Sunday, March 14, 2021

A sword through the soul on Mothering Sunday

25 years ago I preached for the first time in my village church – a few months into Reader training.

It was Mothering Sunday and my vicar had decided that as I, the mum of 3 small children, should take the opportunity for my debut with an engaging, interactive, all-age service.

If I recall correctly, I was geared up to compare and contrast the perfect mothers beloved of the media with real mothers like myself, who got things wrong, got cross, weren’t always on time for school pick-up and didn’t run immaculate homes....the point being that we can none of live up to impossible hype, but scramble through life by the grace of God and the kindness of friends,  and that only God is the perfect parent

Or something like that.

But then, Dunblane happened – and I found myself in a very different world from the cosy celebration of happy families and egg-box daffodils that I might have imagined

 Suddenly mothering was all about fear and pain and deep deep grief

 A sword will pierce your own soul too.

 Oh yes – so many of us would recognise that feeling.

 Every mother who feels they’ve failed to keep their child safe, - even when there is nothing they could possibly have done differently…

The mothers who miscarried the babies for whom they had such hopes, such dreams - I think hope is written in the DNA of all mothers

The mothers spending agonised, anxious hours surrounded by the life-saving but terrifying technology of SCBU, or watching at bedsides in hospice or hospital, hoping beyond hope

The mothers of Aberfan, Dunblane, Sandy Hook, Chibook and so many many more

The mothers whose sons were victims of knife crime - and those who carried the knives

The Argentinian mothers of the disappeared

The mothers who still entrust their children to tiny boats in rough seas in the hope that they will find a better life when they arrive on the far side

The mothers whose children were simply walking home on a quiet night

The mothers whose children have gone off the rails – who are sure it was all their fault

The mothers who have lost touch with their children, who didn’t know how to love them well enough, who don’t understand what went wrong.,,and the children who grew up feeling that they were somehow not good enough, unlovble, unacceptable.

And those who never became parents at all,  whether by choice or by mischance.

Those who feel absolutely alone in life, with nobody to confide in, nobody to delight in joys or share in sorrows

All those who won’t risk coming to worship today because it’s just too painful.

 A sword will pierce your own soul too

Why am I saying all this today?

Surely last week’s thoughts about the way of the cross provided more than enough pain and disquiet for a while…

I’d love to simply preach consolation...but reality keeps forcing its way in.

Because this has been an emotional week in an emotional year for many, probably ALL of us.

Because I don’t know anyone who hasn’t struggled at least a little – probably a lot – as we go through this month of covid anniversaries

Because we need to be honest to God about our feelings…not tidy them up, replace reality with a glossy mask that we think God might prefer.

Because we need to make our churches REAL – places where all feelings can safely be named, where no grief, no disappointment, no anger at self or God is unacceptable

None of us gets through life without a few swords through the soul.

Our wounds may not always seem to be of the same order as Mary’s, but that in no way diminishes their power  to knock us off course and leave us bruised and grieving

So – let’s admit it.

We who love our battered, glorious cathedral should surely be able to manage that!

The inspired choice more than 60 years ago to retain the ruins preserves our wounded reality in broken stone and heat warped iron. It’s a place which understands grief. Torn apart itself, it offers room for those whose lives have been torn apart in different ways.

And beside it, though the new cathedral may appear all triumphant transformation, beneath the overwhelming presence of Christ enthroned in glory, inextricably connected to it is the figure of Christ crucified, drawing the whole world to himself.

And there, unlovely in her grief,  but constant  in her love, is the statue of his mother. 

Mary the representative of all the wounded loving souls who can only stand at the place of suffering and hope that new life may yet begin, even there.

Last night, after I’d finished writing these thoughts I went downstairs to light a candle and place it in the window, knowing that many many others would be doing the same. And then I saw fearful images from Clapham Common and was tempted to despair.

But the candle still burned.

