Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Keeping Hope Alive

It's that time of the year when Advent begins to merge into Christmas. The anticipation and expectation of the last month now blends into the joy of announcing that a Saviour has been born. And we are being held in that hope.

Meanwhile, at the Tate Modern in London there is a new exhibition, 30 metres in length, 10 metres in width, creating the impression of entering into a vast black hole. The Polish artist, Miroslaw Balka, said he is trying to remind visitors of recent Polish history - the ramp into the black hole chamber is like the entrance to the Ghetto in Warsaw, or the trucks which took Jews away to the camps of Treblinka or Auschwitz. Says Balka, "You'll start to touch darkness. I'm touching the subject of disappearing".

For many during the joy of Christmas, darkness still lurks. The threat of redundancy, a friendship turned sour, a broken marriage, a tarnished reputation, an empty space at the dinner table... Black holes come in various forms.

But we are called to hope, and Isaiah the prophet historically and poetically described how the people of Israel were to go into a black hole... and then come out of it again. The southern kingdom of Judah lies in wait, its days are numbered. Babylon was to mercilessly trample all over the nation. Dark times, indeed.

But we are called to hope, and spurred on by the interesting reflection given on this blog on 8th December by my father-in-law (thanks Alan!), I decided to use Isaiah's image of a tree stump (chapter 11) as the dominant theme at our Carol Service last Sunday evening. A shoot will come up, a Branch will bear fruit. New growth will occur, and peace will mark the new Messianic age through the coming of the Anointed One of God. A message brimming with the hope that still remains so applicable to our world today.

In 1945 some graffiti was found on the wall of a basement in Koln, Germany - where a Jew is thought to have been hiding from the Gestapo:

"I believe in the sun even when it isn't shining, I believe in love even when I am alone, I believe in God even when He is silent".

Thank God that in Christ the silence has been shattered, the black holes of life are shot through with brilliant light, and we can go on our way rejoicing again.

A year after the black hole of 9/11, the theologian Walter Brueggemann wrote a reflection in which the theme of hope-ful-ness was all-pervasive. In it he included the following words:

"We turn to you in that heaviness, for we do afresh ponder our mortality, think about our naked exposure, fully cognizant of the fragility that is the truth of our lives. And so we turn to you seeking assurance, consolation, embrace. And you receive us, faithful mother who holds, sure father who welcomes and embraces, and we settle in peaceableness even midst the chaos, we do... and we give you thanks.... You are risen in power and wonder; you are risen out of the shambles of death and terror and doubt and fear; You are risen to turn the world to peace and justice and freedom and well-being; You are risen with healing wings to cure our diseased hurts and our public pathologies... Let us, good Lord of the dying and the living, hide ourselves in Thee. And then let us follow your Easter way, that the world shriveled in deathliness may turn to joy and to newness". (Inscribing the Text: Sermons & Prayers of Walter Brueggemann, 2004, Augsburg Fortress, p1175-177).

The people walking in darkness have now seen a great light, so may God keep hope alive in us.

Be Careful What You Wish For: A Reflection on Malachi 2:17–3:5

Israel acts in the world, observing her traditions. Torah establishes order; but she sees chaos. She proclaims light; but she perceives only darkness. She trusts in a sovereign God; but for what reason? In a world of injustice, cruelty, pain – in a world like this, the most natural conclusion to make is that the LORD is pleased with those who do evil. ‘Where is the God of justice?’

This conclusion wearies the LORD. God has not ordained injustice. God is not benefitted by the exploitation of those with no money, no property, no hope. Seeing a teenage girl get raped does not turn God on. God is not mirrored by the ecclesial machismo that insists on a manly Christianity. But God is wearied by the suggestion that because nothing changes, God is idle and God is indifferent.

And why is God wearied? Because once God’s messenger has prepared the way, then suddenly – suddenly! – the LORD will come to God’s temple. God will overturn tables and God’s people will be aghast. God’s people establish order, but the LORD brings chaos, challenging the order that God’s people have instituted by bastardising the commands of God. When the LORD comes, he will refine, he will bleach, he will burn away all the filth that clings to our bodies, smearing and smudging all that we do, see and touch. The LORD’s fiery entrance is literally shocking, stinging and shaking us from our own lust, greed, pride, self-centredness and complacency. When pleading for the LORD to act, we must be careful what we wish for, because it will be painful.

But now – now the Church of God, the body of the One who is to come, bearing his scars, can announce with full confidence: ‘The LORD is here: His Spirit is with us.’

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Mary - Godbearer

Today, for much of the Church, Advent becomes more focused on the first coming of the Christ, with the reading from Luke's Gospel of Mary visiting Elizabeth.

I preached on Mary last weekend, and I've also preached on Mary on the occasion of an induction. It seems to me that Mary has a huge amount to say to us about the nature of ministry. I've drawn on a superb book, 'The Godbearing Life, The Art of Soul Tending for Youth Ministry', by Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster.

Their point is the totally awesome one, that God asks a teenager to bring God into the world. The angel Gabriel had never delivered a message like this before to an adult, much less to an adolescent. And they quote Frederick Buechner, who puts it this way:
She struck the angel Gabriel as hardly old enough to have a child at all, let alone this child, but he'd been entrusted with a message to give her, and he gave it.
He told her what the child was to be named, and who he was to be, and something about the mystery that was to come upon her. 'You mustn't be afraid, Mary', the angel said.
As he said it, he only hoped she wouldn't notice that beneath the great, golden wings he himself was trembling with fear to think that the whole future of creation hung now on the answer of a girl.
And what sets Mary, this poor, unmarried teenage girl, apart from the rest of us is quite simple. She says, 'Yes'. And with Mary's 'Yes', the transformation begins and she becomes 'God-bearer', Theotokos. And she becomes a model for us, because we too are called to be God-bearers, Theotokoi. We bear God to others, as we seek to serve them. And service is ministry.

Creasey and Foster go on to talk specifically about youth ministry, but what they applies to all ministry.
Youth ministry is a womb, an incubation ward for potential God-bearers as they ponder and struggle with the news that God is crazy in love with them, would die for them and, in fact, has. What youth need more than gung-ho adults are Godbearing adults, people whose own yes to God has transformed them into messengers of the gospel.

And speaking of how Godbearing ministry begins,
it begins with a conscious 'yes' to God, a decision that flings wide open the doors of our souls so that grace no longer needs to sneak in through the cracks. Now the Holy Spirit rushes in 'like a mighty wind' and fills us, overshadows us, transforms us by forming Jesus within us, restoring us to the image in whose likeness we were created. Now our soul-wombs, already prepared by grace, can carry Jesus into the world.
Returning to today's reading of Mary's visit to Elizabeth in Luke 1.39-45, the poet Luci Shaw expresses it like this:

Framed in light,
Mary sings through the doorway.
Elizabeth's six-month joy
jumps, a palpable greeting,
a hidden first encounter
between son and Son.

And my heart turns over
when I meet Jesus
in you.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Shockingly Simple... Simply Shocking... God made Human

This sculpture of the infant Jesus, anatomically correct and with the umbilical cord still attached was displayed in London for Christmas in, I think, 2001. Some people were scandalised by it, because it made Jesus really rather real. For me it seemed a beautiful sculpture - simple and realistic, its shock value being not its reality but its simplicity.

Recently I read a book that bemoaned the fact that most of the images of Jesus we have essentially emasculate him, presenting him more like a holy action man figure than a real person (i.e. devoid of genitalia). I think that whilst that is largely true of the adult Jesus, it isn't true of the infant - numerous Madonna and Child images show a naked child. And this is what is so shocking, not the nakedness, not the authentic maleness, but that God would choose to be conceived and then born fully human with all the vulnerability and particularity that requires.

