Sunday, 28 February 2010

Making Time - The Second Sunday in Lent

At the end of another busy week, with a sermon still to write, I am challenged by the need to carve out particular time for being with God. To ponder and pray. Yes, I can practise the presence of God in between times but if the church is given so many hours a week I need to give God some too.

Brother Lawrence wrote some good guidance for these times:

  • Persevere, despite the difficulties and the fact that it feels like you are wasting your time;
  • As much as you are able, keep yourself apart, with God at the centre of your soul;
  • Don't talk too much when you are praying - talking often signifies that your thoughts are wandering;
  • Come before God as though you are someone in need;
  • Focus your attention on God and on him alone;
  • Don't worry about wandering thoughts, just call your mind back quietly and gently.

I have never really had a favourite place to sit before, but now have a chair, looking out over the garden. For me it seems easier to pray and reflect if there is space around - either an horizon, or view - and silence. I used to enjoy spending time locked in an empty church, however don't now have the privilege of any holy keys. It's more about taking the opportunities that come - a quiet house when my secretary is on holiday, striking a day out in the diary for quiet and reading and enjoying a friend's hospitality or having a lone walk by the sea whilst on holiday.

I can look back at my life and see how such times have refreshed me. I learnt this in my twenties when I left the familiar surroundings of Essex to spend two years working on an East Hull housing estate. It was a most challenging time emotionally and spiritually as I sought to make connections between church and people and to make sense of God in it all. On a day off I would drive to the sea - usually Hornsea - and walk along the beach trying to make sense of my experiences. I now give thanks for that time in Hull and how my own limited understanding of God broadened and deepened during those two important years. Making space for God is no longer an option - it is one of the essentials of life.

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Day 10 Own Label

I decided yesterday to take some time out to visit somewhere I hadn't been before - Bicester Shopping Village! I have been to outlet shops many times before, but was amazed at how very up market this one was. All the big names were here - a bit like a discounted Bond Street. In fact I was overwhelmed - competely outside my comfort zone.

The shops appeared to be full of tourists in search of that designer bargain. Great for the economy, and it was good in the light of the recession to see so many people around - all carrying their (more upmarket) designer carrier bags. Designer labels are an interesting concept, on the one hand there are retailers priding themselves on offering quality goods and on the other it is all about a brand and branding. The irony is that we pay more to assist a retailer to do their marketing for them.

Whilst most of the big names at Bicester (after a discount) are out of the league of those on a clergy stipend - and how would you wear most of it with a clerical collar ? I do have some labelled goods in my wardrobe, I suppose on a smaller scale it is about quality and style. But, mostly I walk around in clothes which cannot be easily attributed to any particular store. I would like to say it is because I want to be 'me' rather than a walking advert for a shop.

This is all very interesting having just read St Paul's letter to the Galatians. At an age when for many people today identity is all about what is on the surface - the expensive brands they buy, whether it be clothes, shoes or handbags, Christians are called to wear their label through how they live. For us it is not about Gucci, Jimmy Choo or Versace, it is about faithfulness, goodness and kindness.

Friday, 26 February 2010

Day 9 Awareness and Surprise

Hanging on the metal fence which currently deems half my garden out of bounds due to building work hangs a white board marked 'Hazards'. It's to communicate to all those coming and going what hazards are 'on site'. Now, I thought, perhaps in my naivete, that poisonous substances would be listed, any chemicals or gases - not so. On closer inspection last night two hazards were noted, the first 'slips and slides' and the second 'moving machinery'. I was quite amused! It seemed quite normal to me that rain causes mud, and mud is slippery, and that bulldozers and trucks move.

In this era when we are called to explain risk, just in case it happens, what do we do about faith? Growing up in a church, where the Vicar's motto was 'faith is spelt R.I.S.K', I was taught to do, what the world now calls us not to do, to step out and see what happens. In fact, that is one of the key themes of the Christian story....being beckoned on into the unknown, and has been demonstrated by thousands of believers through the ages who have done just that. In theological terms we describe this in terms of Vocation and Growth.

Our faith gets all the more counter cultural, as the God of surprises meets us only when we move on ignoring the named hazards (persecution, temptation etc). That's important as we forge ahead as a church not really knowing what shape the church will take in the future. As an archdeacon I want to encourage congregations to take risks, and to step out and do new things. I cannot possibly name all the hazards, or predict that plans will always succeed, but what I can do is to stand alongside, and to be there as we make the journey together. That all may sound foolish by those who would like to stay put and point out the hazards - but if Christianity is to go on we have to continue to step out in faith, being fully aware of what we are doing and open to be surprised.

I await to see what other named risks turn up in my garden in the next few weeks and today give thanks that I do not know all that lies ahead and can trust in God to be with me as I walk the path of faith.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Day 8 Any dream will do?

The first two musicals I ever saw were Jesus Christ, Superstar and Joseph. Jesus Christ Superstar had just come out at the Palace Theatre (with Elaine Paige in the Chorus!) and was my first glimpse of a West End stage. About the same time my secondary school put on a production of Joseph. All of this came to mind this morning, as I reflected on the lectionary reading from Genesis - the proper Joseph story. I was left pondering how much of my gut understanding was linked to two musicals, rather than the proper text, and did that really matter?

I am sure today, thirty years later, that a good many people (probably a few generations) only know the Joseph story through the Musical. In fact, for many it is probably the best (or only) Old Testament (or Biblical) story they know. Now that can't be bad, can it? It's a story of truth and honesty overcoming deceit and envy, of an innocent victim come good in the end. A bit like Jesus Christ Superstar ! Whilst Joseph has only helped me to remember the names of the tribes of Israel, JCS in its music touched something deeper - there is a bit of depth in the emotional response of all the characters to the figure of Christ himself.

Whilst lyrics can often embellish the truth, and much of the text is left out because it doesn't have public appeal (Could you imagine a musical on Jeremiah for example!), we cannot ignore the power of music and words. Practising the Presence of God causes us to do theology in the wider context of life. In my experience it's all about discovering God in the lyric explicitly or implicitly; discovering and reflecting upon new truth in the Biblical text; and experiencing themes like redemption, resurrection and sanctification in things we see (here Billy Eliot, Blood Brothers, Les Miserables all come to mind). So today, trying to find the truth in the 'cheese', let's reflect on some lyrics:

Joseph wanted to resist her, till one day she proved too eager
Joseph cried in vain 'Please stop I don't believe in free love'
Potiphar was counting sheckels, in his den below the bedroom
When he heard a mighty rumpus, clattering above him
Suddenly he knew his riches
Couldn't buy him what he wanted
Gold would never make him happy
If she didn't love him

Look at all my trials and tribulations
Sinking in a gentle pool of wine
What's that in the bread it's gone to my head
Till this morning is this evening life is fine.
Always hoped that I'd be an apostle
Knew that I would make it if I tried
Then when we retire we can write the gospels
So they'll all talk about us when we've died.

I only ask things I'd ask any superstar
What is it that you have got that puts you where you are?
I am waiting, yes, I'm a captive fan
I am dying to be shown that you are not just any man.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Day 7 Bricks and Mortar

This morning was all about buildings. Not only am I literally surrounded by builders - building an extension here, but the Buckingham Archdeaconry Buildings Committee held its meeting here. By nine o'clock 6 vans had parked and two lorries had made deliveries, and at ten seven more cars arrived in the drive.

When I first started this job it was hard to get excited by diocesan property, however more and more I see its importance strategically in resourcing parishes to be best equipped to do the work of the kingdom. Good stewardship in the maintenance of houses and their development, purchase and sale is key. We are trying to have a flexible approach, particularly when it comes to deploying curates, and making the most of diocesan assets. Care is also important, as the condition of a house and provision of good public and private facilities, makes such a difference to personal ministry. For over two years now there has not been adequate building separation between my public and private worlds, and so I too am beginning to be very appreciative to builders, surveyors and property managers for making that possible. Only nine more weeks to go....

My grandfather was a builder, and my parents, on becoming engaged built, with his help, their own bungalow. That house proved to be (and still is 56 years later) a happy family home. Today I am so grateful for that, because, more than anything else, that has taught me both practically and spiritually what building is really all about.

Day 6 A trolley-full of blessings

As a further lenten discipline for 2010 I am 'Counting my Blessings' with Christian Aid . I am joining in looking again at the good things in life and changing the lives of others living in poverty across the world. Each day there is a challenging statement and then a personal challenge to give to the work of overseas mission.

I have just been practising the presence of God in the supermarket. It was a good time to do it as there were only a few checkouts open! Difficult people, slow checkouts and trying to use my money off coupons were a good challenge, but more so was the Christian Aid one. This week I read that 'poor people in developing countries spend 50 - 80% of their income on food.' The challenge - to give 5p for every pound spent in a supermarket. When my bill was totted up - it raised my donation to Christian Aid by £5.85! I don't go shopping every week, but it made me ponder something else in the queue - not just how much I spend on food compared to those in other parts of the world, but also how much I have available to spend on other things.

Loving Father
Often we forget your gifts to us,
letting them pass unnoticed through each day.
Show us how to look again, to see through your eyes
and give freely in response to what we see.
And often we forget those who struggle -
those whose greatest need is lost among our riches.
help us to look again,
to see through your eyes.
You gave so freely. help us freely give.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Day 5 Preaching to Myself

I read once that writing a sermon should be regarded as holding up a mirror to your own soul. In other words all preachers should pay as much attention in their own lives to the words they speak to others. That's quite a challenge.

Recently I have been asked to visit a number of churches to preach on the diocesan Living Faith vision and last evening I was in Padbury with the Buckingham deanery. Each time I preach about living faith I am challenged about my own life as an archdeacon in relation to the mission of the church. Viewed one way the role of archdeacon can be rather unexciting - administrative, legalistic, detailed and prescriptive. Viewed another, I am first and foremost called by God to be a Christian. So as I speak about the task we are all called to of Making Disciples I realise that my own life has to be a witness to others; as I speak about Collaborative Leadership I have to remember that we am not called to work in isolation but in partnership working with and encouraging others; as I talk about Creating Vibrant Christian Communities I am aware that I need too to give my energy and enthusiasm to the local church and to enable those I meet to be the people God has called them to be. As I preach about Making a Difference in the World I am aware of my calling as an ambassador for the gospel wherever God takes me.

Lent is a time when we consider how much we fall short of God's purposes for us. That certainly happens when I reflect on what I preach. So I was extremely grateful last night to sing this well known hymn:

O thou who camest from above,
the fire celestial to impart,
kindle a flame of sacred love
on the mean altar of my heart.
There let it for thy glory burn
with inextinguishable blaze,
and trembling to its source return
in humble prayer and fervent praise.
Jesus, confirm my heart's desire
to work, and speak and think for thee;
still let me guard the holy fire
and still stir up the gift in me.
Ready for all thy perfect will,
my acts of faith and love repeat,
till death thy endless mercies seal,
and make the sacrifice complete.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Sustaining the Sacred Centre - First Sunday in Lent

In the Buckingham episcopal area of Oxford Diocese, we are encouraging all clergy to take an extra day off each week during Lent. Six days for them to sustain their sacred centres, that is do something that will re-energise themselves and sustain them in their ministry. We have suggested forty things they might do, and maybe this blog will produce some more ideas.

With most days of Lent accounted for in my own diary, I am much challenged by our idea. However, as archdeacon I am experiencing my own space. For the first twelve years of ordained ministry I was up at 6.30am most Sunday mornings to sustain an 8am service. It was an important time for me, and the 8am congregation in my former parish were very special. Now, I find myself booked for the 10am, or even 9.30am and sometimes only the 6.30pm service somewhere in the archdeaconry but hardly ever the 8am, so I find myself with an extra few hours spare. I could easily spend Sunday morning (when I am not out and about) working, sat at my desk ploughing through the paperwork, but find it is becoming increasingly a time to do some of the things I don't find time for anywhere else - such as doing the sudoko's in Saturday's paper, or reading a magazine. Today I have a baked a sponge cake! Finding God in the ordinariness of life, means deliberately making the ordinary extra-ordinary. I hope other clergy discover that too.

In you, Lord, I live and move and have my being,

In me, Lord, you live and move and have your being.

Brother Ramon

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Day 4 Life with Soap

I realised yesterday that for more than half my life Eastenders has been my companion! I haven't watched it solidly for twenty five years, but at various times have found my self gripped by a storyline and compelled to make it part of my weekly routine. In fact Brookside, Neighbours, Coronation Street have all been there, to a lesser degree, as parallel narratives to my own, rather less dramatic, real life. In fact all have been a significant bit of escapism for me - and the weekend omnibus editions a real treat. Last night's live edition of Eastenders however, could not be left to be part of the Sunday omnibus, and although I had missed much of the run-up 'live' had to be live.

It was a gripping episode and the acting (sometimes criticised in soaps) superb. The revelation of who really did kill Archie Mitchell coming totally unexpectedly at the end. I wonder whether Brother Lawrence found escapism in the monastery kitchen? The practical preoccupation with food preparation, acting as part of the rhythm of work and rest? or am I just justifying my own interest in the dramatic portrayal of real life on television ? Reading the Bible however, particularly the Old Testament, can feel sometimes like viewing an edition of Eastenders - lust, adultery, greed, selfishness, love, pride, violence, murder - they are all there, as is a search for some kind of morality, the human spirit that shines through, the attempts to make sense of life, with or without God. It may be a bit far fetched that so much happens in one small square in just twenty five years, but the issues of life are all there. Perhaps, like the Bible, it is not for us to make sense of everything, but to enjoy it for what it is, and attempt to name the glimmers of goodness in the ordinariness, and often drama, of life.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Day 3 Avoiding the Fast Lane

The M11, or the scenic route ? those were my options leaving Ely yesterday to travel down to see my parents in Essex. It was raining, and although my Sat Nav gave me the quicker and more direct option, in the end I chose the scenic route. I could have described it as tedious, hard work changing gear at every corner, and not really scenic in the rain. It seemed to take forever getting through Chelmsford in the rush hour - and yet, after four very intense days the slower drive caused me to relax, unwind and gradually leave behind the heavy responsibility of peoples lives. It was only a few days ago, driving (or hurtling) down the M4 that I thanked God that there was no motorway linking north and south Buckinghamshire. Yes, there are dual carriageways to overtake that slow lorry or tractor, but all routes take you through proper places and, as one who enjoys places, it has meant a feeling of connection with the area for which I am responsible. Going north of Aylesbury Waddesden, Whitchurch and Wing have become my friends depending on my destination, and south Princes Risborough and Gt Missenden serve as gateways to Wycombe and Slough, and all remind me of community, and reality, of church and people. I think that is what keeps me grounded as I spend hours in the car. Yesterday it was Haverhill, Sible Heddingham, Braintree and Stock - reminding me very much of grandparents, and childhood. What a difference from the motorway, where I would have seen nothing but the car in front, the spray from lorries, and the occasional 'welcome break'.

So often my life is lived in the fast lane, going from thing to thing. To deliberately choose to take the slow road (literally) yesterday was a privilage. Yet, if we chose it from time to time, or appreciate it when we can, we will be surprised by what can happen in the space it creates.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Day 2 Holy Listening

Whilst training for ordination I had the unexpected opportunity to go on a short counselling course at Bristol University. Paid for by the FE college, where I had a placement, this course taught me the fine art of reflective listening. Looking back I can see that going on this course was no accident, it gave me some essential skills for the future - which at the time was unknown to me. Reflective listening however wasn't the only skill I have needed to develop, in the Christian context it has to be integrated with what I call Holy Listening. The task of discernment of sorting out mentally the wheat from the chaff; the ability to distinguish between personal desire and God at work; making sense of the hunch or the intuitive response and using it effectively to move someone on, or make a perceptive insight or challenge by naming that which could remain unsaid.

Today I give thanks for spiritual directors, friends and mentors who have listened to me in a holy way over the years and seen God at work there through my words spoken to them. Listening for God's insights is not always easy and is something I will go on learning. It has been an essential tool over the last few days here in Ely and, at a time, when many clergy need someone to walk alongside them and listen, when Ministry Development Review is becoming more and more important and time is scarce, it is something to willingly offer.

Day 1 Telling Tales on Ash Wednesday.....

On Ash Wednesday I find myself on the third day of a Bishop’s Advisory Panel, where I and two other Advisors are assessing eight candidates on their calling to enter training for the ordained ministry.

It’s a fascinating experience, and quite a responsibility holding their complete lives, with warts and all, up to God’s light for inspection and analysis. But what a privilege to hear each of their stories of God’s call on their lives, to listen to their reactions to situations and see the way they are already being used in the church and the world.

For each of us, it takes a while, in the story of our lives to recognise God’s presence. It may be he gives us a sudden jolt, or we uncover something of God’s being a layer at a time. Perhaps he comes as Christ in an event when something like scales are lifted from our eyes, or in the realisation that life must be more than just a routine. If God is in us, then he too is in others, which makes our relationships, our community building, our love for our neighbour even more important.

So on Day One of my Lenten Journey I need to look at myself and ‘name’ God in my own story, and then look at those I meet with the same sense of appreciation and care.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Nicholas Herman, better known as Brother Lawrence, found himself working in the kitchen of a busy monastery. Earlier he had experienced a Damascus road type conversion as he stood and gazed at a fruit tree that 'spoke to him more eloquently than any sermon. He was persuaded, just by looking, that the Creator must be good and was overwhelmed by a sense of God's all consuming love. He gave his life to the service of God and joined the Carmelite monastery in Paris.

The kitchen is the busiest part of the monastery, the monks who work there get up an hour or so before the first office of the day. It was a pressure chamber, definitely the 'fast lane' yet Brother Lawrence managed to keep his serenity no matter what. He felt as tranquil and at peace in the kitchen as he did when he was on his knees in the monastery chapel. So how did he do it? Because he believed that we may encounter God anywhere. He wrote 'There is no place on earth where we cannot draw near to God.'

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Sustaining the Sacred Centre

Lots of people around me seem to have time to blog. At the end of a twelve day run of 29 meetings it's enough just to survive and keep up with the emails, yet alone ponder and post. But, in all the busyness, there is an ongoing personal relationship with God which sustains me day by day. It's there in the inner dialogue of prayer, in the words people speak, in the glimpses of beauty across the Buckinghamshire countyside. So as we put an emphasis in the Oxford diocese, during 2010, to 'Sustain the Sacred Centre' I am going to spend each day of Lent blogging about where in the busyness of it all we can find God.

Teach me my God and King
in all things thee to see,
and what I do in anything
to do it as for thee.

A servant with this clause
makes drudgery divine:
who sweeps a room, as for thy laws
Makes that and the action fine.

George Herbert