Saturday, December 26, 2009

Christmas gifts

this year were many and varied. The solid, material ones included some rather stunning ear-rings, which make me worry that I might actually be grown up, as they feature both rubies & marcasite, which I had always assumed were grown up stones; and a wonderful purse made by my incredibly talented, creative daughter...who also contrived to jazz up the socks that her parents have used for our rather "after thought" stockings since Before Time Was by sewing on any number of beautiful multicoloured stars AFTER I HAD GONE TO BED ON CHRISTMAS EVE. Can you think of more love than that???? Also lovely CDs, and a pile of books. Just what the vicar needed/ordered.

The less tangible but no less wonderful gifts arrived unlooked for in the course of our worship at Church in the Valley...
  • At the Crib Service, the baby Jesus (6 weeks old) slept throughout the service, and his peace somehow rubbed off on all of us, so that instead of the rather manic, overexcited abandon of past Christmas Eves, this year we went home glowing gently with hope and holiness.
  • At Midnight a self styled "redundant" opera singer, who had appeared for the 8.00 on Advent 4 was seated in the front pew with his family and his beautiful voice lent the body that we needed to our music and even supported my nearly-exhausted post-cold soprano through all the essential singing
  • Hugger Steward read the lesson from Isaiah 9 and as I heard those words drop into the candle-lit silence their truth unexpectedly overwhelmed me and brought me to tears 
      "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light

  • A young man whose disability meant that getting to the altar is a real struggle helped me to understand a little better what the Incarnation means...With help from his mum he managed to reach the altar rail and kneel, but depended on me to place the host on his tongue - he could only get so far on his own, and needed me to meet him when he had reached the end of his own resources. So many important lessons for me summed up in that one encounter, which, please God, I'll carry with me way beyond this Christmas.
So - thank you. Thank you friends and family. Thank you, Church family too. And thank you, very much.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Signs of the Kingdom, Signs of the times Week 3 Tuesday

My diary this morning looked really innocuous...Morning Prayer, Home Communion, a bit of desking, another nativity then hospital visiting before an evening of undiluted mummying, in honour of the Dufflepud's school prize giving.

It looked innocuous, but appearances, as you'll be aware, are all too often deceptive.
All went fine initially, with the joy of driving my very own car for the first time in almost a fortnight...but all through the day there were little hints of heartbreak.
The first came as I picked up an elderly parishioner, who was joining me as I took Communion to a friend of hers who is now completely housebound. One of the drawbacks of having a two parishes placed so beautifully up hill and down dale is that the hills are always there to be negotiated, and too often they become an impossible obstacle for the elderly. However that first hint of heartbreak had nothing at all to do with hills. When my passenger was settled, we exchanged a few pleasantries and she then began to cough. Concerned, I asked if she was fighting a winter lurgy
"Oh no, K, I'm fine..." she said, cheerfully, "It's just that I haven't spoken to anyone since Sunday so my throat is a bit surprised now we are chatting"
Not a hint of complaint.
She has been widowed for almost 3 years and this is quite simply how life is.
One of my core Sunday congregation, whose voice is going rusty from disuse...

The visit for Communion was good, though as always when I visit H, I was concious of the weight of the past pressing in on him, the multitude of good memories that seem, for him, to rob the present of any value at all...Nothing will ever match up to what has gone, and here and now is a rather chilly, empty place. Still, today he told me some wonderful stories about his childhood on the edge of the Forest of Dean, and we laughed at least as much as we struggled not to cry.

A very muddy dog walk (featuring a vicar spreadeagled inelegantly in the mire), the Infant's nativity and then hospital visiting. When I got to the ward, the door bore this notice
"Please close the door. We have a wanderer on the ward"
Going through, I saw that screens had been pulled across the corridor, and from behind them came the most terrifying sound, barely human in its raw intensity, intended to communicate nothing beyond total pain and desolation.
An elderly lady, her mind completely destroyed by the ravages of dementia, shrieking and howling her pain to any and all that could not help but listen.
She braced herself in the corner, eyes shut, her only focus the need to give voice once more to the agony...and beside her, speaking gently, soothingly, throughout the whole length of my visit, was a young nurse, who really couldn't have been more than 21. Her words met with no response, but that didn't deter her from trying, with infinite love, to break into the fearful darkness.

There in one corner of a busy ward, all the pain of humanity in microcosm, and beside it, in shining hope, the constant reminder of redemptive grace.

In the tender compassion of our God
The dayspring from on high SHALL break upon us
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death
And to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Signs of the Kingdom, Signs of the times - Week 3, Monday

I've blogged more than once before about the rather wonderful school at the top of the hill (not, sadly, the same hill which gives Church on the Hill its name - the school for that community closed before I left university),  a school whose staff work with children disadvantaged in so many ways, care for them passionately and teach them to believe in themselves. It stands as a sign of the Kingdom for me all the year round, not just during Advent.

Though it's not a church school, we've now established warm and friendly relations. I'm in there for Assembly at least once a month, getting to know both staff and children, and tonight the Juniors brought their Carol Service down to Church in the Valley. It was a simple service, with short readings delivered beautifully, telling the story from Annunciation to Epiphany and 100% traditional carols sung with great enthusiasm by all the children. It made me very smiley to think that this group of children at least will have the same sound-track to Christmas that I grew up with...whatever else overlays that foundation.

All lovely stuff, then - but perhaps most specially the tortoiseshell butterfly that was roused by the warmth as the church heaters lurched into action, which flew from the sanctuary down the nave over the heads of the delighted children and then returned to settle gently on, of all things, the Christmas tree.
New life, anyone?

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Homily for 8.00, 3rd Sunday in Advent Yr C

Rejoice in the Lord always

That’s the theme of this Sunday…the midpoint of Advent.
When in times past the seasonal emphasis was very much on repentence, today was a holiday
Gaudete Sunday…a chance for the gloom and solemnity to lift briefly…a chance to glimpse the promise of shining glory yet to come.


But in these days when conspicuous consumption has replaced austerity, this can pose a problem.
We’re up to our necks in the synthetic excitement and manufactured jollity of the tv Christmas…
We are blinded by the flashing fairy lights of a thousand High Street displays yet know that the tinselled celebrations on offer are only the palest reflection of real joy.
We hear the exhortations to rejoice but we hear also the words of John the Baptist, and apply them to ourselves.

You brood of vipers….

John is intent on challenging us, spurring us on to a life of radical discipleship, a life in which our faith is evident not just in our words but in our works and even in our wardrobes

Conscious of our own shortcomings we note that in Luke’s account, John’s sermon in the desert is replete with images of violence..
Even now the axe is lying at the root of the tree…
His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire

That is deeply frightening.
Are we wheat or (as in our hearts we may fearfully suspect) chaff?
Can we even bear to ask?

