Pray

It’s always good when someone asks you a question that comes from left field, as it were.  I was attending the Resolve course at Southwark Cathedral last week.  It was the third of four sessions and we were looking at the soul after looking at the body and the mind in previous meetings.  In the conversations that happened afterwards one of the members of the small group that I was in asked, in a very interested way, why those of us who were Christians prayed.  It was a good question because it made me really think about what was a reasonable answer I could give.

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Durer’s image of praying hands

Others in the group gave their responses, a lot about the ongoing conversation that we have with God, the idea that it is always there in the background, in the way that T S Eliot talks about it in his poem ‘Little Gidding’, part of the ‘Four Quartets’.

And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.

There was also of course something about the kind of ordered prayer that we engage in in church, the words that we’re given to pray.  I made the point that I was obviously ‘paid’ to pray, that it was part of what I’m required and called to do on behalf of the church.  But all the talk also made me think about how important prayer is, to me, as a response to situations where I simply cannot do anything else.

The news emerging from Zimbabwe is disturbing and distressing.  The Diocese of Southwark has had a partnership link with four of the five dioceses in that country for many years and the Cathedral is part of that, having a direct partnership link with the Diocese of Masvingo.  That is the most recently created of the dioceses, in the rural south.  The people we have been able to get to know are simply wonderful led by Bishop Godfrey and his wife Albertina.  Coupled with that is the relationship that has grown through the Cathedral Shop with the ArtPeace project based in Harare.  The artists who produce the stone carvings we sell are a resilient and talented bunch of people, supported by the Jesuits, and through our contact here in the UK we get to hear their very real stories of dealing with the poverty that has blighted the country.

The recent protests and the violent response of the army and police has affected all these groups of friends.  Members of artists families have been beaten and some have taken refuge in the Jesuit house.  The situation in Masvingo, away from the capital, is difficult as well.  And what can we do?

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The prayer vigil underway

Well, we have been praying.  After the Choral Eucharist last Sunday members of the congregation spent time before the map of Zimbabwe that is in the nave of the Cathedral holding a prayer vigil.  Few words were said, most of the time was spent in silence, candles were lit and people focused their attention on the map and the people that lay behind it – holding it all before God.  The wonderful thing is that the people for whom we are praying are so encouraged by the response that we have made.  They believe in the power of prayer and the promises of Jesus.

‘Truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’ (Matthew 18.19-20)

It’s an encouragement to pray and an encouragement to agree on the words that we want to pray, agree on the purpose of our prayer.  So when I was asked to write a prayer for others to pray in response to the crisis I was delighted to do so and even more thrilled when I learnt that our friends in Zimbabwe are also praying, using the same words.  Please pray with us – I’m not sure what else we can do at the moment – and I believe that this is an effective response in itself.  God’s will be done.

May there be … no cry of distress in our streets. (Ps 144.15)

Loving God,
strong and merciful,
we hear the cry
of our brothers and sisters in Zimbabwe
and we place them into your hands.
May the hungry be fed,
the sorrowful consoled,
the injured healed,
the hopeless encouraged
and the dead have new life in you.
May justice flow like a river
and may your peace rest upon them.
Amen.

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The Crown

With the coming of this new year I’m eagerly anticipating the launch of Series 3 of ‘The Crown’. It will be great to see the wonderful Olivia Colman – fresh from taking on Queen Anne in ‘The Favourite’ – playing Her Majesty The Queen after Claire Foy.  Wearing a crown is becoming a bit of a theme for her at the moment.

I decided this year to do my own Christmas Crackers – well, when I say that not quite like my mother did who made them one year from scratch!  I bought empty ones and put my own, specially selected, gifts so that each person got something useful rather than a tape measure, plastic comb or magic fish that can tell your personality! But the empty crackers did come complete not just with a snap but with a joke and a hat.  So at Christmas dinner we pulled them, the gifts rolled out, the jokes were told and the hats went on our heads.  But I suddenly realised that the hat that we are traditionally given to wear in our crackers is a crown.

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The famous Galette des Rois

Some years ago I had a couple of occasions when my post-Christmas break coincided with the Feast of the Epiphany.  One of those breaks was spent in northern France and the other was in in the capital of Majorca, Palma.  Both celebrated Epiphany with enthusiasm but slightly differently.  In France we took the opportunity to taste the lovely Galette des Rois, the King’s Cake, which is traditionally eaten on the Feast and throughout the month.  In the windows of the pâtisseries can be seen these frangipane tarts finished off with a paper crown.  As with our own tradition of putting a silver threepenny bit into our pudding, these galettes contain a féve, a charm, and the finder of it gets to wear the crown.

