wake Up".

The light squeezes through a gap in the curtains, as if it knows that I will not be happy to see its arrival.
In a vain effort to persuade myself to feel more positive, my phone alarm rouses me with Beethoven's Ode to Joy.
Usually this fails. I roll over, burrow under the duvet, until the minor vandalism of a cat intent of breakfast forces me to react before the entire contents of my ear-ring bowl are scattered on the floor.
Wake up!
Yes, really, Kathryn - WAKE UP.
Wake up to recognise each day as the gift that it is.
Wake up to the realisation that time is precious, and finite,
That there are things that I need to do that are part of my purpose here,
things that will remain undone if I don't do them.
Wake up to the miracle that is a human body working largely as it should, so that I can get out of bed without having to think about whether it will hurt to do so.
Wake up to the to the recognition that I have friends and family who bring me joy whenever I think of them.
Wake up to the privilege of living out my calling in a place that excites and delights me again and again.
Wake up to the knowledge that today is Advent Sunday, that soon I will lead God's people in worship, that we will stand together and strain our eyes, longing, hoping...
"Look to the east, O Jerusalem - and see the glory that is coming from God".
Wake up. Be ready.
The light that squeezes through the curtains is a promise...for Light is coming into the world if I open my eyes to see it.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Just Pray? Or maybe not ...

Imagine the scene.
It's the week before Christmas.
Your children have broken up from school and are boucing off the walls in all after a painful day's Christmas shopping you agree to take them to the new Star Wars film. As you munch popcorn with half an eye to the adverts, the glossy model tossing her shining hair is replaced by a small balding man in a clerical collar.
The Archbishop of Canterbury!
And then words that you remember from school days, weddings and funerals begin to fill the air
"Our Father...Hallowed be your name..."

Do you
a) ignore it, after a moment of baffled amusement
b) get angry: why are you being forced to engage with something bigger than the demands of a Star Wars film at a time when you're already stressed and don't like having those buttons pressed
c) get even more angry: you're a fully paid up atheist/Jew/Sikh/Hindu/Muslim and you really don't see why you should have to sit through a Christian prayer will waiting for the movie to start
d) think to yourself "Ah yes. Christmas is about the birth of Jesus. Maybe we will drop in to the Christingle service this Sunday...I'm quite pleased I could remember all the words of that prayer. It's a long time since I prayed it.

The C of E communications department clearly felt that the odds were in favour of "d" - and of course I'd be delighted if that assumption of theirs turned out to be correct, that offering the prayer in all its wonder to that audience at that time would prompt people to visit and maybe, just maybe, to risk a prayer themselves.
But as you'll all know by now, that has turned out to be impossible.
Cinemas are not screening the ad, and there has been all sorts of kerfuffle as a result, with people claiming persecution in one corner and proseltysing in the other.
Deep deep sigh.

OF course I love the idea that a really rather beautiful video showing some of the most precious words that we say should be offered in all our cinemas at a time of year when people might already be thinking more about matters of faith, as they sing carols that share the story of Christmas…and I’d agree with Archbishop Justin that it is really sad that public suspicion of religion is such that this just isn’t possible.

But actually the Digital Media Agency had no choice but to bann the film as their advertising policy clearly states that they will not approve
advertising which wholly or partly advertises any religion, faith or equivalent systems of belief (including any absence of belief) or any part of any religion, faith or such equivalent systems of belief.

