Thursday, 8 December 2016

Advent Breathing Space 1: The Word of God.

Lovely, peaceful, Advent Breathing space tonight. The address - the first of three - is below. Join us on the next two Thursday evenings (15th and 22nd) at 8pm for a chance to catch your breath and reflect amidst the hubbub of the run up to Christmas.

Advent Breathing Space 1 2016

One Word
Hebrews 1.1-3
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. 

 John 1. 1-14
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

If you are following our Advent series of daily reflections, online or in the printed booklet, you will know that this year’s Advent theme is “One Word”. Each day there is one word to think about, a word linked to the Advent and Christmas stories in some way. It just seemed to me that at this time of year there is so much noise, so much chatter – advertisers shouting at us, demands and requests coming at us, background music everywhere, busy parties and family gatherings with everyone speaking over everyone else - and I just wanted to stay “stop!”. Let’s be quiet and give some space for the words that really matter to sink in. So, each day, there’s just one word, with some questions to prompt our thoughts – “expect”, “silence”, “hope”, “child”, “danger”, “peace”, “fear”, “manger” – these are the words we’ve had so far.

But in a sense they can all be summed up in the One Word who is at the heart of the story, that baby born in Bethlehem, the Word of God.

It’s no accident that John’s Gospel describes him like that - as a word. Words are one of the most important ways in which we express ourselves, explain ourselves, share our thoughts and feelings. They are the way we pass on wisdom.  The same is true for God.

The Bible pictures God as an avid communicator, someone who wants to get his message across. The Bible begins with him speaking into the darkness and chaos “Let there be light”- and there is light. God speaks creation into being. His words make something happen.

These sort of words are known technically as “performative utterances” – words that change things. Marriage vows are performative utterances. They are what tie couples together, not the signing of the registers in English law. Words can change us in other ways too. We never forget words from childhood which build us up, or tear us down.  Words matter.

God’s words matter most of all. It’s not just physical creation which they call into being. They can make a new creation in us too.  “ I have loved you with an everlasting love,”   he says through the prophet Jeremiah  ( 31.3) “I have called you by name, you are mine.”  - that’s Isaiah (43.1) How different would we be if we really let those words sink in? 

But, for Christians, the supreme way in which God speaks to us is in the Word made flesh – Jesus himself. For those who met him in his earthly life, Jesus seemed to sum up God, to express what he was about in a way they couldn’t miss. You didn’t need to read him in a book.  Through his life, his death, his resurrection, in the whole of his humanity, with all the complexities of any human life, he said “God”, to them. The letter to the Hebrews says that in him, God spoke to us “by a son” - “sonwise” , as the old translations put it. 

Why did that matter? Perhaps because, great though words are, they can never be a substitute for a flesh and blood encounter.   I often have to try to sum up a person at a funeral, maybe someone I have never met, and I am always well aware of the impossibility of such a task. Even if I get all the facts right, and even capture something of their spirit of the person, I know that to those who are listening there will be a whole world of complexity in their own memories which I can never capture, a richness which can never be pinned down. They will have been different things to different people at different times.

It was the same with Jesus. It was the whole encounter people had with him that spoke to them; not just his words , but his presence, his touch, his gaze, his attention to them. To some he communicated God’s challenge, or God’s call; others heard encouragement, gentleness, acceptance.  And though today we can’t physically take his work-roughened hands in ours, or look into his eyes, God’s promise is that, through the Spirit, he is with us, part of our lives, if we will let him be.

So through this Advent series, in these services at least, let’s slow down, silence the clamour that fills our life, so that we can hear what the One Word of God is saying to us. In the next two sessions we’ll think a bit more about speaking and listening –how God speaks and listens to us, and how we might speak and listen to him, to ourselves, to others – but I’ve said enough words for tonight.

We’re going to spend a few minutes in silence now, as we always do at our Breathing Space services. As we do, we ask that the Word of God will speak to us. It may be just a faint whisper; it may be may be a clarion call, loud and clear.  What is the Word of God saying to you tonight?

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Advent 2: Family Trees

“A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”

I've been thinking a lot about family trees this week, partly because I spent the first few days of it down in Exeter with my mother, catching up on a few things that needed doing. Amidst those jobs was one which we've been putting off for ages, a job which had just seemed too daunting to attempt. That job was to sort through the vast quantities of – mostly loose – family photos she has accumulated, as most of us do, over the years. There are photos from holidays she took with Dad, photos of my and my brother’s childhood, photos of our families, photos of her childhood, photos inherited from her parents, and my father’s parents, photos of friends, and photos of people whose identity is a complete mystery and probably always will be. We got there in the end, at least sorting them into rough categories, but of course each of those pictures was far more than a photo. They were full of memories and stories, pictures of people who had in some way had an influence on my and my mother’s lives. Whether they were related by blood or were friends, they had played some part in shaping the people we were, part of our family tree in one way or another.

That’s why the task had seemed so daunting.  It wasn't just the quantity of photos; it was the quantity of memories they represented which loomed so large.

It was a timely coincidence, then, that our Bible readings today are about a family tree as well, the tree that “comes out of the stock of Jesse” as Isaiah put it. Jesse was the father of King David, and that made him very important to the Israelites; their line of kingship started with him.  At the time Isaiah was writing, though, it looked as if that family tree was coming to an abrupt and brutal end, as the Babylonian army swept across their land. The family tree had been cut down. It was all over for the nation. But Isaiah tells them that it isn't so. Just you can fell a tree in the garden, only to find that new shoots come from its trunk – often more vigorous than the ones you chopped down – so God would enable a new nation to grow, a new family tree to spring up from the old roots.

Many centuries later, the early Christians had an “aha!” moment when they looked at this verse. Hadn’t Jesus fulfilled it? they thought. He was descended from the line of David, born in David’s city of Bethlehem, and in him they’d found a new family, a new kingdom. It was exactly as Isaiah had said.

Jan Mostaert, c. 1500,
By the Middle Ages the Jesse Tree had become a very popular motif in art. Many Medieval churches had representations of Jesse Trees in them – painted, carved, rendered in stained glass. There are many around still. They try to portray the “family tree” of Jesus. Often the tree literally sprouts from the sleeping body of Jesse – it’s quite an odd image – and perched in its branches are all sorts of Old Testament characters who in some way foreshadow and prepare the way for Jesus. People sometimes make Jesse Trees through Advent too – we are doing so at Seal School this Advent – hanging pictures of Old Testament characters in the branches. It’s the equivalent of that process of gathering the family photos as I did with my mum earlier this week, pondering who these people were, and why they mattered.

As I said, the idea of the Jesse Tree came from that “aha!” moment which the early Christians had, when they saw that the “shoot that came from the stock of Jesse” could be seen to culminate in the life of Jesus. He came at a time when, once again, the nation was under threat, this time from Rome, and when many people felt that they didn't, in any case, have much of a place in the “family tree” of Judaism. That’s why his message was received so enthusiastically by those who were at the bottom of the heap; slaves, women, the poor, those whose lives had fallen apart, those who were looked down on by others.

But, as John the Baptist said in our Gospel reading, God was an expert at starting from scratch,  capable of cutting down that old, exclusive “family tree” and growing a new one. “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham”  he thunders at the Pharisees and Sadducees who come out to see him – these are the ones who make the repressive rules which keep people away from God, telling them they are unworthy. This new family tree wouldn't be based on physical descent or being a religious insider; it would be one with room for everyone.

But what would this new tree look like? That’s where the analogy breaks down a bit – you can only ever push these sort of pictures so far. When a tree puts out a new shoot from its stump, the new growth will be genetically identical to the old. It will have leaves, bark, flowers, fruit, just like the old tree did. It may be a slightly different shape, like the coppiced trees which fill our woodlands around Seal, with many stems instead of one, but otherwise it will basically be the old tree all over again.

But the new growth God wants to give us isn't just the same old, same old. Isaiah knew that. The new nation he speaks about is one which looks very different from the old. It is a nation where wolves live with lambs, leopards lie down with kids, lions eat straw and little children are in the lead. That’s a very odd vision indeed. The people of his time had never seen anything like it, and we probably haven’t either.

In the New Testament, the early Christians saw what God was doing in Jesus as something radically new too, as strange as Isaiah’s vision. John the Baptist talks about the axe lying at the root of the tree, the fire of the Holy Spirit, the grain being threshed and winnowed. It is all change for those who want to share in the new growth God offers.

In our second reading, we got a glimpse of one aspect of this revolution. Gentiles – non-Jews – were welcomed on equal terms; the old tribal barriers had been abolished. The “family” wasn’t just for those who were genetically related, part of the existing tribe. It was for anyone who wanted to be part of it. “Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you,” says Paul, writing to a church where people are obviously struggling to see the family likeness in some of those who are part of their fellowship.

Families can be wonderful, but they can also be restrictive, abusive, forcing people into moulds that don’t fit them, but Jesus challenged this stranglehold and set people free to be who they were called to be. He drew his followers into fellowship with people very different from themselves.  Remember Isaiah’s vision of wolves living with lambs, and leopards lying down with kids? Being part of Christ’s family, his kingdom, means learning to see anew, making friends out of enemies, taking a risk on trusting those you have viewed with fear.  It means listening to those who might seem to have little to offer – “a little child will lead them”- paying attention to the wisdom that might come from those at the bottom of the heap.

The idea of that “peaceable kingdom” was, and still is, a very attractive one, but the reality is that it is hard to live like that. We can’t do it in our own strength, and we can’t do it if we aren’t secure that we belong and are of worth to God ourselves. As Paul reminds us, we are only able to welcome others because we have been welcomed by Christ ourselves.  

Our readings today, then, call us to look both outward and inward. We’re called to look outward into a world which is full of threat and danger. Where we belong and what we belong to has been a hot topic this year. A lot of old certainties have been challenged.  The EU referendum, the rise of a new, sometimes rather aggressive nationalism across Europe and in the US is shaking up old assumptions and allegiances.  What does the future hold? No one knows but it’s clear that it will be frighteningly easy for the weak to be swept aside, for ugly prejudice to get the upper hand. We should never be complacent about that. It’s a moment when it’s really important for us to be clear about what a Christian vision for the world looks like - where wolves and lambs live together, where those who are most vulnerable are most protected, where, above all, we think of ourselves as part of one human family, the family of God.  

Most of us probably don’t feel we have much power to influence international events, but in reality, the changes that matter most are usually local ones – they are things that happen here and now. Our neighbourhoods, our nation, our world, are made up of individuals – us - either loving each other or not. We’re part of God’s work where we are, either building his kingdom, growing his family tree, or not.

But if we’re going to be able to look outward, and play our part, we have to look inward too, into our own hearts, because that’s where the fears and hatreds that warp the world begin.

