run

Sometimes things happen in church.

Tonight, as I stood at the altar, saying the prayer of offering, someone entered the worship space and I froze. It was the way he entered, coming in fairly quickly, not walking forward to one of the altars, or coming towards the sanctuary to join us. He cut across, to the fair aisle, the hidden aisle, the place of greatest shadow. He had a hood raised, and a large puffy coat unzipped, but wrapped around him.

It might have just been a wanderer, someone seeking shelter. But it felt wrong, and I was very aware that there were only three of us at the eucharist tonight, all way up by the altar, and he was out of sight. I watched as I said the prayer, and tried to asses options.
There was a moment, just a moment, when I saw him moving and I came within half a breath of saying ‘Run! Into the sacristy. Now.’ But I wasn’t sure yet — so I did something else instead.

I left the altar and walked towards him — and towards the light switches, because we had been lulled by a light evening into too much carelessness. I think I said to the others, ‘stay here.’ I certainly thought it, and they did.

I spoke towards him, saying loudly, ‘let me give you some light, so you can see better.’
He walked towards me and said, ‘is it alright that I am here? Can I stay?’

I relaxed a bit, and said yes. He was welcome to stay to pray or for some quiet. We would continue the service. I returned to the altar and began the eucharistic prayer. He sat in a pew. Then shifted, and wandered again. He came up into the choir where we had been before we moved to the altar. I called ‘you are welcome to join us here.’ And then realised — there were handbags. He suddenly walked out.

And as I said ‘handbags’ to the congregation, one realised hers was missing, and ran like a flash after him.

‘Don’t go alone. Don’t put yourself in danger,’ I said as I too ran from the altar to follow her. By the time I caught up, they were on the path, and she had confronted him. She took her bag off him, and he did not resist.

We were very lucky. Had he wanted to harm us, he could have. For some reason, he seemed unclear of his own desire.

But later — once the adrenaline was gone — and once I had shown the tiny Tuesday night congregation where the hidden exits were, and told them that if I ever gave them a command to ‘Go’ they must obey. Into the sacristy. Lock the door. My phone will be in my bag or on the desk. Better one person in danger, and three people safe with a phone than all at risk. They must go. But later, I wondered…

What happened that Maundy Thursday night?

What happened when the soldiers came for Jesus?

I have always, always preached this as betrayal. The disciples scattering. Fear overcoming love.

But what if he wanted them to go? What if they were right to flee? Run. Scatter. Dissolve into shadows.

What if Jesus walked toward the cross, not desolate or afraid, but thanking God the others had all gotten away?

 

Milkweed

It had been years since I’d seen it: the pale gilt and silver of winter milkweed.

Milkweed is a paradoxical plant. It is the only food and childhood home of the monarch. For that alone it should be celebrated and loved. But it lives on the margins, in the marshes, and is mostly ingored. Those who feel passionately about it often hate it — a sticky mess of a plant, that won’t behave, and leaves a bitter taste in your mouth.

In summer, I can walk past it — not notice, unless the butterflies are there. But in winter, it is glorious: pods curled back to show their gold heart and the fraying satin of home-body seeds.

It is this that draws me — the paradox of scattering and gathering. The clinging seeds that keep me grounded, while heart soars with all the seed that flew.

Sometimes, my sense of church pulls like that last seed in the winter pod. Should we cling so long, and at such cost, to something so unpromising? Should we hold on, so that the future is rooted in this place?

Church, for me, is not a place, but a yearning. A willingness to be stretched and torn and blown on the wind because this is the only hope there is.

Every year, it seems, the church tears itself apart. We start out, dreaming of justice, longing for beauty, trusting that God calls us to transforming grace — and our mouths go dry crying against the wind, railing against the ever rising injustice, against the cruelties and prejudices that we thought we’d moved passed, that grew stronger as we looked the other way.

Today, too many in the church I love are hurting — we hurt over botched invitations to Lambeth, and the systemic injustice that speaks of ‘women priests’ as something you can choose to believe in. We are worn down by abuse of power, a readiness to blame the victims, and a cultural habit that silences those who speak out. Sometimes, we are simply tired of the tedium and prose, and dream of a church more lovely, wild and free.

And yet.

The seeds that cling in the winter pod are resilient. The filagree of silk that could so easily be crushed, might even yet break free. Soar. Dance. And if it doesn’t? Well, it will eventually drop to the ground, set another dream in place, create another stubborn weed trying to bring glory out of the mud. It is what we are called to. Some must stay for the butterflies. It is the only food there is.

 

 

Choose

Today, I have set before life and death, blessings and curses,
choose life, that you and your descendants may live.’ 

This was one of those days when the sermon was going to happen on a wing and a prayer. The alarm goes off. You look at the lectionary app so that you can plan in the shower. You hope for the best.

Choose life, so you may live.

The relief flooded over me. A text I love. A text that always speaks. I knew, by then, the sermon would take care of itself. But it was more than that. This was once again the gift: choose life.

I was first given this text by a nun who didn’t quite know what to do with me during my first Retreat in Daily Life. I was given it again by a nun who did know what to do with me during my second Retreat in Daily Life. The first nun couldn’t cope with my saying, ‘I understand, but I don’t know how.’ The second one could.

Choose life.

We cannot actually take it for granted that we know how to choose.

For me, I had chosen very early on. I had chosen to survive. And that choice did away with any niceties of preference. To survive, you learn not to want what you want, so that you are not disappointed by what you don’t get, till the whole notion of choosing falls away. This was all a long tine ago now. Old wounds mostly healed. But that is why this text rings like a sharp bell, cuts like a two-edged sword, opens a vast space of yearning, even as my throat catches in fear. ‘Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.’

If you are a survivor, you will know: to choose life is to let go of survival. It is to choose risk, to risk death, to risk pain, and (worse) failure. To choose life, you will have to learn, first, to feel.

‘Choose life’ is always a knife edge — the quickening tears, and the quickening hope that life is worth choosing.

And yes: there could be curses.
And yes: you may choose badly.
But look: you can choose. Choose life, and choose again.

There is no other way we can have freedom, and no other way we can find joy.

I’m still not sure I know how to choose life.
There are still many days I forget, or choose badly, or get stuck in the habits of survival.

But sometimes, life comes. And I get to choose it: and it might be painful; and it might be beautiful; and it is always good.

Spirograph

Spirograph.

The first experience of meditation.
An early glimpse of beauty coming from chaos.
The memory of young rage and disproportionate sorrow, when beauty was almost achieved but went spinning out of control.

Spirograph: a lesson in being human.

Yesterday, a friend was hunting for Lent Blogging ideas and I suggested ’40 words that quicken or express your hope in God’. It was meant for her, not me, but I woke thinking, Maybe?

I was thinking of words like spaciousness, wonder, ellipsis, kavod — I was thinking avocet, lapwing, purr. Nowhere, in all my imagining, was the God-word spirograph. And yet, there it is.

I had just set a class to doodling, asking them to keep the pen moving, while thinking about what it felt like when the weight of the world fell on your shoulders because someone, somewhere, had convinced you that you were supposed to be perfect.

It was hard for them. They are not used to being asked to draw what they feel or to use drawing to help figure out what they feel. They were too young for irony, and couldn’t spot the raw data in the room.

So, I gave them a prompt: you can start with a circle, if you like. See where it leads you. And suddenly, pens were whirring round. And suddenly the headteacher was whispering to the teacher in the corner — remembering the hours she spent as a child, that thing, with the circles spinning round. How she loved it. What was it?

Spirograph. It was my childhood too.

The liturgical year is a gift of circles — a spiralling round that grounds us in God. And each year that passes, I am more grateful for the memories that flood, at each pancake party, of every other pancake party. That moment, in a too small kitchen, with a too large crowd, when a person with a hot pan, and a person with a wet dish nearly collide, and instead, spin and turn. The trust that comes; the awareness of something unspoken that bind you; the dance of the body of Christ.

Ash Wednesday brings different memories, of all the selves I’ve been. The years when I ran eagerly towards Lent, looking for growth, expecting healing — young, and naive, and sure that God would come gloriously. The years of loneliness and exhaustion, when Lent was a task of faithfulness, God long since hidden, disciplines lost to the struggle to survive.

It’s all there, every time. Every person, every feeling, every hope for God.

And sometimes, it seems the circle comes round, and we get to begin again.

Spirograph: the gift of childhood.
First Meditation.
Infinite longing.
Beaty from Chaos.