The cares of the world and the lure of wealth

Last night I led the first session of our benefice’s Lent course. It is the first Lent course we have run since a previous Methodist minister in the village left about three or four years ago. This year we are using the Churches Together in Britain and Ireland‘s course, Parables and Possessions. I enjoyed the discussion we had around the parable of the sower and Jesus’ subsequent explanation to the disciples of why he taught in parables and then explaining the (or perhaps that should be “a”) meaning of the parable (Matthew 13:1-23).

413In the explanation of the parable of the sower, Jesus talks about how “the cares of the world and the lure of wealth” can choke the impact of the “word of the kingdom” in the life of a person (and by extension, the life of the community of which a person is a part). The “lure of wealth” creates anxieties and fears which are inimical to the love to which God calls and invites us. The possession of wealth creates worlds of possibilities, but also brings us choices we have to make about how that wealth is to be used. This is true not only of “the rich” (usually “those who have more wealth than me”) but of anyone who has disposable income above and beyond that required to provide the necessities of life. In those circumstances, to say, “we can’t afford this” is not always a statement about how much money is available but may sometimes be a statement that, where resources are limited, we choose to spend this on x rather than on y.

That choice, to spend on one thing rather than another, becomes very revealing about our attitudes. The choice is a moral one, but one that can muffle of choke the call of the word of the kingdom. Choosing to heed the voices that reinforce our fears desensitizes our capacity to respond to others in love, openness and generosity.

May Lent be a time when we examine the choices we make, reject the fearful ones and act in love and in faith in the One who provides for us and for others.

When faced with choices about material riches and possessions do you respond out of fear or love?

Happy Anniversary

Twenty years ago today 32 women were ordained as priests in the Church of England for the first time ever. This momentous event was the cause of great rejoicing to many. Since then, of course, many more women have joined the ranks of the priesthood and I hope and pray that it will not be much longer before some of them also join them ranks of the episcopate as well.
Curiously our chapter meeting this lunchtime was an all-male affair. Much as I love my brother clergy, it felt as though there was something missing, and rather like being in a grown-up version of the boy’s grammar school where I received my secondary education. Twenty years on, I find it hard to recall a time when the voice and experience of 50% of humanity was unrepresented in the ordained ministry and leadership of our church.
I know that there remains much to be done, not only in the final push to get the legislation for women in the episcopate through General Synod but also in continuing to address some very unpleasant attitudes and unacceptable behaviour that remain in a small minority in the church. But we can only pray that this will be overcome sooner rather than later.
So, happy anniversary! And here’s to the next twenty years when perhaps we will be talking simply about priests and bishops with no gender qualifiers.

Temptation

It’s almost 11 p.m. and today’s the day I was dreading a week ago when I wondered if my commitment to blog every day (except Sundays and Mondays) during Lent could hold up. The day is almost done and only now am I sitting here writing this.

Today has been one of those days most vicars will recognise: a day of catching up with all the stuff brought in by the weekend and a day off. There have been phone calls to return about funerals and weddings, emails to be replied to, preparation for tomorrow’s Communion service and the new Lent course that starts tomorrow, plus an afternoon PCC meeting. Amid all this, writing a blog post conjures up the same kind of feelings and pressure that the VIcar’s letter for the parish magazine brings on as the deadline looms. There is the pressure to be highly creative and interesting, but all there is is writer’s block. Worse, the blogging is a self-imposed task.

So there is a huge temptation just to let it go for today and come back fresh tomorrow. Yet there are also times when we have to accept that, even when we are not on sparkling form, things still need to be done and that sometimes the best we can do is to do it anyway regardless of whether it is our best work. The New Testament calls this perseverance. It means pushing on through even when we’d rather go off and do something else.

So here is today’s rather belated and sorry offering. It’s my contribution to the community. But who knows? Tomorrow’s might be a whole lot better. But you can’t put something down to experience if you don’t at least attempt the something.

Blessings to all readers.

Stories that fit, stories that don’t

Personal stories a can be compelling. Biographies and autobiographies of the famous usually sell well and TV chat shows where celebrity guests appear and share some of their own stories  remain popular. We like to know what makes other people “tick” and if a story is interesting enough, it doesn’t even need to belong to a “celebrity.” Even people who may be thought of as quite ordinary often have some aspect that stirs interest. As a vicar I am often privileged to hear the most amazing stories about people you might not give a second glance of you passed them in the street.

In many of the evangelical churches I have been associated with over the years, personal testimony – the ability to share one’s faith story with others – has been highly valued. One doesn’t need to present a host of philosophical, scientific or theological answers to life’s big questions. Simply tell your own story – it’s difficult to argue with personal experience.

This works well in such churches – provided the story goes along predictable lines. By this I don’t mean that the stories and experiences are all clones of each other. I think it is fair to say, though, that the resolutions of such stories (partial though they may often be) tend to be within a range of “normal” for the evangelical communities in which they are told. They can be seen to “fit” the expected pattern.

The difficulties come with those stories that don’t fit the pattern. For example, the testimony of those women who sense a vocation to public ministry in churches where this is (still) not seen as valid. Or of someone who realises they experience attraction to members of their own sex. In many evangelical churches these stories don’t fit the accepted patterns of testimony. Common responses may be to ignore the stories altogether, or else to try to harmonise them with the norm by explaining away the bits that don’t fit.

Both of these responses, I would suggest, can be harmful in that they fail to take seriously the experience of those telling the story. This has been borne in on me recently by my reading of two books. The first of these is The Cross in the Closet by Timothy Kurek. Tim grew up as a middle-American conservative evangelical Christian, convinced that homosexuality was always wrong, that it was a “lifestyle choice.” However, after an encounter with a gay Christian campaigning group, he decided that the least he could do was to discover what it would be like to live within his local gay community. This is not the place to review the whole book. Suffice it to say, that after the initial culture shock, what Tim found surprised him and was far from the stereotypes that his own church upbringing had painted. The real story as he discovered it did not fit his church’s narrative.

The second book I read was Unconditional: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays vs. Christians Debate (published in the States as Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays vs. Christians Debate) by Justin Lee. Justin comes across as someone who is conservative on his theology, yet finds that his own experience does not for well with his church’s theological expectations.

For me, the key challenge is to decide what to do with these stories. For many conservatives, the first response is to explain them away by reiterating the party line e.g. being gay is a “lifestyle choice”, “gayness can be prayed away” etc. But I think this does a great disservice both to people’s experience and to the Gospel. With our own testimonies we insist that others’ explaining away or trivialising our experience is not valid (especially when done by sceptical atheists), yet we do the same ourselves.

So I want to make a plea for evangelicals in particular, when someone shares their experience – and it make take courage for them to do so – let’s not dismiss that experience. Let’s not jump on with our prepared explanations. And let’s acknowledge that a person’s experience is their experience, not ours, and we should take it very seriously indeed for we tread on holy ground.

Retreat!

I’m half an hour away from leaving for a 24 hour retreat, courtesy of my bishop. This year all the clergy of the diocese have been invited to one of four retreats at our diocesan house and this is the last. The timing of this is ideal, coming shortly after Ash Wednesday and will (I hope) be a good introduction to the rest of Lent.

The practice of retreat in Christianity is an ancient one with an honourable pedigree. THe Desert Fathers, and the Celtic saints, sought isolation in order to confront demons and do spiritual battle within themselves and, as they sought, for the sake of society at large. Jesus, as we remeber at this time of year, used a forty day fast in the wilderness to prepare for the reigours of his public ministry; and that ministry was punctuated by periods of isolation for private prayer and for “timeout” with the closer disciples.

Going into the desert does, of course, pre-date Jesus. For the Israelites the desert was a place of testing. But it also became a place of refuge, somewhere to go when things got tough politically or militarily. It is this balance, I think, that makes retreats so valuable and, as they have become, so popular.

My retreat is unlikely to be a great hardship. I will be well looked after; the accommodation will be comfortable; the food (I am expecting) will be good. Hardly the ascetic life! But I am praying it will be a time for reflection and meeting with God – a time to pause, collect myself (or allow myself to be coolected) and then move on.

May your Lent also be one of blessing and edification.

Finally, I love Rev.’s take on retreats:

 

 

 

A much-needed conversation

stevechalkeSteve Chalke has been at it again! A few weeks ago Steve published an article in the March edition of Christianity magazine concerning how we view and interpret the Bible. In the article Steve points up what he considers to be shortcomings in traditional evangelical views of scripture and calls for a wider conversation about this whole topic.

For non-evangelical Christians reading this article, or the longer one on which it is based, there may seem to be nothing particularly new or controversial in what Steve writes. But for the conservative to middle-of-the-road evangelicals and charismatics who make up the primary audience for Christianity, this is quite a big deal. Steve courted controversy in these circles a few years ago when he questioned whether penal substitutionary atonement was a helpful model to present the work of Christ in the 21st century. This most recent statement goes to what many evangelicals consider to be the heart of their identity – the authority and status of the Bible.

Not surprisingly, a number of leading evangelicals have rushed to engage Steve in debate in one forum or another. Premier Christian Radio, an organisation owned by the same company that produces Christianity magazine, has brought Steve Chalke together with Andrew Wilson, a theology spokesperson for the New Frontiers group of churches. Videos of the first two of four encounters between them can be seen here and here. Steve Holmes has complained that the “global conversation” that Steve calls for is already happening and has been going on for some years now; while Ian Paul on his Psephizo blog gives an interesting summary of the story so far and a few comments of his own into the bargain.

Now I have no intention in this post of going into the specifics of what Steve wrote. That may be for another time. But I will agree with him that this is indeed a much-needed conversation. To those who have said that the conversation is already going, I would suggest that is true in academia, and evangelical scholars have made some siginificant contributions over the past few decades. It may also be true among (some) ministers and pastors. Steve Holmes suggests that at numerous gatherings there is frequently discussion about how to handle difficult texts

I rather think though that what Steve is calling for goes both wider and deeper than that. Steve, as others have pointed out, is not an academic. He is a pastor, a preacher, an evangelist and a skilled facilitator of work that addresses some of the ills of our society from education and youth work to anti-slavery and sex trafficking. It should come as little surprise therefore that at the sharp end where Steve works he becomes very aware of issues of communicating the good news to those who have either little connection to the churches or have had that connection in the past and voted with their feet.

Although I would not wish to speak for Steve or put words in his mouth, I do wonder whether the conversation needs to extend far beyond the academic world and meetings of pastors behind closed doors. It needs to be brought into the open in a civilised way so that people in our congregations can participate. And those of us who do hold ministerial responsibility must trust them to think things through themselves.

And it does need to be a conversation, conducted in a civilised manner that treats others as grown-ups. A couple of years ago I taught some modules on our diocesan Certificate course. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and think the group did too. However, after one module, one of the students, a longstanding member fo his church said, “Why haven’t we talked about this in our churches? This is all new to me.” Others agreed. It’s one thing for pastors themselves to wrestle with how one text is presented. How we get our congregations to think through our whole approach to the biblical texts is quite another matter.

In conclusion, I am not wholly convinced by some aspects of Steve’s own answers. But I do think the question he raises – and the whole conversation – needs to be brought out from behind the closed doors of the specialists.

Ash Wednesday

'Low Key Light Manipulation' photo (c) 2006, Sarah (Rosenau) Korf - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Yesterday I spent the morning preparing the ash for use in the two services in my benefice today. It sounds as though this should be an easy task, but it is more complicated than it sounds. For a start, the is to use the remainder of last year’s crosses from Palm Sunday. Even after a year, the palm leaves contain quite a lot of water and need further drying in a hot oven before they will burn. Then there is the fibrous nature of the leaves which, even after burning, needs to be broken down for the ash to be usable.

So after taking down the remains of last year’s palm crosses and putting them on in the oven for half an hour or so, the smoke that came out when I opened the oven door sent me rushing to close doors before every smoke alarm in the house went off.

After that it was a quick trip to a sheltered corner of the garden with a tinfoil tray and a lighter. Another forty minutes and the ashes were ready for the final stage – forcing through a sieve into a bowl. The other end of the afternoon and the smell of singed palm had largely receded in the house. But I have been left wondering whether or not simply to buy a packet of ash from one of the ecclesiastical suppliers next year!

In our somewhat sanitized Western culture, there always seems something a little medieval about going around on Ash Wednesday with a black smudgy cross on ones forehead. Although we have become rather showy about all sorts of things over the past few decades, there are certain things we are not keen to parade in public. Way up there on that list is contrition, followed (still, it seems to me) by expressions of grief. Roadside shrines at accident blackspots may have sprung up all over the place in the last fe years, but gone are the days of wearing black as a sign of mourning except on the day of a funeral. Extend that for a longer period and people around you begin to get rather uncomfortable.

But before we write off our medieval ancestors, it is worth considering what such customs are intended to express and convey. We need to look below the surface (which may not seem very appealing) and try to find the deeper intent of the ritual. It is too easy to talk about “mere ritual” and miss the fact that rituals are usually devised to express something profound about our human condition, often something that holds great psychological significance and that we ignore at our peril.

In the Bible, wearing ash, alongside tearing of clothes, is a symbol of mourning and contrition.  On Ash Wednesday we wear ash as a sign of our acknowledgement that we are all complicit in the sin of the world. There are our personal failings and shortcomings before God – though God is fully aware of the circumstances which give rise to them. And then there are the corporate failings of our society and culture in which we also bear a part.

Too often when we talk about these things there is a temptation to sink into a kind of morbid introspection. The Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer has confessional passages which seem to pander to this. I sometimes wonder what the psychological effect of, for instance, the weekly repetiiton of the General Confession that begins both Morning and Evening Prayer has been on generations of Anglicans. In one sense it highlights that marvel of God’s forgiveness that is about to be offered and affirmed. On the other, for those who perhaps already feel guilty or ashamed, it seems to over-emphasise our worthlessness in a world that is often only too eager to point out individual shortcomings. Some of the great saints and heroes of the faith have struggled with precisely this. Both Martin Luther and Ignatius of Loyola wrestled with their consciences, convinced at one time that there were still unresolved and unconfessed sins that prevented them from enjoying a peaceful and right relationship with God.

This is not to argue that we should downplay the seriousness of sin, whether individual or corporate. But surely, the point of repentance (and penitence, too) is that it allows us to move forward rather than remain shackled to past failure. Both Ignatius and Luther eventually found their freedom in the insight that God’s grace is freely extended to all, not requiring us to earn favour. For me, Sr. Basilea Schlink’s book title, Repentance: the Joy-Filled Life, sums up admirably what our penitence should be focussed on – the joy that comes from knowing that, whatever we may have been and done, God loves us and, through Jesus, offers us God’s forgiveness, grace and peace.

As we receive the ash today, may we experience not only true repentance but also the joy of a holy and purposeful Lent.