Saturday, March 29, 2014

Mothering Sunday homily for 8.00. Love can break your heart.

Love can break your heart
That might seem to be the message of today's gospel.
You have both options printed on your sheet – but whichever passage you choose to reflect on, there's not a whiff of hallmark sentimentality about today.
A sword shall pierce your soul” predicted Simeon – and as Passiontide approaches we begin to remember once again how hard it was to be the Mother of watch your precious son court disaster by his lifestyle, his choice of friends, his choice of words...even before you find yourself standing at the foot of the cross as he dies in agony.

That kind of desperate anxiety about another is part of the business of loving too, I think – part of investing so much of ourselves IN the other that when they hurt, we hurt too.
A situation that's so very familiar to mothers – but equally to fathers, brothers, sisters, friends...

Because, you see, mothering,and all that it entails, has never been exclusive to those women who have given birth.
At its best, motherhood can be a wonderful reflection of God's nurturing love
At its worst it can be neglectful, manipulative, possessive and a whole host of other things besides – and I know that many people struggle with today, and some regulars will stay away from church because their own experience as either parent or child has left them bruised and broken.
Then there are those who have longed to be parents – but it just hasn't happened, whose empty arms make today almost intolerable..another group who feel that this Sunday is not for them...
Having had a miscarriage on the eve of Mothering Sunday myself I can empathise with their feelings.
And of course, there are those who will spend today missing their mothers – or their children. Holding onto the love but knowing the pain of absence as well.
Love can break your heart and Mothers' day as it is celebrated by secular society can be extraordinarily hard for many many people...

So – why keep on celebrating it at all – when there is so much potential for causing distress for which not all the daffodils in the world will ever begin to compensate?
Why not just write it off as a secular celebration and focus on the readings set for Lent 4, without even thinking of Mothering Sunday.
Because, of course, Mothering Sunday – unlike the secular celebration of “Mothers' Day” has never been all about mothers...
On Mothering Sunday we celebrate all those who have mothered us, those loving souls whose care and encouragement have made all the difference to us – women and men and children too...
Yes, of course we give thanks for those who laboured that we might have life, who physically brought us into this world – whatever their impact on us afterwards.
But we remember, too, that we are called into community – the family of the church that was created as Jesus gave his mother into the care of his friend, at that moment of terrible pain which looked like the end of all hope,everywhere.
And we remember that we have inherited that calling to mother, to nurture one another, to provide loving arms to hold and to hug at the hard show others the kind of care that might, at its best, be at least a partial reflection of the amazing love that God offers us all – even when we break HIS heart with our failure to love in return.

And we come to our mother church – the place that has nurtured us in our faith, that feeds us week by week with God's Word and his very life, offered to us in Bread and Wine.

And maybe we remember that though Love can break your heart- beyond the pain and heartbreak that Mary experienced at the foot of the cross, the dawn of Resurrection is already shining – and so we try to live as signs of that new hope, and the world in which God's mothering love is known and shared by all....

Monday, March 24, 2014

Goodbye and thanks for all the fish!

was pretty much all I could think of when asked this morning to write the letter for the team magazine. I'm not finding this business of leaving easy in any way - and having chuntered, agonised and procrastinated all day, it seems like a good idea to post the final product here to remind myself of some things I might need to remember

Dear Friends,
4 weeks to go!
However did that happen? One moment my depature was far in the future - “not til after Easter” - but now Lent is shooting past at the gallop and I'm confronting a series of “lasts”. Already I've had my last Eucharist at St Lawrence, my last Assembly at Cashes Green School, my last regular Messy Church – and goodness, it hurts! Many of you have kindly asked if I'm looking forward to my new post – and the answer, right now, is that it's very hard indeed to see past the sadness of farewell, though I know that once I'm actually THERE it will all look quite different and more than a little exciting.

But I think it's OK to grieve, all the same. The past 6 years have included so much that is really wonderful, too many highlights to name. I've shared friendships and fun, holy moments in worship and at bedsides, important anniversaries (100th birthdays for parishioners, 175th birthday for a church) and episcopal (and archi-episcopal) visits. I've experienced the delight of helping to train curates, and watching them grow into their vocations as ministers of word and sacrament. I've welcomed children to receive Communion for the first time and found myself invited into people's lives at times of immense joy and real tragedy. It has been, and remains, a tremendous blessing and I have learned so much from all of you – so saying “Goodbye” is bound to be painful.

I'd imagined that with 4 months to plan, I would be able to tie up loose ends, visit everyone I wanted to and hand on everything in tip-top condition – but of course I had reckoned without the way that real life continues relentlessly, - and there always quite enough to fill the days, without even thinking of preparations for departure. Perhaps one reason that Jesus told us from the cross “It is finished” was because he alone was able to achieve all that he set out to. Certainly my hopeful plans unravel even as I look at them and though I'll do my best, I know I won't be able to “end off tidily”, as Sr Theresa always encouraged us in junior school sewing class.

