Friday, June 30, 2006

Friday ++Rowan blogging

Since I’ve spent much of the week wishing that (truly) beloved Archbishop Rowan would do all sorts of things differently (after all, it’s incredibly easy to proclaim what ought to happen next, until you’re the one responsible for making it happen) I’m glad that during my retreat I found myself reading some words of his, originally written about the Rule of Benedict,- but applied helpfully to the vocation to parish ministry, to its necessary focus on God in the small things. They remind me of the widom of the man, and the reason I was so overjoyed when he was elevated to Canterbury...
They also make me think. Hard!.

What is useless and destructive is to imagine that enlightenment or virtue can be found in seeking for fresh stimulation. Ths pastoral life is a refusal of any view that will make human maturity before God dependent on external stimulus, “good thoughts”, good impressings, edifying influences and ideas. Instead, the pastor must learn to live with her own darkness, with the interior horror or temptation and fantasy. Salvation affects the whole of the psyche; to try to escape boredom …by searching for fresh tasks and fresh ideas is to attempt to seal off these areas from grace. Without the humiliating and wholly “unspiritual” experiences of parish life – the limited routine of trivial tasks, the sheer tedium and loneliness – there would be no way of confronting much of human nature. It is a discipline to destroy illusions. The pastor has come to the parish to escape the illusory Christian identity proposed by the world; she now has to see the roots of illusion within, in the longing to be dramatically and satisfyingly in control of (or at the centre of?) life, the old familiar imperialism of the self bolstered by the intellect.
(from The Wound of Knowledge cit Peterson p20/21)

Edit: Just realised I've not made it clear the the words in brackets (or at the centre of?) are mine and not ++Rowan's....For me, control just isn't a temptation (which is just as well...I can't even control the chaos in my own study, let alone anything else) but to be at the centre of a community, to feel myself pivotal there....ouch..yes, well....
Time to get real, methinks!

In search of a Great Fish

I said when I started blogging about Peterson’s book that I planned to copy parts of it so I had to see them at least once every day…and I’m very conscious that I’ve not actually dealt with those pages since. Perhaps that’s not surprising, since they concern the tendency of at least some clergy (well, certainly one that I know very well indeed) to take out a monopoly on caring! Peterson heads this section “Hogging the show” and it resonated so loudly with me that I still don’t quite know what to do with the insights.
Ever since I first met the words ofOscar Romero “we are ministers, not messiahs” I’ve tried to keep that truth before me.
Generally my temptation is to believe that it’s up to me to fix the ills of at least my small corner of Charlton Kings…but I can see exactly how one moves from that delusion to wider and more dangerous ones.
Here’s the process as outlined by Peterson…
  • “Pastors enter congregations vocationally in order to embrace the totality of human life in Jesus’s name..[Check]
  • This necessarily means taking seriously and in faith the dull routines, the empty boredom and the unattractive responsibilities that make up so much of people’s lives. It means witnessing to the transcendent in the fog and rain (I love that bit) [Check]
  • But in these everyday obscurities in which we work…we often have the sense of being genuinely needed... [Check]
  • Even when unnoticed…we are usually sure our presence makes a difference, sometimes a critical difference, for we have climbed to the abandoned places, the bereft lives, the “gaps”…and have spoken Christ’s Word and witnessed Christ’ mercy...[Check]
WE MUST DO ONLY WHAT WE ARE THERE TO DO; PRONOUNCE THE NAME, NAME THE HUNGER. But it is so easy to get distracted. There is so much going on. So much to see and hear and say. So much emotion. So many tasks. So much – we think – “opportunity”. But our assignment is to the “one thing needful”, the invisible, quiet centre – God."

In other words, get yourself out of the way again, woman! So, the question is, as always, how to achieve this...*
When you tell the story of Jonah to a group of children, you probably don’t proclaim the belly of the whale as the place of safety,-and of course in one respect, it represents rock bottom, the worst part of his whole experience.
But it is also the place where he begins to learn obedience, and where he prays with honesty and integrity, from an awareness of his over-riding need. So Peterson suggests that it is in fact the healthiest place to be, for it provides the spring-board to Jonah’s resurrection in ministry.
It is a place where he is completely aware of his dependence
A place with no distractions,- and every opportunity to listen and reflect.
A place where he (and we) can confront our own realities,
A place, in fact, that is tailor-made to promote spiritual growth.

While I’d not previously thought of the retreat experience as equivalent to time confined within the great fish, suddenly I found myself longing for more “whale time”.
One of the loveliest things about being on retreat is the way I re-learn intimate prayer, which too often gets lost in the business and busyness of praying in the parish…and I’m hopefully excited that it may be possible to build some “whale days” into my routine, so that it doesn’t feel as if everything rests on a retreat once or twice a year. I’m so distractible,- maybe the only place I can ever hope to really focus on God is when I’m safely enclosed…

(*The image is a detail from Jonah in the Whale's Belly by Annie Lucas, paint & thread on fabric.
If I were in the U.S, and had more spare cash than I currently do, rather alot of her work would be finding it's way home with me. Visit here to enjoy more)

Thursday, June 29, 2006

One way and another, the Collect for today seems particularly apt...

Almighty God
who inspired your apostle Saint Peter
to confess Jesus as Christ and Son of the living God:
Build up your Church upon this rock,
that in unity and peace it may proclaim one truth
and follow one Lord, your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

As a Myers Briggs "F", who often threatens to be overwhelmed by her feelings, I've always been very fond of St Peter. If ever there was a saint whose heart ruled his head, it must surely be he. Actually, I suspect he was probably ENFP,- with sudden wonderful bursts of intuition which shine through the gospels
"You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."
"To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life!"
He was also, of course, the fool who sometimes rushed in where angels feared to tread, a mercurial character whose up times were the height of exaltation
"It's good, Lord, to be here" but whose downs were very much like drowning.

A long long time ago, when I first made my confession to a priest (in a wonderful church in South London which formed my faith in so many ways) I was given the commissioning of Peter from John 21 to read as my penance. Lo and behold, it kept cropping up on every similar occasion from then on until I finally found that same passage open on the prie dieux in the chapel at my first (abortive) selection conference.
Today, of course, we read it again...and I found myself overwhelmed once again,- this time with gratitude that as God used this incredibly human man, whose faults and virtues are non negotiably there whenever we read the gospels, he is also willing to use us,- use me, maelstrom of feelings and all!

Perhaps I should just be quiet

I know that the thoughts and reactions of one obscure curate in one small corner of the C of E really have no bearing on the current to-ings and fro-ings of the Anglican Communion, - and it might possibly be wiser to continue to focus on my own minutiae and pretend nothing is happening at all. On the other hand, this blog is a reflection of the reality of my life, and the reality which I can't ignore is that right now I'm feeling sad, scared, and torn in all directions. What does one small curate do with all this?
I have gay friends, ordained and lay, who are feeling hurt and angry to the point of outrage at the way lines have been drawn. If lines have been drawn, I'd want to be standing with them.
I have vows of obedience in all things lawful to a bishop whom I both respect and love.
I have roots buried deep in the C of E (my brief attempt at uprooting and "going to Rome" in the early 80s convinced me that I'm undoubtedly an Anglican by choice as well as chance).
I have a deep antipathy to the idea that if you dislike decisions that are being made, you dissociate yourself from them by leaving the party (surely that's exactly what groups like F i F and the Reform parishes are doing,- and I really don't admire their tactics)
I also have a congregation who need their clergy, and who are for the most part deeply unmoved by the events of the wider church.
So, where does duty lie in all this?
I wish I knew.
I signed up for InclusiveChurch in the first days of its existence,- and that's what I'm still longing for, praying for. A Church where all are welcomed, affirmed, free to use their gifts and live out their calling under God.
I guess for the moment the only option is prayer,- and maybe I can manage to refrain from adding to the online fuorore too. Back to the minutiae, to the day of small things.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Positively no thinking required......

