Sunday, November 30, 2008

Happy New Year - a sermon for Advent Sunday, Yr B

With grateful thanks to Dylan, and to my colleagues and friends on the PRCL list, I preached something along these lines at our United Benefice Advent service in the Scout Hall on the Hill this morning.

Happy New Year!

Today we begin another cycle of prayer and worship Today we being once again to look forward – to the celebration of God breaking into our world as the babe in Bethlehem and to that final resolution and remaking of all things in accordance with God’s will, which we know as the Second Coming.
We look forward – and so do our neighbours outside the church,
For once we seem to be looking in the same direction as everyone strains to see what lies ahead…but what are we expecting? What are we waiting for?

For our children, it’s pretty straightforward.
The first window of countless Advent calendars will be opened tomorrow, and so the Christmas countdown begins… Not far ahead for the children lie presents… celebrations in school and at home, nativity plays and carol concerts, coloured lights and starlit magic. For their parents, though, there is a chill in the anticipations… Will there be jobs by January? Can Christmas be managed when there is so much less money around… Dare we look forward at all?

After a week of terrifying violence in Mumbai and unrest in Thailand, of continued financial turmoil and massive job losses, the concept of a “Happy New Year”, whether now or in January, looks unlikely to say the least. But this is Advent Sunday, and the first candle on our Advent wreath represents hope for all God’s people. So let’s try and lift our eyes from the headlines, to think about why we are here this morning. Let us even attempt, perhaps, obey Paul’s command and give an account of the hope that is in us. We DO Have something to look forward to.

Advent is a time when we look again at how our lives fit into the big picture of God's relationship with God's people, past and future. We are drawn, in a heightened way, into what it really means for God to come to us and be present with us…with us here in Selsley and Cainscross…in this year of economic anxiety and international terror which is, nonetheless, the Year of Our Lord. God with us…not removed from our reality but immersed in it…sharing everything that we lament, all the pain which we struggle with. Isaiah cries out in desperation for a dramatic intervention
O that God would rend the heavens and come down….
and I guess that is the sort of cry that many would identify with.
We want to be reassured that someone is still in control, that things are not as chaotic as they seem…God seemed to be active in the past – and we want more of the same. In the good times, of course, we feel no need to call upon God. We’re in control of our incomes, our lives, our politics. We feel safe, self-sufficient…why would we want to bother ourselves with a God who asks so much of us? But at the moment, the world is full of frightened people, people who can see the darkness stretching ahead of them and are desperate for any potential source of light.
O that God would rend the heavens and come down
God rending the heavens….coming to us through brokenness…

The brokenness of our lives, and our world

The brokenness of the bread at the Eucharist

That is our route to God.

And, of course, it is one we’d avoid if we could
Nobody wants to confront brokenness…
But remember, we are looking forward, aren’t we?

Advent is good news, right?


God is coming…God is with us…

But we need to remember that God with us has never represented the easy option…
The experience that Mark sketches for us in this
"little apocalypse" helps us understand what’s going on around us now. The church in which he wrote was dealing with the fall of Jerusalem, the end of the world as they knew it…and they were expecting Christ’s return in a matter of moments. But as they waited, things weren’t easy. Perhaps each generation, in one way or another, faces what it sees as “the last days”. Certainly there are people today who feel with the collapse of the housing market, the potential loss of their homes, of jobs and pensions, that the end might as well come now.
Everything looks so different.
Certainties are swept away

Is this what God’s coming will look like…?

Wars and rumours of wars, all sorts of signs of the times…We could, were we so minded, label many of our recent headlines as clear apocalyptic proof. Actually, though certain Christians will claim with each fresh disaster that this is THE proof that we are living in the “end times”, I’m not sure that really matters. One way and another, all things will come to and end… We can’t carry on as we are forever - at some point the game is up. We don’t, though, need to worry unduly about whether that ending comes for the whole planet, or simply for each of us as individuals…Jesus makes it clear that attempts to work out when the end might come are simply a wasted effort. Much better to use the time now…for what matters is to be awake, alert, ready.
We are looking forward.
Forward to new life that will overcome the pain of death!

Forward to a change in the way that each of us lives our lives.
Forward to a recognition that our anxieties are second-order issues…because our deepest certainties lie with the One who does not change, whose love is constant through every twist and turn of our daily lives…

Yes, I know that some will speak of the day of the Lord as something to dread – and of course it’s in no way to be taken lightly.
But we know something they seem to have forgotten. The person we call “Lord” is none other than Jesus of Nazareth, who taught and healed, who welcomed the outcast and broke bread with anyone willing to eat with him. Jesus who shows us, at each and every moment, that God is love, and that love drives out fear.

So don't panic. Panic spoils your concentration just as surely as sleep does. You need to focus, to be ready to respond to another person, to meet them with love. Don't panic when someone tells you about suffering in the present or suffering to come: keep watch, and respond with love.
That's our task today and throughout Advent.

Stay awake, keep looking forward and respond with love.
There will be earthquakes and wars and famines, recessions and riots, as well as more personal catastrophes and seismic shifts in our families and communities, but there is nothing that can derail this train, Jesus is here, and Jesus is coming.

In his Advent message Archbishop Rowan wrote this:

In Advent, Christians have for centuries thought about death and judgment, about heaven and hell. They’ve thought about the way in which when we’re up against the truth for the first time, when we really see what the reality of God is like, it will be a shock to the system.

I guess that for many, current events are precipitating that sort of reality…and yes, it is shocking and painful, but it can be joyful too.
We need, each one of us, to confront the truth and allow ourselves to be changed by it…

The ABC continues

God forbid we say `no we can’t cope with the truth, we’d prefer our own darkness'. And so part of our self-examination during Advent is looking into ourselves and saying, ‘Well can I get myself to the point where I can look at God and say well there’s truth and there’s beauty and light and love and it’s painful for me, weak and stupid though I am, to face that, and yet I’d rather be there with the truth, however much it costs, than be locked up with myself?’ During Advent, we try to get ourselves a bit more used to the truth - the truth about ourselves, which is not always very encouraging, but the truth about God above all which is always encouraging. The One who comes will come with a great challenge. It will be like fire on the earth as the Bible says. And yet the One who comes is coming in love. He’s coming to set us free. And that’s something well worth waiting for.

Happy New Year….
We’ve so much to look forward to, - so let’s be awake to make the most of i

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The wiles of Santa

song chart memes

On one of those random, slightly pointless trawls around the net recently I happened upon this, at GraphJam Rather to my surprise, the comments there were dominated by angry dyslexics who felt that this represented willful misunderstanding and insensitivity towards them, though I was hearted by one whose comment included another dyslexic joke "I didn't realise I was dyslexic till I went to a toga party and realised I was the only person there dressed as a goat".

Anyway, as we try to mark Buy Nothing Day I am pledging myself to stand firm against the temptations of Santa.
Year after year, I panic that I haven't actually ammassed enough "stocking fillers" for my children, and year after year there are at least 3 strange and silly items that simply can't be crammed into the stockings, try as I might.
Since both economics and principles dictate that this is not the time to fritter finances away on plastic racing snails, glow in the dark eyeballs or any of the usual stocking fodder, maybe this time I really will revert to the "1 edible, 1 readable, 1 silly and 3 sensibles - plus a sugar mouse and a satsuma in the toe" approach that my parents perfected. I never remember feeling remotely disappointed.
Burrowing under the bedclothes to read the (newly unwrapped)
"The Land of Green Ginger" by the light of a (newly unwrapped) ladybird torch remains one of my all-time favourite Christmas memories - even if it was 5.00 in the morning.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Every time I think of you, I give thanks to my God.

