Patience for maturity – Matthew 13 v24-30 and 36-43

My first sermon as Curate at St. Mary’s Old Basing and Lychpit for 8am Eucharist (BCP) and 9.30am Sung Eucharist (CW)

TRINITY 5 (PROPER 11)
Readings: Isaiah 44:6-8, Romans 8:12-25 and Matthew 13:24-30 and 36-43

The parable of the weeds and wheat as an inspiration to grow in patience and maturity.

The stinging nettles flowering amongst my rambling rose!

The stinging nettles flowering amongst my rambling rose!

There’s something about training for ordination that means there’s much more willow herb and considerably more stinging nettles growing in my garden than there were two years ago! I could explain that it’s for the benefit of the moths and butterflies whose caterpillars thrive on both, but… er… that would be a fib, and I guess it’s best not to start my association with this pulpit by telling lies. So, no, it’s simply that there aren’t enough hours in the day, at least not ones with any willpower and energy lying around spare, for my garden to look as weed free as I would wish it to be.

Some would say that a weed is simply a ‘plant that is in the wrong place’, and to some extent that is true of the weeds in our Gospel this morning, growing among the wheat which the farmer has had sown. But, these weeds present a difficult problem.

The chances are that the weeds of which Jesus spoke, looked not dissimilar to the wheat that the farmer was trying to grow. Unlike my stinging nettles and willow herb, darnel, which some think this Biblical weed to be, is a plant that not only looks incredibly similar to wheat until it’s seed heads ripen to almost black, but it is very vigorous, has stronger roots than wheat, and is regarded as poisonous because it plays host to a nasty fungus. You can quite understand why this isn’t something you want mixed up in your wheat crop, and why, on discovering it, the immediate reaction is to get it out as soon as possible.

But no, the farmer is adamant that the weeds are there to stay until the end of the growing season when the field is mature and ripe for harvest. Only at that point, when it’s really obvious what is weed and what is wheat, and root damage to the wheat is immaterial, will the labourers be allowed to rip out the poisonous darnel and burn it. Then the wheat can be harvested and stored to sustain the community. It’s a management technique that requires patience, and an understanding of how both plants grow.

God has a habit I’ve discovered, of not being very good at conforming to any timetable that WE might wish to set him. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here to be honest; I’d still be tucked away in St. Peter’s in Yateley. As far as I was concerned, THIS (point to clerical collar) wasn’t meant to happen for several years yet, IF AT ALL!

God however, is just as adept at taking a lot MORE time than we might think ideal about sorting out some things. I am sure as we watch the news from Ukrain, Israel/Palestine, Iraq or Syria, or hear that another friend has been diagnosed with cancer, MS, dementia or some other debilitating disease, we wish and pray that God would simply get on with stepping in NOW, to solve the problems and diseases of the world. He doesn’t, because though he dislikes the weeds in the garden of his creation even more than we do, he doesn’t want to destroy the things that are maturing nicely before they are ready for harvest. Or, more accurately, he is active in the world, but he’s active in ways we perhaps find difficult to recognise or understand.

There is a reason why patience is part of the fruit of the Holy Spirit – and it is because it forms part of the character of God that we are called to reflect in our own lives! God’s judgement is delayed because he is patient. This parable isn’t particularly about who’s going to be in, and who out, of the Kingdom of Heaven; who’s good and who is bad. Rather, it is underlining the fact that God is waiting for the wheat to mature into a crop worth harvesting, one that can be clearly distinguished by it’s character from the weeds that otherwise look similar but are different and have become poisoned.

Much as we want it to be, the evil in the world around us is not going to be weeded out overnight by an army of God’s labouring angels. We’re not going to be isolated from the rubbish of the world, we HAVE to live alongside it, with the same patience as God. But this isn’t an excuse to sit back and do nothing, to live, as our Epistle puts it, according to the flesh. Led by the Holy Spirit we are instead called as children of the resurrection NOT to be fearful, but to be adventurously expectant, to grow as strongly and as fruitfully as we can towards maturity, so that we will be recognised for what we are: children of God, affected, but uninfected, by the evils of the world; a part of God’s coming harvest.

This parable isn’t about the stuff we do wrong, or a finger pointing exercise about what others foul up. It’s about the stuff we do right, the stuff that reflects the faith we proclaim. This parable is saying there’s time to do MORE of it, BECAUSE God is patient.

For example there’s time to take part in the Pilgrim Course, to share and learn more about Christ, the how and where of his work in our lives. There’s time too, carved out though it might need to be from our own timetables of living, to make our faith more recognisable to others than it is already. On the world stage that MAY mean that those people who are appropriately placed should step out, trusting God’s strength, to help humanity change for the better; equally it probably DOES mean that we should hold those situations, and the people that can make a difference to them, in prayer.

It’s worth remembering that this parable doesn’t liken a farmers wheat field to the church, because in Jesus’ time the church didn’t exist! The wheat field is the world, the world of Old Basing and Lychpit, as well as further afield, and it is in THAT context that Christ will one day be looking at us to see whether we are discernibly different to the weeds that he knows he will sadly need to destroy. That’s why we are called to engage with our local schools, the food bank, and probably a myriad of other community activities I haven’t seen yet, in ways that mark us out as people of Christ.

