What’s bothering you? John 12:20-33 (Passiontide)

Jesus was troubled.

Right down in the depths of his soul, the humanity of Jesus was troubled.

Mary’s son.
The friend, the brother, the healer, the preacher, the teacher, the comforter;
all that Jesus was – even as Son of God – shrank from the suffering that at this moment in his ministry, suddenly became very, very, real; the climax of all he was on earth to do, that would take his all, his very life.

Does that bother us?

Does it bother us that the divine one got nervous about what he knew was coming; the rigged trial, the torture, the ridicule, the crucifixion – death itself? Or, is it somehow reassuring, to face those grim moments in life when we have to make decisions that are going to cause us hassle, cost us money, lifestyle, time, peace of mind, possibly even make us look like fools for sticking to our Christian principles – is it reassuring that Jesus too was troubled by the price he had to pay for who he was, and who WE are, with HIS life?

Or again, does it make us wonder, what was it that really bothered Jesus at that moment when a bunch of God-fearing Greeks, sought him out for an interview, and his disciples got all uncertain about whether they should let them near him or not?

I wonder what it was that really bothered Jesus?

It may have been the very fact that these God-fearing Greeks were seeking him out at all, signifying that the time was right for him to redeem the whole world, not just his own people, whose leaders would condemn him, lift him up from the earth, crucify him. He had “come unto his own, and his own had received him not”. Now, it was only through being nailed up that those that sought him out – whether Greek or indeed Jew – would not just see, but really encounter and recognise the truth, the fullness, the glory, of who Jesus was.

It may be that what bothered Jesus was the uncertainty with which the disciples, the people who he had taught, led, corrected and explained stuff to for three long years, welcomed the Greeks. Had they still not got it, even now, when the time for all to be completed was so close at hand; when they would need all the teaching and resources of faith in who he was to understand the importance of the terrifying, distressing, amazing, unbelievable events that they were about to witness?! If THEY still didn’t get that, what chance had the rest of the world got of understanding and living out his message of unconditional love for all people, regardless of their ethnicity?!

It could be that what bothered Jesus was whether anyone would take his sacrifice, and the glory that gave to God, seriously enough to follow in his footsteps? Would anyone ever again give God the sort of sovereignty in their lives that he was about to, so that his sacrifice would not be in vain? He was going to be physically broken on the cross, and remade in obedience to his Father’s will, but he may have doubted that anyone who followed him would allow themselves to become as broken, and as remade, for others in God’s name.

It may be, that whilst he’d lived and taught that God’s Kingdom had come with abundant grace and love, he was bothered that those who did follow him hadn’t really understood that this new covenant relationship with God came as a judgement on a human society that was capable of thinking so much of itself that it rebelled against it’s creator to the extent that it could kill him, him who gave them life. Whilst the tyranny of evil WOULD be broken on the cross, Jesus knew that until he comes again, the self-delusion of the power-hungry would still be a force to be reckoned with, against which God would need to strengthen us in the spiritual realms.

Yes, it was probably all those things that troubled and bothered Jesus as he prepared for his death, alongside the very human reaction of shrinking from the physical agony of torture and crucifixion; but do those things bother us today?

Does it bother us, that there are those who come looking for Jesus, but don’t really get to see him for who he really is? Who need perhaps a little encouragement to pray and seek God among the pain life has dealt them; who are concerned that church is just for people with too much time on their hands; or think that faith in Jesus is just some spiritual crutch they don’t need to motivate them to help others? Do we know people, who with a little encouragement from OUR friends, WE can be brave enough to draw into the presence of Jesus this Holy Week?

Does it bother us, that whilst Jesus lived and died a message of unconditional love, we’re still enveloped in a world that at best stifles love for our neighbours, and at worst seeks to cut them off from riches not just of the world’s resources, but from our own God-given capacity for love? God’s desire for reconciliation with and among all people, lifted his son up on the cross. So will we respond not just by reaching out to those we see and know with a helping hand, but by making sure that EVERY cross we might be asked to make in the next few weeks fulfils that same message of love and reconciliation?

Perhaps it bother us, that whilst we’re eager to encounter the risen, glorified Christ of Easter morning, actually we still feel like slightly trampled grains of wheat who haven’t yet found the purposeful growth that comes with putting down strong roots into the soil of following Jesus through Holy Week? How much would it cost us in time and effort to be open to Jesus’ presence this Passiontide?

And finally, does it bother us that each time we make a judgement on the actions of another, we’re forgetting to recognise that in doing so we’re falling into the trap of seeking to place ourselves on an equal footing with God, rather than at the foot of cross?

What troubled and bothered Jesus most, was that his thoughts, words and actions should glorify God, point to his love for all people, lead them into a new relationship with him, reconcile one group of people with another, and encourage all to follow him and grow in humility.

The question is, if we say we’re following Jesus, and seeking, like him, to glorify God in our lives, are those things bothering us?

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#WWDP2015 Do you know what I have done for you? John 13:1-17

The Christian women of Old Basing decided some months ago that whilst the women of The Bahama’s had wanted an interactive reflection on John 13:1-17 (something of which I was unaware at the time), they would prefer to have the more usual speaker for this years World Day of Prayer, and asked me to speak. So today, I shared with them a few thoughts,… and gleaned some of theirs.

The jug, bowl and towel that St. Peter's Yateley gave me as a leaving gift as a symbol of servanthood.

The jug, bowl and towel that St. Peter’s Yateley gave me as a leaving gift as a symbol of servanthood.

“Do you know what I have done for you?…
Do as I have done for you!”

This [jug and bowl] set, complete with small, matching towel, was a gift from my sending parish last Pentecost, when as a family we left in preparation for my ordination and coming here. It was very specifically given as a sign of the service I would be offering to the communities I will work in as an ordained minister, not just in my diaconate year, but always. The reference to the passage that is our Biblical focus today, is unmissable.

Jesus lays aside his garments and takes up a [towel] or apron, kneeling at people’s feet, as a slave would. He, the once and for all Messiah, [pours water] onto soiled, dirty, feet, making them clean. The symbolism is spelled out clearly in the scripture – as Jesus has served his disciples, has become a slave to their needs, so they should go and do likewise!

The connection to the slavery and service offered by the ancestors of many in the Bahama’s is also obvious. Equally, many of us have given much of our lives to serving others – service perhaps of our country, almost certainly of our church; service to various charities, to neighbours and friends in crisis; we will have served our family with an outpouring of love wherever possible, whether it’s been reciprocated or not. Those acts of service hopefully continue, and it is through them that we rightly offer spaces for God’s blessing of the lives of others.

So, as we re-visit this probably familiar passage, what more does Jesus want of us?

Jesus was preparing to lay aside not just a few moments of his life in the service of others, nor the length of natural life in enforced slavery as did so many during the height of the slave trade, and sadly still today in some places of the world. We know Jesus gave up life itself, willingly, freely, as a sacrifice for the whole of God’s creation. It may have been the ultimate freely given gift of grace, but it was given with the anguish of God’s broken heart as well as a broken body. There was pain in these Jesus’s actions among friends in the Upper Room knowing that one would betray him, the anguish of his submission to his Father in the Garden of Gethsemane, in which he also knew his Fathers’ anguish that it had to be this way, and then heaped on this, the physical suffering of the cross. In it all Jesus was conscious of his divine origin and destination, and that this was the most critical task laid on his place in this world by God.

When he bled on the cross – the action we remember in the Eucharist alongside his other command to ‘do likewise’ by sharing in bread and wine – When he bled on the cross, it was a cleansing from sin and our tendency to ‘fall short of the mark’ as Fr Alec put it in this months “Basinga”. It was the ultimate act of love of the Son of God for every other child of God, then and now.

Christ’s was a sacrifice for the future of God’s Kingdom, a drawing not just of his own generation into relationship with God, but the ‘supreme work’, a once and for all sacrifice so that all people in all places of the world, from the Bahama’s to Old Basing, might recognise God’s love for them, acknowledge their shared humanity in Christ’s image, and proclaim it to each forthcoming generation.

'Christ's blood' poured out to cleanse us.

‘Christ’s blood’ poured out to cleanse us.

So let us change the footwashing image slightly. Let us take a more ordinary jug and bowl, one that we might use daily to prepare food rather than place on the mantle-piece, and think for a moment how it might be if we poured [our blood*] out over one another.

Our blood is our life, we can’t carry on without it, we lose too much of it and we pass out. Healthy blood also contains cleansing properties, fighting off the bacteria of those bugs and diseases that can cause us harm. The DNA markers that we find in our blood, can be found in future generations of our family, however distant, to mark them out as having a shared heritage. Our blood can on occasion be donated to save the lives of others.

Slaves who died, did not do so willingly as Jesus did. They died because of people’s inhumanity to their fellow humans, a lack of recognition as to a shared place in God’s creation.

Sacrifice is much more about freely giving up something important to us, something we hold dear, more-so than straightforward acts of service where we might enjoy the effort and be happy to give up the time involved. Sacrifices include those things where we may be less likely to see the benefits of in the lives of others, or within our own lifetime – they are an act of faith, designed to give life, focused on the future.

We may feel that we have already made sacrifices in our lives. Perhaps we have given up a career for our family, or some of our family life to take forward a career or calling. But our focus this morning, and this passage in particular, asks us how radical and sacrificial can our love for those around us be today, and in every future day?

What can we sacrifice, from which we may not gain any benefit but which would enable others to more fully experience the love and forgiveness of Jesus? How do we pass on our Christian heritage, including that of this Women’s World Day of Prayer, pouring out our faith-blood like we might donate our actual blood and DNA, to future generations?

I’m going to invite you now, in a few moments of silence, to consider those questions. But I don’t want you take away your answers in silence. It would be lovely if we all knew what they were. So, whilst we are having our refreshments after the service, if I may, I would like to interrupt us briefly**, so that we can talk about what sort of sacrifices we feel we are able to make. Whether or not they are directly related to Women’s World Day of Prayer, we can think about how we might make them happen, because Jesus wants us to follow in his footsteps, to “DO as he has done to us”!

* After a Twitter conversation, the ‘blood’ was cheap tomato ketchup, watered down a bit, with added red food colouring. I was told it was reasonably authentic!

** I carried out my threat to interrupt them. The feedback centred around the need for health (excercise specifically I think) to be more closely associated with social welfare, and the levels of isolation experienced in the community, I think particularly by elderly (who were well represented in the congregation). I challenged them to have done something as a community of Christian’s about one of these issues by the time they gather for next years WWDP.

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Discovering what we don’t know – Mark 9:2-9 The Transfiguration

Just one of the carpets of Snowdrops in the churchyard at St. Mary's (on a dull day, sorry). Our snowdrops were one of my illustrations for my children's talk on The Transfiguration (see below).

Just one of the carpets of Snowdrops in the churchyard at St. Mary’s (on a dull day, sorry). Our snowdrops were one of my illustrations for my children’s talk on The Transfiguration (see below).

There are probably very few of us that haven’t had one of those moments when we see something amazing, and promptly say something that sounds, well, rather stupid, at least to the ears of others, even if it makes perfect sense to us.

My husband and I well remember an occasion when we welcomed a friend’s sister-in-law at Gatwick, on her first ever trip outside Zimbabwe. It was December 21st, and there were flurries of snow. Comfort, that’s her name, was incredibly excited. Excited to be in England, and excited to see snow, something she had only heard of previously, as existing in the mountains. After the excited chatter of the journey to our home, and having got her bags inside, we made her stand outside, and catch some snowflakes in her hand. “Its’ soooo coooold” she squealed, immediately shaking them from her hand. “Well of course” we said, “It’s snow; frozen water!” We tried to catch some flakes to show her the minute and amazing detail of a snowflake, but all she could repeat was “Its’ soooo cold!”

Peter, it couldn’t have been anyone else really, could it – Peter makes a similar sort of comment in our Gospel reading this morning, when he, together with James and John, is witness to something truly awe-inspiring, far more awe-inspiring than a mere snowflake. To us, with the advantage of hindsight because of course we know [sarcastic voice] so much more now than Peter did then, to us, Peter’s comments about the booths seems daft. Yet, he was simply trying to ground what he was seeing in a context he could understand, and perhaps capture the moment for posterity: if these transcendent beings, wrapped in a cloud of God’s presence, and arguably the two greatest prophets of his faith with the man that seemed to be surpassing them, where coming to commune together, they would need protection from the elements! Or else, a physical marker as to the place of their encounter, a monument to the moment.

So, we think we know so much more now than Peter did then, don’t we?!

WE KNOW that a few seconds later, Peter got possibly the biggest put down of his life, direct from God! “Hey,” says God. “This is my Son all lit up in glory here. Yes really, just like you guessed at a few days ago, but seem to have forgotten. Now if you really want to understand what you guessed at then, and are witnessing now, shut up and listen. To him.”

WE KNOW that the reason why Peter, James and John (among others), really still don’t get who Jesus is, and why he promptly swears them to secrecy, is that the ultimate breakthrough moment for the Kingdom of God to which this vision is hinting, won’t happen until Christ has died, and rises to new life, a fully transfigured life, the start of God’s new Kingdom in which Peter and the others’ will play a crucial role.

WE KNOW that some things in the Bible, simply can’t be neatly explained, because they are ‘of God’. We might not have had a vision of the Divine ourselves, but we know that others through history have had profound revelations of the nature of God, and we have learnt to trust their witness, their wisdom and the spiritual truths God has revealed to us through those encounters. For example, Julian of Norwich famously found a revelation of God’s overwhelming love and concern for all his creation, in a tiny hazel nut, such as we might find in the churchyard, if the squirrels didn’t get them first!

So if we know all these things, what then, like Peter, are we missing? I can’t see a cloud signifying God’s presence amongst us this morning! There’s no back-lit, ultra-violet induced, light show worthy of a camera-phone snapshot that I can see!  Where are the Old Testament prophets or medieval mystics in our company to point us to the divinity of Jesus, and the breaking in of God’s Kingdom in our own time?!

If we can’t see or always make sense of the significance of Jesus for our own lives, or the world at large, then firstly, I think it’s important to realise, we’re not alone. We know Peter’s been there before us, and to be honest, even if we’ve had moments of revelation that have helped our faith in Jesus before, it’s a tough ask to hold on to that faith once the moments past, as Peter would become all too aware, come cock crow on Good Friday.

But as we prepare to enter a Lenten search for a revelation of Christ’s divinity, or the presence of God’s Kingdom in world torn apart by suffering, there are, I think, two main approaches that we can take; at least two that I’m going to be contemplating this Lent.

The first is to look at the details. Peter and the others took in the detail the appearance of Jesus, Elijah and Moses, the cloud, even when it comes, God’s command. It’s a bit like a scientist looking through myriad super-computer telescope images for signs of the birth of a new star or universe, we need to look at the detailed picture presented by scripture of how Jesus was revealed as more than the ultimate in Old Testament prophets, both God and man, suffering servant and glorified Son, crucified scapegoat for religious zealots and risen Lord. What our specific focus is might vary hugely, and depend on what we’ve learnt in the past, or what we are struggling with in our personal faith journey, but looking at the detail carefully is key.

The second approach to searching for a Lenten revelation, is to simply stop looking. To stop. To stop and focus either on something else entirely, or nothing at all. When the three disciples climbed that mountain with Jesus there was nothing to suggest they were expecting what happened next. It was just a quiet moment with their teacher, and the dramatic scenery. There’s a lovely expression I encountered a few years ago which I really like, especially when I’ve had a rare opportunity to experience it – it’s the ability to “free-wheel with God”. To sit, or stand, and stare – not so much at something in particular but simply taking in the view, in a mind-emptying, spiritually calming, guilt free environment, where God can step in and fill the space in a way that only he knows we need. It might be that it needs a moment of free-flow creativity to help it happen, the gardening, a tapestry, a long walk; or it may be that a piece of writing, artwork or music might flow from it. It might be that just stopping, completely, is the key with no expectation of input or output.

The important thing, whether we’re looking at the detail of our faith in Christ, or simply stopping to experience God revealed in our own life and experiences, is to recognise what we’re seeing when we’re encountering it, and treasure it as something to come back to and reflect on again and again in the light of our future experiences. Because patently, that’s what James, John and indeed Peter did, else we wouldn’t have been drawn up short by their mountain top experiences this morning!

My children’s talk on the same reading focused on the idea of seeing the wonderful awesomeness of God in the detail of what we see, using the illustrations of salt and snowdrops. The brief outline is here: 2015-02-15 Mark 9v2-9 The Transfiguration – Kids talk

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Levels of Success – Academic Qualifications and Ordination Training

Does ordination training leave people unable to see the ministerial wood from the academic trees? (Cuddesdon, November 2013)

Does ordination training leave people unable to see the ministerial wood from the academic trees? (Cuddesdon, November 2013)

I have never given up on a project, job or academic qualification, until this winter.

As Christians we are encouraged to act with integrity. As ordination candidates and ordinands we have to be honest about our strengths and weaknesses. As a curate, I’ve been put through the Myers Briggs ringer which told me roughly what I knew already, once the ‘boarderline’ was accounted for.

So why, when candidates explain that they learn best in a particular way, know through years of experience that they won’t be suited to certain academic routes, are they pressurised into a certain route? Is an academic qualification really a good measure of what makes a decent priest?

I started ordination training on an MA track knowing it didn’t suit me, but being given no choice since I already had an FdA in Ministry awarded in 2010. A year ago (tomorrow) I explained how difficult this was proving, and downgraded to attempting to complete a PGDip. I have never progressed much further than I had then.

I quit the academic path completely just before Christmas when I broke down for the umpteenth time over a portfolio whose subject matter I was really interested in. Try as I might, I simply couldn’t retain the theological ideas to critique it long enough to do more than go round in circles of thought.

It was my supervisor who asked: did I actually need the PGDip to satisfy my Diocese or Bishop?

The answer was no, they didn’t, but no-one had suggested that before. In fact at my pre-ordination interview the Bishop had shown his concern over my lack of academic progress, and he charged me to complete the work. Yet, when asked by our Training Officer in December, it appears he happily agreed that I quit where I’d got to, so I could simply focus on my parish work and IME.

I haven’t engaged deeply in how the Common Awards are working out. I know last summer Cuddesdon were hoping that where candidates were ‘upgrading’ from previous ministerial qualifications (as I was), an alternative to the concentrated academic rigours of an MA could be offered over the 2 years part-time or (when pushed) mixed-mode that Min Div will fund. I hope so, because it’s oh so nearly broken me and knocked away what little confidence I had in being able to fullfil my calling to ordained life.

Teaching needs to be linked directly to the academic output expected (at whatever level is really appropriate to the candidate, and not simply wishful thinking on advisers part or sought for misplaced kudos), not structured in counterpoint to lecture material as I experienced. Don’t get me wrong, the lectures were largely excellent, just rarely related to to what I was reading or writing up for a particular portfolio. For those whose brains are ‘wired’ like mine, that creates an incredibly high hurdle.

Those who struggle with anything academic shouldn’t be put off, or emotionally and spiritually fractured, by either not being selected in the first place because of it (which anecdotally I fear happens), or by being placed by the system onto an inappropriate level of training that hasn’t listened to a candidates own self-knowledge of how they learn – especially in older candidates for whom the greasy pole of preferment isn’t realistic and is certainly no attraction!

My experiences have left me with several psychological hurdles to climb as I’ve started my ordained life. Thankfully important things like faith and family life have remained intact, just. I have also made good friends through college, and wouldn’t have wished to study anywhere else – Cuddesdon is a great place.

And, I’ve not quite left empty handed; 4 portfolios at M-level apparently make up a PGCert, but rather than the success I should be regarding my ‘Merit’ as, I have to say the system has made it feel far more like failure.

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Has Facebook banned the use of religious titles? NO, it hasn’t. Here’s why, and how to use yours!

Screenshot 2015-01-30 16.59.39 (c)This morning a Change.org petition started doing the rounds among my Facebook friends which seemed to suggest that Facebook had created a “law” that stops religious leaders (implying in particular, Christian ones), from using their appropriate title. The warning was that if you tried to use your “Rev’d” “Father” or similar title, Facebook would stop you accessing your account.

I was less than convinced that this was true, so I didn’t sign, but I was concerned about the issue, so I messaged my friend Alec Muffett, who is a computing security guru and importantly, works for Facebook. I asked him what Facebook really do. This is what I discovered:

This story appeared a couple of days ago, after a Rev’d Fr was locked out of his Facebook account. The Change.org petition appears to relate to it, although a different petition is mentioned in the article.

Now, I have a second Facebook account, set up last year when I was ordained, so that my social media relationships with parishioners are separate to those I have with long-standing friends. It’s a boundaries thing, something that lots of us are warned about before we’re ordained. I had, in common with the clergymen in the above article, resorted to using Rev’d in the ‘first name’ box when setting it up, so it read “Rev’d Rachel” and it showed up as “Rev’d Rachel Hartland”. I didn’t really want to have this account blocked, which is why I was interested to find out the truth.

Facebook’s policy is in fact that they simply don’t want anyone using ‘honorifics’ as their known name whether born of employment, ordination, good works or anything else. To quote my friend, “It is not a religious prohibition its a general policy.” The rule would apply to a Knight of the Realm as much as a humble curate!

But before we still jump up and down saying we really, really want to use our legally acquired title on Facebook, however gained, the answer is – we can. There is a place provided for ‘other names’ in part of our profile set up, and it then shows up on our profile.

Alec kindly told me about how to put my “Rev’d” on the appropriate Facebook account, and I’ll put the instructions below, but first I think we need to remember something important if we want to use Facebook appropriately in ministry, with boundaries that protect us, whilst making it clear the capacity in which we’re using an account for the protection of others:

Facebook want to keep people safe by getting them to use their real names, rather than hiding under pseudonyms. It’s for our security, not theirs, and it will help Facebook stop the more dangerous uses of pseudonyms (e.g. for stalking people online) if we respect and encourage their ability to stop people accessing accounts that do not use people’s real names. So, we need to use, and promote, the means by which Facebook have enabled us to honour our calling, and be careful not to assume that social media providers haven’t thought through their policies carefully. There may well be room for improvement, but that goes for ministers as well, and there will be a greater respect on both sides if we try to check things out first, where possible, and abide by the guidance they give. It also means double checking the reasons for petitions it might be suggested we sign up to.

