Thought for the Week – Scroll down for previous Posts
A Reflection for Ascension
Image by Giotto – Copyright free
The apostles looked up at the sky after Jesus ascension. What were their thoughts? Amazement, perhaps, that all of a sudden, this man, this amazing man, with whom they had talked, eaten and shared their lives was gone. When someone we love dies and is no longer physically present, a void opens up and so it must have been for them.
When the disciples looked up to heaven as the cloud hid Jesus from sight, they had to return to ‘normal’ life. There was no physical presence to reassure them; they were now ‘on their own’ on earth to proclaim the Gospel. His spirit was ever near but day to day living had to carry on. There must have been a sense of loss but they carried on, appointing a new member, Matthias, to join the group of apostles.
When you look up into the sky at the clouds and see them transform before your eyes, remember the apostles who knew Jesus and sat and talked with him and were with Him as He ascended to heaven in a cloud. They were determined to carry on His ministry.
Jesus separated Himself from the physical world through His ascension into heaven but we can still ‘see’ Him and ‘touch’ Him when we share His body and His blood in the Eucharist.
We lift our eyes to heaven to remember your Ascension.
As you intercede for us with your Father, we give thanks for the Apostles and their determination to go out into the world and fulfil your word.
You have left your work on earth for us to continue. Give us strength to be your witnesses to deliver your message in our communities.
Bishop David Wilbourne’s Lent Talk week 4
Cherishing God’s People
I was doing the washing up with my ordindands in Ampleforth Abbey, the famous Benedictine monastery. Over the sink was a notice, drawn from tonight’s reading. ‘Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.’ Below someone had scrawled in capital letters: ‘And please leave this kitchen as you would expect to find it!’ There had obviously been issues.
I spent my late teens attending a church in West Hull where my dad was vicar. The congregation were cross, not cross at anything in particular, just cross. Their ancient church close to the river Humber had had to be demolished because of subsidence. The diocese decided to do away with the parish entirely, but the parishioners were having none of that. They took on the diocese and won, and built a new church. But the massive fund-raising and building programme had left them tired, along with a confrontational mind-set where you opposed everything, whatever. The Gospel didn’t get much of look in, which understandably deeply upset my dear dad.
For instance, next to the church was a Church of England Childrens’ Home, orphans and unwanted children who came to the Eucharist on a Sunday and had their own three pews at the back. When it came to receiving communion the rest of the congregation, who hitherto had not displayed any inkling of athletic prowess suddenly put a spurt on to get to the altar rail before the Children’s home kids. ‘I don’t want those brats tainting the wine,’ the Queen Bee of the congregation once explained. You won’t be surprised to know I sat with the brats.
One Sunday morning though it was utterly brilliant. There was the usual stampede of about thirty people to the communion rail, but the leader of the pack lost her footing and tripped, those racing behind powered into her and stumbled themselves and in a few seconds it was just a pile of bodies. To be honest it looked like a stall of old coats at a jumble sale but with people in them, very strange people. Nobody helped each other because they were obsessed with scrambling out and getting to the communion rail first, so it became a scrum which was going nowhere. Me and the brats walked past bemused. That day the last were truly the first.
My dad saw it out for three years. I used to write long letters to him from Cambridge, encouraging him to hold on, hold to his God-given call. But in the end we moved to a rural parish which was happier in its skin.
It happens. Richard Hanson, Professor of Ecclesiastical History was appointed bishop of a cross-border diocese in the Church of Ireland. Cross was the operative word. Having described the Orange Order as a cross between a Victorian Sunday School and the Mafia he decided enough was enough and left after three years, a significant tenure. ‘It would take me thirty years to get anywhere here,’ he concluded. ‘And to be honest I’ve got better things to do with my time.’
Before my parents moved in my Easter Vac I bussed to their new vicarage every day with my decorator’s holdall and painted every room to cheer them. God bless clergy spouses and children who keep dad or mum sane and keep their priesthood on the road.
Talking of the road, as we drove away from West Hull for the last time, following the removal van, my shy dad pulled the car to a halt, got out, took off his shoes, and banged them together. ‘Even the dust of your town which clings to our feet we wipe off in protest. Yet know this, the Kingdom of God has come near. I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than that town.’
It’s an extreme example, but there again, not that extreme. Kind, tender-hearted, forgiving? Mm. See how these Christians love one another! What can be done? Well, at the end of the day, all is grace, and God’s grace doesn’t need our permission to exist. More often than not, grace comes from some surprising directions.
The Sunday before last the Eucharist Gospel was John’s account of the Samaritan woman at the well. Before the event, Jesus has got into a terrible row, overturning the tables of the money changers and dove sellers, shrieking ‘My house should be a house of prayer. You lot have made it a den of thieves.’ That would not make him popular. Not so much turning over the tills of the cathedral shop, but bursting into the cathedral on Sunday morning and turning over the altar and tipping over the chalice. Last time I was at the cathedral I did an Elvis Presley impersonation, which has made me persona non grata. Just imagine the fury. Jesus was a man on the run.
And as so often happens, out of the frying pan into the fire. Jesus ends up in Samaria, bandit country. The disciples desert him and go off to the nearby town for shopping therapy. So Jesus ends up by a well at noon. A Jew on the run, alone and thirsty at high noon.
Who is on the Lord’s side?
Who will serve the King?
Who will stand against the world
And for him sing?
Who will watch with him in
Gethsemane’s dark hour?
Who will weep at Calvary
Humbled by Love’s Power?
By Thy grand redemption,
By Thy grace divine, We are on the Lord’s side, Saviour, we are Thine.
A woman surprises him. Come to draw water. Hard toil, better done in the cool of the evening. But we learn she is much married, five husbands and now another man. This man-stealer wouldn’t be popular with the other women, so she had to fetch the water in the baking heat when the rest of the world was having a siesta. ‘Please give me a drink,’ Jesus asks her. A woman, a Samaritan, with a dodgy reputation. A good Jewish boy should have kept his distance. But there again, he had the thirst, she had the bucket, so there we go.
And there they went, giving him a drink springing all sorts of things. Talk about her deepest desires and loves. Talk about worshipping God in spirit rather than in this place or that place. Talk about Jesus, the living water, the Messiah. All sprung by a glass of water.
Those who wander into our bandit territories. What do we give them, how do we quench their thirst? May be nothing more than a drink, a smile, a listening ear. ‘What are you doing for the rest of the day?’ I often ask people at the church door. A neutral question. ‘Anything I can help you with?’ Less neutral, more risky, but whatever.
We used to have a system called Helping Hands in my last parish. I had a team of volunteers with various skills, and I linked them with anyone in need. I knew the need and knew the volunteer and matched them accordingly. It sprang from an incident where a recently widowed lady had been charged £100 by an unscrupulous electrician just to change a simple lamp bulb. This time of year when the clocks went forward I’d spend a couple of weeks flat out on old ladies’ floors changing the clock on their videos, something which was beyond them and was a considerable challenge for Maths geek me.
But you’d be surprised the deep conversations I had whilst I was prostrate on their axminster. Grace comes from some surprising directions.
The thing about John’s Gospel is that people come and go. Nicodemus at the beginning comes to Jesus by night and is met by light. At the end of the Gospel all is night as Jesus dies on the cross. Nicodemus pops up again then, with Joseph of Arimathea when all the disciples have forsaken him. The do a brave deal with Pilate. ‘Please, no common grave for this man, Jesus, no lime pit. Let us take him to our private tomb.’ And they do, paving the way for resurrection and Easter Day’s dawn.
And the Samaritan woman at the well? We are told that women he had cheered followed him to the ends of the earth. Did she follow him to Jerusalem? Did they catch her at it, this woman who had had at least six men? Did they, Sun Readers to a man, bring her into the temple and try to catch Jesus out.? ‘This woman was caught in the very act of adultery. Moses said she should be stoned. What do you say?’ ‘Let the one of you who is without sin who has never ogled Page Three cast the first stone.’
