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 Assistant to the Rural Dean in a rural Anglican Deanery.

Presence

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The heat shimmered and danced on the horizon.

Abraham closed his eyes to its glare, and let the deep silence of the desert enfold him. The soft sand in the shadow of his tent cradled his bones in its warmth, allowing him to sit. Others slumbered in the heat of the day, but despite his years, Abraham resisted the soporific lure. In the stillness he was intently present, the practice of decades.        Waiting, watching.

 

The day was ordinary, like the one before, and the ones before that. Fourteen long years had passed since God had promised to answer the deepest desire of his heart.

A son.

He only wanted a son, flesh of their flesh, bone of their bone, but God had promised him descendants like the panoply of stars above his head, the sand beneath his feet.

 

The years rolled by, and his body and spirit wilted in the waiting.

God said.

Abraham had held the promise in his heart. Turning it over, like a well worn stone.

Three months previously God had spoken again into the depths of his longing.

Underlined the promise with a change of names, of identity. Writing the H of the name of God into his and hers. A laughable promise of sons, of nations, of kings.

The covenant seared into the tenderness of heart and flesh.

 

The silence was fathomless.

 

The faintest breath of wind on his face. An infinitesimal change in the quality of the light. A feather touch of intuition across his skin. Abraham opened his eyes and lifted his gaze. Three silhouettes of strangers splintered the glare. His heart knew, even as his legs pulled him to his feet faster than they had for 30 years. He was running, heart pounding, awe pulsing through his veins.

 

Down. On his face before them. The only possible posture of greeting. Instinctive, and nstant as he stopped before the long reach of their shadow.

He daren’t look up.

Saw only dry and dusty feet. Still walking. Appearing to be going further.

Passing by.

Willing them to stay, heart in his mouth, he gestured to the deep shade of the ancient Terebinth Trees. Green-leaved even in the sapping drought, their deep roots reaching for artesian springs.

The words tumbled out, urgent, pleading.

 

Adoni, If I have found grace in your sight, please stay awhile. Rest yourselves against the tree and I will have water brought to wash your feet. Bread to sustain and refresh you and then I will not detain you further since you have come and honoured me with your Presence.”

 

He looked at his hands, the ground, anywhere but up. The three sets of feet were still. It could only have been moments, but it felt like hours. Hope thrumming in his ears as he waited,  Would God receive his hospitality?

The reply was gentle, grace-filled.

 

“Go and do as you have promised”

 

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Andrei Rublev Trinity /Hospitality of Abraham 

Walking in the dark

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Advent. Time of transition and threshold. Hushed and holy time of waiting. On this Advent cusp last year, Diana a friend and my church warden, slipped peacefully to heaven after a long illness. She and I had walked much of it together, particularly in her last months. I had to preach on Gaudette Sunday after her funeral, on Joy and how we get there having just buried someone  greatly loved. You can read that here.

Last week another parishioner died, but this time very suddenly and with no warning, leaving family and parish reeling with shock.

Today was my last service in the community I have loved and served for three and half years. I preached today, having to hold a community once again in grief.  I titled it

Walking in the dark

 I ought to be used to walking in the dark by now. I do it enough. I regularly tramp the roads, paths & fields around here in the dark. Usually, in the deepest darkness just before dawn, with my dogs for company. Sometimes there is a tiny twinkle of starlight to see by. Every other sense is heightened as you walk by feel, rather than knowing where you are putting your feet.

I ought to be used to walking in the darkness of an unknown future. I have done that rather a lot over the course of my life, in various ways. Stepping out of all that was familiar, not knowing where the way would lead.     There is a word that best describes these times. Liminal space.

Liminial simply means threshold. The doorway between one way of being & another. Imagine yourself in a doorway looking out – the light is behind you –from the room where all is familiar & recognisable, but all you can see ahead is dark & unknown. Sometimes we are aware a threshold is coming, & see it from afar- other times the world turns upside down in a minute, & we find ourselves on a threshold we never ever imagined or wanted.

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Today we are all standing on the threshold of a new year. A new church year – because the church’s calendar is different to the one used by the world. It always begins on Advent Sunday. Rather than parties & fireworks – Advent begins a time of waiting & preparation towards Christmas, on a much quieter, sombre note.

The first Christmas of world war II, King George the VI faced down his own fears of his stammer to give a radio broadcast to nation & commonwealth in the turmoil & disorientation of war. As he looked into the fear-filled uncertainties & darkness of the year about to start,

he quoted a poem by Minnie Louise Haskings

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year
‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’                                                        And he replied,
‘Go into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

That poem is as relevant to each of us at the start of this new church year, & into 2016 as it unfolds, as it was to those who heard it on their crackly wireless sets in 1939. None of us knows what it may hold, internationally in our war-torn world, nationally or personally. As I will explain more fully at the end of the service, I am leaving here with no fixed future. I don’t know at this point, where God will lead me. No doubt each of us in this building, come to this threshold of a new year with uncertainties of one sort or another.

