Sunday, 30 June 2013

Feeding and Blessing: Christian Priesthood, Twenty-Four Hours In

This time yesterday, I was standing outside St Albans Abbey, wearing church robes and a huge grin, surrounded by others similarly attired. I had just been ordained a priest by the Bishop of St Albans who, with others, had laid hands on me - an ancient tradition going back to the earliest church and beyond - and called down the Hoy Spirit to fill me and equip me 'for the office and work of a priest in your church', as the prayer put it. It was an overwhelming moment, a moment which I received as pure gift - the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift of the church, a gift so immense that its only apt response is grateful receiving. Before this service, I and my fellow-ordinands had spent two days in prayer, rest and reflection, during which time I had read this book, a very powerful and profound examination of what it really means to say that we believe in Jesus. Of its many gems, one sentence stood out to me as particularly meaningful:

'Human life has no other meaning than to be a response to the God who calls us to love.'

So there I was, outside the Abbey, allowing the truth of this to seep into my soul, when one of the Bishops who had laid hands on me knelt in front of me and asked me to bless him. As my heart leapt into my chest cavity, it was a bit like one of those Andy Warhol-inspired pop art cartoons in which several speech bubbles appear over a person's head all at once. The first speech bubble said 'I can't bless you! You're a Bishop!' The second said 'But this is the gift that you've just been given; this is to share with others.' The third said 'But I don't know what words to use to bless a Bishop WhatdoIsaywhatdoIsaywhatdoIsay?!' The fourth said 'Oh, for heaven's sake, get on with it!' And in that moment, the words came, just as they have when I've prayed with so many people. It was an overwhelming moment.

As I say it here, it sounds as though it could so easily be a nice bit of ecclesiastical showmanship, a gimmick, like a politician kissing a baby's forehead (do they still do that in these angst-ridden days?) But it wasn't gimmicky or showy. It was a genuine moment of giving and receiving, of openness to God and trust in God. As I was recovering from this, my first act of priestly ministry, one of our wonderful churchwardens popped up and asked 'Would you like an ice-cream?' Oh, would I!  

Later that evening, after a very nice meal, I trailed around a near-deserted supermarket, thinking about what to contribute to the church's celebratory 'Bring and Share' lunch, and buying some essentials for home, as I'd been away for a few days and could count on there only being half a wilted lettuce and a half-filled jar of lemon curd in the fridge. It struck me then, as it had in the restaurant earlier on, that eating together - the giving and receiving of food - is essential to human life, essential to community and to the building up of families and friendships.

The other book I'd read on retreat, Take This Bread, had given me (pardon the pun) much food for thought as to how the central, essential act of Christian worship, the celebration of Holy Communion, speaks to all our lives. The ice-cream I'd been given, the bread we'd broken in the restaurant, the cheeses I was buying to share with my church family and the bread and milk I was buying for my children - all, in their humble ways, were an overflow of love, a giving and receiving, an occasion of openness and trust.

So this morning, for the first, second, and third time, I celebrated that meal that sanctifies all meals. It was an overwhelming moment, again and again. Feeding and blessing, being fed and being blessed, giving, receiving, openness, trust. In such things does Heaven break through to earth.  'Human life has no other meaning than to be a response to the God who calls us to love.'            

Sunday, 23 June 2013

"Remain what you have received": Why receiving Holy Communion is always momentous, Part 1

I said a few weeks ago that receiving Communion is always momentous. This is something I truly believe, and there is quite a lot I could say as to why  I believe this. I'm sure I'll blog more about Communion as time goes on, not least because, God willing, I'll be ordained a priest next Saturday, but here's one thought to start us off...

