About afeatheronthebreathofgod

a child of God, brimful of curiosity, learning to see the world through five year old eyes ... learning to be a feather on His breath I am a curate in a rural Anglican Benefice.

Speaking into the unspeakable

War. It is on our screens and in our faces, from many corners of the globe. It weighs heavy on the heart, as the seemingly endless tragedies of innocent victims play out time and again. Hard to watch. Hard to see. Hard to know how to pray. The horror of it all almost unimaginable. The writer of Ecclesiastes wrote over 2500 years ago, ‘There is nothing new under the sun’ and certainly as far as human conflict is concerned, he was right. The First World War commemorations have reminded us of the scale and cost, paid in lives a hundred years ago.

flood of poppies at the Tower of London

Bloodswept Lands and Seas of Red

In my early teens I discovered the poetry of Wilfred Owen, whose vivid word pictures captured the stuff of nightmares. The physical, moral and emotional maelstroms facing those fighting in the trenches. I am not sure any other poet has been able to express the pathos and pointlessness of war so eloquently.

Anthem for doomed youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, -
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.

This poem could have been written for the youth of Syria, of Gaza, Iraq. .                           Its timeless truth as apt. He saw his poetry as a warning for humanity as he looked into a future he would never see. He was killed on the 4th November, 1918 just days before the end of the war. His parents had news of his death as the bells were ringing out for Armistice on the 11th of November. He was just 25 years old. Compiling a book of his poetry, he wrote in his introduction Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.      

unnamed My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful. His warnings unheeded, his truths live on. As part of the commemorations, a place where I work held a re-enactment of the first men of the town marching off blithely for ‘King and country’, cheered on by those left behind. It was a sober moment, realising that a high majority of those marching would never return. A whole generation of young men wiped out, leaving a crater of grief and hardship in the towns and villages from which they came. I have just finished the book The Quick and The Dead: Fallen Soldiers and their families in the Great War by Richard Van Emden. If every poppy in the photo above of Paul Cummins/Tom Piper’s artwork on display in the Tower of London, represents a life, graphically capturing the magnitude of loss, this book’s collection of letters and personal insights paints the petals of a few. Setting them in the context of their homes and families, it examines the impact of the war on those left behind, parents, wives and children and the reverberations down the generations since. In the summer of 2010, Lilly Baron a frail 97 year old made her way to France to lay a wreath of lilies at the place of her father’s death, and say a prayer She had been born in 1912 and her father had died in November 1917. Her note with the lilies said simply.

Daddy, Thank you for five years of real happiness- I have missed you all my life.”

She was to die herself, a few months following that journey.

The following fragment from a poem by Wilfred Owen called Strange Meeting, envisions a meeting between fellow soldiers on opposite sides, just after death.

“Strange friend,” I said, “here is no cause to mourn.”
“None,” said that other, “save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery;
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.

 

  How much do we find ourselves again in need of those ‘sweet wells’ and ‘truths that lie too deep for taint’. Wilfred Owen was able somehow to find the words for the unspeakable. Lacking his eloquence, I can only weep, and pray Kýrie eléison,

Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy’  

longing for that day when

They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. Isaiah 4:2

437 340

If

Jesus-Desert

There aren’t any roads in the desert. It is easy to get lost, and disoriented. One hill or escarpment looks very like another. Especially in the burning sun. He didn’t know what he had expected. Driven from the Jordan and the scene of his baptism, by an inescapable inner compunction. The voice that had called him Beloved had called him into the wilderness.

At first, he had welcomed the solitude, the silence of the empty landscape. If he was honest, he had also welcomed the challenge that he sensed. Pitting himself against the elements, against the odds. At first, it tasted of adventure.

At first.

The desert is an unforgiving friend. A harsh host, who gives nothing, takes everything. Strips the spirit bare, and picks over the bones of your dreams.

No roads, no directions, no certainties. No place to lay his head.

By day, the unrelenting sun. Remorseless glare of white on white. Bleached stones and dust, devoid of colour, comfort, life. The longing for shade, to creep under a rock and shut it out. A thirst for darkness, that surprised.

By night, inky blackness spreads her cloak of desolate chill. Wind whispers cold comfort to a lonely soul. Hard shale no solace to weary bones and shrinking flesh.

Hollowed out by hunger, he had never felt so empty. So spent. So alone. The breaking glory of his baptism a distant memory. The call into the wasteland a faint echo in a bleak canyon. A mouthful of dust.

There are no smells in the desert, and yet the waft of fresh-baked bread pulled him from what passed as sleep. In the shimmering haze, each stone, a roll each rock, a loaf. He blinked and stared, uncomprehending. Tantalised by a phantom feast.

A shape. A form that wore a sycophantic smile and spoke in honeyed tones.

“Your power lies within. IF you are the son of God… One word would turn these stones to bread. You are weak with fasting that has become fanatic. Gone beyond the call. What harm in feeding yourself? Come now, listen to the voice of reason. ” 

So simple. So sensible. So inviting. .. Just a word.