We heard the choir sing earlier the Psalm set for today, Advent Sunday – Psalm 25. The writer beset by troubles & uncertainties on every side, crying out to God to show him the way through.

“Make me to know your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths… for you are the God of our salvation, for you I have hoped all the day long”

Just before the Gospel, which painted a dramatic picture of a world in fear & turmoil, we sang a hymn echoing the Psalm writer’s thoughts. (Click on the words below to hear it sung by David Archuleta )

Be still my soul; your God will undertake to guide the future as he has the past. Your hope, your confidence, let nothing shake – all now mysterious shall be clear at last. Be still my soul; the tempests still obey his voice who ruled them once on Galilee.

The Advent candle of Hope we lit at the start of this service is a symbol of God’s faithfulness to us. His promise to take our hands, & walk beside us in the dark.

The faithfulness on which the Psalmist knew he could rely.

To you O Lord I lift up my soul; O my God, in you I trust. 

Trusting the trustworthy. Waiting, watching & walking in the dark, knowing that God walks at our side. Hope that shines in our hearts & does not disappoint us.

We prayed together as we lit that first Advent Candle.

God of Hope, you light our path. When we feel drained, defeated, & downtrodden, you tend to our souls. When our bodies & hearts are chilled by personal winters, you warm us by your Spirit’s fire. As we begin this time of Advent waiting, instil in us a hope that carries us through troubled times, as we anticipate the new heaven & new earth that is ever manifesting in our world. It is in the name of the One for whom we wait & in whom we hope that we pray.

As we stand at the Advent Door, what keeps you from hoping?                 What things are you carrying that weigh you down & slow your steps?     We may not see Him in the darkness, but God stands in our deepest shadows hands outstretched, to lead us forward. To carry all that wearies us. He waits patiently for us to reach out & put our hand in His.

The apostle Paul wrote a lot of letters to a lot of churches. People he had loved, cherished & walked along side. This letter to the Thessalonians is believed to be the first one that he wrote.

AD51 – within 20 years of Jesus death & resurrection, to a very early church.

Another word that is often used to describe Advent is LONGING.          Longing as we wait in the darkness for the coming of the Light. Paul writes with a bursting heart – to this small struggling congregation he loves so dearly. He is longing to see them again. He is longing for them to sink their roots deeply into God’s Love & to grow tall & strong – flourishing & sharing that love with each other & the world around them.

Let me read it to you again in a slightly different version.

1 Thessalonians 3: 9-13 (NLV)

How can we thank God enough for you and for the joy and delight you have given us in our praying for you? 10 For night and day we pray on and on for you, asking God to let us see you again, & for Him to fill up any little cracks there may yet be in your faith.

 11 May God our Father and our Lord Jesus bring us to you very soon. 12 And may the Lord make your love for one another and for all people grow and overflow, just as our love for you overflows. 13 May he, as a result, make your hearts strong, blameless, and holy as you stand before God our Father when our Lord Jesus comes again with all his holy people. Amen.

This Advent Sunday, at the threshold of a new year, the threshold of a new journey stretching out ahead of us- I could not ask for a more appropriate Epistle. ( I didn’t choose it – it is simply the one set in the lectionary for today) I could not ask for a more appropriate prayer of thanks & blessing – written by a heart brimful of love & longing. It echoes the feelings in my own heart as I stand here looking out at you all. How I thank God for each of you! How you will continue to be in my prayers as my journey peels off from yours. It has been a privilege to serve & travel with you for these three & half years. Paul’s prayer & longing for the Thessalonians is mine for each of you.

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As we step out into the darkness & go our separate ways – I don’t know where those paths will lead. But I do know this. That the hand that holds mine, is one that I can trust. I also know that His hand holds each of yours & that nail pierced feet walk at our side.

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Deep Roots

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Deep Roots ..

A couple of months ago, we had an excellent Diocesan conference, with deeply challenging Key Note speeches. They have each continued to speak to me, but one in particular, God has drawn me back and back to.
Oak trees flourishing in Winter given by  The Rt Revd Robert Atwell, Bishop of Exeter, who spent many years as a monk.

Psalm 92 

12 The righteous flourish like the palm tree,
and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
13 They are planted in the house of the Lord;
they flourish in the courts of our God.
14 In old age they still produce fruit;
they are always green and full of sap,
15 showing that the Lord is upright;
he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.

“How do we stay evergreen?

How do we remain open to new ideas
how do we remain fruitful and full of sap?
How do we retain our confidence and not locked into a survival mode?
What are our ‘Roots of Joy?’ ”

These were some of the questions he put to us all.

The week following the conference, I found this at a craft fair in York, carved in oak. It seemed to sum up the whole talk in a visual image.

deep Roots

Deep roots. The height and health of the branches are directly related to the depth and strength of the roots.

Sinking our roots deep into Joy. Deep into God, and reaching up and out to the world.
Next to come my way by ‘Godincidence’ was this beautiful piece of artwork  called  Mother Root by fellow priest, artist and author & blogger Jan Richardson. ( Click on the picture to go to her website and purchase it for yourself/see her other work.)

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I found much richness in its imagery.