'Stranded in the hall of mirrors,' opens a poem by the Christian writer Adrian Plass. It's been quite a while since I have stood in a hall of mirrors, but it's probably something that most of us have done at some point, and have laughed and maybe grimaced at our self-reflection while doing so. Halls of mirrors make for a good traditional fairground attraction because they exaggerate our features to the extent that we know that they're exaggerating; they make our heads ludicrously long, or our torsos ridiculously thick. We go away subconsciously assured that what we've just seen is not what we really look like; somehow the extremity of the exaggeration puts things back into perspective. We're not that fat, after all.

One of the occupational hazards of being human is that, like Adrian Plass in his poem (which can be found in this book), we are can find ourselves lost among the reflections of who we are that bounce off other people all the time. I'm not sure that there is any way around this; I'm not sure it's possible to have a conversation with another person in which a certain amount of reflection of the other doesn't happen. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, anyway; we are to encourage each other, to build one another up and to help one another see ourselves as we really are, loved and accepted and graced by God in and through Jesus.

But let's face it, some of the reflection of the other that happens within conversation falls far short of this ideal, and some of this conversational reflection can be as ludicrously exaggerated as any hall of mirrors (I could tell you a few funny stories). The reflection that really gets to us, though, is that which exaggerates our faults and weaknesses just enough for us to believe that that's what we really look like, that that's who we really are.

And this is to say nothing of the self-reflection that goes on within the hall of mirrors of our own minds; many of us, not least myself, are perfectly capable of twisting and magnifying our least attractive features to grotesque proportions, except that in this particular hall of mirrors our sense of perspective can be so lost among so many self-reflections that we can forget that the concept of exaggeration even exists. Stranded indeed.

This morning, I was serving as deacon at two Communion services, and as I was putting the chalice to lips, into hands and under outstretched wafers at one, and placing bread into upheld hands at the other, I thought back to a 'Creative Eucharist' that I had been involved with, a few years ago, at theological college, which had followed the liturgy of the German Alte Katholische church (more on them here if you're interested). At that service, as we had stood in a large semi-circle around the altar having received bread and wine, the priest had looked us in the eye and said 'Remain what you have received; the body of Christ.'

For me, it had been one of those moments of jaw-dropping, cosmos-reconfiguring truth dropping deeply into my soul. This is what it means to be a Christian, I realised in that moment; it's to remain what I have received here at this table, to live in the light of the knowledge that Jesus lives in me and I in Him, to know that I am part of the same body I've received here. If I could have formulated a response in that moment, it would have been an inarticulate but utterly genuine 'okay.' Remain what you have received, I prayed silently for each person this morning as they returned to their pews.

This line of thinking draws on the great St Augustine of Hippo, whose sermon on what happens when we take communion has, thankfully, been preserved. Augustine, drawing on St Paul's grand vision of the church as the body of Christ, says this:

"The bread is Christ's body, the cup is Christ's blood. If you, therefore, are Christ's body and members, it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord's table! It is your own mystery that you are receiving! You are saying 'Amen' to what you what you see; receive what you are." (The full text of this commendably short sermon can be found here. It really is worth a read.)

Back to the hall of mirrors. As I say, all the time as we are surrounded by reflections of ourselves, both by those around us and within our own minds, like department store dressing rooms. Some of these reflections are flattering (some suspiciously so), some are warmly encouraging, some soberingly realistic, some stringently chastening, some ludicrously off-beam, some disturbingly close to our own fears and shadowy intuitions. We can't avoid this hall of mirrors; the best we can do is to walk through it with a  sense of proportion and preferably with a couple of people who are good enough friends to tell us when we're losing our vision of who we really are.

What we see in the taking, breaking, blessing and giving of bread and wine, though, is something quite different: we see ourselves, as St Paul puts it, in Christ. We see ourselves as God sees us, in Christ; broken, and yet blessed; giving ourselves, and yet receiving back infinitely more in return; humble, and yet at the very centre of where Jesus is to be encountered in this world.

For a powerfully profound, but all-too-brief moment in the Eucharist, the hall of mirrors is replaced by the one reflection of a man on a Roman cross; broken, and yet blessed in ways the world cannot understand; giving of himself, and yet about to receive infinitely more in the bursting forth from the tomb; humble, yet at the very centre of where God is encountered in this world.