Screenshot 2015-01-30 13.12.49 (c)

This is what we shouldn’t do!

So, the how to get “Rev’d” on Facebook guide (other titles can be used):

  • Use the little arrow of drop down boxes (top right of your Facebook page) to go to ‘Settings’
  • Where it says ‘Name’ use the ‘Edit’ button on the right
  • Assuming you’ve not ‘changed’ your name in the last 60 days (Alec, this I think is the bit Facebook could do with reducing, though I suspect it’s there for security too), take out any title you’ve put in a ‘First’, ‘Middle’ or ‘Last name’ box, but leave in your actual name – then ‘Save Changes’Screenshot 2015-01-30 13.15.51 (c)
  • Click the button just below it that talks about ‘Other names’
  • Complete it as is appropriate to you – you CAN chose what you want to be shown as; I used ‘Name Type’… ‘Other’ and entered “Rev’d Mrs”, because that’s what I am – then ‘Save Changes’
  • What appears on our profile page is your name in bold, and in large, but less bold print underneath, the ministerial title under which you are operating on this Facebook account.

Screenshot 2015-01-30 14.51.24 (c)

All of which seems to me to be quite acceptable. Happy Facebooking ministry friends!

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Preparing for the Coming One – Advent Sunday 2014

Are we looking toward Christmas too fast?

Are we getting ready for Christmas without preparing for it?

I wonder how much we really look forward to Christmas?
Honestly now?! I can see some wry grins… I didn’t think so. You’re possibly not the only ones!

Preparations. Hard work.
A mad gallop of events to cram into the diary, shop for, cook for, and stand, or sit, around at, listening politely, trying to take in something that will actually make us feel as jolly as the coming season of Christmas seems to think we should be.

Church doesn’t make things any easier, does it?!
We can’t really let the vicar down at this, of all, seasons, especially after we’ve said we’ll organise this,
or that, or the other.
And, he can’t really welcome every extra person who wants to come and celebrate the coming of Christ all by himself, can he?!
Or, perhaps, after all, that could be what curates are for?! ;-)

But it would be lovely, wouldn’t it, if, before Jesus is born in a stable, all over again, we could have a little bit of a rest from the preparations that have to come first?!
Pleeeeaaaase, God?!

This Advent Sunday, we start to connect afresh with St. Mark’s Gospel; what I call the galloping gospel. There’s no time to draw breath, or unpack the detail, as layers of images pile quickly one on top of each other – a bit like the sliding tower of assorted Christmas cards, each waiting to be addressed appropriately!

Whilst we prepare for a Christmas neatly defined by a date looming in the calendar, the lectionary starts its year balanced delicately between past prophesies, and some distant future that can’t be defined on anyone’s calendar. Poised somewhere in between these two, is the present moment of our Christmas preparations, for the Coming One; the One who was, and is, and is to come (Rev 1:8).

In today’s Old Testament reading, Isaiah’s pleading prayer that God should reveal himself in power is not simply for his own spiritually weak generation, blown away on the breeze of the outside influences of their exile. The events it directly foretold were fulfilled in the restoration of Jerusalem. But, by Jesus’ time, God’s people are once again mired in the spiritual blindness and gloom that blunders forward through momentous events, largely oblivious of their significance.

Our Gospel this morning, collects into a passage of urgent teaching in tones almost of desperation, a couple of short parables and some sayings of Jesus, that actually refer forward again, at least in part, to the siege of Jerusalem that will occur in AD69, and the final destruction of the Temple the following year. The last of the great prophets, Jesus knew only too well that his mission on earth drew to a close the need for a Temple as a holy place that contained God; something which would be symbolised in the tearing of the Temple curtain at his death. Jesus’s freely given sacrifice would mean his resurrected presence in Word and Sacrament would ‘not pass away’, for it was to be enough for the whole world. He was Christ, the Coming One, who was the awaited Messiah of what is now history; he who changed the world, and our lives.

Yet, as we take on our Christmas lists, there are those for whom the tiny excerpts from Isaiah that open our Gospel passage from Mark are a present reality. The Son of Man, the Coming one who is, wants to come in power into the lives of those for whom the natural light of the sun is darkened by more than simply gloomy weather. For some, the moon expresses the sense that they can’t exist without the brightness of others to light up their lives, and stars are simply a set of glamorous or over-paid figures on whom is placed too great an expectation, and who all too easily fall to earth in tabloid disgrace.

And yet, the one who is, who should be the present reality of the coming Christmas season (if you’ll excuse the pun), the one who is, needs us to be his messenger angels, to go into all the events of the festive season showing visible signs of joyful expectation at his coming, not a sense of distracted and total exhaustion. Whilst our time-line is in danger of being a linear movement from one stressful task to the next, God’s time line is radically different and he seeks a new beginning in the lives of those who are attracted to the light of Christ only at this time of year. Our role is far more important than that of being Santa’s little helpers! It is to make Jesus, the Coming One, visible not just in the services, decorations, music and poetry of the season, but in our own lives – the invitations we offer, the time we take to do things for others, and yes, the welcome we give to strangers.

What Jesus is asking for, the alertness of watchful doorkeepers to who and what is coming, isn’t just a reminder to recognise at the door of the church those for whom Christ’s first coming is a new experience. Christ, the Coming One, who is to come again, is also expected, and this time he will come in judgement. What Jesus is making clear above all in this Gospel passage, is that judgement is just as much part of his earthly mission in the lives of all who encounter him, as their encounter with his birth, death and resurrection.

