Burn out – remove, replace, refit… renewal?

On Monday we had our kitchen ripped out. It wasn’t new when we moved in 24 years ago: now it wass falling apart in an increasing number of places, and in urgent need of renewal. Having a full kitchen refit is possibly one of the more significant upheavels any household can take on: we’re cooking on a hotplate in the spare room, and I’ve just washed up outside. Whilst this has been several months in the planning, the last month has to a significant degree been focused on this week, and what has turned into a bit of an epic project after significant electrical faults were identified at the end of May – we are fortunate that we’d not gone up in flames years ago.

Laying bare the the old, unhealthy skeleton of our kitchen, ready for replacement and renewal

All this has been tracked, almost exactly, by my emotional resilence and stamina developing significant faults – I had nearly fried myself completely. So, I’ve started to take myself apart too and stepped back from ministry (thankful for a supportive incumbent and permission-giving spiritual advisors). Ironically yesterday was the 8th anniversary of my ordination as Deacon, and I feel bad that I’ve had to temporarily step away so soon, but I had no more to give, so have slowed the pace of my life right down with the active encouragement of my husband. Now, having completed my main contribution to the kitchen project (there were an awful lot of boxes to be packed and put into storage), I can start on my own personal refit: mentally, creatively, spiritually and perhaps even physically.

It’s not the kitchen’s fault, nor the fault of the parishes I serve, though there are contributing factors in both those areas beyond anyone’s control. The menopause, and a slightly rocky start into HRT are also making significant contributions! I’m not sure it’s particularly my ‘fault’ either though my habit of doing to much has caused issues in the past – but never quite on this scale. However, it is a reflection that the balance of the ministry and administrative commitments I’ve voluntarily shouldered is no longer sustainable mentally and physically in combination with other important strands of who I am as a wife, daughter, mother and friend, combined with my calling as a priest and a creative. Having temporarly cleared some things out of the way, it’s time to work out what exactly it is that needs to be integral to rebuilding the fittings of my life, so that I can return better suited to how I make myself available in future.

I have some inkling of what I need to focus on, but not sure I yet have the strength (emotional and physical) to make them a reality. There are some things I can’t control (hormone levels and reactions included) and there are several things that I’ve tried, unsuccessfully, to sort out in the past; so I need to work out what things to accept about myself, and where I can realistically create better habits. There are several things I suspect I need to prioritise but first of those comes rest, something that has had to wait until now, when workmen start to take the weight of the kitchen refit. So in no particular order the things I need to include in my own personal “refit” include:

  • Mental rest from doing too much and from constantly ‘double-thinking’ for others as well as myself, a bad habit to have got into. I have a sneaking suspicion that part of this is being a woman and a mother – are we hard-wired to think for others as well as ourselves I wonder…;
  • Physical rest alongside developing a proper pattern of gentle exercise in the natural world I love and which can better sustain me during active ministry (sounds like an oxymoron but perhaps you get what I mean -and it would be easier if hormones weren’t causing me both pain and anxiety);
  • Renewing my personal prayer life – which has always been less than ideal – in a way that sustainably nurtures and has more integrity with what I seek to enable and encourage in others. My prayer life has become saturated with the public bits of ministry, rather than sustained by soaking myself in God’s presence;
  • Enabling the exciting opportunities that God has presented me with through the traditional and creative skills I’ve been developing in the last two years, so that they form an honoured part of the whole of me, rather than the hiding place that they had become, and more than just a way of seeking positive/encouraging feedback. There is a small project in the wings in this area that might prove important, but it’s not quite ready to ‘go public’ yet;
  • Continue the process of patiently grappling with my own particular experience of menopause and HRT and the physiological responses to hormone levels that I’ve had to adapt to and live with since I was a teenager – like all women, but we all have different experiences of and responses to this;
  • Give more time to family and friends who have been sidelined by my unerring ability to step in and ‘gap fill’ administratively and in other ways, just because I know roughly what to do after years of working in various capacities in the CofE;
  • Find joy in reading again, for pleasure and to inspire and feed my spiritual life – I haven’t read a whole ‘theology’ book since I completed my curacy essays 5 years ago, and have read very few of the novels and biographical style books I used to love. As a way of doing the latter I’ve started to re-read the Terry Pratchet Discworld sequence from the beginning – because at least I’ll get a belly laugh along the way;
  • Work out how to stop feeling guilty for… well everything, anything… doing too much, doing too little, having a body that’s a pain in the ass (quite literally at times), not praying enough, not loving Jesus enough, not letting my emotions out, letting them get the better of me… you get the picture;
  • Work out how to include the role/s I hold in the wider community that bring with them anxieties and workloads that are not necessarily helpful, but as significant and important to others; I stood back from one earlier in the year (as a committee member of a local village hall) but I will need to return to my responsibilities as a School Governor;
  • Renewing my working agreement in discussion with our long-suffering incumbent, to better reflect my particular calling as a part-time, non-stipendiary priest, who is most alive to the working of the Holy Spirit (and unsurprisingly most useful to others) in various forms of creativity – artistically as well as in services and sermons (something to address when I return from a much needed holiday).

That seems like rather a long shopping list I realise, and you might suggest I shouldn’t be baring my soul quite so publically; but writing it down like this is as much about trying trying to articulate the issues to myself, as it is about the fact that I believe we should be more open about the mental and spiritual health journeys we take – for our own good, as well as to encourage others.

Currently, I’ve agreed a three month respite with my colleague and churchwardens, which was today approved as a ‘starting point’ by my GP. It may take longer (which is probably not what the parishes want to hear) and any healthy habits I can develop must contribute to, and be realistically sustainable in the long-term as part of my ministry. Most of those bullet-points can’t be resolved in isolation from the advice, direction and prayer of others I may or may not know, as I seek to develop the sort of open resiliance (is that a thing) that will allow/enable God to rebuild and renew me.

If you have read this far as I’ve rather openly thought through where I find myself, thank you. Any words of wisdom or suggestions will be welcomed with an open mind. God (as well as the goodwill of others) is I sense very much enabling this break in ministry, and I hope that my own personal refit can be as helpful in the long-run as I expect our kitchen refit to be!

Anna steps out of the shadows – Luke 2:22-40

God moves in mysterious ways, and so often uses us at our weakest, because that’s when we don’t get in the way of what he wants to say or do. This morning felt like one of those morning’s in St. Barnabas, and I sense from what people said that God’s message through this ‘inhabitation’ of Anna, may benefit from a wider hearing. The text is below, but if you want to watch it’s on the St. Barnabas feed here, starting at 20 minutes into the the service.

‘Anna’ speaking at St. Barnabas Darby Green

I have got used to waiting in the shadows.
Watching and waiting, fasting and praying.
Listening too, eager to hear what God is saying.

The shadows are my home now, here in the Temple, or at least in that part of it in which I am allowed to stay. I wait here, watching and listening for a sign of hope, for a truer, more steadfast light in the darkness than the braziers that warm the nights.

My former life in the north seems a lifetime away, probably because it is – it’s a long while since I left. As a childless widow I no longer had a place in my community, no value to a society that sets such store by what your status within family life. Odd really when so many of our scriptures tell us that God prioritises the widow and the orphan (Isaiah 1:17, Psalm 146:9) and expects the same from us (Exodus 22:22).

But then, so many of those who jostle for position in society or even within these Temple walls, seem to forget, ignore or neglect the teachings of scripture. I retreated here many years ago, expecting to encounter justice, mercy and love in God’s holy place, but was disappointed to find there was an even greater poverty of integrity in the faith of most who frequent these courts. I was shocked by the number of people who deemed it necessary to be seen to be here every day, or at least every Sabbath and Holy Day. Yes, it’s a big place that usually holds them all quite comfortably, but they have synagogues in their own communities, their own priests and spiritual leaders to whom they can turn for teaching and advice; yet they seem to need to be noticed as worshipping members of the Temple community, rather than supporting fellowships nearer to home. Their presence seems to add to the shadows rather, or at least emphasise that so many lives are so far from seeking God’s presence to be revealed in their neighbourhoods and lives.

Because I’ve watched and listened, studied scripture and even astronomy, I know that shadows are created by light. Even on the brightest day, one creates the other as the sun pushes past the pillars around me. But the biggest shadows in the Temple are those caste by the theological debates that swirl past me, as the leaders of our faith insulate themselves from reality by fabricating the rules and regulations that define who can do what; who can’t do anything; and why we should believe everything they say. So many of our leaders seem to forget that it’s not them that we should be believing in; the light of faith comes from another source entirely – the Spirit of God.

Of course there are regulars here, who seem to have a far more authentic faith, like Simeon for example. He is the seeker and the guide, always looking outwards from his own needs towards those of others. That’s how we got to know each other a bit, as he almost always asks after my health and well-being when he visits. God speaks to the quiet of his soul, and has promised him he’ll see the salvation of all God’s people before he departs this world.

Instead of getting embroiled in heated debates, Simeon prefers to watch quietly, seeking out those who travel-in occasionally from the countryside, the hesitant, and those whose pain and turmoil is written all over their expressions. As he befriends them – engaging them in gentle, perceptive conversation – there’s plenty that I can learn from people’s body language, and indeed hear in the acoustics of this place, even with my dulled hearing and rheumy eyes. So I stand a little distance apart, praying them through their conversation, seeking God’s light in their darkness. At a later time, I’ll try to catch the people concerned and share any wisdom I’ve discerned, or pass it on to them through Simeon. I guess that because I’m willing to speak to people of what God has shown my quietened mind, some have come to tell of me as a prophetess – though that’s to God’s honour not mine.

Today was much the same; Simeon spotted the couple with the child in their arms. Given they’d patently bought two young pigeons in the outer courts, I thought he must their first-born, whom they needed to offer to and redeem from God, as required by those rules and regulations the priests are so fond of. That being the case, the little scrap can only have been a few weeks old, but already he had a presence that seemed to grab your attention. I did wonder why they too had chosen to come here, rather than their local synagogue? They didn’t look or behave like they fitted the mould of those who wanted their neighbours to know their son had been redeemed at the Temple. As with most new parents, they looked tired, and worn, and not a little dishevelled from their journey into town; but they also seemed to carry with them a presence, The Presence, that suggested that for them this was no symbolic act, but had deep significance.

