Sunday, August 31, 2008

For St Casserole

Sherry, and everyone else in Gustav's path.

When I was training, I had a wonderful placement in our Cathedral City's most multi-cultural parish, - where the core of the congregation were Afro Carribean, with an overlay of Iraqi Christians and some original white British too...I loved every second of my time there, the company of the vicar (who seemed gifted with perpetual youth and endless enthusiasm, despite being just a year away from his retirement at the time), the way he stopped before any and every event to make space and time for prayer, his motto for the parish
"We try to love God and love people and see what happens"...

I adored it all, though the happily chaotic liturgy was well outside my comfort zone.
Most weeks, worship ended with one of two choruses, sung as blessings.
When my placement ended, they gave me a wonderful basket of flowers, and a card signed by all and indeed sundry, and then sang me their favourite one again.
I've been singing it for my dear friend St Casserole, her people, her neigbours and all the residents of that wonderful area of the USA that I visited and fell in love with earlier this year.

May the love of the Lord Christ go with you
Wherever he may send you
May he guide you through the wilderness, protect you from the storm
May he bring you home rejoicing at the wonders he has shown you
May he bring you home rejoicing once again within your doors

I feel too far away tonight, and very very helpless - but I can at least pray, while wearing the earrings St C gave to me during the RevGalsBigEvent...The idea is that whenever I catch sight of myself, or an earring snags on my jumper, I'll remember to pray...Truly, tonight I don't need reminding.

Back in harness

Oh how lovely!
I'm just home from the morning's worship...No idea how the homily went at 8.00, because there's never much sermon feed-back from any of the congregations here, but the 10.00 United Benefice Communion had a really great feel to it.

Inevitably, there's a tendency for some of the congregation from the non-host church to feel that a United Benefice Sunday is the perfect opportunity for a day off and as schools return this week there were a couple of regulars making the most of the last gasp of "summer"....but nonetheless, with more than 60 communicants things were happily busy at Church in the Valley. I was specially thrilled that we had seven people from Church on the Hill worshipping with us (pretty much a third of their regular congregation in that small community), and the tasks of ministry, - reading, assisting with the chalice, taking the offertory, were shared by both congregations. Add to the mix
a great sermon on the "lure of the easy way" from my colleague, a beautifully behaved Guide-dog puppy lying peacefully at his mum's feet in the choir stalls, two visiting grandchildren acting as acolytes and my cup pretty well overflowed.

Our opening hymn was
"God is here, as we his people meet to offer praise and prayer"
and that felt wonderfully true right through our worship.
These are my people.
This is where God calls me to be.
What a pleasure!
Have I ever told you how much I love my job?

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Homily for 8.00, Trinity 15 Yr A Matthew 16:21-28

Poor old Simon Peter!
He does his best, but there are so many times when he just doesn’t get it.

Last week, we heard about his epiphany…the time when he recognised the truth that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God…The moment when he won his Kingdom name…Peter…the rock.
This week he speaks with equal conviction…and is equated with Satan.

It’s really not easy being an apostle, is it?
Let’s imagine ourselves in his place.
Let’s imagine that we have enjoyed the daily companionship of Jesus…have listened to his teachings…broken bread with him…watched him transform the lives of men, women and children by his presence as much as his miracles.
Let’s imagine that we have gladly given up everything for the sake of his company – just to be with him, to be known as one of his followers.
I would guess that each of us is here because at some level we’ve made the same choices as Simon…

But think if we had to take Jesus out of the equation…if we had to imagine life without him. I’m sure that is what prompted Peter to take him to one side and try to persuade him to see sense.
The very clarity of vision which had enabled him to recognise the Messiah meant that he was horribly clear what life would be like for him if Jesus went to his death.
He was very sure that he understood how a Messiah should behave – and “suffering at the hands of the elders, chief priests and scribes and being killed” simply wasn’t on the agenda.
Of course, there was this baffling line about being raised on the third day – but that just didn’t make any sort of sense…it certainly wasn’t something to rely upon.
No…Peter was adamant.
Death should not touch his Messiah.
Full stop.
No argument.
God forbid!

Oh…where would we be without Peter?
So often, he models all the faults and failings that we too struggle with…
Here he has decisively proved that one can proclaim Christ as Lord without really grasping what that means in real life. Peter is convinced that his Messiah will triumph through strength…He’s completely floored by the way of the Kingdom.
“If any want to become my followers let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will gain it”
It’s Alice in Wonderland logic, isn’t it?
If we pursue our goal, we will never reach it…but if we focus instead on a different way – why then all, all will be ours.

No wonder Simon Peter struggled.
He knew the right words, but the living reality was altogether too much for him.
He wanted to keep his version of Jesus safely confined in a box tailor made for the purpose. I suspect we all try that from time to time.
We don't fully understand God and so we try to fit God, in all his greatness, into our understanding, rather than expand our understanding to encompass God.

The problem is that, try as we might, we simply can't get Jesus into a little box…nor a bigger one...We can't squash him into one the size of this church –nor of the whole church militant here on earth.
Our God, heaven cannot hold him says the Christmas carol – and it’s true.
Jesus cannot be confined by any framework that we might devise…
He is the God of surprises…leaping from our boxes as he leapt from the tomb….challenging our expectations again and again.

And the challenge that he issues is the challenge of the cross.
Not a nice shiny piece of jewellery but a harsh and bloody instrument of death.
Literal death for Jesus.
Death of self for the rest of us….
Deny yourself. The hardest thing for us, a uniquely egotistical species
We are called to follow one who gave his life away, gave himself away for the sake of others, and of God’s Kingdom.
The way of the cross is anything but easy…I’d be less than truthful if I didn’t admit that I’m inclined to feel the same as Peter…It would be so much better if things could be different.
Well, so much easier anyway…
Better? God knows!

For now, though, let’s remember our calling to take up the cross
Of course it’s not easy. It isn’t meant to be.
Taking up the cross is all about growing discomfort at easy answers, half truths and superficial relationships.
It is all about increasing anger at the injustice, oppression, and exploitation of our brothers and sisters across the world.
It’s about weeping, sharing the weight of grief with all who mourn and suffer Taking up the cross, and following Jesus is about discovering at first hand that God will bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference.

So we will find our lives as we reach out to share the burden for others
So we walking the way of the cross will find it none other than the way of life and peace.

What have you done with the vicar?

Today has been Saturday all day.
A proper Saturday,- that is, one with no weddings, no meetings, no training programme, a chance to engage in some serious desk-clearance and dream up a short homily for the 8.00 Communion tomorrow.
Not a day off, but a working day whose tempo I'm in control of. Lovely!

The day unfolded gently, with some useful bits and bobs achieved, a few phonecalls made and arrangements confirmed for two funerals next Thursday. The family of the second funeral hoped it might be possible to meet today.
Of course we could...Would they prefer to come here, or should I go to them?
The new vicarage is on the same site as the old one...No name plaque as yet (note to self - that simply isn't acceptable. DO SOMETHING woman!) but quite easy to find.

There, of course, was the fatal flaw.
They opted to come here, so I simply put the phone down and went on footling happily at my desk...till suddenly it was 4.00, - a knocking on the door and - oh my life - two very confused-looking ladies.
They didn't need to say the words, - they were written all over their faces
"What have you done with the real vicar?"
Real vicars, you see, look the part. They wear sensible clerical garb.They certainly don't answer the door in patchwork trousers, tee shirt and flip flops (revealing the rainbow nail varnish that remains from pre-Greenbelt frivolity)...
Judging by the age of the ladies, and their apologetic confirmation that they hadn't "done" church in years, real vicars are almost certainly male too.

Poor loves. First a brother they'd all but lost touch with ups and dies...then the vicar appears as an ageing hippy.

I think by the time they left they were beginning to believe that I might be the genuine article...but I'm sorry I caused them additional angst.
I must remember to think before I answer the door...I'm supposed to be grown up now!

What were you doing when...

Steve, over at Mustard Seed Shavings, invited me to play along with this - and as I'm as busy procrastinating as ever, it seemed like a really good plan

Five events and a chance to record the impact they had on you:

Princess Diana's death - 31 August 1997
The children and I had reluctantly driven back from a wonderful stay with Hon Mum Eirene in Sussex by the Sea, because there was an Open Air United Benefice service and Parish Picnic scheduled for the Sunday, and in our group of three small Cotswold villages the absence of my offspring too easily meant "No children there at all - do not repeat the event"....But early that morning, as I was cooking bacon and eggs for my B&B guests, the phone rang. It was the vicar, to say that the picnic was cancelled, and instead a reflective service would be held in the largest of the churches. Naively, I couldn't quite see what all the drama was about. An unhappy woman had died suddenly. I worried for her sons, was sorry for her family - but completely unprepared for the surge of public grief that overtook Britain that week.

Margaret Thatcher's resignation - 22 November 1990
Packing up our London house, preparatory to our move to Gloucestershire...With one three year old and one not quite one, this was definitely a challenge, so the political events of the day barely penetrated - except when the small HG announced that she thought her best friend's nursery teacher, also affectionately known as Mrs T (such was her name) might be ill as everyone was talking about her...

Attack on the twin towers - 11 September 2001
I was driving up Crickley Hill from Gloucester, where I'd had my pre term interview with the principal of my vicar school, to decide whether or not I wanted to jump a year on the basis of my Reader training. Radio 4 on, for the afternoon play iirc, when
"We interrupt this broadcast..."
At home, a financial advisor was scheduled to discuss pensions options...but the poor man didn't stand a chance as more and more news kept breaking and we kept dashing next door, to the sitting room, for another update.
So hard to believe it was happening...and impossible to grasp its impact on the world.

England's World Cup Semi Final v Germany - 4 July 1990
Missed that.
Very busy being the mum of a pre-schooler and her baby brother (see above) and living in a household of football apathists (If there is no such word, there should be:however I do remember us winning the Rugby World Cup in November 2003. I was driving home having dropped the children at choir, and had to pull into a layby as I recognised I was too overexcited to be safe on the road. I happened to park beside the deer park at Great Barrington, and startled the grazing deer considerably by my yelps of joy and triumph when Jonny Wilkinson scored about half a second before time. Wow! Adrenalin rush just remembering that :-)

President Kennedy's Assassination - 22 November 1963
Oh dear....I was three myself, and don't remember it at all. I do though, recall Churchill's State Funeral two years later,- probably the first public event I noticed (not least because a performance of Peter Pan that I was taken to that afternoon began with a minute's silence and a drum roll, which scared me so much I hid under my seat for the rest of Act 1)....
And I was Christmas shopping in Culpepper's in Cambridge in December 1980 (the branch no longer exists, though the business continues) when I heard about John Lennon. Suddenly everyone seemed to be weeping quietly, and the tinny Christmas carols broadcast everywhere were replaced by "Imagine".

Now I'm supposed to tag 5 people...but I'm not sure who's old enough, or has time enough, or the need to be diverted. Please do feel free to play if so inclined, and let me know in the comments too.

Friday, August 29, 2008

RevGals Friday Five: Laboring Edition

With my US friends enjoying the Labour Day weekend, and my one remaining school student starting the 6th form next week, summer is definitely over and it's time to focus on work once again. I love my job, but feel disconcertingly reluctant to really knuckle down right now...Life with a puppy feels like one long holiday (except, of course, for the crack of dawn yelp "let me out quick, mum" ) so it's hard to focus. Therefore, in honour of on going procrastination, here are my answers to this week's Friday Five

1. Tell us about the worst job you ever had.
The very worst wasn't actually my job at all! A few years ago, Hattie Gandhi needed to fund the stable costs of her beloved horse and got a job delivering Yellow Pages around some neighbouring villages. That doesn't sound so bad, but the reality was that all the houses were up long drives, most had no means of identification at all, and the regulations demanded that if the hosueholder was not at home, you couldn't just leave the directory in a safe place, but had to attempt at least one return visit. You also had to complete sheets showing exactly what had happened at each address. I know this so well because the whole thing took so darned long that it became a family enterprise...Through August, we all took it in turns to trek round Cotswold villages which became less attractive with every passing day.We all developed bad backs from hoicking bundles of directories along country lanes...We discovered just how many bad tempered farm dogs there are within a few square miles...And HG earned, - oh, about three weeks of livery fees!
My own all-time-worst job was as cashier at an amusement arcade in my home town of Hastings...I sat there seven days a week, in a kiosk, selling tickets for the assorted rides, giving change for the slot machines, breathing in the smell of deep frying and candyfloss, constantly battered by the "music" that accompanied any hit on the rifle range next door. Good pay, but long hours - and a stonking headache guaranteed each and every day.
Student life, eh? But the trip to Cyprus it funded was definitely worth it.

2. Tell us about the best job you ever had.
Priest in charge of Cainscross & Selsley does me pretty nicely, thank you. When I preside at the Eucharist here, I know I am doing exactly what I am "for", and it's wonderful

3. Tell us what you would do if you could do absolutely anything (employment related) with no financial or other restrictions.
What I'm doing but without the need for my congregations/schools to worry about fundraising - with enough funds in place to undertake a programme that would really make a difference to this community. A drop in cafe? Some worthwhile youth work? So many dreams...And I still want to throw open the vicarage for single mums and troubled teens...Some funds to support that would be good.

4. Did you get a break from labor this summer? If so, what was it and if not, what are you gonna do about it? Twelve days on our narrow boat, cruising at snail's pace down the Grand Union and Oxford Canals...the ultimate wind-down...pure heaven. And then last weekend, the stimulation, challenge and delight of Greenbelt.
Due to a clash of diaries with a Bishop and a Primary School, I missed out on a planned retreat back in July, so am in need of a bit of solitary silence before I'm too much older - but the summer holiday was good, thanks.

5. What will change regarding your work as summer morphs into fall? Are you anticipating or dreading?
School term resumes next week, so I'll be reconnecting with the primary schools in the parish, and working out how best to serve them. I need to get my head down and really start pulling things together...I've been here for five months now - not that long, I know, but September feels like a good time for a few new starts. Current project, re-inventing the All Age Eucharist.
All good. All exciting. But ever so slightly overwhelming in prospect. Better once I get at it, I think/hope!

Bonus question: For the gals who are mothers, do you have an interesting story about labor and delivery (LOL)? If you are a guy pal, not a mom, or you choose not to answer the above, is there a song, a book, a play, that says "workplace" to you?
Ooh...birth stories...I feel the old NCT Chair instincts waking - those three birth days were, of course, the most exciting and memorable of my life. I was one of those fortunate women whose bodies seemed to get the idea of labour and delivery without much drama - all my deliveries were very speedy, none presented any real problems...I really would do it all again, were I not so incredibly ancient now...So which birth day should I tell you about?
I blogged my first labour experience when HG turned twenty one earlier this year.
Hugger Steward arrived at the same hospital, to the music of Mozart's flute and harp concerto...while the Dufflepud's birth took place at home. One wet morning, after an August that had as little sunshine as we've seen this year, I was woken by Hugger Steward's complaints that the cock crowing in the farm across the road just didn't care that there wasn't any sun to rise...I came to gradually, and decided that maybe HS and the rooster weren't the only things keeping me awake. Living in a village a good 45 minutes drive from the nearest maternity unit, we'd already arranged to have a home delivery, so instead of throwing the last few things into my bag all I had to do was phone the midwife and my friend C., then training as an NCT teacher, who was coming to cheer me on. Best honorary mother was downstairs with HG and HS, and as I wandered around from bedroom to bath and back again I could hear snatches of conversation, laughter, singing... I loved the sense of connection to every day life. This birth was not a medical event. It was mine in a way that the earlier ones, within the framework of hospital protocols, could never be.
Sure it hurt...Birth does. I remember announcing at one point that I'd had enough, and wasn't planning to have this baby today after all, so everyone might as well go home!
But I remember too the unutterable joy of seeing Hattie Gandhi holding her new baby brother, whom she had delivered herself (with the judicious help of Jackie, our wonderful midwife)...I remember Hugger Steward coming upstairs just moments after the birth, his eyes wide with the wonder of it all...And the pleasure of finding myself tucked up in cool sheets in my own bed, after a truly beautiful bath, a vase of roses from my own garden on the table and my newborn son lying beside me.
That was 17 summers ago. The Dufflepud is about to start his A/S level course next week. But those birth days are still so vivid - the most exciting and creative act I'll ever be part of.

