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

Between worlds

Leaving people and places is hard. No matter how many times I have done it, (and that would be allot) it doesn’t get any easier. When you throw your self in deep, as I tend to do, you give away your heart. When it is time to go, extricating that same heart is impossible without leaving pieces of it behind. It is a tearing process.

 Two years at theological college have come to an end. I have written about Liminal Spaces and Transitions before, and pointed out that the word liminal means threshold. The journey towards ordination is full of liminal spaces, so I ought to be used to it by now. In the early stages of exploring vocation you are mostly on your own, reflecting with professional guides, turning over the stones of your life thus far, with the timing and direction of your future, firmly in other’s hands. It can be a lonely journey. Coming to theological college is yet a different sort of liminality. This time it is shared by a close community of others, all going through a similar set of experiences. The courses and placements vary of course, but living and praying together, sharing the academic and formational pressures brings a special sort of bond. An understanding at deep levels.    The college community was from a wide range of backgrounds, ages and eccelesiology , which adds hugely to the rich experience, but also adds challenges, as we all have a part of shaping each other’s lives, consciously or unconsciously. Not everyone experiences living in community as a positive experience, but my gregarious, extravert nature loved it. I learnt as much, if not more, from my fellow students than I did from my tutors, books or courses, stretching and growing me as a person. Precious memories. Precious people, for whom I am very thankful. The friendships I have made, I will take with me of course, but the unique community I was a part of for two years, is no more. Even now, new students are packing up their lives, preparing to move and wondering nervously what might lie ahead. These, and the students whose courses mean that they will remain studying for the next year or two, will form a new community which will inevitably have a different shape and feel.

The leave taking was done beautifully and symbolically within the rich context of a EucharistEucharisteo = thanksgiving. The stoles with which we will be ordained in a week’s time were laid on the altar and blessed, then given to us by our personal tutors. The liturgy was creatively put together by students. We were given a book and a glazed pottery cross  (shown above), made by a skilled fellow student. (the heart was received at the Federation Commendation service earlier that week).  We were prayed for and then processed out from church to college. It was an immensely moving service, and there were plenty of tears. I  cried through all of it, seeing these people and their families whose lives had been woven so deeply with mine. A good friend carried his newborn daughter with immense pride and joy, to receive communion/ blessing from the principal who was celebrating and my heart turned over. The service was followed by a wonderful party, enjoyed outside, on an unexpectedly dry and sunny evening (against all forecasts).

Leaving over, we were spun out country wide, into yet another liminal space of waiting. No longer an ordinand in training, and not yet a Deacon.  No longer part of the ‘old’ community and not yet a part of the new. I have moved to the benefice (group of churches) in which I will serve as curate, but it is not general practice to attend these churches prior to ordination. To extend and analogy I used in my last post, Stepping Stones, it is as if we are pushed off the last stepping stone into the cold water and have to swim and climb out onto the bank.  A spin cycle of emotions, combining with the exhaustion of  the efforts of recent weeks  to organise a move and finish academic work simultaneously, gives it a very strange feel. Looking forwards, looking backwards and trying to process it all.  The church wisely provides a time in which to do this. For four days before the ordination I will go into silent retreat, my family and friends not seeing/hearing from me until I appear in the cathedral procession at the start of the service.  I can’t predict how I shall be feeling at that point, but that my heart will be full, I have no doubt. Like my marriage, it is an intensely personal moment shared in a very formal setting and witnessed by family and friends. A moment of consecration and line crossing; of saying my YES to God publicly and symbolically.

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.

You know when I sit down and when I rise up;

You discern my thoughts from far away.

You search out my path and my lying down, and are aquainted with all my ways.

Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.

You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. 

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;

it is so high that I cannot attain it. 

Psalm 139 v.1-6  NRSV

Half Way Marker

End of term. End of year. End of probably the most packed year of my life. Half way through my theological training. The ‘leavers’ have left, and will be ordained very shortly, and I have been promoted to a ‘returner’ – next up.  Very odd feeling. Liminal doesn’t even begin to cover it. Big sense of looking back and forwards simultaneously, and time pressing the accelerator pedal.

What a year. I have been trying to think of an analogy that gives a picture of what residential ‘vicar training’ is like, but have struggled to find one that fits.

9 This third I will bring into the fire; I will refine them like silver and test them like gold. They will call on my name and I will answer them; I will say, ‘They are my people,’ and they will say, ‘The LORD is our God.’  Zechariah 13:9

I have watched gold being smelted in the fire. Heated up til it becomes pliable and liquid. The impurities bubble to the surface and are skimmed off before the gold is poured out into new moulds. The analogy is not a perfect one, by any means, especially as gold generally needs purifying only once, whereas it doesn’t quite work like that with people, more’s the pity.  Glass blowing might be a similar one. Both involve heat and change in an intensive, creative process.

