EMERGING

The yearning for holiness remains alive today. We live with a sense that we can be more than we are. We feel the pull of the transcendent and live with a call to be the person God intended. The ammas [the ‘Desert Mothers’, Christian ascetics in the 4th and 5th centuries] understood that holiness was founded upon wholeness. They teach us that we must shed our false self and allow our true self to emerge.

Laura Swan, The Forgotten Desert Mothers, p 157

WHOLENESS. What constitutes our wholeness? This is the question that lies at the heart of all questions, at the heart of all relationships and right living, and the saints who trod the path of life before us were women and men who recognised that we’re all of us caught up in a process of emerging. The pursuit of holiness and wholeness cannot be a rushed exercise. It’s our lifetime’s task. We shouldn’t be too quick to arrive at answers, still less to “provide” answers for others!

Wholeness and holiness will emerge in human persons at different times, in different places, and at different rates. Quick fix “evangelism” can be misleading, even dangerous at times, and destructive. If any of us need “saving” from anything it’s from those who want to draft out the terms and conditions of our wholeness for us. Wholeness will involve being our deepest, truest selves … and will therefore involve us in being distinctive, unique – and necessarily different.

Live and let live

The world’s religious and philosophical traditions, and the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion that I love and seek to serve, have no choice but to continue to grapple with the life issues that some find it so hard to be reconciled with, issues that are largely to do with diversity. We really do need to learn to live and let live. We really do need to be reconciled to the processes of emerging.

“We live with a sense that we can be more than we are. We feel the pull of the transcendent.” We are emerging – and we’ll know we’ve arrived in the fullness of the reign of God, or, if religious language isn’t helpful, we’ll know we’ve arrived in the state of wholeness, when we’re genuinely and wholly able to revel and delight in our gloriously gifted diversity.

Meanwhile, to return again to the wisdom of Sonny Kapoor, the young hotel proprietor in the fabulous The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel –

Everything will be alright in the end, and if it’s not alright now then it cannot be the end …

SOUL STIRRING POETRY

POETRY IS SOUL STIRRING. That’s its job. Stirring souls. From the Greek poiein – to make or compose – poetry is an exercise in listening, in making things new, in vivifying, bringing life and maintaining and sustaining it. Poetry opens windows onto the depths of our souls, and the depth always surprises us, opens us, stretches us, appeals to a deeper generosity of spirit, a wider inclusivity. We will never cultivate a love for poetry if we’re inclined to maintain fixed positions – on any subject or object under the sun.

On the move …

Poetry is on the move, dynamic (explosive), changing, creating, morphing. Poetry is beyond the control – of any one human person – even beyond that of the poet. “The Spirit listeth where it wills”. Poetry bears the very Word of Life to hungry hearts, souls, minds and bodies. Poetry is a wide open door and every man, woman and child is invited to enter or depart her portals entirely at will. Poetry – this particular kind of creativity – invites us to celebrate being free to be.

God is the Great Poet. Word has been breathed into the Universe – and thereafter, through the divers gifts of Spirit, trusted to do Word-stuff – something different, even when similar, in every hearer, indeed in every element and atom of Creation. My prophet doesn’t look, sound or make exactly the same sense to me as yours does to you. Your “Christ” and mine might be similar whilst also being different. God – and Life itself – are seen through different lenses. And God is apparently OK with that. We can no more say that another’s faith “is not true” than we could say the same of a poem. Truth is a matter of perspective and a matter of the Word heard; what, where, when and by whom.

Sacred writings

That’s why the world’s sacred writings – the Bible amongst these – are full to bursting with glorious poetry. That’s why, in the Church of England, The Book of Common Prayer is granted a place of high honour. That’s why the late twentieth century Church of England’s Common Worship points to Divine activity with supremely beautiful phraseology such as “the silent music of your praise”. Poetry itself might be bound between two covers, poetry binds up, gathers, collects – in the sense of drawing together, but poetry never seeks to imprison. Poetry recognises that the real grace of words is their function as vehicles for every person’s imaginative creativity and expression. Christian truth, as one example amongst the world’s faith traditions, is intended to hold and to celebrate the glorious fact of diversity.