Once again, as at the well, they are left alone together, an orthodox Jew with this dodgy woman. ‘Has no one condemned you?’ ‘No one, sir.’ Neither do I condemn you. Go, and sin no more, you little minx!’
All is grace. Grace comes from surprising directions. Grace is always returned.
In Middlesbrough I got the girls from the local brothel to come to church, one of them had had a baby and wanted her baptised. The other girls were godparents. Baptism was in the main service of the day, so it was quite a meeting. My very respectable members of the congregation and these lasses with a definite attitude. It didn’t last.
The girl and her baby came along for a week or two. God bless her for having the baby God bless her for having her daughter baptised. But my congregation, good people, gave her a wide berth. I understand. We are all frightened of those who are different. Their dress code so different, their take on life, at least on the surface, so different.
She got the message. I’d see her around the estate, pushing her babe in her pram, and have a friendly word. I’d see the godmothers around the estate, pushing something else and we’d smile and chat with each other, a scrawny youth in a dog collar who presented no threat. We could have done more for them, so much more.
I met with an ordinand whose call was basically to minister to women on the edge. ‘Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.’
I have been researching into 14th century Norwich. I clearly need to get out more. At that time Norwich was clearly far from the sleepy place we know and love these days. More like present day Aleppo. Mercenaries returning from the 100-year war with France, unpaid, looting and pillaging where they could. French pirates attacking coastal towns like Norwich, doing to the English what the English had done to them. Black death and plague halving the population at a stroke. The church had a real problem with lack of clergy, not because there were no vocations or the clergy were all retiring, but because they were all dying tending their plague-ridden parishioners. There was the threat of revolution, the Peasants rising up and executing the ABC. Never mind the ABC, there were religious extremists who wanted to do away with all bishops, and you can’t get much more extreme than that.
What was the Church doing during all this turbulence? She was screaming about an angry, judgemental God, full of wrath. Bishop Dispenser, bishop of Norwich rather than don robes wore a suit of armour. He heard confessions, but if there was a whiff of treason, he had the supplicant arrested, found guilty and executed, impaling their heads on Norwich’s city walls. A somewhat harsh penance, even by Norfolk standards. Turbulence is not new.
But in the midst of all this Mother Julian of Norwich bravely declared that there was no wrath whatsoever in God. A lot of wrath in humankind, but no wrath in God, who is total love, a love which is patient and kind that keeps no score of wrongs.
We need to catch his habit. No meat on Fridays, the day our Lord died, used to be the rule of the day. But how about no wrath on Fridays or Sundays, the day our Lord died and rose. How’s that for starters? We love a good gossip, we love to put people down, see them getting their just deserts. But none of that on Fridays and Sundays.
In an intense vision of the crucifixion, where she actually conversed with Jesus on the cross, Julian realised that the purpose of the cross was not to satisfy God’s wrath but our wrath. ‘Are you satisfied that I love you,’ Jesus asked. ‘If I could suffer more, I would suffer more to win your heart.’ As the spear is driven into his side and water and blood gush out, Julian sees the world being flooded with God’s love, a tsunami of love.
Mother Julian’s catchphrase is All shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well. Mother Julian’s challenge is to hold to that with all our heart. Accept that God who is love has got it all in hand, is fazed by nothing, not even cruel crosses, so no problems with the mess we make of life or of the world or of the church All shall be well. Even in the midst of wars and rumours of wars, Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Or as Sonny, a latter day Julian, said in the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: ‘Everything will be all right in the end, and if it’s not all right, it’s not yet the end!’
From the day of our birth we think we are the centre of the universe, because from our perspective we are. But a very vulnerable centre indeed, and we learn to hit out before we hit, hurt before we are hurt.
The Christian Gospel is that actually we are not the centre of the universe, Christ is, and we need to shift a gear and realise that. Christ who says to us, you have no need to be frightened, no need to fear being vulnerable. Look at me, I am vulnerable, look at God, his is vulnerable, but far from putting an end to us it enables life in all its fullness. Crosses are not the last word. Easter is, or rather Easter is the first word.
If the church could be full of Sonnys, what a lovely place it would be. ‘Everything will be all right in the end, and if it’s not all right, it’s not yet the end!’
But it is full, full of the Son. Make sure you give him a look in. ‘Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.’ And please leave this Church as you would wish to find it!
Bishop David’s Third Lent Talk
I recall a Lent Course at a parishioner’s home where our churchwarden was leading us in prayer. Those prayers were long and so boring that I made my own simple prayer, ‘Lord, get me out of here!’
At that very moment the phone rang, a call for me: my eldest daughter ringing from home. ‘Dad, Dewi’s died. Clare’s so upset!’ So without further ado I put the phone down and ran the length of the dark town, and arrived home breathless. There was Clare, holding Dewi in her cupped hands. Let me explain, Dewi rather than being the patron saint of Wales was her much loved pet hamster. Though her third hamster it was her first male, a thoroughly mischievous scamp who delighted us all.
Tonight he was delighting no one, because here we clearly had, in the parlance of Monty Python, a dead hamster. I had encountered dead rodents before, eyes glazed over, air sacs collapsed, such a bedraggled sorry-looking fellow, his fur drenched and matted by my daughter’s tears. As my daughter desperately tried to be brave in front of her dad, something snapped within me, and made me silently rail against heaven, ‘I’m not having this!’
I took the hamster from her and cupped it in my own hands and went and stood over the central healing boiler, the warmest place in the house. As I cupped him in my warm hands, I stroked Dewi’s fur, massaging his chest, blowing my own breath over his tiny head. I must have done this for about ten minutes. Clare looked at me with great hope. My two elder daughters looked at me with increasing pity. How embarrassing. Not only a dad who was a vicar, that was bad enough. But one who had clearly lost the plot and was so bad at bereavement that he couldn’t even let a rodent go.
And then Dewi started breathing and I could detect the faintest of pulses rippling through his body. We wrapped him in warm cotton wool, put him in a box on top of the boiler and let him gently come round, come back to life. Job done I ran back to the housegroup where the churchwarden had by then mercifully ended his interminable prayers. ‘Everything OK?’ folk asked. ‘Yeh,’ I replied. ‘I’ve just witnessed a resurrection!’ Now there’s a statement to bring a Lent Group to a grinding halt!
Why did I do it? Why did I risk making such a fool of myself, hoping against hope to bring a dead rodent back to life. Lots of reasons really. I felt sorry for my daughter Clare. A child’s grief breaks a parent’s heart. I was bored out of my mind by the Lent Group, and was fed up with Christian talk never resulting in Christian walk. As Sydney Carter quipped in his hymn, ‘We are Christian men and women, sir, always willing never able!’
But chiefly at the heart of my faith is Easter with the core belief that nothing, not even death, can put a stop to God, that everything every single thing is resurrectable. I guess I felt it was time to put that faith into action! Hence the miracle! I suppose given the resurrection, which is the biggest given of all times, then all other miracles are possible. As Saki quipped, ‘When once you have taken the impossible into your calculations, its possibilities become practically limitless.
Other resurrections? My Uncle Edmund was a wonderful guy who spent his life’s ministry as an Evangelist in the Church Army, a very enthusiastic Evangelist, not shy like me. The thing is when he was 22 he died! In the late 1940s he had pneumonia was admitted to hospital, failed to respond to treatment and was pronounced dead. He remembered dying and going to a place of tremendous warmth and light, being surrounded by all his departed loved ones, including his mother Emily who had died when he was five. He remembers meeting the Lord Jesus Christ who smiled at him and showed him the marks of the nails in his hands. Edmund remembers laughing that these marks were all that Christ had gained from his time on earth, the strangest of parting gifts. All this was accompanied by a wailing litany, ‘Don’t let him die, Lord, he has a work for you to do.’ The Lord Jesus turned Edmund around and gently pushed him back to earth. Edmund awoke on the mortuary slab and sat up. It was the mortuary attendant who needed attention. Apparently his landlady had been sitting beside his bedside as he died, wailing, ‘Don’t let him die, Lord, he has a work for you to do.’
