Archive | Writing

What was it like?

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to come back from the dead.
Have you?
Coming through death and out the other side.
What must that have been like?
Was it sudden and violent like someone crashing through a window?
Was it like a spacecraft re-entering the atmosphere with all that turbulence, heat and friction?
Did he experience shock and trauma?
Was Jesus disoriented as his eyes adjusted to the darkness of the tomb and he wondered where he was.
Did the force of that reawakening barge the stone out the way or did he have to wait for the Angels in the tomb listening once more to his own breath, fascinated by the physical sensation of filling his lungs once again?
Was he aware of the spiritual sonic boom that shook the earth, tore the curtain and opened the graves such was its energy and force?

Or was it all more subtle than that?
Not a rude awakening but a slow stirring.
Life flickering back into being like a computer rebooting after its crashed.
Synapses re-firing as the brain switches back on and memories return.
A pulse felt as the heart started beating.
A finger jerking as the nerves came back to life?
When did feeling come back into his body? Perhaps he was paralysed to begin with as feeling returned slowly but surely and he just lay there on the slab.
Maybe resurrection is more like pushing your way through cobwebs, the membrane stretching as you push through before gradually you emerge, in much the same way a moth drags itself free of its chrysalis?

I wonder too what was going through his mind.
Was the harrowing of Hell an extraordinary conscious high?
Was coming back into this world an exhilarating rush that provoked a cry of triumph and joy like the ultimate descent down a mountain after the exhausting climb up?
Was it disorienting, frightening even, to be dragged from one mode of existence to another, or, as he left his broken, battered body behind, was he finally able to employ his divinity to the full and run rampant around the domain of death?
Was he confident and sure of himself or bewildered as death came and went?

How did he feel about his resurrection body? So clearly out of place, before it’s time.
Having just experienced the agonies of torture and execution there must have been some sense of almost wanting to retreat into this new flesh, without pain, just enjoying the moment.
Did he try it out to see what he could do, like Superman or Neo from the Matrix?
Would he have looked at himself in a mirror if he could?
Was he fascinated by the wounds that remained? Did he put his fingers in first before he asked Thomas to do the same?
Did he laugh out loud at the audacity of the divine plan and the fact that Father, Son and Spirit had pulled it off against all the odds?
They had played Satan at his own game and found him out. There must have been a ‘wow, we did it!’ moment don’t you think?

What must it have been like to meet his friends again?
To observe them run into the tomb from behind an olive tree.
Peter and John competing with each other to be the first to see, the first to believe.
Was Jesus apprehensive?
Was he worried about their reaction?
Would they be angry with him for putting them through all of that?
And for what?
He was alive again!
What was it like when he saw the women flee, terrified by a tomb without a body?
What was it like not to be recognised?
Did Jesus play along on the road to Emmaus; enjoying his new found anonymity?
Did he develop a taste for the theatrical, dramatically exposing himself in the bread and giving his disciples heart attacks as he appeared, as if by magic, in the middle of a locked room, or when, because of his advice, they caught so many fish that everyone remembered the exact number!
Or was there a sense of loss, regret even, in the midst of the joy?
When he sees Mary weep. Surely he loved her as she loved him. Surely he wanted to comfort her. Yet when Mary wants to hold him, she can’t.
Did he wish it could be otherwise?
Did that new body leave him alone and distant from those he had come to love?
What was it like to be more real than reality itself?
Is that why he did such everyday ordinary things in the time left with his disciples? Cooking them breakfast, eating fish together.
Things weren’t that different…were they?
What must it have been like to experience such extremes of emotion; fear, terror, grief, amazement, doubt?
Imagine Jesus asking Thomas to stick his fingers into him.
It must have been a joy to see Peter jump into the waves to greet him, but he must have known a hard, difficult conversation was still to be had.

So you see, resurrection is no small thing, no private affair, no esoteric escape. The renewal of the cosmos took place in this one human being.
New creation erupted into creation in this human body.
This is an invasion, an insurrection, against the powers of death and hell in this world and nothing will ever be the same again.
What must it have felt like to be the first; the prototype?
What must it have felt like to know that you are that fulcrum moment, the hinge of history, to know you have changed everything forever?
And then to entrust that future to ordinary men and women like you and me?
To ask them to testify, to witness, to share what they have seen, in ordinary, everyday ways?
You see, ultimately what we are celebrating this Easter is not theology, it is history.
Cold hard facts, solid evidence, personal testimony, stories tell, passed down from generation to generation.
For me, there are times I don’t believe anything else, but I can’t escape this truth that once, one man really did punch through death and emerge out the other side.
Whatever it might have felt like, however it actually happened, it happened so nothing else will ever be the same again.

