THE RESURRECTION LIFE - loving and living and dying and rising …
LtoR: (click to enlarge) Canon Ronald Sowden Lunt, Rural Dean of Chester; Canon Geoffrey Rowell, Advowsons Secretary, Keble College, Oxford (now Bishop of Gibraltar & Europe); The Venerable Henry Leslie Williams, Archdeacon of Chester; The Reverend Simon Robert Marsh, Vicar of Ashton Hayes; The Right Reverend Michael Baughen, Lord Bishop of Chester; The Reverend John Hayes, Bishop’s Chaplain
ONE OF OUR YOUNGSTERS has just asked me “were you a vicar when you were little?” – and was a tad disappointed when I explained that I was relatively “big” – 23 at the time of my ordination in 1982 – and 28 when I became Vicar of Ashton Hayes, my first and much loved parish, in 1987. How big? Well, here I am, fourth from the right, standing next to the then Bishop of Chester, Michael Baughen. That big. And it was a very happy occasion.
“But how old were you when you knew you wanted to be a vicar?” – brought to mind another delightful conversation with another little friend of mine who’s alternating in her mind between “being a vicar or a nail varnisher”. And I remember that the first stirrings of calling do often arrive quite early. I was eight years old … and here – pictured with my then 7 year old sister Sarah – is what I looked like in 1967 …
Sarah Jane (7) & Simon Robert Marsh (8)
THRESHOLDS: Paul Deakin is heading back to Mirfield tonight. I’ll be meeting with Tracy Ward tomorrow. Rachael Elizabeth (above) preached a fine sermon at St Michael’s this morning – and what each of these people have in common is their membership of the parish family here in Bramhall, and a sense – each at their different stages – of calling to test vocations to the priesthood. And this is really what Gospel good news is all about – not just call to priesthood, of course, but call at all, to all.
Divine call is still heard today, even in the midst of our all-too-busy – and what my late mentor Bishop Victor Whitsey used to call “naughty” – world. The spark of the Divine is to be found alive and well in the heart of all life. And teachers are taught by those they’re called to teach! Paul, Tracy and Rachael are amongst the contemporary apostles of Jesus who teach and inspire me.
Many, many people have spoken to me of their newfound confidence – whilst the echoes of Rachael’s address were still in the air – that under Grace the Church will yet thrive and grow in the things of God, in all that she is called and directed to be. God plants the seeds.
I’m reminded of the Lebanese mystic Kahlil Gibran:
Then said a teacher: Speak to us of teaching. And he said: No man can reveal to you aught but that which already lies half asleep in the dawning of your knowledge. The teacher who walks in the shadow of the temple, among his followers, gives not of his wisdom but rather of his faith and his lovingness. If he is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind. The astronomer may speak to you of his understanding of space, but he cannot give you his understanding. The musician may sing to you of the rhythm which is in all space, but he cannot give you the ear which arrests the rhythm, nor the voice that echoes it. And he who is versed in the science of numbers can tell of the regions of weight and measure, but he cannot conduct you thither. For the vision of one man lends not its wings to another man. And even as one of you stands alone in God’s knowledge, so must each one of you be alone in his knowledge of God and in his understanding of the earth …
Again: God plants the seeds in the heart of all created things. Divine call will lead Paul and Tracy and Rachael to the thresholds of their own minds, as I am continually led to mine. And I watch, and I wait, in awe, and in gratitude, and in wonder.
JOHN THE BAPTIST was really talking about vocation out there in the wilderness, wasn’t he? Prepare yourselves for a new world. That seems to have been the message.
Bring together the best of the old with the best of the new. Leave the dross behind. Take a cold bath and rise up out of it renewed, ready to rise and shine. Look about you, every day and always, for the coming of a Word who’ll proclaim that the hands in which the new world will be held and shaped and moulded and nurtured belong to you, and you, and you …
The City of Peace will be built not of stones. The new Jerusalem will be built upon the hopes, the aspirations, the “sacrifice” of those who prove willing to risk traversing lonely highways in the desert because they somehow just have an instinct that there’s a voice to be heard out there (or in there) in the wilderness that’s just too important to miss.
