Friday, December 31, 2010

He came unto his own...

This, my third Christmas as priest in charge in these two parishes, has been unlike any Christmas I've yet experienced.
Fellow clergy will be familiar with the strange "festival maths" which means that every other year half the regular congregation are away from home, celebrating with their distant families - while the following year numbers soar as the families descend on them in their turn.
This year, though, was something rather different.
Heavy snow and wickedly icy roads kept many people at home. We had to cancel the Carol service at Church in the Valley (though many a carol was sung in a blissfully full and friendly pub that same evening) and Midnight Mass at Church on the Hill...the latter definitely a prudent decision given the extreme gradient of the path from road to church.
Down in the valley, one sterling soul had made a fantastic job of clearing the church path and we were all set for Christmas services as usual. The Crib service was a delight, featuring baby George as baby Jesus and a multitude of the heavenly host plus an assortment of shepherds (plus guinea pig lamb), a cow herd (complete with huge & cuddly cow) and one King full of oriental splendour. Increasingly, families opt to attend on Christmas Eve and then leave church alone for Christmas day - but that's fine, once you're used to this idea.
What really startled me this year was the absence of regulars at both Midnight Mass (maybe less surprising, given the weather and the age of many of my core congregation) and again on Christmas Day. At Midnight we had a good turn out overall - but the vast majority were visitors....Out of some 80 in church, I think that just 11 were familiar faces- which poses a few questions.
I guess on one level it's very simple....If you only expect to attend church at Christmas and Easter, then you are more likely to make the effort to get there even if conditions are less than encouraging - whereas if you fully expect to be there Sunday by Sunday for many years to come, then what is one Christmas among many?
I would certainly hate to think of anyone risking life and limb to worship with us - even on the highest of festivals - and I'd never make the mistake of thinking that absence from church equates with writing faith out of the festival....but all the same, it does seem odd that worshipping with your church community is simply not a priority for many. It never struck me that my parents, for example, were in any way "extreme" church-goers - but the year that my father broke his wrist and was unable to drive, a taxi was organised to get us all to church on Christmas day - because it was simply unthinkable that we should be anywhere else on that day of all days.
Clearly we are now in a very different place - with different expectations.
It was a joy to celebrate the birth of Christ with those who came through our doors.
It was a privilege to sit for an hour beside one young man who arrived as the last celebrating family departed on Christmas morning, and needed to take time to talk through his hurts and confusions in a safe place.
Being a priest in these communities is very special - a privilege and joy in so many unexpected ways. It's only fair that sometimes the struggles are unexpected too...
but I'm glad that it fell to another to read John 1 this Christmas. There might have been a bit too much reality in it for any semblance of comfort.
Or perhaps I'm reading it wrong.
Perhaps I should just smile quietly and say "It was ever thus......"

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Sermon for Christmas Day 2010 All Saints, Selsley.

I know we’re all short of sleep and high on excitement, but I wonder if you’d join me in a brief imaginative exercise this morning. Due to some utterly and unbelievably cataclysmic event, there is just one copy of the Bible left in the entire world, and now this too is under threat. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to copy out as much as you can, to preserve it for the future. Where do you start? Is there one passage that tells you enough about God and his ongoing love-affair with faithless humanity to suffice if all else vanishes?
To be honest, I’m not quite sure, but I’d put up a spirited defence for the Gospel that we’ve just heard.
It is sometimes called the Christmas Gospel,- which is strange, when you rreflect that it mentions neither baby, mother, shepherds, angels nor any other nativity essentials. Nonetheless, it’s one of those must-have passages, without which it’s hard to imagine our worship at Christmas. John’s words are so dear and familiar that it’s tempting to side-step any attempt to engage with them, and simply allow them to communicate directly with our hearts,- surely the best place of all for the Christ-child to lodge.

Well, yes and no.
In one sense, of course, the Incarnation is too great a wonder, too great a miracle to comprehend.
It beggars understanding. It is indeed a holy mystery....
However, the problem with mysteries is that we tend to sit back and accept them; we’re confident that, if intellect has failed, amazement itself is a sufficient response. This mystery, however, is rather more demanding, for it draws us in as well.
That is the point of it all.
John’s fourteen verses sum up so much, from the cosmic grandeur of creation to the breathtaking immediacy of Christ’s birth.
“In the beginning”…as Genesis, so John. Here, we’re concerned with the roots and origins of all things, establishing beyond doubt the identity of the Christ with God the Creator.
“The Word was with God and the Word was God.”
But existence is not all. Our God is bent on a relationship, on communicating Himself with his creation…He is not only a being, but the Word. However a word (even the Word) can communicate nothing unless someone is ready to receive it, to listen or to read, to get the message…God communicates with God-self within the Trinity, but God also reaches out in longing to communicate his love to us.
So there is something close to pathos in our failure to recognise and connect with God:
“He was in the world…yet the world knew him not.. He came to his own, but his own received him not.”
It’s incredible, isn’t it? The One who framed and formed everything, allows himself to be shut out of his own creation because he wants us to choose to know him. He who needs nothing, puts himself in a place where he needs us, - us!
And, lest the Word be heard once and then forgotten, here He is made real, visible solid flesh. Incarnate. The Word translates himself into a language we can understand, the language of humanity. The glory of God is too vast for us to comprehend, so He sets it aside, and chooses to limit himself to our scale, so that we might have a chance of recognising and responding to him. As Irenaeus put it, writing in the first century of the Church,
“He became what we are, to make us what he is”,- or alternatively, in the words of the singer/songwriter Joan Osborne
“What if God was one of us?”
The message of the Gospels is that there is no “what if?”…God was and is forever both divine and, amazingly, “one of us”. Incarnation. And when we recognise this, when we too glimpse his glory, we become a new humanity ourselves…
“children born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”

For the message is not for one time and place only and John’s Prologue does not just look back to the dawn of time, nor confine us to the historic realities of 1st century Palestine. The word WAS made flesh....Yes, the birth of Jesus was an actual historical event, which happened at a specific moment in time, -even if not on 25th December in the year 0.!
For a problem arises if we try to distance the Christ child; to look at him only through the stained-glass filter of history, to keep Him safely at arm's length "Away in a manger".
That Greatest Gift of All was indeed first given in the stable in Bethlehem,-but if we’re content to leave it there then all our joy and celebration is in vain. However, to bring it from history into the present, and ensure that the good news the angels brought to the shepherds, is indeed good news to all people, is to involve ourselves dangerously in the story. No longer can we view the Incarnation as a once and for all event. We have called upon the Holy Child to "be born in us to-day"....
If we really mean that, we are offering ourselves as God-bearers, accepting the responsibility laid on us in John’s gospel for "as many as received Him".
In a few minutes, we will receive Him in the Sacrament of bread and wine,- and that unbelievable blessing should draw forth a response from our whole selves. It is up to each one of us to bring the living reality of Emmanuel, God with us, out of the soft focus of the carol service and into the world He loves so much.
The Word is to be made flesh IN US.
God longs to communicate with us, but having got the message, we are called to live it and show His living reality “full of grace and truth"

Friday, December 24, 2010

I don't really send Christmas cards...

With much love to all my friends, near and far...
Thank you for sharing love and laughter in the past year. 
Christmas blessings to you and yours

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The service that didn't happen

Tonight I should be busily lighting the candles given in memory of so many, to lend Valley Church a beautiful welcoming glow for those arriving for our annual service of Carols by Candelight.
I might be playing the piano so the choir could have one last run through of their two solo carols.
I would surely be scanning arrivals anxiously until all the readers were safely in church, armed with their readings and primed to end each, in the approved Kings fashion
"Thanks be to God".

But I'm not.
Instead I'm at my desk, drinking hot ginger and waiting the return of my menfolk, who sallied forth a couple of hours ago in search of a Christmas tree.  It's bitterly cold out there, so by rights I should be purring gently at finding myself indoors with a cat at my feet....but instead I'm more than a little miserable, since I'm only here because our carol service has been cancelled.

I accept that my judgement on these matters may be somewhat skewed.
Yesterday I drove some 50 miles in the worst conditions I have ever experience on UK roads, in order to officiate at the wedding of a very dear friend. Even in a Volvo with snow chains fitted it was quite an alarming ride, but once I knew that the couple intended to go ahead nothing on earth would have kept me away. Plans had to be changed as 10" snow made the reception venue impossible, the groom was 2 hours late, as a 45 minute journey took him something like 4 hours and there were gaps among the guests, of course, but all of us there were united in our love for the couple and our determination to celebrate with them on this happiest of days.
Our commitment to friendship was not going to be shaken by the difficulties of getting to a country church in the worst snow for years. We really wanted to be there.
Meanwhile, the snow-struck congregation at church in the valley this morning was doubled in size by the presence of a family - three generations gathered from far and wide to dedicate a memorial in memory of a grandfather and uncle who now lie in our church-yard. Some had come from villages on the hills around Stroud, some from much further afield but they were all there, full of good humoured tales of hazardous journeys, to support one another and honour their dead. When it was announced that there would be no coffee today because there was no milk, they cheerfully helped me make black coffee and offered it to those of the regular church family who made it into the hall.Of course we could have rescheduled the dedication for a warmer time, but they wanted to be there today, having made a commitment to one another and to their dead.

Given these two examples of determination in the face of whatever the weather might bring, it's not really surprising that I feel a bit grumpy at the cancellation of our Carol Service. In comparison with conditions yesterday, things really aren't that bad here. Of course I understand that nobody wants to put elderly bones at risk...and it would be truly awful if one of the group of once-a-year attenders slipped on the way to the service and did themselves harm but what saddens me is how very ready everyone was to abandon the service - and just how few of our core congregation actually got here this morning. There was a crucial PCC vote after the service, or I fear that numbers would have been even worse...

I know it's not fair to draw comparisons...I realise that I'm in danger of grossly oversimplifying and adding 2 and 2 to make 5 - but it's tempting to make assumptions about priorities that are profoundly discouraging. 
Of course worship is not all about church, and being an hospitable church community can happen on any day of the year, not just at the carol service...but still and all, there are questions around tonight that I'd just as soon not have to answer.

One of the things that the community loves about valley church at Christmas is the star that appears, miraculously, atop the tower - the gift of a local family who not only construct it annually, but also get it safely into place.
On Friday afternoon it was shining out proud and confident.
Today the snow had obviously led to some bulbs blowing - the framework is there but only one bulb is alight. To say it looks half-hearted would be a definite overstatement.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Homily for a Carol Service

Tonight was the Village Carol Service at church on the hill.
Last year, the Herring of Christ produced a splendid service using the readings in "Times and Seasons" on the theme "good news for the poor".
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this did not go down too well with the PCC of Church on the Hill, who felt that he had "missed out on the meaning of Christmas".
Hmmn...Room for debate there, I'd say.
However, since they had so clearly been miserable with the service we had prepared we invited them to put it together themselves this year - and their decision was to go purely with the "Christmas story", using Luke (mostly), Matthew (for the wisemen) and of course, John.
I told them that this was fine, provided they didn't mind my breaking with tradition to give a short homily as I was unhappy that they were presenting the nativity story so out of context, and this was agreed.
Then my printer decided, with minutes to spare, that it needed to recalibrate - so whatever I said tonight, it wasn't exactly what I had planned.
Given that all the readings except my own were from the Authorised Version, I suspect the cause may be lost already....
Here's what I had hoped to say (no idea what I actually said...but suspect it was rather different)

In the past week websites and papers of a vaguely churchy disposition have been making much of a recent survey which reveals that for 48% of the population of the UK, the birth of Jesus is completely irrelevant to their celebration of Christmas.
It might be tempting for those of us in the churches to snort disapprovingly and mutter something indignant at this point – but I can't help but wonder if this is largely our fault.

You see, we aren't very good at helping people to understand why those events of long ago and far away are anything to do with us at all, só small wonder if they get the idea that we are celebrating something rather beautiful but quite unreal – meant for tiny children to present to us wearing tea towels or tinsel but nothing to do with life in the adult world.
The words of our carols can play into this too........whoever heard of a baby who made no crying? or a child that "throughout their wondrous childhood did honour and obey" his parents?
Or, come to that, a stable where all was calm and bright after an unplanned midnight delivery?
Just look at the windows in this church – and the depictions of the nativity on almost any Christmas card. 

It's all beautiful and clean – and utterly unreal.

Actually in a small way we're even contributing to the problem tonight.
I wonder if you noticed anything odd about the title of our first and last readings?
“In the sixth month” came first and “in the beginning” at the very end
That doesn't quite make sense , does it?
But it's the way that we invite people to look at Christmas
We ask them to leap straight into the middle of the story – without thinking about what came before, or what might come afterwards. But we've no hope of ever understanding a story if we don't have some idea of its context.

We tell people about the baby and the manger but not about the reason that baby was an incredible demonstration of God's love for us, that was to be presented even more clearly when that baby grew up and hung upon the cross.
Jesus was born because of the kind of people we are – all of us – when left to our own devices.
We're people who like our own way...people who are inclined to put ourselves or our families before the needs of others........and só there are still people homeless, people starving, people struggling with life in a world where others are able to enjoy plenty, comfort, luxury...

God arriving in our world as the baby in Bethlehem shows us another way – the path of self sacrifice that leads to the cross, but beyond the cross to the new life that Easter celebrates.

Christmas isn't a one off, isolated event but part of the story of God's love affair with the human race that has continued since the dawn of time and will continue til all of us are safely gathered into God's loving presence.
Through the ages, people have recognised this and chosen to live according to God's invitation to love...and their lives have shone to transform the dark of the world, reflecting that light which is at the heart of God...that light which St John's gospel celebrates.

Só this Christmas I invite you to take your part in the story, - the story which spans time and stretches into eternity.
You won't need tea towel or tinsel...just come as you are, like all the visitors to that stable......but go home changed, transformed, bearing Christ's light yourself.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Great Expectations - a sermon for Advent 3 Year A

This is the season of Great Expectations.
I’ve spent a lot of time in our schools in the past couple of weeks, and of course excitement is running high. Already we've had the Infants' Nativity and a trip to the pantomime and pretty much any conversation with the children veers round to a discussion of Christmas within seconds. Even while many of their parents are struggling to find money for the essential treats, the children are confident that all will be well.
Against this, let me set the expectations of the families for whom I have conducted funerals in the past weeks, those whose worlds have been shaken, almost blown apart, Death is no respecter of the season so there are many whose current hopes are focussed on the sheer need to survive…to get through this period which clamours for celebration in such a way that the memories won’t scar all future Christmas times.

Our expectations of the Christmas season can be painfully unrealistic
This is, notoriously, a time when family breakdowns are most common, when the suicide rate mounts disturbingly – and surely part of the reason for this is the gulf between expectations and fulfilment.
It’s a gap that it’s all too easy to fall into…and very hard to climb out of.
But of course, we usually have a pretty clear idea of what we’re expecting…
a happy time spent with friends and family, a bit of church, lots of singing, candles in all directions, and almost certainly more food than we really need. There may be additions and subtractions from this list, but I’d guess it’s not that far from what we imagine will happen to most of us.

Contrast this with the great expectations of our Scripture passages this morning. The writer of Isaiah's prophecies, like James, is sure of one thing – a day of salvation and glorious restoration will come to pass.
But there's no calendar with little doors to open, to help the count down. Instead there's a long wait in the dark, clinging to the hope that things will not always be this way, that there are good times ahead.
Isaiah paints clear pictures of this restoration – images of new life springing forth unlooked for in the dryest, most barren places…healing for those who most need it…consolation for all.
He is clear that we can look for this with the same confidence that we look for the growth of a plant once we have sown the seed...
The Lord WILL come, bringing with Him judgement, healing, reconciliation, restoration – as essential to God’s DNA as the growth of a crocus flower from its bulb, or a wheat stalk from a grain planted carefully in the earth,
This will come to pass. Never doubt it.
John the Baptist recognised the first shoots of the kingdom when his cousin Jesus came to him for baptism – but then began to doubt his own confident proclamation. His expectations were great, sure enough, but the reality he was living looked pretty much like disappointment. Cast into prison, seeing no signs that the Roman occupation might be lifted, he began to panic. Had he got it wrong? Was Jesus the One they had been waiting for? He just didn’t seem to be behaving as a Messiah should.
But, of course, the clues are all there in Isaiah…in that key text for Jesus’s ministry, the passage he read once in the synagogue, but lived out each and every day
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring the gospel to the poor…he has sent me to heal the broken hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind.”
Listen, he says to John….these are the things that have been happening.
Maybe not exactly as you expected, - but here’s the evidence.
The Messiah is here.
So…expectations fulfilled, but in subversive, surprising ways.
In fact, there should have been, as it were, no surprise in the surprises.
God has consistently worked to subvert our expectations.
It’s there in the Isaiah passage, where the lame leap and the dumb burst into triumphant song…it’s there in the song of Mary
He has scattered the proud in their conceit
Casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly
Our God will never let matters rest.
Wherever there is injustice, wherever the weak are disadvantaged, the vulnerable oppressed, there God is at work, intent on turning things upside down, on launching a revolution that is Good News for the poor.

Small wonder, then, that these words, a manifesto of the Kingdom, come from the mouth of an unmarried teenage mother, - poor, disgraced and a woman! The least of the least, but told that she will give birth to the child who will change everything but for the whole world.
And so Mary's hopes flower into the song that we call Magnificat - a song of justice for all people, the justice of a God who just won't play according to our rules.
Our God won't stay at a safe distance, suitably remote and divine.
Our God rolls up his sleeves and gets involved...
Our God becomes one of us by laying aside his power, his glory..and arriving where he might least be looked for...A small overcrowded town in an occupied country in an unimportant corner of the Roman Empire...

His people thought they were ready. Through the ages they had been more or less alert, - expecting some act of dramatic intervention to restore their fortunes, some decisive action that would lead to the fulfillment of all those wonderful prophecies. But when the time came, they were all looking in the wrong direction, and so God crept in among them as baby born not in a palace but in poverty, a baby soon to be a refugee, a baby destined to disturb the very people who had expected the Messiah to bring comfort to Jerusalem.
Great expectations dumbfounded!
And now we too wait.

We wait with joyful excitement for our celebrations of that baby's birth. We open the windows of our Advent calendars, wrap our presents, send our cards...but do we really expect God's active involvement in our here and now?
And, if we do, are we ready to join in?
We may be brimming over with our own Great Expectations, but for God's sake we need to cling tightly to our knowledge that the season of Christmas is not for the victorious but for the struggling.

So these weeks of Advent are not an invitation to excess but a proclamation of hope in a dry land. Yes, we can have great expectations indeed - but they must involve giving as much as getting, as we explore what it means to reflect God's kingdom in our thoughts, words and actions.
In a world where poverty and despair seem to have the upper hand, where and how should we search for the breaking of Good News?
Will we look for it just here in Church, or dare we expect it in those places that might seem the traffic queues that stress us as we rush into town for "one last thing", in the Big Issue seller standing outside Subway, in the contents of yet another Christmas letter..
We may not be expecting it, but if we look there will be Good News, - never doubt it - Good News beyond our most extravagant hopes and dreams...but we need to participate in the work of God that will bring it about.
Don't forget, the God for whom we wait is the God of Magnificat...the God who loves to subvert our expectations...and who invites us to join with him in turning the world upside down.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Sunday ReVerb

Let Go. What (or whom) did you let go of this year? Why? (Author: Alice Bradley)

Oh my! What a question for one who is still coming to terms with the strange new world of the empty nest.
This year my third and youngest child turned 18 and followed his siblings to university.
Suddenly I was faced with the need to redefine myself.
50 - nothing like young. A bit of self image to let go of there, then.
Still (always) a mum - but not a hands-on, essential day to day kind any longer.

My own parents died just before I was ready to go to university, so I have no experience of flying the nest to draw the processing of detaching myself from my own children as they launch out into adult life has been both demanding and completely new territory.

Right now I am struggling with the concept of preparing for Christmas without a constant tide of young people coming and going, filling the house with music and leaving a trail of mugs in every room...I'm wondering who I'll be once I've come out the far side of this less than comfortable transition...and I'm hoping that in my struggles to let go, I haven't left claw marks all over those whom I love!

Lost a day...

Yesterday I was overwhelmed with parish life - a highly successful combined Church & School Advent Fayre, followed by intensive preparation for assorted services (one of which was frozen off - but that's no disaster).
It meant that blogging was just not feasible - by the time I had won clear of those things that I ought to have done, the things left undone were obviously going to stay that way.
But the word of the day was wonder - and that's too lovely to pass over.

How did you cultivate a sense of wonder in your life this year?
(Author: Jeffrey Davis)

It's so very easy to lose your sense of wonder, isn't it? Either by living life at such breakneck speed that you completely fail to notice all the amazing things that are happening just to the side of your relentless dash towards your goal....Or by becoming so secure in the human position at the "centre of the universe" that we take its marvels for granted...
I'm fortunate, though, because wonder is built in to my job...because surely one of the great functions of priesthood is to notice what God is doing in the world and then point it out to others - and that is the supreme source of wonder.
I am also fortunate to share my home with a golden retriever who treats everything with such open delight that she constantly forces me to stop and look again at the common place........and so often, this is where there is wonder, unguessed at.
And, most obviously, the presence of Libby encourages me to travel slowly, noticing the details as we explore some truly beautiful places...
I wonder as I wander...

Friday, December 03, 2010

Pick one moment during which you felt most alive this year.
(Author: Ali Edwards)

Thinking back, there were at first so many moments to choose from. 
Would it be the moment when middle child walked through the front-door, seconds into the surprise 50th birthday party that has to be one of the most special experiences of the year? I was just beginning to assimilate what was happening, and the teeny bubbles of joy that were mounting up as I realised how many dear and special people had been collected suddenly became a champagne-bottle of overflowing effervescent delight as I realised that all my children were there - and that they had done this...for me...
Or perhaps it would be the moment on St Matthew's Day when all the newly confirmed had received their candles, and were following FabBishop to the west end of the church,at the end of the first Confirmation since I became an incumbent...Their faces far outshone the candle flame and I was overwhelmed with delight that this was my place, these my people, to love and serve in God's name.
But I think, surprisingly, that it may just have been a whole series of moments during some teaching I did for the diocese a week or two ago.
I can claim no credit for the material I was delivering (which was wholly excellent) but, against my expectations, the session suddenly took flight, the room transformed by a sparkle that arrived from goodness knows where...
I remembered what it is like to teach a group who want to learn, to share enthusiasm with fellow enthusiasts, to dance without the music stopping...
I used to love teaching - now I remember why!

Day 2 - the madness continues

What do you do each day that doesn’t contribute to your writing — and can you eliminate it?
(Author: Leo Babauta)

Since writing is, for me, one of the best tools for reflection, pretty much all my daily activity could and should contribute to my writing (though of course there is often so much activity that the reflection barely happens).
Since the regularity with which I update here is a pretty good indicator of the amount of writing I am doing anywhere, clearly not enough reflection is going on.
But this is not news...not news at all.
So here I am, reflecting on my lack of reflection...and I think the root cause is probably my overwhelming desire for community, which drives me to twitter whether hats are dropping or not. From there, of course, I set out on a wild rampage across the internet, during which the lovely clear half hour I had to blog in somehow vanishes.
Elimination would involve a personality transplant - as infinite divertability is absolutely written into my DNA - so I think realistically (see, I'm using the word for next year!) all I can do is to be aware of the dangers and try to manage some writing every day...but knowing that this is pretty unlikely.
Ho hum.
At least I'm trying...

