Gird up your loins

How do we build more resilient communities, groups of people able to respond well under stress or when facing change (and isn’t that all of us, at some point)?

Looking for some reading on that, I found an article by a couple of community leaders who work to build community services and strength in Jerusalem, particularly in areas where ongoing conflicts cause significant trauma.*

They identify “Six Cs” of community resilience:

  1. Communication (flow of information about events, services, resources, social context etc)
  2. Cooperation (taking responsibility at a local level for the community, drawing out the potential of all members to contribute, and building an ability to rely on ourselves rather than waiting for outside help)
  3. Cohesion (mutual support, especially for the weaker members of the community)
  4. Coping (the ability to take action, including efficient organisation)
  5. Credibility (leadership which comes from within the community and truly represents its uniqueness and aspirations)
  6. Credo (the vision of a community of a better future, a horizon of hope).

While the authors acknowledged that none of these can be perfected overnight, they emphasized that long term planning in these areas could make a significant difference to a community’s resilience, and thus, its ability to function well, achieve its goals and nurture its members.

It would be a rare church community which would have no room for improvement in any of these areas.  Perhaps they might be a useful starting point for reflection and conversation?

* “Community resilience: Lessons derived from Gilo under fire,” by Dr. Michael Ganor and Yuli Ben-Lavy, in the Journal of Jewish Communal Service, Winter/Spring 2003, p105.

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Healthy motivations

This is a sermon for the fourth Sunday after Epiphany, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Luke 4:21-30.

It’s clothes shopping that does it for me.  After an hour or so of wandering around the shops, trying things on, and finding that most of them were clearly designed for someone significantly slimmer and more gorgeous than I am, I can begin to feel the rage building.  I need to buy new bathers sometime soon, and I think I had better carry some sort of warning sign when I do!

It’s a very human thing, isn’t it?  To be angry when we feel inadequate?

I wonder if that explains the way that the congregation in the synagogue responded to Jesus in our reading this morning.  Here he is, local boy made good, back from his work in other areas, and what does he tell them?  Basically, that they’re not as good as the people and places he’s been visiting.  That they don’t deserve to see a miracle.

But why did Jesus respond to them in this way, and why did he get cranky with them?  I can’t be absolutely certain, but I suspect that he wanted to be more than a spectacle.  He didn’t want people he had known his whole life to turn what he was doing into a matter of entertainment or shock value; he wanted them to take his message seriously.  And he was concerned that they weren’t prepared to do that, because after all, hadn’t they known him since he was an adorable toddler?

We know from other parts of the gospel that Jesus was tempted by the ascent to power, the need to appear successful and shortcuts to achieving his kingdom.  But Jesus refused to let those things ultimately determine his behaviour.  He intentionally rejected an identity built on being “relevant” and celebrated.  Instead, he embraced the purpose for which he came, and staked his ministry on being God’s beloved son, whether or not anyone responded.

It highlights that for me, one of the great challenges in life is to manage to see ourselves as we are; neither thinking too little nor too much of ourselves.  But since so much of our emotion is entangled in our sense of self worth, this is extraordinarily difficult.

Every week in our worship we say that “Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.” This threefold pattern describes how true transformation is found on the far side of relinquishment and letting go.  Christ’s pattern of letting go should be our own approach for life.

But we often refuse to let go, and remain blind to our attachments.  We fail to see how the things we want to achieve – or the things we have achieved – can become most important to us, taking the bulk of our time, money and emotional energy.  We ignore how fixed our sense of identity has become, and how it shows up in our possessiveness, control, or drive for comfort or recognition.  We avoid any relinquishment which we possibly can.  We resist looking into the core of our identities, securities and addictions – and we all have them – and saying, “For the love of Jesus I will let it go.”

And yet, it is only through letting go of that controlling streak that we can really trust God.  It’s only when we let go of the recognition of the world, that we can be recognised as God’s beloved children.  Ultimately, detachment from secondary things is only possible if our first attachment is to God.

One of the biggest examples of this that I’ve had the chance to observe was actually watching people come to theological college.  There were people from all walks of life; from an artist’s model and stand up comedian to lawyers, teachers, business people, government policy specialists and even one man who had worked as an intelligence operative for ASIO.

We all struggled to some extent with leaving our former lives behind.  Who were we, when we no longer had the recognition and seniority of our former roles?  One fellow student told me in frustration that he was so sick of feeling like “Bozo the clown,” not knowing what he was doing, and not receiving very much encouragement!

But what was fascinating about this was the way we all tried to manage those emotions.  College could be an astonishingly bitchy place, with battles fought over how we should worship, what we should believe, and what this whole ministry thing was about anyway.  We each took our stand and then fought with everything to hand to defend it.  I wasn’t immune either; I have an embarrassing memory of totally losing my temper one afternoon in the pub after class.  (Can you tell I made the most of that time of learning and growing?)

Most of this sort of thing settles down for each of us as we move out of college and into the busy working life of ministry.  Not just because we have enough to do to keep us out of mischief, but also because as we actually get on and do worthwhile things, that deep anxiety about who I am and whether I have anything worthwhile to offer at all starts to settle.  When we find that our days are full of caring for and listening to people, praying, teaching, administering and all the other bits and pieces, we can see that there’s something tangible and of value there.  And while I’m still full of opinions, I’m much less likely to lose my temper defending them, because there are other things of enduring value (that would be, all of you) to invest my time and attention in.

What I’m getting at, in telling you about that, is that this sort of thing is not unique to theological colleges.  We might have had a particularly intense experience of it, but every parish has its conflicts, its struggle over its own identity, and what we’re supposed to be doing here anyway.  And often those interactions are driven not really by the presenting issues which are on the surface, but by the things we can’t see; people’s sense of failure or weakness or suffering; people’s ideas about success, or need for power or to bolster insecurities; mistakes of the past which shape a parish for decades to come.

It’s worth thinking about – and I leave it with you to think about – what is really driving those emotional reactions, and whether they are ultimately entirely healthy.

Jesus told the congregation in the synagogue that their motivations were not healthy, and they were filled with rage.  Far better for us if we can work on building and maintaining healthy motivations and attachments, putting God first and everything else in perspective, so we can avoid getting to that point of humiliation!

Re-binding

This is a sermon for the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, theologian, given in the chapel of an Anglican convent.

Today the church calls us to remember Thomas Aquinas, the great Dominican theologian.

I have to admit, he’s not one of the saints for whom I have a soft spot.  His theological works frequently made my head hurt, when I had to try to make sense of them in college!  So I came to prepare this reflection with more of a sense of duty than of joy.

But I discovered in the library a small work of his; not his great and heavy Summa, but really a tract, a justification of the religious life, written at a time when his order was under public attack.*

He begins his defence by defining religion as a re-binding of the creature to its creator.  After all, he says, we all of us began our existence in the mind of God, before creation meant we were brought forth, and given to have a measure of existence in our own essence.

Religion, then, or re-binding of us to the source from which we came, allows us to be most truly and deeply ourselves, and most true to the purposes for which we are created.

And on that basis, Thomas went on to build a typically subtle argument for the existence of religious orders as the instruments by which such re-binding might be fostered.  “For perfection of religious life,” he wrote, “depends more upon interior justice, than upon external abstinence.”

It seemed to me that this gave us a helpful yardstick for evaluating the things which we do, and their place in our own practice.  Do they re-bind us to God?  Do they re-bind others to God?  Or have they become something else, something which needs careful attention and re-shaping?

Those are questions which might also make our heads hurt, but I hope that if they do, they will help us to be as fruitful in the life of the church as Thomas asserted that we could be.

*I read this work in the English translation titled “An Apology for the Religious Orders: Being a Translation From the Latin of Two of the Minor Works of the Saint.”

St. Agnes’ Day

This is a sermon for the feast of St. Agnes of Rome, martyr, given in “the church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Matthew 18:1-5.

“Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

It’s a sober statement, even an intimidating one.  Many of the things we associate with being “childish” we view negatively; children are immature, impulsive, self-centred.  Why would I want to be like that?  What is Jesus really asking of us here?

And yet, in the last couple of years I’ve come to appreciate this saying in a new way.  In my last parish, I was responsible for children’s ministry.  And that forced me to learn about how to teach children to pray, beyond expecting them to close their eyes, sit still and talk to God (an approach which doesn’t come naturally to most children)!

I learned so much from doing that work.  My own personal prayer life has been enormously enriched from the work I did on “praying in color” – I’m happy to lend out the book on that one, and it’s well worth experimenting with – or using icons or pictures and music and even other sensory stimuli like incense or fidget toys to enrich and deepen the range of what we can consider “prayer.”

So one of the things that I now identify with being “like a child” is openness, willingness to try new things and to experiment, eagerness for learning and new experiences, rather than being so set in my ways that I will only do what I have done before.  And that makes sense in the context of Jesus’ saying, because the fullness of the kingdom of heaven is in some sense always beyond us, always more than we can grasp right now; so if we refuse to keep moving and insist on staying the same, it follows logically that we will indeed never enter it.

And Jesus’ call for humility makes sense in this context too.  It’s arrogant to assume I already have all the answers, but there’s a humility about openness to new things; the natural humility of a child exploring the world for the first time.

Humility is almost as hard a sell as being childlike.  Even in the church, I’ve found that people scramble to make sure that those around them realise how important, hard working and valuable they are (and just quietly, college was the very worst place for that.  I think we all felt we had something to prove)!

It’s a normal and healthy human longing to want to be appreciated, valued and recognised for our potential.  And a healthy humility doesn’t mean thinking demeaning and low thoughts about ourselves, denying the truth of our achievements or gifts.  But a healthy humility understands that we can’t put that at the centre of our lives.  Humility doesn’t say, “I’m not good at [whatever it is that you’re good at].” It says, “Yes, I’m good at that, but that’s not what’s most important.”

And this is the key, I think.  Humility stems from having someone other than yourself as the centre of your attention.  And this is where our reading brings us back around to connect in with the story of Agnes of Rome.

Because while we can’t know what was going through Agnes’s mind as she made the sign of the cross in the temple of Minerva, (where she had been taken so that soldiers could try to force her to offer Pagan sacrifices), one thing is clear; she felt that there was something more important than her own life, her own well-being, at stake.  That’s a kind of humility.

Most of us – I daresay none of us – are ever going to face circumstances quite as stark as Agnes’.  But we have the same challenge in front of us, in our own circumstances; do we consider that there is something more important than our own lives, our own well being, at stake?  And are we prepared to commit ourselves to it?

Brother Lawrence, a man who knew a great deal about humility, as he worked most of his life as a kitchen hand in a monastery, wrote about it this way:  “Pray remember what I have recommended to you, which is, to think often of God, by day, by night, in your business, and even in your diversions.  He is always near you and with you; leave Him not alone.  You would think it rude to leave a friend alone who came to visit you: why then must God be neglected?  Do not then forget Him, but think of Him often, adore Him continually, live and die with Him; this is the glorious employment of a Christian; if we do not know it we must learn it.”*

I think Agnes knew it.  I think we can know it too, but we often tend to forget; without the discipline of Lawrence’s monastery around us, we get distracted by cares and concerns and all the background noise of our society.  So maybe today is a good day to remember to think often of God, to become that little bit more childlike, that little bit more humble and open, and in that way, to let Agnes be an example for us in the life of faith.

*This quote is taken from The Practice of the Presence of God.

Responsible listening

This is a sermon for the second Sunday after Epiphany, given in both the  “church up the road” and “the church next door.”  The Scripture it references is John 2:1-11.

This is a fun gospel reading, isn’t it?  Jesus’ best party trick.  Water turned into wine, a good time had by all, and no overtones of plotting or angst.  Isn’t this the Jesus we’d all like to have around to dinner?

What struck me when I read it, though, is that the passage very carefully doesn’t quite tell us how it happened.  Look at how events play out.  The hosts run out of wine.  Mary approaches Jesus about this expecting, what?  We’re not quite sure.  Jesus seems to brush her off, but Mary still tells the servants to “Do whatever he tells you.”  And Jesus gives the servants instructions about jars and water, which they follow.  Then the chief steward tasted “the water that had become wine.”  And the rest, as they say, is history.

But I find it fascinating that Jesus didn’t command the water to become wine.  He didn’t breathe on it or wave his hands over it.  The text doesn’t even say that he changed the water into wine in any way; it just notes that the water “had become” wine.

That’s very intentional, specific use of language.

And while there are a number of different ways of looking at this, I think one of them is that Jesus didn’t do this on his own.  He saw what needed to be done, and provided direction to those around him; and in that collaborative effort, a remarkable transformation was able to take place.

I think that’s worth thinking about, in our own context.  Sometimes we are so stuck in our problems, or we have so much given up hope that we can make things better, that if we imagine our situation changing at all, we fantasise about someone breaking in from outside and somehow, magically, solving our problems, while we look on in astonishment.

