Saturday, November 30, 2013

Thoughts for Advent 1 at 8.00

With not enough time today and an early start tomorrow, I was thankful to find this reflection for Advent Sunday in my archives. The only problem is, I have NO recollection of either writing or preaching it! Did I find it somewhere and archive it because I found it helpful (in which case, profuse apologies to the author whose words I've unintentionally stolen)...? or did I write it under pressure and then erase it from memory as the tide of preparation engulfed me? I've no idea.
But I'm going to use this at 8.00 tomorrow - and very thankful it's available, however it arrived!

We have probably all been on a long trip with a child who kept asking,“Are we nearly there yet?” We know that long car trips are hard for children, but we also know that this question can quickly drive us to the edge of desperation...We know we only left home 20 minutes ago, and this is a two hour journey!
Patience is a virtue........” my father would say...but somehow this was never a virtue I wanted to cultivate.
I don't much like waiting.

This could present me with a problem, then.......for Advent is a season of waiting and expectation. We have been celebrating the season of Advent, waiting for Jesus in the season of hope and expectation for generations, asking again and again
Are we nearly there yet?”
and, in one sense, the answer is “no”...look around you and you can see that the world is still far off being the Kingdom of God..

Yet, in another sense, we arrived there about 2000 years ago, as God entered our world as the baby in Bethlehem....the Kingdom of God broke in to our world, and nothing has ever been the same since.

And in still another sense we know we will arrive breathless and disorganised, on December 25 just as we do every year. The Christmas cake will probably not be iced, the stocking presents largely unwrapped...
The Advent journey is just beginning, so clearly we have a way to go yet.

We can expect to travel through the month of December and we know that we will arrive safely at the manger on Christmas Eve. That's what Advent Calendars exist to show us. Christmas is coming, ready or not, and so Mary will be visited by an angel, a decree will be sent out from Caesar Augustus and the couple will make their weary journey to Bethlehem. Magi, star gazers from far away, will arrive some time later and then we will pack up the whole thing and set it aside for another year........
It’s the same story we have been reading for close to 2000 years. We sing “Silent Night, Holy Night” and it can be as if we are actually transported back 2000 years and we can smell the animals in the stable and hear the unmistakable cry of a newborn baby.

Are we nearly there yet?
The Advent journey also takes us personally through a journey of self-discovery and change. When we sing to the Christ Child
Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today” we are inviting God to give us our own personal experience of the holy.

In the third and hardest to grasp dimension of Advent waiting, we hope for the time when the singing of “Joy to the World” will be true LITERALLY. We hope for the time when all weapons of war will be changed to those designed for agriculture. It is the world actually living by God’s laws and it is world where Shalom is fully realized and there is no mistaking that sin and evil are a thing of the past. 
Are we nearly there yet?
Three possible ends to our Advent journey – and each of them is a true part of the whole.
Sometimes we don't feel at all like Christmas and in those years we can go deeper into the tradition of “Emmanuel”, God with us in all our messy every day the places of disappointment, grief and loss.
Sometimes we really, really need to get beyond what can be a superficial expression of peace that only thinly covers the consumerism that marks the traditional Christmas. We need to sit and experience the presence without focussing on the presents that can be wrapped and put under the tree.

Do we wait for something that will last longer than that 35 pound Christmas Turkey that took two people to lift it into the oven? It seems to me that we wait best by living that for which we wait and hope into being. If we hope for peace on earth we wait for it best by living the peace in which we believe in the best we can. We may not be able to beat our actual swords into actual ploughshares (I don’t even have a sword to start the process with) but we can convert some of our resources into food for the poor
We can bring into being the real meaning of Christmas by focussing more on things we cannot buy and on relationships and on the things that will last.
We can live into the peace for which we hope by stepping off the overpowered treadmill on which we live for one day a week and slowing down, recharging our batteries, and focussing on the things we must enjoy before they change...

The passage from the gospel that I read just few moments ago is about being ready at all times, and about not being surprised that we are surprised. It is about being ready to experience grace in the most awful of circumstances because God is present at all times.
So, as we look forward in hope, we can confirm with confidence our answer to that recurring question
Are we nearly there yet?”

Yes we are...because wherever we are in our Advent journey we know that the God who so loved the world is travelling with us.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

First in my heart - a sermon for Christ the King Yr C at St Matthew's

Today, the feast of Christ the King, represents New Year’s Eve for the church. 
Next week comes Advent Sunday when we begin to tell the story of our faith all 
over again. Next year our readings will come more from the gospel of Matthew, after a 
year of emphasis on the writings of Luke – but the cycle of the stories and the shape of their telling remains the same. We are so nearly ready to look forward to the nativity and to the 
coming of Christ at the end of time…but today our readings present us with the end of his 
earthly story, events we last thought about at Passiontide. Altogether, it seems a strange 
time and a strange way to celebrate his kingship…so just how did this feast come about?

I’m afraid it's not good news! It was established only in 1922, as part of a political 
deal struck between Pope Pius XI, and Benito Mussolini. Neither of these men had much 
time for democracy, and indeed Mussolini granted the church wide-ranging favours in 
exchange for political silence. The Feast of Christ the King was part of a package to 
reinforce the authority of both church and state.... So today we're celebrating something 
that arose from a dodgy deal between a fascist politician and a powerful church. Hmnn. 

However, the origins of the feast effectively point up the kind of irony which exists 
when we use human concepts of Kingship and power to describe Jesus at all. As you 
might expect, it's kingship with a twist...we are invited to celebrate the reign of Christ, but 
we look at the gospel and see not a coronation procession but a ride to the scaffold...
Today Jesus holds centre stage,in complete vulnerability, for it is hard to imagine anyone 
with less power than a man fixed to a cross with nails through hands and feet.
There are a lot of people talking about kings and kingship in this story of the death of 
Christ, but most of them are speaking only in mockery. 
Above his head the sign reads “This is the King of the Jews”, sentence and proclamation 
in one. 
The irony is intentional. 
There’s no kingly glory here, no jewels or gold, just a squalid painful death. 
Some king, some leader...with not a follower to his name.
Leaders are called to be strong, commanding...worlds away from the helpless man who 
has no option but to listen to the taunts of the soldiers, their raucous invitation
“If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself”
We know, with the benefit of 2000 years of Christian teaching, that saving himself is not 
part of Jesus' agenda.....though salvation is indeed being won as the crowds gawp and 
We talked about this at Thursday's housegroup – worried that we would almost certainly 
be deserters...choosing safety over friendship, even with Jesus. How could they know, 
how could WE know, who it was who hung there? 

On the whole, we might prefer to gloss over the crucifixion.

Even our epistle could tempt us to do so, with its lyrical celebration of Christ's divinity
“He is the image of the invisible him all things in heaven and on earth were him all things hold together...” 
Here we are celebrating the cosmic Christ...the one whose rule is obvious, non 
negotiable...It seems incredible, as we listen to Paul, that anyone anywhere could fail to 
submit to his rule...It is transcendent...written into the fabric of creation from the very 
beginning.......but the route to reconciliation is hard won...
“By making peace through the blood of his cross”.
A costly kingdom founded on paradox...peace through life through a 
terrible, bloody death.

Do we truly want to be part of it?

There's huge pressure to join the crowd – there always is! And here common sense as 
well as self preservation might well encourage us to do so...It certainly persuades one of 
the two who hang beside Jesus.
I guess the thieves feel they have nothing left to the first criminal takes some 
small vicious pleasure in joining in with his own executioners as they deride the man who 
hangs beside him. Perhaps he has been a lifelong bully..perhaps he has always tried to 
ally himself with the powerful, if the opportunity presents itself.
Certainly he can see nothing to be gained by supporting Jesus.
In extremis, though, there can be a clarity of vision...Inessentials are stripped away as our 
time runs its course – and there is space to see things as they really are. As the saying 
goes, there are no atheists in fox holes, - and not that many on crosses. 
Thus the second criminal recognises and articulates something wonderfully true.
Despite all the ironic mockery, despite the weakness and humiliation, the man beside him 
is indeed a king, so he turns to him in supplication
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”
There is no co-ercian. 
There never has been.
Jesus hasn’t used his power to dominate and manipulate during his ministry, and he isn’t 
going to start now. His way has been one which set people free, giving them their own 
status and dignity. He has formed them into a new community where they are each 
responsible for each other, commanded to love, not to lord it over one another.
This is the king who kneels to wash his servants' feet before they feast...the king who 
chooses not a war horse but a workaday donkey to carry him into his citadel, the king who 
constantly gives away power in order to empower others.
It is the kingdom and its values that matter to Jesus - not his status as the king...
His rule is founded on peace, justice and transformation...on making the broken 
whole...and so it is peace and wholeness that he promises to the repentant thief.
“Today you will be with me in Paradise”
There on that hillside, the drama of salvation is played out...the three crosses representing
the daily choice that confronts us all. 
Love stronger than death holds Jesus there...the man in the middle, with a dying sinner on 
either side, trying to decide what his message, what his kingdom, means for them.

We have to decide as well.

That wonderful hymn Be thou my vision based on St Patrick's Breastplate includes the 
prayer that reflects our epistle
Be thou and thou only the first in my heart.
Paul has led us there with his poetic reminder that Christ is first in all things, but this prayer
is the one for me today.
Maybe its yours as well
Be thou and thou only the first in my heart.
Can you ask for God's grace to pray this and mean it?