Edmund had kept quiet about this experience until the 1970s when he was ministering to a couple whose young daughter had died and were inconsolable in their grief. Edmund told them his story to assure them that Christ would not let their little one go, or any of us go, that a positive paradise with Christ lay beyond. We first heard about it when we were listening to Radio Four one Sunday morning in the 1970s. ‘This morning we feature a CA officer who came back from the dead,’ the announcer informed us. Me and my mum raised our eyebrows at each other. Yeh, right! Then we heard my Uncle Edmund’s voice over the airwaves.
I mentioned last time about Jesus meeting with a leper at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel. Most ancient manuscripts have Jesus pitying the leper, but a few have him being angry when the leper crosses his path.
Almost as if Christ was outraged that this should be. That this wasn’t what creation intended, that there was a plethora of wrong turnings which had ruined things. Leprosy was a catch all term for all skin diseases, including eczema and anything stress-related. Why the stress when God wants us to be whole? Leprosy also flags up a fractured community, with no go zones and untouchables and the whole industry of who was clean and who was not clean. Those who are cast out by convention and social and religious order are cast in by Christ. Healing the leper is the miracle which advertises that, which bucks the trend, prefaced by Christ’s anger.
But you can’t explain all disease away as stress related. You can’t explain Christ’s anger away as just a revulsion to society’s revulsion to the ugly and unlovely. Disease and death, change and decay, the earthquake and the tsunami seem to be creation’s very woof and warp. Even if you don’t go for Genesis 3, the Fall, as an historic event, creation does have that fallen feel about it, wonderful though it is, it does also feel flawed. ‘There once was a man, there was somert up with him,’ was the way a Yorkshire lad started a short story, addressing the condition, catching the condition of us all. Christ’s anger and subsequent miracle seem to be in the category of the manufacturer’s apology for the high price that has to be paid for his product to function. Mine is the fault. Mine must be the cure!
Another Lent Group I was leading became highly imaginative and speculated how God would fare on Watchdog, Manager of the Universe PLC, being grilled by Anne Robinson. ‘Oh, she’d crucify him!’ someone said.
The Gospels teem with miracles, and they don’t all fall into the category of either righting implicit wrongs or reflecting the resurrection. The miracles being God-given will always bewilder us, because a God who can be understood is no God! We shouldn’t generalise, each miracle should be looked at separately, checked for its message, its plausibility, although isn’t that the definition of miracle, that which is implausible?
But my two categories are good starters for ten, good tools to try and unpack the bewildering things that are going on. ‘Good game, good game, hope you’re playing it at home!’ as that great Father of the Church Bruce Forsyth used to say.
Time forbids me to tackle all the miracles tonight. But take for example the feeding of the 5000, 180 gallons of water turned into wine at the Cana wedding, the miraculous catch of fish where the fishermen had previously toiled all night and caught nothing.
BM (Before the Miracle): these were situations of deadness and despair.
AM (After the Miracle): Resurrection, life in all its fullness, nets and baskets and stone jars brim-full of it.
Or BM: creation taking a wrong turning, starvation, thirst, endless toil with no reward.
PM: Everyone is sated.
Or take another example, the stilling of the storm on lake Galilee. Actually there are two miracles here. Miracle one stars someone who sleeps in the midst of the storm, in the midst of chaos, has the nerve not to thrash about making things worse, but to do nothing, be calm throughout. That is a miracle, the sure touch of one who knows that even the most chaotic storm is resurrectable.
And stilling the storm is maybe the Creator saying ‘I so wished it could be different,’ flagging up a kingdom where there will be no more dread seas, as well as no more gates to shut out or exclude people.
All the healing miracles fall into the category of mini-resurrections and restorations, filtered by a Christ for whom everything is resurrectable.
There is one healing miracle at the pool of Siloam in John’s Gospel, the Lourdes of Palestine, where some guy has been on his stretcher there for 38 years, but has never quite made it into the healing waters. Talk about NHS waiting lists! Jesus looks him in the eyes and says, ‘Do you want to be healed?’ which is one of the best questions in the Gospel.
Like our Clare, the Bishop of London’s daughter had her pet hamster die. She arranged a funeral, the coffin a silk-lined shoe box, a grave in the sunniest bit of the flower bed, an elaborate liturgy presided over by her Tudor-like father. As they gathered around the graveside the little hamster twitched in the shoe box, like Dewi coming out of a strange hibernation, threatening to spoil the elaborate funeral. ‘Kill it, Daddy,’ the little girl cried. Do you want a miracle? Of course we want a miracle, people would reply, but I wonder sometimes.
I’m a bit of a fixer, a bit of a mender, driven I guess by an interest in engineering and a faith where everything is resurrectable.
More often than not, I wonder if people want things fixing, or whether they prefer things to remain the same, play the moaning game, play the nobody loves me, nobody-wants-to-make-me-better game, rather than be loved, be made better. We all probably prefer our warm, familiar, status-quo cocoon rather than break out into the cold unknown, little realising that one day our cocoon will become our tomb. We prefer the known, the familiar, the deadly, rather than risk life in all its frightening fullness. Or somehow, we’ve lost our nerve, done a deal with the world and argued resurrections out of existence in order to make our faith credible.
‘They said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.’ Mark’s conclusion to the women finding the tomb empty and being told by an angel that he is risen. The most amazing stuff ever. About which they say nothing.
Rabbi Lionel Blue told the story of the man who fell off a cliff, but managed to catch hold of the branch of a tree growing out from the cliff side. He shouts to heaven in desperation, ‘Is there anybody up there? Please help me.’ Surprisingly, God replies. ‘I am here, my son, here to care for you. Let go of the tree and I will carry you to safety in my everlasting arms.’ A long silence. ‘Is there anybody else up there?!’
We can’t be doing with resurrections.
John’s beautiful account of the first Easter Day, has those converting words of the Risen Jesus: ‘Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said, “My Master.’ Hear him saying your name as you weep. Do you turn? But we are told Mary clings to him, clings to the old Jesus, the old way of life. The old Jesus, at whose feet she sat by the hearth, enthralled. She wants to keep him like that, her pet Son-of-God rather than release him to be let loose throughout the world and throughout time.
And when faced with resurrections, I can see why we’d lose our nerve. Often in my own ministry I’ve felt bogus to the core. I’ve read the Gospel of Jesus making the blind see, I’ve read that Gospel to blind people, yet left them blind. I once read that Gospel in an old people’s home in Middlesbrough, you can’t get much worse than that. I was newly ordained, and hadn’t really been trained for encountering old peoples’ homes in Middlesbrough. In theory you are taking our Lord in his Blessed Sacrament to grateful people in the twilight of their lives. In practice, Matron shoves all her most difficult cases into the lounge, goes off for a ciggie break and leaves you to cope with the chaos.
Alzheimers had yet to be diagnosed, in those days you just accepted that old people were more than a bit confused. We had an old lady who thought she was a Red Indian and circled me during Mass making Red Indian sounds, as if I was a wagon train making incursions into her territory. I rather enjoyed her company. It was the other inmates who got to me, shouting at her to shut up. I guess it was God’s way of preparing me for Diocesan and Provincial meetings. When I got to the punch line of my Gospel ‘And the blind man received his sight,’ one blind old lady, called Florrie, burst out ‘Ee how lovely!’ in genuine joy. Which was a bit of a miracle in itself, but not one worked by me.
Poor soul, for her life’s work she had been the attendant at the Underground Ladies Loo in Central Middlesbrough. However bad your job, it couldn’t be worse than that. Florrie was so devout, responded properly when I said ‘The Lord be with you’ when the other residents responded with other words. She received the consecrated bread as if it were the most precious thing in the world. Which it is. The other inmates didn’t share my high Eucharistic view. One used to stash the bread in her handbag. I used to try and recover it. ‘Nurse, he’s stealing my stuff,’ she wailed in complaint. Another used to drop it down her cleavage. ‘You’ll have to get out of that one yourself, Lord,’ I used to think. I was a gibbering wreck by the end of every visit there. Saved by Florrie, my miracle.
