Book Review: I Think It’s God Calling

I wrote this book review for our diocesan newspaper, but thought I would put it here as well.  

Katy Magdalene Price. “I Think It’s God Calling: A Vocation Diary,” The Bible Reading Fellowship, Abingdon, 2015.

Katy’s Price’s book began its life as a blog; one she wrote “with the vague idea of helping others learn from my mistakes.” In it, she describes her growth from being an atheist (although “definitely an Anglican atheist, with a whole range of opinions and preferences on everything from vestments to episcopacy”), to being a new curate in the Church of England. She does so with a humour, wit and raw honesty which is refreshing and thoroughly enjoyable.

This process, she confides, “started as an experiment;” an attempt to understand the Christians around her, and to subject her own atheism to rigorous critique. So she prayed. She knew, she says, that prayer involved talking to God; but that it had never occurred to her that God might talk back. And yet, in ways that she finds hard to pin down, God did indeed talk back; leaving her with something of a dilemma, since, “my only qualification for ordained ministry was looking good in black.”

So, in search of a robust qualifying process, Katy chose to go to the College of the Resurrection, Mirfield; a place where she was required to live and learn within a monastic discipline (or, as she describes it, “some sadistic social experiment,” one in which a major challenge was learning to walk up stairs in a cassock with a bottle of wine in one hand and a glass in the other).

But despite these and many other challenges, (I particularly valued the chapter that dealt with the dynamics in her marriage), Katy emerged from college ready for parish life, God and the bishop willing. She describes herself, at the end of the book, as “pretty much still completely terrified,” but in it for the long haul alongside the God who has put up with her this far.

The value of Katy Price’s book, for me, was that it cut through all of the unwritten expectations which encourage us to be less than robustly honest about our experiences of the church. As someone who started her journey outside the church, she writes about it with genuine affection but also a freedom which is like a breath of fresh air. I laughed, I paused in recognition, and I was encouraged to treasure what is precious as well as seek to change what is ridiculous in our life together. I would recommend it to anybody who would like to be inspired in the same way.

The armour of God

This is the text of a sermon for the thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, in the parish where I am now licensed.  The Scripture it references is Ephesians 6:10-20.  (It is the last in a sermon series on Ephesians, which is why there is a great deal of reference to ideas introduced in earlier weeks).  A recording of this sermon can be heard here.

This morning I particularly want to have a look at this idea of the “armour of God.” For many Christians this passage has been presented as key to Christian identity; I’ve known people who as part of their prayers every morning have gone through “putting on” all of these elements of the armour of God, in order to feel ready to face the world and the day.

And that’s fine, and even a laudable prayer practice, as far as it goes. But if you take a particular piece of Scripture and make it so key to your personal identity, then it’s really important to make sure you understand it properly… and I’m not sure that always happens.

Let me explain what I mean. The author of the epistle encourages his hearers to “take up the whole armour of God;” the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, shoes that make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit.

But all too often what I have seen is Christians who take up the belt of certainty; the breastplate of self-righteousness; the shoes of triumphalism; the shield of ignorance; the helmet of exclusion; and the sword of judgement. And with those firmly in place, have taken their stand against anyone who challenged them.

I wonder if you’ve known anyone like that? If I’m totally honest, I can remember a younger and harder version of myself which might have found some of those things familiar and comfortable.

But why do we do it? What is it that makes us reach for certainty over truth, and so on?

I suspect there are at least two contributing fasctors.

One is that it is easy to read a passage like this as if it is about our emotional state. To read the exhortation “to stand” as if it is about being free of anxiety, doubt, or trouble. And therefore to reach for whatever will give us immediate relief from our anxieties, doubts or troubles… without stopping to ask whether the easy answers, in emotional terms, are always the right ones.

But I think that, for the author of this passage, the idea that this would be read as a kind of psychological exhortation would have been quite foreign. When he talks about our struggle being against the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers of this present darkness, he isn’t talking about our internal anxieties and doubts but about very concrete, external realities; about any of the political and social or bigger-than-individual forces which were in any way oppressive, abusive or destructive.

The other contributing factor, though, is that often we don’t have enough depth in our own Christianity. If we take the idea that Ephesians falls naturally into two parts – a section of doctrine and then a section of application – you can’t, for example, put on the belt of truth unless you’ve thoroughly apprehended that truth first. Unless you’ve really grasped that the truth you’re supposed to take up is the gospel, and you have therefore steeped yourself in the gospel so that it shapes your whole approach to life, then when you hear the exhortation to take up the “belt of truth” you might well end up reaching instead for whatever you feel certain about.

