Preaching, Prayer, and Danbo

I preached my first sermon at St Mark’s on Sunday, at the 7pm service! Always nice to get a ‘first’ in the bag. One of the challenges that I’m finding around being a new curate – especially at a church as large as St Mark’s, and even more especially as a self-supporting minister – is working out where and how I (and my family) fit into the life of the church. On the one hand, just turning up on a Sunday and sitting in the congregation doesn’t really feel like the point; on the other hand, I’m still learning the styles and formats of the services, and my availability in the week is limited in terms of being able to meet with people and prepare. It is very early days, and I also know that much of ordained ministry is about being rather than doing being present, listening, praying. About leading worship from within the congregation (which I know needs a little more unpacking, but that will have to wait for another post). But it was still nice to actually do something!

Anyway, I decided to approach this sermon in the TED style (and I do have to plug “Talk like Ted” by Carmine Gallo at this point, which describes a fantastic approach to public speaking in a way that is very accessible and easy to read. Highly recommended). Two of the elements Carmine advocates are “memorability” and “humour”, and I’d already thought I might use some of my photos to these ends. As I was browsing through my back catalogue, I spotted some of my Danbo Photos, and thought “Yes!”. Cue the rest of Friday evening spent with camera and lights and a makeshift studio on the kitchen table. I admit that I got a little bit carried away, but photography is one of my passions, and the chance to combine this with preaching seemed to good to pass up.

IMG_9012The passage was Matthew 6:5-13, which is Jesus teaching on prayer, including the Lord’s prayer. I like my sermons to have a bit of interaction, so we spent a bit of time talking about what prayer actually is (and isn’t), before I spoke a bit about my own experience of prayer, in particular praying the Daily Office. There is a choice we face each morning – a crossroads, if you like. We can set aside the time to pray; or we can allow it to be squeezed out by the inevitable demands of daily life. In my experience, whether or not Morning Prayer gets squeezed out sets the tone for the whole day. When I start the day with prayer, I find my approach to the day, my focus, and my responses are much closer to how I would want to respond. However, when I don’t prayer, the opposite happens, and I don’t respond well to the day’s events.

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We also spent a bit of time thinking about Matthew’s gospel in composite, and the course that Jesus charts between a rock and a soft place; neither accepting the strict adherence of the law demanded by the Jewish leaders, but neither rejecting the law altogether. Instead Jesus gets to the heart of the law, which is good, and fulfills it. In fact, if anything Jesus extends the law to be more comprehensive (for instance a few verses earlier in Matthew 5, Jesus takes the law “do not commit adultery” and applies it to the human heart – “looking lustfully at a woman is to commit adultery”!!)

So as Jesus teaches on prayer, it’s neither the strict outward adherence to particular customs, but neither is it the “anything goes” of the pagans. Instead Jesus sets out a model, or structure, or approach to prayer, which we now call the Lord’s Prayer. I do not believe Jesus was intending this prayer to be said verbatim as the sum total of prayer. Never-the-less, the elements of looking UP to God (“Our father in heaven…”), looking OUT to His Mission (“Thy kingdom come…”), and looking IN to our own needs (“give us today…”) are each important. We also reflected on the need to be both intentional about prayer, and to do it every day. There is an analogy here with the whole “date night” thing if you’re married. Yes, on one level you could say it’s legalistic and lacks spontaneity – but on the other hand without it you easily end up never actually spending time together having fun, as friends and lovers. So the time together is intentional and protected, but within that space there is freedom and joy.

Because I think that one of the thing that God loves most is us spending time with Him. I think that He is thrilled and delighted with us, and He cherishes every moment we spend in prayer. So rest in His arms!

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PS – You can read about how I came to have a back catalogue of photos on my 365 page of my personal blog. Be warned I will almost certainly be recycling them in future sermons, and St Mark’s also hasn’t seen the last of Danbo…..

Bracelet

I made a friendship bracelet for myself on my pre-ordination retreat, as a focus and enactment of my prayers and thoughts. I know that you’re not really supposed to make yourself a friendship bracelet, but I wanted to do something concrete as well as prayerful and meditative. It’s a good 15 years since I’d last made one, and even now sitting with a bunch of embroidery threads safety-pinned to my jeans transports me back 30 years to when I sat on the grass by lake Llangorse one summer’s evening, being taught by a girl I’d fallen madly in love with (as you do). But I digress…

Anyway, the bracelet is symbolic really, in that it represents something more than itself. Not only the prayers I prayed as I made it, but also that each colour has a significance, which picks up the traditional or liturgical associations for these colours.

  • Green reflects God in the ordinary and everyday.
  • White is about holiness and purity (doubled up, cos I really need it!)
  • Purple is because I am serving the King of Kings.
  • Red is for the Holy Spirit and power.
  • Black is because I have a dark/shadow side, which is also part of who I am, and which will be part of my ministry.

As I knotted it over the retreat, I prayed to commit each particular area of life or ministry to God. For instance as I made the red ‘fish’ (pictured) I prayed for the Holy Spirit to work with me and through me in the ordinary, as a servant of the King, in my failures, and so on.

When I put it on each morning, it’s a little aide-memoir that I’m now ordained. During the day it catches my eye, or I can run my fingers over it and recall the prayers woven into it. I guess I wear a cross on a necklace for a similar reason – i.e. to remind myself of whose I am (and I’ve blogged about this elsewhere  eutony.net/2010/09/19/remember-member-member/).

Innocence

One of the ‘in’ songs during my student radio days was Enigma’s “Return to Innocence” (along with “Something Inside so Strong” by Labi Siffre, which seemed to have some deep significance for a lot of my peers that I never quite got the bottom of!). It’s a song that particularly resonated with me at the time, partly because I quite liked it, but mainly because of this idea of returning to innocence.

Innocence is an interesting thing in today’s society. Along with its close cousin naivete, it seems to me that it’s seen as something bad, or at least something to be looked down again; as in “He’s so naive”. It’s also seen as something fragile, which is easily lost and once lost is gone forever, like Platoon’s strapline: “the first casualty of war is innocence.”

I have a different take on this, which in part hangs on the hook of Enigma’s song, and in part relies on the work on the French theologian Paul Ricoeur, about which I’ll say a bit more in a minute.

I have come to see that innocence can be an intentional choice – not because we don’t know any better, but because we do! This is perhaps part of what Jesus was getting at when he told his disciples to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:6, NRSV). In my own journey, I had a bit of a wild time at college, at the stage of my life where I reckoned I could make a better job of it than God. But I had a epiphany moment when I woke up one morning, and cast my mind back to the evening before, and thought (for the 1,000th time) “Oh no – I can’t believe I did/said that last night”. Only on that occasion I made the leap to realising how foolish it is to consistently wake up with regrets. I have to say that God wasn’t quite ready to let go of me either, and was working on me in all sorts of ways – but one of the outcomes was that I started trying to be intentionally innocence. To believe the best of people and situations. To enjoy myself in ways where I could look myself (and my friends) in eye the next day. I should probably make it clear that I wasn’t necessarily doing anything out of the ordinary for students, but never-the-less I was not proud of how I was living my life.

This brings us to Paul Ricoeur. Actually he was more of a philosopher than a theologian, and he is particularly close to my heart because I got my highest grade for my assignment on him!! His hermeneutic approach (that it is to say, how we can understand and apply the Bible today) was that we start with a naive reading of a biblical text as the word/work of God. We then apply rigorous scholarly analysis, treating it with suspicion it deserves as something that it also a work of man. Ricoeur’s particular contribution was that we don’t stop there. Instead we return to the text again as a work of God, and submit ourselves to the “naive” reading, while holding on to, and in times despite of, the insight from the critical analysis. It seems to me that this is captured beautifully in the lyric “return to innocence”.

I strongly suspect that this is the sort of thing that Paul had in mind when he wrote to the church in Philippi. As the preacher at my church on Sunday reminded us, this is the way to peace; and I am inclined to treat “peace” and “innocence” as almost synonymous in this context, perhaps tapping also into the depth and beauty of shalom.

Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. (Phil 4:8-9)

This intentional innocence is not the easy option. The first innocence is easy, because you don’t know any better. The loss of innocence isn’t easy to go through at the time, but equally I’ve come to see that being “clever” (or cynical, or worldy-wise, or suspicious, or whatever phrase you might want to use) is actually also the easy option. Worse that this, in some cases it is no less than bullying when it is at someone else’s expense. I also wonder if it’s a form of self-protection, that avoids having to seriously engage with the people and situation.  To continue to believe and trust despite having been let down and hurt, indeed to do so knowing that you may or even will be betrayed again – that costs. In fact, it is the sort of innocence that led Jesus to be betrayed by Judas, abandoned by his disciples, and in the end to death on the cross.

But there is a bigger narrative in the Bible as well, which you might describe as from innocence to innocence, or innocence lost and innocence regained (if Milton will forgive this misappropriation!). In the Garden of Eden is pure innocence, which is lost through the ‘apple’, and immediately peace and right relationships are replaced with fear and accusation. Genesis 3 onwards paints the picture of an increasing downward and outward spiral of violence as humanity drifts further from God and his goodness. However, the ultimate end of the picture is a new creation, and renewed innocence, where there will be no more tears, suffering, pain or death. Where the created order will co-exist once more in peace and innocence and which – despite the cynics cheap accusations of boredom – will be absolutely wonderful.

Do I always achieve innocence? Of course not. But I’m going to keep on trying, and perhaps draw a little closer to the Kingdom of God in the process, and hopefully spread some of its joy and peace along the way.

Grenfell

One of the questions that the Bishop asked me in the pre-ordination interview was “Where was God in Grenfell Tower?” The context was a reporter from Sky News (say) holding a microphone up to my face.

The question stayed with me throughout my pre-ordination retreat – not so much because of theodicy (aka “why does God allow suffering?”), but more because conversations with the other ordinands, the bible readings, and my own reflections have cast it in several different lights.

Let’s be clear – the events at Grenfell Tower were horrific. I had to turn off Radio 4 when I was driving because the stories being told were so upsetting and harrowing that I was in real danger of weeping (not good when driving) and/or crashing the car. This isn’t a sterile theological exercise, or an attempt to justify or apologise for God. I have no answer for why He didn’t intervene, and – idolatrous as it is – if I were God I can’t help thinking I would have done something. Yet He didn’t stop the fire. Scores, maybe yet more than a hundred innocent people – some of the babies and children – were burnt to death, many by following the official (and good, in normal circumstances) advice. It has broken our hearts.

There is no easy answer. There may be no answer at all. And it seems to me that there is a serious danger of being insulting and disrespectful to the victims and survivors. I write this entry with the refrain “fools rush in where angels fear to tread” very much in the front of my mind. I also don’t think that God needs defending or justifying, although it is only natural to try to understand how the God of love, the God who is love, can allow these senseless tragedies to happen.

My response in my interview was that God was and is right there. In the incredible stories of sacrifice, courage, and love. In the firefighters entering that building to try and save people. In the money raised, food and clothes offered, accommodation provided. In the neighbours banging and shouting on one another’s doors. He was comforting those who mourn. So while I can’t answer the question “why did God allow this”, I fully affirm that God was there, fully present and suffering with those who suffered. The Bishop spoke (and I paraphrase) of mess – that the world is messy, and God is in the mess. He embraces it. He stretches wide his arms to welcome us, and we see the ultimate expression of God entering into the mess, and stretching wide his arms on the cross, in the person of Jesus Christ.

To go back to my own thoughts, I have also found myself reminded that God is in the business of redemption – which could be described as bringing good things out of bad. Grenfell was unmitigatedly bad, but I have faith that God can, has, and will bring good out of it, as hard as this is to stomach or fathom.

It is worth reflecting that it is increasingly clear that human sin is at the heart of this tragedy – the age old story of the (relatively) rich and powerful thriving so at the expense of the poor and powerless. This story goes back to the Old Testament, and issues of Righteousness and Justice (mishpat and tsadaq in Hebrew), which are close to God’s heart, especially regarding the poor and oppressed. In this case, cheap(er) but highly flammable cladding was used on the building, with no regard for the occupants safety. Please understand, in no way am I talking about punishment – it is the innocent who have suffered. Yet if we do want to point the finger of blame, does it really point to heaven? And, as uncomfortable as it may be, most of us have played a part in creating a society and culture within which events like Grenfell happen. Maybe this is in part what Jesus was getting at in Luke 13, when he responded to a similar question with the answer “repent” (as was pointed out to me by someone else at the retreat).

The fire on the 14th June was a senseless and avoidable tragedy, beyond our comprehension. Yet I also believe this life isn’t the whole story, and that God through Jesus, can redeem and overcome all darkness, as He did that first Easter. But in the meantime I weep with those who weep, do what I can to help, and firmly believe that God is with us in the mess, embracing us and inviting us to sit and eat with him.

Pre-Ordination Retreat

I understand the appeal of poetry – it provides a way to express something that you can’t necessarily put into words, or pin down. However, it’s never been my strong point, so I’m not going to even attempt it, and try and use prose instead!!

Tomorrow afternoon I am going to be ordained Deacon in the Church of England, and I have no real idea of what that means. I mean, I know in practical and theological terms what it means (what I need to wear, the new authority and responsibilities that I will have in the public sphere, that I will become a representative of the Church, etc), but I don’t know what it will mean for me and my family at home, at church, at work, walking down the street, or even for my relationship with God. There’s a small part of me that thinks these things shouldn’t be affected, but a much bigger part that thinks they should, and all of me knows that they will, whatever I may think about it.

I am a little bit nervous, but at the same time at peace. God first called me into ministry some 25 years ago, and I have tried to be faithful to that calling ever since. It has taken various shapes and forms over the years, although with the same thread running throughout – which is helping people draw closer to Jesus, particularly through worship and discipleship. It is only relatively recently that God has started calling me (or perhaps that I’ve accepted that He’s calling me) to exercise this ministry as an ordained person. I have yet to find a satisfying answer to “why” – but I’ve also come to see that it’s not really the right question to ask. His ways are not our ways, and I just wonder if God is more about “who” and “where” and “what” than He is about “why”.

I’m not perfect. I struggle with stuff, I sin, and I’m plain stupid a lot of the time. But I am also redeemed by the redeemer, and He has called be to be a disciple amoung the disciples, and to work on making his beautiful bride into the body He already think she is.

Alleluia.

Commendable

Last weekend I left St Hild College, after completing three years of pre-ordination training, and a theology degree.

I have never formally studied theology before, and it was been a remarkable journey, as I have learnt a whole lot more about the Bible, the Church, and God – although it is probably more accurate to say that I have learnt less about God, however this is a good thing.

It’s also been good to leave well. We left St Andrew’s Church, Starbeck a week or so ago (after ~20 years), and had the chance to say goodbye over tea and cake, and were wonderfully prayed for by the church. Similarly our last weekend at St Hild, which culminated in the great “sending out” of the commendation service, was a very special occasion, and felt like a suitable closure of that particular chapter of life.

Leaving is an strange rite of passage. We have all left things; from going home at the end of party, to moving out of home, or moving on to a new job. My natural inclination is to slip away, and not make a fuss… but that actually denies people the opportunity to say goodbye. It also opens the door to future regrets, “if only I’d have said….”

When saying goodbye, it seems to me that there is a balance to be struck. On the one hand being being fully present; attentive to what is going on, and that this is possibly the last time you will see these people. Living in the moment. Carpe diem, if you will. More than that, it’s about facing up to the reality of it, and looking it in the eye. Yes – I am leaving, this is it, the end. What do I need to do to leave well, without regret. What words do I need to say? What rooms do I need to visit? How am I accepting and marking it?

On the other hand, the danger of being too present and attentive is being overwhelmed by the emotion of it all, which ironically stops you being fully present. You can’t hold  conversations with people if you can’t talk due to sobbing! Don’t get me wrong, grief and tears are important and appropriate; but it is a shame if these get in the way of the good memories, and indeed of the occasion itself. There is time for tears, but this may be the last chance to savour that place and those people, and it’s all too easy to miss out on that, carried on a wave of emotion.

It has also just struck me that Jesus spent some considerable time preparing his disciples for his departure (the so-called Farewell Discourse in John’s Gospel) – and indeed he spent time preparing for his own departure in Gethsemane. Jesus’ message for his discipleship was of encouragement and hope, while acknowledging that the path ahead wasn’t going to be easy. In fact, he promised it would be difficult. But he also promised that he would always be with them in Spirit (which means a lot more than the platitudinous way this phrase is used today).

Life is a journey of endings and beginnings. We have celebrated the good friends and wonderful memories. We have said our goodbyes, with sadness and joy. We have tried to be fully present and leave well.

A New Blog

Welcome to my new blog, which I’m putting together in anticipation of my pending ordination as a Deacon in the Church of England, 1st July 2017 at Bradford Cathedral. I plan to use it for blogging once I’m ordained about matters ecclesial, spiritual, and theological (you have been warned). Pictures of birthday cakes I’ve baked will still go up on my “personal” blog!

Upshot is, at the time of writing, the Rev in the title of this site is a little bit premature, and I shall say no more for now.

In the mean time, if for some reason you are looking for something I’ve written, point your browser at www.eutony.net