And I feel most bogus when I visit a bereaved family I, an agent of the resurrection, a servant of the one who brought the dead back to life, yet I do not raise up their loved one. What a fraud! Almost as if I was a disciple of Alexander Fleming and said, ‘Well yes, his antibiotic, his penicillin worked, but I’m sorry, mine doesn’t, but let me spend all my ministry explaining why!
Yet just on the odd occasion I’ve detected what R S Thomas termed ‘the movement of a curtain.’ He wrote this poem about prayer, picturing it as a knight on a quest to rescue a princess imprisoned high in a tower, hesitant because he’s not sure whether she’s even up there at all. ‘I would have refrained long since,’ the knight admits, ‘but that peering once through my locked fingers I thought I detected the movement of a curtain.’
Bishops have to write so much about themselves all that they have done, busy, busy, busy. I’ve written reams, God forgive me. But if I actually wrote down those moments when I’d stopped doing, and simply allowed myself to be, and let God’s grace shine through rather than block it with endless activity, then I would barely fill a side of A4. But what a side, what a side! Those very strange movements of a curtain moments.
remember years back our local GP tipped me off about a mother-to-be who had double pneumonia. Because she was six months pregnant they couldn’t risk the strong antibiotics, or rather she wouldn’t risk losing her babe. She wasn’t expected to survive the night. I went round, it was about 10 pm. I remember the house, Prebendal House, an ancient house next door to the church. It was late at night, but I just walked in and startled the maid. But she relaxed when she saw my dog collar. ‘I will take you to my mistress,’ she said, in a broken Eastern European accent. Her mistress was on the bed, hair bedraggled, thrashing about, the eiderdown thrown off, the sheets drenched in sweat. She was obviously very heavily pregnant. I recall the doctor had mentioned the possibility of twins. Three lives at risk then. I didn’t do much. Managed to get hold of her hand as she tossed and turned, prayed with her, for her and her unborn. I always like to pray with touch. Only a few minutes. Nothing more. I left her to the maid, who was sponging down her brow, whether he mistress wanted it all not.
The GP rang the next day. ‘I can’t believe this, but the fever broke, she’s fine.’ I didn’t think anything of it, really. I was a busy parish priest, we had three young children, life goes on. It was only when I was conducting my ‘movements of the curtain’ exercise for my latest book that I recalled it, and realised it was more than a bit rum.
As the centurion was going down his servants met him and told him that his child was alive. He asked him at what hour he had begun to recover. ‘Yesterday at one pm the fever left him.’ The self-same hour that Jesus had said ‘Your son will live.’ Jesus healing at a distance, a day’s travel. Why can’t he heal at a distance of 2000 years and 2000 miles? If only we could recover our nerve and expect the miracles and be the agent of them. Do you want to be healed? To repeat Saki, that great evangelist for resurrection ‘When once you have taken the impossible into your calculations, its possibilities become practically limitless.’
Open that barred door, let Christ in and let his resurrection and all the miracles that proceed from it blow through your life and surprise you and your pet hamsters and all the hurting points where you yearn for transformation. ‘He brought light out of darkness,not out of a lesser light. He can bring thy summer out of winter though thou have no spring.’
Bishop David’s Second Lent Talk
– Seeing the Hurting Points
Coming across funerals unawares. My dad’s mum, Emily, died when he was just three. On the day of her funeral his Uncle Ernest took him for a walk in the park, to spare him such grief. As so often happens their walk directly coincided with the funeral cortege, the bier drawn by black stallions, the coffin festooned with wreaths, my dad’s large family shrouded in black trailing behind. ‘Oh look, Ernest, what pretty flowers,’ my dear dad exclaimed. He always rejoiced over the beauty despite the dark.
Coming across funerals unawares isn’t always tragic. I was once burying someone at the very top of our churchyard, the grave dug right next to a high wooden fence. The other side was the garden of a bungalow. The mourners and I marched quietly to the grave, no small talk when you’re looking death in the face, the bearers lowered the coffin, the ropes silently slipping through their hands. But I could hear a terrier whimpering and scratching at the other side of the fence. ‘Mandy, what are you doing digging up my flowerbed,’ her owner shouted. I decided to crack on. ‘Man that is born of woman hath but a short time to live,’ I intoned. ‘What did you say, love?’ Mandy’s hard-of-hearing owner asked. ‘And is full of misery, he cometh up and is cut down like a flower,’ I continued, turning up the volume. ‘Bloody hell!’ my invisible hearer exclaimed, beating a hasty retreat into her bungalow.
An unconventional funeral. I suppose all funerals are unconventional. I remember one, the church packed, a woman standing at the lectern, shaking at the front, giving a tribute to her friend who had died too soon. Inevitably she broke down, ‘I’m sorry, I’m a bit crap,’ she apologized. Not a word I had heard in the hallowed confines of my parish church before. But neither had I heard someone catch their feelings of terrible grief so succinctly and honestly. She spoke for us all, so say all of us.
‘Thou art sleek and shining bright,
but I am weary.
Thy countenance is full of light
but mine is dreary.’
Stevie Smith, Little Boy Sick.
Being attentive to hurting points, the second mark of mission. In Luke 7:11-17 Jesus’ heart went out to that widow he chanced upon at Nain in her utter grief. She had lost her only son. To survive a child is bad enough, but her son would have been the bread-winner, her old age pension and a dry roof over her head. She would be weeping twice, not only for him but also for the terrible destitution that awaited her. You get a hint of the level of destitution in the story of Ruth and Naomi in the Old Testament. Mother and daughter-in-law both widowed, Ruth the foreigner forced to glean for the scraps on the edge of the corn field. Boaz the landowner taking pity on her, instructing his men to leave a generous border of unharvested wheat and not molest her. As if a widow was fair game, and being molested as she groveled for the scraps was the order of Israel’s day. Like Boaz with the widow Ruth, Jesus, the son of David, the descendent of Boaz and Ruth has compassion on the widow of Nain.
The English translation fails to do the Greek justice, splagcnizomai, splangchnizomai, literally gutted, onomatopoeic, since you wrench your guts saying it! splaycon are your inner vital organs. Jesus saw the widow’s plight and was gutted. Gutted to perform a resurrection.
As Christ’s disciples we are called to weep with those who weep, to be gutted by their plight. What makes you feel gutted? As an eleven year old boy I remember feeling gutted for the children of Aberfan. There is usually a connection which drives the compassion. The children were a similar age to me. The first five years of my life were lived under the shadow of a spoil heap. Not to mention the fact that fifty years later I was to have the immense privilege of preaching at those children’s memorial as Aberfan’s bishop. No wonder I was gutted.
The word crops up in six other places in the Gospels, and nowhere else. Three times in Matthew and Mark: Matthew 14:14, Mark 6:34, Mark 8:2 where Jesus is splagcnizomaied, gutted by the crowd, who have followed him for three days and run out of food, lost like sheep without a shepherd, and miraculously feeds them.
We are called to be gutted by the crowds, crowds of refugees, migrants, whatever, to pity them and feed them. Crowds of voters at referenda and elections, like sheep without a shepherd. Every church is called to be a food bank, offering the bread of life, life in all its fullness.
The word crops up in two parables. Matthew 18:27, the parable of the two debtors, where the king is splagcnizomaied, gutted by the man in massive debt to him, who throws himself at his feet, begging for mercy. Miraculously the king writes off a debt which runs into millions.
Ironically that debtor once forgiven goes away and guts some poor chap who merely owes him a quid. Forgive us as we forgive. Don’t hoard forgiveness, let it flow. Are you a Sea of Galilee or a Dead Sea?
At one confirmation at Aberdare I turned the church into a river, the River Jordan. The tower was Mount Hermon and the ringing captain threw down a blue ball of wool, symbolising melt water forming the Jordan. I traced the Sea of Galilee, teaming with life, which the candidates knelt in to be confirmed, and hid the Dead Sea behind the altar. God is gutted for us and we bathe in his compassion.
