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.”

The Road to Ordination

At my old church, we used to run a summer Holiday Club for local children, where we did usual sort of Sunday group stuff over a whole week! Of course, the highlight was the daily drama, where (in theory) the teaching from the day would be explored and we would travel together on a spiritual journey of learning over the week. But it was also a whole lot of fun, with silly jokes, daft costumes, and a real pantomime feel. One year in particular stands out in my memory, which was when the Club was called Kingdom Quest, and the daily drama was loosely inspired by Spamalot. That year I was able to go along for the whole week, and got cast in the drama as the Black Knight. There is actually video evidence in existence, but I’m not about to make that public! Anyway, one of the songs the Black Knight sings is about being “All Alone”, and how he is travelling a “long and winding road.” While I haven’t travelled “all alone” (far from it), the road to ordained ministry certainly has been long and winding.

I first felt what I now recognise as a call to ordained ministry in the mid 1990’s, when I was worshipping at Holy Trinity Brompton in London. This was around the time of the so-called “Toronto Blessing”, and I was prayed for to be filled with the Holy Spirit. As I was prayed for, I felt a sense of anointing that God was calling me to minister to His people, to equip the saints (from Ephesians 5, a verse that has stayed me along the whole journey, and is one of my “life verses“, a concept I’ve blogged about in the past on my other site). And this was to be within His church, as my occupation. But just as clearly was the sense of “… but not yet”. At the time I understood it by analogy – if I was going to be a football coach, I needed to first of all be a player of the game myself. If I was to disciple people to be Jesus in the 9 to 5 office environment, I needed to have lived that life first. Now please don’t get me wrong – I’m just talking about my own personal sense of calling, and how I understood the “not yet”. I’m not trying to establish a general principle for church based ministry!

I’m also not trying to set myself up as a sort of super-Christian or guru. In fact it’s more or less the opposite – I don’t know if you’ve seen the leadership diagrams where there’s a pyramid, with the very apex representing the overall leader, supported by the all the minions below? I would say that Christian leadership – and ordained ministry in particular – is more like an upside-down pyramid. The vicar is right down there at the bottom of the pile, the least important person in the overall scheme, whose job it is to serve and support the vast majority of the church who are out in the world doing the work of the Kingdom. Others have a different view of the church and of ordained ministry, but I personally find this view helpful.

I suppose ever since that point a;; those years ago I’ve been working towards this, and trying to discern when the time was right to throw my lot in completely (and am still working on that!) But I have always been mindful of the direction of travel, and made choices about where to spend time and energy based on this sense of calling. So while I have only been an ordained minister for a few months, I would say that I’ve been in ministry for 20+ years. And actually much as I dislike the nomenclature of “priest”, I have come to see that (musical) worship leading – which I have done for the majority of those 20 years – is a very close cousin of the “priestly” ministry.

I genuinely do not know where this road leads – the past 4 or 5 years have been very much one step at a time. Approaching the Diocese. Going to a Panel. Studying at St Hild. Being a self-supporting (horrible phrase) curate. We’re at St Mark’s for another 3 years at least, and perhaps by the time I’m signed off God will have revealed the next step to us!

You make me brave

Spring Harvest has always held a very special place in my heart – as a young person I would travel to Skegness, to be spiritually fed and inspired, to see hundreds, if not thousands, of other people my age worshipping God. Just in case you haven’t heard of it, Spring Harvest is a Christian festival – essentially a bible week – with loads of teaching, seminars, workshops, worship, prayer, and so on. It’s for the whole family, with different streams of activities tailored for specific age ranges, and across all the sites and weeks about 20,000 people go in total. I would say that it is a large part of why I am a Christian today. So I was very excited when Spring Harvest came to Harrogate this year, and booked on it as soon as the lines opened. If I’m honest I wasn’t sure how well it would work – the whole Butlin’s thing is somehow a part of Spring Harvest. But I needn’t have worried!

The past few years have been really hard work as I’ve been training for ordination – lots of intellectual effort as we’ve studied theology together, and somewhere along the way I think that I’ve got either scared and/or cynical about emotions (and especially emotionalism). A sort of disconnect between head and heart, if you like. Of course we have to use our God-given brains, and critically assess and reflect on things… but we also need to use our God-given hearts, and love and be loved, and at times be overwhelmed and lost in (His) love.

