Sunday, 1 May 2016

on being blessed

God be gracious to us and bless us
and make his face to shine upon us,
That your way may be known upon earth,
your saving power among all nations — Psalm 67.1-2

The word 'bless' has achieved a bit of a revival in common parlance in recent years. Sometimes it's used as a way to respond to a comment that is touching or sweet. 'Ah bless.' Amongst some young people, 'Bless' has become a way of saying goodbye, which is a habit I wouldn't mind catching on. It also gets used, particularly on social media, as a kind of affectionate put down, as in 'My husband has gone to the shed to play with his power tools. Bless.'

Our Psalm today (67) draws on one of the most famous and still widely used blessings, the Aaronic blessing from Numbers 6.24-26:

The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. (NRSV)

A blessing is 'the authoritative pronouncement of God's favour on people, places, events and objects.'* When we are the recipient of a blessing, we do not become any more blessed than we were already. The priest, or whoever is pronouncing the blessing (and anybody can give a blessing), is simply giving voice to a state that already exists: God's unquenchable love for creation, and in particular humanity. God delights in us, in spite of the mess we sometimes make of our affairs, and of the planet, and continues to bless us. We remain the object of God's favour—and hearing a blessing is a way of reminding us of this.

What, then, changes when we hear a blessing pronounced? Blessing is a currency in the economy of our faith, which is to say that it is used in prayerful transactions: between us and God, and each other. Like the pound in your pocket, a blessing doesn't stay put for long. It gets passed on.

To be reminded of God's favour is something that should always provoke joy within us. If it doesn't then this is something you can pray for, to feel that joy when you are blessed. In turn joy provokes thanksgiving, and fuels our worship and prayers. And when that happens God is blessed, because we are then making God the object of our favour. When we bless God for something, it becomes sacred and holy. So blessing God, and being blessed by God, are at the heart of our relationship with the divine.

Blessings are not simply statements though. For us, they are a prayer that we will continue to be blessed by God. We seek the Lord's blessing for the future as well as recognise it in the present. And Psalm 67 makes clear, that our concern to be blessed by God in future is not just for us. We seek it for everyone. O let the nations rejoice and be glad... Then shall the earth bring forth her increase (v4,6).

In the book of Revelation we see how blessing pours from throne of God; peace and wellbeing for all.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. — Revelation 22.1-2

Blessings are something to be shared. When we give ourselves to others in loving service, we in turn are blessed by that. Lydia in the book of Acts, is quick to understand this. She opens her heart to the good news of Jesus Christ, is baptised, and in response to this great blessing, she offers hospitality to the apostles (Acts 16.11-15). A blessing is something that keeps moving, from God to us, from us to God and from us to one another.

We continue to pray God's blessing on us and for it to be known among all nations, 'then shall the earth bring forth her increase.'

The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. Amen.

*The New SCM Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship

Monday, 25 April 2016

on a new commandment

And now I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. If you have love for one another, then everyone will know that you are my disciples. John 13.34-35 (GNB)

A religious expert, a Pharisee, once came to Jesus and said to him, "What is the greatest commandment in the law of Moses?" (You will remember that, as well as the Ten Commandments, the Mosaic law contained over 600 rules which governed how the early Israelites organised themselves as a community, and worshiped God. By the time of Jesus, many religious leaders were more concerned about the correct observance of the law than about the love the God has for people and creation.) Jesus answered the religious expert by saying, "[The greatest commandment of the Law] is to 'love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind...' The second most important commandment is like it: 'Love your neighbour as you love yourself.' The whole law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets depend on these two commandments." (Matthew 22.37-40 GNB)

In a heartbeat Jesus slices through all the complexities of religious observance, as well as all the bureaucracy, religious fundamentalism, intolerance, and anything else that causes religious leaders to lose touch with the heart of God.

Towards the end of his earthly ministry Jesus prepares his disciples to continue his mission once he has left them. So he gives them a new, third, commandment: "Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another."

Jesus loved his disciples in many different ways: by being alongside them through all their ups and downs, by nurturing their faith and giving them insight into the radical kingdom of God, by being patient and forgiving with their failures, by investing confidence in them, by demonstrating the divine qualities of justice and peace, by willingly giving himself to them and offering his life up for them.

This is our role model, the example for us to follow. And Jesus is telling us that the way the world will know we are his followers is by the way we love one another. The quality of our relationships with each other and the way we behave is to be so distinctive and so rooted in love that it will infect society around us.

