Saturday, September 25, 2010

In which God reminds me of priorities

The first part of this week, as we approached our patronal festival, was spent very much focussed on that one service - on making the church building beautiful, on ensuring that the liturgy was "right" and the service booklets accurate...All went well, in a slightly unhinged kind of way, and I believe that the impact of such a celebration will continue to resource us for a good while to come. To have seven confirmands making that significant step in faith surrounded by friends, family and at least a sprinkling of their church family too was a truly wonderful thing.
But I suspect that God thought it was time to remind me of my calling to the whole parish, not just those who gather within the church building - even for such joyous celebrations...
You see, the very next morning I was booked to take a funeral - the stuff of everyday life, of course, but with added complications in the family that has been left behind.
I also heard of great and traumatic upheavals in the life of a beloved friend.
Next day another parishioner arrived to talk about a crisis that could derail her life just when it seemed to be coming together and yesterday the phone rang with another huge and unprecedented event that has blown apart somebody's world.
Fortunately nobody expects me to wade in and fix these situations - most of them are beyond short term fixing, and for those that aren't, there are others with far greater expertise already at work. But, simply by virtue of being "the vicar" people still believe that I should be involved. They believe, even when I doubt it myself, that there is something I can bring to their situation which that situation needs. 
They may not put it that way, but they need to know that God is involved in their lives, even when those lives seem most chaotic, least directed.
And, without exception, all of them hope that I will continue to pray for them through whatever comes next.
Never mind the state of the study - the office and work of a priest is a privilege beyond words.

Friday, September 24, 2010

"This is a proper church"

my bishop teased me gently on Tuesday, noting the thurifer getting organised and the diminutive acolytes standing waiting...
Thus at a stroke he confirmed both how easily he reads me and also how much my perspectives in ministry have been shaped by his influence.

You see, in hosting my first ever confirmation service this week, I felt as if I'd reached some sort of milestone on the way to becoming a "proper vicar" of a "proper church". Remembering an earlier (and not altogether unjustified) remark of his about a certain family likeness between valley church and a jumble sale, I'd spent a silly amount of hours preparing for the service - revamping notice boards,tidying odd corners, begging and beseeching those with the power to do so to remove the mowers from the back of the church.Together with the admirable Dufflepud I had also wrestled with the order of service, til it was in a nearly perfect as we could make it (of COURSE there was one stupid line break in the wrong place - but at least no huge and obvious typos). I knew I could do nothing about the size of congregation beyond encouraging all and sundry to attend...a patronal festival on a weeknight is always going to be a bit challenging, even with a bishop thrown in.
 Finally, having absolutely used up all my worry quotient, I accepted that I'd done my best - and suddenly it was 6.15, the bishop was here, and we were "in the slips" waiting to begin.

Enter the character known to some of you as "cage man" - a resident of the parish who has such issues with drug and alcohol abuse that he no longer has much of a foothold in any sort of reality. He's quite fond of me, and thus sees valley church as his particular pet project - something which has both positive and negative implications. On Tuesday he felt that he could best serve by yelling abuse at those who were coming in to the building, while periodically coming in himself, - whereupon he became quieter, if no more rational...He engaged FabBishop, his chaplain and me in earnest if mostly unintelligible conversation, being deeply disturbed at the fact that we were robed, and taking a great deal of convincing that the bishop was the bishop at all. G., one of the confirmands, who has a commanding presence, stationed himself close by, just in case we needed a rapid response - but all was well. The congregation coped admirably with the tirades directed at them, FabBishop managed to deal with signing registers and certificates while paying proper attention to the rather random conversation and God heard my fervent prayer that "cage man" should vacate the building before we began the service...He departed having given me a large hug and told me that he did love me really. Ummmm........

