Christmas Eve, Midnight 2015 – hope, St Mary’sFordingbridge

I wonder what brought you here tonight. What brings us to places like this week by week or just now and again? Is it perhaps because we feel safe? Of course it may be that it’s just on the way home from the pub and if that’s the case you are just as welcome. Or just maybe it is because we want some hope in a broken world?

You would have needed to have spent the year on the planet Zog to have not noticed some of the dreadful things that have happened in the last 12 months. I’m sure if I asked you all we could think of a huge list which would include two dreadful atrocities in Paris and countless mass shootings in America not to mention the dreadful plight of those fleeing violence in Syria and other war torn parts of the world. And on top of all that Donald Trump.

So is there any hope? Is there any point in being here tonight because if tonight is about anything surely it is about hope. But are we beyond that, are we “doomed” as Private Fraser was fond of saying in Dad’s Army.

But let’s just go back in time. A man agrees to marry a woman who he knows is pregnant to stop her being disgraced or worse. They have to travel a distance to register for the census of a foreign invading power and the only transport they have is a donkey. When they finally arrive at the place of registration the whole place is full up, there’s nowhere to stay and the baby is coming. When someone does finally take pity on them they end up in a barn – not one of those lovely little manger scenes we all have but in a dirty smelly stinking unsanitary barn surrounded by animals. Doesn’t look too hopeful does it – not if you are destined to be the saviour of the world. But against all the odds the baby survives its birth, survives a mass murder attempt by a jealous and insecure king, and the journey home. Hope is born.

Of course t’s not all bad is it – the climate change deal was signed a few days ago between almost 200 countries, who knows if it will succeed but surely there is at least hope that we now have a whole world prepared to do something. We see examples to us of how we can all make a difference – the Pope in a Fiat 500 not a 7 litre gas gussler – who knows we might see the Queen going down the Mall in a Nissan Leaf electric car next – we can hope!

Then there are the small but life-changing events. I can think of two small pitch invasions, one at the Rugby World Cup where a lad ran on in his excitement and ended up with an All Black winner’s medal. Another small boy aged 4 runs on to a rugby league game in Australia. One of the players gives him the ball and sets him off running towards the posts, he has almost the whole field to run and the players from the opposing team keep trying to tackle him and unbelievably they mistime every tackle so they land behind him or just in front. He gets just past the 22 line and runs out of puff so one of the players picks him up and carries him beneath the posts where he scores to an almighty cheer.

I can tell you of a story I heard about 10 days ago of a visitor to a foodbank in Lancashire. The lady had been ill and lost her job. She didn’t realise she could get benefits and she starved. She became depressed and she thought her life was over. She received a letter to say she was being evicted. She wrote a note to her family and made a sign to put on the front door asking someone to look after her dogs and she left home intending to end her life. Well she met someone who took her to the foodbank and at that foodbank they have a debt adviser. That person just sat and listened and then they picked up the phone and got hold of the Citizens’ Advice Bureaux specialist for housing issues. They made an emergency plea to the court to delay the eviction, went to a hearing the next day, got the delay and then they set about applying for benefits and sorting out her debts – all started within 2 days. She kept her house and she didn’t die, why because she now has hope. I could tell you many stories like that one.

Through his actions that baby we celebrate tonight brought hope to many, he healed the sick, he mended the broken hearted and he set people free from all the bad stuff they were involved in. He gave them hope.

None of us are Jesus, none of us I suspect have the power of healing nor can we make everything right but if we work together, if we believe that together we can make a difference, then we can make a difference. I know I can’t do any of that on my own and I get my strength from knowing that there is a God that watches over us and who will help us if only we can trust and hope. I suspect not everyone shares that faith here this evening but even if you don’t share that faith, have hope that together we can achieve something. I mentioned foodbanks because I work for the charity that runs over 400 of them across the UK. They were all started by churches, churches that many people thought were completely irrelevant because all they did was talk, or so it seemed to people on the outside. Those churches galvanised communities church going and not, Christian and Muslim and Sikh and Hindu and atheist to all work together and in the last three years over 3 million people have been saved from starving or worse as I talked about a few moments ago, because each of those communities suddenly had hope and hope sprang into action and generosity.

New birth gives us hope and the birth we celebrate tonight is the best example of hope, and triumph over adversity that I can think of. He became known as the light of the world. You should all have a tea light. I’d like you to take that tea light home and at some point tomorrow put it on a windowsill as a light to the world and a symbol of hope.
Pause
Amen

Mark Ward

A Sermon preached at St. Mary’s Church, Fordingbridge on the Third Sunday in Advent , 2015.

A Sermon preached at St. Mary’s Church, Fordingbridge on the Third Sunday in Advent , 2015.

A glance at the TV screens this week has brought home in a dramatic way the need for agreements in Paris on global warming and climate change. The protracted negotiations for such an agreement also spell the costliness of such change which is required to reduce the emission of gasses into the air by as little as 1.5% by 2050.

Important and crucial as that is I want to reflect on a different kind of ‘climate change’.

Some words of John the Baptist from Luke’s gospel this morning,

“…bear fruits worthy of repentance”

I love words and language. Language changes over time and comes to change meaning over time. There was a time when the Prayer Book was composed by Cranmer that ‘to prevent’ meant to ‘go before’ as opposed to our modern meaning of ‘obstruct’. Take the word used by John and subsequently used by Jesus-‘repentance’. What images does that conjure up for you? Doing something seemingly naughty and feeling guilty? Had a bit too much to drink and made a fool of yourself? Flew off the handle at your best friend? And then feeling sorry!

Repentance is such a central word to the message of both John and Jesus and yet it means much more than being sorry. In fact it means something a bit different. Now for the Greek lesson-are you ready? The Greek word which is normally translated as ‘repentance’ is a lovely word called, ‘metanoia’. It comes from two Greek words: ‘meta’ meaning ‘change’ and ‘noien’ meaning ‘to think’. You might recognise our word ‘nous’ when we say, ‘didn’t show much ‘nous’’ meaning he didn’t think or use his head. ‘Metanoia’ means a profound change in the heart and mind of an individual what I want to call a personal ‘climate change’. So all you have to remember is that ‘repentance’ means a personal climate change a total change of the heart and mind of the individual.

The crowds came out to see John the Baptist-he must have been quite a sight with his camel hair tunic and his sandals and probably wild hair blowing in the wind. I imagine he was a fearsome character and somewhat uncompromising. He comes inviting the crowds to baptism and repentance. There are many records attesting to Jews involved in ritual washing to remove pollution that would defile the temple. John connects repentance with baptism a sign of renewal and cleansing.

John is calling for climate change on a large scale. He somewhat dismisses superficial attempts by the Jews’ appeal to Abraham as their illustrious ancestor. And he has strong words for the crowds-if you have two coats share with anyone who has none; a warning for tax collectors not to cheat and for soldiers not to exploit the weakness of others. Repentance and baptism involves a total change in perception and behaviour.

What might climate change look like for you and I? As climate change takes hold in our planet creating ice floes to melt, ocean water to rise, creating freak storms etc we witness a slowly developing change to what we can expect in the life of our planet. It is the same with the climate change which John and Jesus invites of us through the notion of ‘repentance’. Let me explain.

Two examples. One, Beth runs a local choir. She is very good at choosing an appropriate repertoire of music for different voices. She has a knack of being able to get the choir to raise the game to great heights especially at local concerts. She knows in her heart of hearts she has more in her, greater things to achieve and she decides to enter a national conducting competition, and wins. She becomes a conductor, no mean achievement for a woman in today’s world. She is realising the huge potential bursting to get out of her and she begins to lead a more deeply satisfying life albeit a more demanding one.

Two, Alex and Annabelle espy one another at a local gig, like the look of each other and begin dating. Each in their way are embarking on a journey in which each is risking themselves to each other, discovering that life together is more satisfying than when they were single. Each evokes in the other deeper and richer ways of being and living. Their life becomes more demanding as they start a family with the inevitable costliness of their love for one another.

I want to suggest that both undergo climate change-a kind of metanoia as they begin to see themselves and others differently and realise that they themselves are full of unrealised potential, Beth with her talent in conducting and Alex and Annabelle in their new found partnership.

