THE RESURRECTION LIFE - loving and living and dying and rising …
THERE’S NO DOUBT that I’m a person easily moved to tears – and I’ve always been glad of the fact. Being able to express at least something of what goes on inside our hearts and souls is a great blessing, a release. I’m glad, too, to be a person of faith. I trust life’s fundamental goodness and believe deeply that if one wants to make a contribution to building a better world one has to do that lovingly and respectfully. Love and respect for creation are among the most basic attributes I believe about God. So it’s no surprise really that I’m often moved to tears of sadness by the continuing cruelties, divisions and searing battles between peoples all over the world – some of them, shockingly to me, within the Anglican Church I love and serve.
The Church’s infighting (and that not just within the Anglican tradition, of course) seems of such ridiculous and insignificant consequence as I watch the news footage about the atrocities in Syria – but little divisions set up between anyone at all can so quickly escalate into the makings of full-scale battle – and dismissal of the importance of another’s right to be. I simply cannot believe that GOD would have any truck at all with the battles about who can or cannot be a bishop, or who can or cannot reckon themselves married. The biggest statement that God makes to this world is that s/he breathes LIFE into it all, forever calling that life to come forth from the tombs of darkness, and from win/lose debates and death, to live in glorious light.
I’m very well aware, of course, and always have been, that there’ll be many who will, without a second’s thought, dismiss me as a simple man, a Christian “lightweight” (what a terrible, overused appellation that one is) – someone with little or no grasp of the “complexities” of the world – and all of those things are doubtless truer of me than many would know. But I’ve played this song over and over again today. And it brings tears of joy to my eyes and a longing in my heart each and every time. There’s a simply gorgeous universality about it. It calls us. There’s a real vocation for all of us here: a vocation to the (sometimes silent) music of Life. May God grant me the grace always to “keep it simple.”
Some words they can’t be spoken, only sung
POETRY IS SOUL STIRRING. That’s its job. Stirring souls. From the Greek poiein – to make or compose – poetry is an exercise in listening, in making things new, in vivifying, bringing life and maintaining and sustaining it. Poetry opens windows onto the depths of our souls, and the depth always surprises us, opens us, stretches us, appeals to a deeper generosity of spirit, a wider inclusivity. We will never cultivate a love for poetry if we’re inclined to maintain fixed positions – on any subject or object under the sun.
On the move …
Poetry is on the move, dynamic (explosive), changing, creating, morphing. Poetry is beyond the control - of any one human person – even beyond that of the poet. “The Spirit listeth where it wills”. Poetry bears the very Word of Life to hungry hearts, souls, minds and bodies. Poetry is a wide open door and every man, woman and child is invited to enter or depart her portals entirely at will. Poetry – this particular kind of creativity – invites us to celebrate being free to be.
God is the Great Poet. Word has been breathed into the Universe – and thereafter, through the divers gifts of Spirit, trusted to do Word-stuff – something different, even when similar, in every hearer, indeed in every element and atom of Creation. My prophet doesn’t look, sound or make exactly the same sense to me as yours does to you. Your “Christ” and mine might be similar whilst also being different. God – and Life itself – are seen through different lenses. And God is apparently OK with that. We can no more say that another’s faith “is not true” than we could say the same of a poem. Truth is a matter of perspective and a matter of the Word heard; what, where, when and by whom.
That’s why the world’s sacred writings – the Bible amongst these – are full to bursting with glorious poetry. That’s why, in the Church of England, The Book of Common Prayer is granted a place of high honour. That’s why the late twentieth century Church of England’s Common Worship points to Divine activity with supremely beautiful phraseology such as “the silent music of your praise”. Poetry itself might be bound between two covers, poetry binds up, gathers, collects – in the sense of drawing together, but poetry never seeks to imprison. Poetry recognises that the real grace of words is their function as vehicles for every person’s imaginative creativity and expression. Christian truth, as one example amongst the world’s faith traditions, is intended to hold and to celebrate the glorious fact of diversity.