Those who flocked to John the Baptist in the desert were desperate for hope, and hope was what they found, but it was hope that came wrapped up in challenge. The same is true for us this Advent. Will we go out into the desert, into the place we don’t know and make the real changes in ourselves that lead to change in the world, or will we stick with the same old, same old, and wonder why it doesn't work? Will we risk welcoming people we've been suspicious of, loving people we fear, letting God form us into a new family, where all can feel welcome and have a place? Our families are often precious to us, and so they should be, but the most important family we can ever belong to is the family of God, whose family tree is broader than any we can ever imagine.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

First Sunday of Advent

Advent 1 Matthew 24.36-44, Romans 13.11-14

Did you hear about the young boy who ran up to the preacher after the sermon and thrust a five pound note in his hand? ‘What’s this for’ said the man, ‘well I thought you needed it more than me as my dad says that your one of the poorest preachers we’ve ever had in this church’!

So here we are at the beginning of another Advent and what does it mean to us? Perhaps you think this means Christmas is near now and you’ve done nothing to prepare? If so then that’s kind of the point of it but not in the sense of getting the tree lights out and the food in, more that it’s time to think about what the birth of Christ means for us and where each one of us personally fit into the story.

Do we hear the words of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel as talking about events for the end of the world, about what we are found doing at that point in time? Our view on this will depend upon our relationship with and understanding of God.

It’s clear to me that we should avoid a lazy literal interpretation of what form the second coming of Christ will take or when it might happen, but that’s not the same as recognising that what we will experience in the future will be different from what we understand now. God through Christ calls us to enter into a loving relationship with him now. Perhaps like the best marriages you don’t always know where the journey will take you but you set out in faith based upon trust and love.

Advent is all about God joining humanity in the ordinariness of life and in this season we are reminded that we should guard against becoming comfortable with life being routine and predictable because one thing is certain, it is not going to stay that way. My reaction to today’s gospel passage is not to focus on God wreaking havoc as he dispenses justice but so much more on his love and sacrifice for us and how we can respond to that.

This year has been one where worldly events have offered reminders that life is not predictable with the referendum here and the US elections confounding all experts and pollsters. In fact if you had put a one pound bet on an EU exit vote, Trump as President and Leicester City to win the league you would have netted in excess of £4.5m! It shows how unexpected the events were in the fact that not a single person did.

We suspect that great change lies ahead for the world, change that will be hard to predict. As Christians our stability is found in our unchanging God.

I find some people’s understanding of God difficult to relate to if they think he would pick us off when we are least suspecting and at our weakest, perhaps slumped on the settee with a glass of wine in hand after a hectic week to tell us bad luck it looks like you got your timing wrong. If this were his way then surely he’d be more likely to call on a Sunday morning and at least give us a chance to be at prayer.

Matthew tells us of Jesus warning that a great crisis was to come to Jerusalem, it’s likely he wrote his gospel in the time period before Jesus words were realised around 70 AD when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the second Temple. Some people explain the prediction that ‘one will be taken and one will be left’ as an apocalyptic setting with God swooping down to take away the righteous person and leaving the person found in sin, but when you consider it in the context of a savage Roman military machine finally breaking the Jews and conquering Jerusalem after years of attrition it’s likely that those taken away would have faced a life of slavery with those left behind either dead or considered worthless to the Romans.

I’m convinced that God knows us better than we know ourselves, he has no need to call unannounced as if we know him he’s with us all the time, we don’t need to worry whether our hair is tidy or whether the house is a tip as he’s seen it all before. He’s far more interested in how we relate to him, each other and the planet we live on.

I was at the opening of some boutiques, delis and wine bars in old railway arches around Deptford Station this week, part of the London & Greenwich Railway, London’s first railway line. One man there was telling me how he could never have imagined this when he was a boy with steam and foul smells coming from the arches as people kept their nags in them after a day collecting old iron and lumber around the streets of south London.

It is true that we often cannot predict the changes that lie ahead but we can plan for a future with God by the way we live our lives now. In his letter to the Romans we heard Paul warn about missing out on all that God offers, perhaps through laziness, indifference to his message or a misplaced reliance upon our own ability to determine matters, this may be the ‘slumber’ he tells us we need to wake from.

At advent we find ourselves with a focus on both the past and the future, as a church we affirm that Christ has come, that He is present in the world today, and that He will come again in power. As individuals we can take this opportunity to consider our spiritual journey so far and consider where change is needed.

In the season of Advent we are reminded that we don’t have to just sit back and accept the world as something that happens around us and to us but God wants us to take part, use our influence for the better, get involved.

In a secular sense we could count the days to Christmas by opening little calendar windows and lighting candles over advent (all of which I’m in favour of), but once the warm glow of Christmas fades we could also sink into depression over the dark cold months that follow.

For us the point of advent can be that we live with the expectation and anticipation that ends in Christmas, as the story unfolds we realise that we are sewn into its very fabric. As we understand God a little more becomes apparent that it neither began nor ends there but is even greater than we imagined. I found the words of Nick Baine, Bishop of Leeds helpful when he said ‘… Advent, in asking us to question our fixed expectations, also invites us to look differently at who and how God is. We often seem to be obsessed with maintaining our purity – not being contaminated by the nasty or dodgy stuff of 'the world'. Yet, we are being opened up to the fact that at Christmas God opted into the world of joy and muck, and did not exempt himself from all that means. In other words, God decided that, rather than worrying about being contaminated by the bad stuff, he would contaminate the world with good stuff: generosity, grace, love, mercy, justice, hope.

That sounds like a good challenge to set ourselves this Advent, to contaminate the world with good stuff, to refuse to accept the status quo where we know God wants better.

If we are looking for examples I was very moved this week by the courage of the footballers who came forward to tell how they were abused as youngsters. It was clearly an extremely painful process for them to go public about their horrific experiences but their motivation was to seek justice for others, to raise awareness and increase protection for those currently at risk.

