Welcome to part time priest. Bits of life come together - priesthood, part time worker, mum, wife, person. Not really part time ontologically, obviously, but I do have other things to do, quite apart from being...and one of them is enjoying sharing ministry experiences and reflections with you.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

God's New Initiative

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark...

When I was a teacher, one of the things I liked to praise children for was taking the initiative. Perhaps someone had noticed the pencil pots were empty and found some new ones from the cupboard. Or someone else in the class noticed a fellow pupil was upset and went and did something about it themselves, instead of coming to me about it. Then they would be praised for showing initiative. They might even get their name in the Friday Achievement Book for ‘Showing Initiative’.

Quite apart from the fact that it’s a great quality to possess in life, it meant the teacher hadn’t had to notice that thing themselves – someone else was watching out too.

I remember a previous vicar sitting in a chair in our lounge a few years back and rather wearily sharing with us that in the church, there’s never any shortage of ideas, only volunteers to see them through. So many people would come up to him and say ‘I think we should be doing this/that/the other in our church’; and he would sigh and think to himself, what they really mean is ‘could you please do this/that/the other…?’ Just occasionally someone would come to him and say ‘I’m thinking of setting up this/that/the other’ and he would feel truly delighted and blessed!

So initiative can be a wonderful thing.

But the word ‘initiative’ has also suffered somewhat under a barrage of people thinking up things to try and bring freshness to otherwise stale things, and then calling them ‘New Initiatives’…

As a School Governor, I have to admit my heart always sinks when I hear the phrase ‘new initiative’ because it’s bound to be something the Government has thought up, very likely a group of people who’ve possibly never taught in a school classroom, or not for many years, at least, and who’ve sat down one day and come up with yet another new idea to add to the already overcrowded pile of ideas, which teachers, already tired and stressed with 100 other ‘New Initiatives’, will be obliged to implement.

So initiative can be a lovely thing – the independence to get on and do something unprompted, or it can be a rather tired thing – an attempt at revitalizing something which needs much more of a radical overhaul (or which actually needs leaving well alone).

What about God’s initiative?

This morning we’re celebrating the most dynamic initiative ever undertaken on behalf f the human race – the salvation initiative. I hope you take time at home to read the account of the resurrection afresh each Easter – there are four versions to choose from, which keeps it interesting, and this year we’re in John’s gospel.

Each year I read the account of the resurrection, something different jumps out at me, and I usually try and stay with that something, savour it and unpack it slowly.

Some years it’s the sorrow of Jesus that has impressed itself upon me; one year it was the unpredictability of the resurrection – how it was quite unbelievably so different to anything anyone had previously experienced; another year it was all the running that took place on that first Easter Morning. This year what’s jumped out at me is that phrase: ‘while it was still dark’.

When I was a child, I used to be terribly excited by the fact that sometimes our parents would decide to get us up very early in order to go on holiday while it was still dark.

I think it only happened a couple of times in order to get on the motorway before everyone else, if we were driving to Cornwall, for instance, or, when I was even younger, catching a ferry to Brittany. Now I’m older I dislike getting up early to go anywhere, but back then it was the height of excitement. The getting dressed in hushed tones, tripping over the cat as it wondered why on earth there were people up and about at that hour of the morning, piling into the car rather sleepily, covered up with a duvet, and driving off while the rest of the street was fast asleep.

Mary Magdalene thought she’d steal a march on the day on that first Easter morning, and arrived in the garden where the tomb was, while it was still dark.

It was still dark because the sun had not yet risen (that is, the S.U.N.)

She was there because she couldn’t wait any longer. The day before had, of course, been Sabbath, and no devout Jew would go to a tomb and anoint a body on the Sabbath, as that would constitute work; and the Lord God had said ‘keep the Sabbath holy’.

So she had rested at home. If you could call it rest; a mixture of fear and utter listlessness; thoughts darkened by the terrible loss of the Saviour on the day before, the day they nailed him to a cross till he breathed his last.

As Mary came to the garden that morning, it was still dark. In her thoughts, too, it was still dark. In her heart it was still dark. In her grief it was still dark. In her sense of betrayal and disappointment, it was still dark.

