Rebuilding with “living stones”

Address given on 5 July 2020, at the first public worship since “lockdown” began.

The picture on the screen behind me is called “living stones” – and, if you can’t see it, I’ll describe it a series of human-like figures forming a bridge – with a central arch and two uprights – and spanning a ravine.
Across the top of the bridge, another figure appears to be leading yet others who are carrying goods of some kind, their “shared burden”.

And it’s meant to symbolise for us the “living stones” of the Church – and to reflect our dependence on, and obligation to, each other.

There’s also a background theme of wisdom:
it takes wisdom to know that we need to cooperate, in the way that’s depicted here – to recognise that none of us can do everything by ourselves;
it takes wisdom to know how to cooperate – to recognise that not all of us can do any one thing equally well;
It takes wisdom to know where each of us fits within the whole structure.

If one of the girders of our bridge suddenly felt like a stroll across the top instead, then we’d either be faced with a gaping hole, and a rather ominous sagging at one end,
or else one of the other pieces would be forced into taking the strain instead, which may well be too great for them.

There’s wisdom, then, in recognising the particular skills and strengths that we each possess – and those we don’t – and there’s wisdom then in using those skills in the most effective and supportive way that we can.

One of the great lessons of the past few weeks is that everything may suddenly change, and that different circumstances call for a different kind of structure in order to provide what is needed.

One of the biggest challenges – when lockdown kicked in – was that many of those who are normally most active in our community – the army of retired volunteers who serve on committees, run community groups, provide drivers for the Link scheme and so on – they were suddenly taken out of the picture and told firmly to stay at home. And some of them then needed help themselves just to acquire the basics.
We’re feeling the effects of that restriction now in church, as we try to reopen without the majority of our volunteers and with many of our congregations still shielding.

What’s been interesting, more generally, is that when the need arose – other people came into the frame: the response team here in Wilton has been superb;
and also that those who were “locked down” – and prevented from doing those normal tasks – have instead found other ways to stay in touch and support each other.
Shares in the various phone and screen companies must surely have been buoyed up by the amount of traffic between us!

And, even though our normal committee meetings and social groups couldn’t happen, still a lot has been achieved from our various homes; and “virtual” meetings have gradually begun to feel less alien and more productive.

It was particularly good to be part of the Grapevine meeting, a couple of weeks ago, when not only were we able to welcome back Robin Lalonde (from his Devonshire home) but, thanks to the screen-sharing skills of Julian Lyne-Pirkis, we were all transported to Nigeria to see for ourselves the differing challenges of his work place there.

So there have been some unexpected benefits of lockdown which, if anything, have helped to strengthen our sense of connectedness – of fellowship.

The imagery of the “living stones” works well for us, I think, but what then about the concept of wisdom?

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus himself introduces a note of ambiguity. He seems first to praise wisdom, but then thanks the Father for “hiding these things from the wise and intelligent”.

If wisdom is such a precious thing, why would God want to hide anything from those who are wise?

I did just check the Greek original, just in case I could helpfully blame it on the translator, but I can’t – it IS basically the same word for both wisdom and the wise.

So presumably Jesus is making some point here!

Could it be that he’s highlighting for us the difference between ‘wisdom’ and ‘knowledge’?
There are things that we know, because we have learned them or seen them – adding up to the sum total of our knoweldge;
so too there are things that we learn from what we know – by thinking and reflecting on all that we’ve seen and heard – and from which flows wisdom.

Perhaps then it’s over-reliance on our own knowledge – on our own abilities – that Jesus is discouraging here.
True wisdom, on the other hand, draws not only on the experience and insights of other people but on God himself.
Wisdom points beyond ourselves, and deepens our relationship with one another and with God.

And it’s that collective wisdom that we need now – to help us make sense of what we’ve experienced over the past few months;
to make sense of the changing knowledge and circumstances with which each day seems to present us;
and, not least,
to work out what on earth we’re meant to do next!

That applies, I think, to our worship and our church life as much as to everything else:
it’s natural now to be craving all that we know –
to want to get back, as quickly as possible,
to all those things that we’ve been deprived of since March.
And yet, at the moment, we can’t go back to doing those things, and I’m not even sure it would be the right thing to do if we could.

If in fact we can take things slowly – over the coming weeks or months – we have a precious opportunity to reflect on whatever we’ve discovered while the churches have been closed – how we managed, or struggled, to pray alone; how we managed to “feed” ourselves in the absence of Holy Communion; how we managed to maintain that sense of fellowship from our own homes – AND what things we really couldn’t find without meeting together in church.

And with the wisdom that comes from those reflections, we can then start to rebuild the structure of our churches in the way that is right for now – and for the new circumstances that will emerge in the months ahead.

If we can, then, let’s focus not on what we are missing, but on who we are missing here.
And by that I mean those who’d normally be in church with us -some of whom will be joining us later from the other end of the camera – but also the far greater number of others who have been watching our services, and following the daily prayers I’ve been posting online.

As we begin to expand our activities again, can we continue to support them?
Can we make space for them within our structures, so that they too can become “living stones” – and support us in return?

Clearly, there is a limit to what we can do – too much weight on the bridge and it will buckle and give way: but that’s where the collective wisdom comes into to play again – in discerning where and how to channel the skills and energies that we have.

We are yoked together in Christ’s service – but, he assures us, that his yoke is easy and his burden is light:
if we are wise, we will learn to carry just what we need,
and how to share the load, so that we all may flourish,
and together build up a ‘spiritual house’ to his glory.

To be a Pilgrim.

