Sunday, February 17, 2019

Sermon for the Cathedral Eucharist, 17th February 2019

Just over a month ago, I returned from my first visit to the Holy Land.

I say, my first visit because having spent time in Jerusalem I am now filled with longing to return to that amazing city where faith and culture, history and hope are so compacted into a few square miles that it really does feel as if those medieval maps were right when they showed Jerusalem as the centre of the world.

I learned so much about myself in those 9 days and there’s lots of real significance I'll hope to share with you when the time is right – but forgive me that today it’s something wonderfully silly that I discovered on day 1 of our pilgrimage . Dahoud, our Palestinian guide, was showing us the overall shape of the city as we stood on the Mount of Olives…There's the Temple Mount, he said, and over there...that’s the valley of the Cheesemakers.

There was a stunned and delighted silence as we, a party of assorted mixed clergy, savoured the realisation that Monty Python’s Life of Brian had at least a tenuous foundation in geographical fact. We exchanged glances and then, quietly mouthed to one another

 “Blessed are the Cheesemakers” "Ah. What's so special about the cheese-makers?""Well obviously it's not meant to be taken literally, it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products"

Golden moments!

That teeny fragment,  of course, parodies those familiar moments in which, at the back of a large crowd, (or, at times, in a cathedral with a mischievous sound-system)  you can hear just snatches of what is actually being said…none of which make much sense….but nonetheless you try your best to make up what’s missing.I think of it as Waterloo Station syndrome. Nothing you can actually hear makes  any sense at all, so you write the script to suit yourself. So, “Blessed are the cheesemakers” becomes a handy shortcut that absolves us from trying to make sense of what Jesus is actually saying. His words are so often hard to hear in both senses....they don’t seem to reflect reality as we know it, nor offer an alternative to make our hearts sing. Engaging with them is neither easy nor comfortable. It feels safer to divert to comedy.

The thing is, of course, if you hear this passage while holding tight to a world view based firmly on personal and material success it makes as much sense as a blessing poured out indiscriminately on the dairy industry…“Blessed are you poor!” Jesus says – hitting home the promise that he made in the synagogue in Nazareth which we heard just a couple of weeks ago, that he has come to bring good news to the poor. Here’s that good news, delivered in a place where EVERYONE can hear, with crowds gathered from across Jewish life and beyond (the presence of people from the gentile regions of Tyre and Sidon making it clear that Jesus speaks across all our boundaries). Everyone can hear – but it’s the kind of good news that can be very hard indeed to make sense of .

What does he mean when he describes the poor, the hungy, the sorrowful, the outcast as “Blessed” – or, more baffling still – as “happy”. Happy are the sad? WHAT?

And then, when he goes on to speak woe to those who appear to be in a much better situation… Have we really heard him right or is this another case of blessing those cheesemakers?

The pattern of blessings and woes is one well established in Scripture – lying at the core of the Covenant between Yaweh and his people expressed in Deuteronomy. There you are blessed if you live according to the Torah, that intricate system designed to keep Gods people walking in accordamce with Gods will. It is to say the least disconcerting, to hear that same pattern here as the foundation of the new Israel.  The covenant is renewed with a radical reversal of the status quo and it's up to those with ears to hear to live within it with integrity.. This is the upside down world that was promised in the Magnificat….Or is it a world that is finally, gloriously, the right way up?

It all depends on your perspective.

God is going to fulfill his promises and this will mean good news for those who’ve not had any for a long long time. It may not feel like quite such good news for you and me.

The thing is that while our truest, deepest selves yearn for the Kingdom, for valleys exalted and hills made plain, we still struggle to accept it.when the upheaval really hits home. We fall straight into the trap that Jesus recognised, trying to make life comfortable and manageable on our own terms – which tends, of course, to build our own Kingdom rather than God's. Like most of those who listened when he preached, we are breathtakingly hard of hearing about what really matters, and prefer to silence Jesus when he offers us these unwelcome judgements. Maybe we need to pause and think again.

Here on the levelling ground of the plain, Jesus levels with us. His four blessings, four woes, encourage us to look hard at our own choices.

In whom does your life centre?

It's so easy, in a world where choice is king, to set our own selves, our personal quest for health, wealth and happiness, at the heart of every endeavour. .

See I am setting before you life and death, blessing and curses said God in Deuteronomy.

Put like that it seems easy. Of COURSE we will all choose life…Except that here we're offered a choice, but discover that those things which lead ultimately to life are unlikely to make this present easy to navigate.

All those people we'd so much rather not be, turn out to be especially marked with God's favour. And we can't even hide behind St Matthew's softer version of these words and tell ourselves we are aspiring to be poor in spirit. Blessed are the poor! There are many websites that will tell you how breathtakingly wealthy each of us is in comparison with the global population, even if we find ourselves in straitened circumstances compared with a more obviously wealthy neighbour...but Jesus says clearly the poor are blessed. What do we do with that?  Does faith demand that we move from our homes, work at the minimum wage, join the line at the food bank? I guess that might help us to understand better but it doesn't seem wildly practical. So what then must we do, you and I?

Perhaps it might help to return to the start of the passage, where we hear of Christ's healing power. Is Luke telling us that Christ's power, which can heal us as it once healed others, will do so only  as it reverses our values?  Uncomfortable but soul-saving corrective surgery which we can't manage on our own – remember that Collect “ we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves”.

We can't grasp the things of the Kingdom if our hands are clenched tight around material benefits, because that's not what it's about. Though we've a couple of weeks still til Lent begins there's something very Lenton in this reorientation from Kingdom of self to Kingdom of God. Eugene Petersen's The Message, has subtitles that sum up his interpretation of each section. Here they read (to verse 21)"You're Blessed," and then going forward 24-26 “Give Away Your Life." You are blessed when you give away your life. Oh help. There’s not much scope for evasion there.

