The silly season

The weather always provides a good amount of news for the papers during August. Photos of happy families on packed beaches, hot tourists taking refuge in cool fountains – it’s the stuff of summer journalism. Or at least it was. I thought that August was meant to be the ‘silly season’, that nothing would fill up my diary, that there would be no meetings, that everyone would be involved in something much more important than doing the serious business of the rest of the year by having fun. So, having my holiday in Spain earlier than I would normally do I returned to the Cathedral this week with a diary full of meetings and a ‘To Do List’ as long as my arm.  What had happened to rob me of the ‘silly’ space that I was expecting?

Holiday

One of my holiday snaps from this year

The problem was that the weather, which should be silly, became serious as records were being broken, forests were on fire, lives and livelihoods threatened and it looked and felt as though global warming had arrived.  Brexit, which has all the elements of silliness, is also now too serious to joke about.  The Prime Minister was forced to cut short her holiday and invade the holiday home of the French Prime Minister, making him get dressed up to meet her and dragging him away from the pool.  And Boris Johnson who, really, is very silly, became simply offensive.  There is no escaping the reality of life it seems this year.

One of the treats that we used to have as kids when we went for our week by the sea whether that was Cromer or Torquay or Shanklin was to be treated to a summer special version of our favourite comic.  Those great newsagents that used to occupy the fronts of all our seaside towns, the ones stocked with comics for the kids and extra thick editions of the ‘Woman’s Weekly’ with lots of extra knitting patterns for mum to attempt on the beach, which had buckets and spades in bright colours, moulds to make your sandcastles with, little windmills and a pack of flags (no EU flag amongst them in those days) to decorate them with and of course a counter full of sweets and rock and a fridge with a choc-ice for mum and an orange lolly for the kids, would be a treasure-trove for the whole of the week.  It was lovely.

Those summer special comics had your favourite characters – Minnie the Minx, Desperate Dan, all the rest – getting up to extra silly summer related things – lots of trouble and lots of telling off by parents and policemen.

It was another world.

So I am delighted that in the midst of unstoppable fires, searing heat, Brexit and burkas we at Southwark Cathedral have been able to bring a little bit of joy to millions of people around the world.  Yes, Doorkins has gone viral!  We had a message from a HuffPost journalist on Friday.  ‘Why had Doorkins suddenly entered the news?’ Well for no real reason apart from that a BBC journalist asked to come along with a  cameraman to do a piece on her that might be useful on a slow news day.  The piece was first posted online and then broadcast and the interest in the Cathedral cat exploded.  She is now big in Japan and across South America.  Her Twitter followers have increased exponentially. The book about her is no longer available on Amazon and our visitor numbers at the Cathedral have shot up.  Everyone, so it seems, wants to see this cute little cat.

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Not so silly cat

So is Doorkins all that is left of the silly season this year? Well perhaps even she can’t simply be categorized as just silly.  The thing that seems to have captured people’s imagination is her story.  The newspaper’s have all accurately quoted me when I said

“I hope that when in the future people see the corbel of Doorkins and ask “Why on earth is a cat here?” somebody will be around to tell the story of a little lonely stray cat who wondered into a church and found herself at home. And maybe they’ll wander in and find themselves at home as well.”

That is the non-silly news.  It’s all about the radical hospitality of God, who made space for animals, two-by-two, when judgment was passed on humanity and who welcomes each and every one of us into the house and to the table.

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews says

‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.’ (Hebrews 13.2)

I’m not suggesting that Doorkins is an angel, she’s a cat! But angels are principally messengers and our Doorkins is an eloquent messenger, reminding us that each of us has a place in God’s house.  It may sound a bit silly, but it’s true.

God of hospitality,
as you welcome the least to the greatest
may we reflect your generous love
with open hearts and open arms.
Amen.

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If …

When I was studying for my history ‘O Level’ the syllabus required us to look at ‘modern history’. For younger readers of this blog that meant up to about 1960.  So we spent quite a long time on the lead up to and the execution of the First World War, the Treaty of Versailles, the League of Nations, the Wall Street Crash, FDR and the New Deal, the rise of Hitler, the Second World War and we ended up with the Korean War and a bit of Vietnam.  It was all quite exciting and made a change from earlier years looking at the Tudors and Stuarts and the Repeal of the Corn Laws!  The one great thing about studying 20th century history was being able to look at copies of newspapers from the time, other writings and some newsreel footage and put the whole thing in context.  There was always the feeling among some that, to use Alan Bennett’s wonderful definition of the subject from his play ‘The History Boys’ that as the character Rudge says

‘How do I define history? It’s just one f****n’ thing after another.’

League of Nations Tenth Season

An early meeting of the League of Nations

But I was captivated by the whole thing and in those days devoured history books of one kind or another. Then, as you grow a bit longer in the tooth you realise why you spend so much time reading about Russia or Korea or any of these far-flung places, because history is not so much about yesterday but today.

