Saturday, 24 September 2011

Second Thoughts

GospelMatthew 21:28-32 

Jesus said to the chief priests and elders of the people, ‘What is your opinion? A man had two sons. He went and said to the first, “My boy, you go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not go,” but afterwards thought better of it and went. The man then went and said the same thing to the second who answered, “Certainly, sir,” but did not go. Which of the two did the father’s will?’ ‘The first’ they said. Jesus said to them, ‘I tell you solemnly, tax collectors and prostitutes are making their way into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you, a pattern of true righteousness, but you did not believe him, and yet the tax collectors and prostitutes did. Even after seeing that, you refused to think better of it and believe in him.

Matthew certainly has it in for the church-goers. His bitterness expressed through the tax collectors and prostitutes that were occupying the seats of honour before the priests and elders. The fact that at the time they were expelling the followers of Jesus from the Temple may well have had something to do with it; do you think?

But if Jesus was gathering his followers from the prostitutes and tax collectors of the city then surely, after his death, they have got no nearer the Temple courtyards - they are as excluded as they have ever been - the priests meant Jesus' message to be squashed by his crucifixion - the undesireable as undesireable as ever.

Matthew is talking about about a whole two tier set of Christians; those that believed in the Good News but were still acceptable in  polite company and those that believed and were never and would never be allowed anywhere near polite company.The thought the Temple would ever accept them showing a very human desire to be accepted. At some point the break was bound to happen. The Good News falls differently on ears that believe they have the answer than on ears that have nothing but questions. But how hard to admit that we are the use-less rather than the use-ful ones.  Yet God loves the use-less ones; the ones who are not filled with their own strategies for life are more likely to have time for God's.

It seems easier, more worldly,  to become 'yes' people - people pleasers - measuring ourselves by the approval of others. And then, believing that the 'yes' is good enough, feeling justified by our projected image of obedience.

Obedience is not about what we say but what, or who, we listen to. We can react with a barely considered and bound to fail 'yes' or we can use the 'no' that says I'm not worthy until the Spirit reminds us us that 'worthy' is not the measure of a Christian, All Jesus wants to know is 'Do you believe in Love? Do you desire God's Love? Then Love.' Whoever we are.


Saturday, 17 September 2011

Kingdom Moments

GospelMatthew 20:1-16 

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner going out at daybreak to hire workers for his vineyard. He made an agreement with the workers for one denarius a day, and sent them to his vineyard. Going out at about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the market place and said to them, “You go to my vineyard too and I will give you a fair wage.” So they went. At about the sixth hour and again at about the ninth hour, he went out and did the same. Then at about the eleventh hour he went out and found more men standing round, and he said to them, “Why have you been standing here idle all day?” “Because no one has hired us” they answered. He said to them, “You go into my vineyard too.” In the evening, the owner of the vineyard said to his bailiff, “Call the workers and pay them their wages, starting with the last arrivals and ending with the first.” So those who were hired at about the eleventh hour came forward and received one denarius each. When the first came, they expected to get more, but they too received one denarius each. They took it, but grumbled at the landowner. “The men who came last” they said “have done only one hour, and you have treated them the same as us, though we have done a heavy day’s work in all the heat.” He answered one of them and said, “My friend, I am not being unjust to you; did we not agree on one denarius? Take your earnings and go. I choose to pay the last comer as much as I pay you. Have I no right to do what I like with my own? Why be envious because I am generous?” Thus the last will be first, and the first, last.’

This is a difficult reading. Particularly difficult when we feel that we are part of the group who have been toiling all day or even able to admit that, maybe, it was just part of the day. But we never like to think of ourselves as those that turned up for the last hour.

It is a strange truth that the parts of the Gospel that deal with this type of reckless and unreasonable forgiveness seem to bother us the most. Certainly form the basis for a heated debate and much shaking of heads; wondering why we bother.

But if this is the question - then maybe, and I ask myself this, maybe we have not even earned an hour's pay in God's vineyard.

Maybe we were hired at the very beginning but have spent the day sitting in the shadows of the protective wall watching everyone else do the work; carrying the lighter basket; taking the extra cup of water - thinking that just being there was good enough.  And then probably having the nerve to be at the frontline in the criticism ; after all - we were there. Hired and accepted - payment promised - with a handshake to seal the deal.

But is that enough?

Last time this Gospel came around I thought about the 'Last hour' people as people who were lost; and unwanted; like the beggars you often see on city streets; looking for work but who would ever hire them?

People who find themselves abandoned by society  or living without hope often come to a point where they only have God to turn to and only then when every other avenue has been tried and lost.

The redeeming message is that, for such people, when you give up all that you have, wholeheartedly to God then all that has gone before is redeemed.  And for many their future lives are filled with the paradox of knowing themselves loved in God's eyes whilst continuing to be judged on past events by the world.

Last week's Gospel told us that this is wrong, We are meant to offer the forgiveness that the world is incapable of.

 It seems we, I , am unable to stop judging people either for good or for ill. But in seeking out the opportunity for forgiveness we should be able to see better with Kingdom eyes.

Time has been been on my mind lately. Thinking about this and the difficulty with reconciling the 'Last hour' to a days worth of labour I was reminded of something which did give me a new viewpoint.

I was involved in a project that delivered creative art workshops for people with social issues across my area. Adults sometimes but mostly schools. Schools, generally, are very keen to get value for money and I would often find myself working with multiple classes throughout the day - I think 140 students in a day was my record.

To even hope to provide a 'creative experience' for this number of students was a logistical challenge that, for me,  often weighed heavy on my own creativity and made me question what benefit that 40/60 minutes could make to a person living with many other difficult life challenges.

To be truthful the workshops were always enjoyable but on occasions there would be a special moment - it could be as simple as the first time someone wrote their name; used a sewing needle or made it through a lesson without a panic attack. Moments that would be celebrated by students and teachers.

Out of thousands of hours they are moments that are precious. And that continues now with the hours of my life and the hundreds of people that I encounter - there are always Kingdom moments that are simply 'right'. Moments when I am no longer 'idle'.

Moments that, given the choice, I would say to God - 'Never mind what has gone before - if you are going to judge my worth, Lord, judge me on that.'


Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Sacred Space - Celtic Chapel

My parish church.

 Something of a landmark, it's pyramid structure exhibits the imaginative design of churches built on the cusp of Vatican II. The church won an architectural merit award in 1965 and remains a listed building; occasioning the odd knock on the presbytery door and a group of architecture aficionados asking for a look around.

The church itself is a wonderful space - managing to be theatrically expansive and intimate as required. A lot is achieved in the lighting.  We do hold many services by candlelight and appreciate the shadows and warmth reflected in the wooden panelling of the roof. The architect, with a sincere respect for the symbolism of church architecture, followed the traditions of space and form to create a contemporary place of worship suitable for large congregations (it holds 700+) and smaller services. But sometimes we have very small groups and individuals seeking a quiet space of their own.

In a side porch we have created the Celtic Chapel in acknowledgement of the first Christians that would have worshipped in this area - actually just up the road but more of that another time. The area was home to monks who would have come on mission from the North East, particularly the Holy Island of Lindisfarne - ditto another time.

I have had the opportunity to stay on Holy Island and in one of the retreat houses there is a chapel in the basement. One of the island churches has a tiny prayer space in a boiler house. Any space, it seems, can be sacred.

A wonderful carving of the Celtic Cross, showing the intricate weaving of the eternal journey of life, death and rebirth is the focus of prayer. There are fabric prints of celtic design and an offering of Creation's own artwork in the shells, stones and seedpods around the base of the cross.

The seating arrangements are an ad hoc collection of donated and found chairs and cushions and, together with the 'end of roll' fabric bargains disguising the doors, a space is created that is warm and intimate and totally different to the main church space.

A carving of the 'Green Christ' by a local artist and parishioner guards the entrance. Within this intricate carving of a joyous Christ there are butterflies and ladybirds, oak and elm leaves - the promise of the resurrection witnessed each year in Spring and at Easter.

Here we have meditation every week for a small group which, every couple of weeks, becomes a meeting for a support group.
Here, we start the classes for Confirmation and Holy Communion as a way of making space between the busy world and God's house.
Here, people come to read, talk, to listen and to not talk at all.
Here, we have Celtic morning prayer before the weekday Masses to begin the day asking for blessings for ourselves and each other.

It has only been in place about three years now but it has been a Godsend as much as a Godspace. It is a refuge; a place of holding and a place of letting go.

Sitting in the chapel silence descends as the breath stills. Then the world becomes loud as all the background sounds make their presence known, traffic, police sirens, the crack of the beams in the church, the hum of the motorway. Turning inwards these sounds are left to drift and it is the sound of the heart that fills the ears; a little longer and even this fades. The silence becomes thick and palpable. When I have been in Greece and Portugal I love to swim out a couple of hundred yards from the beach and 'hang' in the water. It used to drive my son frantic but it is the nearest to a natural silence that I have ever come - my own isolation tank surrounded by creation.

I get that same feeling in the chapel; time doesn't stand still so much as ceases to matter.

And then....


Thursday, 8 September 2011

Sacred Spaces - St Patrick's Well

I live on the Wirral, or in the Wirral or in Wirral depending upon your sense of geography. It's a small peninsular in the North West of England about 10 miles by seven; the River Dee separates us from the Roman city of Chester and the hills of North Wales; the River Mersey from the city of Liverpool and motorways Northwards. 

