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.

    Friday, November 13, 2009


    As I contemplated digging myself out from under a heap of purring feline to engage with the world (and specifically with two dogs in dire need of a bracing walk) I found myself remembering this..

    by Thomas Hood
    No sun--no moon!
    No morn--no noon!
    No dawn--no dusk--no proper time of day--
    No sky--no earthly view--
    No distance looking blue--

    No road--no street--
    No "t'other side the way"--
    No end to any Row--
    No indications where the Crescents go--

    No top to any steeple--
    No recognitions of familiar people--
    No courtesies for showing 'em--
    No knowing 'em!

    No mail--no post--
    No news from any foreign coast--
    No park--no ring--no afternoon gentility--
    No company--no nobility--

    No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
    No comfortable feel in any member--
    No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
    No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds,

    Thursday, November 12, 2009

    So many gifts

    are given, unlooked for, in ministry.
    Over the past few weeks, I've been ministered to again and again by V., as she and her husband together looked honestly at her cancer, shared longings, griefs, hopes and fears...Bless them, they included me unconditionally on this journey, and whenever I visited I came away refreshed, encouraged. They trusted me with so much, affirmed my priesthood in countless ways, blessed me whenever I encountered them.

    I visited with Communion yesterday, but V didn't feel up to receiving, so instead I left her a holding cross I'd bought for her in Bath last week, and that lovely prayer of Augustine's that gets me through even the most anxious nights. We agreed that we'd pray it together sometime around 10.00 most evenings, but tonight it wasn't even 9.30 when I answered the phone to hear that V had gone quietly home to God two hours ago. I wish I had been able to pray with her one more time. In her dying, as in her life, she gave a great deal and I thank God that I knew her.

    These words by the ever wonderful Stewart Henderson are not mine to post, but I hope I'll be forgiven as they say so much of what I'm feeling tonight.
    Go well, eternal rest and light perpetual.

    this day in paradise
    new feet are treading through
    high halls of gold

    this day in paradise
    new legs are striding over jewelled fields in which
    the diamond
    is considered ordinary

    this day in paradise
    new eyes have glimpsed the deep fire ready
    to flame the stale earth pure

    this day in paradise
    new blood, the rose red juice that gushed at golgotha
    now ripples and races down the pure veins
    of a recently arrived beloved

    this day in paradise
    a new heart pounds in praise
    a new body shaped by sacrifice

    this day in paradise
    the daunting dart of death
    has no point
    no place
    and no meaning

    and whilst we mourn and weep
    through these human hours
    this day in paradise
    the blazing embrace
    between saviour and son goes on and on and on...

    (by stewart henderson)

    Sunday, November 08, 2009

    Here goes!

    I'm never much good at Remembrance Sunday. Born in 1960, WW2 seemed very close as for my parents it was their first adult reality...My father had served in the Royal Navy, my mother in the WRNS, and neither of them had any romantic illusions about the ways of war. Remembrance Sunday was sad and dark, for all the ranks of old comrades who turned out at church wearing their medals. It frightened me then, and it still does in some ways, as we get swept up in a process of remembering that can never breathe life into dry bones.
    This year a series of glitsches and communications failures compounded the problem for me, so it is only to ensure that I don't spend all night sitting editing that I'm posting this here. I'll preach it, if my courage holds, at Remembrance services in both churches. I don't think it's much good, but I know it's all I have in me to say tonight...
    I think it's in Perelandra that C.S. Lewis has his protagonist, Ransome, begin an act of courage  thus
    "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit - here goes!"
    I think that may well be my approach tomorrow morning.

    IN July the media was full of comments, thoughts and reflections on the death of the last British soldier who served in the First World War…Harry Patch.
    He had reached a remarkable age – 111 years, 1 month, 1 week and 1 day but what he represented was something still more remarkable.

    He was, if you like, one of our living war memorials…someone whose own life experience summed up the truth that we still struggle to learn, that though heroism is wonderful, though desperate situations often call forth amazing acts of sacrifice and generosity, in the end it’s hard to find anything positive to say about war.

