Sunday, April 24, 2016

Too much triumph?

Last week I was delighted and blessed to be once again at On Fire - an annual conference for charismatic catholics which has become a hugely important sources of refreshment and renewal for me over the past 5 years. I have written before here  and here about why it matters so much to me and really I don't have anything to add. 
It's a community in which I regularly encounter God, and though this year there was alot of hard stuff of my own to process (much still on-going) the experience of the week was most definitely one of resurrection.
So, feeling myself positively fizzing with life and joy and hope after some rather wonderful intervention by the Holy Spirit, I posted some pictures on Facebook from the procession of the Blessed Sacrament after our final Mass, together with a caption drawn from a worship song that has resounded in my head pretty well non-stop since Morning Prayer on that last morning  (and is still there even in the exhaustion at the end of a long long Sunday)
"Death is dead. Love has won. Christ has conquered".

It was an expression of my own experience at that point.

But...a friend and priest whom I love dearly questioned whether those words were too glib, too much a reflection of the "Death is nothing at all" school of popular theology that seeks to dash straight from Palm Sunday to Easter Day without any engagement with the darkness that is a huge reality for so many people.
That gave me pause - and I've been reflecting since on whether sharing joy in the face of pain is heartless and unhelpful, a refusal to take that pain seriously - or somehow equivalent to throwing a rope-ladder down to enable those who are struggling to reach a place of safety.

I came straight to On Fire from celebrating Communion with a friend who is facing a very discouraging diagnosis and some hugely difficult treatment. Another beloved friend was absent from the conference as his father-in-law was close to death, and during the week I had news of yet another friend's cancer - so the thought that in voicing my own feelings of celebration I might be trampling on, or seeming to over-ride their experience of struggle and darkness was challenging, to say the least. 

At the splendid "Taking Funerals Seriously" conference last year, there was discussion about whether in time to come our unique selling point as Church might be that we were prepared to admit that death is real and painful and parting utterly soul-searing...So much of our culture seems intent on denying that - on asserting again and again, in the face of all the evidence, that "death is nothing at all". But the business of priesthood is so often to stand in the middle of the mess and pain and sadness of life - and yes, to weep with those who weep, but also to suggest, gently but confidently, that despair is not the only possible response. Because, after a long hard winter, I needed a spring-time of the spirit, a reminder that God DOES make all things new, and that actually, resurrection happens...and if that is my experience, I'm pretty sure others need those same reassurances.

No - I won't always feel that with the same overwhelming joy and conviction that currently floods my soul - but that doesn't mean that it's not my responsibility to hold onto the light of faith, and to proclaim the resurrection in ways that comfort and encourage - which may not involve words at all, but maybe simply being there and loving as best I can...

But I would go to the stake rather than hold back the words "Love has won". To say that in as many ways as I humanly can is surely what I'm called to do...Isn't it? 

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Young Women: Your Call

I'm just home, happy and exhausted, from one of the most splendid things I've been part of here.


It all started (as far as we knew) a year ago, when to our delight Lis Goddard accepted an invitation to come and speak at the summer study day for the diocesan "Leading Women" course.

God, of course, had the whole thing in hand long before - but from our 
perspective, Ellie and I were just two of the women there who were challenged and disturbed by the statistics Lis shared about the sheer dearth of young women exploring ordained ministry in the Church of England. (For those who like facts and figures - under the age of 40 there are 4 men to every 1 woman! After 40, the gender balance reverses - make of that what you will)
Ellie is in the vocations business - and I (as you probably know if you're reading this) work in a cathedral - so by going home time that day we had hatched a plan for a vocations day for young women, to be held in Coventry Cathedral some time in the coming year.
What's more, several of the women at that study day expressed an interest in getting involved - and so Young Women, Your Call  was born.

 With a limited budget and the thought that we would be content with anything more than a dozen guests, and a hope of around thirty, we began to plan a day that would rely on the goodwill of our friends and families in doing all the "infrastructure" things - moving chairs, serving coffees et al.

Only, God had more than 30 people who needed to come...We watched in amazement as bookings mounted from 40 to 50 to ...shall we set a ceiling at 60?....but still they came.

And so today we welcomed 86 women, mostly aged between 15 and 35...and it was, in every possible sense, AWESOME.
To see the Cathedral so full of youth and energy and colour.
To hear wonderful stories of God's call - gentle, insistent, a whisper, a unmistakeable summons.
To marvel at the extraordinary women who are my colleagues in this diocese and beyond, who gave of their time and talents so generously to make the day happen
To rejoice in the way that God seemed to have called people from various points in my own story to be part of today too.

Our Opening Worship began with words that were printed on my Ember card
"One thing have I asked of the Lord, this is what I seek. That I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the fair beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple"...
Words which took me back to the early days of my own calling - and to the wonderful ways in which I have been enabled to seek God in his temple...Yes, it was kind of emotional! 

