Opening windows – Mark 1:9-15

 

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At the start of the service we explored what lay behind the windows of this cute picture of an Easter Bunny – my take on a Lent calendar

Last Sunday was the first in Lent, and time for a change of focus towards the Easter story and all that scripture challenges us with as we explore who Jesus is and what he came to do.

Many of us, old and young, still enjoy an advent calendar, opening the windows that tell the Christmas story, creating a sense of anticipation as we move closer to the festivities, perhaps consuming chocolate along the way, or enjoying cute pictures of candles, angels, an ox or a donkey.

Lent is a similar season liturgically.

  • I’m wearing the same purple stole, though with different symbols on it (because it’s reversible).
  • We are preparing for a great Christian festival, which we celebrate with much joy, and more chocolate.
  • But we don’t have Lent calendars in the same way. It would, after all be difficult to fit 40 windows across a picture at a scale sensible enough to be propped on the average mantlepiece (I struggled enough making 5 windows on one for the children).
  • There’s also the idea of fasting, as Jesus was forced to do in the desert, so even if we’re not abstaining completely, chocolate’s out, until we get to Easter.
  • The only animals that feature are wild beasts of the desert like jackals and snakes; no cute animals here, even if there are angels.
  • The story that leads to Easter day isn’t so cheerful either: Jesus, the baby in the manger, God made man, dies.
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Behind the Easter Bunny was the story of Holy Week… I couldn’t create a window for every day of Lent!

The idea of Lent is not to generate the sense of excitement and anticipation of Advent, but to enable Jesus to prize or tear open windows into our hearts that let God in. Through scripture, prayer, study, silence, reflection and repentance, we ask God to open windows into our lives and faith that help us understand the significance of who Jesus is and what he did through the cross and resurrection, so that we can encounter God afresh, and understand that his kingdom has in fact come near.

For Lent, my husband Graham is doing something he’s run for a couple of years now; hosting an online Lent Book Club through his blog, Facebook and Twitter. Anyone can join in if they’re social media inclined. There are some people with whom he interacts who are long-standing personal friends; some we only know through their on-line presence; several who struggle to articulate their Christian faith; some who have been damaged by ill-health or by church communities who have excluded them; some who have been faithful committed Christians all their lives and are now house-bound, struggling to find fellowship; and some with family or work commitments that make them recognise they need to take time out with God. By sharing in the Lent Book Club, all are opening windows for each other that let God in.

This year they, we, are using Janet Morley’s book “The Heart’s Time”, a book that uses poetry – religious, semi-religious and otherwise – to open up our hearts to God’s Kingdom, to scripture, to the work of the Spirit. In her introduction she writes

“Poetry makes us slow down… explore hard subjects head-on… uses irony, doubt, humour and idiosyncratic perspectives [in a way that our church liturgy doesn’t]… [allows readers] to appreciate different layers of meaning…in which each reader finds their own interpretation,… [and] examines the familiar… in a way that becomes newly strange.”

The first poem she uses to introduce the relationship between Lent and poetry is “The Bright Field” by R.S. Thomas, the famous Welsh priest-poet. It describes the relationship between a brief glimpse of sunshine through clouds on a showery day, and our own faith journeys. If, as is so often the case, we forget our brief glimpses of God’s beauty, the hope, mercy, light and fire of his love, then we are ignoring, even dismissing, the promise of the Kingdom of God.

God, in our fast-paced, news-packed, headline-filled Gospel from Mark this morning, where each story could be packed into the now 280 characters of a Tweet, is tearing open the windows of the Kingdom of God, and letting the brief shafts of light highlight who Jesus is, and what he has come to do for us.

At his baptism, in the form of a dove as well as through the voice of God, the window opens to reveal Jesus as God’s son, whose obedience is deeply please to his adoring Father. Jesus is the Messiah of manger-fame, the anointed one, God on the move. But in that Sonship, in language used by Mark only in relation to Jesus’ crucifixion, in the imagery of death and resurrection found in baptism, Jesus is also shown to be our Saviour, the one who will die and rise again, to remake our relationship with God.

In the wilderness to which the Holy Spirit then propels Jesus, the window opens to focus our attention on the paradox that Jesus is both God and man, and therefore subject to the adversaries and adversities of life, signified in scripture though their personification as Satan. Perhaps we know only too well that any period of temptation and the pressure to do other than what God desires feels like a life-time, and the outcome is always uncertain. But for Mark, the outcome for Jesus is so obvious it doesn’t warrant a mention, because other windows, shafts of healing and hope, will show Jesus’ authority over the unclean spirits that oppress this world, and we who inhabit it.

As Jesus moves out into the villages of Galilee, he opens a third window on this new Kingdom by sensing that John-the-Baptist’s ministry is complete so that now his work, and the proclamation of its purpose, has just begun. The time to fulfil all that was promised by his birth and baptism has come; in him and through him, God made man, the Kingdom of God has come near.

  • What new windows of understandings to who God reveals himself to be in Jesus are we hoping to tear open this Lent?
  • Or do we need to stop and be observant long enough for God to break open a new encounter with him?
  • Are there brief glimpses of the promises of his Kingdom that we run the risk of missing if we don’t keep some sort of Lenten obedience, commitment or devotional practice?

Now is a good time to stop, find new windows on what God is wanting us to do in our lives, and not to walk past and promptly forget the light that shines in, but stop and reflect, take them seriously, and be changed by them. Un-shuttered windows may open on an amazing vista of hope that we hadn’t otherwise considered, or let in a fresh breeze that blows away the cobwebs of doubt or despair. The glass of a window-pane may help keep out the wild animals of a life-style or thought-world that is prone to savaging us if we don’t keep alert, or if the angle of light is just right, form a mirror in which we see ourselves as God sees us, flawed, and yet his special, precious adored child.

Because that is what lies at the heart of Jesus proclaiming that the Kingdom of God has come near to you, and me. We, like Jesus, are his beloved children, and with us he will be well pleased, if in Christ-like obedience we commit ourselves whole-heartedly to the work of tearing open new windows between our lives and God’s and allowing the Holy Spirit to flow through them shining the light of Jesus into the places that only he can reach. We are seeking to know God and his Kingdom better and better each day, so we need to be looking as hard as we would for a hidden treasure or a lost heirloom, and expect to be changed by what we discover.

There are many ways in which we can open the windows of God’s Kingdom into our lives this Lent, and doing a Lenten study, either privately, in a local community like a Life Group, or even in an online context, is one way. It doesn’t have to be via reading poetry either, there are many other study guides. At our Pancake Party at St. Peter’s and at the Ash Wednesday service, Rev’d Lerys gave out different sorts of guides (including #LiveLent daily readings from the Archbishops) to help us engage creatively in opening windows on what God is trying to do with and for us in Jesus.

‘The Bright Field’ by RS Thomas

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price,
the one field that had
treasure in. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
and imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

 

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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).

On being candle wax – Isaiah 64:1-9 Mark 13:24-end #Advent2017

Sunday marked the Christian ‘new year’, or Advent as we prefer to call it. It was also my second trip to preach and celebrate Holy Communion at St. Barnabas Darby Green. I may have used candles in my illustrations; including tapers there were technically four of them (Two Ronnies sketch here, if you really must). The opening of the audio version of the sermon refers to the incumbent, Rev’d Lerys Campbell, who has a snazzy, home made, Advent stole with four candles, to which he can add a flame each week of Advent… I’m not jealous, honest!

It’s strange how God speaks through us; personally, on reflection, I thought this illustration poor, and the sermon disjointed, but still it appeared to speak to people. Always humbling.