    Here Harry speaks for himself –  voicing an opinion to which he’d surely earned the right. He delivers without hesitation the lesson of the trenches
    You used to look between the fire and apertures and all you could see was a couple of stray dogs out there, fighting over a biscuit that they’d found. They were fighting for their lives. And the thought came to me – well, there they are, two animals out there fighting over dog biscuit, the same as we get to live.
    I said, ‘We are two civilised nations - British and German - and what were we doing? We were in a lousy, dirty trench fighting for our lives? For what

    It wasn’t worth it. No war is worth it. No war is worth the loss of a couple of lives let alone thousands. T’isn’t worth it … the First World War, if you boil it down, what was it? Nothing but a family row. That’s what caused it. The Second World War – Hitler wanted to govern Europe, nothing to it.

    The night we caught it, we were in the front line and we were going back. We had to cross what was the old No Man’s Land. It was crossing there that a rocket burst amongst us. It killed my three mates, it wounded me.
    September 22nd, half-past ten at night. That’s when I lost them. That’s my Remembrance Day. Armistice Day, you remember the thousands of others who died. For what?

    My own father, who saw action with the Royal Navy in Burma, took a similar approach. It wasn’t til after his death that I discovered that he had been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross…I never knew because he fiercely resisted any attempts to persuade him to talk about “his” war. If pressed he would say that the reason he and his friends fought was so that my generation and those that came after would not HAVE to remember. He wanted us to be free of the shadows that had darkened his childhood, adolescence and then his twenties as well…
    But the news today tells a sadly familiar story of young men dying violently in a conflict they did not initiate.

    This doesn’t in any way reduce the importance of what we are about today.
    It has been truly said that those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them and we need to stop and think, with humble gratitude, of all those who gave their lives and those who are still giving their lives today, because they believe that there are things worth fighting for.

    So, though I don’t like to do so, I think I’d disagree with my father.
    I believe that remembering matters, because we can’t afford to miss the lessons of the past. But I think we’ll learn more from them if  we look at them in the light of the gospel reading that we’ve just heard
    It doesn’t make comfortable reading, but that’s not unusual with Jesus.
    He tends to stand back from our human predicaments and speak of another way, and when we’re up to our necks in the current situation, that’s not easy to deal with.
    If he’d preached these words standing in No Man’s Land, in the Flanders mud…If he’d offered them to the troops in Helmund province earlier this week…I can’t think it would have ended well. They might even have crucified him.

    But for all that, we need to hear him, even if he seems to make no sense.
    He says, after all, that people are blessed (that means happy) in the most unlikely situations
    Blessed when they mourn…Happy in their grief…
    How about that as a contradiction in terms – and not something I would ever dare say to a war widow, as she confronts the pain of her loss
    Blessed again when they are persecuted for the sake of what is right.
    But it can be so hard to define right in this sort of situation…when it seems to be more a case of “least wrong”
    Blessed as the victims of lies and slander, of bullying and persecution…in war, we are told, the truth is often the first victim because it matters that stories are told in the most politically helpful way.
    Blessed as the unsung heroes who do all in their power to bring about peace….but who might find themselves ostracised as conscientious objectors, or mocked for promoting compromise at a time when the popular approach is to literally stick to your guns.

    Actually experience suggests that these people might not feel very blessed at all…but perhaps that’s the point. Jesus is celebrating the fact that those who dare to step outside our everyday expectations, to look at life in a radically different way are already living with one foot in heaven, and stand as signs of hope to us.
    After all, the greatest victory that has ever been won in the world was that moment of complete abandonment that looked very like defeat when Jesus was executed as a political prisoner, a troublemaker who needed to be silenced.
    That’s the way to ultimate peace and happiness…but it is not, as Jesus makes clear, a way that the world will easily understand.

    So we need to carry on remembering..To wear our scarlet poppies with pride and gratitude but perhaps, also, to consider the message of the white poppy that speaks of peace.
    For today pride and pain walk hand in hand.  We would not be human if we did not, like Harry Patch, remember with pain.  We would be sadly ungrateful we did not remember with pride.  
    But as we gather, we need another ingredient too…and it’s one that we can recognise in our gospel reading – for here, in that string of blessings, Jesus offers us hope
    Those who live according to the unpopular principles that he preaches are already living with one foot in heaven, even as they make their way through life on earth.

    So we began with a living war memorial but let’s end with living sign posts..
    Sign posts created in the lives of those whom Jesus calls blessed.
    Living sign posts to show us a different way, and so offer us hope that one day we will be free of the shadows of war, as we strive to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.

    Monday, November 02, 2009

    Rites of Remembering

    Today's All Souls Eucharist & Commemoration of the Departed draws a line for me, I think, under the recent tide of death-beds and funerals. I know that at least one more funeral will fall into my diary sometime very soon, since dear I., who fought so long and hard, finally went safely home to God on Saturday, and I know too that others in my church community are engaged in life and death battles of their own, that there will be the need to explore the deepest issues, the four last things before too many weeks are past.

    But for the moment, I seem to be standing in a clearing - and that feels good.

    Don't mistake me - I love and value this aspect of ministry hugely; sometimes, when fabric and finance seem to be demanding most of my time, I catch myself thinking "I badly need a funeral to remind me of what I'm really for..." but even so, officiating at 12 in 15 working days felt somewhat overwhelming.

    I wondered, in the course of that run, whether I was quite mad to offer both "Journey On", and the full All Souls Requiem...Many of the same people would come to both, I thought, but the services work in very different ways. "Journey On" is, really, church for the un-churched. Very early in my curacy I spoke with a widower who told me that the hardest experience of the first few months after his wife's death was the moment when he heard her name remembered among the departed at the Sunday Mass...It seems to me that to ask people who are not habitually at home in church to deal with that extra emotional burden may not always be kind - even leaving aside the question of whether we manage, as I profoundly hope that we do, to make it clear that everyone really IS welcome at the feast. Hence, "Journey On", which gives them the opportunity to do their remembering in silence, or through the comfortable familiarity of lighting a tea- light.

    This morning's Requiem for All Souls, on the other hand, has the sharing of Communion at its heart. In my homily I spoke a little about the continuity of love and prayer that allows us to say, like Thomas More
    "Pray for me as I will for thee, that we may merrily meet in heaven", and about the presence of the whole church, living and departed in the Lord Jesus, as we break bread and share wine as He commands. It was good to stand before the altar and proclaim Resurrection hope, to offer the Gospel promise
    "This is the will of the one who sent me, that I should lose nothing that has been given to me, but raise it up on the last day".
    The congregation that appeared was too large for the Lady Chapel, so we moved into the quire and my voice sounded loud to me as I read the long list of names, allowing each one to rest on the air before gathering them all up, with so many countless others, as I prayed the Kontakion with its surprising moment of joy

    "weeping o'er the grave we make our song
    Give rest, O Lord, to thy servants with thy saints
    Where sorrow and pain are no more
    Neither sighing, but life everlasting"

    So, I'm glad we offer both routes to remembering...but above all I am thankful that as we stand at the altar we are, all together, the Body of Christ - taken, blessed, broken...

    Sunday, November 01, 2009

    A seed is an act of faith...Address for Journey On

    A seed is an act of faith…

    If I knew I was going to die tomorrow, I should plant a tree today..
    So Martin Luther King summed up the faith and hope that is represented by each seed consigned to the earth.

    When we look at a single seed it is so ridiculously tiny…really not much to go on to represent the future. Last spring I dropped a seed packet in my kitchen and many individual seeds were quite simply lost, among the dust on the floor –but within themselves, each and every one of them was replete with potential.

    We recognise this whenever we place a seed in the soil.
    We trust that, though most of us probably don’t understand quite how it works, given a bit of care and reasonable conditions, that seed will germinate and grow to provide new life where there was none before. And we are able to believe this because we’ve seen it happen for us, year after year…but nonetheless, each planting is, truly, an act of faith.

    Paul would have us think quite a lot about what happens to the seed as it lies in the ground…but I’m not sure that his analogy is too helpful for us today, any more than when it appears among the suggested readings for use at a funeral or memorial service. After all at that time, most of us are completely focussed on the reality of saying Goodbye to the beloved body that has been put aside by the person we love, the remains we are just then putting into the ground. We don’t need anything else to remind us of just how perishable, how fragile that precious shell the body can be. We wouldn’t be here at a service like this if we weren’t each of us having to live with the consequences of that fragility, day after day after day.

