The Ritual of the Eucharist

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In preparation for a Quiet Day I am leading on Contemplative Photography at Launde Abbey I asked a colleague whether they would mind me photographing them as they celebrated the Eucharist.

Whilst it seems a strange request, I wanted to have a visual backdrop which allows for the opportunity to almost freeze the moment…what I got was so much richer.

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The realisation that there are as many ways of celebrating the Eucharist as their are priests.

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We are all a product of our own experiences of the Eucharist, and those who have shaped us along our journey.

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As well as providing an opportunity with God, the Eucharist affords us an encounter with those who have gone before, and have contributed in some small way to who God has formed us to be…

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The Eucharist is not only a celebration of the Last Supper, but also a reminder of the diversity of God and God’s people…

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Of our togetherness…

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And our brokenness.

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It is an outpouring of God who ‘Goes-between’ (to coin a phrase of John V Taylor) each of us, to draw us into communion with God and, most beautifully, with one another.

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God meets us in the silence, in the breaking of the bread and the pouring of wine. It was a beautiful opportunity to experience this sacred meal through the eyes of another.

 

My Soul Proclaims…

My sermon from our May Festival earlier this week with readings from Acts 1:12-14 and Luke 1:39-56. It was a service with great blessings, where I had the opportunity to witness mutual flourishing at its best:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.
My spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.
For he has looked with favour on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.

There is such depth of emotion in these words. They have become written on my heart as I sing them daily in prayer. The sentiment of Mary here is truly beautiful. Yet nowhere else can we better see the paradox of blessedness than in her life. To Mary was granted the blessing of being the mother of God incarnate. The double-edged sword of blessing was also to pierce her heart…some day she would see her son hanging on a cross. And still, as our Acts reading shows us, Mary remains dedicated to prayer. Faithful to the end. Her example is quite a challenge to us as women and men of faith. How often do our souls proclaim the greatness of the Lord?

This prayerful exchange between two women is  both prayer-filled and prophetic. Elizabeth recognises, as we do, that Mary has been blessed richly, indeed that she is the most blessed woman. There is no jealousy in her words, just an acknowledgment of the awesomeness of God and how Mary has found great favour in the sight of God. The absence of the broken human spirit which leads to jealousy and envy, which is so often present, is the first proclamation of the greatness of the Lord in our gospel reading.

We also see Elizabeth acknowledging Mary’s faith –  how she is even more blessed because she believed. Was Elizabeth speaking from her own situation perhaps? The sequencing of events is a little unclear in this  first chapter of Luke. We know that Elizabeth was also pregnant  because her child leapt in the womb at Mary’s greeting. What we do not know is whether Zechariah had been visited by the angel, Gabriel, and had become mute yet. We also do not know, if that is the case, whether Elizabeth knew that Zechariah had become mute because he had  questioned what the angel had said.

These details perhaps do not matter; what is evident is that Elizabeth has an  understanding of blessing which relates to  both being chosen by God and having the faith to trust that…even when what one has been  chosen for seems unlikely, or even completely socially  unacceptable.

Mary’s response to Elizabeth’s realisation and  recognition is prayerful and prophetic. The first thing she does is point right back to God –  acknowledging that this is about God and not about her. Her humility is just beautiful.

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the
lowliness of his servant.

She moves on to consider that generations to come will call her blessed –  this is such a huge blessing, it will not easily be forgotten. Equally though, future generations will not remember Mary for being Mary; they will remember her as one who was  most profoundly blessed by God. That humble focus on God is a beautiful example  for each of us to follow in our Christian lives and ministries.

The next part of Mary’s words seem incredibly  prophetic. God’s mercy is for those who fear God. Despite how society seems to be organised, the proud, the mighty or the rich will not have the last word. Indeed, through the Messiah, God is about to overthrow all of these. It is the lowly who will receive God’s mercy. There is also a revolutionary note about feeding the  hungry and sending the rich away empty;  this counters ancient societal values where the rich would be taken care of and  the poor sent away empty handed. I wonder whether we can claim that those societal values, which are of ancient origin, are no longer present today?

