Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Sharing in silence

Among all the range of worship that we offer at the Cathedral, "Later" on Sunday evenings is rather different.
It was established by the previous Dean as "Cathedral Praise" - a high energy classic praise service, with a substantial preach - designed to draw in enquirers and to nourish those who had spent Sunday mornings feeding others in their own parishes. Latterly, reduced budgets and assorted moves reduced the music team and one way and another it became something rather smaller and less vibrant - though retaining something very special as a gathering of people who are on the look-out for God to act, in a way which isn't always evident in traditional services.

However bearing in mind the fabulous space that we have available, and conscious of the fact that we hardly engage with it at all in the normal run of events, I was happy to be given the opportunity to take over the pastoral care and general oversight of this service, with its new name. It now has 2 incarnations, Later:Cathedral Praise and Later:Breathing Space and it gives me inordinate pleasure to have the opportunity to plan creative worship that makes use of the wonders of the Cathedral. 
So this year we have been on a Candlemass prayer journey, we have explored both the Stations of the Holocaust and the Stations of the Resurrection,we have delved into Scripture with Lectio Divina, we have held a Taize service - and last night, inspired by my wonderful colleague the Canon for Reconciliation (also known to estate agents as the Canon for Recreation), we held a silent Eucharist.

And it was totally, utterly wonderful!

To begin with, I had the pleasure of talking through exactly how the parts of the service fit together, what we are doing at the Gathering, the Confession & Absolution, when we receive the gift of God's word and respond to it, share the Peace and finally come to Communion.
I had a chance to explain what it means to make the sign of the cross - but also made it clear that, like all signs and symbols, it can carry multiple meanings.
I love teaching about the Eucharist  - well, let's face it - I love everything about the Eucharist...so this was all pure joy.

Then came the service.
A CD of plainsong played quietly.
On arrival each person had been given a tea light. After we made the sign of the cross together to mark the beginning of our Eucharist, they came one by one, lit their candles and placed them on the altar. I had talked about them coming together from the different situations of their busy lives, bringing all sorts of cares and concerns, needs and longings...all of which are received by God as he gathers us around him and forms a disparate group of people into a Eucharistic community, which, gathered, reflects God's light.
We paused to gaze at those candles on the altar, then, as we thought about our failures and brokenness, one by one the flames were extinguished.
It hurt.
It was horrible.
But so are the things that we do.
We paused and thought some more....but then I prayed in heart and head the words of absolution, marking forgiveness with the sign of the cross through which we know ourselves forgiven. A bowl of water was passed round and each person traced the cross on their forehead, recalling the new start of their baptism.

Next came the Word...
Being low-tech, I opted for giving them a printed text with a couple of thoughts to help them focus. We used the Gospel from that morning, Mark 4:26-34, which includes two of the Kingdom parables - the seed growing of its own accord, no matter what, and the mustard seed growing into a shrub so big that all the birds of the air can shelter...so I had drawn a "Kingdom tree" and we were invited to write or draw kingdom fruit, or those in need of shelter.

Next came the intercessions, in which we continued the prayer chain begun at last week's funeral conference...I'd explained about the way we can be joined with brothers and sisters in Christ around the world as we pray for the world's needs - and that felt very powerful, especially when followed immediately by joining in a circle to share the Peace.

Then, of course, it was time to break bread...to say the Eucharistic prayer in my head and heart, to hold up the elements and show his people that Jesus was there in bread and wine. And we came forward and met Him there and received His very life, to carry with us into whatever lies ahead this week.

Finally, after space to give thanks, I offered God's blessing which we took into ourselves - our heads, our hearts, our actions, - as we made the sign of the cross and the Mass was ended.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Trinity and Cathedral - words for Trinity Sunday at Alcester Minster, 31st May 2015

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit...

Before I've said another word, that opening prayer puts us straight into the heart of God.......and straight into the heart of today's feast.
Trinity Sunday – the day when limited human minds, and limited human language attempt to explore the nature of the God who is beyond all our greatest imaginings, our finest words.
The day when preachers across the world tie themselves in knots trying to explain the inexplicable, and stop, scratching their heads like Nicodemus to exclaim "How can such things be?"....and the day when curates, retired clergy and even the odd cathedral canon find themselves pressed into service as wise incumbents everywhere step AWAY from the pulpit.

Thankfully, though, Adrian took pity on me and suggested that you might be more interested in thinking about the life of the cathedral – and how it relates to the parishes, rather than my own personal selection of heresies .. and, in fact, as I thought about that I realised that, maybe surprisingly, the doctrine of the Trinity was part of the equation.

You see, the Trinity is, as I understand it, very much about God in relationship. If God is love, then Love needs a Beloved...
So, we have a God who lives in relationship - utterly self-giving relationship. 
Where all is mutual exchange and regard, there is no hierarchy, no anxiety over precedence.
Instead the love that defines and informs the one reaches out and spills over into the other
Look, says the Father.......look at the Son........
Look, says the Son...........look at the Spirit
They gaze at one another in mutual love and delight – and invite us to do the same – to participate in their love and to draw others to do so as well.

