Leaning into darkness

 

River

It is hard to believe that such peaceful place of quiet beauty can swallow a life. A hot July day, the first of the school holidays and youngsters kicking up their heels, their lives and the long lazy days of Summer stretching ahead of them. They could never have foreseen that the day would end in tragedy, with a 15 year old lad losing his life beneath the surface of this river. Today, four years on, I watch from a distance as they gather around his grave, my heart heavy for their grieving.

I can never forget. Days into my curacy, I was pitched headlong into this unfolding drama of loss almost from the first moments. Racing to the scene, talking to traumatised youngsters and worried villagers as we waited the many hours until the emergency services found and recovered his body. From the television interview to the funeral and beyond into the weeks, months and years of heartbreak and adjustment to loss that followed, it was my tender privilege to travel with the family and the community. The sudden tragic death of a teenager inevitably causes profound shock waves not unlike a major earthquake within the microcosms of family, village and school. Life can never be the same. It can only be slowly and painfully rebuilt.

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How I wish this was a rare, exceptional event, as no family should have to face this horror. Alas my heightened sensitivity has zeroed in on news reports over and over each summer of young lives lost by drowning. Innocent fun turning fatal in the blink of an eye. Over sixty children lose their lives in this way each year in the UK, and is the third largest cause of child deaths. In the last few weeks I have heard of at least four, one only yesterday. Five years old.

Sudden death of any cause has the same seismic effects on hearts and lives. Every day it seems we wake up to hear of yet more horrors and violent atrocities with communities and families ripped apart by terrorism and hate crimes. Each candle burning, each flower laid representing a precious individual gone from the lives of those who loved them. Grief that will go on – long long after the news focus has moved on. Worlds turned upside down. It is hard not to be overwhelmed by the darkness.

One of the most famous prophetic descriptions of Jesus comes from Isaiah 53, describing him as ‘A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief‘.  At its simplest, and from personal experience I know this to mean Love that sits with us in the dark. The darkness of grief and the darkness of unknowing. Watching, waiting, keeping vigil. Nail-pierced hands that hold ours. Tears that fall from God’s face.

Three years ago today, on the first anniversary of this young man’s death, I came across a timely prayer poem that spoke deeply to me and I offer it here. It turns out they are the lyrics to a song on an album called Take Heart by Velma Frye, co written with Macrina Wiederkehr.


LEANING INTO DARKNESS (M. Wiederkehr, V. Frye)

Draw me into the depths.
Take me down to the holy darkness to Love’s roots.
I lean into that darkness,
The darkness that surrounds me,
This nurturing room for my restless spirit.

Let me borrow your eyes, Beloved.
Then I shall see in the dark, though for answers I do not look.
It is enough to wait,
To wait in the holy darkness,
This nurturing womb for Love’s yearning.

Listening to the sound of silence,
And leaning into the song of darkness, I wait for You.
Waiting with purpose for who I will become,
Waiting without agenda for things I can not change,
I become one with the One I love,

For I have seen too many stars,
Too many stars to let the darkness overwhelm me.

I keep vigil:
with my heart’s eternal questions, and with my deep longings.
with those places in my being where the light has grown dim.
with those whose hearts are tired, & with those whose hope is lost.
for those who sleep and for those who can not rest.
for those with fearful hearts, and for those whose hearts are angry.
for those whose courage is waning and for those whose strength is growing.
for those who suffer, and for those who keep vigil.

I keep vigil. I keep vigil. I keep vigil. I keep vigil,

For I have seen too many stars,
Too many stars to let the darkness overwhelm me

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I am always so grateful for the gift of words or art that others offer, putting pain, blessing and healing into words or form that speak in a profound way. These gifts are often costly, self-sacrificial baring of souls. Someone who frequently does this for me is fellow priest, author and artist Jan Richardson  who blogs at The Painted Prayerbook. Her latest post, A Blessing when The World is Ending,  from her book Circle of Grace (which I can highly recommend along with her other work) seems to dovetail beautifully with the lyrics above.

Blessing When the World is Ending

Look, the world
is always ending
somewhere.

Somewhere
the sun has come
crashing down.

