Lent Thoughts -Hospitality

Today’s Lent reading, squeezed in between much Holy Week preparation, was a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye from 19 Varieties of Gazelle.

Red Brocade

The Arabs used to say,
when a stranger appears at your door,
feed him for three days
before asking him who he is,
where he’s come from,
where he’s headed.
That way he’ll have the strength
enough to answer.
Or, by then you’ll be
such good friends
you don’t care.

Let’s go back to that.
Rice? Pine nuts?
Here, take my red brocade pillow.
My child will serve water 
to your horse.

No, I was not busy when you came!
I was not preparing to be busy.
That’s the armour everyone put on
to pretend they had a purpose
in the world.

I refuse to be claimed.
Your plate is waiting.
We will snip fresh mint
into your tea.

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Lent thoughts – Home

As part of my Lent reading I’ve been dipping in and out of Claire Benton-Evans’ book Food for Prayer. It contains daily readings throughout the year with good ideas for prayer. I read this one a couple of days ago and it has stayed with me and I’ve been wandering around my home giving thanks for the little things that make it familiar.

Imagine coming home one night with your family and finding that everything in your house has been taken. Not just the TV and the stereo, but the carpets, the toilet rolls and the hooks for your coats. That is the premise for Alan Bennett’s story, The Clothes They Stood Up In. It explores the effect of such a comprehensive burglary on a prosperous middle-class couple, Mr and Mrs Ransome:

‘What she did miss – and this was harder to put into words – was not so much the things themselves as her particular paths through them. There was the green bobble hat she had had, for instance, which she never actually wore but would always put on the hall table to remind her that she had switched the immersion heater on in the bathroom… But with no bobble hat she’d twice left the immersion on all night and once Mr Ransome had scalded his hand.’

In your prayers today, walk around your home and appreciate the little things that make it familiar. Take some time to thank God for these everyday comforts, perhaps using these words:

We bless you for the chance to be ourselves,
for the tasks that weave the pattern of our days,
for the sweet, familiar round of ordinary things.
Blessed are you, strong, sheltering God.

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Giving thanks for my reclining chair, fresh bed linen, my new red spotty tablecloth, many pictures and paintings which take me to faraway places in my mind, my favourite fountain pen, Gloria the printer and photocopier making books for Holy Week, a pebble from Brighton beach, a smelly candle giving off the scent of raspberries, and oh so much more… When I was made homeless I lost most of our ‘stuff’ and learned that stuff was just that… stuff. We survived without it. In time I bought more stuff and none of it matched and that didn’t matter. And now I have too much stuff in my home, but all the clutter tells a story and in time the stories hopefully will remain when the stuff is long gone.

 

Pauses

https://music.youtube.com/watch?v=FZe3mXlnfNc&list=RDAMVMFZe3mXlnfNc

Listening and watching

pausing from piles of paper

Spiegel im Spiegel

a cello and a piano

slowly thoughtfully

emotionally

a hand lifts slowly

in the air

pauses

then gently hits the key

but it is in the pauses

that the beauty lies

and then

a touch on my shoulder

a paw tentatively rests

and pauses

pawses

have you forgotten that I’m here?

she watches the pianist

and his balletic hand

pause and listen

I tell her

listen to the pauses

that’s where the music lies.

Lent thoughts -Peace

Cats have been on my mind this past weekend. A friend whose cat died recently mourns her loss. Another friend is moving house and her cats are anxiously sitting in the packing boxes. And Rita Kitten decided my lap was the best place to be yesterday afternoon until my legs went numb.

Imagine my delight, then, when today’s Lent reading took me to Janet Morley’s book ‘the heart’s time’ and this poem by DH Lawrence.

Pax

All that matters is to be at one with the living God
to be a creature in the house of the God of Life.

Like a cat asleep on a chair
at peace, in peace
and at one with the master of the house, with the mistress,
at home, at home in the house of the living,
sleeping on the hearth, and yawning before the fire.

Sleeping on the hearth of the living world
yawning at home before the fire of life
feeling the presence of the living God
like a great reassurance
a deep calm in the heart
a presence
as of the master sitting at the board
in his own and greater being,
in the house of life.

Morley goes on to talk about the ‘profound relaxation of the cat before the hearth’ being about contemplation and being fully present in the presence of God and of the present moment. ‘To anyone who has watched a cat extend its whole body in ecstatic sleep, exposing the fur of its impossibly long belly to the warmth of an open fire, the image is compelling. It is the antithesis of any sort of hunched-up fearful prayer; rather the animal arches itself to experience the greatest possible pleasure from the presence of the fire. It may not understand what causes the warmth it enjoys, but it intends to receive maximum advantage from this source of life.’

I look at Rita Kitten now, curled up not stretched out, and envy her peacefulness. She has no To-Do list. No worries or concerns about phone calls to be made. No emails to answer, no preparations to be made for this or that… She twitches an ear towards the sound of children playing outside and decides she can’t be bothered going to hiss at them through the window. Better to just stay cosy and be. Food will come, she is sure of it.

Today I wish to be more like a cat.

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Lent thoughts -Being

I have the most wonderful Podiatrist called Naresh and we have very interesting conversations about life, death and the universe while he tends to my tootsies. One of the questions he nearly always asks is what I’m reading. Last time I was there I was reading All That Remains: A Life in Death which was a fascinating look at our bodies after death and we had a wee chat about that. He knows I have a fascination with helping people achieve a ‘happy death’ and asked if I’d read Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande. It is written from a medical point of view by an American doctor but there is much in it of a spiritual nature. Much of it is Case Studies of people he met who were given a terminal diagnosis and how they wanted to end their days. I’ve enjoyed reading it and been saddened by how society and the medical profession often treat patients. (Often, I said, not always. I am aware there are some good stories out there.)

One passage which caught my eye and gave me cause to pause during the Lenten season was this paragraph:

As our time winds down, we all seek comfort in simple pleasures – companionship, everyday routines, the taste of good food, the warmth of sunlight on our faces. We become less interested in the rewards of achieving and accumulating, and more interested in the rewards of simply being. Yet while we may feel less ambitious, we also become concerned for our legacy. And we have a deep need to identify purposes outside ourselves that make living feel meaningful and worthwhile.

As I get older I can appreciate those sentiments. Recently I had a health scare which really made me think about what was important in my life, and accumulating ‘stuff’ which I don’t need became a real issue for me. I then spent a few weekends selling ‘stuff’ on Ebay and taking things to the charity shops. I thought about what was important to me and it was about spending time with family and reading more and worrying less. I also knew I had to sort out papers and get rid of so many files and magazines and books which I was holding on to unnecessarily. This is a work in progress!

Lent is a good time to let go of what takes us further from God. To let go of temptations which take us down paths we don’t need to travel. To let go of achieving and accumulation and focus on simply being.

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Lent thoughts – Blessing

Today’s Lent reading brought me to this from Jan Richardson. It made me smile. It made me want to paint it, but suspect that working and baking and stewing won’t allow time for that yet. Not today anyway. But I leave it with you… it is a gift for you.

This blessing
has been waiting for you
for a long time.

While you have been
making your way here
this blessing has been
gathering itself
making ready
biding its time
praying.

This blessing has been
polishing the door
oiling the hinges
sweeping the steps
lighting candles
in the windows.

This blessing has been
setting the table
as it hums a tune
from an old song
it knows,
something about
a spiraling road
and bread
and grace.

All this time
it has kept an eye
on the horizon,
watching,
keeping vigil,
hardly aware of how
it was leaning itself
in your direction.

And now that
you are here
this blessing
can hardly believe
it’s good fortune
that you have finally arrived,
that it can drop everything
at last
to fling its arms wide
to you, crying
welcome, welcome, welcome.

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Lent Thoughts – Architecture

I love church buildings. It has become a bit of a hobby – trailing round churches when I’m on holiday and visiting somewhere new, or gazing up or around at new and familiar buildings. And if you haven’t read Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett then please do now. It will transform how you view cathedrals in the future.

My Lent reading today was from Michael Mayne’s Lent book Pray, Love, Remember which is his personal account of this time as Dean of Westminster. The building itself features heavily as inspiration, as an invocation of stories and memories and memorials. And that made me think of buildings in which I have worshipped and become familiar with throughout my ministry.

angel laddersMy home church of St Michael & All Saints is a beautiful wee church where the stones just reek of incense and a million prayers. It is the church where I first learned about God and heard the stories, and steeped myself in high-church liturgy. I have my favourite pews, and a host of colourful images to contemplate if I need to think on higher things. It is a church of the senses and if I think carefully now I can see the light coming in that window and creating ‘angel ladders’ down to the sanctuary floor where the smoke of the incense can be seen swirling and moving like the Holy Spirit.

Then there is St Ninian’s Cathedral in Perth where I was ordained and did my curacy. St Ninians cathedral interiorStanding at the altar underneath the most grand baldacchino and the people in the pews far off in the distance, was a terrifying prospect at first. Daily Prayer in the Lady Chapel with beautiful stained glass of the Annunciation where I said my prayers just before Ordination. It was the first cathedral built in Scotland after the Reformation and I remember it being absolutely transformed at Easter with flowers galore, and smell the damp greenery now if I try.

2005-02-04 15.35.06From there I went to be Priest in Charge of two little churches but both with a delightful character. St Peter’s in Linlithgow is one of the smallest churches anywhere but is made to the grandest design with dome and pillars and about 50 seats all crammed in among them. They used to say you came in the door and almost tripped over the altar, it is so small. I loved the shape and proportions and the fact that everybody had to sit next to someone because there were no spare seats. It was painted hideous colours when I first went there but was re-done in my time in delightful shades of lilac and white. (This has since been remedied! but I loved it.) It was only 75 years old but looked much older and was terribly cramped that everything had to be curtailed to fit the space, including celebrating mass. And then there was St Columba’s in Bathgate, a warm church with (glory of glories) loads of toilets. Oh how I loved that church and its toilets. It was beautifully looked after with lots of polished pine and comfy ch2005-02-04 15.30.24airs, and a little meeting room adjacent which was well used. When the pews were removed someone at Falkirk made a font out of the old wood so the past became part of the present. It was a family church with many generations of the same family in attendance, and each was proud of that little building and its beautifully kept gardens.

StmarksunThen I moved to St Mark’s Portobello which was a strange church architecturally. Strange because from the outside it looked like a large Georgian house with a carriage driveway and the story was that it had been built like that in case it didn’t last as a church and could be transformed into a house. As a result it was wider than it was long, which made for a very different feel. The sanctuary was a beautiful big space so I could stretch out my hands orans as much as I liked. There was some nice stained glass, including the rather racy David and Jonathan. And it was there that I learned, after I had my cataracts removed, that the rather dirty grey glass above the altar was in fact shades of lovely lilac! Downstairs there is a crypt chapel which was used for mid-week services and was a lovely intimate space with a very prayerful feeling. But the church itself could be transformed into so many different worship spaces because of its size. Outside in the garden in front of the church stood a tall wooden cross with a bench in front of it which looked down to the sea, and a graveyard surrounding the building. At Easter the cross was covered in daffodils. I once had a dream that we planted daffodil bulbs in the grass in front of the cross which would appear at Easter like a shadow of the wooden cross. I told my secret dream to one of the Junior Church leaders and they planted the bulbs but we told no-one. The next year shoots appeared and what popped up? Not daffodils at first, they came later, but a host of purple crocuses which made me cry.

20131229_085724Christ Church Falkirk was different again, designed by the same architect as my home church, it felt almost familiar in a way. It was a dark church, with wooden paneling all the way round and some lovely stained glass. My favourite window was the one opposite my chair with the Blessed Virgin Mary stamping on a snake with stars round her head. There was a rood screen and a wonderful sense of moving up into a holy place when you came to the altar. All of this could be transformed with candles all around the wood panelling and fairy lights on the rood screen at Festival times and it always took my breath away. Below the church was another crypt chapel which was in a great state of disrepair so we renovated it, painted it white, acquired an altar and chairs from a church which had just closed down, and it became a lovely intimate place for worship and prayer.

