Good Friday, 2014

It’s a long gospel. It’s a powerful gospel. It’s not that we don’t hear about the cross at other times of the year – and indeed we began this week with the gospel of the passion as well as the gospel of the palms. But today, sitting, standing here at the foot of the cross, we hear it differently; we hear it. We hear it anew.

Even when things have been clearly – or less clearly, however much Jesus tried to explain in the final few days – heading in this direction, shock is still the order of the day. To hear the full passion gospel, at the foot of the cross.

The prayer group found it really moving to hold our Lent meeting in the sanctuary, at the foot of the cross. The vicar and I have spent our morning prayer this week in the sanctuary, at the foot of the cross, and we’ve found it moving too. The cross pervades our faith. Without it we would not be here. But how often do we forget its brutality, its reality, its power? Its hope?

Leaving aside the commercialism of Christmas-which-starts-in-September, it is a great hope, I think, that churches’ numbers (or at least Cathedrals) are gradually going up at Easter. Drawing people to church in Passiontide says something different from Christmas. It says something more than family traditions, happy memories, angels and cute babies. Says something powerful in itself. Says something hopeful.

Here we stand, at the foot of the cross, church stripped as Jesus was, naked before the crowd, before injustice and jealousy, before the desires and designs of power. Here we stand – sit – in shock and wonder, as a group of those who have followed Christ’s life, who have walked alongside him as he journeyed to Jerusalem, who have kept vigil with him this week, who have shared around the table as he taught us, to remember him, who now sit and watch and wait.

We are glad that we know that after crucifixion comes resurrection. We are grateful that we know today is not the end, as those who sat and watched and waited and grieved at first did not.

But let’s not rush to Easter Day, rather linger with those around the cross. What is Good Friday? Is it a moment of historical fact that we ‘remember’? Or is it something live and real and repeated? Does it still hold the power to shock and grieve us because just as Christ lives, we continue to crucify him?

‘Gospel’ means the good news. We know that in the movement through Holy Week to the torture of Good Friday and the bleak emptiness of Holy Saturday, the concept of ‘good news’ can seem far away.

But when we leave church and look around – ‘good news’ can seem far away too. From the half ton of donations to Gateshead Foodbank which have been distributed back into our parish to the sorrowful numbers seeking foodbanks’ help nationally. From the statistics released by Shelter about families and poems by children about their homelessness and hunger, to the tough decisions councils need to make about budgets which cut services to one or other group of those needing care.

When we look further afield and see floods, earthquakes and fires; bombs, kidnappings and military incursions, we see a world battered and bruised. Battered and bruised as Christ was. We believe in the kingdom he came to initiate. We believe in the values he taught us, the care he instilled, the healing of his grace, the need for community, the fellowship and worship of his people in the presence of God the Father.

We come to the cross on Good Friday to acknowledge all this, but while we are glad that we are not the crowd clamouring for crucifixion, we must also acknowledge that so many still suffer today, from hunger, poverty, debt, shame, persecution. And while that situation exists, Jesus remains on the cross as a very present and relevant horror.

We cannot skip promptly through to Sunday and the good news and the light of the resurrection. We must linger in the darkness and ask what it means for us, today. What it changes for us, in us today. What we bring to the foot of the cross in our prayers and our presence, and what we take from it back out in to the battered and bruised world.

In Paula Gooder’s new book, The Journey to the Empty Tomb, she has a reflection on Simon of Cyrene coming into the city, bumping into and getting caught up in the execution party. She concludes that section as follows:

When we think about the proclamation of the gospel it is often in terms of the gospel at its best. If we proclaim it really well, with all the skill available to us and present Christianity in its very best light, then perhaps people will be persuaded…

Simon encountered Jesus at one of the worst moments of Jesus’ life… but Mark’s gospel suggests it was enough for even his sons to be drawn in…

I am not suggesting for a moment that we should consciously and deliberately cultivate our worst selves as a missional strategy but it is, perhaps, worth reminding ourselves that it is not excellence that draws people to Christ, but Christ himself. Here Christ, battered, bruised and about to die, seems to have drawn to him someone whose whole life was changed as a result… p104

An article in the Telegraph the other day said Christianity isn’t just about being nice. It has to be about more than being kind and a few good deeds. That’s the rosy outlook of Christmas – the nativity which brings hope and good cheer and cute cards and happiness. No wonder it’s the more popular festival.

But right now, around the world, when people and places, hopes and dreams are battered and bruised, people are still – newly – being drawn to the Christ who suffered. Realising that there is power in vulnerability, embrace in the darkness and hope in the horror. For this is truly a Christ who is recognisable and alongside them. And there, in the midst of hopelessness, is hope.

In the shock of a redundancy, the grief of the loss of a child, the self-worth issues of marginalisation – the abandonment and loneliness that we see on the cross becomes powerful and personal. The power we can too-easily forget through the year, because the cross is always there. It’s a good shock to revisit Good Friday and the passion gospel, to be brought up short again, and hear it anew.

The gospel is good news, for all of us. Good news in resurrection, in gold and white and glorias and the bunnies and the eggs and the new life, yes. But also there in Good Friday, as the Christ who came to share our humanity and live our lives stands crucified, suffering in love for us. In the shock and the horror of Good Friday, and through the quiet of tomorrow, the good news is that this Christ, battered and bruised and about to die, can still draw people to himself.

In the baptism service, on Easter day, the vicar will say to two children and their parents and godparents ‘Never be ashamed to confess Christ crucified’. As we linger today, in the passion and death of Christ, ‘never be ashamed to confess Christ crucified,’ because in the worst moments of life, he is there too, and that truly is powerfully good news. Good Friday reminds us that the cross is central to our faith, is a symbol of hope, hope in despair, hope in suffering.

Our worst selves may well be far from a good missional strategy, but ‘there is plentiful redemption in the blood that has been shed, there is joy for all the members in the sorrows of the Head.’ May the crucified Christ continue to draw us and others ever nearer to him. Amen.

Feel I need to get some thoughts out of my head before attempting to sleep tonight.

I was busy getting on with the day job when Bishop Justin went on the radio this morning, so I only saw a few tidbits before I caught sight of the Guardian line “African Christians will be killed if C of E accepts gay marriage, says Justin Welby http://gu.com/p/3z6m9/tw

Cue double take. It’s been an interesting week already. I’m as horrified as the next person that a) people think it’s ok to withdraw sponsorship from children in need because of the orientation of some of the staff of the international organisation. But b) I’m even more horrified that such blackmail/bullying was so instant and so great, and that World Vision bowed to it – I guess to stop those children losing their sponsorship, but then I’m back to how is that Christian  in the first place.

I’m really not sure I could do that. I am though, having forced to think it through, conscious that I’d actually be very hesitant now about sponsoring a child through an organisation that uses my money to help teach children things I think are wrong, and things which continue to feed violence toward same sex attraction in Africa. The little girl I sponsored through a small scale charity is not via a large conservative evangelical operation, and I find myself thankful for that. But I wonder if to seek out statements of faith that I agree with before I’d do it again makes me almost as bad… :(

When the writers of Rev came to Westcott and produced the  episode with the archdeacon in the bed shop, I don’t think we were in any way expecting the delay in scheduling to produce the episode we watched on Monday. Along with many others, it made me cry, and, along with many others, I am in the same boat as Simon Harvey. Never mind marriage, I long to be able to bless faithful committed couples who want to offer their relationship to God. Currently, I can’t, even with the law change, and that breaks my heart. Also, along with many others, I have no intention of breaking my oath, and it mightily irritates me that such an assumption is made of us by others who object.

Then I watched Our Gay Wedding: the musical and cried all over again. At all the same points everyone else who’s watched it through the week has tweeted at. (I presume, and sadly, that those vehemently against same sex marriage, won’t watch it at all for fear of feeling nauseous, and thus can’t hope to be moved by the registrar, or the mothers…) Never mind what I said in the last paragraph, actually I do want to be able to marry them too.

And today came a lovely piece by Andrew Davison in the Church Times. While I was on retreat at Westcott the week after the pastoral statement, I heard a bit of that in the making, and I realise that whilst my tutor, Andrew managed to teach me enough philosophy that even I found the piece easy to follow and pretty cogent.

And then I caught sight of the Guardian. I’m already wondering if this week hasn’t gone some way toward making explicit how hard it will be for any kind of facilitated conversation in the church. Yes, I’d love for people who haven’t journeyed, studied, prayed and loved their way to where I am now to do so, so that the inclusive and radical hospitality of the God of love could truly be shared with everyone, but I know many of them have no intention of changing their minds (so the point of conversation is…. and “they” seem to think “we” are only wanting to get them to change theirs… I think “they” are wanting me to repent. I won’t. Sorry).

It saddens me, but I can’t object to them having their views. But I have mine, and they’re deeply held after much experience, study and reflection. And they’re as valid as others’. And if I don’t want to force “you” into feeling forced into performing blessings “you” don’t agree with, I’d really appreciate the return respect of “you” not forcing me not to.

Because “you” are not God either. And “you” never know whether in the long run, “we” might turn out to be right. So those who think it important to keep an untainted line of episcopacy in case “we” turn out to be wrong, should maybe think too about allowing the opening of a potentially inspired option here too, which offers the radical generosity we saw in Christ – heaven forbid that might be the side which “wins” eventually.

As with the women in the episcopacy issue, there is a fundamental imbalance of ‘held view’ versus ‘very identity’. Womens’ ministry does not alter someone’s own identity in Christ, even if it offends them. Being born gay and being given someone to love enough to want to celebrate that in God and in public doesn’t alter someone else’s identity in Christ, even if it offends them. Views can be held, changed or not changed. The very essence of who you are cannot.

I’m still pondering this round and about in spare moments (of which there aren’t many) and then I double take. Does the Guardian really say that? Does it know how inflammatory that is, how painful? Did he really say that? I know bishop Justin is more conservative than me, and I know he worries about the Anglican communion (to say the rest of us don’t, would be harsh, but still) but seriously? So where do we stand this week now, then? Justin’s public signalling of the end of the Church’s opposal of same sex marriage (ie same sex marriage) was only a sweetener for the sharper end of ‘but as for within the church, forget it’?

I fear that if there were only the faint tracings of lines in the sand before, trenches might just now get built. And I fear that I now wait for someone to say something along the lines of what a bad Christian I am if I do not care enough about the lives of people in Africa who may be killed if we allow gay marriage in the Church of England.

I fear I wait for someone to point out (gently chastise or reprove or whatever it is Paul tells “you” to do to “us”) how selfish it is of those liberals of us (we aren’t evangelical however carefully we study our bibles if we come to the ‘wrong’ answer) to wish to insist on selfish lifestyle choices in our flagrantly individualised immoral cultures. About how it’s a pale kind of ‘unjust’ that gay couples cannot marry here, versus ‘unjust’ that innocent people might be murdered elsewhere.

Because if they do, I shall have to bite my tongue extremely hard not to say that in 43? of the 53 countries of the commonwealth, being gay is still an offence (did I really see something along those horrific lines behind the Erasure song in Our Gay Wedding?). In many countries across Africa and beyond, there is physical violence and murder of those who happen to be born gay. And yes, you may reprove me, but you may not judge me, God – radical, generous, hospitable, inclusive, loving God – will do that. And actually, it’s also pretty selfish to own all the rights to loving stable relationships and not share those with everyone who wants to share their relationships with God.

