GOD OR THE BOOK?

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Rainbow – Oxbridge Biotech

I’VE SQUARED UP TO A BIT OF A CRISIS about words in recent months. Does humankind sometimes (too often?) mistake humanly shaped words and phrases for GOD? Does the Bible take precedence over the “still, small voice of calm” or “the breath of life” [come] “sweeping through us”?

I’ve loved the Bible for as long as I can remember. The words about God between its covers have guided my life, provided comfort and sustenance, and the proper chastisement that we may “hear” when we company with Wisdom.  Words about God fill my bookshelves, my contemplation and my writings. Words about God fill the silent poetry and prayer of my heart and soul and mind and body. But at the end of 21 chapters St John needed to report that

… there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written – John 21.25

Much the same might apply to the lived lives of any and all of the human race. Life is an ongoing, perpetually unfolding project.

Poets amongst my friends will understand my very great love for the (Anglican Common Worship) phrase in one of our eucharistic prayers, a line that speaks, eloquently, of

the silent music of your praise …

Silence is golden

Latterly I’ve found myself disinclined to heap the contents of my febrile mind upon people of goodwill. Especially when I’m depressed about the painful, tangled machinations of the Church I love, and the world I love, and have loved long.

Sometimes, and more frequently with every year’s passing, I yearn for silence in my own soul – even whilst loving, needing, and recognising the importance of words. Would that we could make a better poetry of words together: humankind, I mean. Co-creators with GOD THE WORD. Would that we could make a better poetry, a living poetry, a better creativity, of our words.

Religious machinations – like The House of Bishops Working Group on human sexuality – the Pilling Report – continue to leave me gasping for air. Even whilst there are pages and pages of great stuff in this one it’s the implications of church-crafted power over other people’s lives and loves that troubles me. Two of Jesus’ own apostles once asked “shall we call down fire upon their heads, Lord?” (wrong-thinking Samaritans in this case) and then spent the rest of their lives reflecting upon their Lord’s rebuking them! (Luke 9.54).

I’m trying hard to bring a bit of order to the thousands of loose words flying around in my head – because I need, and always and everywhere really do NEED, to ask just one question of contemporary Christianity, and it’s this

WHO’S THE LIFE and hope of the world? Is it GOD – the “still small voice” who “praises” in Creation silently? Or is it the Bible – humanly set down words – however poetic or inspired?

To be clear – I believe that the Christian tradition (or any faith-in-God tradition) is on a hiding to nothing if by GOD (or worse – “what GOD wants”, or “GOD longs for”, or “GOD says”), is meant a BOOK – even a world-bestseller of a book.

Salve in silence 

The silent Shalom of GOD is where salve for the world’s wounds is to be found: in faith and hope and love. And faith and hope and love are uniting facets of the breath of God in every human person – indeed in every living thing – without exception.

That, surely, was and is the message of “the anointed”, the Christ, the Living Word, whose Body now on earth we’re each and every one of us – the knowing and the unknowing – made to be. I believe that the Church needs to be encouraging silence enough, often enough, that the inner Word at the heart of all life be heard and lived. If GOD’S every word, on every subject, for all of life, for all of time is to be found only in the Bible (and particularly, according to some, the “Christian Bible”) then I’m dumbfounded. Why would Jesus of Nazareth ever have needed to encourage the people of God to pray?

How dearly I thank God for the millions that make an altogether better job of being God’s anointed in the world, ministering to the lives of the world’s forgotten people, living and loving in ordinary and unsung ways, than some who have claimed for themselves, as though it were a medal, the description “Christian” – catholic or evangelical. God is not absent where the Church’s pursuit of power and control over others finds no foothold.

Prophetic retort! 

For GOD’S creative sake, let us put an end to these weighted reports and pronouncements and LIVE the gift of life’s spectrum – softer, rounder, wider, more generous, more glorious, more grateful. Some of the world’s imaginative youngsters speak just exactly the kind of concise and prophetic word the Church needs most to hear today:

“get a life!”

GOD is not a book. The Bible is not inerrant. GOD is the Source of life’s spectrum – of every thing that is. And God the Eternal, silent, unwritten Word – is not disappointing.