Somewhere
it has gone
completely dark.

Somewhere
it has ended
with the gun,
the knife,
the fist.

Somewhere
it has ended
with the slammed door,
the shattered hope.

Somewhere
it has ended
with the utter quiet
that follows the news
from the phone,
the television,
the hospital room.

Somewhere
it has ended
with a tenderness
that will break
your heart.

But, listen,
this blessing means
to be anything
but morose.
It has not come
to cause despair.

It is simply here
because there is nothing
a blessing
is better suited for
than an ending,
nothing that cries out more
for a blessing
than when a world
is falling apart.

This blessing
will not fix you,
will not mend you,
will not give you
false comfort;
it will not talk to you
about one door opening
when another one closes.

It will simply
sit itself beside you
among the shards
and gently turn your face
toward the direction
from which the light
will come,
gathering itself
about you
as the world begins
again.

—Jan Richardson
from Circle of Grace © Jan Richardson. janrichardson.com.

I think all I can add to these is a heartfelt AMEN.

A Mother’s Heart (sword pierced)

She had trembled when the elderly priest took her new-born son from her arms.

She had trembled at his words. Words of wonder and fear.

Her heart riven from the moment the angel stepped across her threshold, cracked open, wider still.

‘A sword will pierce your heart also’

As this child of Light kindled a flame of life with her body and her soul, the fire burned. Branded forever, with the name of God seared upon her being.

The Word of God stirring within her.

 

Like every mother before and after her, this daughter of Eve carried both the joy and the pain with the gift of new life. Like many young women down the millennia, she had known scandal and stigma, the sneers of assumption and misunderstanding.

The angel had sent her to Elizabeth’s door.

An older woman hollowed out with longing for a child, now full-bellied with spirited energy. The shame of barrenness had drawn lines upon her face that crinkled now with joy as Mary stepped within her arms.

Mary felt the child leap, as heart met heart, and tummies touched in the embrace.

‘Mother of my Lord’

A gasp of recognition.

A new name that rang in her ears and shivered down her skin. She rested her hand on the tiny child within, and reeled afresh at what this could mean.

His birth had been a journey of fear and joy, and stepping out into the unknown.

No familiar faces, comforting surroundings, no mother’s touch of hand to guide her through. Almost a child herself, she’d birthed him on a squalid floor, an outcast from the start. Shepherds had gathered to gawp in wonder at this baby in the straw.

Strangers from the East had come..

What did they know? What gifts were these they had brought?

Gold for a king… for one whose brow

would only know a twist of scorn and hate

whose proclamation writ upon a cross..

And yet they knew that He was more

than just an earthly king, as low they knelt

before the child, in worship and in awe.

Frankincense, the oil of homage, honour

given with Myrrh, the spice of death and grief;

strange gifts , indeed, to give

a tiny child who lay beneath a star.

 

A flight in the dark, refugees of murderous hate, she’d carried him mile upon weary mile towards an alien land. A place of safety she could rock her child to sleep. She would have walked forever to protect the trusting arms about her neck, the small head lying heavy on her shoulder.

He’d grown as children do, and ran from the shelter of her arms, scraping his knees and bruising his heart and hers. She’d lost him in the crowd. Fear clutched and speared as pushing through the throng, she’d searched for that beloved face. His tousled hair. How could she have failed him, let him slip from her sight? Angry with herself, and wound up with worry, she chanced upon him in the temple courts. A slight figure of a boy, surrounded by aged men. Deep in discourse, he’d not even noticed she was gone, seemed puzzled at her distress. The more she knew this child of her heart, the less she understood. The sword pricks drew blood & smarted.

 

He’d left her home, his father’s trade, an itinerant with nowhere to lay his head.

She worried, even as she witnessed the wonders and the growing crowds.

Worried as she heard rumours and tattles of the marketplace and synagogue.                     The whispers that kept her eyes staring at the dark.

She’d joined the press and push of the multitude that swarmed around her son.

Called to him from outside the close-packed dwelling that separated them.                   Called in vain. Deaf to her pleas, he did not come.                                                                                 Sharp sword that sliced through frail flesh.

