GOD OF LOVE, inventor of every kind of love and magnetism, we give thanks for miracles – William Cleary
I OFTEN SPEAK about life’s being, for me, a colour-full affair. I’ve read on several occasions that some blind people can “see” in their dreams. This doesn’t surprise me.
adoration and awe,
dying, fear, joy,
Magnificat, meditation, mediation,
passion, poetry, prayer and prose,
sadness, sleepiness, silence, song
- any and all forms of worship – often translate for me into vivid and fluid colour. The movement is gentle and healing. And thankfully, for a minimalist like me, the colour sometimes involves shades of plain and lovely uncluttered white. Neither the movement nor the colours are loud or aggressive or overwhelming. But they are bright. And each represents someone, some emotion, or some thing. A bit of time spent with “Alleluia” above may reveal some faces and one or two particular spaces …
In common with many artists, pray-ers and writers I think of our ultimate Heaven as fullness of life expressed in colours hitherto beyond our wildest seeing and dreams, but utterly reminiscent, too, of experiences we’ve known throughout our incarnate lives, here, in “this world”. Our hymn book contains a (much too long) version of the Ascensiontide “Hail the day that sees him rise”. Printed service orders (our Sunday usage) allow for discreet pruning. Not so when we use the hymn book, as we did on Thursday. So lots and lots of alleluias! For me though the words sometimes become the means of transport to a different level of seeing and / or hearing.
This “Alleluia” developed whilst humming “Hail the day” on and off over a period of about 48 hours. Sometimes these paintings start out with canvas or paper, paint and brush, and are photographed and digitally developed later. For this one the “medium” has been entirely my miracle iPad with BoxWave stylus. Have a great Sunday-after-Ascension. And may your Alleluias be colour-full and joyful.
Worship is addressed to …
MY FRIEND David Herbert has “a bee in [his] bonnet” about learning leadership from nature. I have a bee in mine about planning worship well, paying particularly close attention to the words we ask ourselves and others to use / pray / celebrate; paying particular attention too to the fact that Christian Worship offered by human persons is addressed to God, and not just to tickling the fancies of individual members of the Body of Christ. (Though people could, on many occasions, be forgiven for being persuaded otherwise!)
God’s trying to attract our attention
Word and words in worship will sometimes challenge and stretch me – because it’s a two-way exercise. Worship isn’t just our addressing God, it’s intended to be space for God’s fullness, holiness, liveliness, healing and wholeness to address us. The buzzing of the bee in our bonnet might well be God’s trying to attract our attention, trying to encourage us to “sit down and shut up” for a minute so that we hear a Word that doesn’t come out of our own oh so talkative mouths or imagination!
Words matter, so, so much, because The Word matters. And the Word’s word to the world was and is that matter matters, which is to say that God is incarnate, present in all things and in all people. So liturgical practice that excludes anyone is a non-starter.
Worship “gives worth”
Worship that excludes – by teaching, by pomposity, by sloppiness, by bad theology, overbearing self-righteousness, or by other poor example – does not follow in the footsteps of Jesus of Nazareth. Worship that withholds compassion, forgiveness, healing and wholeness is unworthy of the name. In “giving worth to” others, to all others, especially those we particularly think of as “other”, we offer the best worship to God. “What you have done for even the least of these my brethren you have done also for me.”
Worship calls … and unites …
Worship opens doors. And if it’s true that it opens doors onto “the reign of God” in our midst (the perpetual “second coming (parousia) of Christ” - in, and through, and with, and for, and all around us, or the eternal dance (perichoresis) of God in Creation if you like) – then it is correspondingly true that worship calls for an opening of our own hearts and lives. The doors of our churches ought never, ever to be closed against any child of God. And the children of God come possessed of many different creeds (“I believes”), in many different colours, from many different backgrounds and cultures, in immeasurably different shapes and sizes – all alive and kicking, by God’s good grace and patience, all imbued with some, though in this world not all, Christ-likeness, so each and every one of them a sister or a brother to us. When we address one another we address something of the Spirit of God. When we embrace one another we embrace God. When we seek communion with one another we come to know communion with God. Our missio. The mission, the hospitality of God - the Mass!
