Sunday, January 31, 2010

Feast of the Presentation of Christ - Candlemas

“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
Whenever I stand by the font, holding a damply smiling, or damply screaming baby I remember how it felt to bring my own children to church for their baptisms...The anxiety that they might not behave as I wanted, the joy at presenting them to the friends and family who lived too far away to have visited earlier, the gratitude to God as I recognised the gift that each child represented. Taking them into God's house was, for me, the only way to mark the beginning of their faith journey and I was glad to have them recognised as part of His family, and greeted by name. My memories of their baptism days are overwhelmingly joyful....there were no bad fairies or grimly prophetic greybeards speaking words of ambiguity over their cradles.
But it wasn't that way for Mary, was it?
First came the darkness of her pregnancy, - with the very real possibility that she would, according to the Law of Moses, be stoned to death for breaking her betrothal to Joseph.
Later there was the uncertainty surrounding her son's birth, a down-and-out amid the muddle and muckheaps of the stable...It seems unlikely that her anxieties were in any way allayed by the arrival of the ruffian shepherds with their tales of angel song. Perhaps as she and Joseph took the child to be presented in the Temple, they hoped that in following the demands and traditions of every Jewish family they would be able once again to blend into the background, to return to normal, to finally escape the risk of being remarkable.
So they went to join the crowds and add their own gratitude for safe delivery to the chorus of prayers and intercessions that filled the Temple.
Among the crowds they were nothing special. Unable to afford the richer sacrifices, they made do with only the basic offering – two turtledoves...
There was nothing to mark out the little family as they made their way into the Temple courts – but nonetheless, they were noticed by two others, just as ordinary in themselves, but gifted to recognise God's presence in the everyday.
It's tempting to set the scene in soft-focus, to air-brush out anything dark or threatening, to turn Simeon and Anna into some kind of proxy grandparents, blessing the infant Jesus with words of soothing benediction.
But that would be missing the point.
Of course there is joy and wonder as Simeon recognises the One for whom he has waited, the One who will change everything...
“Lord, now let your servant go in peace. Your word has been fulfilled. My own eyes have seen your salvation...”
He has waited for so long and, being human, he probably despaired at times.
Would the promised Saviour ever truly arrive? Had he really heard God speak, and could God's word be trusted?
Whatever his feelings, he kept on waiting faithfully like all those who remain true to their experience of God, even in the times when God seems silent or absent.
But you don't need me to tell you that recognising the Christ rarely leads to an easier life...It will be richer, full of purpose, brimming over with hope – but easy, - on the whole, no.
I wonder if Simeon was tempted to suppress the vision that he had focus on the joy of recognition, to bask in the light that reveals God to the nations..
It must have been hard to assume the role of skeleton at the feast, to introduce a jarring note into the songs of thankfulness and praise that seemed more apt to greet a baby at his dedication.
But Simeon was a man of integrity, a man who knew that there was no point in trying to paper over the cracks...reality must be faced
It’s a bittersweet reality, of course, which is reflected in the festival's position on the border between Christmas tide and the Lenten journey towards 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 boy, Simeon greets her with those 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...Hindsight, as they say, has 20:20 vision.
Right now, though, like Mary we stand at a cross roads, not yet moving down the new path ahead.
We know something of what lies ahead for that baby though we may wish we could shut our eyes to it.
The darkness and death that will be overcome by his resurrection have first to have their way in his own life...They are part of the reality that we all face, the pain that we would like to turn away from...It's much easier to look back to coo over the baby in the manger than to risk having our own hearts broken, as Mary's must have been. So we try to make the story of his birth a tinsel celebration – but to do this risks rendering Him meaningless, (though never powerless) in our own experiences of disappointment and disaster. Here's a poem by Steve Turner that expresses the balancing act, the dance between reality and whitewash that we so often attempt.

Christmas is really
for the children.
Especially for children
who like animals, stables,
stars and babies wrapped
in swaddling clothes.
Then there are wise men,
kings in fine robes,
humble shepherds and a
hint of rich perfume.

Easter is not really
for the children
unless accompanied by
a cream filled egg.
It has whips, blood, nails,
a spear and allegations
of body snatching.
It involves politics, God
and the sins of the world.
It is not good for people
of a nervous disposition.
They would do better to
think on rabbits, chickens
and the first snowdrop
of spring.

Or they'd do better to
wait for a re-run of
Christmas without asking
too many questions about
what Jesus did when he grew up
or whether there's any connection.

