An American in Wales

As part of his residency in the Diocese of St Asaph, Mark will be writing a blog on his experiences, observations and thoughts on Wales.  You can read his latest entry here:

June 28: Sunday Worship

Mark and Mary for webMark was the preacher for BBC Radio 4’s Sunday Worship broadcast live from Llangollen on June, 26.  Mary Stallard led the service and you can hear the programme again at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07h60ln

You can also read Mark’s sermon here.

 

June, 9: A Trip to the Jungle

In CalaisMark joined Aidan Coleman, Peter Lomas, Jed Hall and Russell Price on a trip to the Jungle Refugee camp in Calais, carrying items donated from across the Diocese and a van of food, timber and building supplies.  You can read Mark’s journal and reflections here.

May, 6: King Albert’s Cakes

Recently, I took a walk along the canals of Llangollen with Diocesan Youth Officer Tim Feak. At one point Tim stopped, leaned over a fallen, tree and pulled a black knob of fungus from the trunk. “This is a King Albert’s Cake,” he told me. Tim went on to explain that these dried black orbs of fungus were used by the Welsh in ancient times to keep a fire lit while traveling. “Back in the days when a community would travel from place to place, it was difficult to keep the fire lit. This black fungus was taken from the old fire, then wrapped in leaves or cloth where it would keep the spark smoldering for hours and hours until you arrived to the next valley and were ready to start a new fire.”

I took one of these cakes home and placed it on my desk as a reminder. Each of us must discover God on our own. Each generation must discover God anew. All we can do is pass the flame from one hearth to another. This is our work at this time. Finding the flame, nurturing the flame, bearing the flame, so that those in the future might find a place of warmth and come out from the cold.

What if Our Mission Was “To Keep People from God?”

Sitting with two groups of church leaders recently, I asked, “In practical, everyday language, what is the purpose of the Church?” Many responses were given, but the one that stuck was, “To bring God to people and people to God.” I then asked “If our mission was to do the opposite, in other words, if our mission was ‘To keep people from God,’ how would we accomplish this reverse mission?” In both groups, laughter erupted. “Done!” someone exclaimed, “We know exactly how to accomplish this mission!”

I asked the group to list the activities needed to meet this reverse mission. Here is a sampling:

  • Speak in coded language so that a person outside the Church would feel alienated and confused
  • Make sure the church building is cold and without bathrooms
  • Provide uncomfortable seating
  • Have inconvenient meeting times, particularly for families
  • Make sure everything is done very prim and proper so that outsiders are easily embarrassed
  • Give the impression that everyone is doing very well so that newcomers feel unsafe to share their shortcomings and problems
  • In all church worship gatherings there should be a sense that you are being judged and found wanting
  • Do not welcome people when they come in the door
  • Notice boards should be inaccurate
  • People should be expected to come into the church building, make no effort to go out to them
  • Anxiously remind people that they are responsible for meeting the needs of the church (building upkeep, church finances, bureaucratic tasks) so that they understand that the mission of the church is to maintain the church
  • Avoid providing a safe space for people to confess their needs
  • Find ways to continue programs that are burdensome and uninspiring to those involved
  • Never sing music nor play instruments less than 100 years old
  • Talk continuously about the failings of The Church and Church leadership, rather than the needs of the people and the freedom and possibilities of life with God

There was much laughter, self-recognition, and humility as people listed the activities and attitudes that would keep people from the Church and from the faith. This laughter was a sign of health. The conversation then shifted to discussing the concerns and needs of the people in Northeast Wales. Here are the main items listed by the church leaders:

  • Food
  • Self-worth
  • Acceptance
  • Belonging
  • Respect
  • Financial security
  • Safe place for children
  • A sense of purpose (and good work to do)
  • A safe place to tell the truth
  • Possibilities for how life could be lived
  • Unconditional love
  • An ongoing experience of a God who offers compassion

The vicars and lay-leaders who gathered decided that if we could focus on meeting these needs, the real needs of the community instead of the anxieties of the church institution, God would be felt and known.

April, 21: For those wanting to read Mark’s address given after the Chrism Eucharist at St Asaph Cathedral you can find a summary of it here: Chrism Eucharist Message March 2016.

April, 18: Fire in the Cathedral!

It was Saturday night, Easter Eve, and the wind was grey and howling. Heads tilted, jackets pulled tight, we scurried across the grounds, faces red with rain. We shouldered our way into the protection of St. Asaph, but the old cathedral (like any sacred space) was porous and vulnerable, unwilling to keep us from the cool swirls of the buffeting wind. The Dean spotted me and aware that I was giving the homily, invited me to process with the various church officiants at the beginning of the service. “You should wait here,” he instructed, indicating one of the large pillars at the center of the cathedral until we come by.

I went to my appointed spot and waited.