    So Paul’s clever analogy with gardening doesn’t necessarily make things much better. We know the science but translating it to another context is a different matter. It can be so hard to visualise any sort of bodily resurrection. Even if we’re sure that we’ll see our loved ones again, it’s very difficult for us, this side of the divide, to imagine quite how that will turn out. Sometimes, not understanding makes it seem simply impossible to believe: I’m afraid I don’t have any sure-fire answers to that one, because, of course faith is never the same as knowledge, and we can’t use the same objective reasoning to confirm our hopes for eternity. It just doesn’t work that way.
    It’s one of those times when we can only trust to faith- if we have it - or to the instinct that confirms for us that something, someone we have loved so much cannot simply vanish as if they had never been.
    I believe that…
    I believe it from my own experience of the death of my parents and other dear dear people…
    I believe it because I have Jesus’s own promise that it is so…but I cannot, in all honesty, tell you exactly how it will come to pass in God’s economy, in which nothing and no-one is ever wasted.
    So, though I want you to think about seeds I’m not going to explore Paul’s words too much at the moment.
    Who can really understand the Resurrection?
    But he’s right that we all understand gardening.

    I want to think, though, about other seeds…the seeds of faith and hope that lie in each one of you, the seeds that have enabled you to carry on even when grief is sharpest, on the days when the separation is almost too much to endure.
    Sometimes, I know, they seem so fragile that you doubt that they will actually grow at all…but each day you get up and engage with life and remember to have breakfast you are saying
    “It IS worth it…Death shall have no dominion over me
    Writing earlier in this same letter to the Corinthians, Paul reminds us that we carry within us seeds that can bloom and flower in our relationships, the seeds that make us fully human.
    “These three remain - faith, hope and love
    When we are grieving the loss of someone dear to us, it’s tempting to say
    “I’ll give up on love – because that way lies only hurt and desolation…”
    but even if we no longer feel ourselves able to give or receive love, love nonetheless surrounds us. The love of our families and friends is a huge comfort – but it’s not something that we are all blessed to enjoy. The love of a community feels rather different – sometimes a little impersonal…but it’s still worth having…And even if we feel ourselves cut off from all these everyday experiences of human love – even then, we are still shaped and held by love…endless love, which is stronger than anything in the whole of creation.

    We may not be able to say that we understand what happens next, but we can continue to nurture the seeds of faith, and trust that all shall be well, that the God whose who nature is love did not create anything to be destroyed or wasted.
    We can hold onto those split-second reminders of his greater reality, the moments when an unexpected kindness, a child’s smile turns the world bright again for us, however briefly…We can cherish those seeds and keep them warm and close to our hearts, the place where they most need to grow. That growth may take a long time, for after all we’re not planting for the short term, something to spring up and die back in a season, but looking for something to sustain us each day.
    So, no quick fixes,no short cuts, but I promise that as we journey on in faith, the glimpses of hope, the hints of love will slowly grow and come to fruition until we can each own for ourselves the promise
    'Love is not changed by death and nothing is lost, and all in the end is harvest'

    Journey On

    Is the annual "service of remembrance & thanksgiving" we offer to those families with whom we have had contact through funeral ministry in the course of the past two years...
    In format it is pretty much identical to the service I produced for my training parish, but while their service occupied the Evensong slot at 6.30 on a Sunday night, and was followed by strong drink, ours, reflecting a rather different social context, is an afternoon event - with tea to follow.

    This year there were over 80 families on my invitation list, but in the eventabout half that smaller number gathered - whom I devoutly hope were the people who really needed to be there...We sang, we prayed, we lit candles and I talked about the seeds of faith and hope that we carry within us, the seeds that make us carry on, even when it seems an almost insurmountable struggle. I'm never sure if the candle lighting or the tea is the most important aspect of this service; there were some deep and significant conversations as we tried our best to do justice to a bewildering array of cakes...but when I locked the church this evening, it was the cross of tea-lights that nearly undid me.

    Always when I invite the congregation to come forward to light a candle, I make it clear that they can use the opportunity to place ANY bereavement, - a broken dream, a lost hope - within the circle of God's healing love. Many chose to light more than one candle, and as I stood in the darkened church, alone at last after such a busy time, those lights shouted to me of untold, unknown stories. But, after all, I don't need to know...Each light stands both as a silent prayer and as a statement of intent. In this place, for these people, death SHALL have no dominion..."It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness"