Dec 242013
 

The ‘tradition’ in one of my church’s has been to have a Christingle service on Christmas Eve. I’ve nothing against them, but I wanted to do something different this year. Relying on last year’s example of a good number of visitors, I decided that I was going to have a nativity play – where (almost) everyone got a part.

So, we had loads of props and dressing-up stuff, and even those who didn’t get that into things were expected to join in the heavenly choir of angels shouting ‘Hallelujah’ at appropriate points, or providing animal noises for the stable. It was first come, first served for the main parts, but there was the possibility to be part of the group of shepherds, or join the angelic ranks.

In the end, most folk participated to some degree. It was all a bit chaotic as I tried to narrate and provide some scene-setting direction to those about to have speaking parts.

It was all a bit of a laugh, with the Christmas story being told through song, readings, and the nativity scenes.

But the main point was that everyone had an opportunity to join in, and it was this point I made when I summed it up. Christmas is an invitation to participation – through God’s ‘participation’ in our life through the incarnation. We could sit back and be passive spectators, ooh-ing and aah-ing at the cute presentations, but Christmas is a call to become involved; to be part of the good news story.

I hope everyone who came along ‘got’ that tonight, even in the messiness of it all (and there’s a message there too, I suspect).

I hope that you too will be blessed this Christmas, and that you get that bit more involved with God, as he calls us to participate in the ongoing story of his love come to us at Christmas.

Oct 272013
 

Today was our family harvest thanksgiving services in both churches. It was also communion in one.

I had chosen some familiar harvest hymns. We had a short video from our Messy Church – Messy Harvest morning from a couple of weeks back. I’d even dropped one of the hymns to make the service a little shorter – my earlier service congregation has an auction of the harvest produce offerings, the proceeds going to a particular charity; and since it was communion in the other church, I didn’t want the whole thing to run on too long, especially as it was a family service.

And so I didn’t want to do a full sermon either, and sat down yesterday to write up a harvest reflection. I took a lead from the Spill the Beans harvest material and wrote a reflection based on Psalm 8.

And I never delivered it.

Not that it was rubbish (at least I don’t think it is), but that after it had stewed in my brain for a few hours afterwards, I realised it was entirely inappropriate for a family service. No bad words (or even long words). Nothing like that. Just that the tone of it was a bit ‘serious’.

And so, as I was heading to bed last night (and looking forward to the extra hour) I realised that I would not be delivering that reflection, but what I would be saying was something else entirely.

Actually, I did ‘borrow’ from it as I did an ‘off the cuff’ all-age talk instead. It wasn’t entirely spontaneous – I did have a ‘framework’ in my head, and a handful of veggie props to talk about harvest.

Don’t know if it was better or worse for that, but it was certainly more suited to the overall tone of the service, so in that regard it can be considered better.

But what of the sermon I didn’t preach?

Maybe it’s something to file away for another time. Or maybe it’s something I had to hear for myself.

A little while ago I commented on Facebook that it was sometimes frustrating that the sermon I should have preached was the one going through my head after the service. Maybe this time I got the message early enough (and was listening).

Jan 222012
 

I suppose that over the next wee while I will experience lots of ‘firsts’ as I take up the reins in my first charge.

But there can be few ‘firsts’ quite so special as being invited to officiate at the wedding of a family member. One of the slight added pressures of getting into a charge was the request to conduct the wedding of my brother-in-law and his fiancée. However, the charge has arrived in good time and so I will be able to do the honours in due course.

So, last night was an opportunity to sit down with them and go through the order of service. Of course, never having done one of my own before, it was an interesting experience working out what was to be included in the liturgy, and why (and where). I know the CofS doesn’t hold to a sacramental view of marriage, and I’m happy with that, but I’ve recently been wondering about how we lift a marriage service beyond the ‘legalities with frills’.

I was slightly surprised to discover that the couple wanted something solidly Christian and with ‘gravitas’ (not the word used, but fitting). I was also keen to create the liturgy in such a way that the ‘congregation’ were more involved, or ‘invested’ in what was happening.

I think what we’ve come up with works really well. I suppose it’s loosely based on the 2nd order in Common Order, but definitely only loosely and with other bits thrown in. Broadly speaking, after the first hymn, and a short preamble, we’re into a reading (1Co 13:1-8, nothing original, but by request). This is followed by a short reflection setting the context of Christian marriage in the bigger picture of God’s love and restored relationships (a bit of a hobby-horse theme of mine at the moment) – relationships we are all part of. This then leads to the unifying recital of the Apostles’ Creed. On this basis of God-reflecting, loving relationship, we move into the marriage ceremony itself, finishing that part with a sung Aaronic blessing. There’s then a specially written choral piece during which we may or may not go and sign the schedule, then it’s a prayer, Lord’s prayer, 2nd hymn and benediction.

