Saturday, 28 July 2012

Britain: our story and everyone's.

It started with water. A huge canopy of blue shimmering around the crowd. The Shipping Forecast. And the Spirit of God brooded over the waters. The water of life. And then a tree. The tree of life. The earth created by God. A garden. Grass to grow, seed to plant. Summer and winter and seed time and harvest. A green and pleasant land. Blake's vision: 'And did those feet, in ancient times, walk upon England's mountain's green? And was the Holy Lamb of God on England's pleasant pastures seen?' If not the Holy Lamb of God, then certainly maypoles and women in bonnets, men in breeches hoeing and tilling the good earth in Merrie England.

And then Pandemonium erupts. Milton's word for the capital of Hell. Industrialisation. The Fall of Man. Visions of heaven and hell embedded in our consciousness. Chimneys, black, smoking; children shinning up them. Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies - the hell of the bully, Mr Grimes, the soot, child deaths; but also the purity of water as a symbol of washing away sin and dirt. Children always suffer first; they are society's conscience.

Culture. From it come both good and bad. Industry produces both invention and pollution: railways, newspapers, votes for women, education, the volunteer movement, the National Health Service. Also exploitation, weapons and War. Remembrance.

The Queen. Who never, ever, gets involved in anything show business-y or showy, acts in a clip with James Bond. HOW DID THAT HAPPEN? She is brilliant. Doesn't seem at all ruffled by her exciting helicopter parachute jump into the Olympic Stadium.

Children. We respond to their innocence and care for them when they're sick. Sick children in bed and healthy children bouncing on their beds. All are powerful, provocative images. Fiends of the imagination like the Child Catcher and Lord Voldemort are banished by caring and magical adults - real flying Mary Poppinses. With obligatory black umbrellas. This is Britain after all.

Chariots of Fire. Elijah didn't die; he was translated. There are places between heaven and earth that are especially thin. The Christian sportsman, Eric Liddell, running along a beach; serious and uplifting, till joined by Mr Bean and a big fat raspberry. We have a sense of humour in Britain, predicated on the underdog. It's what keeps us human.

Multiculturalism. We're British and diverse. We do not stand alone. Welcome the alien in your midst. We celebrate life in pop music; the highs and lows, the heartbreak. Since the sixties we've been searching for satisfaction, love and that perfect kiss. 

We so hunger for connection that we invented the world wide web. We are now so connected that news spreads around the world like wildfire. Status: 'In a relationship.'

Sadly, so does hate. Some people, ordinary people, people from many different ethnicities, got on the wrong bus, the wrong train, at the wrong time when the bombs went off. We still remember. At times like this, words are inadequate. 

And so we dance. We sing...

'Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven's morning breaks, and earth's vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.'

For the story of Britain, or of anyone anywhere, when all's said and done, is a story about life and death; good and evil; choices; a garden, a fall and how to find the Way back.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Jesus is (not) my boyfriend

I blush to remember that a couple of decades ago we thought nothing of singing a song with our Youth Group that began:

'Hold me Lord (hold me Lord)
In your arms (in your arms)...

These were teenagers, male and female; some quite street cred, not necessarily all church kids. It's a bit cringe-able looking back.

But not altogether unusual as worship songs in the charismatic tradition go.

The song 'Light of the World' (Tim Hughes) contains this line about Jesus:

'You're altogether lovely, altogether worthy, altogether wonderful to me,' a line which I was quite happy to sing, till a more, shall we say, gritty Christian, suggested that 'lovely' was a word unworthy of a man who hung on a cross dying a terrible death for us.

As subjective expressions of love for God abound within the contemporary worship scene, one is left wondering about the balance between objectivity and subjectivity. At Theological College our worship offerings in chapel were scrutinised by tutors for skill and appropriateness, but the other students who'd been on the receiving end were never asked 'how did you experience God during that act of worship?' - that was considered 'too subjective.'

If God isn't experienced as personal, is it worship at all? And yet someone else's 'personal' worship experience, recorded in soft breathy tones in a studio and brought out on their latest worship CD (which you can buy at all major Christian book stores and at all Summer festivals kicking off with New Wine A in two days' time) sometimes comes across as a bit self indulgent.

Try this:

'I still remember falling to the floor and 
Now I often wonder how I ever dared to let you come
Even closer, closer than the air around me,
Underneath my skin...' (Paul Oakley, 1999, I Still Remember, subtitled: Kiss the River').

