Thursday, August 26, 2010

There are no easy words

My beloved friend, whose parish is only 15 miles from here, finds herself conducting untimely funerals, for babes and children, far too often. Given the economic profile of parish in the valley, I'd expected to find myself in a similar position when I moved here from my affluent title post - but though there is a collection of tiny graves in the valley church yard, it wasn't until last week that I found myself standing at the head of the nave while a tiny white coffin was carried lovingly in by the little one's father.

I was worried that, having lost too many babes myself, I might be too emotional to function well - a worry that escalated when the family decided to use Coldplay's "Fix You" as the central item in the service. For various reasons, that's a song that makes me rather weepy at the best of times, but having asked pretty much everyone I know to pray, it wasn't surprising that all was well.

I did a lot of tinkering with the Common Worship service to make it feel less oppressively wordy...because, after all, there are few words that help in this situation. I found some resources that seemed right - so am posting them here for anyone else who is trying desperately to get out of God's way in this sort of situation. I found much to draw on from Dorothy McRae McMahon, and from the New Zealand Prayer Book - as well as little book that Sr Frances Dominica of Helen House put together as a resource for parents...In the end, of course, words can do little - but they do give you some comforting purpose as you stand alongside parents in their pain.

Here's what I said in the address, following 1 Corinthians 13, quite beautifully read.

These three remain, faith, hope and love...and the greatest of these is love”
There are no easy words today.
We come with hearts full of the pain of grief and with minds numb, or filled with one insistent question
And to that I have no answer.

O. has been loved and longed for over so smany weeks and we are rightly appalled that the joy of birth should be transformed sunexpectedly to the sorrow of parting.
There ARE no easy words.

At times of great suffering, people of faith look to their God for some meaning, and when that is hard to come by may at first turn away, defeated.
But we are here in church, and behind me stands the cross.
In the agony of his own death Jesus cried out
“My God, my God why have you abandoned me?”
As he voiced his own suffering he quoted too from the book of psalms, the ancient prayer book of the Jewish people. Here again and again men and women faced with situations that made no sense poured out their anger and misery in passionate lament.
To do was, and is, an act of faith.
These outpourings at least keep the conversation, the relationship with God alive, and God has broad shoulders that can hold us through the storms until the worst of the heartbreak and anger have passed.
Perhaps this might be the route for us today?

God, we are told you are compassionate:
today this is hard to believe.
God, we are told that you love us:
today we do not feel loved.
God, we are told that we should offer you our praise and thanksgivings,
today all we have to offer is anger and confusion.
God, despite these feelings we turn to you,
today there is no one else to turn to.
God, hold us until we can believe again.
God, love us until we can feel your love again.
God, accept our anger and confusion until we can offer you praise and thanksgiving again.
God, our lives and our feelings rise and fall but you remain constant.
Help us to rest in your eternal changelessness.

(Michael D. Smith, cit. Just My Reflection Frances Dominica ASSP)

Faith, then, has nothing to do with glib answers: it is, rather, the force that drives our questions.

But Hope too seems strained and broken by disappointment today.
Through the weeks since his conception, O carried many hopes - for his parents, of course, - but for each of you here in some measure. Now we are asked to lay those hopes gently down and it hurts, terribly.
But, X & Y, the very act of being here, of getting up each morning, of preparing meals even when you don't much want to eat them, of managing somehow the ordinary everyday things of life is itself an act of hope.
It says "I will not turn my face to the wall. I will carry on. However hard it may be, tomorrow matters

And love? Oh, that's both the easiest and the hardest part.
Conceived in love, carried and born in love, O knew nothing but love through every precious minute of his life, and it is in that love that he will live all your lives long.
But even beyond that, I am certain that with God nothing is ever lost or wasted.
The love the brought Jesus through the darkness of death into the dawn of everlasting life holds O secure and reaches out to each of us today.
It's hard to feel it as we struggle with grief but, like the sun behind clouds, God's love exists as an objective reality...
In a moment we'll listen to Coldplay's "Fix You.." with its overarching themes of loss and redemption.
If care and love could have helped O to live, we know he'd be with us...but now hear God's promise that O HAS been guided home, to the place where we all truly belong.
Listen and try to believe that, amid all this pain and confusion, God is still there, still saying quietly
“I will try my best to fix you”
“now these three remain, faith, hope and love...and the greatest of these is love”

Music : Fix You

Let us, in silence, give thanks for the life of this child.
Each moment of our journey with this life is precious to us.
Even as our thankfulness is overwhelmed with grief
sthat our joy is misted in pain,
we give thanks for this life and for all life. 

(Space for reflection)

Lord Jesus Christ
Your took children into your arms and blessed them.
Keep O in your loving care
And bring us all to the heavenly kingdom
Where you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and forever

God our Creator, from whom all life comes
Comfort this family,
Grieving for the loss of their hoped-for child.
Help them to find assurance
That with you nothing is wasted or incomplete
And uphold them with your love
Through Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.

X, Y, you are not alone.
We are here together, ordinary human beings
who travel through life's pain and possibility,
holding on to one another with surprising courage and strength,
facing each day and each moment, whatever it may hold.
In your grieving we are with you
In these next days we will be beside you.
You are surrounded and held by us all
And by the tender love of God.
Receive our love.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Not exactly restful.

It was a bitter January day.
The snow lay thick on the ground, and driving was impossible.
But nonetheless, I had to reach the Cathedral, where I was supposed to be singing Evensong.
For reasons best known to myself, I set out to walk there already wearing my cassock, - and the heavy black wool was soon wet and weighty with melted snow.
The drifts were so deep that I decided my best route was along the garden walls of the houses that lined my route.
It was slippery and hazardous, but I seemed to be doing alright until, as I moved from one garden to another, a woman burst out of the Fisher Price play house that was clearly her home and shouted
"Get OFF my wall! I'm not having any s***ing vicar walking along my wall.......Who do you think you are?"
I protested that I was already very late, and would definitely not reach the Cathedral if I had to retrace my steps...and which point she responded (in a voice that reminded me strongly of my junior school Maths teacher)
"You should have thought of that sooner......"

And then, to my relief, I woke up - and lo, it was Sunday morning.
All of which suggests that going to sleep uncertain about those things which I have not done is a recipe for an uneasy night...Small wonder that I forgot to take my sermon with me to Church in the Valley, and found myself preaching from my Nokia, reading direct from this blog.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Sermon for the feast of the BVM, 15th August 2010

Yesterday I saw a poster outside a church not far from here
It read: “Do you have a family? We are a family here”
My first reaction (and that of my passengers) was distinctly negative...and that made me reflect on the way we use the language of family to describe relationships within our churches.
When your own experience of family life has been a good one, it's a fine analogy, but for the many who equate family with failed relationships or disappointed hopes there are definite problems. That's part of the reason why we talk about
“All Age Worship” rather than a “Family Service”...And yet, on a good day church life is very much like that of a family: a group of people of all ages, sharing lifes ups and downs together not because we've chosen one another, but because we know we have the same Father.
I know there are problems with this too, that survivors of abuse can find our language about God a barrier to belief...but we can only use the words that we have, conscious of their limitations, and knowing that when we speak of God we use language to point to One far beyond words.

So today we're encouraged to think about families. The Grapevine will have alerted you that this is a feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a day to celebrate the one whom the Orthodox describe as the Mother of God, and our readings are full of family references from the “bride and groom” of Isaiah, to Paul's clear exposition of the divinity of Christ “God sent his Son, born of a woman...” - and of our own identity as adopted children. Perhaps one additional danger of overusing family language in our churches is that we lose sight of quite how staggering this adoption is. We, ordinary, grubby humanity, with all our selfishness, our instinct for mutual and self destruction, are nonetheless adopted by the source of all Love, all Goodness...Adopted by God!
What's more, we stand to inherit all God offers– for we are heirs with Christ of all that the Father has and is.
Heirs, invited to share divinity because Christ first shared our humanity.
As we proclaim each week in the Creed
“For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and was made man”
Incarnate of the Holy Spirit AND the Virgin Mary...
At that crucial moment in salvation history God invited human co-operation...and turned not to the centres of power, to Jerusalem or to Rome, but to a small town in Galilee and a young peasant girl...

Through the centuries a culture of devotion has grown up around Mary. Some of it may seem extravagant, even inappropriate for one who was, after all, not so very remarkable.
Not a great church leader, not a theologian or teacher, but a teenage mother. Nothing special.
But think for a moment of what she represents – and what was achieved through her obedience.
Mary, you see, recognised God and opened herself completely to God's will, holding nothing in reserve...welcoming God not just in name but in the reality of God's being, carried in her own body, flesh of her flesh.
Mary opened herself completely to God's will, and so through her, as the Holy Spirit overshadowed her, Salvation came into the world.

I think, then, there IS something remarkable here...As so often, God takes the ordinary – a girl like Mary – and uses her in an extraordinary way. Her obedience changes everything...In Mary the teenager, as so often at other times in God's dealings with human kind, God takes something very ordinary and does something extraordinary...but here we have not just a miracle of transformation. Having heard the angel, Mary believes, and obeys – though knowing that she faces at best an uncertain future.
Her obedience is, in itself, the first fruits of the revolution to come, for she embraces change, without knowing what may come to pass.

We don't hear the story of her encounter with the angel today, but we do hear what happened next...
It's easy to imagine Mary heading for the hill country, in search of her cousin. Perhaps she wanted to escape the village gossips in Nazareth.
Perhaps she longed to share her news (was it good or bad? How could she know) with someone she could trust.
Perhaps she hoped for reassurance – for the angel had promised her that Elizabeth's pregnancy was a sign that with God nothing is impossible.
Whatever the reason for her journey, on arrival she was greeted with words of affirmation and that welcome must have been music to her ears
“"Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!”
Here was evidence that the angel had spoken truth, that her faithful obedience was rooted in God's reality – and so Mary opened her mouth and gave voice to the cry of joyous revolution that the Church has tried to tame by familiarity, that great shout of praise that is the Magnificat.
Listen to those familiar words and imagine what they could mean in our world
Share in the excitement of Mary's vision of the future God plans, a future where the unthinkable happens, where the lowliness of God's servants does not prevent them from co-operating with him in doing great things.
“God scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God brings down the powerful from their thrones,  and lifts up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty...”

How you hear these words depends, perhaps, on where you are in life.
Among the powerful, they surely strike a chill – for this is the world turned upside down...but among those on the margins, those who believe themselves to be small and unimportant, they are the clarion call of Good News.
And that Good News has been released in the world through Mary's openness to God.

So as we celebrate her part in the history of our Salvation, we have a choice. We can cling our own agendas, refusing to let God work his transforming will in our lives or we can honour Mary by imitation, as we strive to be open and obedient to God– to welcome God into each and every aspect of our lives, so that we too may be God-bearers for our place and time...

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Still here, I think

Suspect that I may be breaking the longest silence this blog has yet known...In part this was the result of 2 lazy weeks aboard Polyphony, exploring the previously uncharted waters of the Staffs & Worcs & Shropshire Union Canals, and in part it's the result of a longing to retain the feeling of calm and space with which I returned from the holiday.
This is in no way reflected in the state of my study, which is as post-cataclysmic as ever...but at the moment my brain still feels OK, as if things are mostly manageable, as if there is some hope that God and I will get through the next few months together.

What struck me above all, in this period of post holiday clarity, was that I had space not just to read some good theology but to let it work on me.
I'm part of a very small, very sporadic clergy birds reading group, and we met on Monday to have another go at Timothy Radcliffe's "Why go to Church?"
We'd started it early in the summer, but too few of us had got beyond the opening chapters though we all agreed that what we had read encouraged us to delve deeper. I'm strictly forbidden from taking theology of any kind on holiday, so it wasn't til Sunday afternoon that I was able to revisit, and indeed finish the book......and I found myself excited and inspired in ways that I only usually manage at the end of a week long retreat. That sort of reading makes me happy to my core - reminds me of all the reasons that I love my calling - sends me on my way singing...and it hasn't happened anything like enough since I became an incumbent.

Learning point: I really do need to make space for reflective reading - which will involve not just the time in which to read, but the preparation time in which decks are cleared, preoccupations shelved to enable the process at all.
Possible supplementary: I may be more likely to achieve this if I spend less time online...though I need to set against that the value of reflective blogging, which used to be so much the stuff of life for me.
Oh what a dilemma!
Once I've logged on, the siren voice of the internet is liable to call me in so many different directions, and often the half hour I'd thought to spend writing here is taken up ranging far and wide to read all sorts of exciting things.

While I was away this blog celebrated its 6th birthday. I began posting in the early weeks of my curacy, when the space to reflect was a I wrote I discovered a community of friends whom I'd never have dreamed of, and it is this more than anything else that keeps me blogging onwards, though I've all too conscious that the glory days are past. There simply isn't the time. It would be truly ironic if it turned out that time spent blogging was the barrier to having something to blog about...but it seems a distinct possibility...
Come what may, I simply must share some of Timothy Radcliffe's wonderful words- which have filled me with such joy, - but not tonight. My post holiday resolutions include bed by 11.00 unless there is a real crisis - and tomorrow I need all the strength I can muster, to brave the Messy Church outing to Weston-super-Mare. 
If I make it, I'll see you on the other side!