Sunday, April 29, 2018

If there's an open door, why walk through a closed window? Thoughts from On Fire 2018

It's extraordinary how really important, life-changing things somehow bed themselves down in your world so thoroughly that you can't remember life without them.
I'm just back from On Fire...and have discovered that this was my 7th year at a conference that I only discovered by a miracle of grace, and attended with fear and trepidation back in 2012 - but which is now one of the places that I feel most fully myself, the community where I have the deepest, widest conversations, and where, without fail, I am touched deeply by God.
By a happy God-incidence, my current boss, the Dean of Coventry, was the person who first mentioned On Fire to me. I love that a relatively casual remark of his, in a long ago ministry review, set something in motion that enables me to be whatever it is that I am in the life of his Cathedral 7 years on...
but then, On Fire is full of happy God-incidences, too many to record really.

So instead I want to share a picture that seemed to be a parable for much of my life. This year I was privileged to be conference Chaplain (one of those vocational times when my "deep gladness" did indeed meet the deep need that some brought to conference, so that I was able to listen and pray and discover that this was very much part of who I am in ministry) and this gave me so much joy that I spent much of the time wearing a silly grin and singing Rend Collective before breakfast. Madness!
It also meant that, as friends shard their stories, I did quite a number of circuits of the beautiful grounds of High Leigh, which is where I encountered this visual parable.

I went over, initially, because the gate itself looked very beautiful.
As I drew close, I realised that I would never need to open the beautiful gate, - which was fortunate, as it was chained shut....but beside it on the left was a "kissing gate", perfect for walkers...
No need to struggle with chains, or climb over the top. There was a perfectly negotiable route there. The decorative but difficult route was not one I had to engage with.

Then I noticed something else. On the other side of the gate, there is actually no fence at all. 
You can walk straight from one part of the garden into the other with no barrier.
The gate is an almost imaginary construct....very handsome, to be sure, but utterly unnecessary.

And I thought about how that might be an image of the way I have related to God...first through a rather beautiful challenging approach (the demands of a singer on the Greater London Choral Circuit make it quite hard to lift your eyes from the music to engage with the living God who is the reason we sing at all)....
then through a simpler but still constricted approach, as I worked madly at being a good Christian, a faithful disciple, an effective minister...
But latterly I have realised that there is no barrier at all....that we "make God's love too narrow by false limits of our own"...
That I can simply respond to God's invitation "Come to me..." and that there is nothing whatever to prevent me.

Being at On Fire reminds me that I need to walk in that meadow, to take off my shoes (this is holy ground) and my socks, and feel the grass between my toes and dance barefoot with God under the spring skies.
And because God is all kindness, in those precious four days in Hertfordshire, I get to experience what that is like. 
How, then, can I keep from singing?

Easter 5 Year B

I’m just back from one of the richest, most inspiring weeks of my year – the “On Fire” conference, a time when charismatic catholic Anglicans gather for a programme of talks, workshops, and some truly wonderful prayer and worship. Year after year, I’m blown away by belonging to a community whose expectation is that God will turn up, will be tangibly active in their lives and their worship, and will respond readily and unmistakeably when they pray. Believe you me, it’s extremely exciting.

So, this morning’s gospel feels, right now, very much like lived experience.
If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish and it will be done for you...”
Whatever you ask
Of course, this doesn’t mean that we can expect the slot machine experience – prayer in equals result out. You don’t need me to tell you that simply adding “in Jesus’s name, Amen” to a string of requests does not automatically guarantee success, even when the things we ask seem to be wholly good…the sort of thing that surely no loving God could ever deny us.

That’s always a challenge to faith…for even as I speak I’m sure that many of you are remembering with sadness the times when you prayed urgently, with all that was in you, for something that just didn’t happen…
The cancer didn’t go into remission…
A troubled marriage did not suddenly come right after all…
Warring nations did not experience a sudden unexpected outbreak of peace
Whatever you ask in my name…”??
We do struggle with this, don’t we?
Sometimes hindsight makes sense of a prayer that’s been left apparently unanswered…for sometimes the answer is “Wait”. Sometimes, we have to acknowledge that the “No” that was so unwelcome actually led to the best outcome in the end.
Sometimes I think that we’re left in a situation where all we can do is to be honest with God about our disappointment, our rage…
You are supposed to be almighty yet these awful things happen, despite all our prayers and entreaties. What are you doing? Don’t you know that this hurts!”
Thankfully prayer is nothing to do with being polite to God, and everything to do with coming as we are, with our wounds, our angers, our deepest most painful needs.
We set out with our best intentions…we try to believe that God will answer our prayer…and then it seems as if nothing has changed.
Yet we have this promise…ask for whatever you wish
Does that mean nothing?

I think that actually to pray in Jesus’s name is to embark on something rather different.
Just think for a minute. Names are powerful things.
We talk about preserving someone’s good name when we are intent on ensuring that people realise they are people of worth and integrity.
When we march and protest “Not in my name”, what we are doing is saying that whatever is happening is not an expression of our world-view, our way of being.
So…when we are praying “in Jesus name” we are doing more than using it as a sort of formulaic ending, a quality stamp for our own wishes.
Rather, we are asking Jesus to validate our prayer – and if we are to do that with any integrity, that means we must ensure that our prayers are those we know he can be part of. In other words, when we pray in Jesus’ name, we must set out to align our own wills with his, so that the prayers that we pray have the hallmark of his presence running right through them, like the lettering on a stick of rock.
He shows us how it’s done in the Lord’s Prayer, a model that covers all that we could need for the world’s good:
Thy kingdom come…Thy will be done”
Thy will…In Jesus’ name…
That’s the secret. It’s not about what we want, about what we think would be the best way to arrange things. We aren’t setting out to change God’s mind, but rather, by spending time with him, to change our own minds, our own abide with and in Jesus, his words abiding deep within us so that we might discern God’s will, and place that at the heart of our own prayers.
And that process of abiding, of soaking up God’s presence, God’s light, God’s love is, of course, transformational.
When we pray, we become more Christ-like…we enter into a benevolent circle so that as we pray in Jesus name we become more able to see what Jesus would do…and to work with him to achieve this.

We pray, God works and to him be the glory. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Easter 4 B 22nd April 2018, Coventry Cathedral

I wonder if youve ever noticed that some of the loudest words arent there at all?
I sometimes think that the greatest gift that we at Coventry Cathedral have given to the world is to be found in the word that isn’t there.
You know the one – the word that it isn’t there SEVEN TIMES
Whenever we pray the Litany together.

That’s quite a lot of absence – and the missing word, of course, is “Them”.

While Jesus, from the cross, looked at specific people who had done, in ignorance a particular and cataclysmic thing...and prayed in love and compassion “Father forgive them” - he is in fact the only one ever who could dissociate himself from the pain and brokenness of human life, from those destructive behaviour patterns that are part of the fabric of humanity.
He alone needed no forgiveness – so could ask for it with complete altruism, on behalf of everyone else.

For the rest of us, there’s no such option. We can’t pray “Father forgive them” with any kind of integrity because the truth is that we’re all in the mess together, and we are the ones who made it.
And so, gloriously, the litany points this out and invites us to ally ourselves with our brothers and sisters across the world and across history as we say “Father forgive” – and recognise that there IS no them and us...that we are all alike fallible, hurting one another, hurting the planet, and hurting God.

That’s part of the Cathedral’s DNA – and on our best days I imagine that we can all both recognise and feel the truth of it in our beings and our bones...know ourselves as flawed and broken as the person next to us...and know, too, that this means we are all alike taken up in Jesus’s great forgiveness project, all included in his saving act…
We hold to that missing word, and whisper fervently “Father forgive”

That’s on our best days.
There are other times, of course, when we are distressingly keen to rebuild the barriers that Jesus came to break down.
We LIKE defining the world in terms of “them” and “us”...and are keen to recruit Jesus to our team
Last week, John’s sermon included John Donne’s reflection “no man is an island” - but we often seem rather keen on insularity...both as individuals and as society.
We saw an example of this in our national life, in the way our government had planned to deal with the Windrush generation…and in the continued manoeuvres around Brexit…
It was part of the motivation behind the “Rivers of blood” speech whose anniversary has been marked this week…
And of course, it’s integral to the thinking behind the ongoing “hate that divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class” right across the world.
Them and us.

And, to my shame, it’s part of me too...though I really do try to resist it. I know there’s a reserve, a suspicion, in the way that I react in some situations, some people with whom I try too hard, because deep down they make me nervous. They are different, in faith, politics, world view…
If it’s all the same to you, Jesus, I’d rather belong to a flock of people just like me.
It would make my life so much easier if only everyone else would fall into line and do things my way, enjoy Byrd and Bach and the laughter of children during worship…
Strangers are welcome as long as they can be assimilated...turn into people just like me and my tribe…
Does that sort of thinking sound even vaguely familiar ?
I suspect there might  a similar process at work in some of you too...that you’ll have your own internal yard-stick against which you evaluate a newcomer in your street, a stranger who sits next to you on the bus, or comes in to the Cathedral to pray.

Part of accepting our flawed humanity is understanding that we are still not very good at learning to live with difference and celebrate diversity, though voicing the aspiration is undoubtedly a step in the right direction.

Jesus is very clear about it.

There shall be One flock, one shepherd...who knows each of his sheep... the secrets of their hearts, their struggles, their hopes, their wounds and their dreams…
Knows them as fully as Father and Son know each other.
Knows them– and YET - Loves them.
Knows me – knows you – and yet...keeps on loving.

And lays down his life – to show that ALL are equally loveable...

You see, love is a universal language, that all can understand...
“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd”
They will listen because that language of love  transcends faith and culture....Does not depend on good behaviour....cannot be bought or earned…
No matter how big a mess we have made of our pasts
No matter how raw and painful our present the message of love speaks into our situation.
It is, always, a free gift.
God's grace poured out in wild extravagance and made clear to us at that moment when Jesus, on the cross, draws all people to himself.

ALL people.
Not just the good, the trying to be holy,
Not just the people with whom we would enjoy sharing a sheepfold, or a desert island.
ALL people

One flock, one shepherd.

And yes – we do need to learn to hear his voice…
And we may not always enjoy what he has to say, for that voice will be calling us to have larger hearts, to pray blessings on those whom we cannot understand, those whom we fear, those whom we are sure that we cannot be called to like, to follow ways of greater love.
No them and us, remember.
One flock, one shepherd.

But, though we do need to listen to his voice, that’s all that is asked of us.
The salvation that we find in no-one else is not conditional.
We're talking grace and not works here.
We can't earn God's love.
We can't forfeit it.

Think of the person you find it hardest to love...whether someone you know personally or someone you think you know through their words and actions reported in the media day by day.
Think of them and remember, they too are part of the one flock…
In a few days time I will have the privilege of conducting the funeral of a wonderful man, one of a whole set of honorary parents whose wisdom, love and care helped me navigate
tricky years of young adulthood after the death of my own parents.
I loved him then and love him still and it will be a joy to pray
“Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming.
But I know that I need to be able to pray those words and know their truth no matter who I speak of…
No them and us
but one flock, one shepherd…
Jesus in whom, alone, we find our salvation.
Jesus, whose love and grace amaze us with their wild generosity day by day by day…

Thanks be to God.