Saturday, October 26, 2013

"God, have mercy on me, a sinner." Sermon for the last Sunday after Pentecost, St Matthew's.

God have mercy on me, a sinner

How does that simple prayer make you feel?
It sounds rather more abject than our usual tone, perhaps...but I'd want to say that it should be a part of our prayer each and every day.
You see, in the past few decades – throughout my lifetime, I'd guess, - the Church has been encouraging us to focus on God's love more than his judgement...and that is absolutely as it should be.
Hear me now – for this is surely the heart of the gospel...
God loves you – absolutely and unconditionally.
There is nothing in the whole world that you can ever do or say or think that will make God love you any more or any less...God loves you so much that if you were the only person ever born in this world, Christmas and Easter would still have happened – just for you.
God loves you – and has created you for a relationship of love with Him.
Thanks be to God!

But – love is a two way street.

Though every body born into the world exists within that boundless, eternal love – many of them are oblivious to it...and we who know intellectually that we are loved will often struggle to experience that love as our deepest reality.
Jesus tells us in the great commandment not only to love the Lord our God – but also to love our neighbour AS OURSELVES...and that's often a huge struggle, because, you see, we very often don't love ourselves at all.
We grow up believing that inner voice, like that of a little devil sitting on our shoulder telling us “you're not really anything special...You're stupid....lazy....inadequate....”
You can pick your own adjective here – because I'm pretty sure that you'll have one.
You may know, with your rational mind, that this is all a load of nonsense – but very often vestiges of the lies take root and so as we go through life, when sadness hits – when a loved one dies, or illness strikes – that same little voice will whisper “There you are...It's no more than you deserve. Whatever makes you believe that God could love you”.....
and so, often, we find ourselves living a daily lie.
We affirm with our mouths – and maybe even with our minds – that we are God's beloved children – but at a deeper level we fear that actually we are a waste of space.
And that has a huge impact on our connection with God – it makes prayer harder – it makes EVERYTHING harder.
How can we have a loving connection with the Creator of all things if we actually see ourselves as akin to something on the bottom of a shoe...

And, of course, that's where the cross comes in.
Atonement – making us AT ONE with God
Showing us, once and for all, that we ARE beloved and loveable...despite all those negative voices, despite our own deepest fears...
God loves you so much that he CHOSE to die for us...What greater proof could there be?
How much does he love you?
THIS much....and beyond.

But often it's hard to accept that...and that's where reconciliation comes in.
No, of course we are not the worthless beings that our inner voices might claim – but when we raise our eyes and open our minds to reflect on the God who is wholly love, light and eternal perfection – we will surely be very conscious of the gulf between us. We may, at this point, be so overawed that we cannot believe that he loves us...
The closer we come to His light, the more we see of our own inner darkness...
So – we need to face that darkness– to look honestly at the people we really are, deep the mess of contradictions, good intentions, failings and fears...all those things that push our buttons and determine that, as Paul famously put it
I don't do the good things I want to do, but the bad things I try to avoid, I find I do ALL THE TIME”
Does that sound familiar? It's certainly a reality for me..

So -what to do?
I could retreat – let that reality become my main driver, filling me with the fear that I am fundamentally unloveable.
I could move further away from the light of God's presence, settle for being always less than I'm called to be.
Or perhaps I could pretend – pretend that I really AM the person I'd like to be – the one who is always kind, always loving, who always trusts God and is never afraid.
Sometimes I've carry on that sort of pretend game for months on end – and I doubt if I'm unique.
But you can't build a relationship on the foundation of a lie – particularly when that relationship is with the One to whom all hearts are open.

And deep down, I don't want to.

I want to be at one with God, to know that he loves and accepts me as I am...
I want us to be reconciled....and that means being honest about my situation.

True reconciliation never comes through glibly denying that there is anything wrong.
That's why the Pharisee, who was so very busy applauding himself for being better than anyone else, was completely on the wrong track. He was trying to distract himself – and maybe to distract God too – from the mess within by his loud protestations of holiness...
Anyone who spends so much time praising their own endeavours clearly has a whole heap of problems – whether his words came from the pride of an inflated ego or the insecurity of one who thinks that God needs to be appeased by extravagant offerings, or bribed by lavish gifts.

And there's really no point in doing that – because God knows us through and through, better than we know ourselves – and STILL LOVES US.

So, reconciliation is about learning to be honest about ourselves, about facing hard truths and offering to God those things which we wish we could change.
It may come through a lot of we, like the tax collector, pour out our soul to God in true humility in our private prayers and as we come to worship week by week (that's part of why saying sorry is one of the first things we do during the Eucharist)
It may come as we explore our inner life with the help of a wise “soul friend”, who can make it easier to understand the twists and turns of our spiritual journey.
It may come through the sacrament of reconciliation – a gift that the Church offers to all who are serious about facing the hard truths about themselves and inviting God to transform them.