One of the carols we will sing in our 'Gathering Place' this Sunday is the Iona 'Shepherds Watch and Wisemen Wonder' with its wonderful verse

Who would think that what was needed
To transform and save the earth
Might not be a plan or army,
Proud in purpose, proved in worth?
Who would think, despite derision,
That a child should lead the way?
God surprises earth with heaven,
Coming here on Christmas Day.

It is simply shocking, this shockingly simple way chosen by the one who creates all things.
Don't be shocked by a naked, anatomically accurate Jesus, be shocked by a vulnerable infant Christ who shared our life.

Friday, December 18, 2009

prepared, or not?

OK so why are you here? No, it’s not my introduction to the Carol Service, nor even trying to raise questions of our human existence…. Why read an Advent blog?

Well, if you’re like me you’re involved in Christian Ministry in some shape, or form, and this might just give an insight, provide a story, or even better – a piece of information about some aspect of the Christmas story you’ve come across before. Of course, the real advantage of this latter point is – you can then pass it on to the gathered congregation and they will be suitably impressed.

Cynical, or merely deeply suspicious of the inner workings in my own heart?

Having now spent eight Christmases as a Regional Minister – and primarily, therefore, as an attendee (Christmas for most congregations is very DIY, which is good thing imo) rather than a ‘performer’ - can I make a plea from the congregation?

I don’t judge how advent, carol, Christingle, and all the variations on the theme, services by whether I hear something new, or in a novel way. I just need to hear the story. I need to know the story. I need to see how I can play a part in the story. My hunch is many other people feel the same way.

So, if you believe Advent is partly about preparation, could I urge you to spend your time and energy primarily in preparing your heart rather than spending hours frantically surfing the web and the children’s address books with the naïve belief ‘if only I get this illustration right, I shall hook them’? How about that burden of expectation some feel on their shoulders – where’s that coming from? It may even be just like Father Christmas.

Garrison Keilor said ‘a lovely thing about Christmas is that it’s compulsory, like a thunderstorm and we all go through it together.’ I don’t think we have an option when it comes to Christmas: it’s compulsory. We have, also, a responsibility to re-tell this wonderful story of which I shall never tire. Let’s remember, however, there’s no burden upon us to make it up.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

from Lucy ...

This is my first year in full-time ministry, and the assorted Christmas celebrations are in full swing: Christingle, Carers and Toddlers Christmas Party, and Senior Citizens Christmas lunch. Through the hive of activity in the kitchen, at the table, in the hand shake, and even the wave to the little person in the pushchair; all of these things made me think about the welcome of God. The season of advent is about preparation, preparing our hearts and lives for God who comes to us in the person of Jesus. This time of year we swing wide the church doors and welcome folk from our community around, we share with them the story and celebration of God. Although we do this throughout the year, there is something about the advent message that speaks about finding space for God to come. We are called to find space for Him in the stranger, in the child, in the humanness of our existence. As we prepare to find room for others, making them feel welcome, offering them hospitality and kindness we are indeed finding room for Christ Himself.
For the Christmas story starts with God loving the world so much. It starts with God stretching out towards us, wanting to get near to us, and involved in our lives. Advent is a time to prepare our hearts, to have our arms open, and the palm of our hands facing upwards. Its a time to welcome God with us, welcoming the humanness of God in the poor, in the stranger, in the weak, and in the distressed. May our hearts be prepared in finding the welcome of God in the smile and presence and of the ‘other’ that we might find the unexpected hospitality in the guest.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Waiting in the Ark

I went to see '2012' at the cinema the other day. It was pretty awful in an entertaining sort of way, as you'd expect from Hollywood, and managed to cheerfully massacre a Noah-and-the-Ark metaphor that was running through the film. I turned to my friend towards the end and said 'For the love of all things good and true, don't let there be a dove with an olive branch at the end of all this'. I'm glad to report that the film managed to stave off such an excessive touch of cheese. Not that it made much difference in the end - the camel's back had already been broken several times over!

This incident however reminded me of a poem which I had written during a quiet day at the end of my term here at Regent's, and I felt the sting of hypocrisy! But since it's on the theme of advent waiting, and picks up on Ark imagery, and the idea of richly waiting for a new world, I thought I'd share it with you.


He holds the fretful bird
Within the ribcage of his hands
Feels its tug and shunt;
Its pinions animated by frustration.
Like a Noah he stands over it, absorbed,
Unyielding, as its leapings lapse
Into spasmodic assertion,
Are loosed into warm wax, soft down.

But the tiny flame still beats under his fingers' curl
Dark eyes askance, watch him lovingly.
They are both waiting now forever,
At the window, and their waiting
Is a splurging fountain of gestation;
A pregnant sprig.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

But then ... they appear

After W.H. Auden had visited the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in Brussels, and seen Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s c.1558 work, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, he went away and penned the following cynical words:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
William Willimon recalls Brueghel’s painting, and Auden’s poem, in his book On a Wild and Windy Mountain, wherein he observes that we trudge past bleeding crosses with a shrug of the shoulders, that Good Fridays are so commonplace among us as to be unnoteworthy, and that tragedy achieves nobility only in the theater. ‘Everydayness and ordinariness’, he writes, ‘become our best defenses, the most effective relativizers of the tragic in our midst. Some young Icarus falls from the sky every day, so one had best get on with the business at hand until the extraordinary comes. For now, go to work, eat, make friends, make money, make love, mind your business – that’s the best way to cope, for the time being, with the expectedness of the tragic. The old masters knew best’ (p. 15).

Willimon proceeds to compare Landscape with the Fall of Icarus with another of the Dutch masters' works: Numbering at Bethlehem. He notes the ordinariness of the depiction, a day mundane and unpromising – in its highlights at least – and nothing beyond the expected.

But then … they appear.

They appear. ‘An inconspicuous, thoroughly ordinary young woman on a little donkey led by a stoop-shouldered, bearded peasant who carries a saw. Here is Mary, with Joseph the carpenter, come to town to be counted. They are so easily overlooked in the midst of ordinariness. Old masters like Brueghel’, Willimon rightly suggests (and we might add Rembrandt), ‘were never wrong’. Rather, they understood, and bore witness to in their work, the truth of Emmanuel, the scandal of the unostentatious God living – and dying – with us, of God stained with the sweat of human bondage and soaked – baptised – in the blood of human violence, of God incognito. ‘They understood our blindness not only to the tragic but also to the triumphant in our midst … In life, the Presence goes unnoted as we thumb through the evening paper. And so we wait, sitting in the darkness of the everyday until something extraordinary breaks in. Someday God may break into this world, we say. But for the time being, it is best to work, eat, make love, pay taxes, fill out government forms, and mind our business. The old masters knew it best’ (p. 16).

I have posted elsewhere on the pseudonymous activity of God, suggesting that ‘in the economy of holy love, the locus of greatest clarity equates to the point of greatest incongruity and surprise’. It is precisely that we may ‘see’ what Willimon so beautifully refers to as ‘the triumphant in our midst’ that we are graced, and that that we might witness to the day when good will triumph over all, certain that the grace of holy love will win at last because it did not fail to win at its most decisive time. In the meantime, such seeing typically requires what is another great advent theme: waiting, or what R.S. Thomas, in his poem ‘Kneeling’, called ‘moments of great calm’:
Moments of great calm,
Kneeling before an altar
Of wood in a stone church
In summer, waiting for the God
To speak; the air a staircase
For silence; the sun’s light
Ringing me, as though I acted
A great role. And the audiences
Still; all that close throng
Of spirits waiting, as I,
For the message.
Prompt me, God;
But not yet. When I speak,
Though it be you who speak
Through me, something is lost.
The meaning is in the waiting.

Monday, December 14, 2009


This weekend I went home. Well, not home. I was born and raised on a council estate in Birmingham, but as I'm currently in ministerial formation at Regent's Park and I've recently gotten married, I'm now living in Oxford.

Oxford is very different from Chelmsley Wood. And to be honest, I was nervous about going back, nervous about not fitting in anymore, nervous that everything would have moved on without me and I wouldn't really be welcome anymore.
I don't know if any of you have ever been back to the place you grew up only to discover that it's just not the same anymore. Things are all a bit different, not quite as you remembered - it's all changed.

For those of you who have read Great Expectations, I draw your attention here to Miss Havisham. Miss Havisham fell in love with a man who was out to swindle her riches. At twenty to nine on their wedding day, while she was dressing, Miss Havisham recieved a letter telling her she'd been defrauded and left at the alter.
Years later when Pip stumbles across her mansion, he finds her still dressed in her wedding dress, the wedding cake rotting on the table and all the clocks stoped at twenty to nine.

Miss Havisham was unable to move on. Eerily everything was exactly the same as the day she had been jilted, even down to her single shoe.

It wasn't the same when I went back to Chelmsley Wood, things had changed, people had moved on. But it wasn't a bad thing. And somehow, it was still home. And so, whilst sitting in our church hall, surrounded by old friends and family, staring at the messiest Christmas tree I've ever seen (decorated by Sunday School...), and wondering why, even though the place isn't home anymore, even though it's a million miles away from what I've come to be used to, being there felt perfectly natural, inspiration struck. I thought I'd share it with you.

The old man living
In his rented room
Grows steadily lonelier
As the darkness looms

And the boy shooting drugs
As he sits on the street
And the loneliness takes him
Despite who he meets

Lovers lie sleeping
Side by side
A wilderness between them
From which they can't hide

And their unborn infant
Is already alone
So soon to be discarded
Without a place to call his own

Because the scatterer
Has overtaken us
Estranging lovers
Breaking promises

Tearing us inwardly
And tearing us apart
Keeping us restless
And breaking our hearts

And this is why
Those of us who are sated
Find it so easy to ignore
Those of us who are starving

Yet, taken all together
Or taken one by one
We are the holiest of earth's creatures
Taken at our sum

For he who kindled
The fire of the sun
He who draws out new life
From the dead of the winter's cold

He who has whittled
A cabin for the snail
Has also carved our names
In the palm of his hand

He became a child
The better to be near us
Born on a journey
Undeservedly saving us

He grew to be a man
And lived among us
To be our healing
When we were sick
Our bread
When we were hungry
To be the wine at all our weddings

He suffered at our hands
And he forgave us
He sweat from head to foot
With human anguish
And shedding every drop of blood
To give us each other
That loneliness would be dispelled

He gave himself to us
That we might live forever

He gave us even more
Than he has given the angels.

God journies with us, he is living and moving, working with us right now. Advent is about the past and the future. We look backwards to the birth of Christ, and forwards to his coming again. But maybe we've got it wrong; maybe in looking and backwards and forwards, we're missing out on something. Because Christ isn't some dead hero of the past, nor is he a distant hope for the future. He is for the here and now, reconciling us to himself, and to one another.
When we're with God, God is with us. And God's people now, and throughout the ages, are with us too.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

God with us...vulnerable...

I was struck anew by the way that when we first meet Jesus in the Christmas story, he is completely vulnerable. Reliant wholly on his parents, and then as he grows, belonging not only to his parents and family but also to his community. Can anything good come from Nazareth?
At his birth, he is receiving- nurture, gifts, love. He is allowing people to care for him.

The great adage goes that it is more blessed to give than to receive; for me, one should add- actually it is extremely uncomfortable to receive. I find giving much more comfortable- if I am honest, at times receiving seems to be a sign of weakness. Furthermore, when one is the recipient of love, care, or gifts, one becomes vulnerable to the giver. You have to trust that the giver will use their power wisely.
Jesus showed his great love for us by giving all he was- part of that was allowing himself to receive. He made himself vulnerable first to Mary and Joseph, and then as he grew to many other people. Some of those givers did not use their power wisely. And yet, we see with Peter for example, Jesus continued to invest in and receive from Peter even after being let down.

In the Christmas story, we see God's wholehearted commitment to mankind, becoming "God with us"; vulnerable in a love that receives as well as gives.
I am challenged to keep on receiving as well as giving. In our culture of individualism, it is easy to withdraw and be self reliant when people let you down. Yet we are called to be as vulnerable as a baby to each other, to allow others to care for us, just like Jesus,
"...Who being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God
something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness,
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself..."

Saturday, December 12, 2009

An Epic Advent

Being a minister at this time of year is an odd experience. Preparing services that fit the advent season whilst making plans for the period from Christmas to Easter. Yesterday I was talking about Palm Sunday, this morning I was thinking about how changes in society affect the church and this afternoon I’m grappling afresh with advent promises.

Advent is becoming one of my favourite times of year with its reminders of what Christ’s coming entails. A promised ruler who will be no petty king or oppressive empire builder but one in whose hands the weakest will be safe and the oppressed released. A reign in which old hostilities will cease, in which the scattered are gathered in, drawing back those who have drifted off. The one who is with God from eternity past comes forth revealing grace and truth.

In thinking about changing culture I was reminded of Leonard Sweet’s suggestion that post modern and digital culture can be understood to be Epic where E=experiential, P=participatory, I=image rich, and C=connective. This is not the moment to discuss the merits, or otherwise, of Sweet’s proposal but it strikes me that advent fits this well.

Advent invites us to:
Experience the God who is now and the not yet. The growing familiarity of ritual with readings, candles and hymns magnifies the sense of God’s promise and presence.
Participate in the faith. The themes of advent incorporate the great doctrines of the Christian faith but not as propositions to believe but as truth to live and incorporate into daily living.
In an image driven culture we are reminded that the one who comes is the image of God; God in the flesh.
Connecting with the community of God’s people, advent is an invitation to respond afresh to Christ’s invitation to be children of God.

O Come O Come Immanuel

Thursday, December 10, 2009


28 years ago today I was in labour and about to give birth to our second daughter. So today I want to be with Mary as she and her baby anticipate his arrival. A time of joy and anticipation but also of fear and worry. The unique role of Mary in the story of God’s plan of salvation is oft much disputed but it speaks to me as a mother in a very special way but it also reminds me of the very tricky place women hold in the world of faith: revered and rejected all at the same time….

So two poems:

You lie within the womb of time
Kicking to break free,
To find release from the dull routine
Of feeding, loving, living.
The heart beats a note of urgency
As you push hard
As if against a stone.
Yet you do not move:
Is it still not time?
What is it that prevents you
From reaching ecstatic freedom
For which you long so much?

You are enclosed within this womb of mine
And must wait patiently,
For it is I who pulsates you to maturity
And it is I who pulsates you to maturity
And so from birth to freedom

The Womb of God Kathy Keay

Dear God
They call me woman:
They blame me for the first sin of lost innocence.
The call me Eve

Dear God
They call me woman:
They tell me
I bore your son.
The call me Mary

Dear God
They call me woman:
They show me
A greater sinner
Reconciled, forgiven
By her love allowed to be first.
The call me Mary Magdalen

Dear God
They call me woman:
They send me
From your table – unworthy
From your presence – unclean
From your life – unable

Dear God
I am a woman
Worthy of you
Cleansed by you
Able through you
Make me glad
When they call me woman

They call me Woman Charlotte Methuen

(both poems taken from Dancing on Mountains, ed Kathy Keay Marshall Pickering 1996)

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Presently Absent

Advent is a season for waiting patiently for the LORD to come, to act. ‘Since ancient times no-one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.’ (Isaiah 64:4, NIV). Scripture and liturgy together encourage us to reflect, to meditate, to pray, all the while using the time and space afforded by Advent wisely to anticipate God’s coming and action in the man Jesus of Nazareth.

But I struggle with this noblest, this most pious of attitudes, for I have difficulty focussing on the One who is to come. Instead, I focus on the One who is presently absent.

Presently absent. This is a curious phrase. It suggests that God is silent; that God is uninvolved and unconcerned; that God has withdrawn from God’s people and the world that God made. God is presently absent. But contained within the phrase is a glimmer of light, the faintest, occasional flicker of a single candle in the darkness of a night-time wilderness. God is presently absent, but soon – soon, God will be present.

Nonetheless, it takes only a zephyr nearly to extinguish that dim, distant flame. Every time I yearn for evidence that the Father has embraced me in his Son’s arms; every time I knock, knock, knock on heaven’s door and find its impenetrability a source of frustration; every time I sin a sin I’ve sinned before; the light dances its death throes, and the Spirit appears a spectator, another of the great cloud of witnesses that encourages from afar. But amazingly, even comfortingly, the light shines in the darkness but is not overcome by it.

Advent is a season for waiting for the LORD to come, to act; but I hesitate to include the qualifying patiently. The reason that Advent is a season for waiting is because God is presently absent. And this is where Scripture and liturgy together are vital, literally so, for maintaining my direction and sanity, as I enter the prayers of the longing impatient and make them my own. God knows it’s hard to wait for God, and that’s why the silence of Advent is a deafening cacophony of the discords of protest, lament and questions taken into God’s awesome symphony, the incarnation of God’s eternal Son, the man Jesus Nazareth.

Let all that I am wait quietly before God,
for my hope is in him.…
O my people, trust in him at all times.
Pour out your heart to him,
for God is our refuge.
Psalm 62:5, 8 (NLT)

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Holy, holy, holy

This week my Thursday evening study group will complete a short Advent series using the 5 O’s of the great Advent hymn O come, O come Emmanuel. As you might expect as well as the study there will need to be food shared on this final meeting before the New Year.( being in Yorkshire this is sure to include Christmas cake and Wensleydale cheese).
This ancient Advent hymn is well known with its Old Testament words about the Messiah and the haunting tune to which it is sung. It certainly has gone round and round in my mind over the past few weeks.
The description of Jesus as the ‘rod of Jesse’ took us to one of the great Advent readings - Isaiah 11 - ‘a shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse and branch shall grow out of its roots’. Following on from this statement is the poetic description of the promised One.

The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of power,
the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD -
and he will delight in the fear of the LORD.
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt
and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

In his book ‘The way of Jesus’ Eugene Peterson draws this reading together with chapter 6 of Isaiah. He suggests that preachers tend to concentrate on the beginning of Isaiah 6 which describes the awesome experience of the prophet in the Temple as he responds to the call of God. On hearing the call the prophet boldly reacts, ‘Here I am; send me.’
Peterson complains that by not continuing to read the rest of the chapter we neglect the word which immediately comes to Isaiah and which sets out the unenviable task facing him. Peterson suggests that we need to reflect on the whole description of the call of the prophet which includes the worrying word that he receives as part of his call. This word indicates that his own people will not listen to him and even worse is to come because he is about to see his nation destroyed. The Assyrians will march through the land and the barren image given is that of a forest that has been cut down and all that is left is the tree stumps. But the final word is that ‘the holy seed is its stump’. All is not lost.

As Peterson reflects on this he comments:

“Isaiah provides an abundance of metaphor and vision so that we are able to recognise the way of The Holy in unlikely circumstances, wilderness circumstances, among neighbours who are deaf and dumb and heartless. The Holy, God’s unmanageable but irrepressible life is ever present and hidden within and around us. Unpredictably but most surely it breaks forth into our awareness from time to time. The bush blazes, the heavens open, the temple rocks, the stump puts forth a green shoot. Holy, Holy, Holy.”

The same Holy, Holy, Holy that filled the Temple is a holy seed in a field of stumps and a holy child in a borrowed manger and………..

I leave the final ‘and…………’ for us to reflect on our own experience of those unexpected and holy moments.

Monday, December 07, 2009

8.30am, and once again struggling to cram onto a packed tube carriage, jacket dripping with rain water and clammering around for something to hold onto before the inevitable jolting into action.

20-40 minutes later, you jolt to a stop somewhere, battle your way off the train (how do you always end up on the opposite side to where the door opens?), negotiate through the crowded platform, perilously close to the edge, up the escalators and out into the street on autopilot.

You then run the chicane past hawkers, salesmen, leafleters and advertisers, and dash along to whereever you are going wrapped up in waterproofs and under little twinkly lights that have been on for over a month and have now become part of the street furniture.

A typical Advent morning for some 3.4million people.

This morning, rather than fostering contempt at the world which created this surreal daily ritual, I decided to switch what was on my MP3 player to something, anything, calming. I stumbled upon some Taizé.

And suddenly, even in the bustle, everything seemed a little calmer, a little brighter, and a little more human.

Advent for many of us is far from a time of quiet reflection. There's just too much to do at this time of year, without any other demands on our time. Today, I've decided maybe Advent isn't about doing something, but about being something; about being reflective, rather than setting time aside to reflect?

Sunday, December 06, 2009

The Word of God comes to . . . who?

In the 15th year of the emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judaea, when Herod was Tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip prince of Iturea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias prince of Abilene, during high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. Luke 3:1-2

The evangelist Luke believes it is important to situate his story about Jesus in its wider historical context. Why else would he take such pains both here and in others parts of his Gospel, to inform us who the various important people are: emperors, governors, rulers, princes and high priests. Yet, whether he intends it or not, he sets up irony by first telling us who the powerful people are, what position they hold, and then informing us that the word of God came not to any of these but to John the Baptist in the wilderness. Compared to all these powerful and influential figures, John is a nobody. Yet it is to John that the word of God comes.

It would be like saying that in the 56th year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, when Boris Johnson was Mayor of London, when Gordon Brown was Prime Minister, when David Milliband was Foreign Secretary and his brother Ed Milliband was Secretary of State, during the Archbishopric of Rowan Williams, the word of God came to Doris the open air preacher in rural Essex!

When those who should be open to God's Word are not; God bypasses them in favour of those who are open and courageous and obedient. However, to the hearers and readers of Luke’s Gospel, John is not a nobody. In chapters 1 and 2 we are introduced first to Zechariah, a priest, and then to his wife Elizabeth. Elizabeth is the cousin of Mary who will be the mother of Jesus. Old and childless, Zechariah receives a visit from the angel Gabriel who announces that Elizabeth will conceive a bear a son to be called John. It is this John who is born and grows up to be a preacher in the wilderness. John goes all over the Jordan valley proclaiming that God’s chosen people need to turn away from their sinful ways of life, seek God’s forgiveness, and as a sign that they have done this they need to be baptised in water. John calls them to do this because he is preparing the way for the Messiah and the coming Kingdom of God. There are many ways through which we can prepare the way for God's Word to come to others: friendship, empathy, critique, service and honesty being some of them. It matters not who we are but whether we are open and willing.

Friday, December 04, 2009

quiet day ponderings

Tuesday was College Quiet Day marking the last day of term for us ministerial students. We were led this time by Steven Bevans (who has been the CMS missiologist in residence this term). I missed the morning session but was there afternoon has Steve led us in reflecting on Luke 10.21-24:
At that same hour Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to the childlike; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him.’