And now we come to St Fillan’s. Home for me for the past 21/2 years and more to come. It StFillans' gate openis not Westminster Abbey by any means. It is a small simple church, white outside, and like a community hall inside. And it is used by the community all week from morning to evening by every group imaginable. Because of this it is not in an immaculate state of decoration. It has some wooden panelling scuffed by footballs and plastic chairs knocking against it, with primrose walls and a sort of brown colour behind the altar. There are heavy tapestry curtains which screen off the altar space during the week, and at the west end of church to keep the draughts out. Four simple walls, no lovely statues or pricket stands or stained glass for they would all be damaged during the week. The chairs are old grey plastic bucket seats which are light for stacking and that’s important but they are cold and uncomfortable. There are some comfy ones with padding for the elderly and infirm and they are much sought after. One lovely tapestry is brought out on Sundays, but is taken down and hidden away after the service, as is everything else behind the curtains. It doesn’t often feel like a sacred space to me.

Yesterday we had a guest preacher who had once been the rector here at St Fillan’s many years ago. As he preached I was listening and looking around the church. That’s when I realised this church is not about the beautiful building but about the beautiful people. I rearranged the chairs during Lent so that we are facing one another instead of the backs of heads. I brought a wee table in to use as a nave altar so we could be closer to the ‘action’ at the Eucharist. It is not a gorgeous table, not a beautifully carved altar, but it allows us to be close to seeing the bread and wine – the most important things. The building really belongs to the community, to the groups who use it, the children who play and learn in it. And all of the people who come on Sundays have in the past been part of those groups, have led them, have taken their children to them. Children now grown up and far away around the world. But the people who come to St Fillan’s belong not just to this church, but to one another. They are close to each other because they’ve come for such a long time, some since the building was first put up. It is in the people that I encounter God, not in the architecture. Of course, this is true in every church I’ve worshipped in, but even more so here because there is no other gorgeous architectural feature to distract. 

So this Lent I am giving thanks for the beautiful architecture which points to God, but also for the people of God. Both can inspire and bring me closer to God. Pay attention to what is around you and pay heed to where God is.

Lent thoughts – Pray

Julian of Norwich said:

Pray, even if you feel nothing, see nothing. For when you are dry, empty, sick or weak, at such a time is your prayer most pleasing to God, even though you may find little joy in it. This is true of all believing prayer.

Prayer is hard and it is one of the questions I get asked about a lot as a priest. I teach different styles of prayer, conscious that not all people pray the same way. That was one of the best things I learned early on – different personalities need different ways to pray. Some need stillness, a candle and perhaps an icon. Some need words and bibles and a format. Some need a blank piece of paper and lovely colouring pencils and pretty craft things. Some need music to accompany them. Some need beads and some need certain postures.

And some give up because they don’t get the answer they prayed for. And some give up because they’ve done it for so many years with no feeling of the presence of God.

Lent is a good time to come back to prayer if you’ve drifted away. Even if you find no joy in it, God does.

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Lent thoughts – Serenity

Today’s lent reading brought me to this prayer by Fr James Martin SJ

A New Serenity Prayer

God, grant me the serenity
to accept the people I cannot change,
which is pretty much everyone,
since I’m clearly not you, God.
At least not the last time I checked.

And while you’re at it, God,
please give me the courage
to change what I need to change about myself,
which is frankly a lot, since, once again,
I’m not you, which means I’m not perfect.
It’s better for me to focus on changing myself
than to worry about changing other people,
who, as you’ll no doubt remember me saying,
I can’t change anyway.

Finally, give me the wisdom to just shut up
whenever I think that I’m clearly smarter
than everyone else in the room,
that no one knows what they’re talking about except me,
or that I alone have all the answers.

Basically, God, grant me the wisdom
to remember that I’m not you.

 

 

Lent thoughts -Lost

Image result for sheep valais

Today’s prayer comes from Joyce Rupp in Fresh Bread.

So much in me gets lost, God.

I run off in other directions
and lose my vision of you,
of you and your Kingdom.

I lose sight of my hopes,
I forget all our promises.
I get lost in problems,
I run around in selfishness.

There you are, before me,
waiting, calling.
There you are, behind me,
following, pursuing.
There you are, beside me,
caring, loving.

What is it you’ve placed in this sheep’s heart of mine?
What is it that keeps me bonded to you
in spite of all my arrogance,
in spite of all my independence?

I feel a new surge today,
a re-visioning of hope.

I feel as if you’ve lifted me up
and are carrying me home,
safe and secure on your shoulders,
or maybe next to your heart.

O God of lost sheep, my God,
appeal again and again to all the lostness in me,
pursue me relentlessly.
Carry me home.
O, carry me home.