Being Fully Human

A poem by Sorrel Wood

 

Perhaps the moment we are born:

Naked, screaming and messy

Completely dependent on the provision of the other for survival

Vulnerable, miraculous

As ordinary and extraordinary as snowfall and the stars,

Perhaps that is the moment we are most fully human.

 

As quickly as the breath in our lungs transforms itself

Into air for the trees,

Step by step, we forget our true humanity.

 

We forget that we deserve to be loved unconditionally

Before we have achieved or amassed anything

Because we are unique.

We refuse to acknowledge that our presence

Infinitely and irrevocably changes the lives of those around us.

We forget the terrifying truth

That each time another disappears from our vision (however briefly)

We may never see them again.

We forget how to scream the depths of our pain

With every atom of our being.

 

We pretend that we are insignificant,

We pretend that we are God.

 

We deny the truth that we are

Miraculous

Irreplaceable

Uninsurable

And that every other is as fully human as we are

No more, no less.

 

We shirk the weighty responsibility

Of treating every other

As intricately connected to our story

And equally worthy of love.

 

We forget that we are precious.

 

We forget that our brief, significant life

Is a journey of re-remembering every day

How to be fully human.

 

Instead, we run and hide from the fragility

The responsibility, the co-dependency

The spark of divinity

That characterises our humanity.

Because the cost of being fully human

Is too heavy a cross to carry in our fragile, human hearts.

 

 

hands

 

Kingdom People

A hymn and a reflection on collaborative hymn-writing

by Sarah Brush and Michael Brierley.

 

Tend us, Lord, as Kingdom People

planted in the world, your field:

love, compassion, justice, freedom

are the crop we long to yield.

 

At our root, in depth and richness,

love divine provides the ground,

that our lives, secure and nourished,

may in love for all abound.

 

Forth from love there stems compassion:

we will weep with those who mourn,

staying with the lost and lonely

through the darkness to the dawn.

 

From compassion, justice blossoms

for the weak, outcast, oppressed,

casting down the rich and mighty

so that meek and poor are blest.

 

Freedom is the fruit of justice –

not the choice of our own way,

but the God-giv’n grace to follow

Christ in every step each day.

 

Love, compassion, justice, freedom –

grant, creator God, our call

by your Spirit so to grow

’til Christ our Lord fills all in all.

 

Sarah Brush (1974) Michael Brierley (1973)

Tune:  Servant Song

 

Below is a collaborative reflection about a piece of creative collaboration in the writing of the hymn above.  The words of the Revd Canon Dr Michael Brierley, Precentor of Worcester Cathedral and Cuddesdon alumnus are in black and the words of the Revd Dr Sarah Brush, Tutor in Pastoral Theology at Cuddesdon are in green.

 

The Diocese of Worcester has an initiative ‘Kingdom People’, which seeks to enable Christian communities more fully to embody four ‘kingdom values’  –  love, compassion, justice and freedom.

 

I’d always thought those four words had such a good rhythm to them and, as I was preparing to leave a diocese I’d worked in for nearly ten years, I tried to put them to music. At an earlier diocesan event we had used the hymn Brother Sister Let Me Serve You for which I’d written a couple of extra verses reflecting the particular prayer activities at the event. I thought using that tune would be a suitable echo for people to half hear in their minds as they sang the new words; linking life as Kingdom People with the Servant Song.

 

I worked on several versions of the words but couldn’t get them quite right. Thinking it would be good to have someone else reflect on it, I sent it to our cathedral Precentor, Michael Brierley who had incorporated other modern hymn compositions by young clergy, like Ally Barrett, in various services for the diocese.

 

Sarah Brush, then a curate in the diocese, sent some hymn words on this theme for possible inclusion at the diocesan services which I help to arrange at the cathedral.  I was both excited by their freshness, their structure (a verse on each value, introduced and concluded) and their topicality, and also found myself wondering whether one or two corners could be further polished.

