Thursday, 26 September 2013

Single-minded on God

The following is a short talk I gave at our midweek Holy Communion service. It is based on the Church in Wales Trinity 16 readings: Jeremiah 9:23-24; 1 John 2:13-17; Psalm 7:1-6 and Matthew 6:24-end:

I think one of the greatest longings of the human heart is to find peace and contentment in life. The Bible tells us that both of these are to be found in God himself. But how?

The Danish Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once wrote that “purity of heart is to will one thing.” This is based on the Bible’s teaching that we must learn to centre our lives and maintain our faith and focus on God, through Jesus, above and before all.

For example in Luke’s Gospel Chapter 10 we find Martha struggling and distracted as she tries to do too many things at once in order to prepare a meal for Jesus and her other guests. But Jesus admonishes her and says “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset by many things, but only one thing is needed.” And pointing to her sister Mary who is sitting at his feet, mind and attention fixed on him, he says: “Mary has chosen what is better and it not be taken away from her.”

Our Gospel reading this morning follows a similar them. Why are you worried and anxious about things—food, drink, your body, your clothes. Trust God and focus on this one thing. “Seek first (God’s) kingdom and his righteousness and all these things will be your as well.”

In other words there is a divine order, a prioritizing, which if kept to, will give us a peace and contentment which puts everything in its proper place and perspective. At the top or the centre is God. We are to love him with all our heart, mind, etc… In other words he is the one we must put first before all others. Jesus puts it another way. You cannot serve or be equally devoted to two masters. You have to choose one.

Jeremiah too is saying the same thing. If you are going to glory in anything. If you are going to make one thing your sense of highest achievement in life, don’t let it be wisdom, or power, or riches, let it be this:
“Understand and know me..”

We are much too distracted and therefore fragmented, by many things. We become anxious and depressed because our focus and our priorities and many and various. Jesus and the saints teach us that we must discover again that God has created us to live life from the centre, not from the circumference, where the God of love and peace is to be found, encountered, known and loved. Purity of heart therefore is to will this one thing before and above all else.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

I believe in marriage

I have had the great privilege of conducting some wonderful weddings over the years and I have so enjoyed every one of them. I believe in marriage so much that anything less than marriage in the full biblical sense of the word is a sham and a lie. Here is Bonhoeffer's wonderful quote about it:

"Marriage is more than your love for each other. It has a higher dignity and power, for it is God's holy ordinance, through which he wills to perpetuate the human race till the end of time. In your love you see only your two selves in the world, but in marriage you are a link in the chain of the generations, which God causes to come and to pass away to his glory, and calls into his kingdom.

In your love, you see only the heaven of your own happiness, but in marriage you are placed at a post of responsibility towards the world and mankind. Your love is your own private possession, but marriage is more than something personal—it is a status, an office. Just as it is the crown, and not merely the will to rule, that makes the king, so it is marriage, and not merely your love for each other, that joins you together in the sight of God and man.

As high as God is above man, so high are the sanctity, the rights, and the promise of marriage above the sanctity, the rights, and the promise of love. It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love."
Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Letter and Papers from Prison,

Christians and Christian-ettes

I have been mulling and praying over a two page list of 'observations' complaints about me from a parishioner claiming to speak, in the person's own words, for "everyone". Among the complaints there is one claiming I preach for too long. This reminds me of one high ranking clergyman reportedly saying that one should preach for no more than seven minutes is long. In support of his argument he quoted the well known saying "if you haven't struck oil in seven minutes stop boring."

That is, to say the least, rather simplistic, and if I am honest, rather sad because it actually says more about the person and his attitude towards the Gospel than it says about sermons. Surely the Gospel message is worth more than seven minutes of proclaiming and explaining? Surely talking about such difficult subjects as gay marriage, the problem of evil and suffering, the message of Romans or how to apply the story of Noah requires more than seven minutes to do them  - or indeed God - any kind of justice?

What really worries me is that this is the kind of advice all too many clergy have been given about preaching. In fact this mindset has so infiltrated the church that it's no wonder we have churches full of spiritually stilted people who have little love or knowledge of the gospel let alone a desire to share it with others. So when some articulate atheist or honestly seeking agnostic asks them even the simplest question or challenges their knowledge or faith, they shy away from answering or refer them to the vicar who himself is equally unsure because he hasn't been taking the time to prepare his messages beyond the level of some half-baked sound bite!

In counteraction to the above quote about oil then, here is another: "sermonettes make Christianettes"  or pigmy sermons make pigmy Christians. To make a virtue out of preaching short sermons seems to me to have missed the point entirely. What are sermons for? Is it just to fill a slot before the real stuff - the Eucharist? Is it an onerous duty to discharge as quickly and painlessly as possible? Or is it the opportunity to share something really important and significant that can become, through the agency of the Holy Spirit, the means of the spiritual transformation of an individual or congregation?

So my answer to clergy and critic alike is that I passionately believe in the sermon and although there will probably be many apologies that I need to make about the things I get wrong, preaching 20 minute sermons is not among them. In fact if the Holy Spirit catches my sails - and I pray He does - 20 minutes may not be nearly enough!

Monday, 23 September 2013

Learning the language

Trying to understand what people say is harder than you think. Listening to their words is not enough. You then have to interpret what those words actually mean. This is particularly so with those I speak to who are not Christians. For example when I go to make arrangements about the funeral of a member of the family I am more and more asked not to do anything religious. On the face of it this appears to be either a rejection of God or a request for me to deny my ordination vows. However I am learning to interpret this request as a plea to please talk about their relative and not push religion down their throat. Usually they are more than happy for prayers for them - "that's nice" they say - or a reading plus the committal etc and even a simple message.  All that is okay provided the religious content does not squeeze out the all important tribute to their mother/father etc.. This plea probably has as its basis a bad experience where they have been to a funeral where the deceased person's name was never mentionsed, or the service in no way seemed to reflect the life of the person they have lost and are grieving over.

So the idea seems to be is expressed as "we don't believe in God" but in actual fact it really means "don't make religion the only thing the service is about.

Another possible misinterpretation comes when folk criticize the Church as being full of hypocrites. Usually this actually means "in my experience of one or two people who call themselves Christians I have not encountered one genuine example. My conclusion therefore is that the Church only seems to produce such people in my experience."

The accusation of hypocrisy sometimes hides disappointment because they wanted or needed to find authenticity and genuine hope. Sometimes it is a lazy justification to stop thinking too deeply about faith. I visited a man who spoke a lot about the hypocrisy of Church people. He had no time for it and was not happy to have it in the funeral. However later on in the conversation he apologetically had to admit that he prayed when his father was dying! Others have ridiculed belief in God and the supernatural only to read tributes that talk about their loved one becoming an angel or a constant presence that watches over each one of them, protecting them all from harm and guiding them every day! This wise omnipresence is oddly reminiscent of the God they have rejected.

So "I don't believe in God" may really mean "I don't subscribe to any definite idea of God because that may commit me to coming to Church or changing my lifestyle". It may also mean "I don't believe in the bad stuff I have heard or which frightens rather than comforts me".

One of my favourites is "I don't believe in organised religion". This is shorthand for "traditional" or "restrictive" or even "something that demands a regular commitment from me."  It can also mean they don't believe in something that demands they stop sleeping around, smoking or drinking or something less harmful like going to the cinema or wearing lipstick!  I am tempted to reply "so if we were more disorganised then you would come and join us", but I never do. I just smile sadly and move the conversation on. Of course I have many times tried to take the argument further but have now come to see that in the vast majority of cases this really means "I don't want to talk about God, or faith or belief as it makes me uncomfortable. Let's move on."

Coming back to the word "traditional". This again does not always mean what we think it does. When the use the word people don't mean "according to the tradition of the Church" meaning the truth handed down through the generations. It can just mean old or old-fashioned. It can also mean "irrelevant, out-dated, out of touch" or even just plain old "boring". It's not always negative though and can sometimes be associated with good values or something warm and fuzzy like a coal fire or a comfortable chair. I remember asking a group of young people what they thought about us removing the pews at our church thinking they would all congratulate me on finally bringing the Church into the 21st century. Instead, almost to a person, they all thought it was a terrible idea as the pews looked so lovely!  I asked the same question of a few students who had come to make a film and they said the same thing. Why get rid of the pews? Of course none of them wanted to commit themselves to sitting on them week after week. Perhaps they would answer the question differently.

Of course you have to allow for possible self-interest here - another need to interpret. It could mean "I would like to get married here some day and those pews would be lovely for the wedding photographs". Or "I like this idea of church because it makes me feel safe and secure" or "it wouldn't really be a church without pews". There are so many 'meanings' behind the words.

Well enough for now. The whole point is that you cannot always take what people say at face value and you really need to be patient and listen more deeply to what they are not saying - at least not in words. The eyes, body language, tone of voice or access to the person's won memories of church etc can tell us so much more about what they really mean when they say "I don't believe in God" etc.. We need to take the time to listen and get to know them. There are no short cuts for Christians in a rush. the trouble is we almost always are.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

What is worship for? - Part 2

The following is a follow up to the last post by the same author:

"Yesterday I wrote on “What is Worship For?”, but I forgot to answer the question. I said that it is not the time for evangelism, and shouldn't be designed with non-believers in mind. But what is it for?

Worship is for God; we could expand that and say worship is for believers to offer to God. But even once we’re clear that worship is the work of the believing community, there’s a possible confusion. We might think the purpose of worship is to give believers a good worship experience.

This is subtle, because a worship leader might think the best way to worship is to arrange the songs and other elements to move and inspire worshippers, who will then turn whole-heartedly to God. In fact, that might sound like exactly what worship is supposed to do. But it’s another misdirection. It leaves us focused on the process inside the worshipper, instead of on God.

In the first place, this is manipulative; it makes the hour of worship a process imposed on churchgoers, aimed at directing their thoughts and emotions into the right channels. People can usually sense when they’re being manipulated. Men, especially, hate to have their emotions tampered with, and I expect this is a reason most congregations are predominantly female, and we assume that women are more religious than men are (though that’s obviously not the case with conservative varieties of Islam and Judaism).

I recall a chapel service at a Christian college where two girls with guitars were leading the audience in a hymn that featured the line, “I lay my head upon his chest.” Every time that line came around, the male professors near me would just stop singing.

But some people might actually like this focus on their worship experience, feeling that it’s appropriate for churches to serve their preferences, just like restaurants do. Church-shopping is common, as people sample many different churches in their search for the one that feels best. Unfortunately, the church that feels most comfortable is not the one that will challenge you. We are called to deep change, transformation in Christ, and the hard work of overcoming the poison of habitual sin. If you search till you find a church that feels just right, it’s likely to reinforce you as you already are.

A focus on the worshipper also burdens him, because it means worship succeeds or fails based on how he feels. He can look around during a hymn and notice others who look moved or inspired, while he himself feels nothing. He wonders if there is something wrong with him. Maybe his faith is too weak; maybe God has rejected him. Since the general mood during worship is upbeat (except for those times everyone is directed to be serious instead), the person who comes in feeling less than chipper will know that good manners requires holding it in. Church-time can come to seem very artificial. When you’re worried or sad it’s painful to be around happy people. Singing a hymn about how God takes care of me when I’m sad doesn't really help.

  I got an email this morning from a person who said he attended a church meeting where one of the newer leaders wanted to remove the Creed and the general confession from the Sunday service, because they were a “turn off.” This led to a discussion of the purpose of worship, and he said that, for him, it was about “alignment.” In worship he comes into the presence of God, and is lined up with him, so to speak. In our daily lives we turn away from God through our anxieties and temptations; our attention is scattered in all different directions. In worship, as we face the Lord, we are brought into right order with him.

This alignment is like what happens to a steel needle when it is brought into contact with a magnet. When the needle is manufactured it’s not magnetic, because the atoms inside are pointing in all different direction. But when the needle is touched by a magnet, those atoms begin to turn. They become aligned as the magnet is; they become magnets themselves.

When we are thus aligned with God we are made one with him, transformed by his power. We don’t just become like him, in a superficial or analogical way; we actually become bearers of his presence, as the Burning Bush was filled with fire.

My correspondent wrote that, while describing this process, he said, “I speak the ancient words” of the liturgy. That’s a potential complication. In churches where the tradition is to put worship together almost from scratch every week, the authority for that worship resides in the pastor and worship leaders. Its depth is limited to the depth of their own wisdom, insight, and prayer life. Liturgical churches simply have an advantage here, because they don’t have to generate the content of their worship. The ancient liturgies still exist, and some churches have never stopped using them for all 2000 years. The Orthodox Eucharistic service is like a rack railway, one that is designed to climb a mountain. I can get on the train on Sunday morning, and it will carry me all the way to the top. It doesn't matter whether I have emotions about worship or not; the Liturgy itself does the work.

As I said, this is more complicated for churches with a tradition of assembling the worship service new each week, but that does give you the freedom to try out the ancient prayers and services. They’re can be found in books and on line. I think it is less successful to just stick in a few ancient prayers, because you’re not wise enough to be an editor of those ancient texts; but if that is all you can do, it’s still something.

Years ago I met a young woman who told me she attended “the Celtic service at the First Baptist Church.” When I did a double-take she said, “The Boomers want a contemporary service, with rock music and all, but the young people, of course, want something more traditional.” They had located ancient Celtic prayers via the internet and were worshipping with vestments, candles, and incense (until the smoke alarm gave them too much trouble).

One thing that surprised me after I became Eastern Orthodox was that there was far less emphasis on believers being united with each other in worship. Previously, the prayers and hymns about communion were all about community. Now, they’re about the power of Christ’s presence in the sacrament and my unworthiness and unpreparedness to receive it. Communion does unites me to other worshippers, of course, but the understanding that the bread and wine really become Christ’s Body and Blood push other thoughts to the side.

I should clarify that I’m not recommending that go back to worship styles and hymns of a few decades or a century ago. That’s still a part of the culture we inhabit today, and it’s probably not disruptive or challenging enough to make a difference. Worship from thousands of years ago, from entirely different languages and cultures, has more of a chance of shaking you up.

Finally I have to ask, to what extent is worship supposed to teach the faithful? The Orthodox liturgies and prayers are full of meaty content, apparently intending that worshippers will understand and remember it, and not designed solely to glorify God. If you imagine that you were an illiterate peasant 1500 years ago, about the only time you would hear the scriptures would be during worship. The icons on the walls would serve as a picture bible, presenting the important scenes of bible and church history. The worship experience—the embroidery, incense, vestments, jewels and so forth—would be the most beautiful thing you encountered all week. Since everything is set to music, you can take it with you, and bring it to mind during the week. Some of the more important prayers are sung three times. We learned our ABCs by singing them over and over, and we learn church history and theology the same way.

I’m always impressed, on the Sunday of the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council, at the amount of detail the hymns give us in describing the heresy of Arius, the arguments against him, and even  his miserable end (he went into an outhouse and, it sounds like, exploded—yes, we sing even about this). We’re not singing these things in order to inform God about it. It must be intended to teach worshippers history and theology that they should know.

Likewise, it is right that there be a sermon or homily expounding the day’s scripture readings. An ancient practice is the moment when worshippers greet each other with a holy kiss—we see this referenced in St. Paul’s letters. So having insisted all this time that worship ought to be directed to God, I must admit that some elements teach and inform worshippers as well.

With that allowance, however, we still must answer the question “What is worship for?” with “Worship is for God.” We need to worship God, because it puts us in right “alignment” with him. God doesn't need our worship; God doesn't need anything the human race can offer. But when we drift from him we become scattered and confused. Worship brings us before our Creator, the only source of love that is worthy of the name. The more we focus on him alone, forgetting about ourselves, the more we will be healed."

What is worship for? - Part 1

The following is the result of a question I asked the writer about worship, so for 'pastor' read me:

"A pastor in the UK wrote me asking, “What is worship for?” He said that his denomination was encouraging pastors to make worship more “user-friendly” in order to attract new members, and that this initially seemed to him a reasonable evangelistic strategy. A scripture cited in support of this approach was Acts 15:19, “We should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God.” But as he read this scripture in context, it looked to him like it was written of people who were already Christian believers, and would not be required to accept Jewish practices. It didn't address the case of people entirely outside the faith. He wrote to ask, “Who are church services for? Believers or unbelievers?”

I replied:

It sounds like you are already approaching the answer, that in the Scriptures (and through church history) worship was intended to be worship. It was aimed at God, in adoration and supplication, not at attracting non-believers, or even at giving fellow-worshippers a good worship experience. This focus on God was the case until very recently; now our immersion in a consumer economy has led us to think of everything in terms of appealing to potential customers. We are so mentally saturated in advertising that we have come to think of ourselves and our faith as products that need to be persuasively sold.

That’s how worship gets redirected from the Lord to outsiders, who have no ability yet to understand or respect Him. The church becomes an organization that is primarily occupied with planning a billboard, because the most important goal is to capture non-believers’ attention. When someone responds to a billboard and becomes a member of the community, he discovers that he has joined an organization that — is planning a billboard. The main goal of members of a church is to attract more members to the church. It’s like Ponzi scheme.

In the Scriptures worship is directed to God, not to anyone on earth, not even to other worshippers. It is certainly not directed to people who don’t yet love and respect our Lord; in fact it should be expected that our worship will be unfamiliar, perplexing, and mysterious to them. In worship we focus on Him, and those who don’t yet see Him just won’t be able to grasp it. It’s appropriate that outsiders not understand what is going on. It’s appropriate that they don’t immediately get it. But they can see that the worshippers take it very seriously, and that they really believe God is present and hearing their prayers. That kind of worship is in itself powerfully compelling, and has its own magnetic pull.

This strikes a very different note than what we experience in our daily lives, which is so thoroughly devoted to attracting consumers, and desperately obsequious and silly in that pursuit. This seriousness of purpose strikes a very different note, and the fact that non-believers can’t immediately grasp what’s going on communicates a truth in itself.

Even for us worshippers, the focus is still on God, not each other. It is like a circle of friends who make up a string quartet. The four of them might come together in a living room for an evening to play the music they love. The bond between them is strong, and their community is a beautiful thing. But they don’t focus on each other, or the community they share, and there is no outside audience. They are focused on the music; they are trying to make the most beautiful music they can.

In this analogy you can see how the false division often cited about worship, that it is either casual or formal, falls away. Though they greatly enjoy playing this music, they don’t do it in a casual way; they take seriously the work involved, and strive to do their best. On the other hand, they don’t behave in a fussy and formal way, either. They aren't self-conscious, as if they were trying to impress a human audience. It’s not a performance. Their whole heart and attention is directly engaged with the goal of creating beautiful music.

Worship ought to be as beautiful as we can make it, for God gave Moses very demanding instructions for worship, with very expensive elements: gold, jewels, embroidery, and incense. These were extravagant requirements for people who were refugees, wandering in the desert and living in tents. But even then the beauty of worship was a priority. Beauty affects us in ways we barely recognize. It opens our hearts. God required, and deserves, the greatest beauty we can create. But in the midst of beautiful worship we don’t have to be stiff and self-conscious. Great beauty and natural, joyous behavior are not opposites; we experience how they go together when we attend a wedding reception, or a big family dinner on Christmas.

Of course, the analogy to the quartet breaks down in that they are focused on the music, but worshippers’ focus is not on worship, but on God. Worship is not a performance. It is not entertainment. It is not advertising. Worship is work, as the Bible-Greek word leit-ourgia, liturgy, shows; it is “the work of the people.” We undertake this work as members of a vast community, going back to those instructions to Moses thousands of years go. We are responsible to continue that worship and pass it on with all the seriousness and beauty it deserves. We offer this worship as transitory place-holders, striving to doing it as well as those before us did, and those after us will do. Our eyes are fixed on the Lord who receives our worship.

If, instead, we focus on attracting outsiders, it will feel to them like every other advertising pitch they encounter. The church can never compete with the world when it comes to entertainment. The world can give them more enjoyable diversions than we can, and can do it without requiring them to leave the house on Sunday morning. If we are successful in attracting people to the church on the basis of fun and entertainment, we’re guilty of false advertising, for Christ promises us nothing in this life but a cross. But if we worship with whole-hearted focus on God, they will see something they encounter nowhere else in their lives. They may not at first see Christ, but they can see that we see something, and that gives them something to think about; that’s how faith begins."

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

A wobble over women bishops

It suddenly struck me with all the force of a battering ram as I was praying this morning, that I don't think I can agree with last week's decision by the Church in Wales to consecrate women as Bishops. Not because theologically it is wrong - although there are some good arguments to consider on both sides - or because I hate women. I don't - ask my wife. Not because women cannot do the job as well as a man can - in fact in many cases I think they can and do do it better. Not because men are better, greater or stronger than women - they aren't. Neither is it because I am prejudiced or misogynistic - although some may want to label any prospective detractors as such - or because I have habitually, traditionally or politically been against women in leadership roles of any sort. In fact when the measure to ordain women to the priesthood was first voted on in Governing Body I voted 'for'. None of these are true or the reasons behind my concerns. What did made me sit up and reconsider are a combination of the following which all seemed to cohere together in one bright instant:

First, it was something both G,K,Chesterton, a Roman Catholic and Bishop Kallistos Ware, an Orthodox Bishop, have written and said that started the ball rolling. Let's begin with G.K.Chesterton. In his 1929 book, "The Thing", in the chapter entitled, “The Drift from Domesticity”, he wrote:

"In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it."

For two thousand years the 'fence' prohibiting the ordination of women to the priesthood and therefore to the episcopate has stood strong and firm with no one giving any great thought of moving it until now. In all the concerns that have been raised, I cannot recall one that asks why this particular fence was erected in the first place?

The second quote is a similar one, and it is by Bishop Kallistos Ware. Although the Orthodox Church is against the ordination of women, Bishop Kallistos has admitted that he is not against the ordination of women per se. His concern is that the Church in the West should not have moved so quickly in reaching the decision on its own without the benefit of the wisdom and consideration of the whole Church worldwide, which includes the majority Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. In a talk he once gave he says that whenever considering any major changes in doctrine and practice, great care should always be prayerfully taken before deciding. He says:

“’s better to find out why a beam is in a certain place in a cottage before you go pulling it out because you've smacked your head on it a couple of times.  It was obviously important to whoever built the cottage, but maybe not to you.  People have gotten taller over the years.  The original builders never bumped their heads on that beam.”

The exclusion of women from the priesthood may be, to some, an irritating and rather painful beam that they keep hitting their heads on, but before removing it we need to ask serious questions as to whether it was actually playing some important, if yet unknown, function like "holding the roof up" over our heads.

The second thing that struck me arose from something a friend of mine shared with me over a cup of coffee. We were talking about the spiritually moribund state of the Anglican Church in the West in general, as well as the Church in Wales in particular. Things are not looking good for the Church I was ordained into over 25 years ago with a 50% drop in membership over the last 20 years and no sign that the decline is slowing down. Hopes of a recovery at present are poor as there seems to be very little spiritual life or vitality in the majority of our churches as we move further and further away from the teachings of the Bible and the traditions of the Church. Add to that, that many clergy are confessing that their own prayer lives are almost non-existent, and things are looking worrying.

Is this the right context - a spiritually bankrupt, unorthodox and failing Church - within which to consider a decision overturning 2000 years of teaching and tradition?  How can we know the mind of God in this when we no longer know the will of God for the Church as it now stands? With so very few people listening and praying how can we be sure that we have discerned the right answer?

Speaking for myself I know what a daily struggle it is to pray let alone listen to God. In fact the longer I continue as a follower of Christ, the more I wonder if we have not lost the art of listening in silence and prayer. As I read stories of the saints and the great works of spiritual masters, what strikes me is the hige contrast between then and now. Looking at the dearth of monasteries and convents around - an all time low in the West - we have so few resources available to teach us the lost art of discernment and spiritual wisdom and yet we expect the decision made last week to be the right one, reflecting God's will for the Church! How much was listening to God and how much listening to the world?

John Stott in his writings calls for God's people to practice double listening. To the world - through newspapers, TV, art and culture - and to God through prayer and reflection on the scriptures. But do we? I suspect that the first - the dominant voice - is allowed to speak far louder and longer than the second.

And what about the sinfulness of the human heart in all of this? As Jeremiah says about the heart?  "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked." Jeremiah 17:9  Can we be sure that there has been purity of heart in relation to the reasons for the decision made last week?

Third, and last, Jesus said: "When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth." (John 16:13). Who is the "you" Jesus is addressing here? Is the "you" the Roman Catholic, the Orthodox, the Anglican, the Baptist, or the Pentecostal churches etc? The Church has fragmented into over 28,000 denominations all claiming to be the one true Church. They can't all be right. For one small part then of the fragmented body to make such a huge decision on its own, and without any reference to the rest, is surely rather presumptive if not downright arrogant. Can we claim the truth for ourselves in opposition to others?

So I am concerned about where last week's decision will lead us. Or indeed if this is the last one made by the Church in Wales in isolation from the rest as it systematically removes fence after fence on the basis of its own rather arrogant claim to know the truth. In fact as I write someone I spoke to recently tells me that same-sex marriages will may be on the agenda of next year's Governing Body. If that is the case then we are in for difficult times ahead.

In closing I must reiterate what I said at the start, that the giftedness and capabilities of women are not in question. In fact without them I doubt the Church would still be here at all. What I am asking is if this really is the right decision given my above concerns? I have very real and sincere doubts that it is.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

How to grow a Church?

I think it is something peculiarly human so see a problem and to come up with a (man-made) solution. But that is to suppose that the problem is either something that we completely understand or something which we can humanly solve. I mention this because at the present time the Church in Wales is seeing its membership drop year on year and, naturally, everyone concerned is doing their utmost to discover a 'solution' to the problem. But there are several questions we need to ask as we consider this:

1. Is there a 'problem' as such? I mean is the decline a sign that something is necessarily wrong? If it was then it is natural and right that we should be doing all we can to find the solution. And that is definitely the case at the moment with seeker-friendly churches, meetings and committees, reports and reorganization, back to church Sundays and a plethora of different courses and schemes designed to communicate the faith in user-friendly, pressure-free environments. There is a problem, say the churches, and they are doing all they can trying to find a solution and, in some notable cases, appearing to find an answer. However in typically human fashion, as soon as one 'solution' is found it is bottled and sold on in the hope that others can benefit form the miracle cure. If only it were that simple. But that is to reduce such things to the level of the mechanical and I am not convinced that it actually works that way.

2. If there is not a problem, what alternative is there for what we are currently going through? A few thoughts:
i. In the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-11) Jesus talks about four different types of ground onto which the seed is sown. Only one of them, however, brings a harvest. Is that why some churches 'take off' while others flounder or decline? Of course the discovery of such good ground is purely random as the sower seems unable to discern which ground is the best for his seed. Instead he throws the seed everywhere and it is by pure 'chance' that some of it finds the right soil. So it seems to be purely the luck of the draw which leads to good seed finding good ground, leading to growth.
ii. The other option to consider is that behind all this there are good reasons - or better, 'God' reasons - why things are not progressing despite all the hard work. We can of course only guess what these are. Here are a few possibilities:

Timing. As Ecclesiastes tells us there is a time and a season for every activity under heaven (Ecclesiastes 3:1) And just as there is a "time to be born and a time to die" (Ecclesiastes 3:2) so there is a time for growth and a time for decay or rest. This is borne out by Paul's advice to his young protege Timothy to preach the word "in season and out of season" (2 Timothy 4:2). Paul's advice then is based on the idea that there are seasons when things do not or will not happen in terms of spiritual response or growth. He gives no explanation as to why this should be so but instead gives Timothy this charge "in the presence of God and of Jesus Christ, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: to preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching." So whatever happens, bearing in mind that we are answerable to God who is present, keep preaching whatever happens - or doesn't happen and stick at it. Or in the words of the Message "Challenge,warn, and urge your people. Don't quit..." 

The following verses - 3 to 5 - continue on this theme: "You're going to find that there will be times when people will have no stomach for solid teaching, but will fill up on spiritual junk food - catchy opinions that tickle their fancy. They'll turn their backs on truth and chase mirage. But you - keep your eye on what you're doing; accept the hard times along with the good; keep the Message alive; do a thorough job as God's servant."

So clearly Paul, probably from his own personal experience, knows that preaching the Gospel and planting churches is not all plain sailing and sometimes the work of the Kingdom is just about pain and perseverance.

Soil. Coming back to the above point about the 'soil' of the heart. Some hearts are good but some aren't and you have to factor that into your thinking when you consider about growing a church. What makes a heart good? The same as what makes soil good. It needs air, water and nutrition. In case of hardness it needs breaking up. In case of weeds it needs clearing. And in case of stones, they need to be removed. But who does these things? Ultimately God, but he uses circumstances, people and all sorts of things over time to get things ready to receive the seed of the Word. Until the soil is ready all we can do is keep sowing.

Mystery. We just don't know, and perhaps will never know, this side of heaven. For now we "see in a mirror dimly." 1 Corinthians 13:12. In fact it was this whole idea of mystery that started me off writing this blog. I was stimulated into thinking by a passage from a book by Irma Zaleski an Orthodox Christian writer. In Chapter 3 of her book "Who is God?" titled "The Meaning of Mystery" she writes:

"Sometimes we shy away from the word "mystery".... (it) comes from the Greek word mysterion.... the etymology of the word is significant, for the Greek verb from which it was derived, originally meant "to close eyes or lips." Thus it implies that those who wish to find true wisdom - those who want to find and possess the Truth - must close their physical senses, must go beyond knowledge based on their rational, "thinking" minds, and open the eyes of their hearts, their inner understanding or insight..... "

She goes on to point out that "Our culture considers rational knowledge the highest, the most legitimate and, often, the only way to truth. It tends to reduce all existential or metaphysical questions into mere problems to be examined by the mind and, eventually, to be solved by science or technology, by some super-computer, perhaps." (She could also add by rational or logical deduction).

The point I concluded from the above is this. There are some things we are not going to know. And even if we did know them they would do us no good at all. For example what good would it do us if we knew the secret of growing a church? Wouldn't that encourage us to think of the whole thing mechanically rather than relationally? Wouldn't it reduce the whole exercise to a book or a soulless model or method? Wouldn't God be pushed out of the picture while we just got on with the process of working through the numbers? Mystery rescues us from objectifying God and preserves the all important relational aspect of what we are about where we rely on and interact with God. It means that we have to walk by faith not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7) and makes us lean all the more heavily on prayer and therefore God.

The upshot of the above is basically down to this. There are no quick solutions or short cuts that will bring us out of this. So what do we do? We wait and pray and preach and work and trust in God. We do the best we can. And we leave the rest to Him.

Friday, 13 September 2013

The Didache

The Didache or The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (Didachē means "Teaching") is a brief early Christian treatise, dated by most scholars to the late first or early 2nd century. The first line of this treatise is "Teaching of the Lord to the Gentiles (or Nations) by the Twelve Apostles"

The text, parts of which constitute the oldest surviving written catechism, has three main sections dealing with Christian ethics, rituals such as baptism and Eucharist, and Church organization. It is considered the first example of the genre of the Church Orders.

The work was considered by some of the Church Fathers as part of the New Testament but rejected as spurious or non-canonical by others, eventually not accepted into the New Testament canon.

What is fascinating is the dating of the work. Most scholars place the Didache at some point during the mid to late first century, but John Robinson argues that it is first generation, dating it c. 40-60 AD. This puts it within 10-30 years of the life of Jesus and raises important questions about what worship looked like DURING THE LIFE OF THE APOSTLES.

Here it is:

The Didache - The Lord's Teaching Through the Twelve Apostles to the Nations.

Chapter 1. The Two Ways and the First Commandment.
There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways. The way of life, then, is this: First, you shall love God who made you; second, love your neighbor as yourself, and do not do to another what you would not want done to you. And of these sayings the teaching is this: Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast for those who persecute you. For what reward is there for loving those who love you? Do not the Gentiles do the same? But love those who hate you, and you shall not have an enemy. Abstain from fleshly and worldly lusts. If someone strikes your right cheek, turn to him the other also, and you shall be perfect. If someone impresses you for one mile, go with him two. If someone takes your cloak, give him also your coat. If someone takes from you what is yours, ask it not back, for indeed you are not able. Give to every one who asks you, and ask it not back; for the Father wills that to all should be given of our own blessings (free gifts). Happy is he who gives according to the commandment, for he is guiltless. Woe to him who receives; for if one receives who has need, he is guiltless; but he who receives not having need shall pay the penalty, why he received and for what. And coming into confinement, he shall be examined concerning the things which he has done, and he shall not escape from there until he pays back the last penny. And also concerning this, it has been said, Let your alms sweat in your hands, until you know to whom you should give.

Chapter 2. The Second Commandment: Grave Sin Forbidden. And the second commandment of the Teaching; You shall not commit murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not commit pederasty, you shall not commit fornication, you shall not steal, you shall not practice magic, you shall not practice witchcraft, you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born. You shall not covet the things of your neighbor, you shall not swear, you shall not bear false witness, you shall not speak evil, you shall bear no grudge. You shall not be double-minded nor double-tongued, for to be double-tongued is a snare of death. Your speech shall not be false, nor empty, but fulfilled by deed. You shall not be covetous, nor rapacious, nor a hypocrite, nor evil disposed, nor haughty. You shall not take evil counsel against your neighbor. You shall not hate any man; but some you shall reprove, and concerning some you shall pray, and some you shall love more than your own life.

Chapter 3. Other Sins Forbidden.
My child, flee from every evil thing, and from every likeness of it. Be not prone to anger, for anger leads to murder. Be neither jealous, nor quarrelsome, nor of hot temper, for out of all these murders are engendered. My child, be not a lustful one. for lust leads to fornication. Be neither a filthy talker, nor of lofty eye, for out of all these adulteries are engendered. My child, be not an observer of omens, since it leads to idolatry. Be neither an enchanter, nor an astrologer, nor a purifier, nor be willing to took at these things, for out of all these idolatry is engendered. My child, be not a liar, since a lie leads to theft. Be neither money-loving, nor vainglorious, for out of all these thefts are engendered. My child, be not a murmurer, since it leads the way to blasphemy. Be neither self-willed nor evil-minded, for out of all these blasphemies are engendered.

Rather, be meek, since the meek shall inherit the earth. Be long-suffering and pitiful and guileless and gentle and good and always trembling at the words which you have heard. You shall not exalt yourself, nor give over-confidence to your soul. Your soul shall not be joined with lofty ones, but with just and lowly ones shall it have its intercourse. Accept whatever happens to you as good, knowing that apart from God nothing comes to pass.

Chapter 4. Various Precepts.
My child, remember night and day him who speaks the word of God to you, and honor him as you do the Lord. For wherever the lordly rule is uttered, there is the Lord. And seek out day by day the faces of the saints, in order that you may rest upon their words. Do not long for division, but rather bring those who contend to peace. Judge righteously, and do not respect persons in reproving for transgressions. You shall not be undecided whether or not it shall be. Be not a stretcher forth of the hands to receive and a drawer of them back to give. If you have anything, through your hands you shall give ransom for your sins. Do not hesitate to give, nor complain when you give; for you shall know who is the good repayer of the hire. Do not turn away from him who is in want; rather, share all things with your brother, and do not say that they are your own. For if you are partakers in that which is immortal, how much more in things which are mortal? Do not remove your hand from your son or daughter; rather, teach them the fear of God from their youth. Do not enjoin anything in your bitterness upon your bondman or maidservant, who hope in the same God, lest ever they shall fear not God who is over both; for he comes not to call according to the outward appearance, but to them whom the Spirit has prepared. And you bondmen shall be subject to your masters as to a type of God, in modesty and fear. You shall hate all hypocrisy and everything which is not pleasing to the Lord. Do not in any way forsake the commandments of the Lord; but keep what you have received, neither adding thereto nor taking away therefrom. In the church you shall acknowledge your transgressions, and you shall not come near for your prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of life.

Chapter 5. The Way of Death.
And the way of death is this: First of all it is evil and accursed: murders, adultery, lust, fornication, thefts, idolatries, magic arts, witchcrafts, rape, false witness, hypocrisy, double-heartedness, deceit, haughtiness, depravity, self-will, greediness, filthy talking, jealousy, over-confidence, loftiness, boastfulness; persecutors of the good, hating truth, loving a lie, not knowing a reward for righteousness, not cleaving to good nor to righteous judgment, watching not for that which is good, but for that which is evil; from whom meekness and endurance are far, loving vanities, pursuing revenge, not pitying a poor man, not labouring for the afflicted, not knowing Him Who made them, murderers of children, destroyers of the handiwork of God, turning away from him who is in want, afflicting him who is distressed, advocates of the rich, lawless judges of the poor, utter sinners. Be delivered, children, from all these.

Chapter 6. Against False Teachers, and Food Offered to Idols.
See that no one causes you to err from this way of the Teaching, since apart from God it teaches you. For if you are able to bear the entire yoke of the Lord, you will be perfect; but if you are not able to do this, do what you are able. And concerning food, bear what you are able; but against that which is sacrificed to idols be exceedingly careful; for it is the service of dead gods.

Chapter 7. Concerning Baptism.
And concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water. But if you have no living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, do so in warm. But if you have neither, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. But before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whoever else can; but you shall order the baptized to fast one or two days before.

Chapter 8. Fasting and Prayer (the Lord's Prayer).
But let not your fasts be with the hypocrites, for they fast on the second and fifth day of the week. Rather, fast on the fourth day and the Preparation (Friday). Do not pray like the hypocrites, but rather as the Lord commanded in His Gospel, like this:

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily (needful) bread, and forgive us our debt as we also forgive our debtors. And bring us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one (or, evil); for Thine is the power and the glory for ever..

Pray this three times each day.

Chapter 9. The Eucharist. Now concerning the Eucharist, give thanks this way. First, concerning the cup:

We thank thee, our Father, for the holy vine of David Thy servant, which You madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever..

And concerning the broken bread:
We thank Thee, our Father, for the life and knowledge which You madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom; for Thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever..

But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, "Give not that which is holy to the dogs."

Chapter 10. Prayer after Communion.
But after you are filled, give thanks this way:

We thank Thee, holy Father, for Thy holy name which You didst cause to tabernacle in our hearts, and for the knowledge and faith and immortality, which You modest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever. Thou, Master almighty, didst create all things for Thy name's sake; You gavest food and drink to men for enjoyment, that they might give thanks to Thee; but to us You didst freely give spiritual food and drink and life eternal through Thy Servant. Before all things we thank Thee that You are mighty; to Thee be the glory for ever. Remember, Lord, Thy Church, to deliver it from all evil and to make it perfect in Thy love, and gather it from the four winds, sanctified for Thy kingdom which Thou have prepared for it; for Thine is the power and the glory for ever. Let grace come, and let this world pass away. Hosanna to the God (Son) of David! If any one is holy, let him come; if any one is not so, let him repent. Maranatha. Amen.

But permit the prophets to make Thanksgiving as much as they desire.

Chapter 11. Concerning Teachers, Apostles, and Prophets. Whosoever, therefore, comes and teaches you all these things that have been said before, receive him. But if the teacher himself turns and teaches another doctrine to the destruction of this, hear him not. But if he teaches so as to increase righteousness and the knowledge of the Lord, receive him as the Lord. But concerning the apostles and prophets, act according to the decree of the Gospel. Let every apostle who comes to you be received as the Lord. But he shall not remain more than one day; or two days, if there's a need. But if he remains three days, he is a false prophet. And when the apostle goes away, let him take nothing but bread until he lodges. If he asks for money, he is a false prophet. And every prophet who speaks in the Spirit you shall neither try nor judge; for every sin shall be forgiven, but this sin shall not be forgiven. But not every one who speaks in the Spirit is a prophet; but only if he holds the ways of the Lord. Therefore from their ways shall the false prophet and the prophet be known. And every prophet who orders a meal in the Spirit does not eat it, unless he is indeed a false prophet. And every prophet who teaches the truth, but does not do what he teaches, is a false prophet. And every prophet, proved true, working unto the mystery of the Church in the world, yet not teaching others to do what he himself does, shall not be judged among you, for with God he has his judgment; for so did also the ancient prophets. But whoever says in the Spirit, Give me money, or something else, you shall not listen to him. But if he tells you to give for others' sake who are in need, let no one judge him.

Chapter 12. Reception of Christians.
But receive everyone who comes in the name of the Lord, and prove and know him afterward; for you shall have understanding right and left. If he who comes is a wayfarer, assist him as far as you are able; but he shall not remain with you more than two or three days, if need be. But if he wants to stay with you, and is an artisan, let him work and eat. But if he has no trade, according to your understanding, see to it that, as a Christian, he shall not live with you idle. But if he wills not to do, he is a Christ-monger. Watch that you keep away from such.

Chapter 13. Support of Prophets.
But every true prophet who wants to live among you is worthy of his support. So also a true teacher is himself worthy, as the workman, of his support. Every first-fruit, therefore, of the products of wine-press and threshing-floor, of oxen and of sheep, you shall take and give to the prophets, for they are your high priests. But if you have no prophet, give it to the poor. If you make a batch of dough, take the first-fruit and give according to the commandment. So also when you open a jar of wine or of oil, take the first-fruit and give it to the prophets; and of money (silver) and clothing and every possession, take the first-fruit, as it may seem good to you, and give according to the commandment.

Chapter 14. Christian Assembly on the Lord's Day.
But every Lord's day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one who is at odds with his fellow come together with you, until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be profaned. For this is that which was spoken by the Lord: "In every place and time offer to me a pure sacrifice; for I am a great King, says the Lord, and my name is wonderful among the nations."

Chapter 15. Bishops and Deacons; Christian Reproof.
Appoint, therefore, for yourselves, bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men meek, and not lovers of money, and truthful and proved; for they also render to you the service of prophets and teachers. Therefore do not despise them, for they are your honored ones, together with the prophets and teachers. And reprove one another, not in anger, but in peace, as you have it in the Gospel. But to anyone that acts amiss against another, let no one speak, nor let him hear anything from you until he repents. But your prayers and alms and all your deeds so do, as you have it in the Gospel of our Lord.

Chapter 16. Watchfulness; the Coming of the Lord.
Watch for your life's sake. Let not your lamps be quenched, nor your loins unloosed; but be ready, for you know not the hour in which our Lord will come. But come together often, seeking the things which are befitting to your souls: for the whole time of your faith will not profit you, if you are not made perfect in the last time. For in the last days false prophets and corrupters shall be multiplied, and the sheep shall be turned into wolves, and love shall be turned into hate; for when lawlessness increases, they shall hate and persecute and betray one another, and then shall appear the world-deceiver as Son of God, and shall do signs and wonders, and the earth shall be delivered into his hands, and he shall do iniquitous things which have never yet come to pass since the beginning. Then shall the creation of men come into the fire of trial, and many shall be made to stumble and shall perish; but those who endure in their faith shall be saved from under the curse itself. And then shall appear the signs of the truth: first, the sign of an outspreading in heaven, then the sign of the sound of the trumpet. And third, the resurrection of the dead -- yet not of all, but as it is said: "The Lord shall come and all His saints with Him." Then shall the world see the Lord coming upon the clouds of heaven.

Pandora's Box?

As you may have read or seen on the news, the Church in Wales has agreed that women may now be consecrated Bishops. For some that is good news as it now recognises that women’s ministry and calling to the priesthood is fully and finally realised as being on an equal footing to men. For others it is a sign that the Church in Wales has decided to set aside nearly 2000 years of tradition and cut itself off even further from the other historic denominations—Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches—and others. Whatever your position there are several things to consider:

First, this does not mean that overnight we will see the consecration of a woman bishop in the Diocese or indeed the Church in Wales. Partly because the current bishops still have their time to serve, partly because at the present time there is no queue of women lining up ready and able to serve in that position, and partly because the Constitution of the Church has to be re-written to take account of the change of Law.
Second, the Church in Wales will, next April, be working on a code of practice that will enable those who are opposed to the measure to continue to stay and work in the Church into which God called them. The consecration of women bishops may well be delayed until after this.
Third, although the consensus at the present time is that this is the right thing and God’s will for the Church, only time will tell. In the words of Gamaliel in Acts 5:38-39:

“ If their plan comes from human authority, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop them. You might even be fighting against God himself!” 

If it is wrong I have several concerns:
First, the Church in Wales is in rapid decline and nothing short of an act of grace will save it from dying out altogether. If the consecration of women as Bishops is seen as one possible solution to that I fear that that is a mistake as there is no quick fix to the predicament we are in.
Second, I hope and pray that this does not lead to the emasculation of the Church i.e. that is does not reinforce the idea of some men that church is for women. True the majority of those who attend and work so hard in and for the Church are women, but will their new position of authority lead to a further imbalance in the sexes attending?
Third, I also hope that it does not encourage extreme feminists to see the Church not only as another career option, but an opportunity to score political points in order to demonstrate that women can do as good a job as men if not better. Of course seeing Church ministry as a career has been a danger for men too and I have seen too many take that route not only to their own detriment but also to the Church’s. However given the exclusion of women from the upper echelons of the Church there may possibly be an added incentive for some women to apply in order to score points.  However that is NOT to say that there are not genuine, godly servants of Christ among both sexes and we are lucky to have some in our own Diocese.

What is clear however is that we will see more clergy leave the Church in Wales, because despite the offer of drawing up a code of practice some will see that now the lid is off Pandora’s Box it will never be shut again, at least not in the Church in Wales as it currently stands.

What is also clear too is that the bishop, historically and traditionally seen as a figure of unity in the Church, can no longer be so as long as the church contains those who oppose women bishops. So we have lost something precious and important to the Church. In addition as people leave some will join the Ordinariate of the Roman Catholic Church. Some may become Orthodox and others Baptists or some such. Some may even start Churches of their own, rather like the United States of America, further fragmenting an already deeply fractured worldwide Church into more pieces. Last estimates are that there are over 41,000 denominations or Christian organisations  in the world. Do we really need any more?

All of this may appear to be something of a dampener on what some see as the good news from Thursdays vote, but as someone who has friends on both sides of the debate and has served in the Church in Wales for 26 years it is inevitable that I am cautious and concerned about how all this will pan out. Goodness knows the calling is hard enough as it is without another layer of complication being slapped on top! And also as an Area Dean who crosses parish boundaries to work alongside those in both camps this will make things a little more complex than they already are. Bearing in mind too that eventually Parishes will cease and a larger entity - the Ministry Area - will emerge, how will this work out in respect of the team that is to come together.

I am sorry if this seems a rather negative response to Thursday's news but having lived and worked under one dispensation for such a long time it is hard to envisage how this will work out for the Church in Wales which is already struggling to sustain its shrinking congregations. In the words of my children, we'll have to "suck it and see."

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Repetition and life

Not all repetition is wrong. The Jesus Prayer is 'repetitious' but what better Name to repeat. Also our liturgies are repetitious too. Here is what G.K.Chesterton says about it:

"All the towering materialism which dominates the modern mind rests ultimately upon one assumption; a false assumption. It is supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead; a piece of clockwork. People feel that if the universe was personal it would vary; if the sun were alive it would dance. This is a fallacy even in relation to known fact. For the variation in human affairs is generally brought into them, not by life, but by death; by the dying down or breaking off of their strength or desire…

To put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grow-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore."
- See more at:

Who is Church for? Believers or unbelievers?

Today I am to speak to the Mothers' Union and have been pondering what to talk about. I ended up writing two talks but delivering another, completely extempore about the Jesus Prayer. Why the change of mind?

I wrote the first talk but was deeply unhappy about it and so abandoned it half way through. More of that in a moment. I then went on to write another talk which was based on more recent facts and figures about the demise of the Church in Wales and how we really should evangelise or cease to exist. As I was walking down to the Church having completed and printed the talk, praying as I went, I became more and more dissatisfied with what I had written feeling that it was rather negative and uninspiring.

Which was why, before the meeting started, I decided to take out my chotki (prayer rope) and talk about the Jesus Prayer. As it happened this was the right choice and seemed to elicit a good response.

But back to the first talk. The first talk started out as a kind of apologetic as to why I have changed the services from weekly Holy Communions at the 10.30 to every other week, interspersed with an All Age Service and a Morning Worship. The reason, so my talk went, was because we need to obey God's command to "Go, make disciples of all nations..." (Matthew 28:19ff) and the primary opportunity we have of doing this is through our weekly services where we can make welcome those who come to seek. To give these seekers a better chance of understanding the message, therefore, we should make the services as simple and as easy to relate to and understand as possible in the hope that they will come to follow Jesus Christ as his disciples. And to make the point I found a handy reference in the Book of Acts Chapter 15:19 which says: "...we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles (read non-believers) who are turning to God." 

Before going any further I decided to read the whole passage as a way of introducing my talk. It was then that it hit me. The passage is about the Council of Jerusalem meeting to decide what to do with Gentile converts to the Christian Faith who, the Jewish Christians said should be circumcised if they wanted to be part of the Church. In other words the people in question were already Christians. Peter, speaking at the council of Apostle and Elders (verse 7-8) says:

"Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the Gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us..." 

In other words the Gentiles were believers not non-believers and the Council met to talk about circumcision should be demanded of them if they were to become part of the Church. The decision of James, the leader of the council, was that no other demands should be made because they were already believers. This is why he says "we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles"  or in another translation "we should put no stumbling-block in their way" (Amplified Bible). 

Seeing this I came to the following conclusions:
1. I had fallen into the trap of reading into Scripture what I wanted to read in order to bolster my own presuppositions.
2. I was imposing onto the New Testament understanding of the Church my own understanding based on the current needs of today.
3. I was asking a fundamental question that needs addressing, which is this: "Who is the Church for? Believers of unbelievers? Christians or non-Christians?" Its a hugely important question because upon the answer depends what goes on in our Sunday services as well as how we do them.

I will not attempt to answer that question now because I need to go away and think about the answer and spend some time in the Bible and Church History to see what is said there. However it is a big question that the Church in Wales and other Anglican Churches need to sit down and think about because the answer is crucial to how we do our evangelism, inside or outside our churches. One hint, possibly, at what the answer may be. Jesus said "God and make disciples of all nations." (Matthew 28:19ff). Notice it is a call to action and a call to go from where they were - Jerusalem - to where others were "all nations". Staying in Church therefore seems to be the opposite of what Jesus expected.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

God at the centre

“Imagine that the world is a circle, that God is the centre, and that the radii are the different ways human beings live. When those who wish to come closer to God walk towards the centre of the circle, they come closer to one another at the same time as to God. The closer they come to God, the closer they come to one another. And the closer they come to one another, the closer they come to God.” (Instructions VI.)
Dorotheus of Gaza 6th Century - Humility and Communion

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

True prayer

I have been thinking a lot about prayer recently. Like many Christians I suspect I am never happy with my prayer life and always think I can pray more or better. Part of this is that I rarely feel that my prayer is authentic. It's like stretching out for something which just keeps moving out of your reach. I suspect that this is, in some way, deliberate on God's part as He wants to encourage us to move closer to Him, like a parent teaching a toddler to walk by moving a little further away each time the toddler gets close.

Thinking about what is and what is not 'authentic' I came across the following quote by a 20th century theologian Oscar Cullman (1902-1999) which made me think:

"The essence of all prayer is that it is a conversation with God as the partner. As soon as purposes creep in which distract from this goal, prayer is profaned, and if it is then supposed to be talk with God, it becomes blasphemous hypocrisy. None of the opponents of prayer who want to dismiss true prayer by referring to this wrong kind of prayer has characterized this distortion and censured it as sharply as Jesus did.

The parable of the Pharisee and the publican (Luke 18:10ff) is an example of this criticism. The Pharisee is pretending to himself and others that he is thanking God. In reality, in his prayer he only has himself and other human beings in view. Feuerbach's verdict on prayer, that it is worship of one's own heart, applies to this form of prayer which is censured by Jesus. The Pharisee is not talking with God, whereas the publican with his petition for pardon, in awareness of his sin, is seeking to make contact with God."
Oscar Cullman: Prayer in the New Testament 

Distractions figure much in books on prayer and much ink has been spilled over the centuries teaching seekers after authenticity how to avoid or deal with them. Here Cullman is perhaps talking about distractions in their more simple form i.e. as wrong petitions based on wrong motives. Or the kind of prayer that involves hiding your true self behind the prayer that you make like the Pharisee in Jesus' parable above.

So prayer starts not just by asking who God is, but with who am I? Its a tough question and we need God to help us answer that as honestly as possible. I guess that that is why Bible reading is so key to the Christian's prayer life. There we come face to face with humanity at its best and its worst. A quick trawl through the heroes and heroines of the faith will show that they were people shot through with imperfections and flaws. But their redeeming feature was that they were honest about themselves and at the end of the day that is all God is looking for. So is at its most authentic when we are.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Where are all the men gone?

I recently had an interesting conversation about the lack of men in the Anglican Church - this is the Church we know - and what my colleague referred to as the growing emasculization of the Church. What is the cause of it? The Ordination of Women? The dumbing down of the Gospel? Touchy-feely worship? The following is a fascinating article by Frederica Mathewes-Green who is talking about how and why men seem to be attracted to the Eastern Orthodox Church and contains some points of interest to those of us who are concerned about the present imbalance in our own denomination.

"In a time when churches of every description are faced with Vanishing Male Syndrome, men are showing up at Eastern Orthodox churches in numbers that, if not numerically impressive, are proportionately intriguing. This may be the only church which attracts and holds men in numbers equal to women. As Leon Podles wrote in his 1999 book, "The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity," "The Orthodox are the only Christians who write basso profundo church music, or need to."

Rather than guess why this is, I emailed a hundred Orthodox men, most of whom joined the Church as adults. What do they think makes this church particularly attractive to men? Their responses, below, may spark some ideas for leaders in other churches, who are looking for ways to keep guys in the church.

The term most commonly cited by these men was "challenging." Orthodoxy is "active and not passive." "It's the only church where you are required to adapt to it, rather than it adapting to you." "The longer you are in it, the more you realize it demands of you."

The "sheer physicality of Orthodox worship" is part of the appeal. Regular days of fasting from meat and dairy, "standing for hours on end, performing prostrations, going without food and water [before communion]...When you get to the end you feel that you've faced down a challenge." "Orthodoxy appeals to a man's desire for self-mastery through discipline."

"In Orthodoxy, the theme of spiritual warfare is ubiquitous; saints, including female saints, are warriors. Warfare requires courage, fortitude, and heroism. We are called to be 'strugglers' against sin, to be 'athletes' as St. Paul says. And the prize is given to the victor. The fact that you must 'struggle' during worship by standing up throughout long services is itself a challenge men are willing to take up."      

A recent convert summed up, "Orthodoxy is serious. It is difficult. It is demanding. It is about mercy, but it's also about overcoming oneself. I am challenged in a deep way, not to 'feel good about myself' but to become holy. It is rigorous, and in that rigor I find liberation. And you know, so does my wife."

Clear Disciplines.
Several mentioned that they really appreciated having clarity about the content of these challenges and what they were supposed to do. "Most guys feel a lot more comfortable when they know what's expected of them." "Orthodoxy presents a reasonable set of boundaries."  "It's easier for guys to express themselves in worship if there are guidelines about how it's supposed to work—especially when those guidelines are so simple and down-to-earth that you can just set out and start doing something."

"The prayers the Church provides for us — morning prayers, evening prayers, prayers before and after meals, and so on — give men a way to engage in spirituality without feeling put on the spot, or worrying about looking stupid because they don't know what to say."
They appreciate learning clear-cut physical actions that are expected to form character and understanding. "People begin learning immediately through ritual and symbolism, for example, by making the sign of the cross. This regimen of discipline makes one mindful of one's relation to the Trinity, to the Church, and to everyone he meets."

A Goal. 
Men also appreciate that this challenge has a goal: union with God. One said that in a previous church "I didn't feel I was getting anywhere in my spiritual life (or that there was anywhere to get to — I was already there, right?) But something, who knew what, was missing. Isn't there SOMETHING I should be doing, Lord?"

Orthodoxy preserves and transmits ancient Christian wisdom about how to progress toward this union, which is called "theosis." Every sacrament or spiritual exercise is designed to bring the person, body and soul, further into continual awareness of the presence of Christ within, and also within every other human being. As a cloth becomes saturated with dye by osmosis, we are saturated with God by theosis.

A catechumen wrote that he was finding icons helpful in resisting unwanted thoughts. "If you just close your eyes to some visual temptation, there are plenty of stored images to cause problems. But if you surround yourself with icons, you have a choice of whether to look at something tempting or something holy."

A priest writes, "Men need a challenge, a goal, perhaps an adventure — in primitive terms, a hunt. Western Christianity has lost the ascetic, that is, the athletic aspect of Christian life. This was the purpose of monasticism, which arose in the East largely as a men's movement. Women entered monastic life as well, and our ancient hymns still speak of women martyrs as showing 'manly courage.'"

"Orthodoxy emphasizes DOING. …. Guys are ACTIVITY oriented."

No Sentimentality. 
In "The Church Impotent," cited above (and recommended by several of these men), Leon Podles offers a theory about how Western Christian piety became feminized. In the 12th-13th centuries a particularly tender, even erotic, strain of devotion arose, one which invited the individual believer to picture himself or herself (rather than the Church as a whole) as the Bride of Christ. "Bridal Mysticism" was enthusiastically adopted by devout women, and left an enduring stamp on Western Christianity. It understandably had less appeal for guys. For centuries in the West, men who chose the ministry have been stereotyped as effeminate. A life-long Orthodox layman says that, from the outside, Western Christianity strikes him as "a love story written for women by women."

The Eastern Church escaped Bridal Mysticism because the great split between East and West had already taken place. The men who wrote me expressed hearty dislike for what they perceive as a soft Western Jesus. "American Christianity in the last two hundred years has been feminized. It presents Jesus as a friend, a lover, someone who 'walks with me and talks with me.' This is fine rapturous imagery for women who need a social life. Or it depicts Jesus whipped, dead on the cross. Neither is the type of Christ the typical male wants much to do with."

During worship, "men don't want to pray in the Western fashion with hands clasped, lips pressed together, and a facial expression of forced serenity." "It's guys holding hands with other guys and singing campfire songs." "Lines about 'reaching out for His embrace,' 'wanting to touch His face,' while being 'overwhelmed by the power of His love'—those are difficult songs for one man to sing to another Man."

"A friend of mine told me that the first thing he does when he walks into a church is to look at the curtains. That tells him who is making the decisions in that church, and the type of Christian they want to attract."

"Guys either want to be challenged to fight for a glorious and honorable cause, and get filthy dirty in the process, or to loaf in our recliners with plenty of beer, pizza, and football. But most churches want us to behave like orderly gentlemen, keeping our hands and mouths nice and clean."

One man said that worship at his Pentecostal church had been "largely an emotional experience. Feelings. Tears. Repeated rededication of one's life to Christ, in large emotional group settings. Singing emotional songs, swaying hands aloft. Even Scripture reading was supposed to produce an emotional experience. I am basically a do-er, I want to do things, and not talk about or emote my way through them! As a business person I knew that nothing in business comes without effort, energy, and investment. Why would the spiritual life be any different?"

Another, who visited Catholic churches, says, "They were conventional, easy, and modern, when my wife and I were looking for something traditional, hard, and counter-cultural, something ancient and martial." A catechumen says that at his non-denominational church "worship was shallow, haphazard, cobbled together from whatever was most current; sometimes we'd stand, sometimes we'd sit, without much rhyme or reason to it. I got to thinking about how a stronger grounding in tradition would help."

"It infuriated me on my last Ash Wednesday that the priest delivered a homily about how the real meaning of Lent is to learn to love ourselves more. It forced me to realize how completely sick I was of bourgeois, feel-good American Christianity."

A convert priest says that men are drawn to the dangerous element of Orthodoxy, which involves "the self-denial of a warrior, the terrifying risk of loving one's enemies, the unknown frontiers to which a commitment to humility might call us. Lose any of those dangerous qualities and we become the 'JoAnn Fabric Store' of churches: nice colors and a very subdued clientele."

"Men get pretty cynical when they sense someone's attempting to manipulate their emotions, especially when it's in the name of religion. They appreciate the objectivity of Orthodox worship. It's not aimed at prompting religious feelings but at performing an objective duty."

Yet there is something in Orthodoxy that offers "a deep masculine romance. Do you understand what I mean by that? Most romance in our age is pink, but this is a romance of swords and gallantry."

From a deacon: "Evangelical churches call men to be passive and nice (think 'Mr. Rogers'). Orthodox churches call men to be courageous and act (think 'Braveheart').

Jesus Christ. 
What draws men to Orthodoxy is not simply that it's challenging or mysterious. What draws them is the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the center of everything the Church does or says.

In contrast to some other churches, "Orthodoxy offers a robust Jesus" (and even a robust Virgin Mary, for that matter, hailed in one hymn as "our Captain, Queen of War"). Several used the term "martial" or referred to Orthodoxy as the "Marine Corps" of Christianity. (The warfare is against self-destructive sin and the unseen spiritual powers, not other people, of course.)

One contrasted this "robust" quality with "the feminized pictures of Jesus I grew up with. I've never had a male friend who would not have expended serious effort to avoid meeting someone who looked like that." Though drawn to Jesus Christ as a teen, "I felt ashamed of this attraction, as if it were something a red-blooded American boy shouldn't take that seriously, almost akin to playing with dolls."

A priest writes: "Christ in Orthodoxy is a militant, Jesus takes Hell captive. Orthodox Jesus came to cast fire on the earth. (Males can relate to this.) In Holy Baptism we pray for the newly-enlisted warriors of Christ, male and female, that they may 'be kept ever warriors invincible.'"

After several years in Orthodoxy, one man found a service of Christmas carols in a Protestant church "shocking, even appalling." Compared to the Orthodox hymns of Christ's Nativity, "'the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay' has almost nothing to do with the Eternal Logos entering inexorably, silently yet heroically, into the fabric of created reality."

Many intellectually-inclined Orthodox converts began by reading Church history and the early Christian writers, and found it increasingly compelling. Eventually they faced the question of which of the two most ancient churches, the Roman Catholic or the Orthodox, makes the most convincing claim of being the original Church of the Apostles.

A lifelong Orthodox says that what men like is "stability: Men find they can trust the Orthodox Church because of the consistent and continuous tradition of faith it has maintained over the centuries." A convert says, "The Orthodox Church offers what others do not: continuity with the first followers of Christ." This is continuity, not archeology; the early church still exists, and you can join it.

"What drew me was Christ's promises to the Church about the gates of hell not prevailing, and the Holy Spirit leading into all truth—and then seeing in Orthodoxy a unity of faith, worship, and doctrine with continuity throughout history."

Another word for continuity is "tradition." A catechumen writes that he had tried to learn everything necessary to interpret Scripture correctly, including ancient languages. "I expected to dig my way down to the foundation and confirm everything I'd been taught. Instead, the further down I went, the weaker everything seemed. I realized I had only acquired the ability to manipulate the Bible to say pretty much anything I wanted it to. The only alternative to cynicism was tradition. If the Bible was meant to say anything, it was meant to say it within a community, with a tradition to guide the reading. In Orthodoxy I found what I was looking for."

Men in Balance. 
A priest writes: "There are only two models for men: be 'manly' and strong, rude, crude, macho, and probably abusive; or be sensitive, kind, repressed and wimpy. But in Orthodoxy, masculine is held together with feminine; it's real and down to earth, 'neither male nor female,' but Christ who 'unites things in heaven and things on earth.'"

Another priest comments that, if one spouse is originally more insistent about the family converting to Orthodoxy than the other, "when both spouses are making confessions, over time they both become deepened and neither one is as dominant in the spiritual relationship."

Men in Leadership. 
Like it or not, men simply prefer to be led by men. In Orthodoxy, lay women do everything lay men do, including preach, teach, and chair the parish council. But behind the iconostasis, around the altar, it's all men. One respondent summarized what men like in Orthodoxy this way: "Beards!"

"It's the last place in the world men aren't told they're evil simply for being men." Instead of negativity, they are constantly surrounded by positive role models in the saints, in icons and in the daily round of hymns and stories about saints' lives. This is another concrete element that men appreciate — there are other real human beings to look to, rather than a blur of ethereal terms. "The glory of God is a man fully alive," said St. Irenaeus. One writer adds that "The best way to attract a man to the Orthodox Church is to show him an Orthodox man."

But no secondary thing, no matter how good, can supplant first place. "A dangerous life is not the goal. Christ is the goal. A free spirit is not the goal. Christ is the goal. He is the towering figure of history around whom all men and women will eventually gather, to whom every knee will bow, and whom every tongue will confess."      
See December 2007 issue of The Word magazine and here

Put your hand in the hand of Jesus

The Archbishop of York offered the BBC presenter Andrew Marr a striking gesture of solidarity as he returned to work after suffering a stroke – taking his hand live on television and offering to pray for healing. Dr John Sentamu is himself recovering from life-saving cancer surgery and during the interview about politics, dispensed with formality to tell the broadcaster of his faith in miracles.

Mr Marr, 54, had returned to the air after a nine-month absence following a stroke which has affected movement down his left side. The interview confirmed a return to public life for both men.

The Archbishop spoke widely on issues ranging from the conflict in Syria, and the elections in Zimbabwe to gay marriage and the living wage closer to home.As the interview concluded Mr Marr turned to Dr Sentamu and said: “Archbishop, thank you very much indeed for that – you have also been ill so it is wonderful to see you back as well.”

Dr Sentamu replied: “I would say the same and I just want to tell you what happened to me when I had this terrible illness, friends prayed for me and friends encouraged me and I just hope the same happened to you.”

Then pointing to Mr Marr’s left arm, he quoted a passage in the Bible which recounts the story of Jesus healing a man with a disabled hand. Mr Marr reached his arm across to the Archbishop who clasped his hand.He said: “In Luke Chapter Six, there is a man with a hand like yours, Jesus raises it up and I’m going work hard, I'm going to work .... there that your hand begins to work."Nice to see you back, nice to see you.”

Mr Marr laughed and thanked him adding: "Needs some work on it, needs some work on it."

What struck me about the interview was that the opportunity for the Archbishop to offer prayer came through an act of solidarity between the two men who had both had life-threatening health problems. What could have been an awkward moment actually became quite a touching one - excuse the pun - when one man who had found help offered hope to the other.

Jesus offers us hope and help as one who has suffered. When the Archbishop reached out to Andrew Marr he was following in Jesus' footsteps.

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 ...