Always, reconciliation involves finding the courage to be honest before God about our inmost being....those things we cannot love, those things we wish we could change
Because, of course, once we've acknowledged the truth, we are open to the good news that God can and will change us from the inside out, that God will justify us and straighten out the tangled mess of our lives
Reconciliation isn't easy – for us or for God. It costs God the life of his Son – but for all that it is joyous and wonderful because it rests on that central truth that whoever you are, whatever you've done – GOD LOVES YOU ANYWAY.
If you dare to believe this, then it's safe to be yourself with God – to pray this simple prayer
God have mercy on me a sinner”
and then to let him begin his work of setting all to rights – transforming you as he transforms creation and makes all things new.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

"Reconciling the world....."

Recently,  Archbishop Justin told a group of church leaders how much he valued the practice of Sacramental Confession...and I have to say that I agree with him wholeheartedly! But the conversations that arose when I linked to his words on Facebook brought home to me once again just how unfamiliar this sacrament is within the Anglican I've been pondering ever since and have realised that for liberal Christians like me, it may seem almost a contradiction in terms to be advocating it at all. A face to face chat with a parishioner who was full of questions helped me to clarify my own thinking and just why I am so grateful that in the Church of England though "none must, all may and some should" receive this sacrament.

You see, we do rather struggle with the concept of "sin" in my church. In preaching and in conversation I tend to talk about "brokenness", "failure",  "disappointing ourselves and God" "hurting God and the people God loves" - but I steer clear of the language of "sin". Generally, I think I'm right in this. We have alot of lee-way to make up after generations of preachers offered so much by way of the fear of God that people were (and are) apt to forget that God both loves AND likes them. Also I'm not sure that it really helps those who are tentatively exploring faith if the first thing they are invited to do when they first arrive at an act of worship is to dwell on their utter unworthiness...While beginning the Eucharist with an act of confession may seem as natural as washing before a meal to some, others feel quite definitely "got at" - and not by God but by an institution that they rightly recognise has its own fair share of confessing to do. 

So - while I value the role of a weekly general confession within public worship, I'm not much given to laying stress on how much we need it as individual sinners. 
Then, of course, the rhythm of the service is such that it's quite hard to enter into deep and specific self-examination...We may manage to apologise in our hearts for the time we were exasperated with a colleague, or moaned to a friend about a mutual acquaintance...but we rarely have the time to think about what it is in us, those deep habits of thought or behaviour, which have driven us in our bad behaviour. So we join in the general confession, receive non-specific absolution - and move on to celebrate as God's forgiven children.

That's fine. I'm not in any way suggesting that the corporate confession and absolution are not effective - simply that in my own experience there are things that I do again and again which have their roots in parts of myself that I really do need to spend time reflecting on, places where I am acutely aware of my need for God's grace.
And for me, that's where the Sacrament of Reconciliation comes in.

I've blogged about it before ...the way that grubbling about in the depths of my soul makes me all too aware of the things I hoped I'd buried forever...the sheer misery of having to articulate painful truths about myself when they are such a far cry from the person I long to be. I can honestly say that when I'm engaged in the process of confession, the shame that I feel is 100% provoked by the sins - that I have been content with so much that is a distortion of my best self, the person Christ calls me to be...It has nothing to do with what my confessor may think of me - because, once the rite has begun, I'm almost unaware of them. This is me, taking a long hard look at myself and admitting to God those things that God already knows all about....

When I've looked those unpleasant truths in the face with as much courage as I can muster, - then it DOES matter that there is another person there - for while the actual process of confessing is about me and God alone, it is hugely helpful to receive the thoughts, wisdom and compassion of another human being - a priest speaking with the authority of the Church but with their own experiences of being a fallible human being to shape their words. There have been times when I have been quite resistant to making my confession to the particular priest "on offer" that day - but always, EVERY SINGLE TIME, they have said exactly what I most needed to hear - and those nuggets of wisdom have stayed with me long after the sins I'd confessed have sunk without trace.

And, of course, that's the really wonderful thing.
Having shared those things which are so hard to acknowledge, harder still to deal with - I not only receive help with reshaping my life so that their influence is no longer strong - but I ALSO hear words of forgiveness spoken directly to me - ME...absolution for all that STUFF and "those other sins I cannot now remember".
God has looked at the whole of me, has helped me (as the psalmist put it)  to understand my errors and now cleanses me from my secret faults..
God looks at me just as I and accepts, loves and forgives me.

Regardless of the words I am given to reflect on, or whatever process of penance is suggested to help me to rest on God's forgiveness, I always leave confession with my confidence renewed that nothing 
"Not death nor life, neither angels nor demons, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation,...."
- not even my own willful determination that "I'm not really that loveable, honestly God, if you knew me..." NOTHING 
will be able to separate me from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Small wonder that I feel as if all my Christmasses and birthdays, all the spring mornings of childhood and the most joyful awakenings of life have come together.
Reconciliation is a wonderful thing!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

I want to get my baby christened

That's generally the way the conversation begins in these parts.
A bit of me registers minor professional irritation...why won't people use the word baptism? do they actually expect a naming ceremony?....but I disguise that as I go into smiley vicar mode.
KF "How lovely...We need to get together to talk about this"
Parent "Can I have it on Christmas Eve/Easter Sunday/Sunday week..."
KF "Let's meet first and try and talk through what we'll be doing, what the service is about, what promises you'll be making......then we can fix a date"
Parent "But I want to get the invitations out...."

