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 …

SOPHIE & HARRY

THE “USUAL” most assuredly has to give way to the unusual, the unfamiliar and the different when we baptise little ones in the context of our Sunday Eucharist. Priests, parents, all present, have to be light on the balls of their feet to keep a grip on what’s going on. Exercise in liturgical “thinking on the run”! That’s why ultimately they’re so energising and rewarding (even if one collapses in a chair for an hour immediately afterwards!)

Harry and Sophie were baptised today on the Feast of the Birth of St John the Baptist and a large assembly reflected on the Baptist’s cry “Prepare the Way of the Lord”. Yes, that’s what Baptism’s for: a splash of fresh water, a wake up and smell the coffee, a being dunked in Jordan river, a being upended and yet held safe, a being changed and challenged and chastened and commissioned and celebrated and loved – all at the same time. And recurring forever. Way to go!

GLORY

please click photo to enlarge

WATCHING GLORY unfold in every facet of life and death is the blessed occupation of all human beings. The opportunities I’ve been given for just such a seeing in 30 years as a priest have brought me incalculable blessing. Glory unfolds everywhere. And as though the glory unfolding in our own lives were not blessing enough, we get to see it unfolding all around us as well. If we have eyes to see. If we have ears to hear.

Today I’ve greeted and laughed and prayed and baptised and celebrated Eucharist and cried with a couple of hundred people. Our wonderful Youth Group provided a cooked breakfast mid-morning. A sausage and bacon bap at any time is good news for me, but served this morning by marvellously giving and lovely young people, in parish rooms literally buzzing with life and laughter, though the winds were howling and the rains were drenching, it was glory writ large. “Never been here before” said a young Dad at the Baptism. “But it’s like coming home.” A bit like some of Jan Dean’s poetry that, “like coming home”.

In an hour and a half in our local Hospice this afternoon I met Glory that’s touchable. Many years ago I met Dame Cicely Saunders, the Mother Founder of the modern Hospice movement. I thought her a Christ-figure par excellence. And I felt her Spirit present this afternoon, and in the midst of laughter and tears and lovingly proffered chocolate closed my eyes, in the quiet company of the smallest of assemblies, and simply breathed peace. “In life, in death …” Glory in the air. Glory in the living and in the sick and in the dying and in the young volunteers whose smiles lit up the room – and the faces of the people to whom they lovingly ministered.

Prayer. No words necessary. Just prayer in the air. Thank God for Dame Cicely. Thank God for Hospices. Thank God for giving young people. Thank God for our churchwarden Sue, for many years the Manager of said Hospice, and now, in company with a huge team, bringing something of the hospitality of Hospice right into the Heart of our parish church. Old and young. Old apostles and the newly baptised. Light. Song. Silence. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, giggles and nodding off to sleep in between. Glory.

And then a couple of hours in the cinema – Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. Should you find yourself there (and I hope you do) you may remember, in many a scene, that I suggested to you tonight that right there you’ll see example after example of … Glory. Unfolding everywhere, right in the midst of life’s mysteries and vicissitudes, joy, pain, growing, coming and going. Swimming upstream. Salmon leap. And it makes our hearts swell, and we glimpse a day when “All shall be well, yea, and all manner of things shall be well” …

FAST-HEADING FOR HOLY WEEK

FICKLE, THOSE CROWDS. Fickle. I can perfectly believe that a Palm Sunday event happened around Jesus of Nazareth in Jerusalem, even if the evangelists did later engage in a smidgeon of poetic licence. Easy enough to believe, because all that palm-waving and racket can be seen in towns and cities all across the world, most days, to this very day. Fickle crowds on the look-out for some poor soul who can be commissioned to sort life out for us. Some poor soul who’ll be clobbered – maybe crucified – if it turns out they’re not all they’re cracked up to be – a condition, an imminent state of affairs, for crowd-acclaimed messiahs, for scapegoats appointed by malcontents, that’s guaranteed certainty. Fickle crowds, religious capitals, fickle (some might say dim-witted) churches are not always very nice places to be. (To a new parish priest in this Diocese, a few years ago: “Well, be warned, you won’t be at all popular if you give a sermon. On Easter Sunday you’re supposed to read out the names of everyone who’s given a lily!”) …

Christmas – Holy Week – Easter, year-in, year-out, another round of Church busy. Bishops, priests, you and me, what are we all hoping to see? Will we cheer? Will we mean it when we “sing Hosanna” – and if so, what for? Will we welcome this  odd-looking “King” one minute and then in the next bolt the door? Who’s being crucified this week? What’s our “Holy Week” going to be for? Will it turn out to have been a challenge to our own fickleness? Will we blush and protest too much that we waved no palm, we were never hoodwinked, carried away, never, ever, meant anyone, anywhere, any harm?

