Into the Ashes

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.
Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.

On Ash Wednesday, are we concerned with our beginning or our ending?

We are at the beginning of Lent: forty days of fasting and devotion lie ahead of us.
We are perhaps considering beginning something new: a spiritual discipline, new habit, or acts of kindness.
We are reminded, as the cross of ash dusts our faces, of the new beginnings we have in Christ.

And Ash Wednesday is about our ending too.
We might be committing ourselves to ending bad habits, or denying ourselves something for a season.
We are invited to confront our mortality: to dust you will return.
We are marked with ash: the bleak nothingness that is left after glowing embers have died cold.

Ash Wednesday is a beginning and an ending.
Ash Wednesday is a liturgical staging post, encouraging us to take a moment, step out of our tired routines, and pause.
Ash Wednesday is a turning circle: an opportunity to look back, look ahead, put down, pick up, re-evaluate, take stock, change direction, and carry on.

Ash Wednesday is the day when we have the courage to face our ending.
Into the ashes we go, as we put on the symbol of all that threatens our wellbeing and happiness.
Ash Wednesday is the day when we can wear death on our face and say that this is not the end.

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The ash that we wear is not a smudge, but a cross.
A reminder of the instrument of destruction that brought an end to death.
A statement that we find our beginning in Christ’s ending.

On Ash Wednesday, we are called again to faithfulness.
The crossed ash is a reminder of God’s faithfulness to us: the once-for-all act that has put an end to death and destruction so that we can face all our endings with courage and hope.
As we stop at the staging post, turn around in the turning circle, we do so confident of God’s unending love for us.

The ash that we wear today is not a curse, but a blessing.

Over two millennia ago, God was calling his people back to him through the words of the prophet Joel.
God is still calling.
Ash Wednesday is a day to hear the distant voice of our God, ever-patient, ever-loving, as he calls us back again to his mercy.

Yet even now, says the Lord,
   return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 
   rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
   for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
   and relents from punishing. 
(Joel 2:12-13)

This Lent, what do you want to turn from and to?
This Lent, what do you want to put down or pick up?
Is there “bleak nothingness” in your life?
What would transform this nothingness into a new start?
What signs can you see around you of God’s faithfulness to you?
Is God calling you to something?

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Losing my religion?

At times I have faced serious, faith-denying doubts. Times of extended sleeplessness and frightened, agonised wrestling with big questions. One of these moments happened soon after I married; another soon after I had children. Both triggered by the uncertainty that comes after a major life change; the burden of new responsibility as my life became intimately entwined with another, and the crushing knowledge that all relationships end in grief. Both times I had to renegotiate my faith, learning to trust God with the lives of these people who are so precious to me.

So I read this blog by Mandy Jackson-Beverly with a good amount of nodding. Mandy’s path is her own, and yet many of us have walked a similar way before, and will do so again.

Many of us know what it is like to be thrown into an abyss of doubt, falling through spiritual nothingness and not knowing who or what will catch us.

Many of us know what it is like to have the scaffold of faith, so carefully built, collapse in an instant.

Many of us know what it is like to live with fear, day after day, that everything we have placed our trust in will turn out to be an elaborate lie and a waste of time.

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But are these experiences about losing our faith?

Mandy’s blog is fairly pessimistic, with a glimmer of hope. She talks in terms of growing up and moving on from religion. Something that was so integral to her early life, through an exploration of spirituality that eventually “vanished”, becomes folly in later life.

How many of us feel like we “grow out of” our religion and move on with life?

What if the fears and questions that accelerate our growing agnosticism are not about doubt and loss of faith, but about deepening our experience of and relationship with God?

Once I had kids, I discovered a dark place that lay beyond the realm of my faith and spirituality. A place where I didn’t need God in order to make sense of things. A place where I could find things other than God to explain and give purpose to life. And this was not liberating, but frightening. This was about no longer needing everything that, to this point, I had built my life around. I was dismantling my scaffolding.

It took someone else to turn my fear around. They helped me see that this wasn’t about moving beyond a need for God. It was about finding God at work in new places and new people. In everything that might have replaced God, I found him waiting. I no longer needed the scaffolding I had built. I had found something new.

Perhaps in time this new scaffolding will also need to be taken down, to make way again.

Life takes us to some frightening places. Watching someone we love die is such a place. Mandy is honest about the raw hopelessness of seeing her mum’s suffering and death. And yet, within the darkness of her pain is a faint glimmer of hope. In a brief moment, she “felt something”.

I think that this is how it is. We question, we fear, we worry. And then, in one fleeting, fragile moment, we feel something.

And then it is gone.

But it was definitely there.

What is that “something”? What I do know is that it is special, faith-affirming and life-changing. Those I walk alongside in difficult times often speak of its power. Most of us have a story of the “something” moments.

