Thursday, July 04, 2019

Musing On My Green Stole

Thursday 4th July 2019.

I am writing this on the 20th anniversary of my ordination to the Diaconate. The picture shows one of the stoles given to me to mark that occasion. It came from the congregations at Holy Trinity Maisons-Laffitte where I had worked as a Youth and Children’s Worker and Chaplaincy Assistant for two years, and where my vocation was tested.

When Sam saw it recently he noted that the beautiful silk panels (of two icons that the church gave me when I moved to Durham to begin my training) were starting to show some wear and tear and perhaps I should seek some help in restoring them. But tonight I realise that this stole bears the marks and scars and love of those 20 years and in many ways what it means for me and you to exercise the ministry Christ calls us to.

One side of the stole has a stain on it - either a drip of wax ironed off with greaseproof paper as my incumbent taught me, from one of the many candlelit services we seemed to hold in my Curacy parish; but more likely though it is a drip of wine from the very many times I have worn it to take Holy Communion to the sick or housebound - where the parishioner received Jesus in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, and I met him in strong brown tea in a chipped mug and bendy biscuit.

The nape of the neck is pretty grubby, sweat stained dare I say, reminding me of the many Eucharist’s I wore it at in my Curacy parish (but sadly less so subsequently), where I had the privilege of serving at the altar, administering the Sacrament, preaching God’s word; but also reminding me of the number of times I lugged chairs around before or after an event, or led an assembly, or sat with a bereaved family and planned the funeral of a loved one, or led a Eucharist in a hospital or nursing or care home, or sat with someone lonely or broken.

There is a thread pulled out slightly on one side of it, leaving it imperfect. This is from where I had to pin it when I wore it as a Deacon. That pull reminds me that, 20 years later, I am still imperfect and blemished. It reminds me of the number of God’s people I should have ministered to differently, of the situations or conversations that with hindsight I realise I could have handled in other ways. But that pull is part of a beautiful whole - God loves despite it all.

In many ways, 20 years later, I can confidently say that being a Deacon has left an indelible mark on the ministry I am called to exercise. In an age of Renewal and Reform in the Church of England, where a ‘growth agenda’ at all costs, and an increasing emphasis on a culture of leadership seems to be the driving force of ministry, this stole calls me and you to be something different.

As Sam readied himself to be ordained a priest recently, I did what I do annually at this time of year, and returned to the Ordinal to be reminded of what the church hopes that these ministries might be as part of the priestly ministry of the whole people of God:

‘... The Church is the Body of Christ, the people of God and the dwelling-place of the Holy Spirit. In baptism, the whole Church is summoned to witness to God’s love and to work for the coming of his kingdom.

To serve this royal priesthood, God has given a variety of ministries. Deacons are ordained so that the people of God may be better equipped to make Christ known. Theirs is a life of visible self-giving. Christ is the pattern of their calling and their commission; as he washed the feet of his disciples, so they must wash the feet of others… 

To serve this royal priesthood, God has given particular ministries. Priests are ordained to lead God’s people in the offering of praise and the proclamation of the gospel. They share with the Bishop in the oversight of the Church, delighting in its beauty and rejoicing in its well-being. They are to set the example of the Good Shepherd always before them as the pattern of their calling. With the Bishop and their fellow presbyters, they are to sustain the community of the faithful by the ministry of word and sacrament, that we all may grow into the fullness of Christ and be a living sacrifice acceptable to God…’

The call of God on all of our lives is one of love, to be in a relationship of love with Him, and in turn to call others into that same relationship themselves. We answer that call first at our Baptism and it finds fulfilment in our following of Jesus in our lives, whether as sidesperson, reader of readings, leader of intercessions, maker of a good cuppa, a listening ear, a friend to your lonely neighbour, Deacon, Priest, Bishop or Reader, teacher, bank manager, bus driver, Cub Scout leader and so on. What Jesus calls us all to, is not a glamourous leadership role for which we will be extolled for our courage or skill - rather it is a way of love that cannot be easily quantified or counted and which often goes often unnoticed - but it is there, the Kingdom is revealed.

Tuesday, July 02, 2019

On Funerals and Funeral Addresses

Ahhhh, my much-maligned blog... I've not posted anything here for ages...

So by way of seeking to remedy that, I enclose a funeral address from this week. I have done many funerals over 20 years of Diaconal ministry. They are all as much a unique privilege as the people we commend and commit to God are.

Some funerals live with you... of babies; suicides; circus or traveller funerals; of an elderly couple, the wife died and then days later the husband died of a broken heart; a Council contract funeral for a tenant in social housing who died with no traceable relatives.

