Sunday, 30 September 2007

A Sobering Thought

Sunday is a strange day. Especially for me! Depending on what priests are sick or on holidays or what parishes have no priests at all, I can be in a number of different places to say Mass. Calls for cover have been few and far between over the last few weeks, and the few times that I have been asked I have been unable to oblige. So this morning, I was able again to concelebrate with Fr Graham at St Mary's. It was their Harvest Thanksgiving and in the centre of a small yet effective Harvest display was, as could be expected from a parish with a Real Ale loving priest, a can of Old Speckled Hen!

I'm not sure what happens to the children's harvest gifts presented at the altar at St Mary's. When I was young, they were sorted and delivered to the elderly and housebound, and I'm wondering now if that little can went anywhere or if it was just loaned for display purposes only! A few years ago Fr Graham wrote to Brains' Brewery, which is just down the road, to ask them if they would like to contribute some gifts to their Harvest display, since it was part of the local industry and production, something to be thankful for! Alas, for Fr Graham, there was no reply! Maybe, of course, they were too busy at the time sealing the deal on sponsoring the Welsh Rugby Team which, after their exit from the Rugby World Cup yesterday, is probably not the thing to mention! The coach, Gareth Jenkins, is now looking for a new job, after being given the elbow by the WRU and becoming the symbolic scapegoat for those who feel the faint lull of failure. Have a can, Gareth! The rest of us are!

Meanwhile, it got me thinking about what I would put in the centre of a Harvest Display. What symbolic gesture would I make? Not a run of the mill, we plough the fields and scatter Harvest Display but a thanksgiving for your own personal harvest. Not one of fruit or veg or tins of beans or flowers, salt and water. What if you had to make a Harvest display of your own life, or just the last year, thanking God for the fruits that have been produced? What would I have to show? It's a sobering thought!

Saturday, 29 September 2007

Beautiful Thing

I read today of the success of a first time author from Cardiff, Nia Wyn by name, who has written a book that I will buy and read. Blue Sky July is a book by a mother of a nine year old boy with cerebral palsy telling of their life together. It began as a diary of jottings that she made when she had to attend to Joe at night, and where she simply and lyrically expressed her thoughts and feelings. As I read the story on the BBC News website I was moved by some of the things she says but one thing sprang out. 'Tragedy,' she said, 'often has a way of connecting you more deeply with the world.'

We all have our fair shares of tragedy, some more severe than others, and sometimes it takes the tale of another's tragedy to put our own into perspective. But even if we don't have tragic personal circumstances, and life is great and problem free, we are still surrounded by the reality of suffering and sadness in the world, of situations that stagger or astound us or leave us feeling fed up or down hearted. Nia has shown how her 'traumatic journey' has also been full of hope and happiness, and now her personal reflections inspire others who are given a peek into her life with Joe, and hopefully help us connect more deeply with the world.

I have said, time and time again in sermons and homilies (and sorry for those who have had to listen to the same things time and time again!) that hardship and pain and tragedy can make us into two very different kinds of people. It can either make us into very bitter people: hard and sad and cynical. Or it can make us into beautiful people, compassionate and warm and loving. It comes at a price, of course. It comes with tears and pain and broken hearts but it does, as Nia puts it, connect us more deeply with the world. These kinds of experiences can leave us doubting or ready to desert a God we claim to be full of love. But somewhere, between the cracks of our lives, within the utter confusion and devastating, deranged and demoralising situations, we discover something that is beautiful and connects us more deeply with the world.

Friday, 28 September 2007

It's not so bad in the Market Place!

'Watch me stall for a minute, will ya love?'
And so, Deano Wicks bravely leaves his market stall in Albert Square to Stacey Slater, his market mate. Where's he going? Not to church, that's for certain, as a recent UKTV Food study has shown, which claims that up to 78% more people visited the 27 Sunday markets in Wales and England (which included Celyn in Flintshire and Riverside in Cardiff) than church services. Then, in a lightening strike, the Church in Wales retaliates. Anna Morrel enters the Market Place and presents the real figures and says it's just not true! The Riverside market attracted only 800 visitors and Celyn just 1,200. The Church in Wales’ own figures show a far more dramatic difference, with nearly 12,500 people going to church in the diocese of Llandaff and nearly 8,000 in the diocese of St Asaph, where Celyn market is situated. It looks like things aren't so bad after all!

Centuries ago, (Medieval times, I mean) many markets were held in the church yard and sometimes even in the church itself, a vibrant kaleidoscope of sound and colour. These days, much the same is happening. Churches are looking for ways in which the buildings they maintain can be opened up and used by the public in different creative and caring ways, to become a market place in a new way. In my former parish of Cwmaman, for example, the present priest, Fr David Way, has succesfully developed the building into a community facility and local heritage and environmental centre, all topped with solar panels. A few miles down the road, the parish of Ynysboeth have handed the building over to a Community Partnership for their 'Feel Good Factory' whilst keeping their own designated time slot for Sunday Mass. So, the market place isn't miles away from the life of the Church. Yes, there are fewer people going to church and, yes, we are in a missionary position, but mission and the market place are happy together, and if we make the most of it we might just look after one another's stalls! It looks like things aren't so bad after all!

Meanwhile, Deano returns to his stall in cheery, dreary Albert Square. 'Cheers, Stace, you're a star! What was that you wanted, love? A pound of tomatoes? Call it a quid, yeh. And I'll throw in a couple of onions for you! What's that, love? Yeh, been to church. St Mary's. They got a proper 'caf' down there and a gym downstairs and a community credit association and once a week they got a drop in centre and there's even a woman who can give you an Indian Head Massage!'
'Church sold out, has it?' askes Stacey, sharp and surly.
'Sold out? Nah, they're just making the most of the market place.'
It looks like things aren't so bad after all!

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Past Times and Pastimes

Imagine the scene. Jesus has just risen from prayer. He has spent all night in prayer in fact. He is tired but refreshed and he has some important things to do! So he sets about the task immediately. He needs to choose a few people as his disciples and not just any old disciples. Oh no! These are gonna be special disciples. Twelve in fact. In fact, twelve to be precise! These people will prove to be the foundations of the church, and play an important part in the post resurrection mission of Christ, sent out to share the gospel and oversee the growing Christian community. But before all of that they have a lot to learn and a long way to travel and the job is a tough one with great responsibilities. How does he choose? Does he have a Myers Briggs Personality Type test for them to complete or an application form with two references? Does he put them through some gruelling role play or ask them to go in front of a panel of experts who fire questions at them? Does he ask them personal questions? Does he ask them about their pastimes and their past times or their family life? Does he need to know their inside leg measurement or put them through a medical? Has he got concerns? Does he ask them if they're gay? How do you choose an Apostle?

The plea by some areas of the Anglican Communion have insisted that the Episcopal Church of the USA do not ordain any bishops who are gay. How will they know unless they are seen mincing down the aisle or wearing crops tops and dancing to Kylie Minogue? In other words, unless they fulfil all the stereotypes. In all this fuss about the consecration of Gene Robinson - has it occured to them that in their past times they may have had a few bishops who happen to have been gay. And not just those single men (and now women) who are gay and whom others have assumed to be celibate. What about the married ones? You know, those married men and women who are either gay or bisexual and are neither 'out and about' nor 'out and put it about.' And do they think that there will be no others? How do you choose an Apostle?

So back to Jesus. There he is, staring across the horizon, looking for men to join his band of pilgrims, men worthy enough to take the gospel message out and about. He sees a few that show potential but he stands back and pauses awhile wondering what they've got up to in their past times and wondering what their pastimes consist of. He hesitates. Maybe their a bit fruity, he thinks to himself. Or maybe, just maybe, he wasn't too bothered. And maybe, just maybe, he sees into their heart and sees them for what they are and knows what they can be. And maybe, just maybe, Jesus has a better idea on how to choose an apostle!

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Having a Piece of the Pope!

Clothes never go out of fashion, it seems, especially when you're a pope! The Diocese of Rome has been swamped with requests for relics of Pope John Paul II who have been offering small pieces of his white cassock. Things, however, got out of hand when reports suggested that pieces of the robe were available to buy. The Diocese quickly retaliated by saying that the relics have no commercial value and that it was sacrilegious to buy and sell them. "It's only a devotional object," they said. "It's useless to try to collect it or sell it on the internet because we will satisfy any request for this object." It appears that everyone wants a little piece of him!

Some people look on relics with suspicion and cynicism and often a disparaging amount of humour, poorly patronising. But Christians are human, too (a good slogan, methinks!) and with it comes the need for physical touches and reminders, something to have and to hold - whether it's a holiday souvenir or the hand me down of a loved one, long gone. And so to another Pope. In 1966 as Archbishop Michael Ramsey and Pope Paul VI were saying their farewells on the steps of St Paul's-outside-the-Walls in Rome, the Pope slipped off his episcopal ring, which was given to him by the city of Milan when he was archbishop there, and placed it in the palm of Ramsey's hand who then slipped it on his own finger. He was visibly moved and later said, 'I felt vividly as if he was giving me a piece of himself.'