In an extension of the Thanksgiving theme, for this week's Friday Five Singing Owl has invited us to
"list five people for whom You Give Thanks to God and maybe tell us why they are significant."

Just five.
That is such a struggle.
I'll immediately disqualify my children, about whom I write with disturbing frequency (and whom I was thankful for on this very blog only yesterday)...
I'll disqualify, too,the majority of my girlfriends, who were so very much in my thoughts as I gave thanks for friends in general yesterday.
To choose anyone seems goes....

My father - about whom I have blogged before, when marking anniversaries.
I never knew him in adult life (he died 3 weeks after my 18th birthday) but throughout my childhood he was the great constant, the source of unconditional love and approval...the one for whom I tried my hardest to "achieve" and who took the greatest delight in my achievements...the one with whom I could share my joy in music making...who took me for country walks and showed me beautiful places. He was also the one who got up in the night if I had a bad dream, who took on much of the every day running of our home (Mummy was in very poor health, waiting for heart surgery till I was 12 and then slowly recovering from it) who always, always put his own needs and interests last.
My strongest warmest memories are of burying my face in the navy blue jumper he always wore at home (I guess there were a succession of these - in my mind, the same one lasted all my days) and enjoying the feeling of complete safety and love that all parents long to pass on to their children...and of watching him standing at the sink wearing a striped butcher's apron, washing up after supper night after night. As long as Daddy was in the kitchen, the world was surely OK...

E - again, I've written about her here before. My "honorary mother", the one who cared for me when Mummy's spells in hospital would have created chaos for my father, as he tried to balance my needs with those of Mummy in ITU 2 hours away in London and hold down a job as well, the one who cheered me on through my teens and twenties, who provided a home base where I could spend time whenever I wanted, after my parents had died...who became the perfect honorary grandmother for my children...who is the person I'd most like to become in retirement...serene and loving, enjoying everything that life offers but demanding nothing. Age is beginning to hit her memory...which I can't quite bear to think about at the moment, so my thankfulness will focus on those lovely summer holidays when my children were small.

(This is becoming a bit of a sob-fest. Looking back to be thankful is fine, but let's change focus now for some gratitude more firmly rooted in the present)

Wonderful Vicar, of course...Wise colleague, caring friend, someone with whom to pray, to share ideas and worries, to laugh wildly (I'll never be able to read Jeremiah without incipient hysteria rising to the surface. Why? The story is here)
I can't think there could be a better training incumbent - working with him was a real blessing, which I was conscious of even as I experienced it (but even more so now I bumble along as an incumbent myself). I do hope my successor appreciates him - I'm sure she does.

Best SpirDir Ever - who manages to circumvent the received wisdom that friends cannot be spiritual directors, keeps boundaries beautifully defined but remains the person to whom I can say anything...and who also reminds me to laugh when I'm in danger of forgetting to

Scarily Cool Friend, whom I'd never have dared to speak to had I met him irl before we became friends on-line. We met via Greenbelt, of course, but it was getting to know S that made me realise that internet friendships could become every bit as real and sustaining as those with people living just round the corner.(look where that got me....sisters I'd never have met, trips to the other side of the Atlantic and so much more)
He makes me think really hard before opening my mouth, which is always a good thing...and has an unnerving way of getting to the core of whatever it is that I'm trying not to deal with...Not always welcome, but undoubtedly valuable!

There are, of course, so many people whose presence in my life makes me smile many that I could and should have blogged about...This isn't a "top five" - I am thankful for so many wonderful souls - I'm pretty sure you are one of them.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


Each year as the last Thursday in November approaches I find myself gazing rather wistfully across the Atlantic.
It's not the turkey (heaven knows, there will be enough opportunities to consume far more turkey than anyone could ever desire during the coming weeks);
it's not the cosy family time (I'll enjoy that when it comes, in the peaceful days between Christmas and New Year);
it's not even the opportunity for a break in the headlong dash towards Advent (well, actually, maybe it is - but that's not the whole story)
Rather, it's the opportunity provided by the US calendar to spend a day consciously being THANKFUL.
Actually, this hasn't been a particularly great week - just too many things going on at once, and a slight strain in a collegial relationship with one of my neighbours which feels more significant than it probably is because I'm a little stressed and weary.

All the more reason, then, to pause and be thankful...

- for my family, especially my children, who continue to surprise and delight me with their perspectives, their gifts, and their friendship - and who always offer a hug, even before I have time to ask for one

- for my friends (however we first connected), who are wonderfully understanding when I fail to make time to see them, who respond with love when I need it, who make me laugh and let me cry

- for a job that is so much more besides, that sustains all those parts of me that are worth most, that allows me to be and to pray and to listen and to sing and to feed and be fed

- for wonderful people who want me to "succeed" in ministry here and are offering support in so many ways...including an offer to run the parish office for a couple of mornings a week. Deo Gracias!

- for a home that is warm and friendly and full of books and muddle and things I love

- for the wild welcome of the dogs whenever I return home, and the warmth of the cats curled on my lap to remind me that I don't always have to rush out again

- for words and music and the creativity of others, and the courage to create in smaller ways myself

- for the way the world has opened before me in the past decade - for the opportunity to travel to places I never dreamed I would see and for the friendships cemented there

All this, - and heaven too!


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

When things get desperate

you can always play a blog game.
Cal produced a very impressive map of the Indian states that she has visited, and having so loved my own Indian adventure I had to follow suit.My map is much less exciting (I only had one month, after all)...and my Indian geography is so poor that I am still pondering what state it is that is represented by that teeny bit of white on the east coast - but here we go.

visited 4 states (11.4%)
Create your own visited map of India or try another Douwe Osinga project

The states I know I have visited are
Andrha Pradesh
Tamil Nadu
and Kerala.
Can anyone help me with that blob?

eta Cal is quite right. Pondicherry (aka Pudacherry) it is. Oh how I long to colour a little more of the white areas red....but not in the current climate, that's for sure.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Something I didn't borrow

for Sunday's sermon, but only because I didn't find it in time.

Mother Teresa once asked some visitors to hold up one hand.
"The gospel," she said, "is written on your fingers."
Then holding up one finger at a time,
she accented each word,
She then added,
"At the end of your life,
your five fingers will either excuse you or accuse you of doing it to the least of these.
You DID It To Me."

It does rather make the blood run cold, though.
The concept of "good goats" feels more real by the second, as I contemplate the world of needs that is just outside my window...And of course, the danger is that there's so much that I could engage with that I end up engaging with none of it. Paralysis by overload is, I suspect, a very real occupational hazard.
Just across the road from here is a fairly large estate where people are often viewed as "the least".
My neighbours include:
parents who found school a deeply damaging experience are passing on that damage to the next generation;
teenagers who don't see anything to look forward to in life, so that drink/drugs/joy riding seem attractive option;
elderly people who are (probably needlessly) terrified of the world outside their front door...

There are so many practical needs - and it's tempting to feel that in trying to address those I might somehow "earn" the right to explore a spiritual agenda with those in the community who would never seek me out- but there is every chance that instead of making a difference I'd simply be overwhelmed. Not helpful.
In some ways the current recession provides a route for the church to resume a 19th century persona as the source of good works...We are, for example, launching a "Help Yourself" food cupboard at Church in the Valley, which we hope will be a useful resource for those whose budgets are now strained to breaking point.
That feels like a sensible response to a genuine need which is there on the doorstep.
But the "priest as amateur social worker" model doesn't hold water, does it?...and the days of the great AngloCatholic priests who gave their lives to working in the East End of London and the poorest quarters of other cities have now passed.

So, how do I practise incarnation here and now?

What does it mean to "hold the cure of souls" for these parishes, - so many thousands of people to whom the church is barely present, let alone relevant...some living happily, some leading lives of quiet desperation?
The Church would say that as parish priest I am responsible for each of them under God...and much of the time, that feels very real...though I can imagine, too, the outrage with which my most secular neighbours would view that sentiment. It can sound so patronising, if interpreted as part of the culture of "Father knows best"...but I love the fact that there is someone tasked with loving and praying for every single person in this community - even as I tremble to realise that person is me.

Back to those five fingers. I'm pretty sure that using them to type is not precisely what Mother Teresa had in mind...
So I'll depart to do some visiting, wondering all the while what God really requires of me in this place.
Unsurprisingly, Micah's answer seems as good as any
"To do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with my God..."

Monday, November 24, 2008

Bonus post

I'm breaking my self-imposed NaBloPoMo rule of only one post a day (thirty days is quite a long time, otherwise) because today is Hugger Steward's birthday.
The last time we were apart on 24th November, I was in India - and it felt unbelievably strange not to hug him in person.
This time he is much closer at hand, in the grip of an essay crisis in once again the birthday hugs will have to wait for a few days.
But I'm thinking about him so much - about all that he has done in the year since his last birthday, about his hopes for the coming year, and mine for him too.
I don't know if the year ahead will include such a dramatic achievement as climbing, in case of doubt, let's publish the evidence of that once again.

What I made of the lendings - A sermon for the feast of Christ the King, Yr A

Imagine, if you would, that you’re the first person to arrive here one morning.
You open the door and go inside –to discover that, contrary to your expectations, you are not alone.
A distinctly smelly and obviously inebriate man is making his way up the aisle towards the sanctuary…
What happens next?

We’ll come back to that scenario later but for the moment, I want us to return to more familiar territory – the text of today’s gospel.
We know this story so well that we refer to subconsciously in every- day life as we talk about sorting out the sheep from the goats. We speak as if that’s an easy distinction, as indeed it is if you think in terms of the sheep and goats we know from our own farming landscape. Granted they are both ruminants, but there the visible similarity ends. They look quite remarkably different. It would be seriously perverse if you couldn’t distinguish between them.
Sheep are sheep and goats, well goats are different.
You can tell by them by the beards, the horns, and the smell.
Not so in southern Europe or Asia, where floppy ears and wicked yellow eyes seem common to both groups…
Unless you spend a lot of time with them, it would be hard to tell the difference.

And that, I think, is the point.
According to an article in the Jewish Heritage magazine online, though both sheep and goats could be used in Temple sacrifice, goats were seen as "armed robbers who would jump over people's fences and destroy their plants." While Sheep graze at a fairly consistent ground level, goats not only graze at the ground but can also tear leaves, buds, fruit off trees, and notoriously, washing off lines, and are thus far more destructive.
But you have to get close to see a difference in how they behave... And that’s the crux of the story, isn’t it.
How they behave, How we behave.
Are we sheep, or are we goats?
It’s an interesting question – and once again, it’s not that straightforward.

The American spiritual director and author
Dennis Linn asked a group of retired nuns,
"How many of you, even once in your life,
have done what Jesus asks and fed a hungry person,
clothed a naked person or visited a person in
prison?" All the sisters raised their hands.
Dennis said, "That's wonderful! You're all
Then Dennis asked, "How many of
you, even once in your life, have walked by a
hungry person, failed to clothe a naked person, or
not visited someone in prison?" Slowly, all
the sisters raised their hands. Dennis said,
"That's too bad. You're all goats."
The sisters looked worried and perplexed. Then
suddenly one very old sister's hand shot up. She
blurted out, "I get it! We're all good

A contradiction in terms, or an accurate reflection of the reality of life?
Certainly in my experience nobody is wholly good or wholly bad. As we strive to follow in the steps of Christ we may become ever more conscious of our own failures. As Paul reminds us, “all fall short”…but there are times when we get things right as well.

So perhaps what divides sheep and goats is not so much behaviour as motivation…

As Jesus tells the story, it doesn’t seem that the righteous were going out of their way to Do the Right Thing to satisfy the demands of their absent ruler….they simply went on doing the next thing, what needed to be done…They acted from a compassion rooted deep within them…a compassion that showed that they were, whether they knew it or not, clearly citizens of the Kingdom.

On the other hand, the ones who find themselves on the left of the throne seem to have been keeping a tally…To me that’s the subtext of their question
"Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry...and did not take
care of you?
“I’m sure I have evidence to prove you got that wrong.
I’ve been keeping track. See all the good things I did."

But they were doing the right things for the wrong reasons…
From a sense of obligation, perhaps, or in hope of a reward.
Not from love.
They were always going through the motions, always performing rather than living out a compassionate reality…

I guess, then, that this passage is addressed to people like us.
People who would see themselves as part of the body of Christ…good people who go to church on a Sunday and try to practise their faith for the rest of the week as well.
People who, if they only recognised him, would absolutely and unquestionably set out to help the Christ in need.
Whether sheep or goats, both groups would have clothed the naked if they had only known.
Both would have visited Jesus in prison.
Both would have offered food.
BUT only one group did so…and they did so without recognising whom they served.

When Jesus returns even the most cynical or lukewarm of believers will surely be eager to offer a cup of water or a warm coat.
Knowing that we might just meet Jesus in the stranger, we try to prepare ourselves for that encounter too…but it’s not always easy.
Sometimes the strangers are just too strange…uncomfortable, challenging, positively threatening.
They don’t look Christ-like at all.
But that’s not really the point at issue.

The question is not really how we identify the Christ in our midst, but the extent to which we have been changed by his love, God’s love, so that we respond to human need - even though the one in need is the least Christ-like person we can imagine.
How clearly do we show the characteristics of the Kingdom to which we claim to belong?
Are we recognisably Kingdom people?

It’s an uncomfortable question to contemplate – so I think I’ll finish that story instead.

The unexpected visitor in the church went on to urinate in the sanctuary before settling down to sleep off a heavy day’s drinking during Evensong, coming to during the Magnificat and encouraging the preacher with a good few shouts along the way.
The church Hamish visited was, as you might have guessed, my former parish of St Mary’s Charlton Kings….and to my utter amazement and joy the congregation accepted his presence that November evening, offered him a bed for the night (an offer he scorned, since he told us proudly that he hadn’t slept indoors for many years and wasn’t about to start now) and provided bacon sandwiches and flasks of strong coffee in the morning.
They welcomed him on his terms…as the person he was.

