COMING HOME

GOOD CONVERSATION with a young friend today.

What do you suppose Jesus was doing when he went off alone to pray? – I think it’s where he came home to himself.

I was stunned. I’ve seen sunset over Galilee from a hillside vantage-point and remember, as though it were yesterday, saying out loud: “here I’ve come home to myself.” The mental image of Jesus doing just that is a glorious one and it was present, for me, in our Monthly Monday Meditation tonight.

Earlier in the day we’d been grappling, at our weekly Vicar & Wardens meeting, with the passionate sense we have, at Bramhall Parish Church, of a call to speak about Jesus and about the things of faith in God in an intelligent way, in ways that make “words about God” – theology – something accessible and intelligible to as many 21st century children, women and men as we could imagine.

We spoke of my being regularly stymied by the inherited language of a great deal of Christian hymnody, heavily laden with substitutionary atonement theology and patriarchy, together with some of our liturgy and prayer. We’re looking for new – modern – language resources, and towards restoring some of the best of the ancient too, wondering about writing some of our own, praying from the heart, mindful of our call to embrace any and all who seek to “come home” to themselves and God, fascinated and hugely encouraged by the fact that at least as many people gather for our silent monthly meditation sessions as for other “Fresh Expressions” we know of. We’re praying daily for Grace to care and to dare.

In order to come home to ourselves, we should realize that what we really need is a radical reeducation from head to toe – Gus Gordon, Solitude & Compassion: The Path to the Heart of the Gospel, Orbis Books, 2009

Radical reeducation from head to toe. Yes: I think that’s what Jesus of Nazareth was advocating. And his vision arose directly out of his own frequent opting for solitude and compassion. Wilderness again. Solitude. Facing up to demons. Realigning ourselves. Grappling. Envisioning. This is praying. Coming home to oneself and God – the Source of the life in us.

Maybe the future of the Church will depend, to some degree, on Christian people’s willingness to step outside churches once in a while. In much the same way as the work and worship of the local synagogue is extended outwards and beyond – via family homes and daily observance, (I love the descriptive “an observant Jew”), so the Christian community should be encouraged to observe sacramentality in their daily lives and practices – the Church’s sacramental practice was not intended to replace that of our ordinary, every day lives, but to enhance and develop it.

For most Christian people ritual translates into liturgy and sacrament, with a distinctive assignment to who can facilitate the ceremony. As people mature into a more adult sense of faith they begin to realize that ritual-making is everybody’s prerogative, and everybody’s responsibility – Diarmuid O’Murchu, Adult Faith, Orbis Books, 2010

What do you suppose Jesus was doing when he went off alone to pray? – I think it’s where he came home to himself …

Me too. So I’ll be happy, in company with my fellow pilgrims here, to continue our searching – in words and in silence – for language with which at least some of the presently disenfranchised may be able to pray, coming home to themselves, alongside our own homecomings, today.

FRESH EXPRESSIONS

OUR PARISH CHURCH has been taking seriously the need for fresh expressions in our shared life, worship and prayer. Ours is a relatively large church (the people, and the “house of the Church” too) and so there’s need for variety of expression simply because we’re comprised of a variety of people. Our life is shaped by daily prayer and space for silence and meditation, and by four main celebrations of the Eucharist in an ordinary-time week – three  consecutive celebrations on a Sunday at 8, 9 and 10.45am – each of these slightly different in make up and character, and by another on Wednesday mornings, and by a larger number in the various residential homes for elderly persons in the parish. For at least the past decade our liturgy has been almost exclusively taken from Common Worship and eucharistically shaped. We’ve used the NRSV version of the Bible. And we still use / do all of these things.

But we’ve also been engaged in diocesan-encouraged “Growth Action Planning”. And our usual Monday morning “Vicar & Wardens” meeting today involved (as it often does) a review of where we’re up to. And our variety of fresh expression currently involves

i) a burgeoning Messy Church ministry that is colouring not only our church life but also daily family lives; and

ii) the re-introduction, several times a month, of liturgy according to the Church of England’s ancient Book of Common Prayer (yes, we bought brand new copies), with readings from the King James Version (AV) of the Bible, including, most recently, an Advent Evensong. We have been freshly surprised that younger people are among those who’ve welcomed this initiative (not all young people elect for noise and high-octane action; more than a few express a real need for “space and place and silence”) and

iii) an exciting and very popular puppet ministry, which, fascinatingly, we’ve discovered, brings people of all ages together and enables conversations (by the mouth of the puppets – rather than by the mouth of the prophets!) that may very well not have taken place otherwise. And there’s lots of laughter, plenty of noise, and even some reflective silence involved in our Double Act say-and-pray-in-a-new-way performances. And then

iv) and perhaps, for some, most surprising of all, we’ve been enjoying a Monthly silent Meditation session on Monday evenings  throughout 2011 – with plans to continue through 2012 – which has attracted around 75 people altogether with 40+ people attending quite regularly and others reporting that they practice the Meditation whether they’re able to be physically present or not.

And then there’s the call to be apostolic: to baptise, to proclaim, to afford hospitality, to tend the sick and needy, and to “send out”. So our well attended and popular Baptism preparation evenings for candidates, parents and godparents are a priority focus area and all Baptism celebrations have been brought into and embraced by and in the context of Sunday Eucharist. Our Young Church team are engaging in well received contact with local schools. Our Missionary Giving co-ordinator is facilitating our active and aware involvement in the disbursement of funds allocation. And our now 2 year old link with the Diocese of Newala in Tanzania, having received and been blessed by the visit of Bishop Oscar to Bramhall, will lead to reps from Bramhall visiting Newala in 2013.

Preaching, teaching and learning, reading (a substantial and well-used new church library), Doorway courses and other study groups have all been further developed (what is the place of Christianity in the context of our 21st century’s pluralistic society? – which we want to celebrate); table fellowship is shared and enjoyed between groups of men, and between groups of women, and between men and women and youngsters all together.

Care of the sick at home and in hospital (a large lay pastoral-care team, some of whom are actively involved in local hospital chaplaincy), bereavement and funeral care are all part of our daily life – though as the work develops and becomes more widely known so the needs reveal themselves to be greater and we see more clearly where we’re not meeting some of those needs. This, in part, is what lies behind our recent communications review.

Thrillingly there are some quite specific vocations arising in our members. We’ve currently one of our number training for the priesthood at Mirfield, and another two in the early stages of the discernment / Foundations for Ministry / training process and in conversations with the Director of Ordinands and others. Over 200 volunteers are listed on our various rotas.

Major building works have taken place and continue apace. Fresh expression is further enhanced by the maintenance of contact, old and new, with artists, poets, painters and other creative partners to mutual satisfaction. Just today the Church was visited at dawn by someone who wanted “a last opportunity to sit in silence” in company with Wendy Rudd’s wonderful Windsails – now wending their way to a new host. Our lantern tower seems very bare without them tonight.

Fresh expressions – all of them designed and shared in so that we may REMEMBER God and re-member the Church of God. Fresh expressions – because we mean business when we say that the doors of Bramhall Parish Church are as wide open as is the Heart of God – the Heart that appears to us to thrive in Eternal Silence, so encouraging us, in the midst of all of our human expressions, to be silent too, sometimes, in the face of all eternity, knowing ourselves dearly beloved in that Divine Heart, too.

O LORD OPEN THOU OUR LIPS

in an English parish church in November AD 2011

ADVENT SUNDAY EVENING: O Lord, open thou our lips. And our mouth shall shew forth thy praise. O God make speed to save us. O Lord make haste to help us. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

A large congregation, and a goodly number in the Quire and Places where they sing; the hymn book, the (1662) Prayer Book, the versicles and responses, the Choir, the Psalm, the Lessons, the clouds of incense, the organ, the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis, the Apostles’ Creed, the collects, the Anthem, the prayers (for Her Majesty’s good governance amongst these), the well sung hymns, the sermon, It came upon the midnight clear, that glorious song of old … and an evening prayer, and blessing.

“Wonderful. Wonder-full. Like a cathedral” – someone said at the door. Quite so. Like a cathedral. That’s what we aspire to. That’s what we’re reaching for. The cathedra, the seat of the Lord God Almighty. That’s why a parish church exists – seats in the heart of holiness, for everyone, and a door. The gate of Heaven. The place of

Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back … *

The place to which we lift up our eyes to seek succour and counsel, in company with praying people through ages past – the vision of which takes our minds off guarding our little piles of stuff for a while; the vision that takes our minds off wondering “what I want for Christmas” and the gold-wrapped but still fragile little securities that leave us still wanting – to notice the advent of God; to notice the gift of the Life of God in glorious, mysterious, immortal, invisible wisdom: reaching. Reaching to touch and to bless and to heal us. Advent, adventus. Come! We welcome you into your City, Lord. Come! Fulfil now, O Lord, the desires and petitions of thy servants as may be most expedient for them.

Some things in the world and in the Church of God are, quite simply, everlastingly fresh expressions.

* R S Thomas, The Kingdom

FRESH EXPRESSION (dated 1662)

THERE ARE MOMENTS OF PURE JOY in parish life. What better gift, what better way to celebrate the first of our Parish Centenary events across 2010 than a Sunday Candlemas – the Feast of The Presentation of Christ in The Temple. Better begin (in these days of Growth Action Planning and “He’s turning the world upside down”) with a “fresh expression”. So we did. With (1662) Prayer Book Choral Evensong, a mixed choir of thirty, robed and unrobed, ‘traditional’ and ‘music group’, and the nave filled row after row. And it’s one of the seven deadliest sins, I know, but of all of them tonight, of all of us, of the entire parish family here, I’m proud as Punch! We’ve been helping each other along the road to glory for years and years and years …

A blind man recognises a beloved face by barely touching it with seeing fingers, and tears of joy, the true joy of recognition, will fall from his eyes after a long separation.

Osip Mandelstam, The Word and Culture

Subtitled text from Haggai 2 announced reflection on The Future Glory of the Temple. And Romans 12 exhorted us to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship”.

What then is to be “The Future Glory of this Temple?” I wondered aloud in the pulpit. “What is the name of the song, the psalm, the canticle of praise that we would sing a hundred years from now?”

In Lent this year some of us will take up Terry Hershey’s “The Power of Pause”. It holds some clues as to the whereabouts of the Temple “not made by human hands”:

“… when I am present I am grateful. And gratitude is always a type of prayer.

… the entire region is bathed in sunshine. Now, at dusk, the cloud cover is scattered like tattered pieces of cloth … the sky is spring blue, baby boy blue … the water is ice blue and the mountains are blanketed with snow. In the clear winter air the mountains stand stalwart – enduring, comforting, and settling. they are bigger than any of my pettiness. And their beauty slows my breathing and eases my mind (page 27)

The well known priest and author, the late Henri Nouwen once wrote:

Too often I looked at being relevant, popular and powerful as ingredients of an effective ministry. Jesus sends us out to be shepherds and Jesus promises a life in which we increasingly have to stretch out our hand and be led to places where we think we’d rather not go. He asks us to move from a concern for relevance … to a life of prayer; from worries about popularity … to communal and mutual ministry. What is new is that we have moved from the many things, to the Kingdom of God.

Henri Nouwen, In The Name of Jesus.

Ah! To the Kingdom of God. Look, my friends. Look beyond our little Evensong. Look hard. Can you see him there, with Anna? They’ve been dreaming about mountains and hills, and valleys and plains, and rising up like eagles, and blue sky and a blue lake, and a Kingdom promised from the beginning of time. And whilst they’re waking from their slumbers, as though in direct response to the prayers of their patient waiting, one of the most beautiful women that ever walked upon the face of the earth came near. A young woman most pure, still seeking purification.

Simeon stumbled forward, barely able to see through tears of recognition. He touched Mary’s beautiful face, and she placed a small white bundle into the trembling arms of this old man of the Temple.

And a rainbow stretched out over Mount Zion. The elderly Anna gasped and knelt down at Mary’s feet and the old man said, a little croakily:

Nunc Dimittis

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace : according to thy word.

For mine eyes have seen : thy salvation;

Which thou hast prepared :

before the face of all people;

To be a light to lighten the Gentiles : and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

Luke 2.29-32

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son : and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be : world without end.  Amen.

Never was fresher expression uttered. All that we ever longed for has been made available to us. All that we ever feared about death, or life, has been put to flight. Though hearts may sometimes be seared by sword, yet may we hold the Saviour. Yet we may hold, in an infant then and in every infant littleness now, a Song, a Psalm, a Canticle of Praise that we would sing a hundred years from now, and that with heartfelt gratitude and awe:

Nunc Dimittis. Now I may die in peace. I’ve longed for a fresh expression.

So I came. Present. Really there. And I opened the Church’s ancient Prayer Book, and found the reason it was written. God be praised.

WHICH LENS?

SEVERAL CONVERSATIONS I’VE HAD RECENTLY have been about the lenses through which human beings see things, how we filter information given and received. People hear the same piece of information in sometimes utterly different ways. Preachers and teachers beware. This isn’t news for the retail industry of course, but the Church (our parish as well as nationally) has still a great deal to learn in this area. What’s good for the goose is sometimes decidedly bad for the gander.

The Fresh Expressions initiative is attempting to respond to this process of filtering and is having obvious and well documented successes. But for some, even the name of the initiative is a non-starter. Somehow we have to keep trying to bring out of the treasure chest something good, both old and new. What kind of lens, what kind of filter or perspective might be a uniting starting point for any Christian engaged in such an exercise? The speaker at our Church Council meeting last night (thinking about a possible link with an African diocese) provided us with as good an (ever new) starting point as any I can think of:

“though we are many we are one body, for we all share in one bread”.

I hope we’ll make some links with Christians outside the range of our usual experience. I know we’ll grow if we can.

VOCATIONS …

theology

Image by toon vb via Flickr


FEW THINGS ARE MORE ENCOURAGING than the conversations I have with people who are ready to explore Christian vocation in depth – and I’ve had several such encounters in the past few weeks. And it’s not an easy option, not a call that guarantees an easy life. The hurdles to be scaled before one ever gets down to the church history, the doctrine, ethics, pastoralia, spirituality, theology, worship and possibly a house move are all part of the training. And this “being thrown in at the deep end” is the norm, of course, when one has just successfully negotiated school and university – one’s friends are all in the same situation. But it’s quite another thing when you’re considering leaving a 20 year career, a home you’ve nearly paid the mortgage on, the settled outlook and friendships formed over decades of belonging somewhere. “Follow me” was the Master’s call beside the Sea of Galilee. And it’s a call still being heard the world over – and wonderfully and bravely acted upon. These vocations are today’s fresh expressions, and it’s the sacrificial generosity at the heart of so many of them that gives me such hope for a more generous, open-hearted and Spirit-led future.