Simeon had spotted that too, and as I watched he received the child into his arms from the parents, with a reverence and a joy that radiated from him. I knew at once that he too sensed this child was different, important, a gift from God. So I listened and prayed even more intently as he proclaimed to the child’s parents that he saw not only his own salvation but the salvation of the world in the life of their son! This was no ordinary child, and I watched his mother’s face as Simeon’s words of blessing spoke of the challenge that their babe would offer to those who currently held their so-called authority in this place so preciously, and the pain that would cause her. She and her husband didn’t seem particularly shocked by the nature of the prophesy. Rather, they looked amazed and grateful that someone shared their understanding of the child’s importance. They already knew, what the Holy Spirit had just revealed to Simeon; the child in their care was the Messiah.

The presence of this child in the Temple changed everything. Here was God, come suddenly to his Temple, just as the prophet Malachi had promised (Malachi 3:1). As Simeon received the gift of God’s grace and peace in the salvation that was being offered by the tiny child in his arms, I saw the redemption of all humanity: this child would grow to fulfil Isaiah’s prophesy that the one who would come to heal the our collective failure to understand and live by our scriptures, would be pierced for all our faults (Isaiah 53). Indeed, he would be the one that would fulfil Israel’s calling to bring God’s light to all the world (Isaiah 60:1-3) if only Abraham’s descendants could recognise that fact and proclaim it to the world.

I knew then that my last days would not be spent in the shadows, but in the light of that knowledge. I stepped out into the courtyard and started to praise God for what I had seen and heard. I interrupted every group of debating theologians I could find. I explained to them that what they were looking for, I had seen; and they could see it too if only they would stop straining the gnats and swallowing the camels (Matthew 23:24) of the rules they said we have to follow to earn God’s favour. Yes, I insisted, God was offering us his mercy, grace and hope, if we would only share in the love of this small child who was the fulfilment of all that had gone before in the history of God’s people. I knew with all of my being that in this babe, God’s Spirit would make possible the end of legalism and redeem us from the cultural sin of ignoring and ostracising the widow, the orphan, and anyone else who doesn’t seek power or make a hollow show of humility. I wanted everyone to know that God’s Spirit was living and active in the life of the little child who had been promised us (Isaiah 11:6), the one who would bring peace and reconciliation to all God’s creation. Those who hear me may not want to listen, but I know what I have seen, and I will end my days, praising God for what he showed me this day in the Temple.

Intercessions for the last Sunday in Trinity 2020

It’s rather nice to have the opportunity to write some intercessions from scratch this week. So, in case they are of use to others, herewith an approximation to what I will share in a pre-recorded part of our worship this week.

A detail from the screen at St Mary’s Eversley where this week’s service will be livestreamed from, recorded intercessions and all!

If you do use them, in this year or any other, please let me know where and why, and I will remember you in prayer as we share in this ministry together.

Based on the Lectionary readings of 1 Thes 2:1-8 and Matthew 22:34-end

In the power of the Spirit and in union with Christ,
let us pray to the Father.

We give thanks for those who had the courage to share the Gospel with us, making known the love of Jesus Christ, and helping us to grow in faith and trust in you as our God and King.

We ask you to strengthen those for whom proclaiming the Gospel is dangerous, to the point of having their livelihoods, loved ones and lives threatened, that they might know the courage that comes from seeing others come to faith, prayers answered, and their trust in your justice and mercy fulfilled.

May we, from the safety of comfortable lives, learn to spot the opportunities you give us to share your Gospel, and do so both with boldness and with grace.

God of love
hear our prayer.

We give thanks for those who actions proclaim the Gospel of your love as loud as their words, bringing light where there is darkness, joy where there is sadness, nourishment where there is hunger, hope where there is despair and life where death creeps through the shadows of damaged lives.

We ask you to inspire and encourage those who lead this and all nations to do so with a constant check on their own motivations, a willingness to withstand encouragements to deceive those whose lives have been entrusted into their care, and a humility that doesn’t allow praise, flattery or greed to influence their decisions, their words or their actions.

May we know, with them, that you Lord test our hearts in what we think, and say and do and inspire us all to live out your Gospel of justice, mercy and humility.

God of love
hear our prayer.

We give thanks for all those who work or volunteer in the caring professions at this time, whether in hospice or hospital, care home or college, school or street corner, laboratory or lounge.

We ask you Lord to strengthen their healing hands and hearts as they bring comfort to those in distress, inspire them to explore new ways to bring wholeness to broken limbs and lives, and courage when difficult issues are brought to life.

May we know what it is to be patient with those who are given into our care, to nurse tenderly the pain of those who share their frailties with us, and to pray faithfully for those whom we can’t minister to in other ways.

God of love
hear our prayer.

