Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Lessons in exile

Ezekiel 37:5-6
Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

It's now three years since I left parish ministry to answer God's call to be involved in renewal. And still I continue to be amazed by the way God uses lessons learned in the parish, in hospital chaplaincy, in grief work and in palliative care in a role that is continually exploring the question: "Can these bones live?"
While it was envisaged that the role would last three years, it is clear that cultural change is a much longer project, demanding as much unlearning as learning.
I have loved working with ministers who struggle with all the demands and expectations placed on them by self and others. I, too, have been in that space, and so, I get it. It is so hard to step aside for a while and discern afresh God's purpose for us and for the church and to catch a fresh glimpse of the mission of God in the world today. It's even harder to commit to working with God in the reshaping of ways and practices, especially when we are the ones being hollowed out and renewed, called to lead and to serve in unfamiliar territory that pushes us beyond what is comfortable. It is much easier to simply keep on doing what we know best, faithfully adhering to maintaining a tradition that is known and loved by many even when we are aware that God's purpose is for so much more than we have settled into.
Over the three years, tender, vulnerable shoots have emerged that will require careful nurturing and continual creation of space for planting out and growth as well as management of the weeds that might choke the life out of the new and emergent. And, of course, careful pruning will always be a necessary part of flourishing.
Can these bones live? That depends on whether we are prepared to step aside and allow the breath of God to breathe life and shape into them. We can't reassemble what was, but we can be painfully reshaped by the spirit for the new thing that God is doing. 
This is not a time to be tinkering with structures but to allow the breath of God to sweep away what seems fixed so that tender shoots on the edges might blossom and burst into life.
Instead of battening down the hatches, let's loosen the stays and let God surprise us.

Friday, 3 August 2018

Loving the word

John 6:33
For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

I no longer have a role in preaching during worship every week - that is not my calling at present. So, when I do have the opportunity to preach, I find it really exciting in a way I didn't often when I was preaching week in week out.
I frequently find myself these days, as I prepare to preach, as I spend time with the texts, thinking: "This may be my favourite text." Until the next time - and I discover another favourite text as I dwell on something different to preach on. Perhaps now that preaching in worship is no longer such a huge part of my role, it takes on a new significance.
As I reflected this week on my latest favourite text, I was drawn back to a visit to a huge old Church of Scotland manse on a late summer evening over 30 years ago. I had been called to meet "The Committee on Ministry" of the local Presbytery. I was invited into a sitting room to be interviewed by a committee of 11, 10 men and one woman. Although I knew most of those present, the gathering and the occasion was incredibly intimidating. I can remember my throat being so dry, I could barely speak and there was no "cup of cold water" on offer!
Apart from the ridiculously inappropriate questioning about how my husband might cope with his meals not being prepared while I engaged in ministry, one question that has always haunted me is this: "Do you have a desire to preach?"
In truth, my response was "No". 
Preaching was the last thing on my mind as I offered myself to be considered for training for ministry, even though that training was for ministry of Word and Sacrament.
But the whole interview seemed to hang on the answer to that question.
I'm not sure when that "Desire to preach" assailed me and established itself in my being. 
I suspect it first began to show itself as I undertook Biblical Studies and learned Greek and Hebrew. 
I suspect it snuck up gradually as I discovered God revealed in so many ways and as I encountered God in so many guises as I struggled with the word and as I engaged in ministry.
I suspect it began to creep in as I saw God in all those liminal times in hospital chaplaincy as I accompanied folk struggling to integrate changes forced upon them.
I suspect it began to take hold as I walked alongside those in the parish whose lives affected and informed how I read and interpreted the texts.
And I know it has become all the more real as I struggle with personal transition, answering a call to journey with others in transition, who also serve churches and communities in transition.
God who has stood with me at every threshold of ministry and life has transformed and integrated the texts until a desire to preach has emerged. It has taken some time but is all the sweeter for the painful and complicated labour.