So – my favourite image of the Trinity is not St Patrick's shamrock, nor the other well-worn alternatives – water/ice/steam – neapolitan ice-cream (three flavours, one ice cream) – nor even jaffa cakes (chocolate/orange/sponge making one biscuit). 
My favourite image is that famous Rublev icon which depicts three figures sitting around a table. The icon is often called “The Hospitality of Abraham” - recalling those three strangers who appeared to Abraham out of the heat haze of the desert... It depicts three figures seated around a table, each intent on the other – but with the fourth side of the table empty, waiting – so that the whole icon is an invitation to us to come, sit, complete the circle.

And – That's what the Cathedral is about.
It's about invitation, to a place of hospitality, a theatre of memory where the story of Jesus and the story of the diocese come together, as we gather as a family around our bishop. Of course, a cathedral is nothing more than the place where the bishop has his seat – but because it is there, it gives a focus and a family identity to the whole diocese... That's what enables me to be with you today. We're family, related to one another through the relationship we have with our bishop...and the Cathedral is the place where that relationship is presented in concrete form.
(I promise I wasn't playing for laughs when I wrote that last sentence – but of course our cathedral is undeniably more “concrete” than many examples! For some, it's part of its charm)
Where the bishop sits, there he gathers his people. He instructs, encourages, admonishes, and challenges – and brings us together to share in the family meal... It is here that the unity of the church becomes visible, as the Body of Christ gathers at the altar. This is the prime expression of the Church as one, holy, catholic and apostolic, as we will affirm in the Credd very shortly. And, just as the bishop is called to be a focus for unity, inviting us all to gather to share Word and Sacrament together, so the Cathedral too should be a place of inclusive hospitality.

We see that as we welcome parishes for confirmations, ordinations and other big events. Some describe the Cathedral as the mother church of the diocese – but I'd want to resist the suggestion of seniority present there. I think we're siblings together – but we just happen to have a larger house, so it makes sense for family meals to be held there. It's all about making space to meet..to renew relationships, to celebrate shared joys and significant events but also a place to explore differences and speak of reconciliation. Our Cathedral stands as living symbol of resurrection and healing through brokenness....and so offers a safe space to gather and hold individual and community stories of brokenness and restoration, tales of a city destroyed, reborn, and travelling onward.
Archbishop Justin says that we're specially blessed in Coventry, because, as a Cathedral, we have a particular vocation, beyond simply “look at me, I'm a Cathedral”. At the heart of our ministry is the vision from 2 Corinthians 5:19
God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, and has entrusted us with that ministry of reconciliation”...
In practice this means we offer a safe space in which to acknowledge hard truths and name wounds where they exist, for until we recognise ourselves as we are, we're unable to grasp the reconciliation that God offers us in Christ. Our vocation has three aspects, looking back as we work to heal the wounds of history, learning to live with difference and celebrate diversity in our lives today and building a culture of peace that offers hope for the future.
That's often challenging – for us and for you, the wider family. We are called to nurture a reconciled and reconciling people, a people that understands that difference & diversity is part of life and won't try to bury inconvenient truths or don a mask of uniformity. Sounds good, but can be acutely uncomfortable, for it involves running the risk of honesty and vulnerability, as we offer hospitality to people whom we might find deeply uncongenial. So sometimes your cathedral may seem to be welcoming someone or something that you would prefer not to engage with...It might just be that we are uncomfortable too...but are sure that we cannot sidestep the responsibility to be a place where all stories are heard and honoured. He never said it was easy!

More straightforwardly, of course, we're just another church among many. Bigger, perhaps...more noticeable...with a bit of a “wow” factor if you like that kind of thing.
I first visited the Cathedral as a small child brought by my parents...who were enthusiastic church-crawlers, so I was no stranger to visits to all sorts of places of worship. Usually, though, they were small, quite dark and very very old – so the impact of stepping into that place of openness and light was extraordinary.
I never knew God was so BIG was my first reaction...and if we can express to other visitors something of the majesty of God, - then we're fulfilling part of our role, as we stand a sign of God's presence in and care for his world.
A year ago today, when I walked up the aisle with my previous congregation to be installed as a Canon, my feelings as I looked at the Sutherland tapestry of Christ in Glory were very much like those of Isaiah
Woe is me, for I am a person of unclean lips...”.I felt small,inadequate and altogether unworthy. That's not perhaps the ideal message for any church to put across...but then I realised that, just as there's space for humanity at the table in Rublev's icon, so there is one small, representative human figure standing between the feet of Christ in Sutherland's tapestry. From there, the figure is safe, protected, and able to look out on the world from Christ's perspective...something that we are all invited to do, as we come to worship and be transformed.

For your cathedral represents in itself a story of our life in Christ, which was at the heart of Spence's vision when he designed the new cathedral. Pilgrims gather in the ruins, the place of brokenness, as we all do when we meet to worship week by week. We start by acknowledging faults and failures...represented by that place where wounds are obvious and visible, where there is no chance to gloss them over. As we leave the ruins (carrying some scars with us, just as those very ruins speak daily of the wounds of history) we travel through the company of saints and angels on the west screen and, eyes fixed on Christ, walk towards the altar – the table where there is room for all.
There God's life is offered, represented by a fragment of bread and a sip of wine – and then as pilgrims turn they find the austere building transformed as light breaks through the stained glass that was invisible on the journey towards the altar. It is in that new light that they go out – WE go out – to live God's life in the world...and if the cathedral helps us to understand that process, then it is doing a good job.

Each one of us, marked as we are by that transforming hope that is at the heart of our faith, is likewise called to be a sign of God's kingdom breaking in. Churches and cathedrals alike are built of living stones...without them, they are simply difficult, costly buildings with no real purpose.

Whom shall I send and who shall go for us? Here I am send me...

Our common purpose, as the Body of Christ, dispersed today but gathered sometimes around our bishop in his Cathedral Church of St Michael, is to reflect in our lives that perfect community which the Trinity models. Here there is no sense of anxiety over who might be the senior partner, but a joyful sharing of resources, a mutual enrichment based on self-giving love.

That, when you come to think of it, is not a bad model for our life as the Church here – and everywhere – joyfully sharing resources in mutual give and take without reserve, demarcation or division...our common life rooted and grounded in the self giving love of Christ, to whom be glory with the Father and the Spirit both now and always.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Thought for the day

At the Cathedral we're very good friends with the altogether lovely people at Radio Coventry&Warwickshire - so it's always a pleasure when they phone up and ask if someone is free to talk. This time, they phoned me on Tuesday to ask if I'd do their Sunday Thought for the Day - and, reflecting as I was on the contrasts in Cathedral life this week, I was delighted to say "Yes". Only later did I realise that it might be a wee bit odd for a Christian priest to be speaking on Pentecost Sunday without mention of the Holy Spirit - but by then we'd agreed a topic and, as #2S suggested, I might well find myself using the whole 2 minutes trying to explain who the Spirit IS, before I could even start thinking about what I might want to say. So, Pentecost went unmarked - and I'm not really ashamed of that. Instead, here's what I offered...

It's been a bit of a week for the Cathedral – the OLD medieval Cathedral of S Michael that is- for it was its turn to take the lime-light, with two rather different special events.
On Tuesday evening we celebrated the disappearance of the scaffolding that has been in place continuously for the past few years. Of course, we weren't trying to rebuild – as a Coventry child said to her grandma “If they fix it, how will we remember?” Instead, the scaffolding helped us to preserve what remains.

The ruins are important, you see – an iconic symbol for the city, with an influence that stretches far and wide. They hold a special place in our affection, as a link with the past and a reminder of that remarkable decision made here 75 years ago, to choose peace and reconciliation rather than bitterness and revenge. I think it's really important that we didn't simply tidy up and build over the rubble...because those ruins speak of all the mistakes that we've made in our everyday lives, all the people we've hurt and the dreams we have shattered...but they represent future hope and fresh starts too, because of everything that flowed from the events of November 1940. When we held a service of blessing and thanksgiving there on Tuesday we recommitted ourselves to that agenda and all that goes with it...putting peace-making at the heart of our lives in the Cathedral and beyond.

On Thursday night things looked rather different, as Coventry University held a summer ball, transforming the medieval walls into a magical backdrop for students to dance the night away - a last hurrah before moving on from their time here to enter the world of work.

I love the thought that the ruins are a pivot point for such different experiences – not to mention providing welcome for  the hundreds of people who just spend time there quietly sitting, eating lunch, meeting friends. Somehow the ruins speak of both past and future – and of a way of being that accepts past wounds without being tied down by them. If these walls could speak – I know they'd be worth listening to.

Monday, May 04, 2015

God of surprises!

Is it just 10 days ago that I posted, on my return from On Fire, that the greatest joy of being there was being with a community who were eager and expectant for God to act?
That's a rhetorical question actually. I know perfectly well how long ago it was - but I'm asking myself the question because I'm both amused and rather ashamed of myself.

Last night, you see, our Later@CoventryCathedral service included anointing - and the Dean, who has just returned from the Holy Land, prayed rather beautifully that we might not only tread in the footsteps of Jesus, but see with his eyes, touch with his hands, love with his heart.
It was powerful stuff that had me rocking on my feet (very glad he restrained me: the marble floor of Coventry Cathedral is not one to fall on with not a catcher in sight, I can tell you). I went to sit down feeling rather full of joy and delight. I enjoyed the rest of the worship, caught up with some lovely people and giggled quietly to myself at the way in which God has persuaded me that the service which I viewed with most anxiety before I arrived at Coventry could become one of my greatest sources of refreshment here. As I introduced it yesterday, I had commented that Later always has rather the flavour of a family service - in which anything might happen, and frequently does. (It was at this service that someone once arrived wearing an umbrella and nothing else)...Before I came, I'd expected to loathe it - but have happily adopted it, together with the wonderful mix of people (normally fully-clad) who come week by week. 

All of which should, perhaps, have prepared me for God to get up to something - but being rather dim, I left the Cathedral expecting to head quietly home. 
That was before I saw the man lying on the pavement in Bayley Lane...