Greenbelt Music

Many moons ago, before the vicar was even a curate, a good friend (who incidentally has just acquired a very exciting new job) suggested that I might enjoy going to Greenbelt.
"August Bank Holiday? You must be joking - you can't expect anyone running a B&B to get away then...Anyway, Greenbelt is an evangelical rock fest isn't it?"
You see, I'd heard about the festival during my student days, I had even spent a day uneasily skirting its fringes at Knebworth, but those who enthused about it seemed to be in a totally different world from my Renaissance bubble, even if we did share a taste in ethnic skirts and assorted bangles. Greenbelt, in my mind = evangelical Christians playing bad music loudly. Not a trace of Palestrina from dawn to dusk.
So I knew all about Greenbelt, didn't I? And I knew that I'd hate it...

Fast forward to Pentecost 2000, when the whole of the diocese of Gloucester was invited to a huge party at Cheltenham racecourse, to celebrate the church's 2000th birthday. P2K they called it...and it was wonderful. A one day melee of speakers and music, arts and worship, culminating in a laser show that was a first for our family. We were enraptured and the (very young) Hugger Steward begged me to find out if there was anything like this anywhere that we might attend. Fortunately the main Communion service that day included the obligatory Anglican rite of notices..."If you are enjoying yourself, and would like to experience more, why not visit the Greenbelt stand..." - before the service was over, there we were,booking day tickets and discovering just how many and varied strands this Christian Arts Festival brings together.
It's always fascinating to compare notes after the event...There is so much variety that it's quite possible to hear descriptions from two members of the same family without realising they were at the same festival. For so many, it's all about the music. In the weeks before hand, as details of the music line-up are gradually confirmed, there are cries of joy or anguish on the Greenbelt forum..but mostly, I'm still in the dark. My wondrous offspring have widened my horizons beyond all recognition, from those of the rather bigotted classical musician who scorned GB at Knebworth...but all the same, I mostly don't know the names that appear on the GB website. But, of course, it's a festival. Once the wristband is donned, you have access to whatever you fancy..speakers, worship, debate, visual arts and, yes, music.
My favourite venue is the Performance Cafe (nurtured, as it happens, by the friend who first suggested that Greenbelt might be a life enhancing experience for the whole clan Fleming)....It has grown through the years, but is still an intimate venue where artists play acoustic sets, and you drift in to listen for a while before wandering on. It's the perfect place for someone like me to experience new music. Mainstage always seems to belong to the afficionados - and to youth....I'll stand on the edge of the crowd for a while, but unless I'm sure I like the artist, it's not the place to try things for the first time.
GB 06 saw Martyn Joseph playing mainstage- despite my offsprings' scorn I am totally addicted and his performance in Centaur this year reduced me to a small pool.Fortunately, everyone else was equally afflicted.

Last year was my introduction to the wild, whacky and wonderful Duke Special
and the follow up birthday present of tickets to his Oxford gig was one of the highlights of my year.

And this year? Perhaps not surprisingly, my discovery reflected the Indian resonances of my own particular Greenbelt. Aradhana
played during the Communion service, but I was rather too busy dealing with my role in a group including people from St M's, people from Church in the Valley, family and Greenbelt friends to engage properly. Sunday night in Centaur was a very different matter...Their website describes them thus
the sounds of sitar and guitar merge to create a new global instrument that blends unusual rhythmic patterns with the dipping and soaring of the vocals. listeners sense a deep devotion and connection to the yeshu revealed in the holy scriptures

Given the western origins of the musicians, this might have been deeply fact for me it was utterly wonderful. At the end of the gig, they were given a standing ovation...and persuaded into an encore, for which we were invited to dance.
So a middle aged cleric found herself stepping out of her flowery wellies to whirl barefoot around Centaur, dancing out of love for India, for music, for God.
It still sounds cheesy, doesn't it? Perhaps you had to be there.
I'm so glad that I was!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

A blur of colour

I took this picture of one of the juggling staff from the ever popular "BallzULike" stall as GB 08 wound down on Monday evening...That whirl of colour and movement isn't a bad metaphor for the festival experience at its best(though I really don't remember flames leaping from his head, as they seem to be in the picture - perhaps its a post-dated miracle?)

"Rising Sun"

was the unintentionally ironic theme for this year's Greenbelt...Ironic, because it was the wettest festival we've had since moving to Cheltenham, I think. On Sunday afternoon, as we gathered for Communion, the heavens opened and we clustered under umbrellas and groundsheets to sing "Here comes the sun".