Our chief task this Advent, the focus of our spiritual preparations, should be a rededication of ourselves to holiness. It is not something else to be done, another thing to add to the Christmas lists in our busy lives, but the desire to take stock of our how our faith influences our life. Followed through, we should be able to see what in our lives look like in the eyes of the Coming one. If we truly believe that Jesus will come again, we have to have our senses alert to those areas of our lives that cause our faith to fade, and the wrong-doings and wrong-thinkings that take us away from God, like a swirling wind. If Christ was to come again today, what would he notice most about our lives, and would he judge that as being for better, or for worse?!

In today’s Old Testament passage, Isaiah speaks of the mountains and nations that tremble in the presence of God. If we stood in the presence of Jesus today, we might tremble for one of two reasons: either we will shake with thankful tears for his grace and sacrifice to which we have responded with a desire to ‘be blameless on that day of the Lord’ (1 Cor 1:8) as St. Paul desires in our Epistle; or we will tremble with fear that whilst we might have made the attempt, our lives will be found seriously wanting as far as living up to his example and teaching is concerned.

As we wait for ‘the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Cor 1:7) in the presence of the Coming One this Christmas, the one who was, and is, and is to come, we need to make our own preparations, ones that are truly appropriate not just to the modern context of the season, but to the spiritual context of it. It might be in prayer – the sort of prayer that gives space for God to answer. It may be in an Advent retreat or study book (with or without an online bookclub discussion), or in our willingness to do a new thing, or even in deciding that actually Christmas can still be celebrated without all the trimmings we’ve used in the past, to enable us to have space to be spiritually prepared as well. These are the activities in which we will encounter the ‘grace and peace of God our Father and our Lord Jesus’, and will mean we are truly “looking forward” to entering into Christ’s Mass, our joining in with his ongoing mission in the world.

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How do you talk about God with pre-school children? Prayers and Bears!

George, a prince among bears - soft focus to protect his identity ;-)

George, a prince among bears – soft focus to protect his identity ;-)

There’s something about ministry that means you end up with challenges you never expected to face. Leading a ‘Pram Service’ for pre-school children once a month is high on my current list of challenges. It’s name was the first challenge that I noticed: there are few who have prams these days!

I’ve watched the vicar do it once, with I have to say what appeared to be minimal planning, but he’s clever like that despite feeling a tad out his depth on this himself, I think it’s fair to say.

I was asked to do October’s. At the last minute he was called away to give someone the Last Rites, so wasn’t there to see the result. I used the lectionary for the day for inspiration (Like 11:5-13 The Lord’s Prayer) to focus on prayer, working on the basis that if you can’t teach very young children (some pre-speaking and crawling) anything else, giving them the confidence to talk to God, and making it fun was probably a good idea. I created a hand-prayer sheet. If they had the skills they could draw round an adult hand, otherwise it was simply something to take home to the family to encourage them to pray together (Hand Prayer sheet). We also blew bubbles when we prayed thank you at the end; I talked about God taking up our prayers as the bubble burst. Interestingly, I forgot to pray the Lord’s Prayer at the end as I had intended, I probably should have. An unexpected joy was having a mother confident enough to breast feed whilst I told the story.

These were both ideas I half knew about, but I wasn’t sure if I used them appropriately. However, I was greatly encouraged when the following Sunday a Dad I’d not met before stopped me after our little Family Eucharist service, and told me his daughter had come home talking about the hand prayers and blowing bubbles! Perhaps I’d done something useful?!

Asking around on-line a bit, someone introduced me to the Teddy Horsley books by Prof Leslie Francis et al. I’d not met them, and nor have my parish, but they looked a good idea, as they try and relate to ideas pre-schoolers experience. They also suggested a useful ministry for a beautiful teddy bear I’d been asked to re-home (another story entirely). @CoventryCanon (aka Good In Parts) whose knowledge of such things I deeply respect, also said how much she’d always wanted to start a ‘Prayers and Bears’ Service in her previous parish. I got rather excited at this point: this might be a way forward!

2014-11-17 12.34.56 cwLast week my teddy, now named George, helped me tell the Teddy Horsley Night Time story as we thought about the nights drawing in, all the noises of Halloween and Fireworks nights (for those who could or would talk to me), and how God cares for us. George proved a great ice-breaker – he seemed to make me more approachable, and he’d been taken off by one of the pre-speaking children before I started! The book links to Psalm 91, but doesn’t suggest craft activities, so I came up with an incredibly simple two minute ‘sticking feathers’ activity! The Lord will cover you with his wings Ps91

Last night, with both George the Teddy and some bubbles present, PCC affirmed what the vicar had approved, that from January the Pram Service will be re-launched as ‘Prayers and Bears’.

Although I can sing a reasonable action song unaccompanied when our pianist can’t make it, I have no training in how to approach children who often are pre-crawling, or very shy. I have just the one child of my own for several reasons, one being we discovered when we had him that I don’t “do” small children. God it seems has other ideas!

So, I’m looking for the collective wisdom of more experienced ministers on this. What have I done wrong so far in how I’ve approached them and the materials I’ve used, and who or where are the best places to get training in how to be better at it? I’ve been told for example that ‘Godly Play’ isn’t necessarily the best idea for pre-school children. Right, or wrong? What gems of wisdom and experience can you offer?

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Everyone Counts! The Kingdom of Heaven calls us all to be saints. Matt 5:v1-11 & Rev 7v9-17

I wonder how many of you did a “new thing” last Sunday morning, or were aware of others making a giant leap into the future, one which you also have made at some point in the past?

