Tackling the tough stuff…

Soon after I arrived in Circuit, one of the churches under my care asked if we could start a bible study/fellowship group, because it was something they longed for but hadn’t had for some time.

I willingly obliged, encouraged by their enthusiasm for study and fellowship and I confess slightly indulgently – because I always enjoy conversation about faith, scripture and God.

Continue reading Tackling the tough stuff…

Seeing what’s in front of me

I’ve recently been reading a book called ‘Under the Unpredictable Plant’, by Eugene Peterson. Using the book of Jonah as a foundation, he explores how we understand the vocation of a pastor in a world where vocation too often becomes a career, spirituality becomes religiosity and being a pastor revolves around either being a manager or being a messiah. He makes many points, but at it’s crux is the suggestion that above all being a pastor requires us to speak of God, and point to God.

While the book was written over 25 years ago, and comes from an American context, I’ve still found it a really helpful read, as someone who is about to begin full time ministry and can echo with some of Eugene’s own vocational journey.

Over the last few days, one line has particularly stuck with me, where Peterson suggests we need to:

“develop a reverence for what is actually there instead of a contempt for what is not, inadequacies that seduce me into a covetousness for someplace else.” [1]

All too often, I find myself hearing what others are saying, seeing what others are doing, and wishing I could be doing that, that I was like that. The result is that I fail to recognise, appreciate and revere what is in front of me.

There have been a few times in the past week where I’ve found myself caught up short, realising the seduction and distraction that has drawn my attention away from what is in front of me.

One such moment was on Sunday morning. My family and I were attending my link church for the last time before we move to Bognor Regis. I’ve spent the last 2 years linked to the church as part of my training, where I have worshipped with them, lead some services and bible study’s, attended some meetings and been generally present and supporting the church and their minister. It’s a group of people I’ve come to love for their generosity, welcome and hospitality, and deep desire to worship God in the face of adversity. They welcomed Louise and the girls as heartily as they welcomed me, they even created a creche space in a side room for the girls to be able to play during services, and were never frustrated by the noise or the distraction two toddlers regularly created!

But my link church was very different to churches I’d been to before. It’s multi-cultural identity and inner city location were both a step outside of anything I’d been used to in Cornwall. I needed to get used to fact that my being white sometimes meant I was the minority in the congregation, I had to get used to the congregation numbers doubling, or even trebling in the time between the start and finish of the service. The church had very different ways of doing things that I might have had.

Neither have I been immune from field-gazing. Hearing other’s talk about their link church experiences and wishing I’d had the opportunities they’d had.

This weekend, as they said goodbye to us, not only did they surprise us with cake and nibbles after the service, they gave all of us gifts of thanks, and gathered around us and prayed for us all. They shared how much they’d been touched, encouraged and nurtured through our presence and ministry with them. The irony is that it wasn’t until I was leaving that I came to realise just what was in front of me. I’ve never felt I’ve really done much at my link church, yet now I see how much my simply being with them has impacted them.

One member said to me afterwards “you’ll never fully know the impact you’ve made on us”. That was a heart stopping moment. All I could say, was “I guess I won’t”, and in that moment that was ok. It was ok not to know, because in truth it doesn’t matter, not to me, what matters is what God is doing, what matters is that God has, is and continues to work in those amazing folk through their hospitality and love.

Me, I’ve been reminded once again to revere what’s in front of me and know that it’s not all about me and what I do, it’s about what God is doing. I hope and pray I never lose sight of that.

——————–

[1] Under the Unpredictable Plant, Eugene Peterson, (Eerdmans, 1992) p.133.

Calling and Vocation (4): Rooted in God

This is the fourth (and for the moment, final) post in a series of posts around the theme of Calling and Vocation, particularly focused around my own experiences of formation for ordained ministry, but also seeking to be broader in recognising the calling and vocation of all God’s people.

You can see the previous blogs in the series here:

Calling and Vocation (1): Risk-Takers

Calling and Vocation (2): Hope-Builders

Calling and Vocation (3): Discernment

Rooted in God

Why wait until the fourth and final (for now) post to talk about God? In fairness I don’t think I have, all my reflections had been based on an assumption that God is central and primary in our exploring of and responding to calling and vocation. To take risks that enable others to explore and realise their own God given talents and abilities, to build hope, that others can see the God in the future as well as in today, and encouraging and modelling discernment as a process of seeking to respond it, test out and talk about hat God is saying and doing in our lives.

