Saturday, January 31, 2009

Homily for Candlemas

The party’s over! Or has it just begun?
For us today Candlemas marks the end of Christmas tide, with all its joy and celebration…
It's the day when we return, in my Scots Great Grandmother's phrase, "To old clothes and porridge" after the high solemnities that we've enjoyed.
For Simeon too, it marked an ending…but for him this end is exactly what he has been waiting for. It’s more like the conclusion of an extended Advent; he has known that God’s Saviour is on the way, but not when he would arrive…so the sight of that little group in the Temple, one family among so many others, is the answer to a life-time’s prayer.
That, of course, is what the Nunc Dimittis is all about.
The words are so familiar to most of us, through their constant repetition at Evening Prayer, that it’s easy to lose sight of the impact of the experience for Simeon. He has waited for so long and, being human, he probably despaired at times. Would God’s promised Saviour truly arrive in his lifetime? Perhaps he’d just imagined that God had spoken to him. But, whatever his feelings, he kept on waiting faithfully.
Something for us to learn from him perhaps…
I certainly find that there are times when belief is easy, when God feels very close, and his plans very clear. But against those must be set other periods when he seems conspicuous by his absence, when prayer feels as if it might simply be an empty waste of time, when the plans which I was so sure were God-given seem likely to be just another one of my mad ideas, after all.
That’s the time to remember Simeon, waiting day by day, with no apparent difference in any of the outward circumstances of his life, but hanging on to the hope against hope that God was about to act decisively to change the course of history. Time to remember, and to rejoice that his faith was rewarded by the sight, touch and sound of his infant Saviour.
So Candlemas is the time when the party began for Simeon…with a revelation of the reality of Jesus.

It’s a bittersweet reality, of course, which reflects the season’s position on the border between Christmas tide and the Lenten journey towards of Holy Week. God’s salvation will be costly, not only for Jesus, but also for those who love him. So, instead of offering Mary congratulations on her fine son, Simeon greets her with words of mystery and foreboding
“a sword shall pierce your soul also”.
I wonder if she remembered them as she stood at the foot of the cross weeping. But that is a thought for another day…
We’re at a cross roads, but not yet moving down the new path ahead.

Meanwhile, in the Temple the crowds come and go…so many of them oblivious to the earth changing drama which is being played out. That little family were surely unremarkable in their external appearance. Small wonder that they came and went almost without comment . So many babies were presented, so many mother’s released from their ritual seclusion…who was to guess that now Malachi’s prophecy was being fulfilled, that the Lord was indeed coming suddenly, unexpectedly, into his own temple.
All those who came and went in the Temple that day were ostensibly intent on honouring God, but in their focus on the task of worship, they missed his presence in the baby brought by that unassuming couple with the turtle doves.
His arrival among us is often equally unnoticed, equally unlikely. We may be looking in one direction, expecting him to speak to us in ways he has used before, and miss him altogether. It’s been easy over Christmas. We’ve had a clear focus for our devotions, and even a place to come and wonder at the Christ child in the manger.
But any day now the crib will be put away…the star has gone already…all trace of Christmas tidied up so we can get on with the serious business of life in another year. The party’s over…perhaps.

But, if it is, then there’s really no point in ever having celebrated. The child in the manger gave us a focus for the 40 days of Christmas tide, but now the task of sharing his love and light with a needy world is handed over to us.
I want to end with a story, of a wealthy man who, centuries ago, built a church on his estate, for the benefit of his workers. The construction took many years, and the villagers were delighted when at last the word went round that all was complete and they could hold their first service in their own church. But, on the Saturday when the scaffolding came down and they went to see for themselves, they were appalled to discover that the building had no windows. A deputation was sent to the landowner, with the sad news that the builders had messed up.
“Not at all” he said
“I asked them to miss out the windows. When you come to church, you will each have to bring a candle with you and the more of you who come, the more light there will be. If the whole village comes, there will be no corner of God’s house left dark..and when you leave you will carry the light of your worship out with you to your homes once more”
That’s what we have to do…Like Simeon, our eyes have seen God’s salvation, present in the babe of Bethlehem and in the altar in bread and wine. Now our task is to carry his light to the nations, to show ourselves transformed by it so that we can shine in the darkest places. That sounds very grand and splendid, but most probably it will involve nothing more, and nothing less, than treating those around us with every- day love and courtesy. I suspect this will be quite enough of a challenge for me…but I need to try, or the party really will be over.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Obvious really

It seems a long time since I've done much serious thinking aloud here, which is rather sad - that being the main justification for the blog (because of course, being me I can't just enjoy it for its own sweet sake...)
But ever since last Saturday's excellent morning on Mission I've been considering the conundrum posed by one particular illustration.
It presented the church (the institutional reality) as a vortex into which all our time, talents and energies will be drawn if we are willing to collude...and contrasted this with the spaces round the edge where we might find ourselves more truly and fruitfully following Christ and introducing others to God's love.
It was a picture that made perfect sense to me, as I'm certain it does to you too.
The way that the administrivia can take over given half a chance, the energy one expends on keeping things going and on trying to develop new inititatives within the church family - these are familiar elements of daily life, things to be taken for granted.
And yet...And yet..
I've been
living with the question that Dylan posed long ago ....
At the end of the story, where are the ninety-nine sheep? If one sheep is with the shepherd and ninety-nine aren't, who's really the stray?
If we're called to follow Jesus, shouldn't we do just that. And if Jesus is to be found "already gone ahead of us", the pioneer of salvation, what are we doing huddled within the walls?
I know these aren't new questions, for the church or for this blog...but what has been exercising me during this (unbloggably difficult) week is
"What if, instead of being here to act as a catalyst to develop the life of the church, I should instead be rejoicing that these two churches do not currently have a busy programme of groups, courses and events that demand my time and energy...What if the most fully obedient thing I could do right now would be to leave the churches as simply the focus for prayer and worship and spend nearly all of my time and energy with those on the outside?"

But, of course, if I don't have a strong praying community behind me I'm likely to fall flat on my face...And fostering that community, loving them, serving them is also part of what I'm called to do and be.
It's a recurring dilemma, and not one I'm likely to solve overnight. The only thing I can possibly do is pray.
Obvious, really!

Because I'm very comfortable

snuggling with cats and duvet and postponing the time when I must engage with the day, complete with broken washing-machine, I'm going to put back the clocks to play yesterday's Friday Five as posted by Singing Owl

Here in snow country we are settled in to what is a very long stretch of potentially boring days. The holidays are over. It is a very long time till we will get outside on a regular basis. The snow that seemed so beautiful at first is now dirty and the snow banks are piling up. Our vehicles are all the same shade of brownish grey, but if we go to the car wash our doors will freeze shut. People get grumpy. Of course, not everyone lives in a cold climate, but even in warmer places the days till springtime can get long. Help! Please give us five suggestions for combating cabin fever and staying cheerful in our monochromatic world?

After a slightly hideous week, this is well-timed for me. January is enlivened only by Hattie Gandhi's birthday ...I always hate saying Good bye to Christmas decorations and this year struggled too with saying Good bye to departing students so I've been working on cheer-up strategies for all I'm worth. So far I'm trying

1. Candles...lots of candles, tea-lights, anything to bring pools of warmth and brightness into the house

2. A hyacinth or two about the place. My mother always used to remember to plant them in the autumn and they would lurk in the cupboard in the hall, their growth encouraged by the darkness, till they were ready to emerge as the Christmas cards came down, to fill the house with their scent. This year I failed even to buy a couple of bulbs to put in glasses on the window cill, but I did see some in the Co-op as I rushed out on Thursday, so they are on my shopping list for later.

3. A tidy-up/clear-out session....I managed, finally, to take an accretion of bits to the charity shop last week and the combination of having cleared the space and also being able to switch off the guilty feeling that I hadn't already done so was thoroughly therapeutic. Yesterday I reshelved all my CDs, which had been waiting on the floor since the holidays because the CD rack had decided to buckle under the strain. Now they are back where they belong I feel more like playing them...which brings me to

4. Music. Lots of it. Nothing like singing along to a chunk of the B Minor Mass to life the wintery gloom I find....

5. And if all else fails, a golden retriever on the sofa is a great cuddling companion, and also a reason not to hibernate completely - sometimes winter walks can help too, specially if there's a heavy frost. Mud transformed to shimmering beauty (that sounds as if it ought to be a sermon reference)
If the day dawns when the puppy can't make me laugh, then all will NOT be well in my world. It's never yet happened, and if it does I guess I won't be blogging about it.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The morning after...

I don't remember ever having wept as a politician spoke - until yesterday.
I don't remember ever wishing that I had some official connection with the USA (emotional connections I have a plenty) - until yesterday
I do remember the tears my mother shed (the first time I saw an adult cry) the day Martin Luther King was assassinated
And now this.
And now, to add to the wonder of it all, come these words prayed by +Gene Robinson at the Lincoln Memorial on Sunday - the launch-pad for all that followed.

O God of our many understandings, we pray that you will ...
Bless us with tears -- tears for a world in which over a billion people exist on less than a dollar a day, where young women in many lands are beaten and raped for wanting an education, and thousands die daily from malnutrition, malaria, and AIDS.