And that’s why, in what has been one of my busiest months in a long time, I’m as happy as a sandboy. I’ve been doing what parish priests love doing. I’ve been talking with one willing disciple after another about vocation, vocation, vocation. And the light in their eyes is reflected in mine. Yes, yes, again:
let earth to heaven draw near;
lift up our hearts to seek thee there,
Come down to meet us here.
This is the day of light
Hymns Ancient & Modern Revised 42
John Ellerton, 1867
FRANK BENNETT IS OUR CHIEF SIDESPERSON. He arrived in Church the other day and greeted me, as he very frequently does, with the words “what can I do?”. Frank’s entire life as a churchman arises from the fundamental question he asks of God. “How can I serve?”. And this morning he will have celebrated the fact that his wife was serving the gathered Church in the office of Reader, his daughter (our former Young Church leader) and son-in-law were away in Cambridge (at Ely Cathedral) spending time with other friends engaged in ministry, before Paul begins training for the priesthood at Mirfield in September.
One of Frank’s grandsons served alongside him as a sidesperson today. Another grandson read the Epistle. When I thanked one of these grandsons for the encouragement he and his brothers are providing for their parents, at what is a time of upheaval in their family life, his reply was “Thanks. But it’s time we stepped out of our comfort zones isn’t it? And with Dad you can see the call written on his face”. I honour Grandfather Frank and his whole family.
One of the signs of spiritual maturity in the life of any church is a steadily growing number of vocations to ministry – in its many and varied forms. Tonight I heard the Reverend Gill Newton – our local Methodist Superintendent Minister – tell a large gathering that “we Methodists believe in the ministry of the whole people of God.” It was good to hear the murmurs of approval and assent, for we Anglicans do, too. So it’s an especial joy when we see the fruits of God’s call in our very midst.
I’ve mentioned already that Paul Deakin’s off to Mirfield in September. Verger John Baker will, in the same month, be licensed as a pastoral assistant. Ralph Luxon and Sue Taylor are getting stuck into new ministries in the office of churchwarden. Yvonne Hope and Jill Elston have just completed a marvellous first year as Young Church leaders (aided warmly by a very substantial team of willing voluntary ministries). Bob Munn is serving a term as Chairman of our Diocesan Advisory Committee. Graham Knight, our Treasurer, asks how the ministry he offers might be of service to others beyond St Michael’s. PCC Secretary Ann Walker is interested in furthering the work of prayer and meditation. Tracy Ward has just been accepted on the Diocesan Foundations for Ministry Course, following in Verger John’s footsteps. Tricia Munn is overseeing Growth Action Planning. Administrator Janet Ketteringham continues to undergird and sustain all of our ministries every day of the week. Bryan Goodwin clipped the fearsomely difficult and unfriendly holly hedge at the vicarage. Dianne Goodwin acts as unpaid assistant verger. David and Maureen Want tend the church gardens assisted by a large team of helpers. Joanna Yeates folds pew sheets – every week of the year. Sexton John Hanlon will turn his hand to pretty much anything … the list of ministries numbers over 200 volunteers at St Michael’s alone so it rarely seems appropriate to single out particular individuals. And yet it also seems important to try to describe what’s happening sometimes.
Rachael Hunt, baptised only two years ago, already has an established pastoral ministry among us, at the age of just 17, with a special and hugely appreciated concern for older members of the church family particularly – and every member and non-members more generally. Rachael, who hopes to read Theology at University and eventually to become a priest, is well known in our local churches as she has a keen interest in ecumenism and in fostering respect and understanding between different religious traditions. Rachael invited me to hear her first ever sermon this morning. Delivered with only scant reference to her notes, I was spellbound. Rachael will be preaching for the benefit of all of us, as will ordinand Paul, in September.