So, before we start, there's a risk that the conversation will derail.
Our expectations seem so very different.
I'm thinking longingly of on-going Christian commitment, of growing the Church, of God's saving grace in action, God's love affirmed and celebrated.
They are thinking.......well, actually, I just don't know.

Sometimes (and I ask forgiveness for it) I've been far too quick to jump to conclusions, to decide that "all" the parents want is the opportunity to celebrate their family life with a really good party thrown in...that the "church bit" is just an embarrassing preliminary that they really don't see the point of.

Oh Kathryn! REALLY...

I admit that sometimes the wider congregation of friends and family who come arrive for a baptism are not on board with the service - despite my  best efforts to make it as accessible and easy to understand as I can. 
I know that sometimes (but ONLY sometimes) the whole thing can feel like an unsuccessful exercise in crowd control.
But even then - well, who knows what is going on beneath the surface?
I remember one such that felt deeply discouraging...parents and godparents struggled to join in with their promises...children ranged far and wide expressing themselves with full confidence at the top of their voices even as I tried to draw them in and engage them fully. I was convinced that I was an extra in a rather complicated photo shoot - and my anxieties were not allayed as I listened to a couple of very young mums, teetering on high heels  and shimmering with enough bling to make the eyes water, dismiss the service thus
"Well, that was WELL EMBARRASSING wasn't it?"
"Yeah babe, but it had to be done"

It had to be done.
I've wondered so often what the motivation is...why "it had to be done" at all...
Vestigial folk religion? Social constraints? To satisfy Grandma? (but even Grandma is increasingly unlikely to be part of the church, so that bit of reasoning has had its day)
Actually, you know, I'm beginning to come round to the opinion that - shock! horror! - it might just be God at work.

You see, I'm surprised so very very often.

Surprised by the young soon-to-be godparents who come to talk about their own necessary baptisms...who struggle at first to articulate anything that I can recognise as faith language but then share some profound questions about the point of life, or explain how they have talked to God each and every day and cannot imagine how they'd get through without Him.
They won't offer me neat little sound-bytes about "repentance" but they often say "I've done some stupid things and I'd like to draw a line - and to help my godchild not to make those mistakes"

Sometimes, no such encouragements are forthcoming - and so I approach the baptism with minimal expectations. I find myself apologising in advance to God, worry that I am peddling cheap grace - and then, something happens.
You see, it's impossible to trace the cross on someone's forehead without looking them in the eye as you do so...
"Windows to the soul"?
Apparently so - and again and again at this moment I find myself taken un-awares, standing on holy ground in company that I would never have expected to meet there.

They have such care-free, care-less facades - those young men who discover that they can't be godfather to their best mate's son unless they've been baptised themselves. 
It can be really hard to persuade them to go deeper in conversation...but then, as we stand together beside the font, with the Paschal candle creating a pool of light in the shadows, something happens.
"Do you turn to Christ?" I ask
"Do you repent of your sins?" and then, with growing confidence
"Christ claims you for his own..."

And, without fail, He does.

We know, all of us in that tiny group at the back of the church, that we are not alone...that One greater than all our hopes, our dreams and our imaginings, has been invited in and has arrived and made Himself at home.

Afterwards, the newly baptized may be gruff, trying to reclaim that nonchalance that was part of the deal at the beginning - but they will say something like
"I'm glad I did that. It was special. I feel different"

And I don't know, and I can't know,  what will happen next for them...whether the promises they have made will translate into on-going active membership of the things will work out with their godchild as the years go past...
But I do know that, as I tell them
"Today God has touched you with his love and given you a place among his people.  God promises to be with you in joy and in sorrow, to be your guide in life, and to bring you safely to heaven. In baptism God invites you on a life-long journey....

And it is just that.

An invitation.
The response is not within my control but in welcoming all comers to the sacrament I do at least ensure that the invitation is issued.

So I remain unapologetic about my "baptise anyone who asks" policy - and confident that no preparation I could offer could in any way make any of us ready for that moment when the Spirit descends, as gentle as silence, and we are made new.

Friday, October 18, 2013

India - in no particular order 4...a lesson from the hospital

During our India trip this year we spent some time visiting health projects - and CSI places a high value on its hospitals, which, for the early missionaries, were a vital part of the process of creating community and making relationships. In healing the sick they not only obeyed Christ's mandate but fostered relationships with the local community based on the meeting of needs. Contrary to some misinformation, at no stage in the history of Christian missions was help and treatment conditional on accepting Christ, though of course there was always the hope that the kindness and compassion shown in missionary hospitals might inspire patients and visitors to explore the faith that was its source.

