Brother Angelo

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On Sunday I found myself worshipping in York Minster. Bizarrely it was the second time in under a fortnight that I was served communion by an Archbishop! But that’s another story.

The most significant person I met that morning – apart from Christ in the Eucharist – was not Archbishop SENTAMU but an old man called Angelo.

In a packed congregation of hundreds I found myself sitting next to an old man who turned about to be Italian but who had lived in York for many years.

In the few moments before the service Angelo and I ended up chatting and I asked why a Roman Catholic Italian was attending a Protestant service in York Minster?

He shared his testimony of how many years ago he had been far from God but was still attending Catholic church from time to time.

One Christmas his Catholic church in York was closed as the heating system had broken down. So he went to a Christmas service at the Minster.

At that service he encountered God in a new and life-changing way and since that day he has attended evensong each day.

He spoke of how he now knew that ‘labels’ mean nothing and that we all worship the same Jesus Christ.

I was then able to share with him my testimony of serving the French Catholic church as a Protestant Evangelical missionary for 14 years.

We embraced as brothers.

That felt like a ‘God-moment’ to me, like God was reminding me of how He has done something in Sharon and my hearts and lives which has opened us up to the ecumenical imperative of John 17;

I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message,

that all of them may be one (John 17:20, NIV)

I’m not that sure what this encounter ‘means’.

But I think it was at least a reminder to Sharon and I that in our hearts God has put a deep love for our Catholic brothers and sisters and of all the other ‘sheep that are of a different sheep-fold’.

I have other sheep, too, that are not in this sheepfold (John 10:16, NLT)

As we approach the end of this ministry in Leicester, whatever we do, and wherever we go, we will do and go as people who embrace our brothers and sisters in Christ, regardless of their spiritual tradition.

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St Joseph Barsabbas – The Unchosen

St Joseph BARSABBASSome people just have no luck.

Finalists but never winners.

Get so close but never quite make the cut.

Those kinds of experiences can mark a person, make them bitter and twisted, sour them.

St Joseph of BARSABBAS had that kind of thing happen to him, twice.

He was part of the group of 72 disciples that Jesus formed and trained and sent out into ministry(1). But when Jesus chose the 12 who would be his inner circle, his apostles, Joseph didn’t make the cut.

When Judas betrayed Jesus and there was an opening amongst the 12, Joseph was in the frame again. This time it was only a choice of two – Joseph and Matthais. Guess who was chosen?

Twice up there, twice passed over. Can’t have been easy.

This is something very close to my own heart as I’m currently looking for a post in ministry. So far I’ve had two interviews for posts, after both interviews I have been rejected. Which is tough.

I mean you can be stoic and breezey, don’t panic, just carry on. You can be fatalistic ‘What’s for you won’t go by you’. You can spiritualise ‘God’s in control and all will be well’. All of which have some positive aspects, but none of them does anything to alleviate the crushed hope, the bruised ego, the lost dreams.

So I know exactly how Joseph must have felt. To be the unchosen hurts.

And when it happens again and again it can be crushing.

So I was interested to find out how St Joseph reacted to this double rejection. Did he become bitter and twisted? Was he the critical voice from the wings carping and pointing out the faults and failings of those who were chosen?
No.

St John CHRYSOSTOM notes;

but the other candidate (Joseph) was not annoyed; for the apostolic writers would not have concealed [that or any other] failings of their own, seeing they have told of the very chief Apostles, that on other occasions they had indignation (Matthew 20:24; Matthew 26:8), and this not once only, but again and again .

In fact his life was of such piety and holiness that he was nicknamed ‘the Just’ and is most commonly known as St Justus of Eleutheropolis – although the town name Eleutheropolis is an anachronism as the name is later, it was a mere village called Betaris in the 1st century when he was made bishop of it.

Not only was St Joseph a man of exemplary holiness he was also brave.

When the Emperor Vespasian came to quell the rebellious Jewish population in 68AD he attacked Betaris and the surrounding villages and 10,000 people were slain – St Joseph amongst them for refusing to renounce his Christian faith(3).

So St Joseph is a particular help and encouragement to all those who are unchosen, passed over, neglected. If your spirituality allows it, you might ask for his intercession when you face such experiences, that you might meet the challenge of being unchosen with the same grace and goodness that he did.

(1) Eusebius Historia Ecclesiastica, I, 12

(2) St John CHRYSOSTOM, Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles, Homily 3

(3) Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book 4, chapter 8, section 1

 

 

Come and See

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At the Bishop of Leicester’s ‘School of Prayer’ event at St Botolph’s, Shepshed this evening we were encouraged to experience 5 different ways of praying.

One way that particularly helped me this evening was praying with scripture.

One of the biblical passages we were given to pray with was John 1:38-39

Then Jesus turned, and seeing them following, said to them, “What do you seek?”

They said to Him, “Rabbi” (which is to say, when translated, Teacher), “where are You staying?”

He said to them, “Come and see.”

Meditating on this led me to write the following poem:

You ask me a question

‘What are you looking for?’

I don’t have an answer

Something, someone, help?

I can’t truly say.

Your response to me

Is not an exploration of

My question

But an invitation to experience

Your answer

Come and see.

 

The Flying Fish

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Our NEARER community met on Wednesday and we explored how poetry connects with prayer.

We were challenged to respond to different objects placed around the room.

The object that caught my attention was a Fish Cross. It is a cross that when viewed from the front looks perfectly ordinary, however when viewed from the side it looks like a fish.

This is a reference to the fact that the early Christians used the fish as a secret symbol of their faith. The word for fish in greek is ‘icthus’ and this can be used as an acronym – iesus, christos theos huios soter (Jesus, Christ, of God, the Son, Saviour).

As I thought about the fish I suddenly thought of flying fish and this led me into a reflection of how that can be seen as an image of Christians.

I wrote the following poem in response.

 

The Flying Fish

A fish that swims in company,

In playful relation,

Yet with purposeful intent,

Unlike its peers, is a citizen of two worlds,

Soaring now and then,

To its lower companions lost to sight,

Joining brother birds in glorious flight.

 

Then re-entering that heavy, liquid world

Warmed by the sun,

Invigorated by the air,

And dazzled by the light.

 

With a life above and below,

Ambassador between two worlds

That are strangers to each other.

 

So we who live below.

Immersed in torrent and tide,

Yet from time to time receive grace to know

Escape and soar in warmer, brighter climes,

Likewise must we return to share,

Our second life,

To strengthen, challenge, and implore,

Our low-bound companions,

That all might know and taste life on that more glorious plane,

The son to see, his warmth to share,

The joy to soar.

 

Stephen John MARCH, Feast of St. Winwaloc, 2017

The Approaching Footfall – a poem

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There have been several recent deaths that have touched my life.

There is also a nagging encroachment into my life of the signs of my own mortality.

All of which leaves me no choice but to think.

As I struggle to corral my thoughts and set them in some kind of framework. I find that, as with all of the most profound human experiences, it is only poetry that has the strength to carry the weight of the mystery I find myself staring at; prose just cannot do it.

And so I found myself in the small hours of last night crafting a poem that expresses something of what I am feeling at present, and of something that I am holding on to.

 

The Approaching Footfall

There is flat, focussed footfall,
At the edge of my perception.
Close by, afar?
Impossible to tell.
Yet gaining.

There is no advantage won in running,
Yet nothing lost in standing still.
The meeting, though obscure,
Is fixed inviolate in time.

– And that acceptance made,
The fear is less, the when
And more, the how.

A peaceful passing?
Old and full of years,
A slow decline into the dark abyss;
A live coal that flames,
Then glows,
Then cools,
Then cold extinguished,
Lost to sight.
Or a wild, explosive raging at the dying of the light?

– Do not speak of legacy, that charade,
That myth of lasting worth,
As if a fistful of years,
Would not suffice,
To wipe the greatest from the earth.
The Ozymandian conceit
Is merciless laid bare
– The wind blows,
The sands shift,
No trace remains.
All gone.

-What value then, a life?
If there is a heart,
From which the universe receives its pulse,
And if that heart regards a man,
And scrutes him path and deed and thought
Then only in that heart survives
An estimation, value, worth.

And if that heart were moved so to,
It might recognise itself in dim reflect
And cede that as an offspring child
From which no Father can himself de-turn
But gathers in and shares his life
And suffers not to part again.

Stephen John MARCH the Feast of St Scholastica, 2017

Faith in Three Pictures

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I was asked to talk to a group of young children and tell them about my faith and spiritual life.

I said yes, but then as I started to think about how I might do it, it became really challenging.

I’ve been a student of theology for nearly 2 decades. Almost everything I have learned is complex and in order to say anything I have to spend a lot of time listing exceptions, limiting applications etc.

So how on earth was I to share my faith with little children?!

I eventually decided that the best thing I could do was use pictures that show some of the things I hold most deeply as spiritual convictions.

godshapedholeMy first picture was this one. It shows a despondent man with a heart-shaped hole in his chest.

For me this illustrates that quote from St Augustine, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee”. This is often stated as there being a God-shaped hole in us that nothing but a relationship with Jesus can fulfil.

In sharing this with the children I used the example of the children’s toy with different shaped holes and different shaped blocks.  You cannot fill a hole with any shape other than the one that corresponds. In a similar way I believe that all other attempts to find fulfilment, purpose in life, significance, or to make sense of the way the universe is, with be ultimately unsatisfactory outside of a relationship with Jesus.

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The second picture I showed the children was this one by Greg OLSEN.

The image shows a young man, a backpacker, sitting down on a bench chatting with Jesus.

The young man looks a little tired, despondent; Jesus looks friendly, interested, animated, and concerned.

For me this picture sums up how fantastic it is to be able to talk to Jesus at any moment in my life’s journey. When I’m tired, sad, angry, losing me way, scared, confused etc. I can just stop. Take a few minutes out and talk with Jesus. It is so great to know that he comes to me, listens and that he will help me find my way forward. Whatever I need – encouragement, challenge, direction, perspective etc. Jesus can give that to me.

Of course prayer is also really great for the positive moments in my journey too. Jesus loves to share my joys and successes and to share my simple enjoyment of the everyday pleasures of life. Expressing gratitude to Jesus for these things is really important and also health-giving if scientific studies are to be believed.

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The final picture was this one by YONGSUNG KIM.

It shows a moment from the story when Jesus walked on the water to his disciples who were in a small boat in a storm.

One of the disciples, St Peter, had had the courage to ask Jesus if he could walk on the water and come to meet him.

Jesus invited Peter to come to him and he was initially able to walk on the water too.

But then Peter took his eyes off Jesus, he started to look at the waves and the storm instead. At that moment St Peter started to sink.

This picture captures the moment when Jesus reaches down to a sinking Peter and draws he back up and brings him safely to the boat. There is no anger, disappointment, disapproval in the face of Jesus, simply a welcoming smile.

I find this picture a powerful reminder that when I foul up, lose faith, make mistakes, get it badly wrong etc. Jesus is not angry, he is not disappointed. He simply comes to me, stretches out his hand, helps me up and says, ‘Let’s try again’.

 

These were my three pictures. The children seemed to understand them and to understand something of what I was trying to share.

Which, I suppose reminds me that ultimately the Christian faith is both a mystery too deep for human minds to fully comprehend and a simple love relationships with Jesus that is accessible even to the youngest child.

 

 

 

 

 

Five-Finger Life-Blessing

 

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There is a rich symbolism in the simple gesture of how we hold our hand as we bless someone; either by making the sign of the cross over them, or just as we pray for them.

This icon shows St John the Baptist one particular gesture. There are actually three different ways in which hands have been held in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

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Fig. 1 – In Eastern Rite icons of Jesus, the Lord is shown holding His right hand in a particular way. The pinkie and ring fingers are touching the thumb, these three digits symbolizing the Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity. The other two fingers are held straight. Those two fingers represent the two natures of Jesus — Divine and human. It’s a gesture that is sometimes used by the Vicar of Christ, the pope.

Fig. 2 – There’s another gesture used by Eastern Catholic and Orthodox bishops and priests. It is a form of finger spelling. The index finger of the right hand is held up straight (forming the letter “I”). The middle finger is slightly curved (forming the letter “C”). The ring finger is held down and crossing the thumb, thus forming an “X.” The pinkie is held up, but slightly curved in the form of another “C.” Put it together and what have you got? IC XC. These Greek letters are a Christogram or monogram for the name of Jesus. The first and last letters of Jesus (Iesous) and Christos (Xristos) these four Greek letters therefore stand for the Holy Name — Jesus the Christ.

Fig. 3 – In the Jewish tradition, the Aaronic Blessing (Num 6:22- 27) is prayed by the kohamin, the sons of Aaron, with hands extended over the people. Both hands are held flat, palms down, with the four fingers of each hand divided into a “V” shape. (Think “Star Trek”: “Live long and prosper.”) The hand gesture forms the Hebrew letter ‘shin’,

This letter is used to represent the name of God ‘El Shaddai’. El Shaddai is “The Lord God Almighty” in Hebrew.

So when we bless one another we can choose to use either of these hand gestures as a means of enriching that act and situating it within the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Of course it is only God who can act in blessing, but he has saved us so that we can be a blessing to others.

But I will save you. And you will be a blessing. (Zechariah 8:13b, NIV)

We should certainly be a blessing to others in our acts and our speech, but we should also be a blessing to them through our praying.

Using these hand gestures is a rich way to convey the act of blessing and its root and foundation in the God who commanded the Hebrew priests to bless Israel and who, in Jesus, has opened up that blessing to all people everywhere.

(Adapted from Father GOLDRICK, The Anchor, 12th Jan 2015 accessed online at http://www.anchornews.org/columnists/goldrick/archive-2014/07-04-14.html on 16/12/2016)