There’s no shortage of opportunities to play our part in creating glimpses of God’s Kingdom on earth and our efforts to do so will change us as people. For many it may not be as dramatic as the horrific wrongs unfolding in the football world but we face prejudices, injustices and selfishness every day which we can challenge and sometimes we have more influence than we realise.

Advent people aren’t worn down and defeated by the wrongs in our world, we are people who are sustained and energised by the sure and certain knowledge that we have a future with God, which unlike everything else in our world is fixed and unchanging.

Kevin Bright
 27 November 2016

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Remembrance Sunday: Living among the ruins

Aleppo: Reuters, Hosam Katan
 The picture I’ve printed on your service sheet today is one we might see on the news any night of the week at the moment.  A city in ruins; houses with their front walls blown off, and a man, picking his way through the rubble strewn streets. As it happens, this is the Syrian city of Aleppo, and the picture was taken by a news photographer, Hosam Katan, whose home town it is. The eastern part of Aleppo, controlled by a variety of rebel forces, has been under attack from President Assad’s forces for years, and is currently besieged. An estimated 200,000 people are still living there, under horrific conditions. There is very little food, water, power or medicine. There are only about 30 doctors, trying to treat the wounded and sick in hospitals which are repeatedly being bombed. Often they have to operate on people on the floor, without anaesthetic, because there is none. Many of their patients are children.  

As I said, though, we see scenes like this so often now on the news that it’s easy to forget that they are individual places, with individual people like us living in them. This picture could be any generic set of ruins anywhere. It could be Mosul or Homs or a hundred other places around the world.

And this scene is, in some ways, timeless as well. It could be WW2 London, or Plymouth or Dresden or Stalingrad. A hundred years ago it could have been Ypres. It could have been a city torn apart in the Crimean war, the American civil war, the wars of the Roses, the Crusades… Someone, somewhere in every generation has to live among ruins, as the people of Aleppo do, dreading the next attack, struggling to stay alive when everything has been stripped from them. No time or place is immune from the ravages of war.

The Bible readings we heard today remind us of that. They are both about living among ruins, or fearing you’ll have to.  The first reading, from the Old Testament, was written just after the city of Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BC. Much of the tribe of Judah, who lived there, had been taken into exile in Babylon. The Temple had been smashed to pieces and all its wonderful treasures seized. The author of this book puts into words the heartbreak of those who survive and try to eke out a living there. “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations!” It’s the lament of a broken people, stunned, helpless. It’s not just the buildings that have been wrecked; the social fabric has been destroyed too. The Temple was the heart of the nation’s life, but now, instead of joyful processions, the roads leading into Jerusalem are empty. And no one has come to Jerusalem’s aid. Where were her supposed allies – her lovers – when she needed them?  

The second reading comes from 600 years later. The Temple had been rebuilt by then, and splendidly enlarged by King Herod. It had only just been finished. But it wouldn’t be there for long, said Jesus. It would soon be torn down again, just as it had been before. And the physical destruction would only be the start of the nation’s troubles. He foresaw a time of great turmoil, a time when people turned on one another, when those who followed him would be scapegoated; we all tend to look for scapegoats when times are tough.

As you can imagine his words went down like a lead balloon. This prophecy of disaster was one of the accusations which was thrown at Jesus when he was arrested. It was bad for morale to talk like this.

The Western Wall of the Temple complex in Jerusalem
But he turned out to be right. In AD 70 the Romans finally got fed up with this client kingdom of Judea after a long series of rebellions and destroyed it, scattering its people across the Empire into a diaspora which only ended in the twentieth century. The Temple was demolished, just as Jesus had said. If you go to Jerusalem now, all you’ll see is the remains of its western wall. It didn’t take uncanny prophetic power to see this coming, though. If you annoyed the Romans for long enough this would always be how it ended, but the people of Jesus’ time didn’t want to see that.  It was too frightening. And who can blame them?

The problem is that denial, however attractive, doesn’t get you anywhere in the end. The possibility of disaster is never as far away as we would like to think. Even if it hasn’t happened to us, the fear that it might can disturb us profoundly. The political upheavals we’ve seen this year – the EU referendum, the US election, the refugee crisis and our reactions to it, the threat of terrorism at home and abroad; all these things unsettle us. Whatever our political opinions we see that old certainties are crumbling.

It’s not always the big things “out there” that threaten us either. We may find ourselves living among our own personal ruins; the ruins of a failed business, the ruins of relationship that has turned sour, the ruin illness wreaks in our lives. It all just feels like a mess, and there seems to be nothing we can do about it. 

Those who first heard Jesus’ words didn’t want to believe them – why would they? But they aren’t intended to make us despair. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. “When you hear of wars and insurrections,” he says, “do not be terrified.”  “Not a hair of your head shall perish,”  he goes on. This may seem like an overstatement – many of those who followed him lost far more than their hair! – but his message is clear. It is possible to be all right, in a deep sense, even when everything around you is all wrong.  “By your endurance you will gain your souls”, he says.

To understand what he means by this you need to know that in Hebrew thought your soul wasn’t some ethereal entity that would waft up to heaven when you died. He’s not saying, “don’t worry, you’ll get your reward in the afterlife – pie in the sky when you die”. Your soul was the whole of you; it was what made you you. It was as much to do with life before death as after it. “Gaining your soul” is about clinging to what is good and true, so that you end up still able to look at yourself in the mirror, with your integrity intact, having acted with honour, as the person God intended you to be. And if we can be that person, there will always be hope for the future. We will, in the deepest sense, survive.

