A Merry Dance?

Right since the beginning, well at least since they were kicked out of the synagogues, the gatherings of followers of Christ have tried to organise themselves, and often made a bit of a hash of this.

I’m always cheered up to read the New Testament Epistles, full as they are of advice to badly behaved elders, confused and nervous leaders, and argumentative groupies… whether it’s what to eat or wear, or how to organise a gathering and a Eucharistic meal; quite often through the epistles it’s basic reminders we read, that the Gospel is all about Jesus Christ – his crucifixion and resurrection, and our salvation through him… and not about more rules upon rules upon rules.

Fast forward two thousand years and we’re in the same place. The Church has quite a few organisational groups, with a variety of ministries in each, and a lot of rather anxious people in charge, trying to remember that it’s all about Jesus.

In a few months time, I will reach the point of my curacy where I can begin to start looking ahead to where I and my family are supposed to go next. I’m already spending a lot of time soul-searching and trying to separate things I rather fancy myself doing, from things I’m really gifted for.

‘You need to be thinking about where do you want to go?’ so said a diocesan advisor.

But the trouble is I’m no good at all at vaguely ‘wanting’ things… until I see the thing I did not know and know I am meant to want it wholeheartedly… I don’t project any desires or plans into the future, I just wander along in the moment, considering the problems thereof sufficent unto the day, and spiritually following my nose, until like that lovestruck cartoon skunk, Pepe le Pew, I happen upon my desire. Then I’m unstoppable.

Pepe le Pew

If I wanted to be a bit more biblical I suppose I could refer to the Song of Songs… ‘on my bed night after night I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him but I did not find him – I must arise now and go about the city; In the streets and in the squares I must seek him whom my soul loves’…

I certainly don’t think I’m going to get a clear vision that fits with the modern advertisements for roles within the church: ‘I think my beloved is waiting for me to go to a small town in Werthingtonshire with a large modern rectory, enthusiastic team of lay assistants and an Average Sunday Attendance of 135 people’… that’s not going to happen. I’m never going to look at an advert for a church and think – ‘there’s a hole the shape of me – I’ll send them a CV and tell them why I’m right for the job.’

Because I’m not! I’m a sinner who relies upon Christ and who is impelled by the love of Christ to simultaneously go searching for him in the streets and in the squares – even if it gets me beaten up by the watchmen… and also who is drawn, by a sense of kindred-spirit and mercy, to share with fellow wanderers and sinners – the good news that the lover whom they seek has a name, and that name is Christ.

I am more than faintly suspicious of anything that smacks of ‘successful ministry’ – though I admire immensely those many friends in ministry who work bloomin hard and who manage to do a reasonable amount of stuff to the glory of God, and without giving up or being disgraceful. But I admire most, those many revered and saintly people of years gone past who were misunderstood and even rejected by their contemporaries, for not ‘keeping with the programme’.

But I’m not stupid – I don’t think that I’m special in feeling this way… in fact pretty much all the ordained people you talk to (including some brave bishops) will admit that being officially in the Church – is perhaps the greatest test of faith in Jesus Christ you’ll ever have – and sticking it out is… well… the way of the cross.

Why?

Well in my experience – you never face much spiritual resistance and trial unless the thing you are doing is worth doing, and the time you are tempted most to chuck in the towel, is probably an important moment to stick it out and stay put. So the church must be doing a lot of things right actually… it’s been ‘dying’ since the very beginning, ‘For your sakes we are killed every day’… but it has also been resurrected in every generation… because though we may not all speak the same language, and we may have some pretty wacky turns of phrase or traditional forms… we may at times and in some places be out of step or limping (we are a company of sinners in need of redemption after all)… still in our heart of hearts we are in love and we’re not going to stop being in love, or trying to follow in the dance, even though our Lord and Lover has lighter feet than we do.

 

 

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God is with the suffering

God is with the outsider.

For a long time, gods were emblems of tribes and groups – totems who represented strengths and fears of a community; in wartime they provided a common figurehead to fight under, and in peacetime they provided a common focus for fear and awe – to whom fealty was due to preserve the peace… Such were the nature of the manmade gods.

The God of Abraham and Isaac, the God of Jacob… the one true God himself, is rather different. Even before Jesus Christ walked the earth, God revealed himself to be a defender of the outsider – forgiver of sinners and protector of the widow and orphan; God has always identified with the human outcast and underdog.

Not for nothing are the heroes and patriarchs of the Old Testament taken from those displaced or rejected by human society… from the barren and wandering Sarai and Abraam (later Sarah and Abraham); to the  exiles Jacob and Moses…

King David – the youngest child of a family, not even called in from shepherding to join the family feast – HE is the one chosen by God. And then Jesus… with nothing to commend him physically, he identifies with the sick, the stranger, the despised foreigner, the sinner and the rejected. Of course there is room in his forgiving heart for the social climber and scribe as well – providing they are ready to repent… but it is most clearly the outsider and the oppressed who has the Lord’s heart.