After that, the service went pretty much exactly as  I'd hoped. Great hymns were sung with gusto.  We enjoyed singing the round (based on the collect) which a gifted friend had written specially for the day. FabBishop pitched his sermon just right and gave all seven candidates things to take away and reflect on....and they were duly baptised (in one case) and confirmed. At Sunday's Messy Church we had all cut out footprints and created a path from the door past the font to the altar and there was such a sense of journey, of significant steps taken, of new horizons glimpsed....I found it all quite ridiculously moving - specially when the cluster of candidates aged 12 to 62 stood at the head of the nave, carrying the candles I had just lit for them from the Paschal candle and we commissioned them to 
"Shine as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father".

The thing was, it was a very real expression of who we are as church. Long before Lucy More launched her brilliant idea, "messy church" applied beautifully to church in the valley. Here, a guidedog in training is a regular member of the choir, and our acolytes include adults with learning difficulties from a nearby unit. Even without their help, Tuesday had its own messy moments. The charcoal refused to stay alight so that when the time came to cense the altar, even the best efforts of FabBishop failed to produce the faintest flurry of smoke...The sacristan somehow failed to expect extra communicants so the wafer box was empty when FabBishop needed to consecrate more...
Nothing was polished in any way...and above all, we started the service with "cage man", reminding us that we are here to welcome, love and serve those who really don't fit in anywhere else.

Maybe, then, we ARE a proper church...or at least getting there.
Will we arrive? 
One day "With the help of God, we will"

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Sermon to celebrate the completion of the roofing project, All Saints, Selsley

It began with a few gathered around a table with bread and wine. They heard the words of Jesus. Jesus’ words changed the bread into the food of heaven and the wine into the cup of life eternal. Time passed. Those few did the same thing again. Others joined the table. And the peripatetic church grew. Over time, a large gathering put down roots. Walls rose from the earth. Beams spanned the space. Roof held back the elements. And these places were dedicated and consecrated as holy places. Within these places, there was water for baptism, a place for Jesus’ words to be remembered. And a table were the heavenly banquet would be glimpsed on earth as it is in heaven.
It happened once upon a time. It has happened through many centuries – and it happened here not quite 150 years ago. A church was built, and a community gathered to meet with God in his Word, in bread and wine and in one another – and as they gathered, they found themselves transformed, blessed by their encounter and sent out to be a blessing to others.
Today, then, is a good time to count our blessings. Sometimes we think of blessings as rather abstract, intangible things - the love of our family, our health and strength, the freedoms we enjoy. But today we're here to celebrate blessings in a far more solid form...the visible, beautiful blessing of a church restored and the still more precious blessing of a dedicated community whose efforts secured that restoration.
You see, though we've just sung “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” - under God a variety of human circumstances – outworkings of providence- have combined to make today possible.
All Saints is blessed indeed...blessed with three kinds of resources:
money from an army of generous donors from all over the world,
the love and dedication of the whole local community
and a whole battery of skills that ensured that those gifts of loving commitment would bring about all that we longed for.
The work that has led up to today is in itself an act of both gratitude and faith...The people of Selsley, looking at their beautiful building, recognised that such a gift should be treasured – and thus they expressed their gratitude to the past...But having looked back they looked forward too– forward with a vision of the church living on to serve future generations, as a place where children and grandchildren might encounter God, and emerge, blessed, to be a blessing.
That's what the concept of “stewardship” is all about...building on a vision that is solid, adding to the heritage of the past with dedication and commitment to the future, even when we have no idea of what that future might hold.
Let me share a story that expresses for me the essence of this stewardship across the centuries. When New College Oxford was founded in the late 14th century, the roof of the college hall was supported by huge oak beams, 5' long by 2' square. In other words built to last! In the nineteen century, it was discovered that the beams were infested with death-watch beetle. But where would the timber be found to replace them? Someone suggested contacting the University forester, and a deputation was duly sent to find him. Their tentative enquiry produced an unexpected response
“Well sirs, we was wonderin’ when you’d be askin’.”
You see it turns out that when the college was built a grove of oaks was planted to replace those beams in the hall when they became beetly, because oak beams always become beetly in the end. The plan was passed down from one forester to the next – stewardship indeed!
As we celebrate the fruits of our own stewardship , perhaps I may sound just the gentlest note of caution. This is a truly beautiful building in an equally beautiful place. And if we are not careful, we could all turn this church building into something of an idol. But we must remember that it IS only a building and not the church...
The church is, of course, all of you gathered here...all who have built their lives on the rock that is Christ Jesus...all who are temples in which the Holy Spirit is pleased to dwell.
All Saints is a building dedicated and consecrated for God’s holy purposes It stands as a signpost, a reminder to this community and to the many was they pass by, that God has not left us alone to muddle along as best we can...but is completely committed to us, sharing our humanity in Jesus and calling us to fresh visions of a world turned upside down.