Nobody pretended to feel comfortable around him, but nobody allowed their own feelings and prejudices to interfere with their instinct to offer practical love without judgement.
They set aside their worry that he wouldn’t know how to treat the holy space of the church “properly”…they disregarded the instinct that told them that his alcoholism meant that any help would be abused, that he was trapped in a self destructive spiral.
They stopped judging according to common sense and pragmatism, and judged, instead with the Kingdom’s eyes of love.
They began to live as citizens who were truly at home in the Kingdom, because they were modelling their life on the King.

And that of course is the answer.
What we need is to allow the transforming love of Christ to change us so that we see the person and their need and respond without thought of any ultimate gain.
We won’t, after all, find ourselves facing some kind of Spiritual or Moral Exam at the end of time – there really is nothing we can cram for.
As a colleague in one internet preaching group said
“The point of our Lord’s teaching is not the moment of Judgement: the facing up to our past and the horror-filled realisation that we have repeatedly ignored Christ sick, naked, imprisoned…
The point of this most fundamental teaching is that the Kingdom of God extends far beyond polite society.
It encompasses not just people like you and me, but lots of others whom that society deems unpalatable.”
The Kingdom of God has nothing to do with comfort and convention and everything to do with love in action…
We probably are, for the most part “good goats”, our actions and motivations a complex mixture of generosity and anxious selfishness…but as we strive to follow Jesus, to act in accordance with God’s gracious love, we will be able to let go of the goatier motivations and focus instead on the greatest motivation, the longing to help to make God’s kingdom our reality.
We all know how to be sheep…but let me remind you..

I was hungry and you gave me … FOOD. I was thirsty and you gave me…DRINK. I was a stranger and you …WELCOMED ME. I was naked and you…CLOTHED ME. I was sick and you took…CARE OF ME. I was in prison, and you…VISITED ME. When you do these things to the least of people, you do them to…ME.

“Go then,” and as he taught us, “do likewise…”

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Something old, something new...

and above all, something borrowed.
That seems to be the construction of most of my sermons at present.
For various reasons, to do with poor time-keeping, worse boundary management and simply Too Much To Do, my sermon preparation time is being cut to the bone at present.
I read the texts on Monday or Tuesday...think a little....make great plans to read round, to walk the texts over the next few days, to pray and pause and pray some more...and then somehow, appallingly, it's Saturday afternoon and I am due to be somewhere else by early evening and I have not one coherent sermon thought to my name
So I read feverishly. I read Jane Williams and Tom Wright. I read the Church Times. I read the New Interpretters.
I read the sermons posted by my friends and colleagues on PRCL and at the 11th hour Preacher Party
I read the comments and discussions at Desperate Preacher
I look to see if wonderful wonderful Dylan has attacked this passage and then, THEN, I truncate all the good intentions into about 5 minutes of frantic prayer as to which direction of all those I've read and been impressed by, God might actually want me to take.
Sometimes it's so hard to re-present and re-formulate an idea that my presentation of it sounds pretty much like a quote from the original
Sometimes, (though with proper attribution where I'm aware of it) I don't even realise I'm quoting directly till I re read the whole thing moments before I fall into bed
Mostly I borrow and reframe...I use some bones provided by others, some bones that I seem to find lying about the place here, and am enabled to flesh them out with my own words and thoughts, all by the light of the midnight oil.
But it's so very far from the way I want to preach.
I want to engage with the texts, to explore and to contemplate, to present old truths in creative ways...instead I seem to be serving up an endless diet of "ready meals" cooked in a microwave.
The fact that people seem to find them satisfying is very small consolation.
Really working with the word is one of the ways that I grow, but it doesn't seem to be part of the picture at all.
I need to sort this out...but I need time to achieve that.
So, when would that be?

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Hail, bright Cecilia

Today the church celebrates Cecilia, virgin martyr and accidental patron of music...
It being a Saturday, no doubt hundreds of concerts will have been held in her honour in churches across the world - and I was more than slightly disappointed to discover that there is nothing even remotely resembling a Collect for her in Common Worship.
At the moment, neither of my churches has a strong enough choir to make this feast day something we can celebrate in house, but it was through Choral Evensong as much as the poetry of Herbert and Donne that I found myself awakened to faith, and I've always known the deep truth of Augustine's words
"(S)he who sings prays twice"
So here, with gratitude for all those who make music in our churches and those who dedicate their creative gifts to produce music in tune with the songs of heaven, is the prayer of the Royal School of Church Music.
Next year maybe I'll take time to write my own

We give thanks to God for all his blessings.
We give especial thanks for the music of the church in this place
and for the work of the Royal School of Church Music throughout the world.

God our Father, supreme Creator
we give you thanks
for the skills and imagination
to shape sound and silence into music.
Enriched by your Holy Spirit,
may our song always tell of your love and saving power,
and may our lives be ever committed to your service.
We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Stirring times

This coming Sunday was known for many a year as "Stir up Sunday" because of the words of the collect...which was popularly believed to be an injunction to get on with making the Christmas pudding, if it hadn't been maturing gently for the past year anyway.
As a domestic disaster, I've never even thought of making my own Christmas pud, though I do attempt a cake every few years. I do, though, wonder what the collect might encourage me to do.
I'm so good at procrastinating. Again and again, things linger undone because though I know I ought to get on with them, I just don't have the will to do them.
Mostly, I think, those things I neglect are administrivia - but I'm sure there are other more significant omissions, things that would really make a difference if I could actually get on and do them. One risk of having much too much to do is that you can lapse into inertia. Knowing you can't possibly get it all done, you detach yourself from the process of trying to do any of it...Time, surely, to pray the Collect that has been set for the last Sunday before Advent ever since Cranmer's prayer book.
Plenteous fruits and plenteous rewards are surely quite encough justification for a little bit of stirring...

"Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people;

that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded."

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Well, well, well

"Never" they said to me at vicar-school "never, EVER accept a job at a church with an open church-yard".

But when the time came, of course, I was so madly in love with the parishes that such wise advice was forgotten. Just. Like. That.
So since April I've been the slightly anxious custodian of not one but two well-used and fully functioning church-yards...which, as I've yet to be involved in any major dispute, still seem to be a price worth paying for the joys of ministry here. - particularly as they do, in themselves, provide such a valuable way of connecting with people who would otherwise have very few encounters with the church.

However, the words of my elders and betters echoed loudly one day last week as the playgroup leader and I stood looking down into a Very large hole in one of my churchyards. It had started so innocently - a small depression in the grass, a few feet away from the tarmacked path that goes round behind the church, and is well used by anyone who wants to turn a car and make good their escape. That was on a Thursday.
After a wet weekend, the small depression had become a small hole...nothing to worry about really. Maybe it had been there all the time and I had just failed to notice it. Really, I am shockingly unobervant....
But by Wednesday there was no denying it...a very substantial hole...and as we peered down into it, we could see a smallchamber, with brick whit, a vault - thankfully empty of any occupant.
Apparently at one stage there must have been a "buy one, get one free" option offered by the Victorian gravediggers...this was, according to our architect, provided as an overspill to a nearby family vault "just in case you ever need it".
Clearly it never was needed, but sat there - a great big hollow space, for over a century...until, one wet day in November 2008 the vibrations of traffic only feet away became just too much.

So there it is - our very own trap for heffalumps, which must be filled in (at a rather alarming cost, just to get rid of a hole) before anyone else starts making jokes about "the vicar looking into it".

