Wednesday, November 30, 2016

An Advent Isaiah Vision

Ahhh.... my much neglected blog. Here is my sermon from Advent 1 based on Isaiah 2:1-5...


Outside the United Nations building in New York stands a wall on which are written some of the words we heard as our first reading - they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more…’ Perhaps these words serve as both judgement and a call for justice in that context.

The Isaiah passages we read during the season of Advent pick out the positive pictures from an otherwise dark text. He prophesied at a critical point in Judah’s history - a time when both Israel, under Jeroboam II, and Judah, under Hezekiah had reached political and prosperous heights.  Assyria’s might was on the rise and their cruel reign sought to overwhelm God's people like the rest of the Middle East.  Isaiah’s ministry centred on calling God’s people back to faithfulness in the face of impending destruction by their arch nemesis.

The purpose of prophecy then as now, is to shake us and remake us – to change the way we think. It is always a challenge – either to shake complacency or, in this case, to hold on to a vision of identity and faith in tough times.  

What would we rather see on our tvs as we enter this holy season with it’s rapid slide downhill to Christmas? The reality of life in Aleppo as it’s recaptured by Syrian troops or Buster the bouncing boxer or Mrs Claus running the show almost like she’s a member of International Rescue? Most of us would rather enjoy the latter to avoid the reality of the former.

At the beginning of our reading we heard: '...The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem...' I’m not sure how one sees a word as what Isaiah is talking about here is not about reading. It is something far bigger, something all encompassing. This vision of weapons of war turned into agricultural tools, images of death dealing turned into food producing is more than some sort of utopian hope - we feel it in our guts - it is a right longing - which we encounter coming to us from the future seeking to shape the days in which we are living.

But this vision isn't one of humanity having grown up, realising the futility of war, or melting our weapons as some sort of show of strength. It is a response to an encounter and a relationship which shapes our direction of travel and renews a sense purpose and hope.

In these days of Advent Isaiah stands amongst us and points God out suddenly - LOOK! The ways of God will no longer be unknown and hidden, but He is coming and show and teach us Himself. The image is the difference between a child picking the book off the shelf an trying to learn themselves, and the teacher coming alongside that child, talking them through and taking time to help them learn and grow.

In these Advent days, Isaiah’s vision uses vivid imagery of reframed relationships - predator and prey co-existing (wolves and lambs, calves and lions) and us with each other - and of reshaped topography - recalling earthquakes in recent months and the shifting of tectonic plates - to symbolise a coup - God comes, urgently and unnoticed, and in so doing a new way of being together is established by Him that is utterly contrary to what we have experienced or could normally expect.

In these dark days, Isaiah’s words invite us to walk with this God whose light transforms this present darkness. But this light is like a blazing flame - inviting and protecting and yet also dangerous.

We are being sold a lie friends. Buster the boxer bounces because he distracts us from bombed out Aleppo. And then in the next ad break a smiling priest and imam affirm their friendship by surprising each other with a gift, because we are supposed to somehow believe we can choose to live like this for the other 300 days of the year? Look into the eyes of a Syrian refugee. Read the hate speech and swastikas spat from aerosol cans on shops and homes and tell me that we can… We need a new vision and new hope.
Through Isaiah God invited his hearers to see a bold new vision of hope blazing like light in the darkness that would inspire local communities to live it’s shared identity, values and faith in dark and difficult times.

Through Isaiah God invites us to seek a bold new vision of what it means to be a local community living out our shared identity, values and faith in what may be difficult times. And I invite you to join with me during Advent to spend some time working out together through prayer and conversation, who and what God is calling us to be - where are we together wanting to put our energy and resources? What are our top priorities? Is it work supporting the elderly and housebound? Or work with refugees? Or supporting and nurturing the faith of our children and young people and their families? Isaiah reminds us that God makes the impossible possible - His vision isn’t a dream but a  transforming of reality - we need to ask Him and each other how and where and when and who type questions if these visions are to become reality and not fade like a waking dream. If you have a vision, a hope a dream - tell us - God may be speaking through you like He did and still does through Isaiah.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Jack-In-A-Box God

In a photo by Mark Brunner,
Thomas is shown shielding an unnamed man believed
to be a white supremacist
In June 1996 a branch of the Ku Klux Klan announced planned to hold a rally in Ann Arbour, Michigan. A counter protest was planned. Keisha Thomas was one of several people that attended and protested from an area that had been fenced and set aside for the protesters. The protest proceeded until one protester announced over a megaphone that there was "a Klansman in the crowd".  The unnamed man was a middle-aged white male wearing a T-shirt depicting the Confederate flag and an "SS tattoo". The man began to run but was knocked down, kicked, and beaten with placards. Thomas, who was at that time 18 years old, instead of joining in the beating, found herself moved with compassion motivated by her Christian faith, shielded the man from the crowd and shouted for the attackers to stop and that you "can't beat goodness into a person". She said later that she had acted as she had also because she know what it was like to be hurt. A few months later, she was thanked personally by the son of the unamed man she helped that day.

This story of Keisha Thomas, powerfully demonstrates what we try to teach our children - do to others as you would have them do to you, or something similar. Talk of being a 'Good Samaritan' is common parlance - we know what the expression means from doing an unexpected good deed to someone else through to manning an emergency phone line. But if we reduce this extremely well known parable of Jesus to a morality tale - we lose it's power to shake us awake into living the values of the Kingdom of God.

Jesus is approached by a lawyer and asked a question to test him. Lawyers then as now are trained to know their subject - in this case the Scriptures - and to be able to get at the truth. The lawyer knew the answer to the question that he asked Jesus about inheriting eternal life - it's a classic example of religious legal exchange - a checking out of your opponent - and we know this by Jesus' two questions back: what does scripture say and how do you read or interpret it? And if a strict legal interpretation of Deuteronomy and Leviticus from which the lawyer quotes were what was required then today's Gospel reading would have stopped with Jesus' response - do this and you will live. But as is so often the case with Jesus' teaching, there is so much more.

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Back in the days of unrest in Egypt in 2011, you may recall photos emerging of a group of Christians gathered hand in hand arm in arm around a group of Muslims as they prayed. This wasn't a one off as we also saw photos of Muslims repaying the gesture of recognition and kindness. This has spread. In Nigeria, Boko Haram the Islamic terrorist group is an equal opportunities destroyer - levelling Mosque and Church alike, so in just over the border in northern Cameroon on Friday's Christians protect local Mosques and on Sunday's Muslims reciprocate in the same way recognising each other's freedom to worship but also their shared humanity.

The lawyer's question isn't a bad one. The word neighbour used by the Lawyer is plesios - the one who is near. A next door neighbour. But we have a natural inclination to love those with whom we have a connection to by blood or friendship. And we would love it is Scripture could pat us on the head and tell us that. When the lawyer quotes from Leviticus (Love your neighbour as yourself...) the word there is re'a - my compatriot. Not whoever is near to me, but one with whom I have something to do - someone I am connected to. Phew! So imagine the shock in the crowd when Jesus opens the definitions of neighbourliness in Greek and Hebrew to include those far away from me and my family - religiously, ethnically and socially. A Jewish man is set upon by thieves and his kinsmen give him a wide berth whilst his ethnic enemy reaches out in compassion.
Rev'd Andy Griffiths

Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man... He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.' A couple of weeks ago, my friend Andy Griffiths who is a Vicar in Essex, was on his way home from a meeting when he stopped off at a shop.  The person behind the desk (British Asian, mid-20s, has never lived outside Essex) told him he had just been racially abused.  A man had told him "We voted leave, now you have to leave" and "I'll come back every day until you leave this country or I glass you".  When he tried to point out he was British and that isn't what the word "leave" meant on posters, the assailant just kept saying "We voted leave, now you have to leave, we voted leave now you have to leave".   Clearly the assailant was the worse for wear, but that doesn't change the fact that a crime was committed. Andy stayed until the victim was feeling calmer, and had called the police.

The Samaritan, outside the Jewish law and not welcome socially or ethnically, is described as showing pity and mercy - two attributes of the God of Israel. The Samaritan acts as the Compassionate God in human form and therefore Jesus is identifying himself with this Samaritan - and suddenly not only is this a morality tale about being nice to people, but again Jesus blows open our tightly bound who's in and who's out view of our safe little worlds but also of the remit and extent of God's love - because God is clearly acting in a loving way not to the Samaritan (oh isn't that lovely) but through the Samaritan (sharp intake of breath.)

God has a habit of operating outside our expectations and leaping out of the box we put him in. This jack in a box God in Jesus: came as a vulnerable baby; taught a wild inclusive love; dared to die the death of a bandit; and is risen. All unexpected. Here the jack in a box God in Jesus, challenges us not just to see God in others, which is harder than ever it seems in post Brexit Britain, but to receive God in and from others - from those not like us, those whom we oppose, those whose lifestyles challenge our nice tightly bound morals or politics. So don't just reach out the hand of friendship to a next door neighbour - as good as that may be - but we need to go out of our way, across the road, and seek God out in places and amongst people outside your comfort zone - perhaps particularly amongst the refugees locally, amongst those who have the UK their home from Europe and further afield for work in recent years and amongst the gay community locally - not just because they need our love right now and by God they do - but because there we will find Jesus, the Samaritan, showing mercy and pity to us.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

St Peter And The Art Of Prediction

At Diocesan Synod yesterday, Bishop Alan began his presidential address speaking about a book called ‘Superforcasting: The Art and Science of prediction.’ In it, the authors look at the way that experts attempt to predict the future, such as what is going to happen to the financial markets in the coming year. It’s telling, however, that one of the authors has concluded that in a wide range of subjects “there was very little difference between the accuracy of so-called ‘experts’ and guesses made by the man in the street.”

Well that’s what we re-discovered this past week. Most of us went to bed on Thursday night believing the opinion polls’ view that there was a small margin in favour of the United Kingdom remaining in the EU. International money markets agreed and the exchange rates and share indexes reflected this consensus. Some of us stayed up to watch the results come in and as they did we discovered that we had decided to divorce our immediate European neighbours after a forty year marriage and we now want to have a different set of relationships with other countries.

But this fracturing of relationships on the global stage, only mirrors the reshaping of relationships that we see at an individual or cultural level where increasingly we as people distrust large institutions of power that tell us what to think or do - instead we constantly seek our own political ideologies and cultural identities (no longer are you a mod or a rocker but you might be a post punk or prog rocker or any other myriad of identities today and tomorrow be something totally different). Similarly traditional models of relationship such as marriage no longer enduring and are ultimately disposable because all that matters is my happiness. We are ever increasingly the ‘me’ generation or put another way - the L’Orel generation - because all that matters is my happiness - because I’m worth it.

Caesarea Philippi was a Roman town south of the Golan Heights. It was previously known as Banias but it was renamed by Herod Philip II to honour Caesar - and himself too - and their ongoing relationship of power and it was the administrative centre of Herod’s rule. It was also one of the places where the goat god Pan was worshipped who was said to have been born in a nearby cave, known as the gates of Hell.

Jesus asked His disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is? Until last September few people in her native Macedonia had heard of Katica Janeva. As chief prosecutor in a small border town, her work mainly consisted of pursuing petty thieves and people-smugglers. But now she has been thrust centre stage in this turbulent former Yugoslav republic. Her new job is to probe claims of wrongdoing and corruption raised by a huge wiretapping scandal that has engulfed the government. Her identity has changed from being a basically unknown to being a widely known fighter for truth and justice.

Katica Janeva
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus describes himself as the Son of Man - an identity with implications. He’s identifying himself as a ‘son of Adam’ the man in the street; he’s also contrasting the lowliness of humanity and the glory of God; but he’s also identifying with a future figure who’s coming will signal the end history and the coming of God’s judgement and justice. Do people in these early days of his ministry and in a place laced with political, kingly and spiritual power, know yet who Jesus really is - what his identity is, and what he’s come to bring about?

Jesus said: And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church. Pope Francis, the successor to St Peter whom we commemorate today, his ministry continues to cause controversy. In a visit to Armenia recently, he described the killing of 1.5 million Armenian Christians as genocide. This on the one hand is an olive branch to the Armenian Apostolic church from the head of the Armenian Catholic church as the Apostolic church canonised those who died at the end of the Ottoman empire as martyrs, but it’s also on the other hand a clear call for historic justice and ultimately reconciliation.

The Pope meets the Armenian Patriarch.
I have often wondered why Jesus renames Simon as Peter. Petros, the stone or rock. Peter doesn't seem particularly stable or reliable a person on which to build something as lasting as the church. Peter the fisherman; Peter the one who misunderstands; Peter the one with his foot so often in his mouth; Peter the denier of Christ. And then I realised Simon only becomes Peter when he lives in the life changing reality of the coming kingdom of Jesus the Son of Man. Simon is Peter not because Jesus tells him he is, but Simon is Peter because of who Jesus is and what He continues to lead him into and reveal to him about the love of God. Simon's new identity as Peter isn't something he earns, but something in grace that Jesus confers on him again and again and again. And no other power - political, cultural, or spiritual - can take that away from him.

What is Jesus asking of us as we keep the Feast of St peter today? In these days of a shifting political landscape in terms of our relationships with our European neighbours and each other depending on which way you voted; after, what I believe to have been a poor four months of debate from both sides leading up to Thursday’s referendum based on a small minded and visionless politics, we must now move forward together for the common good.

St Peter will have heard Jesus teach on the greatest commandment - to love God with all that you are and to love your neighbour. Like St Peter’s successor, Pope Francis, how do we now listen to and show love to those with whom we have disagreed in these days, but also, how do we ensure - as followers of the same Jesus that Peter knew - that the voices of those who were not heard in the referendum or the voices of those who are constantly silenced in our communities or our world are heard? As we prepare ourselves as communities to welcome Syrian refugees from the UNHCR camps and elsewhere in the coming months: How do we not only transform the name - refugee, migrant, scrounger, vermin an so on - that they are given by the media and our communities - but transform their lives to become people again?

Spend a moment in quiet and in your mind ponder: what does it mean for me to say that Jesus is the Messiah. How would I describe Jesus to someone who never heard of him before. How would I demonstrate that I am no longer Simon, or Paul, or Maureen or Julie, but Peter through whom God’s kingdom is coming to a child…or adult…or friend…or a Syrian refugee.

Peter saw in Jesus what’s possible even in the face of political might and the very real fear for some.  Rather than give into the threat of disease, Jesus healed. Rather than surrender the powers that control people’s lives, Jesus showed compassion. Rather than let people starve because there’s not enough to go around, Jesus fed people who were hungry. Jesus refused to be satisfied or limited by the status quo and invites us to do the same, because if Jesus’ life and death show us how much God loves us, Jesus’ resurrection shows us that that love is more powerful than hate and fear and even death.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

London Busses And The Rule of St Benedict

Like London busses because as soon as one blog post is writ, another comes along on quick succession!

I have been coming on retreat to Alton Abbey for a few years now, and I have been enriched and fed (both physically and spiritually) there. The first time I spent time with the Brethern, what struck me and continues to draw me back there, was the warmth of their welcome, the depth of the spirituality, the quality of the silence and space, that it really felt like I had come home.

Since my initial visits, I have felt deeply called to the Way of Life as taught by St. Benedict.

I have been pondering on for a while what it is that resonates so much for me and in my about the Benedictine way. This is not intended to be my final word on these things, but just the beginnings of a reflection of the new call that Christ is making on my life.

Since my earliest years as a Christian I have tried to seek out a way following Christ that fed me inwardly. I have looked for spirituality that had, as it were, authenticity and depth as well as enabling me to have a transformative encounter with Christ which has led from 'Lancashire Low Church', through the Evangelical and Chasismatic traditions, to Alt Worship and on into an earthy Catholic Spirituality.

On the way, I have struggled and failed with unstructured daily scripture reading (even making my way through a Gospel could see me diverted onto something else!), a regular 'quiet time', prayer triplets and so on. All of them, for me, felt burdensome. Now some of that was to do with my age, my experience of faith, my experience of life and so on and so on.

It has really only been as I have begun to learn from Benedict that I am finding that depth and authenticity for which I have craved for so long.

So what appeals? A cursory reading of the Prologue of St Benedict's Rule highlight a few things for me:

1. There is a taking seriously the call to obedience to Christ and to imitate His life of holiness.
2. Prayer is the beginning and the end of the matter
Christ speaks of the things of God to us still through Scripture.
3. Spiritual renewal - in every sense of that expression - is key to living the Christian life
4. That 'doing' is good and especially doing good!
5. Actively choosing to live Christ's Way.
6. Recognising that I am and always will be a disciple in the school of the Lord's service.

Pondering on these things, and increasingly inspired by Benedict's teaching about being rooted in a particular place (in my case in a parish) I am exploring becoming an Oblate.

To do this, part of what I need to do is to seek to draw up a simple Rule of Life. Having prayerfully thought about what this might look like, I share with you what may well become mine as I explore this new vocation:

A Working Rule of Life.

Pray - as a cleric I promised that I will say the Daily Office regularly and pray for the people in my care; the church of God everywhere and for the needs of the world. This is I do  and I am fed by the waxing and waning of the liturgical seasons and the rhythm of psalmody and the flow of scripture reading. But I will also find opportunities to give thanks for the simple beauty of a goldfinch in the garden or to remember a person before God as I take Holy Communion to them at home.

Attend Mass regularly - presiding at the Eucharist is a significant part of how I spend much of my time. And when I am not doing it, I am preparing for it by reading scripture and writing sermons. For me at least, meeting Christ in the Eucharist is an utterly transformative experience, and it is from there that I am sent out by Him, filled with grace and the Holy Spirit, to make Him known in word and deed. The Mass is profoundly missional as it calls me to participate in the Missio Dei. It's all in the name.

Visit Alton at leat twice a year on retreat - this won't be too arduous. I aware that I need to me remade by being on retreat. Indeed I write this whilst being away on retreat. Parish ministry is challenging and varied. Jesus took time away from challenging ministry to just be away and to pray. I have been fed and nourished at Alton in so many ways and I anti ate I will continue use to do so. Besides my current Spriitual Director is here. It is not burdensome. During this time I hope I will reflect on this rule and do some much needed self-examination. Is my life pleasing to God? Am I keeping this rule or is it keeping me? Where am I falling short and where can I grow?

Pray for the community regularly - See point above.

Lectio Divina - I discovered spiritual reading of scripture through reading Richard Foster's books. Since then it has been a regular part of my own spiritual discipline either  at the Office or certainly during sermon preparation. I love the way Scripture comes alive as we ask God to speak to us though it; to read it slowly and prayerfully; to dwell on words and phrases and wait for the Spirit of God to lead us into prayer though our reading

Read and reflect on the Rule of St Benedict regularly. Since answering this call of Christ on my life I have sought to read and meditate on the Rule of St Benedict most days if I can. There are several books that enable me to do this.

Attend the On Fire Mission Conference annually - St Benedict speaks specifically about spiritual renewal in the Prologue to the Rule. I am not certain that he was meaning Renewal as Charismatic Christians might understand it, but in some sense the principle is correct though. If I am to be a faithful disciple; if I am to be a loving husband and father; if I am to be a good parish priest - I need Christ to continue to transform my nature and will from the inside out. I need to be formed more and more into His likeness. One of the places I find this happens for me is at the On Fire Mission Annual Conference as through it God blends my spiritual traditions with friendships and I am fed.

Continue my vocation to the Sodality of The Holy Spirit - this is a calling that has in part risen out of friendships forged at OFM and elsewhere, but three of us have felt called out to a shared life of  3 charisms: of intentionality (Christ centred discerning, listening and acting), missional living (being an active part of God's mission and actively seeking spiritual and numerical growth) and expectancy (believing that God still intervenes and speaks supernaturally.)

Keep my day off weekly and take my allocation of holiday - part of spiritual renewal is Sabbath time. If Jesus can rest, so can I, and Jesus clearly saw rest as key yo his own renewing in ministry. That time is also key to ensuring a healthy relationship with myself, my wife and my kids who are my primary church.

Make space for music and the arts, cycling and walking - again this is about spiritual and personal renewal.

Almsgiving - this isn't about my already designated charitable giving but rather how I give financially and temporally of myself to the welfare and wellbeing of others. It is a witness to the self-giving love of God in Christ and an act of justice to and for the poor. This isn't about salving my First World conscience but about actively seeking to make a tangible difference to the world.

I hope to formalise this Rule with the Oblate Master and move to becoming an Probationer Oblate as soon as possible by the grace of God.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Re-blog - Thinking About Ordination? Think Again...

Oh my much neglected blog...! 

I have found myself missing the  opportunity to think aloud here mostly because all too often what I post here is over scrutinised and I have had my figures burned here and elsewhere on SocMed.

