Monday, August 11, 2014

Verging on the ridiculous...

Those who know me even a little will also know that I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a details woman. 
I'm not bad at the big picture, at dreaming exciting dreams and even, on a good day, sharing those dreams with others...but the step by step process of getting from here to there is really not my thing. 
For this reason, as much as for many others, I'm really glad that I share an office at the Cathedral not just with the Precentor and the Director of Music - but also with the Head Verger.
Otherwise, I might just have been so seduced by the seamless performance of our verging team, again and again, that I  failed to register just how much work is involved.

However, fortunately J is there so I see at close quarters quite what it costs her small team to keep things running smoothly - and a couple of weeks ago I was also allowed to be a supernumerary sub-assistant-under-verger for a morning shift...and learned so much.
First - that our beautiful marble floor is punishing if you are walking from end to end of the Cathedral repeatedly all day. Think long shopping trips on London pavements and you're in the right area.
There's lots of walking and your feet know about it by the end of the day.
Second - that the essence of verging, beyond the obvious remit of loving service, is THINKING AHEAD
(you see - I would undoubtedly make the world's worst verger...I am incapable of anything that smacks of a life is an endless series of surprises, which can be fun but would be useless in this job).

I began my (abbreviated) shift after Morning Prayer - by which time the duty verger had already been at work for 90 minutes, unlocking the building, switching off alarms and making everything ready for the day ahead. Then said verger attends the Office, usually reading one of the lessons. If by some mischance no cleric appears at all, then it's also her responsibility to lead Morning and Evening Prayer...and it seems to me that the motto must either be "Ich dien" or "Expect the unexpected"....

As I followed in A's wake that morning he was constantly thinking ahead - the books that we were putting away after Morning Prayer in the Prayer Circle at the West End would next be needed in the Lady Chapel, so now was a good time to get them there...
Would there be enough quiet moments now to refill the oil candles, so that it wouldn't be a problem the following week when we would be a verger down due to holidays?
We were passing the votive stands quite early in the day - a good moment to clean off the wax before the stands were crowded with candles...
There were chairs and tables to move, safes to empty, service books to mark up with the many-splendoured ribbons of Common Worship Daily Prayer, mics to set up for prayers on the hour, litanies to introduce (and lead, if nobody else is detailed so to do)...
And so it went on.
Vestments were loving set out for Sunday, with due regard to the height of all the sacred ministers...
Questions about art, faith, history were answered - for to the public, of course, anyone in a cassock must be the fount of all knowledge but also fair game if you're feeling unhappy about entrance charges or really really don't get why Graham Sutherland envisaged Christ looking like that...
And, of course, every time a member of the clergy has a bright idea about prayer stations for General Synod, an extra service for a special occasion, poppy petals dropping from the ceiling for WW1 Remembrance, extended opening hours or a longing to pray the Litany standing on her head in a bucket of water (yes, I am making that one up - but you never know) the process of making it happen will involve the ministry of the vergers.
Those poppies were the work of any number of people, who, in the week leading up to the WW1 commemoration spent any spare moment cutting out petals. The visual impact on the day was stunning - the team work beforehand even more so!

As Head Verger J undoubtedly keeps about her person a Swiss Army knife, a tape-measure, some spare batteries, a polyglot dictionary and probably a small hip flask..
If you find yourself in pretty much any kind of need in a Cathedral, your first and best port of call  is bound to be a verger.

But the frustrating thing, of course, is that as long as everything is running smoothly (and with our team, even under-strength, that's pretty much what it does) nobody will notice at all.
If the Cathedral is a swan gliding effortlessly down the bright stream, then the vergers are those feet paddling like mad that keep her moving forward.
I don't know where we'd be without them.

[The splendid diagram is, of course, the work of the still more splendid Dave Walker, Copyright © 1999-2013 Dave Walker
and published here with his kind permission.
For more delights, visit
Dave understands all the foibles of the church so very well, but always balances frustration with love.]

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Collaborative ministry

Having presided this morning and officiated and preached this afternoon, I found myself approaching my desk with a distinct lack of enthusiasm for a homily tomorrow morning.I'm very fond of both John Henry Newman AND Clare of Assisi, but somehow neither of them seemed to strike a chord for me - partly, I think, because I'm not convinced that people actually need a word at 8.30 on a Monday morning.This being so, I appealed to twitter for inspiration - and within minutes tweets had come in from all directions...a non conformist friend pointing me to an RC hagiography, assorted Franciscans recommending pet sites, and at least two wise friends reminding me that Malcolm Guite's poetry is almost always the answer in any search for inspiration.
So, I did some patchwork - and because I am genuinely delighted at what I garnered from my assorted friends, I'm posting it here. Practically every word either comes from Clare herself, or from the collective wisdom of the my apologies if you feel I've borrowed your words without leave. I'm just amazed at what we found together, in the space of 10 minutes on a wet Sunday evening. Thank you all.