We can only celebrate today if our answer to that is a resounding “Yes”...expressed not just with our mouths but with lives truly subject to the rules of his Kingdom.
May we all crown him King of our lives, the first in our hearts, now and always.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Not one stone left....A homily for 8.00 on 2nd Sunday before Advent Year C

Not one stone left on another....earthquakes...famines...plague

That sounds horribly like the pictures we're seen on our screens in the days since typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines
Total destruction
10,000 dead
100s of thousands homeless
More than nine million people struggling to survive without food, shelter or clean drinking water.

It's truly grim – surely one of the worst disasters of our time – the kind of event that makes many people – whether with faith or without – cry out “Where is God now?”

And our gospel this morning seems to be very little help. Where's the good news here?
Who, when they have seen their children swept away and their home destroyed, will in any way be comforted by the assurance that “this will give you an opportunity to testify”
(actually, be assured, that's not what Jesus says)
It's hard to believe that such truly cataclysmic events are really part of God's plan...and actually, I'm not sure that they are – or even that this passage suggests this.

But still...Jesus is looking at the splendour of the Temple – and predicting its destruction.
It's as if he had marched in to our wonderful 175 celebrations last year and told a church full of happy people
The demolition team is on the way”

Shocking, challenging stuff.

But actually – that's not the real point of the reading, is it.
It's all about the people – not the buildings – the people
The people who hang on to their faith against all the odds- in places of real persecution – in Egypt, Pakistan, Nigeria...
Those who hang on to God while everything around them is destroyed
Those who even now are working 24 hours a day to bring relief to devestated communities.
By your endurance, you will gain your souls”

When we celebrated that big birthday last year
we invited each of our birthday visitors to write their name on a “stone” for our “living stones” collage. We looked at it, and rejoiced that we had so many friends who wanted to mark their connection with St Matthew's. We kept the collage where everyone could see it for a few months – but after Christmas it got put away in the corner by the organ and perhaps we put away its reminder then too.
You see, that collage is there to remind us that WE are the church...
If our building was struck by lightning tomorrow – the Church in Cainscross would still be here...because it's not the building that counts. It's the people.

When Jesus predicted the destruction of the Temple he was saying something almost unthinkable. Jerusalem, and the Temple at its heart – were absolutely central to the Jewish understanding of their relationship with God – the focal point of their identity as His chosen people.
How would they survive such faith-shattering events?
Where would they look for reassurance if the beauty of God's house was destroyed?

But Jesus predicts destruction – quite calmly – with no hint of panic in his words.
With Jesus the emphasis shifts from the building – for its role has been superseded by his coming into the world.
In HIM God and humanity are reconciled – so we no longer need a Temple in which to offer sacrifices
And when he returns to the Father he leaves the Church – the Church in all its messy reality – to live out that ministry of healing and reconciliation...The church that is made up of PEOPLE...
You – me – all those whose names appear on our collage – and more.
The people through whom God's love is made present in the Philippines and a thousand other troubled places in our world today.

We can't rely on our buildings...or our jobs...or our health...or the constant presence of the people whom we love.
Ultimately, like every other short-term protection, they will fail.
That's the nature of life.
Towers and temples will fall. They have before and they will again.
Worlds will fall apart – whether on the huge scale we see in Tacloban or the small scale of the family up the road who are dealing with the loss of a loved one to cancer.
The good news is not protection against that.
The good news is that towers and temples were not all they were cracked up to be in the first place, and that in their falling is the invitation to find the life and hope that will endure even when all is thrown down.
For it is when everything else has failed, when we find ourselves at rock bottom that we see most clearly that only God’s unshakeable love and towering compassion remain.
Our world may come crashing down – but underneath are the everlasting arms, which will never let us fall.

When nothing else stands, God’s love remains.
Know this – and know that love is for you – and for all those who cry out today.
Trust that God will never abandon even one of his children – trust, stand firm and by your endurance, gain your souls.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

What then can we hope for? Thoughts for 3rd Sunday before Advent (Remembrance Sunday) 8.00 at St Matthew's, 9.30 at St Lawrence's

Life death and the hereafter
What could possibly be more important or more baffling?
In this month of remembering we have already celebrated the saints, revisited thankful memories of our own beloved dead and today engage in a very particular kind of commemoration as we focus on those who have given their lives in the service of others...
As we do at any funeral, we need to spend time looking back with loving gratitude...we need to hear the stories of the battlefields, read poetry replete with the pain and pity of war and spend our 2 minutes of solemnity lest we forget - but then we need also to raise our eyes and look forward with hope, even against a background of continued conflict. We look forward, collectively, to the hope of peace – but we also look forward, as the Nicene Creed puts it, to “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come”
And that is quite a challenge...because try as we might we have no clear picture of what we are looking forward to. And this can lead to all sorts of wild and unhelpful speculation,- just like the conversation we overhear in this morning's gospel. It might be good to remind ourselves that the Saducees, who open the discussion, start from a place of scepticism. They are asking a ridiculous question because they don't believe in any resurrection at all. They expect a ridiculous answer...because for them this is all cloud cuckoo land.
Their scenario is clearly an invitation to wander up a blind alley, as we hear this tale of a much-married woman,passed on from brother to brother like a family heirloom of dubious worth. Its tempting to join in with the prevailing flippancy and suggest that the one thing the poor lady will want at the resurrection is a break from every last one of them!
But, as Jesus makes clear, to focus on that that would be missing the point.
The sad thing is, though, that some of the questions, ideas and conversations that I listen to, both within the church and outside, seem to be based on very similar expectations. People talk about Grandma having the kettle on ready to greet Gramps when he comes, about Uncle Jim enjoying a pint of Guinness with the lads while he waits for the rest of the family to arrive...
Being human,with our all too limited, finite perceptions, we want to use familiar landmarks as we set out to explore the unknown. So it can seem at times as if all we expect of the hereafter is some kind of gigantic family reunion – like our childhood Christmasses but better, as nobody will fall out, which is just as well since it's going to last forever.