Bless this nation with anger -- anger at discrimination, at home and abroad, against refugees and immigrants, women, people of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.
Bless us with discomfort at the easy, simplistic answers we've preferred to hear from our politicians, instead of the truth about ourselves and our world, which we need to face if we are going to rise to the challenges of the future.

Bless us with patience and the knowledge that none of what ails us will be fixed anytime soon, and the understanding that our new president is a human being, not a messiah.

Bless us with humility, open to understanding that our own needs as a nation must always be balanced with those of the world.
Bless us with freedom from mere tolerance, replacing it with a genuine respect and warm embrace of our differences.

Bless us with compassion and generosity, remembering that every religion's God judges us by the way we care for the most vulnerable.

And God, we give you thanks for your child, Barack, as he assumes the office of President of the United States.

Give him wisdom beyond his years, inspire him with President Lincoln's reconciling leadership style, President Kennedy's ability to enlist our best efforts, and Dr. King's dream of a nation for all people.
Give him a quiet heart, for our ship of state needs a steady, calm captain.
Give him stirring words; We will need to be inspired and motivated to make the personal and common sacrifices necessary to facing the challenges ahead.
Make him colour-blind, reminding him of his own words that under his leadership, there will be neither red nor blue states, but the United States.

Help him remember his own oppression as a minority, drawing on that experience of discrimination, that he might seek to change the lives of those who are still its victims.
Give him strength to find family time and privacy, and help him remember that even though he is president, a father only gets one shot at his daughters' childhoods.

And please, God, keep him safe. We know we ask too much of our presidents, and we're asking far too much of this one. We implore you, O good and great God, to keep him safe. Hold him in the palm of your hand, that he might do the work we have called him to do, that he might find joy in this impossible calling, and that in the end, he might lead us as a nation to a place of integrity, prosperity, and peace.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Hay Harvest

I'm very aware that the books in my side bar have remained unchanged for months...In some cases this is a sad reflection on the fact that I've not actually read them even now (actually, looking at them, this seems to be the case with most of them, dammit). However, I'm proposing to pretend I have a clean slate and tell you about all the delights, work based and otherwise, that are now waiting for me. If I start having a panic attack half way through, you'll know that with the written word I have fallen prey to what my parents saw as a cardinal sin, the syndrome of "eyes bigger than tummy".
In last month's Third Way Martyn Joseph began a book review (of one of the titles I bought yesterday, as it happens) with the words
"When we buy a book, we think we are buying the time to read it too"
Sadly I am all too aware that this isn't the case...but at the moment the pile of books awaiting fills me with joy and not terror or guilt. I'm hoping this is because I know at some subliminal level that I really will read them all in the weeks ahead. we go (There are too many for me to feel that chasing links is a worthwhile exercise.When I finish them I'll try and blog and include links then - and no, I didn't buy them all yesterday - these are the accumulations of a good year of failure to resist temptation)
"Work" books
Church on the Edge - John B Thompson
Creative Communion - Margaret Withers & Tim Sledge
Sex God - Rob Bell
Tokens of Trust - Rowan Williams
The Kindness of God - Janet Martin Soskice
Space for Grace - Giles Goddard
Mission Shaped Spirituality - Susan Hope
Dostoevsky - Rowan Williams
The Contemplative Pastor - Eugene Peterson
The Bible Makes Sense - Walter Brueggemann
Mothers, Mystics & Merrymakers:Medieval Women Pilgrims - Sarah Hopper
The Unnecessary Pastor - Marva Dawn & Eugene Peterson
Why there is almost certainly a God - Keith Ward (currently reading this...more later)

Just for fun
Easter - Michael Arditti
Jasmine & Arnica - Nicola Naylor
(feeding my craving for India)
Shantaram - Gregory David Roberts
(India again)
Chasing the Monsoon - Alexander Frater (and again)
The Summer of the Danes - Ellis Peters (this must be the only Brother Cadfael novel that Hattie Gandhi and I don't remember reading)
A Thousand Splendid Suns - Khaled Hosseini
Gilead - Marilynne Robinson
A Sleep & a Forgetting - Gregory Hall
The Cure of Souls - Phil Rickman
The Wine of Angels - Phil Rickman
The Fabric of Sin - Phil Rickman
(If you enjoy Rickman's Merrily Watkins books I can also recommend
The Remains of an Altar (read it just before Advent hit!),- which combines the pleasures of a little light deliverance ministry on the Welsh borders with the pleasures of the Elgar trail as well...I suspect that part of the pleasure of these is their local as well as clerical associations...Not great literature, but definitely in the category of "a good read")
A Certain Justice - P.D. James (how did I miss this when it was first published?)
While on the subject of P D James, I read The Private Patient over Christmas - most excellent, if you enjoy thinking detective fiction, as I most emphatically do.
Having loved her Travelling Mercies, and Grace, Eventually I'm currently immersed in Ann Lamott's Crooked Little Heart (I know I'm light years behind my US friends here, but hadn't met Lamott at all till I started allow me some latitude - amazon uk only lists Bird by Bird, so I'm not alone in being a slow starter here!)

