SOWING THE SEEDS OF LOVE

MotheringSunday

EARLY NIGHT with books called for. But what a great day. An hour’s less sleep but warmth and early evening light in exchange. Good deal. And 150+ lovely folk, young and old, sowed the seeds for our Resurrection Garden at Kaleidoscope Mass (link) this morning to the strains of Louis Armstrong reminding us all that it is, indeed, A wonderful world. Afternoon communion with very long-serving mothers in our local hospital … many, many shades and hues; many, many rich colours; many, many perspectives on the glorious gift of life we’ve all been given.

Love is a flower you’ve got to let grow John Lennon

POWER?

THE BLOGOSPHERE has been alive with joyful stories of the first same-sex marriages in the UK today. There’s been an air of celebration the length and breadth of the land – and I want to add my own warmest congratulations to all who are celebrating with joy on this bright day. Yes, an air of celebration, notwithstanding the sound of the opposition, for whom I feel today too. I feel for hurt people whoever they are, and wherever that hurt is experienced. The prayer of the Church must surely be for healing – wherever it’s needed. The prayer of the Church must offer thanksgiving too for existing and abundant blessings of happiness, love, security and peace for all. Equally.

One of the Tweets I followed up this afternoon was a piece by Damian Thompson of the Telegraph – Gay marriage will change the Church of England forever. And the line that’s been milling around in my head all afternoon is this:

It’s hard to overestimate the weakening effect this will have on the central structures of the Church.

What I’ve been wondering, for years, is whether a “weakening effect” might, precisely, be a good thing for the Church – and for all the religious traditions of our world. “Central structures” too easily represent too much power being held by too few hands. I’ve been hearing tonight of the horribly tragic story of a Syrian mother setting herself on fire to protest having been turned away once too often from relief provision desperately needed by her family – whilst her poor children looked on. “Central structures” are not helping them – and minor “churchy” preoccupations do seem obscene in the daily presence of such atrocities. If we really must get excited and insistent about a few scripture sentences let’s at least concentrate on some real LIFE priorities.

Tyrannical powers – political or religious, national, local or personal – will need to be shown the door in the twenty-first century. The God I worship doesn’t wield power in the sometimes brutal ways that some (by no means all) religious people do. All the world’s faith traditions constantly run the risk of anthropomorphising God “in our own image”. That’s hideously dangerous, not to mention presumptuous. No defence of selective readings of Scripture, Tradition or Reason can be defensible whilst people continue to be deprived of food, water, loving relationship – or even their very lives. And I’d rather forego “Church growth” for the time being if, by growth, is meant a grasping after imagined power to tell other people what to do with their God-given lives. There’s a better way – a more excellent way, that may well involve a weakening effect upon the central structures of the Church, and of all the world’s religious and political traditions. What is it about Pope Francis that’s touched a chord in multi millions of people worldwide?

Some glad day, God willing, I’m going to make a pilgrimage to the Grace Cathedral in San Francisco that I so admire from afar. Stephen Hough, another Telegraph writer, wrote in mid-February of a visit he made there, and of his having been so taken with words of welcome penned by former diocesan bishop William Swing that he quoted them at length. Here’s just a paragraph:

A Place of Anonymity – If you are passing by and feel hesitant to join the ranks of a particular denomination or to buy into the creeds of millions, please know most people who enter Grace every week are practicing no regular religious discipline. The rule of Grace is the stranger making himself/herself at home. All names are sacred here, but no one has to contribute one’s name to a membership list to be taken seriously. Perhaps you quietly dropped by wanting to reconnect in your relationship to God. Or to confess shame. Or to surrender a burden. Or to pray for a loved one. Or to bask in the beauty of holiness. Or to meditate on a hard personal dilemma. Or to find a moment of peace. A cathedral has a high ceiling and long aisles to allow the contained soul multiple directions without the encumbrances of forced community. Grace offers ages of spiritual space to which anonymous individuals may be on pilgrimage – Bp William Swing

Yes. Perhaps today’s air of celebration has something to do with a work of Grace being realised in the world at this very moment in the long and troubled history of our humanity. Perhaps we’re all heading for lives in which power plays a much less prominent role; lives in which every child, woman and man is encouraged and honoured in their “reaching for the sky.” God’s Grace offers ages of spiritual space to which anonymous individuals may be on pilgrimage. A weakening effect upon central structures? – well maybe; but a making space for each and all. Thank God.

