Friday, December 31, 2010

He came unto his own...

This, my third Christmas as priest in charge in these two parishes, has been unlike any Christmas I've yet experienced.
Fellow clergy will be familiar with the strange "festival maths" which means that every other year half the regular congregation are away from home, celebrating with their distant families - while the following year numbers soar as the families descend on them in their turn.
This year, though, was something rather different.
Heavy snow and wickedly icy roads kept many people at home. We had to cancel the Carol service at Church in the Valley (though many a carol was sung in a blissfully full and friendly pub that same evening) and Midnight Mass at Church on the Hill...the latter definitely a prudent decision given the extreme gradient of the path from road to church.
Down in the valley, one sterling soul had made a fantastic job of clearing the church path and we were all set for Christmas services as usual. The Crib service was a delight, featuring baby George as baby Jesus and a multitude of the heavenly host plus an assortment of shepherds (plus guinea pig lamb), a cow herd (complete with huge & cuddly cow) and one King full of oriental splendour. Increasingly, families opt to attend on Christmas Eve and then leave church alone for Christmas day - but that's fine, once you're used to this idea.
What really startled me this year was the absence of regulars at both Midnight Mass (maybe less surprising, given the weather and the age of many of my core congregation) and again on Christmas Day. At Midnight we had a good turn out overall - but the vast majority were visitors....Out of some 80 in church, I think that just 11 were familiar faces- which poses a few questions.
I guess on one level it's very simple....If you only expect to attend church at Christmas and Easter, then you are more likely to make the effort to get there even if conditions are less than encouraging - whereas if you fully expect to be there Sunday by Sunday for many years to come, then what is one Christmas among many?
I would certainly hate to think of anyone risking life and limb to worship with us - even on the highest of festivals - and I'd never make the mistake of thinking that absence from church equates with writing faith out of the festival....but all the same, it does seem odd that worshipping with your church community is simply not a priority for many. It never struck me that my parents, for example, were in any way "extreme" church-goers - but the year that my father broke his wrist and was unable to drive, a taxi was organised to get us all to church on Christmas day - because it was simply unthinkable that we should be anywhere else on that day of all days.
Clearly we are now in a very different place - with different expectations.
It was a joy to celebrate the birth of Christ with those who came through our doors.
It was a privilege to sit for an hour beside one young man who arrived as the last celebrating family departed on Christmas morning, and needed to take time to talk through his hurts and confusions in a safe place.
Being a priest in these communities is very special - a privilege and joy in so many unexpected ways. It's only fair that sometimes the struggles are unexpected too...
but I'm glad that it fell to another to read John 1 this Christmas. There might have been a bit too much reality in it for any semblance of comfort.
Or perhaps I'm reading it wrong.
Perhaps I should just smile quietly and say "It was ever thus......"

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Sermon for Christmas Day 2010 All Saints, Selsley.

I know we’re all short of sleep and high on excitement, but I wonder if you’d join me in a brief imaginative exercise this morning. Due to some utterly and unbelievably cataclysmic event, there is just one copy of the Bible left in the entire world, and now this too is under threat. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to copy out as much as you can, to preserve it for the future. Where do you start? Is there one passage that tells you enough about God and his ongoing love-affair with faithless humanity to suffice if all else vanishes?
To be honest, I’m not quite sure, but I’d put up a spirited defence for the Gospel that we’ve just heard.
It is sometimes called the Christmas Gospel,- which is strange, when you rreflect that it mentions neither baby, mother, shepherds, angels nor any other nativity essentials. Nonetheless, it’s one of those must-have passages, without which it’s hard to imagine our worship at Christmas. John’s words are so dear and familiar that it’s tempting to side-step any attempt to engage with them, and simply allow them to communicate directly with our hearts,- surely the best place of all for the Christ-child to lodge.

