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.