All her worst nightmares had come to pass. She’d watched them take her boy and scourge the skin that she’d caressed. Nailed the hands she’d held, the feet she’d kissed to rough-hewn wood. Watched his agony, as her own heart bled.

Dared to stay when others fled. Dared to meet his eyes, although it took all the courage in her soul. Helpless before his pain, his dying breaths.

The sword cleaved her motherhood, her very core.

He spoke. Voice a raspy whisper, but no less beloved, no less familiar than his first stumbled syllables as a tiny tot. His eyes that had held her own, flicked to the man at her side. His closest friend, standing with her in the dark.

“Woman, here is your son”

with fierce intensity beamed his meaning to the disciple that he loved.

“Here is your mother’’

Take care of her, take care of her for me.

Her pain was harder than his own to bear, as his for her.

The old priest had spoken true. As broken bread, her heart was held in God’s nailed pierced hands.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.)

Running on empty

Single-Tree-60x22

He was running scared. Fear was all that filled his heart and head, blotting out everything else. He had run before.

Just days before, he had run down from the mountain top, with joy giving wings to his feet. God had showed up and how! He had set the soaking altars ablaze at Elijah’s call. Fire from heaven. Then after a long drought, he sent the rain.. He had run with water running down his face, soaked in joy. God was good, and he was proud to be his prophet.

But the joy had gone. Sunk into the sand, like the rain.

He had had enough!

He was tired, overworked, under appreciated, and spent. Fear and self pity, sucked the moisture from his soul, even as the desert sun did the same to his body.

Alone. Deliberately alone, he wasn’t looking for God. He was looking for death.           Deaf and blind to the blessings of the past and the future possibilities, he could only see his dusty feet. Feel his bone weary body. Taste the bile of self hatred and failure.

Finding a scrap of shade in the burning desert, he slumped under a solitary tree.

“Enough! ” he croaked. His throat parched and dry. “finish me now. Here. I might as well have never lived.”

He lay down, expecting never to get up. To die in the desert, unwatched and unloved. Alone.

The heat of the sun gave way to the chill of the desert night. Tightly curled into himself, he slept on, oblivious to the stars above his head, and the love that sheltered him.

A soft hand on his shoulder drew him out of his darkness. The smell of freshly baked cake wafted into his nostrils before he dared open his eyes. The sun was rising, and the gentle hand insistent. ” Get up, and eat.

No questions. No judgment. No one there, but freshly baked cake laid lovingly at his head and a jug of cool, clear water. Food for his famished body, nurture for his soul. He couldn’t think or work it out, he could only eat and drink. Taste and swallow. Great gulps of life- infusing water. Sweet bites of grace.

Refreshed and filled, his body slept a different sleep. Relaxed and heavy limbs, resting on a bed of love. Same soft hand. Same gentle summons. Calling him to life. Calling him to eat and drink and go. Take in the heaven- sent sustenance, and move on. Leave the solitary tree, and travel with purpose, following the God who called his name.

Forty days and forty nights he trod a path without a sign. Seeking his God, he walked slow steps of perseverance through empty wilderness. And up, and up the sometimes sheer face of Horeb‘s peak, had been so sure he would find God in this place.

His own strenuous efforts had not been enough, and weary with trying, certainty slipped through his fingers. The cool depths of cave drew him in, and offered a place to hide. A dark cocoon of doubt. Had he heard wrong? Had God turned his back?

Fear nips and bites like the imagined creatures in the cave. Night falls and his heart plummets with the light. A tree, a cave, he is still alone, and he doesn’t know,

he doesn’t know,    he doesn’t know… anymore.

Sleep comes in snatches as his spirit seeks, his body wrestles with the hard rock floor.    In the turmoil and the stupor, finds he can still receive the Word. Asleep? awake?         The question sits down beside his head.

What are you doing here, Elijah?

The answer blurts in a gush of excuse. Overworked, misunderstood, persecuted and alone. I alone, am left.. What are you going to do about this God? The words left unsaid taste bitter on the tongue.

Come out of your deep, dark cave and stand. God is passing near.

