Tuesday, July 30, 2013

New York Living in Bangalore

...That was the proud announcement of an advertising hoarding as we arrived, bedraggled and exhausted, just a week ago. No amount of inflight entertainment can make the journey from Heathrow to Mumbai a delight - but we survived, landed and found ourselves instantly confronted with the contrasts that are always part of modern India. As we walked to the baggage claim down a clean, modern walkway - polished floor tiles and gleaming chrome in all directions, I spotted an open door - into the parallel service corridor, just behind that shining tiled wall...Bare concrete on the floor, peeling plaster - and yes - that was surely a cockroach skuttling to safety!
Those same contrasts were obvious as we drove to the other terminal...On one side were the trappings of any international airport..., the plate glass office blocks, the advertisements inviting us to fly anywhere without more ado. But on the other side of the perimeter fence were the blue polythene walls and ramshackle structures of the slums...the irony completed by the presence of satellite dishes on some of those buildings that looked unlikely to survive the next downpour.

Landing in Bangalore, I thought for some anxious moments that the the restless buzzing city I had loved had a new personality. The road from the brand new terminal was undamaged, free from traffic...but once we were through the gates India reasserted itself in all its energetic chaos and complexity. Yes, perhaps more motorbike drivers wore helmets than before - but they still carried any number of passengers riding a precarious unprotected pillion. Yes, we passed a huge car showroom filled with the ultimate status symbol, row on row of gleaming Mercedes...but outside cows rootled in the garbage. A Hindu temple seemed to have a sideline in supplying idols elsewhere - for there was an adjoining yard filled with giant figures of gods and goddesses, shrouded in polythene for safe transit - who knows where?

It seems that "New York Living in Bangalore" is the ultimate aspiration...but for all the gloss provided by the booming IT industry, for all the city's dramatic growth (200 new families arrive within the perimeter every day of the year)...this is still my India...the place that makes me smile with its warmth and thrills me with its energy...that blend of ancient and modern...of delightfully dated signs (Rashly driven? Call 875342 - so ironic, because to drive here at ALL is surely the height of rashness!)...and endless optimism (a tiny corner estate agents named Mighty Properties. In this city of endless contrasts it seems that anything could happen...that the world crowds the streets...and every piece of graffiti shouts at the top of its voice
"Alert, alert, ALERT! Robberies here....Beware of cycle lifters! Use the stands provided. You are FORBIDDEN to urinate here. No nuisancing, by order"
This city teems with energy - even the slum dogs roaming the streets might, with the help of good karma, make it one day to the top.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Return Passage to India

7 years ago I was privileged to spend time working alongside some of the clergy in our link diocese of Karnataka Central in the Church of South India. I went in fear and trembling, for it seemed a huge and brave thing for me to leave my family and fly across the world - specially as they were then very much of the age that I'd been when my own parents died.
Going to Bangalore on that occasion was very much a rite of passage...enabling me to grasp that my children were and are now independent young adults who can manage for weeks on end without sight or sound of me. It helped me to grow up as a parent - and in other ways too, as I fell in love with India, - sights, sound, smells but above all people, and learned more than I'd have deemed possible about the strength of the human spirit and the ways in which God is at work amid wretched poverty and blighted futures.

When I came home, I knew I'd left a bit of my heart behind - and for a good couple of years would find myself abruptly missing India, and struggling with the knowledge that I was unlikely to return there. You see, it was a privilege enough to be allowed to spend time there at all - and call it work! - and I knew that particular route would not be open again. But I couldn't bear the thought of returning as a tourist where once I'd belonged as a friend - so it seemed that I was doomed to remain homesick for somewhere I'd only belonged for a few short weeks. Then, last autumn, came the invitation to visit again - this time as one of the leaders of the South India Youth Trip - taking a small group of teenagers from across Gloucestershire to visit many of the same projects and schools I'd visited before....and so I'm off tomorrow, with a joy in my heart in marked contrast to the alarm that I felt before.

It will be quite different visiting with the young people...and I'm looking forward to seeing India through their eyes too. I'll write here if I can - but in the meantime here are some reflections from last time round, - back in the days when this blog was a regular piece of reflective writing that I might have been proud of.

It's me, Kathryn! In India!

A Question of Priorities

Travelling hopefully - remembering gratefully

What the papers say

The Prince and the Pauper

Girl Child Sunday

Flying Pastors

Still thinking

Of missionaries and their ways


Yesterday was one of those days when it is extremely evident that, warts and all, this is still GOD'S Church - something I forget far too easily in the comings and goings of life at the vicarage.
8.00 is a service for those who want peace, quiet & (on a bad day) minimal challenge...which means that the service itself is often a challenge for me, even without the added joys of an earlier start for one who has never been a lark...
I tend to approach it with minimal expectations. The congregation is small and reserved, a response to the sermon is pretty much unheard of, and while I know that they value this space with God on a Sunday morning, the service rarely makes my heart sing.

Yesterday, though, was quite different.
I'd begun the service by suggesting that as our intention of the day we pray for the Church's ministry of hospitality in all its many forms, and mentioned the hostels for street-children I will be visiting in Bangalore as an example of Christian hospitality literally saving lives. I'd reminded the congregation of the wonderful words of John Chrysostom
"If you cannot find Christ in the beggar the door, you won't find him in the chalice."
Then we went on with the service as usual...the familiar pattern of words almost, but not quite, washing over me...Time for the homily - where the theme of welcoming the stranger was loud and clear.
And then, the church door opened.
And 2 unfamiliar figures made the laborious journey up the aisle to where our small group clustered in the choir stalls for this early celebration.
Christy & his wife.
Sri Lankan Christians visiting their daughter in Stroud and anxious to find a church home for their stay.
Maybe not quite angels unawares - but strangers for us to welcome into friendship, reminders that the Church is always bigger than we think - and maybe a sign that even when I think that NOBODY is listening to my words, God is nonetheless involved in the process.
To see the reserved regulars, who normally depart at top speed, coming over to shake hands and say "Welcome" after the final blessing made me giggle with delight...

The wonders weren't over, either.
At "Together at Ten" we had decided to mark the end of the school year by inviting our Messy Church families to worship with the 10.00, and explore the Experience Eucharist stations we piloted in school back in February.
Clare the curate had done a brilliant job of adapting them so that our less mobile regulars could still be involved - and in the event, though few Messy Church friends came, there were enough children and more than enough engaged adults to make the whole thing a success. 
I explained what we were about before the service started - and was thrilled when a positive stream of people encroached on the font, intent on floating their own prayer flower, its petals folded in on those things which need forgiveness - but opening out in the water as a symbol of sins forgiven.

They coped, too, with scattering confetti over maps of the parish and of the world, as we bathed them in prayer...with thinking about the different kinds of remembering "Your keys....Clare's birthday...When I was a child....." as a prelude to remembering all that Jesus did in the Eucharistic Prayer...and they positively thrived on the thought of taking away a small heart as a reminder of God's love and blessing to carry with them through the week.

Then the nucleus of the Messy Church family shared a picnic together. It wasn't the all-singing, all-dancing family fun day we might have envisaged when we first mooted the idea - but there was food in generous profusion, some lovely care of little ones by much bigger boys, and time to chat and nurture the friendships at the heart of our Messy Church.

I love St Matthew's dearly - but sometimes undersell them to myself - so it was wonderful to see the generosity and openness that shone through yesterday. I am blessed to serve this community.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Rescued by a hoodie - the Good Samaritan for Trinity 7C

It's all about rescue today, isn't it?
One of the most familiar of all parables – so very familiar that I'd guess that at least some of us zoned out as I began to read the Gospel.
We know the story of the Good Samaritan so very well...with its message of a wider love, a more inclusive compassion, the kindness of stranger...and because of the way the story is framed – in response to the ultimate BIG question
What should I do to inherit eternal life?” - we tend to cast ourselves as the Samaritan.
Clearly that unexpected hero is to be our role model. We are to set aside all other duties and concerns in favour of constant readiness to respond to others in distress, whatever their circumstance – and whatever cost to us. Well and good. That's the message that I hope and expect the children of St Matthew's school to take away whenever the parable comes up in assembly – and it's a good one too.
The best – in terms of getting through life with as much love as possible.