Just an awful lot of hugging, laughing, crying and then a bit more hugging.
Teathaim Girl is safely home.
As I type, I can hear her giggling with her brother on the landing.
It is so good to have her safely back....thank you, all who've been praying, making me laugh, keeping me from biting my nails to the quick...I imagine (she says, hopefully) that this first long separation will be the hardest. And we've survived.
That loud humming noise isnt a fault with your computer. Tis the Curate purring!

Monday, June 26, 2006

Golden Calves....more thoughts on that book.

Peterson “What does it mean to represent the Kingdom of God in a culture devoted to the kingdom of self?”
“Far from radical and dynamic, most religion is a lethargic rubber stamp on worldly wisdom”

In response “Ouch”…
It is so terribly easy to become enmeshed in consumer religion (specially if your context is one where the congregation expects the bulk of the clergy time to be spent building up the life of the church (small “c”,- the building and the events that take place in and around it))
How do I discern what in my ministry is a response to God, and what a response to the prevalent assumption that loving my congregation means pleasing, reassuring, affirming them…? I’m not good news if I can never articulate the need for individual and collective transformation. On one hand, there’s a residual culture of anxiety and even fear that has been embedded into the understanding of many at St M’s. People need to really believe that they ARE loved, before there’s any hope of their moving towards loving others. On the other, it was not hard to recognise ourselves in Peterson’s description of a church where there is “conspicuous absence of the cross….puzzling indifference to community and to relationships of intimacy”
That avoidance of intimacy is very much a trade-mark here. The collection of protective masks is truly impressive…last week I decided
“Part of my calling must be to accompany others to a place of open engagement with God, to help them to become vulnerable to him and be with them in the pain of unwrapping the layers of protective self-delusion. Then to speak his love. Again and again.”
It is too easy to engage with people only on the superficial level that they present,- to take them on their own estimation and never engage with the potential they conceal. I have a card tucked away, the gift of the priest who lead the ordination retreat before I was made Deacon, 2 years ago…on it were words he used again in the ordination service
“We have no right to call anyone ordinary”.
Nor to allow them to believe that about themselves.

Peterson points to God’s response….looking on our reality and saying not “therefore” but “nevertheless”….offering forgiveness and not an imprimature on what we think we are…
for me, that connected Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler
“He looked on him and loved him”, though the young man was saddened and perplexed by the invitation to redefine himself as someone who had nothing, who had given away all he possessed, everything through which he established his own self-image.
Of course, Mark doesn’t give us the end of the story…Did he find the courage to unburden himself, to set aside his mask and stand naked before God? Knowing my own attachment to various protective coverings, my suspicion is that he probably didn’t.
But there is ample room for hope in the confirmation that “For God, nothing is impossible” and that, having no respect for our masks, God just gets on with loving the self beneath.

“Salvation, God’s will for every creature to experience the love that redeems, is not a casual or cool abstraction. It is a wild and extravagant energy, not reducible to human control, nto to be harnessed to the service of a religion job” (p68)
Of course, that’s not actually what most people want!
They’d prefer what Peterson describes (delightfully) as “Ancilliary idol assistance”,- religious words to give them a sense of comfort and meaning when times are hard.
We live with our failures of imagination if we think that ministry is about religion….we are called to something very different
“We are there in our congregations to say GOD in a grammar of direct address. We are there to preach and to pray. We are there to focus the overflowing, cascading energies of joy, sorrow, delight or appreciation….for as long as we are able, on God.
We have no other task”

to be continued....

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Travelling gratefully

This weekend, the 2 St M's Youth Groups have a collective birthday. Regular readers will know that I see our young people as quite definitely something to celebrate, so we've been partying with a vengeance! After a chaotic skittles evening in the local pub, the younger kids went home and the older group settled down (or do I mean hyped up) for a sleep-over in the Parish Centre, to prepare for this morning's Birthday Eucharist. We had a ready-made theme in pilgrimage, as members of the group will join National Youth Pilgrimage to Walsingham in August. Sadly, the complexities of family diaries mean I won't be going with them (and even if I could, I'd have to somehow leave my priesthood at home, as Walsingham is a shrine where the ordination of women has emphatically not been welcomed with joy). We planned, created, and generally had a splendid time working out our theme,- though when I headed for home at 1.30 we were still a banner short of a procession, and a birthday cake short of a picnic. I did worry slightly, since we'd made much of the banner (which will go to the Shrine) in our order of service...but I should have known that those kids won't let little things like sleep stand in their way. When I returned at breakfast time, the banner was complete, the cake being iced and the emotional temperature pretty sunny really.
Of course I had the statutory panic....we were under-rehearsed, potentially chaotic, and St M's does tend to like its worship just so. I spent a wee while before the service doing as much PR work as I could, but in the event I needn't have worried. The service positively overflowed with joy and excitement,- I caught the most surprising people joining in with the trees of the field that clapped their hands, as we went out with joy!
Afterwards in the vestry I thanked the MC of the day for his relaxed attitude to a service in which anything could happen, - and generally did. His reaction? "I'm a jazz musician....I believe in creative improvisation".
Dear Lord, please could that attitude could spread among your people here? It would be such a refreshing gift.
Meanwhile, back to Koinonia. I am so very proud of those kids (yes, even the ones who periodically visit this blog! Hi girls! ;-) ) and this morning they really shone! For a while the group has divided itself neatly between those who are very much part of church life (choristers, bell ringers etc, who've all been confirmed and are thoroughly at home on the premises) and a group (whom I tend to think of as the Footballing Fringe) whose only contact with church is via the youth groups. As usual last night, I delivered my pre-Communion pep-talk, speaking about the welcome available at the altar, asking the kids to think seriously about whether they wanted to receive Communion or a blessing, and reminding them that this was a holy meal, to be treated with reverence and love. I knew that in the past one or two members had found the Eucharist confusing and even embarassing, so I stressed that there would be no problem whatever their decision, that they were loved and valued equally in any case.
This morning, every one of the "Footballing Fringe" opened their hands for Communion, and each of them responded to the Gift I offered not with the traditional "Amen" but with sort of "Thank you", which I could only echo in my heart. I didn't cry,- but it was a very close thing!

Happy Birthday, dear Youth Groups, happy birthday to you!
Keep on shining.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

The Unpredictable Plant - first thoughts.

I want to write something about this book, which was such a helpful companion during my retreat, -but looking through the 2 dozen plus pages in my journal, I'm not quite sure where to begin. It was the right book for me at this time, because it's 51 weeks now since I was ordained priest. A good time to take stock. I'm very aware that on Wednesday friends and colleagues will begin their ordination retreat, but for me this is not a time of new beginnings, but of coming to understand more clearly who I am in this place and this ministry. The passage of one year presents me with an immediate paradox. How can the time have gone so fast? The amazing gift of Holy Orders still hits me whenever I celebrate the Eucharist. Perhaps it won't ever lose its freshness,- that would be lovely!
On the other hand, priesthood, like motherhood, feels so much part of my being that it's hard to believe there was ever a time when I was anything else. Recently, though, I've been wondering and worrying about those elements of everyday parish ministry that seem to take most of the time and drain most of the resources...the frustrating meetings where little seems to be accomplished, the boundless enthusiasm that a flower festival produces in constrast to the polite and dutiful response to the prospect of a parish retreat....I've looked at the hundreds of happy, friendly people I meet outside the church each week, and wondered how to help them encounter the God who is so longing to be real to them. And I've worried that in some ways now is as good as it will get in ministry, since I have the world's most enabling and accomodating boss, who is very willing and ready to support me in any number of explorations of the hinterland beyond the churchyard railings, and relatively few "official" expectations that I must fulfill. Even so, I spend more time with the 99 than the 1 (as it were) and that doesn't feel healthy...If Jesus isn't shut up in the sheep fold, then what am I doing there??