In all our fear and emptiness, amongst our questions and anxiety, perhaps we can allow our attention to rest on those glimmers of “something”.

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.
1 Corinthians 13:12

The night that God let go

A reflection for Christmas Eve, adapted from that shared at Holy Cross Timperley.

Tonight we recall that holy night when God took on our human life with the most fragile of beginnings.

God himself became a helpless bundle of tears and gurgles.
God himself identified with human beings at one of the frailest moments of our existence: the moment of our birth.

Our Christmas carols sing of this wonderful truth, but how often do their words pass us by?

He came down to Earth from Heaven
Who is God and Lord of all.

So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of his Heaven.

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,
Hail the incarnate deity.

And of course, John, in the prologue to his Gospel, puts it like this:
In the beginning was the Word.
The Word was with God.
The Word was God.
The Word became flesh.

Here is the God who created the stars and the planets and the oceans and the mountains.
Here is the God who is so holy that the Israelite people could barely stand in his presence and live.
Here is that God choosing to leave his Heavenly throne to come and live among his people.

Tonight we find our God lying in a feeding trough: the tiny baby of a peasant girl and her fiancé.

What is this, if not the ultimate divine act of letting go?
God let go of the Heavenly realms, to come and live among his created beings on Earth.
God let go of divine power, to begin life here as each of us has done: weak, vulnerable, helpless.

Welcome to Christmas night. The night that God let go.

We all know what it is like to have to let go of something, or someone. We have all known loss. Human experience calls us back to this well trodden path of letting go. We may have had to let go of childhood, of possessions, of ambitions, of past hurts, of good dreams and bad memories, of relationships, of health, of our home, of dear friends and family members, or even of our very selves.

Letting go can be beautifully liberating, or crushingly painful. Sometimes it is both. Many of us here this evening have walked some very difficult pathways of loss and letting go this year. And in all that we have to let go of, in all our experience of loss, God has been there before us. He knows what it is like to have to let go.

He was little, weak and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us he knew.
And he feeleth for our sadness
And he shareth in our gladness.

The incarnation, and this tiny baby who is the centrepiece of our nativity stories, is a reminder that God knows what human life is like.

We can never justly accuse God of not knowing human suffering, because he came to Earth and lived it for us.
We can never justly accuse God of not stepping into our shoes, because that is exactly what he did.

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I wonder what we see when we look at the nativity scene. Mary and Joseph, yes. And a baby. Shepherds and sheep, wise men, perhaps a donkey and an ox. Not forgetting the angels.

I wonder how often we look at that scene and see God? We know the baby is the baby Jesus. We know this baby is God, taking on human form. But do we really see him?
Do we truly grasp the full significance of this tiny baby laid in a feeding trough?
Do we look upon this baby and remember all that God let go of, in order to come and live this life of frailty and humility?

The nativity is not a fairy tale to make us feel warm and fuzzy at Christmas time.
The nativity is not, primarily, a script for a school play.

The nativity is an account of loss and pain, of flesh and blood.
The nativity is an account of life’s interruptions and injustice crashing headlong into God’s love and mercy.
The nativity is an account of our frail and fickle lives becoming intimately entwined with the awesome, majestic, eternal life of God.

On this holy night, we give thanks to God that he let go of everything to walk in our shoes: to feel our pain and to know our helplessness.
On this holy night, we commit to God our own acts of letting go, our pain and our loss, and we ask for his gentle love to enfold us.
On this holy night, we gaze upon the Christ child, and see that the Lord has drawn near to the broken hearted.

On this holy night, the Word became flesh, and he lives among us.

Out of the chancel

The chancel is the domain of the parish priest. It’s where I am seen in my most public moments. It is the place I minister in, and from, on Sunday mornings and through the week. It is the place where I dump my priestly paraphernalia, tucked away on shelves and ledges: service books, scribbled notices, carefully typed sermons, bottles of water…

The chancel is the domain of all of us. It is a place of passage. Through it we journey up, to receive from God as we share in the sacrament of Holy Communion. Through it we journey back down, ready to continue our work as Kingdom builders out in our communities.

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The chancel is not my home, nor yours. It’s a corridor; a stopping place; a conduit. Out of the chancel we flow; through that passage which links our Sunday worship and our spiritual nourishment with whatever we choose to do in the other 6 and a half days of our week. Our journey through the chancel is a reminder of the dynamic nature of God’s love: responsive, engaged, incarnational.

Some will know that we priests spend very little of our working time in the chancel. And now on maternity leave I find myself, in new ways, very much out of the chancel, and fully engaged with the gritty, fleshy world of parenting a newborn.This blog is a place to share, to reflect, and to engage, by one priest spending time out of the chancel.