The congregation gathered in the nave, the electric lights were shut off, and the cathedral became dark and silent. I had an image of all of deep in the hull of a boat, safe from the cold sea and the roaring wind. Then the Bishop, the Dean, and various officiants entered behind the choir and stood round a black iron stand stacked with firewood. I watched from behind my pillar, alone, in secret, hidden from my family and the congregation. Ancient words were invoked (death and resurrection, light and darkness). I stood quietly watching as the Dean lit the holy fire. The choir sang. I searched and then found my daughter’s face, amber and glowing, eyes transfixed by the Easter fire. I followed her eyes and marveled at the crackle of the burning wood, the ghostlike smoke vining its way to the cathedral ceiling. I turned and gazed as the firelight flickered across the bone and sinew crucifix that hangs in the east wing of the cathedral. And I wondered, how many centuries have our ancestors gathered around this hopeful light?

We sang. The fire increased. I expected the officiants to douse the flame. Wasn’t’ this dangerous? How many tours had I been on in this old country listening while the tour guide lamented, “Unfortunately, there was a fire and the mansion burned” or “the castle burned” or “the church burned?” And yet, here we were celebrating a fire in the cathedral!

The Paschal candle was brought forward and lit from the flames. Candles were lit one person to another across the congregation. The Bishop and officiants in green and white vestments passed by.  Dean Nigel Williams gave me a nod and motioned for me to join the procession of light. Walking behind that candle, smelling the smoke of the Easter fire, watching the light spread from person to person,  I suddenly felt the great gift and comfort of tradition.

I come from the state of Oregon in the United States. A state that sits at the edge of the Western world. The land is young geologically (we still have many active volcanoes) and culturally. For example, the historical society in my town recently held a “Historical Homes Tour.” Some of the oldest homes in the valley were built in 1890. As one Welsh woman recently said to me, “Those homes would be on the ‘Modern Homes Tour’ here in Wales.”

One of the reasons people come to the west coast of the United States is to flee tradition. It is a land of individualists and people enjoy the lack of long-standing cultural and family expectations. This lack of tradition is a gift that stimulates individual freedom and expression.

It is also a curse.

Without tradition we can become imprisoned within our own individual whims and perceptions. For example, because there is little grounding in religious tradition within the western United States, people continually proclaim themselves as religious teachers. These charismatic individuals hold themselves up (without any accreditation or affirmation) as self-actualized and enlightened. They write books, lead retreats or workshops, and create their own spiritual followings. I have watched many, many of these ungrounded, self-proclaimed spiritual teachers come and go—often leaving damaged people in their wake.

The problem isn’t that they haven’t any spiritual insight or truth–God gives spiritual insight freely to everyone (“seek and you will find….”). The problem is a lack of tradition, a lack of community, that keeps an individual’s spiritual experience in check.

We need tradition. We need community in order to keep individual needs, longings, and wounds from running amuck. Spiritual health requires exposing oneself to the accumulated experience (that which has been tried and tested as life-giving) of other people. It is the tension between religious tradition and individual spiritual experience that brings communal health.

The Church of Wales is gifted with a burning and life-giving tradition full of beauty and wisdom. The challenge of this time is to stay close to the flame of this tradition while at the same time encouraging inspired souls to come out of hiding, out from the shadows, to express and share the unique light that God has given them.

March, 31: One of the primary differences between Wales and the United States, of course, is story. The Welsh are living within layers upon layers of stories. The United States is such a young country, much of our landscapes are mute, absent of tales and legends and history. But the Welsh land is swirling with stories. I don’t think we’ve had an interaction with a Welsh person without hearing:

“Do you see that house there, the white one? Wordsworth wrote a poem in that house…“

“Now most of what you’ve read about the Holy Grail is false. It was never in Glastonbury. The ancient descriptions all match Valle Crucis Abbey, you see one of the monks….”

“Now some will tell you St. Colleen came into this valley on a coracle, and when you think of it, it’s actually quite an efficient way of traveling down The River Dee. You see in ancient days you often prayed while standing in a river…”

“There was a giantess that roamed this valley in the old days. Some will tell you that’s a reference to feminine pagan religions, but I actually believe there was a large woman that lived just the other side of this mountain here…”

The imagination, one of God’s greatest spiritual gifts, is well tended in Wales. I wonder what it’s like to grow up in a world that isn’t flattened into facts and reason. I wonder what it’s like growing up in a land that honors mystery and the miraculous. I wonder what it’s like to grow up knowing your life is just one story among thousands. I wonder if a storied landscape inspires or stifles.

As Christian people, we are a people of story. We seek to plant the stories of our faith deep within our soul and psyche to help guide our desires, to help draw out our God-given capacities for generosity, kindness, courage, compassion, and forgiveness. I suppose, at minimum, growing up within the memory of so many souls humbles a person. But can it also harden or diminish a person? I know as a parent I have to be careful about the stories I plant within my children and guard against immersing them in stories that kindle prejudice, resentment, and hatred. As I go about my work in the Diocese, seeking to create a community storytelling projects, I wonder what stories people will tell of their lives now? I wonder if these stories might be told and retold and become part of the fertile tales that nurture this ancient landscape.