You could see the Bible as an historical book but those of us who look at it as a scared text know that it is about now as much as it is about then, that time and history fold into each other in a way that means that yesterday is as important as today and that tomorrow is the child of yesterday.  As the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews puts it

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever. (Hebrews 13.8)

I’m not a great fan of Rudyard Kipling but I enjoyed the ‘Just So Stories’ when I was younger and I still occasionally re-read them and ‘The Jungle Book’ continues to draw the crowds to theatres and cinemas around the world.  Kipling for all his pith helmet ways is interesting in helping me to understand something of that period of colonial history of which he was both part and a chronicler.  His attitudes are not my attitudes but he is part of my history and no amount of denial on my part can make that less true.  The poem ‘If..’ which has made the headlines this week has inspired many generations of young men to step up to the mark in a particular way – it hasn’t been my motivation, that is founded in the gospels, but I can see that it can be ‘inspirational’.  So the decision of some students in Manchester to whitewash the wall on which it had been painted and replace it with another poem misses the point, I think, of what art and history is about.  Kipling’s text has been replaced by the 1978 poem ‘Still I Rise’ by the US poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou. That is a poem and a poet I love – Angelou is an inspiration where, for me, Kipling is not.  His may not have been the right poem on that pillar in the university and hers may be better but that misses the point.

This week two things have really disturbed me.  One was the decision by the Israeli Government to remove Arabic as an official language from the State of Israel and to begin to create a system which has something of the smell of apartheid.  The other was the clear rise of the ‘No Deal’ option in relation to Brexit.  Both of these ignore the lessons of history – the struggle in South Africa and what was Rhodesia and the lessons from the 20th century about how Europe can function better than it did.

Holocaust denial is condemned and in some places the subject of criminal prosecution because it allows people to whitewash over history and once we are allowed to ignore it then we are given the freedom to repeat the horrors and the injustice and the sins of the past.  If we forget, or choose to forget, then we know that history will, almost inevitably, repeat itself.

There is a most beautiful passage from the prophet Isaiah which I always associate with this idea of forgetting.

Can a woman forget her nursing-child,
or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.
See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.
(Isaiah 49.15-16)

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Even if I forget, God will not forget.  Our history, our reality is written on the palm of God’s hands, not even our sins, not even our forgetfulness can get rid of the memory, we are carried by the divine hands into eternity. Willful, purposeful forgetting is a dangerous business – those who remember history, even, perhaps especially, unpalatable history know that that is true.  We must be careful what we choose to paint over.

God of yesterday, of today, of forever,
may I not fear the lessons of the past
but use them as tools to make a better tomorrow.
Amen.

As if for the first time

In the past few weeks across the church #newrevs has been trending on social media.  This is ordination season and so brand new deacons and priests have been sent out by bishops to their parishes.  I was thankful to celebrate 35 years in orders at the beginning of July (I was ordained deacon in 1983) and it was lovely to see all the hopeful excited new ministers emerging from their ordinations with a freshness reflected in their surplices.

The ordination of priests inevitably is followed by a flurry of ‘First Masses’. A typical Anglo-Catholic will send out their Ember Card, the card asking for your prayers as they prepare for ordination, with the additional notice that they will preside at the eucharist, celebrate the Mass (whatever language you choose to use) on such and such a day and time and you are very welcome. The First Mass stands alongside the ordination as a pivotal moment in the new priests life.

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Over the years – apart from mine own – I’ve gone to many such celebrations and shared in the joy of not just the new priest but their family and friends and the people in the parish as well as their clergy friends as they begin this particular part of their priestly ministry.  Many will have been preparing for a long time for the moment – in their heads since the moment that they and the church accepted the call to priestly ministry – but also then as the diaconate year moves into its second half thinking about how they will say Mass.

For quite a few years I have run a course in the diocese for the deacons who will be ordained priest.  It’s of course a very mixed group often encompassing the full range of traditions that are reflected in our diverse, broad CofE. But whilst tongue in cheek I tell them I’m going to tell them the correct way in which to preside at the eucharist, in my heart I know that I believe that to be true, not in an arrogant ‘I’m right you’re wrong’ way I hope but simply because I believe so wholeheartedly that the eucharist is where the church is truly being the church and the priest, presiding at this ecclesial gathering enables the people to meet the Lord in word and sacrament.

So those to be ordained will be thinking about the ‘manual acts’ what you do with your hands, and the ‘secret prayers’, the sotto voce devotions made at various points in the liturgy, their tone of voice and their tone of presiding.