We become what we love, and who we love shapes what we become...

Words from Clare of Assisi, whose feast we celebrate today.
Friend and companion of Francis, and founder of the order of the Poor Clares, her love for Christ, her share in the vision of St. Francis and her extraordinary gifts as spiritual director, friend, and leader made her a shining light and a clear mirror of Christ for thousands in her lifetime, and she remains a light and inspiration to Christians from many denominations today.
She was above all committed to the Crucified Christ in His poverty, encouraging her sisters, in this letter to Agnes of Prague,to share the way of poverty as the heart of their vocation.

If so great and good a Lord, then, on coming into the Virgin's womb, chose to appear despised, needy, and poor in this world, so that people who were in utter poverty and want and in absolute need of heavenly nourishment might become rich in Him by possessing the kingdom of heaven, then rejoice and be glad! Be filled with a remarkable happiness and a spiritual joy! Contempt of the world has pleased You more than [its] honors, poverty more than earthly riches,  You know, I am sure, that the kingdom of heaven is promised and given by the Lord only to the poor: for he who loves temporal things loses the fruit of love. 

O blessed poverty,
who bestows eternal riches on those who love and embrace her!
O holy poverty, to those who possess and desire you God promises the kingdom of heaven
and offers, indeed, eternal glory and blessed life!
O God-centered poverty,whom the Lord Jesus Christ Who ruled and now rules heaven and earth,
Who spoke and things were made,condescended to embrace before all else!

If she had been familiar with the concept of a life-verse, hers might have been
Where your treasure is, there your heart is also” and she encouraged her sisters to focus constantly on Christ whatever the apparent cost.

What a great laudable exchange:
to leave the things of time for those of eternity,
to choose the things of heaven for the goods of earth,
to receive the hundred-fold in place of one,
and to possess a blessed and eternal life.

One radiant image in Clare's letters is the mirror. You can gaze at her words as you might gaze at an icon of Christ, tracing your own reflection in Christ’s love, and being transformed little by little into an icon of Christ yourself. Here is a template for the three fold way of prayer which others would express more fully...Gaze, consider, contemplate
or – as her Poor Clare sisters present it today...behold, hold and enfold - the Lord whose likeness you are called to bear in love.

Place your mind before the mirror of eternity!
Place your soul in the brilliance of glory!
Place your heart in the figure of the divine substance!
And transform your entire being into the image
of the Godhead Itself through contemplation.
So that you too may feel what His friends feel
as they taste the hidden sweetness
that God Himself has reserved from the beginning
for those who love Him”

We become what we love, and who we love shapes what we become. 

Finally, some words by the poet priest Malcolm Guite, from his most recent anthology The Singing Bowl, which is every bit as wonderful as Sounding the Seasons

Santa Chiara, lovely claritas
Whose soul in stillness holds love’s pure reflection,
Shining through you as Holy Caritas,
Lucid and lucent, bringing to perfection
The girl whom Love has called to call us all
Back into truth, simplicity and grace.
Your love for Francis, radiant through the veil,
Reveals in both of you your saviour’s face.
Christ holds the mirror of your given life
Up to the world he gives himself to save,
A sacrament to keep your city safe,
A window into his eternal love.
Unveiled in heaven, dancing in the light,
Pray for this pilgrim soul in his dark night.

Evensong for Trinity 8: Psalm 86

Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me,
for I am poor and needy.
Preserve my life, for I am devoted to you;
save your servant who trusts in you.
You are my God; 
be gracious to me, O Lord,
for to you do I cry all day long.

The opening of our psalm as it appears in the NRSV – and variations of these words have surely been poured out in many places across the world this past week.
In Gaza, in Iraq, in Syria...and closer to home as well, men, women and children have cried out to God in the face of unspeakable violence, terror and pain.
They have cried for deliverance and yet the violence continues.
Where is God?
Why does he do nothing?
Does he not care at all?

Today's readings may not present an answer to those agonised questions...but this Cathedral, itself born from the ashes of war, of hatred, cruelty and violence, must surely be a safe place in which to ask them...for they are real and urgent, not simply for those who find themselves under fire as I speak, but for all of us as we try to live on in a world where such things can happen, where children are beheaded or buried alive – and nobody seems to intervene.