No, I do not want to see anyone have to stand next to a mass grave and know that people have been killed because hermeneutics, science, theological scholarship and society have moved on. But goodness, if the blackmail or bullying of stopping feeding children which turned World vision round was sickening, I sure hope that this isn’t going to become a favoured point of bashing the pro-equal-church-marriage. However delicately poised the balance between home and the communion, it’s a very, very thin end. No, we can’t weigh up political or spiritual equality against torture and death, but however horrified I am by anybody’s murder, I’m really struggling to see how we can move forward anywhere ever on that kind of premise.

Coherent, no. Heartfelt, yes. Intention to engage in conversation, no. Fear that ‘facilitated conversations’ are set up for failure (and not just because of the liberals determined to see change – Worldvision showed us that “the other side” retrench just as much), yes. Delighted for those who’ve been able to get married this week, yes. Hateful of it descending into sides, us and them, you and me, yes.

Head emptied. Bed.

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Skimmed this link on the Guardian today – thinking of my wardrobe. I was already thinking of my wardrobe because I’ve had two bags of clothes ready to give away for weeks, which, on Monday I happened to come home just as someone was about to shove a bag through the door and I took it straight upstairs, put the bags in it and left them out on Tuesday morning.

Yesterday, I got a tweet from the MetroCentre after I had drawn their attention to theemptyshop initiative a while ago, to say that there will be one opening tomorrow. Dammit, my clothes could have gone there. So tonight I shall re-investigate the wardrobes (actually, truth be told, most of my clothes are still in boxes, don’t really use the wardrobes I have) to see what I couldn’t quite turf out on the last round, because I am determined to take something to theemptyshop. I still have more than enough clothes – and never have chance to wear most of them these days anyway.

And then I remembered I kept this when I saw it a little while ago. There are wardrobes, and there are wardrobes… Read* and declutter.

*in the light of the World Vision fiasco, am reflecting on the fact that this last blog is about a programme run by a Christian charity whose ideals are not all mine. Interesting to reflect on how many children they have who need sponsors, and how their statement of faith holds a firm line on sexuality in countries where violence is being done in sexuality issues.

Yes, I know you want a photo. No, I’m not emptying them all out of the bag tonight. But you can get the idea by reading the original post, since I repurposed most…

I took the resurrection eggs into school this week, working with reception and years 1/2. I had changed one or two contents, so this year’s list of 17 eggs looks like this:

palm leaves – I fell over the plastic top of a palm tree at toddlers the day I was going, which I cut up rather than cut from felt. very handy

plate and cup – that would be the knitted chalice from the in-progress last supper and a small wooden bowl. plus a pinch of bread that turned increasingly cardboardy during the sessions

coins – 3 x 5p

rope – last years’ was a tiny knotted piece that fitted Jesus’ hands, this year I found a bigger loop which looked more like rope and less similar to the crown of ‘thorns’

sticky plaster – we discussed that after the bad people came and tied Jesus up, then they kicked him and beat him up

purple robe

crown of thorns

cross

nails

King of the Jews sign

dice

crucifix

white cloth – lining material

smooth round flat stone

spices – small wooden ‘jar’ – and the same pyx full of rosa mystica they saw at Christmas that baby Jesus got as a present

-empty egg-

angel – also reprised the angel from the Christmas set that years 1 & 2 remembered and loved, so that we could talk about being told that Jesus was risen

With years 1 & 2 I let them pick an egg out of a basket then lined them up and they opened one at a time. With reception, I left them arrayed round a low table in order, and after telling the story they came in groups and played with the pieces.

Last time I was in Hobbycraft, they had the plastic eggs on special offer…

John 4:5-52

In faith & life [Diocesan discipleship course] this last few weeks we have been thinking about the good news we have as Christians to share, the good news we have as church to share. This coming week is the last session of this current module, and some brave souls will be sharing their experiences of faith, experiences of their lives and where God has been at work in it, sharing their testimonies.

Partly to share with eachother and encourage eachother, and partly to begin – or to continue – the work/the journey of equipping them with the words and the confidence to share those life stories with others.

I expect all those stories we shall hear to be different – in times and places, in ages, in contexts, in pace. There will be as many stories as there are participants sharing them – there are as many experiences of lives God is at work in as there are people…

At faith & life we come from different traditions and backgrounds on the Anglican spectrum, so we have already talked a little about how some people’s journey will have been a slow process, seeing God at work more in hindsight, whilst others experience conversion moments more like that of St Paul.

We’ve talked a little about the ways that people get drawn in to the church, about how sociologist Grace Davie’s access points of ‘believe, belong, behave’ can be approached from any direction – how often today people come to Christ by joining in and being made welcome, feeling accepted by a community and being able to belong, then assimilating the practices – behaving – and gradually hearing enough of others’ stories and of Christ that ‘believing’ occurs – either by creeping up on you or by hitting you with force.

I’m interested in belonging, behaving, believing as it pertains to children’s spirituality, but I think it has a lot to offer the church more widely. Conversion events like that experienced by Saul, or the moment John Wesley’s heart was ‘strangely warmed’ lend themselves to good material for testimony, but in reality, I imagine that hasn’t been the case for many of us.

In my experience, the fact that it isn’t the case is quite likely to underlie some of our reluctance to share our faith stories with each other or with others. But we underestimate the power of owning God in our life stories and experiences, and by keeping them to ourselves we might lose not only to opportunity to inspire others with them but also to re-inspire ourselves when we most need it, of God’s presence and action in our lives.

In our gospel today, which is much richer and much longer than one reading or one sermon can do justice to, we find echoes of all of this.

At the well, Jesus finds an unexpected conversation partner: a woman, and a Samaritan woman at that (or, a Samaritan, and a Samaritan woman at that, depending how you prefer your prejudices).

