Re-learning to pray

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At the start of Lent I wrote a piece called Forty Days, one of the tasks I’ve set myself this year during this Lent season, alongside the fasting and casting off of bad habits, is to renew and re-learn parts of my prayer life.

I’ve often used art and creative writing as a method of prayer, and so it is to this place I’ve returned at this time. Again in that previous blog piece I talked about how the Psalms are for me a kind of go to part of scripture when I’m looking for a prayer focus, and how at the start of Lent I was particularly focussed on Psalm 51, and so it is that for the first fortnight of Lent, this psalm has remained a key focus for me. The photo above is of the prayerful artwork that has emerged from some of that reflection, but I wanted to share and record also some of the process and practice behind this art.

My first act of course was to read and re-read the psalm, in a kind lectio-divina manner, allow the words to lodge inside me, and waiting for particular words and sounds to stand out. The first phrase that stood out in this way was “teach me wisdom in my secret heart”*, and so the first thing I did was to use some of the remaining ash from  Ash Wednesday to finger draw a secret heart on the white card. This heart represents that deep inner self the part of us the we hide from others, and even ourselves; it’s the part of us where our insecurities, fears and prejudices sit – the part of us where we hurt in ways we don’t always understand even ourselves, maybe it’s got similarities to what Freud described as the Id, that most primitive and instinctive component of personality.

Next I created  a clean heart** made from clay super imposing it over the secret ash heart. But I wanted somehow to reflect the process by which I might imagine Gods work in the repentance – forgiveness – healing circle, and the whole Grace thing. That’s where I got the idea of the jigsaw pieces from, and the idea that through grace a new picture is created, the cleansed heart is not just clean, it is also re-newed, re-stored, re-created. Initially I took each piece of jigsaw and on the reverse side wrote more phrases from the psalm that had stood out as I read it yet again, things like: Have mercy, Steadfast Love, Abundant mercy, Wash me, Cleanse me, Purge me, You desire truth, Create in me a clean heart. These were then incorporated into the heart, but not neatly and perfectly, not in a joined up way that might suggest the full picture revealed and all issues resolved – but also not in a broken way, I felt a need to express a healing process. The pieces connect, some to each other, but all to the heart.

Finally I took inspiration from the Japanese practice of Kintsugi, a means by which pottery is repaired using a lacquer mixed with gold, silver or sometimes platinum. This practice embraces the flawed and incompleteness of things, and seeks to still see the beauty that is there. Verse 12 in the psalm says:

“Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
    and sustain in me a willing spirit.”

For my the gold paint that I used to fill the gaps between the jigsaw pieces, to unify them with the clay heart, represented this plea from a place of repentance – Gods grace can restore us and sustain us, and even (as with the Kintsugi pieces) reflect the beauty of Gods gift in and through our own incompleteness.

 

 

*Verse 6
**Verse 10 (and Isaiah 64.8 Job 10.9)

 

 

 

 

 

Pastors, Priests and other roles

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It seems like I spend a fair amount of time as a Methodist Pioneer actually defining, and describing exactly what it is I am to myself and to others. It seems to be made more complicated to some because of the fact that I am not ordained, and by the fact that I have work and lay roles that often overlap. As a Methodist Local Preacher (lay) I cannot completely divorce from my day job as Pioneer employed and commissioned by the Methodist Circuit, its impossible; and yet the roles are different. The former brings me into contact and demands I minister (in)to “traditional” mainstream church, the latter calling me to move beyond, to those distanced from that space and those traditions.

So what am I? I’m a pioneer, but I’ve been talked about and addressed as: Pastor, Priest, Lay Minister, Father, Reverend and others…. so let’s explore.

The term “Pastor” derives from the Latin for “Shepherd”,  “Priest” has a more complex linguistic background it seems, emerging from Presbyter (Late Latin) meaning “an elder” and / or  from Latin praepositus a “person placed in charge”. Of course the linguistics aren’t the sole arbiter of what we might now imply and understand by these terms today, but they do give us an interesting start point.

Most obviously Pastor resonates with Jesus words to Simon Peter recorded in John 21.16 “…take care of my sheep”. It suggests a role of care, nurture and guidance “[The role of the pastor is] to help people pay attention to God and respond appropriately.” so wrote Eugene Peterson “… [and to] keep the community attentive to God.”  The shepherd also plays a protective role and where necessary sacrificial one (John 10.11) putting the needs of the “flock” above the needs of self. In the mission context in particular perhaps, this latter part can be very real, as people from our little community of volunteers and helpers put themselves into vulnerable positions sometimes with relative strangers; taking food into their homes, drawing close to them in order to in turn minister to (and receive from) them.