That is what the disciples have been recruited to do and, with God's help, it's our calling too. We know it's the way Jesus chose. Can we travel with him, borrow his perspective?  Can we see and love the people God sees and loves, though they may alarm or repel us just a little at first? Can we fall in love with generosity, and find our own satisfaction in meeting the needs of others? Can we stand on the margins in a place of dereliction and despair, and meet Jesus there before us? It's an exercise in trust, that God knows what God is doing despite the deafening evidence of the world's agenda, and trust is often something I struggle with  In The Message, Luke 6:26 reads, "There's trouble ahead when you live only for the approval of others, saying what flatters them, doing what indulges them. Popularity contests are not truth contests...Your task is to be true, not popular."

"Your task it to be true, not popular?"

Ouch. I would so much rather win friends that find myself sharing unpalatable truths…but that's not God's invitation. I long to accept, but it seems that I can’t unless God directly intervenes, working within me so that I may make Kingdom choices.

Perhaps that’s how it feels for you too – but it may be easier if we embark on this journey of giving ourselves away TOGETHER. That’s our calling as Church, is it now? To live into the truth of our calling as Christ’s Body on earth in all the costly daily work of showing God to the world by our own choices, constantly modelling God's priorities, weeping with God for the pain of a broken world, but knowing that by Gods grace the work of healing is begun.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Homily at 8.00 at Coventry Cathedral

One of the things that I love best about the Sutherland tapestry of Christ in Glory is that human figure, standing between the pierced feet.
It looks so impossibly tiny there, though I’m told it actually measures 4’6” - tiny and rather vulnerable, though there is surely nowhere safer to be than nestled close to the Saviour of the World.

Nonetheless, it’s a pretty accurate representation of something that shines through both Old Testament and Gospel this morning...that sense of our own surpassing smallness when we find ourselves called by God…
“Woe is me” says Isaiah, “for I am a man of unclean lips” - while Peter is equally unenthusiastic
“Depart from me, for I am a sinful man”.

Coming up against God can do that to you.

The account of Isaiah’s call is often heard at ordination services, where that obedient “here I am, send me” is being played out in the lives of those coming to receive that sacrament.
It’s a day of joy, of new commitment and fresh empowerment…

But it didn’t feel that way at the outset, probably not for the ordinands (if my experience is anything to go by) – and certainly not for Isaiah nor for Peter.
I’m sure we can all sympathise.

Imagine that you’re here one morning, coming to worship as you do week on week when WHAM, suddenly everything before you slides away to make room for a vision of the heavenly court, a vision that sweeps you off your feet and sets you down with a completely new agenda.
That’s Isaiah’s story.
On an ordinary day, there in the Temple, the world rocks on its axis, and he’s commissioned to a new kind of ministry and heads off in response...with the assurance that he can expect nothing glamorous, nothing overtly successful.

He is to be a prophet - unwelcome, unheard, misunderstood.

Oh joy!

And it’s not much better for Simon, soon to be Peter.
Instead of an experience at worship he’s ambushed by God at the day job – which isn’t going too well either.
For me, the equivalent setting would be in the midst of emails on a Wednesday morning. You’ll know your own context .
An unrewarding situation, in which the only option seems to be to plough on despite discouragement.
Probably on auto-pilot.

And then, at the end of a long night of disappointment, Simon is given fresh instructions, which will lead, little by little, to a complete, overwhelming transformation – and his response?

Isnt that fantastic? Isn’t it so exactly the way we feel when God starts making God’s presence known in our comfortably familiar lives.

We’re not that keen on change and we know that we don’t have much to offer...Yet God calls us, just as we are – seeing potential of which we are completely ignorant. Both Isaiah and Peter are given confidence by the very fact of their calling – but they know that actually they’re nothing special in themselves, understand that they are fully reliant on the grace of God and, with all their reservations, they are ready and willing to respond.

Jane Williams, writing on these passages, suggests that you and I might imagine it was easy for them– with their own special moments of revelation, to help them to grasp just how great is the power of God that is at work…
And certainly, Isaiah’s vision and the miracle that Peter witnesses as those empty empty nets are filled, give a glimpse of the tidal wave of creative power that will be unleashed at the Resurrection...but, she points out, Isaiah, Peter (and Paul) would look with envy on what we have seen of God’s power over two millennia, and wonder at our lack of faith.
Think about that.

Perhaps, like the human figure on the tapestry, we are sometimes too close to grasp what is going on.
Because God’s power is as much at work in the ordinary as in the high drama of Temple-shaking revelation.

Jeff Shrowder, a retired priest in Australia, wrote:

I went fishing - once:
dreary, even with a friend,
and we caught nothing.

Peter’s misgivings
I completely understand,
but he fished again.

Doing the ‘ordinary’
can sometimes grow to ‘beyond’
and overwhelming.

Be prepared, then…God is still active, still calling...If today you hear his voice, harden not your heart

Saturday, February 09, 2019

Of rocks and rivers #pilgrimage8

From Jerusalem to Galillee.
I had expected this to be the highlight of the pilgrimage, depending less on the competing claims of rival sites, their shape and identity almost overwhelmed by the passage of time, more on the unchanging landscapes that would have been familiar to that little group that had gathered around  the man from Nazareth two millennia past.
The utter hostility of the wilderness at Wadi Qelt took me straight into those Godly Play stories I'd told so often.
"The wilderness is a dangerous place. People can die there. You do not go into the wilderness unless you have to."
What was he thinking of, that man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho? He was clearly asking for trouble. Small wonder that trouble arrived, and that priest and Levitt alike felt powerless to help him. This was not the landscape for human kindness, though it has made an impact on my heart and mind which will, I suspect, last a lifetime. It was, too, a landscape that seemed to include a familiar friend, - the smaller sibling of the lump of rock from which our font at the Cathedral was carved. Seeing it in situ here, it seemed quite incredible that anyone had ever thought of taking something from this grim landscape, transporting it over thousands of miles to become the place of new beginnings, where the journey of faith starts at baptism. On this day of all days, it had special resonance.

Via Jericho, we travelled on to the Jordan, a river with "more history than water"...travelling on a road through residual minefields to the possible site of Christ's baptism. It was utterly extraordinary to arrive there as the western Church celebrated the Baptism of Christ, and this serendipity more than compensated for the muddy waters, the soldiers whom we could see on guard on the Jordanian bank, thee sheer ordinariness of the place. Of course, rivers change all the time; this was absolutely not the water into which Christ stepped, though the reed- lined banks were probably not much changed. It seemed, though, more a matter of good manners than personal engagement to renew our own baptismal bows, to have Christ's cross traced on hands or forehead...until one of our group went into the water, scooping it up and pouring it over his head, as I'd seen pilgrims do in India's sacred rivers.

Suddenly it was all real. That act of personal commitment in a place surrounded by threats both hidden and visible had no glamour, and none of the sense of seep mystery that had engaged us at the holy places in Jerusalem. This was immediate, as startling as cold water in the face. We are called to be faithful in spite of weariness, disengagement, even fear. We don't need, though, to do anything...simply to be in that place where we are ready to hear our Father's voice, and then to press on with the journey.

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Sermon for Evensong for the Feast of the Presentation at Coventry Cathedral 3rd Feb 2019

6 “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. 7 I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty. 8 ‘The silver is mine and the gold is mine,’ declares the Lord Almighty. 9 ‘The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘And in this place I will grant peace,’ declares the Lord Almighty.”

The great Temple is gone worship happens's structure long since broken down....its site fought over....only a vestige remains as a place of prayer, the Western Wall
"How doth the city sit solitary that was full of people; how is she become as a widow?
She that was great among the nations, how is she become tributary?

Two weeks ago, I found myself there on a Friday evening, just after Shabbat had begun, and that remembrance shaped my response to this passage and has indeed affected how I think about our own experience of ruin and restoration here in Coventry.
Let me tell you about it.
Just after sunset, We pass through a turn-stile and approach the square in front of the Wall, to the sound of uninhibited, joyful singing: and surely, yes, there is a group dancing - an exuberant  circle dance that makes me long to join
There is so much activity all around us. A father is briefing his small son on what to do, what to expect..Suddenly, I'm desperate to be part of this family, a daughter of Sarah, to join this community at prayer, if only there might be room for me.
I cover my head and begin to make my way timidly towards that part of the Wall where women are permitted to pray. I wonder how obvious it is that I am not a Jew...Whether I may be recognised and denounced as an interloper.
At that moment I want, more than anything else, to belong.
I watch the comings and goings  realising gradually that if I want to touch the stones at all, I will have to be be brave and determined and push myself forward through the crowds. There doesnt seem to be a system, a queue...(how very English of me to even half expect one!)...
Careful manoeuvring gains me a space and I  find myself somewhat unexpectedly kissing ancient stone, because it feels like absolutely the right and only thing to do. I push my folded prayer as deep as I can into a crack between the stones, where it joins the countless others.  I think about the impact of so many devout and desperate cries to God here in this place...about all those who are  praying around me now, and all those who had prayed before me, and will pray here long after I' have gone. The longing of an exiled people, to be able to rest here, to return time and again to pray, to join the crowds and whisper petitions to the God who though not confined to any Holy of Holies, has been worshipped here for so long, wrings at my heart and becomes my longing too.
I feel very much at home.

But, isnt that extraordinary! Something amazing has happened.
I without a drop of Jewish blood in my veins can take  my place here at the heart of Jewish tradition
Though the destruction of the Temple seemed utter disaster, it has opened the space to make room for pilgrims from across the world, in fulfillment of God's promise
My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.
Looking around me it feels as if Isaiah's prophecy is being lived out
By being reduced to just one wall, a space has been made here....
We are at the heart of one of the most troubled cities in the world, indeed one of the most troubled in all human history, a place where different faiths have struggled and fought and wept for centuries, a place truly shaken to its core again and again and again.
And here God has acted, to enable the prayers of all peoples to find a place despite the loss of the building initially built to enable it.
We still haven't reached a point of peace....but at least the journey is under way, whatever it may look like

Now cast your mind to a broken building rather more familiar to us here.
A building now open to the skies, accessible and inviting to those who would not normally enter this shiney new building next door
A building that was loved,  cherished, prayed in for generations whose impact has been enlarged beyond the wildest dreams of those who had gathered there before the world was changed BY ITS DESTRUCTION
And yes,  the glory of the present house, broken as it is, far far exceeds everything that went before, even though something of great beauty and significance has been lost.

We'd never plan it that way ourselves would we?
We'd choose to hang on to those things we have made, to the security of those things in which we have invested emotions, time, money....but remember  "the silver is mine and the gold is mine, declares the Lord Almighty"
This is God's Church, God's mission to love the world into relationship with one another and with God.
God is always bigger,
God's presence and God's agenda cannot be confined within any space, no matter how beautiful,  no matter how beloved.
So on this day when we celebrate the presentation of Christ in the Temple, revealed as a light to the nations,  we recognise that the fullest revelation of his light shone forth from the cross,  which broke open all human understandings of our relationship with God and with one another.
We know too that that revelation both broke his mother's heart...and saw him dead and buried.
There is cost in the journey of transformation.

So let's ask for  the grace and the courage to surrender ourselves and the Church we love to this wider, wiser divine vision....trusting that beyond all our smaller losses, smaller deaths and moments of destruction, God's transforming power is at work, which will bring about by God's grace the greater glory of resurrection,

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Another wall #pilgrimage7

How do we make sense of all this?

Of the devout Jews who made space for us, enabled us to take our place in prayer at the Western Wall, to lament with them the loss of the Temple and their exclusion from a holy place, while the Israeli government builds another wall, cutting a city in two, excluding others, a concrete embodiment of that for which we ask forgiveness daily in the Coventry Litany of Reconciliation...
"The hatred that divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class".

The complexities are such that to say anything at all seems foolhardy. 
God knows, the last thing this situation needs is anything that might fuel the flames.

But the wall is there, and its impact is non-negotiable.

I'll never be able to pray the Litany as an abstract again. This is what harsh reality looks like, even more striking than the ruins of medieval St Michael's, which we have assimilated, somehow, and made more bearable because the next stage of the journey of reconciliation is also visibly present. 

But that's a long long way away from Bethlehem on a January evening. .
Even the beauty of the sunset cannot soften it.

I have so much to learn. 
I long to understand the complex web of pain and grief and history that brought us here.
I feel small and helpless.
Father forgive

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Finding the place, it was, you may say... UNsatisfactory #pilgrimage6

Perhaps one should limit exposure to holy sites? Maybe it's possible to overdose on them, so that their power is diluted? Perhaps the impact of the Resurrection had already done all the work that I might have hoped for. Perhaps I was simply not paying proper attention.
For whatever reason, our visit to Bethlehem left me rather forlorn.

We'd journeyed there by way of Shepherds' Field, sung carols and celebrated the Eucharist there (though I was sad to realise that here, like so many of the holy sites, women are unable to preside - a real issue for S. & E., planning a parish pilgrimage later in the year) then looked across at Bethlehem - absolutely not a little town, but a sprawling city. And so the cherished imaginings of decades began to be demolished, little by little.

One problem, of course, was daylight. Bethlehem of my imagination "BomI") exists only under the stars. It's a place where everyone has only one destination, where you are inexorably drawn towards the birthplace.
But Real Bethlehem, reached mid-afternoon (after a beguiling interlude in an icon shop, which all but undid such pension plans as I have, as I wrestled with a deep longing to buy a 19th century icon of the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem...2 weeks on, I'm still not sure if I am relieved or appalled that common sense triumphed) is a different matter. When you picture yourself visiting the birthplace of Christ, you somehow don't imagine that journey beginning in a covered car-park. It was all a bit bathetic, really...

Then the Church of the Nativity. We stoop to enter, and find ourselves almost immediately swept out of the way as an Armenian Orthodox liturgy is about to begin, a rite of censing the holy places that demands that tourists and pilgrims stand aside. This isn't a problem, as it provides time to arrive properly, to acclimatise and try to enter the mystery. 
It's a beautiful space, with stunning icons, but somehow there seems to be less room to pray, less expectation that this might be our agenda. But maybe that's me?

Delightful moment as the censing party moves behind the iconostasis, and two small children are released by their mother, to scamper joyously over the polished marble, completely at home and relaxed. They would have been quite at home in the B.o.m.I and rekindled my hope that I might be closer to the holy than I'd feared...but in the event, the experience of being herded down the steps under the sanctuary, and the jostling of a noisy group whose plans for the afternoon don't seem to include any element of worship is too much for me. At the centre of the star that marks the traditional site of Christ's birth is a hole, to enable pilgrims to touch the rock...At the time, this isn't clear to me - and as I kneel to venerate the spot, the hole represents something missing for me, that sense of God's proximity that overwhelmed me in Jerusalem but is strangely absent here today.

It's all a bit too much like a viewing of the crown jewels in the Tower of London...part of a tourist trail which exists in parallel to the worship going on above. Whereas in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre I felt certain that within all those competing varieties of prayer there was room for me to take my place, here the experience was quite different. As I tried to pray for a brief moment, around me people were taking photos, and the liturgy upstairs went on its own unswerving way regardless. For me it seemed a far cry from the warm, embracing holiness I'd encountered in Jerusalem.

We're hurried on our way, to see where St Jermone undertook his mammoth work of Biblical translation. This feels much better - a place to pause, to be still, and, it turns out, to have a better view of the manger grotto, through a peep-hole in the cavern wall. Maybe a glimpse of the intangible mystery is actually the "right" experience here. Who knows? 
It seems ironic that the carol that is echoing in my head throughout this visit is "In dulci jubillo" - with its note of longing "O that we were there". Even as I stand in this place, there;s a sense of exile, of something missing. I'm probably just Perhaps I'm simply looking for the wrong thing, or from the wrong perspective. As we're about to leave Jerome's cave, I find the Great "O" antiphons inscribed on the wall. 
They confirm my sense of longing, that same longing that floods my being every Advent, so that actually, I do manage to pray, even here, even now...

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Better to light a candle? Some half formed thoughts on Holocaust Memorial Day 2019

What do you say when there are no words? 
(If there are no words, then any attempt to write seems almost criminally foolish, but I somehow need to set a marker in place, if only for say that I have paused and looked back, and mourned today, though words and thoughts are as muddled as my feelings. I have no right to speak of these things. This is not my story in any way. And yet, if we leave the story only to those who are inextricably tied to it, is there a risk that it becomes, incredibly, a minority concern....and that cannot be. This is, surely, the story of what it means to be human - or to lose touch with your humanity...)

So...though words are inadequate, they are all that I have.