 

I’d never worked on a hymn before, and found that a couple of train journeys to London on the sluggish line through the Cotswolds were the ideal setting for the polishing.  I ended up re-writing more than I expected.  The metre (and tune) was 8787, and the difficulty of filling the unemphasised, last syllable on the first and third lines spilt over into altering other lines.

 

It wasn’t always an easy process; sometimes we would critique phrases the other had painstakingly constructed or pitch for a change of one particular word. Often, changes meant more changes were needed and sacrifices of other words were necessary. Yet most of the time, perhaps begrudgingly on my part at times, Michael’s suggestions improved what I’d written and even expressed something I’d been trying to say but hadn’t quite achieved.

 

There was also the issue of focusing on a single metaphor – that of a plant – to run through all the verses.

 

This was one particular development which was a truly collaborative creation: the hymn transformed from reflecting the Kingdom People values with only a passing allusion to the vine logo which accompanied them to one which was woven throughout with an extended metaphor of a growing plant. This development gave us lots of new challenges but resulted in something so much better than my original version.

 

Several email exchanges later, the result was premiered at the chrism eucharist in Worcester Cathedral in Holy Week 2018.  All the better for being a genuinely collaborative exercise, it was a harder task than I imagined: but having done one, a next one – given a train journey or two through the Cotswolds – might turn out to be easier …

 

 

kingdom people

 

 

 

 

 

 

First Light

In this poem and reflection, Rev’d Vicky Barrett considers the paradox of the women’s silence after visiting the tomb and meeting Jesus, and the experience of reading in Mark’s Gospel, two thousand years later, of a resurrection which refuses to be silenced.

 

First Light

(a poem based on Mark 16:1-8)

 

They must do what they can
now the Sabbath is over.
Back to work.
Their oils are sharp and pungent,
Stripping dawn’s thin grey curtain.
Their steps, directed, urgent,
to soothe the scarred body,
move the lovely limbs
lying wound up and wounded
in the dank dark of a borrowed grave.

 

How? How? the doves cry,
an echo of their anxious words,
the weight of the stone
wedged between them and their love.
Pounding hearts:
as the oils glow like slow amber pools,
spices tease their nostrils.
Tick, tick. Birds shrill the alarm.

 

Breath snags on a barb.
Surprise? Confusion? Hope? Jealousy?
Has someone come ahead of them
to offer the rituals which are theirs?
Has someone stolen the precious freight
from this stony barque?

 

Who is this man in white?
What is his news?
Not here.
Their eyes trace the outline of the tomb.
Not here.
Not there, where they laid him,
Escaped, unbound, fetterless.

 

The sun rinses the mouth of the tomb,
A widening ‘O’ of light.
The spices fall to the ground.
Oil finds a new course.
The earth gleams and is fragrant.

 

They turn and feet flutter a fleeting path
like sparrows’ feathers.
Breath unravels in rags,
muscles shriek with exertion.
The burden of their news
lurches and sways and batters them
mad-eyed with joyous fear.
Teeth chatter riddling messages.
But who would believe these harpies
who say they have seen an angel?

 

Better to roll the stone back again,
be safe, familiar, silent.
Let the men
wrap the words like oilcloth round the carpenter’s tools,
stitch up the fishing nets
and not
dare to believe
in the terrifying mystery
who comes in majesty
to greet them.

 

Vicky Barrett Easter 2018

 

Reflection

 

Mark’s Gospel is full of silences, no more so than that of Chapter 16, verse 8:

 

So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

 

How is it then, that out of the women’s paralysis of terror and amazement, we find ourselves responding to the good news of the risen Christ today?

 

We may find ourselves silent, paralysed also by terror, amazement; scepticism or apathy too, perhaps. But the wonderful good news is that Jesus has done this thing anyway; that’s how much he loves us. Our Creator God is able to bring the news of Jesus’ resurrection to the world in spite of us. As Luke puts it when the Pharisees ask Jesus to tell his disciples to be quiet, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

 

Mark’s Gospel account gives us the encouragement to explore our response, to fill in the narrative gaps and colour them in, to play in the shadows of this amazing message.

