Sunday, September 28, 2014

Travelling Light - more belated thoughts inspired by Greenbelt 2014

I began writing this post during our summer holiday on the narrowboat Polyphony..,somewhere that travelling light is almost irrelevant, as there's so much of home already waiting aboard - though this time round we did travel with a poorly chicken, which put a somewhat comic gloss on the whole thing.
Leaving things behind is always a big deal for me - and I've learned that when you travel, the heaviest things are often those you don't take with you - the people you leave when it's time to move on, the beloved pets who simply wouldn't enjoy sharing a family holiday but whose absence is felt like a small, heavy lump weighing on your heart.

Sometimes those things you leave become so heavy that you can't actually keep going - and then you realise that there's a whole work of letting go still to be done
The wonderful Anne Lamott, whose presence at this year's Greenbelt was a lifetime highlight, says of letting go "Everything I have ever let go of has claw marks on it" - and that's so true for me.
Things and people - the things of home, the people of your community - can be both an anchor, offering stability and certainty
("Your firmnesse draws my circle just, And makes me end where I begunne") and a dead weight which might just drag you down til you sink without trace beneath waves of grief and desolation.

That is so much part of the process of bereavement. If a "good death" is about letting go of unfinished business, trusting that somehow (by God's grace, on a good day) those you love will be OK without you, even though the thought of being without them is a pain so huge that it would rob the sun itself of warmth and light...If that is what a good death means - handing oneself, ones work,ones relationships into untiring, ever-open arms...then a good bereavement must involve a complementary letting go as well...

Because, on this life journey we both carry and are carried by other people..Through the death of my parents, I have been, and will probably be again, the precious burden that others have laid down...I've experienced the way in which our relationship cannot be unchanged by their departure (though I firmly believe that love itself is not changed by death, for the dead or for the living)
I've known the sadness that comes from being left behind, the way that absence seems to be for a time a bigger reality than presence had ever been...and I have learned to gradually build a cairn, turning the dead-weight of grief into a tower of precious memories, a land mark that changes the sky-line of my life, something by which to regain my bearings not once, but again and again.

I don't yet know how the final leave-taking will be...though there are, I guess, faint echoes in the process of leaving a parish, of moving from a space at the centre to one totally outside, seeing the tide come in and wash away any sign of those castles you built so assiduously, with so much energy and hope.
Of course you're not forgotten, but the space that you left is rightly filled by others, and a new normal quickly becomes just the way things are.
That's not altogether comfortable to the ego - we often imagine that it might be good to feel indispensible - but it's certainly the way things should be.
At my best, I want those I love to travel light too...
No claw marks!
What's it all for?: sermon for Evensong on the Feast of S Michael & all Angels

What's it all for?
That's a question that has been trotted out so often it now represents a comic caricature of existential angst...but for all that, it might be one worth asking from time to time.
What's it all for?

Perhaps it's specially important for those of us who work in a place like this, where the ways of the institution, the demands of the building and the expectations of our common life can provide enough impetus to keep us active without undue reflection pretty much seven days a week. But to press on like that is unwise, even dangerous...
Cathedrals, - even when they are as beautiful and beloved as this one – are never ends in themselves. Everything we say and everything we do must, in some way, proclaim and further the work of God's Kingdom, and so here in Coventry we have three specific purposes against which to measure all our activity, whether amid the high celebrations of our patronal festival today, or in the down to earth business of a Monday morning.
Those purpose are Welcome, Worship and Reconciliation – which is reassuring since the Catechism would suggest that of those, worship is, in fact, the whole purpose of human existence. “Our chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever”. In other words, Worship is the only proper response of creation to Creator, the final answer to that question “What's it all for?”,

And as we celebrate with St Michael and all the angels today, we are given an imaginative glimpse of how worship may be when we sing to God in heaven, something to look forward to while we travel on.
Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands,singing with full voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honour and glory and blessing!’
The writer of Revelation has quite a strict sense of hierarchy - there are angels, living creatures and elders not to mention, in another chapter, those who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb – but the focus of all their energy is worship...the business of putting things in THEIR proper order...that is to say, re-ordering them so that God comes first. That's what worship is – giving God his worth...Neither more nor less.

And if God is given God's worth – then God will come first.

That's easy to write and you might think it was a given for all of us who profess the Christian faith – but my own experience is that it is overwhelmingly difficult to do. Though I long, with St Patrick, to ensure that God and God only is first in my heart, so many other things threaten to supersede Him...and I'm not alone. Through the centuries people repeatedly lapsed into idolatry, placing something else, something less at the centre of life.. Sometimes these idols are neutral – money perhaps – sometimes they really are good in themselves – things like family, Church, or social justice – but they are no substitute for we need to keep on practising this business of putting things in the proper order...We need to keep on practising worship. That's what we do when we gather here – we practice worship so that we may more fully engage with it in the world outside...we play at heaven, if you like, aided by angels, archangels and the whole communion of saints.

So when we worship, our routes in are pretty much incidental. Whether you prefer Chris Tomlin or Thomas Tallis, Mozart or Matt Redmond doesn't matter a hoot...because, you see, worship isn't about you. . It’s about God. If God is glorified, and the place where earth touches heaven is recognised and revealed – THAT is worship.
Sometimes it seems that we come together with a rather different agenda,that has more to do with satisfying our own tastes, or meeting our own needs....but true worship is not about how we feel, though we will find it fulfilling beyond all our expectations if our intention is to immerse ourselves in that constant stream of praise and thanksgiving that is the whole business of heaven.

I've never had close dealings with anyone from Tibet, but I've always been fascinated by the idea behind their beautiful prayer wheels...that prayer is a constant thread running through creation, in which we join from time to time. Some prayer wheels are placed in streams, or beneath waterfalls, so that they really do turn constantly, so that it is obvious to all that the prayer never stops. The worship of heaven is like that...continual, under-girding everything, - something into which we step whenever we fix our mind on God and God's glory alone.

That may sound such a high ideal that we don't know how to approach it...if that's so, the psalmist gives us a clue.
I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart;
    before the gods I sing your praise;
2 I bow down towards your holy temple
    and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness;

In other words, we need to be whole hearted, as we celebrate both who God is, and what God has done. Stop for moment and think...Even on an ordinary Sunday in Coventry, that list is quite overwhelming, touching every aspect of our selves and our life together. We live and breathe...We hear and are touched by gifts of music, of art, of friendship. We glimpse for a second the wonder of God's self-giving love.
How can we do other than give thanks?
We may be in a hard place – for life is often less than gentle with us.
When we, or those we love, are hurting, all those gifts may seem empty...but God carries on giving.
There is no-one else who should stand in God's place...the lesser gods fade into obscurity before the steadfast love that holds the universe in being and will never, even for a moment, let us go.

So – if you don't feel like worshipping – worship anyway. Take lessons from the angels, who understand that worship is a way of being, not simply one activity to be chosen from among many . To engage your whole being in worship is to open yourself fully to its transforming power. Worship is, above all, an encounter with God, from which not one of us can expect to emerge unchanged...and that's wonderful because we too are being changed from glory into glory, til at least we can find our place in that crowd who worship round the throne.

Because, you see, that IS what it's all for.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Sermon for the Cathedral Eucharist on Holy Cross Day

Behold the wood of the cross, on which hung the Saviour of the world! Come let us worship...

Part of the proclamation of the cross that is included in the liturgy of Good Friday for thousands of churches across the world – but this is September, and in an on-line conversation last week some friends were completely baffled that Holy Cross day remains in our calendar at all. After all, since we know that the strife is o'er, the battle won and the cross, like the tomb, is empty – what need of a further observance?

And on one level, this could be right. Certainly the origins of the feast might well give you pause, rooted in St Helena's pilgrimage to the holy places of Jerusalem, and her conviction that she had found the site of the crucifixion and of Christ's burial – and close by, 3 crosses buried. Though an early chronicler insisted

All held it as certain that one of these crosses was that of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that the other two were those of the thieves who were crucified with Him.

I'd guess most of us would be inclined to approach the discovery with a little more scepticism...However, in no time Helena had overseen the building of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and as the years passed, the longing of the faithful to have access to even a splinter of the true cross snowballed until it was drastically out of hand. Hardly a church or monastery was without its relic so that at the Reformation Calvin complained

if all the pieces that could be found were collected together, they would make a big ship-load. Yet the Gospel testifies that a single man was able to carry it."

So if we see today as but an excursion into cultic extravagance and superstition, then it is only right and proper to be cautious. But, touch wood the cross seems to have survived this. It remains a popular symbol, chosen as jewellery, as tattoos, as memorials by many who would never claim to follow the crucified one. Strange indeed.
It is hard to imagine anyone choosing to wear a little golden gibbet or a beautifully crafted electric chair pendant round their neck – but it is not this that creates a scandal.
The shock, the scandal comes when the Saviour of the world hangs here - HERE upon that instrument of death...
How can this be...?
Can we grasp, even for a moment, what Paul is celebrating as he quotes that early hymn?
This is God GOD – the creator of all, the one who holds the universe in being,
deliberately choosing to throw in his lot with his creation, to identify with us in an act of such deep and utter commitment that he not only lives a human life but dies a human death, entering into the darkness and experiencing for himself that moment when he can do nothing but surrender.

Total abandonment – to the human condition and to the ultimate purpose of love.
How can this be?

It is, in one way, nothing new. God has always been utterly committed to and connected with his people, their rescue and renewal prefigured by Moses but perfected by Christ. Those who looked at the bronze serpent erected by Moses, trusting in God, escaped death...They looked at an emblem of their trouble, and were healed.
Jesus, lifted high and suffering death himself, offers the route for all of us to escape death forever.
But we have to look with the eyes of faith – to really see the true light that has come into the world, to recognise that God's glory is present as fully as Christ hangs on the cross as it is when he bursts from the tomb in the joy of Easter morning.
We have to look – BEHOLD the wood of the cross...

One of my earliest memories is of looking out of the window on the bus ride home from town, and finding myself eye to eye with the Christ figure on the crucifix that still hangs outside Christ Church, St Leonards...
having looked at Jesus I asked my mother what was written underneath.
The words came from the Reproaches
Is it nothing to you, all you that pass by” - and I felt overwhelming sadness for it seemed that nobody else on the bus was looking, that maybe none of them cared.
Even then it seemed obvious that the cross demands a decision, a response...
You cannot truly SEE the One who is hanging there and do nothing...
He hangs there to draw the all people to himself but He will never constrain, never demand.
Instead, he opens his arms in an embrace wide enough for all the world and says

SEE how much I love you”

but it is your decision whether or not to accept that invitation to be loved.

To accept carries with it the responsibility to pass on the love we have been given, to do all that we can to communicate its overwhelming reality, to live so that others can see for themselves the truth of what Love can do.
We are to lift high the cross, and with it the Son of Man, so that all may see the route to eternal life. I once asked a class of 9 year olds to count the crosses they could find in our church, reminding themselves whenever they saw one “THAT'S how much God loves me”....Before their visit left I asked how many they'd found, expecting a couple of dozen, perhaps a few more. 
But one small boy announced proudly
 “Hundreds and hundreds Kathryn”...
because he had counted every intersection of the tiles on the floor, seen crosses wherever right angles met. And of course he was right. The evidence of God's love cannot really be calculated or recorded.

THAT'S how much he loves us.

Whereas in Holy Week we are often caught up in the liturgical drama, already emotionally exhausted by the highs and lows of the journey from triumphal entry to empty tomb, but straining ahead to Easter joy, today is something quite different.
Today we can simply pause and ponder.

As so often, the poet-priest Malcolm Guite says it best: this is part of his series of sonnets for Holy Week

See, as they strip the robe from off his back
And spread his arms and nail them to the cross,
The dark nails pierce him and the sky turns black,
And love is firmly fastened onto loss.
But here a pure change happens. On this tree
Loss becomes gain, death opens into birth.
Here wounding heals and fastening makes free
Earth breathes in heaven, heaven roots in earth.
And here we see the length, the breadth, the height
Where love and hatred meet and love stays true
Where sin meets grace and darkness turns to light
We see what love can bear and be and do,
And here our saviour calls us to his side
His love is free, his arms are open wide.

So – beyond excess and superstition, beyond apathy and over-familiarity, let us glory in the cross of Christ once more...and let us ask, too, for the grace to empty ourselves so that we may be filled with and transformed by the Love that is hanging on the tree.

Behold the wood of the cross, on which hung the Saviour of the world.
Come, let us worship.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

In praise of volunteers

so this is shamefully late in the day, but I wrote it on our narrowboat immediately after Greenbelt then had no mobile signal til reaching home this weekend. However late, it is, I promise, 100% wholehearted....a huge thank you to the countless wonderful people who together make one of the highlights of my year.

Greenbelt:  a site steward invites us to wave our wristbands in the sunshine as we join the long march from camp-site to Communion
Greenbelt: with rain pounding on the Big Top, where Martyn Joseph has just sung the last notes of the festival, and BHP Pip Wilson reads a Serious Announcement in a Serious Voice about dangers in trying to leave the site til morning
Greenbelt: as a smiling welcomer asks you if your journey was OK - so you suddenly decide that it was, even though it really really wasn't
Greenbelt: a member of the listening team sits patiently under an umbrella on an inflatable sofa doing her festival job of LISTENING - no matter what the weather
From the moment you turn off the road onto the farm tracks of the Boughton Estate, everything you experience depends on volunteers.
Of course there are those whose hard work and kindness you can't help but notice...those lovely site stewards who keep us safe as we womble about (I often find that I've failed to pack all of my faculties when heading for the festival);
the Venue Managers who have made their various spaces beautiful and tend them with loving care, making wave after wave of Greenbelters welcome in their temporary home; 
those who reunite parents and children, or (less alarmingly) cameras and other lost property and owners;
those who answer incessant, and sometimes impossible, questions at the info booth;
medics, nurses, fire crews and hospitality teams;
bar staff and G store sales teams;
those who record talks and process them for the rest of us;
those whose photographs delight and inspire us through the long Greenbelt-less winters;
site vibers, who turn fields and parkland into a wonderful playground (there's a whole team whose energy is devoted to flags and bunting! would you have guessed?)
Front tesk, where S and her team answer well-nigh any question you could possibly dream up;
children's workers, youth team, accessibility team  - and more and more AND MORE!
The public face of the Festival - which surely no-one can miss...though you might not think about how your speakers get to the site, about the driver teams that collect and deliver them from stations and air-ports all over the country, and often get up in the middle of the night to ensure that nobody misses an early flight, or the Night Stewards, who are are around as dependably as the 24 hour Cafe, but with much less attention.

And - beyond all this - have you ever thought about the countless volunteer hours that make Greenbelt a full-time job on top of the day-job for  that list of amazing people whose names appear on the back pages of the festival guide?
The festival actually employs just 8 - that's right EIGHT- paid staff - so everything else that happens depends on volunteers.
They do jobs that I can't even begin to get my head round.
They are people like my friend L...a senior engineer who combines all her engineering know-how with more wit and common-sense than most of the people I know put together, which makes her a genuinely indispensable head of operations. She spends weeks of her life (if you add up the endless hours spent after work) making sure the Greenbelt site is safe, functional and everything else that we take for granted.
Routes...onto and across the site...Walkways...Access...Site capacity...and all sorts of stuff I haven't grasped at all - simply wouldn't work without the Ops team, however much optimistic and impractical souls like me might imagine that several thousand people could just converge on a field and make a festival! She and S travel regularly from Manchester to London (while others travel as far but in other directions), give up weekends beyond number to site visits and ops team weekends, field dozens of Greenbelt related emails pretty much every evening...and they do this FOR LOVE!

And there are many many others like them...
For every single thing that happens - checking the Fair Trade credentials of the traders; ensuring there's somewhere to charge electric wheelchairs; recognising that a greenfield site will need a shop (let's ask our church - I'm sure they'll oblige - drawing yet more volunteers into the mix); drawing maps; managing electric safety checks; arranging for loos, and the emptying thereof; booking someone to clear away and recycle the rubbish...NOTHING happens without volunteers.
There is no distinction between "Greenbelt" and "the volunteers". The volunteers ARE the festival...

I'm very proud that all my children have chosen to make volunteering at Greenbelt part of their summer, even now that this involves sacrifice of actual annual leave...because it seems to me that the wonderful, wonderful army of Greenbelt volunteers is what makes the festival not simply 4 happy days at the end of the summer but a time when, no matter how short-sighted I may be, I cannot help but glimpse heaven.