And overwhelmed I was. My heart is lost to Jesus again, in a way that I’d lost sight of. I’ve rediscovered why I’m a Christian, let alone an ordained minister, and it is simply because of God’s love.

The key moment for me was one evening, when a big appeal was made from the front for people to become Christians. Maybe 5 or 10 people put their hands up, and my reaction (to my shame) was “Oh, that’s nice.” But 2 things happened which changed all that. The first was the speaker challenging our lukewarm reaction, by saying “If someone had just got out of a wheelchair, or if we’d seen a tumour shrink before our eyes, we’d be getting excited – but what’s happening here is a far more precious miracle, far more exciting.” The second was that, a few rows in front of me, a man of about my age put up his hand. The speaker said something about starting a new life in Jesus, and the man’s teenage daughter just leant against him, put her arms around him, and hugged him.

That was when the full weight of what was going on hit me, and I just wept. Her Dad, who had been lost, was now found. Her Dad, who could never “get” the most important thing in her life, was now a part of that. Her Dad, who had been missing out on so much, had come in from the cold and joined the party. Obviously I know nothing about that family situation (and I’m not suggesting that everything suddenly will be a bed of roses), but I’ve come across enough non-Christians husbands/fathers to know how much tension it can cause around money, time, Sundays, prayer, ethical choices, and so on. But much, much, more than this, Jesus is the most important person in my life. He gives my life meaning. Imagine not being able to share that with someone you love – and then at last person responds to God’s gentle love himself, to Jesus invitation freely given. I was seeing God’s grace in action, a life being saved, and it moved me to tears.

I was also deeply touched by some of the worship songs, in particular the Bethel song “You make me brave”. Even typing the words now is sending a shiver up my spine, and making my eyes prickle!

As your love, in wave after wave,
Crashes over me, crashes over me.
For you are for us, you are not against us
Champion of heaven you made a way for all to enter in.

You make me brave.
You make me brave.
You call me out beyond the shore into the waves.

God loves us.

He loves you and he loves me.

He loves us passionately, recklessly, wantonly, extravagantly, overwhelmingly.

Jesus is calling you and me into something exciting, scary, dangerous, exhilarating, life-giving – the ride of our lives. The invitation is free, and it will cost everything. But it’s not down to us. It’s not our load to bear. Jesus has already done everything that needs doing. He makes me brave.

And do you know what else? I love Him back, recklessly and extravagantly. He is my everything.

PS Spring Harvest is coming to back to Harrogate next year, on the 13th – 17th April 2019. The booking lines open in June, and I cannot commend it highly enough to you.

Foolishness

This is (more or less) the text on my sermon from Easter Day (1st April). The passage was 1 Corinthians 1:18-25.

We preach Christ Crucified – foolishness to the Greeks, and a stumbling block for the Jews. And actually it’s no wonder it’s rejected, because “Christ Crucified” doesn’t really make any sense – in itself it is a nonsense. It’s like an oxymoron, where we’ve got two words that don’t make any sense together being put together. So, phrases like “soft rock” – how can rock be soft – by definition rock is hard. Or maybe you’ve been asked to send in an “original copy” of something – how can something be original and a copy? What about “Virtual Reality” – it’s a nonsense term – something can’t be virtual and real. One of my favourites is probably a “sure bet”. How can something be a sure bet? If you’re sure about about it, then it’s not a bet, and if you’re betting on it that you can’t be sure!!!

So why is Christ Crucified foolish? It’s perhaps harder for us to see if we’re familiar with the story of Easter, and the whole idea of atonement, so we need to go back in time a bit to the first century, and think about what “Christ Crucified” meant to folk in the 1st century.

Christ”, or Messiah, means saviour, or anointed, God’s chosen king. It was understood to mean someone who would come and save Israel, free her from the oppressive rule of the Romans, and establish a new golden period, like a second Kingship of David. Whereas Crucified” means someone executed by the Romans, using the most barbaric and humiliating means yet devised by humanity. The cross was the symbol of Roman power – a way of exerting fear and control over Rome’s subjects – you disobey us and this is what happens to you.

So, you put these two together, and you end up with the person who was supposed to free Israel from Roman rule being arrested, tortured, and killed by Rome. It’s what you might call an epic failure. A messiah on the cross is a failed messiah – and Jesus was neither the first nor the last of these.

You can look at it from the Western or Greek perspective, of logic and wisdom – and it makes no sense at all. The person who was supposed to save us couldn’t even save himself. It’s like someone jumping into a swimming pool to save someone, but drowning because you can’t swim yourself.

Or from the Eastern or Jewish perspective, with its emphasis on power, signs, mysticism, what could be weaker or less powerful then someone hanging on the cross?

Either way – Christ crucified is folly – a failed messiah…

Except that the story didn’t end on Good Friday, as we know, and as we celebrate this very morning. Death couldn’t contain Jesus. The tomb and the stone were not strong enough to store his body. The resurrection of Jesus changes everything that went before. You know those optical illusions, where there are two different pictures in one picture, depending on how you look at them? Like Rubin’s vase, which is either two silhouette faces in profile looking at one another, or a picture of vase with a black background. When you first look at it, you see either the faces or the vase, and don’t even realise that there is another picture. But when someone points out the other view, you can never go back to just seeing it as a picture of a vase. There has been a paradigm shift, your view of the world has changed. Or think about fidget spinners – you see a young person fiddling with their spinner, and think that they are not paying attention or engaging. But actually what might be going on is that they have so much energy and need to be active, having something to channel that excess energy into enables them to listen to what is being said. So instead of a fidget spinner being a sign that they are not paying attention, it’s a sign that they are!

And so the resurrection changes our whole perspective on Good Friday. It shows us that actually the death of Jesus is not the point of failure, but of victory. The one on the cross was the one with the power to overcome death itself. It’s not that he couldn’t save himself, but that he didn’t save himself. Jesus freely gave himself, in folly and weakness, in order to demonstrate God’s love and power. Easter morning turns the whole crucifixion on its head. When Pilate put the sign reading “Kings of Jews”, he meant it as a mocking, and as a warning. But in the light of Easter morning, we can see that it’s the truth. When the soldiers crowned Jesus, and put him in royal robes, they were mocking, but it became the truth.

Suddenly we understand that when Jesus said “It is finished” it really was all finished. Love had won. Death and sin had been defeated. I wonder if this is why the gospel writers don’t have very much to say about the resurrection? Take Mark’s gospel – 667 verses in what is thought to be the original, with its short ending. How many verses would you think were about the resurrection – more than a 100? 50? 20 verses? In fact, Mark writes just 9 verses about the resurrection – less than 2% of his Gospel. In the book he wrote for the purpose of telling the Good News, just 9 verses on Jesus coming back to life – almost a postscript! Compare that to 5 chapters written about the passion and death of Jesus. And it’s a similar picture in the other gospels, although not quite so extreme. I think that this is because the resurrection isn’t the point – it’s wonderful, we celebrate it, we worship our risen king, but the Good News is that Jesus died, and won the victory over sin and death.

So to the western minds we say – God’s folly is wiser than all our wisdom. Only by coming to earth as a human, living among us, and dying for us could humanity be saved. Only the one who is the God-man could take all humanity with him through the gates of death into new life.

To the eastern minds we say – God’s weakness is stronger than our strength. What greater power could you want than raising from the death. What greater symbol could you want than the cross, turned from being a tool of oppression, pain, and fear into the ultimate symbol of love and rescue.

Easter morning shows us that the light of God changes everything – it turns the place of deepest darkness, of utter folly, of helplessness into the place of greatest victory.

Thank God for Good Friday, and thank God for Easter morning!!

Further reading
Wright, Tom. The Crown and the Fire. Meditations on the Cross and the Life of the Spirit (London: SPCK, 1992

Oppression

The following is the text from my sermon this evening at Ripon Cathedral. The readings are Exodus 6:2-13 and Romans 5:1-11.

The story is told of the man who was out for a walk on a mountain one day, when a freak gust of wind blew him over the side of the cliff. Fortunately he managed to grab hold of a tree root as he fell, but he was left dangling over almost certain death.

He called up for help, but there was no-one around, so then he looked up to heaven and shouted out “Is there anyone up there? Please help me”.

A voice from heaven answered him “Yes – I will help you, but you have trust me”

The man replied “Oh – thank you God. Yes, I trust you absolutely, with everything I have and all I am”.

God said “Let go of the root”.

The man paused for a moment, then said “Is there anyone else up there?”

 

This story is a bit like our Old Testament reading today, in that the people of Israel are in a pretty bad way, and crying out to God for help, but when he comes to save them they are unable to recognise and respond to him.

We have to rewind a little bit to get the full story. In Genesis 12, God calls Abram to be the founder of a race who will be God’s chosen people, chosen to be blessed and in turn to be a blessing to the entire world, modelling both a true relationship with God and an extraordinary ethical and moral framework for society. Abram (or Abraham) has a miracle son called Isaac in his old age, who in turn has a son called Jacob (later called Israel). Jacob then had twelve sons, each of whom became the founder of one of the twelve tribes of Israel.

Via a very round-about route, one of the 12 sons – Joseph – ends up as Prime Minister of Egypt, and when a severe famine comes, Jacob and the other 11 sons all move to Egypt (where there is still food), and settle there, with the Pharaoh’s blessing.

So far so good. However at the start of Exodus, the old Pharaoh and the 12 brothers have died, and the new king doesn’t look too kindly on the Israelites, who have multiplied and multiplied. The pharaoh makes them his slaves, and makes them build his towns and cities. Their treatment is harsh, and culminates in an order by the king that every baby boy is to be killed at birth. From the midst of this, God calls out Moses to lead them back to Canaan, where they can be God’s chosen people in the promised land, as we first heard in Genesis 12.

Moses makes a first attempt – Moses goes to Pharoah, to ask him to set the Israelites free. Not only does Pharoah say “no”, he is so cross that he increases the oppression of the Israelites, saying that they have to continue to make as many bricks, but without being supplied with the straw anymore. Understandably, this isn’t seen as an improvement!

In today’s passage, God is commissioning Moses again to go the Israelites and lead them out of captivity. There is incredible sense of force and promise in what God says. He identifies himself as the one who appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but then goes on to identify himself by name – “my name is Yahweh”. In fact He says this five times in the passage we read. “Yahweh” is the name God used for himself when He first spoke to Moses in the burning bush. In our bibles it’s printed as “the Lord” (in small capital letters), but it is actually His Name – “Yahweh”, like “Bob” or “Sally” or “Angela”. It’s like He is saying “it really is me, and I am going to free you”.

So, Moses comes to give this message to the Israelites – that Yahweh has promised to set them free from the slavery and oppression of the Egyptians. And what is the response? We see it in verse 9: “they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery”. Isn’t that heart-breaking? To be so broken in spirit, that you refuse to even listen to a message of liberation. That hope itself has gone. Of course, as we know God does rescue his people in the end – and what is more this experience of suffering, oppression, and slavery becomes some of founding principles of the constitution of the nation of Israel. In Deuteronomy the Israelites are charged to “remember you were once slaves in Egypt” and “remember you were once foreigners in a strange land”, and to treat slaves and foreigners accordingly. Somehow God took the suffering, and turned it into a force for good. The suffering became formational, if you like. Something similar is happening in the Romans passage, where suffering produces endurance, character, and hope, and even becomes something we can boast about. It’s not that the suffering is good, but that it becomes a means of good.

Today we are not enslaved by an Egyptian pharaoh, and made to build bricks out of straw. But, as today’s collect prays, we can still be enslaved by the “chains of sin” and need deliverance from this as much as the Israelites did from Egypt three and a half thousand years ago. These might be chains of addiction or destructive patterns of behaviour. They may be chains of an historic or an ongoing abusive relationship. They may be chains from lies or betrayals, whether by us or to us. They may be chains of body image, wealth, or poverty. Today’s readings don’t promise an end of suffering (if anything the opposite!), but they promise that God hears our cry, that He will take the initiative in delivering us, that we can find peace with him purely and simply by faith – by believing and trusting that Jesus died for us, and rose again. That our suffering can have a purpose, have a point – so much so that we will be able to boast about it!

I don’t know what our friend hanging on the tree root did in the end, but if you are living in oppression, or have no hope, or cannot even listen because of a broken spirit, then please don’t leave this place this evening without asking God for His help. I or any of the Cathedral staff would love to pray with you after the service.

Let’s pray together now.

Father God, Yahweh. Thank you that always hear the cry of the oppressed and the hurting. Thank you that you can turn our suffering into something beautiful, in a way that is beyond our understanding. Thank you, Jesus, that you died for us while we were still weak and far from you, and that you have opened the way to perfect peace. Thank you Holy Spirit that you fill us with your passion and peace, and our God within us.  Amen.

