Saturday, 29 September 2012

I wandered lonely as a cleric...

I wandered lonely as a cloud, or cleric (apologies to Wordsworth)
Wearing the collar is an interesting exercise in self identity.

A trip to Westminster meant I had it on all day going across London. 

Zero reaction. 

Which suited me fine. Until I got to Westminster tube station where I needed to find a loo. 50 pence piece at the ready, I approached the turnstile; the woman assistant looked up, smiled gleefully, said 'no, no', and waived me through before I could pay. Flummoxed, I mumbled a confused 'thank you' and put the money back in my purse while my un-collared friend paid up and came through after me, along with all the other women in the queue behind.

A visit to Parliament was a reminder that I have sworn allegiance to the Queen. I'm part of The Establishment, apparently. Saying Evening Prayer in Westminster Abbey, the collar made me feel like an insider. A not unpleasant feeling, but a strange one. Any Christian should feel an insider in an Abbey. Any person should. But it sometimes doesn't happen that way. I was a minister amongst lay people. I know the words, I know the form. 

But not entirely an insider, as every cleric taking part in that Evening Prayer (leader, readers, and of course, choir) was male.

Later in the same week I pondered multiple roles in which wearing the collar provokes different reactions: offering myself to a State School to 'help with assemblies'; being a Governor of a Church of England School, where it cannot be pretended that everyone is entirely certain what this 'religious' designation really means; worrying about the non-plussed reaction of a group of mums at a Toddler Group as a female cleric with no obvious toddlers in tow turns up for a coffee, hoping to meet locals.

Where do clerics belong?

Anywhere and nowhere.

Being on the outside can be painful. Being alone is okay, but being lonely...

Heavily involved in many groups yet intrinsically part of no particular group day to day.

What do people think of you, really? Only someone with the skin of a rhinoceros would be entirely unconcerned.

It can feel isolating unless you remember that other clerics probably feel the same (but it takes a brave one to admit it).

And unless you remember there is the unseen God who 'fighteth for us'...

And of course the whole company of heaven, which includes, fittingly on this Michaelmas, the angelic hosts, no less.

(Picture: Dorchester Abbey, taken 29.09.12).

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Back to basics

Mark 12: 28-31

'One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ '

Isn't it a bit inflexible to command that someone love you?
Or is Jesus saying 'You shall love the Lord your God...' as in: 'this is a promise'?
Hopefully with a heart of flesh instead of a heart of stone, we will love God; love is the fruit of the Spirit, the first listed in Galatians 5: 'For the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self control.'

We began looking at the 'fruits of the Spirit' at our All Age service today; one fruit each fortnight should keep us going till next year...
Far from being an inflexible command, love of God is the life spring of everything we do as Christians.
But the well occasionally runs dry (more than occasionally sometimes).
I have been wanting to 'up the anti' recently in my prayer life; something to do with a challenge presented to me on retreat - to spend some time in the middle of the day in contemplation, as well as the usual morning prayer (in which I rush through the daily readings before getting up...)
This would be 'extra'; agenda-less; unhurried; focussed entirely on drawing near to Christ.
How would I do this? Where would I start?
Well, I have a 'prayer corner'; the Russians called it a 'poustinia', a special place where contemplation (attempts) to take place.
It's a small chair in the study so I have to be careful to keep thoughts of computers, emails and admin out of my head in order just to contemplate.
The comfort of the chair helps; a candle, a cross, any visual or tactile aid helps to focus on God.

I was encouraged in it all this week by an amazing story of healing (honestly, I don't often major on these; this one however is completely authentic and happened to someone I know).

The special place where the healing took place was a retreat centre in Wales where loving the presence of God is sometimes so strong that people cannot move from the place where they're standing or sitting. To be reminded of this loving powerful presence pervading the world is to be encouraged to keep on entering into the still centre. You can read about the retreat centre in the book by Roy Godwin.

But we don't need to be in a charismatic/contemplative/Celtic retreat centre to experience the well of God's love never running dry. A small corner of a study will do...Come down O Love Divine...

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Taming the tongue

James 3:2
'For all of us make mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle.'

In a week which saw the final publication of the truth about the Hillsborough cover up, a former Editor of The Sun accepted that the headline at the time of the disaster which famously read 'The Truth' (that victims were drunken, violent  hooligans with no tickets) should in fact have read 'Lies'.

'How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire' (James 3; 5b-6a)

I'm afraid George Bush Senior, Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg also came in for some slightly harsh treatment this morning as we looked at James Chapter 3 in church together.

Read my lips: no new taxes

George Bush Snr., in 1988 in a soundbite which was the central plank of his acceptance address for his party's nomination at the 1988 Republican National Convention.

As Presidents sometimes do, he later raised taxes. His words were used against him by the then Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, a man who would later go on TV and swear 'I did not have sexual relations with that woman.'

That was a disaster - they should never have put me with that woman. Whose idea was that? It's just ridiculous...She's just a sort of bigoted woman who used to vote Labour. I mean it's just ridiculous.

Andecdotal evidence suggests that even Vicars sometimes leave their roving mics on as they  return to the vestry after leading worship. So perhaps we're not the ones to judge. The fact that these words were played back to Gordon Brown live on Radio 2 was especially cringe making. The phrase 'curl up and die' springs to mind...

I should have been more careful perhaps. At the time I really thought we could do it. I just didn't know, of course, before we came into government, quite what the state of the finances were.

Nick Clegg on his party's U turn on University tuition fees, a gaffe which will ensure that no teenagers I know, at least, will be voting Lib Dem for a decade or so...

But before we get all self righteous, there's a sobering verse in James 3 about those of us who aspire to teach...'Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness (James 3:1).

To which the only response is 'Lord place a guard at the door of my mouth, a sentry at the door of my lips' (Psalm 141:3).


Saturday, 8 September 2012

Can you be good without God?

Can you be good without God?

I was plagued by this question recently whilst getting 'out and about' in the community in my dog collar. I must have been having a bad week as it seemed to me that there was so much good happening outside the church that I couldn't actually remember what the church was for.

Which is bad, for a Minister.

Sometimes when I'm preparing a sermon I think........why.........? Do people need to be told this stuff again and again over numerous years? Why don't we just go out and do a great big litter pick. Or offer to do people's gardens for free. 

Community groups do so much good without the assistance of the church, no wonder people can't see any relevance in going to church.

It's an old temptation but such a strong one. Turning stones into bread instead of living by the Word. Yes, the living Word might tell you to go out and do someone's garden, but you have to be able to hear the Word in faith first. We separate faith and good works at our peril.

Can you be good without God?

Can you believe without acting?

All good things come from God so we must believe he is the source of everything that is good about community life, regardless of whether it grows out of someone's personal Christian faith or another motivation. I guess it's both possible to be a kind secularist whom God is longing to transform inwardly, and a lazy 'believer' whom God is wishing would get off their backside and go and do something useful.

I'm still pondering these things, not least as we're on the second week of James in the Sunday Lectionary; this week I'm preaching on 'faith without works is dead' (Chapter 2:17).

I conclude that we'd better not separate faith and good works; keeping them together could result in people actually sitting up and noticing God With Us for the first time.

What a thought.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Stop, look and listen

Installation by Jeppe Hein

Turns out the book of James in the New Testament is a good antidote to gospel preaching fatigue. Refreshingly short on doctrine (sorry, Luther; know you hated this) it brings you up short with its no nonsense pithy images (mirrors, tongues, bridles) and its exhortation to action.


From the Lectionary this Sunday we had James 1:17-27:
v. 22: 'But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror, for they look at themselves and on going away, immediately forget what they are like.'

The Danish artist, Jeppe Hein, has an artwork installed in the Saatchi Gallery called Mirror Wall (2010). When you approach it, it vibrates slightly, making you reassess yourself and the white background behind you. It's spookily interactive.

When we approach God' Word it should be similarly two way. If we are open, it reflects back to us what we're really like. It looks into us ans we look into it. 


In theological college we did a scary listening exercise - a cross between 'Just a Minute' and an embarrassing counselling session. In threes, the first person was given an unprepared subject on which to speak for two minutes; the second had to listen and report back afterwards; the third observed the pair's body language. 

As a speaker, it was pretty uncanny to be seriously listened to for two whole minutes. 

As a listener, it was really hard work, listening for two whole minutes.

As an observer it was fascinating to watch body language, mirroring, eye contact and to assess what was going on.

The whole experience profoundly changed the way I approached communication.

So James is right about the importance of listening. James 1:19: 'You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to wrath...'

Imagine a world, a church, where everyone was so busy listening to each other, misunderstandings were cut by 50% or more, and even the voiceless felt valued.

And a final thought: those long lists of James's about the vices we ought to rid ourselves of...'Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has power to save your souls...' (v. 21)

...I do LOVE the King James Version of this: we should definitely rid ourselves of  our 'superfluity of naughtiness' don't you think?

Thank you James and King James.