This morning I read that if we were to keep a minute's silence for each victim of the Holocaust, the world would remain silent for 11 years.
11 years!
6 million Jewish lives, - not forgetting the Roma, the gay men, and those deemed imperfect - disabled or with learning difficulties.
Not an amorphous group of victims but precious individuals, children, women, men - as numerous as the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on the sea-shore.
Demonised, penalised, scape-goated because they were "other"...

More than ever, I reflect that the great gift of Coventry to the world is the power of missing word. In our Litany we say, day by day, not "Father forgive THEM" but "Father, forgive" because we refuse to divide the world into "them" and "us" - to see ourselves as untouched by the potential for of cruelty that lies within. 
The seven-fold entreaty "Father, forgive" stands for me as a statement of shared humanity and an act of commitment, to search my own heart and ask for help in rooting out those habits of mind that might otherwise allow me to follow that path.

Today is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. 

"Liberation" sounds so joyous, so triumphant, that it's hard to comprehend the horror that was found when the jeeps rolled in.
This morning's gospel was the account of Jesus's mission statement, quoting Isaiah

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free, 
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ 

It sounds so wonderful, calling everyone to join in this glorious work of redemption...but for many, so unthinkably many, the year of the Lord's favour came too late. Small wonder that the Holocaust has left an indelible mark on Jewish theology. Where was God then?

Was this moment after which faith became impossible?
In "Night" Elie Wiesel writes, famously, of the execution of a child...and the cry from one of the prisoners forced to watch "Where is merciful God, where is he?"
The child, being light, is slow to die, and Wiesel watches his agony with that same question resounding in his thoughts

 “For God’s sake, where is God?"
            And from within me, I heard a voice answer:
            “Where is He?  This is where – hanging here from this gallows…”
That's the only kind of God who seems relevant now. A God totally immersed in human suffering, a God who experiences every bit of that agony, and the agony of each one of those who perished in the camps, and those whose dreams are haunted to this day.
This is the God of Calvary, not of Easter Sunday...and it seems, as we watch the creeping anti-Semitism surfacing again today, that we may be suspended ourselves in the painful liminality of Holy Saturday. 

Fallen humanity is tragically slow to learn the lessons of history

And yet - even amid all this, there are beautiful moments of grace. 

These tangled thoughts are part of the on-going work of my pilgrimage, of course...for my time in Jerusalem has made the mess of human motivations more real and powerful than ever.
I had spent today increasingly uncomfortable that our Cathedral, for all its calling to be a place of Reconciliation, had taken no part in marking the Shoah. Contrite, I wanted absolution but see no likely source.
Until, after Evensong, I was introduced to John, a Messianic Jew who arrived in this country on the Kinder.transport. His opening greeting was a hug, - which embraced both me and my fumbling longing to do better, to make a difference, to live in full humanity and assert day by day "Never again"...Not for the Jews. Not for the socialists. Not for the trade-unionists. Not for the refugees. Not for the economic migrants. Not for the people of colour. NOT FOR ANY SINGLE ONE OF GOD'S PRECIOUS PRECIOUS CHILDREN.
Never, never, never again.

Though there seems to be so little that I can do, even a few words on a blog might just be better than nothing. After all, even a pinprick of light is a comfort in the darkness

Saturday, January 26, 2019

At home among strangers #Pilgrimage5

An afternoon trip to Bethany, where we don't, if I'm honest, find much to draw us into the mystery in the church that marks the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, meant that we found ourselves arriving back in Jerusalem just after sunset. Not, normally, a big deal - but in this case not entirely welcome news as it is Friday, Shabbat has begun, and we are due to visit the Western Wall.
It is impressed on us that we are only able to be there if we take nothing with us - no cameras, no pen and paper (though if we wish we may carry pre-written prayers to leave at the Wall).

We are joining a community at prayer, and this is neither the time nor the place for tourism. 
As we pass through the turn stile and approach the square in front of the Wall, we hear singing...And, surely, yes...there are a group dancing - a joyous circle dance that makes me long to join in.
There is so much activity all around us. A father is briefing his small son on what to do, what to expect..
Suddenly, I'm desperate to be part of this family, a daughter of Sarah, to be bound by cultural obligations that would, I imagine, hold me steady in faith through the framework of tradition and praxis, no matter where my feelings might be.
I cover my head and begin to make my way timidly towards that part of the Wall where women are permitted to pray.
I wonder how obvious it is that I am not a Jew...Whether I may be recognised and denounced as an interloper by one of those devout grandmothers pouring over their prayers, or that group of shiney young American Jews whose group arrived just before us  ("I didn't really want to come here but now we're here, it's so cool..." said one to her friend).
Right now I want, more than anything else, to belong.
I watch a girl, maybe 12 or 13, seriously working her way through her prayers, black dress, dark hair tied back with a velvet ribbon that, I imagine, gives her an air of Ann Frank.
This was the day when we had driven past Yad Vashem, not included in our programme, and my sense of guilt that we could choose not to engage with that dark moment in human history only increased my longing to be at home, an insider here.

I watched the comings and goings at the Wall, realising gradually that if I wanted to touch the stones at all, I would have to be be brave and determined and push myself forward through the crowds. There didn't seem to be a system, a queue...(how very English of me to even half expect one!)...
Careful manoeuvring gained me a space and again I found myself somewhat unexpectedly kissing ancient stone, because it felt like absolutely the right and only thing to do.
I pushed my folded prayer as deep as I could into a crack, to join the countless others, thinking about the impact of so many devout and desperate cries to God...about all those who were praying around me now, and all those who had prayed before me, and would pray here long after I'd gone.

It seems, after all, that against the odds I am at home here, and I whisper a quiet thanksgiving..

Around me the singing from the men's part of the wall continued, - the music of a community set on worshipping God in this space no matter what. We had been told very firmly that at the moment there was absolutely no chance that we could scale Temple Mount. Tensions in the city were running too high...
From England it seems madness, this squabbling over holy places...but here it all makes sense. There are ancient roots here, which you overlook at your peril. I'm reminded of words from The Lord of the Rings, which have always resonated with me beyond their immediate context, as Galadriel, the Elf-Queen, empathises with the dwarf Gimli at his longing to visit Moria, though it is fraught with dangers
“If our folk had been exiled long and far from Lothl√≥rien, who of the Galadhrim, even Celeborn the Wise, would pass nigh and would not wish to look upon their ancient home, though it had become an abode of dragons?

The peace of Jerusalem is, I fear, beyond any human ingenuity to win...but that longing to be able to rest here, to return time and again to pray, to join the crowds and whisper petitions to the God who though not confined to any Holy of Holies, has been worshipped here for so long, wrings at my heart and becomes my longing too.
As I reverse inexpertly away from the Wall, I find my thoughts filled with the Bairstow Lamentations that belong so wonderfully to Holy Week Tenebrae
"How doth the city sit solitary that was full of people; how is she become as a widow?
She that was great among the nations, how is she become tributary?
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return to the Lord your God"

Friday, January 25, 2019

Where prayer has been valid #Pilgrimage4

Bethesda...on a beautiful morning, with blue skies and warm sunshine, so easy to imagine the waiting invalids, hoping that today the waters would be stirred and healing come. The depths of the cistern suddenly makes sense of the reluctance of the paralysed man to risk those depths without help...
This feels like the place to pray for some friends who are dealing with tough health issues...and later I leave their names pushed into a crevice in the wall in the house where, maybe, - just maybe, Our Lady spent her early years. We try the glorious acoustic of the church of St Ann, our polite English voices turning out to be in no way a disappointment after the joyous exuberance of our Nigerian friends who have sung and danced in full gospel delight immediately before us, then in the silence go down to the 1st century house where Joachim and Ann could perhaps have made their home (this travelling down in to the past is a recurrent motif of the journey. Layers of history, hopes, fears and memories pressed The truth is actually deeply irrelevant. The prayers of generations of pilgrims have hallowed the place and I find myself deep in conversation with the Mother of God, my rosary settling comfortably into my hand where it remained almost throughout the pilgrimage.

I ask the elderly Franciscan on duty in the church for a blessing on the rosary - and he blesses not only the beads but the pilgrim. Out into the sunshine in a state of quiet joy...It's my turn to follow the Via Dolorosa.
Even in this off season, when again and we are repeatedly told that the city is "very quiet", it's hard to find the narrow thread of prayer, to follow it through the narrow alleys and up the acieht steps between the shops and food stalls, the purveyors of holy tat and pomegranate juice. Cats dart ahead of us into the shadows. They must have been there then...

Our journey is heavy on history, light on the sacred silence I crave, but nonetheless it brings us to the place we need to be, to the heart of everything, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where death and resurrection rub shoulders amid the competing worship of a fractured Church. 

Somehow, despite all the hubbub and the anxiety of Dahoud, our guide, who is determined that we will make the most of every opportunity to take short cuts, see all that we need in record time, this is the place where everything makes sense. I kneel to kiss the "Stone of Anointing", -  blessed by the love of so many pilgrims, their prayers blending with the sweet oils that are rubbed into the stone day by day in remembrance of the precious Body that almost certainly was never prepared for burial there...I join a queue, snaking around the sepulchre, passing the Orthodox Chapel with its holy icon...candles kindling warmth and drawing me briefly into loving contact with the face of Christ...then it's my turn to bend and enter the tomb, to fall to my knees and kiss the place where Jesus lay for three days before rising to change the world forever. I close my eyes, laying my head on the marble slab that protects the tomb itself...and feel the weight of prayer almost overpowering me. In that loving darkness the presence of crowds is irrelevant, the truth of history unimportant. I am at the heart of the Christian journey, the place where love and hope triumph always, and that love overwhelms me too.

Appropriately enough, that was Friday.

On Sunday, while it was yet dark, we women returned to the tomb. We were promised that things would "feel different" when the Church was only open to worshippers. Covering my head I knelt at the back as a Franciscan priest chanted Latin Mass within the Sepulchre itself..the place so changed by the absence of crowds and queues that it took me a little while to re-orientate myself. He was, incredibly, saying those words, praying that prayer in the place where Christ's Body had lain. Oh my!
Around me the sounds of other liturgies swirl, the bells on the thurible marking the route of Armenian monks censing the holy places as they do regularly throughout the day. We chant the Lord's Prayer together, the Agnus Dei, "Dominus non dignat..." "Lord, I am not worthy" and this is not my branch of the family - yet when I reach the front of the queue and bow my head for a blessing, the priest lifts my chin and places the host on my tongue.
Brokenness, human mess and muddle, and God's risen life all miraculously present in a moment of unexpected grace.

I kneel in my place again, Mass ends and within seconds the space is cleared, the clergy, stripped of vestments, taking lectern, candles, Missal away to replace them with the metal barriers that will later keep jostling pilgrims at bay. It's like the stripping of the altars on Maundy Thursday, but at double speed...Maybe that's how it is here. Each Mass the Triduum in minature...Would it be greedy to have another moment of Easter? The queue is so short, and God knows, I have plenty of work to do on my knees there.

This time, I keep my eyes open for long enough to allow the golden letters over the stone to burn themselves onto my heart.
He is risen.
Not all the madness of a broken Church, intent on masking the truth it exists to proclaim by wrapping it in layers of ritual reverence can for one moment disrupt the work of Resurrection.