Both required a willingness to open themselves to new possibilities they never dreamt of. Both required a willingness to surrender to a past life. Both had a vision of a more fulfilled life.

The crowds, the Jews, the tax collectors and the soldiers were all warned by John that real change of heart is required for those who would follow ‘the one is to come who is more powerful than I’, Jesus himself. It is a combination of climate change and renewal, repentance and baptism.

Would that a message that our political leaders and church leaders could hear. Let us cut out the spin about how brilliant our policies and plans are and somehow just what people need right now. John and Jesus call for a climate change.

What might metanoia look like for the Church right now? We much work to do and issues to resolve-church unity, styles of ministry and how to pay for it, the real acceptance of those in the ministry with gay and lesbian orientation, how to maximise the use of our church buildings and plant. John and Jesus call the Church as a community to a real climate change in their attitude to these questions.

John the Baptist was not a popular character in his day and don’t suppose he would top our X Factor chart today. John like the prophets before him challenged his hearers to take responsibility for their actions and urged them to change the world to the kind of place it was meant to be. He offered them the possibility of a changed heart, a climate change, and a mirror of themselves in the pool of water in the Jordan River to encourage them to make a renewed attempt at life by gazing on the one who is to come Jesus who ‘will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire’, both images of cleansing. Of course like his master he came to a sticky end. Living with uncompromising people like John shows up the seamy side of us and the cracks in our veneers.

Our Advent journey then is not a smooth path. The path is uncertain in places but full of possibility and hope for a better future to help us ‘bear fruits worthy of repentance (metanoia), that divine love may rule our hearts and minds as we seek to serve God and his church

 

Sermon preached at Sandleheath Uniting Church, John the Baptist teaches the people a lesson about generosity and care, Advent 3

Both of today’s readings are about being prepared for the coming of Christ, a subject I spent quite a while on two weeks ago so this week I thought I would spend a bit more time on the first 8 verses which are to be honest quite frightening. The people of Israel are not behaving well, not for the first time, and John tells them very clearly – if you don’t mend your ways God will wield an axe and then throw you into the fire, and he calls them snakes because they are behaving one way but pretending to be different.

The people, I guess confronted with this rather frightening looking man, wanted to know what they had to do to escape the fire. John’s answer was very simple – if you have 2 shirts and you come across someone with no shirt, give them your spare one, if you have food, share it with those who don’t, if you have a position of trust then do the right thing, only collect the tax that is due, and not a premium for your own pocket, nor should you extort people just because you have weapons and they don’t.

It doesn’t seem very difficult does it? So let’s fast forward 2000 years. Do we live in a generous world? If we were to go to Ringwood and visit Waitrose we would find beans from Africa, fruit and onions from the Middle East, coffee from South America, tea from India and China and so on. We move food all around the world for our own benefit. In my house in a few weeks’ time there will be dates from Israel, ginger from India, China or Nepal, and many other items from around the globe. When I visit one of my children in Leeds I spend ages wandering round their local Turkish supermarket fascinated by all the things on offer.

So given all of that – when the world produces 40% more food than it consumes, why do we still have people starving? If we can move it here, we can move it there too. How can it be right that here in Hampshire we put perfectly good food into a giant cauldron to produce energy because we have not used it all. In this country we waste almost as much food as we eat. Yes we support the homeless, yes we support those needing foodbanks, but in all honesty we should be using our surplus to feed those who are starving across the world.

I was lucky enough a couple of weeks ago to visit something called a Social Supermarket in a town called Goldthorpe in the borough of Barnsley in Yorkshire. Goldthorpe was once a thriving community due to black gold – coal. It was surrounded by pits where most of the menfolk worked. It was a hard life but everyone earned sufficient to live. The mine owners and then the coal board built them houses to live in. Then the pits began to close, most of us remember that time, Arthur Skargill and Margaret Thatcher locked in conflict, the police expected to keep the peace, neighbours calling each other scab because one worked in the pit and the other drove a lorry that moved the coal, and the lorry drivers kept working. Goldthorpe has about 8000 residents. It is run down, all the shops have metal shutters to combat vandalism and theft and many of them are empty. The people look downtrodden and the community has a large movement within it because the coal board sold the houses for £1500 when the pits closed, the clever residents bought their own house and then sold it for much more and now at least 20% are rented out by landlords who own whole streets, where people come and go on a regular basis. There is a shiny new Asda next to the school, but many can’t afford to shop there, even the discount ranges are too expensive. But there is another shop, about as big as the Tesco in Fordingbridge. You have to be a member to get in and you have a swipe card very much like the ones you get in hotels to open the door with. You can only join if you are on benefits, and only 750 people can join at any time. Once inside it looks just like Tesco, neat rows of shelves, all the brands you expect to see, about 800 different lines of stock, but they include items from Marks and Spencer, Asda, Morrisons, Tesco, all next to each other. This is surplus stock – still in date, not damaged, but overproduced. It is bought for 10% of its normal shelf price, which is much cheaper for the supermarket than having to pay to have it taken away, and then it is sold in the supermarket for just 30% of its shelf price, saving the shoppers 70%. They can only shop there for 6 months and then they are expected to be in a better position to return to Asda. In that 6 months they undertake courses in numeracy, literacy, budgeting and so on and for the final 2 weeks they do an intensive course making them ready for a job and they are guaranteed one interview. Whether they get the job or not is then up to them, but they have been given the best chance possible.

I was able to join them for lunch in the café they have as part of the supermarket. It has a full time chef who teaches and on the day I was there it was roast beef and all the trimmings although as I was eating later I just had some soup. The atmosphere was friendly and the surroundings pleasant. It wasn’t full of old tables and chairs, it had nice café style seating and the whole place was about dignity and there was a really good atmosphere – one of hope.

The scheme is made possible because a man who has built up his own business trading in foodstuffs has been generous enough to pay for the transport of the food from the manufacturer or supermarket to his own warehouse and then out to the social supermarket. Now they have proven it works they should be able to find some venture capital partners who will finance a much bigger roll-out. Indeed a report from the All Party Parliamentary Group on hunger recommended in a report this Thursday that Social Supermarkets should be spread right across the UK. And the benefit is that it takes people from food starvation, to foodbank, to social supermarket and then to Asda, a progression which gradually puts people back in control. You can argue that the current benefactor is very rich and can afford it, but so are many more people who do not share their wealth. He has taken the shirt he didn’t need and given it away and he has enabled the food that we should be sharing to go to those who need it rather than an anaerobic digester.

So you sit there and you think, I haven’t made a fortune from a business, I don’t have millions to give away. If so I will refer you to the widow who gave the only coin she had, all of her wealth; be it almost inconsequential to the collection plate – she had nothing yet she gave more than the rich around her who were giving a token compared to what they had.

John is telling the people they must be generous in spirit and in practice. They must share and not cheat one another. I suspect few of us cheat others but are we really generous? Go back to the man with 2 shirts. If we think about it having only one shirt isn’t very practical is it. It’s going to mean some hardship because eventually it will need a wash which will mean going without the shirt until it is dry again, but compared to having no shirt at all, the discomfort is marginal. But it is a real cost and I often wonder if we give from our surplus or from our cost? John doesn’t say share your surplus food, he says share what food you have, which says to me that even if you only have enough for yourself you should share the other person’s burden by having less to give them something.

Be honest with yourself – how do you approach the Christian Aid envelope, can I get away with change, maybe not, ok well that means I’ll have to put a fiver in. Maybe ten or even £20 is within your grasp even if you buy a slightly cheaper piece of meat that week or what about going without meat just for one week – it’s hardly a big sacrifice is it?

I don’t tell you this to sound self-righteous, but I well remember a day I went for a job interview. It was a job which would enable me to earn sufficient to make ends meet and pay off some debt we had built up. It entailed me travelling 60 miles each way but it was worth the time spent to get our family into a secure place. As I was leaving the car park to walk to the interview I met a Big Issue seller who asked me if I’d buy his last copy so he could go home and get warm. I only had £2 in my pocket and at the time we weren’t well off, but something told me to give him the money. Whether I was rewarded for my sacrifice or whether it just put me in a good frame of mind, I don’t know, but I got the job, and within a year we were both solvent and debt free.

