Welcome to part time priest. Bits of life come together - priesthood, part time worker, mum, wife, person. Not really part time ontologically, obviously, but I do have other things to do, quite apart from being...and one of them is enjoying sharing ministry experiences and reflections with you.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Adventures in Silence

Sheep in the fields around LLannerchwen, near Brecon.

My first two tastes of ecclesiastically managed silence were not terribly successful. Anglican Ordinations are always preceded by 'silent' retreats but for these to work, silence really needs to be accompanied by solitude, and a theological college stuffed full of 2 or 3 dozen other retreat-ants, a number of whom have never encountered silence at all and have no idea what to do with it, does not work well; especially for the more extrovert amongst us.

My next proper attempt at silence took me in 2012 to Loyola Hall (now sadly closed) where silence was plentiful, despite the presence of perhaps 20 or so others, but the difference was I didn't know anybody. A guided retreat (this one in the Ignatian tradition) sees you all arrive and eat the first meal together, chatting and settling in, then from day 2 there is silence throughout the building and grounds, except for the acts of worship and 30 minutes of daily one to one spiritual direction. 

Apart from the lovely modern chapel, the building was a bit institutionalised; you needed a bus ride to escape the suburbs; but the Jacuzzi was fun (seriously). I found the evenings long. When you've got no one to talk to, no TV, radio or social media, you do wonder how you can fill all the hours in the day. And silent corridors are very silent. I came away just beginning to glimpse the power of silence to help me enter the presence of God more fully, but it still felt a bit 'difficult' (see here why) http://parttimepriest.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/reluctant-retreatant.html

Beautiful Pembrokeshire, near Ffald y Brenin
In 2013, I decided Pembrokeshire was the place for silence. Having heard lots of amazing stories about Ffald y Brenin, a house of prayer in the Welsh hills, I phoned to see if I could be accommodated. They were full 9 months in advance, but after being encouraged to stay off site, like many other hopefuls, and drive in each day for worship and prayer in the chapel, I found a local hotel and, come July 1st, set off down the M4.

Ffald y Brenin was utterly gorgeous, the countryside stunning and the worship in the celtic style round chapel truly uplifting.
Ffald y Brenin. Wonderful worship but not silent.

But it wasn't very silent. There were lots of fascinating visitors (pilgrims) each day and the temptation to be ultra sociable was too much. In addition, down in the valley for the evenings, I lost the impetus to stay silent and instead would come back about 7pm, eat stodgy hotel food, watch three hours of detective shows on the TV and go to bed. 

I learnt a great deal that week about the charismatic and the celtic (and, obviously, Lewis)  - see here http://parttimepriest.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/eitheror-spirituality.html
however, real silence was still beckoning.

Welsh hills, and the spirituality of the great outdoors had just begun to seep into my consciousness, so I returned to Wales this summer, and on someone's good advice, got a place booked at Llannerchwen, a small Catholic retreat house run by the Society of the Sacred Heart. This time I would be on site all the time, self catering, and have guaranteed silence from sun up till sun down. 

I was nervous: silence AND solitude - I imagined a blasted hillside with nothing to do but pray, but I was determined 'this would be it'. Llannerchwen was suitably tricky to find, up a long winding track off a 'B' road above Brecon. It was gentler, greener and prettier than I'd imagined, consisting of a small cluster of 'hermitages' and a tiny chapel, with the sisters (all 2 of them) taking it in turns to live on site, alternating with an ecumenical team of lay spiritual directors, so there's always someone 'in' with a warm welcome and friendly advice when you knock on the main house door. You also feel connected in a small way to the others staying there, with a half hour of communal silence in the chapel at 5.30pm.

As soon as I arrived in Llannerchwen and saw the view from my window, and took my first walk across the field to meet the sheep, I realised what I hadn't ever properly understood about 'silence': outdoors at least, it's not ever properly silent. Instead of being an absence, what silence is, is space to be: space to listen to creation, to God and to yourself.

A typical self contained residence at Llannerchwen.

Apart from my 2 requested sessions of spiritual direction, which I found very helpful, my main 'guide' was Sara Maitland (or at least, her book). Maitland is a writer and practising Catholic who has sought out silence in some of the remotest places in Britain, and chronicled the effects of silence on human beings, from long distance sailors to hermits and explorers. I knew that rereading her book 'A Book of Silence' (2008) would help me navigate the hours spent alone without talking to anyone. And it did. 

The real joy was discovering I wanted to be outdoors all the time. I was very lucky with the weather. I took long walks in actual walking boots and read OS maps (very unlike me) and I listened. Mainly to sheep. But also to birds, insects, farm machinery, the odd jet, the wind rustling the grasses. I became attached to the sheep at the bottom of 'my' field'. Ridiculously attached, because they never shut up. Not even at night. It was immensely comforting. 
Easy to pray looking at this: you just sit and think 'wow', and watch the bunnies.

And I had one of those experiences Maitland warns about, towards the middle of the five days, when I knew I'd used up all my own spiritual/emotional resources. Reading was boring, I was tired of walking and tired of the inside of my own head. 

It was Paschal who said 'all man's miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone'. It's true. I was thoroughly tired of my poor inner self by then, and low in spirits. I was grateful for the good advice of one of the sisters the following morning, about God's delight in us, and desire to give us everything as a gift. I spent the last day enjoying some more human company in Brecon, glad of the smile of a passerby, the free sunshine, the welcome of an ancient place of worship which cost nothing. Learning that everything that is worth anything in life is free, and that we own too much and consume too much was both freeing and sobering.
St Francis in the herb garden outside Brecon Cathedral

Most precious of all was this revelation: I'd spent a couple of years wondering why it seemed God didn't speak very directly to me. Why does he appear silent so often? In spending hours looking at those Welsh hills, and walking in them, I realised with a shock that God had never stopped speaking. He is constant. He is there. It's just that life is too full, life is too noisy, we want quick results in ministry, we want God to jump to our tune. That's just not how it works. I left that place absolutely steeped in a quiet joy, in gratitude, and in the silence which was in fact full of God and full of creation. A silence full of speech.

At last a retreat where 'silence' did what it does best: bring us to the end of our own resources and reveal the normal default of God's abiding presence everywhere.

Pen y Fan: the view form Llannerchwen.

Friday, 27 June 2014

A Resilient Life

How do you keep going as a Christian, let alone an ordained minister of the Church?

It's four years this  weekend since I got ordained in the Anglican Church and I feel like I'm just getting into my stride. 

But four years is a relatively short time. Will I still be enthusiastic in another four years, or fourteen years, or twenty?

Veteran pastor, Gordon MacDonald's 2004 book, A Resilient Life is full of wonderful, gentle insights into ways to build resilience into a long life of Christian obedience to God's call - water to a parched soul in my case, as I'd been struggling for a while to find anything to read that wasn't a) on a Masters Bibliography, b) quick on soundbites and short on wisdom and c) relevant to Christian ministry in particular. 

Two insights stand out: the need to explore the big questions for each decade of life and the need to do so in company.

He tells a great anecdote regarding the first. An experienced and wise pastor, he would often be invited to address groups of ministers or other leaders with some gems of godly wisdom about staying the course. On one occasion he was invited to speak to a room full of worship leaders, people who (in the style of many of the less liturgical churches) were charged with devising a programme of prayers and music that would lead others into the presence of God at the start of a service. 

On entering the room he was shocked to register that everyone there was in their 20s or 30s; he describes them as a 'bevy of youthful, hyperenergetic and lovable people', but it occurred to MacDonald that the spiritual questions and aspirations of these young people was likely very different from the things that occupy people in their 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond. MacDonald wondered if they really would be able to know how best to lead a congregation of mixed ages into the presence of God: 'They had better know their audience', he thought; '...They had better know something about the big pictures that others brought into the sanctuary'.

Identifying the big questions for each stage of life is something that can help maturity. The things I struggled over and wanted to read about and discuss in my 20s, were not the same as those things I thought about in my 30s, or now (just about still) in my 40s...

He didn't pull any punches with those worship leaders. He told them of a group he and his wife belonged to, of like minded friends who would gather and tell each other the stories of their lives as they had unfolded in the last month. 'There is one subject that never fails to come up - sometimes by way of a joke, a story or a piece of information about someone', he told the young leaders. 'Know what that subject is?' There was a long and somewhat uncomfortable silence. The answer: 'Death! The subject of dying always gets to the table'. He asked them then, how are you going to make sure the songs and readings you choose, minister God to people in this stages of life beyond 65?

He then goes on in the book to ponder the questions that face us in different stages of life. It's all very accurate - I thought about myself going into Ordination training 'like a lamb to the slaughter', just at the beginning of my 40s, nearly seven years ago: in his words, 'the complexities of life further accelerate and - and this is worrisome - we begin to recognise that we can no longer fob off our flaws and failures as youthfulness and inexperience' (ouch, yes that sounded familiar).

So finding out how to navigate the life questions at each stage is a way of being resilient as life goes on. It's often said that to look at the bookcase of a Christian or minister whose books were all current five, ten or twenty years ago, is to look at a person who hasn't continued to grow.

And secondly, what really blessed me in the book was the vision of doing this journey, this questioning and growing, in the company of others. Friendship has just begun to come onto the horizon as something one needs to be more intentional about when the children are poised to leave home. 

MacDonald points to a time midlife when he was a busy pastor and father and had no time to nurture friendships. He regretted it deeply when a mid life crisis loomed. He talks about the 30s as being the first time when 'male loneliness' begins to be a real problem. This is an issue in church life. If it's true that men generally have few others with whom they allow themselves to be open and honest, as he suggests, it has implications for passing on the faith to each generation. And it's certainly true that in a number of Anglican churches, men in their 20s and 30s are the significantly missing demographic.

So it repays us to build friendships and give them time. Quality time. Who are the friends with whom you have fun? Who are the friends who will be honest and even notice if your spiritual life is slowly dying from lack of growth or challenge? And for couples, maybe particularly clergy couples, who are the other couples with whom you can have genuine social and spiritual interaction? 

And ultimately, who are the friends who will be at your graveside, who will be there even at the end, mourning your passing? This was probably the most sobering question in the book. But then he's asking it as someone in his 60s. I must admit, it had never occurred to me before...

Growing through each life stage, and doing it in company. I have a feeling this book will have repercussions.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

The Sun: thanks but no thanks.

I was looking forward to returning my free copy of The Sun this week, or using it to wipe my feet on, as our old doormat is a bit frayed at the moment. But we didn't get one. I don't know whether to be pleased or disappointed. 

On the news last night I had one of those moments when you think maybe you have passed into a parallel universe of unbelievable-ness, that someone's playing a joke and is going to get into legal trouble for creating a photo-shopped image of three main MPs in this country holding copies of The Sun. What a great joke, but surely that's illegal on TV, photo-shopping? Those guys are going to be really cross.

And then you realise it's actually true: the three leaders of the main political parties have actually agreed to be photographed holding copies of The Sun, thus endorsing a paper which relies on sensation and bare boobs to sell copies. I honestly thought someone had done a photo shop image, placing copies of The Sun into hands that were actually holding up something else. But apparently, yes, the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the Leader of the Liberal Democrats have endorsed The Sun on National TV. Because The Sun of course represents US ALL: 'OUR ENGLAND'... OUR BOYS.

Now I know it's a special edition for the World Cup, and I know (tellingly) that 'Page 3' has been omitted in this one. And I've nothing against football, apart from the fact that I though after the Olympics we were going to have more women's sport on the box...

But still...I went to bed last night deeply depressed and woke up feeling the same. Questions going round in my head included: has Ed Milliband taken complete leave of his senses? (he has since been forced to apologise to disgruntled Liverpool and other Labour supporters - what a surprise). Also: how can those 2 others sleep at night with excruciating photos out there for ever? Would a female MP stomach being photographed endorsing The Sun? The evils of mass media monopolies, etc. etc.

I suppose it was a moment when I realised (as if it weren't obvious anyway) who really holds the power in this country.

An argument for continuing to have 'Page 3' goes like this: it doesn't harm anyone; (some) women are happy to be photographed topless so why shouldn't they? Our readers can decide if they don't like it: those who object are mostly people who don't buy it and they don't have to.

Which is why I'm nearly always suspicious of phrases like 'each to his own', 'live and let die' and 'let the markets decide'. 

A sombre side to letting the markets decide, of course, is that the markets did decide in Liverpool, which boycotted the national Sun distribution due to continued resentment against that newspaper for its inaccurate and hurtful reporting of the Hillsborough disaster, in which thuggish fan behaviour was wrongly attributed to innocent victims.

If The Sun can leave out Page 3 for mass consumption, why can't it embrace the 21st Century and leave it out altogether? 

I'm basically imagining a day when an old copy is kicking around somewhere in an archive and one of my grown up grandchildren (still to be born) looks puzzlingly at page 3 of the 'newspaper' and asks, 'Granny, why is that lady topless inside a newspaper?' and I'll explain, slightly embarrassed, that I lived in a time when this was still thought to be entirely normal; and she'll look at me, and look back at the photograph, and look up to heaven as if to say, 'I can't believe they actually used to do that'.