Other funerals live with you because they are of people you have known and loved and worshipped alongside either in the church building or at home. They leave their mark on our hearts.

For me, a funeral should always hold that tension of acknowledging and naming grief whilst also offering Christian Hope. The address is always a key part of any funeral liturgy for me, as it is then that I have the chance to reflect the light of the Gospel on the life of the deceased. It is a chance to offer those of us present a different narrative. A narrative that needs to be sensitively offered - even in the face of real tragedy.

I presided at a funeral yesterday with my colleague. I wrote an address (now anonymised) based on 1 Corinthians 13:1-8a. I hope I got the balance right.

Image result for Stephen Fry what makes human
I heard Stephen Fry speaking in a slot on a radio show the other day about what it means to be human. For him, the essence of our humanity is our use of language; our ability to communicate meaningfully and deeply with each other.

St Paul would disagree with Stephen Fry on a whole range of issues, but chiefly I suspect he would disagree with him on the thing that makes us human. St Paul reminds us today that our humanity is not dependent on speech or spirituality, not on faith or philanthropy but on love - and our ability to give, receive and live it. 

For us all here today, love is life’s ultimate quest, and we search for it in all sorts of situations and circumstances. For people of faith, and especially those of us who call ourselves Christians, love isn’t just what defines us as human or the highest of all emotions, but the very nature of God. God doesn’t just love. God is love. Love revealed supremely, personally in the flesh and blood of Jesus.

St Paul tells that no matter what else we may or may not be able to do or achieve - it is love that defines us. Love is the reason we gather today. Each of you has been touched in love by J or in turn by the love she has brought up S, A and H to live out. The love of God in Jesus is eternally strong - calling each of us - as it did J - to better living and better loving. God’s love for us is such that not even when confronted with the deep darkness of tragedy and death - and love seems to be snuffed out like a candle - we discover that the light of love can never be fully extinguished. God’s love in Jesus is so strong that not even the grave could contain it, raising him from death, and offering each of us hope - shining like bright light in the midst of our present darkness.

St Paul reminds us, that through it all love never ends. Later in the passage we heard read, Paul speaks of his experience as though he and we were still missing something. He still has ultimate questions for which there are just no answers. He talks of, '... seeing as if in a mirror dimly...' and '...knowing only in part...' Perhaps that is because our lives and the direction they take are ultimately a mystery despite the plans we lay. As we gather to remember J today, we come seeking answers to ultimate questions: for which there are just no answers. Whilst your lives have been intertwined with J's with a host of memories and stories - you perhaps quite rightly feel cheated out of many many more - death, however abrupt or painful is the most puzzling aspect of living, and yet… even it cannot snatch away your memories and stories of J's or the love she has etched into your hearts.

St Paul speaks of love that never ends - love that is the essence of God.  For J, and for all who call themselves Christian - the love of God in Jesus opens up our lives and calls us to respond to it’s source. Thus faith is not a monlogue into a dark void - but an inviation into a relationship with the source of all love. Faith allows us to draw from that source, flowing freely, available to us all.

Love for J and her family is the reason we gather today. Today of all days, St Paul reminds us that all love points us back to it’s source in the love of God. God’s love for each of us is eternally strong and I pray that it would well up within each of us today and in the days to come, that through it we may daily find the resources we each need, not just for living but for living in and out love, as J did. Amen.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Jodie, The Colour Purple and the Protection of God

They dyed their hair purple and hung purple ribbons around the area using her favourite colour. Her peers instead of a minute’s silence had a minute of applause. Closer to our home, some built a circle of stones - the traditional tracking symbol for a Scout to know that someone being tracked has gone home, but also the traditional Scouting way of remembering one of their own who has died. All of this done to remember Jodie Chesney, who was stabbed to death in Romford - the fifth teenager to die in the capital this year. How can this be?

Calls to build a wall continue to spout from the office of the president in the White House whilst concerns, ramped up by certain sections of the British press continue to ask popular but unpalatable questions about immigration, crime and employment.

Despite all the political wooing of North Korea in recent months, there seems to be renewed construction underway at a rocket launch site, amid mounting fears of an imminent ICBM test.

All of these questions of safety and security, of national identity, of ethnicity and cultural heritage, are all in the mind of the community that the Psalmist was part of. Midrash tradition says that Psalm 91 was written by Moses on the day that the tabernacle for the ark of the covenant was completed and was recited by him as he made his way up Mount Saini to protect him from angels of destruction. The psalm is said today in the Jewish community before sleep and during the burial of the dead.

It is known as the Soldiers Psalm or Prayer and bandanas or badges with it imprinted are often given to US troops and verses of this psalm are quoted by the devil to Jesus in this morning’s Gospel reading as Jesus deals with temptation.

In the face of personal, national and international fear and uncertainty, in a time when we might want to be lifted out of a situation that it out of our control; when we wish we could escape a scenario that is not of our making or that is not going our way; when we fear for our lives or the lives of those we love; the opening verses of the psalm present us with an image not of a mother hen and with us her chicks nestled beneath her, but of  God as the Almighty, as a fortress or refuge. God like a massive bird of prey, powerful and yet intimate images of protection. God’s angelic wings will be a sure protection in the face of all attack. No evil will affect us or even come close to the places where we dwell but not just us, but all those who dwell with us in our tent. God will protect families and communities.

If these words were said by Moses as he climbed the mountain and recited by the people of Israel as they pilgrimaged through the wilderness, these were words said by a people on the move. So when the devil quotes verses 11 and 12, ‘... For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone…’ to Jesus he was meaning that God will surely protect Jesus if He jumped, but the original context was about avoiding the rocks and stones that littered the desert as the people walked. God has such a close eye on us that He won’t let us stumble on a stone, He will not let us trip and if something blocks our way - he will bear us up, lifting us up over it. The psalmist acknowledges that things will block our way, that our path through life will not always be easy, sometimes the road will be hard and dangerous. It doesn’t say that God will make the road of life smooth for the faithful. Bad and difficult things will come, but we encounter them with His protection. In those situations, if we call to God, He will answer, He will protect, He will deliver.

But, notice that the psalm is not a litmus test of faith. Being able to tread on adders, lions and serpents is not a sign of God’s favour. Sometimes we will step on an adder as it were, a lion will leap out at us unprepared - tragedy and danger will come even to those who love God. But, God is there. Talk of long life is, therefore, is not about avoiding tragic death because of our faith,  rather it is a metaphor for God’s blessing, of his favour, of His presence and love.

God says he will do all of this for those who love Him and for their communities. These words, therefore, are very contemporary and ones of all-encompassing hope to the tense streets of our capital, to communities frightened about their identity because of the presence of others, but also to those of us concerned about what a nationalist politics might bring to the international stage or how we might walk forward when confronted by personal tragedy or illness and to all of us who keep this holy season as a time dedicated to deepening our love of the One who watches over us: keep walking; keep loving and trusting God. He is there.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The Man Sat On The Wall

I enjoyed a sunny dog walk in the late morning today.  As I neared home, I met a Muslim taxi driver who parks in the road outside the church. We've met before and exchanged pleasantries.

Today our hellos led to something more. We sat next to each other on the wall and talked candidly and openly. The wall didn't divide us. Instead, it was a place that allowed us to meet as equals, as fellow pilgrims.

He talked about his Muslim faith. He spoke about seeing himself more as a cultural Muslim now, but those stories and traditions are part of his own story and therefore have enormous depth and meaning for him still. He talked using the language of a spiritual seeker - he spoke how he valued meditation and I spoke about how contemplation and silence are a strong strand within my own faith and I suspected within some Islamic traditions too. We talked expansively about the similarities and differences between Islam and Jesus' way.

We touched on who Jesus includes and excludes - especially how Jesus sought to reach out to those on the edge socially, culturally and religiously; on Jesus' response in scripture to other faith traditions; on shared stories in our scripture; and the three words for love in Greek and how as a Christian I'm called to consciously choose to enact agapé to all. I spoke about Jesus showing that by washing his disciples' feet - something which seemed to move and impress my new friend deeply. I spoke about how Christian faith, for me at least is not about assenting to propositional theology, but about following the Way, living a lifestyle. How do I do what Jesus did or say what He said?

He spoke about how peaceful he found the Garden of Remembrance in our churchyard and how he liked to sit on the bench there. I spoke about that place being somewhere that gained meaning by being a place of memory and story, but it also being a place where people have ultimately encountered God as we have entrusted those who are beloved to His care and keeping.

I invited him to sit there any time, but also to feel free to sit in church. This invitation seemed to move him again. I talked about that peacefulness he feels being the presence of God.

One of those amazing chance encounters that remind me of Jesus encounter with the woman at the well. Here was someone thirstily seeking the water of life.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Addressing the District Council.

Tonight I had the privilege (& I mean it) of addressing Three Rivers District Council before their meeting and leading them in prayer. Here's what I tried to say.


One of the privileges of ministering in the Church of England is the parish system. This means I have a responsibility to look out for the welfare and wellbeing of all who live in Mill End, Heronsgate, West Hyde and Maple Cross. Sometimes that will involve speaking up for the people in the communities I serve, especially when they are faced with injustice. Sometimes that will involve working with you (as councillors). Sometimes when those in most need are affected through the loss of community facilitates (whether that be bus routes or community sports facilities) that will involve me speaking out.

I was reminded of all of that when I was at a meeting in Maple Cross last night where we discussed extending the reach of the Rickmansworth foodbank and establishing a new Community Cafe to seek to provide a hot meal to local families who otherwise wouldn't easily have access to that during school holidays.

You might say that as a representative of the church I should stay away from decision making like that as it sounds overtly political. But I cannot but seek to when the one I follow, namely Jesus, calls me to love my neighbour as myself.

The way that Jesus teaches its all about relationships with neighbours whoever they are, whether they are refugees, asylum seekers or EU nationals.

One of my heroes of faith, Desmond Tutu once said 'the Gospel for a hungry person is bread.' Bread could be housing, education or access to health care - it's about practically meeting the need of those most in need in our communities.

I look forward to continuing to working with you to ensure that those in greatest need get support because Jesus tells us to and because it's the humane thing to do.

Let us pray.
Almighty God, you have created the heavens and the earth and made us in your own image: teach us to discern your hand in all your works and your likeness in all your children; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.

Living God, deliver us from a world, counties and communities without justice and a future without mercy; in your mercy, establish justice, and in your justice, remember the mercy revealed to us in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Stranger In A Strange Land - Reflections on Psalm 137

Psalm 137
1By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, ♦
when we remembered Zion.
2As for our lyres, we hung them up ♦
on the willows that grow in that land.
3For there our captors asked for a song,
our tormentors called for mirth: ♦
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’
4How shall we sing the Lord’s song ♦
in a strange land?
5If I forget you, O Jerusalem, ♦
let my right hand forget its skill.
6Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you, ♦
if I set not Jerusalem above my highest joy.
7Remember, O Lord, against the people of Edom
the day of Jerusalem, ♦
how they said, ‘Down with it, down with it,
even to the ground.’
8O daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, ♦
happy the one who repays you
for all you have done to us;
9Who takes your little ones, ♦
and dashes them against the rock.

Aside from the challenging images in the latter verses of the psalm, verses which the ASB (Alternative Service Book - an earlier version of the Church of England’s liturgy) bracketed off, I was reminded today as I was at a Quiet Day led by our Bishop on the Psalms, that the verses of Psalm 137 speak to the contemporary church.

It also made me think of a certain Iron Maiden song...

The writer picks up on the idea of being far from home; somewhere which is unknown. There is a lack of identity; a dislocation from the community’s story; where language and customs are meaningless and all this is held by a small group. It feels vulnerable and precarious.

The danger, in those occasions, is to give up. To hang up our lyre as it were; to no longer sing the songs or retell the stories; to allow meaninglessness to prevail.

The writer looks back to a former time in Jerusalem where this all made sense and the exiles were home. The issue with living like that is that we end up longing for former things. '... God is not the God of the dead but of the living...' '... Behold I make all things new...'

How do we live as exiles - as people of monotheistic faith in a pluralist and sometimes hostile landscape - live without looking backwards? How do we live in the now shaped by the God who was, who is and who is to come? How do sing the songs and tell the story now, without wishing to give up?

What scripture speaks into that? The Emmaus road account - walking away from Jerusalem into a new reality where Jesus is not dead but alive? The burning bush - from there Moses is sent by God on with God’s people.

The Psalmist talks with passion about not forgetting Jerusalem and the associated stories and centre of faith to give confidence to their present.

What of the church in 21st century England? Are we in exile? In many ways we are in a strange land. A place and time where the stories and songs of our faith make little sense except to a smaller community. Do we entrench? Do we give up? The psalmist would encourage us not to. We are to remember the heart of our faith with its customs and songs but to live in the present - the eternal moment that Elliot hints at in Little Gidding - knowing that the One who was and is and is to come is there too.

It leaves me with thoughts about faithfulness and about discipline. There is no hint in this psalm (or in Judaism per se) of the need for evangelism. There isn’t a sense from the psalmist that they better seek new recruits in this strange place of exile because unless they do they will die. Rather the psalm, for the Christian, hints at a return not to a place but into a relationship - with God - through Jesus Christ. What does this psalm say in a church driven by a growth agenda and Renewal and Reform?

God of our pilgrimage,
you sent your Son to our strange land
to bring us home to you;
give us your songs to sing,
that even in our exile
we may be filled with the breath of the Spirit
of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, February 03, 2019

A Growing Faith. A Growing Church.

I'm thinking a lot these days about church growth. I am convinced that the church grows when God wills it. In some senses that's the stop and start of it.

There are things that we can be engaged in that open us up to being formed by God and therefore open to growth ourselves. As St Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:6: '...Paul planted, Apollos watered, but it is God who gives the growth...'

We should be disciplined and diligent in prayer. Prayer places us intentionally in the presence of God and as we share our hopes and dreams with God, so He shares His with us. Prayer can happen anywhere - on our own as we walk the dog; with others in a small group; dwelling in silence together listening for the voice of God. If you're unsure how to pray why not join me/us across the week (Monday 7.30am12noon/4pm; Tuesday 8.45am/12noon/4pm; Wednesday 8.45am/12noon; Thursday 7.30am/12noon/7pm & Saturday 9.30am.) You can find the liturgy we use available here or here.

Immersing ourselves in Scripture enables us to become more familiar with the story of our faith and thus building resilience and confidence. Engaging with Scripture also opens us up - along with prayer - to the ways and purposes of God. Reading scripture for scripture's sake is a good thing, but then to spend time with others' wisdom (through Bible notes or a course or conversation) forms us in faith.

The Sacraments.
The Sacraments are about revealing outwardly the grace of God at work within us. Thus seeking Baptism and Confirmation; partaking regularly in Holy Communion; offering and receiving prayer for healing by anointed with Holy Oil; looking to be reconciled with those whom we have let down and with God are all about building and reshaping relationships. Traditionally, the church talks of Sacraments of Service, which will usually refer Ordination and Marriage. Those two sacraments are not for everyone and they are a specific and particular call - but service more generally, seeking to put our faith into action, to serve and love one another is fundamental in following the way of Christ, and shaping community.

Faithfully living this way forms us in faith, calls us to be disciples, keeps us attentive to our Teacher, and opens us up to being signs of the Kingdom where God sets us.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

What Hope Looks LIke

I asked some of my friends recently what hope looked like and to give me some examples.  Whichever way one voted in the Brexit referendum in 2016, it is hard not to get dragged down by the bleak prospects predicted for our nation post March 29th. As a result, perhaps, we need a sense of hope more than ever.  There were a number of insightful suggestions. One wrote,

‘... Hope is not for the selfish. It is not a thing we should cling to or hang onto, it is the thing we should give to others. If someone around you is looking for hope, give it to them. This is not done in positive soundbites or long speeches, it is done with love. "Faith, hope and love. These three remain". No coincidence that all three are gifts. Gifts are not for keeping but for giving…’

Another sent me a photo taken from inside a cupboard.

Another wrote movingly,

‘... hope isn't is wishful thinking. It's a brutal fact that each of my children have a 50% chance of having inherited my husband’s condition/genetic mutation. 50% chance that they all have it, or none of them. Wishful thinking might make me ignore this statistic. Hope means that I believe that they can all live rich and fulfilling lives, and at their futures are in God's hands…’

In my experience, the word hope is one that is used with some regularly within faith communities. Hope for Christians is not feeble and frail, but sure and certain. It is simultaneously something on the horizon towards which we travel, but also something tangible which we hold in our hands and travels with us.

Hope is God’s business. It is second chances, restored relationships, forgiveness given and received, and outsiders welcomed, and the wayward returned home.

In these days before Lent, we are reminded that God’s business of hope is found both on the horizon: at the cross towards which we journey; and in the nail imprinted hands of  Jesus. As his family, that is true for us too: at the cross, we are invited to crucify with Christ that which divides and dehumanises, but also to remember that as we bear the mark of Christ on and in us by virtue of our baptism - we hold the hope for which so many look and long for in our hands.

The Benedictines have a motto - laborare est orare - to work is to pray - the idea being that their life together in the monastery would have plentiful helpings of both, but both were of equal importance in a life with God. In that sense, praying is seeking to align our lives with God and to seek His will for us.  It is not just something we say, but rather something we do; something we are.

It is all too easy when one is feeling hopeless, to look to hope arriving from on high. In these days, let our hands, our lips, our hearts and our lives be the hope that we and our communities need. Hope is a work of God in and for us; like our prayers, let it be something we do; something we are.