I was telling the good folk of Harbridge a story a few weeks ago when I was taking a service there. At one of the garages between Fordingbridge and Ringwood stands a silver BMW X4, if you are not familiar, it is a two seater sports car with a very long bonnet and a soft top roof. I see it every time I drive past it. I even stopped to look at it one day making sure the garage was closed so I couldn’t be leapt upon. I don’t need 4 seats, Margaret has a perfectly good and very nice family estate so that isn’t stopping me. But then that little voice inside says – it will use more fuel and pollute the atmosphere more but more importantly you won’t be able to pick up food from kind generous people who donate it, or the odd piece of furniture they give to the shop. And I think, you know what, I don’t need that BMW, why do I want it – is it so I can sit at the traffic lights and when they go green roar off into the distance, the wind in my hair, my cool shades on and everyone thinking – I wish I could be like him? Or would I rather be able to say, yes I can pick that food up which means someone else will eat properly. In all honesty it’s a fairly easy choice and so far I haven’t given in to temptation, but to a point it hurts because I’d really like the car.

Seeing Pope Francis in a Fiat 500 instead of some amazing limo is a great lesson to the world. Knowing he lives in an ordinary apartment, didn’t have handmade red shoes made, paid his paper bill when he became Pope, they are all amazing examples to us of generosity which blesses both those who receive and those who give.

A couple of weeks ago someone sent me a short film. It was a charity rugby match and a toddler escaped his parents and wandered onto the field. Seeing what had happened one player picked up the ball, gave it to the small boy and set him off running to the other end. The other players on the pitch soon got the message and all the opposition dived either just behind him or just in front of him to let him keep running. When he began to tire another player picked him up and carried him to the score line and then there was a huge cheer from the crowd as his dad ran on to collect him. How amazing was that compared to a big security person rushing on and scooping him up to get him off the field. How good must everyone have felt and what an amazing lesson to thousands of people around the world who have seen that clip.

The team who let the little boy score went behind as a result. I don’t know if they won or lost but it cost them. Yet even if they lost I suspect they went home much the better for their generosity. To badly misquote an old saying giving is not just for Christmas. Of course the sad thing was that despite John’s teaching Jesus then ended up on that cross because they didn’t heed John’s words. But it’s not too late for us.

Amen.

Mark Ward

Can we save rural churches from closure?

Can we save rural churches from closure?
Summary
In recent weeks, media coverage has described rural clergy as ‘close to drowning’ under the pressure
of maintaining medieval buildings with dwindling congregations. With the Church of England carrying
out a series of reviews and consultations as part of its ‘reform and renewal’ programme – will we see
rural churches closing or are rural communities ready and able to give their support? Jessica Sellick
investigates.