May this building be a touchstone and not a millstone.May the blessings made concrete here continue to nurture the spirit and mission of this church. May the walls echo with the sounds of praise. May the light from its many windows illumine our lives. May we find here shelter from the storms of life. May we here find a place to grow in wisdom and spirit.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

A little sheepish

Today was one of those days at church in the valley.
You know? the ones where half your regulars are away, for all sorts of good reasons, and none of the occasionals appear, and you find yourself at the head of the nave staring down at a half empty church?
Actually, it was a bit worse than that. I found myself staring down at an acceptably occupied south side of the nave - and a north side that was completely empty except for - yup, that's right, the last 3 rows.
Now these pews are occupied by some of my very dearest parishioners....ladies whom I respect, admire and love.....people to whom I would turn without hesitation for wise advice or a sympathetic ear at any time...but I did get cross with them this morning. Pleas, both good humoured and a bit more desperate, have no effect. .
It just doesn't seem to occur to them how lonely it feels standing at the front gazing out upon row upon row of empty pews...nor does it worry them in the least that those same empty pews create a deserted waste spanning the distance between them and the altar.

All this is by the way, really - except that it meant that I started the Eucharist feeling a bit disgruntled, and with a particularly clear sense that there were people missing, that we in no way matched my vision of a "successful" church on this particular Sunday morning.

Yes. I know. I know. It's not about the numbers.......but sometimes that's hard to believe - particularly if you feel that people beyond the parish may have an unrealistically positive view of the health of your church.

So, I stood there and looked at the gaps, and felt a bit miserable, really....but hey, it's Sunday and I get to preside at the Eucharist.....and that's really what I'm for - so the miseries didn't last long.
And so it was that half way through my sermon I heard my own words as I looked down at the people scattered about my larger-than-necessary building...and I realised that actually, THIS is what the church is like....what she has always been like.
A rag-taggle collection of people of all sorts and conditions, older and younger, highly educated and with learning difficulties, happy and sad, weary and enlivened, faithful and wavering.
Ridiculous, really, that this should be Christ's Body here - that, to this little flock, it is the Father's good pleasure to give the Kingdom.

Here's what I said in the sermon (with thanks to colleagues on the PRCL lists, who kick started me in a most helpful way)

I hope you’ll forgive me if I begin by acknowledging an open secret about life in the vicarage. Despite my best endeavours, I’m one of those chaotic people who works on the principle of a place for nothing and NOTHING in its place, so that not a day goes by without an anguished cry from the study
“Has anyone seen my keys?” Or my phone?Or my diary?
On a really bad day it might be all three!
Generally, of course, they are there amid the debris and it only takes a moment for my discerning offspring to produce them triumphantly. Sometimes, though, things go missing for a longer period, during which anxiety mounts at first but then, perhaps, I abandon the search and replace the item - at which point it appears, in the most unlikely place. So, when it comes to losing things, I guess I’m something of an expert, and can empathise with the shepherd in the parable. However, one important thing to do when hearing a reading from Scripture is to decide whereabouts in the story you find yourself…it may not necessarily be in the role of the narrator. 

Let's think of the three viewpoints we're offered...