Perhaps it's just as well, then, that I'm actually leaving in the Easter season, with its eternal promise of hope restored beyond even the messiest, saddest partings. While for me Lent seems to be passing all too quickly, I know that for many the resurrection hope seems a long time coming. Our world currently seems colder, sadder, more cynical than at any point in my lifetime – and it breaks my heart that in some ways the church seems to be part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. BUT we have a gospel to proclaim – genuine good news of eternal significance which our communities will only come to recognise if they see it reflected in our lives. The God of Easter shows us that there is nothing so broken or painful that it can't be transformed – but he calls us to be part of the process of transformation as the Body of Christ here today.

So – look after one another, knowing that God will look after you – and remember that wherever we travel, He goes with us.

With my love, thanks and many blessings

Sunday, March 23, 2014

In all things thee to see 2: Singing the song

Singing the song

King of glory, king of peace – I WILL love thee

A decision has been made – an act of will as deliberate and determined as that which we encounter in the marriage service
This is to be the course of Herbert's life, through good and ill. 
Contemplating his own mortality in “The Forerunners”, he faces the same griefs and fears that so often accompany age and frailty – but repeatedly pulls himself back to a statement of stubborn belief “Thou art still my God”. 
Rowan Williams has written of Herbert's struggle with the question

If God is in the environment, what does it mean when the environment looks terrible...and goes on to speak of his “Sustained exploration of what it is to let go of an assumption that assurance of God's grace can be tied to positive feelings...Faith is the glorifying of God as God, not the glorifying of God as provider of attractive spiritual experience; salvation rests not only on how we feel, or what we understand, but only the radical willingness to go on standing in the presence of God's judgement and mercy”

For me, as an off-the-scale “F” in Myers Briggs terms, this is a huge challenge – but it only increases my admiration for Herbert, who is prepared to go on praying “Teach me my God and King in all things thee to see”, no matter what those things might look like, or FEEL like. 
God is inextricably involved in the world's pain, whether as cause or participant scarcely matters. Though we may declaim “Let all the world in every corner sing, My God and King” and hear triumphant fanfares of universal praise, we could also pause to remember that corners are dark and undistinguished places where dust and decay might lurk – or we ourselves hide when life's messy reality overwhelms us. Even here, says Herbert, from his gloomy corner – even here God is sovereign, and we are called to praise him “seven whole days, not one in seven”, no matter what. Herbert is steeped in the Anglican tradition of Scripture prayed as liturgy (in that same hiim the calling of the church is to something very much like Choral Evensong “The Church with psalms must shout”
Herbert's God is the God of psalm 139...the God whom we find even if we take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea...the one who penetrates even the thickest darkness, as though it was clear as the day. Whatever our current perception, he asserts that God is present..Moments of exalted delight can be cherished but they cannot ultimately be enshrined even in the perfection of verse. Here's The Temper – a title in which Herbert plays on both the idea of tempering steel and his own extremes of emotion....

How should I praise thee, Lord!
How should my rhymes
 Gladly engrave thy love in steel,
If what my soul doth feel sometimes,
My soul might ever feel!

Wouldn't that be easy? And enjoyable too...a faith that is one long summer's afternoon. But unfortunately it's not as the poem continues Herbert enables us to build a bridge, to give voice to our faltering belief that God remains God amid cataclysmic disaster, personal tragedy – or even the round of APCMs...

Although there were some forty heav'ns, or more,
Sometimes I peer above them all;
Sometimes I hardly reach a score;
Sometimes to hell I fall.

O rack me not to such a vast extent;
Those distances belong to thee:
The world's too little for thy tent,
A grave too big for me.

Wilt thou meet arms with man, that thou dost stretch
crumb of dust from heav'n to hell?
Will great God measure with a wretch?
Shall he thy stature spell?

O let me, when thy roof my soul hath hid,
O let me roost and nestle there:
Then of a sinner thou art rid,
And I of hope and fear.

Yet take thy way; for sure thy way is best:
Stretch or contract me thy poor debtor:
This is but tuning of my breast,
To make the music better.

Whether I fly with angels, fall with dust,
Thy hands made both, and I am there;
Thy power and love, my love and trust,
Make one place ev'rywhere.

Again he reaches the place of harmony. It seems that for Herbert the process of writing out his feelings in poetry enables him to reach a resolution – but the process of tuning and tempering him (think of Bach's Well-tempered Klavier) is never easy...though the end more than justifies the means.

