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

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?

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!

People of Peace

A week or two ago in our leadership huddle, we were reflecting on the sending of the seventy two in Luke 10, specifically this idea of them finding a “man of peace” (v. 5). At the time, we particularly thought about what this might mean in terms of recognising how God is already within the people we meet. In no sense whatsoever do Christians hold exclusive rights to working God’s purposes out – whenever anybody makes a stand for the oppressed, helps the vulnerable, challenges corruption, stands for truth, protects the environment, seeks justice, or shows mercy and forgiveness, they are acting as an agent for the Kingdom of God. Whether they mean to or not, or indeed whether they like it or not!

The (Anglican) church globally recognises this with its “Five Marks of Mission“:

  • To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
  • To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
  • To respond to human need by loving service
  • To transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation
  • To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth

I love how this counters the tendency of the Church to try and limit “mission” to either the first mark (e.g. an evangelistic Beach Mission) or the third (e.g. sending Missionaries overseas). Don’t get me wrong – I’m not knocking these activities, just saying they do not capture the full scope of God’s mission on their own. The theology of this is rooted in part in Genesis 12:2-3, when God calls Abraham (my emphasis):

I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessingI will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

And then in Genesis 18:19 the way in which Abraham will do this is shown (again my emphasis):

No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.

Incidentally, Chris Wright’s amazing opus The Mission of God develops and explores it far more ably then I can, and I commend it to you. I think I’m right in saying that he coined the phrase “international agent of blessing”, which I love (although it always makes me think of Austin Powers too, which is perhaps less helpful).

Anyway, “Righteousness and Justice” (Hebrew mishpat and tsadaq) are a foundational part of God’s character, and form a couplet, i.e. two words go together to form a composite phrase which means more than the individual words. (There is a proper/technical word for this, but I can’t remember it!). Another example might be “Health and Safety”. Where you have one, you have the other, and it is only when they are paired that you get the full picture.  There is a great article on misphat and tsadaq on Eden’s Bridge website.

Maybe “people of peace” are those people who are already close to God’s heart and character, but don’t yet realise it? People who are being a blessing to those around them. Perhaps we can start to recognise God working in and through them? A lot of damage has been done in name of religions generally, and Christianity specifically. Even today, Christians (and what is passed off as Christianity) often aren’t Good News for the people who are closest to God’s heart in either sense; neither the poor and the oppressed, nor those working for misphat and tsadaq. Perhaps we could, and should, start to recognise and call out in others where they are Good News, and challenge ourselves where we start to think that Christians have the exclusive rights to this,

Edit – I’ve just realised that today’s collect (second Sunday before Lent) has something similar to say:

Almighty God,
you have created the heavens and the earth
and made us in your own image:
teach us to discern your hand in all your works
and your likeness in all your children;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who with you and the Holy Spirit reigns supreme over all things,
now and for ever.

Rest

Sometimes certain words or phrases sometimes leap out, and niggle away at you – and at least some of the time this is God trying to draw our attention to something; what might be called a kairos moment. I have had two such incidences in recent weeks, both around the idea of busyness and rest. Kairos is a shorthand way of saying just the right thing at just the right time. For instance, harvest is a kairos time – when the fruit is ripe and ready to be picked.

The first moment was a phrase I read somewhere (and I can’t now find the source, so apologies for no attribution) that as Christians we can offer the gift of not being busy. In the frantic pace of modern life, we have the chance to model an alternative – that you don’t need to be busy. It’s oh so easy to see busyness both as a virtue and as a source of identity: I’ve got lots of things to do, so I must be important! Christianity offers a different narrative – that our identity and worth comes from being, rather than doing. We are loved by God just because we are loved by God, not because of anything we do. This gives an extraordinary freedom – it doesn’t matter what we do with our time, or for work, or indeed whether we are of high station or low, male, female, slave, free, black, white (see Gal 3:28). Therefore in terms of our core identity, we have nothing to earn and nothing to prove. We don’t have to achieve anything, either on a daily basis, or indeed with our whole lives. This flies in the face of our Facebook/Instagram culture, with its pressure to “do” and present photoshopped versions of ourselves and our lives.

