Angels

There is a story about a great holy war. There was a battle between the angels and a dragon, and the dragon was slain.

It is a glorious thing always when St Michael and all his angels come down to Great Western Road.

Today, we gathered people from all corners of the Anglican Communion, even Edinburgh, around one table. We welcomed three brand new small people into our community. We celebrated Nigerian Independence Day. Amid a great cloud of smoke and a blast of music, we ordained a young and faithful soul into the diaconate. There was a real live dragon too.

But the dragon was slain.

And when all the noise and joy and razzmatazz had died down, we looked back through the darkened church and there she still was.

A reminder that good is stronger than evil.

That love is more powerful than hate.

That light can never be defeated by darkness.

And that so long as there are people who have the courage to fight by their side, the angels will always win.

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Yours Are The Hands

It’s all over.

The light of the world has gone out. For all of us who loved him and lost him and stayed with him, we stand at the foot of the cross and all I want to do on Friday afternoon is scream into the wind about the unfairness of it all. The great temptation today is to think that, in the end, there was no point to any of it. To bury our grief. To pretend that he never existed. To shuffle our feet awkwardly and avoid conversation, but, when pressed at cocktail parties and around our relatives’ dinner tables, to agree that that bloke who was executed in the foothills of Jerusalem today probably was a bit of a nutter and then to change the subject in a hurry.

I am not one of them, said Peter.

And no doubt that would be the easier path to choose, the way of least resistance.

If he’s gone — and I can’t, in these dark hours that stretch from Friday into Saturday, I can’t believe that that’s not true. If he’s gone, then what good does it to anyone to keep banging on about him?

Except, it does. Somehow. It can.

My soundtrack for the last forty days and nights has been Christ Has No Body Now But Yours, the anthem by David Ogden, based on the words of St Teresa of Avila, who is the patron saint of, among other things, people in need of grace and people ridiculed for their piety. A saint who has been with us on this pilgrimage to Jerusalem these last few days.

One of the Evensongs early in Lent, the choir of St Mary’s Cathedral singing it in my ear. It surely wasn’t the first time I’d heard it, but it was the first time it had penetrated like that, and I sat, spellbound, as suddenly it wasn’t the choir singing it the words into my ear at all but God whispering them to a place deep in my soul.

They have remained there for the last six weeks: a motet, a whisper, a shibboleth, a howl into the vast unrelenting wilderness.

Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on Earth but yours.

There is no light today and nothing good in the world. Standing in the middle of a place that was holy and well beloved and now rings in its emptiness, I keep thinking of WH Auden, too. The stars are not wanted now, put out every one. But a new day will dawn, for it always does. The sun will rise again, and when it does we will need to decide who we are now. To decide if, after all, the measure of our experience was something meaningful.

If I can find inspiration anywhere in these three days, it’s in a belief in a God who came to change the world and did, and a belief in his people, in the body of Christ left on Earth, who will carry on changing it even now that the man we knew is dead and buried and gone.

Even if that is the end of the story.

The world is a cold and dark and inhospitable place.

In these days, just as much as it was then, it is a revolutionary act to be a people who say that we love everyone, and that we welcome everyone, and that we will care for everyone. In these days it is the talk of radicals to say that everyone should have enough to eat, that everyone should have access to healthcare and education and clean water, and that no one should go to bed at night afraid that bombs will fall on their house while they sleep. In these days, if you defend the rights of the oppressed, work to raise up the downtrodden, and speak out loud of peace and justice and inclusion and radical Christian hospitality, they call you a socialist and a liberal and a radical.

In our liturgy on Maundy Thursday, we are reminded, every year, that if the world hates us, it hated him first.

The God who I believe in was a socialist and a liberal and a radical.

And today, they crucify him for it.

But that doesn’t mean his truths are not truths worth telling.

From his cross, he leaves behind a legacy and he trusts to us a world that is broken and bleeding and crying out to be turned upside down.

I do not find God in the slamming closed of borders. I do not find God in a society that lets the poor become poorer and the hungry become hungrier. I do not find God in power and greed and violent retaliation. And I do not find Christ in the actions of Christians who wish harm to God’s people and claim that it is in His name. God is not in those things, but those actions are in His world, and here he is too. I’ve found Christ in amongst the lawyers gathered on the floor at JFK Airport through a long cold night working to bring people home. I’ve found Christ in the footsteps of people who have risen up in their thousands to protest the rise of brutal and fascist politics. I saw Christ on Westminster Bridge when emergency service and healthcare workers ran without hesitation towards danger because people needed help. I find Christ in the work of a church that welcomes everyone, that loves everyone, that cares for everyone, even as the world screams hate and anger to us for daring to.