So – is there anything in our Scriptures to help us?
Can we find something to allow us hold on to faith in God, if not in humanity?
Today's psalm is one of many in the Hebrew Bible that give voice to lament – for individuals and for nations.
Already, by turning the stuff of raw suffering into prayerful poetry, the psalmist implies that there must be a pattern somewhere.
He fits his bitter experience into a framework that contains and shapes it, so that it may not simply overwhelm his life, and leave him in despair.
As we hear his words sung, the tranquil chord progressions of Anglican chant belie the intensity of the writer's emotions, - so that the music provides a short-cut from current pain to the equilibrium he strives to discover.

Beyond the cataclysms of here and now, is there any certainty of a larger purpose, an ultimate good – or is it all pain, discord, horror...?

Let's use our psalm to reflect together – on the pain of our brothers and sisters, on God's role as they suffer, and what this might mean for our faith.

It is, and always has been, a huge problem.
Sometimes, it seems that we in the Church have ducked the issue, refused to engage with it, as if some questions were too huge, too fearful to bring to God, lest God's answer is somehow inadequate...but such evasion is futile.
Better by far to follow the lead of our psalmist, who begins by being absolutely real about his situation.
There is no room for polite pretence here.
Things are utterly bleak and he is at the end of his tether. Poor and needy, with no resources of his own – all he has is a relationship with the God whose past performance encourages him to believe that God will, against the odds, act again.

Sometimes, of course, the past is all we can hold on to...the remembrance that once upon a time the world seemed a kinder place, God's presence a tangible reality, everything ordered as it should be.
It's that kind of understanding that shaped the words found scratched on a wall in Auschwitz

I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining. I believe in love, even when I cannot feel it. I believe in God, even when God is silent”

But those are not words I would dare to offer in Gaza this week...nor drop unthinkingly into conversation with a family grieved beyond imagining by their experience of loss and suffering.
Remembering sunshine does not warm you as you shiver with cold, and past performance does not, of itself, guarantee a future hope.

Still the psalmist revisits a happier time, both to reassure himself and, it seems, to remind God of what God could be doing.
He enters the long established tradition of bargaining with the Almighty, hoping to persuade him to change his mind, take a different approach – as Abraham pleaded for the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah, - as the Samaritan woman would with Jesus...
In point of fact, he seems to be trying something very much like flattery
“there is none like you among the Gods O Lord...You alone are great and do wondrous things” - like rescue me from my enemies...

But the evidence is not encouraging. The enemies remain present, rising up against him...and God is doing nothing.
Tempting at this point to walk away, to abandon faith...but this way lies ultimate despair and the end of any impetus to make a difference.
Eli Wiesel realised this, writing in the wake of the Holocaust.

"Master of the Universe, I know what You want- I understand what You are doing. You want despair to overwhelm me. You want me to cease believing in You, to cease praying to You, to cease invoking Your name to glorify and sanctify it. Well, I tell you: No, no - a thousand times no! You shall not succeed. In spite of me and in spite of You, I shall shout the Kaddish, which is a song of faith, for You and against You. This song You shall not still, God of Israel."

Though God can't be won round, manipulated to suit our agenda, though the pain of life may be more than we can bear, yet still, retaining the audacity to believe despite everything is the only way to move forward.
As Job discovered, having walked a path of deep and bitter suffering, in the end God is God, his thoughts and ways beyond us...
This is the place that our psalmist reaches, when he prays

Teach me your way, O Lord,
that I may walk in your truth;”

That is the only way.

There is no sense that his problems have eased, for his fervent pleas continue til the very end of the psalm...but these lines are a turning point, as he recovers an underlying confidence that has nothing to do with the external situation, a new equilibrium that comes from believing in a greater purpose.
While he is still surrounded by enemies, his inner being is stronger than ever before for he triumphantly reasserts his relationship with God, his refusal to be driven to unbelief
You have delivered my soul from the depths”

Fine – I hear you say.
And that helps the children of Iraq, the Palestinians shelled out of their homes, the Syrian refugees exactly HOW?
And you're right.
On one level there is no help, no comfort here at all – and there is so much need

But if we pray that prayer seriously, then perhaps help will we find ourselves moved by our prayers to become an answer in ourselves.
Perhaps the inhumanity that fills our tv screens can become an impetus for responses from us that proclaim a greater humanity – a demonstration of what it means to be shaped by and held in relationship with the God whose whole being is sacrificial love.
Pray with sincerity, and with an openness to God's call, and who knows what may happen.
Andrew White went from this place to achieve incredible things for God as the Vicar of Bagdhad...and I'm certain that Coventry has something particular to bring to the table as human intransigence and a longing for peace confront one another across the Middle East and beyond.

