The house that God built – 1 Kings 8 and Luke 7:1-10

All Saints' Church Basingstoke, photographed in 2009 during my Reader Training Placement
All Saints’ Church Basingstoke, photographed in 2009 during my Reader Training Placement

This morning’s sermon was for the occasion of the ‘Friends of All Saints Basingstoke’ annual Eucharist (followed by an excellent bring and share lunch!) (Note: colleagues with whom I might be undertaking preaching practice next weekend probably don’t want to read it – they’ll be hearing something similar!)

Lord, take my words and speak through them,
take our thoughts and think through them,
take our hearts & set them on fire with love for you
through the power of the Holy Spirit,
and in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Four years ago, this church took in a foreigner. She wasn’t from these parts. She came from another place, somewhere outside this town, though not so far away that she couldn’t commute quite comfortably for services and the like.

She was warmly welcomed, challenged about the importance of certain Christian traditions, had her calling questioned, was perhaps healed of certain prejudices, though probably not all of them, and once departed, was invited back.

Then, I was a trainee Reader. Now, I am a trainee priest. This place, and you people, have been part of the journey of this ‘foreigner’, one element of God’s grace visible in my life, and it is wonderful to celebrate with you today as a Friend of All Saints.

“Foreigner” is a rather loaded word these days. It possibly conjures up in our minds other words: on the safe side it might infer “tourist” or as some New Forest folk say when sat in a traffic jam, “grockel”! Less helpfully it comes loaded with words like “immigrant”, or “racist”. Sadly, it may therefore no longer be a word that always holds a welcome.

In our Old Testament reading this morning, “foreigner” refers to someone from outside the Promised Land, an occasional visitor who bore no part in the life of Israel. Meanwhile, the centurion of our Gospel reading was a Roman and therefore presumably Gentile, a non-Jew.

And yet because God’s gifts are available to all who call on his name, the expectation in both cases is that God will act: Solomon asks that God will act according to all that the foreigner asks of him (1 Kings 8:43), and the centurion declares: “only speak the word, and let my servant be healed” (Luke 7:7).

Perhaps surprisingly, but in common with all the people of Israel, once in the land of their covenant promise, the foreigner of Solomon’s prayer is only expected to pray towards the house of God’s name, the new Temple in Jerusalem. It is being in the land and honouring the authority of God’s name that is important.

And in this version of the healing of the centurion’s servant, the centurion doesn’t enter Christ’s presence in person, but rather in his humility sends representatives to speak on his behalf. The centurion sends the Jewish elders to seek Jesus’ healing for his servant, because of what “he heard about Jesus”. It is God’s authority heard to be active in Jesus, that is so attractive.

Much as there is a building involved in both these stories, the Temple made by Solomon, and the synagogue funded by the centurion, it is not the buildings that attract the faith of those outside of these places of worship, it is what they have heard of God. It is God’s name, “his mighty hand and outstretched arm”, and God revealed in the person of Jesus, that in words of our Psalm this morning have the authority to “Declare his glory among the nations, his marvellous deeds among all peoples.” (Psalm 96:3)

Solomon after all, despite, or almost because of his Temple building exploits, was about to prove that unfaithfulness destroys the people of God, rather than attract people to faith. Solomon suggests that the Temple honours the covenant that brought the people of Israel to the Promised Land, and the promises that brought about his kingship. But he’d built it not in partnership with his fellow Israelites, but with Israel’s indentured labour and foreign craftsmanship and materials.

If you read on through 1 Kings, Solomon will also show his lack of understanding regarding his responsibility to the land God has covenanted to Israel, through his sale of twenty cities as a gratuity to the timber suppliers. The intention was that the name of God prayed over the Temple should highlight God’s presence, making it a listening post and sounding board for God. Instead, the list of Solomon’s prayers surrounding this mornings passage, makes it seem that he’s put God in a box, like some performing animal, required to do tricks on cue!

The centurion on the other hand, was a seeker whose synagogue honoured what St. Paul would later describe as his “unknown god” (Acts 17:23), and which celebrated the faith of a conquered people. He had built a relationship with the Jewish community that led him to hear about Jesus. All this had brought him to a point where he could proclaim with humility the healing purposes of God revealed in Christ in a way many Jews couldn’t bring themselves to acknowledge. Unlike Solomon’s shopping list to God, the faith of the centurion had integrity.

So, when we build a house of God, it isn’t really the building, however formal or ornate we make it, that proclaims the authority of God to those who may contribute to, or see it from a distance. Rather it is the integrity with which we show ourselves to be “living stones, being built into a spiritual house” (1 Peter 2:5) that proclaims the authority of Christ “as the chief cornerstone in whom the building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord” (Eph 2:20-21).

Today, it is probably better to think about the “foreigner” as the “stranger in our midst”. Though it might not fit his spirituality, there is the famous quote of W.B.Yeats that “There are no strangers, only friends you have not met yet”, which holds within it a note of God’s mission to the world, in which we are called to collaborate by reaching out to the stranger and the stranger’s need, in a way which names our faith.

Though I don’t subscribe to the doom-merchants of church statistics who proclaim the decline of faith in God, it is very easy to slip into the habit when thinking about mission, of measuring its success by the statistics of bums on seats! Solomon’s prayer, for all its faults, asks the question of our modern context: do we expect too much by wanting the strangers who know the name and acknowledge the authority of God, to enter the churches we’ve constructed to make his name visible in our communities?

Although it is right to celebrate and proclaim his name in worship and fellowship within God’s house, we know God’s authority and commission stretches beyond the walls of our churches. I believe that the success of such projects as Street Pastors is because they are done in God’s name, by his power, and that his name used wisely still has an authority that people trust.

Then again, Luke’s account of the centurion’s humble faith, begs the question: who are the representative voices of our communities, and what are the stories of distress and pain that they are trying to share with us? Our communities are often transient and encountered only briefly in their births, deaths and marriages. At the same time it seems that even if the passing strangers of our car parks and alley ways are daily visitors, there is no means to share their pleasures or understand their pain without translating their graffiti or picking up the broken glass of their lives. Who are their spokespeople, and what are their concerns? Does their individualism isolate us from attending to God’s mission?

When I read this morning’s Gospel, I am left wondering about the Jewish elders who spoke up for the centurion who built their synagogue. They honoured the giver, the stranger in their own land, by leading Jesus toward him. They heard the testimony of his friends who met them on the road, proclaiming the centurion’s faith that God was at work in Jesus Christ. I wonder if, when they returned together with his friends to the centurion’s home, they too believed?

Throughout the week, whilst working through these passages, I’ve been reminded of an old nursery rhyme and cumulative tale, about the house that Jack built. You may recall it from your childhood, as I do from mine. It doesn’t tell the story of Jack’s house, or even of Jack who built the house, but instead shows how the house is indirectly linked to other things and people, and through this method tells the story of “The man all tattered and torn”, and the “Maiden all forlorn”, as well as other smaller events, showing how these are interlinked.

As we worship in and quite rightly celebrate this house of God a gift of promise to the people of Basingstoke, we remember today Solomon and the centurion who each built houses for God, and for his people. But perhaps we too need to remember that unless we engage with people outside of the building in the name of Jesus, then we aren’t really engaged in the mission of God that makes us the living stones of the Kingdom, to which Jesus Christ brought healing:

If, this is the house that God built,
then these are the chairs a little bit worn,
that seat the people who worship the Christ,
and make up the house that God built.

Here are the streets that carry the strangers,
who mutter in pain and worry and fret,
but don’t see these chairs a little bit worn,
that seat the people who worship the Christ,
and make up the house that God built.

Here are stories of God in action,
that name the faith which proclaims and heals,
hid from the streets that carry the strangers,
who mutter in pain and worry and fret,
but don’t see these chairs a little bit worn,
that seat the people who worship the Christ,
and make up the house that God built.

Here’s the hope of the people of God,
who only return to restore their strength,
with some of their stories of God in action,
that name the faith that proclaims and heals,
out in the streets among the strangers,
who’d muttered in pain and worry and fret,
but don’t need the chairs a little bit worn,
that seat the people who worship the Christ,
who are the house that God built.

 

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What do you pray aloud before a sermon?

The pulpit at All Saints Basingstoke
The pulpit at All Saints Basingstoke

I’m back preaching on Sunday, for the first time in 10 months. I’m back in a proper pulpit for the first time since… I can’t remember when.

In my present church, we usually preach from a little portable lectern on the dais, not one of the matching lecterns either side the altar slightly further back. Often, the service leader will pray for the preacher before they start their sermon. Otherwise the preacher just launches in. Sometimes I’ve been comfortable doing that – especially if I’ve got a particularly strong opening to a sermon – but sometimes it doesn’t feel quite right.

I’m a guest preacher, on a special occasion, at All Saints, Basingstoke this weekend. It would be appropriate I feel, to offer a prayer before I preach. I will need it to settle myself into a now unfamiliar routine and place just as much as I think it right to formally recognise that what is offered before God and the people may need the ‘babel-fish’ of the Holy Spirit to speak into people’s hearts and minds.

But what words to use? (They might not get the Hitch-Hikers reference, or feel it appropriate!)

“In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” is true, but it’s a bit formal and stuffy for me.

“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing to you, O LORD” (Psalm 19:14) is in the same league.

I’ve heard some lovely prayers from pulpits over the years, often thought I should ‘write that one down’ for future reference, but I never have.

So, as I ponder something that has authenticity for me (which may I realise be different in different circumstances), if you feel able to share some of your favourite prayers before preaching, I’d really welcome your encouragement and guidance.

The Sepulchre Experience – The women’s tale

Will you light a candle for the women at the sepulchre? (Minstead Church, November 2012)

For the open day celebrating ‘Life and Lives Lived’ at All Saints’ Minstead, my father was asked to select a reflection on the sepulchre to leave out for people to read. He didn’t. Instead he was inspired to write this retelling of the Gospel which seems to echo something of what Rt Revd Steven Croft has said, and which concludes with what I pray may be a prophesy:

We had no rights. Our laws were strict. As girls we were under the control of our fathers. When we married, which was expected of us, control passed to our husband and we became his property.

As an eldest child we did not inherit our father’s estate; that would pass to our oldest brother. Single women, or those widowed, rarely got the respect they deserved. Women took no part in our religious ceremonies. The rite of membership, that of circumcision, was inscribed in one of our early scrolls, and so as women we were excluded. (Genesis 17:10)

This exclusion was accentuated at the Temple where we were confined to the Court of Women which was nineteen steps higher than the Court of Gentiles, but fifteen steps lower than the Court of Israel. We were still further excluded by Temple rules which viewed the rhythm of our feminine biological clocks as something unclean.

Some few of us made successful lives of our own and because we had not married, were sometimes classed together with the street women who plied their trade. We moved on era by era until we heard of a new prophet who was travelling around Galilee. He had healed several of us and also cured Simon’s mother of fever.

He told how he had been sent by his Father, our God, to fulfil the ancient scriptures. We believed, and so were given a new beginning to our lives as women. We came out from the shadow of the Temple and the old restrictive laws and became empowered to serve fully in the new freedom of his Church.

Our friend Luke recorded many of these wonderful times in his account of the life of this Jesus who had grown up in Nazareth, and you read them as Luke 8:

After this Jesus travelled from one town and village to another proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases. They included Mary (called Magdalene), Joanna the wife of Cuza who was Herod’s steward, Susanna, Salome the wife of Zebedee, and many other women. These women helped support the men out of their own means.

This Jesus was both remote and yet intimately close; a presence like no other man. He spread the news that the Kingdom of God was among us, all were welcome and that we as women were fully part of it.

So many folk came to hear him and took to his new Way of living that the priests felt threatened and fabricated charges against him. We were at his ‘trial’, a mockery of justice.

They were afraid that the freedom, justice and equality Jesus preached as a fulfilment of Scripture would diminish their power base. The Roman governor Pilate could find no fault in him. He did not listen to his wife Claudia when she recounted her dream, but bowed to pressure from the priests and allowed our friend Jesus to be crucified.

A group of us stood there by his cross, totally bereft. With us were Mary his mother and her sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, Salome, and Mary Magdalene. The soldiers realised he had died and so we were spared the final agony of seeing his bones broken.

‘Jesus is taken down from the cross’ Station XIII from All Saints’ Basingstoke

As the Day of Preparation drew to a close, Joseph from Arimathea gained Pilate’s permission to take Jesus’ body to the tomb he had bought for himself. Nicodemus had brought embalming spices and together they completed the rituals and sealed the tomb with a large rock.

We had lost him and were leaderless. We all feared were were being spied on, so observed the Passover; but before dawn the next day one of us went to the tomb and in amazement found the stone had been rolled away and that the tomb was empty. She ran and told the others. Several of the men went back with her, looked and went away in great sadness not knowing what to believe. But she was drawn in her own grief to stay in the garden and find a closeness to him in that place where his body had rested.

Through her tears she saw a man she thought was the gardener who asked the reason for her grief. She could only reply, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know what they’ve done with him.” In a voice she never expected to hear again he spoke her name, “Mary,… tell the others I will meet them in Galilee.”

He had chosen one of us, his women companions, to carry to the world the message of his Resurrection. In that brief moment he confirmed that his Church was one without discrimination between the sexes. Years later his apostle Paul put it like this when he wrote to the Galatians:

You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

But those fruitful years were short and generations of women were once more marginalised, until in your time a degree of enlightenment dawned and our sex can again live the Resurrection Day experience of being called by name to serve in his Church.

By the time you read this, the last barrier may have been removed, and we will have received his final blessing of complete equality with our fellow male believers.

Michael Clarke, 20th October 2012

He and I are supporting the Yes 2 Women Bishops Campaign. Can you?

OK God: Your Call! (Being recommended for ordination training) #fb

The octagon of Ely Cathedral, showing the central figure of Christ in Glory - photographed immediately before my BAP, 26th March 2012

The last few weeks have proved to be the culmination of an eighteen month journey which has changed the whole focus of my future ministry. The final stages of this journey have taken place through Lent, and therefore it seems only right to share my news on Easter Morning!

Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!!

For many years (preceding my training and licensing as a Reader in October 2009), various friends and associates have encouraged me to consider ordination, and I have tried hard to ignore it, taking the whole idea as a bit of a joke.

Becoming a Reader was, I now realise, part of the process God put me through to help me take the idea a little more seriously; a time too when I could focus on learning to preach and teach. In the final year of training various people, including some at my placement parish at All Saints Basingstoke, wondered if one day in the future I’d get ordained. Even as I was licensed I was aware that I didn’t quite ‘fit’ Reader ministry, but I thought this was due to my own inadequacies, rather than anything else; still I refused to take the idea of ordination seriously.

Before Paul, our previous vicar at St Peter’s Yateley left in July 2010, he challenged me to seriously consider whether I was in fact called to be ordained. [He actually pinned me up against a wall, in front of my husband, and said he’d had a vision of me taking my first wedding… “and you know what that means!” were his exact words!]

Paul was fond of telling us to test if ‘words of knowledge’ could be put down to “too much cheese” or were really ‘of God’. I promised him I would take the idea seriously, but hoped I could put that off till after the summer. Yet, his challenge was unwittingly echoed by the Royal Navy Padre (now Archdeacon to the Royal Navy) that I worked with on the Royal Marine funeral I assisted with a couple of weeks later. Why, this gentleman asked, was I a Reader and not a Priest?

Then again, before the end of August that summer, our friend (and previous curate at St Peter’s) challenged me over lunch at her house one Sunday: “When are you going to do something about the priesthood?”

It seemed like God was shouting at me to find out why it was that so many people I respected and trusted where saying this to me so vehemently, because I simply didn’t get what they saw in me that said ‘priest’.

To cut a long story short, in the months that followed, with the help and guidance of various people and books, I quickly came to understand that my passion for the church’s place in the community, the more sacramental forms of worship (in its widest sense), and the wider mission of the church (like those I have worked with through Mothers’ Union and my involvement preparing people for ‘occasional offices‘), were all elements of “me” that marked me out as a potential candidate for priesthood. I ached to ‘bless’ people, to come alongside them on God’s behalf in a way that I’m not totally able to as a Reader. It is like wearing a straight-jacket – Reader Ministry fits, but doesn’t give the freedom to really minister in the way I believe God is truly calling me to do.

I now realise that for me, I had to be a Reader to recognise for myself the call to priesthood that others had already identified as the pattern of my future ministry.

Part of the process has also included the setting aside of other foci in my life, including some of the things that had contributed to me reaching this point. For example, before my final selection conference I told fellow Mothers’ Union Trustees in the Diocese of Winchester that I wouldn’t be standing for election at the next triennial (having already set aside editing the MU Diocesan Newsletter ‘Archway’ last year.)

The beautiful garden (and view of Ely Cathedral) at Bishop Woodford House, where my BAP took place.

I understand that for me, the process of discernment and selection has been relatively swift at 18 months. Every advisor and interviewer I have seen, has whole-heartedly endorsed the view that I am called to ordination and this has, I understand, been fully confirmed by the reports that Bishop Jonathan Frost has apparently received following my Bishop’s Advisory Panel (BAP) in Ely in the week before Holy Week. The most important thing about this final part of selection, was the overwhelming sense of God’s peace I experienced, particularly on the first day but throughout this three day selection conference, and also the fact that I enjoyed what was three days of jolly hard work in a stressful situation – especially the three, hour-long interviews!

Bishop Jonathan phoned me with the news that I have been recommended for training for ordination following the Chrism Mass at which he preached in Winchester Cathedral on Maundy Thursday 5th April 2012.

I am so pleased that after being able to share the news with the parish in which I grew up (All Saints, Minstead in the New Forest) on Good Friday; the news will become completely public in St. Peter’s Yateley after Holy Communion on Easter Morning. As I write on Holy Saturday, it feels like someone is finally taking the cork out of a well-shaken bottle of champagne! Finally I can share all the important things that God has been saying to me over the last year or so 😉

So in the coming months I will become what is known as an ‘ordinand’. Since I have already completed a Foundation Degree in Christian Ministry and Theology as part of my Reader Training, I have been asked to complete only two years further part-time studies (rather than three.) This will be at Ripon College Cuddesdon, through a variation of their Oxford Ministry Course. The college is South-East of Oxford and just over an hour’s drive from Yateley. I shall visit college weekly, with two additional weekends training per term, and a summer school. The really scary bit for me is that though registered initially for a Post-Graduate Diploma, this may actually lead to an MA at the end of those two years.

My responsibilities and involvement in St Peter’s will also change, the details of which will probably become clearer over time. What I know at this stage is that with a new vicar in place, those advising me in our Diocesan Discipleship and Ministry Department are content to let me continue worshipping in Yateley as an ordinand. After I have been ordained – likely to be the summer of 2014, I will need to serve a curacy elsewhere in the Diocese; all that lies in the future.

I seem to have said so much, yet know it also is so little of what I have thought and wanted to share over the months. For those that are interested, or want to know more about how one person experienced the process of discernment and selection for ordination in the Church of England, I will write more in the coming weeks.

The back of Alton Abbey during my pre-BAP retreat March 24th 2012

To those who have been part of and prayed for this ‘hidden’ journey, to my colleagues and our new vicar Andy who has encouraged me on the final leg of the journey, to my spiritual director who has helped more than I can ever really reveal, to the DDOs and advisors, and to the monks of Alton Abbey who give me space to think, my particular thanks and praise for all their love and encouragement.

To my family who have cheered me on, and are sharing this journey for the long-haul, I am unendingly grateful – I love them all massively.

And to God, for making himself heard through the babble of my disbelief and inadequate understanding of who he has called me to be, in Jesus name and in the power of the Holy Spirit: To God, be the Glory, Great things He has done!

Why I’m going to Greenbelt #GB11

Today I received my first ever Festival wristband in the post!

I’ve only ever spent two nights under canvas (in a friends field), and don’t own a tent. I have spinal issues which cause me pain, especially if I stand a lot, or get cold. I’m not that keen on large crowds and like space for thinking in peace and quiet. So… why, oh why, am I going to Greenbelt?!

I am what you might call a ‘Greenbelt virgin’… though officially I’m known as a First Time Christian Leader. I was persuaded to explore the idea via various folk who have been really supportive of me during our recent vacancy; folk like Good In Parts, the Fibre Fairy and Laurence Gamlen. The offer a discount (a Reader it seems is in ‘Christian Leadership’ – which is actually an encouragement in itself) helped a lot – my ticket for the whole weekend is costing me £25! The fact that Tangerine Fields provide a pre-set tent with AIR mattress, sleeping bag, stove and kettle, also made it rather attractive to a rooky participant who will be abandoned by her family with rucksack and cooly box at the gate on Friday to fend for myself over the weekend. The plan is that I will be claimed by my lovely placement vicar from All Saints, Basingstoke, on the Monday and brought back to Hampshire; she’s been telling me for two years that I really ought to go!

But why make all the effort? Well in no particular order:

  • I want to meet some of the people I’ve made friends with on Twitter;
  • I’d like to experience some alternative forms of worship. The iMass appeals because of what I think will be mix of sacramental worship and rock music partly hosted by Blessed; I would love to experience the Jazz Church, Grace is something I heard about when I first started blogging , and to calm down after all that I guess I’ll find the folk of Taize!
  • Mothers’ Union are focusing on their efforts on the Family Life Programme in Uganda, the only MU project overseas I’ve had the privilege to visit, and our great Chief Exec, Reg Bailey is speaking – I’d like to support both;
  • If I can get my brain to work, I’d also like to hear Paula Gooder again (having heard her talk 3 years ago at a Diocesan Lent Lecture), as well as John Bell, Margaret Sentamu, and Nadia Bolz-Weber whose skin tells the story!
  • I love folk music, and have particularly wanted to hear Kate Rusby and Show of Hands (whose ‘Roots’ is my mobile ring-tone) live for several years – both are appearing at Greenbelt, along with the Unthanks!
  • Mostly I want to be part of a ‘coming together’ of all those people that call themselves ‘Christian’, aren’t so worried about the other labels we tend to attach to ourselves, and are willing to listen to each other and those of no faith at all, in an effort to make the world a better place!

What I need to work out is what, among all this and plenty more, will most feed my development as a minister, and help me preach and create worship that might help the people of a ‘Middle England’ parish to be touched by God.

If I manage to achieve even half of that, and sleep, I shall be impressed! What I’m just waiting for now is my ticket to turn up, and the programme to be published (hopefully next week) so I can start planning how it’s all going to fit together. It just leaves you to let me know if you’re going to be there too 🙂

A dogged focus on values

I’m looking forward to the next session of the St Peter’s group that is working on identifying values that we discern are important to us as a church for the future. This is the work we’ve been developing with Laurence Gamlen of CPAS since a ‘brainstorming’ session across the church leadership during the ‘great snow’ earlier in the year. Personally, I am finding it an awe-inspiring and humbling experience to be part of the small group that has been charged with the task of discerning God-given values that are specific to us, and will need to taught, shared and lived by a whole church community in the coming years.

I therefore found this post from Bishop Alan a real encouragement and inspiration today. It first grabbed my attention because it talks about the NHS Trust in which I gave birth to our son in ’97 – at Heatherwood in Ascot (on a sunny race day in February). But I kept reading because of the evident enthusiasm for values driven leadership – and his clarity that these people who were living out values were

interested in the unvarnished truth… [showing] just workmanlike pragmatism, and a dogged focus on values… [Bishop Alan goes on to say…] if you stick with your values and resist cutting corners, in the end, you will do a better job. That takes real courage and, dare I say it, faith. I wish some churches felt freer to be honest about what’s not working, more rigorous in not cutting corners and tolerating crapada.

These are thoughts I think we will need to share and hang on to (if necessary by our fingernails, but preferably with a firm grip) if St Peter’s is going to become a values driven church.

Last time we met, our little group at St Ps reminded ourselves that we should be praying/expecting the values we discern will challenge behaviours and cause structural as well as personal transformation of St. Peter’s – obviously something that Bishop Alan saw being lived out at Wexham Park. That’s going to be the really tough bit – our work is only just beginning. Laurence keeps reminding us that it will mean that we will constantly have to measure what we plan against the values we decided upon. He uses the word ‘intentional’ a lot – living out our values as a community will mean a lot of concentration on the content of all our words and actions, before we say/do them.

FWIW so far we’ve looked at our

  • Outward focus (how we want our relationships with those outside the church to be) and come up with the word ALONGSIDEDNESS (lousy English but it seemed to sum up a load of words like: Welcoming, Accepting, Unconditional love, Non-judging, Openness, Honesty, Attentive, Supportive)
  • Upward focus (how we want our relationship with God to be) and came up with the phrases like TIME FOR GOD AND OTHERS and ENCOUNTER THAT TRANSFORMS
  • Inward focus (how we want to develop a more intimate fellowship) and are working around characteristics like
    Loving, Welcomed, Cared for, Listened to, Encouraged, Time (again!), Generosity, Trusted, Friendly, and Support – the idea of SANCTUARY also seems important. What we need to find is a word or phrase that encompasses these… I’m praying and thinking about the phrase GRACE-FULL?
Crucifix on the Screen at All Saints Basingstoke

My thoughts around my recent sermon on forgiving are that we are all frail humans who have a tendancy to fail, and that learning to forgive each other for the lash-ups we make along the way (in part because we are all individuals with different personalities) is going to be a key tool to progress – part of that “unvarnished truth” that Bishop Alan talks about. I wonder how FORGIVING becomes part of the living out of a set of values, or whether it is indeed a value in itself?

Me thinks that possibly looking at the cross gives us the answer.

Luke 13:1-9 – Frightened of failure or bearing fruit?

Given that there’s been some hits on my thoughts last week on the Lent 3 readings, you may be interested to read how it came out in the wash! I’m not sure that my previous thoughts bear much relation to the resulting sermon: it involves a real live fig tree (which I completely failed to photograph… will try to next month!), and rabbits in headlights, plus a little political comment – as well as updating the good folks of All Saints Basingstoke with a little of my current life!

FWIW: Are we so frightened of failure that we’re failing to bear fruit? Sermon Luke 13v1-9

It was great to be back with them, good to see more little ones in the congregation, and I loved every minute of it.

Lent 3 – Where’s the good news?

The interior of All Saints Basingstoke
The interior of All Saints Basingstoke

It’s great isn’t it. You plan life so that things don’t clash and you can (just about) manage to achieve everything. Then someone changes a date, the goal-posts get moved and your back in “failing to cope” mode – at least almost.

Lent 3 is going to be one of those Sunday’s, with two things I was hoping to enjoy colliding in such a way that we’ll be back to simply trying to survive the day. However, thanks to husband and church friends it looks like the St. Peter’s stand at the wedding fair at Casa Dei Cesari is coming together.

I think I can walk away for the morning with a fairly clear conscience to preach at All Saints, Basingstoke where I served my Reader Training placement last year. I’m actually really looking forward to seeing the friends I made, and also to sharing the way that their more formal, high church, environment makes sharing in the Eucharist much richer in symbolism – there’s more for my mind to grab hold of and use to remember the significance of what we’re doing.

But oh woe, the lectionary gospel: Luke 13:1-9. With the words “where is the good news?” still ringing in my ears from Reader Training, and not wishing to be a total doom merchant when visiting as a guest, this is going to be an interesting balancing act. At least as their vicar has reminded me, this sermon isn’t going to be assessed, but I still want to share a good value helping of God’s good news.

The passage is strongly linked to the current affairs of the time that Jesus was speaking and less noticably the living memories of those to whom Luke was writing, which I guess, gives me some ideas for sermon illustrations. There’s plenty of ‘news’ out there that we’re all to willing to extrapolate the wrong conclusions from. But the passage is very stark, and prophetic – real “this is your last chance” stuff.

There is no mention in the passage of Jesus’ purpose in journeying to Jerusalem – basically, he was going to take the rap for his hearers failing to act on what he was telling them; he lost his life because they didn’t change their ways! And they didn’t really get it, till it was too late. Many of them still didn’t get it – which is why the Temple was destroyed in AD70.

We know Jesus has died and risen because we mess up and take the wrong implications from what is happening in the world around us. If we truly believe that, then we have to seek God, and stay close to him with the hunger and trust of Psalm 63:1-9 if we are to reach the heavenly banquet of Isaiah 55:1-9 (other lectionary readings for Lent 3).

There, that was therapeutic: does that look a bit like a sermon plan to you?

Afterthought; I don’t have the experiences that make this a great sermon; and I don’t know that I want them! But I wouldn’t mind the ability to write the ‘poetry’ of the penultimate paragraph 🙂

Winchester cut the budget – but the buck stops where?

The tower of the Guildhall Winchester - pictured at our MakePovertyHistory rally 4th June 06!An update from my previous story about the need for Winchester Diocese to cut £1million from its budget because parishes couldn’t increase their giving because of the recession.

The Church Times Blog posted to say the cuts had been passed, with lots of links relating to the popular chaplain at Southampton University – his thoughts, plus what he said at the meeting itself are here: darksidechaplaincy

Dad, who lives in BBC Solent region (I don’t) says that there was extensive coverage on local news including what he thought was a good interview with Right Revd Michael Scott-Joynt, as well as pre-canned material from the University. There is a short piece of BBC web-news here: Diocese Budget puts jobs at risk. Neither of these links say what Bishop Michael apparently said on the BBC news interview which was (and I’ve got this second-hand I know) that there was still room for manoeuvre over specific posts to be cut. The only thing posted by Diocese is what I think is his opening address to the meeting: Address to Synod 28Nov09

Church Times also made a link to the comments of a youth-worker in another diocese on how this might affect other diocese decision making: funky doo

I don’t feel yet like I’m in ‘full possession of the facts’, and I’m therefore fairly cautious of coming to any firm conclusion yet about what I think – my thoughts often conflict with themselves in situations like this anyway, which doesn’t make for a healthy sleep pattern! But here are a couple of thoughts:

  • the fact that the diocese are having to make incredibly tough decisions like this is reflected in the parishes that fund it, who are probably having to make similar sorts of tough decision themselves – but there could be some health bringing in this if you are prayerful and careful about what gets cut. Do we ask the question: what can the Kingdom of God can live without? The sort of things I’m thinking about are things like room hire costs? Does it matter to the Kingdom where you meet, if it’s costing you money? Could the Diocese have had Synod meet somewhere cheaper than the Guildhall Winchester – perhaps a large church hall that could do with the income to fund their parish contribution to the diocese? And, if you agree, by extrapolation what does that ask of parishes?
  • do ordinary folk in a parish pew know what the dreaded “parish share” contributes to, especially if they don’t attend the equally dreaded “annual parochial meeting” – our vicar last year made a point (if I remember correctly) to explain what sort of things our parish share contributes to, but I suspect that less than one third of our regular congregations were there to here him say it. People who might feel that certain areas of ministry are important, and want to contribute accordingly, might be more willing to contribute to the leadership and funding of their church if they knew what was needed. There may be two follow up thoughts here: (a) people need to understand why it is important to attend annual parish meetings – they won’t necessarily know what’s happening or planned if they don’t, even if that means sacrificing for one night a year, another activity; (b) in our media crazy world, communication is poor – but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying, therefore we should communicate important things by as many means as possible, and read or listen clearly and with open minds to what is ‘said’ to us.
  • if we don’t contribute (in time and money) as much as we can afford to the Kingdom of God (and that should in large part surely be the church you belong to, otherwise why belong to it) we can not complain if those who administer the budgets we fund, are forced to cut some of the activities we support! I was deeply impressed by my placement parish when their PCC were the first to review their giving during a Giving in Grace campaign THIS year, and honestly tell their parish how much (in % terms) they could increase it by (I think it was averaged over the number of members of PCC). Again by extrapolation, perhaps Synod members could publicly commit to increasing their own individual giving by the amount they want each parish to increase their parish share by, and so on down the line? It’s called integrity and it needs to be visible, even if anonymised from the individual.

I think that’s it for now, and I’m not sure where it gets us, but it might just be food for thought. In the mean time please pray for our Bishop (who’s about to become a one man band, as his suffragans have both been promoted), our Synodical structure, those affected by yesterday’s decisions but most of all, for ourselves, and the decisions we make. Because that’s where the buck stops!

Values, Vision… and Elephants!

If there was an elephant in the foreground you wouldn't see it because you're moving in the dark (a few minutes later there were about a dozen of them - Mapungubwe 2006!)
If there were elephants in the foreground you wouldn't see them if you were moving in the dark (A few minutes later there were! Mapungubwe 2006)

I had my first adventure into the life of our Parochial Church Council earlier this month. This was something I’d avoided in church life for the last 22 years – my only previous experience is as a co-opted youth member at Minstead in the 1980s (at the delicate age of 17/18!)

Now obviously this isn’t the sort of meeting  shall share generally on the blog, but we had a guest speaker who I want to plug, because he was excellent, and I really hope that as a church we make use of some of what he shared with us. As we in St. Peter’s work at making sure that what was shared with us isn’t wasted, could this help others? I’m sure it can – I particularly thought of my placement parish at All Saints in Basingstoke whilst I listened to him, but also of our Mothers’ Union activities in the diocese. So there’s a bit of an outline and some (scary) thoughts below:

Revd Lawrence Gamlen is a Regional Leadership Development Adviser with CPAS (the Church Pastoral Aid Society). Revd Gamlen was talking to us about how we should seek to identify the values that St. Peter’s holds, and wants to hold, as part of the process of working out how to “do church” in Yateley. What impressed me most was the lack of jargon he used and his clear presentation using a living example full of hope; when he finished I felt this was something we could put into practice.

Without wishing to steal all his talk, he made clear for me at least, some the confusion I had developed here:  Wording a Vision He showed us clearly why a church (or other Christian community) needs to

  • understand its identity (part of that is being CofE – in our case – and thus part of the “established” church with lines of authority and accountability that need to be accepted, but it also requires an understanding of what is unique to the specific church, the community and the circumstances of the time in which you operate). From a clear understanding of identity come
  • purpose – and understanding of why you exist as a church in the areas of worship, fellowship, mission and faith
  • values – what are going to be the characteristics of how you achieve your purpose and display your identity, thus foundational to getting everything else done.

I think the plan is that if you have a clear understanding of these three (identity, purpose and values), an understanding of what your vision (which Lawrence described as being ‘that which God already sees for you’) for the future should result relatively easily from the purpose, and feed your strategic and action plans as well as your review process.

Lawrence got us to think about the question “how do we do things round here?” and slightly more obliquely the question “does the way we do things meet Jesus’ expectations?” If we are doing things in ways which mean we can’t answer ‘yes’ to the second question, but this hasn’t been acknowledged, then the chances are there are are ‘elephants in the room’: things that haven’t been got out into the open, but which need to be acknowledged and set aside as inappropriate.

All this, and the business meeting that followed, left me with much to think about:

The purely human response is to run scared and wonder if its all worth the hard work, but I know if we don’t make the effort to do these things the effort we make Sunday by Sunday to live and preach the gospel of Jesus, is completely wasted. We not only have to make the time to help people in church leadership become clear as to the identity, purpose, values and vision if their church (by hard and difficult debate if necessary) but then those in leadership need to reinforce these with the integrity of their example, preaching etc., by constant repetition if necessary.

The temptation I suspect is to think that we can’t bear the cost of doing it – either in time, lost motivation to current tasks, emotions or relationships (broken and/or mended) – it is certainly what worries me.

But I think the question that Revd Gamlen would ask, is “can we really bear the cost of not doing it?”….. because JESUS DID!