Sometimes it is not Herbert but God himself who is re-tuned.
Easter was originally two separate poems, brought together in one in a structure that reflects the structure of many lute-songs of the day in which a more stately opening section, based on a pavane, was followed by a joyously leaping galliard. Here the exalted invitation of the first verse, 'Rise heart;thy Lord is risen',and the musical images of verses two and three, find their fullest expression in the song of praise of the final three verses.

RIse heart; thy Lord is risen. Sing his praise
Without delayes,
Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise
With him mayst rise:
That, as his death calcined1 thee to dust,
His life may make thee gold, and much more, just.

Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part
 With all thy art.
The crosse taught all wood to resound his name,
Who bore the same.
His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key
Is best to celebrate this most high day.

Consort both heart and lute, and twist a song
Pleasant and long:
Or, since all musick is but three parts2 vied
And multiplied,
O let thy blessed Spirit bear a part,
And make up our defects with his sweet art.

I got me flowers to straw thy way;
I got me boughs off many a tree:
But thou wast up by break of day,
And brought’st thy sweets along with thee.

The Sunne arising in the East,
Though he give light, & th’ East perfume;
If they should offer to contest
With thy arising, they presume.

Can there be any day but this,
Though many sunnes to shine endeavour?
We count three hundred, but we misse:
There is but one, and that one ever.

The poet draws on Scripture to illustrate the poem:  the words of praise from Psalm 57:8-10 and the theme of Paul’s letter to the Romans, with its exploration of how people are made right with God - justified - through Jesus’ death on the cross. Christ, stretched out in death on the wood of the cross, becomes God’s instrument, playing a melody of love to the world. The heart responds to the melody by joining with it, as instrumentalists join together in consort to make music.  But since none can sing this tune perfectly, a further strand needs to be woven:  that of the Spirit who makes up 'our defects with his sweet art'.
In the following song of joyful celebration, the poet sees the day of Christ’s resurrection as unsurpassed in glory. 'Can there be any day but this' - the sun that rises each day of the year cannot shine as brightly as the Son of God as he brings light to the world – and the glory of this day will never come to an end, but shine forever.

And so at last God and sinner are reconciled so it is time to give voice to prayer...
PRAYER, the Church’s banquet, angels’ age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet, sounding heaven and earth;
Engine against the Almighty, sinner’s tower,
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 that 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 .This is a sonnet with no main verb, but with a succession of metaphors tumbling over one another, suggesting that ultimately prayer cannot be described, only occasionally experienced, for in it we are touching ultimate Mystery.

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 that there's a risk that you might emerge more confused than enlightened
Prayer is of that of God in us reaching out to God once more – God's breath in man returning to his birth...It is terrible and awful
Engine agains th'Almighty, sinner's towr, Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear”
But it is also simple, gentle, “the six days world transposing in an hour” ( as Creation is retuned to a key that matches God's) and becomes“a kind of tune which all things hear and fear”. It is majestic, but simple – remote but intimate...Here is God encountered within the ordinary and everyday. So the phrase ‘Heaven in ordinary’ suggests not only the bread and wine of the eucharist, ‘the church’s banquet’, but also God descending to our ‘ordinary’ level, a meaning strengthened by the 17th century use of the word ‘ordinary’ for a fixed-price meal in a tavern. ...and of course what is ordinary for heaven is humanity at its very very best...
I love the ambivalence of “Church bells beyond the stars heard”...are these our bells, making themselves heard on high – or a faint echo of heavenly bells beyond the stars heard here on earth...Prayer, at its best, is a two way process...but though we cannot define or confine it, at the end it is something that we know, hold and practice almost by instinct...not something to spend time examining but rather something understood...needing no further words of explanation or commentary.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The woman speaks - Lent 3A at St Matthew's

It was just an ordinary day: hot, tiring, and very very lonely. Life is hard here. People don't like me, because I'm different. My life has taken many an unexpected turn, and events have left their scars...I know I don't fit in....and my neighbours make that very obvious.

When I go to the market for fruit the other women call their children to them, draw back themselves into the shelter of their homes...When I go to fetch water, I'm excluded from the friendly team work that makes light work of the heaving of those precious gallons from deep within the earth.
I'm not part of their group. I don't belong here and I don't really know where home is anymore.
Well, now I come to think about it, things may actually have changed here...There's a rather different atmosphere since that day.

But not then...not when I set out. You see, I couldn't bear the sudden silence that always fell upon any group I chanced upon, so gradually I'd began to shun the company of others even as they shunned me.It meant a few adjustments in the daily routine, like going for water at noon.Not the best use of time and resources – and yet, if I hadn't, I would never have met him.
So, there I was, trudging to the well....No way round it – any home needs water, many jars full each and every day...and somebody has to fetch it. And that someone is always and everywhere the woman...
But that day it seemed harder than usual. The sun beat down. The great jar weighed heavy and the distance to the well seemed to have doubled. My feet dragged along the dusty track, outside the walls of the village.
Always outside...that's where life seemed to have thrown me. 
As I walked, I found myself mulling over the big questions once again, the ones that have you tossing and turning in the small hours.
Why me? What's it all for? What if this is all there is?
I never thought I'd end up like this...
I feel such a failure! All my hopes and dreams turned to dust, as dry as the ground I'm walking on! I HATE my life! I hate what I've become.
Please God, there must be more - more to my life, more to me than this!”