This is how the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is to be transmitted. Not through cheesy evangelistic programmes, not by telling other people how to live their lives, not by copying the sterile marketing tricks of the corporate world, not by taking to the streets once a year in a 'walk of weirdness', not by rushing to street corners with our guitars and tambourines, not by climbing onto a soapbox with a squawking megaphone.

It is by being a hotbed of 'God-intoxicated misfits'* heavenbent on putting love of God, neighbour and fellow followers of Jesus ahead of anything else - particularly self-interest. Tough call. You can see why crass evangelism and bossy moralising caught on. It is so much easier than actually following the new commandment, to live a life that is so distinctively loving, generous and self-giving that it leavens society and lifts the world into the new life of the kingdom of God. Some of the bad and busy outreach programmes of the church look a lot like the Pharisees measuring their fringes and phylacteries. A lot of effort and energy goes into it, but it does little to convey the love of God.

When we graft ourselves onto the true vine, God's love is able to flow through us and out into our relationships with each other, our families, our neighbours and the world. As long as we keep plugging ourselves into that source of love, then we enable ourselves to pass it on and bear fruit.

It was in response to God's love shown in Jesus that we became Christians; it is in sharing that love with others that we grow in our faith and in ourselves. And as we exercise the kind of love that Jesus demonstrated, we broadcast our discipleship and play our part in building the kingdom of God.

As Thomas Merton put it:

The solidarity of the Christian community is not based on the awareness that the Church has authority to cast out and to anathematise, but on the realisation that Christ has given her the power to forgive sin in his name and to welcome the sinner to the banquet of his love in the holy Eucharist. More than this, the Church is aware of her divine mission to bring forgiveness and peace to all men and women. This means not only that the sacraments are there for all who will approach them, but that Christians themselves must bring love, mercy and justice into the lives of their neighbours, in order to reveal to them the presence of Christ in his Church. And this can only be done if all Christians strive generously to love and serve all people with whom they come into contact in their daily lives.
Thomas Merton, The Power and Meaning of Love (emphasis added)

Scriptures marked GNB are taken from the Good News Bible published by The Bible Societies/Collins © American Bible Society.

*Robin Meyers, Spiritual Defiance: Building a beloved community of resistance

Friday, 22 April 2016

on worshiping together

Annual Address from the 2016 APCM at St Anne and All Saints South Lambeth

What happens when we come to church on Sunday?
St Anne and All Saints has been a place of prayer and devotion for over 200 years. Generations of parishioners have gathered here to meet with Jesus Christ in Word, Sacrament and through the ministry of one another. Worship is our response to all that God has done for us, giving thanks for the blessings we enjoy and through which we equip ourselves to serve Jesus, in whom we enjoy new and abundant life. For many people, Sunday worship is a place for individual prayer. And it is also something we do together as a community. We are therefore responsible not just for our own worship but for that of those around us.

Refreshing the way we worship together
Over the last four years, we have made a number of changes to our worship to ensure it is honouring to God, enriching for us and attractive to visitors. Services begin punctually, and we have new orders of service which enhance the dignity of the liturgy. We have recruited a first-class musician to play our organ, and we’ve introduced new music for the Eucharist. We have been training those who participate in leading worship (by reading lessons, leading intercessions, or as altar and chalice servers), and have dropped announcing hymns, all to help services flow more smoothly. And we have explored the use of different Bible translations as we seek to make understanding the Scriptures as easy as possible.

How you can help
Enabling good worship is the work of the whole congregation and there are three ways you can help:
1. Be at church before 10.30am
Arriving late distracts others from the service, and means you haven’t had time to prepare yourself for worship — especially if you arrive after the prayers of confession which follow the opening hymn.
2. Create time for prayer before and after the service
The organ will be played for about ten minutes before the service, and for a short voluntary after the service. During this time please remain seated and silent to allow others to have time for stillness, prayer and reflection.
3. Help those around you to worship
Be aware of making unnecessary noise or creating other distractions during the service. Leave conversations (including church business) until the service has finished. Please switch off your mobile phones, refrain from eating and drinking, and leave noisy plastic carrier bags at home.

Church provides a contrast to daily life
We have all become accustomed to the constant chatter of television and radio, or the stimulus of smartphones, emails and texting. Coming to church provides a place away from the noise and distraction of daily life. This is a place where we can find stillness, attend to our inner life, and listen out for the still small voice of God speaking to us. It is a place to set aside the difficulties of life, and offer our concerns and worries to God. A place to wipe the slate clean over the times we have let ourselves and others down. A place to be recharged and restored for the week ahead, as we step out ‘in peace to love and serve the Lord.’

Here is where we root our lives in silence, prayer and deep devotion to God as we gather to encounter the living Christ and recommit ourselves to following his way.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

on the third sunday of easter - john 21.1-19

During the Sundays after Easter our gospel readings focus on the appearances of Jesus after his resurrection, and the encounters that his followers and disciples have with him. Last Sunday we heard about the disciples, locked away in the upper room, frozen in fear, and of Thomas who was unwilling to believe his fellow disciples' accounts of the risen Lord — only to be convinced once he had touched the wounds in his master's hands and side for himself.

In this week's reading the action moves to the lakeside. There is some unfinished business here for Peter, so the narrative focuses on him. And it is a passage full of echoes from elsewhere in the gospels.

Dawn breaks slowly over the water. It is the beginning of a new day, a fresh start. Peter, perhaps feeling rather purposeless and unfocused now that Jesus isn't there to follow, decides to resume his old job as a fisherman. Some of the other disciples — clearly also at something of a loss — climb into the boat with him. But it is a fruitless endeavour; a night of fishing that yields no catch. It is only as the sun begins to lift over the horizon, and Jesus appears on the shoreline calling to them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat, that they meet with success. A haul that overflows to breaking point.

It is in obedience to Christ that our vocation finds its true purpose. When Jesus is present to us and we are attentive to him, we find our true calling. The Indian Jesuit Herbert Alphonso wrote:

All vocations are in Christ Jesus: the personality of Christ Jesus is so infinitely rich that it embraces all calls and vocations. If then each of us has a personal vocation, it can only be in Christ Jesus. This means that there is a facet of the personality of Christ, a 'face' of Christ Jesus, that is proper to each one of us, so that each of us can in very truth speak of 'my Jesus' — not just piously, but in a deep theological and doctrinal sense.
Discovering Your Personal Vocation, Herbert Alphonso S.J., Paulist Press

What is the face of Christ that you are drawn to? An aspect of his nature that finds true expression in you, out of which the best of who you are also flows? In other words, your calling — which not only directs what you do in life but is also perfectly embodied in the person of Christ. It could be his healing, or his teaching, his spiritual wisdom, his humility, patience, inclusiveness, his courage in speaking truth to power, his prayerfulness, his drive for justice, his self-giving, and so on. This is what takes us to the heart of what it means for us to live in Christ (Colossians 2.6). Our vocation is a person, Jesus Christ himself. Our lives are a response to all that he has done for us, and to his face reflected in us.

Perhaps Peter thoughts that fishing was his vocation. Or perhaps he just needed to go back to earning a living, to eat, now that his future was unclear. As he toils unsuccessfully on the lake, perhaps we can be drawn to think about those areas of our lives where we, too, are striving fruitlessly. Is it linked to an area of your life that is not open to Christ's presence, not listening to his voice?

Elsewhere in the gospels, the account of Peter's first meeting with Christ happens by the lake. Peter has been fishing and Jesus commands him to leave his nets and follow him, where he will learn to fish for people. For Peter his vocation lies in following Jesus and without him his efforts are in vain.

Fishing isn't the only echo of earlier passages from the gospels. When Peter and the other disciples come ashore they see that Jesus is cooking breakfast. It consists of fish and loaves of bread. Remind you of anything?

The five loaves and two fish which miraculously fed a large crowd of people, with many baskets full of leftovers, were a symbol of the abundance and ungraspable vastness of God's grace. That we see this same meal by the fireside isn't coincidence. Jesus isn't a one trick pony in the kitchen, with this as his signature dish. It is a breakfast that signals a recollection of that picnic in the desert which demonstrated how much God's grace overflows beyond what we can ever need. So, too, Peter's fishing nets when they are full to bursting symbolise this. And who is it in this passage that needs to be reminded of the magnitude of grace? Peter himself.

Peter who, when the chips were down, denied being a disciple of Jesus, not once but three times. The curious conversation in which Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him, echoes the three denials. This is Peter being reinstated as a disciple, for 'it was his own identity and discipleship that he had denied' by the side of another fire, in a nighttime courtyard. Peter doesn't need forgiveness. That work has already been done on the cross. No, what Jesus is offering Peter is a chance to step back onboard the good ship discipleship and to resume his true vocation.

Yet it comes with a reminder of the challenges ahead. This is no cosy reconciliation. Peter's choice to reclaim his discipleship will ultimately lead to his martyrdom, generally thought to have been by crucifixion. So here is one final echo from elsewhere in the gospels, when Jesus says to us, 'Take up your cross and follow me.'