It takes a certain humility, a willingness to admit that the resources for the Christian life are not all internal but come to us as gift, and that we need our relationship with God, we need Scripture, we need the church, the people around us to help equip us for the struggles of the Christian life. We need to admit that Truth is bigger than just what we feel but has an objective, external reality which we need to work to apprehend.

Earlier in Ephesians the author says bluntly that “truth is in Jesus,” and points out that righteousness and salvation are part of the new self, the new creation, which is the work that God does in us; not something we can create for ourselves. He also says that Christ “is our peace.” Earlier in Romans Paul had argued that “to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace,” and I think this passage is expanding on that line of thinking; “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh…” but rather we need to be aware of what the Spirit is doing, in bringing the life and peace of the reign of God.

Think back to what the author said earlier in Ephesians: “Through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.”

This is the faith we’re meant to take up as a shield; our access to God in boldness and confidence, knowing that confronting the powers of evil at work in the world is part of the eternal purpose of the wisdom of God.

I think perhaps to make sense of the “sword of the Spirit” we need to look a little beyond Paul and note what the author of the epistle to the Hebrews said: “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” The word of God and the Spirit of God are, in Trinitarian terms, working together in a way which we can’t separate; the sword of the Spirit is, it seems to me, the wisdom to discern good from evil and light from darkness.

I could go on unpacking these concepts in more depth, but I’m conscious that I only have a certain amount of time, so I can only commend to you the idea that they’re worth further exploration of your own.

But my point fundamentally is this; unless we are so deeply rooted in our faith that we have a good, deep, robust sense of the truth, the peace, the faith, the salvation and the Spirit of God, a true connection with the living God which animates and nurtures us, then when push comes to shove we are likely to make the mistake of accepting poor substitutes. It makes perfect sense, then, that the author finishes this portion of the letter with instruction to pray at all times and to persevere in supplication for all the saints; because it is on that living connection that everything else depends.

 

 

 

 

 

On university chapels

I recently took a quiet day; a day set aside from all of the usual demands of work to spend in focussed prayer and reflection.  My choice of venue was rather unusual; I went back to the university campus I studied at as an undergraduate, and spent my time in and around the religious centre there.  (It’s a particularly good set up, with Muslim prayer rooms, and a Christian chapel as well as a large non-faith specific space and other smaller rooms which can be used as needed for meditation, discussion or whatever).  It was a space I spent a lot of time in during those years, and is deeply significant in my own personal geography of faith.

While I was there on my recent quiet day I spoke to one of the chaplains, who asked me whether I would mind putting into words something of what having a space like that had meant to me as a student.  Here is what I wrote to her:

The religious centre was an important part of the fabric of my university experience.  Lectures, tutorials, labs, libraries were all part of the learning I was doing for my Bachelor of Science; the campus centre and other social spaces gave me an opportunity to connect with the diversity of the university community and have my understanding of the world broadened.  But it was in returning again and again to the chapel that I was able to integrate these important areas of learning with my faith as well.

I had relatively little opportunity to worship off-campus (needing to work crowded out going to church) but each day I could come to the chapel and find time for quiet, for prayer and reflection and opportunity to share and grow with other young people exploring faith.

Spaces and times like these ensure that the academic and social aspects of university are not separated from faith (a recipe for fundamentalism and immaturity) but that the teachings and practices of a religion challenge and are challenged by their social context, and ultimately that the student emerges a more mature, well-rounded person.

I came to university unsure of who I was or what I wanted to do with my life, and it was in a time of prayer in the chapel that I put it to God; “You made me, you know my strengths and my weaknesses, even better than I do; you know what I’m fit for; I offer it all to you, only tell me what I’m supposed to do!”  In response, I understood that God was calling me to serve Him, the most profound experience of total acceptance I have ever known; and as a result today I am a priest in the Anglican church.  I carry into that priesthood the experience of that time as a student, an understanding of the world shaped not just by the seminary but also by the secular university and all that I learned there.  It is a very profound gift.

Today, even though I am no longer formally affiliated with the university I return regularly to this chapel as a place of quiet prayer when I wish to be away from my usual responsibilities and distractions, and I am grateful for this place of sanctuary in the midst of a busy life.  I would want to encourage all members of the university community to recognize the potential of this small space in their midst, to explore it for themselves and to see it as a treasure held in keeping for those who come after them.

Ministry, punctuated?