Flourishing in sunshine and shadow, light and dark.

Centred, abiding in the Vine/tree ..                      and much much more.
This weekend I spent a couple of days on retreat at  Launde Abbey a centuries old place of prayer set in a hidden bowl of a valley. A beautiful spot, it has so many memories attached. I have been coming here since the early ’80’s when it was a freezing, un-refurbished, draughty ancient dwelling  serving up  huge quantities of hearty food to all conference guests/those on retreat, three times a day. It has now been completely refurbished, and is more akin to a high quality hotel.   A place of pause, of reflection, of prayer.

Here, I spent my pre-ordination retreats, Deacon and Priest. Very significant moments.
I came this weekend listening for a still small voice amidst the cacophony of competing noise/calls on and in my life. Walking is the best way I find to do this. I pulled on my welllies and  I spent most of both days outside in the brisk winter wind, tramping the muddy paths and fields. My first walk took me up to the brim of the ‘bowl’ to a large oak tree that had caught my attention. I stood with my feet between its roots, my back against its firm trunk.

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The words that came instantly were

in the middle of something Big

Rooted, grounded, God covering my back, and my shadow lost in His.

I didn’t see it at the time, but a couple of people pointed out that it looked like a path-

stretching out into the distance..

Paths were a natural theme of my retreat as I contemplate and pray about where God would lead me next…

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Wherever He takes me me, whatever this year holds , I am no clearer.
No signs in the sky. (Does He ever do that?)

Trees and paths aplenty. Reminders that God has my back, and that I need to sink my roots ever deeper into His Joy.

Bishop Robert  speaking of the indispensable nature of prayer to growth in all dimensions..personal and church quoted RS Thomas poem, called The Prayer.

[Reading 1: ‘The Prayer’ written by R S Thomas. Available in the book, The Collected Poems ’45 – 90. Published by J.M. Dent]

The Prayer
He kneeled down

dismissing his orisons

as inappropriate; one by one

they came to his lips and were swallowed

but without bile.

He fell back

on an old prayer: Teach me to know

what to pray for. He

listened; after the weather of

his asking, no still, small

voice, only the parade

of ghosts, casualties

of his past intercessions. He

Held out his hands, cupped

as though to receive blood, leaking

from life’s side. They

remained dry, as his mouth

did. But the prayer formed:

Deliver me from the long drought

of the mind. Let leaves

from the deciduous Cross

fall on us, washing

us clean, turning our autumn

to gold by the affluence of their fountain.

Turning to gold.. becoming all flame. . ‘you can if you will, become all flame’

+Robert reminded us that true prayer can at times, be like a fire out of control. The experience can be profoundly disturbing.

He told the story of Abba Lot ..

The following is taken from http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/holyfathers/if_you_would_you_could_become_all_flame

The subject of this particular saying is a certain Abba Lot, another great Father of the Desert, about whom a number of sayings are also collected—but here we see Abba Lot approaching Abba Joseph from saying number seven:
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I say my Little Office. I fast a little. I pray. I meditate. I live in peace and as far as I can. I purify my thoughts. What else am I to do?”
Now I must interrupt the reading here to make a little note. The saying makes no indication that Abba Lot is incorrect, nor that he is despondent or in error. He, presumably, truly does pray. He truly does fast. He truly does meditate and keep the Office he has been given. He is not presented as someone who is whinging or whining, but someone who is accurately and honestly giving an account of the spiritual life as he is keeping it. The difficulty, the problem is not in what he says, but in his belief that this is the extent of such a life.
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“What else,” Abba Lot says, “can I do?”

Then the old man stood up, stretched his hands towards heaven and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire, and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”

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The ultimate response to Abba Lot’s query is not to suggest other ways in which the spiritual life can be lived, other practices, other means. It is not, in fact, to say anything at all.
But it is for the elder monastic to stand in the presence of the younger, to reach his hands towards Heaven and to be visibly transfigured by the light of God. The life in Christ is a life permeated by the power and energy of the Holy Spirit. Our freedom enables this life, and without our freedom—the freedom to follow Christ, rather than our own will, rather than our own sin—without this freedom, the life struggles and falters from its beginning. ”

+Robert closed with some very wise advice from another Desert Father, St Antony the Great.

Speaking of the secret to the spiritual life contained in a nugget. “I fall down, and I get up

“I fall down and I get up.”  .. there is much to make us fall, push us over, or knock the wind out of us, but we get up, (and keep getting up) and travel on with God, wherever He leads.

Sunday’s retreat was led on the theme of Psalm 23 – perfectly illustrated by the pastoral setting of Launde Abbey. The Lord is my Shepherd. He will lead me down all the twists and turns, joys and challenges of this year and all the rest.

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Where to from here? (Home by another way)

The Christmas story can seem, or become a very cozy one. We associate it with children and nativity plays with wonky halos and baby dolls. The Christmas card industry has added to the soft focused glow, a thousand fold.

Then in comes Matthew with a very different, mysterious, disturbing story. Nothing about it is comfortable or cozy , and it leaves a trail of questions in its wake….

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Who were these wise men? Why did they leave their homes to travel so far on so little information? What did they think they would find at the end of their journey? What was it about the young child Jesus that brought them to their knees?

We don’t know a great deal about them, but it seems they weren’t worried by mysteries they didn’t have all the answers to. They were Seekers, following an unusual star, following their dreams and an inner call they probably couldn’t explain.  Whatever else they had , they had a huge capacity for wonder.

Wonder is something every child is born with, and somehow as we grow up and become more worldly wise, we use the gift less and less, leaving it behind like a toy we don’t need anymore in our grown up world. And yet wonder is a profound threshold to experiencing God. It opens our soul to hearing His voice, feeling His touch and sensing his Presence. We suddenly sense we are standing on Holy Ground and can exclaim like Jacob, waking up from his dream of a stairway to heaven. ” Surely God is in this place and I knew it not! ” The ordinary becomes transformed as we see things in a new light.

Wonder

What makes room for wonder in your life?

What dreams have you had in the past that you may now have tidied away to a safe cupboard ?

Have you ever thought you heard God call you to something…but then thought maybe you just made it up ? Or it was just foolishness .. But somehow if you listen very carefully there is  still the faintest of whispers?

Dare you listen again?

The wise men challenge us afresh each year with their simple faith as they set out with a pocketful of dreams, and only the very vaguest idea where they were going.

Where is God calling us to go with Him in this New Year that stretches ahead of us?

What journeys would He have us travel with Him?

Are we willing to leave to leave our familiar, inherited boundaries, to find God in ways and places we did not expect?

The wise men could have stayed star gazers, observing the unusual star and studying its progress from the comfort of their own homes, palaces and borders. It could have been simply an interesting intellectual exercise for them.  That would have been the sensible thing for them to do. But they listened with their hearts and knowledgeable as they were, they didn’t let their heads get in the way. They got involved. Upped sticks and set out eager to see for themselves, fuelled by a desire to worship even though they weren’t sure who they were going to find. They didn’t have God sewn up in a neat and tidy box. Surprise was part of the deal. Their journey had some very unexpected twists, and yet they kept following.

Jesus, when they found him, may not have been the just-born child in the manger- he may have been anything up to two years old ~ but I hardly think a peasant baby or toddler was what they were anticipating , or to whom they  thought they would present their gifts. (They had headed straight to Herod’s palace in Jerusalem, first off, looking for a King.)

Nevertheless their response isn’t cautious or skeptical – it is spontaneous and childlike. They were overjoyed. Crown of the head to the tip of the toes sort of joy. The Greek word is apparently the same as that used for lambs skipping and bounding.

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Awe-filled, they simply fall to their knees, casting dignity and status aside they bow before him and worship. Grown ups don’t do that. Grown ups of riper years certainly don’t do that.  But these were grown ups who had never grown up. Never lost their curiosity or wonder, and willingness to take risks. They knew that growing old was inevitable, but also that growing up was optional.

They offered him the best they had. Costly gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Gold- perhaps signifying his Kingship, Frankincense – the precious & costly oil associated with priesthood and worship. It is the main component of all incense used in churches down the centuries and in the temple mentioned throughout the Bible..        They also offered Myrrh – another costly essential oil, used for healing and for anointing the dead, perhaps pointing towards his death certainly the only time he received his title, King of the Jews was when he was hanging half dead on a cross, wearing his crown of thorns- the only crown this world ever gave him.)

They came to worship– and the literal translation of that word means ‘come forward to kiss. That is what we do when we offer God our worship – in prayer and in the service of our lives – we ‘come forward to kiss’ him.

coming forward to kiss

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We worship God in church of course, but the word is SO much bigger than that. We worship with our lives as we give our whole selves to Him.

Romans 12 v, 1 says this : “So here is what I want you to do, God helping you. Take your everyday, ordinary life- your sleeping, eating, going to work, and walking around life- and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him” (Message)

The Magi gave him costly gifts, and God asks us to give him our whole lives as worship to Him- allowing Him into all of it- not just the Sunday part. He asks for the ordinary – in order to turn our water into wine – with his grace and power. He wants to transform us into the new wine of His Kingdom poured out for others, just as he poured out himself for us.

And so we come full circle. The Christmas story isn’t cozy. It isn’t the comfortable, health and safety approved scenes we get on all lot of our cards. No, it is a  tale of mystery and disturbing, unanswered questions. But it  definitely IS a place for children – children of all ages, wide eyed with wonder.

Beckoning God-

Who called the rich to travel towards poverty,

The wise to embrace your foolishness,

The powerful to know their own frailty;

Who gave to strangers a sense of homecoming in an alien land

And to star gazers true light and vision as they bowed to earth-

We lay ourselves open to your signs for us.

Stir up in us a holy wonder. A longing and a listening ear to hear your faintest whisper.

Open our minds to your mysteries and disturb us afresh from our comfortable certainties about ourselves and about you.

Give us the hearts of a child and help us to discover you in places we hadn’t thought of looking before.

