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.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Love letter to the Body

Sermon for Trinity 7B.

Ephesians 2: 14For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 

Mark 6: 31He said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.

56And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the market-places, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

Love Letter to the Body

Dear Body,
You know, don’t you, that if you’re saved at all, you’re saved in your body.
It started with a body, taking flesh, being born of a woman, coming in frailty, the ‘mewling and puking’; the growing; the growing up; the slow realisation that death would be, of course, bodily.
The Jews circumcise the body to mark themselves as separate, as superior to the uncircumcised Gentiles. It was always thus.
The humanity into which I came was a humanity bitterly divided.
Years of fighting over difference – a dividing wall of hostility.
‘We know God; you don’t’.
‘You’re crazy, we’re not.’
The Jews wanted me dead: the Gentiles carried it out.
But on that cross, the one that killed the body, slowly, painfully, in my flesh, the two became one household – Gentile and Jew welcomed into God’s family with open arms, the arms of my Father in heaven.
Because all who come to me are family.
And all who are in me are my Body.
That is why I long for you all – who does not love their own body, tending it, feeding it, grieving when it hurts and waiting for its final redemption?

Because of this, you must love the body.
Come to me when you’re weary, and I will give you rest.
Those early days of ministry, Peter, James and John and the others would dash about, breathless with excitement!
Everything was so good, so new, the life of the Son of Man, the teaching and healing, cooking and laughing under the stars.
The abundant life is so attractive; it draws people.
The abundant life of God can be difficult to handle though; it can be overwhelming.
(By the way, if you only know scarcity, you must have the wrong God!)
I urged them to rest, so many were coming and going, so much need.
Once you unstop the lid, out it all spills – hungers, pain, unforgiveness, illness, bereavement, feuding, envy, anger, lust. 
Out it comes, seeking healing, seeking reconciliation.
The clamouring for my presence, like sheep endlessly bleating in the green pasture, not really knowing one end of the pen from the other.
If you don’t rest you’ll burn up, like kindling on a hot day.
The pattern is there – work, rest, play.
So many evils come from abusing the pattern.
Too busy to pray, too greedy to stop, digestive problems, palpitations; the body will rebel.
It is a finely tuned instrument, like a lute.
Let me play its tune.
Treat it carefully, this temple of the Holy Spirit. I dwell there.
The body is good.
It thrives on good, honest, sweaty labour, like the labour of carving wood, shaving off the end of a beam, sawdust filtering down in the sunlit air, the fresh odour of sap released.
Your body craves water, fresh air, the great outdoors, sunshine on skin, long walks.
Listen to your body. Care for it. Tend it gently, love your body like a child; never harm it willingly, for you are fearfully and wonderfully made.
It is in the body that you are saved.
It is in resting that you remember you are not the Creator.
It is in eating that you remember man does not live by bread alone.
Don’t over-eat; don’t hide from yourself that you’re drinking too much.
Attend to where your hungers are coming from.
Did you know that eating is a sacrament?
A living sign of the goodness of God.
Food restores both body and soul. Eat together and be thankful.
Remember that in a world where some of my children go to bed and wake up hungry, the rich are often poor before God, and the poor rich, like Dives and Lazarus.
Remember the last time we eat together, last week, the week before….?
That is true fellowship, one with another.
Take, eat, this is my body, broken for you.
Take time. Notice every mouthful; eat with thankful hearts.
Never let it be true that you have no leisure even to eat.

Despite its glory, however, the body will let you down.
It is destined for a greater glory, so first it will wear itself out.
There will be times when you feel that your very being is dissolving, that you’re being poured out like dust.
There will be times when you’re so tired, three hours sleep will seem like a gift from heaven.
There will be times when you bless those who have spent years studying the infinite complexities of your insides and who can knit you back together, as far as is possible.
There will be times when death disrupts the order of things, a little one lost; a child before a parent; a parent before a grandparent.
This is dark, like Lazarus entombed, but not dark enough not to be redeemed, finally brought into the blinding light of day.
Unwrap them now!
All of creation groans to be delivered – your sufferings will seem like the pangs of childbirth, the cries of pain before deliverance.
Mary knew all about that.
So don’t curse the body that wears out; befriend it. Tend it.
Let others serve you. Let me serve you, let me tie a towel around my waist and wash your feet in the basin, wash away your tears.
Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.
Reach out and touch the fringe of my cloak, like the sick who were brought to me in the market places, the farms, the fields.
When you reach out and touch me, I will know that power has gone out from me, but that is why I came - to destroy all the works of the evil one, to entrust my body to death, to rise with a resurrection body, a sign of what is to follow for you.
Just imagine those walks we’ll do on the new earth, on the new grass, sharper and greener and harder than diamond...
I cannot wait!
But I am waiting...

