Reflection on Mary of Magdala (John 20)

Easter garden at St. Mary's Old Basing and Lychpit 2015

Easter garden at St. Mary’s Old Basing and Lychpit 2015 – interestingly our model of Mary of Magdala has her in a blue robe, not a red one.

Presiding in celebration of a Saint for the first time today, so needed to come up with some reflections on St. Mary Magdalene:

Mary of Magdala, Mary Magdalene.

The woman we remember today has had so much imposed upon her since she was first captured for posterity in the pages of scripture that it is difficult to untangle the things that we really know of her, from the the things that have been assumed, conflated with others; impressions and fables captured in art and in literature, both learned and less so. I make no pretence to be doing anything other than adding to the layers of uses to which her character, her actions and her faith have been put, but I do so because her story is one that brings us within touching distance of Jesus, a fact that I think lies at the heart of her universal appeal to both the Christian and secular imagination down the centuries. 

We can be pretty sure that this Mary was an independent woman from the lakeside town of Magdala, on the Sea of Galilee. Why independent? Well because in scripture she takes her name from the place, rather than from her nearest male relative (Hebblethwaite, p116-7) as is otherwise the case in the Gospel’s and context of the time. The myth of her sinful past may well rest on the absence of these reassuring family ties, and, the layer of assumption that her closest relationship with a man appears to have been with Jesus (Hebblethwaite, p116-7), has no doubt contributed to more romantic notions than scripture actually provides evidence for.

We can be pretty sure that despite the red dress of so many artistic impressions of this woman, Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute. Too long has her story been conflated with those of the sinner who touches Jesus in Luke 7:39 (who was not necessarily a woman of easy virtue herself, if our modern understanding of language is accurate), and Mary of Bethany who anoints Jesus in John 12 whose character has likewise been prostituted (Hebblethwaite, p119).

Scripture does testify, more than once, to the fact that Mary of Magdala had mental health issues when she first encountered Jesus, for her seven demons are referred to in Luke 8:2 and Mark 16:9 (Hebblethwaite, p120). The number seven probably only suggests the severity of her illness, not its nature and cause, which have themselves become a rich source for the imagination of more modern writers and theologians, wanting to encourage a more positive pastoral attitude to mental health care through the example of Jesus’ ministry to her. And yet scripture gives us no detail of this healing encounter with our Lord, perhaps because as some have suggested it took place over the months and years of their friendship during Jesus’ travels, rather than in one single, miraculous encounter (Hebblethwaite, p120).

Our chief evidence for the action, character and ministry of Mary Magdalene is in the scripture that forms our Gospel on this her Feast Day. Here, is a woman who (possibly with others) wanted to give the body of the crucified teacher the reverence it was due, to fill the void which being witness to his murder had created in her life. But the emptiness she initially encounters is even greater than anticipated, as she reaches a tomb devoid of the healing (John 20:1) that a graveside watch can bring.

As was the case at the crucifixion, once the initial encounter with the confusion of Christ’s resurrection is made, the men who perhaps she hoped might support her in their shared perplexity, vanish. So she weeps alone with a grief that soaks through the layers of her life as well as her clothes. It has been said that ‘maybe you can only see angels through tears’ (Wright, p146) and I know that’s been true for me: Mary seems suddenly devoid of hope because all she thought she understood has been taken away, but the presence of angels creates the questioning that cuts through her desolation.

Possibly the most consistent point of reflection through all the layers of Magdalene myths is the scriptural evidence that it is not only angels she sees, but the risen Lord himself whom she finally encounters and recognises by the use of her name: Mary….. As she reaches out to cling to the one that brought her healing, she comes up against another stage in that very process, one that does not rebuff, but invites her to re-enter the independent life with which she first encountered Jesus, but now without the luggage of illness with which she had previously been encumbered. As the Apostle to the Apostles (Wright, p147), sent to share the good news of the reality of the resurrected Christ with those who had run too soon to witness it themselves, Mary of Magdala finally receives the freedom (inspired by Mann, p55) that comes with true healing and renewed purpose.

I wonder how much the layers of people’s suppositions about our histories and our characters weigh upon our lives? People think they know something about us when they glimpse a few simple facts that might include our marital status (past or present), a bereavement or an illness.

Likewise, we may grudgingly recognise that in the light of the snapshots we see of others’ lives week by week, whether in their homes, the shops or in the national headlines, we impose our own layers of conjecture as to how they understand themselves, their spiritual journeys and their encounters with God.

Like Mary Magdalene, what we need to encounter for ourselves is not only the healing that comes from being a follower of Christ – happy to stay on the road with him week by week and willing to stand at the cross of his suffering with others – but also to encounter the emptiness of those places and relationships where initially he seems absent. We have to trust Jesus to reveal himself to others, not only in those places where we except him, like here in a much-beloved church, but in the places where perhaps we have given up looking for him.

On finding the place where they expected to find Jesus, many have run away, because they were looking for someone who had died. The freedom of the resurrection, the hope that Mary of Magdala was the first understand, was that sometimes it is only when we stop and sit with weeping with our broken expectations, that we encounter the living Christ. Only in that encounter, wherever or in whoever it is formed, will we know not only freedom, but the purpose to which Jesus is sending us back into the world in which he calls us to live day by day.

 

The books I’ve used as resources and inspiration are Rachel Mann’s “The Risen Dust – Poems and stories of passion and resurrection”, Margaret Hebblethwaite’s “Six New Gospels – New Testament Women Tell Their Stories” and Tom Wright’s “John for Everyone – Part 2″

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Pavane for the Resurrected Lord – on my ordination as Priest

Newly minted priest (almost) dancing down the aisle of Winchester Cathedral, 4th July 2015

Newly minted priest (almost) dancing down the aisle of Winchester Cathedral, 4th July 2015

I was Priested at Winchester Cathedral on 4th July, and celebrated the Eucharist for the first time on Sunday 12th July. Momentous events in my life (so much has been working up to this point), and it transpires in the lives of some of those whom I serve. As the dust settles, it is time to take stock of a little of what has been said, done and started.

Last Saturday, the day of my priesting, started with a deep sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit, and a ‘picture’ before we’d eaten breakfast! The night before +Tim had charged us to ‘yearn to burn’ with the Holy Spirit, referencing 1 Peter 1:13-16 and wanting us to imagine our finger tips burning. Yet as I sat there that morning, the image that came to me was of the coals in my father’s grate, flameless but glowing red hot, bringing far more heat to any room and for far longer, than the transient flames of kindling and wood. Here was the heat of the Holy Spirit I seek from God in my ministry as a priest – something that will transmit the burning love of God for and to those I seek to serve.

That image, and the attendant sense of peace stayed with me throughout a day that reminded me both of the fulfillment of my calling coming to pass, and my own inadequacy in fulfilling it – it will be nothing without God, and without the love that knits together in Christ as we grow to maturity. It was a privilege to read from Ephesians 4:7-16 at the service and voice this, and to be surrounded by so many very special people who have had key parts to play in my own journey of faith – some reading this will know, I hope that I am talking about them!

For a variety of reasons, not least the ordination and arrival of a new Deacon the next day to the parish in which I serve, it was to be a week before I presided for the first time at our weekly Sung Eucharist. Admittedly an incredibly nerve-racking occasion, I had been blessed by the gracious offer by my training incumbent of the opportunity to have a guest preach, and the willingness of a dear friend to fulfill that task, despite the Old Testament reference to David dancing, and the Gospel reading being that of the beheading of John the Baptist (2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19; Mark 6: 14-29)!

Dom Andrew, talked of our need, and my calling, to dance before the Lord, through the liturgical year in what he poetically described as a “Pavane for the Resurrected Lord”. It is the rituals that I have come to St. Mary’s to learn the steps of, and it is the richness of the liturgical year, the detail of which has been somewhat lost in previous churches in which I’ve worshipped and served, that I am coming to prize highly. It is a sermon I probably ought to read every time I am to preside at Eucharist, the sacrament which for so many is so incredibly important that I must learn the ‘steps’, both traditional and contemporary, often ritualised and sometimes something more raw, which reveal Christ to those present;

“…for it will reconcile to him all the broken and vulnerable children of God present in this place, enabling us to join together once more in the steps of the round dance of our love for him.”

