Sunday, June 26, 2016

Freedom in Christ - my attempt to preach after the EU Referdum

An urban myth records that when asked what he thought of western civilisation, Mahatma Gandhi replied that he thought it might be rather a good idea...and several times during the weeks of the referendum campaign I’ve sadly reflected that he was right. As feelings ran high and claim and counter claim were delivered, generating more heat than light, it seemd that our nation had lost the plot. When the news broke of Jo Cox’s murder it was almost impossible to believe...but I guess it was, in fact, simply the most extreme of many recent examples of a people biting and devouring one another in a destructive cycle, to our collective shame and diminution.

 It seems that the campaign brought to the surface a whole tangle of feelings and opinions that had been buried for a while...but which are now, distressingly, in plain view.  The temptation would be, I guess, to hurry to bury them forthwith. To pretend that we hadn’t noticed those things that seem to make it so very hard to love our neighbour  and choose false peace over painful integrity. I have one godson whose views, as expressed on his Facebook page, frankly appalled me. Perhaps I should have the courage to ask him how he came to those conclusions, to explore with him the big issues, to see what common ground we might discover as we re-imagine the country to which we would like to belong.  I'm fearful, you see, that I just don't understand too many of my neighbours. I've lived in a lovely liberal bubble, shared by people whose outlook mirrored my own – and so I just didn't grasp how divided our country has become. Now I have to think again. What should I do? I could opt for running down those who voted another way, those whose world view makes little sense to me...those whom it's tempting to dismiss as ill-informed, uneducated, just plain WRONG.

I could do that – but I'm sure it's a bad idea. Perhaps I should just tell my godson that we were on opposing sides and hug him anyway (though at 26 he would probably infinitely prefer me to keep my hugs to myself). More importantly, perhaps I should try to seriously love my neighbour by working to understand what it is that shapes his world view where it differs from my own...to understand, not to patronise or tut but to understand.

I do have that choice,…So do you..

Regardless  of how we voted, regardless of our feelings of relief or distress, delight or despair, we are collectively responsible for shaping the real, every day life of our country. That has nothing to do with political rhetoric…it doesn’t even depend on economic conditions….It’s a question of the way we live day by day…for its our behaviour that will make this small island somewhere to flee from or somewhere we can still rejoice to call “home”.

Carriers of Hope tweeted yesterday that someone had heard school children telling their migrant class-mates “You're going home”...This city, which has stood for diversity and inclusion, for peace and reconciliation, could so easily become as painfully divided as the national media....

It could. But it doesn't have to.
It's our choice.

Now that we know where we’re heading,  we have an opportunity to return to our senses – and to practice a different way of being – the way that was chosen for us by Provost Howard almost 76 years ago…that lies at the heart of all that we do and all that we are here...the way of reconciliation.
We know it’s counter cultural. We know it’s hard to practice – and I have to say that  my own feelings during the final days of the campaign proved to me just how much I remain a work in progress. In all honesty if I could have called down fire from heaven on Friday I probably would have. But I know that I can do better. I know that WE can do better....and this is the moment to demonstrate that.

Almost always, at the end of a political campaign, there comes a moment of truth, when those who have secured power have the chance to live up to their promises – or not...a moment when their true colours are revealed. Today, as God's people here in Coventry we have our moment of truth, our opportunity to show our true colours...to live what we proclaim.

We meet in this place surrounded by the gifts of friends from around the world, and remember that those friends shared the ideal of international co-operation and peace-making that rose from the ashes of bombed cities in the aftermath of war. We see the refugee boat, and renew our commitment to welcome refugees, to offer hospitality to the stranger in need. On Thursday, as the voting continued, I found myself chatting to one of the uni staff attending a celebration dinner, a woman who had fled her own home in 1979 as one of the Vietnamese boat people, and rejoiced in our visible symbol of understanding and concern.  Honestly, in this building, it's hard not to make good choices. We look out through the west screens to see our beloved ruins...and cannot evade the consequences of listening to those voices that demonise the other, that dedicate themselves to enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions...and things like these.  But we stand in a place of resurrection. Truly, our Cathedral speaks of hope – but is honest, too, about the harm that humanity can cause when we are left to ourselves,

But -here's the gospel - we aren't left to ourselves.

Freedom in Christ has set us free – free to choose another way, the way of hope not hate...free to attempt the challenging work of love that reaches across the gulf caused by the hatred that divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class.
So – let us use our freedom. Having put our hand to the plough, let us not look back. The road to Jerusalem was hard for Jesus – the destination not of his own choosing – but he set his face towards it and lived out his vocation on each and every step of the way.
That's our opportunity, in these days of confusion and distress. We may not like the route ahead. We might never have chosen to head in this direction, yet still we have to keep on moving forward.

We can live out our vocation as a reconciled and reconciling people and transform the life of our city so that nobody feels marginalised, nobody feels excluded, nobody sees themselves as second class citizens.
We can build bridges – as the post war generation did, here and across Europe. We can hold onto the dream of co-operation  - and make that dream a better reality. Alone – our chances of success are slim. But – remember, we aren't left to ourselves. Let us be guided by the Spirit, who will lead us into all truth and enable us to bear fruit for God – fruit that will, by God's grace,change the world.

The morning after

Nobody expected this.
To wake to a world that has changed so dramatically.
To realise that we had been living in a bubble with likeminded people, and so utterly failed to understand the depths of frustration and desperation that led people of good will to side with what looks, from my grieving perspective, like the force of pride and prejudice (I refuse to engage with the possibility that in some cases the good will may exist simply in my determinedly optimistic imagination).
To learn that in this wonderful, diverse city which I'm privileged to serve, so many had apparently turned away from that very diversity towards the presumed security of closed borders.
To watch as the national structures that had seemed solid and secure reeled in the face of a day when people turned out in greater numbers than for many a year to make a small cross on a ballot paper.
I'm guessing that the level of shock was last matched when Churchill was ousted in the first post-War election...
Nobody expected this.

And it would be so easy to simply vent my own feelings, to give up on this small island, to explore the possibilities that might be open through my Scots grandmother or my Irish grandfather.
But- that's would be to invalidate my calling to THIS place at THIS time.

So, at noon, we gathered as happens every Friday in the ruins of our old Cathedral - destroyed by the tide of anger and hatred that was the 2nd World War.
We stood where Provost Howard had stood on the morning after HIS night of storm and terror - and committed ourselves once again to the way of reconciliation that he chose.
We will need to build bridges within our country as well as with our friends in other places.
We will need to try and understand one another as never before, to leave our places of safety and risk being vulnerable with those who felt they had little to lose.
We will need to carry on loving - even the leaders whose rhetoric seems to have resulted in a country polarised as never before in my lifetime.

Coventry Cathedral stands today, as it did before the Referendum, for reconciliation and for hope.
By God's grace, I will try and stand with it.
 

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Lord, let me know my end: a sermon for Evensong at Coventry Cathedral, 1st Sunday after Trinity, 29th May 2016. Psalm 39

For I am a stranger and a sojourner here

Sojourner isn't a word much used today. It has its roots in the idea of a day tripper, "sojours", someone passing through, without putting down any roots – and some versions of the psalter translate the word as “Passing guest”.

We know all about passing guests here, of course.
Passing guests from all over the world, drawn by our story of Reconciliation.
Passing guests from the city, come with a particular need – to give thanks, to mourn, to commemorate together.
Guests coming to be resourced, guests coming with no agenda at all – walking purposefully through the building to leave without a backward glance.
Guests bringing gifts, – as you have brought your gift of music.
Guests whose stories interweave with ours for a little while, so that  we impact upon one another  and are enriched by the encounter.
Guests who sometimes decide to settle down and stay, so that sojourners are transformed into friends and family, strangers into community.