I guess priest isn’t a term we use in Methodism with any great regularity, preferring instead the term Minister for those who are ordained. As a pioneer however, I am working both “within” and “outside” the tradition of Methodism, working with, missioning and ministering amongst people not of that tradition, and of no traditions.

“Chaplain” is a term that I sometimes use. indeed I am as part of my role formally recognised as Chaplain in two of our local schools. Traditionally the chaplain role is to be an ecclesial role somehow attached to secular institution. Typically therefore we might encounter chaplains in hospitals, schools, the military etc. However it is an approach to ministry to feels to somehow fit with much of what I am, and the role I play – encountering the secular over the overtly religious, or ecclesial. The Chaplain role is closer to just being – being present, being alongside, being available as a resource, being a friend – but I guess it doesn’t fit the bill entirely in all circumstances.

So if we go back again to those linguistic roots to consider this “priest” role we see again it is one of being “in charge”. Now where I work there’s a bit of a workplace banter around this, one of our community even bought me a giant mug (they understood my addiction to coffee) with the words “THE BOSS” written big on it. Banter yes, because although I try to hold the role very lightly, although I try to encourage and empower others around me – in the end as the person paid by the Circuit to be here, to be responsible – the scary fact (for me) is, I am in charge!

Priest, is in the end understood as a hierarchical term, and that’s probably for me as good a reason as any to steer clear of using it, but at the same time it would be completely wrong of me to deny I have power, I do – and an authority to exercise it within the bounds given to me by the wider Methodist Church. As all Spiderman and Stan Lee fans know “with great power there must also come great responsibility” and the denial of oneself holding any power is not being in least bit responsible. Each of us has power in different situations, and each of us has to decide how we choose to exercise that power – hierarchical power and authority however brings its own issues and complexities.

And so as I undertook my first baptism this Sunday of the beautiful Rebekah Ann, her young life full of hopes and possibilities; and as the parents, godparents, and church were each asked in turn to make our promises and commitments – I felt myself as both priest and pastor. In charge of the occasion, responsible for dutifully and humbly serving  God and the Church through this particular sacrament, and also aware of the part I was playing in helping each one of us there to be attentive to God and the grace that is conferred upon us all.

What a Feminist Looks Like

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I’m not a feminist, how can I be, after all I’m a man. In the same way that being a straight, white, male with no disability  debars me from speaking “on behalf” of black people about racism, LGBT people about homophobia, people with disabilities about the discrimination experience by them – I cannot speak of womens oppression, or therefore of feminism, from any experience that qualifies me. I have to accept (and do accept) that I am part of the world that oppresses, I even have to accept that there have been times (still are times) when my attitude, my behaviour has been, inadvertently or otherwise, part of that oppression, and even where that is not the case, that I am a direct and indirect beneficiary of that oppression. So I cannot say “this is what a feminist looks like”, I cannot speak “on behalf” of women, but that doesn’t mean I cannot take sides.

In a similar way I’m not an Anglican, I’m a Methodist and as such I’ve been reluctant to get drawn into the current “debate” in Sheffield (and beyond) about the whole issue of the appointment of Rev Philip North as the Anglican Bishop for Sheffield Diocese. But seeing and hearing the sadness and upset this issue has caused for many of my females colleagues in ministry in Sheffield, I felt I needed to say something.

I do not understand the “theological objections” to the ordination of women, I do not understand how “mutual flourishing” operates, but this I know – I have served with, and been ministered to, by many women since becoming a follower of Jesus, some have been ordained, others have not; their gender has made no difference to their faithfulness to Christ, no difference to their abilities, no difference to their grace and love as found in Jesus, no difference to the calling they each have been given. For any powers or system to deny such callings, has (in my opinion) little to do with the Kingdom of God and much more to do with the Empire of Patriarchy.

 

 

 

Forty Days

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Yesterday was Ash Wednesday the start of Lent. It’s a season in the Christian calendar I always look forward to, but often one when I feel like I didn’t quite arrive where I’d hoped. This year, I was fortunate enough to spend the whole of Ash Wednesday morning in quiet contemplation and prayer with friends, as well as sharing in the ashing ritual where we made the sign of the cross on each others foreheads, a ritual that links us with centuries of previous Christian witness, cleansing and prayer.

The cross is of course for forgiveness, but also to call once more to repentance; an acknowledgement that both individually and collectively we do things that are wrong, that we fall short of a perfected humanity, and the need for us to recognise these things in order that we might move on. The ash further reminds us of our own mortality, “Remember ..” say the words of the liturgy “…you are dust and to dust you will return.”