She is not ignorant of religious context, knows of and expects the Messiah, and is keen to accept the living water Jesus offers her. She takes back to her community that she has met Jesus, who ‘told her everything she had ever done’, ‘and many Samaritans from that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony’.

and many Samaritans from that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony’.

And then ‘many more believed because of his word’ – because they went out to Jesus on her witness and listened to him, and having been attracted by the woman’s experience and her recounting of it, they opened themselves to the possibility of Jesus being the Messiah, and thus they drew near into his presence, and entered into the fullness of belief so that the living water became theirs too.

Why is this important for us, and why now? Let’s look back to that penultimate paragraph: Look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. At faith & life we’ve got some flip charts covered in post-its of all the places and people we have contact with in the parish, inside and outside the church.

Research (and experience here at the occasional offices, at baptism, wedding and funeral ministry) tells us that there are plenty of people out there who are not closed to faith, but who are curious, or who ‘believe in something’ and long to be drawn into a relationship with the something – or someone – who is currently to them a tenuous sketch rather than the fully rounded person of Jesus Christ who loves them.

There are plenty of people out there who yearn to belong to a community in which the little child, the orphan, the outcast, the alien, the widow are integral members, are central, are cared for and are loved.

Lent is a time of deepening one’s own relationship with God. That’s the key bit about whatever Lenten discipline one chooses – Lent is not simply about proving you can go without coffee for 6 weeks (I can’t). It’s about renewing our relationship with the one who sustains us, opening our ears to hear him guide us, opening our eyes to see where he nudges us to look, perhaps to open our arms to embrace his people somewhere we had not previously noticed, and perhaps to open our mouths to tell of his deeds, to tell of his presence alongside us, to tell of the abundance and the sweetness of that living water that is available to all. The living water which gushes up to eternal life.

And the woman who was quite prepared to share her hard-drawn water with this stranger at the well is just as prepared to share the prospect of the living water from which one will never be thirsty again with her community. She leaves the waterjar right there at the well and hastens back to call them. Come and see, she says.

Come and experience this for yourself. And they come. They hear her testimony and they set off to meet Jesus for themselves. They are Samaritans too, they are the outsiders, and here they are, recognising Jesus as ‘truly the Saviour of the world’. They came first because the woman recounted her experience, and then they heard and learnt for themselves. In today’s gospel example, Jesus sowed, the Samaritan woman entered into that labour, and the community reaped, reaped the receipt of the living water which refreshes for ever.

God is at work around us all the time. He is present and active in many lives, even if not recognised. His water is available to refresh us and to refresh others, to offer us and others eternal life in his embrace. Jesus tells his disciples Look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.

At faith and life we are opening our eyes to the places we might loiter at the well, to enter into the labour too, to share the offer of living water with others. We are beginning that with the Lenten discomfort of sharing our own stories with eachother, stories that the Lord already knows better than we do, stories that one day might draw someone else into the family of belonging which is our church, and thereby to believe, stories that might lead others to believe too, and then seek out believing in community.

We spend a lot of time thinking about trying to save water, being conscious of a lack of water, certainly clean water, in many places. But sometimes, just sometimes, and especially when the water is living water, maybe it’s time for us to all to think more abundantly about offering to share that gift with our communities? God *never* applies a hosepipe ban…

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…not your usual definition of 40 days in the wilderness…

Matthew 4:1-11

Welcome to the first Sunday in Lent. Lent, that time of fasting and denial, of introspection and mortification, of prayer and study, of hush and solemnity.

Or another one of those times I could talk about new year and new year’s resolutions. Because sometimes it does feel a bit like new year’s resolutions when people talk busily give things up – or, popular these days, take things on. Doesn’t always sound like there’s something special about the season of Lent then though.

Not that those ‘resolutions’ are at all a bad thing. Physical discipline could be as much as a Lenten discipline as spiritual discipline. Cutting out the midweek glass of wine or snacking, reducing coffee or cake intake (sorry, those who came to café yesterday!); making a conscious effort to eat your 5 a day, or going to the gym – these are discipline and denial which is Lenten, which help us to focus on our mortality, on our body, its fragility and importance, our incarnation in the world in the image of God.

So if extra prayer and study or silent reflection aren’t your thing for a Lenten discipline – why not get yourself across to Zumba?!

Or perhaps you don’t want to do anything, bible study or exercise, or avoid the curate’s baking. Perhaps you’d rather do nothing. Stephen Cherry led quite a campaign last year to be ‘not busy’ – but it doesn’t turn out to be nothing. The conscious effort to not be rushing around allows you the time to just be. And time where there’s time to just be is time to just be with God. Even if it’s not spent consciously in prayer, it provides time to talk to and listen to God – so you get a double whammy, the ‘giving up’ of something in order to be not busy and the taking up of stilling heart and mind into a place where you can be with God. And – you’re not busy. Win win.

If you can be ‘not busy’ in the first place. Which I confess I struggle with, but I do like the concept of not busy as Lenten practice, because it feels less like a new year’s resolution, or is at least a resolution specifically with God at the centre of it.

And putting God at the centre is our real focus during Lent. The focus Jesus puts in this morning’s gospel passage during the temptations in the wilderness.

+Mark said last week “at the beginning of Lent, I wonder if God is saying to each one of us: come on holiday with me and let’s do some good things together”. I liked that. This was taken up by someone else as ‘the chance to think of doing something more playful and creative in Lent. It obviously struck a chord.

What might that mean for us in Lent? What more ways are there to think about what to do in Lent?

Let’s have a look at Jesus’ three responses to the temptations in today’s gospel. How might we want to hear those as encouragement to us to put God at the centre, to do something playful or creative, to do some good things together?

