FRETFULNESS TRANSCENDED

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Life’s fretfulness is transcended. The different and the novel are sweet, but regularity and repetition are also teachers

Mary Oliver – on Prayer

SHARING IN A HOUSE COMMUNION with someone temporarily or permanently unable to celebrate Eucharist with the wider household of faith is always a special occasion. Jesus was a genius. Jesus understood the profound significance – for all people, of all faiths and none – of shared elements of sustenance. The sharing makes for connection – and it seems to me that there’s a danger when we try to limit too much what we mean by a “holy communion”. Holy communion, connection, the act of shared hospitality, the “eucharistic” act of thankfulness, for God, for provision, for one another, ought to be wholly – as well as holy – inclusive.

Yesterday I shared in just such a communion. My long-suffering friend who, aided wonderfully by her husband, bears disability and illness with consummate grace, told me simply and quietly upon receiving the sacrament, “Thank you. Now I feel connected again.” Which led on to coffee and biscuits – natural extension of the eucharistic gifts, as lunch and supper would be, later, in every household upon earth, be we, as the old school hymn had it, “low or high” – and a couple of hours whiled away remembering and praying and laughing and hoping and faithing. Believing in life. Communicating. Wholly communion. God is good.

MARY’S DRESS

BANK HOLIDAY weekend affords a happy extension to “left brain time.” There are always more books I want to read, more paintings I want to paint, more photographs I want to make, more writing to be done, more poems to unfold, more prayer to be celebrated, more people to share some time and stories with, more songs to be sung, more colours to be marvelled at, more silence to be revelled in – than time ordinarily allows. And that very fact is cause for thanksgiving! Life is indeed a rich tapestry. The signs of the reign, the joy of God, are all around me. And I’m immensely thankful for the connections that blogging makes possible with people all around the world.

Today’s artwork is inspired, in Eastertide, by Mary Magdalene, beloved apostle of Jesus, first witness to new life in the Resurrection, loyal provider of intimate and loving support and sustenance, someone generous, open-hearted and giving, someone who just “knew” instinctively, what Jesus’ mission on earth was about, someone released, by God’s goodness, from the kind of prison every one of us finds ourselves in from time to time.

All human persons are “bedevilled” by “Legion” the perpetually underlying and taunting belief that somehow we’re failing to make the grade, we’re unlovable, bigger and better “failures” than anyone else, destined to be “alone”, faithless, heartbroken, misunderstood, wretched. All human persons yearn for the kind of release that Jesus’ love and acceptance brought about in Mary’s life; for the kind of release that she brought about in his.

Mary Magdalene: someone cruelly maligned and abused by religious patriarchy and misogyny across the centuries, but all the while someone I’ve admired and looked to as an icon of life’s richness and fullness, of life’s goodness and generosity, of life’s being – under the vivifying reign of God – a beautifully, colourfully, gorgeously dressed dance with our Creator.

Sydney Carter described Jesus as The Lord of the Dance. In my heart I think of Mary of Magdala as Jesus’ dance-partner and she is clothed, dressed, like the environment all around and about her, in colour and glory. And theirs is a partnership, theirs is a dance that, far from being exclusive and excluding, invites you and I to join. “Shall we dance?”, Mary asks. “And shall we sing?”, asks the Lord of the Dance. And sometimes the colours blur a little in the swirling. And sometimes they’re blended by our tears …

Have you seen the wonder of it? Have you seen Mary’s dress?

WHAT’S GOOD NEWS?

I’M OFF TO A DAY CONFERENCE on “Catholic Evangelism” tomorrow. I’m not wholly sure whether it’s going to be about Catholic Evangelism (capital C, capital E) or catholic evangelism (small c, small e), and I’m rather hoping for the latter … hoping, that is to say, for a catholic evangelism that really is about good news (evangelism) universally applied (catholic), ie, for everybody – no matter their “faith tradition” or lack thereof – everywhere.

I’ve spent a very great deal of my life passionately pondering what exactly constitutes good news, and in particular why having some sort of acknowledged relationship to / with the Source of our lives might matter – to individuals, to communities, to nations, to our world, to the whole created order – some of these whole and healthy, some desperately broken, hurting, and in need of that Divine touch that brings healing. And I’m consistently finding that old definitions of what it means to be Catholic, or Protestant, or Christian, or shades in between all of these, don’t fit all sizes any more, if they ever did.

Christ everywhere …

What constitutes Good News in a ‘catholic’, pluralistic world? Where is an / our anointed Christ to be found? (as I’m sure such a Christ is indeed to be found, anywhere in the world, and across the world’s faith traditions). And the questions are so important to me because as a Christian priest, seeking always to live and learn – to be a disciple – after the pattern of Jesus of Nazareth, I have observed that some kinds of Catholic, some kinds of Protestant, and some kinds of “Christian” plainly do not represent very good news for many people at all. So catholic evangelism must be something quite different, something much more open, something prepared always to be held to account as to the reach of what it purports to be good news. Catholic evangelism will not, I think, be too prescriptive.

Feast of life for all

Catholic evangelism will offer the “feast of life” to people in the “highways and byways” won’t it? Catholic evangelists, personal and corporate, will have dismantled their drawbridges. Catholic evangelism will be less concerned (although not wholly unconcerned) with the Faith of our Fathers and hugely more concerned with Faith Being Received Today. When I’ve asked adults over the past thirty years whether they’d like to come to confirmation classes, so that they can be presented to the bishop, confirmed, and thereafter receive Holy Communion many have politely declined. When I’ve offered the Sacrament of Holy Communion “no questions asked” it has been the case, more frequently than I can count, that the recipient has ended up doing the asking, seeking to confirm a present and acknowledged reality – satisfied hunger – in their lives.

Let’s explore!

And I remember that Jesus was ever ready to go the extra mile for children, too. “Do not try to stop them for the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these”. Catholic evangelists will work hard at becoming more, well … catholic – so that they’re more plainly seen to be, well … “Christian” or “Anointed”. Catholic evangelists will be interested in marginalised multi-tasking-capable women, tax collectors, prodigal sons, unimaginative but very opinionated men, quieter and more imaginative men, too, and in lost sheep. Catholic evangelism won’t chastise the lost sheep for having left the fold in order to “explore”, still less tell the poor creature that God forbids it. Instead truly catholic evangelists (like Jesus of Nazareth) will make the fold larger so that there’s the space for MORE sheep to engage in the business of exploration, to engage, that is to say, in their God-given Life!

The Sound of Silence

One of the biggest growth areas in our parish (liberal Catholic with blurry edges – a bit like my paintings!) – has been a call to shared and silent meditation in the parish church – arriving and departing in companionable silence. No coffee or handing out electoral roll forms afterwards. And numbers in excess of many a church’s entire Sunday congregation have responded to a call – we believe a Divine call – to dwell for a space, together in the “house for the Church”, to wait upon the Word that touches life in silence. (The Word – not words. There’s not “even” a Bible reading). It’s life-changing, say many participants. It’s the only occasion in my month when I’m really and deeply aware of the heartbeat of God, the pulse of life, say others. This silence, this “that’s not very Catholic” but absolutely catholic encounter is breathing into our common life new elements of what it means to bear good news in our lives today, what it means, first and foremost to BE the Body of Christ now on earth, what it means to be religious in the original sense of the word (religare) – reconnected, re-membered. Restored to what we’ve forgotten.

Old assumptions yield

So whether tomorrow proves to be slanted more to Catholic Evangelism, or to catholic evangelism, I hope we’ll be asking the same question – What is Good News? – at least sometimes. Because, remembering Louis MacNeice’s Mutations again:

… old assumptions yield to new sensations.
The Stranger in the Wings is waiting for his cue.
The fuse is always laid to some annunciation …

WITH A LITTLE HELP …

PAUL DEAKIN (vested, left) preached an encouraging and challenging sermon this morning, attired for a few brief moments in a too short preaching scarf – because it’s more ordinarily employed at Stockport County FC!  It’s great having Paul home on leave from his studies at Mirfield. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” – Nathaniel asked of Philip. Well, of course, someone could and did! And Paul Deakin’s one of the many good things to “come out of” Bramhall.

