The problem of change

This is the text of a sermon for third Sunday after Epiphany, in the parish where I am now licensed. The Scripture it references is Jonah 3:1-5, 10.

How are you going, my brothers and sisters, with your New Year’s resolutions? We’re nearly at the end of January, so there’s been time, I would think, to establish new habits of behavior, and to be comfortably settled with your commitments as just part of the new normal.

Or is it just possible that in fact, New Year’s resolutions have been all but left behind? Bent a little at first – “just once,“ of course – and then gradually relinquished as you realized that the demand for change was too high, unrealistic and unsustainable in the face of everything else going on in life?

If your reality is closer to the latter, please, hear no judgement from me. As it happens, I didn’t make any New Year’s resolutions, in part because I know that dynamic all too well!

Change is hard. It is costly. All too often – to turn the advertising slogan around – even when it does happen, it doesn’t happen overnight. Which presents us with something of a problem; because we are committed to a faith which is all about change. The kingdom of God is amongst us, and as it grows, nothing it touches is supposed to ever be the same again. Whenever we encounter God, changed hearts, changed lives and changed community are supposed to be the result.

How are we, limited humans who struggle with change, even positive and necessary change, able to engage with God’s imperative for change in ways which are going to last, to become part of us, to become our new normal?

Perhaps we can find some insight in the story of Jonah. In the snippet of it that we heard this morning, Jonah hears the word of the Lord – a second time, this is after the episode with the big fish – and sets out and goes to Nineveh, where he cries out that in forty days, the city will be overturned. The people of the city believe, and fast in sackcloth. The city is indeed overturned; not by God’s wrath, but by changed hearts and the abandoning of evil and violence.

This is, we know, not an easy thing for Jonah. He goes off to have a mighty sulk, even asking to die, apparently finding death less objectionable than having to change his attitude towards Nineveh! It is not an easy thing for the people of Nineveh either; fasting, formal shows of repentance, and – most importantly – changed behaviours would have made demands on their strength, their resilience and their egos. And – ultimately – we know it didn’t last. They weren’t destroyed in the time of Jonah, but some time later, their time was up, and in this theological reading of history, God’s patient concern for them was overtaken by his demand for justice for the victims of their cruelty (and they were a cruel people).

It strikes me that in both of these cases – Jonah, and the Ninevites – they don’t engage in the new, desired behavior because it comes from within them, from who they are. Jonah hasn’t been given much alternative! And while the Ninevites initially respond positively to his message, it’s a shallow change, one which dissipates only slightly more slowly than the threat extended over them.

Perhaps this is like our New Year’s resolutions? Things we decide to do because we know we “should,” to fit our society’s, or our family’s, or even our own ideas of what a “good” person should be; but not because the desire to be those things is burning within our hearts; not because we cannot stand to be anything else a moment longer; not because failure in these resolutions would be an unbearable lack of integrity with who we are, fundamentally, in our heart of hearts.

And what of the gap between our ideals, as a Christian community, and our reality? What about all of the times we fail in hospitality, in generosity, in kindness, in patience – all of those things? Is it possible that the gap is because we know, intellectually, that we “should” get those things right; but that knowledge hasn’t taken root so deeply in our hearts that it has moved us to genuine change?

Note: just because, this morning, I am addressing the question of change, and this means that I need to talk about the fact that there are always areas where we do need to change, I don’t want to be heard as saying that we don’t do anything right, either. We do a good many things very well. But while it is good to recognize that, it is not good to let ourselves stop there, and fail to address the rest of it.

There is a song by the Christian musician Matt Redman called “The heart of worship.” The church which produced this song was well known for its proud music tradition. It had produced many worship songs which had become popular around the world. Its musical production on any given Sunday had everything you could want in terms of band and sound system and all the rest of it. But their pastor felt that they had lost their way, lost their connection with what was most fundamental. So he decided that for a while, they would use none of it. No band. No sound system. No accomplished singers leading. And he challenged his congregation: “When you come through the doors on a Sunday, what are you bringing as your offering to God?” That decision, and that question, were the beginning of a time of renewed and deepened worship and connection with God for the people in that place.

And after this time, one of their musicians wrote this song, which runs: “When the music fades, all is stripped away, and I simply come, longing just to bring something that’s of worth, that will bless your heart. I’ll bring you more than a song; for a song in itself is not what you have desired. You search much deeper within, through the way things appear; you’re looking into my heart. I’m coming back to the heart of worship, and it’s all about you; it’s all about you, Jesus.”

That church’s decision to do without all of the richness of their usual worship style for a while helped them to get beneath the surface and feel the need for change, feel the lack of integrity between what they proclaimed and how they lived, to long for something more faithful and more fruitful.

So here is my challenge: how do we get beneath the surface of our lives? How do we move from intellectual understanding of God’s holy demands on us, and know them burning deep within our hearts? How do we get to the point where we can’t stand still, unchanged, a moment longer? How do we create the change that is so deeply rooted that it becomes our new normal, without any desire to turn the clock back to yesterday?

We don’t want to be modern-day Jonahs, reluctant, sulking, willing to die before we let God’s new reality break in. Nor do we want to be like the Ninevites, changing in the short term but returning to our old patterns as soon as we’re not being pushed. The change that we’re called to is deeper, more real and more lasting. If we can be open to it.

How will we do that?

Special bonus for blog readers, which I couldn’t use in the sermon itself: here is a link to the song, The Heart of Worship.


Where are the women?

Warning: angry rant ahead.  Proceed at your own risk.

I am angry right now.  I just saw the list of names of people to be ordained deacon in my diocese next February.  I have no problem with any of those names, but I have a problem with the list as a whole; of the seventeen people, only four are women.  For the second year in a row, the proportion of women being ordained deacon will be less than a quarter.

It wasn’t always that way.  I can remember within the last ten years, times when the proportions have been about even.  But I have noticed, over the last few years, the proportion of women gradually dropping.  And people are starting to comment, and to ask why; to wonder if fewer women are discerning vocations, or if perhaps it’s a statistical blip.  Or whether there is something else, harder to identify, in play.

I’ve only very recently been through the whole selection-formation-ordination process, and I believe my own experiences have given me some insight into why women might not be coming forward in equal numbers to men.  My experience suggests that:

– When we first begin to discern a vocation to ministry, we are often discouraged from taking on leadership roles and developing our potential in our own parishes, while watching our brothers in Christ receive encouragement and opportunities to do so.

– If we have children, we discover that the formation system can be inflexible around the demands and juggle of parenting, necessitating long periods of deferment rather than continued progress during that time.  (I was forced to cease attending college altogether while pregnant, rather than being able to undertake a negotiated reduced load).

– We encounter resistance from clergy who might employ us in lay roles which would further our preparation and development; as was told to me: “It’s not appropriate for a young woman to do this job.”

– We find that colleges can prioritise their own convenience over working with candidates to enable them to study to their fullest potential: “Just stay home and enjoy your baby.”

– We find that examining chaplains often seem to assume a one-size-fits-all model of ministry, normed on traditional male experience, so that instead of accepting or even celebrating women who are young mothers offering for ministry, we find our care arrangements for our children while we are working criticised as “undermining your ability to set a good example of Christian family life.”  (Whose version of “Christian family life” are we expected to live up to, anyway?  And where is that documented as a diocesan standard to which we may all refer, for transparency and clarity?)

– Further to that last point, we find that our attempts to find our own identity, our own discipline, of life in ministry can be met with bafflement or judgement if they don’t meet other people’s ideas of normal.  Had to adapt your prayer life because quiet meditation doesn’t work while the toddler destroys the house?  Don’t expect your attempts to be creative, flexible and faithful to be well-regarded; instead, you’re more likely to be told that your prayer life is insufficient.

And so on.

This is just a quick sketch of some of my experiences.  It’s not exhaustive.  It doesn’t take into account the particular barriers and biases – conscious and unconscious – which my sisters also face when in this process.  And which I suspect may actually be increasing, given the dropping rate of women ordinands.

That some of us get through anyway is not an indication that all is well.  Some of us are able to find mentors who will encourage us and help us navigate the landscape of the contemporary church.  Some of us find decent men and women in positions of power who will shelter us and provide us with the space to flourish.  Some of us are gifted with more than the average quota of sheer pig-headedness.

But unless you truly believe that God is not calling and gifting men and women equally for service and ministry in the church, the numbers indicate that something is wrong.  And if we recognise that, we need to look at the structural realities in the church which are the institutional expression of that wrongness.

Each and every one of us is part of this system.  We each have the power to encourage or discourage; to create opportunities, to give chances, to be creative and thoughtful, to listen to people and honour the vocations in their hearts as well as the circumstances of their lives.  Those of us who truly honour the vocation of women need to be intentional about this; to work together, to do the hard thinking, the careful planning and the gentle encouraging, and the loud and public speaking which will not let these problems go unrecognised or unaddressed.

I am angry because I had to stare down every one of the barriers I listed above in order to be faithful to the call of God on my life.  I am angry because I believe that there are fine, gifted, called women out there who encounter these barriers and don’t have the resources I was fortunate enough to have, to get past them.  I am angry at the stupid, heartless wastefulness which will let that go by instead of realising that we need every one of us to make a difference in the mission of God for the world.

I will not let it go by.  I will think about it and talk about it and work together with those of like mind to make a difference.  I hope you will, too.