CSI hospitals today still treat all comers - though rather confusingly in modern India they need to charge for their services in order to survive, so find themselves caught between the free but basic provision of government hospitals and the state of the art, gleaming chrome aspirations of private medicine.
The CSI hospitals are still  held dear, both as a link with those missionary origins and as an expression of an essential outworking of the Church's DNA- but I'm not honestly sure whether they have a place today - though like many other treasures of the past, they are surprisingly hard to let go.
So even the barely functioning hospital at Chickballapur was an essential item on our itinerary - and I'm so glad it was, for it was here that we encountered one of the clearest demonstrations ever of what vocation can mean.
You see, there has been trouble at the centre in our link diocese of Karnataka Central, trouble closing diocesan offices and meaning that some salaries have gone unpaid in CSI projects for weeks and months. Yet at Chickballapur staff came in daily. One sister who strained at the hospital 40 years ago has never stopped coming in to give the care that she knows is at the heart of her calling. Wards were mothballed, dustsheets covered disused equipment - but, said the medical director
"People still choose to come to us to die....because we don't treat death as a mechanical failure but as an essential part of being"
Time to consider a change of focus, perhaps? to move from hospital to hospice? to let go of some of the treasures of the past in order to hold the Christ-light in the present?
Something for our churches to consider too?
Just possibly.

And, of course,a  change of focus need not mean abandoning vocation.

One of our group, who had been considering nursing, was so inspired by this that she went home with her mind made up. To love your work so much that you carry on regardless of salary - just because you have to - that's vocation, right enough.
What inspired us most of all, though, was a rural nursing dispensary - from which student nurses, on placement from the main CSI hospital in Bangalore, went out to isolated settlements, - where their presence and work in health education was having a significant impact. The women and children in these tiny hamlets were simply not going to get to any hospital - of whatever stamp - but with nurses appearing in their community, offering immunisations, wise advice and a rapid first response to more serious ills their over-all health was improving hugely. Further evidence that competition with the shiny trappings of American-style health-care might not be the best route forward for the church's ministry of healing in Inda? 
I don't know - but it might be worth considering.

Back in Bangalore, we encountered another nurse, still driven by her vocation some 2 decades after her official retirement - or perhaps she was simply an angel in disguise.
Mrs Hopi qualified as an SRN at the Middlesex Hospital in London before even I was born, and nursed for many years in both the UK and her native India. Now she lives in a retirement home right next to the CSI hospital and visits the geriatric ward there daily without fail. Her presence there is, quite simply, transformational.
You see, the very existence of elderly care units is a challenge to traditional Indian culture, a sign that western influence is taking its toll on the extended family, that elderly parents can no longer expect to end their days cherished by their children and grandchildren, and with a guaranteed place in their home.
Many now work abroad - so an elderly parent, frail and confused - is a huge worry.
The CSI hospital offers loving care, ensuring that physical and emotional needs are met - but Mrs Hopi loves and cares for the SOUL.
She clearly knows and loves each one of the long-term patients dearly. She reads the paper to them, prays with them, sings to them - every single day.
As our stay in India went on, our less-than-tuneful group learned rapidly that singing was part of the essential package expected of visiting Christians.
On the geriatric unit, it was, triumphantly - the perfect language.
When we had exhausted our small repertoire, I turned instinctively to the Sunday School songs my own mother had learned from the CIM missionaries in Chefoo between the wars...and as I began to sing, Mrs Hopi and the patients soon joined in.
"Wide, wide as the ocean..." we sang - remembering the truth that God's love does indeed reach us wherever we may be
"Jesus loves me, this I know" (and Mrs Hopi taught me a new verse, singing with  the earnest,  simplicity of a child who knows that every word is true)

When we left, she asked me to give her a blessing - but I knew who had really been blessed by the day's encounter...

Thursday, October 17, 2013

There but for the grace of God...

On Saturday our Cathedral was full as we welcomed our new suffragen, Martyn Snow, who is now the 7th Bishop of Tewkesbury  - and just a couple of weeks before, some of us went on a coach trip to London for his consecration service at Westminster Abbey.
I'd not been to see a bishop under construction before - and much of the service was splendid - notably the sermon from Rowan Williams and the strains of Howell's Coll. Reg Eucharist and the Tallis Miserere floating around that wonderful space. We were seated in the north transept, so had a superb rose window to focus on when there wasn't much to see on the big screen - and Tallis and stained glass combined to give me a small glimpse of heaven. There were also comic moments - as when the Gloucester procession was verged out before its time - mostly funny because we all knew how very much our liturgy-loving bishop would be fuming...

However, it wasn't all sweetness and light.

Bishop Martyn was consecrated at the same time as Bishop Jonathan Goodall - who now occupies the See of Ebbsfleet. Quite properly there were many present to support him in his new ministry - and of course, the majority of his supporters came from those "traditionalist" parishes where it remains unthinkable that women should be ordained priest.