Well, yes and no.
In one sense, of course, the Incarnation is too great a wonder, too great a miracle to comprehend.
It beggars understanding. It is indeed a holy mystery....
However, the problem with mysteries is that we tend to sit back and accept them; we’re confident that, if intellect has failed, amazement itself is a sufficient response. This mystery, however, is rather more demanding, for it draws us in as well.
That is the point of it all.
John’s fourteen verses sum up so much, from the cosmic grandeur of creation to the breathtaking immediacy of Christ’s birth.
“In the beginning”…as Genesis, so John. Here, we’re concerned with the roots and origins of all things, establishing beyond doubt the identity of the Christ with God the Creator.
“The Word was with God and the Word was God.”
But existence is not all. Our God is bent on a relationship, on communicating Himself with his creation…He is not only a being, but the Word. However a word (even the Word) can communicate nothing unless someone is ready to receive it, to listen or to read, to get the message…God communicates with God-self within the Trinity, but God also reaches out in longing to communicate his love to us.
So there is something close to pathos in our failure to recognise and connect with God:
“He was in the world…yet the world knew him not.. He came to his own, but his own received him not.”
It’s incredible, isn’t it? The One who framed and formed everything, allows himself to be shut out of his own creation because he wants us to choose to know him. He who needs nothing, puts himself in a place where he needs us, - us!
And, lest the Word be heard once and then forgotten, here He is made real, visible solid flesh. Incarnate. The Word translates himself into a language we can understand, the language of humanity. The glory of God is too vast for us to comprehend, so He sets it aside, and chooses to limit himself to our scale, so that we might have a chance of recognising and responding to him. As Irenaeus put it, writing in the first century of the Church,
“He became what we are, to make us what he is”,- or alternatively, in the words of the singer/songwriter Joan Osborne
“What if God was one of us?”
The message of the Gospels is that there is no “what if?”…God was and is forever both divine and, amazingly, “one of us”. Incarnation. And when we recognise this, when we too glimpse his glory, we become a new humanity ourselves…
“children born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”

For the message is not for one time and place only and John’s Prologue does not just look back to the dawn of time, nor confine us to the historic realities of 1st century Palestine. The word WAS made flesh....Yes, the birth of Jesus was an actual historical event, which happened at a specific moment in time, -even if not on 25th December in the year 0.!
For a problem arises if we try to distance the Christ child; to look at him only through the stained-glass filter of history, to keep Him safely at arm's length "Away in a manger".
That Greatest Gift of All was indeed first given in the stable in Bethlehem,-but if we’re content to leave it there then all our joy and celebration is in vain. However, to bring it from history into the present, and ensure that the good news the angels brought to the shepherds, is indeed good news to all people, is to involve ourselves dangerously in the story. No longer can we view the Incarnation as a once and for all event. We have called upon the Holy Child to "be born in us to-day"....
If we really mean that, we are offering ourselves as God-bearers, accepting the responsibility laid on us in John’s gospel for "as many as received Him".
In a few minutes, we will receive Him in the Sacrament of bread and wine,- and that unbelievable blessing should draw forth a response from our whole selves. It is up to each one of us to bring the living reality of Emmanuel, God with us, out of the soft focus of the carol service and into the world He loves so much.
The Word is to be made flesh IN US.
God longs to communicate with us, but having got the message, we are called to live it and show His living reality “full of grace and truth"

Friday, December 24, 2010

I don't really send Christmas cards...

With much love to all my friends, near and far...
Thank you for sharing love and laughter in the past year. 
Christmas blessings to you and yours

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The service that didn't happen

Tonight I should be busily lighting the candles given in memory of so many, to lend Valley Church a beautiful welcoming glow for those arriving for our annual service of Carols by Candelight.
I might be playing the piano so the choir could have one last run through of their two solo carols.
I would surely be scanning arrivals anxiously until all the readers were safely in church, armed with their readings and primed to end each, in the approved Kings fashion
"Thanks be to God".

But I'm not.
Instead I'm at my desk, drinking hot ginger and waiting the return of my menfolk, who sallied forth a couple of hours ago in search of a Christmas tree.  It's bitterly cold out there, so by rights I should be purring gently at finding myself indoors with a cat at my feet....but instead I'm more than a little miserable, since I'm only here because our carol service has been cancelled.