We see ourselves in the Eucharist, in Christ, in the brokenness and the blessedness, in the humility and the holiness of being a part of Jesus' body. May we carry this self-image in our hearts, and assess the truthfulness of each of the reflections of our own halls of mirrors by it. May we know ourselves to be what we receive; may we be what we see on the altar. May we remain what we have received. And may we say 'Amen' to who are.     

Monday, 17 June 2013

Running through the Rapeseed Field

I started running just after Easter. Not Forrest Gump style, accumulating intrigued followers as I single-mindedly and inexplicably crossed inspirational landscapes, although that would make for a better story. No, I just went for what a friend of mine calls 'a trot,' and then did it again the next day, and then again a few days later, and so on. To start with, I ran around the edges of a rapeseed field just behind my house; someone from my church had told me about a good path that led right round the large field.

In fact, that's what I did for the first week or so, as my legs got used to the unfamiliar sensation of rapid movement and as my stamina caught up with my resolve. My plan, at that stage, was that when I was a bit less unfit, I'd simply go round the field twice, and then, as time went on, three or four times. After all, the field has a convenient path around the edges, has a pleasing mixture of flat and gradients, and is quite nice.

Then, one morning, as I was trotting along, I noticed two other runners, coming into the rapeseed field, from the opposite direction to my house. My curiosity was piqued. Where had they come from? And what was it like there? So the following day, rather than going around the rapeseed field twice, I trotted off in that direction, and found that my field, as I had come to think of it, led on to another field, which led into a wooded area, which opened out briefly before coming to a crossroads, one way
hilly and open, the other flatter and sheltered by woodland.

By this point I had begun to realise that I was, in fact, surrounded by some beautiful countryside, living as I do on the edge of a village, and that there was vastly more beautiful countryside around me than there was me to discover it. But I'd make a start.

My adventures in public footpaths have got me thinking about living the Christian faith. The metaphor of life as a race to be run is used in the New Testament by Paul and the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, although it's likely that the kind of run route that these first-century Greco-Romans had in mind was more akin to a marathon whose route is already marked out and lined by cheering spectators than my rural wanderings.

That disclaimer notwithstanding, it struck me that when we start out on our journeys of faith, wherever and however those journeys begin, our faith is defined within particular perimeters, by particular experiences, encounters, language and thoughts which inspire us and get us going on our journey. Once we've got a bit of spiritual stamina built up - once we've started to learn to pray, and to grapple with the Bible and to relate to the Christian traditions - we can either do what I thought I'd do, keep going around that same field again and again, or start to explore where else that field might take us.

Now this isn't to say that where we start from in our Christian faith is bad, and we need to move away from it deliberately. Where else can we start? That'd be as silly as saying that starting out on a run route from my house is a bad thing (although we might as well be honest and say that some starting-places are more conducive to a good run than others). I'm very fond of my field, although it's impossible to run around now, so high has the rapeseed grown. It just seems rather self-limiting to stick to one field when there's a whole world of fields to be discovered, when there is vastly more countryside to explore than there is me to explore it.

Nor is it to say that to be mature, faith must wander off into places which might turn out to be spiritually dangerous; after all, one argument for sticking with the rapeseed field is that it's safe, and known. But what I've found with my explorations of the Hertfordshire countryside is that venturing out of known places, along new paths, requires not less awareness of distance, proximity and sign-posts, but more; not less discernment of relative danger or challenge in new routes, but more. I've found myself discussing public footpaths and poring over Ordinance Survey maps since I ran out of the rapeseed field; I've gathered knowledge, advice and even some basic map-reading skill as I've planned where my runs will take me. One fear of leaving the landscape in which one started one's spiritual journey is that confidence will be lost, faith will be lost, discernment will be lost. But it's quite the opposite.