Then the day comes and all is in place – the silver is sparkling, the linens are crisp and white, the wine is chilling (not for the service but for the reception afterwards), there are bunches of red roses for Our Lady and the new priest’s mother and the servers and the choir and the readers and the preacher (a vital part of the service – have you managed to secure the enviable, best preacher you could inveigle into preaching for you) are all rehearsed and ready.  It’s a showpiece and there is nothing wrong in that.

For those from other traditions this all sounds, frankly, weird or wrong.  Those for whom the eucharist holds a less central place in their understanding of the church, of redemption, of the Christian life, etc, etc, the idea that you would elevate presiding to such a level and in such a way speaks of a kind of idolatry of the Mass.  But I think that I would describe the variety of reactions that are made more in terms of whether presiding at the Eucharist is seen as functional or ontological – and for catholics it is the latter.

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews talks a great deal about the nature of Christian priesthood as opposed to Aaronic.  But the writer at one point in the letter is constantly quoting one line from a psalm

The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind,
“You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” (Psalm 110.4)

What is bestowed in ordination through the grace of the Holy Spirit is not for a moment but for all time. “You are a priest forever.” You are changed forever, there has been an ontological shift and at the altar we see this most clearly as the priest stands in the place of Christ and brings the past and the future into the present in the once and forever liturgy of the church.

But this has implications for every other eucharist at which a priest presides.  Yes the first time is a real celebration and it is great to have a party afterwards but what about the second and the tenth and the one hundredth and the thousandth and the countless ministry of the aged priest who continues to approach the altar? The true reality is that every priest should approach the altar as if for the first time.

We learn a great deal by watching how other priests preside. When I was being formed for priestly ministry at the College of the Resurrection I would watch what the brethren of the Community did.  And one I will never forget is Fr Ronald Haines.  This is what I wrote about him in a retreat I led for those about to be priested

We students watched to see who the President was.  There were two particular delights.  One was the Superior of the Community who with an agonized solemnity would preside with huge gravitas.  The other was Fr Haines. When I was in College I suppose he must have been priested for over 40 years – a good long time.  But the thing was – and this is the lesson that he taught me, that he taught us – that he celebrated every Eucharist as though it was his first and as though it was his last.  Every celebration at which he presided had that sense of deep wonder, of being the most important event of that day, for him, for us.  There was a precision, a delicacy, a slight hesitancy about what he did that made it totally fresh, alive, and deeply moving.  It was a privilege to be at those Eucharists and because you knew that for this priest it was also a privilege – that he was taking nothing for granted – that it was total gift to him and that that total gift was what he was giving to us – it was still more of a privilege.

And I think it is the same for each of us, whether we are ordained or not, to come and as in T S Eliot’s lovely phrase in his poem ‘Little Gidding’

‘And know the place for the first time.’

At the altar we encompass time and place, at once in that Upper Room with the disciples and yet before an eternal and heavenly altar before the Lamb of God, and yet here, in the local, in the now, in the divine present in which the ordinary stuff of life becomes the most extraordinary encounter and communion with the Living God.  That is why each time we step from any sacristy, any vestry we should do so with fear and trembling but with the deepest joy.

Lord Jesus Christ,
we thank you that in this wonderful sacrament
you have given us the memorial of your passion:
grant us so to reverence the sacred mysteries
of your body and blood
that we may know within ourselves
and show forth in our lives
the fruit of your redemption,
for you are alive and reign, now and for ever. Amen.

The cat and the corbel

Following the recent article in the Evening Standard about Doorkins, our cathedral cat, and the corbel that has been made of her we have received so many messages about her.  One of these included a specially written poem by John Elliot, a fan in Barnard Castle.  With his permission this is his poem.

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Felicitous 

Astute cathedral deans declare
That problems come with mouse or rat:
They need a feline living there;
And Doorkins is the Southwark cat.
Magnificat, her other name,
Conferred by clergymen, whose ways
Show us that jokes are all the same
And have not changed since we sang that
Our souls would magnify the cat.

They know that she’ll pay for her keep
By killing vermin in the church.
She finds a comfy place to sleep
And keeps watch from her favourite perch.
Her face displays a look of bliss:
She knows the service will not stop.
There’s merchandise reflecting this
For sale in the cathedral shop.
This cat and human synergy
Is very clear for all to see.

Thanks John.

Wearing the robe

Last weekend I had the pleasure of preaching at the Alban Festival 2018 in St Alban’s.  What a fantastic event that is.  If you haven’t been then I encourage you to join the crowds next year.  But I thought that you might be interested in what I said at the Choral Eucharist which follows the amazing ‘carnival style’ procession through the town.  The readings for the service were Galatians 3.23-29 and John 19.23-27.

In the corner of the classroom of my infant school was a Wendy House and a dressing up box.  Inside the box were all the things we needed to let our imaginations run wild.  We could be a cowboy if we wanted, or a nurse, or a teacher, or a mum or a dad, whatever we wanted, whoever we wanted to be.  It was a box of delights, the place to become who you might one day become, to wear the clothes, the hats, the shoes.