And yet, in the very next sentence we are told
“So…he proclaimed the GOOD NEWS to the people”

And this is Gaudete Sunday?
Once again, I find myself struggling. How is this Good news? Where is the cause for rejoicing?

We're half way through Advent.
The world is pressurising us into one last frantic push to boost the sales figures
We're conscious of the gap between our reality, as damaged, fallible people,  and the idealised Christmas that is rammed down our throats 24/7…the season of saccharine good will
And a voice at the back of our minds echoes John
"you generation of vipers"
We know that in so many ways we fail God
We look at the fruits of our lives and see only inadequacy
We do NOT do justice
We pile up possessions we do not need, fill our cupboards and our freezers so that we can share with those whom WE choose to invite to our table.
We are often dissatisfied with what we have – and fearful that there may not be enough to go round….

So we look at ourselves, and suspect we know our destination.
We feel small, weak, beleagured in the face of so many huge issues
climate change, economic melt down, the collapse of the Anglican Communion
In our hearts there is more of fear than of expectation…
But for all that, this IS Gaudete Sunday…and our salvation is indeed nearer than when we first believed.

Time, then, to heed the words of Zephaniah.
We do not need to fear, nor to despair.
The Lord our God IS in our midst already
“You shall fear disaster no more”
Because the God in our midst comes not with judgement but with joy.
It is his delight to renew and restore us
The Lord our God comes to us SINGING
He knows us to the core, with all our failings, fears and weakness but he is so much in love with us that he sings.
Ponder that for a moment.
YOU make GOD sing for joy!

And because of that glorious, extravagant love
“The Lord has taken away the judgements against you…

John saw only a part of the picture.
His vision was founded upon justice, but God acts not in accordance with our deserts but in accordance with his love for us.
So there is no need to fear.
Truly, this IS a day to rejoice.

So, let’s pause for a moment in the Advent madness and ponder what we might do to add our own harmonies to God’s song.
Where can we join in? What can we notice that  might make God sing in our lives, in our world, in the days ahead?

Let’s be quiet, to hear the music of that song in our hearts today.

Signs of the Kingdom, Signs of the Times: "Soon and very soon..."

You might have gathered that I'm a bit stuck with pre-festival deskyness, at the moment - so it's been a bit harder to raise my eyes and notice signs this past week. However, the Friday Five Over at RevGals was a gift for the series... Sophia offers what she describes as " another very simple Friday Five in honor of the past, present, and eschatological dimensions of this powerful season of the church year....

Please share five ways that God has come to you (your family or friends, your church or workplace, our world) in the past year, that God is coming to you right now, and/or that you are longing and looking for God to come."

  • as always God has come to me very directly and powerfully through the ministry of children. In this Year of the Child they have been central to so many glimpses of the kingdom, from their dancing with the Holy Spirit at our wonderful Pentecost service to their unexpected, unintended wisdom offered again and again at school assemblies and at Messy Church. For me, the child as model of the Kingdom is unerringly effective.
  • through the slow growth in relationships around Messy Church. For me it's represented by the gift of ice-cream for 40 from one mum who can ill-afford it, and by the way that one young man has appeared, rain or shine, to help in whatever way we need - from moving tables to making Christingles, with a host of other kindness in between. These are people whom I didn't know at all when the year began, and I thank God for them, and for all that they represent.
  • the boundless energy and joy of Libby the retriever when I let her off the lead at the start of a walk in the woods or on the common. She is utterly present in the moment, delighted by everything that it brings - and the unconditional love with which she greets any and everyone whom she encounters is positively inspiring (til she rolls in something indescribable, of course...but that's what seeing "in a glass darkly" is all about!)
  •  new friendships, born here online, with people who've been just exactly the people I've needed, with the particular gifts, insights and inspiration to transform some difficult times this year...those who have said to me "Here is the way, - walk in it".
  • a dream hatched at a planning meeting just this week.The group gathered to discuss our contribution to a deanery-wide mission happening next autumn, - a one-off event designed to encourage people to "Think Twice" about life and faith. By the time we went home we were looking at something far more radical, something that might, with God's help, really make a difference in this community, even if nobody ever joins the church as a result...God so loved the world, - right?

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Signs of the Kingdom, Signs of the times

The obvious problem with launching any sort of blogging series is that you create the expectation that you will actually continue it...It would be entirely reasonable to imagine that an Advent series might include posts each day of Advent - but clearly I'm not going to achieve this. That instantly makes me anxious...Am I so busy looking in the wrong direction that I'm failing to recognise signs of the Kingdom? Surely there must be some to see each and every day...
Or is it simply that I lack the time to write about them? (shortage of time has never prevented this born procrastinator from fitting in a blog post, even with chaos and deadlines all around me)
And does anyone really want or need to read them anyway? (I don't have a site meter, so I'm not sure how many people actually visit here, but I do know that there are far fewer comments these days than in the heyday of blogging)

All of which is a very circuitous route to saying that series are probably dangerous. I avoided NaBloPoMo because I guessed I wouldn't have something worthwhile to share every day for a whole month, and I think this applies equally to Advent.
But I'll keep trying to offer the signs that speak to me...because, after all, blogging is a pretty narcissistic activity. If they work for anyone else as well, that's a bonus.

So...I was in school again, continuing to explore the meaning of waiting, and what we might really be waiting for. We talked alot about CHRIST...then one small hand began waving around in great excitement.

"Kathryn, Kathryn...I know what the other bit of Christmas means...It means it's for alot of people altogether. That's what a mass is...So Christmas means Christ for lots of people"

Linguistically dodgy, theologically spot on I'd say.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Signs of the Kingdom, Signs of the times Week 2: Monday

Busy weekend, with lovely C staying, the usual pattern of worship, & a couple of trips across to Gloucester Hospital to visit a poorly parishioner...There were several signs of the Kingdom to be spotted en route but my favourite came about during the All Age talk yesterday.
Using the Malachi passage set for the day, I talked about refining silver, and the need to purify it before it can become the shiny metal that we think of.
My mother's favourite silver tray went on a trip around church so that everyone could see their face in it, while I reminded them that we are made in God's image "to reflect His truth and light".
There was a baptism, too, and I felt more and more smiley as I realised just how strong a theme the image of God is in the liturgy...but my Kingdom moment came when E., Church-in-the-Valley's example of the splendid child who can be relied on to volunteer for everything, held the silver tray so that the curate's son could see himself. 
One of the most charming toddlers I know gazing with joy on the face that gazed back at him...
Indeed, it was very good.



Saturday, December 05, 2009

Sermon for Advent 2, Yr C Luke 3 1-6

One of those weeks when recycling seems by far the best this is a reworking of something I preached in my training parish....Sorry if it seems familiar!

Routes and bypasses….our gospel this morning is full of them.
Here we are on the second Sunday of Advent, with the world outside already dashing headlong towards the culmination of weeks of manic shopping.
We must be heading somewhere, the question is where?
Almost every conversation I’m part of at the moment includes the familiar formula
“It’s your busy time, I suppose….” And the inevitable question
“Well, are you ready then?”
Are you ready?
That’s exactly the question that lies behind this morning’s gospel, though the preparations that John views as necessary have very little to do with a shoppers’ jamboree.
I suspect that sounds harsh,- and I’m absolutely not about to deliver one of those diatribes about the “true meaning of Christmas”. We may struggle not to be distracted, but as we come here this morning we are at the very least putting ourselves in the place where we can hope to concentrate on the coming reality…and by God’s grace, we’ll attend to him along the way too.
Meanwhile, what about those preparations?
Are we ready?
Is there a road cleared in our lives, and in our world, fit for the king to travel along?
Dirt tracks and potholes might be OK for lesser travellers, but for royalty something better is needed, a smooth clear road, going directly to its destination…
Travelling as we generally do on roads which are maintained to a pretty good standard, it’s hard for us to really imagine the image of radical land clearance that lies behind the Old Testament prophecy John the Baptist recalls.
But three years ago in the week before Advent I travelled by coach several hundred miles from Bangalore to Kanyakumari at the southernmost tip of India.
The journey was memorable for many reasons but the road itself was unlike anything I’d ever experienced.
It headed out of the city in a promising way, but we’d only gone a few miles before the trouble began.
You see, it really wasn’t ready.
It still needed a lot of work….parts had been washed away in recent floods, parts had never actually been finished, so that often we’d find ourselves bouncing and jolting over rough ground for several miles, until, for no apparent reason, suddenly there it was again.
It existed in theory, when you looked at a map, but not in any real terms, when you tried to negotiate it.
In fact, it was much like the route of salvation that God had provided in the Hebrew Scriptures. It was there in outline, but nobody was doing particularly well at travelling the length of it. For centuries the prophets had tried to point out its whereabouts, crying
“Here is the way, walk in it”, but people seemed determined to veer off course, to take paths that were easier, smoother, more attractive.
Enter John the Baptist, but only after God has bypassed a whole host of important-sounding people, Tiberias, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip, Caiaphas, Annas. These, surely, are the movers and shakers, the ones who can actually make a difference to the way people travel.
Nonetheless when it comes to preparing the way, God looks not to Jerusalem or even to Rome but out to the wilderness, to the unprepossessing figure of John,.
So even at the beginning of the Jesus story, our expectations are subverted.
The messenger sent to prepare the way speaks without the authority of State or Temple. He’s not in the centre of things at all…but he’s the one entrusted with the message. It is his voice that awakens us to our condition, as he reminds us of all the debris that needs to be swept out of the road way, the sins that we need to repent.
Prepare the way of the Lord
It seems that our Advent preparations should really have more to do with discarding than with stock-piling. Extraneous baggage must be abandoned, and Malachi assures us that we will be refined…our impurities burned away until we are able to offer an appropriate gift in righteousness.
Righteousness - things as they should to be….a world running according to God’s ultimate plan.
That sounds like a pretty radical levelling of the rough places…
the same process that we are promised in Mary’s Magnificat.
He has put down the mighty from their seat and has exalted the humble and meek,- just another way of expressing the promise of Isaiah,
Every valley shall be filled, every mountain and hill be made low.  T
he landscape shall be smoothed out, until there are no barriers to prevent us from seeing the salvation of our God directly, for ourselves…
All that is evil will be brought to righteousness and struggles will be transformed into victories.
Then, and only then, we shall all see the salvation of God.
But there is more.
It’s not the messenger in the wilderness who actually does the work of preparation. He alerts us to its need, but in the event, it is the Lord himself who will roll up his sleeves and set to, to straighten the roads, lower the mountains, fill in the valleys.
God will act in order to make us ready to receive him, God will act to create a level playing field for all of his creation, a world of equal opportunities realised in equal shares for all, a world built on justice and peace.
The King is not going to travel along the royal highway in a chauffeur-driven limousine…rather he is going to seize a shovel and clear the way himself, for he is determined to make it possible for each of us to reach our destination.
The message of Christmas time is above all that God does not choose to remain aloof from his creation, sending others to do his work, waiting, with fingers tapping impatiently, for all to be ready for his coming.He doesn’t ask if we are ready, he has worked decisively to ensure that we are.God chooses to enter directly into our experience of chaos and devastation…
God elects to travel with us along our shockingly imperfect, unfinished road, transforming it as he does so.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Friday Five - Do Nothing edition

Sally has been reading Stephen Cottrell's "Do nothing - Christmas is Coming!" and this has inspired her Friday Five

Five things you won't be doing to prepare for Christmas.

1. This Christmas I won't be stressing to plan the perfect menu for all and sundry. We will get some tasty food in, but I refuse to accept that this is The Meal of the Year, - and am not going to follow Delia, Jamie or anyone else....We will cook and eat as best we can, and refuse to stress.

2.I won't be sending a letter listing the achievements and excitements of the family...The children are way too old for this to feel comfortable, - and as I think it's pretty dull to receive a card sans letter, and simply can't write individual letters to all 200 odd who WERE on my Christmas card list, I guess that means very few cards this year either. Will try to create an e card using one of my own photos, as I don't want NOT to connect with absent friends, but the fury of card writing feels inappropriate in its use of time and of the earth's resources too.

3.I'll also avoid buying pointless presents for those who need little. If I REALLY have no idea what might be appreciated, then I'll invest in a goat from Present Aid and I very much hope that my congregation will adopt a similar approach and donate to CA instead of sending cards across the church family.

4.This means I WONT be shopping at Christmas Craft Fayres, and have already (and happily) not ventured into Stroud for "Goodwill Evening" tonight.

5. Number 5 is more of a hope than a guaranteed goal, but I trust that this year I will not be telling myself that the happiness or otherwise of the whole family's Christmas depends on me...I love my children and will rejoice in spending time with them, but I can't be responsible for every aspect of their lives and attitudes. Either the mixture that we create will work and leave us happy, or it won't...but (please note), come what may it WONT ALL BE MY FAULT!

For a bonus, Sally asks for a favourite Advent carol...I'm not sure if this qualifies, but in its simplicity (and in the image of Christ the apple tree, which just IS, from the beginning........) it represents the sort of Christmas I would wish to prepare.

For happiness I long have sought
And pleasure dearly I have bought.
I missed of all, but now I see
Tis found in Christ the Apple Tree.

A blast from the past

Mostly for the benefit of Mary Beth, who has managed to get through life thus far without encountering the wonder that was the Citroen 2CV...designed to carry a basket of eggs and several hens across ploughed fields, and latterly for a multitude of sixties throw-backs...The car was almost inevitably decorated with CND or anti nuclear stickers, usually crammed with children, and always sounded like a weary lawn mower. But goodness, it was fun to drive. It barely HAD an engine (I knew of someone whose most prized possession was the speeding ticket that proved that his 2CV had actually managed to reach 75 mph...) but actually that didn't matter. It wasn't a car. It was a lifestyle!

