#AdventBookClub day 9: Advent hope

In both my sermons so far this Advent (preached at different churches) I have found myself using the phrase “sure and certain hope” to describe the hope-filled expectation of Advent. It’s an echo of the funeral liturgy: “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life in our Lord Jesus Christ”. And it’s an echo which reminds me that hope is not at all the same as optimism. Hope is not “it’s all going to be ok”, but that which endures when all is plainly not ok, in the face of loss and grief and trauma.

Underhill’s emphasis on Holy Week and Jesus’ passion and death as a site of hope, a clinging to hope which mirrors the expectant hope of the coming incarnation, is one which takes seriously the idea of hope as that which persists. And what is it that persists when all around us seems lost, persists even in the face of death itself, and still allows for not just the possibility of hope but a hope which is “sure and certain”? Underhill describes it as “an absolute hold on the reality of God”. A hold, and a reality, which persists against all the odds.

It is not always an easy hold to maintain, to hold onto hope, to hold onto the reality of God. One of the things we remember as we journey through Advent in the company of the patriarchs and matriarchs, the prophets, John the Baptist, and Mary, is that we do not hold onto hope alone. Persistence in hopeful expectation is a communal task, a task of communion, a task in which we dare to remember together the enormity of God’s faithful, steadfast, persistent love, which is the cause of our hope.

This year for #AdventBookClub we are reading ‘Music of Eternity: meditations for Advent with Evelyn Underhill’ by Robyn Wrigley-Carr. Join the conversation in the Facebook group, or by following the hashtag on Twitter.

#AdventBookClub day 8: Advent expectancy

The rhythm of expectant waiting works as a counterpoint to all the busy-ness of our lives. It’s not that we can – or even need to – step away from the rhythms of ordinary life. But rather that they are woven through and pervaded by this other rhythm, this slow, gentle rhythm of expectancy.

And so, as Underhill reminds us, it is with the lives of the saints. Not that saints lead perfect lives, or that they necessarily draw aside from all the distractions of the world. Indeed, many of the holiest people are deeply immersed in the ordinary messiness of life. But rather the imperfect lives of the saints are shot through with another rhythm, and underpinning pulse of life which is the Divine within them. That is what we often experience when we encounter saints, those people who “steadily radiate God”. By their lives they draw us all more deeply into the rhythm of the Divine life in the world.

This year for #AdventBookClub we are reading ‘Music of Eternity: meditations for Advent with Evelyn Underhill’ by Robyn Wrigley-Carr. Join the conversation in the Facebook group, or by following the hashtag on Twitter.

#AdventBookClub day 7: Advent waiting

Evelyn Underhill writes, as all of us do, as a person of her particular time and social position. Her call to “withdraw from the restless surface of life in order to give our whole attention to the deeps of life” may read as the privileged invitation of one who doesn’t have to put dinner on the table each night, or work our where the money is coming from for the rent and the gas bill. For most of us, the matters of the ‘restless surface of life’ demand our attention, and often pressingly so. Withdrawal is not an option. What wisdom is there then, for us, in Underhill’s writing?

I would suggest that her words about busy-ness still have some value. Notice that it is not being busy that Underhill sees as an impediment to the spiritual life, but rather our attitude to busy-ness. To “believe that the really good part is to keep busy” is what, according to Underhill, hinders our understanding both of our own human nature and of God. And I think she has a point. Our idolising of ‘busy’ can be one more way of centring ourselves. Look how busy I am. Perhaps we imagine – or act as though we imagine – that our being busy brings glory to God, or that it is in some way indispensable to the work of God’s kingdom. Not so.

God creates us for rest as well as for work. If our idolisation of our own busy-ness destroys our capacity for sabbath, then whatever we may accomplish by being so busy cannot be worth that loss of attentiveness to the rhythm in which God creates and, through it, to God. It is so easy to be tempted to think that if we could just do more, or do it better, or keep doing it, then somehow something would be achieved to God’s glory. But to think like that is to rely on our own strength and not on God’s.