A Triquetra (the symbol of the Holy Trinity) by whose power we live in the circle of life and love in this world.

A Triquetra (the symbol of the Holy Trinity) by whose power we live in the circle of life and love in this world.

The full text of Dom Andrew’s sermon can be viewed here on our parish website.

It transpired that my first, slightly flat (musically), slightly faltering, steps in the Eucharist dance were to be a special moment linking my mother, a ‘fighter’ for the ordination of women long-since gone to our Lord, to another mother, one who has helped nurture me through my diaconal year, and who until that moment, had never received Eucharist where a woman presided. Twenty and more years on from all that my mother was involved with locally, it is easy to forget that for some, this remains an incredible milestone.

There are a host of other special images of the day in my mind, not least the gift of a home communion set from the parish, and the most wonderful glass-work created by The Glass Maidens of the parish with the help of my husband and son. Again there were many friends that had come from a variety of churches to which I am linked, including Twitter! But, I think for now the important thing is to concentrate on learning and perfecting the steps of the dance that our Resurrected Lord wants to teach us all; the dance of love.

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Liturgical “bake” off

Our Ascension Day balloons that were released from the top of St. Mary's tower during our Ascension Day acclamations.

Our Ascension Day balloons that were released from the top of St. Mary’s tower during our Ascension Day acclamations.

This morning we celebrated the Ascension of our Lord with Eucharist and balloons… but no bacon.

Somehow I had got it into my head (goodness knows how) that there would be bacon butties after the service. There weren’t. Though there were perfectly lovely croissants, with butter and jam, and plenty of tea and coffee. Our hard-working sacristan had got up ridiculously early to prepare this, and so I’m selfish and cold-hearted even to mention a word of criticism.

But, I had wanted bacon, and felt let down. So following the modern trend, I bemoaned the lack of bacon to my friends on Facebook, aware as I was, that bacon is hardly suited to any festival remotely rooted in the Jewish tradition. Yet, I humbly submit that since the Ascension was part of the new covenant, and an element of the journey towards the blessing of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and because of Peter’s experience of being told by God that “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 10:15), bacon is a perfectly acceptable Christian festival food.

As the morning wore on my mood was lightened by various suggestions as to what food best celebrates which Festival and Feast of the liturgical calendar, and a dear neighbouring clergy friend suggested the idea of a “liturgical bake off” – something which St. Mary’s enthusiasm for cake making would be most suited to hosting.

So, working through the church year, and using the suggestions so far gleaned from tradition, Facebook friends (to whom credit and thanks) and the warped minds of my family, I offer the following as a starter, to which you are welcome to add suggestions.

Advent Sunday – Date cake

Christmas – Christmas cake (obviously), Angel Cake

EpiphanyStargazy pie, a box of Terry’s ‘All Gold’

Candlemas (Presentation of Christ) – Pigeon Pie

Baptism of Christ – water biscuits

Temptation of Jesus – Apple crumble (because it’s a des’ert), Rock buns (also known as rock cakes)

Conversion of St. PaulRocky Road

Ash WednesdayCreme brulee

TransfigurationBattenberg (berg = mountain)

Annunciation of our Lord to the BVM – Angel Cake (again), Angel Delight

Mothering Sunday/Laetare SundaySimnel Cake

Maundy ThursdayPenny buns or the edible fungus Boletus edulis (Penny Bun)

Good Friday – Hot Cross Buns

Easter Day –  The perfect souffle, (oh, and chocolate eggs, apparently)

Ascension Day – meringues (because a ‘cloud’ hid him from their sight), not bacon it seems, and not pitta bread (because it hasn’t risen), Sc’one

Pentecost – BBQ, carrot cupcakes with little orange marzian carrots/flames, flame grilled… (whatever you fancy really)

Trinity Sunday – Three fruit marmalade, Tri-fle

Harvest – Pumpkin pie, plaited loaf

All Souls – choux pastrie (think ‘soles’), lemon sole

All Saints – iced ring doughnuts (haloes)

Christ the King – Coronation chicken, Royal jelly

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Thinking of ourselves as a gift to Jesus (John 6:35-40)

This week my training incumbent and other parish stalwarts are away on pilgrimage, and I’m left minding the ‘shop’. Our usual midweek Eucharist, of necessity therefore has to be Morning Prayer (as I’m still in my diaconal year), though some who number the regular congregation mid-week are away on this pilgrimage, so we are depleted in number. From this short time together in our chapel, I go to our local care home to share ‘Home Communion’ with a little group who will sing old familiar hymns and I use the same passage as at the service of Morning Prayer, by tradition in the parish, still the Gospel for Eucharist.