Thanks to FabBishop, my home diocese of Gloucester is a very happy place to serve as an ordained woman. We know that our bishop is 110% behind us, and there are women in senior posts - including one of our Archdeacons. Of course, as a woman from the catholic end of the spectrum I've encountered some people along the way who doubt the validity of my orders - but the prevailing climate is so friendly that it's easy to forget that it's not always like that in the world beyond diocesan boundaries. Of course, the harsh reality was brought into focus during the debate on women bishops last November, when speaker after speaker seemed determined to rehearse the same arguments against the ordination of women to the priesthood that we had heard so often 20 years before - but, again, the response from senior staff here was so affirming that the pain of that vote was overlaid by gratitude that we have such support at home. 

Now,here we were in the same space as those who will surely have asked themselves
"Why are those women dressing up and pretending to be priests?" or wondered 
"How can those women dare to attend this consecration when it is they who are splitting the Church that we love?"

I need to make it very clear that nobody was in any way ungracious that day.There were no re-enactments of the "won't share the Peace with a woman in a dog collar" experience which has been my lot in the past. Nobody cut us dead and as far as I know, nobody refused to accept the Sacrament because it was being shared with women. 
(As an aside -this did confuse me somewhat...I had understood that "impaired communion" was one of the issues for Forward in Faith et al - but there seemed to be no evidence of this impairment today - any more than there seemed to be any doubt that Bishop Jonathan was validly consecrated, although Archbishop Justin has surely ordained women during his brief ministry as Bishop of Durham. I'm GLAD that these problems didn't rear their heads -but yet more bemused as a result)

Never before have I been so utterly delighted to see Archdeacon Jackie and other senior Gloucester women take their place in the procession - and when the bishops moved forward for the laying on of hands, it was suddenly (naively) shocking how very male they were. Suddenly our situation was starkly illustrated for me and I realised just how chilly the world beyond the borders might be. 

At the end of the service, we greeted our new suffragen, and I was delighted to see beloved +Rowan about to leave to catch his train - but with time for a hug and a few quick words..We were waiting for friends to join us, so found ourselves milling about outside the Abbey as the cohorts from the "other side" departed.And I realised that the parishes represented there were exactly the kind of parish in which, as a young Anglo Catholic in London, I would naturally have made my home.
I looked across at the parish clergy, in monochrome black (as I was myself)...Some were nearing retirement, others in the early years of their ministry - and they largely preferred to avoid my gaze.
I smiled my best "Friendly vicar" smile (the one that my family beg me never to use when we're on holiday!) at a group of elderly ladies who were heading towards their bus - and was rewarded with the sort of icy stare that makes you wonder, for a moment, if you've suddenly turned into an axe-murderer unawares. 
And I reflected that we shared so much in our devotion to Catholic faith and practice - that in many ways I had more in common with those parishes than with the community which I'm now privileged to serve....and I wondered how I would have coped with my call to ordination had we remained in London.

Would I have allowed myself to listen? Or clung determinedly to the "certainty" that such a call could not be from God....
Would I BE a priest in His church if we'd stayed in London?
God knows - but I'm thankful that was free to listen when the call came.

Monday, October 14, 2013

In no particular order 3 .......Mission & missionaries - ancient and modern

Spending time with the Church of South India I was once again very conscious of the footmarks made by bygone missionaries...
The Church itself exists in its current form because of the courage and passion of those who travelled across the sea to share God's love and for the most part their legacy is treasured and valued. Again and again on my last trip I was struck by the way the founding missionaries set their stamp on the churches they built, even down to being remembered in the names. While we were in Chickballapur we visited the tiny mission church from which schools, hospitals and many many churches grew and we visited too the CSI cemetery where many of the early missionaries lie. They were so very young, these men and women who set out willing to risk everything for the love of God and God's children.
Their names live on in the churches they founded - but though they remain revered, many Indian Christians I encountered on this trip fought shy of celebrating their debt to the missionaries. They agreed that so much that is good and admirable was established through their faith and courage -  but the world is a very different place today, and the loving paternalism of the past can no longer be welcomed.

Younger Indian clergy are anxious too that western influence on India should exclude the spiritual malaise which they see destroying our churches...and worry, I think, that as long as the Indian churches are shaped so thoroughly by their western heritage, they will never fully connect with the culture they exist to serve.