Mary speaks of God turning human attitudes and orders of society upside down. She is wonderfully aware of God’s subversive sense of justice – her knowledge and acknowledgement of this can only have been inspired by God. As you will see from looking around St Andrew’s,  we are fortunate enough to be hosting some of  the Methodist Modern Art Collection at the moment. There are some truly phenomenal pieces. I have been drawn to the Dalit Madonna by Jyoti Sahi. What I am most interested in with this painting is  how humbly Mary, the Queen of Heaven, has been depicted. This image resonates with the humility which  seeps off the page of our gospel reading. Equally, within such humility, there seems to be a profound proclamation  from the soul of the artist, of the greatness of the Lord.

The Dalit Madonna seems to have a mark of stigmata on her right hand, perhaps reminding us of the inevitability of pain and suffering. Even, or perhaps especially Mary as the mother of God, bears the inevitable marks of suffering  caused by the human condition of brokenness. Yet within the relationship of Jesus and Mary, we see the necessity of that suffering to create life and hope.  Equally, as Mary gazes at the God-child, everything about her body language seems to point to Christ. She is in awe. She has captured the wonder of the meaning of life; that is of humanity and our relationship with divinity. As Mary gazes on Jesus here, we too are drawn in. Equally when we seize the sacrament of now, when we gaze on God in the everyday, others are drawn in. I am sure, if you spend time gazing at the Dalit Madonna, you will receive equally wonderful revelations  of the living God whom we worship.

I invite you to do so after this celebration service, and think about how your soul will proclaim the greatness of the Lord over the coming week. So, how is all of this relevant for us today? Mary’s faith and words are a beautiful blueprint for Christian life and ministry; first on hearing God, however unlikely it seems, we are to trust and respond willingly  and with humility:

let it be with me according to your word.

Our response should glorify God, not ourselves. In all that we do, we need to point back to God. Our place in the world, as Christian disciples with an incarnational  ministry is surely to enable encounters with God. Those encounters are more likely to occur when we, with humility, give way to ourselves and allow space for God to work through us, just as Mary did. Mary also reminds us that we ought to fear God,  that we ought not allow pride and conceit into our hearts, that lusting after power will not bring us any closer to God, but rather drive a rift between us and God.

Living like Mary has revolutionary, subversive potential as we seek to point back to God, acknowledging the merciful heart of God, and our brokenness before God as we humbly step out in faith to do what God requires of us. Let your soul proclaim the greatness of the Lord!

AMEN.

Where is God…?

After taking a break from writing over the last few months, I am finally seeing those glimmers of God once again, inspiring thoughts and even gifting a few lines of poetry. It would be fair to say that writers block has silenced me, yet perhaps there are times when it is more important to listen than to speak, to hear rather than be heard. As I have listened, as I have lived in the mess which sometimes finds its way to each of our doors, I have found myself asking, where is God in all of this? The answer has been simple: right here, if only I would stop to look and see, listen and hear.

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How different would each day be if we only had a small number of words to say, if we had to savour the opportunity to speak for those occasions when it really mattered? Would we choose to speak words of love, or hate? What would we prioritise – building others up, or knocking them down? How much of what you have said today falls into words of love and care? It is a huge challenge, but could listening change the world?

“Listen much, speak little.”

St Ignatius of Loyola

Detention

As a former teacher the word detention was unfortunately part of my regular vocabulary whilst working in schools. Something perhaps less well known, thought about or understood though, was that detention was issued often not to punish, but rather with the intention of getting to know a student who was causing some sort of trouble. Troublesome behaviour often turned out to be a cry for attention, for someone to talk to about something which had been playing on their mind, or for affirmation and encouragement. These detentions then were often a new beginning, a starting point to a different way of being…even though at first sight they seemed negative, the result was actually positive.

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During my time in Tokyo I visited a detention centre where the word detention seemed to have all the negative connotations and stereotypes that our minds would first jump to. Whilst in the waiting room I met a man who had settled in Japan many years ago as a foreign national. The waiting room was a funny sort of place, one of those places which helps you to forget where you are or why you are there, with a collection of toys in the corner, a television on the wall and quite a bit of coming and going. There was a strange sense of community around shared experience which encouraged conversation between perfect strangers. As conversation was initiated with this man, he was different to the others I had encountered in the waiting room. He did not want to talk, he did not want to admit any association with anything to do with the detention centre. His words still stick in my mind. He was keen for everyone to know that he was here with a friend who was visiting, nothing to do with him; “I came here years ago, but not like this. These people are something else….” 