I nearly spoke aloud – but I get enough looks askance as it the words, the thoughts remained inside my head...
I rounded the corner and the well was in sight...

To my annoyance, there was someone there. A man, alone, rubbing tired feet and wiping sweat from his brow. He was bound to be bad news. I didn't recognise him, and I was sure he'd have nothing good to say to me, so when I got there I just carried on in silence, turning the handle, bringing up the bucket...weary work...
Of course, it didn't occur to him to help me. He was a man. I am a woman. End of story.
Except – he asked me for a drink...and when he spoke, it was with a Galilean accent. Then I noticed his prayer shawl
He, a Jew, asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink....
They say, don't they, that only mad dogs go out in the noonday clearly this man's mind had been touched by the sun...but all the same, I liked his voice...I stopped my work to reply
“Ummm....I don't think you'd want one from me. I'm a Samaritan. You're a Jew. We don't mix. History, you know...”
And then it happened. The conversation changed...We seemed still to be standing in that ordinary, everyday world...but somehow words had new meanings, simple exchanges were charged with extraordinary significance.
“If you asked me, I could give you living water...”
What could he mean? You didn't find living water, clear, running water in a well....Up in the mountains there might be a spring like that, but nothing for miles around here...
Well water was the best we could do...and at least it was wholesome here
Then he went on
“I could give you water that protects you from thirst forever.”
I knew then that our conversation had moved beyond buckets and water jars...He was talking about something different. I didn't understand him, but I knew that I wanted what he was offering more than life itself...
“Oh yes please....” I begged...
“An end to this daily slog...Refreshment whenever I need it....Oh, I long for that”

I stood staring at him, everything I was focussed intently on his face...Surely this was going to be a moment of transformation.
Living water...
But then he brought me back to earth
“Go and get your husband!” he said
“My husband?”
How did he know?
Much married, I am...I'm not going to say more than that, - but the man living in my home at the moment isn't a husband, that's for sure.
Why did this Galilean with the kind eyes have to bring that up?
Was he, after all, just another accomplice of the jeering villagers?
I flushed and looked away, mumbling “I don't have a husband”

But his response...Oh....I knew as he spoke to me that he was seeing into my heart, into my soul...that everything I had done, and that others had done to me, everything I'd longed to be, every dream I'd cherished, every tear I had shed, everything was open to him......that he saw it all, and accepted me just exactly as I was.
I didn't know who or what he was...but I could tell he was special...By telling me who I really am, he’d also shown me who he really was.
“You're a prophet, sir...Help me to understand who's got religion right. Does God prefer one style of worship to another...Should we worship him in the beauty of creation, over on the mountain side, or give of our best labour to make a splendid home for him? What should we do?”
“Wait...” he answered...”God's bigger than that....bigger than worship styles...bigger than churches, Temples, bigger even than creation. God is greater than your biggest imaginings...God is Spirit so you must worship in Spirit and in Truth”
Such huge words. Such huge concepts. I was out of my depth now, almost drowning in those living waters...Floundering, I remembered the age-old promise that one would come to save us...
“The Messiah...that's who we need”

And then,he spoke these heart-stopping words

“I AM”

And, do you know, as I stood there I believed him. No doubt anywhere. This was it. I believed so passionately that suddenly I longed for everyone in that unkind village to know for themselves....

There were some men coming, more was time for me to make myself scarce...but now I was a woman with a mission. I left my jar there by the well, the hard won water sparkling at the brim....It didn't matter. Not compared with this.
EVERYONE must come and hear this amazing man...the man who knew me for what I truly am....who saw the secrets of my heart....the man whose words have given me a new purpose.
I was so tired of the treadmill, so thirsty for meaning that day...and suddenly, there it was...
Answers to every question, comfort for every pain, endless refreshment for mind and spirit....
The Messiah met by chance by a well in a small village in Samaria.

God in the ordinary, turning my world upside down.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

In all things thee to see – some reflections on George Herbert and the life of faith 1: tuning the instrument

Today I found myself in the daunting position of leading a quiet day for my clergy colleagues in the deanery - at the beautiful Bernardine monastery of Our Lady and St Bernard at Brownshill. I'm never quite comfortable presuming to "lead" my peers - but I did enjoy revisiting some of my earlier writing and thinking about Herbert to provide three addresses - with a good long gap between.