Survival isn’t about building bunkers and stuffing them full of baked beans and bottled water. It isn’t about pulling up the drawbridges and, dare I say it, building walls. All that does is to isolate us and feed the fears and hatreds that are the enemies of lasting peace.  Survival, in the way that Jesus meant it – gaining that vital soul - is achieved by connecting with something bigger than yourself. He talks about his followers being given the words they need. They’ll have within them the knowledge of his presence, even when he’s not physically there any more. They’ll be rooted in a vision that’s broader and deeper than their own limited view, in a goodness that’s greater than the evil they face, and that will enable them to be the best versions of themselves rather than the worst.

We connect to something greater when we look outwards in our communities, when we offer our help to others, when we open ourselves up to learn from them and receive their help too. We connect to something greater when we work for peace and justice, when we care for the victims of war – whether military or civilian – when we welcome refugees or give to charities which care for them here or abroad. We connect to something greater when we listen to those who are different from us, when we get to know them as people, not as stereotypes. What matters is that we don’t just retreat to our bunkers and look out for number one.

I began by telling you a little about the struggles of the people of Aleppo. It all looks so hopeless for them. They have every reason to despair, and I am sure they often do, and so would I. But they also have reasons to hope, and it’s clear that some of them are able to do that too. In the midst of the terror and the awfulness there are many stories of courage and love. There are teachers, gathering children together to give them some semblance of normality and support in makeshift schools. There is that small band of doctors, assisted by whoever can help them, making heroic efforts to heal the sick. There are the White Helmets, civil defence volunteers trained in first aid and rescue techniques, who go into danger when there is an airstrike or a bomb, digging people out of the rubble with their bare hands. Aleppo has many people in it who are “gaining their souls” daily, being and becoming the people they were meant to be, people of honour and goodness. That doesn’t cancel out the pain, but it reminds us that death and hatred aren’t the whole of the story and never will be.

Anne Frank, faced with the worst which human beings can do during WW2, wrote this in her wartime diary. “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquillity will return again.” She may not, herself, have lived to see it, but she wasn’t wrong.

On this Remembrance Sunday, when we might look around at the world in our time and sometimes feel it is in ruins, or heading that way, let’s hold onto hope and faith like hers, let’s look beyond ourselves and keep walking towards the light, that “light which shines in the darkness,”  the light of love which no darkness can overcome.



Kent Refugee Action Network
Independent charity supporting young unaccompanied asylum seekers and refugees.
Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without borders)
White Helmets. Syrian Civil Defence working in areas being attacked by government troops
Combat Stress  Veterans Mental Health Charity

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Third Sunday before Advent: Life and death

What does it mean to be alive? In one sense it’s obvious – a heartbeat, brain activity, a pulse. But instinctively we know there’s more to it than that. We can be walking and talking, up and around, but still feel dead inside.

Being alive is about energy and enthusiasm, a sense of purpose and belonging. Falling in love, having a child, doing a job that brings us real satisfaction, having an intense experience, seeing a wonderful view – it may be a fleeting moment or a lasting state, but we know it when it comes, and we know when it’s not there too.

Our Bible readings today are all about life and death, but again, it turns out that it’s not just a matter of having a heartbeat.

In the Gospel reading Jesus is approached by some Sadducees, who, as Luke helpfully explains, don’t believe in resurrection.

The Jewish people at the time of Jesus had many different views of what happened after death. The earlier parts of the Old Testament hardly mention the afterlife, and generally speaking early Jewish faith was far more interested in this life and this world. At most they seem to have believed there might be a shadowy sort of underworld – Sheol – but it was a place of silence and forgetfulness, really just a sort of nothingness.  . “The dead do not praise the Lord, nor do any that go down into silence.” said Psalm 115.
The idea of a conscious afterlife only developed slowly. By the time of Jesus, there were many different groups within Judaism, just as there are in Christianity today. Some groups believed in some sort of resurrection, but others didn’t. The Sadducees didn’t. They were often drawn from the wealthier and more powerful sections of the community, so maybe they worried that in the afterlife there might be a rebalancing of the scales, and they’d be worse off!

So that’s what’s behind the Sadducees’ question to Jesus in the story we heard. They present what sounds like a very far-fetched scenario; a man marries, but dies without any children. In Jewish law, there was an obligation for his brother to marry the widow. Any children he fathered with her would count as the dead brother’s, so his name and lineage wouldn’t die out. But in this hypothetical case, the second brother died too, and so the next brother married her. On and on it went, until she had worked through all seven brothers. Then she died. Whose wife would she be in the afterlife?

I may have lost you in all of that – you may have switched off somewhere along the line. If so, don’t worry, because I think that’s what Jesus did too. Effectively, his response is “O, for crying out loud, you’re missing the point completely!” Whatever life after death is like, it won’t just be a souped up version of what we know now.  It’ll be so different, he says, that the everyday questions just won’t apply. All that will matter is that we will be with God. The questions which might bug us on earth won’t even occur to us in heaven. We’ll be too alive to worry.

But Jesus is also, I think, trying to take the focus away from speculation about the unknown future, and remind the Sadducees that the true life of God – eternal life – is for the present moment too. The kingdom of God, is among you, and within you, Jesus says elsewhere. Eternal life isn’t a consolation prize to pick up after death;  it’s the experience of radical love, connection, joy which is indestructible, right now.

I’m reading a book at the moment which is the fruit of a week’s worth of conversations between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who are old friends. The book, written by Douglas Abrams, is called The Book of Joy, because that’s what they came together to talk about. Neither of their life stories looks as if it should have produced much joy. The Dalai Lama has lived most of his life in exile from his native Tibet, trying to sustain the Tibetan Buddhist community against a backdrop of persecution by the Chinese. Desmond Tutu led the Anglican Church in South Africa through the apartheid period and beyond it as the nation tried to rebuild. He’s also been through two bouts of cancer, and was very unwell at the time of these conversations. And yet, again and again, Abrams describes the infectious sense of joy these two men showed. If ever there were people who were fully alive, it is these two. What does eternal life look like – it must be something like this.

