From Candlemas to Valentine’s Day

Did you know that as many faculties decrease with age, wisdom is thought to continue to grow?  It increases throughout your life, and I would argue that growth in wisdom can only be achieved through love.  Last week the church celebrated the presentation of Christ at the Temple, and in the gospel story from Luke 2, we meet Simeon and Anna.  Simeon tells us that Jesus will be the light to lighten the nations.  And so, the church traditionally blessed the candles that are to be used for the year, and it became known as Candlemas.

In all that Simeon says about who Jesus is, one thing sticks out for me: the words to Mary: “and a sword will pierce your soul.” Imagine those words being spoken to you as you go in joy to present your five week old baby in the Temple.  We don’t have a Gospel of Mary, so we don’t know, but if I was Mary, I would have taken in that my child would be the light to lighten the nations, that my child would save the people of Israel, but I would have left with one thought: tell me more about this sword that is going to pierce my soul (But I am much more self-involved than Mary).

Yet, fear for ourselves, the world our children is entirely natural. We are wired to look out for danger and threat.  That’s why when we have an appraisal at work we ignore the hundred positive things that were said and hang on the one negative.  It is in our make up to be aware of threat, and so we hang on to negative thoughts. I believe that in neuro-science if you ask someone to have a positive thought and record how long that lasts, it is only a few seconds.  However, negative thoughts hang on like Velcro. We have to make a concerted effort to focus on the positive.  That is why I think 1 Corinthians 13 is so important for our understanding of how to be a good human and a good Christian. There are faith hope and love, and the greatest of these is love.

1 Corinthians 13

 

The white board in chaplaincy house, where the last verse of 1 Corinthians 13 appeared in many languages.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We know that God is the very source of love, and Richard Rohr says, all love flows into us as open-heartedness. That’s why 1 Corinthians 13 tells us that we are nothing but noise and cleverness without love.  When we are in that flow of God’s love, then we know it, because our energy can flow out of us, and others can see it.  When we are not in that space, then energy is sucked inwards.  When we find ourselves not liking “those people”, or focussing on how we have been wronged, then we are hoarding love, rather than letting it flow through us.

Spirituality and growth in wisdom is about keeping that heart-space open.  It is daily work, because our natural inclination is to judge, dismiss and fear.  We do not become Simeon and Anna, filled with love and wonder of the Christ-child, but we become the grumpy old person (or young person) that we never wanted to be. It is easy to end up filled with fear and negativity, and it is hard work to live in love and patience and kindness.

So, as it is nearly St Valentine’s Day I leave you with an alternative pondering on love by Jean Varnier, love is not just a feeling, but “to love someone is to show them their beauty, their worth and their importance.”

Laura Rhodes – Chaplain

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LGBT History Month: Sara Miles

For LGBT History Month https://lgbthistorymonth.org.uk we are writing a weekly blog on an LGBT+ Christian.  We begin with the conversion experience of Sara Miles, the spiritual writer as her book: City of God has inspired our own practice here in chaplaincy.  In City of God she describes her experience of ‘ashing’  the people of the Mission in San Francisco, where she lives on Ash Wednesday.  Inspired by her story, we too set up a ‘mobile ashing’ on Ash Wednesday at the university.See the source image

One of the most interesting aspects of Sara Miles is her sudden conversion experience.  Sara Miles was a war journalist, and writer, working in Central America and the US. She was an atheist, raised by parents who deliberately did not expose their children to institutional religion. They felt their own parents, who had been missionaries, had given them too much religion, and they vowed not to do this to their children. As Sara grew up, she was commitment to social and humanitarian action and this became her religion.

In her book, Take this bread, she writes about the cloudy Sunday morning, aged forty-six, when she drifted into St. Gregory of Nyssa’s church in San Francisco, went up to the altar and took communion. Until that moment, she had been an atheist.  At best she was indifferent to religion. She was horrified by the acts of war she had seen in the name of God and by the treatment of LGBT people by the church.

Unbaptised, unprepared, she took her first communion and everything changed.

 ‘Eating Jesus, as I did that day to my great astonishment, led me against all my expectations, to a faith I’d scorned, and work I’d never imagined. The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic wafer after all, but actual food – indeed the bread of life. In that shocking moment of communion, filled with a deep desire to reach for and become part of a body, I realized, what I’d been doing with my life all along, was what I was meant to do: feed people. And so I did. I took communion, I passed the bread to others, and then I kept going, compelled to find new ways to share what I’d experienced.’

She found her conversion to be unexpected and terribly unlikely.  She described herself as a ‘blue-state, secular intellectual; a lesbian, a left-wing journalist with a habit of scepticism.’ Yet is finding God, she found an inclusive religion, rooted in the most ordinary, yet subversive practice: a dinner table where everyone is welcome, where the poor, the despised and the outcasts are honoured. And so she became a Christian, to the horror of her friends.

Her theology focuses on communion, she sees this as the act that locates us within a group, and from communion, comes community.   Sara was propelled into extending the communion she received in the extended communion of setting up a food pantry for those in need in 2000.

Starting the food pantry, she gave away literally tons of food around the same altar where she’d first received the body of Christ. This was her understanding of companionship – she took bread, shared it with Jesus and then shared it with all who needed it. Her book, Take this Bread, inspired many churches to set up foodbanks.

See the source image

She encountered many struggles: her family, her doubting friends, the prejudices and traditions of her newfound church. She met all sorts of people in her work, which had now extended all over the city of San Fransisco and beyond: thieves, homeless, millionaires, politicians, bishops.

At first, Sara saw a church community that was open, diverse, welcoming. It did not divide or judge people based on income gender, age, politics, or sexual identity.   However, in church culture, she encountered an obsession with rules and procedure. And when she tried to extend the food pantry from weekdays to Sunday, she hit a new wall of opposition. She tried to argue that the Sunday pantry would bring in new people and some of them might join the church and change it in exciting ways. But she found that the food pantry feeding people on more than a weekday – on a Sunday, really pushed the comfort zone of many in the church.

‘Why do we need to grow?’ a longtime member challenged her. ‘We’re just fine as we are.’ ‘Sunday is too much’, an older woman shouted at her. ‘I’ve been coming here for more than fifteen years, and Sunday is my day of rest.’Now it seemed as if the dream of open communion and community – an invitation of Jesus – who welcomed sinners and ate with them, as was inscribed on the altar, was being put aside because of inconvenience, messiness and prejudice.

Most if them made a point of praising the food pantry, but their message was clear: Feeding the hungry belonged in its place, and ‘real church’ belonged on Sundays. Sara was shocked. She believed the food pantry represented the best of St. Gregory’s practices and values: its openness, its inclusion, its invitation to take part in creating something together. A former Jesuit, who sang in the choir, took Sara aside, pointing out that she was not the first person to get excited about doing Jesus’ work and then get disappointed in his church. ‘Get over yourself’, he said, not unkindly. ‘Welcome to Christianity’.

Later, Sara had what can be called a second epiphany and conversion. She says, ‘You can’t be a Christian by yourself. You can’t be special or more holy.’ ‘I was going to have to work with people I liked at St. Gregory’s, and the ones who really irritated me.’ Quoting Rowan Williams, she said, ‘Community is a Gospel imperative that we find hard.’

Eventually, the grace of God enabled her to come to terms with her fellow but doubting members, just as they came to terms with her fervour. The strain of living the Gospel, commitment to prayer, the Eucharist, community, and care for those in need seemed to transcend the very human disagreements and frustrations she experienced.