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Je suis dans le Christ

This week at St Peter’s Harrow I gave a talk called “It’s all about Jesus.” I argued that Jesus is not like God, on the contrary, God is like Jesus. Everything we know about God comes from Jesus. I also suggested that we understand who we are, what it means to be human, from Jesus too. We have an eccentric existence. We discover who we are outside of ourselves. Our identity comes from Christ, the representative human who stands both in solidarity with us, and as a substitute for us. This means that what is true of Jesus by nature, is also true of us by grace. It is a unique identity that defines us above all others.

Who we are, our sense of identity, has become a real issue following the Charlie Hebdo attack in France last week. Over the weekend, more than a million people marched through Paris, many of them proclaiming “Je Suis Charlie” in solidarity not only with those murdered, but also with the values for which they died, the values of the Republic, of liberty, equality and fraternity. The brother of a policeman murdered by the extremists, reminded everyone that Muslims hold these values too. His brother, a Muslim called Ahmed, died defending his country. Supporters quickly began using the hastag “Je Suis Ahmed.” One tweet read “I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed, the dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so.” There is clearly a complex set of overlapping and competing identities here.

Unsurprisingly perhaps that part of our identity formed through our nationality stirs when an atrocity like this takes place. This terrorist attack on a satirical magazine feels like an assault on our identity as Brits who value free speech and democracy. Talk of British values of tolerance and decency resonates and it is easy to assert these in opposition to what are perceived to be alien, imported values from a different culture, particularly when politicians use Christian language.

But, as Christians, we must be careful that our sense of identity is not commandeered or hijacked as we react against a particular ideology. Nationalism, even patriotism, is an ideology too, just as much as Islamism It demands our loyalty, it wants us to pledge our allegiance to it. The state offers its citizens another salvation. It offers an alternative eschatological hope of genuine peace and prosperity, if only we would put our trust in it rather than in anything else. It is tempting. But in this ideology, the church is reduced to a voluntary organization, part of a civil society that serves the ends of the state, with a role to play in community cohesion, but little else. More than that, the state offers an identity not only to the church as a corporate body, but also to Christians as individuals. For the modern state is the market state, and in the market state every citizens is also a consumer. That’s not how I want to define myself.

The Apostle Paul calls us back to our identity in Christ, as citizens of heaven, those ‘in Christ.’ He says to the Galatian church “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28) Our identity in Christ subverts and relativizes every other identity. Christians no longer define themselves in terms of ethnicity or nationality, gender or sexuality, status or income. Instead our identity is located in Christ alone and we pledge our allegiance to no one else.

In a world that is increasingly polarized by the politics of identity this is a real challenge. We must resist hatred, violence and terror wherever we find them. Jesus calls us to serve the common good, to do good to everyone, to love our neighbours as ourselves. Surely then we can do so because we are Christians, not because we are British.

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It has Happened

It has happened. I am a Vicar. Sitting on my desk in front of me are the documents that prove it. I have been instituted as the Clerk to the Benefice of St Peter’s West Harrow, by the Bishop of Willesden. He has invested me with “all the rights and duties of the said Benefice”, committing me to “the Cure of Souls of the Parishioners therof.”Two contrasts, juxtapositions if you like, strike me as I take in this new reality.

The language is formal, archaic even; in fact the tone of the whole service of Institution was objective and legal. Wearing a rather monastic alb and stole, I gave an oath of allegiance to the Queen and an oath of canonical obedience to the Bishop. I was installed by the Archdeacon; who took me to a plastic folding chair on stage that was pretending to be a real priest’s chair. He then took me to the doors of the church and gave me the keys before I read the church notices for the first time. These are the symbols of Institution in the Church of England. They could perhaps be a little more inspiring. It felt more official than emotional and I was not expecting that. I still remember watching the Vicar’s Institution during the first episode of Island Parish over a decade before and bursting into tears as I felt the surge of the Spirit stir my soul with a nascent call into Anglican ministry. Somehow, this time, it was a recognition of something outside of myself, an objective reality experienced at a distance. I suspect that is how it is supposed to be. I am a Vicar not because I feel like it. I am a Vicar, whatever I might feel about it, perhaps even, despite how I feel about it.

