Sunday, 27 March 2016

Resurrection - The God who colours us in!

In her book The Risen Existence, Paula Gooder, who among other things is Theologian in Residence at Bible Society, tells us the story of her daughter asking a question one day at tea; it’s rather a good and perceptive one for the child of a theologian – ‘How does Jesus make us real?’  And like all good teachers Paula Gooder suggested her daughter make a stab at answering it herself.  So the little girl said: ‘I think he draws us and then colours us in’!!

The mother thought this was a brilliant way of describing our Resurrection Life.  Jesus draws us – re-configures us, if you like.  And then throughout our lives, in all the experiences which come our way, it’s as if we are being coloured in.  Jesus doesn’t leave us in greyscale, but fills our life with his resurrection presence – with the vibrant colours of life.

This ‘transformative’ colouring in is for us ad for the whole created order.  So this is how Dr Gooder, a PhD from Oxford yet still learning from her daughter around the tea table, ends her book on the resurrection:  If we are in Christ we are called to become life-givers, life-breathers, life-makers.  We become people who bear resurrection with us wherever we go.

Today, on this Easter Day 2016, let us celebrate that the life of Jesus can continue through our hands and feet, and let’s live that life colourfully and to the glory of God.

Christ is Risen!

He is Risen indeed - Alleluia!

With my best wishes,


Ian
(Now a Blog Holiday!)


Saturday, 26 March 2016

Stations of the Cross (4) Jesus is taken from the cross

So what are we to make of Esparmer’ 13th Station of the Cross?

Jesus had died so what could be done for him?  A burial with dignity is one answer.  Joseph of Aramathea offers a family tomb and Mary, at least in the drawing, with a broken heart oversees this ritual.

She held him at his birth, she followed him with her feet during his life and in the days to come she would surely carry her love for him in her heart.  But on the evening of Good Friday maybe the burden was just too much for her to hold – someone else had to lift him down from the cross and take him to the garden tomb.

We are gentle with the bodies we love.

Like all ministers I sometimes sit beside people who are spending their final days on earth – I witness relatives holding the hand of the person who is dying, lovingly offering them a sip of water, mopping their brow or rearranging their pillow.  There is great love and profound dignity in these precious moments and I always come away deeply touched by the beauty of our humanity.  I simply don’t see the world getting worse and life becoming hopeless – I see it populated by loving and courageous people whose journey alongside us makes this pilgrimage a privilege.

After his brutal death Jesus was surrounded by such folk who lovingly and courageously took him down from the cross and honoured him with the burial rites of his Jewish culture.

In his devotional book accompanying Erspamer’s drawings, Father Timothy Radcliffe writes of this 13th Station:  We must not wait to show our gentleness until someone is dead.  Be tender while it can be felt and reciprocated.  Say the word of love or gratitude while it can be heard. 
To illustrate the point he reminds us of the lady who just before the Last Supper anointed Jesus’ feet with precious ointment.  As the disciples protested against this seemingly inappropriate extravagance Jesus said: She has done a beautiful thing to me...she has anointed my body beforehand for burying.

Just last week a lady from our congregation did something similar to me.  Well – let me qualify that – she neither anointed me nor measured me up for a shroud but she did send me an email.  Because she has been following a Lentern series and that day the author suggested the reader send an email ‘blessing’ someone – saying ‘thank you’ to someone.  And this lady sent an email to Erna and I thanking us for being her ministers.  I was deeply moved by such a kind act in the middle of Lent.

We can all do it – we can all show our appreciation, offer our encouragement or simply be there for someone this day.

As Timothy Radcliffe ends his meditation on this particular drawing: He writes - Carpe Diem: grab the moment to show your love.

Friday, 25 March 2016

Stations of the Cross (3) Jesus Dies

And so, upon the cross as a young man years before his time – isn’t that what people might say? – Jesus dies – or as the King James’ version of the bible euphemistically puts it: He gave up the ghost.

I’ve only been present at one person’s death.  Ralph was a very old member of the congregation I served in Hertfordshire at Hitchin.  One Saturday lunchtime just as the bangers and mash had been placed on the table his daughter phoned to say Dad was failing fast could I come down and pray with him – she felt as if he was hanging on for a final prayer.  I went, I prayed and immediately I said Amen Ralph died.  One of the greatest privileges of these last 29 years of ministry.

As Jesus died the evangelists in the gospels record it all went dark, the veil in the temple separating the holiest place from the rest was mysteriously ripped in two and some writers even say tombs were opened and the dead walked free.