As in the past, alongside the “giving up” of sweets, cakes and other indulgencies for the season, I’ve also made two other committments this Lent:

  • To try and revitalise my prayer life (which if I’m honest has become somewhat lazy)
  • To genuinely offer a repentant heart before God (to search out my own faults and shortcomings, and allow God to effect changes in me)

One of my key scriptural sources at times when I’m looking for a focus for my prayer and reflections I turn to the Psalms, and it was there that I started again yesterday. I particularly focussed on Psalm 51, a psalm all about repentance and forgiveness:

1. Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin!

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
    and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
    and blameless in your judgment.
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
    and in sin did my mother conceive me.
Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,
    and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
    wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones that you have broken rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
    and blot out all my iniquities.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
    and renew a right spirit within me.
11 Cast me not away from your presence,
    and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
    and uphold me with a willing spirit.

13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
    and sinners will return to you.
14 Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God,
    O God of my salvation,
    and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.
15 O Lord, open my lips,
    and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
    you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

18 Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
    build up the walls of Jerusalem;
19 then will you delight in right sacrifices,
    in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
    then bulls will be offered on your altar.

As the morning progressed, and I moved into deeper reflection and meditation upon this psalm and others, I wrote these words, which I share with you all now:

How; amongst

all the hurt and the hate,

all the fear and the greed,

all the racism and misogyny,

can we find the Way?

How; amongst

all the fake news and fake smiles,

all the dreams and the nightmares,

all the sales pitches and political spin,

can we find the Truth?

How; amongst

all the dark times and dark places,

all the turned off hearts and switched off minds,

all the snuffed out hopes and blown out dreams,

can we find the Light?

Lent is that time to go deeper, to face the reality of our own lives and existence, our own faults and failings, time to ask the big questions of ourselves, our generation, and of God. It’s a time to journey into the wilderness where (if we are fortunate) we may hear a still, small voice that helps us make a lttle more sense of it all.

Love is ….

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Every first Sunday of the month I organise a session called Prayer and Paint, a small group of us meet and contemplate on a piece of scripture or story and respond through some form of creative expression (words, artwork or both), we’re not great artists, we just use that medium as a way of quietly being with each other and God.

Last night we explored “Love”; why not, afterall it’s my own wedding anniversary this week at Valentines day next, so what better excuses (if any were needed). We talked briefly about how CS Lewis in his book Four Loves, describes different types or expressions of love: Storge (Empathic love), Philia (Friendship bonds), Eros (Erotic and romantic love), and Agape (Unconditional love as offered by God).

The world (I mean us by the way – and yes that includes me) gets this whole love thing very mixed up. We confuse it with other emotions, we devalue it and demean by using it to sell things, or gain power and influence over others, we crave it and yet we abuse it. We claim to “love” things that are never worthy of such feelings – we love it would seem everything from ice cream to our nations flag, and yet are often incapable it seems of loving our neighbours (let alone our enemies).* I remember a song I heard when I was young, a song by Burt Bacharach, sung by  Dionne Warwick which said:

What the world needs now is love sweet love,
It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.
What the world needs now is love sweet love,
No not just for some but for everyone.

…. at the top of the page is a photo I found today**, and remember:

Love is patient and kind.
Love is not jealous, it does not brag, and it is not proud.
Love is not rude, it is not selfish, and it cannot be made angry easily.
Love does not remember wrongs done against it.
Love is never happy when others do wrong, but it is always happy with the truth.
Love never gives up on people. It never stops trusting, never loses hope, and never quits.

Love will never end. 

 

* Matthew 5.44-44
**NY Times article

A God Fearing Humanist

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“I believe in one God…” as it says in the Nicene Creed, I believe that man (and woman) have been created in the “image of God” (Genesis 1.7), and I believe that Jesus central mission was to demonstrate that perfect reconciliation of humanity and God, as John Selby Spong once said: “The way you become divine is to become wholly human.”

 

The trouble is that through our religious practices (of different faiths) we have sought to re-create God in our image, rather than seeing ourselves – our humanity – as a reflection of God. Here lies our biggest collective wrongdoing (our sinfulness if you want), in our attempts to appropriate God for ourselves, we lose the overall sense of God in humanity. We start to seek our own version of God; often we do it within our own particular religious traditions be that Christian, Jewish, Muslim or whatever. Or else, we create for ourselves “false Gods” such as nation, markets, wealth and the like,  in the process we begin to fracture and to devalue that single sense of humanity that holds us all in common throughout time.

This week has seen outrage and uproar over the actions of the newly inaugurated US President Trump, his provocative posturing, and confrontational tone finding early focus around his entry ban on visitors from various “Muslim” nations. It just one example of a reaction to a world that is increasingly fracturing, retreating from consensus and taking refuge behind walls of traditional “certainties”. Our world can seem much safer when the only people we have to encounter are those like us, and if consensus has meant I have been ignored, or if it has led to me feeling unsafe, then why not retreat, why not hunker down and build a wall to protect me and those I care about? Sadly, the effect of such a stance in the longer term is just to further increase division, to feed the insecurities, to fragment us more and more. Of course when such division and fragmentation takes place, there’s always the option of enforcing an appearance of consensus through force – the Pax Romana  has been the default setting for Empire for centuries, and it is likely the 21st Century will see its own versions re-appear.

Our lack of humanity, our inability to see ourselves (and those we love) in others lies at the heart of much of the collective wrongs of this world, it separates us from each other, allowing us to objectify, and oppress the other (whoever that might be). Jesus teaches not simply to “love your neighbour as yourself”* but also to “love your enemies”** – two radical calls to understand our own humanity in terms of how we relate to others. Of course we might fail, of course our own human imperfection might result in us falling short, but the call is there nevertheless – the call to live and love, to share humanity. Jesus words teach and reminds us that my salvation and liberation is linked into the salvation and liberation of others – or to use an African word this is a call to Ubuntu.

Ultimately, nothing we do can take away from the fact that alongside the joy and laughter, life is also fraught with danger, littered with tragedy, and unfairness. Just listen to the Psalmists and how, alongside their praises for God, they wail at the pain that life can open us up to – but somehow they point us to reaching out beyond that pain, to risk love, to trust in the God who points the way back for our own humanity.

 

*Mark 12.31
** Matthew 5.44

Strangers and Foreigners

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Last weekend I was privileged to be invited by YMCA White Rose (through my friend Jonathan) to join him on a trip to Budapest where we met folk from KIE (the YMCA in Hungary) and explore possible link projects back to our shared North Sheffield base.

Amongst our many conversations, there was one theme I seemed to keep coming back to – it was the very one that Erzsebet (local KIE leader) had offered for discussion at the Saturday  night youth group – that of “Strangers and Foreigners”. It is perhaps not strange that many of the young people wanted to question, and indeed understand, why the UK had recently voted to leave the EU. It was indeed news to them that whilst England and Wales had both voted in favour of “leave”, the North of Ireland and Scotland had voted “remain”. Indeed that the margins of the result, the divisive nature of the campaign itself, had left many of us with a feeling of not being sure who “we” are and what the future for us holds. I also suggested that in my experience, that the vote was not just about “nationalism”, and indeed any nationalism demonstrated in the victorious Brexit campaign was some particular form of English Nationalism rather than a UK or British Nationalism (regardless of how this was being portrayed within or beyond our boundaries).

These conversations have led me to once again return to the idea of identity, national and other, and to try and understand what part place and space might play in my personal identity (as well as that of my friends and neighbours).

I openly admit I struggle (and always have) to have any sense of what it means to be “English” – I can cope with some sense of being British, in that it is the place where I have spent my life. I acknowledge that the relative wealth I enjoy as a part of this nation (still around the 5th richest in the world) the result of years of imperial power and our part in the slave trade, and because of our status as a successful trading nation. But I cannot identify with being English – I don’t know what it means, I don’t feel an ownership. I’m not being (no matter what politicians and others might hint) unpatriotic in saying this, it just doesn’t feature as part of my identity.

I can say “I’m a Yorkshireman” (and a Northerner) – to me these identify characteristics that I do own. I can feel a pride at times in my “call a spade a spade” bluntness, I feel attached to a history of industrial heritage, of mill towns, coal and steel that I feel a has provided a sense of gritty resilence to many of us living in this part of the world. Indeed I can own a sense of Britishness, born out of a history that I and my family through generations have been a part of (one of my ancestors even sailed with Captain Cook to plant the British flag on “undiscovered” parts of the globe) – and even when these exploits do not bring me a sense of pride (for example the wealth we gained as a nation through systems of slavery and oppression) I still acknowledge it is a part of me. But, I have no concept of Englishness, and when confronted with Little Englander nationalism the more I start to feel a stranger in my own land.

The Bible tells me (Galatians 3.28): “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” my discipleship calls me to identify in this way above the labels the world would set for me. Our UK Prime Minister famously, and recently, said: “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere…” but that makes me really ask myself what this daughter of an Anglican Vicar also makes of Phillipians 3.20 “…we are citizens of heaven…”

All I can say is this, as I was invited and welcomed into Erzsebets home, as I spent Saturday evening with this group of young people in a cellar in Budapest, and as I sat in St Stephens Basilica on Sunday morning attending a Catholic Mass, in Hungarian and Latin (of which I confess to knowing little of either) I didn’t feel like a stranger and foreigner. As we shared food, sang songs together, and as the faithful shook hands and shared the peace, I knew I was home – a citizen of heaven, belonging and beloved.