And yet. And yet the words ingested as a child nourish him still.

“Man shall not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’  Spoken to desert wanderers, long years before, lest they forget the hand that gave them life.  He’d not waste his words, or play with power to feed himself, or to prove the power was his. He would stay hungry for God.

The desert dropped away. His vision swam and cleared to see the crowds far below. The temple throng and press. The silky voice relentless in his ears, as he swayed on tiny ledge.

IF you are the Son of God, as you believe (is that really true? How do you know?) God would not let his son be harmed- a thousand angels would catch your fall. Jump! Make a splash! Such a large crowd to impress. An overnight sensation – and the peace of knowing you are who you say you are. They would know- you would know. What is not to like? Jump!

The hand on his back to help him fly.

Dizzy, faint with lack, his body teetered on the edge. So easy. So sweet. So quick – an end. To fall into the angels arms.  Anger for God’s name flashed through his limbs and held him fast. His words terse and spare.

As well you know, It is written, “Do not put The Lord your God to the test” ”

He jumped ..

back and spun to face the shadow at his back.

Gone. And in an instant, so was he. Whisked from temple tower to mountain top, the world spread out at his feet. A panoply of dominion.

All MINE. ” The voice was soft and warm. “I would not desert and starve you as the God who you call Father has.. (where is he now?) I am here. Simply rest. Kneel and ask my blessing and it is yours, my son. No more to do. No cross to bear. ” 

No cross. No tomb. No hell.

And yet hell’s breath was in his face. Sweet words on foul vapour. Deception unmasked by evil’s fetid taint.

” Be gone! ” The command brooked no rebuff. All authority was his. The Word spoke ancient words of life the devil could not stay to hear.

” Worship The Lord your God and serve only him.” 

The brush of angel’s wings.

There aren’t any roads in the desert. It is easy to get lost.

Water of life

Water for the Journey. My venture into the scary world of blogging started with that post. (It remains above this as a title page, as I hadn’t learnt to post properly at that stage, but it seemed right to leave it where it was)

I started this year with another adventure. A pilgrimage to Israel.                                          Travelling on my own with a group of unknown others. A journey of encounter, of learning and entering Jesus’ world.

It started with being given a bottle of water. Water for the journey. In a dry and thirsty land where water is precious, water was to be a constant theme. The gift an example of the loving care and kindness from those leading the group,* that continued throughout the trip.

Take a desert, a barren, rocky moonscape of a desert..

Desert

and add a few vital drops of water.. and the hidden seeds buried in the hard, dry ground, burst into life.

life

Before my eyes, I saw a prayerful vision of promise for a church played out for real. Green shoots of potential breaking through in hope. Elsewhere I was to see the miracle of transformation taken much further. Valleys I had last seen as dusty wastes, were now verdant farmland- transfigured by advances in de-salination and irrigation processes. From death to life. The desert come to bloom.

The trip was as much an inner journey as an outer one. Early in the itinerary we were taken out into the Judean desert, (where Jesus faced down forty days of temptations at the very start of his ministry)and left to scatter to places of isolation for an hour of interior travel. Sitting in silent solitude was a deep balm. People-filled weeks of frenetic pace dropped away. I could have stayed much, much longer and initially found it hard to return to company and conversation. The Gospels often record Jesus stealing away to ‘lonely places’ for time out with his Father, a life-line undergirding his ministry.

Staying right beside the Sea of Galilee, was an equal balm. Early morning walks by the lakeside as dawn was breaking or watching the sun setting were a gentle counterpoint to days filled with multiple impressions, stimuli and thought provoking information.

Galilee is, if anything less populated than it was in Jesus’ day, and the vistas of hills and lake are immensely evocative of the world he knew and loved. Hard to describe, it feels a very ‘thin place’ where the veil between earth and heaven becomes transparent. Contemporary poet Sharlande Sledge describes the Celtic idea of ‘Thin Place’

'Thin places', the Celts call this space
both seen and unseen,
where the door between this world
and the next is cracked open for a moment
and the light is not all on the other side.
God shaped space. Holy.

I may not visit this shore again within my life time, but it is somewhere I can return to again and again in imaginative prayer. Water for the journey. Water for life.

At a major turning point in his ministry, as Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem and all that awaited him there, he travelled with his disciples to Caesarea Philippi. Luke records him as ‘praying privately’. The source of the Jordan gushes out of the foot of Mount Hermon, very close to this spot, and it is possible to walk beside its roaring waterfalls and rushing waters. It would have been an obvious place to choose for private prayer.

Our guide had us walk beside the water in silence, then pause to hear Psalm 42.

As the deer pants for streams of water,
    so my soul pants for you, my God.
2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
    When can I go and meet with God?
3 My tears have been my food
    day and night,
while people say to me all day long,
    ‘Where is your God?’
4 These things I remember
    as I pour out my soul:
how I used to go to the house of God
    under the protection of the Mighty One
with shouts of joy and praise
    among the festive throng.