March, 8: The First Gathering of Youth Leaders

We sit in a circle and begin in silence, in reverence, listening for the One who speaks the world into being. We are twenty-four souls, volunteers mostly, seeking (desperately?)  to offer what is most precious and life-giving to the young people of North and Mid Wales. We begin by remembering moments when our own youthful hearts were set aflame with love:

“I was thirteen, the only young person in the parish, and was asked to teach the children. In teaching I began to sense God’s love and my own worth…”

“I was depressed, lost, found myself kneeling on a kitchen floor asking for help and mercy. And God came.”

“Even as a small child l I always sensed the Presence. No one had to tell me. No one in my family went to church and yet I knew God, like a secret friend…”

“Our vicar was a miserable, unhappy man…but his faith, his faith was so beautiful and true that even as a little girl I sensed it and believed him and felt God when he prayed…”

“My father was a gentle, trusting man with a deep faith. Somehow I received that faith from him and have always treasured God.”

We prayed and shared stories of how God came close in our own youthful days. We prayed and named how God’s presence has come to us in our lives as comfort, surprise, empowerment, peace, joy, acceptance, and love. We began to dream how God is calling us now to reach out to the young ones in our towns and villages. “We must go out,” one man summarized the thoughts of the gathered. “We cannot expect them to come to us. Like a farmer, we must go out into the field, out to the young and plant seeds.” Again the silence returned and we listened, this time expectantly for what God might do.

***

One of the things I notice about Welsh people is their familiarity and comfort with silence -a lost capacity in America. The other night my daughter Grace and I took our journals to a local pub to do some writing. In the room were three separate couples having dinner. At one point my daughter looked up from her journal and said to me, “Dad, it’s so quiet.” We scanned the room slowly and noticed the three couples at their respective tables were all sitting in silence – simply enjoying the evening and the company of one another without need of talk. Grace turned to me and whispered, “I like Wales.”

***

You can read Mark’s first entry here:

March, 1: The doorbell rang for the fourth time on our first day in Wales. It was an elderly couple from across the road, the woman dressed in a red riding hood cape, her husband in tweed vest and jacket. “Bore da! Good morning!” They announced brightly, “We heard you are from America. Croeso! We want to offer you a warm welcome and a jar of marmalade.” We made introductions, thanked them for the kindness, and then put the marmalade in the refrigerator next to the other three jars we had received that day. We had heard that the Welsh are particularly warm and hospitable, now we know it to be true. Never have we felt so welcomed. People inviting us over for dinner, bringing sweets for our twelve-year old daughter Grace, stopping by to see if we might enjoy a ride to area sights, and, of course, lots of jars of marmalade.

The Cathedral was full letterbox

I was told by the Bishop that there would be “A Service of Welcome” for my beginning as Missioner in Residence. “It will be in the cathedral and you will be presented with a chair.” I am not a member of the Episcopal or Anglican church and had no idea what this service would mean. I think I believed it would be the Diocesan staff and a few other officials gathered in the cathedral to pray and mark the beginning of this ministry. How surprised my wife, daughter, and I were when we couldn’t find a parking spot forty minutes before the service.

“Are these people here for you Dad?” My daughter asked.

“It’s a Sunday afternoon,” I told her, “there might be a game or some other event that is filling the parking lot.” We found a spot a few blocks away and as we walked there were people on the sidewalk who waved and called to us, “Welcome! We’re coming to your service!”

As we entered the cathedral I was stunned to see archdeacons in robes, ministers from across the Diocese, the choir robed and seated, and then all of the smartly dressed people who had come out to welcome our little family. I have never felt so loved and honored as I did in that service. That night I woke many times and lay in wonder, still trying to absorb the many beautiful moments that were offered that day:

  • The warm smiles from people around the cathedral.
  • The Youth Forum praying for Mark webThe five teenagers who stood in front of us and offered prayers for our family.
  • The small child who came forward and read a translation from Romans, “Be sensible, and remember, it’s your trust in God that counts.”
  • The tears in my daughter’s eyes as the choir (so beautiful and pure) sang “Here I am, here I am, I come to do your will, Lord, your love is in my heart.”
  • Reading webThe reading from Isaiah in Welsh. Feeling the old language, the ancient people, the great soul and history of the Welsh as the reader told the tale of Isaiah in her native tongue.
  • The sunlight moving through the windows and across the stone floor.
  • Greeting people after webThe warm handshakes, words of blessing and encouragement given to us from the many people who had come from across the Diocese to welcome us.

And so many more blessings were given in that service that I will need weeks to take it all in. My heart is full and I feel even more determined to ensure that my time here is carefully and diligently spent so that I may return to the people of St. Asaph the same love that has been offered to my family and me.