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!

#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.

Songs of salvation #RIPAretha – Ephesians 5:10-20 and John 6:51-58

Swing low, sweet chariot
Comin’ for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot
Comin’ for to carry me home

I looked over Jordan, and what did I see?
Comin’ for to carry me home
A band of angels comin’ after me
Comin’ for to carry me home

Swing low, sweet chariot…

If you get there ‘fore I do
Comin’ for to carry me home
Tell all my friends, that I comin’ there too
Comin’ for to carry me home

Swing low, sweet chariot…

The brightest day that ever I saw
Comin’ for to carry me home
When Jesus washed my sins away
Comin’ for to carry me home

Swing low, sweet chariot…

I’m sometimes up an’ sometimes down
Comin’ for to carry me home
But still my soul feels heavenly bound
Comin’ for to carry me home

Swing low, sweet chariot…

(Original words as noted in 1873 as sung by Wallace Willis)

“Be filled with the Spirit,…” writes St. Paul.

“As you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, give thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

There is something deeply appropriate about the fact that this morning, we have in our Epistle, the words of scripture that gave rise to the term ‘spiritual’ as a musical term. In fact Ephesians is thought to encapsulate within it, poetic language drawn at least in part from early Christian hymns and liturgies. In this case, the writer of Ephesians is pointing out that when we’re fighting evil, when we’re trying to shine light in the darkest places of life, when we know we’ve got an addictive personality and need to shut out the cravings, or when we’ve been taught that indeed you must make the most of every opportunity or you’re going to be deemed a failure (Eph 5:16), then actually what we really need is to rest in the presence of God, and music, will help us overcome those things and bring us to that place of healing and hope. Music, sung, played or even participated in from the comfort of your armchair, can lift our hearts to God, giving us a strength to carry on in the face of adversity, and helping us give thanks to Jesus for the good things he has given us.

Music has the power to deliver a powerful spiritual message. We know for example, that Moses and Miriam his sister led the Israelites in singing as the means of celebrating their freedom immediately after they’d walked through the parted waters of the Red Sea. Purposefully and rightfully they give the credit to God:
“Your right hand, Lord, was majestic in power.
Your right hand, Lord, shattered the enemy.”
(Exodus 15:6)

When the slaves of the British colonies of the 17th century first received and accepted the Christian faith, seeing the links between their own plight and that of the Israelites enslaved in Egypt, it was with simple songs that they too shared those scriptures, and their yearning for freedom, giving birth to what we know as “the spiritual”. There are theories as to other uses for these spiritual songs in that some people think they contained hidden references to the means of escape via the ‘underground railroad’, crossing over their ‘Jordon’ from the wilderness of slavery via the network of safe houses to the free-states and Canada; but nothing is proven. However, the very fact that those theories exist, gives us an idea of the spiritual strength gained from making sense of their own reality through singing of the difficulties which others had suffered.

That is why I would describe music is being ‘alive’, because through the experiences, words and phrases of others, it helps us to make sense of our own reality. But, it also has a life of its own which means that its use can change over time only keeping a tenuous grasp on its original meaning or context. For example, some of us will associate the song ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ with the England Rugby Union Side, but it first gained that association via a group of boys from the Benedictine school at Douai Abbey. They sang it in 1988 each time Chris Oti scored, overcoming a two-year England try-drought with a hat-trick against Ireland. In the context of rugby, the song’s use has changed dramatically; the Christian message has been lost; only the idea of overcoming difficulty and hardship to gain victory has remained. Without the message of hope being contained within the context of the salvation that sees God intervening in the lives of his people, the song has perhaps lost some of its power.

Salvation, being saved from a situation of hopelessness, sometimes of our own making, makes no sense without the flesh and blood Son of God having lived and died for us. The Jews would have found the idea abhorrent because of their strict laws about blood, but they would profit from the shedding of his blood because it was the means by which the prophecy of the Messiah bringing hope to the whole world was to be fulfilled. Like yeast being the raising agent that brings bread to life, we gain life by taking Jesus into our very souls and bodies. We can do that in the sacrament of Holy Communion this morning because the words that at the time fell on the stony ground of many hardened hearts, were treasured by those who held them safe in their memory and then understood them in the light of the cross and resurrection of Christ. Jesus’ words about his own flesh and blood did not come to life until they could be sung as the song of eternal salvation.

I’m going to finish this morning with another spiritual song, this time one adopted and adapted into the genre ‘spiritual’ from a very different back ground. This was written in 1855 by a gentleman in Canada called Jospeh Scriven, as a poem to his mother in Ireland, when news reached him that she was critically ill. Published anonymously, and only attributed to its writer after it had been made popular when someone set it to music, the spiritual ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’ was also about overcoming adversity, the adversity of illness in this case, by finding refuge in Jesus through prayer and in the promise of eternal rest with Christ. With the help of a darn good tune, the words also hold the spiritual truth that in and of itself is a memorable prayer about the hope we hold in salvation.

It seemed appropriate today to use a recording of a spiritual song sung by Aretha Franklin. If you’ve read or heard anything of Aretha’s life in the few days since her death, you may know that she was well acquainted with abuse, addiction and illness. However, despite these she appears to have continued to retain her faith in God, in the salvation that Jesus brought, and most definitely in the power that “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” have in bringing our faith alive. As she enters her eternal rest, let us pray that we can continue to sing “thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

What a friend we have in Jesus.

 

I’ve never before sung the opening to opening to a sermon as I did this Sunday, but in the context of the Epistle from Ephesians, and following the very recent death of Aretha Franklin, it seemed appropriate. Despite the less-than-perfect rendition of ‘Swing Low’ feedback was also unexpectedly positive, I think because people were moved to join in, for a variety of reasons. The unexpected testimony for whom ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’ is a special song, was a great encouragement…. sometimes music enables God to reach us in the way other people and prayers and can’t. 

If you can bear it, there’s an audio of the whole sermon (with the readings first) here.

 

 

 

 

Exam subject: LOVE  Pass/Fail? John 15.9-17 and Acts 10.44-end

 

20180506_112148cBack at St. Barnabas this week, with the sun streaming in through the window, and God’s presence very much present, quietly at work among those who need to feel his touch. One or two commented afterwards they wanted to ‘listen again’ so the link is here. For those who prefer to read things back, here’s the text of my sermon:

It’s May now, and there’s a sense in which we may be feeling that we’ve left Easter far behind us. The world has moved on from chocolate eggs and fluffy chicks. Many children and young people have entered the season of revision and exams, or in our case, the delights of dissertation writing, due consideration of future employment and the need for a place to live. We might encourage, suggest and hopefully even have modelled how to do these things well, and we can tell them how they might approach what they’re facing, but each has to understand and apply for themselves the skills and knowledge they’ve been taught by us or others. Whether we are parents, friends, teachers, or even if we feel like by-standers, the only examination we have to pass is whether we are willing to continue to love them, unconditionally, whatever fruit their efforts produce in the way of results, careers and jobs.

Yet, as Christians, the context of that unconditional love is very much still set within the Easter Season, especially as we prepare to remember Jesus’ Ascension to his Father, and the work his disciples were commissioned for through the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. When Jesus was using the allegory of the vine, with himself as the rootstock of God’s love, he very clearly had his own journey to Jerusalem and the Cross in mind. He too had taught his followers by word and example all he could about the love of God for all people, and that was propelling him toward the Cross so that he, not they, took most difficult examination of them all.

That is why there is a real sense of urgency in our Gospel this morning: just like any parent or teacher who finds themselves repeating the same instructions and encouragements time (and time, and time), again. Jesus didn’t have much more time left before that final exam in which to get the message across: “Love one another”; as God has loved you in my existence, for goodness sake go out and “love one another”; to find the real joy that is the fruit of what I am about to do, he says, take down all the barriers that exist between yourselves, your Father God, and each other, and “love one another”. That, is why he calls them friends.

Peter, bless him, is only just putting the message into practice when we reach the point of our Epistle this morning. Peter has been called to the home of Cornelius, by a vision that tore down the barriers that had been created between the so-called ‘clean and the unclean’, Jew and Gentile, one group of humans and another. There he proclaims the revelation of God’s story, God’s love, revealed in Jesus in the preceding weeks; Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension, Pentecost and all. Before this reading, Peter’s account of all that has apparently been brief, and notably Cornelius has not even had the chance to respond with words of faith and belief in the forgiveness Jesus offers, before the Holy Spirit steps in again, enabling him to praise God for what he has done in Jesus. That outpouring of the Spirit was as much for Peter’s benefit as for Cornelius and his family, confirming for Peter that these uncircumcised people were regarded by God as fit vessels for his love, his presence and his voice.

Looked at together these two readings emphasise the unconditional love that Peter, and we as his fellow disciples, are called to put into action as a response to God’s love in Jesus, dwelling in us through the Holy Spirit. They also underline that to make that love visible, to enable the joy of that love to infect the whole world, the barriers that exist between those who serve and those who lead, and between one social or faith grouping and another, must come down. Nothing must stand in the way of the waters of baptism being poured out.

We might like to think that the concept of servants and masters is dead and buried in the western world, and yet we have probably heard whispers of the woes of those trafficked into servitude and then illegally hidden, or abandoned to the iniquities of our immigration system. Elections too, however local, also highlight the muddy waters of who serves who in a democracy: we who elect people to serve our local interests have a habit of receiving commands or consequences from higher up the food-chain of politics that are not apparently motivated by the love and equality that might have been the ideals with which politicians were voted into their positions.

We’re probably not so blinkered as to think that there are no barriers between the social and faith groupings of both our country and the world, even within a single faith or between its denominations or sects. Yet, does the love we have for others make us hungry enough to be open to seeing and acting upon a vision of a different world, where at the very least the testimony of God’s love can be seen and heard, so that his Holy Spirit can be given space to work? In the light of today’s readings, we might like to consider whether we might be culturally or theologically prone to excluding others from the love of God, the waters of baptism, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the call to shared ministry in Jesus’ name.

Archbishop Angaelos of the Coptic Church in London spoke at a conference of Anglican clergy in Oxford Diocese – I wasn’t there but friends were, and YouTube has its uses! Among the important truths he shared about Christians in the Middle East was the fact that they present a reconciling picture. Talking of the fear that Christianity will disappear in some places (but not in his view completely from the region), he said that “in places where Christians do disappear there will be greater disruption and conflict because the Christians are a buffer, and reconcilers, and they present a loving example” of how to live at peace with their neighbours. That is a huge challenge to those of us who live in safer political climates. If we turn what he said into a question, how much do we live as a buffer to disruption and conflict, as reconcilers and at peace with our neighbours?

What lies at the heart of Jesus’ command to abide, dwell, and be rooted in his love, is the desire that we unconditionally love one another. The complete joy of which we are invited to partake, comes from sharing in God’s mission of love. Jesus kept his Father’s commandment to love all the way through his self-sacrifice on the Cross to the Resurrection. If the forgiveness and pruning of our sinful desires that we experience because of his actions means anything to us at all (as we probably considered last week with the first part of this image of the vine), we also have to accept that the Cross and Resurrection are proof of God’s love for all of humanity. Indeed we cannot experience the fullness of our own humanity and God’s authority in our lives, unless we do so in relationship with others, all others, not just people who we might deem as being ‘like us’.

There is in effect an examination that as Christians we all have to pass, and it is an examination of the quality of our love. Each of us has to understand and apply for ourselves the skills and knowledge we’ve been taught by our Father God, and his Son our teacher Jesus, and provide living examples of our willingness to respond to the prompting of the Holy Spirit in applying it in the most difficult, and/or unexpected of circumstances. Words are not enough, for “the sound of our faith has more power if it is heard through works of righteousness” (Maximus the Confessor, quoted by Archbishop Angaelos) and those works must be works of love.

 

 

 

 

 

Using God’s jigsaw pieces for a new beginning – Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-end and John 1:6-8,19-28

Introduction with the children before they go out:

Who like’s doing puzzles?
What sort of puzzles?

Jigsaw puzzles, 3D puzzles, I’m guessing we might have some Sudoku and crossword fans in the congregation.

Our readings this morning in this part of church give us a bit of a puzzle, a puzzle about who we are. Not our names, but what our purpose is, the sort of people we are called to be. God has put us in a place or a time of confusion, and we have to puzzle out what it is that we need to do in his name.

So I want you to give out some puzzle pieces in a moment when we’ve prayed for each other, and then at the end of the service, you’re going to collect them in again, and help me put the pieces together…

 

Puzzle pieces:   (Holy) Spirit    –     Bind Up (Heal)      –      Renew    –      Good News    –      Freedom    –    Build Up   –    Justice Comfort    –    Beauty Praise/Joy   –    Baptise    –   Serve Jesus

Sermon:

The chances are, they knew who he was.

John, the son of Zechariah, the priest descended from Aaron, Moses’ brother and spokesperson (Luke 1:5); the priest who in his later years had been struck dumb because he didn’t believe the angel who visited him whilst on duty at the Temple (Luke 1:11-20).

John, the son of Elizabeth, who was well past child-bearing age, and that same elderly priest Zechariah whose lips, unsealed by John’s birth, then prophesied that he would be the prophet who would prepare the way for God’s mercy and love to be revealed to the world.

John, who could by line and lineage have been a priest himself and worn the fine linens of the Temple, offering the sacrifices of others, and who chose instead to wander around in the desert in rough clothing, eating locusts and honey, and saying that the Jewish people needed to prepare for the coming of the Messiah, by literally being converted back in to the Jewish faith in which they were rooted.

Oh yes, the Levites and priests who came from Jerusalem, would have known very well what his name was, whose son he was, and what the stories were that surrounded him. But that didn’t answer their question: “Who are you?”

They wanted to fit him into their ordered way of defining their history and way of life through the prophets of their past. By pigeon-holing John into what they thought they understood of Elijah and Moses, they thought they could understand him, make him fit into their traditions.

But asking the question from that blinkered point of view, was completely missing the significance of where John was, what he was saying, and what he was doing. John might have looked and sounded like an Old Testament prophet, but he was very much doing a new thing, heralding the new way that God was going to be active not just among the Jewish community, but in the whole world.

John was in the wilderness because God’s people had lost their way – a fact amply demonstrated by the Levites and priests needing to ask their question in the first place. They had all the tools, the jigsaw pieces if you like, with which to recognise and take part in this new thing that God was doing, but they’d got so lost, especially around the Temple worship of Jerusalem, that they couldn’t recognise it. They couldn’t even see that other prophets of the past had prepared them for this when Israel had previously found itself with the opportunity to start a new era, a new way of living, a new relationship with God.

The words of Isaiah 61 would have been familiar to the priests and their assistants the Levites, but perhaps they had forgotten its’ context, and failed to recognise as so often happens, that history was sort of repeating itself, but with an extra twist of significance. Isaiah 61 falls in the last part of the prophesies grouped together in that name, a series of visions that spoke into two periods of Israel’s history. The first was the point where the first Israelites returned from Exile in Babylon but had few resources to rebuild the Temple, and limited self-rule to make new beginnings as a nation in the ‘between-times’ before the rest of this scattered people returned. The second point to which Isaiah 61 prophesies is another ‘between-time’, this one standing at the cusp of the old covenant and a new one, a time again when Israel was under restricted self-rule, this time anticipating the arrival of the long-promised Messiah.

John, was doing something that was normally only offered to those outside the Jewish faith and who wished to accept that Israel’s God was the one true God of all people; he was baptising people. But he was baptising his fellow Jews, something that should not have been needed. Yet, as the priests and Levites were amply demonstrating, they had lost their purpose and the vision of Isaiah’s prophesies, and therefore their understanding of what was going on around them had become lost in a wilderness of their own creation. The sins from which John was demonstrating people needed to be washed clean, were the ones that obliterated their view of what God was doing in their immediate vicinity, stopped them from setting the right example not just to their communities, but to those gentiles among whom they lived. The people who would be among the first to recognise the Messiah who already stood among them, would be those who understood that God’s anointed Messiah would bring with him those things prophesied in Isaiah. It was the people who were already gathered around John, who saw the opportunities of a life more fully focused on what God wants to reveal in the world, rather than the wilderness that bewildered their leaders, that would become the first disciples of the Messiah.

There is a very strong sense in which we too live in a period which we might be forgiven for thinking is a wilderness, where our leaders are bewildered by what it is they see, and seem unable to recognise it as an opportunity for a new beginning, or understand what it is they should be doing with that opportunity.  What we as Christians need to do, is to show them the tools at their disposal, the jig-saw pieces that mean that we can live as God intended us to. In the scriptures of the old covenant, as in Isaiah 61, and in the example and teaching of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, as well as John the Baptist, we hold those tools, those jigsaw pieces. Quite literally.

Please can all those who were given a jigsaw piece by the children hold them up please? That’s quite a lot of pieces, and there are plenty more! (Please put them down.) These few are all words or ideas within our scriptures this morning, and we can go through them briefly – please hold up the relevant jigsaw piece as I mention it:

(Holy) Spirit – The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me (Is 61:1). That’s the suffering servant, the Messiah himself speaking. That spirit would dwell in Jesus, and be offered to us through faith in him, as at Pentecost. It is the Holy Spirit of God that we must have dwelling within us if we are to find a way out from the wilderness that the nations find themselves in.

Good News ­
– The Messiah came to bring good news to the poor (Is 61:1), the poor of spirit, the financially poor, those made homeless (physically or spiritually) by the systems of the world; as those who believe in him that we are called to do likewise.

With the ideas of Binding Up (Healing) and Freedom (Is 61:1)­ we remember the healings that Jesus undertook, those he freed from physically or spiritually dark places, and we remember that this world needs us to seek the hidden darknesses of people’s lives where the light of the Messiah needs to be shone.

Vengeance/Justice (Is 61:2,8) The Messiah for whom John prepared Israel was he who challenged the corruption and structures of the time, turned over the tables of the money-changers in the Temple, released people from debt through forgiveness not extortion; if we do or enable likewise, we offer new beginnings and new opportunities for those living in the wilderness of social injustice and exclusion, the hope of Christ.

We know we need to Comfort those who mourn not just the death of a loved one, but the loss of mobility and companionship, providing practical support as well as a hug or a kind word (Is 61:2-3).

We also seek Beauty (Is 61:3) not only in God’s creation but among the ashes of people’s broken lives when they’ve become the shell of the person they once were because of the wilderness of their lives and yet are loved, as they are, by God.

God calls us to find opportunities for Praise and Joy (Is 61:3) among the ashes of our lives as well as that of others; the things for which we are thankful, friends, family, our faith in Jesus.

These are jigsaw pieces of living out our faith with which we are called to Build Up and Renew (Is 61:4) not just our church and local community, but the nations of the world. If we do not speak for freedom, justice and healing in the name of Jesus, to those in authority, how can God’s love be seen and heard?

John came and Baptised with water (John 1:26), but now through faith in Jesus, the forgiveness he offered, and the power of the Holy Spirit which enabled both the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus the Messiah, we baptise people into the body of Christ, the church, the means by which we seek to Serve Jesus, in all these ways even though we are not worthy so much as untie even his laces (John 1:27).      (Thank you).

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The jigsaw pieces that take us on a journey towards Jesus.

After we have remembered, recognised and received Christ the Servant-Messiah who stands among us in our Holy Communion this morning, we will use our jigsaw pieces with the children to make a straight path. It will serve to remind us that though we may feel we live in a spiritual wilderness, we have the jigsaw pieces of our faith, ready at our disposal to create a clear path out. The key is to remember where those pieces come from, the God from whom they come, the Messiah toward whom they point, and to seek the opportunities for new beginnings, that will show the world who we are as Christians.

During the notices, before the final hymn: I got the children to collect in the jig-saw pieces and work out how to lay them, making a straight path, pointing to the Joseph and Mary journeying to Bethlehem (in the Lord’s Table).

Tuning-in to God – Matthew 13 v1-9 and 18-23 Romans 8 v1-11

TMS wavelengths
Tuning in can be difficult and once we’ve found the right frequency, what we hear can be difficult to listen to and/or accept! (As true for divine guidance as cricket!!)

 

I have spent much of this last few weeks listening.

In the last week I’ve spent a few concentrated days fulfilling a long-standing commitment to take an annual personal retreat. I have sat in warm, dry surroundings and listened to the sound of rain on a flat roof, and then the creak the next day as the sun warms and dries the wooden construction – listening to the same building respond to the changes in the weather. I’ve also tried to listen to what God is saying in and to my life, and my ministry; why it is I am with you for the next few months, and what that might mean for you, and me; how might it grow us? This sort of spiritual listening is not just something to do one week a year, but something that I try to do all the time, it’s just easier to reflect on the big picture when you take a concentrated run at it!

In the last few weeks, I’ve also been trying to listen to what God has done, and is doing, through you. You as individuals, and you as a church, a community working together to extend his Kingdom on earth. It is helping me to discover who you are, what it is that makes you tick and gives you life and growth, and where there may perhaps be stuff that is making life difficult, and growth limited. It is about listening as a third party observer to what God is doing through the pattern of your lives, and it too is an ongoing process.

Much of all this listening is about tuning in to what God is telling us through the practicalities and problems of our everyday lives, the typical issues that we face. Tuning in to what God is saying can be tough, not least because the noise of the many things that have calls on our time and energy constantly try to crowd him out. We have to remember we’re not using a nice modern DAB radio, giving us crystal clear reception at the press of a button. It’s a bit more like good old analogue which requires much twiddling to get a clear reception, especially if we’re on longwave trying to tune in to the cricket commentary! Sometimes, as with that image, God uses the very ordinary things with which we interact regularly, to speak to us… if only we’re tuned in.

In our Gospel today, Jesus is using ordinary, every day imagery with which his listeners would have been very familiar, to explain to them the part they are called to play in the Kingdom of God. Unlike us, they were used to the imagery of someone walking a field, sowing the seed corn by hand. They’d have known that whilst the field would have been roughly ploughed and prepared, such a distribution method meant that some seed would fall prey to the birds, shrivel among the rocks, or be shaded out by weeds, rather than grow to productivity. But knowing something is true is one thing, but understanding that it might have spiritual significance is another, which is why Jesus said, ‘the one having ears, let them hear’. Were they really listening, had they really tuned in to what Jesus was saying about their specific role in the kingdom of God?

Hearing spiritually is related to the concept of deep listening. Deep listening is the idea that we listen with compassion, hearing not just what is said, but how it is said; recognising what needs to be said, and knowing how it might best be expressed to be heard. We listen to understand and we listen with intention, specifically the intention to act appropriately based on what we have heard. In other words, to open one’s ears is to open one’s heart, to the person speaking and to God, at one and the same time. Jesus the teacher, is ending the parable by telling the crowd to listen not only to understand, but also to act on the teaching, to obey, and in this particular case by obeying, participate in the manifestation of God’s kingdom on the earth.

As Christians, we can do this multi-tasking mode of listening, because we have the power of God working in us, the Holy Spirit. It is this that Paul is referring to in the passage from Romans this morning, when he compares the focus of those who are concerned purely with matters of the ‘flesh’ and ‘sin’ with those whose focus is matters of the ‘spirit’. Through God’s grace, we are gifted this ability to discern and focus on God’s concern for the world and his desire that we might all know life and peace, but it requires continual practice on our part to stay tuned to God’s frequency.

The Holy Spirit runs on a frequency that can be counter cultural and prophetic, to the life of the church, and/or to the way the world hears itself. As Christians we need to listen to each other’s joys and pains, fears, aspirations, and experiences – as individuals and corporately as a church. We need to do so with compassion and honesty, and with ears tuned to what God is saying to us, so that we can know whether, and if so how, we can contribute positively with guidance, healing or hope. It might be a personal contribution to the problems being faced by particular members of the fellowship, or it might be wisdom that helps us work out the direction and focus of mission in this church. It may require us to do something extra. It may actually need us to do less of something. By doing this spiritual listening, our journey with God becomes a life-giving adventure to extend his kingdom, reaching out to others in ways in which they will recognise as inspired by our love of Jesus, and his love of them.

Often when God is trying to speak directly to us about our own lives, he will do so through what we might describe as intuition. We have to respond positively for anything creative to come of what might be called a ‘holy hunch’. Sometimes we may need to create some space, some silence even, to listen prayerfully to our own experiences, or we may need to be patient wait for the pieces of a jigsaw to fit together as we discern the way forward in a complex situation. But I can also give testimony to the fact that it can be a moment’s sudden realisation that something spiritually significant has just been either said or done, and it’s in the moving forward with that promise that our lives are changed by God.

My listening here at St. Mary’s so far has suggested several things, but I’m not going to share all of them with you this morning. There is a need to be ready to listen corporately, and honestly, in the months after the new vicar arrives, to where and how God wants his kingdom extended in Eversley, in Derby Green and further afield – and to how that dynamic is going to work. But another thing that has struck me, is that for some people, consciously making space for some personal holy listening to God could be helpful. I’m no expert, but I’d be happy to use this book that’s been helping me, to facilitate others to do that too, so do chat to me later, or when I’m back off holiday, if that’s the case, and we may be able to create some plans for the autumn.

The law that brings life, is ruled by the compassion and love of God, and the mechanism for making that compassion and love available both to ourselves and to others, is our belief in the work of the Holy Spirit. Our task is to tune in to what it is saying to us, a process that requires us to be open-minded to this grace-filled gift in the ordinary occurrences of our life, and open-hearted to the needs of others. So, anyone with ears, let them hear.

 

 

 

 

Cutting out the canker – Romans 15:4-13 and Matthew 3:1-12 #Advent2

 

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The remaining, canker free, fruit trees in my garden – from which the birds are largely benefiting at present!

I’m still on placement in the North Hampshire Downs, and was blessed today by a stunning run between the villages, scattering Redwings and other thrushes to the four winds, and narrowly avoiding a flock of Partridge who had less concept of what wings are for! The less said about People In Lycra On Cycles the better.

On the liturgical front, celebrating Holy Communion in a rural church (Tunworth) lit largely by candles was lovely, though with no heating I breathed ‘smoke’ through the whole service and found my hands frozen by the silverware at the altar – all of which made the warm cup of tea provided from an urn in the open church porch much appreciated! At least at the second service (in Greywell), the Eucharistic Prayer was not accompanied by a loud quacking from the river that runs past the churchyard… this time 😉

Some might say as a trainee on secondment I should have pulled the punch that this week’s Advent Gospel packed, but there has to be an integrity with the season, and why should those living among parishes in vacancy not be challenged to consider how they may be being called to consider how God might be calling them to change their ways, just as he calls me to change mine as I write?

 

When we moved to Yateley about 18 years ago, there were 4 fruit trees in the garden. An apple, a Conference pear, a plum tree and a cherry. It is a small garden, but the intention was to keep them all; we are big fans of fresh, home-grown produce.

But within the first 12 months, it became abundantly clear that the plum and the cherry had canker; areas of damage to the bark that at times oozed a nasty brown slime. They were the two smaller, weaker trees, and unsurprisingly they produced no fruit. Since the canker was in the main stem, we couldn’t simply remove an infected branch, as the fungal infection that causes canker would have remained.

We cut them down to ground level, treated the stumps with something so that we didn’t get sucker growth from the roots, and took the stems away to the tip, since bonfires aren’t allowed in our neighbourhood. We didn’t want the infection getting into our compost heaps or otherwise spreading through the garden. The apple and pear have survived, and after a good frost-free flowering period, bear a good crop of fruit.

In our Gospel reading this morning, John the Baptist is effectively likening the Pharisees and Sadducees, the spiritual leaders of their community, to a canker infection in a tree that needs to be cut out and thrown on the fire. The canker itself is the overwhelming arrogance and pride that the Jewish elite took in their inherited relationship with God, forgetting that their God is the maker, creator and hope of all things and all people, the Gentiles included as our Epistle highlights.