So there you have it. An accurate and up-to-date account of my reading plans between now and Easter, or maybe even a little beyond. I'm tired of being imprisoned by towers of unread books, so in the same way that my knitting friends periodically announce that they are only allowed to use wool from their stash, I'm telling myself that I am not allowed to buy ANY new books for myself until more than half of these, from both lists, have actually been read.
There's a new book by Timothy Radcliffe on the Eucharist that I'm dying to get my mits on, so that might drive me forward if I show signs of flagging.
I'll try to say something about all of them on the blog too, but that may not work out (specially with those in the "amiable trash" category)...
No time to sit around here writing, though. There's lots of reading to be done. Here and now!

8.00 Homily "Redeem my foul ups"

When I was training for ordination, we spent a week each year at Easter school, a time in which we concentrated on one particular aspect of the ministry ahead, and heard from a huge range of speakers about both relevant theology and praxis.
One year our topic was listening – to God, to one another, to our communities, to history, to children…
By the end of the week I was in no doubt that listening was far more important than any communication I might attempt…that if I failed to listen, I might as well give up and go home before I’d even started.
It was a great week, but I’ll remember it most of all because of just one speaker.
He was a hospital chaplain – the lead Chaplain at Bath Royal United Hospital, in point of fact – and he came to talk to us about listening to the dying.
I’m confident that his input was both engaging and helpfu overall, l but there is one thing that he told us that I will never forget…one thing that I pray makes a difference to me every day of my ministry.
You see, he told us that each day, before he pushes open the swing doors and steps onto the wards, he prays
“Lord, redeem my foul ups”

"Lord, redeem my foul ups”
It’s a prayer that I try to remember to use again and again, before almost any kind of pastoral encounter.
It’s one that Eli might have had cause to pray too
An ineffectual high priest, a weak father whose sons were running out of control…a feeble mentor to the young Samuel…he didn’t have much going for him really.
But yet, God DID redeem his foul ups, even though his sons perished and his reputation was lost.
Without Eli, Samuel would probably never have got God’s message and the whole shape of Jewish history would have been quite different

But it really wasn’t easy….to be the one who listened, the one who heard was all but impossible.
Everything was against him.
First, "the Word of the Lord was rare in those days."
Well, I suspect that the word of the Lord wasn’t actually that rare – God is a God who communicates, it’s the people he is speaking to who have trouble receiving him…and people receptive to that word were as rare as hen’s teeth. They just didn’t recognise a word from God when it hit them on the nose.
I wonder if that sounds at all familiar….?

The Word of the Lord was rare, but all the same, God found someone to speak to…someone who might be able to share his message if only he was given the right sort of help.

You see, Samuel didn't understand who'd called him at first. My guess is that he was not prepared due to his age, lack of experience,- and just possibly the fact that it was the middle of the night…. I’ve been on call at night quite often…and I know that when the phone rings, it takes a minute or two for me to really wake up, to make sense of the words that are being spoken to me…the details of which ward, which hospital needs a priest here and now.
And that is even when I’m expecting the call.
Small wonder that Samuel just couldn’t get the message without help, but God was persistent until Samuel understood….

Then, of course, when Eli had triumphantly redeemed himself, things got still harder.The words that Samuel was given to speak were harsh and unwelcome words to hear…and harder still for the boy to deliver to the man who was supposed to be his mentor.
I wonder how nearly, after all that effort, God’s message was stifled…
It’s never easy, being a prophet….and it must have been so tempting for Samuel to keep the message to himself…
"I meant to deliver it God, but somehow the time was never quite right…
Lord, redeem my foul ups
A colleague on a preaching list pointed out some rather wonderful adverts, produced for American tv but also available online.
They are designed to encourage people to volunteer, to make a difference in their communities.
One of them shows a homeless man, lying on a cold pavement.
“This is Jack Thomas. Today someone almost brought Jack something to eat, someone almost drove him to a shelter and someone else almost brought him a warm blanket …and Jack Thomas, well, he almost made it through the night.”

Lord, redeem our foul ups.
I’m sure you can think of some of your own…chances missed, steps not taken because, though we mean to get around to helping, at the crucial moment we are too busy, too tired, or just too distracted.
We don’t see the significance of the small act that we can identify.
What does it matter if I make a phonecall, knock on a neighbour’s door, sign up to help with a community programme…
I’m just one person. I can’t really matter. I cant possibly make a difference.

But I can, and so can you.