But our psalmist has another idea in mind with his use of the word here, as he reflects on the transience of life, the idea that though we are here on earth for the moment, our real home is in heaven.
We are, you see, God's passing guests...only here by his gracious invitation.

I find it difficult to hear this psalm without the portentous music that accompanies it in Brahm's German Requiem.
Lord - let me know my end and the number of my days.

How long have I got?
Should I start to pay particular attention to the items on my bucket list?
It's a question that continues to surface for us.
Here and now feels very permanent, the only reality we've directly experienced – but we know in our heart of hearts that nobody gets out of here alive.

The strange thing is that for the most part we refuse to accept mortality. While our 19th century forbears seemed intent on reminding themselves on a daily basis that death is inevitable, surrounding themselves with so many momenti mori that from a distance it can sometimes look as if they made death a way of life, now we have hit the other extreme. "Death is nothing at all..." proclaims a whole industry intent on persuading us that the failure of our bodies is nothing more than a minor inconvenience.                                              "Those whom we love can still be part of our lives – as jewellry, works of art, or whatever you will, really...Let us distract you..." they say. "Don't worry about endings. Focus on the here and now. Seize the day!" 

But the trouble is that death is real...and that actually, we need it to add impetus to our lives. As my colleagues and children would tell you, I'm a professional procrastinator.
Without some sort of deadline sermons, articles, birthday cakes would simply never happen.
Thankfully, there's a time limit built into our lives too – so that even such should be encouraged to get on with things.

“Thou hast made my days as a span long” - human lives just as long as the breadth of God's hand – a measurable period in which all is gift. Not one second can be taken for granted – and so it matters that we spend those seconds, minutes, hours well and wisely.

That's the point.
Not a morbid preoccupation with the moment when we pass from time into eternity but a determination to use our time for things that really matter. Seize the day, indeed - but seize it to good purpose!

“Blessed are they who live with integrity, who walk in the way of the Lord” said our anthem...or if you prefer it, Augustine proclaimed
“Life is for love. Time is only that we might find God”.

That's what it's all about.
Yes, we are small sparks of life, here on a temporary basis – but this does not, as the psalmist suggested, mean that we simply walk “in a vain shadow”...that nothing has meaning or purpose.
We are here to love, and to encounter the God who created us, redeemed and loves us.

And now, Lord, what is my hope? My hope is even in thee
It is in our relationship with God, and in living each day in the light of that relationship that we find our peace and security. In this world of time and chance, here is solid ground....

Love God. Love neighbour. Live to make a difference – and you will do well.

On Friday this cathedral was packed as the Barbadian community from across the Midlands and beyond gathered to give thanks and say goodbye to a remarkable lady.                         You won't know her name. 
She didn't amass a fortune, large or small.
She didn't have a glittering career, working instead in the kitchen of a local care home..But she lived her life with a warmth and generosity that meant that everyone who knew her was inspired, encouraged, persuaded into being their better selves – and the loving family that she left behind have clearly learned from their mother. She used her time well, right enough...and she knew, too, where her hope and security lay.

If she was a passing guest, she was the kind of guest that gets stuck in, helps you deal with a long-avoided household task, brings love and laughter with her as part of the luggage, even if her stay is short.

That's who I want to be in this world.

Someone with such security in God that I can live knowing that time is limited.
Someone who can accept mortality without fear or dread, seeing it as simply an encouragement to get on with being my best self here and now.

Someone who knows that, even when she fails and falls,again and again and again, there is a solid hope in God, who holds all our time in his hands.

 

Monday, May 16, 2016

What IS a Cathedral for?

That's a question which, on a bad day, can seem to haunt the dreams of those whose ministry takes place in one...
Of course there are many many answers - from the strictly functional (the place where the bishop has his cathedra seat), through the aspirational (the mother church for the diocese, a place of resource and nurture for the whole diocesan family), the poetic (flag-ships of the spirit) with many another definition along the way. 
My longing for ours is that it should be known as a place of unconditional welcome, where all who come, no matter what their tastes in music or worship styles, should feel at home and able to connect with the God whose beauty is the reason for all of it...
Sometimes we manage this better than others - but I rather think that in the past 24 hours we've not done badly.