Certainly, there is nothing to be gained by disowning God, by placing all the blame for human suffering on his shoulders and walking slowly away.
After the war, a group of rabbis met to reflect on the atrocities that had taken place (atrocities that are used somehow, to give Israel a mandate to perpetrate further crimes against humanity)
They met to determine where blame might lie – in human sin or in divine indifference.
Could God have prevented the slaughter of God's chosen people?
Could God BE God, if He was either powerless or unresponsive?
The conversation was long, emotional, exhausting and the debate lasted painfully into the night.
Finally a decision was reached.
The ultimate guilt lay with God.
That group of men whose adult lives had been dedicated to serving God and his people looked at one another.
What would happen now?
How could they go forward from this place?
There was a profound silence.
Then someone went to the window, drew back the curtains, and they saw that it was dawn.
"Come," said a voice from around the table "It's time to worship God."

So in the face of human hatred and human need, in the face of our own indifference and our own helplessness, in the face of all the powers of darkness and destruction that seem to have the upper hand – it is time to worship reaffirm our faith, however fragile, and to ask that God will enable us to walk in his truth til that truth shapes the whole world, and the Kingdom comes.

Monday, August 04, 2014

100 years ago

it had been a long golden summer...the last of its kind
The upper classes were looking forward to the "Glorious Twelfth" and the start of the grouse shooting season.
And then the music stopped...the lights went out...the world changed.

"History repeats itself. It has to. Nobody listens"

That seems to be the saddest message we glean from the past century.
Though the Great War was fought as the "war to end wars", there has not been a day since when the world was at peace.
Last night the Cathedral was full for our special service of Commemoration.
Towards the end, red petals fell from the ceiling, swirling, dancing, catching the light like jewels.Though we knew they were cut from very ordinary paper, the work of several of the Cathedral community the previous week, they became beautiful in themselves as well as in their symbolism, as they fell to the ground...for long minutes while the girls choir sang.
It was unbearable to realise that, as I looked out at the crowded Cathedral, even the losses from our city were far greater than that congregation that filled the nave...I imagined a congregation of the dead there...Young men, the same ages as my sons...11,358 casualties from the Warwickshire Regiment alone...and still the poppies fell, covering the altar, resting on the cross of nails.

From my stall I watched them, and realised that they were falling before the eyes of the Christ on our great tapestry...the Christ who told us that no sparrow falls without our Father seeing and caring.
It must have hurt him so much.
It still hurts him so much.

And afterwards, when the music was over, when we had pledged ourselves to work for and live in peace, when the VIPs were ushered to their special seats to watch the moving tableau in the ruins, I came past the sanctuary - to find 2 beautiful children lovingly collecting the petals they could reach.
And I realised that this was how it always is.
Our children clear up the mess that we leave behind us...the mess of hatred, killing and despair.
And I realised that this, THIS was why we were remembering.
So that maybe those children will never have to clear up a worse mess than those paper petals on a marble floor.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Compassion, loaves and fishes - Sermon for the Cathedral Eucharist, Trinity 7 2014 Matthew 14:13-21

I suspect I'm not the only parent who remembers vividly, and without much delight, the days when it was impossible to go anywhere – even the bathroom – without a determined escort of toddlers.
I have always loved my children extravagantly – but nonetheless there were times when I was so desperate for a few minutes on my own that I was tempted to consider violence...
and that was just on ordinary days, with no particular need for personal space.

But today's gospel starts with Jesus in need of time out.
In the verses immediately preceding those we have just heard, he learns of the cruel death of John the Baptist.
Jesus is hurt, grieving the loss of his cousin.
He may well be anxious...
What does this mean for him and for his ministry?
He needs space to reflect, time with his heavenly Father – but the crowds, as relentlessly demanding as any gaggle of small children, are completely unable to leave him alone.
He takes to a boat – to no avail.
But Jesus is Jesus – and, rather than snapping at those crowds like an exhausted parent, rather than telling them to go away and leave him in PEACE – he has compassion.
Nothing surprising in that..
Jesu, thou art all compassion” we sing, following Charles Wesley …and then watch that compassion unfold in action.
Jesus puts himself in their place and suffers with them...because co-suffering is the essence of compassion – but as that's not the whole story.
Compassion, essentially, goes beyond empathic feelings to action to alleviate the pain.
And naturally, this is how  Jesus responds.
He recognises the people's need for healing and hope and he acts.

And so we find ourselves involved in one of our favourite miracles...
We all know the story – so what on earth can I possibly find to say?
Wouldn't I be better off with the other reading? So much richness in that account of wrestling with God til we have secured a blessing.
Surely that would be a better message for us as we engage with the news this week.
How can loaves and fishes help us to cope with the memories of 1914 and the pain of 2014?