I must be mad

But I'm fond of this blog and would like something to keep me blogging through Advent, if I inspired by my dear friends Songbird and MaryBeth, I'm going to attempt the seemingly impossible and write every day - launched by Reverb
We'll be furnished with a daily prompt - and I'll try my best to respond to it
Day 1 was Wednesday, when the prompt ran thus
Encapsulate the year 2010 in one word. Explain why you’re choosing that word. Now, imagine it’s one year from today, what would you like the word to be that captures 2011 for you?
(Author: Gwen Bell)
 So much happens in the course of a year, and this one has been no exception...but I think my word may just be "realisation".
2010 has been the year in which my youngest child left home for university, and in which my first-born completed her MA and joined the world's workers....
The year in which I turned 50, becoming suddenly eligible for all those "special offers" for older people that I feel so unready to embrace...
But with not one child left at school, and the responsibility for not one but two curates there came a moment in the course of the year when I realised that actually, this was as "grown up" as it gets.
And with that realisation came a delicious freedom. I'm in no way a finished product, of course - I'd not expect to be this side of eternity ...and I hope and pray and plan to go on learning and growing, but the anxiety around my identity has slipped away without my even noticing its passing.
Here is a good place, and now is a good time.
And with the wonderful surprise party that those newly adult children arranged for me came the wonderful realisation of just how much love has been heaped upon me in those five decades.

For 2011 I'd like to rearrange my letters just a little, but stick to the same root...REALISM about what I can do, as one finite human being, with infinite hopes but limited capacity, about what I might hope to accomplish in ministry here, about what God really dreams of for these communities.
I suspect that the route there may be an interesting journey - but it's surely one worth taking.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

I look from afar

So here we are in Advent.
No idea how that happened - would have done my best to avoid it if possible, but clearly the passage of time is just another entry in the ever-expanding category "Things over which the vicar has no control - even if parishioners believe otherwise"
This means 
a) that everyone I meet says, knowingly
"Of course, it's your busy time of year...." (because clearly I spend the other 11 months in delicious idleness)
b) I try to focus even more than usual on noticing God at work in the prevailing muddle of parish life.

Advent Sunday was a bemusing mish-mash of the wonderful and the disappointing.
Graced moments included:
  • the glorious voice of the "redundant opera singer" who worships with us periodically, lending both body and beauty to "Wachet Auf" at the morning Eucharist at Church-in-the-Valley
  • The appearance of some quite unexpected families at Christingle (though the absence of several dozen more was one of the great disappointments of the day - I clearly need to rethink timing for the service in those years when Advent starts before December)
  •  The moment when the silent and hopeful darkness in Gloucester Cathedral thrilled to the opening of the Palestrina Matin Responsary
I first met this when, at 16, I moved to take my A levels at Eastbourne College. I've blogged before about the impact of the choir there, and the Director of Music, John Walker - a former Kings' chorister whose passion for church music was matched only by his passion for good food and drink. As that first busy term hurried to an end, we began practising for the Advent Carol service. I was pleased to be asked to sing the "1st boy" solo but didn't really "get" the piece until the day of the service.
Then as we stood at the back of the darkened church, I realised what was going on.
We were all those people through the centuries who had waited and hoped  for light to come into their lives.The music spanned the ages, heavy with longing. It was one of the most powerful experiences of a window opened onto eternity that I've been part of - and each year, the music has that same power for me. 

This Advent Sunday, as the familiar pattern of music and readings rolled on, and the congregational candles were lit, we were for a while taken up into the drama.The choir moved from the west end to stand beside the nave altar and we were surrounded by light and beauty, but then they moved on, behind the screen, to sing from the choir stalls. We could hear the music - but the readings were another matter. Clearly church in the valley is not alone in having issues with its sound system.
My small candle seemed inadequate to read the text but the odd word floated through the darkness
"strengthen the feeble knees.......your God is coming........."

It seemed that I was living a parable of the contemporary Church of England. Bright certainty gone, we stood waiting, straining our ears to catch the good news from a group that was now far ahead of us...But we still held our candles, still stood in hopeful expectation - and, in due time, our voices joined in glad recognition
"Lo, he comes......."

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Christ the King Yr C

The past week has been a good one for royalists.
On Sunday we gathered here in our church, to remember those who died “for Queen and Country” ….
Then on Tuesday came the news of a royal engagement....and even those who have reservations about the monarchy seemed disposed to celebrate. Suddenly the media was full of the trappings of a state occasions, inviting us to dream of pomp and circumstance, the gold State Coach, and an engagement ring with a painful history. They invite us to invest in the fairy tale, even as we recognise that it is at best a diversion from the painful reality of a country struggling for economic survival.

Now, today, the Church too invites us to consider kingship...but with the kind of twist that we should be used to by now.

At first glance it may seem strange that at this culmination of the church year we find ourselves back in the events of Passion-tide. Already, encouraged by the pressures of the world outside, we are straining forward to glimpse the baby in the manger, yet today we find ourselves taken back to Golgotha, the place of the skull.
We're asked to salute the kingship of Christ, but we look at the gospel and see not a coronation procession but a ride to the scaffold...

Today Jesus holds centre stage, but he takes that position in complete vulnerability, for it is hard to imagine greater powerlessness than that of a man fixed to a cross with nails through hands and feet...There are a lot of people talking about kings and kingship in this story of the death of Christ, but most of them are speaking only in mockery.
Above his head the sign reads “This is the King of the Jews”, sentence and proclamation in one.
The irony is intentional.
There’s no kingly glory here, no jewels or gold, just a squalid painful death.
Some king, some leader...with not a follower to his name.
Leaders are called to be strong, commanding...worlds away from the helpless man who has no option but to listen to the taunts of the soldiers, their raucous invitation
If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself”

We know, with the benefit of 2000 years of Christian teaching, that saving himself is not part of Jesus' agenda.....though salvation is indeed being won as the crowds gawp and mock.

If we were there, I wonder what part we would play in the drama...

On the whole, we might rationally prefer to ignore the crucifixion.

Even our epistle could tempt us to do so, with its lyrical celebration of Christ's divinity
He is the image of the invisible him all things in heaven and on earth were him all things hold together...”
Here we are celebrating the cosmic Christ...the one whose rule is obvious, non negotiable...It seems incredible, as we listen to Paul, that anyone anywhere could fail to submit to his rule...It is transcendent...written into the fabric of creation from the very beginning.......but the route to reconciliation is hard won...
By making peace through the blood of his cross”.

A costly kingdom founded on paradox...peace through life through a terrible, bloody death.

Do we truly want to be part of it?
There's huge pressure to join the crowd – there always is! And here common sense as well as self preservation might well encourage us to do so...It certainly persuades one of the two who hang beside Jesus.
I guess the thieves feel they have nothing left to the first criminal takes some small vicious pleasure in joining in with his own executioners as they deride the man who hangs beside him. Perhaps he has been a lifelong bully..perhaps he has always tried to ally himself with the powerful, if the opportunity presents itself.
Certainly he can see nothing to be gained by supporting Jesus.

In extremis, though, there can be a clarity of vision...Inessentials are stripped away as our time runs its course – and there is space to see things as they really are. As the saying goes, there are no atheists in fox holes, - and not that many on crosses.
Thus the second criminal recognises and articulates something wonderfully true.
Despite all the ironic mockery, despite the weakness and humiliation, the man beside him is indeed a king, so he turns to him in supplication
Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”

There is no coercian. There never has been.
Jesus hasn’t used his power to dominate and manipulate during his ministry, and he isn’t going to start now. His way has been one which set people free, giving them their own status and dignity. He has formed them into a new community where they are each responsible for each other, commanded to love, not to lord it over one another.
This is the king who kneels to wash his servants' feet before they feast...the king who chooses not a war horse but a workaday donkey to carry him into his citadel, the king who constantly gives away power in order to empower others.

It is the kingdom and its values that matter to Jesus - not his status as the king...
His rule is founded on peace, justice and transformation...on making the broken whole...and so it is peace and wholeness that he promises to the repentant thief.
Today you will be with me in Paradise”

There on that hillside, the drama of salvation is played out...the three crosses representing the daily choice that confronts us all.
Love stronger than death holds Jesus there...the man in the middle, with a dying sinner on either side, trying to decide what his message, what his kingdom, means for them.

We have to decide as well.
There's a chorus, popular at confirmations, that asks
Will you ride, ride, ride with the king of kings
will you follow our leader true
Will you shout hosanna to the lowly Son of God
Who died for me and you?”

We can only celebrate today if our answer to that is a resounding “Yes”...expressed not just with our mouths but with lives truly subject to the rules of his Kingdom.
May we all crown him King of our lives and hearts, now and always.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Remembrance Sunday

I'm grateful to colleagues on the PRCL site, in particular Anne LeBas, for thoughts, words and more help than it's comfortable to admit to....I really struggle with preaching on Remembrance Sunday, and this year seems particularly impossible...

God is light and in him is no darkness

Today is the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Coventry. Just a few weeks ago I conducted the funeral of a lady whose earliest memories included being taken outside by her parents one bitterly cold night to watch the city burn....miles and miles away, but somehow very close to home as she huddled in her nightclothes and watched that silent, sinister firework display. The flames of the city illuminated the reality of war, there, on the doorstep – interrupting ordinary lives, changing the world forever for people who had never signed up, people who wanted nothing more than to carry on as usual...people like us.

Fast forward to just one month ago in this church (All Saints church) when, on an evening entitled “Faith under Fire”,we heard from two clergy – one an army chaplain, one a parish priest, - about the impact of war today. The chaplain told us about conducting a wedding for a young man before he went out to Helmund province.....then conducting his funeral just three months later. It made the cost of war feel very real – even here amid the tranquility of the Gloucestershire countryside. Once again the reality of war was illuminated, brought close to home...inescapable, non negotiable.

So I found myself reflecting on the change that has taken place during my life time. When I was growing up, each year the veterans marching past the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday got noticeably older until the last WW1 veterans disappeared and their place was taken by the veterans from the 2nd WW...For a while, there was a feeling that remembrance might not be necessary for too much longer.....that when the last survivors of the second world war died, the custom of remembering our war dead might die with them. It was too long ago and far away, no longer part of our daily world.

Then, of course, everything changed.
Today there will be young men marching past the who have seen active service in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yesterday I had lunch with a clergy friend......she was slightly late and apologised for this because, she said, she had been seeing a wedding couple. Nothing unusual there – til she told me that they were anxious to get married immediately because the groom, aged 19,was about to go to Afghanistan.
Once again, it brought reality home to me.

We know about the boy soldiers of the 1st World War...the hundreds who falsified birth dates to meet the minimum age requirements. A sixteen year-old later told of how he was able to join the army: "The recruiting sergeant asked me my age and when I told him he said, 'You had better go out, come in again, and tell me different.' I came back, told him I was nineteen and I was in."
Another, John Cornwell was just sixteen when he won the Victoria Cross for bravery. Cornwall was on board the
Chester when it was attacked by four German light cruisers. Within a few minutes the Chester received seventeen hits. Thirty of her crew were killed in the bombardment and another forty-six were seriously wounded. Cornwall remained at his post on one of the ship's guns until the attack was over, but later died of his wounds.

Thankfully, 16 year olds are no longer able to bluff their way onto the battlefield – but 19 is not so very much older...Just think. A levels one month, basic training and mobilization the next.

War isn't something long ago or far away...

Today we are here to remember.
Re- membering is the way in which we bring the past into the present, reunite the pieces of broken history and learn their lessons.
Or not.
The choice is ours.

You'll know the proverb “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness” and as we gather to remember, that opportunity is ours.