Will you?

Friday, 11 March 2016

on the last lap of lent

Before Easter

yet frost still builds
dead palaces.

We hear the crack from
icicles of bone,
snow crowns
have snapped the throats
of daffodils,
the ice-queen walks in
her brittle dress.

No rose-blood in the stem,
no cumulus
perfume in trees,
each day
is a coffin of glass.

The sun is turned
to crystal,
it is our alchemy of winter;
inner cold.

Christ sleeps
behind the quickening stone.

Isobel Thrilling

For prayer and reflection

The poet likens early spring to the time before the resurrection of Christ. As we wait for wintry weather to transition into the warmth of spring, and the buds on trees and flowers to finally break open in bloom, so we see out the final weeks of Lent before the resurrection joy of Easter.

It can still feel quite wintry at this time of year. Isobel Thrilling’s poem doesn’t ignore the signs of the season — cold and unpromising as they may seem. She takes time to observe and describe them.

What have you been noticing during Lent? What has been your experience of living the disciplines of prayer, fasting and acts of service? Can you find a way of being present to the moment and observing what it brings, rather than always looking forward to a better time?

Saturday, 5 March 2016

on mothering sunday

Two Women
Two women meet each morning to pray
One is a mother, the other her daughter
They belong to different religions
Only blood binds them together

Stephen is the object of their prayer
He is the grandson of one, the son of the other
He lives abroad
He does not want to come home
He wants to be left alone

So the women pray silently—each in her own way
Their words do not cross
They rise and converge
Stephen will be safe for another day.

Neville Braybrooke

This week's poem spotlights painful truths about family life for some. Here are a mother and her daughter—meeting each day to pray. But this act is not as close or unified as we might first assume. "They belong to different religions" which might mean distinctive traditions within the same religion, or actually two entirely different religions. Either way the poet is pointing out fundamental differences between the two women: whether in values or outlook, beliefs or behaviour. "Only blood binds them together." Which suggests they have not much else in common.

Yet there is something they share, their love and concern for a son, a grandson, who has chosen to distance himself from his family.

Perhaps I was drawn to choose this poem by the circumstances surrounding a funeral I took last week, of a man who was a little like Stephen. He didn't live abroad, in fact had never been abroad, but nonetheless he had chosen to withdraw into himself and live away from his family. What became clear to me was that he was very much loved and cared for by his relatives. There may only have been a handful of them at his funeral, but they were bound together not just by blood, but by their ongoing efforts to be there for him and reach out whenever possible. I'm sure the man knew he was loved, even although he chose to live by himself. There was a great sense of unity within those family members present at his funeral. From different generations and various parts of the country, they gathered to see him on his way, each laying a rose on his coffin. In death, as in life, this man's absence drew others together, much like the women in the poem.

For this mother and grandmother, prayer is their point of contact, the place where they come together, rather like the family of God found in the church. We are all so different from one another, perhaps we find some of our brothers and sisters hard to understand, and yet we're bound together in the blood and body of Christ.

A community.


When we gather each Sunday for worship, we each may believe slightly different things, have varying levels of faith, or follow Christ in our own individual way, yet we too "rise and converge" when we come before the altar to receive the sacrament.

I see much care extended to one another within our little family here at St Anne's. And yet sometimes in life we are confronted by people who either don't wish to be helped, or whose needs go way beyond anything we are able to offer. Like the women in our poem, sometimes we have to live with situations that are outside our power to change. There is only one recourse, prayer. The two women have no options left, other than to entrust Stephen to God's safekeeping.

Their daily vigil carries an echo of another image that we will come to in Holy Week, when Mary, the mother of Jesus, and John, the beloved disciple, wait helplessly at the foot of the cross. What can they do other than be alongside Jesus as he dies. Paintings and sculptures of the crucifixion often show Mary and John in an attitude of prayer. A striking example of this is just up the road inside the church of St John the Divine, where Charles Sergeant Jagger's sculpture, the Kelham Rood, is now situated. Mary and John are posed not wholly prayerfully, yet I sense that prayer is much present in their anguish. Mary's hands are held out beseechingly, almost pleadingly, as one might imagine her prayers to be. John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, stands with his face buried in his hands, fists clenched in desperation. God is their only recourse in such circumstances. You may wish to visit St John the Divine sometime between now and Easter, to sit with or pray alongside this marvellous and powerful artwork.

One final thought. This poem speaks to me of something about the relationship between God and his children, or her children if you prefer, when we choose to keep our distance. Where we, like Stephen, are faithfully held in prayer by Jesus interceding on our behalf, longing to put his arms around us as a mother hen gathers her chicks. This is God as mother, who never gives up on us even when we do not want to come home to her.

The Kelham Rood at St John the Divine Kennington

Thursday, 25 February 2016

on the riches of prayer

The poems we have reflected on over the last couple of Sundays were written by modern poets and fairly easy to understand on a first reading. This week we go back 400 years to the Welsh poet-priest George Herbert. Although he was dead by the age of 39 Herbert's output was prolific, and his thinking about how to exercise parish ministry in rural settings has had a long reach — still an influence on clergy today. He was also the writer of hymns, amongst others Let all the world in every corner sing, which we often sing at St Anne and All Saints.

Our poem today, is Prayer, and is considered one of George Herbert's finest:

Prayer the church's banquet, angel's age,
God's breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth;
Engine against th' Almighty, sinner's tow'r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

What makes this sonnet reward re-reading is the density of meaning and ideas it contains. One of today's poet-priest's, Malcolm Guite, says this about it:

Its richly laden 14 lines contain no fewer than 27 images or reflections of what prayer might be for us. From the uplifting 'exalted Manna' to depth-sounding 'Christian plummet', from the heaven-ward ringing music of 'church bells beyond the stars heard' to the deeply incarnate discovery of 'Heaven in ordinary', Herbert's imagery captures the ups and downs of our prayer life and maps out for us the spiritual terrain through which we are moving.

The Word in the Wilderness, Malcolm Guite, Canterbury Press 2014

Rather than try and take all of it in at once, a good way to approach this poem is to pull out one or two phrases that particularly strike you as interesting — maybe because they are easier to understand, or perhaps you like the imagery, or find they resonate with your own experience of prayer.

A couple of lines stand out for me today — but the beauty of a jam-packed poem like this is that next time I read it something else will draw my eye.

'God's breath in man returning to his birth...'
Last week we recalled the creation story where God breathes life into the first human. Herbert beautifully imagines God-given breath being returned to its source when we pray. Here is praise that God's creatures offer up to their creator for all that we have been given, not least the gift of life itself.

As a child I was taught that the way to start a prayer was in thanksgiving, but it can be easy to forget that. What are the blessings that you want to give thanks for today?

And prayers can also be actions, not just words. In the same we that we use our God-given breath in praise (or hymns), so we can also use our God-given gifts and talents in service to God and others. By doing so, these also return to their source, their birth. This too is worship. What impact does your prayer life have on your way of Christian living?

'A kind of tune which all things hear and fear...'
I'm fond of the idea that the divine is a song reaching out across the heavens and earth, and that our job is to listen out and join in. Prayer is not only about talking to God, but listening for God so that we can tune in and join with the eternal song. This requires our prayers to be in step with what God desires. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. We pray for the kingdom of God, which Jesus announced, to grow and come to fulfilment. We pray so that we may become part of the kingdom project.

Rowan Williams writes:
Christians do not pray expecting to get what they ask for in any simple sense — you just might have noticed that this can’t be taken for granted! Rather, Christians pray because they have to, because the Spirit is surging up inside them. Prayer, in other words, is more like sneezing — there comes a point where you can’t not do it. The Spirit wells and surges up towards God the Father. But because of this there will be moments when, precisely because you can’t help yourself, it can feel dark and unrewarding, deeply puzzling, hard to speak about. Which is why so many great Christian writers on the spiritual life have emphasized that prayer is not about feeling good. It is not about results, or about being pleased with yourself; it is just what God does in you when you are close to Jesus.
Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (SPCK)

When we are attentive to God, prayer happens, whether we have anything in mind to pray about our not. Our prayers are joining in with what Jesus is already doing. And often the biggest change that prayer will make in the world will be to us, so that we become better builders for the kingdom of God; agents of change in the cause of love and justice and peace. This is why silent prayer can be so powerful. By contemplating God in stillness and quietness, centring ourselves on divine love, we are switching on an inner wireless ready to listen to God's call on us and get in harmony with the 'tune which all things hear.'

Perhaps on reading this poem different things will stand out for you than did for me, and you might want to take time during the coming week to re-read it on a number of occasions and see what ideas stick out for you. Other poets have followed George Herbert's lead and also written poems in the same vein, collecting together their own images and metaphors for what prayer is like for them. You, too, might want to think about doing that this week. And if you do, I'd love to read it.