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!

The Jailor’s wife – Acts 16:16-34

I had been really looking forward to leading and preaching at All Saints Church, Minstead last Sunday, on a weekend when my Dad was celebrating his 90th Birthday, and another friend their 80th Birthday. However, it wasn’t to be as we ended up being Covid-bound at home; whilst I remained negative, my husband had brought it home from school and we didn’t want to risk the health of older relatives and friends. However, I am deeply grateful that not only did Dad step in to lead the Service of the Word, with musical support from our son, our future daughter-in-law, and the local vicar (to whom particular thanks), but his friend Karen was able to inhabit the character of the Jailor’s wife. This is my most recent monologue, and a pair for last week’s monologue on Lydia.

All Saints Church, Minstead

I’d never thought of us as being enslaved to Rome, but that night would transport us from being captive within a violent system, to being free to risk all in service to a risen King.

My husband took his job as the chief jailer here in Philippi very seriously; not least because it was the role he’d been awarded for his long service and good conduct in the military. Here, in this outpost of Roman power, we benefited from the gift of a settled family life in the heart of a city. Yes, we had to live ‘over the office’ is it were; yes, my husband’s authority was defined by the dutiful rigour with which he enforced the whim of the city’s officials; and yes, at times the stench from the prison cells could be deeply inhibiting; but we enjoyed the freedom that came with our social status. With the prison and thus our home so close to the public forum at the centre of Philippi, here was little that happened without us knowing.

We knew that there was a small group of a new Jewish sect in town – the Jesus-men I called them. They’d taken up residence with Lydia, the dealer in purple cloth. That seemed to jeopardise the status on which she relied for her wealthy trade, but she’d always been a rather independently-minded woman and it was hardly our concern. I did of course know that she regularly joined the Jews at worship in their prayer-station on the river bank outside town (Acts 16:13), but that wasn’t somewhere we ever went.

We were also more than familiar with the fortune-telling of the young Delphic-woman and her over-zealous, greedy minders. There was often more than a grain of truth in what she revealed, but her fascination with the Jesus-men who travelled out to pray by the river daily, seemed unusual. For days she was like an annoying stray dog, always yapping at their heels about some most High God, and something about a way of being saved. Well, I thought, we’d all like to be saved from a way of life that exerted authority through greed and violence, but something has to pay the bills. And, I doubted whether even the greatest god in the pantheon, be it Zeus or ‘the One’ the Jews believed in, was capable of paying the price to set her free.

How wrong was I?! Wrong about the One, wrong about the price of freedom, wrong to think it wasn’t possible to live with different priorities, wrong to think that it was only others who were oppressed by the violence that surrounded us.

I watched as these Jesus-men were dragged into the public forum. Apparently, they had uttered that name “Jesus” over the Delphic-woman. Now she was silent, free from the fortune-telling spirit whose power had spoken through her, and the grasp of those who had manipulated her for their own gain. But, there’s no-one so hard-done-by as a salesman whose gimmick has been busted, nor so canny; so these Jesus-men weren’t charged with property damage, but with disturbing the peace. Which was ironic, as doing so brought anything but peace. People love a band-wagon to climb on, even if it’s based on trumped-up charges, blatant discrimination, or a desire to exert power – and this was all three. There was a riot.

And the Jesus-men were beaten.

The senior civil-servants dealing out this so-called justice, may have been inured to inflicting pain, perhaps because they only briefly saw the consequences. However we did. The bloodied and bruised Jesus-men, Paul and Silas, were brought into the prison for our safe-keeping. We knew what the unsanitary depths into which they were shackled would do to open wounds. But mercy was not a word that the authorities understood, so we weren’t allowed to show it. Having done what was required of us, we slept; but not for long, because the earth moved.

We were used to the earthquakes, they’re relatively common here, but this was more terrifying. As we fled outside to safety, over the rumbling of the earth we could hear the cell doors falling from their hinges, the rattle of prisoners chains falling free, and the sound of something else, something like… songs of joy coming from deep inside the prison?! I was frightened of what my husband would do to himself as he ran, sword in hand, toward what should have been crumbling walls. I followed at his call, and there, in the lamplight, found him trembling on his knees at the feet of the prisoners within. Time stood still.

[Pause]

All the prisoners were free, but no-one had escaped. My husband seemed captive to the fear that even so, his life would be forfeit. I was simply flooded with relief, that he, that we, were all still alive. When he brought Paul and Silas out into the open, I could see the confusion on his face, and I heard it in the question that came stumbling from his lips: “What must I do to be saved?”

And then they spoke the name that had given freedom to the Delphic-girl, the name that had brought them to this place, the name they had been singing as my husband ran towards them… Jesus. “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved. You and your household.”

There in the prison yard that night, those men spoke words that healed my husband, and I, from the painful scars inflicted on us by our blind acceptance of others expectations. As we carefully washed their wounds clean, they spoke words of healing which showed us that being bound to the One, true God, was a far greater service to the world he has created, than we could ever offer to a society which demanded hardened hearts and minds. We opened our home to these men who had travelled to us in response to a vision given them by the Spirit of the living God, and then been imprisoned at our hands. In return, they offered us the hospitality of Jesus in whose name they proclaimed these freedoms, breaking our bread to speak of a redemption that brought us to sit at table in unity and harmony.

There are some forms of light that shine more brightly than a candle in the darkness, or the sun at dawn. There are some forms of cleansing that can heal wounds that are far deeper than the eye can see. Yes, some insist on the freedom to bear arms, to carry keys that imprison, to manipulate the innocent; but there is also the freedom to understand that we need not be shackled to those behaviours, that we can be healed of our selfish adherence to power-politics and our bondage to that which destroys our humanity.

As our lives are being transformed by the message of freedom to be found in Jesus Christ, as we rise washed by the waters of baptism to a new life that will imprison no-one, least of all ourselves, the only duty which now carries any weight for us is that of learning more of the One who sent him because he loves us. As we work to release others from whatever evils control and manipulate them, we too can sing of freedom in Jesus Christ, our Lord.

All Saints Church, Minstead has a wonderful ‘three decker’ pulpit, a very ancient font that spent hundreds of years buried in the old Rectory garden, and is the final resting place of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It is well worth a visit!

Lydia – woman of the living God Acts16:9-15

This monologue formed part of our Morning Worship at St. Barnabas, Darby Green today. If you would rather watch than read it, it’s available on YouTube here, the sermon starting at 26:40. As background, I used various sources, including Elaine Storkey’s ‘Women in a Patriarchal World’, an article in Reuter’s about how the Tyrian purple dye that contributed to the fine cloth that Lydia sold was made. In worship we sang Rev’d Ally Barrett’s hymn ‘For all with heavy loads to bear’ which seemed to resonate, linking our lives with that of Lydia’s.

The spiney whelk shell that I used as a visual aid, as it was the nearest in shape that we have to the muricidae from which Tyrian purple is made. Photo credit: my husband Graham Hartland.

For a long time, I had been convinced that there was more to life than the prosperity granted me by THIS mollusc shell. The know-how that turns the shell and glands of this little creature into something as stunning as THIS purple material may not be purely mine, but having the nouse to turn a local handicraft into a niche business supplying only the finest cloth was definitely down to my own hard work, good connections, international travel and the decisiveness that drives a hard bargain.

In earthly terms, I am a woman of independent means and mindset; someone who in my business dealings has extended the boundaries of our patriarchal society in every deal I’ve brokered. I might ‘only’ be a woman, but no man had yet found that they could make me an offer which I couldn’t refuse if I sensed a better deal was round the corner. Perhaps that was why no-one has yet proved to have the emotional intelligence to become my partner in business, or in bed. Yes, I knew something was missing in my life, some focus or purpose, but not that!