I think that’s why poetry enters most every conversation I ever have with a would-be priest. Conversation with four ordinands today, two within our parish and two without, led naturally and fluidly into the sharing of poetry. That’s always rewarding and hopeful in my book. I’m assured thereby of a willing and loving open-mindedness and generosity of spirit.

All of one race – the human one

Further reflection upon the gifts of Pentecost at the Eucharistic celebration here this morning brought us again to that glorious affirmation in the King James Version of the Bible (Acts 2) – “we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God”. Different words and different languages for different people, but all of one race – the human one.

The sharing of three poems – each written by people of different religious traditions – was well received by one person after another at the fiftieth birthday celebration of our Associated Church Fellowships group here in the late afternoon. And – gloriously – in the relatively few words of the poetry a large assembly multiplied the power of the words by a factor of 50 or more persons present. Each of us hears a different measure of truth from exactly the same set of words – and are, at one and the same time, bound by a common, shared experience.

A Vision …

And then there was the sharing of Psalm 122. “O pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee.” Jerusalem is the big word here so we unpacked it. Jerusalem may be translated “City, or Vision, of Peace”. (Oh, can you feel the irony?). Let’s pray the psalm poetically – “O pray for the peace of the Vision of Peace”. Ah! There’s OUR point and purpose. Whether we’re praying for or about the representatives of the three Abrahamic faiths that look to Jerusalem, or for or about any other form of reaching out (or in) to the Divine, what is of fundamental importance is that we pray, with all our hearts and souls and minds and bodies, with our very lives, for the peace of the Vision of Peace. How are we to set about this in practice? By cultivating a love for the poetic, by being open-hearted, by being willing to recognise that the Divine Source of all our lives is “making all things new” and “turning the world upside down”.

Ria Gandhi, a writer friend who lives in Mumbai shares my affection for the works of Rabindranath Tagore. I love the 78th Song Offering in Gitanjali – with which I ought to draw this post to a close … (for the wholly pedestrian reason that I’m due at my aqua-fit class in half an hour!)

When the creation was new and all the stars shone in their first splendour, the gods held their assembly in the sky and sang ‘Oh, the picture of perfection! the joy unalloyed!’

But one cried of a sudden – ‘It seems that somewhere there is a break in the chain of light and one of the stars has been lost.’

The golden string of the harp snapped, their song stopped, and they cried in dismay – ‘Yes, that lost star was the best, she was the glory of all heavens!’

From that day the search is unceasing for her, and the cry goes on from one to the other that in her the world has lost its one joy!

Only in the deepest silence of the night the stars smile and whisper among themselves – ‘Vain is this seeking! Unbroken perfection is over all!’

BUZZING

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability Acts 2

MY COLLEAGUE David Stoter and I chatted for ten minutes after yesterday’s three consecutive celebrations of the Eucharist here. “The whole place is buzzing” today, David said. And it was. Bramhall Parish Church is never exactly a sleepy-sort-of-a-church but yesterday, indeed throughout the weekend, the place was “buzzing”.

A lot of good things have been happening and more are converging. David and I both articulated that we “don’t quite really know why”. And I’ve been pondering that thought since, delighted about the “not knowing” … and in the early hours of this morning something “clicked”. It’s Pentecost next Sunday, I thought, half asleep, and was jolted awake. It’s Pentecost next week … and we’re not in control. The outpouring of the very life and breath of God is what’s continually changing us here, “from glory into glory, till in Heaven we take our place”.

I remember smiling, twenty years or more ago, when I heard a friend speaking about her church family

“Oh! we do get ourselves in a pickle. We pray “Lord, renew us, set our hearts on fire” even whilst we’re anxiously trying to channel the Holy Spirit through the control centre – you know, the Church Council. And She will insist on listing where She wills! The Holy Spirit’s constantly dishing out gifts to every Tom, Dick and Harriet – and each in their own language! The Holy Spirit’s absolutely no better behaved than Jesus was when it comes to our rules …”

But churches come alive when we loosen our grip a bit. Green shoots are appearing all over the place in and around St Michael & All Angels Bramhall. The fullness of the Life of God has been engaging with growth action planning since before Adam was a lad – and without a great deal of help from us whole new worlds are constantly springing into being. We’re caught up in the act of co-creating with God, of course, but we do well to remember that it takes us a while to catch up with the sheer energy of God; it takes us a while to reckon with the fact that the Holy Spirit’s gift is patently intended for EVERYBODY – inside and outside churches and other religious bodies;  it takes us a while to reckon with the Spirit’s gifts in people we think decidedly unqualified. And therein lies the Source of my greatest comfort and consolation as a Christian disciple and a parish priest. The universe is buzzing anyway. And I’m not controlling it. As the late, great Welsh priest and poet R S Thomas put it so well in his Pilgrimages, God is

… such a fast
God, always before us and
leaving as we arrive.

We’d exhaust our little energies if we tried to keep running after God. And there’s no need. Pentecost illustrates for us that the gifts are generously dispersed anyway. God “keeps up with” us. So I can rest a little easier. I can encourage my fellow pilgrims to rest a little easier too. For all the evidence before my eyes is that the fire of God’s love draws no distinction between divers peoples. To each is given their own language and life “as the Spirit [gives] them ability”. The saving work has been done. It’s ours to celebrate that fact. All we need to do is open the doors of our hearts, homes and churches as widely as possible, eyes wide open to the beauty, grace and potential in human persons, making sure that everyone knows that all people are invited to the Feast of Life – in precisely those hearts, homes and churches, always.

From time to time, of course, we become irritated. Overwhelmed. Anxious to get a grip on the reigns again, to take control. I’m too easily irritated by those (especially so called “Christian”) people who are apparently quite certain that if only all humanity would follow their particular religious traditions then the world’s ills would disappear. But Pentecostal fire is ever intent on warming such irritations out of our systems. The more irritated we become the more persistent the “calling in the night” that suggests (have you noticed?) that we

enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not ye therefore like unto them: for you Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him – Matthew 6, v 6-8

FULLNESS

THERE’S A DEEP RICHNESS, a fullness, about the lovely people with whom I live and work in my daily life as a parish priest. I never fail to be amazed by the wells of goodness and of self knowledge I encounter in so many. And that’s the proper starting point in our relationships with God and with one another. Acknowledgement of richness, diversity, colour, beauty, glory, plenty, promise, fullness.

We’re God’s Harvest and it’s ours to live and to love and to celebrate life under the all-encompassing and beautiful dome of the sky. God is good and all that God has made is good. The same God has made us to co-create good too. We’re blessed with an abundance that needs to be acknowledged before we begin to consider what may be lacking. And when we live thus eucharistically – thankfully – we find ourselves moved to play our part well in making up the shortfalls where we do identify them.

I OFFER THANKS, Lord of all Life, for the fullness and for the beauty I see in the people around me now. God grant to me and to all your people the blessing of grace to welcome, open-heartedly, the glories of fullness, and of individual, deeply personal, finely crafted, beautifully made story and giftedness in every woman, child and man upon earth. As you do.

FOR A MUSIC OF SILENCE

IT’S STRANGE HOW OFTEN one thing leads to another, and having thought of Meister Eckhart on the way home from Woodford the other night I picked up my copy of Meister Eckhart from Whom God Hid Nothing and was thereby reminded of Brother David Steindl-Rast’s marvellous Foreword to a little volume full of big stuff! Here’s a snippet –

All the different religions can be traced back to an experience of communion with the Ultimate by their founders or reformers. Historic circumstances lead them to great diversity of religious traditions, yet all of those diversities are only so many expressions of one and the same mystical core – expressions of the sense of ultimate belonging. This mystical core needs to bring forth so many different myths and teachings, needs to be celebrated in so many different rituals, because it is inexhaustible.

Not only is the mystical core of religion inexhaustible, it is also ultimately unspeakable. The heart of all ritual is stillness; the heart of all teaching is silence. The mystics of every tradition know this … the language of mystics explodes ordinary language. What is left, after that, is silence, a silence that unites.

Language is meant to build bridges. Yet how often language divides. It divides when we get stuck in concepts and abstractions, alienated from experience. It is a dreadful thing when this happens to religious language, yet it tends to happen in every tradition. This is why we need the language of the mystics to blow to pieces the conceptual walls that divide us – long enough for us to get in touch again with that silent ground of our unity in experience. Once we are grounded in silence, conceptual thinking, too, will regain its proper function. No longer will concepts be the bars of a mental prison, but rather the bars of a musical score – for a music of silence.

WOW! This is “just” a foreword! And that only part of it. And then there’s Meister Eckhart himself. Oh how vivifying are the words of the mystics of old and of the present day. And oh how we need them. I’ve been preparing Sunday’s Pew Sheet with the prophesy of Ezekiel in the Valley of the Dry Bones … and inspirited, in company with Eckhart and Brother David alike, I’m praying “breath of Life come sweeping through” (our imprisoned traditions)  in a musical silence.

NEW WORLD COMING

There’s a new world coming and it’s just around the bend
there’s a new world coming, this one’s coming to an end
there’s a new voice calling, you can hear it if you try
and it’s growing stronger with each day that passes by
there’s a brand new morning, rising clear and sweet and free
there’s a new day dawning that belongs to you and me
there’s a new world coming, the one we’ve had visions of
coming in peace, coming in joy, coming in love

Cass Elliot

I’VE BEEN TALKING RECENTLY WITH PARISHIONERS who have been in South Africa, in Tanzania, in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, in Pakistan, India, the United States and Canada, Paris, Madrid and Rome. And with people who were thrilled to the depths of their hearts by Pope Benedict’s recent journey from Rome to the United Kingdom, and by the images we’ve all seen of many a warm embrace.

The world is becoming smaller; there is a new world coming, a new day dawning. As we travel further, as we encounter each other more deeply, as we see the heart and the hope in persons or people profoundly different from us, gay or straight, male or female, atheist, agnostic, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Taoist, Sikh or Jew—or any other kind of “different”, we’ll learn to embrace each other with a new warmth. The differences that divide humankind must be allowed to take second place to the Divine and the human longing for peace, security, and love.

Thank God that we’ve all been shown that it’s perfectly possible to embrace people we don’t agree with on every point of detail. For come the ultimate Harvest we’ll all be held in and by and with the same embrace. Come, thankful people, come. Come in peace, come in joy, come in love.

FREEDOM OF SPIRIT

God has laid upon man the duty of being free, of safe-guarding freedom of spirit, no matter how difficult that may be, or how much sacrifice and suffering it may require.

PURE FM 107.8 -Thought for the Day – Sunday 10 August 2008

THESE ARE THE WORDS of the Russian philosopher and theologian Nicholas Berdyaev, and they’ve been a kind of lodestar, or guide, for me, across many years in Christian ministry.

The 2nd century church father St Irenaeus said that “the glory of God is a person fully alive”.

And philosopher John Macmurray wrote in the 1940s that “any morality which is against freedom is a bad morality”.

You know, I thank God that there are signs in this broken world of ours that some of us humans are becoming a little more humane. Maybe a little closer to the image of God. In many parts of the world human beings have come to recognize that God intends us to be free; to breathe his good air without fear or the need constantly to be looking over our shoulders. In many parts of the world human beings across the religious traditions have heard a call to work for the things of justice and shared peace; to work for the provision of food for the hungry, water for the thirsty and welcome for the outcast.

The Bishop of Colombo, addressing fellow bishops at the recent Lambeth Conference, said:

The Church is called to be: an inclusive communion, where there is space equally for everyone and anyone, regardless of colour, gender, ability, sexual orientation. Unity in diversity is a cherished Anglican tradition – a spirituality if you like, which we must reinforce in all humility for the sake of Christ’s Gospel.

And I say “Amen” to that. For I believe, with the Dutch scholar Erasmus, that God preserves the ship, but the mariner conducts it into harbour. We’re all in this together. God, together with every man, woman and child upon earth. Let’s take care to safeguard freedom of spirit. God is big enough to absorb our little mistakes and creative enough to have made us to be free. Grace and peace for you, as always.