Discovering the Christian tradition, running new routes and going along unexplored pathways of prayer and thought, doesn't mean blithely accepting everything and anything, it means opening yourself up to new horizons and discerning, through careful attentiveness to the spiritual landscape, which way will take you further into the God of whom there is infinitely more than there is you to discover Him. But let's make a start.            

Monday, 10 June 2013

"I used to be a Christian, but I'm more spiritual now."

You know that moment, when you're walking along a street, usually in a busy city centre, and you suddenly realise that there's no polite way of avoiding the charity-sign-up-chatter-upper-out-of-work-actor you've only just noticed is within 'Hey!' distance of you? Well, that happened to me today. Except that the 'Hey!' didn't turn out to belong a direct debit seeker, but to a rather nice young man who introduced himself as a monk. 'Great!' I said, 'what kind of monk?' A Hari Krishna monk, as it turned out. 'Lovely!' I responded, 'I'm a Church of England deacon, and soon I'm going to be made a priest, hopefully. I'm a religious person too.'

We had quite a good chat about....well, about seeking God through prayer and religious discipline, really. 'Yeah, I was brought up as a Christian', the young monk mused. 'but what I really want is to be able to offer the whole of myself to God, to connect.' I smiled and nodded in genuine recognition. 'Yes, that's what I'm about, too,' I replied.

This little encounter reminded me of a conversation I'd had a few years ago with a young mother. We had got on to the subject of God and faith, and she paused, thoughtfully. 'Yeah, I was brought up as a Christian', she pondered, 'but I'm more spiritual now.'

As someone involved in quite a bit of ministry with children, these two people stand out in my mind as sharp reminders of what I'm actually doing. With school assemblies, the after-school children's Christian club, family services, family Communions, class visits to the church and so on, there can be a temptation to succumb to the 'ta-daaaaa!' school of children's ministry thought. Now getting children's attention s a good thing, and I hope I can do it relatively well. But ultimately, what I'm really doing is hoping to introduce them to the infinite God who is made known in Jesus. I'm hoping to give them a sense of this God, a sense of the luminous, the holy, the beyond. Otherwise it's just a load more stories, a load more information, a load more  'ta-daaaaaa!' (and let's face it, there are many others who can do the 'ta-daaaaaaaa!' better than I can.)

If all we have to offer children, as Christians, or rather, if all we are willing to offer children is a 'ta-daaaaaaaaa!', then we mustn't be surprised if, twenty or thirty years down the line, we find those same children saying, 'Yeah, I was brought up a Christian...but I'm more spiritual now.'  

Friday, 7 June 2013

This time last year...

This time last year, I went to a Holy Communion service, then went out for lunch and a few drinks with some friends. Nothing all that momentous in that (well, receiving Holy Communion is always momentous, whether we're aware of that fact or not, but that's another post for another day...) However, this was a very special service, and a very special bunch of people to lunch with.

It was my last official day as a seminary student, although I didn't actually leave college until the middle of the following week. It was the official end to three years of study, much 'formation,' fellowship, and two degrees (although I had still to sit my Master's exam, and the first things I unpacked when we arrived at our new home were the kettle and tea things, of course, and five boxes of revision books). It marked, for me, a major staging-post in a journey that had, at that point, taken me six years so far, seven if you count the year I spent arguing with God about why my putting myself forward for ordination in the Church of England was a mad idea. I knew that I wasn't 'there' yet; one student jokingly remarked that I was 'formed' now, but of course being formed into the image of Christ takes rather longer than three years. It was also my children's last day at the village school where they had made good friends and got up to all sorts of high-jinks, and it was just as poignant for them as it was for me as we walked an unruly mob of eight- to ten-year-olds through the city for a goodbye visit to our favourite ice-cream parlour.

Those of you who know me will know that this hasn't been the easiest year of my life (we British aren't bad at understatement, are we?) But then again, those of you who know me will know what a sheer delight and joy my involvement in church ministry is to me, how I wouldn't be doing anything else, anywhere else. This time last year, I moved from one very special community, to another very special community, and I thank God for both. But I couldn't have predicted, this time last year, how my year would go. And as I've reflected today, as I've been driving around as one does in rural parts, if church ministry has taught me anything so far - and it really has - it's that life is unpredictable, and people are fragile, usually more so than they look; but within that fragility is the potential for something wonderful and life-giving and all-embracing: grace. That's been my experience this last year. There's a song by Teenage Fanclub that I've loved since I heard it, and I only realised today that I've always misheard it. It's the song 'Ain't That Enough' and the lyrics go:

Highlights glisten
Silence listens
Days that found you
Embrace that found you

I've always heard it as 'the grace that found you.'  That's what I'd tell myself, if I could teleport myself back to this time last year: grace will find you.  'Ain't That Enough' is not a religious song, but for me at least, it has a spirituality to it. It's about watching a sunrise and knowing that here, now, is enough. Embrace will find you. And grace will find you. Maybe they're the same thing. Maybe I haven't misheard, after all.

Ain't That Enough?

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Dr Who Scripts, and other Sacred Writings

So, Matt Smith’s announced his departure from the Tardis, and that perennial question has regenerated: who’s going to be the next Doctor? I had hoped for a Time Lady last time round; I’ll admit that my heart sank a little when I saw that the Doctor had, once again, taken on white, male flesh. So why not a female Doctor?

I’ve listened in on a few conversations along these lines this week, and have found myself smiling in recognition at the lines of logic involved. The language of canon has been invoked, and assumed as a non-negotiable in Whodom; you simply can’t ‘break canon’ with the Who tradition thus far, and that includes not only the TV shows but books and radio plays, even the really obscure ones. And as the Doctor was first revealed as a Grandfather, how can be become embodied as a woman? Ah, comes the rejoinder, the thing is, the word ‘Grandfather’ in Galifrean could be interpreted in a gender-neutral sense; ‘Grandparent.’ And just think of all those little clues already hidden within the canon itself….think of ‘Doctor Donna’, as the Ood foretold. Hmm, comes the more pragmatic response, well, the real thing is that the Doctor has to be male because if he becomes she, she will alienate troops of die-hard Whovians and the community will be decimated. Women have to fancy the Doctor (not that that seemed to have crossed the minds of casting agents back in the Pertwee years), and men have to want to be the Doctor. Mess with the basic human psychology of it, the show will flop, and the vast revenue it yields for the BBC will be lost.

We shall see. Speaking as someone who has happy childhood memories of the Dr Who exhibition at Longleat, and who mostly enjoys the show very much, I’d love to see a female Doctor, and I have quite a good candidate in mind. (No, it’s not me.)

Some of you may sense some parallels between this debate, and another one, also involving women, lead representative figures, a canon of sacred writings, the interpretation of those sacred writings, the fear of alienating faithful followers, and some aspect of financial risk in doing so. Some of you might not. But anyway, who do you think’s going to be the next Dr Who?  


Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Muslims and Modalism: A Trinity Sunday Sermon

So, as the newly(ish) ordained deacon, I drew the short straw and was put down on the rota to preach on Trinity Sunday. Here's what I said. Hopefully you'll be able to listen to it by clicking on the title below. Now are you sitting comfortably? Then we'll begin...

Muslims and Modalism

Brian Cox, a herd of pigs, and Jesus

This sermon was preached in an Evensong service earlier this year. I'll add more sermons as and when!

I wonder whether you’re a fan of Brian Cox. I wonder if you know who Brian Cox is – well, even if you don’t recognise the name, you may well recognise the face of the TV presenter, often to be seen gazing into the middle distance with a contented half-smile, sitting on a rock against the backdrop of a sunset, as he explains the mysteries of the universe.