All that was in stark contrast to my preparation during the day and the joy of worshipping God in a room full of most of my favourite people. Despite the move from man-to-man marking to zonal defense with three children, I managed to make time to escape to a nearby church to pray. There were no bibles in the church, but there were plenty of Prayer Books so I read “The Form and Manner of Ordering of Priests” in which the Bishop reminds his deacons about to be ordained priest “how weighty an office and charge ye are called” and “how great a treasure is committed to your charge. For they are the sheep of Christ, which he bought with his death, and for whom he shed his blood.” These archaic words struck me with real force. There is an emotional intensity here that brings to life what it means to be given the ‘Cure of Souls’ of a parish alongside the Bishop. It was this privilege and responsibility to care for the bride of Christ that warmed my heart that morning. No wonder the Bishop of London always addresses the church as “Beloved.”

Of course, the bride of Christ, the church, is an historical reality, and it’s here that a second contrast strikes me. The Institution service felt like a lifetime of ministry squashed into one room. It was my own timeline of flesh and blood. Friends, colleagues and church members from every Anglican church I’d ever been part of were there, together with those I’d trained with and been ordained alongside. One of them was there when I was formally welcomed into the Church of England. On that occasion, he’d given me a Prayer Book with the inscription “Welcome to the big picture.” I hadn’t even invited him, but he was there too. A colleague of mine from the East End had said to me when news of my appointment broke “Your entire life has been preparing you for this ministry.” So, in one sense, it was the climax of a journey, a long process.

In another, very real sense, it was a new beginning. Since moving to Harrow in October, I’ve been looking forward to the start of my ministry here, and slowly but surely ideas and plans have been accumulating in my mind. I know I have to pace myself and take the time to do things well, but I was feeling like an athlete at the beginning of a race, muscles and sinews tense, straining, ready for the pistol to fire. On Thursday night, finally, it fired. My focus now is the future, my posture; one that leans in, pushing towards what is yet to happen.

Thursday night then was a strange, potent mix of the objective and the subjective, of an ending and a beginning.

It has happened. I am a Vicar. Pray for me.

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Was Jesus Missional?

Is church missional or attractional? Two buzzwords that frame an important debate about the calling of the church.

A few weeks ago I attended a fascinating conference on Disciple Making Movements (DMM). At the conference there was a strong rejection of institutional or attractional models of church. It was argued that these models of church hindered multiplication, exponential growth and the development of disciple making movements.

Instead the church should send out teams of disciple makers just as Jesus did in Luke 10. Teams of two will then locate ‘people of peace’ in the local community or culture. These people of peace are then discipled through a simple bible study method called the ‘Discovery Bible Study’. These studies essentially ask three questions; what does it say? What does it mean? What will you do? This must be a replicable process that is not dependent on knowledge or expertise. The person of peace then begins discipling others. In this way, new disciples is not asked to leave their community or culture and neither are those they disciple. This, it was argued, is the true definition of missional.

So David Broodryck who leads a movement of over one thousand communities says “Inviting others into a community they don’t already belong to, whether a service or gathering, a missional community or a cell, is by definition attractional. To be missional is not to invite someone into a new community, it is to redeem their existing community.”

In stark contrast, I’m currently reading ‘Deep and Wide’ by Andy Stanley, the Lead Pastor of Northpoint Community Church in the US. He sees a regular Sunday attendance of 33,000 over several sites. He is also passionate about making disciples but goes about it in a completely different way. In his book he says, “We are unapologetically attractional. In our search for common ground with unchurched people we discovered that like us they are consumers. So we leveraged their consumer instincts. When you read the gospels it’s hard to overlook the fact that Jesus attracted large crowds everywhere he went. He was constantly playing to the consumer instincts of his crowds. Let’s face it: it wasn’t the content of his messages that appealed to the masses. Most of the time they didn’t even understand what he was talking about. Heck we’re not always sure what Jesus is talking about. People flocked to Jesus because he fed them, healed them, comforted them and promised them things. Besides what’s the opposite of attractional? Missional don’t think so!”

