Thursday, March 23, 2017

In God I trust and will not fear...

In God I trust and will not fear
for what can flesh do to me?

Psalm 56, appointed for Morning Prayer today, seemed painfully apposite in the aftermath of yesterday's events in Westminster. A few weeks ago, an Anti-Terrorism officer from the West Midlands police addressed all the cathedral staff, sharing with us the new ACT (action counters terrorism) strategy. It made for sobering listening...and gradually the realisation dawned that an ordinary day in an ordinary place could in a split-second be transformed into the stuff of nightmares...that being a run-of-the-mill cleric in a small Midlands city was no protection...that actually everyone, everyone is at risk in this new climate.

That doesn't mean that I emerged from the presentation convinced that any particular faith or nationality was suddenly "the enemy", or that I bought into a set of fear-filled responses that would have changed both who I am and how I live. That wasn't what the officer was after either. He simply wanted us all to understand that the threat was real, and that as things are at the moment there is a very real possibility of a random person using something as ubiquitous as a family saloon car to cause death and chaos....that there are many prepared to die for causes both real and, sometimes, imagined - and that with the best will and the best policing in the world you cannot keep everyone 100% safe in situations like that.
The presentation ended with a short video of a (staged) attack by an armed gunman on an office block. I found this completely terrifying. There was something about the little group of staff huddling in the basement of the offices that really hit home, and since then I've had a huge sense of how ordinary life is - until it suddenly becomes noteworthy because it is threatened by violence. 

So yesterday my first reaction was fear. Were either of my sons anywhere near Westminster? Was it suddenly more risky to be a baby barrister in London now than it had been on Monday? Could I actually cope with either of them working in the capital when such awful things could happen so randomly? I wanted to do that "mum thing" of gathering all my family in one place and hugging them. Often. 

That was yesterday. But today I've been reading so many responses on-line, seeing how again and again bloggers and tweeters have seen the choice of fear as a choice that allows terrorists to win. After all, a terrorist is so-called because he deploys fear and violence to achieve his own ends. But if we refuse to give in to that fear, if we focus not on the hurt that has been done but on the love that is represented by all those who rushed to help, then there is no victory for terrorism.
And this morning the psalmist reminded me that there are worse things that to be maimed or even killed...that while flesh can indeed harm flesh, to follow God's way of love is to resolve, day by day, to cast out fear and replace it with a trust that all will, ultimately be well. 

That's so easy for me to type when I am not the mother of a policeman whose family are forced to begin to believe in a life without him, nor the colleague of a teaching assistant who won't be there to help with Y5 tomorrow...I've not been touched by this in any direct way at all. The truth is that actually flesh can do a great deal to us, no matter how much we trust in God. And that's scary - particularly when you are fearful not so much for yourself, but for those whom you love.

But I spend my days in a place that bears visible scars of what can happen when we allow fear and hatred to have the upper hand, but also in a place that proclaims with all that is in it that we will not be shaped by the violence of the past. Rather we will use those wounds as launch-pad for a wider compassion founded on an understanding that we are all wounded, and all equally to blame for the wounds that others carry. 

I'm often proud of working at Coventry Cathedral, conscious of the power of that resolve to foreswear the easy division of humanity into "us" and "them", foe and friend, which inspired Provost Howard to have just two words written in the sanctuary of his ruined Cathedral.
Tonight, too, I know there is no "us" and "them". We have messed up collectively. We haven't loved enough. have pursued our own interests, as individuals and as nations, all too assiduously. 
And as a result, fear and hatred drove across London Bridge yesterday afternoon.

Father, forgive

Monday, March 20, 2017

Meanwhile, back in Bemerton*...