So – if the Lord’s Prayer is one of the great gifts of Christianity to a world that, I believe, needs to recover a sense of every person as a child of God, entitled to call him Father;
if it challenges us to step away from a consumer culture that reaches fever pitch in the weeks before Christmas;
if it calls us all to practice costly forgiveness;
then yes, I guess it can be construed as an advertisement for the heart of the Christian gospel.
And the DMA has a policy of not advertising any faith group. We can't expect preferential treatment - because despite the formal ties of establishment, we know, really, that we live in a post Christian country, where even the underlying story is no longer shaped by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
I'm not sure I'd have found it altogether comfortable to be confronted by the voice of a muezzin offering the call to prayer as I waited for a film to start...and I'm wondering if it smacks just a little of spiritual imperialism to expect our neighbours of other faiths to feel any better about the Lord's Prayer in those circumstances (specially as I'd guess there's a chance that some self appointed guardians of the prayer might have chosen to "tut" those who opted to unwrap sweets while the advert screened).
So on balance I'd not leap to voice indignation. I don't think it help. If anything, it surely makes us look rather silly (though it would have been good to have been warned of the DMA policy before the money was spent on the video - but I'd guess it has had far more exposure now than it would ever have had in the cinema - so maybe this is a blessing in disguise?).
I'd love us to live in a world where the climate was such that we all felt able to share and explore the riches of one another's faith traditions, without loss or compromise - but currently faith (or at least "religion") has been highjacked by extremists in all directions, so that there is more suspicion, less respect, than ever before.
And that I can and do lament. Deeply.

But all is not lost! Coincidentally we've been studying the Lord's Prayer as part of the (really rather excellent) Pilgrim course this term - and one of the things that most struck me when we started was the discovery that, in the days of the early Church, the prayer was considered so precious that those who were working their way through the 3 years of catechumenate  were only taught the words in the final weeks before that Easter when they would join the Church through baptism.
The bishop gave this treasure to them personally.
It was THAT special.
And we get to call God, Father...
And yet we say it every day, all over the world, almost unthinkingly - when every line in an invitation to explore more deeply what it means to be part of God's family, to try and live lives shaped by his love, to make choices that turn us away from our natural inclination and call us to become our best selves.
That's what the Lord's Prayer offers, so, recognising that what might have been a moment of irrelevance to families munching popcorn before Star Wars began might also have connected with those feeling a isolated, scared or bereft this Christmas, may I suggest that those who value the prayer pray it with love, focus and commitment as we travel through Advent together. It might even make a difference.


Saturday, November 14, 2015

From Coventry to Paris

"Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it"

Not the words I had hoped to have in mind on this 75th anniversary of the Coventry Blitz, when the city has planned to gather in University Square, to form a chain of light leading to the Cathedral - destroyed by the Luftwaffe but rebuilt as a sign of hope.
In Coventry, the decision was made not to tidy away the past, for there is no hiding the fact that the wounds of history run deep, and it is vital to acknowledge them if healing is ever to be possible.
So, the medieval walls of our ruined Cathedral stand open to the sky, as much a part of the Cathedral today as they were when they were all the Cathedral there was. They act  as a constant reminder that humanity is flawed, that we get things unbearably wrong, cause incalculable pain to one another, and assuredly make God weep again and again and again.
They make me pause whenever I see them - and never more so than in this week of remembering. On Wednesday, at 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, there was silence in Coventry, as I stood with my colleagues from the university chaplaincy team looking out across the square to where the ruined Cathedral continues to dominate the skyline, drawing the eye on a journey from old to new, from past to present. The future was represented by the students in front of us, coming from all over the world, from places that were “allies” and from places that were “enemies” 75 years ago. Together we stood and reflected, not remembering exactly, for none of us was alive when the bombs fell, but each of us, I'm certain, experiencing in some way that bewildering cocktail of sadness and gratitude which is part of Remembrance tide.

But Remembrance here has an added dimension. The day after the Blitz, Provost Howard stood in the ruins of his Cathedral as a petitioner, a representative of the whole of the damaged and destructive human race, and spoke to God.
"Father, forgive" - he said.
A sentence with no object...It's not "Father forgive THEM" - projecting the violence and hatred out to the other, and thereby justifying acts of reciprocal violence and vengeance...
Rather "Father forgive" is a prayer for us all - for the many ways, great and small, in which we wound one another and mar God's image in us day by day.
I can't imagine those words were universally popular in the city, as people emerged from air raid shelters to pick about the rubble of their homes, or searched the morgues desperately for friends and family.
When we are in great pain, it's natural to want to hurt others.
When we see the innocent suffering, it's tempting to want the perpetrators to suffer in return.
But "an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind" - and whatever the pain, to meet violence with violence can never help.