One is “unashamably attractional”, the other is exclusively missional. Perhaps this reflects a third conversation I had this week about sodalities and modalities. Missiologists such as Ralph Winter argue that the church has two dynamics which must be held in tension for it to grow. The first is the local church (modality). This is the place to belong. Winter argues it is a place of first decision. People choose to attend, to belong and that is enough. The second is the sent church (sodality). This is the place of mission and disciple making. Those who make up the sent church have made the first decision to belong, but they have also made the second decision to become disciple makers. This is the place for those who do are frustrated by the local church. Traditionally these two dynamics have expressed themselves as parish churches and monastic orders. Winter argues that people are one or the other. To try and introduce one into the other will simply produce resistance or frustration. So, the argument goes, don’t try and create a missional local church, instead locate the ‘radical few’ who are naturally part of the sent church, disciple them and release them to make disciples in the communities and cultures around the local church.

I wonder though whether this is a false dichotomy. This analysis leaves me with a number of questions. Can you create a missional culture that attracts people into a new community? Can you mix sodality and modality or will you simply produce resistance?

Do you have to let go of the local church, acknowledging that they will only ever be places of first decision and find the ‘radical few’ willing to make the second decision to make disciples, or can you cast a vision and create the necessary structures that allows the local church to be the sent church?

It seems to me that Jesus refuses to choose one or the other but holds the two in creative tension. In one sense, he is clearly attractional. Not only does he attract crowds with his preaching and teaching, he calls his disciples to follow him. He takes them out of their community and culture and creates a new community, a new Israel. According to Broodryck, we must also call this attractional disciple making. Having said that, Jesus also sends out disciple makers into towns and villages across the region, establishing indigenous communities of disciples that Paul quite possibly encountered on his missionary journeys a few years later.

Paul also appears to maintain this tension. His whole mission was to new people groups. In one sense he refuses to ask them to abandon their communities and cultures. But in another sense that is precisely what he does. In his letter to the Ephesian church, he speaks of the creation of the one new humanity out of the two. The church was to be neither Jewish nor Gentile, it was to be a third thing. In Paul’s thinking the church is a new community, an alternative city or ‘polis’ that is different and distinctive, citizens of heaven, aliens and strangers in the world. In fact, one can argue, persuasively I think, that most of the metaphors for the church in the New Testament assume the attractional model. Paul speaks of the temple and the body, Peter speaks of living stones and the kingdom of priests

The New Testament describes an ecclesial rhythm that includes come and go, invitation and challenge, community and mission, breathing in and out. Lets transcend this false distinction and create highly attractional worship experiences and plant missional communities and cells throughout the community and workplace.

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Retreat is a painful thing

 

Retreat is a painful thing. I’m on the second of my new monthly rhythm of retreats. I don’t go very far, but I am alone for 36 hours with a few books, my thoughts, a journal and my restless ego.

Last month I read Tim Keller’s book ‘The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness’. It has its origins in a sermon on 1 Corinthians 4:3. Paul, he says, does not care what others think of him. Neither does he care what he thinks of himself. All that matters for Paul is what God thinks of him. Keller makes the point that his ego is quiet, it’s working properly, it’s not drawing attention to itself like a swollen, distended organ or limb. I was reading this acutely aware that I was alone, without anyone to impress, and on retreat, without anything to do to give myself value. My ego certainly wasn’t quiet.

Today is equally painful. Strangely perhaps, I feel intensely lonely. Over lunch I looked at a beautiful photo of my daughter that a friend had emailed to me. I am missing her and its only been six hours! I also feel restless and unsettled. My mind and my spirit are all over the place. It is easy when you are alone to feel defeated and depressed. You feel like your thoughts and feelings are out of control, untameable. Certainly there is frustration and a touch of despair. It may be the extrovert in me but I fear solitude as something inherently destructive. My temptation is to flee, to escape into fantasy, or simply to do something, to get busy, to be appreciated.

The Psalm for Morning Prayer today was Psalm 42. Verse 1 jumped out at me as I read:

“As the deer pants for streams of water, so my souls pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.”

 As I read I felt a still small voice say to me that my sense of desolation and restlessness was not something to flee or escape from, rather it was an expression of desire, in this case, desire for God that could only be satisfied in prayer and contemplation. This sense of longing and lack is a recognition in my spirit that God alone satisfies. It is possible to drown out this yearning with the white noise of the world around me, to momentarily gratify my ego with gifts or experience. But it never lasts and the real state of my ego, my self, becomes all too apparent when all of that is stripped away.

My aim today then, is to get to a place of contentment and peace; to simply hold myself in God’s presence; to remain alert and aware in the stillness. If I can do that, it will be progress indeed. If not, at least I have a stash of chocolate to turn to!

O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no waterMy soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me. (Psalm 63:1,8)

 

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What now for the Church of England?

I was surprised how emotional I was when I heard the news this week that the General Synod had voted down the legislation that would have led to the introduction of female bishops. The thought of another decade of ongoing debate, a sense that this is the most balanced legislation we are likely to get, and a solidarity with the amazing women I know exercising ordained ministry in the church who once again feel undervalued, all boiled over in that moment as I hurled my iPhone onto the sofa as I read the headline.

In the days since I have thought a lot about the decision. I am one of those who wants the Church of England to remain a broad and inclusive church; one that is able to disagree well. So for me, it is important that those of a minority view do feel that they have a place in the church as it moves forward. Having said that, trying to understand why those who disagree with me on this issue do so, is not easy.

Though I don’t fully understand their position, I can appreciate that episcopacy is of real significance to conservative catholics. Consecration effects ordination, which in turn, has a profound effect on Eucharistic ministry. I worry though that this leaves my catholic brothers open to the charge of Donatism when most of them are really good Augustinians.  I can appreciate too the significance of the historic episcopacy and its links to Rome which means conservative catholics deny the Church of England has the authority to make such changes. Again though, I wonder how their conscience allows them to remain in what is really a Reformed church. We have been doing things that Rome refuses to recognize since the Reformation. Why is this different? Perhaps it is because this is the first time we are tinkering with the essence of the church. But I wonder whether the introduction of a third province will have much the same effect. It certainly seems to alter the role of the bishop and their relationship to one another and the wider church. I can appreciate too that for conservative catholics the priest represents Christ at the altar in a different way to the evangelical minister at the table. But if it is true that ‘what is not assumed is not healed’ as Gregory of Nazianzus argued, then surely one must believe Jesus became a human being rather than a man, and so can be represented by a woman at the altar. Otherwise, what are we saying about women and their salvation. I plead ignorance of these things so if someone would like to help me understand them better, please do.

But to be honest, it’s the conservative evangelicals I find harder to understand.  I have much more in common with them. I read most of the same books. I like many of the same theologians. I even recognize that complementarians can marshal a coherent and compelling case from the Scriptures. But in this debate we are not talking about complementarianism, we’re talking about episcopacy. Let me explain what I mean.

Conservative evangelicals have always prioritized the local church. It is the local church that is the base ecclesial unit not the diocese gathered together around the bishop. This, in practice, has led to Conservative Evangelicals getting on with Gospel ministry on the ground and leaving the more bureaucratic diocesan jobs to the other traditions. John Stott had to make an impassioned plea for evangelicals to get involved in the structures of the church at the first National Evangelical Anglican Congress and conservative evangelicals have been disagreeing with him ever since. This leads people I know well to say things like ‘the diocese is a para-church organisation’ and ‘if there was a Presbyterian church in the UK, there wouldn’t be any conservative evangelical Anglicans’. These are not young naïve presbyters but leaders in large churches and theological colleges saying these things.

So what has changed? It seems to me that complementarianism is much more constitutive of conservative evangelical identity than it used to be. It has become a boundary marker that indicates you take the bible seriously enough to be identified as a conservative evangelical. I also suspect the experience of conservative parishes and dioceses in The Episcopal Church in the US has left many conservative evangelicals in the UK wary of those who say the Code of Practice will be enough. These wider concerns though leave conservative evangelicals with an inconsistent and incoherent ecclesiology. If the diocese and its bishops really matter so little (and the church planting strategies of many conservative evangelical churches suggest this is so) then how can they justify such opposition to female bishops?

Instead of mustering such fierce opposition to female bishops, I wonder whether conservative evangelicals might actually be in a unique place to suggest a solution. The bible clearly speaks of multiple presbyters leading churches. So in the same way that conservative evangelicals have always prioritized the local church, they have also emphasized the plurality of church leadership (one of the reasons why Presbyterianism remains so attractive to them). I realize that the evangelical sub-culture tends to create celebrity pastors and preachers, but I think the theological point remains true. There is a built in antipathy to monarchical leadership in the church whether that is in the parish or in the diocese.