We may have many tasks to do – especially at this time of year. Some of them may be urgent, or important, or both. We may not be able to ‘withdraw’ as Underhill suggests. But we can examine our attitude towards our own busy-ness, and what they reflect about who we believe God to be.

This year for #AdventBookClub we are reading ‘Music of Eternity: meditations for Advent with Evelyn Underhill’ by Robyn Wrigley-Carr. Join the conversation in the Facebook group, or by following the hashtag on Twitter.

#AdventBookClub day 6: Your Kingdom come

Reading today’s chapter, I was very taken with the picture Evelyn Underhill paints of the kingdom of God, as something which slips in almost unnoticed, which is continually coming in the ordinary, which is “seldom showy”. And our role too in this, as both receiving and co-operating in the coming kingdom rings true for me – rather more so than contemporary language of ‘building’ or ‘growing’ the kingdom.

Underhill’s vision of the kingdom feels like a very Advent kind of vision. It is that which is both here and coming, both now and not yet. In our awareness of the life of the kingdom among and within us, we live in a kind of continual Advent, a continual yearning for God’s coming transformation, even as we catch quiet glimpses of it already here. This sense of longing desire, of expectant yearning, is not always at the forefronts of our mind as we pray “your kingdom come”, but it is good to be reminded of it in this Advent season.

This year for #AdventBookClub we are reading ‘Music of Eternity: meditations for Advent with Evelyn Underhill’ by Robyn Wrigley-Carr. Join the conversation in the Facebook group, or by following the hashtag on Twitter.

#AdventBookClub day 5: Father, hallowed be Your Name

Evelyn Underhill’s writing about prayer was what first attracted me to her work, so it was a delight to read today’s extract from her commentary on the Lord’s Prayer. Her emphasis on adoration as the focus and purpose of prayer is striking here. “The reason for the Church’s existence is the more perfect hallowing of the Name” – I wonder what sort of church we would be if we lived as if that were true? If the hallowing of God’s name were our primary focus – rather than, say, spreading the gospel, or serving the poor – I wonder how that would effect the way we engage in those other, very necessary tasks, not for their own sake, but for the sake of hallowing God’s name?

It would be a mistake to suggest that Underhill’s emphasis on prayer, worship and adoration is at the expense of more practical expressions of faith. She is clear both that adoration and action are intimately related, and what that relationship should be: “wholehearted adoration is the only real preparation for right action.” In this Advent season, we are invited to reflect again on God’s coming among us, and our response to that, how our deep longing of God gives impetus to the action of our lives.

The hallowing of God’s name is to be found in the small, the ordinary, the unremarkable, in our responses to our encounter with the world around us, as well as more obvious encounters with God. It has its roots in our perpetual longing and desire for God – a very suitable theme for Advent. Underhill’s “God has created our craving for himself alone” contains echoes of St Augustine’s “Oh God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you”. Advent restlessness calls us into prayer, into desire for God by and for whom we are created.

This year for #AdventBookClub we are reading ‘Music of Eternity: meditations for Advent with Evelyn Underhill’ by Robyn Wrigley-Carr. Join the conversation in the Facebook group, or by following the hashtag on Twitter.

#AdventBookClub day 4: Wakening to God’s Eternal Action

“Most of our conflicts and difficulties come from trying to deal with the spiritual and practical aspects of our life separately, instead of realising them as parts of one whole.” I encountered these words in today’s reading with something of a sinking sense of familiarity. Yes, that is how it is for me. I recognise that temptation in myself, to parcel of the spiritual from the material, even though I know perfectly well that to do so is theological nonsense.

Alongside it comes the parallel temptation: to rely on God only when I feel I can’t rely on myself. This one is insidious, it slips itself into our prayer language: “God, help me to do those things which are too difficult for me”. And yet, apart from God, nothing is possible. God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being, and all our action rests on God’s eternal action. God is not just there to fill in the gaps when our self-sufficiency runs out. We are never self-sufficient, however much we might like to pretend otherwise.

But if Underhill acutely diagnoses the problem, she also offers something of the remedy. Engaging in the spiritual life, for Underhill, “means the entire transformation of our personal, professional and political life into something more consistent with our real situation as small, dependent, fugitive creatures”. And this too I found startlingly recognisable. We are all creatures of God the creator. We are all dependent creatures. But to what extent are we willing to live as if that is true? Or are we tempted, time and again, to try to live in our own strength, turning to God only when our ever-present insufficiency becomes apparent to us?

Acknowledging our creaturely dependence on God has the potential to be liberating. It has the potential to free us from the continual anxiety of our own shortcomings. I quoted a few days ago from Teresa of Avila: “God alone is enough.” If God alone is enough, then we do not have to be enough. If God alone is enough then we do not have to constantly strive for control and perfection. If God is enough then we can rest in our creaturehood, in our dependence on God whose love is absolutely steadfast and trustworthy and always, always enough.

This year for #AdventBookClub we are reading ‘Music of Eternity: meditations for Advent with Evelyn Underhill’ by Robyn Wrigley-Carr. Join the conversation in the Facebook group, or by following the hashtag on Twitter.

#AdventBookClub day 3: Eternal Love brooding over creation

I was recently at an event where the speaker was speaking about Genesis 1.1 as the moment in which God brings order out of chaos. He went on to make some interesting points, but he very nearly lost me in the first 30 seconds, when he said that the experience of ministry is generally one of order, which is occasionally – as it has been during the pandemic – interrupted by chaos. “Really???” I thought. That’s not my experience of ministry – or of life in general. In my experience chaos is always fairly near the surface, and often interweaves with whatever order we may discern among it in interesting, creative and sometimes challenging ways.

I find Underhill’s concept of a continual process of the Holy Spirit brooding over the chaos of creation a far more helpful approach to discerning God’s movement in the world. This is not a triumphalist narrative of order subduing or overcoming chaos, nor does it assume that order is the default experience of our lives, when very obviously for many if not most people it is not. Instead it is an approach which seems to me to emphasise our continual dependence on the patient loving-kindness of God who is continually brooding over us, continually ordering the world and our lives, continually coaxing creativity out of the mess and muddle in which we exist.

Such an image fits more fully with my own experience than that offered in the talk I heard recently. But it also fits more fully with my understanding and experience of God, as one continually involved in the action of loving into fullness of life all that she has created. And that understanding of God, as continually and intimately involved in loving creation, must inform my spiritual life. If, as Underhill says, “my small, formless, imperfect soul is constantly subject to the loving, creative action of God, in all the bustle of my daily life”, then the mess and chaos of life is not something to be overcome by order, or pushed aside to make room for prayer, but something in which to discern the ever-patient presence of God.

This year for #AdventBookClub we are reading ‘Music of Eternity: meditations for Advent with Evelyn Underhill’ by Robyn Wrigley-Carr. Join the conversation in the Facebook group, or by following the hashtag on Twitter.

#AdventBookClub day 2: Mighty symphony of the triune God

I found the idea of “shifting our focus from ‘Mine’ to ‘Ours'” a really helpful one. The analogy of worship as a symphony (Ours) rather than an individual melody (Mine) made a lot of sense to me, as a way of making that shift.

I have often tried to express a similar shift in narrative terms: we are not the heroes of our own stories, but ensemble players in the story of God. And as we shift from “Mine” to “Ours” one of the outworkings of that is that we cannot expect to see the whole narrative arc – our stories are part of a greater story which we cannot see in its entirety, and so the parts we do see may not always make sense to us by themselves.

Similarly, when I used to play in orchestras, I would only have the flute part in front of me. Only the conductor has the whole score, and the players in the orchestra have to trust them to lead us through in ways that weave the part we can see into the whole we cannot see. Sometimes, depending on the piece, my part would contain many bars of rests – when I had no idea what would be played, not even one small part of the whole. Other times I would have the melody, and therefore a fair idea of the general direction in which the piece is heading, but still only a tiny part of the whole. More often I would have fragments of music which made little sense by themselves, and were often not at all beautiful when practiced alone, but would weave in with the other instruments to make something greater than the sum of its parts.

Like any analogy, it can be stretched too far, but I think there is a lot of wondering that could be done around the symphony metaphor. When, in our lives with God, are we directed to rest? When do we catch sight of the tune? When does our part feel dull or repetitive, or make little sense? And how can we tune in to listen more attentively to the symphony into which we are being drawn?

This year for #AdventBookClub we are reading ‘Music of Eternity: meditations for Advent with Evelyn Underhill’ by Robyn Wrigley-Carr. Join the conversation in the Facebook group, or by following the hashtag on Twitter.

#AdventBookClub day 1: God’s perpetual coming

Today’s focus on seeing God coming among us in ‘unexpected, disguised and inconspicuous ways’ struck a chord with me. I am preaching this morning about the Advent call to “Look!” “See!” “Behold!” and how it is a call not to look away: not to look away from people drowning in the channel because there is no safe route for them, not to look away from families choosing between heating and eating this Christmas, not to look away from the unfolding climate catastrophe. Advent calls us to confront the world as it is, even as we long for the transforming coming of God. But it also calls us to acknowledge that the world as it is is already infused with God’s presence, if only we are attentive enough to discern it.

“Only a spiritual disposition which thus puts the whole emphasis on God, perpetually turning to God and losing itself in God, is safe,” says Underhill. May this Advent, and all our Advent observances, draw us more deeply into that disposition of dependence on God and desire for God. In my sermon this morning I am using one of my favourite quotes from Teresa of Avila:

"Let nothing trouble you,
let nothing make you afraid, 
all things pass away,
God never changes,
patience obtains everything,
God alone is enough." 

Over the last few months I have been contemplating that phrase: “God alone is enough”. If God alone is enough, then what does that mean for how I live my life? Perhaps this advent season, with its deep attentiveness to God’s presence and God’s coming, will draw me more deeply into that reality of God’s perfect sufficiency, and all that it means for us, God’s creatures.

This year for #AdventBookClub we are reading ‘Music of Eternity: meditations for Advent with Evelyn Underhill’ by Robyn Wrigley-Carr. Join the conversation in the Facebook group, or by following the hashtag on Twitter.

A party and a protest: Pride and the kingdom of God

A sermon for MK Pride Service, 26th September 2021, St Mary’s Shenley Church End.

Psalm 139.1-18; Romans 12.1-5

I’d like to begin with a parable. The kingdom of God is like this: in the streets of the city there was a party, and people danced and laughed and sang and chatted, and there was space for everyone. And to the party came a certain young person, unsure about who they were and whether they would ever find a place to belong. And there was space at the party for them. And to the party came people of all sorts of people, and all sorts of love, and there was space for them all. And they found a voice together,and together they said “we’re here, we’re queer – and God loves us”. And God saw that it was good.

Do you recognise it? Pride might seem like an unlikely parable for the kingdom of God, but I think it has a lot of the ingredients of the sort of kingdom Jesus teaches about in his parables, and throughout the gospels. 

There’s a good precedent for likening the kingdom to a party. Among Jesus’ several parables about parties we find the parable of the great banquet, in which when the invited guests refuse the master’s invitation he sends his servants out into the streets to call everyone to the feast. Everyone. The kingdom of God is not for the chosen few. The kingdom of God does not belong to those who conform. The kingdom of God is a party whose gates are thrown open to all comers, to come as we are, as God made us to be. The kingdom of God is the kind of party where everyone, in all our glorious, God-given diversity, is seen and known as “fearfully and wonderfully made” in God’s image. The master of the great banquet would find himself quite at home at Pride, I suspect.

But Pride is not just a party. Pride is, and has always been since its inception in the Stonewall Riots and their aftermath, a protest. A protest against a world which refuses to accept the beautiful diversity of all God’s children. A protest against a world in which discrimination on the basis of sexuality or gender identity is still rife – even in this country – and far more so for our siblings around the world. When we take to the streets to march and dance and raise our voices to say ‘this is who we are’, it is still a radical act. It is an act of protest which says ‘it doesn’t have to be this way’.