I think that’s why poetry enters most every conversation I ever have with a would-be priest. Conversation with four ordinands today, two within our parish and two without, led naturally and fluidly into the sharing of poetry. That’s always rewarding and hopeful in my book. I’m assured thereby of a willing and loving open-mindedness and generosity of spirit.
All of one race – the human one
Further reflection upon the gifts of Pentecost at the Eucharistic celebration here this morning brought us again to that glorious affirmation in the King James Version of the Bible (Acts 2) – “we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God”. Different words and different languages for different people, but all of one race – the human one.
The sharing of three poems – each written by people of different religious traditions – was well received by one person after another at the fiftieth birthday celebration of our Associated Church Fellowships group here in the late afternoon. And – gloriously – in the relatively few words of the poetry a large assembly multiplied the power of the words by a factor of 50 or more persons present. Each of us hears a different measure of truth from exactly the same set of words – and are, at one and the same time, bound by a common, shared experience.
A Vision …
And then there was the sharing of Psalm 122. “O pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee.” Jerusalem is the big word here so we unpacked it. Jerusalem may be translated “City, or Vision, of Peace”. (Oh, can you feel the irony?). Let’s pray the psalm poetically – “O pray for the peace of the Vision of Peace”. Ah! There’s OUR point and purpose. Whether we’re praying for or about the representatives of the three Abrahamic faiths that look to Jerusalem, or for or about any other form of reaching out (or in) to the Divine, what is of fundamental importance is that we pray, with all our hearts and souls and minds and bodies, with our very lives, for the peace of the Vision of Peace. How are we to set about this in practice? By cultivating a love for the poetic, by being open-hearted, by being willing to recognise that the Divine Source of all our lives is “making all things new” and “turning the world upside down”.
Ria Gandhi, a writer friend who lives in Mumbai shares my affection for the works of Rabindranath Tagore. I love the 78th Song Offering in Gitanjali – with which I ought to draw this post to a close … (for the wholly pedestrian reason that I’m due at my aqua-fit class in half an hour!)
When the creation was new and all the stars shone in their first splendour, the gods held their assembly in the sky and sang ‘Oh, the picture of perfection! the joy unalloyed!’
But one cried of a sudden – ‘It seems that somewhere there is a break in the chain of light and one of the stars has been lost.’
The golden string of the harp snapped, their song stopped, and they cried in dismay – ‘Yes, that lost star was the best, she was the glory of all heavens!’
From that day the search is unceasing for her, and the cry goes on from one to the other that in her the world has lost its one joy!
Only in the deepest silence of the night the stars smile and whisper among themselves – ‘Vain is this seeking! Unbroken perfection is over all!’
Blessed are you, Lord God,
our light and our salvation;
to you be glory and praise for ever.
From the beginning you have created all things
and all your works echo the silent music of your praise.
In the fullness of time you made us in your image,
the crown of all creation.
You give us breath and speech, that with angels
and archangels and all the powers of heaven
we may find a voice to sing your praise
from Eucharistic Prayer G, Common Worship
A HAPPY AFTERNOON. Good house visits with good conversation about allsorts in the sunshine. I always come back from afternoons like this one reminded that there are some really wonderful people in the world, people of faith, people of courage, kindness, and solid down-to-earth goodness. And I often come back feeling that many people go out of their way to encourage and affirm.
The job of parish priest in a fairly large place like Bramhall often involves being what the parish profile, six years ago, called “the conductor of an orchestra”. I think that most parishes need the sort of leadership a conductor provides. It’s usually an unhappy, or at least a “going nowhere” sort of a parish where the only voice to be heard is that of the priest, (or any too-vocal individual for that matter) just as the sound of an orchestra requires vastly more than the voice of the conductor.
If the pastoring and other work of the Church in this place had to be done by the priest alone there’d many more thousands who’d have little or no contact with the parish church at all. Being “the Body of Christ” in this place involves every person’s call to pastoring of some kind or another, and to each is given a particular gift, a distinctive, discipling voice. A good translation of the word discipling might be “learning on the job!” - in our case within a big, big orchestra.
A large team
Bramhall Parish Church relies upon the gifts of a large pastoral team, and upon teachers and encouragers, and upon buildings and financial specialists. And we’re always actively hoping and praying for candidates for ordained ministry in the wider Church (currently four such people engaging with training and the processes of discernment, study and formation). We rely on praying people, and visiting people, and musical people and other artists and contributors of every conceivable kind.
And we’re constantly on the look-out for the ways in which all our members might be encouraged in life and ministry in the world, and right here in our own neighbourhood. (Not all of it church-based of course – we ought never to limit the word “ministry” to purely church-related sending or activity. The work of God is not confined only to the Church, or to any other religious body).
But in exactly the same way that an orchestral conductor likes sometimes to actually play an instrument or instruments, so, too, this “conductor” likes, whenever possible, just to get out and about amongst the people of our parish. It’s good to get alongside the different instruments and have a chance to play one’s own.
Whatever I’m doing here in Bramhall, and on whatever the day of the week, or the particular nature of the activity, there’s one thing I am certain of: we need each other. Every child, woman and man upon earth has a contribution to make towards the good of all. Whatever our faith tradition (or the lack thereof), whatever instrument we play or the song we sing, wherever we’ve come from and wheresoever we think we’re going, each and every one of us is made for and called to good conversation, thereby co-creating “the Peace that passeth all understanding”. Making great (and sometimes silent) music.
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[Silence can] say what words cannot. It can express intimacy so deep that speech becomes superfluous. It can portray a love so close that voices become obsolete. That silence is not emptiness. It is filled with the ineffable. Some words are only placeholders for things too divine to explain.
FOR MONTHS I’ve noticed that the most often visited post on this blog is Silence and that email correspondence ex-blog is, more often than not, silence / retreat / prayer or meditation-related. And a feature in our parish life that binds people at every stage in life, from children to the very elderly, is our shared times of silence. Monthly Monday Meditation (half an hour’s shared silence for meditation with one simple spoken prayer for blessing before departure in silence) has been one of our biggest and most consistent growth points for more than 12 months in a row. Many, many people – writing from every corner of the globe – tell me of their desire to seek out ways of being more fully inclusive, to break down “walls that divide”, to find (or better to celebrate having found) a deeper communion. There’s an appetite, a hunger, all over the world, for silence. I love this photograph (Vega, Fuerteventura, Islas Canarias) because, years after making the image, I can “hear” the silence I encountered at the time. The only sound around in those mountains was the high-song of a tiny shrike.
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Why is the world searching for silence? My blogging friend, Francesca Zelnick, Words/Love, with her tremendous gift for finding the right word even when her subject is no words, seems to me to have struck gold: [Silence] “is filled with the ineffable. Some words are only placeholders for things too divine to explain.”
Silence in the City video here
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WATCHING GLORY unfold in every facet of life and death is the blessed occupation of all human beings. The opportunities I’ve been given for just such a seeing in 30 years as a priest have brought me incalculable blessing. Glory unfolds everywhere. And as though the glory unfolding in our own lives were not blessing enough, we get to see it unfolding all around us as well. If we have eyes to see. If we have ears to hear.
Today I’ve greeted and laughed and prayed and baptised and celebrated Eucharist and cried with a couple of hundred people. Our wonderful Youth Group provided a cooked breakfast mid-morning. A sausage and bacon bap at any time is good news for me, but served this morning by marvellously giving and lovely young people, in parish rooms literally buzzing with life and laughter, though the winds were howling and the rains were drenching, it was glory writ large. “Never been here before” said a young Dad at the Baptism. “But it’s like coming home.” A bit like some of Jan Dean’s poetry that, “like coming home”.
In an hour and a half in our local Hospice this afternoon I met Glory that’s touchable. Many years ago I met Dame Cicely Saunders, the Mother Founder of the modern Hospice movement. I thought her a Christ-figure par excellence. And I felt her Spirit present this afternoon, and in the midst of laughter and tears and lovingly proffered chocolate closed my eyes, in the quiet company of the smallest of assemblies, and simply breathed peace. “In life, in death …” Glory in the air. Glory in the living and in the sick and in the dying and in the young volunteers whose smiles lit up the room – and the faces of the people to whom they lovingly ministered.
Prayer. No words necessary. Just prayer in the air. Thank God for Dame Cicely. Thank God for Hospices. Thank God for giving young people. Thank God for our churchwarden Sue, for many years the Manager of said Hospice, and now, in company with a huge team, bringing something of the hospitality of Hospice right into the Heart of our parish church. Old and young. Old apostles and the newly baptised. Light. Song. Silence. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, giggles and nodding off to sleep in between. Glory.
And then a couple of hours in the cinema – Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. Should you find yourself there (and I hope you do) you may remember, in many a scene, that I suggested to you tonight that right there you’ll see example after example of … Glory. Unfolding everywhere, right in the midst of life’s mysteries and vicissitudes, joy, pain, growing, coming and going. Swimming upstream. Salmon leap. And it makes our hearts swell, and we glimpse a day when “All shall be well, yea, and all manner of things shall be well” …
… as in that beginning, in every age the same, creation’s Re-creator is keeping hope aflame. From Eden to the desert, the manger to the tomb, each fall becomes a rising, and every grave a womb.
From verse 2: The universe is waiting
Michael Forster, (born 1946), © 1999 Kevin Mayhew Ltd
REBECCA KOO writes about process. Good religion does too – about becoming. And it takes a lifetime. And falling and rising. Sometimes, even, a feeling like “crawling upon your belly”, wondering, painfully, “what did I do wrong?”. Sometimes knowing exactly, and taking care to learn from the knowing. Sometimes feeling naked. (… so I hid myself). But it’s important we rememember that we’re talking about a “Universe-person” here, about a wholly “catholic” long-haul enterprise, and about every life’s being a necessary part of the Universe’s song. Neither Rome, as they say, nor Universe were built in a day, and process, as Rebecca suggests, comes right across a lifetime, not overnight. “Creation’s Re-creator is keeping hope aflame.”
Religion. From religare. To draw together as one. This is the work of nothing less than Life itself/herself/himself – and our whole lives at (and within) that. So any religious or philosophical assurances about our having no further need to explore, or implore, or pray, or go, or grow, need to be shown the door. Process. That’s the thing. Sometimes painful, sometimes joyful, and every shade in between. “Each fall becomes a rising, and every grave a womb”.
Son, behold thy mother. The procession of life swirls onwards …
MY FATHER has a small square Instamatic photograph he made of me when I was a boy of 5 or 6, just waking up, in a white ridge tent, pitched on the side of Lake Bala in North Wales. I’d gone to sleep dreaming about my first angling success, having landed the tiniest tiddler you ever saw, the night before. Pride and delight was mixed, poignantly and paradoxically, by my sadness at the death of the little chap. So my patient Dad provided a small matchbox into which the little fish was reverently placed before I presided solemnly over my first burial.
I must have slept deeply and well. I remember now the slight chill, and the scent of canvas, a small camping stove, sausages, a boiling kettle. But even then I was never at my sharpest in the early mornings. Colours melded, waking encountered mist and a measure of reluctance. “Wake up, son. Rise and shine. It’s breakfast time.” And Dad’s photo captured the half-awake moment when the night became light and – through canvas and my own mind’s mist – boyish delight and colour glowed, stretching, reaching, like the spectrum in this painting.
I’VE BEEN playing with colour (when not fast asleep) during a lazy hazy relaxing Easter holiday week in the Lake District. Here the colours have been changing moment by moment, and today I’m reflecting – as it’s time to head South and “back to work” - on the gift of colour in our lives, and the ever-changing spectrum; upon the goodness, the generosity of it if you like. Life could have been given to us in greyscale, or just plain black and white. In middle age I’m finding that I like, more and more, to use the whole pallet in the artistry of life, and sometimes just to splash a bit of colour about here and there with a sort of relaxed abandon! And the English Lake District is one glorious area in which to glory in the spectrum. God is good!