A candle of love and remembrance for Sarah, of course – and for so many other women who never got home safely – but also an act of subversion…a reminder of the extraordinary, ordinary truth that even here, and even now, even as our souls our pierced, this truth remains

Goodness is stronger than evil. 

Love is stronger than hate.

Light is stronger than darkness.

Life is stronger than death.

Victory is ours through Him who loved us.







Sunday, March 07, 2021

Strange Way Part 2. What are we pitching for?

By the time I finished delivering the words posted below, I found that another idea was forming. "Strange Way" continued to reverberate around my head, and I could see Jesus and "the Church" (not represented by anyone in particular - just men in suits) meeting in an office somewhere to discuss an advertising pitch.

"You propose to get yourself put on a cross...You're going to DIE...and that's designed to demonstrate to humanity the reality of God's love? It's a strange way for sure" , one of the Church guys said.                                                   "Ridiculous. NOBODY would buy it. Our ideas are so much better.. Your PRODUCT is great. But your pitch? Hopeless"

So they went off in a huddle, and began to draft a plan...a complex plan that involved a comms team, a strategic development fund and a whole heap more besides. There was nothing much wrong with it in itself, everyone involved was dripped with the same genuine desire to maximise sales of the "product"...but somehow, things didn't quite stack up as they'd hoped. It wasn't always that easy to see what the plan was actually FOR.

The picture blurred, vanished for a moment and then clarity returned.

The same protagonists,  sitting around an office table, but now the roles have been reversed.The Christian Church plc is pitching to Jesus, offering its marketing strategy and the whole suite of supporting products. And Jesus is nodding, smiling, gently affirming the time and energy they've put into their pitch.

"I can see what you're trying to do - but how does all that growth agenda, that emphasis your strange definitions of success, actually point to the PRODUCT? We are all about self-giving love, right?                                                                And your focus is more, bigger, better churches.                                                  I mean, I love the idea of communities gathering to learn together and practice that love. That's inspired.I know how hard it is for humanity to really grasp it on their own.  I'm just not sure that they're going to understand the self-emptying bit if you keep on trying to make those churches you're so keen on bigger.          It looks as if you actually believe that more is better.                                          I mean, I know that's not what you are really saying - but it's so easy for core messaging to get lost if you're not careful. If I were you, I'd just draw a line under all that...I know it represents a LOT of work for many people - and I do appreciate that, and the sincerity of their approach - but it wasn't what I was expecting, honestly. I don't think it's the right place to start..."

Of course, the pictures are only in my head...and we AREN'T at the start. I'm pretty certain, though, that the dialogue, were it to take place, would run rather along those lines. From a human perspective, the way of the cross is emphatically NOT where we'd start. And, when we look at the Church, its hard not to imagine Jesus saying quietly "If I were you, I wouldn't start from here. I didn't, you see".

But we ARE where we are - with all those layers of loving,  well-meaning complexity, and a whole heap of other stuff, some of which feels anything but loving..And because the institution is what it is, there's no way out which won't hurt many people...

It's a huge dilemma - and I'm uncomfortable to even find myself articulating it, as a paid-up beneficiary of the system as it is, and most especially as I have absolutely no solution to offer. But the better part of me, the part that is fired up during Advent by the Kingdom prophecies and wants to stand on tip-toe to see the world of the Magnificat breaking in, longs so deeply for the Church to be famous for the way in which it lives out self-giving love, no matter what that might cost.

As to whether I'd have the courage to to go there, who knows. As Martyn says, it's a strange way...

Strange Way - thoughts for Lent 3 2021

 It’s quite hard going, this Scriptural journey through Lent, isn’t it!                      Last week we were being encouraged to lose our lives to gain them. This week we have the surpassing folly of the cross.                                                                Whoever would have planned a religion around the public humiliation and execution of its founder? Whatever was God thinking of, to invite us on this journey? On this strange way? Did he really think we’d manage to join in? He knew how it was going to pan out...and yet this was the way he chose...It’s complete madness – not just the journey itself but the hope, the belief that it was a route we would have the courage to follow.