We give thanks for those whose lives touch ours with fun and fellowship, with love and laughter, with kindness and comfort, in this community and beyond.

We ask that despite the barriers, real and imagined, you will enable us to be bound together as a supportive community, listening to and acting on the needs of others, caring for your creation as revealed in the countryside around us, and encouraging those for whom life feels wasted or wasteful.

As we remember in a moment of silence the needs of those known to us who are grieving, suffering in any way, or struggling to fulfil their vocations to your service and the service of others, may you Lord also help us to know what practical or private assistance we can offer to meet their needs…..

God of love
hear our prayer.

Merciful Father,
Accept te prayers for the sake of your Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ the Lord.

Reflections on dew drops and Psalm 19

Psalm 19 (Matthew 21:33-end) 17th after Trinity at St. Mary’s Eversley

It’s been a while since I posted a sermon, but I promised the photographer whose image inspired this weeks 8am reflection that I’d make it available to her, and (for a variety of reasons) this is the simplest way to do so. So…

As the psalmist puts it:
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

This week, Paula Southern (someone who in better times visits our bell tower regularly from Crondall to ring), shared a photo on Facebook of dewdrops hanging from a slender spider web, itself suspended across the loop of an iron bird-feeder. Against the morning light the ephemeral jewels of the dew glinted, to be gone again as the sun ran on across the heavens. It captured a moment in someone’s early morning routine that through social media brought joy and beauty to those who couldn’t get up that early, or don’t have those things close at hand in their gardens, or perhaps can’t even get out at all.

Psalm 19 is up there in the list of my favourite Psalms, along with Psalm 8 and Psalm 148 – little jewels in themselves. They celebrate and reflect on the beauty and wonders of God’s creation, the heavens not just in the stars at night but in glorious sunrises and sunsets, and the formation of clouds scudding across the sky. Beauty is something that is not simply ‘in the eye of the beholder’ but often beyond the words of the beholder too, try as we and other poets might. Paradoxically the psalmist points out that the beauty of the heavens and the world around us pours out its own song, sound and words unto the ends of the world itself, and I don’t think the psalmist is referring to the Buzzard’s cry or the Robin’s song that we are so used to when we come to worship here.

Philosophically speaking, this captures the fact that in our humanity we are actually created by God to experience beauty instinctively, and reminds us of the qualities that make something beautiful. As Bishop Christopher Herbert has described it, beauty is “profoundly good in and of itself… points beyond itself to something which is greater… reminds us of our place in the order of things… and reminds us of our relatedness to the world and to other people.”

If we go back to this image of water droplets on a spider’s web… for me at least, those jewelled droplets that Paula photographed were a reminder of the wonders of God’s creation; they brought joy, in and of themselves. But they also pointed toward something greater; to the fact that something so small is created by one of the basic elements of that creation – water – held in tension; and that like them, we need to allow the glory of God to shine on our ephemeral lives. These, our lives, often exist like water held by the tension of the many issues going on around us, and as we are enabled to let the Son of God shines through us, so people can see the beauty, perhaps even a glimpse of the glory of God.

The psalmist goes on to talk about the law, the commandments, and the statues of the Lord, as being pure, bringing joy and renewal to those who in keeping them serve God. Of course in the New Testament, we see that those statutes have been devalued, and a more perfect and better hope is made available to us, by which we draw near to God in Jesus Christ (to paraphrase Hebrews 7:18-19) the true light of the world.

This morning I believe God is reminding us of own ephemeral nature in the context of his creation, but at the same time of the value and purpose of our lives within that. God holds our individual transient humanity, and loves us as we are through Christ who we receive by faith in Holy Eucharist – and that can be the hardest of all things to remember in times of difficulty and hardship, isolation or overwork. But then we’re also linked by that thread of faith, like a sticky cobweb, to the people and places where he wants the love of Jesus to shine, not just on us but through us, to create beauty for others to behold.

We should not presume, as the psalmist strongly hints, to think of ourselves as either unworthy of the place God has made for us in his creation, or as in control of it as to abuse the position we have been entrusted with, at will. We need to hold the right tension between our lifestyles and the decisions we take in the way we govern our lives, and the light of Jesus’ commandment to love him first, and our neighbour, as ourselves.

As we make our confession in a moment, declaring before God our ‘secret faults’ as the psalmist puts it, may we desire more than anything else to make ourselves right with God, so that by whatever thread we are currently hanging, and however transient our lives from this moment, we may be seen as those who shine the beauty of God’s glory into those who encounter us.

Residents old and new: Garden wildlife in lockdown

In amongst the ‘madness’ that has been learning to minister in lockdown, we’ve discovered that the local wildlife is no respecter of social isolation rules!

2020-03-26 hedgehogFirstly we discovered that the Hedgehog we’ve been encouraging for two years had over-wintered! Great excitement, especially as my husband snuck a peek in our hog-houses late one afternoon to confirm that ‘the Hogfather’ as I’ve knick-named him or her, was truly resident – apparently with a preference for the left hand of our two hog-houses. There is a short video of it’s nocturnal wanderings HERE. We do have a hedghog-diner which it likes, but it’s also rather partial to the remains of the sunflower hearts left by the Goldfinches!

