Monday, 27 March 2017

Three prayerful friends

27th day of Lent

MARCH 27th 2017


The willow outside my study window is now begin to weep young leaves from its cascading twigs and branches. It is a beautiful tree. It shields and protects and, in summer, creates a veil of dappled sunlight. Around its base is a crown of daffodils. The willow doesn't only weep leaves, over time it weeps its tendril-like twigs and branches all over the place. It guards a very mossy lawn which is now developing into a gentle prayer labyrinth, whose outline is accentuated by carefully laid out piles of slim branch spears collected through the winter. Its weeping nature is an aid to prayer. The Weeping Willow is generous with its 'tears'.

This prayerful patch of ground is guarded by another rather fine and unusual mature tree, called a Tree of Heaven (left). This originates from China and has very much fewer leaves and is a very much later bloomer. I don't expect to see any sign of greenery much before the middle of May. While the willow humbly pours down its tears, the Tree of Heaven's worshipful branches lift up to the skies. Both were planted by a former vicar of St Hilda's who loved his gardening. Revd Canon Jack Pigott and his wife Iris had nine very happy years serving Warley Woods. They were the first to live in the vicarage, built in 1965. So it fell to them to plant trees and lay out the garden. We live in the shadow of their imaginations. I wonder if they were able to envisage then how their generous gift of trees would shape and enclose the landscape that we now know? 

When we moved into the vicarage on a very cold and snowy day in early February 2009, we welcomed the bare trees which surrounded us like an enfolding family. As we got used to the back garden, we could not but help admire a third tree planted by Jack  - a Blue Atlas Cedar (right). This very fine specimen originates from the high and stark Atlas mountains of the Maghreb of Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. You could not imagine a bigger contrast than that of a traditional English vicarage garden and the majesty of the 13,000ft peaks of North Africa!

Our Blue Atlas has a prayerfulness all of its own, with ever uplifted arms which sway gently in the breezes or stand peaceably in the still blue sky days of summer. It is a tree to be greatly loved, I feel. I can often just get lost in time gazing at it from the kitchen window while making a cup of tea. The kettle could go cold as I stand fascinated by its wave-like movements. 

As we got used to the garden, we realised it was a mixed blessing. For the cedar was too big really for the plot. It would be more at home on Warley Woods. It leached the soil of goodness and made it difficult (despite our best efforts) to grow any decent vegetables. And the trees which we initially welcomed as enfolding friends also became serried sentries who blocked out a lot of the sun.  

But these three trees teach me much about prayer. How sometimes we can't help but weep our prayers; sometimes we can only praise in our prayers; sometimes we can get lost in our prayers. Weeping, heavenly and blue - these three sentries have inspired many prayers. Long may they do so.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Tree of Life

24th day of Lent
MARCH 24th 2017


There is a most magnificent beech tree on the edge of the Waseley Hills. It has a girth of about 12ft or 13ft and it stretches up into the sky to a height of 60ft or so. And, as is sometimes the case with beech trees, the root system above ground is just very powerful. On a beautiful blue-sky afternoon, this beech seems not quite yet ready to stir out of winter into the new promise of life awaiting it in spring. Beech trees do tend to wake up a little slower than some of their cousins. The weeping willow outside my study window is already showing signs of coming into leaf. And the blossom on black thorn bushes is now quite full. But this beech is still quite skeletal in the upper reaches, though, at the same time, muscular. It is unrivalled on this hill. It seems to stand a sentinel on the brow looking out west across the M5 and the hills rolling down into Worcestershire. 

I wrote yesterday about the hands of Jesus stretched out in extremis for humanity. What I see in this tree (all trees) is an upward-stretching silent sentinel, a beseeching beech. Psalm 134 is one of the 15 Psalms of the Ascent which are said by pilgrims as they climb up to Jerusalem on their way to the Temple. 

'Come, bless the LORD, all you servants of the LORD, 
who stand by night in the house of the LORD!
Lift up your hands to the holy place,
and bless the LORD.
May the LORD, maker of heaven and earth, 
bless you from Zion.'

It has probably stood on this prominent spot for more than 150 years - way before the M5 was carved through the valley. May it continue to stretch up to heaven by night and by day.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Extreme love

23nd day of Lent
MARCH 23rd 2017


I have been thinking about Jesus and extremism. And I have been thinking about how extremists want to create huge gaps in society, huge divisions that tear us apart. And I have been thinking about how this is so counter to God's will: how Jesus' incarnation was entirely about drawing us close to each other and to God. How Jesus was sent to create a bridge, a bridge that is spanned by his hands on the cross held out in extremis.

It was the extremes of Jesus' body that were pierced for our transgressions. As he hung on the cross it was of course his whole body that was wracked with pain; but it was his hands and feet that were pinned to the wood. This was pain being carried in the extremities of his body.

As I think about the extremists that are seeking to inflict pain on so many people through their violent acts, I think about Jesus' hands and feet and his being stretched out on the cruel cross. Somehow, Grunewalde's most excruciating image of Jesus crucified seems to me to be the one painting that explores the agony of Jesus as he bears the pains of our world. This painting comes from the Isenheim Altarpiece painted in 1516 at a time when the Monastery of St Anthony was treating sufferers of the plague and skin diseases. The image of the crucified Jesus is pitted with the plague-like sores of sufferers. And it brought great comfort to those who suffered because they could see how Jesus identified with them and understood their afflictions. 

