‘look up, startled’

This is my new favourite poem (though that is an ever fluid category).

It comes from Joyce Sidman’s What the Heart Knows, which appears to be a book of poems for children but really isn’t.

I used it last week in a sermon (along with an abundance of T.S. Eliot) to talk about how poetry opens perception and can reach and change us long before we understand.

It reminds me so much of home — and I have just learned that Sidman is from Connecticut and lived in Middletown. But it is of course every moment of waking, of wonder, and of grace almost missed.

Wake with a dream-filled head.
Stumble out into the morning,
barely aware of how the sun
is laying down strips of silver
after three days’ rain,
of how the puddles
are singing with green.
Look up, startled
at the crackle of something large
moving through the underbrush.
Your pulse jumping,
gaze into its beautiful face.
The wary doe’s body,
the soft flames of ears.
As it bounds away,
listen to the rhythm
of your own heart’s disquiet.
Burn into memory
the white flag of its parting.
Before you return
to house and habit,
cast your eyes into the shadows,
where others stand waiting
on delicate hooves.

— Joyce Sidman
What the Heart Knows

 

 

a need for poetry

Poetry has been pressing itself into consciousness lately.

I suspect it began with a seminar — a chance to play with poems amidst theologians — which woke something long dormant. But I’m sure my desire for poetry is also an aftermath of the shock of Trump. Not so much escapism, as deliberate protest against a political narrative that sees complexity as an unnecessary elitist complication, and which tries to crush truth into obedience.

Then, early in the New Year, as I caught up with back issues of the Church Times, I read an article about reading levels in liturgy. It argued that the language of liturgy was too complex — that we should aim for a lower reading level to be more accessible. I skimmed it and moved on, but it kept bothering me. Is reading-level really the key issue in liturgical language? Is the language of liturgy about understanding?

Liturgical language is performative. It helps create the relationships it describes. It needs to be big enough to hold all the emotions in the room, the different stages of faith, and all the ways of perceiving and relating to God. Only poetry is big enough for that. Only poetry shapes mood and raises expectation so that our longing for God becomes big enough that God might fit in.

It’s the polyvalent nature of poetry I long for — the constant assertion that meaning can be present and hidden all at once; that a word might mean more than one thing. I want liturgy to do that, because I believe scripture does that — and getting used to layers of meaning in poetry gives us language to grow into and helps keep us open to the ongoing revelation of God.

But mostly, I want poetry because it gives us space to breathe. I found myself wondering how many people in the congregation have ever read Eliot, R.S. Thomas, Levertov, Mary Oliver — and worrying that hardly anyone had. I may never convince them that poetry is necessary, but it’s negligent not to try.

So, we are having a month of poetry in The Waltham Group.  Full blown evangelism, with scansion lessons and poetic terms and all.

We don’t have time for this, of course. There are no doubt faculties to write and finance plans to devise. But in this world where truth is getting bashed by bullies and complexity is denied, where else can we turn, but the power of the word?

 

Oświęcim

i.

Between Shema and shalom
there were rabbit tracks
winding scrolls of hope through ash pits.

I stood
where I planned to remember death
caught in bewildering joy.

I hadn’t expected the beauty
of snow, of light, of birch,
and I wondered:

What if we let the land heal?
Chose life — the best defiance —
and watched the chimneys fall.

ii.

One woman carried a cheese grater —
when her world was disrupted
stuffed into sacks
clutched, and then hidden.
She chose to keep faith in details.

So I came home and cooked
grated carrot
made soup
watched slow yeast rise
through recalcitrant rye

Because this is how we become
human. The ritual of wonder
as grace tumbles like tea leaves
and what is cut and broken
becomes blessed.

iii.

In our churchyard there is mistletoe —
the romantic notion
of a former rector
to bring berries, laughter,
blessing.

So I saw it, crowning the tree-tops
following the rail line,
and wondered: was this too defiance —
Resister’s gift? Or God’s
grace brushing cattle cars:
‘You are loved. You are loved. You are loved.’

 

(photo, with thanks, by The Revd Richard Frank)

annoying rules, annoying rectors

Dear Congregations,

There’s this conversation we keep having. So I thought I’d try to set it down here.

I know it’s a pain when we suddenly stumble up against a regulation that means more work. I hate it too.

No, I really can’t explain why all of my predecessors never mentioned that there were rules or regulations, nor why they were happy to break them when I am not. I wonder if that’s true — though I know you believe it to be so. Either way, I cannot make sense of it either.

I know, too, that sometimes we’re going to get it wrong. A lot of the rules are hard to apply when we only have ten people trying to do the work of a hundred, and when some rules feel impossible, it’s easy to assume all rules are optional.

But I also believe the rules are there to protect us.
That one about painting the door? It’s the same rule that applies to the walls. It’s to stop a well-meaning person who loves orange from painting everything in sight orange and ruining it for everyone else. It’s also to stop us from painting a wall with waterproof paint when in fact that wall needs to breathe. It’s about having people who know more than we do cast and eye over our plans so that we don’t make a well-meant mess.