For me, the clue lies in that word compassion.
As we have watched events in Gaza unfold over the past few weeks, as we have heard of the suffering of our brothers and sisters in Iraq, as we've contemplated the plight of the Syrian refugees, and reflected on the grief and fear of those close to the centre of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, I'm confident that we have all felt sympathy.
How could any human being fail to do so?
The pain of the world has been real and oppressive wherever we turn.
Men, women, children are enduring horrific situations...and we long for that to change.
We pray for them, we do indeed wrestle for a blessing....but we feel, for the most part, utterly helpless.
What can we do, you and I, – such ordinary people, so very far away?

But this is where our gospel comes in.
You know exactly what happens...of course you do.
There are crowds of hungry people, Jesus is exhausted and sad – and the disciples go for the practical option.
These people need to go home.
There's nothing else for them here.
Send the crowds away” they demand.

But they've reckoned without that overwhelming compassion, which means that Jesus cannot and will not fit in with their sensible solutions.
Of course, he could simply feed them himself – produce a meal from thin air and satisfy everyone.
He COULD, after all, have turned stones to bread in the wilderness.
But his compassion has yet another layer – for he responds to our need to be part of his work of grace.
C S Lewis wrote
"If He who in Himself can lack nothing, chooses to need us, it is because we need to be needed." 
His essential impulse to love and give unstintingly meets our human longing to be needed - and that meeting point is fertile ground for something extraordinary to flourish. 
Jesus recognises this.
He chooses to involve his disciples - “You give them something to eat”
He chooses to involve the crowd themselves.
It always delights me that it is a child who offers his lunch.
Only a child would have that kind of spontaneous generosity...
Only a child would not, prudently, keep his resources to himself
Pick me, I've got a packed lunch...pick me, pick me...”
Those same children who pursued me relentlessly as I longed for space were the ones who, when I wept over money worries, offered me necklaces of daisy chains “to make things better” - and somehow, they did!
Only a child would believe that what his mother had provided for him would be enough to suffice come what may...
Only a child...
Small wonder, then, that they are Christ's model for the Kingdom
All of us would surely have hung back...trying to hide our smiles at such naivete....perhaps tutted a little that the disciples don't immediately shoo this urchin away, and get to work on a more practical solution.

But that's not how Jesus reacts.
He understands that impulsive, unreasonable generosity – that longing to make things better, without any resources to achieve it.
He takes that tiny, pathetic, inadequate offering – blesses it – and transforms it into something impossible.
Food for 5,000 plus – with leftovers as well.
Enough for the needs of everyone and to spare.

And that's what he does every time.
He takes what we bring, however tiny, pathetic, inadequate – blesses it – and transforms it into something impossible.
That's what happens whenever we make Eucharist together.
We bring our longings, hopes and dreams, our failures, disappointments ...for they are all that we have to offer.
Augustine wrote to his congregation
"You are to be taken. You are to be blessed, broken and distributed, that you may be the means of grace and vehicles of eternal love. In you and through you the work of incarnation must go forward".

In other words, this offering of our broken selves is as necessary as the child's lunch.
We bring those selves to place them on the altar – and receive in exchange God's own life, given to us in a fragment of bread and a sip of wine.

But we have to risk bringing ourselves as we are – with all our inadequacies – if that transformation is to take place.
We have to accept that we may well look foolish...for all that we have is our broken selves and just enough faith that God will work his miracle of transformation, so that, by his grace, we are enough.

Do we dare to practice active compassion?
Our world surely needs it, and however small we may feel in the face of the enormity of its pain, as I seem to have read somewhere.“Our task is great but our God is greater”.
Can we trust him to use our small deeds of compassion to make the big difference that is needed?
If we look back 100 years, each individual cigarette give out to the troops by “Woodbine Willy” made no difference at all – but the impact of his kindness endures today.
As we turn to the news, the loss of those doctors who contracted Ebola as they fought against it may seem a pointless waste, but their courageous compassion will surely have been a light in the fearful darkness that encircled their patients.
We won't have much to bring ..maybe even less than 5 loaves and 2 small fishes – but we know that if we offer them with goodwill, then through God's grace they will be enough and to spare, for in God's economy our meagre resources are transformed to satisfy the needs of all,  friend or foe, neighbour or stranger, those whom we long to help and those that we would never choose
All can be satisfied - with 12 baskets left over.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Evensong Sermon Trinity 6 27th July 2014 1 Kings 6.11–14, 23–end Acts 12.1–17HC

For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory”
Familiar words that many of us pray daily – in one version or another....but I wonder what we think we mean as we remind God of his own omnipotence.