DAVID TAYLOR (robed, right) served the dual offices of assistant verger and altar server, at short notice, in the midst of one of those whirlwind sort of mornings that Sundays at St Michael’s often look like. With consecutive celebrations of the Eucharist at 8, 9 and 10.45am there’s a lot to be done behind the scenes to make sure there’s a smooth flow. With David and other willing souls like him we’re able to sing: “we get by with a little help from our friends …”

AND ANDY BROWN put imagination into gear and was quick to snap the moments when some of my wonderful young friends here got stuck into “the priesthood of all believers” liturgically. Literally “active angels”, we encouraged each other to pray according to the style and practice of ancient tradition, standing, and with arms raised in a posture of praise, thanksgiving and receptivity. And we all shared in times of silence and stillness too. It all made for a holy communion. Eucharistic. Something accomplished. Religio – a binding together. And I recall that the great son of man who came out of Nazareth once said: I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends – John 15.15-17

ALMOST SPELLING ‘HOLY’

WRITING ABOUT stained glass fragments “blown apart in wars” and haphazardly reassembled later, the priest poet David Scott, in the second stanza of his A Window in Ely Cathedral, tells of

A leering bit of face with twisted lips,
a bit of beard, and letters almost spelling ‘holy’,
a sheaf of corn, a leaf, and then the sun dips,
lighting Mary in her simple glory.

Piecing Together
A Window in Ely Cathedral,

stanza 2 of 3, page 29

In the economy of God there’s something afoot. I can feel it in my bones. The downtrodden, the dispossessed, the shattered, the fragmented and the forgotten, wherever they are in the world, are raising their voices. They cry for the reconciliation, resurrection and restoration of a humane humanity – for people of every race and nation, and of every creed (or lack thereof), or “class”, or colour. Too much has been blown apart by wars and for too long. But days wear on, the sun dips in her course, illuminating that which speaks of life’s real glory, and is thereby truly holy.

This is exciting. This is the stuff of the reign of the Source of all of our lives, to whom we have prayed, and with whom we have yearned, in every time and place, in every political and religious tradition, for so very long. Whether we’re speaking of ordinary Libyans standing up to be counted, intent on “occupying” their own entitlement to a bit of their own space as human beings; whether we’re speaking of Occupy New York, or Occupy London, or occupy-a-space-in-the-queue for fresh air, or clean water, or a bowl of rice, something is most assuredly afoot. The sun dips, lighting Mary in her simple glory, and because at evensong we’re rather quieter than usual we may hear her softly say and pray

he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek

Come Christ-Mass this year the stable and the tent will not be featured only in hand-picked and glossy Christmas cards. Tents and stables are being raised up alongside cathedrals and churches. Tents and stables are being raised up in our dreams and in our slowly-awakening hearts. Here are opportunities to catch real glimpses for the possibilities of life’s glory, opportunities that are thereby truly holy. Some amongst us, nonetheless, will not look any more kindly upon such fragmented opportunities than they would ever have looked upon the teenage mother in the stable of Bethlehem.

But something of and from the divine is afoot. The leering bit of face with twisted lips, a bit of beard, and letters almost spelling ‘holy’, must give way to the sun’s dipping

lighting Mary in her simple glory.

ADULT FAITH … AND BELONGING

I’VE RETURNED time and time again in the last couple of years to the writings of Diarmuid O’Murchu in the quest I’ve engaged in all my life: the search for Adult Faith. In his book of that name O’Murchu quotes the late John O’Donohue:

Our modern hunger to belong is particularly intense. An increasing majority of people feel no belonging. We have fallen out of rhythm with life. The art of belonging is the recovery of the wisdom of rhythm.