Candlemas invites us to stand at the point where Christmas and Easter can both be acknowledge that the God of stardust and surprises is also the God of cross, whips and nails...Candlemas invites us to look for him not just in the times of joy and celebration, nor even in the commonplace comings and goings of the crowds in the Temple, but also in the places of dereliction when we feel a sword piercing our own hearts also.
Piercing will hurt – of course it will...and Simeon's words must have been both strange and unwelcome to Mary as she carried her precious son into the Temple of his heavenly Father....but pain, no less than joy, is what makes us human.
More, it is in the wounded and the broken hearted that we most often recognise the presence of God...
Here's Canadian Jewish songwriter Leonard Cohen
Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.
And the light that gets in will also, of course, shine out, through all the fractures of our broken hearts.
So let that light, the light of God's presence, shine through your experiences of joy and of transformed by it...
It is the light that reveals God to the nations, and the glory of his people, Israel.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Here we go round the mulberry bush - or variations on a familiar theme.

I've spent the last 36 hours away with my Deanery chapter at the lovely diocesan retreat house that just happens to be in my training parish. While I'm generally happy and fulfilled in my work here, I still struggle with visiting Glenfall, with driving past my old church, past the homes of people whom I love and care about, and knowing that chapter of my life is done. Most of all, I miss the wisdom and companionship of my training incumbent, WonderfulVicar - and there's nothing like spending time with my chapter colleagues to make me fully aware of my own inexperience. Not that they are anything other than splendid and supportive - it's simply that as we spend time together reflecting on ministry and planning for an exciting Deanery Mission which will take place this coming autumn I find it very hard not to believe that I should be doing everything...and doing it now.
My colleagues, being older in ministry, if not in years, have a degree of realistic wisdom that I struggle with. Those with big dreams and ambitious plans generally have the human resources in place to make it at least conceivable that they might accomplish them. Me, not so much!
I know that wild excitement and high aspirations are part of the way I live life, and they have led me into all sorts of wonderful and surprising experiences...but I also know that I can only do so much and that fretting myself into misery over all the unattainable things I long to do won't benefit anyone.

I have an email from a wise wise friend posted beside my begins with the reminder
"It's a marathon, not a sprint"
I'm reading and re reading it this evening, while contemplating the to-do's that might otherwise submerge me.

God willing, in two weeks time I'll finally get to that retreat that was stymied when I broke my arm last year. I want to go into that precious space with nothing too major outstanding, so that there's no voice at the back of my head saying "You really ought to have brought the laptop..."
So I'm listing the main things that are rattling around in the vicar's brain tonight, in no particular order - and looking forward to gradually crossing many of them off over the next 10 days.

Finalise liturgy for united Candlemas service
Write sermon for the above
Write funeral addresses x 2
Produce Lent leaflet (choosing suitable books to recommend - which ideally I should have read - hmmn - that could be problematic - any recommendations?)
Tweak material for First Communion course beginning Saturday
Find and reclaim my Youth Emmaus (have a vague memory of saying to someone a good while ago "Do borrow it, I can't see myself using it here for a while) or order a replacement copy for our young confirmands group beginning next month
Plan PCC Away Day (1st Saturday in Lent)
Confirm venue booked last year for above (or find an alternative...please God, no!)
Write reminders to PCC members for above
Plan Lent course (at least this year I'm not writing the thing)
Choose appropriate Sunday for taught Eucharist during Lent
Plan Experience Easter trail & dates
Write to local schools re Experience Easter
Order banner for Messy Church
Sort out access to parish website and update material there
Review Child/Vulnerable Adult Protection policies, ideally before Church on the Hill PCC on Thursday (revised editions should be with Social Resp. Director by the end of the month)
Respond to Valley Church PCC Secretary re extra agenda items for THEIR PCC
Christian Copyright Licence (there must be someone I can delegate this to...I feel pale green every time I open the file, but we ought to have paid some money several months ago)
Convene meetings x 2 to discuss our contribution to Deanery Mission
Consider role of closing service of above, which we are hosting and which I am apparently planning (ideally with a team, if one can be found...)
Plan the thing
Convene meeting of lay intercessors to follow up on FabBishop's training and share it with those unable to attend
Convene meeting of servers to iron out liturgical hiccoughs and to begin training children to serve
Read papers for Diocesan synod and assorted other meetings next week
Choose dates for deanery theology reading group which I agreed to convene before Christmas - and actually get hold of and read the flipping book.

