Let earth and heaven combine

MichaelA Homily for St Michael and All Angels 2014 by Fr Phillip Jefferies

Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it! Genesis 28: 10-17. Revelation 12: 7-12. John 1: 47-51.

The Old Testament is often not a nice place to be. And Jacob, the younger twin son of patriarch Isaac, and Rebekah his scheming mother, are hardly nice people. Isaac, father of Esau and Jacob, could have been in the original Specsavers advert … the myopic shepherd who can’t distinguish between the sheep and his sheepdog and shears the lot. Isaac should have gone to Specsavers: with the connivance of Jacob’s mother he blesses Jacob instead of the older twin Esau, so Jacob gets Esau’s inheritance.

Jacob is not in a good place. Physically, he’s alone in a barren wilderness with only a stone for a pillow. Morally his position is woeful. However, Jacob has this glorious dream: a ladder reaching up from the cold and isolated place, where he is, up to glory of heaven. And on that ladder is a two-way traffic: angels going up, and angels coming down—and that is important to note. The ladder isn’t a way of escape, but provides, rather, an enrichment of the place where Jacob finds himself—enrichment with the angels of God, no less.

What angels do is announce the presence of God. Greek angelos = a messenger. You might think that they would get a pretty good press; there is, after all, that beautifully poetic description of Gabriel in the carol (The angel Gabriel from heaven came, his wings of drifted snow, his eyes of flame). Simon Barnes, in his The Bad Bird Watchers’ Guide begins with the robin, and describes its natural habitat: Christmas cards. We might give the same natural habitat for angels … or look in the north nave of S Paul’s, over there, at the glorious Archangel Michael, his wings spread wide, his lance striking home. He shall defend thee under his wings and thou shalt be safe under his feathers: his faithfulness and truth shall be thy shield and buckler! What could be more welcome, what could be more attractive?

But not so fast. What angels consistently generate in those to whom they go, however, is not safety—far from it: it is fear.

Mary, above all, is greatly perturbed by Gabriel’s annunciation. The archangel had to encourage her not to be afraid, as did the leader of the angelic choir that appeared to the shepherds watching their flocks by night. At the other end of the gospels, the various visitors to the empty tomb are thrown into turmoil and fear by the presence of these emissaries of God, these ambassadors of heaven; just as Jacob was in the Genesis story.

Why?

Jacob is between a rock and a hard place. Not just physicallycold, alone, with rocks for his head and his feetbut personally, for he has yet to face his elder brother whom he cheated, and suffer the consequences of his actions. Jacob has to face the truth. The ladder between heaven and earth is not an escape route from his situation, but it provides a sign that heaven will come down to him, and the truth will somehow set him free.

This hard-headed and down-to-earth understanding of the meaning of angelic presence belongs to a non-tacky celebration of our faith. God knows, there’s enough of the other: the sickly sweet escapist religion within easy reach, encouraging us to climb up, up and away from the rock and the hard place into the fluffy clouds of never-never land. But, this is not the land of Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree; and, as the reading from the Book of the Revelation reminded us, there is war in heaven anyway, just as there is in all of us.

What we have to do is grow up in our faith and into confrontation with the truth, just like Jacob, and see that his ladder has its feet set firmly on the earth, not for escape, but so that angels can descend. We find our salvation where we are: the glory of heaven comes to earth – as it always has and as it always will.

Let earth and heaven combine, Angels and men agree, To praise in songs divine The incarnate Deity, Our God contracted to a span, Incomprehensibly made Man. (Charles Wesley)

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Immanent and transcendent

1774716Some Burton church ‘leaders’ met yesterday. Of about 20 people there, over a half were from churches under the broad Pentecostal banner, with seven of us from the C of E.

Despite a rather self-congratulatory tone, it was impressive to hear of churches with big budgets and lots of people laying on programmes of social action, support groups, food banks and the like, that fill gaps gaping ever wider as the government obsesses about the Daily Mail vote (I wonder how many volunteers vote for the policies that result in the conditions they are volunteering to address). I hope, though, that there’s something more to church than being busy. If not, I’m doomed.

Five or six years ago I would have come away from such a meeting feeling inadequate. I’m blessed with faithful and lovely people but we certainly don’t have a critical mass of volunteers, though I know my parishioners give in their own sweet and quiet way to voluntary programmes throughout the region. And as for funds, the buildings more than eat up our money.

I was pondering this all afternoon. Then in the evening two couples contacted me about baptisms and a wedding at S Paul’s. They had been inside (we must keep churches open) and they had been ‘blown away’ by it. ‘A church should bring you to your knees’, said Sir Ninian Comper. And it does. Even if we humans are not active in the community, our buildings certainly are. Thank the Lord for those that built them, those that beautified them, those that handed them on to us. They may be long dead, but they’re still at work. I count it a privilege to have them in my care.

