Tuesday, September 29, 2020

"Hark, hark my soul, angelic strains are swelling..." - a reflection for Michaelmas

It’s Michaelmas…the festival that celebrates angels, archangels and all the company of heaven - and for this part of my journey I'm based in cathedral dedicated to St Michael - but, sadly, not to "All angels"...though our building is awash with them, from the mad, dancing cohorts of the West Screen to the majestic Angel of the Agony, whose wings overshadow me when I preside in the Chapel of Christ in Gethsemane. I wish it were the other way round. Michael is hard to get a grip on. Did he really eject Satan from heaven for all time, or is there (as another Michael, Michael Sadgrove, who knows our building better than most suggests in a wonderful reflection on the Sutherland tapestry) a hope that he is not pushing him out but trying to grasp his hand and enable him to stay? And, of course, he is absolutely the right patron for us, with our calling to the ministry of Reconciliation "Send thine archangel Michael from thy presence, Peacemaker blessed, may he hover o'er us, hallow our dwellings". I love that when the medieval parish church of St Michael was built, the vocation of the cathedral that would replace it centuries later was already enshrined...and the angels, well, they are beings of poetry and wonder, pointing to something far beyond our comprehension, reminding us of the overwhelming beauty and mystery at the heart of God - though we often try to domesticate them, just as we try to domesticate Godself.
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John Bless the bed that I lie on Four corners to my bed Four angels there be spread One to watch and one to pray And two to bear my soul away In the bedtime prayers of my childhood there seemed little difference between the evangelists – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – and the shining guardian angels whom I was certain were my overnight companions.... I loved those angels, believed in them implicitly – and still, as this feast day of St Michael and All Angels approaches, I find myself dreaming happily of wondrous golden beings, trying to glimpse them amid the golden light of late September as the leaves turn. ""Angels of Jesus, angels of LIGHT...this feast, just after the Autumn equinox, asserts that light will endure though the evenings are drawing in - and in this year of loss, anxiety, fear, we need it, need them, more than ever. Of course, even before the pandemic, angels have been hugely popular - angels divorced from any particular belief system. Gift shops can rely on selling any number of angel trinkets, books of angel stories walk off the shelves at a time when public interest in more mainstream expressions of faith seems at a very low ebb. People LIKE the idea of heavenly beings charged with taking care of us....a reassurance that we are not on our own in a hostile universe. But, you know, the Biblical experience of angels is really rather different. Often their arrival seems to be anything but reassuring – and perhaps that's why every angelic appearance in the New Testament opens with the words “Don't be afraid” Annunciation, Resurrection, Ascension... Heaven in all its dazzling splendour breaks into our world. Time is interrupted by eternity. Angel appearances are never remotely mundane - and their messages tend to stop us in our tracks as thoroughly as the angel stopped Balaam's ass. Just think of the most famous angelic appearance of all.....Gabriel's mission to Mary. Imagine yourself as that teenage girl, minding her own business in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire. Hear those words spoken to you. “Do not be afraid Mary – for you have found favour with God. You will bear a son” BEAR A SON! Me?!?! No wonder Gabriel feels the need to begin the conversation by speaking reassurance. “Do not be afraid...” Words that suggest that he knows he has already lost that particular battle! And so often that's how it seems. Angels break into our world as messengers of heaven – and their tidings turn the world upside down. Like a stone dropped into a pond, their messages ripple outwards, touching and changing many lives in ways we could never imagine. Well, at least that’s what they did in Bible times. But what of that persistent belief that God STILL sends messengers into this world, to remind us of God’s continuing commitment to humanity? Despite my eager searches, I’ve never seen a shining being clothed in white, with maybe the hint of wings in the brightness around them – but I have had to experiences of angels, I think. One was on Low Sunday in a little Cotswold church, part of the benefice where we lived when my children were small, the place that fostered my vocation to ordained ministry. It was a happy church, a church that understood community – but it was also a very elderly church. I and my children were generally the only ones present who were not well into retirement – and the last thing that would EVER happen there was dance… Except, on this one day, the recessional hymn was, wonderfully, Lord of the dance…and still more wonderfully as we reached the chorus at the end of the first verse, 2 strangers stepped out of the pew behind us, took my older children by the hand and pulled them into a wonderful, joyous grand chain that stretched the length of the aisle, and in which, somehow, we were all caught up without knowing how or why…so that when we reached the final verse “they cut me down but I leapt up high, I am the life that will never never die I’ll live in you if you’ll live in me, I am the Lord of the dance said he”…there was not a vestige of doubt anywhere in that church. It was, as I say, the Cotswolds. We were used to people appearing at the parish Eucharist while they were staying in the village – except that afterwards, these people seemed to have disappeared. Did they just slip out before the final Blessing? Probably…but…I’ll always wonder, because they rekindled the resurrection hope so very powerfully that day. Ten years later I was in my second year of curacy, loving so much of parish ministry but sometimes frustrated at the way the Church seemed to get in the way of simply introducing people to God’s love. My title parish was at the "friendly catholic" end of the spectrum – liturgy mattered, the Eucharist was absolutely central, and if was very important that we prayed the Daily Office no matter what. But Morning Prayer was always an insiders' service – not something to which I could ever imagine inviting one of the young mums from Toddler Church…I enjoyed praying the Office with my training incumbent but really struggled with it when I had to pray alone# That morning my TI was away so I went up to church somewhat reluctantly, and wandered into the Lady Chapel for the Office. To my surprise there was a young man there already, someone I definitely didn't recognise. We chatted for a bit, and he asked if it would be alright if he stayed for Morning Prayer. Alright? I was thrilled. We prayed together, and I offered many and repeated apologies for the need to dart back and forth, to follow the leadings of the multi coloured ribbons in a distracting maypole dance, to engage with a lectionary that seemed set, that day, to offer absolutely NOTHING to inspire or comfort at all. Despite this, to my delight, he stayed to the end, and afterwards he told me that just a few months before he, an atheist with no grounding in faith at all, had had such a powerful experience of God that he had been checking out churches ever since. He told me of his various visits around the diocese…and my heart sank as I imagined how we might compare with some of the more dynamic congregations he had encountered. "They are all SO DIFFERENT he marvelled …isn’t it wonderful….and I have met God in every single one of them. EVERY SINGLE ONE" If ever a message, a dose of unexpected good news was needed, it was that morning… And the angel departed from me – having sowed seeds of encouragement that I have returned to time and again in the years that followed. Once again, the angel (a very ordinary, if unexpected young man) brought good news… Perhaps my childhood self wasn't that far out in confusing the saints and the angels of that poem-prayer! Beings whom the light shines through...sent to encourage, to remind us to look up, to set our sights on God's wider landscape when we are in danger of getting bogged down in our own struggles with life and faith. Onward we go for still we hear them singing "Come, weary souls, for Jesus bids you come!" And through the dark their echoes sweetly ringing The music of the gospel leads us home. Angels of Jesus, angels of light, singing to welcome the children of the night