Well planned worship invites us to make sense …
So I’m inordinately blessed here that others have bonnets with similarly buzzing bees in them, and tonight’s Worship Planning meeting was not just about flicking through hymn books and heading for our favourite tunes. Tonight we were doing some theology together. God present – in, and through, and with, and for, and all around us – was stretching us, reaching to us, bending us, reshaping us, calling us to deeper generosity, to wider, broader, higher, deeper vision; calling us to make sense of ourselves, of our neighbours, of the nations, of our world, of our Universe; calling us to make sense of God. And so to do Real Worship, in the Real Presence of God.
I’M OFF TO A DAY CONFERENCE on “Catholic Evangelism” tomorrow. I’m not wholly sure whether it’s going to be about Catholic Evangelism (capital C, capital E) or catholic evangelism (small c, small e), and I’m rather hoping for the latter … hoping, that is to say, for a catholic evangelism that really is about good news (evangelism) universally applied (catholic), ie, for everybody – no matter their “faith tradition” or lack thereof – everywhere.
I’ve spent a very great deal of my life passionately pondering what exactly constitutes good news, and in particular why having some sort of acknowledged relationship to / with the Source of our lives might matter – to individuals, to communities, to nations, to our world, to the whole created order – some of these whole and healthy, some desperately broken, hurting, and in need of that Divine touch that brings healing. And I’m consistently finding that old definitions of what it means to be Catholic, or Protestant, or Christian, or shades in between all of these, don’t fit all sizes any more, if they ever did.
Christ everywhere …
What constitutes Good News in a ‘catholic’, pluralistic world? Where is an / our anointed Christ to be found? (as I’m sure such a Christ is indeed to be found, anywhere in the world, and across the world’s faith traditions). And the questions are so important to me because as a Christian priest, seeking always to live and learn – to be a disciple – after the pattern of Jesus of Nazareth, I have observed that some kinds of Catholic, some kinds of Protestant, and some kinds of “Christian” plainly do not represent very good news for many people at all. So catholic evangelism must be something quite different, something much more open, something prepared always to be held to account as to the reach of what it purports to be good news. Catholic evangelism will not, I think, be too prescriptive.
Feast of life for all
Catholic evangelism will offer the “feast of life” to people in the “highways and byways” won’t it? Catholic evangelists, personal and corporate, will have dismantled their drawbridges. Catholic evangelism will be less concerned (although not wholly unconcerned) with the Faith of our Fathers and hugely more concerned with Faith Being Received Today. When I’ve asked adults over the past thirty years whether they’d like to come to confirmation classes, so that they can be presented to the bishop, confirmed, and thereafter receive Holy Communion many have politely declined. When I’ve offered the Sacrament of Holy Communion “no questions asked” it has been the case, more frequently than I can count, that the recipient has ended up doing the asking, seeking to confirm a present and acknowledged reality – satisfied hunger – in their lives.
And I remember that Jesus was ever ready to go the extra mile for children, too. “Do not try to stop them for the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these”. Catholic evangelists will work hard at becoming more, well … catholic – so that they’re more plainly seen to be, well … “Christian” or “Anointed”. Catholic evangelists will be interested in marginalised multi-tasking-capable women, tax collectors, prodigal sons, unimaginative but very opinionated men, quieter and more imaginative men, too, and in lost sheep. Catholic evangelism won’t chastise the lost sheep for having left the fold in order to “explore”, still less tell the poor creature that God forbids it. Instead truly catholic evangelists (like Jesus of Nazareth) will make the fold larger so that there’s the space for MORE sheep to engage in the business of exploration, to engage, that is to say, in their God-given Life!