And so too with the kingdom of God. The kingdom Jesus proclaims in parables, the kingdom Mary sings in the Magnificat, the kingdom in which the lost are found, the mighty overturned and the humble exalted – this is a kingdom which says: ‘it doesn’t have to be this way – there is another way, a way of justice and of peace, a way which has space for all’. And that Way is Jesus.

‘It doesn’t have to be that way’ is the message too of Paul’s words to the Romans in our second reading this evening: “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds”. God’s gentle, wild, disruptive Holy Spirit calls us out of conformity and into a life of transformation and renewal. The Spirit who blows where she will blows though our lives and beckons us into the fullness of who God has created and called us to be. However much the world – and the church – may try to mould us into boxes into which we do not fit, the work of the Spirit is always to tear down those walls which are not designed for the flourishing of God’s children. And through our lives, especially when those lives do not look as people expect them to, the Spirit whispers to the world – and to the church – ‘there is another way’, a way of truth and freedom, of the wild and transforming power of God.

“I appeal to you therefore – siblings – by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice; holy and acceptable to God”. Pride is an undeniably and unapologetically embodied thing. When we place our bodies in the streets, dancing and marching, our unapologetically queer and diverse bodies in all their God-imaging fullness, when we move our bodies in party and in protest, there is something subversive going on.

And so too the kingdom of God is a subversively embodied thing. The Word becomes flesh – and in doing so breaks though every preconception of the limits of who God could be. Jesus puts his body in proximity to those most oppressed and despised – women, and leppers, and tax collectors, and Samaritans, and children – and in doing so dismantles every preconception of where is the proper place for God to dwell. And in his resurrected body, still scarred, Jesus calls all of us to be members of the body of Christ, members of one another, members of a scandalously diverse and unconventional body, for the sake of the world.

This body and all its members are “holy and acceptable to God”. Our bodies in all their diversity are “holy and acceptable to God”. And when the church has told us otherwise, it has distorted the gospel of Jesus. Our psalm this evening tells us that God knows us as we are, and has done since before the foundation of the world: “my frame was not hidden from you, when I was made in secret and woven in the depths of the earth”. God knows every hair on our heads, and every thought of our hearts, and God delights in us. God delights in you. Even the hidden parts of us, even the parts of us we don’t feel able to share with family or friends, in our workplaces or our churches, perhaps those parts of us which only really come to the surface at something like Pride, or even those parts of us we keep hidden from ourselves – all these parts of us God knows, and in the full knowledge of who we are God says that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made”, the “marvelous works” of the almighty. There is never any need for us to come out to God, who already knows us better than we know ourselves. We don’t need to present ourselves in a certain way to be “holy and acceptable to God”.

Holiness is a much misunderstood term. It is often interpreted as a synonym for perfection, or purity, or good behaviour, or any of a whole host of other unattainable goals to fail to live up to. But in constructing holiness like that, we make a rod for our own backs. Holiness in scripture is something deeper, more profound, more intimately connected to God’s own being. To be holy is to live towards God, to live honestly as God created us. Holiness is closely linked to wholeness, to living as our whole selves, as we are created and called by God.

To allow ourselves to live fully as ourselves, whole and holy before God, is an act both of party and of protest, of celebration of the God who made us, and of protest against the world which would have us be other than we are. And it is an act of witness, a sign of God’s kingdom on earth. To refuse to conform to the narrow limits the world – and the church – would place on God’s love and ours, but instead to allow ourselves to be transformed more and more into the image of God, is kingdom stuff indeed. As St Theresa of Avila said: “be who God created you to be, and you will set the world on fire.”

There is a poem I have had above my desk for over a decade now, by poet and theologian Nicola Slee:

Dare to 
declare
who you
are. It
isn’t
far from
the shores
of silence
to the
boundaries
of speech.
The road
is not
long but
the way
is deep.
And you
must not
only
walk there,
you must
be prepared
to leap.

So, dare to declare who you are, to present your bodies as holy and acceptable to God, to know yourselves fearfully and wonderfully made. And in doing so, as we party and protest, as we leap and dance into the Spirit-filled life God has prepare for us, as we celebrate the signs of God in our midst and as we cry out for justice, may we set the world on fire with the wild and unquenchable love of God.