I suspect that despite this denouement, I will still fail to listen to the next helping of wise advice. After all, how many empty vaults can there be in anyone's ministry?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Still thinking

A couple of interesting (to me, anyway) observations from yesterday's training.

We were asked to reflect on the women who have influenced us along the way...and I was struck by the indirect, almost negative influences which were as strong as the positive ones for me.
Most notably, my beloved mother was an invalid throughout my she tended to do very little. I, though being very like her in many ways, struggle instead with the need to do if I have to live my life twice over in compensation for all the things she was never strong enough to achieve.

A colleague and friend who is rather younger than me found the whole question of attention to gender issues and our unspoken focus on the stained glass ceiling very very irritating...whereas those of us who spent the first part of our adult lives in a church that did not ordain women had a very different approach...even if we in no way considered ourselves to be ardent feminists.
For her, inclusive language and opportunities to spend time as women together were very much non issues....As we drove home, we concluded that although we are ministering only a few miles apart in a diocese that does a great deal to encourage and promote women's ministry, my view was conditioned both by my awareness of the contest going on around me 18 years ago and also (this one surprised me) by the fact that 25 years ago I was one of only the 2nd year of women undergraduates at my Cambridge college. Even though I was barely aware of that, those 3 years of pioneering must have left an inerasible mark, which just isn't there for the next generation, praise be.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A lovely day

Clearly the impact of Sunday night in terms of boosting confidence and morale in my churches is spilling over into the week...I'm having a really good time.
Yesterday featured two excellent visits, some useful paperwork (getting rid of things that had been hanging over me - including the discovery of the Long Lost Notebook containing vital notes from meeting in September, and the transformation of said notes into reliable minutes of the meeting...Hallelujah) and a burst of domestic activity as I tried to deal with the huge box of apples that a local funeral director kindly sent my way. It was strangely pleasing to have several tubs full of pork and apple casserole to consign to the freezer...maybe there is a wee bit of me that rather misses being "just a mum", and smiles when that sort of box gets ticked.

Today was quite different...A training day for women in ministry, called (punning cheerfully) "Taking responsibility for ourselves"
The blurb about the day spoke of the speaker's passion
She explores continually how to set limits that satisfy others’ needs whilst enabling re-creation and abundant life."
It was good to spend time with someone who acknowledged and understood that double bind that so often besets women (not just in ministry) keep everyone else happy while recognising that we do have needs of our own that deserve attention. It was good to be given some helpful suggestions that might make it easier to handle difficult situations (we spent a while in the dreaded "small groups" planning our approach to a specific potentially tricky encounter which might come our way in the near future - and unhappily, I had one all dressed up and ready to go. It was splendid to be instructed to choose 3 specific ways of building up our reserves of self-worth (mine featured having supper with a good friend, writing a retreat into the diary here and now and planning a second proper dog walk every day). But the
best thing was being in a safe group of colleagues...
I do know some wonderful women.

Monday, November 17, 2008


Those words of Dorothy McRae McMahon which we used last night came under the heading of "Creed" and I could feel just a slightly baffled resistance in the congregation as they began to say the words. Creeds, surely, begin with what we know about God...they aren't, on the whole, a description of the way things are.

But perhaps they should be.
Rooting God's reality in the world of stubbed toes, struggles and recoveries gives us a point of reference that most of us need.
To begin with "I believe in God" might sometimes be a bridge too far.
There's a wonderful story, whose details I've rather forgotten, about someone trying to find their way through the Creeds with integrity. After long discussion, soul searching and consideration of every line, every clause, every word, all that was left was
"I believe".

A couple of weeks ago I was hunting through long closed theology files and discovered the work we did when we were training as a Local Ministry Team in The Rissingtons, more than 10 years ago. We were a strange little group. A retired RAF officer, a retired builder, a full time granny (who seemed to be busier with her assorted grandchildren than I was with my own school-aged brood), an unhappy secretary, the vicar and me...wrestling with my own vocation and trying my best to jump through the numerous Anglican hoops that were ranged before me.
The whole process of being a team was both baffling, frustrating and rewarding...I'm not sure that we ever really grasped what we migth be for...the "vicar's helper" model was always lurking just below the surface. But we learned so much and grew so much as we explored, tripped one another up and dealt with each other's anxieties and frustrations.
At one point on our journey we decided to write our own Creed. I was proud of it then...and I'm still quite fond of it today.
What do you reckon?

"We believe in God, and we will work to bring about his Kingdom of wholeness restored.

We believe in the God of Christmas, who comes as one of us,
so we commit ourselves to encourage, not condemn.

We believe in the God of Good Friday, who endures the cruelty of our world,
so we commit ourselves to suffer alongside the suffering.

We believe in the God of Easter, who bursts into new life,
so we commit ourselves to laughter and hope.

We believe in the God of Pentecost, who always surprises us,
So we commit ourselves to take risks with God."

Sunday, November 16, 2008


Life is full of surprises!
Of all the things to get one excited, the prospect of a Deanery service - even one to celebrate a new deanery, formed from the union of two others - seems unlikely, to put it mildly.

However, I have to say that the service of celebration held in Church in the Valley this evening was nothing short of staggering.
Despite a grey and dampish winter evening, well over 250 appeared from all sorts and conditions of parish...My little church was full almost to overflowing.
We sang and prayed, we lit candles for each benefice of the new Deanery, and placed them on a map of the whole area while a soprano with a beautiful voice sang "Be still, for the presence of the Lord, the holy one, is here"
We listened to an excellent sermon which took as its starting point a South American fish with four eyes, then we sang and prayed some more.
And through it all, there was such a sense of God's presence that it was electric...
I had chosen some bits of liturgy by Dorothy McRae McMahon - which sometimes seem more of an expression of hope than of reality. Tonight,though they were spot on

The people of God have a human face
We laugh. We weep. We wait in hope.
We lift our eyes and stub our toes.
We love and struggle. We fail. We stand again.

But God is God, and Jesus is the Christ.
And the Spirit will lift up our feet.
God is in the centre. God is at our endings.
Nothing lies beyond the love of God in Christ.

We are the people of hope
Together we will celebrate the moments of new life.

Afterwards we moved into the church hall, where each parish had been invited to provide a display to share something of their life and their story...Those stories were such good news. So much creativity and engagement. So much beauty. So much committment.
To coin a phrase, accounts of the demise of the Church of England have been grossly exaggerated. Tonight left me full of both hope and gratitude.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Talents - a Baptism sermon

One of the regular challenges of this strange and wonderful job that is parish ministry is trying to explain exactly what we think we’re doing here in church week by week.
The trouble is, pretty much whenever we come together as a church family, we find ourselves using ordinary things and ordinary words to point to something far beyond anything we can really describe or comprehend. That can make for stressful sermon prep!
Nothing is ever quite straightforward.

We share bread and wine and that sharing makes real for us the way Jesus shared himself, his life and his love, for the good of the whole world.

We pour water over those who come to begin their Christian journey, and believe that the water represents a whole new start and the beginning of a lifetime’s response to the tide of God’s love that will wash over us, flood every aspect of our lives and literally sweep us off our feet if we’ll only let it.
We trace the sign of the cross on their foreheads, and tell them that they are marked with the badge of Jesus – that they have become his property from then on for ever.

Ordinary things pointing far beyond themselves.

We don’t have the words to truly explain God’s greatness or the depth of his love for us, so we share stories.
Jesus, you know, was always telling stories…stories about sheep and goats, about cleaning houses and planting seeds…stories about ordinary things…But as he told them, and as we hear them today, we are invited to invest those ordinary stories with heavenly meanings.

That’s exactly the right word for today.
Because, you see, today’s worship is all about the way God invests in us.
That’s something we celebrate as we rejoice in Zachary’s baptism.
It’s also the message of the gospel story we have just heard…
What would you do with 75 years wages? or 30 years wages or 15 years wages? If someone gave you 7.5 million or 5 million or your 2.5 million, what would you do?
That’s not an idle question – it’s absolutely the substance of our reading.
You see, the “talents” that were given out in the story weren’t, as you might imagine, the sort of talents that we admire in Strictly Come Dancing nor even the artistic kind that enable flower arrangers to make a church look beautiful on special occasions…
As you might know, a talent in 1st century Palestine was actually money – and not just a specific coin but a considerable sum. In fact, a talent was roughly equivalent to 20 years’ pay in Jesus’ time…so in our story the wealthy master is taking a huge risk as he doles out those massive allowances to his three servants.
It’s certainly not something that one could recommend in the current economic situation…
He does no research.
He doesn’t enquire into the financial acumen of his slaves…he just doles out his riches and trusts them to make the most of them
What a risk!

We may not be rolling in money – our own or somebody else’s – but actually that’s our experience too.
God risks his all in his relationship with us.
God provides everything we need to satisfy our deepest longings - new life, forgiveness, unconditional love – and invites us to make the most of them.

That’s what Baptism is all about.
It doesn’t affect God’s attitude to us in any way at all…
God loves each of us – Zachary, me, you - completely, non negotiably – as if he had nobody else to love…as if you were the only person who had ever lived or would ever live on this earth.
He invests in you completely…lock, stock and barrel.
He invests, but he doesn’t force your response.

So…if you have been baptised, I wonder what you’re doing with that reckless investment of love and forgiveness….
Some pretty huge promises were made on your behalf…promises that Zachary’s parents and godparents will be making shortly for him.
They sound life changing.
WAS your life changed?
Perhaps not…Perhaps that investment God made is lurking like an uncashed cheque.
It’s quite safe – but you won’t derive any benefit from it until you claim the riches it promises…

That’s the approach of the third slave in this morning’s story…
He is just too fearful.
He decides to play safe….he does nothing…and from nothing comes nothing, of course.
He might as well never have received that talent, for all the good it has been to him.
What a waste. Sad really.

But the option is always open, to present the cheque…to draw upon the love that is held in reserve …and, drawing upon it, to use it to make a difference…
The first two slaves had no guarantee that their risks would pay off…in the current market, they might well have been very fearful…but they trusted that even if things didn’t work out their Master would honour their intentions.
They trusted, and that gave them the confidence to act.

Trust. Another key concept this morning.

Do you remember those huge figures I bandied about earlier?
Imagine that you have truly been given that much wealth.
What will you do with it?
There really is more than enough to satisfy not only your needs but your fears and anxieties too…
There is enough to enable you to give and give again, with no fear that you’ll ever run short.

And that’s what is asked of you.
That you make the same investment of love and hope that God has made…
What would it mean in your life if you trusted that God was the sort of daring fellow of our story, an adventurer who would do wild, crazy things for which there was no script.
What would it mean if ours was the sort of God who would dare, would experiment, would risk losing things – maybe even his own life?

What would trusting in a God like that mean for your daily life?
A God who dares us to follow Christ’’s example…to be reckless in our generosity, bold with all that we’ve been given…God’s own love, God’s own self given with abandon so that we might love and bless the world in God’s name.

We might go anywhere, if we opened our hearts and our lives to a God like that.

Zachary, I’m sorry.
You can’t defend yourself, and you might well hope that the Christian faith would be a safe option, a pleasantly bland set of principles that you could take or leave depending on your mood.
And yes, some people do treat it that way…
There’s always the option of burying that talent.
But the alternative is far more exciting and rewarding.
God invites and encourages you to be adventurous with all you are given.
To play pass the parcel with that love…to invest in unlikely causes…to live your life as a precious gift that can change the world.

Zachary, when you are baptised you will become a Christian – a little Christ….That’s what “Christening” means…and Christ, God’s own Son, risked everything, invested himself completely in his relationship with the human race…
He gave up his life…and in so doing won life for each one of us.

Christianity – not for the cautious…rather, a lifelong adventure story based on the extravagant outpourings of love that the polite waters of baptism merely hint at.

Ordinary things….Water, bread, wine – pointing to the inexhaustible love of God.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Remembrance Friday Five

My apologies to those who quite reasonably feel that this blog has done nothing BUT focus on Remembrance from the beginning of November onwards...Having committed to post every day, I can't afford to waste a Friday Five, even if it is partly revisiting territory covered already.
So - this week's questions were variations on a familiar theme

1. Did your church have any special celebrations for All Saints/All Soul's Day?
Oh we did indeed. Two distinct commemorations of All Souls - one aimed at the un-churched with whom we have contact through funerals (a substantial element of ministry here, with on average one each week since I've been in post) (Journey On - which I blogged at the time) and the other a traditional All Souls Eucharist, complete with lists of names of the departed, which was one of the most powerful experiences of my ministry here to date.
We also sandwiched in an All Saints celebration on the Sunday, which majored on Church on the Hill, whose patronal festival it is...Songs of Praise beginning with "Ye holy angels bright" and ending with the unsurprising but satisfying For all the Saints...

2. How about Veterans' Day?
For us it is Remembrance Sunday (the Sunday closest to 11th November, Armistice Day itself)- which we marked with big services in both churches, featuring Scouts, Cubs, Brownies, ATC, Sea Scouts and all sorts of other alarmingly young people in assorted uniforms. Church on the Hill being in thrall to the builders we actually worshipped in the Scout Hall, which was rather lovely as for once we were on their home turf....There were more than enough people to fill the hall, giving the feeling of a real community act.
In the afternoon some 200 plus filled church in the valley for their commemoration...At both services, the lists of names from the war memorials were read aloud and poppy wreaths were laid on the both the 2 minute silence was observed, marked in the traditional way with the Last Post and then Reveille and those lines from Binyon's poem For the Fallen
"They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old
Age shall not weary them nor the years condemn
At the going down of the sun and in the evening
We will remember them"

3. Did you and your family have a holiday for Veterans' Day/Remembrance Day? If so, how did you take advantage of the break?
Not a bit of it...Extra work with additional services and special liturgies needed...

4. Is there a veteran in your life, living or dead, whose dedication you remember and celebrate? Or perhaps a loved one presently serving in the armed forces?
Both my parents served in WW2, my father in the Royal Navy and my mother in the WRNS...She spent her war in the Orkneys, working as a coder/decoder while Daddy took part in at least one North Atlantic convoy and also saw action in Burma, where he was wounded and awarded the DSC...though I never discovered this till after his death. Poor Daddy loved the Navy so much, but was essentially a pacifist by the time I was born and hated all rituals and the national pride that somehow gets grafted on to the remembrance poppy. For this reason, if I weren't the de facto vicar of these parishes I would probably wear a white poppy in preference to the red each year - but the scope for misunderstanding seems too huge and I have no wish to diminish nor seem to denigrate the sacrifices of so many...Perhaps one year I will dare to wear the two poppies, red and white, side by side.