You can put it down to my innate business acumen if you like, but my search for something more meaningful than molluscs and money also relied on knowing which boundaries to break, where and when. That was why I, a Gentile, took the Jewish sabbath as my own, and spent it outside the city walls with women who could match me in their intellect and curiosity to know “the truth”. Here we were safe, outside the city gates that proclaimed a divisive prohibition against freedom of thought where faith was concerned; away from the pagan hustle and bustle of Philippi life, and the machismo of men who make endless sacrifices to polished gods that do nothing more than adorn mantelpieces.

We shared a lot, these women and I. Whatever their status in society or in marriage, their household or their business responsibilities, as we studied and we prayed together, we laughed and we cried, and we cared for each other. Those of the Jewish tradition introduced us to the One who created and directed all things; the One who brought this shell to our shores, and inspired those who had discovered and utilised it’s properties; the One who remained faithful to them even here on the edge of the Roman Empire, some distance from the centre of their faith in Jerusalem. This redeemer God wasn’t a distant, dusty ornament, but as close as THIS cloth and shell; the first, the last, the one true God (Isaiah 44:6) who seemed to be alive, and who I yearned to know better.

We were understandably surprised to see a visiting group of men approach us that Sabbath-day. Apparently, these men know we would be here, not least because the city didn’t have a synagogue to welcome them. They were only too happy to meet us, daring not only to be seen with us, but eager to explain that they had been compelled to come to Philippi by a vision, gifted them by the living Spirit of this One God.

I listened eagerly to what their leader Paul told us of Jesus, his death and resurrection and the power with which the Holy Spirit directed and enabled them to proclaim him as their Saviour and healer, a servant King who taught by example that to serve others was to serve Him. Paul’s friend Silas was also from Jerusalem, and brought assurances to my Jewish sisters, my Gentile friends and I, that Jesus had really come not only to reveal this new covenant to the people of Israel, but to everyone, without fear or favour, whatever our social status, gender, creed, nationality or occupation (Galatians 3:28). Young Timothy, showing a pastoral sensitivity beyond his years, urged us to understand that by placing our faith in Jesus Christ, by loving him with a pure heart and a good conscience, we would be advancing the work of the One, the living God (1 Timothy 1:4-5). I remember one other of the party well; Luke, a doctor and a scribe, as keen to capture and share our stories as he was to bring healing to those ailments that restricted our work and ability to live full lives. Most significant of all, like me he was a Gentile, and yet unwavering in his faith in Jesus, and his desire to serve and proclaim the hope that comes from welcoming the Lord’s living presence into our being.

Listening to them all was unquestionably the most important experience of my life. All that I had yearned for, the aching void in my heart, was suddenly filled with a deep-seated, bubbling joy as I became aware that Jesus had been gracious enough to visit me with this living Spirit, through these four men. I knew life would never be the same again, that all THESE God-given things (shell and fabric) and more, I would now use to serve Jesus Christ, whatever the cost to my previous plans and personal status.

So eager was I to share this news with those who were closest to me, that I hurried home, returning to the now gathering crowd at the water’s edge with my household, keen that those I trusted with my very life should also have revealed to them the loving, living presence of the One who deserves THESE royal robes of Tyrian purple more than I. There on the river bank that day, a holy of holies, Jesus came and dwelt with us all, tearing apart the curtain of unknowing that had isolated and divided us from each other, and binding us together as a fellowship of equals. As the waters of baptism closed over me, I was set free from the selfish desires that my wealth had been dangerously close to overwhelming me with, and rose to the surface, assured that I was now equipped to serve my living Lord through the hospitality and generosity of the God-given gifts he had long-since graced me with.

I knew now that the stakes were far higher than the simple risks of market trading. As I persuaded Paul, Luke and the others to return into town with me, and make themselves at home among my fine furnishings instead of their tents, I knew that my behaviour now jeopardised everything I had worked for; my personal and professional reputation. But those transient gifts of a society I know recognised as being built on greed, were as nothing to the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord (Philippians 3:8) and learning more of Him, risen and alive in every fibre of my being.