I’m more than a little interested in these questions because I both love and – at times – hate the Church with great passion. Even after a lifetime’s close involvement I’ve been shocked and sickened by some of the responses to the truly Christ-like Archbishop Rowan’s appointment to what must surely be a dream job for him. Soon it’ll be someone else’s turn to sit in Augustine’s Chair:

Next time, could we please have an Archbishop of Canterbury who believes and articulates both privately and  publicly, confessional Anglican faith and morals? …

wrote one correspondent to the Church Times of 23rd Marchinducing stomach-ache in me from that day to this. May the Lord God come to the aid of Rowan’s successor, and that right early, but I give notice that I think my heart might break if such a person starts glibly bleating about “Bible-believing Christians” because they’d almost certainly count me – a “let’s take the Bible seriously” kind of a Christian – out of their respectable “Bible-believing” society – and many thousands more of us would be all lined-up to see another enormous exodus out of the pews, to heaven knows where, anywhere would do, “just so long as it’s not a church”. Goodness there’d be a lot of palm-waving on enthronement day though, and plenty of Make way, make way …

More than a little interested in what Holy Week’s going to be for, because, being a parish priest, there’s no avoiding the dark side of Christian communities, my own included. One of the sadder aspects of the life of a vicar concerns the number of awful stories – all clerical ears must quickly get used to hearing – about the disloyalty, cruelty and vain-glorious fantasy engaged in by some who would count themselves “pillars” and numbered amongst “the great and the good”. One of our ‘treasures’ recently announced, spittingly, “I hate baptisms!”. One of the guests at said Baptism asked me “aren’t Christians supposed to model The Good Life – life in all its abundance? God help me. If that guy’s the model I’ll stick to the golf course, but thanks very much anyway. Even I can see that you’re really trying. Such a shame that a few half-wits spoil the whole.”

Holy Week will have rendered Christ’s Church very great service indeed if, come Easter Sunday, the “half-wits” among us, myself included amongst these, had spent a little time examining our dim-wittedness, examining the words we sing and say and pray, blushing a little at the ridiculousness of our fickle palm-waving and bureaucratic busy-bodied-ness, and asking what Jesus of Nazareth could possibly have been modelling, could possibly have been getting at if it turned out to be true that he said “you will do greater works than these” and “I am the Way”.

Church Times preview in my email Inbox promises an interview in tomorrow’s paper with ‘after-religionist’ Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh. Thank God and hooray. That’s the first piece I’ll turn to. The title alone of his Doubts and Loves tells me that this man, at least, knows something about the road to Calvary, and quite a bit about Resurrection – along the pathways of “a more excellent way”.

**

GOOD NEWS!

ONE YOUNG ADULT, one dear member of our young church, and one babe in arms (fast asleep) were baptised in Bramhall this morning, a joyful occasion for all involved, and one of hundreds of such events taking place today all over the world. Church is changing today as she has changed and changed again across 2000 years since the advent on earth of Jesus of Nazareth but, come what may, still there are millions who answer the call to “shine as lights in the world”. I suspect that Jesus would be less inclined to call these people “Christians” and more inclined to celebrate their being “fully human”. And that flags up an invitation to all of us – to celebrate light shining in the world wherever it is found, in “fully human” persons of whatever gender, nationality, religious persuasion or lack thereof. Such celebrations are invariably Really Good News.

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.

 

 

BAPTISM & BIRDSONG

I COULD BARELY BREATHE during BBC1’s Birdsong tonight. May the God of life help us never, ever, ever to forget again the realities therein represented. After last week’s episode I’d spent a lot of time thinking up excuses to avoid tonight’s, but in the event sat dumbstruck under a sense I can only describe as “responsible obligation”. The terrible, terrible and overwhelming waste of not one but two World Wars, early in the same century, swamp the soul. I thought my chest would burst in the scene when the two German soldiers told Wraysford that the War was finished. Over. Told, terrified and terrifying, with all the dear longing and hope in the world – the dead Jack Firebrace’s “Love is all there is Sir. To love and to be loved”, hanging in exploded dust.

Today I baptised a young woman, two young boys and three beautiful infants. They’re all treasured. This world’s peace and your life’s purpose are intimately bound, I told them, their parents and their godparents; those baptised into the faith of the Christ today must play their part well in ensuring that no religious, political or sociological dogma should ever again lead to such a monstrously great lie, a madness of such inconceivable proportions, that so set tender-hearted men against each other that hell was created upon the face of the earth. No religious certainty, no political ideology, no nationalism nor false pride should ever again be allowed to prevail over “Love is all there is Sir. To love and be loved.”

Six new Christians. May they herald a purer, higher form of Christianity for today and for the future. May they mingle with wider religious representation. May they be salt and yeast and light and love in the world. May they never be taught, or learn by any other means, how to hate another human person by reason of their colour or creed, gender, race or sexuality. And may they ever be profoundly grateful for the comradeship, the basic goodness, compassion and self-sacrifice of the millions who gave up their lives – God help humanity – without ever fully understanding why. May they follow the example – all this is to say – of our Lord Jesus Christ, who was always more concerned to serve than to be served, to offer worth to others than to be himself worshipped. May it be that when any of us feel burdened with a desire to persuade others of our own doctrine we might follow Archbishop Sentamu’s advice the other night: “ask yourself first how your doctrine measures up to your Jesus”. How does it, how do I, measure up to Love?