 

Hopefully at some point in our lives, we’ve all held a candle. I mean the real deal (picking up one, and lighting it), not a flame of unrequited love 😉

If we’ve held a Christingle candle, taken part in a candlelit Carol or Candlemas Service, or become a Godparent and held a child’s baptism candle, the chances are we’ve watched the wax melt, and discovered that as it trickles down the candle, it can trickle through the slits of the candle holder onto the back of our hands. Very often the nature of the service means we can do little about it, except perhaps blow the candle out prematurely if it becomes too painful. We’ll also know that as the wax cools, it mounds itself to the shape of our hands, so that when we flex afterwards, it cracks and peels off.

Many of us are well used to the symbolism of a candle flame representing Jesus, ‘the light who is coming into the world’; the season of Advent at the start of the new Christian year brings that symbolism sharply into focus.

A candle flame comes from a burning wick, something that is capable of burning with little or no wax, as we find with our church tapers (light taper, let it flame); the light burns large & faster almost that wick is consumed (blow it out).

Of course at home, we quite possibly use fat pillar candles to create a romantic or relaxing effect (light a pillar candle, leave it to burn), and with them the quantity of wax and the time it takes to melt, slows the rate of burn, helping the candle to last longer. Indeed there is often spare wax that isn’t burnt away, and the flame sinks to be hidden in a tunnel, until we come along with a sharp knife to carve it away, a job done most easily when the candle has just been extinguished and the wax is soft.

We focus so much on the light, and give little thought to the wax, it’s role or purpose, the symbolism we can usefully assign to it. So this morning I want to suggest that WE are the wax that is being melted by the candle flame of Christ ‘the light of the world’, when we let the Holy Spirit burn through us, melting us, moulding and changing us.

This first Sunday in Advent we are focusing on hope, the light of hope that exists in the darkness of our lives, the things we do wrong, the mistakes we make, the ‘hopeless’ scenarios of our existence that pertain to the terminal illness of a loved one, or uncertainty over a job, or welfare payments. What we are looking for is hope in a God of new beginnings, who is faithful to his promise that he will be with us in such darkness, and in his ultimate desire to create a new heaven and a new earth, in which are right with him, or as we might say, righteous.

Our Old Testament and Gospel readings this morning, are full of reminders of the mistakes the world, and often we God’s people, have made or are in danger of making.

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    “Are we so far from the light of Christ, that he can’t mold us and form us so we stand firm in his love and faithfulness?”
  • In Is 64:6, Israel, was recognised by God’s prophets as being like a soiled and dirty cloth that has hardened dry, and which can no longer be used. And it is likened to a faded autumn leaf that is easily blown away. Both the cloth and the leaf have become brittle, hard and useless, like the dribbles of wax we pick off a candle, or our hand, when they’ve gone cold (pick some off a ‘pre-dribbled’ candle). Are we so soiled by the world we’ve become brittle and useless?
  • In Mark 13:35-36, Jesus’ hearers are reminded that as servants of God, they need to stay awake, to recognise when it is that their master is coming. In both passages there is a sense of distance between God’s people and his eternal presence, a hidden-ness that Israel saw as God turning his face from them. If we keep the wax base of a candle away from the taper’s flame, it remains hard, and cannot be melted to mold itself to a candle holder (demonstrate – see above). Are we so far from the light of Christ, that he can’t mold us and form us so we stand firm in his love and faithfulness?
  • Even when Jesus quotes from Daniel 7 in reference to himself as the ‘Son of Man coming in the clouds’, it is a reference not so much to the hoped-for Second Coming when God will draw heaven and earth together as one in his presence, but to Jesus’s own ‘coming’ to God after his suffering, in his resurrection and ascension. It is also about God’s judgement on the spiritual system that had corrupted Israel’s worship both in the Temple and the voices of it’s religious leaders. The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in AD 70, is in large part the consequence of these things that Jesus is anticipating in Mark 13. Like the extraneous wax in a pillar candle too large for the wick around which it is built, have we or the organisations of our world, built a pride and arrogance into our lifestyles, businesses and political structures such that they hide the Christ-light of the Christians within them, and thus need tearing down? (Carve a lump out the pillar candle.)

These illustrations are a reminder instead that God’s people down the ages have had an uncanny habit of making themselves blind to God’s presence, to God’s will for their lives, to God’s purposes in the world. It was not God that turned away, despite his judgement on Israel’s sins, but their sin, and the sin of their leaders that created a barrier between them and God. If we’re honest, we do it too; hopelessness is not an absence of God, but an absence of our ability to see God. That’s why we need the light; it’s why the world needed, and still needs, Jesus.

As Isaiah explains, the hope we crave is in God’s faithfulness despite we continue to do to make him feel distant, and blame him for the wrongs we encounter in the world. The prophet’s petition is ‘Do not be exceedingly angry with us Lord, do not remember our sins, our iniquities” (Is 64:9).

  • Instead we are to remember, that the God of Israel did awesome deeds throughout their history that they didn’t expect (Is 42:3), not least in their Exodus out of Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, their coming to the promised land. It is important to recount what God has already done in our lives too, for there in his faithfulness is the light of hope.
  • Instead we are to remember that our creator God who brought Jesus into the world to release us from our sins, is the same creator God who brings new life to the fig (Mark 13:28) and other trees each spring. It is important to see the new beginnings of God in creation and in our lives and treasure them, for there is the light of hope.
  • Instead we are to remember, that God meets with each of us who seeks to do right, and who remembers that God’s ways (Is 64:5) are frequently not the ways of the world. It is important that we are obedient to God’s teachings, his healing touch, his justice, which we recognise in Jesus; for in them is the light of hope.

As we go though Advent, perhaps with a candle burning at home each day (show and light our Advent candle from home), as well as on our wreath here each Sunday (point to the church Advent candle), let us consider that if we are the wax of a candle, we need to be in the right proximity to the light of Christ, so that we are heated, molded, melted and changed in such a positive way that in his name, we become clear beacons of light and hope in the world.

Thanks to Grahart who’s blogging his way through Advent with the AdventBookClub2017 and Magdalen Smith’s ‘Unearthly Beauty’ for the photos, and to Liz our lovely prayerful local florist who is selling up to retire at Christmas, and from whom I got the instant prop-table!

 

Be heroes of hope – Matthew 9:35-10:8 and Romans 5:1-8

Today has been the last time for the foreseeable future in which I will support the North Hampshire Downs Benefice before my deployment to Eversley. All ‘lasts’ are tough, but after a week visiting the battlefields of Flanders to a backdrop of news coverage from the UK of the horrors at Grenfell Tower, it has felt especially difficult to find words appropriate to the moment.

My thanks to the congregations of All Saints Odiham, and All Saints Tunworth for their usual warm welcome. I will miss my itinerant ministry as I go forward to a new phase of ministry. 

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Poppies of Remembrance in The Upper Room of Talbot House, Poperinge, Flanders, Belgium

The poppies are flowering among the fields of Flanders. No longer do they inhabit the acres of muddy ground strewn with the debris of battles only recently silenced, but instead they have been pushed to the field margins, replaced by neat rows of potatoes, flowering profusely in the summer sun like the pristine white tombstones of the Commonwealth War Graves they surround. Just as the debris of battle is now largely pushed beneath the soil only to be unearthed by deliberate excavation, the poppies have been sidelined – the now traditional image of blood and sacrifice more profuse in museums and merchandise than they are in the fields where initially they covered the death and detritus of war.

I have spent the majority of this week in Flanders, staying at Talbot House, better known as TocH, the chaplaincy and “Every Man’s Club” that lay in Poperinge, behind the ‘allied’ trenches in World War I. Designed as a study tour focusing on ‘peace and reconciliation’, it became for me a pilgrimage as I retraced in part, the steps my great-uncle trod with the Royal Warwickshire Regiment over the Messines Ridge in 1917 and again, this time in retreat, in 1918. Yet, standing on Thursday, watching the dragonflies dance over the pristine white lilies in the Pool of Peace that now fills one of the 19 mine craters whose explosion was the opening salvo of the 1917 offensive, I was only too well aware that the scene 100 years before would have been in as stark a contrast as, say, a burning tower block against a night sky.