Address for Sunday 21 June 2020

We began our worship this morning with the pilgrims of St Albans, retelling the story of their Patron Saint – carrying those giant puppets in procession to the Cathedral.
St Alban was a Briton, and living under Roman rule: he was a well-respected man – known to be wealthy, generous and kind hearted.
It was due to this reputation that a Christian priest, seeking refuge from persecution by the Roman authorities, came to Alban for help. Alban hid him away in his house, and as he got to know him better, Alban was so impressed by the example of this priest – Amphibalus – that he became a Christian.
And when, eventually, Roman soldiers came knocking at the door, Alban put on the priest’s cloak and had himself arrested instead – giving time for Amphibalus to flee.
When the magistrate discovered the truth of what he’d done, he was furious – and insisted that Alban should offer sacrifice to the Pagan gods in order to atone for his wrongdoing. Alban refused, stating that he only believed in the God of Love.
And so he was led away and killed, becoming the English church’s first martyr.

It’s slightly unnerving then, that today’s Collect encourages us to follow his example – not a very enticing prospect!
Perhaps I can rescue us then with the thought that our word martyr – someone who dies for their faith – is a translation of exactly the same Greek word as the word for “witness”, μαρτυσ.
Strictly speaking then, we could say that a martyr is someone who bears witness to the truth whatever the cost.
And while St Alban witnessed to his faith by dying for his friend, most of us are called to witness to our faith in the way that we live.
There we are, it’s feeling better already!
That’s not to suggest that our task is easy – bearing witness to our faith means living by the standards we commend to others, grappling with the challenges of the gospel and not holding back – being both as generous and as faithful as St. Alban.
And at least as challenging for many of us, to be a witness implies a willingness to speak about our faith – something that we may feel is intensely private; something which may feel is TOO precious to even try and explain to someone else.
When we speak of our own religious, or spiritual experience, too often we’re afraid of looking silly – or of making a mess of it and letting the side down, of selling short God’s goodness and greatness.
And yet, very often what other people want to hear is precisely that – our honest reflections on how we come to be mixed up in this curious bunch of people called the Church.
There’s no suggestion that the priest, Amphibilus, tried to cathechize, or teach Alban the doctrine of the Church – it was his nature, we’re told. and the way he spoke about himself that captured Alban’s imagination and led him to follow the way of Christ.
We shouldn’t underestimate the power of plain speaking, of honestly “thinking aloud” about our faith and our struggles with that faith, in communicating the power of the gospel to others. We do also need scholars, and evangelists, and experienced spiritual guides within the life of our Church – but we don’t ALL need to be skilled in all those things in order to pass on our faith, just a willingness to speak of our own reality.

Into that reality Jesus himself speaks some rather unsettling words:
“Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
At first hearing that seems rather perverse.
If you WANT to live you’ll die – if you hate living, you’ll live for ever! What kind of morality is that?
Presumably though – if it doesn’t seem to make sense – then that’s not what Jesus is saying. He wants his hearers to do a double-take and think about what he’s said.
Could it be that he’s also talking about the way that we live – about where our attention is focused.
If we are TOO concerned with our present circumstances – surrounding ourselves with whatever we can acquire, always content to stay put and look no further – then there is only one possible outcome: ultimately it will all come crashing to a halt. We can’t preserve this life, unchanging, for ever.
On the other hand, if we are the kind of soul who is always striving for something better – all too aware of our own shortcomings, as well as those of the world around us, and always looking for ways to improve things – then we can expect to be rewarded when finally we pass from this life to the next.
In that light, the prospect of keeping our life in eternal bliss – absorbed into the life of heaven – has rather more to commend it.

And that’s where I want to wander back to the theme of pilgrimage – and to interpret pilgrimage as a deliberate refusal to simply exist, and fade away.
Pilgrimage – in the literal sense – is a sacred journey where we leave behind the familiar, and seek God in new surroundings and among new people, and to learn from them.
And in another sense, pilgrimage is a state of mind – an equal determination to keep seeking truth, to keep seeking beauty, to keep seeking holiness, wherever we glimpse them.
If we are too comfortable with what we already know, with what we like, or with what we think we know about a particular issue or concept – then we’re in danger of falling into the “loving life” category: from which we can only grow stale and lose what life we have.
If we can keep alive the pilgrim’s sense of enquiry, of eagerness to hear the stories of others and to learn from them; if we can view our life as a pilgrimage of faith, then – even if we’re physically unable to travel to new places –we are already journeying towards the eternal joy that Christ sets before his hearers.
All of that, I think, is true for individuals; for church congregations; and for THE Church as a whole – the Body of Christ.
None of us are meant to sit still for too long – to be too sure of who we are and what we do and leave it at that: we are called to strive for the kingdom of God, to seek out the signs of God’s presence in the surrounding that are familiar to us – and to step beyond what is familiar, in order to receive fresh insight, fresh inspiration and the wisdom that others have perceived before us.
In that pioneering, pilgrim spirit there is risk – as Alban would testify – but there is also rich reward for ourselves, and those we encounter.
We have no idea what happened to Amphibalus, the priest whose life Alban saved – but his influence echoed throughout England and beyond through his most notable convert.
And we can be sure that he never forgot about Alban.
Two lives were changed – each one by the other – and countless others have been changed ever since, by their combined witness to Christ.

A pilgrim’s prayer
O God, watch over us as we walk in the love of your name, Be for us our companion on the way, Our guide at the crossroads, Our breath in our weariness, Our protection in danger, Our shade in the heat, Our light in the darkness, Our consolation in our discouragements, And our strength in our intentions. So that with your guidance we may arrive safe and sound at the end of the Road and, enriched with grace and virtue, we return to our home filled with joy. Amen.

To boast, or not to boast..?

Address for 14 June 2020

Readings: Exodus 19: 2 – 8 ; Psalm 100: Romans 5: 1 – 8

There’s quite a contrast in today’s readings – between the assurance given by God to the Israelites, in our reading from Exodus, and about God, in the Psalm, and then Paul’s words, in his letter to the Roman Christians.
If you obey my voice – if you really listen to me, and keep my covenant, God assures the Israelites, “you shall be my treasured possession”.
“The Lord is Good”, declares the Psalmist, “his mercy is everlasting”.
But if all that adds up to a divine promise, Paul’s words sound more like a threat!
“We boast in our sufferings, – knowing that suffering produces endurance, and character, and hope.”
If God leads the Israelites to expect ‘special treatment’, then, Paul seems to be advising that suffering is a natural part of the Christian life – something to be expected.
But is it?
Is suffering to be regarded by Christians as natural, or necessary; as something to be welcomed, even, for our greater good?
We can probably all think of someone – that we know, or know about – who has emerged from a period of hardship, with renewed strength and energy and purpose.