So...lots to mull over, and Peterson was a real help.
Under the Unpredictable Plant describes itself as "an exploration in vocational holiness" in the light of the Jonah story. Gift number one arrived in the very first chapter, as Peterson pointed out with non-negotiable clarity that as a minister Jonah never gets it right.
Being habitually inclined to berate myself for this very thing, it was handy to be reminded that Jonah was ineffective both in disobedience (when he tried to flee to Tarshish) and obedience (consider his response when the Ninevites actually obey his call to repentence!) ...but God used him anyway. Peterson has lots to say about the mythic attractions of Tarshish, where dwells that ideal, glamorous congregation that includes all ages, colours and orientations, that responds instantly to every word preached, joins enthusiastically in daily prayer and works tirelessly to transform the local community into a sign of the Kingdom (combining soup kitchens and Palestrina Masses with no effort at all). That congregation is, of course, lead by a figure of towering holiness....SuperPriest in person....
Ermm...yes....well......We'll stop there!
but it is so horribly easy to be seduced by one's own good intentions, to begin to believe in one's own dreams. The cure for that, says Peterson, is to engage with the reality of parish life. Congregations of the dreary and the frustrating, the dreamers and the depressives, flying on eagle's wings or falling over their own feet, caring selflessly or locked in the prison of their own needs and inadequacies, are all the reality we are going to get. We belong there. They/we are Christ's body, as broken and damaged by sin and misery as he was as he hung on the cross. This is the context in which each one of us of works out our salvation.
So stick with it, he says...Don't dream of escape to Tarshish. Confront who you are amid all the disappointments and broken dreams of your neighbours in Christ. Accept that your motives in ministry will at best be questionable, will say more about your own needs and failures than about any particular gifts you can bring to the table. Realise (are you listening, Kathryn?) that where all is grace you are actually totally unnecessary,- and that doesn't matter either!
In ministry, God is allowing me a place where I can discover more fully what it means to be loved by him, and the opportunity to pass on that love.
That sounds pretty good to me.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Checking in

after a very good week. Not long enough, perhaps...there seemed to be tons and tons to process (still is, for that matter) and lots of sleeping to be done too. Perhaps I really should line our bedroom curtains here at the Curatage....back home, the dawn chorus woke me 2 hours before I needed to rise for the 7.30 Sheldon, I only once managed to wake before 9.00. Bliss!
I spent some time reading Under the Unpredictable Plant which was exactly the right book for this point in my journey....(thank you hugely, M, for recommending it). Will hope to write something about that before too long,- meanwhile, if you know the book, pages 86/88 will shortly be engraved in letters of fire above my desk, my bed and anywhere else I might reasonably stop for long enough to read them.
Sheldon is a good place. Not as totally "mine" as Llan, but still good, and with not one but two really lovely prayer spaces which welcomed and adopted me. The weather wasn't amazing, but I did manage 3 good walks, during the first of which I met a parable. I was heading back down the hill towards Sheldon, and enjoying the sight of two kestrels soaring effortlessly some way away. They were totally at home in their element, resting on the wind, completely focussed on being themselves. As I walked, one of them came closer, close enough for me to see that one wing was damaged...a chunk of feathers missing, which spoiled the graceful outline when seen close to. But that made not a bit of difference to the way the bird hovered and soared, the epitome of grace.

In a week in which I found myself looking quite hard at bits of myself I'd much prefer to ignore, it was good to be reminded that the parts of me that are broken or diminished don't have to spoil my response to God's call to be me, for him.
Oh, and that night the lectionary gave me...yes, you've guessed,
my old friend Isaiah 40
those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles
So, that's what I did. Spent some happy time waiting with God.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Rank Injustice

I don't think I'm convinced that posting sermons here is really a good idea...but I'm away on retreat here for most of the coming week, so here's something to keep the place warm till I get back.
I've got some hard prayer work to do while I'm away, though I plan to spend alot of time sleeping, reading and walking too. See you later, peoples...have a happy week.

Trinity 1 Sermon for St M's. Romans 9 14-26
“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion”
Those of you who are parents will probably be familiar with that stage in the argument with a child,- as likely to be a teenager as a toddler,- when you hear yourself responding to yet another “Why do I have to……” with the unsatisfactory, but unanswerable “Because I say so”.
You may not much admire this weapon in the armoury, but you do have to admit there are times when it comes in very handy. Nonetheless, I’m probably not alone in thinking that I expect something rather better from God, and so at first glance the passage from Romans we’ve heard tonight is a tad startling.
“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion”
To a modern reader that sounds very much like the attitude of a capricious dictator….I’ll do what I like, because this is my show and you’re totally in my power anyway. What I say goes. Just because.
But we’re not used to thinking of God in that way.
We expect him to be bigger in every respect than we are,- so there’s some adjustment to be made if we’re to get to grips with what Paul is trying to tell us, rather than simply closing our Bibles and moving on to a passage which is more comfortable.
One problem with taking a few verses like this from the Lectionary to preach on is, of course, that they're cut off from their original context. Here, it’s important for us to remember that Paul is not talking of God’s dealings with any individual, but with a whole nation, the people of Israel. With our modern sensibilities, we tend to think above all in terms of the individual, and to try and apply all the teachings of Scripture on this basis,- but that is very much a post Enlightenment, modern view. The society in which Paul lived and wrote was very different, with far more emphasis on community than on the individual,- and indeed he is quite explicit here in his focus on not just the Jews, but the new Israel, those people called out of every nation into relationship with God. The words apply to that wider body, the people of the new covenant, and part of the point of the passage is to justify to traditional Jews that it is perfectly acceptable that Gentiles should now be numbered among the chosen. So, we mustn’t just interpret this passage in terms of our own relationship with God…there may be points for us to carry away, of course, which will help or inform this, but Paul is writing to a whole group of new Christians whom he has never met. Whatever else the letter to the Romans may be, it definitely isn’t a one to one session of spiritual direction.
Something else that we may struggle with is, of course, Paul’s utter conviction that God is more than entitled to do whatever he wants with his creation. We may pay lip-service to this, opening prayers with “Almighty God…” but for the most part we behave as if we are the ones in charge of the planet, asking God’s help only when things feel a little beyond us. Paul just wouldn’t understand this view. Life was often hard in the ancient world, as it is in the third world today, and there’s nothing like a struggle for survival to guarantee you a clear sense of your own smallness and weakness in the face of forces beyond you.
From there, it’s but a small step to recognise that the one who controls those forces is the same God who created them,- and us too. So, for Paul God’s omnipotent rule is simply not an issue, though it feels very alien and uncomfortable to us in the west, in this age of self-determinism. In his novel Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe plays with the idea of Wall Street bankers as “masters of the universe”, ultimately showing how laughably vain such self belief can be….but the truth is that many in our society believe that is more or less what they are. They are in charge.
Well, no, says Paul. Actually, you are no more than a lump of clay…Pressing the point, he continues
“Who are you to argue with God?” – but I don’t imagine that I’m the only person here who does just that on a fairly regular basis.
I just don’t like the idea that I am nothing more than a lump of clay to be moulded, squashed, reshaped on the whim of my creator. I’m happy enough to consider myself as a child made in the image of my heavenly father,- but I want to think that I have more say over my life than Paul’s words imply. I want to think of myself as an independent, grown-up child to whom God allows freedom of choice and decision….though the evidence of the world might suggest that when we insist on trying to assume control we are generally rather less than successful. Of course, God does indeed allow us freedom…but the effects of it remind us how very much we need his help in every direction if we’re to act as loving and responsible beings. It’s precisely because we’re such a long way from being loving and responsible, that we’re so loath to admit this. So we shake our heads in disbelief that God could admit to being so capricious
““I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion”
Frankly Lord, that’s just not good enough. What price divine justice if that’s your approach?
Justice,- well thereby hangs a tale.
At one point during the alarming assault course that is the selection procedure for training for ordination in the C of E, I found myself well and truly cornered by an interviewer. We had been talking about my life so far, and she had wanted to probe and explore all sorts of uncomfortable topics, including my attitude to God after the death of my parents, and during the period of my life when I seemed to be constantly pregnant and constantly miscarrying.
Finally, the selector asked me “Has God been just to you?”
The more I protested that for me, justice simply wasn’t an issue, the more she drove the point home.
Of course, my first reaction to the question was to look at it from the wrong angle. I imagined that she wanted to hear me say that I somehow “forgave” God for what had happened along the way. Sure, he hadn’t been as kind as I might have expected,- but I recognised that this wasn’t actually something that disturbed me any longer…so I kept on avoiding the question for as long as I could. But that selector was relentless.
Had God been just to me?
Finally, the penny dropped.
No, I said, thankfully God had not been just to me at all. Despite his omnipotence, he had shown himself consistently to be a God of mercy,- and that, of course, is the message of this passage.
We none of us deserve the mercy that God offers to us, but throughout the passage there is no hint of a symmetry that balances grace with retribution, compassion with justice.
Yes, God can do what he likes with his own creatures……but what he likes is to show them,- show us, infinite mercy and loving kindness. There is no justice in sight at all,- or our fate would be decided long since, and would not be something to celebrate.
Suddenly we can look on the passage with new eyes, and notice elements we might have overlooked.
Look at these verses
“What if God, desiring to show his wrath and make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath that are made for destruction….and what if he has done so in order to make know the riches of his glory for the objects of mercy.
It doesn’t actually matter if we would be better suited to destruction and oblivion…God does not deal with us on the basis of what we are, but on the basis of his own nature as an infinitely merciful Father.
There is, indeed, no justice at all!
Why, after all, should God have chosen Israel to be his chosen nation? There was nothing particular about them, or about Abram among so many others…but he chose them to be his people…and through the centuries he played out his loving purposes in every aspect of their corporate life…through thick and thin, through faithlessness and failure. God remained God, and could never be less than his all-loving self,- as we put in during the prayer of Humble Access
“You are the same Lord, whose nature is always to have mercy”.
Not justice…mercy. Despite everything.
Now, says Paul, the same loving purposes are extended as God calls out a new people, from among the Gentiles as well as the Jews. There is no special merit as a basis for this selection…it sounds just as arbitrary as the other decision
“Those who were not my people, I will call my people and those who were not beloved I will call beloved…..”
because, when it comes down to it, that’s just what God DOES.
He loves. He adopts. He shows mercy.
Even to us, the people who imagine so often that they can do without him. Thanks be to God!