I wonder if the servants at the wedding grumbled when Jesus asked them to fill the jars with water?  I wonder if they thought it was a waste of time and effort; after all, it was hardly going to fix the wine shortage, was it?  I wonder if they felt the request was an unreasonable imposition on a night when they no doubt already had more than enough work to do?

What I’m getting at is that for the most part, in the life of faith, signs – experiences where God touches our lives – don’t happen without our cooperating in some way.  Without our obedience.

What we have here is a pattern for the transformation of our difficulties; bringing those difficulties to God, and then being prepared to do whatever he tells us.  And then responding with praise when our difficulties are transformed, often in profoundly unexpected ways.

It’s timely, I think, for us to ponder these things now.  As our two parishes seek to work together in partnership, as we try to work out how this is going to work, and as we are anxious about protecting what is precious in each place as well as nurturing the potential for new things, there will be many difficulties.  We are aware of some of them already, and no doubt more remain to be discovered.

And while of course we should, in seeking to work with those difficulties, look at best practice in other churches, and research that has been done, and theological scholarship, and outside expertise, and all of those good things; the action which should be our starting point is taking those difficulties to God, and seeking to discern what God is telling us to do.  And then all of the best practice examples and research and so forth can inform our strategy for doing whatever he tells us.

This is all about obedience.

And that’s a hard word for us, I suspect.  It’s rarely understood in a healthy way.  To most people it means surrendering all responsibility for our actions and behaviour; and either we see it as something which no one in their right mind should do, or we embrace something like a cult mentality, believing that giving up all responsibility is the only way to please God.

And – as a result of that – our relationships which have any dimension of authority in them start to break down.  Because we rightly fear giving up all personal responsibility, we have an aversion to working with authority, knowing that obedience is integral to those relationships.

But the word “obedience” comes from a root which means “to listen well.”  As Christians, we believe that God calls each one of us into being and wills us to live and work in a community of love.  As human beings, we are made by God to be capable of growing into our full potential only in communion with others.  And we must listen well to one another to be able to do that in creative rather than destructive ways.

So rather than seeing obedience as loss of self to another, perhaps a better working definition might be something like “responsible listening.”  I have read one author suggest that true Christian obedience is always a dialogue, and that’s what we saw in our reading today; a give and take in which both human beings and God listened and responded appropriately to the other.  As responsible adults, partners with God in his work in the world, we should realise that obedience is not a power struggle but a dialogue in which we can better understand God’s will and our own capacity to embody it.

Perhaps this is the time to tell you something of my own obedience in this process.

When the vicar first asked me – almost a year ago – to consider taking on this role, my answer was a flat “No, sorry, I’m not interested.”  I knew what I wanted in my next job, and this wasn’t it!

And then there was, for me, a long process of praying about the question of a new job (because one thing was clear, it was time to move on from my old one!); and seeking God’s will about where I should go next.  And finding that the sort of job I thought I wanted seemed to just not be available, for all sorts of reasons.  And that gave me time to think about what working here would be like, and what I could learn from it, and what knowledge and skills I had accumulated that would be useful here.  And the more I did that, and talked with other wise people who knew me or the parishes concerned well, the more I became convinced that actually, perhaps this was where I was meant to be.  So that now, a few months in, I can feel settled and happily comfortable that this is right, for the time being, and already I hope that at least some of you are also feeling that it’s right that I came.

It’s a process; a process of questioning and listening and being willing to try things out, even if we’re confronted with something that’s not what we thought we wanted.  I find it interesting that in the reading, even Jesus initially seems to be reluctant to act.  And yet he is open to listening and responding!

So maybe it’s not quite such a fun, feel-good, party Jesus reading after all.  Maybe there are things here which will prompt all of us to ask the hard questions about what God might want each of us to do in the new shared community which we are creating.  But I hope that for each of you, like me, you might find that if you do that, the answers turn out to be much better than you expected.

The voice of the Lord

This is a sermon for the baptism of our Lord, given in the  “church up the road.”  The Scriptures it references are Luke 3:15-22 and Psalm 29:5.

I wonder, have you ever felt that you heard the voice of God?

Today’s readings give us echoes of what that voice has been like for other people.  In the gospel, we heard of the “voice from heaven” telling Jesus that his father was truly pleased with him.  That’s something we all might well yearn to hear.