...George Herbert is trying his best to help us to understand the extraordinary thing that is prayer.
The Church's banquet, he says..., taking us simultaneously to both the Eucharistic feast, offered Sunday by Sunday and often in between...the meal which gives the Church her identity and her food for the journey...and to the heavenly banquet of which it is a foretaste. 
His sense of the coherence of Church Militant and Church Triumphant shines through so much of his work and here he pauses to reflect that prayer, this most basic of staples in our spiritual diet is something that gives us a glimpse of that proximity with God that will sustain us in heaven forever.
You cannot have a banquet on your own, so by using this image Herbert proclaims his conviction that prayer needs to be both personal and corporate...We gather around God's table together.
Of course, prayer is as essential to our spiritual well-being as any staple is to our physical health - but it is always more than this, - not just a drill to be practised but a lavish gift to celebrate, a high feast which deserves our best selves - though it is always available, always open to us, even  if we turn up in no state to really engage with it.
There is no fear at this banquet that any guest will be turned away for wearing the wrong clothes. Rather the host will provide outfits for us, kneel and wash our feet before we feast.

*Bemerton is the village close to Salisbury where Herbert served as parish priest for the three years of his ordained ministry leading up to his death. Do visit if you can. The church is tiny, plain and steeped in holiness

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Learning from Eleanor - a sermon for Cathedral Evensong, Lent 3 Hosea 11

When Israel was a child, I loved him,and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I* called them,
the more they went from me;*
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and offering incense to idols.
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my* arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks.*
I bent down to them and fed them.
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.*

Our readings this evening take us straight into the complex simplicity of humanity’s relationship with God…
Bear with me if that phrase, “complex simplicity” sounds like utter nonsense to you: I want to explore the thought that actually this central relationship, the thing for which we’re made, is ALOT less unfathomable than we seem to make it – and I’m thankful for the way God spoke through Hosea so many centuries ago in a way that makes perfect sense to me today.
You see, I’ve spent the past week really getting to know my tiny grand-daughter Eleanor, as I’ve been with her morning, noon and frequently night, as she has settled down into life in this world. I was short of grandparents myself – two having died many many years before my birth, and the remaining pair following them quite early in my childhood – so I was completely unprepared for the way Ellie has taken over my life by storm. In the same way that, 30 years ago, the arrival of my firstborn changed the landscape of my life forever, Eleanor has refashioned it all over again, so that my priorities have changed, my horizons shifted all because of that tiny scrap of humanity.
My rational brain knows that this is a common experience but my emotions are reeling, as I’m drenched with a tide of love that might well sweep me off my feet and land me, who knows where?

So what? This whole “revelling in grand-
parenthood” thing is becoming both self-indulgent and rather dull, I’m sure...(and for that I do apologise) – but the reason that I’m returning to it again and again in preaching right now is because it is helping me to understand a tiny bit of what it means for God to have the stake that God does in humanity.
Our Old Testament reading chronicles centuries of God’s love and humanity’s indifference...but while the idea that God cares isn’t exactly news, the idea of God as a perfect parent can cause a few problems for us, as struggling human beings. Most of us have at some point been a lot LESS than perfect in our behaviour to other people – whether as parents, children, colleagues, siblings, friends.
So the well-worn metaphor of God as loving father can be really uncomfortable, even painful, for those whose own experiences of the parent/child relationship have involved less love, more pain.
We’re so very very good, we humans, at messing up relationships, at causing hurt to people who just don’t deserve it...goodness, even JESUS seems to have done this as part of his adolescent spreading of wings. Even as Mary and Joseph heard the words that confirmed they hadn’t dreamed the extraordinary events of their son’s birth, those same words must have cut them to the quick.
“Didn’t you know I’d be in my Father’s house, about my father’s business.”
What price the family home in Nazareth, they must have wondered.
Whatever his special relationship with God, couldn’t Jesus be a little kinder, a tad more considerate to us?
We’ve been so worried – and now we have him back, but it seems that we are already losing him to a life that is beyond anything we might have dreamed of or imagined for that precious baby boy who once snuggled in our arms.
But – wasn’t that just a bit cruel, a little thoughtless?
In his focus on the divine, did he forget that he was human too?

And of course, the irony is that it will, surely, have been the human, proto-teenager in Jesus who shaped that conversation – not the God who knows all the secrets of our hearts, and all the wounds that we so carelessly inflict on one another, and on Godself too.

That’s the thing, you see.
By choosing to be involved in creation God makes God vulnerable to all the hurt that fallen humanity can perpetrate...and you can feel that hurt in every line of our reading from Hosea, just as you can feel the tenderness of God’s love in caring for the unthinking toddler nation, Israel.
“When Israel was a child I loved him….I took them up in my arms...I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love.”

That love is offered to us, too, although we are still very bad at recognising it, don’t realise that God is caring for us, even while she holds us in her arms.
Often people in some horrible situation will say to me “God doesn’t care, or can’t be real, because God has left me all alone to face this” - not seeing, amid their fear or sadness how often God arranges for God’s love and care to come through other people.
“They did not know that I healed them”

But our lack of response or recognition makes no difference.
God simply carries on loving us, because we are God’s children and the God who IS love can do no other.
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.

There really is no option.
God loves us because she loves us, because she loves us, because she loves us….
There is nothing we can possibly do to make her love us more.
There is nothing we can possibly do to make her love us less.
Each of us is Ioved, completely and fully, as if we were a precious only child, made for love and held in love at each moment of our lives.

At the beginning, though, I spoke of complex simplicity.

Being loved, of course, is what makes us able to love in return…but we are apt to find the staggering truth of God’s love too much for us to absorb or accept...and so we’ve hedged it round with rules and practices, with worthy doctrinal attempts to make sense of a mystery we are invited to enter into and live within…
That’s not wrong – of course it’s not. Our intellects are gifts from God to be used to make sense of our place in the world and the ways in which we might make real God’s desire that we would do justice, love mercy and walk humbly...and where there is much to be done, we can do better together, so the institutional complexities of the Church make sense too.
It’s not wrong – but sometimes it can cloud the issue and, worse still, deter others from daring to believe that God is interested in a relationship with them.
But at the core there’s something very very different.
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks”
Says God to Israel.
I want my people to be that that we can become all the world to one another, bound up for all time in a relationship of love that has no fear and no hurt in it whatsoever.

In a perfect world, with a perfect lectionary, we would have heard this evening not Psalm 132 but its immediate predecessor, psalm 131...and that’s where I would like to leave you – resting on the God who demands nothing from us but that we should accept God’s love, and rest in it all our days, as simply and trustingly as Eleanor slept last week nestling on my shoulder

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.[

like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.
[a]O Israel, hope in the Lord
from this time on and forevermore.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

A thorny problem

A long time ago, in galaxy far far from here, I had this kind of idea that to be a priest meant to know about prayer...Clergy surely spent most of their time engaged in it, becoming experts as the years went on. For them, this mysterious business of opening ourselves daily to a relationship with God was second-nature, as easy and un-selfconscious as breathing.
Then I was ordained, and realised that the only advantage clergy have in this is the expectation laid on us to practice prayer regularly, through the framework of the Daily Office, the realisation that to share a "cure of souls" makes you as vulnerable and anxious about those souls as the parents of a new-born baby are about their infant, and that there is absolutely no possibility that we have a hope of doing or being all that is expected of us without consciously involving God at every single turn.
That doesn't mean we have it a friend once remarked "If you want to make your vicar look wretchedly uncomfortable, as him about his prayer life"....and when I revisited this poem a little while after ordination, having spent so much time with it from an English Lit perspective years ago, I was encouraged that just as when Jesus is trying to pin down the Kingdom of God in terms that the crowd might gather he talks all round it ("it's a BIT like a treasure in the field...or a lost coin...or ...") so Herbert, now held up as a model priest in the best traditions of the parish system, gives us a range of equally diffuse metaphors when he speaks of prayer. I'll explore some of them over the next few days, all being well - but meanwhile, here's the whole poem.

Prayer the church's banquet, Angel's age,
God's breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth;
Engine against th' Almighty, sinner's tow'r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Where time touches eternity

E'en eternity's too short,
To extoll thee

I remember once reading about a holy man, - perhaps a monastic, though I'm not sure I ever knew, who had a picture in his room of angels, archangels and all the company of heaven praising God with all that was in them. Whenever he came through the door, there they were at full tilt...and he would greet the painting "What? STILL at it....?!"