5. Do you have any personal rituals which help you remember and connect with loved ones who have passed on? Not really...My parents are very present in so many of the characteristics and turns of phrase of my children, so in one sense I have a daily connection. I'm also very conscious of their presence amid "that multitude which no man can number" that gathers and celebrates with us whenever we break the bread and share the wine of Eucharist. The Catholic writer Margaret Hepplethwaite, widowed while still quite young, writes of her feeling that it is only at Mass that she gets to share a meal with her husband - and that same feeling is very real to me as well. They are all there, all those dear ones whom we see no could any personal ritual compare with that?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Towards transparency

Today the Church of England calendar encourages us to commemorate Charles Simeon, Evangelical Divine
(which is, of course, entirely different from "Divine Evangelical")
Since I'm pretty clearly a liberal catholic, you would probably assume that I'd be a tad uncomfortable around Simeon - and certainly those jobs in the Church Times that came with the heading "Simeon's Trustees are looking to appoint...." were never remotely attractive.
But - there is one aspect of the man that I admire hugely (there might well have been many others, of course - I mustn't let my prejudices have things all their own way, even here on my very own blog!).

On the inside of his pulpit at Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge, he had carved
"Sir, we would see Jesus"

What a goal for anyone aspiring to preach!

And for those of us who struggle with a balancing act that teeters between using our gifts and our relationship with the congregation to draw them together and facilitate community, and allowing those same gifts and relationships to become the end and not the means...what a reminder.
That's what we are for as ministers...whether preaching, presiding or pastoring
(Heavens - it must the be evangelical influence - I have just presented 3 "P"s!!) it's so totally not about us...
We are called to be incarnational not because there is anything that we can particularly offer as ourselves in any given situation ("oh, everything will be alright there now that they have someone living in the vicarage again") but because when we commit to our communities, to identifying totally with them, to sharing everything so that we cease to think of "us" and "them", then we can become signposts...

Sir, we would see Jesus.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


Today has been busy and even fairly productive, at least in terms of giving me plenty to think about.
It included the lovely Wednesday Eucharist at St M's, a briefing/consultation meeting about the role of Readers (which raised all sorts of interesting questions about distinctive ministries, training etc) and then a meeting with a wonderful retired priest, who taught me simply shed-loads of useful stuff when I did a placement with him during vicar-school. His then parish is one of the few urban priority areas in the diocese, a fascinating cultural mix (in this rather monochrome part of the country) with a congregation that blends native Gloucestershire with Afro Caribbean, a handful of Irish and assorted asylum seekers from all corners of the globe. I loved it dearly and wept buckets when my placement ended: the whole experience confirmed my certainty that I was called in the long-term to work in somewhere that avoided the obvious problems of middle-class complacency.
So, as I try to discern the way forward in this anything but complacent or middle class parish, M seemed a sensible person to talk to.
And he was. I have heaps to mull over this evening...
Somehow this week has been rich in opportunities to reflect on what is actually going on here.
I met up with my official mentor on Monday...(the mentor system is a gift to all clergy in their first responsibility post here - and mine is particularly helpful) . We talked about ways to help me use my time more wisely - which might involve seeing if there are ways in which a bit of admin help could be unearthed somewhere, to go with the lovely new office space that has been created in the tower at church in the valley.
Yesterday I was with Best Spiritual Director Ever, who was quite firm about the need to write in and stick to regular quiet days, and suggested that I attempt a retreat at home BEFORE ADVENT....The "at home" element is to allow for the needs of the Dufflepud and the lovely Libby. My thought is that as I tend not to use our sitting room for work, ever, I could hole up in there with books, something creative and a roaring fire and that might be a way of avoiding the seductive pitfalls of the study, which so easily suck me back into work mode if I venture in there on days off. Definitely worth attempting.
Then today I had my conversation with M...He reminded me of the central importance of relationship - created by being visible, by visiting, by visiting and then visiting some more. I belive him, - but I have to say that my current practice doesn't reflect my beliefs.
Which takes us back to the need for some admin help
Currently I need (in no particular order) to
finish my expenses
write sermon & intercessions for Sunday
write another set of intercessions for special Deanery service at valley church, also on Sunday
chase up display from church on the hill for deanery exhibition
create display for church in the valley ditto (this will involve some time taking photos and more time selecting photos from the large collection I have been offered)
solve organist crisis
plan Messy Advent
spend time thinking creatively about Advent/Christmas generally
plan Christingle
produce working agreement for NSM colleague
check whether Reader colleague is due a review
write something about Posada for school and set up "host families" for that Advent journey
confirm school and community choir for the carol service
Produce "Grapevine" our weekly "pews news"
Write letter and assorted articles for the December parish mag
work out "what's on" ditto

And all that is without even stopping to think - there's a whole load more lurking just beneath the surface of the brain.
Instead, when I got home from Gloucester I touched base with reality by a short hospital visit and some time spent praying with someone on-line.
It's worth any amount of rejigging if I can actually get to work on some of those things that I know are priorities - and right now, my top priority is sleep.
Good night, friends! Tomorrow is another day.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

You don't have to have x ray vision to have deduced that I have an on-going struggle with Remembrance Sunday, and the associated rituals (another 2 minute silence at 11 today, the date of the WW1 Armistice itself) and some of my disquiet was very well aired in an article on the Ekklesia site (ht Dr Moose)

The church is uniquely placed to bring such a perspective. Its new position in post-Christendom may call it to have less focus on the nation state, and call society to a broader view to remember both friends and enemies.

If we accept the Remembrance Day rhetoric, that soldiers laid down their lives to give us the liberties we enjoy today, then surely that must include the freedom to choose how we remember the dead, and say what we believe? Indeed, it does a disservice to their memory not to allow such choice and conscience to be expressed.

Remembrance Sunday needs to experience the liberation to which is pays lip service. The church should be the freedom fighter to bring it.

Dr Moose is almost certainly right that they have over simplified in order to make their point, but nonetheless...

However, because I do not wish in any way to minimise the sacrifice of those whose death has transformed them from ordinary men - scared, angry, homesick, heartsick - into heroes "Whose name liveth for evermore" I'll leave these Remembrance reflections with the words of one who surely had more right than most to comment, Wilfred Owen. That final couplet makes me shiver whenever I read it...

The Parable of the Old Man & the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,

And took the fire with him, and a knife.

And as they sojourned both of them together,

Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,

Behold the preparations, fire and iron,

But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?

Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps

and builded parapets and trenches there,

And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.

When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,

Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,

Neither do anything to him, thy son.

Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,

A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Monday, November 10, 2008

70 years on

Yesterday, as I made my way through the various Remembrance Sunday observances of these parishes, there were many references to the fact that this is the 90th anniversary of the end of World War 1...I heard heart-breaking statistics, including the number of soldiers killed on 11th November, in the hours leading up to that eleventh hour when the guns were finally stilled.
As a friend on the PRCL list wrote in her Remembrance Sunday sermon

Despite the fact that it was widely known that the fighting would end then,
something like 11,000 soldiers were killed on that day, more than the total
killed in the D-Day landings. Some of those deaths may have been inevitable,
even justifiable, but sadly there were cases where it seems there was no
better reason for them than that a commanding officer wanted to have one
last stab at glory, to be able to say he had won some town or village, which
he could have walked into a few hours later

On one level, Remembrance Sunday is all about needless deaths. At our two services, particularly the one held at Church in the Valley yesterday afternoon, the ATC and the Sea Cadets in their uniforms were a searing reminder of the youth of those we were remembering. So they paraded, brought their colours up to the altar, read lists of names and kept silence...and I wondered, as I always do, whether any of the stark reality of war is made real in these ceremonies.