In some ways, this year was a festival of near misses for me. I failed to get to two worship experiences offered by friends...I forgot to go to another...I made a wrong call or two in terms of choices...I missed some friends completely, despite our best efforts, - and I really didn't enjoy the experience of driving half an hour home in the small hours to nurture the convalescent cat, despite the obvious pleasure of a real bed and as many showers as I wanted.
In the past few years, when not camping I have had a house full of Greenbelt friends so that the festival continued at home. This year, I felt much more detached - so I guess that means cat sitters and campsite in 2009 if I'm to really make the most of the festival.

Despite this, there was much to celebrate!

My first Greenbelt moment occurred on the Saturday when I turned a corner in the festival village and found myself face to face with Prem, the Indian priest who had taken me to see elephants in the Bhannergatta National Park almost two years ago.He heads up A Rocha India, and was a major speaker at this year's Greenbelt - but I'd somehow missed the news that he was coming, and clearly he hadn't expected to bump into me among 20,000 assorted punters. Great delight on both sides, though I was dismayed as I heard his talks to realise that despite the all I had learned during my stay in India, I've done so very little to work for change - either on behalf of those oppressed by the caste system, or indeed on behalf of the poor, benighted elephants.
To have two important bits of my life collide was an interesting experience...For my children to be able to hear Prem for themselves a joy. Vintage Greenbelt stuff!

Sara Miles was predictably splendid...Coming hard on my ponderings on abundance inspired by the lectionary last time I preached, her story of "eating Jesus" and the changes that brought about for her was hugely inspiring. I'm certain that eating together is the way to create community, and that offering radical hospitality is a huge part of our calling. Recently, some of my congregation from the valley have been thinking about ways we might connect with our community. Some sort of drop-in cafe is very high up the list,- finally making sense of a visit I made two years ago...
It would be lovely if this were the way forward for us...I wonder if there's a way we could make it free?
Of course, to welcome people unlike ourselves widens our experience of the God whose image we bear...It also changes us in ways we might never imagine.

John Swinton's talk "The Body of Christ has Down's Syndrome" took me further along the road of looking for God's likeness in everyone.
What does it mean for our theology if we believe that those with disabilities will be healed in heaven?
If we believe that someone with Down's is fully human and completely beloved of God as they are, what does this tell us about full humanity
and about living in God's image
Clearly I need to revisit the work of John Hull
whose input on sight and blindness was one of the most compelling experiences of vicar school.
I wonder if he's ever spoken at Greenbelt?

Brian McLaren was fab - though the panel that included him alongside other emerging theologians and leaders was frustrating - too many exciting people, which meant that none of them had enough space to talk. I barely heard Karen Ward at all, - maddening! At the moment the emerging theology which I find so exciting seems quite remote from the reality of my parishes - but we clearly need to find new ways of being church here as much as anywhere...It's just that there's so much to assimilate for the moment, in learning the way traditional church happens...But I needed the cold water wake-up call, that's for sure

The Breathing Space Yurt was a treasure - a lovely place to be...On the last evening, I spent almost an hour in there, listening to the sound of stalls being taken down, the beginning of the end of the Festival, - which might have been sad, but wasn't. The peace was so solid that you could almost cut slices and take them away with you...

Personal highlight? -a close call, but I think it has to be blessed's Mass on Monday night. I was bowled over by the experience of the Sacrament being brought to me sprawled on a beanbag...very much just as I was...and Jesus came to me.

I know that I spent the rest of the evening wandering around with a silly grin - but then, that's rather the effect that meeting God has on me, specially at Greenbelt!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

"Tomorrow shall be my dancing day..."

or at least, a day of much singing, laughter and general rejoicing.
Tomorrow, you see, is the start of Greenbelt 08.
Think of the best family Christmas - the times when you really ARE delighted to see everyone who turns up.
Add all the really interesting people whom you wish you could gather in one place but would never dare to ask.
Throw in copious handfuls of challenge, inspiration, and things you didn't even guess that you might need.
Set to music. Whatever music you love...any genre
Remember that you are loved.
Not just once but again and again.

Greenbelt...this year featuring Sara Miles, Brian McLaren, Karen Ward, Sally Vickers - and some of the people I love most in all the world.
I hope you might be there too.

It's impossible to explain how much this Festival means to me, and to so many thousands of others...Why don't you come along.
I promise you won't regret it.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The VERY hungy caterpillar

Being a brand new house, which was a building site until earlier this year, the vicarage doesn't have much by way of a garden. The land is there, right enough, and it has been, as the estate agents would say "laid to lawn" - which is fine by me for the moment. The lovely Libby is a very keen gardener, who would undoubtedly cause havoc if I had any prized blooms to for this year,I'm mostly content to leave things as they are.
I do, though, have quite a collection of pots, - the only gardening I allowed myself at the curate's house, since I knew we were only there for four years - so I planted those up a few months ago and have been glad of the colour they provide. I was specially pleased with some tumbling nasturtiums, which cheered up the front porch no end - or did until yesterday.
When I left the house at 1.30 they looked something like this

When I got home one hour later, the picture had changed somewhat ....
The plant was completely stripped of its leaves, - only ravaged stems remained.
Closer investigation revealed no less than 42 of these little dears gathered on one stalk

and making decidedly free with the next pot along. The neighbouring containers were similarly afflicted. I've just googled, and it seems that when they grow up these caterpillars will, predictably, turn into cabbage white butterflies...
It would have been nice if they could at least have been something exotic, but whatever else they are certainly efficient. Eric Carle knew a thing or two!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Sleepy Sunday