But – the Samaritan is not the only character in the story.
There are the other by-passers – the ones who are too busy, preoccupied or fearful to stop. We often hear reasons why it was beyond them – the priest, for example, was anxious to avoid defilement, for it wasn't clear whether the solitary traveller lived or died...
And the Jericho road was a hostile place – lonely, best avoided...to linger there would be rash.
Preaching on the parable once, Martin Luther King imagined those bypassers saying to themselves
If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me.......”
A natural question.
A human question.
We are all programmed to a degree of self preservation, after all.
But – this is the story of a rescue – and as King goes on to say
““But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’”
For the Samaritan, his own needs, his own agenda came second to the task of saving someone in dire need.
Remember I said that our readings today were all about rescue, dare I say salvation?
In our epistle Paul writes of God's mission, enacted by Jesus
He has rescued us from the Kingdom of darkness.....”
So, on these terms, you and I are that benighted traveller.
WE are the ones in need of salvation...lying by the roadside, powerless to help ourselves.
That's where we are, isn't it....really?
We set out on our journey through life with high hopes and great expectations – but we find along the way that we are not only not as invincible and immortal as our younger selves believed – we're also more faltering frail and fallible than we would ever have imagined.
We go on and on disappointing ourselves – as Paul puts it, writing to the Romans
For I don't do the good I want to do, but instead do the evil that I don't want to do.”
And what's more – this is a recurring pattern.
We can't somehow make the transition to “good enough”... - We need rescuing.

Enter Jesus....reaching out to those who might seem to be excluded – Samaritans are automatically aliens – and unfriendly aliens at that...There was a story circulating in 1st Century Palestine about a rabbi who was so holy that he was even prepared to help a Samaritan..
But now we go one step forward.
The Samaritan, the outsider, is the one who is willing to help those who've been so knocked about by life that they can no longer keep going....those who don't even have enough about them to pay for a room for the night.
He reaches out to them – to us – picks us up, sees us to safety and bears the cost of that himself.
We are rescued by someone who is Not One of Us – someone infinitely greater, who will go to any lengths, put Himself at any risk, for our sake.
Grace in action – here as wherever he intervenes in our lives.

But – goodness, our world makes it hard for him sometimes.
We hedge ourselves and other people around with artificial barriers, designed, it seems, to curb any outpouring of his outrageous, excessive love.
Perhaps we're scared.
Perhaps we just don't recognise our need of rescue – or are unwilling to accept that it comes in through the unlikely person of an itinerant preacher with a following of undesirables
We can't be rescued on our own terms – who knows how the traveller felt about Samaritans before that fateful day?...
It's only when we are able to admit our helplessness and let go of all our hard won protective strategies that we can share in the rescue plan God offers to all his people.

So – finally – a story. A familiar story – THIS story – as retold by a colleague of mine, Sallie Basham, and published on the "Preaching the RCL" lists this week. 
As you listen, consider where you recognise yourself today

Once upon a time, a certain man went to visit his mother in Gloucester hospital.
She was critically ill, so although it was late on a Saturday night, he went without delay, catching the last bus, which left him with a short walk from the bus station.....
He took with him presents for his mother and money so she could use the hospital telephone.  As he journeyed through the city centre some youths, who'd just been chucked out of a nightclub set upon him and beat him up and robbed him of all the presents for his mother and all his money and left him by the side of the road.

Along came a Christian minister, a Jewish rabbi, a Muslim imam, a Hindu priest, … ; but they all hurried past because they were going to a religious conference about how to resolve differences and live in harmony in a multi-cultural society. Next came a mini-bus with a social-worker and a doctor and a health worker and a counsellor: they stopped to look at the man groaning at the road-side, made some notes for a case study and drove on.