Ordinary people were flocking to John the Baptist in their hundreds to receive baptism in the river Jordan. They knew from their scriptures that the Prophets had said that God would come back to his people, when they repented. So people came in droves to repent. Confessing their sins, they were baptised with water in Jordon; not just a symbolic cleansing of individuals, but God doing a new thing in history as they went through the Jordan a second time, 1000 years after the Exodus.

God’s defeat of all evil and the establishment of his kingdom on earth as in heaven, is proclaimed by their actions as imminent. It was the beginning of a true repentance at the heart of ordinary people, that wasn’t just sorry for the day-to-day things they had done wrong, but would be life changing for those who recognised the one who would come immediately after John: the Messiah, the new King of the Jews, the inaugurator of God’s new Kingdom. His roots might be in the House of David of whom Jesse was the father, but this new Kingdom wasn’t just for Israel but for the whole world.

Of course, when the spiritual leaders of Israel sussed what was happening, they didn’t want to miss out on the excitement and anticipation that ordinary Jews were experiencing; but they were met with a very different reception. Not for them the immediate new life and forgiveness symbolised in the waters of baptism. John you see knew that at the heart of their presence was pride in their own status, and the ancestry of the Jewish people as a whole; a purity which they sought to protect.

John prepared the way for Jesus coming, knowing that God really is God; God isn’t simply a kind, indulgent parent who seeks to gently correct his children. Jesus would balance his mission of forgiveness, healing and comfort, with the solemn and stern news that when the Kingdom of God is completely fulfilled, God will demand complete allegiance. In Gospel of St. John we hear Jesus say, “I am the Real Vine and my Father… cuts off every branch of me that doesn’t bear grapes…” (John 15:1-2 MSG). The vine does not even need to be suffering from canker to find itself pruned hard so that it bears fruit!

The spiritual leaders needed to have that made very clear to them, right from the start, and that was part of John’s role. They would find that the easy way to avoid being cut out and thrown on the fire would be to show they were fruitful trees, not hidebound by pride to their traditional rules, regulations and arguments around those bits of scripture they found convenient. In urging harmony between early Christians rooted in both Jewish and Gentile cultures and spiritualities, St. Paul uses our Epistle this morning to takes us back with them to the Old Testament prophesies that not only Israel, but all nations are summonsed to worship, submit to and praise God.

In this Advent season of preparation, we remember today that John the Baptist was the last of the Old Testament prophets even though we encounter him in the New Testament. We also anticipate both our remembrance of God’s incarnation as an ordinary baby in a manger, and the completion of the Kingdom of God at Jesus’ coming again. Binding those ideas together today is John’s challenge to the traditional spiritual leaders of his time echoing forward into our own church congregations who are called to be the spiritual leaders of our own generation, taking our part in the coming of God’s Kingdom. It is a call to take a long hard look at ourselves, individually and collectively, and identify where there might be a certain unhealthy pride in our lifestyle, our roots in and attitudes toward others in the community in which we live, or the practices with which we prefer to manifest our faith.

Before we flock to Jesus for the annual ‘love-in’ at the manger this Christmas, we need to look at where we need to accept God’s challenge and judgement in our own lives, through the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom 15:13). Where is there canker in our lives that needs to be cut out? What in our lives are we being summoned to repent of? It’s not just about being sorry because we can’t seem to help ourselves from making mistakes, but consciously setting aside that which inhibits our ability to share the love of God with others.

The collect that accompanies our Advent wreath today says that Jesus is the incarnation of God’s ‘power’ and ‘love’. Peace should flow from the birth of our Saviour Jesus Christ out through those of us who believe not just in his birth, but the truth of his crucifixion and resurrection too. But it will only come from us understanding that this peace with God and with our neighbour, stems from accepting and responding to both the ‘love’ and the ‘power’ of God visible in that incarnation; the balance between healing from God and obedient allegiance to God. The peace of God, which is part of the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5) in our lives, will only be seen when the canker of pride and arrogance that makes us think we don’t need to change anything, has been well and truly cut out, and placed on the fire for God’s disposal.

Collect for the Advent Wreath: Advent 2

God our Father,
you spoke to the prophets of old
of a Saviour who would bring peace.
You helped them to spread the joyful message
of his coming kingdom.
Help us, as we prepare to celebrate his birth,
to share with those around us
the good news of your power and love.
We ask this through Jesus Christ,
the light who is coming into the world.
Amen.

Refiners Fire – burning away the ‘slag’ (Zeph 3:14-end, Phil 4:4-7 and Luke 3:7-18)

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All Saints, Minstead (viewed from the south near the final resting place of Conan Doyle) – yes, there are 5 bells in that little tower!