God’s call to us is for obedience, regardless of whether we can make sense of the task we are given…
For both Eli and Samuel there are fragile moments, moments when God’s message could have easily been missed or stifled. The story turns on small decisions made in the middle of the night by an old man and a young boy, neither of whom really knows what the consequences of their actions will be.It’s the same for Nathaniel & Philip. The scope for near misses, for messages lost in translation is huge
Lord, redeem our foul ups
As we lose sight of you, pull us back on course
As we seek to drown your message with easier, more comfortable alternatives, pull us back on track.
Lord, Redeem our foul ups, and set us free to be your voice, speaking words of truth and light amid the darkness.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Let there be light

For the past couple of weeks, both of my churches have boasted scaffolding towers and a steady stream of workmen coming and going. Church on the Hill, of course, is continuing its roof repairs, while down in the valley we have been having our lighting system renewed. The plans for this were devised way before my arrival, and I have to admit that I was deeply unexcited by what I imagined would be a substantial outgoing for a minimal result.

Allow me to indulge in a little light word-eating then (with only a small apology for the unintended pun there).
When I went down to church for Evening Prayer this afternoon, my colleague turned on the lights and the impact was stunning. The whole building has sprung to life in a way that I had never imagined. Far from showing up dusty corners, the new lights somehow make the whole of the sanctuary look fresh and lovely.
And, to my enormous pleasure and satisfaction, we now have an aumbrey light that is actually when people enter the Lady Chapel it is instantly and unmistakeably clear that we have the Sacrament reserved.
It probably doesn't sound like a major event, but I hope that it represents something significant, a greater degree of confidence in being who we are as church here, and it makes me smile and smile.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Friday Five: Take Me, Baby, or Leave Me

Over at RevGalBlogPals, Songbird asks: Whether it's new friends or new loves or new employers, what are five things people should know about you?

1.The shortest route between two points will never be the one I life is geared around scenic routes and major diversions and procrastinations. I'm ENFP to a ridiculous extent.

2. If you are fond of me, I really need to know that...I don't believe the evidence till it's confirmed in words or hugs.

3. If I don't have a deadline, I'll probably never get a task done. With a deadline, I can achieve at least six impossible things before breakfast.

4. Presiding at the Eucharist probably gives me more joy than anything else in life (apart, perhaps, from Bach...and Maya Gold chocolate).

5. In a contest for my time/energy/attention, my children will always win....fortunately, they are at the stage now where they can mostly wait till parish crises are sorted, but every now and then....

Eta (in pink, because I'm blushing) You are all very kind but I'm now feeling as if my fishing expedition was a bit too pointed. Truly, when I played this Five last night, I did it quickly in response to the "what do I wish people knew about me" element of the game. And you've all been quite wonderful in responding to item 2 on the list but I feel as if I have taken "high maintenance" to vertiginous levels. Thank you, though...your responses are hugely, if bashfully, appreciated

Heaven on earth

for people like me is very probably Hay on Wye. Even the sign-posts announce it as "The Town of Books" and to be somewhere where every other shop is a second-hand bookshop (and those in between sell mostly Fairly Traded or vintage clothes) is so close to my idea of perfect bliss that it's just a little alarming. Hay is clearly the place where good books go to die - the concept of a 30p "honesty bookshop" is so delightful that just remembering it makes me want to dance in the same way as Hattie Gandhi did this morning...Since my best beloved daughter struggles with (or maybe she doesn't struggle, but surrenders gracefully to) the same slightly scary book addiction as her mother, this border town was the perfect place for a birthday outing...and we had SO much fun.
Wonderful drive through the Brecon Beacons...
Yummy lunch (featuring goats cheese, tapenade and roasted peppers...)...and lots and lots and
lots of time in truly heavenly bookshops, from the frankly criminal "Murder and Mayhem" to the optimistic "Sensible Bookshop" with all sorts of other delights in between. There is even a fudge shop, to comfort you as you depart the town.
For the record, leaving aside the free books that we also brought home, our combined shopping total was a paltry 19 titles. Clearly we weren't trying and need to return to do the job a bit more thoroughly before we are too much older.

Earth hath not anything to show more fair - or so, at least, say both of us!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

When in doubt, say nothing

is a parental maxim that I never quite managed to learn.
In any given situation, I will witter pretty much endlessly rather than contend with what might be (but probably isn't) an embarassed/embarassing silence.
Sometimes this tendency can lead to trouble.
At others, there's absolutely no doubt that there's only one thing that needs to be said

Thank you for the first 22 years of joy as your mother - may today and the year ahead bring you equal joy in return.