5 Why, my soul, are you downcast?
    Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
    for I will yet praise him,
    my Saviour and my God.

6 My soul is downcast within me;
    therefore I will remember you
from the land of the Jordan,
    the heights of Hermon – from Mount Mizar.
7 Deep calls to deep
    in the roar of your waterfalls;
all your waves and breakers
    have swept over me.

8 By day the Lord directs his love,
    at night his song is with me –
    a prayer to the God of my life.

9 I say to God my Rock,
    ‘Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I go about mourning,
    oppressed by the enemy?’
10 My bones suffer mortal agony
    as my foes taunt me,
saying to me all day long,
    ‘Where is your God?’

11 Why, my soul, are you downcast?
    Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
    for I will yet praise him,
    my Saviour and my God.

A Psalm written in this ancient landscape. A Psalm echoing perhaps, Jesus’ mood at this point of crucial transition. He goes on to describe his coming suffering to his bewildered disciples.

Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls. All your waves and breakers have swept over me.. 

A vivid, lasting memory of a much earlier visit to Israel, had been standing under the gushing force of these very falls. (This is no longer permitted) The Psalmist’s words echo my own spiritual experiences. Sometimes God is found in gentle stillness. At other times, encounters with the Almighty feel like being swept off your feet in an unstoppable torrent. 

Thirst. The Psalmist describes himself as having a ‘thirsty soul’. I need a thirsty soul. A deep and constant longing for the only water that can satisfy. 

Thirsty

The underground stream that never fails, even in the harshest drought. 

Water of life 2

Late one afternoon, we boarded a boat to cross the Sea of Galilee. To experience for ourselves a journey Jesus would have made many times. It was to prove an intense crossing for me. I think I cried for most of it. Early in my journey towards ordination, I had written a poem on the various calls on Peter’s life, as they resonated so deeply with my own. I used the poem Called to fish, shaped to serve in the presentation I had to give at the three day residential interview for the priesthood.  My own words now came back to me forcibly. ‘Stepped out of all he knew’ – Jesus’ invitation to Peter to step out of the boat..onto the deep. It seems God is always calling me to step out. Out of comfort zones and known territory. Into a place of overwhelming dependence. 

Deep calls to deep.

* www.michaelcard.com 

Hildegarde of Bingen ‘A feather on the breath of God’

A feather on the breath of God

If ever a woman in history has captured my imagination it is Hildegarde. She defies all ‘boxes’ and perhaps that is significant in her attraction. This extraordinarily gifted woman born in 1100, in Bermersheim, Germany was given to the church at the age of eight. The tenth child of Hildebert of Bermersheim and Mechthild of Merxheim, she was promised as a tithe to the church from her birth. She was later to become an abbess. The book Hildegard of Bingen, The woman of her age, by Fiona Maddocks  speaks of the multiplicity of her gifts.

‘Today she is best known for her music. Yet her compositions form only a small part of her story. She was a polymath: a visionary, a theologian, a preacher; and early scientist and physician; a prodigious letter writer who numbered kings, emperors and popes among her correspondents. She an artist, not only in the musical and literary sense but in painting and, it would seem, architecture. She even invented her own coded language.’

She inspires and intrigues me. The name of the blog is taken from phrase she used to describe herself. See About & Ruach Yahweh

” Listen ; there was once a king sitting on his throne. Around him stood great and wonderfully beautiful columns ornamented with ivory, bearing the banners of the king with great honour. Then it pleased the king to raise a small feather from the ground and he commanded it to fly. The feather flew, not because of anything in itself, but because the air bore it along. Thus am I ‘a feather on the breath of God'”

She designed one of her monasteries- with plumbing- recommending her nuns to take hot baths… she purportedly invented dark beer; she wrote extensively on plants, animals, illnesses  and cures describing cancer and its development in great detail, even devoting a whole chapter to breast cancer. ‘According to Hildegarde, the key to successful cancer treatment therapy was early detection and treatment beginning in the pre-cancerous state.’ Hildegarde of Bingen’s Medicine Dr Wighard Strehlow & Gottfried Herzka M.D. 

She wrote about sex, female orgasm and in common with the Greek physician, Galen, believed that both men and women produced ‘seed’ necessary for conception. Her compassionate views on menstruation were that ‘the woman should be cherished in this time with a great and healing tenderness’. All astonishing insights from a chaste nun in the 12th century.

She had a wide ranging knowledge of the created world, and her entire theology is founded on the harmony of the created world and its relationship with God. She was a very early Green in her passion in this regard. Her cherished concept of viriditas, translated variously as greeness, vigour, youthful freshness runs through all of her writings, poetry and music.

Malcolm Guite, a poet priest has written the following poem about Hildegard of Bingen which appears in his book of poetry, The Singing Bowl which is due to be published on Oct 25th.