However, I’ve come to a point in my reflections where I’ve come to recognise that, with all good and Godly intentions, it can be too easy to go by or own steam, or God to be moved to the periphery and us to take centre stage. One of the aspects of faith I’ve sometimes found a challenge to sustain over the last 3 years is a sense of spirituality which keeps me rooted in relationship with God, rather than in ideas, institutions and ideologies. It’s something I continue to work at, and recently with some friends feel that I have made some significant headway.

With so many worldly distractions around us, the temptations of materialism, the draw of commercialism, the culture of instant gratification we live in, it seems is too easy to become distant from God, distant from what matters. In his book exploring vocational holiness, Eugene Peterson recognises some of these tensions. Exploring the book of Jonah, he parallels life encounters with the storm Jonah faces, as a place for re-orientation [1] a time to wake-up [2] and take note of God, when Jonah was doing all he could to escape God.

Of course, these thoughts are in no way isolated to the topic of calling and vocation. This is about Christian life, living out the faith we profess. Yet it is from the seeking to live out faith that calling and vocation emerge – one feeds the other, gives life to other. Calling and Vocation cannot be separated from faith. Peterson appears to suggest that when such a separation happens, we fall from spirituality into religiosity, from pursuing vocation to fulfilling a career. [3]

So whether exploring vocation yourself, our thinking about ways to help others think about vocation, I think it is important to never neglect the importance of bring rooted in God. Calling and vocation becomes a fallacy, for it hides a self-focused careerism, separated from the faith in which we profess.

Even more so now than when I went through the process, I greatly appreciate the emphasis on the call of God which was present throughout my own candidating experience. I appreciate that not everyone’s experience is the same, but for me, the emphasis on the call of God left me feeling assured and at peace that God’s will would be, working in and through the many conversations, panels and meetings I had, all the while feeling and knowing in my spirit that they were soaked in prayer and God’s Spirit. The emphasis also helped me to know it wasn’t all about me, it wasn’t about what I do or could/would do, but about who I am, as a child of God, feeling and responding to the call of God and allowing others to journey with me in exploring and eventually confirming that call.

In a sense then, this series of blogs therefore finishes at the place where calling and vocation needs to start, and always be: rooted in God – who loves, calls and equips, listening and responding to God call, and in the company of others, pursing vocation with God at the centre.

[1] Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Eerdmans, 1992) p.46

[2] Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Eerdmans, 1992) p.35

[3] Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Eerdmans, 1992) see p.3-5; 20.

Calling and Vocation (3): Discerning

A couple weeks ago I began sharing some thoughts around calling and vocation,(links to the previous blogs… Calling and Vocation (1) Risk Takers; Calling and Vocation (2): Hope-Builders). Here’s a third, which focuses on discernment.

Discernment

If you were asked to describe what discernment means, how would you attempt to answer that question? And a further questions, where do you see discernment practiced, evident or talk about within church life?

If I was asked 3 years what discernment is, I think I would have struggled to answer it very well at all. Now, while still not finding it easy, words like testing, considering, weighing-up, consultation and conversation with others – all under the banner of a Christian belief that discernment is seeking to understand and enflesh the will of God in our lives, and/or the lives of others.

In my experience, and in conversation with other people’s experience of candidating for ordained ministry in the Methodist church, I’ve noticed two things;

  1. That the majority of people feel a sense of certainty of some sort of call before they share it with anyone else
  2. That while people feel a sense of certainty of call, this certainty has been one of calling to candidate, not calling to ordained ministry.

Both have their significance – and to briefly explore them, I want to start with the second observation.

Speaking from my own experience, I strongly felt a call to candidate, to offer myself to the Church. While I wouldn’t have described it in this way at the time, in hindsight I can see that this was a time of discernment, as the church and I sought to discern the will of God together. While I felt confident I was doing the right thing in candidating, I never felt any sort of certainty about the result that would one day come.