Anyway, someone I follow on Facebook and Twitter shared what I'm going to share below because it resonated with them. It focusses on the stresses and strains and joys of being in public ministry. I am fearful off sharing it here in a way because for me at least, to a greater of lesser degree, it tells it as it is.

I have been ordained for 16 years and served in 3 parishes over that time.  Over those years I have discovered that what I thought priestly ministry was has been smashed into smithereens by God and in it's place He has written something new within me which has been the most profoundly challenging and simultaneously wonderful experience with the people of God to boot. Hmmm... Dear Reader, I suspect people will read too much into all of that too...

Anyway, I'm sharing below the piece from Fr. Marcus Halley's blog 'Black and White and Living in Colour' because it echoes my experience in many ways. For those of you who aren't ordained or serving in public ministry in some other way, or those of you are members of congregations that I have served or currently serve I'm sorry if this offends you (no really I am!), but for me at least, welcome to part of my world...


Dear person who is feeling a call to pastor,

If you’re seriously considering becoming a pastor, think again.
Entering this ministry will be one of the hardest things you will ever do. You are signing up for the possibility of working incredibly long hours and will need to develop and maintain safe boundaries both for yourself and your community. If you’re lucky you’ll be paid. If you’re really lucky you’ll be paid enough to support yourself and your family (if you have one). You will have to manage unrealistic expectations from every direction, including within, and you will have to say “no” sometimes. You will encounter incredibly difficult personalities who will project onto you every grievance they have towards God. You will think about quitting once a month and at some point it might become a weekly consideration. You’ll encounter the shadow side of the Church – the place where sexism, classism, racism, homophobia, and general human brokenness lurk (to varying degrees depending on where you serve). You’ll be tempted towards snark over vulnerability and stubbornness over conversion. You will have your strength and patience tested far beyond anything you have faced. You will have the button of your deepest insecurity pressed over and over again. You’ll be made to feel insignificant by the shear size of it all. You will feel a deep sense of loneliness sometimes. You will have friends who will walk away from you… and it will hurt. You will disappoint people. You will disappoint yourself. You will feel constrained by the vows you take upon yourself. You will give your life to it and wonder if it makes any difference at all. You will encounter unspeakable pain and you will cry many tears.
If you’re considering ordination as a pastor, think again…
…and then, for the love of God, say “yes.”
We may see humanity, even ourselves, at our worst, but we also get to see God at God’s absolute best. Sure, there are great difficulties ahead and no amount of seminary or mentoring can prepare you for most of it, but you are also entering that beautiful journey with God where every difficult moment is accompanied by God’s grace. You will be entering a vocation where the very foundation of your calling is to rely on the strength of God to navigate difficult relationships, heart-breaking pastoral encounters, strained-budgets, general angst and anxiety, and your very own weary soul. Just when you have reached the end of your strength, God’s strength takes over. God’s strength is made perfect even in our weakness.
At the end of the day, God doesn’t call us because we are wonderful, or smart, or gifted, or worthy. Ordination as pastors and priests isn’t about us. It is about reflecting the image of Christ into our communities in ways that bear witness to the power and love of God in our midst. We are called to love everyone we encounter – those who love us, those who hate us, and those who are indifferent to our presence. All the while we point beyond ourselves to the God to whom all things journey.
The role of the priest and pastor is to model what every single Christian is called into – a life of total surrender. Like Peter, we will go places where never wanted to go. Like Paul, we will be changed in dramatic ways. Like Jesus himself, we will bear a cross that will cause us to stumble. This ministry is a cross that leaves its redeeming mark on our shoulders as we follow the pilgrim’s path to salvation and abundant life and God’s grace is sufficient even in our stumbling.
The ordained life is a beautiful life, one of great challenge and greater joy and we get to see both, up close and personal.
If you’re considering ordination as a pastor, think about it long and hard. Like the man who builds a tower or the king who leads an army, consider the cost.
And then say yes to God who calls you and promises to go with you even in the most unclear places. 
Maybe you can’t do this. That’s okay. Because God can.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Our Life. Our Worship.

Richella Heekin saved £1200 over two years to pay to take her boyfriend Ben Marlow on a surprise holiday to Las Vegas for his birthday. She spent a long time researching flights and routes which she finally booked - flying from Birmingham to Dallas and then on to Las Vegas.  It was only as they got to Birmingham airport that they discovered that instead of flying from BHX - Birmingham International airport in the UK, they had booked to fly from BHM - Birmingham, Alabama. Sadly the surprise was on both of them…

It’s kind of like that with our worship on a Sunday and during the week. We know the destination as it were - our worship is offered to God, expressing our love of Him, our thankfulness to Jesus’ for His teaching and leading of us and for His willingness to walk the Way of the Cross and His resurrection, and to be fed by the Sacrament of Holy Communion and filled with the Spirit sending us out in love and service to make Christ known. But are we certain of our starting point? Is our worship just about what ‘I like’, or about ‘what we need’ to best enable us to reach our destination?

In these early chapters of John’s gospel, in the preceding verses, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at the well at Sychar. Crossing social, ethical, historical and religious boundaries, He shares with her a truth about the worship of God - it’s not about place or style - but about the intent of the heart. Jesus then returns to Cana in Galilee. Whilst there an official from the royal court in Capernaum come to Him seeking healing for his son, which Jesus grants, offering us insight into the work that God has called Jesus to - that Jew and Gentile alike are called to worship the God of Israel and that all people are invited to witness the breaking in of His kingdom in their lives and the world.