An unexpected treat

This morning, both our retired Associate Clergy were keen to be on duty…one was due to preach and the other to preside at the main Parish Eucharist, so WonderfulVicar, who was going to Deacon, gave me the morning off once I’d celebrated at 8.00.
I dithered over my options.
Should I take the opportunity to discover just how very difficult the layout of St M’s, pillars and all, makes life for the congregation? And which parts of the service reminded me (to use the Ship of Fools guidelines for Mystery Worshippers) of heaven and which of the other place?? Or, should I enjoy a rare chance to see how things feel in another church in the deanery? And if so, which?
I decided that explaining to my own congregation quite what I was up to in the pews would be potentially exhausting (this is a church where people tend to robe for no good reason except that they CAN…and I’ve already alarmed them a bit by opting not dress up and sit in "state" when I’ve no specific job to do at Evensong) and that the chances of my escaping again on a Sunday in the near future were almost nil. Accordingly, as my chorister son departed noisily for St M’s, I got into my car and headed off for another St M, this time St Michael’s, a church in a very different part of Cheltenham with whom we will shortly be working more closely in that nebulous ecclesial unit a “cluster”.
And it was lovely.

St M’s is a 1960s church in an area of relative deprivation…It is an Anglican/Methodist Local Ecumenical Project, but there is currently no Anglican priest in post (oh if ONLY it had not been vacant now…it is so exactly the sort of church in the sort of area that I long to serve). This morning’s service was billed as “Morning Praise” and was, I discovered, entirely lay devised and lay lead. Regular readers will have gathered that “my” St M’s likes to do things properly…there are training programmes for everything from ironing the linen to swinging the thurible, and in our rather formal setting that’s probably a Good Thing. At the other St M’s, though, there is no such anxiety. It took me a while to work out exactly what the secret was, till I realised that people are there purely and simply because they want to be there to worship God,- and though worship is done with enthusiasm there’s not a whiff of polish about the place. I enjoyed being with them hugely, and am very excited that I may get the chance to join them again once in a while if the clustering takes off smoothly. An added bonus was this affirmation of faith (published in Bread of Tomorrow) . It comes from Ecuador, the work of Fray Guillermo Chavez,- and is, I think, simply stunning.

We believe in God, creator of the earth,
creator of life and freedom,
hope of the poor.

We believe in Jesus Christ,
friend in suffering,
companion in the resurrection,
way of peace.

We believe in the Holy Spirit
that holy force impelling the poor
to build a church of the beatitudes.

We recognise one baptism
in the blood of our martyrs;
we confess our faith
in the law of love.
We wait for the resurrection of the people,
and joyfully praise our Lord,
who has looked upon the disinherited,
those who have no bread, no home and no land.

Thank you, St Michael's, for restoring some balance to my diet...I was able to return to St M's in very good heart to baptise (a very serious young man who seemed old before his time,- his first birthday is just days away!), to preach at Evensong, and to try to inject some grasp of reality into plans for the Youth Groups' Birthday service next weekend. I just needed a reminder that the messy reality of the incarnation can be celebrated in the church as well as beyond...and it has made me very happy.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

The Remembrance of Things Past...a post for Father's Day

My father died on a Saturday, 17th June 1978, just over 2 weeks after my 18th birthday. I blogged about his death last year, but I wanted to spend a bit of today thinking about his life,- specially this weekend when the whole world seems busy celebrating fatherhood (just as they were the weekend that he died).

My father was indisputably the most important person in my childhood universe.
I loved my mother dearly, and we share many many characteristics, but she never enjoyed good health, and was often hospitalised for months at a time while I was growing up. I never quite knew if I'd return from school to find one of my honorary mothers on duty, because Mummy was poorly again. In contrast, Daddy was the rock on which my world was based, the one whose presence meant home. My clearest memories have him standing at the sink in a stripy butcher’s apron washing up, or sitting on the end of my bed reading me poetry before he tucked me up for the night, or making up wonderful stories about a girl called Belinda who lived on a farm and had all the animals that the heart could desire. When I discovered the Swallows and Amazons books, long before I was really old enough to camp alone, he would cheerfully subject himself to chilly nights in a flimsy tent at the bottom of our garden so that I could be as many of the Walker children as I fancied, and was always prepared to light me a bonfire to allow for charred toast and rock hard jacket potatoes (the limits of my campfire cooking)
When I was 6, my endless pleadings for a dog "of my very own" bore fruit with the arrival of Robin, a Springer Spaniel puppy whom we collected just days after my birthday. From then on, no weekend was complete without long walks, Daddy, Robin and me…still telling stories, sometimes having adventures, or perhaps just wandering along in companionable silence.
One walk took us to “Boaz Wood”, where a tramp had lived for some years in a tin hut. Mr Boaz (surely not his real name) was long gone, but the hut remained, and we played wonderful games in and around it, as in an abandoned van that we found on another walk. Naval battles melted into Narnian adventures, and if my legs got tired (my father was over 6’ tall, and never one to dawdle) then a piggy back was always available, to bring me safely home. Piggy-backs, incidentally, were known as camel rides, and their theme tune, to be sung full voice by anyone in the vicinity was
“We’re off on the road to Morocco. This taxi is hard on the spine”
Whose spine? You may well ask…

Home was a chalet-bungalow, with most bedrooms on the ground floor, and my room was next door to the sitting room, with an air-vent for the chimney opening on one wall opposite my bed. I could creep out of bed on winter evenings, slide open the grating and listen as my father played the piano,- Beethoven, Chopin, Mendelssohn. The piano, which is part of our family life to this day, had been given to him in his teens, - after the wooden-framed piano on which he’d first learned literally exploded under the tension of its own strings, one hot summer in the 1920s.
Daddy loved the 19th century composers, and never quite “got” what I saw in Bach, though he would loyally attend every concert in which I sang or played during my teens, and learned the accompaniments for everything I was working on. He wasn’t a great musician, but he loved music so much,- and never concealed his delight in my singing. It was Daddy that took me to my first concert, my first opera, and, every year on Good Friday, to hear Messiah. He had a large and splendid voice, - which was a joy when the audience rose to join in the Hallelujah chorus, but a colossal embarrassment on the odd Sunday when he expressed his disapproval of any dodgy theology he encountered in hymns by a sudden, agonising silence, which left the whole congregation floundering! Generally, he was an 8.00 man, a quietly traditional Anglican, who preferred not to discuss his relationship with God. When I was indulging in the essential teenage rebellion by worshipping at a church much further “down the candle” than the one in which I’d been baptised and confirmed, I used to try and corner him to discuss “real faith”,- but Daddy was essentially reserved and refused to be drawn. I’ll never forget the evening when Mummy and I were talking (gossiping?) about a family whom we knew,- and tried to involve Daddy in the conversation. He simply said “They’re not on my social list”……….and thus reduced both his women to completely hysterical laughter. The idea of Daddy, who would have been totally content as a hermit, provided we were OK about it, having even the vaguest concept of a “social list” was so ludicrous……I’m still smiling, 30 years on!