28 years ago, I ran our of funding and reluctantly abandoned a PhD with the snappy title

The use of musical imagery in the poetry of George Herbert as a metaphor for the human relationship with God”

My 1st degree was in English lit and I began my explorations from an agnostic literary viewpoint, but I found that it was well-nigh impossible to linger amid what Herbert describes as “the many spiritual conflicts that have passed between God and my soul” without absorbing at least some hint of the divine. In fact, it was through the heady mixture of Herbert, Lancelot Andrewes and a daily dose of Choral Evensong that God drew me to him – so agnosticism didn't stand a chance!

Fast forward 2 decades and my friend Justin Lewis Anthony published abook, advocating a healthier approach to parish ministry, with the dramatic, even provocative title
If you meet George Herbert on the road – KILL HIM!
Justin had succumbed to the view of Herbert as the model of priestly perfection, a devoted pastor whose writings in “The Country Parson” have provided ample ammunition for stressed clergy to use against themselves for far too long. Herbert was quite blatant about it
The country parson desires to be all things to his parish”
he wrote – before cataloguing every desirable gift, from teaching and preaching to pharmacopia – so it's small wonder that most of us would simply roll our eyes and walk away at top speed. All of this, together with the suspicion that you already think you know Herbert's work pretty well, makes me decidedly dubious about asking you to listen to me today.
But I'm not wholly apologetic about inviting you to engage with the poetry of Herbert afresh...As I said, spending time with him was an important stage in my own faith journey – Though we might tend to think that he was such a sunny soul that his writings have little to say to us in a world where ministry has changed almost beyond recognition and the life of faith is rarely sweet and easy, he might just surprise you. Even those hymns which we sing most regularly include traces of a darker reality – mess and mystery, God's absence causing disorder and jarring dis-ease in place of harmony and grace. The fact that we encounter him most often when we sing his words as hymns means that the tune can subvert the meaning of the poem...So, in
King of Glory, King of peace” (Praise 1) we pass smoothly over his painful consciousness of guilt. We chorus obediently
Though my sins against me cried” but never stop to consider that feeling of contending with an army of rioting inner voices that threaten to drown out the the faltering voice of the person we aspire to be...Herbert's sins are witnesses for the prosecution as he finds himself on trial – and though we move swiftly on to celebrate the mercy God shows as judge “Thou didst clear me” this doesn't completely resolve the preceding tumult. We are carried on the gentle tune past the frantic desperation of a writer wracked with sobs as we sing cheerfull “thou didst note my working breast” - and barely pause for breath ourselves at all! The tranquil cadences of tune and rhyme working together seem to guarantee that peace is a foregone conclusion – but the lived experience is nothing like as tidy or harmonious. Perhaps this is why Herbert writes poetry, rather than simply journalling his inner struggles...No stranger to the dark night of the soul, to God as the great Absentee
(“Thy absence doth excell all distance known” he wrote in The Search) his constant quest is to arrange the chaotic jangling human experience so that he has some sense of control and order, creating harmony in metre and rhyme at least, as a way of holding unruly feelings in check.
That idea of harmony is crucial to Herbert's personal faith...Again and again he uses music as a metaphor for our relationship with the Creator...In our prayer and praise we catch the faintest echo of the everlasting song of heaven – but so very often our lives are out of tune..creating unwelcome discord where there should be peace and concord. This is very real to Herbert, whose sense of his own sin is as keen as his vision of the overarching perfection of God in creation....
I think that sometimes the perfection of his verse makes us miss the sense of painful aspiration. He so wanted to live a holy life – and was so consistently appalled by his continuing sinfulness: ‘I could not use a friend as I use thee’; - he says to God...
Like St Paul he is challenged by his own confusion and inconsistency, as he repeatedly does not do the good that he longs to...
I will complain, yet praise;/
I will bewail, approve:/
And all my sour-sweet days/
I will lament, and love.’;

Sometimes, it seems that God is absent, forsaking Herbert as surely as he forsook the psalmist. So in Denial, we encounter the poet is knocking urgently on heaven's gate – but seeming to find nobody at home, and here even the semblance of an ordered world is lost. Instead we share a sustained experience of doubt and abandonment that is frightening in its intensity

When my devotions could not pierce
Thy silent ears,
Then was my heart broken, as was my verse;
My breast was full of fears
And disorder.

My bent thoughts, like a brittle bow,
Did fly asunder:
Each took his way; some would to pleasures go,
Some to the wars and thunder
Of alarms.

As good go anywhere,” they say,
As to benumb
Both knees and heart, in crying night and day,
Come, come, my God, O come!
But no hearing.”
O that thou shouldst give dust a tongue
To cry to thee,
And then not hear it crying! All day long
My heart was in my knee,
But no hearing.

Therefore my soul lay out of sight,
Untuned, unstrung:
My feeble spirit, unable to look right,
Like a nipped blossom, hung

O cheer and tune my heartless breast,
Defer no time;
That so thy favors granting my request,
They and my mind may chime,
And mend my rhyme.

This is no mere intellectual struggle but an agonised lament, in which his whole being is caught up in chaotic earthquake of emotion...So, the structure of the poem breaks down too...Try and work out the rhythm of the piece and you'll see what I mean...His heart is broken, his breast full of fears. Here, knees and heart are numb with crying out day and night to God -"My heart was in my knee" -but still God is silent and unresponsive. The final line of verse 3 "But no hearing"is repeated in verse 4. Nothing the poet can say or do seems to pierce God’s "silent ears" – silent because they are stopped to the pleas of distraught humanity – but also embodying the divine silence the poet experiences. Further, it is God who has given mortal man (verse 4) the capacity to cry to God, and then not to hear…Is God wantonly cruel? Where is he? What, oh WHAT, is going on? God invites us to share our deepest pain with him, and then seems impervious to our struggles – busy with something more interesting, like the infinitely various designs of a snowflake perhaps. It seems monstrously unfair that in the penultimate verse the soul is seen to be laid aside, a broken viol abandoned in a corner "Untuned, unstrung"....
Does God have no use for it, for us, after all?
In her commentary on this poem, Helen Wilcox sees the coming together of the musical metaphor and the metaphor of war of verse 2: an unstrung bow cannot even send arrow prayers.
In the last verse, the narrative of the rest of the poem is replaced by a prayer that God will indeed meet with the soul and bring tune and harmony. Herbert finally allows harmony to come in the rhyming sequence:disjointed rhyme in the first five verses is replaced by a rhyming last line in the last verse. The final order in the words mirrors the new order to be found by the soul:outer form and inner spirit find harmony. and desolation is redeemed as Herbert once again celebrates a convergence of his mind with God's.

So a troubled and troublesome period is brought to a tidy conclusion but that, in itself, doesn't make Herbert helpful reading for those striving to find God in all situations, whether of pain or of joy. What does matter, though, is that even in the times of darkness when God's absence is the one certainty, Herbert keeps the one-way conversation going. Again and again he offers us the experience found most profoundly in the psalms of lament -the dogged refusal to leave God alone, the insistence on asking the question “Why” again and again, even when there seems no evidence at all that there is anyone there to answer. For Herbert, as for the psalmist, silence is just not an option. We are designed to communicate with God, to tune our prayers to his melody even if it is set in the darkest key.
I'm reminded of the story of the rabbis who met in the wake of the Holocaust to determine who was to blame...Was it God, or man? They argued and debated while day turned to evening, evening night and night dawn. Finally they agreed that there was no escaping God's culpability. A deep and despairing silence fell. At length, one of their number welaked over to the window and drew back the blind.
Look,” he said “the sun has risen. It's time to worship God.”
There is nothing else.
To whom else shall we go. You have the words of eternal life....

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Letting Go...

is never going to be my strongest suit.

My poor patient children know that, while I am absolutely OK with their absence once they've gone and delight in their independence and the new worlds that they inhabit - (and love that they invite me into their lives and bring home "travellers' tales" too) - nonetheless in the days and hours before they leave the vicarage, I dissolve into tears pretty much whenever I look at them. I'm rubbish -RUBBISH-  at Goodbyes of any kind - so I've known for a while that these last weeks at Cainscross were going to be hard.

I've thought mostly in terms of leaving beloved people behind - the frail elderly whose final journey I won't be part of, the babies I baptised who will start school in September with another priest leading collective worship, and those families who aren't securely anchored in the church, but who clearly value our presence so much as part of the community. I was Deacon at our parish Eucharist this morning, which gave me plenty of opportunity to look at the faithful congregation as they came up to the altar many lovely people with whom I've celebrated, wept, and just got on with the business of being church, week in, week out. It was very hard not to weep as I realised that we're now into single figures in the count-down of weeks before I go...that in just 2 months time, I'll be in another place entirely. 
As I say, I'm rubbish at Goodbyes.

Last week as I sat quietly in the church while others walked our Lenten labyrinth, I found myself saying "Goodbye" to the building - a space that has turned out to be far more flexible and accepting of change than it had ever appeared. Though it initially seemed limited by its firmly fixed pews, it's the space in which I have not simply broken bread and washed feet, celebrated new life and wept over untimely death, but also  the studio where amazing art was created by Messy Church families, the backdrop for adventures in alternative worship, and the place where I've simply sat still and waited for God. Actually, that quiet hour in the building was helpful as I reflected on those names that precede mine on the vicars' board...a line of men stretching back 177 years, who have, in different ways, tried to do what I too have attempted. In the space and silence I remembered that people do come and go, but the great Story continues...that regardless of what happens within the Church of England and the deanery of Stroud, God's people will still gather somewhere hereabouts to pray and worship, to share bread and wine and encounter Christ in word and sacrament.

But the thing I hadn't allowed for was the difficulty of setting aside my dreams and hopes and longings for the future of the church. I hope and pray I haven't fallen victim to the clerical vice of needing to "leave my mark". I've always known that ministry is in no way about me - that I'm here for a season to serve God and his people as best I can, and then move on to let another carry on the work in a new way....but however much I know that rationally, of course I've invested huge chunks of myself in the life of our church family, and most particularly in building links between church and community. 
Today was our APCM and already I can see cracks in a veneer that I had thought was solid wood. Perhaps my vision for the future was never the "right" one for this community. Perhaps I was guilty of imposing an agenda that was not God's, or of trying to make the church something that did not reflect its true self. I can't judge that, but certainly, if people were only running with my agenda to please me, it never stood a chance of surviving my time here...

Still and all, it's quite hard to let go.
It's another sort of bereavement - letting go of a future that I'll have no part in, without any certainty of what it might look like for a community I've loved and cherished as best I can during our 6 years together.
Time to remember the words that I share with bereaved families as we gather each year for our "Journey On" service
"Our past is wrapped up in the arms of God, and of our future he WILL take care".
If I can believe that for myself - and it's fair to say that I mostly can - then I must be able to do so for my church family too. Just another lesson in trust, then!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Disciplined hope for the Church

It was 20 years ago today...that my youngest son was teething, restless and miserable. 
Most of the normal soothing routines had failed to have an impact so we resorted to switching on our ancient black and white t.v. It was scarcely dynamic entertainment but perhaps the combination of other voices and the somewhat unreliable picture would divert him for a while. It was mid afternoon, I think - I was trying to do the ironing, the other children were hanging about the playroom...and suddenly everything stopped for me.

As we watched, history was being made and we found ourselves sharing in the ordination service from Bristol Cathedral. 32 women, called by God and finally, finally ordained to the work and office of a priest in His Church.
I was just beginning my Reader training and had no thought that this calling might be mine as well - but as I watched I found myself crying, without any idea of why.
Always enthusiastic hymn-singers, the older children joined me in boosting the Cathedral congregation.
My husband came in, and he too stopped in his tracks.
We looked at one another and at our baby son, happy in his bouncy chair now things were going on around him
"Isn't it wonderful" I said "that he will grow up in a Church that places no distinction between women and men, that honours all callings equally. He'll never know about the barriers that kept women from living out their vocations. All that has gone for good"

I wish that were true.
I wish that the Church in which I work today had reached the point where women and men could offer themselves as they are, in all their rich variety - with all their gifts, vulnerabilities, hopes, dreams and longings - and know that they were welcome. 
I long for the Church would be no more exclusive than is the God whose love that Church exists to share...but in the meantime, I'm thankful for those who worked and prayed and pushed and prayed and wept and prayed so that when I finally removed the fingers that I had kept steadfastly in my ears, I could walk straight through the door that they had opened. 
And I'm going to keep on dreaming.

I dream of a church that joins in with God’s laughing
as she rocks in her rapture, enjoying her art;
she’s glad of her world, in its risking and growing;
‘tis the child she has born and holds close to her heart.

I dream of a church that joins in with God’s weeping
as she crouches, wedged down by the sorrow she sees:
she cries for the hostile, the cold and no-hoping,
for she bears in herself our despair and dis-ease.

I dream of a church that joins in with God’s dancing
as she moves like the wind and the wave and the fire:
a church that can pick up its skirts, pirouetting,
with the steps that can signal God’s deepest desire.

I dream of a church that joins in with God’s loving
as she bends to embrace the unlovely and lost,
a church that can free, by its sharing and daring,
the imprisoned and poor, and then shoulder the cost.

God, make us a church that joins in with your living,
as you cherish and challenge, rein in and release,
a church that is winsome, impassioned, inspiring;
lioness for your justice and lamb of your peace.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Disciplined Hope

Flat out for the past 3 days, so my "Disciplined hope" blogging is coming in a thoroughly undisciplined lump...
However, there were some very special moments - so perhaps it's worth it.
Friday saw "Cardboard City", a sponsored sleep-out in the church-yard of St Lawrence, our town centre church, in aid of MARAH - the homeless support charity of which I'm currently a trustee.
The event was designed to raise awareness as much as to raise money - and was quite staggeringly moving, in the end.
I'd not really thought through how it might feel to worship with 30 assorted people who had voluntarily agreed to spend the night in a cold churchyard, simply to show that they cared. As we sang and prayed and heard a cracking sermon " As Christians we stand in unconditional solidarity with the poor and marginalised" I realised that for once, the Church was living up to her calling. As I watched the group of voluntary rough-sleepers straggle out of the church, their homes bundled up in bin bags for the night, I glimpsed for a moment what that sort of costly solidarity could be like - and it was so utterly beautiful.
God stands in solidarity with us - showing us how it is done. To see a Church!