Then turning to the disciples, Jesus said to them privately, ‘Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.’
As we read and reread this passage different things jumped out ... that revelation is always a gift of God ... what does the word 'rejoice' mean? ... what are 'these things' that the disciples have seen and heard? ... the tension between the blessing of having seen and heard and the demands of discipleship that follow ... the problem of the feeling around advent of having 'seen' and 'heard' the stories so many times ... is there more light and truth to break for ... what new (or old) things will God's Spirit - the giving gift - reveal this time? ... is Jesus being negative about wisdom and intelligence or is his point that we should approach learning like the child - with wonder, with questioning, with joy, with frustration, with dependence on one who will provide answers? ...

In this season of beginnings and endings, looking forward and looking back, in this season of familiar stories, we wait for the advent God to come and reveal himself, God's gift to the world, we wait to join in the rejoicing, we wait with children as they struggle to wait when everything around them suggests the time for celebration has already arrived, we wait to see what 'things' we will see and hear this year, we wait for the Son ...

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Take A Moment

This is a very busy week at a very busy time of year. And it is all too easy for me to get swept along in a tide of doing: partly that's how I like it, partly that's how I'm made, and partly that's just the way it is. If I'm honest I woke up thinking 'oh heck, it's my turn to post today and I haven't had time to think about it...' So what I am writing is to myself as much as, if not more than, to anyone else.

Yesterday I briefly re-engaged with a lifestyle I'd left behind long ago, rushing through airports among be-suited professionals and hi-viz-vested staff, hearing the ubiquitous 'I'm just calling from the airport on my mobile' calls designed to impress someone, somewhere, seeing the EXCEL spreadsheets on the laptops, the pencils poised over the latest report on that all important project.... Busy, busy busy.

Two contrasts.

Yesterday I was conducting a funeral 300 miles from home. The format was church then crematorium, and it is a 30 minute drive between the two. One of the practices I have developed for such occasions is to invite families to choose a piece of quiet music to be used for a short time of quiet reflection between the opening sentences, prayer and Bible reading the final act of committal. Just a couple of minutes of stillness, a 'few moments pause to reflect' as I usually say.

Today is our second lunchtime Advent reflection and prayer. Here, too, is space to be still, to listen to music, to reflect on words of scripture or simply to be. Today the theme is 'the miracle of hospitality' and the focus on the beginning of Luke 2.

Psalm 46 includes some words that boil down, broadly, to this:

Desist! Stop it. Take a moment
Focus on me, on God
Be still and allow yourselves to be aware of me...

Wherever we are, and whatever we are doing, no matter much how we thrive on activity, it is good to take a moment, to reflect on God's blessing received, to enjoy God's presence now, and to hope in God's promises to come. Take a moment...

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Children's View of Jesus

I'm really blessed to have a senior pastor who doesn't just welcome opportunities for children and young people to play a full part in the life of the church but proactively makes space for that to happen. We see children worship alongside adults in many of our Christmas activities over a three week period - and far beyond. This is very liberating for me as a children and family pastor.

Something has struck me this year: the wide-eyed innocence of very young children; the longing to belong and share in our Big Story of younger primary kids; the bounce and sparkiness of older children as they challenge and ask questions; the aloofness of some teenagers which actually belies a deep desire for authentic faith: all of these are characteristics of growing and developing faith and are engaged by the Christmas story. It transcends age and stage and language development and understanding and intellect.

Why is this?

Because in the person of Jesus we have one who allows us to talk to the Father face to face - as a man talks to his friend

He is glorious and immanent but he is engaging and loving.
He is far away, ascended to heaven, but he is also near.
He is omnipotent but also personal.
Children understand this far, far better than some adults think they do.
He was Mary's child and God's son, his life spanned the gap between humankind and heaven. The verse quoted from Exodus 33:11 demonstrate his incredible attraction for children - his life gives us ALL access to the Father.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Advent - to wrest with mystery, and rest in mystery

"Arise! Shine! Your light has come." Light exposing the ultimate nothingness of darkness is a primary colour in my advent theology. "The light shineth in the darkness and the darkness comprehendeth it not..." The King James rendering has a cadence and tone solemn enough to remind us we deal with the vast intricacies of a universe when we say "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us...and the life was the light of all humanity".

1903039541.01._SCLZZZZZZZ_Throughout Advent I will be slowly reading my way through Rebecca Elson's A Responsibility to Awe. So I'll spend Advent in the company of one who made no bland confessions of faith, Christian or otherwise. What Rebecca Elson trusted deeply, is the capacity of the human mind to wrest with mystery as hard and as long as intelligence could go, and then she had the confidence to rest in mystery, awed into acceptance by that which is beyond our grasp but not beyond our wonder.

Thus some of the most spectacularly learned scientific essays and papers emerged from the same mind as some of the most sublime poetry offered in praise of the vastness of existence and the delicate fragility of the human mind. Wresting with, and resting in, mystery. That's how I feel during Advent. The poet astronomer studying stars to discern the origins of being, and setting her mind to measure the range of human intelligence, content to know beforehand that what is, is greater than those who ponder it.

The poem which gives the volume its title is a confession of intellectual humility, a surrender to the ethic of learning, both a celebration and a caution about how the fascination of science can so easily lead to missing the significant because we are too preoccupied with the obvious. This Advent, that is my prayer - to not miss that which is significant, in my own life and in the lives around me. To "wonder as I wander", to look where I'm going, to listen for vibrations of human hopefulness and good intent that is the music around me, to ask questions deep enough that they honour mystery and acknowledge that divine subterfuge by which God perlexes, bewilders and persuades us that love is eternal, and has entered our time and space. Answering the wistfulness of Elson's poem, the astonishing claim, "In him was light, and the light was the life of all humanity. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never been able to extinguish it...."

We Astronomers by Rebecca Elson
We astronomers are nomads,
Merchants, circus people,
All the earth our tent.
We are industrious.
We breed enthusiasms,
Honour our responsibility to awe.

But the universe has moved a long way off.
Sometimes, I confess,
Starlight seems too sharp,

And like the moon
I bend my face to the ground,
To the small patch where each foot falls,

Before it falls,
And I forget to ask questions,
And only count things.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Advent Shaking

"...the celestial powers will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming with power and great glory." Luke 21:26-27

The compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary, in assigning this text for the First Sunday of Advent (Year C), seem to be deliberately wrong-footing us. We are expecting to prepare for the coming of Christ as the infant Jesus; instead we are confronted with predictions of the return of the glorious Son of Man. This return, it is claimed, will be preceded by a shaking of earth and heaven. Our planet, with its land-masses, waters, mountains, ravines and craters, is living testament to an ongoing shaking as tectonic plates move and asteroids collide. This ball of magma with its hardened crust and breathable atmosphere, rotating and orbiting in space, is always moving and changing. The shaking of which Jesus speaks, however, is different than this perpetual motion. It is the shaking that God causes; a shaking that coincides with the Advent of the Son of Man.

