Thursday, 28 February 2013

Lent for Extroverts 14: Prayer for beginners

The first time I prayed out loud in a prayer meeting situation I was petrified. I had only been a Christian a few weeks and my new found prayer partners (two nice guys from Sixth Form College, so I was pretty motivated) issued an invitation for me to join in - just trust God and open your mouth -  whatever you say will be okay. I can't remember what I did say but during a brief silence when neither of them seemed to be saying anything, I plunged in, the ice was broken and I never looked back. 

The whole 'how do I know when it's my turn?' thing bothers some people who are not used to praying extempore in a group; what will happen if two people decide to say their prayer at the same time? Won't it be embarrassing? Generally it's quite amusing and a good test of who is the most humble, because someone will usually stop and let the other person go ahead. If they both stop to do this, you have a problem. But not one that can't be sorted by a bit of good natured, prayerful giggling.

People tend to shuffle a bit just after the leader has signalled it's time to turn general chit chat into actual prayer. (If you're not careful initial chit chat takes up the whole time and no one does any praying). Having liturgy helps here because you have a proper starting point: 'O Lord, open our lips...' It makes a lot of sense.

Adrian Plass used to say that praying people always suddenly assumed 'the shampoo position', though I've never really got this - presumably he meant that when it's time to pray people unaccountably lean forward and place their hands to their heads, but that's not normally how I wash my hair, unless the shower's broken. Furthermore in the hairdressers you lean back into the shampoo position, and I've only known one person who regularly and dramatically did that in prayer, accompanied by a look of anguish, and at the time I used to think 'how can she be so holy?' Now, I think I would assume she'd cricked her neck.

For reasons obvious from the title of these Lenten posts, I found my first experience of silent prayer in a group a puzzling experience. Similarly the habit of some Anglicans to start a prayer: 'Let us pray for....' and then name a person...and then say 'Amen'. I was so caught out by this apparent failure to spell out to the Almighty the details of the precise need (surely He needs a bit of guidance?), then I just got used to it. It's called Churchmanship. 

I never could get used to the idea at College that some Anglicans had genuinely never prayed an extempore prayer out loud in a group before, but then those brothers/sisters could not understand my inability to get excited about chanting three consecutive lengthy psalms at 8 o'clock Morning Prayer. I still feel sad that I never heard what came out of their heart in a made up prayer of the moment. But I appreciated their brooding silences after a while.

Silent prayer in a group, I now know, can be very powerful, if all are attending to the Spirit simultaneously. It can also mean that all have fallen asleep, which is not so good. A lot of Google images for prayer have groups of people holding hands whilst praying. I love this idea in theory...

So however you're praying this Lent, out loud, extempore, in a silent group or a liturgical group, for the first time or for the umpteenth, remember prayer is always for beginners.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Lent for Extroverts 13: Leadership Rap

Leadership Rap (Bring it on).

I am a relational (conversational)
leader; an undefended, mended, moulded and 
missional leader.
A leader without spikes,
a leader who likes

I have parish plans emerging from my
head; in bed I think of vision,
values and pyramids,
and discerning, co-opting,
one to one relating.

I want to thrive,
not just survive.
I want to equip and empower.
Now is the hour.

Courageous, contagious,
and vulnerable of course,
I weep with the best of 'em,
and cajole the rest of 'em.

I'm God-centred, well mentored,
wisdom infused, enthused by
stories of prophets, priests and kings,
when they weren't idolising, hesitating, 
or consummating with
someone else's wife.

Responsibility's my middle name,
I'm ready for the game,
in wilderness, feast or celebration,
even when there's no remuneration.

I'm even embracing chaos,
complexity, emergence.
I'm a 'quiet' leader, a great reader
of books. In fact if one looks carefully,
I am trying to do it all prayerfully.

The butterfly effect can be seen
across the other side of the world,
a small change cascades to the ground
like water.

I'm fleshing out 
and about,
words on a page,
imagining a future great age 
of growth.

Sometimes I need a lie down.
I can be relied upon
to be found on the sofa
at three, just me 
and another leadership book, see?
Sleep comes easily.

Copyright Claire Alcock.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Lent for Extroverts 12: Leadership crisis?

The word 'dominoes' springs to mind with the current almost daily trend for leaders exiting public roles due to allegations of misconduct. Other leadership issues have surfaced with the appointment of a new Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Pope's recent decision to step down from office. Leadership is a hot topic. Who is fit and who is no longer 'fit' to lead?

Edwin Friedman, (d. 2007), Rabbi, family therapist and leadership mentor, wrote A Failure of Nerve, Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (1999) in which he ruthlessly exposes what he calls the habits of 'chronically anxious and regressive' societies. Powerful emotional drivers which cut across race, class and other socially constructed frameworks, are at work, which sabotage leadership. We are over reliant on expertise and data; we think empathy will solve all relational problems and we think anything to do with 'self' is by definition 'selfish'. The reality is that technology will never be sufficient to address the moral issues of leadership; empathy is ineffective in the face of chronic societal dysfunction and attention to the 'individuation' of 'self' is crucial for leaders who want to escape the emotional entanglement of inward looking systems.

Bringing Friedman's thinking to bear upon the tortured wrangling of Church and State over Women Bishops and gay marriage and the recent political mismanagement and sex abuse allegations is enlightening. 'Blame displacement' and 'herd instinct' spring to mind. 
How does this image make you feel?

Was Jesus a model of a perfect leader? 'Servant leadership' is a term much bandied about in the church, but should you 'serve' an abusive member of a group, or expose them? Are the abusers examples of 'weak' or 'powerful' people in society? 

Perhaps Jesus used his wilderness experience to face the possibility of all the ways he might have chosen to lead, ending up with choosing the 'weakness' of the cross, which turned out, or course, to be its power. 

Monday, 25 February 2013

Lent for Extroverts 11: Not fed by ham

Online food shopping is a mixed experience. For the joy of having someone else traipse round the supermarket on your behalf and deliver it to your door, you must spend a few intense minutes patiently trawling through lists on the store website and making hundreds of minute decisions. 

'Chicken', for instance, gives you 110 options; chocolate, 408. You need to decide price, brand, fair trade, air miles, etc., all from hundreds of clicks, at least two days prior to when you actually want the food. It can go wrong.

For instance you need to distinguish between choosing by number of items and choosing by weight. Four packets of biscuits, but 0.5 kg of broccoli. So when I spotted a packet of Waitrose hand carved dry cured roast ham costing £4.19, I thought, that's pricey but I bet those thick slices taste good: I'll have ONE of those...Click!

...Just after the delivery man had driven away from my door I unloaded the ham, and then another one... and then another one, and another one, and another one, and another one - I had 8 packets in the end, because it isn't sold by number of packets, but by kilogram. And I had ordered ONE KILO (cost: approx. £28).

The next week I discovered you could re-use the previous week's order and make it the basis of your next order, just adding in the items to your trolley as you go. But it wasn't immediately obvious when you had successfully added them in, so first I added everything in three times. It was then that I noticed I had nearly £84 worth of ham in my trolley. Luckily this time I hadn't yet proceeded to checkout.

Ham somewhat dominated thoughts about food that week. It would be nice not to have to think about food so much. The food Jesus offers in the gospel today (John 6:41-51) is his own self; life everlasting. 'In whom all our hungers are satisfied' is one of the lines of liturgy I most appreciate, because hunger can come in many forms. Jesus refused to turn stones into bread because we are fed by more than just food. In Lent, and always, we are fed by him.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Lent for Extroverts 10: Gift shop spirituality

Every time I go to one of those gift shops that look and smell amazing, you know, the ones with scented jasmine candles, strings of painted wooden hearts and Emma Bridgewater pottery, I start imagining that with a little work, my home could look just like that - full of desirable objects, ordered, stylish, clean and tidy and of course artistically stimulating. What a life that would be.

I sometimes buy something just to kick start the process, like a lime green teapot with just the right metal insert and lid, purchased during a recent gift shop experience. It could also have been a framed print of a Beatrix Potter mouse, a £70 scarf or a dozen important looking books about art, all of which would have made my life complete, but inevitably there's always a budget.

Of course it's no good coming home and just plonking it down on a surface; the surface has to be cleared of biology homework, unopened bills and breakfast cereal crumbs first, with a cloth. But the cloth is manky, so better clean that first, or better, bleach it and find a fresh one from the cupboard.

Underfoot the floor is covered in bits. Find the hoover; no suction; the hoover is blocked; empty the hoover bag over my hand; clean the filter. Hoover now working. Use hoover. Now the kitchen floor has no bits, wipe kitchen floor. Now the cupboards need a wipe too. Someone has left out half their lunch and the washing up needs doing. The once beautiful handmade papier mache fruit bowl (from a gift shop) is looking sad and dusty. Everything looks dusty. The perfect home (and life) is not magically materialising around the lime green, gift shop tea pot. 

Come to think of it, it's the second green teapot we've had: the other one (from a gift shop) was all funky glass and metal. The metal bit rusted and the lid expanded in the heat and got permanently stuck.

Maybe Jesus knew a thing or two when he refused to turn the stones into bread. Bread perishes. You can't live by bread alone and you can't fundamentally change much in your life by applying gift shop mentality.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Lent for Extroverts 9: Too scary for kids?

The combination of small children and difficult bible stories is one of the more challenging aspects a Minister faces. On more than one occasion I have launched in to a great Bible story, only to falter half way through, suddenly hearing how it sounds to 21st century ears. 

'And God sent his final plague on the Egyptians, which is where we get the Passover, when the angel of death passed over and all the first born little baby boys died...'

'And it wasn't just Pilate who handed Jesus over; the Chief priests, the leaders of the Jewish faith, also wanted him dead...'

'And Jesus went into the wilderness where he was tempted by the devil, errr...however you wish to imagine him...' 

'What did you learn in school today?'

'The lady from the church came in and told us all about the Devil. I'm scared Mummy...will the devil visit my bedroom tonight...?'
'And on Ash Wednesday she put ash on our heads and told us not to sin and we're all going to die...'

However you cut it, the Christian story pulls no punches. And Lent is not the easiest season to inhabit. In preparing for this Sunday I toyed with the idea of visual aids for children, to illustrate the three temptations of Jesus, but dark figures in red cloaks, or worse, someone's modern idea of evil (which is always scarier) did not seem such a good idea.

Then I remembered Stanley Spencer's Christ in the Wilderness: The Scorpion (see above). It is one of five paintings exploring Christ and the idea of
wilderness, and was completed the year World War 2 broke out. I had always imagined the scorpion was the artist's impression of the Evil One but can't find any references to this interpretation, with most writers taking the creature at face value. 

But imagine the scorpion is in fact a depiction of evil and it opens up some interesting thoughts. Christ holds it in his hand. His expression is inscrutable. He could perhaps extinguish it with one blow but he appears to allow it to do its thing. Its sting is dangerous but not overwhelming. It is feared by most and must be treated seriously, but it is seen in the context of something much greater.

Meanwhile we'll make do with a basket of pebbles and loaves on Sunday (have you ever noticed how alike they look?) and leave depictions of dark temptation to the imagination of the film makers.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Lent for Extroverts 8: Communication fragmentation

I often feel poised on the cusp of losing it with technology and slipping into complete Luddite-dom; in fact my kids are convinced this has already happened. They adopt a strained, 'patient' tone with me when trying to explain something technology-related which I cannot appear to grasp, but which they clearly came out of the womb fully cognisant of. 

But I suppose it's all relative. Bits of the Church are completely backward about technology; I think some see the church as refuge from such a thing, forgetting that the fact we have electric lights and microphones would have been at one stage innovative. 

So to some I may seem 'young' and technologically competent: I check my emails on the move; I arrive at school with the assembly on Power point; I download worship tracks and play them in church. But the reality is that I often feel confused and defeated by multiple mobile phone bills and apps which help you 'track' the progress of your son's football team in the local league.

I think it's the overwhelmingly complicated nature of communication nowadays. There was always the phone, but conversations were conducted on the house phone, in the kitchen, which was embarrassing when it was a boyfriend (cue sniggering and 'it's him again' from family members). 

In 2000 I got a big silver mobile 'brick', then a small pink one, then a 'clam shell', then a touch screen; lastly a smart phone.  All that took 12 years, during which time I learnt to text and email and got a laptop. In 2008 I joined Facebook and began to communicate by status updates or 'Messenger'. I started tweeting in May 2012 and now 'read' the papers entirely by tweeted links. I have inadvertently wandered into the background of a Skype call in my daughter's bedroom (I was fully clothed). Recently we were at lunch at someone else's house  when a face literally 'appeared' on a nearby iPad to 'Facetime' us all. Now even texting is fragmenting: my daughter and I 'whatsap' each other if there's no mobile signal; then I go out of WiFi range and have to resert to 'old fashioned' texting.

Today, in a pinnacle, or was it nadir, of communication development, I was reduced to 'chatting' with an 02 on line 'virtual assistant', a surreal experience only marginally less excruciating than asking teenagers to explain stuff to you at home.

You're through to 02 Suzie.

Can you help me...I have 3 bills but I can only remember one password.
Please can you tell me the 3rd and 4th character of your security answer?
d and l.
It's not correct. Your security question is Mother's maiden name.
y and n.
Can you match £46.50 to a phone number? It seems very high.
The bill for this account is £24.10. May I know your other number?
My son's number is 07977653992 and our security answer is toynbee
It's not correct
Can you tell me the 1st and 3rd digit of your sortcode?

(A perfect transcript, apart from the number).

What kind of conversation is that? It made me feel like jumping off a tall building.

All of which is to say life is complicated and prone to fragmentation, and no amount of withdrawing into the wilderness to pray this Lent is going to make it simpler. But it might make me saner.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Lent for Extroverts 7: Fed by the negative

If, like most extroverts, you are fed by external things which give energy, what do you make of the experience of wilderness? Can you be fed by an experience of absence, a place of nothingness?

I didn't discover the Apophatic tradition till about halfway through theological training - the idea that we can only describe God in the negative, 'the via negativa', because all the pictures we try and use are sooner or later found to be inadequate. So, yes, He is like a shepherd and a rock, up to a point, but these images really fall short to describe the indescribable. He is not like so many more things that He is like. It is negative, but in a good way. It sets God free to be Himself, or to be more accurate, to be 'Godself' (you even have to watch gendered pronouns).

Christ in the Wilderness, 1898, Riviere.
Like Jesus in the wilderness. He experienced everything stripped back to bare essentials. And here, apparently, was the nub of his temptation, the heart of what made him tick: would he rely on miraculous physical provision coupled with desire for power, glory and fame, or would He insist on God's provision only, choosing the way of single minded obedience? The wilderness was crucial to growth.

That's what the wilderness does for you - it strips you back to essentials. James Fowler*, in his writing on faith stages, which he plots like psychological stages, always shows the journey of development as going from certainty to questioning, then to some kind of broad and contented 'synthesis' between what you knew, what then became worryingly less clear. In other words, questions are good, and we mustn't fear uncertainty.

So we shouldn't be put off by an apparent absence of something spiritual that used to be present and nurturing, and which now seems to have gone, or at least to be ineffective. In the end, the negative, the absence, might lead, by God's grace, to something deeper and more long lasting. 

Which is why, despite my extroversion, I try not to fear the wilderness.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Lent for Extroverts 6: A material world

In a somewhat non Lenten spirit on Day 6 of Lent I gorged on good food and art. 

'Gorged' is a slightly strong word, I'll admit, but when half term holiday (joyous, work-less, celebratory) falls in Lent (introspective, intense for clergy, penitential) it's very hard to know what mood to adopt. I'd never eaten in Eat. before. The clue is in the name: it was all about the food, full stop. There was soup consisting of little Thai dumplings, noodles, been sprouts, chilli and ginger flavour. Hot and warming on a cool, bright February day. Then I had the most amazing salad I think I've ever tasted from a plastic box: mixed green leaves; shredded beetroot and carrot; bright green bean seeds; thin, soft slices of broccoli sprouts; fennel seeds; pumpkin seeds; mixed rice; dried cranberries; pomegranate seeds; mung beans; feta cheese and a dressing of honey, lime, mint and white wine vinegar. I may have missed out some ingredients.

Tate Modern from the Milleniun Bridge
This altogether surprising lunch acted as filler between two Tates: Tate Britain and Tate Modern. So there were more thoughts about the attraction of the sensory world.....The relationship between spirit and body has always troubled believers. The Gnostics thought the physical body evil and that life's aim must be purely spiritual. Christianity is an embodied religion, though, celebrating at its heart the Incarnation - the becoming flesh of God in the person of Jesus Christ. 

The Incarnation means we can celebrate the stuff of the senses; however the more sensitive amongst believers have often warned against the deification of the sensual world, presumably concerned about the warnings in John's Epistle about 'the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life'. But when does sheer enjoyment of food or art, for instance, tip into this 'carnal' approach? Are appetites God-given?

I found one blog post purporting to offer 'a Biblical World view'  which suggested the five senses all 'report to the carnal mind', and lead to evil. But if God is Creator of all things good, don't 'good' things eventually point back to Him if we are open to His presence everywhere?

Or might there be some art which reveals Him in the 'good' creation of the physical world more than other art? Is there God-hating art? Is modern art another symptom of our abandoning of God in the late 20th/early 21st Century? Is art moral? Does the morality of the artist have a bearing on his/her work? And should Lenten discipline always involve denying one of the five senses?

Monday, 18 February 2013

Lent for Extroverts 5: Imagination fleshed out

Leaky cauldron and other props
I spent the first Sunday of Lent at Harry Potter World. It was not immediately obvious how any of it related to Lent, except that it was all about inner and outer worlds. Everything on show had somehow originated in the inner world of JK Rowling's imagination and had been made external via the books, then the concept artists, prop makers, costume and special effects designers who made the books come to life on screen.
Wig department: Dumbledore's and Sirius Black's amongst them

Why do people say they prefer to read the book before seeing the film? Is it because the inner worlds we create as a result of reading fiction are our own and therefore unique? They lodge in the brain. We don't want to have those initial pictures replaced by someone else's casting ideas in case they don't match up. Once a film is seen, it's almost impossible to create your own pictures in place of the Director's: 'Oh I didn't imagine him like that....!' 

Letting your writing be turned into a film must take a lot of letting go. But even with the subsequent hundreds of creative people on board, there's still an intimate connection between the initial inner creativity and the visible/audible/tactile outworking of it which is now 'out there' for everyone to experience.
Arresting sculpture from The Ministry of Magic

It's a bit like a sacrament: there's something intangible at the core and something tangible which points to it, like new life and the waters of baptism. 

Somewhere on a train between Manchester and London in 1990, the idea for a boy wizard popped into JK Rowling's head, was nurtured by huge imaginative talent and hard work, and now we have 7 books books, 8 films and an entire studio tour grown from that one initial, internal idea. It's like the mustard seed growing out of all proportion to its small beginnings. There's a close tie between inner and outer worlds. In Lenten discipline nothing external changes without inner transformation. Whether introvert or extrovert, we look for harmony between the inner and the outer worlds we live in. Maybe this extrovert/introvert dichotomy can be taken too far after all.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Lent for Extroverts 4: Where's the action?

Sooner or later Lent gets uncomfortable for extroverts as the inner life gets opened up to scrutiny by the Holy Spirit.

Because a possible extrovert fear is that 'the action' is outside; that interaction with people, places and things brings direct experience of God, but that limiting these things for the sake of the inner life, which we feel we should do during Lent, may prove there's in fact a void inside. How shallow am I? When all the fun/stimulating/interesting interaction/conversation ceases, when you put down the book/come off Twitter and Facebook and turn off the radio to look inwards in prayer, what will actually happen? It may even be that churchmanship brings expectations about turning inwards; that it might either be very desirable, or turn out to be nothing more than dangerous navel gazing. I'll leave you to ponder this one...

Someone who did his fair share of navel gazing was St Ignatius of Loyola, a 16th Century Spanish knight and eventual founder of the Jesuits. He was probably (and here's some wild anachronistic speculation) an Introvert with an over developed imagination. I'm also guessing he was more of a 'feeling' type, plus he was organised and systematic in his teachings, so let's call him an INFJ in Myers Briggs terms. 

He dreamt of achieving glory in battle and winning the hand of a beautiful maiden. Unfortunately he was badly wounded in a battle against the French and was taken to Loyola Castle where, during a long and painful recuperation, he longed to read some romance novels to pass the time. There was only a copy of The Life of Christ and a book about the lives of the Saints. Ignatius had a lot of time on his hands so he began to read both of these, whilst continuing to fantasize about romantic conquests and military glory. After a while he began to notice that there were different effects on his spirit from these two different passtimes. After his romantic imaginings he felt drained and dispirited but after reading about Christ and the saints he felt invigorated and inspired.

This led to his conversion to Christ and eventually to his spiritual writings on the 'discernment of spirit's and his 'Spiritual Exercises', still read and practised by thousands today. Discerning the 'movement of spirits', or the movement of the Holy Spirit, is something that can only happen with attentiveness, which really needs silence and (generally) solitude. Attending to the inner moods/inner life can show us where we have been blessed, which otherwise we may miss, and where something is contrary to God's good will for our flourishing. It reveals to us our drives and has a 'modern' Jungian feel to it. Taken to some depth it can reveal the whole direction of someone's life as daily awareness of what gives life and what drains, can point to our ultimate vocation.

So thanks to Inigo of Loyola there's hope for those who think that it's only in the outside world where we find all the action. St Ignatius shows us that there's an awful lot going on inside too. In fact it may even be that in some sense God himself is right on the inside.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Lent for Extroverts 3: Holy Highway Maintenance

Very unusually for me I went for a pre-breakfast walk on day 3 of Lent, and Lenten thoughts were stimulated, in extrovert fashion, by seeing a highway maintenance truck refilling the water hydrants on the side of the road.

It's perhaps more an Advent image, but the holy highway of the prophet Isaiah can also be a picture of how we 'make way' for God in our own lives. Lent is nothing if not about this clearing of the highway, which tends to get clogged with all sorts of things that get in the way; the pot holes of omission and the confusion of fading lines of divine communication. I'm still grappling with what highway maintenance means for people like me who are energised by the exterior world of people, places and things. Sooner or later, whether we like it or not, there needs to be some withdrawal from all the stimulation, into something solitary and quiet. 

Personally I can't imagine good highway maintenance, for the ordained at least, without effective spiritual direction. I had a spiritual director once who was a bit short on empathy but hot on pithy comment. I was moaning one time that I had no one to talk to about what God was doing in my life and she suggested I consider Mary, the mother of Jesus. After the momentous appearance of the shepherds to the manger side in Bethlehem, after the strange and mystifying words that have been uttered about her baby, it says in Luke 'but Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart'; not 'and she went home and told everyone she could about it.' This has stuck in my mind ever since. 

Lenten 'highway maintenance' for extroverts may involve not doing something that comes naturally in order to go deeper into God. The irony is that you may need to find someone older and wiser to talk to about not talking to all and sundry about what God is talking to you about. Now there's a Lenten paradox.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Lent for extroverts 2: Ash, then Love

To peruse the table of dates for Ash Wednesday and Easter Day in the front of Common Worship is to watch your life slipping by, year on year, ending abruptly in 2030. From time to time Valentine's Day falls in Lent, for instance, 2002; 2005; 2008; this year and in 2016. 

In 2018, 2024 and 2029, Ash Wednesday will fall on 14th February itself, occasioning an interesting liturgical/cultural dilemma for church-going couples: those giving up chocolate and other delicious things for the sake of their spiritual life will be unable to eat the Valentine's gifts brought by their devoted partners to celebrate romantic love. Observant C of E partners will no doubt go straight from the sombre evening's Ash Wednesday service of ashing to their romantic candlelit meal, not knowing whether to feel spiritually chastened or celebratory/sexy.

There's always a cultural/spiritual mix of things going on at Lent. Plenty of non-Church-goers seem to want to deny themselves things for some reason not clearly specified, but which is possibly a mixture of any of the following: hoping to lose weight; introduce some self discipline into their lives; save money; save the environment; think about others who have less, make up for not having been to church for years and prepare for major chocolate gorging at Easter. Conversely there seems to be a trend in church circles to take up something for Lent - are there suddenly more extroverts in the church who want get a positive spin on what they fear will be an otherwise mean-spirited and spiritually un-focussed spirit of 'No' pervasive through Lent?

I like that Valentine's is in Lent this year. Self discipline without love is surely 'a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal'. The spirit of mean rule keeping that characterised the Pharisees was not upheld by Christ, who routinely broke the Sabbath to bring healing and wholeness to people. Doesn't denial through Lent need to be in order to contemplate Love more clearly?

At a very low point in my life, which roughly coincided with Valentine's Day 1999, a family member sent a Valentine's card to our house. On opening it, a host of small red and purple paper hearts spilled out in a shower from the envelope to the floor, making us laugh and cry at the same time. In the true spirit of St Valentine, whose life was marked by sacrificial love of Christ and his church, we felt and knew we were divinely held and loved even in the saddest time.

Ash one day, love the next. A propitious calendar combination.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Lent for extroverts 1: Go easy on the olive oil

Lent. That's giving up stuff, right? Sensory deprivation and all that. Denying yourself everything that brings a smile to your face, in the manner of monks. As an extrovert I've never taken naturally to Lent. My challenge this Lent will be to explore ways in which people like me might be able to engage with the fundamentals. How making room for God this Lent might lead to a truer engagement with the things of the Spirit. The last thing I need Lent to be is mean and pinching. Where can God be found? And what happens when you find Him in unusual places?

Take olive oil, that glorious, oozing, unctuous, green liquid so beloved of chefs. You can hardly cook anything without it these days, since the extrovert Jamie Oliver started slugging it around everywhere gleefully. It's almost a religion with him...What's going on there? It also happens to be a wonderful biblical image suggesting the Spirit, consecration, peace and healing.

So last year I was delighted to learn that the priestly preparation for leading an Ash Wednesday service included making up the ash for putting on foreheads by mixing it with olive oil.

There was no obvious ecclesiastical recipe for this, so feeling creative AND holy (am priestly pre-parer of actual ingredients for Lenten worship, just look at me) that afternoon I weighed in with my ash in a little pot, adding the oil joyfully and liberally, as per the enthusiastic Mr Oliver, and pretty soon it looked ready to be 'imposed' upon the foreheads of the penitent.

In the small Victorian church the congregation came forward to kneel at the altar rail. I dipped my finger in and made the first cross: 'Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.' The mark was not as black as one would expect black ash to be.

I did the next one - you could hardly see it. It was rather wet  and slippery. Maybe people would go home pleased the ashing hadn't left a dirty black mark on their foreheads. But maybe they'd feel Lenten-ly short changed. It didn't look at all 'ash-y'.

After about number four or five I noticed drips appearing on noses. Translucent black drips were sliding off foreheads and on to noses, even chins. I tried gouging out with my finger more sediment from the ash/oil mixture at the bottom of the pot. It didn't make any difference. There was just too much oil. Sadly there was no alternative liturgy for receiving an oily drop on your nose, instead of a cross on your forehead.

Was this yet more evidence that I just don't 'get' Lent?

I hope not. Here we are a year later, and I am attempting each day to ponder the mystery of God in all the things that give life - experience; friends; love; creation; books; ideas; music; even sadness - all that fascinating stuff extroverts thrive on. Meanwhile, if you're making preparation for ashing people any time soon, go easy on the olive oil.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

From glory to glory

2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside. 

Luke 9: 28-36 The Transfiguration
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to prayAnd while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 

What are the main ingredients of being Church?
What is the main driving force, the point of it all?
If we were to ask this question of each other, we might get many different answers.
The Westminster Catechism puts it like this:
Question: ‘What is the chief end of man?’
Answer: ‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.’
That’s an even broader question than ‘what is the point of the church?’
The question in the Catechism applies to all people: what is the point of man?
And this is still a question being debated by non religious people, as well as religious, you might be pleased to know.
A recent debate at Cambridge University Union had Richard Dawkins and others on both sides of the belief divide discussing: ‘Does religion still have a place in 21st Century Britain?’
Despite the much touted 'new atheism', and Dawkins having not a good word to say for any religions at all, the answer was a resounding ‘yes’.

If you had to answer the question ‘what is the point of the church?’ from today’s readings I wonder what you’d say…
It’s Transfiguration Sunday, a Sunday about GLORY.
That’s why we began with the Catechism: The chief end of man, it says, is to glorify God…
So our question today is how do we glorify God?
And can we even look upon that glory ourselves? Isn't it just too bright for normal human sight?
Because we can be sure that if we do come up against the glory of God, in the person of Jesus Christ, we will not remain unchanged.
That is why if we met a church goer who had remained unchanged over years and years of being in church, who had not grown closer to God or learned more about him or herself in the process, we might wonder if they really had beheld the glory of God…
Can you only glorify God when you are in church, saying prayers and singing hymns, or can your whole life bring glory to Him?

The word ‘glory’ in Greek is doxa, from where we get our word ‘doxology’, the ‘Glory to the Father’ refrain said after psalms are chanted or sung.
‘Glory’ in the OT was a big concept and the rabbis coined a special word to describe it: Shekinah.
The Shekinah of God was His holy presence in a residing located place.
When God dwelt amongst his people for a protracted period of time, it was said that his glory, his Shekinah, dwelt amongst his people.
His Shekinah inhabited the Temple; crucially when His presence left the Temple this coincided with Israel’s apostasy and their Exile.
It was said that when Moses came the Mountain after receiving the 10 commandments from God, his face shone with glory, the glory of having been in the presence of  a holy God.
The glory shining in his face was so bright he had to put a veil over his face when he talked with the people; otherwise they could not bear to look at him.
Paul, in our first reading, uses this idea of the veil as a metaphor for his contemporary Israelites not understanding that the Jesus of the New Covenant was indeed their awaited Messiah.
Paul claims that whenever they read their Law, and fail to see the Messiah, Jesus, the veil is still over their faces.
In contrast, we who have the Spirit of God have unveiled faces because we have beheld Jesus the Saviour.
Paul even claims we are being transformed from one degree of glory to another (verse 18).

We have a high calling to live up to then: are we reflecting God’s glory with unveiled faces?
Is it our chief end to glorify God?
How are our lives, our priorities, set up to bring glory to God?
What things could we be putting in the way, things that act effectively like veils today?
Busy-ness, apathy, material comfort, distance from God, pride: perhaps all these and more can act like veils today.
Lent is a good time to consider what is veiling our walk with God.
We have a chance to focus on what we do as church in our Lent Course ‘Lost for Words’, starting on 20th Feb.
Do come along.
It’s sometimes said of those who walk very closely with Christ that you can see something of God in their faces…
I wonder if you can think of anyone…
It’ll be someone who has walked daily with God; someone whose expression is peaceful but perhaps who’s suffered and come through; someone whose obedience and joy have been so much a part of their lives that their very face reflects God’s glory.

Our gospel reading is about Christ revealed in glory on the Mount of Transfiguration.
He has taken his closest three friends along, and it says he took them up the mountain to pray.
Can you imagine going up a mountain to be present whilst Jesus prayed?
While he was praying the appearance of his face changed and suddenly his clothes became dazzling white.
Now strange things can happen on the top of a mountain.
There are clouds swirling around up there; the weather might be more violent; the atmosphere might be a bit rarefied; you might be worn out from the climb…
The mountain top is also a metaphor for a spiritual experience.
We say ‘I had a mountain top experience.’
We are usually elated during a mountain top experience; everything seems real and exhilarating.
At the top of the Mount of Transfiguration It was as if Jesus was revealed for a few moments in all his divinity.
Yes, he was still the man they knew and talked with but now they saw ‘beyond the veil’ as it were…
There’s a scene from the Harry Potter movies where Harry sees his godfather die in a battle against the force of evil.
In the film the sequence is slowed; in slow motion you see a killing curse fall on Harry's godfather, Sirius; you see him fall forward and a curtain appears; he appears to fall through it and onto the other side, wherever that is...
Jesus is suddenly seen as if he has gone beyond the veil and is in another dimension...
On one side of him stands Moses, law giver: on the other Elijah, representing all the prophets.
The Law and the Prophets…
What are they doing there with Jesus?
They’re speaking of his departure – his death, which, the text says ‘He was about to accomplish…’
Jesus had been speaking about his death and resurrection just before the account in Luke begins: he’s trying to get through to his disciples, but, understandably they are not able yet to equate his coming death with salvation glory.
It’s as though the glory they see before them on the mountain top is too much for Peter, James and John: they feel immensely sleepy; but manage just about to keep awake....thankfully: otherwise we wouldn't know about this episode at all!
So here’s Jesus in all his glory…and the disciples are bamboozled by it…
Peter gabbles some nonsense about putting up shelters.
But you cannot box this experience in the hope of loving off it for ever.

What is the point of the church?
To glorify God…
To do that we need to be exposed to Jesus too, on a daily basis.
Lent offers us a time to reflect on our lives and our spiritual well.
Has it run dry? Does it need stirring up?
What daily disciplines of prayer and bible reading do you have in place?
Are you able regularly to share your thoughts on Christian growth with others in the church?
Sharing is a Christian discipline too: ‘confess your sins to one another and pray for each other, that you may be healed.’
As approach Lent and think about Jesus' Transfiguration today, we pray that our faces may be unveiled to behold his glory, and that we may reflect this glory to the world in which we live and the community we serve.