On the cusp

This is the text of a sermon for the commemoration of the Baptism of the Lord, in the parish where I am now licensed. The Scriptures it references are Mark 1:4-11 and Acts 19:1-7.

In Tolkien’s epic work, The Lord of the Rings, Frodo Baggins and his travelling companions encounter a perplexing stranger, Tom Bombadil; he has mysterious powers over nature and the weather, and they don’t quite know what to make of him. After a while, Frodo works up the courage to ask, “Who are you?”

Naturally, he doesn’t get a straight answer. Bombadil replies, “Don’t you know my name yet? That’s the only answer. Tell me, who are you, alone, yourself and nameless?”

Frodo has no answer. And Frodo’s not alone in that. Who am I, alone, myself, and nameless? Who are any of us, once we get beneath the names on our badges, or the labels such as “curate,” “music director,” or “vicar”? Perhaps some of that angst, the desire to create identity, to know and be known, is part of what drives the popularity of Facebook, Twitter, blogging… I might not be sure of who I am, but I’ll tell you all about it!

As Christians who worship together in a liturgical service – by which I mean that the way we worship has been carefully thought through, and created to give us an opportunity for a dynamic encounter with God – all of the elements of our worship, the hymns, the sermon, the creed, communion, all of it, should tell us something about, and help us to become, who we are destined to be in Christ. The liturgy itself is designed in part to offer an answer to the question of identity.

But it is baptism above all which marks us, which gives us Christian identity, and which admits us to the fullness of Christian life and worship. In this day and age, where we encourage people to come to church and hope that the experience will allow them to encounter Christ, we forget that in the persecuted early church the practice was completely different. A person did not join the Christian community, was not present for communion, did not even hear the gospel read, until after being baptized; baptism was the watershed encounter with God which made all of the rest possible. Long periods of formal preparation – up to several years – were the norm, and very high ethical standards were expected of those preparing for baptism.

We’ve come a long way since then, and perhaps we are more confident of God’s grace and more humble about our own potential for perfection. But a look backwards at the early practice of the church can remind us that baptism is not a feel-good event, but a crisis moment which shapes everything that follows.

And this is where we can begin to see the significance of Jesus’ baptism. In a dramatic demonstration of his solidarity with fallen humanity, Jesus descended into the water which symbolises chaos, death, disorder and a place not regulated by God. But then he ascended into life in the Spirit. In the meeting place of chaos and the Spirit, there is the beginning of a new life, identified as the life of God’s beloved child.

This is as true for us as it was for Jesus, and as it was for those in Ephesus who were baptized by Paul. Living in accord with our baptism means being confronted with the chaos, the ugliness – dare I say the sin – in our lives, and facing that honestly. It means welcoming the presence of the Holy Spirit into that mess, and celebrating that presence in our brokenness as the beginning of new life, and the new identity to which God calls us.

The chaos of our lives isn’t resolved by a distant and detached God, one who is too holy and fearful to have anything to do with the darkest corners of our heart. With Christmas just barely behind us, we have still fresh in our minds the incredible intimacy of God’s involvement with us. St. Augustine put it as crudely as to say that Christ was born between feces and urine; but we tend forget that, and try to hold Christ at a distance from the grotty bits of our lives. We are tempted to let our sense of shame at our mess override any ability we might have had to yield to him.

If baptism has anything to do with our identity as Christians, then, it cuts across that shame and tells us that we ought to be suspicious of the kind of distance and control which is about hiding or fearfulness. The person alive to his or her baptism is aware of chaos, of the impossibility of being perfect by sheer goodwill and hard thinking. Aware that I must not pretend that my inner life is tidier than it is, or be afraid of confronting sin and chaos. We live amongst the mess of this life, out of which God calls us and forms us. We live on the cusp, as it were; able to look in joy at what God has done, and in hope to face honestly the forces of darkness, looking for what God will do.

To live according to our baptism, then, is daily self-examination and conversion, daily turning into the darkness which we have not yet understood, away from the comforting emotional and intellectual patterns that we can devise for ourselves and use to keep ourselves “safe;” the social structures which justify our individualism, our selfishness, and our complicity in injustice. This vision of what baptism means is not warm and fuzzy; it doesn’t cuddle up to our culture or make us feel good. Rather, it provides us with a lens which can bring the blots on our own life into sharp enough focus to be addressed.

In choosing baptism, in choosing to identify with human life in all its chaos, messiness, and brokenness, Christ found his identity as the beloved son, with whom the Father is well pleased. Each of us might struggle to give a full and complete answer to Tolkien’s question – who are you, alone, yourself, and nameless? – but looking to Christ’s example, we begin to have a sense of what it might mean to answer, I am baptized.