No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can be taught to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.

Nelson Mandela – Long Walk to Freedom

RENEWED & REDEDICATED

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THE PARISH CENTRE – ST MICHAEL & ALL ANGELS BRAMHALL

Renewed & Rededicated by this Household of Faith

6 October 2013

HERE’S ONE OF SEVERAL REASONS I’ve been a bit preoccupied lately 😉 – thanks be to God for a gift of a day – and for the love, time and extraordinary talents of a very large number of wonderful people …

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King Solomon’s great (and gloriously inclusive) Prayer of Dedication was chorally-read by a representative choir of St Michael’s contemporary angels … and the Gospel Reading for the Day proclaimed by every person present …

Kaleidoscope ii & Dedication Poster

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Fr Simon with Architect extraordinaire Rebecca Gilbert-Rule

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Churchwarden Sue Taylor with Architect Rebecca Gilbert-Rule

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Keith Fenwick with Artist Stephen Raw

More slides of a special day here

SWIMMING IN MYSTERY

Swimming in the Mystery of God – please click photos to enlarge

TODAY WE CELEBRATED our Church’s Dedication Sunday. Wonderfully talented people have decorated the parish church on this day for 102 years – with flowers hand-picked from their own gardens. This year, having hosted Angels in 2010 and Windsails in 2011 (see Lumière below) our Lantern Tower is graced by the gently swimming presence of some of the most magnificent fish I’ve ever seen.

“We swim in the Mystery of God as fish swim in the sea”, said theologian Karl Rahner SJ – in an attempt to communicate the profound faith statement that human beings need no more consider themselves separate from God than we could consider ourselves separate from the air that we breathe. We’re all in this together: God, and everything created by God.

I often share Rahner’s little tale of the elderly, statesmanlike fish gliding past two tiddlers one morning. “Morning boys!” he greeted them. “How’s the water?” The tiddlers ignored him and – flicking their little tails – swam on. A little time later one looked at the other and asked “what’s water?”

Oliver John joined in the swimming with smiling enthusiasm as he was baptised this morning beneath and surrounded by the meanderings of many colourful creatures. And all present dedicated themselves anew to the works of Love in the coming year.

Meanwhile, General Synod prepares for major debate upon the morrow in York. Bishop Nick Baines of Bradford writes of Frustration and Joy here – pointing us (for which, hearty thanks) to an audio link to Archbishop Rowan’s fabulous sermon at the Synod Eucharist this morning. How glad I am, for him, that the good Archbishop will swim ere long in the quieter waters of Cambridge. How certain I am, however, that we’ll miss his gentle touch more than any of us have been able hitherto to imagine.

Still, he encourages us to swim on …

PATCHES

TWELVE MONTHS have flown by since Patches Chabala was made Deacon (above), thirty years since I was! Time flies by at the same alarming rate for both of us – but it slowed down for a couple of hours this evening when Chester Cathedral hosted a huge gathering for the Ordination of Priests, our beloved Patches amongst them.

There’s something very, very powerful in the sacrament and sign of the receiving of Holy Orders through the laying on of hands. I remember the sensation of Bishop Michael Baughen’s slender hands laid gently upon my head as though thirty years ago  were  really just yesterday. And at many an ordination since I’ve been immensely moved by the sight and the prayerfulness of bishops and presbyters together, connected in a quite extra-ordinary sort of a way, laying hands upon the heads of Deacons as the bishop prays

Send down the Holy Spirit on your servant [Patches] for the office and work of a priest in your Church.

As I laid my hand directly upon the back of the head of this dear brother I felt a connection for which I blessed the Source of both of our lives and loves. Patches touches lives wherever he goes – with the gentle simplicity with which he receives people just exactly as they are, assuring them of the love and compassion of the same Jesus of Nazareth whose own gentle simplicity called forth a following, a journeying, a lifetime’s response from both this newly ordained priest, far from the land of his birth, and from me. And many, many, many others. The “connection”, in the Cathedral tonight, extended out in waves, to hundreds present therein, and to countless hearts and souls without its walls.