Today, he is gone.

But here we still are.

And if this was the end, the truth of Good Friday is that it is up to us to make the promised truth of the Gospel a reality for the whole Earth.

Yours are the eyes with which he sees. Yours are the feet with which he walks. Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world. 

Dust and Ashes

You are only dust and ashes.

The world was created just for you.

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Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

At last week’s CNN Town Hall for the Democratic presidential candidates, a rabbi from Nashua posed a question to Hillary Clinton. He related the oral teaching of Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peschischa, who said that everyone must have two pockets and must keep a note in each pocket, so that a person in dark times might reach into their right pocket and find the words, “for my sake the world was created”, but that in times of success and plenty they might be able to reach into their left pocket and be reminded, “I am but dust and ashes.”

“I want you to think about what you would tell us about your two pockets,” said the rabbi in the audience.

You are only dust and ashes.

The world was created just for you.

The first place I heard that story was in an old article in the BMJ, based on advice that had been given to the inaugural students of the Hull York Medical School in 2003. I’ve never forgotten it. As doctors, the contents of our two pockets are together a contradiction and a truth that we carry with us every day of our lives. The right pocket, to carry the weight of profound responsibility and an awareness of incredible privilege. The left, a gentle reminder that we can do only what we can do and that it almost never feels like enough.

You are only dust and ashes.

The world was created just for you.

In my religious tradition, the season of Lent is about the realisation of these truths that are Gospel and the acceptance of what they mean for each one of us. The dust of Ash Wednesday begins a journey that will end on Good Friday, and at the end of that journey none of us will ever be the same. Today, we come to God in all of our humanness, with all our flaws and our imperfections, with none of the sparkle or the razzmatazz, and we are told that God loves us anyway. And that there is nothing, nothing in the world, that we can do to change that. And maybe we won’t believe it yet. But maybe when we have met God in the breaking of the bread and in the tears that we shed and in the fear that, somehow, is always real, and then when we have met him again in the rising sun on Easter Day, maybe then we will start to believe it. A contradiction that isn’t a contradiction, but the most straightforward and profound of truths: that you are loved, and you are blessed, and nothing and no one can take that away.

Remember you are mortal, formed of the Earth; from dust you came and to dust you will return. And remember too that God so loves you and so loves the world that he will give his only Son.

You are only dust and ashes.

The world was created just for you.

O Little Town of Bethlehem

O little town of Bethlehem,
which lies tonight beneath a sky that glows not with the light of Christ but with the fires of conflict.
Your streets are blighted by violence.
Your people live in fear.
Your sleep does not come easily.

You yearn for peace, for hope, for a miracle.
A miracle of two thousand years ago,
and of right here and right now.

And unto you this day in your city of David
is born a saviour who is Christ the Lord.

From a God who does not look down at a far off Earth and see stillness and silence,
but who came himself into the broken, messy, unjust reality,
to a stable that was a place of last resort.

For all of God’s children everywhere,
who he will love in our happiness and our sadness, in our tears and our joy.
This truth we believe, and we believe it for it is Gospel.
That in even the darkest days of Earth in the darkest places on Earth,
the dark night will wake,
and glory will break,
and Christmas will come once more.

Tonight we pray for the people of the West Bank,
to whom the truth of the incarnation was first revealed,
and for all the victims of violence, terrorism, and inequality around the world.

We remember Mary, who said yes.
We pray for ourselves, the living body of her son Jesus Christ, that we will also say yes.
For the modern day prophets.
For activists and truth tellers, for diplomats and peacemakers.

We glory in the birth of a child who would live to change the world,
and we pray for all of God’s children who today seek still to change a world that needs changing.

The Unknown

We believe that Christ died and that Christ rises and that Christ will come again.

Right?

I don’t, not today. I believe that he died — except, no, I don’t; I know that he died, because I sat there and I watched it. I sat at the foot of the cross with hundreds of people, all people who had loved him and who had come back to be with him at the end. It happened. The man who travelled and worked and ate with us is dead and buried. Today, I do not believe priest or prophet or any power in heaven or on Earth who tells me that they know what will happen tomorrow.

I keep hearing the unholy screams that you sometimes hear at the news of a sudden death. It is a sound that rips through you like a knife, and once heard it is never forgotten.

Our grief is very very real.

And I wonder: if Christ does not rise, will we still gather here?

After all, he’s dead and yet here we all still are cleaning up his church and setting things to rights. That means something.

He was the speaker of justice and truth and love, the Son of God, teacher and friend and redeemer, who in the end loved all of us so much that he died for us. If tomorrow there is no resurrection, will any of that stop being true? I don’t think it will. I think we might be here anyway, a people whose faith in who this man was and what he did for the world is strong enough to surpass even death.

In our religion the whole symbol of the religion ended in crucifixion and condemnation, but that wasn’t the measure of the experience. That was just the way it ended.

Confession

I am writing this on a piece of paper which I have found in my pocket. I am writing it so that after the end of all things, someone might realise what it was like to live this life and might understand what happened tonight and two thousand years ago and on all the nights to come. As I write, people are coming and going. Some of them I know well, some I have never seen before. They all look just as confused and frightened as I feel.

I still do not understand what happened tonight.

It was never supposed to be like this.

The sun was out today. There was spring in the air. It carried the smell of good food and the noise of young voices making joyful music. We were decked out in gold and glitter and tassels. The city is in holiday mood.

I was there when they destroyed the temple. It’ll be in tomorrow’s papers, no doubt, blamed on kids or yobs or perhaps even terrorists. As precious things were broken to pieces around about me, I heard footsteps coming from behind. I looked around — I thought there was a fire, or an accident, or perhaps the police coming. And as I looked, one of them flew down the centre, eyes wild, elbowing bystanders out of the way, up the steps, and leaping into the most holy of holies, destroying it. In that split second, I saw something that wasn’t for drama or for show but was someone hell-bent on destroying that which he had once loved most. I stopped what I was doing, frozen, with everything around chaos and darkness. I thought: “God, what have we done?” And as suddenly as I’d stopped, I went back into action. It had gone too far to take it back, and dashing through seats and around tables all I could do now was make sure there was no trace left of us. This is what fear tastes like.

As I left, I looked back. It is a dark and desolate place now. There is no love left there.

And now I find myself in this garden. I can see him, here with three of them. I’m hiding in the shadows. I’m not sure I’d be welcome. I want to throw myself down and beg forgiveness for the great evil I’ve helped to do, but I am frightened. I am frightened that he would turn me away and that he would be right to. I am not worthy to be forgiven; why would he forgive me?

Beyond the gates, I can hear traffic and music and people laughing. I want to shake them. My world has ended tonight. They do not care.

I call myself friend, but what sort of friend does this? I call myself an activist, but this time I am too afraid to speak out. I call myself a healer, but look at the destruction I have wrought. I call myself beloved, but what good has loving me done him?

Should you forget everything else I’ve told you, remember this and tell this to your children and your grandchildren: he was a good man who deserved better.

They were followed here by dozens of people. The people are beginning to leave; gathering their things and whispering to each other as they leave the perimeter. I should leave, too. I should take my stiff legs and my hungry belly and my tear-dirty face and my guilt that’s no good to anyone, and I should go home. I won’t, though. Because something is happening tonight, something that I don’t understand and that I’m scared by and that I can’t see ending well. I am too much of a coward to stop it, but I’ll stay here with my cold patch of floor and my thin blanket to at least see it through to the end.

Return To The Lord Your God

A number of years ago, I was asked by a friend from a different faith tradition to talk about Holy Week. He said that he knew what Easter was about and he understood why we made a big fuss over that, but that no one had ever told him what this week leading up to it was really about. He asked if I could explain.

I couldn’t.

Oh, I told him the names of the festivals — which he already knew. And probably I could have offered a historical account of the events of the week according to Mark, if I had been moved to do so. And while stumbling over my own incompetence I may have slipped in a, “… and then on Holy Saturday we clean everything.” 

We ended dinner with him more baffled than he had been and wishing he hadn’t asked, and the reputation of informed intelligent Christians in tatters on the plates before us.

