Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Bread and Transformation

Leominster Priory:
6 August 2017 (Year A): Bread and Transformation
Matthew 14:13-21

May I speak in the name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.  Amen.

Today, I’m going to attempt to do two things at once, which as we all-too-often know, isn’t always easy.  This is because as well as celebrating Lammas through the presentation of the ‘loaf-mass’ - the ‘first fruits’ of the annual harvest – the sixth of August is also the Feast of the Transfiguration.  The readings for the latter have been transferred to tomorrow, but it’s important we don’t let is pass by.  And it’s not as if there isn’t a connection between the two anyway.  In the Transfiguration we remember Jesus’ dazzling unveiling of his divine nature to Peter, James, and John in his mountain-top transformation.  And in the first harvest festival of Lammas we give thanks for the seemingly ordinary and mundane, and yet also miraculous transformation of wheat from field, to flour, and finally to bread. 

By chance, I’ve just read The Miller’s Tale by the contemporary spiritual writer, Margaret Silf, which, if you haven’t read it, I would highly recommend.  It consists of a series of modern-day parables in which the ordinary and given ‘stuff’ of food and nature and humdrum human experience is transformed – transfigured - into glimpses of the divine mystery at the very heart of life.  So, in the ‘The Miller’s Tale’, she writes of the process by which wheat becomes bread through the energy of the sun, of water, and the falling of a beloved apple tree set to a new purpose as the teeth of the drive wheel in an old mill set to work.  The story is written as an agony, passion, and death for the wheat, but ultimately as a resurrection and a Eucharistic feeding.  The wheat has to die – and be transformed – so as to become what it was most deeply meant to be: a sacrament and a blessing.  She likewise writes of the Miller at the Harvest Supper as akin to Jesus at the Feeding of the Five Thousand,

‘The miller’s daughter gathered up the pure new flour, and she kindled fire in the emptiness and the coals burned red, fierce, making the new thing, baking the new bread, from the surrendered grain.

One by one they came to the harvest supper.  And then in tens, and hundreds.  In thousands they came, hands outstretched, hearts exhausted, to the miller’s table.

The miller rose to his feet, and in his eyes there was a deep darkness and a bright joy.  He bade the children come to the table.  He raised his eyes to the skies and said the blessing, holding the first-baked loaf in his hands – raw energy of creation changed into bread.

‘I give you of my very self,’ he told the hungry children.  ‘It is given that you might life, and live abundantly.’

And he broke the bread, and gave it to them.

There was bread for all, and when all had eaten, the miller gathered twelve baskets of scraps from the mill-green.

When the harvest supper was over, and all were filled, the miller’s daughter walked disconsolately through the silent mill. 

‘What are you looking for?’ her father asked her.

‘The finest grain has been lost,’ she cried.  ‘Ground to powder, crushed into dust, and lost.’

‘The finest grain is no longer here, as it used to be,’ her father answered.  ‘But the life that is in the grain can never be destroyed.  It will be given a new and unimaginable fullness…’

Whether you believe that the miraculous mass feeding of the five thousand, or four thousand - or however many thousand once women and children are included - actually took place, is, for me, sort of irrelevant.  What’s important is not those unanswerable questions of truth and falsehood to which we can get too easily bound, but rather what the stories mean.  It is, as Jeffrey John has put it, the meaning in the miracles that matter, rather than the miracles themselves.  It’s the deeper truth that counts.  So, from today’s Gospel reading, I don’t much care whether Jesus fed exactly 5,000 people, or 4,999, or 6,000, or just a couple of dozen, or how many hunks of bread were left over.  What it does tell us is of the transformation of the ordinariness of creation into something sacramental, and of the sheer abundance of God’s love.  Like its obvious parallel in the Last Supper, and our regular gathering together to receive the bread and wine of the Eucharist, it becomes more than a physical feeding, but a spiritual nourishment.     

In John’s Gospel Jesus declared himself the bread of the life, and here in the mass feeding, Jesus uses the bread – inhabits it if you like – in order to reveal more of himself and more of the generous and inclusive heart of God.  Jesus breaks the bread and shares from himself, just as he is soon to be broken and give of himself.  Here food is not just food – a quick fix for hungry bellies – but a good gift of God’s good creation, a way in which we give thanks and ‘re-member’ Christ, and a foretaste of the Kingdom’s heavenly banquet. 

The bread – the first fruit of the harvest – is transformed, but that’s perhaps only part of the story.  As ‘The Miller’s Tale’ intimated, it wasn’t so much that the grain was changed, but more that it was allowed to become its true nature and vocation, all be it through a painful process of death and re-birth.  And the same can be said of Jesus’ mountain top Transfiguration.  He didn’t become something that he was not before that moment.  Jesus had always been dazzling white, filled with the glory of God, and radiating the divine light.  It was more that the disciples now – finally – had eyes to see.  Their sight was healed and their vision corrected.  Everything was allowed to come into focus in a new way.  They saw the world transfigured, with Jesus in the midst of it.  They experienced all creation as sacramental, seeing and experiencing the world as God sees and intends it. 