I know you would never do that. You have good taste. You only wanted a fresh-coat of the sensible colour that was already there. But imagine it were someone else. Someone who thought orange and green stripes would be nice…

The one about the hall agreement? Oh, I so wish we didn’t need those. But neither do I want the lawsuit and the horrible articles in the paper if something goes wrong and ‘the church’ gets the blame. Let’s get an agreement written up and ask people to sign. Sorry I hadn’t noticed we didn’t have one before.

As for needing to tell the PCC before making big decisions? That’s just common sense. You all carry so much responsibility for the church, and one of my jobs is to help make sure you carry that safely — and that means we make decisions together.

I know it’s faster if you just make the decision on your own and tell us later. I know you worry that everything slows down if we have to talk. But that’s how we grow together as a community, how we share ideas, how we keep each other safe.

Sorry it’s all so annoying.
Sorry you’re having to learn this when you’ve been doing it differently for 30 years.
I really can’t explain it either. I have no idea why no one has ever told you this before.

But, at least we know now. The rules are there to help us.

What’s going well?

Early March is often is my low point. I can no longer pretend that I’m just catching up after Christmas. Holy Week is about to claim the diary completely, and after that there are six AGMs to get through. I would still like to know who decided to put the Annual Meetings of the Church of England in April. It seems an aggressively anti-liturgical move.

There is always danger, therefore, that I will write my annual report in Grumpy Prophet Mode. (The winter has passed, the head-count is over, and we are not yet saved.)  Grumpy Prophets have no place at annual meetings. So I have learned not to rely on my own perceptions.

At our PCC meeting on Monday, I asked for help with the AGM: ‘What’s going well? What do we want to celebrate?’ I knew there were things. Even as I asked I began to remember: conversations about children and communion; the weird but wonder summer produce stall; the atmosphere at the 11.30 service; the rescue of the ancient and lovely purple altar frontal. But the first response from the group surprised me completely.

‘People are talking about faith. Outside of church. People are talking to each other.’

Really? I had no idea.

One of the problems of having six churches is that I never feel like I know what’s going on. I am only there two Sundays out of four at the big church, and even less in the villages. I don’t get to feel the little shifts, the mood changes, spot the patterns because I’m always trying to re-join the community and figure out where they are.

It should not be surprising that people talk about faith, but it is. It’s one of the hardest things to get a community to do. Is it happening? Not enough. Not yet. But I am thrilled that even one person, in one part of the church thinks that it is so.

And the real mark of God is that I have no idea why it should be so. Yes, the Lent Groups are good — but there have always been Lent Groups. Yes, I expect people to talk about God — but I’m sure that’s been true of my colleagues too. But something is changing.

In a small group the other day, someone asked — in genuine curiosity and kindness — ‘Why are you here?’ It was a God question. We’d been talking about gender roles and Christian Feminism, and I suspect my outsider status was showing. What she was asking was, ‘Given the local culture, and given what you believe — what on earth is God doing, putting you here?’

I’m sure that I’m here because it was time for me to receive a gift of kindness — and these congregations give it abundantly. But as for what I give, what I am here to do?  I am still not sure.

But perhaps we are beginning to get an answer. I am here because my very presence upsets the status-quo. I am here because when I say things about God that I think are normal and uncontroversial, they are often seen as surprising.  The gap in assumptions can be hard, but it’s fascinating; so people are talking.

‘Does she really think that?’
‘But I’m sure we were taught…’
‘Do you think it could be…?’

There’s good Godly gossip going on, and that is worth celebrating indeed.

 

 

 

 

All the Terriers of God

 

I’m working on a new Mission Strategy: Terrier-led Worship.

The question of how one changes a liturgical culture is never far from my mind. A lot of parishes get lost somewhere between ‘mini-cathedral’ and ‘private club’. Lack of humour is mistaken for reverence; chaos is seen as informality.

Quite by accident, I find myself exploring a new model: Worship with Dogs.

There are regular doggy-worshippers in two of my six congregations. One is a friendly, quiet, old terrier who accompanies his elderly human so that they can both feel safe. He sits under her chair on a blanket, and comes up to the rail for a blessing. He nibbles on biscuits at coffee, and expertly welcomes new members.

In another church, we have a whole pack. Three terriers, two, none, four. One never really knows who will turn up. In winter they are held in by the wooden door, and in summer they can sit on the screened in porch. It’s what the screen is for.

Yesterday, a one-eyed terrier came up as acolyte as I read the gospel: good as gold, he set his eyes on the book and did not move till it was over.

Their presence changes things. More than anything I can say, the fact that we pray with dogs makes it clear that this is not The Church of Ancient Memory. Our worship is not about best behaviour or rules. We can be serious about our faith and light hearted in our approach.

With the dogs there, I can slip in an unexpected aside about the too ready acceptance of abuse in our society, without worrying that the young children are going to latch onto it. (They have mandalas to colour, and a dog is trying to lick their nose.) With the dogs there, it feels natural to pause between confession and absolution to answer the three year old’s question, ‘Daddy, why are you all talking?’ We explain, and ask them to think of something they wish they hadn’t done this week, and absolution is granted.

A large part of my heart will always be committed to big, beautiful liturgies that catch us up in the wonder of God. But that is never going to be the norm of parish ministry.

In the villages, the dogs teach us we are human, and let the whole of life come in.