The Sound of Silence
One of the biggest growth areas in our parish (liberal Catholic with blurry edges – a bit like my paintings!) – has been a call to shared and silent meditation in the parish church – arriving and departing in companionable silence. No coffee or handing out electoral roll forms afterwards. And numbers in excess of many a church’s entire Sunday congregation have responded to a call – we believe a Divine call – to dwell for a space, together in the “house for the Church”, to wait upon the Word that touches life in silence. (The Word – not words. There’s not “even” a Bible reading). It’s life-changing, say many participants. It’s the only occasion in my month when I’m really and deeply aware of the heartbeat of God, the pulse of life, say others. This silence, this “that’s not very Catholic” but absolutely catholic encounter is breathing into our common life new elements of what it means to bear good news in our lives today, what it means, first and foremost to BE the Body of Christ now on earth, what it means to be religious in the original sense of the word (religare) – reconnected, re-membered. Restored to what we’ve forgotten.
Old assumptions yield
So whether tomorrow proves to be slanted more to Catholic Evangelism, or to catholic evangelism, I hope we’ll be asking the same question – What is Good News? – at least sometimes. Because, remembering Louis MacNeice’s Mutations again:
… old assumptions yield to new sensations.
The Stranger in the Wings is waiting for his cue.
The fuse is always laid to some annunciation …
Tracy – photo/emmaward
REALLY GREAT first sermon from Tracy Ward here today. We’ve had some inspirational first sermons here in the last year or two and I’m thrilled to bits that we’ve currently 3 aspiring priests at Bramhall Parish Church, and we’re also sponsoring the theological training of an ordinand for the Diocese of Newala, Tanzania.
God’s Spirit calls hearts and souls and minds and bodies today, as ever. Tracy voiced the Word of God’s Spirit with an encouragement to Live Your Life – being exemplars of the kind of in-love-with-life-and-Love-service that can truly be described as a more excellent way. Great sermon. Great eucharistic worship. Great Spirit of God right here in the midst of us. We hear the commission. We’ll act upon the call: the uniting, embracing Body of Christ.
Coe Fen from Salisbury
ONE OF OUR ORDINANDS has been longing to get up to Durham for Evensong in the Cathedral there for weeks. Rachael Elizabeth has described the experience (happily on St Cuthbert’s Day) as “cloaked in a golden embrace” – and was thrilled then, and will be again, by a hymn we’ll sing here on Sunday – John Mason’s How Shall I Sing That Majesty? sung to Ken Naylor’s Coe Fen. Huddersfield Choral Society have recorded the hymn and an mp3 is here. I play Winchester Cathedral’s version from Hymns and Psalms Volume 2 constantly. It’s available here.
It’s a question that’s on this parish priest’s heart every day. How shall we sing? How shall the Body of Christ in the 21st century be blessed with resources in hymnody that speak the Word of God for our day? Our theology is a living thing and God speaks “New every morning … our waking and uprising prove”. I’ve written before about some of the hackneyed old stuff – stuffed full of outdated theology – that I believe is positively dangerous in today’s searching and pluralistic society; I’ve written before too of the divisive repetition of carefully selected chunks of Scripture that are then misused to patronise, chastise and exclude. These things will only be replaced, though, when hearts are captured by something that better describes where the people of this contemporary world have got to in their journeying with God and with those many and diverse “others” who make up the one humankind.
The Church of God, like humanity herself, is in the hands of God and will therefore end only if and when God wills it. That’s wholly better news to my eyes and ears than the fulminating “evangelicalism” that bleats on and on about the certain destruction of a Church led by “non-Bible believing liberals”. Dear God help us! They’re not talking good news. There’s nothing truly evangelical about their perpetually prophesying destruction – and wilfully abrogating the responsibility of all human beings for “salvation” by turns either to Jesus of Nazareth or Rowan of Canterbury. The Primate of All Nigeria, in a statement about Archbishop Rowan’s new appointment says
For us, the announcement does not present any opportunity for excitement. It is not good news here, until whoever comes as the next leader pulls back the Communion from the edge of total destruction. To this end, we commit our Church, the Church of Nigeria, (Anglican Communion) to serious fasting and prayers that God will do “a new thing”, in the Communion.