In our state as a human race that had lost its way, it was still dark when God decided to take the initiative.

God’s ‘New Initiative’ was not a patch up job. It was not a tired attempt at injecting new energy into an already overloaded system.

It was a plan of salvation which came into being in the Garden of Eden and almost certainly eons before that even. It was a plan which nobody could accurately predict, even though the prophets certainly hinted at it, louder and louder as the Scriptures unfolded, till the Saviour himself would say: ‘destroy this Temple, and three days later I will raise it up.’

God’s initiative was a way through sin and death, no less, and the physical resurrection of Christ the Saviour from the dead, set a divine seal upon it.

God’s initiative was slowly realized by the early Jewish believers in Jesus, like Paul, who would write in Acts:We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead’. 

And incidentally, I’m going to nail my colours to the mast here - if we were in any doubt as to the actual physicality of the resurrection, here it is: the witnesses to the resurrection ate and drank with the risen Christ. You cannot eat and drink with a spiritual concept.

The whole plan of salvation, then, is God’s initiative. His salvation plan for humanity includes us, living in this place and in this time. Our present reality is shot through with the ramifications of the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and with the power of His Spirit which He continually sends upon us, and particularly when we gather for worship.

It’s insidious, though, and I’m sure I’m as guilty as the next person, how we can live as though it were rather a good idea of OURS to be a church goer; to be a good person, to start this idea, to volunteer, or to believe a certain set of things…

Actually, what we’re all swept up in is God’s initiative.

In worship, God takes the initiative; in mission, God takes the initiative; in love, God takes the initiative; in guidance, God takes the initiative; in providing for us, God takes the initiative.

It is why the psalmist says ‘you hem me in on every side’! There’s nowhere we can go where the initiative of God hasn’t gone before. ‘While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).

While it was still dark…It’s absolutely crucial for our life together in Christ that we enlarge our vision to extend the reach of the gospel message to include those who are still in the dark.

While it was still dark…unless we model a radical, inclusive and open church, people will assume (because culture will do it for them) that you have to be mended and sorted before you go to church.

The complete opposite is true. While it was still dark, Jesus came to seek and to save the lost. It is those who mourn, those who are poor in spirit, those who hunger, the meek – those who are still in the dark – those are the ones for whom Christ was crucified and raised from the dead.

Church is for the broken and for those who need healing; those who feel powerless; those who have no voice; those who are still childlike. The Cross and the resurrection are for us all.

While it was still dark…you may be in Church on this Easter morning and it is still dark. Perhaps you don’t understand enough, or believe enough, or have enough love. Perhaps you are afraid, or you worry for someone you love; or you have lost someone, or don’t know if Jesus is for you.

But you’re here, and it’s time to meet with the risen Lord.

Remember, ‘while it was still dark’ – that was precisely the time when He had already risen.


Saturday, 19 April 2014

Sensing Lent 40: Linen

I can't resist a linen shirt. 

Linen is made from flax and differs from cotton in texture and origin, being the only European based plant plant used in fabric making. 

In summer it absorbs body heat and in winter it retains body heat making a perfect micro climate for skin. It has a neutral pH balance and is hypo allergenic. All this in many ways makes it the cloth of choice..

Though Christ was dead, it seems to have been a fitting material in which to wrap his body on the Friday night after he was taken down from the cross. Tradition has come up with shrouds that have purported to be the shroud in which his body was wrapped - the Turin shroud is probably the most famous, being a piece of linen measuring 14 foot by 3, bearing the mysterious negative image of a crucified man. It is the most sacred religious relic in the world today, and the most tested, studied and scientifically analysed. 

The expensive quality of the Turin linen is consistent with the account in Matthew's gospel that the wealthy Joseph of Arimathea came to Pilate requesting the body of Jesus and laid it in his own tomb, hewn into the rock. The marks on the shroud figure are consistent with the injuries inflicted upon Jesus by his scourging and crucifixion, with the lashes visible, the nail wounds in wrists not palms, bruised knees from falling, a spear mark in the side of the torso, and no broken bones.

