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.

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