Do we actually expect to run into evidence of the truth of our assertion – or do we envisage divine power as something remote from everyday life?
In the REAL world power surely lies with the state – or with those individuals and organisations whose material resources apparently enable them to do exactly what they please, with no thought of consequences.
Even a very cursory glance at the news would support this – which is, as it always has been, part of the challenge of faith.

Today's readings are all about power – visible and hidden, expected and surprising, human and divine.
There is human power aplenty in our Old Testament lesson, as Solomon sets to and builds a Temple – a house of God whose 7 long years of building, to an exacting blueprint, seems somewhat familiar to those of us who love and work in this place.
Every detail is prescribed by the architect and catalogued to the nth degree.
Goodness knows what would happen to anyone who dared to move the cherubim or challenge the approved dimensions of the doors.
Solomon's Temple. Famous to this day...A work of skill and beauty but one whose existence is conditional on something that Solomon, in all his glory, cannot control at all.
You see, God has a view about things – and it cannot be overlooked.
He makes it very clear that Solomon cannot and must not view the creation of the Temple as an exercise in self promotion...
If the building is to mean anything at all, if it is truly to stand as the House of the Lord – then it must represent Solomon's continued commitment to live within God's laws.
The Temple is to be a sign of covenant, of value only as long as that covenant continues
if you will walk in my statutes, obey my ordinances, and keep all my commandments by walking in them, then (and ONLY then) I will establish my promise with you, which I made to your father David. I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will not forsake my people Israel.’
Though the Temple is long gone, of course – we might usefully pause to reflect whether God's special relationship with Israel is honoured in recent events...and whether any house of prayer, however beautiful, however impressive, can stand true to its purpose if that fundamental obedience to God's way of love is forgotten, even for a moment.

Thine is ...the power...”

There is human power at work in Acts too, as Herod determines to please the Jews by crushing Christianity before it can do further damage. With first Stephen and now James dead, it looks very much as if he is going to have things his own way.
Even though it is Passover, the great Jewish festival of freedom, Peter is imprisoned...and we can imagine how that act resonated with the beleaguered followers of Christ, as they remembered what had happened to him at the Festival of Passover just a few years before...Small wonder they were fearful for Peter, as they waited for Herod to bring him out to receive the people's judgement.
What could they hope to do?
Human power must have seemed very much in the ascendant and I'm sure that some followers of the Way were tempted to meet that power on human terms – to take up their swords as Peter had done in Gethsemane.

But – they too are people of the Covenant – the NEW Covenant confirmed on the cross...and they remain true to it.
Instead of turning to violence in their turn, they mobilise their forces in prayer.

Imagine that!
How charmingly naïve.
They PRAY!

We're often inclined to look back with admiration, even envy, to the New Testament celebrate their courage, their zeal, their absolute faith in God.
But this passage is rather comforting for those of us who, from time to time have wondered whether prayer is a bit of a cop-out, or suspected that we are resorting to words in an attempt to shift the responsibility for a situation from our own shoulders to God's, with no great expectation that this process will actually change anything.
It's comforting because clearly neither Peter nor those praying for him are actually looking for direct action from God at all.

The angelic visitor who arrives in Peter's cell, bathed in light, perhaps recalls those who visited the shepherds in the field. I love the detail – the way he prods him in the ribs - “Get up quickly”.
Certainly this angel is the bearer of good news – but it isn't until he has left Peter alone in the street that the sleep-fuddled apostle really believes what has happened to him.
It's just a vision...I'll wake up in a minute”
Again, this experience seems quite familiar (though in far less dramatic circumstances)...
I am often all too quick to dismiss and rationalise my own encounters with God – because, perhaps, it feels safer that way – and it's helpful that even those who were closest to Jesus in Galilee had the same bad habit!
It's just my imagination...surely I'm still secure in my prison cell...except that I feel the pavement beneath my feet,
What's more, though the Christian community were engaged in deep and fervent prayer for Peter's safe release- they just couldn't believe it when it happened either!

Oh WHAT a relief for me on my more wobbly days.
I try to live in faithful expectation – but more often than not I carry on as if I have no thought that God might be actively interested in my daily doings, that he might actually intervene as I have asked him to do.
And I'm not alone.
EVEN the early Church, so close to the fire of Pentecost, fell into the same behaviours..the same pattern of faithful doubt and doubtful faith.