 

I found myself doing this as I prepared for Easter morning and ended up writing a poem.

 

How can you find your way of expressing a response to this Easter story?

 

empty tomb

The Two Trees

The Rev’d. Dr. Joanna Collicutt reflects on the stark visual juxtaposition of Christ crucified next to the hanging Judas, depicted in the Fifth Century Maskell Ivory. 

 

 

On 7th February I was part of a panel invited to reflect on an image from the Imagining the Divine exhibition currently taking place at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The exhibition contains artefacts from what it refers to as the ‘Five great world religions plus paganism’ (a contentious notion in itself, but not the subject of this blog piece).

 

Maskell Ivory

The Maskell Ivory (c.420-30 CE), probably originating in Rome.

Ivory, Height 7.5 cm, British Museum.

 

I chose this tiny and exquisitely carved panel that was originally part of a box whose sides depict incidents from the life of Christ. This has a claim to be the earliest surviving depiction of the crucifixion and is therefore hugely significant in the history of Christian art. In fact there are very few surviving depictions of the crucifixion from the first millennium at all, and we should ask ourselves why this is. For an intriguing account take a look at Rita Nakashima Brock, and Rebecca Ann Parker’s 2008 book, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire.

 

Perhaps the first thing one notices is that this is not the crucified Christ with whom we are so familiar from mediaeval art – an agonised, contorted, dying or – more usually – already dead victim full of pathos. Instead we are faced with a victorious Christ, very much alive, even perhaps smiling, standing erect with eyes and arms wide open as if to welcome all comers, ready to fly off the cross.

 

There is lots here that is reminiscent of John’s account of the death of Christ; the emphasis on glory, the presence of the Mother of Jesus and the Beloved Disciple, and the Roman Soldier (known in later tradition as Longinus) who inserts a spear into Jesus’ side. Yet, like a Gospel harmony, we also find Judas’ suicide as told by Matthew, complete with the thirty silver pieces, and the completely charming detail of the birds of the air nesting in the branches of the tree from which he hangs, surely alluding to the story of the mustard seed from Mark and Matthew.

 

This would have been an image used for personal devotion and, like the texts and traditions that inspired it, it is not simply telling a story; it makes demands on the viewer. These are intensified, literally thrown into relief, by the three dimensional nature of this artefact that dissolves the threshold between the world of the viewer and the scene depicted. The figures move out towards towards the viewer, who in turn is drawn towards them.

 

And what does she find?  The juxtaposition of the death of Judas and the death of Jesus is highly unusual in Christian art and it should tell us something. It reminded me of the opening verses of that early Christian text, the Didache: ‘There are two ways: one of life and one of death.’ The cross is the tree of life in which all may come and find a place, but it is the tree of death for those who, like Judas, don’t ‘get’ Jesus. Judas is dead, defeated, flaccid, and crucially alone. Jesus is alive, victorious, erect, and crucially surrounded by his loved ones (Jews) and one who in the tradition becomes a faithful witness to his death (a gentile).

 

The viewer is faced with the fact that the cross presents a moral and existential demand to make a life and death choice, a repeated choice that must be made daily.

 

Personally, I find yet more in this image. I find a visual way of making sense and making real that very difficult but important verse from Paul’s letter to the Galatians: ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us; for it is written ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’. There is something here about God’s transformation of guilt, shame, and death in Christ that is communicated better visually than in words.

 

But there is also hope. Is Christ reaching out to that tragic figure on the tree? Is this the moment that the gibbet is brought to life? Is Jesus’ touch transforming even this, the loneliest and most desperate of places?

 

The Testament of Mary

The Testament of Mary

 

Tim Middleton reflects on the tangible, immersed experience of Christ incarnate, and that of his mother Mary, and the challenge of meeting God in the pain and truth of life on earth. 

 

‘Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified, dead, and buried’—the Apostles’ Creed puts it all very succinctly. If you’re in church on a Sunday, this terse summary of the key moments in the life of Jesus is sometimes all you get. But Colm Tóibín’s play (and subsequent novella) The Testament of Mary includes rather more.