Quartet

I am away at a curates’ study weekend at the wonderful Hawkhills near York – really good to meet up with some old friends, and meet some new ones. Anyway, this evening at prayers, we had a piece called “You are Lord in this place”, which is a vocal piece for quartet (i.e. four voices), and as I sat and listened I was struck – not perhaps for the first time, by certainly with the most force – that listening is quite a lot like seeing, in that while you can see/hear everything, you can actually only really focus on one thing at a time.

While I could always hear the composite effect, I could only pick out the individual melodies by intentionally listening to that particular voice – the alto, or tenor, or whatever. And, interestingly, it was very hard to listen to the words and the music at the same time, and in concentrating on the bass, say, I realised that I’d stopped listening to the lyrics, and had idea what had just been sung.

Of course it’s entirely possible that this is just me, and that some people can listen to more than one thing at once. I guess trained musicians are probably quite good at picking out notes. But the little I’ve read on attention suggests that we genuinely can only concentrate on one thing at once, and our brains trick us into thinking otherwise (in the same way that we perceive our vision as if we’re a video camera, whereas in reality sight is more like a spotlight, and a lot of what we think we’re seeing is essentially mental construction or interpolation).

However, the thing that really struck is it that the quartet piece is a little bit like the gospels. Four voices singing the same piece, but each with a distinctive melody of it’s own. And we can only focus on the detail of one at a time, and when we do so we are no longer fully attentive to the other three, even if they are somewhere in the background. There was even one voice (possibly the alto) which, like John’s gospel, was a bit ‘dissonant’  with the other three – by which I mean diminished or seventh-y (I’m afraid my music reading and theory runs out at this point, so I’m don’t suppose it’s the correct terminology). It was still harmonic and beautiful, but not in a natural harmony with the other three. In any case, it is only the four combined – music and words – which form the complete piece.

It made me ponder how we might listen to all four gospels? The piece at prayers was simple but beautiful, and was well performed and a joy to listen to. How might we ‘perform’ the gospels, to try and convey the beauty of their subject Jesus Christ?

Breaking Glass

A couple of weeks ago, I dropped and broke a glass while I was preaching at church!

Actually, it wasn’t real glass, and I dropped it on purpose to illustrate a point. Took me longer to make it then it did to write the rest of the sermon!! (Plus I spent the rest of the service sweeping up the fragments). But I digress…

I believe the Bible teaches that there is a cost to sin, which Jesus takes on (or “covers”) in our place, as a substitute. Now I greatly dislike the “cosmic child abuse” charicature set up regarding substitionary atonement – that there is an angry God who has to punish someone, and so decides to punish his own innocent son instead of us. I believe that is utter nonsense, and poor theology in almost every regard. But I’ve found Tim Keller’s book “The Reason for God” really helpful in shedding some light onto why sin has a cost, and it is his analogy which I adapted and developed in my sermon.

Suppose I was to drop a glass, and it shatters. There is now a cost to making this right. Firstly, someone has to “pay” the time and energy to sweep up all the bits of glass, to tidy up the mess. Secondly, a new glass has to be purchased (or donated) to replace the one that has broken. Anyone can pay these “costs”, but unless someone does, there will remain a dangerous mess on the floor, and we have one less glass. The cost is inherent and unavoidable. I may have deliberately broken it, I may have accidentally knocked it over, I may not even be aware that I broke it. None of this changes the fact there is a cost to making it right, to putting things back to how there were before.

And so sin is a bit like the dropping of a glass – there is an inherent and unavoidable cost which must be “paid” to put it right. Paul writes in Romans 6, “the wages of sin are death”, or in other words the unavoidable and inherent cost of sin is death. Somehow in Old Testament times, the blood of animals served the purpose of paying this price, of putting things right again. That the sacrifice of the animal is in way spiritually analogous to sweeping up bits of glass. I don’t claim to understand the mechanism for this, and it can seem offensive to modern Western ears. I utterly and absolutely do not believe there is a capricious or angry God demanding a blood-letting. I think rather that there is a deeper spiritual truth in play, and that part of the reason we struggle with this is because we are more put out by the fact we can’t sort ourselves out then we are by sin (to paraphrase John Stott).

So on the Day of Atonement (or “At-one-ment”, as it is more accurately written), the High Priest would offer sacrifices of animals for himself and the whole company of Israel, to “pay the price” of sin. But the Day of Atonement didn’t actually work. Glasses kept being broken. Israel kept on sinning. The cost of putting it right kept coming back. So each year more animals, more ritual, to try and deal with this sickness.

But the glass shattering brought to mind the title of another book, by Stanley Hauerwas, called “Cross-Shattered Christ”. Could it be that what happened (in part) on the cross was that Jesus took the ‘shattering’ once and for all? So that the glass no longer even breaks when it is dropped? That instead of the glass shattering, the one who takes its place shatters. That instead of the glass being broken, the body of the one who has taken its place is broken.

Was this what he foresaw at the Last Supper – his body being broken, his blood poured out? “This is my body, given for you”, and “this is my blood, shed for you”.

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
    and by his wounds we are healed. (Is 53:5)

 

As with any analogy or model, it only tells a small part of the story of course, and has limitations. I offer it only as one way of thinking about the miriacle of the cross, and as an invitation to wonder and worship. I am not for one second suggesting that sin no longer has any consequences, or “doesn’t matter” – just that we no longer have to bear the cost of being made right (or becoming “at one”) with God; the temple curtain has been torn, and the Most Holy Place is open.

Further reading
Keller, T.J. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2008)
Stott, J. The Cross of Christ, 2nd edition (Leicester: IVP, 1989)
Hauerwas, S. Cross-Shattered Christ: Meditations on the Seven Last Words (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2004)

Person of Peace

Last time I wrote about people of peace – that is people who are already close to the Kingdom of God. The reason I wrote that blog was because the phrase has stayed with me, albeit flipped around, and I’m coming to see this another kairos moment. The question that has stayed with me is to what extent am I a person of peace? Especially at my 9-5 work during the week.

It is easy, in many ways, when I’m at church, in my dog collar. My job/role is to be a person of peace, and a minister to everyone I come across. If people do happen to rant and rage at me, part of my role is to listen, help, pray, and be with the person who is obviously not in a good place. “Success” is measured in terms of bringing people closer to God. I should add that my experience of curacy to date hasn’t been being ranted and raged at! But I have been in situations where people are hurting, and deep emotions are expressed.

At my work place, it is a different scenario. My job there is to write software, and the people I come across are colleagues and peers, or sometimes customers. “Success”, at least from my employer’s perspective, is measured in terms of happy customers, by delivering quality projects on time, and to budget (while operating in line with the culture of the company, of course).

It is in this second context, I realise, that I am not always a person of peace, especially when the pressure is on, and a project isn’t going too well. I guess that this won’t come as a surprise to the people I work with! Truth is that I do sometimes lose my cool and perspective, and get drawn into arguments which are disguised as a technical discussion. In theory we are trying to determine an optimal approach to the particular problem in hand. In practice, it can become something much more visceral, and an exercise generating heat rather than light, in talking rather than listening, in wanting to be heard more than wanting to hear. I don’t think that theological discussions are immune from this either!

But I believe that God is calling me – and you – to something better, and deeper, than this. I believe He is calling us to be people of peace. Both in terms of our own inner peace, and also peace-bringing (or peace-making); I believe the two are related. I don’t mean the emotion-less “teflon”, almost smug, peace of the “zen master”, who is never rattled by anything. If you’ve seen the film Serenity, the Operative is a good example of this. No, I mean such a deep peace and confidence that emotions are fully felt, but don’t challenge identity, so there is no defensiveness or “defended-ness”. In fact it’s quite the opposite – they are vulnerable and open.

If I think about the people I’ve come across over the years, and especially in my training, the people who I admire the most, and most want to emulate, are the people who I would describe as people of peace. People who respond to situations well, calmly. Who aren’t threatened by difference, and don’t feel the need to be right, or to “win” the argument. People who can identify points of common ground between warring factions, and put aside themselves, and their own opinions.

Now please don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about being a doormat, or that there is no “right” and “wrong”. The people of peace I’m thinking of can challenge in a way that is kind and gentle, keeping the conversation open. They can point out the flaws in an argument in a way that is trying to move the conversation forward, and not to “win”. They don’t feel the need to reach a consensus, or to resolve everything, or feel the need to take responsibility for other people’s “mistakes”. Who, I suppose, don’t even see them as mistakes. People who have the wisdom to recognise what truly matters, I suppose, what is worth fighting for, but still fight for it in a peaceful way. Who know what the Truth is, but don’t force it down peoples’ throats.

So my prayer at the moment is that I will be (more of) a man of peace, at work, at home, and at church. Seems like an appropriate activity for Lent!