Then I came home, and discovered that (lost amid the official rememberings of the day) this is also the 70th anniversary of Krystallnacht
That this should be all but ignored disturbs me if one set of deaths was somehow of more importance than another...
Krystallnacht set the tone for what was to come...for the enormities of the holocaust. And it was only by chance that I discovered this anniversary.

There are no words adequate, so I'm posting the Kaddish, the mourning prayer of Judaism. Really, it seems the only thing to do...

May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified
in the world that He created as He willed. May He make His kingship reign
in your lifetimes and in your days, and in the lifetimes of all the Jewish people,
swiftly and soon. Now respond: Amen.
May His great Name be blessed forever and ever.
Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled,
mighty, upraised, and lauded be the Name of the Holy One, Blessed is He.
beyond any blessing and song,
praise and consolation that are uttered in the world. Now respond: Amen.
May there be great peace from Heaven,
and life upon us and upon all Israel. Now respond: Amen.
He Who makes peace in His Heavens, may He make peace
upon us and upon all Israel. Now respond: Amen.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Remembrance Sunday sermon:Amos 5

"Remember, remember…."
It’s that month again.
We celebrated the saints in glory last week-end, and spent some time in candle-lit quiet treasuring the memories of our own dead as we commended them to God in our two All Souls commemorations.
We’ve enjoyed or endured the whizzes and bangs that seem to be extending way beyond Bonfire Night itself and now here we are on Remembrance Sunday, a day set apart for a particular kind of remembering as we look back with gratitude at all those who have fought and died in the service of others…those who are now just names on memorials around the country and those who are part of our own lives, the story of our own families…
Growing up in the 1960s, the 2nd world war seemed very close.
My home-town of Hastings still had some derelict sites where bombs had been dropped…
Both my parents had been part of the conflict, my father in the Royal Navy and my mother as a WRN. Though I was not to discover it until after his death, Daddy had been awarded a DSC for his leadership in an operation in Burma. You might have thought that this would make Remembrance Sunday important in his personal calendar but his attitude was always
The reason that we fought, that my friends and comrades died, was so that your generation should not need to remember…Not like this, anyway…”
I think he always worried that amid the solemnities of marching bands and the profound silence that covered the land at eleven o’clock, we might fall prey to what Wilfrid Owen famously described as “the old lie, dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”…It is sweet and proper to die for your country.
I adored my father, and it is only rarely that I disagree with him, even now, three decades after his death…but I think perhaps this time he was wrong.
As the saying goes
History repeats itself. Has to. Nobody listens
but the purpose of today is, surely, above all that we should be enabled to break out of that cycle of history…that we should learn to reap the full benefit of the sacrifices of the past…
We are, each one of us, an extraordinary bundle of the sum of our memories. Some of those will be treasured, some things we would much prefer to forget…but together they make us, both as individuals and as nations, into what we are…
Of course our rememberings will never be entirely positive
The heroism of war is balanced by the needless deaths through incompetence or political idiocy
The peace that was won has been tarnished with complacency.
Small wonder, then, that we hide from the powerful words of the prophet Amos
I hate, I despise your festivals – even when they feature poppies lovingly dropped from the heights of the Albert Hall
I take no delight in your solemn assemblies, even when accompanied by marching band and uniformed groups…
Justice and righteousness
The trouble is that those aren’t always the equivalent of peace and goodwill. Rather they are troublesome entities, that disrupt our negotiated peace settlements based on enlightened self interest – and so we devise barrages and dams, to ensure that these powerful forces can be controlled, contained…
Really they are best left in the Old Testament, where they can't cause too much harm to anyone...not allowed to run free, upsetting the order of society. They are great in abstract, but none too welcome in their reality.

But on this Remembrance Sunday as on every other Sunday of the year we gather for another kind of re-membering…we come together as the broken body of Christ, complete with all our failures and regrets…We come as that broken body to the Sacrament which brings us healing
Remembering is the process of “Bringing the past into the present”… Back in the spring when my family packed up in preparation for our move to these parishes, there was a lot of re-membering like that…we discovered forgotten photographs and random objects that reminded us of old friends, trinkets that brought the memories flooding back. The time lost in between past and present disappeared and the memory was a real live moment again full of smells and sounds...Bringing the past into the present, indeed.
And that is what happens for us, week after week as we come to the Sacrament with all the wounds of our present reality.
The sights and sounds, the tastes and feelings bridge the gap for us between the upper room and our church 2000 years later and we find ourselves at table with our Lord.
But this Remembering is rather different.
This Remembering has as its one end our redemption and the peace of the world
It has nothing to do with soft focussed nostalgia, or bitter sweet national pride and everything to do with that relentless tide of justice and righteousness which transforms the world beyond our wildest imaginings
That transformation may ultimately involve letting the past go, taking our memories, hurts and regrets to the altar and finally leaving them there, having first thanked God for all He has taught us through them.
We can, though, rejoice that with Him nothing is ever wasted, no life lost or tears shed in vain, and holding on to that certainty we can then step forth, with him, into the Resurrection, where all that is admirable, all that is loved and cherished will be made new in Him.
So in closing, let me share with you a Remembrance tide creed, written by Alan Boesek for the World Council of Churches…

It is not true that this world and its people are doomed to die
and be lost -
THIS is true - for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him, shall not perish but have everlasting life.

It is not true that violence and hatred should have the last
word, and that war and destruction have come to stay forever.
THIS is true – Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Truth shall flourish out of the earth, and righteousness look down from heaven.

It is not true that we have to wait for those who are specially gifted as prophets of the church before we can do
anything .
This is true: I will pour out my spirit on all flesh and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see
visions and your old men shall dream dreams.

It is not true that our dreams of liberation for humankind, of justice, of human dignity, and off peace are not meant for this earth and for this history -
THIS is true - the hour comes and it is now, that the true
worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth.....

We have a choice - so let us, as the prophets so often counselled us, choose life.
Justice like a river and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Amen

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Here I stand

Early next year, I'm taking my two PCCs on an "away day" to consider what our churches are for, what it is that God requires of us as we seek to serve him in these wildly different communities.
I'm really looking forward to spending some time with them going "back to basics" and will hope to extend the discussions in our Lent course when the time comes.
Today, though, I've just opened my daily Henri Nouwen meditation to read these words...Hard to beat, I'd say...

How does the Church witness to Christ in the world? First and foremost by giving visibility to Jesus' love for the poor and the weak. In a world so hungry for healing, forgiveness, reconciliation, and most of all unconditional love, the Church must alleviate that hunger through its ministry. Wherever we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the lonely, listen to those who are rejected, and bring unity and peace to those who are divided, we proclaim the living Christ, whether we speak about him or not.

It is important that whatever we do and wherever we go, we remain in the Name of Jesus, who sent us. Outside his Name our ministry will lose its divine energy

Isn't that wonderful? A mission statement to follow to the ends of the earth.