You see– it’s the kind of madness that we, even knowing how the story ends, are unaccountably reluctant to buy into. We SAY we will. We even think we mean it.    All those babies whose foreheads I’ve signed with the cross – their egos crossed out by God’s love. All that drowning of self in the waters of Baptism.                    We WANT to be willing to go there but...really, it’s not wise is it?

As Martyn Joseph puts it in the song "Strange Way" that reflects on this “The world is too much with us”

We can’t really let go of the idea that this is all folly. Not wise at all.

Welcome to the strange strange way of the cross.

In Jerusalem, it has been tamed totally, the Via Dolorosa beautifully sign posted, with as many places to pray marked out as there are souvenir shops to sell you the aids to prayer. Even in January, 2 years ago, it was crowded with pilgrims, trying to make Christ’s story their own by following in his literal footsteps…They were sincere, we were sincere...We wanted to walk with him – we WANT to walk with him…but it remains so very difficult.

Strange way...

I wonder, really, how the institutional Church could ever find the courage to embrace it. Institutions aren’t supposed to take risks or be vulnerable.                Benevolent institutions, like the Church, are supposed to be safe places yet maybe we, the Church, have just got too tangled up in commitments and expectations. We have people (like me) who depend on it for a roof over the head and food on the table, who rely on the survival of the many and complex layers of church life. That life includes so much that is good, so much that points towards God’s beauty and God’s truth...but it is hampered, too, by so much else besides.And now, thanks to Constantine, thanks to centuries of history, thanks to establishment and so many more twists and turns, we have entirely necessary management structures and strategic development plans and a focus on mission and growth – because that’s what any large organisation needs if it’s to thrive and flourish.

And none of that is BAD in itself...In fact it is eminently sensible. Wisdom that the Greeks would surely applaud. And though our sanctuaries may sometimes be a little crowded with traders doing business, we are certain they’re not there to cheat anyone...careful to ensure that there’s no illicit insider dealing that disadvantages those who can ill-afford to engage.

We’re doing our best in human terms – really we are. 

But – I’m worried that isn’t enough. We PREACH Christ crucified – but we don’t live as if that is our calling too.  I'm conscious of the colossal irony of my saying this, in my comfortable home, surrounded by things that I have gathered, knowing that income and even pension are reasonably secure. I'm not saying that as one standing outside the organisation, but as one well and truly bound up in it, in all its layers of well-intentioned trammelling. But I'm disquieted. Thoroughly disquieted. I think we've wandered off course. The very body that exists to model Christ’s self giving love seems, instead, to have created a complex structure to protect the world from the utter dereliction of the man on the cross and his cry “Eloi, eloi, lamma sabacthani”

Instead of taking the wild, heaven-sent risk of choosing life in all its fulness, we feel safer opting for the lesser good of comfortable words for now and the everlasting arms for later. And, of course, the truth is that those everlasting arms will hold us secure no matter what…We can rely on that. Jesus felt himself forsaken by God, but in making that journey he ensured that we would never have to face equal abandonment...because even in our darkest, most dreadful places, he walks before us.

So – we are protected even from our own urge to self-protection, because God loves us too much to allow our cowardice to separate us from him.

But nonetheless – we are less than we could be – the CHURCH is less than it could be – when we opt for what makes sense in human terms. God’s economy is not the same as the Chancellor’s – his investment in us is all reckless, profligate love with no guarantee of a safe return on the investment

This is not an economy of scarcity but one of ABUNDANCE.

Imagine if we dared to live in ways that spoke of that. To give and keep on giving. To sit light to everything but love.                                                                      We might not feel secure all the time.                                                                We might not walk well-trodden paths, surrounded by cheering bystanders.          We might have to give up things that seemed important to us.                            I think that’s what the way of the cross means, for most of us.

It’s about letting go of everything except that knowledge that we are wonderfully, non-negotiably loved by God and living that difference in everything.

