HOW SHALL THEY HEAR?

Salisbury Cathedral – photo credit: Wikipedia

CHURCHWARDENS, parish administrator and priest have been enjoying a series of summer jollies – touring church sound systems! I wonder how, or if, the clergy in the cavernous spaces of our mediaeval cathedrals were expected to make themselves heard by those at the back?

I’ve lost count of the number of clerical reports I’ve read about the frustrations of church sound systems! We’re hoping that our tour of other churches will guide us towards a first rate new system come the autumn. We’ve seen some encouraging signs, and enjoyed each other’s company and the churches and people we’ve visited. And I, for my part, have been reflecting a bit upon the business of “speaking” and “hearing” in churches, whether with the aid of a good sound system or a bad one.

A good sound system is capable of amplifying a terrible sermon just as a bad sound system can deprive people of a good one. But speaking and hearing in churches, as in life generally, cannot be just about sermons or public acts of worship. What we seek both to communicate and to receive is “fullness of life” – and much as I love the Church, fullness of life is about so much more than what takes place in churches.

God saw that it was good

Terrible sermons lose sight of life’s fullness being celebrated out there in the big wide world, in millions and millions of people, places and traditions, sacred and secular. How many really want to hear the exclusive, limiting assertions of the “all knowing” and the self-satisfied? Not as many, I think, as those I come across daily who want, with God, to celebrate life. “And God saw that it was good”.

Good sermons remind us of the kind of world view that Jesus (and other great spiritual teachers) celebrated; that there is good to be found everywhere if we’ll only open our eyes and unstop our ears; that seeing and listening involve some kind of effort on our part (insist on sitting “at the back” – of anything, anywhere – and you can hardly expect to feel involved in what’s going on “up front”); that we’re sometimes persuaded that someone is dead when really they’re just sleeping; that praying on street corners so that others can have sight of how splendid we (think we) are is a meaningless idiocy that causes most thinking people to shut their eyes tight and flatly refuse to hear anything we have to say.

The worth-ship of life

What message do we want our sound systems to carry? What kind of life do we want to be mouthpieces for? Do we recognise that our acts of worship and our spiritual teaching and learning are about focusing on, training a magnifying glass upon, the glorious gift of life that every human person has been given? Does Baptism take place only in churches? I don’t think so. I think it’s happening everywhere, every day, in all of us. Is Holy Communion celebrated only in churches? Again, I don’t think so. What happens in churches magnifies and celebrates what’s happening everywhere, every day, whenever people “take bread and drink the cup” – there the God of Life is to be found and enjoyed. So “holy communion” isn’t exclusively Christian any more than the charisms of love can be confined to only one kind of human person (amongst the billions of kinds of persons in earth and heaven). Is the Word of God being spoken only in our pulpits? I don’t think so. I think the Word of God is being spoken by the supermarket cashier who takes the time to “hope you have a great day”.

What, given the best church sound system in the world, do we really want to say and pray, and be and do, bearing in mind that “whatever you did unto the least of these my brethren you did also unto me” ?

PS – I’ve just read Fr Richard Rohr’s meditation for today. Recommended, here

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.

 

 

ARE YOU GOING TO SAN FRANCISCO?

TO SAN FRANCISCO? I wish. But no. No immediate plans. Bramhall’s my patch for the present. But some day. Some way. Because somehow St Gregory of Nyssa’s Church in San Francisco lives and listens and speaks with and about the kind of words I’m constantly wanting to say. And do. And Grace Cathedral too. Church Times’ front page photo of a celebration of the Eucharist at St Gregory’s represents for me the glorious hotch-potch of loved and redeemed humanity that is my own life’s prayer and perpetual dream. And there’s a big chunk of an extract of Sara Miles, author of Jesus Freak: Feeding, healing, raising the dead. 

