Thursday, February 28, 2013

See I Am Doing A New Thing

Sometimes what you know about God can stop you from discovering what you need to know about God today.

Sometimes the revelation of Jesus you have already received can stop you from receiving the revelation of himself that Jesus wants to share with you today.

One of the things Jo and I know – not simply as head knowledge but as lived experience; not information, but transformation – is that God is faithful.

We don’t need to learn what we already know. And while it is good to share what you have discovered with others, you don’t need to keep going back over things. The foundation of your house doesn’t need to be checked on every day. Of course, there may be times when the earth quakes and you are reminded that the foundations are good. And yes, sometimes foundations do need attention. But there is a whole house to explore, to furnish, to decorate, to live in, to throw parties in...

The thing about houses is that ours tends to come with my job. My current post comes to an end in June (at the latest) and we don’t yet know where we will be living then.

We have found ourselves in a similar place before, when the thing Jesus wanted to reveal to us turned out to be his faithfulness. In the place we find ourselves in, it would be easy to see this as a reinforcement measure...but that would be a mistake. Although we have moved around many times over the years, we have not made the upcoming move before. Jesus doesn’t want to remind us of his faithfulness; he wants to show us something else, to do a new thing. But that known faithfulness can easily become a mantra that reinforces what we already know to the exclusion of what we might discover.

The other night we were travelling home late, having spent the evening with friends. On a fence post on the side of the road, we saw a barn owl: something we see from time to time on that journey, that we look out for and enjoy, but hadn’t seen for a while. The following day was full of sunshine and warmth, the garden a riot of crocuses (crocii?).

Little things; but the situation we are in, which had felt for me a holding on as testimony to God’s faithfulness, feels very different: as if, in letting go our grip on what we know our hand is open to receive something new.

With Jesus, information tends to follow experience as explanation, rather than precede it in preparation. We don’t know where we will be moving, but we are experiencing a revelation of God’s gratuitous goodness, and playful sense of fun.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Theology Of Playfulness

I’m sitting with these words, Isaiah 55:1-9, this week. They depict God engaging his people in role play (how else would you describe buying things without money? my daughter’s school includes an area set up with role play shops to help the pupils practice every-day conversation in various languages) and hide-and-seek.

This is the behaviour of a good father with a young child.

In the game of hide-and-seek, we hide ourselves from the other in order that the child might experience the delight of finding the parent – and the parent experience the delight of being found. It is a playful behaviour that strengthens the bonds between us: that says, you belong to me and I belong to you.

In the game of role play, we help children learn life skills, and not only skills but values. The particular game that Isaiah records for us is concerned with justice. It is an invitation to internalise a way of being in the world that will find externalised expression in acts and structures of justice – which is our splendour.

In playing hide-and-seek we discover that we are made to know and be known by God, to share in his love.

In role play we discover that we are made to represent God’s life-affirming reign of justice and mercy – and what that reign looks like.

Being and doing. Covenant and kingdom. Hand-in-hand.

As a friend of mine once put it, Life Is Too Important To Be Taken Seriously. You will end up lamenting the life you don’t have rather than living the life you have been given to the full.

Where is God hiding from you today? (And have you given up looking?)

What does God want you to discover through play today? (Something where you have no competence and worry about looking foolish; or ignore his invitation because you are doing something Very Important instead...)

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Sacred Space : Part 2

“The job of the church is to create the space in which people can find that they have been found by God.”

I love this quote, which was recently tweeted by Bradford Diocese. Of course, that ‘space’ is in fact many spaces: the way in which we inhabit our own homes, and shape public spaces – both physical and discursive – as those who have been shown hospitality and so extend hospitality to others. It will take people discovering their calling to shape culture in particular ways, offering their particular gifts and partnering with others who have different and complementary callings and gifts. This space is far more than our own church buildings, of course; but it should never be less than that.

I often hear people say that church is not a building but the people. They are wrong. This is not an either/or reality, but a both/and reality. Historically, church buildings helped people encounter God. I think many Christians have forgotten that, choosing instead to meet in (what we mistake to be) ‘neutral’ buildings that point to our own skills and not beyond.

I serve in a place where the church as people has very little resources with which to help people encounter God. But we do have a building: a building that points to and nurtures connection with God...a building many local people have an attachment to, through family baptisms, weddings and funerals. Most of those people won’t come to a worship service – there is too much baggage, too much bad experience, or too much that is unknown and fearful about such a prospect – and yet the building itself can be missional. With appropriate direction and sensitive prompts, this sacred space may indeed be one in which people can find that they have been found by God.

I have created a (cruciform) trail around the building, and asked the congregation to give two hours of their time in order to have the building open during the day, each day next week, to welcome people and to talk and offer to pray with people if they would like, while respecting their space in this sacred space. Listed below are the prompts that will be offered, on laminated card, at each station. The ideas are specific to St Peter’s, but the principles are transferrable.

The Font

Think about the family you belong to, in all the joy and sorrow of human relationships. Hold their faces in your mind’s eye, before God.

If you are baptised, you might like to dip your finger in the water in the new font, and mark your forehead with the sign of the cross, to remind yourself that you are part of God’s family.

You might like to write a short prayer for anyone in your family or among your friends who is at (or hoping for) a new beginning: a new baby, newly-weds, a new start, a new job...

Leave your prayer in the old font.

Here are some Psalms you might like to read, on the theme of the beginning of life, and of belonging to God’s family:
Psalm 67 (page xxx)
Psalm 91 (page xxx)
Psalm 127 (page xxx)
Psalm 139 (page xxx)
Psalm 145 (page xxx)

The Lady Chapel

Sit awhile before the stained glass window depicting the empty tomb. Jesus has risen from the dead; but the women who followed him do not yet know: an angel waits to tell them. Their response would be fear and hope, uncertainty and trust.

How might we hold before God those we have loved and lost? How might we place our own lives, our own inevitable dying, in God’s hands? With fear, and hope? With uncertainty, and trust?

As you look through the stained glass, ask God to breathe his comfort and reassurance into you.

Before you move on, you might like to light a candle in remembrance of a loved one who has died.

Here are some Psalms you might like to read, on the theme of loss and living in the face of death:
Psalm 23 (page xxx)
Psalm 91 (page xxx)
Psalm 116 (page xxx)
Psalm 130 (page xxx)
Psalm 143 (page xxx)

The Choir

The universe is vast, our Earth a blue jewel teeming with life. Some things are so far off, we need a telescope; others, so small we need a microscope. The wonder of it all has inspired poets and scientists and artists and songwriters and astronauts and – well, every one of us at some time or another!

The Choir stalls are surrounded by angels, spinning in infinity, looking down on us. Sit in this space. Look up. Look around. Let your imagination take you deep beneath the ocean waves, or to distant galaxies. Do you feel small? Do you feel alone...or loved? Is this all chance? And if it is, is it meaningless? Are God and our world really incompatible, or are we held in the hands of a Creator who still sustains life?

Here are some Psalms you might like to read, on the theme of the wonder of creation and the mystery of the universe:
Psalm 8 (page xxx)
Psalm 19 (page xxx)
Psalm 93 (page xxx)
Psalm 147 (page xxx)
Psalm 148 (page xxx)

The War Memorial
Sit beneath the list of names, young men of this parish who did not return from war – from The War To End All Wars, and The War (So Soon) After That. Consider the tragedy of war, and our inability to decommission our weapons and turn them into agricultural implements (an image from the Bible). Pray for peace.

You might like to light a candle, as an expression of prayer for someone known to you who is serving in the Armed Forces: that they may be a light in the dark corners of the world; and that, fragile though they are, they might not be extinguished.

Beneath the Roll of Honour remembering those who gave their lives in the First and Second World Wars, we have left a large piece of paper on which you might like to add the name of someone known to you who is serving in the Armed Forces today – a Roll of Honour for the living, who give their lives for others on a daily basis.

Here are some Psalms you might like to read, on the theme of enemies:
Psalm 3 (page xxx)
Psalm 9 (page xxx)
Psalm 37 (page xxx)
Psalm 43 (page xxx)
Psalm 46 (page xxx)

The Labyrinth
A Labyrinth is a path that leads, by a circuitous route, into a centre point and back out again. Unlike a maze, there is only one path, and you cannot get lost. It is an ancient Christian pattern of prayerful walking: away from the concerns and distractions of life, into God’s presence...from where we return to the things that concern us, strengthened by God.

If you have never walked a Labyrinth before, it may seem strange at first. Walk slowly, don’t rush. As you walk, imagine leaving behind the things that trouble you, not in search of escape – you will return – but for a while. At the centre, imagine placing those things at Jesus’ feet. Listen for any sense of what he might say to you about them. Stay as long as you need. When you are ready, walk back out again, following the path. Don’t take any shortcuts!

As the path loops around, at times you are closer to the centre and at times, further away. It is not a direct route, not an efficient route: it is a route to aid meditation. At times, our goal seems within our grasp, only to be pulled away. We set off, in search of God...and just might find that he is our companion, every step of the way.

Read Psalm 25 (page xxx).  Read slowly, take your time.  When you are ready, take off your shoes, and step into the Labyrinth...

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Natural History

‘At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan. As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert, and he was in the desert forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.’

The Gospel According to Mark, chapter 1 verses 9-13.

This coming Sunday, the second Sunday in Lent, the Gospel reading from the Common worship Lectionary is Luke 13:31-35, in which Jesus describes Herod as a fox and himself as a hen with chicks.

It is a rich juxtaposition of images. Foxes and hens both look to raise young, but present us with contrasting means:

the fox kills to feed its family, preying on a more vulnerable life; whereas the hen is dependent on the hand of a human to scatter corn (intentionally or carelessly)

despite being a predator, the fox is not a brave animal, and scavenges what it can; whereas the hen, despite being defenceless, is brave enough to sacrifice her own life for the survival of her chicks

the fox takes what it can from human settlement, offering nothing in return; whereas the hen receives what it needs, and gives eggs in return

the fox is cunning, but fearful of humans; whereas the hen is wise enough to live under their protection and provision

ultimately the fox will see off its offspring, as potential threat to its own territory; whereas the hen will live out its days with its children

Taken together, the images we build up of the fox and the hen symbolise an independent and an interdependent life: what it looks like when relationships within creation are broken, and what it looks like when they are redeemed.

But what has any of this to do with Lent, with journeying with Jesus into the desert places? Mark presents us with the shortest account of that time – an account that gives no focus to the testing Jesus faced – and yet he gives us an insight not found in Matthew or Luke. In the wilderness, Jesus was with the wild animals.

What was Jesus doing in the desert, those forty days? We know, from Matthew and Luke, that he was reading Deuteronomy. But Mark tells us that he was also observing the animals who made their home in the desert. We are told that Jesus did not eat; but in order to survive, he would have needed a source of water, and a place of shelter (from the heat of the sun by day, and from the cold at night). And it would appear that Jesus was studying the ways the desert animals had found to survive in such a place.

Indeed, there is a tradition within the Wisdom Literature of Jesus’ people (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs) of learning from nature.

Perhaps this is why the Spirit descended on Jesus, and led him into the desert, in the form of a dove...

In our western civilisation, we have found new ways of distancing ourselves from nature. It is perfectly possible to live our days without stopping to observe the natural world. At the same time, it is perfectly possible to watch magnificent natural history series on television, learning about animals without learning anything from them. These things are to our loss.

One of the easily and often overlooked aspects of Lent is the invitation to reconnect with wild animals. Precisely because they are wild, this requires of us that we stop, and wait, and do nothing but watch attentively...

What might we discover?

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Walking The Dog Collar

One of the things that fascinates me is how very often people – and especially teenagers and young adults – want to talk to me as I walk around the parish or travel on the train because I wear a clerical (or dog-) collar.

I remember perhaps ten years ago hearing a vicar explaining why he didn’t wear a dog-collar most of the time. He had gone into a shop and joined the end of the queue to be served, and someone insisted that he should go straight to the front of the queue. If you know anything about the place queues occupy in the British psyche, you will appreciate the degree to which this is deference to someone else because of their position in the community. The vicar did not want to be treated in that way – and I totally appreciate that.

Perhaps society has changed. I very rarely get preferential treatment because I am a vicar...and on the rare occasion when it does happen, my observation is that the person in question is actually expressing something towards God. They are, in effect, saying, “I know that I don’t come visit you in your house very often, but I have not forgotten you.” I don’t think that they are trying to earn God’s favour; but to give thanks for favour they already recognise as coming from God’s hand, where ‘going to church’ is no longer an opportunity to do that, for a host of reasons. And so, while I would never demand preferential treatment, I won’t deny someone the opportunity to express gratitude towards God.

But more often, people want to talk to me, making themselves quite vulnerable: sometimes to ask me a question, in search of guidance; sometimes to make a form of confession (TARDIS-like, my confessional is surprisingly large and moves around); sometimes to ask for a blessing. Many of the people who talk to me have walked away from a Church that won’t embrace them, and yet...Perhaps for a very few my collar provokes mild and passing guilt over their absence; but what I think it actually provokes for most is a yearning for home – for a home they have been kicked out of, or for a home they have never known.

And because the Church can be a living nightmare – a dysfunctional and at times dangerous environment in the very place that should be safe and nurturing – I am grateful for those times I get to walk the dog-collar.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Sacred Space

Here is a mock-up triple-fold leaflet for a little project I’m working on at the moment (click on the images to enlarge; apologies for .jpg quality). Feed-back welcome!

And a variation on the same:

St Valentine

For St Valentine’s Day: the Tracey Emin neon sculpture “For You” (2008), set over the West Doors and beneath the Benedicite Window, Liverpool Cathedral (Anglican).

It reads, “I Felt you And I knew You Loved me

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ash Wednesday 2013

John 8:1-11

Here we are, once again, at the start of Lent. And I wonder what your expectations of Lent are. Perhaps you see it as an austere season, even a severe season. Perhaps you see it as an endurance test. Perhaps you see it as a strange observance belonging to another time. Perhaps you have no idea what Lent is all about.

Might I suggest that Lent is a season of intimacy with the God who created you and who has good plans for your life?

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. And God drew out the land from the waters of the sea. And God drew out the dustling from the dust of the ground, impressing it with God’s own stamp and seal, and breathing God’s own life into it. And God drew out all kinds of trees from the ground. And God placed the dustling he had drawn out from the ground in a garden, to take care of the ground and of the trees that grew from the ground: to help the ground to fulfil God’s intention for it, and to help that which sprang forth from the ground to fulfil God’s intention for it too.

And God took the dustling and drew out male and female; the woman to correspond to the man, two parts of one whole; the woman to be a deliverer for the man just as God would declare himself to be a deliver to humanity.

And God said, walk with me. But the serpent said, “God is hiding himself from you, is keeping all that you could be from you: don’t settle for that!” And the dustling was deceived, and tried to take what had already been given – a share in God’s identity. This catastrophic event broke the connection between God and the dustling; between male and female within the dustling; between the dustling and the ground from which we were taken, and the plants that also sprang up from the ground. A breaking down so total that in time – not straight away, but over time – the life-breath would depart from dustlings and dustlings would return to dust.

And yet, God sets clear limits on the consequences. The serpent is cursed, to eat dust. The ground is cursed. But the dustling is not cursed. Death will come as a release, not as the final word on the matter. And from the woman would come life; a son who would avenge her, crushing the serpent’s head.

All these things should look on with us as we turn our eyes to Jesus in the temple. He has been here since celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles, the annual act of remembering that God had drawn his people out of slavery in Egypt and met with them in the wilderness, where he had provided living water from the rock, and had shaped a broken rabble into a nation to be a light to the nations. Jesus is causing quite a stir, and while the people are drawn to him, the chief priests and the Pharisees are increasingly hardening their hearts towards him.

It is early in the morning, and Jesus is sitting in the temple courts, teaching, when he is rudely interrupted. The self-righteous drag a woman before him, a woman caught in the act of adultery. It is a trap. The Law of Moses commands that such a woman be stoned, they say: will Jesus set aside the Law?

Of course, they care little for the Law. The Law commands that both parties guilty of adultery, the man and the woman, be put to death. This woman is not suspected of promiscuity; she is, allegedly, caught in the act of adultery. If these men were concerned about the Law, they would be bringing the man before Jesus too. The woman is merely a pawn: entrapped. For how would a gang of men happen to be at hand if not waiting? And if entrapped, possibly raped – in which case, the Law might require only the death of the man. But there is no man brought for judgement. Or rather, the man being accused is Jesus. God who said, ‘Do not commit adultery’ also said, ‘Do not bring false testimony against your neighbour’ – and in seeking to entrap Jesus, they are playing one commandment off against another.

Jesus ignores them. Instead, he writes on the ground with his finger – a common teaching tool. Perhaps he is going back to his teaching, bringing to mind his interrupted train of thought. The more the religious thugs demand a response, the more he carries on ignoring them, refusing to be drawn into their game – their game of pretending to be more righteous than the woman; their game of pretending to be more righteous than Jesus.

Until at last, the trap springs shut: but Jesus has sidestepped it, and rescued the woman with him; the fowlers caught in their own snare. “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”

Jesus was without sin. And yet he chose to so fully identify with sinners that he sides with those who do not dare throw the first stone. He chose to identify with the very men seeking to trap him, as well as with the woman who happened to find herself caught up in their hatred. He chose not to stone the woman, but to crush the serpent’s head. He chose to point his finger not in accusation, but to point towards freedom.

This is a story about creation, un-creation, and new creation. We are all dustlings, drawn from the ground, sharing a common humanity, made for unity, made to fight for one another not against one another. Stoning someone to death is the ultimate act of un-creation: taking stones from the ground to return a dustling to dust. Jesus is not looking for un-creation, but new creation. He is stirring something in the dust, writing a new story. Yes, the woman was entrapped, but it is likely that something about how she lived her life made her vulnerable to such a trap: perhaps she would not dare to speak out the truth of this situation, because her accusers held some other secret over her. Jesus does not condemn her, but neither does he say it does not matter. It matters greatly; enough to put his own life on the line. “Go now and leave your life of sin” he tells her...and not only her, but those still close enough to overhear.

The season of Lent is an invitation to reacquaint ourselves with dust...

To rediscover our connectedness within God’s creation, where we have become disconnected...

To see our fellow dustlings with solidarity and compassion, where we have viewed them with suspicion and contempt, where we have viewed ourselves as above others...

To allow Jesus to draw patterns in the dust, our lives not set in stone but something altogether more dynamic, able to adapt.

It is a season to humble ourselves, but also to learn to love ourselves in yet another year of our decaying dustiness, our frailty and wretchedness; and to love our dusty neighbour as ourselves; as we are made new, not by our own efforts but by the One who loves us.

This Lent, may you find yourself in the dust at Jesus’ feet;

and may you wait there:

wait while he ignores the accusations brought against you, brought against him;

wait until the voices fall silent and the accusers turn away;

wait, until transformed by his grace, you are set free to go, and leave your life of sin...

Friday, February 01, 2013

Translators : Midwives : Convincers : Enthusiasts

Here is a link to my latest paper in the ‘Jesus-given’ series, looking at discipling evangelists.

After Al Hirsch et al, my premise in this series is that the primary vocations of apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd and teacher are each nuanced by our secondary preferences, resulting in great diversity. In this case, I explore the cluster of evangelist expressions, which I term translators (Evangelist-apostles), midwives (Evangelist-prophets), convincers (Evangelist-shepherds), and enthusiasts (Evangelist-teachers).