Looking back, this time of discernment was extremely significant for me, because it allowed me to time to explore what this call might mean for me, for my family and for my future. It meant I could deal with some of my doubts, name some of my fears, wrestle with some of the questions that were constantly developing in my mind. But this was done with others, supporting, nurturing and encouraging me. In many ways, my last two years at college have felt like a continuation of that, no so much about discerning vocation, as discerning about self, about identity, about the place and shape of future ministry, again done alongside others, tutors, family, colleagues, friends.

Which leads me to consider the first observation I have made – That the majority of people feel a sense of certainty of some sort of call before they share it with anyone else.

In some ways, and speaking from personal experience, that had some great strengths for me in considering ordained ministry. A sense of certainty that to candidate was the right thing for me to do meant that some of the challenges I faced through that process were supported with an inner sense of certainty and conviction which enabled me to overcome them.

However, is certainty a prerequisite of what then becomes a more public discernment process? What I think I’m asking is whether we believe we are providing people in our churches with the tools and resources for personal discernment before they make that ongoing process of discernment more public. I am pretty sure there are some things we’re good at, but I am also sure there’s going to be more we could do.

Taking this beyond thinking about the processes of discernment for ordained ministry, what of discernment for other vocations, whether it be in or outside of the church, how is the church equipping people to discern the will of God for their lives? In one way or another, I think most people would agree that we live in a culture which increasingly assumes immediacy, is built up on finding clear answers with haste and instancy, and expects a level of perfectionism and faultlessness. I’m not convinced society does the concept of discernment much service, and I’m not convinced it’s supported by the Biblical narrative either.

I’ve been reading Exodus this week, and the character of Moses has echoed with me in ways it hasn’t before. One thing that has struck me is that Moses was full or doubts about himself, his worth, his ability, how he would be received by the Israelites.

‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’

‘But suppose they do not believe me or listen to me?’

‘O my Lord, I have never been eloquent […] I am slow of speech and slow of tongue’

‘O my Lord, please send someone else.’

Exodus 3:11; 4:1; 4:11; 4:13.

His questions and his wrestling with this call come alongside the fact he had run away from Egypt because he had murdered an Egyptian (2:12). Moses wasn’t perfect, he lacked self-confidence, I think he lacked certainty, but God called and used him all the same.

So as Christians, as God’s people, I think we need to be more intentional about how we talk about and practice discernment in the public sphere, which will impact upon the private sphere. We need to show that it is ok to not know, that it is right to take time in discernment, that discernment does not necessarily require certainty, that it is proper to take that journey with others, in discerning the will of God. Discernment should be part of our making sense of calling and vocation, wherever direction we sense that taking us, whether for a season or for a lifetime. To affirm that calling comes with doubts and fears, and that these feelings are natural, human, and part of what discernment is.

Calling and Vocation (2): Hope-builders

Last week I began sharing some thoughts around calling and vocation, having been stimulated in my thinking and reflecting by a Connexional focus group I was part of which was exploring the area of calling and vocation in youth and young adults. See here for the first post in this blog series.

Here’s the second blog exploring some of my reflections and ongoing thoughts.

Hope-builders

Continue reading Calling and Vocation (2): Hope-builders

Calling and Vocation (1): Risk-takers

I spent some time this week in a Connexional focus group exploring vocation and calling with other young student and probationer Methodist presbyters. The time we shared together is contributing to some ongoing Connexional work focused around how Methodism explores and develops its thinking and practice around vocation and calling with youth and young adults.

Continue reading Calling and Vocation (1): Risk-takers

Going around the bend…

Initial formational training has at times felt like a tremendous gift, and at other times a hard slog. As I begin June 2018 I find myself beginning a new phase of life. I‘ve completed the academic work for the academic year, lectures are over, and I have opportunity and much more personal freedom to choose what to read, and get some more practical learning through a summer placement.

So much of the last 2 years has been spent looking ahead at what is coming next, planning for the next essay, reading for the next lecture, preparing for the next service, that I find myself finding this change of pace somewhat disorientating.

People tell me to take it easy, to enjoy the time, rest and relax, and while I want to do that, I feel ill equipped for all the unknowns of what the future holds, and want to use the time I have now the best I can to be better, to feel stronger.