Monday, January 12, 2009


I hadn't intended to take a week long blog-break, and I've no decent reason at all...
I think it was just a side-effect of the thwarted urge to continue in hibernation for as long as possible, preferably with my offspring curled up in heaps nearby...Combine post Christmas inertia with freezing temperatures and even some real snow and the wonder is that I achieved anything at all last week.
Now, though, both the student young have departed to their universities, the stay at home is facing A/S module exams and I really do need to re-engage seriously with life.

The process wasn't helped by an unbloggable note that was handed to me just before worship yesterday - though in the light of its contents, the words I preached were almost comically ironic. The sermon came with a particular brief, as part of a diocesan strategy to encourage congregations to remember that they are part of something far bigger than their own parish church, - and I used some notes that were produced to help with this task. When I preached the abbreviated version at 8.00, it felt wooden and hopeless. Later in the morning the experience was quite different, and that had a positive impact on the rest of the day.
So good when that happens...

Sermon for the Baptism of Christ Year B, 11th January 2009

A New Year – a time of fresh beginnings, resolutions based more or less in reality, commitments revisited, revised, confirmed...
A perfect time, as we remember Christ's Baptism today, to recall our own beginnings in faith – represented by the baptism we share.

I wonder if any of you remember your baptism?
I know that at least one of you was baptised here so that the idea of joining a faith community has been very real as you've continued within the same church family.
Whenever I have the privilege of baptising a new Christian, as I will later today, I remind the birth family that this a second birthday for the candidate...that from now on, they will have to share their baby with a whole congregation of brothers and sisters in Christ.
I try, too, to remind the congregation that we have family responsibilities towards the new arrival...that it is up to us to help him settle down in the church, up to us to make her feel welcomed and at home.
And always, when I say this, I remember just how much disruption a new baby makes in any home...and hope that the church family remembers too, and is on stand by for what comes next.

Because baptism is very much about belonging.
Belonging to God – that signing with the cross, our badge of faith, is an indelible name-tape that not only sets the tone for the whole of our lives but also proclaims just whose children we are...
Belonging to the Kingdom, -”christened” so that we are little Christs, called to carry his light, joy and peace with us wherever we go.
We speak, do we not, of the priesthood of all believers...our shared responsibility to be signs of God's love in a troubled world, agents of God's kingdom each day of our lives...
And our ordination to that priesthood comes at baptism – though we are rather apt to forget it. Baptism changes everything...our relationships, our purpose, our destination and the route by which we get there...One way and another, (as I try to warn unsuspecting infants) it's not for the faint-hearted, - and certainly never a matter of form.

There may have been less visible drama for us, for it's unlikely that the heavens were rent on our behalf, or that a wondering congregation saw a hovering dove ushering in a new creation – but the new creation began right enough, a life centred on our relationship with God...
The voice that Jesus heard is for us too, though it speaks its reminder of our identity so quietly that it can be easy to miss that assurance
You are my beloved child, in whom I am well pleased.
I love to remember that God speaks these words to Jesus BEFORE Jesus has accomplished anything in his ministry, indeed, in Mark's gospel this scene is the very first one in which Jesus appears...but from the outset God loves him completely and unreservedly.
And that is how God loves you as well...
Baptism changes nothing on God's side – but it represents the first step in our life long response..Henri Nouwen wrote
“The one who created us is waiting for our response to the love that called us into being.
God not only says, You are my beloved. God also asks Do you love me? And offers us countless chances to say Yes”
We take that chance, we respond and so baptism is for us the sacrament that commissions us to do God's work, just as Christ did.
For us, as for him, ministry begins there beside the water...and it is a ministry that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we exercise together. Together with Christ, our brother and friend, and together with one another.
Just think about that for a moment.
When we were baptised we entered into the mystery of dying and rising with Christ.
We were incorporated into the body of Christ – which has many members.
In other words, we belong to God, to God's Kingdom AND to one another...related to the whole Church of God across space and time.

Most obviously, of course, we belong to one another in our own church community and in our benefice...and that belonging means that we are as inextricably tied to the people whom we struggle to like as we are to the dear friends we hurry to greet each Sunday.
If church is a family, then it has its share of mad aunts ,embarrassing cousins, and tedious in laws – We’d do well to remember that we too might fill just those roles in the eyes of others......but you don't need me to remind you that we can't pick and choose our family.
We simply have to rub along together, doing our best to rejoice in our differences, that mean that together we are so much more than the sum of our parts...
As we often affirm when we gather around the family table
“We being many are one body...”
One body, with many members working as one

However, our Christian family is much wider than even the diversity that is Cainscross and Selsley. Our particular ‘family branch’ is the Church of England...and, more specifically, our own diocese of Gloucester, and Deanery of Stroud – where we work together with Anglican Christians in this corner of the country to bring the good news of Christ to our neighbours. In an age when community seems to be breaking down, and local identity is much weaker than in previous generations, the continuing presence of the parish church, as a local expression of God's love for that community is something to celebrate – as is our membership together of the body of Christ across Gloucestershire. Together we can do things we could never attempt on our own...Our gifts, our strengths and weaknesses are complementary and so we are truly interdependent...though we are sometimes bad at recognising this.
In our own families we are usually good at relating to and looking after the needs of our immediate family. We see the point of such mutual care on a small scale. After all, charity begins at home, we say....
We're not bad at large scale relationships either...We may make special efforts to keep in touch with relatives in Australia , (or take an interest in the work of the world church, delighting in our relationship with Christians whose lives are radically different from our own)...
But it's the mid term of the equation that we struggle with.
Just as we may rarely visit cousins in the next town our church life often seems to suffer from the same syndrome. It's easy to value our own parish church and to recognise a pivotal role for it in our home community. It's easy, too, to be inspired to respond to the needs of brothers and sisters who live far away, in situations that we can only imagine...but people a bit like us, up the road are far less exciting. Mostly, we'd prefer to ignore them – and may even see them as competition for the same finite resources but the truth is that we need one another.
But our baptism tells a different story.
As members of the body, we are interdependent – and bear responsibility for one another.
This may not fill us with joy to be accountable for the needs of our brothers and sisters, but in truth, since we are all alike the recipients of God's generous grace we are all bound to be generous in our turn.

Baptism – the sacrament of belonging.
Belonging to God, and belonging to one another.
Sharing together in the most wonderful work of uncovering signs of the Kingdom...of being Christ's hands and feet...of speaking his words, and doing his work of healing...of sharing together in Christ's mission, to transform the world till everyone, near and far, can hear that loving voice
“You are my child, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased”

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Thank you

On this first Sunday of the New Year, I had scant hopes as I prepared worship yesterday.

It being the first Sunday of the month, the rota declared it an All Age Eucharist - but with temperatures below zero, the schools still on holiday and many families having turned out to both the Crib service and our Christmas morning All Age Eucharist, I truly did not expect many, if any, children in church this morning.
I desperately wanted it to be a "success", as, against my better judgement, I had accepted the decision of the Redemptorists (who produce our weekly pew sheet) that today should be celebrated as Epiphany, rather than Christmas 2...and I do so love Epiphany.
Also, this weekend marked the 60th birthday of Singing Guide-Dog Trainer (she sings, not the dogs...) AND the diamond wedding anniversary of a rather lovely couple in the congregation, whose major celebration was planned to be cake and coffee after the Eucharist this really, it was not a good weekend for low church attendance.
So I worried.
I wrote two versions of the sermon - with and without children.
and I worried some more.
When I woke in the chill darkness, and saw just how heavy last night's frost had been my heart sank
When I reached church and realised that the pipes had frozen and we had no running water in the church hall, it plumbed new depths of despair.
But one day I'll learn
God actually wants us to enjoy being his family together.
God doesn't want us to flounder and fail..he wants us to relax into joyful success
And today, with 11 under 16s in church, with old and young together sharing with enthusiasm in chalking the door and praying blessings on the year ahead, and with another cheerful procession of Kings, percussion playing children and adults to the crib, I felt the warmth of God's smile and a new certainty that we are travelling in the direction he would have us go.
What more could I ask as the New Year begins?

At the 8.00 Communion and at this afternoon's Evensong for village on the hill, I quoted those words that George VI used with such power in his Christmas broadcast some 80 years ago
"I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year, give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.
And he replied
"Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way"

Tonight, as I remember the feelings of anxious hope that dominated my words and thoughts as we celebrated Epiphany at St M's one year ago, I'm thankful that I am home in the place and with the people whom God has given to me for the while.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Beginnings and endings

(not, in this case, Maggi's splendid Advent book - which really is worth a read next year, if you don't know it already)
Actually, it's the theme of the Janus-like Friday Five, in which Sally invites us to list five things that we remember/treasure from last year and five to which we are looking forward in the year ahead.
I know I've done a bit of this already but nonetheless it was a real treat to think through all the loveliness that made up last year, and realise how very much I am thankful for. There could have been ten times as many happy memories on my list..

