Pastoral Letter - 13th August
My dear friends,
Were I ever to write a novel, were I ever to devote a couple of years of my life to a narrative, I have been wondering what would keep my attention, interest, involvement, alert for that length of time. When Donna Leon began her series of detective novels she decided that, were she to have to spend so much of her waking hours in the company of a fictional detective, she would make him someone who was attractive to her, intelligent, unpretentious, just, sophisticated and faithful to the values she herself espoused. He would have to be liberal in ways which suggested not a lack of care, but a genuine desire to see other people grow, deepen, become happier and more whole, free from the burdens of prejudice or fear. Were you, were I, to devote our working, waking hours in such a venture as writing a novel, what could possibly compel our attention and activity?
This was not a question I could answer easily or quickly. I had to think about it, ponder it, for a good while. But when I came to a conclusion, it was of course completely obvious. It has underlain my whole life and ministry, it has informed my choices and inspired my preferences, for decades: metanoia, the capacity to experience a change of mind, a change of heart, a change of perspective, a change of priorities, a change of direction. It is a concept rich with the sense of transformation and what makes people change. It suggests a re-evaluation of life and, potentially at least, a renewed excitement for living. How people change, change for the better preferably, is fundamental to my appreciation of what the scriptures record of human interaction with God. A blind man suddenly sees, a barren woman gives birth, a dead man rises again, someone mortified with self loathing finds themselves able to love themselves, forgive themselves, live with themselves. A meagre picnic is transformed into a banquet, well water is turned to Rioja. Marvellous!
The sequence of seasons, to which we are all so knit, reveals its own expression of transformation. Seemingly dead branches start to bud; dry, papery, crackling bulbs burst with green shoots that in turn produce fragrant flowers in bright colours. Similarly, the cold darkness before dawn ignites with the wonder of the sun rising on the horizon, resonating with something primeval within us which is hungry for hope.
Transformation would be the thing on which my creative energies would surely focus, were I to sit down and commit two or three years of my life or more to the enterprise of writing a novel. Metanoia, a change of mind, a change of heart, a change of direction, a new impetus for life. It wouldn’t be surprising perhaps for someone who spends some of his most significant moments at the altar, dealing with bread and wine, people’s spiritual and moral hunger, praying embers into flame, as we intercede for our aching world and its people. Transformation is core to the mindset of anyone who turns their face toward God in expectation. It is at the heart of all prayer as one lifts the lives, situations, relationships, scars, choices, experiences, fears, of the people who are in our minds and hearts to the outstretched hand of the God who meets us in communion and embraces us in love.
"God is doing a new thing", Isaiah assures us in his prophecy (Chapter 43 verse 19) This verse, resonant with hope and expectation, has kept me going through many a fallow time. But do people really change, fundamentally? Some do, some seem more open than others to hope, to opportunity, to transformation. Others, whether by nature or nurture cannot seem to believe or be open to such a fundamental experience, either because expectation has been denied them at an early age, or because they have no sense that things can ever alter. It is particularly challenging to reach out to such as these, condemned as they seem to be by self or by circumstance, to inhabiting the same unrewarding emotional landscape they have been wandering around for years. Yet it was to such as these, who were "living in darkness" that Christ, the Light of the World, especially came, "that they may know the truth and that the truth may set them free" (John Chapter 8 verse 32), "that the poor may have the Good News preached to them" (Matthew Chapter 11 verse 5) So what of those who are open to change, of those who are transformed by the presence of one beyond themselves? I probably shouldn’t say who it was exactly, though some who knew me during my teenage years may recognise the person of whom I write, but there was someone as I was growing up, who was a bit of a tyrant. He was always cross, always criticising, always complaining. He would glare at us for merely existing. There was no joy in the man, no warmth, no sense of fun, no gentleness, no kindness. I wondered why on earth he went to church other than to delight in the particularly juicy passages about God’s wrath in the Old Testament. But one day, returning to my childhood church on vacation from University, I met this man again, or thought that I had. Perhaps it was his twin brother, so different did he seem. His eyes glistened with joy, could it even be with love? His whole face smiled and he radiated wellbeing. He told me that he was exploring the possibility of Ordination and I am sure that when he was Ordained, he was one of the most encouraging and compassionate of priests. Whenever I need to remind myself how the love of God can change a life, I think of him and how, when one allows oneself to be loved and accepted by Christ, extraordinary things can happen. Metanoia indeed.
And such as these are the ones celebrated in the scriptures, the people who are prepared to be changed, whatever their age or circumstance: * Simeon and Anna in the temple who after years of longing for a sign of spiritual hope could well have been despondent, suddenly at their vast ages, see the one for whom they had longed and are transformed. * Nicodemus hurrying to Jesus in the dead of night, dry with years of bureaucracy yet knowing that some essence within the gift of life was eluding him, suddenly hears the voice of one who is so authentically alive, speak of being born again of water and the Spirit and opens his heart to be changed. * Beautiful Zacchaeus in his sycamore tree, whom no one liked, found himself accepted by Christ and subsequently becomes a "must have" guest at any party! *Peter, by being forgiven by Christ for denying him three times at His most crucial hour, becomes the very one tasked with founding Christ’s Church.
And all down the centuries, saints who inspire our discipleship are similarly those who have allowed themselves to be changed, liberated, freed from their false selves, becoming more fully the people God has created them to be. No, I probably won’t write a novel, I don’t have the time while I am still a parish priest, but were I to do so, it would be about how people can be changed, transformed, by grace, by knowing that they are accepted, loved, forgiven, delighted in, believed in, by God. That alone I believe, would compel my greatest attention as I applied myself to the unfolding story on the page, the experience at the shining heart of any story which truly lifts the soul, this compelling sense that things can change, that God can transform lives, that He can indeed do a new thing, that all may be redeemed.
You and I, though grace, through communion with Christ, can become better versions of who we currently are. Not in our own strength, not according to our own vision of who we really are, but in loosing ourselves, entrusting ourselves, finding ourselves through the transforming embrace of the one who created us and wants us to truly live. Metanoia, potentially at least, the title of the biography of us all.
With blessings and best wishes.
ZOOM AND MORE
I hope you will have received and read the Pastoral Letter which was sent out explaining the pattern of worship for the next month or so. For the time being we will be continuing with Zoom at 9.30am and the Celebration of the Eucharist at 6pm in church. I hope you will join us for at least one of these services and will continue to remember the rest of the church family in your prayers. You can join us this Sunday for our ZOOM SERVICE at 9.30am by clicking on the following link: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/85685339742 or in person in church at 6pm. You no longer need to book for the 6pm service in church. You can also join us for Private Prayer in the church 10am-11am on Wednesdays. The readings this Sunday are:
Ephesians Chapter 5 verses 15-20
John Chapter 6 verses 51-58
The Collect: O God, you declare your almighty power Most chiefly in showing mercy and compassion, Mercifully grant to us, Such a measure of your grace That we, running the way of your commandments May receive your gracious promises And be made partakers of your Heavenly treasures: This we ask and pray through Jesus Christ Our Lord, Who lives and reigns with you, In the unity of the Holy Spirit, One God, now and for ever. AMEN.