Whilst a single bishop has to represent their entire diocese it is difficult to see a way past the current impasse. Those of us who support the introduction of female bishops are probably tempted simply to wait until the next time, confident in our belief in the inevitability of change, but I suspect the next time the legislation won’t be so inclusive and that will be a shame. But could conservative evangelicals be more pro-active than that and suggest an alternative? A third province is not an evangelical answer, but plural diocesan leadership might be. It seems to me to be a relatively small change to give Area Bishops the same title as the Diocesan Bishop and in doing so create a Diocesan college of Bishops with a rotating chair that acts as the focus of unity collectively. Obviously, all of these bishops would have to recognize the validity of each other’s ministry, but in this way, much like multi-member constituencies in a Single Transferable Vote electoral system, everyone would feel like there is someone to represent them.

Despite the emotions and disappointment of this week, it remains my firm belief that there is a way forward that can gain the support of each house, allowing us to move forward as a church and consecrate female bishops. That, at least, is my prayer.

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Seaside God

One of the highlights of Focus 2012 was the early morning walks along the beach and I do mean early! Joanne and I had not taken into account the impact that exciting family worship, wonderful children’s work and the transparency of the glamped up tents would have on Emilia’s sleep patterns. Instead of sleeping from seven in the evening to seven in the morning she slept from nine to five for most of the week. That’s a loss of four hours sleep every night! After the first early morning which didn’t go well for Joanne who is most definitely a night owl, I took on the responsibility to get her up, dressed and out of the tent without disturbing the neighbours and their sleeping children.

We usually ended up on the beach and there we met the Lord. Thanks to Nicky’s prayers the jet stream had moved north so the weather was amazing! The sun glinted off the rolling waves that lapped at the beach. At that time we had the beach to ourselves. These early morning walks became the highlight of Focus for me as I was free to pray and seek God in a way that was difficult to do anywhere else.

I reflected with Joanne that a beach in Shadwell would do wonders for my spiritual life. “Or a mountaintop” said Joanne in response. I thought for a moment and realised that, for me, the coastline connects me with God in a way the mountaintop does not.

The mountaintop speaks of God’s mightiness and transcendence. His awesome, otherness, if you like. You go to a mountaintop to get away from things, to retreat into the breath taking beauty of the snow capped peaks. It is by definition, a moment.

The beach on the other hand speaks of something more intimate. I was reminded of some precious times one summer in Guernsey when I wedged myself into a cleft in the rock with a copy of Brueggemann, the bible and a piece of carrot cake, and God passed by. The beach is a great place for a conversation, a place to walk and talk. The beach is a place of movement and change, a thin place, where it is possible to connect with God in a way that doesn’t take you out of things. The beach is a journey rather than a destination. You climb a mountain and reach the summit. You walk along a beach and when you come to the end, you simply turn around and walk back.

Now I am back in East London, I wonder where I will connect with God in a similar way. I doubt it will be the Highway, currently part of the Olympic Route Network! Though it is a place of movement and journey, the pace and intensity is completely different. The river, on the other hand might be the place I’m looking for. That place where you suddenly notice God has joined you as you stroll along in the ordinary moments of life.

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A human being fully alive?

My life is a little out of sync at the moment. At the beginning of the week I was away with a bunch of clerics on our chapter conference. It was nice to be out of London. Ely is a beautiful place and the cathedral really is a portal between heaven and earth. It was good to have some time to rest, be silent before God and even run, as well as share the Eucharist and pray together. But I realise increasingly that I am a creature of habit. I am a home boy who appreciates the familiar. So it left me feeling out of sorts.

Joanne and Emilia have just left for a weekend in Bath celebrating her mum’s birthday. I’ve been left behind because I’m working over the weekend. It was not an easy good bye. I needed some Pralines and Cream ice cream to console me after they left. To top it all off, I have not been at all well for the last few days.  All this disruption to my usual rhythm leaves me feeling a little disconnected to myself and to God. My usual patterns of devotion, irregular though they may be at the best of times, get further diluted, so the resources at my disposal to deal with these changing circumstances are depleted and I’m left feeling flat.