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Cock House Sparrow taking nesting material into the swift-box 10th April 2020

 

Then this Holy Week, as we’ve been pottering around the garden trying to make the most of our limited growing space and a collection of out-of-date seeds (anything to get away from the video and computer screen) we heard scrabbling above us. In 2018 we’d also had members of the Blackwater Valley Swift group install a 4 story swift box on our expansive north wall, as we knew that in summer we get a small group calling near the house, and lodging in the neighbouring street. Despite using the ‘swift-caller’ they lent us near the swift-box, we’ve had no joy at attracting returning juvenilles (which is what the idea was) nor any other resident Swifts. However, on looking up this week, we noted that whilst the ‘flats’ as I call them had warped a little, blocking one entrance completely, the scrabbling I heard Good Friday proved to be…. House Sparrows! There are edited highlights HERE of some (fairly shoddy) video and stills, including an extended view of sparrows doing ‘what comes naturally’ when it’s nesting season!

[It was also a chance to practice some very basic video editing skills for ministry, so please excuse the naff header/footer etc.]

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Blue-Tit bringing moss to our Birch nest-box 12th April 2020

 

2018 must have been a good year for our intentions toward wildlife, as we were also given and installed by the north-facing kitchen window, a Birch nest-box – that has likewise remained empty until now. We’d been aware from inside our kitchen over the last few days of an irregular tap-tap-tapping that we couldn’t attribute to anything inside. Yesterday, we discovered that we’ve also got Blue-tits nesting. This morning before our online service, they proved a little camera-shy, so no video to accompany the photos yet! Creation it seems believes in generating the new life of the Easter Season.

So all in all, we’re delighted to have other couples moving in to share our social isolation. In fact, couldn’t be happier… unless the Swifts move in, but they could find it crowded!

Reflections on ministry in lockdown – Good Friday 2020

2020-03-27 14.16.31
First attempts at set up for Sunday Worship for 29th March 2020

Over a month since I last posted!
Somehow life isn’t quite the same… and I’m not sure anyone saw it coming.
40 days on, and things have become very strange indeed.
But you’re living it too, so you know that.

So this is by way of a memorandum and reflection to myself, as to a few of the things I’ve learnt and needed to be creative about, to maintain ministry in the lockdown necessitated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

2020-03-27 14.25.56 HDR
Technical support and a ‘behind the scenes’ view of that first attempt at recording services in the garden. Glad I was that I’d liberated a couple of necessary props from church before locking up the last time, and that I have horded an interesting selection of useful heirlooms.

As a minister I think I’d become too reliant on contact with parishioners on a Sunday morning in the physical spaces that are our church buildings. Those are special times (especially in memory, when you can’t stand round and have coffee), but actually I’ve spent more time talking to people, and talked to more people more meaningfully, one-to-one, particularly the phone, than I ever have, at any stage of my ministry. I feel embarrassed that people have been surprised that I’ve rung, and depending on their circumstances, more than once. Without exception, everyone has been positive, understanding and supportive, as my colleague and I have grappled with the new needs of ministry in lockdown. If by any chance, you’re one of them, reading this… thank you, it has been hugely appreciated.

Jesus walked, and talked, and met people, and talked and taught some more. My husband and I took what should have been our statutory one-hour walk one day last week, on a route we know takes us about that, one hour. It took us 2.5 hours, as the socially-distanced conversations flowed! We’ve lived here over 20 years, so many familiar faces crossed our paths, parochially related and otherwise. I had a strong sense of healing in what at times was some fairly black humour, of words becoming the new sense of touch, of gift that God was providing in these days of glorious weather. As is so often the case, it is in looking back at your footsteps that you see where it was that Christ carries you.

Christ has a such weight to be bear now – and his burden gets heavier each day; and there should be no irony in the fact that I say that on Good Friday, as we acknowledge most particularly his sacrifice on the cross. A few months ago, I’d wondered whether I ought to change my pattern of ministry to take in some connection with our Foodbank. Not unusually I’d done nothing about it, distracting myself with other things, and probably appropriately getting excited about growing a fresh community project. But the cafe plans are of necessity on hold, though I must make sure they’re ‘oven-ready’ at a week’s notice, for when we’re free to fraternise again.

2020-03-22 22.29.51Instead, I find myself giving significant support to that previously noted Foodbank – not least because so many of the regular volunteers are now forced to protect themselves in isolation. Whilst it is horrible that we live in a society where one is needed, and tragic that the economic impact of the Coronavirus have brought so many more people to the crisis-point of needing one, there is a (slightly exhausting) joy in being able to deliver those shopping bags to socially distanced doorsteps – it’s not just food, it’s hope and a sign that people care. The same goes for the donations that have come flooding in, in particular through Eversley’s Centre Stores (who have carefully stocked the Foodbank to people’s cash donations) but also to our doorstep – one of the benefits of having lived here for a while. People’s generosity has been great, and the Foodbank is so grateful for it. No, making such things happen is not without anxiety and risk, and yes there is a cost in that, but after all, being a herald of hope is one of our diaconal responsibilities in ordination. Once again, perhaps I’m fulfilling more ordination vows more fully than before.

