‘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.

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.

first impressions

This morning I have taken my office outside and am working from the Butterfly Garden in New Waltham. This is one of the many surprises of the past week. The villages are lovley. Waltham itself (village? town?) is gently busy and bright. New Waltham is the least likely place to seek quiet. It is on the edge of Cleethorpes, and much more suburban. But someone here understands sacred space, and there is a well crafted garden slowly growing into a sanctuary.

My first impressions of Lincolnshire led to thoughts of Oz. But there is no ambiguity now: this is England.

In the week before my institution, the community police officer dropped by to say hello; the local take away hand delivered a menu (probably on the rumour that my cooker had not arrived); the local papers had articles welcoming me, and apparently I was the talk of the town, from hairdresser, to news agents, to pub.

I kept my head down till the licensing, and people were remarkably respectful of that. But as soon as I went out in my dog-collar, the energy was released: people wave from their cars as they pass; I get stopped in the street; there is a growing list of people and places where I am supposed to drop in because they want to meet the new ‘vicar’.

Learning what it means to be the parish priest will not be a problem. I have four villages and two small towns ready and eager to teach me.

For the first week, I spent most of my time going around the churches: tea, chat and worship, in half-day blocks. It was good to meet people in their own environment, and to begin to realise how different these churches are. In one village, I was introduced to The Protestant Reformation Society. Remember them? I thought they’d passed out of existence a century ago, but apparently, the issues are still live. The 39 articles are firmly defended. Surplice and stole are the norm. Opinions vary widely in the congregations, but everyone knows that Calvin and Cramner are never far away.

On the other hand, I found a pink chasuble in one of the churches last night. Glory be.

What strikes me is this: there are a huge number of people here who are deeply committed to the churches. Some of those people would never dream of worshipping, and would find it mildly surprising to think that might be what church was about. And yet, they organise rotas to mow the graveyard. They swoop in to clean the church and dress it in fairy lights for fundraising dinners. They come when the new priest says ‘I’ll be in the church’ and they ask about weddings and blessings and prayer.

The nature of worship is sometimes ambiguous but the role of prayer is not. More people have spoken to me about prayer in the past week than in most years of parish ministry.

So that’s where we’ll start: with prayer. And with cleaning the sacristies — and the fonts and altars too.

Butterfly_Garden_New_Walthan.JPG