Is that it? Is that really all we have to look forward to??
Please no!
Don't get me wrong.
I absolutely believe that all those whom we love but see no longer are safe in God's care.
And I believe that the 'joy of human love' is not lost or obliterated by death...
God made us for relationship. -with him and with one another and it is,for me, inconceivable that this amazing transformative gift of love which inspires human beings to acts of courage and self sacrifice beyond our rational capacity should ever be lost or wasted.
Love never ends, said St Paul, in one of his wisest passages...and to that I would want to add a resounding Amen.
But I really don't expect heaven to be a perfected version of earth. I know that we might welcome the safety and familiarity that such a vision represents but honestly who wants familiarity when the alternative is to be changed from glory into glory?
Agreed we cannot investigate, weigh up the evidence, establish beyond all doubt just how it will work. We have no idea how it will be, because we are dealing with matters of faith and hope as well as love.
Faith that it will come to pass and hope that when it does everything will be transformed.
What we have now – even at its best- is not what we are waiting for... but we look forward with hope because we believe we ARE waiting for something.
Remembrance Sunday exists to ensure that the mistakes of the past will not forever shape & dominate the future...that we break out of that depressing cycle that insists “History repeats itself. It has to. No-one listens” - but even beyond this we know that we are not caught in an endlessly repeating cycle of error but traveling on a purposeful journey from past to future...
History will run its course and then will come the final fulfillment of God's purpose, creation restored in the life of the world to come. Swords WILL be beaten into ploughshares...there WILL be a new heaven and a new earth...
We cannot grasp how this will come to pass -because we live in the limited perspective of our time bound physical bodies. We cannot help but see through a glass darkly, our best guesses just that - guesses – based on our knowledge of here and now.
And language is inadequate...and our frame of reference always, ALWAYS too let us turn, briefly, to our Old Testament reading.
Job has been confronted with the problem of pain...with the misery of human existence at its very worst...with the loss of all that he loved and valued...and finds equilibrium, finally, in the realisation that God is God...that his ways are not ours...
His words are a triumphant assertion of hope in the face of suffering – and their setting by Handel in Messiah gives them an added impact for today – in the reminder that when words and ideas fail, sometimes the arts can offer the faintest echo of the beauty of eternity. Listen

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Fragile - handle with care

This hasn't been the easiest week.
Funeral ministry is part of the warp and weft of bread-and-butter vicaring. 
Always a privilege, sometimes touching, at others almost joyful.
But not this week.
This week has been dominated by 2 funerals - for 3 tiny boys, who never drew their first breaths - but who are beloved and precious to their families and to God.
Placing baby A's little coffin in the ground yesterday seemed almost impossibly hard...but we had planned each moment of his service so carefully together and there was no doubting the love that surrounded him and his parents in the damp greyness of a November afternoon.
The church was almost full - for a baby whom most of us had never seen.

This morning, there were just 4 of us in the crematorium chapel as tiny twins were handed on to God's care - but the feelings of love and grief were every bit as real and intense.
Both days, there seemed scant comfort to offer to parents whose minds were numb with pain, whose  arms were empty.
But I dare to believe that this is not just senseless waste.
That the Love that holds all of creation in being reaches out to touch both these lost little ones and their desolate parents.
I've stood where they parents stand now.
I've wanted to howl at the moon, that one unanswerable question "Why"
I've wondered if this tangle of love and loss, hope and despair, can ever be unwound.
But somehow, weeping o'er the grave, I've glimpsed part of the truth of the fragile treasure that is life - that it is no less complete when it is short - and, of course, that it is no less precious - its loss no less lamented.

Susan Hill, one of the wisest writers I know, wrote of her own experience of this grief in her book "Family",that was a huge resource and comfort to all of us who mourned lost babes. She pointed us, too, towards these wonderful words - which I still turn to when my own fail.

  It is not growing like a tree
         In bulk, doth make men better be;
Or standing long an oak, three hundred year,
To fall a log at last, dry, bald, and sear:
          A lily of a day
          Is fairer far, in May,
      Although it fall and die that night,
      It was the plant and flower of light.
In small proportions we just beauties see;
And in short measures life may perfect be.

                                                                                   Ben Jonson "To the immortal memory..."

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

A Taste of Prayer

An overlong post tonight - some thoughts that I put together for "Cake or Death" (not its actual title) - a discussion forum 

Prayer the church's banquet, angel's age,
God's breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth
Engine against th' Almighty, sinner's tow'r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

Reading Herbert's poem Prayer can feel rather like hearing in swift succession all of those parables of the Kingdom – it's a bit like a mustard seed – a merchant – a man sowing seeds – a woman sweeping a room...Just as you settle down to focus on one idea or image, it is replaced by another, - like trying to hold onto mercury -so that there's a risk that you might emerge more confused than enlightened.
But I think there's a reason for this.
It is that both the Kingdom – AND Prayer – are concepts that are beyond the normal range of our understanding.
So as we try to explore them, we get brief glimpses of the truth – but need to remember that the truth is always greater.
How can we be in conversation with the creator of all things?
What do we think we're doing when we come to God with our agenda?
No wonder we struggle.
So often we seem to treat prayer like a slot-machine...we pop in our requests, push the button & wait...and if nothing recognisable (and ideally matching our desires) happens in short order, well then we say that the prayer “hasn't worked”

But if prayer is less a process, and more a relationship – then things can look rather different. You see, in a relationship changes happen but they happen within those who are involved as the two parties find their world views, their shopping habits, their style of speech and much else influenced by one another. Those changes may not be conscious, or delibrate ..more often they happen gradually, almost imperceptibly.

Listen to Rowan Williams
There’s something about sunbathing that tells us more about what prayer is like than any amount of religious jargon.
When you’re lying on the beach or under the lamp, something is
happening, something that has nothing to do with how you feel or
how hard you’re trying. You’re not going to get a better tan by
screwing up your eyes and concentrating. You give the time, and
that’s it. All you have to do is turn up. And then things change, at
their own pace. You simply have to be there where the light can get at you....
God is there always. You don’t need to fight for his attention or
make yourself acceptable. He’s glad to see you. And he’ll make a
difference while you’re not watching, just by radiating who and
what he is in your direction. All he asks is that you stay there with
him for a while, in the light. For the rest, you just trust him to get
on with it

So – it's really not a question of trying harder – though sometimes prayer CAN feel like very hard work.
If you feel as if nothing much is happening- it's horribly tempting to give up...but remember that looking at a garden in winter there's no sign of the amazing life dormant beneath the surface.
Remember, too, the ancient tradition of going out into the desert to pray.
Yes, that's partly about being somewhere where there are no distractions – but it's also a reminder that deserts can be surprisingly fertile places
In Christianity the desert is a place of discovery – a place where we can expect to meet God, as well as meeting our deepest selves.
Another bishop, Stephen Cottrell
If something has happened in our life to make God feel absent, God can use that experience to nurture in us a deeper understanding of his constant presence. If we are going through a period of spiritual dryness, even if we do not know the reason, we need to begin to trust that God is leading us
through this experience to a deeper understanding of his overflowing love. What troubles me is that so many Christians are ill-prepared for the dark times that will inevitably come. I feel that many people not only give up on prayer, but give up on God when they find themselves in the desert, because they were never told that this is a necessary part of faith.
Stephen Cottrell, Praying Through Life, pp. 127–8

Prayer is part of how we express our inner, spiritual life – a way in which we make explicit to ourselves the fact that we KNOW we are more than just bodies & brains. So it follows that prayer is a necessary exercise for our spiritual well-being, something we do to keep the muscles working...If we stop, then those muscles may atrophy and die...But if Christianity is about life in all its fullness, then not to pray is to fail to keep the essential core of ourself risk suffocation, almost.

If all this talk of sun bathing, excursions to the desert or the exercise of spiritual muscles feels alien – here's another thought.
God IS relationship…the community of Father, Son and Spirit into which we are invited in prayer.

Human beings are made for relationship with God…I pray, therefore I am. When we pray we discover the truth about ourselves, that we are children of God. Within this relationship we can flourish and become truly ourselves as God has intended us to be. Stephen Cottrell

Prayer is paradox…It is all about the gift of God and God praying in us, but is also has to be an act of human will. If we don't allow for the possibility of God's action in our lives, then we are likely to miss the evidence of it. God won't muscle in – we have to get ourselves and our agendas out the way, in order to be open to the possibility of his presence and his action.
But we CANT pray without God's help.