And when we ourselves are changed and transfigured – which is often the hardest of things to do – maybe we should think of it as a groping and a coming ever closer to our true selves; to the true image that God made and delights for us to be.  When we grow and change we become more, not less, of ourselves, even though it involves lots of little deaths on the way.  We shed of ourselves to become more of ourselves, just as Jesus gave of himself to fulfil his vocation. 

Whatever our theologies of the Eucharist – whatever we think actually happens to the bread and wine – it is both transfigured and most itself.  It is – and always will be – bread and wine, but it’s also the very stuff of God’s self-revelation to us.  It’s a way of healing, understanding, and unconditional love and welcome.  There is, despite the world’s brokenness, a certain beauty in broken bread and wine outpoured; a utilising of the ordinary things of the world to express the truth that we’re loved beyond our comprehension, and that God can be found in the here-and-now, in the tangible world around us.  In handing and tasting the fruits of creation – the ‘mass loaf’ of Lammas, we’re handling the things of God made manifest in the world.  So as the miller said,

‘The finest grain is no longer here, as it used to be,’ her father answered.  ‘But the life that is in the grain can never be destroyed.  It will be given a new and unimaginable fullness…


Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Contemplative Prayer Group

I recently started a Julian Prayer Group at Yarpole Church (which meets on the first Thursday of the month at 9.30am).  Based around the spirituality of the English medieval mystic Julian of Norwich, it can be described as a ‘silent’ or ‘contemplative’ prayer group.  However, in a church too often bursting-at-the-seams with words, I thought it would be beneficial to introduce the practice of contemplative prayer; a somewhat marginalised aspect of Christianity which goes right back to the very beginnings of the church.

What is contemplative prayer? 
In many ways, it is hard to exactly define what contemplative prayer is, although it has been present from the beginning of the Christian Church, such as with the Desert Fathers and Mothers and the monastic tradition.  Likewise, a contemplative element is present in all the world religions; it is not only associated with Christianity.

Essentially, to engage in contemplative prayer is to strip away as many words as possible.  Rather than fill our prayers with petitions, those who engage in contemplative prayer would describe it not as a prayer of the mind, but a prayer of the heart.  For example, The Julian Meetings, an organisation that practices contemplation together in small groups, states in its literature that,

‘What is meant by contemplative prayer?  It has been defined in several ways: waiting silence upon God; listening for God; opening ourselves to God; responding to God’s invitation to meet him in silent awareness.  Perhaps the best description is prayer of the heart.’

In the late sixth-century century St. Gregory the Great described contemplation as ‘resting in God.’  Although there are many ‘manuals’ about contemplative prayer involving methods such as the use of a prayer word/mantra, Lectio Divina or icons, it is something which is more akin to a ‘gift’ rather than an act of will.  In contemplation, we respond to the abundant love of God, stilling ourselves to enter into God’s presence as fully as we can.  Although we may use forms and words to reach this state, the aim is to leave our words behind as we come to an awestruck silence before the divine. 

Words, Words, Words:
Prayer is a fundamental way in which we communicate with God, both corporately and individually.  In the Bible, we are commanded to pray, with the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, and us.  We are encouraged to pray, and we are assured that this is the way to develop an intimate relationship with God.  We are told that God hears our prayers.  So, my prayer life, especially at the beginning of my journey with God, was full of words – I hardly paused for breath!  There was an enthusiasm, an eagerness to tell God everything that was on my heart and mind.  It was a word-heavy prayer. 

I revel in books and the written word, but oftentimes I find myself despairing about the near-saturation of words in the church (and by ‘church’ I mean the Church of England as a whole, not necessarily Leominster Priory!)  Our prayers are often ‘wordy’, full of demands and requests to God.  It sometimes seems as if we come to God with a kind of ‘spiritual shopping list.’  This comes at the expense of the value and presence of holding silence in church.  When the rubics instruct us to ‘keep silence’ I always long for it to last a little longer!  

While I was at theological college I became increasingly interested in contemplation and the relationship between speech and silence in our spirituality and prayer.  I was struck by the concentration on the physicality of contemplation – on listening to the rhythm of our breathing, for example, and focusing on a single word or mantra.  The emphasis is not on a multiplicity of words but rather using our words wisely through repetition, stillness, and an emptying out of distracting thoughts and inner chatter.  I have increasingly come to believe in the importance of silence, both in our prayer – whether individual and corporate – and in the practice of theology.  This is something I have become quite passionate about.  I realise, though, that it is more than a little ironic to talk about the importance of silence, because by doing so I have immediately broken it!  However, it is my hope that both the church and its theology more generally, will learn to talk less and listen more.  Theology means ‘God talk’ or ‘talk of God’ – but I suspect the emphasis should be on maintaining a proper silence so that we can hear God speaking to us, rather than our constant babbling to the divine.  We are commanded to go and tell (to engage in evangelism), but, for me, this can only happen once we have first listened and discerned in silence.

Silence in the Bible and Christian Tradition:
If we look at the Hebrew Bible, speech constantly appears as the dominant way of communicating with God, with silence denigrated, and aligned with fear, destruction, judgement and death.  Most fundamentally, God creates out of the pre-existing silence by speaking the world into existence (in Genesis 1) and entrusting the power of speech to humanity (in Genesis 2).  Speaking about creation, the American theologian Barbara Brown Taylor makes this rather beautiful comment,

‘Anything is possible until God exhales, inspiring the void first with wind and then with the Word, which is both utterance and act, which makes something out of nothing by saying that it is so.  God says, and the logos yields the cosmos.’

This concentration on the power of word and speech continued, and culminated, in the New Testament with the emphasis on Jesus as the incarnate ‘Word,’ seen especially in the magnificent prologue to John’s Gospel.  Jesus is portrayed as none other than the physical manifestation of divine speech, the one through whom all things came into being.  

However, alongside this is what Diarmaid MacCulloch calls the ‘minority report’ of silence.  For example, parallel to the power of speech in Genesis 1, the divine discourse of creation comes to rest in the stillness and silence of the Sabbath day.  Likewise, the Gospels show Jesus being silent at key points in his life and ministry, such as before a questioning Pilate, while most significant of all is the resurrection, described by MacCulloch as,

‘…the vanishing point of the classical Christian message – for it is the silence at the heart of Christian literature. … The New Testament is thus a literature with a blank at its centre, whereof it cannot speak; yet this blank is also its obsessive focus.’

Finally, counterbalancing the silence before creation, and encasing the entire scriptures in silence, we find the strange silence of ‘about half an hour’ with the opening of the seventh seal, in the otherwise noisy book of Revelation (Rev. 8:1).

So, although silence has been marginalised from the Bible and Christian tradition, it has not been entirely absent.  For example, in her book The Case for God, Karen Armstrong suggests that silence arose as an alternative tradition to the preoccupation with ‘correct’ doctrine, particularly during the fierce arguments at the councils of the early church.  As a result, silence became linked with those on the margins of the church, especially the mystical and monastic wings.  Bound with this came the idea that the ‘fitting silence’ (competens silentium) of contemplative prayer is the wellspring of an intimate encounter with God.  As the seventh-century bishop and theologian, St. Isaac the Syrian said,

‘If you love truth, be a lover of silence. Silence like the sunlight will illuminate you in God and will deliver you from the phantoms of ignorance. Silence will unite you to God himself. … More than all things love silence: it brings you a fruit that tongue cannot describe. In the beginning we have to force ourselves to be silent. But then there is born something that draws us to silence. May God give you an experience of this ‘something’ that is born of silence.’

These are words from 14 centuries ago and yet they still strongly resonate today.  In many ways, mystics and all those who practice contemplative prayer can be regarded as prophets and proponents of silence.  And in our ever-more-noisy contemporary world, there is a longing for a greater recognition of the spiritual values of silence and contemplation.  This is a theological ‘voice’ much needed in the church of today, with the theologian Martin Laird stating that contemplation is nothing other than ‘the soul’s Copernican revolution.’  Likewise, Lucy Winkett writes in her recent book Our Sound is Our Wound,

‘A silence that is underpinned by love, by a willingness to wait, by a level of attentiveness that accepts where we are and who we are now before God, is a gift that the churches can give to such a distracted world.’

‘Doing Contemplation’:
With cultivating the practice of contemplative prayer (also described in the literature as centering prayer or Christian meditation), I have found a richness and a deepening in my encounter with God.  Yet, the whole idea of contemplative prayer can seem baffling to someone engaging with it for the first time.  This is due to the fact that it can be hard to pin down exactly what it means.  As stated at the beginning, there are many definitions and ways of entering contemplative prayer.  This led Thomas Merton, the great twentieth-century Trappist Monk and writer to say that, ‘contemplation cannot be taught.  It cannot even be clearly explained.  It can only be hinted at, suggested, pointed to, symbolised.’  So, although there are a lot of resources available, the best way of understanding contemplative prayer is to do it. 

For me, the emphasis of contemplative prayer is that it is a prayer of the heart.  We come to God in silence and stillness, just as we are.  We quiet our discursive thoughts and come into the presence of God, open and willing to receive God’s love.  Indeed, contemplation can be defined as the stillness we need to be aware of God’s presence.  First-and-foremost, contemplative prayer is a prayer of adoration, an intense gazing on God.  The Jesuit theologian Walter Burghart calls it ‘the long, loving look at the Real.’

Contemplation is about being with God – not because we want anything, but simply because God ‘is.’  It is a movement grounded in our love of God, and God’s love for us.  The closer we come into God’s presence, the more we will find our own fundamental identity in God.  But, ironically, it may often seem as though we lose ourselves in God before we find our true selves.  This can sometimes be a difficult or painful process, and it important to have someone to talk to if we are practising contemplative prayer regularly: a close friend, spiritual director, or a priest.  In contemplation we go deep within ourselves, so we need to know that it may sometimes be uncomfortable.  But it is also important to remember that God is always with us, leading us and inviting us.  We are not taken anywhere against our will.

Words are not used liberally or lightly in the contemplative prayer tradition.  Rather than confront God with a plethora of words, coming with a list of wants and desires, the emphasis is instead on waiting in silent, or near-silent, expectation.  Words are mainly used as a way into our prayer - as a means to still our minds, and begin the journey from head to heart.  They are simple words or phrases, often drawn from the Bible, which are gently repeated, such as the Jesus Prayer:  ‘Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me’, or ‘Maranatha, come, Lord Jesus.’  Or, it might just be one word such as ‘Love’, or ‘Light’ or ‘Peace.’ 

When we pray we bring all of ourselves to God, so this means that we need to take account of our posture and our breathing as well as the attitude of our minds and the words we use.  It is generally best to sit upright in a straight-backed chair or to kneel using a prayer stool.  I often sit on the floor with my legs crossed.  It is simply a case of finding what is most comfortable – without being so comfortable that you fall asleep!  Before you begin, it is a good idea to consciously bring ourselves into God’s presence, perhaps by saying the Lord’s Prayer, or by asking God to still our minds.  You may like to light a candle or have an image or an icon before you in order to focus your mind, or to hold a cross.  Try different things and see what feels best.

Once you have chosen a prayer word or phrase, you can then introduce this to your prayer, slowly and gently repeating it to yourself, either silently, or if you are on our own, spoken out loud.  I find that it is better to say the prayer silently as that shows our desire to internalise our words before God, but you may choose to say it outwardly first, in order to settle into it, and then say it inwardly.  Try to keep the prayer word or phrase in rhythm with your breathing.  For example, say the first syllable on the in-breath, and the second on the out-breath: Je-sus, Je-sus, Je-sus, or Ho-ly, Ho-ly, Ho-ly.  Treat the word like an anchor, a grounding to your prayer.  It is something to hold on to.  God already knows what is on our hearts and does not need a proliferation of words.  It is important to use the same prayer word or phrase throughout.  Changing is not necessarily a good idea.  The Fellowship of Contemplative Prayer provide a different saying to use for a month at a time.  I use this, and it is really good to have a continual focus for a substantial period of time, and also to know that other people are using the same phrase. 

It is important not to explicitly think too much about the word – just let it wash over you, and give it to God.  If you find yourself distracted do not get too anxious.  Just return to the word, and do not berate yourself for getting distracted.  Sometimes the distractions are actually useful, as we find they are raising things that we need to address in ourselves or in our relationship with others.  Try and pray like this for 10 or 15 minutes first of all, and then you can gradually build up the time.  It does not matter how long you pray for; what is more important is your intention and your desire to be with God.  You may end up reducing the phrase to just one or two words, or eventually you may lose all your words.  The ultimate aim in contemplative prayer is the shedding of all words, to come to the wordless adoration of God.  As you come to the end of your time of prayer, you might like to draw it to a close with the Grace.

When you engage with contemplative prayer on a regular basis you will find that it begins to infuse with other areas of your life, leading to a greater appreciation of silence and stillness.  You become more and more aware of your senses, and God’s love for you.  It is not a replacement for intercessory prayer, but I have found it to be a great strength in my own prayer life.   Some people are critical of contemplation, and prayer more generally, seeing it as being on one end of a spectrum with action on the other. 

However, I do not see it as a choice between either contemplation or action as they are two sides of the same coin.  In reality, one enhances and enriches the other, and I have discovered through contemplative prayer that I have come to love God’s creation more, and this has spilled over into action in the world.  Indeed, the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart said that, ‘What we plant in the soil of contemplation, we shall reap in the harvest of action.’  Reaching out to God in prayer inevitably leads to reaching out to others.  Jesus was a man of action and a man of prayer and contemplation, and his is the template we should be modelling our lives on. 

I will end with some words by Thomas Merton from his book New Seeds of Contemplation,

‘Contemplation is also the response to a call:  a call from Him Who has no voice, and yet Who speaks in everything that is, and Who, most of all, speaks in the depths of our own being:  for we ourselves are words of His. But we are words that are meant to respond to Him, to answer to Him, to echo Him, and even in some way to contain Him and signify Him.  Contemplation is this echo.’

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Believing Thomas

May I speak in the name of God; Who is + Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.

It’s often said that a week’s a long time in politics (and the next 6 or 7 certainly will be…), but it feels like a long time in the church as well.  Was it just last week that we were celebrating the Resurrection?  So much can happen in the space of a run-of-the-mill week that we can lose our track of thought, but when sudden or shocking things take place it can be even more so.  Time can jar, stand still, seem relentlessly monotonous.  

If a week can seem like a long and confusing time for the life of us here in the Priory some two thousand years after the first Easter, how much more so must it have been for Jesus’ first friends and disciples.  In today’s Gospel from John (20:19-31), we witness two of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, and his encounter with Thomas, who was one of the Twelve.  He wasn’t present when Jesus first came to them, and so he naturally wanted to see and to touch.  He said, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’  Yet this one sentence has led to him to be universally known in the Christian tradition as ‘doubting Thomas.’ 

But this is unfair because his faith in Jesus was never in question.  In many ways, he was more of a ‘believing’ than a doubting Thomas.  Having faith isn’t so much an intellectual assent to a set of beliefs, but rather an experience akin to falling in love; to see, to behold, to touch, to feel close to.  It’s a matter of the heart as much, if not more than, the head.  This was all that Thomas wanted.  And it’s surely what we want as well. 

So, perhaps we should re-frame it as a story not about doubt, but of belief.  If it tells us anything at all, it tells us that the resurrection is difficult to comprehend.  It’s not just an idea or a fact to blindly accept, but something to think about, for it constitutes an entirely new way of being.  It’s something we need to wrestle with, chew over, discuss, and debate.  And to do so isn’t to flatly deny or refuse to believe.  It’s a sign of curiosity and honesty and growth.  I’d much rather be a part of a faith which challenges me and makes me think, rather than one which merely tells us what to believe, or not to believe. 

Thomas may have been labelled as the one who doubts, but it’s not as if he was the only disciple who struggled with Jesus’ death and resurrection.  On the evening of the first day of the week, the very day that Jesus was resurrected, they’re all in hiding.  This is completely understandable given the enormity of the event, and the strength of vitriolic feeling that must have been present on the streets of Jerusalem, but the irony of it all is that as the precise time God emptied the tomb they were busy locking their doors.  God emptied the tomb and they filled their house. 

Thomas didn’t doubt, but rather he wanted to be reassured by what he saw – in whom was standing before him in a supposedly locked room.  He wanted to see and touch not so much to quell doubt but to be comforted.  There’s something faithful and authentic about wanting to reach out and touch a beloved friend; to hold out one’s hand in a time of darkness in the knowledge that it will be met by another.

What do you believe about the resurrection?  What do you struggle with?  Who or what gets in the way?  How would you have felt had you been there?  Would you have reacted in the same way as Thomas?  Can you see those moments of resurrection in your own lives or in the world around us?  One thing I not so much struggle with, but am constantly astounded by is that Christ wasn’t resurrected in an unblemished way.  He still had the wounds and scars of his scourging and crucifixion.  He continued to carry his humanity with him; to literally bear the marks of having been human, for none of us, however fortunate, can get through life entirely unscathed.  And what’s even more profound is that this transformed yet deeply human body ascends to heaven: that there is something of humanity wrapped up in the divine life of the Trinity.  God became one of us, not for a time, but forever remains one of us. 

If I think about this too much, I get emotional because what does this say about our own wounds and scars in the light of the resurrection life in which we live?  It says to me that our wounds are loved and valued, and part of what makes us who we are.  It says they can’t ever be totally erased, but that this is okay.  They form our identity; not to hold us back, but to help us relate to others.  More than that it helps us to relate to and love a wounded God; a God who was wounded for us.

The 1952 novel Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison is about an unnamed black man and his experience of racism and segregation in America.  In the prologue he says,

‘I am an invisible man … I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fibre and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind.  I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.’ 

By the end of the book, the narrator has come to accept that all the hurts and wounds of the prejudice of other people have become an integral part of who he is – of its unique identity in the world.  He knows that he is to be seen and known by his scars, as Christ is known to Thomas.  He says,

‘And now all past humiliations became precious parts of my experience, and for the first time, leaning against that stone wall in the sweltering night, I began to accept my past and, as I accepted it, I felt memories welling up within me.  It was as thought I’d learned suddenly to look around corners; images of past humiliations flickered through my head and I saw that they were more than separate experiences.  They were me; they defined me.  I was my experiences and my experiences were me, and no blind men, no matter how powerful they became, even if they conquered the world, could take that, or change one single itch, taunt, laugh, cry, scar, ache, rage or pain of it.’

Believing in the resurrection doesn’t change our experiences or the pain of the world.  Jesus’s resurrection offers peace – ‘Peace be with you’ he said – but we still live with wars and conflicts and broken relationships.   Jesus’ resurrection overcomes death, but we still live with the pain of losing those we love and hold dear.  Jesus’ resurrection is real and transformative, and yet my life is the same this week than it was last week – the only difference being that I’ve eaten a shed-load of chocolate and got another MA essay under my belt. 

Sometimes it’s hard when what we believe doesn’t match what we see in the world around us.  It could easily stop belief in its tracks, but it also makes us desire that same gentle touch and reassurance that Thomas received.  The resurrection doesn’t offer measurable results, but it does promise us a greater life with God.  It’s not an idea to be proved, but a life to be lived and experienced in the here-and-now.  If every action we took was based on immediate results, we may not get round to doing anything at all.  But believing in the resurrection provides a hope that it will one day change – that this too will past.  It means we engage in the world, one another, and with our own lives, in a new and more compassionate way.   Rather than saying, ‘unless’, it encourages us to respond by saying ‘yes.’



At first light, new light, the beginning of the week,
Came women with their spices to anoint one freshly dead.
Jesus; the one who listened and gave them voice to speak,
They stayed close until the close of life, unlike the ones who fled.

Suddenly, ground beneath gave out to tremors tormented.  
Moving sepulchre’s stone, to the cavernous room therein:
But its dweller had gone! A happening too epic to have been invented,
Gifted to women to tell out; of the rising of the Messiah within.

An angel said, ‘Do not be afraid; your Lord, he has been raised
He’s Alive!  No longer living in dark's eternal death.'  
Jesus appeared then to the women, who were both afraid and amazed.
They fell to worship, giving thanks for safe return of holy breath.

Fear not the ending of darkness; victory won from a tomb set free.
Death now beaten; we have new life, new callings, new visions yet to see.

We pray that as the angel rolled away the stone from the prison of the tomb, so those imprisoned by life’s misfortunes may know release.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Maundy Thursday - Heaven in the Ordinary

May I speak in the name of God: Who is Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.  Amen.

This particular service is, for me, one of the most moving of the Christian year.  We make our way through a liturgy which ‘does,’ or ‘enacts,’ many different things: Here we commemorate the institution of the Last Supper in Jesus’s sharing of the bread and wine with his friends and disciples.  Yet the real focus of tonight’s passage (John 13:1-17, 31b-35) isn’t the supper itself, but the act of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet – an account unique to John’s Gospel.  And the reading ends with Jesus’ new ‘mandate’ or ‘maundy’: the commandment to love each other just has he loved and continues to love us.  In the eating, the washing, and in our service to one another we are commanded to love: to love God and to love each other.

This strikes at the heart of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry: that he both lived and died through and out of his love for us.  It was a generous, expansive, and inclusive love defined by his self-offering at the events of the Passion.  This is why this Gospel reading and this service can be so emotional, for it recalls, it ‘re-members’ if you like, a night charged with intimacy, love, grief, darkness, the sharing of vulnerability, and the over-turning of expectations in the master-turned-servant kneeling at his followers' feet, washing away the dirt and grime.  And it’s a series of events that defy logic.  But we can’t try to explain it as Peter, in his typically Peter-like way, tries to do: ‘You will never wash my feet’, he tells Jesus.  Peter doesn’t understand why this is possible, and yet from Jesus’ perspective it’s inevitable; it’s a natural outpouring of his love for humanity.  Just as Mary of Bethany washed his feet out of love for him, so too does Jesus for us.  From the very start, Jesus’ ministry was shot through with servanthood and in teaching this as a way for others, so to display this in such a vivid way was part of what he had to do before his departure.  I know I learn from example, from having guides and companions along the way, and this is what Jesus was doing with his friends: showing them how to live out the commandment to love. 

So, this isn’t necessarily a night to attempt to understand, but rather one to live with, to experience, to enter into, and to immerse oneself in.  We can’t try and think our way into, or out of, it as Peter tried to do.  Jesus says to Peter, ‘later you will understand’, and we trust that it will be the same for us.  In the act of sharing himself in the bread and wine, washing his disciples’ feet and offering the new commandment, Jesus invites us to share this night with him.  We are to come to his table as a fellow traveller and companion, allowing him to wash our feet and love us unconditionally – something many of us find profoundly difficult because we think ourselves unworthy. 

But this is just half of the invitation as Jesus also invites us to love one another as he loves us.  We are called not only to receive his love and service, but to display and multiply it in the world around us: to tend to each other’s wounds, to bind up what is broken, to recognise the commonalities between us rather than what divides, to wash the feet of all we meet and to love from the deep well of our hearts.  We are to love those we find difficult and downright impossible as well as those we’re naturally drawn to and delight in.  Afterall, Jesus washed the feet of all of his disciples, meaning that he tended to Judas knowing his betrayal was close at hand.

Taking our share means to bring all of ourselves to this supper, to this washing and to this night.  We aren’t to come halfheartedly but in honesty and helplessness broken open before him.  We live in a world driven by achievement and success, so it’s not fashionable to admit our weaknesses and sources of pain, but if the man who is also God could do this in full view of those around him, then so can we.  It seems easier to run away or not turn up at all, but in the long run it’s better to come and confront it; to stand up and step forward into the unknown. 

In accepting the invitation we’re confronted with a God brought to his knees washing the feet of a wounded and broken humanity, and here is a God who knows and loves us in our wounds.  God doesn’t love us in spite of them, but because of them.  Taking our share means we come with our fears, our losses, our grief, our anxieties, and our anger.  We’re to sit at the table with all – those who are different as well as those who are the same.  Despite our all-too-human feelings of unworthiness, Jesus invites us to sit and eat.  In his poem ‘Love’, George Herbert is fearful of this invitation.  It opens with the lines, ‘Love bade me welcome.  Yet my soul drew back / Guilty of dust and sin.’  And yet, through the poem Jesus, who is Love, gradually helps him to accept the invitation, and so it ends with, ‘You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat: So I did sit and eat.’

We are likewise invited to come to the washbowl as well as the supper.  We’re called to bear our feet to one another – the parts of ourselves we ignore or take for granted.  We’re to come to the source of Jesus’ healing love.  Jesus washed all kinds of feet: the strange and familiar, the young and old, healthy and hurting, attractive and bent out of shape, feet that have kicked and bruised, and those that have been hurt and broken.  To let someone else wash your feet is to invite intimacy, to open ourselves up to another, to reveal our vulnerability, the parts we’re ashamed of and want to hide.  This is far from easy, but it’s ultimately liberating.  To risk such vulnerability is to share in the vulnerability of Jesus in his Passion, and to share – and love – our common sense of brokenness, darkness, absence, loneliness, and longing for repair.

This is a moving night because of its importance and sense of mystery, and yet, at the same time, there’s something profoundly ordinary about it.  To return briefly to George Herbert; he wrote in his poem ‘Prayer’ of the ‘Heaven in ordinary’, and this is one way in which I think about Maundy Thursday.  Its very sense of profundity is rooted in the ordinary things of the world: in bread and wine, in water and towel and washing, and in the impulse to love.  But its material nature somehow makes it even more striking because it shows us that God isn’t above and beyond and unreachable, but in the midst of us: in the depths of the earth and the normality of our lives.  Maundy Thursday is both deeply significant and intensely ordinary.  What is, on the face of it, more ordinary than washing feet, sharing food with friends and exhausted people falling asleep in a garden?