Cox is, of course, the pop star from the 90s band D:Ream, whose most famous song , the anthem ‘Things can only get better’ was much used in the 1997 general election, turned physics professor and researcher. It’s hardly surprising that, with such cool profs, applications to read physics at university have increased over the last few years.  

For those of us without the inclination or the means to do physics degrees, there’s always the telly, and for every one teenager inspired to study this stuff properly, there will be a couple of thousand or so, who, without even realising it, have been spending their Sunday evenings of late learning the laws of thermodynamics, learning that, as Brian Cox puts it, energy is eternal, that, while the universe behaves as it does, energy cannot be transformed but not destroyed; when it is diverted from one system, its nature is such that it finds another through which to pass.

And so we come to this story from the Gospels which, in essence, is about just that – the demonic energy of Legion passing from one man into an entire herd of pigs. On one level, this is a story about the power of the gospel to save those who are caught up in the forces of evil, and also, a story about the power of the gospel to save all people, that is to say the Gentiles, not just to bring back the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

It’s important to note that in Luke’s telling of this narrative, Jesus very obviously crosses over from Jewish Galilee into gentile territory, and the first person he meets there is the very embodiment of ritual impurity – living among graves, which were unclean places, living among pigs, which were unclean animals, and tormented by not just one but many, legion, unclean spirits. And what Jesus offers this man is, in a word, salvation. In the NRSV translation, Jesus heals the man – but in the Greek, which puts it more strongly, Jesus saves the man.

Maybe this life-changing encounter with Jesus not only liberates the man himself, whose name we don’t know, but also foretells the great proclamations of Pentecost and of the Jerusalem Council, the vision of Peter and the prophecy of Simeon that we have sung this evening, that through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the last days, all people will be drawn to the transformative, saving love of God.

It’s worth bearing in mind that Luke may well have had in mind a passage from Isaiah, the prophet whose vision of salvation for all the world inspires the words of the Nunc Dimittis, Simeon’s oracle of Jesus. In Isaiah 65 the prophet describes God reaching out his hands in welcome and accepting love to ‘a rebellious people’, who, like the man in our story, live among tombs and who eat the flesh of pigs, refusing God’s outstretched arms because God is too clean for them. This state of affairs, says the prophet Isaiah, will ultimately be overturned in the new heavens and the new earth which God is about to create, in which all animal sacrifice will be unnecessary.       

And yet, it is a story with a shadow side, with a herd of pigs drowning in a lake under the influence of the Legion of demons, with a swineherd watching helplessly on as his livelihood disappeared into the water. Is it that one man’s salvation is another’s ruin?  Is it that the good news to the Gentiles, which Luke proclaims, is also bad news to the Gentiles, at least to Gentile pig-farmers?

It might be, judging by the end of this story, with all the locals begging Jesus to leave, that this might be the case; that Jesus may not be the best person to have around if you are trying to make a living raising pigs.

Then again, maybe pig-rearing was a precarious business in the first century, whether or not Jesus happened to be passing through. It wasn’t just the Jews who considered pigs unclean; Egyptians and Hittites did too, and pigs were sacrificed as part of pagan worship rituals in various cultures of the first century. Maybe it’s partly their connection with pagan worship rites that makes the pig the most famous of all unclean animals in the Scriptures. So pigs were, in their Gentile world, sacrificial animals just as lambs were in the Jewish communities from which Jesus had recently come in this passage from Luke. As I said, maybe rearing pigs in a Gentile community was just as freighted with ritual significance as rearing lambs among Jews.

So if, the first law of thermodynamics is right, and energy cannot be destroyed, but can be transformed, within the laws of physics, it makes sense that the demons in our story would have to go somewhere, and if they have to go somewhere, then a conveniently nearby herd of sacrificial animals might be just the place for them. That the demonic energy would have to go somewhere would be obvious to Luke’s first readers, even if they’d never heard of Brian Cox or the laws of physics; later on in the gospel, Jesus says that when an unclean spirit leaves a person, ‘it wanders through the waterless regions looking for a resting-place’ and that, if it returns to its original house and finds it empty, it brings seven other demons back with it to set up a commune, so that the poor person who started out with one demon ends up with seven.

