Nov 162009

Yesterday I had the opportunity to lead the whole service in my placement church. Not a big problem – it’s something I’ve done many times. That said, being somewhere new has the added pressures of not knowing what they know, not knowing how recently they may have covered the chosen passage (an advantage of following the lectionary), whether you are about to utterly contradict previous teaching or whether you’re getting too close to personal/pastoral issues. On the plus side, such pressures do help focus the mind and maybe force you to take that bit extra care of how something is worded.

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Nov 032009

… one not so giant leap.

Today I got to participate in a funeral for the first time. It might seem odd that I haven’t done so before now but the opportunity simply hasn’t arisen (and I’ll not mention the microscopic funeral count, relatively speaking, to be ‘enjoyed’ in Brussels).

So having had the opportunity to participate in the pre-funeral visit, it was good to get the chance to play a little part in the service itself. In the liturgy used by my supervisor, there’s a brief welcome, the opening hymn, a short opening prayer, a reading and then the tribute. Thereafter, there’s another longer prayer, the ‘intimations’, closing hymn and benediction. I was down to do the short prayer and reading but with 10 minutes to go it was suggested that I might as well take it from the start to minimise the swapping back and forward.

I know some people would throw their hands up in horror and suggest that that was unfair to spring such a thing on me, but, let’s be honest – it was only a few words of welcome and announcing the hymn. If I can’t cope with that, even at short notice, then I’ve got other things to worry about.

The service went well, I thought, and there was only one verbal trip and that wasn’t mine. It was received with good grace and some amusement so perhaps it was a good reminder that, even if we do slip, the world isn’t going to come to an end.

One of the mourners was particularly emotional at the start of the service and my supervisor commented that I had done well to keep it from putting me off. To be honest, I was so focussed focused on getting my bit correct that you could have marched a band through the place and I wouldn’t have been put off. But that’s also a useful reminder. It can be easy to get so wrapped up in what we are doing that we can forget that there are others there who may need an extra word of encouragement or a little time to gather themselves. Being sensitive to that is a large part of what has to be learnt in the formation process.

So, another pre-funeral meeting tomorrow with the funeral on Friday, this time doing the latter part of the service, after the tribute. By that time I’ll practically be an expert.

Oct 302009

It’s been a packed day and sets the tone for the next few days in fact.

This morning started off with a pre-funeral visit and it was good to be observing only at this stage. Definitely a visit that provided plenty of insights into the task of planning a funeral. Biggest insight was to ‘listen very, very carefully’. I don’t mean just for the details, but when you are being told things in a deadpan manner but with a twinkle in the eye you could easily end up accepting a story at face value and saying something that would entirely inappropriate. It was also good to see yet another approach to gathering information and I’m somewhat in awe of my supervisor’s ability to remember names and details without notes. I see the value of developing that skill because my note-taking was sometimes the subject of some comment and I could see that it might be distracting. That said, I wouldn’t want to rely on my memory for a list of family names and key dates.

I’ve written up my own take on the tribute so it’ll be interesting to compare notes and styles. Crafting the tribute itself was in interesting experience. You obviously want to cover as much as possible and add colour to bare facts. But by the same token you can’t include all the anecdotes and memories – and nor is it appropriate to do so. Those are often very specific memories, special to the person or group relating them to you. But the stories hold the essence of the person you are speaking about. It seems t me that the task of the minister is to distil out that essence and present it in a way that is still recognisable as the deceased and is detailed enough to trigger the memories and thoughts that bring the story to life. Distilling it too much risks losing something of the character of the person; not distilling it enough risks cheapening the tribute as a simple series of anecdotes.

And then there’s the language. Should it be pitched high or low? Should it be my ‘voice’ or should it suit the setting and the people who are there? If I use my own phrasing for something or pick words I would like to hear then I’m risking alienating those who are listening. But then what are the expectations? I’m meant to be the one with the words, the means to express what would be difficult or upsetting for another to say. And sometimes that means an expectation of using ‘proper’ words, respectful words, educated words. And if I lapse into colloquialisms and slang then it’s not me, not my true voice. There’s an assumption there about the order of the relationship, but it also applies the other way up as well.

Anyway, plenty to think about. The funeral is early next week and I’ll be participating in a small way. It’s easy to trot out the trite phrases about what a privilege it is to be alongside others at such a time, but at the moment I’m simply aware of the burden of responsibility we carry to speak words that are meaningful and to be true to the stories that have been shared with me/us. Just as well we’re not in it alone.

