The importance of rituals

Picture of Mary and some flowers

Dear Friends,

Our church is dedicated and named after Mary, the mother of our Lord. On 10th September we celebrate our Patronal Festival – indeed our ‘Weddings’ Flower Festival falls right on our Patronal week-end. Mary’s story is one of transformation as she carries the gift of God within her, and in the Bethlehem back yard delivers the Saviour of the world. Mary was there when Jesus transformed the water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana, and she was there at the foot of the cross as her son was crucified. In this brutal crucifixion Jesus transforms the very worst of life into something precious beyond words – salvation and forgiveness.

In our church worship we gather to meet with Jesus. Sometimes we call this a ‘sacrament’ of worship. A ‘sacrament’ is something which makes the invisible visible. We do things ‘as if’ what we can’t see is right before us. Children do this by second nature – they play ‘trains’ in the garden, with the garden bench as a station and the wheelbarrow as the train. The children know what these items – the bench and the barrow – really are and what they are used for – but in this period of the game they all choose to act ‘as if’ they really are a station and a train.

When a game of hide and seek is played : by Dad and his 4 year old daughter – again the ‘as if’ rule is being applied. Dad hides behind the curtain with a foot purposefully sticking out. The daughter knows only too well that dad is choosing to be incompetent in his hiding, yet takes great delight in the ‘finding’. Dad plays along with the befuddled role he has chosen to play – in this game transformation is taking place as the daughter takes on the powerful, competent role of ‘finder’ while Dad takes on the vulnerable and powerless role of the one being found. It’s a role reversal in a game of ‘as if’s’ and something important is being learned by both parties in the game.

Mary is a timely reminder for each of us of the power of transformation.
In church on a Sunday we take bread and wine and act ‘as if’ these simple items are not simply bread and wine but the very presence of God. We take what is ordinary and sing, pray and kneel ‘as if’ these items are divine. We give the ‘peace’ to one another in such a way ‘as if’ the other people in the building are our bothers and sisters – even though we might not have met them before. We are making ‘ritual’ out of the action of ‘as if’, and behind the ritual lies the spiritual (a title of a Van Morrison song).

Rituals are really important in life. We greet people on the street with a ritual of a wave or a handshake or fist pump – even people we don’t know too well and in this ritual something takes place and is stretched into existence.

It is imperative for us to consider how we can set up new rituals into our lives – how do we say hello to loved ones in the home, how do we greet people older than us in years, how do we say ‘thank you’ when something is done for us. All these are rituals which if we are not careful can become stale with little force of transformation – but when they are fresh and done with attention, even the most simple ones, carry a profound energy of change.

So why not look for the commonplace rituals in your own life – the ones taken for granted, the ones which could be re-freshed with a bit of attention, and the times and places where new rituals can be tried. As we do, we can watch and sense transformation growing within us as a sacramental way of living is practiced day by day.

A ‘good soaking’

BBQ with Steak on it

Dear Friends,

The summer BBQ is something not to be missed… with sunshine, hot coals and a selection of marinaded meats, skewers and the banana and ice cream – yes, something not to be missed! Perhaps it’s the marinade which really makes it – in the soaking of herbs, sauces and spices the bar-b-que spells out flavour in big capital letters! From being bland, the marinade specially prepared and applied, makes all the difference.

Not only the BBQ but our climate works like this to benefit our gardens. A good soaking is sometimes what’s just called for!

If this is right for our physical life – the skin and bones of our existence, the green shoots of growth from the earth, the summer dinner al-fresco,  it is also true for our spiritual lives. The bit of us inside us. The bit that makes us feel things, the way we think, the heart of who we are. Absorbing life impacts on our sub-conscious and so affects everything.

When we get soaked in accusations, anxiety, spite and such things – well it has an impact – and for these things the impact is not great. You could even say it’s a bit like toxic waste… harming and in some cases destroying our insides. Accusations, anxiety, spite are the kind of things which pollute our existence – they drop into our speaking, thinking and feeling in a way which distorts and twists goodness out of us.

What’s really alarming – we don’t even have to go looking for such things. They are prevalent, abounding almost at every corner of life. Workplaces, coffee shops, even in our homes – these pollutants can thrive. And we, if we are not careful, just absorb them. Losing perspective, pointing the finger, being mean in our judgments and thinking just becomes commonplace and normal. How sad this is – especially when the world we live in is so extraordinary and amazing! The colours splashed across our ever-changing skyline, the smiles and companionship of loved friends… these are not to be taken for granted for. For these we can and need to be grateful.

And gratitude, saying thank you is a really essential way for us to be soaked in what is healthy and non-toxic. You see, when we say thank you we give attention to the abundance in life which is here to sustain, refresh and replenish our existence. Saying thank you is not simply an acknowledgement of what is good, it is rather a ‘soaking in’ of what is good – a little bit like the smoky, summer marinade  or the rain shower feeding the roots of our garden.

When we view gratitude in this way – the very act of saying thank you re-positions our whole outlook so we just soak in what is healthy and good – with the impact of strengthening our hearts. This means we will think more constructively, be more resilient in the face of challenge, and have the capacity to just keep going with greater energy.

Prayers of gratitude – spoken each day, whispered in the night, and written in our hearts – provide us with a daily soaking which costs no money and goes a long way to ensure we bless, and don’t pollute, the bits of the world we live in. It’s August – a great time for eating outdoors and also to learn, and re-learn, the art of being thankful – everyday…

Connections

image of the beach

Dear Friends,

The sea waves roll into the gently, shelving beaches :the breaking waters lapping the virgin sands. Summer is the time for sand castles, stones skimming the waters, and ice creams consumed aplenty… yes -summer is the time for the beach – even in England!

Yet as we enter the summer season, rather than being connected with the rhythms of the natural world, we find ourselves adrift and isolated in a world which travels without us. Within our public national life, we face an uncertain future – a parliament looking for partners to be trusted, a nation searching for friends and allies to do business with, a menacing rise in violence which alienates and divides…

This sense of being disconnected is one which can leave us despairing of the future, or it can be a wake-up call to a way of living which unites rather than separates.

As we move into the future there is an urgent requirement, now more than ever, to re-find the possibilities of communion in a diverse and often chaotic existence. The natural world maintains its own identity of coherence and sense – with the rising and setting of the sun, the movement of the stars, the tides ebbing and flowing… there is a communion here sophisticated and fragile, yet glorious and sustaining. In developing a simple appreciation of the natural world in the places we live, we catch an aspect of communion which enlarges the heart. So it’s essential, at this time when much is diminished, to learn to say thank you for the earth and sky, for food and drink, for whatever is before us. In learning to express gratitude like this, we make steps into the wisdom and resilience of the natural order.

And for each of us there are people also. People we live with, people we are friends with and people we bump into or brush past in the course of each day – with all these people we too can find connections. By learning to say ‘thank you’ for each personal encounter we discover ‘communion.’ It’s not easy to say ‘thank you’ as sometimes this gratitude takes us into a new territory (a place of inter-dependence rather than splendid isolation). Being ‘thankful’ for the people we live with, makes ‘communion’ tangible and real. When we forget gratitude, or take it for granted, we cut ourselves off and so cause harm.

And finally we can learn to say ‘thank you’ to God for simply the gift of life. Just saying the ‘thank you’ words stretches our hearts into a more healthy place… we don’t even need a reason for the ‘thank you’ – we simply say it despite everything that is around us. Gratitude then has a chance to become something of the heart… which means it becomes real.

Wave after wave, the oceans move… season after season the years slide by… day by day we are invited to enter a communion which some have called ‘holy’. A communion we need now more than ever.

Process of beginnings

Book with work Baptism highlighted

Dear Friends

Sometimes it’s good to go back to see how it all started. Just to refresh the memory… to get a nudge as to how it all came to be… so we have the passion for history and the stories of long ago… we have the curiosities of family trees and how the generations connect with stories mundane and extraordinary.

As we know, the bible begins with a couple of stories of how the world began. Genesis begins with the evocative cadences known only too well : ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…’ We are told the earth was ‘formless and empty, darkness over the surface of the deep’. In these words we have a picture of chaos without sense or meaning, and we are then told ‘the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters’.

From this beginning God spoke – in the Spirit over and into the chaos of no meaning and substance. And in the speaking creation was formed. God said ‘This is good!’
We are blessed in church to host many baptisms, or christenings for families across our parish. These times are gatherings of celebration as new life is held, cherished and blessed. Usually the baptisms are with young children, but not always as each year we baptize some adults as well.  In the service of baptism we have a bowl (font) of water. The Holy Spirit ‘hovers’ over the water and the water is blessed. The names of the child/adult to be christened are spoken and something new takes shape as God’s promise of a love which never ends is proclaimed. The newly baptized enters the family of the church, and so the household of heaven is enlarged and made new.