Nothing to do with Advent...

At the moment I'm struggling with an identity crisis!

Clouseau, the  Citroen C3, comfortably "worn in" via vicarage gate posts & muddy, hairy retrievers, is visiting the garage for a spot of R&R. I'm hoping that he may even come home with the heating working once more...
The garage he's visiting belongs to G, a friend and parishioner, whose normal line of work is substantially further upmarket than the vicar's Citroen. 
Knowing that Clouseau's stay might take longer than just one day, we had postponed and postponed hoping there might be a gap in the diary, but finally conceded that a carless day was just not going to be manageable - so G undertook to lend me a courtesy car for the duration.

Thus yesterday morning he appeared at the vicarage, we exchanged keys, and off he went into the chilly dawn, leaving me with the sort of shiny, perfect, grown-up car that would be the answer to most people's dreams.
It has a big engine (remember, my favourite car ever was my 2CV), amazing electric gadgets to do any and everything at the push of a button, cream leather seats, and automatic transmission. It's a splendid vehicle, which any sensible person would be thrilled to borrow.

And I have never been so uncomfortable in my life!

At first I thought it was simply because I was struggling to remember to avoid the non-existent clutch. However, after a couple of unscheduled emergency stops I learned that one quite quickly...
Then I thought it might be because the idea of the car choosing when I should change gear made me feel out of control. After all, I'm supposed to be brighter than this machine, right?
But it wasn't til I had to drive past the crowd of mourners as I followed the hearse from valley church yesterday that the penny dropped.

You see, I was desperate to open the window and assure them that of course this wasn't MY car, that I hadn't so far forgotten who I am called to be that I thought that driving around in something of this degree of shiny splendour would be in any way appropriate. 
I hated that someone, anyone, might see me and believe that the church was that cut off from the life of this community, that forgetful of the Gospel's bias to the poor. 
I felt as if, just driving through the parish, I'd somehow sold out (which is quite ridiculous, and not a little rude in the face of G's generous loan, for which I am genuinely grateful).

I realised, though, that I do see my car as an expression of myself. 
I remembered how hard I found it to give up the ageing-hippy image of my 2CV when teenaged sons were simply too tall to be accommodated on the back seat any longer.I didn't feel ready to drive a sensible car, like a proper grown-up, and was far less excited about a brand new car than people assumed that I'd be. Clapped out rust heap v shiny new vehicle, with much better green credentials. It should have been a no-brainer but there were many tears shed when the 2CV departed forever.

In time, of course, I adjusted - I'm very fond of Clouseau, though he'll never have the personality of Daisy & Skippy, who came before him - but I'm pretty certain that whatever car I find myself driving in the years to come, it will never boast leather seats or the sort of opulence that is currently, nervously, parked in the vicarage drive.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Signs of the Kingdom, Signs of the times Week 1: Thursday

Knocked out by the echoes of the Magnificat in this morning's readings at the Eucharist...
How about this?
For he has brought low
   the inhabitants of the height;
   the lofty city he lays low.
He lays it low to the ground,
   casts it to the dust.
6The foot tramples it,
   the feet of the poor,
   the steps of the need

Later it was time for another funeral - the family had asked for short and simple, and the service at Valley Church certainly fitted that description.
They had suggested that the body went on to the Crem unattended, which is something I cannot and will not allow as long as I'm the one responsible for funerals in this I'd just told the funeral directors I would go along anyway, taken a deep breath and climbed into the scary loan car that is making life so challenging today.
And, when we got to the crematorium, something wonderful happened.

Usually, when there is no family attending the committal, the bearers retreat to the very back of the chapel while I pray and commend, and send the departed on their way. Sometimes the bearers leave me altogether alone, which gives rise to a whole series of different questions about what one is saying and doing at the time. But today, - today the bearers remained standing, side by side, really close to the coffin as it lay on the catafalque. They responded to the prayers, they befriended the body and treated it with all the reverent care that a family might offer. It was quite impossibly moving.
That little group of men in dark suits, whose work and ministry I've come to take almost for granted, stood as true companions, and showed me Christ as they proclaimed, to anyone with ears to hear
"Any man's death diminshes me, because I am involved in mankind..."

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Signs of the Kingdom, Signs of the Times Week 1: Wednesday

I don't get to choose the themes for Assembly at Valley Church School (though every now and then I jettison the official timetable when something seems specially pressing) so I can promise I had absolutely nothing to do with this week's focus "SIGNS".
It was my turn for a key stage 1 assembly, which can be hard work...The children are squished into a relatively small room, sitting on the floor and their concentration is apt to wander, specially if I'm short of visual aids or whizzy activities. 
Not today, though, despite my total failure in multi-sensory terms. 
I'd decided to talk about the signs we can recognise outside- moving from the sign that welcomed us to St M's school so that we knew we had arrived, to those we had talked about at the Advent Service last week - the tinsel and wrapping paper, all the trappings of the season. Then we talked about signs of things that reveal what is happening inside us - yawning when we are tired, crying when we are sad or hurt, giggling when we are happy or excited....

I asked what might be the signs that we were ready "inside" to celebrate Jesus's birthday - and the children got the idea at once, producing lots of examples of behaviours that would reveal our readiness.
In the end we decided that we would adopt our four favourite signs of being ready and try to focus on one of them through each week of Advent...

So, ladies and gentlemen, here are today's signs of the Kingdom, thanks to the Infants of St M's school...
Look out for them as you make your way through Advent.

"If we don't kick, or pinch, or smack people"
"If we listen and wait"

"If we try to be kind and loving"
"If we are smiley and cheerful, not whiney"

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Signs of the Kingdom, Signs of the times Week 1: Tuesday

  • much laughter and friendship at PTA committee meeting looking back at the Advent Fayre and forward to (what have I done???!) the two school discos in the Church hall on Friday.
  • great encounter with Baptism family, who are seriously committed to exploring faith with their baby son & building a relationship with a church community as a place where his faith can be nurtured.
  • lovely home Communion & talk about faith at one of the sheltered housing developments down here in the valley...Heard of a promise made 70 years ago to a Children's Society organiser, which has been honoured by a collecting box handed in at Christmas each and every year since.