A rainy Saturday touched by God’s Spirit. And though worshipping in my own “mother church” within my own Christian tradition, I was “connected” at the same time with hundreds of young people nearer my own parish, meeting in Manchester, for a wonderful gathering with – and encouragement from – the Dalai Lama. Rachael Elizabeth, one of our ordinands, was there and has blogged about the event here – describing the presence of hundreds and hundreds of young people – some of whom faced a ten hour coach journey to return to their homes – bound and “connected” by their enthusiastic reception of a message of encouragement from Archbishop Desmond Tutu and from the Dalai Lama himself.

What turns a grey, rainy day in NW England into something very, very special? Hope. Hope does. As we lay hands gently upon another, and open the doors of our hearts wider and wider, then hope cheers grey days, together with faith in the future, and love.

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 …

INDIFFERENCE TO DIFFERENCE

THE FACT THAT the English have finally become a tolerant nation, “indifference to difference”, has been born out of their religious past … said Diarmaid MacCulloch in How God Made The English, part 3, BBC.

Still a way to go, I think. But if, as Professor MacCulloch suggests, the Church of England continues to serve as a focal point, a gathering place for peoples of every ethnic origin, race or creed – in times of joy or sadness – then she will be modelling the love and service of the Christ who is her foundation. And we ought to note, thankfully, that she’ll have received a bit of help and a spot of nudging encouragement in that task from the BBC.

With all my heart I believe that the “cosmic Christ”, the anointed messenger, revealed to us today by the Spirit of God at work across the religious spectrum, is open-armed and open-hearted, truly indifferent to difference, not even remotely contained or constricted by our doctrines, highest thoughts or most fervent prayers.

The most useful lessons of history show us that the past doesn’t always fit our notions of “good old days”. Not all of them were, are or will be good days. And there’s never only one story to be told. The mysteries of good and bad, joy and pain, love and hate, health and suffering are sometimes well-nigh overwhelming for all of us. But every human person has been awarded the same gift by the Source of all things – the chance to make something of being alive in this world. And everybody wins, in the economy of God, for no other reason than that they are alive.

The “times they are a-changing” for the better wherever tolerance and mutual respect come to prevail. Generous inclusivity will be the hallmark not only of our nation’s future, but the Church’s as well. Grateful to Professor MacCulloch and to the BBC for this excellent 3 part mini-series there’d be substantial benefit in our seeing both working together to make some more. On the eve of Holy Week, for some of the world’s Christians, I am inspired, hopeful and grateful.

TOBIAS AND THOMAS

THOMAS AND TOBIAS were baptised this morning – when, on the first Sunday of Lent, we recalled Jesus’ own baptism by John: (I absolutely love the little snippet above, beautifully narrated here, from the film The Miracle Maker, and used on this blog before)

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. – Mark 1.9-15

What was John up to? What were we doing with Tobias and Thomas this morning? And does the doing matter?

Well, I think the first thing to say about this morning’s baptism is that it certainly appeared to matter, very much indeed, to the supporting families and friends. It’s true that the novelty value appears to have worn off for many a contemporary weekly churchgoing Anglican. Some of ours discreetly hive off back home if they get wind of the idea that “their” service will face the challenge of newcomers. On such occasions, with all due respect to John the Baptist, I thank God that I’m their parish priest rather than he. I understand a bit, I think, where they’re coming from, in that I am myself very fond of a bit of liturgical p and q. But I think they’d be given pretty short shrift from J the B, don’t you?

Back to the opening question. What was John up to? Why would baptism be important for Thomas and Tobias, or for me and you?

The keyword, for me, is “repent”. John called his hearers to repent – a process described in Greek as metanoia – a turning around. Not a sandwich-boarded doom-laden “you’re on the road to hell” sort of a “repent” but nevertheless a turn-around-sort of a repent. A stopping-in-our-tracks sort of a repent. And that’s what I was up to this morning, too: inviting people to take a moment to “turn around”, to have a bit of a rethink. Repentance: a few moments practice in our daily lives – (as wholesome and as necessary a daily-renewed baptism as the practice of having lunch or dinner) – when we turn around to look inside ourselves instead of outside.