Grunewalde is famous for another extraordinary painting of Jesus. It is of Christ resurrected. Apart from the rather obvious incongruity of a very blond Jesus, it is the very opposite of the crucified image. There is freedom in the extremities, there is movement rather than rigidity, there is colour rather than grim plague-ridden skin, there is wholeness yet still the marks of the wounds. Jesus hands are being held up almost as if to say, 'You cannot pin me down, you cannot box me in, you cannot contain me or kill me, you cannot keep or control me - I am the alpha and the omega.' Extreme love. 

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Love your enemies 2

22nd day of Lent
MARCH 22nd 2017


Today a man died. He was a man of violence. He was an extremist. He took four people with him and injured 40 more. 

Extremists seek to pull people with them away from a central, everyday, normality.
Extremists don't want us to hold together.

So as we open up our church on Saturday we want to, in a very small and normal and un-extreme way, to help people hold together. 

And we believe that a man of peace who suffered at the hands of violent extremists - they who believed death was the answer - is the one who calls us to hold out a light to others.

Yesterday was a day for prayer for Northern Ireland. Today is a day of prayer for London. Every day is a day of prayer. For it is the normal, holding-together, response of un-extreme Christians and Muslims. Prayer for those whose lives were so marred and devastated by terrorism. Prayer for peacemakers. 

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Love your enemies

21st day of Lent
MARCH 21st 2017


Today a man died. He was a man of violence. He was a man of peace. He died with blood on his hands. He died as a friend of enemies. He was Martin McGuinness. One half of the 'Chuckle Brothers' - the other half was the implacable defender of Ulster, Ian Paisley. 

It is a day for prayer. Prayer for those whose lives were so marred and devastated by terrorism. Prayer also for a changed Northern Ireland. Prayer for peacemakers. Footsteps to peace have taken years of painstaking effort. And today it is still fragile. There are still walls, called 'peace lines' in Derry /Londonderry and Belfast. There are still huge suspicions between both sides. Yet, the sight of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness sharing power, sitting besides each other, chuckling, is surely one of the most extraordinary fruits of peacemaking. These photographs come from the Antrim coast in Northern Ireland, which we visited last year. They are from Portrush, where the Giant's Causeway is a truly magnificent and mysterious landscape. A most beautiful country. A place and people who deserve peace as much as we do. May Martin McGuinness rest in the peace of God and the forgiveness of God. And may those harmed and marred by violence find peace too.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Springing up to Eternal Life

             ST PHOTINA'S DAY
MARCH 20th 2017


Today is St Photina's Day. Who, you might ask, is St Photina? Little known in the Western church, she is said to be, according to the Orthodox church, the woman who met Jesus at the well in John 4.

If you ever read the stories of Jesus in the Gospels, you might often be left wondering about what happened next?

When Jesus arrived at Photina's well, he was thirsty. He asked her for a drink. And out of that request came a most profound life-changing experience. 'Come and meet the man who told me everything I had ever done,' she tells all her neighbours and relatives. 

What happened next? She becomes a courageous teller of her story. 
Her story-telling courage led her to leave her home town (modern Nablus, in the West Bank) and all the way to Carthage, in Tunisia. There she came to the notice of the Roman authorities. She was eventually taken prisoner and taken to Rome, where, in AD64, she was martyred for her faith by Nero. Her way of life - which sprang from that encounter with a thirsty Jesus at the well - led to her death. Her death was by being thrown into a well.

The picture above is an Eastern orthodox icon. The cross-shaped well reflects the costliness of her life bound with the costly life-giving death of Jesus. 

I wonder, how many other unnamed women and men of the bible have stories that are known by our wise brothers and sisters from the Eastern church? Perhaps you would like to look for them!!

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Giving and gaining


MARCH 15th 2017 

In the Hot Potato suppers we have been looking at Archbishop Justin Welby's Lent book, 'Dethroning Mammon'.
The book looks at the way in which the forces of acquisitiveness and dehumanising systems (which is partly to do with the power of money) can control us and shape our thinking. What we can measure, we value. What we have, we consider ours.

Today we got to the chapter that begins to overturn attitudes to do with giving: he suggests that giving is gaining.

His biblical template for giving when it seems irrational, makes no sense at all, is Nicodemus; he who came to Jesus in the darkness to ask him hard questions, is the one who looks after Jesus' body at his death. Not only that, he lavishes great riches by caring for his body with 100lbs of spices. He had nothing to gain. It was, however, the most beautiful of acts which he and Joseph of Arimathea did for Jesus when all seemed lost that Good Friday evening.

But Welby says this is precisely the kind of giving - irrational, beautiful and with nothing to gain - that turns Mammon on its head. Giving is never about 'what is in it for me?', which is a process of 'exchange and equivalence'. Giving is about pure generosity and abundance. I leave you with this quote: 

‘What we gain when we give comes in many forms. First of all, when we give, we recognise, both implicitly and explicitly, that life is not a process of exchange and equivalence, but of abundance and generosity. Exchange and equivalence is a zero-sum approach, the notion that what I give I lose to your gain. It implies a closed system. Abundance and generosity implies an open system, one in which the creative power of God is ever active, so what we give we gain. Mammon wants us to believe the books always have to balance out in the end – that whatever you have I can’t have, and vice versa… Mammon is good at arithmetic, and balancing the books, but very bad at divine economics... in divine economics, where there is abundance and generosity, there is no zero-sum approach.’