The wind roared and shrieked and threw a hail of rocks. The power of its breath stealing breath itself.. Mountain-flattening blast. He heard anger in the wind .His own anger magnified a thousand times, but it was not God.

The ground trembled, at first as if in fear. Then fear to violence, throwing him across the cave and on his face. The underpinnings of the world, his world, pulled apart. There was terror in the quake, but it was not God.

Fire! The mountain was ablaze. No way out. A wall of flame blocking the entrance of the cave, excruciating, suffocating heat. But it was not God.

After the fire, the sound of sheer silence. Deep, bottomless quiet.

He knows, and draws his cloak over his face.

God is here. Here in this stillness.

Finding courage at last, he steps out of his cave.

The voice was gossamer. A whisper.


What are you doing here Elijah?

War


My subject is war, and the pity of war..” wrote Wildred Owen, a First World War poet in the preface to a collection of his poems. He was well qualified to write about it, having known that particular hell- on- earth from the inside, in all its horror. His poetry tells a graphic story of war, it’s nightmarish realities and harrowing experiences. What it does to men and how it changes them. He was to die himself, in that nightmare, only seven days before it came to an end.

His writing exposed the lie of the glory of war especially to those who watched from the safety of untouched shores. Describing a poison gas attack in his poem

Dulce et Decorum Est

Bent like some beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, —
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie Dulce et decorum est,
Pro patria mori .

(it is a sweet thing to die for one’s country)

The last three novels I have read, have coincidentally, had war as one of their main themes, from unusual angles. One covering the First World War, one the Second, and one the Trojan war. Different weapons, centuries apart, same violence and death. As well as its horrors, they also covered the deep bonds and camaraderie between those who fight alongside each other, facing death at every turn. It is now ten years since the start of the war in Afghanistan. The names and photos of all those young lives lost, have been posted on news websites in a silent role of honour. There have been interviews of bereaved families, and grievously wounded soldiers, telling their stories of lives changed forever. Time and time again, I have heard these soldiers talk of their time in active theatre with glowing eyes and wistfulness. Even after being very seriously wounded, they would go back tomorrow if they could.

Wilfred Owen also knew this feeling.

Apologia pro Poemate Meo

I, too, saw God through mud—
The mud that cracked on cheeks when wretches smiled.
War brought more glory to their eyes than blood,
And gave their laughs more glee than shakes a child.

Merry it was to laugh there—
Where death becomes absurd and life absurder …

The title of the poem means ‘an explanation for my poetry’ , and these are the opening lines. I guess there never is a time more ‘real’, than when life is stripped down to its bare essential, survival. There is only the intensity of the moment, and living it with all you have and are. Perhaps this is what calls them back, as well as being back with their fellow soldiers? I can only speculate from the sidelines. I have lived through a couple of wars, but was not directly involved or affected, apart from being evacuated a few times. I am perhaps not qualified to speak, which is why I am using allot of other people’s words, who are.

In the First World War, it seems to me, there was so much blood spilled with very little actually gained. A mile or two of muddy Belgian Front, perhaps. Afghanistan is a very different type of war, and yet, ten years on, it is hard to see what, if anything has been gained. The costs, however, are very obvious.

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.” April 16, 1953 Eisenhower

Ghandi had a very similar view, put more concisely.
An eye for an eye, only makes the whole world blind.”

People in probably every war there has ever been, have thought similarly. Andrew Downing, an architect and poet who fought in the American civil war in the 1800’s wrote these lines, ( a selection from his poem The Bluebird) looking back to his experiences of war, and forward to the time when God’s Kingdom would come on earth, and the prophesy in Micah 4:3 about spears being used as pruning hooks, and ‘nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war, anymore.’ would come to pass.

I am reminded of the battle years

When men, full-armed, and wearing suits of blue,
Marched to the music of the fife and drum
In strong battalions in a southern land.
And all the pomp and blazonry of war–
Guidons and banners tossing in the breeze,
Sabers and muskets glinting in the sun,
Carriage and caisson rumbling o’er the stones,
The midnight vigil of the lone vidette,
The shock and roar of battle, and the shouts
Of the victorious army when the fight
Was done; the aftermath of sorrows deep–
The cries and moans of wounded, dying men,
The hurried burial of the dead at night,
The broken lives in many homes, the hearths
Made desolate–all these come back to me,
As I beheld and knew them once; and then,
In sad reflection to myself I sigh:
What weak, inglorious fools we mortals are
That war must be, or any need of war.

