FRANCIS

PRAY FOR ME – the first request and the first gift of the new Bishop of Rome – the “Eternal City” – twelve months ago today.

Of all the marvellous and extraordinary qualifications that this humble pastor brings to his gargantuan task, the one that is most conspicuously present, in his every action, is this great gift: the perpetual willingness to imply “I cannot do this in my own strength. I really need YOU to pray for ME”.

And this constant request is a gift for people everywhere because it gives honoured place to the contribution of ones, twos, tens, hundreds, thousands, millions, billions, towards the Franciscan “rebuilding and restoring” that is the vocation of “all men and women of goodwill” – not just Roman Catholics, not just Christians, but billions of good and perfectly ordinary people, of all ages, of every race and language, all over the world.

Pope Francis seems to suggest that “if mine is an important task, then yours is too. Pray for me, as I pray for you.”

The beautiful sight of Blencathra emerging from mist this afternoon was a suggestive one on this first anniversary. Inspired by the Christ who climbed mountains and hills before him, Pope Francis must, nonetheless, feel himself faced by a long haul. May the prayers he requests every day sustain him. The summit emerges in good time – revealing light and warmth and hitherto unimagined glories.

A year after his first Papal request I’m still celebrating – and acting upon – the gift of the Pope’s having invited me to pray for him. And I’m the more grateful for others’ prayers – throughout my life – for me.

Screenshot 2014-03-14 13.07.29

GOD OR THE BOOK?

rainbow

Rainbow – Oxbridge Biotech

I’VE SQUARED UP TO A BIT OF A CRISIS about words in recent months. Does humankind sometimes (too often?) mistake humanly shaped words and phrases for GOD? Does the Bible take precedence over the “still, small voice of calm” or “the breath of life” [come] “sweeping through us”?

I’ve loved the Bible for as long as I can remember. The words about God between its covers have guided my life, provided comfort and sustenance, and the proper chastisement that we may “hear” when we company with Wisdom.  Words about God fill my bookshelves, my contemplation and my writings. Words about God fill the silent poetry and prayer of my heart and soul and mind and body. But at the end of 21 chapters St John needed to report that

… there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written – John 21.25

Much the same might apply to the lived lives of any and all of the human race. Life is an ongoing, perpetually unfolding project.

Poets amongst my friends will understand my very great love for the (Anglican Common Worship) phrase in one of our eucharistic prayers, a line that speaks, eloquently, of

the silent music of your praise …

Silence is golden

Latterly I’ve found myself disinclined to heap the contents of my febrile mind upon people of goodwill. Especially when I’m depressed about the painful, tangled machinations of the Church I love, and the world I love, and have loved long.

Sometimes, and more frequently with every year’s passing, I yearn for silence in my own soul – even whilst loving, needing, and recognising the importance of words. Would that we could make a better poetry of words together: humankind, I mean. Co-creators with GOD THE WORD. Would that we could make a better poetry, a living poetry, a better creativity, of our words.

Religious machinations – like The House of Bishops Working Group on human sexuality – the Pilling Report – continue to leave me gasping for air. Even whilst there are pages and pages of great stuff in this one it’s the implications of church-crafted power over other people’s lives and loves that troubles me. Two of Jesus’ own apostles once asked “shall we call down fire upon their heads, Lord?” (wrong-thinking Samaritans in this case) and then spent the rest of their lives reflecting upon their Lord’s rebuking them! (Luke 9.54).

I’m trying hard to bring a bit of order to the thousands of loose words flying around in my head – because I need, and always and everywhere really do NEED, to ask just one question of contemporary Christianity, and it’s this

WHO’S THE LIFE and hope of the world? Is it GOD – the “still small voice” who “praises” in Creation silently? Or is it the Bible – humanly set down words – however poetic or inspired?

To be clear – I believe that the Christian tradition (or any faith-in-God tradition) is on a hiding to nothing if by GOD (or worse – “what GOD wants”, or “GOD longs for”, or “GOD says”), is meant a BOOK – even a world-bestseller of a book.

Salve in silence 

The silent Shalom of GOD is where salve for the world’s wounds is to be found: in faith and hope and love. And faith and hope and love are uniting facets of the breath of God in every human person – indeed in every living thing – without exception.

That, surely, was and is the message of “the anointed”, the Christ, the Living Word, whose Body now on earth we’re each and every one of us – the knowing and the unknowing – made to be. I believe that the Church needs to be encouraging silence enough, often enough, that the inner Word at the heart of all life be heard and lived. If GOD’S every word, on every subject, for all of life, for all of time is to be found only in the Bible (and particularly, according to some, the “Christian Bible”) then I’m dumbfounded. Why would Jesus of Nazareth ever have needed to encourage the people of God to pray?

How dearly I thank God for the millions that make an altogether better job of being God’s anointed in the world, ministering to the lives of the world’s forgotten people, living and loving in ordinary and unsung ways, than some who have claimed for themselves, as though it were a medal, the description “Christian” – catholic or evangelical. God is not absent where the Church’s pursuit of power and control over others finds no foothold.

Prophetic retort! 

For GOD’S creative sake, let us put an end to these weighted reports and pronouncements and LIVE the gift of life’s spectrum – softer, rounder, wider, more generous, more glorious, more grateful. Some of the world’s imaginative youngsters speak just exactly the kind of concise and prophetic word the Church needs most to hear today:

“get a life!”

GOD is not a book. The Bible is not inerrant. GOD is the Source of life’s spectrum – of every thing that is. And God the Eternal, silent, unwritten Word – is not disappointing.

No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can be taught to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.

Nelson Mandela – Long Walk to Freedom

LIGHT A CANDLE

LightACandle

FOR OUR DEARLY LOVED ONES or people further afield – Afghanistan, perhaps, or Myanmar or Syria. The bereft and the blessed. The faraway and those having fun. The going and the coming. The hopeless and the fulfilled. The lonely and those revelling in relationship. The sad and the glad. The sick and the healthy. The suffering and the rejoicing. The wondering and the knowing. The wishful and the satisfied. The weeping and the laughing.

All we long for …

And sometimes we just don’t know what to say, or what to pray, or what to do – and it’s then that we wind up thanking God for the little miracle, the tiny gift that is lighting a candle, or maybe a small table lamp at home, the gift that lies in God’s inviting us, in the very act of the lighting and the remembering, to

Let go. Let God

It’s highly likely that I’ll have lit a candle in recent times for YOU. Thank you for your light and love and prayers for me, too.

A CACTUS OF PANIC

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I WANT UPFRONT to grant that I may be a useless parish priest – plain idle, maybe. Uninspired, too tired, too old (at 54) or impractical – head in the clouds. In need, after 30+ years of “the ordained life”, of a zeal injection, a business management course, something to gee me up a bit so that I, in turn, can set about geeing-up others – get “a heart” for Mission (as though I’ve never had such a novel frame of mind – or heart – before).

All of the above are real possibilities. And of course I have noticed reports of the dear old CofE’s apparently being in steep decline. People have been talking about it, and agitating about it for years. (Though not half as many, I suspect, as the remnant church-folk have enjoyed imagining – because for contemporary talkers and agitators there are, it seems, so many other interesting things to talk and agitate about). Nonetheless, I find myself drawn to an unlikely hero, in company with Tania Ahsan …

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Yoda is my hero. Not because he’s a Jedi master or because he ignores the rules of grammar, more because Yoda is an oasis of calm in the face of crisis. When I’m hit by a crisis, I get flappy handed and shrill; I am pointedly not an oasis of calm, more a cactus of panic.

Tania Ahsan
The Brilliant Book of Calm

Flappy handed and shrill. Oh dear. I wish it wasn’t so, but that sounds too alarmingly like my belovéd Church of England for comfort. Too alarmingly like the jaded religious institutions – many hundreds of them – that have spent much too long spouting noisy hot air about who’s in and who’s not, whilst endlessly passing round either a “collection plate” or another invitation to a Jumble Sale to “keep the Church thermometer heading in the right direction”. Too much “mission planning” seems to me to have lost the plot. It troubles me that diocesan retreat centres up and down the land are being closed (even Gloucester’s glorious Glenfall, aaaarrrgh!) – whilst the Church pours millions into maintaining crumbling old Victorian barns whose dwindling congregations would be better equipped for Christ’s mission by a single weekend in a quiet retreat house.

We’re really going to have to let go of the dry rot. Sooner rather than later. And let go, too, of the embarrassing ecclesiastical talk of decline – as though said decline were a mildly irritating phenomenon just beginning to appear on our horizon. Less than 5% of the population of some dioceses attend Church at all. The rest of the population has moved on. Years ago now. One diocese reports the “loss” of 25% of adults and 60% of children during the 1990s. These people are just not interested in our crumbling buildings (with a few notable and worthy exceptions of artistic and historic merit and interest) – and our long past their sell-by-date and very embarrassing arguments and insistences. Some of our “growth planning” and mission talk makes this parish priest squirm, so heaven knows what it must sound like to a casual “outsider”.

Is the Church taking note of the large numbers of weekday visitors flocking to the “deep silence” of our ancient cathedrals? What’s their appeal? Should more of their “turnstiles” be cast out of the temple – thereby, incidentally, increasing both footfall and willing donations – as Chester has done? Could the Church clarify, please, exactly what is meant by throwaway garden-centre-advert lines like “we’re seeking to grow disciples of Our Lord Jesus”? What, precisely, is a disciple? And who is Jesus, let alone “Our Lord”? And what, if we succeed in growing disciple plants, is to be their purpose and function in our fractious world? Clarification please. Sharp, calm, clarification.

And yet it is obvious to me and to many that the Divine Oasis lives in, and through, and for, and all around all of us. Jesus stills models “the silent music of praise” and what it might mean for the world if all The One God’s children could work at their vocation to be “an oasis of calm in the face of crisis”. Surely the Divine Silence invites all humanity away from the flappy handed and the shrill. Surely a child of God, still less a whole institution, ought not to be a “cactus of panic”. How about a bit (or a heck of a lot more) of silence? How about a bit of sabbath (and weekday) stillness? Gardens, public parks, the trees and the fields are great – if not better than some “places of worship” – for that. Looking out over Ullswater I never feel that the Divine is in decline. And is that Jesus over there on the fellside? Wow, that’s quite a crowd of peacefully attentive picnickers. Isn’t this place gloriously quiet? Healing.

God can cope with losing a few more Church buildings. God loves outsiders – with a special affection, apparently, for those deemed unworthy by the religious certainties of the world. What God calls us to, now as always, is the ultimate Oasis of Calm – what might truly be called his “Kingdom”, and the sooner – for all of us in our currently brutal, brutalised and noisy world – the better.

O sabbath rest by Galilee
O calm of hills above
Where Jesus knelt to share with thee
The silence of eternity
Interpreted by love

That’s the real mission.

FRETFULNESS TRANSCENDED

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Life’s fretfulness is transcended. The different and the novel are sweet, but regularity and repetition are also teachers

Mary Oliver – on Prayer

SHARING IN A HOUSE COMMUNION with someone temporarily or permanently unable to celebrate Eucharist with the wider household of faith is always a special occasion. Jesus was a genius. Jesus understood the profound significance – for all people, of all faiths and none – of shared elements of sustenance. The sharing makes for connection – and it seems to me that there’s a danger when we try to limit too much what we mean by a “holy communion”. Holy communion, connection, the act of shared hospitality, the “eucharistic” act of thankfulness, for God, for provision, for one another, ought to be wholly – as well as holy – inclusive.

Yesterday I shared in just such a communion. My long-suffering friend who, aided wonderfully by her husband, bears disability and illness with consummate grace, told me simply and quietly upon receiving the sacrament, “Thank you. Now I feel connected again.” Which led on to coffee and biscuits – natural extension of the eucharistic gifts, as lunch and supper would be, later, in every household upon earth, be we, as the old school hymn had it, “low or high” – and a couple of hours whiled away remembering and praying and laughing and hoping and faithing. Believing in life. Communicating. Wholly communion. God is good.

ANOTHER VOICE

windytrees

WILD AND HOWLING winds swirling around the College of the Resurrection in Mirfield made for a reflective, elemental sort of a night. I’m a bit ambivalent about strong wind generally, on the one hand slightly fearful of its power and a tad resentful about its uninvited imposition, and on the other sometimes willing simply to “let go, let fly” – and the encounter with raw nature brings a fleeting sense of oneness with the swirling. With life.

Morning prayer in a gloriously quiet monastic environment lends the soul an opportunity to hear “another voice” – and oh what blessings are to be heard in the silent voices within – whether Divine or divine. Whether Love or loved ones. Connecting. Connected. Silently. Here in this moment. And in eternity.

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak

Mary Oliver

Just pay attention Simon Robert. Only pay attention. The word of the angels is near. Breathe is the word. Breathe

PAPA

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Eighty-five years and resigned to
Breathe my last in harness
For six centuries there’s
Never been another way to
Launch a Conclave –
Papa’s last breath
Silver hammer to Seal and Ring a
Funeral rite to sing
Only One Way to go We know

But Our vineyard compels in this
Heart and mind and soul and frame
Acknowledgment of origins – the
Dust from whence I came, and any
Son of Adam’s pilgrim destiny
Pontiff and Barque now ache for renewal
For Son of Man’s own strength and prayer
Serenely then to pray for both
I am We are newly resigned

SRM 28 ii 2013