‘… After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem…’ Tim Peake, the British Astronaut on the International Space Station has had a new challenge - it involved him driving round Stevenage. Well, indirectly actually. He successfully managed to drive a remote control car from the ISS around a large sandpit in Stevenage which was part of an experiment to see how astronauts can control remote systems on other worlds. In Jesus, God does the opposite. Instead of sitting remote to that which He loves, Jesus comes to us to navigate us into a new relationship with God. It is no accident that He comes to Jerusalem - the centre of Jewish life and worship. He, the Lamb of God who takes away the world’s sin - enter’s the city through the gate through which the sacrificial animals would be brought, and comes to the pool of Beth-zatha - which means house of grace or place of shame, to bring the grace of God to lives shattered by sickness and shame. Worship was central to Jesus’ life and ministry - through it He drew close to God His heavenly Father. We need to ensure that the worship we offer in our church our ‘houses of grace’,  feeds and resources us in the same way.

Jesus said to the man at the pool, ‘Do you want to be made well?’ The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up… So it seems that BHS and Austin Reed are likely to disappear from the high street for good. It feels like some of our top name stores (or certainly ones from my childhood) have just disappeared - Woolworths is a recent casualty along with Comet and Dixons, but how about Dewhurst the butchers or Freeman Hardy and Willis? Brands and names that once were thought immoveable, due the economy changing, have gone by the wayside.

The man by the pool was also immoveable. Not only had he been ill for such  long period of time but his expectations were totally stuck and even when Jesus offered to heal him, he rejects the offer because no one could carry him into the pool. He only could see healing happening in one way.

Research clearly shows that for a church community to grow numerically one of the very important factors is not the style of worship or whether modern songs are sung or robes worn, but rather the fact there is an act of worship at the same time every week. Now I know we looked at and revised or pattern of worship only relatively recently to enable me as your parish priest to lead worship in our 3 churches as regularly as possible. Since that revision our ministerial team has grown with the arrival of Anne and Jairo and the licensing of Helen, but our needs are changing too - we now have an act of family friendly worship in each church over 3 Sundays of the month month.  Our worship needs to meet the needs of the community today and dare I say look to tomorrow also, but also must be offered at a time that allows people to attend every week at the same time. This will require some careful planning and negotiating for the whole team of clergy and readers to enable us to all encounter the Living God in worship each week and to be fed and resourced by Him.

What is Jesus asking of us? Our pattern of worship as a parish is confusing. Here it laid out by each church.  IS it any wonder that we aren't growing as effectively as we could be if no one knows for certain where and when our services are?

St Peters
Week 1: 8am Said Eucharist, 10.45am Sung Eucharist
Week 2: 8am Said Eucharist, 10.45am Family Eucharist
Week 3: 8am Said Eucharist, 10.45am Sung Eucharist
Week 4: 10.30am Parish Eucharist (in one church)
Week 5: 8am Said Eucharist, 10.45am Sung Eucharist

St John’s
Week 1: 9.00am Said Eucharist
Week 2:10.00am Family Eucharist
Week 3: 10.00am Family Eucharist
Week 4: 10.30am Parish Eucharist (in one church)
Week 5: 9.00am Said Eucharist

St Thomas’
Week 1: 10.30am Family Eucharist
Week 2: 9.00am Said Eucharist
Week 3: 9.00am Said Eucharist
Week 4: 10.30am Parish Eucharist (in one church)
Week 5: 9.00am Said Eucharist

Our worship is as crucial to our life as Christians as is the air we breathe is to living. But are we offering worship at a time that is only convenient for a few or perhaps for those of us who lead and not at a time that enables the maximum number of people to attend each and every week? Are we immoveable like the sick man, assuming that things have to be done a certain way because they always have been? Are we willing to see something new that we can offer to others and God as we worship? Are we willing to look generously away from what I want, to what we need to allow our worshipping life to flourish?

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Gospel According to Mary

At diocesan synod on Saturday we were told that it would take a further 80 years at least for women to be paid the same as men and have the same opportunities as men if it were to happen naturally over time - namely if society did not ensure that the very best women are encouraged into the best positions and salaries. 80 more years where women are paid less. 80 more years where women do not rise to the same positions of responsibility. 80 more years where we are still implicitly and explicitly building a gender bias into our work places. I bet Emmeline Pankhurst is still spinning in her grave.

Emmeline Pankhurst

It would appear that whilst we may believe that our society has striven for equality and that battle is won, some are more equal than others, whether the extravagantly wealthy on one hand or every working woman on the other. And I would like to hope that all of us know that this latter example is just not right.

St John places what we hear as this morning’s Gospel reading just before Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and Jesus’ turning towards His crucifixion.  Lazarus has been shockingly raised from the dead, and as if to prove it, Mary and Martha throw a banquet for Jesus with Lazarus as a guest.  That which once was dead is alive again.

Yesterday marked the 22nd anniversary since the ordination of the first women priests in the church of England. What some considered would be the death of the church, has actually proved it’s life - to see a mutual flourishing of the ministries of women as well as men, thank God, in all orders of ministry. This shouldn't surprise us as Jesus again and again affirms the place of women in his ministry. The Mary who anoints Him here is the same Mary who sat at His feet only a few verses earlier.