Yesterday I was privileged to attend one of the most wonderful, joy-filled funerals I’ve ever been part of.  Bex Lewis was a remarkable woman, a pioneer in Christian social media who had a genius for networking, and a yet greater genius for encouraging, building up, inspiring others. She was just 45 when the double-whammy of stage 4 breast cancer and covid claimed her exhausted, battered body, and the night of her death the hashtag #bemorebex was trending on twitter…

Her good friend, the writer, speaker and all-round encourager Andrew Graystone and his wife had bubbled with Bex during these challenging months of illness, - which were never, somehow about loss or decline, but simply about another hasthtag #busylivingwith mets. In his glorious, hopefilled address Andrew said

" to be more Bex? Embrace the life in all its fullness that Jesus offers. Fill every ounce of your flesh and blood with adventure and generosity just as Bex did. But realise that real life is not limited to space and time. There is a life that goes way beyond atoms, beyond digits, beyond days....beyond death itself. It's measured in love given and received." 

It’s undeniable that Bex walked the way of the cross in her experience of cancer. It’s also undeniable that she remained vibrant, full of love and life and hope, right through to the end. Her faith was a constant – though she was never annoying pious...this was no Victorian heroine going gently into that Goodnight. She lived until she died – and now, with God, she lives for eternity.

No – she wasn’t a saint – at least not one of those pale, emaciated beings who look so utterly removed from our reality. She was nothing if not real - and so full of warmth and humanity, but she was also wise enough to grasp that God’s foolishness is always wiser, his weakness stronger than anything we could manage ourselves...and she found in her journey that the way of the cross really was, and is, and ever shall be the way of life and peace.

It’s a strange way right enough – but it’s the way Jesus invites us to travel. May he give each one of us the vision and courage, the faith and the grace to take that route and to follow it all the way home.

Saturday, March 06, 2021

Life in all its fulness . Thank you Bex.

I've just "attended" the most amazing funeral - an absolutely joy-filled, hope-filled celebration of a remarkable life. Bex Lewis was loved by so many, because she made the most warm, generous, open gift of herself to everyone whom she encountered. I was one of 370 joining online, friends whom she had scooped up, encouraged, inspired in so many corners of the world. We were blessed to know her, to laugh with her, learn from her - in my case a friendship sustained almost entirely online, with a few forays in to face to face, generally focussed on Greenbelt. As I watched the service on YouTube this afternoon I was struck by how many many online friends and acquaintances were connected to Bex without my realising. There were few corners of the Christian digital world that she hadn't explored and often shaped for the better. She was a pioneer in so many ways - particularly in all things digital. Google Bex Lewis and you'll see what I mean. But over the last year, as she has been #busylivingwithmets, she has been a pioneer of a different kind, one of the first of my peers to walk calmly, faithfully, honestly towards death, "Bexit" as she called it in her conversations with Andrew Graystone It was hard to watch as things got harder for her - but she kept on talking us through her experiences, her reflections, - open about the grim days, gloriously positive on the better ones, though never with false hope. We all knew that stage 4 mets don't reverse, but imagined we would have a bit more time. 
Covid was the rogue card in the pack for her, as for so many other - and that makes me sad and angry too. 
Death IS an outrage. How dare it cut off so much that is good and beautiful and true!

But there's a different perspective, of course. 

It was good to hear Andrew remind us, mong so many other well-chosen words, that all of "this" - cancer, and suffering, and endings, and death, - is NOT part of God's plan... And his words about how to #BeMoreBex will stay with us for a very long time "Embrace the life in all its fullness that Jesus offers. Fill every ounce of your flesh and blood with adventure and generosity just as Bex did. But realise that real life is not limited to space and time. There is a life that goes way beyond atoms, beyond digits, beyond days....beyond death itself. It's measured in love given and received." 

Oh - and afterwards, a few of us met up on FB to exchange verbal hugs and help one another regain our balance. We'd met in that space, in that group, with Bex before - and the friend who launched the call got the FB message "Bex is busy". 
Oh, she WILL busy...being loved and giving love, and shining that luminous smile of hers at the One whose love formed her from the beginning and who now welcomes her most joyously home.

Thank you Bex. You made such a difference.

 Epitaph by Merrit Malloy 

When I die, give what’s left of me away 
To children and old people who wait to die. 
If you need to cry, 
Cry for your brother and sister 
Walking the street beside you. 
And when you need me, 
Put your arms around anyone and 
Give them what you need to give to me. 

I want to leave you something, 
Something better than words or sounds. 
 Look for me in the people I’ve known or loved. 
If you cannot give me away, 
At least let me live in your eyes, 
And not in your mind. 

You can love me most 
By letting hands touch hands, 
And by letting go of Spirits who need to be free. 
 Love does not die, bodies do. 
So, when all that’s left of me is love, 
Give me away.

Tuesday, March 02, 2021

2 weeks into Lent now. How's it going for you? Are you resolute in spurning chocolate, biscuits and alcohol or already exhausted?. Perhaps this year you feel you’ve already given up more than enough and any more deprivation will have a decidedly negative impact. That’s a perfectly reasonable view. It’s interesting, though, how the idea of “giving things up for Lent” seems to have survived in our emphatically post Christian society. I guess for many it's just another chance to have a go at those self improvement measures that foundered back January but if that’s so, then I think we're a bit off course...and our gospel would seem to support me. Listen! If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. Deny yourself.Take up your cross That's sounds, somehow, a whole lot more serious than stepping away from the chocolate. Let's look more closely and try to discover what this Scripture might mean for us. Peter, in a new self appointed role as Jesus's PR man, already suspects that his Master might be more than just an extraordinary teacher...indeed he has just reached a milestone at Caeserea Philippines, declaring when pressed "You are the Messiah But by their nature Messiah were supposed to triumph. It's kind of the small wonder that Peter does not want to pursue this line of suffering, death and resurrection. But even as Peter tries to silence Jesus, to curb his depressing pronouncements, Jesus tells him that he's got it wrong. Death IS actually what it's all about... Death of the self. And that’s supposed to be “GOOD news”?! You can't blame Peter if he put his head in his hands and groaned! I can't think of a message less calculated to win friends and influence people but Jesus just doesn't seem to care. Did you imagine this as part of the deal for you, personally, this morning?It looks very much as if Jesus is set on putting most of us off before we even start our Christian journeys. You can’t say we haven’t been warned. If you've been baptised, you will have had the cross traced on your forehead. I often tell parents that it’s an invisible name-tape, asserting “This child belongs to Jesus” - but it’s also, less consolingly,an invisible reminder of the shape our lives should take as baptized members of God’s church. The “I” of ego crossed out by God’s transforming love. As a priest it was hard for me, this year, to be unable to revisit that microcosm of death and hope that is represented by the Ash Wednesday liturgy, in that moment when we trace the cross on faithful foreheads, to mark a staging post on the journey that began, and will end, in the same way. Can I invite you right now to take a few seconds to remind yourself that you bear this mark..Trace that shape. That’s your commissioning badge, the cross on your forehead... “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ”. We carry a cross, you and I, as a constant reminder that discipleship is absolutely Not for the faint-hearted. Jesus expands this “Let them deny themselves” Words that are anathema in our age of self fulfillment and individualism, where self-care can sometimes too easily slip into self-indulgence...and it’s still not just about chocolate. Jesus is saying, quite simply, that we need to learn that we cannot exist as the centre of our own universe...that a world that runs on the principle of unrestrained self fulfilment for all is very quickly going to become a place of conflict and unhappiness...that a little ego goes a very long way. If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,[a] will save it.For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life That’s the stuff of tragedy, of course. A few years ago I had tickets to the RSC for “Oppenheimer” - a very powerful drama about the man responsible for developing the atomic bomb. As the plot developed we saw him repeatedly