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.

Torii – A Gate to God?

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Torii, a link between the sacred and profane – a gate to gods and all that lies beyond. Does this mean that God is there and not here? Are we left without guidance or care unless we search for it? And when we seek, is it enough to pass through, beyond? Who is there to greet us, and how far should we go? 

So many questions spring from a deep desire for the divine, to encounter the one who created, formed and fashioned. Yet this Shinto shrine is not where HaShem dwells. Instead people come to pay respects to Kami gods. Does this mean that God is absent, the Alpha and Omega is limited by space and belief?

So often we are guilty of confining God, of organising God within our own understanding. Why is this torii filled expression of God not acceptable? That deep yearning to know, to be heard, to find that which lies beyond propels people to pursue, to purify themselves and pray. It is beautiful and honourable.

Even though these expressions do not fit with that western, middle-class, male driven understanding of God and worship, does that make them second rate, or worse, unacceptable? Must all ritual and practice fit into one single understanding of God and salvation? Is Jesus the Christ absent in this space?

Does Jesus, our intercessor, fail to hear or acknowledge the steady stream of pleas written on ema? Does he refuse to take them to God our Creator? Is this a place where the Holy Spirit refuses to go-between one and another? Is the Trinity absent or unwelcome here? I cannot conceive that it would be so.

God is not limited by time and space – Adonai cares for creation, people and place. God is here as I pass through the Torii, and God is present on my return. God lives in each of us, we see an echo of that divine, perfect face in one another. Torii, rather than being a gate towards the  sacred, is a reminder that God is here – now.

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.

Identity

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Our sense of identity is so important for our mental wellbeing, and yet identity is a complex weave of so many different aspects of self, some of which we can control and some which we cannot. Four weeks ago I was ordained priest, and I think I can honestly say that the weeks which followed that long anticipated and celebrated occasion have been some of the most challenging I have ever had; they have certainly called me to question who I am in this new role. At ordination our Bishop read the ordinal for priests; it was quite an overwhelming moment just before taking my vows to hear all that is expected of a priest. The following is a small extract which summarises quite well the events of my last few weeks:

“…They are to bless the people in God’s name. They are to resist evil, support the weak, defend the poor, and intercede for all in need. They are to minister to the sick and prepare the dying for their death….”

Every aspect of priesthood is a huge privilege, and yet the real and huge life issues I can be dealing with mean that it is easy to lose sight of a sense of self.

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A number of years ago I took a job with Loughborough University as part of the Widening Participation governmental agenda. This meant that I was no longer a teacher, and it was much more difficult to explain what I did for work. I had not realised how profoundly my identity had been tied up with my profession, and it was a painful shedding of something that had been life-giving for me; I came alive in the classroom, and loved the challenge of helping students to develop a thirst for learning and a passion and enthusiasm for my subject (Religious Studies).

I had thought that after spending a year as a deacon, it perhaps would not feel so different as a priest, but that is not so. Indeed, everything feels very different! It feels like I am revisiting aspects of identity all over again. For one thing the stole we wear as part of our robes when we are taking services is now worn over both shoulders, rather than just the one.

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It is a reminder of the yoke or responsibility that we bear as priests. Every time I put on my stole I am humbled by a feeling of insignificance – in truth I am not now, nor will I ever be ‘good enough’ for this, yet here I am.

Having the responsibility and privilege to bless people is truly wonderful; blessing or anointing people who are sick, or close to death is just beyond words. It is so painful to be alongside people as their loved ones pass on from this life, yet there is something compelling about needing to be there in the darkest moments, as well as those times of joy, in order that no one be forced to face these situations alone.

I have also been stopped on a number of occasions, asked if I am a priest, and whether I would mind praying for the enquirers who were usually people of different faith. It was as though they thought that my prayers may be, somehow, more valued.

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In addition to all of this the summer holidays began two weeks ago and each day since our church has been a Holiday Hunger hub, seeking to feed any children in our area whose parents cannot afford lunch for them as they usually receive free school meals. The stories that some of these families carry from a western country is truly shocking and leads me to another aspect of the role of priest which feels different as I explore it – that of advocate; helping people to find their voices and stand up against serious injustices.

Within all of this my identity has become more complex to pin down. It is not for shallow reasons that I might tentatively see myself as being what someone needs me to be in that moment, but rather for profound reasons: because God lives and loves us and I am called to be a person of prayer and peace to serve as a reminder of God’s love for us each and every day.

When I was much younger, an art teacher at school described me as a jack of all trades and master of none. That hurt me to my core as a tentative 12 year old, desperate to find that thing that I would excel in. Turns out I  excel in being a jack of all trades….

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

Ascribed to Eleanor Roosevelt

The Bread of Love

Bread and jam or daily bread? 
Bread winner or maker? 
Bread of life or of love? 
Bread with raise or 
that which draws gaze? 
Bread of diversity: 
naan, chapattis, pita, 
flat bread, baguette, 
garlic bread and pizza….
It is kneaded – it grows, 
it feeds, it permeates
The bread of love

The body of Christ
broken for you
to preserve body and soul

Bread draws the world
in a never-ending meal.
Never just for bread, 
but something more real!
People gather near bread,
bread of life, of heaven – 
bread of love!
Manna given by God 
nourishes heart and soul
in the house of God,
not where we gaze at God,
but where God gazes on us!

The body of Christ
broken for you
for everlasting life

Bread because Jesus said
this is my body…
and so the ritual began.
Like the Emmaus journey;
disciples full of lament
met the risen Jesus
in broken bread.
It was the way he did it:
he took it, blessed it, broke it
and gave it to them…
the bread of love revealed!

The body of Christ
broken for you
to eat and remember

“Our hearts burned within!”
This bread of love,
more than bread,
more than being fed.
A nourishment stretching
to all of your being….
Take-bless-break-give
Jesus’ ‘real presence’
God-with-us now
in the gaze of the
self-giving Jesus
in the bread of love.

The body of Christ
broken for you
feed your heart with thanksgiving

It feels like acceptance,
true appreciation
of things said or done –
like a warm glow
but so much more!
Why then keep it,
or build barriers
around God’s table?
Protect the bread of love!
LGBT, disabled, disfigured,
marginalised people –
Step away from the bread!

The body of Christ
broken for you
that you may have faith

No – this banquet is holy,
utter inclusivity a necessity,
Jesus, offered for all!
This bread of love
transforms with a taste;
a meeting of souls.
As Meister Eckhart said,
‘your eyes which see God
are the same eyes through
which God first saw you.’
Great is the bread of love,
the mystery of faith!

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The Agony

I love this poem, and have been dwelling in it as I ponder what it might mean to be a priest…

Philosophers have measured mountains,
Fathom’d the depths of seas, of states, and kings,
Walk’d with a staff to heaven, and traced fountains
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove:
Yet few there are that sound them; Sin and Love.

Who would know sin, let him repair
Unto Mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man, so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
His skin, his garments, bloody be.
Sin is that Press and Vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruel food through every vein.

Who knows not Love, let him assay,
And taste that juice, which on the cross a pike
Did set again abroach; then let him say
If ever he did taste the like.

Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine.

George Herbert

The Encounter

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Above the beauty and bustle of the valley
An expanse of heather filled space awaited.
The beautifully radiant blue sky was fresh,
Fragrant with the scent of the morning.
A light wind wound its way towards me –
It caressed my face urging me ahead.
Every step gave way to astonishing awe,
Wonderment grew within…my heart raced;
A mixture of excitement and delight
At all that my eyes were able to take in.

From the edge I heard only the wind.
Stronger now it whistled around my being
Awakening, sharpening my senses.
A man standing some way to my left,
His gaze undoubtedly directed at me,
Drew my attention momentarily. I looked
In that way which we often try to look,
Without looking like we are looking.
His was staring intently, still unmoved,
Yet I walked towards him…as if being drawn.

Close enough to speak, uttering silently,
His eyes remained thoughtfully on mine.
Reading me, delving right into my core,
Like one would an old abandoned book
Beginning to read on the page it fell open at –
It’s like he knows me…like I know him,
Even though I have never seen him before?
He had familiarity in his beautiful radiance,
His face attracted attention, necessitated it –
Its depth of wisdom brought a perfect peace.

His eyes were infinite dark ink pools with
Potential and understanding illuminating.
Pure kindness and laughter lines surrounded,
Softened, magnitude emanating, without threat.
His smooth olive skin blushed by the wind
Was accented by a beard outlining his jawline.
Wavy almost black hair blown about his face
Failed to distract from his present occupation: me!
An unusual encounter avoidable with a sharp turn –
Why, oh why, would I even contemplate that?

Unable to move, unaware of life around me,
Why do I not want this moment to end…ever?
It’s like I have been noticed, no not noticed…
Not merely seen for a spilt second!
Truly encountered and profoundly known.
Such knowing continues as I remain unable,
No unwilling, to move. Silent for if I dare
This moment will be gone, over, lost….
Oh that for once bringing ruin would fail me,
That clumsiness in word and deed would absent.

There is something about this moment
Which tells me none of that matters.
It is insignificantly significant in that
It is relevant because it is about who I am
But it is also irrelevant. It does not change now.
It will not stop it or move it in a direction
Other than the one already intended, and yet
It happens due to the insignificantly significant;
Because of who I am utterly and completely.
So many feelings washing over me right now….

I am known from the deepest part of me
Right to the crumb of toast which has rested
In the corner of my mouth since breakfast!
Every single memory is part of that knowing
Those I love and those I would care to forget
Even those that I have sought to push out –
Guilt and shame can overpower and overwhelm –
But they are there also and they are known.
That is undoubtedly good, perfect and right.
Fear, insignificance and inferiority melt away….

I am liberated floating over the artistry of the valley,
Then quite suddenly, with the blinking of an eye,
His or mine…this moment passes. Freedom
Begins to fade, fear and insignificance pervade.
Perhaps slightly less consuming…the man
Has moved. I turn around slowly yet he is nowhere.
Nowhere amongst the vast expanse of heather.
Did he disappear, was he ever here? My heart knows
He was and is and ever shall be…transformed
I yearn for this again as I realise that this is prayer.