I can’t compete with the busy-ness of some churches. But I can have buildings open and available; I can be seen around town myself, open and available. It’s terrific that churches are able to lay on extensive programmes of social action, but if that’s all they do there’s something missing. The Immanent is all very well, but without the Transcendent, churches are simply an arm of social services.

We are privileged to be able to offer something else: the Transcendent. We offer space, silence, beauty, the numinous. In our worship we can offer a glimpse of otherness, a glimpse of heaven. And it is that that recharges the batteries so that we can go out and serve each other.

Like I say, once I would have come away from yesterday’s meeting feeling inadequate. But I’ve grown up a bit since then.

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Singers and farmers

old-fashioned-radio-mdPrimary School Harvest Festival this morning (not a church school). I thought, my goodness me, the children sing well. Suddenly, the volume faded. It rose again. It faded. It rose. Then I saw a teacher fiddling with knobs on the machine. It was all recorded. When the volume was down it was clear that they were not singing at all. Grunting. Is this deception common? If so, what does it say about the state of music and of singing in state primary schools? I made the same mistake with the congregational singing at Holy Trinity, The Rock in my Irish incumbency. I told them I thought they were fantastic singers, and they fell about.

‘When aa were a lad’ it was Singing Together or Rhythm and Melody on (I think) Monday mornings, led by William Appleby of the BBC. Our ears were glued to the crackly wireless. The Harp that once through Tara’s Halls sticks in the memory not because of tune or words, but because of the picture of the fairy tale castle in the accompanying booklet.

At today’s Harvest the children from urban Burton sang a song about what jolly good fun it is be to be a farmer, and how they’d all love to be one, working outdoors with animals and tractors and all the jolly-what-ho of Farmer Giles. I thought of the VAT returns and the quotas and having ones hand up a cow’s vagina and the environmental inspections and the risks of methane from slurry tanks. And the loneliness.

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Pastoral letter, October 2014

Lady Chapel

Lady Chapel

Lots of small things have been happening at S Paul’s recently, and one big one. The big one is the Lady Chapel floor. This has been in the offing for quite a while, and I guess it will take a long time to be dealt with. John Woolley and Chris Hill have been hard at work taking up the tiles in such a way that they can be replaced correctly in due course. The Lady Chapel itself was furnished as a chapel by G F Bodley in the late nineteenth century, and it’s a lovely and intimate place for being still. It cries out for a votive candle stand, and I hope that we can have one there when the floor is finished. The candle stand at the foot of the statue of Our Lady outside the chapel is not well placed—it’s too public: you need to be able to sit or kneel a bit tucked away, and that is not a bit tucked away. But slowly, slowly, we will get there.

Slowly is not something that comes naturally to me. I am not a patient man. With the help of Peter, John and Mike, clutter has been dealt with. Vestments have been tidied up. The High Altar has been beautified with more candlesticks (it looks wonderful of a Sunday with 12 candles flickering), and others bought to replace those now on the High Altar. The large icon of S Paul has been hung on one of the tower piers. The All Souls chapel has been tidied up: the carpet has been stored elsewhere (I hate carpets in churches – they are the spawn of Satan – and they ruin the acoustics), tatty banners likewise, and stone statues that were a safety hazard are now in the crypt. There is more to do. Cupboards in the vestry are yet to be attacked. There are about 148 cupboards that contain flower arranging stuff. Come on, girls, you don’t need all that rubbish. If you haven’t dealt with all that before November, then I’ll deal with it. That’s a bargain.

S Michael with Pongo the Dragon (from old S Margaret's)

S Michael with Pongo the Dragon (from old S Margaret’s)

Back to the All Souls Chapel. This is a wonderful place for weekday masses, and with the Lady Chapel we are fortunate to have a choice. There is a beautiful banner which looks to me as if it might be by someone famous (I must get a colleague to give us an opinion). I see that there’s a window with an image of S Margaret. I see that there’s some furniture in church from the now closed S Margaret’s. I know that some of you came from S Margaret’s. I propose, therefore, that the All Souls chapel be rededicated as the Chapel of S Margaret and All Souls. I shall put this to the PCC (I shall tell them their opinion) and then if they agree I shall see if a bishop can come and splash a bit of water about and waft a bit of smoke and say a few words in a portentous voice. (Actually, I’ve already done that and the computer says yes, but we have to wait to fix a date). ‘Simples’ as the meerkats say.

What else has been happening? A few new posh frocks for clergy, daily Morning Prayer at about 8.15 (come and join me), church open from then until 2 pm. AND A NEW WEBSITE AND FACEBOOK PAGE for the three churches. It’s no good techoluddites saying that you’ll have nothing to do with such stuff: most of the rest of world does, and it’s passing you by. It’s not about you or me, but about living in the real world as it is, not as it used to be. Have a look at the website (http://theburtonthree.com) and tell me your ideas about what might be added. There are some wonderful photos by Rob Shephard that Fr Paul organised before he left, and Rob has given us permission to use these for postcards and Christmas cards that could raise a bit of money as well as raising our profile.

On a local level I’ve been hobnobbing with the YMCA, with Andrew Griffiths MP, with the local Imam and with various other worthies. We must get people into church to see this wonderful building. I would like the young folk in the YMCA hostels to use it, and us, for support and sustenance, and I’d like to get the politicians on board so that not only can they use what we have, but also we can prevail upon them to listen what we have to say.

You might not like what I’m doing but you can’t say I don’t care. S Paul’s is a wonderful building with riches that should be better known. That’s really what all this is about: if you’ve got it, flaunt it. I’m sure Our Lord said that somewhere.

God bless.

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Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly

See the mascot?

See the Mascot?

Homily at the Annual Commemoration Service for the Staffordshire Regiment at S Paul’s Church, Burton upon Trent, 13 September 2014

I have no military connexions other than a father-in-law who served in the Royal Navy, an uncle who served in the Royal Air Force and a father who served as a batman to a General in the British Army. Born in 1950, I am one of the pampered post-war generation who have never had to fight for anything and for whom everything has been free, including education to third level. What can I say to you who have served, to you who have suffered, and to you who have lost comrades, or confidence, or loved ones? What can I say to you who through your training learnt the hard way that personal preferences were irrelevant when you trained and worked together in the service of something bigger than you? What can I say to you who through all this were forced to think about justice and mercy, and who had a certain sort of humility drilled into you?

Although others have called me morally and intellectually courageous, nobody has ever called me physically courageous. I am a coward. I am always willing to stand right behind someone else, physically. So I need people like you who I can stand behind. I thank you!

Regimental Mascot

Regimental Mascot: he sings when we sing

I have been transfixed these last few Monday evenings watching the training of Marine Commandos. It is wonderful to see how in the service of something bigger than themselves these young men learn about justice and their attitudes to it, men who see by example when mercy is called for, and men who learn that their own preferences and desires count for nothing when it comes to the wellbeing of the troop. When one of the company failed in an exercise there was none of the derision that I suffered in PE classes in school, but rather a remarkable level of sympathy and support. You might even call it prayer.

All this has obvious biological parallels in the cooperative communities of creatures like ants, termites and marine invertebrates, where each individual knows its place in the big scheme of things—a scheme of things that to each individual must surely be incomprehensible, but which must, one supposes, be hard-wired into what passes for a brain.

You men know what it is to have to put your ‘self’ aside for the sake of something bigger. In the church calendar, tomorrow we celebrate the Holy Cross. There is a tendency to think that the death on the cross is only about what happened 2000 years ago. This is nonsense. It is of course about that, but it is also about what happens every moment of every day as we gradually realize that the energy we spend in trying to be individuals yields altogether more wonderful fruit when we divert it into trying not to be individuals—when we give up ‘self’ for the sake of something bigger. That is what happens in your military training. At some point in the pursuit of individualism we will ‘hit the wall’, and, as in training, we can, if we set our face to it, break through into resurrection life.

Commemorations such as today’s are ambivalent occasions. You know people who were injured, you know people who are still suffering, you know relatives who suffer, you have comrades who were killed. But you know the excitement, the comradeship, and the singleness of purpose as many hands are put to the plough.

I know some of you, having been at home in community, find it difficult upon leaving to cope with the individualistic society that you find yourself thrown into, but I hope most if not all of you can look back with satisfaction on what you learnt in training together. Young men these days lack opportunities like this. There is nothing, or very little, set apart for them. We have organizations for women only, and women are certainly encouraged to be women, but men aren’t allowed to be men, from early childhood onwards. Schools and society tend to emasculate. Society needs more opportunities for men to be men—I’m not talking about boorishness or the dreadful hail-fellow-well-met insincerity of golf-clubs where ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch your BMW’—but opportunities for the naturally occurring testosterone to be expressed in male bonding, adventure and service.

You, gentlemen, have a wonderful opportunity to help today’s young men to learn how to be men, and to learn the benefits of working for a cause that is bigger than any individual. That perhaps is your job now: to show others how to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly.

Once again, I thank you and I commend you in your service, past, present and future.

Posted in A great future behind me, Theology | Leave a comment

T’interweb meedja

JesseRight, so. I sorted out how to do a Facebook (? FaceBook) page for the churches. I managed to do it for an organization rather than for an individual so was quite pleased with myself. This is in preparation for a website.