Those of you of my age may remember a BBC children’s cartoon called ‘Mr Ben’.  Every episode featured him going into a fancy dress shop, choosing an outfit and having an adventure in that new clothing that replaced the boring suit and the bowler hat that was his everyday outfit.

Alban2

When Alban met the priest Amphibalus, the hunted priest was wearing the distinctive cloak that became his name.  Alban took the man into his home so that he could escape his pursuers.  But it wasn’t long before word got out that the priest was in hiding.  Alban had already showed his strength of character by offering hospitality to this dangerous individual.  But now, as the footsteps of the soldiers approached his door, his compassion took him to a new level.  He took the cloak, he took the clothes of the priest, of Amphibalus, and swapped them for his own.  So when the door was opened and the soldiers entered they took the one now dressed as a priest, they took Alban and executed him.

Our imagination ran wild in the classroom as we learnt to see what it might be like to wear the clothes that other people wore, to stand in their shoes, to see things from their perspective.  But then we grow out of dressing up, or others discourage us from doing it, we wear our own clothes, we see things from our own perspective, who we are, where we are.

But Alban is encouraging us to have the courage to do something very different.  Alban encourages us to try on our neighbours cloak and see how things are for them.

But it’s a dangerous thing to do because once we stand where others stand then we might be mistaken for them.  What would it be like to be a refugee; what would it be like to be a loan parent; what would it be like to be homeless; what would it be like to be part of a despised minority, the target of hate crime, the one defined as the enemy, what would it be like to be excluded?  What would it be like to cross the Mexican border into the USA with your family, to see your children caged? We only can begin to know when we take the cloak and wear it.

At the cross, Jesus’ robe becomes an object to be fought over.  But if it was cut into pieces, so that each of his executioners could have a piece, it would be useless.  So, as we heard in the gospel reading, the decision was made to cast lots for it, to toss a coin, to go on the turn of a card and the winner would get this seamless robe ripped from the back of a tortured man.  We’re not told who the winner was, who it was put Christ’s clothing on his own back – and we don’t know what that felt like, as he stood there clothed in Christ.

But that’s exactly what we do, we clothe ourselves with Christ – not in that seamless robe grabbed from beneath the cross but in the robe that is Christ.  As St Paul says to the people who formed the church in Galatia

‘As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.’

We’re clothed with Christ and when we put on Christ we become identified with him.  We wear Christ in the same way as God in Christ put on human flesh when, in that Bethlehem stable, a baby was born who was the Son of God.  God wore human clothes so that we could wear divine clothes, God put on flesh so that we could put on Christ.

After a while our teacher would announce that it was time for a story and we had to pack things away.  Off came the cowboy hat, in the box went the shoes we were clattering about in, packed away was the doctors coat and we sat down back as we were before.

But when Alban took up that cloak he was transformed for ever.  It was his baptism, not with water, but with something that was equally transforming.

The great English poet of the 17th century George Herbert wrote a poem called ‘Aaron’ in which he thinks about how this companion of Moses was dressed, and in that poem he says this

Christ is my only head,
My alone-only heart and breast,
My only music, striking me ev’n dead,
That to the old man I may rest,
And be in him new-drest.

When we put on Christ, when we robe ourselves in Christ, like Alban we leave our own self behind, lay our old self to rest and are ‘in him new-drest’.  And when we dare to wear the clothes of any of our brothers and sisters, when we dare to be seen as one with the marginalised and excluded and pursued and persecuted then we will never be the same again. Because we will see the world not just from within their clothes but through their eyes, as Alban saw those waiting to take him away.

Jesus was always looking at the world from the perspective of the person he was with, he wore the clothes of those he hung out with, the tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners, he wears your clothes, he stands in your shoes, so he knows what it’s like to be you.  And when he gives himself to us in this Eucharist, when bread is placed in our open hands, when we eat this bread and drink this cup, we put on Christ and Christ puts on you, puts on me, puts on us.  In him we are ‘new-drest’ and with him we share our neighbour’s cloak, whosoever that neighbour may be.

Lord Jesus,
clothe me,
live in and through me,
that I may stand beside my neighbour
and share their cloak.
Amen.

A child’s cry

‘There there. Don’t cry. Let me kiss it better.’ There’s nothing that touches the heart quite as much as the cry of a child – in pain, frightened, lost.  The instinct is always to reach out and make it better. ‘There you are – see, you haven’t hurt yourself’ and the tears dry up and they start laughing and running around again.