This is the text of a sermon for the tenth Sunday after Pentecost, in the parish where I am now licensed.  The Scripture it references is Ephesians 4:1-16.

A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and proceeds to fire it at the other patrons.
“Why?” asks the confused, surviving waiter amidst the carnage, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.
“Well, I’m a panda,” he says. “Look it up.” The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation.
Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.

That joke illustrates what I think is the key problem with our reading from the epistle today; because in fact, ancient Greek had no punctuation marks, and therefore when we translate it into English, decisions about where to put the commas are a judgement call on the part of the team of translators. And sometimes, a comma makes a big difference to the meaning.

Here’s the sentence where it happens in today’s reading. “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”

The way that it’s set out in the translation we usually use, “to equip the saints for the work of ministry,” is one clause, and as such it reads as if the work of ministry belongs to each and every one of us, and the job of those with particular leadership and teaching roles is to equip those around them. But it could be written with a comma after “to equip the saints,” so that it would read as if the work of ministry belongs to those with leadership and teaching roles, and the rest of the saints are more passive recipients of that ministry. Many, many people – consciously or unconsciously – read and hear this passage as if that comma is there, and as if the work of ministry belongs to a specialized elite within the church.

But I don’t think that’s right. I don’t think we should read it with an extra comma. I think the clear picture of the life and functioning of the church community emerging from the diverse New Testament documents is one in which ministry belongs to the whole community; to each of you as well as to me, and to all of us working together as a team.

In 1 Corinthians Paul wrote that “each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind.” There he was commenting on marriage and singleness, as each contribute to the life of the church in different and valuable ways. But the principle holds more broadly than whether or not you share your life intimately with someone else. Peter wrote similarly in his first epistle; “Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.”

Each person within the community receives at least one gift for the benefit of his or her fellows. But not all have the same gift. Paul insists that gifts were granted to individuals not primarily for their own enjoyment or ego gratification but rather for the edification, or building up, of the community. The basic principle that Paul lays down for the conduct of the church (which means much more than the conduct of gatherings for worship) is that “all things should be done for edification.” That’s the litmus test that should be applied to whether or not something is genuinely the work of ministry, no matter who does it.

So the lists of gifts – whether this one which mentions apostles, prophets and so on or the other lists sprinkled throughout the New Testament – are meant to be open-ended. They don’t exhaust the possibilities for spoken and practical ministry within the community. Any edifying contribution of a consistent nature from any member of the community would fall within the category of “gift” as Paul understood it.

And this points to the reality that ministry – edification of one another – can take place in a number of different, though ultimately complementary, ways. This becomes apparent when the various aspects of community life served by the gifts are identified.

Some gifts are primarily directed towards the community’s growth of understanding of God, the community itself, outsiders, the world. This intellectual aspect of the community’s life is particularly served through the exercise of prophecy, teaching, exhortation, discernment of spirits, and interpretation, though all of these also involve personal conviction and practical action, not just intellectual appreciation. Knowledge is as much about doing as thinking, as much commitment as reflection.

Some gifts are primarily directed towards the emotional wellbeing of the community and its group dynamics; that is, the integrity and harmony of the group and of its members. Important in this regard are the gifts that have a pastoral orientation, for example, practical help, acts of mercy, and pastoring itself. As these gifts are exercised, the psychological needs of the members are met and the social cohesion of the group sustained.

Some gifts are primarily directed towards the physical welfare of the community. The rendering of financial assistance, and gifts of hospitality, and administration. The body of Christ, or the gathering of the church, is not merely a communication of hearts, minds or souls but a fellowship of persons physically in contact with each other as well.

Lest this sound like a thinly disguised plea for more people to fill various rosters, let me give you a practical example. One of the very early church fathers was concerned about the phenomenon of very rich people in his flock, and how their wealth affected the life of the church and its patterns of contribution from everyone. The answer he came up with was that wealthy Christians should be prepared to give of their money to support poor ones; but in return the poor Christians should give of their time in praying for, and in sharing their wisdom and understanding with, the wealthy Christians. And he saw the ministry of the poor Christians in that partnership as by far the more important of the two!

So here’s my challenge to you. Have you ever asked yourself what your gifts are? Have you ever reflected on what God has given you, uniquely, to contribute to the life of this place? What steps have you taken to make use of those gifts? Is it time to revisit those questions?

You see, the thing about ministry is that the vicar and I can’t do it all by ourselves in this place; not even surrounded by other capable people in particular roles like the director of music and the parish administrator. The ministry of this parish will only be all that it can be when we each play our part. That’s what it’s going to take, says Paul, to come to the measure of the full stature of Christ. And that’s the goal, that’s what we’re meant to be aiming for.

So I leave that with you for something to think and pray about.

The Lord be with you.

Free at last?

Yesterday in the parish we held a workshop on “mental health unwrapped,” which I hoped would allow us as a community to begin to be more honest about mental health issues in the church, and think about how we might address them.  (As an aside, let me just plug the excellent work being done by the Luke14 initiative in facilitating these workshops; they provided the workshop to us at no cost except the materials we were given to keep).

A very striking part of their presentation was to show us some artwork done by a Jenny Nicholls, Christian woman with mental illnesses, in which she had tried to depict and share something of her experiences.  I’ve included three of her pictures in this post; I wonder what you make of them?

free+at+last

inside+the+head

justice

Boundaries

This is the text of a sermon for the seventh Sunday after Pentecost, in the parish where I am now licensed.  The Scripture it references is Mark 6:14-29.

Edited to add: as a special bonus, if you’ve been wondering what my voice sounds like, for the first time I can offer you a recording of this sermon, made available on YouTube, here.

Then she began, on that well-polished floor,
Whose stones seemed taking radiance more and more
From steps too bright to see,
A certain measure that was like some spell
Of winding magic, wherein heaven and hell
Were joined to lull men’s souls eternally
In some mid ecstasy:…
In some fair trance through which the soul possest
Love, ecstasy, and rest.*

Well, that is something of an echo of Friday night’s parish dinner; a few lines of Irish poetry, but in this case relevant to our gospel reading for today. In it – it’s a much longer poem, I just gave you a small taste – the author, Arthur O’Shaughnessy, describes the dance by the daughter of Herodias, and its effect on those who watched it.

The scene – the corrupt king, the beautiful girl, the gathered guests – has inspired many interpretations in the centuries since Mark recorded it, but I particularly liked this one for the way it describes “magic, wherein heaven and hell were joined to lull men’s souls.” Heaven and hell can’t be joined, it would be a violation of their very nature for that to happen; and in expressing it this way, it seems to me that O’Shaughnessy caught something important about what was happening here; the way that boundaries which should have been there, were either not there at all, or were warped in all sorts of unhealthy ways.

You see, it strikes me that Herod got himself backed into the corner of having to execute John in order to save face as the end result of a series of events in which he totally failed to enforce healthy boundaries. Think about it; he married a woman he was not free to marry; he had no idea how to relate to John as a prophet, and had to somehow find his way through the mixed feelings of fearing John, wanting to protect him, being perplexed by him, liking to listen to him, which led to him having John in prison; he had no idea how to communicate about any of this or build a united approach to John with his wife; and as for his relationship with his stepdaughter, well, it’s hard to say much with certainty, but it was déclassé, to say the least, for him to use her in an attempt to build up his status in the eyes of his guests; he made a rash oath, why, we might guess, in order to impress her, to try to buy her affection? And when she came back with a totally outrageous and inappropriate request, Herod did not seem able to say “No,” and tell her to ask for a new pony or something else instead. Boundaries? He had no idea.

Now, I don’t really have time in a sermon to unpack the idea of boundaries, with its many areas of application in depth; I’ll just have to commend to you the idea that it’s one worth reading and reflecting on. So I want to make some brief remarks about the theology of boundaries, before reflecting on what that might mean for our particular context.

When you strip out the psychological jargon, boundaries are about where I end and you begin. We are created, each of us, as separate beings and a part of God’s good creation; but the fact that I am me, and not you, and that we each have free will and so forth, tells us that boundaries, too, are a natural part of God’s good creation. The boundaries that exist in any healthy relationship are determined in part by the roles that we hold in that relationship; the gradient of power and vulnerability, and where and to what extent we have responsibility for the well-being of one another; and what expectations we can reasonably have of one another

Any Christian congregation – ours included – is an arena in which these issues of power and vulnerability, of responsibility and expectations, of boundaries, plays out. It’s in the interplay of these things that we find the marrow of the life and ministry of the church, in which we all participate.

We gather here to work out our salvation, find fellowship with likeminded believers, to be edified, and to be equipped. And with the gathering of believers comes not only the presence of the Holy Spirit, but also the amalgamation of our pain, hurt, suffering and struggles.  Ultimately, the process of working together through these things and finding God’s grace in that, is as much the core business of the church as the more public aspects of our life together.

You all know this, really; I’m not telling you anything you haven’t observed for yourselves. If you’ve been in the church for more than five minutes you know something of what it’s like when someone in power tries to use that power for their own ends; or when someone’s weakness turns a meeting agenda on its head; or when we discover that what I think my job is, and what someone else thinks my job is, are two very different things indeed; and so forth. They’re all boundary issues of one sort or another.

So what can we do, to work on building our own healthy boundaries, and avoid making mistakes which are akin to Herod’s, in kind if not in scale? Every personality is different, and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer; but whether we find it in spiritual direction, or in meditation, or in prayer, or solitude, or therapy, we all need those times free from distraction in order to be clear about who we are.

And that is, at the end of the day, the core issue underlying so many boundary problems. If Herod had been clear about who he was – who he was as king, who he was in his family relationships, who he was as a Jew – clear about his own power and responsibilities, and clear about his own personal vulnerabilities and expectations, he could have avoided not only this debacle but also his later death in exile. Instead what we see is a weak man, fuddled in his relationships and easily manipulated by others.

In the same way, if we are clear about who we are – who we are as Christians, who we are in our personal relationships, who we are in our professional lives – we can be clear about our power and our responsibilities, be honest about our needs and seek to meet them appropriately, and be realistic in our expectations of one another. And we won’t find ourselves bound helplessly in the “winding magic, wherein heaven and hell were joined to lull men’s souls…in some fair trance” with which O’Shaughnessy so aptly described Herod’s dysregulated inner life.

Let us pray:

God of life,
bless this place, and all who gather here;
bless our giving and receiving,
bless our words and conversation,
bless our strengths and weaknesses,
bless our sowing and our growing,
bless our coming and our going,
Amen.

*These lines are taken from Arthur O’Shaugnessy’s poem, Salome, the full text of which can be found here.

Looking to the future

“Once Honi was travelling on the road, and he noticed a man planting a carob-tree. He asked him how many years it would take before the tree would bear fruit, and the man answered: “Seventy years.” Honi then asked: “Art thou, then, sure that thou wilt live seventy years?” And the man replied: “I found carob-trees in existence when I came into the world, consequently my ancestors must have planted them. Why should I not also plant them for my children?” “

This story comes from the Babylonian Talmud, a compilation of Jewish Rabbinical scholarship (tractate Ta’anit, for the curious).  I found it when I was looking up prayers of blessing when planting trees (I was giving a tree as a house warming gift), but it made me pause for another reason.

You see, I anticipate moving house soon.  And although, in the ten years or so that we’ve lived in our current home, I’ve been happily doing what I can in the garden, knowing that it might only be the people who came after us who saw the full benefit, as soon as we had a definite horizon for moving out, something in my mindset switched.  I pondered only planting things in pots, that I could take with me when I moved.  I wondered whether it was worth maintaining what we had for the next few months, or whether I might as well neglect it, since I could not even be sure whether the person coming after me would want or care about a garden (or indeed, whether the people who bought our house might want to knock it down and start from scratch).  I was more interested in investing in the new place, which I would enjoy, than continuing to invest in the current one, which I was leaving.

So when I read this story, something in it niggled at my conscience.  What is the spiritual significance of my garden, and the legacy I leave here?  What does it mean to work for a fruitful future, even on my humble plot of land (and truth be told, I’m a very mediocre gardener)?

I’m not sure I have answers.  Part of thinking about that is second-guessing who might come after me.  Will it be someone who wants fruit trees, a vegetable garden, herb beds, fruiting vines over fences (everything I’ve fantasised about and only partly achieved)?  Or someone who wants something as low-maintenance as possible?  Or someone who wants to keep everything full of natives and encourage native bird and insect life?  All of these have worthwhile dimensions, so which one should I work with as a vision?

But even though I might only be here another three months, I’d rather wrestle with those questions, and do what I can, than write this garden off as no longer worth my attention.  In time there will be a new garden to shape, but for today, I give thanks for the person who planted the plum tree which now gives me a rich harvest, and ponder what blessing I might leave for those who come after me.

Of course, the metaphor extends beyond gardening.  There are many ways in which we plant for a fruitful future.  But I find this story an encouragement; I don’t need to see the fruit of my planting, or even know for certain that it will be enjoyed, to participate in the human chain of planting and blessing and openness to a fruitful legacy not entirely within my control.  There’s something of hope and trust and joy in that.  And that sits better than indifference to all but my own “success.”