At the beginning of lockdown I quoted Terry Waite, Archbishop Runcie’s “special envoy” – who, with his bitter experience of incarceration in Beirut, effectively told us to ‘get a grip’ – not overdo the seriousness of our current inconvenience.
And I’m currently reading his book – Travels with a Primate – which leaves the reader in no doubt that his sense of humour has survived intact.
And so, yes, it seems to be true that suffering can indeed produce endurance and character and hope.

Fundamental to our Christian faith is the suffering and death of Jesus; and his rising to new life.
So we know that good things can come out of even the harshest treatment and deprivation.
And yet, for those who are facing hardship of one kind or another, who are now in the enduring part of the process, there is likely to be little sense of hope or purpose – just the reality of pain or despair – and no real sense of any future perspective.
So I’m not convinced that suffering really IS something to boast about – with quite the enthusiasm that Paul seems to be advocating here.
If, as we profess, God is love – then surely suffering must be seen as a frustration of God’s will, and not something God wishes for us.

Although there may be consequences when we turn away from God, just as there were for the Israelites, his promise is still that he views his people as a “treasured possession”.
He calls us to trust that he holds us – through dark times and rejoicing – and to listen to his voice.
To do justice to Paul, if we had carried on to the very next verse, in Romans, he tells us that because of Christ’s suffering, we are now saved from the wrath of God – Christ suffered, so we don’t have to – a neat reversal of logic!
Perhaps what Paul is really telling us, is that whenever we do face some kind of hardship, we can draw strength from the example of Christ’s suffering and victory over death; we can draw strength from the way other people have overcome even the most formidable challenges; and we can be encouraged when other people’s hardship matches our own (“If they can get though it, so can I”).
I can’t deny that the process he describes – suffering produces endurance produces character produces hope – can work very powerfully – not just for unfortunate souls who themselves endure hardship, but also for those around them, who witness their triumph over adversity.
In the worlds of art and literature, of theatre and dance, it’s sometimes argued that you need a powerful dose of hardship – of real life at its bleakest – before you can really produce your best works, or give a full-blooded performance.
And, perhaps on this Music Sunday, you’ll bear with me as I pay tribute to the composer who I think had the greatest influence on me – as a musician, and also as a young Christian.
Herbert Howells, who lived from 1892 – 1983, was a perfectly adequate teacher, composer and performer of music. He was also a contented family man until, in 1935, tragedy struck.
On a family holiday in rural Devon, his 9 year old son, Michael, contracted polio and, 3 days later, he died. The tune to which we sing the hymn “All my hope on God is founded” was given the name “Michael” in memory of his son.
Without doubt the impact of this loss did indeed transform Howells’ creative powers – from perfectly adequate to something profoundly more individual and compelling.
It would be wrong to suggest that Howells ever really “recovered” from Michael’s death, and his own faith was somewhat ambiguous after that – hardly surprisingly, we might add.
And yet he went on to produce vast amounts of church music that is still sung in cathedrals and churches across the English-speaking world.
And it’s the compelling way he then began to convey, in his music, a sense of yearning for the presence of God – of “pining for beauty” as one of his anthem’s puts it – which captivated MY heart and mind and soul as an impressionable teenager; and led to the fusion of music and spirituality which has carried me ever since.
That feels uncomfortably like “like experience on the cheap” – he suffered, I benefit: pain and loss for him, life-enhancing beauty for me.
Howells certainly endured and grew in stature, but the hope belonged more to others.
I suspect that Howells himself did realise the greater creative energy that he possessed after Michael’s death – but there’s no question that he would have preferred, instead, to see his only son grow up.

And so I can’t accept Paul’s invitation to “boast in suffering” – however much I recognise the strength of human will and the power of God to bring us through.
I can accept that we can learn from suffering – our own and that of others – as with any experience of life. But that doesn’t mean that it’s is something we should seek out, in order to prove ourselves; that doesn’t mean we just accept suffering as inevitable.
Not all suffering is unavoidable: and unnecessary suffering – whether caused by deliberate cruelty, or indifference, or ignorance – is a cause for shame, not boasting.

The recent “black lives matter” protests have highlighted for us the continued hardships caused by inequalities in our global society. And if we are willing to delve further, and closer to home, there are others whose lives are incredibly hard – the key-workers we’ve been so eager to praise during this pandemic, but slow to reward with a decent wage – the victims of the modern “slave trade” who somehow disappear. There is now way that their suffering can be justified or dressed up as something good.
For them, and others, there is natural progression from suffering to endurance to character to hope – it needs other people to give them a cause for hope.

“God proves his love for us”, says Paul, “in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
He calls us to prove our love for him – not by dying, not by choosing to suffer, but by doing all that we can to prevent suffering where we can – and, if when we can’t prevent it, to do whatever we can to support those who are afflicted in some way.
Jesus himself, quoting the prophet Hosea, said “I desire mercy not sacrifice”
To be righteous in his eyes has little to do with some well-meaning martyr complex – a desire to show how holy we are by our hard work, or how much we’ve sacrificed – and more to do with a thankful and loving heart.
Loving Lord,
We thank you for your love so freely given to us all..
Empowered by your Spirit, may we be united in prayer and worship,
And, in love and service,
reach out as your hands across the world.
In Jesus’ name.
Amen

Waiting in Joyful Expectation

Address for 24 May 2020

Readings – 1 Peter 4: 12-14; 5: 6 – 11; John 17: 1-11

Four years ago, I bought the summer house in which I filmed the welcome at the beginning of today’s service.
I know it was 4 years ago because I bought when my wife and I celebrated our silver wedding anniversary. You may think acquiring a “man shed” is rather an odd way to celebrate a wedding anniversary – but perhaps the personal space it sometimes provides might help secure another 25 years of marriage: not for nothing is there a sign on it which reads “grumpy’s shed!
In the middle of last week, the rather large Rowan tree which stood next to it , succumbed to the strong winds, and a fairly substantial bough of the tree split off – almost covering the summer house roof. And when the tree surgeon arrived to inspect the damage – it became clear that the tree was in fact rotten down the length of the main trunk and had to be removed.
The summer house itself was evidently made of sterner stuff – thank you Wilton House Garden Centre! It is entirely unscathed – but now transformed. It is very much lighter in there; from outside, it looks far more symmetrical and prominent; and the beech hedge which had been overshadowed by the tree, now stands in fresh green relief against it.
And why am I telling you all this?
Simply as an illustration of the thought that, sometimes, the familiar has to be taken away, in order for us to recognise the beauty and the potential that are being set before us.