In Palma, Majorca the celebration of the Feast begins in the harbour.  Three resplendently dressed and crowned kings arrive by boat and climb onto floats that then tour the centre of the city.  As they go along they throw handfuls of sweets out to the children who crowd the pavements to see them. The arrival of the kings reminded me of that lovely carol we sing

I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day
I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas Day in the morning.

That’s a traditional English carol from the 17th century.  As Bethlehem is landlocked it was either written by someone who had no idea of geography or the ships referred to are actually camels, often known as ‘ships of the desert’ (their rocking motion certainly makes me feel sea sick).

But all of these traditions continue to promote the popular notion that we are talking about the arrival of kings to the stable in Bethlehem.  That is further reinforced as we sing together that most popular carol ‘We three kings’ and listen to the choir singing the amazing anthem ‘Three kings from Persian lands’ by Peter Cornelius.  It’s enough to make the preacher throw their hands up in horror!  After all, the Bible doesn’t mention kings at all, certainly not St Matthew who is the one who gives us this story.

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Magi – and no crowns in sight!

It’s Magi that we are talking about, wise men, astrologers, readers of the stars and of the signs, maybe Zoroastrians, perhaps from Persia, certainly not crown wearing kings.  There may have been three but Matthew mentions no such number, it’s just that three gifts are mentioned – gold, frankincense and myrrh – and that is where the traditional number came from.

But there was a king, it’s just he wasn’t dressed as one.  Matthew tells us

On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.  (Matthew 2.11)

On arriving at Herod’s court they had mentioned that they were looking for a king; in the stable they found him.

T S Eliot’s famous poem, drawing so heavily on the sermon preached by Bishop Lancelot Andrewes to His Majesty’s court at Whitehall in 1622, concludes like this

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation.

These wise men saw that the old crowns and the old kingdoms were passing away, the old dispensation was finished.  They had seen a new king and the signs of a new kingdom.  So it’s ok to take the hat that falls from the cracker, the crown on the galette and to wear it – but not in memory of kings who were not kings but in celebration of the one who is the true king of the true kingdom, Christ the King.

This is the alternative Collect for the Feast of the Epiphany from the Church of England’s ‘Common Worship’.

Creator of the heavens,
who led the Magi by a star
to worship the Christ-child:
guide and sustain us,
that we may find our journey’s end
in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

Warming the heart

Listen sweet Dove unto my song,
And spread thy golden wings in me;
Hatching my tender heart so long,
Till it get wing, and flie away with thee.

In every generation there are great story tellers, Homer and Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens, Blyton and Rowling.  They all tell their stories and those stories, which we then tell to each other, help to interpret truth to growing generations.  Among my favourites is Hans Christian Anderson.  By the harbour in Copenhagen sits the Little Mermaid testifying to the power of his storytelling.  But my favourite amongst the stories he tells is ‘The Snow Queen’, which, as the story begins, we hear ‘Tells of the mirror and its fragments’.

A new generation know a bit of that story through the work of that other great storyteller of our times, or rather an interpreter of stories, Disney, because Hans Christian Anderson’s great story can be glimpsed, just about, in that popular animated movie, ‘Frozen’.

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Heartlessness on the Israel -Gaza border

Both versions of the story centre on what happens when a shard of the evil mirror or the frost from Queen Elsa’s hand, enters the heart.  The heart at the very centre of the person is frozen, dies, is turned to stone.  Humanity is lost, love is lost and, as in those final moments of the film ‘Frozen’ on the icy wastes of the harbour, it takes an act of true love to bring the warmth and life back to the heart.

‘I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.’ (Ezekiel 36.26)

It’s the promise of God through the prophet Ezekiel, it’s the life of which St Peter speaks so eloquently to the enraptured crowd on that first day of Pentecost.  The apostles, with Our Lady, have been locked away in the room that’s become for them both security and prison ever since, in an expression of true divine love, in that space Jesus broke bread and shared it, poured wine and drank it, gave them his body and blood and washed their feet.  But that warmth of divine love was replaced by the chill of fear.  The windows were bolted, the doors were barred, their hearts were locked until the wind blew out what locked them in and fire warmed their frozen hearts.

George Herbert uses another metaphor to tell the story in his poem ‘Whitsunday’.  Instead of a frozen heart, a stone heart, he likens it to an egg being hatched.

Listen sweet Dove unto my song,
And spread thy golden wings in me;
Hatching my tender heart so long,
Till it get wing, and flie away with thee.

The mother bird sits on her eggs not allowing them to get cold.  She uses her own heart’s heat to warm those eggs until life breaks through the shell and the chick takes wing ‘and flie away with thee.’ It’s a wonderful image.

Pentecost brings us to life, like a hatching egg, a tender heart brought to true life, so that that heart beats with the beat of God, the rhythm of life is the rhythm of God.

The heartlessness of so much around us needs challenging.  Watching the horrific scenes from Israel last week as live ammunition was used on unarmed protestors on the Israel/Gaza border, seeing how the administration of the USA could heartlessly and for purely political and ideological reasons make a change to the status of Jerusalem by moving its Embassy and so unsettling and threatening what is always a fragile paece, registering how our own government deals with the status and rights of long term residents of this nation, our friends and neighbours, all these things remind us that the cold, frozen heart is not just something that can exist in the individual but in the structures that we create, in the places and communities that we inhabit.

When Jeremy Irons was in this Cathedral a few weeks ago reading to us T S Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’ he read these words

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror

The descending dove hatches the egg, warms the heart, turns stone to flesh and brings us to life, so that our heart beats in time with the divine heartbeat making Easter live for the whole of creation, as what was dead was brought to life.

PentecostHeart

A heart warmed by the Spirit

As Peter says to the listening crowd

“You have made known to me the ways of life;
you will make me full of gladness with your presence.”

(Acts.2.28)

This is a story really worth telling, the truth of God come down from heaven which gives life to the people and thaws the frozen heart and makes flesh the heart of stone.

Come, Holy Spirit,
fill the hearts of your people
and kindle in us the fire of your love.
Amen.

The still unspeaking and unspoken Word

It feels as though I’ve been celebrating Candlemas for over a week!  Well I suppose I have given the way the lectionary and ordo seem to work nowadays.  But it is a great feast to keep going back to and so much in it to think about.  I was invited to preside and preach at a Candlemas Eucharist at our Diocesan Office and this is the homily I preached.

The last vestiges of Christmas disappear with this feast.  The tree has long gone, the baubles packed away, carefully, in their boxes, the lights wound so as not to be tangled when we try to use them next year; my friends, the the fairy is no more!  But the crib remained, in church, in our homes, the reminder that though the world has moved on we’re still celebrating God’s greatest act of love, God’s greatest gift to a needy world.

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Ready for next year

Christmas is now celebrated by the world before Christmas Day and as soon as the last cracker has been pulled it seems as though it’s all over.  But the church celebrates Christmas at Christmas and the celebration lasts until Candlemas, the fortieth day.

Mary and Joseph are good and law-obedient Jewish parents and so they take their first born son to the Temple in Jerusalem to do what the law requires.  Every first born son has to be bought back from God, redeemed, by sacrifice.  So, child in one arm and sacrifice in the other they step into the place where God abides and are met by these two old people – Simeon and Anna – who’ve spent their lives watching and waiting for this very moment.  Christmas has come for them, at the very last moment, on the very last day, Christmas has come for them, before the last vestige of the feast has gone, before the crib is packed away – and in the last gasp of celebration Simeon exclaims

‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.’

They’ve been waiting, patiently, for the light to shine in the darkness, they’ve been waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem, and here, in this bundle, in the arms of a virgin mother, the world’s contradiction lies, light, redemption, salvation, the spoken word of God in flesh.

T S Eliot in his poem ‘A Song for Simeon’ imagines the old man speaking – and in that imagining he says

Now at this birth season of decease,
Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel’s consolation

The Christmas proclamation is that the ‘Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’ but that word is still ‘unspeaking and unspoken’. Jesus has not yet spoken a word, we’ve not yet heard the sound of his voice.  But we will.  His words will heal the sick, absolve from sin, raise the dead.  His words will bring down the powerful and exalt the humble. His words will bring joy to many and sorrow to some. His words will be whispered in prayer amongst the trees of a grove, or ring out in screams from the tree of the cross.  Even death will not silence his words as the whispered name of Mary in a dawn-dewed garden will announce his resurrection.

But at the moment he is the ‘still unspeaking and unspoken Word’.

The curtain falls on Christmas.  But it doesn’t.  We are above all things the church of the incarnation.

Roy Wood, the lead singer of the glam rock band Wizzard famously hit the number one slot back in 1973 when he sang out words we hear year by year

Oh well I wish it could be Christmas everyday
When the kids start singing and the band begins to play
Oh I wish it could be Christmas everyday
Let the bells ring out for Christmas.

My brothers and sisters, the good news is that it is.  We live the incarnation and the word speaks; the light shines in the darkness and we are redeemed.  As the Southwark Diocese website says, we are

Loving God, walking with Jesus, led by the Spirit

We live and breathe what Christmas means, that God is with us, that the light has broken into the darkness of the world, that this Eucharist is the touching place with God and that the unspeaking, unspoken word is heard in the voice of the church, in the voice of each Christian, in your voice. The best of Christmas is yet to come!

Lord Jesus, silent light of silent night,
speak, for we wait to hear your voice,
speak, and let the Word be heard.
Amen.