In this service we begin the climax of the events of Holy Week.  Here, we come face-to-face with the message that Jesus has been instilling time and time again, although we don’t always have the ability – or inclination – to see: that we’re to love one another as he loves us.  This is a love which doesn’t discriminate or distinguish or wait for us to cotton onto.  It’s a love which loves us anyway.  It’s an indulgent, reckless, and careless love, which endlessly gives away, but what better kind of love is there than this?

So, when we receive the bread and wine of the Eucharist, or have our feet washed, may we reach out and give away such a love to all those around us, neither discriminating nor distinguishing.  May we give away love rather than hate or fear or cruelty.  God-in-Jesus loved us all, without exception, with wounds and warts, and all.  He loved us in the very messiness of the ordinary, and in so doing showed us that this is where heaven resides: in mutual service, in care, and in abundant love. 

Servant God, give us the courage to be your hands and feet and heart in the world today.


Sunday, 2 April 2017

The Facts of Life

Leominster Priory
2 April 2017: Fifth Sunday of Lent (Year A)
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45

The Facts of life:
That you were born
and you will die.
That you will sometimes love enough
and sometimes not.
That you will lie
if only to yourself.
That you will get tired.
That you will learn most from the situations
you did not choose.
That there will be some things that move you
more than you can say.
That you will live
that you must be loved.
That you will avoid questions most urgently in need of your attention.
That you began as the fusion of a sperm and an egg
of two people who once were strangers
and may well still be.
That life isn’t fair.
That life is sometimes good
and sometimes even better than good.
That life is often not so good.
That life is real
and if you can survive it, well,
survive it well
with love
and art
and meaning given
where meaning’s scarce.
That you will learn to live with regret.
That you will learn to live with respect.
That the structures that constrict you
may not be permanently constricting.
That you will probably be okay.
That you must accept change
before you die
but you will die anyway.
So you might as well live
and you might as well love.
You might as well love.
You might as well love.

This poem, by the contemporary Irish poet and theologian, Pádraig O Tuama, is, for me, a profound one: profound because it confronts questions of truth in a direct and no nonsense way.  Knowing I would be preaching about truth, I’ve inevitably been thinking about it a great deal.  And alongside this poem and today’s readings, I’ve also been reflecting on Jesus’ assertion in John’s Gospel that ‘you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free’ (John 8:32).  Sounds simple doesn’t it?  We’ll know the truth and it will set us free, yet Pilate asks, ‘What is truth?’ (John 18:38).  He has a point in his question: what is the truth we’re clamouring for?  What does it free us from – or to?  And so we’re left with the suspicion that truth is a much more slippery and elusive concept than often assumed.  Indeed, the nineteenth-century century American poet Emily Dickinson, herself highly elusive, suggested the poet’s task is to tell the truth, but ‘tell it slant.’

Is there such a thing as ‘ultimate truth’ simply waiting to be discovered?   I have a CD by the Welsh band the Manic Street Preachers called ‘This is my truth, tell me yours’ (which incidentally comes from a speech by Nye Bevan, the Labour politician and architect of the NHS) – and it’s this notion that I’m most instinctively drawn towards.  We no longer, if indeed we ever did, live in a time of objective and clear-cut truths.  Truth has become fragmented, distrusted even.  Where do such ‘truth’ statements originate?  And in the age of Trump and ‘fake news’ it’s increasingly difficult to separate fact from fiction.

You could easily respond by saying, ‘Of course there’s one overarching truth, Kirsty.  You’re a priest, so the answer is God.’  It was even a running joke at college that the answer to every question is Jesus!  I agree, but with the important caveat that we can’t get to the heart of this truth in the here-and-now.  For as St. Paul says, we only see through the mirror dimly, with access to hints and guesses.  Until the time when we’ll see the whole truth, we live with the knowledge that there are as many pictures of God as there are people.  And I rejoice in this.  It’s when we have too narrow an understanding and interpret every verse of the Bible as a repository of absolute truth that I worry.  In forcing a too-literal Biblical interpretation, hard-line Christians have done, and continue to do, great damage to those who cherish different truths.  I suspect such discourse actually prevents many from exploring their faith within church, choosing instead to declare themselves ‘spiritual but not religious’ as the entire institution is tarred with the same fundamentalist brush.  Perhaps the best way to achieve the desire for ‘spiritual and numerical growth’ is for the church (and by this I include ourselves) to get off of its moral high-horse, take the plank out of its own eye, untie its twisted knickers over marriage and sexuality, and get on with the real business to which it’s called.  Many are thankfully already doing this, but doesn’t this reveal a church with a kinder and more expansive conception of truth? 

