Unity Despite Difference

Last week we remembered the Saints and English Martyrs. This is a lesser festival in the Church of England and it can be easy for us to forget that people have died because of their Christian faith in this country.

Those from the Diocese of Exeter that visited Thika last month will have seen first-hand the impact of the threat to the Christian Churches with many of the churches in the diocese employing guards to protect the congregations from the threat of suicide bombers.

Later this month Father Mourad, a Syrian Catholic Priest who was taken by the Islamic State but rescued by his muslin friend, will speak in Exeter Cathedral and Cathedrals and Churches across the country are going red to remember Christians in the Middle East who have been killed because of their faith.

When we talk about the cost of Christian discipleship in this country it is often about the personal cost of our call and not the cost to us as of the risk to life or death.

Jesus calls the disciples to leave everything else behind and follow him even if it may bring suffering and persecution.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book, The Cost of Discipleship makes it clear: While God’s grace is always bestowed freely, it is never bestowed cheaply.

“Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field, for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price for which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.” (P. 47)

Bonhoeffer suggests that it is when we understand the cost of God’s love that we can surrender our lives to God in gratitude and faithful obedience. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.

 Bonhoeffer goes on to suggest that the Church is made up of those who acted, worked and suffered with Jesus and they manifest to the whole world a visible community.

Bonfire night at the beginning of this month recalls the events at the palace of Westminster when a group of conspirators so angered by the few rights given to Catholics that they took the law into their own hands and planned to blow up parliament.   It speaks of a time when the Christian church in this country was so divided that there were wars, armed conflicts and people were burned at the stake.

In the last dialogue of Jesus in John’s gospel he calls us to be a visible community to the world. This unity isn’t a formal arrangement it is based on and should mirror the unity between the Father and the Son. And the result is that the world will see and believe.

Bishop Robert in his blog from Thika mentioned that the conversations in Thika, crossing tribal and religious boundaries are no difference than those required in the UK. But in a divided world where divisions have often run down religious lines there is no excuse for Christian not to work together afresh in every generation towards the unity Jesus prayed for.

As pressures on the Church of England are moving us potentially into a more divided present let us pray that we may remember it is the love of the Father, that costly grace, which makes Jesus present to the church and through the church to the world.

Love which is generous, love which is gracious and love which is able to hold unity despite difference.

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The Beauty of the individual

Everyone deserves a safe place to call home and it is a sign of a compassionate community to welcome the stranger. So it is good news that over the last few days the UK has welcomed refugees from Calais. However I have been surprised at some people’s response to this act. Their comments have sought to dehumanise people and promote discrimination.

In June Truro Cathedral was home to an art installation by Imran Qureshi. From a distance it looks like a pile of rubbish – up close you see that it is made up of individual pieces of paper – each one containing a beautiful picture of part of a garden. Imran Qureshi’s art installation (After which, I am no more I, and you are no more you) reminds us that it is only when we get close to people that we understand them and appreciate them as individuals.

Thomas Merton became a Cistercian monk because he wanted to escape from a world filled with wicked people. But a few years of religious life, he went to the local town one day to have something printed, and the scales fell from his eyes. He wrote in his diary,

‘Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts… the core of their being, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more greed.’

Let us get up close to see the beauty of people rather than comment from a distance.  Let us #changethestory.

 

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In Praise of Idleness

Last month I preached at the opening of the year service at Kings College London. Kings College London is one of the top universities in the world having influenced many of the advances that shape modern life, such as: the discovery of the structure of DNA and research that led to the development of radio, television, mobile phones and radar.

It is therefore fair to say that it is an institution concerned with knowledge, with acquiring it and advancing it – but what of wisdom?

Many people mistake knowledge for wisdom. And although they are they are intimately related they are quite different. Knowledge is the accumulation of facts and information. Wisdom is the synthesis of knowledge and experiences giving insights that deepen one’s understanding of relationships and even the meaning of life.

The book of Job in the bible is the story of a devout man with tragedy hovering over him. When the book opens, we notice Job is about to lose everything — children, property and wealth, good name and even his health. And there is Job in the mist of his struggles and he asks where can wisdom be found?