Rise within us like a star

And make us restless

Till we journey forth

To seek our rest in you.

The following is an Epiphany Hymn, written by the Revd Canon Sue Wallace, to the tune of I vow to thee my country. 

Epiphany

O Christ, You came from Heaven to Earth,

Infinity made small

Revealing Heaven’s surprising plans,

You show God’s face to all.

We offer You our gold,

(That is we crown You as our king).

The incense of our worship, a fragrant offering.

And with myrrh we’ll touch the wounded ones

With precious healing balm

Be your eyes and ears and healing hands

To comfort those who mourn.

We have looked for love and seen its face,

Within a loveless world,

And to those who hope for happiness

A sign has been revealed

For we saw Your star while searching,

And we found You in our lives

And Your legend took on flesh,

Your reality arrives.

Even now You guide the travellers,

Through dangerous dark lands.

Till the day we reach our Heavenly home

Held safe within Your hands.

Christ You dived into our water

and you made our water pure

And You lived within our tangled lives

and made them so much more

For the hand of God has touched us,

Bringing Christ into this place

And there’s hope for each culture,

Each nation, every race

And the baby grows and shows us

The true face of the Divine

For we simply lived on water

Yet you turned it into wine.

You can listen to her sing it here.

http://www.soundclick.com/player/V2/mp3player.swf

Bearers of Light

Mary didn’t feature much in my evangelical upbringing. She was there, but a two dimensional figure who didn’t impact me. I knew nothing of the controversies that surrounded her in the larger world of the church, and down the centuries.

During my adult years my spiritual journey has led me to travel with Mary more and more. She has so much to teach me. Her Yes to God, changing her life forever and that of the world. Her life after that, as a mother, watching her son grow up, and pondering.. turning all these things over in her heart. As a mother standing at the foot of the cross, watching in agony, the way any mother feels their child’s pain almost more than they do. After the resurrection. I have mused in sermons about the possibility of that undocumented meeting. ‘Mother and Son reunion’, I can’t believe it didn’t happen. Almost certainly unwitnessed by anyone else. We will never know this side of Heaven, but prayerful meditative imagination is a powerful way of experiencing the Word.

I am in the habit of scribbling poems in my Christmas cards (although this has become a much greater challenge amidst the pressures of ordained ministry). I was delighted to discover that a much better poet than I, also started that way. U.A. Fanthorpe.( Look her up, she is well worth discovering.) I have blogged some of my poems (click on the titles for the links to those posts)   I have collected some of the more recent ones, to put together in one post, as I prepare to write a sermon for Advent 4 – on Luke 1: 26-38 Gabriel’s visitation to Mary. Pulling together some of the facets of Mary’s life and particularly THAT moment, which have paralleled my own call to ordination, my experience as a former midwife, and my own musings about reputation and the painful process of letting go of even that.

I will post them in chronological order of Mary’s life, rather than the timing of writing them.

The following was written the first Christmas at Theological college, as I was struck ever deeper by how I could ‘bear the weight of this Light’ that God had asked me to carry in calling me to ordination.

Aftermath of Angels

Who are you and who am I

that you should choose me?

Who am I now

that I have chosen

to say yes?

How can I bear the weight

of this light,

carry the child of your heart;

hold He who is Love

within the limits of my own?

Face down, I lay my head

upon the earth

hide me under the shadow

of your wing.

As you form Him in me,

shape me within your hands.

Knit my soul

to the fabric of your being,

Cradle us both

In your enfolding

and bring us to birth

encircled by grace

Surrender. Trust. Saying Yes. My journey towards ordination has been one of struggle. I put up a gargantuan fight when God started to ask me to consider this possibility. (Moses had nothing on my protestations) Her Yes was instantaneous. I now fully embrace my calling, but it was not always so. This poem reflects this stage of my journey.

She said Yes-

but suppose the answer had been NO?

and Heaven held its breath

as in that startled moment

a teenage lass

looked an angel in the face.

Cascades of questions

in tug of terror and of trust

as wide eyed in wonder

it dawned on her

the choice was hers

and hers alone.

yet the choice was not to choose

to surrender choice itself

taking the gift

God gives with life and breath,

to lay it down.

her Yes was all that she could give

took all she had

To hold the angel’s eye.

Let it be

to me as you have said’

and Heaven’s gate swung wide..

Mary’s Yes risked everything. Her engagement, her relationship with her family, her life. She could have been stoned for adultery. How do you begin to explain? How do you hold on to your self esteem and integrity, when you know the truth, but the world does not see it? I have had my own journey with having my reputation smeared and having to keep silent, knowing that God knew the truth, and that was in the end, all that matters. We waste so much precious energy holding onto our reputations when it can, like health or wealth or dear ones, be taken from you in a moment. Letting God guard it for you, is a much better way, that Mary modelled, and I am still in the learning. 

Scandal.

slip of a brown skinned girl

almost a child herself,

with some story about angels ( as if!)

and so the offensive smell of scandal

clung like dust to Mary’s skin.

You were an outcast

from the start.

A wrinkled nose and upturned sneer

barely hid behind hard hands.