Hearing the cries of those children wrenched from the arms of their parents at the border of Mexico and the USA was heart-rending and I think that it was probably that which turned public and global opinion so against Donald Trump that he had to make a u-turn and an Executive Order that stopped what he had put in place, the separation of children from their parents when they were entering illegally. I thank God that he did it, that he heard the cries. But the truth is that there are many children still separated from their parents and, by what we are told, without a system in place to reunite them and there are children with their parents still being caged up. It is appalling.

Rosaries

I saw this picture on Twitter.  It claims (and that is all I can say) to be rosaries that were confiscated from people who had been arrested on the border.  Their dignity, their children and even their rosaries were taken from them. I was instantly reminded of my visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Walking around that dreadful place, the gates of hell on earth, and entering the buildings you are confronted, as you are at Yad Vashem, the Israel Holocaust Museum and memorial in Jerusalem, with collections of the possessions of those taken to this death camp. The shoes and the walking sticks and the false teeth and the bags are piled together, the ephemera of persecution. It was deeply shocking, sickening.  These things had belonged to people like me.

A few months ago I had the unexpected privilege of being presented to the Holy Father, Pope Francis, whilst I was in Rome. At the end of the brief conversation I was handed a little pouch in which was a rosary with the papal arms on it.  It was such a wonderful and moving gift.  And as I went through St Peter’s Square other pilgrims and many from South and Central America asked me to bless their rosaries, which I was delighted to do.

For those not so familiar with the rosary there are what are called series of Mysteries that take you around the beads, episodes in the life of Jesus and of Mary on which you can meditate and that can then be a springboard for prayer.  There are three traditional sets of Mysteries – Joyful (around the incarnation), Sorrowful (around the passion) and Glorious (around the resurrection and beyond). And as I saw that collection of confiscated rosaries, cruelly taken, I thought of the fingers that would have prayed those Sorrowful Mysteries, with another mother, Mary, whose son was taken from her.

After Christmas we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Innocents remembering the slaughter by a despotic and jealous ruler, Herod, of the baby boys in Jerusalem and we read something to which St Matthew refers as he tells the story.  Its part of the prophecy of Jeremiah.

Thus says the Lord,
A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more. (Jeremiah 31.15)

The cries of the children and the cries of the mothers cannot be stopped with a ‘there, there’ but instead we have to sit with the noise of their sorrow in our ears as a constant reminder of what we are able to do to each other, when power and fear and jealousy get mixed up.

There is a text on the United States Holocaust Memorial that is often quoted and rightly so. The words are those of Martin Niemöller, a German Lutheran pastor and theologian who was himself held in a Nazi concentration camp and then liberated by the Allies.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.

That is why we have to speak out when we hear the cries wherever they come from and just pray that those who have power to make a difference will use that power – and we are not powerless in all of this. The same applies to what is happening in many places around the world, Venezuela, the Yemen, North Korea, the list grows longer every day.

There is always hope. That quote from Jeremiah continues but we don’t often hear it read to us, we stay with the sorrow – but we need to hear these words of propecy as well.

Thus says the Lord:
Keep your voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work,
says the Lord:
they shall come back from the land of the enemy;
there is hope for your future,
says the Lord:
your children shall come back to their own country.
(Jeremiah 31.16-17)

‘There is hope’, there always is.

Lord, as you hear our cries
may we hear the cries of all your children
wherever they are.
Amen.

Feasting and fasting

The truth is, I’m not very good at fasting.  The suprising thing is that I was, in fact, better when I was younger.  As I became more committed to my faith I used to fast before Mass on Sunday and when I was at college being formed for priesthood the whole routine of the day was geared around being able to fast before the Eucharist because breakfast wasn’t served until after it. But ordination was my downfall.  The excuse was, ‘Well, I need to be able to minister and so collapsing halfway through a service out of hunger would be no good.’ And there you have it, my days of fasting passed away.  I’m not very good at Lent and the permissions we now get and which I have in my turn given, that it is so good to take something on rather than give something up, have done nothing to counter this undisciplined tendency that I have.

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The Feast

I went to another Iftar last week, on the penultimate day of Ramadan.  This one was being hosted by the Metropolitan Police at their new headquarters in New Scotland Yard. It was great to be there. But it was a cheat on my part – I had had breakfast, lunch and numerous drinks all day.  So, whilst I certainly felt peckish when the sun set at around 9.20 and the fast for that day ended, I was nowhere near as hungry or thirsty as the Muslims alongside me. I was sharing in the Iftar but not sharing in the fast!

There has been some criticism levelled at me after the commemoration of the London Bridge attack because we – and I suppose as Dean that means I – hosted a Grand Iftar in the Cathedral itself on the evening of that day of commemoration.  Around 300 people packed the nave for the presentations that were made and the songs that were sung before the fast broke and people formed a long queue for the food.  I’ve been accused of being a ‘Muslim-lover’ which doesn’t feel much like an insult, and destroying the Christian tradition by holding an inter-faith service in the Cathedral.  As some bloggers have helpfully pointed out an Iftar isn’t a service and our Iftar, like the one the Met Police hosted, was nothing of the kind. But if I am being accused of the sin of hospitality then I am guilty as charged.