WORLD VISION?

THEOLOGY FOR ALL. How I hope and pray that modern worldwide communications might bring women and men of goodwill to a richer theological understanding and communion – with God and with one another – before too many more months and years roll by. Theology is not just for specialists. Good theology is absolutely vital in the world of the 21st century. Good words about God will draw all human persons into a deeper unity. Good theology will not be “hell bent” on separating people, driving women and men of goodwill apart. Theology, properly understood and shared by the human community, will celebrate life in its unity and diversity. Good words-about-God need to be brought back into the public domain every bit as urgently and interestingly as do the other two great shibboleths: sex and politics.

Never bring sex, politics or religion into a conversation!

So runs the received wisdom. But at what cost over the centuries? Let’s not make so many assumptions about this sort of “wisdom” being good. Sometimes, actually, it’s absolutely bad – and definitely not wise. What ordinary, corporate, international, social, practical and personal catastrophes might have been avoided in the last 200 years if we hadn’t left all the “good words about” sex, politics and religion to dreary specialists on the one hand, and barmy hotheads on the other? Good news is properly disseminated by the prophetic conversations of ordinary, decent people all over the world. But the good news about ordinary, honest, decent people’s wanting to live in peace and in harmony with one another needs to be shared more persistently and widely.

The God of Peace, the Source of Everything There Is – is NOT a mean, angry, withholding, bible-bashing old tyrant. Who says? – Well THE BIBLE, actually. Try 1 John 4.16

So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.

How I hope and pray for teachers and prophets of imagination, grace and courage who’ll persuade humankind that good theology is as important to our long-term health, happiness and even survival as is clean water, good food and medical provision. Bad theology – or no attempt at all to work at a “gospel”, or good-words-about-God with and through, and for, and all around ALL human persons – sets humankind on a hiding to nowhere. Bad theology hurts, maims, wounds, and sometimes, too often, kills.

Does the God who is “Spirit and Truth” ascribe to the Bible the kind of unerring “biblical authority” that certain religious men do? I really, really doubt that. In fact I believe the very suggestion is bonkers. Didn’t Jesus of Nazareth, again and again and again, assert the supremacy of what the Apostle Paul went on to describe as “a more excellent way”? Isn’t the Aramaic language that was Jesus’ mother tongue rich with ambiguity and the all important and oh so necessary poetry?

Here’s a tragic little story – one amongst far, far too many. Lord have mercy!

Only two days after announcing it would hire Christians in same-sex marriages, World Vision U.S. has reversed its ground-breaking decision after weathering intense criticism from conservative evangelical leaders.”The last couple of days have been painful,” president Richard Stearns told reporters this evening. “We feel pain and a broken heart for the confusion we caused for many friends who saw this policy change as a strong reversal of World Vision’s commitment to biblical authority, which it was not intended to be.”

The trouble is that change requires some of us stepping out of line! And it will and does hurt when we’re told that WE’RE being rude and / or unloving towards the literalists – who so readily bash others over the head (and worse) with their fundamentalist absolutism, consumed by their own certainties, often diametrically opposed to any real vision as to What Would Jesus Do? – and steadfastly able to ignore the tragic plight of millions. “Conservative evangelical leaders” of this sort are absolutely NOT bringers of good news.

Would that there could be a bit more “pain and a broken heart” offered up for the isolated, the marginalised and the perpetually threatened of this world. Would that the needs of real flesh and blood human persons – living and loving in this world today – might be paid more attention than the imaginary demands of a book to be held in higher honour, and afforded a higher measure of protection, than the very people its pages seek to advocate.

World Vision? – oh, come on!

 see Paul Robinson’s What the World Vision debate was really all about

MAGNIFICAT!

LET ME MAKE GREAT THE NAME OF THE LORD! – now there’s an impressive response, from a young Galilean girl, who’s just heard, she believes, the word of an angel, that she’s to conceive and bear “God with us” into the world. “May I be his handmaid“.