When asked in an interview, What’s the most important thing about Christianity to you? She replied:

The gritty reality of incarnation: that God lives in bodies. And the truth that Jesus doesn’t pick and choose his dinner companions. He eats with everyone: not just with ‘good’ people, or the right kind of Christians, or the people I happen to like. Eating the body and blood of Christ, for me, implies a radical inclusivity that demands action. If you take it seriously, communion challenges everything —including most religion.                                             (Article in the San Francisco Gate, 26 February, 2007)

Connecting through sport

How do you feel about the relationship between sport and faith? Personally, I’ve always been sports mad whether it’s playing it or watching it. For others, they hold the opinion that sport is full of overpaid prima donnas who are paid for by hooligans. Throughout history, the relationship between faith and sport has been an interesting one, to say the least. In the nineteenth century a movement known as muscular Christianity played a fundamental role in making sport popular initially by creating recreational time in public schools to improve the discipline of the students. Later sport was used by churches working in poor industrial areas to get young people doing something productive rather drinking or causing problems; in essence to have activities that were more acceptable. The movement believed that the positive influence of sport could be transferred to other areas of life. Interestingly it was the liberal wing of the church that grasped this rather than the Conservatives. However, by 1930 Christian attitudes changed as sport became more commercialised. Gambling and professionalism meant that ‘stars’ emerged and the innocence of sport was changed.

james blog sport wc

So should Christians involve themselves in something that is so focused on results and where the winner takes it all? Christ’s example was to go to all people, including those involved in sport especially those at the grassroots as well as the elite.

Community called sport

james blog rugby wc

According to Sports Chaplaincy UK, the community called sport is around 25 million people –  just below half of the population. In Higher Education, Sport England (2016/17) reports that 55% of University students participate in sport at least once a week, which would indicate a million students participate in at least 30 minutes of sporting activity each week of the 2.32 million students studying in 2016/17. At the beginning of this new year, what an opportunity for all Christians involved in universities to have some involvement to support, to care for and connect with this community and my own story below shows how it can be done.

My Chaplaincy Story

james blog football wc

When I started working in University Chaplaincy I was given a brief to connect with students to help build community. After two years of trying to connect by doing different events in the Chaplaincy with limited engagement with students, I started having conversations with key people, namely the Students Union. I realised that the majority of students engaged with sport regularly. After much thought, I decided to start providing oranges and water to the sports teams on Wednesday afternoons. The relationship took time to develop and has meant that Chaplaincy is building community and being pastorally and spiritually with those who probably would not have had any connection with Christianity otherwise. The feedback that we’ve received from those sports students is that they were pleasantly surprised that the chaplaincy would serve in this way, this has made chaplaincy more accessible, and shown it is not just for religious people. As we are called to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world, sport is a great way to connect with the University community and you don’t have to be good at sport, you just have the heart to serve people.

James Wallace

james blog wolfie wc

 

Lectio

In my early twenties I expressed my difficulty with finding a pattern of daily prayer. A young Catholic priest casually said, “Do you have a reading sheet at church with the readings for the week? Take It home and just read that every day with a bit of quiet at the end. It’s called Lectio Divina.” So I forgot the name, but I did that and I found it an easy way to pray. I also found it calming and re-orientating. It allowed me to look at scripture anew and let it speak to me in ways I didn’t expect. Bad relationship with food and dieting? Try reading Matthew 6.25,  ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?’

I started doing Lectio ‘properly’ in my late twenties when my life took a turn for the worse. I read a book or two and started using the daily prayer structure from a Carmelite website: http://www.ocarm.org/en/lectio-divina. This takes you through a daily reading with an opening prayer, meditation questions and time for silence. You can make it last more or less time, but I used to take about twenty minutes. I did this at my kitchen table, with my eye shut, accompanied by the sound of the Peppa Pig theme tune, because I knew those two or three episodes on morning TV were the only chance I got in the day for this quiet. Dum de de dum dum de de de de dum dum: my call to prayer.

I got off the phone one day after a particularly difficult conversation and said to my husband: I think anyone else would have fallen apart with all this going on, it’s like I’ve been coated in titanium. So that was my experience with Lectio – no less mess, or tragedy in life, but God coating me in titanium. Through the daily reflection, the daily commune with scripture and God I was able to endure and grow and overcome.

If you want to know more about Lectio divina, you can look here:

https://www.ocarm.org/en/content/lectio/what-lectio-divina

http://lectio-divina.org/

Or you can pick a reading, start somewhere you find easier: the Sermon on the Mount, a parable, a favourite Epistle, the weekly church reading sheet. Then read it, notice a word or two that stands out, read it again, and leave some silence. Listen and wait. I promise you, it could change your life.

Laura Rhodes

 

 

Epiphany Moments

See the source imageThese days, I’m not one for exercise, but I do remember once on New Year’s Day, coming back from a run, where I bumped into a couple of friends, hungover and smoking at the gates where I lived. They were shocked at my energetic behaviour and questioned what I could possibly do for a New Year’s resolution if I had already done a run on New Year’s Day? Now friends, I don’t want to sound too worthy, I am so far away from the fit young thing I was then. But these words stuck with me. What could I do? And so I decided on an alternative New Year’s resolution and followed the words of Thomas Merton: to try to live at all times in “spontaneity, freedom and love.”  Other people did gap years. I did this.

And so began a rather strange journey. Initially I interpreted this to mean saying yes to nearly everything I was asked.  This mirrors the journey of Danny Wallace who wrote a book, Yes Man about his vow to say yes to every offer, invitation, challenge, and chance that came his way.  Read it, it’s a great story of adventure. In my case, it was strangely freeing, I was unafraid of everything, no challenge or adventure was beyond me. Just a caveat – in Thomas Merton-land living in ‘Spontaneity, freedom and love’ doesn’t mean doing whatever you feel like; acting under compulsion isn’t freedom. Freedom is acting out of love, rather than fear. Sometimes doing things that are dangerous, or risky is what freedom truly is.  This was a big departure for me.  And, I am afraid, it turned out to be too hard in the end. I could only manage six months and then I was too exhausted to carry on. But living in spontaneity, freedom and love led me down strange paths and on unexpected adventures, including the rather bizarre decision to offer myself to the church as a priest.

At New Year the Church remembers the Epiphany – the coming of the Magi. The star appears as an interruption to the life of those travellers. I wonder if this is how God appears in our lives – through interruptions and unexpected moments? The Magi might not have bothered with the star.  They might have said, “I wonder what that star is? Oh well, never mind. It’s probably has nothing to do with me.”  But they didn’t. The way we treat unplanned events in our lives matters.  Do we look with an open heart? Or do we look on with fear?Purple, Sky, Dusk, Shooting Star, Stars

Maybe we could choose a different kind of New Year’s resolution, instead of dieting or taking up exercise. We can choose to accept new things with grateful acceptance, and choose adventure when it comes calling, because through our fearless journeying, we find God.

L Rhodes

 

There’s a Lot of Light out There

Last week I learnt two interesting facts. The first fact I learnt is that the unaided human eye can see the light of a single candle at a distance of a mile and a half.

The second fact I learnt from a paper published recently by some astronomers. Light comes in tiny packets of light called photons. Light is actually quite lumpy. And these astronomers have counted how many photons there are in the universe. The answer is that the number of lumps of light around us is 4×10⁸⁴. That’s a 4 followed by 84 noughts. That’s quite a few photons. There’s a lot of light in the universe. You can take that statement as metaphorically as you like. In fact, please take it metaphorically. There’s a tremendous amount of light all around us.

Carol service 2018

We advertised the Carol Service under the title ‘Follow the Star’, which is the title of material the Church of England has produced for this Christmas. The second reading from Isaiah, about all “the stars of heaven”, another reading was about the great light seen by those in darkness. We heard about the star which led the Wise Men, then that last reading was about the unovercomeable light which is for everyone. There’s a lot of light in the Christmas story.

And that fits with the way light turns up in our sayings and clichés. Someone’s face lights up at good news. We understand something for the first time and truth dawns on us. The first awareness of hope in the distant future is light at the end of the tunnel (although that could always be an oncoming train) … but no! Light sums up everything that’s good and positive and wholesome and hopeful and revealing and encouraging. And way after the Christmas stories people started talking of Jesus as the Light of the World, an example of what light and life and love look like in a human life.

