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Thursday, 17 August 2017

The inexhaustible, unlimited motherly and fatherly love of God

Here is my sermon from today's Eucharist at St Stephen Walbrook:

Henri Nouwen was a bestselling author and pastor of a L’Arche community in Toronto, a community of people with learning difficulties. One of his best loved books is The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming. The book reflects on the parable of the Prodigal Son by way of a painting; Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son.

In the book Nouwen describes his thoughts as he first saw that image as a large poster pinned to a colleague’s door: “I saw a man in a great red cloak tenderly touching the shoulders of a dishevelled boy kneeling before him. I could not take my eyes away. I felt drawn by the intimacy between the two figures, the warm red of the man’s cloak, the golden yellow of the boy’s tunic, and the mysterious light engulfing them both. But, most of all, it was the hands – the old man’s hands as they touched the boy’s shoulders that reached me in a place where I had never been reached before.”

Through reflection on the painting and through L’Arche, Nouwen became familiar with the home of God within him. That place where, “I am held safe in the embrace of an all-loving Father who calls me by name and says, ‘You are my beloved son, on you my favour rests.’ Looking back he sees that his intense response to the father’s embrace of his son told that he was desperately searching for that inner place where he too could be held as safely as the young man in the painting. It maybe that we are each one searching for that place and embrace.

For Nouwen it all began with the father’s hands: “The two are quite different. The father’s left hand touching the son’s shoulder is strong and muscular … That hand seems not only to touch, but, with its strength, also to hold. Even though there is a gentleness in the way the father’s left hand touches his, it is not without a firm grip. How different is the father’s right hand! This hand does not hold or grasp. It is refined, soft, and very tender … It lies gently upon the son’s shoulder. It wants to caress, to stroke, and to offer consolation and comfort. It is a mother’s hand …As soon as I recognised the difference between the two hands of the father, a new world of meaning opened up for me. The Father is not simply a great patriarch. He is mother as well as father. He touches … with a masculine hand and a feminine hand. He is, indeed God, in whom both manhood and womanhood, fatherhood and motherhood, are fully present.

Then there is the great red cloak. With its warm colour and its arch-like shape, it offers a welcome place where it is good to be. At first, the cloak … looked to be like a tent inviting the tired traveller to find some rest. But as I went on gazing at the red cloak, another image came to me: the sheltering wings of the mother bird. They reminded me of Jesus’ words about God’s maternal love: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem … How often have I longed to gather your children, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.” Day and night God holds me safe, as a hen holds her chicks secure under her wings. Even more than … a tent, the image of a vigilant mother bird’s wings expresses the safety that God offers her children. They express care, protection, a place to rest and feel safe …

For most of my life I have struggled to find God, to know God, to love God. I have tried hard to follow the guidelines of the spiritual life … and to avoid the many temptations to dissipate myself. I have failed many times but always tried again, even when … close to despair. Now I wonder whether I have sufficiently realised that during all this time God has been trying to find me, to know me, and to love me. The question is not “How am I to find God?” but “How am I to let myself be found by him?” The … question is not “How am I to love God? But “How am I to let myself be loved by God?” God is looking into the distance for me, trying to find me, and longing to bring me home … God is the father who watches and waits for his children, runs out to meet them, embraces them, pleads with them, begs and urges them to come home. It might sound strange, but God wants to find me as much as, if not more than, I want to find God …

Many people live their lives never fully sure that they are loved as they are. Many have horrendous stories that offer plausible reasons for their low self-esteem. The parable of the prodigal son is a story that speaks about a love that existed before any rejection was possible and that will still be there after all rejections have taken place. It is the first and everlasting love of a God who is Father as well as Mother. It is the foundation of all true human love, even the most limited. Jesus’ whole life and preaching had only one aim: to reveal this inexhaustible, unlimited motherly and fatherly love of his God and to show the way to let that love guide every part of our daily lives. In his painting of the father, Rembrandt offers us a glimpse of that love. It is the love that always welcomes home and always wants to celebrate.”


Keith Green - The Prodigal Son Suite.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Restoring relationships

Here is my reflection from today's lunchtime Eucharist at St Martin-in-the-Fields:

The rock band Good Charlotte have a song called 'The Story of My Old Man'. It begins like this:

‘I don’t know too much, too much of my old man.
I know he walked right out the door and we never saw him again.
Last I heard he was at the bar doing himself in.
I know I got that same disease, I guess I got that from him.

This is the story of my old man,
just like his father before him.
I’m telling you do anything you can,
so you don't end up just like them.’

In today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 18: 15-20), Jesus says the church is like a family and he is realistic and recognises that in a family brothers (and sisters and parents will fall out). The song was about a real family and in the song it is the Dad who has broken up the family. In all these situations there is real hurt and when people are in these sorts of situation they react with anger saying “don’t end up just like them” or treat them “as though they were pagans or tax collectors.” In other words don’t have anything to do with them because of the hurt they have caused.

Good Charlotte also have a second song on this same theme which is called 'Emotionless':

'Hey Dad, I'm writing to you
not to tell you, that I still hate you
just to ask you how you feel
and how we fell apart, how this fell apart …

I remember the days, you were a hero in my eyes
but those were just a long lost memory of mine
I spent so many years learning how to survive
Now, I'm writing just to let you know that I'm still alive
And sometimes I forgive.
Yeah, this time I’ll admit that I miss you.
I miss you. Hey Dad.'

You see the difference between the two songs? They’re both about the singer’s Old Man. In both he’s been hurt by the things that his Old Man has done. But in the second song, he’s writing to try to restore the relationship, even, at the end, to say that he forgives and misses his Dad. It’s clearly not easy because of the hurt but it’s also very much what he needs to do.

And it’s a similar story in our Gospel reading. Jesus is not giving the disciples these instructions so that they can reject those brothers and sisters in the Church who do something wrong. He is giving these instructions so that these brothers and sisters can be won back; so that the relationship can be restored.

When Jesus says treat people like pagans and tax collectors, he doesn’t mean reject them. Matthew was a tax collector. He knew from personal experience how Jesus treated tax collectors and outcasts. He went to their homes, ate meals with them and said that he had not come to call respectable people, but outcasts. He did all he could to restore the relationship and heal the wounds.

And that is also what we see in the parables before and after these instructions. In the parable of the lost sheep, the point is that we do everything possible to find those who are lost and the parable of the unforgiving servant was told to illustrate the point that we should not put limits on forgiveness but forgive again and again, just as God forgives us.

This is not easy. Another songwriter, Leonard Cohen, has said that, “Of all the people who left their names behind, I don’t think there’s a figure of Christ’s moral stature. A man who declared himself to stand among the thieves, the prostitutes, the homeless. His position cannot be comprehended. It is an inhuman generosity … (which) would overthrow the world if it was embraced.”

There is a divine generosity in Jesus which we are called to emulate. We will find it hard to forgive, just as the person in the two Good Charlotte songs found it hard to forgive his Dad. But that is where Jesus wants us to do and that is the point of these instructions that he gave to the disciples. They are about restoring relationships not about rejecting those we think are in the wrong. When we struggle to forgive, struggle to restore, struggle to reconcile then we are coming together in the name of Jesus and he is right there with us.


Good Charlotte - Emotionless.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Start:Stop - Walking the walk & talking the talk

Bible reading: James 1:22-27

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.

If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.


Investors in People argue that “Everybody needs someone to look up to in the workplace. They want role models. This may seem like a daunting responsibility for a manager or employer, but it needn't be. It's largely just a matter of what we call ‘walking the talk’ and leading by example.” William C. Taylor, author of Practically Radical, has written that, “One of the most ubiquitous aphorisms in business is that the best leaders understand the need to “walk the talk” — that is, their behavior and day-to-day actions have to match the aspirations they have for their colleagues and organization.”

The phrase “if you’re going to talk the talk, you’ve got to walk the walk” is a modern version of old sayings like “actions speak louder than words” and “practice what you preach.” Another early form of the expression was “walk it like you talk it.” Many people now condense this to “walk the talk.”
All these are essentially versions of James 1. 22, “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers. “The real blessing of the Christian faith does not lie in listening to sermons or reciting liturgies, but in dwelling on what is true until it transforms what we do. A genuine encounter with Jesus provokes action.”

The action it produces is “care for orphans and widows in their distress.” Jesus said, in the Parable of the sheep and goats, that God’s judgement on us will be based on our actions; giving food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked and visiting those in prison. These actions are to be the end result of our faith. If our looking deeply into God’s word does not result in our doing these things, our faith is not genuine and we are not walking the walk as Christians.


As we relate to our colleagues, customers and suppliers, make us doers not merely hearers of your word. May we talk the talk and walk the walk.

As we seek to model our values and those of our company in the way we manage or relate to others,
make us doers not merely hearers of your word. May we talk the talk and walk the walk.

As we demonstrate our faith in actions and, where necessary, words, make us doers not merely hearers of your word. May we talk the talk and walk the walk.

As we show compassion to those in need here in the UK and around the world you made, make us doers not merely hearers of your word. May we talk the talk and walk the walk.

As we seek to do our job and respond to the new challenges and opportunities in our changed political environment following the General Election result, make us doers not merely hearers of your word. May we talk the talk and walk the walk.

The Blessing

May your Spirit inspire, guide and empower us to live as your people, following in your footsteps, animated by your Spirit and putting into practice in our lives what we hear from your word. May we be doers of your word and not merely hearers only and may that blessing of God almighty, Father, Son and Holy Spirit rest upon you and remain with you always. Amen.


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Ave Verum Corpus.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Beyond Airbrushed from Art History: Mystical Landscapes

Continuing the current trend of exhibitions which explore aspects of the spirituality of modern art (such as Divine Beauty: From Van Gogh to Chagall and Fontana and still small voice: British biblical art in a secular age), Mystical Landscapes: Masterpieces from Monet, Van Gogh and more was organized by the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto in partnership with the Musée d'Orsay in Paris to explore the mystical experiences of 37 artists from 14 countries, including Emily Carr, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, Piet Mondrian, Claude Monet, Edvard Munch, Georgia O'Keeffe and James McNeill Whistler.

The years between 1880 and 1930 were marked by rampant materialism and rapid urbanization. Disillusioned with traditional religious institutions, many European, Scandinavian and North American artists searched for an unmediated spiritual path through mystical experiences.

Seeking an order beyond physical appearances, going beyond physical realities to come closer to the mysteries of existence, experimenting with the suppression of the self in an indissoluble union with the cosmos. It was the mystical experience above all else that inspired the Symbolist artists of the late 19th century who, reacting against the cult of science and naturalism, chose to evoke emotion and mystery.

The landscape, therefore, seemed to these artists to offer the best setting for their quest, the perfect place for contemplation and the expression of inner feelings.

Contemplation, the ordeal of the night or of war, the fusion of the individual with the cosmos, and the experience of the transcendental forces of nature, were stages in the mystical journey on which this exhibition invited viewers to take.

Highlights in the exhibitions included Vincent van Gogh's Starry Night over the Rhone at Arles from 1888, which prompted him to write about feeling “a tremendous need of —shall I say the word— I go outside at night to paint the stars”; Paul Gauguin's vivid Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) from 1888, painted during his sojourn in rural Brittany; Claude Monet's Water Lilies (Nymphéas) from 1907, which he painted after hours of Zen-like meditation beside his Japanese water garden; Edvard Munch's The Sun, created to inspire students in the wake of his well-publicized nervous breakdown between 1910-1913; Georgia O'Keeffe's Series I - from the Plains from 1919, which shows the terrifying power of an approaching thunderstorm in Texas; and a series of mystical lithographs by the recently rediscovered French artist Charles Marie Dulac, which illustrates St. Francis of Assisi's Canticle of Creation.

Click here for the detailed presentation of this exhibition on the website of the Musée d'Orsay.


Scott Walker - It's Raining Today.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Elizabeth Jennings & David Gascoyne: Mystical Experience and the Making of Poems

Elizabeth Jennings was a poet 'with an acute ability to combine concrete detail with abstract thought.'

'She was a bold and genuine versifier who conveyed both a sense of the hidden, and the fact that it was powerfully alive within her. For many years her favourite of her own poems was Fountain, from A Sense of the World (1958), which ends, It is how we must have felt / Once at the edge of some perpetual stream, / Fearful of touching, bringing no thirst at all, / Panicked by no perception of ourselves / But drawing the water down to the deepest wonder.

She later explained: "Art, for me, is that strength, that summoning fountain".'

Peter Levi stated that ‘[Jennings] may be the last poet of what used to be called ‘the soul’. 'One strand of her writing vitalizes English mystical verse in which she was steeped.' She wrote that 'a writer should neither preach nor conceal their creed.' 'For her, it was about taking a Christian lens to all subjects, following on from Chaucer, Milton, Dryden, Patmore, Hopkins and T.S. Eliot.'

Her faith contributed to some significant prose works. 'Every Changing Shape (1961) was a highly regarded exploration of the relationship between poetry and mysticism, while Christianity and Poetry (1965) considers the influence of religion on literature':

'Poets and mystics who have experienced some close, personal but supra-rational awareness of God have always carried away from such moments of illumination an increased subtlety, a profoundly original understanding of human experience and of the apparent contradictions even in the physical universe.’ … ‘Poetry is not rationalization but revelation and what is healing in it, both for the poet and his readers, is the ability to depict conflict at its most vulnerable point; with Hopkins, this point is the wrestling of man with God, - but also the surrender of man to God.' ’While frequently making parallels between poetry and religion, Jennings teases out the differences between the mystic and the poet: the poet wants to communicate ordinary experience while the mystic moves away from it.

In Every Changing Shape she gives a reading of Miserere by David Gascoyne: 'the only living English poet, apart from Eliot, in the true mystical tradition. If not directly influenced by it, his work undoubtedly leads back to the visionary poetry of Vaughan, Herbert and Traherne.'

She writes, 'in the magnificent sequence of poems called Miserere the poet, in lines of extreme lucidity, examines the depths of man’s guilt and the terror of life without God. The traditional “dark night of the soul” is transferred to Christ himself—Christ who is both the victim and the conquerer:

God's wounds are numbered.
All is now withdrawn: void yawns
The rock-hewn tomb. There is no more
Regeneration in the stricken sun....

This may it be: and worse.
And may we know Thy perfect darkness.

And may we into Hell descend with Thee.'

'Kyrie explores “the black catastrophe that can lay waste our world” and pleads:

Grant us extraordinary grace.'

'... it is the poet’s vision itself which sanctifies and radiates. The vision is the end and not the means and once it has been achieved, however fleetingly, it illuminates all things outside it while itself remaining locked in its own lyrical form and music.. This is the hard-won triumph of all great visionary poetry.'

Gascoyne said that 'The poet's job is to go on holding on to something like faith, through the darkness of total lack of faith...the eclipse of God.'

Niall McDevitt argues that the purpose served by Christian poetry, 'certainly at Gascoyne’s level, is not to proselytise or even to pray, but to wrestle with Christendom.' 'None of us can deny that we are surrounded by Christian architecture, iconography, educational and charitable institutions, tourist rubble etc. Our ancestry is Christian, our guilt is Christian and the wars we watch on television being fought in our name are Christian also. Even our nihilism is Christian. True Christian poetry is a critique of Christendom, which is, after all, the superstructure of capitalism. As poetry cleanses the language, it cleanses the superstructure':

'Involved in their own sophistry
The black priest and the upright man
Faced by subversive truth shall be struck dumb,
Christ of Revolution and of Poetry,
While the rejected and condemned become
Agents of the divine.' (Ecce Homo)


Windows on the world (357)

Oxford, 2017


Michael McDermott - Shadow In The Window.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Norman Nicholson: Interweaving faith and geography into a theology of place

Vising the Lake District has reminded me of another great Cumbrian poet, Norman Nicholson, who was born on 8 January 1914 in a Victorian terraced house in Millom, where he was to live for most of his life. His writing career stretched from 1940 up until the time of his death. He was awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry in 1977, and the OBE in 1981.

His poetry is noted for its local flavour, its straightforwardness of language and the use of elements of common speech.Norman Nicholson died on 30 May 1987, leaving behind a rich legacy as the greatest modern day Lake's poet. In St George's Church in Millom, you will find a specially commissioned stained glass window designed and made by Christine Boyce. It is inspired by Norman's poetry and has sections of some of his poems worked into the design.

Martyn Halsall says that with Norman Nicholson we "have a writer whose intense localism proved actually to be liberation, enabling him to interweave faith and geography into a theology of place that stretched beyond global warfare into humanity's war against our fragile globe; a prophetic prophecy with which we need continually to engage."

A post at Vulpes Libris notes that Nicholson "was a man of firm Christian beliefs, and that permeates much of his work – not least the title poem of Sea to the West, which vividly describes the Irish Sea at sunset." "The closing lines of that same poem provided his epitaph – carved on the headstone of his grave at St George’s Church in Millom:

"Let my eyes at the last be blinded
Not by the dark
But by dazzle."

As a result of my visit to the Lakes I'll shortly be reading two anthologies compiled by Nicholson; Anthology of Religious Verse and The Lake District: An Anthology. The latter including Nicholson's wonderful poem about dry-stone walls which is simply entitled 'Wall'.

Kathleen Jones writes in the Introduction to Norman Nicholson: The Whispering Poet that:

"Norman Nicholson detested the ‘cult of the picturesque’. His chosen space was in the edgelands between the Lake District and the sea. He is the celebrant, not of the emotions aroused by landscape, but of man’s relationship with the land, above and below ground, documenting man’s capacity to produce industrial holocausts, exploring geology and its consequences. Norman had great admiration for the poet William Cowper. He wrote a biography of Cowper and praised him for ‘showing the English country scene more as it really was and less as it was imagined to be’. Cowper’s was not a landscape ‘of mountains, torrents and romantic wildness’ but of a more commonplace reality. Cowper ‘celebrated the usual, the everyday, the humdrum’, and this is where Norman chose to place himself, turning his back on the mountains and torrents that formed the north eastern horizon, to focus on everyday life in Millom."


Norman Nicholson - September On The Mosses.