What yearning for brighter days lay in the heart of a prayerful girl, raised in a household that will have observed the world’s injustices with keen eye? What kind of a turning the world upside down would the young girl Mary have been dreaming about? Maybe even praying about? What measure of faith did she possess that allowed for the simple fiat – “May I be his handmaid”? Am I – a girl – to be allowed to play my part? What might that mean, now and in the future, for others hitherto “passed-over”, if each and all are to flower to their fullest divinely-given potential? Ha! – the whole world, every living thing, would be pregnant with messianic possibility!

God with usimagine that. A harsh and demanding black and white world would be raised to new stature, with height and colour, and glory and honour, and music and praise, and unexpected non-conformity, and the push people need towards prayer, and faith and groundedness, and hope, and love. And grandeur. And – incredibly surprising – littleness, too. And the ancient and the youthful. Perspectives would be changed. God’s awe-inspiring art and incarnational creativity would the better be seen in, and through, and for, and all around every living person. A holy human family. Oppressive powers put in their place and the downtrodden raised.

Humankind and mothering, art and craftsmanship, perseverance in the ways of love and of peace – all these, equally, internationally and interfaithfully, will be “living temples to God’s glory”. Imagine the possibilities, the architecture, the shapes and sizes, the breathtakingly stunning irregularities, the angle of the morning light, in a world of living temples. Yes, yes, yes. I’m up for that – Magnificat! What Wisdom lay at the heart of this young woman? – (and she knew full well in advance, women often do, that there’d be a cost to all of this) – What Wisdom lies in the hearts of each of us, on this day of annunciation, still? What Wisdom bides her time until today’s the day. Until the time to well up, like Living Water, healing us, laughing in us, one and all, like an inundation of redeeming joy within?

… new
Patterns from new disorder open like a rose
And old assumptions yield to new sensation;
The Stranger in the wings is waiting for his cue,
The fuse is always laid to some annunciation

from Mutations, Louis MacNeice

God with us in a baby? A Christ-baby? An anointed baby? Any baby? – Magnificat! May I be his handmaid …

The Service Order for Mothering Sunday
at Bramhall Parish Church on 30th March at 10am is here

COLOURFUL ARRAY

Let us build up the true Church!

Archbishop Oscar Romero
shot dead whilst celebrating Mass

24 March 1980

I’M THANKING GOD TODAY for Ralph & Sue, first rate churchwardens. Their ministries equate to full time jobs in a parish like ours … and for Administrator Janet, Fr David, Deacon Paul, Ordinand Tracy, Pastoral Worker John, Schools Co-ordinator Jill, Sexton John, Yvonne and the work at Barnabas, all kinds of other missions and people-focused work, the finance and buildings team, the pastoral team, the Kaleidoscope team and other worship planners, the lunch providers, the support network around The Mill, the pray-ers, the hospital visitors, the youth leaders, the washer-uppers, the vacuumers, the loo cleaners, the church council, a 5 year old altar server, 300+ committed Christians – all engaged in a colourful array of apostolic witness to “the Kingdom of God”.

What are we here for? – to Live! – change, compassion, communion, crying, delight, failing, fairness, forgiveness, grieving, healing, inclusion, laughing, love for all, open doors, open hearts, open table, peace, poetry, praying, thankfulness and thanksgiving, justice, weeping, worship and well-wishing, all day, every day, at work, rest and play. This is Church.

www.bramhallcofe.com & facebook & @bramhallcofe

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IN A WELL ABOUT NOON

jesus-samaritan-woman-japanese

THERE’S USUALLY A NEAT LITTLE CIRCULAR WALL in the mind’s eye. Those Jack and Jill early-readers (along with fearful little tales we made up for ourselves) had a way of engraving their illustrations upon our imaginations. Circular, in this case. With a little roof, a winding handle, a wound rope and – though just out of sight, a bucket. A well. All neat and tidy and deep and protected. Hansel and Gretel and Rumpelstiltskin and Little Red Riding Hood all had one too.

Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’.John 4.5

Well, the mind’s eye readily envisages that little scene. Jesus and the Samaritan woman. Each exhausted for different but not-so-different “journeying” reasons. Set to fetch a pail of water – from the well Jacob (who “takes by the heel”) once gifted to Joseph (who “adds and increases”), along with a multi-coloured overcoat. But still, the Gospel story doesn’t always quite tell us everything, does it? Not every detail, noon-tide clock-watching notwithstanding. Something’s always – and purposefully – left to prayerful imagination and humility or groundedness.Or, in this case, well-ness! I like to think, by way of example, that Jesus might at the very least have requested a drink with the word “please” or some such. Be that as it may. My imagination went deeper. Wetter. More involved. The wonders of the internet presented me with a delightful little Japanese painting. And wonder upon wonder, what do I see? Neither thirsty sojourner is sitting on a wall around a well. Each encounters the other – one male, prayerfully observant Jew, and one much-married female, prayerfully observant Samaritan – from within a well, without a wall at all.

Here’s an early hint that this well mightn’t be just a provider of water. Here’s a suggestion as to why this well wouldn’t have a wall. Here’s a little parable that might enable any of us, female or male – all of us struggling to love and to be loved, all of us grappling with “honour / shame” issues, all of us hungry for sufficient affirmation to boost our perpetually flagging self-confidence (our egos), all of us having known more than our fair share of partners or husbands or wives, in our imaginations if that was all that was on offer – to stand tall.

Jesus of Nazareth doesn’t keep his distance. Neither does he embark upon a battle of words as to whether Samaritan sacrifices on Mount Gerazim or Jewish offerings on Mount Zion are better pleasing to God. Even his assertion that “salvation comes from the Jews” could refer to Jewish sense of “chosen-ness” which Jesus seems all too willing (already noon, the hour is coming) to apply widely. I wonder, indeed, whether his mentioning the woman’s having “had five husbands” was even strictly “prophetic”. It only requires a bit of imagination, in any of us, to recognise the yearning – the thirst – for love in another. It’s likely, for most if not all of us, that there’ll have been quite a bit of both searching and finding, and searching some more. And ordinarily wells provide only water. We’ll have to keep coming back. And the fetching and the carrying are something that the overburdened woman well imagines she could do without. Living water welling up from within sounds just great to her.

And the name of this living water is love. Again and again Jesus of Nazareth demolishes walls. Ultimately neither Gerazim nor Zion are the end of the story. Divisions between human persons – setting apart nations on the grand scale, and women and men on the domestic, must, along with “prophecies”, cease. It’s about noon. The sun is right overhead. Near. Present to all. Time for a drink and a rest at the well of life. There’s always time for sabbath moments, reviving, reconciling moments, everyday, everywhere, for everyone. No nation is purer than another nation. No man better, purer or higher than a woman. And we all of us get to drink of the living water the moment we realise that it’s absolutely OK – male or female – when it comes to the well of life – to engage in our encounters as equals at the well. Within.

One might call such an encounter a (wholly accessible) holy communion.

IN THE MIDDLE

WOW! A BRAIN-CELL TICKLING COUPLE OF DAYS at a Conference concerned with The Future of Ministry – followed half an hour or so after getting home by this month’s Parochial Church Council Meeting for me, and a two hour Old Testament seminar in Manchester for my colleague – so a bit late in the day for much immediate reflection. But I can’t let the day close without offering a huge thank you to Canon Professor Martyn Percy, to conference organiser Canon David Herbert, and to every one of my fellow participants at Foxhill.

And a big thank you to the faithful lay representatives to our Parochial Church Council. Whether we’ve been conferring at Foxhill or round table here in Bramhall, you’re all part-responsible for the sense I have, at the close of the day, of having been energised and recharged in our shared apostolic task in God’s world in our time.

I’ve been given enough stimulating input in the past 24 hours to keep me going for weeks and months to come. Tracy and I will share something of this as we reflect upon it. But for a quick jotting down of one of the most important things I came away with today: Martyn Percy recalled an account of a certain good and godly archbishop who was once asked by a group of German theologians what his own theological starting point was. I don’t know whether they were delighted with his answer (I imagine they were) but I definitely was:

… I think the starting point for all theology is somewhere in the middle …

Yes! Don’t we all do well to recollect that someone’s been here before us, and someone will be here after us. Everything we do, all our theology, all our apostilicity, all our ordinary, everyday living is “somewhere in the middle”. And that’s fabulously liberating. It means we can honestly try to practice a bit of Kosuke Koyama’s Three Mile An Hour Godcos we don’t have to provide ALL the answers. It’s a shared enterprise, is Life. And the starting point for all of us is, indeed, always somewhere in the middle.