And so the day unfurled. 
Wonderful keynote addresses from Bishop Anne Hollinghurst and Lis Goddard, precious conversations over lunch and coffee breaks, pleasure in hearing our guests bowled over by the attention to detail of the planning group, and by the beauty and story of our Cathedral.
There was laughter and some tears too - specially in the beautiful prayer space that Naomi had created.
There was incredulity that men in collars were willing and able to serve coffee for the women (little did they know that one of those men was a real live Archdeacon at that)!

I kept finding myself brushing up against my own story.  +Anne and Steve Hollinghurst first brought Taize worship to Greenbelt - where it has been a hugely important resource for me...Lis said something at a diocesan conference 4 years ago which specifically played into my ability to recognise some deep truths about my previous parish, which somehow freed me to move on...There were friends from Greenbelt and from On Fire, a much loved directee from Gloucester who will be deaconed at Petertide came with two young women from her church, an unexpected friend of my lovely DD appeared...One way and another, there was alot of retelling of my own story of calling going on in my head as the day went on - and it seemed that there were things from that story that were exactly what some of our guests needed to hear...

And - I got to be the represent the be endlessly thankful for the heroic efforts of our amazing collect the compliments about the share with unwary visitors who had no idea what they were coming to just what was going on, and to bask in their pleasure that the Cathedral was committed to encouraging the young to explore a lifetime in God's service...

So much loveliness - and best of all, as the day drew to a close it was given to me to preside at the Eucharist.
Always the time when I am most rooted in and thankful for my priesthood - but today with so many extra dimensions as I shared the Sacrament with our guests (thankful for the name badges which meant that I could do so for each of them by name)...listened to the sound of 100 women's voices sing Ally Barrett's wonderful hymn "Hope of our Calling", blessed them in God's name.

My heart is full of the names and stories of the day, of those to whom I ministered, and who ministered to me...
Thanks be to God!

Saturday, April 09, 2016

Easter 2C at Coventry Cathedral 3rd April 2016

Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia! 
This time last week, the Cathedral was wonderfully full as we came together to share Easter joy …It was all so bright as a candle lit from the Easter fire, clear as a trumpet fanfare echoing round the Cathedral....An empty tomb...a familiar voice calling by name...surely everything is going to be alright now....fear and gloom banished for all time.
As we sang our final hymn Thine be the glory I was pretty sure that I could actually hear angels ,archangels and all the company of heaven lending their voices.
No more we doubt thee, glorious Prince of Life
For a little while that sure and certain hope of Resurrection took hold of us, heart, mind and spirit, and there was no doubt left...or, let's be honest, maybe a smidgeon somewhere... But not enough to spoil things.

But it's a week on now,...a day that used to be known as Low Sunday...a day of returning to earth from the heights of heavenly praise. Even though the Common Worship calendar tries to steer us in another direction, firmly labelling this the second Sunday of Easter, there's still a lingering memory of LOW Sunday...a day when we come down to earth and try to make sense of the reality of a world that is somehow not really different ENOUGH
You see, if we're honest things don't actually seem to be much better. The broken church has obstinately refused to be healed...those beloved people who are hurting continue to hurt...war, hunger, fear have not yet departed from the face of the earth..and me? Well, I have to confess that I'm the same frustrating mix of selfishness and occasional kindness, shining confidence and unspoken anxiety that I was before Easter.
And that's a little puzzling.
If the resurrection truly changed the world for ever, then surely things ought to look rather better by now. Shouldn't they?
What's going on....I just don't get it.

I feel as if I've somehow got stuck with the disciples in S Mark's account of the first Easter. The one where there is no tidy tying up of loose ends..,the women find the empty tomb and say nothing. Because they are terrified.
That's not quite where I am this morning. I did think about it for a moment, but no. I'm not in that place where nothing makes sense but I darent admit it.
Not scared to question, in case everything unravels before my eyes and I find myself confronting nothing BUT an empty tomb.
In fact, I think questioning is going to be the order of the day...

After all, there's a bit of a precedent...set by our good friend Thomas.

Doubting Thomas!
Such a familiar nickname but is it really fair?
Across 2000 years Thomas is remembered not for his obedience in following Jesus
Not for his later courage in taking the gospel to India
but for his doubts.
Imagine if you were to be remembered forever for the thing of which you are least proud...
It's sobering, isn't it!

But in truth, he was no worse than the other disciples
Despite his denial of Jesus, we don't refer to “Peter the Turncoat”
Despite their anxiety to claim the best seats in the kingdom, we don't talk of James and John as the Wannabe Twins

But Thomas...he's stuck with that nickname, come what may.
And honestly, it's not surprising he doubted.
Imagine that you are with the twelve in that upper room in Jerusalem in the days after the crucifixion
None of you will be feeling very confident – in anything.
Each of you has let down your dearest friend at the moment of his greatest need.
Each of you has put personal safety before the claims of God's kingdom.
Each of you has cherished dreams that now seem to have withered before your eyes.
Each of you is, frankly, scared stiff, disorientated, lost...and the wild talk of those women who went to the tomb is certainly not helping. Empty tombs and rumours of angels don't make ANYTHING better.

But into that place of anxiety, fear and confusion comes Jesus – as he always does, into our places of anxiety, fear and confusion (even if we try to shut the doors against him)
Jesus with his message of peace – the forgiveness that each person in that battered and beaten group most needs to receive.