 

Open doors

In all honesty I can’t say that I’ve ever lived in a place, at a time, when you could leave the door of your house open and you wouldn’t come back to find the place robbed.  But I know that there were communities where this was possible and I believe that there are places where it still is.  What did impress me, a year ago, when I was spending six weeks of my three months sabbatical in Jerusalem, was to see something that I simply could not imagine happening here.

I was walking through the souk.  It was a Friday, around midday and people were heading into the Old City towards Haram al Sharif, what we call the Temple Mount, where the Al-Aqsa Mosque stands.  The people were all off for Friday prayers.  But so were those who have shops in the souk.  But instead of pulling down the shutters, as happens at night, they simply turned the lights off and put something, like a broom handle, across the open front.  Then they left it! I could have walked in and grabbed something, but, of course, I didn’t and nor did anyone else.  It was unimaginable in the kind of society that we live in – a very sobering experience, of trust and openness.

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The invitation of an open door

 

I’ve been thinking all about this, about keeping places open, in recent days and weeks.  When the first of the present series of horrendous hurricanes struck the USA there was a story in the news that the successful pastor of a very successful megachurch in Houston, locked the doors of his very successful church and was reported as saying something along the lines that his church ‘was a place of worship not a refuge’. Of course, he rightly changed his opinion about that and the church did open and much needed help was given.  But it was his first instinct that disturbed me.  Then over in the UK we have had reports that some churches which should be open are being kept locked.

It was the Victorian Society who was complaining about this. Christopher Costelloe, its director, said: “These churches are an important part of our heritage. They should be open both for visitors to appreciate their architecture, history and beauty, and for people who want to pop in and pray.” The churches being identified were ones which have been planted on the HTB lines – places like the deeply wonderful St Augustine’s, Queens Gate in Kensington.

St Augustine’s I remember well when a friend of mine was the Parish Priest.  It was designed by William Butterfield who was also the architect for Keble College Oxford.  It is a jewel box of high Victorian art inside, the most amazing murals, telling stories from the Bible, a place built for liturgy, a masterpiece of the Gothic Revival movement.

In reports about this the Diocese of London was quoted from its own website as saying

“A locked door is a universal symbol of exclusion, while an open church expresses God’s welcome, His presence, His creativity, His justice, His healing and His forgiveness.”

I thought it was a great statement of the principle that we should be embodying.  It is the kind of understanding of what church is that we saw in the neighbourhood of Grenfell Tower in which the parish church of St Clement’s, Notting Dale under the leadership of Fr Alan Everett became the community hub, for prayer, yes, of course, but also for all the other things that churches do.  And we do those things not as an afterthought, not because we have lost confidence in the gospel in someway, but because this is the gospel.

The Acts of the Apostles is a great book for helping us to understand some of the difficulties and dilemmas that confront us even now, even after we have had two thousand years of trying to work out how to be the church that God wants us to be.  In Acts 6 we are given this insight into a problem that has a modern resonance.

The Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait at tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.’ (Acts 6.1-4)

Deacons

To serve the word and the people

 

The Apostles knew that they were called to prayer and ‘serving the word’ but they also knew that the church needed to make a practical and just response and serve the needs of the body.  That was why they chose seven men to be the first deacons.  These included Stephen. And from that initial solution the church has always understood that its calling is to serve the word and serve the people and that this is as much the task of our buildings as the ministers themselves.

I had three lovely churches in Leeds but we couldn’t keep them open all the time. I have huge sympathy with those who want to have their church open and cannot do so for reasons of security , or lack of volunteers, or whatever.  But the principle of being open and accessible, being a place to serve the word and serve the people, being the repository for community history as well as the community at worship, being the place of refuge, physical and spiritual, being a place of feeding at the altar and the table, being a place of warmth for the body and the soul, is what we shall all be ascribing to.

T S Eliot in his beautiful poem, ‘Little Gidding’ one of his ‘Four Quartets’, muses in part on the experience of entering that small church in the middle of the fields. At one point he says

‘If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.
It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same’

We do not always know why we wander into a church in springtime, at night, broken, not knowing why we came, but when there is an open door we can enter and find the home and refuge we sought all along.

God,
you open your doors to us,
you open your life to us,
may we close neither.
Amen.

My Lent Diary

A journey from ashes to a garden

In the Steps of Martin Luther

A Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage 2017

sabbaticalthoughtsblog.wordpress.com/

Canda, Jerusalem, Mucknall

Southwark Diocesan Pilgrimage 2016

Hearts on Fire - Pilgrims in the Holy Land

A good city for all

A good city for all

In the Steps of St Paul

Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage June 2015

LIVING GOD

Reflections from the Dean of Southwark

Passion in real time - a retreat for Holy Week

Led by the Dean of Southwark, the Very Revd Andrew Nunn

Andrew Nunn's reflections from General Synod

the personal views of the Dean of Southwark