I walk back alone through a city full of golden beauty. 
On my Ember card 15 years ago I included words whose truth hits me all over again now
"One thing have I desired of the Lord. This is what I seek. That I might 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".

Please can I stay here?

Holy moments, holy places #Pilgrimage 3

And so the pilgrimage began to unfold.
Utterly unexpected.
Blessings where I'd predicted nothing but a tourist circus, disappointment in spots that I had been certain would be deep in holiness.
Thankfulness every single day.

On that first day, like pretty much every other pilgrim, we stood on the Mount of Olives and looked across the valley seeing history, faith, culture compacted together into indissoluble layers which it will take a life-time to understand. Shining golden domes and towers. Ancient stones rediscovered, sometimes "enhanced" but always significant.

The serried ranks of the dead in the Jewish cemetery that spreads over the hillside, - ensuring, apparently, poll position for their occupants, come Judgement day. This is my first encounter with the power of stones...a theme that was to become very much part of my experience. I wonder about the people each stone many years these memorials have endured...Most memorials have their own pile of smaller stones, marking a visit to honour the dead.They lived and loved, Did they know that they would be included among the company of those who would lie within plain sight of the Holy City? Did that gladden their hearts on departure? And that today it is the cumulative impact of their memorials that was truly significant. "So many. I did not know death had undone so many"

 Down the hill, along the Palm Sunday route. Hard to imagine a joyous crowd gathering along this way, though the observation of our guide that given the sheer and slippery path, it would make good sense to cover the stones with cloaks, to give donkeys a wee bit of purchase for their hooves. I'm intrigued and delighted to be here, but have no sense of the sacred here...nor, to my sorrow, in Gethsemane. It is so SMALL! Even allowing for the ground that is now covered by the Church of All Nations, surely this space is too small to accommodate such intensity. I wonder why this was Christ's safe space. It wasn't the spacious, peaceful haven I had imagined, with quiet corners behind many a tree...yet here Jesus wrestled and came to terms with the huge reality of his calling. I had hoped to stroke the olive trunks, to whisper something of my own hopes and fears among their branches...but this, though beautiful, was tidy, even regimented...a perspective from afterwards, with nothing of the darkness and terror of Maundy Thursday.

The church was filled with a joyful crowd of Nigerian pilgrims whom we were to encounter again and again over the next few days. Mass was just beginning as we were shephereded away, - my first taste of a vague wistfulness that accompanied me around the city.Travelling with a group of not-yet-friends, there was often a sense of looking through the windows of the spiritual homes of others, watching their party from outside, hoping, perhaps, for an invitation.

Jerusalem is a place that calls forth the most visible expressions of spiritual allegiance, from ringlets and skull caps to cassocks, monastic habits and the amazing headgear of Orthodox priests...It is a place where it became very important to me to practice embodied prayer, as again and again the thought that this, THIS was the space inspired genuflection, though I longed, often, to stay kneeling, pause in that space where prayer had been valid.

Leaving Gethsemane, we find ourselves, (after the first of an apparently endless succession of the most wonderful salad selections) on the other side of the valley, looking at the place where we had previously been standing. We are on the site of the house of Caiaphas and Annas, a church now marking the spot...but downstairs is an ancient prison cell. Was this where Christ was held that night? This the place where Peter denied his master and heard the dawn heralded by an uncaring, oblivious cockerel? Layers of history weigh me down. Maybe this was the place, this the moment when fear and faith collided for Peter and mid the multi-lingual comings and goings of a public space at festival time. For us too, the church of St Peter in Gallicantu is awash with different voices, competing in their prayers and exclamations, with the call of the muezzin summoning the faithful drifting over all. It's bewildering, unsettling - until suddenly, we are brought up short by a flight of steps. Steps positively dated as 1st centure. Steps leading up Mount Zion from across the valley. The only route that would make sense for soldiers bringing a man arrested in Gethsemane, among the olives. Steps that Jesus walked on. God, with a weary human body, dragging his aching human feet up the hill just a few inches from where I stood. 

Time stopped for me, as it surely did for Peter, when he caught his Master's eye amid the crowd as the cock crowed.
Jesus looked at me.
I looked at Jesus.
The world held its breath.

Travelling hopefully #Pilgrimage 2

Driving to Heathrow, C & I talked about Chaucer's pilgrims. Who would we be, in that motley crew? Would our fellow-travellers be closer to Chaucer's saintly prioress or the scheming Pardoner? As two newly single women, would we find ourselves sliding into territory best left to the Wife of Bath?
As we queued for check-in, my thoughts turned to older Egeria, visiting the Holy Land in the 4th century, to all those who set out on perilous roads, facing violence, illness, unspecified dangers for the sake of a glimpse of the Holy Land. It was so easy for us. We simply had to step onto the plane and, unimaginably, after a few hours there we would be.

Of course, I had reckoned without the necessary caution of El Al's security. It's strange how the experience of being thoroughly searched, my entirely innocent hand luggage gone through with a fine tooth comb, my emergency undies "just in case" shaken out in case they might conceal - who knows what? - made me feel irrationally guilty. On one level, of course, such care is reassuring. They are determined to make flights as safe as possible, even in this troubled and troubling age...and yet, somehow, this evidence of extra care makes me very anxious, providing further evidence that the world is not the universally friendly, liberal-minded place my white privilege has experienced it as to date. Each of us was a potential terrorist til proven otherwise. As S said "Welcome to the world of young men of colour".

Visible security, armed police will be a feature of the trip. It's good to get used to it, maybe?

Take off...always anxious so my familiar ritual of a quick text to my children. "Just off now. Love you". Just in case. How terrible if I had left it unsaid!