And yet for some wicked, unknown reason – people still don’t get it… it is not enough to sit inside the comfy circle of society and have passing pity on the outsider or the oppressed. If you want to be where God’s heart is – you need to get up and go outside the circle – and identify with the oppressed and rejected, the weak and afflicted.

And right now – in the relentless and largely random bombing of Gaza by heavily armed and fortified Israeli troups…

If you don’t know, or your heart is unmoved to prayer, then search images online  with the phrase “who can save children of Gaza”; I don’t dare post the images of war here – they are too distressing – and might appear merely sensational but I include an image of a sculpture of Christ whose wounds, though neat and clean by comparison,  remind me of the current pain of Palestine.scarred Christ crucified

I don’t know that it will do any good for me to say this – it certainly doesn’t redeem me-  I am not a doctor or a soldier or a politician, so I cannot help in any practical way. I am not advocating violence to overcome violence, or retribution to fight against injustice. Only expressing horror; and praying for peace, and praying too that those who are suffering now, will not do what I would undoubtedly want to do if I were a mother in Palestine – and that is to find someone responsible for the suffering of my children and make them understand, without mercy, what they had done.

I don’t know how God judges – but I have always believed it was with complete truth and simultaneously complete love for humanity… but to see even partial truth and feel even partial love in this case is so painful that I cannot imagine that those in power and responsible for decision-making in Israel right now will escape eternal destruction – I can’t see how, to hold in truth in one’s arms the blackened corpse of a baby, and to feel the reality of its little life, and the reality of a mother’s love – and to have been the one responsible for this and so many other innocent lives needlessly destroyed… I can’t see how one could survive that. Pharoah, Herod, Caesar, Nero, Hitler… the Israeli Security Cabinet…  I really don’t know when I look at these images, will anyone speak in your defence on the Final Day… and, when you finally know and understand fully, just as you are fully known, then will you even WANT them to?

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Agape Meal Reflection

“I have eagerly desired to share this Passover with you”

last supper

That was what he said, and he meant it –
round the table, there was peace, contentment,
so many friends gathered together – and once again their host was a stranger-
-delighted to be asked, eager to please
and blessed, by being able to give something to Jesus
…Of course, there were really NO strangers at this meal –
– that was His way. Something about his presence made everyone friends, family, equal. In the same way that something about His presence made everyone aware that they did not quite understand Him.
***
He was one of the Twelve. Specially chosen.
When Jesus had begun to choose, he had been desperate to have his name called – who wouldn’t?
This charismatic teacher and healer, He could change the world –
– and yet, when his own name had been called, he had found himself among tax collectors and fishermen –
a motley crew with nothing obvious in common…
…he had spent many hours and days since, wondering why he had been chosen over others.

And they had basked in the warmth of His presence – and watched amazed, as the Lame stood up to walk and the Blind saw, and wept with delight.

There had been stranger lessons too –
the teacher’s lack of deference to some respected leaders, and his concern for the poor old women, lepers, and street urchins. It seemed to make no sense.

Outside one town He fed a multitude and they were ready to crown him King,- but then he hid himself away.

Covert encounters with people like Nicodemus, and with Jairus’ family, raised questions.
-What happened in that room with the little girl? First there were mourners wailing and then they began to cook, as for a feast…

It wasn’t what he’s expected when he became a follower. Or when Jesus called him out as one of the twelve.

 

They could have changed the world,
they could have raised an army and taken the city –
heck, they could have taken over the whole Roman Empire!

But now here they were again,
just another meal, bread blessed and broken, and random strangers laughing and smiling like friends, and everyone resting,
just resting in the light of His presence –
as though nothing else in the world mattered…

He had thought this man would change the world, and had relished the thought of serving at his side –
But now-

MY GOD, he makes no earthly sense…

Beaming with delight, even at the simple servants.
Gulping down the wine as though there were no tomorrow –

LORD ALMIGHTY, how could He have ever seemed like a second Moses –

***
“Judas”,
he is startled now as Jesus meets his gaze –
“Your thoughts are elsewhere. Here –“
the teacher hands him a morsel of bread from his own dish
“- Go then, do what you must”.

***

[This reflection formed the 'sermon' at yesterday's Holy Week Agape Meal in our parish]

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Great Expectations

Not sure why I called this reflection ‘Great Expectations’ – though there are a lot of expectations on a parish priest – and there is a drowning in Dickens’ book of the name…

In the Orthodox Church, and in the ancient church (so the writings of the church father Cyril of Jerusalem says) as part of the rite of Baptism and Chrismation, the catechumens… those who are choosing to enter the faith of the Church – faith in Christ, are breathed on by the priest or deacon.