There's dear Rhoda, so beside herself with joyful excitement that she leaves Peter standing on the doorstep...And her community telling her that she has lost the plot in claiming that their prayers were answered...while Peter, the one for whom they have been praying, just keeps on knocking on the door!
I really don't think that anyone at that all-night prayer vigil was expecting a day-break like this.
Divine comedy indeed - but also a reminder of who really holds the power – even now,
even in the face of the hatred, violence and misery that assail us whenever we look at the news.
There is power at work – and the long view reminds us that, whoever seems to hold the upper hand, that power rests finally with God.
It's true that in time Peter will be silenced by the state
It's true that, too often, bad things happen to good people...Stephen and James are among too many – a line stretching from 1st century Jerusalem to 21st century Iraq...
But beyond these truths, the truth of the gospel continues to work...and the mission statement that Jesus presented in the synagogue in Nazareth continues to be worked out in the world
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the preach deliverance to the proclaim the day of the Lord's favour”

So, in the face of fear and doubt, in the face of anger and grief,we can still dare to pray for the coming of God's Kingdom with confidence that our prayers will be answered, that the kingdom, the power and the glory are HIS now and forever.

I was glad

...when they said unto me "We shall go into the house of the Lord!"
I love cathedrals. I always have. As the child of parents who loved both God and history, I found myself introduced to the joys of cathedral visits from a very early age, and they shine as polished stones along the road of childhood memories...Canterbury, where I was gripped with the story of St Thomas Becket and heartbroken that the glories of his shrine had been despoiled at the reformation, so that I could no longer imagine myself travelling with Chaucers' pilgrims: Westminster Abbey, where I wanted to simply remain in Poets' Corner, to tell these men whose words filled my head how much I owed them: Lichfield, Gloucester, Hereford, which we visited almost by mistake one day, having got involved in one of the many diversions inspired by the hitchhikers we often picked up on family holidays. This one lived somewhere near Ross and was adamant that we MUST visit “his” Cathedral if we did nothing else that summer..
I was taught from the earliest days that whenever we visited a church, whatever our other agendas, the first thing to do was to pause, kneel, pray – and I quickly experienced for myself the power of these places where “prayer has been valid”.

As a student, I found myself visiting more of the great cathedrals to sing the services - Norwich, Hereford, Salisbury, Wells, Bristol, Worcester, Ely...Each was special, though at that time I was adamant that it was the music that mattered. The purpose behind it was more mysterious, problematic...

 of course there was Durham, in whose shadow I spent a year scrabbling happily about with George Herbert and the writers who had shaped him....That great building, with pillars that seemed like tree trunks that sent deep roots down into the past, influenced me in ways of which I was barely conscious at the time. Only 10 years later, as I found myself beginning Reader training in a small room on Gloucester's College Green, and the Cathedral loomed out of the darkness, while our tutors competed with the sound of Tuesday's ringing practice, I knew I had come home.

When I returned to Durham for a flying visit 2 weeks ago, I felt instantly reconnected. Somehow, without my knowing it, the Cathedral had taught me important things about God just by being there...The Evensongs which had drawn me in day after day had helped me realise grasp something of the ceaseless prayer and praise of heaven, - and the purpose of that daily offering, whether or not there was a congregation there to appreciate the beauty.
The regular trips across the nave from the library on Palace Green to the tea shop off the cloisters had refreshed me, made me pause to breathe a different air, to sense a more vivid reality.
And St Cuthbert – well, who knows what he did for me, as I spent winter afternoons quietly in his company, lighting a candle and wandering in my thoughts, along the rocky Northumberland shoreline we both loved.

Now, incredibly, I find myself able to call a cathedral “home” - and I wonder how we can use our building in its turn to challenge or inspire the students who now study on our doorstep. The world is quite different, of course. Writing about my childhood makes me uncomfortably conscious of this.
Somehow we no longer dare to let these great theatres of faith and history speak for themselves...We have lost confidence in the power of their silent message – find ourselves constrained by the spirit of the age to offer entertainment in place of awe, to explain and clarify instead of allowing open access to a living mystery.

But I'm sure that as cathedrals exist as way-marks on our journey to God, the buildings themselves retain a power that is greater than the sum of their architectural and historic glories. And, though their existence is in some ways indefensible in a world of desperate need, though the responsibility of keeping them in good heart and sound structure can threaten to overwhelm those who love them....still, they are necessary in the same way that mountains and seascapes are necessary – as mirrors in which the glory of God can be glimpsed for a moment, catching us unawares and bringing us to our knees.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Swords into ploughshares - thoughts for Cathedral Praise 20th July 2014

The end of the summer term...Time for primary school children to take a bag with them to school specially so they can bring home the trophies of the year. Those who are parents will probably remember the trauma of being confronted by a child who is proudly displaying an artefact they've made at school...and realising that you have literally NO idea what it is...Those who are too young to have experienced this from a parental viewpoint may remember the frustration of those
It's lovely – what is it?” questions...
so....I know I'm taking a risk by asking you tell me what you think this is.