Being generally way out of the contemporary music scene, I find it takes me a while to re-engage when I arrive at the New Wine festival. Maybe things are moving on. Maybe we're going to have a renaissance of the objective...a bit of Miriam's song writing skills perhaps:

"Sing to the LORD, for he is highly exalted. The horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea." (Exodus 15:21)

I kind of hope so because much as I am not ashamed to say that I love God; Jesus is not my boyfriend.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Beheading of John the Baptist

It was certainly lonely in prison.
Not even the desert prepared you for the utter loneliness of being a prisoner in solitary confinement.
But one had to learn the value of being content in all situations, the value of trust.
This would be the final chapter.
A dark, comfortless cell and no way of knowing how long it would be before execution.
Of course occasionally there were the talks with Herod – that old fox.
For all his rottenness, he seemed to want to know about the Messiah, and so he, John, would testify to Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
He’d had his moments of doubt as well, despite being the famous baptizer.
The long dark days did that to you.
In the loneliness and fear, was Jesus the Messiah after all?
There were still a few faithful disciples: they came one day, found him very low.
If only we could be sure, once and for all…
Was Jesus The One?
Best to ask Him outright… ‘are you the Messiah, or are we to wait for someone else?’
The answer had come back straight away: ‘What do you see? The sick are healed, the dead raised and good news is preached to the poor.’
So he had to be content…content that despite the dripping walls, the stench, the hard floor and the sleepless nights, The Messiah was doing God’s work, the work for which he, John, had been called to prepare the way.
He must become greater while I become less.

The fire had always burned within.
The life of a desert hermit just made it hotter.
The fire to burn and purify.
Lord, purify a people for your own possession.
Cleanse us of our sin, come and dwell within us and make us ready for Jesus.
This had been his lifelong prayer; not just a prayer – a way of life.
An unremitting sign pointing to The Messiah, that precious gift of God Almighty.
It was the life of witness, even unto death; the only way to live.
And of course it had got him into trouble with the powerful ones…

Herod’s life was a cesspit.
He’d married his brother’s wife whilst his brother still lived.
It was against God’s law and he knew it.
His conscience troubled him.
His wife troubled him with her incessant hatred of John.
‘That man must be silenced’, she said.
‘Sticking his nose in where it’s not wanted. What right has he?’
It wasn’t difficult to have John arrested. He was just a trouble maker really.
A bit precipitant perhaps, to have him killed straight away.
He could live in the cell.
And besides, it was…interesting to hear him talk about God Almighty, God the all powerful.
A pet prophet in one’s own cellar.
But that woman, she nagged, she begged to have John done away with.
And her daughter too…
What a beautiful young thing…she danced, she sang…
Best not to think about her too much...captivating…
Perhaps I will see her body swaying to the music again...soon…she must dance at the party…

Footsteps approach the cell.
The clank of a key in the lock.
Is it now, Lord?
The time of hard testing, the time of departure, the time of martyrdom?

‘Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
For he has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty Saviour,
Born of the house of his servant, David.
Through his holy prophets he promised of old,
That he would save us from our enemies,
From the hands of all that hate us,
He promised to show mercy to our forbears
And to remember his holy covenant.
This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
To set us free from the hands of our enemies,
Free to worship him without fear,
Holy and righteous in his sight,
All the days of our life.
You, my child
Shall be called the prophet of the Most High,
For you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
To give his people knowledge of salvation,
By the forgiveness of all their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God,
The dawn from on high shall break upon us,                                          
To shine on those who dwell in darkness
And the shadow of death,
And to guide our feet into the way of peace.’

Lord, it's now...

‘As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears the baby in my womb leapt for joy.’

‘Lord, into your hands I commit my spirit.’


But I had John beheaded!
This Jesus, this man they call Messiah, is it not John the Baptist come back to life?
How else can he do so many miraculous deeds?
It must be John…
Will that man ever stop haunting me?
That woman I took made me have him killed; his blood is on her hands, and the hands of her daughter.
I wanted him to live…
But in the end there was no choice…the party, the audience…the oaths…the shame…
I knew she’d be trouble…too beautiful by half; and the daughter too…calamity…
That rash promise; it must have been the wine, and the body of the girl…
The dreams never go; they brought him in on a... platter; the blood; the innocence.
Where was the God of the Baptizer on that day?


‘With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.’ (Eph. 1: 8b-10).

Let us pray.
Almighty God, by whose providence your servant John the Baptist was wonderfully born, and sent to prepare the way of your Son our Saviour by preaching repentance: Make us so to follow his teaching and holy life, that we may truly repent according to his preaching; and, following his example, constantly speak the truth, boldly rebuke vice, and patiently suffer for the truth's sake; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

A Reluctant Retreatant

It was time for a silent retreat
I knew it. 
My overstretched mind and body knew it. 
My crazy overstuffed diary knew it.
Other (very spiritual) people seemed to be doing them.
Ministers are actively encouraged to do them and there was even a budget in our Ministry Team for doing one....Something about a gift horse...?

Going on past experience, however, I was not fully convinced I was cut out for the experience.
I tried silence on the pre-Ordination retreats but it didn't really work for me.
This was less to do with the actual concept and more to do with being 'on retreat' with 23 other fun people whom you know well, in a place which is rather familiar; in fact, in a place where you remember staying up quite late together on other occasions being very noisy in the bar. Drinking. Talking endlessly. And singing Abba songs. 