Oct 262009

Yesterday was my first official Sunday at my latest placement church – Larbert East. I had snuck in the week before didn’t announce who I was or why I was there (apart from to the one who sussed me out). Anyway, it was in at the deep end, doing the opening prayer and the all-age talk (primarily aimed at the young people). The children were (mostly) all wearing their name badges to help me out. It was a very considerate thought but nearly ruined my opener. But that still worked and helped break the ice and I got plenty of enthusiastic participation thereafter. I’ve been involved in children’s work in some shape or form for years and yet it’s the one aspect of a morning service that is the most daunting for me. Simply because you get away with nothing. There will always be someone with the utterly bizarre answer or the loooooong explanation that completely throws you off your stride. I was spared that on Sunday and hopefully got a message across as well as introducing myself a bit to everyone.

It was also good to get a warm reception from everyone – but I knew it was a friendly and welcoming place already. And my low-key visit of the previous week had confirmed that it was simply because of who I was but was a welcome that would be extended to anyone.

So, an encouraging start to a placement that is shaping up to be an excellent learning experience judging by some of the goals mapped out already.

Oct 182009

For various reasons, my first Sunday in my third placement isn’t until next week. I have had a couple of very fruitful meetings with my supervisor, so I have, in a sense, already started – just not been there on a Sunday yet.

Until today, when I decided to go along to get a pew-side perspective. My supervisor knew I was coming but had promised not to draw attention to me. It was mentioned in the notices that I’d be along from next Sunday, so the congregation were aware of someone new appearing in due course, but nobody knew who I was. That said, I do know a few folk at my placement church, so I was curious about whether anyone would give the game away if they spotted me.

The pew-side view is an interesting one when you’re in this position. You’re obviously conscious of how you are greeted, made welcome and generally treated. But I wonder how much more sensitive we are to it? By the same token, any newcomer is going to be very sensitive to the welcome they receive. It’s not quite the same, I don’t think, if you are visiting, say, on holiday. Anyway, I’m pleased to report that the welcome was warm and friendly and I was even ‘rumbled’ by one person. It’s an amusing story. About four years ago, during my first enquiry placement, I visited this same church and was greeted by this particular person in a way that I have, ever since, held up as a model of a good welcome. Rather than making me feel awkward as ‘the visitor’, they were the one who was apologetic for never having spoken to me before and now was a chance to remedy that. Today, they came to speak and said that they remembered, they were sure, having spoken to me before, but couldn’t remember when and that they had forgotten my name. Names were exchanged (only first names at the time) and I reminded them that they had indeed spoken to me, all those years ago and that I remembered their welcome. They then asked if I was doing the rounds of churches again and I had to confess that I wasn’t exactly doing that. At that moment the light went on, connections were made and my cover was blown.

Curiously it all fitted very nicely with the theme of the service today, drawing from Proverbs 5 and James 3, about how the things we say to others can, so often, dishonour God and how, with the Spirit’s aid we can put our tongues and words to better use. The welcome we give in church in almost certainly a visitor’s ‘first impression’. What a difference when the words of welcome we use are gracious and kind.

Oct 112009

I visited the last of my four potential probation churches today and I’m now certain I have my two out of the four. What’s no longer certain is which of the two is my preferred choice.

Today’s church was pretty local (a big plus in its favour) and the minister is someone I know fairly well. It’s pretty much a middle-of-the-road congregation, tending towards the older end of the age spectrum but with a fair smattering of other age groups as well. To be fair, it was a little difficult to get a sense of the ‘normal’ congregation because there was no Sunday school and a lot of visitors today.

I think I have previously characterised this church as a ‘safe’ choice, but that would suggest that I wouldn’t be challenged. After visiting today I realised that that would be an misrepresentation of the church and it would be ‘safe’ only in the sense that it would be a secure, welcoming and encouraging environment.

I’m now left with a difficult choice. One church would be very different to my previous experience and that would be a great opportunity to grow in other directions. The other would be a very positive experience under a supervisor who would, I think, be great to work with. My gut reaction, somewhat to my surprise, is to favour the ‘safe’ choice, but not because it’s safe, but because there is a sense of ‘rightness’ to it. But a part of me says that there is an opportunity for growth in the other as well and there is much that I find attractive in it. But I also have a sense of ‘over-reaching’ for that one. It’s difficult to explain. It’s like aspiring to something that you know isn’t entirely true to who you are. I think I said previously that my concern over visiting that particular church was that I had created an image of what it would be like. In a sense that image ‘bubble’ has been popped – but that’s not a bad thing. It means that I can now compare the two in a more realistic way.

Oh well, at least I have my shortlist to present to 121 in a few weeks and my reasons for choosing them. Deciding which one to go for though may not be entirely easy.

Oct 012009

It occurred to me that I hadn’t blogged for a while and indeed the last one was over a week ago. But that last blog post contains the root of the lack of blogging – the usual step change in activity when a new semester starts.

