Sep 262011
 

Today I had another cross-country jaunt to check out another possible vacant charge. My primary purpose was to ‘compare and contrast’ with the one that it currently bubbling away as a distinct possibility. I had various reasons for not being too interested, but its ‘c&c’ role made it a potentially useful visit.

Aaaargghhh!!!

Now it’s top of my list!

And it still has some of the issues that put me off it in the first place.

And one of the main reasons why I was being advised against it (sort of) is the very reason I like it.

All this ‘discernment’ stuff is really doing my head in. Just when I think I’ve got somewhere more or less sussed, along comes something to muddy the waters. (s’pose that’s why it’s called discernment.)

Actually, it’s not really a muddy-ing of the waters, to be fair. Either of the two places currently attracting me would be good charges. Both are quite different from each other and both have, I’d say, quite different challenges. The issue is less about how unclear a call is, but rather making a decision between two clear, to me, calls.

Mind you, I’m somewhat jumping the gun. As far as I know, one of the charges only has me interested. The other appears to be fairly popular. A little bit of me is saying, “Well, you’ll not get it anyway. There are loads more ministers out there who are better than you. You don’t deserve such a great place.”

It’s hard to ignore those thoughts and turn the focus on the apparent ‘certainty’ of one of them. But that doesn’t feel right either. But I don’t want to get my hopes up on what might only be an outside possibility. And I feel a bit guilty about appearing so keen for the first one and now I’m looking elsewhere.

And all that makes me feel confused. Probably not the best state of mind to be making decisions and a definite sign of needing more time in contemplation and prayer.

In the meantime, two applications will be getting put out and I had better stop looking for the moment until some of the confusion clears.

Sep 222011
 

Stewart’s recent running training (and fundraising success) has led him to think about running with others from time to time. It got me thinking about how we might use the ‘Park Life’ concept within the mission of the church. We are often quick to create events where we expect people to turn up. Whether that is a ‘back to church Sunday’ day or a revival rally in the local park, there is the expectation that people will come because it’s an event and therefore ‘special’ or even ‘worth it’. And it seems to me that we then have trouble sustaining the ‘special’ quality of the event thereafter in the ordinariness of our faith life and in our mission work.

But what if rather than expecting people to ‘join up’ we simply made it possible for them to ‘join in’? Being a Christian is not about being a Christian on Sunday morning between 11 and 12 (or whenever). I know it’s about that faith ‘ethos’ infusing all that we do, but often that’s not too visible. If Christians were seen to be at work or play in their community, not doing Christian things, but simply doing things, is that a way of enabling people to join in?

It would, I think, need to be something that was done regularly to avoid becoming that one-off event. And it would need to be something that wasn’t already happening otherwise you end up competing and setting a tone of ‘joining up’ rather than joining in. And it would need to be something that facilitated relationships rather than just doing the ‘thing’, whatever that might be. And it would need to have, I think, some sort of Christian ‘context’, otherwise you’re just doing stuff that is no different from the stuff that everyone else does.

So what sort of thing might work in this context? Some sort of regular ‘clean-up’ walk around a community? A bunch of families meeting up in the park to play games? I don’t know, but there’s got to be something that enables joining in as a means to establishing relationships and relevance between a church and the community.

Sep 072011
 

As of the 1st of September I have been allowed to begin applying to vacant charges. Of course I had being doing some preparatory work and had a not so short list of likely places. I confess it was a somewhat arbitrary collection, based primarily on my ability to access their parish profile from a website. As it transpired there were not too many gaps based on my other arbitrary selection criteria, including geographic location.

One thing I have become very aware of over the last few months is a growing understanding of what my ministry ‘style’ is and what my priorities would be. Interestingly, this also means that I now realise I have expectations of a congregation, rather than simply looking to meet (or otherwise) their expectations. That has helped further refine the vacancies I have added to my working list.

That list though is still too long and I have been working on getting it down to a more manageable three or four. That hasn’t been easy, especially as skeletons begin to emerge when you do a bit of digging. One potential vacancy I mentioned met with extreme reactions from two people, quite independently of each other. I guess that’s a pretty blatant ‘stay away’ warning. As other factors have emerged (information gathered through interim moderators or knowledgeable others) that short list has changed, although one has stayed live from the beginning and another, introduced a little later, has also survived the refining process.

What has been conspicuous by its absence though has been that sense of, “Oh yes, that’s the one.” Consistent advice from others has been ‘you’ll just know’, and I’d agree with that based on past experience. I didn’t really expect that feeling simply through looking at parish profiles, to be fair, but I had expected some sort of ‘spark’ that might give me a clue.

However, as I reflected on how I was feeling about that, it became clear that any of my short list would actually be quite fine. I’m quite sure I would settle in well and be able to have a fruitful and engaging ministry in any of them. So there was actually no need for the ‘spark’, at least at this stage. I am sure that it will come though, when I meet a nominating committee, or sound out a place, or whenever. But, for the moment, it’s enough to know that there are places where I believe that it would ‘work’ for me (and not just me – there’s family to consider).

But I’ll still be watching out for the ‘spark’.

Aug 162011
 

The last one has been passed/jumped/got through. (Apart from the minor matter of actually finding a charge that is.)

I’ve never taken the view that the path to ministry is a series of hoops to jump through or boxes to be ticked. It is, rightly, a formation process. But it is, nevertheless, marked with critical points along the way. I’ve blogged about some of them in passing, ignoring others, but today’s was of some particular significance and is worthy of note. There is that minor issue of now finding a charge, but I would not even be in a position to begin looking were it not for the thumbs-up from today’s final review.

This short interview is the culmination of, for me, over six years of study, work and self-reflection. Five years of university, including enquiry periods (2-off), placements and then full-time probation. There have been ‘gates’ along that journey but that final review is the one that frees you to begin looking for the place where you will be let loose on real people, in the real world, without the safety net of an experienced supervisor.

Although it is a review, it is by no means a formality and ought to be approached with some sense of seriousness. I even dressed for the occasion – suit and tie – and proceeded to get a bit of a ribbing for it. But that’s OK, it all got swapped for ‘civvies’ soon enough when I got home. I also got a bit of a ribbing for the ‘tome’ I wrote for my final report – and that was just the edited highlights. I’ve just checked the word count and it was well on its way to being an honours dissertation. An intro and conclusion would have seen it pretty much there. But then I’ve had so much to reflect on and highlight over the past year – a sure indication that there is always more to learn and more to challenge.

The review itself was relaxed and chatty and seemed to be over in no time at all. My cup of tea was barely cold. Then it was just the brief pause of, “Can you wait outside for a few minutes?” followed by the happy words, “We’ve decided to sustain your probation.”

What that means in practical terms is that I will definitely be unemployed at the end of November. I had better get my act together, polish up my CV, and whittle down that vacancy short list.

In terms of ‘hurdles’ or ‘hoops’ for the Church of Scotland formation process, I have now passed the final one. In terms of challenges ahead, I get the feeling they are only really beginning.

Aug 042011
 

View from the Mount of OlivesOne thing I hadn’t really anticipated about Jerusalem was just how ‘compact’ it is. I just hadn’t really thought about how close together many of the known sites actually are. Maybe it’s the result of living in a medium-sized town or having lived in a city for a number of years, but I’m used to things being a ‘fair distance’ apart. Within the walls of the old town of Jerusalem you’re really never more than 15 to 20 minutes walk from anywhere (crowds permitting). It is, after all, a rough rectangle with its longest side about 1 mile long. Many of the events recorded in the New Testament which took place within Jerusalem happened within a good stone’s throw of each other (ish).

Even moving beyond the city walls, things are never really far away (at least in terms of Biblical sites – modern Jerusalem is a sizeable city, similar in size to Edinburgh); a trek from one place to another only extended because of having to descend into and out of the Kidron Valley or the Valley of Hinom (Gehenna). After our morning visit to the Haram, we spent the afternoon wandering across to the Mount of Olives and viewing many of the sites there and enjoying the views from it.

BethesdaBefore we got there though, we stopped off at Bethesda – the place of the healing miracle in John 5. What is fascinating about this place is the excavation of the site. In essence, you can see the ‘layers’ of history. In many respects, when you walk around Jerusalem you’re not entirely walking in Jesus’ footsteps. Many of the buildings and the paths now sit atop the rubble and stone of centuries of building and rebuilding. The site at Bethesda reveals some of those layers, going back, indeed, beyond Jesus’ time. The pool and site is associated with a much older ‘healer’ – Asclepius, the ancient Greek god of medicine. It reminded me of my fascination with the archaeological dig under St. Peter’s Cathedral in Geneva (which I never did get around to blogging about). That site in Geneva had a ‘spiritual’ link going back far into pre-Christian history – it was a burial site for a venerated warrior which, over time played host to various pagan and Christian churches. What fascinated me was the sense that a physical location could become a deeply spiritual place and make that link to the spiritual search within us which pre-dates Christianity and points to our innate spirituality and need to express the ‘beyond’ in some way. Bethesda, in a sense, falls into the same category – a ‘touching place’ with the ‘other’, with God, where the water would ripple from time to time and healing was believed to take place. The miracle Jesus performed didn’t require the water, of course. And how much more powerful would the impact of that miracle have been having been done, in that way, in a place normally associated with healing? Of course, the subsequent events show just what that impact was.

But onwards to the Mount of Olives.

Continue reading »

Jul 112011
 

Dome on the RockWe were especially privileged on our trip to have with us some excellent guides and thanks to the scholarly contacts of one of them we had an invitation to visit the mosques which now sit atop the Temple mount in the old town in Jerusalem. The most famous is perhaps the Dome on the Rock with its stunning golden dome blazing in the sun. (Although, I suppose it might be more correctly named a shrine rather than a mosque.)

But this is just one of three significant mosques on this site. Another is the Aqsa Mosque, the main site for Friday prayers. This sits on the southern edge of the Temple area and above another mosque – Solomon’s Stables. The story is that when the Moslems gained control of the site they were so impressed by the Temple remains that they assumed Solomon must have had supernatural help to build. The ‘stables’ – a huge colonnaded (not sure if that’s the correct architectural description) area under the site – must have been where Solomon stabled the Djinns needed to move the massive blocks of stone. The irony being that the huge blocks were a legacy of Herod the Great, not Solomon.

The three mosques are not generally open to idle visitors. Nevertheless we were allowed access and were able to photograph what we wanted. In some respects Solomon’s Stables is the least impressive of the three – at least in the sense of ornamentation or fittings. But it is an absolutely enormous space (the photos – the ones of the space with the red and silver-striped carpet – simply don’t do it justice), stunning in its size. The Aqsa mosque is also an enormous space and has some beautiful features. It was fascinating to watch the birds wheel about inside, so large and airy it is. In the photo album, it’s the building with the red, chequered carpeting.

Sadly, the Dome on the Rock was undergoing extensive repairs and refurbishment so the area above ‘the Rock’ (believed to be, variously, the site of the Holy of Holies, or where Abraham was to sacrifice Isaac, or where Muhammad left the earth) was shrouded in scaffolding and panelling. There are some photos of the interior though showing some of the beautiful features.

But all of this can be looked up in a guide book or online and you’ll find a lot more information and better photos than I can ever provide here. The Haram is a beautiful place, with tree-shaded walks and beautiful architecture. It also houses a project which is restoring ancient manuscripts through very skilled and painstaking work. Groups sit around studying the Quran – and it was noted that there were many more study groups of women to be seen now.

But the place is at the heart of the disagreement between Jew and Arab. For each, the site is central to their faith (albeit not of the highest importance in Islam) and, as such, is crucial to their identity. Giving up the site would be like denying who you are. I think it’s this that Western culture doesn’t ‘get’. Listening to groups of US Jews being guided to the Western Wall, it was clear that so much of their personal identity is wrapped up in their national identity which, in turn, is wrapped up in their faith identity. And core to that is the holy site of the Temple. It is from there, that the sense of identity flows. One is left with the impression that without agreement on the Temple area there will never be agreement on any other aspect of the relationship. And it’s difficult to see how the issue of the Temple can ever be resolved.

For many Westerners, it’s just ‘a place’. Places have no true importance. Of course we have emotional attachments to places – just think of the hurt and anguish caused by a suggested union of two congregations here. But, ultimately, a place is just a place; a thing of bricks and mortar, of wood and tiles. Certainly for the (Western) Christian faith, a believer’s identity is not in a place, but in the person of Jesus.

But I wonder if we also miss a little something in our poor understanding of the Jewish or Muslim faith (and perhaps even the Christian faith). When we place our identity entirely in a person, we can overly personalise our faith. We forget that Jesus was not an individual, but a person of the Trinity, and so inherently part of a community. When our faith is too ‘personal’ we cease to be a part of a community and our ‘identity’ is diminished. Furthermore, that community has a place, both in the sense of its own place in wider society, but also a place where it can gather as a faith community. I think that when we know our ‘place’, within a faith community and within a wider community, then we can more fully serve and live our faith, for we understand its place in our life and in the life of those around us.

Jul 022011
 

The Scots Hotel, TiberiasOur long roundabout route to get to Tiberias did have the bonus of a lovely dinner and a comfortable night in the Scots Hotel. The hotel is not without its own controversy within the Church of Scotland. It is, unashamedly, up-market and represents a very significant investment on the part of the CofS. There are many who question its value and place within the CofS. I don’t intend to (or wish to) rehearse all the arguments here, but I will say that, in one respect at least, it serves as a very challenging witness to the businesses around it. The hotel prides itself on its ‘equal opportunities’ employment policy and, in a country and political situation where discrimination is rife, that stands out. Is that enough to justify its continued support? Probably not, but it does intend to do much more to be a visible presence in the area. It already supports small community enterprises through its purchasing options, for example. In a country and climate where there is a very real risk (and reality) of ‘de-humanising’ the ‘other’, such visible witness is not to be under-estimated and is to be applauded and supported. But it does put the CofS in a very vulnerable position. At this year’s General Assembly, some concern was expressed at the Church’s refusal to support a boycott of Israeli goods due to the risk of being declared an ‘illegal organisation’ by Israel. It would be places like the Scots Hotel which would suffer under such a declaration. The politics of Israel and Palestine are nothing if not complex, challenging and far-reaching. Continue reading »

Jun 032011
 

After an afternoon catching up on some rest, a smaller, ‘intrepid’ group set out to walk down to the City of David and, from there, walk back up to the Old Town, through the Dung Gate, meet the rest of the group and then find a vantage point to view the gathering at the Western Wall as the Sabbath approached.

It was a lengthy walk and we took a wrong turn which extended our wander. the City of David is an Arab part of the city and can be an area for trouble. Our word of warning was to answer only in English so as not to be mistaken for Jews, getting caught out with an incorrect reply to a greeting. It was an uncomfortable walk, with an ever-present sense of tension. I’m sure we were probably quite safe, but we were definitely under scrutiny. We were of particular interest to an Israeli Police patrol driving through, getting hard looks from the police officers. I guess we were a potential source of discontent from the locals. It was a definite sense of relief that we arrived back at the main walls and went through.

Earlier in the day we had found a good vantage point to view the Western Wall from and we made our way there. It was occupied by a group of American Jews on a trip ‘home’. We did manage to squeeze past to get to the part overlooking the Western Wall,but it was fascinating to listen to the various speakers addressing the large, all-age group of Jewish Americans. One of our group observed that it was in the best tradition of a more evangelical CU or SU group. It’s fascinating to observe, and slowly begin to get to grips with, the whole issue of identity being so bound up in faith and culture. Western culture has largely compartmentalised many of these things.

Observing the Sabbath gathering was also an experience. Perhaps a little irreverently I couldn’t help but think of a good-natured football crowd, with the different groups and clothes and chants. Again, there’s that whole issue of identity – faith, and its expression, is not simply something you ‘do’, but who you are. An interesting lesson for Western Christianity which still seems very tied to the ‘do’ model.

Jun 032011
 

We arrived in St. Andrew's Church of Scotland, JerusalemJerusalem at around 4.30 this morning and, after an all too brief catnap, were up and breakfasted at 8.oo am. I think it’s fair to say the the group looked tired, but all weariness was soon forgotten as we set off for a morning exploring the Old Town of Jerusalem within the city walls.

It is, without doubt, a fascinating place, with its narrow lanes crammed with market stalls and shops. There’s all the tourist tat, of course, but you soon find the ‘real’ shops, selling everything and anything. The spice shops announce their near presence with pungent aromas, and do the herbs and fruit sold from stalls or by individuals sitting to the side of a densely packed alley. And for those who are selling goods which do not announce themselves, their voices vie for attention, making the place seem strangely reminiscent of the, now gone, Barras in Glasgow.

We spent a fair bit of time in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a sprawling building which lays claim to the sites of Jesus’ death and burial, as well as some other places of religious significance. it’s quite a place – at once gaudy, yet magnificent; a place of obvious veneration, and yet also a place which, at times, can spark a riot.

Our walk around took in views of the Dome on the Rock, the Aqsa mosque, the Western Wall (wailing wall) and so many other sights of historical significance. We walked through the ancient city gates and stood on paths laid down countless generations ago.

It’s difficult to describe the feelings such places engender. There is the sense of history made real, a greater appreciation of where events (probably) took place (and, perhaps surprising, is their proximity – it’s not a huge place) and a growing realisation that our Westernised faith is, in a sense, the tip of an iceberg. Well, maybe not the tip – more probably just one little jaggy outcrop.

I also struggle to express my reaction because, in many ways, buildings don’t do much for me. Yes, I like to look at them, appreciate their art and architecture, but it’s ‘just’ a building. Where it becomes more real for me is where it connects to people and many of the buildings we saw today didn’t rally connect me with people. This might sound a little strange, given the history of the people, but I struggled to connect this morning, and not just because of the tiredness of travelling. It might also sound strange from someone who loved the visit to the archaeological dig below St. Peter’s Cathedral in Geneva. But, in that instance, it plotted a history of worship on a site, from pagan hero worship through to the Christian Cathedral today – and, for me, that was a story of people sensing something of God and attempting to express their worship.

It was only as we were returning to St. Andrew’s Scottish Guesthouse for lunch that there was an extra spark. Looking across the valley we could clearly see the path of the Separation Wall as it snaked its way across the countryside. In that strange juxtaposition, gazing past the ancient city walls to this new concrete barrier, the sense of a people’s history and story began to come together. Buildings are all very interesting, but when the ancient history clashes with the contemporary we realise that there is an enormously complex story to hand. And that is a story of people, with all its challenges and history and prejudices.

Just as a little aside, the photograph is of St. Andrew’s Church and Guesthouse. The valley in the foreground is Hinnom, or Gehenna (otherwise used as a reference for hell). It was suggested that the Church of Scotland is perched precariously above Gehenna. Depending on your views of the recent general Assembly decisions, you can decide whether it is teetering towards or away from the brink.

We’re having an afternoon to catch up on our rest, after our long travel time and then heading out to observe the start of the Sabbath at the Western Wall. That’s for another post later I think.

Jun 012011
 

The title should, arguably, be T-2 given that we won’t actually be arriving in Israel until very early on Friday morning, but we do set off tomorrow and that’s what counts. So T-1 it is.

I was looking up the places we’ll be staying and they have guest wi-fi, so the laptop will be coming with me and I’ll try and post something each day, if I can (and I’m awake).

Virtually everyone I have spoken with who has been to Israel, however briefly, have all spoken of the impact it made on them. Whether it was the sense of stepping into history or the challenge of the separation barrier, there was something that left an indelible impression.

So, I’m not really sure what to expect. Indeed, I am going with no expectations and simply will wait and see what strikes me each day and even each hour of each day. I’ve also been encouraged to keep an audio diary (for future radio show use) so I’m hoping that the ‘pressure’ to reflect on what I’m seeing and doing will not become the overriding sensation and that they will, more naturally, flow from the experiences.

There’s a bit of me that acknowledges that the trip is, in some respects, ‘external’ to my faith. I don’t need to see the places or walk the paths or experience the history in order for my faith to be ‘real’. But it’s an opportunity to add ‘colour’ to that which we read of in black and white. It’s also an opportunity to share some of that experience with others who are on the same journey and I find that more exciting in many ways. And all the more exciting because it is that shared experience, not simply a second-hand description of a place, an event or a conversation.

One thing I can be sure of though – I suspect I will have enough material to see me through Guild talks and kids’ addresses for the foreseeable future.

Time to finish packing.