The story of Mary reminds us of the woman that Jesus put in her place in St Luke’s Gospel, when the woman in the crowd exclaimed “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!” Jesus was bold in his response: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!” For Jesus, women are more than sexual objects and children-rearing machines. That’s why Jesus does not have a problem with being touched by women, seeing them with their hair down, with women talking to men or being active with their bodies and alive in their senses. In short, in the Reign of God women are equal at the intellectual level, at the salary level, and at all levels. Women are disciples.

I heard this week of Black Ballet - a professional company of ballet dancers for ethnic minorities formed in the early 2000s as back then there were none in the UK. The company’s mission statement involves ‘making Black Ballet unnecessary.’ Astonishing isn't it? 

But it’s more fundamental than that. Ballet dancers need to wear flesh-coloured shoes - but for non-white dancers at the moment, that is just not an option and for Eric Underwood of the Royal Ballet and other dancers, they have to apply makeup to their shoes before dancing. Surprising isn't it? There are still social taboos to be crossed.

Our Gospel reading is full of surprise and social taboos being crossed. It would have been surprising (actually shocking!) to see perfume costing a years wages to be used like this.  It would have been surprising for a guest to dampen the mood a a feast by talking about their death. What’s more surprising is that Mary anointed Jesus at all as it is usually men who anoint men. Samuel anointing Saul to be Israel’s first king. Male Popes anointing male emperors throughout western history, and so on. But here, Mary lets down her hair – with all the cultural connotations of that expression – and anoints Jesus.

People expected the Messiah to look like King David - instead they get a carpenter from Nazareth; in a few verses time they expect Him to overthrow the Romans and yet He is crucified by them. Sarah wasn’t expected to have children, let alone found a dynasty. Moses wasn’t expected to lead the Israelites to freedom. Miriam wasn’t expected to be the prophetess of Israel teaching her people to sing of God’s victory over the Egyptians. The ruddy-faced shepherd boy David wasn’t supposed to be king. And on and on and on.

God regularly loves to do the unexpected with, for, and through unexpected people. And the culmination of Lent and celebration of Easter are the highlight of the work and activity of this unexpected God, as death is assumed to have the last word, until Jesus is raised from the dead.
So instead of asking - what is Jesus asking of us this morning as I would as we reflect on what scripture might mean for us in our lives - instead perhaps we need to ask - what do we expect of God, especially this Passion Sunday as we being to turn our faces with Jesus towards the cross?

Are we expecting God to come in power, to answer our prayers as we would like, to favour our political point of view or our sports team? Are we prepared to be surprised as God again does the unexpected amongst us?  Where God might be at work in unexpected ways in our community?

Whom God might work through next? Look at those sitting near you. For God may be about to use each of you in a surprising way to care for your neighbour, to offer a listening ear, to do your work with faithfulness and courage, to stand up for those who are less fortunate and offer an alternative to those watching. To serve Him an authorised ministry of the Church as a Reader, Deacon or priest. Either way, He’s certainly calling you to be a disciple.

Thursday, March 03, 2016

The Worship Puzzle

Here's a thing.

I currently minister in a parish of just short of 11000 people serving 4 very different communities (urban, estate, suburban, semi-rural, but also across the social and economic spectrum too.) The parish has three centres of worship.

The Parish's worshipping tradition has been broadly Eucharistic/Anglo Catholic and this has varied inevitably depending upon the incumbent.

Parishes were asked by our Diocesan Bishop a while ago to look to ensure that worship in the churches across the Diocese happened at the same time each week and a new scheme to train Lay Leaders of Worship was introduced to help facilitate that. Now I know that there is significant research that shows that a regularised pattern of worship is a good thing.

Stats show that churches with a  fixed pattern of worship, i.e. services are at the same time each week, are the ones that tend to be the ones that are the fertile soil for growth. It's not just statistics though, because common sense says that if you have a service at 10.00am every week, it doesn't matter how many times in a month people attend, it is very easy to know when a service is being held.

Here's the snag. Or worship should be life-giving.

As I said above, we have three church communities, whose worshipping needs have developed and changed over the time that I have been Vicar here. The pattern I inherited looks like this:

1st Sunday of the month:
8.00am Said Eucharist in Church A
9.00am Said Eucharist in Church B
10.30am Family Eucharist in local school near Church C
10.30am Sung Eucharist in Church A
12.45am Holy Baptism (by arrangement)
6.00pm Choral Evensong

2nd Sunday of the month:
8.00am Said Eucharist in Church A
9.00am Said Eucharist in Church C
10.30am Family Eucharist in Church A
11.00am Mattins in Church B

3rd Sunday of the Month:
8.00am Said Eucharist in Church A
9.00am Said Eucharist in Church B
9.00am Said Eucharist in Church C
10.30am Sung Eucharist in Church A

4th Sunday of the month:
10.30am Parish Eucharist (moves round between churches)

5th Sunday of the month:
8.00am Said Eucharist in Church A
9.00am Said Eucharist in Church B
9.00am Said Eucharist in Church C
10.30am Sung Eucharist in Church A

When I arrived here this pattern was just impossible for one priest to offer without the invaluable ministry of Readers and a local retired Priest with PTO to cover the pattern.

Then a few years ago we recognised that this pattern was unworkable whilst I was the only full time Priest in the parish. After some consultation we agreed to adapt our pattern of worship to enable me as parish Priest to minister across the whole parish more effectively:

1st Sunday of the month:
8.00am Said Eucharist in Church A
9.00am Said Eucharist in Church B
10.30am Family Eucharist at Church C
10.45am Sung Eucharist in Church A
12.45am Holy Baptism (by arrangement)
6.00pm Choral Evensong (discontinued due to very poor attendance.)

2nd Sunday of the month:
8.00am Said Eucharist in Church A
9.00am Said Eucharist in Church C
10.45am Family Eucharist in Church A
11.00am Mattins in Church B (This pattern has been adapted again further due changing worshipping needs and a 10.00am Family Eucharist is being trialled.)

3rd Sunday of the Month:
8.00am Said Eucharist in Church A
9.00am Said Eucharist in Church C
10.45am Sung Eucharist in Church A
6.00pm BCP Evensong at Church B

4th Sunday of the month:
10.30am Parish Eucharist (moves round between churches)

5th Sunday of the month:
8.00am Said Eucharist in Church A
9.00am Said Eucharist in Church B
9.00am Said Eucharist in Church C
10.30am Sung Eucharist in Church A

This adaptation allowed me as parish Priest to minister across the whole parish in a manageable way (even if it was a fairly heavy worship load some Sundays.)

Now on paper, from the parish Priest's point of view, looks like a pattern that can be staffed. But look at the point of view from each church community:

Church A
Week 1: 8am Said Eucharist, 10.45am Sung Eucharist
Week 2: 8am Said Eucharist, 10.45am Family Eucharist
Week 3: 8am Said Eucharist, 10.45am Sung Eucharist
Week 4: 10.30am Parish Eucharist (in one church)
Week 5: 8am Said Eucharist, 10.45am Sung Eucharist

Church B
Week 1: 9.00am Said Eucharist
Week 2: 10.00am Family Eucharist
Week 3: 6.00pm Evensong
Week 4: 10.30am Parish Eucharist (in one church)
Week 5: 9.00am Said Eucharist

Church C
Week 1: 10.30am Family Eucharist
Week 2: 9.00am Said Eucharist
Week 3: 9.00am Said Eucharist
Week 4: 10.30am Parish Eucharist (in one church)
Week 5: 9.00am Said Eucharist

We currently have a very able team of Readers and a stipendiary Curate and myself to lead worship across the parish and our Readers play an active part in leading the Ministry of the Word and preaching.

We are again trying to take seriously our Bishop's challenge about regularising the times of services in each church because as it clear and obvious above that church A more or less achieve that but church B fails spectacularly and church C struggles but somehow the pattern seems a little more balanced.

Churches are not immoveable structures, but are buildings to house the worship of God's people, and we are a pilgrim people. The age profile of one congregation may change and develop. The style of worship required in another church might need to change to meet developing needs. Times of service may well need to alter as congregation members age and early starts become more difficult. It is entirely possible that new services may well need to be introduced.

It would be wonderful to have a pattern of worship over a 4 week month that looked like this:

8.00am in church A
10.00am in church B
10.30am in church C
10.45am in church A

This would mean that worship at existing times in our current pattern are honoured (especially the newer and growing services.) This pattern would be one that would be that would affirm the ministry of our Curate (as long as they are with us) and our Readers, because it would only be possible for me to lead 2 of those 4 services as a Eucharist, meaning that a least 1 of the services left in that pattern would be non-Eucharistic. The bigger issue perhaps, means that when we have no Curate who is a Priest but a Deacon, there would only be a Eucharist, mid morning, once a month.  I am uncertain how a parish that holds the Eucharist so central to it's worshipping life would remain sustained with a  pattern like that.

Another option might look like this:


This would be a manageable pattern timing wise for me, but I doubt one of our churches would be willing to have it's main act of worship for Sunday at 8am.

A variant might look like this:

8.00am Eucharist
9.30am Eucharist
9.30am Morning Worship
11.15am Eucharist

but this would only work if the 'Morning Worship' service moved from church to church and was lay led.

A further option would be to create an afternoon or evening service:

3.00pm OR
6.00pm (or later)

On the other hand, building a pattern of regular non-Eucharistic worship affirms the ministry of our Readers and, either encourages those who in the parish need to receive the Eucharist as part of their spirituality to travel to one of the other churches where the Eucharist is being offered, or it encourages our congregations to appreciate different liturgies and to be fed but sacramentally by word and action in other ways. The significant drawback with that for me personally though is that I would potentially only be worshipping once a month with some congregations as I preside at the Eucharist.

It is important that we seek to regularise the times of our services in each church each week to allow each church community to have the best chance of growth and stability. It is important to affirm the ministry of our Readers in offering non-Eucharist worship across the parish. It is important as a parish who have traditionally been fed spiritually at the Eucharist continue to have that offered regularly. It is important for me as parish Priest whose ministry centres around the Sacraments to continue to see that ministry exercised.

But, this circle is very tricky to square! Whatever pattern we adopt, our worship is an aid to our continued growth in faith but I wonder sometimes whether we have the church the wrong way round.

We need to help individuals grow in faith and become disciples. That growth should lead to Christian living and that should feed into Sunday where we celebrate all that God is doing, meet with Him and each other, be resourced by Him in word and sacrament and then sent out to do it all again.