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

Looming Liminality / Base Jumping

liminality
In anthropology, liminality is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete.”

Wikipedia, I couldn’t have put it better myself. For months now, the sense of an ending has been sitting over my head. The feeling of a yawning gap opening up ahead as the time draws near to move on.
To take the leap from being a curate to incumbency.
I should be used to liminal space by now. The discernment process and ordination training itself is a  whole series of liminal experiences, but it never gets anymore comfortable.
It has felt at times, like drawing ever closer to the edge of a cliff and knowing that jumping off is not optional but mandatory. Scary and exciting. (but mostly scary)

BBC1’s wonderful current series Life Story opened with unforgettable scenes of the Barnacle geese’s start in life. At the tender age of two days old they must forsake the nest in which they hatched and hurtle over a 400ft cliff. Believe it or not, it is the parents method of maximising their chances of survival to adulthood. I watched with my heart in my mouth, and the scene has stayed with me, striking a deep chord.
See for yourselves.

It may not have been a mere two days, but it feels like no time at all since I moved here and took up my curacy. I have loved the experience, demanding, exhausting and full on as it has been. In the deep end from the start, it has been a privilege to share the highs and lows of so many lives.  Enmeshing myself into four churches that form our Benefice, and learning to live out incarnational ministry in a rural, village context. I have put my heart and soul into this place and it will be a wrench to leave. I have had plenty ‘moving on’ experience, from places and churches, but it doesn’t make the transition any easier.

I have adapted to country living like a duck to water and the blessings of being surrounded by beautiful countryside have far outweighed the inconveniences. Watching the seasons change and living with the rhythms of nature have become an integral part of my spiritual life, constantly feeding me and lifting my heart. Having dogs means I am outdoors in all weathers, at least twice a day, and their requirements have afforded me regular pauses/reflection time in otherwise non stop schedule. (see my twitter feed for regular photographic journaling)

This week along with other final year curates, I spent a day with the Bishop, looking at the pressing question of What Next? It all became very real, as we explored the process and strategies for interviews and applications. It was like standing on the edge and looking down. Quite a few bumps along the way, and hopefully a welcome party at the other end.  Simultaneously trying to continue to focus on the job I have, whilst think, pray and imagine myself into another. And potentially to have to do the latter several at a time. An emotionally demanding journey.

God called me to follow him into the vocation of ordained ministry and although I fought him tooth and nail at the outset, (see Where is your home? / Becoming who you are / Called to fish, shaped to serve / Called by name for more on that story) it is a calling I have now fully embraced. I have no idea at this point what His plans are for me for the next few years (who does?)  but as I stand here teetering on the edge, about to jump I know that ‘He who calls is faithful’. It is into His hands that I jump, and I can’t think of better ones to trust.

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Taizé

High on the ‘Bucket List’, Taizé is a place that has called me most of my adult life. I haven’t been able, for a variety of reasons, to answer that call. Until now. God’s timing, however is always best, and this has been a timely visit. At the end of a long, busy summer that has been high on the ‘demand’ factor. Placements, essays, exams and overseas trips calling much from me and stretching me in many dimensions. Growing stuff, I wouldn’t be without, ( except the exam bit, perhaps) but God’s rhythms require balance. Retreat and rest, as well as service and growth.

Taizé is like a long hot soak in a scented bath. A gentle place. Gentle in pace and approach.  Room to unwind and relax in a restful, spiritual environment. A truly ecumenical centre, where the sharp boundaries and denominational divisions are deliberately blurred. A confluence of nations, people come week after week, from all over the world, predominately large numbers of young people. Language barriers are overcome with careful listening, love and laughter as lives are shared within the context of small groups.

The accent is on simplicity. In everything. Worship is both simple and profound. The pattern follows the rhythm of the Community, with morning, noon and evening prayer. Firmly God focused, the liturgy and music flows naturally and easily. Led by various of the monks, who occupy the central aisle of the church, disembodied voices, in a variety of languages, guide the prayer and song. There is little to get in the way, in this very ‘thin’ place. It is a very moving experience to worship with thousands of others from all over the globe- all sitting or kneeling together on the gently sloping floor. All pretensions, roles and higherarchies are left at the door. Child or bishop, are as one before God. When you are already on your knees, the only step to bow the spirit, is on your face.  Lighting is soft, with the dancing flames of a hundred or so candles gracing the chancel. You are bathed in God, in a wash of Love.

We were told the story of a young German atheist who came to Taizé out of curiosity. She could give you a thousand reasons why God simply could not exist. At the end of the week, however, she confessed to one of the brothers, ” I am beginning to have my doubts about that.”

Presence. Gentle and unassuming, and yet inescapable.  Brother Roger started the Community in the tiny village of Taizé, in France, during the Second World War, as a ‘mustard seed’ of Peace. An alternative to the craziness of war. Bringing people and nationalities together in reconciliation and understanding. His faithfully planted seed has become a spreading tree under whose branches the nations have gathered to find rest and discover God.