What unfolded next was both really sad and rather amazing.
Of course we stopped, tried to find out what had happened (trying hard not to draw too many conclusions from the beer can lying beside him), phoned an ambulance, tried to make him comfortable on the pavement...
We were joined by 2 lovely girls, dressed for a night out - but one a trained first-aider, the other a dental nurse...both of whom delighted N., as he swam in and out of consciousness, by their youth, their beauty and their kindness.
Seeing my collar, he grabbed my hand in both his and kept apologising profusely for letting everyone down, as he told me a little of the struggles that made each day bearable only with the help of more alcohol than is ever wise.

Feeling that intense grasp of my hand - the hand that had so recently been anointed in the clean and orderly world of the cathedral, something happened to my heart. The two worlds collided, and I knew that right now the Dean's blessing was coming to life. All rather overwhelming, really - but so absolutely steeped in the presence of God that it was hard to know what to do, except kneel there and keep on loving.

Please pray for N, and for those like him who find life too painful to bear.
And feel free to remind me, as kindly as you can manage, that God ACTS....

If you have ears to hear ... Revelation 3 sermon for Evensong Coventry Cathedral Easter 5 B


Quite a command!

Here we are, gathered in the Cathedral church of St Michael, Coventry...doing what we do, Sunday by Sunday.
Meeting to worship God, to learn more of his ways, to form community and to practice reconciliation.
But – today is different.
Today we have what sounds just a bit like the spiritual equivalent of OFSTED for churches.

The Spirit – GOD's Spirit – the Spirit who sees into the heart of all things – of each of us and of our community too – is speaking...
And She is speaking about the life and health of seven churches

Time, then, to sit up and take notice.

Of course, this final book of the Bible is hard to negotiate.
Revelation is a book that most people struggle with, one that was for many years only grudgingly included in the canon of Scripture, a source of controversy from the first century to the present.
Strictly it isn’t a book at all. It 's a pastoral letter, written by a Christian leader to the churches for whom he was responsible,- and what’s more, it is a letter that was designed to be heard, to be read aloud during worship,- and much of its apocalyptic imagery is most effective when it is encountered by the ear and the imagination…

We need to remember, too, that like Paul's epistles, this pastoral letter is not actually addressed to us. It comes from a particular person and is intended for a particular audience, belonging firmly in a specific context which we need to understand before we can rush off and apply its words to ourselves with cheerful abandon.

Maybe this isn't our OFSTED after all...
Let's see what common ground we share.

The Christian churches in the Roman province of Asia had been established by Paul and his team in the fifties of the first century Common Era. Scholars suggest that John had his vision towards the end of the reign of the Emperor Domitian, some 40 years later. At this time the Empire was troubled, and Christians were often adopted as scapegoats, blamed for both natural and man-made disasters, since they presented a threat to political stability with their refusal to adhere to the state religion and cult of the Emperor. Though full-scale persecution was not yet in sight, John was clearly expecting life to become harder and harder for the communities he served...Would they go with the flow and declare “Caesar is Lord”, as prudence dictated, or would they take the opportunity to bear witness to the reality and meaning of the Christian faith by standing firm, til death if need be?

John encourages them to hold on to their faith, for it is here that they will find meaning for their sufferings, beyond futile waste as part of God’s plan for the consummation of history.
For John’s original hearers, the meaning of his words was clear…only their own response remained uncertain. What would they do? What would WE do in their shoes?

That's something to ponder, right enough – even as we try to get our heads around the reality of persecution for our brothers and sisters in Christ today.
But it's not the whole message.

For each church addressed, there is greeting, an reflection that recognises and commends what is good in its life and witness, a challenge to bring that life into closer conformity with God’s will and finally a promise, to “those who overcome”…
A pattern for us too. Reflection on our current identity, challenge on our shortcomings, and a promise of future hope.

So, let’s consider what John actually says to the churches, or specifically the angels of the churches – for we are lifted from the mundane to the transcendent...
In the apocalyptic tradition, earthly realities have their counterpart in the heavenly realm and so each congregation has its own representative and guardian, the angel of the church, the embodiment of the spirit of each church, sharing her DNA, the characteristics of the congregation.

It can be really helpful to consider what the angel of our church might be like...for the angel provides a kind of snap shot of the state of the church, something to pray with and reflect on.
If you're a visitor, forgive me for being rather cathedral-centric for a bit...you might want to reflect on your home church, and your perception of the angel that guides and represents it...

Here with our dedication to St Michael – and our west screen that invites us to see the world through eyes of the ever-present holy ones – it should be easy enough to glimpse our angel...
We might use those represented in the art that surrounds us to get us started on our reflection.
Perhaps our angel is the one from the Gethsemane chapel - the angel of the agony, presenting Christ with a cup that he can only drain through obedience to the Father?
Perhaps he one of the heralds from the west screen – reminding us that we have a gospel to live and proclaim.
Perhaps he is Michael the archangel, stamping down the forces of darkness and despair.
Perhaps he quite different...
How do you see him...
Diffident or bold?
Nostalgic or enthusiastic?
Reflective or frantic?