Do we let that compassion flow, like the sea of Galilee. Or do we hoard the compassion, don’t let it go anywhere, or worse, rather than being gutted by people, gut them? Is this see of Llandaff a Sea of Galilee or a Dead Sea?
In Luke 15:20 the parable of the Prodigal Son, the father is splagcnizomaied when he sees his wayward son, just a speck on the horizon, making his weary way home. The miracle there is that the father runs to meet his wayward son who’d blown half his capital. Why is that a miracle? In those days, wealth would be measured in girth, so the father would be a very obese to put it politely. Running would hardly be his thing. Yet he ran for love, belly and treble chins wobbling, necklace and belt jangling, face red with exertion. ‘Look at that fool, running for love,’ his labourers would have sneered. Look at that fool on Golgotha, running for love, crucified for love.
Think of God, always on the look out for you when you are lost, moved to compassion at your return. Apparently those who have a child run away from home always leave a light on in the porch, 24/7, aching for a return. We heard last Sunday how Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, and was met by light, the light of the world. God’s light always burns for his hurting children, battling with darkness. A bishop carries a crook as the sign of the Good Shepherd, always wanting to bring lost sheep home.
The word crops up in one other healing, when Jesus is splagcnizomaied gutted by the leper at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel Mark 1:41. There is an interesting variant in this story, in that in Codex Bezae an ancient copy of the Gospels Jesus is ’orgazomaied rather than splagcnizomaied, angry rather than gutted. Angry at what? At God? ‘Why does it have to be like this, Lord? Let’s reverse things for once.’ Or angry at the separation that the disease brings? I am very interested in the science of NT Textual Criticism. The problem is we don’t have the original of the Gospels, just copies of copies of copies, the earliest from the Fourth Century. New Testament Textual Criticism sifts all the textual variants for copying errors, or intentional or unintentional improvements to the text and tries to come up with the original. It’s impossible to call with those two. The NEB unwisely tries to combine both readings, describing Jesus looking at the leper with warm indignation: fury with a smile on its face! Whatever, Jesus being gutted results in the leprosy being banished, separation being banished.
Lost crowds, lost sons, lost debtors, lost lepers, lost widows: a whole spectrum of misery which our Lord is splagcnizomaied by, gutted by, gutting to do something massive. As Christ’s followers we are called to be splagcnizomaied, genuinely gutted by them. Miracles begin with being gutted, by entering into the hurting points of God’s wounded children. We are told that the Good Samaritan simply came to where the wounded Jew was, and as Christ, we go into the most terrible situations, simply to come to where his children are and show them pity. Cardinal Basil Hume – ‘A bishop is to come to where people are and take them to places they never dreamt of going.’ ‘One cannot live quite without pity’ claimed Dostoevsky.
‘When you look at others, you could always begin to feel pity. When you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was just a failure of imagination.’ To quote Graham Greene in The Power and the Glory, a marvelous book about the last priest being hounded out of Mexico’s atheistic state.
Cyril Garbett was bishop of Winchester in World War II when nearby Southampton was flattened by Luftwaffe bombs. The morning after the raid the night before he visited the scene, decked in his apron and gaiters. ‘What have the likes of you to do with the likes of us?’ a man jeered. Garbett crossed the road and replied, ‘I know that this is so very little, but I do feel utterly and tremendously sorry for you.’ The man’s tone and attitude changed. ‘Thank you, sir. At the end of the day nothing else can be said.’ Garbett splagcnizomaied those sorry bomb victims. Came to where they were and was gutted for them.
Garbett’s driver had been seconded to work in spitfire engineering, so Garbett, never having driven in his life before, drove his ancient car the ten miles from Winchester to Southampton, double declutch and all – probably posing more of a threat to Southampton’s populace than the Luftwaffe!
His chaplain he had seconded to be a parish priest in Southampton’s midst. The night of the bombing raid the chaplain carried his wife and their new born son into the vicarage cellar, and there baptised the baby, because he felt that none of them would survive the night. He then left them to visit his flock and help wherever he could. There is the supreme example of incarnation, coming to where people are and empathising with them, splagcnizomaiing with them, not a patronising, superior pity, not polite pity, but gut-wrenching pity in the spirit of Christ. We may be rubbish at other things, but we can do the pity, we should do the pity. In Christ’s name.
The terrible Remembrance Sunday hymn, O valiant hearts, is redeemed by a couple of lines:
‘Still through the veil
Christ the victor’s pitying eyes
look down to bless our lesser calvaries.’
We are called to pity and bless and be gutted by the calvaries in our midst.
‘The groaning of creation
wrung out by pain and care,
the anguish of a million hearts
that break in dumb despair,
O crucified Redeemer,
these are thy cries of pain.
A may they break our selfish hearts
and love come in to reign.’
A hymn by Timothy Rees, Bishop of Llandaff, a hymn that found me in my teenage years in far away Hull, as Christ finds us here, is gutted at our plight and calls us to be gutted for all his lost children.
That is the heart of Christianity, which the world and indeed the church so often misses. I think we get it in Wales, more than most, after all, we do have R S Thomas!
before an altar of gold,
the holly will remind us
how love bleeds.’
God loved the world so much that he impaled himself on it.
When you stand alongside those who are hurting, when you hurt with, are gutted for them, you are doing God’s work in Christ. It is not a distraction or interruption from the mission: don’t be bothering me with all your sorrows, I’ve got evangelism to do, a Gospel to proclaim. Being gutted is the mission, is evangelism, is the Gospel. The Gospel is full of interruptions, hurting people stopping Jesus in his tracks. He has compassion for the woman who has been bleeding for twelve years, who gets in his way when he is on a 999 call to save a dying 12 year old girl. Inconvenient crosses stopping Jesus in his tracks, actually paving the way for Easter’s dawn.
And the Eucharist marks all that. Focusing week by week, maybe even day by day, on the body broken, the blood spilled, should enable the penny to drop, that he is there in every body broken, in every drop of spilled blood. Timothy Rees again:
‘Wherever love is outraged,
wherever hope is killed,
where man still wrongs his brother man
thy passion is fulfilled.
We see they tortured body
we see the wounds that bleed
where sisterhood hangs crucified
nailed to the cross of greed.’
See every hurting child: See Christ!
Bishop David’s First Lent Talk
I was given Alan Bennett’s diary for Christmas. What about this typical wry comment: ‘Standing and steps. That’s why I could never have been a priest. Too much standing – too many steps.’
But standing and steps notwithstanding, worthy worship is a big thing with me, so I’m thrilled to be tackling this for my first Lent talk.
In 987AD Prince Vladimir of Kiev fancied sexing up his religious practice, so he sent mystery worshippers to St Sophia’s cathedral in Constantinople. They reported back ‘We were led into a place where they serve their God, and we did not know where we were, on heaven or on earth. All we know is that God lives there with people and their service is better than in any other country. We just cannot forget that beauty!’ Do worshippers leave our churches with a sense of ‘We cannot forget the beauty?’
Recently a member of the Russian Orthodox Church visited St Paul’s Cathedral with his hosts for Matins. Clearly the choir weren’t having the best of days. Because he commented afterwards that he did not feel that worship was actually taking place, nor that those attending came expecting worship: a damning indictment of one of the UK’s leading cathedrals!
Does worship actually take place in our churches, and do people come with a sense of eager expectation? ‘I was glad when they said unto me Let us go unto the house of the Lord!’ As I drive around the diocese here and there on a Sunday morning, I pass worshippers going to church. You can actually spot them a mile off, although smart, clothes often have an old-fashioned, dusted-down look.They are walking with a purpose, certainly not sauntering, my car clock hovers over the hour or half hour, obviously they’re cutting it a bit fine. Usually their faces have a steely look to them.
I was glad when they said unto me,let us go unto the house of the Lord. Sometimes there is a young woman in a bright summer dress with a spring in her step and a song in her heart. Lucky church, I think.
Classically the word worship means giving worth, giving worth to our selves, our work, our leisure, our relationships, our church and supremely giving worth to the God of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Before that God we stand as nothing, yet his grace alone convinces us that we are his beloved child, cherished and special.
The definition of the word liturgy is the work of the people, with liturgy being the great connect with our everyday lives and God’s desire for us permeating every moment of our every day.
Worship therefore is not the icing on the cake, something we do for an hour or so a week and then get on with life. Worship and liturgy are the cake, and give life a taste to die and live for.
It is right that worship should be seen as the church’s shop window. It should excel, keying in to nothing less than the worship of heaven. We cannot forget the beauty.
Whenever I worked as a parish priest with ordinands on placement, we used to devise special acts of worship. The ordinands concerned were enthused and informed by the latest scholarship on liturgical practice, about which I inevitably was a bit rusty,a dinosaur in their eyes. But my final check when we had completed our worship draft was to ask where in this marvellous creation were people going to be moved. And if we couldn’t come up with a few possibilities, we went back to the drawing board.
The Sports Broadcaster, Adrian Childs, spent Lent 2015 going to a different mass every day. He then wrote a review of the 46 daily masses he had dropped in on. It is both a funny and sobering read, caught well by the extracts below:
- The nearest parking spot was miles away so I ended up cutting it fine, sprinting to the church. Breathing hard, I pushed against a closed door with a piece of paper stuck on it: “Wednesday. No Mass. Priest’s day off. All attempts to contact him will be futile.” He can’t say that, can he? What if God said that?
- The clue’s in the word: Communion is about communication. It’s not even about the homily; it’s about really communicating the words of the liturgy rather than just intoning them for the millionth time.
- The majesty of the setting was simply irrelevant; for me there was no sense of wonder. It was entirely in keeping with the rest of it that they didn’t share the Peace. Miseries! I felt more warmth and love in Caffè Nero a few doors along.
There are poignant moments too
- There was a Polish lady next to me one Tuesday morning in Our Lady of Grace and St Edward’s in Chiswick. She held a tiny passport-sized photo in a miniature, gilded frame. I took it to be her mum. With tenderness almost unbearable to behold, she occasionally stroked her face.
Therefore with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.
- One Friday lunchtime at St Patrick’s in Soho Square I chose my pew, but before my bottom touched the seat I sprang back up in alarm as I realised there was someone in a sleeping bag motionless at my feet. I looked around at the rest of the congregation but no-one else seemed very concerned, so I shrugged inwardly, knelt and prayed for him, or it may have been a her. Who knows?
No use worshipping Christ in the sanctuary unless you pity him in the slum.
- Then there was the Church of the Sacred Heart and St Catherine of Alexandria in Droitwich Spa. If you’re passing, do go and see the mosaics: they are simply breathtaking. The priest’s sermon mentioned a trip across a lake in India. Walking through the dark churchyard after the service, a lady behind me said to her friend: “That was good; you don’t think of them having lakes in India, do you?” Oddly, I knew what she meant.
- My loudest involuntary snort of laughter came in St David’s Priory in Swansea. I was having a crafty Google of St David’s Wikipedia entry. It turned out his miracle came to pass at Llanddewi Brefi where, I read, the ground on which he stood is reputed to have risen up to form a small hill. A Welsh scholar called John Davies commented “one can scarcely conceive of a miracle more superfluous in that part of Wales than the creation of a hill”. Brilliant.
The Making of Westside Story is a behind the scenes look into the 1984 recording sessions conducted by the musical’s composer Leonard Bernstein with Kiri Te Kanawa as Maria and José Carreras as Tony. It is an excellent example of how a conductor painstakingly draws out the very best in performers (some with definite attitude) to enable a truly mass-like act of worship. It lasts 90 minutes and I can send you the Youtube link. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j3SEW63LsaM. If you can only spare a few minutes, access the performance of One Hand, One Heart at 54.00. Bernstein tells how his hardened daughter was moved to tears – the highest accolade for any act of worship.
I recently consulted widely about worship,and people thought the following areas were worthy of attention.
- Setting the scene
James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool made a knight because of his championing the Hillsboro victims, said that anyone entering church for the first time deserved a medal.
Think about it. More often than not, you are faced by a heavy door which clanks open revealing a dark interior. If you are lucky, someone shoves some books at you. Are they selling them? Have they mistaken you for the juggling act? Where do you sit? On the altar? In the choir stalls? In someone else’s pew?
The service starts. Hymn Number 42, the cheery priest announces, if you are lucky. More often than not the organ launches forth with a hymn tune. Which of the sundry books you have been presented with has hymns in it? What is the difference between hymn numbers and page numbers? When do you stand and sit? Google Youtube and Mr Bean singing Hallelujah.
Welcomers should be visible and attentive, particularly alert to those unfamiliar with the church and worship lay-out. Best if books and bits of paper are limited to a maximum of three, hymn book, prayer book and bulletin, the latter giving a clear map on how to negotiate the other two.
As the service progresses, who can be identified as bearing overall responsibility and owning the direction of this act of worship? Who has the chief unscripted voice and how effective is it – how well does it draw you into worship, put you at your ease, include you, make you feel a part rather than apart? Does the person celebrating come across like a skilled conductor producing orchestral harmony, or someone who fails to harness the performers, resulting in a cacophony?
Can you see beyond the person presiding to Christ, or does that person block him with their own agenda? Do they grandstand, perform or act as conduit, do they guard the gate or do they open the gate? Do they seem sincere, engaging, inspiring, transformational? When they celebrate communion, are you caught by a sense of awe, as if this is both their first time and their last time?
I really don’t think it’s too much to ask
for priests to look pleased to be there.
Too often I’ve been faced with a stony-faced priest speaking of great joy
while looking as if
he’s just opened his phone bill.
Don’t get me wrong,
I don’t want happy-clappy,
just a general sense of “oh good, this is nice”.
How dignified or how regimented is the administration? In some churches you wouldn’t be surprised by a blue motorway sign over the chancel arch.Right Altar Rail, Left Altar Rail: Get in right lane NOW! The last time I attended communion there were two officials blocking my way to the rail. One was to stop me distracting the choir. The other was to point out the communion rail as if I hadn’t noticed it already.
What gives you pause during the act of worship – is there space for pause? Were there awkward silences where people leading that section physically failed to be in place, or lost their place in the text?
Where were you moved? ‘It is good, Lord, to be here!’ blurted out St Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration.
Did the worship start well and punctually? Was there a good sense of pace? Many prefer worship that lasts no more than one hour, which is more than achievable.
Did the worship end well? Was hospitality offered as worship ended, and how are newcomers included? What was the quality of the beverages?
Hymns should be chosen sensitively, to resonate with the theme of the day, but more importantly to set the mood for the various stages of worship. The opening hymn should be a rousing one, drawing people into opening their hearts to give praise. Like Cwm Rhondda before a Rugby International. Forty days and forty nights would be less rousing!
Hymns around the readings, Gospel and sermon should be of a more meditative nature. Hymns centring on the offering, and preparation of the elements if the act of worship is a Eucharist, should obviously have a strong offering and sacrificial theme.
Final hymns should be missiological: ‘Who will go for us?’ God cries in the midst of the incense-filled and awe-inspiring Temple ‘Here am I, send me,’ Isaiah whispers. Count me in Lord!
The pace set by the accompaniment is crucial. By and large hymns enabling worship taking place on the first day of the week, marking Christ’s resurrection, should be sung at a joyful speed rather than a dirge. Choirs, music groups and orchestras should go with rather than against the grain of worship, neither dissonant nor overwhelming.
We are chiefly a literate society, which no longer has to be read to. Almost all the members of the congregation could read the readings for themselves, so value needs to be added, where the reader will have rehearsed, owned and taken the reading to heart, and through emphasis and dramatic tone will draw the congregation’s attention to detail they might miss on a cursory reading. When there is more than one reading, it is good to have a variety of voices. The Gospel contains several voices.
The Revised Common Lectionary sets out the readings for any particular Sunday, but should be used as a resource, a servant rather than master, with evidence that the person responsible for worship has checked whether the readings are appropriate for a particular context, abbreviated where necessary. Three long readings: cut!
Adrian Childs again:
At Sacred Heart in Fareham at 7am
one Wednesday morning,
I sighed a little as an impossibly ancient lady
in a woolly hat stepped forward to do the reading.
This could take a while, I thought.
But it turned out that in her younger days
she could only have been an actor
or Radio 4 newsreader.
Her voice, clear as a church bell, sang out.
I swear even the angels and cherubs around us
cocked a pleased ear.
The Psalmody is a veritable hymn book of the people of God, deployed over three millennia, boldly recording the peaks and troughs of life and faith.Yet so often the Psalm is the point where the quality of worship takes a total dive. Rather than opting for something which is badly sung, badly recited, with a patronising and confusing refrain, worship could be enhanced by a variety of approaches, including plainsong and metrical versions as well as traditional chants, with a said-psalm employing a variety of antiphonal styles.
When I worked in York I used to take ordinands away for a weekend at the Benedictine Abbey in Ampleforth. The Psalms set to plainsong sung by a couple of monks haunted you for weeks.
I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go to the house of the Lord…
You just couldn’t forget the beauty, the beauty of holiness.
One year when Easter was early our local comp was still in session, so I went to do an assembly on Holy Tuesday. Assembly in a secondary school is the closest thing to a near-death experience you’ll ever get. I sang the Palm Sunday Gospel in plainsong
When he came into Jerusalem, the whole city was moved. ‘Who is this?’ people asked. They replied, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’
A vicar singing in front of six hundred teenagers: how naff can you get? Yet when I finished, you could have heard a pin drop. And then they just all broke into spontaneous applause, even though clapping was strictly forbidden. It wasn’t forbidden that day.
Anyone who thinks that preaching has had its day should watch stand-up comedians, such as Michael Macintyre and Rod Gilbert, who always perform before packed audiences. Most of it is observational stuff, a lot of moving around and exaggerated facial expressions, a lot of related humour with the regular punch that has depth and pathos.
Short and sweet seems the order of the day: ‘If you don’t strike oil in ten minutes, stop boring!’ Whilst the sermon should link with the readings before it, many felt it was a mistake to try and comment on every verse that had been read, and instead better to concentrate on one reading, one verse.
Relevant personal anecdotes were welcome, with appropriate humour, with the precedent set by the parables. People yearned for a preacher who, steeped in prayer and the Scriptures, was simple, sincere, genuine, natural, honest, and human, making connections though common stories, and hard-won experience.
Complex theology and poetry are not easily communicated through a sermon medium –better a short, punchy extract, with the fuller text either supplied on the service sheet. Or get people to google it afterwards.
Whether preaching from a text or off-the-cuff, eye-contact seemed key.
Most thought that a text made for a tighter sermon, off-the-cuff was more verbose.
Is the sermon illuminating, well-timed, penetrating, creative, fresh, imaginative, striking, awakening, provocative – while not being trite, clichéd, clever, cute, silly, obtrusive, awkward, puerile, faddish, corny or boring?
Theory and reality were often at variance here. In theory it seems healthy to have the intercessions led by members of the congregation, who bring their distinctive personal spirituality and air it in the midst, boldly making connections with the scriptural themes and hymnody and local and wider needs of the world and the church.
Reality revealed severe frustrations, intercessions prone to be quite lengthy essays, like Times’ leaders which hectored the Almighty and patronised the congregation, diktats from the lectern rather than prayers in the midst, some even trying to score points over petty church politics, or even repeat the notices:
‘Lord, we ask you to bless our bingo evening on Thursday night, beginning at 7 pm with entrance £2, which now includes a buffet supper with wine extra,approved by a majority of 7:8 at the PCC…’
Clearly substantial and continual teaching is required to call and recall intercessors to genuine prayer, to give them the nerve to be simple rather than try to impress, to remind them that the prayer our Lord gifted to his church for all ages was less than fifty words.
It is probably good that intercessions are led by the priest from time to time, to share and encourage good practice, daring to be simple and say very little, using words to spring prayer and reflection in those listening, using heart-felt prayers of others which have stood the test of time, resonating with themes swirling around in this particular act of worship, being both comforting and disturbing, daring to take people in a new and challenging direction, such as
‘May the Blessing of God Almighty ,the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit be with you… …and those you hate…’
Dare to be multi-media. Cut out the photo from the Guardian front page and hold it up as you walk silently around the congregation, praying over the picture.
Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Chelmsford, addressed a Church in Wales Symposium on Evangelism last May, and talked of having the nerve to renegotiate the Sunday contract. Simply look at the stuff we do, where we do it, when we do it and why do we do it.
One new priest unfamiliar with Anglo-catholic worship noticed the head server did a Monty Python silly walk every time he got to a certain spot in the sanctuary. Afterwards he asked what was going on. ‘Oh, there used to be a tall kneeler there!’ So much falls in that category.
For me the Eucharist is the beating heart of worship. Firmly I believe and truly that when the priest touches the bread and wine something marvellous and wonderful happens and we all feed on Christ, the Christ who took and blessed and broke and gave. The Eucharist is a royal command performance decreed by King Jesus, do this in remembrance of me.
Jesus did not give us a constitution, or a rule book, he gave us a meal. But I don’t think he ever intended the meal to be so, so complicated. He intended it to be the great connect. Whereas we have made it the great disconnect. We have to think very hard and very urgently how to connect with 2017 Wales.
Just a few ideas:
Why not get the sidespeople to bake the bread,
buy the best bottle of wine the supermarket has on offer that week, rather than the usual Hayes and Finch Chateau Liverpool Sickly Sweet.
Bring the wine up at the offertory and uncork it with aloud pop.
The point is simple. You want every kitchen table to connect as an altar, every meal to be a Eucharist, so that when you break any bread bun in two you hear him, ‘This is my body, broken for you.’ Every time you relish your second glass of Bordeaux you hear him, ‘This is my blood, shed for you.’
Work out simple words of explanation which leave people thinking:
‘We think very carefully of how Jesus shared a special final meal with his friends, and as we share in a similar meal we pray he may be with us now:
The Lord is here!
And end with:
‘You go out with the taste of Christ on your lips; give people a taste of him in your lives!’
Go in Peace to Love and serve the Lord and thrill people with life in all its fullness!
The last word to Adrian Childs
when did you last come out of Mass thinking,
“Do you know what,
I really wish that had been a bit longer”?
Reflection for Lent 1
So, Theresa May is giving up salt and vinegar crisps. Does this vicar’s daughter understand what Lent is about?
Some people shy away from Lent, like those who object to church because they feel the confession seems designed to make them feel guilty. This is the total reverse of what the confession, and Lent, aim to do: which is bring us relief. Because we already know that we aren’t perfect. In various ways, all of us let others down, we let ourselves down, we let God down. We feel shame. We don’t need to be made to feel guilty, we know we are.
It’s part of being human. As Genesis 2 tells us, we are given choice – real choice – the option to choose well, or to choose badly. Choosing well makes us part of the solution of the well-being and flourishing of all people everywhere, in harmony with God’s good purposes in creation; and choosing badly makes us part of the problem, of injustice, inequality, unnecessary hunger, poverty, conflict, etc., in which human beings are diminished and suffer.
But temptation to choose badly is real. The mathematics of game theory even explains why it is that abusive freeloaders will always win, at the expense of those who play by the rules, until there are so many freeloaders that the system collapses.
So we succumb to temptation. And, if you peel back the layers, you generally find something akin to what Jesus faced: it is issues of ego, power, money that generally lie at the heart of so much that is wrong with our world.
And lest we smugly despise the culture of celebrity, and pursuit of status, influence and wealth, we should recognise that not only over-assertion of self, but under-assertion, is also a distortion, even a sin: failing to step up, or shoulder responsibilities, or grasp opportunities; to be silent when we should speak out, or do nothing when we should stand up and be counted.