So - I was excited to visit a new mission field - in the deeply rural community of Kannapura. Travelling there from Bangalore was a journey back in time, as we reconnected with village India. Cows, flocks of sheep and goats and the inevitable bullock-carts were our companions on the road, and we passed many labourers ploughing with oxen as their ancestors must have done for centuries. As we headed towards Mysore, we saw strange woven structures, looking a bit like archery butts, at the side of the road - lodgings for silkworms, on their journey from mulberry tree to silk-merchant's store

We turned off the metalled road and bumped along a dirt track...soon, even the dirt track was abandoned and we travelled cross country - to a simple house in a field. This was the mission  - part home, part worship space - where Jason and his wife had settled to build a church, supported by Revd Shilpa and her congregation at Christ Church Kannapura . 11 years ago, when the CSI hospital in Channapatna closed, the couple came here, reclaimed the near- derelict building, and set about befriending their neighbours. Jason visits the scattered villages and hamlets regularly, his wife runs a drop-in clinic that is open all hours - and their kindness and compassion have gradually drawn others into the church that meets in their one-room home. When we visited, the children crammed in first - some shy at their first ever western visitors, others giggling....Their parents followed, coming in from their work in the fields til the room was packed. We took it in turns to sing choruses to one another - the children specially delighted when we sang familiar tunes with English words - we prayed together, and then each of us was presented with a rosebud - coming with warm handshakes and a blessing that touched us deeply. There was no doubt at all that this was holy ground - an inspiring glimpse of how the church can be - a small humble community whose only aspiration is to love and serve.

We spent that evening with their "sending church" - another small group, meeting in their pastor's home, in the shadow of a Hindu temple. Shilpa told us that the CSI have approved a new building - a purpose built church to be built in her garden - provided the local community can contribute 5 lakhs towards it - a huge target for 20 families to meet. She asked us to pray - understandably - but also commented that the excellent relationship that church and temple have means that she is confident of some support from her Hindu neighbours, who already to a great deal to further the work of the church in supporting the community, and often celebrate Christian festivals with her congregation.
Syncretism - or outreach? It felt wholly good.

Worship that evening was wonderful...Again, adults and children packed into a small room, the young on floor mats, their elders ranged on benches around the walls, everyone completely at ease with each other. A small boy performed his party piece - a breakneck dash through all the books of the Bible; children sang action songs, and together we learned an African action song/dance - which I found myself performing with a delightful toddler on my hip. There was room enough for all, children and adults listened attentively to the teaching and contributed along the way, and after prayer and blessing we all ate together, the community offering hospitality as a loving duty which we felt truly blessed to receive.

Travelling back to Bangalore that night I felt as if I'd spent the day living in the early chapters of Acts - an experience to treasure and to learn from.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Whatever happened to "Good in Parts"?

Once upon a time there was a curate.
She was a very new curate, just a few weeks into her diaconate, when someone of whom she was fond pointed out that it was rather rude to comment on the blogs of others but to have nowhere of your own to contribute to the conversation.
As one who had always loved words, she saw the justice in this - and so a blog was born.

As she settled into ordained ministry, that blog became a huge blessing to her...a place to think aloud, to try and make sense of the experiences of God at work in, beyond and despite the Church, to learn from others, to wonder and to celebrate.
It became the route to a network of  new friends in places she'd never imagined, her stake in a whole new community, and even drew her into contributing to a book.
Quite often, at gatherings of Christians in other places someone would say 
"You're "Good in Parts" aren't you?".....and many a friendship was born.

It was all most exciting. Finding time to blog was rarely a problem, and curacy seemed a fertile ground for theological reflection...but one day, that curate grew up and became an incumbent.

Abruptly, the world changed.
The luxury of writing time seemed to evaporate overnight, and all too often the new incumbent found that she had indeed "had the experience but missed the meaning".
More, she was acutely aware of the added weight of responsibility that rested on her, the way that so many of the stories she encountered were not hers to share and would be much harder to disguise in a community where she was coming to be widely known and recognised...
The mystery ingredient which had sent her blogwards almost daily seemed to have run out but the vicar felt the poorer for it's loss.
Twitter replaced the blogging community - and indeed many one-time blog-friends turned up there or on Facebook too...but it was never quite the same.

Wonderful things kept on happening - but the vicar had got out of the habit of writing about them.

But - I love blogging...I love reading the blogs of others...I love all the splendid creativity that is freely available if you just sit down and log on...

So - I'm going to try again.
I'm going to try and focus once more on this dusty, neglected corner where only sermons seem to have flourished - and see if I can muster the time, and the creative energy to bring it back to life.

It won't matter much to other people - though with a bit of luck and a following wind it might yet be good - in parts!

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Trinity 20C for St Lawrence's

I don't know about you, but I'm not very good at asking for help.
When I broke my arm, quite badly as it happens, 6 months into my ministry here I was determined to carry on as usual, despite the complications of being unable to drive and, for much of the first couple of weeks being high on a splendid array of painkillers.
I didn't think I knew anyone in my churches quite well enough to say – Hey – this is really hard – and I, the one whose job is tied in with caring for others, really struggled to accept the support that I needed. I'll never forget how painful I found it when my teenaged son had to wash my hair...It gave me a foretaste of the dependence of old age and its frailty that I didn't welcome IN THE LEAST.