And we flew. Safely, a way that our predecessors could never have imagined. We flew, we landed, were welcomed by a Palestinian guide with the surprising declaration, that somehow felt entirely right
"Welcome home".

We boarded our coach, drove along a dual carriageway that could have been anywhere in the world, but for a generous sprinkling of palm trees. Weary, we began to doze, until we stopped, unexpectedly - our first sight of the city's lights - a city on a hill cannot be hidden. We read psalm 22, and I found myself singing Parry in my head from then on til bedtime.
"I was glad when they said unto me
We shall go into the house of the Lord.
My feet shall stand in your gates, O Jerusalem"
MY! Wonder of wonders! I was glad indeed...

Tis mystery all! Thoughts on a Holy Land Pilgrimage 1

It's just over a week now since I got home from my first visit to the Holy Land, - a visit that had been long years in the making, with several abortive attempts until, finally, the time was right, the flights booked, the commitment made. Together with two good friends and a assortment of others, I experienced that journey that was, for medieval pilgrims, the crown of life's achievements, treading in the steps not only of Jesus but of countless countless women and men before me.
And it was unexpectedly wonderful!

So, I've been processing the experience, weighing up what it might mean for me and my journey with God, and pondering how best to share, as it never feels as if any of these rich experiences are mine alone. While I was there I found myself imagining alot of the story through the eyes of the Virgin Mary, and prayed the rosary as I travelled with more devotion than for some years. I imagined each experience as a single bead, warmed in my fingers as I stroked it and became familiar with its surface, letting it take me to other times, other places.I wondered whether I could blog a rosary of experiences...sorrowful, joyful, glorious...but the moments refused to fall into tidy categories. Rather than a neat chaplet of beads they fell in a shower all over the floor, leaving me anxious that some would get lost altogether before I had time to notice them.

So, they're coming to you as they no particular order...If I wait til I've processed them, made them presentable, I'll never write at all.

I say "they're coming to you" but really, as always, this is for me...a driver to ensure that my thinking aloud actually happens, that I do some processing rather than simply have the experience and miss the meaning. I'm not assuming a reader...but you're welcome if you're here.

Vocation - a sermon with gratitude to Mary Oliver, preached at Evensong at Coventry Cathedral on 2nd Sunday after Epiphany 2019

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver the American poet who died on Thursday had the knack of seeing deeply and describing what she noticed in ways that spoke directly into the heart.
These lines from her poem "A summers day" include a question for us all.
What IS it you plan to do with your one, wild and precious life?
It's a question that we all need to engage with.
Life is too precious a gift to simply shuffle through it in our sleep.
There are things that each one of us needs to do, tasks that are ours and ours alone, sings that will remain silent unless we accept that they are ours to sing and launch into them with open  minds and hearts.
That's what vocation means.
It's not a particular agenda for people of a particular stamp...strange misfits who might look better in a clerical collar, super-spititual beings who know themselves called to a life of rarefied holiness.

Vocation is for each of us and actually it is, quite simply, the reason for our existence.

That sounds very glib, doesn't it...but sometimes it can take a lifetime to live into the calling, to claim it and make it part of our daily reality,
It's not always straightforward...sometimes anything but.
The call of Samuel which we heard about on our OT reading makes this ultra clear.
We might imagine that if God calls to us in the silent darkness of the night, amid the house, in essence of his Temple, it would be immediately and gloriously obvious not only who was speaking, but what we should do.
Samuel. Samuel.
Surely that voice is unmissable and unmistakable?
Except that it isn't.
The rational mind takes over, asserting that if Eli and Samuel are alone, sleeping in the Temple compound, then it MUST be Eli who speaks. After all, there's nobody else there!
Even Eli,   knowing he has said nothing, takes a while to wake up to the reality that the God whom he is called to serve has decided to stir himself (remember the word of the Lord was rare...there were not many visions), calling in the night in the hope, I suggest, that this is the one time when Eli and Samuel  might be free from the white noise of daily distractions.
God speaks.
Persisting in the face of incomprehension til at last he hears those receptive words
  "Speak Lord, for your servant is listening"
And no, the call is not a welcome nor an easy one. If God plans to work through someone to change the course of history, it's never likely to be a comfortable experience. ..but to turn your back on your calling is to turn away from life itself.
And through all that happens from then on, Samuel knows that the Lord is with him. This is a new chapter, a chapter of struggle and blessing, of a long obedience....

All well and good, you may think, but Samuel died centuries before Christ and there are not many visions in these days either. How do I discover where my calling lies, how do I follow Paul's direction "to lead a life worthy of the calling to which I have been called"?
Paul speaks wisely here, presenting a whole gamut of gifts which we might have received, to build up the Church, Christ's Body on earth...and of course, there are more. Often your calling will turn out to be something that makes your soul sing
Frederick Buechner writes of "vocation as the point at which your deep gladness and the world's deepest hunger meet"
So pay attention to those things which give you real joy
They may not be excessively active...a calling is often to BE as much as to do.
But be conscious in orientating your life towards God and expect to hear God's voice. If you find there are big choices to be made, talk to someone you trust and get help in discerning God's  voice amid competing options.

But whatever you do, stay attentive.

There IS something for you to do, be assured of that, something that is yours alone. So don't worry if you are called in a different direction from your neighbours. In this week of prayer for Christian Unity it's important to remember that God is active throughout God's Church,  and we're not necessarily called to imitate our brothers and sisters, though we can always learn from them.
So, listen and respond. 
The hope of our calling is, quite simply, that we will grow into the full stature of Christ, or, to give it a local twist, that we might begin to "build a kinder, more Christ child like world" starting from now.