Saturday, July 26, 2014

success rate

Earlier this week I was having one of those competitive conversations clergy have with each other when I was asked:

"Which are you better at then - weddings or funerals?"

I replied straightaway:
"My success rate for funerals is far higher."

The other cleric looked bemused and said:
"I'm sorry, what?"

"Well," I explained, "I have to confess that not every person I have ever married has remained married. But EVERY person I have buried..."

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

where is the west?

A fourth century monastery in northern Iraq, home to a small community of monks, has become the latest Christian outpost to receive the anger of the forces of ISIS.

These few monks, begging to save some of the monastery's relics from its long and varied history, were told to leave in the clothes they wore and allowed to take nothing else with them according to witnesses.

The monastery of Mar Behnam is a few miles from Mosul, which last week received the ISIS ultimatum for its Christian residents to flee, pay tribute, or die by sundown Saturday. It is reported that this Sunday was the first since Christians first resided in the town, near the start of the Christian story, that there was no Christian congregation in Mosul. Perhaps this is not true yet, perhaps a family was left which dared to pray together. Many times has the passing of Christianity been proclaimed; and yet there is resurrection.

The UN is accusing IS (as ISIS is now being called) of war crimes. Nearly 6,000 Iraqis have been slaughtered by them this year.

And yet - where is the West?

Where is our outrage?

If a Mosque were destroyed, if a Hindu Temple were desecrated, if the holy place of another religion that bore hundreds of years of culture and faith and human and spiritual value, we would look at it in horror and cry for justice.

Entire Christian communities are being destroyed, and their churches, many of them far older than anything we have here in our own country, are being ransacked and desecrated, and where is the West?

I ask not for bullets and bombs and reprisals but for justice and peace and hope and homes and strength to stand up for those who are treated as less than human by bullies who shout faith when they abuse that cry.

We who bear the name of Christian stand shoulder to shoulder with those who today have no home, no belongings, no past, no future. We are family. We will cry with you and cry out for you. We will make our voices heard so that your voices may be heard.

Where is the West?

We are here; we are with you; you are not alone.

Monday, July 21, 2014

a walk in the park

Tom Benyon is at it again.

Every year he puts himself through misery for the sake of his charity ZANE - Zimbabwe, A National Emergency. He walks the length, breadth, depth and whatever other dimension of the country he can think up in order to raise funds for the numberless people he helps through his astonishing work.

This year, it's Ambleside to Oxford. In case you don't know Tom, I should add that he's of an age where most men are well retired and only creep out for the occasional foray onto the golf course. But increasingly well into his eighth decade, he insists on trekking with his wife Jane and their dog for God and for their fellow human beings who need their help.

Today their walk brought them onto my patch. The least I could do was to eat lunch with them, and then walk them through the wild fields of North Aston Parish and the gentler roads of Steeple Aston.

Eventually they arrived at the Deddington Arms (just north of my patch, but still a decent pub), where Richard, their faithful support driver was leafing through the sports pages of the Daily Telegraph and recounting the criminal lack of good pubs open at lunch times "in the north". Jane & Tom were accompanied today by a goodly legion of family members, as this is pretty close to their own home in Bladon. So there were two daughters (Millie and Clare - herself an Anglican cleric and well-known in these pages) and three grandsons (Clare's boys), which perhaps excused the late-running of the morning session.

Many Moules later, we were ready for the off.

Tom has a curious gait. He waddles with the grace of a man who expects to find a horse between his legs. It is a triumph of his determination to serve his Charity that he finishes these walks - by nature I am not convinced he is built for long daily strolls up hill and down dale. He uses two sticks as he walks, and their constant 'clack-clacking' on any footpath or road surface is fair warning of his approach. He retains stealth mode only when crossing fields and in virgin woodland. (Which is a fair part of the daily fare, if what I encountered is anything to go by).

Also - though Jane has a GPS device hanging from her neck, this is only any good if the paths on the maps exist. Which they didn't as we left Deddington. Still, fields are fields, and I knew where North Aston was. Even a herd of marauding cows couldn't put us off. Tom's sticks were very useful there. One of the grandsons took to hiding in a tree for a moment, but all was well. Even the sheep parted to let us through.

Eventually - North Aston. One of the residents of this most blessed of England's villages once said to me, "I don't understand why anyone who lives in North Aston would ever want to visit Italy". Given the culture, the art, the food, the weather, the architecture, the history and the scenery available on a day like today, it is almost possible to agree. If only there were a Vivoli's in North Aston!

The good people of the village greeted us with refreshments, chairs, embraces, and donations to ZANE. It was very moving - all the more so as we swapped grandchildren; some left, others joined, and both Clare & Millie departed for home.

We walked on through the parkland belonging to North Aston Hall, and down the lane to Middle Aston, before reaching Steeple Aston, where Harry the Springer joined the merry band.

I'm not sure how many clergy have walked with Tom on this journey. He & I talked at great depth about perceptions of right and wrong, the mistake of avoiding responsibility for sin and an understanding of freedom as choosing obedience. With a little more time, I think we would have had a five-point plan for Israel and Hamas, but alas, Tom needed a little time to get his thoughts in order for the Woodstock Rotarians.

It was a privilege to escort these remarkable people who burn with passion for others so maltreated by fortune and their fellows that they have nothing and can do nothing in a country so far away. It was a privilege to step on the edge of their journey as it brought them into the heart of my own. It was a joy to see my own patch from their perspective and to see the love and generosity of people here serving our guests. I was proud to be Rector of such kind people.

Tom keeps a blog through his walks. This journey finishes for him and Jane tomorrow, but the blog is always there, as is so much more. Do drop by. They've done hundreds of miles over these last three weeks, and thousands in total; it's not just a walk in the park - it's a life of commitment to changing lives, and I commend ZANE to you.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

ever rolling stream

Is it the process of ageing that makes us stop and appreciate each passing moment, that allows us the ability to press the pause button of life and remain within the moment in order to enjoy, to cherish, to be grateful and express the gratitude for what is happening here and now?

In youth, time flies. We spend it like the money we don't have. We will always be able to pay back later.

And then...

The currency gains in value. I intend to spend a lot more of it yet - though the years tell me I may already have spent more than remains; and the experience of the years tells me to value the currency, because who knows what lies ahead?

So we gathered to celebrate Mum's 80th Birthday. I drove up from Oxfordshire, Gill & Ben flew in from Florida. We had a party; it was a blast. Lots of friends and family and laughter and Mum loving every minute. I took her to a concert in Manchester - Wynton Marsalis & the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Excellent. The encore, just Wynton Marsalis & the rhythm section extemporising for ten minutes, will remain in my heart for ever as one of the musical highlights of my life. Mum adored it. She said she felt drunk on the music - which is perfect; as it should be. We were on the second row, and time stood still. I say it was ten minutes - I actually have no idea how long it was. It was an eternity, it was a second, it was glorious.

Gill and Ben then came and stayed with me at my place in the shire. We travelled on what was actually the 20th anniversary of my ordination. How grateful could I be? To be bringing Gill & Ben home, to be welcoming them here, to share a few precious days together.

We live a long way apart; we live very close. Life has lots in store for us yet, and yet we begin to make plans for what the future may hold.

Another musical highlight: years ago I took Gill to see Madama Butterfly at Covent Garden.  This year, on a whim whilst in Manchester with Mum, I rang the box office at the Royal Opera to see what was playing whilst Gill was with me. I took Gill & Ben to see Tosca - Placido Domingo conducting, Bryn Terfel as Scarpia, and the glorious Sondra Radvanovsky as Tosca. I've seen this opera a hundred times; I've never seen it done better. We had a terrific time, made all the better by tea beforehand with cousin Louise & Selihah at Delaunay's.

The weekend came around, and with it a service to mark that 20th anniversary.

At first, I'd wondered whether I would publicly mark this moment. And then I had to. I had to because I am simply so grateful to be here. I wanted to take the moment, to live in it, to say thank you to God and stop time and stand still and be thankful. I am here because of his faithfulness. I am here because of the friends and family who carried me through dark days. I am here because of everything, despite everything, and with great, great joy.

I couldn't say it quietly in a corner.

It was a terrific day - and I was thrilled to see friends from years gone by and friends from places far and wide in church. Welsh connections, Wycliffe people, St Aldate's friends, both couples for whom I have been best man, and in Joe Martin a US friend and the purveyor of the best excuse for being late I ever heard anywhere. Clare Hayns preached beautifully.

A good group stayed for lunch on the Rectory lawn, and it seems that for this week Champagne has replaced Coke Zero as my standard beverage.

In the service we sang an anthem, a piece I wrote for Geoffrey & Jeanette Cotterill's wedding in June 1989. We sang it again in the evening at a service where they gathered former St Aldate's music group members to lead worship in their current church. The photo could be from 1989 or so, with a little ageing added to it. Very bizarre.

And that's the gift. For in the pausing to remember, to enjoy, to be grateful, to thank God and to love people, the ever rolling stream goes back and forward and cuts in and out and stops in its tracks as we take time to enjoy time and refuse to be its prisoners. It is another of the Lord's marvellous gifts. And maybe it is in possessing and having been possessed by so much more of this gift, that the open thankfulness for past and future are what make this moment also feel like such a present.