The Rev’d ‘Tubby’ Clayton, the resident chaplain of TocH, was a man whose response to the horrors and suffering of trench warfare was at least two-fold. Firstly, he highlighted and celebrated the equality that lies between all people before God and between each other, for as the sign still reads over his door, “all rank abandon, ye who enter here”. Christ, the kingdom of God come near, died for all, no less for the Private, than for the Major or the General, and called as disciples Matthew the tax-collector to work alongside Peter, James and John the fishermen, who came together in proclaiming the kingdom.

‘Tubby’, also travelled among the “harassed and helpless” men in front line units, bringing with compassion the strength that comes through making visible the grace of God, and with it hope that in enduring their suffering they would come to a better place, in this life or the next. In the front-line confirmation classes and the prayers, this shepherd reminded the sheep that not only was Jesus standing with them in their suffering, but was present in their daily acts of heroism and survival among the horror they endured.

Today, rather than staggering through the mud and gunfire of Flanders, the “sombre national mood” (to quote HM The Queen) reels from the horrors of another seemingly random terrorist atrocity, followed all too closely by the even greater devastation of a towering inferno of sub-standard housing. Where I wonder are the poppies? Have they been sidelined to the field-edges of our consciousness, our yearning for the cost-effective productivity of ordered lives pushing aside our awareness of the inequalities that lead to unnecessary deaths? Where I wonder is the peace that grows like lilies on a pool, only when the violence stops?

The world needs more men and women like ‘Tubby’ Clayton, who with gentle good humour and the warmest of welcomes, can highlight the need for equality and the call to share equally in God’s kingdom building. His work continued through the foundation of the TocH communities around the world, and their focus on fairness, friendship, service to others and to the Kingdom of God, as well as the rebuilding of a church and community at All Hallows’ by the Tower after the horrors of a Second World War.

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‘Pool of Peace’, Spanbroekmolen Crater, Messines Ridge, Flanders, Belgium

When the debris of the initial horrors of the Manchester Arena, London Bridge, and Grenfell Tower have been sanitised and tidied away, we need to make sure our memories of the issues that caused each are not sidelined like so many poppies in the edge of a Flanders field. We are called as disciples of Jesus to remember that whilst we may first share the grace of God close at hand among our own communities, we are sent through the power of the Holy Spirit, to support, or even be, the heroes who offer hope, who speak and stand for equality among all people, equality of life, not simply in death.

Let us not wait for the enquiries and recriminations to cease before looking at the gaping holes created by the mine-field of social deprivation and the self-serving isolation, before realising that we are called be Christ on the front-line of our communities, so that through faith and endurance where we find it hardest to face what we encounter, we contribute to a pool of peace that will be the harvest of hope restored, not just to our land, but to the world.

Prayers for #Remembrance Day based around a sonnet by Malcolm Guite

I have been asked to do the prayers for the Remembrance Day service in one church of the parish in which I have recently started a two month placement. In an effort to both step away from standard forms of published prayers, and to feed my own need for creativity, I have written the following. The words of intercession are wrapped around the words of a sonnet written by the well-known poet-priest Malcolm Guite (published in his book ‘Sounding the Seasons’,) and conclude with more formal words from the Church of England’s, ‘New Patterns for Worship’.

I hope Malcolm will forgive me if he’s not sure his sonnet should have been used this way, or if my words don’t live up to his wordsmithery. I also hope that the parish in which they will be spoken can relate them their own feelings and emotions in the silences that will be offered, and that you, if you have need, might feel free to make use of them. [If you do, please let me know when and where via the ‘comments’ facility.]

 

 


November pierces with its bleak remembrance

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Photograph by Graham Hartland from the Devonshire monument near Theipval, France, reminding us not only that this is 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, but that the Jews whose kin would die at the hands of the Nazis in the Second World War faught as an integral part of the Allied Forces in the First!

Of all the bitterness and waste of war;
Our silence tries but fails to make a semblance
Of that lost peace they thought worth fighting for.