Last week we went for a walk as a family down the canal, never a fast walk with two toddlers ambling along. As a canal boat slowly turned the corner and moved out of sign, I had what I can only describe as a moment of revelation. I found myself realising how pertinent that image of the canal boat slowly turning the corner was for me. Having been in such an intensive period of life, this time is for me, to go slowly, to relax, to enjoy the path ahead as I slowly turn into the unknown.

I confess, that doesn’t come easy with me. It runs against what I tend to call my own pragmatic disposition. All too often wanting to get on with what needs doing, and struggling to accept that for my own wellbeing, the pragmatic thing is not always to be doing. Not always planning ahead, not always looking to the future. So I’m learning. Learning to be. Learning that sometimes the most pragmatic thing to do might actually be to sit, to wait, to be, to enjoy what I have, where I am, now. To meet with God as I slowly sail around the bend…and enjoy it.

Stay with me,

remain here with me,

watch and pray.

watch and pray.

Taize Community (C) Ateliers et Presses de Taize

Header Image: Birmingham Canal, May 2018

The unexpectedness of God

A couple weeks ago we were surprised to wake up to over 5 inches of snow, with more still falling. We knew it was coming but hadn’t expected it to be quite such a significant quantity!

Have you ever considered how disruptive Mary’s encounter with Angel Gabriel must have been? What was most likely a normal, mundane day was turned upside down by an unexpected encounter with God’s messenger. This unexpected encounter changes Mary’s life.

The Birth of Jesus Foretold

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ 34 Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ 35 The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.’ 38 Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.

Luke 1:26-38 (NRSV)

It seems to me that the Christmas narrative as a whole is filled with God being and doing the unexpected…

  • Elizabeth and Zechariah expected to never have children, yet along comes John…
  • I doubt anyone expected Augustus to announce a census where everyone must return to their home town…
  • Mary came from Nazareth, and in John’s gospel we find Nathaniel’s questions of ‘can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ – indicating that people from Nazareth weren’t expected to achieve anything…
  • The Shepherds were having a normal night watching their flocks when unexpectedly an angel stood before them…
  • The magi expected Jesus to be born in a palace in Jerusalem, but found him in Bethlehem…
  • Herod was frightened by his unexpected visit from the magi suggesting a new King of the Jews was to be born…

If there’s anything that the Christmas story tells us it is that God comes into the unexpected….God is in the unexpected…God is unexpected…

And nothing says that more clearly that the unexpectedness of the Christ-child, Jesus, born as a baby, who was, and is, God.

How do we respond to God’s unexpectedness? In the midst of the commercial hype of Christmas, how ready are we to even recognise the unexpectedness of God?

Upon receiving her unexpected message, Mary was both perplexed and questioned Gabriel. The Luke narrative doesn’t show Mary rejecting the message, ignoring or running away, but on hearing it seeking to engage with and understand the message. After Gabriel responds to Mary’s questions, Mary’s response is simple, humble, obedient and heroic…

‘Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’

Luke 1:38

Mary’s receptiveness seems admirable. She responds to this unexpected and life changing encounter with grace and acceptance.

And remember the stakes were high here. She was betrothed to Joseph, and now she was going to be pregnant, and he’d know it wasn’t his child…What would her family, neighbours, community say and think of her.

So today, consider how ready you are to encounter the unexpectedness of God. Not to be consumed by the festivities of the Christmas season but to be able to see beyond the tinsel, turkeys and wrapping paper to encounter the manifest and unexpected presence of God, in the unlikeliness of Christ Jesus.

Receive afresh God’s promised gift, to receive afresh God’s revelation to humanity.

Be ready to respond with grace to the unexpectedness of God.

Adapted from a Sermon preached at Bethel Methodist Church, St Austell Circuit, Cornwall on Christmas Eve 2017.

Image: Trees at the Queens Foundation, Birmingham, December 2017.

A message for Pentecost 2017

The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in Acts 2 is the classic text for Pentecost Sunday, and the text I began reflecting on this week as I started to prepare a sermon. As I read the text I was struck by the surprises in narrative…

  • The surprising sound of blowing, violent wind, tongues of fire. (Acts 2:2)
  • The various reactions of the gathered people, amazed and perplexed by what was happening around them, surprised that they could all hear what was being said in their own languages. (Acts 2:11-12)
  • The surprising transformation of Peter from the impulsive, put his foot in it disciple who ran away, to preaching here with power and conviction. (Acts 2:14-36)

But this week I also noticed another surprise I hadn’t consciously noticed before, how God’s Spirit seems to transcend human divisions and labels in the narrative.