In the Bible, in the Gospel of John, Jesus comes to his disciples after the crucifixion and resurrection, and after showing them his hands and sides, with their injuries, he tells his disciples to go out and tell and then he breathes on them and says, ‘recieve the Holy Spirit’ (John 20:22)

It’s not the first time God breathes into man… in Genesis 2:7, it is part of the creation story, that adamah, the man formed from the earth, is breathed into by God and becomes a living being. (Genesis 2:7)

The name for Spirit in Hebrew, one name, is Ruach… the holy spirit, the breath of God.

When did you last allow God to breathe into you?

 

 

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Been a long time…

It has been a long time since the last post. That title, by the way, is a quotation from the immortal song, ‘Little Donkey’!

Soon the vicar in charge of this parish where I am training, will be leaving for a new post elsewhere in the diocese… more responsibility for him and also for me, as I look after the worshipping community during the vacancy of six months or so.

It used not to be called a ‘vacancy’ when a parish was without a priest, but an ‘interregnum'; that means, ‘between kings’ (!) so you can see why they changed it. The disciples in this parish are a wonderfully gifted and committed group of people, but in a funny way I find myself like young Captain Horatio Hornblower, left to steer a ship full of very experienced sailors older than me, just because I am called to the helm.

Actually helmsman rather than captain is about right, as Christ is our Captain – but it was the image of the young sailor propelled into a position of responsibility that sprang to mind.

Ioan Gruffudd as C.S. Forester's character Horatio Hornblower in the ITV series

Ioan Gruffudd as C.S. Forester’s character Horatio Hornblower in the ITV series

I’m hopeful there will be significantly less violence, cannonfire and drowning in the Parish than in the naval escapades… but we have a similar number of buttons on our uniforms.

So I have been very busy.

In fact I didn’t realise HOW busy until last night I cast my mind  back over the last two weeks and then realised as I went more carefully over things day by day that in fact I was looking back over the last ONE week…

Last Tuesday I was so tired of dealing with a cold, and so tired of thinking about all the things I would have to sort out, that I was too sleepy and befuddled to do anything on my midweek day off… and felt pretty grumpy that I’d wasted it. But by the end of Thursday, life was looking great as the parish’s Church Council had met for a great prayerful meeting and formulated a mission statement for the future.

“Engaging with all; Growing through prayer; Sharing Christ’s love”.

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The Gift

There is something that becomes apparent when your life is spent giving thanks… That is what the word ‘Eucharist’ is about… it literally means ‘good grace’ but in essence it means thanksgiving.

host wafersWhat becomes apparent is:

1. Thanks truly is due, all the time; to God and to our fellow human beings.

2. It is really hard to come to terms with recieving Gifts.

In this ministry, one meets a lot of people in need. In fact it’s very rare to encounter someone who is not, in some way, in need… from simple material sustenance, to deep spiritual healing. We meet them all, and we also as ministers are constantly in need…

Often the more hardpressed someone is, the greater their poverty or pain -the harder it is for them to recieve what they need… It may feel too painful to acknowledge the need, to humiliating to ask for help, or too shameful to admit the lack; there are a hundred and one reasons why it is really hard for humans in need to receive gifts.

Trying to broach the subject of need… and perhaps even to offer help – is fraught with peril and danger of hurt – mostly one has to pray that eventually, in a roundabout way, the pastoral need will gently be revealed, and that in revealing it, healing will actually begin -and perhaps further down the line help may even be requested -but by no means necessarily from me… Revealing the need to God is generally as far as I can go with people, I am a priest, not a professional counsellor -but it is an important step, because it is truthful and liberating.

Thinking about one such encounter, I recognised that, because a particular need was so very great and fundamental, it was even more well protected than usual. And that made my mind turn to humanity’s relationship with God. What I thought went like this:

God is so glorious… so holy and beautiful and perfect… if I were in need and he came to me in such a way that I could comprehend his glory…and then offered me kindness and help, I would be utterly overwhelmed, so aware of the disparity between my helpless and humble need, and his capacity to powerfully assist -I would be horrified… embarrassed, outraged and almost unmade… Even just imagining it I could feel the anger of unworthiness rise in my cheeks. And yet the world is full of God’s glory and we move through it almost unseeing…

And then I thought -but of course we are in need…

And we are not able to comprehend even a fraction of his glory.

And then I began to undertstand what kind of gift life is.