It wouldn’t be long before the price that would be required of me was made apparent. Within days Paul and Silas would find themselves severely flogged and imprisoned, having freed a local fortune-teller from the slavery of her ungodly gift (Acts 16:18). Yet even the earth trembled in witness to the resilience of their faith, and as they added the jailer and his family to the numbers in Philippi who accepted Jesus as their Lord and Saviour, like me. The self-serving duplicity of leaders was likewise made clear when they discovered that in seeking to appease one abusive trader and his friends, they had made themselves vulnerable to more significant charges of injustice against citizens of Rome (Acts 16:37-39).

Paul, Luke and the others went on their way, sharing their news widely, but kept faithfully writing to us here in Philippi to encourage and at times correct us in our new-found faith. On the face of it, not much changed for me, as I still trade between this little corner of the Roman Empire and my homeland in Asia. But now God’s living truth and love dwells HERE within my heart, because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The blazing fire of the Holy Spirit has humbled me, burning away the pride I took in being set apart from others by the harassing hospitality I showed the wealthy with whom I haggled for every last penny. Now I practice a less demanding and divisive hospitality, creatively using my property and investments, as well as the art I sell, to welcome and affirm people of every and any walk of life. My insight and decisiveness now proclaims the love of God, as I quietly persevere in works of loving service to others (Revelation 2:18-19), here in Philippi and in back in Thyatira. For me, that is what it means to be in Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit; to be a woman devoted solely to the one, true and living God.

Year C, 3rd of Lent – Prayer before dismissal

Just a quickie as I prep for Holy Communion at St. Barnabas Darby Green this weekend.

I was trying to find something suitable as a dismissal prayer that went with Luke 13:1-9 and couldn’t find anything that quite worked, so I’ve ended up writing this. Not sure it’s much really, but it might help someone.

Not remotely a fig tree, but cheerful spring blossom as a wallhanging.

Lord God, we yearn to be like the fig tree
Which bears fruit throughout the year.
Feed and nurture our faith in Jesus this week,
That through the power of your Holy Spirit,
We might be strengthened to grow in acts of love and service,
To the glory of your holy name.
Amen.  

Prayers for #Ukraine and #Peace on Ash Wednesday 2022

In the parishes of St. Mary’s Eversley and St. Barnabas Darby Green we wanted to make extended time in our Ash Wednesday services for prayer most particularly because of the conflict in Ukraine that shocks and concerns us all.

Ash Wednesday reminds us of our humanity, and that of our Lord who suffered on the cross for us, but rose again to bring reconcilation among all who acknowledge him. As we watch the conflict and suffering in Ukraine from afar, we cry out to the Lord of grace, justice and mercy, searching for truths to be acknowledged and known on all sides, however uncomfortable, .

So we pray in silence and aloud:

Father we yearn for all people to recognise and be reconciled in their shared humanity, particularly in Ukraine and neighbouring countries including Russia and Belarus, and for all involved at whatever level to step back from the conflict and bloodshed in which they have engaged…

Lord, in your mercy…. Hear our prayer.

We pray for all displaced people, those of immediate concern on the borders of Ukraine and so many others searching for safety and a place where hope can once again flourish in their lives…

Lord, in your mercy…. Hear our prayer.

Closer to home, we hold in your care and name before you those known to us who are in pain and sorrow, those searching for diagnosis, those waiting for surgery, those grappling with the side effects of treatment, those convalescing and those grieving the loss of a loved one. Lord bring to them and all who suffer your healing, your patience, your purpose, your comfort and your hope…

Lord, in your mercy…. Hear our prayer.

We pray for nations not directly engaged in current conflicts, including our own, to resist the need to involve themselves for political or economic gain, but to welcome all refugees with generosity and mercy and to work with integrity for justice and peace…

Lord, in your mercy…. Hear our prayer.