Mary the mother of Jesus has been the focus of Christian adoration for centuries and we’ve inherited a tradition replete with images. When people talk of Marian devotion, one might hear the haunting opening of Arvo Pärt’s setting of the Stabat Mater, a sorrowful hymn to Mary. Or one might conjure to mind the exquisite marble of Michelangelo’s Pietà in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. According to tradition, and indeed much of our greatest sacred art and music, Mary is serene, obliging, self-sacrificing and God-fearing.

But what if you had been the mother of Jesus? What if you had been at the foot of the cross when your own son was crucified? What if you were thoroughly exhausted by everybody else trying to re-interpret what the life of your son meant?

It’s not necessarily easy to read: Tóibín’s book can disturb, upset and provoke. In places it is anachronistic, chronologically disjointed or in direct contradiction with what you find in the Bible. For me, though, to be concerned by this is to miss the point. What I have gradually come to realise is that, by definition, there has to be something very gritty about the incarnation. I used to be very bothered by the idea that Jesus only came at one time and in one place—the so-called scandal of particularity. How could a supposedly universal God be as thoughtless as to not give us easy, universal access? But I have come to appreciate that the messy, historically contingent way in which God came to Earth is not a weakness but a strength—in fact, it is taking the notion that God became fully human very seriously indeed. The human condition is messy, and so the life of Jesus must also have been messy. What’s more, each of us views life through our own subjective prism: parts of life are unfair, parts of life don’t work out in the way we had hoped, and for much of our lives we are dependent on other people for support and happiness.

So what would all of this have looked like through Mary’s eyes? It might well have been baffling. The crucifixion might well have been so dangerous and terrifying that she decided to flee. And, in an echo of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, it may well have felt like the whole thing just wasn’t worth the pain and anguish. Our abstract, creedal formulas have a certain place, but it is only in gritty, lived experience that we fully grasp the reality of things. Perhaps it was all rather tougher for Mary than we are sometimes led to believe.

Dinner Party; Perfume

Two interrelated poems by Dr. Cathy Ross

 

Perfume

Seated at table, the aroma of onions and spices

The sound of babies chortling, street vendors shouting,

Tangerine sun, low in the sky

My body sore and stiff; not used to resurrection.

Martha is in the kitchen,

I recline next to Jesus and hear

Serious talk.  The forthcoming Passover,

The fear of the Roman soldiers is a stench in the room.

Where is Mary?

Normally she is near Jesus.

She comes in, carefully cradling

An exquisitely decorated amphora.

She approaches Jesus at table

Lets down her hair, sensuously.

Shatters the beautiful amphora.

Pours perfume on his feet.

Her precious perfume.  Her treasure.

Her dowry.

She lowers herself to the floor

Caresses’ Jesus’ feet with her hair.

The scent of the perfume envelops us,

We witness her devotion,

The beauty of her love,

The depth of her worship,

The power of her sacrifice.

Perfume on her hair and on His feet.

 

The Dinner Party

 

An elaborate dinner party, this one.

Martha has been preparing for days,

Several deliveries from Waitrose

Despite the outside caterers.

Not sure how much more I can eat.

The dessert wines are rich and sweet,

My digestion is not the same

Since my three days in the tomb.

Jesus looks bored, tired, irritated

Conversations about Brexit, royal weddings

Pension deficits, interest rates and the NHS.

The worried well.

Mary absents herself.

The conversation continues.

Desultory.  A kind of lethargy

Descends.

Jesus makes as if to leave

But is stopped by Mary

Who rushes in and falls at His

Feet.

She unlaces his shoes.

Removes his socks.

Shocked silence.  Awkward.

Shared and knowing looks.

Jesus seems remarkably at ease.

Mary has her essential oils.

Slowly she unstops the many bottles

And pours them, precisely, slowly, over Jesus’ feet.

The disapproval is palpable.

The embarrassment tangible.

The tension unbearable.

The scent overwhelming.

The carpet is a mess.

Tenderly she massages his feet.

She even stoops to kiss them.

The dinner party is ruined.

The guests take their leave

Horrified at this naked devotion

At this flagrant waste.

Mary remains curled at Jesus’ feet.

Her extravagance exposed,

Her love revealed,

Her fealty pledged,

Her sacrifice offered.

 

Ripon College, Cuddesdon

30 November, 2017.

God of Restoration and Repair

Rev’d. Caitlin Carmichael-Davis reflects on the resurrection life in Christ through the poetry of Philip Larkin, the scripture of Isaiah, the prose of Marilynne Robinson, and the paintings of Stanley Spencer. 

 

I was once told that you don’t get back what you lose. Lost is lost. Your childhood, your children’s childhood, those who have died, those long summer days of happy completeness before the photographs become pain.  Life is a process of learning how to lose, as life shrinks and reduces and more and more is lost and disappears.

 

Truly, though our element is time,

We are not suited to the long perspectives

Open at each instant of our lives.

They link us to our losses: worse,

They show us what we have as it once was,

Blindingly undiminished, just as though

By acting differently, we could have kept it so.

Phillip Larkin, Reference Back

 

If this is the lesson life teaches us, it seems unlikely that the afterlife will be about getting things back. Lost is lost. Our resurrection, our heaven, will be something new.

 

Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?.

Isaiah 43.19

 

Yes, I thought, that seems true. Christianity cannot be about making those holiday photographs complete again, those Christmas tables whole. If being ordained has taught me anything it is this — sorrow is weaved into the very fabric of our lives. Under the cheerful ordinariness of Sunday morning coffee, grief lurks unspoken. That wish could easily become the whole of one’s religion. Some sort of destructive spiritualism, a religion of the dead.

 

So I lived for many years with a sketchy, figurative, amorphous vision of the afterlife, a non-interventionist God, an ephemeral Jesus. Christianity was difficult to grasp, I said. Part of its very strength is its shifting oddness.

 

And then I read this:

 

“Memory is the sense of loss, and loss pulls us after it. God Himself was pulled after us into the vortex we made when we fell, or so the story goes. And while He was on earth He mended families. He gave Lazarus back to his mother, and to the centurion he gave his daughter again. He even restored the severed ear of the soldier who came to arrest him — a fact that allows us to hope the resurrection will reflect a considerable attention to detail. Yet this was no more than tinkering. Being man He felt the pull of death, and being God He must have wondered more than we do what it would be like. He is known to have walked upon water, but He was not born to drown. And when He did die it was sad — such a young man, so full of promise, and His mother wept and His friends could not believe the loss, and the story spread everywhere and the mourning would not be comforted, until He was so sharply lacked and so powerfully remembered that his friends felt Him beside them as they walked along the road, and saw someone cooking fish on the shore and knew it to be Him, and sat down to supper with Him, all wounded as He was. There is so little to remember of anyone — an anecdote, a conversation at table. But every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home, and the perished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming, habitual fondness, not having meant to keep us waiting long.

Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping

 

There is an oddness, of course, to all these stories. Those distant words “Talitha koum!”, the Jesus who passes through walls and disappears at will. And yet, distracted by strangeness, I’d missed the consistency and the domesticity. While Jesus was on Earth he mended families, resurrected he returned to eat supper with his friends.

 

Memory is part of resurrection — part of a God who is greatly moved, greatly troubled, groaning inside at our grief for those we have lost. Restoration of our relationships is part of resurrection — Thomas’s doubts and Peter’s denials healed by the energy of God’s love. In so many of the stories, incomplete tables are made whole —Jesus returns to eat, to fill the space and the loss and the memory he had left.

 

And if the raising of the widow’s son, the centurion’s daughter, Martha’s brother describes Jesus’s resurrection, and Jesus’s resurrection describes our own, then this will be a resurrection of domesticity and relationship. These are stories which endow the small importance of our homes, lives and memories with all the power and wonder and oddness of this God of undefeatable life. Judaism had always understood the power of memory to create reality, that memory and loss have a creative as well as a destructive power. In these stories that intimation reaches its fulfilment. For out of memory and death God brings into being wholeness and life.

 

spencer - reunion

Stanley Spencer, Reunion of Families

This is what Stanley Spencer showed in his Resurrection paintings. There is a physicality of joy and hope and reunion, Jairus’s daughter become real for all creation. The promise of that distant, chaotic, heat filled day is heard in the familiar greenness of the Oxfordshire countryside, “Talitha koum!”. The beautiful strangeness and physical domesticity of resurrection suddenly visible.

 

As I stand, hand resting on a coffin, commending the departed to God, I believe “That memory will fulfill itself, that the missing, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming, habitual fondness, not having meant to keep us waiting long”. That our God is a God of restoration and repair. That the lost will be found.

 

 

Praying through the lens, through the year – the art of noticing

Rosie Homer reflects on prayer through the camera lens. 

 

“Stop. Look. Listen.”

 

A phrase drilled into me from a childhood living next to a railway line – said to me every time we walked anywhere and had to cross the track. Repeated religiously, one could even say.

 

That refrain has stuck with me. It still accompanies me every time I go for a walk. It still repeats… religiously.

 

Though I have spent the past three years living in an indoor workspace, surrounded by books and words and thoughts, God and Christ make most sense to me when I’m out in the natural world.

 

Outside, it’s easier to feel a deeper connection with my particular surroundings and what it means to be a tiny part of this incredible universe in which we live. To understand things in relationship with the Divine; and in relationship with our fellow inhabitants of this Earth.

 

A personal practice of mine is to go out with my camera at certain points of the year, around the ancient agricultural festivals that the church calendar so often joins up with. An intentional act of setting aside time to be present through the ever-changing seasons. Photography in this context is my way of noticing, praying, being.

 

Being open to noticing whatever it is that catches my attention… – Stop.

 

Allowing myself time to observe that ‘subject’ to the exclusion of everything else… – Look.

 

Noticing myself paying attention, and my relationship in that moment – to the world around and to the Divine Presence… – Listen.

 

For me, this is prayer without words or intention or liturgy. It is openness and participation in that which already is. Seeing the image of the creator reflected; but also aware of myself as one who is created; and joining in with the ongoing process of creation, in observing and playing with that observation, through the lens.

 

The end product, the image, is more of an incidental by-product of the process. Perhaps in a similar way that a religious icon may be used, the photograph (or the process of taking it) for me is not the image itself, but a means of seeing through it, into what is.

 

Maybe if we stop, look, and listen to our surroundings a bit more frequently and intentionally, I wonder if we might not so often forget the fifth ‘Mark of Misson’ of the Anglican Communion – “to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth.”

 

This is My Body

A poem by Rev’d. Ruth Wells

This is my body
This
Is my body
This is
My body
This is my
Body;
Broken

I trace the cross on my belly
Vertical linea nigra
This black line, marking out your expected arrival
Then the horizontal one I barely dare to touch
The ‘sun roof’ as my sister called it
Made for your quick escape
Your great evacuation
Made in haste.
This is my body broken for you.

This is my blood shed.
The messy reality of new life
Carnage
The aftermath
Blood for weeks
That secret that nobody told me first time round
The woosiness of the initial venture out of bed
Tentative steps like learning to walk again
The return of sensation to limbs numb
The shock of it all.
This is my blood.

And as I flit inbetween sleep and wake
In the liminal hours
The sound of your guzzling
Lulling me into dreamlike trance
I chance again upon the Eucharist
The broken body
The blood shed
And I’m walking the line
Placing your broken body into outstretched hands
Some eager
Others hesitant
All broken
And my brokenness
My bloodshed
Becomes all the more poignant
The collision of humanity & the Divine

And as I hold you to me
Our heartbeats echoing
I am caught up in it all
The brokenness and the beauty.

Wells