Theological training is certainly that. A creative re-shaping process with plenty of heat and intensity.  The rigours of study and deadlines, and long hours that are a normal part of university life,  together with the pressures of living and working in small community 24/7 . The re- shaping process involves one’s whole self- intellectually, spiritually and emotionally, and is referred to officially, as the formational side of training.  In describing it this way, I can only speak for me, of course. No two journeys/training processes are alike, and people react in a multitude of different ways. Perhaps glass blowing is therefore a more accurate analogy, as glass can be all shapes and colours.

It has been a year of learning, laughter and not a few tears. A year of new friendships, the unique bonds forged by going through this process together. A year of immense time pressures – to meet deadlines, fit everything in, and keep life in balance, somehow. The latter has required a great deal of ‘swimming against the tide’.

New church relationships. Starting over in a new attachment parish, and getting to know 2 new congregations, and them to know me. New experiences- the joy of working as a volunteer at Jimmy’s, a night shelter for the homeless. Placements; several wonderful, brimful weeks in a cathedral, and a rural placement in Dorset, still to come.

A year of being constantly on the move. Weekly commuting adds its own particular pressures, to the mix. Daily Skype conversations being a necessary and invaluable part of keeping my marriage in good shape.

It has been all I expected it to be, and more. I have embraced it all, whole-heartedley, as is my way of approaching life. I have been turned inside out and upside down  at times, and stretched in all directions, but hopefully, have grown as a result.

Next year? More of the same, I guess. Meanwhile a trip to Kenya, to visit some link parishes out there, followed by a college trip to Taize, in France, later in the summer. Not sure what re-shaping God has in mind for me in the coming year, but that there will be some, I don’t doubt!

I have never attempted to run a marathon, (and I think I can safely say, I am never likely to!)  so I don’t know what the runners feel like when they pass the 13 mile point, but I am guessing it feels a little like I do right now..?

Creator God, you are there

In the deepest, darkness of night, and in the faintest glimmers of dawn, where Hope starts to shine, Creator God you are there.

I sang this lovely song, along with the college choir, at our Community Eucharist the other evening. We used it as an anthem, picking up the creation/re-creation theme in this weeks lectionary readings. (Genesis 1:1-2:3, Psalm 136, Romans 8: 18-25, Matthew 6:25-end.)

The words have  stayed with me. In both the beauty, and the pain- Creator God you are there, in the midst of us. In a week which has seen so much pain and heartache across the world, in New Zealand and Libya, particularly, they seemed to speak ( to me anyway) .

 

 

In the darkness of the still night

in the dawning of the daylight,

in the mystery of creation,

Creator God, you are there.

in the breath of every being,

in the birthing and the growing,

in the earth and all its fullness,

Creator God, you are there.

 

In the homeless and the hungry,

in the broken and the lonely,

in the grieving of your people,

Creator God, you are there.

in the tears and in the heartache,

in the Love through which we serve you,

in the anguish of the dying,

Creator God, you are there.

 

In our hearts and in our thinking,

in the longing and the dreaming,

in the yearning of our heartbeat,

Creator God, you are there.

In the love for one another,

in the sharing of our being

in receiving and forgiving,

Creator God, you are there.

 

In our joys, our hopes, our healing,

in awakening to revealing,

in your call and our responding,

Creator God, you are there.

In our prayer and in our service,

in our praise and in our worship,

in your love that is eternal,

Creator God, you are there.

 

The author of words and music, is Margaret Rizza, and you can listen to the song, by clicking on the link below:

 

 

 

 

light in the darkness

It is Holocaust Memorial Day today, and I have not long returned from a service of Remembrance of Untold Stories.  There are barely any words that can hold how I respond to such evil and such pain. Only tears and prayer. Tears for God’s pain – who didn’t see only two dimensional pictures, but who held each life in love.  The only words are the closing prayer of the service, expressing forgiveness. Forgiveness is the only way out of this incomprehensible darkness. The candle of light, the darkness cannot overcome.

This prayer was found scrawled on a piece of wrapping paper in the Ravensbruck Concentration camp, near the dead body of a child.

Lord,

Remember not only the men and women of good will

but all those of ill will.

Do not only remember all the sufferings they have subjected us to.

Remember the fruits we brought forth thanks to this suffering-

– our comradeship

-our loyalty

-our humility

our courage and generosity

-the greatness of heart that all of this inspired.

And when they come to judgement

let all those fruits we have borne

be their reward

and their forgiveness.

AMEN.

 

O Lamb of God
that takest away the sins of the world,
have mercy upon us.
O Lamb of God
that takest away the sins of the world,
have mercy upon us.
O Lamb of God
that takest away the sins of the world,
grant us thy peace.