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.

#Craft as a Spirit-filled, free-will offering to God (Exodus 35:4-35)

I was struck today by a Bible passage I must have read before, but whose significance perhaps had not become so personal until now.

Moses was charged by God with responsibility for making a safe dwelling place for God’s presence among his people; the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 35). He called on the raw materials that the community could provide (threads, jewels, gold and silver etc.), and the talents and skills of the artisans within the Israelite community, to create what must have been a stunningly beautiful and richly decorated piece. There were spinners and weavers, metal workers, woodcarvers, engravers and jewellers, designers and dressmakers, oil-purifiers, bread-makers, and more, some named, most anonymous to us.

All the materials and talents were gifted in response to God’s presence, through what we might now call the Holy Spirit, and then two particularly skilled people were called forward to be teach others, so this might be a community work, bringing to life the dwelling place of God among them.

In Christ, St. Paul reminds the Galatians and us through the readings at Morning Prayer at present (today was Galatians 2:1-11), that if we confess faith in Christ, he dwells within us (through the power of the Holy Spirit). We are not governed by rules that limit what it is that can be our responsive free-will offering to God, because he has given us the skills that lie within us – however latent they may have been over many years.

To someone who can feel guilty for not ‘doing the right thing’ very easily, but who has been given this ‘new’ gift of creativity in the last year or so, a gift that seems to be ‘snow-balling’ and drawing people in (in a variety of ways), this is hugely reassuring. The creativity that lies within all of us, the skills that we have practiced hard to hone, that we desire to learn at the hands of skilled teachers, can all be used to God’s glory, if we offer them to Jesus as a free-will gift. They are not limited to the crafts listed in Exodus 35, and like the craft of poetry that gives words to emotions we struggle to articulate (see yesterday’s post for an example in relation to the Ukraine crisis) they are healthier let out into the open, than shut up within us. Jesus didn’t come to get us to legalistically compartmentalise the different parts of the way God made us into what can, or can’t be used for His glory.

This is probably not news to most of you, but for me it is a huge encouragement. My prayer as I share this is that this might help me to see the skills I am developing as a free-will offering to God, so that there is no guilt involved in the time spent crafting, and so that the gifts and sale items that I create in doing so, give glory to God because they are filled with the Spirit of Jesus that issues from within me, whether that is obvious in the symbolism used or not.

I also pray that this might help you too to consider your God-given skills as a free-will offering to God.

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.

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.

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.