An ordinary simple Christian kneels down to say his prayers. He is trying to get into touch with God. But if he is a Christian he knows that what is prompting him to pray is also God: God, so to speak, inside him (the Holy Spirit). But he also knows that all his real knowledge of God comes through Christ, the Man who was God—that Christ is standing beside him, helping him to pray, praying for him. You see what is happening. God is the thing to which he is praying—the goal he is trying to reach. God is also the thing inside him which is pushing him on—the motive power. God is also the road or bridge along which he is being pushed to that goal. So that the whole threefold life the three-personal Being is actually going on in that ordinary little bedroom where an ordinary person is saying…prayers.” ~~C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Prayer is the most natural thing in the world – an expression of who we are and what we are for.
You have made us for yourself” said Augustine – and the way in which we can enter into that relationship with God is through our prayer...
But because we struggle so much with our all-pervasive egos, prayer can also be the hardest thing we do.. . Like any relationship it involves letting go and allowing someone else to be at the centre of life – but we are programmed to place ourselves there....It isn't easy, even if it is natural and instinctive.

But easy or hard, prayer is never solitary. Even if we retreat to a hermitage, we never pray alone, but are part of something much greater than our individual selves. Our prayers are part of the great outpouring that has gone on since the world began...and so we pray ”with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven”…
Together we tune our voices, our hearts, our wills til they are one with God's loving purpose for the whole of creation - for prayer is always, in some way, a gift of love
a relationship with God for others
Prayer is the way to both the heart of God and the heart of the world – precisely because they have been joined through the suffering of Christ.
Praying is letting one’s own heart become the place where the tears of God and the tears of God’s children can merge and become tears of hope”
Henri Nouwen Seeds of Hope

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Do - be - do - be - do

After a madly busy day, with little time to breathe, still less to reflect I find myself in urgent need of a blog post for this evening.
So, as quite often when I'm in need of friendly advice of any kind, I turn to twitter...
Twitter - such a difficult concept to explain to those who don't belong.
So often I find myself trying to answer questions that go something like this...
How is it possible to form meaningful relationships with anyone based on 140 characters?
Don't you just tell the world "I'm on the train"...?
How do you deal with all that shameless self-promotion?
Actually, my reality is more like this:
Twitter - the virtual common-room where I'm likely to find at least a few friends with time for a chat at almost any hour of day or night.
Twitter - my place of first resort when I need prayer, comfort or a really good laugh.

And because you can get a really good idea of someone when they offer you 140 characters at regular intervals every day for several years, 
Twitter- the place where an appeal for inspiration for today's blog post netted in under a minute two words linked, I think, by my own somewhat manic lifestyle
"Being" said Christine.
"Wholly" said Alice.

Just seeing the words in my twitter stream inspired instant guilt.
Only this morning I had noised my busyness abroad!
One of my first tweets this morning ran thus:
Morning prayer,funeral, curate supervision, dentist, Trustees meeting, pastoral visiting, team meeting #dayinatweet #praying4stamina
I know I am disturbingly susceptible to the clerical vice of shouting about an over-full diary, - a defence against the anxiety that I might actually not be doing anything worthwile at all. I don't THINK this morning's tweet was part of that process, but I also think it's important that I should ask the question.
If I need to tell other people how busy I am in order to bolster my own self-worth, there is something rotten in the state of Denmark but at the moment I'm not feeling particularly defensive. Indeed, after a recent hard look at the shape of my ministry, in preparation for a forthcoming ministerial review, I'm particularly aware of what I do in the course of bread and butter vicaring - and it's startling how much actually gets done in the course of a week. 
Some of it is even quite close to the centre of my calling - rather than simply feverish running around the parish squawking as I go!
So, I'm feeling rather brighter about  the things I do to live out my vocation...and I'm quite clear that even on a bad day at least some of the things I do, maybe even a majority, have their roots in a response to God's over-riding call to priesthood, or the more specific call to be HIS person in this place.

But DOING is one thing - BEING quite quite different.

In these days of Common Tenure, though clergy remain office holders rather than employees, we no longer have quite the same sense of being licensed to "the living".
Though the stipend I receive is designed to free me from financial anxiety so that I can most effectively live out whatever God wants of His priest in this place, it's far too easy to see the sum that arrives each month in my bank account as payment for feverish activity.
A recent conversation on (yes, you've guessed it) Twitter highlighted the perennial issue of work with porous boundaries...
Is it good to share a pint with a friend who is also a parishioner on a day off? 
How does one explain to even the most loving of congregations that sometimes the absence of their company is a blessing?
And, for heaven's sake, what does the vicar DO all day that means she can't be instantly present when I need her?
But that's all about doing again...And we are called to BE
As someone who is disturbingly distractable, the thought that I might be wholly present to whatever situation, whichever person is before me both attracts and terrifies.
But I long to be that sort of priest.
One with the gift of making everyone I encounter feel uniquely attended to, uniquely important.
One who doesn't have to hurtle round in anxious orbit of my own diary.
One who has enough sense of herself to be at rest in the here and now, neither scattered nor distracted but wholly focussed on the present moment, since that is the only time when I can hope to encounter God.