He taught himself German so that we could explore the Lieder poets together,- which I loved. He also taught himself “New Maths”, which I was considerably less keen on, so that he could help me make sense of that. Maths homework nights were agony for us both, as he was naturally quick with numbers (he had had an Oxford place, which he never took up due to the outbreak of war, and his subsequent struggle with tb) and just couldn’t see why I couldn’t see!
He demanded much of himself, and though I was in no doubt that I was loved unconditionally I knew too that he took the greatest pride in my achievements. I was so glad to be able to tell him, days before his death, that I had been made the first ever girl head chorister at my school, and his pleasure is one of my strongest memories of those last days. Aside from my mother and me, his great passions in life were the countryside and above all the sea. His father’s family had been boatbuilders on the Thames for generations, but Daddy broke with tradition by seeking wider horizons and was probably happiest during his wartime service in the Royal Navy. After his death, I discovered that he had collected a DSC for his courage while serving in Burma, but he never spoke about it, pointing me instead to the wartime classic The Cruel Sea. "I don't need to talk about it. It's all there".

Books held the key to most things. He read thoroughly, absorbing more along the way than I ever manage,- and rarely re-read “The world is so full of great books, I don’t want to miss out some I could have read, by revisiting others”. Perhaps it was his wartime experience that gave him a sense of the value of time, a constant awareness of mortality.
When I discovered the classic English whodunnits in my teens, he was reading Maigret in French. In his last weeks, when he knew he was dying (though we sadly never managed to talk about it) he determinedly went on reading Proust,- again in the original.

There are no madeleine equivalents, no particular food that recaptures memories of Daddy for me, but if I smell the faint whiff of pipe tobacco mingled with new-mown grass on a summer’s evening, then I’m a small child again, hearing the soothing sound of the mower as Daddy pushed it over the grass outside my window, and I know that everything in the world is safe in its proper order.

My father would hate to be the subject of a public tribute like this, so I'm almost uncomfortable about sharing these memories. His funeral, like his life, was quiet, private, understated, but I was proud of him then, and I’m proud of him still. Part of me is still incredulous that I’ve lived more of my life without him than I enjoyed with him, and I'll always regret that the children never knew him,- but he’s alive in them in so many ways, and I thank God for him not just today, but on every remembrance.

Brief update

Thank you, you splendid supportive people! While blogging my angsts did not have any appreciable effect on my sermon, which remains conspicuous by its absence, it did make me feel tons better...not least because someone contacted me by email to say that they had friends with church contacts in HK, so if a crisis occurrs before Monday there's at least someone who knows someone to whom she could turn, apart from the UK Consulate!
Meanwhile, she blogged this morning here and is clearly not in the grip of any immediate disaster (in fact, she's sitting in a healthfood cafe watching the world go by)
Hugs, prayers and your presence in my life so much appreciated.
Now, about that sermon...

Friday, June 16, 2006

Can I panic now?

said Ron Weasley, confronted by several zillion appalling spiders in ( I think) the second Harry Potter film...
He was having to confront a phobia-gone-mad, out of all proportion to any likely reality.
I am currently reminding myself of that, as my wilder flights of maternal imagination threaten to overwhelm me.
DarlingDaughter (who should perhaps be renamed TeaThaim girl now, in deference to her travel blog?) left Thailand, and arrived in Hong Kong yesterday, a couple of days early, as she was desperate to see Yeti perform there (no, I don't know anything about them either). After all sorts of to-ing and fro-ing those nice people at have promised full refund of the ticket she won't be using, and everything ought to be fine, except that the friends with whom she's staying don't return home to HK till Monday. Leaving L on her own in a city where she knows no-one for 4 days that show signs of feeling like years. I know she's sensible. I know she's learning and growing in every respect through this trip. But in the final analysis, I'm her mother and she's on the other side of the world with no support structure in place at all. A very perturbing text this morning didn't improve things, - though it turns out that it's not as scary in terms of L as it sounded at first. I'm just finding it rather difficult, really, and hoping that a squeaky blog post will help me to put the panic away while I try to write a sermon for evensong. Jeremiah and Romans. Perhaps I do need to panic after all!

Thursday, June 15, 2006

A Tale of Two Services

This morning, I joined several hundred others at a service to celebrate the life of Peter, the priest whose death from cancer had such an impact on the Quiet Day last week. It was utterly wonderful. The cover of the order of service carried the words of Dag Hammarskjold
“For all that has been, thanks. For all that will be YES”
and that positive note sounded loud and clear through every element of the service.
Not for the first time I found myself longing for a church without walls, for what was happening in the church of St Philp and St James Leckhampton simply shouted resurrection faith from every pore. There’s little I can say that will capture the atmosphere, but somehow I can’t NOT blog about it. Peter was an inspiration to so many people, and that shone through the whole service, but even stronger than that was the light of God’s love that bathed each and every one of us there.
There were many wonderful words said, great hymns sung with colossal conviction (Thine be the Glory! And Can it Be? Hark, hark my soul) and a kind of suppressed joy that kept bursting out in unexpected places. When all that could be had been said, sung and prayed, Splendid Bishop gave us his blessing, and the bearers moved forward in the intense silence that followed, to take up their load and carry it away……and then the choir burst out with that epitome of celebration the Hallelujah chorus.
I can’t imagine that anyone there will ever forget the impact of that music, those words, as the brilliant gold and white of the flowers on the coffin passed between the lines of loving people. For a brief moment we felt ourselves involved in the welcome that Peter himself is enjoying, as his voice joins with the multitude that no man can number.
In contrast, our parish celebration of the feast of Corpus Christi tonight was at the depressing end of low-key! There were 7 in the congregation, 20 on the other side of the rood screen…..and this in a parish that talks up its catholic heritage at the slightest provocation. The choir sang beautifully, and actually the liturgy was rather lovely, but I did come home wondering quite what was going on. By “popular demand”, we use the Book of Common Prayer for Corpus Christi, and the choir sing Merbecke. No problem with that, if those who have demanded it appear to enjoy the fruits of their campaigning. But tonight just felt rather sad. We were there to celebrate that most amazing gift, the Eucharist…Do we really so take it for granted that we can’t spare an hour on a Thursday evening (after the whistle had blown in Germany) to express our joy? Corpus Christi is such a lovely feast…I hope we can work out a way of celebrating it properly..
Our final hymn tonight was All for Jesus, which might well have featured earlier in the day as well….but tonight I was profoundly relieved that the church was well and truly hidden behind thick medieval walls. I can't imagine that any casual passer-by would have been inspired by the experience to find out more.

Lord Jesus Christ We thank you that in this wonderful sacrament
You have given us the memorial of your passion:
grant us so to reverence the sacred mysteries of your body and blood
that we may know within ourselves
and show forth in our lives

the fruits of your redemption;

for you are alive and reign with the Father

in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.


