Monday, 3 February 2020

Wilderness Lenten Renewal

I have often wondered what Jesus’ experience in the wilderness might actually have been like. The account of this is read at the beginning of our Lenten observance and acts as background to the church's call to do what Jesus did: to pray, to enter a period of self examination and to listen for the leading voice of God.

In the early 2000s I remember reading Jim Crace’s novel, ‘Quarantine’ which retells this story, but in the novel, Jesus is one of a handful of people who have retreated to the Judean wilderness in search of enlightenment. On his way into the desert, Jesus stumbles across the tent of Musa, a selfish and brutal trader who has fallen ill and been abandoned by all but his long-suffering and pregnant wife. Musa’s health revives; the ‘miracle’ is credited to the mysterious Galilean, who has hidden himself in an almost inaccessible cave to pray and fast. Musa lingers in the area, hoping for another encounter with the holy man while shrewdly exploiting the quarantiners and recovering his strength.

Later Musa, abandoned and alone in the desert, encouraged by a fleeting vision of a resurrected Jesus, sets off once more along the caravan ways and ‘trades the word’ of the man in the desert who ‘defeated death’.

The original meaning of ‘quarantine’ is ‘a period of forty days’, hence the title of Crace’s novel of a forty-day sojourn in the desert. But the word’s modern English significance – a period of isolation imposed on people to prevent the spread of disease – is timely in the light of the coronavirus epidemic in China. Musa’s sickness and recovery set the novel in motion. The Christian message as summarised by Musa at the end of the novel is not ‘Love thy neighbour’ but ‘Be well’. Having starved himself to death, Jesus gives rise in Musa’s shadowed mind to the notion that death itself can be defeated. ‘ "Be well," he told me. And I am well.’

Lent is calling to us, beginning on 26th February this year. During the season we will have the opportunity to 'be well' with God through prayer, as Jesus did, and to grow in confidence in our praying.

As our study this year we will be using 'The Prayer Course' by Pete Grieg, which will give us resources to develop a growing confidence in and an invitation to explore styles to enrich our praying. The material all centres around the Lord's Prayer so there will be some familiarity. There is also an excellent accompanying book called 'How To Pray' and I commend both highly to you. Please look for days and times of when the groups are meeting and do join us.

Later in the year I will have time to 'be well' as I have been invited to take some extended time away from the parish to pray, reflect and listen for the leading of the voice of God. I have been given the opportunity to take Extended Study Leave by the Bishop. This period of time used to be called a 'sabbatical' and it is an extended block of time which is offered to clergy every ten years under certain circumstances. I am very grateful to be able to take this time.

I will be away from parish ministry from the beginning of September and returning in time for Advent. This time is a gift. It is not an extended holiday or a jolly, but the opportunity to do a number of things: to rest, to renew relationships with others and with God, and to be refreshed in one's own study, learning and experience.

I have plans for the time: I will be exploring silence in different contexts - monastic, on pilgrimage and in solitude. I have an extensive reading list to work through and I  will be blogging about the impact of extended silence on me and on my faith and prayer. I will also be spending time with family and friends.

I will be at home at the Vicarage off and on during this time. I know you will, but please respect that I will be off duty, so any day to day parish questions can as usual be dealt with by Elaine in the office, by the Wardens and of course by Sam. Please don't quarantine me though! Do stop and chat if you see me around.

Sam will be covering much of the parochial ministry during that time with the wider ministry team, the PCC and by you all. Please do pray for him and support him especially during that time.

Following His time in the wilderness, Jesus began His public ministry with a fresh vision of the Kingdom of God. I know I will return from this time refreshed and renewed but I also hope that I return with a fresh vision of the Kingdom of God in this parish and to see it being revealed by, to and through each of us.

Snowdrops, Brexit, that statement and the Light...

I just noticed the snowdrops in the front garden the other day, already in full bloom. The appeared almost unnoticed. They are the first heralds of spring. Something of beauty; so precious and small, yet steely enough to burst through earth as hard as iron. For centuries, Christian folk have seen in the snowdrop a sign of hope and new life, and also something bitter-sweet. Their beauty is fading and fleeting. When each flower raises its head above the earth there is no fanfare, no great trumpeting of spring like the loud and confident daffodils. The snowdrop emerges somewhat forlorn, bowing her pale head, almost unnoticed. They were once commonly known as ‘Candlemas Bells’, and in one folk rhyme we are told that ‘The Snowdrop, in purest white array, First rears her head on Candlemas day.’ 

As we pack away the crib with the figures of the wise men and the Holy Family for another year, do the community living and working around our church buildings and us as church people, notice? As our celebrations of Christmas formally end today - the world shaping news that God has left His heaven and quietly, almost unnoticed come and dwelt among us, has it made a jot of difference to the landscape of our lives or to our community?

As Mary and Joseph made their way into the Temple with the child Jesus to do for him what was right under the Law, I suspect that they too wanted to remain unnoticed - a child born out of marriage, having had angelic, and then Gentile visitors, with much being said about their son - I suspect the Holy Family were happy to be nameless and faceless in the crowds. Yet like all of the poor and downtrodden, the nameless and faceless in society, the Holy Family were seen by God through the eyes of Anna and Simeon.

What was it that made Anna come rushing up? What was it that made Simeon and Anna notice this one child in the middle of the crowd? What was it that made Simeon sing his song?

We have to remember as we try to answer these questions that Simeon and Anna had been there for years, praying and getting themselves ready.  Ready for the Kingdom to come. They were waiting, watching and looking for something to happen. For God to happen. They waited with open eyes. Eyes searching the crowded temple, eyes, though old still looking for a greater revelation of God’s love.

And what did they see? Well, they saw a baby. Just a baby. An ordinary baby.  Yet, the readiness that Anna and Simeon came with that day, helped them to see that this was something special.  They saw that the king of heaven had been born into an ordinary family who could barely afford the right sacrifice.

They saw because they were looking. They saw it because they were the ones with open eyes.

Remember the heart of Simeon’s song – “My eyes have seen the salvation which you have made ready” My eyes have seen… They say that seeing is believing, and for these two elderly believers, it was true. They saw through open, expectant hearts.

The drama of this morning’s Gospel, the revelation of God born as one of us, meets us in the midst of the worship of the Temple.

In the East, this feast that we celebrate together is not called the Presentation of Christ, nor Candlemas, it has a name which is simple and in a way more profound. It is called “The Meeting”, or “The Encounter”.

I have found this last week really tough what with the House of Bishop's supposedly Pastoral Statement about sexual ethics and whose legally acknowledged love is allowed to be blessed by God and Brexit which pains me to the core, and both have left me asking about where I belong. And yet I have found myself wanting to be here, because here we gather from a whole mixture of views and viewpoints and we meet together to share scripture and sacrament and encounter the One who entered our world unnoticed but does not leave it unchanged.

The impact of our worship on our lives must not go unnoticed. For as we hear the Scriptures read, as we sing and pray and as we share bread and wine, we encounter God in Christ Himself in our midst and that encounter cannot leave us unchanged if we come to him as Simeon and Anna did, patiently waiting to encounter Him with expectant, open hearts.

You see, there's no point in worshipping at all, if we don’t encounter Christ. It doesn’t matter what time or day, what we say or sing, if we leave that time not changed or challenged by something God has said to us as we have prayed, heard or sung. If we leave the church door, the same person as we entered it - we need to ask what have we been worshipping?

As Christmas formally ends today we need to remember that there is no point in worshipping Christ in the manger if we ignore him in the streets, no point in celebrating the coming of Light into the world, if we still choose to linger in darkness, no point in hoping for changed lives or communities if our life and world is not transformed by the life of Christ in Word and Sacrament.

We can't do anything to take away that darkness, even for those whom we most love... but we can shine the light of Jesus into all those dark situations, our PCC said something about that this week, and I believe that's what today is about. It's what being Christian is about.

Today at the end of the service we will carry our candles, and fill the church with their light as a reminder that Christ the light has come into the world.

But when we leave this building, - that's when the light we carry must really begin to shine. It's the light of faith and the light of good works.....the things we believe and the ways in which they lead us to live a different kind of life.

Light to be kindled with the flame of love...our love for God and God's love for us.

Light to show up whatever is grubby or broken or sad...but light that also, gradually, pushes back the darkness so that it is as if it had never been there.

That's the light we are each given to carry in our lives.  Light that shines through our own acts of love and kindness.  Light passed on to others in a kind of loving relay, just as when we light our candles here we send the flame from one to another til at last the whole place is full of love and light again.

That's quite a goal - for us, and for our community. But I truly believe this is the point of our being here, the outcome of our worship of God, to build a community together where Christ fills us - people who may otherwise go unnoticed - with light to shine with the love of God so that our friends and neighbours can't help but notice, and be drawn in their turn to the light and love of God beyond anything that we could imagine or attain on our own.

Today Christmas is over – but the light still shines in the darkness, and the darkness will never put it out. The light from the stable is indeed, as Simeon proclaimed, a light to show God to the nations, and to bring glory to God's people... And that light is ours to carry into God's world every day of our lives, through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

A Pastoral Statement from the PCC

The House of Bishops of the Church of England recently issued a Pastoral Statement which addressed issued of sexual ethics and who's legally acknowledged relationships could be blessed by the church. The statement can be read here.

The PCC met recently and expressed our sorrow that such a statement could be released; we recognised the hurt that it will cause many; and the damage that it will do to the way that church is viewed by the people of our nation.

We resolved to state clearly who we are as a parish in the statement enclosed below: