Thursday, 29 November 2012

Prayers and the heart

"Better your heart be without words than your words without heart." wrote John Bunyan the author of "A Pilgrim's Progress". They are wise words and a reminder for those who prefer using a more formal way of praying that the words that have been used and re-used over the centuries are only effective if they are re-prayed from the heart. They have to be owned by their new owners if they are to have meaning and power. They are not magic formulae which merely have to be repeated or recited to produce the desired effect. So care must be taken when using these ancient prayers that every word, thought and idea is one you wish to fully identify with as you speak and pray them again.
I believe that the same can be said of the Scriptures. In my previous blog I referred to the occasion when I was called to the bedside of a comatose elderly lady in the last stages of dementia. Dementia patients, particularly in the latter stages of that distressing disease, lose their short term memory and understanding relying on pictures, images and memories from the distant past to sustain then. Which was why, when I was called to her bedside, I felt so helpless, not knowing what to say. On top of that I did not know the lady and had never met her before. So I leant heavily on some time-honoured prayers and well known scriptures to help me communicate God's love to her at her moment of extreme need, words I hoped would touch some distant memory from the past which she had once heard or spoken and which had then evoked faith and assurance.

And these proved wonderful friends in need both for me, and I hope, for her. That is not to say that other words were not needed that would gently elucidate what was being said. But the core of what was needed was prayer from the heart and words which I believe acted as powerful reminders of God's promises of life, love and peace. The rest I leave  - with great relief - to the Spirit of God who searches the mind of God and the heart of man. 

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

God, darkness and dementia

I was called out recently to pray for a lady in her late nineties who was close to death. She had been suffering with dementia and was in the latter stages of that dreadful condition. As I prepared to attend I faced the same dilemma I always do in these circumstances, what do I say? What should I read? Would it make any difference because her mind was to all intents and purposes unable to understand much anyway - or at least so I am led to believe.

It is moments like these that we are called to trust God. He knows the circumstances of our lives and calls people like me to minister in them. So all we can do in such a position is our best, prayerfully trusting in his grace and guidance. So I set to to prepare some appropriate readings that spoke of God's love and faithfulness, and some familiar prayers and set off. When I arrived I was shown the lady's room and sensitively left on my own the person who accompanied me shutting the door quietly as they left. The scene was a familiar one, simple furnishings with one or two personal mementos by the side of the bed and a large single bed with a small shrunken woman lying on it, breathing quietly, mouth open and eyes shut. The room was still, though more like a church than a morgue, and I spoke quietly to the lady saying who I was and why I had come.

Medical staff will always tell you that the hearing is the last of the senses to go and so I felt fairly confident that even if the lady could not fully understand me, she could at least hear me. So I said some prayers and read the passages that spoke of Jesus preparing a place in the Father's house of many mansions from John 14. And then after a few more silent prayers I said goodbye and left feeling rather pathetic and useless.

Of course the ministry is so busy that you didn't have time to reflect much on what went on in that room and so I forgot the lady for a few days until the phone rang and the undertaker asked me to take her funeral. She had died the afternoon or evening of the day I had visited and as i was the local incumbent could  I take it? I agreed.

And then came the time of reflection. What could I say? What words of comfort could I speak to a family who had receded into anonymity because of the forgetfulness of dementia? How could God speak meaningfully into this situation? What could I offer - or better God offer through me?

They say that you never really forget anything. You just lose the ability, over time, to draw it up out of the well which is your memory. As I thought about the funeral two verses from Psalm 139 came to me:
"If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night”, 12 even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you."

The words  are twice inspired. First, they inspired the writer who heard them spoken through his head and heart from God. And second, they inspired me as I wondered what to say and reflected on my experience with a comatose elderly dementia patient on the brink of death. As a result I was able to write about her and included the following in my homily or tribute at her funeral:

"Dementia has been described as a darkening of the mind as parts of it shut down and die. But you and I are more than our brains. There is something beyond that thinking computer located in our heads called the spirit or the soul. So even as the darkness of dementia covered N's mind and the light about her became as night, so, the psalmist says: "even the darkness is not dark to God and the descending night is as bright as day to him.”

So although all was closed to N. that day as I visited her and she continued to slip away from this life, I believe that God was with her and as the darkness fell to us, so the dawn of new life rose for her."

As the psalm reminds us there is nowhere we can hide from God who knows our thoughts before we think them and who discerns our thoughts from afar. Wherever we are, if we are his, the Lord's hand shall lead us, and his right hand hold us (verse 10). And as he held the hand of that lady when I committed her to him, so I believe the same of my father who died from the same disease and who I was able to pray for before he went through the darkness into the light.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Women bishops and quieter considerations

Recently, as we all know, the Church of England General Synod voted against the introduction of women Bishops with the laity defeating the motion by a small margin. This elicited a strong reaction not only from those within the Church who supported the motion and felt that their cause was set back for a further few years, but also the Press and the Government who have accused the Church of being "behind the times", "out of touch" or "discriminatory" or "misogynistic". Threats of new legislation forcing compliance - despite the fact that it was fairly debated and fairly voted on - and disestablishment - removing the Church's privileges in being able to send bishops to the House of Lords - have been made to force the Church's hand. As a result the aftermath has generated more light than heat and quashed any further attempt at a more reasoned debate on the issue. But the opposition view is not an unreasonable or unbiblical and before all further discussion is overshadowed by a tsunami of anger and fiery unreasonableness I thought I would pitch the following argument into the centre in the hope that someone would still consider it objectively and pause for thought to try and understand why adequate provision must be made for those who disagree and still want to stay in the church of their youth or conviction. It is by a man I much admire - although I do not share all of his reformed convictions- and who speaks in a measured, gracious and biblical way. Oh that we could say this of everyone involved - on both sides.

Let’s Stop Making Women Presbyters

Is there not a better way of benefiting from women’s ministry than by ordaining them?

Oxford has been called the home of lost causes, and here am I, an Oxford man, pleading for an end to something that is now standard practice in Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran, Congregational, Pentecostal, and Presbyterian denominations, along with the Anglican churches of the U.S.A., Canada, New Zealand, and Ireland. Is this a lost cause? Perhaps. Yet does not wisdom urge us to stop this practice and point us to a better way of benefiting from women’s ministry than by ordaining them to the presbyterate? Here are my reasons for thinking that the answer is yes.

Let me say, before moving into my argument, that I am as emphatically for women’s ministry as I am against turning women into substitute men by making presbyters of them. To confine women to domestic and menial roles when God has gifted them for ministry and leadership would be Spirit-quenching, beyond doubt. Gifts are given to be used, and when God-given gifts lie fallow, whether in men or in women, the church suffers. However, by envisaging a presbyterate of manly men, the New Testament indicates that the truest womanly ministry will be distinct from this, in ways that I will specify in a moment. But two other questions must be faced first.

Question one: Why has so much of the church in our time come to think that introducing women into the presbyterate is good, right, wise, and pleasing to God? Official Roman Catholicism (though not all Catholic theologians, nor laymen) and Orthodoxy as it seems from top to bottom, and Bible-based evangelical communities of all denominational stripes within Protestantism, agree in opposing this trend, but it cannot be denied that the general current of Protestant opinion has flowed the other way, so that many nowadays are wired to dismiss counter-arguments as foot-dragging foolishness. The trend is modem; whence came it? From a conjunction, it seems, of five factors.

First, the feminist ideology that demands equal rights everywhere, on the grounds that anything a man can do a woman can do as well if not better, naturally requires women presbyters, and women bishops, too, such as can already be found among Methodists and Anglicans in North America.

Second, the social change since World War I whereby gradually women have been moving into what were previously men’s jobs, and doing them well, has made opening the presbyterate to women appear as plain common sense.

Third, it has become clear that the present—day relevance of the New Testament passages that debar women from doing what presbyteral ministry involves (speaking in church,1 teaching and giving directions to men2) is problematical. If in these passages Paul is establishing a universal church order, meant for all congregations in all places at all times, then all is clear — but is he? Or is he simply legislating for his own day? And if the latter, are we wrong to allow that in a changed cultural situation, in which women were educated as men are and could come to church with well-studied Bibles in their hands, Paul might have said something different?

At this point, there is division among those who agree that what Paul says, Christ says, just as there is among those who do not believe any such thing; and no amount of general debate on the male headship principle of 1 Cor. 11:3 and Eph. 5:23 (which is itself differently understood by different expositors), or on anything else said about the two genders in Scripture, does anything to diminish the divergence. Understandably, those who think that if Paul were alive in the modern West he might possibly, or would certainly, remove his restrictions have not stood against, but gone with, the pressure for women clergy.

Fourth, God has blessed the ministry of ordained women. Does that not prove the rightness of their presbyteral role? Not necessarily. God has blessed his people before through intrinsically inappropriate arrangements and may be doing so again. His mercy in practice does not settle matters of principle any more than majority votes do. The conclusion that God’s use of women presbyters shows that he wants them does not follow.

Fifth, the Anglican and Presbyterian restriction of leadership at the Lord’s Table (and, in Presbyterianism, of power to baptize) to presbyters has spread the sense that presbyter status is an enviable privilege, without which Christian professionals do not have a fully satisfying ministry. This feeling, however unjustified (and it seems to me unjustifiable), is widespread, and makes it seem churlish to deny to all the church’s professional women the job-satisfaction that those whom Anglicans call priests are thought to get from their sacramental ministrations. Do not misunderstand me. I speak as an Anglican presbyter myself.

If the above analysis is right, the present-day pressure to make women presbyters owes more to secular, pragmatic, and social factors than to any regard for biblical authority. The active groups who push out the wails of biblical authority to make room for the practice fail to read out of Scripture any principle that directly requires such action. Future generations are likely to see their agitation as yet another attempt to baptize secular culture into Christ, as the liberal church has ever sought to do, and will, I guess, rate it as one more sign of the undiscerning worldliness of late twentieth-century Western Christianity.

On, then, to question two: What considerations cast doubt on the wisdom of making women presbyters?

I see four such considerations:

(i) The authority of Scripture.

Philip Melanchthon, Luther’s right-hand man, identified the authority of Scripture as the formal (i.e., formative) principle of the Reformation. He was right, and biblical authority remains the formative principle of evangelical theology. The Reformers elucidated the principle by explaining that Scripture is sufficient as a God-given guide to faith and life under Christ not needing additions from any worldly or ecclesiastical source, and is also clear, not needing an external interpreter but interpreting itself from within on everything that matters. With this, too, modern evangelicals agree.

Nor are they the only ones who nowadays urge that Scripture must ever stand in a critical, corrective, constitutive, and creative relation to the church’s faith. When modern Roman Catholics and Orthodox claim, as they mostly do, that their tradition is verifiable from Scripture, they are acknowledging that the written Word of God yields its own meaning and message, and the church may not sit loose to it. There has in our time been significant movement here, and as a result, the appeal to Scripture by the opponents of women’s ordination sounds the same from whichever side of the Reformation divide it is made.

What in Scripture weights the scales against the practice of making women presbyters? It is just the fact that though the New Testament celebrates in all sorts of ways Jesus’ affirmation of particular women as disciples and friends, and though ministering women keep appearing in the narrative of Acts and the letters of Paul, nothing is said of women being chosen as presbyters. Educated guesses as to what Jesus might do or Paul might say, were they alive now, are only guesses; all we are sure of is that as Jesus appointed no female apostles, so Paul used his apostolic authority to keep women from leading the church in worship, and actually justified this from the story of the Creation and the Fall, which he treated as disclosing universal truth about the two sexes.3

This being so, it is surely as likely that, were Paul with us today, he would negate women’s presbyteral leadership as that he would sanction it. Second-guessing an apostle is, of course, a risky business: but who can be blamed for thinking that negation would, in fact, be more likely, and that therefore the only safe, unitive, reverent, and God-honouring way is to give Paul the benefit of the doubt and retain his restriction on women exercising authority on Christ’s behalf over men in the church?4

(ii) The knowledge of Christ.

The essence of Christianity, according to the New Testament, is knowing and trusting Jesus Christ the Lord, the incarnate Son of God, as prophet, priest, and king; as lamb, shepherd, and lifegiver; and as head, husband, and cornerstone of the church that is his body, bride, and building. Knowing Christ in all these respects has a relational and affectional, as well as an intellectual, dimension: it is cognition and communion, obedience, love, and adoration all combined; it is peace and joy, salvation and eternal life, heaven on earth. On all of this the New Testament writers are at one.

A further aspect of the New Testament knowledge of Christ is that he, as thus described, is the true minister in all Christian ministry; the words and acts of his ministering servants are the medium of his personal ministry to us now, whereby he makes real and vivid to us his grace to us and his purpose for us. And this is the foundation for the second argument.

That argument is in essence as follows: Since the Son of God was incarnate as a male, it will always be easier, other things being equal, to realize and remember that Christ is ministering in person if his human agent and representative is also male. This is not to deny that Christ ministers through women, unordained and ordained (and to men, too!): My point is about the ideal form of the church. Stated structures of ministry should be designed to create and sustain with fullest force faith knowledge that Christ is the true minister. Presbyteral leadership by women, therefore, is not the best option.

That one male is best represented by another male is a matter of common sense; that Jesus’ maleness is basic to his role as our incarnate Saviour is a matter of biblical revelation.

Jesus Christ was not, and is not, merely a symbol of something else, or a source of teaching, that can stand on its own without reference to the teacher. The New Testament presents him as the second man, the last Adam, our prophet, priest, and king (not prophetess, priestess, and queen), and he is all this precisely in his maleness. To minimize the maleness shows a degree of failure to grasp the space-time reality and redemptive significance of the Incarnation: to argue that gender is irrelevant to ministry shows that one is forgetting the representative role of presbyteral leadership. Surely it is clear, then, that, spiritually speaking, a male presbyterate is desirable, even if one does not think it mandatory.

(iii) The significance of gender.

God made humanity in two genders. Both males and females bear his image and in personal dignity are equal in every way, but God has set them in a non-reversible relation to each other. This finds expression, according to the most straightforward reading of Scripture in the story of Eve being made from Adam’s rib, to be a help to him,5 and in Paul’s assertion of male headship, not simply in marriage,6 but in the human race as such.7 The creation pattern, as biblically set forth, is: man to lead, woman to support; man to initiate, woman to enable; man to take responsibility for the well-being of woman, woman to take responsibility for helping man. Scripture implies, and experience surely confirms, that where these relational dynamics are disregarded, the nature of both men and women is put under strain, the full self-discovery and fulfilment that God meant men and women to find in cooperation is missed, and some of the honour due to our wise Creator perishes.

The argument here is this: presbyters are set apart for a role of authoritative pastoral leadership. But this role is for manly men rather than womanly women, according to the creation pattern that redemption restores. Paternal pastoral oversight, which is of the essence of the presbyteral role, is not a task for which women are naturally fitted by their Maker.

(iv) The example of Mary.

The relevance to this discussion of what we know of Jesus’ mother will be differently assessed by different people, some perhaps making too much of her and some too little. But any who recognize in Mary a supreme model of devotion and developing discipleship must also see in her final proof of the non-necessity of ordination for a woman who wishes to serve the Father and the Son, and of the significance that can attach to unordained roles and informal ministries.
What has been said highlights the reason why women seek the presbyterate (they have gifts for ministry and a sense of pastoral vocation, and no lesser role offers them the scope they desire); but it also highlights the reason why ordaining them to that office is inappropriate (Scripture presents presbyteral leadership as a man’s job). In practice, ordaining women presbyters has regularly proved divisive without being particularly fruitful — a state of affairs that may be expected to continue. What wisdom is there in pushing ahead with this policy? None that I can see. Even if, unlike some of its critics, one does not find oneself able to maintain that Scripture actually forbids it, one can hardly claim that there is much sense in it. The structuring of women’s professional ministry in the churches needs to be rethought.

Should there be such ministry at all? Emphatically, yes. That women are gifted for and called to service in the church is plain, and gifted persons are gifts that the churches must properly value and fully use. In fact, of course, it already happens: women pastoral assistants, ministers of music, youth directors, education ministers abound, making these roles their career. It has sometimes been suggested that they should be given presbyteral status by ordination just because their ministry is their life’s work, but this loses sight of the New Testament analysis of presbyteral ministry as pastoral oversight (shepherdlike rule) through the didactic discipline of directive and corrective teaching that embraces the whole congregation — which is work for a man rather than a woman. The matter needs rethinking at the level of principle rather than pragmatics, and I close with a suggestion as to how.

Three questions, it seems, need to be asked.

First: What is the distinctive quality of womanly ministry, as distinct from the ministry proper to men? Answer: It is maternal rather than paternal in flavour and style, and this quality should permeate all the activities that make it up. The natural, proper, and desirable role difference between mother and father in the human family, as found in virtually all cultures, should be reflected in the cooperative ministry of men and women in the church. The roles are complementary, and the true enrichment comes when they are being fulfilled side by side.

Second: In what situation is it most fitting that a professional woman worker should minister? Answer: In partnership with a male leader, rather than as a sole pastor. In such a partnership, the psychological dynamics of the ‘helpmeet’ relationship of Gen. 2:18 will be maintained, in the sense that the woman will feel herself, and be felt, to be helping a man fulfil a calling that embraces them both. If she is on her own, this cannot be, and one element of womanly satisfaction will be lacking to her.

Third: Does such ministry call for presbyteral ordination? Answer:  No, nor is it particularly appropriate. The biblical ideal would seem to be that in the woman’s ministry, maternal attitudes of care for the weak and attention to the needs of individuals will be central. Pastoral visitation in homes and hospitals and the spiritual nurture of children, young people, and families seem to be the natural activities in which these attitudes would find expression.

Is it proper for a woman who ministers in this way to preach? Since authority resides in the Word of God rather than in preachers and teachers of either sex, it is my opinion that a woman’s preaching and teaching gifts may be used to the full in situations where a male minister is in charge and the woman’s ministry of the Word has the effect of supplementing and supporting his own preaching and teaching. (We in the West are no longer in the Bible-less situation to which 1 Tim. 2:12 was directed.)

None of this, however, requires ordination as a presbyter. A title indicative of rank — deaconess, or pastoral assistant, for instance — would be helpful; surely, though, that is all that is needed.

The fomenting by rival pressure groups of secular-minded, status—oriented squabbles about the rights and wrongs of ordaining women presbyters seems endless: the feminist and fundamentalist lobbies see to that. The observed effect of presbyteral ordination of women is regularly to preoccupy them with fulfilling a man’s role and so to divert them from the sort of ministry in which they would be at their best. Effective partnership between men and women in the pastorate seems rarely to be sought or found. It is hardly a happy scene.

How long, 0 Lord? Shall we ever get beyond this state of things? I hope so; we need to. Phasing out the female presbyterate would, in my judgement, be part of our cure. Is my cause already lost? Am I crying for the moon? I wait to see, as Oxford men habitually do.

* * * * *

Appendix — What is a Presbyter?

In this article, the author, himself an Episcopal clergyperson, chooses to use the word presbyter because other terms are loaded with the bitter history of controversy between denominations. The English presbyter stands for the Greek presbuteros, the standard New Testament word that designates a senior person (an elder) who shows wisdom and exercises authority. Elders were appointed in the first churches,8 with shepherding the flock as their task:9 that is, instruction and direction.’10 The authoritative leaders of Hebrews 13:17 were evidently presbyters. In the history of the church, presbyter came to refer to the person or persons (usually professional clergy) officially charged with the oversight of a local congregation.

Presbyter, of course, reminds us of Presbyterians, who build their polity around elders — ruling elder and teaching elders. Episcopalians (like Orthodox, Catholics, Lutherans and Methodists) organize their polity around the office of the episcopos (the overseer or bishop); but they, too, have presbyters. While Episcopalians (Anglicans) are likely to use the word priest in conversation, they recognized from their sixteenth-century new start that priest is a contraction of presbyter — a fact reflected in their official ordination service.

In other traditions, elders may be either professional clergy or lay people, but they are, in any case, persons of experience whose spiritual authority has been recognized by the church.

1 Cor. 14:34f.
2 1 Tim. 2:11—14.
3 1 Tim. 2:12—14.
4 1 Tim. 2:11.
5 Gen. 2:2—23.
6 Eph. 5:23.
7 1 Cor. 11:3, 11f.
8 Acts 14:23; 15:2; 20:17; 21:18.
9 Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2—4.
10 1 Tim. 5:17.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Sure on this shining night

Sure on this shining night
Of star made shadows round,
Kindness must watch for me
This side the ground.
The late year lies down the north.
All is healed, all is health.
High summer holds the earth.
Hearts all whole.
Sure on this shining night
I weep for wonder wand'ring far alone
Of shadows on the stars.
By James Agee, © 1933, All rights reserved

For a beautiful setting of this poem see here.