In this short season of Ascensiontide, I think that same thought applies to Jesus’ disciples – who only truly see the way ahead when Jesus has left the scene.
They had been through a lot at this point – reacting in horror to the pain and loss of Good Friday; in shock and disbelief at Christ’s rising from the tomb; and marvelling at his later appearances to them. Then, perhaps, they begin to get used to having him around again – almost as if they’re finally back to normal.
And, just as they have readjusted to his being with them again, explaining everything for them, he ups and leaves them, for good this time – telling them to wait for another, for the Holy Spirit who will guide them into all truth.
And it’s then, in the power of the Spirit who comes at Pentecost, that they really begin the work for which Christ had called them: that’s the reason that Pentecost is sometimes known as the “birthday of the Church” – the day it all really took off.
And I want to suggest that, this Ascensiontide, we also find ourselves in that in-between state: we’re only too aware of what we’ve missed over Easter, and our hearts and minds are more than ready to adjust again to the familiarity of our normal lives.
And yet we too anticipate the coming of God’s Spirit to us, at Pentecost, which we celebrate next Sunday. Shouldn’t we then, like the disciples, be looking firmly forwards, not back over our shoulders?
Can we then begin to accept these weeks of lockdown not as lost weeks – a period of bleak absence of all that we crave – but as a period of formation, preparing us what lies ahead?
As the disciples sat again at the feet of their master, and learned from him how they must go on, perhaps we can now draw near to him – so that when we are able to worship together again, it will be with our eyes open wise to the needs and blessings of God’s world – and with a readiness to receive all that the Spirit may reveal to us about how we will we be the Church again, in the world that emerges after this pandemic has eased its grip.

Just as the removal of our poor Rowan tree has bathed our summer house with more sunlight, and revealed the vibrant growth that had been hidden under its shade, perhaps the experience, of living without the familiar, can help us see more clearly what needs to be done, in order to proclaim the gospel afresh in our generation and in our communities.
Perhaps there are other things, that seem to have been with us for ever but which will now need to be removed, in order to let the light of God’s goodness be seen; and in order to give us time and energy to minister more fruitfully.
Perhaps it’s not for us to write the script of what comes next, so much as to find our place within the play that is already being enacted around us – to wait for the things that will be revealed to us and to be ready to act in faith.

It can’t have been easy for the disciples to accept that Jesus was gone and that they must forge a new way forward, and it may not be easy for us to accept that the things we find ourselves doing in a few months’ time may look rather different from the things we busied ourselves with a few months back.
But the disciples did not make their way alone, and neither will we: it was in the power of the Spirit that Christ’s Church was formed, and it is in the power of the Spirit that we can hope to be faithful to our calling today. Like them, we must wait and see – in joyful expectation of all that will be.

The first letter of Peter, from which we heard our first reading, was addressed to a church under persecution – to individual Christians who struggled with greater obstacles than we now face. Surely, we can accept the same assurance that is given to them:
that “the God of all grace, who has called us to his eternal glory in Christ,
will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish us.
To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.”

“Love is…”

Address for 17 May 2020

Readings: Acts 17: 22 – 31   John 14: 15 – 21

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
“Those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them, and will reveal myself to them.”

Jesus’ words take us back before Easter again – as he prepares his friends for his death, and for the time when he will no longer be with them, in the literal, physical sense.
They don’t yet know how Jesus will die, let alone the nature of his rising again and his ascension into Heaven, but, in this farewell speech, he assures them that God’s Spirit will be with them and in them, that they will in fact see Jesus again, and will live because he lives; and that they will be loved by God, his Father and theirs.
And the key to all of this assurance is love – if they love him then they will keep his commandments.

Jesus himself boiled down his teaching to two principal commandments – “Love God; and love your neighbour as yourself.”
Beautifully succinct and, I think, rather ingenious in the way it neatly sneaks in a third commandment along the way: “love your neighbour as yourself” implies also that you must “love yourself”!
In recent weeks, many of us have had more time to ourselves than usual – time in which to become painfully aware of our own personal foibles, flaws and fears – all of which may tend towards self-loathing, rather than to loving ourselves.
And yet, if we can grasp it, our changed mode of living gives an opportunity for a little “self-improvement”. Whether by learning new skills, or by deliberately trying to learn more about God and our neighbours – we can begin to appreciate more fully the life that we all share and to love more genuinely.
It’s perhaps easier to think about loving our neighbour than it is about loving God – more easily understood in practical terms.
And certainly the response, among our neighbours, to the current lockdown has been quite phenomenal: the most recent figures I’ve seen for the official Wilton Covid 19 response team cited 113 volunteers; 1220 calls answered; 333 prescriptions collected and 274 shopping needs undertaken. And that’s 2 weeks out of date – so even more by now!
That speaks to me of a vibrant community – willing and ready to work together for the good of all of us, and especially the most vulnerable.
That speaks to me of “love in action” – even if some of those 113 volunteers might well blush at that description!
It’s perhaps the individual acts of kindness that have spoken most directly to us, in recent weeks – the concerned phone call, the extra bit of shopping for a neighbour, the friendly greeting from a neighbour we don’t normally see; and, at least in one case I know of, the bag of flour for someone craving a bit of therapeutic baking!
For me personally there was the novel experience of celebrating a birthday in lockdown – which provided my family with the extra challenge of finding suitable presents that were a) still available to buy and b) had even a remote chance of arriving in time. In the event, they did rather well – perfectly gauging my current cravings .. for music, food, coffee and fitness! And there is love – demonstrated in the thought and the sourcing of those things.
And yet it was another gift which actually brought tears to my eyes – a simple packet of biscuits, left on my doorstep, by two of our younger servers.
Here again, I realised that some people know me rather better than I think – I do have quite a craving for most kinds of biscuits. I think what really moved mem though, was that their gift was totally unexpected. It was a surprise in the best sense.

And I want to suggest that it’s in those unexpected acts of kindness that we might glimpse something of God’s love for us.
As we recognise that we are not after all, separate beings, motivated purely by greed or self-preservation, we begin to find meaning beyond ourselves and our immediate surroundings.
At some stage I hope that I’ll be able to hear some of your stories of lockdown – the people that have touched your life and surprised you with kindness, the times that you have glimpsed God’s love in all this – and soon perhaps we can compare notes and see what we make of it all!
Christ reveals himself to us, then, in the “goodness” that lies behind the actions of our neighbours – reminding us that we are never truly alone, reminding us that we are loved.
And how are we to love God? What can we do to signal our gratitude?
Most simply we can just talk to God – however strange that may feel at times, we need to at least try to express, to God, our thoughts and our shifting emptions.
Polls this week suggested that, over the past few weeks, around 45% of the population have turned to prayer – of one kind or another – as we seek solace and some kind of meaning.
And the response to the Daily Prayer on our Community Facebook Page, Wilton Chat, seems to confirm that we ARE indeed talking to God more frequently just now.
In making the time to do that, we offer to God a simple gesture of love; and we open ourselves to receiving the love which Christ promised to reveal to his friends.
Can we then, both by celebrating the many acts of kindness to us, and around us, and by praying often and without restraint, begin to know ourselves better; to know our neighbours better, and to know God, who knows us better than anyone?
May Christ enable us to find our place within that eternal cycle of love – loving God because he loved us first; loving ourselves because God loves us, and loving our neighbours because we feel God’s love welling up inside us, and we just can’t keep it to ourselves.. Amen.

Penned up, led astray or guided safely ?

Reflection for 3 May 2020

Acts 2: 42 – 47: Psalm 23: John 10: 1 – 10

It’s a lovely image in John 10 – the shepherd gently summoning each sheep by name. They recognise his voice, and instinctively trust him – whereas they’d shrink back from the stranger, who is intent on stealing them, rather than caring for them.

church sheep

And when, a couple of years ago, my family first acquired sheep – as pets and natural lawnmowers, rather than livestock – I was really pleased to discover that they did respond to MY voice.
I could stand at the edge of the top field, just behind the church, and call them – and they would gallop round from the lower field to meet me.
Blissful – at least until the realisation a couple of week later, that exactly the SAME effect could be achieved simply by rattling the feed bucket: it wasn’t so much that “my sheep hear my voice” as ALL sheep like eating, and my presence had come to symbolise feeding time!
Ah well.

In this passage from St John, it’s important to note that Jesus does NOT identify with the shepherd – that saying comes a few verses later.
Here he says, “I am the gate for the sheep” – which doesn’t immediately seem that attractive – barely one step up, perhaps, from being the doormat.
But what is the gate actually for?
It is there, of course, to keep the sheep safe – to keep out any bandits or wilds animals – but, significantly, is also the safe way out of the fold.
The sheep will sometimes need to leave their enclosure, in order to find fresh, and more abundant grazing. And that brings both opportunity and potential danger, they need to be guided in the right direction – and so, the gate keeps them firmly penned in, until the shepherd arrives, and leads them “along right paths”, to the places where pasture is lush but predators scarce.
Jesus the gate then, just as much as Jesus the Good Shepherd, represents the safe and trusted way – out of confinement and out into an abundance of life.

Unsurprisingly, I found a certain resonance in that imagery with our own situation just now: here we are, mostly, locked away in safety – our own front doors providing the same barrier to keep out the unseen dangers of COVID 19.
And yet we too know that we must as some stage look beyond that barrier – and step out into the world again, if we are going to have any hint of abundant life.
And so, if we dwell on these things, we are forced to consider “who NOW do we trust?” – to lead us safely out again?
Whose judgement to we trust to release us at the right time, and in the right way?
How do we restrain ourselves from rushing out like giddy sheep, straight into the jaws of danger?
It’s not easy to know whose voice to trust – especially when it’s not clear what motivates the speakers concerned.
Worth noting perhaps, that not all those now advocating a swift relaxation of restrictions will have your or my best interests at heart.
And equally, not every hard-nosed objection to any such relaxations are necessarily well judged.
Whatever steps are taken in the coming weeks, to enable businesses and other organisations to function more normally, I hope and pray that we will not lose sight of the need to both what is best for us all, and what is necessary to protect the most vulnerable.
The sheep gate isn’t flung open just as soon as the shepherd has appeared on the horizon.
The good shepherd doesn’t just lead the strongest and most valuable sheep to safety.
Of course, regulation changes are beyond our control, but we can at least take responsibility for our own actions in the way we respond.

And while we’re pondering whose voice we think most trustworthy, perhaps we can discern similar truths about ourselves … if it’s not stretching the sheep-fold imagery too far!
If Jesus will us life in abundance – then can we begin to search for that fullness of life right here, at home?
Are there things about ourselves that we keep safely hidden inside us, in order to protect ourselves – whether from judgement or rejection by others – or from admitting to ourselves our own failings or weaknesses?
Can we now face up to those things – accepting ourselves fully and honestly – so that we can then engage MORE fully and honestly with “the world outside”, or at least with our friends and neighbours .. the rest of our “flock”?

Carved round the Font in our cathedral are words from Isaiah 43, which are often spoken at Confirmation services: Thus says the Lord: “I have called you by name, you are mine.”
God already knows us – better than we know ourselves.
There is no use trying to hide from him our weaknesses or frustrations. There’s no use trying to pretend we are anything other than ourselves.
Yet Christ waits still to lead us beyond what WE already know – the new life of Easter is not just his rising from death, it is about US learning to live abundantly with whatever we have; learning to see beyond our own doubts and insecurities, and trusting that there is more to life for us; learning to see beyond our own interests, and trusting that there can indeed be abundance of life for all people, not just the confident and strong.
In the earliest days of the Church, we heard in our first reading, many were baptized, and added to the community, largely because of the quality of that shared life – of the concern shown towards those in need.
Is that the lesson Christ is now calling us to learn – outside the spiritual safety of our familiar Sunday services?
Are we being challenged to rediscover what really marks us out as Christians, and to step up to the mark?

Time will tell, but our starting point in all this is to be ready at the gate – listening for the voice of Christ – and ready to follow him, before all else.

All in the eyes of the beholder??

Address for “Low Sunday” – 19 April 2020

“Seeing is believing” – those words echo down to us from the Ancient Greeks, and from many other thinkers and commentators in between.
And, shaped as we are by three centuries of Scientific Rationalism, it seems only logical that we trust what we see with our own eyes more than anything anyone else might tell us.
And this appears to be borne out by that account of Thomas – or doubting Thomas as he’s often called.
He’s heard the testimony of the other disciples, that THEY have seen Jesus, risen from the dead, but he won’t accept that testimony: unless HE sees Jesus for himself – sees his wounds and touches them.
Thomas wants empirical evidence before he believes – after all, seeing is believing!
And yet I’m not sure that’s necessarily what is happening here.
Even from a scientific perspective, the assertion that “Seeing is believing” seems overly simplistic.
For decades now, thanks to increasingly sophisticated technology, astronomers studying deep space have found themselves looking at things that existed millions of years ago, and having to make assumptions about what’s out there now. The distances involved are just too great for any of us to “see” what is actually there.
And, at the other end of the spectrum, Particle Physics has long worked with subatomic particles so miniscule that, again, no human eye could hope to “see” them in any meaningful sense of the word.
In both cases, then, rational scientists have developed theories based not so much on seeing actual “things” – observable objects – as on the effects that those supposed “things” have. We observe the way that space or matter behaves and what might affect that behaviour and make rational deductions about what is. More often than not, those deductions prove correct, or at least convincing, but it’s a long way from “seeing is believing” – from believing ONLY what can plainly be seen and tested. At the very least I’d want to suggest that the “believing” bit comes first – forming a plausible explanation in our mind’s eye and ten seeing if there is evidence around us to back it up.

And if that’s how the world of the science operates, what about “religion” and the nurture of faith?
Again we find ourselves dealing with things that can’t be seen – but which can be sensed very profoundly, in the core of our being. Sometimes we know, beyond doubt, new realities which we simply can’t put into words – let alone explain, to our own rational minds or to someone else.
I’m reminded of another familiar phrase –“faith is caught, not taught”, implying that Religious belief is NOT just about passing on information or trying to prove the historical truth of some Bible story or other. It’s far more about sensing what is truly good – and sensing what is truly God.
Thomas asks to see and touch Jesus if he is going to believe – but it’s actually what he hears that moves him: Jesus speaks to him, perhaps even speaks his name. Thomas knows then, beyond any doubts screaming away in his logical brain, that his IS his Lord and Saviour. Jesus calls and Thomas believes.
Now, as then, no amount of talking about the Risen Christ is any substitute for encountering the Risen Christ ourselves.
It’s interesting, I think, that this episode come in the middle of three similar encounters.
Last week it was Mary, at the empty tomb – distraught that her Lord is not there. Then she does see him, but doesn’t know him until he calls her name – then she believes.

Thomas is adamant that he will not accept that Jesus is risen unless he sees for himself what the others have told him. And then, when he does, it’s almost as if that doesn’t matter any more – what does matter is that Jesus is speaking, and speaking to him.

And then, next Sunday, we’ll hear about the disciples on the road to Emmaus – bemoaning the loss of Jesus, even though they are in fact talking to Jesus himself!
They see but do not believe: they do not know him, until he breaks bread, and speaks the words that he said to them at another supper – on the night before he died.

Seeing, it appears, is never enough – even those with rather better eyesight than mine – have a habit of overlooking the blindingly obvious or of choosing not to notice the things that don’t fit with what they already believe or want to believe.
Our logical, cautious minds have a tendency to keep us in safe, predictable territory – even when the world around us sings of the, as yet, unexplored life that God intends for us.

Mary, Thomas and the disciples on the road all testify to the reality of things that cannot be seen or touched – of those profoundly sensed truths that I spoke of earlier.
For us, as with Thomas, it’s not enough just to be told that Christ is Risen; it’s not enough to read it in the Bible, or see it depicted in religious art; nor was it enough, for Mary or Thomas, just to see Jesus the man.
Somehow we need to sense that it is true – it needs to “make sense” to us at some deeper level.

It is the flow of love – as Jesus speaks to his disciples – that dissolves their doubt and strengthens faith. They don’t really know how they know it’s him – somehow they just know that they know.

It’s that same “flow of love” to us that we need to sense in order to believe,
that flow of love from God to others, that we need to sense in order to recognise Christ at work among us; that flow of love to others that we must replicate – if we are to claim, with any credibility, to be Christ’s body now on earth and to make him known.
In the strange world of 2020 – perhaps all those things have become a little more challenging – cut off as we are from our normal mode of existence and our normal channels of communication.
Yet, as Mary, Thomas and the other disciples learned the risen Christ has a habit of surprising us – of appearing when we least expect him and in a guise that we may not at first recognise.
In the pregnant pause of this current lockdown – can we pay attention to all our senses and be shaped and reenergised by what we discover?
Can we still our troubled minds long enough, and often enough, to bathe in the goodness that is flourishing around us?
And, with the eye of faith, can we recognise there the Risen Christ – who even now walks among us and holds together all of us and all of creation?

May the peace of the Risen Christ be with you – today and always.
Amen

Easter Sunday Sermon 2020

“Breaking in” or “breaking out”?

Address for Easter Day 2020

Reading: Matthew 28: 1 – 10

There is a real mixture of emotions in today’s Gospel reading, I think: if anyone ever tells you that the Bible is boring, then I suspect they probably haven’t dipped into it very often!
In this story there’s real sadness – as the two Mary’s make their way to the tomb.
I suspect there’s also boredom – for the guards who’ve spent all night on sentry duty – watching over a dead man.
There’s anxiety – fear – for the women as they first see the guards sitting there, and for all of them when the angel makes his dramatic entrance.
And there’s a confusion of emotions as the angel explains things – hope battling with sheer disbelief; and even more so when Jesus himself appears – the women’s deep joy and their sense of unreality both vying for the top spot.
It’s really all too much to take in.

The same might possibly be said for us, as we live through the unchartered experience of lockdown. Perhaps we are wrestling with conflicting emotions, as we try to make sense of conflicting evidence and as we struggle to comprehend the enormity of it all.

For us there is sadness – at the lives that have been lost and loved ones separated.
There is boredom at times – perhaps as we fight our own instincts to enjoy the warmer weather by heading out into the countryside or off to the coast.
There is anxiety – as we wait to see how things will develop; as we wonder when things will start to get better.
We are encouraged. I’m sure, by the generous response of our neighbours to those who need help – delighted to witness a real flourishing of community spirit here – and yet, still it’s quite at hard at times to believe any of this is really happening at all!

The point of the gospel story is that what lies ahead for the two faithful women, is far better than either of them could possibly have imagined – out of the horror of Good Friday and the sadness of Holy Saturday comes new life, not just for Jesus, but for everyone and everything
And the similar challenge that faces us is to believe that, when this pandemic is over, we will not be faced with a struggle to get back to what we had before.
Through faith, we may instead find our way towards a better way of inhabiting this planet.
I promised to talk about the egg – which, on a normal; Easter morning, sits in pride of place at the front of the church just up until this point in the service.
And then I’d chose two children to carry the egg through the church to give everyone a sight, and possibly even a scent of it, (and hoping all the while that neither child is unusually accident prone!)
If I allowed them – to carry straight on and out of the doors – then they’d head home with quite a prized: enough chocolate for weeks!
What does happen, of course, is that other children then tale it in turns to crack the egg – so that it can then be broken further and shared out.
Unless it is broken – we can’t make sure that everyone will get a piece to eat later.

Jesus is broken on the Cross so that the sheer scale of God’s power to transform can be revealed – nothing is so devastating that it can destroy all hope – nothing is so terrible that it cannot ultimately be turned towards the good.

Fears have been expressed this week that economic and political systems across the world are breaking down – under the pressure of enforced lockdown in several countries.
And many of us are rightly concerned about what that means for our economy – whether our local businesses will survive; what the effects will be on my livelihood, my job, my savings, my pension?
Wouldn’t it be wonderful, then, just to step back to normality again – and get on with whatever our ordinary tasks may be?

And yet, as the women at the tomb discovered, what came just before may not be the best thing to hope for or aim for. The risen Christ was not the man they had known two days earlier– or at least not just the same man.
His resurrection changed the picture completely.
It is just possible that the creaking structures battling to remain in place today may break, to produce something more just and more stable, and not the financial black hole that some are dreading.

Forced to stay at home, members of sports teams and music groups are unable to meet to hone their skills in the usual way – and there will be real challenges ahead when they finally do meet together. And yet, as skills are re-learned, might there be an opportunity to shed bad habits; and perhaps to appreciate more fully the skills and contributions of others in the group – to really prize the team effort over personal ego.
And I guess that thought transfers to the Board room too.

Just now, some of us are lonely, some of us are frustrated because we cannot see the friends we normally spend our time with.
Some of us are suddenly dependant on neighbours we’d never met before – but whose kindness and concern are now our salvation.
There is so much good that can come out of that realisation – as again we really learn to value all those people and what they mean to us.

And, of course, there are places we can’t see at present.
Every month Google Maps provides me with a timeline of all the exciting places I’ve been to. And this week, in popped the summary for March.
It listed 3 great cities that I’d visited – Salisbury, Egham and Fovant (that well known metropolis).
And then it lists 3 highlights – Rivers leisure centre, the Garden centre and Lidl! Talk about living the dream!! And yet I really wouldn’t mind even half an hour in any of those places just now, just for a change of scene.
By being “grounded” in this way, though, might we learn to appreciate just how much there is on our doorstep – local facilities and natural beauty.
And might it lead us to think how we travel and how often? Could we use our cars less in order to keep the cleaner air that we’re now breathing?

The reason that you are now listening to my dulcet tones via the internet is that we can’t now gather in church – and that’s particularly hard for us on this most holy of days when we’d normally have a busy, joyful celebration.
Yet can we, by this grasp what it is to be what Pope John Paul II “an Easter People” –filled with the new life of the risen Christ, worshiping together, not just with the comforting familiarity of the “normal”, but with the boundless joy and expectation of the two faithful women on Easter morning?
We don’t know what life will look like in 2 months, 6 months, or a year’s time – but if the story of Easter tells us anything it is that there is no reason to assume that it will not be at least a pleasant surprise.
In these strange times, and in all circumstances we are called to celebrate and to witness to the power of Christ’s Resurrection:
for we are an Easter people and Alleluia is our song!

An “Unholy” Week?

Palm Sunday 20

Here we are then at the beginning of Holy Week – and yet, it doesn’t really feel like it!

For me, this is normally the busiest time of year:
with a range of services and acts of worship to be prepared and delivered;
special services to be “re-learned” and then rehearsed with the team of servers;
practicalities to check – such as the building of the Easter bonfire or the acquiring of super-sized chocolate eggs for our two main congregations;
liaising with our friends at the Baptist Church ahead of Good Friday’s walk of witness.

