Good Friday

The following is the text for my reflection during a service of 3 hours at the cross today. The theme is “approaching the cross”, and we start “from the outside looking in – the view from the edge (the crowd)”

Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” (Mark 15:29)

We start our journey towards the cross at the edge, amongst the crowd, looking in. A bit like the crowd in our reading, we are faced with the temptation to pass by – in our case to get to the happy ending of Easter Sunday (not that it was all that happy at the time, incidentally, if you read the gospels carefully). Or perhaps just to pass by the crucifixion bit..

Maybe the fact of Jesus being crucified offends us or upsets us? God couldn’t come up with a better plan than the bloody and humiliating public execution of his son as a state criminal? How can this be the act of a God of love? Come to that how can a God who can’t even save himself save us? Best not to think about it too much. Much better just to pass on by and leave Jesus hanging there.

Or maybe Jesus being crucified scares us. The last thing a 1st Century Jew would want is to be associated with an insurrectionist – no shortage of wood for another cross. Far better to keep our heads down and stay in the crowd. Just keep quiet about knowing Jesus. Don’t want to stand out, don’t want to stick up for Jesus. What would our friends say? I could lose my job. I certainly don’t want to end up on a cross myself! No – safer to just pass on by and leave Jesus hanging there.

Or, frankly, perhaps we don’t really care that much? We’ve got a busy and full life, things to do. Need to get to market to buy supplies before the Sabbath. What’s another criminal strung up by the Romans? We have money, security, we can come to worship whenever we want to, do our duty, pay our tithe – what do we need a saviour for (especially one who gets himself killed)? Sure there was a lot of excitement about this Jesus, but I’ve got a job, a family, my parents need looking after, the garden needs weeding. I’m sorry – I haven’t got time to stay, I need to pass on by and leave Jesus hanging there.

Or just maybe we feel too ashamed, or unworthy. This is God we’re talking about, after all. Dying for me. I put him there through my sin and disobedience. How can I meet his eye, how can I watch him suffer? I know that it’s all alright in the end, so better just to pass on by, leave Jesus hanging there.

After all, it is not a pleasant place to linger, a crucifixion. How much less the crucifixion of our Lord and saviour. It is offensive and upsetting. It is scary. It is inconvenient and disruptive. It is a place of guilt and shame.

But linger we must, because the crucifixion is also an invitation. It is an invitation to wonder and awe. It is an invitation to having our hearts broken. It is an invitation to participate in God’s rescue plan for the whole of creation. It is an invitation to costly, self-giving, death-defeating love. In the upside down kingdom of God, slavery and death is an invitation to freedom and life.

And above all else it is an invitation to worship.

So my sisters and brothers, the invitation is to not pass by. Dare we linger? Dare we, for the next few hours, stay with Jesus, hanging on the cross? Dare we allow it to offend us, upset us, scare us, disrupt us, shame us? Dare we accept the invitation to worship and be changed?

Priesthood

As I have written before, in the Church of England we have three orders of ordination; Deacon, Priest (or Presbyter), and Bishop. The usual pattern for those expecting to be ordained priest is to serve the first year as a deacon, and then be ordained priest the following year. The diaconal year is an opportunity to focus on the servant aspect of being ordained, which is, in many ways, the foundational aspect of ministry, and never changes.

That said, I found it a slightly odd year, which felt for me personally to be more about what I wasn’t allowed to do! From a purely functional perspective, there wasn’t an awful lot to distinguish what I was doing as a deacon compared with what I’d been doing for the last 20 years!! I could spend the next 5 or 10 posts unpacking this, but even I would find that boring – so I’ll move on. Suffice to say for now that I am in no way diminishing the ministry of a deacon, or suggesting that the year was wasted or pointless.

What did catch me out a bit though was just how special my priesting ordination felt. In fact, at one point on my priesting retreat, late on the Saturday evening, I was a heartbeat away from phoning up the bishop to tell her I couldn’t go through with it!! But it was just a wobble, and after much prayer (and tears!) I finally went to sleep, and did indeed turn up at the cathedral the next day.

Reflecting upon it, I suppose there’s a number of elements going on which combined to make it feel the way it did.

Firstly there’s the sense of completing a journey (or at least a leg of the journey), of passing a milestone. Becoming a deacon had a temporary or transient feel to it, whereas last summer was reaching a waypoint to which I had been journeying probably since I was 19 or 20. It’s not the end of the journey by any means in terms of ministry, but it almost certainly is the ‘highest’ Order I will receive (I can’t imagine a scenario where I’d be ordained bishop!). There is no “next step” in that sense – this is now my life.

Secondly, on the day itself I felt a strong sense of commissioning and authority, in a way that I didn’t as a deacon. That I was receiving the full authority of the bishop (and the church) to minister, serve, and lead in the parish, as a Clerk in Holy Orders, and a Priest. That I can bless, absolve, and preside at Communion in Jesus name. Wowzers! I know a lot of this happened at my deaconing, but somehow last summer it felt a lot more real than the summer before, and it was scary, humbling, and exciting. I suspect a part of it was having had a year of being a “rev”, and coming to terms with what the means in practice. Which is in itself still very much a work in progress.

Finally, it was amazing and wonderful to preside at Holy Communion the following day. In one sense, the Eucharist is what sets us, as the Christian church, apart from all other religions and social clubs. That we break bread and share wine together in Jesus’ name is to my mind the defining characteristic of who we are and what we do. And be able to lead us all in this act of worship is an incredible joy and privilege.

I’m not wild about the term “priest” (except when it is used to mean the priesthood of all believers), and I am deeply uncomfortable with any cultic undertones or suggestion that my role shares anything other than name with the Levitical priesthood. I am not offering sacrifices, making atonement, or mediating between humanity and God – that job is already done. But I am perhaps helping us remember that this job has been done, and to help us pass on this good news to the world.

Snow Globe

One of the things I have learnt from my spiritual director is to try to incorporate some silence whenever I pray. By which I mean inner as well outer silence (which is much harder!). I sometimes feel like Chidi from The Good Place, who says his mind is like a waste disposal unit with a fork in it, constantly grinding and grinding away. Other times I feel like Dumbledore, who needed to syphon his thoughts off into a Pensieve. I don’t really know if everyone feels like their head is “full”, or if I’m just a bit odd, but my guess would be that most of us from time to time feel like this?

Anyway, as I was trying to still my mind recently, the image of a snow globe came to me – you know one of those globes with a house (or whatever) inside, and the globe is filled with water and glitter. When you turn the globe upside down, the glitter all swirls up and spins and eddies, completely obscuring the scene inside. However, if you then put the globe down, the snow starts to settle, and slowly the water clears, until eventually everything is still, and you can see the house again – indeed, you can see all the way through the globe.

It struck me that being silent in prayer is a bit like this. At first my mind is a complete flurry, with thoughts spinning and whirling. I must remember this. How am I going to solve that? Did I send a card to them? When’s our anniversay? Have I packed the swimming kit? And so on. Sometimes the drifts are deeper – where is life going? What does the future hold? Am I bringing up my children well?

But then, as I just sit, in silence, allowing these thoughts to fly around, they do begin to settle. It’s not a process that can be hurried. Sometimes I use the Jesus prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy in me a sinner”). Sometimes I just wait and allow the blizzard to rage in my head.

Either way, eventually the snow does settle. The thoughts stop flying round quite so violently. I can begin to see a bit more clearly. I can begin to think a bit more clearly. I can begin to hear God’s voice a little more easily.

Growth

I love it when I come across verses the the Bible which I’ve never really noticed before.

In this case, it’s from Acts 9:31

Meanwhile the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up. Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.

In general Acts paints a very dynamic picture of the early church – this great explosion of community and faith, with thousands being converted, daily growth, healing, miraculous escapes, signs and wonders. With the possible exception of the “Toronto Blessing” back in the 90s, this has not been my personal experience of church.

So it’s nice to reminded of an alternative model – that of a church at peace, living in the fear of the Lord and full of the Holy Spirit… and growing. This is certainly closer to my everyday experience of church life, and it’s easy to think of it as a second best. Don’t get me wrong; I long and pray for revival; that God’s spirit would sweep through our land again – goodness knows we need it.

But until She does, maybe it’s ok to live in peace, in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Spirit… and maybe even grow?

Meanwhile the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up. Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.

Messy Bed Test

I’ve been reflecting recently on what I’ve started calling the “messy bed test”.

It runs is as follows. My younger son, for reasons known only to himself, likes to mess up our bed. He likes to pile up the pillows, mound up the duvet, push the bedspread onto the floor, and then sort of burrow into the bedding. I suppose it’s a sort of den or something.

By any objective measurement this is a pretty benign activity – it only takes 2 minutes to straighten out the bed again, and he’s not doing any harm at all, and he loves doing it.

What is interesting is how my reaction varies to (what feels like) his daily question: “Can I mess up your bed?”

Sometimes I smile to myself and say, “ok, yes.”

However, sometimes my reaction is more along the lines of “No, you can’t. I’ve only just made it, I’m trying to get the house tidy, and its me or Mum who are going to have to sort it out again.” I do my best to convert this into “I’m sorry no – not today” before it actually comes out of my mouth. It’s amazing how forgiving children can be. But I digress – this post isn’t intended to be about my shortcomings as a parent!

The difference between these two scenarios? Entirely me. The request hasn’t changed. The amount of time and effort to re-make the bed hasn’t changed. What has changed is my ability to handle what I perceive as an extra demand being made of me.

In this way, it becomes an indicator of my own mental state and stress levels. The reason I say “no” to him is because I can’t cope with it. It shines a light on my inconsistencies – why should the answer sometimes be yes, and sometimes no… or sometimes having your head bitten off?

Now of course boundaries are right and proper, and where ever there is a boundary a child will push it. It is also reasonable not to want your bed to be messed up, and to say “no” to this request. My point is simply that it is sometimes the trivial things like this which act a bit like rev counters, and show when we’re pushing the limit, and in the red zone. Or, if you like, it’s a sort of litmus test

Maybe, like me, you have a “messy bed test”

 

Burning Bridges

It seems apt at this time of year, where there is a lot of remembering going on, to think about the past, and in particular people from the past. One thing I have noticed is that people from my past don’t always stay there, and in particular having changed to another church locally, there are an lot of familiar faces.

In fact, there have been one or two folk where I’ve had to pause for a minute, and think to myself about how we “signed off” last time we saw each other. Are there any unresolved issues kicking about – which always mattered, I guess, but are a little bit more immediate now I am their curate? Thankfully so far the answer has always been “no”.

Maybe its just me, but I find it very easy to want to “write off” relationships, especially where they are professional rather than social. My natural reaction when I get bad service is to walk out and say to myself “I’m never going back there again”. Even better if I can deliver a cutting parting shot that makes it clear exactly how I feel. Or to quit a job out of frustration and stick two fingers up at the boss on the way out. Or to say deeply hurtful things as a romantic relationship ends, and vow never to see or talk to them again.

As with other things, being ordained brings what was always true into sharper focus – that we cannot live this way. The theological point is that the other person is made in God’s image, and loved and cherised by Him. The practical point is that I might go to a person’s house for a funeral visit, and discover that they are the person I swore at in the restaurant the night before!!

Anyone who follows The Way, who calls themself a Christian, is God’s representative on Earth. We are each Christ’s ambassadors. I don’t believe that we have the luxury of burning our bridges, or “writing off” relationships. How we treat other people is taken as a proxy for how God feels about them. We never know when someone from our past is going to randomly walk into church, or join our Alpha group. What will their reaction be to seeing us there – perhaps realising for the first time that we’re a Christian? How is our ambassadorship reflected in the last conversation we had?

Blinkers, Paradigms, and Chickens

Q. Why did the chicken cross the road?
A. To get to the other side.

Chances are you’ve heard this joke a million times – I certainly have. It’s the classic children’s joke – utterly daft, amusing because it’s pointless. It sets up an expectation of an unexpected punchline, but then no.

There are million of daft jokes out there – “How do you know if there’s an elephant in your fridge? Footprints in the butter.”, “What’s yellow and very dangerous? Shark infested custard”, “What’s brown and sticky? A stick” and so on. I love these jokes. They’re not particularly big or clever or witty or erudite, but they make me smile, and sometimes laugh.

Except that the chicken crossing the road joke turns out to something quite different. I have told this joke for probably 40+ years, and it has never once in that time – nor in any else I have spoken to – even occured to me that it has a second, euphemistic, level of meaning.

Until I saw these tweets:

Like Kat (and incidentally, I’ve no idea who she is – that’s twitter for you), my jaw dropped. The Other Side. The joke is actually about death!

Of course it is. It’s obvious. Staring you in the face. After all, How many other “crossing the road” jokes are about getting squashed, or at least the dangers of roads?

Q. Why did the hedgehog/squirrel/turkey/frog/… cross the road?

A. To visit his flat-mate.
A. To show what he was made of.
A. To prove he had guts.
A. To prove he wasn’t chicken

I’ve always understood these other jokes in that way (or at least felt like there was some trick I was missing)… why did it never once even occur to me that the original chicken joke is along the same lines? These are quite clearly gross being run-over jokes, so why shouldn’t the original be? The answer, of course, is that I attached an interpretation to the joke the first time I heard it – “to get to the other side of the road”, and I didn’t realise that I had made this interpretation or assumption, let alone reconsidered or revisited it. It’s not that I considered and dismissed an alternative interpretation, it’s that it never even crossed my mind as a possibility, and likely never would had not an external factor intervened.

This then becomes (for me at least) an example par excellence of interpretative blindness. We have not only failed to interpret something correctly, we didn’t even realise that we’ve made an interpretation, and that other interpretations may be possible. For a children’s joke this isn’t a big deal, but when you look at politics, culture, or indeed the Bible, suddenly it matters a great deal. When Jesus tells a parable, we may interpret it as normative (this is, it is establishing a norm for behaviour – how we should be going about things). What if it is actually descriptive? Could Jesus be saying “we all know the world is like this – make sure you’re not being as silly as this example”? The massive danger is that we don’t even realise that we are interpreting it a certain way. So we neither question or own understanding, nor can make sense of anyone who comes at it from a different angle. It’s not that we realise we haven’t got the joke – we think we have got it, but have actually missed the point altogether.

This recast joke also demonstrates a paradigm shift beautifully. Paradigms are the way we make sense of the world, how we see and understand it. They are our mental models. A paradigm shift happens when our understanding changes in a radical, irreversable way – that once our viewpoint has changed, we can never again go back to our original understanding. You might describe it as a light-bulb moment, I suppose. In the case of the chicken joke, I (and now you – sorry!) can never again understand this as a joke simply around an animal trying to cross a street. It will forever more be a dual joke, with two meanings. When there is a paradigm shift, we realise that our previous model was incomplete, and now our understanding has grown and developed. It’s a bit like Harry Potter – you think you understand a given character’s role and motive, but at the denouement it’s all turned on it’s head, and you suddenly understand Snape was actually trying to save Harry (or whatever). So when you re-read the passage again, you know understand what was actually happening. Your original interpretation has been proved wanting.

The ultimate example of this is Jesus – nobody conceived that God’s great Messiah would be born in obscurity, and executed by the Romans. Yet if you read the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament, this great paradigm shift occurs, when you see that Jesus is actually fulfilling the prophecies and promises. Just not in the way anyone expected. And people today I think still struggle to understand Jesus (not helped, it must be said, by the Church a lot of the time), but perhaps not even realising there is something to understand.

Who would have thought that all this could come from a 13 word kids joke!

Prayer

I recently had the pleasure and privilege of being at a clergy study day, at which Rowan Williams was speaking on prayer. He is a excellent speaker and theologian, and gave us much food for thought. A number of things he said struck me, either as new ideas, or timely reminders, so I thought I’d jot them down here. I must make clear that all of this is my paraphrase/understanding of what was said. The nature of a post like this is that it’s a little disjointed, and really just a collection of thoughts. Anyway – here goes!

Prayer is ultimately looking forward to the end times, when God’s kingdom comes in all its fullness. Prayer is about creation finding its place – a place of restoration, reconciliation, and homecoming (like we see in Romans 8).

“Prayer is something to do with inhabiting God’s future here and now.”

Perhaps most profoundly, prayer is what is always going on. The Father loves, Jesus mirrors it back, and this is prayer. Underneath all of us, all the time, is this reality – the universe itself exists because prayer is eternal. So when we pray, we are not starting something new, but joining in with what is already going on. We sometimes think of prayer as a last resort, or perhaps as a duty (a bit like phoning your mum once a week!). No – it is all around us, all the time.

“We are not initiating a transaction, but slipping into an existing ongoing action.”

Part of the point in praying is to bring us back to the place where we see something of the mystery of God. Where we allow God to be God, to be reminded of the seriousness of God. And is the church which prays – whether we are joining in the prayer of heaven corporately, or individually, it is the church in prayer. Prayer is enabled by creating space and time for looking, listening, breathing. By gazing and attending. It’s not so much that we punctuate with space, but rather a style and pace that slows the rhythm. How we speak. How we act. How we move and breath. Being present and prayerful.

“Busyness must not crowd out attending to the seriousness of God”

Prayer is about intelligent gratitude. About wonderment and a gaze. And as we gaze, we find the gaze turns on us. Prayer is being where God can look at us. Of active beholding, and awareness of God’s beholding of us. Being in this light, we increase both our knowledge of God, and our knowledge of ourselves. We respond like Peter responding to Jesus doing something holy, generous, and Godly – “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man”. (Luke 5) The light of God lights up areas of ours lives we are not pleased with. The steady habit of exposure to the light, little by little increases our self-awareness, leading to a simple clarity about who I am and what I’ve been. Looking into the depth shows us something ourselves. I look into the mystery of God’s generousity, and I see something of my own un-generousity. But God does not look away when he sees what I am. God looks patiently and lovingly at me, at the whole of creation.

“Repentence and confession are not preparatory before we can approach God, but response to relationship with God.”

Looking into this mystery leads us to increased self-knowledge and confession, which leads in turn to awareness of the world, and intercession. Intercession is an attempt to be aligned with God’s loving purpose.

“What God beholds in me
He beholds in my neighbour
and in all of creation
which feeds our hope”

God has willed us to be will-ing beings, and gives us boldness to ask him. Like the doctor who says “I can’t help if you if you don’t tell me where it hurts”, God says “I can’t help you if you don’t bring to the light what you long for.” The psalmist is not ashamed to bring his desires to God, even when they are not edifying. Ultimately our prayer is “Your will be done” AND “what I long for is …”

Prayer helps us grow in humilty and self-awareness. Prayer helps the church grown in humilty and self-awarness.

“Prayer opens our eyes – but our eyes must also become acustomed to the light. In prayer we see more of God, and more of the world we’re in.”

Performance

One of the things I have had to come to terms with is to what extent the stuff we do at the front of church is/should be a performance. There is no question in my mind that leading a congregation in worship (in the broadest sense) is a performance, and that is right and proper, and should be approached as such. For instance, when I presided at communion for the first time last week, I practiced the words, the actions, the movements, and timings beforehand until I could do it naturally, and in a way that helps us all feel safe and able to relax into worship. But I also really enjoyed it, as a ‘performance’, and therein lies a danger, it seems to me.

As sure as I am that we should be aiming for excellence in all our worship (although I would define ‘excellent’ according to our local context and abilities, rather than an arbitrary global standard), the worship – and performance – is never for its own sake. We must never lose authenticity, or pretend to be something or someone we are not, for the sake of the ‘performance’. Too many stories are told of the ‘Sunday’ christians (and, indeed, vicars), who are one person in church/public, and quite another at home. Neither should we lose sight of the fact that it’s not about us, about me. We are not meant to lead like Danbo in the picture above! Our job is to point people to Jesus, and get out of the way. Much like the backstage crew at a show, or special effects team in films, we are doing our job best when people don’t even notice us. And it is these twin dangers – of putting on a show, and of making it all about me – which have led to me to this soul-searching over the years.

You see, way, way, back in the dim and distant past, I used to be a teenage bedroom radio DJ. (Bear in mind this was pre-Internet, so broadcasting for real wasn’t an option). I had a mixing desk, twin turntables, even some jingles taped off the radio. And although no else was listening, I loved playing tunes, saying links, making up the news and weather and stuff. No wonder then, then, at college I got stuck into student radio, with a proper studio, desk, jingle carts, cans, monitors – the works. We also actually broadcast over the air (on 999AM, seeing as you asked). Admittedly it was still usually only me listening to my shows, but in theory someone might have had a radio,  and it might have had AM, and they might have tuned it to 999, and ….

The point is, there is a part of me that loves to entertain. To be “up front”. To inform, teach, challenge, inspire, make think, amuse. To perform. Whether that’s on the radio, tweeting, blogging, posting photos – whatever. I would imagine that a similar force drives anyone in the media.

Before I was ordained, I used to lead musical worship at Church, usually on my guitar with a band. And I absolutely loved doing it (and still do). Music is still the primary way I get lost in/with God, and I was always worshipping when I was leading the band. It is a such a joy and a privilege to get to play and sing your heart out to Jesus, but bring others along with you. It was and is never just about the music and/or the playing….

… but equally I do really enjoy just being up front on a stage, playing and singing, as a performance.2018-06-09 10.01.08 Recently I was fortunate enough to be a part of the band that played at a big Dicoesan Conference – and it was an absolute blast. It was the most fun I have had in ages. To be on stage at a Convention Centre, playing for 900 people – wow! Especially when the band stopped playing, and we all sung unaccompanied – just breath-taking. Preaching is another example. I love preaching, and part of what I like about it is being up on stage, standing up in front of a bunch of people and speaking.

And, do you know what? I’ve come to think that’s ok. It’s ok to enjoy it. It is – in part – a performance. But it must always be an authentic performance whose purpose is to draw attention to Jesus, and draw people closer to him.

Ordination

On Saturday I am going to be ordained priest at Ripon Cathedral, and I’m writing this at my ordination retreat at Mirfield. It has been a bit odd trying to explain to people that I’m being ordained again, but that’s the way we roll in the Church of England. This time last year I was preparing to be ordained “Deacon”, and this time around it’s “Priest”, or “Presbyter”.

It is rooted in the threefold historic orders of ministry – Bishop, Priest, and Deacon, with (if you’ll excuse the gross oversimplification) the Bishop particularly being about oversight, pastoring the pastors; Priest being a shepherd of God’s people, and holding the body (i.e. the church) together; and Deacon being servant-hood and looking outside the church, both in terms of sending out and bringing in. I would add an implicit fourth order of ministry of everyone else in the church, who actually get on with the business of God’s mission to a hurting and broken world. The idea is that these orders are cumulative, in the sense that as a Deacon I didn’t stop being an agent of God’s love and mercy to the world, and when I become Priest I won’t stop being a servant, and when I become Bishop… hang on, might be getting ahead of myself there. 🙂

To be honest, I hold the orders of ministry fairly lightly. I’d not really come across the term “Deacon” before I started exploring ordination, and certainly couldn’t have told you what the diaconal ministry is – and I’ve been in the Church of England all my life! I know that some people do feel a distinctive call to the particular ministry of a Deacon; I personally have always felt drawn to the “priestly” ministry. I do think ordained ministry is helpful in terms of how we organise ourselves, and set apart/commission certain people to take up certain roles and give them the authority and training so to do. This actually happens all over the place in our society – police, politicians, teachers, refuse collectors, the list goes on. I wouldn’t say that ordination is exactly like this. It’s more about “being” than “doing”; Something you are, rather than something you do.

It is only right to note that many in the Church have a much stronger view of ordination, and the priesthood in particular. And don’t get me wrong – it is a huge privilege, and I’m humbled and awed to be leading Holy Communion for the first time on Sunday. But I don’t claim to really understand ordination, or have an answer to the question of “why” I should be ordained. But I do believe that God has called me to this particular ministry, and I’m trying to be obedient to His call.

On the drive over yesterday I was listening to Radio 4, and the book “The Crossway” by Guy Stagg is being serialised. One line from the passage being read really resonated with me. The book is about a literal pilgrimage, but I reckon that faith is captured beautifully in his description of pilgrimage as:

“Setting off in the hope that the journey would make sense by the time you arrived.”