I accept that my judgement on these matters may be somewhat skewed.
Yesterday I drove some 50 miles in the worst conditions I have ever experience on UK roads, in order to officiate at the wedding of a very dear friend. Even in a Volvo with snow chains fitted it was quite an alarming ride, but once I knew that the couple intended to go ahead nothing on earth would have kept me away. Plans had to be changed as 10" snow made the reception venue impossible, the groom was 2 hours late, as a 45 minute journey took him something like 4 hours and there were gaps among the guests, of course, but all of us there were united in our love for the couple and our determination to celebrate with them on this happiest of days.
Our commitment to friendship was not going to be shaken by the difficulties of getting to a country church in the worst snow for years. We really wanted to be there.
Meanwhile, the snow-struck congregation at church in the valley this morning was doubled in size by the presence of a family - three generations gathered from far and wide to dedicate a memorial in memory of a grandfather and uncle who now lie in our church-yard. Some had come from villages on the hills around Stroud, some from much further afield but they were all there, full of good humoured tales of hazardous journeys, to support one another and honour their dead. When it was announced that there would be no coffee today because there was no milk, they cheerfully helped me make black coffee and offered it to those of the regular church family who made it into the hall.Of course we could have rescheduled the dedication for a warmer time, but they wanted to be there today, having made a commitment to one another and to their dead.

Given these two examples of determination in the face of whatever the weather might bring, it's not really surprising that I feel a bit grumpy at the cancellation of our Carol Service. In comparison with conditions yesterday, things really aren't that bad here. Of course I understand that nobody wants to put elderly bones at risk...and it would be truly awful if one of the group of once-a-year attenders slipped on the way to the service and did themselves harm but what saddens me is how very ready everyone was to abandon the service - and just how few of our core congregation actually got here this morning. There was a crucial PCC vote after the service, or I fear that numbers would have been even worse...

I know it's not fair to draw comparisons...I realise that I'm in danger of grossly oversimplifying and adding 2 and 2 to make 5 - but it's tempting to make assumptions about priorities that are profoundly discouraging. 
Of course worship is not all about church, and being an hospitable church community can happen on any day of the year, not just at the carol service...but still and all, there are questions around tonight that I'd just as soon not have to answer.

One of the things that the community loves about valley church at Christmas is the star that appears, miraculously, atop the tower - the gift of a local family who not only construct it annually, but also get it safely into place.
On Friday afternoon it was shining out proud and confident.
Today the snow had obviously led to some bulbs blowing - the framework is there but only one bulb is alight. To say it looks half-hearted would be a definite overstatement.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Homily for a Carol Service

Tonight was the Village Carol Service at church on the hill.
Last year, the Herring of Christ produced a splendid service using the readings in "Times and Seasons" on the theme "good news for the poor".
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this did not go down too well with the PCC of Church on the Hill, who felt that he had "missed out on the meaning of Christmas".
Hmmn...Room for debate there, I'd say.
However, since they had so clearly been miserable with the service we had prepared we invited them to put it together themselves this year - and their decision was to go purely with the "Christmas story", using Luke (mostly), Matthew (for the wisemen) and of course, John.
I told them that this was fine, provided they didn't mind my breaking with tradition to give a short homily as I was unhappy that they were presenting the nativity story so out of context, and this was agreed.
Then my printer decided, with minutes to spare, that it needed to recalibrate - so whatever I said tonight, it wasn't exactly what I had planned.
Given that all the readings except my own were from the Authorised Version, I suspect the cause may be lost already....
Here's what I had hoped to say (no idea what I actually said...but suspect it was rather different)

In the past week websites and papers of a vaguely churchy disposition have been making much of a recent survey which reveals that for 48% of the population of the UK, the birth of Jesus is completely irrelevant to their celebration of Christmas.
It might be tempting for those of us in the churches to snort disapprovingly and mutter something indignant at this point – but I can't help but wonder if this is largely our fault.

You see, we aren't very good at helping people to understand why those events of long ago and far away are anything to do with us at all, só small wonder if they get the idea that we are celebrating something rather beautiful but quite unreal – meant for tiny children to present to us wearing tea towels or tinsel but nothing to do with life in the adult world.
The words of our carols can play into this too........whoever heard of a baby who made no crying? or a child that "throughout their wondrous childhood did honour and obey" his parents?
Or, come to that, a stable where all was calm and bright after an unplanned midnight delivery?
Just look at the windows in this church – and the depictions of the nativity on almost any Christmas card. 

It's all beautiful and clean – and utterly unreal.

Actually in a small way we're even contributing to the problem tonight.
I wonder if you noticed anything odd about the title of our first and last readings?
“In the sixth month” came first and “in the beginning” at the very end
That doesn't quite make sense , does it?
But it's the way that we invite people to look at Christmas
We ask them to leap straight into the middle of the story – without thinking about what came before, or what might come afterwards. But we've no hope of ever understanding a story if we don't have some idea of its context.

We tell people about the baby and the manger but not about the reason that baby was an incredible demonstration of God's love for us, that was to be presented even more clearly when that baby grew up and hung upon the cross.
Jesus was born because of the kind of people we are – all of us – when left to our own devices.
We're people who like our own way...people who are inclined to put ourselves or our families before the needs of others........and só there are still people homeless, people starving, people struggling with life in a world where others are able to enjoy plenty, comfort, luxury...

God arriving in our world as the baby in Bethlehem shows us another way – the path of self sacrifice that leads to the cross, but beyond the cross to the new life that Easter celebrates.

Christmas isn't a one off, isolated event but part of the story of God's love affair with the human race that has continued since the dawn of time and will continue til all of us are safely gathered into God's loving presence.
Through the ages, people have recognised this and chosen to live according to God's invitation to love...and their lives have shone to transform the dark of the world, reflecting that light which is at the heart of God...that light which St John's gospel celebrates.

Só this Christmas I invite you to take your part in the story, - the story which spans time and stretches into eternity.
You won't need tea towel or tinsel...just come as you are, like all the visitors to that stable......but go home changed, transformed, bearing Christ's light yourself.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Great Expectations - a sermon for Advent 3 Year A

This is the season of Great Expectations.
I’ve spent a lot of time in our schools in the past couple of weeks, and of course excitement is running high. Already we've had the Infants' Nativity and a trip to the pantomime and pretty much any conversation with the children veers round to a discussion of Christmas within seconds. Even while many of their parents are struggling to find money for the essential treats, the children are confident that all will be well.
Against this, let me set the expectations of the families for whom I have conducted funerals in the past weeks, those whose worlds have been shaken, almost blown apart, Death is no respecter of the season so there are many whose current hopes are focussed on the sheer need to survive…to get through this period which clamours for celebration in such a way that the memories won’t scar all future Christmas times.

Our expectations of the Christmas season can be painfully unrealistic
This is, notoriously, a time when family breakdowns are most common, when the suicide rate mounts disturbingly – and surely part of the reason for this is the gulf between expectations and fulfilment.
It’s a gap that it’s all too easy to fall into…and very hard to climb out of.
But of course, we usually have a pretty clear idea of what we’re expecting…
a happy time spent with friends and family, a bit of church, lots of singing, candles in all directions, and almost certainly more food than we really need. There may be additions and subtractions from this list, but I’d guess it’s not that far from what we imagine will happen to most of us.

