Tuning-in to God – Matthew 13 v1-9 and 18-23 Romans 8 v1-11

TMS wavelengths
Tuning in can be difficult and once we’ve found the right frequency, what we hear can be difficult to listen to and/or accept! (As true for divine guidance as cricket!!)

 

I have spent much of this last few weeks listening.

In the last week I’ve spent a few concentrated days fulfilling a long-standing commitment to take an annual personal retreat. I have sat in warm, dry surroundings and listened to the sound of rain on a flat roof, and then the creak the next day as the sun warms and dries the wooden construction – listening to the same building respond to the changes in the weather. I’ve also tried to listen to what God is saying in and to my life, and my ministry; why it is I am with you for the next few months, and what that might mean for you, and me; how might it grow us? This sort of spiritual listening is not just something to do one week a year, but something that I try to do all the time, it’s just easier to reflect on the big picture when you take a concentrated run at it!

In the last few weeks, I’ve also been trying to listen to what God has done, and is doing, through you. You as individuals, and you as a church, a community working together to extend his Kingdom on earth. It is helping me to discover who you are, what it is that makes you tick and gives you life and growth, and where there may perhaps be stuff that is making life difficult, and growth limited. It is about listening as a third party observer to what God is doing through the pattern of your lives, and it too is an ongoing process.

Much of all this listening is about tuning in to what God is telling us through the practicalities and problems of our everyday lives, the typical issues that we face. Tuning in to what God is saying can be tough, not least because the noise of the many things that have calls on our time and energy constantly try to crowd him out. We have to remember we’re not using a nice modern DAB radio, giving us crystal clear reception at the press of a button. It’s a bit more like good old analogue which requires much twiddling to get a clear reception, especially if we’re on longwave trying to tune in to the cricket commentary! Sometimes, as with that image, God uses the very ordinary things with which we interact regularly, to speak to us… if only we’re tuned in.

In our Gospel today, Jesus is using ordinary, every day imagery with which his listeners would have been very familiar, to explain to them the part they are called to play in the Kingdom of God. Unlike us, they were used to the imagery of someone walking a field, sowing the seed corn by hand. They’d have known that whilst the field would have been roughly ploughed and prepared, such a distribution method meant that some seed would fall prey to the birds, shrivel among the rocks, or be shaded out by weeds, rather than grow to productivity. But knowing something is true is one thing, but understanding that it might have spiritual significance is another, which is why Jesus said, ‘the one having ears, let them hear’. Were they really listening, had they really tuned in to what Jesus was saying about their specific role in the kingdom of God?

Hearing spiritually is related to the concept of deep listening. Deep listening is the idea that we listen with compassion, hearing not just what is said, but how it is said; recognising what needs to be said, and knowing how it might best be expressed to be heard. We listen to understand and we listen with intention, specifically the intention to act appropriately based on what we have heard. In other words, to open one’s ears is to open one’s heart, to the person speaking and to God, at one and the same time. Jesus the teacher, is ending the parable by telling the crowd to listen not only to understand, but also to act on the teaching, to obey, and in this particular case by obeying, participate in the manifestation of God’s kingdom on the earth.

As Christians, we can do this multi-tasking mode of listening, because we have the power of God working in us, the Holy Spirit. It is this that Paul is referring to in the passage from Romans this morning, when he compares the focus of those who are concerned purely with matters of the ‘flesh’ and ‘sin’ with those whose focus is matters of the ‘spirit’. Through God’s grace, we are gifted this ability to discern and focus on God’s concern for the world and his desire that we might all know life and peace, but it requires continual practice on our part to stay tuned to God’s frequency.

The Holy Spirit runs on a frequency that can be counter cultural and prophetic, to the life of the church, and/or to the way the world hears itself. As Christians we need to listen to each other’s joys and pains, fears, aspirations, and experiences – as individuals and corporately as a church. We need to do so with compassion and honesty, and with ears tuned to what God is saying to us, so that we can know whether, and if so how, we can contribute positively with guidance, healing or hope. It might be a personal contribution to the problems being faced by particular members of the fellowship, or it might be wisdom that helps us work out the direction and focus of mission in this church. It may require us to do something extra. It may actually need us to do less of something. By doing this spiritual listening, our journey with God becomes a life-giving adventure to extend his kingdom, reaching out to others in ways in which they will recognise as inspired by our love of Jesus, and his love of them.

Often when God is trying to speak directly to us about our own lives, he will do so through what we might describe as intuition. We have to respond positively for anything creative to come of what might be called a ‘holy hunch’. Sometimes we may need to create some space, some silence even, to listen prayerfully to our own experiences, or we may need to be patient wait for the pieces of a jigsaw to fit together as we discern the way forward in a complex situation. But I can also give testimony to the fact that it can be a moment’s sudden realisation that something spiritually significant has just been either said or done, and it’s in the moving forward with that promise that our lives are changed by God.

My listening here at St. Mary’s so far has suggested several things, but I’m not going to share all of them with you this morning. There is a need to be ready to listen corporately, and honestly, in the months after the new vicar arrives, to where and how God wants his kingdom extended in Eversley, in Derby Green and further afield – and to how that dynamic is going to work. But another thing that has struck me, is that for some people, consciously making space for some personal holy listening to God could be helpful. I’m no expert, but I’d be happy to use this book that’s been helping me, to facilitate others to do that too, so do chat to me later, or when I’m back off holiday, if that’s the case, and we may be able to create some plans for the autumn.

The law that brings life, is ruled by the compassion and love of God, and the mechanism for making that compassion and love available both to ourselves and to others, is our belief in the work of the Holy Spirit. Our task is to tune in to what it is saying to us, a process that requires us to be open-minded to this grace-filled gift in the ordinary occurrences of our life, and open-hearted to the needs of others. So, anyone with ears, let them hear.

 

 

 

 

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Growing in new ground: deployed curacy

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St. Mary’s Church, Old Basing and Lychpit
I wrote my last essay two weeks ago, handed in my training portfolio a week ago, and today it was announced that I am on the move, ministerially speaking. I see the Bishop to conclude the formal element of my curacy later this month. Then, it will be all change at the end of June.

I have spent three fascinating years with the people of St. Mary’s Old Basing and Lychpit. They have been welcoming, loving, patient and kind; a joy to know. They’ve even seen the point of starting a Messy Church, and laughed at my husband’s jokes. I was told this morning by one gentleman that my smile will be missed – a very gracious comment to one who defaults to ‘serious’ when she has a lot on her mind. Another lady reminded me that it won’t just be me going, but that my husband will be missed too; apparently he could “sell snow to an Eskimo” (as the saying goes), though I think she means ‘books to a publisher’! [You have to have seen him selling second-hand books to realise she’s right.]

My occasional, itinerant ministry around the North Hampshire Downs Benefice over the last year will also conclude next month; one Basing gentleman has described me as a ‘travelling saleswoman for God’ of recent months. Helping ease their burden during a clergy shortage, as well as my formal placement there, has given me the confidence that I can to adapt to almost any liturgical context even at short notice, and I will miss them too.

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St. Mary’s Eversley
Instead of all this, I am being deployed by the Bishop a little closer to home, and indeed to the other parish to which my itinerant ministry took me last year: St. Mary’s Eversley. They, with their sister church at St. Barnabas Darby Green, are in vacancy and continue together to look for a full-time, stipendiary, Priest-in-Charge. In the meantime they need ministerial support, and in my half-time, self-supporting capacity, I’m it for St. Mary’s. I already know I will be among friends, as there are a few familiar faces from shared ministry with my sending parish of St. Peter’s Yateley, but there will be plenty of new people to get to know, to journey with in loving God, and to collaborate with in sharing the love of Jesus. The Holy Spirit isn’t averse to using obvious geography to support God’s church, and since I live less than a mile from the parish boundary and just three from the church building, it seems such a good idea – and the alarm won’t have to be set quite so early when celebrating Holy Communion at 8am!

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The giant Redwood in the churchyard of St. Mary’s Eversley – from tiny seeds grow…
Eversley was the parish of Charles Kingsley, the Christian socialist and author of among other works the “Water Babies”, but he was also a keen naturalist – I suspect a rather more knowledgeable one than me, and certainly far better travelled. The giant Redwood in the churchyard by the simple war memorial was a seed from a cone he collected in Yosemite, that was planted after his death by his daughter!

Today, St. Mary’s Eversley is a Christian community that describes itself as ‘mixed-economy’ in worshipping style; “a traditional church… with contemporary values”. I look forward to seeking with them how they can grow and strengthen; as I know from my own youth, a long clerical vacancy does not have to be a time of frustration and atrophy, but can enable growth in discipleship and people’s understanding of their own callings under God as they ‘turn a hand’ to tasks and find giftings they never knew they had! That’s part of my story, and I expect to grow as a priest and minister with them as I become part of their story for a while.

Whilst I will be continuing to seek a permanent house-for-duty role somewhere, and my journey with St. Mary’s Eversley will be of necessity short-lived (I have a year to run on my curate’s license, which is why I’m being styled a ‘deployed curate’), I am looking forward to the adventures we can have together. Here’s to 26th June when it all starts in earnest. First come the bitter-sweet good-byes.

For those wrestling with vocation and discernment (Phil 2:1-13)

Bishop Edward King Chapel, Ripon College Cuddesdon (photo credit to my husband)
Bishop Edward King Chapel, Ripon College Cuddesdon (photo credit to my husband)

This week I had the opportunity to lead worship in my college group. I used the reading for Morning Prayer that day which was Philippians 2:1-13 and adapted some worship from Celtic Daily Prayer from the Northumbrian Community themed for those struggling with vocation, discernment and obedience.

As I said at the time, the fact that this reading resonated in this way with me, might suggest some of the issues I’ve been facing myself of recent weeks. However, thinking that there are others out there, facing discernment interviews of various sorts with Diocesan advisors or at Bishop’s Advisory Panel (BAP), I offer it as a companion for your journey.

Celtic Worship for Vocation and Discernment (Feb 2014)

Book Review: ‘He Never Let Go’ by Lynda Alsford

Is your journey with God clear and straightforward, or has it vanished into the distance, overcome by parts of your life that you are fighting to deny are leading you into darkness?

I bought ‘He Never Let Go’ by Lynda Alsford because Lynda was one of my early Twitter friends, and quite simply the snatches of her story that she had shared as she wrote the book intrigued me. It was only my second e-book, but the format suits the book, which is VERY reasonably priced, but it is also available now in paper format for not much more.

Lynda is a Church Army Evangelist when the story opens, a professional lay minister with an active ministry, and a secret. She has stopped believing in God.

The book is not a work of literary genius, but is all the better for that! It might at some points seem muddled as Lynda tries to reason out in her own mind why she should believe in the God she eventually acknowledges she misses, but this muddle has integrity with the state of her mind at the time. The story, which loops from crisis of faith, through her initial journey of faith, back to the crisis and onwards into the future, is a difficult one, painfully and honestly told.

Reading this book will give Christian’s several challenges: it will help them admit and face their own doubts, remember times when perhaps they have condemned the doubts of others, and equip them with a tool to help themselves or others. For non-Christian’s it will unpack some of the ‘certainties’ that those who have come to share that faith have had to grapple with, as well as some of the nuances of different views on baptism. For those who have believed, but lost sight of Christ, this book will provide the comfort of knowing you are not alone. It is above all a story that should give everyone who reads it, hope.

That was what I wrote as an Amazon review, but that doesn’t say where it leaves me as a cradle Christian, heading from authorised lay ministry as a Reader, into ordination training.

I think I’ve reflected before that Reader Training was perhaps a time of blind faith; something I fell into because it felt right, and that involved survival. When I questioned things, it was the detail of the course content, not what I believed.

As I fearfully contemplate a two year, part-time MA at Cuddesdon, this book helped me realise that these studies need to be a place where I ask more questions, more deeply, of myself, what I believe and why I believe it; a place where I need to give doubt a place.

Lynda struggles to ‘reason’ God’s existence (or lack of it) because she could see both sides of a reasoned argument. Like her, I am easily swayed by someone’s point of view if it seems well thought out and evidenced. Part of theological reflection is to question things, and in many things I know I will need to question not only accepted practice, and a variety of theological viewpoints, but myself. Within that, I probably need to be honest about my doubts, when they arise (though not necessarily in academic submissions).

Another thought Lynda’s book caused me, was to wonder how much as ministers, we (should?) hide our vulnerabilities? It is possibly too easy to slip into the mode of simply acting on people’s expectations of us when we are ‘in role’. As an priest, being ‘in role’ will be a way of life that is much more recognisable to those around me – something that comes with the ‘dog collar’, but which I recognised as growing within me as I grew through discernment.

Other thoughts have flitted through my head as I’ve read this book: about faith ‘v’ works;  about those whose acceptance of their selves as single may need to form part of their journey to faith; about reason being a stumbling block to faith; and, about the need to give myself time to focus on God, and my acceptance and forgiveness by Jesus, when all else around me seems to be about the detail of theological arguments and acceptance by a congregation or community.

Thank you Lynda, for writing something to profoundly thought provoking and honest, and may God bless you richly in all that you do in his name in the future.

PS: the gallery of the artist Charlie Mackesy whose illustration adorns the book cover, and to which Lynda refers at the end of the book, is well worth a visit.

On being challenged by my new Bishop

I spent time recently finding and replaying two videos of our new Bishop of Winchester, Right Revd Tim Dakin. Nominally this was for the benefit of my father, but it led me to some reflections of various sorts.

The first video focuses on the challenges Bishop Tim offered at his enthronement in April (which sadly I missed due to a prior wedding invitation): 

The second video is something that it has been suggested be played in parishes so that they can get to know their Bishop: 

My first thought was surprise that these videos are no longer easily searched for and available through our Diocesan website from where they were initially circulated last month. I know one of them should exist in my parish as a DVD, but I’ve not seen it yet. However I felt that for people who might wish to refer to it, to show others or as source material for their own reflections, either personal or parochial, not keeping it accessible through the Diocesan website seemed a little short-sighted. (Or perhaps my search abilities are distinctly lacking!)

Rt Revd Tim Dakin, Bishop of Winchester, photographed by my father at a recent Mothers’ Union Festival Service

Rather more important, was the challenge I heard the Bishop give me personally, which I listened  to through the ears of someone recently selected for training for ordination!

1. How passionate am I in my personal spirituality?

2. Do I have what it takes to be a priest in a faith community that shows pioneering qualities?

3. What might be the prophetic nature of my ministry in both a local and global context?

I can’t answer any of those questions clearly here, but here are a few far flung thoughts, that step beyond my initial reaction of ‘I am not worthy to enter ministry under this man.’

1. I am a lot more aware of how important my personal spirituality is to my survival in life, and particularly in ministry, following the changes I’ve made in my prayer life during my journey through a vacancy and towards selection over the last couple of years. Aware enough to have already made this a priority in my work with spiritual directors over my two years as an ordinand. I know that unless I have a deep, well grounded and stable prayer and pattern of life, I will not be equipped to survive parochial ministry at any level. There will be brief mention of where I’m at with this in my mid-week sermon tomorrow, but I believe that our Bishops’ current call to prayer (we’re on the third day of a Winchester Novena) is a pre-cursor of the mission community concept I understand Bishop Tim started at CMS, and has suggested for this diocese.

2. How many parishes (clergy and laity combined) are truly open and willing to be pioneering? I’ve had several thoughts in recent months about ways it might be possible for some rural churches to be pioneering in the way they use their buildings (probably all done before), or enable ‘unseen’ sectors of their community to worship in a way that responds to their own historic context. I won’t expand here, but I will soon post my BAP presentation which touches on one such idea, already well-tried in communities where it was appropriate.

3. I guess that, as with question 2, the prophetic nature of mission depends on context, existing links, and new opportunities. I do think that where these are international, the time is coming where these need to evolve beyond Christians travelling between countries to share practical and spiritual expertise. Mothers’ Union has spent the last century setting examples like their current Family Life Programme (that I’ve visited myself), but will environmental and economic considerations require that we do such things differently?

At least I’ve stepped beyond my initial feelings of inadequacy when I heard his enthronement sermon, but I guess the adventure of responding to my calling has only just begun. Working it all out with this man setting the example at the helm of the diocese in which I serve, is just going to make it a bit more challenging and exciting than it was already!

Let us make the best of things – let us progress (towards women in the episcopate)

Tomorrow the executive of WATCH (Women and the Church) meet to decide on what their official response will be to the amended measures regarding the legislation on women bishops. 

Last year as I journeyed through discernment and selection for training for ordination I joined WATCH, and therefore was invited to take part in their consultation prior to meeting tomorrow. This evening I have belatedly told them what I think. I am a great believer in being open enough to say publicly what I say in private, especially on an issue of public interest, so for what it’s worth this is an exact copy of what I’ve sent to WATCH:

I have probably left it almost too late, but in case it’s not, here are my simple thoughts on the issue of whether WATCH (and those elected to General Synod) should support the Measure regarding Women and the Episcopate, as amended last week by the House of Bishops.

I write remembering I am the daughter of a (now long deceased) MOW member who attended the Service of Thanksgiving at Ripon in 1994 for the original 1992 vote for the Ordination of Women. I also write as a Reader, recently recommended for training for ordination, which I look forward to starting in September.

I have read, or in some cases re-read, a whole variety of blog posts [helpfully summarised by an “opinionated vicar”] expressing different viewpoints, and your helpful information sheet. There are concerns over theology, taint, legal precedent, and other things largely too complicated to understand the nuances of. Sadly they have made no difference to my pragmatic and probably simplistic request:

Please support the measure, as it stand, amendments and all.

Women have spent thousands of years making the best of things; frequently making the best of what others (often but not always men) have decided for them and over them. I am certain that we can do it again.

We believe in a God who is omnipotent and omnipresent. He is bigger than our mortal theological debates and legislative process, thankfully. If this measure is passed, he will be able to work through the faithful and wise women that many of us see as being called to join the episcopate alongside their male counterparts. I think we will be amazed at what a difference that will make to the Church of England, to people’s view of it, and to their willingness to give the message of the Gospel it proclaims a serious hearing.

If WATCH, which is perceived (wrongly I know) as a women’s organisation, stand against this legislation with arguments that are as labyrinthine as the amendments and the measure itself, we will make ourselves, and the church to which we are called to serve, a laughing stock in a nation that is already struggling to take us seriously.

I know that all of you will have worked for years to bring this opportunity about, have spent years in study and theological debate on the issue, whilst I am a new member of WATCH, coming in mid-life towards ordination. But please, don’t turn aside now from what we believe God is calling the church to be – a place that is (more) inclusive of gender and therefore a better representation of the God who created us all, male and female. We will only make such progress, by making the best of what will only ever be a cobbled job (because male and female, we’re all human, all place our human failings into every sentence we construct).

If the measure is not supported by WATCH and therefore not passed at General Synod (and yes I believe the link is that strong), it will be a retrograde step, and damage both the future ministry of women and possibly the future chances of seeing women in the episcopate in the Church of England.

If this measure is passed at General Synod (with the support of WATCH) then that will be progress. It will mean that the Church of England will become a slightly better representation of what Christ came into the world to achieve, through the grace, love and forgiveness that we will continue to receive from the cross and proclaim to the world.

To BAP, BAPing, I BAPed – encountering the verb of selection for ordination!

Since announcing on Easter morning that I have been recommended for training for ordination, I have been meaning to explain a little of what happens at a Bishop’s Advisory Panel… known by it’s acronym of “BAP”.

Conversations suggest that this has become a verb. You spend months anticipating and planning “to BAP”. You then arrive for this two-day selection conference to discover you are “BAPping” and when you hit recovery mode, you “have BAPed”.

You only get to BAP if you have been recommended to do so by a panel of selectors in your own Diocese following, probably years, working with a Diocesan Director of Ordinands, and hopefully a spiritual director and other advisors, to discern whether God is calling you to ordination.

The BAP itself includes all those things outlined here, by the Ministry Division of the Church of England. But if you’re going to BAP, you’re probably wondering… what is it REALLY like, beyond all the assessments and interviews the paperwork outlines?

I found this post ‘So you’re going to a BAP’ by Liza Clutterbuck a really helpful place to start! [When I’d written this post I discovered Emma Goldby also makes a very helpful point here about your relationship with God being key to how you approach a BAP. Then Briony BAPed at Shallowford and her detailed reflections are here.]

Bishop Woodford House, Ely (it’s the low building that lies behind the Diocesan Offices through the double gate)

I BAPed at Bishop Woodford House, the Diocesan Retreat Centre of the Diocese of Ely. (The other regular venue is Shallowford.) I travelled by train and would thoroughly recommend this. The selectors themselves encourage you to take extra-great care of yourself if you drive home, as you are more mentally tired than perhaps you should be for a long drive. The only downside of train-travel is crossing London from Kings Cross to wherever during the rush hour as I did on the way home… I loath the Tube at the best of times… but I wouldn’t have wanted to drive (especially via the M25 at the same time of day!)

Bishop Woodford House is almost in the centre of Ely (you turn left when you get to the roundabout at the top of the hill), close to Kings School (which appears to have taken over many of the buildings around Ely Cathedral and has the new buildings behind the house, which many rooms look out over.)

Ely Cathedral from the park benches to the south

If you’re BAPing at Bishop Woodford House it’s well worth getting there at lunch-time and taking the time to go round the stunning Cathedral before proceedings start at 4pm-ish. As you will read in my sermon illustrations here my visit on a stunning spring day, had a profound effect on me. If you say you are attending a BAP at the Diocesan Retreat Centre the Cathedral staff will let you in for free! Take a small camera, as you see, it’s worth while!

The lovely managers at Bishop Woodford House let you drop your bags there even if your room isn’t ready, and will offer you a hot drink, before you go exploring the Cathedral. If you have a picnic with you, the open parkland through the arch to the south of the Cathedral (the footpath is marked to the riverside I think) has some benches and lovely views, but the Cathedral also has a Refectory.

I have to say that although I found my BAP tiring, I actually really enjoyed it. I’d encourage others to go with that aim in mind. It’s wonderful to meet new people, from a wide variety of backgrounds, and of different ages and traditions. The regular worship gives the event a rhythm and spiritual space to receive from God, which is a good counterpoint to ‘giving out’ of yourself A LOT by way of written and aural conversation with the selectors. The two ‘sermons/reflections’ we were given by two of the selectors during the event, were brilliantly tailored to feed us, emotionally and spiritually.

You have to be aware that the selectors (three to each panel of eight candidates) will be asking as many unspoken questions of you during meal-times, as they do in interview. This could make meals a slightly edgy affair as you are meant to circulate around the different tables through the course of the conference (the selectors stay in the same seats each meal), but to be honest, it was just fun getting to know a bit about them, their ministries and hobbies, as well as your fellow candidates. The food is plentiful and lovely.

Many people suggested to me that it is good to make sure you have a drink at the (self-service) bar, as selectors like to see how you relate to fellow candidates (though they didn’t seem to use it themselves, so I’m not sure how!) I had a soft drink the first night, but departed early to my very comfortable room. It was good to have time to phone home and talk to the family, and get an early night – I didn’t look at the Pastoral Exercise that night, just made best use of the peace and quiet.

The presentations and discussions on the Tuesday morning are probably the most demanding part of the event – at least I found that to be the case. Yet, it was the candidates that made it that way; we all got so interested in what each other was presenting that discussions, though timed-out by selectors, were re-started and continued at all the break points during the morning.

Once you get into the pattern of interviews, there is plenty of time to prepare your Pastoral Exercise in between whiles and into the evening, as the interviews were well spaced. The second evening I focused on completing the exercise (which can be done electronically and printed out on site if you have a laptop and peg-drive with you) and didn’t use the bar. There weren’t tea/coffee making facilities in the rooms, but it was easily accessible at all times of day and night.

The East end of Ely Cathedral viewed from the Almonry garden! I wish I could photograph the sound of the bees in the cherry blossom!

Making the effort to complete the Pastoral Exercise the second night, gave me copious freedom to rest between interviews the last day. Still blessed by brilliant spring sunshine, I took the chance through the late morning, to explore of the Cathedral Close, and can recommend the small garden at the Almonry Restaurant which appeared to be open for visitors to wander around.

Although once the BAP is finished you will probably be keen to return home, don’t feel you have to rush if you don’t have to; if you’re travelling a long distance, or have connections to flights (there were candidates from France and Italy on my panel) then make sure you allow plenty of time before you need to check in for planes.

Lastly, how much you feel you should make or are making friends with fellow candidates is a tricky one to judge, but I found it happened naturally – God seemed to have this in control as much as everything else! I had met one fellow candidate at my pre-BAP retreat & we had rapidly become Facebook friends! Though ‘accidental’ this meant there was at least one familiar face when we all gathered for tea the first afternoon. Four of us caught the same train home (at least as far as Kings Cross). This journey, marked by slight hysteria and long periods of silence as we wound down, added one further person to my network of friends (this time on Twitter). It has since transpired that we three were all recommended for selection, since when a fourth of our number has found me on Facebook – another recommended candidate! I think that if any of us thus connected had not been successful, we were all mature enough to have been pleased for those that did, and sought to encourage those that weren’t. At least I hope so.

So, that about rounds up my reflections on the actual process of a BAP. If you’ve been through the process yourself, and want to offer your own reflections (especially from experiences of Shallowford) please feel free to comment.

If you’ve read this anticipating your own BAP, know that God is with you, and that his will, WILL be done.

Four gifts of the resurrection – Luke 24:36-48 (and a testimony from discernment)

In the sermon that follows, you will find my personal testimony of Christ’s presence and peace, as I experienced it in Ely in the hours immediately before my recent Bishop’s Advisory Panel, the final stage in the process of selection for ordination to the priesthood.

Our mid-week services usually use the principle lectionary readings of the previous Sunday. This week I found myself focusing on Luke’s account of the Christ’s resurrection appearance to the disciples in Jerusalem as they gathered after the ‘Road to Emmaus’ incident, where Jesus’ presence and peace are two of what I see as four gifts of the resurrection.

I wonder how many of us can say that we have a total and joyful understanding of Christ’s resurrection, without having ever experienced a single doubt or uncertainty?

The disciples in our Gospel reading were experiencing the emotional turmoil of daring to believe something that seemed impossible. Three among their number were saying that they had encountered Jesus, fully alive. Yet they were carrying with them the guilt of knowing they had kept their distance from his personal anguish in Gethsemene, protected themselves by hiding from his trial or lying about their friendship, and watched helplessly, if at all, at his execution.

Yet suddenly, here Jesus was among them, offering not the condemnation of the betrayed, but the peace of God. He had returned to give them faith, and a joyful understanding that would finally equip them to carry out the central task that Jesus had made complete: to preach repentance and proclaim the forgiveness of sins.

This passage offers us four key gifts that Christ gave those that gathered in Jerusalem after the crucifixion, which through the power from on high that they would receive a few weeks later at Pentecost, are now available to us all.

Firstly, Jesus came and stood among them. They were in the presence of their risen Lord, able to see the marks of crucifixion that testified to his suffering, but also to hear his voice, the voice of their King raised in glory. Jesus’ presence was the first of his resurrection gifts to those that follow him.

Very recently I had a most unexpected experience. The final stage of the selection process for ordination takes place over 48 hours, through a series of written, verbal and pastoral tests. I had the good fortune to be undertaking this on the most glorious week of early spring, in the historic city of Ely under the shadow of it’s Cathedral.

Christ in Glory by Peter Ball in Ely Cathedral (it's well worth looking at his website for other examples of his work)

Having arrived deliberately, but excessively, early, I took the opportunity to visit this historic place of worship, and as I sat at the crossing below its central octagonal tower I was struck forcibly by two images of the risen Christ. (If you’ve ever visited Ely you will probably know them.)

One is a modern image of Christ in glory, made of driftwood covered in beaten metals. It hangs behind the pulpit and shows not only Christ’s arm raised in benediction but the wounds of crucifixion.

The other appears small, a painting central to images of apostles, saints and angels, that fill the octagonal tower space above the nave altar. Christ in Majesty, holds the spear wound in his side from which poured the blood and water of his humanity after his death. His other arm is raised again in blessing, as he looks down at those that receive the sacrament beneath him.

Never before have I been so aware of Christ’s presence. Not simply a crucified Jesus, nor a risen Lord evidenced by an empty cross; but a risen and glorified Messiah, in whose presence I was able to rest. If you are ever in Ely I can thoroughly recommend it.

The second gift Jesus gave the disciples in this room of tumultuous emotion, was the gift of peace. It was the peace of God that actually proclaimed their salvation – they were saved, released, forgiven for all the misunderstandings, disloyalty and doubts that filled them with tension and uncertainty.

If you read through the Gospel of Luke, you will see that Christ’s Messianic purpose is repeatedly revealed with peace:

  • Zechariah exults at John the Baptists’s birth and purpose with the knowledge that through it, the Lord will “guide our feet in the way of peace.” (Luke 1:79);
  • When angels proclaim the birth of Jesus it is to the “Glory of God” and for “peace on earth.” (Luke 2:14)
  •  Jesus also taught that the salvation that comes through his resurrection is also to be proclaimed with peace, for as Jesus sent out the seventy-two, their first act on entering a persons’ home was to to proclaim “Peace on this house.” (Luke 10:5-6)
Christ in Majesty - the Octagon Boss at Ely Cathedral

Christ’s grace-full blessing on us all is the offer of a peace which passes all understanding.

I don’t think I had ever truly understood what that meant until that day in Ely, shortly before Easter. As I became and odd mixture of tourist and pilgrim, moving around the Cathedral, I became profoundly aware that although I was hours from what should have been the most gruelling and nerve-wracking experience of my ministry, all I was aware of was a sense of utter calm; a knowledge that many people were holding me through prayer in God’s presence; a sense of joy and certainty that whatever the outcome of the selection process, God’s will was being done.

My prayer will always be that each person who places even a shaky trust in the resurrection of Christ, will experience themselves this gift of peace.

The third thing that Christ did in the presence of those gathered that Easter week in Jerusalem, was to ask for, and receive, what they had to hand, which was a simple meal of boiled fish. This shared meal, as with his breaking of bread with those he had journeyed with to Emmaus, is a way of affirming the physicality of his resurrection. Jesus eats as one fully flesh and blood yet is also able to appear and disappear, moving between heavenly and earthly realms at will – Christ’s humanity and divinity revealed in a fellowship meal.

Christ can only ask us for something, if we remain in his presence and hold on to our experiences of his peace. If we cannot acknowledge those, we will not be able to hear what it is that he asks us, and give freely and willingly in response.

What strikes me forcibly here is that when the disciples give Jesus what he asks for, the reality of his resurrection is reinforced. I wonder how often we make that the case in our lives? It’s relatively easy to pray for a friend, cook for a neighbour struggling with illness or a young family, or even set aside one God given task for another. But is our expectation that through our fulfilling God’s request, we will see for ourselves and reveal to others, Jesus Christ, risen and glorified?

To be asked by Christ to do something for him, is as much a gift of grace as his presence and his peace. We need to raise our expectations not just of how we experience the gifts of the risen Christ in our lives, but how our actions in the presence of a glorified Messiah, and as his representatives, can reveal the purposes of God to others.

Yet this passage also says we are not fully equipped to respond to Christ’s requests of us, with full faith and a joyful understanding of who Jesus was, unless and until we understand the scriptures. The fourth gift of the resurrection is therefore to understand it’s very fact in the light of scripture, particularly those that prophesied Jesus suffering, death and resurrection, such as that we read in Isaiah 53:13-15:

See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. Just as there were many who were astonished at him—so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals— so he shall startle many nations; … for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.

Our willingness to respond to Jesus with actions that proclaim his resurrection, whist being in his presence and peace, should reflect what scripture has already said about the nature and purposes of Jesus activity in both heaven and earth. It is this combination of gifts that builds up our faith and authenticates who Christ was. In a world where nothing is true unless it is written down, and everything that is written must be true, the reality of our crucified Messiah risen in glory, can only be truly seen by others if we witness to the physical, written and spiritual reality of our faith in the integrity with which we live out lives.

Dare to Break Bread – a reflection from discernment

Following on from my previous reflections (here and here) written in the last few weeks before my BAP, re-reading the following written some months earlier I find that there have been several echoes of my reflections on what Bishop Jonathan Frost (Bishop of Southampton) asked me to read during my Diocesan Panel Interview with him in November 2011.

It was a book called ‘Dare to Break Bread – Eucharist in Desert and City’ by Geoffrey Howard, that had been published in 1992. It focuses on the work of a priest (the author) in the light of the Eucharistic liturgy (the words Christians use at Holy Communion.) The following is a copy of my letter to Bishop Jonathan in January 2012 responding to the three tasks he gave me in connection with the book, and forms a review and reflection of it:

The first part of your charge to me I failed, as I did not achieve it before Christmas; the festive demands got in the way I’m afraid. Actually this confession of failure almost seems appropriate to the book. Within it the author shares so much of his burden of guilt for what he seems to feel is constant failure. I found myself wanting to hold him before God (as he does Harry at the start of the book) so that he might find absolution.

The second part of your task I have now accomplished. With shoes off and candle lit in a wonderfully silent room at Alton Abbey, I read the whole book in a day. Now I am returning to my notes and thoughts as I read it, I once again appreciate the gift of that space, indeed any quiet space, within ministry. Geoffrey Howard wrote the book in a space within his ministry. It is from these spaces with God that perhaps we see most vividly the true “colours” of how we connect with God in people and draw people to God.

"Jesus, remember me, when you come into your Kingdom." Luke 23:42 (Painting by Kari Juhani Hintikka by permission of Alton Abbey)

This letter completes the third part of the challenge you set me, that I write to you with my reflections. The book emphasises that the role of a priest is not restricted to the Lord’s Table or any other sacramental liturgy. Blood is truly shed, and the body and soul broken in day-to-day contact with those in whom we recognise Christ. We come alongside people on God’s behalf, yet we must expect Christ to be revealed to us in every encounter – the Christ who holds the pain and sacrifice of our failures nailed with him to the cross.

The word that struck me as I concluded the book, and has stuck with me in the days since, is “vulnerability”. By offering to serve as priests we make ourselves vulnerable in several ways. In the simplest sense, and with our families, we make ourselves vulnerable to unwanted interruptions, ‘reduced circumstances’ and spiritual attack. We will also have repeated occasion to make practical and spiritual sacrifices and make ourselves vulnerable to acts of aggression – verbal, material and physical. It’s like in the very act of being “gospel” we offer people the right to metaphorically nail us to the cross next to Christ – whether they do so deliberately or we do it to ourselves in our responses, both visibly and invisibly.

If we understand the Eucharist as a sacrament of community (“sharing the bread of common experience”) then this book seems to emphasise its’ place as the culmination of all that proceeds it through the days or week of other “sacramental activity” that precedes it. Our connection with Christ in the Eucharist should therefore lie in what we bring to it, not that which we expect to receive from it.

Perhaps in this lies some of the differences and tensions between the Eucharistic worship of evangelical and catholic traditions. Is there any truth in the idea that for many of a more evangelical persuasion, the Eucharist can be a place from where people take the Gospel message out into the community, rather than the place of Resurrection to which those of a more catholic persuasion bring to Eucharist both the burdens and joys of the Gospel message in community? For if Christ had not been raised from the dead, we would and could not share in the remembrance of the broken body and blood of Jesus; so we must first have shared in that sacrifice through our living and preparation for Eucharistic worship.

The thing that truck me as liturgically most significant, and something I’d like to know more about, was the question that Howard poses early on: where is the freedom of unconditional forgiveness in our Eucharistic liturgy? Beyond the reason of tradition, I don’t know why the liturgy maintains a stance of repeatedly seeking God’s mercy after the absolution, which seems on the face of it to conflict with a Gospel of abundant grace.

Thank you for making this book part of my journey to understanding a calling to ordination. It leaves many questions unresolved in the readers mind, but then I don’t think it set out to answer any, only to highlight that there is no black and white in our faith, and how we are called to live it out. Instead it highlights the many tensions that a priest draws from the community they are called to serve, and is required to hold as a humble offering before God.


An authentic Lent – a reflection from discernment

St Mary's Eversley

With less than 5 weeks to go before my Bishop’s Advisory Panel (BAP), I came to Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. This year I had no real need to ask myself what I could do to make the next 40+ days special, for Lent was to form an almost exact parenthesis around my final preparations for for this national selection conference for those seeking ordination.

This year I decided to use ‘Reflections for Lent’ (Church House Publishing) as my Bible reading notes (on my Kindle), to keep me grounded in the lectionary in conjunction with the pattern of Common Worship Morning Prayer (via a wonderful little android app called Pocket Common Worship Prayer also available as a googlechrome app).

The Old Testament reading for Ash Wednesday was Daniel 9:3-6 and 17-19 and seemed to start almost where my reflections on the Transfiguration had left off a couple of days earlier:

“O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with all who love him and obey his commands,… we do not make requests of you because we are righteous.” (Daniel 9:5 and 18)

Martin Percy‘s notes said this:

“We all stand before God and will be judged. Not on what we have amazzed, but on the content, quality and character of our lives… [I know I] will be weighed – and found wanting.”

Various thoughts flowed from this in relation to me offering myself for ordination:

The selectors will be looking at the content, quality and character of my life – that is why the two day selection conference is so daunting because they don’t want to know whether or not you look smart, or can real off good quotations from some books about the priesthood, but what you are like inside. They call it ‘quality of mind’, and much as my friends might make a joke of that phrase in my regard, its about integrity, whether what appears on the surface of my personality and in my application and supporting paperwork, is backed up by what I think and believe in the very core of my being – about my relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

I know before I even go to this selection conference that I will be found wanting. Who, when standing in the present of our glorious Lord, wont be! Yes, the selectors are real humans (lay and ordained) but I expect that the sense of ‘standing in God’s presence’ to be strong. But this idea of being ‘found wanting’ may not (and since I’ve published this, hasn’t) stopped them selecting me for training.

One of the many things I have come to understand better during the process of discernment, is that God calls us to whatever task he has for us, despite “our manifold sins and wickedness” (to quote what I guess is a remembered bit of 1662 liturgy). Being called towards ordination doesn’t make me any better a person than I was, or than anyone else!

I also come to this called ‘unformed’ for this role called “priesthood”, or perhaps as one of my advisor’s suggested ‘slightly formed’ by my experiences of the last couple of years! This is why so much of training for the priesthood is called “formation” because I will undergo a process of change and transformation from my current understandings and perceptions of ministry, to those I will have as a priest. A formation that I guess will last a lifetime.

That evening our evening Holy Communion for Ash Wednesday (shared this year at St Mary’s Eversley) the Old Testament reading was Isaiah 58:1-12, and two things struck me:

1) That I am called to a ministry that sees the things that fill people’s lives with darkness and a poverty of spirit, and seeks to shine Christ’s light into those places so that they can live transformed lives – what I describe as my desire to “come alongside people on God’s behalf.”

2) The vicar called us to live an authentic Lent; one that doesn’t cast aside our normal practices of work and worship with some hollow façade of repentance, but which builds on them so that we are enabled to bring light and transformation to people’s lives. We should be prepared by our Lent actions to live as an Easter people!

For me, this Lent feels like it will be the most “authentic” in this sense that I have ever experienced. It is full of reflections on who I am in the light of both the life of our glorious Saviour, and of my understanding of God’s calling on my life. I will rightly be measured and found wanting, and will need to repent of my sins. But this is part of the preparation I have committed to by following the process of discernment through – and sometime around Easter it will have reached some sort of conclusion as to the way I am called to live out that penitent life.

[Yes, looking back now, a week after having heard on Maundy Thursday that I am indeed recommended for training for ordination, I can say that the match up between Lent and my studies and reflections prior to BAP was a helpful one, but also very special. I know it will never be repeated, but that each Lent will have it’s own distinct flavour as I move through different stages in my ministry among different people.]