On Wednesday, it was an extraordinary privilege, when the silence ended, to lead the Litany –words we know so well in our Cathedral, which speak into the shared guilt of a broken world but carry always the promise of transformation. Sometimes we might take those words and their promise for granted – but when you stand between the ruins of yesterday and the hope of tomorrow it’s impossible not to be moved to a fresh commitment, and to pray from the heart “Father, forgive”. 
Today, as I pray for the people of Paris, and for those who are so quick to take up arms to avenge the lives lost, the peace shattered, I'm trying to own the Litany as never before. God's love is never limited to the innocent, the victims, those whom we long to comfort and embrace. That's so hard to grasp...but grasp it we must if we are to be people of peace today and tomorrow.

For now, this Hasidic story offers a wise perspective as we try to move forward as best we can, by light available to us...

Only Then..

A rabbi asked his students, "When is it at dawn that one
can tell the light from the darkness?"

One student replied, "When I can tell a goat from a donkey?"

"No," answered the rabbi.

Another said, "When I can tell a palm tree from a fig?"

"No," answered the rabbi again.

"Well, then what is the answer?" his students pressed him.

"Only when you look into the face of every man and every woman
and see your brother and your sister," said the rabbi. 
Only then have you seen the light. All else is still darkness."

Lighten our darkness,
Lord, we pray,
and in your great mercy
defend us from all perils and dangers of this night,
for the love of your only Son,
our Saviour Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Holy living, holy dying: part 2

Remembering P's triumphant assertion of resurrection, I found myself regretting once again the protective reticence that meant that even as he visibly wasted away, my father could not,  would not speak of death, or allow us acknowledge the uninvited stranger whose presence was about to derail us. A naive teenager, cherished and protected at every turn, I lacked the intuition to pick up the few hints he offered, and so I repeatedly bruised myself walking into the elephant that had apparently settled down comfortably in the midle fF our sitting room. Though he was a man of deep faith, Daddy was also a man of his time...for whom soul baring would have been unthinkably painful, so I have no idea how he negotiated that final journey, nor did I really manage to say goodbye....Tragically, we were all far too busy pretending we were bound somewhere else entirely.

This meant that later I had no real language for my grief either when it came, and the relationship with my then parish priest was not one to enable confidences. The school's massive performance of Brahms Requiem which ended that A level term for me helped a bit, and music and poetry provided a series of safety valves tbrough which to endure the un-endurable, but that great conspiracy of silence which isolated each member of the family just when we most needed one another undoubtedly left its scars. My longing to offer excellence in funeral ministry probably dates from then, for certainly the "one size fits all" service the Prayer Book presented gave cope for neither personal grief nor thanksgiving.  (More recently I watched the anger and confusion of many at a traditional RC funeral, which allowed no reflection of the departed in the liturgy, and feelings of professional frustration mingled with the overwhelming sadness of a farewell in which there was so little scope for gratitude). Learning the ways of grief at first hand at 18 is far from ideal, and has left me peculiarly bad at endings and goodbyes of every kind, and given the "changes and chances of this fleeting world",  this can be a bit of a I am more than ever convinced that generous and early conversation is a really important element in a good death.
I want to have time to leave well, and perhaps to try and hand on whatever *ve learned of life and love along the way.For me that conversation will, of course, be shaped by the "sure and certain hope" that we go from love to that I trust that one day I can say with conviction "For all that has been, thanks: for all that shall be, yes."

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Holy living, holy dying. Part 1

All Souls Tide...a fitting season for a clergy study day on funerals. Lots of excellent material, delivered by the ever - splendid Sandra Millar,  who really could sell snow to Eskimos.  I'm confident that all present will have gone home pondering the mission potential, the vital importance of building relationships, both pastoral and professional, and feeling encouraged that, despite prevailing g secularism, many people do still want us to speak of faith, to give an account of the hope that is in us.
I enjoyed a fresh chance to engage with material I had first encountered at the national conference, Taking Funerals Seriously, but I drove home reflecting in particular on what might be termed "holy living, holy dying".
The room was shocked into deep silence when Sandra reminded us "We are all going to die". Despite the ample evidence, despite all our attendance at deathbeds and graveside,  I am not sure that clergy are any better at believing this than anyone else. We know it. Of course we do. But it is unbelievably difficult to actually imagine a world of which we are not part, a future for our family that excludes us. Years ago, during ordination training, we were invited into a meditation on our own death, and it proved to be one of the most profound and important experiences of training, provoking deep deep sadness, many tears, but an ultimate stillness.

"Teach us to live so we may dread our graves as little as our bed" wrote Thomas Ken in a verse redolent with an appropriate fear of Judgement. Yesterday, my thoughts went in a slightly different direction, thinking on how the way we live will shape the way we die. I long to live generously, with open hands and heart, though I fear that too often my hands are clenched, to hold on in case there turns out not to be enough. Of what?....Time? Life? Love? Who knows?
But if I could live my aspiration, then maybe I could make a gift of my death too.

 A priest I knew did just that, deciding against treatment that could only prolong, not cure. He talked and preached openly on his hopes and his fears, and as his body weakened he seemed stronger day by day. His journey towards death was rapid, and he died on Easter Sunday, as his congregation packed the church to sing of resurrection, with all the shining alleluia of the day. His funeral was a profound and powerful statement of transcendent hope. There were so many there, it was impossible to see much of what was going on, but his coffin was loaded with sunflowers, and as it was carried out their warm gold was a like a wave of joy, rippling through the congregation. The choir sang Handel "Hallelujah! For the Lord God omnipotent reigned.  The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever. Hallelujah!" and at that moment I am convinced that we all knew this for truth.

Monday, November 02, 2015

Shared Conversations observed

One way and another, last week was a good time for reflection and for growth.

Not only did I find myself reflecting on the nature of loss and change, as I spent three nights in a house whose wooded estate had been one of my most favourite childhood playgrounds, but I was there in the privileged position of chaplain to one of the Regional Shared Conversations.

For those who aren't up to their elbows in the Church of England, these are a series of opportunities offered to every diocese in the country for exploration of one particular question

"Given the significant changes in our culture in relation to human sexuality, how should the Church respond?"

Over three days, participants from a cluster of dioceses, and from all shades of opinion, engage in facilitated conversation, sharing their stories, their understanding of Scripture, and their ideas of possible futures for the Church of England. To be there on the sidelines as three southern dioceses explored together was an extraordinary privilege - which changed my own perspective, enabling me to understand something of the pain felt by those whom I had previously dismissed as having a purely black and white view of life. For the first time I was able to learn, in informal tea-time conversations that were anything but casual, of the pain that is experienced not only by the LGBTQ community, with whom as a lifelong liberal I instinctively ally myself, but also that of the conservative evangelicals who see the Church they love departing from her true self. 

Suddenly viewpoints and issues had human faces. Faces I was growing fond of. It was impossible to see one group or the other as "them"... they were, and are, family.

On Thursday afternoon, after all the official conversations (which were quite rightly reserved for those who came as representatives of their dioceses), after the plenaries, after the late night conversation over drinks and copious supplies of chocolate (this was a conference centre sans bar!), I presided at the Eucharist. Immediately beforehand, the lead facilitator had encouraged all to attend, saying that those who felt unable to receive the Sacrament (whether because of their sense of impaired communion with one another, or because of their reservations about my ministry as an ordained woman) would nonetheless be an important part of our worship, their pain at not receiving a testimony to the pain of a broken Church. 

So... they were all present - and nearly all of them received. It was quite overwhelming to stand before them at the Peace, looking slowly round at people whom I had come to respect and like, to proclaim "We are the Body of Christ" - and then to move behind the altar and in just a few short minutes take that Body, present now in bread and wine, and break it. It was impossible not to project into a future in which that Body would be broken again, to think about just who would be missing from the table if the Church split - and to feel keenly the pain of loss.