The Acts narrative highlights geographical differences…

  • ‘Jews from every nation under heaven’ (Acts 2:5)
  • ‘Are they not Galileans?’ (Acts 2:7)
  • ‘Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs’ (Acts 2:9-11a)

The narrative also seems to highlight the distinction between Jesus followers gathered together, (Acts 2:1; this includes the disciples and others, see Acts 1:12-13), and the Jews and Jewish converts staying in Jerusalem (Acts 2:5 & 11).

As Peter begins his preaching he quotes from the Prophet Joel…

In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.

Your sons and daughters will prophesy,

your young men will see visions,

your old men will dream dreams.

Even on my servants, both men and women,

I will pour out my Spirit in those days,

and they will prophesy.

Acts 2:17-18, from Joel 2:28-29. Emphasis added.

This scripture seems to highlight societal divisions of age, gender and class.

Yet God’s Spirit will be poured out on all people. The gathered crowd, no matter what their nationality, geographical origin or language, they could all understand what Jesus’ followers were saying.

Labels of age, gender, class, geography, language, nationality…descriptors that in many ways are still used to define us today, but can also divide us. There are many more labels in use in society today too…

  • Employed or Unemployed…
  • Teacher,  accountant, shop assistant, nurse, farmer…
  • Student, Apprentice…
  • Child, teenager, Adult….
  • Lesbian, Gay, Straight…
  • single, celibate, married…
  • Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist…
  • Evangelical, Liberal, Fundamentalist…
  • Tory, Labour, Green, UKIP, Lib Dem…
  • Disabled, Depressed, mentally ill…
  • Rich, poor…

To name but a few…a comprehensive list would seem almost endless…

Sometimes these labels are helpful. We use them to define ourselves, explain who we are, understand and communicate our identity. But I wonder how often we apply labels to other people in ways that are not helpful. Ways that reinforce stereotypes and personal prejudices, perhaps not even realising we are doing so.

Now I want to take that a step further…

How often does the Church apply labels to the work God’s Spirit is doing?

Do we limit our experience of God’s Spirit by our own assumptions or expectations?

In Acts 2 we seem to see a picture of God’s Spirit working outside of human labelling and division…

The Spirit, poured out on all people. (Acts 2:17)

No sub-clause – all people.

God’s Spirit is in and among all people.

Regardless of our expectations.

In the book of Numbers we read about a group of elders gathered together by Moses, who are physically overcome by the power of the Spirit. (See Numbers 11: 24-30) Two elders, Eldad and Medad, were not gathered with the others but were in the camp and they too were overcome at that moment. Joshua runs to Moses and says ‘my lord, stop them!’ (Num 11:28).

Moses seems to call Joshua out quite directly…

‘Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!’ (Num 11:29)

Reading of Joshua’s reaction reminds us that we are human, that we respond and react as human beings, that we need to be aware of our human response to the work of God’s Spirit.

This poses us with a great challenge.

What is our response to God’s Spirit?

When God’s Spirit is at work, do we recognise that and celebrate it with joy, wanting to see more?

Or do we respond with jealousy, rejection, ignorance, finding other explanations, asking if people are drunk as the crowd did. (Acts 2:13)

God’s Spirit is most certainly at work all around us.

Working outside of the barriers and boundaries, divisions and human labels that exist in society.

God’s Spirit challenges us to live in a way that celebrates and embraces all God’s Spirit is doing.

In the last 24 hours the attack in London has highlighted division in society. In the coming days as the country goes to the polls, differences in opinions, views and convictions are highlighted and can very easily become divisive.

Yet God’s Spirit is working to draw us together when others seem to be seeking to divide us and violate life. Whether we have casted our vote by post already, or not yet decided how to vote, we all hold various views and come to various conclusions, based on a variety of rationale. Whatever the result we wake up to on Friday morning (or wait up for on Thursday night!), we must guard against the result leading to further division.

As happened on that Pentecost when God’s Spirit came down like tongues of fire, we are challenged to overcome the divisiveness and prejudices of human labels – to encounter the Spirit of God, living and active, uniting us and reconciling us to God.