It began, as Sundays often do, with the Cathedral Eucharist - at which I had the privilege of presiding.
Even before we started, as we waited in the north aisle, with incense clouding the air ahead, there was a sense of eager hope. The congregation was in good heart, and had turned out in some force, many even remembering to wear something red. The Baptism family were gathered (no mean feat when you're juggling twin toddlers as well as a 6 month old baby), the new Wardens all in place waiting to be commissioned, and even the 1st Communicants (whose view of time is somewhat elastic) were present and visible. 
And - it felt as if we really were expecting something of God...who, of course, did not disappoint. 
I may have felt a little guilty as we loaded our poor Wardens with badges and staffs - baggage representative of other burdens that the institution places upon them - but they are such splendid people that I mostly felt thankful and relieved. 
In contrast, it was sheer joy to baptise little A. (though she would not say the same thing - and expressed her own views with passion), and to welcome the group of children who had been longing to take their place at the family table for so long. We moved from font to High Altar and when the organist began to play music from the Royal Fireworks, to match the clouds of smoke as I censed the altar (he's good that way - one day I really will be unable to stop the giggles), it was very hard not to grin like a maniac and sqeee loudly as I went on my way... God was SO present. 
Presiding is, for me, the heart of my priesthood - and yesterday everything conspired to make it particularly wonderful. Tallis "Loquebantur", the delighted smiles of the children opening their hands for me to give them the Sacrament, the wonderful diversity of congregation which is part of Cathedral life.
God was in playful mood with others too. Over coffee I had several conversations reflecting the unsettling and inspiring work of the Spirit and was myself still purring when I headed home.

Later, of course, the Cathedral was filled with a new and different congregation - from all over the diocese and beyond, as we hosted the Beacon event for the Midlands. The worship could not have been a greater contrast to the morning's, but was equally effective in enabling encounters with God.
I had one confirmation candidate - and it was most definitely holy ground as I stood with him before the bishop (one of four confirming...which changed the dynamic entirely, and somehow made it feel MORE intimate and not less, as each candidate came up in turn to their confirming bishop, rather than the bishop moving along a line). While in the nave all was exuberant celebration, in the Chapel of Unity children worked with huge concentration, creating crowns of flames and paper plate doves - and covering as many surfaces as possible with glitter too. One small girl, retreating to a prayer pod, said that she was glad that there was somewhere quiet to think while "THEY" (gesturing to the nave) got on with being noisy :)....She also reminded me that the Holy Spirit could be as quiet as breath on a feather....I wonder if I will be around when she is old enough to be confirmed - her faith and friendship with God simply shone - a highlight of the day.

And then came Monday - the morning after the day before. 
Ordinary Time, green and growing. 
And I found myself presiding again - for a congregation of three, in the Lady Chapel.
And there God was again. 
And I found myself reflecting on the way the disciples "spoke in different languages, as the Spirit gave them voice" - and on the different languages of worship we had spoken over one 24 hour period - and I hope and believe that in all that variety there was a space for everyone to find a home and a welcome.

Me, I'm being challenged and reminded that God WILL be there - bidden or not - expected or not...for this is, of course, HIS Cathedral, existing as a sign-post, a visual reminder of that transforming presence, that brings joy out of sadness and life out of death. 

Friday, May 13, 2016

Aslan is on the move

or, if you prefer, God is up to something.
This week, the Church of England has been invited to pray around those familiar words from the Lord's Prayer "Thy Kingdom Come...", and to focus our prayers on an outpouring of the Holy Spirit to transform the Church into a convincing sign of the Kingdom of God, an agent of God's transformation in lives and in communities.
All through the week I've been inviting people to simply pray "Thy Kingdom Come" and expect things to change...but I wasn't, if I honest, that alert to signs of those changes happening around me - until a conversation at a committee which isn't always the most obvious sign of God at work woke me up to some of the remarkable things that have been happening around the place.