That, I'm sure, is what we join in with as the Sanctus is sung during our Eucharists...a moment when the Church militant and the Church triumphant are united in one common purpose, that of worship.

Jesus Christ, yesterday and today, the beginning and the ending, Alpha and Omega; all time belongs to him, and all ages...”

In the relationship between a time-bound humanity and an eternal God, it is not surprising that we humans need some markers, and a structure that enables us to keep hold of the knowledge that we journey through our days in company with the God from whom all time comes as gift. We need to “check in” with God at regular intervals through the day – and, since our own sense of appropriate gratitude or heartfelt dependence comes and goes, an objective system that ensures that this “check in” will happen has been part of liturgical practice from the earliest days. It's one way in which we maintain our connection to God – and as such is also part of his will for us. Hence the Daily Office - something to ensure that this necessary "bonding time" happens, whether we feel like it or not.
It has been a difficult day: "My soul magnifies the Lord"
It has been a wonderful day: "My soul magnifies the Lord".
Actually, today has been overwhelmingly dull: "My soul magnifies the Lord" even so.

But beyond that is the overwhelming truth that this is actually the point of it all.
"Life is for love. Time is only that we may find God" said Augustine...and finding God (or allowing God to find us), we then called to lose ourselves in wonder, love and praise.
And if that praise is to be true to the one to whom it is offered, then it will spill over to fill every second of time that we have both now and hereafter, for in heaven the praise never ends. 
Eternity may be too short, but that chorus of praise is the purpose of all creation - reflecting and celebrating the God who is its source.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

This poor sort

" In my heart, though not in heaven, I can raise thee.
Small it is in this poor sort to enroll thee"

One of the first things I loved about the "Metaphysical" poets of the 17th century was the way they crashed contrasting ideas together (think about "Great little one", the beautiful words of Richard Crashaw from his poem "On the Incarnation" which Common Worship offers as an introduction to Midnight Mass) to produce something startling, beautiful and somehow more true than either component concept.
Sometimes they do it very clearly, as Crashaw does, - but sometimes that same process is present implicitly, as it is here.
"Small it is..."
Small, yes - because Godself is somehow focussed in that tiny space, a human heart...where God is yet all in all
But greater than our greatest imaginings, beyond our furthest reach...because - how can such things be? God enrolled, enlisted in the poor sort of human life and human praise.
And yet, extraordinarily, that is exactly where it pleases God to be.
God in our hearts, pitching a tent there with the same commitment to us that is shown above all in the Incarnation.
"Heaven and earth in little space. Res miranda"

Monday, March 13, 2017

Seven days a week

Sev’n whole dayes, not one in seven, I will praise thee. Last week, I had the pleasure (having got comprehensively lost en route!) of giving
an address to Shipston Deanery, as part of their Lent series. My brief was to work with their theme "Our life as God’s People: thinking of life as one holy offering" and focus on

"Life as worship. Praise in every event." As I thought and prayed, and prepared and wrote, Herbert was never far away. Here's part of what I said:

I’ve always loved psalm 150…As a musician, I’ve spent time wondering just what that growing orchestra might sound like – would the lute and harp be completely lost as the cymbals, both loud and not QUITE a loud – got going…would the flautist want to go home if the trumpets praised too exuberantly
I’ve been carried along with the sense of mounting excitement, as I’m sure was the psalmist’s intention, til we reach that glorious conclusion
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.

Everything. The whole of creation.
Including you and me.
And sometimes that is so easy and wonderful that we can really know with every fibre of our being that truth expressed in the Catechism,that the chief purpose of humanity is to glorify God…in both life and worship
And at others, I’m very conscious that mine might be a discordant voice, and not part of that great chorus at all.
I feel not unlike Isaiah, after he had had that amazing vision of God enthroned in glory
Woe is me, for I am a person of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips”
I can’t contribute to this song of creation in praise of its maker.
I’m out of tune and out of step…simply because I’m a flawed, fallible human being.
Or worse still, I feel completely unlike singing, for it seems that my voice has been stifled by events in the world or in my own life, that for the moment I just don’t feel much like praising at all. Things are hard for me or for someone for whom I care – and I might manage to cry out for help….but to PRAISE God? That’s beyond my capabilities altogether.