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For those who were being detained who I met, the story was rather different. Most who allowed me the privilege of hearing their story had been forced to leave their homes because their lives were in danger, real danger – returning home would result in death, and not because they had committed a crime which was punishable by death. The reasons for these threats to life were based on matters which we, in the UK and the West more widely, take for granted: some may have chosen to follow a different faith to the majority; others to align themselves to an alternative political path than the ruling regime; others still because their birth has brought them into a tribe or group which is hunted. Those I spoke to were desperate to go back to their homes, yet they also wanted that to be a safe place. They did not want to live in Japan, and benefit from all that that society offers, they just wanted to be safe. Safe. It is a small word with huge meaning, with feeling which cannot always be evidenced or explained. Safe. The journey towards which has led to vulnerability and further feelings of fear following any number of years in the detention centre which I visited – most over three or four, some as long as eight years.

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Other stories I had the privilege of hearing were about people who had settled in Japan. They had spouses and children, they had lived there for a number of years, and now were detained, for reasons which they could not understand. For those of us on the outside, it is easy to draw conclusions, to claim that there must have been good reason for their arrest and subsequent detention. It can be easier to convince ourselves of that, especially in the face of the deep uncertainty of no apparent reason. The harsh reality seems to be different from good reason though. Neither is it something that is only happening in Japan, far away from our homes, and where we can have any influence. @DetentionAction are working so hard to tell similar stories of people in the UK who have been detained indefinitely, whom the Home Office have detained after years of them working and paying tax in this country.

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This Christmas I found myself thinking about the stories I have heard, both at home and abroad, and the real people behind them. As I witnessed the nativity story being acted out and retold in any number of ways by school children, at crib services, and carol services, I noticed how little has changed since these times. Mary and Joseph, as well as Jesus when he arrived on the scene, were refugees far away from home, strangers in a foreign land. To add further complication, once Herod had heard of the little baby born King of the Jews he ordered that all baby boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity be killed – Mary and Joseph were then fleeing for the life of this little baby. There was such hostility towards them in these stories as people of difference, people who posed a threat, and sadly that hostility still seems present in our world today, in the stories of those who are still fleeing for safety.

My prayer, as we approach Epiphanytide, is for greater understanding of the stranger, for ears that wish to hear, eyes which are willing to see, and hearts which are burdened with a deep sense of compassion for real people behind real stories, which we may prefer to ignore, yet have a duty to hear….

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Martin Niemöller, 1892-1984

Words of change…?

For a few months now, it is almost like there has been nothing to write…actually that has been far from true. There has been so much to write about, to comment on, to realise, to think through, and I have felt verbally paralysed, being unable to find the right words, find any words to express what has been going on and how I am processing it.

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Following my return from Japan, I began to sense a difference, a change, in how I was encountering and developing within ministry and training in my curacy parish. In reality this had begun some time prior to going to Japan, so was not simply brought on by time away. It can be strange how time away sharpens the senses though. The change was, in part, about me, but it was also something I was beginning to sense in prayer. As I delved deeper into these feelings with others, it became clear that my training needs had changed somewhat, and could no longer be met in my current curacy. Over the course of an incredibly painful few weeks, it became apparent that I was to be pushed further out of my comfort zone, and that God was leading me to another opportunity.

Subsequently, it was announced in my diocese a few weeks ago that I am to transfer my curacy from the Parish of Stocking Farm and Beaumont Leys to the Holy Spirit Parish with the two churches of St Andrew and St Nicholas in Leicester city centre. In many ways this is a hugely exciting opportunity, and one that I never envisaged having. I have also been coming to terms with negative feelings around this completely unexpected part of the process though, and perhaps this is where the struggle for words comes.

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This change is not about my failure, and yet there is something about it that feels like a failure. People often refer to this situation as a curacy ‘breaking down’, and there is a lot of pain and stigma associated with that. I have come to realise how much I value the expectations and sentiments of others, particularly as some around me have expressed disappointment and sadness about my departure. One of the church wardens, as she delivered the announcement, said that her ‘heart was breaking’. I noticed a sense of guilt welling up inside; they have warmly welcomed me and I have been greatly blessed by them. Yet, I have failed them because I am not keeping my word – my parish expected me to be with them for three years; instead, I will leave them after a little over 18 months. How often do we make promises, in good faith, that we cannot keep? What words do we use to reassure people, to let them hear that which will offer comfort, without the foresight to truly know that we will be able to keep our word?