The sort of 21st Century equivalent of parading a bearded lady round a circus ring. And for the sake of our esteemed political leaders, I hope my grandchildren don't stumble across an old photo of them gormlessly endorsing such a paper.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

A Smile on the Face of God

I first read A Smile on the Face of God in 1993 whilst living in Eastbourne on the south coast. 

Adrian Plass was a local author then, famous in the Christian world for his sideways glance at the sometimes odd things we do in church, but which nonetheless don't stop God from working healing and forgiveness into the most mundane or hopeless situations, often through those who have come to terms with their own brokenness.

The subject of his beautifully written biography knows all about brokenness - he is Father Philip Ilott, an Anglo Catholic priest whose life has been characterised by unusual suffering - emotional, spiritual and physical. 

Born in 1936, Philip was an unwanted baby whose dysfunctional relationship with his mother (he was sexually abused from a young age) defined much of his life. A period of singing in a Cathedral choir provided an awareness of something spiritual, greater than himself and his own troubles, and gradually the ceremony, incense and meaningful ritual he encountered there drew him towards Anglo Catholic worship. After a spell of very real and lively Church Army Evangelicalism, he took Holy Orders in 1967.

He finds some happiness in marriage and family life, though his dark childhood traumas still lie buried deep within. As is the way of things, these surface through irrational behaviour and a tendency to overwork. He collapses one day in church, and, extremely worried, his wife and the doctors advocate rest. But the blackouts get worse. His condition is finally diagnosed as epilepsy. He must give up parish ministry completely. Absolutely mortified, Philip tries to hide the dreadful situation from the rest of the church for as long as possible. Will God really let his whole role and identity as a priest be taken away so ignominiously? 

When a visiting preacher says he has come to offer him the gift of healing, rather than being delighted, he feels embarrassed, but agrees to go through with a midweek healing service in church, with some parishioners coming to pray and offer support. But he is mortified. A priest serves others; should he be so feeble as to need others' prayer for his own weakness and physical failing?

Philip feels justified in his scepticism of miraculous healing however, when his epilepsy worsens shortly afterwards. But God has other ideas. Exactly three months later, another visitor (this time, ironically, the local Church Army Captain) comes to him enthusing about the 'gifts of the Spirit' after some local involvement in a Charismatic group. This time he allows his hopes to be slightly raised, trying to be polite to this keen fellow Christian, but he feels on balance it's 'not for him'. 

But in the kitchen, about to wash up a mug after his visitor has left, Philip is suddenly overwhelmed by the healing presence of God. Like the haemorrhaging woman who touched Jesus' cloak, he somehow 'knows' in his spirit he has been healed. He says to his wife, 'I feel like I've been 'born again' again!' His epilepsy completely disappears, never to return. 

This extraordinary physical healing begins to impact church life immediately, as Philip begins a monthly healing service in the context of Benediction, an Anglo Catholic contemplation of the Blessed Sacrament. Soon others are being healed in various ways, some receive the gift of tongues, which heals their emotional life, sometimes leading to physical healing. There is no blueprint; all cases are different; and not all are physically healed. Throughout, as praying priest and one who wants to offer God's blessing whatever the outcome, he relies on the inner voice of God to guide him, sometimes against all the odds. 

One of the most remarkable accounts of gradual physical healing is of a baby who is brought to him with life threatening encephalitis and water on the brain. Several sessions of prayer and laying on of hands by Philip and the baby's mother and grandmother, and the baby recovers completely, to the astonishment of the local hospital.

All the while, however, dark memories from the past haunt Father Philip. The things that happened at home at night when his father was in the War. His parents' agonising fights. The un-forgiveness he harbours towards his father for never standing up to his mother. The feelings of bing unwanted in the womb. He knows he must eventually confront them and seeks prayer from an experienced fellow priest. This results in some distressing, vividly recalled episodes as he brings before God's Spirit the memories which have lain buried for so long. The Eucharist brings him immense comfort in this context, as he contemplates how we are fed by Christ, even as the placenta feeds an unborn baby.

Throughout his faithful and prayerful parish ministry, in a number of different settings, Father Ilott's life is a mysterious mixture of trauma, healing, pain, release and disease. He prays unstintingly for the most difficult parishioners, sometimes going into the church at night to sit in the pews where they sit, and feel the things they feel which make them react the way they do. He is challenged  as a young priest by powerful people he cannot stand up to, and plagued by impotency as if still a child.