First, of course, there's the wandering sheep....After all, if she hadn't strayed, there wouldn't have been any parable. But imagine going down in history as the LOST sheep...Not the sort of image any of us would choose to cultivate.
I'd imagine she tried to justify herself.
“The grass really was greener over the hill, - until I got there - but when I reached it, it was the same scrubby mixture as before, so I kept on going...until, suddenly, I realised that I was lost. I hadn't a clue which way was home – so I went blindly onwards. If I had rested, even for a moment, I would have had to face my fear – and I simply couldn't do that.
I guess I might have gone on like that til I could go on no further – but a voice stopped me.....a voice, through the darkness, calling my name.
I almost wanted to hide – I felt so stupid, having to be rescued ..but my need got the better of my pride, so I called out in return – and then he came. The shepherd. He came to the very place where I was huddled and picked me up on his broad shoulders and carried me all the way home – and suddenly I didn't feel stupid and scared but loved and special and so very in the arms of the shepherd.”

That sounds like a good place to end up...
I know I can recognise quite a lot of myself in that sheep – heading off on a deceptively attractive path that leads nowhere – unwilling or unable to admit my folly, and my need til it's almost too late. 
Yes, there's alot of me there.

But I can see myself among the stay-at-home flock as well, though I rather wish I couldn't.
They are the ones who have got things right, who are behaving just the way sheep are supposed I'd imagine they might feel quite indignant at the shepherd's quixotic behaviour. With 99 perfectly good sheep all lined up awaiting his attention, he's turned his back and gone off after just ONE.
What's so special about her, then?
Why does she get all the attention when we're all here, bleating in concert, minding our manners, maybe just a little smug – because, after all, we know we're safe – and we don't really feel the need to fret about those left outside.
I don't want to admit it, but there are times when I feel like this.
I look at the lives of those who, by pretty much any standard you might choose, are well and truly lost – and I'm so relieved that I'm not in a similar state, I don't honestly care if anyone takes the trouble to rescue them at all. 
Actually, with an attitude like that, maybe I'm the one that needs saving – once again.

Whereabouts are you in the story??

Then, of course, there's the shepherd. What ought he to do? Recount? Pretend he hasn't noticed that there's one missing?
The sensible thing would be to stay with the flock and just chalk up
the loss as natural wastage, just one of those things…But a shepherd is paid to care – to look after the flock – all of them.
How could he balance competing needs? Should he opt for the safe and sensible course of action – staying with the 99, closing his eyes to the gap in the corner...? that's surely tempting....but remember this is a story told by Jesus – so we are in the upside down world of God's kingdom, where one sheep is worth just as much as 99......and where a shepherd will take any risk at all for the sake of that one sheep.
Well versed in the ways of parables, we know, do we not, just who that shepherd really is.

So – if the shepherd is Jesus, we are assuredly the sheep.

Remember, I wanted you to consider where you are in the story.

If Jesus is somewhere out there on the margins, hunting for missing sheep,
where should we be?
Shouldn’t we be out there with him?
If one sheep is WITH the shepherd, - who's actually lost?
Could it be that the 99 are in the wrong place?
Surely the most important question for each of us is not
“Is Jesus with me?” but “Am I where Jesus is?” for we can trust him to lead us into new pastures, among people and situations we would never have chosen...
We can trust him to keep us from harm, and indeed to lay down his life for us.
That's what the good shepherd does.
Thanks be to God!

Walking the Labyrinth

Earlier this summer an email arrived reminding me that, as usual, there would be a labyrinth in Gloucester Cathedral in the week before Greenbelt (WHY in the one week of the year when those who most need variety in worship are likely to find their needs wonderfully met only a few miles away?? Not complaining, just wondering...)
What's more, there would be a candle -lit Taize service on the Wednesday night.
But my diary already had a wedding rehearsal so I set the information aside and focussed on the delights of GB to come.
Then the couple asked for a last minute change of rehearsal - clearing the evening so off I went.
And it was quite wonderful.

