Last things

This is the last of 432 blogs. Tomorrow I retire, and there will be no more entries on the blog.

So my thanks to all who have read the entries over the last eight-or-so years; I hope they have kept alive some sense of God in you.

 

One final thought; when I was ordained I wanted to put at the service of God such small talent as I have with words, and the blog was a major part of this. It surprised me that anyone would read it, so I’ve been amazed to hear from folk in Australia and the US, Scotland and nearer to home, who have made kind comments about it. So the message is this, and it’s one which is repeated time and again in Scripture, and we find it on the lips of Jesus; put yourself in the service of God, and be surprised how it will turn out- for good.

 

May you find, in the words of the 4th century Saint Damasus, “Hope, Life, Way, Salvation, Understanding, Wisdom, Light, Judge, Door, Most High, King, Precious Stone, Prophet, Priest, Messiah, Sabaoth, Teacher, Spouse, Mediator, Sceptre, Dove, Hand, Stone, Son and Emmanuel, Vineyard, Shepherd, Sheep, Peace, Root, Vine-stock, Olive Tree, Source, Wall, Lamb, Victim, Lion, Intercessor, Word, Man, Net, Rock, House: Christ Jesus is everything!”

 

God go with you.

Glossy hair- and real life

Adverts for shampoo baffle me. They all contain wonder ingredients (‘Now with ‘Pixillated Horology essence working for your hair!’) which mean nothing to the likes of you and me-it might as well be snake oil. It might be snake oil for all I know, except that by now the Advertising Standards Authority should have caught up with them. I guess that in a thirty-second pitch, blinding the consumer with science, plus a sight of glossy, luxuriant hair (when did you last see short hair in a shampoo ad?) is all that can be got away with.

 

A short pitch, with a modicum of quasi-science; it’s a good job that most of our important decisions in life can be made on firmer, more thought-through foundations. I think of the work of parenting- long, with much imbibed by the child without the need for parents’ words; I think of the work of our schools, where ‘values’ are much to the fore these days, and especially in the four primary schools in our parish which I have been privileged to be part of for the past nine-years-plus.

 

This week , and tomorrow, I have had a part/will have a part, in the leaving services at our three church schools, and as I look at the fine 11 year olds who are leaving to go on to secondary education, I’m conscious of the patient work, the long-haul, of schools and parents, showing by example, explaining, not just a million facts and educational skills, but what it means to be fully human, rounded, balanced, able to weigh up the good, the shoddy, the snake oil of life.

 

‘The glory of God is a person fully alive’ said Irenaeus of Lyons back in the 2nd Century. More than just shiny hair then! Fully alive to all the possibility that heaven and earth offers to live to the glory of God, and for each other. Our prayers go with these youngsters as they move out of primary school; and maybe we can spare a thought for ourselves, as we reflect on where we might be more fully alive.

Time and eternity

From all that we know about the Reformation, whose beginning  500 years ago is just now being  celebrated, the late mediaeval mind was much concerned with the hereafter; the notion of eternity and one’s destiny in that eternity filled the horizon of ordinary citizens of that time. Move forward to today, and that focus seems to have entirely gone. We are concerned with now, and much of our thinking has junked any thoughts of the meaning of our life set in eternity. Both views, then and now have their ironies; for the man or woman of 1519 the issue of making ends meet now in a very uncertain world, and where the next meal might come from, was also very real. Today, science has opened up a vast universe, with vistas of time stretching over billions of years, and yet today fills our thoughts.

 

This tension of ‘now’ and ‘eternity’ we somehow have to juggle; and for many, the needs of today are of primary concern. But I wonder if we have, individually and corporately, boxed ourselves into a corner with our very short-term, ‘today’ perspective? Ecologists call us to remember that we are stewards of the earth, called to pass it on in good shape to our grandchildren and their heirs. The faith calls us to live in the light of eternity, doing reckless good to neighbour and enemy alike, as we live for God, and hope to come to him after death.

 

‘She has gone to God’- a phrase I use at funerals. It is said not as something slick, but a reminder that we live in an world set in eternity, both of time, and of quality- the realities of good, right, kindness, justice, peace, which Jesus came to open to us now. So that the time we have here, now, might be rich in those realities, and make now, today, a foretaste of the eternal qualities of heaven. May it be so for you today and this week.

Building

Mary and I have lived opposite Tockwith church for the past nine-and-a-half years, and been involved in all its major events over that time, perhaps most notably the 150th anniversary celebrations last year. Before 1866, Church of England people living here had to go to Bilton, two miles away, to worship.

 

What surprises me is that in an age when photography was becoming more popular, I have seen no photos of the raising of the church; it appears, fully formed, in later eras, but there is no visual record of its building. Yes, there is a verbal account published in the newspapers of the day, which includes details of previous ownership of the land it was built on, but it is left to our imagination to see it built in our mind’s eye over the year or two prior to 1866.

 

I use this merely as an illustration- I love our other four churches just as much as Tockwith- of the inescapable truth that our churches are always being built. I have moved from buildings to people, I know, but we are by no means fully formed. I smile as I read that last sentence to myself- sometimes I wonder if we’ve even progressed beyond the footings. Individually and collectively, we are always a ‘work in progress’- maintaining the building (and all our churches know what a huge task this is- the buildings all cost a minimum of £40 a day to keep open) and maintaining the faith of the people of God, and seeking in one way or another to build up and add to our numbers, and build up our communities by acts of service, by being salt and light.

Life’s a pilgrimage

Those last few miles into Santiago de Compostela, through industrial suburbs, across busy urban roads, and a faceless housing estate- how the feet dragged! How I longed just to get there!  How different from the confident and springy steps of the first day’s walking!

 

This all comes to mind, eight years after that pilgrimage, as this week I’ve been reflecting on how as a teenager it seemed so easy to fall in with Christ, to be changed by him, and change the world to how it should be. Now, in the bigger pilgrimage of life, and a thousand years later, I’m much more aware of how unformed to Christ I am, how slow my reactions to being changed by him, how much I hedge around any thought of changing the world for the better.

 

OK, I’m not alone in this- it’s a well-documented feature of mature organisations that they slow down, become inward looking and more conservative. And the organisations can only be a reflection of the people who run them. So fresh blood is called in to revitalise operations.

 

I hadn’t meant to end up here, justifying why it’s good that I go, retire, so that someone new can come and head up the team. I’d meant to reflect on the need for a ‘blood transfusion’ as it were, for myself. It’s happened before, that God has kicked out the jams, and I’m grateful that he has, although at times I’ve resisted the change. I wouldn’t be the person I am today- albeit imperfect, slow, recalcitrant, and all the rest

This weekend

The end of last week and today will have brought together all three ‘occasional offices’- hatching, matching and dispatching to put it more colloquially. ‘Offices’ from the Latin ‘duty’, ‘occasional’ in that it’s not an everyday occurrence to baptise, marry, bury the dead.

 

Each carries their own joys, even a funeral. Mrs. M was 93, and we had known her as a faithful church member, gracious lady, good neighbour. Her slow decline over the last year has meant that we could not be sad when she died. It was a mercy, and there was much to celebrate as we gathered to give thanks for a good life, well-lived, and commend her on her final journey as she goes to God.

 

Baptisms and weddings are not always occasions of unalloyed joy; there may be the family member who is missing, and missed. It may have opened up fault lines in families, but generally, few will know of these, and amid the smart clothes, even the disastrous clothes, the day will be a happy one, as it should be.

 

Perhaps surprisingly, the occasion which will give me most joy out of the three will be the baptisms today, when two adults are being baptised. A baby’s baptism is a wondrous thing, and I love those occasions, but when an adult steps forward and says ‘I want to make it public that I’m on the inside of this God-thing’, then all the bunting goes out as far as I’m concerned. It may be inchoate what they believe, it may be unable to be articulated at all, but I take it as a stirring of God in their life, and that they want to mark it with a line that says ‘I’ve crossed that’.

 

There have been lines all over this weekend; a line stepped over as a couple begin married life, a line crossed over as Mrs. M goes to God, and lines marked which say’ I’m now on this side of the faith’.  We may not see them, but we also cross them all the time- what have been the lines you have crossed, and especially, the ones which have brought you closer to God?

This part of the church year

We’re fresh into the Trinity Season- that long, expansive time which takes up about half the church’s year. Or, looking at it another way characterised by a different nomenclature- we’re in Ordinary Time.

 

I love both these names, and what they say to me. Trinity season says; ‘We’ve spent the time from the end of November to Pentecost looking at the life of Jesus. More specifically, we’ve prepared ourselves for his coming (Advent), celebrated his birth and its meaning (Christmas) we’ve looked at his revealing himself  (Epiphany). We’ve walked with him his road of self-denial (Lent) to the cross (Passiontide and Holy Week) celebrated his resurrection (Easter) and the sending of his Holy Spirit in the birthday of the Church (Pentecost). Now, in the weeks up to the end of November, in Trinity season, we can explore more fully, newly empowered by the Holy Spirit, how we as Jesus’ successors, take those words and works out into a world looking for authenticity, and all to the glory of the Father.

 

In a complementary way, Ordinary Time has the same message about the time from Advent to Pentecost, and says about the weeks from now to the end of November ‘God is in the ordinary. In fact as we aim to live for God, taking on board all we have learned from Jesus’ life, all we know about the Fatherhood of God,  and with the gift of his Holy Spirit, the ordinary becomes extraordinary, full of possibility, suffused with the divine’. George Herbert put it supremely well;   Teach me, my God and King, In all things Thee to see, And what I do in anything To do it as for Thee.

This poem- The Elixir- captures both  Trinity Season and Ordinary Time; This is the famous stone/ That turneth all to gold;/ For that which God doth touch and own/ Cannot for less be told.

 

Julian of Norwich put it another way; Lord, let not our souls be busy inns that have no room for thee or thine, But quiet homes of prayer and praise, where thou mayest find fit company,
Where the needful cares of life are wisely ordered and put away, And wide, sweet spaces kept for thee; where holy thoughts pass up and down And fervent longings watch and wait thy coming.”

Both extra-ordinary.

Voyaging

Seeing the expanse of water grow between the ship and the dock we had just left- this was 1999, and we were taking two trucks full of aid to a children’s hospice in Romania- I remember thinking ‘we can’t go back now’. Who could tell what might lie ahead? It was certainly an adventure, and a bit scary at times, but the six of us made it there and back, and then collapsed with tiredness.

 

In fact, for much of the voyage from Hull to Ostend, the ship sails parallel to the English coast, which can sometimes be seen. The ship is not a small dot in the middle of a vast ocean, but rather something with a friendly neighbour not too far away.

 

These thoughts arise as we continue to make slow progress in packing up, ready to move in August. More stuff ‘not wanted on voyage’ has been sent to the charity shops.  And the complexity of modern life! The list of who-has-to-be-informed-of-the-new-address seems to get longer every day.

 

There’s been a gradual unhitching from the moorings of the parish since harvest time last year, as with each yearly celebration since that time- All Saints tide, Remembrance day, Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Candlemas, Lent, Easter, and most recently Pentecost- it has been borne in on me to a greater or lesser extent ‘This is the last time I shall celebrate this in this parish’.

 

It would be foolish to let my head be swayed by those kindly-meant phrases which add up to ‘I don’t know what we’ll do without you.’ Mary and I will voyage with God, and it may be something of a scary adventure at times. The parish will journey with God, and it may be a scary adventure at times. But God is more than the friendly neighbour not too far away- nearer than breath, closer than a friend.  All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well, as Julian of Norwich has it.

Pentecost

One of the features of life as a child on the other side of the Pennines were the Whitsun Walks; bands, banners and all and sundry from the Protestant churches in a town marching through to a great service in a municipal park on Whit Sunday- or Pentecost, as it’s now known. The nearest I came to it would have been as a cub, in a parade with all the scouts and cubs of the town for St. George’s Day, but the memory of that inflexible point in the calendar informs my imagination as I write about what was a big feature of church life just after the war. The might, majesty dominion and power- such as it was- of the northern Protestant churches in full flower, witnessing to God in a walk.

 

Today’s celebration in our villages will be lower key. I have asked that all who come shall wear something red, (red being the liturgical colour of the season), but more importantly red as a witness to the tongues of flame settling on the disciples on that first Pentecost, which we read about in the Book of Acts. Flame as a sign of something new and fiery going on in the world as God pours out his Holy Spirit ‘on all flesh’ at St. Peter puts it; flame as a sign of the Holy Spirit’s consuming all our dross; flame as a part of the light of God; flame as something dangerous and powerful, not to be constrained by the machinations of man.

 

So no bands, no banners, nothing grand; but still in our small way a witness to the hope that is within us, that God is transforming us and this world in to what he wants us, and it to be, through us and despite us.

 

We shall pray, as the church has prayed continually since that first Pentecost ‘Come, Holy Spirit, kindle in us the fire of your love’ so that as we walk through life, we may be, individually and corporately, a witness to his transforming grace. A bit like the Whitsun Walks.

Let me count the ways…

‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways….’ Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s lines were heard yesterday in the wedding I conducted at the far end of the parish. The poem pours forth a litany of images and realities which stretch the writer’s life. I wonder if at that stage she knew her father would disinherit her for her love and marriage to Robert Browning; ‘I love thee with the breath/Smiles, tears of all my life’ she writes. And so it was- the fifteen years she was married to Browning were spent in exile, in Italy. All her life was gathered into him, and into her son, after the family rejected her.

 

I doubt that price she paid for her marriage was known about as the poem was read yesterday. Weddings can be starry-eyed, so that it’s a great corrective when a couple chooses that very popular reading from 1 Corinthians as the scripture reading in a marriage service. I wonder how many realise how gritty that passage is? Written for ordinary folk, not just for wedding couples, but for slaves, merchants, wives, philosophers- anyone living in Corinth who had been converted to the new faith of Jesus- it maps out to that disputatious and unruly lot (read the preceding chapters of Paul’s first letter to Corinth) the contours, the hard contours, of the love which should exist in all relationships where the faithful are gathered. Paul talks of patience (ouch!), self-control (double ouch!) and a whole lot more besides. It’s far from a refined and perfumed romance. It’s a love that works in the market, in the home, everywhere.

 

Far from her childhood home in Durham, Elizabeth Barret Browning died after fifteen years of marriage in Florence, aged 56. She had written of perfect devotion, a great opening out and flowering as she gave herself to love.

 

All this would temper the reception of the poem, were it known at the wedding. Like the reading from 1 Corinthians, it pulls us into a real world, which transcends the ‘today’ of a wedding, and pulls us into the long-haul ofmarriage- where patience, self-control and a whole lot more beside occupy much more of the stage than starry-eyed romance.