So, where’s the creative Rachel been? Lost, literally, frequently and for long periods, in an open source video editor (OpenShot), Facebook ‘live’ and otherwise, Zoom for Messy Church (less messy and calmer than it’s cousin, at least if you’re not ‘hosting’), and Zoom for PCC and other meetings; all via computer, phone, iPad and camera! I’ve ended up looking at myself in a way that I really would prefer not to. Perhaps, I’m seeing myself as Christ sees me, more than I do normally – flaws and all – but I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that.

My first recorded Morning Prayer, was a spur of the moment experiment outside St. Mary’s, but received an encouraging response. My colleague also took up the challenge and ‘went live’, and we were glad we’d started promptly, as within the week we were on lockdown, and leading worship purely from home. Bless him, he’d done a little video editing before – I am a complete newbie. I am grateful he’s putting together the really complicated Sunday Services like our first attempt. There has at times been some distinctly un-clerical language; “purely pastoral” as a past spiritual director would have it. There are also unhealthy strains associated with so much screen-time, on the eyes, the back and on the anxiety levels.

2020-04-08 19.23.13
Cuckoo-pint… or do you know it as Lords and Ladies? Photographed in a nearby lane, 8th April 2020 on our less than daily constitutional.

But once again, there is a strong sense of fulfilling my calling in not only a different way, but in a way that is reaching more people and encouraging them in their discipleship somehow in a way that may have a greater long-term significance of them, then perhaps our regular church-based worship does. I’m not sure that says much for our regular services, but I do find myself wondering what of all these skills and forms of worship need to be kept when we find a new way of post-lockdown living and liturgy?

There have been times to relax… there’s a crochet blanket for a loved-one slowly taking shape, an activity that can prove a prayerful Compline of sorts at the end of a long day, and there have been some gems of moments around the home and on our walks. More of the former in other posts, but if happen to have read this far (bless you) enjoy some Pipistrelle bats at late dusk – another use for my mobile phone which has resulted in interesting pastoral, and wildlife related conversations!

 

Kingsley, Questions, Controversies and Children – a reflection for Trinity Sunday in Eversley

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The grave of Charles Kingsley, with flowers laid by the students of the school he founded, Eversley, June 2019

One of the two churches I serve, St. Mary’s Eversley, has the author of the ‘Water Babies’ buried in it’s churchyard; hardly surprising given Charles Kingsley was the Rector in this quiet corner of Hampshire for over 30 years! He also founded the local school that bears his name, and of which I happen to be a governor. 

The school are very good and every year they celebrate their Founders Day, laying flowers at his grave and remembering to root themselves in Kingsley’s work as a social reformer, natural scientist, and author. But this year, in fact last week, was the bicentenary of his birth, which meant some of the locals had also thought it worth celebrating Kingsley’s gifts, so they put on a ‘thing’ – a mini literary festival if you like.

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Clergy present and ‘past’… with Peter Duncan in the role of Charles Kingsley, outside St. Mary’s Eversley, June 2019 (Photo courtesy of the producer of a short play ‘resurrecting’ Kingsley, Denise Silvey)

Yes, I fully expected to attend particularly to support the school, but the little matter of my colleagues over-enthusiastic Pentecost children’s talk last Sunday (which landed him in plaster) meant that I was a busier than I had anticipated. This had downsides; I missed a talk by Rev’d Dr Giles Fraser I really wanted to hear. But also upsides; like the school children I met Charles Kingsley his very self – or more accurately Peter Duncan who I remember as a Blue Peter presenter in my teens! I also got to relive my Greenbelt visits in the Tiny Tea Tent, but that’s another story…

It also meant I had to preach this morning, and link the life of Charles Kingsley with the fact it is Trinity Sunday – giving me a chance to reflect on what I’d seen and heard in the previous couple of days. So here, for what little a fear it’s worth, is my stab at doing that… and no, I didn’t forget it was also Father’s Day – at the end of the service each gentleman attending got both chocolate and a sequoia cone! Read on, to find out why:

Readings: Psalm 8 (NIV rendering) and John 16:12-15

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The sequoia in the churchyard at St. Mary’s Everlsey, planted by Rose Kingsley from seed collected by Charles Kingsley. It has a ‘twin’ on The Mount adjacent where the Kingsley 200 Festival took place.

 

On Friday afternoon I shared in the joy of witnessing Charles Kingsley get very excited about the cones and seeds of a certain conifer, the sequoia. Our sequoia. No, his sequoia. Sorry, God’s sequoia, a tree that I humbly suggest like the moon and the stars, shows the majesty of God.

As he was with Tim (the churchwarden) and I, sharing a quiet cuppa after school ‘out of role’, Peter Duncan (who has been playing Charles Kingsley) read the display about Kingsley on the hall wall. He suddenly became very animated. It appears that a couple of years ago, Peter had visited the very same sequoia forests of western America that Kingsley visited. Like Kingsley, he had brought home a cone to dry. Like Rose Kingsley went on to do, he sowed the seeds, of which some germinated and one survives. Peter now has it growing in his garden. The producer Denise and I now have photos of Peter, or should that be Kingsley, excitedly scavenging for more cones under the sequoia here, so that he could take them home to keep alive the personal connection he’s made with Kingsley.

This weekend has been all about keeping connections alive, and specifically the connection between Charles Kingsley, this village and our school, between Kingsley, social reform and science. I was busy here, but Giles Fraser hopefully made some connection between Kingsley as a man of faith, called by God to serve this place and community and Kingsley as a polemicist, someone not averse to pushing the boundaries of what we as Christians believe, and therefore having to be comfortable with controversy.

Questions and controversies exist within the Christian community, because our faith is a living thing. Just as much as the sequoia outside, our Christian faith is a living thing because God has been revealed to and has a relationship with us in ways so complex that we struggle to find terminology, or a name, that does God full justice. The closest we’ve so far come is the name, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and the term Trinity. Yet, those in themselves still leave us with age-old controversies over which ‘person’ of the Trinity proceeds from which, and more modern questions over whether we should apply gender-specific identities to any element of our creator, redeemer and sanctifier in whose image each and everyone one of us is made.

Our Gospel today, makes it as clear as it’s ever going to be why such questions and controversies exist. Jesus was never meant to reveal to us during his earthly ministry, everything about God’s character and will for his people, because quite simply, we wouldn’t be able to bear it (John 16v12). They are only revealed to us on a need to know basis, through the power of the Spirit of Truth, the Holy Spirit or sanctifier, that at all times will point us back to Jesus the redeemer, and thence to his creator, and ours. Individuals will only grow in faith, and communities will only grow in service to each other if they share a living faith that constantly turns over different questions and ideas in seeking a way forward that glorifies Jesus and his example.

For the same purpose, Psalm 8 (by far and away my favourite Psalm) reminds us that we have been made by God as creatures capable of awe, wonder, and humility before God. Awe, wonder and humility that is often proclaimed best by our young people, but they are not possible without questions, and children are always full of questions. Questions also by their very nature create controversy, because the answers and explanations are not always simple; and yes, questions and controversy create change, because change is life – if we are not changing and growing, we are not alive.

I have one sadness about this weekend, as I have experienced it. My sadness is that we have not adequately heard the voices of our children and our young people, the very people that Kingsley worked so hard to offer a future to. Yes, our children have been dressed up and paraded across a field to be photographed re-enacting the past. Yes they have created written reflections on elements of Kingsley’s story and ours, that their exhausted teachers have used for wonderful displays which only a few visiting dignitaries and parents will see – unless we can find a way to change that. But have we let the children speak? And have we listened?

The example of Greta Thunburg and Malala Yousafzai are surely showing the world, that as humanity struggles to combat the climate change it has inflicted on God’s creation, and in the area of human rights, God is using the children and young people of the world to silence the selfishness of humanity toward God’s creation, and establish a stronghold of justice, mercy and humility between and within communities. They may or may not be Christians but surely they are a living testimony to the God-given ability of young people to protect us from the enemy within ourselves (as Psalm 8 suggests), and create change; the sort of change that is in keeping with the Spirit of truth that is Jesus. And it’s just possible that we might be harbouring a Greta or Malala in Eversley, if we could build on the education principles Kingsley and others started, and hear our children speak for their future, rather than dwell on our past.

In Kingsley’s era, this community and society at large, needed to know that children of all sectors of society should be educated, that they shouldn’t be enslaved up chimneys, in fields or anywhere else for that matter, and that it is perfectly possible to be both a scientist that believes in evolution, and a Christian who believes God created the world. No, he wasn’t a child, but much of Kingsley’s attention was on children, and since he died at 56 he was younger than me when he did most of that work, indeed younger than many of us when he made his voice heard in the world.

We are reminded today by both our belief in a Trinitarian God, and by Charles Kingsley, that ours is a living faith, precisely because there is stuff we still don’t know and can’t explain about God and about the world around us. Recognising that should help us to be humble before God.  But awe and wonder at what we see, isn’t always a positive emotion, it can be one of horror, as we are reminded of the things in society that need changing because of the mess we’ve made of them up to now.

Like a sequoia tree, we need to be allowed to grow, and we need space to grow, however old we are. If we are to understand the purposes and nature of God better, we need to listen to our children, for in them God’s Spirit of Truth is revealed, and they might just have some answers that will change the world.

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A wonder of ‘festival season’ – and a great example of sustainable living!

Greenbelt ‘Clapping Creed’ (‘We Will Rock You’ rhythm) and Lego Easter Garden

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Lego Easter Garden at St. Barnabas, 2019 (photo credit: Graham Hartland)

During Palm Sunday and Easter Day family services, Graham and I have taught St. Barnabas a form of the Creed that involves clapping to the rhythm of ‘We Will Rock You’ by Queen. We also built a Lego Easter Garden to illustrate the Easter story from Luke 24:1-12 for the children, so some photos are here too.

We came across this ‘Affirmation of Faith’ via the livestream/video of the Sunday worship Greenbelt Festival in 2018, which was based around the 70th Anniversary off the Windrush migration and more recent scandals. You can enjoy the whole service at https://youtu.be/JJGxA9S0U6k but to watch specifically what we’ve called the ‘clapping creed’ you need to watch at 38.42 to 40.24.

This morning we’ve woken to a request from one of our young children for the words so they can learn it, as they ‘can’t find them online’. We couldn’t find them either, but at the time I’d written them down – so they are now. If anyone at Greenbelt knows who we can credit for this please let us know! [Edit: It’s great what tweeting a blog post can teach you – apparently Andrew Graystone is the one to be credited with this! Hopefully Andrew is happy that this is written down and shared to enthuse children in their faith.]

Apparently we’re going to be asked to do it at Messy Church soon, and obviously we need to teach it to St. Mary’s Eversley too!

We believe that God Creator (‘We will rock you’ Creed)

Rhythm: Thighs, thighs, clap, get this going first – and then keep the rhythm whilst doing the actions!

We believe that God Creator
Spoke and brought the world to birth.

Christ has died (arms out like a cross),
Christ is risen (raise arms up over heads),
Christ will come again (jazz hands).

We believe that Jesus Saviour,
Lived and died with us on earth.

Christ has died (arms out like a cross),
Christ is risen (raise arms up over heads),
Christ will come again (jazz hands).

We believe the Holy Spirit,
Soaks the world with love and grace.

Christ has died (arms out like a cross),
Christ is risen (raise arms up over heads),
Christ will come again (jazz hands).

This we share with every Christian,
Throughout time in every place.

Christ has died (arms out like a cross),
Christ is risen (raise arms up over heads),
Christ will come again (jazz hands).

 

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Close-up of our Lego Easter Garden, based on Luke 24:1-12 (photo credit Graham Hartland)… those are definitely NOT fairies, they’re angels!!!!

The donkey’s tail – as one who was a companion of Christ

This year’s Lenten creativity was prepared for a local Mothers’ Union gathering in which we focused on being companions rather than simply followers of Christ. It included the following, which in response to Matthew 21:1-9 is barely original, but instead inspired, loosely and without honour, on a reflection I found referred to as being of Francis de Sales for Palm Sunday 1622, the more recent poem ‘The Donkey’ by G.K.Chesterton, and Janet Morley’s reflection upon the latter in her 2011 book of poetry for Lent and Easter ‘The Heart’s Time’.

I am a slow ungainly animal, a simple beast of burden,
hardly the appropriate mount for the King,
the one those crowds proclaimed their Saviour.
And yet, he knew this Balaam’s ass
would recognise and carry willingly
the one who came destroying pride,
in his great love and humility.
My girth may travel close by the ground,
and yes, some call me lowly,
but I was not beneath the dignity of
he who came as by his very nature, slave.

The Father’s equal in all things,
his wisdom and his witness ignored
for being as worthless as my braying,
because the mob knew better what his purpose was,
the burden of their expectations being
other than what either of us could offer.
So, we shared together
the inappropriate adulation,
refused to bite, or kick, or shy away
and trod the welcoming path
that parodied the purpose of our shared sacrifice.

It was not me who really bore the weight of obedience
without murmur or excuse,
but he on whose shoulders lay not
the rough-wove cloaks of those who half-understood,
but the guilt of those who
in weakness, pride and anger
would carve for him a fashionable death.
Yet, whilst claiming an equality of shared submission
with he who held the reins of creation,
I ask only that with them I might be forgiven
the ubiquitous sin of stubbornness.

Those who pass by – a short reflection on The Good Samaritan

We recently had an Away Day with the PCCs of our Benefice. In the opening worship I used a reflection on the scripture: Luke 10:25-37 The Good Samaritan “Called to be an Innkeeper” by Elaine Gisbourne from the book ‘Wild Goose big book of worship resources‘. This was particularly appropriate for St Barnabas Darby Green with a now disused inn next door, but left the need to for something similarly appropriate for St Mary’s Eversley, where a well-used footpath goes through the churchyard. So I wrote this:

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The footpath at St Mary’s Eversley – one of my favourite images of when the church is used by the local school. The footpath continues round the back of the church, through fields and up into Bramshill Forest.

I bring you the passer-by,
those in a hurry to get where they think they’re going,
or stuck on their high horse unable to dismount grace-fully.

I offer you the passers-by,
who see the future in some other sphere,
of learning, of leadership, of leisure,
and notice it not in the suffering of friend or stranger.

What will stop them in their tracks,
prompt them to turn round, come back,
pique their interest,
ignite their compassion,
calm their fears?

I give you the passer-by,
in the rainfall of their fears and anxieties,
when grief or hardship strike,
or they pause to acknowledge –
there is something beyond their sphere of influence.

Their path may seem a far-cry from yours,
and yet it passes close-by,
intersecting where needs are met,
hope is found,
and grace abounds.

Feel free to use if you deem it worthy and appropriate, with suitable credit please, and note in the comments if at all possible.