I like the ‘shape’ – the way it establishes a Christian foundation that is inclusive. I like the way it encourages participation – this is not ‘just’ about two people, but of a much bigger set of relationships. I also like the way that it manages to combine a ‘high’ approach with inclusivity (well, I think it does).

Downside is that it is quite lengthy, but the view of the bride is that it is this part that is the focal point of the day and if that means shaving 10 minutes off the drinks reception immediately afterwards, then so be it.

I doubt that this will become my standard liturgy, but having had this first go at one, and ensuring that it is ‘special’ for people I particularly care about, it has been a very helpful ‘first’. I think it’s really only when you do your first liturgy for anything that you really question why something is there, and why you are using particular words, and why it flows the way it does.

Like I say, it’s the first of what, I’m sure, will be many firsts. Not all will be so pleasurable, but all will be a challenge to ensure God is properly ‘included’ and given His proper place.

Oh, I didn’t mention that the wedding is on the Saturday of the Easter Weekend. Hopefully that will be a first, and last.

Jan 092012
 

With less than a week to go until I preach as sole nominee at Kirriemuir: St. Andrew’s l/w Oathlaw Tannadice, I find my emotions and thoughts in a state of turmoil. In a very real sense I don’t know what to think.

There’s the natural anxiety of preparing for such an event (and all my classic stress triggers and reactions are there); yet the rational part of me is saying that I’m not doing anything different to what I would do any other Sunday morning I’d be leading a service. And of course that’s true – it’s just that’s there’s the added pressure of knowing that two congregations will be deciding if I am to be their minister for the next while. (And that in itself is a somewhat bizarre situation – voting based on an hour leading a service to determine who will be involved in their life for far more than that.) But leading services is what I have done, in large part, for quite some time and I know that I am perfectly capable of doing so competently. And so there is a mix of anxiety and confidence and that it exactly what I would expect, so, in a sense, it’s what I would expect to be thinking and is not, therefore, a problem.

So where does the problem lie?

Everyone has been enormously supportive and I have had all the usual ‘it’ll all be fine’ comments from lots of people. And there’s a big bit of me that says/knows that, yes, it will all be fine. And that’s the root of the problem, I think. I don’t want it to feel that it’s a foregone conclusion. There’s a bit of me that feels that that is almost arrogant (but not really), yet it’s born of a confidence, not only in my competence, but the unanimous decision of a nominating committee, the good references from previous supervisors, and even the words of encouragement from people associated with the vacancy itself.

Oh yes, there’s also the big issue of ‘call’. After all, that’s the very root of my being here in the first place. And even that all feels ‘right’, for reasons I’ve explored in other posts and for all sorts of other reasons I haven’t mentioned but all affirm this call, and this place, and this ministry.

When all these things are brought together it’s difficult not to feel confident and positive about the whole thing. But I don’t, as I’ve said, want that to tip over into arrogance. And I don’t think it will. There’s still enough humility there to hold me back (I think, and even though it doesn’t necessarily sound like there is) and there’s also a sense in which this confidence has its proper ‘place’.

I was praying about this very issue and about my conflicted emotions and as I did so, I sensed an overwhelming affirmation of being in this ‘place’, emotionally. It’s difficult to explain – it was, itself, a rush of ’emotion’ that was both uplifting and humbling; a sense that it was understood, and accepted, and ‘allowed’, and was, therefore, ‘right’.

So I will, no doubt, continue to walk my tight line of confidence and humility. And I will continue to feel conflicted about it. But I can stop over-analysing it. It’s not something to be picked apart and have a decision made one way or another. It is simply how I am and who I am. It’s also good to know that who I am and how I am right now is quite fine with God, who calls me. Now that does sound arrogant, but I can’t help myself.

Nov 262011
 

Apologies up front. This is a bit of a ‘brain-dump’ post as I try and sort out some thoughts that have been running around my head. It largely draws on a number of different strands of thought coming from books I’ve read recently, sermons, and just general thoughts that are always lurking around. It’s also an opportunity to engage critically with one of those ‘light-bulb’ moments when things, for an instant, seem to make a little more sense.

Continue reading »

Oct 172011
 

The primary purpose of this blog was to act as a vehicle for my reflections as I went through the ministry training and formation process with the Church of Scotland. It has acted as a place to journal my thoughts on issues and situations and to be a place to raise questions over what I’ve studied and experienced.