Out to the West, Liverpool Bay leads into the Irish Sea and across to Ireland herself. Theoretically, I am told, it's almost an island as two ship canals come to a point where you can step from one to the other but the transport links of motorways and trains seem to defy that particular definition.
Across to the Welsh Hills

The Wirral is still mostly suburban or countryside, originally part of a hunting forest that was planted in the 12th Century. It has been home to Roman, Saxon, Viking and Norman settlers. Pre-Roman it was home to a Celtic tribe called the Cornovii and there is evidence of Christian Celts from the the 5th and 6th Century in the round celtic churchyards in some of the local villages. From around 1200AD, Benedictine houses provided hospitals, supported a leper colony and provided a cross river ferry to and from Liverpool.

Like most locals I have been guilty of taking all of this for granted. I love living where I live but had made limited connections between my own spirituality and that that surrounds me preferring to go further afield to find sacred space until this summer when the opportunity simply wasn't there.

Thank to the nature of the landscape - the name Wirral comes from 'Wirheal' meaning bog-myrtle and suggests that the area was unsuitable for faming or building -  the later creation of the hunting forest (being good for nothing else) and the fact that the Wirral has been (and still is in part) controlled by a few wealthy landowners - much of the countryside is unspoilt and protected as nature reserves .

St Patrick's Well isn't my nearest space but the one I would probably have never visited if I hadn't made the commitment to 'look at the ground beneath my feet'.

Part of the nature reserve - known as the 'Wirral Way' - travels through Bromborough, about five miles from my home.

Bromborough is one of the possible sites of an epic battle in 937, the Battle of Brunanburh, This is the first battle where England came together as one country, to fight the combined forces of the Norsemen and the Scots, and historians consider it the birthplace of England; this area is known as Dibbinsdale being centred around the River Dibbin. It's a mixture of meadow, riverside wetland and retains some of the ancient woodland of the 12th Century forest.

A breath of water and woodland surrounded by busy rush hour traffic; industrial units and a shopping outlet; I have driven past hundreds of times always on my way to 'somewhere else'.
This summer I turned into the sandstone lined lane; came to a halt in the tree encircled car park and took a look at the reserve map with the philosophical comment 'you are here'.

And on one of the many woodland walks there was a label and a small detour over a wooden bridge to a spot marked 'St Patrick's Well'.

St Patrick is reputed to have blessed this well, a scarce source of fresh water at the time, before his mission to Ireland in 432. Tradition or otherwise - this little corner has kept the title ever since.


Water has always been a sacred place in pagan and celtic spirituality. It would make perfect sense as the celts moved from pagan to Christian belief to have their source of water blessed by a man who embodied the strengths of the Druids and the Christian faith. You would wonder why it wasn't more famous; why, indeed, it didn't have it's own pilgrimage trail.

On seeing the sign I was a little hesitant to go further; what if it was neglected; vandalised; graffittied? What if it was a dreadful disappointment? What if it wasn't even there?

But it was; the walk lead downhill into a sandstone gorge. I found myself following a path below the surface of the modern road - beside the path the runoff from the rain mingled with the cascades of a brook that widened into small river.  An arrowed sign that seemed to lead nowhere and there it was - a small squared-off entrance with markers of ancient masonery held in the grip of the deep roots of a beech tree. The water clear and bright above the debris of nature's leavings - seed pods, twigs, leaves and crab apples.

A certain neglectful elegance; a stillness; a sense of presence that was both spiritual and remarkably mundane.

There was nowhere to sit apart from the floor and the weather wasn't kind - leaning against the rocky outcrop the sound of the traffic above faded into a quiet humm. Any sense of moving on disappeared; stillness descended.

As dogwalkers and bmx bikers passed by there was a sense of timelines crossing; boundaries being pulled down. Sixteen hundred years plus of people coming to the Well; a place of life, of faith, of hope. And here I am today seeking the same refreshment of life.

Even if Patrick hadn't been here although there was a plain-ness and a practicality that would have certainly suited his spirituality - this place, this water was valued; was important; was sacred in a discrete way; sacred enough to remain inviolate. Somewhat returned to Creation; but why not? Why not?

God in the Everyday; the Everywhere - in a walk through woodland or sitting in a ancient church. Holy men and women have come before us whether or not we know their names - we are all part of a greater realm - we just have to take the time to step out of the normal way of things now and again.

This visit came at the end of the summer but brought a good lesson - the history I told you about at the beginning is as rich and as varied as any country; any part of this country. Perhaps we should first know where we come from?

As Mary Oliver says:

"Instructions for living a life.

Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it."

wordinthehand 2011