Furthermore, being in a confined space, in silence, with people you know well, who occasionally wink or snort in chapel because they can't do silence either, makes for rather a giggly time. (Okay, it was probably just me but I felt I'd failed miserably and couldn't wait for the 'silence' to be over on both occasions.)

So when I found myself in a Retreat House miles from home in a place I'd never been to before, with five days of silence spreading out before me, I naturally felt a bit apprehensive.
Here were my main fears about silence:

  • I have a preference for extroversion and like all forms of communication. Especially verbal. Retreats are for introverts.
  • I don't much like being alone and I get bored easily. Retreats are for people who like their own company; those ones who look at the floor when someone new introduces themselves.
  • I like being busy and achieving things on a daily basis. Retreats are full of nothing much to do.
  • I am a social media fan. On a retreat you really need to turn your smartphone off or you will reveal yourself to be a total lightweight.
  • I was worried I would miss my family and let them down by being unavailable. They would think I was losing it/experimenting with becoming a nun or something worse.

So...all in all, not a great candidate really...

And yet...

And yet... I rather enjoyed it...

Actually, I REALLY enjoyed it.

Here are some things I learnt (or in the jargon, 'the graces I received'):

  • I rush through life and need to slow down. I even walk fast everywhere, in tune with the restless pace of my thoughts. - this slowly changed over five days.
  • Multi-tasking and having a smartphone have robbed me of the ability to pay proper attention to any one thing. By 'attention' I mean deep, focussed awareness that enables you to 'see' things as God might.
  • Being connected to social media makes you think differently. This may not be an altogether good thing. E.g. I would see something beautiful, like a fat pink foxglove with a bee buzzing inside, and I would think 'That would make a good status update/photo/instagram snap for Twitter.'...... then I would think, 'oh, I have my phone switched off: well, I'll just sit here and thank God for this precious moment instead.' Revolutionary, huh? Just me and God and nobody else, but of great value nonetheless.
  • You can feel companionship with other people as you sit and share meals in silence. You may not speak, or know anything about them, but you still have fellowship together. This feeds the spirit.
  • You can feel companionship with other pilgrims by reading intensely about their lives, once Twitter, Facebook, texts and emails are not interrupting you. I enjoyed many an hour in the company of the famous Trappist Monk, Thomas Merton, and felt I got to know him well. He kept me company. My life was enriched by his journey. Long book*. Amazing man.
  • I need to buy a watch.
  • My body clock adjusted to natural light timing; I went to sleep and got up much earlier than usual. Minor miracle: I was sat in a chair praying by 7.30am on the final day. And enjoying it. This is almost unheard of for me.
  • The exterior silence enabled an interior silence which is a prerequisite for listening prayer, for adoration, for contemplation. I never thought I could do contemplation but in the end it just happened.
For those of you for whom all this is entirely elementary, forgive the initial misgivings and the now evangelical enthusiasm; but for a once reluctant retreat-er, I can see this silence thing is going to become, God willing, an annual event.

*The Seven Storey Mountain

Sunday, 1 July 2012

God's fuzzy boundaries

I'm not too bad at boundaries. I wrote about them last week.
I have quite a few in place - I want to be a Minister for the long haul; don't burn out; protect the family; observe your day off.
I have read a really scary book about clergy burn out called 'The Cracked Pot.'
My boundaries are generally eminently sensible.
But what if they might be a bit too sensible?

For example, I have always protected some time to write my sermon each week.
This week it just didn't work.
A reunion; a funeral; visitors; Regatta; end of term; a late night train trip...I could feel stress rising and control of the diary slipping hopelessly.
It was Saturday evening when I realised the sermon wasn't going to get written.

And then there's wearing the dog collar: I do when I'm being 'Minister'; when I'm shopping, picking up kids, or travelling socially I generally don't. 
But for various reasons I spent all day Saturday in it. 
Across London on the Tube; through a major city; eating at Nando's. The occasion called for it and it seemed right, but again it blurred my boundaries.

After that major day on Saturday I was very late to bed and up early Sunday for two Holy Communions. Not sensible.
So I had no sermon at 9.30am Parish Communion save what was in my head. I hadn't really 'prayed about' either service.
My careful plans to allocate time to important things had been interrupted all week.
So I blundered in. I preached with no notes. It was the least prepared I'd ever been for a Sunday morning.
And yet it was a really great Sunday!
It was joyful. It was enjoyable.
It felt spontaneous and hopeful.

So I'm thinking maybe God is less boundaried than I am.
I'm pondering whether boundaries, those oh so sensible things we have in place (and especially we 'part timers') need to be breached from time to time to remind us the flow comes from the Spirit and He blows where He wills. Some things may be unexpected.

The gospel reading today was about Jesus being hassled and boundaries being breached; the touch of a haemorrhaging woman significantly interrupted his journey to a dying girl. Ritual uncleanness and death.
Jesus didn't hesitate in crossing both boundaries with willing openness.

A little less planning and a little more trusting then.