Writing that lot down has scared me somewhat, but made it abundantly clear that the half-made decision to abort the possible extra service to celebrate love and marriage on St Valentine's Day is the only one possible. In any case, I would want the service to extend beyond the wedding couples of recent years to be a genuinely inclusive celebration - but there's a fair way to go before I can attempt to steer either congregation officially into the Inclusive Church fold, and my gut feeling is that this is a battle for another day.

Marathon, not sprint. Marathon, not sprint.

In a while I'm off to have a pub supper with the Herring of Christ (TM), as a follow-up to the recent curates' and incumbents' training morning. Curates are absolutely not and never should be a spare pair of hands, but another brain to help with the prioritising is more than welcome. Experience suggests that he will refuse to dance around the mulberry bush, and that can only be a good thing!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Homily for 8.00 Epiphany 3 1 Cor 12:12-31a

Every now and then I find myself entrusted with a rather difficult funeral. Sometimes it's hard because the death was unexpected or premature, sometimes because the bereaved family have particular needs – or are specially lost, specially angry when confronted by their grief.

But the funerals that are the most challenging are those where neither family nor friends are present, the funerals where someone has been ill for so long that they have almost been forgotten by their neighbours, the funerals where I find myself alone in the chapel, but for the bearers who will always stand beside me as we commit another soul to God's care.

Someone once asked me whether it was worth actually HAVING a funeral if there were no mourners present...and I know that the first time I took such a funeral I came home both drained and perplexed.

Why was I standing there?

Then I remembered John Donne, whose words have been important to me in many different contexts through the years...His words spoke directly into these situations,

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

In other words, - we belong together, and the loss of one human life changes the world for everyone, whether we recognise it or not.

The pain that the people of Haiti feel is our pain...their loss, ours.

As Paul writes to the divided congregation in Corinth to tell them what it means for the church to be the one body of Christ he is delivering the same message loud and clear

The people of God need one another. We are formed into God's people just as the human body is formed, with all its separate parts cooperating together in common function and purpose. Paul emphasizes the unity we have in Christ and the oneness we share in God's community...but it is a unity in diversity.

“If all were a single member, where would the body be?”

There is no such thing as an identikit Christian...Nor an omnicompetent one!

We are the body of Christ, each of us with a different spiritual gift to contribute to the life of the whole. Sometimes that gift may be hidden, or suppressed...Sometimes it seems that only certain gifts are really needed or valued - but the truth is very different.We are mutually dependent, unable to function and flourish as Christ's Church unless every member is engaged and active in service.

For generations we lost sight of this truth in the church....We promoted some gifts while stifling others, and made it clear that we expected that God would only use CERTAIN people to lead the Church. More recently, thankfully, we've been properly attentive to the truth that WE are the body of Christ...Neither you nor I alone, but all of us together. No individual can do or be everything. God gives us complimentary gifts, which we are responsible for using so that the Church can truly BE the Church.

It's no good having closed minds, settled agendas. I have a friend who is highly organised, incredibly efficient, a born administrator. For many years she worked as the parish secretary, delighting in producing rotas and typing up service sheets, in running the office and writing up the registers. Then one day somebody challenged her to consider another gift that she has - that of listening to God's voice in conversation with others, - the sort of gift that is specially valuable in spiritual direction.

For months she clung to her job as parish administrator, saying that she was sure that this was the only way in which she could serve God....Finally her husband retired and their life took on a new pattern. She agreed to at least explore a course in spiritual direction, - and at the last count was flourishing as she allowed this new gift the air and exercise it needed. I know she'll be a gift to the church as she changes and grows - for change and growth are always part of our lives in Christ.

So we must remain open to God’s ability to shape us in surprising ways throughout our lives, for the good of God’s Kingdom. Each and every one of us has a gift to give, and we mustn’t let fear, modesty, or doubt stand in the way.

We may not value our own gifts particularly – I hear so often from people who say

“But it's easy for you...but what can I do?” and always, always there is an answer.

The Church, the body of Christ needs all of us...

Preachers and leaders, prayers and workers, cleaners, flower ladies, musicians, caterers, administrators, mowers, welcomers, befrienders, talkers and listeners - if any of them withheld their gifts, the body would be disabled – unable to function to full potential.

And it is important that we look for, affirm, and encourage the gifts we see in others. Today marks the end of the octave of prayer for Christian unity...It's all too easy to experience ecumenism as a kind of exercise in polite defensiveness. We are happy to meet our friends in other denominations, as long as we can hold on to a sense of superiority, an assurance that our gifts exceed theirs...We say

“You worship God in YOUR way...I'll worship in HIS” - and almost believe ourselves.