I think this particularly struck me because of my role as a leader in the church. My temptation is to be busy and important. When people ask me what I’ve got on, I want to be able to reel off a long list of vital jobs! Ultimately though, this approach is for my own benefit and security. I want to feel needed and useful, indispensable even. But, just maybe, what people actually need is a leader who is rested? Who models and “gives permission” not to have a full diary, or to live a 100mph lifestyle? Who withdraws to take time out, rest, and spend time with God. A leader who can say “no”, and encourages us to say “no” (at least some of the time!) Doesn’t that sound like a breath of fresh air? Come to that, it sounds quite a lot like Jesus….

The second kairos moment came up in our leadership huddle at church, and much of what follows is drawn from the discussions we had there – I don’t claim these idea are all mine! Anyway, the phrase was “missional rest”, based on Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 11:

28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

and also John 15:

Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.

The sense here is that we need to learn to rest, we need to learn to abide in the freedom that comes from being loved from God. It doesn’t come naturally! Who of us doesn’t read “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” and internally say “Oh, God – yes please”. Maybe it’s just me (but I don’t think so). It’s as if we recognise that being driven and stressed isn’t the way we want to live, or is ultimately satisfying, but we don’t know any other way. Retirement becomes this great nirvana we spend the vast majority of our life working towards. As much as I enjoy Bon Jovi’s claim “I’ll live while I’m alive, and sleep when I’m dead”, the truth of the matter is we can only live when we’re alive if that includes both sleep and rest (and if don’t sleep at all, phrases like “severe psychosis” and “death” are not far away). Of course, Bon Jovi is really talking about living fully in the present in that particular song, but the point still stands that we need to rest.

This rest, then, is missional because it really is good news. To live in God’s rest is to have a deep security and joy, and freedom from trying to live up to other people’s or society’s expectations. That if we can’t or don’t “contribute” to society (whatever that means anyway), that in no way impacts our worth or value. And once we have learned how to rest (and it is something we need to learn in today’s culture), we then have an alternative to offer, something to teach (or at least offer) our society, perhaps?

Just a couple of provisos are needed. Firstly freedom is not licence. What we do still matters, and I believe ultimately we must account for the choices we have made in life. Christians or not, we all have responsibilities to God, one another and our environment, and living in freedom doesn’t mean freedom from those responsibilities. But the crucial factor is that my identity and beloved-ness is not contingent. I work out of a sense of freedom, security, and joy, and not out of fear and coercion. Secondly, it is easy to view this rest as another burden, yet another thing on the “to-do” list. While it is true to say that it requires effort, it is Jesus who teaches us, and carries the load alongside us. So while in one sense it is yet another pressure on our time, to consider this the whole picture is short-sighted. Thirdly, and finally, I recognise that busyness is not everybody’s experience, and many face the opposite problem, that of an empty and/or lonely life.  Or indeed a “worthless” life (in society’s eyes). I write this from the perspective of having a job, paying taxes, juggling a busy household, being part of a large and quite complex church, and living in a very driven and consumerist corner of England. I don’t take these things for granted. But I also believe Jesus can offer peace, identity, and security and – yes – rest whatever our circumstances. And, for all her flaws, church is one of the best antidotes to loneliness or boredom that I know! (If you can overlook the odd duff sermon – but then I do only preach a few times a year, so you should be safe enough).

It seems particularly apt to have our attention drawn to rest on the cusp of Advent. Maybe this year in the run up to Christmas, we can seek out God’s rest – whether in the everyday (walking in the snow, cup of coffee with friends), or the transcendent (Carol Services, Midnight Mass). Take his yoke upon you, for it is easy, and the burden is light.

Advent Wonder

Death and Gospel Hope

At this time of year we do a lot of remembering. We remember those who have gone before in the faith at All Saints and All Souls, we remember the Bonfire Plot, and of course – yesterday and today – we particularly remember those who gave their lives in the Great Wars. This year we have also been remembering the Reformation, 500 years after it “started” in Wittenberg.

Death is a part of life, and will come to us, and those we love, sooner and later. One of the privileges the church has is to mourn alongside those who grieve, and offer both comfort and the hope of Jesus Christ.