Did I mention at all that I was trying to evade writing a sermon for Corpus Christi? I managed remarkably effectively in the first part of the week, so that it was only at the characteristic late-night-before stage that I actually sat down to consider the Lectionary.
What did I find?
The gospel passage is none other than John 6 51-58
Now consider the Ordinary Time book.
In particular consider the entry for 29th August.
It's based on a passage from John.
Chapter 6, verses 51ff
And the author?
Me, myself and I!
Sorted :-)

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Only slightly mulish!

Readers who share my Myers Briggs profile (ENFP) will probably empathise with the terror that gripped me on Sunday morning as I left home for a whole day’s training on conflict resolution.
Conflict, you see, is not something I do.
When there’s a disagreement at the PCC, I’m the one who is looking miserably at her toes, wanting the floor to open so that I can escape somewhere, anywhere…
When LongsufferingClockmaker is less than longsuffering with DarlingDaughter (who is, after all, 19- with all that entails!), I long to barricade myself in the study and hide till it’s all over…
Leaving aside my own preferences, I was also painfully aware of the on-going conflict around my ministry as priest which has continued to cast a shadow over worship at St M’s in the year since my priesting, and which remains painfully far from any resolution. I knew I’d find myself thinking about it a lot, and I wasn’t really sure I wanted to.So one way and another, a whole day focussing on the subject didn’t really fill me with delight.
In the event, though, it was both interesting and (I think) potentially helpful.
The guy leading the day began from the premise that conflict is an essential, albeit uncomfortable, feature of almost any change, pointing out that Kingdom values are by their very nature challenging, and that transformation, whether of individual or community, is rarely painless.
He pointed out, too, that it is an essential in any real community…those communities (like those marriages) where there is absolutely no conflict are often characterised either by collusive dishonesty, or by covert domination of one party by the other.
Having explored some examples of conflict in Scripture, we moved on to consider what made situations harder to resolve – things like lack of clarity over the underlying issues, imbalance of authority (perceived or actual) or its abuse, and glossing over sticking points. Then we all did a jolly questionnaire (actually, it was quite hard work) to determine our preferred techniques for resolution. For each question there were only 2 options, and in many cases neither felt really comfortable,- but our brief was to answer all of them in the light of a particular situation in which we had been involved (no prizes for guessing mine) and at the end we emerged with a reasonable guide to our preferences.
My score was weighted heavily in favour of the avoid/accommodate approach, with negotiation coming in a close second…but I was rather startled to discover that I did have some score on compulsion,- until the coach pointed out that there are times when the authority of our orders actually means that compulsion is the only approach. On one level, I’m practising it simply by having refused to abandon my call to priesthood…I do celebrate the Eucharist and I will continue to do so. I’m forcing that situation on the congregation, simply by being who I am. There was a bit of discussion about the mandate to lead that came with ordination, and about the current crisis in confidence among clergy which meant that too many of us are over-wary of admitting to any authority at all…I think I need to consider that more: quite a few things over the past few weeks have made me realise that I really do need to grow up and fully accept the responsibility of my calling without apology. It may not be my natural inclination, but if I don’t see myself as “grown up” by 46 then there’s not much hope!
Back to the results…Other strategies (based on work by Speed B Leas (fab name!) of the Alban Institute) are persuasion, collaboration, & bargaining …and we were told about the essential assumptions, likely outcomes and appropriate times to employ each. I am all too aware that in my particular situation, avoidance has not improved the situation…but since the more fruitful approaches demand a desire on both sides to co-operate, I was left not much the wiser as to routes forward. I suspect that we may be so intractably stuck that only intervention by a third party has any hope of success. I was comforted, though, by a key question “Decide who owns the problem” (if the majority are happy and affirming, it may really not be my issue after all) and by the realisation that no single approach is always right or (what a relief) always wrong
Meanwhile, the important thing is to try to divorce personal emotional responses from the contentious issues, to recognise that we may sometimes be too close to an issue to see clearly, and that in ministry all we have to work with are our relationships,- so communication and open listening are crucial.
I may have gone reluctantly, but I'm so glad that I didn't dig my heels in and refuse to budge.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Words strain, crack and sometimes break...

Well, it might be about shamrocks, or water/ice/steam, or even a Russian wedding ring….but maybe not!
This year I was spared preparing a full sermon for Trinity Sunday (I’m currently avoiding writing one for Corpus Christi, but that's quite another matter)…but I did have to do a “word” for the 8.00 congregation, and as it turned out it was also my turn to lead worship at the Home for the Utterly Confused, so there wasn’t much escape.
Mulling time was short, so I was glad of John Wesley
“Tell me how it is that in this room there are three candles and but one light, and I will explain to you the mode of the divine existence”
and of the thoughts of another commentator who pointed out that the Trinity is a mystery to be treasured, in the same way that being in love is a mystery, but we tend to treat it as a puzzle to be solved, like the Times Crossword.
Most of all I was, and am, glad that the doctrine of the Trinity expresses the fact that God exists in relationship, and that we are invited into that relationship too…to sit at the fourth side of the table in Rublev’s icon.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Work of the Spirit

Even by my standards, life has been quite busy lately…Two very different but equally excellent training days should get posts of their own very soon, I hope, but before the moment passes entirely I wanted to write something about last night’s Pentecost Plus Trail….
The original plan had been for this to be part of another GD1 ecumenical Youth Service,- but at the last minute this foundered on the rocks of college for the youth leaders of the other churches…There are times when they make me feel so very old as they juggle the demands of college courses, their youth ministry and the incessant pressure to get on with being young and having fun!
So, on Saturday and Sunday evening we laid out the trail for our St M’s youth groups.
It was really interesting to discover the difference that a golden summer evening had on the atmosphere in church…instead of the mysterious pools of light and shade which had characterised earlier trails, the whole church was bathed in golden light and birdsong drifted in from the churchyard till well into the evening….We left the doors open and I enjoyed visits from some random by-passers,- who badly needed a positive experience of teenagers in Charlton Kings, and were both impressed and amazed to find an eclectic group working their way round the stations with a kind of joyful seriousness. I’m so happy at the way those children have become comfortable with the church building and with this type of prayer. A year ago, there would have been horseplay and foolery from the majority…last night, one group in particular took nearly an hour to work their way round seven stations. As always, some worked better than others, but this particular trail was very low stress for me, thanks to our own Youth Leader, who recognised a sinking curate when he saw one and collected most of the material needed for half the stations, bless him.
I don’t think he’d have done that last year either…we seem to have had a growing season.

When the Feast of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Without warning there was a sound like a strong wind, gale force—no one could tell where it came from. It filled the whole building. Then, like a wildfire, the Holy Spirit spread through their ranks…….
Feel the wind on your face….imagine that it is the breath of God blowing over you, filling you with all the gifts that you most need…
Spend a few moments thinking about what they might be, and talk to God about them. You might like to breathe your prayer, your need, into a bubble and let it float off in the breeze.

They started speaking in a number of different languages as the Spirit prompted them.
The disciples had an important message to communicate…the message of God’s love.
How we use the gift of language is important…we can damage others or make them happy. We can share Good News or bad…
Use your gift of language to write helpful or hurtful words on the sheets

1That's when Peter stood up and, backed by the other eleven, spoke out with bold urgency: "Fellow Jews, all of you who are visiting Jerusalem, listen carefully and get this story straight. These people aren't drunk as some of you suspect. They haven't had time to get drunk—it's only nine o'clock in the morning. This is what the prophet Joel announced would happen:

"In the Last Days," God says,
"I will pour out my Spirit
on every kind of people:
Your sons will prophesy,
also your daughters;
Your young men will see visions,
your old men dream dreams.
When the time comes,
I'll pour out my Spirit
On those who serve me, men and women both,
and they'll prophesy……..
……And whoever calls out for help
to me, God, will be saved."
Pentecost is part of the way God began to work out his dream for the world…but so much today remains far from any sort of dream come true.
Read through a few of the news stories in these papers and reflect on what God’s dream or your dream might be in those situations. Write a dream on a flame shape….