Signs of the Kingdom, Signs of the times Week 1: Monday

  • splendid to spend time with community-minded, eco-Pagan friend (yes, this IS Stroud, peoples...) who is warm and wonderful & makes me laugh as we fall over "language barriers". Is it OK to say "God bless..." as we part? Yes, because she's happy with the concept of a benevolent Guiding Principle behind creation.                                                                                     More laughter.                                                                                       Love that we share a passion for building community, and respecting the planet, making a difference. Love that we share a vision for this community as a place where everyone knows that they are valued. Love her ideas of transforming the burdensome gardens of the elderly into longed-for allotments for those keen on sustainable lifestyles. Love that we're not frightened off by the "language barrier" but can enjoy all the Kingdom signs we both cherish.
  • so many good things emerged from Saturday's fayre, including a real ego boost courtesy of that traditionally hard-to-please phenomenon, the teenage boy...According to one Y8 I am not, as I suspected, wooly, witless and weary but "Whacky and with-it". It must be my flowery Docs, but frankly I'm just grateful for the affirmation, whatever its foundation!

Signs of the Kingdom, Signs of the Times - Advent 1

In case you'd failed to notice, I'm very strongly ENFP - so today's signs are very much about relationships.

  • Our Recessional at the morning's United Benefice Eucharist was, unsurprisingly, "Lo he comes", perhaps my favourite Advent hymn, and as we launched into the final verse there was, for me, a strong sense that we were all truly focussed on being Church together, that people from hill and valley alike were living what they sang"Yea, Amen, let all adore thee!"

  • The apocalyptic imagery in today's gospel was reflected in the weather in and around Stroud on Sunday, which had a distinctly dampening impact on our Christingle service at Church in the Valley...BUT there was something very special about looking at the circle of people spread out around the church just before we turned off the lights, and realising that we had a real connection with virtually every single one of them. 50 people, most of whom I didn't know at all a year ago, but who now feel committed enough to the life of our church to head out into the darkness on the wettest and wildest of evenings.

  • During the Fayre on Saturday, one mum from Messy Church had approached me to ask if she could come to other services in jeans, because jeans was what she had. At the time, I felt like crying...What have we done as a church through the years to make her believe that she wouldn't be welcome unless she came dressed in "Sunday best"?...but at the Christingle service, I rejoiced: she had believed me when I told her that God welcomes us exactly as we are, and had come to join in worship.

Signs of the Kingdom, Signs of the times

A busy busy 1st weekend of Advent...On Sunday our gospel reminded us that when all sorts of wild and terrifying things are going on in the world, we are to look up because the Kingdom begins here.
So I'm hoping to blog my way through Advent noticing signs of the Kingdom as I go along...

Saturday's signs
  • opening the door of church in the Valley on Saturday to a buzz of laughter and creativity, as PTA members arranged their stalls, while in the church hall congregation were busy with the same task
  • seeing the whole place full of happy people, chatting, shopping, enjoying tea and mince-pies or queuing to visit St Nicholas
  • realising that if the vicar simply HAD to buy something on every stall, this would of necessity include the completely fabulous cake stall (created out of nothing, when an initial appeal to school seemed to be producing minimal results - in the event, parents turned up in droves with all sorts of delicious goodies) AND the chocolate tomobola
  • the arrival of J., a teenager who has been helping completely off his own bat at Messy Church, and who clearly feels as a result that other church events deserve his support: he manned the "make your own Christingle" stall pretty much single-handed for an hour. Such a star!
  • a really pleasing total, with pretty much identical totals raised by the two groups, so that a 50:50 split left nobody feeling disadvantaged
  • hearing so many people, from both constituencies, say                       "It's better together..." and "We need one another"

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Not really sure if I should blog this....

My to do list for the coming week looks something like this (which is why I'm a great fan of Justin's book though I need to do some work on applying it...)

  • Plan address for Monday funeral
  • Contact family of next week’s funeral
  • Produce publicity for Christingle & distribute via schools
  • Sort Christingle service
  • Write letter to supermarket requesting discount oranges for Christingle
  • Check curate is happy to do Christingle talk (notice a common theme emerging here?)
  • Write December letter, What’s On & other bits for parish mag

    • Email curate re green audit of Valley Church in response to his concern raised at LAST PCC
    • Reflect and pray over PCC agenda for Tuesday & prepare whatever else is necessary

    • Plan address for Wednesday funeral (a tricky one – I REALLY wasn’t ready to say Goodbye to this lady)
    • Plan Wednesday assembly
    • Chase electrician for church hall
    • Return phonecall of lady wanting to book hall for party
    • [Consider who I can ask to take on oversight of church hall] (A hopeful appeal to the PCC netted a very sensible term time solution, but I'm not sure that having two routes to hall bookings, depending on the time of year, is likely to be hugely successful...Still need to think on this)
    • Ask men’s committee to place second notice board in hall entrance so the church isn’t constantly advertising children’s discos & Nearly New clothes sales
    • Produce publicity for December services in both churches
    • Produce Christmas card advertising services for delivery to every house on the hill
    • Check all is OK with Advent Sunday service
    • Write Advent Sunday sermon
    • Read & respond to papers for Thursday meeting at Church House
    • Read papers & prepare for Governors’ meeting
    • Write up PTA meeting and confirm that new Secretary is truly happy to BE Secretary
    • Fix date to go in to school to spend day with Reception
    • Visit assorted poorly parishioners in hospital and at home
    • Prepare & lead School Advent service
    • Meet with diocesan missioner to consider priorities for Valley Church in the light of parish snapshot
    • Phone round to fix home Communions that are overdue
    • Phone round to fix visits to bereaved that are overdue

    • Do October & November expenses (oh dear...they are ALWAYS due)
    Fortunately I also get to preside at the Eucharist twice,
    To walk my lovely dogs as often as I possibly can
    And to have supper with a good friend

    It’s possible, therefore, that I might make it to the weekend unscathed…………Specially if I remember to pray! 

    eta It's ~Monday again, and no surprise to see that the things which were NOT time-sensitive didn't get done...but must truly find their way onto this week's agenda. No paper heavy meetings in the immediate offing now, though, so maybe I'll feel more competent, DV

    Saturday, November 21, 2009

    Sermon for the Feast of Christ the King, Yr B

    If a picture is worth 1000 words, I wonder what we’d learn from picturing our readings today…There is the high drama of apocalyptic vision in Daniel and in John’s Revelation but
    to begin with, let’s focus on the Gospel, on the encounter between Pilate and Jesus.

    Pontius Pilate, Roman Governor…
    In contemporary terms, he’s the chief executive, the man in a smart suit, clean, well-pressed, if a little weary from his broken night.
    His is the seat of power…but as he leans back in his leather chair and looks across the desk he sees …what?
    Perhaps a dishevelled figure – it’s unlikely that the arresting officers were specially careful in their treatment of him (though whipping and stripping will not happen til later, few people look their best when they are hauled in for questioning in the middle of the night)
    Certainly a lonely figure, isolated, unsupported even by the ragtaggle group of friends who’ve been his companions up til now…
    Someone it might be easy to bully.
    One man alone.
    Not someone who presents a realistic challenge to the might of Rome.

    Two people confronting one another…Pilate and Jesus.