     The light of the bombed cities can clarify things for us, too, if we will let it,    and we can set against its harsh glare another, gentler light.
Of course, war is not simple. There is no easy solution to it. Sometimes justice and peace seem to be mutually exclusive...but when ethics fail us, we can still stand for hope.
The truth is that if ordinary people like us don’t think about war, care about its impact, and do what we can to counter the conditions which give rise to it, then the peace that we long for will never come to pass. We are called to play a part in building God’s kingdom of peace, close to home, through the words we speak to one another, the care we take of one another, by rejecting suspicion and hatred, by daring to take the risk of love.

Today we remember. We remember those who have been crushed under the
heap of heartache that is war, and those who are being crushed under it still.
We allow the reality of war to come home to us, so that peace can come
home to us too and take root in our lives. And as we do that, the promise of
God is that the tiny lights which our small acts represent become part of that great light that no darkness can put out.
God is light and in him is no darkness...

There is another way, and by God's grace we will find it – so that we no longer have to watch youthful veterans march past the Cenotaph as we gather to remember.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Sermon for the Third Sunday before Advent, Yr C

With my thanks to my dear friend Songbird, and the contributers to the "Desperate Preacher" site...This week I surely qualified there!

November with dark nights and dreary mornings, with fallen leaves and bare branches, is a fitting season to contemplate life, death and the hereafter – and the church provides many opportunities to do so. Last Sunday, All Saints, we reflected on our calling to be saints here and now – filled with and transformed by God's presence in our lives...then on Tuesday, All Souls, I read aloud 241 names – the beloved dead that we remembered before God in that most moving of services. Next week we'll think especially of those who die in war...Wherever we look at this time of year, questions of life and death are there...Death, the elephant in the room, is shifting around, refusing to be quiet só that we can ignore it.

I'll never forget taking a funeral for an elderly lady in the early months of my ministry...Her grand-daughters, a few years younger than me, were the chief mourners and we celebrated their grandmother's life, the gift she had been to them and the difference she had made to the world, and stood together as we entrusted her into God's care. They laughed and cried and the service was a wonderful mix of honesty and idealism, as funerals só often are.
But afterwards, as we sat over a glass of wine, the younger sister turned to me and said
“I know that God is looking after Gran – but what I want to know is.......where is she now”
And that, of course, for all my training, I simply could not answer.

Every generation and every culture has wondered about what happens when life as we know it ends and there have been all sorts of attempts to make the unknown bearable...from the ancient Egyptians, filling their tombs with every possible physical essential, só that the dead will be fully provided for as they continue on their those who see life as cycle of death and rebirth, until finally we reach the freedom of nirvana. The Saducees, questioning Jesus, have no concept of resurrection, of life after their question is at best mischievous. They don't really want to know what is going to happen to that poor, much married woman.

But I think that we often try to domesticate eternity by envisaging it according to the world that we do know, the experiences that are our daily lot. We imagine it as a sort of upgraded earth, where all the things we wish were different will indeed be put right.
But, as we are reminded in Scripture, "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him"--
in other words, - we just don't have a clue!

Heaven is completely different so the two big pillars of the argument -marriage and death- make no sense at all in heaven's terms. Marriage is for now – not for later. Death is for now as well– there is no dying then.
This is something that Moses understood as he recognised that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were alive with God – só he chose to call the Lord the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob. He could simply have described him as “my God”, but that would have been to limit himself to the present....Instead he widens his horizon, bringing the past into the present and asserting that ancestors who are dead are alive with God.
Alive – but not in a way that simply continues and improves upon the existence we know right now.
We are not the same after this life. Resurrection is not the same as ressucitation.
Jesus was nothing if not honest with us. He assures us of a resurrection, but not of a repetition of our earthly lives. For some of us that’s a loss. But in many ways, and for many people, it may be a relief, too. Christ's own life, as it came to a human end, contained disappointment and betrayal, being let down by his friends and cruelly killed by his enemies.Jesus understood the pain of being human and he understood too the pain of dying.
“Now God is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to God all of them are alive.
Jesus calls us to trust in the God of the living, and focus on our life here and now... and let God look after the next life. The how remains beyond us, as it did for Job when he proclaimed his confidence in the paradox that asserts
“For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God”
That doesn't make any sense, from our time-limited, material frame of reference – but imagine those words as set by Handel...and you will, I'm certain, understand their deep and lasting truth. For the moment it may be only through the lens of great art that we can have an inkling of what is to come...só i'm afraid I would still have no helpful answer for Victoria and her sister – but I hope that i would be slightly less embarassed by this failing.
I know that my Redeemer lives......and that God is the God not of the dead but of the I can, ultimately, trust him not just with my own life and destiny but, even more, with that of those whom I love most...both living and departed.....for to God all of them are alive.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Stepping Stones

Jesus says “I am the resurrection and the life”
Though I may sometimes wander from the straight and narrow of Common Worship, when I lead the bearers into church or crematorium chapel at the start of a funeral service, I always begin with these words. For me, it matters hugely that as we enter that space, with that particular task ahead of us, the first word that I speak is Christ's name.

Whatever may happen in the next half hour, for me this has the effect of planting a standard...It balances the moment when, in the baptism service, I anoint the candidate with the sign of the cross and claim her for Christ. It is, I suppose, a moment when we all need to know that God is a God who keeps promises.

But recently I was part of a discussion which included a priest whom I know, love and trust deeply. Our topic was resurrection...those resurrection moments when the world seems transformed (the morning after the Berlin Wall fell was one example, the day Mandela was freed another)...and trying We tried among ourselves to decide whether these were really resurrections – doorways into a new kind of life – or epiphanies – moments of recognition of underlying hidden truth. The conversation ranged far and wide, along many and fascinating roads...and I threw in to the mix that certainty that I always feel when I speak those words at a funeral service, that here is something quite different, quite, quite new...
My friend said that she no longer uses those words, because of their insistence on belief...which makes them, potentially, too harsh a measure against which to judge the eternal destiny of a much loved relative.
“What does it say,” she wondered “to those who feel themselves to be without belief?”