Peace – says Jesus...
It's OK. I understand what you did, and why you did it.
I still love you. Exactly as you are.
You are forgiven.
Peace to make good your failures
Peace to calm your fears
Peace to restore your broken dreams

The Peace of Christ – given to be shared with others
Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ 
 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
Peace that transforms them all.
This is the stuff of resurrection right enough

But not for Thomas
Poor Thomas is somewhere else that day, so he misses out not only on seeing Jesus but on receiving that blessed assurance that all is now well.
He listens to his friends, with all their new-found certainty – but while they seem to be seeing the world by the new light of Easter hope, he remains stuck in the darkness of Good Friday.
No Peace for him – indeed, their very confidence increases his isolation.
He must have been tempted to pretend that he too was now secure in his faith once again, or at least to keep out of their way, in an attempt to gloss over his uncertainty. It's so much easier to go with the crowd, isn't it...
....but somehow Thomas has the courage and the honesty to stick to his guns, – and to name his doubts
Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

Thank God for Thomas.
We need him – just as we continue to need those who, in any group, ask the questions we are afraid to voice ourselves...
We need him because he shows us that it is absolutely OK to have doubts, OK
to ask questions – and that God honours those questions....
When Jesus returns to the group the following week there is no lecture on the essentials of faith, no reproach for Thomas's uncertainty.
Instead he is invited to come close to Jesus (what could be better) and to touch with his own hands Christ's body in all its resurrection life.
It's hard to imagine a more wonderful confirmation that questioning is welcome, that we are to come to Christ as we are, - not resting on the faith of others but discovering it for ourselves as the complicated individuals that we are....complicated individuals with our own unique relationship with God in Christ.

Not something you can receive off the peg from another person
Your faith is shaped by your life experiences, by the people you encounter, the books that you read
It's rather like a jigsaw puzzle. As you go through life, you slowly assembly the puzzle, until perhaps you get a lovely picture, with no gaps.
At that point, life intervenes, and doubt takes the puzzle and throws it up in the air, so that you have to start reassembling the pieces once again.
Every time that happens, the puzzle comes out with a slightly different picture...YOUR picture, created through your own encounters with God and his people.

Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi, writes
"To be without questions is not a sign of faith, but of lack of depth." And he encourages people not only to ask questions about the meaning of the faith, but to question God. We ask questions, says Sacks, "not because we doubt, but because we believe."

So – that's my invitation to you today as well
ASK questions.
Nothing is off limits
Ask your clergy, - we would really love that.
Ask one another.
Join a group, read a book, - ask God, who gave us minds as well as hearts and souls...

And if you feel that there's still not enough evidence – then look around you.
Yes, the world – and the Church – is still wounded as the risen Christ...whose hands and side Thomas touched that day.
You see, the resurrection is much MUCH more than painting over the griefs and failures of the past...It does not obliterate them but transforms them – and we are invited to take that process of transformation forward, starting today.
Whether you are feeling confident or uncertain, excited or despondent, here and now WE are the best evidence for the Resurrection that Coventry Cathedral can muster...– the best case that can be presented to those who come with questions and uncertainties, feeling that an empty tomb is not enough on which to build a life. Writing in the Guardian, Giles Fraser sums it up nicely

The resurrection is more an identity than an argument. That’s why we turn it into participatory theatre, with incense and candles. It is who we are – our word for how we go on in the face of overwhelming odds. It’s the Christian term for defiance. In Newington, we have no money, a heating system that doesn’t work, a church hall that was recently burned out by bored teenagers and, most challenging of all, a community that is not really a community, but often a place people simply pass through. Even the old flats of the notorious Heygate estate have now been demolished and their long-term residents pushed further out of town to make way for the younger and the wealthier. Change and decay in all around I see. All this sounds pretty miserable. But the resurrection is the name we give to the multiple ways we push back against the darkness.For too long, our little garden of remembrance has been a place thick with the deathly thorns of heroin needles and the excrement of rough-sleepers. But now all that’s been cleared away by a few determined parish gardeners and a little strip of cared-for land has emerged, resplendent with daffodils 

An identity...The resurrection shown to the world in the life of the Church.
People who have had an encounter with Jesus and set out to make a difference for his sake.
People like you. And me.
People who help at the Night Shelter, visit the housebound, volunteer for Work Clubs and toddler groups, go the extra mile, welcome strangers as they would welcome Christ...People who carry his life and his hope within them, so that they seek daily to serve the world for the sake of His Kingdom...

Earlier this year I wrote in Cathedral Matters that I wanted an Easter Garden here to provide evidence for our visitors that this was Easter...the great 50 days of rejoicing...and I'm delighted that the garden is here for all to see. But for evidence in the face of doubt, I'd rather look somewhere else each one of us...If you like, we need to BE the garden...showing new life and beauty in every aspect of our being, pushing back the darkness for all we're worth
No more we doubt thee, glorious Prince of life...because we are working beside you to show that love wins and that Jesus is loose in the world, turning things upside down and making everything new.