One does not live by bread alone,
   but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.

I have lived in cultures where bread seems so much more important to society than it is here; where it is the main staple of every meal; and where the sense of ‘breaking bread’ and ‘breaking bread together’ is a much richer image than divvying out slices of value white.

When you see people testing and tasting artisan loaves (ie real bread) they do visibly and consciously break it, and marvel (or not, if it’s a cookery competition and something went horribly wrong) at the texture, the aroma, the warmth and life that ooze out. That is bread of life. A world away from blue stripe thin white slice. That is the kind of abundance that we seek in living as people of God. Not a blue stripe value life. No, one does not live by bread alone, but by the vibrant and abundant richness which is what God offers us.

So this Lent, I want to grasp my time with God, in prayer or study or music or fellowship, as though it were artisan bread, remembering that it is fresh for me every morning and evening, ready to spill forth life when broken. Might you join me in that?

In being conscious when eating bread that it isn’t just a basic foodstuff, but a fundamental fuel for our embodied identity, a distinctive part of our culture – the context in which we exist. Being conscious when eating, of all the other millions of fellow humans made in the image of God around the world doing similarly. Praying for them.

I shall be grateful that I have an opportunity to choose what bread I eat, and I will pray for those for whom value white sliced is the only affordable option; for those for whom bread is the only food at all available.

Do not put the Lord your God to the test.

I wonder what to be put to the test means. I’ve been pondering that, whether I put the Lord our God to the test? I read an article the other day about proof. Those who like certainty, evidence, proof; some scientists, some agnostics, plenty of Dawkins-esque new atheists would like God to be put to the test. They want us to provide ‘proof’ that God exists, but they struggle to see any need to ‘prove’ for their part that he does not.

Then there are those whose belief in physical healing through prayer might be called trust, but might sometimes feel like an expectation of God – an expectation which can cause devastating loss of faith if physical healing doesn’t happen – leaving a sense of catastrophic betrayal. I wonder if that is trust, or a test.

Then there’s the trading hope – God, if you just make little Poppy better, get Frank through this, then I’ll… go back to church every week or whatever. I wonder if that is trust, or a trade – a test.

So this Lent I want to be conscious of the times I think ‘Lord, just show me what you want me to do’; instead, I want to turn the test on myself, and ask myself what God is already showing me that I might not be noticing. Might you join me in that? Making a conscious effort to watch and listen for the answers. Answers to my own questions, and answers to others’. In Faith and Life at the moment, we’re looking at apologetics and evangelism – how to respond to others’ questions and disbeliefs or uncertainties or desires for proof about God.

Lent, that holiday with God at the centre, looking forward to doing good things together, seems a good time to be thinking about growing in confidence about not putting God to the test, about developing true trust and faith in him and in his care for us and for others. Growing in confidence to say “Lord, speak, for your servant is listening”. To say “Lord, I’m here, test me. Send me.”

Worship the Lord your God,
   and serve only him.

Lent is a time for challenge, personally and for us now as the body of Christ. Discomfort is a word the Vicar used in relation to moving the altar, as Lent as an appropriate time to do so. Will it become a resolution that we are glad to discard after the Lenten period, or will it become a new habit formed and sustained?

What does the altar here do for us? Well, it puts God in the very centre of us, a focus we cannot avoid. We hope that it will both physically and spiritually help us to draw nearer to God, and closer to each other. For a few weeks and maybe more, we are consciously making the effort to place our remembrance, our thanksgiving – our Eurcharist – at the centre of our gathering.

This renewed focus and approaching God, placing him at the centre of our personal and corporate lives is what Lent is for. Solemn reflection on the way to Jerusalem, the way to the passion, the cross and the resurrection is still worship – painful and poignant is just as much a part of worship as joyous and cheerful.

So we move the altar to help us be the body of Christ which we celebrate in the Eucharist and which we are innately more conscious of in Lent. To help us worship the Lord our God.

If we use our Lenten discipline to focus on God, to spend some quality time with him, to find time to worship and adore him, to talk to him and to listen to him, then we are already drawing nearer to serving only him. Some of our other Lenten give-ups might be from the serving of other gods – those of greed or consumerism. Re-focusing on God allows us to seek out ways we can serve him and only him.

Our holiday with God, our time just to be with God and see what we can do together – that doesn’t feel too solemn a Lenten task to me. In fact it sounds jolly creative, and yes, perhaps playful.

However you seek to mark Lent, I hope it is a holy and fulfilling few weeks in which you succeed in drawing closer to God. Amen.

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I may be cutting down my words. But I may not. I may be cutting down the time I spend near a computer, but I may not.

It’s been quite an armful of years now since with Matt Lingard and others we considered whether twitter (and its friends, many now fallen by the wayside) had won out over blogs and whether one should/might as well abandon one’s blog.

For the last year or so, I’ve been contemplating whether some of this has reversed, and whether blogging is back in. Sometimes, it’s entertaining to try and say what you might want to in 140 xrs, tweaking to maintain sense *and* grammar. Sometimes you know you really want to say more than four tweets which hopefully remain vaguely connected in people’s timelines. But you can’t actually be bothered to head over to a blog and collect those same thoughts into proper sentences. (sometimes you think that twitlongr really had legs)

My tabs have been creeping up again. So one of my lenten disciplines is to blog the things I’ve got marked ‘to blog’. And one to limit my tweeting (thank goodness I think will say some, but when I’ve planned to opt out before or have gone awol a while, people don’t like it – for which I thankyou, you’re too kind) – specifically limit, partly because it would be too easy just give it up. I don’t miss my facebook activity – not that I have ever been particularly addicted to facebook, so walking away altogether is I suspect less of a discipline than not switching it off, but just only retweeting.

Now, here’s the curiosities. If you only allow yourself to post links/retweet (cos it is often faster to get the news via timelines than wait for BBC news to load) then you can’t engage in conversation. If you say I’ll only engage in conversation that someone else started, ie, reply, then suddenly the balance of the conversation partners changes, and if you only ever reply and don’t say anything to reply to in the first place to begin a conversation, then people who regularly make an effort are likely to dry up and no longer bother. Which may be fine if you treat it as gradual withdrawal…

I’ve been really impressed recently by the quality of customer services – various, but particularly including couriers and lately the uk branch of ebay cs. Once upon ago there was uncertainty about companies getting into websites which were replicating dullnesses, so the advent of social media was a whole extra ballgame. I remember articles pointing out that some people were ‘with’ social media, but basically using twitter as an rss feed (which reminds me, twitter when it *had* an rss feed was a much nicer beast) pushing out stuff was a bad idea. It was, but people didn’t really know what else to do at the time. Now they’ve cracked it. Whatever else you do with your ‘corporate’ feed, you have plenty of customer service people permanently online, and with a high response rate. And it’s brilliant. You have no real idea if emails get directly sent on a rule to recycle, and if you phone you can guarantee it’s going to cost you money and time with the phone stuck to you till it’s your turn. But the companies who keep their customer services on the dot have utterly cracked it. And you tell people what a good job they’ve been doing – no auto generate email request to follow a link to fill in a feedback form. There it is, right away. You doing their marketing for them.

But if the place was just them, it wouldn’t work. There have to be the kind of conversations that go on around them. So the curious thing about conversations is how many of them should be not public – in the ‘other people don’t need to read this’ rather than ‘other people don’t need to read this’ way. Except that conversations grow and ripple out sometimes from almost nothing/something that didn’t need to be said, and that can create really creative ideas.

But what about blonde rubbish? Well, sweet though it is for people who know you to know you’re ok and still being you when you maintain the flow of blonde rubbish, or, conversely, know when you’re not being you and therefore can check up on you, to want you not to give up, this free source of entertainment for people is presumably the place to curb words. The problem with that is that the blonde rubbish also serves to build relationships with the people who don’t know you very well and perhaps mistakenly think you often know what you’re talking about – it is I’m sure more healthy to realise they are actually choosing to converse with someone who truly doesn’t always switch the light on in a morning.

You may not have noticed – seriously, I’d be worried if you did – that I’ve made a conscious* choice over the last couple of weeks to be removing old posts which are not retweets, links for my and others’ use, conversational tweets that were replied to, replies or things that were favourited and I adjuge for reason of showing agreement rather than keeping for reference. *well, I say conscious – partly prompted by the fact that twitter had an aberrational afternoon on me and posted duplicates, or so it looked like to me, but when I tried to delete the duplicate, I deleted others instead. But it got me deleting.

I’m doing this to remind me how much rubbish I post, and to be conscious of that. I don’t intend to post rubbish (although I can’t rule it out) for a while, say, you know, six weeks or so, but as much as not posting stuff without links I am also curious to see what effect it has on to what extent I reply. I’m already aware that because for a good couple of weeks I’ve not had chance to skim the timeline, I just glance a little, and hope madly that I’ve been copied in to something I missed in the original, or a reply caught into the bit of timeline that I managed. I do know I’ve missed loads of stuff. That was kind of stage one withdrawal, and deleting stuff stage two.

Some of me would love to go back to blogging more often, because I often see thoughts going past I want to capture, but that means being in one place, which I’m not, for any length of time, being at my computer, which is too cold to be for any length of time. But that will be my discipline for a while. I’ll still be here, but my words will be here too. Mostly. Or not mostly, since I noticed that I do go for long periods without really posting rubbish, more than I thought, certainly more recently. But then I suspect, though I most certainly haven’t stopped to analyse, they have been replaced by responses either directly or in conversations with multiple recipients, fluid enough for others to drop in/out, which most other social media don’t facilitate so well.

Anyway, if you notice me missing, I’m probably not, I’m just trying to think in longer sentences, and apply the discipline to refining words from thoughts already in head rather than collecting any more. But I’m not ignoring you :-)

[obviously, this was a habit that is unlikely to stick - I have written this in advance of Lent by over a week, it's sitting quietly scheduled for release when you notice I've gone quiet...if I've gone quiet. I bet I haven't, so you'll all be most confused...]

[[and you facebookers, no, I've not done a replace in that direction. you're still pretty much wasting your time using it to message me, I never go to check]]

[[[almost as soon as I prepared this post, I realised how dull my feed is without the randomness, I bored even myself. So you might as well ignore all the above, I think the experiment is over before it began... :-) ]]]

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Matthew 6:25-34

worry

Do not worry. About what you will eat, or drink, or wear, or about warmth or shelter. God knows your needs.

Today is one of those passages which we’d love to trust in – that our heavenly father knows our needs and will provide, but hesitate. Will he, ‘just like that’?

But life’s not really like that, is it? Too many do worry about food and shelter.

The bishops got in to trouble with the government this last week by standing up and calling in the media for change, for truth-telling about the levels of food poverty and its causes in the cutbacks and failures of welfare reform, for the need to worry about how people get food and drink and shelter and warm clothes. They are worried. They are calling on the country to worry with them, and act.

So how does that square with our readings this morning? Do not worry.

Worrying can take a huge amount of effort. It can blind us to the world around us. Can dim the colours of creation, the brightness of a smile, dull the sound of laughter and song, flatten the taste of good food, make us hesitate to enjoy friendships, render us insensitive to the texture of our lives. Leave us living in a state almost of suspended animation, existing but not living, in harmony with the world, with eachother and with God.

In this section of the sermon on the mount Jesus is urging us to cast off those preoccupations which get between us and God. Food and shelter are unarguably needful, but the passage calls us to think beyond those. It is less about a particular concern for bodily necessities and more about encouraging the disciples, the crowd, us to commit totally to God trusting him in all things.

It’s about leaving aside debilitating anxieties or distracting self-interests which prevent us from focussing on God and making Him the core of our lives. About beginning and ending with God, leaving behind paralysing anxiety and gaining hope and reassurance.

Love, perfect love, said the Archbishop in his homily at general synod, casts out fear.

Do not worry is about grounding ourself in faith, in that love, letting go of fear. Shedding anxieties, and developing trust.

Today’s gospel comes just after the section on storing treasure in heaven or on earth. The verse directly before our gospel reading began, had we read it, would have been ‘No-one can serve two masters…you cannot serve both God and money’.

Do not worry means dropping our consumerist competition over labels, or brands or models. Over what things cost or if they are fashionable. Our enslavement to the marketers’ desires, making us following them, rather than a steward of God’s creation, conscious of our own actual ‘need’ and of others’.

The more-more-bigger-better wagon is all too easy to get on, and all too hard to get off. And the more central a role it plays in the life of our communities, the more vicious a circle of discontentment, disappointment and anxiety it creates. How to afford the right pair of trainers – will a child be bullied if they don’t fit in with the right bag, or phone, or social life? How to choose between keeping up outward appearance or keeping the heating on? How to change a culture that cares more about gadgets or outward appearances than it does about gifts and inner spirits?

Do not worry. Cast off this anxiety. We are all made in the image of God, and need no trappings to mask or embellish this. Looking for the image of God, seeing the image of God and reflecting the image of God is recognising the glory of the lilies of the field. One cannot serve two masters. Let us leave aside the pursuit of money, and pursue instead a simple and holy relationship with God, in tune and in harmony with him and each other.

What other anxieties can we shed? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to the span of your life? No. Our lives are precious, whatever their length, but what good is it for us to fritter away any of that time being preoccupied by other things?

Better to concentrate on the quality of the life that we have, to revel in its relationships, to seek God in others, to love as he loves us, to make every second count, and to offer each and every one of those moments in thankfulness and celebration to God. The glory of God, said Ireneaus, is a human being fully alive. So let us cast off hesitation and procrastination, and live as God wills us to. Which allows us to serve, but also will allow us to be served, when we are in need and others can live through helping us.

And what about worrying about tomorrow? Planning for the future, ensuring stability for parents or for children, of course. But does tomorrow cause us unnecessary anxiety too? It is all too easy to focus on tomorrow and forget about today.

Today’s trouble is enough for today. Today has its own beauties which we would do well to linger in – the birdsong at sunrise, as we long for it to hurry up and be lighter sooner; the painterly colours across the skyline as we impatiently await the longer evenings. The cuddle of a child who will all too soon be too big to clamber on our knee.

But yes, today also has its own issues which we want to hold before God, lament or wonder. Its frustrations and hurts, through which we can learn about ourselves and about him. Its pain, through which we can feel God’s embrace, see the one set of footsteps take over.

Do not worry. Worry is focussed away from God. We should turn to God, strive first for the kingdom of God. Then will all that leads us astray and into destructive anxiety fall away, and all that makes us people of hope and of salvation shine forth.

Then, (from the Romans reading) we can look forward to the time all creation will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

So do not worry. Today is one of those passages which we should trust. Our heavenly Father does know our needs and longs to provide for us. When we let him. When we are lonely, do not worry, but let’s seek his presence; when bereft, seek his strength; when fearful his comfort; hesitant, his courage; hopeless or helpless, his healing.

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It was a question asked of us, some years ago now, as part of the Living Theology course. Phrased more particularly as:

What will you be remembered for at dinner a year after your death?

Easy, I thought at the time. No thinking required, for me, or for anyone who knew me, who might have been asked .

I remember realising soon after I arrived at Westcott that these new people wouldn’t get the right answer, since they’d have no reason to know. And then I met Andy B, we found the lonely coffee machine and the empty room, and founded the cafe, and the rest, as they say… Once, just once, I attempted to do a vague calculation of just how many cakes/cupcakes/charity cupcakes have passed me by. Just once. I really should upload a flickr collection.

What will I be remembered for at dinner a year after my death?

maddy4

Maddy’s 4th birthday; I was in San Diego so it had to be freezable.
The pink iced cake was plain, the vanilla iced cake was pink.

Cake*

Because cake =

cake cuphospitality
fellowship
eating together
caring for people
invitation
effort
acceptance
nurturing
sharing
love
Love.

That is who they say that I am.

And, well, sometimes history repeats itself.

So I’m quite excited for the new Saturday venture in our church hall this weekend.

Slide4

Slide6It’s a first step. On the way to a couple of things I have in mind. A ‘Bread of Life’ group, and a ‘Cake Believe’ group…
Bring. It. On.

 

*admittedly, most people would actually say “that chocolate cake”. Which is fine. Can you please bury me somewhere you can put the kladdkaka recipe on my headstone…? Also a bit of a giveaway that at least two children have grown up calling me Cake. That’s fine too. You can put that on my headstone as well, if you like.

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Matthew 5.13-20

Our Gospel passage this morning comes from what’s often referred to as ‘the sermon on the mount.’ It comes right after the Beatitudes, part of the same section of ‘teaching of the disciples’ “after he sat down, his disciples came to him.” Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying”. The beatitudes merge into the passage we just heard: several Blessed are theys, then a blessed are you then these exhortations to be salt and light in the world. The teaching carries on beyond where we leave off, but there’s more than enough in this passage itself. I just want to focus on the salt and light.

We know that salt was more important those days than it is today as a seasoning and a preservative, but the illustrations are not lost on us. Even if we know what our daily salt intake shouldn’t exceed (that’s 6g for a healthy adult), most of us would agree that chips are never the same with out salt (and most of the best cake recipes also include salt).

Salt brings out a fullness in cooking. It’s the most common seasoning around the world, from first century Palestine to twenty-first century England.

(It’s also used as a fertiliser, so it brings out the best in the growth of seeds sown. It’s also a disinfectant, and used to purify. These last two are less common uses of salt for us today.)

What are we to make of this call to be salt of the earth? Salt, like yeast works by being in and amongst, working its magic – if I can use that word – from being spread out and mixed in. Offering a distinctiveness which makes a difference. Bringing out the best and trying to be a compass for good. That is what we are called to.

Being spread out mixed in means our faith is not for Sundays only, just when we are gathered together – if I were to swallow all this 6g together it would be a pretty nasty experience, but we are to take our faith out of here and we are to be seasoning, bringing fullness, bringing life to the world around us in which we spend the rest of the week.

Some wonderful diagrams were used at the Preparing the Ground for Growth day we went on. One had two identical squares. One a simplistic outline representing a church building, the other a line drawing of the earth. The caption: how we see the church and how God sees the church.

 

And that’s important because this verse is more than a call to be the salt of the earth. We are not to be the salt of the earth. We are the salt of the earth. As we listen to it today, especially on the eve of another General Synod, the rest of the verse might actually be calling us more to examine how successfully we’re being it. We’ll come back to that in a moment.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells us “I am the light of the world” and here, as with the salt, in his ‘sermon’ to his followers, he tells them, tells us: “You are the light of the world…”

What are lights for?

Lights are meant to be seen. “There can be no such thing as secret discipleship, for either the secrecy destroys the discipleship, or the discipleship destroys the secrecy” (Barclay) “A man’s [we’ll forgive him the lack of inclusive language] Christianity should be perfectly visible to all men” ie it should not be visible only within the church. A Christianity whose effects stop at the church door is not much use to anyone.” Remarkably like that little drawing…

In Sweden it’s rarely common practice to use central ceiling lights. In fact many homes don’t even have fittings. Homes are lit with lamps and candles. But one lamp always makes me know I’m in Sweden. It’s the placing of a lamp in all the windows – and it’s usually the first to be lit as it gets dark. There’s something hugely cosy about walking down a street and seeing lights twinkling in all the windows. This light isn’t really for the people inside the room, but for those outside. It offers hospitality, encourages people on their way, draws them in. In England we draw our curtains with the lights on the inside, and leave gloomy darkness outside for passersby to be swallowed up in. I always notice it.

Lights are meant to be seen, and lights are guides. Markers along the edge of a river, down a road, illuminating an airstrip approach, lights make clear the way. As Christians (as church) we are called to be guides, markers, examples. Examples of the life Jesus lived and the life that he taught. Examples of a loving community focussed on eachother and those around us. Examples of concern and care for those people we think of when we hear the Beatitudes, the poor, the grieving, the lost, those seeking justice, those who are persecuted. (even if that’s not quite the list)

Visible examples of care, of healing, of community, of active service, of longing for and work toward justice. Guides along the way. But along the way to God. We are called to be lights, way markers, guides with a purpose which goes beyond the immediate concern for neighbour. That would be Rotary. We are to be ‘Rotary with a pointy roof’ and more. It should point somewhere. “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven”.

In a theoretical discussion of ‘types’ of church, there is always a question between the servant model – which may say it doesn’t matter if the poor know it is Christians that are feeding them, what matters is that the poor are fed. Other types, the herald, or the prophet, would argue that it is absolutely crucial that the poor know it is the grace of God which mediates the bread being put in their hands.

I saw this lived out once, the church where a friend did his placement ran a youth club in a local high school. They consciously made no reference to the church at all, in order not to put anyone off or offend anyone; it had been set up to respond to a need, not to evangelise; never the less there was a growing unease that this was a wonderful opportunity for the children to learn about the church and its priorities, if only they knew it had anything to do with the club in order to ask…

It may be a fine line between views on either side of the theory, but it is not in doubt in today’s gospel, which calls us to remember that Jesus, the light of the world, passes that baton on to us, entreats us to “let our light shine before others, that they may see our good works [not to praise us] but give glory to our Father.

Do we let our light shine, shine brightly before others? Do they know what the light and the path is which guides us? Or do we – almost literally – hide our light under a bushel? When that phrase is used in the way it has passed into common parlance, it implies a personal gift which one does not push forward. Matthew, in Jesus’ sermon on the mount, might want us to rethink:- what a personal gift! How could one hide such an amazing gift from others, how can we keep – how can we justify – keeping our faith to ourselves?

Indeed. For let’s come back to that verse about salt. “…if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot”. In another time, in another place, one might be encouraged to question the value of church which focuses on the inside of the box, not the whole earth.

Genuine questions are being asked of whether the time has come for the established church to be abolished, or for rural churches (or even urban ones) with less than 10 people to be closed, that the salt be set free from worrying about buildings or arguing about structures. Lots of people – so the media would have us believe – would be happy to see the Church trampled underfoot.

But that’s not a question for here, for now. Our question for here, for now, is for the step before that. Has our salt lost its taste (Have we hidden that amazing light of Christ under a bushel, behind a curtain)? And if so, how can that saltiness be restored?

Might that be by joining the Lent or prayer group? By more involvement in through the week activities? By looking to make a retreat, on our own, or suggesting a group outing? What helps our faith to shine before others, giving light to all?

How can we best bring out the best around us and be a compass for good? How can we best be those visible examples of care, of healing, of community, of active service, of longing for and work toward justice?

How can we enable our light to shine most brightly to the glory of our Father in heaven?

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