But the psalm hints at a different sort of experience, when it tells us that the voice of the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.  And while it’s uncomfortable to think about being broken by the voice of the God who’s supposed to love us, it’s also true that many people of faith have found that in being confronted with their own weakness, their own foolishness, dare I say their own sin, they have had an experience of a kind of brokenness.  Not one from which it is impossible to heal or grow – indeed I think that’s the point – but brokenness nonetheless.

Either way – whether in affirmation or correction – both of these kinds of encounters with the voice of God have something to do with the question of who we are.  Who we are as individuals, and who we are in relationship with our creator.  And this is where it is helpful for us to reflect on the experience of baptism.

Because 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 in worship, 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 high ethical standards were expected of those preparing for baptism.  For example, soldiers in the Roman army were expected to resign and leave their way of life before being considered ready to be Christian.

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.

With this in mind, I’d like to draw your attention to the attached Eastern Orthodox icon of the baptism of Jesus.  Most of it will be a familiar scene; there’s John the Baptist on the on the left, crowds on the right.  Above Jesus’ head we see the Spirit of God descending like a dove.  But what I particularly want to draw to your attention is the little figure in the river by Jesus’ feet.  In the water, holding a trident, is a representation of the Greek pagan river god.  What’s he doing there, in a Christian icon?

This image of the Pagan god is often used to show that Jesus is descending into chaos, into death, disorder and a place not regulated by God.  But then he ascends 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.  Living out our baptism means being confronted with the chaos, the ugliness, 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.  St. Augustine put it as crudely as to say that Christ was born between feces and urine; but we forget that, and try to hold Christ at a distance from the grotty bits of our lives.  We 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 tells us that the baptized person is aware of chaos, of the impossibility of being perfect by sheer good will and hard thinking.  It means 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 out 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 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 calls our habitual ways of life into radical question.

Another part of what it means to live out our baptism is that although baptism gives me identity, it isn’t the sort of identity which sets me apart from others.  As well as my own inner darkness, I may expect my baptismal calling to take me into the neighbourhood of other kinds of chaos. The chaos of other people’s lives, the chaos of suffering, the chaos of doubt, the chaos of a real world in which people are ground down and oppressed and denied by others who don’t understand what it is to face their darkness.

Baptism means that my identity is the identity of the Christ who was not afraid to identify with any and every human circumstance and share absolute solidarity with our fellow human beings.  We are called not to be apart from the struggles of the world, but to be involved.

So if we want to take our baptism as foundational to our identity – and I hope that we do – we need both aspects of the voice of God.  The part which affirms and praises us when we do well, and the part which has the power and clarity to cut through and break down everything in us which stands in the way of who God would have us be.

I wonder, if we were to truly stop and listen to God today, which aspect of the voice we would most need to hear?

Let us pray:

Lord, take my heart and break it: break it not in the way I would like, but in the way you know to be best.  And because it is you who break it, I will not be afraid, for in your hands all is safe, and I am safe.
Lord, take my heart and give to it your joy, not in the ways I like, but in the ways you know are best, that your joy may be fulfilled in me.  So, dear Lord, I am ready to be your beloved child.

Amen.

baptism of the Lord icon

 

 

 

 

Rich Variety

This is a sermon for the epiphany of our Lord, given in the  “church up the road.”  The Scriptures it references are Ephesians 3:1-12 and Luke 7:31-35.

Regular readers of my blog will realise that as both this week’s and last week’s sermons were on the topic of wisdom, and as they were given in two different churches, I have re-used some of the material from last week’s sermon in this one.  However, the main point is quite different!

“Wise men from the east” came to show their respect and reverence for the child Jesus.

Wisdom’s a funny thing.  We tend to think of it as being a bit slippery; a bit difficult to pin down.  A little bit mystical, maybe, or the preserve of people who are able to spend decades amongst musty books.  (Just think of that great icon of wisdom in popular culture; I refer, of course, to Master Yoda).

This was the sort of wise men who came to visit Jesus.  The word used to describe them, magos, referred to priests of a pagan Persian religion; educated in science, agriculture, maths, history, astronomy (which at that time was more what today we would call astrology), and the occult.  They were also widely noted for their honesty and integrity.  These men were powerful and influential within their own culture, and respected in the surrounding areas.

And I suspect that for most ordinary people, they kind of feel that wisdom is for people like these; that is, for other people.  As long as there are great sages on mountaintops or mystics in monasteries, you and I don’t need to worry too much about acquiring wisdom.