It is a vast gift, given tiny piece by piece. A glorious and shining gift, given crumb by pale crumb. It is intense love, dilute with palatable tedium, discomfort and sorrow. It is heavenly glory, given brick by dusty brick, and dropping into our lives in shining puddles and broken timber… How can God give all the fire of his love to a little child of clay, without utterly destroying it with shining intensity?

How incredibly gentle. How incredibly kind and patient. How genuinely heartbreakingly loving. This life is how we are born, born into God’s presence -there is no other way for us to know one another… God and us…to come into relationship with one another… except by this painfully slow process of living, living in this land of veiled glory. Only by gradually growing accustomed to God’s veiled glory, and becoming more and more aware of our true need, can we first know ourselves as children of clay and then… despite the difference… begin to know ourselves also as beloved children of God.

But at first we couldn’t… even with all of Life to work through and to recognise our nature and our need, we could not believe the gift and we could not relate to God… he was still too big, and beyond our comprehension.

And then, like a parent cutting up the food smaller and smaller for the children to be able to digest… he came to us small -as a child of clay and a child of God. And he showed us how beloved we were. But our need and our pain was too great… and his glory was still too vast -he healed, he loved, he fed us, he protected us, he put up with us and called us to help him… showing us that he valued us in every way… But for us the pain and humility was still too strong and anger was our response. He was not small enough.

And he recognised this… so he showed us, that he would willingly be broken up smaller, crumb by crumb, and poured out drop by drop. And that he would give himself completely to our need.

And in our hunger and anger we leapt at this, and cut him up, and tried to let out all the glory from the heart of him, so that he would not make us feel so humble, so aware of our clay.

And then we took him down and put him out of sight. And wept with guilt and sorrow.

But he did not cease to be who he was.

And he did not cease to love us. And his crumbs have never ceased to feed us, across the world and across history.

Now he comes to us all crumb by crumb, and drop by drop and line by line, diluted by the distance of time and cooled by the hardness of our hearts… and he still burns.

I love him, I need him, and one day my eyes shall see him, and not another’s.

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The Church Universal

‘catholic’ is from the Greek ‘katholou’ meaning, ‘as a whole’. So when Anglicans talk about being part of one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, that’s one of the things they mean… we are part of the whole.

Fresco of Mary and Bishop Petros, from Faras Cathedral Sudan

Fresco of Mary and Bishop Petros, from Faras Cathedral Sudan

It was interesting to read Bishop Nick Baines blog today, he writes about the visit of Bishop Ezekiel of Khartoum, which he apparently spoke about on thought for the day… (I’m sorry I’m not really one for the radio these days so I missed the spot).

But I didn’t miss Bishop Ezekiel Kondo; after his visit to Bradford diocese, we were privileged to host him here in Salisbury diocese, in our own deanery. Bishop Ezekiel is a bishop in the Episcopal Church of Sudan… Sudan itself having fractured into two countries in 2011. South Sudan seceded (separated) from the northern part of the country…

Now, although the northern government admits that there are at least 100,000 Christians in Sudan, they are trying to claim they are an entirely Islamic nation… not primarily for spiritual reasons, but because that way this poor nation would gain the financial backing of several wealthy Arab nations… unfortunately the presence of practicing Christians and Christian organisations of various denominations is an inconvenient hindrance to this declaration. An inconvenience that in such an unstable situation, forces in power might be tempted to deal with by violence and oppression rather than diplomacy and reason.

What is more, they are trying to reframe the nation of Sudan as though it were a territory that had always been Islamic and ruled by arabs, seeking to rewrite history in this frame.

However, thankfully it is unlikely this lie will take permanent root… for one thing, the incredible medieval archaeology of Nubia (now Sudan) including the amazing Christian cathedral of Faras, are of such international significance historically and culturally, that, although many artefacts are spread across the world (having been saved for posterity after an international plea when a new dam was built that flooded important archaeological areas) that no-one could seriously believe the history was so tidy. Though the current leaders would perhaps wish it as black and white as oil and sand.

Fresco of Archangel from Medieval Cathedral of Petros in Faras, Sudan

Fresco of Archangel from Medieval Cathedral of Petros in Faras, Sudan

So the Sudanese Bishop came to rural middle class Wiltshire… and we are being called upon to make room in our prayer lives and hearts for the people of Sudan, and particularly those Sudanese whose faith in Christ makes them so economically inconvenient. I hope that the government of Sudan will see that trying to rewrite such a rich multicultural history will only make them appear more unstable, and that to be taken seriously on the world stage, it is worth pursuing the long road to peace and freedom of religion, not the short road to temporary wealth and longterm fighting. And in the meantime, we will stay in touch with our Christian sisters and brothers in the church universal, and entrust one another to God.

Fresco of St Anne, from Medieaval Faras Cathedral in Sudan

Fresco of St Anne, from Medieaval Faras Cathedral in Sudan

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