Finally, a hoodie wandered past. He did a double-take when he saw the man at the side of the road. He went to see if he could help; but he didn’t have any transport and one dirty handkerchief was not much use in dealing with the man’s wounds. So he ran along to the nearest all night chemist, explained what had happened and asked for some bandages and the use of a ‘phone to call an ambulance. The pharmacist was very polite; but he couldn’t let the hoodie use the ‘phone – it’s more than my jobs worth! The hoodie wondered if he was joking as he’d only ever heard the word “jobsworth” used sarcastically. It seemed that the pharmacist was serious and the hoodie knew that if he tried to have a serious discussion with people, he was usually misunderstood and always got into trouble.
The chemist went on to say that if the hoodie didn’t have any money, he didn’t see how he could let him have any bandages. Particularly if the hoodie didn’t have a First Aid Certificate to prove he knew how to use them. After all, it’s no longer permitted to give someone a painkiller, or to touch them – which means no bandages or antiseptics. These things can be regarded as assault. The hoodie wondered about the meaning of assault in this situation; but was unable to persuade the chemist. Although, if he came back with money, the chemist would sell him bandages, provided he didn’t mention he was going to use them on someone else.
All this took some time.

By now it was early on Sunday morning...and there were a couple of churches nearby.
The hoodie knew that churches were supposed to help people. So he went to the first church; but they were busy preparing for a Family Fun Day.They told the hoodie there would be games, a bouncy castle and a time of worship. The hoodie wasn't on speaking terms with his family, - he'd left home some time ago - so he just asked again if he could have some bandages out of the First Aid box. But the people knew the regulations about not handing out painkillers or bandages or touching anyone to clean up their wounds and said they couldn’t help him.
So the hoodie went to the second church, where they were setting up for the 8.00 service.
Come back later and the vicar might help you. I think she has a fund for desperate cases”.
Back on the street, the hoodie found someone selling The Big Issue and he gave him money to ‘phone for an ambulance and to buy bandages.  So the hoodie rushed back to the chemist and bought some bandages and some antiseptic cream.  Then he ran back to the man who had been beaten up. He had stopped groaning; but when the hoodie asked how he was there was no answer. For the man who had been beaten up had now died. So the hoodie sat down beside him at the roadside and put his head in his hands and wept. He thought of how he would have been neighbour to the man who had been mugged; but there was no-one willing to be neighbour with him. He put his head in his hands and wept.
He put his head in his nail-scarred hands and wept.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Trinity 6C Proper 9 The Kingdom of God has come near to you - a homily for Uplands

In a fortnight's time, if the Indian Embassy sees fit to grant me a visa, I should be flying off to Bangalore as one of the leaders of this year's diocesan youth trip to our partners in the Church of South India.
This is very exciting for all sorts of reasons – and just 2 weeks ago the whole group of teenagers & leaders met together for a final briefing.
It was then that we were given The Kit List.

It's several pages long and VERY detailed.
We've been told not only what injections we need and what to wear, and what medicines to take but also which electrical items may prove too much for the Bangalore grid and a host of other things beside. There's a definite feeling abroad that we need to be prepared for all eventualities – and as I'll be responsible for 8 other people's daughters, I'm quite glad of that.

However, when I was 1st in India 6 years ago, I couldn't help but contrast the meticulous planning of our trip with the lot of the earlier missionaries who set out with no clear idea of where they were heading...no language courses...no immunisations...with very little but their love of God and a determination to share the gospel with brothers and sisters whose lives were immeasurably different from their own.
They might, I imagine, have taken some quinine with them in their medicine chests– but not alot besides...and they died, by the dozen, and are buried far from home in a land that perhaps they could never fully understand.

And before them, of course, was St Thomas.
The mists of time hide all the details of his arrival in Kerala...though legend is very insistent that arrive there he did...and surely, as one of the 12, he must have set out as Jesus had told him to...empty handed...no bag, purse or sandals...armed only with his mission to  
Heal the sick who are there and announce, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.

And from that beginning came thousands and thousands of Indian Christians...

The kingdom of God has come near to you.

The kingdom of God has come near to US.

Can we see the signs?

Because, you see, that's part of the work of the Church today.
Yes, we are called to BE signs of the Kingdom – places of healing, of transformation and good news...but we are also called to spot and celebrate the Kingdom in all its joyous variety as it unfolds in our own communities.

Isn't that wonderful?