In January every year, when I pray for my Methodist friends on Covenant Sunday, I am struck afresh by the terror of that most beautiful Covenant prayer.
How, I wonder, do quite ordinary quiet little congregations cope with praying those words and expecting God to honour them?
Would I ever have the courage to pray
"Let me employed for you, or laid aside for you", to just stand in God's presence with no activities or achievements to distract?

I truly don't know, but it seems to me that it would be a wonderful thing to try.

Monday, November 04, 2013

What will remain?

Regular readers, even those who don't know me "in real life", will probably not be surprised to learn that I have a pretty constant stream of music playing in my head, morning, noon and night. I'm told that I was singing recognisable tunes long before I learned to talk, and for many years if I needed to learn something new - a string of dates, some Latin vocab, a chunk of the periodic table - I did so by setting it to music.
With my sons now cheerfully working their way through much of the standard choral repertoire I'm regularly delighted to find that it's all very much still THERE - maybe a bit dusty and underused, but if you throw me a line of anthem text I can pretty much guarantee to sing my way through the top line of the piece from beginning to I'd kind of assumed that if at some stage in the future my short-term memory deserted me completely, music would always be the way to reach me. For Proust it might be madeleines - but for me it would be "O clap your hands" or "Selig sind die Toten" that would recreate times past and connect me with my former self. I'd even envisaged a slightly surreal world in which most of my everyday conversations happened via the words of hymns - for those seem to be even more firmly engraved on my memory - and have told the children to try reading the English Hymnal to me if I ever vanish down the dark corridors of dementia.

It had never occurred to me that those corridors might be so very long and winding that even music could not penetrate....but last week that confidence was shaken. We were at Cheltenham Town Hall to hear, among other things, Elgar's cello concerto. We have series tickets this year, so have the same (rather dreadful) seats for every concert - and some of the same neighbours too. When we arrived, an elderly couple were sitting just in front of us - but it transpired that they were in the wrong place. The rightful owners of their seats appeared and after a brief conversation the man stood up - and began the laborious business of explaining to his wife that they needed to move. It soon became obvious that she was utterly bewildered by the whole situation, but he took her hand and they went on their way like a couple of elderly babes in the wood. Their allotted seats were, in fact, immediately opposite us - and I watched the gentleman seat his wife and help her off with her overcoat with great tenderness. Charmed, I thought to myself "How lovely that he is bringing her out for a treat, even though she is obviously frail and rather fearful. I'm sure she'll love the concert".

But - when the music started I wanted to weep.
She sat there in passive confusion - a good little girl observing a conversation that was taking place in a foreign language, but with absolutely no idea what was going on,why she should care or how she should respond.
The cello soloist (who looked about 12) was impressive,and the audience applauded warmly - but all my pleasure in the evening evaporated as I watched the husband glancing repeatedly at his if he hoped to catch her awares for once, recapturing her former self enough to remember that clapping is part of the convention of concert attendance even if you haven't enjoyed the performance that much.
Poor lady, she sat marooned in her own world - utterly detached from all that was going on around her - lost somewhere that even music could not reach.
When the concert ended she looked relieved as her husband helped her on with her coat and led her away through the crowd. He seemed calm and unperturbed and I hope that perhaps the evening brought him some joy - that he was, for a while, less painfully conscious of the losses he is living through, able to focus for the duration of the performance,on the pleasure that remains.

Perhaps it wasn't really so awful - but it certainly seemed that way. 
I cannot begin to imagine a world in which music might be powerless to move me...and I'm thankful that I can't.
If, one day, the cruelty of age so separates me from myself that I'm no longer connected with life by the constant processions of words and melodies that fill my head today, then I must throw myself on the mercy of the One who knows me better than I do myself - and who rejoices over each one of us with loud singing even if we can no longer make sense of the melody.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

All Saints Sunday - Homily for 8.00 at All Saints, Uplands

I  believe in the Communion of Saints...”
That's what we assert week by week – but I wonder what it means for you.
It's very easy to picture The Communion of Saints as simply the shining ones who are quite out of our league...those who have made it...who stand in glory around the throne of God....who have passed through the great tribulation and washed themselves in the blood of the Lamb...
Such wonderful finished products – overflowing with holiness, love, joy, and peace – in painful contrast to the rest of us who toil onwards, falling over our own feet, letting God down on a daily, even hourly, basis.
Saints and sinners...
As dear Bishop How puts it in that truly wonderful hymn

Blest communion, fellowship divine – we feebly struggle, they in glory shine”

That's one vision...Is it yours?

If it is – this morning I'd like to invite you to rethink.

Have you noticed how often Paul, in his letters to young churches, writes to “the saints in Ephesus...Philippi....Corinth...”....But as we read the substance of those letters we see that the recipients are very much works in progress, making just as many mistakes as we do ourselves. They are real people – messed up, sinned against and sinning but CALLED TO BE SAINTS in just the same way that we are ourselves.

