Saturday, 27 October 2012

The problem of receiving

I may have had a major priestly breakthrough this week...
I've been thinking about giving and receiving.
Giving - well, I'm a Minister of the Church - I know all about giving. Giving your time, giving your gifts, giving your self in service. Last week's sermon (Mark 10:35-45) was all about servant hood wasn't it?
But receiving...
I'm not sure we clergy are very good at receiving...

If you self identify as the one who gives to others, it can be unsettling to receive - help, advice, rescue. Perhaps receiving suggests a lack within, which someone else is having to fill.
Or take compliments. I have a love/hate relationship with them. They can be wonderful but they can be embarrassing too. Can I receive them graciously? I am not good at feeling in someone's debt. This is a spiritually revealing attitude. Inability to receive is usually identified by writers on inner healing* as indicative of a heart that cannot receive from God.

I have been experimenting with another prayer time in the middle of the day, extra to the Morning Office.
The purpose is to go deeper into God in order to receive.
Because there's a blindingly obvious connection (blindingly obvious to most people; to me, I've only just cottoned on...) between being poor at receiving from others and being poor at receiving from God. This may be a problem that other ministers carry around. After all, they went into the Ministry because they wanted to serve...that's what they do.
We all have false identifications of God. God is not performance oriented, but you wouldn't know from analysing my motivations for ministry.

So this extra prayer time is centred around identification with the ultimate servant leader who didn't hesitate to receive - material support from women followers; a drink from a Samaritan woman; foot washing from a reformed prostitute; anointing from another.
Receiving from God feels very different from pouring yourself out in ministry. It would feel different, wouldn't it? Filling a car up with petrol is a bit different from burning it all up as you manically drive all over the place.

Ministry which is task oriented may make you feel like you've ticked a lot of boxes and been useful and busy (or not) but ministry which begins in being divinely ministered to; that feels like grace, like gift. 
It feels good.
I'd like more.

*e.g. John and Paula Sandford, The Transformation of the Inner Man, 1982.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Goodbye Christendom, hello servanthood

20th After Trinity

Mark 10: 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’ 

What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus today in the West, in the 2nd decade of the 21st Century?
In some ways it’s very different from the experience of the first disciples who set out to follow Jesus on the Way.
In some ways it’s very similar.
Firstly, how is it different?

One word: Christendom.

Whatever we think about how ‘Christian’ we are in the UK now, we have to live with the reality that for large swathes of the population, going to church and following in the way of Christ are seen as entirely unnecessary to the good life.
So as disciples of Jesus today, we are already swimming against the tide.
It’s as if Christianity has been tried and found wanting.
When the Emperor Constantine first embraced Christianity as the official Roman religion, the Way of Christ became associated with the way of temporal power.

Given our gospel reading today, this was perhaps a mistake.
Rowan Williams in his Epilogue to Praying for England (Wells and Coakley, Eds., 2008) says ‘we cannot take for granted any specific religious foundation for national belonging, public morality or policy-making’ (p. 172).
He is surely right. We cannot assume any sort of religious, let alone Christian basis for society any more.
We are post indeed Christian, but with the background noise of a once Christian identification humming away like society static.
So people still come to the church in times of need.
When April Jones, the five year old from Machynlleth
disappeared, to be later presumed dead, the Bishop organized a silent procession from her home to the local Anglican church - half the town turned out to cling onto something in the darkness.
This was the church standing up for and serving the weak and powerless, not wielding influence over society through some imagined privilege.
We’re called to follow a Saviour who chose the way of the Cross, not the way of power and political influence.
The first disciples misunderstood this, as we heard in the gospel.
James and John said they could suffer with Jesus but the fact they asked him for privileged positions in heaven shows they had got it wrong.
Anyone who follows Jesus for the privileged position it will give them is onto a losing wicket.
(Okay, I have to admit that processing into a Cathedral with your clerical robes on, for an Ordination service does make you feel quite special, but there is a warning here against pride.)
The Established Church today is a strange mixture of what looks like past historic privilege and the reality of today’s falling numbers, falling revenues and falling reputation.
People generally don’t want the church to assume it has influence today and to tell them what to do.
Is it a case of how the mighty have fallen?
Does it bother you?
A fellow Curate told me of a time recently when he was called to visit a woman in her 80s whose husband had died.
The first thing she said, a little abruptly, when he arrived at the house was ‘why have you never visited me before?’
He felt like answering ‘because I didn’t know you existed until now.’
She was living in a world where the Parish Priest apparently knew everyone and checked up on them if they didn’t come to church.

She told my friend that when she was little, the priest would walk around the village in his black robes and if you didn’t say a courteous hello as he passed, he would be in the school the next day complaining about you to the teacher.
This world of ecclesiastical influence and privilege does not exist any more  (at least it doesn't appear to in Whitchurch).
Is this a terrible loss, or is it an opportunity for a new humility about the place of the Church in our culture?
The demise of Christendom, is, of course, experienced differently in different generations.
I will not forget in a hurry the time I helped to start an All Age Service a few years ago in a previous church.
With the particular aim of nurturing younger Christians we eventually gathered a group of people who represented three different generations.
We had a handful of teenagers, some mums and dads in their 30s and 40s and some older members of the regular congregation, in their 60s and 70s, who came to support and give stability to this new group.
We met on a Sunday afternoon, and one day our theme was sharing your faith with those you come across day by day.
We split into groups to talk about how easy or difficult it was to talk about being a Christian today.
The older people, by and large, found that it wasn’t really an issue for them.
Most of their friends were in the church already and so it didn’t seem that they were living in a culture that was hostile to Christian faith.
The 30s and 40s said it was hard to follow Jesus ‘out there’ in the world, but the encouragement of a handful of Christian friends did help and they were seeking ways to be Christ in their culture.
The teenagers were very timid. One of them spoke up and said it was extremely difficult to be a Christian and a teenager in today’s culture; that a Christian at Secondary School is in a tiny minority and finds it very hard to have the courage to speak out.
I know this to be true as my son recently left Sixth Form College where he helped lead a Christian union of 6 people in a College of 2000.
Three different experiences from three different generations.
When we consider what it means to be a follower of Jesus in the 21st Century, let’s remember and cherish those younger people who are forging a way forward in a highly secularized environment, and give them our prayers and support.

Living in a secular environment, though, can represent a chance to go back to basics, to refocus on the Son of Man who had nowhere to lay his head and whose disciples were called to follow his example of self sacrifice.
Jesus was absolutely clear that following him would not be easy.
He had set his face towards Jerusalem and in so doing, spelled out to his disciples that there would be a baptism of suffering for them.
We relive this baptism into his death and resurrection every time we gather around the Lord’s Table and break bread and drink the cup of his self giving.
The first disciples would drink the cup of suffering but only as an outworking of their discipleship, not for any hoped for promotion in heaven.
So we do live in a culturally different time to the first disciples.
We have to contend with a post Christian society which doesn't know what or whom to believe any more.

One thing that doesn't seem to change amongst disciples, however, is the bickering.
After discovering that James and John have asked this embarrassing request of Jesus, the other ten are incensed.
They argue, they get into camps, they say bad things about the others; they feel they’re in the right while the others are in the wrong; they have no unity amongst themselves…
And all the while something of huge salvation importance is unfolding ahead of them on the road to Jerusalem.
Bickering about non essentials whilst ignoring the essential…
Does it sound at all familiar?!
How many times have we read in the newspaper that the church is arguing over this or that, while some huge issue like West African Famine unfolds on the front covers?
We need to look outwards and to regain a sense of urgency about seeking the Lord while he may be found.
We need to regain humility.
We in the Church of England are so wonderfully middle class and respectable - we urgently need to divest ourselves of any remaining sense of cultural privilege and recapture a sense of service to our world.
Two words used in Mark 10 describe the life of a disciple: Jesus says ‘whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servantand whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all’.
‘Diakonos’  and ‘doulos’.
'Diakonos' gives us ‘servant’, ‘minister’ or ‘deacon’, and 'doulos' is even lower: ‘slave’.

Servant and slave.

Two words which sit uncomfortably against a history of power, wealth and privilege about which the Church may well feel uncomfortable today.
‘The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many (verse 45).
This is the life to which we are all called; this is the life of humble service.
This is the life which may be misunderstood by the general populace but which still brings salt and light to the world.
May God strengthen us in this life today and teach us to walk in the way of the Cross.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Preaching pains

When I started out after Ordination
I didn't think preaching on a weekly basis would affect me in the ways that it has.

I'd probably preached around seven or eight times before my Curacy began and they were isolated sermons; one here, one there, so I'd never got into any rhythm. They were one off occasions and whist I enjoyed them nothing prepared me for  the pressure of having to come up with something spiritually coherent week in week out and the effect it would have on me.

It's like a kind of overshadowing. It starts on Tuesday after I've had a day off Monday.

Monday I don't think about preaching at all. I don't even think about the fact that I'm not thinking about it.

Tuesday I look at the lectionary readings and think 'Oh no.'

Wednesday I get round to printing them out on a sheet entitled 'Sermon for...' in the hope that in 3 years time I might have built up an archive which can be reused.

Thursday. This is the day I start to feel the weight of the reading. How can I possibly presume to preach on this subject?

Money, wealth and possessions. I am guilty of avarice.

Wisdom and taming the tongue. I still say things I wish I hadn't.

Gratitude for the Harvest. Give me supermarkets. I have nothing to do with farm life: I don't even like cows. 

Thursday night. I feel uninspired generally. And unholy. Because what makes a great preacher, according to Phillip Brookes (1835-1893) is not skill, but character.

This is the nub. I thought it would be about knowledge, experience, rhetoric, funny anecdotes.

These things figure, but nothing replaces what a preacher can bring through what he or she is becoming in Christ.

Friday. Sermon writing day. I think about it over breakfast. I have maybe gathered a few bits to feed into it by now. I mull it over and try and make connections with life. Meetings, admin and parish stuff comes and goes through the day. The phone rings. The emails pop in and out. I sit at the desk. I'd like to say that hours later I have a well crafted, scholarly and spiritually insightful offering that I'm delighted with and proud to offer.

But mostly it's just a lesson in how far I fall short, how little time I have for drafting and redrafting something of beauty and how tired I am on Saturday when I finally sit down to finish it off and print it out ready for Sunday.

But in the process I have been obliged to be disciplined whether I felt like engaging with the bible or not. I have sat under it, metaphorically speaking. I have encountered something living. I am not unchanged. I have had to remember that before I can offer it I have to struggle with it; that by grace, week after week, it isn't really just me doing the talking. I'm not crafting it. It's crafting me.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Headship (Head what?)

In the 90s I spent some time in a fellowship group led by a Curate from a church which was against women leading and teaching in public worship. This conservative stance wasn't apparent to my naive self at the time: ordained women were a 'new thing', heard about but not seen. I'd never experienced Anglican church life with a woman leading, preaching or presiding. I had only just begun to unpack what the bible said about men and women. The Curate was nice; the coffee, company and discussion convivial...

Not that I remember anything we talked about...except the time we tackled the verse 'wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord' (Ephesians 5:22). Apparently the verse meant 'Husband has casting vote in arguments'. So in the heat of the right old ding dong you were having in the bedroom at 2am, the wife, seething but recalling the Epistle to the Ephesians, would say through gritted teeth, 'oh have it your own way then'.

It was only years later that I focussed properly on the previous verse: 'Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.' A good verse to begin a difficult passage, though it didn't offer much more help in arguments:

Wife: Have it your own way

Husband: Oh no, please, have it YOUR own way

Wife: No, I insist, you must have it YOUR own way

Husband: No, no, really, I insist, have it your own way, please...

The 'husbands love; wives submit' approach was part of a wider issue called 'Headship'. 

Blame 1 Corinthians 11:3: 'But there is one thing I want you to know: The head of every man is Christ; the head of woman is man and the head of Christ is God.'

From this word 'head', in a passage about head coverings and hair which, at the best of times is difficult to interpret decisively, comes the entire edifice of 'headship', a word not even in the text. 

The edifice is hierarchical because God is hierarchical apparently (the Father 'sends' the Son - the 'flow' is in one direction, they say). 

The edifice employs language of roles (we're 'equal' but different, therefore women have different roles to men per se).

The edifice matches the word 'love' to the man and the word 'submit' to the woman. Even though, clearly, women lay down their lives for men in numerous loving ways, and each submits to the other and both to Christ.

The edifice has love flowing from the man, the instigator, to the woman, the receiver. Active and passive.  A man is 'Wild at Heart'; a woman 'Captivating'*. Woman was created to help man (Genesis says 'help meet', see?) 

Before long you end up with the above diagram... 

The whole head/hat/covering/authority language is so open to interpretation it cannot be the best foundation for dogmatism. I decided a while ago that the use of 'head' from which the whole headship edifice derives, is a hermeneutically fluid attempt by Paul to redefine first century male dominion, in the light of the unsettling example of Jesus of Nazareth who, shock horror, argued with, taught, commissioned and even received anointing from those strange equal beings called... women.

*titles of books by John and Stasi Eldredge