I’m also conscious that, in previous years, my semester-time blogging is often dominated by whatever theologian is occupying my thoughts at the time. Usually this is simply a way of getting their ideas straight in my own head – the by-product being that I inflict my ramblings on the wider world (well, those who choose to read them anyway). So, in keeping with tradition, it looks like it’ll be Barth this semseter. And that’s where the catch-up comes in. We had approximately 40 pages ‘left over’ from last week’s class. That meant that we had 110 pages to do for this week. Amazingly I got through it (more or less – to within a few pages anyway) and feel as though I have actually ‘caught up’. The slightly bizarre aspect to this week’s reading though was the language. I could actually hear it being spoken! You can’t spend four years studying Divinity at New College and not be exposed to Barth and so as I read I could hear echoes of the words Barth uses from past lectures (and all delivered in an Irish accent).

The side-effect of having churned through so much reading is that I feel my brain is back in gear again (to a degree) and so future reading assignments don’t feel just so daunting. It’s also helped by starting to get the measure of the ‘Death’ course and realising that it’s not going to be onerous.

There has been catch-up in another sense as well. At the beginning of the week I got an email from Andrew, my supervisor in Brussels. He was popping over for a training course and we managed to get together for an hour or so as he passed through Edinburgh. As is often the case we ended speaking about people and realised that the old adage that “it’s a small world” is so very true. It also made me realise (upon reflection) that the links we make at university, on placement and just generally through the church, will stay with us and that that ‘small world’ can often be our source of support and encouragement. It provides the breadth of experience that we can bounce ideas off; it is a source of ‘corrective’ voices when we get too carried away with our own ideas and lose sight of the bigger picture; it is the community that provides the sense of being part of a bigger plan, a bigger ‘work’.

So, duty done – blogging caught up with – but, as always, in the ‘duties’, the opportunity to keep reflecting.

Sep 202009

It was a visit to the third possible probation placement church today. This was my ‘wild card’ one but it’s also the one I’ve been feeling drawn to. It was odd sitting in the nearby car park and feeling a sense of excitement and trepidation. What if I had created a ‘fantasy’ of what it would be like? What if my expectations were unrealistic? What if I ended up deeply disappointed? It was a useful corrective to the purpose of my visits. They’re not about where I want to be or where I would feel comfortable but about discerning where God wants me and where I can learn the ropes.

Anyhoo… this was a very different experience from either of the others and, for that matter, any other church I have been in. But I liked that. There was something about the worship that was very appealing: the choral music; the sense of ‘ritual’ or at least a sense of structure. I particularly liked the way the theme wove through all aspects of the service, where certain key words and phrases were repeated and emphasised and reinforced.

I was also struck by one part of the service in particular. There was a baptism today (two in fact) and the point where the congregation stood to respond to the responsibilities laid upon them was split in two. First of all the gathered Sunday school children were asked if they would look after the newly baptised infants as if they were a younger sibling, hug them when they were sad, pick them up when they fell and continue to love them when they were not so well behaved? They then responded with a, “We will.” Similar questions, in the more conventional wording, were put to the congregation who also responded with a particular formula (written in the order of service). I thought the extra kids’ bit was really good and a great way of making the baptism more meaningful (and inclusive) for them.

On the negative side, although the welcome was friendly enough, no-one was in any rush to speak to me, even over a coffee in the halls afterwards. It would be a relatively easy place to remain ‘anonymous’ given the size of the congregation and the number of visitors it probably attracts. But then it’s probably not fair to make that judgement on the basis of one visit. Mind you, I did happened to bump into one of my former lecturers who sussed out that I was probably on a ‘recon mission’. They did promise to stay silent on the issue but it was a chance to get a little bit of insider knowledge (and I may well speak to them again if I decide to include this on my short-shortlist).

So yes, an overall positive impression but I don’t want to jump the gun just yet. I have one more church to visit before I turn my thoughts to narrowing down my choice to two. It’ll be interesting to see how I feel visiting that fourth possibility.

Sep 132009

I visited the second of my prospective probation churches today. A little bit further afield but perfectly do-able from my home. This one was very different from the first. More traditional but nevertheless keeping up with the times in many ways. Again it had a good age profile and everyone was very friendly. I felt I could easily fit in with the place and not feel that the 15 months of probation would be a burden. In many respects it comes across as your ‘typical’ parish church (and I say that in the awareness that every congregation is different, but often you will find that they are addressing the same needs, have similar organisations and so on). Its socio-economic profile is maybe a little more educated and affluent, but I’d hesitate to make that call just yet.

Of the two visited so far, this would be my preference. But then if my assessment is correct and it is a ‘typical’ parish church then it may make more sense to choose the other, more local, ‘typical’ parish church on my list. I guess I’ll need to wait and see. I may well make that one next week’s visit so that the two are relatively fresh in my mind and more easily compared. That just leave my wild-card outsider as my fourth visit. I still feel a tug towards it despite my ignorance of it and I’m wondering if I should have gone there first to see if the others then ‘measured up’. By the same token, if, when I go, I just don’t get that sense of ‘rightness’, then I’ll know that there was something in one of the others that I need to go back and find then pray over.

At least it keeps me out of mischief on Sunday mornings.