Faith in Mark

I came across the following article on faith on a Jesuit website which I thought was excellent and gave me a new perspective on it. The website can be found here.

"An obvious question to ask in this Year of Faith is, ‘How is the word ‘faith’ used in the New Testament?’ The Greek word for ‘faith’ is pistis and it occurs in 24 of the 27 books that make up the New Testament. In this short article, we confine ourselves to the gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke; surprisingly the word is never used in the gospel of John. With two exceptions, we will ignore occurrences of the related verb, ‘I believe’ (pisteuo) which by contrast is found 98 times in John’s gospel.

The Gospel of Mark: Believe in the Gospel

We begin with our first exception, because the first words spoken by Jesus in Mark include the word ‘believe’. He writes, ‘Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God and saying, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe (pisteuo) in the gospel”’ (Mark 1:14-15). Who, we ask, responded to this appeal by displaying the faith (pistis) that Jesus demanded? Those who know Mark’s gospel, call it the ‘gospel of paradox’. The paradox here is that it is not the disciples who Jesus called by the lake (1:16-20) or on the mountain (3:13-19) who give an example of faith, but people who appear only once in Mark’s gospel and are not heard of again. Their response can speak to us in this Year of Faith.

The word ‘faith’ (pistis) occurs five times in Mark. It is applied first to the four men who brought a paralysed man to Jesus by lowering him through the roof of the house where he was. Because of their faith, Jesus forgave the sins of this man (2:5). This first use of the word reminds us that faith shows itself in action. Paul made this point when he wrote to the Galatians of, ‘faith working itself out in love’ (Galatians 5:6). And we may note that where Jesus found faith, there he announced that sins were forgiven.

The second use of this word is addressed to the disciples of Jesus. In a boat on the lake of Galilee, they ran into a storm and panicked because they thought they were about to sink. Jesus calmed the storm and said to his disciples, ‘Have you still no faith?’ (4:40). Although previously they had witnessed the power of Jesus in healing and controversy, and heard his authority in teaching, in crisis they despaired. Here, as elsewhere in Mark’s gospel, the behaviour of the disciples of Jesus offers us a warning rather than an example. Solid faith, such as the disciples were yet to acquire, enables the believer to cope with the storms we meet with in our human experience.

The third occurrence of this word ‘faith’ in Mark is addressed by Jesus to a woman whom he has just cured. Her sickness had already lasted for twelve years. Her cure came in two stages. First she sought a cure by touching Jesus, but this led only to ‘fear and trembling’. It was only after falling down before Jesus and telling him ‘the whole truth’, that she found her cure complete and Jesus said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has saved you’(5:34). From her we learn how faith can grow; it implies a personal and confident relationship with the Lord.

The word ‘faith’ occurs a fourth time in Mark in his account of the cure of Bartimaeus. He was a blind beggar who heard that Jesus was passing by. Three times he pleaded with Jesus for mercy and for the restoration of his sight. His prayer was granted and Jesus said to him, as to the woman previously, ‘Go, your faith has saved you’ (10:52). Paradoxically, Bartimaeus ignored this instruction to go; instead he followed Jesus on the way that led to Jerusalem, the city where Jesus was to die. His faith had expressed itself in repeated and persevering prayer, despite discouragement from those standing by. His example teaches us to persevere in prayer to the person of Jesus. Faith encourages the habit of regular and persistent prayer. Greek Christian tradition in particular has valued this prayer of Bartimaeus, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me’ (10:47); monks of old repeated it, as they trudged off to their work in the fields.

Finally, Jesus spoke this word ‘faith’ to his disciples when they discovered that the fig tree that he had cursed the previous day had withered. He told them to ‘have faith in God’ (11:22), and then gave them a lesson on the power of prayer. Here is Jesus’s longest instruction of prayer in this gospel since there is no ‘Lord’s prayer’ in Mark. It consists of three sayings, two of which appeal more to prophetic exaggeration than to day-to-day reality. We do not really expect our prayer to move mountains or our every prayer to be answered, but prayer is to be from the heart, is to be confident and trusting, and is to include mutual forgiveness. As in the Bartimaeus story, we recognise the link between prayer and faith.