Saturday was a much gentler day - if you leave aside the fact that it lasted through the hours of the Cardboard City Prayer Vigil so that by the time I arrived at St Matthew's coffee morning the following morning I'd already had nearly enough of Saturday! However, there were signs of hope - above all, the Y3 whom I'm to baptise in a couple of weeks - who brought him mum along to the coffee morning, so that they could begin to learn what it might feel like to be part of the church family. His contact has been entirely through school - so their presence in the church hall amid our elderly regulars was a huge affirmation not only of W's longing to belong but of the strengthening ties between church and school that have been so much part of my work here.

And then came Sunday - with 5 baptisms - 4 for my delightful neighbours opposite, whose 3 daughters and infant son joined the Church this afternoon. Here the sign of hope came from M., aged 5, whose enthusiasm for the whole proceedings was such that her answer to all the questions was, again and again, with ever increasing volume and joy "YES"
By the time we got to "Do you believe in the Holy Spirit who gives life to the people of God and makes Christ known in the world" I was encouraging everyone to abandon the script and just shout along with Molly  "YES, YES, YES". It's not often that a baptism candidate is so full of delight in the proceedings - she also asked for another go when one of her sisters seemed a bit dubious about the process. Oh for a church full of those whose response to God is "Yes, yes, YES!"

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Disciplined hope - Lenten blogging begins

Today was my last "Bishop's Clergy Consultation & Training day" in Gloucester diocese...That's quite extraordinary, as after 20 years in ministry here (10 as a Reader, 10 since ordination) being part of the diocese seems rather like a synonym for ministry full stop. However, God cleiarly decided it was time I widened my horizons - and though I feel predictably sad at the prospect of leaving so many wonderful people and places where I have been so very happy, I've no doubt at all that the move to Coventry is in response to His call.

However, it was quite odd to realise that this was the last time I'd be part of this particular gathering...and I had high hopes of the day. Our speaker was +Stephen Croft, his topic "Evangelism and Nurturing Faith in 21st century" - and I came away with alot to ponder - not least the possibilities of the new "Pilgrim" course, which may be just what I need as I try to find new ways to nurture the Cathedral community in Coventry.

What struck me above all, though, was his emphasis on our need, wherever we are in the Church, to recover a sense of hope as a theological virtue. I'm all too familiar with the need to regard love as an act of will, a discipline rather than a warm and fuzzy feeling. Indeed, I say as much to every couple with whose wedding I'm involved - but somehow I had failed to make the transition from love to faith and hope. For me, hope had become mainly a feeling of fervent optimism - and not something to I focus on even when I feel no positive emotion at all.

But of course he's right. 
If we accept Paul's basic premise that 
"these three remain, - faith, hope and love" then hope must be a choice that we can make daily, a reflection of our confidence in God's endless love.
I'd been dithering gently over a suitable Lenten practice - but it seems to me that one has been presented to me on a plate in the faintly unlikely context of a clergy training day.

I will find at least one sign of hope every day - and will try to blog it, in word or picture, when I can.

Today's is a welcome counter to the despair I've been feeling in the past week over B. (aka S) a local alcoholic about whom I've blogged before. 
It was knowing him that propelled me into involvement with Marah, the trust that seeks to provide support for the homeless and vulnerable in our community - but B seems determined to shoot himself in the foot again and again, so that he is now excluded from virtually every kind of hostel and support scheme in the county. He spent last weekend sleeping in the church - but we all knew that this was no long-term solution - and it seems very hard to envisage any happy ending at all. 
However, when I turned up at the Presbytery for a Marah trustees' meeting, Fr Tom my RC colleague had a story full of hope to share.
He had been travelling to a funeral today, driving with the bearers in the hearse when one produced some money for the imminent "Cardboard City" sponsored sleep-out because, he said, he had once been a Marah client - but thanks to the intervention of wise and compassionate people he had made the journey from rough sleeping, through working as a volunteer in a homeless project in another place, to paid employment - and more than 10 years dry.
He told Fr Tom that his life had been completely turned around - because he had been shown that others had faith in him, that they refused to write him off as just one more alcoholic but saw his potential to change and grow.

I wonder if any of those involved in supporting him 14 years ago agined such a positive outcome. But they planted seeds of kindness that gradually bore fruit in a life transformed.
Something to inspire at the very least some fervent prayer - and the dawning of a faint hope even for B., and so many others like him.