And yet, the better day is coming when
The teachings of the lowly Nazarene
Shall be the rule of nations–as of men;
The sword and bayonet shall be preserved,
By the fair children of a nobler race,
As relics only, of a barbarous past

AMEN.


Cascades of Grace

Panning for gold.. I have done it a few times, usually with children- standing with a sieve/pan usually in cold water, scanning through an awful lot of grit and gravel to see if there is the teeniest glint of gold. Didn’t feel dissimilar to what I have spent the last few weeks doing – trawling through many many books for essay research.  I never did find any of the real stuff- but I have this time around.

I am writing about taking a congregation through the sometimes tricky and painful process of change, and looking at the subject from a whole variety of angles.  Fear not, I will not be foisting my essay on an unsuspecting public – but I thought a few of the nuggets I found along the way were definitely worth sharing.  They were worth finding, regardless if I can use them in the essay or not..

John O’Donohue, late poet/writer/thinker/priest, is writing about the intoxicating combination of hope and insight.      “Some of the most decisive moment in one’s life are when someone shows you a new frontier and helps you across into a world of new possibilities and promise. To be helped towards a new way of seeing is to be given access to a whole new world. At its highest point of intensity and possibility Meister Eckhart refers to this as the Birth of God in the Soul” 

“the Birth of God in the Soul” what a wonderful way of expressing it! Perhaps it particularly appeals to me, as a former midwife. Being a ‘spiritual midwife’ is very much part of what I see priesthood being about. Helping to birth God in the souls of others. It was an awesome privilege to deliver each of the  precious babies I brought into the world. A wonder that I never got blasé about.  My last delivery ever, was undiagnosed twins on a GP unit ( the 2nd one, a breech) but that is another whole story.

Going back to nursing, I took up palliative care nursing- very much a type of ‘midwifery’ at the other end of life. Travelling barefoot with individuals and their families on the Holy ground of the approach to death. Both birth and death involve the whole family, and are perhaps the most dramatic points of change that happen to any of us. Both types of midwifery involve reducing the fear, and the pain and retaining as much dignity as possible. Both involved   (for me anyway) staying with the person in and through the pain, physical or psychological. Accompanying with compassion. ( the Latin root of the word compassion means ‘to suffer together with’  . A costly, but precious privilege.

Travelling with individuals and more particularly with whole groups and congregations through the processes of change has many echoes of both sorts of midwifery.  I loved the way Ann Morrisy in the book Journeying Out  uses the phrase ‘cascades of Grace’  to describe what happens when a congregation starts to look and then move outwards into the community, perhaps for the first time.

Willingness to be alongside those who know deeply about struggle, are without power and aware of the possibility of being overwhelmed is what venturesome love is all about.  Community ministry involves the provision of structures that enable people to express venturesome love..”  

And in so doing, so venturing, start off a cascade of grace benefiting everyone involved.  Morrisy also links this with the miracle of the water in to wine.  Likening the church to the worried wedding hosts whose wine is running out.. what do we do?

What do they do? What do the servants do when they are given a nonsensical command by Jesus in response to the predicament? Go and fill up huge water jars with water ( no mean feat and involving a fair bit of work and effort) and then serve them up as if they were wine.  And behold, their obedience, their willingness to ‘journey out’ of common sense and comfort zones  result in the finest of wines  being available in abundance.  A cascade of grace. God’s extravagance revealed in the first miracle.

Returning to where I started.. crossing frontiers, entering new worlds. A wondrous but often frightening experience. In morning prayer today, the Old Testament passage was from Joshua chapter 1 . Joshua is about to take the people of Israel across the Jordan, into an unknown land. God speaks to him and says:

“I will not fail you or forsake you. ..Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed. For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go. “

Only thing that counts.