Don’t be misled. No one makes a fool of God. What a person plants, he will harvest. The person who plants selfishness, ignoring the needs of others – ignoring God! – harvests a crop of weeds. All he’ll have to show for his life is weeds! But the one who plants in response to God, letting God’s spirit do the growth work in him, harvests a crop of real life, eternal life!

Now is your chance to plant good seeds in response to God, and ask him to help you to grow in his new life. Plant a sunflower seed and take care of it in the weeks ahead…remember, a sunflower always turns to find where the sun is…in the same way as we need to turn always towards God and follow in his way if we want to grow and flourish in him.

In the Old Testament one of God’s prophets, Ezekiel, had a vision of God’s plans for his people…this is what he heard God say
“I'll give you a new heart, put a new spirit in you. I'll remove the stone heart from your body and replace it with a heart that's God-willed, not self-willed. I'll put my Spirit in you and make it possible for you to do what I tell you and live by my commands.”
We spend most of our time trying to live life the way that we want, without caring too much about either God or other people…we may not worry that others are affected by our actions, our ways of life. The loving hearts that God intends each of us to have can seem to be frozen by our own selfishness…but all is not lost. God promises to give us new hearts. Think about ways in which you may be hard or cold-hearted at the moment. Ask God to change you from the inside…to make you as full of love as God is.
Then take an ice cube and carry it to the altar rails…place it in the bowl beside the flames and leave it there to melt, as a sign that you have invited him to soften your heart too.

The Holy Spirit came upon the disciples both as a strong wind and as flames…flames can warm and melt, they can guide and comfort,-but they never leave things unchanged.
You may want to light a tea light as a sign that you are asking God’s Holy Spirit to be with you through life…but remember, a candle is changed completely by being burned. It gives light and warmth to others, but it does so at a cost.
To help you pray, if you wish you might use these words from a hymn to the Holy Spirit
Spirit of the living God,
fall afresh on me.
Spirit of the living God,
fall afresh on me.
Melt me,
mold me,
fill me,
use me.
Spirit of living God,
fall afresh on me.

At this last station, I’d placed assorted spam CDs around our “fire” (candles of assorted sizes in sand, in a dish surrounded by flame coloured crepe paper,-simple but quite effective), which itself stood in a bowl of the water created by the melting ice hearts. By the time I prayed the trail myself, just before dismantling it, the kids had each left a tea light positioned in the centre of a CD, so that it picked up the holographic effect and made the whole area a rainbow of warmth and colour. Sitting in the cool of the church, with Taize music gently enveloping me, and that sense of companionship that the prayeful candles of other pilgrims always offers, I was selfishly grateful that we weren't involved in madly liasing with quantities of youth from the other churches. GD1 has been great, but always on the frenetic side...and with exams afoot for many of our youth and busy lives taking their toll on all of us, that peace was just what we needed.
By 10.00 last night, there was nowhere else I would rather have been. Just lovely, really!

Post Script on Calling

Now why didn't I remember that I had this written in an old journal? I found it while searching for something quite different, and it would have been wonderful to share last week, but since I've failed there, perhaps it will speak to someone reading?
It's by apparently by Henry Rohr (though I can find no reference to him anywhere, and was wondering if it might have been Richard really). Either way, it's good, I think.

I know that I was called.
the message was quite clear
and yet I cannot see
the how, the why
I feel so weak, so ill-equipped
for such a task.
And yet I am prepared
to say my yes
and undertake the risk
and entere the unknown
responding to the call.
Trustfully treading my way
the only one
that leads to life - to Him.


When I was writing my reflections for the Quiet Day, there was something hovering on the edge of my thoughts which I couldn't pin down at the time. As is the way of things, it returned to me today...It's a piece called Disclosure, by Ann Lewin (whose writing I love...she sees things very clearly)

"Prayer is like watching for the Kingfisher.
All you can do is
Be where he is likely to appear, and
Often, nothing much happens;
There is space, silence and
No visible sign, only the Knowledge
that he's been there

And may come again.

Seeing or not seeing cease to matter,
You have been prepared.
But sometimes, when you've almost
Stopped expecting it,
A flash of brightness gives encouragement."

Saturday, June 10, 2006

God ran away
When we imprisoned her
And put her in a box
Named church.
God would have none
of our labels and
our limitations
and she said
“I will escape and plant myself
in simpler soil
where those who see, will see
and those who hear, will hear.
I will become a God – believable
Because I am free,
And go where I will.
My goodness will be found
In my freedom and
That freedom I offer to all –
Regardless of colour, sex or status,
Regardless of power or money.

Ah, I am God
Because I am free
And all those who would be free
Will find me
Roaming, wandering, singing.
Come, walk with me –
Come dance with me!
I created you to sing, - to dance
To love….

If you cannot sing
Nor dance, nor love
Because they put you also in a box.
Know that your God broke free
And ran away.
So send your spirit
Then to dance with her.
Dance, sing with the God
Whom they cannot tame nor chain.
Dance within, though they chain your very guts
To the great stone walls…
Dance, beloved,
Ah, Dance!

Edwina Gately from I Hear a Seed Growing, quoted in Francis Dewar Invitations: God's Calling for Everyone
(GREAT book, highly recommended!)

Friday, June 09, 2006

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised....

but the thing that delighted me most in the wake of the MU day was 2 phonecalls from of whom, in my own congregation, wanted to share a dream that has been building for her over some months to create a social network for those alone again in their later years...She had spoken to me during the quiet on Wednesday, but had been rather overwhelmed by her feelings at the time, and not able to work out quite what was going on. Now she sounds quite different. Excited. Purposeful. Interested in life, in a way that she hasn't been for a year or two, I'd say....
The other lady was from the congregation that has just lost its vicar. She wanted to tell me that she hadn't known what she could do to make anything better, and had been told very firmly in the course of the day that her calling was to pray.
"I was so relieved" she said "It's been all I've wanted to do all through this...."
Both were of the generation that takes some persuading that answering God's call doesn't automatcially mean heading out to the mission fields of somewhere unpronounceable...but they clearly got the message on Wednesday. I am so thankful.

The Response (Thoughts from Part 2 of the MU day)

Perhaps you think you might have begun to hear the faint murmurs of a call from God?
If that’s so, I wonder how it has made you feel.
Fear not if your first reaction is not one of unadulterated delight. You are in good company.But nonetheless, a call demands a response…be it "behold the handmaid of the Lord" or "Ah, my Lord, I am only a child"...
Sometimes it seems that there we are left with no room for manouevre at all..Perhaps after all we don’t envy Saul his unmistakeable call. In his position, we’d really rather there was wiggle room,- it’s so much easier to hide if we’re not entirely sure that we’re being called at all.
Actually, when all is said and done, in all the Biblical stories of call God seems to get rather too close for our comfort, and it becomes very clear that it is indeed a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
Awe is, then, an entirely appropriate reaction…
Listen to the way in which Isaiah describes his own experience of call…This is no encounter with a cosy God, or gentle Jesus
1 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. 3 And they were calling to one another:
"Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory."
4 At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.
5 "Woe to me!" I cried. "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty."
6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 With it he touched my mouth and said, "See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for."
8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?"
And I said, "Here am I. Send me!"