It’s not about happiness. Desmond Tutu says that “Joy is much bigger than happiness. While happiness is often seen as being dependent on external circumstances, joy is not.” In other words, joy comes from a connection with something bigger than ourselves. Desmond Tutu calls that something God; the Dalai Lama prefers the Buddhist idea of compassion, but the effect is the same. It’s also about connection with other people. Desmond Tutu answered a question about his current struggle with cancer. “I think we ought not to make people feel guilty when it is painful. It is painful and you have to acknowledge that it is painful, but actually, even in the midst of that pain, you can recognise the gentleness of the nurse who is looking after you. You can see the skill of the surgeon who is going to be performing the operation on you.” Joy isn’t about going around with a fake smile stuck to your face, pretending everything is all right when it’s not, but to find it we do need to lift our eyes from ourselves.  

We can easily let ourselves become prisoners of the here and now. If things are going well, we think life is good, God is good, we are good, and somehow deserving of our good fortune, but if something goes wrong, then we decide that life is pointless, God is a monster, or that we are failures. We forget the good times when the bad times hit. Our horizons shrink to our own immediate concerns. That’s very understandable, but it’s not usually very helpful. What Abrams discerned in the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu was their fearless ability to see beyond themselves, and beyond whatever they were currently suffering, to set it into a bigger perspective.  

The reading we heard from the Old Testament today, from the book of Job, echoes that, in a rather different way. Poor Job. He’s a byword for suffering and misery, and when you know his story, it’s easy to see why. At the start of the book all is well with him. He’s comfortably off, with his family around him, but then disaster after disaster strikes. His crops fail and his livestock is destroyed. His family die, and he gets ill. He sits in misery, scraping his sores with a potsherd. His friends come along to console him, but what they say makes things worse, not better. They try to persuade him that he must have done something wrong, something to deserve this, and that if he repents, maybe things will get better. He’s adamant, though, that he’s kept the law, and gone beyond its requirements too, and that he is innocent. And  according to the story that’s the truth.

So why is he suffering? He doesn’t know, but instead of giving up on God, his bafflement makes him stick even closer. He shouts at God, argues with God, demands an answer from him, but he doesn’t deny him, or his claim on his life. In the end, the only answer he gets is to be told that even if God explained, Job wouldn’t be able to understand. That has to be enough and it is enough. The point is though that  Job doesn’t give up on God, any more than God gives up on Job. Throughout this nightmare, Job is still plugged into God, connected to the source of life. That’s what keeps him going.

Job is a fascinating book, because it refuses to give the easy answers we long for – the winning formula for making everything go smoothly in our lives. It shows us that it is quite all right to be angry with God and to argue with him.  But it also shows us Job’s faith. He never stops believing that he is in God’s hands, and that that is where he needs to be. “I know that my Redeemer lives,…and in my flesh I shall see God”. What kind of God will he see? A God who is on his side, he says, a God who is for him. Job’s friends have a dead, rule-bound relationship with God; he is no more than a heavenly slot machine to them, dispensing justice impersonally from a great distance. Job’s God, though, is close, intimate, passionate, alive – and so Job has a life that is deep enough to carry him through his troubles too.

The second reading, from 2 Thessalonians, finished with a prayer for the Thessalonians, who obviously felt  that the end of the world was just around the corner. They were “shaken and alarmed”.  What do they need in the midst of all this? Not a detailed plan of the end times or a description of the afterlife, says the writer. This is his prayer for them, that God “who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, [will] comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.” The word comfort, repeated twice here, literally means to be called alongside someone. It’s linked to the word for an advocate or a helper, someone who is present with you and for you. When we are comforted by God, strengthened by his presence, even if we don’t know the answers, even if we don’t know where the road leads, we are safe.  

I began by talking about life and death, so here’s a question to end with. How alive are you this morning? Not, how happy are you, or how well is life going, but how alive are you, on a scale of one to ten? If we want to make sure it’s ten and not one, we need to be securely connected to the life of the God who is life; through prayer, through stillness, through the Eucharist, through the Bible, through service of others, in whom we can meet him afresh.  Whatever’s going on in the world around us, whatever might be hurting or worrying us, we have a God who is on our side, at our side, with life to pour into us that nothing can destroy.  

*The Book of Joy, by the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams. ISBN-13: 978-0399185045

Monday, 31 October 2016

All Souls: Hopeful remembering

This is the address from our All Soul's Service on Sunday evening. I read the poem "A Scattering" by Christopher Reid. I can't reproduce it all here for copyright reasons, but you can read some extracts from it towards the end of this review on dovegreyreader's site (which is a lovely site and well worth reading for its own sake! )

The footage of elephants, referred to in the poem can be seen here.

Christopher Reid’s poem – the poem that gives the title to a collection he wrote after the death of his wife – evokes images which you may be familiar with. As he says “ I expect you’ve seen the footage…”  The footage he’s referring to probably comes from one of those David Attenborough documentaries, which filmed a group of elephants through the year. At one point they came across the remains of a long-dead elephant – mostly just dry bones by this stage. They stopped and fell silent, running their trunks over the body, smelling and gently touching it. They picked up the bones and held them for a while, then dropped them down again. It was impossible to think they were doing anything other than remembering and grieving. They didn’t treat the bones of other animals that way, and it was clear that this individual, whoever he or she had been, mattered to them, and hadn’t been forgotten.