For 2000 years no single person has shown themselves capable of pulling back an entire communion from anything at all. For pity’s sake let’s not burden Rowan’s hapless-even-before-named successor with this pretence of an expectation – only to knock them down when they don’t meet the mark either. Can’t we stretch our imaginations a bit further? Could we stop looking for unique messiahs and archbishops “possessed of unique qualities”? Could we stop insisting that our version of messiah – already come or still awaited – is the one and only – the unique possibility? Couldn’t we “apply our minds to Wisdom”? – recognising from henceforth that Divine Sophia is to be found in every atom and fibre of every created thing? “Consider the lilies of the field …”
Could we rewrite the myth (as it has been rewritten so many times before) so that instead of making scapegoats we shared responsibility, under God, every child, woman and man alive, for the “salvation” of our supremely beautiful but tired and aching world and her humankind?
Jesus has never given me the impression that he was or is chiefly interested in our recognising his personal “uniqueness” (apparently keener on being thought of as “son of man” – one of us – than as “Son of God”) ; never implied that (long after his lifetime) “Bible Believing Christians” and their myths and theologies should take precedence over the primacy of experience in the Life and Love of koinonia. The arms wide-open embrace of Jesus of Nazareth was surely an invitation to all humankind to offer similar self-emptying healing and hospitality – and especially, if an “especially” there was ever to be, for those hitherto consigned to the anguish of life’s margins.
So tonight’s music choosing meeting here in little Bramhall was heartening. 5 people engaged in some depth with a shedload of hymnbooks and tunes. We grappled with what the hymns were trying to say alongside what we believed needed to be said to elucidate the Lectionary and to inspire hearts and souls at worship in the next eight weeks. It’s a tough collaborative exercise. It takes time, effort and forbearance – even choosing how to celebrate Resurrection relevantly, worshipfully and well – but there’s no avoiding the question – Christian people who are liberal and inclusive in heart, soul, mind, body and intention must continue to ask How Shall I Sing? For
Thou art a sea without a shore,
a sun without a sphere;
thy time is now and evermore,
thy place is everywhere.
GOOD CONVERSATION with a young friend today.
What do you suppose Jesus was doing when he went off alone to pray? – I think it’s where he came home to himself.
I was stunned. I’ve seen sunset over Galilee from a hillside vantage-point and remember, as though it were yesterday, saying out loud: “here I’ve come home to myself.” The mental image of Jesus doing just that is a glorious one and it was present, for me, in our Monthly Monday Meditation tonight.
Earlier in the day we’d been grappling, at our weekly Vicar & Wardens meeting, with the passionate sense we have, at Bramhall Parish Church, of a call to speak about Jesus and about the things of faith in God in an intelligent way, in ways that make “words about God” – theology – something accessible and intelligible to as many 21st century children, women and men as we could imagine.
We spoke of my being regularly stymied by the inherited language of a great deal of Christian hymnody, heavily laden with substitutionary atonement theology and patriarchy, together with some of our liturgy and prayer. We’re looking for new – modern – language resources, and towards restoring some of the best of the ancient too, wondering about writing some of our own, praying from the heart, mindful of our call to embrace any and all who seek to “come home” to themselves and God, fascinated and hugely encouraged by the fact that at least as many people gather for our silent monthly meditation sessions as for other “Fresh Expressions” we know of. We’re praying daily for Grace to care and to dare.
In order to come home to ourselves, we should realize that what we really need is a radical reeducation from head to toe – Gus Gordon, Solitude & Compassion: The Path to the Heart of the Gospel, Orbis Books, 2009
Radical reeducation from head to toe. Yes: I think that’s what Jesus of Nazareth was advocating. And his vision arose directly out of his own frequent opting for solitude and compassion. Wilderness again. Solitude. Facing up to demons. Realigning ourselves. Grappling. Envisioning. This is praying. Coming home to oneself and God – the Source of the life in us.
Maybe the future of the Church will depend, to some degree, on Christian people’s willingness to step outside churches once in a while. In much the same way as the work and worship of the local synagogue is extended outwards and beyond – via family homes and daily observance, (I love the descriptive “an observant Jew”), so the Christian community should be encouraged to observe sacramentality in their daily lives and practices – the Church’s sacramental practice was not intended to replace that of our ordinary, every day lives, but to enhance and develop it.
For most Christian people ritual translates into liturgy and sacrament, with a distinctive assignment to who can facilitate the ceremony. As people mature into a more adult sense of faith they begin to realize that ritual-making is everybody’s prerogative, and everybody’s responsibility – Diarmuid O’Murchu, Adult Faith, Orbis Books, 2010
What do you suppose Jesus was doing when he went off alone to pray? – I think it’s where he came home to himself …
Me too. So I’ll be happy, in company with my fellow pilgrims here, to continue our searching – in words and in silence – for language with which at least some of the presently disenfranchised may be able to pray, coming home to themselves, alongside our own homecomings, today.
THOMAS AND TOBIAS were baptised this morning – when, on the first Sunday of Lent, we recalled Jesus’ own baptism by John: (I absolutely love the little snippet above, beautifully narrated here, from the film The Miracle Maker, and used on this blog before)
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. – Mark 1.9-15
What was John up to? What were we doing with Tobias and Thomas this morning? And does the doing matter?
Well, I think the first thing to say about this morning’s baptism is that it certainly appeared to matter, very much indeed, to the supporting families and friends. It’s true that the novelty value appears to have worn off for many a contemporary weekly churchgoing Anglican. Some of ours discreetly hive off back home if they get wind of the idea that “their” service will face the challenge of newcomers. On such occasions, with all due respect to John the Baptist, I thank God that I’m their parish priest rather than he. I understand a bit, I think, where they’re coming from, in that I am myself very fond of a bit of liturgical p and q. But I think they’d be given pretty short shrift from J the B, don’t you?
Back to the opening question. What was John up to? Why would baptism be important for Thomas and Tobias, or for me and you?
The keyword, for me, is “repent”. John called his hearers to repent – a process described in Greek as metanoia – a turning around. Not a sandwich-boarded doom-laden “you’re on the road to hell” sort of a “repent” but nevertheless a turn-around-sort of a repent. A stopping-in-our-tracks sort of a repent. And that’s what I was up to this morning, too: inviting people to take a moment to “turn around”, to have a bit of a rethink. Repentance: a few moments practice in our daily lives – (as wholesome and as necessary a daily-renewed baptism as the practice of having lunch or dinner) – when we turn around to look inside ourselves instead of outside.
And I think that that’s what Jesus’ Lent, his “days in the wilderness”, tempted as we are, were and are all about. Lent’s not just about Jesus in “wilderness” (in the tempting, perplexing, question-provoking aspects of life) but about you and me needing to grapple with those places and those temptations, perplexities and questions, in our time, too.
Who am I? Whose am I? What’s my life for? Am I on the side of right or of wrong? And do my life and actions – does my practice – reflect my answer? And do I feel the same today as I did yesterday? And how am I hoping to feel tomorrow? (Heavens! This is a process that’s gonna take some time. Probably a lifetime. I’d better set some time aside every day – and it would be as well for me to “train up” children to start this practice in their own child-like sure-footed and imaginative way). There’s going to be need to hive off up a mountain on my own from time to time, or take a boat away from the crowds and out into the bay, if I’m really going to find my Way.