There's a reverence to the wrapping of Jesus' body in fine linen. It was evening. It was over, apparently. No words were said, perhaps. The actions said all. In a world, and even a church, in which words are everything, it's perhaps better to utter few on Holy Saturday. I was tempted at theological College to get into an argument about how one should mark 'Holy Saturday', then I just thought, do you know what - I'll say nothing.

For me, there are no words. Only the tender laying of a dead body inside a linen shroud. And silence. Until...

Friday, 18 April 2014

Sensing Lent 39: Wood

The irony of Christ, whose father was a carpenter, growing up to be nailed to a piece of wood, was not lost on Sir John Everett Millais, when he painted 'Christ in the House of his Parents ('The Carpenter's Shop') in 1849. 

The young Jesus standing near to the tools which cut and gouge wood - the wood shavings strewing the shop floor - that would be enough - but Millais has to hammer home (pun intended) the juxtaposition of flesh and wood by having the young boy cut his finger on a nail and the blood drip onto his hand and foot. Such was the way of the Pre-Raphaelites.

Much can be made of the Christian symbolism of wood and trees - the Cross of Calvary becomes, effectively, the tree of life. 'Cursed be anyone who who hangs on a tree' (Old Testament) but the sting removed by the victory of the Cross (New Testament).

I hope it's not the case that we're supposed to dwell excessively on the violence of the Cross, because it is exceptionally difficult to comprehend at face value. Flesh on wood just does not go. Just as well, then, that as a symbol of forgiveness and reconciliation, you could say it now has a life of its own. We refer to the power of the Cross, the work of the Cross, the shadow of the Cross, the healing of the Cross. 

When you take a seven foot wooden cross out into the vicinity, say a town square, or even simply into a church building, it presents all sorts of possibilities for encounter. In a simple act of devotion today we chose images and words to pin to the wood at our Good Friday Meditation in church. The Cross has a powerful effect - we cannot predict how people will react to it. Best, then, to let the Holy Spirit do the work and let the Cross of wood speak its own language of redemption, healing and hope. 

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Sensing Lent 38: Feet

Sermon for Maundy Thursday. 

Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.

What does it mean to wash one another’s feet today? Foot washing is popular at this time of year in church services and is practised at some Ordination services.

In 2003 Dr Rowan Williams revived the ancient custom of foot washing at a Maundy Thursday service at Canterbury – it was reported on by The Guardian newspaper.

Apparently every British sovereign had offered foot washing until the 1730s when the ruling Hanoverians decided it was beneath their dignity. But the symbolic power of a very senior cleric agreeing to wash other people’s feet, had obviously made an impression on the Guardian reporter, who wrote:

‘Many bishops and other priests in Britain now perform the feet-washing ceremony, known in Latin as the pedilavium. Dr Williams had traditionally performed the task in his previous role as a bishop and archbishop in Wales.
But Thursday night was the first time, at least since the Reformation, that an archbishop of Canterbury has stooped so low.

The 12 parishioners chosen to have their feet washed on Thursday night were aged from nine to 72 and represented a cross-section of church membership. Dr Williams hoisted his sleeves and rinsed their feet before patting them dry with an individual white towel.
Some of the younger ones giggled slightly with the archbishop looking up, smiling encouragingly at them as he finished the job.
"I was a bit nervous and excited," said Annalisa Flood, 13, daughter of the cathedral choirmaster. "I washed my feet first specially."’

The fact that this little girl had felt the need to wash her feet first rather detracts from the power of the ritual, and perhaps highlights the limitations of lifting a culturally powerful ritual out of its initial setting and transposing it to another, where, generally speaking, we all wear closed shoes, walk on tarmac, and wash our own feet in the shower.

Much as we might admire those whose spirituality leads them to wash other people’s feet, even previously cleaned ones; it leaves us with the question: what is a 21st Century equivalent of foot washing which we can practice towards each other?

Because we do need to find ways to be serving and loving each other, as we follow Christ’s example this Holy Week.
I wonder what you would come up with, if asked to think of a culturally appropriate way of showing love and service to other people in Christ’s name?

An image that first came into my mind was of the late Princess Diana, shaking hands with AIDS patients.
When she opened Britain’s first purpose built ward for HIV/Aids patients in 1987, she was the first public figure to be seen shaking hands with someone suffering from a disease then feared and derided as a ‘gay plague’.
Beforehand she had faced criticism for putting her children at risk by rejecting advice to wear protective clothing to avoid germs.

Her caring gestures and simple handshakes with AIDS sufferers spoke volumes about love and acceptance and helped break down fear and prejudice about the disease. The photographs of her doing this, the juxtaposition of a glamorous and famous princess sitting talking almost cozily with a gaunt young man, intensified the power of the gesture.

But perhaps even that’s not exactly the right image for us to take away this Maundy Thursday, living as we are, 27 years further on...
And so an image I suggest we might take away is of listening as a form of loving service.
In our increasingly noisy world, Julian Treasure, a speaker on the TED talks forum (see handout) has said that we are losing our listening.

I’m sure he has a point.
Everyone is so busy broadcasting, advertising or defending their own truth positions, our lives are full of voices and words, even if only in the forms of 100s of emails, we are in danger of forgetting how to listen.
The world is very noisy: our lives are very busy.

When someone gives you the gift of listening they are giving you their time (a precious commodity today) and their attention (which our increasingly technological world is sapping).
When someone listens, they impart the message that you are important and valued.

Julian Treasure, on his TED talk, says that when he got married, he said to his wife, ‘I promise that when you speak, I will try and listen to you as if hearing your voice for the first time’. What a thought!

It is a great risk to be a listener. You risk all sorts of people taking advantage, just like Jesus took a risk with Judas, yet still offered him broken bread and the cup of wine. You risk not being heard yourself. You have to slow down, give up your own limelight and act out of loving humility. It seems in many ways to be entirely in the spirit of foot washing.

When I think of the people I know, there are not many who know how to really listen. Research suggests that we are distracted for about 75% of the time when we are supposed to be listening to someone.

The average attention span of an adult listening is about 22 seconds. Immediately after listening to someone talk, we recall about half; after a few hours, only about 20%

When we think of the church, we know there are those special ones who do give others the time of day; who are gracious listeners; who listen across age barriers, who go away from a conversation understanding more. Will we be those people?

There are undoubtedly those whose voices we would rather not hear: in any community there are those who feel their voices are silenced. There are no doubt voices in our churches that we have not heard, who nonetheless have something important to say.

Amongst Jesus’ followers there were the strident voices of James and John who wanted to call down thunder on the unrepentant; there was the voice of Peter, refusing to have his feet washed and making promises of loyalty he couldn't keep.

To listen well is to value someone – essentially to be willing to love, as Jesus commanded us. ‘You do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand’, said Jesus. Later you will see that loving service is to be the hall mark of your life as my followers.

When we listen, we are not just attending to the sound of the words, we are attending to the direction of that person’s life. You could argue there’s no sharing of the Good News without listening, listening to that gap in the conversation where someone admits to a need, to a doubt, to a hope that there might be more to life than this, where they reach out to God for healing and forgiveness. 

How many times have I failed to perceive that moment of grace, that moment of growth, because in the pause in conversation, I have rushed in with too many words…?
After church coffee conversation is a classic example. Slow down and listen with the ears of the Spirit! 

At our Community Coffee Morning in Whitchurch, I like to think that people who come, if they find anything there, will find a welcome and listening ear.

It’s when someone has given me the grace of listening that I have often known the fresh touch of God in my life, or have understood something important for that time about God’s guidance.

As we have thought about different images of loving service, the washing of dirty feet; the washing of clean feet, shaking hands with an AIDS sufferer; maybe we can take on board afresh the act of loving service which is listening.
Imagine if people said of the church: that’s the group of people who have time to listen!

And as we listen to each other, we might find we are actually surprised by hearing the voice of God.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Sensing Lent 37: Eyes

The eyes have been described as the window to the soul. What we look upon has an effect upon us. According to the Sermon on the Mount, 'the eye is the lamp of the body, so then if your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness' (Matthew 6:22). 