It took me a while because I’m 64 and these things don’t come naturally at an age when many of us are worried about letting angels prostate fall around our ankles. And, it has to be said, in my former lives I’ve always had people to whom I simply had to utter a command and lo, it cameth to pass. Not now I fear. So gird up your loins, young man, or what’s left of them, and show the virtual world what you’re made of.

So I did.

I emailed my many friends and asked them if they would be kind enough to ‘like’ the Facebook page so that it would begin to be noticed by the great noticer of things in the firmament of heaven which must now be stuffed full of things jostling to be noticed. So full, in fact, that the aether is getting thicker and thicker—have you noticed?—and moving is more and more difficult. Either that or gravity is getting stronger by the minute. Anyhoo, back to the plot. As I say, I emailed friends and asked them to like it.

You would be astonished, Bruce, just how many darlings responded by saying something like ‘well actually, I don’t do Facebook’ or ‘I can’t get the hang of these twitter things.’ Astonished. You can, I hope, read the smell under their noses. All of these hoity-toity people, be it noted, were English, not Irish. It is noticeable that clergy colleagues in Ireland were on Facebook much more often than English clergy. Perhaps this is because Church of Ireland clergy have fewer calls on their time (seriously, this will get another blog), but whatever the reason, Irish folk are much more meedja savvy than English folk of similar age. What d’ye make of that?

Now to the website. The possibility that I might do one (‘seek to do one if it is the will of God’ in C of E speak) was dumped upon by a whole load of nay-sayers. I can understand that church people of an age when incontinentia buttox begins to loom might feel that such things are not for them, but unless they grasp the concept that the church has to deal with the world as it is and will be, rather than as it was when they were young and Napoleon was in Paris, we are more likely to be, as Private Fraser used so eloquently to say, doomed.

On the grounds that there is a tide in the affairs of men. which, if not taken at the flood, leads on to extinction, I thought the best thing was simply to JFDI. WWJD? He’d JFDI.

So Website-Ho! as Charles Kingsley would have said.

Posted in A great future behind me, Pastoralia | 4 Comments

Holy Goat

Strangely compelling

Strangely compelling

Churchyard upkeep is becoming a problem for church councils and Select Vestries. What is to be done as volunteers become incapacitated, or drop of their perches?

Rotas for grass cutting could be drawn up. This would give even more opportunities for church people to fall out. To the list that includes flower rota, cleaning rota, washing the linen rota, and rota for ‘who complains this week about the wrong tune’, can be added the churchyard grass cutting rota. This is a special rota because while the others are largely or exclusively for girls, keeping the churchyard looking good is not really a girly thing. Indeed, farmers could legitimately wonder whose was the biggest tool.

In a former parish, I had complaints about grass being unkempt round auntie’s grave. I ignored the first letter, but the second elicited a response in which I pointed out that the churchyard was looked after by volunteers, and that I would entertain no further correspondence from people who neither contributed money nor lifted a finger to help.

But now there is a new weapon in the armoury for keeping the graves looking nice for the general resurrection. A goat.

Yes, boys and girls, a goat. Goats are on the agenda of a Council meeting near you. Goats are the new solar panels. In the light of this I humbly put forward some helpful tips for any church council soon to be considering goats, in the hope that my thoughts will help the implementation of this game-changing strategy.

New rotas will be needed:

  • Who will march the animal down, tether it and then march it back every day? Sheep might stay out in all weathers but goats do not, and Billy will need tethering so that he doesn’t attack the flowers lovingly placed on the grave yesterday.
  • Who will make sure the goat has clean water every day? The RSPCA are hot on this, and it would be unfortunate to make front page of the Diocesan red-top for animal neglect.
  • Who will be on-call in the small hours for capturing an escaped goat before it crops all the plants along the bungalows?

Other practicalities:

  • How can the tethering rope be prevented from wrapping itself around gravestones and pulling them over? A falling gravestone could even trap the goat, useful if there were a barbecue in the offing.
  • Insurance against acts of goat? A Goat Compare website would be helpful.
  • Dogs wander into churchyards, so people could pay to watch dog-goat fights. Or a new species could be engineered: the barking goat. Half-man, half-goat is Pan, so I suppose half-dog, half-goat might be Gog. Or Dot.
  • Rules will have to be drawn up—and enforced—to banish poisonous plants. Either that, or market the incense made from essence of dead goat in churchyard. Although in the United States Fresh Expressions is a brand of cat-litter, too many complications would follow from pursuing this here.
  • There is opportunity for a whole new tranche of administrators to be appointed in Diocesan Offices, thus enhancing God’s Kingdom.

Whatever floats your goat I suppose. What do you call a Spanish goat with no back legs? Gracias.

I’ll get my coat.

Posted in A great future behind me, Pastoralia | 4 Comments