So – I have both sympathy and admiration for Namaan..that mighty warrior brought low by a disease that would, in many cultures, turn him into an outcast overnight.
Sympathy because he's an action man – a hero who comes and goes as he pleases, answering only to the king.
Admiration because he is willing to accept advice – from that most unlikely source, a teenage slave girl. In this situation, their roles are reversed. She, the helpless captive, holds the power of knowledge....and though she could have chosen to stand by in silence, she chooses to use that power to help
But things are never straightforward, are they?
Naaman is so used to going to the top that, having taken a deep breath and headed for Israel in response to the girl's advice, he goes straight for the top, with the King's encouragement sounding loudly in his ears.
Now it's the turn of another powerful man to find himself powerless...
The King of Israel is understandably alarmed to find his neighbour and long-time enemy, the King of Aram, making impossible demands.
He can see no good ending to this – for he knows he has no skill, no resources to heal a leper and expects a fresh outbreak of war before bedtime.
Fortunately, Elisha intervenes before war can be declared.
He takes the initiative, tells the King to send Namaan to him – and then offers him 7 simple steps to healing.

And therein lies the trouble.
For a powerful man to accept that the solution lies in doing something as ordinary and everyday as washing – and in a muddy foreign river at that – is well-nigh unthinkable.
And so Namaan very nearly misses the healing that is at hand...surely one of the earliest illustrations of that saying “Cutting off the nose to spite the face”
Again, I sympathise.
Nobody likes looking silly...and Elisha's prescription seems to call into question the gravity of Namaan's illness. OBVIOUSLY if leprosy washed off, he'd have had it sorted long ago...
Namaan has no reason to trust this so-called man of God, with his irritating refusal to meet him face to face and his idiotic idea that 7 baths in the Jordan will save the day. He has long relied on his own strength and the political clout he has earned. Why on earth should he consent to look a fool

But, once again, power lies in an unexpected quarter. It is Namaan's servants who use their persuasive talents to convince their master that he has nothing to lose.
Give it a go. We KNOW you could and would take bigger risks, do difficult and dangerous things – so why not give this a try?”
And, perhaps surprisingly, Namaan agrees – and discovers that God can work through the most ordinary and unlikely things – that for him, on this day in this situation, the muddy waters of the Jordan are all he needs...or perhaps it is the lesson of obedient dependence that he needs most.

Either way, of course, he emerges cured – and his reaction is one of joyous gratitude and recognition of God at work.
He doesn't put it down to co-incidence.
He doesn't try to bluff it out
Of course, I'd noticed that my skin was beginning to heal...”
He simply and immediately gives thanks and resolves to serve the God of Israel from now on.

Recognition of God at work...
That's surely significant in our gospel too.
10 lepers sent away – to claim in faith a healing that has yet to happen, as they go to the priest to be judged clean or unclean.
9 lepers so relieved to hear their wholeness confirmed that they immediately vanish into the daily lives restored to them by the action of one extraordinary man.
1 alone who stops to celebrate God at work...affirming His presence, rejoicing in his action. The fact that it is an outsider, a Samaritan, might give us pause...for sometimes it's those whom we'd imagine to be "outsiders" who have the deepest awareness of God, the most ready gratitude for his love.

Last week our Harvest thanksgiving brought to mind some words of Meister Eckhardt
If the only prayer you ever utter is THANK YOU – that is enough”
Today's readings re-enforce that message – as they invite us to notice and to proclaim God's presence in the ordinary, his power in the unexpected, the mundane – that is transformed by His love.
I wonder what God wants to show us through the commonplace events of our lives, who he might send our way as agents of healing or change.
Stories like these tell us that any ground can be holy ground, any water can be healing and lifegiving, any stranger can be the prophet who says what we need to hear to change our lives.
But it's up to us to listen – and to set aside our determined independence...and open ourselves to the God who works through the ordinary – through men and women, water and oil, bread and wine – and invites us to see the whole of Creation as a sacrament of His love.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Harvest thoughts for All Saints Uplands, 6th October 2013

St Matthew's School Harvest festival on Friday was a joyous affair. It was the first time that the new Reception class had joined the school for collective there was much squealing and wriggling along the way. We were also bidding farewell to a wonderful Chair of Governors, retiring after 28 years of service to the school – so we were very 
conscious of the need to say thank you....and, of course, we sang the much loved primary school song “Autumn days....” with its insistent refrain
“We mustn't forget – no we mustn't forget – to say a great big THANK YOU – we mustn't forget”
Together we realised as we looked round the church that at any and every moment of each day there are literally dozens of things to say thank you for.And that, of course, is why we are here celebrating Harvest Festival.
It’s time for us to pause and say,
 “Thank you! Thank you for all those good things that have come our way this year.” 
To pause and think.
To pause and thank.

Now, thankfulness is an attitude central to Christian belief. It's enshrined in the name of this service, the Eucharist, for that too means “Thanksgiving”We really should,always and everywhere, give thanks.

Unfortunately, generally we don’t. 