At the weekend, the ruins of our second cathedral were full of happy faces, of out-pourings of local creativity at a one-night music festival, of students dressed to the nines enjoying their summer ball, of people of all ages savouring delicious street food and great music under cloudless skies. The whole thing shouted "Welcome" in so many different ways, and it was a delight to see people responding to that with warmth and enthusiasm - and to know that the God who shares in our joy was celebrating with us.

On both Tuesday and Wednesday I had completely unexpected opportunities to learn about some of the wounds that still linger in our communities, and maybe to offer small, tentative gestures towards restoration. Conversations happened that I could never have imagined being part of and, please God, seeds of hope and reassurance were planted.

Tuesday also included one of the most extra-ordinary experiences I've had in recent years. We welcomed several hundred Jains into the cathedral - as both tourists and pilgrims. There had been alot of correspondence with our splendid Dean's Verger before the big day - and an agreement that I would lead a time of meditation, ushered in by a chant.... This really alarmed me! Several hundred unknown Indians chanting in the nave  (even though I had enthusiastically agreed with the suggestion that we use "Maranatha" as our chant), had, I felt, the potential to disturb and confuse any casual visitor...
I had, of course, reckoned without the God who was so much part of the entire event.From the moment that our guests arrived they made it very clear that the cathedral was holy ground. We exchanged Namastes as they poured in...slightly late of course (though this had more to do with traffic around the city than that wonderful Indian maxim "In the west you have clocks. In India we have time")...filling the nave with the vibrant colours that delighted me whenever I led worship in India. When their visiting guru had arrived, I welcomed them, told them a little of the cathedral's story, and introduced the chant and meditation. I was still worried that we would struggle with the twenty minutes planned for this, but from the moment that I prayed it was very obvious that God was present in large, large letters. The opening prayer had been suggested by the Jains' co-ordinator - which was remarkable in itself. 
'Heavenly Father, open our hearts to the silent presence of the spirit of your Son. Lead us into that mysterious silence where your love is revealed to all who call, 'Maranatha...Come, Lord Jesus.'
They way that they responded was extra-ordinary.
As we chanted those four syllables, softly, til the word became part of the rhythm of breath and the blood coursing around our bodies, til the whole Cathedral seemed to be carrying that longing "Come, Lord Jesus", there was no doubt at all that every single one of us from the youngest child to the most venerable great-grand-parent, knew that we were in God's presence.
We moved into a silence that was nothing like long enough - and later, so many of our visitors took time to find me and tell me of the depth of their experience. Though officially Jains have no belief in any god, they were very clear that they had been in the presence of the divine, and that we had stood on holy ground together.
Later they were to pray the whole Litany of Reconciliation with my colleague in the ruins - the grace of God poured out and enabling us to live into the heart of our reconciliation ministry, which seeks to heal the wounds of history, learn to live with difference and celebrate diversity and to build a culture of peace.

And may I point out - it's only Friday! Sunday's a-coming, when we welcome the Holy Spirit poured out at Pentecost and active in transforming the world.



Monday, May 09, 2016


Address for Remember our Child Annual Service May 2016

Psalm 56

 

There's a popular misconception out there that if you have faith in God, you can expect life to be all green pastures and still waters...that somehow bad things just won't happen to you.
That's a really dangerous assumption – and one that is disproved somewhere on a daily, if not hourly, basis.
It always has been.

If you doubt me, have a read of the book of psalms....a collection of poetic prayers that were old well before Jesus walked the earth. They are the story of all the ups and downs of the life of faith...good days when it's easy to celebrate and praise God.
Hard times when it's almost impossible to believe that God is there at all.
Whatever your feelings on any given day, I can pretty much guarantee that there's a psalm to match.