Your birth, no less, a squalid mess

a foetid outhouse slum

the scrapings of a nowhere town.

What father this , who watches on-

while child of his, flees in the dark

a refugee from hate?

A Father whose love outstripped

the twisting coils of evil’s curse

and let his Son grow on

into the scandal of a cross.

Written from my experiences as a midwife and a mother, the following tries to explore the wonder and miracle of any birth, and the mind bending miracle of this particular one. Further thoughts on this, and Mary’s life can be found in my post Bringing Love where Love is absent

Upside Down Miracles

 

Exhausted, yet wide awake,

my body spent, yet every nerve alive.

we one have become Two.

He who lately stirred in me, moved

more than limbs, whose spirit sang

with mine, filling my soul with wordless awe:

now like a lamb, lies in the straw.

God’s perfect lamb…that shepherds knelt to see.

my tiny lamb…so vulnerable

that I would hide him from the fears that lurk, and

what the future may require..

Who then is he, whose soft breath on my neck

nuzzles me close, and with his

fingers in mine, I wonder with a kiss

just who is holding who?

This one isn’t specifically about Mary, but follows the theme of wonder, and the things she carried in her heart, as he grew up.

Incarnation

With the first cry of birth

A gasp of foetid stable air,

The Mighty Godhead came to earth

Likes naked in a hovel bare.

Fragile and helpless, he-

Whose incandescence fused the stars.

The humble shepherds kneel to see

Eternity behind Life’s bars.

No throne, no royal crown

Ahead for this celestial king.

To wood and nails he is come down,

Earth’s toil and tears his lot would bring.

A crib, a child, a cross,

Heaven’s mysteries are revealed;

Our gain would mean the Father’s loss,

By his wounds, our world is healed.

Written the Christmas of my second year of Theological college, the following emerged from a deep journey of discovery into the mysteries of the Eucharist. During that exploration I accidentally stumbled upon the notion of the priesthood of Mary, theotokos, the Christ-Bearer, something that wiser folk than I have written much upon, but which was so obvious once I had seen it. More of this can be found in my eponymous blog post, Holy Gifts. Again I am echoing Mary’s life with my own calling as a priest.

Holy Gifts

 

Taken

Chosen

A life lifted from obscurity

Held in hands that hefted galaxies

Hallowed by an ask

To sustain

The Word

 

Blessed

Given grace

To bear the weight of favour

Daughter of Eve,

Giving God a thankful heart

By holding His, within

Her own

 

Broken

Lanced by sword

That pierced Father, Spirit, Son.

Blood of her blood

Poured out for those

That clamoured for

His death.

 

Given

Her whole life

Offered on the altar

Of surrender

A readiness to be God’s Yes

Shared out to hungry hands

To feed a world

With grace

The following poem was written one Christmas when God was asking me to Go. To leave all that I had known and loved, within the church family of which I had been a part for most of my adult life. To step out into the dark. At the time it felt like a deep tearing. Heartbreaking. Looking back, God’s grace transformed that heartbreak into so much blessing, learning and growth. Every time He calls me once again to step out, I remind myself that ‘He who calls you is faithful’ and that His nail pierced feet tread at my side.

Sent

God said GO and He went

from all knowing to unknown

from unbounded horizons

to the confines of a womb.

God said GO and she went

from innocent obscurity to scandal’s

harshest stare. God said GO

and she went- full bellied from all

she knew and loved, to weary road,

that knew no place of welcome or of rest.

God said GO and they went

awed by angels, hearts racing their feet

towards the promise of a child.

God said GO and they went

they knew not where, but the call was all

their hearts could hear, and drew them on

when way was hard, and path unclear.

Bringing the best they had

they came to follow and to kneel.

God said GO and they went

out in the dark in what they stood,

exiles of a jealous king.

God says GO and will you ask

‘How far?’ Or know the route you tread?

Listen for the Child’s cry

to wake your heart to go

but travel with your feet unshod

for the Way is holy ground.

This morning, I discovered a beautiful, fresh angle on Mary’s encounter with Gabriel, and I could not finish this post without including the poem and the  link to the blog in which it can be found. Written by Jan Richardson on her blog The Advent Door.

What must it have been like for the archangel who witnessed Mary’s yes?

Gabriel’s Annunciation

For a moment
I hesitated
on the threshold.
For the space
of a breath
I paused,
unwilling to disturb
her last ordinary moment,
knowing that the next step
would cleave her life:
that this day
would slice her story
in two,
dividing all the days before
from all the ones
to come.

The artists would later
depict the scene:
Mary dazzled
by the archangel,
her head bowed
in humble assent,
awed by the messenger
who condescended
to leave paradise
to bestow such an honor
upon a woman, and mortal.

Yet I tell you
it was I who was dazzled,
I who found myself agape
when I came upon her—
reading, at the loom, in the kitchen,
I cannot now recall;
only that the woman before me—
blessed and full of grace
long before I called her so—
shimmered with how completely
she inhabited herself,
inhabited the space around her,
inhabited the moment
that hung between us.