making choices that seemed to stem from his own pride in his scientific achievements, choices that divorced him step by step from his own humanity. The success of the project became all important. While at first there was talk of the deterrent power of the bomb, of the way that it would cut war short and so save countless lives, soon it became clear that it was now an end in itself. It was a chilling experience, watching scientific brilliance dedicated ever more deeply to a cataclysmic cause – and as we emerged, the big question in our group was “How do you live with yourself afterwards”. It seemed to me that we had been watching the experience of someone losing their own soul before our very eyes – and losing it as a result of a determination to hold on to the ego and all that went with it. That's really what's going on at the centre of everything...and where we should focus if we're serious about engaging with Lent or engaging with our faith. It's a struggle of life and death as our human tendency to “me first” contends with the incredible power of self-giving love that is God's very essence. It’s particularly tough this year, as we have had so much taken away already and we have been made conscious, in some cases for the first time, of what it means to live with a real knowledge of our own mortality. It has been both natural and necessary, I think, to cut ourselves some slack.. We’ve carried a whole stack of unexpected additional crosses – loneliness, financial insecurity, fear for our loved ones and for ourselves – through a landscape in which it has been uniquely hard for us to support each other So – being kind to ourselves has mattered. And there’s nothing wrong with that at all. The great commandment to love carries within it that reminder that we DO need to love ourselves...but there’s a world of difference between loving ourselves in ways that enable our flourishing and abandoning all restraint in a “me first” agenda that blights the lives of others. We’ve seen that kind of rampant egotism at work on the world stage of late... but we may well recognise less obtrusive versions of it within ourselves... habits of settled selfishness that we don’t even think to question. Now is the time to root them out… Lent is about so much more than chocolate. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,[a] will save it. Thankfully, Jesus doesn't simply talk enigmatically. - he models in his own person this upside down way of being, and invites us to live it too. On the cross he will become a parable, losing his own life to gain it for all time and for all people, transforming life, death and eternity.. But the point about a parable is that it shows us truth so that we can live it. In other words, this is where we come in. We will all have our own unique burdens – made out of the stuff of our own lives and experience... Of failure at work or loneliness at home; of a difficult relationship, a sick relative, a deep bereavement...things we might well prefer to jettison, but find ourselves carrying day by day. Your cross will be quite unlike mine. If we looked at them side by side, one might look easier, more easy to manage – or the reverse. We don’t get to choose, anyway. Your cross is yours, mine my own. We can’t carry one another’s crosses, though we might perhaps walk side by side, and encourage each other along the way. While I may long to, I can’t take the weight under which you stagger...- but Jesus can and Jesus does, if only you’ll let him. As we hesitantly kneel to shoulder the weight, Jesus steps in and carries it for us....the fear and sadness, disappointment, anger, doubt, and denial....the pressing weight of broken humanity. He carries it, step by painful step, setting his face towards Jerusalem and the long, slow journey to the cross... But –there’s an invitation. We can choose to carry it learn to be Christ-like by sharing in his suffering even as we hope to share in his glory. He knows this road so well, invites us on this arduous journey of discipleship because he knows that the way of the cross leads through pain and suffering to the new life of Easter. Peter could not believe that the route to the Kingdom lay through the death of his Master ...but we can look at the cross with the perfect, 20/20 vision of hindsight... It’s true that for now we are still struggling, longing to hug our dear ones, wondering if our jobs will survive, uncertain what will happen in our own unfinished stories, unsure if it will all come out right one day, We long for reassurance that it WILL be alright, are desperate to press on to the happy ending – to the lifting of lockdown, to loving reunions, to the new life of Easter transforming the world. But let’s pause and reflect, as we each settle the weight of our own particular cross more comfortably on our shoulders., because here and now, in our struggles and uncertainties, GOD IS WITH US, And yes - Easter is coming, nothing can stop it and through the weary miles ahead we will never travel alone.