Given these extraordinary times of enforced lockdown where many have binged on Netflix and popcorn, I thought it was appropriate to update you on my own independent film https://apocketofcalm.co.uk/2018/02/21/popcorn-prayers/ ……..that is my life.
The reason for starting this blog in the first place was to reflect prayerfully and share the experience of both heart surgery and my vocation journey.
Back in 2018 I was reflecting on the feeling of rejection, having put myself forward for training for ordained ministry. Three years on, I am looking out of the same window, which is definitely greyer, (my hair not the view!) and somewhat squidgier after too much Netflix and snacks (although I am trying to do something about that), but with a different outlook, having now been accepted for training for Ordained Ministry.
In December of 2020, with support from the Diocese who continue to explore my calling, and with the world in a grip of a pandemic, I undertook the Church’s selection process once more. Would you believe it, it has gone from sounding like a bakery product (BAP – Bishops Advisory Panel) to a Yorkshire exclamation (TODP – Temporary online Discernment Process) – only the Church of England……
This time, due to restrictions and challenges we all find ourselves in at the moment, the selection process was online, but nevertheless as equally rigorous, challenging and searching. The difference this time was that I was able to speak and I was able to be heard.
Having journeyed on the Camino, endured the Cambridge winter on a market stall, adopted a curious and complex affectionate feline (currently curled up on my lap as write this) and offered worship in church, market and home and during a pandemic; I finally found in those crucial interviews a quiet confidence to speak my truth. Despite all the endeavours of my internet provider trying to prevent it (the worst nightmare happened during the zoom interviews with my internet crashing and using all the data on my phone to keep communication going!).
I am delighted though somewhat nervous to say I will be starting training at Westcott College, Cambridge in the autumn 2021 and will continue to reflect here on the challenges and experience.
I give thanks to the one who calls and is indeed faithful and to all those He placed on my Camino to encourage me to journey forward in His light.
I don’t know about you, but certainly in my lockdown I have obtained some glory, don’t worry that’s not such a vain claim as it may seem, let me explain. In Hebrew the original word for glory; “Kabod” has its root meaning in mass or weight, how substantial something was in the ancient world was seen as tangible evidence of its importance.
Therefore, glory, God’s greatness and manifested majesty, are described in heaviness. So as you can see, my recognition that I have put on a few pounds whilst in isolation and perhaps too keenly supporting our bakery stalls on the market over the last couple of months, is a less edifying type of glory than it first appeared.
But in the Hebrew scriptures, this glory does relate to weight and stature and so is often represented with the heavy and radiant element that is gold. Giving up this most precious of substances for the decoration of temples and statues was a powerful expression for the believer of God’s power and splendour, eg. as described in impressive detail of the construction of the Temple of Solomon in the first book of Kings. But clearly it’s not only in ancient Judaism, but faiths across the world and across history that have employed this symbolism.
The Christian church itself has had a complex relationship with gilding of places of worship. On my pilgrimage a couple of years ago, to the tomb of St James the Apostle, Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain, I was surprised, even shocked to see that the entire interior of the Cathedral seemed to be dipped in the stuff. Whilst that may be an earthly visual representation of God’s glory and presence, I wonder whether it speaks fully of that glory, as lived out in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ; which has as much to do with service as status.
It seems perhaps not surprising that in today’s reading in Acts we find the disciples are still grappling with what glory means, after witnessing the death and resurrection. In Acts 1 vs6 the apostles still appear to be expecting a revolution that is as much political as spiritual. ‘Lord is this the time you will restore the Kingdom to Israel’.
But Jesus’ power is never purely concerned with earthly empires, rather the transformation of people, purpose and the very cosmos itself.
In John’s Gospel chapter 17 -the other reading for today- Jesus’ prayer says ‘I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do’.
By finishing the work that the Father gave Him to do; the work of living fully as a human and God: the redemptive work of the cross and resurrection. This is not simply a gilded statue to be honoured.
For those who know Great St Mary’s, you will be familiar with the striking Majestas, the wooden sculpture that sits above the high altar, adorned with gold leaf. But amongst all that golden splendour of the risen Christ in Majesty you will find the red wounds of His Passion. The true cost of that majesty and glory.
The Ascension and its associated glory is a difficult concept for us to grapple with. There is a danger of getting fixated on the physical permutations and machinations of the glory of being uplifted. Perhaps it is more helpful to think about it as a culmination of the resurrection appearances of Jesus, which all present a redeemed and transformed body of the risen Christ. And just as the kingdom that the apostles quiz Jesus about, is not primarily the political parameters of Rome, neither is the ascension about going up into the sky, but instead this is the stuff of the new creation; a new heaven and a new earth.
But that is all very well, what about the reality of the here and now of those disciples walking back into the city? It’s hard for us to imagine, the confusion and desolation they must have felt as Jesus was once again removed from their sight.
After the extraordinary roller coaster of emotions that they had been through, to lose Him and then for him to return only to lose Him again?……..
Perhaps our own current pandemic and its associated lockdown and physical isolation gives us a little insight into the disciples emotions. As we have in equal measure been thrown together or forced apart, we can empathise with the disciples returning to their quarters after Jesus’ ascension. ‘ When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James.’
Huddled, but hardly socially distanced and yet very removed from what they had come to learn and love in the three years of Jesus’ ministry and friendship.
But after the clouds descended once more,and took Jesus from their sight they are bereft. Yet as is always the gospel message is one of hope. It never ends with loss and death or even obscurity of vision, that is never the final word. The two men in white, would appear to have witnessed Jesus’ ascension, as Luke tells us in vs 10 ‘why do you stare looking up towards heaven?’ ‘You will witness his return’. The implication is that they need not to look to heaven, but to return to earth and await the Holy Spirit. Indeed the last thing that Jesus says to them before removing himself is ‘I am not leaving you alone’.
To put it in simple terms those messengers are saying : you will no longer see him but you will feel Him and know Him.
Acts Vs 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Whilst they may feel abandoned now, he will shortly be filling them fully with His spirit. But ascension is not a pleasant floaty uplifting, nor is this glory for glory’s sake, because this glory is born out of a God of love.
So whilst it is good to keep our eyes on heaven and what is to come, our feet are planted firmly on the earth and we must descend from the mount of olives back into the valley of life with all its current added uncertainty and darkness.
Back to our lives in any way that we currently can. Whether physically or on zoom, to the office, to the marketplace, the school and the hospital and care home. To be church in new ways and old, to serve God’s people and shine with His glory
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be always acceptable in your sight , O Lord my strength and my Redeemer
Looking back over the last year I am sure we can all think of many examples where people have thought of the needs of others. Picking up a prescription, taking in a parcel for a neighbour, dropping off shopping or perhaps just giving each other a little more space on the pavement.
All of these are undoubtedly good things but in our reading today in Paul’s letter to the Romans, we are reminded that it is not our own actions but that of God’s love for us that restores our relationship with him.
If the Gospel worked by us having to get to a certain point in a test and examination of goodness before God acted, then frankly we would all have an F minor and be resitting on a regular basis. But that is not the Christ that we find in the Gospel, he is a God of action and infinite mercy.
We are justified and put right by our faith in what God has, out of love, done for us. Jesus is not simply dwelling among us, living as one of us, but giving his life blood. ‘While we were still sinners, Christ died for us’, not waiting for us to get better at life, but bringing us home to the father, offering the living water, in spite of and not because of, what we did and continue to do so.
There is a danger in this pandemic to over theologise the suffering that all are experiencing in many different forms. As though it is the duty of us all to suffer in silence. But Paul tells us that through suffering, we find hope. It is not so much that we need to suffer, but that in suffering we find through our darkest moments that Christ is stretched out on the cross in our agony.
Of course we don’t always feel that at the time, but in the broken bread, the kind word and the lit candle, we see God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit and been given to us.
As Paul says, ‘just at the right time as we were still powerless, Christ died’. But it was not a power as we know and understand it, but power in weakness in the frailty of a man stripped bare, chastised, taunted and tortured after three years of ministry on the road, and yet still choosing to put right our wrong with his life. That is action, that is love.
It is interesting how much, in today’s society, we talk of justifying our actions and words, whether it is falling out of relationships, criticism of others, just a little hurtful comment on social media, polarising thought, exploiting people’s suffering for money or power and insisting on division and difference. We seem to have lost sight of what it means to justify by action; to bring back together, to reconcile, to put right, to reunite, to re-establish. All of this seems to speak of the beauty of the creative new order, of a Kingdom inherited of love, not a world tearing itself apart with opinion, accusations and deliberate hurt.
As we continue to move through Lent towards the Passion of our Lord, my prayer is that we take some time over the next few weeks to reflect that God chooses to act out of love, because we choose not to. That we follow his example to act, not simply because it is a good thing to do, but because it is the right thing to do.
Some years ago at Great St Mary’s we were visited by the Rev Roly Bain (the Holy Roly), who slack wired his way down the naive, dressed as a clown. A complex and somewhat controversial figure, ordained but audacious. One who took delight in subverting the order of the Church and acting the holy fool speaking truth to power.
I was stirred by his performance and was moved when I saw this postcard of a portrait, which now sits in a prayerful corner of my study.
In today’s reading Paul speaks of foolishness of the Gospel and how God turns the wisdom of our age on its head. We certainly live in strange times, where our norms have been subverted. Times when zoom means stay and an evening out means putting on a best shirt on and staring at a glass screen.
But Christ’s Passion is always one of challenging the status quo. This pandemic may well both force and encourage us to examine the way we live our lives. But if we listen carefully, Jesus’ words are continually inviting us to do so and to act out of love, for both planet and people.
Paul is writing in a context of the sophisticated culture of the Greeks; of a society of philosophy (Sophia the love of wisdom) and the pursuit. A culture in which the idea that the death of a criminal of a despised and disobedient race would have significance, was sheer folly.
Alongside this, Paul’s own Jewish background as a Pharisee, a man of learning, and knew all too well what was expected and possibly feared, was a political figure to deliver them from the tyranny of Roman rule. Instead, we have the son of a carpenter from a dusty town on the edge of the Roman empire, who travelled round with a ramshackle group of prostitutes, tax collectors, the diseased and the poor.
Living in a city where intelligence is prized, it may seem a strange approach, and a strange choice of friends, but this is how God God chooses to act. “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise’
This is the folly, the foolishness. Not a figure in a dark ill fitting suit and a crisp shirt, standing at a podium day after day; but a man telling stories, healing with love and reaching out in life and death on a common gallows and beyond to the light of Easter morning and today.
This is an extraordinary Lent where much of our life is upturned. Where friends and families are separated and much of our lives that we took for granted has been taken away. But perhaps this time of forced abstinence gives us an opportunity to see more clearly the folly of God and the wisdom of our age. Perhaps it is time for us to offer God’s love a little better and to speak in kindness more, however foolish that may make us feel.
“May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD our strength and our redeemer”.
Quote from Narnia about how time passes……..
“But there was no time,” said Susan. “Lucy had no time to have gone anywhere, even if there was such a place. She came running running after us the very moment we were out of the room. It was less than a minute, And she pretended to be away for hours.”
“That is the very thing that makes her story so likely to be true, “ said the professor. “If there really is a door in this house that leads to some other world (and I should warn you that this is a very strange house, and even though I know very little about it) – if, I say, she had gone into another world I should not be at all surprised to find that the other world had a separate time of its own; so that however long you stay there it would never take up any of our time. On the other hand I don’t think Many girls of her age would invent that idea for themselves. If she had been pretending, she would have hidden for a reasonable time before coming out and telling her story.”
God’s time and our time……..
God has a purpose for each one of us and we are impatient because we do not understand the time frame that he operates in. As our epistle today says: ‘‘The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance’.
In the Chronicles Of Narnia, the children Narnia discovered the hard way that time and opportunity are interwoven but often in ways we can’t even imagine when we live through them.
It was the unicorn who summed up what everyone was feeling. He stamped his right fore- hoof on the ground and neighed and then cried:
“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now…Come further up, come further in!”
So to belong? To truly inhabit we must step forward . On the Camino, the pilgrimage walk to Santiago de Compostela, there is a phrase which says there is no path only the next footstep. I believe today’s text are cautioning us to tread carefully where we place those next steps. As our actions, both individually and collectively, may well be hastening the time of a new heaven and new earth but I wonder if we are ready for the consequences of that.
Sharing one of my Sermons:
A few years ago, on a very hot summer weekend in Cambridge I was out enjoying the sunshine with friends. I noticed however that there were an awful lot of flies by my garden fence, behind which lay a playing field. After a fun day out at Strawberry Fair, I came back to the house and noticed there was a strange smell in the garden, but thought nothing more of it. Early the next morning however, the flies had returned and increased in number and the smell was stronger. So I tentatively looked over the fence and saw what I thought was someone sleeping propped up against it. However, given the smell and flies, I felt that something wasn’t right and decided in the early morning light, to summon up the courage to go into the field with my friend.
Sadly we discovered that the person was not indeed asleep but in fact had died. I won’t go into more detail but as I said it was a very hot weekend, and the man who I described to the Police to be about 50, I was shocked to discover later was in his early 20’s.
One of the things that many people often misunderstand about the Bible and the stories within it, is they assume that it is purely dealing with heavenly things. The reality is very different. God in bodily form as Jesus meets us in our suffering and deals with the crudeness of life and indeed death.
The most powerful foretelling of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection is in the story of Lazarus. (‘But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’)
But as well as being rich in theology, it is a story of relationships, suffering and grief of close friends and family. As a friend of Jesus, Mary was soon to offer a huge act of love in anointing his feet with expensive perfume and John gives us this ‘spoiler’ now to show us both the depth of love and emotion bound up in these friendships but also as another thread to Jesus’ own destiny.
The faith and love of both sisters is evident; Martha expresses her grief and frustration “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died” but in her anger is also hope “but even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him “.
Jesus response is astonishing : “I am the resurrection and the life “ “everyone who lives and believes in me will never die”. The sisters grief and faith are of equal depth; Martha says that she believes Jesus is the Son of God but as was the doctrine of her faith, doesn’t see that her brother will rise before the last day.
But in all this theology- which after all which in one sense is simply the language of our relationship to God- , is love. Or to put it another way the actions and the words are about relationships.
I’ve spent this last week having many conversations with our stall holders in the market. I’ve tried to explain that my role is about relationships. But humans and relationships are messy. This evening’s reading is also full of messy relationships: hurt, incrimination, passion, anger and guilt. There is also no shying away in the story from the reality of death in a middle eastern climate. There is a directness where Jesus is urged not to enter the closed tomb of a man who has been dead for four days in extreme heat. He is bluntly told, don’t go in as there will be a stench of an already decomposing body. As I was reflecting and reading this, I was reminded of my own experience of the grim discovery of the body of a young man, on a hot summer weekend, in a field just steps away from my own home.
The sisters in the story were conflicted, they believed in Jesus and had a sense of his true nature and yet it was that very insight that deepened their frustration that he stayed 2 miles away from their home, whilst their dear brother was dying and then waited 4 days after he had been laid in the tomb. They thought he was there now to share in their grief and offer his friendship, but he was going to do so much more than that.
As with the sisters, Jesus meets us in the messiness of our lives. He understands and feels our emotions. In this passage we are told he was moved, some translations of the greek see this as being profoundly disturbed and prompt Vs 35, the shortest verse in the Bible; Jesus wept.
What follows is the echo of his own death, taking fully and bodily the excruciating pain of crucifixion and burial in a borrowed tomb. Jesus demonstrates the power to transform the corporal as well as the emotional, and in contrast to his own neatly folded grave clothes , his friend walks still bound in the clothes of burial, still wrapped in the darkness of the trappings of the grave , but nevertheless blinking into the light.
In this evening’s passage, we witness the reality and cost of love and its transformative power. I wonder where God is calling each one of us to be alongside someone else’s suffering? In our university , our work , our homes , our market ? Where are we asked to weep and share another’s pain? When in the next week and beyond will we take the costly opportunity to offer the transforming love of the resurrection? How will our living as people of Easter breathe life and light in to the tomb of somebody else’s darkness?
I wrote this for Great St Mary’s, the University Church, Cambridge’s Newsletter, having been recently appointed by Great St Mary’s as Marketplace Chaplain.
I wonder how many people have noticed that there is a humble, even industrial looking cross presiding high above the marketplace. Perhaps it’s my artist’s eye, but I find myself looking at the world with a different perspective and noticing the unusual. The cross in question, is constructed from scaffolding poles and presumably, at one point housed electric lighting or cables. But it seems now to stand empty and yet as a silent presence.
A couple of years ago on coming away from breakfast at Michaelhouse after the Easter dawn service at Great St Mary’s, it was gloriously lit by the early morning sun and was transfigured. Which is particularly poignant because of its very location. This cross is at the back end of the market; next to the rubbish compactor, the stall holders’ underground toilet and general detritus of a busy seven day market, a modern Golgotha of the messiness of life.
I am delighted to have been commissioned as Chaplain to the marketplace and join the ministry team in seeking to support Great St Mary’s to answer the questions ‘what are we being called to be and what must we do to be a community in pursuit of the Truth.
As some will know, I was previously a Councillor for Market Ward and as a long standing Cambridge resident, an artist and as a member of Great St Mary’s I have engaged with the market and stall holders. Over the last few weeks, I have been out and about talking and listening with many of the stall holders. Over Holy Week, I gave out nearly 100 hot cross buns to stall holders and others in the market.
I have been encouraged by the response I have received so far and hope to act as a bridge between the activities within our church and the people of our wider parish.
As a Chaplain, I will be seeking to be alongside the community as a disciple of Jesus, in our city centre parish, in particular, but not exclusive to, the people of the physical Market Square space of all faiths and none. To chat with, to listen to, to pray with and for and by doing so demonstrating the Gospel of love and acceptance.
I have been surprised by the number of people who don’t know what a Chaplain is or even have understood the word. At its core, chaplaincy is about context and serving all those within that community. I sought to do this in the act of giving out hot cross buns, where I deliberately offered the trays to the stall holders rather than just members of the public. As an act of serving the server.
My hope and prayer over the coming weeks and months , supported by other members of the ministry team and your prayers, is to be like that rudimentary cross, a simple witness. To walk alongside others, in good times and in times of challenge and change, amongst the vibrancy, colour and complexity of our Market Square.
As we negotiated bin lorries and caused consternation amongst the Cambridge visitors, the congregation of Great St Mary’s steadily made its way around the market square. Blessed with blue sky and sunshine and with a constant proclamation of “all glory laud and honour”, on this Palm Sunday, we processed around the parish. When outside the Guildhall, a piece of pavement that experiences the full diversity of politics and protest, the gospel was proclaimed to all in a hearty voice by our curate.
I was touched to be told later that one of the traders had been pleased that we had walked around the whole of the market and I look forward to continuing to deepen that relationship with our market through chaplaincy.
It is believed that whilst Jesus was entering Jerusalem riding on a young donkey, a very different kind of leader of Pontius Pilate was on the other side of the city, also entering Jerusalem with all the pomp and pageantry of a Roman governor. Perhaps it is my own love of theatre that has always made this day in the church’s calendar particularly appealing and I am always moved that we are invited as congregation to join the voices of an ancient crowd in both welcoming the Messiah with praise and then demanding his execution.
The changing dynamic of the crowd seems to me to have an even deeper resonance this year as a British Citizen. I cannot help but see a parallel between the fractured and volatile politics of first century Jerusalem under Roman occupation with the hostility, division and volatility of Britain, post EU Referendum.
On Sunday as we played out the Passion narrative, I found myself reflecting on how quickly the ‘Hallelujahs and Hosannas’ of the London Olympics had turned to the ‘crucify’ of Brexit.
In a sense I am less concerned with the machinations of the EU debate as to where this has come from and what it says about a nation’s sense of self. I can see no greater time, than now for the need of the humility of leadership that goes beyond the breast plates and spears of rule to the gentle strength of a servant King.