There is a deep challenge to us all within this Kingdom parable; but rather than being a source of gloom and fear, this challenge should be a cause for hope. Whatever stage of life and faith we are at, because of God’s patience there is time to grow towards maturity in our love of Christ, and the degree to which we reflect God’s character. If we will allow ourselves the freedom to grow, the Holy Spirit is eager to be at work in us, enabling us to be part of the harvest that will be stored in God’s presence as part of his glorious Kingdom.

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The Rev’d. Mrs.

From Ecclesiastical, our new Insurers... and my Diocese did the same!

From Ecclesiastical, our new Insurers!

Well, I’ve been a Reverend for nearly three weeks. How does it feel? A pretty good fit, like a comfortable new glove.

It’s a title that I have actually been increasingly looking forward to as ordination training progressed. There was no fear attached to it; it was something I knew would come with the calling – part of the deal. In the context of the parish I’m now ministering in, I suspect it will get well used, and I was more than happy to sign my first offering to the pew sheet as “Rev’d Rachel”.

This one's from the Church Times!

This one’s from the Church Times!

But I have discovered an unexpected emotional response, closely related to the use of the term Reverend. In many cases, on all sorts of post, I am no longer “Mrs.” and that I actually find quite distressing.

Let me go back in time, briefly, to a point a few years ago (no more than 10) when this then Editor of the Diocesan Mothers’ Union newsletter was gently chastised for not using the official and correct form of grammar for anyone who is ordained; it should be “The Rev’d. Mr./Mrs.” when the person is first referred to, and then plain “Mr.”or “Mrs.” thereafter in any extended text. I was careful to get this right from that point on.

And yet, having been ordained I find that almost everything is just written as “Rev” (popularised by a certain TV series perhaps), “Rev’d.” or “The Rev’d.”, often without the full stops or apostrophes. In some ways this doesn’t bother me; I’m not usually a pedant, or bothered about the modernisation of language when appropriate. And, I guess for gentleman who are married, who have never had an appropriate form of address to signify their marriage because they simply remain “Mr”, this perhaps isn’t such an issue.

The Rev'd. Mrs. and her Mr. on Ordination Day (photograph by our friend Stephen Usher)

The Rev’d. Mrs. and her Mr. on Ordination Day (photograph by our friend Stephen Usher)

But you see, I’m still a “Mrs.” and very proud of being so! I’ve enjoyed 22 years of marriage to a wonderful, long-suffering, man, who himself is very proud of having a “Reverend” Mrs. We think marriage is a fantastic institution that is part of our relationship with God, but suddenly any public celebration or declaration of this fact in the envelopes that arrive through my door is being hidden by the dominance of the “Rev” bit of who I now am.

Actually, what I’m really bothered by is not the lovely envelopes from friends that come addressed to the “Rev” they want to congratulate, but the envelopes from Christian institutions (like those shown above) that have also noted the change of status, but seem to think that the “Mrs” bit of me has been subsumed – she hasn’t, I’m still someone’s wife, and very proud and delighted to be so!

[Is it me? Or have other married women had a similar reaction to their ordination?]

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Ordination Retreat and it’s wildlife

Park Place Pastoral Centre, Wickham, Hampshire

Park Place Pastoral Centre, Wickham, Hampshire

For Winchester Diocese, like Portsmouth, ordination retreats are held at the beautiful Park Place and Wickham in the Meon Valley.  Last week was my Diaconal retreat, shared with those being ordained to the priesthood in our diocese. There were periods of silence, reflection and free time to restore the soul and focus on the role to which I am called.

Anna Norman Walker, Canon Mission of Exeter Cathedral was our excellent retreat conductor, and for me managed just the right balance of humour, Biblical reflection, personal stories, poetry, images and music. Using the ‘scaffolding’ of the Eucharist our 5 reflections focused on the words “take”, “thanks”, “blessed”, “broken” “shared”. I would particularly commend the poetry she used, which was by Gerard Kelly (“Spoken Worship” was the recommended title – something I shall be buying for future use).

Anyway, before succumbing to a lurgy that meant I would have to be nursed with prayer and paracetamol through the ordination day itself, I took a couple of lovely walks in the afternoon free time we were given, along the edge of the neighbouring Wickham Park Golf Course and down to the River Meon at the bottom of Wickham itself, before winding back along the disused railway line to the golf course and pastoral centre. The golf course, it’s bramble and grass lined edges and it’s water features in particular, were a haven for wildlife, and alongside the insects shown below, I also saw Ringlet butterflies, Beautiful Demoiselle damselflies in courtship chases by the Mean, an Emperor dragonfly and a Broad-bodied Chaser dragonfly that took a Meadow Brown butterfly on the wing over a pond before taking it high into a will to shuck it’s wings and eat it!

Unexpected update: delighted that this post appears to have inspired Archdruid Eileen to the most wonderful parody of the wild life to be had on ordination retreats; Ordination retreats and their wildlife

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More stoles and stories: red Ordination stole – and purple too!

My red, ordination, stole.

My red, ordination, stole.

Some while back I took delivery of what I thought would be my ordination (white – Christmas/Easter/Weddings) stole and the green (‘ordinary time’) stole, and now my stole maker has completed the red (Pentecost and Saints Days) and Purple (Advent and Lent) ones. During the intervening time the red one has in fact become my ordination stole after the new Precentor and our Bishop came up with the change of plan in the middle of our Deacon’s Day!

