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.

Lent Thoughts – Mortality

Today’s Lent reading brought me to this from the Barefoot Theology Blog…

You, my dear human being, are not God. You, busy person, are not immortal. You, who can do so much and command so many, will go back to the dust. Thank God.

While human mortality can be stunningly difficult to accept, especially the mortality of those we love, it is a blessing.

We, frail creatures, are not all powerful; we’re not even very powerful. Without one another, we would very quickly wither away. Without God, we would simply cease to be.

Ash Wednesday, and Lent, is perhaps God’s best way of telling us to set down the world.

Set it down, and let someone infinitely more qualified carry it instead.

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Lent thoughts – stories

Stories are the style and substance of life. They fashion and fill existence. From primeval to eschatological vistas, from youthful dreams to seasoned experiences, from resounding disclosures to whispered intimacies, the narrative mode of speech prevails. Myth, parable, folk tale, epic, romance, novella, history, confession, biography – these and other genres proclaim the presence and power of the story. Phyllis Trible

So begins Trible’s Texts of Terror – a book to browse for my Lenten reading on International Women’s Day. She goes on to tell sad stories, tales of terror with women as victims.

Today I shall think of the stories I know of women who have been abused, and there are many. Too many. Women who had their power taken away from them by others. Women who held on to those stories in secret, not daring to share them in case they were not believed or thought to be weak. Women who didn’t believe in their own strength and ability to say NO. No, this is not how it should be.

We must listen to one another’s stories. To listen and believe. Our stories matter. Not just today but every day.

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Lent thoughts: You matter because you are you

My plan this Lent is to read more. To read something every day, carefully and intently, and hopefully to find something to aid me on my Lenten journey. Of course, already my plan has already failed. Yesterday was Ash Wednesday and we had a Eucharist in the chapel in the morning followed by coffee and a blether in the rectory which took me up to lunch. Then I took my ashes (and lemon in a bag) and the Sacrament out to some of my housebound members. My plan was to whizz in and out, daub some ashes, share some bread and wine, chat a little and move on to the next one. Silly me. My plan should have been to go and listen to lonely people who feel that everyone has forgotten them, to listen to someone who is struggling with not being able to do what they’d like to because their body is letting them down, to listen to concerns and grumps and to pray with them. Well that’s what I ended up doing and of course I didn’t get to all I’d hoped to visit and I didn’t get home till it was dark. But that didn’t matter really. I can go next week.

Today is World Book Day and a few weeks ago a friend said ‘Why don’t we all just clear our diaries and read on that day?’ I have a Vestry meeting tonight and some prep for that, but my plan is to give a good chunk of today to just reading. I don’t have the latest recommended Lent book, but I do have a shelf of old ones. And a host of other shelves full of books, some unread, which I am sure will contain plenty material for pondering this Lent. My plan is to share some of that reading here and perhaps over on Beauty from Chaos.

Today’s reading is from a book called Pray, Love, Remember by Michael Mayne.

Many who have spent time listening with real attention to another person in need will know that frequently we find in others the familiar echo of what we know in ourselves: a deep, unsatisfied desire. It is, I believe, a kind of homesickness, a longing for the bringing to fruition of that potential for love and those natural springs of compassion that help define our humanity. The beginning and end of compassion is a question of how we see: how you see me, how I see you. This need that we share, to be seen, to be noticed and given value, is not some childish craving for attention: it is the only way we have to become our true selves. Egos are lonely, and egotism a lonely way of being, and our spirits are fed by what we freely give each other. It is not only babies who languish and grow sick if they are starved of love. I am affirmed when you notice me, when you give me your attention. However old we grow, however wise, the child we once were is always part of us and, in one way or another, every human being (far less confident that we appear, most of us) cries out or acts out – or often, disastrously stifles – their need to be recognised, perhaps forgiven, but most often simply encouraged: to know that ‘you matter because you are you’.

This Lent, I am going to try affirming people more. Someone on Twitter said they were going to send 40 postcards this Lent to friends who they haven’t kept in touch with as much as they should. Hmm. Could I do that? Perhaps…

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Art of Advent – It’s all about the men

Our second Art of Advent course looked at paintings of men. Lots of men: Prophets, John the Baptist, wise men, Joseph, and some shepherds. But wait! Perhaps there were shepherdesses too! Here are the paintings we looked at…

John the Baptist in the Wilderness boschjtb

St John the Baptist in the wilderness, Hieronymus Bosch, c1489, Museum of Lazaro Galdiano, Madrid, Spain

John the B da Vinci 1513

St John the Baptist, Leonardo da Vinci, 1513-16, Musee du Louvre, Paris

Dream of St Joseph Philippe de Champaigne 1642

The Dream of St Joseph, Philippe de Champaigne, 1642, National Gallery London

Dream of St Joseph Georges_de_La_Tour

The Dream of St Joseph, Georges de la Tour, 1630-35, Musee des Beaux-arts, Nantes

Christ in the House of His Parents ('The Carpenter's Shop') 1849-50 by Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896

Christ in the House of His Parents (‘The Carpenter’s Shop’) 1849-50 Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896 Purchased with assistance from the Art Fund and various subscribers 1921 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N03584

Journey of the Three Magi to Bethlehem, 1638-1640

Journey of the three Magi to Bethlehem, 1638-40, Leonaert Bramer, New York Historical Society

The Sleep of the Kings, Gislebertus 12th c, Autun, Cath of Saint-Lazare

Gislebertus, 1125-35, Autun Cathedral

Annunciation to shepherds Wtewael

The Annunciation to the Shepherds, Joachim Wtewael, 1606, Museum of Fine Arts Houston

In which Ruth ponders pastoral care surprises

The phone rang.

“Rector, I’m just letting you know that my sister E has been taken to hospital. It’s not looking good. They’ve withdrawn all food and antibiotics.”

I’ve been visiting E since I came here five years ago. In all that time we’ve never really had a conversation although she receives communion in her Care Home every month. She had a brain tumour over 20 years ago and is not able to communicate well, but she often has a smile and we know she appreciates receiving the sacrament. I tell her brother I’ll go up to the hospital first thing.

To tell you the truth, I’m not feeling great myself. Ropey asthma and maybe a virus beginning. Slept for 10 hours the night before and feel achy all over. Figure whatever I’ve got won’t do E any more harm. Jump in car with oil and wee bookie and head off.

lost-directionForget that there is a road closure so get caught in traffic jam on temporary lights and follow diversion signs which take me up a road I’ve never been before. Lose diversion signs and keep driving until I end up at the Falkirk Wheel. In a carpark I never knew existed. Go back and try to find where I should have turned off. Miss it and end up at some high flats. Drive around until I find the canal and follow it until I find a road I do recognise and finally reach the hospital. Not a carpark space to be found and I join those circling round and round looking for likely suspects about to leave. Spot a space and some idiot drives up the one-way road the wrong way to beat me to it. I spit feathers.

By this time, a journey which should have taken me 15 minutes has taken an hour and I am not well pleased. Find a space at the furthest point from the hospital and head off uphill, inhaler at the ready. Reach hospital, puffing and wheezing, and discover E is in the farthest ward possible. Of course she is. Think to myself that at least this will give me plenty steps on my Fitbit (measures the exercise I take each day) only to find the battery on it is dead. Of course it is.

Get to E’s ward and there she is asleep. I take her hand and gently tell her I’m there. She opens one eye and looks distinctly miffed at being woken up. ‘It’s Ruth,’ I say, ‘from Christ Church. Would you like communion?’ E throws my hand away and closes her eye. I take her other hand. ‘E, it’s Ruth, shall I say some prayers with you?’ She pulls her hand away and puts it under the covers. The other three ladies in the ward look at me over their magazines and sip-cups and wait to see what I will do.

Undeterred, I go into my bag for the oil of healing. It isn’t there. Of course it isn’t. It is on my car seat. So I sit down and pray. I pray for E. I say the Lord’s Prayer and she opens an eye again. But she doesn’t wave me away. I sit and breathe and pray some more. This is grand, I think. I’m feeling much better now. I make the sign of the cross on E’s forehead and I think we both feel a wee bit calmer now. Well I know I do.