From your loving Saviour and Brother,


Saturday, 11 July 2015

Uncomfortably Unproductive

Normally I'm productive. By which I mean, normally I have lots to do, and I rather like it that way. I'm not particularly proud of it, but I'm a list person, even if the list is only mental. I go down my list and tick things off when they're done. Actually, if I'm really honest, I am quite proud of being a list person and I pity those who have no lists, whose lives meander by in a directionless stream of unplanned experiences. Or maybe I envy them...

Because the feeling of being productive is one fraught with temptation, for anyone who values spiritual life, and especially for a 'professional' Christian. I know this because I just had a week with not much on, and it felt unpleasantly unproductive. I ought to know by now that when you have a quiet week, just be grateful, because soon it'll be back to normal, and normal equals busy, and busy equals feeling important. But what do you do when you had planned for being busy and then everything goes quiet (the admin is up to date, the thing that was going to take all day is cancelled, it's humid and half the family are already on holiday...)? That's where I'm hopeless. I want to be doing. I am not good at being. I get bored.

The internet doesn't help. There's something about having endless means to stimulate you that is highly distracting, as well as highly enervating. It's tempting to use it to fill the void. As you can use anything. In the wisdom of the Desert Fathers it was said simply, 'go, sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.' By that was meant, if you cannot be alone in a small place with nothing to stimulate you, you cannot learn anything about yourself. Being content. Being. It's the ultimate challenge to productivity. The usual notion of productivity is that on a good day, in a good week, one produces a collection of things (meals, invoices, spreadsheets, articles) which give a sense of achievement, and there's nothing wrong with that. But if you cannot be productive, for whatever reason (illness, tiredness, unemployment, train strikes) how do you handle it? And what effect on your spiritual life do you notice? And if you're endlessly productive outwardly, is that any guarantee of inner riches?

Work is the main area of productivity for most people, with moments of rest if your'e lucky. Busyness, verging on exhaustion is so completely normal now, that 'having nothing on' might be thought of as rather suspect, a waste of time, an indication that you're lazy. When you have, literally, nothing to do, it makes you feel un-useful, un-noticed and unpleasantly unproductive. But it's also a good spiritual barometer. What does our reaction to having nothing to do, reveal about us? Are we just a constant set of reactions to things that originate somewhere else, or is there anything real and stable inside?

Rowan Williams' Silence and Honey Cakes (2003) has some useful advice for those feeling uncomfortable in their un-productivity. The Desert Fathers knew about the temptations of the need to feel useful and productive and the effects of realising the limits of our productiveness. They had a word for the spiritual boredom and lassitude that can creep in when you feel unmotivated and inert towards others and God: 'akedia', 'one of the eight great pressures of the soul identified by the expert diagnosticians of the fifth century and later. It has to do with frustration, helplessness, lack of motivation, the displacement of stresses and difficulties from the inner to the outer world, and so on' (p. 83). 

So the unpleasant feelings associated with not being (or feeling) productive can point to an emptiness within, a sense that actually I was doing quite well making my own action without the express help of the Holy Spirit, thank you, and now that I cannot exert myself anymore, I might suddenly remember that Jesus said 'without me you can do nothing'. A need to be needed might also lurk there, which Williams writes about: 'we are even warned (...) to beware of looking eagerly for someone to love - that is, using someone else to solve the problem of your boredom and your fear of yourself' (p. 87).

The solution, he writes, is just to focus on the small things, the unimportant things - the dishes, the bins, the letter that needs writing. Here is where holiness grows, what he calls: 'the almost painfully undramatic account of what you have to do to be holy' (p. 87). For a minister, being available when needed, and utterly content when not, also calls to mind St Paul's 'I am content in all things, in famine and in plenty' (Philippians 4:12). Of course it's nice to be needed, to be important, to be asked to do things, to have a full diary of exciting things happening, to be productive. But spiritually, the time of un-productivity might just be the most important time of all. 

Saturday, 20 June 2015

The art of battling giants

Sermon for Trinity 3.

1 Samuel 17:45
But David said to the Philistine, ‘You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. 

Do you ever feel, like me, that the church is somewhat the underdog today? What with falling numbers, rising bills and the slow onslaught of secularism, we can feel perhaps that the giants are just too many.

If that’s the case, the story of David and Goliath has much to teach us. We know the story from Sunday School and as a stand alone tale it tells us of victory for the little man – victory for the one who trusted in God, despite appearances suggesting his imminent defeat.

Most of us will not be called upon to battle a giant, at least not a literal one. So how can we take this is as God’s encouraging word for us today in our situation? We can take the template of the story and see what it can teach us, bit by bit, about 'the art of battling giants'. *

*The phrase is taken from Malcolm Gladwell’s 2013 book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants, a great read, which takes the theme of the original story to illustrate multiple ways in which underdogs and the disadvantaged in society have battled against the odds and won, not despite their difficulties but almost because of them.

Gladwell had been a writer many years before he published David and Goliath but it was this book he says brought him back to the faith of his childhood: 

I realised what I had missed. It wasn't an "I woke up one morning" kind of thing. It was a slow realisation something incredibly powerful and beautiful in the faith that I grew up with that I was missing. Here I was writing about people of extraordinary circumstances and it slowly dawned on me that I can have that too.

Reading between the lines, what happened during the writing of the book was that so many of the amazing stories of courage against adversity were from Christians whose faith had stood up to the most terrible prejudice or suffering, that Gladwell was faced with something very real that he felt he wanted to regain, i.e. his Christian faith.

So it’s an important book from an influential sociologist, and if we know the power of the story of David and Goliath can bring forth such a personal confession of faith, we know there’s something (or someone) powerful behind the story.

There are three movements to the story, which I’d like to take as headings as we think about our own situation as part of a church in the 21st Century that sometimes feels like the underdog.

1. Know your giants
The writer of the story does not hide the real nature of the giant; he presents the case realistically. Goliath is enormous, he is powerful; he is well armed and dangerous. At the end of the section about Goliath, we read ‘When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid’.

What does this say to us? Be realistic. Know the culture you live in. Know the culture your children and grand children live in. Hang around with people and look, observe. What things are not being talked about? Where is God present and where does he appear to be absent? What things exercise people? What things are people worried about? Read the papers; be informed about the state of the church in the community here, and in the wider situation of the 21st West. It’ll break your heart sometimes; it’ll mean focussing on real tragedy such as the South Carolina shootings this week. It’ll mean not underestimating evil. Know your giants: neither live in the past with rose tinted spectacles, nor despair of the present. Because…

2. Giants aren’t always what they seem
So Goliath is a terrifying giant. Or so it seems. Here Gladwell is interesting because he suggests that the very strength and might of the giant Goliath may have in fact been his downfall. He relies on heavy armour; David is nimble and has speed on his side. Goliath was a seasoned fighter and thought that David would come to him in the usual one-to-one combat; he wasn’t expecting a stone to come winging its way through the air and strike him on the head. Gladwell writes of the advantage of the seemingly innocuous stone in a sling:

Eitan Hirsch, a ballistics expert with the Israeli Defence Force, recently did a series of calculations showing that a typical-sized stone hurled by an expert slinger at a distance of 35m would have hit Goliath's head with a velocity of 34m per second – more than enough to penetrate his skull and render him dead or unconscious.

What does this say to us? It perhaps suggests that the very things that tell us we’re struggling as a church might be the means for us to fix our hopes firmly on the surprise that God brings, in the form of unlikely victors.

Yes, secularism is a pervasive force. Yes we have a media that is suspicious of religion, certainly of Christianity. Yes, to all intents and purposes the people we live with and work with are getting along fine without God and many people one meets think they’re the masters of their own destiny.

But look deeper. There is still curiosity about spiritual experience. There is a hunger for mystery. There is loneliness; there is marital breakdown. There is illness and people we love die. We are mortal and none of us knows what’s around the corner. This is true of everyone you meet, even the very young. Teenage mental illness and depression is rising; fear of terrorism is high. There will always be a need for a people who know what/Whom they believe and who can hold out hope. In the Philip Larkin poem, Church Going, after painting a gloomy picture of an empty church, the poet admits wisely, that despite people abandoning traditional religion, ‘someone will for ever be surprising a hunger in himself to be more serious’.

And so we don’t lose heart. We pray for our neighbours. To pray for your neighbour, you need to get to know your neighbour. To know your neighbour is to love to your neighbour. If you pray for them, you will get to love them. If you love them, you will be expressing God’s love for them, and that way you can be a beacon to Christ. That’s what we’re here for. And finally…

3. ‘Giants’ are a matter of perspective
After describing Goliath, the writer of 1 Samuel turns to David. David’s perspective was entirely different to that of his contemporaries, and to that of King Saul. He could see that the real problem was not the giant, but the people’s perception of the giant. He says to Saul, ‘Let no one’s heart fail because of him’ (verse 32). God eventually chose David over Saul because ‘God looks at the heart’. David saw that this particular battle was a battle about faith. The people had lost faith in God to deliver them.

Have we lost faith in God to renew the church? To grow the church? To provide for the church?

What are your giants? We all face personal giants but as a church we don’t make things better by mourning our fall from a previously assumed superior place in the cultural imagination. Yes, things are ‘very different’ now, but people have always said that of their time. We can either be completely unaware of this fall from grace, which I think by now is unlikely; or over play it, and I do hear a lot of what might pass for overplaying the tragedy of this fall. I hear church people wringing their hands about secularisation, mourning the loss of this and that, instead of getting on and re-imagining what living the Christ-centred life actually looks like in the 21st Century. It’s all a matter of perspective.

We may as well come to terms with the fact that Christendom is dead or at least nearly dead, and let God take us by surprise with his own solutions, which rely on faith and remembering his power is made perfect in weakness. This is how David defeated Goliath. His perspective was God’s perspective, and his victory God’s. 

‘Why are you so afraid?’ asks Jesus. ‘Do you still have no faith?’ (Mark 4:40).