But if we persist in these attitudes, we are harming the gospel.

After all, we are all part of Christ’s body and it is together that we can best live out the words of Isaiah that Jesus read to that congregation in Nazareth

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor...”

That manifesto, with all its beauty and all its challenges, should be our manifesto for “in one Spirit we were all baptised into one body” and together we can use our gifts to make a difference

Friday Five - Trains and boats and planes...

Songbird was off on an adventure in the Big City, and left us with a traveller's Friday Five....

1) What was the mode of transit for your last trip?

Yesterday boasted a lovely drive through Wales, so beautiful even (or perhaps specially) in the rain, as the greens and browns ran into each other, with the occasional patch of white where last week's snow lingered on the hilltops. I'm so comfortable driving my Citroen C3 - and very conscious of this after the two weeks of borrowed wheels last year. Journeys in Clouseau are a pleasure, specially with my darling Hattie Gandhi for company - and Hay-on-Wye as a destination.

2) Have you ever traveled by train?
When I was growing up in sleepy Sussex the train was the standard mode of transport for anyone going out of town...The train to London, - and the pleasure of coming home laden with bags after a successful shopping session; as a 6th former  the daily train to school half an hour along the coast...As a single student travelling with cat and instruments, and then as a mum who always travelled with her children trains faded into the background for a few decades but I live within sound of the railway line again, and the train means trips to London, and the adventures of the city.

3) Do you live in a place with public transit, and if so, do you use it?
There is a bus stop immediately outside my door, but I don't tend to use busses...If I'm going in to town, it will be a quick dash for something essential, and waiting for the bus turns turns a half hour round trip into something more substantial.If I have time for the bus, then I prefer to walk. Trains, though, are another matter (see above)

4) What's the most unusual vehicle in which you've ever traveled?
Ummm...Not so much the vehicle, but the context. Bus rides in India are unlike anything I have experienced elsewhere. I never learned to take for granted the ride in from Channapatna to Bangalore, with every available corner crammed with colourful chattering humanity - and of course another contingent of intrepid travellers on the roof...but the journey I remember above all was in a more conventional coach (albeit one whose air conditioning was legendary rather than operative), the several hundred miles from Bangalore to Kanyakumari. I've blogged it before, so will just say that a 24 hour journey with a driver whose main technique was to "honk and hope", over roads that enjoyed playing hide and seek with incautious travellers, and a collective of Indian clergy who were inseparable from mobiles that rang with hymn tunes day and night was utterly unforgettable.
You see, it's really not the vehicle...

5) What's the next trip you're planning to take?
After a difficult year, with some major repairs and more time out of the water than in it, I'm really looking forward to several cruises on the narrowboat Polyphony once spring arrives. I have a post Easter break marked in the diary already and will enjoy reverting to life at 4 mph.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Blogging through Narnia 2 - The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe

When I was growing up, Christmas was a much simpler affair than it is today.
I usually received one main present from my parents, and the Christmas I was 5, that present was "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe".
If you think that sounds a little grown-up for a 5 year old, all I can say is that my parents knew their daughter very well.
I'll always remember sitting on the floor beside our once-a-year, Christmas-time-special fire, leaning against my father's legs as he read the first chapter.
I remember even more clearly using the Ladybird torch that had appeared in my stocking that morning to read on, under the bedclothes, far into that night.
THIS was the book that turned me into a reader - no longer a passive recipient, dependent on my parents but one who was quickly reading every book in the house, suitable or no. My parents NEVER suggested that any text was inappropriate - they just left me free to graze...and I did, with joy.
My Puffin paperback copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe fell apart when my children were of primary-school age, because I had read it again and again...It was the friend I returned to whenever I needed comfort or delight.
Not all of it, though.
After a couple of readings, I simply could not bear to read of the death of Aslan on the Stone Table. A leaden feeling would overtake me as I walked, like Susan and Lucy, beside the great lion. When he went on alone towards the table, my reading stopped. Eventually I committed the cardinal sin of trying to stick those pages together so that the sadness simply did not happen.
It didn't work. Even when I was no longer reading the words, I knew they were there and would weep anyway - until the dawn broke and resurrection came.

