Wednesday, 26 February 2014

To be a Pilgrim…

A pilgrimage is a special sort of journey. Pilgrimages to the Holy Land and Santiago de Compostela seem to be growing ever more popular - I’ve done one and would love to do the other, if I can find a spare six weeks or so to do it properly (and more time off to recover!). A new Pope has generated interest in pilgrimages to Rome, “the Holy City,” and not only amongst Roman Catholics. But you don’t need to go that far. Nearer to home we can make a pilgrimage to the tombs of Cuthbert and Bede in our own Durham Cathedral - and if you go up to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne you can walk across the sands at low tide to bring home the sense of a journey that might require a bit of effort.

A pilgrimage requires the intention of going somewhere - but it doesn’t necessarily require an understanding at the outset of what we shall find. The purpose of making the journey is to find something out along the way - the discovery of something about ourselves, about God and about God’s purpose for us. If it’s a physical journey it needs to be more than sight-seeing, always asking what is God showing me?

But to undertake a pilgrimage doesn’t necessarily require that you go that far - or even travel anywhere else at all. It can be to stay where we are, yet nevertheless explore where Christ is calling us. Lent is a special season which is a sort of pilgrimage in itself. We start on Ash Wednesday with the opportunity to recognise our need and frailty. God is calling us to repentance - and immediately promising us forgiveness and the grace to do better. That’s why ash is used at the Eucharist that day - to show us what we are reduced to the mere chemical elements of which we are composed: “to dust we shall return.” And yet God has given us a glorious calling also - of life which is made new by the love of Christ for us. The journey from Ash Wednesday through Lent and Holy Week via the Cross to Easter Day is to help us recognise that calling.

Pilgrimages are at their best when you travel with others. That’s what we should be doing whenever we gather for prayer and worship - and throughout there’s a social aspect of encouragement for one another. Let’s make the most of it this Lent, by personal dedication, in recognition of a common calling, by sharing and mutual support, by the use of resources which are there, if only we’ll look.

I’m glad that a good number of people have already signed up for a special course of study, discussion and prayer this Lent. Appropriately it’s got the title, “Pilgrim.” It’s an official publication of the Church of England. Following the course we won’t be out on our own - thousands of others will be working at it too. It’s part of a much larger series provided to encourage people on their journey of faith. This one in particular looks at the Lord’s Prayer. Intentionally it is very basic. And we need to examine the basics of our faith, to review the path of our calling if we are to grow properly. As a parish we’ve identified the need to grow in understanding of the basics of our faith and to put prayer at the heart of our life. So this course aims to fulfil both intentions.

Whether or not you’re taking part in this specific course, please make the most of Lent. As a season of just six and a half weeks it gives us all a measured course. We may not know where it will lead us as we start - but let’s pray that we’ll be better for it at its end.
Martin Jackson

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

God's Creation and our Response of Gratitude

(From the Sung Eucharist - 23rd February 2014)

God’s Creation is good. That’s what today’s First Reading tells us. God creates the heavens and the earth; separates light and darkness; brings into being great constellations; provides us with a world of rich resources and vast oceans too; he fills the world with plants and vegetation of every kind; he makes living creatures from the smallest bacteria through a whole array of sea creatures, birds and animals in a variety and richness to cause us to wonder; and he creates human beings - men and women. He looks on all this work of Creation - and he sees that it is very good.

There’s the well-worn story of the Vicar out for a walk one day - and he meets the grumpiest man in the village hard at work in his garden. Mr. Grumpy never shows up in church - he’s always in his garden - and he gets results: it’s the most beautiful garden for miles around. The Vicar is a pious soul: “You should praise God for the beauty of Creation,” he tells Mr. Grumpy. “Just look at this wonderful garden he has given you.” “Oh, aye,” says Mr. Grumpy. “And you should have seen the state of it when God had it all to himself.”

I look at my garden and wonder… Actually someone pointed out that it was getting a bit hard to look at my garden because the windows of my house were so dirty and it was rather difficult to see through them. When I told a friend he offered to come round and hold the ladder while I cleaned them. So we did that during the part of my day off that I managed to salvage on Friday. What a difference! It’ll be even better if I get round to cleaning the insides too! One of the reasons for doing this is that our new Bishop of Durham is going to come round and visit each of his clergy at home. The last one was going to do this, though it never quite happened… With this one I’ve already got a date and a time: Bishop Paul is coming to the Vicarage on Ash Wednesday afternoon! Just 10 days time! What impression will he take from what he sees?