Am I at peace with what, having repented, I observe within myself? Do I have the inner resources not only to survive but also to thrive when the Spirit of Life “drives” me into the wilderness spaces and places of my own ordinary day to day life and experience? Does my engagement with this liturgical act, this Baptism, this honouring, and raising and welcoming of two little British boys have anything at all to say to what I feel about the “heaving little tummy” of the 2 year old Syrian boy whose tragic death was witnessed by Marie Colvin, shortly before her own untimely death, the other day?
Baptism? What was John doing? What was Jesus doing? Why did the “Good News” writers notice? Why was I engaged in baptising Tobias and Thomas today?
Stop, look, listen. That’s the content of John’s preaching. Consider. Look left, look right, look left again before you cross, are the themes picked up and developed and run with by Jesus, then and now. Jesus takes preaching a step further. Jesus turns preaching and teaching into living. So let me repeat: Stop, look, listen. Look around you. What’s to be seen in the wilderness of this life – your life? Stop, look, listen. Look inside you. What’s to be seen in the wild places of your own heart? And how, if at all, does the one affect the other?
Baptism isn’t about filling the Church’s pews (so in that sense it shouldn’t matter too much if “we never see them again”). Baptism is more of an invitation to oasis in wilderness, a daily-repeated invitation to a place where we may be assured of welcome, our morning shower and refreshment, the place of preparation before receiving the bread and wine of life itself; Christian Baptism matters because it is sacramental sign and symbol of an invitation to a place, and to a challenge, where we may grow into the discipline and practice of asking questions – and grappling with them until we come upon some answers. Though there may be more questions about questions before ever we arrive at answers.
I heard it suggested recently that the “Good Shepherd”, seeking to keep his whole flock safe, discourages single sheep from going out to explore. They’ll automatically trip up, automatically fall down a hole. He’ll then have the (very worthy but inconvenient) task of setting out to rescue the naughty explorer. But I believe exactly the opposite. I believe that we’re set down in the wilderness of life precisely to ask questions, to employ our inner resources to make sense of what we know exists beyond the walls of our own little (maybe ecclesiastical) sheep pen, and to explore. Co-creators with the Source of our own lives, we won’t necessarily live in perpetual clover, but we’ll be alive! Fully alive – building a home in the heart of humankind for “the reign of God”. And trusted by the Divine parent who’ll wait patiently forever on the lookout for our safe (and better informed) returning.
Baptism matters because it washes the dust of desert from our souls, refreshing and awakening and dawning and calling. Baptism matters – even infant baptism – because the questions it raises and the confidence it inspires are addressed and gifted to the whole community. Baptism matters because it has an eye to everything that’s going on around us, to the future security and mutual society of Thomas and Tobias, and because it calls us, every day of our lives, to be quiet enough, for long enough, to hear the Word that God speaks into every fibre, cell and atom of all creation. “YOU – all of you – are my Beloved …” You, all of you are, as the great hymn of the incarnation puts it: Of the Father’s Love begotten.
Yes: Becoming the Beloved – or, more accurately, recognizing that we are the Beloved of God. That’s what we’re up to, or should be up to, in Homs and in Bramhall equally. All of us.
WONDERFUL FUNERAL THANKSGIVING for Edward today. Deeply, deeply moved by the tender care that went into its preparation and celebration. Visceral honesty, integrity, decency, tender loving care and goodness in Peter’s tribute. Gospel incarnate celebrating the reign of God in and through all things. Church of England liturgy working alongside ad lib and Mahler, Westlife, Katherine Jenkins and Sweet Sacrament Divine. And all supported and upheld by the bereaved working in close partnership and trust with the priest. And all working with supremely sensitive funeral directors, St Ann’s Hospice staff, Rowan Chapel staff and one another. A beautiful occasion of a kind that enables one truly to celebrate good life on the one hand, and good death on the other; an occasion of a kind that brings one face to face with a profound reality in and about all humankind: that we’re every one of us less than perfect and every one of us also capable both of loving and of being loved much. I wept for the joy of being alive today, and for the privilege of my calling as a priest. At a funeral.