In a sense that purpose is coming to an end – although reflecting and questioning will continue. It will be in a different context though and I’m beginning to wonder how to reshape the blog to better reflect that. As I see it, I could use the blog as a continuing reflection of my greater immersion into full-time ministry; or I could use it to reflect on wider issues of faith and culture. I’ve never really used the blog for the latter. Other people cover that more regularly, more effectively and more sensitively that I think I would.

I flatter myself to think that my often rambling thoughts have proven to be useful to those also going through ‘ministry formation’ in whatever shape or form that may take. I suspect that many of the issues I have reflected upon are shared by others. I don’t flatter myself that I have the answers to these issues, only that I have grappled with them in my own way and come to some sort of understanding which sits with some integrity of faith and life. Continuing to reflect on a journey further into ministry possibly smacks a little of pride; that what I have to say may be useful. And yet, I really only ever write for my own benefit/pleasure. The simple fact of making it public though does give a bit of a lie to that thought.

And then there is the problem of what to do with the current blog. Do I draw a line under it and move it to an archive, beginning afresh? Or is a continued reflection on ministry a natural continuation of what I have been doing anyway? If nothing else, I may mark the occasion with a theme change and a tidy up of the various links that lurk around (if yours disappears then it’s nothing personal, just part of the spring-cleaning and different focus). After all, it’s been a while since I’ve actually made any changes to the site itself.

All of this assumes, of course, that I will even have the time to blog, but I have learned the value of the activity over the last few years and I would be keen to continue. Anyway, change may be coming, but there are a few more reflections to go on actually getting a ministry to write about.

Oct 072011
 

On a previous post I was asked how the process of discernment worked for me.

Just to provide some context, just in case you’re reading this from scratch – it’s a reference to my process of determining and assessing a call to a currently-vacant charge (parish) in the Church of Scotland. It’s also worth adding a little bit of background for anyone reading who is unfamiliar with the CofS’s vacancy process. Ministers are never ‘sent’ anywhere by the CofS. One responds to a ‘call’, both in the sense of God calling a person to a particular ministry and also in the sense that it is a congregation’s jealously-guarded right to determine who their own minister shall be and not have one imposed upon them. (With the caveat that presbytery has a right of veto if the called minister’s life and doctrine are deemed to be inappropriate.) There are other ins and outs that can complicate things, but that’s the general idea.

So this splurge of thoughts is ‘call’ and its discernment from my perspective – that of someone seeking to determine where I shall be ‘ministering’ for the next five years at least (you are expected to stay at least five years in a first charge).

I suppose I should also say that whatever I write here is probably a much too neat description of what, for me anyway, is a far from tidy and obvious ‘process’.

I guess the process started a few years ago. A large element of the ministry formation training and preparation is about knowing your self (and I’ve become a huge advocate of the professional journalling/reflective practice ‘thing’). But that’s not about self-centred, navel-gazing. It’s a genuine process of understanding the type of person you are, your strengths (without the false humility that we Scots seem to revel in), your limitations (genuinely understood), your passions, your challenges, and so on. There was much grumping at times during the preparation stage, but let me say (and I say this from only a personal perspective – I can’t speak for anyone else) that it is now that the various activities and exercises and self-reflection all become enormously useful.

When I first started at university (and wasn’t yet a candidate for training), a number of my fellow students who were candidates had a very clear picture of where they would be ministering and of the type of ministry they wanted to do. I didn’t have that and it caused me to question my call on a number of occasions. Now, I don’t know if those people just happened to know themselves really well (I’m not convinced) or had simply been given a different form of call from me (a more convincing explanation) but it is now, knowing myself so much better, that I have that sense of call to a particular ministry.

So that is the first element of discernment for me – knowing ‘me’; the gifts and talents I have, the passions which enthuse me, the challenges which don’t, the people I like to work with, the environment I can flourish in (again, not in a self-serving way, but simply being able to live and work effectively so that I can serve others). It is knowing that piece of the jigsaw that enables me to see if it might fit into the various ministry opportunities which are available. I suppose it’s not really any different to anyone else who is job-hunting, but I suspect there are more and different factors at work than come into play when one is simply ‘looking for a job’.

But that also opens up the question of whether the available ‘job’ has appropriately-shaped jigsaw ‘holes’. There’s only so much information to be gleaned from parish profiles and mission statements and ministerial profiles. And much of it has to be taken with a degree of scepticism; a nominating committee is not in the job of making their charge look unattractive. So that means other avenues of research need to be opened up. Talking to people works wonders. There are times when the Church of Scotland seems like a very small world. Everyone seems to know someone who knows someone. And there are even a few people who seem to know everyone (and every congregation, and every minister who has been through the door, and where they came from and where they went). So word gets around about places. If I’ve learnt nothing else over the last several years, then I’ve learnt that it is very often through what people say to me, almost unintentionally, that I can often hear a prompting from God. So I listen carefully (or try to) and try and pick up the clues from what I’m hearing. This makes the informal chats and emails with interim moderators interesting. They seem to expect me to come laden with questions about a place. Actually, I just want to listen to what they have to say and pick up what’s being said and not said. I may then be prompted to ask a question, but often I’ll just take time to reflect on things.