For various reasons, not unconnected with the last post, I didn't get alot of sleep last night, so this afternoon after the usual happy round of morning worship and a double baptism for two delightful little girls just after lunch, I subsided on the sofa with Serafina the laptop...I was just dozing off when inspiration struck.
For the past three weeks, since the second day of our holiday in fact, I have been tormented by a line of poetry that I couldn't place. For some strange reason which even I can't fathom, I didn't feel I could just google the I asked around, but even Hattie Gandhi's writing friends were stumped and so I pondered and wondered and even fulminated just a little.
And then, like magic, as Hattie Gandhi and Storytelling Photographer friend were telling me once again how completely they hadn't recognised the line it came to me.
Dylan Thomas.
I was sure of it...and with that conviction google became an instantly viable option. Within seconds there it was, complete with the line that had tormented me (the last line of the poem, if you really want to know) - and I remembered once again how beautiful this writing is, and thought of the day it was handed out to us as our first piece of Practical Criticism with Deeply Scary Don in my first term at Cambridge. Despite
my terror, I adored the poem and I still do.


Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.

And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.

All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
And playing, lovely and watery
And fire green as grass.
And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
Flying with the ricks, and the horses
Flashing into the dark.

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.

And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
In the sun born over and over,
I ran my heedless ways,
My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace.

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

Prayer works!

"Well, duh....obviously" you say.
"Call yourself a vicar, woman? Honestly!"

Last night I entreated prayers on the RevGal site for a very tricky and potentially explosive situation in one of my churches. I won't go into details, except to say that by the end of the Eucharist this morning various kind and competent people had swung into action, and it looks as if the problem is more than half way to solution.
I'm deeply grateful to those who prayed, and to God who gave me such splendid souls to work with. I do, as I'd suspected, have the very best job in the world...

The first hymn at Church on the Hill this morning said it all -though at the time we were singing it, I didn't appreciate this as anything other than alarming irony

"Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;

The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head."

In other words, phew! All shall be well!

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Sermon for Trinity 13 Yr A – 17th August 2008

This is a reworking of a sermon I wrote for Inclusive Church two years ago...I can't remember if I posted it at the time, over on the St Mary's sermon blog, but here it is in its latest incarnation.

As most of you probably know already, the vicarage family has recently been extended through the arrival of Libby, a golden retriever puppy. She’s growing fast, already past the cuddly bundle stage and now lollopping delightfully in all directions, falling over her own paws and causing no end of mayhem in a happy sort of way. Recently she has discovered that she no longer has to confine her explorations to floor level. By standing on her hind legs, there’s very little that she cannot reach – so I’m having to work hard at teaching her that “Down” means just that, and that helping herself isn’t very good manners. In our rather messy family, there are quite good pickings to be had at floor level – the crumbs under our table are many and varied…but Libby realises that there’s more to life than grubbing about down there.