He has prophetic dreams which appear to mark different periods of his ministry. In one he himself is being crucified. After a long spell in a happy Isle of White parish, he takes a disastrous appointment to a wealthy Sussex parish which turns out not to be in keeping with his humble and spiritual approach. He feels all he is wanted for is to be a guest at sherry parties. On the day of his installation (he only stays 18 months) he has an overwhelming feeling 'that I was the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time'.

But even in the next parish the road is not smooth. In another dream he is in a wheelchair and the Lord leads him to a locked door. He asks Philip if he will open the door with a heavy key. He has the choice. He decides he will. Beyond the open door he sees hundreds of people suffering various illnesses, maimed, hurting, in wheelchairs. The dream finds real life fulfilment as Father Ilott, settling into this new parish, becomes seriously ill for the second time - losing the feeling in his limbs one by one. Again he is mortified at being so weak and unable to continue his parish duties. Hospital tests ensue: this time the diagnosis is devastating. Incurable MS. 

Again he must contemplate giving up parish ministry, and this time he feels it may well be forever. Finally, at the end of his own resources, he visits Walsingham, the Catholic place of pilgrimage in Norfolk. Mary the mother of Jesus has played an increasing part in his spirituality, a poignant image of the loving mother he never had. Here, sitting in peaceful contemplation in his wheelchair, in the half light of the small church, he feels she is asking him to endure his suffering for sake of her son and for others. Instead of being a busy parish priest leading a church, he will becoming someone to whom many sick and hurting people come for spiritual prayer and counsel, though at great cost to himself. 

This is more or less how the book ends, though with a surprising postscript...

Sometimes people say that faith is for people who can't cope with real life, but there's enough 'real 'life' in the story of Philip Ilott for most of the rest of us. 

As well as his deep experiences of suffering and healing he seems to have been someone with a strong awareness of the paranormal, describing at least three occasions when he either saw objects moving by themselves, or had an intimate conversation with someone who had died. One time, in anguished prayer for his troubled teenage daughter, he 'sees' her as a new born baby floating down the aisle in church, helpless and needing his love. It is this which teaches him to value his family as much as his beloved ministry.

I loved the book the first time I read it, especially since living in Sussex around about the time the story draws to a close (1989) I could imagine some of the places where Father Philip found himself. Now I'm a minister too, I mine the story for ways of being which promote prayerfulness, facing reality and being aware that God still longs to pour healing into many situations and lives, whether healing of relationships, conversion, emotional healing, physical healing, or resilience in the face of continued suffering.

For we are complex beings, driven sometimes by forces from the past, or from spiritual realms of which we are unaware. And God desires our wholeness, our final 'conversion'.

The story of Father Philip Ilott is a powerful reminder that we often swim in some murky depths which only Christ can heal; that forgiveness and healing after even the most damaging of actions can be possible in Christ. 

The ongoing life of Christ in the sacraments, prayer, confession, spiritual gifts and bible study are the means by which the Spirit of God cleanses, heals, renews and sets us free; and the means by which we offer that freedom to one another.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Why I didn't vote UKIP

I exercised my democratic right to vote this week and took myself off to the local polling station for the European elections. I believe whole heartedly in voting but it inevitably always feels like choosing the lesser of several evils. Though personally I ruled out on principle the 'evil' of voting UKIP.

Sadly UKIP seemed to dominate the media coverage. Even if I agreed with any of their ideas, I couldn't vote for a leader like Nigel Farage. It's just an intuition/gut thing. And not agreeing with any of their policies. Though I suppose you could argue (and a Christian friend did, this week) their two ideas are on the face of it, at least simple - Euroscepticism and curbing on immigration - and perhaps reasonable...

But dig deeper...

It hasn't helped UKIP that certain high profile individuals have brought them into (further) disrepute, though I understand Godfrey Bloom is now an Independent MEP, but after comments about sluts and bongo bongo land and hitting someone over the head with a magazine, there's got to be a large bad taste left in the mouth, even by association. It was enough to see him on Have I Got News For You, being taken apart by Victoria Coren. That was a good episode.

So I've tried to ask myself is what is wrong with wanting to curb immigration and leave Europe? Isn't it all very reasonable? Christians disagree on many political issues - we can be right wing, or left, apparently...But can you really be a Christian, a follower of Jesus, and vote UKIP?

And what are UKIP policies, beyond curbing immigration and leaving Europe? I couldn't find any. It seems the party's main 'success' is to do with being driven along by the charisma of a leader who has a populist way of appealing to 'Britishness', whatever that is, and the need to defend it.

I'm suspicious of anything based on defensiveness. The gospel last Sunday began 'Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me'. The UKIP party website begins 'These are anxious and troubled times. Our politicians do nothing in the face of dangers rising up all around us.' 

If there are so much anxiety and danger rising up around us why do so many people want to come and live here? And why is it, as Matthew Parris pointed out in the Times, that in London, one of the most multicultural places in the UK, UKIP actually did poorly; whereas in parts of Essex which are 80% 'White British', UKIP did very well. The reason is this: 'fear and resentment of immigrants does not reduce as proximity to living, breathing immigrants reduces'. (Parris summing it up rather well). Fears of 'the other' flourish in ignorance. A UKIP spokesperson was even forced to admit that it's difficult to gain ground among 'cultured and well educated' Londonders. Says it all really.

The more you tell people 'these are anxious and troubled times' the more they'll believe it. UKIP feed on people's fear of the stranger, and their desire to protect what is theirs by right, a sentiment I find deeply troubling theologically. The Israelites were told to welcome the stranger in their land because they too had been aliens in a strange land, and knew what it was like to long for a better life somewhere else. Their land 'flowing with milk and honey' was a gift from God. Look where feelings of intense ownership and proprietorial-ism have got us... Jesus wasn't plagued by such a need to defend any land, building or set of customs...And people derided him for that too.

So I howled at Stuart Lee's comic take off of UKIP Deputy Leader, Paul Nuttals, who couched his fear of a deluge of Bulgarians to the UK by saying 'Bulgarians need to ensure that their brightest and best people stay in Bulgaria and make it economically prosperous, instead of coming to the UK and serving tea and coffee'. 

You can look up the whole sketch on Huff post (Warning: VERY strong language). By reductio ad absurdum Lee shows how very fed up we English are that all these people have been coming over here, teaching us all these foreign customs, like inventing us a national cuisine (Indians) bringing us lace (French Hugenots) laying down the basis of our entire future language and culture (Anglo Saxons) and showing us how to drink out of cups (Beaker Folk). Shocking.

Curbing immigration and leaving Europe. It sounds almost reasonable till you look a bit deeper, listen to your gut, consider Jesus, and watch Nigel Farage on the TV for more than ten seconds.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

The way, the truth, the life

Sermon for Easter 5.

John 14:1-14
Jesus the Way, Truth and the Life.
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe* in God, believe also in me....

I’ve been thinking a lot about anxiety recently.
A recent radio show said that anxiety in UK adults in on the increase.
Many young people suffer undue anxiety during exams in an increased results - oriented education system; I know of one young boy for whom SATS at age 11 were a trigger for Tourrettes syndrome which then went on to lose him a full years education.
Generalised Anxiety Disorder was featured on a radio show this week; sufferers believe they have some sort of life threatening illness or that it is dangerous to even venture out of the house and this can lead to depression, agoraphobia or even suicide.
So it’s topical that our gospel opens with these words: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me’.
We have to clarify what we mean when we say ‘I believe in God’, because we’ve misunderstood the sense of the word ‘belief’ in the bible.
Belief, faith and trust are the same Greek word.
So when we say in our Creed: ‘We believe’, it’s not believing in a concept.
People will say ‘I believe in God’ as if that is it; but they don’t know what kind of God they believe in; it’s just a vague feeling that he probably exists; but that’s not what Jesus means here.
He’s talking about trust, and trust implies a relationship, and a relationship is just what Jesus is talking about.
Do you have a relationship with God?
Or do you just believe in the concept of God?
As soon as we use the word relationship we’re making it personal. And it is personal.
Poor disciples, we do feel a bit sorry for them: Thomas says ‘Lord, we don’t know where you’re going’; Philip says ‘just show us the Father, and it’s enough for us’.
They’re still at the stage of thinking God’s up there somewhere.
Whereas in fact, He is standing there right in front of them.
Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
These days it’s perhaps a controversial claim: what about other ways to God?
‘No one comes to the Father except through me.’
How can we say this today with our knowledge of other religions and spiritualities?
NB: he doesn’t say ‘No one comes to God except through me’; but no one comes to the Father except by me...
What we have in this passage is a detailed and full development of the concept of God as Trinity which is unique to Christian faith.
Jesus uses the word Father 13 times in 14 verses.
It can be a problematic image for people these days if Father is a word which conjured up something negative, critical or absent.
We need to reimagine a loving and gentle parent who always seeks our welfare – this is the Father image Jesus gives us. Or the mother image, if that helps...
And of course it’s impossible to have a father without the Son; so it’s logical to say ‘no one comes to the Father except through me’.
(Tom Wright quotation: John for Everyone, pt 2: p. 59-60).
But there’s a catch: if the world do not see us doing the things that Jesus did – sharing the good news, healing the sick, unbinding the oppressed, washing the feet of others, they won’t be able to see Jesus, let alone accept the claim that he is the Way the Truth and the Life.

Let’s look at those statements one at a time:

1   1. He is the Way: ‘hodos’
John’s use of imagery is so rich…Jesus in often depicted as on the way somewhere.
He invites others to join him on the way.
He is on the way to Jerusalem.
This doesn’t just mean he knows the route.
It means he knows what’s going to happen there and why he’s going to go there.
Knowing where you are going in quite important…physically and in purpose
One spring I set out for a day on Fresh Expressions at Osney Mead in Oxford.
This is ahuge warehouse on the edge of an industrial estate, with a large car park that is...... not for delegates
The Diocese, in their wisdom, have created a centre which you are not supposed to reach by car, unless you’re very important – instead, to be green, we are encouraged to park at Hinksey church and walk across the meadow, or take the park and ride.
Two map, three phone calls, and two stops to ask strangers and thirty minutes later I finally arrived, late, on foot...
‘King’s Centre, Osney Meade - much further than you realise...’

So I eventually found the way.
But I also knew why I was going there…part of my vocation to find fresh ways of expressing the Good News.
So it’s important to know where you’re going…literally and figuratively, and Jesus knew.

    2. He is the Truth: ‘alethia’
He spoke the truth but also embodied the truth.
In the Western intellectual world, ‘to know’ something has been reduced to knowing facts.
My children are in the middle of exams…learning facts and remembering them is of first importance.
We have facts pinned up all over the house.
Whenever you look in a mirror, or go to open the fridge, a post it note fact leaps up to assault you:
‘Mutation is spontaneous change in DNA’;
‘The nature of an element is determined by the number of protons’
 ‘Radiation is measured in seiverts’.
Knowing in the world of the bible and Semitic thought is more about embodied knowledge…you know a person…Adam knew Eve (and we’re not talking here about Eve being some casual acquaintance of Adam’s; they knew each other…)
Some languages reflect this: two verbs in French for ‘to know’:
To know Jesus is to know Truth as a person.

3   3. He is the Life: ‘zoe’
This goes back to John 10 where Jesus says he has come that they might have life, and have it in abundance (last week’s talk).
This life is the eternal life, or life of the new age, which springs up in us as we immerse ourselves in Christ; it begins now!
The trouble with funerals is that they give the impression that now we live physically and then we will live spiritually. No; we live by the Spirit now. After death it just carries on; and will involve physical resurrection!
The Greek for ‘real life’  is ‘zoe’, meaning the ever-living life of God; as opposed to ‘bios’, the word for being alive just physically.
Of course it’s possible to be alive physically but not alive spiritually.
We do so much to preserve and make healthy our physical life, without sometimes giving much attention to the other real’ life.

So, he is the Way, the Truth, the Life.
Basically everything you need.
Are you confused about the direction of your life; or need guidance about a decision? 
He is the Way.
Do you struggle to know what is right and good in life; do you need to re-centre your identity, so that negative thoughts and accusations are dismissed and you become the real person God intended you to be? He is the Truth.
Are you living the real life He calls you to? Or just existing?
He is the Life.
Do you think if we found ways to live this truth and be this truth, others wouldn't become extremely interested in Jesus? They would. And they are.
Take a few moments to contemplate these words as we use the image and words to refocus our lives on Jesus this morning.


Monday, 12 May 2014

Two 'novel' takes on suffering

Two books I read recently shared a similar theme and got me thinking about the perennial question often held up against religion - the problem of suffering. How much of it is our fault; how much is undeserved, and is there a God in it all?

It's a theme around which one treads carefully as an ordained Minister. I felt a bit bad recently when a group I belong to was being encouraged to signal commitment by attending all scheduled meetings, and all I kept thinking was - well, we'll try, but what about the sudden death of a loved one, or sudden illness or accident...none of us knows what is around the corner. A bit morbid, I know. That's perhaps what taking a lot of funerals, and frequently working with bewildered and bereaved people, does to you.

The Cellist of Sarajevo is a grim reminder of how the innocent suffer in war. More than 11,000 men, women and children were killed during the 44 month long Sarajevo siege, which is the book's subject. It begins with a mortar landing in a bakery queue, killing 22 civilians. A cellist, witnessing this atrocity from the window of his flat, decides to play Albinoni's Adagio every day there for 22 days, to honour the dead. 

Meanwhile the novel explores the everyday life of three disconnected residents of Sarajevo and how they deal with the struggle for existence in a city where even buying bread and fetching water are life threatening activities. Their fears are detailed minutely, but they seem rather under developed as people - the main character is really the city and what it has sadly become.

The philosophical question of the novel centres around a female sniper calling herself Arrow, who is charged with guarding the cellist from a distance, but this means killing in order to prevent him being killed. The morality of killing in war and who is in fact the enemy, is complicated enough for her eventually to abandon her identity as a sniper, which she finally does, by reclaiming her real name in the last sentence of the novel, seconds before the arrival of other killers, sent to kill the one who no longer wants to kill.

There should have been palpable tension but I found the whole thing a bit muted and flat, and I was left feeling underwhelmed by the book as a portrayal of human suffering. There was an overwhelming amount of local place detail and hardly any deeper exploration of relationships. I plodded through, out of a kind of loyalty to those who suffered in the real siege, but sadly I wouldn't say my mind, heart or soul were in any way expanded. 

In contrast, I became instantly hooked on John Green's The Fault in our Stars, unable to put it down until the final gut wrenching page. It made me think afresh about whether it is appropriate to expect meaning to emerge from what seems to be entirely undeserved suffering. 

Because that's what we want, in the end, to make sense of it all.

The subject is children dying of cancer, which sounds so morbid, but the book is clever, profound and funny as well as being immensely sad. It's full of witty one-liners which peel back the mask of all cancer sufferers being saintly and heroic, to reveal otherwise entirely normal people who do not primarily wish to be defined by their illness.

Hazel, a sixteen year with terminal lung cancer, starts attending a Support Group in the local church. It's full of clich├ęs and platitudes ('the Support Group, was, of course, depressing as hell') but there she meets Augustus Waters, amputee and gorgeous seventeen year old, who proceeds to (successfully) persuade her to be his girlfriend.

At first she resits because as he is in remission and she will die one day soon, she wants to spare him any pain; but they fall in love anyway, sharing as they do an acerbic sense of humour and love of reading. In a romantic trip to Amsterdam they track down an author whose own cancer novel Hazel loves, only to discover he is an embittered alcoholic with a penchant for telling hurtful truths. On returning home, Augustus reveals he has has relapsed into final stage cancer: it will now be Hazel who is left to mourn. 

The big questions are all there - mortality being the one which frames all the others, of course. Rumbling away in the philosophical background is how we deny our own mortality, until inevitably faced with it. Hazel observes 'whenever you read a cancer booklet or website or whatever, they always list depression among the side effects of cancer. But in fact depression is not a side effect of cancer - it's a side effect of dying. Almost everything is, really.'

Religion is present but shaded: the support group takes place inside an Episcopal church, described by Hazel: 
'We all sat in a circle, right in the middle of the cross, right where the boards would have met, where the heart of Jesus would have been'. 

It's noteworthy that John Green was a hospital Chaplain before becoming a writer, which he refers to at the back of the book: 'I was a terrible chaplain - for one thing I often fainted at the sight of blood. Also I never knew what to say to anyone, or how to comfort them (...) I kept the Book of Common Prayer in one pocket and it was always banging against my knee'. 

I can't help thinking that writing this book was Green trying to come to terms with what he couldn't do as a twenty two year old Chaplain on a children's cancer ward - make sense of the apparent randomness of an illness which can prematurely and cruelly end the life of a young person.

There is no 'problem' of suffering unless we start from the premise that life should be happy, meaningful and whole. If we're all here by chance and heading for oblivion, 'suffering' is just normal existence: 'the fault is in our stars' (a quote from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar). But if we're here looking for purpose and some higher good, then we will continue to grapple what CS Lewis called 'the problem of pain' and people will continue to write novels that either dabble in the subject, or plunge in with abandon. 

Green has done the latter, and having laughed and cried my way through it, I do get a sense (admittedly with ministerial antenna out) that at the centre of it all, and at the centre of all Christian explorations of suffering, albeit often hidden from many participants, is the fact of the crucified one.