If we use the Beatitudes as our yardstick, we may well feel we'd prefer to avoid sainthood– for if it is really blessed to be poor, to weep, to be hungry, hated, insulted, rejected...then, please Lord, could you choose someone else
In truth, we can often see God's light shining most clearly at times of the greatest darkness – so perhaps it's no surprise that those who suffer are also those who shine.
And it's all about shining...
Remember Leonard Cohen's wisdom
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.”

It's their flaws that enable the saints to show us God's grace at work...It's our flaws that may show that same grace to others.

So let us celebrate the every-day saints, as we are invited to by the priest and poet Malcolm Guite in his sonnet for All Saints

And blessed are the ones we overlook;
the faithful servers on the coffee rota,
the ones who hold no candle, bell or book
but keep the books and tally up the quota,
The gentle souls who come to 'do the flowers',
The quiet ones who organise the fete,
Church sitters who give up their weekday hours,
Doorkeepers who may open heaven's gate.
God knows the depths that often go unspoken
Amongst the shy, the quiet, and the kind,
Or the slow healing of a heart long broken,
Placing each flower so for a year's mind.
Invisible on earth, without a voice,
In heaven their angels glory and rejoice.

Holy, holy, holy Lord”

That shining circle who stands around the throne of God is still very much part of our story…for we worship together, our prayers and praises connecting with theirs across time and eternity.
When I first celebrated Mass, the day after my ordination as priest, I was completely bowled over by the overwhelming presence of that heavenly company….MY saints. - the people whom I’d known and loved, who had shaped my journey…and those who had died long before I was born, but whose words or deeds had inspired me. They were all there, standing beside me at the altar – and when I’m properly attentive, they are there still, week on week, singing with us, lending power and life to our song.
Pause to listen for their voices yourself, this morning, and be thankful.
Oh yes, I believe in the Communion of Saints alright...I'd be lost without it.
Without them – and without you - the saints of Uplands, of Stroud, Cainscross or Slad...(the saints of twitter and Facebook too)
We may not think of ourselves as holy in any way…but actually, by virtue of our baptism, holiness IS our calling.
We are, every one of us, set apart for God…called to be saints, just as we are.
Flawed, imperfect people, but people through whom the Light of the World is content to shine.

Yet all are one in thee, for all are thine....Alleluia”

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Journey On

"Our past is wrapped up in the heart of God, and of our future he will take care"

Each year since I've been at St Matthew's, we have invited our funeral families to join us for two very different kinds of remembering.
Of course we offer the traditional All Souls Requiem - and every year I am almost overwhelmed by the weight of privilege and responsibility as I read aloud that list of names - some long gone, some whose funerals I've taken just a few weeks before.
But I remember all too well that feeling of waiting to hear my parents' names read out...the leaden weight on my heart as we journeyed through the alphabet towards "W" for "Warner".
It was almost unbearable - something I really don't think many people are ready for in the first months and years of bereavement.

So, though we tell our funeral families that the Requiem will take place, and many ask for their dead to be remembered there, we also offer them a gentler way to pause on their journey, to bring their sadness and their gratitude to God, and engage with all that is happening inside them as they move hesitantly towards healing.
This afternoon some 40 of them gathered, dodging the downpours that seemed to underline just how tough the going is when you're mourning...
They arrived chilled and dripping, somewhat bedraggled - and the church did feel like a sanctuary as we listened to the wind getting up outside.
Each one of those present represented a story of remarkable courage...
The son who had cared devotedly for his mother through long years of dementia
The mother whose son took his own life when the world seemed to harsh to endure
The young mum and her sister who came remembering a baby lost to SIDS - but who came with their arms full of the toddler who is not a replacement but is so very clearly a sign of hope.
Each of them has mourned and struggled and wondered if there was really any point to getting up in the morning.
Each of them, simply by being there, reminded us
"And now faith, hope and love remain - these three"

Their presence in church represented a huge act of faith - and an expression of hope, that the darkness of loss would not hold them forever.
And the love? Well, that was evident in everything that they did...
In the tears and the smiles as they lit candles and remembered - of  course - but still more in the care that they took of one another as we gathered for tea and far too much cake in the church hall.

The wonderful Ally Barrett had written a new All Souls hymn this year, which we sang just before we embarked on lighting the candles.
Its words carried exactly the message I wanted to leave with today's congregation
We place into your hands, O Lord,
our future and our past:
And as you bless us on our way,
and travel with us night and day,
your love will hold us fast,
your love will hold us fast.

So often in ministry, my job is to get out the way so that God can work.
Today I watched as these lovely, beloved and hurting people reached out as agents of God's healing for each other.
Indisputably, non-negotiably holy ground - where I am privileged to have stood for just a little while.