And I think that that’s what Jesus’ Lent, his “days in the wilderness”, tempted as we are, were and are all about. Lent’s not just about Jesus in “wilderness” (in the tempting, perplexing, question-provoking aspects of life) but about you and me needing to grapple with those places and those temptations, perplexities and questions, in our time, too.

Who am I? Whose am I? What’s my life for? Am I on the side of right or of wrong? And do my life and actions – does my practice – reflect my answer? And do I feel the same today as I did yesterday? And how am I hoping to feel tomorrow? (Heavens! This is a process that’s gonna take some time. Probably a lifetime. I’d better set some time aside every day – and it would be as well for me to “train up” children to start this practice in their own child-like sure-footed and imaginative way). There’s going to be need to hive off up a mountain on my own from time to time, or take a boat away from the crowds and out into the bay, if I’m really going to find my Way.

Am I at peace with what, having repented, I observe within myself? Do I have the inner resources not only to survive but also to thrive when the Spirit of Life “drives” me into the wilderness spaces and places of my own ordinary day to day life and experience? Does my engagement with this liturgical act, this Baptism, this honouring, and raising and welcoming of two little British boys have anything at all to say to what I feel about the “heaving little tummy” of the 2 year old Syrian boy whose tragic death was witnessed by Marie Colvin, shortly before her own untimely death, the other day?

Baptism? What was John doing? What was Jesus doing? Why did the “Good News” writers notice? Why was I engaged in baptising Tobias and Thomas today?

Stop, look, listen. That’s the content of John’s preaching. Consider. Look left, look right, look left again before you cross, are the themes picked up and developed and run with by Jesus, then and now. Jesus takes preaching a step further. Jesus turns preaching and teaching into living. So let me repeat: Stop, look, listen. Look around you. What’s to be seen in the wilderness of this life – your life? Stop, look, listen. Look inside you. What’s to be seen in the wild places of your own heart? And how, if at all, does the one affect the other?

Baptism isn’t about filling the Church’s pews (so in that sense it shouldn’t matter too much if “we never see them again”). Baptism is more of an invitation to oasis in wilderness, a daily-repeated invitation to a place where we may be assured of welcome, our morning shower and refreshment, the place of preparation before receiving the bread and wine of life itself; Christian Baptism matters because it is sacramental sign and symbol of an invitation to a place, and to a challenge, where we may grow into the discipline and practice of asking questions – and grappling with them until we come upon some answers. Though there may be more questions about questions before ever we arrive at answers.

I heard it suggested recently that the “Good Shepherd”, seeking to keep his whole flock safe, discourages single sheep from going out to explore. They’ll automatically trip up, automatically fall down a hole. He’ll then have the (very worthy but inconvenient) task of setting out to rescue the naughty explorer. But I believe exactly the opposite. I believe that we’re set down in the wilderness of life precisely to ask questions, to employ our inner resources to make sense of what we know exists beyond the walls of our own little (maybe ecclesiastical) sheep pen, and to explore. Co-creators with the Source of our own lives, we won’t necessarily live in perpetual clover, but we’ll be alive! Fully alive – building a home in the heart of humankind for “the reign of God”. And trusted by the Divine parent who’ll wait patiently forever on the lookout for our safe (and better informed) returning.

Baptism matters because it washes the dust of desert from our souls, refreshing and awakening and dawning and calling. Baptism matters – even infant baptism – because the questions it raises and the confidence it inspires are addressed and gifted to the whole community. Baptism matters because it has an eye to everything that’s going on around us, to the future security and mutual society of Thomas and Tobias, and because it calls us, every day of our lives, to be quiet enough, for long enough, to hear the Word that God speaks into every fibre, cell and atom of all creation. “YOU – all of you – are my Beloved …” You, all of you are, as the great hymn of the incarnation puts it: Of the Father’s Love begotten.

Yes: Becoming the Beloved – or, more accurately, recognizing that we are the Beloved of God. That’s what we’re up to, or should be up to, in Homs and in Bramhall equally. All of us.