Spending a week on a canal boat is a choice to go slow. Not that it is easy –the locks are hard work –especially when there are twenty three in a row. But travelling this way, you can’t expect to get to where you are going with great speed. I suspect this is more the way of the church than we would like –hard work at times, and slow moving. Unexpected friends are made and people enter to help for a season. And as we keep moving, a rhythm develops and a beauty is discovered, that is so often missed in the fast lane. Each evening we have enjoyed sharing the discipline of Compline –a monastic form of evening prayer. Taking time to sit with beauty is a blessing, but it is also a discipline. It teaches us gratitude and space to listen and to be. The challenge of course is to find this way of being beyond the canal –in the midst of ordinary everyday life.
Last Sunday morning we attended worship at Holy Trinity, Stratford upon Avon –the place where William Shakespeare was buried along with other members of his family. It is a beautiful and very old space with small chapels to the sides as it is built in the shape of the cross. On arrival we discovered that this was a special service led by the bishop to celebrate 100 years of the Coventry diocese and the relationship they have with the Willows church school which is part of the community of the Cross of Nails –based in the original cross of nails made from roof nails found in the bombed Coventry cathedral in 1940 and seen as their call for seeking reconciliation. School children paraded a replica cross into the service and people shared how it was being carried around the various church schools of Coventry.
My favourite bit however was actually entering the church –for the large doors were closed and the entry was through a door within a door –a door with a very low lintel. So to enter church you had to bend down and lower your head. Here was this physical invitation to come humbly to worship.
At the conclusion of the service, I had planned to take a photo of the door as we left –however –to my surprise- the larger doors were swung open wide. No need to bend down now –forgiven and restored, we can leave with our heads held high –out into the community.
Postscript: When I told Reuben what I was writing, he quickly said “I didn’t have to bend down” And I realised yet again, the warm invitation of Jesus to children that requires nothing –and perhaps even calls us all to come as children...
Our second retreat at Nether Springs was on Celtic Spirituality –the life of Cuthbert in particular. We discovered some of the stories of his life and death –and after his death... and we had a day trip to the holy island of Lindisfarne where he spent much of his life. Although I struggled with identifying him as my saint... I did discover a richness in the way his life pointed to the life of Jesus. Various stories stood out for me and near the end of our time together we were given time to reflect –the result of which for me was the following poem –it is photographed as the drawing of the experience was as much part of the reflection as the words. Perhaps on my return you can ask me to explain it further in terms of the stories of Cuthbert’s life.
Our first retreat at Nether Springs was called Hospitality, heart and home. In the centre of our gathering, sat a small pottery figure of a person sitting holding a pearl. It reminded me of one of Reuben’s favourite parables... the pearl of great price. And as I had time to reflect on hospitality, it became for me, more and more, like a pearl of great value. Pearls are becoming a bit of a feature for me this year –some say thirty years of marriage is a pearl anniversary... and that is us this year. As I reflect on what is of most value in my life I realise more and more it is about relationships and about love. Hospitality is at the heart of both –it is the way we open ourselves and what we have to others and to God. I give and receive that hospitality –that opening of self to the other - in our marriage, and I also give and receive it within many other relationships –with people and with God. Hospitality says we have time and energy available for you. If we get too busy, we can run out of the space we need for true hospitality. Jesus understood the importance of both giving and receiving hospitality –he is our generous host –most apparent at the communion table, and yet we also invite him into our lives as an act of our hospitality toward God. I look forward to further unpacking these concepts of hospitality on my return.
Out near the vegetable garden on the seaward side of Nether Springs is an overgrown labyrinth –made up of mainly buttercups with a motley range of other weeds thrown in. It was once a beautifully kept labyrinth, but by the time we came upon it, it was rather ragged.
However, Reuben was very keen to do it, especially in the evening when the bees no longer buzzed... so off we headed. As we made our way slowly through the growth, I was reminded of the way labyrinths tend to trick you –just when you think you are coming close to the centre –almost touching the heart of God, you find yourself back at the outer rim.
Our lives with God can be like that –just when we think we have it sorted we find ourselves from the heart of God. At Nether Springs a common quote is “When you lie on the breast of Jesus, you feel the heartbeat of God.” So when we find ourselves out on the edge, perhaps it is time to rest on the breast of Jesus.
In the last few weeks we have been in a few American airports –Houston, Washington DC, Orlando and Miami... no plane trip was on time and I have had a “pat down” every trip... but each place would announce its welcome to that place. I seemed to feel more unwelcome each time –not knowing the rules –getting caught out with my fitbit or a bracelet that would set of the dreaded beep. Shoes off, food out, empty your pockets... all assumed rituals of this welcome.
And it got me thinking about the way we welcome people at church –do our actions live up to our signs? What assumptions do we keep making –assumptions that people will already know how they are to behave, where they should go, what they must show of themselves. Information shared with kindness can be so empowering when you are unsure. A lack of knowing what is expected can make us feel vulnerable –certainly not welcome. God asks us to be welcoming to the stranger –so perhaps stepping back from the familiar is useful from time to time, to remember what new people might feel more welcome if they had been kindly told.
We all know that American politics is currently in quite a state, but what I didn’t really comprehend was the deep pain of so many church leaders as they deal with the church’s relationship with politics. As we gathered with about 1700 preachers –mainly from around America –in venues thick with the imprint of voices like Martin Luther King Jr –there was no doubting the call to speak for the voiceless as Jesus would do and to challenge the politics that undermine his theology.
Just before the conference, evangelical leaders from around the US had gathered to seek a unified voice –many leaders who were at the conference, others who were in Washington for this event –like Walter Brueggemann, Cynthia Hale, Richard Rohr, William Willimon –and other names newly familiar, like bishop Curry who preached at the recent royal wedding, and old familiar names like Tony Campolo, Ron Sider and Jim Wallis. A large group of key church leaders voicing their rejection of the Christian faith being co-opted by partisan politics and calling churches to pray, study, reflect and act. “The church’s role is to change the world through the life and love of Jesus Christ. The government’s role is to serve the common good by protecting justice and peace. When that role is undermined by political leadership, faith leaders must stand up and speak out,”
The declaration addressed six of the most pressing dangers to the Christian faith: the rise of racism and white nationalism, the mistreatment and abuse of women, the treatment of the poor and vulnerable including immigrants and refugees; the pervasive lying in political and civil life that has become normal, the virtual threats to democracy from growing autocratic behaviour, and the xenophobic heresies of “America first.” It sought to return to our primary identity in Christ: and cast other false racial, ethnic, cultural, and national identities aside, calling Christians to be followers of Jesus before anything else.
And so Richard and I joined the throng to process through the streets of Washington DC in candle light to the White House, where the declaration was read aloud and we all sang This little light of mine, each holding our small candles. It was a powerful moment as we reclaimed the power of confessing our faith –Jesus is Lord, the light in our darkness. This is a city full of people making political stands, probably mostly ignored, but at least for each one of the thousands gathered there- the church was remembering to be the church.
The first venue for the Festival of Homiletics was the Washington DC Cathedral –and after completing our registration, we tagged along on a tour that had already begun. After the spacious beauty of the main worship space we went past another side chapel to what they called the “Children’s Chapel”. In this delightful space, past a statue of a welcoming child, through the wrought iron gates that had many hidden creatures formed within, were small chairs with cushions stitched with animals, stain glass windows showing Bible stories involving children, even a child sized organ... all speaking an enthusiastic welcome to children. Just as Jesus welcomed children, so did the architecture and furniture of this space. As I sat and enjoyed it, and imagined children gathering within it, I was also aware of the many spaces that are not so inviting for children. Aware of the way we can create spaces for children because actually we don’t want them in other sacred areas. Jesus welcomed the children into a place where the disciples thought they didn’t belong. Our challenge is to make welcoming space for children, in our architecture –but also in our hearts and behaviour.
We are already into May and it seems like the year is racing by... my upcoming study leave that once felt like a world away is getting incredibly close -Richard and I fly out on Sunday afternoon, 20 May. Our first five days will be spent at a "Preaching and Politics" conference (Festival of Homiletics) in Washington DC. Rebekah and Reuben then fly over to meet us and see that amazing city before we head to Orlando for a holiday gifted to us by a generous couple in the parish. Rebekah heads back to NZ and we then take Reuben on to the UK. We head to Nether Springs, Northumbria Community for two retreats, entitled "Heart, home and hospitality" and "Celtic Spirituality: St Cuthbert". Next we drive down to Stratford upon Avon for a week where Richard will visit some jails around Birmingham and I will be researching From The Rich Young Ruler and Nicodemus to Kohimarama: Reaching the Rich with the Gospel. The church currently seems to be “better” at offering the gospel to the poor –having an impact amongst the wealthy is a difficult task and a significant part of our parish’s reality. I want to do some reading and explore what creative ways might be possible in this area. Then Amelia and Mum join us and we board a canal boat at Rugby for a week -more time to read and think in a beautiful setting... A couple of days in London, a few in Paris, an overnight in Hong Kong and we arrive back in NZ on 14 July. While I am away our intern Grant Ridout will be taking responsibility -with the full support of Parish Council and Rev Brett Johnstone in the background. I will blog on this site while I am away so if interested, keep checking back here to catch up on what I am doing and learning. In the meantime, before I leave, if you are wanting to catch up, please let me know sooner rather than later so I can meet with you as well as ensuring I get my to do list done before I get on that plane!