You must understand that I used to avoid Holy Week. I knew the story of the Passion, but I didn’t live it; and I had a theoretical knowledge of what each of the services was supposed to be re-enacting, but I didn’t really get what it was about. I slipped into a back pew for the big festival service on Easter Day, when the flowers were in bloom and the place had been polished to within an inch of its life and, so I was told, a miracle had happened. I hadn’t been a guest at that very particular Eucharist. I had never witnessed the tearing apart of the temple, or been the friend who fled when they came out to arrest him, or wept at the foot of his cross. I had never crept out of my house in the dark and stillness of a Sunday morning to visit a tomb, not knowing whether there had been a resurrection.

I had not yet taken seriously the promise that had been made to me that if I kept Holy Week in the place where I now keep it, that it would change my life and change my faith.

And so I didn’t know.

I didn’t know what it was like to have incense in my nose and cold tile against my face and adrenaline in the back of my throat, and to lie there silent and terrified and furious.

Or about the love and the joy and the betrayal and the fear and the anger, and that I would experience all of those things in a few short hours.

Or why Judas betrayed him, or why Peter denied him, or why Thomas doubted him. I didn’t know why he didn’t just run when he had the chance. I didn’t know that they were all just as human as I am.

I didn’t understand why it was important.

That it might be about something that happened in Jerusalem two thousand years ago, but it’s about things that have happened in Germany and Rwanda and Bosnia and the Sudan. It’s about what happens in Jerusalem today and in Syria and the Ukraine and in Glasgow too.

I didn’t know that it’s about being willing to live it.

I didn’t know that it’s about being broken up into a thousand pieces and hanging onto the faith that tells us that in the dark and stillness of a Sunday dawn, we will be put back together.

And I didn’t know that I would never ever be the same.

Thou shalt make me hear of joy and gladness;
that the bones which Thou hast broken may rejoice.

Here Comes The Sun

Today is the Winter Solstice.

It is the mid-point of winter, the darkest and longest of these dark days and long nights. It is the time of year when all the major religions of the world celebrate, in their own way, the coming of the light into this dark world. It is the moment when everyone on Earth stops and tells each other that we have come halfway out of the darkness.

We have had some terribly dark days, these last few weeks. We have had days when I have thought that that Advent God for whom we wait must look at his church with dismay and believe us to have abandoned all that he lived and died for.

On this final Sunday of Advent, we turn our eyes to Bethlehem, to the star that has appeared in the East, and to the promise that dark days give way to light and that, yes, yes, the age of miracles is not yet past.

For from these days of darkness has emerged a new dawn of hope, in the will and testament and action of the ordinary and now extraordinary people of God. They are people who work for the promise of that Advent God; of the bravery of Mary and the compassion of Joseph and of all that that child in the manger might yet do.

It isn’t simple. It won’t be easy. It’s not anywhere near done yet.

But as we look into that light, it becomes just a little easier than it was last week to believe that we will get there in the end.

Stir up in us O long-awaited God the will to join your revolution, to change your world, and to be in word and deed your living Body and the rock on which your Church can be rebuilt.

Everyone Lives

Out on the street tonight there are ghosts and ghouls, hobgoblins and foul fiends, witches with wands containing a core of dragon heartstring and boy wizards with scars shaped like lightning bolts, and Marvel superheroes and Disney princesses. In one of the local supermarkets tonight when I was doing my grocery shopping there was a surgeon wearing green scrubs, a theatre hat, and a white coat with blood on it. “I’m really worried, I don’t know if he’s real or if it’s for Halloween,” someone said to me. I am not even kidding. I gaped a bit and failed to lend voice to the thought that if he were “real” he wouldn’t have been let out of the door dressed in those — trust me, I’m a doctor, and all that.

Halloween isn’t really my thing. The commercial parts of it, the trick-or-treating and the wee beasties and the pumpkins. Eh. I don’t disapprove of it (and there is Haribo on my kitchen bench, should Elsa or Iron Man come a-knocking). I don’t think it’s evil or that it’s glorifying evil, an accusation that has been levelled at it by at least one Christian commentator this week. It simply isn’t my cup of tea, in really much the same way (and for a number of the same reasons) that neither zombie films nor Valentine’s Day are my cup of tea.

But there is an awful lot of nonsense around at this time of year about the un-Christianity of Halloween. Well, pish-posh, I say to that.