“Those who believe in me, though they die shall live and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die”
I guess that could indeed sound harsh, exclusive to mourners struggling with the painful reality of loss and I have sometimes curtailed the reading from John 14 which is so often chosen, because, I suspect, of it's cosiness, it's soothing reassurance that we are on a journey home...
“Jesus said, I am the Way, the Truth and the Life...”.
I stop before the final sentence:
“No one comes to the Father except through me”
Is that dishonest?
Am I selling the gospel short?
Should I be handing in my license with immediate effect?
I really don't think so.

Do I, then, believe Christ's words?

Yes, absolutely....but I DO NOT believe that this means that those who never commit themselves to Christ are lost.
God loves us far too much for that.
Yes, Jesus opened the one and only gateway through death...He IS the Way...and it is only in him that we can see what it means to live a life fully in God's presence...only in him that we understand what humanity should look like...
But I'm confident that when people seem to reject Him, it's because we've failed to present the Truth in all its Beauty. They aren't rejecting God, but the limited imperfect version of God that we, whether in the Church or outside it, have offered to them.
Sometimes, wonderfully, God finds a way through the cracks...and people come to recognize God despite our inept presentations, our inadequate lives, our leaky theology.

I've written before of the impact that C.S. Lewis had on my world view in childhood – and those influences are as strong as ever.
I know, as far as I know anything, that there will be many who, like the Calormene soldier in The Last Battle, find themselves bemused and startled that their lifelong quest has brought them to a destination that they had never imagined.
I imagine countless souls gasping in wonder, and saying
“Now I understand. I never realized it was like this...”

But funerals are not the time for theology...for deep discussions and persuasive arguments.
They are a time to assert with all the faith and conviction that can be mustered that all is well, that nothing is lost, that love is truly stronger than death.
What matters more than anything is that as the priest leading the service I can believe for everyone there...that when I say
“Confident of Christ's victory and claiming his promises, we entrust X to your mercy...” I do indeed have perfect confidence in that victory, those promises.

So, for me, those sentences that begin the service are important...They are beacons of hope that shine through the maelstrom of emotions...stepping stones that we can rest on, fixed and firm amid the sinking sand of doubt and despair...
Like so much of the liturgy they are truly words of power, transforming people and situations so that the heartsick battered little group that gathers in a crematorium chapel becomes, as it needs to, a community of faith...clinging with desperate conviction to the promise of the cross and empty tomb.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Blogging along

Once upon a time I had a blog that I visited nearly every day.
We did our thinking together, worked out something of what the mad dance of ministry as a curate might entail, tried to make sense of the glimpses of God we noticed along the way.
Then things changed.
I became an incumbent, no longer working in partnership with WonderfulVicar but in a new place, with different patterns of life and worship, different expectations of the clergy and more responsibilities than I had ever imagined.
Blogging took a back seat as I realised that thinking aloud might sometimes be unhelpful, even, occasionally, dangerous...
I did still glimpse God along the way – though perhaps not quite as often – but it seemed wiser to keep most of my daily doings to myself.
Busyness took over.
I was still at my computer more than I'd ever expected at vicar school, but much of my time was taken up with rotas, publicity, papers on this and responses to that...even a parish magazine.
Blogging felt like rather a luxury, as did time spent reading the blogs of others.
This made me sad for I love to write, and love still more the web of connections with friends far and wide that my blog wove for me.
But somehow, even when something was aching to be blogged, it rarely happened.

I've made so many false starts, so many declarations of an intention to return – and I guess I know that the days are gone when writing here seemed an essential element in my emerging ministry...but I can't bring myself to pull the plug and abandon the blog forever. I'm frustrated with myself, recognizing that it's far too easy to miss the God moments if I'm not sharing them with anyone...indeed, as an extrovert, experiences are never absolutely real unless they are shared...
Wonderful things are still happening. Terrible things are still happening. Often I find myself walking a tightrope between the two, not entirely sure of my destination until I arrive....finding joy, un-looked for, as I visit a funeral family...or disillusion and emptyness even as a community gathers to celebrate.

And I need to write of it somewhere because, it seems to me, part of the priestly calling is to keep on telling the story...the story of my communities, of the men, women and children with whom I'm travelling day by day....and the great God Story in which our lives are swept up. My calling, surely, is to build bridges from the one to the journey with my eyes open so that I can try and point out to my fellow travelers the signs of God at work.
For the moment, this blog, neglected, almost forgotten, is still part of the process – a tool that encourages me to stay alert.
Clearly not a luxury, after all.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Reflection for All Souls

Whenever we gather around the altar in obedience to Our Lord's instruction to share bread and wine it seems to me that the veil between earth and heaven is very thin.
When we join in the song of the angels in heaven “Holy, holy, holy...” I'm certain that if we cannot hear the angel voices, it is only because we aren't listening hard enough....but today, as we gather to remember our own beloved dead that great community is closer than ever.
Odilo, abbot of Cluny, gave us this feast of All Souls and fixed November 2 as a commemoration of “all the dead who have existed from the beginning of the world to the end of time.” So we pray for them, for ourselves and our children, and our children's children.
From the perspective of eternity, that barrier which we call death is non- existent. Where there is no time, no past, present or future, then there can be no endings or the hymn would have it
All are one in thee, for all are thine”

We pause to remember and to pray for those whom we love but see no longer, knowing that the ties that connected us in life, that made us pray for them and they for us, remain un-broken.
Standing in God's closer presence, I know they are still praying for we for them.
We pray not to rescue them from the bonds of hell – our God offers unconditional love, welcome and forgiveness and our 1st reading spoke truth
" The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God and there shall no torment touch them”
Rather we pray with thanksgiving for lives that have enriched our own and with confidence in the God whose Son destroyed death forever, and showed to the world that there is nothing in all creation that can separate us from God's love.
Friends on earth and friends above...all one in Christ Jesus.

Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening
  into the house and gate of heaven,
to enter into that gate and dwell in that house,
where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light;
no noise nor silence, but one equal music;
no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession;
no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity;
in the habitations of thy glory and dominion,
world without end.