Actually I’ve just received a Quinquennial Inspection report on the Vicarage from our Diocesan Surveyor. The good news is that it looks like the diocese might repair the wine cellar door. The embarrassing bit is that they comment on the garden and its “overgrown borders” - a bit unfair I thought when I just haven’t had time and a dry day to clear them out. A previous Surveyor used instead to say simply that they were “well-stocked,” which I thought was a far kinder approach. Anyway, I’ve been galvanised into action. I’ve raked out nearly all the old stuff both front and back - and to make sure I can no longer be accused of having vegetation that is overgrown, I’ve taken the lawn mower over the borders of the front garden. It’s the radical approach - though not quite as radical as a youth group I had in a previous parish which was given the challenge of clearing up my garden. They found a carpet in my garage, spread it out over the beds of weeds and set fire to it. I only found out later that we were storing the carpet for a friend of the family.

The good news following my latest efforts in the garden is that I can see the first signs of spring. Snowdrops had been sheltering behind the dead remains of last year’s flowers. The daffodils are pushing their way up through piles of leaves and whatever else it was that I’ve now raked away. I’m hoping that I may find crocuses growing where I’ve cut down some other unidentified green stuff that had spread itself too luxuriantly over half the front garden.

And when I sat outside the church the other afternoon to say Evening Prayer on Albert and Joan Bartrope’s bench the birds were singing away, heralding the spring. Creation is good. My heart lifts when I look out of my bedroom window in the morning to see two deer in the garden below. The pheasant is back. Even those irritating grey squirrels and the pigeons are part of God’s carefree creation. And you see its beauty in the smallest things. Coal tits, I think they are, flitting around in the trees below the Vicarage, and the blackbird is back in my juvenile cherry tree.

Jesus tells the disciples: “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” Thankfulness needs to be our first response to God. If people would show more gratitude and do less complaining and grumbling, I’m sure the world would be a better place. “God clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven,” says Jesus. Remember that, if you’re worried about new clothes for the sake of keeping up with fashion. Get a sense of perspective if you think you need a new car and the last one isn’t even out of its warranty - or a new phone or laptop or tablet or whichever model of PlayStation or Xbox they’re up to now (I’m talking to myself as well as anyone else I might be offending!).

But of course Jesus is speaking to people who have the luxury of worrying about these things. There are also those who have real cause for worry. St. Paul in our reading from his Letter to the Romans speaks of Creation being “subjected to futility” - and of Creation “groaning in labour pains.” There are many people who have experienced that this winter - with flooded fields and homes, cut-off communities and the heartache of loss. Creation seems to be going wrong - or perhaps we just felt we could control it and now we’re discovering the difference between the stewardship of creation and its misuse for our own ends. Whatever the case, the pain of so many people who have seen well-loved homes damaged and cherished possessions ruined cannot be denied.

But when money is said to be no object by the Government as it announces its intention of bringing relief to these communities, I think we need a new perspective. When it hurts to see what the people of these communities have lost, we need to remember those who live with the daily reality of surviving on the breadline. Along with the person whose home has been temporarily lost to the floods, there needs to be concern for the family which might be forced from their home because it’s judged that they have one bedroom too many so they have their housing benefit cut - and where will they go when there aren’t enough small houses to move into. Most of us do well to hear Jesus say, “Don’t worry about what you will eat, what you will drink or what you will wear,” because we probably eat and drink too much anyway. But for the unemployed person who finds that their benefit has been delayed or denied - or who has been penalised because it’s said they haven’t written enough applications for jobs which they’re not going to get anyway, this is a matter for real worry.

At his enthronement yesterday Bishop Paul encouraged us to believe in growth in a real way. Just look at how the Food Bank movement has grown from something so small, he said. But while it’s good that there has been that growth, the sadness is that it should have been necessary. As Bishop Paul went on, God’s people are to provide a place of welcome for all. And “God’s kingdom is open to all, poor and rich, old and young, from whatever nation on earth. It is to be a place of shelter and security for the broken, the hurting, the lost, the refugee, the abused and indeed a place of transformative renewal for the abusers and sufferers too.”

Do not worry, says Jesus. But look and see the goodness of God. Be thankful. Look at what God enables to grow. Be thankful, not complaining. And then - seeing what God has given us - be generous as God has been generous to us.