Torrential rain and inadequate advertising by the Cathedral meant that attendance was sparse - which was undoubtedly frustrating for those who'd put so much into curating but was pure gift for those of us who attended.
Imagine a huge and ancient building cleared of chairs and silent after the bustle of daily visitors.
Imagine that around every corner are works of art, there for an exhibition which is running throughout September...everything from a beautiful fountain to a huge crucifixion, with Christ full of nails - and some extraordinary pterodactyls too....
Imagine a candle lit labyrinth, and the gentle sound of Taize chant.
I started to walk the labyrinth during some singing. That was easy. One foot in front of another, praying through the chant. It seemed strange, though, when silence fell...
I've walked many labyrinths, in hugely different situations - but always with music, if in company....
The business of being attentive to one another, of not impeding another's walk, seemed suddenly very important.
I became conscious of the people sitting in shadows, just beyond the edge of the labyrinth. 
For a while I seemed to have too many feet - or at least, the customary 2 had decided to go their own way, in wilful disobedience. This bothered me.
If I stumbled, would it disturb others.
It seemed that as I travelled, I carried a responsibility for the smooth journey of my fellow pilgrims.
I wondered if this sense was peculiar to ministers - whose daily lives seem sometimes to carry more significance to others than we would ever desire.
But then I reached the centre and knelt, knowing myself surrounded by love and beauty.....and the chant began again
"Bless the Lord my soul.......who leads me into life"

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Choose life – a homily for All Saints, Selsley. Trinity 14C

I spent last weekend, with some 20,000 others, at the Greenbelt Festival at Cheltenham racecourse. As always, over four days we were presented with a bewildering variety of talks, music, drama and visual arts, spread across 30 venues. An embarrassment of riches Nearly everything sounded splendid but I couldn't possibly do it all.

I had to make choices...but I was sure, at least, that whatever I chose would be rewarding.

Of course, we take choice as read in most areas of daily life...

We demand it when we shop – and I'll never forget my first experience of a third world supermarket: for most foods, there was one option and one could take it, or leave it.

We demand it when we send our children to school, when we need medical treatment, even when we worship.

We believe that more choice means more freedom to express ourselves – to show the world just how unique and special we really are. And in many ways, that's a good thing...

The world is rich and various...and it's good to notice and to celebrate this.

But sometimes, the choice is very stark – so stark that it seems to be no choice at all.

Listen to Moses, presenting the situation to the Israelites in our reading from Deuteronomy.

“I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of of the Lord....then you shall live and become prosperous....I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life!”

There's no middle ground here, no modified range of options tailored to our needs.

So it follows that we need to do our research, be certain what we're signing up to.

“Choose life” says Moses butt when we listen to God's own PR, as delivered by Jesus in the gospel reading, it doesn't sound too encouraging.

The theologian Tom Wright, til recently Bishop of Durham, wrote thus

Imagine a politician making this kind of campaign speech:
"If you're going to vote for me," he says, "you're voting for higher taxes and lower wages; you're deciding in favour of losing all you love best! So come on -- who's on my side?"
We're talking political suicide

We believe in family values, but Jesus tells us to hate our families, even ourselves.

That's really uncomfortable to listen of those times when the temptation to rewrite the gospel is almost overwhelming....but Jesus is very clear.

To be a disciple means total commitment – with nothing and nobody more important in our lives than Jesus himself.

A real relationship with God will, in the end, cost you everything that you trust more than you trust God.

During the baptism service, you'll remember the point at which the candidate is anointed with oil, in the form of a cross on the forehead. When we reach this stage, I often remind the congregation that this cross is a reminder of the shape of the Christian life – the selfish “I” crossed out, so that we make choices that please God, that fit in with his agenda of radical love and not those that build up our own esteem, our own kingdom.

I sometimes say, too, that this is the point in the service when the candidate might very well scream, cry or, if old enough, make a run for it.