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Presbyterian Reform

One of the important and greatly appreciated aspects of Path of Renewal has been the opportunity for colleagues to travel together in a supportive, collaborative and non competitive way - something rarely encountered in ministry.
This is achieved through one to one mentoring and by facilitating learning communities in which ministers share their vulnerability,  hold one another accountable for spiritual practices, pray for each other and help discern and follow God's purpose for their lives as individuals and in the communities they serve. This is a vital part of the role to which I have been called, alongside all the theology, teaching and reflective practice.
A popular myth in Presbyterian circles is that Presbyteries were set up to fulfil a similar role. That is not something that has been my experience or the experience of colleagues I encounter. Indeed, particularly since I left parish ministry to follow God's call into the work of renewal, I have encountered suspicion and dismissal by some colleagues and indifference from others. Like turkeys voting for Christmas, it seems that envisaging ministry other than in a call to a parish setting is a step too far. And so, Presbytery Planning is devoid of vision and imagination, compelled by market forces and fuelled by statistics of decline.
Whilst I believe in the God of resurrection and redemption, I have little faith in the ability of Presbyteries to be anything other than gatherings where power play is at large and where those who refuse to play are cast adrift. However that does not mean that I do not have hope that, in spite of such a poor vehicle for renewal and reform that God's mission will be accomplished. My fear is that we spend all our energy trying to fix up something that is broken beyond repair and miss the fresh winds of God that are carrying us in a whole new direction. Perhaps we should be seeking not reform or repair but the birth of something new. Resurrection will not come unless we first make way for death.
Ephesians 4:15,16
Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body's growth in building itself up in love.

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Skin in the game

 Mark 10:28-31
Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

When Jesus encountered people, be it rulers of the synagogue,commanders of armies, people who came for healing or women who touched his cloak or met him at the well, whatever their needs or demands, Jesus insisted that they "put some skin in the game." He invited folk to take a risk.
He asked the rich young ruler to sell what he had...
He asked the centurion to go and find his daughter healed...
He asked a blind man: What do you want?..
He asked the woman who touched his cloak to reveal herself...
He asked the woman at the well to go and call her husband...
Risk was simply a given on the journey to wholeness with Jesus.
And we, who proclaim good news today, tend to minimise that risk far less embrace it for ourselves.
We, who long for change, long to see change in others.
Jesus makes it clear that realising the kingdom of God involves us having skin in the game, embodying  the change we want to see.
But we will always find reasons, aka excuses that hold us back from effecting change.
We'll blame the institution of the church.
We'll blame the complacency of those who have gone before us.
We'll blame the shifting culture.
We'll blame - almost anything that stops us facing up to the reality of the task that is ours.
If we won't take risks now, then when?
It is in risking that we make space to encounter.
And we'd rather cloak ourselves in our busyness, sacrificing our wholeness to save the church than risk creating space into which God might speak and through which we might discern God's call and God's purpose for our life.
That call and purpose is not to look busy because Jesus is coming, but to step back from the melee that is often ministry in the church.
To risk not simply alerting others to the need for change but to embrace change ourselves.
To risk that all the things we hold dear, the programmes, the activities, the things that give us worth, without which we will be exposed and vulnerable, yet open to God, can be dropped without fanfare. 
To risk that all that we wrap around us as signs of our awesomeness and productivity are ineffective at best and life destroying at worst,
To risk doing less so that God can speak into our lives and the life of our communities and to recognise that, though we have often acted as though we do, we are not the moderators of the unpredictable spirit of God!
To risk that others may take up some of the things that we lay down - and do them better than we can.
And that some of the things we lay down don't really matter to the kingdom of God and that it Is right to let them go.
In this time of uncertainty and change, there's a call for us all to "put some skin in the game" not for the sake of the church but for the sake of the mission of God.

Saturday, 26 May 2018

Forward together

Matthew 11:17-19
‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.’
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