There's clearly something more than a physical description going on here - the eyes being used as a metaphor for wholesomeness in our perception, maybe? Perhaps it means that if we bring a jaundiced view to the world, we only see rottenness; if we 'see' with goodness, we bring that same quality to our experience of life...?

In today's gospel, Peter finds himself the object of Jesus' lingering gaze. It is a poignant moment, the one after Peter has denied his friend and Lord. One can only imagine what that gaze looked like - the searing eyes, the pain in them. People have tried to capture that gaze in paintings. No doubt his eyes also sought out the core of Peter when he lovingly reinstated him on the beach after the resurrection.

We often avoid each other's gaze, because it takes some courage to really try and see into what makes someone else tick, and let them do the same for you. A lingering gaze can mean all sorts of things, especially between genders, which we might shrink from. I was a bit flummoxed when one of the Bishops' Advisors on the selection conference I was on, after I shared something slightly personal, said 'I can tell from your eyes.' Frankly, that was going a bit far for me, especially as I didn't know him from Adam, even though I'm sure he had all the right spiritual, and probably psychological, training.

But I suppose you can tell things from looking into people's eyes. And thereby souls...It amuses me that when I'm out and about in the sunshine, sometimes without my collar and wearing sunglasses, lots of people don't recognise me at all. Occasionally that can feel rather nice.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Sensing Lent 36: Road

Jesus was often on the road. Apart from being, literally, outdoors for a lot of his ministry, the road, or 'the way' was a metaphor for going in a certain direction in his life, going God's way, being open to fellow travellers and averse to settling in one place, for the sake of the kingdom. Eventually his road narrowed and turned towards death - on the road to Jerusalem. 

Others joined him on the road, like blind Bartimaeus and the women and other disciples who followed him; and now we're on the road that is called Holy Week, seeking to walk the way of the cross with him, as far as we are able.

Literary tropes of the road include Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1957), a book simultaneously about a literal journey across America and a journey of personal self discovery outside of the mainstream, via jazz, poetry and drug use. 

An even more depressing tale is Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2006), a post -apocalyptic story of a father and son travelling on the road through ecologically devastated countryside, trying to reach the sea with a few meagre possessions and a father's terrible burden of protecting a hungry child.

Whether narrow or wide, smooth or full of potholes, going towards death or towards safety, travelled alone or in company, a road always stretches out ahead, and it must be walked. 

Monday, 14 April 2014

Sensing Lent 35: Garden

There's something about sitting in the garden which is quintessentially English. I'm a simple gardener - as long as the lawn is mown and there's a few flowers in a small bed, easy to keep, preferably perennials which come up every year with no input from me; some herbs in pots, a couple of chairs, some shade, and I'm happy. 

I tend to have an 'out of sight out of mind' approach to gardening - when I'm not in the garden I never think about it - but when the sun comes out and I start wandering about out there, I notice things which need weeding, sweeping, cutting, re-potting, digging; and then I'm more likely to begin to get my hands dirty. There's something very grounding about getting your hands in the earth. It relieves the thoughts and settles the mind. At some basic level I suppose we know we're going back there one day.

The original garden (of Eden) can be read as a metaphor for our primary innocence - Adam and Eve tilled the soil in which were all kinds of plants for food and delight. A river flowed through the centre to water it. In the middle of the garden were two trees - the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They were allowed to eat of any tree except this one, a command which they ignored, thus losing their innocence. As Joni Mitchell sang, we've 'got to get ourselves back to the garden'.

As those who prize knowledge it's easy for us to read the story as God trying to keep Adam and Eve in the dark. But if knowledge is experiential, their disobedience would mean they 'knew' evil for the first time on eating 'the apple', and that was not going to end well. All we can say is that in acting as though God's way were sub standard, they forfeited some sort of life which would have been untouched by death and decay, something we naturally find hard to imagine. The door was now open to someone hanging on another tree to win back life.

As Holy Week starts, we make preparations to look to that someone who hung on a tree for us, and to walk the way of the cross, in order to get back to the garden.