But the problem with this, for us, is that the Bible makes a big deal about wisdom as being an important part of the life of faith, and so the idea that we can kind of hand over responsibility for wisdom to other people – even if those people are our leaders and teachers – is very risky.  After all, we all have our weaknesses!

But it’s also the case that wisdom – in Biblical terms – is not the same thing as mysticism or esoteric scholarship.  Put very simply, what the Biblical writings mean by “wisdom” is basically the ability to work out what God wants us to do, and to do it.  And while that’s not always as straightforward as we would like, it’s also not beyond the reach of even the most ordinary people.

It is, however, a bit topic; too big for one sermon.  So today I want to focus on just one aspect of wisdom, and what it means for us.

And I want to pick up on what Paul said in our reading from Ephesians, where he described the wisdom of God as having “rich variety.”  I take this to mean that, if wisdom is doing what God wants us to do, and there is “rich variety” of wisdom, this means that God doesn’t want us to be all the same.  I am me, and each of you is an individual person, and we are created to be different in our relationships with God.

I think Jesus brought this out very clearly when he reflected on the reaction that people had to the fact that he and John the Baptist did things differently, as if this meant that somehow one or the other (or perhaps both!) of them had to be wrong.  But instead Jesus answered that wisdom is vindicated by all her children.  It was okay for John the Baptist and Jesus to be different, because each was contributing to the kingdom of God in his own way.

And Paul says the same thing, when he says that through the church, the wisdom of God in its rich variety might be made known.  This works on a number of levels.  It means first that I can allow others to be different.  It doesn’t make me wrong, it doesn’t make someone else wrong, if in genuine good conscience and sincere attempts to please God we end up doing different things.  It means that the wisdom of God in its rich variety is being made known.

It also works on the level of team ministry.  The great thing for me about working with the vicar here is that we are quite different people, with different gifts, passions, personalities and experiences.  We approach things differently, we prioritise things differently; and we preach differently!  And this is good for both of us, because instead of needing to be equally good at everything we can share the load and support one another.  And it’s also good for you, because you can get the benefit of those differences; so that there’s more likely to be something for everyone in how we work together as a team.

As one example of how this works, in my last parish I found myself doing a lot of pastoral care to women around pregnancy and childbirth; the vicar there was a man who had never had children and probably didn’t want to hear about all the gory details, but it was helpful to those women to have someone they could talk with about those things.  On the other hand, there were in that parish quite a number of doctoral students who really benefitted from the vicar’s support of and care for them, something I could never have offered them in the same way.

This is also important on a slightly bigger scale.  This is the great gift of our partnership between these two neighbouring parishes; they are, historically, very different parishes with quite different traditions.  They have offered worship in different styles and engagement with different aspects of Christian spirituality.  And this is a good thing!  As we seek to reach out to the broader community around us, the more we are able to offer the fullest possible range of the rich variety of the Anglican church, the more likely it is that different people are going to find something on offer appealing.

And, on an even bigger scale again, this is important ecumenically.  The full breadth of the Church – from the Copts and the Orthodox on one extreme to the Salvation Army and the Society of Friends (Quakers) on the other; each contributes something to the rich variety of the wisdom of God.  I might not want to be a Copt or a Quaker, I might even have areas in which I am critical of them, but if I think I have nothing to learn from their differences, I am limiting the wisdom of God.  And that’s a very dangerous thing to do.

Recently I’ve been doing some reading on the close link between our worship and our lives.  And the author I was reading posed some sharp questions.  What does our worship do in us?  If we find ourselves in communities of worship week after week, has it made a difference in our lives?  Has it changed us?  Has it made us see the world differently?  Has all our worship had any lasting transformative effect, or does worship comfort us in ways that are misleading?  Have we made worship safe and, therefore, empty?

The author I was reading was not, at that point, explicitly considering the question of diversity in the Christian life, but it seems to me that making room for expressing that diversity is one way to work towards ensuring that our worship is all that it should be.

So what do we do with that?  We celebrate diversity in the Christian life.  We give one another permission and encouragement to be each who God has created, gifted and called us to be, even when that’s very different for some of us than for others.  We look to actively include diversity in our various ministries, and we work to preserve and learn from the distinctive insights, traditions and practices which have come down to us from generations past.  That’s how we are going to get the most benefit from the rich variety of the wisdom of God, and be most well equipped to make it known to the world around us, inviting them, like the wise men of long ago, to meet with Jesus with respect and reverence.