Which brings us to the giving of another in the actions of Jesus who, surrounded by his friends and familiar followers, gives himself in bread and wine. Yet even this act of self giving is denied its proper place in the life of some churches, who look upon the regular celebrations of the Eucharist by some with disparaging humour, poorly patronising. In the Eucharist Jesus gives us not just a piece of himself but the whole of himself, perhaps summed up so well in the words of Henri Nouwen who described the Eucharist as ‘the most divine and human gesture imaginable.’ Some things never go out of fashion: including the desire for more than we can imagine, a desire for the divine. Oh, yes, and those simple physical touches for us 'so human' beings.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Agatha's having nun of this!

Well, it's more nuns from me, today! Perhaps my ramblings in the last post were prosaically prophetic as I read today the news story of a Planning Application made to Tenby Town Council from someone who is opening a hotel converted from a convent. In addition to the change of use of the building he wants to erect a large sign of a topless nun outside. Well, she's not totally topless, just menacingly lifting her bodice to show a bit of flesh. Is it a joke? A little wickedness? A harmless piece of fun or irony? Who knows what is going through the mind of the applicant - but councillors aren't happy!

When I first read the story my mind went straight to St Agatha, a 3rd century saint from Sicily who was cruelly tortured and killed under the persecution of Decius. Part of her torturous ending included being sent to a brothel and then having her breasts removed, and in Christian iconography she is often shown holding a tray on which stands her breasts. A far cry from the post modern, post Christian iconography of a Pembroke business man!

But then clergy, religious, the church, Christians are all, for one reason or another, great targets for humour and why not? We're only human and are good material for caricature and satire and if we can't laugh at ourselves then we need to do some soul searching. Meanwhile, a topless nun outside a former convent? What can I say?! As Agatha was being maimed she is reputed to have said to her torturer, 'Cruel tyrant, do you not blush to torture this part of my body, you that sucked the breasts of a woman yourself?' Let's leave her have the last word, eh?

Monday, 24 September 2007

Space, Sea and Strange Nuns!

It's been an interesting week or two. Last night we held a Eucharist for young people at St Paul's Grangetown in Cardiff, using the BBC series Doctor Who to explore the figure of Christ. It was amazing the amount of interest and comment it created in the week before - some favourable, others critical, some curious, others comical! We were mentioned in various blogs and news forum, news sites and newspapers, not to mention radio and television and Fr Ben (the parish priest) even had an invitation to appear on the The Alan Titchmarsh Show (which didn't materialise in the end!). Actually, we were doing nothing new: just using popular culture to share the gospel and communicate with people in a language they understand. Nothing radical about that! There were 109 people there (quite a precise figure, I know!) of all different ages and I think it went well - but who am I to say?

This morning I was at the Bishop of Llandaff High School for an Assembly with year 10 pupils. Fr Ben was also taking an assembly in another part of the school and we were accompanied by Sister Jane Louise from Walsingham who has been spending a week in Grangetown as part of their parish mission. I love watching people's reaction to seeing a 'real' nun! A mixture of bemusement, surprise and curiosity as if some strange alien has landed in their midst. To a lesser degree, clergy get a similar response with stares and double takes. Mind you, is it really the collar the does that? This afternoon though, I slipped my collar out: I was delivering a PSE lesson in Radyr Comprehensive School on behalf of Bulliesout, an anti bullying charity, so I removed my collar so as not to confuse the young people! Or was it not to confuse me? Maybe a bit of both. I'm confused now!

On Saturday, at last, I visited the island of Flat Holm, sitting five miles off the coast of Cardiff. It's situated in the Parish of Cardiff where I live and Fr Graham (the parish priest) tries to get across to say Mass once a year with parishioners, though he hasn't been for several years: the crossings are often cancelled due to the weather and high winds. It was a great experience: we had an outdoor Mass to celebrate St Cadoc who often visited and stayed on the island in the sixth century. It was a still, warm day with no wind across the island and it was hard to imagine that the sea had swallowed a contemporary of Cadoc, St Baruc as he was returning from the island back to the monastery at Llancarfan. Mind, you I suppose he was sailing in a coracle not a boat carrying forty other passengers armed with packed lunches and cameras. His body was washed up at Barry Island: hence the place name, and when I was curate in the parish of Merthy Dyfan in Barry I could see across the channel from my flat to the island and had always wanted to visit but was one of the many little things I hadn't got round to.