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Reflections on becoming a Reader in the Church of England

My journey to becoming a Reader in the Church of England is a testimony to the incredible patience of God.

I was admitted and licensed on a sunny 13th October during a joyful Morning Eucharist in Warsaw. Preparing to meet Archdeacon Adèle at the airport the day before, I found myself thinking back to Saturday 12th October 1985, when I myself first landed in Warsaw to take up a British Council teaching post, in Gdańsk, “my plans” for that academic year having fallen through a couple of months earlier. Warsaw had then been bleak and rather grim and I had felt very much an alien. However, wondering what I had let myself in for, I had recalled an October day, earlier still, when, as a fresher at university, I had joined, mainly out of curiosity, a prayer group for communist countries. Be careful what you pray for!

While marriage and a family kept me anchored in Poland, I lived in Gdańsk for the next thirty years as an “isolated Anglican,” participating in public worship in a different language and in a different, distinctively Polish, tradition. God, in his mercy, kept me throughout, yet the situation was not ideal. I was not starving, but I was hungry.

It was against this background that God called me to become a Reader in the Church of England and it was both unexpected and clear. A few years ago, when signing the “patient’s charter” on admission to hospital for surgery, I was struck by its guarantee of a right to pastoral care in the patient’s own faith tradition. Where could an Anglican find this in Gdańsk, or anywhere in northern Poland come to that? Where indeed?

It was immediately apparent that this was something that I could not drift into. It would require authorisation, Gdańsk is geographically remote from Warsaw, where the Anglican chaplaincy had finally been reinstated in 1996. Rev. David Brown, the Chaplain, with whom I had had no previous contact, answered my phone call almost as if he had been expecting it and was eager to explore whether now was the time for services to be held in Gdansk. I have since become aware that his vision is part of a wider recognition of a role for “missional readers,” who may be embedded in a particular geographical area or community.*

The fellowship of the wonderful people who have found their way to the small but growing church in Gdańsk and friendships made elsewhere in Poland and in the Diocese in Europe have been a great joy. However, I hope I will never forget the “isolated Anglicans” as I go forward. I was one myself.

While training in such an environment requires self-discipline, it has, in my case, been a feast after a long fast. I also began to check some of the habits of a lifetime! The Church does not need too many more “opinions” these days. I would argue that the training of a lay minister is necessary to form the habit of making prayer and reflection on Scripture the starting point for a response. I’m not the person I was a few years ago. This is, of course, work in progress and my prayer is, in the words of Charles Wesley, “Finish, then, thy new creation!”

Archdeacon Adèle said, accurately, after my licensing, “You’re up and running.” I sometimes feel I have ground to make up, although I’m mindful that running, especially at my age, risks tripping and falling if I do not look where I’m going. Yet there has been no “lost time.” God has just been incredibly patient.

*See, for example, Exploring Missional Reader Ministry by Liz Shercliff (Grove Booklet MEv123, 2018)

27th February George Herbert, Priest, Poet (1593-1633)

Coastlands

Montgomery, Powys, Wales is a very special place. It is associated for me with  my family and with some wonderful people. It was also the birthplace of George Herbert, whose life and work is commemorated today.  SONY DSC

Herbert was born into an aristocratic family and had a brilliant career in academic and public life. However, he withdrew from both in order to serve the Lord devotedly in a rural parish. His poems are jewels of English Christian verse.

Here is one of Herbert’s best known poems. I recommend reading it aloud.

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.

“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”;
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I…

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An epiphany at Cana

Malcolm Guite

Photo by Margot Krebs Neale

The set readings for this third Sunday of Epiphany tell the story of  ‘the first of the signs that Jesus did and manifested forth his glory’; the transformation of water into wine at the wedding at Cana. (John 2:1-11). I love this miracle, though John doesn’t call it a miracle, he rightly calls it a sign. It is a sign that points to so many profound and liberating things about the God whom Jesus reveals to us; His delight in and concern for our own personal life and loves, attested by His presence at the wedding feast, His abundant generosity in more than meeting our needs in the midst of everyday life, His call to us to move from the mere outward purity, symbolised by the water for ritual washing, to a transformation of inward joy, symbolised by the wine. But most importantly,  this sign…

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“O Lord God, you know”

Jesus’ promises of life, powerfully demonstrated by signs, have for me made for a thrilling and challenging journey through John’s Gospel during Lent. Now, however, we are confronted by dry bones in Ezekiel 37 and by illness, death and grief in John 11. The sisters at Bethany had believed wholeheartedly in Jesus and his healing power and the Martha’s “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11.21) is heartfelt. In contrast, her reply when told that Lazarus will rise again sounds less so and more like a lesson obediently learnt from the rabbis (“I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day”). With death comes corruption. Who does not “wobble” sometimes? 640px-Cemetery_of_the_Lost_Cemeteries_of_Gdańsk_-_12 (2)

Those wonderful promises to Nicodemus (in John 3.16) and to the Samaritan woman (in John 4.13-14) include the two word “eternal life.” In the end we either trust Jesus or we don’t.

We live in time and in eternity

The promises mentioned in John 3 and 4 were both linked to teaching about the Spirit, the “Breath of God,” taking us right back to the first sentences in the Bible. The bottom line is that the Creator can also recreate. The breath came into them [the bones] and they lived (Ezekiel 37.10). We are not asked to understand how. After all how can the mortal understand the immortal? When asked “Mortal, can these bones live?” Ezekiel answered “O Lord God, you know.” (Ezekiel 37.3).

Faith – not in a proposition, but in a person

Let us go with Jesus to the tomb as the sisters did. Jesus’ tears showed, as the onlookers remarked, his love for his friend, but also, surely, his love for the whole human race facing death. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life (John 3.16). Martha’s fear at the prospect of the removal of the stone acknowledges physical fear at the horror of death. Illness is real, shock is real, loss is real, grief is real and, yes, death is real. Yet the sign of the unbinding of Lazarus is one of release from the fear of death: Unbind him and let him go. Furthermore, in death we go, trusting,  where Jesus himself has gone before: “O Lord God, you know.” And we know that death was conquered and a new kind of life opened up.

And eternal life …?

Lucy said, “We’re so afraid of being sent away, Aslan. And you have sent us back into our own world so often.”

“No fear of that,” said Aslan. “Have you not guessed?” […] “There was a real railway accident,” said Aslan softly. “Your father and mother and all of you are – as you used to call it in the Shadowlands- dead […] The dream is ended: this is the morning.”

[…] the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. […] now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read…

(C. S. Lewis The Last Battle)

Words and knowledge fail, of course. But the signs given in John’s gospel during Lent prepare us to contemplate the death of the Lord and His victory over death itself.

“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live,  and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Streams of living water

“Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again,  but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4.13-14)

I can count on one hand the times in my life when I have been properly thirsty. Many of us are so blessed with good things that it is a rare experience. The same may be true in the spiritual sense. Indeed we may not even be able to identify our problem. In western countries it is all too easy to turn aside from spiritual thirst and dryness, seeking a panacea, a distraction or a quick fix. Some of us may ‘treat ourselves’, seek out ‘comfort food,’ decide we need a holiday or some entertainment to lighten the mood, watch a box set, perhaps escape into ‘retail therapy’ or decide that the cure lies in a nice cup of tea. Yet these strategies, helpful as they may be in the short term do not solve the problem when strength is sapped and morale sinks (nor, of course, does escapism cure the suffering of depression). At worst this turning aside can take the form of rebellion against God and the idolatry of materialism, as was the case with those of the Israelites in the wilderness who, experiencing real thirst, denied God’s work among them and wanted to return to Egypt.

If Nicodemus in last week’s gospel was pointed forward to the cross, the Lord’s discussion with the woman of Samaria looks forward beyond this to Pentecost. Nicodemus, a man who seemed to have his life under control, struggled with the sheer simplicity of the call to accept a free gift and be born again. New birth is the beginning of new life, but now we are made to consider how spiritual life is to be sustained, grow and flourish. The unnamed woman at the well seems to become aware that her life, and indeed her religion, were stagnating and responds to Jesus: “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. mit_tzt_im_fluss.gifShe leaves her water jar (and remember that set of enormous water jars at the wedding at Cana!), understanding what is meant by “living water”, an endless stream bubbling up from the source that will transform the staleness of her life.

Many in religious communities have deliberately turned their backs on the avoidance tactics that the materialistic world offers. To do so is not a kind of self-flagellation, but trust, and those who have done this often describe periods of spiritual dryness followed by a discovery of the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit. Those who accept the challenge to trust, find the streams of water in the desert. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert (Isaiah 35.6)

When in the noonday heat we may be tired (as Jesus was), when in suffering we may thirst for God (as did Jesus, unimaginably, on the cross when he bore the sin of the world), we are not abandoned in the wilderness, as individuals or as a people, if we go forward in trust instead of turning aside. The living water bubbles up from the source, ultimately filling everything. It is from the source that this life-giving sustenance comes, by contemplation of what the Creator has done, by prayer, which is the daily centre of our relationship with God, the Bible and the sacrament. This may be experienced as we pass through green pastures or, through perseverance and trust, in the wilderness.

Shadowlands

Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council.  He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”  (John 3.1-2)

His religious commitment was not in doubt, he was an experienced interpreter of the Scriptures and he followed a demanding rule of life. A teacher and a thinker, he was well-organised, thorough, competent and well-respected. This may be supposed from Nicodemus’ identity as a Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin. He responded to Jesus’ teaching in a thoughtful, questioning and respectful way, rather than feeling threatened and trying to outdo him or trip him up, as were some of his fellow Pharisees.

candlelight-801322_1280As a result of his position, he had good reason to approach Jesus under cover of night and out of public view. Yet John’s Gospel also marks off darkness from light symbolically. Jesus himself claimed (and was immediately challenged by the Pharisees), I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life (John 8.12).

Seeking God

Can humans reach out to God, whose Spirit, ‘the wind of God’ was present at creation? No. ‘The wind blows wherever it pleases.’ Instead, God has come to us and can bring about a rebirth and a restoration of the relationship of trust between God and humankind.

A simple question.

“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked. (John 3.9).

Rabbi to rabbi: not understanding but trust

At first Jesus explains in Nicodemus’ own terms: an interpretation of the Torah. The Israelites under Moses, suffering a deadly disease in the wilderness, a consequence of their own lack of trust in God, were invited to acknowledge this and, by faith, receive life  (Numbers 21.4-8). Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him. (John 3.14-15).

The Gospel in a nutshell

John 3.16 Breath-taking in its simplicity. It tells of the trust that was built into creation once more becoming a reality. The door stands open. How can this be? It is by the very nature of God, who is love. It is a gift, which becomes a reality when received in the grateful acceptance that is faith.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

In the light…

And Nicodemus? He is referred to twice more in John’s Gospel, in each instance with the explanation that he had first come to Jesus by night. In both cases he identifies himself clearly with Jesus, while doing so by means of the law and ritual in which he had been trained. In the first he questions the conduct of his own colleagues towards Jesus, only to be turned on scornfully as being himself one of Jesus’ followers (John 7.50-52). In the second he anoints the body of Jesus at his death and assists Joseph of Arimathea at His burial (John 19.38-42).

In view of the secrecy surrounding his first meeting with Jesus, is it not also likely that it was Nicodemus himself who was John’s source for the wonderful account of that meeting given in John 3?