    So where does the authority lie?
    If we’d been there, if we had been given the choice, I wonder whom we would have opted to follow.
    It might not be the clear-cut decision we would like to imagine.
    Actually, even as we gather here today, the jury may still be out.

    Can we, DO we celebrate the feast of Christ the King?

    We gather together as the Church of Christ…
    We pray earnestly “thy Kingdom come” week after week after week, but I wonder if we can truly claim to be wholehearted citizens of that kingdom?
    Like countless other Christians, from the earliest days of the Church, we use words like Lord and Master to talk about God and Christ and the life of the world to come… but it’s sometimes hard to tell what that means in our lives here and now.
    Jesus, of course, was the great subversive, turning the world upside down as he challenged every accepted norm.
    “My kingdom is not from this world”…
    The mission that began with his mother singing the Magnificat
    “He has put down the mighty from their seats and exalted the humble and meek”, continued with the Sermon on the Mount,
    “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”.
    Soon it will reach its climax – in something that looks to bystanders very much like defeat….because on the whole, we’d all prefer our crowns to be made of something more glitzy than thorns.

    My kingdom is not from this world…

    Even as we confirm our allegiance to the kingdom, we tend to adopt our own definitions of what this actually means
    Perhaps we translate it thus…
    “To follow Christ the King need have no impact at all on how we live our daily lives…”
    We opt for comfort and conformity, but turn our faces away from challenge and change

    So I’d invite you, here and now, to think about what life would look like in Cainscross, Cashes Green, Ebley/Selsley if we took our status as citizens of God’s Kingdom seriously.
    We know, don’t we, that the Kingdom is founded on the sort of love that gives without reserve, that befriends with ceaseless generosity, that values everyone whom we meet as someone for whom Christ was pleased to die…
    But we tend to live and to love within far narrower, more self-interested boundaries…
    We follow the rules of our own kingdoms, safeguard the interests of those whom we find it easy to love, too often leave injustice unchallenged…
    We pray “Thy Kingdom come…” but maybe at times we have our fingers crossed.

    If, like me, you’ve found that process of consideration more than a little uncomfortable, I’d encourage you to sit with the discomfort for a while…It might just be God’s Spirit prompting you to fresh perspectives, new initiatives, small steps leading, with God’s help, to transformed lives.
    And I’d encourage you, too, to keep your eyes open for the signs of the kingdom that are represented by others taking their small steps…To see them, and to celebrate them. The kingdom begins here and now…

    But what of our other readings with their flavour of the end times, and of judgement?
    Will that King whom we so often fail to follow find us wanting when he comes in the clouds of heaven?
    Should we be praying not, “Thy Kingdom come…”but, “Please, Lord, give us more time to get straight”?
    Advent begins next week.
    Should we look forward not with joy but with panic?

    Listen to John
    To him who loves us and who freed us from our sins by his blood…
    The King who will come in judgement is the one who loves us so much that he dies for us…each one of us, even for me.
    We have nothing to fear.

    The writer Adrian Plass tells the story of a preacher who was anxious that his congregation should fully engage with that theme of judgement so he placed a chair at the head of the nave and invited them to imagine that it was occupied by Jesus, enthroned in great glory
    He told them to imagine that, each in turn, they were coming to stand before him, to receive his verdict on their lives.
    He asked them
    “Now, tell me, are you not full of dread as you stand at the judgement seat?”
    And Plass responded
    “No...because if Jesus is there, then he will, really and truly make everything, -  EVERYTHING all right”

    So we don’t need to despair of ourselves or of our world as we consider this feast of Christ the King.
    Instead, we need to strive to embrace the challenges of the kingdom, while we admit our own fearfulness, our reluctance to engage, to really live as citizens of heaven…
    We need to recognise that God’s kingdom does not wait out of reach for the end of life as we know it, but is close at hand, ready for us to grasp it and be transformed.

    A small parable

    On Thursday, the Feast of Hilda of Whitby, FabBishop invited the clergywomen of the diocese to meet together, to worship and to talk through some of the burning issues of the day, to hear what he understands the current position to be with regard to the ordination of women as bishops, and to share any other concerns that we wanted him to hear. It was a good evening, though I was slightly surprised at the numerous absences - I don't think that many bishops offer this sort of opportunity to their clergy and though I know it's not easy to clear an evening, it really was worthwhile.

    However, the small parable I wanted to share was nothing to do with the discussion session, but took place during the Eucharist that preceded it. We were worshipping in the quire at Tewkesbury Abbey, a lovely space but one which somewhat dwarfed us. It made sense, therefore, when FabBishop invited us to move to stand around the altar after the Offertory hymn,thus creating an intimacy and immediacy that we might otherwise have missed. However, I had been asked to sing during the Communion, and had arranged with the organist to stand at the while the others waited to receive, I trekked back down the length of the quire. It seemed a very long way indeed, though standing by the screen was a great help, actually...The rest of the congregation was so distant that I could pretend that I was just indulging myself by singing something beautiful in a stunning acoustic, which calmed twitchy nerves considerably.

    And afterwards, as my friends and colleagues returned to their seats, I began once again the long journey up towards the high altar to receive the sacrament. 
    Except that this time I didn't have to go all the way.
    FabBishop, in a gesture that was both pastorally and theologically stunning in its impact, came to meet me bearing host and chalice.

    "When we were still far off..."

    Two days later, remembering this still makes me smile inside.

    Thursday, November 19, 2009

    Models for the Kingdom

    You don't have to be in this game for long before you realise that the people who will teach you most are likely to be under 10s...
    I'm still bitterly home-sick for the Little Fishes toddler church in my training parish, who constrained me to organise my theology into the sort of nugget that can be delivered in 2 minutes to a restless assemblage of babies, toddlers and caffeine-deprived mothers, but I'm blessed in having two schools here that welcome me with open arms, not to mention the splendid Valley Church my education isn't suffering too much.