Hildegard of Bingen

A feather on the breath of God at play,

You saw the play of God in all creation.

You drew eternal light into each day,

And every living breath was inspiration.

You made a play with every virtue playing,

Made music for each sister-soul to sing,

Listened for what each herb and stone was saying,

And heard the Word of God in everything.

Mother from mother earth and Magistra,

Your song revealed God’s hidden gift to us;

The verdant fire, his holy harbinger

The greening glory of viriditas.

‘Cherish this earth that keeps us all alive’

Either we hear you, or we don’t survive.

I am still learning to be a feather on God’s breath. To float where and when He wills and only at His bidding. This feather tries too often to have energy of her own, and direct her own path/trajectory.. instead of resting on the loving breath of God and letting it all depend on Him. To let go and fly on Ruach Yahweh is my deepest joy, and my constant prayer.

A time to die

butterflies towards the light

A time to die…     

A couple of weeks ago, I said goodbye to a dear and beautiful friend, Sue. After a 5 year fight with cancer, she is now with God. She was my friend, my next door neighbour and a parishioner. I had the privilege of travelling with her through the ups and downs of her last year. The hope, the heartbreak, the fear and the peace. I have done the same journey with many friends over the years, and it doesn’t get easier. As a former palliative care nurse, in the community and hospice, I have also journeyed with many other families in a process of release and letting go. Of loving and leaving. It was a job I loved, although inevitably costly. It is possible to care for someone who is dying and hold yourself apart, with a protective distance, but that was something I could/ can never do. The end of life is ‘Holy Ground’ that requires bare, unprotected feet, in my book. It is far more abut being, than doing. And being with, means exactly that. Being. Present to, and attentive to the whole person and their needs of the moment. With. Alongside. In the dark and the light, the pain and the peace.

Part of me will always be a palliative care nurse. It is a ‘hat’ I can never take off, nor that of a midwife, an earlier profession. Both professions inform and shape the priest I am.

Sue accepted her approaching death with grace and courage. She knew the gentle arms in which she was held in life, would be the ones who would carry her Home. From home to Home. Her husband Bill, read the following beautiful poem at her Thanksgiving service.

A Song Of Living

Because I have loved life, I shall have no sorrow to die. I have sent up my gladness on wings, to be lost in the blue of the sky. I have run and leaped with the rain, I have taken the wind to my breast. My cheek like a drowsy child to the face of the earth I have pressed. Because I have loved life, I shall have no sorrow to die.

I have kissed young Love on the lips, I have heard his song to the end, I have struck my hand like a seal in the loyal hand of a friend. I have known the peace of heaven, the comfort of work done well. I have longed for death in the darkness and risen alive out of hell. Because I have loved life, I shall have no sorrow to die.

I give a share of my soul to the world, when and where my course is run. I know that another shall finish the task I must leave undone. I know that no flower, nor flint was in vain on the path I trod. As one looks on a face through a window, through life I have looked on God, Because I have loved life, I shall have no sorrow to die.

Amelia Josephine Barr

It was not one I had come across before, but I would like it to be read at mine, whenever that is. It encapsulates my own feelings about life and death succinctly.        I have loved life. ‘I have sent up my gladness on wings, to be lost in the blue of the sky.’ I have found the joy even in the darkest of places. In the minutiae, ordinary and everyday. This God-supplied underground stream always bubbles cool and clear, a constant source of refreshment that has nothing to do with circumstances. I don’t mean to imply for a moment that I don’t get tired, grumpy and unappreciative. But the stream burbles on, regardless. Calling me to joy. Calling me to thankfulness. Eucharisteo in the centre of everything. Calling me to the wonder, curiosity and spontaneity of a five year old.

For a whole variety of reasons, I have never feared death, although I have brushed Heaven’s gates myself, at least a couple of times. I feared bereavement, and when my father died suddenly in his fifties, my darkest fears were realised. The deepest of many losses that would follow down the years. It is hard to say goodbye. Somehow, in meeting that loss face on, and in the long journey of grief that followed my father’s death, the fear of bereavement evaporated. Perhaps just as well, as it has become all too familiar territory.

A family friend who died from breast cancer (at a similar age to Sue), just three short months before my father, wrote beautifully of her acceptance of the situation she found herself, and how ‘with His Peace, he graced this place of tears‘. My father had travelled closely with Guisela, through her journey with cancer. A few weeks before she died, she shared with him a verse from Psalm 139. ” All the days ordained for me were written in your book, before one of them came to be” v.16 “Isn’t that wonderful?” She marvelled to him, as he wondered just who was preparing who, (as it turned out, they were preparing each other for the start of their eternal lives in Heaven)  She found deep rest in the knowledge that her ‘times were in God’s hands’. The safest hands of all.

She expressed her feelings in this meditative poem.