LISTEN to what the Spirit is saying...for there will be a message for us and our angel, as the Spirit speaks to us of who we are now, our current personality and state of being, but also our future vocation.
For us, as for the churches of Revelation, the source of that vocation is the risen Christ and his action in the world.
But we do need to take a long hard look at ourselves...it's easy to miss something. Saris, after all, seems to be doing quite well
‘I know your works; you have a name for being alive, but you are dead. 2 Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is at the point of death '

All OK on the surface...a flourishing community....thriving congregation, lots going on....Christian service, outreach, youth and children's programmes...but beneathr the surface all is not well. Reall life doesn't match the image...the angel is almost dead, it seems...
Time to wake up, recognise the crisis and strengthen what remains alive before it's too late.

Things are different in Philadelphia – which seems to be struggling, but is hanging on
"You have but little power but have kept my word"
Externally, there is little to celebrate...It would be so easy to despair and walk away, maybe to join a community that seemed more vibrant. Let's all move to Saris. ..or maybe not!
Hold fast to what you have so that noone may seize your crown
So...What of us in Coventry...?
Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches, for the message is focussed on the particular gifts of these people, your neighbours sitting around you at this time, on the particular needs which exist in our context and above all on the faith that is the source and motivation of everything we do and are.

We have a wonderful story to share here – the Easter gospel expressed in solid form through our cathedral, ruined and recreated – but unless it impacts on our lives then we might as well keep silent.
We have a clear vocation – to reconciliation within our community – but beyond as well as we are called to be an active sign of God's healing and reconciling love in a church and world in desperate need.

That's quite a gift...but a challenge too.

Put simply, if we fail to live our vocation, then we become just another museum of 20th century art...With no justification for existing.
Of course The Revelation of St John was not written for Coventry Cathedral in 2015...but that doesn't let us off the hook.
Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
Listen and act.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

One flock, one shepherd - Sermon for Easter 4 B at Coventry Cathedral

One flock and one shepherd
What a wonderful vision...

Specially on a morning like this, when the fluffy lambs are gambolling on new-sprung grass...the stuff of rural idylls.
But, you know, sheep aren't always picturesque!

Having lived in the Cotswolds for many years, I have a good few sheep stories.
Have you ever tried to get even one stray sheep to go back where it belongs?
I vividly remember spending the best part of an hour failing to herd a trio of errant Jacobs back through the gap in the hedge through which they had clearly broken out not long before. They somehow seemed intent on scattering in far more than just three directions...refused to follow one another tidily...And I longed for a wise collie to nip them round the ankles and tell them where to go. It was raining, of course – and by the time I had slipped and slithered in mud, got scratched on brambles, and stung by a large crop of nettles, I think I had but one thought in my head:

Tell me honestly, - if Jesus had asked you first, would you have chosen to be classed as a sheep?
They aren't very glamorous, are they?
Nor startlingly intelligent.
They aren't even particularly colourful or graceful.
With the whole of creation to choose from – why, oh why, did Jesus decide to use the metaphor of shepherd and flock to describe his care for humanity?

I'd really much prefer not to be a sheep, if it's all the same to Him.

But nonetheless, that image of “one flock, one shepherd” resonates with all that is in me.

Could it ever really happen?
It feels like a distant dream when we look at a broken Church and our poor hurting world, so bitterly divided by faith, and by doubt. 
Small wonder that many decent, compassionate people have turned away from what they see as the strictures of organised religion...claiming that it lies at the root of so much that is truly dreadful.
Every news bulletin seems to carry fresh news of atrocities committed by ISIS...and we must resist the temptation to see this as a one-way process, to assume that Christians are always the good guys, always the victims.
Think Northern Ireland – or if you prefer, just a few centuries earlier, think Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem witch hunts.

We don't really need much excuse to inflict pain on one another.
Being human and being humane are often very very different things – in the same way that being Christian and being Christ-like are not always identical.

And yet...and yet...the good shepherd declares with everything that he says and everything that he does, that we are, after all, worth bothering with.

And he doesn't draw demarcation lines. He lays down his life for the sheep – whatever fold they claim to belong to. After centuries of believing themselves to be God's chosen people, the impact of this on Israel was deeply shocking.
As shocking, perhaps, as it might be for us to glimpse for a moment the truth that God doesn't love the Christian victims of the persecuted church any more than he loves their aggressors
Isn't that scandalous?
Even wolves in sheep's clothing are included.
One flock, one shepherd.
That good shepherd knows each of his sheep...searches them and knows them, the secrets of their hearts, their struggles, their hopes, their wounds and their dreams...
Knows them – and YET - loves them.
Knows me – knows you – and yet...keeps on loving.
And lays down his life – to show that ALL are equally loveable...

You see, love is a universal language, that all can understand.
“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd”
They will listen because that language of love transcends faith and culture. Does not depend on good behaviour.Cannot be bought or earned.It is, always, a free gift. God's grace poured out in wild extravagance and made clear to us at that moment when Jesus, on the cross, draws all people to himself.