But when faced in the lectionary with the ‘old chestnut’ of the first of John’s “I am” sayings… “I am the bread of life”, what could I say that might be fresh to those, most of whom are in what might be styled their declining years, or in care towards the end of their lives? 

So, in the absence of any further inspiration, I’ve written the following short reflection, which I’m hoping isn’t too heretical, though I am more than happy to be corrected if appropraite. 


“It is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day”. (John 6:35-40)

I wonder what is the present that we have received that we treasure most? What is that would most break our hearts if we lost it, or it was stolen from us?

Or is our treasure something else? A relationship perhaps, or our eyesight, mobility or independence? Something or someone that makes us want to get up each morning and encounter the world afresh? 

Perhaps, sadly we feel like we’ve already lost what we treasure most.

Are we regarded as a gift to someone else? Do we give them the encouragement, strength and motivation to do things that they might not otherwise consider themselves able to achieve? Who do we bring joy when we spend time with them?

Well for Jesus, each of us who have approached him in faith, and recognise him as the bread of life, our daily source of nourishment, is a gift. Yes, by God’s grace he is a gift to us, in his birth, death and resurrection, and that is something we’re quite used to considering I suspect. But how often do we remember that our recognition of and faith in Jesus are a gift to him? 

I wonder if being given by God as a gift to Jesus changes the way we perceive ourselves? 

It may be that the idea makes us feel special. We have been especially given into Jesus’s care, and as such it may make us feel our existence is more worthwhile as a spiritual gift to Jesus than our mundane earthly existence would suggest. It can give us a closeness to Jesus that makes the conversation piece of prayer one of the key-points of our lives.

It might be that the idea makes us feel unworthy. Many of us will have times when we feel, there is surely no way we are good enough to be a gift worthy of Jesus’ attention let alone his tone of celebration in this reading?! And yet, here he is saying that we are such a treasured gift from God that he will raise us up as a new creation at the culmination of God’s Kingdom.

That surely is what is so exciting about being God’s gift to Jesus? Not what we have been at whatever we might regard at the pinnacle of our achievements, or even the totality of what we have accomplished by the end our earthly life. 

What is exciting about being God’s gift to Jesus should surely be to discover what God will have fashioned us into, from the raw materials of our lives now, when we reach our fulfilment in his presence. Our faith, our belief in the risen Jesus as the bread of life, at whatever stage it is and however we manage to live it out within the constrictions placed on us in this earthly life, is merely the embryo of what it will become when God brings us to completion in Christ, on the last day.

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So, whose resurrection is this? Luke 24:36-48 and Acts 3:12-19 (Easter 3)

The Easter Garden at St. Mary's Old Basing and Lychpit, before I took it down!

The Easter Garden at St. Mary’s Old Basing and Lychpit, before I took it down!

On Thursday, amid a certain disappointment among those departing the Ploughman’s lunch, the dead flowers were composted, the live ones given new homes, and the Easter Garden dismantled. I carefully wrapped Jesus in bubble-wrap and put him in a box, tucked away safely upstairs in the tower, with the empty tomb, the myrrh soaked bandages, and the empty cross. Out of sight and out of mind.

It’s actually beginning to feel like spring, and anyone who suffers from hay-fever is now bemoaning the pollen count. The kids are back at school tomorrow, and life can return to whatever passes for normal though perhaps a little emptier of excitement and relaxation than they have been over the last couple of weeks. In my house it’s a chance to tidy up a little, feed the bit of me that likes to have a place for everything, and everything in its place.

But out of the corner of my mind’s eye, there is an empty cross, an empty tomb, and Jesus is standing in the room.

In our Gospel this morning, the disciples are only just encountering the unbelievable excitement of Easter. They haven’t believed the women; the ladies without the body of their dear friend to lovingly tend; who had found merely an empty tomb and an angel directing them to remember his words.

The disciples had barely heard the story brought back in haste by friends from Emmaus, suggesting Jesus had eaten with them after journeying anonymously at their side, exploring the scriptures that referred to him. Even before they’ve had time to consider the possibilities suggested by this news, here he is, standing among them.

Alleluia, Christ is Risen!…. He is risen indeed. Alleluia! (Expected a slightly uncertain response.)

Yes, exactly. They were too confused to take it in; to grasp what was going on.

Here was Jesus as they’d never encountered him before. Fully alive, asking to share food with them, but bearing the scars of his crucifixion and able to pass through walls and doors unimpeded. They definitely hadn’t imagined the horror, anguish and failure of the last few days, so how then could it be that Jesus was now standing among them?

This was Jesus, raised to new life. The culmination of God’s creative endeavours; the first example of life in God’s new world of life after death; sharing the very nature of God and therefore able to move between the dimensions of God’s world at will; as engaged and active on earth, as in heaven.

God, living and present in their midst, and sharing words from Hebrew scripture, with which they were familiar. ‘Thus it is written’, they are told by Jesus, ‘that the Messiah is to suffer and rise from the dead on the third day’, using words that seem to refer to Hosea 6 v2 which says “After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him.”

But, hang on, those words in Hosea aren’t about him, they refer to “us”! Jesus is making some sort of connection between the death of the disciples’ hopes and dreams, and his intimate presence among them as their risen Lord; between his sudden presence sharing meals with his friends, and their future life; a connection between this transformed body of his, and our own existence; what we have encountered of the risen Christ, and the life of the world to come.

So, whose resurrection is this?!

Of course it is “Christ [who] has indeed been raised from the dead, the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Cor 15:20) If that were not so, as St. Paul points out in that same passage in 1 Cor 15, then our faith is futile. He that was crucified, an earthly man born of a woman though of God, is raised to new life as one with God. That is the source of the power of Jesus’ name.

But of course, that is not the whole story or purpose of Christ’s resurrection. Standing there among the confused thoughts and emotions of his friends, the risen Jesus makes one thing very clear: that his death and resurrection is not for his own benefit, but that “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed, in his name, to all nations.” The whole point of the resurrection was to bring a new hope and a new relationship with God into the world, a promise with no restrictions.

The cross by itself could not have proved beyond all doubt God’s love for the people of world – it had to be accompanied by the new life, hope and abundant grace of the resurrection. As the first-fruits of God’s completed Kingdom, God was making the full revelation of his promise that when that Kingdom is fully complete, we too will have that one-ness with God through our faith in the name and person of the risen Jesus.

There is no denying the darkness in which the world exists, we all see that in our news, both the truth of some incredibly grim situations, and the lies with which the causes and cures of those desperate truths are so often distorted in the name of power. Christ’s resurrection was God’s proof that he is the one with whom power ultimately rests, the promise of forgiveness for those who recognise this and seek to change their ways. It is the light in the darkness, the reason we symbolically carry a new Pascal Candle into the darkness of the world when we celebrate the resurrection.

So, whilst this Easter season is about Christ’s resurrection, it also signifies the hope of resurrection for the whole world; the possibility of the Peace with which Jesus proclaims his resurrection in every Gospel account.

So where does that leave “us”?

Christ is risen, and the world too has the opportunity to be one with God, and we?…

We “are witnesses of these things”, something that Luke above all of the Biblical authors, makes abundantly clear. For these concluding moments of the Gospel of Jesus are the introduction to the book of witness that is Luke’s ‘Acts of the Apostles’. Those confused disciples, so hard of believing and muddled in their understanding of what is happening in their midst, are within a few short weeks changed radically in the focus of their lives, the use of their skills, their desire to witness to the power of God with others. Empowered by the Holy Spirit they publicly unpack the prophesies of the Hebrew scriptures for themselves, and proclaim the repentance, forgiveness and healing that comes through faith in the name and resurrection of Jesus – exactly what Peter is doing in our reading from Acts 3 this morning.

This work of witness to the promises of the resurrection, does not stop with the era of scriptural history. The point of our Holy Week and Easter worship is to enable each of us to encounter Jesus afresh, both in his sacrifice and in his resurrection, so that we all stand shoulder to shoulder with the disciples, witnesses to these things, able to tell the story of how the resurrected Jesus is moulding our lives.

The holidays may be over, the return to the more mundane round of daily life may loom ahead if it hasn’t got us already. I may have put a plaster of paris model of Christ back in a box and tucked it out of the way. But, if we do the same thing with the living Jesus who has been raised to new life in our midst, if we dare to put him away out of sight and out of mind, then we are not living as those whose sins have encountered the truths of Good Friday and Easter.

There is still an empty cross, and an empty tomb, and Jesus IS still standing in our midst. Easter should have raised up our faith, revived us. His resurrection, is our resurrection, the chance to move forward into new lives, with new focus and a greater desire to understand of our faith, prepared to risk the use of our skills and gifts in new ways. For, as disciples of Christ, WE are the fulfilment of Jesus’ desire for “repentance and forgiveness of sins to be proclaimed in his name, to all nations.

Alleluia, Christ is Risen!…. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

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The First of ‘Seven Last Words’ – an original meditation at The Cross

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‘Crown of Thorns and Nails’ part of my purple stole by http://www.deborahirelandcreations.co.uk

Catching up with sharing some of what I got up to during Holy Week now I’m into a short break in Easter Week.

The most significant creative act of my Holy Week, which I actually  prepared through Lent, was to write and read meditations on the Seven Last Words of Christ at the Cross. These were interspersed with music by the choir and hymns, in the middle hour of our Three Hours at the Cross on Good Friday. Writing them was a very difficult experience, sharing them equally so, but then the whole of that Good Friday experience (my first of this three hour format) was hugely challenging, as I also had to carry the cross and place the crucifix in the sepulcher during the final hour.

I’m not sure I’m going to share all seven of my meditations, leaving others to share if appropriate at other times, but if you think you could use the complete set (which decrease in length as they progress – roughly speaking), then do please contact me via the comments facility.

“Father forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.”

Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. Luke 23:32-34 (NRSV)

But I do!

I know it was them,
them what did it!
Between them,
the Jewish leaders and Roman rulers,
they stitched him up,
then nailed him up.
they did.

I know,
they knew what they were doing.
The Jewish leaders were all too keen to get
this trouble maker off their hands.
Their people,
all too easily led,
manipulated from adoration to crucification
by the gutter journalism of a whispering campaign;
they might pass the buck and blame
mass hysteria or ignorance,
but surely they can’t be forgiven?

I know,
the Roman soldiers,
they had seen it all before,
done it all before,
and were just
“followin’ orders, Sir!”
Brutalised by the society they brought with them
and imposed on others,
their cruelty a symptom of their desire for Empire,
their so-called education and philosophy.

Surely a whole sick, political agenda,
can’t be forgiven?

So why,
tortured,
nailed up,
ridiculed and humiliated
by His people,
and His nations rulers,
is he looking,
at me?!

Why,
when He talks
in that measured, patient,
intimate way,
to His so-called “Father”,
whoever or where-ever he might be,
is He looking
at me?!

Why, do I need forgiving?
I, who wasn’t there,
couldn’t have been,
so don’t need an alibi;
I, who has only ever read
this scene in a story-book;
How can I
need forgiving?
And,
for what?

They do not know what they are doing.

But I do.

I know,
I can barely whisper his name in public
for fear of ridicule or worse.

Jesus.

I know,
I doubt peoples claims
to answered prayer,
a sense of calling,
the power of love –
most of all,
my own.

The Christ.

I know,
the lies hidden behind pews,
and stalls,
the false security of prayer books,
the walls that obscure the world from view.

King of the Jews.

I know,
where the “invisible” scars
are covered over,
bruises made to blend in,
hidden from the need to forgive.

Redeemer – Son of God.

I know… and He sees.
I whisper… and He answers.
I doubt… and He strengthens.
I hide… and He reveals.

I lie, and Jesus..?

HE FORGIVES.

 

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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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