Acceptance

Resignation is surrender to fate-

acceptance is surrender to God.

Resignation lies down quietly in an empty universe.

Acceptance rises up to meet the God who fills that universe with purpose and destiny.

Resignation says ‘I can’t.’

Acceptance says ‘ God can’

Resignation paralyses the life process,

acceptance releases the process for its greatest creativity.

Resignation says ‘ it is all over for me’,

acceptance asks, ‘ Now that I am here, what is next Lord? ‘

Resignation says ‘what a waste’ ,

acceptance asks ‘ In what redemptive way will you use this mess, Lord.? ‘

Resignation says ‘ I am’  

Acceptance says ‘ I belong – to you, God’

At the Thanksgiving Service for Sue’s life,

I read the following reading from Ecclesiastes :

Ecclesiastes 3:1-11 The Voice (VOICE)

 For everything that happens in life—there is a season, a right time for everything under heaven:

 A time to be born, a time to die;

a time to plant, a time to collect the harvest;

A time to kill, a time to heal;

a time to tear down, a time to build up;

A time to cry, a time to laugh;

a time to mourn, a time to dance;

A time to scatter stones, a time to pile them up;

a time for a warm embrace, a time for standing apart;

A time to search, a time to lose;

a time to keep, a time to throw out;

A time to tear apart, a time to bind together;

a time to be quiet, a time to speak up;

A time to love, a time to hate;

a time to go to war, a time to make peace.

What good comes to anyone who works so hard, all to gain a few possessions?  I have seen the kinds of tasks God has given each of us to do to keep one busy,  and I know God has made everything beautiful for its time. God has also placed in our minds a sense of eternity; we look back on the past and ponder over the future, yet we cannot understand the doings of God.

I was honoured to be given the opportunity to pay tribute to Sue at the service.

I have had the privilege of knowing Sue, (and her lovely family), for about 18 months, and lived next door to her, for just over a year. I was her friend, a back door, kitchen table visitor, who somehow bypassed any of the normal formalities of relationship, drawn in by the warmth of her smile and hug. ‘a time to embrace’

Others here are much more qualified than I to speak of Sue in years gone by, and will do. I simply want to give tribute to a brave and beautiful lady who let me travel with her on the last part of her journey.

Being brave, doesn’t mean you don’t know fear. Being brave is feeling the fear and doing it anyway. Ernest Hemmingway said, “Courage is grace under pressure” and he could have been talking about Sue. Sue met the challenges she faced with, as Judith put it, outrageous courage and grace. Another friend of hers, who I hope won’t mind me borrowing her words, put it beautifully.

“Sue faced the highs and lows of her cancer with clarity and integrity. She never shied away from the impact of her treatments and her losses and yet she managed all this with huge generosity of spirit, often with wry humour and always with a deep commitment to her family at the heart of everything.”

This is the Sue I knew, loved and travelled with. I came across a quote that said:      “Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.”    A time to love..

There is no question that Sue was a woman who was deeply loved. You all here, today is part testimony to that- and look around you at the flowers- This church was ablaze with love & light last night as Sue’s friends filled this place with fragrance & colour. There was music/wine/memories/tears & laughter.. a time to laugh, a time to cry.. Sue knew and felt the love that surrounded her as a tangible force that gave her strength, very particularly so in these last months. She would often tell me, with tears in her eyes, how much she drew from the love and care of family and friends that she experienced being poured out for her.

She also knew herself deeply loved by God. Held in his love, she was radiant with it in recent weeks as her path led closer and closer to Heaven. She was deeply at Peace, as she came to the end of her life, here on earth with us all. Wrapped in his Peace, like a soft blanket, (as she described it once) she was able to face death with courage.

“loving someone deeply gives you courage” and Sue was a woman who loved with all her heart. There was no half measures in love for Sue. She gave and gave and then gave some more. She loved Bill and Charlotte and Joey and the rest of her family with a fierce passion that gave her courage. She loved the God, who called her by name, walked at her side, & into whose arms she knew she was about to be scooped up with great tenderness.           A time to die..

On the night she died, I woke suddenly following a extraordinarily vivid dream. I dreamt I knelt at her bedside, and put my arms gently around her frail, worn out body. Her better- than-well-self woke up in my embrace and hugged me back. She was grinning from ear to ear and glowing with joy. She didn’t say a word, but her sparkling eyes said it all.

“and I know that God has made everything beautiful for its time” God certainly made this lovely lady Sue, beautiful-in her time, inside and out, & now, outside of time itself, and dancing with the angels, I expect she is more beautiful than ever.

Butterfly

( Sue loved butterflies and they were the theme of the thanksgiving service for her life.)

Beauty for ashes

I am not and alas, probably never will be, a linguist. I  do try whenever we travel, to learn a few basic words in the language of the people we are living amongst. Thank you, being the most important word. . ευχαριστώ – ef̱charistó̱
in Greek. I must have said it ten or twenty times a day, these last couple of weeks.

A regular reminder of living life with eucharisteo at the centre. Whilst re- examining the Eucharist at college, theologically and spiritually, (see ‘bringing love where love was absent’)  I stumbled upon a book that I am still being formed by.

One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp was one of those books. A book that shook me, shaped me and challenged me to my core.

A mother of 6 and a farmer’s wife, Ann writes poetically of her journey towards the spiritual secret of thankfulness. Receiving everything from God’s hands with thankfulness. The good, the bad and the ugly. She does not gloss over heartache, brokenness and pain, but learns to find ‘the treasures of darkness’ amidst it all. Her journey was not a new one to me, but the way that she expressed it, spoke to deep places in me and connected.

‘”And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them” (Luke 22:19 NIV)
I thumb, run my finger across the pages of the heavy and thick books bound. I read it slowly. In the original language, “he gave thanks” reads “eucharisteo.
I underline it on the page. Can it lay a sure foundation under a life? Offer the fullest life?
The root word of eucharisteo is charis, meaning “grace.” Jesus took the bread and saw it as grace and gave thanks. He took the bread and knew it to be gift, and gave thanks.
But there is more, and I read it. Eucharisteo, thanksgiving, envelops the Greek word for grace, charis. But it also holds its derivative, the Greek word chara, meaning “joy.” Joy. Ah … yes. I might be needing me some of that. That might be what the quest for more is all about- that which Augustine claimed, “Without exception… All try their hardest to reach the same goal, that is, joy.”  

I breathe deep, like a soujourner finally coming home. That has always been the goal of the fullest life- joy. And my life knew exactly how elusive that slippery three- letter word, joy, can be. “
… I longed for more life, for more holy joy. That is what I was struggling out of nightmares to reach, to seize. Joy. But where can I seize this holy grail of joy? I look back down to the page. What was this clue to the quest of all most important? Deep chara joy is found only at the table of the euCHARisteo- the table of thanksgiving. I sit there long… Wondering .. Is it that simple?
……eucharisteo, the Greek word with the hard meaning and harder meaning to live- this is the only way from empty to full. ‘  (From Chapter 2, a word to live..and die by of One Thousand Gifts.)

Holidays. Time apart, to mull and ponder. To breathe. To wonder.

Santorini is an island that has literally risen from its own ashes. Always an island of intense beauty (an ancient Phoenician name for it is Kalliste meaning ‘ most beautiful’), it is, nevertheless, beauty born of fire.

volcano

It has a moulten volcanic heart, that is still active. Over 3000 years ago, it was peopled by sophisticated Minoans, who lived in 2/3 storey, elaborately frescoed houses, with piped water and plumbed sewerage systems , to name but a few of their accomplishments. They prized beauty, art, and sport, and traded far and wide. Their seemingly idyllic existence (there is allot of speculation from some scientific & other communities that it may have been the fabled, lost Atlantis, as described by Plato) came to an abrupt end.

After a series of earthquakes, the volcano blew in a cataclysmic explosion that was off the end of the scale of those in recorded history. The centre of the island collapsed into the depths of the sea, leaving a caldera of 1000 ft high cliffs towering over the Aegean Sea that now fills what was once the heart of a round island.

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The land that was left, was covered metres and metres deep in volcanic ash. Unlike Pompeii, 1500 yrs later, there were no bodies left behind. The partially uncovered port city of Akrotiri, is a ghost town. Its citizens left it seems, in the nick of time, taking everything of value with them.

Akatiri
That could have been the end of the story. But it wasn’t. The Phoenicians found it, several centuries later and re- peopled it. The ‘most beautiful island’ was a very different form and shape, but it was just as beautiful.
Beauty for ashes.

Isaiah 61:2-3 NIV
 … to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. …

The island has reinvented itself many times since then, and the wind, and the fire of the volcano are still re- shaping it.

Pumice cliffs

Visiting this island has been a timely gift, ευχαριστώ – ef̱charistó̱ . A feast of beauty, that has fed my spirit. I have had necessary time away to process, in particular, the most recent ‘becoming’ – my ordination as a priest.

I trembled under the hands that ordained me. Like the tremors of an earthquake, I felt the ground beneath my spiritual feet shifting.

In my experience, when God is at work – it isn’t always comfortable!
In fact, it rarely is.
The book that I took on pre-ordination retreat with me,                                                 Spirituality and the Awakening Self, The Sacred Journey of Transformation, by David G. Benner PhD, speaks of this type of experience.

” It is possible to experience a profound reorganisation of the very foundations of our identity, values, meaning, and consciousness. It is possible for our whole perspective on life- on ourself, on others, and on God to shift dramatically.” Everything becomes fluid or molten. Scary stuff.

I have quoted the following poem before, in Light in the Cracks. It expresses this same thought, beautifully. (The author’s own explanation of the poem is included in that post)

This Room by Imtiaz Dharker

This room is breaking out
of itself, cracking through
its own walls
in search of space, light,
 empty air.The bed is lifting out of
its nightmares.
From dark corners, chairs
are rising up to crash through clouds.
 This is the time and place
to be alive:
when the daily furniture of our lives
stirs, when the improbable arrives.
Pots and pans bang together   
in celebration, clang
past the crowd of garlic, onions, spices,
fly by the ceiling fan.
No one is looking for the door.
In all this excitement I’m wondering where
I’ve left my feet, and why
my hands are outside, clapping.
 

SkyFall. The words of the theme song to the latest Bond film, sung by Adele, keep repeating themselves in my head. I can’t quite make out its meaning, or even it’s connection with the film, but it could have been written for Santorini on the day that the sky did, indeed fall.

I read about those long ago Minoans and my imagination travels with them. Feeling those first temors. Then more. Gathering up their lives, and sailing far from all that was familiar and known.

“This is the end
Hold your breath and count to ten
Feel the earth move and then
Hear my heart burst again

Let the sky fall
When it crumbles
We will stand tall
Face it all together”

A later verse connects on a deeper level, yet.

“Where you go, I go
What you see, I see
I know I’d never be me
Without the security
Of your loving arms
Keeping me from harm
Put your hand in my hand
And we’ll stand”

Shifting paradigms. Moving further into the unknown, on this journey of becoming.             I may not know where I am headed or have any idea of the shape God is forming me into, but I know that I am surrounded by His love. That he stands with me, and will help me face whatever that process of transformation involves.

Eucharisteo. Gift. Grace. Thanksgiving, even when the sky falls.

Becoming a priest allows you the immense privilege of presiding at the Eucharist.                 The heart and centre of faith and encounter.

A mystery, about which the more I know, the less I know.
The book I took on holiday with me is called Take this Bread: A radical Conversion, by Sara Miles
I think I thought it would be an easy read.                                                                                      God, however, had other ideas. Another of those books. (do you ever wish God would let up on you?)

Back to the meaning of eucharisteo. Becoming broken bread, and poured out wine.

bread and wine

I will have to let God continue his challenges to me with that one, and perhaps blog further about it, when the dust settles…

In the meantime you might want to read any of the three books I have mentioned, yourself. If you dare.

They come with an earthquake warning.

Called by name

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Somewhere, under those very many, outstretched hands, is me.

It is a picture of the moment of my ordination as a priest in the Anglican Church. Under those hands, I was trembling like a leaf. A precious, holy moment, that I will never forget for the rest of my life. It still makes me tremble to look at the photo and remember. I hope it always does.

The next day, I was given another awe-filled, humbling privilege. I presided at the Eucharist for the very first time in the church in which I serve. It was an immensely moving occasion. I had been given leave to put the liturgy, readings and music together, and friends and family all took part. My husband, who is a Reader, preached. His words last Sunday morning, are what follows.

eucharist

“The gifts he gives are that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors, some teachers, (why?) to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” Ephesians 4:11

A few years ago the driving test had an additional part added to the theory test, referred to as hazard perception, the skill to look ahead and see what might happen in order to take avoiding action…

I think I may fail this test.
A few years ago now, I married a gorgeous nurse, who became a midwife, and then a mother, and then a palliative care nurse, but (as we have sometimes joked with each other,) we certainly didn’t see this one coming all those years ago!

And yet, it has always been the desire of both of us, to serve God in whatever way He wanted us to do. It can be quite scary to abandon ourselves completely to God’s will.

Yesterday Ruth reached a mile stone on the journey. A most significant moment in time- the end of a long journey, the fulfilment of a calling, but just the beginning of another journey, whose route and course has yet to be revealed. However, we do know that He who has called, is faithful and true, and will see this through to completion.

Today we celebrate with her, as she for the first time, stands as God’s representative to consecrate bread and wine into Holy Gifts of Christ’s body and blood, and shares these spiritual gifts with us. She will then stand as his representative in calling God’s blessing onto us.

Ruth choose the readings today very carefully, as they reflect her journey, and as you can see there is a clear link and theme between them.

Jeremiah 1: 4-9

Jeremiah’s Call and Commission

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,

‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’

Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.’ But the Lord said to me,

‘Do not say, “I am only a boy”;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the Lord.’

Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me,

‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.

Psalm 139 : 13-18

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
    Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
    My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
    intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
    all the days that were formed for me,
    when none of them as yet existed.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
    I come to the end—I am still with you.
Ephesians 4: 11-16

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
Mark 9: 33-37

Who Is the Greatest?

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’

But as we look at these more closely, I want us all to realise and take on board that what I am about to say applies to us all. Some have been called to the priesthood, some to a whole variety of other things. It is important for each of us to seek and know, that we are fulfilling that to which we have been called, as ALL HAVE BEEN CALLED.

The first two readings could be summarised in the following words;
known, formed, called, consecrated, (set apart), prepared, anointed (equipped).

Ruth has shared with me the sense she has of knowing this was what she was meant to be. God has known this, and of course known her, from before she came into being. Her life to this point has been a time of preparation, walking along a prepared path, right and fulfilling , but points on a road, and not the destination.

path-2

Like any journey, some bits are easy going and some are very tough, and we want to give up, we get major set backs, we doubt, we want to turn back to safety and security.
What is important for us to know, is that this journey for any of us is not unaccompanied. God is with us, beside us and like that poem ‘Footsteps,’ sometimes we are carried, but don’t know it.

The calling of Jeremiah, also shows us how none of us can do anything without the anointing and empowering of God the Holy Spirit, any of us who preach will tell you that almost every time we get up to preach we ask
“What am I doing? Who am I, to be standing before God’s people and preaching?

And the answer is always very clear.
“Because I have called you and anointed you to preach my words, I have put my words in your mouth”

The problem of calling is that we all have choice. we can choose to accept that calling, but of course we can say also say no. The ‘no’ maybe for all sorts of reasons- we only need to look at Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah to name but three, who wriggled and wrestled said “I can’t do that, sent someone else”
There can be a host of reasons why any of us may turn away from our true calling and purpose.

Lets go back to preparation, what I referred to previously as ‘the journey’. This can be long, hard and frustrating. I promised to not to say how old Ruth is, but the journey has been..shall we say, a while…
Was the time before this, wasted? Absolutely not. It was all part of preparation and all part of the priest that is now with us.
I was struck forcibly by the screamingly obvious point, that Jesus, the Son of God waited for thirty years before his ministry started.

What was going on in his life during those years? We know very little, other than a few glimpses- a twelve year old in the temple, for example, but we can be sure he was being prepared for the right time, of what was to be a very short ministry. Clergy often say how brief a curacy is, ‘what can you do in three years?’
Well, Jesus did quite a lot!
Known….formed…..set apart(consecrated)….called(choice)……prepared…..anointed (equipped)

Then comes two more highly significant points. The disciples were arguing about who was the greatest.. you know the sort of thing.. “Is it the Rector, or the Archdeacon or ..perhaps the Bishop? “

Jesus makes this profound statement, which was the foundation of the Kingdom, an upside down principle of power and authority.

Whoever wants to be first, must be last of all, and the servant of all.
The servant King who was the Son of God, yet  he washed his disciples feet, the job of the lowliest servant.

The call to service in God’s kingdom must surely be that of being the servant of all.    The greatest is the least.

baby hand

To come back to where I started, in the reading from Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus…

As a doctor I have always loved Paul’s illustration of the body. We all, as individuals makes up the body of Christ, and like the human body all the different bits have different functions, but all are important for the health and function of the body.

I have always had a little chuckle at the arrogance of doctors, I was taught at medical school that the tonsils had no function, along with adenoids and appendixes for that matter, yet we now know they serve an invaluable role in teaching the immune systems to respond to a raft of infections, and the body, whilst it can function without them, is not quite as good as it was with them.

I have realised every bit of the human body is important, however small and seemingly insignificant, and if we don’t know what it does, it’s only because we haven’t found out yet. So it is with the church.

Every bit of the body has a function and purpose, and plays a part in the whole, and it is no good trying to be a different part of the body. Imagine if the ears suddenly thought ‘we would like to be toes’. We would have a lot of trouble walking, let alone trying to hear when we had shoes and socks on!

So, God has given that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors, some teachers. This list is,of course, for illustration and is not exhaustive.

As we celebrate Ruth reaching this fulfilment of calling, and the beginning of the next part of the journey, let us all ask ourselves and ask God:

For what purpose have I been known, formed, set apart, called, prepared and equipped? And where on that journey am I ? Do I have no idea why I have been formed? Do I think so little of myself that I can’t see God has any purpose for me?
Have I been called, but not responded?

What I am sure of, is all have been called, not all have responded, and all of us are still a ‘work in progress’ .

Are we ready to seek God, for our calling? Are we ready to be called off the road we are on, onto a completely different one? Or are we ready to stay on the road we are on, even if we don’t want to be on it?

The body has many parts, some seem to be more prominent and important than others but ALL parts are essential for health and proper function of the body of Christ.

As Paul says, this calling is to equip the saints for the work of ministry for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.

Today we celebrate Ruth’s journey from beginning to now, watched over throughout by her (and our) loving Heavenly Father. We commit her to God, continuing that journey with her, knowing He is faithful and true.

Let us also pause and consider our own journeys and our own calling, and listen together as a body, the body of Christ.

‘It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are, the privilege of a lifetime is being who you really are.’ E.E. Cummings

I pray that our prayer today would be;

Lord here I am, wholly available to you. Take me and use me as you choose, for your purpose and for building up your kingdom, as I find and function in my place as a part of the whole body.
Let me always be a servant of all.