Years later, as a Reader for Children's Ministry in a group of Cotswold villages, I chose that resurrection passage as a reading at our Easter Sunday Eucharist. The first year, Hatti Gandhi read it rather beautifully, and it then became a tradition at the All Age Eucharist for Easter. My children still tend to feel that there's something missing if they don't hear it every year and I wonder if there are others, that whole generation of Great Rissington children now grown whose first thought when they sing
"Ye choirs of new Jerusalem" is of Aslan leaping over the Stone Table - "whether it was more like playing with a thunderstorm or playing with a kitten Lucy could never make up her mind..."

To be honest, I'm not sure how I'd feel if this were the case. For many a long year my adult relationship with Jesus suffered because, truly, I so wanted him to be a lion...As we make our way through the Narnia books, we've a way to go before we reach the point in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader where Aslan says to the children
"This is the very reason why you were brought into Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little you may know me better in your own world. There I have a another name..."

In the (very) long run, I guess you could say it worked for me!

Monday, January 18, 2010

A small parable

Yesterday afternoon was our first Messy Church for a while.This meant that I was stupidly anxious. What with Christmas holidays, snow days, school closures and illness it seemed quite possible that numbers would be very low, and though I spend alot of time giving myself the "It's NOT all about numbers" talk, it's surprising how slow I am to hear it.
However, while it was nothing like capacity crowds, there was a good mixture of adults and children, teens and toddlers, church regulars and "Messy Church only"types and we had a satisfyingly messy time exploring the promise to Abram via sand pictures, sponge printed stars, and a whole lot more. As always, when we sat down for tea, the group around the table made me smile and smile. In all its diversity and friendship, it was so much a picture of what the Church should be...I love it.

But it was while we were clearing up that, in time honoured fashion, God hit me between the eyes.
I've mentioned that there was alot of sand about the place - no wonder when "your descendents will be as numerous as the stars in the night sky or the grains of sand on the shore". This meant that tidying up involved carting tons of sand from sand pit to car, never the easiest task.
M & R two splendid lasses from valley church school, whose mums are part of what makes Messy Church so precious to me, had a lovely time transferring the sand from sandpit to plastic sack, and then I picked it up, marvelling once again at just how heavy sand is,  and began to make my laborious way to the door. I was intent on negotiating the steps without spilling the lot and was very much focussed on the doorway when I realised that the sack had suddenly become miraculously lighter.
It took me a moment just enjoying this, then a moment more wondering why, before I noticed that M. had come up beside me and was bearing the load from beneath. She's a slight year 5- I could barely see her for the sack, but goodness her help made a difference - and not just to the ease with which I got the sand out to the car.

Without saying a word, one 9 year old reminded her vicar once again just why church, broken, messy, disappointing though it sometimes is, still makes all the difference.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Homily for Epiphany 2 at St Matthew's

If this sounds clunky, it may be because I dictated it as best I could while driving up to Cambridge - but it seems to me that this week human wrestling is more likely to be helpful than well-researched and coherent theology. I surely hope so...

I'd been planning, this week, to talk to you about the God of celebration, the one who rejoices in his creation and wants us to celebrate his acts of abundant generosity.
But then Haiti happened, and the note of celebration was abruptly silenced.
It would be strange and unnatural if we did not pause to ask the question “Why”, to demand with urgency where God was when the earth shook, and the shanty towns smashed like match-wood.
Indeed, where IS God, while so many of his children endure lives of such desperate and abject poverty?
Huge questions.
It would be tempting to bypass a homily and simply pray the litany together, but that would be to run the risk of seeming to set God outside, oever over-against, creation, and I so return to this morning's gospel, with its account of a very human Jesus, taking time out to celebrate a wedding.

Weddings in 21st century Britain are often huge and costly events, but how much more so in the Middle East, where they were, and remain, a primary expression of status in the community. The wedding at Cana had little in common with our private festivities for a hand-picked guest-list, but was designed as an outpouring of exhuberant hospitality for the whole neighbourhood, a yardstick by which the host's reputation might stand or fall.
I used the word “outpouring” deliberately, for it was here that the problem arose.
Not enough wine.
Shame and social disaster, and no hope of repairing the situation.
Nothing that anyone could do....