The second century theologian Irenaeus famously said that “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.” He is building on Jesus promise of abundant life; life in all it’s fullness. But what does it mean to be fully alive. What does it mean to live abundantly? These questions become acute for me when I am feeling flat or out of sync. Frankly, they can leave me full of frustration and despair. My life is just not reflecting this full life promised by Jesus. Surely this sort of life is full of joy and delight, whereas mine is not.

But as I reflect on being fully alive whilst feeling flat, it strikes me that a full life must include the full spectrum of human experience and emotions. Jesus was still living the abundant life in Gethsemane as he sweat drops of blood. Jesus was still living life to the full as he faced torture and execution on the cross. He lived a life of integrity and transparency to God. He remained open and undefended to God and to those around him right to the end. That is why he could forgive his enemies and ensure John would take care of his mother. So fullness of life simply means being open to what God is doing in your life, however you feel or whatever you face. An abundant life is one that resists self-defence and remains vulnerable and exposed, that recognises that every moment of life is pregnant with possibility.

 

 

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Fathers

We heard a sermon on fathers at church this Sunday and I had a nice surprise. My own dad and I didn’t always see eye to eye as I was growing up. We used to argue about most things including the way I ate my peas and the length of my hair. So, perhaps it won’t surprise you to learn that my conversion to Christianity was something of a teenage rebellion. I remember defiantly reading my dad Ephesians 6:4 and telling him to stop exasperating his children. It wasn’t well received. I even preached a sermon at my brother’s baptism where I rather shamefully declared in the presence of my dad that, in contrast to my heavenly father, my human father was something of a disappointment.

On Sunday the preacher recounted the parable of the Prodigal Son and likened God to the father who watched for his son at the window until he saw him in the distance and then hitched up his robes, abandoning any sense of decorum, and ran to his son and threw his arms around him, embraced him, kissed him and welcomed him home. At that moment God took me by surprise. He gently pointed out something I had never realised before. For me, this wasn’t just a story, it had actually happened!

One of the things my dad and I argued about when I was a teenager was my taste in music. I was into Metal long before Grunge ruined it. I was particularly fond of Glam Rock and somehow managed to persuade my parents to let me go to see bands like Faster Pussycat, Tiger Tails and Little Angels. I even had a pair of pointed black suede and snakeskin winklepicker boots with chrome buckles and one inch heals.

One night, after a gig, my friend and I decided to walk home. I was wearing the winklepickers, so it took us a long time. As we approached the house together at about 1am I noticed a chink of light in the window as the curtain was pulled back. My dad ran out of the house in his socks despite the wet ground, he despatched my friend with a word, wrapped his arms around me and walked me into the house. There was no row, no sharp words, just loving relief that his prodigal son had come home. Before I met him for myself, that was the closest thing I felt to the love of God, yet somehow I had simply stored the memory away and failed to make the connection. So, even though this is a little late in the day, its still worth saying; thanks dad.

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Thank you Rowan

I was at the playground with Emilia when the message came through from the Bishop of Stepney that Rowan Williams had resigned as Archbishop of Canterbury. As I read the news, I lost track of Emilia who managed to climb across an obstacle course all by herself!

I must say it was quite a shock, and I was left with a deep sense of sadness, tinged with anxiety for the future. In the heat of battle between all the competing factions within the Anglican Communion, Rowan has continued to hold us together with grace and humility, determination, spiritual depth, and imagination, almost certainly at extraordinary personal cost.

His resignation prompted me to return to his theology so I dipped into Ben Myer’s new book “Christ the Stranger: The Theology of Rowan Williams.” His description of Rowan’s theological method is both beautiful and inspirational:

Theology, in his view, is not a private table for one but a rowdy banquet of those who gather, famished and thirsty, around Christ. The lonely work of reading and writing is not yet theology but only its preparation. Theology happens whenever we are drawn together into the congenial and annoying labour of conversing, listening and disputing – in short, where we are drawn into a collective struggle for truthful speech.” (pxi)

Clearly, Williams doesn’t mind taking a few risks. He doesn’t expect Christian thinking to be safe or easy. Indeed, he once remarked that the best theology is like ‘the noise of someone falling over things in the dark’ – an awkward, inelegant testimony to the God who rearranges the furniture of our lives. (p5)

I think it was Gregory of Nyssa who said that the theologian is to give wings to the soul. No one does that better than the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury. Thank you Rowan.

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