Light Christmas 2018

So when things seem dark, in those times when it feels there’s a darkness inside us, or when we despair at what’s happening around us and it looks dark outside, remember to look for a glimmer of hope. Even if it’s hope as small as a single candle, you can still see it a mile and a half away. And if you need some help to begin to see even that, take a piece of paper. Write the number 4 followed by 84 noughts. And remember that that’s the number of photons in the world. Around us is a tremendous amount of light … and hope and encouragement and love and understanding. Remember that as a thought for this Christmas.

Light photons

P Jenner

 

 

John the Baptist, will you leave me alone?

Have you ever gone somewhere by accident? Have you ever walked or driven to a place because you were on autopilot?Sinai, Desert, Egypt, Travel, Sinai It is much harder to take a risk and get lost, to explore the wilderness like John the Baptist did. There are all sorts of wildernesses. Some people wander into a wilderness without trying: a bereavement, a difficult childhood, a personality that others find hard to deal with, an addiction. John the Baptist chose the wilderness. It gives a different
perspective, it takes us off well-worn, easy paths.

It’s been a busy couple of weeks in what are becoming well-worn paths of Christmas services.  There are different models of how religious people engage with the world around them. One model is ‘world-rejecting’. An example of this would be where Christians reject all the merriment in Advent – shout and bemoan the rest of society for selling out at Christmas. Or the chaplain doing an annual rant about commercialism at Christmas.  At the opposite end of the scale there is world-embracing model. The example always given for world-embracing is University carol services. Universities break up well before Christmas and come back after Epiphany. So do you miss out Christmas, do a faithful Advent of quietness and waiting and return in the new year, like Christmas never happened? Well, no. You bring Christmas forward and do the celebrations before everyone goes home. So you embrace the world in which you live and make some compromises about keeping Advent.Tea Lights, Candles, Candlelight, Faith

So in the chaplaincy, we tried to be clever and held a Celtic Advent – Celtic Advent lasts 40 days. So we did the Advent service on the 21st November, and started the festivities of Christmas on 5th December with a Christingle.

 

Amid the Christmas excitement of carol service readers dropping out and ordering bottles of sherry, in walked  story after story of Advent.  People waiting: waiting to find out if they have a job next term or not. Another finding she has lost her job, and waiting to see what the future holds.  People being judged: those who can’t find jobs, those who have family, but they are not welcome there this Christmas.  People who are suspended: suspended between childhood and adulthood, between their last career and their next, between home and ‘”uni home”. Real people, real lives, real Advent.  People who live in all sorts of wildernesses.

I love that John the Baptist in his camel hair coat and diet of locusts is our voice in Advent, our voice to prepare for Christmas. It forces us to look beyond ourselves. John has words for those who have power – power to extort money from others: tax collectors and soldiers. Those who want to take part in the fun of the Baptism, but don’t really want to change.  He has strong words for them, he calls them ‘a brood of vipers.’   John the Baptist and his message keeps appearing this Advent. There it was in a conversation with a newly homeless woman in Chester, again it appeared walking through the doors of chaplaincy house, through emails and phone calls from people on their own this Christmas.

I found myself thinking: John the Baptist, can you stop turning up? I’m trying to get organised for Christmas. So I find the brood of vipers lurking in me. And also, that the wilderness has a lot to teach me.  And so I feel guilty this Advent.  I assuage it in a few ways. I will add to the teachers gift of a lazy bottle of Prosecco and some half-priced chocolates, a Christian Aid gift of help to refugees for my daughters’ teacher who cares so passionately about their plight.  Instead of spending the hour or so before Midnight Mass at home, thinking, “I’m so tired. Everyone else is in bed, I wish I was.” I will spend it wandering in Chester, with some mince pies or chocolates or socks, seeing if there is anyone who is alone or wants to chat.

But John the Baptist is not just there to make me feel bad, to make us feel guilty. John the Baptist brings a message of joy as well.  That’s the other side: that’s why we buy the presents and fuss about everyone liking the food; because we are heralds of joy. John teaches us to approach Christmas with joy, with humility, as a witness, and open to the unexpected presence of God amongst us.  John the Baptist points us to the other. We can look for those John the Baptist moments turning up.  Those John the Baptist people, intruding in our festivities, our plans and our organised Christmas.

L. Rhodes