Job knows that despite all of our achievements and abilities, we cannot answer Job’s great question about the meaning and purpose of the righteous person who suffers but for him there is discernible in this world (cf. 28:22). A world that reflects something of the wisdom of God.

Isaac Watts’s puts into verse in his hymn

He formed the stars, those heavenly flames,
He counts their numbers, calls their names;
His wisdom’s vast, and knows no bound,
A deep where all our thoughts are drowned.

For the Christian to find the wisdom of God we need to spend time with him to abide with him. How often do we rush on and not abide and therefore should we be surprised when we struggle to comprehend God and his wisdom?  And that’s where Idleness comes in.

Wisdom it has been suggested only comes about when we find time not just to gain knowledge but to find idleness. Oliver Burkeman speaking on Radio 4 16th September 2106 highlighted a recent Microsoft survey which shows 58% of office workers only have 15-30 mins thinking a day and 30% do not thinking at all.

Burkeman encouraged us to re find idleness in the true tradition of the contemplative – finding time for reflection, for freedom of thought and creative wonder finding the Newton moment under the apple tree. Maybe along with knowledge we should be re teaching the art of idleness – seeking not just knowledge but encouraging the creative art of its application. And maybe we will not only find the Newton apple moment but find the wisdom of God.

 

 

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Cathedrals and Prophetic Art

Cathedrals and Church buildings have always spoken of God. Music, colour, light, architecture, words, symbols and images, silverware, stain glass, space, smell and silence all influence us and can assist us in making our minds and spirits more open to God.

Increasingly Cathedrals are finding courage to place art into their buildings. This is not without its challenges but provide them with the opportunity to engage people who would not normally go to cathedral, to use art to look differently at God and to challenge us by being prophetic .

While I was at Salisbury Cathedral Helaine Blumenfeld placed a number of her pieces in the Cathedral Close and within the Cathedral itself.  Through the “Messenger of the Spirit” exhibition Helaine Blumenfeld sought to communicate from that place when words fail through the visual, imaginative, tactile and at an emotional level.

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 In a world which is filled with what Josef Piefer (Only the lover sings: Art and Contemplation Ignatius Press 1990) calls “Visual Noise” we find ourselves bombarded by images and information and in a society which demand us to keep moving we so often fail to abide and find a place to reflect on things of beauty and the sacred. The “Messenger of the Spirit” exhibition provided people with a motivation to stop and abide.

“The Messenger of the Spirit” was inspired by the nature of Angels as being messengers of God. Angels appear in most religions and faiths and they seem to connect with those of no faith. Angels give us a way of expressing our longings for beings that are more powerful than ourselves. They help us understand our place in the world, our relationship with other people and with God. Within the narrative of Christian scripture Angels appear when the human mind struggles to comprehend. The narrative of the messenger is coherent to narrative of the Cathedral and the Christian faith. The light, space and architecture of the Cathedral worked in partnership with the flowing textures and smooth lines of the sculpture to create a wonderful sense of light and life giving a message of creation, healing and hope.

It was an exhibition which was well received but they are not always so straight forward.

Truro Cathedral become home this summer to an installation by Imran Qureshi. It was a project in partnership with the Newlyn Gallery.

After which, I am no more I, and you are no more you is made up of 30,000 pieces of paper. Each sheet has a picture of a garden and when scrunched up they represent destruction but then find themselves reshaped into a wonderful landscape. Imran reminds us that hope can be found in places of destruction.

Part of the Imran Qureshi installation in Truro Cathedral

A few people complained that it looked like a pile of rubbish (which it did) but up close you see that it is made up of individual pieces of paper – each one containing a picture of a garden reminding us that it is only when we get close to people that we understand them and appreciate them as individuals. It was a brave piece to exhibit and is exactly the type Cathedrals should be displaying.

Cathedrals need to be places that not only speak of God but speak out on behalf of God as prophets and art helps them to do this.

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Petertide and Lego Land

Today is the day in the Church when we celebrate Peter and Paul, apostle.

My children and I have been exchanging comments on WhatsApp about our memories of this day – their Primary School was named after St Peter and therefore every Petertide they had an additional day off – we went to Lego land and ice skating and what was great was that we did it when nobody else had the day off!

At the time I used to always have a slight frustration because I would have to make arrangements at work to take this additional day off. But it did mean that we did something out of the ordinary – we took time to stop from our daily race of school and work and years later we have great memories of the day.

Today I find myself on retreat with 11 ordinands in the Truro Diocese and I am conscious that this silent retreat breaks into their lives at a time of great activity – many have moved and are about to start new jobs. However, difficult this is, it is the very time they need to stop and take a step back from the ordinary and take time to see God.

To see God requires us to turn aside and look and to see. How often do we rush on and not abide and therefore should we be surprised when we struggle to comprehend God.

When Moses encountered God in the burning bush in the book of Exodus we are told twice that Moses looks at the book.

‘ Moses looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ Exodus 3:2-3). Firstly he looks then he goes over and looks again turning aside from his intended path. Once turned aside God then addresses him and he hears his voice and he sees God.

If we want to encounter God we need to turn aside from our path and look and then we will find we have sight to see.

However, encountering God leads to transformation. On the beach the fisherman become shepherds, on the road to Damascus the persecutor become the evangelist.

Though Peter denied the Lord and had failed, that did not stop Peter from being one of the preeminent apostles that we read about in the scriptures. In meeting Jesus crucified and risen Peter was transformed and his perspective changed. Paul – a devout Jew – encountered Jesus on the road and was transformed, his perspective changed, and his world was turned upside down.

To encounter God means to move from darkness to light to find an understanding of whom we are in Christ and who he has called us to be. And maybe at this time when there appears to be more uncertainly the need to take time and to abide is even more important.

So this Petertide let us take time to abide to look and to see and let us be open to the possibility of transformation so that we too may have the faithfulness and courage of Peter and Paul to follow Christ and to love his sheep.

Amen

 

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#thankanurse

 The core of the sermon given at The Royal C0llege of Nursing South West Service to celebrate 100 years of the Royal College of Nursing on Nurses Day 12th May 2016

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I have followed with interest and pleasure the tweeter campaign which has been running for the Royal College of nursing over the last few months #thankanurse. Wonderful stories captured in under 140 characters.

I am a great supporter of nurses, having seen some of the best care imaginable across the country– and I still believe that the extra ordinary difference is often made through the most ordinary – hands held, words of comfort, someone to listen, someone to just sit with you: and technically excellent but compassionate care – that is at the heart of nursing. For me the art of nursing is in the application of the science.

And behind every nurse there are many supporters, husbands, wives, partners, mums and dads, children, friends and for the last 100 years the Royal College of Nursing. The Royal College of Nursing was formed at a time when women couldn’t even vote and since then has supported nurses to provide competent and compassionate excellent care; they have represented the interests of nurses and sought to influence government and bodies across the UK to improve the quality of patient care. I know as a nurse, director of nursing and the government’s Chief Nursing Officer for England that health care and patients benefit from a strong Royal College.

In Mark’s gospel (2:1-12) we have five men. Four of them being stretcher bearers and the firth being the paralysed man taken to Jesus for healing; The man on the stretcher could not have got to Jesus on his own and the friends took him with no idea that Jesus was going to make any difference to him and this wasn’t an easy task. They had to carry him along what was probable a dusty uneven road, and when they got there the crowds meant they could not enter by the door so they then had to carry him up onto the roof, then cut a hole in the roof and then lower him down. A man’s friends help lower him through a Palestinian house roof made of sticks and clay, laid across larger logs. Unsaid is what chaos this must have caused below as stubble and sticks begin falling on those gathered around Jesus. Suddenly, the man was lowered on his mat finds himself before Jesus, who surprised by such confidence on the part of his friends, saw their faith – he saw their faith and the story ends with the man being healed and leaving.