If, as interpreters of this text, we move from the literal to metaphor, we find that shaking is not restricted to Christ's return but is part of what God does with his people. God shook Israel's moral and religious order out of idolatry and polytheism when God made covenant with it and gave it the Law. God shook Israel further through foreign exile and occupation. But perhaps the greatest shaking occurred in the person of Jesus of Nazareth; a shaking of the very foundations of what it means to be in right relationship with God. Andrew Shanks interprets the Beatitude blessings that Jesus pronounces as, 'How blessed are those who are shaken'. In other words, how blessed are those whose attitude to being shaken in life (poverty, sorrow, gentleness, seeking righteousness, merciful, pure, peacemaking, persecuted) makes them open to God and to others. But those who hate change, except on their own terms, would not tolerate shaking of this sort and therefore nailed down the one who so unsettled them. As Colin Morris writes, "...in crucifying Jesus the 'powers that be' imagined they were doing one thing; in fact they were being used to accomplish another. They became instruments of the God who shook the tomb until it fell apart and let loose his great agent of change into all the world and for all time.” (pp. 157-8, Things Shaken - Things Unshaken)

We who identify with the incarnate, crucified, risen, ascended and returning Christ—we who worship the God who is Spirit and is therefore 'pure activity'—cannot avoid being shaken. Yet we are given courage and hope by the author of The Letter to the Hebrews, who writes that after God has finished shaking "...what cannot be shaken [will] remain. The kingdom we are given is unshakeable…" Hebrews 12:27b-28a

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Advent Blog 2009 Sign-Up

29 julian templeton
1 jim gordon
2 lynn alexander
3 catriona gorton
4 andy goodliff
6 julian templeton
7 ashley beck
8 alan mair
9 terry wright
10 julie aylward
11 jim gordon
12 neil brighton
13 miriam pugh
14 rowena greenwood
15 jason goroncy
16 phil durrant
17 lucy wright
18 nigel coles
19 catriona gorton
20 geoff colmer
21 lynn alexander
22 terry wright
23 andy scott

Thursday, April 02, 2009

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

[I'm cheating by doing 3 books. His Dark Materials is a sequence of 3 books called Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass].

I first read Northern Lights as a teenager, when it was first published in the mid 1990s. My school librarian gave it to me, saying she knew I'd like it. Of course I'm sure she thought she was just doing her job. I ended up as a school librarian (was I inspired by her knack of picking me decent books?!) and spending a year reading it over and over, writing 20,000 words about the sequence for my MA Children's Literature dissertation. Luckily it is the type of story you can debate for hours upon hours in pubs with people like Andy G and never get bored.

It may seem a little strange that I'd pick this book (really it's only in 3 parts because the book would be too big otherwise. And Pullman probably couldn't afford not to publish it in bits) to write about on this blog. Many Christians have heard of Pullman and his work in the media - Peter Hitchens calling him 'the most dangerous author in Britain'(1) and the Catholic Herald condemning the books as 'the stuff of nightmares' (2).

So surely I don't agree with anything Pullman is saying? Actually, yes. He raises interesting points about the Crusades, witch hunts, the way Christians can think they're right about everything, the way Christians can think only Christians can be decent people, the corruption of power within the church, the outdated views, this either / or position between religion and science. Things like that which I have encountered growing up in the church, things that I'd also like to criticise the church about sometimes!

Whether Pullman sat down one day and realised before he began what an epic he was writing is hard to say. It depends which interviews you look at. On a very basic level, it's just a good story, although I don't say that in a dismissive way. It's not like he has written a mediocre story into which he decided to cram all the things he hates about the church into. He says, quite rightly when people try and pigeonhole him, that 'I'm not making an argument, or preaching a sermon or setting out a political tract; I'm telling a story... My intention is to tell a story - in the first place because the story comes to me and wants to be told.' (3)

And whilst you can sit and analyse how he portrays the church as The Church in his books, with its evil followers, servile priests, endless rival factions and evil leaders going about chopping out people's souls at puberty to stop them sinning, or his portrayal of a dictator God, who he refers to as The Authority, as a senile, Gnostic angel who's so decrepid he blows away like a dandelion, or the afterlife as a meaningless holding pen for ghosts which is a bit fat lie the church tells people so they'll behave, it's not that shallow. He wrote an amazing story, one with characters who are good, kind, brave, exciting, awe-inspiring. It's a story with adventure, fantasy, multiple universes, deep relationships. It's a story where you meet armoured bears, gyptians, people whose souls are manifested as animals, witches, spies who fly on dragonflies, children who battle against the odds to save the people they care about. It's the kind of thing you read, and you feel that it's true, it resonates, in the way that characters experience and what they say. Pullman wrote a story which contains echoes of classic mythology and Christian tradition.

It's one of those stories which reminds us how inseparable our culture is with the power of story - and that in fact 'the story of the Fall is the key story of contemporary children's literature'(4) if not of our whole culture. When he said in his acceptance speech for winning an award for NL he said 'Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but Once upon a time lasts forever" he had a point. Whilst I'm obviously not dismissing the 1o commandments [disclaimer!], our culture, whether we're looking at the Bible or other traditional oral tales, is based on stories. And fantasy is a genre which takes us away from our normal surroundings, to then reflect back on them. 'Trues fantasy' as Natalie Babbitt says, 'aims to define the universe'. (5)

Children's author Gillian Cross (she of The Demon Headmaster fame) nailed it when she said 'when it [HDM] is most truly a story, it is close to the central insights of Christianity'(6). Pullman wants to take all the good stuff about being a Christian, but manage it ourselves, without the need for God. Ultimately it can't work, but that doesn't mean the story doesn't work. This is a book that inspired me to really look at what being a Christian meant, more than any "Christian" books I have read.

(1) The Mail on Sunday, Jan 27 2002, p.63
(2) The Times, Oct 18 2000, p.12
(3) 'Heat & Dust' , Third Way, April 2002, p.23
(4) Neil Philip, Signal, 37, Jan 1982, p.21
(5) RN Lynn (1989) Fantasy Literature for Children & Young Adults: an annotated bibliography, NY: RR Bowker.
(6) Books for Keeps no. 140, May 2003, p.11

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Loving God with heart, soul, mind and practice.

Gazing at my bookshelves looking for the book that has influenced me most is not easy. Some, which felt influential years ago now seem less so. Others authors continue to be important in shaping who I am (Eugene Peterson and Stanley Hauerwas for example).

Of the books, I’ve read in the last year, one that is worthy of mention is Tony Jones’s ‘The Sacred Way’. I read it whilst on the train to London and Didcot last autumn and have suggested it to a number of people in church since. The book, subtitled ‘Spiritual Practices for Everyday Life’ looks at different approaches to spirituality along with some pointers to help integrate them into our daily lives; contemplative approaches such as the Jesus Prayer, Sacred Reading and the Daily Office; bodily approaches such as pilgrimage and fasting together with some thoughts about developing a Rule of Life.

For those who have experience of these different approaches the book may seem lightweight but for those with little exposure to them it may be just the encouragement you need. Jones grew up in a church-going family and went to a Christian college in the US. As he puts it, “by the time I was 25, my views of God, prayer, the Bible, etc. were pretty screwed up.” The shallowness of this eventually provoked him to look at how people had connected with God in past generations, whereupon he discovered, “the incredible richness in the spiritual practices of ancient and modern Christian communities from around the world.”

This is a book for those whose prayer life and walk with God has become stale. It is accessible without being lightweight, insightful but generous, practical because it is about God and about the practice of daily living. Buy a copy, read it and then give it away to someone who will need it more than you.

As Julian of Norwich wrote:

“Therefore we can with his grace and his help persevere in spiritual contemplation, with endless wonder at this high, surpassing, immeasurable love which our Lord in his goodness has for us; and therefore we may with reverence ask from our lover all that we will, for our natural will is to have God, and God’s good will is to have us, and we can never stop willing or loving until we possess him in the fullness of joy.”

Friday, March 27, 2009

Eugene Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant

Back in the nineties, a couple of years into my ministry in a local church, I had something of a personal crisis. I found myself seriously questioning my call as the minister of that church, and indeed my call to Baptist ministry.

I’m glad to say that I survived the crisis, and this was due to at least three factors. The first was the wise and calm influence of my Regional Minister, who in the process introduced me to the insights of Family Systems Theory. The second was the support and prayer of some excellent friends. And the third was the writing of Eugene Peterson, and in particularly his trilogy for pastors: Working the Angles, Five Smooth Stones, and Under the Unpredictable Plant.

While I feel very un-trendy, I still hold to his emphasis upon the three basic pastoral acts which determine the shape of everything else: praying, reading Scripture, and giving spiritual direction. I resound to his statement that ‘The pastor’s responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God.’ (Working the Angles)

However, it was the third of these books, Under the Unpredictable Plant, which helped save my life! Using the Old Testament book of Jonah, Peterson clarifies the pastoral vocation in terms of helping to recover what he calls ‘vocational holiness’. I’ve returned to this book on countless occasions; I’ve recommended it to many; and I’ll continue to do so.  But let Eugene Peterson speak for himself:

‘It is necessary from time to time that someone stand up and attempt to get the attention of the pastors lined up at the travel agency in Joppa to purchase a ticket to Tarshish. At this moment, I am the one standing up. If I succeed in getting anyone’s attention, what I want to say is that the pastoral vocation is not a glamorous vocation and that Tarshish is a lie. Pastoral work consists of modest, daily, assigned work. It is like farm work. Most pastoral work involves routines similar to cleaning out the barn, mucking out the stalls, spreading manure, pulling weeds. This is not, any of it, bad work in itself, but if we expected to ride a glistening black stallion in daily parades and then return to the barn where a lackey grooms our steed for us, we will be severely disappointed and end up being horribly resentful.

There is much that is glorious in pastoral work, but the congregation, as such, is not glorious. The congregation is a Nineveh-like place: a site for hard work without a great deal of hope for success, at least as success is measured on the charts. But somebody has to do it, has to faithfully give personal visibility to the continuities of the word of God in the place of worship and prayer, in the places of daily work and play, in the traffic jams of virtue and sin.

Anyone who glamorizes congregations does a grave dis-service to pastors. We hear tales of glitzy, enthusiastic churches and wonder what in the world we are doing wrong that our people don’t turn out that way under our preaching. On close examination, though, it turns out that there are no wonderful congregations… I don’t deny that there are moments of splendour in congregations. There are. Many and frequent. But there are also conditions of squalor. Why deny it? And how could it be otherwise?… Ordinary congregations are God’s choice for the form the church takes in locale, and pastors are the persons assigned to them for ministry…’

Monday, March 23, 2009

Seeking God and Benedictine Spirituality

In 1984 I bought a small Fount Paperback. It was called Seeking God, by Esther de Waal. It was an Archbishop of Canterbury Lent book, an exposition of the Rule of St Benedict intended to encourage non monastics to live by the key principles of the Rule. This wasn't as odd, quaint, daft, as some people thought at the stime. Nor was it an attempt to make the Saul's armour of monastic spirituality fit spiritual striplings facing their own Goliaths in the culture wars of the eighties!

Instead De Waal presented a sensible, attractive and simple set of ideals that had helped transform the outward direction and inner temper of Christian spirituality. By placing several spiritual practices at the centre of community life, the Rule aimed to create a balance between individual and community, to provide liturgical rhythm and equilibrium, and to establish Christian community as a stable commitment of covenant relations intended to last for life. I'm on my third copy of De Waal's book - the first turned brown and the glue on the spine cracked leaving me with a collection of ad hoc pamphlets held together with a rubber band - cannae be daein wi' that! The replacement second copy I lent to someone about 1997, and I hope they still enjoy it (I'm not bitter, honest). My current copy has also now been read and used enough to show signs of wear and tear - but it's still in print. And I'm not surprised because it is a life enhancing and life affirming book - and completely transformed my understanding of what that journey we call seeking God is like. It also provided a short list of essential virtues for pastoral work, and a framework within which virtues grow out of values by being practiced with disciplined regularity, as habits of the heart lived out in relationship with others.

Listening, to God, to each other, and to God through each other, and listening as alert docility before the text of Scripture; stability, that commitment to people and place that does not see walking away as an option; change, as conversion of life, the transformative shaping of the Spirit through the sacrament of community; balance, avoiding those excesses and extemes so characteristic of overspiritual drivenness, opting instead for moderation in all things bu the love of God; material things, to be enjoyed and gratefully recieved, and also to be enjoyed and generously given away; people, those whom God gives to us to be part of the community in which we live and move and have our being - not our choice who God sends, just our requirement to love; authority, in Benedictine terms under the Abbott, and while I resist the idea that one person has authority over another's spiritual life, I do recognise the wisdom of willing submission to the wisdom and guidance of the trusted friend, even the trusted community; prayer as way of life, as daily rhythm, as lectio divina, as the offer of praise and intercession, love for God and others enfolded in the love of God.

All this and more, distilled from the Rule opf St Benedict and written in accessible style by one who herself practices the Rule in a lay context. As one example of the pastoral wisdom of the Rule of Benedict:

Your way of acting should be different from the world's way:

the love of Christ must come before all else.

You are not to act in anger or nurse a grudge.

Rid your heart of all deceit.

Never give a hollow greeting of peace,

or turn away when someone needs your love.

Imagine reading that, and committing to living it, on a Monday morning at the beginning of whatever your week looks like - how transformative of workplace, community and home if that ideal of the monk were the reality of Christian daily practice..........hmmmm?
Jim Gordon.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Christology by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Apologies that this is a day late.

There's a lot that is inspiring about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, so much so, in fact, that he has often been referred to as a 'protestant saint'. Bonhoeffer was born in Germany in 1906, and had a doctorate in theology. When the Nazi Party rose to power in Germany, Bonhoeffer was offered several oppourtunities to move to the USA and work there, but chose to remain in Germany. Bonhoeffer taught and preached against Hitler's regime and was involved with a secret group that helped Jews escape into Switzerland and plotted to kill Hitler. Bonhoeffer was banned from preaching, imprisoned and finally executed in 1945, aged 39.

Bonhoeffer writes in an accessible way that I think anyone can read, and this may well be one of the reasons he has become so popular. I think most of us are put off theological writing because it's so often written in dense, difficult language. Christology is about 100 pages long and the dimensions of my copy would enable it to fit into a shirt pocket. This is no dense tome, then, and it's style is immensely readable.

The reason I have chosen Christology to write about is two-fold. The first reason is simply because I think it is a book that anyone can read. I think too often theology is too removed from the Church. Theologians write for other academics, and for these ideas to affect the Church, we either have to wait for someone to write a book that summarises their thoughts in easier language, or we have to wait for a generation of teachers who teach a new generation of church ministers with these ideas in mind. Theologians can often forget that the purpose of theology is to inform, help, build up or sometimes challenge the Church, not just the university.

Which leads me on to my second reason. Bonhoeffer moves the Christological discussion on in an important way. Christology, typically, has been concerned with the question of how Jesus can be both God and human. There have been many complex attempts at answering this question throughout Church history, the earliest authoritative example being the Chalcedonian Definition. Bonhoeffer argues that we should move the discussion away from the traditional 'how?' question, and focus instead upon a new question: 'Who is this God-Man?'

This is important because it shifts our theology out of purely intellectual realms and into real-life. The question 'who?' demands relationship, in this case, demands relationship with Christ. We can't really say who someone is, after all, until we get to know them personally. For me, Bonhoeffer's Christology reminds me that theology without a relationship with God is pointless, and acts as an encouragement for me to try and go deeper in my faith as well as in my theological studies. I think this book, more than any other, has impacted my life and thinking.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Eugene Peterson, Run with the Horses

It was good to read the previous post about Eugene Peterson's The Jesus Way. I have been nourished by another of his books called Run with the Horses. It is much older, written in 1983 but, along with much of his work, has a sense of timelessness about it. I first read this book when I was doing a correspondence course on the prophet Jeremiah about 9 years ago. The insight Peterson gives combines theological and pastoral commentary. He delves into the interior life of this notable Old Testament prophet and lets his ministry speak into the heart of contemporary ministry today.

What I particularly found nourishing was the way he wove the themes of exile, hope and imagination into his interpretation of Jeremiah's life. I will briefly mention three sections of his book under these three headings.

Exile (based on Jeremiah 29:4-14)

Peterson comments 'Exile is traumatic and terrifying. Our sense of who we are is very much determined by the place we are in and the people we are with. When that changes, violently and abruptly, who are we?... We don't fit anywhere... We are extra baggage... Israel was taken into exile in 587BC... leaving home, temple and hills' (p147).

But Peterson draws out the benefits of exile, highlighting the spiritual growth that it offers. Jeremiah told the exiles to stay rooted in exile, to make their home there, to get their hands into the Babylonian soil, to settle down and marry and seek the city's welfare. Peterson says 'The result was that this became the most creative period in the entire sweep of Hebrew history. They did not lose their identity, they discovered it' (p154). He ends this chapter by saying 'Exile is the worst that reveals the best' (p156).

Hope (based on Jeremiah 32:9-10, 15-17, 24-27, 42-44)

This is the story of the prophet buying the field at Anathoth, a thoroughly practical act. Peterson makes the point that his action was also intensely prophetic. Buying a plot of land at the very moment the invading armies were camping on it does have the mark of folly about it and exposes Jeremiah to ridicule. Theologically and practically, it was an investment in God's future. "Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land" (Jer 32:14-15). Living lives of hope in God's future may look incomprehensible but is a mark of buying into what we believe. Peterson concludes 'It takes courage to act in hope. But it is the only practical action, for it is the only action that survives the decay of the moment and escapes the scrapheap of yesterday's fashion' (p178).

Imagination (based on Jeremiah 18:1-4)

When Jeremiah visits the potter's house he is exercising his God-given imagination. I love the concept of imagination as a gift from God. It's so easy to think that God is only interested in our reasoning-power and intellect, but it is often imagination that fires us forwards to new creative initiatives in God's kingdom and saves us from a cerebral faith. Peterson believes Jeremiah had an artistic imagination which served his vocation well. He says 'The great masters of the imagination do not make things up out of thin air; they direct our attention to what is right before our eyes. They then train us to see it whole - not in fragments but in context, with all the connections. They connect the visible with the invisible...' (p75). Jeremiah was able to see God as the divine potter, making a people for his glory. He concludes 'Being a Christian is very much a matter of the flesh - of space and time and things. It means being thrown on the potter's wheel and shaped, our entire selves, into something useful and beautiful. And when we are not useful or beautiful we are re-shaped. Painful, but worth it' (p81).

(Andy Scott)

Monday, March 16, 2009

Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way

A book that has had a profound impact on me over the last year is The Jesus Way- a conversation in following Jesus (Eugene Peterson). We have been using it as a basis for study in the evening congregation I am a part of. I have learnt so much and seen many things anew since starting to read it, but one chapter stands out for me in the journey.

Even as I committed my life to God (aged 7) I had a deep sense of my own sinfulness and my need for God. At best, this can be a strength which keeps me humble and reliant on God. In weaker moments, this always spills into a cycle of setting unrealistically high standards for myself, inevitably failing to reach them, then condemnation, new resolve, new standards, etc. In my teenage years I heard many sermons unfolding the simple 3 points to a more effective passionate Super-turbo boosted-Christian life which I could only copy at best for a few days. And so the cycle continued…

Although I felt like I had gained some understanding of this “thorn in my side”, reading the chapter on David was a revelation to me. Peterson defines the way of David as “…from start to finish, the way of imperfection.”
It was all too familiar to me as I read his descriptions of perfectionism: “It is a way of perceiving Christians in two categories: carnal and spiritual Christians…Perfectionism has a way of claiming the term “spiritual” for itself- some Christians are spiritual, and by implication the others are not.”

He states in the strongest terms: “Perfectionism is a perversion of the Christian way. It is responsible for disabling countless sincere Christians for common usefulness in the company of their neighbours on pilgrimage to Jerusalem.”

Peterson underlines that fact that David, despite flashes of brilliance- e.g. slaying Goliath, cutting Saul’s cloak instead of a revenge killing- was continually messing up. David did some pretty terrible things. And yet not only is he recorded as a man after God’s own heart but Jesus was not embarrassed to be called the Son of David.
The big lesson David has to teach us is not his good acts or his great faith, but his relationship with God and his honest desire to be close to God through confession and repentance. Many of his psalms contain such prayers.

As Peterson says in the chapter, “The story David lived and the psalms he prayed provide us with an imagination that is capable of understanding the operations of God to do his perfect work in us, not our capacities to perfect ourselves.”

For me, this chapter not only gives a healthy framework with which to view sin and imperfection- where there is plenty of conviction but no condemnation- but it is also extremely salutary in thinking of what we communicate to others. We all have the responsibility to encourage our fellow believers into the freedom of relationship with God- to understand how to journey with “God working with the raw material of our lives as he finds us”.
Let me never by my words or example disable my sisters or brothers but let me live and pray and model a life which gives God space to be God and do his perfect work in me.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Jeremy Begbie, Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music

I’ve chosen this book because it’s a book I eagerly awaited and, when it was published at the beginning of 2008, it would be an understatement to say that it didn’t disappoint. I knew what to expect having read some of other Jeremy Begbie’s writing, and having heard him speak on a number of occasions.  He is an accomplished musician, a theologian of substance, and an excellent communicator, and the way in which he has brought music and theology together has sounded a deep resonances in me.

Jeremy is part of a movement which calls itself, ‘Theology Through The Arts’.  Theology of the arts asks what theology can bring to the arts. But theology through the arts asks what the arts can bring to theology: how can the arts help us think and re-think the gospel that we hear?  ‘Resounding Truth’ focuses especially upon music, an area which has been hugely neglected.

At the start the book he spends a fair bit of time bringing clarity to what music is, and in the process providing a hugely useful map of the current musical landscape.  He goes on to look at music in action in biblical times, before moving rapidly through church history, hitting on prominent thinkers in relation to music. A chapter on JS Bach leads into a chapter on three musical theologians, Schleiermacher, Bach and Bonhoeffer; and then two theological composers, Messiaen, and James MacMillan. There is superb material in these chapters, but the study expands in the next section of the book.

Jeremy Begbie puts forward ‘a Christian ecology’, ‘ecology’ in the sense of ‘a guiding framework’ but also in the sense of a doctrine of creation asking what kind of world does God create and relate to, and what might our role be in relation to the created world at large?  Having laid this foundation he asks this question: ‘Where might music find a place in the ecology sketched in the last chapter? In the purposes of a Triune Creator who has created and gathered up all things in Jesus Christ and now perfects all things by his Spirit – what can music contribute? In a world crafted out of freedom and love that praises God in its goodness but is never divine, a world made to flourish toward its end, a world of ordered openness and diverse unity – where do the sounds of singing and playing belong? And in the human vocation to focus and articulate creation’s praise, to discover, respect, develop, heal, anticipate, together – how might music play a part?’

I can’t do justice to the answer to these questions that he pursues and develops in the rest of the book, except to say that I’m still exploring them!  So, if this flicks your switches, go read! But in the meantime, try this nugget, ‘The church is the song of God – God’s “breathing out” of his own trinitarian polyphony.  It is the way the world hears the music at the heart of God and joins in.’

For me, this book is absolute gift, because it brings together the two worlds I know best. And I confess to frequently drawing on the creative thinking that I’ve found here and will continue to do so. Thank you Jeremy!