Sunday, September 06, 2020

Proper 18A A reconciled community?

Where do you go to find community? It’s a question that has been more pressing this year than for a very long time, as many of us have found ourselves locked down alone, isolated from friends and relatives, dependent our varied technologies, from telephone to iPad, to connect us to the others whose easy presence we had taken for granted just a few months ago. Some of us have been living alone for years, whether by choice or by chance – and may have expected to find it not so very different. Others are natural extroverts, who thrive on sharing the details of life with others – I’m one of those, and believe you me, my dogs and cats have had to listen to an awful lot of external processing of life’s trivia as the weeks crept on. But wherever you fall on the scale of introvert/extrovert, whether you live alone of have faced the different challenge of suddenly being confined for an extended period with partners or families whom you usually see only in the evenings or at weekends, “community” has looked and felt very different this year. I guess that was the genius in the Thursday night ritual of clapping for carers. It reminded us that we were living alongside our neighbours, whether we know them well or not...That despite the isolation that was necessary for our safety we were going through this whole experience together, and that, whatever our faith and our politics, when we fall ill we are all alike dependent on the skill and compassion of our health workers. It provided a moment of connection that was badly needed as days became weeks, became months. But what of the Church in all this? That’s a question that has many many different answers. In the early weeks I have to admit that I rather envied my colleagues in parish ministry, able to wave to their parishioners as they did their daily walk, to run errands for the housebound who lived just down the road, to throw open their churches for food banks to operate. It seemed much easier to maintain a community rooted in the local than one drawn together by a particular place, from whose beloved beauty we were all excluded for a while… But as the weeks passed I began to notice something else happening, something that was in no way dependent on the various attempts I had made to keep us all together by hook, crook or telephone tree. Something that filled me with hope, together with a degree of embarrassment that it had not been the first place I had looked to foster community. As we got gradually into the rhythm of online worship, our daily offering of Morning Prayer with Communion plus the Litany, I realised that the group who appeared there, cathedral stalwarts, friends from past parishes and total strangers from the diocese and beyond were really attentive to one another, and were really swift to respond if one of them shared that they were having a bad day, week or month...Strangers, drawn together by God, were experiencing the absolute truth of those words from this morning’s gospel, knowing God’s presence with us as we worshipped, physically apart but united in a greater depth of fellowship perhaps because we were having to do without our cherished landscape, and the aids to prayer that our building offers. Again and again, after grumpy, sleepy mornings or at frazzled midday, I experienced the truth that Jesus WAS with us as we met in his name, and that knowledge inspired us to lower our guards with one another, to try out in cautious stages the steps towards a deeper level of connection, so that we could assert with confidence that the Church was indeed alive and well despite the closure of our buildings. You could, of course, argue that it was easier to form connections in isolation, as it were. Most of us had no past history with one another, no sense that so and so didn’t quite approve of our attitude to such and such, or had disappointed us that time when we’d really needed a good friend...That made it easier to drop our guard but the truth is that if that online community survives, as I hope it might, we are BOUND to upset one another at some point, because, you know, the Church, whether in person or online, consists of fallible human beings who have an inbuilt ability to mess things up despite our best intention. BUT as Church we’re called to deal with those failures and disappointments in a different way. Rather than taking umbrage and walking away, to seek a better, more congenial or more holy community… Rather than clinging to an illusion of niceness by sweeping discord and disagreement under the carpet, we are actively invited to engage with our fractures wherever we meet them. We are to deliberately seek out those with whom relationship is damaged – to own the truth of the situation and to undertake for ourselves and IN ourselves the work of reconciliation that is so central to us here in Coventry. That can feel very risky – but it’s really not optional. Perhaps like me, you’ve been almost relieved that so much of our ministry of reconciliation was, in the past, carried out by experts, heading off to deal with broken relationships at a safe distance, but leaving the rest of us to celebrate the work without having to engage with it. I think that feeling is natural enough – but that doesn’t make it OK. Jesus doesn’t suggest that we appoint experts to resolve differences in other communities. On the contrary, he’s very clear that reconciliation begins at home...and that the tangled relationships of life may remain tangled in eternity if we don’t make the effort to address them. You see, as the Church we are called to keep short accounts. To own our past errors and seek to put them right...not to carry that baggage into our current relationships, within and beyond our community, but to seek, with God’s help, to wipe the slate clean, to cancel old debts and old enmities so that we can travel forward together as people renewed and restored. I believe that is what reconciliation could and should mean for us here and now. Coming to terms with our own failures (sometimes the work of reconciliation will be primarily within ourselves: this summer I’ve had to confront the inherent racism that creeps in, undetected, alongside the benefits of white privilege) Confronting the failures of our community. Finding the courage, by God’s grace, to name them and repent of them. Then helping one another to put that load down and re-imagine the future together. . 2020 has forced us to stop for a while, invited us to take stock, to reflect on where we are and who we are as individuals and as the Church. In the flickering light of pandemic uncertainty, we have reflected on what matters most, and what we can safely let go of. We may have been surprised at some of our discoveries, inspired to recognise and live by new priorities so that the things that had seemed so essential in January are of little account in September...or we may have come to a fresh understanding of why we value the things we cherish. Come what may, the one essential, the only debt we are to owe, is the debt of love. If we have learned nothing else this year, we must surely have come to realise that life is finite, time is limited, and that we cannot know how long we have to perfect our relationships, to love more and better day by day. The night is far spent and the day is at hand. Wake up, then. Smell the coffee, recognise that love must be the hallmark of our community...and let us use that love to shape and hold our community, so that, to quote the Collect, we may together proclaim the good news of God’s love and all who hear it may be drawn to him.