Notice that the demons wander through waterless regions, and that the demons in our story are well and truly drowned, taking the sacrificial pigs with them. No chance of a demonic come-back in this story.

All of this might sound pretty remote to our way of thinking; many of us probably don’t view the forces of evil in this way, at least not in a literal sense.

But if we think about it, this ancient wisdom touches on a reality we know all too painfully well, that the cycles of abuse, addiction and exploitation are, sadly often, self-perpetuating, that the school bullies are those who are bullied by their parents at home, that trying to convince a teenager to work hard for her GCSEs, who comes from a home in which three generations have never worked, is an uphill struggle of the proportions of Sisyphus.

Like the sacrificial pigs in our story, it is usually the innocent who are the victims of others’ demons. The environmental impact of climate change illustrates this chillingly; if and when the world’s temperature increases by a couple of degrees celcius, it will be animals, and the poorest humans living in places such as Bangladesh, who will be the first innocent victims of human activity. We live in a fallen world, and while that remains so, there will always be the innocent victims of others’ demons.

On a more immediate and mundane level, maybe we can all recognise this scenario: a middle manager, frustrated and unfulfilled by her job and burdened with pressure to perform, subconsciously takes her stress out on one of her employees, threatening him if he doesn’t meet the newly-hiked up performance targets; the man goes home and shouts at his wife who snaps at her children who go into school the next day and, in their sense of confused rejection, are rude to their teacher who sits at his desk and wonders why on earth he bothers to persist in this job, before putting on his coat at the end of the day and going home to his partner. To use the biblical language, the demons in our lives can simply go from place to place, from person to person, piling up on each other so that pretty soon, we have our own Legion of darkness. The people on the margins of our society - the homeless, the vulnerable, the addicted - and the people whose troubles are no less real but much less obvious  – the isolated, the embittered, the survivors of life - didn’t become so instantly. A whole legion of forces led them there, and a whole legion of forces keep them there.          

So where does this leave us as Christians? Do we need our own sacrificial animals on which to pile all the legion of our own shadowy pain? Thankfully, and obviously, the resounding answer to that has to be a loud no – we do have a sacrifice, whom we remember every time we celebrate the Eucharist. Isaiah tells us that ‘like a lamb before the slaughter he was silent’ as the pain of the nails and the weight of sin seared through him’ And’, says Isaiah, ‘the Lord has laid on him, the iniquity of us all.’ The iniquity, the sin, the demons of us all. On the cross, Jesus took on our sin, our shame, our shadows and our demons. And the wonderful news of the gospel is that even the Legion of the world’s darkness wasn’t enough to drive Jesus to destruction – the divine power in him raised him to a new and transformed life three days later.

Energy had been transformed in the most profound, most world-changing way. This is the heart of our faith as Christians. It’s what we celebrate every time we share bread and wine together, and it’s what we will celebrate with great joy on Easter Sunday. Yet so often we forget this – we carry our own demons within us, or we load them onto others, often our own innocent victims – we forget that all the time, the great sacrifice of Jesus, the sacrifice to end all sacrifices, has been made.

We see evil around us still, we need only open our newspapers or turn on our TVs to hear yet another story of innocent victims in this broken world. The kingdom of God has been inaugurated by Jesus, but it has not yet been fulfilled – as some people put it, we live in the ‘now and not yet’ in between the resurrection and the ultimate fulfilment of all that the resurrection means, in the new heavens and the new earth, when all energy will be transformed into the glory of God.   

So let us, if we can, consider our own demons, the dark places in our own lives. May we not load them on to others, but let us ‘cast all our cares on him who cares for us’ and may we find in Jesus true salvation. As we live in this fallen world of innocent victims and home-seeking demons, may we find in it the Jesus who bore our pain. And may we do so in expectant hope of the world to come, in which all energy will be ultimately transformed, in which evil will be finally overcome, and in which God will be all in all. Amen.   