Worship and service were part of a whole; the Friday food pantry and the Sunday eucharist were just different expressions of the same thing. Well meaning Christian visitors liked to describe the pantry as a “feeding ministry”, but that just seemed like a nervous euphemism to me. What I saw was church: hundreds of people gathering each week around an altar to share food and to thank God. And then, on Sundays, in the very same space, communion. The priest and whoever else was serving that day – a woman with cancer, a fussy older guy, a serene, angelic seven year old boy in shorts – would lift the plates of fresh bread and cups of wine, and turn, showing the food to the people standing pressed close around the big, round table in the middle of the sanctuary …

These words, and this photo, and these films speak to me of the God of Life whose own freedom has granted humankind its own. Freedom to explore. Freedom to become whole and holy in and amongst the hotch-potch of communities filled with people of every shade and hue and opinion and creed under the sun and stars. Freedom in which hospitality and generosity are extended to all. Am I going to San Francisco? Well, whether on earth, or the San Francisco in heaven, some day, I pray. And in the morning here in Bramhall? There will be alimentos gratis – the free food of Divine Love – in Eucharist at 8, 9 and 10.45am – and during the course of these celebrations, by the Grace of God, six children will be baptised …

MAINTENANCE

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Salisbury Cathedral Fontphoto/rachaeleliz

GREAT MEETING with our church architect this morning. The need for church maintenance and development appears to be never ending. Ours is a large complex (though not quite a Salisbury Cathedral – above). And the need can become either a long-term irritant or a long-term blessing. Our buildings can be thought of as long-term liabilities or long-term grace and witness. I’m among the first to admit that the Church fails in her responsibilities when blindly holding on to elements of the past that are patently redundant, and massive drains upon financial and other reserves. But others of our church buildings are literally sanctuary for souls, and their proper maintenance and an ongoing creativity within them is, I think, a spiritual responsibility.

Salisbury Cathedral, begun by St Osmund in the 1200s didn’t need a new twentieth century baptismal font, a fabulous work of art in itself, but what a glorious witness to “living water” it now is, and how extraordinarily the great space, and others like it, moves thousands to re-member, to think upon ancient telling of the glory of God. That’s how I think about the joint tasks of maintenance and creativity in Bramhall – actually the maintenance does need the creativity – so that living water keeps flowing. There’s a cost involved, of course, not least in terms of the need for “expensive and expansive” imagination. But he who gave us living bread and living water was prepared to pay the cost of the provision with his life. And he asked us to remember.

bramhallcofe.org

LIGHT & PEACE

WE’RE LOOKING FORWARD to welcoming all who gather to worship with us in the coming days at Bramall Hall Chapel and at St Michael & All Angels Bramhall. Please see the parish website for details of all our Christmas services and / or click the photo above for a moment or two’s happy reflection …

www.bramhallcofe.org

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.

WORLD UPSIDE DOWN

COFFEE & CATCH UP with Church Times – no. 7749 23 September 2011 – tells me that an online poll “finds majority Christian in name but not in practice”. Now I wonder how “practice” is defined? The question’s important because I can wholly understand that many who are naturally “at home” with God might very well be turned right off “the Church” by some of the unedifying spectacles, historically and currently, to be witnessed in her life, across the denominations, the world over: “You are usurpers, AMiE tells CofE ‘Establishment'” – as but a tiny example this week! Thanks be to God that

O Lord all the world belongs to you
and you are always making all things new.
What is wrong you forgive and the new life you give
is what’s turning the world upside down …

In such a topsy-turvy world I wonder whether it might be nearer the truth that many fine women and men of goodwill are Christian in practice but not in name? In a world turned upside down (evidently one of God’s permanently creative processes) we should perhaps be celebrating the demise of some of the shibboleths once held dear. I – for one – would love to see the demise of the (oft-used and often tub-thumping) phrase “Bible-based” and a corresponding increase in “God-centred”. Many’s the God-centred person I know whose patent closeness to the Spirit of Jesus owes little or nothing to regular recourse to Scripture. Many the seeds that must fall to the ground and die. Many the situations of dire human need that need religious change-of-heart if they’re to be addressed with anything resembling the compassion of Jesus. And in the meantime I thank the Source of all Life that many are Christian in practice if not in name – and I watch and pray with loving faith and interest as the Lord of Life continues to turn both the world and the Church upside down. Magnificat!