ALL people.
Not just the good, those trying to be holy,
Not just the people with whom we would enjoy sharing a sheepfold
ALL people

One flock, one shepherd.

And yes – we do need to learn to hear his voice...And that voice will be calling us to have larger hearts, to pray blessings on those whom we cannot understand, those whom we fear, those whom we are sure that we cannot be called to like. to follow ways of greater love.
But, though we need to hear his voice, the salvation that we find in no-one else is not conditional.
We're talking grace and not works here.
We can't earn God's love.
We can't forfeit it.

If the most brutal terrorist had, by some quirk of creation, turned out to be the only human being born in this world – Christmas and Easter would still have happened just for him.

Salvation found only in Jesus but freely offered to all of us– no matter what flock we think we belong to.

So – perhaps on balance it's not so bad being a sheep.

Though, before I finish, if I may I'll share with you the creature I would really like to be.
If you look up at the Sutherland tapestry in the Cathedral, you will see between the feet of Christ in Glory a tiny, insignificant human figure...
Recently someone told me that it always makes them think of an Emperor penguin, protecting a chick.
So – I want to be a penguin! A penguin for Jesus!
I want to nestle between the feet of the One who loves me and will never let me down.
I want to stand where He stands – and so see the world with His eyes of love, as I listen to His voice and hear him call my name.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

What's so special about four days in Hertfordshire?

Home from another extraordinary, wonderful week at On Fire.

How do I explain, to people who weren't there, why I value this so much?
It's really not my sort of thing - or at least, that would be my dispassionate analysis.

Yes, the speakers were excellent...I've listened with delight to pretty much all that Dave Tomlinson has had to say whether at Greenbelt, in print, or anywhere else that I have encountered him for well over a decade now...Nick Baines was the first bishop I was ever on tweeting terms with...and Margaret Sentamu was a wonderfully wise, steady, calming presence at my Selection Conference back in the mists of time...but though they said all sorts of things I needed to hear, it wasn't their presence that made the week so good.

Perhaps it was the worship? It is a delight to be somewhere where catholic liturgical practice is offered without the slightest vestige of ponce...beautifully, joyfully, because it just WORKS! 
Benediction is, quite simply, a process of immersion in total Love that has brought me to my knees since I first encountered it as a chorister at St John the Divine, Kennington, when I and the world were young... 
but despite this, and even though I am (slowly!) growing out of my rather snobby Cambridge-chorister "if it's not Thomas Tallis I don't want to sing it" mentality, I'll never find that style of worship music my first language when it comes to praising God.

Maybe not the worship then?

OK - it must have been the people, surely! Friends with whom I can share things I don't really want to acknowledged in myself...people who get (and share) my confusion when the God who is sometimes more present than I am to myself seems to disappear the moment I turn away...people who rejoice when I am overjoyed and offer hugs that need no words when I am struggling...People with whom I can run the risk of vulnerability, present myself warts and all, and not fear rejection.
But no - they are wonderful, an immeasurable blessing in my life - but it's not really about them.

It is, overwhelmingly, about the experience of worshipping with a community that EXPECTS GOD TO ACT.
So often we allow God so many get-out clauses, pray in such extraordinarily vague or bland ways that we will never know if our prayers have been answered, if I am honest, behave as if we have no faith at all, rather than risk disappointment.

I'm rarely comfortable with the assumption that God will act in particular ways...I know from personal experience how it feels to be the ONLY child in the school SU not to find herself speaking in tongues on a windy Tuesday almost a life-time ago...but I am even less comfortable with those behaviours which seem to preclude any possibility of God's action at all.

And at On Fire I know that the vast majority are open to being surprised by God in whatever way God chooses...
When, during the more than wonderful final Eucharist today, I was allowed the enormous privilege of anointing some of my fellow pilgrims, I was TERRIFIED. All my anxieties about whether or not I was really experiencing the Holy Spirit in those moments of wonder that leave me unexpectedly horizontal...coupled with those which attach inevitably to an important preach...and then the extra twitches accruing to "Can I remember where I ought to be when, if we're celebrating Mass properly"..all of those had collaborated to create a very insecure and nervous Kathryn.

Until the moment when I found myself, oil pot in hand, praying for the first person ...and realised that actually I was being given the opportunity to speak God's love and ask for God's blessing on each one of them, trusting God to tell me whatever it was that they most needed to hear.

And - oh my goodness - it was EXTRAORDINARY.

Another reminder that once I can get my own silly self out the way, God really IS up for anything.
Isn't that reason enough to love On Fire?
It's somewhere that God teaches me things I am lamentably slow to learn - but always the process of learning is one of joy and delight.

Bless the Lord, O my soul - indeed.