We are to go about our daily lives expecting to see God at work and celebrating whenever we do só.
We are to act as signposts, só that others too may begin to recognise the signs, glinting like precious gems amid the mundane, broken reality of our world.
Sometimes those signs will be big and obvious – last weekend's ordinations & Clare's 1st Mass spring to mind – or a pet service in another place where an Archdeacon spent hours lovingly blessing each and every pet and their owner – reminding them by her infinite care that each of them is infinitely precious to God.
Sometimes they will be easy to overlook...things that might seem too small and insignificant to be worth celebrating.
Celebrate anyway.
The Kingdom of God has come near to us.....see.....
Someone who has been a beneficiary of the Food bank arrives there with a small bag of groceries to help another family on the edge...
Sweet peas transform an urban landscape with their pastel beauty and heavenly scent.
Laughter erupts between those see eye to eye on nothing much EXCEPT that joke...
A small child smiles and waves at the lonely old man who sits on the park bench

The Kingdom of God has come near to us

Signs of the Kingdom are signs of hope...evidence that God is at work each and every day in Uplands and Slad, in Stroud and Cainscross....and further afield, in every corner of the world God loves so much.

And we don't need special equipment or special training to equip us to notice or to celebrate.
All we need is a longing to be PART of the Kingdom in all its transforming joy and an openness to the God who will give us all that we need and more, if we can only bring ourselves to trust him.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

RGBP Blog Carnival - Galship!!

Once upon a time I was a very new curate feeling my way into public ministry in the Church of England. Every day was different. I missed the regular contact and ready-made community of my friends from vicar-school, who had been my sounding-boards as I thought aloud about all that was going on and what God was up to...so I started blogging.
Just for myself.
I had no IDEA that there were blogging communities out there, that I might find like-minded souls, that anyone would actually read my blog at all.
Thinking aloud is what ENFPs do all the time - so typing into an apparent void was no problem whatsoever.
Blogging wasn't big in my circle...though one or two Greenbelt friends had blogs and I enjoyed reading them and was happy when they sometimes posted a comment on my early posts. 
I began to explore - but I was such a novice I didn't really know how to search, or what I might hope to find.
I could so easily have missed the whole thing!

I'm not sure how I first discovered Martha's blog...I'm not even sure which title she was using at that stage - but suddenly I seemed to be reading the words of a kindred spirit.
I'm that strange creature, a shy extrovert - so even on-line it took me a little while but one day I posted a comment - she responded....and we were off!
Her blog roll led me to other women in ministry and their friends...who gradually became my friends too.
I was part of the conversation that summer when someone suggested a "blog ring"....I rather think I asked what one of those might be....
Then came Katrina - and in the wake of that our friendships became ever closer, as we responded in love to a disaster that seemed very close to home, even in Cheltenham, England, because someone I cared about was so deeply affected.
We wrote books together - 2 collections of reflections that I'm still delighted to have on my shelves
We talked about maybe, just maybe, meeting face to face one day - but most of my friends were the far side of the Pond and trans Atlantic trips are not part of the stuff of life for 40 something clergywomen with 3 children and a mortgage...

But, amazingly,it happened!
Martha and her family were coming to England - and would be able to spend a night in Cheltenham if I liked. IF I LIKED?!? I've seldom been so excited...and the minute they got off the train I knew that we really WERE friends....that the internet was not a snare and a delusion but a place where real, lasting and life-giving connections could be forged. 
We talked and talked and laughed and talked and talked some more and it was very good.

Later I crossed the Atlantic myself to share with these special people in the very first Big Event.
Scared of flying, never having stayed in an hotel on my own, I somehow found the courage - because of the strength of our friendship and because I wanted to somehow testify by my presence to this wonderful network that we had made out of nothing as we sat at our computers.
Again it was good. I will never, til the day I die, forget an evening spent at the Midnight Buffet

I'm a vicar now. I blog much less - for the freedom of curacy is only a memory, many of the stories I hold are not mine to tell and in any case the online world has moved on.
But it was RevGals who showed me the way in which internet friendships can transform lives...My soul-sisters for whom I thank God whenever I think of you.