For many of us, life can often seem as though it has little meaning or purpose. It can sometimes seem a bit ‘formless’. Yet, in these times the Spirit of God is near. The Spirit of God is what gives the energy and impetus for something remarkable to be formed out of the ‘formless’. Often a word is spoken, maybe a word of encouragement, or a word of gratitude or even a word of correction – and from the word spoken ‘in the Spirit’ something new is created.

In many ways this ‘process of beginnings’ sums up the ministry of the church. The society we live in – even though it is policy driven, regulated and scrutinised from every angle – is scarily formless and chaotic. So much of existence is simply getting through the day, with so many petty arguments and rivalries. The connecting thread which provides meaning and purpose is rarely visible, and so for many the idea of being ‘happy’ is living in dreamland.

Yet, over society, the Spirit of God hovers. The Spirit is uniquely present and waits for the word to be spoken. And this time the word is spoken through our lips, from our hearts and out of the overflow of the blessings of God in heaven. We as members of the church, hear God’s word into our hearts, we speak this word (through what we do, say and always in who we are) – and then something wonderfully new takes place – a heart is enlarged, a life is blessed, a possibility becomes real, a promise is fulfilled…
And God in heaven acclaims over and over again, ‘This is good!’

The family of God is called to be near the formless, chaotic bits of life, to sense the presence of the Spirit, to hear the word of the Lord and to speak it from the abundance of a heart of love. And always, always, it will be good…

Sanctuary

the cross on the rock over the sea

Dear Friends

The stone rolled away … the tomb empty, except for the grave clothes

We are told Simon Peter entered the tomb to see for himself, as did the ‘other disciple’ who also went in ‘and he saw and believed’. There was intense anxiety, fear and bewilderment… yet in entering the tomb something was made manifest – a truth not easily understood was seen and caught in the heart… there is resurrection, death is not the end!
Here begins the journey of the Christian community.

The resurrection experience … it’s an experience which contradicts the logic of stuff as we think we know it… it’s an experience known and attested in the ‘guts’ of who we are. Recent scientific research has affirmed the real psychological basis for ‘gut knowing’ or ‘knowing of the heart’ – this research has identified three major neuronal networks in the body : the largest is in the brain, and the two other major clusters of neurons are in the intestinal track and the cardial sack – the guts and heart. It’s how we know what is important (just remember how we choose which house to buy…)

This experience for these two disciples took place in the tomb. Jesus appears to Mary in the quietness of the garden. Thomas touches the open wounds in the locked room. Jesus appears to the disciples walking to Emmaus in the intimacy of bread being broken round a table. Jesus prepares a meal for his friends on the beach. The environment for each of these experiences is set apart from the toxic cultures of society – they are simple, quiet, safe places – almost like a sanctuary or a cocoon.

The caterpillar experiences transformation within the safety of the cocoon. A foetus grows and becomes formed within the security of the womb. The transformation of base metals into gold requires the interaction of elements within a closed, transparent container in relation to a carefully tended fire.

And we too can create these ‘sanctuary’ spaces whenever we allow ourselves to be attentive to the moment. When we give attention, totally to what is in front of us, we immediately enter an energised and vibrant space. These spaces become passageways or doorways into truth which blesses and enlarges our experience. This means we can be in such a space wherever and whenever we choose – and it is in such a sanctuary space where we see from the heart and know in our ‘guts’ what is true and important.

The building and structure of a church, such as at St. Mary’s, acts as such a sanctuary space. This is why many people say the ‘feeling’ they get in the church (whether on a Sunday or for another service) is something very special. The church space is separate from the culture of our times, it is removed, and we can feel/know important things in both times of celebration and sadness. From this sanctuary space we learn to be fully in the world rather than being overwhelmed or lost in it.

It is vital we allow ourselves daily opportunity for our true selves to connect with such truth. This truth enables us to grow into generous, confident human beings… leaving behind petty anxieties and frustrations. So the practice of ‘attentiveness to the moment’ gives us a doorway into belief in the resurrection…

The Christian experience of resurrection defines the company of the church. So it really is important to enter our own ‘empty tomb’, our own ‘sanctuary space’- every day – and find the truth of God’s resurrection Spirit in the ‘guts’ and ‘hearts’ of our lives.