Once upon a time I was the youngest campanologist in the county. We had three bells in All Saints Church, Minstead, but there’s not much that you can do with three – the mathematical patterns that make up a peel of bells, are a little on the short side with three. Five is a much more interesting number, and research showed that we could fit five in the bell frame without the tower itself being shaken to pieces. So two new bells were commissioned, the old ones removed to be retuned, then all five re-hung – all done with one expert and parish people power, including a nine year old ‘doing as she was told, and staying out the way for the dangerous bits’!

As part of all this activity I had the opportunity to watch bells being cast in the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. It was a hot summer’s day, but I was clothed in good 1970s tweed trousers for protection and stood in the corner of the foundry floor as the metal was heated, and the impurities scrapped off the top so that the hot copper alloy could be poured into a hand-crafted bell mould. It was amazing to watch, and a privilege to ring the precisely tuned finished articles; the bells proclaiming peace and thanksgiving in worship, a community rejoicing in fine craftsmanship and singing out a song of praise to God.

“Rejoice”, in Latin “Gaudete”, the opening word of our reading from Philippians, a connection to this week’s lightening of the Advent mood of preparation, our rose candle and our robes. “Rejoice”, in modern parlance is about a sense of joy welling up inside people, fairly private except for the smile to the face; the sort of blooming look that comes with news of a long awaited pregnancy. In St. Paul’s day, “rejoice” was a word used to describe a public celebration, exuberance tempered with the need to be gentle and gracious toward less extrovert souls – more like change ringing when the pattern of notes moves only on command, rather than with every beat of a full peal.

There is a tension here that sits well with this mid-point in our preparations to celebrate the birth of Christ, sat here as we are, surrounded by scenes of his nativity in our Crib Festival. At the time of John the Baptist’s prophetic ministry that we focus on through today’s Gospel, devout Jews were waiting for a “new word from God”, and eager to place their hope in the presence of a fiery young prophet going about the Galilean villages! Might he be the long awaited Messiah?

But John was only tolling a single bell, proclaiming the steady sound of justice and the need for repentance, a wake-up call for those who would go on to hear the message of his cousin Jesus, the thongs of whose sandals he felt unworthy to untie. John would have grown up with the story of his cousin’s nativity just like we have, but as perfectly-tuned to God’s message for his people as any Old Testament prophet, he was well aware that when the Messiah’s mission on earth was made fully known, it would come with the sound of the axe felling the trees that bore no fruit, burning the resulting timber as waste.

John offered on the banks of the Jordon, the baptism of repentance, God’s power like water washing people clean. Yet, here he is proclaiming the baptism of burning fire that the Messiah would bring, drawing out through the power of the Holy Spirit, the impurities hidden within people’s lives. We may struggle to understand the difference, but if we consider for a moment, we’ll recognise that there is a vast difference between wanting to change the destructive habits of our lives and, dare I say it, make sensible New Year’s resolutions, and actually being changed inside of ourselves, so that it is impossible to return to old habits. It is a painful process.

The image of the bell foundry can help us understand what God wants to do here. As the copper and tin is melted in the furnace to temperatures resembling that to be found in a volcano, the impurities known as ‘slag’ rise to the surface – blackened waste material that is scrapped away, the last remnants of which are held back as the bell is cast. Here is a picture of the process of fire and the Holy Spirit at work in our lives that should be as much a part of the work of Christ in our lives as is the baby in the manger. If we are to ring true to his Gospel in our own lives, there will be ‘slag’ in each of us that needs burning to the surface and scraping away. Our hope of a Saviour for the world must come with the realistic expectation that we ourselves may need to be radically changed into what God wants us to be.

Zephaniah’s prophetic psalm of salvation that is this morning’s Old Testament reading [and I do encourage you to read it], is summoning God’s people to sing, shout and joyfully exult because of God’s presence in the midst of them, rejoicing like the clarion call of bells. It was the sort of prophesy that led to the expectation of a heroic Saviour from oppression and suffering. Yet its’ fulfilment came as the baby we now place in our crib scenes, the saving power of whom would be the refiners fire of judgement and justice, drawing us into a greater awareness of his presence, a sense of the calling to what we call holiness.

Church bells gather God’s people into the holiness of our worship of him, whether that is in the form of a peal of bells, the tempered rejoicing of a slowly changing pattern of life, or a single tolled clarion call to hasten into our place before him. They only do so after the refining process of the furnace has removed the impurities so that their call can be clear and true to the tuned pitch required by the master craftsman. God is our master craftsman. If we are to ring out a tuneful call for others to share in our rejoicing this Christmas and on into the future, we must first come into his presence in humility, seeking to understand what it is in our lives that needs to be burnt away.

Pavane for the Resurrected Lord – on my ordination as Priest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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