BE OPENED

RACHAEL ELIZABETH preached for us this morning. The Gospel for the day was one she would describe as “a gift” – but the power of the sermon lay in Rachael’s now customary simplicity of spirit and grace in presentation.

Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha’, that is, ‘Be opened.’ And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly – Mark 7.31-35

Without note or pulpit desk, her only prop being a hand held microphone to add a bit of weight to our failing and soon to be replaced sound system, Rachael reminded me this morning of the late and great Brother Roger of Taizé, who, similarly clad and with the same kind of ease and grace, communicated the great truths of the Gospel of Jesus to crowds of thousands.

Rachael Elizabeth is both deeply reflective and contemplative, utterly unafraid of the gift of silence, pause and poise in preaching – and word and silence alike are couched in gentle, probing humour. It took no more than a minute for our gathering to get the gist of her message, simply and closely allied to the message of the Gospel story about deafness, and poor speech. And no more than another minute for our church family to grasp that Jesus –  and Rachael too – is calling us to be opened, to recognise our own deafness and the impediment in so much of our speech. We’re to trust. We’re to care for one another. We’re to care for God’s world – and especially for the suffering and the lost. We are family. God is doing a new thing.

Rachael Elizabeth came to us seeking Baptism when she was fifteen. If it’s true that she has learned fast it’s also equally true that she has taught us as much if not more than she has learned. Eighteen now, she’s just about to embark on reading Theology at the University of Trinity St David in Lampeter, and will continue to engage in the processes of discernment about a call to the priesthood.

Loved by many, many people here as both a young pastor and a gifted preacher, our church family will miss Rachael’s quiet and Christlike presence in Bramhall; she leaves us for Lampeter surrounded by prayers and love and blessing. We wish her joy and contentment in continued learning and teaching. And lots of youthful fun, too. We’ll look forward to seeing her during holidays, and we’ll remember Rachael Elizabeth’s call to trust God, and truly to “be opened”.

What “new thing” will we be celebrating next Sunday?

TELEPHONES FOR ONE THING …

Bede Griffiths (17 December 1906 – 13 May 1993), born Alan Richard Griffiths and also known as Swami Dayananda (Bliss of Compassion), was a British-born Benedictine monk who lived in ashrams in South India.

I READ FR BEDE GRIFFITHS’ A New Vision of Reality way back in 1989 when it was published. Formerly a Benedictine monk at Prinknash Abbey, Fr Bede, the book’s dustjacket informs, left England in 1955 to travel to India to assist in the foundation of Kurisumala Ashram, a monastery of the Syrian rite in Kerala. In 1968 he moved to Saccidananda Ashram in Tamil Nadu by the sacred river Cauvery. This Ashram (founded in 1950) was a pioneer attempt to found a Christian community in India which would incorporate the customs of a Hindu ashram and the traditional forms of Indian life and thought. It seeks to become a centre where people of different religious traditions can meet together in an atmosphere of prayer and grow together towards that unity in Truth which is the goal of all religions.

I’m a devotee of Brother David Steindl-Rast whose website Gratefulness pointed me to the old VHS tape footage of Fr Bede (above) which is simply priceless …

You see, for me, coming to America from India – the complexity of life! All these telephones for one thing, you know, and cars and tv and so on. It’s very wonderful in its way but [in India] in the simplicity, you seem to get an integrity, your whole life becomes more whole … if people can learn to simplify their lives, you know, at least in part – some sphere of simplicity where you can let go and be simple in the presence of God …

Bede Griffiths never lost his grip of the most fundamental requirement for a child of God: living in the presence of God. His / her entire life story arises therefrom. But we human beings are forgetful as Bishop Kelvin Wright of Dunedin (another prophet possessed of “a new vision of reality” in our own day) wrote a day or two ago …

These empty worship shells scattered around the countryside are the signs of the death of a particular religious infrastructure. I look at them with such fascination, I think, because they represent a process which is still continuing. A particular way of meeting the spiritual needs of our society is disappearing because it no longer meets the needs of our society, and still we are preoccupied with preserving it: keeping our buildings open and making sure our functionaries are paid and making sure the committee structures which kept the whole system turning over are filled with the fewer and older and wearier people who still give us allegiance. I think we have missed – are missing – the point.

The role of the church is to introduce people to the Living God and open them to the transforming power of the presence of God. Gradually we have forgotten to do this. We have forgotten how to do this. We have forgotten, even, that we are supposed to do this. And quite naturally, and quite rightly, the infrastructure we have created precisely to help us to do this crumbles and dies.

The old churches tell me one thing and they tell it to me clearly and loudly: The church must facilitate personal transformation or it must cease to exist. It is time to forget the infrastructure except to the extent that it facilitates the one essential task of the Church. As my Lord tells me, “seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and all the rest will be added to you as well.”

Personal transformation before ecclesiastical transformation,  that’s the secret. Jesus changed individual hearts before he changed church. Personal transformation begets ecclesiastical transformation, and thereafter societal transformation. Bede Griffiths, Roger of Taizé, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Kelvin Wright … might all have worn the name badge Swami Dayananda (Bliss of Compassion). And that’s where personal transformation begins: in compassion, first for oneself, and then for all other created persons and things, and that (Christ-like) compassion leads to “some sphere of simplicity” where we can “let go and be simple in the presence of God.”

In other words, we re-member. How lovely that an old VHS tape (oh, the simplicity of such things!) should bring Fr Bede to hearts and minds in 2011. How glad he might be to read Kelvin’s Available Light, even from the perspective of his now living entirely within it. Brother David, I’m grateful.

A WAY OF LIFE

SANDWICH LUNCH with a long-time friend and colleague today. Clerics plough some of their fields, much of the time, in rather solitary ways. Lunch and catch-up every now and then with other “plough-folk” functions, I think, a bit like the pie and a pint at a farmers’ market. Time for (albeit unconscious) reflection, taking stock, gratitude for abiding friendship and guidance over the years.

And the reflection, rather like prayer, brings again before our eyes the choices we have made, the lessons we have learned, the gladnesses we have revelled in, the sadnesses we have trembled in, the growing we have done, and the growing we still need to do. Human persons are engaged in walking the pathways of life; priests know a particular joy in companying and in learning with others in and along those paths, and in recognising the Divine presence Who walks with us. I love a prayer of Brother Roger of Taizé –

Risen Christ,
by your Holy Spirit
you live in us
and to each one you say:
“Come, follow me,
I have opened for you
a way of life.

And I thank God for my companions along life’s ways.

GO TENDERLY

A NINETY YEAR OLD LADY gazed tenderly straight into my eyes this morning – others too, of both sexes, and of all ages. Communion. Connectedness. Shared vocation. Eucharist. And I was so, so glad that I’m not the pastor of one of those Cathedrals (in Maggi’s “April Fool” – thank God!) planning to up their charges – even to those arriving for worship, to around £15 a visit. For, as Maggi suggests, there’s a note of truth to be heard in the voice of the Fool, and for all that I love churches and cathedrals, some of them with a passion, it’s time to take stock, and perhaps to have a rethink.

There’s a movement in the Church, right here in England, that’s pure madness. Paying the “parish share” to keep stones in place produces a stream of interminable “action plans” that are draining the Church of her proper essence and energy, both of these vitally necessary for her proper, mothering, task – shaping “living temples to God’s glory”. Something of the ancient edifice is going to have to give way, in this 21st century, to the saner voice of God’s Spirit within. “Hush the noise”, she whispers, “and hear the angels sing.”

What, and Who is the Church for?

Cynthia Bourgeault writes movingly in Mystical Hope: Trusting in the Mercy of God, of a brief encounter in New York, in 1973, with Brother Roger of Taizé:

So moved was I by his beautiful, simple words of prayer that at the end of his talk, in spite of myself, I found myself joining the throng swelling forward to meet him.

As the wave of people carried me steadily toward him, my panic increased. What would I say when I actually got there? Would I try to tell him all about myself in thirty seconds? Or the opposite – would I just stand there flustered and tongue-tied, wasting his time?

The line lurched forward and I was suddenly dumped into his presence. And there something happened that I would never have expected, and that changed my life forever. He simply looked at me, his beautifully gentle blue eyes right on me, and asked with tenderness, “What is your name?”

“Cynthia”, I said.

“Oh, it is a lovely name,” he said, and he looked deeply into me and through me into depths I never even knew were there. For the next thirty seconds, I had his full attention – perhaps the first time this had ever happened to me in my life, the first time I had ever experienced what it means to be unconditionally loved. I left that encounter with my heart overflowing with hope; by the following year I was baptized. And it was nothing he said – just the power of the way he was present, his complete transparency to love. The Community of Taizé may be a miracle, but there is no secret behind the miracle: in the heart of its founder, deep prayer and compassionate action have become fused as one.

What, and Who is the Church for?

Deep prayer and compassionate action, tenderness for the whole world, in the pastorate, the priesthood, of a humane humanity. The one defines the other.

Roger lived and loved like Jesus, who required no church or cathedral. Like Jesus, who spent more time encouraging people to slow down, and to take peace into homes and villages, than in encouraging religious people to run faster (and/or more expensively, with new-every-morning-novelty, and louder).  Like Jesus, who – like Brother Roger – made no charge. How, anyway, could I attach a price to the tender gaze, this morning, in Eucharist, of a ninety year old lady? Better to gaze gratefully – eucharistically – back. Or to put it another way, and wondrously quietly, to contemplate. God help us go tenderly.