I wanted to save her
from what I had been sent
to say.

Yet when the time came,
when I had stammered
the invitation
(history would not record
the sweat on my brow,
the pounding of my heart;
would not note
that I said
Do not be afraid
to myself as much as
to her)
it was she
who saved me—
her first deliverance—
her Let it be
not just declaration
to the Divine
but a word of solace,
of soothing,
of benediction

for the angel
in the doorway
who would hesitate
one last time—
just for the space
of a breath
torn from his chest—
before wrenching himself away
from her radiant consent,
her beautiful and
awful yes.

– See more at: http://adventdoor.com/2014/12/19/advent-4-gabriel-and-mary/#sthash.iWh5qIBG.JyHMT2MA.dpuf

Journey to joy

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Gaudete Sunday. Avent 3.

How do you get to joy when three days ago you buried a much loved pillar of the church and community, our churchwarden, Diana? How do you do the journey to joy in the tears, the the dark days and the loss?  The following is my sermon from this morning, as I tried to answer..

(The readings from this am were Isaiah 61.1-4,8-end 1 Thessalonians 5.16-24 and Gospel John 1: 6-8, 19-28)

Isaiah 61 (NRSV)

61 The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
    to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
    and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
    and the day of vengeance of our God;
    to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
    to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
    the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
    they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
    the devastations of many generations.

For I the Lord love justice,

    I hate robbery and wrongdoing;[b]
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
    and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
    and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
    that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
    my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
    he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
    and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
    and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
    to spring up before all the nations.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise the words of prophets,[a] 21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22 abstain from every form of evil.

23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound[b] and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.              24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

You shall go out with joy.

We sang that through our tears on Thursday. It was Di’s favourite hymn and she would have loved it that we sung it as she left this place. Paul in writing to his beloved brothers and sisters in Thessalonica is for once in his life very succinct, in the passage we have today. You will be glad to hear that I intend to follow suit..

Paul fires off 8 imperatives in 7 short verses and they could sum up all of his many many words and teaching about the wholeness that is at the heart of our life of faith. Wholeness, because if you over emphasise one aspect without the others you can end up on the floor.

3 legged stool

 I made this stool in a woodwork class, some years back, from scratch. Turning the legs and cutting and shaping the seat. It is just a humble 3 legged stool. Nothing fancy. Nothing complicated. But I had to make sure that all the legs were exactly the same length and that I made 3 of them. A two legged stool is a much use as a chocolate tea pot! Like I said, you can end up on the floor.

God who loves each of us so much, so longs for wholeness in our lives. Longs to touch our spirits, souls and bodies with his Peace, his Spirit and his Joy.

Paul starts with Joy. The three legs of his stool are joy, prayer and thanksgiving.

He tells his friends to start with joy. Joy as the fire in the steam engine of their lives that drives the rest. Using that analogy. Perhaps the water is prayer and the coal needed to keep that fire burning is thanksgiving… I don’t know a lot about steam trains – but I do know that shovelling coal is hard work! It also needs to keep happening or the train will simply grind to a halt.

I have a thing about 3’s this am, and the Trinity are of course the most important. 3 legs of a stool. 3 initials that should be applied to any and every sermon (by the preacher) YBHYES, BUT HOW?

HOW do you rejoice when your heart is broken or heavy? When you are tired and there is simply too much too do, and no time or energy to do it all in? When your faith is wobbly, and you are not sure where you are going anymore?

HOW do you give thanks in all circumstances .. ALL circumstances? What planet are you on, Paul? You can’t mean that, surely.

HOW can you pray without ceasing when you can’t find the words, or they stick in your throat or you want to shout rather than pray?

If I want to stand on this stool, I have to make sure it is set on a firm foundation. Slide your eyes down to the last verse of our passage to the Thessalonians..

The One who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

THAT is how. We can’t do it by ourselves. We can’t pull ourselves up by our bootlaces and make ourselves joyful, prayerful or thankful. But we have a God of Peace who wants to ground the very depths of our being in his LOVE and Faithfulness. Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me.. (we sang this prior to the Gospel reading)Touch me with your holy fire and set me alight , spirit, soul and body. Paul tells us not to quench the Spirit, because he knows that it is ONLY through the Holy Spirit that we can have joy, peace and thankful hearts. The other name for the Holy Spirit is Comforter. Jesus said he would not leave us alone, but would send us a Comforter. The Bayeaux tapestry has a picture of King Harold poking a spear at one of his soldiers – with the heading Harold comforteth his troops” The old English meaning of the word – encompassing comfort, encouragement, enabling.. but it can often feel like anything but- like a poke with a sharp stick!

How do we give thanks in all circumstances .. only because we know that God can use and transform even the toughest of circumstances for good. The sharpest, most pointy things can be used by him for good. Please note that I AM NOT saying that God sends hard things for our good. I am saying that if we offer those hard things to him he can transform them and us. There is a saying that goes: Life is 10% what happens to us, and 90% how we react to that 10%.                                                                                       We can react with bitterness, the oh,so dangerously, slippery slope of self pity, or by walling ourselves off from God or other people. OR with the help of God’s Spirit we can come to him Just as we are.(Opening hymn) On any given day. UP, down or in between. Fearful, doubtful, tired. Just as we are. We come. We come to the one with nail pieced hands who comes in to the darkest of places and sits with us.