Crossing Boundaries: sermon for the final Eucharist - On Fire 2015

For various complicated reasons which now escape me, my cohort of Gloucester deacons spent our ordination retreat in a collective exercise in crossing boundaries at Holland House, Cropthorne, in the diocese of Worcester.
It was a memorable retreat and a time of blessing for many many reasons – but though I know that the words our conductor spoke were wonderful and helpful ( I often turn to them at times of panic – such as this morning), they didn’t stay lodged in my heart in quite the same way that a postcard in the bookshop did. I still have the postcard in my Office Book It featured some words of Dr Kosuke Koyama of the World Council of Churches
We should be followers of the running God, who causes a commotion by going to the periphery to make it a centre of light”

Followers of the running God…

In this week when we’ve reflected on crossing boundaries, on finding God on the edge – and on ministering on the edge ourselves, it’s a wonderful picture.
Of course, a running God could be heading anywhere…The question is, WHICH WAY? And, a supplementary, - how on earth do we keep up??
If we’re trying to follow that could be quite a useful thing to know (though I’m personally more than capable of setting out on an expedition with absolutely NO idea of where I’m going, it’s not something I’d normally encourage)

When you start thinking about it God does quite a bit of running. When we are still far off…God the Father hitches up his robes and comes haring down the road to sweep each one of us up into a welcoming embrace. He doesn’t wait for us to come to him – neither in the parable nor in his world. Instead he repeatedly comes to where we are…That's what the the Incarnation is all about – and it's made real for us again and again, whenever God comes to us in the Sacrament of Communion.

God comes to us so we may come to God.

God running to find us – wherever we are.

I hope that this has felt true for you often this week...that God has surprised you with a sudden hug just when you most needed it...but even if he still feels a bit far off, don't despair. He's coming to you, of that I am certain, and will delight in surprising you with the joy of his presence. After all, it was just an ordinary day – not a once a year conference, not even a special celebration - when that Samaritan woman went to get water, as she had done so many many times before.
Just an ordinary day – and yet, she found the entire world turned upside down. 

Remember, the running God DOES cause commotion – the earthquake that accompanied the Resurrection of Christ is matched by other earthquakes in our own lives, as we encounter God in our own mini Easters. That's exciting, of course – but it can be alarming too. I very much doubt if any of us would really choose to place ourselves at the centre of an earthquake zone...but sometimes that's just how it has to be as our landscapes are transformed.
In other words - forget the comfort zone!

And if you find you're still left struggling with questions, have spent this week nervously wobbling on the edge of your experience and understanding – that's fine too. When my older son returned from his first term of university theology, he brought with him a catchphrase that has been endlessly helpful to me ever since: “Jesus gets it”... 
He gets what has been going on for you , just as he got what was going on for that thirsty woman 2 millennia ago. He sees into your heart, understanding all that has happened to you, all that other have done to you, all your longings, hopes, fears and dreams. He sees it all, and accepts it all...

Jesus gets it.

But our time here is almost over. Soon the running God is off again. If we take off our shoes (and surely, surely this IS holy ground) we might just catch up with the One who has already gone before us – into Galilee, and a myriad other places too – Abingdon and Northolt, Mansfield, and Southampton, Taunton,Tettenhall, High Wyckham, Cuddesdon - maybe even Coventry!
That is both a reassurance and a challenge. A reassurance, of course, because we need to know that we won't lose touch with God as we return from our time together...That though we may sometimes almost lose sight of Him amid all the STUFF that clutters daily life and somehow seems so hopelessly important at the time, He's there...
He's there, of course, when we gather in worship – in our local churches, in our homes, our schools...                                                                                           He's there in our friendships and in our loneliness.                                               He's there whenever we think to call...pausing , face turned lovingly towards us as we turn towards him...

But – and here's the challenge - he's there too in all the unlikely places, the ones which, on St George's map would surely say “Here be dragons”- those about which you feel anxious even as you think of them.
I'm sure you'll know the ones I mean. Situations that make your stomach clench, and whole flocks of butterflies settle ...places where you feel yourself an outsider, perhaps because you've put someone else into that category: a kind of Peter, Cornelius situation...or maybe places where you expect a hostile reception rather than a drink of water. For me, now that gatherings of cuddly charismatic Christians no longer hold any terror, it's the city centre as the clubs are getting busy on a Saturday night.                                                                                   Predictable, but true. So far the hostility has been entirely in my head – but it's still a barrier for me – though never for God.

For our inclusive God no one - NO ONE is unacceptable, no one is a stranger. no-one an outsider...                                                                                               Each is loved by God as an irreplaceable and incomparable person....
God shows no partiality. None whatsoever.
Remember – Jesus gets it!

So – he's off again. Our running God heads for the periphery – and we, who long to follow, must join him there.
That's what this week has been all about.
After “On Fire” a couple of years ago I wrote on my blog that I felt full to the brim with love and joy – but expected I would leak soon. Bishop Nick's limestone again (but I got there first!).                                                                                                 A wise friend responded promptly that this was the WHOLE POINT - that we are absolutely supposed to leak! This gift of extravagant grace is to be shared...           It overflows, however hard we may sometimes try to confine it, to limit God's work to those places, those people who fit in with our expectations – so really, our attempts to restrict and channel are so much wasted effort.                               Instead, lets go with the flow, follow the Spirit in her joyous redemptive dance, which gradually, I'm certain, will draw everyone in.

