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Je Suis Prêtre

Behind the altar candles gently burn.
A wisp of smoke dances then fades away
as Father Jacques, too old for dancing, pauses.
Another morning Mass, another day.

For many years this man of peace has stood here
in service of his people and his Lord.
In joy and pain, in sorrow and in rapture,
a constant beacon in a darkening world.

But as he scans the faces of the faithful
two unfamiliar visitors appear
and, in those final moments at the altar,
he knows that perfect love which drives out fear.

Your service ended, Ite Missa Est.
Faithful servant enter now your rest.

The Gift of Attention

hands

All four beds in the room were empty as I entered, but three of the bedside chairs were occupied. Two of the patients were sleeping so I approached the lady by the window, introduced myself as the chaplain, and asked if she would like a chat.

As we began to talk the lady behind me awoke, clearly in some distress, but for that time my focus was on Mrs A in front of me. We continued to talk – despite the cries of “help me, help me” coming from behind – and she clearly appreciated the company. Then, after a short prayer, I said goodbye and turned to the lady behind me, Mrs J.

“You ought to be ashamed of yourself”, she reprimanded, as she told me of her father who had been a Rector for many years. “He would never have ignored me like that”.

This did not bode well but I apologised and said that I had been speaking to Mrs A but was here for her now if she would like to talk.

For the next ten minutes I didn’t say a word as she opened up about the loss of her father, her husband’s dementia, her stroke which had robbed her of much of her sight, balance and independence. Even as the nurse came to change the bedsheet next to us I made a conscious effort to ignore her and kept my gaze locked on Mrs J.

After a while she apologised for taking up my time and asked if I would pray for her so I did and then left, amazed by the encounter and by the way her attitude towards me had completely changed without me saying a word.

As I first approached her I didn’t feel I had anything to offer, but in that moment what she really needed, and what I was able to give, was the gift of attention. The gift of another person’s undivided attention, that is truly a gift of grace.

A Pentecost journey

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elamite

I’d like you to imagine the scene with me.

You’ve been travelling for many weeks on foot.  A small group of you set out together from your village to make this arduous journey to Jerusalem.  As a child you had heard the stories of your grandparents making this very journey, or perhaps it was even your great-grandparents – the details have been lost in the mists of time but the tale is a proud family legend.

And now it is your turn.  Your turn to make this journey.  Your turn to travel to the holy city for the feast of Pentecost.

For devout Jews like you and your companions this is one of the three most important festivals of the year, it marks the time when God gave the law to Moses on Mount Sinai.  And so this journey has been many months in the planning.  You’ve learned the route by heart and along with your own clothes you have an assortment of offerings from your family and neighbours to take to the great temple.

You’ve also been brushing up on your Hebrew.

Although you come from an old Jewish family, many generations ago they fled to the arable land east of the Karun river and you have grown up feeling as much an Elamite as a Jew.  However you know that, once you reach Jerusalem, your Hebrew will need to be up to scratch.  How else will you know what is going on?  How else will you understand the Torah or the prayers?

Everyone knows that Hebrew is God’s own language.  So you’ve been practising. Day and night for weeks on end. you’re as ready as you’ll ever be.

When you first set out the majority of voices you heard were Elamite but very soon you left that small pocket of land and began to hear other languages.  Mede, Parthian, Babylonian.  Then Egyptian, Assyrian, Judean.  Greek became the dominant language but among your fellow pilgrims Hebrew quickly became the common ground.

As you get closer doubts begin to creep in.  What if my Hebrew isn’t up to scratch?  They all seem to be speaking ever so fast.  I probably won’t fit in – why would God want to speak to a simple Elamite like me?

But, eventually you arrive and you and your companions find a place to stay – not easy in the hustle and bustle of a busy city preparing for a major festival.  Despite your excitement you fall asleep as soon as you lay your head down.

The next morning is the day of Pentecost.  You get up and join the crowds heading towards the temple.  But on your way there you hear a strange noise.  It’s the sound of people speaking, but even among the huge crowds here you can tell that this is something different.  

So you decide to take a detour.  There will be plenty of time later in the day to go to the temple, maybe the crowds will have died down a bit then anyway.

As you get closer to the strange commotion you realise that it is a small group of men and women.   They seem to be together but they are all speaking different languages.  Before you can start to work out what is going on you realise that you recognise one of the voices.  They are speaking Elamite!

You manage to identify the Elamite speaker, thinking she must be one of your group, but surprisingly you don’t recognise her.  Even more surprisingly she doesn’t look anything like an Elamite, not even an Elamite Jew like yourself.  If you didn’t know better you’d think she was a Gallilean!

You try and catch what she is saying.  She seems to be talking about God, but she is also talking about someone called…Jesus?  She is telling a story about how God came to earth as this Jesus, how he was killed but rose again from the dead.  How he returned to Heaven but has sent his Spirit to help his followers.  How he wants everyone to follow him and to know God’s amazing love.

None of this makes any sense, and yet…how does she know your language? Half the people in Elam have given up speaking Elamite.  Maybe this is something else.  Maybe this really is God speaking?

You had travelled all this way hoping to hear God speak in Hebrew, God’s own language.  Maybe God would deign to speak Greek seeing as most people could understand it a bit.  But never in your wildest dreams did you expect God to speak your language.  What does this all mean?  What is this Holy Spirit all about?

You keep listening and as you listen you feel something change within you.  It’s like a fire has been lit in your heart.  You think about all the scriptures you know and you see them in a completely new light.  Suddenly the God of your ancestors isn’t a strange God speaking a foreign language.  He’s a God who knows the language of your heart, a God who understands your culture, your community, your people, a God who speaks in your tongue.

And so you spend the next few weeks with these disciples, learning all about Jesus, all about the amazing things God has done, all about the wonderful power of the Holy Spirit, and then finally it’s time to head home.

You had expected the journey home to be filled with sadness for the great city you may never see again, but it’s not.  You are excited, you can’t wait to get home to tell your friends and family about all that God has done.  To tell them that no matter who they are, no matter where they come from, no matter what language they speak, God is with them.

The God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph is the God of the Elamites, and the Medes, and the Persians, and the Egyptians, and the Libyans, and the Syrians, and the English and the Welsh and the Tuareg and the Xhosa and every tribe and nation under the sun!

And to follow him you don’t need to speak a foreign language or talk in high and lofty prose or be eloquent and erudite in your prayers, you can come as you are, you can speak as you like.  Because God understands.  Because God’s spirit is in you.  And that changes everything.

The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost changed God’s relationship with the world forever.  No longer is God’s activity tied to the location of a particular tribe of people,  No longer is God’s presence contained just in the person of Jesus. No longer does the Holy Spirit descend on special people at particular times.  God’s Holy Spirit dwells in each and every one of us at all times, strengthening us to follow Jesus, empowering us to speak his words of healing and truth, guiding us into the way of peace.

And we are reminded of that every time we come to communion and we hear those familiar words:  The Lord is here…His spirit is with us

We may be thousands of miles from Jerusalem, we may speak a language that only began to develop a thousand years after the first Pentecost, we may live in a culture that would be utterly unimaginable to those early Christians, but that same Holy Spirit which fell upon the disciples on the day of Pentecost, is with us here, is with us now, is with us always.

The Lord is here…His Spirit is with us.

Amen.

.

[Image from https://unsplash.com/photos/X_znrYlFBks]

“The Acts of Luke!”

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I wrote and performed this sketch at Church this morning.  The readings were Acts 16:9-15 and John 14:23-29.

~ ~ ~

Setup: dressed as hiker, big backpack, walking boots, shorts, fleece, hat, map, notebook (with script in!)
walk in from back of church…

Hi there, hi, hi, hiya, has anyone seen Paul? You know, Paul? Big celebrity preacher guy?
Used to be a baddie, now he’s a goodie? Road to Damascus and all that?
Paul? Anyone seen him? (ad lib to front)
This is Phillipi, right? I’m sure he’s here somewhere (hunt around choir stalls etc.)

Sorry, so rude of me, not introducing myself – I’m Luke.
I’m a doctor by trade but since they started throwing any of us who refused to work an 8 day week to the lions I decided it was time to pack it in.

I’m a writer now. I’m onto my second book already – you might have heard of the first one, I called it “the gospel of Luke”. Not bad for a first effort if I do say so myself, would have been a real hit too if those other guys hadn’t pinched my idea.

I mean I don’t mind them writing about Jesus too, everyone’s doing it these days – but did they have to be so blatant about pinching my title? The gospel of Matthew…the gospel of Mark…the gospel of John – I’ll bet we just get lumped together as “the gospels” and everyone will think we were working together.

Anyway I’m onto my second book now – thought I’d cash in on writing a sequel before those other guys do. The Acts of Luke, I’m planning on calling it – although my publisher reckons “the Acts of the Apostles” is a bit catchier. Nice alliteration and all that.
So I’ve been following Paul around for a while, doing a bit of investigative journalism, you know the sort – an in-depth exposee on the man behind the myth. Problem is he keeps disappearing off all over the place!

Seriously, one minute he’s in Troas, talking to the church there, then you nip out to buy a kebab and when you come back he’s apparently had a dream, hopped on a boat, and sailed off to Macedonia!

So I followed him to Samothrace – beautiful island that – trying to catch up but by the time I’d got there he’d sailed on to Neapolis.
These aren’t easy waters to sail on either, you might have seen pictures of people on the news fleeing for their lives, trying to cross over these very waters from Turkey into Greece in these shabby little boats. It’s a nightmare.

Anyway thankfully I’m not fleeing for my life but it’s still not much fun. So I had to wait to catch a ferry to Neapolis and when I got there I heard that he’d been and gone – headed straight off to Phillipi, not even waited for me. Phillipi’s sort of the capital city around here so hopefully he’ll stay there for a while and I can catch up.

It’s not the first time he’s done this sort of thing, dashing from one place to another with no warning. I asked him once why he does it and he said he’s just following the Holy Spirit.

I said, What’s that then? And he said that when Jesus left us he promised that the Father would send his ‘Holy Spirit’ to be with us always, to teach us and to guide us and to help us follow him.

He said that in the olden days God only sent his Spirit on a few people at particular times for particular reasons, but now he’s given her to everyone who follows him – young or old, boy or girl.
He also said that the Spirit would give us peace. Well I have to admit I’m not feeling all that peaceful right now, chasing after him halfway round the empire.

I would say something but he’s very fond of quoting Jesus when he said “The spirit blows where she pleases” – that’s not even from my gospel – I think he does it on purpose!

It’s quite exciting when you think about it though, God’s spirit is in each and every one of us! Helping us make good decisions, reminding us of the things that Jesus said.

Sometimes she speaks to people in dreams, other times by drawing our attention to something we might have missed – a verse in the Bible or a beautiful flower or a comment from a friend.

Sometimes she’s like a voice in the back of our head or an invisible rope pulling us in a particular direction even though we don’t know why we feel like we should go there.

Sometimes she helps us say the right thing when we’re lost for words or reminds us of a person we haven’t thought about for ages.

And we can choose to ignore her, drown out the voice of the Spirit with our own busyness, but she never really goes away, just lurks there like a satnav quietly saying “turn around where possible…turn around where possible…”

Well Paul never seems to have that trouble – he’s always off following the Spirit’s call, hopping from one country to the next setting up churches and moving on. I just hope he’s stuck around in Phillipi for a while.
What’s that? He’s gone to Lydia’s house? She’s leading the Church there is she? Excellent. Right well I’d better be on my way before the Holy Spirit has chance to give Paul any new directions!
See you later!

 

The Apple Tree

This poem was written for an IME assignment.  It is a response to a comment made in a small group that there may be some value in thinking about God’s principles of growth by connecting mission with the seasons of the year. It was, in part, inspired by Psalm 1:3 – “They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season”.

~ ~ ~

Producing fruit is hard, just ask the apple tree:
It takes the right conditions, it takes time and energy
to turn the blossom’s beauty into vessels for the seed
but in due season, when it’s ready, fruit will come.

You can’t expect a Pippin in a February frost,
or a heaving bough of Coxes on the feast of Pentecost
and come September, when the Braeburn’s bare, it may seem all is lost
but in due season, when it’s ready, fruit will come.

There is wisdom in the seasons, in the cycle of the year,
in the ebb and flow of fruitfulness across the biosphere
for, even when the winter bites, and hunger turns to fear,
in due season, when it’s ready, fruit will come.

It may be hard when harvest is a struggle and a chore
when the bounteous crops of yesteryear are memories, no more,
but in Jesus we are branches, grafted firm and sure
and in due season, when it’s ready, fruit will come.

Holy hill

This poem was written for an IME assignment in which I was reflecting on the role of St Alkmund’s church within the town of Whitchurch.  It is based on Isaiah 2:3-5 and I was struck by the image of people streaming up the mountain of the Lord, and the parallel with St Alkmund’s which sits at the highest point of the town.stas

~ ~ ~

Come let us ascend this holy hill,
direct our feet towards the house of God.
We walk where countless saints before have trod
and, in years to come, yet more saints will
discover whence the living waters flow.
Unsteady feet for some, uncertain minds
for others yet all come to seek, to find,
to pray, to learn, to reconcile, to grow.
Come, turn your gaze past scaffold and boutiques,
past market stalls and shops and chained up bikes,
past memories and future fears alike
for, in this moment, Christ alone we seek.
And in the shadows of this holy place,
within these well worn stones we glimpse his face.

 

Quote

“Gradually, we are beginning to understand the myriad ways in which both Christians and non-Christians improvise their spiritualities, drawing freely and eclectically upon a range of spiritual traditions, often with relatively little attention to the way in which the established traditions set the terms of belief. Concern has grown over what some see as a tendency toward the erosion of coherent belief and practice capable of being transmitted from one generation to the next.

However, these developments surely signal something else, which is undeniably positive and creative: the desire to discover spiritual meaning in spite of the perceived inability of established religious traditions to provide it. It suggests a vitality and elasticity to the human capacity for transcendence which must, after all, lie at the very root of any meaningful understanding of spirituality.”

Douglas Burton-Christie, ‘Nature’ in The Blackwell Companion to Christian Spirituality (edited by Arthur Holder, 2005) p.480

I love this quote and think it might form the basis of my MA dissertation – how can things like Mossy Church help the established church re-engage with nature as a source of spiritual inspiration? (Or something along those lines!)

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