Though I was not part of the official conversations, those 3 days in Sussex helped me to understand that we will, truly, be a diminished Church if schism comes. We will lose not just a bunch of uncongenial opinions (whatever your perspective) but family members, with whom we are deeply connected. Who knows if family bonds can hold.... but come what may, last week's experience has enabled me to see people, not simply issues. My mind has not changed, but my heart is open in a way that it was not before - so I am praying for an outpouring of grace, so that a work of reconciliation may yet be possible.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

All is harvest, a homily for the All Souls Requiem at Coventry Cathedral

This past week has given me plenty of food for thought.
You see, I spent Monday to Thursday just a few miles away from the place where I grew up.
Driving south, the memories came thick and fast.

The woods that surrounded the conference centre where I was staying had been the scene of some magical afternoons building dens with my father – and seeing them in their full autumnal beauty made me long to leave the car and plunge into the undergrowth – to see if somewhere a little girl and her Daddy were still playing.

On the second afternoon I found myself in a country church with a small group of people I'd met only the day before, singing Faure's Requiem just for the sake of it, because we could. The church, too, had been somewhere I had visited with my parents, who were avid church-crawlers, and, singing the Pie Jesu I recalled standing to sing it at my father's funeral. More, a trip into the nearby town for some necessary supplies sent me past the cemetery where my parents are buried. This is somewhere I rarely visit, not because I don't love and miss them deeply – but because it is some 200 miles away from home – and because they are, quite simply, not there. I was, therefore, a little surprised at how important it seemed to turn off the road, and spend some time among the graves, searching. In the event, it didn't seem to matter at all that I didn't actually find them.

What mattered was that I had stopped, and remembered.

Even in the shock of losing them both, just 6 months apart, before I turned 19, I had somehow grasped that that what had happened to the bodies of those beloved people who had been all my world was painful, sad – but not the reality.
I understood it as I ordered a stone with the one criterion – that it should be one that weathered, that would soon be softened by the elements, covered with lichen....and hoped that in the same way, the immediate searing grief of abandonment would gradually be softened by time. Now I know that I was right, that memories remain but the sadness has largely gone.
And I think that's as it should be.

There are moments, like last week for me, when past and present collide, and we can remember with thanksgiving all those whose lives have been a gift to us, can commit them again to God's care, and perhaps reflect for a few moments on our own mortality.

I think this is what today is for

We stand and look back with thanksgiving – for these beloved people are OUR saints...their light of their lives has brought warmth and beauty to our journey and of course we miss their physical presence beside us.
But listen.
“This is the will of him who sent me...that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day”
That is the sort of promise we can rely on...and one that we see reflected in creation, as we know that the dying leaves of autumn will give place, in due course, to the new life of another spring. Change and loss are part of living in time – but the inheritance we hear about in the letter of Peter is of a different order – imperishable, undefiled, unfading – above all a LIVING hope.
It is, truly, something to look forward to.

Here I'm stopped in my tracks by the voice of my older son, who contends, always, that I am too easily persuaded by the beauty of words...and he is right that words are of value only if they match experience. He is right, too, that I have no direct experience of the reality of that promise – but I HAVE experienced the enduring wonder of a love, which is not changed or broken simply because we can no longer see or touch those who have been a gift to us.
That love colours our memories, giving them a warmth and beauty that makes the ordinary things of life seem an extraordinary treasure
That love, a pale reflection of God's love for each one of us, is nonetheless truly stronger than death so that even from a purely human viewpoint, love never ends.

But remember what Jesus says
“I should lose nothing of all that he has given to me”
In other words, the guarantee of our future well-being, of that inheritance prepared in heaven for us is nothing to do with our own care and attention...for I know that I too often lose or damage things that are precious.
Our living hope for the future, for ourselves and our loved ones, is nothing less that Jesus's own care for us...something on which we can always, ALWAYS rely

He will not let us go.

So today we pause to look back...and we look forward.
To do so in the golden beauty of autumn days is to do so without fear – as we recognise that death and hope walk hand in hand, that in God's economy nothing is ever lost or wasted, that all in the end is harvest.