The death of a loved one makes us stop, even if only for a moment, and step outside ordinary life. Something has changed, which will never change back. Someone has left, who can never come back. In the news recently there was a story about the collision of two black holes. It was a cataclysmic event, causing a shock-wave to travel through space at the speed of light. By the time it got to us in August, it was just a ripple – but the extraordinary thing is that the collision happened almost 2 billion years ago! Such is the un-imagineable vastness of space that the shock-wave has taken literally thousands of millions of years to reach us. Certainly puts second class post into perspective.

But there is something even more amazing. And that is that you and me – tiny specks of dust as we are within this huge cosmos – are each known and loved by the one who made it all. You and me are known by name, since before we were born, say the Psalms. And not only are we known and loved, we are invited to become his children. God’s sons and daughters. And if that wasn’t enough, this invitation extends beyond the grave, beyond death itself. And all this has been made possible by another cataclysmic event, which happened 2,000 years ago, in the Middle East, when God himself died, in the person of Jesus. God died. God died at the hands of the Romans. And he was buried. For you, and for me.

But the story doesn’t end there. Jesus didn’t stay in the grave. According to the gospel, Jesus came back to life a few days layer. In John’s gospel Jesus promised that he is the way to God. That he is the resurrection and the life. That he is the good shepherd who will bring us, his sheep, home. And we have this hope – this sure belief – that whoever trusts in Jesus shall never truly perish, but have eternal life. Not only life after death, but a complete and meaningful (although not necessarily easy or safe!) life before death. That God so loves the world, that he did this for you, me, and all creation. And Jesus proved it by rising again from the dead, all those years ago. Death could not hold God then, and cannot hold Him today. In our sorrow, then, there is a hope. As we mourn, we stand in the shadow of one who has tasted (and conquered) death. As we face our own black holes, our own cataclysms, we can know the one who is light itself. Who cries with us in our pain, but offers the hope of joy everlasting today, and in the life to come.

Baptism

I recently had the privilege of preparing and baptising two babies at church, and I could not have asked for a pair of more lovely families or babies for my first time. Both sets of parents showed such generosity in welcoming me into their homes, as we thought about baptism together, and then entrusted me with their precious child while I poured water over him or her!! Little T. and R. were absolutely delightful too, and were very kind in not screaming/throwing up/poo-ing in my arms (not that those things would have mattered, of course, but I’m still glad they didn’t happen).

Infant baptism (or christening – same thing, different name) is one of those potentially divisive issues in the church. Some folk only practise what you might call a “believer’s baptism” (namely, that the person being baptised owns and believes the faith for themselves). In the Church of England we practise infant baptism, where the parents and godparents own and believe the faith on behalf of the child, in the hope that that child will grow up into that faith him- or herself. As I understand it, the differences in opinion arise in part from an individualistic vs. a communal outlook on life, and in part as a reaction to the historical/superstitious practices of the medieval period (cf. the Reformation).  I’m not sure that the Bible is definitive either way, and it basically hinges on how you interpret certain passages, and how much weight you give them (although it’s only fair to observe that Christians also disagree about this!!) As a member of the Church of England it is academic in any case – we baptise children, and we think that it’s a good thing. Anyway, if this sort of things float your boat, there are plenty of resources to look into this further – and a booklet from Grove Books is usually an excellent (and good value) starting place on almost any area of Christian thought.

What Christians do agree on, at least, is that baptism is something important and significant, and fundamentally the “why” comes down to the dominical command (which is a fancy way of saying that Jesus told us to do it!) in the Great Commission of Matthew 28, when Jesus says “Go and make disciples of every people group, baptising them in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”.

So we agree on the “why”, we disagree on the “how” – but what I have been particularly thinking about is what baptism means, and what “happens” during it. Thankfully we have largely moved beyond the theology that anyone who isn’t baptised automatically goes to hell (and conversely, that anyone who is automatically doesn’t) – although once again some see this differently. I personally cannot reconcile God’s infinite grace, love, and unknowability with a formula that says “baptised == saved”. But I do also think that something happens.