But perhaps the most memorable paradoxical saying about faith in Mark’s gospel is spoken by another of its minor characters. The word used here is not faith (pistis) but its opposite (apistia). The father of the epileptic boy, whom the disciples of Jesus were unable to cure, cried out to Jesus and said, ‘I believe. Help my unbelief’ (9:24). This prayer is included in one of the recommended prayers for this Year of Faith:

Let me see your face,
Know your heart
and experience your love in my life.
Strengthen in me
the precious gift of faith.
I believe Lord;
Help my unbelief.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Jesus will never let you down

The following lyrics have come to mean a lot to me at the moment
and remind me of something a Roman Catholic sister once taught me many, many years ago at some sort of conference or retreat. She said "Trust in Jesus, he will never let you down."

A brother will let go your hand
A sister she may seldom understand
A mother can’t always dry your tears
And father, at times he can’t be there
And even your best friend seems can’t be found
But there’s Jesus, He’ll never let you down.

When your house just don’t seem like a home
You got family, they’re all around you
But you still feel alone
The telephone rings but there’s no good news
And everything seems wrong no matter what you do
And even the happiest people are wearing a frown
You can still call Jesus and He’ll never let you down.
Steven Roberts (See here for full lyrics) 

Prayer and commitment

I recently officiated at the funeral of an 88 year old who, in later years, made it his ambition to win the lottery. He kept meticulous details of the winning numbers that came up week after week, tried to work out the recurrence of certain combinations and even bought a book or two on the subject of mathematics, statistics and number patterns. In fairness he did experience moderate success, once winning £1000 and a few £10 prizes, but I suspect that this was down to luck rather than some scientific or mathematical formula.

There is something in us that likes to look for methods, formulae and guarantees in life. Perhaps that same inner desire is what is behind consulting palm-readers or fortune tellers. Perhaps it is the old Adam wanting the sort of knowledge that gives power or control, a desire to be like God? Either way it's a futile search doomed to failure. But it doesn't stop us.

Take the Christian life and ministry. As a Vicar I would love to find a way of guaranteeing church growth or a sure-fire sermon that will win people for Christ. In fact - for the right reasons you understand - I have over the years assiduously read dozens of books and articles which tell the stories of how this church grew from 10 to a 1000 people, or this revival that saw hundreds turn to Christ over a short span of time. I have delved into the personal lives of revivalists and famous evangelists, and I have dug deep into the scriptures for any information I can glean about what may be missing in what I am doing (or not doing) or what shortfalls there are in my prayer-life that need correcting. I have confessed every sin I can, digging deep into my past life to weed out any possible overlooked niggling misdemeanour. I have attended renewal conferences, listened to countless tapes by this or that speaker and sought the counsel of leaders I admire and respect. All to no avail. There is no magic formula or sure-fire method (or course) that can be discovered that will achieve success in  ministry because that is not how it works. God is a person not a project, and the ministry is about service not success. The wind "blows where it wills" Jesus once said, and there is no way of telling it (Him) what to do or where to blow (See John 3).

So what do I do? I can throw my toys out of the pram and do something else? I can look for something that will produce visible and measurable results? I can engage in important building projects or find an absorbing hobby? Or I can just "serve God as He deserves, give (to Him) and not count the cost, fight and not to heed the wounds, toil and not to seek for rest, labour and not to ask for any reward" (St. Ignatius of Loyola).  The human thing is to do one of the former. The Christian thing is to do the latter.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Don't take the fence down

The great Christian writer and apologist G.K. Chesterton once wrote: "Don't ever take a fence down until you know the reason it was put up." This could apply to so many situations at the present time but no more so than the Government's proposals to radically change the nature of marriage which biblically, traditionally and historically has been between a man and a woman. (One almost feels one has to say ONE man and ONE woman because if this goes ahead it may lead to numerous other definitions - two woman and one man, three men and one woman or a man and his dog!)

The following is a video about traditional marriage, appealing to the government to leave it well alone:

In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity

There is an old religious joke that has been doing the rounds for years which goes like this:`` I was walking across a bridge one day, and ...