Tuesday, August 27, 2019

A journey with wit and wisdom

It's Saturday evening. We've hit one of those rare moments of calm when the main path through the festival village seems almost empty. E., 21/2, runs ahead of us, flinging her arms wide and shouts to anyone with ears to hear
"Greenbot....I love you!"

So do I, her granny.

It's been 20 years now since I first fell in love with this place of wonder, hopes and dreams, falling into the arms of the festival with delight, as I discovered that there WAS a tribe to which I belonged, a place which heart and soul could both call home. 

In those first years at Cheltenham, with free range children exploring far and wide, enjoying a freedom and safety that I couldn't always offer them elsewhere, it was all about the talks. I bought tapes by the dozen, discovered new writers, new ways of approaching faith in terms of radical Kingdom living which my gently conventional Cotswold village church somehow never quite articulated, lapped up so much wit and wisdom, found myself stretched, challenged, inspired. I loved it all, - and the belated realisation that my own sense of discontent with the way Church and life seemed to play out was shared by others kept me going through the switch-back journey of discernment and ordination training. 
I made friends - online friends (a concept that was still excitingly novel, and transformative for me) with whom I spent many a happy evening on the Greenbelt forum, and so for a few years the festival was mainly a feverish series of catch ups, of "Greenbelt hugs" (oh, dear, dotty, beloved Anna, you are missed, still missed!) exchanged en route to yet another unmissable talk.
With them I savoured many, many Greenbelt moments. glimpses of God in unexpected corners that filled me with joy.

I watched those free-range children find their own roles, their own homes in the Greenbelt community...When I first travelled to India, at the same stage in my daughter's life as I had lost my own parents, it was to Greenbelt friends that I entrusted their emotional and spiritual flourishing if something went wrong and I failed to return. 
Those friendships were intense, sometimes demanding but never less than life-enhancing - and forged in our shared love of this place of hope and transformation year after year after year.

Greenbelt has always been a place where I could try new things...listen to music I'd never have met elsewhere, experience worship that was light years away from the norm I encountered as I travelled through curacy and into the early years of life as a parish priest. 
Sometimes Gloucester diocese, my then home, had clergy training days at the racecourse - and it always felt as if somewhere, just out of sight, the festival was going on in a parallel universe...that Snowy was stewarding a crowd into a John Bell talk, while The Rising brought in crowds to Centaur and DFG were up to something subversively funny in Underground, 
Ten years in to our relationship I had come to realise that there would ALWAYS be more than I could possibly fit in...but that if I missed something wonderful one year, there would be something no less wonderful waiting for me when we returned just twelve months on. I became less frenetic in my passage from Performance Cafe to Centaur, from Wild Goose to Christian Aid. It would all be alright. There were enough of us who were trying to live our faith in a Greenbelt kind of way, such that if I didn't get to everything, there would be others to pick up any one message and take it home with them.

5 years ago, I moved from Gloucester to Coventry - and the festival moved too, recovering from the trauma of 2012 Mudbelt, after which life at Cheltenham was never quite the same. Planted afresh on a greenfield site at Boughton, Greenbelt changed shape a little, but the passion, the beauty, the faith, hope and love were absolutely unaltered and we moved into a new chapter in our family too, as long-term partners became family and then, 3 summers ago, the very special Miss E experienced her first festival. With her dad up to his ears as head of traffic, it wasn't an easy weekend for her mum, but she's a wonderful woman who persevered anyway, so that last year we had the fun of chasing a rampaging toddler through the festival village, passing friends, talks, art work at a gallop. I'm not sure what I actually attended in2018 (I know I was at Communion, with the same group of beloved friends with whom we've shared this holy moment for at least a decade, as children were born to enlarge our circle) but I found that, despite a vague feeling that I hadn't actually experienced that much, when I returned to work I FELT as if I had been to Greenbelt. Renewed, enthused, challenged and changed. The addictive mix I've been lapping up continues to sustain and delight me.

And, this year, as temperatures soared, things were different again.
Different, but exactly the same in terms of what actually matters. Understanding friends coped when our conversations never shifted from the superficial to their former depths, as I had one eye constantly on a blonde, curly head intent on heading off across the Lawn to explore fresh woods and pastures new. In a new season, landscapes adjust their contours, and new delights emerge.

No, i didn't get to all the talks I might have enjoyed - but goodness, I was fed well by those I did attend. Mark Oakley, Padgraig O'Touma, Rachel Mann and the incomparable Nadia Bolz-Weber made everything gloriously alright, restoring my faith in preaching, in the power of story and in the joy of living in my own body...something Miss E had been trying to get across for a while.
I spent more time in the Haven and lying in the shade while Miss E created her own campsite out of a folding seat and organised her toys for "'Munion in the bootiful big tent" than I did soaking up the peace of the Chapel...but there were Greenbelt moments aplenty. 
Too late to gain a space inside Shelter for Saturday night's Taize service, I sat on the grass looking out across the lake towards the house and the festival village. I thought about a dear friend whose mother's life is gently coming to an end as we sang "Wait for the Lord whose day is near, wait for the Lord, keep watch, take heart!" and reflected that Greenbelt, more than anything else, enables me to keep faith and stretch out in yearning towards the Kingdom with all that is in me. And God was there, and I was there, and around us Greenbelt buzzed with life and that same longing urging us onwards.
And on Sunday morning I had an almost unbelievable, overwhelming privilege, when, asked to read at the Communion service, I found that my "lines" included my most loved verse in the whole of Scripture.
"For the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. And the darkness never will", matched by the wonder of the Magnificat, with its vision of the world turned upside down..rekindling my own treasured memory of being installed at Coventry on the feast of the Visitation, singing "Tell out my soul" as my beloved church family walked me up the aisle of the Cathedral towards a new life and ministry there...
I was even, incredibly, entrusted with the words of Institution, shared with a remarkable 9 year old. 
So many precious, precious words, to speak aloud in the place I love.
And I stood on my little platform, surrounded by 5,000 plus Greenbelters singing "O holy night" with all that was in them, and knew that here, right HERE, heaven was touching earth again. 
And I was part of it, caught up in love and delight and grace upon grace upon grace.

"Make life more like Greenbelt" said my younger son, as we headed home one year, coated in mud but shining with joy.
"Greenbelt is a state of mind, not just a festival" said another...and once again I'm restored to myself, by 4 days unlike any other. 
As so often, my best beloved E said it best, with her joyous exclamation
"Greenbot...I love you".
"Amen", and again  I say "Amen."

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Sermon for the Cathedral Eucharist, Trinity 8, Proper 14 11th August 2019

Do not be afraid little flock. It is your father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.

It isn’t supposed to be this way…
That’s a thought that crosses my mind with increasing regularity. I wonder if you feel the same...That things in the world right here and now leave more than a little to be desired.
There’s climate change
There are food banks
There area people mown down in mass shootings, simply because they found themselves in the wrong place when someone deeply unstable decided to exercise the right to bear, and to use, arms…
There are beggars on the streets of our own city – just a few yards away as we gather for worship this morning
There are lonely souls shut up behind closed doors, not knowing if it’s safe to come out, whether they’ll be welcomed or rejected.
There are children – CHILDREN for God’s sake – locked up in detention centres or entrusted to tiny boats crossing a stormy sea (oh yes, THEIR parents desire a better country for sure – they may simply be sadly deluded as to where they will find it)
It’s not an encouraging picture, is it?
Nothing like the world I imagined when growing up, not even the world into which I confidently bore my children.
It’s certainly not the world that we read about in the great kingdom prophecies of Isaiah, in the teaching of Jesus or indeed in any of the aspirational passages of Scripture.
It isn’t supposed to be this way…

So – what are we to do?
Confronted by the pain and disillusion of here and now – how should we respond, as people of faith?
My first reaction, I must admit, owes less to faith than to fear. I want to gather those I love around me and circle the wagons...If the world has all gone wrong, I want to protect them if I can, or at least huddle together as we face the worst. There’s a lot of metaphorical huddling that goes on as we listen to the news day by day – but into this experience of anxiety, fear, even despair, I hear Jesus speaking
Do not be afraid little flock for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom”
Do not be afraid!
Really? Why ever not?
Fear seems perfectly rational to me!

But I’m here to preach the gospel and am reminded of some wise advice, that in preaching, the task is always to celebrate what God is doing rather than to struggle with the demands and failures of life here and now.

So – what IS God doing – that might, somehow, be enough to encourage us not to be afraid?

I guess it all depends on where your treasure is. It's far too simple to just focus on material possessions - but nonetheless, if those things that you treasure most are firmly of this world, you may well feel that God’s action is woefully inadequate (and that a bit more human action, based on unconditional love, would not go amiss either). 
But at no point does Jesus promise us a charmed life – quite the reverse, in fact.
In the world you will have troubles, he says….and that’s reassuring, when the troubles come. They may not be welcome – but they don’t indicate that God has somehow lost the plot. Not even for a second.

But, despite the troubles we are not to be afraid because, whether we deserve it or not, it is God’s good pleasure to GIVE US THE KINGDOM.

That’s extraordinary – and transformative, if we can but recognise it.
You see, what we believe about the future absolutely shapes how we live in the present.
We remain conscious of that sense that “it’s not supposed to be this way” - but instead of allowing that to halt us in our tracks, frozen in futility, we affirm that this is not our permanent home, not our eternal destiny.
We desire, with all those Old Testament heroes, a better country...and we press on towards it as best we can...sometimes confident of the terrain, more often stumbling, having no idea where we are heading or how we will get there….simply keeping going in a long obedience to God’s call.
Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly”
Keep moving forward faithfully, step by step.

Sometimes, our faith may not bring us all that we hoped for.
We try to trust God, to place in his hands our needs and those of the people we love – but things don’t pan out as we’d expected.
Don’t be afraid little flock.
God’s got this.
Have faith.

Do not be afraid little flock – you’re aiming for somewhere better.
Somewhere where your heart can find a home, alongside solid joys and lasting treasure
Somewhere worth more than all the possessions you might cling to in the here and now.

So – like that rich farmer constructing giant barns whom we considered last week, we’re invited to reflect on what we value most – what is closest to our hearts. 
And, deep down, we all know that those things which matter most aren’t things at all...though we seem programmed to grasp them with both hands.
Let me tell you a story, the story of a guy whose unlikely lifelong ambition was to use the flying trapeze. To celebrate a significant birthday some friends organised a circus skills day for him– and suddenly, it seemed that this dream might be within reach. He had a wonderful day, learning about high wires and low wires, about tight ropes, slack ropes and safety nets...And finally the moment came when he could, if he chose, finally live his dream.
He found himself swinging in mid air, - another swing heading towards him. This was the moment.
BUT in order to fly, he had to let go of one trapeze, in order to grasp the other.
He HAD TO LET GO and trust.

That’s faith.

That’s the faith that sent Abram away from his roots, wandering in obedience to a promise that was not fulfilled in his lifetime.
That’s the faith that sends us into exile, moving us on beyond a place of comfortable certainties, showing us that, in fact, we never really belonged there...that we are wayfarers heading home
That’s the faith that enables the serious disciple to do as Jesus says – to sell possessions and give alms, trusting that in letting go of one thing, we will be given something else, still more valuable…
Yes. Letting go IS hard.
I know that. You know that.
But – it is the Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom – and his promises won’t fail.

So, don’t fret about the state of the world, but do long for something better...
Do all you can to live into God’s future, making a difference here and now, but don’t despair if your efforts seem hopeless.
Trust that God will bring to pass.

The Welsh priest-poet R S Thomas wrote about God’s kingom – coupling a huge sense of yearning with the certainty that as we desire a better country, that country’s borders are open to all

It's a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on:
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life. It's a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you will purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf

Sunday, August 04, 2019

An 8.00 reflection on Proper 13C, 4th August 2019 at Coventry

If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above...Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth
That sounds like pretty clear advice – and indeed, Paul is a past-master at viewing the world in black and white binary terms...As he addresses the Colossians, he is asking them to draw a firm line between their former selves and their true selves, those selves that are hidden for now, only to be revealed when the Kingdom breaks in in all its fullness.

The only trouble is that, when I look at my own life, that opening “IF” feels like quite a significant word.
Yes – I was baptized as a baby, went through that symbolic drowning of all the old order, the original sin, if you like...and what's more my parents went on to honour the baptism promises, doing everything in their power to help me realise that to be a Christian was to live a different kind of life. And yes, I long to love God with all my heart, soul, mind, strength and to love and serve my neighbour selflessly...And I take the call of God on my life, and the joyful obligations of priesthood very seriously indeed but (oh, goodness, why is there ALWAYS a but?) that IF brings me up short every single time.

IF I have been raised with Christ – then surely my life should look very very different.
If the only evidence there is for a Christ-like transformation is the way that I spend my Sunday mornings and the institution that employs me, then I rather think I'm doing it wrong. Please don't think that I'm fishing for compliments if I say that I don't honestly think there is very much that distinguishes me from my atheist friends, whose lives are every bit as moral, every bit as free from Paul's catalogue of evils as, on a good day, I aspire to be.

So – if my transformed life is buried treasure,hidden with Christ, then sometimes it feels as if it's rather better hidden than I’d like...I find myself asking “Where’s the evidence, Fleming?”

I know myself quite well, by this stage...and I know that often my actions are shaped by anxiety rather than trust...I can all too easily imagine myself delighting in having stored up supplies for a rainy day (in fact, I might as well admit that yes, I do have a Brexit cupboard – though I take some comfort in the fact that my initial motivation was to be sure that I have something in reserve if life gets so bumpy in London that my family need to return home).
I want to feel safe – and to be able to ensure the safety of those whom I love.
But I’m working on it.
I know that while I might not always have enough for all my WANTS I have infinitely more than my basic needs...And that in any case, all those THINGS aren’t actually what matters.

The parable of the rich man with all those barns might well be a parable for 21st century life. For decades we’ve worked on the assumption that more is better – and that there will always BE more...that we can carry on expecting growth in every area...that somehow a money tree WILL grow, that our poor beleagured planet will shake itself and continue to meet all our demands, even as we strip it bare of so many precious resources. Now we are, perhaps, reaching the crunch point – the point when our souls are required of us. Too many of us have done very nicely thank you, at the expense of others…- those in the global south whose lives are being decimated by climate change – those in our city who find themselves turning again and again to the Food Bank as our society seems intent on cutting costs by making life ever harder for those who are already vulnerable…
I may not be alone in recognising a tendency to think “Somebody should DO something to make things better...” without accepting the responsibility to do something myself – right here and right now.
There’s something grotesque about the rich man talking to himself “Soul...relax, eat, drink, be merry” - for the soul is not sustained by anything you might find stored in a barn. Instead the life and health of our souls is found in Christ alone – and the choice is ours...to live into this as the central truth that shapes our lives, or to turn aside, and pin our hopes on the things of here and now.

Let’s pray for the grace to make Kingdom choices and so live that it’s clear for all to see what we really value – Christ, our life.