Except that, among the guests, was a woman of extraordinary faith, one who had heard the message of an angel and dared to believe to believe in the promise of transformation.
We might speculate about why Jesus was initially reluctant to act, just as we might wonder why God so often seems slwo to intervene in response to our pleadings.
We might do better, though, to follow Our Lady's lead, as she tells the servants to do whatever her Son may ask, confident that he has heard and will respond to her.
And what does Jesus do?
He enlists those same servants, instructing them to deploy the ordinary, everyday things around them.
Filling the great water-jars demanded something of those servants – a pump to be primed? A bucket to be drawn?....
How could they know that their efforts would bear such amazing, impossible fruit?
Jesus did not, God DOES NOT perform magic.
Again and again, he involves us.
Without the obedience of the servants there would have been no miracle, but as they poured the water it must have seemed a laughably inadequate response to the urgent need for wine.
Jesus used what they brought, and revealed himself as the God who cares and transforms.
As we gaze, appalled, at the devestation of Haiti, this is no time to lament our perceived inadequacy.

Remember the words of Theresa of Avila

Christ has no body now on earth but yours
No hands but yours,
no feet but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which Christ's compassion is to look out upon the world.
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good.
Yours are the hands by which he is to bless us now.

So it is time to bring whatever we can, offerings of money, of love, of prayer, knowing that if we collaborate with God, God will collaborate with us, so that the light of God's love may shine in Haiti as in all the places of pain and darkness in the world.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Blogging through Narnia

Last weekend, my good friend Spidey announced in another place (and, for UK readers, I don't mean the House of Lords!) that she was planning to start the year by reading through the C.S.Lewis Narnia books, one per week - and invited others to join her. I do seem to read most of them at least annually, but haven't done so as a project, and feeling full of new year cheer I signed up. You all know the books backwards, but I'm thinking I'll blog as I go, anyway, even if I've nothing original to say.

Of course, the first decision to be made was in what order to read written or in their correct chronology. Chronology won, which suits me beautifully, so this week I've been reading The Magician's Nephew.
As an only child, I was specially fond of the book, because I could identify so much with the children. Like Polly, I spent long afternoons reading in the den in our boxroom, like Diggory I had an invalid mother, and like every child since the world began I dreamed of adventures in another world. I always loved that the book opens by referring to some other good friends of mine, E.Nesbit's Bastable children, using their adventures to set the time frame for Polly and Diggory's adventures.
"When Mr. Sherlock Holmes was still living in Baker Street and the Bastables were looking for treasure in the Lewisham Road"
was for my child-self every bit as much of a root in reality as 
"When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King..."

So much of my theology was shaped by Narnia, and as I grew older I loved picking up and recognising the origins of some of the Narnian loveliness.Reading this time I was specially delighted by the way in which Lewis rewrote Genesis so that it is Diggory who yields to temptation and rings the bell that wakens the evil in Charn and, instead of handing on the blame in whatever direction presents itself, dares both to admit his own responsibilty and to make it clear the Polly did all she could to prevent him.
It's not often that Lewis allows womankind a positive role - his writing is very uncomfortable once you read it through an adult feminist lens - so this made me cheer!
Favourite moment - Aslan singing the world into being and the creatures of Narnia bursting from the earth....LIVING creation, rather than the image of moulded clay that I carry from Genesis.

Now on to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - while the snow lasts!

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

By noon, the first flakes had begun to fall and by mid-afternoon I could no longer pretend to be a sensible middle-aged the puppy and I went out to play.
Cainscross may not be the prettiest place in the world, but an inch or two snow works wonders. It also has a beneficial effect on assorted random adults - including the man whom I encountered armed with a camera, just as I rounded a corner armed with one of my own.
His expression was one of pure joy and he was quick to share his delight at this unexpected time-out that we'd been granted. His parting shot
"The day I feel too old to enjoy snow, I hope they'll be burying me..."

Snow at last

Heading down to Morning Prayer, there was heavy frost but none of the snow that others were enjoying....

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Yr C Epiphany homily for All Saints

Mindful of recent dramas affecting an online friend, I am careful to say that I owe the opening of this to a friend on the PRCL lists, and some of the core to Trevor Dennis and his wonderful book "The Christmas Stories". The grotty bits in between are mine, though....
Have you ever lain on your back and looked up at the night sky?
Can you find Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, and by them the North Star? Do you recognise just where Orion’s belt lies?
We are fortunate to live where the stars can still be seen, on a cloudless night. For many in our cities, light pollution means that the wonders of the night sky exist only in the imagination ... Thanks to the street lights, you can no longer see the stars.

Being able to see is central to today’s gospel as we hear again the story of the travellers who followed a star across the world.
That star is significant, right enough, and we would do well to set our own sights on it…but some other aspects of the story may confuse us.

For starters, how many Kings do we hear about today?
Maybe sounds like a trick question…along the same lines as “Which is heavier…a pound of lead or a pound of feathers?”
It’s the feast of the Epiphany, the crib scenes in our churches are finally complete, and I’m pretty certain that in every church in the land the sound of
“We three Kings…” will be heard
Three Kings, then, obviously…

But actually, our gospel concerns not three kings but two.
The first is obvious, Herod, the reigning monarch. He sits on his throne in the capital city of Jerusalem, able to command, used to being obeyed, ruthless in ordering drastic measures in order to safeguard his kingdom.
Herod is used to taking centre stage, to being in the spotlight…apparently strong  - but surprisingly vulnerable, paranoid, a King who wonders how long his reign will last.
He courts attention but in this story, actually, Herod is a distraction…for us, and for the travellers.

You see, just down the road…in an insignificant house, in an insignificant village…there is a new-born baby – the one for whom the star shines…But it’s easy to miss him.
Let’s get back to those three kings,…You know, the ones from the carol…
Well, actually, no.
That’s another distraction, together with all the years of tradition that assigned names and races to the travellers…
The travellers whose arrival we celebrate today are not kings at all, despite the extravagance of their gifts…They are, rather, Magi – astrologers, skilled in reading the stars, in predicting the fall of rulers and empires or the birth of great men…
In the ancient world they got a decidedly mixed press –just as astrologers do today. Some dismissed them as charlatans, while others relied on their wisdom, gave them access to the corridors of power, hung on their every pronouncement.
Perhaps this is why Herod took them so seriously when they arrived unlooked for at his door. This was a time when people spoke of a star brightening when someone was born and dimming when they died, when the heavens were expected to reflect the events on earth …so magi talking of a special star would have a ready audience.
Magi knew things.

Indeed they did, these men from the east, from beyond the borders of the civilised world. Theirs is vision that, significantly, is not granted to anyone within Israel. There are wise men in the royal household, for Herod consults them. There are neighbours living in the little town of Bethlehem but all of these people miss the wonder on their doorstep, and so it is the strangers from far away whom Matthew brings first to worship Jesus.

They may have been distracted en route, as people often are…they may have opted, at first, for the obvious answers- after all, if you were looking for a King, would you not head first for the royal palace?
They may have put others at risk, with terrible results…and only barely escaped with their own lives …And yet, these travellers are men of vision.
Amid all countless stars of the firmament, they have identified one star in particular, one pinpoint of light among so very many,  and have managed to track it to its resting place, where they are brought to their knees by the wonder before them

…God with us, lying helpless as a baby in his mother’s arms.
There in that house they find the kingdom of heaven, so different from the kingdom of Herod that the gifts the travellers have carried laboriously over the miles seem, for the moment, out of place, though when the child grows up it seems he can make use of them.

But this story is one of continual readjustment…of vision clouded and then cleared…
It is, perhaps, remarkable that the travellers managed to see past their own expectations…of royal pomp and power to recognise and rejoice in heaven in ordinary, a baby boy snuggling with his mother.
Perhaps that’s the greatest gift in this story of many gifts, that God gave them the grace to get past their expectations and truly see the Messiah.

Here we begin another year, and another decade.
We’ve all travelled a fair distance, and the journey isn’t done yet.
It’s easy for us, too, to be distracted from the purpose of our journey, to be lured by the bright lights of Herod’s palace, where power and politics carry the day…
We may doubt that we have anything worth bringing to that baby…
And indeed the best that we can offer will only be of value as an expression of our love…because however hard we try to match the gift to the recipient, there’s NOTHING that God needs…except our love….and whatever we bring, God will recognise the love that lies behind it. In actuality, of course, the only way that we can show that love from day to day is by allowing it free play in all our relationships so that we come with our gifts to places and to people every bit as unexpected as that child in the back street of Bethlehem.

Of course, we may be disappointed that he doesn’t command attention, doesn’t storm the citadels of the world and transform it instantly. Sometimes, that disappointment will discourage us from travelling on…The journey is not in any way easy – but our ultimate safety is assured.
But, whether we travel with confidence or with uncertainty
Whether we keep our eyes fixed on the star or are diverted at every turn
When we arrive, we will surely be made welcome and will know that we’ve come to the place where we truly belong

Friday, January 01, 2010

Fresh Starts and Covenants - a New Year Friday Five

Sally of the RevGals writes thus:
We stand at the beginning of 2010 looking not only at a New Year, but at a new decade full of promise and possibilities. For some of us this will be exciting, but others will approach it with trepidation and probably most of us stand on this threshold with a mix of emotions and reactions.

It is at this time of year that many (British) Methodist Churches celebrate their Annual Covenant Service, a service that will include this prayer:

I am no longer my own but yours,
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing,
put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you,
or laid aside for you,
exalted for you,
or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now glorious and blessed God,
Father , Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours.
May it be so forever.
Let this covenant now made on earth
be fulfilled in heaven. AMEN

This prayer is said every year, and offers every member an opportunity to renew their covenant with God. This is no soft or easy prayer, it states in the company of others our willingness to worship God come what may, not that we should become doormats, but that we place God above all else. ( And every year if we are honest we have to acknowledge that we fail).

With this prayer in mind I bring you this Friday Five:

1. What will you gladly leave behind in 2009?
The diary that was in charge of me...This year will be the one in which I am in charge of the diary. I have a red pen and a steely resolve - I too nearly came unstuck, close to vanishing under mountains of self-inflicted overwork at points last autumn,  and I'd have only myself to blame if that came to pass.
But I can say No.
Even to things to which I believe I should say Yes.
And if I do, I might just survive long enough to be useful.

2. What is the biggest challenge of 2010 for you?
Sitting light to the tyranny of the immediate and learning to tell people when they aren't pulling their weight, rather than simply taking up their slack myself.

3. Is there anything that you simply need to hand to God and say "all will be well, for you are with me"?
One decision in particular which seems to be between "bad" and "not good"...even not making it is fraught with difficulties.

4. If you could only achieve one thing in 2010 what would it be?
Letting go of the need to achieve...

5. Post a picture, poem or song that sums up your prayer for the year ahead....

Lord, teach me to live today.
Help me to see that love and holiness have dirty feet
through dancing joyfully about the earth, hands joined in yours.
That life with you is whole and holy;
That everything I do
can bear your imprint
can be coloured by your love. 

(Eddie Askew, from "Breaking the Rules" pub The Leprosy Mission, 1992)

Looking back before I look forwards

2009 - my first full year as a Real Live Vicar.
No huge life changes for me personally, which was quite a relief after the tearful upheaval of moving on from my curacy.
Some complicated unbloggables (but isn't that always the case for those of us who live in the real world), alot of routine but also some golden moments along the way.
Or at least, that's how the year looked from this perspective, til I began a closer examination of a year on the blog...

January was a month of semi hibernation, enlivened by a wonderful trip to the bookshops of Hay on Wye with my beloved daughter
February opened well, with FabBishop's Candlemass visit to Church in the Valley, but took a nose dive when I fell in the kitchen and broke my arm. The wretched arm dominated March too but April brought my first Holy Week & Easter here, and a due measure of resurrection.
May was made very special when Bishop Mary from our link diocese of El Camino Real came to visit, and presided at a WATCH Eucharist at Tewkesbury Abbey....bringing with her the gift of hope for so many. In June I was joined in ministry by the Herring of Christ (TM), who has brought many gifts, not least a splendid sense of humour which has improved many aspects of life hugely in the intervening months.  Julysaw a much needed escape to London, where I revelled for 24 hours in being responsible for (and to) absolutely NOBODY, learned a good deal about just how heavily I was carrying the load of responsibility for these parishes, and had the joy of meeting an online friend irl. It was also the month in which Hattie Gandhi graduated with a 1st class degree...I am so very proud of her, but wish the growing up process could have been slowed down somehow. It's not reasonable that she's not even an undergraduate any longer.
August saw some time working on Polyphony and a few days cruising too, plus the wonder that is Greenbelt, September was a Patronal Celebration in the valley and lots of excitement around Back to Church Sunday, October was the month of a zillion funerals and a very protracted death-bed ministry which left me more drained than I would have believed possible, November was more of the same, and then suddenly December arrived and I was up to my ears in carol services, nativity plays and the unbelievable mountain of photocopying & folding that is the prelude to the great festivals in this benefice.

If you've nobly soldiered through that lot, you have my profound admiration. I am, I have to say, really rather shocked. Do I have a life outside my ministry at all, I wonder? Looking back at the year it would seem I'm in serious danger...
I had resolved not to make resolutions this year, since that way guilt and madness lie, but I will record here my sincere hope that I can manage something a little more balanced in 2010. If my blog shows signs of ONLY being about work, would someone kindly remind me that we're called to life in all its fullness, not its churchyness
New Year's Day dawns over Rodborough Common.

Happy New Year, everyone. I'm off to walk the dogs...

The ear-rings