I’ve been having a think about what the night before All Hallowstide really is and what it might mean to someone like me. The eve of an ancient festival when we remember all the saints of all the ages and all the souls that we have loved and lost. It is not an unusual thing in Judeo-Christian traditions to keep the eve of a festival as much as the festival itself. On Christmas Eve, remembering Mary and Joseph as they journeyed towards Bethlehem. In the tradition that I keep, the dusting and polishing and vacuuming of Holy Saturday is an observance and a service every bit as important as the rolling away of the stone from the tomb on Easter Day. And I remember the first time I learned about Erev Yom Kippur: that on the eve of the great Jewish festival of repentance, before Jews can ask God for forgiveness on Yom Kippur, they must first ask their fellow humans for forgiveness on the day before.

This weekend we keep the feasts of All Saints and All Souls. A pair of feasts that sit alongside each other and are very different in their own ways: one resplendent with the splendour and razzmatazz of the Kingdom, the other peaceful with the memory of all those who have gone before us to a place where there is no pain and no suffering. And at the same time a two-day season that is all mixed up together, all part of the same thing, remembering that there is no way of separating out the saints of our lives and the souls of our departed.

This weekend, I will think about St Luke, the patron saint of physicians, whose own feast day was celebrated just a couple of weeks ago. As we sing for all the saints on Sunday morning, I’ll waft up some smoke especially for him. As I remember the work that Luke did, I’ll also think about the work that I do and the people whose lives and deaths I was a part of. I’ll remember people who died peacefully and people who died awfully and people who I never met until they had already died, and I’ll think of the people they left behind. There are some who I will remember particularly. I said on All Souls Day last year: I take the time to sit, this weekend, with all of the not-forgetting that I do, every single day, through all the rest of the year.

I will think, as I always do for a while, of George Wilson, who I met in the first church I ever called home. He was a chorister there for 78 years and besides that there was one sunny morning in June 1953 when he was a chorister for Queen Elizabeth at her coronation. I think about George because I am certain that he is there with the saints, dancing and singing and having a blast on the heavenly organ.

I will think this year of Nelson Mandela, a saint for this age and to all the world. He too loved and was beloved, and left behind people who see him no longer. It is right and important that he is remembered with the souls of the departed, just as it is right and important that he is celebrated with the saints of the ages.

I will think of those who have died in the service of their country, and those civilians who have died as a result of war. It never feels like a coincidence that the next thing we’ll be remembering is the Armistice and they who shall grow not old.

I will think of all the people whose names we read out at St Mary’s on All Souls Day and whose names we keep safe on the High Altar through the year, every one the name of someone who is missed.

I will think of the people who I love and who I see no longer. I’ll remember the good times and the bad times and the times at the end, and I might even get cross at them for a little bit about the times that they’ve missed. I’ll tell them that they are loved still. I’ll remember that they aren’t gone, not really. I’ll remember them in the tears and I’ll remember them in the holy glitz, and I’ll send up a waft of smoke for them too.

But before we remember the saints of the ages and the souls of the departed, there is a thought that suggests that the practice of dressing up like Lord Voldemort or Jacob Marley is less about the Haribo on my kitchen bench than it is about being able, on this night, to look death in the face, to laugh at it, and to declare that it shall not win. As the veil between heaven and earth lifts, it is that thought that is at the root of all that is holy and all that is true:

That death is not the end.

That it shall have no dominion.

That the people we remember are those who lived and who died and who will rise again in glory.

And that until that day, all is now well and everyone we love is safe with God.

Give rest, O Christ, to your servants with your saints:
where sorrow and pain are no more;
neither sighing but life everlasting.
Alleluia.

One More Miracle

Now, there’s one more thing, just one thing, one more miracle, for me.

Don’t. Be. Dead.

That.

That is what we prayed for in those terrible dark hours on Friday, and what we asked for in the strange emptiness of Saturday. In our grief and our heartbreak, we’ve been looking for that miracle. We watched as He died. We saw His broken body. But in the first light of Sunday, we go out to the place where the dead are buried and we hope that He might not be among them.

I asked you to stop being dead.

Stir up in us, O Lord, courage that we might live, compassion that we might love, strength that we might mourn, audacity that we might dare to believe, and joy in the glory of resurrection.

He is risen indeed.

Alleluia.