I reckon part of the key is in symbols and symbolism. Now the danger with symbols is that it is very easy to think that, if something is symbolic, then it’s not real. One of our tutors at St Hild pointed out the wording on bank notes – “I promise the pay the bearer on demand…” In other words, the bank note itself isn’t money per se, but rather a promise that it can be exchanged for money at the bank. Or, you might say that the bank note is a symbol, a physical representation of something else. Yet I challenge you to find anyone who says a tenner isn’t real money! Something similar is going on with wedding rings and marriage. The gold band on my finger is still, essentially, just a lump of metal (who says romance is dead?!) I am no more or less married whether I am wearing the ring or not. I am no better or worse husband. Yet the ring is a symbol of the love and commitment – the visible sign of an invisible reality (to misappropriate St Augustine). Come to that, marriage itself is not – really – the definition of the relationship; I loved my wife no more one minute after the wedding then I did one minute before. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that marriage isn’t important (far from it), and actually something did change as we made a public and legal commitment to one another. My point is just that it is perhaps helpful to start to disentangle the underlying reality (in this case the relationship) from its physical/visible expression (wedding rings), especially when thinking about baptism.

So in baptism there are 3 main symbols/symbolic actions that occur in the service; the water, the candle, and the signing with the cross. The water is particularly rich in imagery and theology; although a lot of it hangs on the idea of full immersion – which is to say going completely under the water for a few moments. We don’t tend to do this with babies!! However, the sprinkling/pouring of water is intended to represent the full immersion. Most obviously, the water is about being washed clean. Being made utterly new, as if we had never known dirt (or done anything wrong).  It also carries the less obvious imagery of dying and rising, with the submersion representing being buried, and the coming out of water like being raised to life again. There is something about being (re)born – emerging from the waters of the font as if from the womb? (This not my favourite element of the symbolism!!) There is also a sense of being clothed in Christ; the water completely surrounds and encompasses, so Jesus completely encompasses us with new spiritual “clothes”, befitting of our new status as daughters and sons of God. I suspect there are other images in play as well. The signing with the cross and the candles are a bit more straightforward in their imagery, I think, but no less powerful. Anyway, there are many more accomplished theologians than me who can (and have) unpack all this, so I will leave that as an exercise for the reader…

Instead, and at the risk of completely going off on one, drawing the oblique analogy between marriage and baptism above set me to musing that maybe baptism is actually quite a lot like marriage? It’s not as strange as it might sound at first – after all the church (i.e. the baptised community of believers) is repeatedly described as the bride of Christ, and the Kingdom of Heaven is likened to a wedding. And if you describe marriage as making a public commitment, supported by friends, family, and the church, and entering into a lifelong relationship then suddenly it sounds just like (adult) baptism to me. With infant baptism it falls down a bit with the fact that a marriage is between consenting adults – clearly not the case here. So maybe infant baptism is a more like an engagement or betrothal? By which I mean a concrete promise made regarding a future commitment, with the hope and expectation (but no guarantee) of the fulfilment of that promise. To extend the analogy, in the Church of England, we call this fulfilment Confirmation (but I’m not going there in this post!)

We do have a little bit of translation to do; these days engagements don’t carry quite the same level of commitment and gravity that they used to, where breaking off an engagement was almost like a divorce. And to push it a bit further, maybe infant baptism is almost a bit like an arranged marriage? In the West we react very negatively to the concept of arranged marriages, obsessed as we are with rights, individual choice, and eros (romantic/erotic love). But if we can move beyond our own cultural filters, then someone (who knows us best and loves us the most) making a choice on our behalf (which they believe is the very best for us, our families, and local community) doesn’t sound entirely without merit… or a million miles away from infant baptism? Might there be some sense of the parents betrothing their child to Christ?

I fully admit this sounds a bit odd, and I’m not convinced that it is a helpful line of enquiry… I probably won’t be preparing my next baptism family by telling them they are putting their child into an arranged marriage! Yet I kind of think that there is something here. Either way, the symbols help us catch a glimpse of a deeper and wonderful reality, but one which is always ultimately going to end in mystery. Do I know what happens at baptism? No, not really. But at some level it is saying “yes” to Jesus, and at the end of the day that is enough for me.

Dick and Dom and Dog Collars

Earlier this year, I took my two boys to Harrogate Theatre to see Dick and Dom (from CBBC). Inevitably, perhaps, I was volunteered to go up on stage to play some daft game. Of course, the whole point of these games is that the parent is (a) hapless, and (b) ridiculed in front of several hundred people, especially his or her own children. Fortunately I have plenty of practice at both of these things.

However, one thing I did chicken out of was saying that I was training to be a vicar, at least in part because I hadn’t really thought it through as a scenario, and I figured that the conversation probably wouldn’t have gone the way I would have wanted it to. Note to theological colleges – be sure to cover how to handle an interview with stars of kids’ TV, while wearing boxing gloves and dribbling baked beans!!

But the occasion has stuck with me. As a complete digression; one of the things I’m fascinated by is why some people seem utterly comfortable and natural on TV (or stage, or at the front of a room), while others seem very awkward and unnatural. You see it on any sort of panel programme, and it’s especially interesting to contrast Pointless with Pointless Celebrities, say. I (theoretically at least) could have bounced up onto stage, larger than life, and bantered with Dick and Dom as if I was an equal part of of the show – but I actually think that would have been a bit weird, as well as making me a “pro-active self-starter” (as we used to refer to this kind of attitude at one of my old jobs).

Anyway, back to Dick and Dom, here’s how the conversation might have played out:

Dick: And what do you do?
Me: I’m a computer programmer, and a part-time vicar.
Dick: Wow, that’s amazing – Please, tell us all the good news about Jesus, and how we can give our lives to Him today.

Now I admit that this is a fairly unlikely scenario, so my back-up scenario was as follows:

Dick: Wow – but where’s your dog collar?
Me: Not with me today – but we can soon fix that, if you’ve got a bit of card?
James quickly fashions a dog collar using origami jujitsu, does up his top collar, and inserts it, to the amusement and amazement of the theatre audience.
Dick: Well, that’s worth a round of applause – but why do you wear one at all?
Me: It’s mainly so I don’t run off when I’m taken for a walk, and also so that people don’t think I’m a stray.
Cue extended hilarity from the audience, and Dick and Dom cancelling the rest of the show because they couldn’t follow that.

Such is my inner world – do pray for me.

But there is actually something potentially quite profound in my imagined glib response. After enjoying my own witty repartee in the privacy of my head, it struck me that one could phrase this another way.

The dog collar helps me stay safe, from wandering too far from the path; and it shows everyone I am owned, loved, and cared for by someone.

Suddenly there is something else, and much deeper going on here. And it’s something which applies to all who would call themselves follows of Jesus (not just the nut edge cases who are ordained). The well loved Psalm 23 talks of being led, and being kept on the right path: “He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.” Proverbs speaks of those who walk in wisdom “Then you will go on your way in safety, and your foot will not stumble.” In a slightly different, but related, vein, in John’s gospel Jesus asserts: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Please understand, I’m not saying that life is automatically a bed of roses as soon as we become Christians – if anything the opposite. But it is, perhaps, a little bit like the difference between being a stray roaming the streets, living off scraps, with nowhere to call home; and being known and loved, having a home, and being fed.

As Christians, we are all living witnesses of what it means to be owned and loved by someone – and unlike with our real canine friends, there is an open invitation for others to be adopted and have this ownership and love for themselves. Maybe part of the point of the dog collar is to keep this invitation on the cards? Sticking with our four legged friends, there is perhaps something about a voluntary submission to a master as well. The bible repeatedly uses the language of doulos (which means slave) to describe the Christian life, and even Jesus himself is described as a servant. Of course, slavery doesn’t have many positive connotations these days, but maybe couching this in terms of a dog being a “slave” to his or her master can redeem the language a little? Utter faithfulness, devotion, happiness, security (and at this point you realise that it’s a while since I have owned a dog!!) I don’t claim any of this to be particularly novel, and you must forgive my continued reflections on “The Collar”.

As with any analogy or metaphor, it has its limits, and the Bible far prefers to talk about us as children of God rather than pets!! And lest we forget, a dog lead is really about limitation and control, which is more or less the opposite of the point I’m trying to make.

In any case – Richard and Dominic, if you happen to be reading this, and want me to demonstrate my dog collar origami next time you do a show in Harrogate, you know how to reach me…