But among them, looking back I treasured
- seeing geysirs at Geysir and the arctic beauty of Iceland with Hugger Steward
- an extraordinarily bitter-sweet Easter Sunday in which I admitted a clutch of children and one dad to Holy Communion and presided for the last time at St M's...all the joy of resurrection coupled with the knowledge that there was no going back, that things would never be the same again
- the time out wandering the French Quarter of New Orleans alone and then relaxing into the welcome of the RevGals 1st Big Event
- my licensing as priest in charge of Churches on the Hill and in the Valley
- hearing the plainsong from the cloisters waft into the darkened Cathedral as I waited with the Dufflepud on Advent Sunday

I'm not a great one for forward planning (understatement of the decade, say those poor souls who have to work with me) so, though I do need to know there are a few treats dotted about the landscape of the coming year, I'm usually inclined to wander forwards with my eyes open and see what turns up. I love surprises, and life is usually full of them....but nonetheless I am quite definitely
Looking forward to
- Hattie Gandhi's graduation this summer (with many prayers that she gets the marks she hopes, so that she gets some funding to allow her to go straight on to her MA without taking a year or two to raise the fees herself)
- exploring with my two congregations where God wants us to go and how we might best to get there
- spending more time on Polyphony, now near enough to visit for days off
- long walks with the lovely Libby, whose enthusiasm for life is just exactly what you might expect from a golden retriever
- seeing more of my friends (after all, that was one of my New Year resolutions)

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Light for the journey

Over at the RevGals this New Year's Day, we've been invited to
"share some advice that we have received or claimed for ourselves, or some new direction we are choosing for ourselves in our ministry."

As it happens, Rhys posted some favourite words of wisdom in the comments on my earlier post...
The other words that I need to remember as regularly as possible have been part of my journey since I was priested, when Maggi included them on a beautiful hand-made card that still sits in my prayer corner. Recently the Church Times suggested that the original author was not, after all, Oscar Romero - but I cannot remember the alternative candidate, and google still attributes the words to Romero anyway. Whoever wrote it, it's wisdom I'm grateful for on a regular basis...

We cannot do everything and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for God's grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference
between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

That's right, Kathryn. We cannot do everything. Repeat after me. We cannot do everything!

Resolutions - or not?

Having spent the morning in vaguely melancholy reflections, I guess it's now or never if I'm to attempt any resolutions for the coming year.
I'm so very good at planning 6 impossible things before breakfast that resolutions are a pretty much constant element of life for me...Lent, Advent, birthdays, name it, if there's a possibility of a new start, I'll be on the verge of making it.

So of course I can't resist at least trying again on this 1st day of January 2009...

  1. to see more of my friends. You are some of the dearest and most heart-warming people on the planet and I'm so blessed to know you - so I intend to celebrate your presence in my life by actually spending time with you
  2. to leave my study each evening in such a state that I don't feel faintly sick when entering the following morning (this might also save me time as there should be fewer unexpected losses of keys, diocesan forms and the like)
  3. to read a bit of a real book (the sort I wouldn't be ashamed to blog about!!!!) every day. You know, I did keep on reading right through last year, and must have cleared well over 150 books, but too many of them were in the happy trash category, and though I need to read those too, I did once upon a time have a brain and I tend to be an all round happier person if I use it. Maybe I'll revisit the book challenge this year to keep myself on track - what do you think?
  4. to take the dogs for a decent walk each and every day (essential with Libby in my life,- and much easier as a result)
  5. to either change those things that need changing in my life, or stop whingeing about them.
There we go. That should keep me amused for most of the coming year...Right now I'm off to walk the dogs.

Shades of grey on a January morning

I guess I'm struggling just a little with the entry into a new year.
It's not that I'm not very happy and at home in my parishes,where there are challenges and joys aplenty to keep me busy for the coming year and well beyond.
It's not that I don't love living in the vicarage, where the space has just seemed "right" for us from the word go. It's a wonderful home, and during the week when the Dufflepud and I occupy it on our own, and might have expected to feel a teeny bit lost in a family house, it welcomes and enfolds us most beautifully.
This corner of Gloucestershire suits me just fine...and with open hillsides and ancient woodland only minutes away, it suits the dogs too.
So, really, there is nothing to complain about as I dip my foot into the waters of 2009 - and believe me I do know this, really I do.

It's just that, as always, Christmas has been a time to spend with my so-loved children. We've seen each other day after day after day. I've gone to bed knowing they would emerge from their nests sometime in the course of the following day. Bedrooms that have been tidy and chilly during term time have spilled over with music and colour and messy life. Cats have been cuddled and dogs danced with, and there have been hugs on tap whenever they might be needed or just enjoyed.
But, quite rightly, it's nearly time for the students to return to uni...and each time they go back I'm a little more aware that their lives are mostly lived elsewhere. These Christmas days have been a brief illusory return to the time when our worlds mostly overlapped. I'm just wondering whether that lesson in letting go has to be faced at every opportunity throughout their lives. I know (heavens, I really do know) that parenthood is all about working myself out of a job (in that respect it is in many ways akin to parish ministry) but knowing that, I don't really have to like it...or those milestones that remind me that even my youngest child will only be here at home for a couple more years.

There we are. Having had a little whine, I now feel much better - and ready to get on with the business of forming a resolution or two.
Stand back, 2009...I'm on my way.