Once again I am totally thrilled with the way that Deborah Ireland has turned my scribbled notes and photographs, along with snippets of significant material including more bits of my wedding dress, into the most amazing creations which will mean I carry the stories of my faith journey and some special people into my ordained ministry.

P1080475cwThe red stole is all about the Holy Spirit – Pentecost being a deeply significant time for me, and if it wasn’t for the prompting of the Holy Spirit (both in my life, and in the lives of others who nudged me into getting my head round the possibility of a calling to ordination) I wouldn’t be just over two weeks from ordination  - interview with my Bishop next week permitting! Hidden in the stitchwork is the music for a favourite chorus that will make some cringe, but is one that can move me to tears and remind me of my baptism in the Spirit at St. Mike’s in Aberystwyth (Pentecost 1988) as well as many years of leading or singing in worship bands. I’ll let you guess what it might be!

P1080474cwPentecost was also about the people of God being enabled to do more than they could possibly imagine through the power of the Spirit at work in them – so there’s people there too, and though I didn’t design it with this in mind, everytime I look at one of the characters I think of my mother. The dove of peace is a bit of wedding dress, with one of the beads off the same to make it’s eye!

P1080468cwMy purple stole is double sided and it’s probably easy to spot the bits of wedding dress; losely speaking Advent and Lent. From an early age flower arranging was part of life (or at least sweep up after my Mothers’ church flower arrangements was), so as well as the symbolism of anticipating the light of Christ coming into the world, there’s a slight nod in that direction on the Advent side. There are also stars – something are both a significant interest of my husband and some very long-standing friends as well as being a reminder of the need to follow Christ faithfully even when we can’t really see where he’s leading us!

P1080464cwThe Lenten side used as its inspiration not only the crown of thorns placed on Christ’s head at the crucifixion but also the nails themselves – designed from a photo of some hand-made ‘crucifixion’ nails my Dad had made by a New Forest blacksmith a couple of years ago. Those familiar with the “Water Bugs and Dragonflies” book for explaining death to young people will understand why I wanted one on a stole I might well wear to take funerals – over and above the fact that they’re a big photographic passion of my husband and I. We are really impressed at the lifelike markings Deborah has created on this Common Darter that we photographed together with my Dad in a favourite place in the New Forest a couple of years ago (see below). The dragonfly’s wings are made of net from the petticoat of my wedding dress, and some of the material is taken from a gift received many years ago from a Nigerian Catholic nun aquaintance… I hope she appreciates the use I’ve put it too.

 

That’s me all set up with vestments then. I look forward to wearing them as reminders of so much of the past, but also the importance of making best use of past experiences and interests in my future ministry, such that God is glorified.

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Bittersweet Pentecost – Thank you St. Peter’s Yateley

The conclusion of the open air Pentecost Service with Baptisms at St. Peter's Yateley this morning.

The conclusion of the open air Pentecost Service with Baptisms at St. Peter’s Yateley this morning.

Ever since Pentecost 1988 when I first acknowledged an encounter with God as being through the power of the Holy Spirit, Pentecost has been special. A time to celebrate that God’s power is so much more than we can imagine, and that he can do things in, with and through our lives that we would never in our wildest dreams anticipate.

So it was a very concious decision to bid farewell to 16 years of worshipping with the lovely folk of St. Peter’s Yateley at Pentecost. I specifically wanted to be sent out towards ordained ministry from the place that has nurtured and helped to grow it so much, on the day that celebrates how God can use and equip people for the next step in his mission.

There are two words that I wanted to share with all those I know and love at St. Peter’s, some who have moved on to new ministries, and some who watch as saints in glory. These are two things that they have provided in bucket loads in the last 16 years and for which I am incredibly grateful:

The first is TRUST. They have trusted me. I have done so many “firsts” in ministry at St. Peter’s, sometimes planned, frequently less so. Often they were firsts in the living memory of the church too; everything from starting all-age services back in 1999, through safeguarding administration to a military funeral, with plenty in between! In every instance clergy and laity alike, have trusted that I knew (roughly) what I was doing, and supported what the ministry was with time, energy, skill and patience, recognising that each was something we shared as we journeyed forward with God in service of him in our local community and beyond.

The other word I wanted to share and highlight is related to this and is ENCOURAGEMENT. St. Peter’s is full of people who have encouraged me in aspects of my ministry, faith and even my flower arranging! Even better, every week they do the same for each other – encouraging each other and thus providing the strength and inspiration to serve the Lord in a myriad of ways. Of recent weeks I have so appreciated the encouragement of their prayers for myself and my family as we’ve struggled with various matters that have created additional stresses among the preparations for ordination. But it’s also been 16 years of hugs, affirmation, guidance, an openness to what God is saying through his Holy Spirit, and the occasional metaphorical slap with a sensible stick, that has made up this environment of encouragement that brings me to this point of needing to leave for the next step of my adventure with God.

So for me, it is trust and encouragement that is encapsulated in the wind and flames of Pentecost this year – God’s trust and encouragement to do his will equipped in with words and actions we never knew we had, just like the disciples. It is trust and encouragement I will both treasure and take with me from St. Peter’s, and which I wish to leave behind, especially at a time when as a church it too is experiencing a time of change and transition in the facilities and ministries it provides. May St. Peter’s Yateley know God’s trust and encouragement in all you do, as you have made it known to me through the love of Christ.

Today is of course not just about me. My husband and son leave St. Peter’s with me; their own decision but one for which I’m grateful as it makes the break a little easier by being shared. Our son has grown up in St. Peter’s from the toddler encouraged to dance in the aisle by the (then) vicar, to a strapping lad whose musical gifts he’s been happy to share regularly in our worship bands. Hubby Graham, is my rock and encourager-in-chief, one of the first to be convinced of my calling to ordination, and without whom  the next steps in ministry would seem even more daunting than they do now. Though many commented today that they will miss his music and his ‘think-spots’, he probably does less now in the life of the church than he’s done in the previous twenty-five years, but whilst that’s partly because if his invisible support of what I’m doing, and to keep the domestic show on the road, I suspect the Secretary of State for Education needs to take a share of the blame!

The beautiful jug and bowl with which I was sent from St. Peter's Yateley to serve others will be a constant reminder of Jesus example of washing his disciples feet, as the Bishop will my own at the ordination service on 29th June.

The beautiful jug and bowl with which I was sent from St. Peter’s Yateley to serve others, will be a constant reminder of Jesus example of washing his disciples feet, as the Bishop will my own at the ordination service at Winchester Cathedral on 29th June.

Ours will now be a strange existence as for the next few years, I/we minister in a community we don’t live in, and live in a community we no longer worship in. There are Yateley people we love and we will try and see in our free time, and others we wish we could see and don’t manage to as often as we’d like. There will of course be social media through which to keep in touch and share the highs and lows of life a little, and I guess occasions when the dog-collared me will be seen dashing through a shop going to or from Old Basing or footling around Yateley on my day off (Friday).

Thank you St. Peter’s. Your gift to God is everything you have equipped me for.

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Forest Church – Variations on a Missional Theme?

Maypole dancing at St. Peter's Church in the centre of St. Alban's, part of their Forest Church celebrations of may Day and Mary-Tide on 3rd May 2014

Maypole dancing at St. Peter’s Church in the centre of St. Alban’s, part of their Forest Church celebrations of may Day and Mary-Tide on 3rd May 2014

Over the last two weekends I have had the privilege of sharing in two Forest Church meetings. My grateful thanks go to Steve Hollinghurst of St. Alban’s Forest Church, and David Cole of New Forest Forest Church, for making me most welcome. Together with Bruce Stanley’s book ‘Forest Church – A Field Guide to Nature Connection for Groups and Individuals’ which I have avidly read, these brief forays with those seeking to deliberately seek out the revelation of the Divine in creation are the necessarily limited encounters I can make in the limited timespan available for me to complete a ‘Mission’ portfolio on them prior to ordination at the end of June!

The portfolio is not however the only hoped for outcome of this restricted ‘field work’ as I look forward to curacy in what I think of as a rural parish on the outskirts of suburban Basingstoke, which I already know to be stuffed full of wildlife and other encounters with the natural world just waiting for me to engage with God through them. However, much water has to go under the canal bridge before I might begin to explore any fulfilment of that element of this research!

Both Steve and David were kind enough to suggest that I contact Bruce, and other Forest Church leaders, with questions that might help me unpack the extent to which Forest Church, is missional. To my current understanding this means that the intention behind Forest Church groups, and the inspiration for their facilitators, should lie somewhere on the continuum between the ‘propagation of the [Christian] faith’ (Bosch 1991, p1) which implies something being deliberately planted from a mature source either as a seed, cutting or graft, and “finding out what God is doing, and joining in” (which is I’m pretty a sure a John V. Taylor-ism, but I can’t currently locate it), which to my mind implies something more ad hoc, though both should be Spirit led!

Tying our prayers to the seasons with ribbons tied to a young apple tree in the orchard of St. Peter's Church in St. Albans - springtime and fruitfulness all in one.

Tying our prayers to the seasons with ribbons tied to a young apple tree in the orchard of St. Peter’s Church in St. Albans – springtime and fruitfulness all in one.

When I met Steve in St. Alban’s he was adamant that that group was intentionally missional in seeking to share the Jesus-tradition (as Bruce describes it eloquently in his book) with those who find encountering God in nature as a spiritual practice more attractive to them than sitting in a stone or brick-built creation of man. This appeared to be born out in the liturgy chosen for the May Day and Mary-tide celebrations in which I joined, where Jesus was mentioned by name, and links made through the Christian tradition with Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as with the fruitfulness of creation as we tied our prayer ribbons to the apple trees in the churchyard orchard.

At Hatchet Pond near Beaulieu with David last Sunday however, as we gleefully defied the elements, the link with the Jesus-tradition was less obvious. David certainly talked of God (I think, rather than the Divine), of purification, of the movement from darkness to light and death to life, which, as well as being a very seasonal theme of Beltane is one associated in the Jesus-tradition with salvation and the forgiveness of sins. However, whilst referencing the Bible briefly, Jesus was not I think mentioned directly and no prayers of any sort were offered, nor any Christian scripture or reflection; we were simply encouraged to go off and reflect on how we might engage with these general ideas. For me, aware as I am of my own current point of transition into ordained Christian ministry, the idea of transition visible in the blossoming and procreation visible in nature, was a very good metaphor of what (I hope and pray) God is doing in my life at present. Because I understand God revealed in Christ as well as in creation I am able to make that connection, but what of others?

