Spherical sheep in a vacuum

There’s this farmer, and he has these chickens, but they won’t lay any eggs.  So, he calls  a physicist to help.  The physicist then does some calculations, and he says, “I have a solution, but it only works for spherical chickens in a vacuum.”

I heard this joke on the The Big Bang Theory, and I got it.  After all, isn’t the other truism about science that if it moves, it’s biology, if it smells, it’s chemistry, and if it doesn’t work, it’s physics?

But it also gave me pause for thought.  The idea behind the joke is that theoretically, science can solve any such practical problem.  But in practice, random variations in the conditions of the subject (the chickens), or the surrounds, often confound attempts at perfect solutions.  Applying the formulae only to spherical chickens in a vacuum removes those random variations and makes everything neat, tidy and easily solved.

And I wonder how often, in the church, we do something similar?  We believe that theoretically, our faith can solve any seemingly intractable problem in human life.  But in practice, human life is even messier than the farmer’s chickens, and we seem to live in conditions more closely resembling a jungle than a farm.  Our attempts to get everything neat, tidy, and easily solved are often frustrated as human complexity outruns our ability to reduce it to simple formulae.

Where we then get it wrong, it seems to me, is that instead of acknowledging our own limitations in humility, and waiting with patience, trust and hope for the outworking of the Holy Spirit in the lives of our brothers and sisters, we turn around and blame them, and indeed ourselves, for our failure to meet those ideal conditions.  We castigate men and women struggling with issues and situations bigger than they are, call them sinful and even call their salvation into question.  This abusive behaviour has driven many a son and daughter of God from the church and even into despair, and it hardly reflects the gentleness, love and mercy of God.

It seems to me that we need to say, like Job after the revelation of God’s awesomeness, “See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you?  I lay my hand on my mouth.  I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but will proceed no further.”  Some things are too great, too complex, and too wonderful for us, and to attempt to reduce our brothers and sisters to the spiritual equivalent of spherical sheep in a vacuum seems the most arrogant refusal to recognise this.


By whose authority?

It was raised in discussion with me recently, that one of the reasons someone else felt it was improper for me (as a woman) to preach is that I was thus claiming authority over the men in the congregation.

Authority is a slippery concept; it carries different nuances in different contexts.  The verse under discussion here is 1 Timothy 2:12, (“I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man”), and the underlying Greek translated “authority” is not the usual exousia but the unusual term authenteo, which occurs nowhere else in the New Testament.  However, from other use contemporary with the writing of the Scriptures we know that this verb had the sense of “give orders to, dictate to.”  In effect, what Paul was saying was “I don’t let a woman tell a man what to do.”  (I should rather hope not; I’d also rather hope he didn’t let a man tell a woman what to do, but that’s perhaps a side issue here…)  The point here is, Paul is not forbidding the normal, healthy, rightful exercise of authority, but something which transgressed that.  So I rather feel that this verse does not address the question of the normal activity of preaching, although it may indicate something of what that preaching should not be.

But beyond that, I think it’s worth asking whose authority is expressed in the act of preaching?  Of course one would hope that the preacher has prepared a sermon thoughtfully, prayerfully, and with appropriate use of Scripture; and that the congregation listens thoughtfully, prayerfully and with a spirit open to being led by God.  In that sense, preaching is, both in the giving and receiving of it, an exercise of the authority of God.

Beyond that, though, one can look at the dynamics of authority within the community of the church.  A preacher does not step into the pulpit simply on his or her own initiative.  Processes vary between denominations, but preachers seek the approval and authorisation of others in the church community.  Within my own tradition, preachers hold a licence from the archbishop, granted only after the archbishop has been assured by those responsible for these matters that the candidate’s life and beliefs make them a fit person for the office.  And the archbishop holds that responsibility as an expression of the authority of the church which elected him (or her, in some fortunate places in the world where this has become possible).