Personally, I think it’s really rather impressive that 142 of us here at St. Mary’s have used internet and mobile technology to comply with the church’s desire to make sure that “Everyone Counts”!

For many, the internet seems other worldly; a way of working in a different place. Some describe this other place as a “virtual reality”, something unreal, something perhaps a little dangerous. Granted, it can be, especially if misused or handled without care, but it can also be a force for good. In the case of the “Everyone Counts”church census, it makes the anonymous details of thousands and thousands of very real people across the country infinitely easier to analyse in detail, than might be possible with a paper questionnaire, and it helps the Church of England understand the character of the people of God it represents.

It shows in fact, that the internet is just as much a real place holding real information, as anything else that our God given, human ingenuity has created. It is no more unreal than the International Space Station orbiting, largely invisibly, above us. The internet is a real space that intersects with our own in a way that cannot be divided from our traditional earthly space, though some of us may, perhaps through fear of the unknown, try to keep that intersection to a minimum.

I wonder however, how much we also regard the Kingdom of Heaven as a virtual reality, an other worldly space; something perhaps more attractive than the world wide web, but still a space that we don’t really understand.
Perhaps most significantly, we don’t expect to inhabit this for ourselves until we die, when we hope we might become an addition to the heavenly statistics. The Kingdom of Heaven, it might seem, is a space that even
though we might try very hard to attain by being ‘good’, we’ve got even less chance of understanding and engaging with in this life than we have of understanding the internet.

The famous Beatitudes of our Gospel reading this morning, have been regarded as a list of ethical behaviours, and an encouragement and manual for discipleship. They are definitely not a series of truths about human behaviour, because we know for example that sometimes mourners do go uncomforted, and those who long for justice, often take that longing to the grave. Neither are they just a tick list of the attitudes that Christians should take to mark themselves out as suitable candidates for this other-worldly space we call the Kingdom of Heaven.

However, they are not so much good advice as good news, and they become easier to understand as good news if we can grasp that the promises they hold are not simply promises for some future heavenly experience we
live in desperate hope of, but are a declaration that in Jesus, God turned things upside down, and the Kingdom of heaven was inaugurated on earth, permanently.

We need to understand heaven as not a virtual, after death, reality, but God’s own space where a fuller reality exists, intersecting with our limited earthly reality in a way that can’t be broken. If the meek – those that humble
themselves before God because they realise their dependence on him and are therefore gentle with others – shall inherit the earth, they can’t do that if heaven is some disembodied after death experience. Do the pure in heart
– those amazing people we know who are pretty free form the tyranny of the divided self that is dependent on the influences and pressures of our own world – really only get to see God in the next life, when it seems they can
already see God in this one?

No.

The clue is in the Lord’s Prayer, where we’re clearly taught, “thy Kingdom come, on earth, as it is in heaven.” God’s glorious presence, that we hear about in our passage from Revelation this morning, his merciful action in coming down from his throne in person to wipe away our tears, started in Christ, and continues in the worship and service that as Christians we offer him in this life, and will reach its highest fulfilment when what we now
describe as heaven and earth come fully and finally together, at Christ’s second coming.

So, the life of the realm where God is already King continues to be brought into this world through those people who have grasped the good news of this realm where God is already King, and made it a visible reality in
their day to day lives. The saints of Christian tradition, and of our contemporary society, are those who recognise that the Kingdom of Heaven is here: it is God’s space, the reality of his constant presence, offered freely for us all to inhabit, and in which we are able to respond by living
according to the example of Jesus.

Pick a saint, any saint. I have a particular affinity for the Celtic Saints, I think because of they lived close to, and attuned with, God’s creation. So, I’m going to pick, St. Cuthbert, a monk and bishop of humble parentage, described in the Northumbrian Litany of Saints as
a hermit and joyous worshipper;
man of prayer and spiritual warfare;
patient minister of reconciliation.
This identifies him as someone who recognised God’s Kingdom was present on earth, not simply through the vision he received in childhood, but throughout his life, and through whom God blessed others as he travelled
through the communities of Northumbria.

There are contemporary saints as well, though perhaps as yet unrecognised by that description. Canon Andrew White, better known as the Vicar of Baghdad, is one I offer as such. Living with the physical restrictions of MS,
he strives as one who mourns the suffering and misery of the world to seek its relief, whilst also hungering and thirsting after righteousness as he works globally for reconciliation between faith groups and seeks to see God’s peace triumph over the evil in the world.

As with the fruit of the spirit, the Beatitudes aren’t a pick and mix selection of behaviours, they are a natural response of those who ‘get’ that the Kingdom of Heaven has already intersected with this earthly space we inhabit. They are not something only attained by those we have identified as heroes of the faith and set up as saints, but are part of our spiral journey into towards the throne of God, as our endeavours to respond to him by exhibiting his character, lead us to receive more and more of those
promised blessings: “blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy”.

Everyone Counts! We are all called by Christ to be saints; to recognise that the Kingdom of Heaven has been announced by him, and that it is not some virtual reality of the future, but a very real reality of God’s presence
intersecting with the world we live in. Whilst we continue to live in hope of the perfect future time when “people from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, will stand before the throne of God”, we are called to do this ‘new thing’ in our own time, and live as saints in the current reality of the Kingdom of Heaven.

The background to this sermon is not simply our celebration of All Saints, but also the fact that were were selected to complete the Church of England’s ‘Everyone Counts’ survey in it’s electronic format, something that some of us at least felt we weren’t particularly well suited to. We were wrong on that. But it inspired this sermon.