Both St. Alban’s and the New Forest ‘Forest Church’ groups seemed to include both committed Christians who seem to add (or retain) God’s creation to their repertoire of mechanisms for encountering God, and those who are searching from a wide spiritual playing field for an encounter with the Divine appropriate to their interests and needs. I was particularly struck by the couple who gathered at Hatchet Pond seemingly in need of spiritual solace from the natural world after having had their cat put down the previous day. If and how that need was met I was sadly unable to discover due to my own lack of acuity in understanding the usefulness of finding out. However, no mechanism appeared to exist beyond the handing out contact details if requested, for furthering the reflections of those I would describe as in pastoral need, and thus the community building that I associate with ‘church’ appeared inhibited.

So my questions are

  • Are Forest Church groups deliberately missional in their intention to share what an evangelical might describe as the Gospel, and which a Forest Church facilitator might prefer to call the Jesus-tradition?
  • If they are deliberately missional, how might this be encountered in an individual Forest Church meeting, and/or in regular attendance at a particular Forest Church gathering? Some examples would be wonderful!
  • Is forming a community built on the foundation of Forest Church gatherings a desirable part of their activities?
  • Finally, because sadly such questions can’t be easily avoided in a mission portfolio and it’s hardly likely to be a ‘bums on pews’ count, how would you go about measuring the ‘effectiveness’ of Forest Church?

I am aware that part of what Forest Church is trying to do is engage in dialogue between ancient Pagan faith and Celtic Christian practices, some of which might be compromised by any idea of deceiving people into engaging with the Christian faith as Steve has discussed on his blog last year, but I hope that interested Pagan friends and commentators might be open to the idea that sharing in Forest Church style encounters is as much a sharing of their faith base, as it might be in being open to aspects of the Jesus tradition. I am hoping that between all those facilitating, attending or simply interested in Forest Church groups, it might be possible to share stories, ideas and motivations on these questions, which is why I’ve posed them via a blog post. Please use the comments facility below, as I may need to supply a link to this post as evidence for such dialogue as little seems to have been written thus far in traditional academic sources! However, if you would prefer to do so privately, please say so in the comments (where only I can see your contact details) or in a direct message on Twitter @ramtopsrac, and I will email you.

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A butterfly in the hand is worth…? Dandelions?!

Small White rescued from drowning in a plant trough!

Small White rescued from drowning in a plant trough!

I had spent the morning finishing a book about Forest Church and connecting more consciously with God through nature, and the idea of natural theology where we actually come to understand God directly through his creation.

I went into the garden to have lunch on the bench in the sun and spotted a butterfly, apparently dead, floating in the water trough under our raspberry plant (itself rescued from the compost heap last year). I fished the Small White butterfly out to get a close up of it’s wings – at which it promptly struggled feebly in my hands.

Minutes later, sat in the sun and with the heat from my hands, it was much revived and posing for photographs, some of which are here. A real resurrection moment!

Peacock butterfly on a Dandelion.

Peacock butterfly on a Dandelion.

I had already planned to take a walk in the sun – the forecast telling me this was the best day of the week to do so (Wednesday) – and spend some time with God. I also consciously broke one of the rules of Forest Church, which is not to be too attached to your camera!

On my usual walking route through which I watch the seasons and wildlife, I notched up a further species of butterfly: Green Veined White, Peacock, Tortoiseshell and Brimstone. I also found the Common Lizards, Graham and I had found about ten days previously basking back on their piece of car part on Blackbushe.

Male Common Lizard on some car refuse up on Blackbushe

Male Common Lizard on some car refuse up on Blackbushe

To my utter delight, I also found two species that have been missing from my usual route since the filming of Rush. There were three Stonechats present, and a pair of Schedule 1 species I’m not naming! Time to start being even more careful not to disturb those nesting in the Gorse and Bramble bushes methinks.

So what among this wealth of wildlife did God say to me? Well it involves Dandelions. As a gardener I loath them, far, far more than Daisies which I’m more than happy to live with. In fact as I finished my butterfly rescue I picked all the Dandelion heads I could in the garden.

Female Brimstone on a Dandelion.

Female Brimstone on a Dandelion.

Once outside though, all down the verge, across the public field that is not longer cut regularly (which I claim as a blogging success story because they only stopped mowing after I got my Councillor friends to look at the issue), there were literally thousands of these bright yellow heads, or their seeds blowing everywhere in the breeze. For starters I though they’d make great evangelists, noticeable, prolific and seed well into the surrounding community! Then I realised what all the butterflies I photographed were feeding on,… Dandelions! So they’re full of nectar too, obviously a good source of nourishment to our little winged friends.

So, there’s a challenge or two:

  • should I stop dead-heading the Dandelions in the garden, or see if I can at least put them to good use – Dandelion tea anyone?
  • should we try to be like Dandelions in our ministry; bright and noticeable, providing refreshment, prolific and sowing seeds everywhere?
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My name is Thomas (John 20:19-31 and Acts 2:14a and 22-32)

Caravagio's 'The incredulity of Saint Thomas'.  Although today commentators think that Thomas did not in fact touch Jesus' wounds as it is not mentioned in scripture that he did, it was a long-held view that he did. (Wiki Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas.jpg)

Caravagio’s ‘The incredulity of Saint Thomas’.
Although today commentators think that Thomas did not in fact touch Jesus’ wounds as it is not mentioned in scripture that he did, it was a long-held view that he did.
(Wiki Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas.jpg)

Part 1 (confused, uncertain, slightly hyper, critical of self)

My name is Thomas.

He’s gone. Jesus that is.
Not just dead, but dead and gone. Gone from his tomb.
Peter, Peter said so. John backed him up.

Mary, well Mary Magdalene, she reckons he spoke to her.
Outside the tomb when she hung around after Peter and John had left.
But she told us that he had said he was going.
Returning to his Father. Father God.
His Father, our God.
Our Father, his… him… his God.
So he wasn’t God after all, like we’d almost started to believe.
Was he?

So perhaps he rose from the dead, but he’s gone again.
Jesus is properly gone.

At least that what I thought at lunchtime yesterday.

The rest of them, they met up last night.

The story was out, that Jesus was gone from his tomb and us lot,
well we were getting the blame.
Can’t think why we’d want to steal Jesus’ body,
or how the heck we’d hide it
given the smell of a bloodied copse after three days in this heat;
but I wasn’t going to risk getting picked up by the authorities and taking the blame.
I was more sure of seeing the others in daylight today,
when the risks were fewer.

So, I stayed home, whilst the rest of them got together in that room.
I think the intention was to try and remember what Jesus had said,
and work out what the heck was was going on.
The rest of them?
They’re nearly as unsure as I am!

Anyway, apparently he hadn’t gone.
Jesus that is.
Because he showed up.
That’s what they’ve told me to today.

They’d been careful to lock themselves in.
The shutters were closed, the doors locked.
And apparently, he just appeared.

We’ve been together three years now,
and witnessed a lot of strange things on our journeys with Jesus.
Signs and wonders that would have been beyond belief,
if I hadn’t seen them with my own eyes.

I’d actually made us go with him,
when Jesus went to Lazarus’ sisters after the lad died. (John 11)
So yes, I know Jesus raised him from the dead.
But the stone was removed first; I watched them do it.
And when he came out, he shuffled and staggered,
all wrapped up in his death bandages and stuff as he was.
Lazarus didn’t roll his bandages up neatly and leave them on the side,
and then just stroll through a wall, or a door, a few hours later;
which is what the guys are saying happened last night.

Well, they say Jesus came back.
Like he’d said he would, not long ago.
At least that’s what the others reminded me.
It was after we’d got into Jerusalem, and Jesus had us all together.
He did a lot of talking.
We,… we were confused, like normal, and just asked questions.

He’d said something about going,
but not leaving us as orphans,
and coming to us again, (John 14:18)
in a little while. (John 16:18)
It was mixed up with some stuff about who was going to be able to see him,
and who wasn’t.
Who he was, who we were, and how that fitted in with God,
who he insisted on calling Father.
Our God, his Father.
Our Father…

Oh darn it, I don’t know.
I wasn’t there last night, so I don’t really know what happened.
Not really, really know.

It’s not like we’ve covered ourselves in glory, running away and hiding.
I for one had said I’d die with him (John 11:16);
Peter,… Peter had said he’d lay down his life for him (John 13:37).
Neither of us had the courage.
We’ve just hidden, and watched them crucify him.
From a safe distance.
If he could come back,
why would he want to come back to us lot?

I probably I should believe them,
they’re normally trustworthy, about stuff like that anyway.
As long as it doesn’t involve getting killed.

But no, no I can’t.
I will NOT believe.
Unless, unless I see him for myself.
Actually, no.
No.
I need more than just seeing.
I need to know that it’s really, really him,
I need to touch,
touch the wounds,
the things that will make me believe he’s real.

But that’s hardly going to happen, is it?
Because, he’s gone.
Again.

Part 2 (calmer, much more assured, confident, certain)

My name is Thomas.

I had said to the others, privately,
that I would only believe if I touched him.
Jesus.

My Lord, and my God.

He was with us tonight.
With me.
Among them all, all my friends.

Things have calmed down somewhat in town, so I’d felt able to join them.
They’ve been really rather patient with me, all things considered.
My considered, and considerable uncertainty as to what to believe.

So we met again earlier.
To break bread like he’d asked us to.
To remember him.
To try and understand how bread and wine might help us encounter his presence.

(OK artistic license, but some commentators think this is what they’d met to do!)

And suddenly his presence was all too obvious.

He greeted us with words of peace.
Words that became peace, peace like I cannot describe.
It was like something from another world, (John 14:27)
and, even as he spoke directly to me,
I could feel the anxiety melt away,
the fear and doubt evaporate.

Jesus knew exactly what I’d said to the others,
what I thought I needed to believe them, to believe he’d really risen.

His rebuke was gentle, his appeal firm.
His offer clear and beyond anything the others had talked of.
And yet, and yet with him there,
I needed nothing more to confess from the very depths of my being…

My Lord and my God.

They hadn’t said,
when they told me they’d seen him last week,
that he’d given them a mission, and a gift.
What had made the deepest impression was obviously his physical,
risen presence among them.
Hardly surprising,
at least not now I’ve encountered him myself.
What he’d apparently said to them last week was
what I experienced today.

With this overwhelming sense that he is our Lord,
there is a sense of forgiveness,
that I felt before I’d even understood my need for it.
And yet this is depsite him knowing how weak we have been;
Peter, myself and the others.

It was like being made whole again,
having the broken pieces of what had been me,
glued back together again.

But, that’s only the part of it.
I discovered in this brief exchange I was part of something bigger,
a journey that he is sending us on.

We,… all of us,
have to chose what is the trigger to our belief.
Are the words and testimony of friends good enough?
What happens if we can never see Jesus,
can’t touch him, can’t seem to sense how close he is to us:
Does that stop us believing, like it nearly did with me?
I guess this means we have to choose to believe
and in choosing to recognise the risen Jesus as real,
encounter his immediacy in our lives.

Yes, this is what it means to believe.
That there is no classification system for faith,
how, or when we should believe, how much or how little.
There is simply believing, and what we chose to do with that belief.

‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

This isn’t about me.

That beatitude, that blessing poured over us,
like those he’d taught with on the hillside in Galilee, (Matthew 5)
it wasn’t for us,
but for all those who were not there tonight,
had not been there last week,
had not stood at, or hidden from, the cross,
and those who aren’t here now,
will never see him physically in his glorious, risen flesh.

Our Lord and our God.

Part 3 (equally calm, confident, believing, with a degree of urgency).

My name is Thomas, and I am a follower of Jesus.

The work has started.
The journey has begun.

I believe,…
I know,
we’ve made a start.
Here in Jerusalem, today, among the crowds gathered for Pentecost.

Our Lord Jesus has really gone this time,
from our visible presence that is,
ascended to be with the Father, ours and his.

We had gathered together again, as we have daily since he finally left us,
praying, listening, sifting our memories,
tying together what we now know and believe,
with all those things he has patiently said, done and taught us
over the last three years.

We are not alone, we are no longer hiding, and we’re complete.
Yes, we’re complete in that we are twelve again, with Matthias among us.
But we are also complete inside,
made newly complete in each moment,
through the power that he has left with us,
which was so visible today, not just in the flames and the wind,
but in our understanding of the task ahead,
and in the knowledge that this Spirit the prophet Joel spoke of
gives us the strength to do more than we can ask or imagine.

This was the gift that meant many who gathered today for Pentecost could understand us.
The same gift, that gave Peter the strength to speak out
with boldness and authority from among us.

Among our Jewish brothers and sisters there was no point us all talking at once.
Neither was there any point relying on the miraculous
to make the connection with our Lord and God who they,…
we,…
had crucified,
but who had risen again, uncorrupted by death.

King David was the vital reference point.
They know the stories of his sin, his corruption;
they know his words, his prophetic instinct,
the music of his psalms.
His belief should have been their belief, our belief,
in the prophesy that God’s rule would once again come to his people,
through David’s own line of inheritance.

The people of Israel,
the people we’ve met and seen daily for the last three years,
who’ve witnessed and willingly accepted Jesus’ miracles, just as we have;
they knew Jesus.
They knew he was of the line and lineage of David. (Luke 2:4)
That had, after all, been part of the curiosity factor that drew them to him.
Even if he wasn’t quite what they had expected or hoped for.

Their unbelief in the next step of the Davidic connection,
that he was of God, one with God,
meant they were easy prey to the seeds
of doubt and fear sown by the Scribes and Pharisees;
but that made it all the more important, that they understand this prophesy,
that they are given the tools to understand, to make the connection, to believe,
that God had raised the beaten, tortured, tormented, and crucified Christ,
to life.

If the people,
Israelites and Gentiles, everyone,
Don’t have anything solid to believe in,
it makes them unwilling to challenge the corruption of others,
because it might force open the cracks of their own double standards.

We live lives under the burden of our doubts,
our fears and uncertainties hovering constantly
under the surface of otherwise confident actions;
our unwillingness to believe what we can not see,
do, what we might otherwise shrink from.

I know, because I’ve carried this burden of unbelief through all my travels with Jesus,
through the worst of my incomprehension as we listened to him talk
and I asked him dumb questions that proved I hadn’t understood;
in the best of my intentions as we stumbled on his way when he sensed it was right,
through to that day he came and sought me out…

Death couldn’t hold Jesus, and neither can our unbelief,
even when it comes back to haunt us.
It must not be allowed to restrain anyone,
to keep people from the paths of life,
or withhold from us all the joy of knowing
his presence alongside us as we take this journey of faith.

(Delivered as my sermon at St. Peter’s Yateley 27th April 2014 – my last sermon in my sending parish before ordination.)

This is also available as a podcast on the parish website.

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Tying up some ‘loose ends’

Part of the activity at the last Evening Prayer of Easter School was to tie up some lose ends...

Part of the activity at the last Evening Prayer of Easter School was to tie up some lose ends…

Lent was this year, a dark time. There was a lot of wrestling for me to do, and a lot of just getting through all sorts of anxieties and pain – mental and physical.

My husband and I gave up on our daily ‘Giving It Up’ blog conversation; not because we had a problem with Maggi Dawn’s lovely book, but simply because there weren’t enough hours in the day. He was up to his ears in coursework marking, and other secondary school related strain, and I recognised that it was taking me round in ever decreasing mental circles that weren’t particularly healthy, and were a distraction from the job in hand, namely writing my Old Testament portfolio.  But, by late Good Friday this portfolio was complete, and handed in last Tuesday as term re-started.

Easter School marked a significant point for all of working to the end of our final year of ordination training, and brought together people from the OMC/RCC part-time and mixed-mode formats, and those from WEMTC also part of the Cuddesdon family. Since the other year groups have Summer School later in the year (after ordination season), this signals the beginning of the end for those of us due to be ordained this year.

The focus was Mission, which I’m sure would please my diocesan bishop, and our wealth of visiting speakers were very good. What surprised me was the way they inadvertently drew together an important network of experiences, ‘loose ends’ in my past that I’d almost completely forgotten about during training, but were very significant in their contributions to me being there at all.

Ann Morisy was talking to us about community/neighbourhood mission, and started to tell the story of a Mothers’ Union group who, despite age and infirmity, travelled to Zimbabwe carrying old hand sewing machines safely to those who would put them to good use making a living, and teaching future generations, in difficult circumstances. It is unheard of for me to be reduced to tears in a lecture, but I was as she described the impact these ‘radicalised older ladies’ (who allowed nothing to stand in the way of their mission) had on their grandchildren. I remembered the photos our 17 year old son had recently chosen to have printed up which included a large selection of those taken on our trip to Uganda and South Africa when he was nine, largely in connection with Mothers’ Union, and my realisation that they and this, our only trip abroad as a family, has had such a big impact on his view of the world and I guess the purpose of church. It reminded me too, that without Mothers’ Union I’d not be where I am today, as they radicalised this younger woman to contemplate all sorts of things (including foreign travel, preaching… etc.) that I would never have done otherwise.

The second ‘loose end’ of my life, was when Steve Hollinghurst of the Church Army (who blogs here) was talking about the necessity for and growth in Fresh Expressions of Church. He talked about the early church plants, represented on the statistics he showed us from 1992/3 when they tended to be ‘church plants’ through to the present day. I sat looking at a quite boring graph (sorry Steve) thinking, ‘I was probably part of one of those statistics’ and remember spending a very important 4 years or so helping ‘plant’ the All Saints congregation of Warfield Church (which also included the Eternity youth congregation, which was much more of a ‘fresh expression, though were were planted into virgin community, so both were valid). That was 1993/4! I wish we’d known then, what Steve was teaching us now, as I think we might have done things at least a bit differently.

[Interestingly Steve's sessions also touched, tantalisingly briefly, on contemporary pagan/Christian conversations, and his involvement with the Forest Church communities, that I shall be exploring in the next 8 weeks for my next (Mission and Evangelism) portfolio!]

... into a cross, a cross that I shall carry.

… into a cross, a cross that I shall carry.

In retrospect all these ‘loose ends’ of the past should all have been much more at the forefront of my mind during training, and I wish my memory for the details of my experiences was greater, but this reminders were very much God’s gift to me as Lent closed. So it seemed so appropriate when at the last Evening Worship of Easter School we were asked to do just that – and in doing so make a cross, which I shall treasure.

The last loose end that appeared in Lent, was news that Rt. Revd. John Cavell contributed to the series “Rev”. When this story was posted on Twitter, the name seemed familiar. When I read the article I remembered why – as Bishop of Southampton he confirmed me in July 1979! As part of my preparations for ordination I have today posted off various certificates to the Diocesan Registrar including my Confirmation Certificate. This is a rare beast many don’t have, and instead have to have certified copies of registers and the like. However, my Mother had taken great pains to obtain one for me from Bishop John many years later. She had been prompted by my uncle’s desperate pre-ordination search for proof of his Confirmation, to make sure her daughter had a certificate, just in case! Given this was October 1991 (before the vote to ordain women to the priesthood), and I have the letter to prove it, that was quite some loose end my Mother left for me to tie up!!!!

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Misconceptions #givingitup Genesis 22:1-18 16th March #Lent2014

Apparently it is exactly 15 weeks until my ordination as Deacon, according to one of my cohort who dropped that little nugget into a Facebook post today. 

How does that make me feel? 

Frightened. Interestingly the fear is not for what comes after ordination, though there is a nervous anxiety mixed with the excitement for my new ministry in a new place, but instead fear of what needs to be accomplished in the next 15 weeks. 

I have spent most of this afternoon working through a detailed commentary on Genesis 1:1-2:3 – the creation story (according to P, the priestly contributor to the Pentateuch saga). It was particularly interesting to note that even the most brilliant of Old Testament scholars can’t always resist the temptation to overlay their own theological views onto something they’re trying to be objective about. 

In her lengthy reflection on the story of Abraham’s thankfully aborted attempt to sacrifice Isaac in Genesis 22, Maggi Dawn poses the question of whether our view of God is skewed by our pride and other misconceptions, or whether we are suitably aware of his abundant grace in our lives?

Today, mired in Old Testament theology, it feels like it will only be grace that will get me through this next 15 weeks to the altar. That feels like a far greater sacrifice is needed on my part in this next slog through two portfolios, than the weeks and years of ordained ministry that will follow, though I suspect this is far from true.

I need to look day by day to be obedient to the sacrifice that needs to be made, the level of sacrifice that I’ve probably not exhibited so much or so willingly in ordination training as I did in Reader training,  so that I can hear God’s voice and experience his grace, directing me to more fruitful times ahead.

I still haven’t completely fathomed why I’ve been less willing to give up time and effort to climb the mountain this time round, though I think it started out with an expectation by myself and others that I carried a certain amount of useful past experience with me that would stand me in good stead. True though that might have been of ministry when I get there (and I’m not sure now), I think it has actually hindered the training process. But it’s really time to shoulder the burden good and proper now, before it’s too late.

Sorry, bit of a low post, of little use to others, but that’s sort of where I’m at tonight. 

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