OK – It's a nail. Not one that has ever been used to hold things together – because it was only made last week...and yes, I AM the one who made it & I'm quite proud of it, there!
But it's also a story
A story that began amid the violence of war, as the Krupps factory in Essen turned out guns and ammunition which was used in anger by the Axis forces against the allies...but was also the target of repeated allied air raids.
A place that, like Coventry, represents the human capacity both to hurt and to be hurt by others...but also, like Coventry, a place that decided not to be defined by the negatives of the past...

I know a tiny bit about Essen now, because last weekend I met the youth group from the Kreuzkirche there.
As CCN partners they had come to Coventry to show us their particular take on the Bible passage we've just heard, for they've embarked on a project they call “metalworking for peace”.
I'd like to believe that the metal they use is recycled from a harsher use – like the trees of life that artists in Mozambique build from decommissioned guns – but actually, that doesn't really matter.
What matters is that these young people have determined that their community shall be known not for its skill in making weapons of war but for its commitment to justice and peace.
And what's more they invite others to join in with the work.
My great grandfather was a blacksmith in Gravesend, Kent at the start of the 20th century...something I only remembered mid way through the process of wielding a hammer as instructed, as the hot metal emerged from the furnace to be shaped into something that could, if I can team up with 2 other people, one day be part of a cross of nails.
I suspect he would not be very proud of his descendent – because I was pretty useless, really.
First I didn't use enough force, then I applied force in the wrong place – though thankfully not to my fingers, nor anyone else's either...
Even with lots of help the process was surprisingly hard work.
And noisy
Very very noisy

There was no possibility of any stealth transformation taking place.... no secret reshaping...
It was all too easy to get things wrong – specially as the process went on, and we began to shape the metal rod so that it could be snapped off at the right length to match the medieval nails which were our inspiration.

More than once, my embryonic nail had to be returned to the heat of the forge, so that it could be bent back into something close to the right shape again.
Transformation doesn't just happen, even when you have a whole team of people focussed on it.
But finally it was time to fix the shape by plunging it into cold water...with a terrifying hiss....and the metal that had been red hot only moments before was dropped into my waiting palm...
and there it was.

My own illustration of the process that sees swords turned into ploughshares.

But of course, weapons cannot of themselves hurt anyone...
It is people who do that, and in a week of mounting violence in Israel Palestine, in Iraq, and while we wait to hear what really happened to bring down flight MH17 over Ukraine, the dreadful inclination of humanity to wound and destroy seems particularly oppressive.
Wherever we turn, there is fresh evidence that we've learned the lessons of cruelty, hatred and fear that have shaped the course of human history for too many generations.
All those sins for which we ask forgiveness whenever we pray the Litany of Reconciliation...because we STILL carry on allowing them scope in our lives and our world.
As one of the Collects truly says “We have no power of ourselves to help ourselves”

But that's where another work of transformation comes in...a work of transformation that brings hope from despair...a work to which Isaiah looked as he wrote of God's future breaking in to our present.
Because – his words are for us...
They point to something that may not be fully realised in our time...but something which we are part of. is our invitation.
Let US go up to the mountain of the that God may teach US his ways.
Let us allow him to reshape our lives, to turn those habits of fear and hatred into ways of being that are founded on love, grace and gratitude...
It won't be easy...or instantaneous
It wont, I'm afraid, always be comfortable...
"Who may abide the day of his coming...for he is like a refiner's fire"
I don't imagine that, had that metal rod had any feelings, it would have enjoyed the process of being forged...heat, hammer blows, more heat...
Sometimes, that kind of pressure can seem to be our dominant experience of God's power at work in our lives...because, you see, we're not being called to be simply nice kind people...nor even people with a wonderful story of hope to share.
We are being radically reshaped – and that may involve experiences that feel very much like loss.
The route to holiness is demanding, challenging, costly...and at times it may feel as if we're not getting anywhere.
My nail, for all the work I lavished on it, looks dull, crude, incomplete - and nothing like the shiney cross of nails I aspire to...
and I'm a work in progress too, with all the rough edges and unfinished business that implies.
But I'm en route to something better...I AM "in progress" and I'm aiming to be someone quite different one day.
That is the path that we're all invited to walk on, for we are being changed, little by little, so that we can be nothing less than the Body of Christ...signs of His Kingdom, where humanity shall study war no more.