John O’Donohue, cited by Diarmuid O’Murchu

Adult Faith, Growing in Wisdom and Understanding, page 139

I’ve witnessed a spiritual hunger in young and old alike in the past thirty years – along with a reluctance to partake of a “spiritual” diet grown old and stale (albeit that the kind of theological staleness I’m thinking of is too often dressed up as “contemporary”, or “for the young”, or “modern”). Many would rather remain hungry than have to suffer indigestion wrought by leave-your-brain-outside coercion. Me amongst them sometimes. O’Murchu, though, whets my spiritual appetite in these early years of the twenty-first century in much the same way that John Robinson reawakened interest, debate and dialogue mid-way through the twentieth.

There is a tendency in all the great religions to pass on religious wisdom through doctrines and creeds, with emphasis on knowing the verbal formulations. Adults are judged to be religious if they can pass on those beliefs to future generations just as they have been passed on to them. But this transmission is often lacking in internalized understanding; the neophyte learns the formula, and frequently is unable to apply it to daily life in an integrated way.

The bigger challenge is the realisation that we are all endowed with an inner transparency for the holy, for the mystery we popularly call “God”. We are programmed internally in the power of living spirit, always inviting us to attune more deeply to the Great Spirit who infuses the whole of creation. Whether we adopt a religion or not, we are innately spiritual and will remain so throughout our entire lifespan. For contemporary adults, this awareness is quite widespread and is raising formidable challenges for the meaning and place of formal religion in human living.

ibid. page 14

It was precisely Jesus’ own raising formidable challenges for the meaning and place of formal religion in human living that attracted me long ago to follow him. I’m still attracted, and still formidably – albeit willingly – challenged. When we’re able to rise to Jesus’ challenge to rid ourselves of outdated and outmoded shibboleths on the one hand, and perpetually to align ourselves with Divine Mystery on the other,  we begin to roll away the stone from the tomb. And in doing so begin to glimpse new ways of belonging, in an altogether more “catholic” universe. We wean ourselves away from the life of the “whited sepulchre” and find ourselves nudged towards the joy and belonging of perpetual resurrection.

MAXIMILIAN’S BAPTISM

THE FULL HOUSE for the joy-filled Baptism of Maximilian this morning gives me (another) opportunity to head up this post with my very favourite account, by a simply wonderful narrator, of Jesus’ Baptism! But more than that, it’s always such a joy when our House for the Church is full of people come to celebrate the goodness of God and the richness of the gifts we revel in. And there’s no greater gift to a family than that of an infant. Nor, perhaps, any greater responsibility laid upon older shoulders. Bringing infants to Baptism in and into the House of the Lord provides glorious opportunity for all of us to reflect upon the giftedness and gratuitousness of our lives, upon our hopes and our aspirations, what – in co-creating with, and in, and surrounded by God – we want to make of our world, our humanity, our society, our church – for Maximilian, for ourselves, and for God.

“I baptise with water”, said John the Baptist. One who will come after me will baptise with Holy Spirit. And so it came to pass. Today and every day humankind is baptised “new every morning” by the Spirit of Divine Grace and Love. Perhaps that’s why Maximilian and his wonderful parents were smiling so much in our sacramental celebration of the fact this morning. Perhaps that’s why people had travelled from far and wide to celebrate the gift and the treasure. Yes! – wherever and whenever humankind is “baptised” in the Spirit of God we can rest assured that the Source of our Life continues to turn the world upside down. “Whoever has seen (this human) me has seen the Father” said the anointed Jesus to Philip. And this morning he might have said “whoever has seen Maximilian has seen the Father”. What a joy, what a commission, what a responsibility – this living of the Life and Love of God in and through each one of us, dear created people.

DIVINE PARENT,
Mother and Father, Sister and Brother of us all,
in company with Jesus,
in the power of your Spirit,
with prophets, priests and royal leaders,
and with every woman, man and child
upon the face of the earth,
we bless you for the gift of life and of abundance.
And as we bless you we also ask
your blessing for ourselves that we may be
inspired, strengthened and encouraged daily
to share that life and that abundance
throughout the world.