The man found himself in Jesus’ presence because of his four friends; they took him there not because they were going to gain and they took him there not knowing the outcome but because of their compassion for him.

There is a sense to which the Royal College of Nursing are modern day stretcher bearers. They enable patients and people to find access to technically efficient but compassionate care. Nurses and nursing are stronger and patients have benefited from their contribution over the last 100 years.

And yes just like the stretcher bearers the path is not always easy, hard work, frustration and persistence are characteristics that are required along with passion and compassion.

Having moved from healthcare into the church people often comment my life must be so different but central to all I have done and still do is a passion for people and wholeness and compassion. You can take the nurse out of nursing but never the nursing out of the nurse.

As we look back over the last 100 years much has changed and in celebrating we should also learn and look forward. I know that there are many pressures on nurses today and I hope that the RCN will continue to have a strong voice and above all champion not just technically efficient care but also compassionate care so that nurses have time to hold people’s hands, listen, and sit – the ordinary that make the extra ordinary difference.

It has been a privilege to continue to support the NHS as a non-executive director for the last 15 years and now as a member of council at Kings College London University and vice president of hospice care in Exeter. And like many nurses I carry with me all those patients and colleagues who I have worked with over the years and I am grateful for the support and contribution of the Royal College of Nursing.

So as we remember with thanks giving the stretcher bearers that have brought others into the presence of those who heal and we remember those whose lives have been transformed by nurses and we pray for them in the future.

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Good fences make good neighbours

Today I joined villagers from Sandford for a Rogation service. From the outset of Christianity in our country Christians have asked for God’s blessing to protect their crops. We get the word rogation from the Latin ‘Rogare’ – meaning to ask. As with much in the Christian tradition the custom of invoking a blessing on crops has its origin in pagan, pre-Christian, practice. The rogation days that follow fall just before the Ascension and relate to the text from the Epistle to the Ephesians which runs:

Grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift so it is said: When He ascended on high he led a host of captives and give gifts to mankind.”

Rogation Sunday marks that time of year when traditionally the priest, in his robes, accompanied by all the villagers, went around the boundaries of the parish. If the boundary ran along the middle of a river, then the vicar would be put in a boat and would row along it. Then, at various points, boys would be beaten, ‘so that they would well remember the bounds of the parish within which they dwell.’ So it became known as ‘beating the bounds’. I am glad for lots of reason we do not do it that way today! Instead we gathered with rain in the air at Aller Barton Farm making our way to Cross Barton Farm and praying on the way.

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And although we did not walk the 25 miles around the parish boundary we were conscious of our boundaries. Boundaries can be important and they can be both positive and negative.

You may recall the wall Donald Trump would like to build between Mexico and USA, at the beginning of the year I was sitting beside the wall which surrounds Bethlehem, boundaries take on a new meaning when people fear their land so much that they put their children on the sea. For some they protect but for others they exclude.

Some boundaries can help make us think that we are better than other people and they enable us to mistreat them and deny them what we want for ourselves.

But boundaries can be good. In a poem by the 20th century American Robert Frost, the poet’s neighbour asserts that “good fences make good neighbours.” Boundaries are often very important in relationships.

We all need to have the safety of boundaries and the reassurance that they give. They can be useful when lines of responsibility are drawn. Some boundaries are good and help us to order our society and farmers know the need for boundaries.

In Psalm 139 there is this wonderful image of God hemming us in, behind and before not in a restrictive way but in a way that gives us safety and reassurance and it reminds us of God’s provision to us celebrated in creation and his care for us. The psalmist goes onto to say that there is no where we can go from God’s presence.

So standing in the beautiful Devon countryside we gave thanks to God for his care and love and asked his blessing upon our crops and livestock.  We also remembered those  who struggle in our farming communities, finically or with their mental health or with loneliness  and we recalled that the psalmist in Psalm 139 goes onto to say:

“Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night, even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day.”

So we marked the bounds of God’s love and blessings, we celebrated God’s provision to us, gave thanks for those who work with his creation and prayed for those who struggle and that we may have boundaries which are good and not exclude.

 

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