All of these wonderful people, and many more, seen and unseen, upfront and quietly in the background, leading public prayer and praying at home, have a passion for Gospel. Good News for a world in need of good news in a million different situations. (Eleven and a half million starving situations in East Africa). And as I pray for them, each and every day, I thank God for the miracle in our midst of a host of “angels and archangels”, on earth as it is in heaven, who are responding to the Divine call with the hallowed words “How Can I Serve?”. God is good and no word that comes from the Divine mouth ever returns to its Source unused or unheard. The Church today is not the same as it was. The Church today is not the Church it will be. But tonight I offer heartfelt thanks to God for the Church – and the many-membered Body of Christ that constitutes the Church – that is.
How Can I Serve? …
PATCHES CHABALA was one of the 16 made Deacon by Peter, Bishop of Chester, in his Cathedral Church this morning. St Michael & All Angels Bramhall, where Patches spent some time on placement, was represented at the service, and joyful prayers of thanksgiving have been offered for the continuing ministry of this gentle Christian witness who has made so deep an impression on so very many of us.
The Church in the twenty-first century will need witnesses of great faithfulness, grace and love; she will need pastors whose hearts are filled with love and compassion for human souls, and who have the desire and the ability to communicate that compassion, quietly and gracefully, in the name of Jesus, to all who need to hear of it. Our experience of Patches Chabala suggests to us strongly that in him the Church will recognise and benefit from all of these graces. Love, prayers and many congratulations are for Patches and Zenaida, and for the parish of St Michael Plas Newton, and Rob Peters their vicar, who will welcome the new ministry with open arms.
DON’T KNOW HOW I MISSED IT because Terence Handley MacMath’s back page interview is usually the first thing I read in Church Times and I’ve only just today got around to that of the 3rd June, a wonderful session with Pádraig Ó Tuama, peace-worker and poet. The whole back page is worth hunting through the newspaper pile to recover, but I – especially – just loved this:
Language also inspires me. I’m from Cork, and grew up in a family where the Irish language was very important. A friend from Dingle, in West Kerry, told me that, in the dialect spoken in that region, instead of saying “muinín thú” for “I trust you,” the dialect there uses the phrase “mo sheasamh ort, lá na choise tinne”: “You are the place of my standing, on the day when my feet are sore.” I remember writing a poem on the back of a torn envelope after that conversation.
I bet he wrote a poem! “You are the place of my standing, on the day when my feet are sore.” Isn’t that just exactly the vocation of the Body of Christ now on earth? What a glorious, glorious image!
VOCATION, VOCATION, VOCATION. If it’s true that these words are real features in our corporate life here in Bramhall then it’s also true that they’re undergirded by prayer, prayer, prayer. People are learning that “Be still for the presence of the Lord” is a real invitation and not just a nice first line for a hymn with a popular tune. And I keep turning, again and again, to Gerald G May’s The Wisdom of Wilderness …
Like a slave to my thoughts, my body gets up to collect what I need for breakfast. I set my coffee mug on a stone near the fire and take one step toward the car and I am suddenly overcome with fatigue and the Slowing Presence arises wordlessly inside me, in a place much deeper than my mind, and it is telling me No, it is not yet time for breakfast, not at all.
I almost feel gentle hands taking me by the shoulders, setting me back down by the fire. My body relaxes, my mind quiets. I sit. I look at the fire. I look at the morning mountainside. I close my eyes. There is no sound but the stream and the pine sap popping in flames. I watch the fire and I know time passes. Much time. Now and then thoughts of breakfast arise briefly and are stilled by the deeper sense, “Not now. Not yet.” I just sit.
And sometimes, oftentimes even, it really is in just sitting that vocation, vocation, vocation really takes shape, really makes sense, really involves ME, and leads to just the right kind of creativity and action.
A NINETY YEAR OLD LADY gazed tenderly straight into my eyes this morning – others too, of both sexes, and of all ages. Communion. Connectedness. Shared vocation. Eucharist. And I was so, so glad that I’m not the pastor of one of those Cathedrals (in Maggi’s “April Fool” – thank God!) planning to up their charges – even to those arriving for worship, to around £15 a visit. For, as Maggi suggests, there’s a note of truth to be heard in the voice of the Fool, and for all that I love churches and cathedrals, some of them with a passion, it’s time to take stock, and perhaps to have a rethink.
There’s a movement in the Church, right here in England, that’s pure madness. Paying the “parish share” to keep stones in place produces a stream of interminable “action plans” that are draining the Church of her proper essence and energy, both of these vitally necessary for her proper, mothering, task – shaping “living temples to God’s glory”. Something of the ancient edifice is going to have to give way, in this 21st century, to the saner voice of God’s Spirit within. “Hush the noise”, she whispers, “and hear the angels sing.”
What, and Who is the Church for?
Cynthia Bourgeault writes movingly in Mystical Hope: Trusting in the Mercy of God, of a brief encounter in New York, in 1973, with Brother Roger of Taizé:
So moved was I by his beautiful, simple words of prayer that at the end of his talk, in spite of myself, I found myself joining the throng swelling forward to meet him.
As the wave of people carried me steadily toward him, my panic increased. What would I say when I actually got there? Would I try to tell him all about myself in thirty seconds? Or the opposite – would I just stand there flustered and tongue-tied, wasting his time?
The line lurched forward and I was suddenly dumped into his presence. And there something happened that I would never have expected, and that changed my life forever. He simply looked at me, his beautifully gentle blue eyes right on me, and asked with tenderness, “What is your name?”
“Cynthia”, I said.
“Oh, it is a lovely name,” he said, and he looked deeply into me and through me into depths I never even knew were there. For the next thirty seconds, I had his full attention – perhaps the first time this had ever happened to me in my life, the first time I had ever experienced what it means to be unconditionally loved. I left that encounter with my heart overflowing with hope; by the following year I was baptized. And it was nothing he said – just the power of the way he was present, his complete transparency to love. The Community of Taizé may be a miracle, but there is no secret behind the miracle: in the heart of its founder, deep prayer and compassionate action have become fused as one.
What, and Who is the Church for?
Deep prayer and compassionate action, tenderness for the whole world, in the pastorate, the priesthood, of a humane humanity. The one defines the other.
Roger lived and loved like Jesus, who required no church or cathedral. Like Jesus, who spent more time encouraging people to slow down, and to take peace into homes and villages, than in encouraging religious people to run faster (and/or more expensively, with new-every-morning-novelty, and louder). Like Jesus, who – like Brother Roger – made no charge. How, anyway, could I attach a price to the tender gaze, this morning, in Eucharist, of a ninety year old lady? Better to gaze gratefully – eucharistically – back. Or to put it another way, and wondrously quietly, to contemplate. God help us go tenderly.
THREE DEEP DISCUSSIONS and a Funeral Thanksgiving today. The conversations and the Thanksgiving were – each of them – about the same thing: vocation to daily resurrection, the divine call, the graced invitation of God into fullness of life, here, now, for ourselves, and for everything we’re connected to, and with, and for – which is all created things, all creatures – every thing and every creature made and given life by the Giver of all Good Gifts.
Three deep, deep vocational discussions – about persons being called to the life and ministry of liberation, binding up the broken-hearted, kissing and healing those beaten to the ground of their own beings by dis-ease, setting “prisoners” free, proclaiming the “year”, the jubilee, the eternity, the thrillingly, gloriously, good news of God’s life-giving, life-fulfilling, anointing favour. Here. In our bodies. Now. Vocation to daily, moment by moment resurrection. Vocation – to undreamed of aliveness!
And a Funeral Thanksgiving – for and about a good, loving and godly family man, a beloved son, husband, father, brother, counsellor and friend. A man now called to life in company with the liberated, where all the broken-hearted are bound and healed, where all know how to sing the Sanctus song – the Holy song – to the beloved Creator of all things who has granted, and eternally grants, creating, anointing, graced and redeeming favour. In the promised place. In resurrection “bodies”. Now. Funeral thanksgiving for a son of God (in a whole glad company) now called to daily, moment by moment resurrection. Funeral thanksgiving for another vocation – to undreamed of aliveness!
Blessed be the Giver of all Good Gifts.