Lord God, as we remember with gratitude
the fallen of generations past,
The faces and wounds of those
still very much present in our living memory;
We beseech you again
as heirs of a conflicted humanity,
for that peace which passes all understanding,
And the faith that trusts in your unfailing love.

[Silence]

Our silence seethes instead with wraiths and whispers
And all the restless rumour of new wars,
For shells are falling all around our vespers,
No moment is unscarred, there is no pause.

Jesus Christ, who spoke calm to the storm,
Healing to the diseased and lame
And the assurance of a future to the hopeless;
Make your voice heard by the leaders of all nations and peoples,
That they, with us,
might act with true justice,
Love mercy,
and walk humbly with you our God.

[Silence]

In every instant bloodied innocence
Falls to the weary earth, and whilst we stand
Quiescence ends in acquiescence,
And Abel’s blood still cries from every land.

Holy Spirit who stirs our hearts to compassion
In flickering images
That flow with the blood of careless inhumanity;
Let the sparks of our inadequacy and frustration,
Be ignited into the flames of action,
That together we might be prepared to be
Your answer to our fervent prayers.

[Silence]

One silence only might redeem that blood;
Only the silence of a dying God.

Blessed Trinity, who reached into your broken world,
Through the redeeming power of the cross and resurrection
To break the power of darkness;
In your endless grace,
Work in us to restore the knowledge that silence
contains not the seeds of apathy,
nor the truth of lies,
But the fruit of your Kingdom come,
And the hope of eternal life.

[Silence]

In darkness and in light,                                              NPW J6
in trouble and in joy,
help us, heavenly Father,
to trust your love,
to serve your purpose,
and to praise your name;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.      

 

 

Reflection on Mary of Magdala (John 20)

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

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

Mary of Magdala, Mary Magdalene.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

“Grace is in the fighting” Rachel Mann’s ‘Dazzling Darkness’ (book review)

2013-04-18 16.05.57cwRachel Mann‘s book ‘Dazzling Darkness’ (Wild Goose Publications) should be required reading for all trainee pillocks…, sorry, those currently engaged in ordination training,

“One has to be a pillock to want to be a priest” is just one of the statements that encouraged or challenged me from her autobiographical book – but I’ll leave Revd Lesley to unpack that particular statement!

I briefly met, and heard Rachel speak (at the London Centre for Spirituality) before I  actually read ‘Dazzling Darkness’. I am glad I did, because her poetic style and poise resonated all the more loudly as I read it, but if you’ve not heard her speak, don’t let that stop you getting the book!

What I went looking for was a little understanding about several things:

  • How gender dysphoria might impact on a person’s understanding of and relationship with God;
  • How one person has found it possible to develop and keep a functioning Christian spirituality in the face of chronic pain and depression;
  • What practical steps are involved in the journey from one gender to another.

‘Dazzling Darkness’ does all of that.

But as I fight with ordination training – and at present it is a fight, academically at least – the grace I received in this book came in other, less expected guises:

  • There’s a lot here about salvation; a slightly caricatured ‘evangelical salvation’ that I am very familiar with, critiqued in favour of the transformative power of Christ, the God of love revealed within our brokenness, holding the pain, making us participants in our own salvation;
  • The sometimes desperate search for hope, “the dark face of God”, in the kind of physical and emotional darkness that no one wishes to confront.

However, the one thing that my recent reading of Nouwen’s ‘Wounded Healer’ left me expecting to see, but which I don’t find in Rachel’s book, is loneliness. The emotions she conveys are raw, real, painful and deeply distressing, but she doesn’t articulate loneliness among them. Unless I’m missing something, Rachel’s wounds are more about engagement and communication with herself and others; wounds found in the fight to become, and cling on to, the woman she has become, and to fulfil her calling to the priesthood, that I regard as prophetic in an institution yet to come to terms with the sexuality with which she identifies, let alone her trans gender status. As she says, the “grace is in the fighting.”