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I am a huge fan of the film, The Invention of Lying which explores the power of words. People are unable to say something which is not true, until one individual finds himself doing just that by “saying something…that wasn’t” and baffling his friends when he tries to explain what happened. What would you not have said today if bound by this criteria, if you were unable to offer comfort or care by suggesting something that you believed, but could not be certain of? I was always encouraged not to lie as a child, and I have an aversion to those who lie to me. What about mistruths, though, that we convince ourselves are a kindness rather than an actual lie – how many of those get through our in-built lie detectors completely unnoticed?

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So here I am, eagerly anticipating a new path, a different opportunity, whilst struggling with the guilt of failing those I leave behind…a guilt which may well not be mine to hold. I am beginning to wonder whether this guilt points to something of note: God can work powerfully through each of us when we allow that, perhaps it is our humanity which focuses on the emotion of such an encounter, and less on the encounter itself and what God may have been revealing within that. If you were to savour one sentence or phrase from a memorable encounter, what would it be? What is it about those words that draw you? Do they speak truth, do they comfort, or did they reveal something of the divine in a life-changing way?

Seeking the Holy

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I have loved going to places of pilgrimage in Tokyo and blending into the background as I watch the expectation of the sacred or seeking of the experience of the sacred. Yet at Sensouji, it was not so much the obvious places where I found the sacred, but somewhat off the beaten track. Old treasure, lighting, stillness, solitude or the wind offered wonderful reminders of that ever present divinity – if only we will stop long enough to look, to see, to hear and to feel.

The draw of Meiji Jingū

What better activity for a wet and dreary Saturday afternoon than to visit a Shinto Shrine? Having been in Tokyo for just a week, working through the jet lag for most of that, I was keen to get out and about.

Slightly surprisingly, we weren’t the only people who had this idea, and the weather was little distraction for most.

But why Meiji Jingū, why this day, why in the rain? Is this about belief, tradition, or something else? In the midst of the busyness of Tokyo life, whether or not Shinto traditions are followed, is there some sort of peace and calm to be found in such a place of pilgrimage?

What draws people to leave their Ema or prayer requests under the divine tree?

Is it really possible to claim that belief in God is on the decline, when people pilgrim from all walks of life, from all stances of belief, to remember those whom they love before the divine?

Could we be doing more to help those who are seeking the light?

Is it possible that such a divine light can be found in many places, if only we were more open to see? In the hands and feet, eyes and ears of one another?

For me, Godly encounters are not in churches, jinjas or temples; though the peaceful, holy presence can be so tangible. Rather, when the rain trickles down my face, and I am amongst something of God’s divine creation – then I feel most alive to the presence of the living God.

Silence

‘…for silence has always been part of the Japanese way. “We Japanese think we can better express our feelings by silence.”‘

Taken from In search of Japan’s hidden Christians by John Dougill.

How often do we make things worse by trying to say the right thing…?

A mile in their shoes…

I finally got to see Arabella Dorman’s Suspended at Leicester Cathedral yesterday; an art installation which is truly overwhelming.

The full title, Suspended – in search of light evokes a powerful image of displaced people fleeing the darkness in search of light. All of these clothes were worn by refugees who arrived at Lesbos cold and wet, as well as exhausted, from traumatic journeys which can barely be imagined. Taking time to really look at these clothes I saw people of all ages and walks of life – displacement had been incredibly inclusive!

Focusing in on the shoes got to the real heart of the matter for me – probably in many cases favourite shoes showing how people left in haste; who would have chosen to wear some of these shoes for such a treacherous journey…? These shoes and items of clothing represent real people with real lives, and real fears which forced them to leave all that they had ever known behind, even to the last items of clothing that they had chosen for themselves….

Off Limits…

How often do we see something that seems completely out of reach – or where it is within reach, it is clear that it has not been cared for? These are photographs from a visit to another parish, with a particular focus around a children’s play park. Why is it that in some areas play parks are well-resourced and seem to attract, whereas in other areas they seem to repel those for whom they are intended. Could we do more to be part of the solution…?

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