This is a paper by Jessica Sellick, Rose Regeneration for the Rural Services Network:
http://www.rsnonline.org.uk/analysis/can-we-save-rural-churches-from-closure
In January 2015 the Church of England published ‘growing the rural church’. This revealed how 65%
of all Church of England churches (10,199) and 66% of parishes (8,394) are in rural areas.
Of these churches, 70.1% are now “multi-church groups”, maintaining the Church of England’s
commitment to have ‘a presence in every community’ at a time of reduced funding and ordained
clergy. While 29% of urban parishes are declining, only 25% of rural ones are.
As well as setting out hard facts and figures, the research contains the voices of clergy and lay
people: painting a picture of the challenges, optimism, faithfulness and innovation in rural multi-church
faith groups.
Here the role of parish churches is not merely places of prayer but at the heart of local communities,
affirming local identities and giving people a sense of place and belonging.
Yet clergy are struggling to find ways to ‘give rural’ the time it needs amid smaller and scattered
populations, bureaucracy and several buildings to look after across their patch.
So how can we prevent rural churches from closing and make them thriving hubs for rural
communities? I offer three points.
Firstly, clergy and rural communities need to work together. ‘Growing the rural church’ suggests
changes to training are need for clergy and laity alike so as to negotiate a better balance between
what is familiar and what is possible.
For clergy this means not arriving in the countryside ‘to do rural ministry’ but embedding yourself into the life and heartbeat of rural communities – going along to social activities and local facilities (e.g.pub, shop) to talk to residents.
In 2013 Professor Linda Woodhead from Lancaster University and YouGov carried out an online survey of 1,500 Anglican clergy. 83% of those surveyed saw the parish system as important; and a high percentage conveyed their strong commitment to God and to a generous system of universal welfare.
Also in 2013, Ivan Annibal and I produced a slide pack on poverty and emerging issues in the countryside which we used to talk to ordinands to try to encourage them to move into rural posts. Most recently, the Arthur Rank Centre published ‘Resourcing Rural Ministry’ which contains lots of ideas and case studies.
For rural communities it means stepping up to the mark by getting involved in activities and being willing to do things (e.g. coffee morning with hymns, messy church, tea time church, use of social media etc. as well as traditional services).
For while churches are places for prayer and worship, ‘fringe’ members of the congregation (i.e., those that may not attend every Sunday but come to events such as Harvest, at Christmas) need to be supported to come and participate at other times.
This not only helps clergy work out when, where and how they support all members of the parish (amid having several churches on their patch) but also means clergy and parishioners can come together to develop a shared vision for growth and work on implementing this together.
Secondly, we need to think more innovatively and imaginatively about how we use and maintain church buildings.
In October 2015, the Church Buildings Review Group published its report on the stewardship of church buildings. 78% of the Church of England’s 15,700 churches are listed. Over 57% of churches are in rural areas and 91% of these are listed.
The Church of England is responsible for around 45% of Grade 1 listed buildings and almost three-quarters of these are in rural areas. Yet one in four rural parishes has fewer than ten regular worshipers and collectively £160 million is spent on maintaining parish buildings.
The report contains proposals to
(a) secure more financial support for listed buildings for the long term,
(b) change the law to create some specific new flexibilities for parishes and dioceses,
(c) incorporate building reviews into mission and ministry planning,
(d) enable individual dioceses to have a bigger role in seeking a use for closed buildings,
(e) establish a single church buildings team at Church House, and
(f) create a new Church Building Commission for England.
For me, the report brings out the significance of place and how the diocese, at a local level, has responsibility for strategic planning and developing new place-based initiatives. Indeed, there are numerous and imaginative examples of how church buildings have been adapted to community use, breathing new life into them.
The Building Review Group report, for example, suggests ‘Festival Churches’ as an alternative means of maintaining a church with almost no congregation without closing it completely. This new category of parish church means the building is used only for important celebrations and/or occasional weddings or funerals and is being piloted in some dioceses.
The interior of St Maurice Church in Horkstow (North Lincolnshire) has been transformed with surplus pews and stalls removed to create an open flexible space which can be used by the community.
Interpretation boards have been produced setting out the history of the church and village and a programme of evening events held to encourage local people to use the church (with at least 30 people at each event).
There are several examples in Cumbria where churches are providing a venue for the post office, delivery of public services and meeting place for charities and voluntary and community sector organisations.
In Norfolk, WiSpire (majority owned by the Diocese of Norwich) is using parish churches to provide better broadband services to the whole of the county not just the populated areas.
Finally, all of these reports reveal how churches can be burdens, blessings and assets for rural communities.
For Professor Woodhead, the answer is not only in better clergy and boosting congregations it is also about giving equal attention to entry-points into society, “those places where the rubber of Christianity meets the road of real life: in homes, playgroups, schools and other places where children are socialised” and I would add the places where people work (offices, farms, factories and so on).
As the Church of England continues its Reform and Renewal programme and with Christmas approaching (and many of us attending services) what more can we do to celebrate our churches all year round and keep them open?
The proposals contained in the Church Buildings Review Group are open for consultation until Friday 29 January 2016. Read more

A Sermon preached at St. Mary’s Church, Hale. On the second Sunday in Advent, 2015.

I spent the inside of last week with my friend and colleague Peter Murphy at the Community of the Resurrection in Mirfield, West Yorkshire. Ostensibly, we were there on a nostalgic visit re-visiting a Hostel in Leeds also attached to the Community where we started our theological training some 50 years ago. We took the opportunity to re-visit the Hostel which is now a University hall of residence and witness a remarkable transformation within the historic shell of the remarkable Victorian building. The chapel is now a common room and a large plasma TV screen now adorns the East end of the chapel where the altar used to rest. To the right of the TV screen I are the words, RELAX-good transformation!