Contrast this with the great expectations of our Scripture passages this morning. The writer of Isaiah's prophecies, like James, is sure of one thing – a day of salvation and glorious restoration will come to pass.
But there's no calendar with little doors to open, to help the count down. Instead there's a long wait in the dark, clinging to the hope that things will not always be this way, that there are good times ahead.
Isaiah paints clear pictures of this restoration – images of new life springing forth unlooked for in the dryest, most barren places…healing for those who most need it…consolation for all.
He is clear that we can look for this with the same confidence that we look for the growth of a plant once we have sown the seed...
The Lord WILL come, bringing with Him judgement, healing, reconciliation, restoration – as essential to God’s DNA as the growth of a crocus flower from its bulb, or a wheat stalk from a grain planted carefully in the earth,
This will come to pass. Never doubt it.
John the Baptist recognised the first shoots of the kingdom when his cousin Jesus came to him for baptism – but then began to doubt his own confident proclamation. His expectations were great, sure enough, but the reality he was living looked pretty much like disappointment. Cast into prison, seeing no signs that the Roman occupation might be lifted, he began to panic. Had he got it wrong? Was Jesus the One they had been waiting for? He just didn’t seem to be behaving as a Messiah should.
But, of course, the clues are all there in Isaiah…in that key text for Jesus’s ministry, the passage he read once in the synagogue, but lived out each and every day
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring the gospel to the poor…he has sent me to heal the broken hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind.”
Listen, he says to John….these are the things that have been happening.
Maybe not exactly as you expected, - but here’s the evidence.
The Messiah is here.
So…expectations fulfilled, but in subversive, surprising ways.
In fact, there should have been, as it were, no surprise in the surprises.
God has consistently worked to subvert our expectations.
It’s there in the Isaiah passage, where the lame leap and the dumb burst into triumphant song…it’s there in the song of Mary
He has scattered the proud in their conceit
Casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly
Our God will never let matters rest.
Wherever there is injustice, wherever the weak are disadvantaged, the vulnerable oppressed, there God is at work, intent on turning things upside down, on launching a revolution that is Good News for the poor.

Small wonder, then, that these words, a manifesto of the Kingdom, come from the mouth of an unmarried teenage mother, - poor, disgraced and a woman! The least of the least, but told that she will give birth to the child who will change everything but for the whole world.
And so Mary's hopes flower into the song that we call Magnificat - a song of justice for all people, the justice of a God who just won't play according to our rules.
Our God won't stay at a safe distance, suitably remote and divine.
Our God rolls up his sleeves and gets involved...
Our God becomes one of us by laying aside his power, his glory..and arriving where he might least be looked for...A small overcrowded town in an occupied country in an unimportant corner of the Roman Empire...

His people thought they were ready. Through the ages they had been more or less alert, - expecting some act of dramatic intervention to restore their fortunes, some decisive action that would lead to the fulfillment of all those wonderful prophecies. But when the time came, they were all looking in the wrong direction, and so God crept in among them as baby born not in a palace but in poverty, a baby soon to be a refugee, a baby destined to disturb the very people who had expected the Messiah to bring comfort to Jerusalem.
Great expectations dumbfounded!
And now we too wait.

We wait with joyful excitement for our celebrations of that baby's birth. We open the windows of our Advent calendars, wrap our presents, send our cards...but do we really expect God's active involvement in our here and now?
And, if we do, are we ready to join in?
We may be brimming over with our own Great Expectations, but for God's sake we need to cling tightly to our knowledge that the season of Christmas is not for the victorious but for the struggling.

So these weeks of Advent are not an invitation to excess but a proclamation of hope in a dry land. Yes, we can have great expectations indeed - but they must involve giving as much as getting, as we explore what it means to reflect God's kingdom in our thoughts, words and actions.
In a world where poverty and despair seem to have the upper hand, where and how should we search for the breaking of Good News?
Will we look for it just here in Church, or dare we expect it in those places that might seem the traffic queues that stress us as we rush into town for "one last thing", in the Big Issue seller standing outside Subway, in the contents of yet another Christmas letter..
We may not be expecting it, but if we look there will be Good News, - never doubt it - Good News beyond our most extravagant hopes and dreams...but we need to participate in the work of God that will bring it about.
Don't forget, the God for whom we wait is the God of Magnificat...the God who loves to subvert our expectations...and who invites us to join with him in turning the world upside down.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Sunday ReVerb

Let Go. What (or whom) did you let go of this year? Why? (Author: Alice Bradley)

Oh my! What a question for one who is still coming to terms with the strange new world of the empty nest.
This year my third and youngest child turned 18 and followed his siblings to university.
Suddenly I was faced with the need to redefine myself.
50 - nothing like young. A bit of self image to let go of there, then.
Still (always) a mum - but not a hands-on, essential day to day kind any longer.

My own parents died just before I was ready to go to university, so I have no experience of flying the nest to draw the processing of detaching myself from my own children as they launch out into adult life has been both demanding and completely new territory.

Right now I am struggling with the concept of preparing for Christmas without a constant tide of young people coming and going, filling the house with music and leaving a trail of mugs in every room...I'm wondering who I'll be once I've come out the far side of this less than comfortable transition...and I'm hoping that in my struggles to let go, I haven't left claw marks all over those whom I love!

Lost a day...

Yesterday I was overwhelmed with parish life - a highly successful combined Church & School Advent Fayre, followed by intensive preparation for assorted services (one of which was frozen off - but that's no disaster).
It meant that blogging was just not feasible - by the time I had won clear of those things that I ought to have done, the things left undone were obviously going to stay that way.
But the word of the day was wonder - and that's too lovely to pass over.

How did you cultivate a sense of wonder in your life this year?
(Author: Jeffrey Davis)

It's so very easy to lose your sense of wonder, isn't it? Either by living life at such breakneck speed that you completely fail to notice all the amazing things that are happening just to the side of your relentless dash towards your goal....Or by becoming so secure in the human position at the "centre of the universe" that we take its marvels for granted...
I'm fortunate, though, because wonder is built in to my job...because surely one of the great functions of priesthood is to notice what God is doing in the world and then point it out to others - and that is the supreme source of wonder.
I am also fortunate to share my home with a golden retriever who treats everything with such open delight that she constantly forces me to stop and look again at the common place........and so often, this is where there is wonder, unguessed at.
And, most obviously, the presence of Libby encourages me to travel slowly, noticing the details as we explore some truly beautiful places...
I wonder as I wander...

Friday, December 03, 2010

Pick one moment during which you felt most alive this year.
(Author: Ali Edwards)

Thinking back, there were at first so many moments to choose from. 
Would it be the moment when middle child walked through the front-door, seconds into the surprise 50th birthday party that has to be one of the most special experiences of the year? I was just beginning to assimilate what was happening, and the teeny bubbles of joy that were mounting up as I realised how many dear and special people had been collected suddenly became a champagne-bottle of overflowing effervescent delight as I realised that all my children were there - and that they had done this...for me...
Or perhaps it would be the moment on St Matthew's Day when all the newly confirmed had received their candles, and were following FabBishop to the west end of the church,at the end of the first Confirmation since I became an incumbent...Their faces far outshone the candle flame and I was overwhelmed with delight that this was my place, these my people, to love and serve in God's name.
But I think, surprisingly, that it may just have been a whole series of moments during some teaching I did for the diocese a week or two ago.
I can claim no credit for the material I was delivering (which was wholly excellent) but, against my expectations, the session suddenly took flight, the room transformed by a sparkle that arrived from goodness knows where...
I remembered what it is like to teach a group who want to learn, to share enthusiasm with fellow enthusiasts, to dance without the music stopping...
I used to love teaching - now I remember why!

Day 2 - the madness continues

What do you do each day that doesn’t contribute to your writing — and can you eliminate it?
(Author: Leo Babauta)

Since writing is, for me, one of the best tools for reflection, pretty much all my daily activity could and should contribute to my writing (though of course there is often so much activity that the reflection barely happens).
Since the regularity with which I update here is a pretty good indicator of the amount of writing I am doing anywhere, clearly not enough reflection is going on.
But this is not news...not news at all.
So here I am, reflecting on my lack of reflection...and I think the root cause is probably my overwhelming desire for community, which drives me to twitter whether hats are dropping or not. From there, of course, I set out on a wild rampage across the internet, during which the lovely clear half hour I had to blog in somehow vanishes.
Elimination would involve a personality transplant - as infinite divertability is absolutely written into my DNA - so I think realistically (see, I'm using the word for next year!) all I can do is to be aware of the dangers and try to manage some writing every day...but knowing that this is pretty unlikely.
Ho hum.
At least I'm trying...

I must be mad

But I'm fond of this blog and would like something to keep me blogging through Advent, if I inspired by my dear friends Songbird and MaryBeth, I'm going to attempt the seemingly impossible and write every day - launched by Reverb
We'll be furnished with a daily prompt - and I'll try my best to respond to it
Day 1 was Wednesday, when the prompt ran thus
Encapsulate the year 2010 in one word. Explain why you’re choosing that word. Now, imagine it’s one year from today, what would you like the word to be that captures 2011 for you?
(Author: Gwen Bell)
 So much happens in the course of a year, and this one has been no exception...but I think my word may just be "realisation".
2010 has been the year in which my youngest child left home for university, and in which my first-born completed her MA and joined the world's workers....
The year in which I turned 50, becoming suddenly eligible for all those "special offers" for older people that I feel so unready to embrace...
But with not one child left at school, and the responsibility for not one but two curates there came a moment in the course of the year when I realised that actually, this was as "grown up" as it gets.
And with that realisation came a delicious freedom. I'm in no way a finished product, of course - I'd not expect to be this side of eternity ...and I hope and pray and plan to go on learning and growing, but the anxiety around my identity has slipped away without my even noticing its passing.
Here is a good place, and now is a good time.
And with the wonderful surprise party that those newly adult children arranged for me came the wonderful realisation of just how much love has been heaped upon me in those five decades.

For 2011 I'd like to rearrange my letters just a little, but stick to the same root...REALISM about what I can do, as one finite human being, with infinite hopes but limited capacity, about what I might hope to accomplish in ministry here, about what God really dreams of for these communities.
I suspect that the route there may be an interesting journey - but it's surely one worth taking.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

I look from afar

So here we are in Advent.
No idea how that happened - would have done my best to avoid it if possible, but clearly the passage of time is just another entry in the ever-expanding category "Things over which the vicar has no control - even if parishioners believe otherwise"
This means 
a) that everyone I meet says, knowingly
"Of course, it's your busy time of year...." (because clearly I spend the other 11 months in delicious idleness)
b) I try to focus even more than usual on noticing God at work in the prevailing muddle of parish life.

Advent Sunday was a bemusing mish-mash of the wonderful and the disappointing.
Graced moments included:
  • the glorious voice of the "redundant opera singer" who worships with us periodically, lending both body and beauty to "Wachet Auf" at the morning Eucharist at Church-in-the-Valley
  • The appearance of some quite unexpected families at Christingle (though the absence of several dozen more was one of the great disappointments of the day - I clearly need to rethink timing for the service in those years when Advent starts before December)
  •  The moment when the silent and hopeful darkness in Gloucester Cathedral thrilled to the opening of the Palestrina Matin Responsary
I first met this when, at 16, I moved to take my A levels at Eastbourne College. I've blogged before about the impact of the choir there, and the Director of Music, John Walker - a former Kings' chorister whose passion for church music was matched only by his passion for good food and drink. As that first busy term hurried to an end, we began practising for the Advent Carol service. I was pleased to be asked to sing the "1st boy" solo but didn't really "get" the piece until the day of the service.
Then as we stood at the back of the darkened church, I realised what was going on.
We were all those people through the centuries who had waited and hoped  for light to come into their lives.The music spanned the ages, heavy with longing. It was one of the most powerful experiences of a window opened onto eternity that I've been part of - and each year, the music has that same power for me. 

This Advent Sunday, as the familiar pattern of music and readings rolled on, and the congregational candles were lit, we were for a while taken up into the drama.The choir moved from the west end to stand beside the nave altar and we were surrounded by light and beauty, but then they moved on, behind the screen, to sing from the choir stalls. We could hear the music - but the readings were another matter. Clearly church in the valley is not alone in having issues with its sound system.
My small candle seemed inadequate to read the text but the odd word floated through the darkness
"strengthen the feeble knees.......your God is coming........."

It seemed that I was living a parable of the contemporary Church of England. Bright certainty gone, we stood waiting, straining our ears to catch the good news from a group that was now far ahead of us...But we still held our candles, still stood in hopeful expectation - and, in due time, our voices joined in glad recognition
"Lo, he comes......."