Perhaps it’s Matthew, Mark, Luke and John’s way of saying this was no ordinary death.

Yet in so many ways that’s exactly what it was.  It was the death of a beloved son.  It was the death of a good friend.  It was the death of a young man with so much more to give. 

Because in dying Jesus really does share our living.  He shares our life, birth and death.  For part of the beauty of this Jesus is his humanity.  Not his separateness from us, not his ‘otherness’ but the shared humanity we have in common.  Like us, like all humanity in every time and every place, Jesus dies.

I was once in the art department of our local school and the teacher showed me the Holy Week poster they had produced that year for the churches of our town.  These were students whose brief was to design a picture of Good Friday.  So that’s what they did – they imagined Jesus dying and what they came up with looked pretty bleak, sad and quite frankly life like.  Yet that was the poster displayed that year in hundreds of house windows and church notice boards. 

I couldn’t help but contrast it with art installation crucifix I’d seen that week at the local cathedral.  It was life size and striking.  Shocking too in its own way, and perhaps most of all because it was covered in gold.  Its message was not so much the pain of death for the human Jesus but the triumph of death for the divine Son of God.

Art is never neutral – it makes a point and has a message.

I’m more and more drawn to the humanity of Jesus and in it see something utterly beautiful.  That we are all made in the image of God and that to separate the human from the divine brings all sorts of unhelpful divisions.

Today as we remember Jesus’ death – the sadness it caused, the grief it prompted, the hollowness it created – why can we not also remember Ralph’s, our parents, husband’s, wife’s, son or daughter’s, friend or colleagues. 

Jesus – God – shares our living and our dying. Life and death are sanctified, hallowed, given deeper sense and purpose by God.

Death is a great mystery and I sometimes think silence is the only response.  But perhaps trust is a better one. 

To trust in God’s love and to place ourselves and those we love – at the moment of death – into the love of God.

Or as a shepherd boy walking around Bethlehem once put it:
Yeah, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will not fear, for thy rod and they staff they comfort me.


Prayer: by Cardinal Newman;

May he support us all the day long, till the shadows lengthen and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed and the fever of life is over and our work is done. 
Then in his mercy may he give us a safe lodging and a holy rest and peace at the last.
 
Amen


Thursday, 24 March 2016

Stations of the Cross (2) Jesus Falls

Friends from St Michael’s will be joining us on the Walk of Witness on Friday and whilst I was in their church attending the Revd Debbie’s Institution and Induction last week I noticed they had placed handmade Stations of the Cross around the building.

It’s traditional to have Jesus falling on his journey to Golgotha – and to have him doing that not once but up to three times.  In scripture we are told he simply was too weak to carry the cross so he fell and Simon of Cyrene was press-ganged into service to do it for him.

So this is Erspamer’s drawing of Jesus’ first fall.

First falls can be shocking yet truly character forming. 

First falls pulsate with disbelief – the sort that comes from that moment when you realise the person you married isn’t perfect, the job you so much longed for isn’t much different than the one you’ve just left or the church you’ve recently been inducted to bears no resemblance to the profile they submitted during the settlement process!

First falls have the potential to knock the stuffing out of us and crush us.  How could this happen?  It wasn’t what I was expecting.  This isn’t the way I thought the world was, they were or I am.

More importantly First Falls move us from idealism to reality.  And faith has to cope with how life is rather than a sugar coated version of it.

That’s why it saddens me sometimes when people pray a prayer like this before a service:  Lord, as we come to worship help us to leave all our troubles and worries behind so that we might concentrate fully on you.

To pray like this is to miss the point that part of our worship is to make that vital, transformative connection between our lives as they really are both inside and outside of the church. 

So if the bible readings we listen to, the sermon we hear, the hymns we sing and the prayers we say touch our troubles and worries with God’s love, hope and strength then surely our worship has been meaningful. 

For this to happen we need to acknowledge that we do fall down and life is far from perfect for any of us. 

The Franciscan writer, Richard Rohr puts it like this: We grow spiritually much more by doing it wrong than doing it right.

Last week, in a Christian organisation I chair, I finished working with someone on their annual appraisal – that would have been a wonderful line to have included don’t you think: We grow spiritually much more by doing it wrong than doing it right.  It’s rather like the line that has sometimes thrown me at a job interview – please could you tell us what you are not good at!

Because so often we want to be seen as successful, especially by our peers.  I used to dread the Christmas Round Robbins that told me just how annoyingly perfect our friends’ children had become.

The story of the Prodigal Son surely tells us that the message at the centre of the gospel – at the centre of this day we call ‘Good’ – is that falling over, getting it wrong and making a mistake doesn’t have to be the last word.  What is so important is how we pick ourselves up, turn around, face a new direction and walk home to the welcome of that loving, open armed Father we call God.

None of this explains our falling and failings away because we need, in picking ourselves up to face our demons, ask for forgiveness, hold out a hand of reconciliation or simply understand our situation and context with greater honesty.

I have sometimes heard folk say: I don’t know if I’m worthy enough to join your church or take communion.  Well the truth is none of us are in a way. 

Here’s what the English Dominican Friar, Timothy Radcliffe says about all this: God smiles on us as we are, warts and all.  We may not be perfect but neither are we despicable worms.  We are fallible human beings who fumble our way to the kingdom, keeling over from time to time.

Prayer:
Welcoming God thank you that you smile on us.  Thank you for this picture of Jesus falling.  And on this day when we remember cross shaped grace – enable us, with your help and inspired by your love to pick ourselves up from our falling and to continue our pilgrimage knowing ourselves better, reconciled to neighbour and more conscious of you.  Amen

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Stations of The Cross (1) Jesus before Pilate

Could Pilate ever have won in this situation?  He was caught between a rock and a hard place – a context that must be well known to almost every leader or politician.

He is presented by a conundrum from the religious authorities and he is presented with an enigma from Jesus.

And all the time there must have been a voice whispering at the back of his mind – be careful – Rome wants peace, your Emperor wants good relationships with the local leaders – deal with this little local difficulty speedily – be pragmatic.

So, after a token resistance Pilate goes with the crowd – but not exactly, because by washing his hands doesn’t he really show us that at least he is unsure, at best he is actually deeply aware that his sentence is wrong and unjustified.

Maybe we do the same at some pressurised moments in our lives.  We make judgements on little evidence, we let pragmatism dominate over principle and live all too easily and comfortably with our prejudices.

Pilate is, in my book at least, one of the saddest figures in the gospels.  He may have had many good qualities yet he goes down in history as a man who didn’t really bother to discover truth.  In place of eager and open enquiry and the willingness to explore – he simply washes his hands.

Surely one of the greatest joys of our faith pilgrimage is being open to new discoveries – about God, about ourselves and the world around us.  To search for broad horizons rather than sit back and accept the comfortable and unchallenged view.  To be open hearted seekers after truth rather than its overconfident guardians.

Or as Gregory of Nyssa said way back in the fourth century: Sin happens whenever we refuse to keep growing.

Let us pray:
Lord, help us to struggle, to ponder, to think outside the box.  Give us a willingness to ask the difficult question and live honestly with the answer.  Help us not to wash our hands of this task but to grow to love discovering new and deeper truths about you, ourselves and the world around us. Amen


Thursday, 17 March 2016

On Waterloo Bridge

Last Saturday I was walking over Waterloo Bridge on my way to meet Rachel at the Courtauld Gallery at Somerset House.

It was a bright spring day and I had just come from a URC Synod in Upminster so my mind was going over some of the issues that had been raised that morning - and I was looking forward to lunch at Pizza Express in The Strand!!

And then it happened.  Nothing dramatic but very meaningful to me.  And I played no part in it.  Just observed.

A rough sleeper - a young, intelligent looking guy, was holding out a plastic cup for coins.  He looked utterly dejected and hopeless as the world - including me - was passing him by.  And then the lady in front of me, walking alongside her husband, suddenly stopped, stooped down and offered the rough sleeper her plastic cup of Starbucks coffee.  It was just a moment - she did it 'on hoof' and at the spur of the moment.  But that isn't the point - the point is that I was privileged to see the beautiful look between these two individuals.  Her look of no nonsense compassion and his utter amazement and gratitude for it.  He barely had time to say 'thank you' - but he did manage it - and all too briefly their encounter ended and she walked on to greet the rest of her day.

It was the look between them that I confess made my eyes moist.  Such a beautiful look of engagement. That momentary connection seemed to me to be so deep and profound.

I am not so naive as to claim this was in anyway an answer to the epidemic of rough sleeping that goes on in central London.  I know the young man would have had a complicated 'back story' and I'm grateful for the sort of ministry offered by St Martin in the Fields to assist such people in need.

No - all I'm saying, and no more, is that there was something so utterly beautiful in that brief moment between these two people and more particularly the look of surprise and gratitude on the young man's face at being offered a half cup of Starbucks on Waterloo Bridge.

And as I went off to a pizza - very much aware that it was the lady in front of me, rather than me, who had shown such compassion -  the words of Jesus rang in my ears all afternoon - something about offering a 'cup of cold water in my name...'

Best wishes,

Ian


Friday, 11 March 2016

Joining in!

This week the Book Group at AFC discussed Nicholas Holtam's book about his time as Vicar of St Martin in The Fields, 'A Room with a View'.

I rather like Holtam's definition of 'mission' which he shares with us in the Introduction: Mission is really about looking for what God is doing in the world and joining in'.

There is sometimes a lot of angst around the agenda item 'Mission' when it crops up in church committees.  In our 'pro-active' way we like to have projects and strategies in place because then we think we are somehow fulfilling the Great Commission.  Yet I wonder if we are leaving enough room for God to surprise us.

This time last week I was chairing a Trustees' Meeting in central London for a national organisation and we were looking (rather creatively it has to be said) at our 'Business Plan'.  We have many boxes on this master document that we fill in throughout the year helping us keep tract of our progress in reaching some of our goals.  Yet perhaps there ought to be an additional box - not filled in but left blank headed; God's Surprises.

That's because it seems to me that God often works as much despite us as through us.  We can plan and plan - indeed I freely admit I'm a planner by nature - yet God has the habit of being untidy and working outside our best laid strategies.

A colleague of mine goes on Sabbatical next month.  She has, I think quite wisely, left a lot of gaps in her programme - she hasn't over-planned.  She will go on retreat, visit projects that interest her and do some of that 'stuff' that has been on the 'wish list' for years but never got round to.  But she's also left gaps - believing that just maybe they will be the most important part of the time she spends away from routine - gaps in which God might, or might not speak.

I think Nicholas Holtam, who is now Bishop of Salisbury, was right in his somewhat playful definition of mission because he is essentially urging us to become more AWARE of God's presence and activity in the world and to see it for what it already is - the mission of God in action - and in finding it - let's not reinvent the wheel but join in!

Best wishes,

Ian

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Wot I wrote on the Tube

Attended a meeting in London yesterday...thought about the service I'm leading on Sunday focusing on Mary Magdalene...and wrote this monologue about her on the Tube!





In a way I’m used to being in two places.

I mean alongside Simon Peter I’m probably one of the best known of Jesus’ original followers, and two thousand years on I’m told people are still writing about me; some are even continuing to make up rather upsetting stories about my life, but I’ve long since decided to put all that gossip to one side and ignore it.

So I know what it’s like to live in the limelight.

Twelve times, they say, I’m mentioned in the gospels; and I was there at all the important moments during Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem: his crucifixion (it was mostly us women who stuck by him – his male disciples found other places to be that first Good Friday), we helped with the burial ceremonies and I believe I was the very first one to experience his resurrection presence.

Yes, I know what it’s like to be in the limelight.

But, you know, I was happy to be in the background and quietly give support.

You see a group of us got together after meeting and listening to Jesus.  We knew each other because we’d all got a bit of money – most of us inherited because the male line in our families had run out.  Anyway, we all felt we’d like to use the few shekels we had to support Jesus and his preaching tour.  We paid for the food, made the arrangements for our stays in various villages up and down Galilee.  We were in the background as encouragers and enablers but Jesus always seemed aware of us and valued our contribution to his mission.

I’m used to being in two places.

But can I tell you about the best place I’ve ever been, and in a way it was the worst as well.

I didn’t understand his death and to be truthful his empty tomb and absentee body was a mystery to me also.  So it all started off as the worst morning of my life – Jesus dead and now his body stolen.

Then he spoke my name.  He spoke my name and everything changed.

The hope and trust that filled the days I spent with him up in Galilee – that hope and trust returned in the garden in the early dawn of Easter Day.

He called me by name.  Once again we shared God’s love as a gift to each other and once again I knew why I believed in him and his mission.  A mission to preach acceptance, live in a spirit of service, die offering forgiveness and live again showing us a way of hope.  God’s mission of love in Jesus.

He called me by name.

He calls you by name too, and invites you to join him – celebrating and expressing the love of God made real in both the struggles and joys of life.

So, perhaps like me, you too live life in at least two places – but it’s OK, God calls you by name, you are his.

Who is up there?!

We were in Lisbon over half term and enjoyed glorious sunny days throughout our visit. The city has many squares, almost all with statue...