Which is completely reasonable from a human viewpoint…but trickier when you remember that we’re not supposed to be working by those standards at all.
Rejoice in the Lord always, said Paul to the Philippians…and I’m sure you’ll all have come across those truly shining Christians who genuinely seem able to praise God in the most impossible circumstances. I find it very easy to reduce myself to a state of near panic by my own failure to achieve anything even faintly similar…though I’ve found things a bit more manageable since reflecting that we are not necessarily called to praise God FOR the hard times – but to keep alive that flame of hope that reflects the “measure of faith that God has assigned”, and keep on praising God for BEING God no matter what.
And I find it hugely comforting that it IS God who has given that gift of faith – so knows what I might or might not be capable of…and sees my longing to get things “right” for him, even as I fail once again.

So – it becomes far more manageable if I reflect that I’m not called to celebrate the situations that make me sad…but to celebrate that God remains God in all God’s amazing glory. Remember
The chief purpose of humanity is to glorify God…
That’s what we are for, you and I.
We are made for praise and worship.

A long time ago I found myself embroiled in a group discussion about which style of worship in church was most edifying or helpful – or, if we’re honest, which one those in the conversation liked best…And one of the group decided that we needed a definition of worship – and came up with one that I found really helpful.
How about this?
"Worship is the giving of love, admiration, sacrifice and commitment to the thing that is the idea that your heart and soul longs for",and those elements of total commitment (present your bodies, a living sacrifice) and longing are central to the experience of Christian worship. And in Christian worship, the one for whom our heart and soul longs is of course God himself
The thing is that we tend, for the most part, to live deeply disordered lives...disordered, at least, where it REALLY matters.
While we may feel that we are quite secure from the breaking that first commandment “You shall have no other God before me” when we think in terms of idol worship – the truth for me is that I find it distressingly easy to put other things ahead of my relationship with God…Good things, of course. Things that absolutely come as gifts FROM God….but sometimes in our pleasure in the gift – family, friends, the beauties of nature – we may put those gifts ahead of the giver. It’s easily done. But it’s not the way things should be.
You see, if worship is all about "giving worth" to God then its role is to ensure that He is in His proper place, at the centre of all things. Though this may seem to be stating the obvious, through the centuries we have repeatedly lapsed into the idolatry of placing something else, something less, at the centre of lives and our
celebrations. So the words of the Te Deum
"We praise you O God, We acknowledge you to be the Lord"
are a more profound statement of worship than their familiarity through endless more or less joyous repetitions of Matins might suggest. Equally, the doxology (from Greek doxa (glory), is another reminder of God's supremacy in all things. When we say or sing it, we’re not doing it to make God feel better but to acknowledge the most powerful reality there is.
Praise God, from whom all blessings flow.”
That’s what we’re for
We are called to "Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name; worship the Lord in holy splendour"and in practising this we are freed from the egotism that puts “me” at the centre of my universe, and become more fully our true selves, who exist above all in relationship with God..
To be fully oneself, as God intends, is to be one who worships (for worship is the hallmark of a being fully alive in God ), but though it is our natural response to God's pre-existing generosity, his outpourings of the gifts of life, love, forgiveness and transformation, the act itself is only possible through his gifts. If worship is about the whole of life and how we live it, it must also be about our whole selves, bodies as much as minds and spirits,- for it is to be a complete outpouring of ourselves to God.And it absolutely is NOT limited to Sundays – though it matters to have times set apart to ensure that we really do attend to this defining business for which we were made.
Seven whole days, not one in seven I shall praise thee”
In other words, a full time calling.
Seven whole days, yes?