We look at the world, at all that we have to enjoy, and we take it as our right. We no longer see God in it.
But God is there. 
If we open our eyes, wherever we look in creation, we see signs pointing the way to the creator, tokens of his love at every turn….There are the obvious signs of course – the view from Selsley Common on a perfect autumn day, the night sky reminding us of our insignificance, the joyous giggle of a child paddling…But our creator God is no less present in the tinned tomatoes and processed cheese than in the wonderful displays of Harvest produce … and today at least we can take the trouble to pause and recognise this.

Creation is so much more than a gigantic supermarket, a mine from which we extract what we want, using or discarding to suit ourselves as if nothing has any value. Creation is not an objective “thing” to be used or abused as human kind sees fit.

Creation is, rather, part of the love song of our God who delights in creating…our God who looked at all that was made and declared that it was good.
We do forget, don’t we?
We’ve come along way from the garden of Eden and we rarely look back over our shoulders to touch base with the Creator as we ride rough shod over his creation.
It’s not a new problem.
Again and again through the Bible, God’s people are urged to be thankful – and we need that reminder more than ever today for we are prone to that danger that lurks embedded within any successful and affluent culture…the risk that success might encourage us to believe that we are sufficient unto ourselves, that the world is OURS and all that is within it.

Maybe recent years have diminished that danger a little for us…All across the world, people are that bit less sure of themselves…that much more aware of the fragility of the systems we’ve come to rely on.
And maybe that’s not a wholly bad thing.
I’m not suggesting that we should in any way rejoice at the economic hardships that are confronting many who thought themselves secure…just that a shock to our economic stability might offer some encouragement to remember our true source of security, the true source of all good gifts.

.Centuries ago, Meister Eckhardt a dreamer and man of prayer proclaimed,
"If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough."
I’m not sure, though, if I quite agree.
Saying thank-you is important, certainly. 
It’s a great thing to recognise one’s blessings and to say so from the heart.
But on another level I would suggest, SAYING thank you is only a small part of the full meaning of thanksgiving. 
Thanksgiving is both an attitude and a response, it is both faith and works.
We need, in other words, not just to say but to DO our thank yous too.
We are the recipients of God’s ceaseless, overwhelming 
generosity – and this should be our own model in giving.
God’s goodness is without limit, and so it follows that our response too should overflow… 
Clenched fists hold on in miserly determination If we open our hands to give, they will be open, too, to receive...
It seems to me that my own besetting sin is the fear that there might not be enough.
I want to give, I want to be generous…but at the back of my mind a little voice says
“Have you made sure you’re saving enough for old age…What if the children can't find jobs – it's not easy for graduates...”Instead of trusting that with God there is always enough and to spare, I wonder and worry and lapse into protective meanness.
Instead of rejoicing in the Lord always I am all too prone to being anxious...
Instead of living by Kingdom values every day, I hang on nervously to what I have and seek for more… 

Communities have this same struggle. If as a church family we are serious about modelling God’s love for the world,then we should be known not just for the beauty of our buildings and our worship but for the unconditional generosity we share. Our hallmark should be the way we give without counting the cost, the way we respond to the needs of others before we turn to gratify our own. 
We CAN trust God to take care of the essentials – and maybe, just maybe, those other things aren’t quite as important as we imagined after all.

Think about it for a moment.
I may not find it easy to admit, but I do not need everything that I have in order to live abundantly…and I’d guess things may be the same for you.
Indeed it seems that the more we have, the more cluttered our spirits become. We so surround ourselves with goodies of all kinds that we struggle to lift our eyes above our treasure. We begin to believe that what we HAVE is what we are WORTH

That’s a general truth but perhaps we are now at a juncture in human history where we will be forced to face certain realities- that our economies cannot and should not grow forever, that we may have to be content with what we have, or less…
Now might be the moment to reconsider priorities
The time of growth is over. Now, perhaps, we can pause and be grateful.
“Tis a gift to be simple…” says the old Shaker song…but it’s a gift that we are strangely reluctant to grasp even if we remember the second line “Tis a gift to be free”.
We seem determined to shore up our fragile selves with all sorts of material props and we become dependent on them, fettered by them…We focus not on thanksgiving but on thanksgetting…like a child who asks his friend on Boxing Day, not “what did you give?” but 
“what did you get for Christmas?”

But today at harvest festival we have a chance for a rethink.
We come together to celebrate all that we have received, and we express that celebration by giving of our best, our first fruits not our left-overs, just as people have through many centuries.
Harvest festival sounds cosy, reassuring, a link with the golden days when churches were full and summers were hot.
But I’d like us to use our harvest festival as a challenge this year.
If you and I can remember that we are celebrating thanks-giving, if we can live lives that reflect the boundless generosity of God, then we can honestly say with Meister Eckhardt that a simple prayer of "thank you" expressed in word and in deed, will be enough. In fact, it will be more than enough, abundant and overflowing with grace and love shining through every action. And so let’s thank God, for life, thank God for food, family and 
friends, thank God for the opportunities of living in a rich land flowing with milk and honey, and thank God for being able to express our gratitude in acts of love, sharing and giving without counting the cost.