Misconceptions #givingitup Genesis 22:1-18 16th March #Lent2014

Apparently it is exactly 15 weeks until my ordination as Deacon, according to one of my cohort who dropped that little nugget into a Facebook post today. 

How does that make me feel? 

Frightened. Interestingly the fear is not for what comes after ordination, though there is a nervous anxiety mixed with the excitement for my new ministry in a new place, but instead fear of what needs to be accomplished in the next 15 weeks. 

I have spent most of this afternoon working through a detailed commentary on Genesis 1:1-2:3 – the creation story (according to P, the priestly contributor to the Pentateuch saga). It was particularly interesting to note that even the most brilliant of Old Testament scholars can’t always resist the temptation to overlay their own theological views onto something they’re trying to be objective about. 

In her lengthy reflection on the story of Abraham’s thankfully aborted attempt to sacrifice Isaac in Genesis 22, Maggi Dawn poses the question of whether our view of God is skewed by our pride and other misconceptions, or whether we are suitably aware of his abundant grace in our lives?

Today, mired in Old Testament theology, it feels like it will only be grace that will get me through this next 15 weeks to the altar. That feels like a far greater sacrifice is needed on my part in this next slog through two portfolios, than the weeks and years of ordained ministry that will follow, though I suspect this is far from true.

I need to look day by day to be obedient to the sacrifice that needs to be made, the level of sacrifice that I’ve probably not exhibited so much or so willingly in ordination training as I did in Reader training,  so that I can hear God’s voice and experience his grace, directing me to more fruitful times ahead.

I still haven’t completely fathomed why I’ve been less willing to give up time and effort to climb the mountain this time round, though I think it started out with an expectation by myself and others that I carried a certain amount of useful past experience with me that would stand me in good stead. True though that might have been of ministry when I get there (and I’m not sure now), I think it has actually hindered the training process. But it’s really time to shoulder the burden good and proper now, before it’s too late.

Sorry, bit of a low post, of little use to others, but that’s sort of where I’m at tonight. 

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Being sensible and realistic – ordination training

The Holy Hill (Ripon College Cuddesdon) photographed from long distance.
The Holy Hill (Ripon College Cuddesdon) photographed from long distance.

“It’s formational.”

Actually, I’m quite grateful that no-one has used those words to me recently. However true they might be. I might just have groaned in anguish (or worse) if they had – even though it’s probably true.

The best email I’ve had recently was when my Pastoral Tutor wrote to me saying I was being “sensible and realistic”. I like sensible and realistic, I can do them. They’re what I’m good at. It’s the deep analysis and criticism of a theological idea that I’m struggling with, as another tutor recently pointed out, quite accurately – though I could have told him that too!

Although I know I couldn’t have recognised my calling to ordained ministry without being a Reader first, having the Foundation Degree in Ministry and Theology, taught through practical skills and excellent in worship leading and preaching skills we really don’t get in ordination training (that comes in Initial Ministerial Education 4-7 for curates I think) has meant I had to go on a post-grad course part-time, with the original intention of getting an MA. But that requires a huge leap of academic skills, especially for a practical learner like me. Though I’ve not failed a portfolio yet – progress has been excruciatingly painful and SSSSSLLLLLOOOOOWWWWW.

There have been additional factors. Last academic year my initial Academic Supervisor left, and my new one, though lovely, wasn’t in college the days I was. Then there was a bit of a squabble between my Diocese and Min Div over funding me as a mixed-mode student which left the college short of money and which I eventually had to be told about so I could write supporting material and avoid attending a Candidates Panel.

This year, and particularly since December, my health has been the issue. Nothing earth shattering, but being a lady of increasing age… Medical intervention has proved less than helpful, at least in the short-term. I’ve been really grateful for the support of all sorts of folk, on-line and in person. I’m working on a blog post about that too, so you have been warned.

Anyway, the upshot of all this is that I’m academically only half-way through what I need to achieve for a PGDip after three-quarters of the course. The aim is now to do another two portfolios by ordination day, leaving the last to be completed by the end of August; one Old Testament, one Mission and Evangelism, before a final Theological Reflection.

What have a learnt from all this?  

Firstly, that I actually knew myself quite well – I was always unconvinced I could do an MA, but at the time there wasn’t an alternative (I’m told that Cuddesdon hope to offer an alternative under the new Common Awards) and lots of people thought I could, including my DDO and husband! They’ve both been right before, so obedient to a fault, and with little choice, I went with the idea. The sense of relief that people are actually now starting to believe that I’m not designed for such an academic task is great – even if means giving up on a great research idea. I may go back to the idea later – though not via an academic qualification, that I can assure you.

Secondly, I’ve learnt that we change. Women that is (men may do too, in other ways, I don’t know). Our abilities are altered it seems, at least temporarily, by the changes that start for some women rather earlier than they would really wish. I’ve not been the same woman, with the same focus and concentration, that I was during Reader Training (2006-9). If you read some of my posts since Christmas you might realise that a little black dog takes hold occasionally too. It’s taken till this month to realise that the hormonal changes I’m probably experiencing could be the cause, rather than me having some sort of mental health problem, which is what I’d started to fear was the case. Now, I’m trying medical and less proven techniques for getting on with life as I know it can be lived.

Thirdly, my placements, news of my title post, and brief forays into the pulpit and service leading, have kept the light of my calling alive. It’s still there. I believe God still wants to use me in parish ministry. That’s the one thing that’s kept me going… and needs to continue to do so in the coming months.

How might my experiences help others? Well I’d say (now) be willing to try what others think is best, but don’t bottle your fears and concerns too long when they look like they’re not working out. You have to be willing to go, cap in hand if necessary, to the appropriate people, and say you’re not coping – WHATEVER the reason. If that means talking about gynaecological issues with a monk, so be it! Talking helps, I promise you, and it means people will be praying, even when you’re feeling like you can’t.

Lots of stuff going on then, lots that is… oh darn it, let’s call it formational 😉

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.

 

How do you ‘find’ a spiritual director? A reflection on experience

Sound II by Anthony Gormley, in The Crypt of Winchester Cathedral, 23rd November 2012

I was asked recently (via Twitter) if I would be prepared to write about my experiences of seeking and finding a spiritual director. It would be for some work Revd Mark Godson, who is Director of the London Centre for Spirituality, is doing to write a guide for those new to spiritual direction.

The official route to a spiritual director in my diocese is via our Ministry Department who maintain and support a list of spiritual directors. If you ask them they will put you in touch with someone who has the space and time, with reference to any particular requirements or interests you have at the time of requesting direction.

But I’ve not yet managed to do it that way; trust me to be different.

When it was first suggested to me that I ought to have a spiritual director, it was as part of my rather ad hoc journey into Reader Training. To be honest I can’t remember who suggested it, but at the time I was a Trustee for Mothers’ Union in Winchester Diocese (MU), and my calling to a ministry that included preaching and teaching was growing out of that role.

I was fortunate to come by the wisdom of the wife of our Diocesan Bishop of the time, who suggested I spoke to one particular lady about spiritual direction. The lady in question was a long-standing MU member, but also one of the first women to have been licensed to Reader Ministry in the 1970s as a young mother – something I needed to juggle into the ministry equation.

Having a spiritual director who has some connecting points to my own journey in ministry became important, and is a pattern I have repeated since. It gave us some ‘touching points’ on which to build a growing relationship, a sense of empathy which bred respect (hopefully mutual), and gave me the confidence to take seriously and try the ‘new’ approaches to building and improving a pattern of prayer into my life.

Right from our first meeting, informally in a Debenham’s coffee shop, we agreed how our relationship was to work; the regularity with which we would meet, and the overall length of time she would ‘walk with me’.  This was important for her in her semi-retirement, and for me to know that as I progressed through to another stage in my own ministry I would require different expertise and insights to those I required through Reader Training.

It turned out this my first ‘director’ was actually on the ‘approved’ list maintained by the diocese, but I didn’t know that at the time. She was also very open about her own spiritual support, not that she wanted me to imitate her spirituality as a Third Order Franciscan, but so that I knew she had built in the support she required to help others, and was ‘practising what she preached’ as it were.

Ministry as a Reader took more than one unexpected turn for me, which is documented elsewhere on this blog. Part of that journey including a niggling sense of calling to the priesthood that I sort to ignore initially but which was highlighted through the circumstances of a parish vacancy in which I took responsibility for occasional offices. A brief lapse in my pattern of spiritual direction couldn’t possibly be allowed to continue.

As I finally took seriously the question of why on earth several priests of my acquaintance thought I was called to that ministry rather than continuing as a Reader, it was one of these priests that suggested another, as my companion for the next leg of my ministerial journey.

My new spiritual director and I had spent a year as colleagues and friends in ministry, so much of my ‘back-plot’ didn’t need to be sketched in when we met to discuss the idea of changing a relationship of friendship. Some of our initial agreements were much the same as last time were repeated (frequency, and over-all length of direction) but we had to be clear about different things: particularly that I wasn’t going to be pushed into the priesthood, and that we would maintain our conversations of friendship each meeting over lunch, before making a specific ‘candle-lit’ change of focus to my spiritual journey. It was a relationship that works well; even now that period of our lives is now concluded, we have maintained and grown a friendship that is built to a large degree on mutual trust and the need for confidentiality regarding each other’s circumstances.

In the process of discernment of a vocation to the priesthood, I found it particularly helpful to have someone totally outside the process, and in fact the diocese through which that process was being managed, though she had experienced it elsewhere. It enabled my director to help me ask questions of the system and myself, that I’m not sure would have been asked if we had been closer to my diocesan staff and systems.

This year, that leg of my journey concluded, I have with the encouragement of both that spiritual companion and my DDO, started to build a relationship with a new spiritual companion, or ‘soul friend’ as he prefers to be called. Known to, suggested and approved by all concerned, and someone with whom I had already started a significant acquaintance through my developing pattern of retreat days, we again have a regular pattern of meeting, but with a more open-ended time-scale of involvement.  Conversations are less focused on the needs of ‘what I need to do next’ and have a more serendipitous nature, but at the moment as I struggle to engage with the highly academic context of my ordination training, they’re best focused on where the most difficulties are at the time, and so doing the job of keeping me moving forward in my spiritual life quiet nicely.

And it’s not escaped my notice that as my own journey moves on, I find I have others approaching me not yet for spiritual direction, but for insights I can offer from my experience into their own questions about faith and ministry. The one thing I have told them categorically from my own experience, is that if you are to support yourself, a ministry and a family of loved ones, all at the same time, then some regular pattern of spiritual direction and companionship is vital to keep your relationship with God grounded on common sense, as well as filled with the deep wells of spiritual resources you need to even attempt the journey!

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.

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!

Blogging in the ghetto after #cnmac11

Dr Dixon speaking at Christian New Media Conference 2011 (taken from my rather low spec android phone)

There were many great things about the Christian New Media Conference last weekend.

It will take me weeks to sift through the various things that challenged me, or got me asking questions about my use of social media. I could start with the delight of meeting ‘in the flesh’ various social media illuminaries, but others (like the Vernacular Vicar, Revd Claire and the award winning Lay Anglicana) have already made that point.

The thing that’s been nagging at me most since Saturday means I’m starting my reflections at the end, with some thoughts on Dr Patrick Dixon’s concluding presentation.

Dr Dixon challenged us to ask afresh what our calling is, reminding us that Jesus came to transform the world. How much of what we tweet and blog, he asked, is “ghetto traffic”? How much is relevant to the wider world? If we use the language of our ghetto, he warned, we need to be careful who will see it, as we can be badly mis-understood.

Now, I don’t reckon myself a world changer like Dr Dixon. I don’t want to be – at least not on a global scale. If there is to be any butterfly effect from what I do, it will most likely be from simple acts of encouragement, sharing, being there for people, and hopefully by enabling them to be touched in some small way by God. Those things are most likely to happen through face to face conversations of one form or another.

But for me to be effective in those face to face conversations, sermons, services and other ministerial happenings, I need to be equipped with all the tools and inspiration that God has placed at my disposal. These include (among other things) the Biblical reflections of others (as recommended to us in Reader Training by our DDO), and their thoughts on and experiences of different areas of ministry.

Obviously, there are books, and personal conversations with those more experienced than I to contribute to the sea of wisdom at my disposal, as well as the inspiration of God through the Holy Spirit in quiet moments of reflection; but as the links above suggest, the world of website and blog (accessed increasingly via Twitter, Facebook, and Google Reader for convenience) are of increasing value for being easily searchable.

Of course, if I am going to count myself a practitioner in these fields, I too may have thoughts of my own to share, that others at various points in their own faith journey or ministry, may wish to dip into. Making my own sermons and service ideas available is therefore part of a reciprocal relationship (the open-sourcing were were encouraged to elsewhere in the conference) – not so much holding them up as virtuous but holding them out before God’s people for critique. It may, and has, led me to be open to mis-understanding, but it would seem selfish to do otherwise.

So, I guess that means I am operating in and expanding the ghetto of Christian bloggers and tweeters, that I took Dr Dixon to be criticising. Yes, I do want to be ‘salt and light’ as the Bible tells us (Matthew 5:13-15) . Yes I do want to show people that God is relevant and can change their world. but for me, at present, that means I need the colegiality of the “ghetto” of blogging Christians to feed the individual face-to-face encounters that fill my ministry in this little corner of the world that Jesus wants my help transforming.

Is that really such a bad thing?

Taking up our mat – walking away from spiritual superstitions John 5 v1-9

Pool at Bethesda

Last Sunday I led and preached at our 8am morning service, a short half hour in the peace of our Chapel at St. Peter’s.

I have thought on several occasions that I have spoken for too long at this service, so last week I planned a much shorter talk, and then worried for most of the week that it wasn’t long enough and didn’t say anything particularly helpful to the congregation.

Late on Saturday I learnt that God needed me to give a short talk that morning, and the theme of overcoming our spiritual ‘superstitions’ and acting decisively to step forward into the future with Jesus, was perhaps far more appropriate than I had supposed. At the end of the service (having tipped me off the night before, bless him) our vicar announced that as he starts a new phase in his own life with his wedding in the summer, he will be starting a new ministry among Fresh Expressions projects in Marlow! We enter interregnum in late July.

Here’s my public acknowledgement of grateful thanks for the help, encouragement, faith and support our vicar has given me over the last 4 years of training – I am totally in your debt P (I could go on, I won’t!) As you know I thoroughly recommend married life as the best thing I’ve ever done – God’s always been there for me, being married was a bonus!

So for what it’s worth, a short thought on walking away from spiritual superstitions: Sermon John5v1-9

Image from here

Where is God in a marriage?

If theology seeks to answers questions like “where is God in…” how often do we ask ‘Where is God in my marriage?’

In simple terms that was the sort of idea behind the essay that I wrote to complete my Foundation Degree in Christian Theology and Marriage – you may indeed have been part of the process if you read this blog regularly. It has already been circulated among one or two folk, at least one of whom has found it quite helpful.

Well, on Friday I heard I had passed the essay and with it my Foundation Degree, and yesterday I received it back, complete with attendant comments. I got a reasonable mark for it.

So, here, by way of celebration as I remove the ‘nearly trained’ from my blog, I humbly offer the world my thoughts on the theological themes that can be found in marriage and should therefore emerge in a course of marriage preparation.

RT_IndepStudyModule_Essay(FinalV)RH

If you’re looking for a summary of what is after all a 6000 word essay, here are the things that I felt were most significant to ministry whilst I was writing it (I’ll leave you to decide whether they come through in the essay or not):

  • We (anyone with a ministry that touches couples who are wanting to get married) are preparing people to be ordinary heroes! Marriage is something for which many people are ill-equipped by way of existing relationship skills, and they are going to need help to make their marriage last a lifetime. Marriage is also a gift of God’s grace, both to the couple, and through them to others – whether that be to children, their wider family, or the lives they touch during their marriage.
  • Marriage relationships should be places of incarnational love – they are also places of sacrament, covenant and forgiveness. They require constant acts of will, that create the trust, faithfulness, and honesty that make a marriage work.
  • Of the marriage preparation material that I looked at, some focuses heavily on the relational skills, and makes it’s references to God and faith as broadly relevant as it can. Andrew Body’s ‘Growing Together’ material is of this nature.
  • By getting married, couples have a chance to gain a better understanding of who God is. This can only be done if considerable time is taken with marriage preparation, and if that preparation makes reference to Biblical material, and uses real examples of marriages where the Christian faith plays an important role. Nicky and Sila Lees material (DVD, workbook and ‘The Marriage Book’) come in this category.
  • Marriage preparation can not take a ‘one size fits all’ approach – specific pastoral needs will need to be addressed for some couples, whether it be due to bereavements, failed relationships or a myriad of other reasons.
  • Weddings and marriages should not be allowed to take place in isolation from the communities of faith in which they occur. As part of their discipleship, Christian communities need to be encouraged to consider their support of both the weddings that take place in their midst, and the marriages of those who live in their community – because God is active through his grace in them all.

It all seems most appropriate on a day when my vicar has announced his wedding date, and a close friend her engagement!

Wanting to turn cartwheels

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Yateley Green
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First Oak leaves of spring - Yateley Green

These were taken this morning as I walked back from taking the car to have its bumper re-sprayed… the result of a minor scrape at the garage when it went for MOT last month, and all done free of charge. They are my record of two things – a gin clear blue sky without a con-trail in sight (my thanks to the relevant volcano and apologies to suffering friends in Australia, Spain, USA and elsewhere), and the first Oak leaves of spring. As a Forest girl, this is always for me one of the momentous moments of the year – somehow it seemed extra appropriate today.

I never learnt to turn cartwheels but tonight I wish I could. Early this evening I handed in that final (much delayed) essay on the theology in marriage preparation that completes my FdA in Christian Theology and Ministry. No more essays, just the patient wait to see if its good enough, though I admit to being quietly hopeful. I’m hoping too that folk will find it useful, and will probably post it up here… but think it best wait until I’ve had it marked; somehow it seems rude to do otherwise. I don’t intend taking those brackets out the sub-heading of this blog till the result either!

So, my training as a Lay Minister is sort of complete, and yet I know it isn’t… on Thursday I’m back at OAP to do the funerals training that constitutes part of my IME 4, though that I think is it for this academic year! The rest of ministry will also be training, as I know I have much practical stuff to learn, and need to build a little confidence in certain areas – but for tonight I’m not going to worry about them.

I am sincerely grateful to all my family and friends, those that read this blog, others on Facebook, those I’ve almost ignored for years, and the various clergy who I’ve pestered to distraction of recent months, especially my own vicar. Without all of you folk  I wouldn’t have got to today.

Saturday will see me in London, at Mary Sumner House for Mothers’ Union Trustee Training. I need to start to get to grips with being a Unit Co-Ordinator and it seems likely that the next few months will involve playing catch up on a lot of outstanding ‘things to do’ parochially, MU, and domestically. But that actually feels a really exciting prospect right now as I sit beside a Gin and Bitter Lemon. I have also promised myself a gradual return to gardening, sewing, silk painting and fly-fishing in the coming months, but I think it will all take time to happen – though G and I did clear the greenhouse on Sunday and Dad arrives tomorrow bearing tomato plants (and some more boxes of our belongings to sort and house!)

Thank you God for the journey thus far – and here’s a glass raised to the rest of the adventure 🙂