Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Picking through the rubble

Today at noon I stood, as I often do, at the chancel steps and invited visitors to be still for a few moments, to join in a defining act of prayer, something that is part of our DNA here at Coventry Cathedral, our Litany of Reconciliation.
I told those present that the litany emerged as part of our response the morning after a dreadful event that had changed the city of Coventry forever, that it represented a hard, challenging choice to seek peace and reconciliation, even in the face of violence and anguish. I talked about how the medieval nails that had fallen from the roof of the burned cathedral were formed into a cross, and how that cross of nails became the symbol for all the work that has spread out from Coventry around the world, about the Community of the Cross of Nails, and the different ways in which its members seek paths of reconciliation in the face of real challenge, difficulty and even danger. I talked about Provost Howard's decision to have just two words written in the sanctuary of his ruined cathedral
"Father, forgive" - reflecting that he deliberately turned away from any partisan "them" and "us" response which might demonise any one group.
I dared to say that, as we all ponder the impact of last night's events in violence, which left children - children, Lord help us, - dead, wounded, traumatised, we have the same choice before us.
We can opt for anger, heap vitriole on the people of violence, increase the polarisation of society as we build ever higher walls to separate "them" and "us"....OR we can recognise that each of us carries within us the seeds of anger and cruelty that, left unchecked, can lead to such disaster and resolve to live by a better rule.
There IS a choice. Always.
"What we need to tell the world is this....that we are trying, hard as it may be, to banish all thoughts of revenge....We are going to try to make a kinder, simpler, more Christ-child-like sort of world in the days beyond this strife"

With a new urgency I begged those gathered (a larger crowd than usual, as people came in to be quiet, to light candles, to pray and process all that happened last night) to choose, in their turn, to be people of peace. Then we kept silence for a minute, before I prayed the words that came to me early this morning as I read the first accounts of last night's violence and terror
Lord, you have been our refuge from one generation to another.                                                                                                                      Be with all who cry out to you today:                                                           the weeping, the wounded, the angry, the terrified,
And, in your mercy, receive all the departed into the light and peace of your kingdom,
For we ask this in Jesus's name.

Then together we prayed the Litany - as we do every day.
Precious, holy words that offer a better way of being.
Words that make space for reflection before over-hasty reactions escalate violence.
Words that are a gift in time of trouble

All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
The hatred which divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class,
The covetous desires of people and nations to possess what is not their own,
The greed which exploits the work of human hands and lays waste the earth,
Our envy of the welfare and happiness of others,
Our indifference to the plight of the imprisoned, the homeless, the refugee,
The lust which dishonours the bodies of men, women and children,
The pride which leads us to trust in ourselves and not in God,
Be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.


Praying for Manchester

Lord, you have been our refuge from one generation to another.

Be with all who cry out to you today;

The weeping, the wounded, the angry, the terrified;

And in your mercy receive all the departed into the light of your kingdom,

For we ask this in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Thoughts for Open Easter 5 14th May 2017 John 14 1-14

Lord, we do not know where we are going. How can we know the way?

It has been truly said that while you live life forward, you understand it backwards...and that on the whole we don’t get a map to show us the way our lives will work out. I remember once at vicar school spending an evening discussing with fellow-students whether the - or Bible might be such a map, or whether it was more a guide-book, pointing out the main features that we might expect to run across, without actually prescribing a route from here to there….

Not that I’m great with maps, actually. Before the advent of sat navs, if setting out on a long car journey I had to write out a list of land-mark towns as the pressure of trying to work out where I might be on a map at a motorway service station was simply too much for me. So last week when a small group of us elected to do an independent cross-country journey across Iona, disliking the idea of being herded along in the official pilgrimage that stuck to metalled roads, I was very much NOT in charge. There were five of us that day, 2 younger and fitter, 3 of us substantially less so, and friendships were made or strengthened as we adjusted to one another’s needs, for space, for silence, for time to breathe though the challenges and delights of the day.
I learned a lot.
About myself – how knowing that there ARE people who will help when I’m feeling stuck often means that I don’t need to ask for help at all; and that there is sometimes more kindness in not jumping in to assist than there is in hasty intervention; that actually, given time, I can do things that seemed well beyond me to start with.
I learned that we all tackle challenges in different ways and that for me sometimes it’s easiest to negotiate obstacles (specifically steep descents on boggy ground) on my bottom, or (if going uphill) on my knees.
That might have made a nice little parable, if I hadn’t found myself kneeling in the very bog that I’d been trying to avoid slipping into...because appearances are deceptive, and it’s not just the obvious muddy patches that turn out to be squelchy and unreliable.

We climbed Iona’s one serious hill, Duni, early on...and that path to the summit was the only obvious route of the day. Once we left the hill-top cairn behind us, it was by no means clear which way to go, as the whole hillside was criss-crossed with sheep tracks – and, as we learned early on, just because a sheep can get down somewhere, it doesn’t follow that 5 middle-aged clergywomen can follow them. Lots of paths – but which one was THE WAY?

My US clergy friends were peculiarly fascinated by shaggy Hebridean sheep, so there were a fair few jokes about lost sheep and about good-enough shepherds as the day went on….the latter, of course, referring to the brave soul who undertook to be our pioneer, striding ahead and exploring the territory for we who came after.

For all the joking, actually she reminded me of some important truths.
That a good leader knows where you are actually aiming for, and has a sense of the overall course of the journey….
That she isn’t too proud to admit mistakes – and to use her own experience as a learning point – DONT put your foot on that stone, it’s so wobbly I’ve just landed up to my knees in muddy water.
That she will not only have an eye to immediate hazards, but an overview of the wider terrain (so easy to lose the path when you’re simply intent on taking the next step safely), and will sometimes forge ahead simply to encourage from the hill-top
The view from here is incredible”.

A good-enough shepherd indeed, as all of her flock made it home safely., but as I wobbled across the slough of despond on the stepping stones of uncertainty, some other words were echoing in my thoughts – words drawn from the reading we have just shared and used, as it happened, in the Iona Community’s own liturgy for Communion.
Then, just as we think we’ve got it right as to where we should go and what we should do;
Just when we’re ready to take on the world you come, like a beggar to our back door saying “This is the way. I am the way.” and offering us bread and wine….

I am the way – he says.
A way we can rely on, without wobbly stepping stones or unexpected mud baths.
A way that may challenge us, draw more out of us than we had believed possible but will lead us to see unexpected beauty – the view from here is incredible.
A way that stretches out clearly in front of us, unmistakeable...leading each of us safely home to our Father’s house where there are so many many dwelling places….

But what does that mean in practice?
No-one comes to the Father except through me”..seems pretty clear and non-negotiable, so much so that sometimes Christians have behaved as if they thought of Jesus more as a road-block than a route to wholeness and happiness with God.
Of course it is true that the only way that we will get home safely is by taking the route that Jesus forged for us on the cross, the route of self-giving love that is stronger than death.
That is what it means for us to be fully human,
I don’t think, though, that this means that only card-carrying Christians can expect a welcome home.
The Jesus-event – life, death, resurrection – is indeed once for all but it IS truly for all – and in those many dwelling places of our Father’s house there is surely room for everyone who lives according to his law of love.

When it comes down to it, I cannot believe that the God whose love is without limits will intentionally exclude anyone….and nor can I believe that those who seem to be turning their backs on his gracious invitation in this life will do so when they see for themselves that beauty of God that is beyond all words.
I’m pretty certain that those who seem to reject Christianity in the here and now are rejecting not the truth in all its beauty but the broken partial way in which all too often, we, the Church, present it…

But fortunately it doesn’t matter how I see things...what matters is how God sees things, and we can be confident that his perspective is wide and generous beyond our widest and wildest dreams….because, you see, that is how Jesus is….pure, unbounded love….
And he and the Father are one. To see Jesus is to see God. To walk the Jesus way in open-hearted love is to find ourselves on the road safe home, to the place where we all of us belong.

Here is the way. I am the way, Walk in it.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

"Who is the funeral for?"

That's an oft-set essay question during training for ministry, but really you'd think that I would know the answer 14 years after ordination, having conducted on average one a week for 11 of those years.
500 funerals and I still don't know!

My theology suggests that an all-loving, all-forgiving God is not going to rethink his plans about anyone's eternal destiny on the basis of a Requiem Mass, no matter how well-attended, how beautifully conceived and offered. God's will is that none shall be lost, and so though it makes perfect sense to continue a loving prayerful relationship with those who are gone from us, I don't on the whole expect that prayers for the departed will materially affect them, though in God's providence perhaps those prayers, expressions of our on-going love, may be diverted to that time when they are most needed.

So it makes sense for me to pray - and to celebrate the Eucharist too, because that is where we can once more eat together, as we experience a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, where all find their place. But I don't really imagine that the funeral is actually for the departed and, while I'm certain that God rejoices to see loving relationships wherever they are expressed, I don't think that we gather for God's benefit either.
Common Worship says that we are there to remember and to give thanks, to commend, commit and seek comfort - and that is what I tell my families too. "We're here" , I suggest,  "to say thank you to God for X and to X for all they have been and all they have done, to ask God to care for them til you are together again, and to care for you, because this is hard and it hurts, and we're here for your friends to do what they can to show love and care as well. "
That sounds OK - even convincing - and for the most part my funeral families seem to go away having received the comfort and strength that they need, for the moment at least.

I'm not sure that my own experience altogether matches those expectations, though that may be as much to do with the one-size-fits-all impersonality of the Book of Common Prayer service for the Burial of the Dead which marked my parents' passings. No eloquent tributes, indeed, no opportunity to even name the departed - and precious little comfort, beyond the reference to that "sure and certain hope" at the committal. The modern Roman rite is no cosier, nor does it allow any scope to celebrate all that has been at this moment of farewell....and yet it would never occur to me to suggest, even for a moment, that the funeral was somehow unnecessary. 

It is hugely important that those who are left behind can consciously, deliberately, hand over the departed into those open, everlasting arms, and ask for the help they so badly need with the onward journey.

Interestingly, it seems even more important if you are on the periphery - mourning, right enough, but not part of the inner circle. 
So I found it deeply painful and distressing that I could not be with my Gloucester diocesan family when, together, they said Goodbye to Bishop Michael. To be absent, even on beautiful Iona, felt, in anticipation, like an act of colossal ingratitude, a failure to "pay respects", a with-holding of the one gift that I could still offer, which was so very much +Michael's due.
But there was no getting round it. 
I had promises to keep and I knew in my heart of hearts that +Michael would not for a moment have approved of one of his priests failing to honour an existing commitment....and after all, I would only have been there for my sake, really.

So, I found rituals of my own to mark that day.
I re-read his final letter, with its emphasis on the Communion of Saints, as I prepared to celebrate the Eucharist.
I consciously carried him in my heart, my prayers and my thoughts, and heard his voice joined with the multitude whom no-one can number at the Sanctus - and later, in the beautiful brokenness of the Nunnery ruins, I prayed aloud the Commendation, as I knew others were doing in the Cathedral I loved.

And those rituals, that conscious letting go, was by God's grace, enough. 
I discovered for myself that when you ask, you do receive "strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow".