Saturday, 8 May 2021

Lost and found

 At last! We have been fruitfully engaged during the pandemic with family history; it has filled in some gaps, dismissed some long-held, cherished notions, and although leaving us with more questions than answers, has been an instructive pastime, much enjoyed. 

And at last we have been able to place A, someone we knew was distantly related, but unsure how, into the family tree. And it brings enormous satisfaction to have done it, after hours of methodical search going back many months. He is second cousin. once removed, to Mary's mum. 

Finding and 'foundness' are integral to the faith. It is much more than the satisfaction experienced in finding A's place in the family. It is mutual; the finder and the found both rejoice. I don't care that I don't know if I am the finder, or if God is, in a particular situation; the mutuality, the relationship is all. And to God I am not a second cousin once removed; I am  a son; prodigal more times that I care to admit, but always found again, always reminded of my sonship. 

  

Saturday, 1 May 2021

Drought

 How long is it since it rained? No sign of April showers since, well, forever. There may be some rain later in the week, and I for one will welcome it. So early in the year to have the rain barrel empty! Meaning that the late summer timetable has moved to late April; the garden has been watered from the outside tap, just when seeds are springing up, and life straining to grow in the tubs and beds. I hope it does not portend a dry summer, with water restrictions.....

The psalmist knew of drought, and applied it to his soul; Like as the hart panteth after the water brooks, so longs my soul for thee, O God. My soul thirsts for God, even for the living God. And dry seasons of the soul are part of our experience, if we are alive to the movements of our spirit. An absence is noted, of, how can I put it? Refreshment? Life? Joy? All of these, and none of them; I struggle to fill any word with what that absence contains. (If absence can contain anything). 

Fortunately, there are the promises  in the good book that we shall be like a well-watered garden, a spring that shall never fail, a tree planted by the water side;  I am reminded of Eric Whitaker's 'Cloudburst' as I read these promises, and the wonderful noise of the rain in the latter part of that choral piece. Let it rain! And be accompanied by the rainy refreshment of soul.

Sunday, 25 April 2021

building

 The past two days, in glorious sunshine, I have been building a pergola? an arbour? Well, a wooden structure in the back garden. It has been planned in my head, recast, re-planned for last several months, as problems have been thought through, and plans adapted in the light of  that thinking. It needed four hands to erect it, so the happy combination of good weather and a visit from our son enabled the structure to be built. Wobbly and unsteady at times, before all the joins were made, it stands steady now. Some finishing touches still need doing, but the effect I am hoping to achieve will take two or three years; climbing plants need to grow all over it before it is 'finished'. 

Gardeners believe in the future, it has often been said. Builders too. But more than that, gardeners believe in a good and stable future which allows time for growth and maturity, Gardens are always unfinished; there is always more to do. They are always a work in progress. 

As is cultivating the soul. There is always more to learn and experience of the God who helps us hone our lives to a vision of completeness, who is always ahead of us, always calling us, always wanting us to add to the work in progress. 

I am tired, and ache after the exertions of the last days. Soul cultivation can be tiring too. It can be sweaty and thirsty work, but there is always recourse to the never failing fountain of life. Even if the present reality doesn't match the hoped-for effect.

Saturday, 17 April 2021

Unexpected

 'Ah yes, I was expecting you'; not a sentiment we hear from the lips of any of those who met Jesus after the resurrection. All the encounters caught the disciples, the women, the witnesses off-guard. It was in grief, in sadness, in disappointment, in doubt, in resigned 'we'll go back to fishing' that Jesus meets his followers. None expected the encounter; in many ways they were unprepared for it. The encounter turned expectations upside down. 

This is not to diss in any way the regular rhythms of prayer which the church commends to those who are serious about their faith and seek to encounter God. A discipline, a preparedness for encounter, a reminder that 'today is about meeting Jesus' is all to the good. Out of that can come the unexpected-meeting-with-grace. Like the couple I saw at the bus stop- needy, probably with multiple problems from the snatches of conversation I overheard- who out of the blue turned to me, wearing the day clothes of clerical shirt and collar, and said 'Father, please pray for us today'. Or the young traveller man in the changing room at the gym, who saw me put on my clerical shirt and collar as part of my clothing after the shower- I had just taken a wedding before coming to the gym- and (he) buck-naked, asked me to bless him. Unexpected encounters like these don't need a clerical collar. They do need resource, our disciplined prayer, and readiness to respond when the unplanned-for occurs, so that the kingdom of God , ever 'at hand' flows out of hearts at least semi-prepared, even semi-expected. .    

Saturday, 10 April 2021

A turning point

 We're still at the stage of shock/disbelief/awe/fear/amazement in our Easter readings from the gospels. Not surprising, and these stages of grief-turning-to-joy should not be underestimated. For the disciples, their world had been completely turned upside down. They had in some way come to accept the unsettling of their world in the three years they had been with Jesus, but this new reality of resurrection demanded a bigger leap, a wider imagination, an exploding and emerging shift to all they had known. 

I imagine it was all pretty untidy, this acceptance of resurrection, with some casualties- ideas, cherished notions, if not people- along the way. But it had a collective feel about it; the disciples, the women, the witnesses, could explore the implications, the Lord's directions, together.

That untidiness is hinted at in today's gospel; Thomas wants evidence- a reasonable request- before he believes any more than the has gains of the last three years. Doubt and evidence; vital components of a lively faith, otherwise we have uncomprehending, blind, unreasonable, -and ultimately eminently mockable- cultic 'faith'. 

Yet Thomas ultimately comes to the deepest acclamation of faith in the gospels- 'My Lord and my God!' So let's hear it for untidy, disputatious searchers for truth, and help them on their way; who knows, they might venture as far as exotic, unimagined India  (qua Thomas) in the reality of the good news? 

Saturday, 3 April 2021

The Old Words

 I have found the old words, the familiar words, helpful in keeping me on the path, relatively speaking, through Lent. 'We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, for by your holy cross, you have redeemed all the world'. 'Hearken, O Lord, and be merciful, to us who have sinned against you....'' Lord, have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.' And the rest. 

The old words have a patina on them through constant and cherished repetition. They have proved strong and durable, and have put God back where he belongs, as the eternal subject and centre. I have retreated to my proper place, not the centre of my universe, but frail, sinful, in need of grace. 

Easter Day finds me in that same world, but where old words 'Christ is risen- He is risen indeed!' make it possible to continue, with hope that the little mortal wounds we suffer, or inflict, through life, are provisional. The parts of me which have died or have inflicted death on others, can have a resurrection, so that I and others- indeed all creation- can be whole. Christ comes walking towards us out of the future, bringing his kingdom of love, peace, joy justice, and all that is good and lovely. The old words are shot thorough with life, with gold; they touch me and resurrect even me.   

Sunday, 28 March 2021

Rules and grace

 Last week I wrote of grace. This week I'm firmly back in the world of rules; I write to a prisoner on death row in the US, and twice recently my letters have been returned since the envelopes were non-standard. The first time I sent the letter in an envelope of the palest shade of grey, not knowing that they should be white. Letter returned to me by the authorities, undelivered to its recipient. So I put it in a white envelope, and sent it off. Letter returned, ditto. The interior of the envelope was blue, printed thus presumably to prevent prying eyes seeing the envelope's contents. But still not good enough; the search is now on for that rare beast, a white envelope with a white interior- and it ain't easy to find. 

Ah yes, rules. If only we knew them all, could keep them all. If only I was aware of the rules, handed down since childhood, that govern my life- even better, aware of the rules that govern yours, so that I don't cross them. Put like this, together with the variable rules of every society, written and unwritten, changing and unchanging, petty-fogging and common-sensical, public and private, new and old, there must be an infinite number. No wonder we are confused, transgressing at every turn, 'in thought, word and deed, through negligence, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault.'

All of which is somehow transcended for those in the faith by grace, which in a world of infinite rules, allows me to move forward, The promise is that I shall not be trapped in failure to keep the rules, anxiety that I have transgressed, and thus immobilised; but experience the green pastures, the goodness and expansiveness of salvation, of grace, which put rules into a perspective which acknowledges their place, but allows me to see the shocking truth that grace is sovereign. This coming week exemplifies the clash of rules and grace- in spite of the insistent and deathly voice of rules, grace overcomes.  

Sunday, 21 March 2021

I'm ahead of you

 I'm conscious of the shortcuts I take in my relationships. I'm interested in what job you have, so that I can judge your economic status, which in my foolishness I assume to be related to your education and intelligence. Armed with this, I think I know how to come on to you. In the end it's 'you' servicing my needs. 

There is an alternative, of course. I could just listen and let you unfold yourself. I could give you wholehearted attention, and pick up the signals about who you are, and not what you are. But I guess so much of modern life is about 'my time is precious, and I have to make a quick decision about you- are you worth investing my time in?' 

I don't see that in Jesus. I see him taking in, drinking in, the whole person. 'What would you like me to do?' Such a simple question, but it gets to the heart of the matter. No assumptions, just getting the person in front of him, who has his whole attention, to express their deepest self. 

I could learn from that- if I had the time. .    

Saturday, 13 March 2021

Grace is where we find it

 I have long maintained to friends and mentors that I find my theology not in the myriad books which formally fall into that category, but in the novels and stories I read. Truth to tell, it's often a defence against doing something I find difficult; and it's an aspiration often, rather than a reality. But in my Book Club meeting last week, theology snuck up on me out of nowhere. 

Towards the end of the two hours' discussion we were devoting to a story of Kamila Shamsie, the word 'atonement' popped up. I've been grappling with it since then, praying about that word, seeking truth in it. A memory from way back that it was William Tindale sometime in the early 16th century, as he translated the Bible into English, who gave the word its theological slant- a shade of meaning it had not carried before. Now, five hundred years later, I cannot see it in any other way than that; and I struggled to see Shamsie's characters  in any atonement light. 

My thoughts and prayers since the Book Club meeting have added to my Lenten journey, as I know how from from 'at one' with God I have been, how little merged into the likeness of Christ, how costive my love of God and neighbour. 

Fortunately, there are still weeks to run in this Lenten season; time to make amends, time for grace to operate, time for atonement to become something more real in me.       

Saturday, 6 March 2021

Blood Donor

 I gave blood earlier this week. Not that I missed it afterwards; life continued as normal. 'This gives me a free-pass on housework for the next six months, doesn't it?' I said to the Donor Carer who was attending to me. She was not sympathetic, but it was worth a try. 

The actual donation took about eight minutes; the health checks, identity checks, waiting, etc took up the rest of the hour. I wish I'd signed on to donating earlier- I was in my forties when I began, and want to get to fifty donations (just two needed to reach this point) before I think I may retire; age brings complications. 

For those within the faith, it's not so big a leap of the imagination to go from blood to the wine in the chalice at Holy Communion. The wine is meant to bring to mind the blood of Christ, shed on the cross. A sip of the wine is life-giving to me, at the cost of the life draining from the crucified Christ.

I've booked my next blood donation appointment for about twelve weeks' time. I should reach my fifty donations by the end of the year, all things being equal. I only wish that there was the same certainty about holy communion. These covid-months are the longest time I have not taken the life-giving elements. I feel the life draining out of me. But today a local church where I help has decided to open for Easter. A booking, as it were, for a transfusion of life. 

Saturday, 27 February 2021

Ice cream Lent

 If memory serves, there was a court case some years ago where a small artisanal ice-cream maker wanted the label 'ice cream' to refer only to products such as his, which contain cream, and little else. The products made by the big food corporations should, as they were more properly whipped, frozen and flavoured margarine, be called something different.. 

Naturally, he lost. Bur maybe he had a case. A reminder of the real thing, not something ersatz. I've never quite looked at the stuff I bring out of the freezer to serve with apple crumble without having a jaundiced eye as to what I'm eating since that time. Frozen margarine lacks any sort of appeal. 

And so to Lent. Like Advent, it's a time we are called back to the real, to forsaking the ersatz. Instead of the expectation of Advent, the note here in Lent is one of lament. Not a frame of mind and heart we indulge in very often, but in this covid-bound time, one we could do well to think of all that we have lost, all that could be repented, all that could change for the better. 

Could be appealing. As well as being personally called back to the rich and creamy fundamentals of the faith, it could lead us into visions which properly would find their voice in 'Thy kingdom come.' All underpinned by the age-old invitation 'Taste and see that the Lord is good'.       

Saturday, 20 February 2021

New Perspectives

 I've never found a way in to those early chapters of Genesis since rejecting them as a teenager as records of fact. Recently however, they've found a way into me- as records of wisdom. On this level- one I freely admit has probably been plain as a pikestaff to you, dear reader- I can't mine them deeply enough. 

Take Genesis 1, for a start. Poetic, beautiful, but not a record of fact. Hold the horses! Let it be seen as a picture of the way God worked; a bringer of light, structure, rhythm, growth, new beginnings, renewal, goodness. And continues to work thus, so that we see consistency and eternal values in God's being and nature. 

Or the story of the fall. The woman saw in the tree of the knowledge of good and evil something to delight the eyes, good for food, and a way to wisdom. All this had been found already in God and his provision, but now it was fixed on secondary things, on what was not God, but something lesser. 

I'm a latecomer to this school of wisdom. My eyes gave been fixed elsewhere, on the lesser things, but light and renewal and growth are beginning to take place. There may yet be found in me some trace of holy wisdom.     

Saturday, 13 February 2021

Family History

 Researching our family history takes up each Thursday morning during lockdown- it's been on the 'to do' list for some time, and has surfaced again. Some of the research, once we get into the rhythm of how to do it, is straightforward, but some connections Mary wants to make refuse to give up their secrets. So far. We live in hope that further research will yield answers, although we are not convinced. The release of the 1921 census results, next year, may provide some clues, but will also- it is my confident prediction- leave us partly in the dark. 

I come from a long line of cotton workers and other sorts of skilled workmen on the male side. Reflecting the times, the women were servants and shop assistants, when not bearing and rearing children. All these, their personalities, their prejudices, their successes and failures, their moves, their hardships, end up in me. Scraps of their humanity make me. 

The same is true of the faith; the scraps of childhood hymns, half-remembered, the people who helped shape my beliefs, the scriptures which have come alive over the years, the choices I made in life, end up in the rag-bag of stuff I call faith, held together with the glue of commitment to God in what I hope reflects outwards and upwards his love to me.

It's not neat, probably not logical, and probably won't ever be. It's a work in progress, and I shall always be, in this life anyway, partly in the dark. But partly in the light, too. 

Saturday, 6 February 2021

The head that once was crowned with hair...

 Increasing baldness over the years has led me to adopt a Grade 1 approach to hair care. Easy to maintain, and far enough removed from looking like a criminal to maintain some of the dignity my position in society requires......... dream on. But when the hair gets a bit too long, drastic action has been resorted to, and once again I've shaved my head, as the services of a hairdresser are not available in lockdown. 

Yes, I admit it, I look liked I've served at least 20 years in jail. It is not handsome. Nor was it easy, especially as I hacked around with the electric shaver, not having any hair clippers. But half an hour's work, finally presided over by Mary's ministering hands at the back of the head where I couldn't see, has completed the task. 

And then oil on the head, partly to calm and heal all the nicks I had made. It gave the task a biblical feel, a biblical edge, made it holy, a symbol of something more than necessity and tidiness. 'Thou hast anointed my head with oil' says the psalmist, a reference to sanctifying, set aside for God. 

Well, in these lockdown times where one day seems pretty much like another, anything which reminds us of vocation, of the ultimate purposes of our lives, is welcome. There it was, an ordinary task of hygiene and necessity, given a dimension unforeseen. The life less ordinary, courtesy of God.     

Saturday, 30 January 2021

In search of the essay

 Whatever happened to the essay? That extended piece of writing which allowed an author to say his or her bit on a topic of choice, with erudition and wit, not to mention excursi as time and theme allowed .Its natural home was The New Yorker and prime journals- I hesitate to use a word as louche as 'magazine'- of that ilk.  These thoughts are prompted by a recent reading of an essay by Gore Vidal, now deceased, but at one time the urbane, deadly skewer and scourge, inter alia, of the inconsistencies of American policy.

The essay demanded of its readers time to read it and digest it, to absorb its erudition, enjoy its unfolding, take note of its thesis. So different from the home life of our own dear experience; who has time to read something  that long? We rely on much shorter snatches of news and opinions, views, reviews and sound-bites to mould our world picture. 

This has implications for the faith. I wonder who, apart from priests and academics, reads the longueurs and tight arguments of theology nowadays. Indeed, who reads the Bible? I changed the epistle reading (legitimately- it was a lectionary alternative) at a service one time, and the churchwarden, Bible in hand, said to me 'You find it- I'm no good at this'. If we do not read the text we say we live by, how can we judge that what we hear, sing, pray, preach, bears any relationship to the faith, handed down? 

The intercessions of St, Jude, patron saint of lost causes, are needed here. Enabling a good read, not only of the scriptures, but of much that shapes and shakes our world, so that we have some understanding of where we come from, where God wants to take us, and how near to, or far from that our primrose path may be taking us.    

Saturday, 23 January 2021

Finding pasture

 There are some who have embraced the faith because it offers answers, security, a haven where with like-minded believers they can be together rejoicing in their salvation on the inside of the sheep fold- that sheep fold which Jesus talks about in John chapter 10. Here in northern England, dry stone walls in a roughly circular shape have a narrow entrance, one person wide, to an inside large enough to hold a flock of sheep, who enter the area one by one through that small entrance. The shepherd sleeps across the entrance, protecting his charges. 

But it is outside this hugger-mugger enclave that the sheep find pasture. Inside can become fetid and arid, its little area of grass soon finished, its earth churned up by many hooves milling about. Inside is safe, out of the wind, maybe out of some of the rain and snow, guarded by the body of the shepherd, and all that is wonderful- but it's not the place to be in daylight hours. It's oh no! out there that the pasture is found; yes, along with  possible dangers, but more importantly with the experienced shepherd who leads his flock to pasture, with the sure knowledge of where that pasture can be found.

I've had my share of holy huddles, I'll admit, but am less and less drawn to them. Out there is so much more exciting, vibrant, so much more satisfying. In these covid-days, though, out there is not as accessible as it was. Virtual out there via Zoom and its stable-mates is the best we can do; what opportunities have presented themselves to you in this way, such that the safe confines of lockdown- home have given way, even though only virtually, to exciting, satisfying pasture out there? 



Monday, 18 January 2021

It's been a while.....

 I think it was the beginning of November- about ten weeks ago- since I was able to blog. Some gremlin in the works has prevented access to the site; or has wiped what I wrote, on the few occasions I accessed the site, as soon as I pressed the 'publish' button. A clean-up of my laptop by an outside company I have used from time to time, has ensured that this, and other issues too numerous to mention, but which could all come under the heading of 'decidedly off-kilter', have now been sorted. 

Off-kilter is what I find myself being, many times. Clogged up, failing to deliver, off-centre, unable to connect. No, I am not a robot, a machine, but the analogy applies. And a clean-up generally restores function. A realisation that God is near, and not far off; a self-appraisal which recognises how much in need of grace I am; a seeking forgiveness; a bringing of God back to the centre of the picture. Sometimes this realisation of the need for a clean-up comes several times a day; sometimes it's been a while. 

The central fact is this; the clean-up, the restoration of grace, makes real what I say in the creed each Sunday- that I believe in the forgiveness of sins, and the resurrection of the body. That's how forgiveness is- a resurrection from malfunction to something short of popping on all cylinders, but still ready to go, clarified, clean.