Part of the time we shared in the life of the Community as we worshipped morning and evening, a lectio divina (bible study), and had shared meals largely in silence. The love with which the brothers received us was palpable. We made a pilgrimage to the Calvary Garden, the Community’s cemetery as we said hello again to the monks who had been our mentors those 50 years ago.

In the silence the only distractions are those which flowed through my head and experienced in my body. Distractions there were and also a great sense of simply being in the moment filled with a silence I want to name the presence of the mystery of God. It was bit like a dance. At once in the moment sensing the fullness of the silence and then my mind travelling myriads of paths of things important and insignificant.
Richard Rhor, a Franciscan monk in his book, ‘Everything Belongs’ writes this,

“The now is not as empty as it might appear to be or that we fear it may be. Try to realise that everything is right here, right now. When we are doing life right it means nothing more than it is right now, because God is in this moment in a non-blaming way. When we are able to experience that, taste it and enjoy it, we don’t need to hold on to it. The next moment will have its own taste and enjoyment.”

The Advent season beckons us to a time of waiting and attending. We are called to pay more attention to the moments of existence-the air we breathe, the autumn wind blowing on our faces, the dancing leaves at our feet, the smell of rotting and decay, the watery sun and moon. And inside ourselves to discern what is really important for us. Our daily battles with demons of many familiar faces, our anxieties about those we love, our concerns about cards and presents. How we are going to meet the seemingly conflicting demands of many people.

Weighing heavy on my heart this week is a dear friend’s huge grief at the loss of his son through cancer at such an early age knowing that his other son is also slowly dying of cancer. What do I say to him? How can I support him? Peter and I lit a candle for him and his family in York Minister I subsequently found out, almost at the point he died. I know that I have to surrender all of my thoughts and feelings and faltering prayers to the divine mystery who goes before me. And I still am concerned about what I can do.

“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight”-words from Mark’s gospel echoing those words of comfort by Isaiah to a broken nation of Israel. What John the Baptist shows us is a passion and a zeal for the coming presence of God in our lives. How do we prepare the ‘way of the Lord’? How do we ‘make his paths straight’?

One of the downsides of the Protestant Reformation was to focus our attention so much on the spiritual journeys of individuals. Both are important-the individual journey and the community. I came away from Mirfield with a sense that God is working in the Community. It is all too easy to use the Church as a private club for the development of our individual spiritual journeys. For us to act as a community, as an alive body of people we have to spend time being with and listen to each other as we grow in trust and faith with each other. It is in the active engagement with each other we discover what the path of the Lord is for his people, how to make his paths straight.

So what do we talk about? Do we share and hear each other’s pain and dilemmas? Do we have share a future together to be Christ’s hands and feet and heart in this place? What are our church’s distractions? What are we avoiding? An examination of the agendas of our PCC’s and Synods might be worth a look!

Advent might then become a period when we think about these things and pray about these things knowing that the mystery of God’s love is already before us longing to support and sustain us in the difficult questions and the anxieties we carry.

Advent is a period of preparation then, a time when we can set aside some time from distractions and risk simply being without too many words. We live in a fabulous part of the world. The world of nature provides us with so many gifts of awareness of God’s loving mystery. Stand in the stillness of the forest and know that you are both alone with yourself and connected to one who holds the whole of life in the palm of his hand.

John the Baptist’s message to the crowds was one which pointed away from himself to the one who ‘is coming after me’. Once we know what truly distracts and fills our heads with so many thoughts and fears and anxieties that we may be able better to make an act of surrender of them in order that God’s love and energy can fill our moments. Our awareness of them may be fleeting. But it is in opening our hearts that we allow God to fill us. That is Mary’s eternal gift to us. She was beckoned by God to open herself to be filled with his Spirit and Jesus, God with us. That is the goal of our ‘preparing the way of the Lord’-again this Advent open your heart to yourself in love and to one another and all whom you meet-enjoy making the paths of the Lord straight for all to walk on.

 

John Towler