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View from the Curate’s stall – ministerial isolation?

The curates stall at Harvest Festival

The curates stall at Harvest Festival

I sat in the congregation at a friends ordination service recently, for the first time in three months. I was in a church I’d never been in before.  I didn’t have to do anything, other than simply worship, and listen, and pray; no choreographed moves, no desperate search of the memory bank for what I needed to do next, no sense that stuff was expected of me, only the sense of expectation that accompanies the knowledge that God was there. I even got to sit next to my husband, and hold hands during the Bishop’s excellent sermon!

The occasion brought sharply into focus some of the changes that I have experienced since my ordination. One of these is that in my new church, I’m always sat in the curates stall, and not among the people. They’re all able to watch me, if they feel so inclined, and I can see some of them, and watch their expressions if I so wish. In my sending parish, where I led worship often as a Reader, this was only sometimes the case, not always.

In the curates stall, I’m isolated. There might be a server sat behind and to one side of me out of sight, but partially tucked behind the pulpit and across from the vicar, there isn’t anyone nearby. From here, I suspect that I’m possibly missing out on the spiritual hum, that hopefully exists within any Christian worship, because I need more than simply my eyes to sense it.

I can’t hear the stifled, swallowed gasps or giggles at the preachers jokes or references – only the ones that escape out loud. I can’t feel the hands or the hair of the person behind me brushing the back of my head as they pray. I can’t see the physical tremors that speak not only of possible infirmity, but of spiritual encounters with our Lord. I can’t catch the eye of a friend, and raise an eyebrow in shared, unspoken comment on something in the proceedings – or at least, I don’t feel that sat up there in curates stall that sort of behaviour is really appropriate. Any sense of expectation of, or reaction to what God is doing, is confined to the bowed heads, reverently lined up at the altar rail, hands outstretched to receive the elements at Eucharist.

My pinata-headed training incumbent stills the target for the children to attack during our Harvest celebrations in September - about as close to part of the congregation as I've got so far in our main morning service.

My pinata-headed training incumbent stills the target for the children to attack during our Harvest celebrations in September – about as close to part of the congregation as I’ve got so far in our main morning service.

That underlines the heart of the difference I suspect – I only get close to people at the Communion rail, or occasionally on the floor with the children in front of chapel altar in smaller services. Here is the isolation of the ordained minister that I had been warned of before ordination, and for which the antidote is the occasional offices with which we encounter people, often, though not exclusively, those outside of our regular congregation.

I wonder if this is one of the reasons why in more catholic, Eucharistic worshipping communities, the value of pastoral visiting is heightened? Is this the experience of others who have migrated between traditions, or am I making more of the significations of this ministerial isolation than I need to?

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A neighbours first aid box – Luke 10 The Good Samaritan

My 'first aid box' is hardly an approved medical standard, but it did help me unpack the story of the Good Samaritan and what it means to love our neighbour.

My ‘first aid box’ is hardly an approved medical standard, but it did help me unpack the story of the Good Samaritan and what it means to love our neighbour.

Our Family Eucharist is a regular term-time feature of parish life attracting families with very young children because of it’s late morning service time (11.15am). It uses one of the Children’s Eucharistic Prayer and has a simple pattern of the same songs being sung weekly, except for a single one that reflects the theme of the Gospel. 

The Gospel for today was Matthew 22:34-end the first part of which is the two greatest commandments, but I decided to unpack the second of these actually using The Good Samaritan (Luke 10) in The Storyteller Bible (p80), and asking the children sat on the rug between the Eucharistic table and the lecturn: What does it mean to love your neighbour? Helping make them better? What’s in my FIRST AID BOX?

Tissues = mopping up the tears…. just giving someone tissues to dry their tears if they are really sad is showing love towards that person – it proves you care even if you don’t know or understand why they are sad. It might also mean praying with them, or it might mean going home and praying for them later.

Plaster = stops the bleeding when we cut ourselves – stopping the initial problem from getting any worse. If we just stop and look for a moment, we might be able do something to stop a problem getting worse – it’s what the priest and the other man didn’t do in the story! sometimes we don’t understand each other, and taking time to listen to what your parent, friend or sibling really means can be like putting a plaster on a wound to stop it getting any worse. Then you can go back to being friends again.

Bandage = for when things are really broken – it stops the bits that are broken coming apart completely. It’s what the Good Samaritan had to do before he even put the injured man on his donkey to take him to safety. A hospital will actually put a plaster over this. It gives time for the broken bits to heal back together so that the break is as good as new and whatever was broken can be used again. Sometimes it can take a long time for people to heal up.

Cotton wool = padding…. we can be someone who comes between a hard place in life and the person it’s affecting. It might mean going with them to a difficult place – like a parent who goes with their child to the Doctor, like the Samaritan put the injured person on a donkey and took him to a place where he could get better.

Witch Hazel = something to bring the bruising out faster so it doesn’t hurt for so long. Often we can’t make the pain go away, but perhaps by doing something with them to cheer someone up, we can give them something else to focus on, so the really bad pain of the nasty thing that happened to them doesn’t last as long. It can be why people buy someone flowers, or a present, when it’s not their birthday or Christmas! After all the Good Samaritan had to spend money to give the injured man a safe place to stay, even though he didn’t stay with him for the whole length of time that it took for the man to get better.

So, being a good neighbour means thinking about what we can do to help them when they need it. It means we’ve got to take time to be with people, and perhaps listen to them, even when possibly we’ve got into an argument with them. It means remembering that when people hurt it can take a long time for them to feel better. It might mean praying with them and for them, telling God how much we care and we want their lives to be made well, just as we want to get better when it’s us that’s hurting.

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