I can't resist adding this        


Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Why 'More Than Liberty'? (Isn't liberty enough?)

The biggest obstacle to my starting to blog wasn't thinking of things to say - far from it! The problem that wandered across my minds at odd moments here and there was what to call the blog. Honestly, naming children is bad enough.

I decided that it needed to be something that spoke to me, and might, possibly, speak to other people too. I decided, on that basis, that I'd go for something English, as opposed to Latin or Greek. I decided that it should say something about God - after all, this blog is a kind of overflow pipe for all my spare God-thoughts. In the end, I decided that my own words should shelter under the ample wing of the words of the Christian tradition, and on that basis, I started thinking about my favourite hymns. So this is what I came up with, and this is why being a Christian is, indeed, about 'more than liberty':

There's a Wideness in God's Mercy

The first verse goes like this:

There's a wideness in God's mercy,
Like the wideness of the sea;
There's a kindness in His justice,
Which is more than liberty.
There is no place where earth's sorrows
Are more felt than up in Heaven;
There is no place where earth's failings
Have such kindly judgment given.

That's the God I believe in, love and trust. And this blog is all about Him, and me.


Prophetic Words and the Words of the Prophets

'Lucy, I've got a prophetic word for you.' I was talking to a friend the other day, a deeply profound Christian with a keen sense of the holy, when she said this to me. So, I listened. Her words were wonderfully encouraging, but it was something she said at the end of the conversation - after she had related what she felt was the prophetic word - that made me blink, rapidly, a few times. I won't tell you what she said - but I will tell you why what was essentially an after-thought elicited such a response from me.

Six months ago, on a particularly bleak day, when things were very tough, I was praying. In my prayers I was telling God that he had to come and help me, because I'd pretty much reached the end of my own entrepreneurship, can-do spirit, vim and vigour. (If only we could bottle those things! Now that would be entrepreneurship!) And a thought came, fully formed, into my head and landed with a gentle plop into my heart. It was short, short enough that I can still remember it verbatim, hopeful, and, above all, real. Immediately, it was mine. It was a life-ring, a survival at sea pack complete with canned water and granola bars, and the glimpse of a distant ship, all at once. Given how wretched I was feeling at the time, to say that it made me feel slightly better is high praise indeed. I didn't tell anyone; it was mine to ponder, to hole up in my heart, a bit like Mary did with the angel's words. 

A few weeks after that day, during a perfectly normal conversation with a perfectly normal person, the same short, hopeful and real words were used, to describe me. I was taken aback, as though the perfectly normal person had somehow been privy to the same divine secret that had been whispered to the ear of my spirit. A few months later, again, the same short, hopeful, and real words were repeated, again, to describe me. Taken aback turned into something approaching holy weirded-outness at this point.

So, to the prophetic word. Well, you can probably guess. After my friend had told me the prophetic word - which I still have to inwardly digest - she blurted out, at the end, the same short, hopeful, and real words. She is, as I say, a deeply prayerful Christian with a particular closeness to God; so is it really that surprising that she should overhear something of the divine conversation? 

Some of us might be suspicious of the very idea of 'prophetic words'; some of us may be disillusioned, and rightly so, by shallow spirituality in which 'prophetic words' are the stock in trade of the huckster. Some of us might think that we simply  haven't come across this type of thing before. But, if we haven't, that doesn't mean we haven't (if you see what I mean). It might just mean that we don't know when our words, or the words of others, echo the eternal conversation within the Godhead. Maybe we can't know that; maybe it's just as well that we don't, or we'd all be tempted to become shallow spiritual entrepreneurs. Maybe it's just on the odd occasion, maybe when we really need to know that God is closer to us than we could ever imagine, that we catch the glimpse of a passing ship and know that salvation is close at hand.