I don't say – though perhaps I should – that I know I fail at this time and again...That though the choices, life or death, blessing or curse, are clearly set before me sometimes it's easier to take the soft option...even when it leads not to life but to death.

Now, it may seem ridiculous that given the choice I might opt for death rather than life or a curse instead of a blessing...but we all know it happens....

We are constantly warned about the dangers of cigarettes, and yet people still choose to smoke.

We are constantly warned about the risks of drug use, and yet people still choose to use.

We are very good indeed at choosing death...

And as for our physical, so for our spiritual life.

The choice to love and to live God's way is one we are asked to make daily.

But sometimes the cross-shaped demands of that choice are too much for us.

We know that we should choose to love God – not just some of the time, when it is convenient, but with our whole heart and mind and soul. That means making our discipleship the major focus of our lives...transforming what we do and who we are seven days a week.

But we don't do that.

We need to know what God considers good and right – without trying to twist God’s will around to look more like our own. That means listening to God’s word and studying the Bible.

But we don't do that either.

We need to do what is good and right, surrounding ourselves with people who share our faith and our love and allowing them to be a positive influence in our lives. But we prefer to bury our faith and fit in with the crowd.

Thankfully, though we may make the wrong choices time and again – God has already made a choice for us...

So, when you recognise the choices before you – don't panic.

Try your best to choose life – but know that there is grace and forgiveness enough for all of us – for that is the final message of that cross which we sometimes fear to carry.

Let's pray

Almighty God,
whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain,
and entered not into glory before he was crucified:
mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross,
may find it none other than the way of life and peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Greenbelt reflection - on being a hippy dippy Christian.

Just one week ago excitement was at fever pitch in the vicarage.
Hugger Steward and the Dufflepud were already encamped in the swamp that was Cheltenham racecourse after a deluge, working with that wonderful team of festival makers that transform a space of grass and concrete into a fantastic playground for 20,000 people to celebrate, learn, dream and worship together.
With a friend staying who was new to the festival, I was slightly apprehensive.
I love Greenbelt so much, and for the past 11 years it has been so central to the life of our family...
Introducing it to someone else is a bit like the process of watching one of the children perform on stage (one of the most nerve wracking parts of parenthood for me). 
Will they achieve their best?
Will their music reach others? 
Will it be ALL RIGHT?
I needn't have worried.
My friend "got it" immediately - though I suspect I taxed her stamina to the limit and beyond as we drove home after Last Orders every night.
But I was sad when a twitter contact was clearly unconvinced and wrote of "too many hippy dippy Christians".

At least, I was sad at first.
But as I thought about it, I began to cherish the label.
Yes, Greenbelt is full of grown ups reliving their youth, awash with the idealism that struggles to find a place the rest of the year.
There's a preponderance of bright colours, tie & dye & Fair Trade cotton - such that I always struggle with the thought of these joyous birds of paradise constrained once more by city suits or clerical collars come Tuesday morning.
There's also, and more importantly, a preponderance of Christians who are passionate...who long to make a change the world for the sake of the live their faith each and every day.
It's that passionate joy that I miss in the Church community for the rest of the year...the sense that we are dreaming together of something beautiful beyond our imaginings...the sense that we are marching to a different drum.
Yesterday as I read the epistle at Church on the Hill it all fell into place
If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a "fool" so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight. 

So I'm home inspired by Tom Sine and dreaming of intentional Christian communities.
I'm home considering how to live the upside down world of the Beatitudes with Dave Andrews.
I'm home considering the rival claims of peace and truth as presented by Giles Fraser.
I'm home with the music of Jars of Clay, Courtney Pine and Ellie Williams still filling my head and making me want to dance at odd moments.
I'm home with a longing to engage in deep contemplation - be it the Rosary or, the Jesus Prayer or a route beyond all words.
I'm home - but certain that I really do have a foothold somewhere else.

I'm a hippy dippy Christian - and proud of it.