As those who serve the church return from General Assembly to all those places they live and serve, it is time to wonder how we proceed with all the tasks of ministry to which we are called in all its different forms. Out of the celebration and commiseration. Out of the hope and the despair. Out of the affirmation and disappointment. Out of the clarity and obscurity. Out of all the emotions we experienced, we are all tasked with being God's gathered and sent people in those communities where everyday life finds us. God's called and sent people, vastly different yet united by a common task - to discern the mission of God and our invitation to be part of that mission where we are today.
I sometimes feel like a broken record continually restating that we need to change the narrative. We need to stop reacting as a church in decline and start acting as a people to whom Christ has given everything that is needed to make a difference in the world today. We need to stop feeling constricted by structures and strategies and start living in the power of the Spirit that knows no bounds or constraints. Stop blaming the institution for our current predicament and rise up as a movement that continually challenges and changes those who serve the institution. We were not created for survival but for flourishing. None of us has all the answers but all of us have some and, together, for the love of God, we can make a difference in the kingdom of God here and now. We don't need to change the rules. We don't need a well written strategy. We do need to join in God's mission and, as we see the evidence of God at work and of the Spirit's power blowing through our church and community, that will be time enough to work out what structures we need to put in place to support the seedlings that push through the soil. This is a time, not to strategise but to encourage experimentation, to try new things, to test the will and purpose of God, to hold lightly to what we are about and to let God be God, the one who brings growth, the One who brings resurrection out of darkness and death, with us or in spite of us! Thanks be to God.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

What do you want?

Mark 10:46-52
The Healing of Blind Bartimaeus
They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

"What do you want me to do for you?" Jesus, asking of a blind man, what he really wants. Not starting with a list of options, not detailing what might be available or possible, but asking, "What do you want?"
In a church planting seminar this week, I was reminded of how often, what we offer, starts with church.
And, for many in our communities, that's a bridge too far to cross. When we in the church imagine how the future might look, it inevitably looks very much like church as we know it. We set the bar of membership and discipleship so high that few are able to attain it when what we see Jesus modelling is invitation, alongsideness, and acceptance of the curious.
But, more than that, it is hard for us to imagine what might be a culturally relevant alternative, often because we're so caught up and exhausted by trying to service and sustain what we know.
I'm grateful that many of the colleagues I've been working with over the last few years have often been able to reflect and articulate in a Star Trek parody: "This is church - but not as we know it!"
Those practising Asset Based Community Development, those hanging out with the marginalised, those who are freeing up time for discernment, those who are being released to listen carefully to the call of the Spirit as she whispers through the long grass in the open spaces, those uncultivated edges of community, are discovering hidden and fertile places where seedlings are struggling but are tenacious.
So how might we learn to really step outside of church, to stop attempting to cajole folk to be like us and, more than that, realising what an alien minority we are, be willing to rediscover what kingdom work looks like today? And to regain confidence in those abundant gifts with which God equips us to do just that?
And how might we support one another in our varied and different callings rather than set up the sexy new innovations and experiments against the inherited model of church that still bears fruit?
How can we get beyond those who would silence the curious before they even get the chance to approach Jesus? In the encounter with Bartimaeus, Jesus stood still, heard the cry of Bartimaeus through the noise of the crowd all around and then invited Bartimaeus to voice his longing. Restoring his sight, he welcomed him as a disciple, a willing learner along the way.
This is a time for us to hear, through the clamour of all the noise around, the voice of those relegated to the periphery AND to hear the voice of Jesus calling us, asking us, "What do you want?" And then, healed in faith, to rediscover how we are called to be disciples, learning new things as we follow, companions of Jesus and of one another. Engaged in Kingdom Work together, starting, not with church, but with Christ.

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Pruning the things we love.

John 15:1-2
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.

Last weekend was finally warm enough for us to spend a good chunk of time in our garden. We just moved house last November, so it's been mainly winter in the garden. It's only now that we're beginning to discover what else is there, slowly emerging from the cold or soggy ground. I discovered a herb garden that the previous occupants of the house had planted. It's pretty overgrown but, with some pruning and care, it will be a wonderful addition to our kitchen.

I was sharing with other ministers this week the notion that, sometimes, we have to lay down or stop doing things we love - because it is what God requires of us. It's not that those things are not important - or even fruitful. Rather, it is that God is requiring of us something else for this day. And God knows that is not easy and not without pain.
As ever, I also found that I was preaching/ speaking of something that I needed to learn again and remember. Almost three years on, I still feel keenly the loss of being a parish minister. That is still an open wound among all the good things that have come with this new work that God requires of me. Grounding that in the context of the vine and the branches helps not to lessen the pain so much as to bring the reminder and the reassurance of God's pruning along the way, taking us well beyond the places we love or are comfortable, even where we are making a difference - to be engaged in the Mission of God today. Pruning is painful, particularly when what we have to prune is still bearing fruit, but it is essential in the work of the garden and in the work of the kingdom in every season.

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