So the authority of a preacher in the pulpit is not personal authority.  It is an expression of the authority of the whole church, which has discerned the necessary gifts and calling in this individual to carry out this role for the good of the whole body.  In that sense, it is not the authority of a woman over a group of people, but the authority of the church; and that authority applies equally to all, men and women, to those who listen and those who take up the tasks of teaching, preaching and leading.  As a preacher, I submit myself to that authority, and so I claim no personal authority over the men (or indeed anyone) in the congregation.  The authority over them rests with the church (the people of the Spirit), and with the Lord, and I am only its instrument, to the best of my capacity.


At the moment I’m doing a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, which means that two days a week I work in the pastoral care team of a hospital, and another day I meet with a group of students for shared learning and reflection and so forth.  One of the great blessings of this is that the group of students isn’t confined to Christians, so we have the chance for interfaith dialogue.

Yesterday we were talking together about the human experience of brokenness, and how this leads to feelings of failure and worthlessness and experiences of anxiety and depression.  One of my fellow students is a Zen Buddhist monk, and after we had been talking for a while he told us about the Japanese art of kintsugi, in which a broken piece of pottery is glued back together, and the cracks not hidden, but highlighted with gold so that they become the aesthetic focus for the restored piece.  He said that this artwork reflects the Buddhist belief that beauty comes out of suffering.

Christians and Buddhists don’t understand suffering in the same way, I think, but what he said reminded me of a couple of verses from Paul’s letters:

“For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.  But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”

And “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.  For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.  And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.”

It seems to me that kintsugi is a fitting image for this; the broken person restored in such a way that there is light and glory reflected in our lives, conformed to the image of the precious Son; just like the gold filling in the cracks of a piece of pottery and making it even more beautiful than before.  I shrink back, myself, from imagining that my brokenness might be seen by others; I might be humiliated, ashamed.  But perhaps, if I trust God, I can let him fill the cracks and shed light on them, so that my life could more faithfully glorify Him.  Perhaps reminding myself of the beauty which can come from redeemed brokenness might give me the courage and hope to try.



I am a pacifist.

That is not always an easy position to hold, in this world of pragmatism and pain.  Nor is it always an easy position to hold in the Anglican church, where the history of Established religion in England has made the church a partner in war.  Article 27 of the 39 Articles states that “It is lawful for Christian men (sic)…to bear weapons, and serve in the wars.”

It is lawful.  And that is surely a basic statement of fact; it is indeed lawful.  But I take that statement and sit it alongside one by St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians: “‘All things are lawful’, but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful’, but not all things build up.”  I recently read a quote from Einstein in which he said that World War III might be fought with nuclear weapons, but World War IV would be fought with sticks and stones.

When I consider the question of war, what I see is the deliberate diversion of funds, people and good will away from building up our world, to destroying lives, livelihoods, cultures and civilisations.  I am not convinced by arguments about a “just war” that this is ever, in fact, justified.  Nor am I convinced that Christians ought to be so dedicated to a nationalistic – or indeed an economic – agenda, that they are prepared to compromise on God’s agenda; which we know is one of peace.

But where does that leave us?  Perhaps we need to begin by realising that peace is not simply the absence of conflict, but the presence of justice.  Instead of trying to define a just war, let us try to define a just peace, and to work towards it as a concrete reality.  We will need to begin with the very small and local spheres of influence, but also be willing to enlarge those spheres as opportunities arise.  The world is a small place in this electronic age, and networks of goodwill can span it more easily than ever before.

Aung San Suu Kyi has said that “The spiritual dimension becomes particularly important in a struggle in which deeply held convictions and strength of mind are the chief weapons against armed repression.”  I think St Paul knew something of that, too, when he wrote that “Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

I’ve recently bought this book, Stop the Next War Now: Effective Responses to Violence and Terrorism.  I look forward to making my way through it, and enriching my own understanding of how ordinary citizens can make a difference in a hostile world, and reflecting on this offering in the light of my own faith tradition.  I hope to blog some more about it as I go, and I hope that might be useful for other people whose hearts are burdened with the current sickness of our world.

Having an agenda

It was bound to happen, of course.  Sooner or later, I was going to preach something which made someone really upset with me.  I’ve probably been lucky to have made it so far without being confronted for it.

But recently I was confronted.  I had got it wrong.  I didn’t understand the parish.  I was stirring things up and trying to get a reaction.  I obviously had an agenda.  And so forth.

Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether or not I understand the parish (I rather suspect I understand it better than I was being given credit for, and had hit a nerve!), the idea that having an agenda was a bad thing gave me pause.  Shouldn’t a preacher – and especially a pastor – have an agenda, God’s agenda?  Isn’t that the whole point?

Of course, I think what the person upset with me meant, was that I had my own agenda rather than God’s driving what I had preached.  That I was speaking from my own personal preferences and biases, rather than a genuine attitude of service to the congregation.  That’s a serious accusation, and when I get the chance, I plan to get some outside perspective from people I trust, who know me well and can give me honest feedback, and hold me accountable, if I’ve managed both to get it wrong, and fail to see that fact.   I certainly didn’t go into preaching that day, intending to wield a metaphorical wooden spoon with glee.

However.  The whole conversation left me pondering the question, what is the standard which we could accept as God’s agenda in preaching?  What are we trying to do?  I have my own fairly intuitive sense of that, of course, developed over my experience of preaching in different contexts, my formal studies, and listening to and learning from other preachers.  There’s a teaching component; drawing meaning out of Scripture, making theology accessible, and helping people to make connections between those things and their own lives.  There’s also an element of encouragement; as my homiletics lecturer put it, “For many people, life is tough, and you’ve got to give them something to help them make it through the week.”

I think, importantly, there’s also an element of church discipline.  Preaching in a way which promotes disunity, or which is furthering public disagreement with your colleagues, especially those in authority over you, is unhelpful to anyone.  Preaching which is not in keeping with the formal standards of doctrine of your denomination is, likewise, a disservice to your congregation.  Preaching shouldn’t further the splintering of the church into parties on various issues.  The pulpit is no place for that kind of politics.  There’s a time and place for working that sort of stuff out, but the public worship of the church is not it.

To further my thinking on these things, I decided to look also at the exhortation in the ordination service, to see what that had to say about the work of ministry, and how that might relate to the agenda of preaching.  It is arguable whether the ministry of preaching belongs properly to priests rather than deacons, but in this diocese, deacons (and indeed appropriately licensed lay people) do preach, and since I am closer to being a deacon than a priest, and the experience of being a theological student in a parish is in many ways more diaconal than priestly, I chose the exhortation from the ordination to the diaconate, rather than the priesthood.  It reads thus:

“Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ lived and died as the servant of God.
All who follow him are called to serve God in the world, setting forth Christ’s kingdom through the power of the Spirit.

Christ has called you to the office of deacon.
You are to be an ambassador of Christ, serving God as you serve others in Jesus’ name.
Proclaim the good news of God’s love, so that many may be moved to faith and repentance, and hearts be opened to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly in the presence of God.
Let the transforming love of Jesus be known to all among whom you live and work.
Strengthen the faithful, teach the young, search out the careless and the indifferent.
Encourage the members of Christ’s body by word and example, ministering among the sick, the needy and all who are oppressed or in trouble.

Together with your bishop, priest and people, you are to take your place in public worship, assist in the administration of the sacraments, and play your part in the life and councils of the Church.
You are to preach the word of God in the place to which you are licensed,
and to pray and work for peace and justice in the world.

As a deacon, you are to model your life according to the word of God.
Study the Scriptures, reflecting with God’s people upon their meaning,
that all may be equipped to live out God’s truth in the world.
Put away all that does not make for holiness of life.
Be faithful in prayer, that you may have strength to run the race that is set before you.”

The ordination service goes on from there to ask solemn questions of those to be ordained, but the bit I’ve quoted is what is relevant to the question I had in mind.  It sets forth quite clearly a number of things which seem to me applicable to the question of an agenda in preaching.  Preaching which took this exhortation seriously would

– set forth Christ’s kingdom
– proclaim the good news of God’s love
– teach, equip and encourage the faithful.

Those things are not a bad benchmark for an agenda.  I hope I never preach in a way which furthers my own particular bugbears above these.

But what do you think?  Is this a good standard for preaching?  Should there be another?  Have I missed something glaringly obvious?  Do comment and discuss with me!