I cannot tell how silently He suffered,
  As with His peace He graced this place of tears,
Or how His heart upon the Cross was broken,
  The crown of pain to three and thirty years.
But this I know, He heals the broken-hearted,
  And stays our sin, and calms our lurking fear,
And lifts the burden from the heavy laden,
  For yet the Saviour, Saviour of the world, is here.   (Closing Hymn)

We will sing those beautiful words at the end of our service this morning.                      ‘The Saviour of the world is here.’ 

Emmanuel. God with us. In it all. The hard bits, the good bits, the boring drudgery bits and the rest.

Emanuel. God with us -spirit, soul and body.  Touching our weary spirits with his peace, lifting our heavy souls and carrying us, in his faithfulness, fuelling our flagging bodies with his joy.

1 Thessalonians 5 (The Message) 

23-24 May God himself, the God who makes everything holy and whole, make you holy and whole, put you together—spirit, soul, and body—and keep you fit for the coming of our Master, Jesus Christ. The One who called you is completely dependable. If he said it, he’ll do it!

Amen.

personroots

Silent Night

Christmas Truce 1914

Christmas Truce 1914

This Christmas Eve, 2014, sees the hundred year anniversary of that strange and wonderful happening – The Christmas Truce. A spontaneous Truce that broke out all along the Western Front, that first Christmas of the Great War, 1914. In many places the opposing trenches were only yards apart, shouting distance across the no go area known as ‘No Man’s Land’ strewn with unburied bodies, excrement and mud. There is so much about ‘The War to end all wars’ that looking back with the retrospectascope of a hundred years, makes us wonder ‘What were they thinking?’….

Thousands of Christmas trees had been shipped to the German Front line. A fictional account which picks up the facts and emotions portrayed in letters from those present as it unfolded gives a sense of the wonder. Phillip Maddison an English soldier in Henry Williamson’s A Fox Under My Cloak, found Christmas Eve to be literally a silent night.

‘His company, under the cover of moonset was to pick its way across the ‘frost-cobbled’ mud with posts, rolls of wirs, hammers and staples, to edge the line forward a few yards. Under the gleaming stars they walked easily. Although they risked being mowed down by machine-gun fire, Maddison ‘rejoiced that he was not afraid’.

Not a sound came from the Germans. The unbelievable became the ordinary, so that they talked as they worked, without caution, while the night passed as in a dream. The moon moved down to the top of the wood behind them; always it seemed, they had been moving bodilessly with their own shadows. Some time in the night Phillip saw what looked like a light on top of a pole put up in the German lines. It was a strange sort of light. It burned almost white, and was absolutely steady. What sort of lantern was it? He did not think much about it; it was part of the strange unreality of the silence of the night, the silence of the moon in the sky, of the silence of the frost mist…

Suddenly there was a short, quick cheer from the German Lines, Hoch! Hoch! Hoch! and with the others he flinched and crouched, ready to fling himself flat; but no shot came. Voices reached them across the dark void of No Man’s land. Then the Scots saw dim figures silhoutted on the German parapet, and about them more lights. With amazement, Maddison realised that a Christmas tree was being set there… They began to hear from the German parapet a rich baritone voice singing ‘Stille Nacht, Helige Nacht’ . The voice came across the mist and ‘It was all so strange; it was like being in another world, to which he had come through a nightmare…

This book is quoted in another called Silent Night, in which ‘acclaimed historian Stanley Weintraub reveals the truth of this inspiring episode and tell the story of those men whose goodwill, humanity and faith all too briefly prevailed over the madness of the Great War’

I will be using this remarkable episode in history woven in with the Christmas services I am taking this year. There is a very obvious correlation, and many gifted people have produced dramas, liturgies and materials to highlight the link for the Centenary.  I also write a poem most Christmases and have for many years now. The following is the result of some of my journeying with centenary commemorations.

Silent Night

Light in the darkness
It started with one.

A flicker of flame against the black of night
A pin-prick of hope in a canvass of hate and fear.
One became another, a host of mystery
Sprinkle of tiny lights
Ribboned out across the Front.

Light in the darkness
It started with one.

One star. One angelic flame fracturing the night.
herald of Hope to a people dwelling in darkness.
one became another, a host of mystery
Holy couriers ablaze
Phosphorescence of grace

Song in the dark
It started with one

A lone voice lifted into the silence, void of guns
Longing for home, a soldier’s strain of Christ child come down
One became another, a host of mystery
As voice echoed voice across
No man’s land, scarred waste of war

Song in the dark
It started with one

Orison of joy sung out to astonished ears
Singing of Home, an angel’s word of Christ child come down
One became another, a host of mystery
Incarnation of Love
God birthed in dung and trench

Light in the dark
It started with One.

christmas-star