The reading Shirley just shared with us is a really good example of the journey that faith and feelings often make together.
Clearly the writer is up against it.
He feels ground down – trampled by people and events.
And I'm guessing that feeling isn't unknown to most of you...that sense of being so squashed by life and by grief that you might as well be face down in the mud, suffocating, unable to look up and see the stars even for a moment.


The earliest days of loss are just like that, and if you're here in that first rawness of grief, then really all anyone can do is to stand beside you, weep with you, hold the light, even if it's no more than a flickering candle, until one day your own being recovers the light of life.
To be honest, for most people that's all that GOD can do at first...stay close, weep with you, carry the light.
God doesn't wade in to fix things, much though we might long for him to do so.
God goes through them with us.

That's just the way it is.

And what's interesting in our reading is that though things are obviously very tough indeed, the writer somehow manages to hang on to his faith...
He doesn't cave in, blame God and turn his face to the wall.
Instead he makes a very positive declaration.
Despite all that has been going on he dares to say
In God I trust. I am not afraid.

Of course it's tempting to blame God – and a bit of honest anger is, believe me, absolutely OK.
You see, God is so involved in our lives that all our pain, bewilderment, grief and fear is completely real for him.
God takes on those feelings and carries them for us – just as God carries so much else.
Those feelings are precious to him because they are a reflection of our love..and it is in loving that we come closest to God on this side of eternity.
It's true, God has never promised that life will be straightforward and pain free if we throw in our lot with him.
Quite the reverse.
in the world you will have troubles” Jesus warns his friends...
But what we ARE promised is that nothing in the world will ever separate us from God's love and that nothing – NOTHING – is ever wasted

Every moment of pain, every tear you have wept, is precious...so precious that God saves all those tears in his bottle, a priceless relic of our feelings of love and loss.
I love that. In just the same way that each of us, as parents, files away the strangest things – outgrown baby clothes, a threadbare teddy, a football shirt – because they were special for our children, and so are forever precious to us...so God hoardes those tears that we've shed, tokens of our love and our suffering.

 
 
God gets it, understands completely how we feel...
God never glosses over the reality of our pain – not for an instant.
And in all that pain God is FOR us.
Uncompromisingly on our side.
Weeping with us, yes – but also lending his strength and his hope.
God is for me.
God is for you.
No matter what the external situation might suggest – you are not alone in a hostile universe, where pain and sadness have the upper hand.

If you let him, God will lead you gently, step by tiny step, on that same journey that the psalmist has taken.
It's a journey from the pain of loss, through the gradual remembering of God's care, to that moment when you can begin to raise your eyes and glimpse a new dawn breaking over the horizon as you recover the light of life again.
The God who made and loves your children holds them safe and holds you too.

You know that each moment of your child's life had meaning – that their whole life was complete and perfect in itself, even if lasted just a few brief days. It would not have been a BETTER life if it had been longer.  A day lily is not a failure because it withers and fades so much faster than an oak or a Californian redwood. There is no comparison.  Each is perfect in itself. There is nothing lacking.
Our children were completely themselves – exactly the people God had always intended them to be.
And now that life – and your memories of it – are safely held close to God's heart.

And you are left to continue your journey of grief, in which every moment has meaning and purpose too.
Of course the loss of a child changes the whole world.
Nothing is ever the same.
But nothing is wasted either.
The God who saves our tears in his bottle, weeping over each one of them with us, can be trusted to take care of us just as he is taking care of our children.
So – let yourself trust and do not be afraid.

That grief which was so huge that at first it threatened to keep you face down in the mud forever does not need to be your defining truth.
There's nothing disloyal, nothing unloving, in allowing yourself to look up, and choose life.
When the time is right, you could even begin to gradually unclench your fingers and let go, handing your grief over into God's hands so that you can walk forward, in the light of life that he holds before you, the light that will, in God's time, guide you safely home.

 

Feet on the ground and hearts in heaven, a sermon for the Sunday after Ascension Day 2016

Everybody hates goodbyes...

That's something that feels particularly true for me this year, which began with one child moving to Canada for 2 years and another heading off to Ghana on a volunteer project for some months. I'm at that stage of parenthood where I'm always practising letting go – but if I'm honest, I'd rather like my children with me where I am...maybe not under the same roof, but definitely within easy reach for a quick coffee.

Yup - it's fair to say that I'm RUBBISH at goodbyes.

The trouble is, I think, that even the little goodbyes are in some ways a preparation for the bigger ones – those that feel really rather final...I always try to remember, though, that "Goodbye" is the quick way of saying "God be with you" – and that wherever we are, and whatever may happen – that is always and wonderfully true – and even when I'm struggling I can think back to Pat,  a wonderful lady in my last parish, who said to me, a couple of days before her death

“See you later. Here or there”.

 But it's that difference between here and there that we find ourselves caught in – so sometimes it's quite hard to actually see Ascensiontide as a celebration.

 The physical, walking, talking, fish-eating Jesus is gone from our world...– no longer visibly present to us as the man from Galilee, though he is, of course, wonderfully present wherever his Church practises Kingdom living – loving mercy, doing justly, walking humbly with God.

Today, though, I want to share a story with you that looks at the Ascension in a rather different way. Before I begin, I must remind you that whenever we talk about God, we find that our words aren’t really good enough. God is beyond our language just as God is beyond our understanding – so the ways in which we speak are mostly metaphor…using something we do understand to help us describe something that is too big to be limited by our brains or our language.

For example, we often describe Jesus as the Light of the world – but I’m sure that none of you think in terms of a light bulb or even a candle when you pray. We think about God as a rock, but that has more to do with the fact that we know we can rely on God’s loving presence, come what may , rather than counting on any supposed mineral qualities.

So, when you hear this story, which talks about heaven as somewhere up in the clouds, I don’t want you take that too literally. Let's not revert to those weird and wonderful medieval paintings which show a pair of feet sticking out of a white and fluffy cloud.

Ascension tells us something important – but  the language a way of talking about something that’s way beyond speech.

The real meaning of the story…that’s true enough,

So, if you’re sitting comfortably, suspend your disbelief while I  share a story with you that has been told since the days of the early church - by the desert fathers and mothers, sitting around their camp fires -by St Gregory of Nyssa and St Basil the Great - and by many others we won’t get to know this side of Paradise. I heard the story from someone who’d read it in the works of Abba Sayah*…He admits that it’s a story with only the shakiest of provenance - but there is no doubt whatsoever of its underlying truth.

As the gospels tell us, after forty days of resurrection appearances, Jesus knew it was time to leave his disciples – his mother, his brothers and sisters, all his companions in the Way. It was hard to say goodbye, but he knew that the time had come. After all, he was the Truth and we humans can only take so much of that.

So Jesus called them all together on the mountain top, and made his farewells. It was a tearful moment. Mary was crying. John was crying. Jesus was crying. Even Peter, the immovable rock, was reaching for his handkerchief. 
They knew that Jesus had said he would always be with them. But they also knew it wasn't going to be the same. There would be no more breakfasts by the seashore, no more late night discussions around the campfire, no more unexpected jugs of wine…and so they wept.

Jesus was sad too, but he was glad to be returning to his Father, and he knew it was all part of the plan. And so he began to ascend.

As Abba Sayah told the story,  as Jesus began to rise, slowly and gracefully into the air, John just couldn't bear it. He grabbed hold of Jesus' right leg, and refused to let go.

"John?" said Jesus “What are you doing?”

And John shouted back,

"If you won't stay with us, then I'm coming too."

Jesus calmly continued to rise, hoping that John would let go. But he didn’t. And then, to make matters worse, Mary suddenly jumped up and grabbed hold of Jesus' other leg.
"I'm coming too," she shouted.