As Christopher Reid says in the poem, there’s nothing really that they could do about it. They couldn’t put the elephant back together again, they couldn’t take the bones with them, they couldn’t dig a grave or do any of the things humans might do with their dead, but it seems that they couldn’t just walk on by either. All they could do was turn the bones over and over, then put them back again, rearranged a bit by the process of grieving. It was extraordinarily moving footage – and similar scenes have been filmed by others, so this is obviously common elephant behaviour.

For Christopher Reid, still in the early stages of grieving for his wife, Lucinda, who had died from cancer, this image seemed to echo his own feelings. What could he do in the wake of her death? Nothing would bring her back. But, of course, he couldn’t just move on, leaving all that she had been to him behind. He couldn’t forget her, even if he had wanted to.

Remembering is one of the most important elements of grieving. At a funeral, we remember the person who has died. We tell their story and recall them in other ways too; through pictures, flowers in their favourite colours, music they liked. Sometimes it’s the small details which bring back their memories most vividly.

After a funeral people may find other ways of remembering too – a headstone in a graveyard, or an entry in the memorial book for example. Or we might plant a tree or make a donation to their favourite cause or run a marathon in their name.

This church, like most old churches is full of memorials. As well as the gravestones outside, inside the church there are tablets on the walls and floors to people long gone. The oldest is for  Sir William de Bryene, up by the altar, who died in 1395. Then there’s Clemence Theobold, above the vestry door, who was mother, grandmother and great grandmother to 115 children by the time she died. There’s the first Earl Camden in the Lady Chapel, a prominent politician who was closely tied up with the debate which led to the American War of Independence, and little Elizabeth Mills, whose lovely monument, in the shape of a child wrapped around in angel’s wings, stands by the Lady Chapel altar. Some of the memorials aren’t nearly as obvious though. Many things in the church have been given over the years in memory of those who died. Some of the kneelers were worked in the memory of loved ones. There are prayer books with dedications in them. Some of the pews themselves carry dedications too. We are surrounded, whether we know it or not, by a cloud of memories here.

Remembering can be comforting, but it can also be painful, especially when we’re caught by surprise.. A song, a sound, a smell can suddenly ambush and overwhelm us. Sometimes we might long to forget for a while, but life’s not like that. Just like those elephants in the poem, sometimes we might not be sure what to do with the memories we stumble across, but we can’t ignore them. They intrude on our lives, whether we like it or not. We turn them over and over, unable to put them down.
What the poem hints at, though, is that this process of remembering – whether we choose it or not – can help us gradually to shape and sort our memories, to see them in a new light, to rearrange them into new patterns, bit by bit, gently and slowly. We place our “sad thoughts in new, hopeful arrangements.”

It’s the word “hopeful” which is the key. The grief of the elephants in the poem seems futile up to that point. It just makes them feel sad all over again, raking up feelings which would be better left untouched. But the act of remembering is also an act of love. It says, “this individual matters – human or elephant.” Yes it hurts that they are not here, but our love is greater than our hurt and in the end love makes the hurt worthwhile.  In time it might even help us to find a measure of peace, acceptance and joy within the hurt,  we realise that there is a sense in which love – and the people we love – are never really lost. Their gifts are ours to keep, and they are in the safekeeping of God who heals what is broken and wipes every tear from their eyes.

The Bible reading we heard underlines that message too. What looks like an end to us may not be as final as we feared and that for all of us, living and departed, there is a future – a “new, hopeful arrangement.”

“Beloved, we are God’s children now,” says the letter of John, an early Christian leader writing to a small group of Christians in a time of persecution and danger.  “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.” Our present grief, confusion and fear, is not the whole story of our lives. God is with us in it – we are his children - he cares about us. And as he walks with us through the days and months and years he works in us, if we will let him, to heal, comfort and transform us.

So tonight we bring all our memories to God. Memories of love, memories of pain, memories we treasure, and memories we wish we could forget. Like those elephants, we simply spread them out before God, turning them over to look at them again in his presence, and pray that he will help us to place them into “new, hopeful arrangements” so that we can go forward into the future with joy.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

All Saints Sunday: Saintly stories

Everyone loves a story. Well, I do, anyway. As anyone who knows me will realise I’m a sucker for a good yarn – I love listening to stories and telling them too. Somehow, stories can convey things to us that a dry set of instructions or ideas never would. They engage our imagination, take us into a world in which we can try out new emotions, or make new sense of our own lives.

It’s no surprise, then, that stories have been used extensively to pass on Christian truths. There are the stories of the Bible, of course, but it isn’t just these which Christians have treasured. The stories of the saints have also been a bedrock of faith, and these stories were told and celebrated in many different ways. There were written accounts – hagiographies, as they are known - but the stories of the saints were also told and celebrated in drama and ritual, through symbol and art and pilgrimage and local customs, and some of them are still widely celebrated today, even in our secular age.

There’s St Lucy, for example, celebrated, particularly in Sweden for some reason, on December 13th.  Allegedly, Lucy was a young girl who was martyred in the early 4th century for feeding Christians as they hid in the Roman catacombs. She wore a candle on her head so she would have her hands free to carry the food she brought them. That’s why the Swedish celebrations involve processions of girls wearing white robes and crowns of candles – I don’t even want to think of the health and safety aspects of that!
Or there’s St Valentine, another ancient saint who is widely remembered, in name at least. The story which links him with romance was that he was martyred for conducting the weddings of Christian couples. It wasn’t really about love, though. Married men weren’t allowed to be Roman soldiers. Christians were mostly pacifist, so this enabled them to avoid killing.  
And of course there’s St Nicholas of Myra, a fourth  century Turkish Bishop, famous for throwing money bags through the window of a man who was so poor he thought he’d have to sell his daughters into slavery. The money landed in the girls’ stockings, which were hanging to dry overnight.  Let a few centuries pass, give him a red cloak, some reindeer and a “ho, ho, ho” and we all know how we celebrate this particular saint…

The Protestant Reformation was supposed to have stamped out the celebration of the saints, but it’s hard to keep a good story down. In some shape or form many of them carried on, or were revived later. The shrine of St Edith in Kemsing, which stood in the churchyard and allegedly protected local crops from mildew is gone, but her well survived, and celebrations to mark her feast day were revived in the twentieth century.  
Some of us travelled up to St Albans last year to be part of the celebration of their local saint, a Roman soldier killed for his faith in the city – the first English martyr. His story is told today using giant puppets in a procession through the streets. It is a modern twist on the ancient practice of telling the stories of the saints, and it has become a real crowd puller.

How much historical truth do these stories contain? Maybe not much. But there were early Christians who showed, courage, generosity and faith like these and in a sense these famous stories gathered their anonymous lives into memorable forms. The more vivid the story, the more likely it was to be remembered and repeated. It may not be the case that at the spot where St Alban’s severed head came to rest a spring miraculously rose up. The story of St Edith, sitting up in her grave and punching King Canute on the nose for digging her up because he doubted her sanctity may not have happened exactly like that. But those are the hooks which make the stories stick in our minds, and that was what their tellers thought mattered. The “embroidery” helps us to remember the stories, but it’s not the main point of them.

The message the stories of the saints conveyed was that God had done extraordinary things through ordinary people, maybe in your own backyard. Death and destruction didn’t have the last word. Of course , you could hear that message in the stories of the Bible, in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, but that could seem long ago and far away. In every age, we also need to know that God is at work here and now too. Having a local saint told you that your village could be a holy place. God was at work in people who might have been your neighbours, and if he could work in their lives, he could work in yours too.

In our second reading today, St Paul talks about saints, but he’s not talking about the people we now find in these dramatic tales. The saints he refers to are simply the members of the churches to which he wrote, like the people at Ephesus who would have read this letter. The Greek word he used literally meant someone who was holy, set aside by God for a special purpose. To him though, that wasn’t just a select band of spiritual heroes; it was everyone in the church - you and me.

He commends his hearers for their love “towards all the saints” – that is, towards one another. He reminds them that they all share in the “riches of God’s glorious inheritance among the saints”. His prayer is that they’ll learn to trust that God is at work in all of them, with an “immeasurable greatness of power”, the same kind of power which raised Christ from the dead. He wants “the eyes of their hearts to be enlightened”, for them to see themselves and each other as holy people, beloved, chosen, called.

It’s easy to read the Bible as if it is really written for someone else, someone better, braver, more loving than we are. How can we ever dream of living up to its demands? “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you…”  Can God really mean us? We often have enough of a struggle loving our friends, and doing good to those who like us, never mind reaching out to those who hurt us. But the message of the Gospel is that we are all called to do this, or at least try, with God’s help. If we don’t, who will? If no one does, then nothing will ever change.

In our first reading, the prophet Daniel has terrifying visions in the night, visions of things far greater and more powerful than he is, visions of stormy seas and great beasts coming out of them. They are kings, he’s told, mighty rulers. Daniel’s a member of an enslaved nation, exiled in Babylon. What hope has he against the mighty political and military forces these beasts represent? But the heavenly figure he talks to tells him that in the end, these kings won’t,win the day. Instead “the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom for ever – for ever and ever”.  Who are these holy ones? Those who try to live as God has called them to. The struggle that Daniel and his people are going through isn’t futile.

It’s hard hanging onto such a hope when the obstacles seem so great. If we’re going to do so, we need all the help we can get. The witness of others who have stuck to their faith, loved those who hated them, kept on trusting God can be a mighty encouragement. I don’t need to believe that St Alban’s severed head caused a spring to well up. But his story challenges me to ask whether I believe that God can provide living water even in the midst of a desert of failure. I don’t need to know whether Nicholas really threw bags of gold through poor people’s windows late at night, but his story inspires me to trust that whatever I give to others can make a difference.  

“Do to others as you would have them do to you,” finishes the Gospel reading. It’s sometimes called the Golden Rule, and it appears in some form or another in most religious traditions. At its simplest it’s an appeal to enlightened self-interest.  If we want people to be kind to us, then we need to be kind to them. But it can also be read as a call to something very much larger. What kind of world do we want to live in? What kind of society do we want to create? It should be nothing less than the kingdom of God in all its fullness, a kingdom of peace, joy and love for all. But to build that kingdom we have to live it, and that takes more strength than any of us have on our own.

We need the encouragement of those around us – the communion of saints. That includes those who lived long ago, but it is also about the people sitting next to us in the pews today. God can be just as much at work in each of us as he was in the lives of Lucy or Edith, Valentine, Nicholas or Alban. Our stories may not be as dramatic as theirs, but they are stories which are just as important to tell and hear.

That’s why I am delighted at the growth of home groups at Seal – a new one starts this week - and in all the other ways we can come together to share our faith.  We all have stories to tell, struggles, joys, blessings and questions to share, and in them we can see God at work in one another, if “the eyes of our hearts are enlightened”. All Saints was never meant, you see, to be about those famous saints, whose stories are already known, however much I might enjoy telling them. They all have their own feast days. It was meant -  and is meant - to celebrate those who aren’t known or named, the people who have, throughout Christian history, simply got on with the business of loving and serving others. It was meant to celebrate those who’ve built God’s kingdom where they are, through small, faithful actions that maybe no one notices. It’s meant to celebrate you, and me, if only we have the faith to believe it.