The giving up of Lent is about creating space so we can reflect on all this: space to acknowledge our fallibility and our failings; space to come to terms with the humility necessary for recognising that we need help; space to start heading in the right direction to get that help.
Lent gives us 40 days (plus Sundays) to get organised, and travelling in that right direction, which leads to the foot of the Cross on Good Friday, and Easter Sunday’s empty tomb. Through death and resurrection, God in Jesus Christ does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. God, creating us with choice, shoulders responsibility for all the bad choices of the world, and all their destructive consequences – if we will give them to him. Opening his arms wide on the Cross, Christ accepts their burden, and as he dies, they die with him.
Yet the power of life and love and goodness are greater than the power of evil and death – and hence the rebirth into Easter resurrection life, purged and purified of all destruction; which we are also invited to enjoy. As Paul wrote to the Romans – it’s God free gift to us, if we make a free gift of ourselves to him.
So, this Lent, let us make space to ponder what really matters in life. Let us risk honest acknowledgment that life is tough, and we are fallible. Let us recognise that to trust ourselves to God is to find both relief from the burden of our weaknesses and his strength to help us be part of life’s solutions. Amen
Transfiguration Sunday, St David and Ash Wednesday
We tend to draw a stark contrast between ‘mountain top’ experiences and the humdrum nature of ‘normal’ life, especially when it is difficult or challenging. Yet in the gospels, accounts of Jesus’ mountain-top transfiguration, in which his true glory as the Messiah is glimpsed, are sandwiched between, or even contains, references to his necessary suffering and death. The disciples struggled to understand how the two dovetailed, and sometimes so do we. ‘Death or Glory’ has traditionally been the motto of the Royal Lancers – but for Christ, and for Christians, the two are not alternatives, but intimately interwoven. In John’s gospel, we read these words of Jesus: ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’ (Jn 12:23-24).
Recalling this is good preparation for Lent, orienting ourselves on the journey that leads to resurrection, but only via the cross. And yet this is the best possible news, because it means that we can say goodbye to whatever within us that is not Christ-shaped and life-giving; and all that is left can receive the fullness of Easter promise.
This year, the Church in Wales has translated the celebration of St David to 28 February, since 1 March is Ash Wednesday, a day for solemn abstinence rather than feasting. And yet St David is a wholly appropriate saint to accompany us through fasting and penitence. He and his monks followed a rigorous and disciplined life, not just in Lent but all year round. Forbidden meat and beer, they drank only water, and ate bread with salt and green vegetables. Some accounts say David would often spend the night standing up to his neck in a cold stream, reciting Psalms – way beyond even the strictest Lent any of us are likely to follow!
More apt for us may be his death-bed admonition, to ‘Follow the little things that you have seen me do.’ This echoes Jesus’ words ‘One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much’ (Lk 16:10). Taking small steps can help us build better habits, and the 40 days ahead give us time to make them stick.
Sarah Rowland Jones
God brought order out of chaos when he created the world, as an artist creates a masterpiece from a mishmash of ideas and energy. To acquire wisdom, we often have to live through periods of chaos, which we may later describe as difficult life experience. We are then like a precious metal which has been thrust into the heat of a furnace before it can be fashioned into an object of lasting beauty. As we approach Lent, we think of our Lord Jesus Christ, alone in the wilderness, braving temptation and fasting, moving towards the chaos of crucifixion in order to be raised up as the son of God.
When life is chaotic and it seems that there is no way out, can we keep faith as God’s children that we too, are being supported through our personal wilderness and through the furnace of spirit to be the best we can be? By following Christ’s example of trust and prayer, then may we not also, be raised up into our true potential?
And God said, Let there be light: and there was light – Genesis 1 : 3
Third Week before Lent
As the Lenten Season begins to draw closer it is time to think about how to prepare for the 40 days.
What can we do to think about what will help us as individuals, and collectively, to find shade where we can grow in the love of God.
Perhaps it will be in the Psalms e.g. Psalm 10 a Psalm of lament. A Psalm that graphically describes the circumstances of the religious faithful who even when feeling God is hidden in the distance, can pray in faith. It is good to remember that God is a righteous ruler who will put down the wicked and lift up the downtrodden and helpless. Human rulers may appear to have terrifying power but it is the supreme authority of God that rules over all protecting the helpless from proud, power-mad rulers.
The Lord is King for ever and ever; the nations will perish from His land.
The Lord has heard the desire of the poor, your ear has attended to the readiness of their heart to give judgement for the orphan and the lowly, that people may cease from their boasting on earth. Psalm 10: 16-18 (The Bible – Nicholas King translation)
Find a space in daily life and sit in the shade of God’s love. Think how love ought to manifest itself in deeds rather than in words and how there can be a mutual sharing whether of goods or knowledge. Ask for the desire for the intimate knowledge of the many blessings received, that filled with gratitude for all, I may in all things love and serve the Holy Trinity.
Suggested thoughts to ponder upon when preparing for Lent:
No one can do our religion for us. We must deal with Jesus directly.
How is Jesus Christ teaching us as individuals? How are we, as individuals to serve His church?
How are we to seek God’s will?
Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great (1 Timothy 3:16) as it breaks down barriers of race and religion to reach all nations through the love God has for each of us in our seeking the face of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The presentation of Christ in the Temple – February 2nd
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace : according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen : thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared : before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles : and to be the glory of thy people Israel.
I am sure that all of us, at one time or another, have looked down into a pram and complimented the parents on how beautiful their baby is, “oh, isn’t she/he beautiful!, He’s got your eyes and his father’s nose hasn’t he/she?”, or words to that effect.
Sometimes it is easy to be complimentary of the beautiful sleeping little cherub before you. Other times we just say it to be polite, either way it is nice to see a new life and to celebrate in some small way with the mum and dad.
Simeon certainly celebrates seeing Jesus, not just for him some nice platitudes but an exclamation of great joy. His words, the Nunc Dimittis, are a hymn of great joy and great satisfaction for Simeon. After all those years of waiting he has seen God.
What did Simeon see in Jesus?
Did he see God’s eyes or nose?
Or Mary’s chin or mouth?
His words of joy go deeper than mere polite platitudes, they come from his heart, for at that chance moment of meeting, all of Simeon’s hope, all of his expectation, all of his many years of prayer had, in that instance, been fulfilled.
Simeon saw not a beautiful child but a beautiful peace, a beautiful calm, a beautiful presence that can only come from God. At that moment two souls touched, the soul of God in Jesus and the soul of a man who suddenly realised that all he been promised by an unseen God was right there in front of him.
As we prepare for Lent, let us pray with Simeon that we may ‘See Salvation’, for us it will not be in the form of a tiny child but in the broken body of a man on a cross. And at that moment, if we believe as Simeon did, then two more souls will touch, ours and God’s.
The Fourth Week of Advent
The candle that is lit this week is for Peace and Love
‘Glory in the highest to God and on earth peace among human beings who are pleasing to God’
I look up at the destroyed buildings
I walk through Flanders Fields.
The dreams and thought of soldiers lying
dead on the grass with larks all crying.
Their song is like a yell, a scream
I close my eyes and start to dream.
I dream of Peace and burning fire
I dream of love and life and courage.
As I wake, I think about
the thoughts in my head, in and out.
I see flowers, poppies and crosses round
But there’s nobody to be found.
War is like a virus, a germ
it effects people and how they learn.
That God is with us and we’re all friends
So let’s make peace until the end.
(Kitty Evans Year 6 St Bride’s Major School)
In this season of penitence the questions to ask may still be:
“What remains for me to say sorry to God for?” “What do I need to do to make peace?”
“What do I need to do to stir my faith up and show the Light of the World shining brightly?”
Let us place our hand in the hand of the Man who loves us as we repent of our failings,
And may we enjoy a blessed Christmas as we come to new life.
Revd. Moira Spence