By now, Jesus’ big exit had obviously been ruined, but he looked up into heaven, and called out:
"Okay, Father... what do I do now?" And a voice came out of the clouds, deep and loud like the rumbling of thunder in the distance.
"Ascend!" the voice said.
"Ascend?" Jesus asked
"Ascend!" the voice replied.

So Jesus continued to rise through the air, with John and Mary holding on until they too were lifted off the ground.
But the other disciples couldn’t bear to be left behind either, so they too jumped on board…and within moments there was this pyramid of people hanging in the middle of the sky. Jesus at the top. John and Mary next. The apostles hanging on below. Quite a sight, if anyone had been watching...

And then - what was this?  Suddenly all kinds of people were appearing out of nowhere…friends and neighbours from around Galilee, people who’d heard Jesus’ stories, people whom he had healed, people who just knew that he was something special…Young and old,-  men, women, children, Jews and Gentiles…a huge crowd – and they too refused to be left behind…So, they made a grab for the last pair of ankles and hung on for dear life. One way and another there was quite a kerfuffle -people squealing “Wait for me” -then startled yelps as they felt themselves seized by the ankle -and above it all the voice of God calling out, “Ascend!"

But all of a sudden, from the bottom of the pyramid, there came the piping voice of a small child.
"Wait!” he shrilled,  “I've lost my dog!  Wait for me”
"I can't wait," Jesus called back, "I don't know how this thing works."
But the little boy wasn't going to be left behind, and he was determined his dog was coming with him. So, still holding on with one hand, he grabbed hold of a tree with the other, and held on with all his might.

For a moment, the whole pyramid stopped dead in the air - Jesus pulling upwards, and the little boy holding on to the tree, scanning the horizon for his lost dog.  But Jesus couldn't stop. The ascension had begun, and God was pulling him back up to heaven.  
At first it looked as if the tree would uproot itself.  But then the tree held on, and it started to pull the ground up with it. Sort of like when you pull a rug up in the middle, the soil itself started moving up into the sky.  And hundreds of miles away, where the soil met the oceans, the oceans held on. And where the oceans met the shores, the shores held on. All of it held on, like there was no tomorrow.

To cut a short story long: Jesus DID ascend to heaven, He went back to his natural habitat, living permanently in the presence of God’s endless love and care and wholeness and laughter. 
But, as Abba Sayah tells it, he pulled all of creation – the whole kit and caboodle – everything that ever was or is or ever will be – he pulled it all up into heaven with him. And there's the truth of the story.



When I'm celebrating Ascension with children I sometimes talk about it as “Christmas backwards”.
At Christmas, we concentrate on Jesus coming to earth to transform us with the presence of God. At Ascension, we focus instead on Jesus taking earth back with him into heaven…
Whichever way you look at it, the work of Jesus was to transform us and the world we live in by infusing everything with the presence of God.
Heaven meets earth; earth is drawn into heaven.

And, as Abba Sayah said. that's where we've been ever since. If we have our feet on the ground but our hearts in heaven, that should make a real difference to how we live our lives...so let's do all that we can to demonstrate to everyone we meet  that we are children of God and citizens of heaven.

Over the next week, our Archbishops have invited each and every member of the Church of England to pray with a particular focus “Thy kingdom come”....and to ask God to send the Holy Spirit to help us to live each day as witnesses to God's love and signs of God's kingdom. There are pilgrimages and prayer vigils, a huge celebration for Christians from all over the Midlands in your very own cathedral, and all sorts of other ways that you might get involved with this. If nothing else, if every one of us prayed the Lord's Prayer as if we expected it to change things – the results could be amazing.

Remember, feet on the ground – making a difference in our own ways in our own communities...but hearts in heaven, filled with the love that makes us one in Christ, and signs of God's Kingdom.

*The Abba Sayah story appears in Edward Hays "The Ladder" publised by Forest of Peace Publishing 1999

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Too much triumph?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Saturday, April 23, 2016

Young Women: Your Call

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

 

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

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






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


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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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