What else is in the mix? Visiting a place; seeing it in context and seeing what its context is. Simply stopping, in a place, and ‘listening’; feeling its ‘vibe’ (the church building, the manse, the town, the churchyard, whatever). There’s more too, but the more intangible it gets, the more difficult it is to put into words. There are also very personal considerations around family which are part of the discernment process but are not appropriate to mention here.

You’ve maybe wondered why I haven’t mentioned prayer. It’s there in the mix, of course, but, as I’ve said, I’ve learnt to listen for God through what others say more than anything and so the riposte “have you prayed about it?” tends to grate on me a bit. If ‘praying’ is about listening out for God’s guidance then the answer is yes. If it means closeting myself in a quiet room, getting on my knees with an open Bible in front of me, then the answer is no. All of the above ‘methods’ or process elements are, for me, a form of prayerful, spiritually-reflective activity.

So, is it working? I’ll let you know when the call comes and it is still coming 5 years into ministry.

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.

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.

Jun 172011
 

The past umpteen years have been marked by many milestones as I make progress towards ordained ministry. Today’s was a significant one – the end of the final probationers’ conference. Although there are further conferences and retreat days after ordination, this conference, in particular, is worth noting. This is the one where much of the ‘practical’ information is imparted. There’s almost a sense of leaving it until now, because if you knew then…
Well, not really. I don’t think there are too many who go into ministry these days wearing rose-tinted spectacles.

The focus on the practical brought it home, perhaps more than many other conferences, that it will get ‘real’ very soon. I was absolutely shattered today as I hadn’t slept well. I rarely remember dreams, although I suppose I must dream, but I had a very disturbed night having a classic anxiety dream. That said, in true, modest, presbyterian style, I did not find myself lacking clothing – maybe I wasn’t as anxious as I thought.

The dream has a pretty obvious interpretation. I, in the company of a number of my fellow probationers, was attempting to get to an airport, but I simply could not find the way in. The signs were all there, but they never seemed to lead me to a door. I somehow always seemed to find myself trying to wade through a crowd going the other way, or discovering shops and market stalls in my way. Or I would turn in to what was a dead end. I knew I was near the airport – I could see planes taking off overhead, but I just couldn’t seem to get close to it. My fellow probationers all seemed to make progress, but I just kept getting lost. But they’re a good bunch and some of them kept coming back to find me and point me in the right direction again. Again, they would make progress, but I never seemed to. I guess I’ll never end up as an airport chaplain, anyway.

My lack of sleep was probably a contributing factor to me picking an argument with a professor of theology who was delivering the last session of the conference (but only because he got his diary date wrong and didn’t turn up when he was expected the day before). The ‘confrontation’ was an interesting experience. The ‘prof’ has quite an intimidating style, spearing you with an intense, direct gaze while challenging, quite robustly, what you are suggesting. In many respects it was quite out of keeping with the rather more gracious engagement in discussion that tends to happen in conference sessions. This was not, after all, a lecture or academic debate. Nevertheless, my tiredness, or maybe just my woolly theology, resulted in me backing off (although the debate was rather a tangent from the main purpose of the session anyway). I did spend the car journey home rehearsing all the arguments I could/should have used – but hindsight is a wonderful thing.

But it did serve to remind me of who I am and how I am. I don’t do well in such ‘up front’ debates. I like time to consider things; to work them through more slowly and carefully. As I’ve discussed before, I would consider my theology to be ‘restless theology’. I am happy to exist in the tensions of theological opinions. I can accept the ‘contradictions’ of scripture without having to find convoluted ways to reconcile them. I can even, graciously and with some sympathy, understand the reasons and rationale behind deeply held theological positions, even to the point of granting them acceptability. But my theological outlook (or maybe just the weird wiring in my brain) doesn’t allow me to stop at any of those positions, however well-argued and justified they may be, but insists that I give due weight and consideration to other views.

Such an approach may come across as indecisive or too accommodating or even just downright contradictory, but it works for me and allows me to reconcile such things as the ‘difficult texts’ (which that particular session was on) or the ecumenical interactions which take place in communities. I should point out that I still have limits and boundaries – they’re maybe just a little further apart than many.

So, if I’ve discovered nothing else at this particular milestone, I do at least acknowledge who I am and what I know of myself. Even if that means that I can’t figure out how to get to where I need to go.