So it’s very odd this year to find myself still busy – but doing none of those “normal” things,

Instead, together with Caroline, our Curate, the main task, just now, has been in trying to keep some form of contact with the members of our congregations and also to offer some kind of Easter experience for the communities around us.

And so the last 2 weeks have involved, not only busy phone lines, but something of a crash course in social media! Our Facebook page has been hastily reordered – the world of You Tube has been explored and our Parish website linked to more resources, such as meditations and prayers for use at home.

And then, of course, there’s been the corresponding task of writing, selecting, recording and editing material to post at those various “outlets”.

That’s been an interesting experience – if at times frustrating and equally at times very moving in the responses that I’ve received.

But none of it quite takes away the sense of “absence” – the sense that this is not how Holy Week is meant to be.

And that brings with it a sense of powerlessness – even if that is coupled with a conviction that staying at home IS the right thing to do just now.

What I think a number of us are experiencing is a kind of “slow motion” Easter: we’ve already sensed the loss and uncertainty that Jesus’ friends experienced as he was lost to them.

There was a palpable sense of shock – when churches were closed, and our normal way of worshipping together taken from us.

Even being told to stay at home – in fairly stark terms – was quite hard for those of us more used to be out and with other people. That loss of freedom is difficult.

And it’s proved something of a shock for families used to going their own separate ways during the day – for work or school or college: suddenly being together all day and every day, with no other company to dilute the mix, demands new rules of engagement if the battle for personal space is not to be lost as well.

Harder still is the enforced separation of those unable to visit loved ones who are sick or dying – and the double sense of isolation that brings.
We share perhaps the disciples’ sense of disorientation as familiar patterns and routines are lost. Like them we find ourselves in a situation where everything we thought we knew – everything we were expecting – has been thrown out. We don’t know what is going to happen next; we don’t know when we’ll get back to “normal”, or even what “normal” is going to look like when we get there.

And there’s a certain amount of confusion around too.
I have to admit that I sometimes struggle to remember what day it is, now they all seem remarkably similar!
And for those now working from home for the first time, there’s the fresh challenge of demarcating work time and family or leisure time: how do we know when to “clock on” and “clock off”? Can I do a couple of extra hours work today, while it’s quiet, then a bit less tomorrow?
And will I remember?!

Am I, at this moment, professional, partner, parent or all three at once?

How can I anchor myself in these strange waters that I’m now forced to navigate?
Shock, disorientation, confusion – in many ways, our loss of church worship and the loss now of our usual Holy Week observance, both sound rather like bereavement.
Those three emotions, that we usually associate with grief, do seem to be present now, as we live through this gradual and sometimes painful process of adjusting to a different way of living.

We shouldn’t be surprised then if sometimes we find it hard going – if our emotions sometimes lurch in response to certain triggers: living where we do, alongside the Parish Church, I can’t help noticing the lack of bells on a Monday evening; or of the sound of organists practising on Tuesdays and Wednesday; or of the strains of the choir on Thursday evenings.
For now the church stands silent – a physical reminder of the “absence” we feel – a reminder, we might say, of the silence of the tomb.

This, then, is our Holy Saturday experience: like the disciples we know what we have lost, but we can’t yet see the joy that lies beyond. Like them we are forced to hide away, in the relative safety of our homes. Like the first Christians, we are forbidden to gather in public.
And yet we do know that this will not last for ever –
we don’t yet know when it will end, but do know it will.

A very particular perspective on this was offered, this week, by Terry Waite – who, in the 1980s, was envoy for the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie.
In 1987, Waite was sent to Beirut, to try and negotiate for the release of two American hostages. In the event he was himself taken hostage, and kept in cramped conditions for over four years.

It’s with a particular wisdom, then, that he gave advice to any of us struggling with our current isolation.

First of all, he said, we need a change of mindset: we are not “stuck” at home, we are “safe” at home”.

There is a real difference.

In order to cultivate that positive frame of mind he suggests 4 practical steps:
1 – keep your own dignity – don’t sit around all day in your pyjamas!
2 – Form a structure to your day – that might mean set times each day for prayer, for exercise, for meals
3 – Be grateful for what you have – not least for the shelter that our homes provide, and something not everyone does have.
4 Read and do something creative – don’t just sit and fret about things, feed your mind.

So, can we use this enforced stillness to notice the good things that are there for us?
Without the usual volume of traffic we hear the birdsong more clearly.
Without our daily encounter with the usual people, our fleeting conversations – from a distance, on the phone or by other means – somehow mean more to us.

Can we use this time to really appreciate the things we are missing – even simple things, like pasta or Reeve’s cakes!
Can we use this time to really appreciate the people we depend on – those in our pharmacies and medical staff, for example.

And what about the things we can now do – that we’re normally far to busy for – or that we can now do differently, in more creative ways?

One of the many posts that caught my eye on Facebook read “In the rush to return to normal, it’s worth asking which parts of normal are really worth rushing back to.”

We can learn from this experience – we can grow through this period of restriction and come out the other side renewed and refreshed.

We can yet discover again what is truly precious to us; what is vital to our communities, our society, our planet;
what is fundamental to our faith and our church.
Of course, I am NOT trying to suggest that this pandemic is some kind of blessing in disguise: for those who have lost loved ones, Covid 19 represents a devastating loss that can never be undone. It would be crass to suggest otherwise.

And yet, even then, our faith refuses to see a dead end.

The experience of Good Friday was agonizing for Jesus himself AND for those who loved him – forced to stand by helplessly, unable to do anything to ease his suffering.

We know now that through his suffering the world was changed for good – God’s love for us revealed,
the way to eternal life opened to us.

From this time – with all its frustrations, hardship and grief – still good things can come and will come, if we enable them to.

May God give us grace to trust in him who suffered, died and rose again for us – knowing that we will rejoice again, in his presence and in each other’s company. Amen.