“Little Clay Folk”

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Today I sent out the “little clay folk” (the people of God) into Parson Cross around Care Homes, Churches and other community spaces to be a blessing in these times …..

In these strange times, as the nation (and the world) experiences the Covid19 coronavirus pandemic, and we face isolsation, lockdown and restrictions around our day to day lives, it is sometimes been hard to think about how we might “minister” into this situation. Our church buildings have been largely closed, except where they are being used for frontline activities such as foodbanks, our worship has been taken online and into our homes, we continue to offer support to those grieving and mourning to the best of our ability – but it is all hard. The conversations through telephone or on social media  offering pastoral support have been crucial, but they miss out still on so much that is really important in our regular human interactions – the touch of a hand, a silent nod of sympathy, the embrace and hug of friendship, and so much more – all these things are largely absent at this time, and it hurts for so many of us.

In such a time I wanted to think of visible signs of embracing the community I serve in, the communities of Parson Cross, Southey, Foxhill and Longley in North Sheffield; then I remembered some work that I’d connected with some years ago towards the start of my time in the area. Back in 2011 Ric Stott* had produced a series of 40 clay men as part of an exploration of Lent, one of these clay men found its’ way to Parson Cross. We borrowed the idea again with a series of Advent Angels made by adults and children at Mount Tabor that we placed across the estate.

Over Easter I’ve been looking online at a few “Godly Play” resources, and came across the “people of God” figures, for those not familiar they are small wooden figures in various poses, with no recogniseable features and they are used in story telling to be the exactly what it says the “people of God”.  Now, I’m not one who thinks play (Godly or otherwise) should be the pastime only of children, and so I thought that combining these two elements – our “clay men” and the “people of God” might offer one way that I could offer a blessing to the area.

The first group of five (pictured above) were made at home, and each given a tiny placard to hold with a special, but familar, messages; this morning I took time to place them in various community spaces, with prayers and blessings in each space they were left. One was at Mount Tabor, my base in more usual times, I pray for a return to life that this place usually contains, a return of the people who value it as a place of love, hope grace and inclusion. A second was placed in the public space at Chaucer, it’s a space that normally would see people wandering through on their way to Asda, Farmfoods or one of the other local shops, they’d be waiting at the bus stop for a trip into town or down the road to Hillsborough, there’s the library and housing offices, and at the start and end of each school day the space would be filled with students from Chaucer School – but right now it’s empty, apart from the “little clay folk” I left; I pray that one day it will be safe again to enjoy the hustle and bustle of lively public spaces. A third figure was placed at St Pauls, on Wordsworth Avenue which has become the temporary home to the emergency foodbank in Parson Cross run by S6 foodbank and supported by PXI Projects; still around 40 households each week are coming to that place for food, which feels shocking to me that there is still such a reliance even in these most desperate of times. I pray that as we emerge from the pandemic that the country will re-assess why there is such a need in what is still such a rich nation, I fear however we may not and that demand will simply grow even higher. The final two “people of God” we placed outside care homes in the area (Deerlands and North Hill Road) – it is more and more evident that our care homes have been devastated throughout this crisis, their workers often left without inadequate protections and their reseidents left vulnerable to infection and early death. I pray for better protection, I give thanks for the love, care and dedication of the workers in these homes, I pray that families may soon again be able to visit, hold hands and hug those they love.

Love your neighbour, keep one another safe and I pray you keep well.

 

* Ric Stott – Clay Men (2011)

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.