One of the things that has changed in the whole Christian-Muslim-community world of the past few years is the development of the Iftar as being something that people share in together. It is as though this meal has been brought out of the mosque and out of individual homes onto the streets – as around Grenfell Tower last week – or into other places, offices and churches. And it has helped me understand a bit more of what Ramadan and Eid are all about.

I used to think that Lent and Ramadan were equivalents, but I have learnt that they are not.  I may still be wrong but it seems to me that discipline and charitable giving are where any equivalence ends. Lent is a season of penitence and the discipline we choose for those forty odd days is meant to help us focus on that aspect of the Christian life as well as prepare us spitually for Holy Week and Easter. But the discipline is ongoing, it doesn’t begin and end each day, between dawn and dusk.  We are not waiting for sunset to have a bar of chocolate, or a glass of wine, or whatever it is that we are depriving ourselves of. Ramadan is much more about focusing the body and the mind on God, its much more about the deepening of spirituality than it is about penitence and the submission of the body as opposed to the soul. With Ramadan each days fast ends with a feast, the two are intertwined in the daily pattern that is established and which people so powerfully commit to.

Part of the whole inter-faith scene, it seems to me, is about giving us the opportunity to learn something from each other.  These past few years have certainly taught me about fasting and challenged my lack of engagement with it. Being with Hindus last year taught me about living up close to God in every aspect of my life. From Buddhism in these last few years I have learnt about focusing my thinking, what we are calling ‘mindfulness’ and finding in that peace. And from my regular visits to the Holy Land my experience of Judaism has taught me to value community at the deepest level.

But we have a much deeper and richer tradition of fasting in the Church of England than we give ourselves credit for. Thumbing through the Book of Common Prayer brings you face-to-face with some wonderful stuff including this

DAYS OF FASTING, OR ABSTINENCE
i) The forty days of Lent.
ii) The Ember Days at the Four Seasons, being the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday after:
1. The First Sunday in Lent
2. The Feast of Pentecost
3. September 14
4. December 13.
iii) The three Rogation Days, being the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday
before Holy Thursday, or the Ascension of our Lord.
iv) All the Fridays in the Year, except Christmas Day.

So there are probably 67 Fast Days in the year in addition to the 40 days of Lent – and I keep none of them. Time for me to really think again and to be challenged by my Muslim friends who are now feasting all day as they celebrate Eid. But if I do fast then I must also remember those wise words of Jesus

‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’ (Matthew 6.16-18)

So I thank God for the challenge of Ramadan and pray that I may have the humility to learn from others as they share with me something of their relationship with God.

God,
for the diversity of faith and practice
within and beyond the church,
I give you thanks and praise.
Amen.

The tree of healing

I said last week that I needed time to reflect before I said anything about the first anniversary of the London Bridge attack. In fact I had to say a great deal without the luxury of much reflective time.  But that is the reality of life – you are asked and you have to answer. But as we approached the Sunday, which was the first anniversary – the media wanted to get answers to their questions.  In the welcome that I gave at the beginning of the service of commemoration I said this

Let me be honest, I’ve been fearful approaching this day.  Memories have risen to the surface, tears have once again flowed, scars have been reopening.  The media have been asking me what I hope for this service – my answer has been simple – I hope it helps our healing.  Whatever your hopes are, whatever your pain is, whatever has kept you awake at night, whatever anger or sorrow or guilt you’re feeling, God is here for us, God is here for you.

Love is stronger than hate.  Light is stronger than darkness. Life is stronger than death.  It was true a year ago, it’s as true today.

Olive tree

The Tree of Healing

I was fearful approaching the day, I was being entirely honest. The whole lead up to that weekend served to open up memories and wounds and, I suppose, I hadn’t, until that moment, thought that I was a ‘victim’ of the event as so many others had been. But my needs to think and reflect were nothing in comparison to the family members who came along that afternoon. Those who had been so brutally murdered, slaughtered, that evening were at the forefront of our thinking.  Whether it was in the candle lighting or the completion of the planting of the Tree of Healing, they were the ones we were focusing on.

We had decided last year that a tree needed to be planted and as we cleared the mountain of flowers that had accumulated by the needle at the south end of London Bridge a commitment was made that that would happen.  But most wonderfully the London Borough of Southwark committed to taking those flowers away, composting them and bringing back the compost so that the tree could be planted in it.

One of the moving songs in Disney’s ‘The Lion King’ is the circle of life. The lyrics say it all

It’s the circle of life
And it moves us all
Through despair and hope
Through faith and love
Till we find our place
On the path unwinding
In the circle
The circle of life.

Those flowers left as signs of love became the food for new life to grow, like that would bring healing, all part of that circle, the divine circle.

The olive tree, of course, carries huge symbolic power; its oil provides, heat and light to very many people, it helps in the cooking of food and is used to anoint particularly in the tradition of the church.  Priests have always taken olive oil and anointed the sick, as a symbol of our prayer for healing.  Babies and adults are anointed with it as they come to baptism. Monarchs are anointed with it before ever a crown is placed upon them.  But even more significantly for Jews, Christians and Muslims when the dove returned to Noah in the ark it carried a branch of the olive, a sign of peace and of God’s blessing.  This will be our tree of remembrance but also our ‘Tree of Healing’.  Around its pot will be inscribed a verse from scripture that was read at the end of the service as with the families we gathered at the tree.

‘The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.’ (Revelation 22.2)

But as moving as all that was, as emotional as it was as we all gathered on London Bridge at the end of the service it was the Grand Iftar held in the Cathedral later that evening which spoke so powerfully to me.

For the two weeks before the commemoration a group of twenty of us had been meeting to rehearse a ‘play for voices’. The script ‘Testimony’, had been put together by local writer, Michelle Lovric, from the memories that we had been sharing with her over the last year.  She had turned our reflections back into an account of that evening and afterwards.  It took thirty minutes for us to ‘perform’ and we had practised it, in her apartment and in the Cathedral, on many occasions over those weeks.  But standing there and speaking my own words and hearing my friends speak their words to a nave full of people was emotional and powerful and staggering.

Part of that was about being reminded of what happened, part of it was hearing about what had happened to others, part of it was about realising how strong our local community has been, and part of it was about recognising how much I had depended over these months on God and on my sisters and brothers.  The Iftar began with the Borough Market Choir singing ‘Lean on me’

‘Lean on me, when you’re not strong, and I’ll be your friends, I’ll help you carry on, for it won’t be long, till I’m going to need somebody to lean on.’

Bill Wither’s words are powerful. It was part of the healing for me. But I’ve got a lot more thinking and praying and talking to do.

Lord Jesus,
you do not forget us
and hold us in the palm of your wounded hand;
as we continue to remember the events of a year ago,
the dead and the injured,
the traumatised and the sorrowful,
heal our memories,
bind up our wounds,
calm our fears
and remember us in your kingdom.
Amen.

Broken Beauty

This is the sermon I preached this morning in Southwark Cathedral.  The readings were Deuteronomy 5.12-15; 2 Corinthians 4.5-12; Mark 2.23-3.6

One of the joys of Sunday – for me – apart from being here with you of course – is watching ‘Antiques Roadshow’.  What could be more quintessentially British – a bunch of well dressed, well spoken people in the grounds of a stately home talking in the sunshine about a piece of pottery – and envious, intrigued and delighted faces looking on?

But then, horror of horrors.  The pot that was grandma’s, given to her after the war by an old spinster neighbour who looked after them as children – there’s always a good backstory – the pot has been repaired, it isn’t perfect after all.  The owner looks closely as the expert points it out.  Eagle eyed they’ve spotted where the damage has been concealed.  It would’ve been worth millions but now ….

alisonclark

Broken Beauty by Alison Clark

Alison Clark is with us as our Artist-in-Residence, part of our commemoration of the events one year ago when terrorists attacked our neighbourhood, the events we’re marking all day, but especially this afternoon as the families of those who died in that attack, people who were injured and representatives of so many groups of people caught up in the terrors of that night gather here to remember the past and look forward to the future.  And in the evening, with the local Muslim community, we will be hosting a grand Iftar and local people will be sharing their memories.

Alison is calling her work, ‘Broken Beauty’ and as part of it she’s employing a Japanese technique called Kintsugi.  Instead of concealing damage to a piece of porcelain the Japanese repair it using gold, the scar is not hidden but glorified, the damage not avoided but confronted.

St Paul in our Second Reading likens us to clay jars.  In the world of the Corinthians into which Paul was speaking, these jars were as commonplace as plastic bottles are to us.  They were used for everything, transporting, storing, but they were fragile and the rubbish heaps that archaeologists dig through testify to that.

Paul suggests that we’re as fragile as these clay jars and that that fragility is not a mistake on God’s part.  This is who we are.  We were made from the clay of the earth and God breathed life into us, but ‘remember you are dust and dust you shall return’ says the priest to us on Ash Wednesday.

We are very easily damaged, very easily scarred.

Jesus is in the synagogue.  It’s the Sabbath and there were rules about the Sabbath, handed down from God to Moses, the rules we heard in our First Reading.  And then a man approaches Jesus.  He has a withered hand.  It meant he couldn’t work and people look on him as cursed.  It was the day when no work could be done but it was a day of blessing and Jesus gets to work and tells the man as the others look on

‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.