Sometimes, I’m not sure that the rest of us share her insight.
I’ve no statistics to support this, but I can’t help suspecting that a straw poll of a typical Church of England congregation would reveal the “Prayer of Humble Access” as one of the top prayers in the liturgy.
“We do not presume to come to this your table”.
It’s right up there with the comfortable words as a part of worship that many feel is non-negotiable – but I have to confess that it’s not one of my favourites. You see, I find it both slightly ironic that within a prayer that has become enshrined in the hearts of so many there lurks a reference to a scene that is thoroughly disquieting, - the meeting of Jesus with the Canaanite woman.
The first thing to consider is exactly its place in the Gospel. It comes immediately after Jesus has gone out on a limb in challenging the myriad food laws that had proscribed life for the Jews for centuries.
More, of course, Jesus redefines purity as a state of being, rather than a state of diet.
“It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles”
This is almost a truth too far even for the disciples, - and it’s tempting to see it as a first shot in the revolution that is the Gospel.
Tempting, but possibly inaccurate, as we focus on tonight’s reading.
Jesus is in Gentile country, close to the port of Tyre,- but he’s trying to lie low, to take time out, but real people with real needs just won’t be put on hold.
Here is a woman who is driven by that most compelling force, parental love.
She pushes her way in, intent on claiming the healing that she believes her daughter deserves.
Like so many others, she throws herself on the mercy of Jesus, even as she recognises the cultural difference between them
“Son of David, have mercy on me”
And what happens?
For reasons that may be obvious, I’ve never tried to tell this story in a primary school assembly, but if I did, I know that the children’s answer to that question would be.
What happens?
“Jesus makes the child better”
That’s what we’d all expect.
Jesus goes about doing good, healing, rescuing,- surely that’s the essence of his earthly ministry. Of course Jesus is going to comfort the mother and heal her child, without further ado.
Except that he doesn’t.
Not at first.
First, we find ourselves thrown off balance, our expectations flouted by words of such staggering rudeness that they are almost unbearable. Jesus, JESUS of all people, tells that frantic mother that she and her child are no better than dogs….and I don’t think we’re under any illusion that he meant much- loved and cherished pet retrievers.
He is saying without compunction that as Gentiles, the woman and her daughter are not fully human, and they’re therefore beyond the scope of his love, his healing. They are quite simply a different species – not the sheep of his pasture but a pack of mangy strays.
“It’s not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs”
It’s extraordinarily hard to hear this.
We want to retain our soft focus image of Jesus, the source of endless compassion…but this abrasive stranger shakes us.
However, the Canaanite woman is made of sterner stuff, and refuses to go away quietly.
Instead, she responds in kind, picking up Jesus’s words and turning them back on him.
We may be dogs, but surely you’re not so mean that you begrudge us even the left-overs. She refuses to take No for an answer…
And in doing so, she stops Jesus in his tracks.
Against his own expectations, he is forced into really seeing her, - another human being, a child of God…and what he sees makes him change his mind in a radical way.
Jesus change his mind?
Surely not!
As God’s Son, Jesus must be perfect…the unmoved mover, no shadow of turning, right?
Well, I’d say not.
For me, learning is part of what it means to be human.
Even Mrs Alexander was prepared to accept that Jesus went through all the normal stages of physical development – “day by day like us he grew”
So too, surely, he learned and grew in relationship…
He learned, he grew, and sometimes he changed his mind. There’s so much more going on here than just an exchange of banter, for surely Jesus is forced to rethink the scope of his mission.
This should, I think, serve to correct our own tendency to arrogance, to hardness of heart. It’s so tempting to believe that we don’t need to listen to others, because we already know the truth, already understand fully what Scripture means. It’s hard not to sympathise with the Jews, who believe themselves to be the insiders, on a fast track to Salvation. In our society, and in our church, we can surely think of behaviour that matches theirs, of insiders who guard their corners, and cannot believe in a God whose heart and vision are larger than anything we can encompass.
But if we take Scripture seriously, our limited view is inevitably challenged.
Listen to Isaiah
“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples”
or again to Paul
“God has imprisoned all in disobedience, so that he may be merciful to all”
In Scripture we meet a God who listens and changes his mind, whose unlimited love almost surprises himself.
In Scripture, we encounter a God who is changed by his relationships, a God who is moved by the prayers of his children, and acts in unexpected ways to answer them.
In Scripture, above all, we meet a God who is love, and cannot remain unmoved by the beloved.
“We do not presume…”
Well, thank God that sometimes we do.
Sometimes, like Libby, we reach out to help ourselves.
Thank God for this woman, the outsider, the second class citizen who refuses to go away but demands that Jesus recognise her right to engage with him.
Thank God that she stops him in his tracks, forcing him to see and recognise both her faith and her humanity.
Jesus learns from the encounter…a lesson that we, his church, most sorely need to hear.
There ARE no limits to be set on God’s love.
There is enough and to spare for all….
Nobody need be content with just crumbs from under the table. To affirm some need never mean denying others. Too often we behave as if we need to claim our ground at the expense of others, we create hierarchies to defend our own position at the table. We act as if there might not be enough to go round.

We abase ourselves before God fearfully.
“We are not worthy….”
True enough, but the message of this passage is surely that worthiness is irrelevant.
God’s reckless mercy sweeps us off our feet, or as that alternative prayer in our liturgy reminds, us his love compels us to come in, and we find that we are all alike included in a boundless welcome.
You are the God of our Salvation and share your bread with sinners”
Not just a few poor crumbs but the very bread of life itself…enough for all.

I can't resist

Having told you that I'd be posting less, I'm about to publish my third post in an hour...I just dropped in at Red Heeler Ranch to catch up with my friend Zorra, and found this most beautiful prayer written by Marc Chagall.
It reminded me that, though I always consider myself a distinctly non visual person (having grown up short sighted and with a lazy left eye to boot, and not discovering the wonder that is contact lenses till my late late teens), one of my earliest memories of meeting with God came through Chagall's work.
I've blogged before about our family friend, Renate, as the source of all sorts of literary wonders. It was Renate too, who scooped me up one day when I was about 11 and took me off on a wonderful trip that culminated with an overnight stay with her parents in Cambridge.The following morning we visited some of the colleges, and as I walked into Trinity Great Court for the first time I said to myself
"One day I'm going to study here..." (This wasn't arrogance: I simply had no idea that it might be a challenge to get into Cambridge, still less did I know that at that stage Trinity women were still several years away....but somehow in time that resolution came good, and Renate was so pleased that she had been the one to first show me the college)
The God moment, though, came earlier in the trip as we stopped at a small church in an apparently undistinguished Kentish village. I was puzzled. Church-crawling was part of life with my parents, but Renate, like many Holocaust survivor families, was determinedly atheist...even my child self knew that she didn't "do" God, so why were we stopping here?
We pushed open the door and walked into a light that was unlike anything I'd ever imagined.
Each window at All Saints Tudely is the work of Marc Chagall and the impact is completely stunning.
I sat there in stillness for at least an hour, gradually realising that the beauty that surrounded me was the faintest reflection of a Beauty I could not begin to grasp...I felt totally safe, totally happy and when the time came to move on from the church I celebrated by singing, alone in that wonderful place, the music I'd longed to sing out loud since the day I first heard it.
I know that my Redeemer liveth

At that moment, it became completely, non-negotiably true.

Friday Five: Fall Transformations

Over at RevGalBlogPals, my friend Mary Beth has shown us the fruit of the bois d'arc tree and asked about transformation: For this Friday's Five, share with us five transformations that the coming fall will bring your way.

There have been so many changes in these parts over the past few months that I'm kind of hoping that this autumn may be a time of growing into things, rather than radical transformations, if that's OK.
However, one big change comes up at the end of September when Hugger Steward begins student life at Robinson College, Cambridge. That means, in effect, that more of my children have left home than still live here. Recently I found myself filling in a form which asked how many adults and children there were in our family and it was quite a shock to realise that the balance has so shifted that the answers were (in theory at least) "four" and "one". Of course, as my friends know, really I'm twelve but even so...

A change I'm hoping for is to better discipline in working life. There is a wonderful theory out there that clergy should aim to divide their days into three, and expect to work two of the three sessions. This is sometimes practical if you have no evening meeting - it feels acceptable to take time off from vicaring once I'm home from Evening Prayer - but I find it really really hard to relax with a good book or even indulge in "dog walking for God" during the day time, even when I know I'll be fully engaged on church business in the evening. I was talking to another new vicar about this on Thursday and we both agreed that living over the shop meant that there was always both church work and house work looming large, and that taking a genuine break was almost impossible during the working week.

It's one reason that I'm glad of another change...In three months time the good ship Polyphony is going to move
to a marina at Tewkesbury just over half an hour from home. That is going to make regular escapes far more likely - and the prospect of days off on the boat is hugely attractive.

Meanwhile, The Dufflepud should be able to walk or cycle to school for the first time since he was 11, as he's moving for the Sixth form to a school that is slap bang on the parish boundary. For the past 5 years he has had a daily commute of at least half an hour each way, an hour since the move, so this will be a huge improvment, and might actually help him meet local friends as well as improving our family's global footprint. Hallelujah!

That's four definite changes - others really will be "more and better of the same" I think.Time to get to know the school communities here in the valley better, as a new intake of children begin their primary education...Some tweaking of the liturgy in both churches, some time spent evaluating together what it means to be church (specially when the building work at Church on the Hill gets under way, and we find ourselves the nomadic people of God once again)...New ways of looking at familiar things, different perspectives which might just be transformative. Who knows?

Just wondering

whether this blog is truly sustainable at the moment?
We returned from holiday almost a week ago, and I've managed only a very flat and factual catch up post since then...The truth is that, like every curate I've ever known, I'm finding the transition to incumbency so demanding of my time and energies that there's very little left over for quality blogging.
I'm not going to abandon ship entirely - there are too many precious connections that were first made through this blog - but I guess I need to be realistic about what I can actually hope to achieve here. Whenever I sit down at my desk, there are any number of parish jobs clamouring for attention,- both the immediate tasks of each week, and the longer term revisions and innovations that are bound to be part of a new ministry. Blogging and blog-surfing feel like increasingly guilty pleasures when there is just so much that has to be done.Given what I feel I can reasonably publish, I'm simply not sure if it's worth it - I know my most recent posts have been anything but remarkable.The parish issues and events that were sometimes the basis for past reflections mostly feel too delicate to write about now...and our domestic comings and goings are at best of limited interest to others. That leaves me with a bit of sermon blogging, a Friday Five now and then - and the occasional general reflection when time permits. It doesn't sound promising, does it? I'm sorry.Perhaps things will settle down in time, and I'll be able to return to more reflective blogging but realism suggests that for the moment things will be pretty dull around here. Bear with me if you can...and, if you have been, thanks for reading.

Monday, August 11, 2008

And we're back

Lovely holiday, thank you for asking.I'll post pictures tomorrow, but tonight just want to get something up here before I forget how blogging works! Feel very disconnected from that part of my life at the moment, - and don't much like that feeling.

Though we left home amid the high drama of a thunder storm that knocked out the power for many in the area (but which young Libby coped with as just another one of the new and exciting aspects of life in the big wide world), we had more than adequate weather, and nearly all the time we wanted to read, to sleep, to watch the moorhens emerge from the rushes...
We cruised from Northampton to Oxford, a distance of just under 40 miles - at most an hour's drive on country roads then. It took us 12 days to do the round trip...and there was not a tedious moment. Libby only fell in 3 times (twice as a result of her own joie de vivre, as she lollopped along the tow path with cheerful abandon, falling over her own paws with predictable results) and seemed to enjoy every minute of it. So did I.

The greatest joy, of course, was the presence of Hugger Steward. He did make it to the top of Kilimanjaro (probably the first man ever to do so while wearing skeleton pyjamas - there's glory for you!), had only 2 bouts of malaria to his name (and that's despite taking the appropriate meds) and is clearly as homesick for Yamba as ever I was for Karnataka. He has yet to update his website but when he does, the photos are well worth a look.

Our re-entry to normal life was rendered rather dramatic by an accident that befell Teddy the Ginger Pirate Cat last Monday.Clearly his thoughts were so focussed on his plans to take over the world (his nomme de guerre is Spirax Sarco, who ought to be a Bond villain, even if he's not) that he forgot his Green Cross Code and had a run in with a passing car. He emerged with a broken jaw, necessitating an unbelievably huge vet bill and tube feeding for a week.
As he is Hugger Steward's cat this wasn't absolutely the best homecoming for him, though Teddy obviously believed that it was his hospitalisation that brought HS home.
After a fraught weekend, the tube was removed this evening, though wires remain in place and he's clearly got some serious recuperation ahead. Assuming that one life was used up with his lost leg 13 years ago, and there are surely other dramas that we wot not of, I'm hoping he'll go carefully for a year or two. There is serious money tied up in that cat :-)