“Woe is me” can indeed feel like the only possible answer…but in fact God always offers us a choice,- even though it sometimes seems that our choice is a foregone conclusion. We know about the stories of call in the Bible, because these are the ones who said Yes…but who knows what other stories remain untold,- the stories of those who decided to dodge the issue, to protest their unworthiness so conclusively that they even convinced themselves. The Holy Spirit is an enabler, and not a dictator. God does intervene, in order to make us “fit for purpose”, - that’s the message of Isaiah’s burning coal,- but if we are too frightened to open our hearts he won’t force us to do so…and it seems to me that very often we are ruled by our fears.
Who knows where we’ll end up, or how different our lives may look if we let the Spirit in to our lives, as individuals and as a church. It’s scary stuff.
We might need to jettison things that we really value, might have to put our selves on the line, risk the sort of changes that will make us stand out from the crowd.
That's possibly a bit too demanding. I want to be used by God, but still keep something in reserve, hang onto control of my own life. I'll go with "Yes, BUT.." for the moment...if I can't think of a pressing reason to say No.
In fact, my Biblical patron could well be Jonah, who travelled hundreds of miles out of his way to evade his mission to Nineveh…and then, perversely, was thoroughly put out when God revealed himself as the sort of God of mercy that most people would welcome with open arms. Jonah, though, enjoyed being miserable! It’s surely evidence of God’s sense of humour that salvation from himself, as much as from the raging storm, is to be found in that unsalubrious place, the belly of the whale. Jonah is not good at loving himself…crouching inside that great fish, he is the very embodiment of what John Bell describes as “the you you hide”…
You see, poor self-image is another huge barrier that can hinder our response to God.
We’re brought up, I think, to believe that it’s a very thin line between self-belief and egotism, that it’s somehow praiseworthy to be self-deprecating, to constantly run oneself down. While this can make human relationships run more smoothly, it really isn’t going to work in our conversations with God. After all, he knows each of us far better than we know ourselves. As a wise priest once said to me, as I wrestled with the implausibility of my own calling
“God calls you as you are. It is up to him to oversee what you will become”
but even in the raw material there are always those precious gifts which God has given you, the gifts that will enable you to sing your own unique song for him.
Listen to these words, quoted once by Nelson Mandela
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves
“Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be.
You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine as children do…And as we let our light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”

I love that...If we shine, so will others. That sounds very much a God-thing, doesn't it?
Despite ourselves, God is always calling to us. He may speak through other people, he may speak through his creation, through his word, or in a host of other ways…but call he does. It is our responsibility to place ourselves where we may hope to hear him…There is a story about the rabbi Zuscha, on his death bed, responding to a question about his expectations of the afterlife
I don’t really know. But one thing I do know. When I get there, the Lord won’t ask me “Why weren’t you Moses? Or why weren’t you David? I am going to be asked
“Why weren’t you Zuscha".

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Thoughts on the Call...

“I don’t know what they do to the enemy, but by Gum they frighten me!” said the Duke of Wellington, as he reviewed his troops shortly before Waterloo. In the same way, I’m not sure in what ways yesterdays Quiet Day may have helped the MU members who came along, but it was hugely beneficial for me.
Thankfully, the weather relented, and it was the sort of perfect June day that makes it hard NOT to believe in a benevolent God smiling down on his world. It was a real blessing to be with this group on this day of all days, as there was a contingent from one particular church in the Deanery whose much loved, inspirational & visionary vicar had died the evening before, after a short but intense illness. So, before we even started the day, there was a lot of grieving to be done, and so much loss to be acknowledged and brought into the context of the Eucharist.
After that, I was very clear that no words of mine would be likely to have a tremendous impact,- which relieved me of several ton weights of anxiety,- but things fell into place as I talked, and it really did feel as if these were the right words for this group on this day.
Which makes it all the dottier that I’m proposing to post them here…really not sure why…except that I received such overwhelmingly positive feedback from those who were there, particularly those who had felt that they had no gift, no calling, that it seems plain pigheaded not to post…just in case anyone is feeling that way today.

I split the day into two…Part 1 was The Call, part 2 The Response.
The Call
On one level, this is something very simple. God calls each of us into a relationship with him. That’s what we’re for, the purpose of our being. As Augustine put it “Life is for love. Time is only that we may find God”
But for a relationship to be authentic, both sides must be fully themselves….and so Jesus calls us to discover who we really are, out true identity, that has very little to do with the way we spend our time, or the complicated webs of human relations that often seem to define us. We have to strip away all those alternative self definitions…which is both alarming and very hard work. But it’s the only thing that will really do, because He calls each one of us as his beloved child to discover just what that parent/child relationship really means
“I am come that you might have life in all its fullness”
For each of us, that will mean something very different, and it will certainly involve discovering our identity in God. This is at the heart of the concept of calling…and it’s something that applies to everyone.
I said that calling has little to do with occupation, but of course it is quite possible that God’s calling may find its fullest expression in a particular role or career. From this has emerged the idea that vocation only applies to a minority of people, among whom clergy and religious, doctors and teachers probably top the popular poll. It is part of the picture certainly, but it’s not the whole and certainly vocation extends beyond any of these traditional areas. It is the process by which we become our true selves in God, so the reality is that it is something that concerns each one of us.

God sends each person into this world with a special message to deliver
A special song to sing for others
A special act of love to bestow.
No one else can speak my message
Or sing my song
Or offer my act of love.
These are entrusted only to me.” John Powell Through Seasons of the Heart

In other words, God has given each one of us something of value, some treasure that is our contribution to the life of the world….but too often this creative potential remains dormant, partly at least because we can’t believe that we ,might actually have anything to offer. We accept the limited framework that society affords and allow this to constrain us…We say that it’s only being sensible when we abandon our dreams and settle down into mediocrity. We don’t believe in ourselves enough to allow God to call out the treasures from within us, and when it comes down to it, we probably don’t have enough belief in God either.
We elect to live our lives on the purely practical plain,- and thus so many songs remain unsung.
I’d imagine that already some of you are mentally scratching your heads, or saying to yourselves
“It’s all very well for her. She’s fallen on her feet with ordination…but I’ve never had any sense that God is calling me to anything particular”
The first thing is to remember that calling need not be to something dramatic or glamorous. Your gift may be something as simple but life-enhancing as listening, or hospitality. It’s rare for great listeners to receive public acclaim, but their gift is one that makes the most enormous difference to the world,- for everyone has a story that deserves to be heard.
If you’re not at all sure what your gift might be, that can be a positive advantage. Starting from a place of uncertainty can be the most fruitful way to begin. After all, there’s nothing like being sure of your destination to ensure that you arrive only there, and nowhere else…which doesn’t leave much room for God to invite you to share in his creative dance.

For just a few moments, don’t focus on your obligations, the things that you feel are “givens” in your particular corner of the universe, and simply allow yourself to dream. Consider what brings you to life, and what deadens and depresses you.
There is a widespread myth among Christians that in “dying to self” in order to follow Christ, we must automatically turn our back on the very things that make our souls sing. However, there is a world of difference between saying No to selfish desires and wantonly refusing to engage in those activities that make us feel most fully ourselves, most fully alive.
Like Christian Aid, God believes in life BEFORE death.
We need to remember too that one call doesn’t invalidate those that went before….we may be called to a particular role at a particular time,- but we need to be ready and willing to move on when God demands this….Paul had surely believed he had a divine mandate to persecute the Christian church…but that call was turned on its head on the way to Damascus.
In the end, it is Paul who really gets the message about the nature of a call from God. Here he is writing in 1 Cor 11 26-28
“My friends, think what sort of people you are, whom God has called. Few of you are wise by any human standard, few powerful or of noble birth. Yet to shame the wise, God has chosen what the world counts as folly and to shame what is strong, God has chosen what the world counts as weakness. God has chosen those things without rank or standing in the world, mere nothings, to overthrow the existing order.”
The great thing about this mismatch between calling and apparent qualification is that it protects us from any sense that calling, and the gifts we are given to use in pursuit of it, somehow accrue to our own merit. We can’t even guarantee that they will always be ours…If Abraham saw the birth of Isaac as in any way a reward for his obedience in answering God’s call to leave home and family, and travel wherever God dictated, he was disabused of this idea when God asked him to prove that his relationship of obedience to God was the most important thing in his life. As he laid the fire and prepared to sacrifice his only son, he must have wondered what on earth obedience to the divine call had brought him. Was God determined to deprive him of the God-given means to live out his calling to be a father of many nations? Ultimately, of course, Abraham showed himself ready to trust God absolutely. By showing himself willing to sacrifice the dearest gift he had been given, he proclaimed himself ready above all to put God’s call first….above even the gifts we had planned to use for our calling.
We will have nothing special to offer, except for our willingness to be used and, though living out our calling may in due course make heart and soul sing, the immediate and rational reaction may be one of fear at the impossibility of the task ahead.
That’s no bad place to be, for God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness, and he meets us at the point of our need and offers himself to make good our deficiencies.