I’ve witnessed a lot about church which makes me feel uncomfortable, and quite frankly ashamed: the recent outcome of the so-called ‘shared conversations’ the latest in a long list of examples.  It’s no wonder most of my non-believing friends thought I took leave of my senses attending church, to say nothing of ordination!  But, thank God, there are glimpses of what church should be: a place of radical welcome, diversity and acceptance, where we’re called together, not always easily, but with a shared vision of differences respected, trusted and held under the banner of what I consider to be the only utter truth of it all: that God loves each and every one of us, equally and without preference or division.  Without our self-imposed categories of male or female, straight or gay, married or unmarried, able-bodied or disabled, young or old, rich or poor, status or past.  I know not everyone agrees with me, that my vision of God is different from others – perhaps from you too.  But, that’s okay.  It’s just that this is my truth, so tell me yours. 

Truth is intimately linked to story, because this is how we communicate best.  Some easily dismiss the Bible and the Christian faith because of this emphasis on story, regarding it as mere ‘myth.’  But, in fact, such stories are so powerful precisely because of the deeper truths they contain.  Another contemporary writer who understands the power of truth and storytelling is Jeanette Winterson, who said in her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? that,

‘Truth for anyone is a very complex thing.  For a writer, what you leave out says as much as those things you include.  What lies beyond the margin of the text?  The photographer frames the shot; writers frame their world.  

Mrs Winterson objected to what I had put in, but it seemed to me that what I had left out was the story’s silent twin.  There are so many things that we can’t say, because they are too painful.  We hope that the things we can say will soothe the rest, or appease it in some way.  Stories are compensatory. …When we tell a story we exercise control, but in such a way as to leave a gap, an opening.  It is a version, but never the final one. …we hope that the silences will be heard by someone else, and the story can continue, can be retold.’

I feel this is right: that there’s always something ‘beyond the margin of the text’, the silence and unsaid as well as explicitly named truths.  I also believe we need to feel comfortable enough with each other so as to be able to express precious and deeply-held truths, and thereby set free.  This is because while truth-telling is important, it also carries an inherent risk of rejection: of not being taken seriously, of being dismissed or not adequately listened to.  In my experience, truth arises out of a place of security, belonging and deep sense of ‘at-home-ness.’  There’s an Irish proverb which translated means, ‘It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.’  This gives voice to a profound truth: that it’s only within the safety of each other that we most fully live and face the truths within ourselves.  We’ll never win everyone over to our individual truths, but we need to take care of them, ensuring they’re appreciated, accepted, and understood, for this is the way of shelter, mutual growth, and peace. 

In Belfast City Hall

The sharing of truths can also allow significant healing to take place.  If we’re brave enough to share what’s most truthful in our lives, then we open ourselves to the possibility of healing: of ourselves and others.  In so doing, the dry bones live again and hope is restored as Ezekiel tells us.  Such truth-telling gives birth to freedom, which is why, for me, the most powerful part of today’s Gospel is Jesus’ words ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’  Yes, Lazarus would have to face death again, but he also experienced Jesus’ healing power.  To share such love and truth is to live life in abundance and unbind us from all that holds us back. 

Philip Larkin famously closed his poem ‘An Arundel Tomb’ with the line, ‘What will survive of us is love.’  And this is the essence of Gospel truth: love of God and love of each other.  It’s the best, and all, I can do, and without love it’s all somehow empty and meaningless.  Our collective vocation is to answer this call to love, to be remembered for love and to pass it on, like the best of infections.  For as Pádraig O Tuama says, while we’re still living ‘we might as well love.’  This is the truth which sets us free, so we might as well love.  We might as well love. 


Monday, 6 February 2017

Valentine's Day

It’s February, which means it will soon be Valentine’s Day.  Call me an old cynic (well, lower middle-aged), but a part of me wonders whether it’s all an excuse to sell more cards and gifts between the commercial boom times of Christmas and Easter.  I mean, we were still in the Twelve Days of Christmas when I noticed the first Easter eggs ‘hatching’ on the supermarket shelves… But cynicism aside, who doesn’t like to be told that they are loved and valued by their partner?  Yet, I think it shouldn’t just be limited to ‘romantic’ love - what about telling those people whom we love in all sorts of ways - our family and friends?  Those in our church communities?  And I don’t need to buy a card to do that - or indeed do it on a particular day - because we should be continually reminding each other that we are valued.  That doesn’t have to be in a saccharine, sugar-coated, and artificial way, but with simple words of kindness and encouragement: ‘Thank you for helping me,’ ‘I couldn’t have got that piece of work done without you,’ ‘Thank you for giving up your time to volunteer,’ ‘I really value our friendship.’

And who was the ‘real’ St. Valentine anyway?  Shrouded in the mists of history, he is believed to have been a third century priest from Rome.  With few details of his life and martyrdom, many legends have been ascribed to Valentine. One is that he arranged marriages in secret, even though they had been banned by Emperor Claudius II.  Valentine was arrested and sentenced to death.  While in prison he fell in love with his jailor’s daughter and sent her a love letter on the day of his execution - 14 February.  He signed it, ‘From your Valentine.’  But that’s just one tale among many…

Jesus told us to love one another as he loves us and to give ourselves for our friends.  I don’t think there’s anything more profound and further removed from the commercialism of St. Valentine’s Day than that.  We are to care and love all those around us, no strings attached.  We are to be the face and hands and healing words of Christ to each other.  Surely that’s better than a card?