    Yesterday was very much dedicated to Valley Church School. First thing this morn came a KS1 assembly on planets, which was startlingly successful, despite woeful lack of preparation.Later on I found myself in Reception, conducting a wedding...The bride was given away, reclaimed,then given away again before her father fell over the best man's feet and collapsed into infectious giggles...The groom decided the only comfortable place for his ring was on his right thumb...The bride and her bridesmaids concentrated above all on getting their hair perfect...All in all, it was startlingly convincing, except that I'm not used to guests giving me hugs afer the service and asking me to their birthday party. Clearly I need to spend more time on people skills :-)

    Finally, after lunch, I landed in Y3, where they had been considering Committment. We started by talking about the committments they make - to Beavers, Cubs and Brownies, to their pets (if you let me have a rabbit I promise I'll look after it every single day), and to their school. We talked about the sort of committment that needs to be reinforced by reward or punishment and decided that less real than those committments that we kept to "just because".
    The children had done some work already, and had some starter questions on vicaring, whose answers had me basically rephrasing the ordinal in terms suitable for 8 year olds! We decided that the committment I had made when I came to the benefice was something like this

    •  to love everyone in the valley AND on the hill and do all I could to help them
    • to offer worship to God and help them to do so
    • to try and learn more about God and help others to do so
    • to pray for everyone every day (that last one made me feel particularly breathless, - but fundamentally, that's what saying the Office is, I think...)
    We agreed that because I don't have a boss keeping an eye on me every day (except for God - they were very clear about that too) it was as well that I was asked to make a committment - otherwise, said one, 
    "If we're silly in Assembly, you might never want to come back again and then you'd not be doing what you said!".They were very perceptive about the ways in which I might learn more about God so that I could help others to learn as well (I was specially keen on the idea that if I didn't "get" something, I should ask FabBishop. - it's only sensible, after all)..They were clear about the need to listen more than to talk in prayer (If we talk more, Kathryn, God might think we don't believe He's worth listening to - like in circle time...") and about the committment of love that a priest makes to the parish, and they teased me delightfully about how they might like that love to be demonstrated (and maybe I WILL have a birthday party with a bouncy castle for the whole school next year - it would be one way of getting over the alarming prospect of turning 50!) .

    Then it started to get a bit exciting.
    THEY made the connection between the rain or shine committment of a priest to the local community and the "Better or worse" committment of marriage. They asked me to tell them EXACTLY what the bride and groom say to one another and then, one after another, quite calmly, they shared their stories of the times when it hadn't worked out. Probably half the class no longer live with both their parents, or have half-siblings from other relationships. We talked about how committments are made in good faith, about how sometimes the loving thing is not to stay with someone no matter what, and the possibilities of wonderful new starts bringing all sorts of joy. We even touched on forgiveness...But the children insisted that a broken committment is never a good thing, and the overwhelming decision at the end of the session was that you should always think long and hard even before the smallest committment, because, said the children
    "If you promise to do something, then it hurts you if you can't manage it".

    Ouch. I said I learned alot from children

    Tuesday, November 17, 2009

    In search of clarity

    Last week's diocesan clergy day was designed to tell us those things we really HAVE to know about Terms of Service, Common Tenure and the like - and as a result, it looked anything but promising in advance. Despite the new and pleasing venue, the yummy lunch, and the welcome opportunity to catch up with all sorts of lovely people, on the whole not much happened to change my opinion. It's profoundly depressing that large chunks of CME budget are likely to be spent mostly on process, rather than on some of the life giving, brain enhancing theology that has been available in the past...Cheesey though it be, I would prefer to aspire to life as a human being not simply a human doing, but I'm not certain that this is where Terms of Service will leave me....Certainly I won't be able to trust to diocesan serendipity to offer an unlikely course or training day on just the thing to fire my brain and my soul. Clearly I will have to learn to be more intentional in pursuing things that open windows onto wide and wonderful horizons.

    HOWEVER I guess it may be good to find ourselves constrained to reflect more deliberately on the value of our activity...It's just possible that if our aims and objectives include things like "helping to build the Kingdom" or "loving and cherishing this community in God's name and for his sake" then some of my more draining and depressing admin may be ruled out of court. You never know...

    Monday, November 16, 2009

    A larger God...

    Although some parts of last week were decidedly difficult, overall it was good - and as I look back from the perspective of Sunday evening calm, I think this is because I actually had time to pause and to feed my brain along the way.

    Monday, you see, had been proclaimed a "reading day" and despite a quick foray to take assembly at the lovely school up the road (a county school, that has no need to welcome me, but makes me feel so very much at home whenever I visit), I did actually manage to do some reading! My little clergy reading group meets tomorrow to discuss Velvet Elvis, which I read and enjoyed a couple of years ago, so it was good to be forced to revisit it and I found myself noting down some gems that I really must hang onto. If that weren't enough cause for celebration, on Thursday came a trip to the Big City of Birmingham, for the National Estates Churches Network Conference, and more space and time for serious thinking.

    What pleased me particularly was that the two roads converged....It seems unlikely, perhaps, that Rob Bell (cool, American, post-modern...) and Sister Margaret Walsh (RC nun, Irish, committed to living alongside and befriending the most needy in society - also intrinsically cool because of who she is, but not in the iPod way at all at all...) should have much in common...but one of the "stand on a chair and cheer loudly" moments of Thursday was when Sr Margaret talked about the delight of recognising Christ among Muslim and Sikh neighbours, of learning and relearning that her God had been too small...What thrilled me, above and beyond this, was its echoes with words I'd jotted down on Monday
    "When Jesus said "I am the Way, the Truth..." he confirmed that when we come across truth in any form it is not outside Christian faith....Your faith just got bigger. To be a Christian is to claim truth wherever you find it...."

    Good, eh?

    Sunday, November 15, 2009

    "Who cares about estates?"

    was the title of yesterday's Estate Churches Network conference...and certainly in a predominantly rural and affluent diocese like this one, it's a question you might be forgiven for asking.

    Happily the evidence at Carrs Lane Church yesterday is that rather alot of people care deeply, and that the church remains committed to loving and serving the areas  that other agencies treat as problems to be addressed. It was a good day, during which I learned a good deal.

    Valley parish, you see, includes two estates, with very different atmospheres...One was built in the 1970s, pleasant houses for owner-occupiers, with lots of green spaces in between. The other is altogether greyer, older, mainly social housing (though some, of course, became owner/occupied under dear Mrs T's right to buy scheme 30 years ago).Between them, they qualify us as an "estate parish" and I'm very aware that on the whole we don't connect with those living on either estate - and that the whole estate culture is outside my own experience, so I was really hoping for insights and ways forward...

    I was in no way disappointed. 

    Lynsey Hanley spoke of "The Wall in the Head" and certainly broke down several walls in mine as she shared her experience of growing up on an outer city estate, and then moving far beyond it. High on her list of results was the sense that many estates dwellers have that certain things are only for others to enjoy...that the world outside cannot be trusted, so should be kept out at all costs. Education may be a route out of estates life, but it can also be seen almost as an act of betrayal of your origins...Wider horizons are dangerous, and few return to share the fruits of their education or experience (in contrast to the pattern on estates where the majority of the population is Asian; there an individual's academic or professional success is likely to be accepted as a community achievement, and estate "escapees" return to share what they have gained). Though the population as a whole enjoys ever wider experiences, broader horizons, on the estates life can become ever narrower, more constrained by poverty and depression.

    Negative publicity (when did you last hear of a "pleasant" or "mellow" estate? to read the press, they are always and inevitably "tough") contributes to anxiety that you are to blame for your low social status as an estate dweller...
    Immediate,cheap comfort via unhealthy options in diet, alcohol or substance abuse compounds the situation...(I heard someone say of the Co-op in my parish "It's full of overweight mothers buying unsuitable food to malnourish their children" a remark of such breathtaking judgementalism that I was left speechless).
    In 21st century Britain, extremes of wealth and poverty are increasingly the norm...ours it the 3rd most unequal society in terms of wealth distribution (only the USA and Portugal outstrip us in this regard)...Whereas in Sweden the maximum income is about four times the average, in this country it is a hundred times, or more - so economic inequality is vast and perpetuated.

    So - were we given any answers, any glimmers of hope?
    Education may be part of the solution, but only if it is seen as the means to enrich life, and not simply to boost income...but the fundamental changes have to come in the hearts, minds and status of those who do NOT live on estates.
    The problems that are manifested on the estates are problems that beset upper and middle classes too, -for institutional snobbery and inbuilt class distinction is responsible for many of the issues that bedevil estate life. This is not THEIR problem, created by THOSE people, out THERE.
    It is, rather, OUR problem...created by our greed, our determination to safeguard status, to turn our backs on the assumption that we are all equal before God. 

    Solutions in the past have mostly consisted of well intentioned attempts to impose a different way of being from outside...Funds are spent on project workers in problem areas, but little is done to address the fundamental causes of those problems.

    The problem of miserable estates is a moral problem for all of us...a problem rooted in the sin that refuses to believe that there IS enough to go round, that in God's economy nobody need go short, that we need not protect our own at the expense of neighbours across the road, where life seems greyer and harsher.

    Who cares about estates? God does, for sure.

    Heaven shall not wait for the poor to lose their patience,
    the scorned to smile,
    the despised to find a friend:
    Jesus is Lord; he has championed the unwanted;
    in him injustice confronts its timely end.

    Heaven shall not wait for the rich to share their fortunes,
    the proud to fall, the elite to tend the least;
    Jesus is Lord; he has shown the master's privilege -
    to kneel and wash servants' feet before they feast.

    Heaven shall not wait for the dawn of great ideas
    thoughts of compassion divorced from cries of pain:
    Jesus is Lord; he has married word and action;
    his cross and company make his purpose plain.

    Heaven shall not wait for triumphant Hallelujahs,
    when earth has passed and we reach another shore
    Jesus is Lord; in our present imperfection;
    his power and love are for now and then for evermore.

    John L. Bell and Graham Maule, from Heaven shall not wait, Wild Goose Publications, Glasgow

    Homily for 8.00, 2nd Sunday before Advent Yr B, St Matthew's.

    Do you remember the millennium bug?

    It was going to strike us all down on the 1st of January 2000, as all the technology on which our society depends ground to a halt…
    Some people decamped to the outer Hebrides, to adopt a life of self sufficiency on a croft…some others (and I have to admit that included me) made sure that we had a few extra supplies of essential stashed away, just in case….no more than I tended to lay in anyway, as part of living in a Cotswold village reached only by a very minor road which was often blocked in winter….but all the same…

    And we waited with a mixture of fear and bravado and suddenly we were well into January and nothing had happened.
    It could have been a major anticlimax – but on the whole, we were pretty relieved.
    For all the significance of a nice round 2000, it didn’t seem that the world was going to end yet awhile…and because it’s a beautiful world, filled with people we love, that seemed like a cause for rejoicing.
    So we went back to trusting that life as we know it would continue, if not for ever, then at least long enough to see us out.
    We went back to cherishing the various security blankets we have fashioned…including, of course, our buildings…beautiful churches, breathtaking Cathedrals….
    “What large stones and what large buildings…”

    At least we know we are part of a long, if not specially honourable, tradition.
    The disciples were similarly preoccupied – and maybe they too were inclined to notice the immediate (the splendour of the Temple) without remembering it’s purpose as a sign of God in their midst.
    The Temple was at the heart of their visible identity as Jews – the focus of worship and pilgrimage, the centre of sacrifice. It was something to marvel at, something to be proud of…but was never intended as an end in itself. Perhaps they had got stuck..
    Whatever was going on for them, Jesus undoubtedly shook them up as he warned them to expect all kinds of trouble – demolition of all that seemed solid and secure…confused messages about whom they should follow…wars and rumours of wars.

    This week we’ve celebrate the anniversary of a wall falling down – but we’ve heard too of decisions on the trial of the 9/11 terrorists and that image of the twin towers falling is an icon of our time…a symbol of wealth and security, reduced to dust.
    Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down
    It doesn’t sound good, does it?
    And that’s just the prelude…
    War and civil war, famine and earthquake – no it definitely doesn’t sound good, but it might just sound rather familiar.
    At this point, of course, many turn to a kind of internal “end of the world” checklist and start totting up the score and expecting something huge and dramatic any day now…but I think that in doing that they might just be missing the point.

    Jesus tells his disciples that all these awful things will happen…but I somehow don’t imagine his purpose is to scare them, or indeed to give them a kind of “Last days countdown”.
    In fact, he makes it very clear that his purpose is NOT to frighten them as he says in as many words
    DO NOT BE ALARMED. This must take place

    It would be easy to see those words and assume that all the miserable and frightening things that happen are just “Part of God’s plan”
    But for me that attitude is no help at all.
    It either suggests a cruelly remote God, who doesn’t care what happens, but rides rough-shod over his creation intent on ensuring his purposes are fulfilled, Or  it allows us to abdicate responsibility for our collective actions.
    Wars come about through human decisions, and so are avoidable.
    Some of the famines could be bypassed if only we learned to love.
    I’m convinced that God’s plan is not to subject any part of creation to pain and suffering – though I’ve no answer to the great question “O God, why?” which we ask again and again as we experience the brokenness of life.
    Perhaps that’s a question for another time…

    So I’d prefer to suggest that though wars, famines, earthquakes are frightening, hurtful, we are invited to see beyond them. Do not be alarmed…
    Destructive and unhappy things are not to be part of God’s plan, but we can trust that that plan for ultimate flourishing holds good no matter what seems to be lying in its way.
    Do not be alarmed.

    Jesus uses striking language for a man…for he compares all the struggles of creation to birth pangs at the start of labour
    As contractions come thick and fast, there’s often a point at which many women just want to say
    “Forget it…I don’t want a baby THAT much. Let’s just halt the process here and now and go back to normality”
    But of course that’s not an option.
    The pangs of labour are the essential prelude to the birth of a child, the pain and fear and danger a precursor to something wonderful, the coming of a new life into the world. In using this image Jesus is trying to reassure us that God’s love will not be deflected in the face of cataclysm…
    Do not be alarmed.

    This whole passage is, in fact, an exercise in hope – the hope that fills the prophecy of Daniel that we heard earlier, the hope voiced in our Collect, that through Christ we are heirs of life everlasting

    Gracious Lord,
    in this holy sacrament
    you give substance to our hope:
    bring us at the last
    to that fulness of life for which we long
    through Jesus Christ our Saviour.