Spoons. All you need to eat with, at Taizé. Food is simple too, but wholesome and nourishing and a miracle of provision. Feeding thousands a day, in a well practised organisation of willing volunteers that has to be seen to be believed. Within minutes all are eating, from trays on their laps, spread out across the site. More than once I had a picture of a hillside in Galilee, and a carpenter from Nazareth, a couple of thousand years ago.  Shortly after, it is all cleared away and washed up, by yet more volunteers,  often singing, with their arms in buckets of suds.

Taizé is somewhere to bring others to. Young people in particular. Those of faith and none. It is a place you can take at many levels. Forget any ‘Taizé’ services you may have attended. Good or bad, they are very different from the real thing. One of the brothers described Taizé as ” a place to re-discover the joy of living, the joy and the love of God” .  I couldn’t agree more.

To find out more go to: http://www.taize.fr/en

Hidden costs

Sometimes you will find that your obedience to God will cost other people more than you think”  Wise words, from a wise friend, Oswald Chambers, who is an excellent travelling companion on the Way.

Jesus makes no bones about our need to ‘take up our cross’ when we follow him. He promises no beds of roses or easy life, quite the reverse, in fact. He does however, promise to be with us in it, and through every part of the journey, come rain, come shine, wonderful mountain vistas or deep shadowy valleys.

I had no illusions when I started out on this ordination journey, that it would be an easy one. God warned me it would be tough, and so it proved. He has used those difficulties very positively to shape and strengthen me, and I can genuinely  thank Him for it all.  I knew it would be costly to me, and was prepared for that. I also knew that it would be costly to those I love, and that has been, and will continue to be, the harder cost to bear. To obey God when it  calls for sacrifice, is one thing; to obey him, when it calls those nearest and dearest to bear the heavier weight of the sacrifice, is quite another.

I am blessed with a hugely supportive husband, family and friends, and I could not be more thankful for that. They have been very forbearing when they have seen very little of me due to the demands of a very rigourous, all encompassing, training process.

From the start, for me this whole thing has been about obedience, rather than ordination. I remember telling close friends early in the journey, to chide me if they ever heard me speaking about ordination as a goal. I don’t think they ever had cause to do that, thankfully.  Having fought God harder than I have ever fought Him in my life, over this call to priesthood – when I finally capitulated, He had to have my unqualified YES. A blank cheque.  Wherever He chooses to take me, via whatever route. ( and in my experiences He often goes from A to B via Y ) Mine is to answer His call to “Follow Me” , whatever that costs. See Called to Fish, Shaped to Serve  for previous thoughts on answering the call.  

I am now at another cross roads on the Way, waiting to hear where my curacy /Title post for the next few years will be.  That too will carry its costs to me, and to those I love.  I have no idea where it will be, or what will be the nature of those costs, hidden or otherwise, but I know He knows, and that is enough.  

  “Teach me your way, LORD,
that I may rely on your faithfulness;
give me an undivided heart,
that I may fear your name”  Psalm 86:11

 

Called to Fish, Shaped to Serve

A year ago today, it was DAY 2 of my BAP ( ordination selection panel).  It was bitterly cold and there was snow on the ground in Ely. In the talk you have to give, I spoke on the subject of vocation and call, and used the following poem.

What a journey to that day a year ago …. and what a journey since.  I titled the talk

Called to Fish – Shaped to Serve

Follow me

 

Follow me !

and with those words

He turned my world

downside up and

upside down.

My heart caught fast

within His net

He hauled me in

and I could only kneel.

His words would call me on

As I stepped out of

all I knew

and tried to put my

footsteps in the sea.

Sometimes I

followed at his side,

And laughed and loved

And learned;

But there were times

He strode ahead

and I could not

see his face of flint.

Then they led

my Lord away

and I could only

follow from afar.

Once again he called

me from the shore,

bidding me

cast my nets

afresh, where I

had toiled, and

failed to find;

filling my heart

as well, and

straining both

to  breaking point.

His call was

then to feed his flock,

carry his lambs,

and give my hands

to those who

would lead me

towards my death.

“Follow me!”

though path be hard,

and way unknown;

taking His word

and flame to

peoples yet

outside the fold.

What could I

do but go?

He calls me still..

 

 

 

In one of their last recorded conversations, Jesus calls Peter to feed his sheep and carry his lambs, and the rest, as they say is history..

However to transform a fisherman into a ‘fisher of men’ , a  shepherd/pastor and a foundation stone of the church Christ was building – he had to shape him for purpose.

That shaping started with his initial call to Peter to leave his nets ( and the biggest catch of his career) and follow him into the unknown.  Many further calls would follow, that would challenge, shape and equip Peter for the role he was being asked to take on.

In musing on the subject of vocation, it seemed logical to start with one of the first to be called to build the Kingdom. Peter is someone I very much identify with-not least for his endearing quality of always having his foot in his mouth, but also for the way God turned his life upside down, and shaped him for the purposes for which he called him. We are not all like Peter, and I believe God honours our very different and unique personalities, by calling us in equally unique ways.  In His continuing calls in my journey, and in those I work alongside in parish life – I see God’s shaping hand.  It has not always been easy for me to hear Jesus call to follow him,  some times I may have wished for selective deafness!  It is my passion nevertheless, to  be a part of assisting others to both hear and heed God’s calls on their lives – to be a shaping tool in other’s journeys, even as I am myself encouraged, challenged and shaped by them.