The hand was repaired but the hard hearts of those ready to condemn Jesus for making good what was bad, for showing compassion, those hearts couldn’t be changed, until they were broken.

‘We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.’

Paul’s powerful words spoken into the fragility of our lives speak to our community today.  Those with such hard hearts that they sought to destroy what was beautiful here have not succeeded.  Yes, eight lives were lost and eight families and eight groups of friends will be grieving today in a way I cannot imagine.  Yes, numerous people were injured, physically and mentally and they bear the scars.  Yes, this church was damaged and this area was scarred.  But what is fundamental about this part of London, what was fundamental about this community was not destroyed but was strengthened – that deep sense of inclusion, that deep joy in diversity, that absolute passion for life.

Broken beauty sums it up.  We carry in our fragile, earthenware body the death of Jesus, as he bears on his hands, on his feet, in his side the marks of the violence we inflicted on him.  And God has glorified it, the Lord of the Sabbath, brings us blessing, so that the life of Jesus is always visible in us.

And to remind us of the truth, of broken beauty, bread will be taken and it will be broken. It’s the only way we can share it.  We hold in our hands the brokenness of God who touches our scars with his own wounded hands and makes them shine with a glory like his own.

Lord Jesus,
you do not forget us
and hold us in the palm of your wounded hand;
as we remember the events of a year ago,
the dead and the injured,
the traumatised and the sorrowful,
heal our memories,
bind up our wounds
calm our fears
and remember us in your kingdom.
Amen.

‘Excuse me!’

One of the many privileges of being the Dean of Southwark – and there are many – is my daily commute. Seven minutes of gentle strolling along Bankside and Clink Street is all it takes to get from the Deanery to the Cathedral, watching the river and gazing at the City skyline with its every growing number of high buildings.  I live at 51 Bankside and so the walk takes me past 1 Bankside, the famous Anchor Pub, outside of which Tom Cruise sat in Mission Impossible, but even more importantly than that, where Pepys and Dr Johnson drank.

Bankside

Part of my daily commute

But at whatever time I make that journey – and it’s usually very early – I never have the path to myself.  It seems to be one of the city’s favourite running and jogging routes and Lycra clad individuals run towards me and past me all the way along.  It does make me feel even more ashamed of my lack of fitness but that’s another matter.  But then there are also the people making their way to work – some lovely friends who are heading to the Salvation Army offices on Victoria Street who always give me a cheery ‘Morning’ but mostly people with their heads down and there headphones or ear buds in.  They’re in another world.

I caught part of ‘Woman’s Hour’ on the radio last week.  The item that I heard was all about what was called ‘Pavement Etiquette’ and whilst it was very much, and rightly so, about the safety of women out alone on streets, it made me think about this.

There’s something very British about how we behave on pavements.  Gone are those old standards of not allowing a lady you are accompanying to walk by the gutter. But any kind of regulation – as has been tried, so I believe, in the past – is fiercely resisted.  We will queue for hours in a very orderly fashion but no one is going to tell us how to walk or forbid us crossing a road where we will.  Boris’ removal of street barriers in London gave us the freedom once more to wander at will, not like those foreigners who can be prosecuted for jaywalking!

But it isn’t that that bothers me as much as the times nowadays that I can’t seem to anticipate which way someone is going to move when we’re walking towards each other – and you get into that embarrassing dance of both moving the same way – a kind of ‘Pedestrian Jig’! Because they haven’t noticed I am there, on the same pavement, until it is too late – and not even an ‘Excuse me!’

The advice from Jesus, to be honest, on this matter is slightly confusing.

‘Greet no one on the road.’ (Luke 10.4) he tells the seventy as they prepare to go off on mission.  But then Jesus meets so many on the road, it’s where most of his ministry takes place, out there on the ‘pavement’, on the street, by the roadside, greeting and being greeted.  Obviously the instruction to the disciples was because they were, literally, on a mission, an urgent task, and nothing could distract them from it. Set the pace and don’t stop. But it’s not an instruction for how we behave when we’re walking.  Instead the road to Emmaus, meeting the two walkers, is a much better model.

‘Jesus himself came near and went with them.’ (Luke 24.17)

Walking with Jesus

Walking with Jesus

The problem is, when we isolate ourselves, whether walking or whatever we are doing, we become oblivious to the other person, there’s no ‘Excuse me’ any longer, because there is only one person in the world that I am inhabiting.  As John Donne so famously said

No man is an island,
Entire of itself

But we can often behave as though we are an island. So I’ll continue enjoying my daily walk – but it would be even better if there were others walking with me.

Lord Jesus,
may I recognise you on the journey
and walk with you.
Amen.

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sabbaticalthoughtsblog.wordpress.com/

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