Lord, we long for peace between Ukraine and Russia, in Afghanistan, in Somalia, Syria, Yemen, and so many others including the land which we call Holy, and seek freedom in life and worship for the persecuted in Myanmar, Uganda and beyond; from the safety and comfort of our lives we pray you strengthen all of us to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with you our God.

We conclude this time of prayer with the words of author and poet John Roedel:

My currently partial and poor attempt to create a Dorset Button on the theme of the Ukrainian flag and it’s national flower, which is the sunflower.

I can’t make the
world be peaceful

I can’t stall tanks
from roaring down roads

I can’t prevent children
from having to hide in bunkers

I can’t convince the news to
stop turning war into a video game

I can’t silence the sound of bombs
tearing neighborhoods apart

I can’t turn a guided missile
into a bouquet of flowers

I can’t make a warmonger
have an ounce of empathy

I can’t convince ambassadors
to quit playing truth or dare

I can’t deflect a sniper’s bullet
from turning a wife into a widow

I can’t stave off a country being
reduced to ash and rubble

I can’t do any of that

   the only thing I can do
is love the next person I encounter
without any conditions or strings

to love my neighbour
so fearlessly that
it starts a ripple
that stretches from
one horizon to the next

I can’t force peace
on the world

but I can become a force
f peace in the world

because

sometimes all it takes
is a single lit candle
in the darkness

to start a movement

“Lord, make me a candle
of comfort in this world

let me burn with peace”

Silence – light a candle

Amen.

A new commandment – a ‘crafted’ sermon

My creative output has done better than blogging of recent months, not least due to the death of not only my wonderful father-in-law but of some good friends. However, to my great surprise, I keep selling items via the Etsy I started in January, particularly on the seashore theme; indeed I’ve received and completed a couple of commissions. More of the developments on that score soon.

Often life and ministry inter-twine; one speaks to and feeds the other, and my sermon this week is a good case in point. Reading around this week’s passages led me to a ‘weaving’ theme, and thus, unsurprisingly, to Dorset Buttons. The sermon needed a visual aid – not least as it was to be preached outside in St. Mary’s churchyard – and so a new ‘button’ design was created, and first a wall-hanging and then earrings formed themselves.

My ‘Celtic Cross’ wall-hanging. Yarn is gorgeously soft and stunningly coloured Malabrigo Caracol Merino ‘Whales Road’ via Beaker Buttons, the beads were mostly gifted, and the seashells were four Purple Topshells from Weston Shore, Southampton and a larger type of Topshell (I think) from my stash.

I don’t suppose for a moment that the design is a new one, but it was one I worked out myself, without recourse to instructions from Jen Best of Beaker Buttons, or the Henry’s Buttons team, so for me at least it’s a significant step forward. Both scales worked well, and I will try and create some more of each.

Celtic Cross earrings on silver hooks. Yarn is a small hand-died batch from Jen Best at Beaker Buttons, which I bought some months ago.

The sermon itself is below; it is reasonably specific to our context as parishes, and as much for reference for me, as it might be of spiritual or missional use to anyone else – although the wider post-pandemic vision will resonate for many. It does sow another thought in my head (or perhaps that should be ‘sew’ an idea?), but I need to work that through much more and discover whether it’s viable before sharing it widely.

A new commandment – weaving on the framework of our faith.
1 John 5: 1-6 and John 15: 1-17

Some of you will be aware that in the last 6 months or so, I have found & started to develop new creative skills & ideas, based (increasingly loosely) on the heritage of Dorset Button making. 400 years ago making buttons to adorn the fine clothes of the gentry and the work-wear of craftspeople and labourers, was a valuable cottage industry. Today the same skills are being revitalised as artworks in their own right &
feeding the creativity of many, particularly but not exclusively, those with a strong connection to nature.

The process of Dorset Button making sees a ring bound in thread and then spokes created through which an intricate or random pattern can be formed. This is then embellished with whatever you have to hand. For example I have lots of beach-combed seashells to use, and I’ve acquired many beads!

The sermon illustrations propped at the base of our churchyard lectern. (Photo credit: Graham Hartland)

Similarly, the writer of 1 John 5 binds together faith in Jesus, with love of God, love of one another, and obedience to God to create a complex but beautiful picture. Faith in Jesus, and the pattern with which that is threaded into our lives, is the framework onto which the beauty of love and obedience can then be woven. But like all intricately crafted patterns, it can be tricky to see how we might bring something so creative to life ourselves – except at the cost of a lot of time & effort.

If we have chosen to take part in this worship today – in whatever format suits our circumstances – then we are responding to the love we have experienced and understand as being from God. In doing so we are self-identifying as “children of God”. Sharing in worship (weekly or daily) is part of the framework that brings faith to life in our lives. Of
recent times we may have (even if grudgingly) learnt new ways in which that framework can support our lives. We might be a bit wonky and uneven at times, and need the occasional knot tied when threads part, but we know ourselves to be loved by God and respond with faith.

The author of 1 John 5 doesn’t offer details of what the love that should adorn that framework of faith will look like. It seems like he expects us to know God’s commandments. We do, don’t we? But in case we need a bit of help, the lectionary handily offers Jesus’ summary of them in today’s Gospel; that “we love one another as Jesus has loved us”
(John 15:12). Jesus has indeed shown us examples of what this love might look like, through his ministry of healing, feeding, offering forgiveness, and raising the dead.

Jesus was being obedient to the pattern of life that God had sent him as the Messiah to fulfil. As God’s only begotten Son he came into the world by the “water and blood” of human birth, the same as you and I. But having been with God from the moment of creation (Colossians 1:15-18), the pattern of his example would be completed through the pouring out of blood and water of his crucifixion (John 19:34, Colossians 1:18-19). Our life as children of that same God comes into
being through the framework of faith, and the beauty of the love that we exhibit as our lives form their pattern, should be similarly Christ-like, perhaps even cross-shaped.

Jesus’ “new commandment” to love one another, as he loved us, is about creating within ourselves as faith-full Christians an image which is as close as possible to Christ’s pattern, but in our own unique style and colours. But we can only weave it, by listening to God carefully through the power of the Holy Spirit so that we understand the intricacies and difficulties of what it is that we are called to be and do. As with Jesus’ crucifixion, the biggest test of our faithfulness and love of God will be at the most challenging points in our lives and the life of our community. Loving as Jesus loved us will probably court opposition and controversy, but probably not violence and death as it does for some in the world!

So what does all this mean for us today as individuals, and perhaps more particularly as a fellowship of Christians? Jesus was giving his new commandment to his disciples at their last meal together, somewhat unusually hidden away from prying eyes – perhaps as we have been for too long. Here was worship and teaching to sustain them for what lay ahead, for what really mattered. Of course, Jesus normal rule of life saw him perpetually on the move: having individual conversations, occasionally in people’s homes; bringing healing to people on streets and in leisure facilities like the local baths; teaching forgiveness and justice on hillsides as well as in synagogues and temples. This private conversation was all about equipping his disciples as they went out into the world after his resurrection!

Over the last year our worship has been forced out of our church buildings, but been found to speak into people’s lives through video-streams and paper bags, as well as in blustery churchyards. I know many of us want to get back to singing in the warm, but should that be our main aim if we have been given a pattern to follow that involves loving others in our communities, as God has loved us?

Of course we need our church buildings as places to do things that serve our communities, not least the beautiful examples of the Foodbank at St. Barnabas, and even St. Mary’s hosting socially-distanced teacher interviews for CKS on Wednesday this coming week. But the fellowship we share in the buildings we love, that ‘worth-ship’ (giving God worth) that we may be so keen to return to, looks
dangerously like us doing the things we love, rather than focusing on the sort of love Jesus would have us show to others, a love that doesn’t involve making other people conform to ‘our way of doing things’, but is obedient to the pattern that God wants us weaving in the life of our
communities.

I am no more comfortable with what I’m saying than many of you will be; but as Jesus showed us, love isn’t about our own survival, as individuals or indeed as church fellowships. For those of us on our church councils, when the pressure is on us to meet attendance and financial targets, it’s very easy to inadvertently start equating God’s love with getting bums on pews, money in the offertory, and metaphorically (or otherwise) propping the walls up!

The love that 1 John 5 is talking about is world changing, indeed world conquering – and if we look at our world, it jolly well needs to be! For the faith we profess in our worship not to be contradictory, or lacking in integrity, we must remember that it’s God’s love that we are sharing not on our own; it’s no more about what we love about being a
church fellowship than it is about the buildings use! When was the last time we as Christian fellowships changed someone’s world by bringing them to faith, and an understanding that God loves them?

It’s going to be tough, uncomfortable & difficult weaving beautiful acts of love onto the framework of our faith, the faith that has sustained us through the last difficult months. But if we truly believe that we are loved by God as his children, it’s time we started working out what new threads of obedience we need to use to make the cross of Jesus sacrifice for us visible, and find the embellishments that will draw people toward the beauty of his love.

Being a Companion of Christ – the pain, the purpose and the Passion (Lent Reflections 2019)

I originally prepared the following material for Passiontide 2019 when I was asked to lead Lent Reflections for the wonderful local Mothers’ Union group that has nurtured and encouraged my ministry over many years. The reflections focussed on various items, most of which were in a small bag given to each participant.

Obviously this was a group that met ‘in person’ and could share with each other in their thinking, singing and praying, something which sadly this year isn’t going to be possible for most people in Lent. However, some of the material may be useful to the spiritual context in which we find ourselves currently, so I’m making it available in .pdf formats below. Hopefully all the items you’d need could be made or created from items around your home or could be found when out for daily exercise. They include:

  • hand or body lotion
  • two penny pieces
  • three lengths of (preferably brown) wool or string, knotted at one end
  • pieces of pitta or ordinary bread
  • a feather
  • piece of cloth
  • die (dice)

Some written material in this material is from named sources, unattributed elements are my own original material. If you use any of it, please could you credit the appropriate person, and leave an appropriate comment on this blog post.

I am in the process of preparing some Lent in a Bag materials for distribution in our parishes this Lent 2021, starting with ash mixed with varnish and applied to a nobbly stone/pebble. I will share these materials when they are finished.

Intercessions for the 3rd Sunday of Epiphany

24th January 2021 (Year B)

I’ve prepared some prayers for a family to lead in our worship this coming Sunday, and thought I’d share them in case they help anyone else. They reflect losely on the passages Revelation 19:6-10 and John 2:1-11 which are in this week’s lectionary and owe a little to Ian Black’s ‘Intercessions’ for inspiration and shape. Feel welcome to use and adapt them, but please do comment below on where they’ve been used, by way of acknowledgement.

We see the glory and power of God
when he meets us in our needs
and answers our prayers.
Let us rejoice and praise his name.

Creative God,
you continually surprise us,
and help us to cope with and do things
that are beyond our imagination and expectations;
please breathe new life into our traditions and familiar practices,
so that we your people,
are better equipped to serve you in this changing world.

Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Faithful God,
you are present in the struggles and turmoil of life,
strengthening the tired and stressed,
and defending the needs of the weak and vulnerable;
please give courage and hope to those most in need,
and help us to protect and help those who work for healing,
justice and mercy.

Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Loving God,
you are the thread that draws people together
into loving and supportive relationships,
and wants to bring freedom to those who suffer abuse;
please help all those who struggle with family life,
to find the space and determination
to resolve differences and grow in love.

Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Merciful God,
who brings healing to those who suffer,
purpose to those who feel set adrift,
and comfort to those who are lonely and distressed;
please fill the lives of those who are unemployed
and under-employed,
and relieve the suffering of all those who struggle with pain,
of mind, body or spirit.

Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Holy God, who reigns on high
surrounded by those who have served you faithfully
across many generations;
please welcome into your eternal presence
those who have died recently,
and help us to draw on the stories of their witness
to inspire our own journey of faith.

 Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

We see the glory and power of God
 when he meets us in our needs and answers our prayers.
Let us rejoice and praise his name.

Valuing livestreamed prayers – with resource links.

Probably the greatest spiritual joy to come from lockdown, and we have and we will continue with it into the future, are the prayers that we’ve livestreamed daily at 10am from the Facebook pages of St Barnabas Darby Green and St Mary’s Eversley.

On the days I lead them (currently Mondays and Thursdays, though it can vary a bit) I try and download the recording from Facebook, and then upload it to my YouTube channel. This is because social media can become very excluding to those who don’t engage that way, but do have computer access. In this way I know I’ve extended our praying community to those whose lifestyles don’t mean they’re online at 10am!

Livestreaming prayers from my office

The community that connects and engages in prayerful support of each others , and those we name in our intercessions, is drawn predominantly from those communities, and the town of Yateley which connects them. I am well aware that people sometimes dip in from far further afield, either because of friendship networks, or because of their own need to be nurtured in their faith.

Praying from my garden (or my Dad’s) in the summer was lovely, and once I’d purchased a microphone for my mobile phone (that cut out some traffic noise but not the birdsong) of real value. Sometimes I’ve even managed to lead prayers remotely, from the churchyard or the hill above St Mary’s Eversley one glorious morning in early autumn, from my car, with the phone afixed to the car door, and from the churchyard of All Saints Minstead, (where I grew up) when the need to support our wider family meant we were there during the school holidays.

It can mystify passers-by when you turn your car into a studio, and start ‘talking to yourself’!

This outdoor worship is always appreciated, I think because it gives people a lens into our lives as ministers and is an example of fitting our prayer lives into our ordinary lives. For those with mobility issues, it also takes people who can’t always manage it for themselves out ‘into the countryside’. I hope it creates a more holistic environment for those who are watching, though the opportunities through the wet autumn and winter is more limited, so it is an occasional treat rather than the norm!

On Mondays I tend to use parts of Common Worship Morning Prayer. In the middle of the week I kept with the local tradition of using prayers from the Ffald-y-Brenin Community in Wales that they’ve now also made free (download or paper versions) for the situation in which we are all living. Wednesday and Friday prayers are now led by lay colleagues, sometimes from church, sometimes from home, and sometimes whilst fishing!

Initially I was also leading prayers on a Friday and for that I adapted prayers from the Iona Abbey Worship Book (available as a book or download). I was particularly struck by their prayers for a Friday that places people in a church building, and affirm that even if the walls were to crumble God still dwells within us. This seemed particularly for the context of lockdowns where people can’t pray in church, which some find particularly difficult to accept. So whilst my pattern of online prayer has moved from Friday to Thursday, I’ve kept with that liturgy as both the tradition from which it comes, and the words themselves are appreciated and seem so pertinent to the context of our restricted lives during the pandamic. Perhaps when this is all over, I may offer something else. If you want to experience it for yourself, an example of the livestream recording is here, and the liturgy here:

So, if you want to join us, on Facebook at 10am daily and get a reminder when we go live, do ‘like’ our pages. If you’d prefer to stay off social media, then this is my YouTube feed (also comes with wildlife videos!) Feel free to avial yourself of the liturgies we use via the links above, and join us. It’s always good to know who is with us, so do please use the appropriate comment facilities so we know where you are, and if appropraite, what your prayer needs are, so that we can pray not just with, but for you.
Go well and God bless.