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!

Saturday, April 09, 2016

Easter 2C at Coventry Cathedral 3rd April 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Palm Sunday Evensong at Coventry Cathedral Isaiah 5:1-7, Luke 20:9-19

I've just returned from a long overdue retreat, spending 3 nights doing my best to be attentive to God in the hermitage at Launde. In case you thought of asking, on the whole I didn't do too badly thank you. It always takes me at least half a day to disengage from all the stuff that fills my head, to silence the well nigh ceaseless chatter and to listen...but almost always, I do reach that place when the egocentric fog clears and I return to my primary identity as a child of God. That's such a good place to be.

But why I wanted to share my recent experience was not so much to encourage you to take a retreat, though I certainly do, but to share with you what happened when I went through a green painted door in a long brick wall. It was a beautiful afternoon, filled with birdsong, and I had been wandering the grounds, enjoying the last snowdrops and the first bluebells and listening to that silence that we never really find in the city, where the low growl of traffic is a ceaseless ostinato, so familiar that we no longer notice it until it stops. And in that silence I came to the door...There was a sign, but it read not, as I'd expected "Staff only" but simply, "Please close the door". So I opened it, and went through. Through into a huge expanse of walled kitchen garden, with beds for herbs and vegetables, a deep well,a greenhouse filled with enormous improbable cacti, alien visitors from another place, who were clearly thriving where they'd landed. It was the sort of garden Mr McGregor could only have dreamed of, its beds laid out in orderly ranks, ready for the summer crops that would feed guests in the house. And that protective wall stood to contain it, giving shelter, keeping out rabbits and deer...making sure that whatever was planted had the BEST chance to flourish, fruit and grow. Everything was just as it should be. All we needed was a crop.

That was Isaiah's problem too.

My beloved had a vineyard, prepared the ground, tended the soil, planted the choicest Vine, the Vine he had brought specially from Egypt...a people to be God's own, and to model God's way of living for all the world to see. Yet this hand - picked people had let God down. For all the care lavished on them, they could not, would not be fruitful. Instead of an abundant harvest of fine grapes to share, they were producing only the tiny, bitter inedible wild grapes..fruit to pucker your mouth and set your teeth on edge.
What more was there to do?..an question taken up across the centuries by the prophet Micah , before finding its place in the agonising grief of the Good Friday reproaches. How could God love us more? Give us more of God's self?
"O my people. What have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me..."
For Isaiah, here and now is the moment of truth. Looking at the vineyard, God finds no fruit, no justice, no righteousness on this Vine that is God's people, Israel. To be this Vine means to receive God's special care, God's loving nurture...but it means, too, to come under God's judgement.
And there is nothing to show him. No harvest at all.
"He expected justice but saw bloodshed, righteousness but heard a cry."
A well tended vineyard, with not a single grape. It was a theme that was to become heartbreakingly familiar.
So God spoke through the prophets again and again..the story of God's care and our neglect, God's cherishing and our indifference. As Jesus spoke to that mixed crowd in the Temple, where priests,scribes and elders mingled with disciples and the curious bystanders, everyone present knew that the vineyard parable was about them, about God's people, the Jewish nation. They knew too that the rejected messengers were those prophets who had tried, again and again, to call God's people back to themselves...and to their core relationship with God. Had tried to no avail.
But what next? A Son and heir. Now we are onto unfamiliar ground...we enter a new chapter. A Son???.
Who knows if the tenants in the parable actually had anything worth offering their landlord. Maybe, rather than cheating him of his profits, they were simply trying to hide their own fruitlessness. They knew his hopes and expectations, but knew too their own complete failure.They had nothing to offer, no matter how many messengers, prophets, sons were sent. Israel, called to be a light to the nations, a people shaped each moment by God's law of love, had become instead a people bound and defined by other laws, a people intent on protecting themselves not for the sake of the fruit they might give to the world but for their own security, hanging on for dear life to an identity that had lost its purpose.
This is not just bad discipleship but bad viniculture too. An American nun, Sr Judith Sutera OSB, who is also a master Vine dresser, writes thus
"Good vines require cutting and more cutting. A mile of runners won't give you one more grape, so get rid of the branches that don't bear fruit. Do you want to keep everything? Then expect nothing. Cut and then cut some more."
It seems that this is the point we have reached, that even God has run out of patience, that the guardians of fruitless tradition have signed their own death warrant. We have reached the end of the story of Israel the Vine, but now God begins a new project, replacing the Temple whose core purpose has been lost with one where the rejected Jesus becomes the missing piece, the corner stone to comlete the whole building. Now he becomes the template, against which we will all be measured...

Does that sound terrifying...something beyond our highest dearest aspiration? Are you, like me, left scrabbling for good news in the dirt of a vineyard that seems to be so much less fruitful than you'd hoped?

Then remember that Jesus also said I AM the Vine...not simply the one in whom God's fullest intention for Israel is made good, but the one whose runners stretch even into those places of least fruitfulness, the one who is inextricably involved with our barren hopes, our wasted efforts, our inertia, greed and fear. Jesus the Vine is connected with us in those places where we are furthest from God's will and God's pleasure...Indeed he is here scrabbling with us in the dirt as we look desperately for some harvest worthy of the name.


Today Holy Week begins and as we walk again the way of the Cross, it is to discover for ourselves that the whole story of humanity, of God's love and our intransigence is focussed on the person of Christ as he moves towards Calvary. If we follow closely, the sorrow and love that drops from the crucified one will transform our barren vineyards, softening our hard ground and harder hearts til we are fully human once more. A shoot shall spring up from the stump of Jesse...the Vine shall be renewed, its branches reaching everywhere, to bear fruits of righteousness for there is nowhere beyond the reach of that self giving love.