Koyama talks of the Church not just as the Body of Christ – but as the Body of Christ that runs to welcome a broken world.                                                             Christ-centred ministry on the edge, indeed.

But perhaps if we get it right there need not be any edges...                           Boundaries, demarcation lines which determine who is out and who is in, have nothing to do with the One who opened his arms wide on the cross, and offers his embrace to all the world. He runs to the periphery to make it a centre of light...and in that light everything looks quite different.

That postcard that I cherish shows circles of colour...dark blue at the centre, gold fading to yellow at the edge. The contrasts are clear but the picture is of one whole...not a series of boundaries that must never be crossed. The centre looks very solid and sure of itself – because that's what centres are like...but as you move outwards it is very hard to tell where the painting ends...the outer boundaries are so blurred that you can't detect them. It reminds me, somehow, of a verse by the American Edwin Markham. It's called “Outwitted” - but for me it has less to do with wit than with reckless mercy, wild, extravagant grace

He drew a circle that shut me out —
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.

We know that the running God will not stop until the whole of creation is included. Drawn in ourselves, we are now sent to drawn in others, and share that boundless love.

Encounter God here.                                                                                   Encounter God on the edges.                                                                           There is nowhere that his love does not reach.                                                   The boundaries are only in our imagination.

So now let's pray that our running God will continue to work in us...and                 Let the whole world see and know                                                                       That things which were cast down are being raised up                                       And things which had grown old are being made new                                        And that all things are being brought to their perfection                                       By him through whom all things were made

To Him be glory now and forever. Amen

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Keep Moving Forward!

Words constantly broadcast to users of the automatic revolving doors at the local hospital. Whenever I hear them, I hear a rather cheesy motivational message – something that might appear over the threshold of a successful multi-national – and wonder how it sounds to those who are arriving anxiously to see a consultant, visit a loved one, face head-on some news they had hoped never to receive.
Of course, it's really just an instruction designed to help pedestrian traffic flow smoothly...but all the same – in this Easter season it has given me a lot to think about.

You see, though it's not yet a full calendar year since I left my beloved St Matthew's, in liturgical terms this is anniversary week. My final services were on Low Sunday – and as a recently rather semi-detached Canon (having spent much of Lent on sick leave following surgery, I never quite got into the feeling of the season here in Coventry) I seem to have spent quite a while reflecting on the changes of the past year.

Lent in a cathedral is, I think, generally diluted somewhat. Because our Sunday congregation come from all over the city and beyond, there is less of a sense of a gathered community through the week even in Lent...My assumptions that Lent groups would “just work”, and attract a good proportion of our regulars, and that EVERYONE ALWAYS has soup suppers in Lent proved, as assumptions generally do, to have no foundation in reality. The same constraints that prevent many parish churches from drawing large numbers to evening services apply even more in a place where the elderly really don't want to come into the city centre at night, so there was much less sense of a community travelling through Holy Week together than I had anticipated – and I really missed that, though there was, in contrast, a wonderful feeling that we were offering worship on behalf of many – and enabling visitors to dip in to a continuing tide of liturgy that they might not easily find elsewhere.
Coupled with the fact that I was dealing with so many memories of last year it made for a rather strange season that has left me thinking hard about the nature of community and priesthood. In one way, it's easy when you live in the place that you serve, when every trip to the letter box, every walk in the park involves meeting parishioners...when the neighbour opposite tells you about an ambulance calling ...when the children who pour out of school at home time are the same ones who pour into Messy Church on a Sunday afternoon. It's all there, around you, 24/7 – and you are part of it, whether you like it or not.

Here, I guess, you have to earn your place in the Cathedral community – or at least in that community which exists beyond the boundaries of Sunday worship. There are communities forged among those of us who work there Monday to Friday, or who give time as volunteers, but to earn your place with the congregation is not quite as straightforward. Sick visiting, funerals, life crises – those are the places where trust and relationship can be forged – but there are fewer opportunities to just spend time with people – and thus it is harder to truly belong. Before I even arrived, the Sunday congregation sent me a lovely card to welcome me...but I was struck by one greeting which ready “Enjoy your time with us”. Even as I unpacked, people were already preparing for the time when I, like all my predecessors, would move on...whereas in the parish, there was, I think, always the silent hope that “this time it might be for good”.

While I know that I spent my first year of incumbency wondering if I would ever stop missing my title parish, I knew too that this community needed me in functional as much as spiritual and emotional ways...
That made leaving hideous – but also gave rise to some very mixed feelings when I read, at bedtime on Low Sunday, that at last a priest has been appointed to St Matthew's. Of course it's wonderful that they have someone else to work with them at being a sign of God's loving welcome in that place, splendid that the over-stretched Herring of Christ and the other team colleagues should no longer need to cope with an extraordinary number of Occasional Offices, great that another priest should have the joy of making his home in that lovely vicarage – and with those dear dear people.
But all the same – I can't pretend that “home” is still there if I wanted to run away. I don't, I promise – but it still feels odd.

Time, then, for another cheesy motivational message – this time from the ticket machine in the Car Park down the road.
“Change is possible” it said.
Amen to that.
And - Keep Moving Forward.