Dec 062010

Of the point behind my Masters thesis that is.

My mate Bryan at Greyfriars Parish Church, Lanark, has recently started streaming the Sunday morning services. No bad thing and on, Sunday’s snowy morning, an ideal opportunity for those unable to get to church to do more than just listen in, but to get to see what was going on. Undoubtedly, using video technology allows people to feel more part of something than simply listening to the audio.

Sunday had a slight twist to it – it was communion. A short flurry of discussion on Facebook certainly gave the impression that some who were tuned in from home shared in communion using what they had in the house. I somewhat cheekily wondered if epiclesis worked through cyberspace and that comment triggered a little bit of a (gentle) bashing.

But it’s a serious question (even though it makes something that ought to be simple, more complicated) and, in my opinion, impacts on our understanding of sacramental ministry. Bryan suggested that it was sufficient to rely on Jesus’ promise that where two or three are gathered in His name, He will be with them. Which begs the question, “Why do you need an ordained minister to pronounce an invocation, when it’s God who does all the work?” This was the core of my thesis – the Church of Scotland needs to get its brain round sacramental ministry if it is going to encourage more innovative forms of worship – and video-streaming services isn’t exactly at the extreme end of the innovation spectrum.

Someone else wondered whether it would therefore be possible to perform a baptism over the airways, so to speak. It’s exactly the same issue. Is there some sort of ‘essential presence’ that a minister, and only a minister, brings to these sacramental acts? Or is it simply a case of the practical consideration that it gets done ‘properly’, with no under-the-table jiggery-pokery?

The point I made in my thesis was that conversations around these issues really need to be happening right now, otherwise we end up with a free-for-all which will, ultimately, cause further argument within an organisations which could well do without further cause for dissension in the ranks. And these conversations need to be focused on what is happening in churches now and not just at some academic, ivory-tower, theological level.

Nov 252010

I’m coming to the end of my second week of holiday cover for my supervisor. Such periods are very useful as times of juggling priorities and different tasks. It’s been a fairly busy couple of weeks, but not for the reasons I had anticipated.

For a start, I’ve only had one funeral come in (that’s the  “shhh!!” bit – there’s still Friday, then the weekend). It’s funerals that cause most disruption, simply because of their unpredictability. And the preparation for them is also an indeterminate task.

But I’ve also discovered another activity that eats up time in unpredictable ways – visiting. A number of the visits I’ve tried to do these last two weeks have come to nothing. A half hour drive to the hospital can often end up with the information that the person has been transferred, or sent home, or is unable to receive visitors. Or, in a couple of instances, the person has been sound asleep. And whilst it is tempting to ‘accidentally’ make a noise to announce your presence, that’s more about your needs than their needs.

It’s not so much that they feel like a waste of time, because it’s just as likely that you’ll find them, awake, in the right place and keen to have a visitor. But they do mean that they throw off the planning and rhythm of a day. The half our or so that you didn’t get visiting can’t really be used. It’s too short a time to get into anything and often isn’t enough time to revise plans for alternative visits.

Or maybe that’s the secret that you eventually work out – how to make best use of these little fragments of time that get ‘left over’.

Whatever the answer, just don’t say anything about only having one funeral to do. I’ll have every other one that comes in for the next month assigned to me to make up for it.

Nov 192010

Last night I was at regular commenter Crabbit Besom’s ordination service. Apart from some slightly odd hymn-tune choices (nothing to do with CB), it was a great evening and one I was very pleased to attend.

I’ve been to only a few ordination and induction services and the last one (if I remember correctly) was a few years ago. This one was particularly notable because it was of someone who is more a ‘contemporary’ than the others. CB and I were at assessment conference together, but that was the one I didn’t get through and was obliged to go round the loop again.

But being at CB’s ordination last night was a reminder that it won’t be too long before I go through the same process. There was, in a sense, a ‘reality check’ to being at the ordination of someone not too far ahead in the timetable, as it were. It’s a little bit like heading up an escalator. SO long as there are plenty of people in front of you, then it’s a long way from needing to take that step on your own. When the people just in front of you are beginning to step off the escalator, then you realise it’s just a matter of a short time before you have to do so too.

What was encouraging though from last night was the warm welcome CB received and the sense of promised ongoing support. That makes the step off the escalator somewhat less daunting. More than that though is the greater sense that that support is not just from ‘bruckle pigs’ (you needed to be there) but from God. This milestone is, after all, the response to a call from God and that too was made clear last night.

So, every blessing to CB for the next exciting chapter.

Jan 202010

I’ve been struggling with an essay for the last couple of weeks or so. Not that I don’t know what to write or that I’m not interested in the subject, but simply that I am struggling to motivate myself to get on with it. Part of the problem is a busy time on placement. I don’t mean that I’m being over-loaded, it’s just that the placement work has been far more interesting and not merely as a ‘work-avoidance’ scheme, but genuinely interesting and challenging. And so I have probably agreed to do more than I ought and have probably spent more time on placement work than is required.

Ultimately, of course, this is all to my benefit. It’s the ‘real’ part of of ministry preparation. But I still have the academic stuff to do, although, technically speaking, I am as qualified as I need to be. Once again it’s not a lack of interest in the academic that’s a problem. I love studying theology. For me it’s the underpinning of who I am as a ‘minister’. It goes hand-in-hand with Biblical interpretation and it’s the dialogue between the two that defines my faith and its outworkings. For me, pastoral/practical theology is a result of these two things rather than being a more intimate part of the loop. Of course the pastoral and practical have to inform, or at least question, the Bible/theology ‘loop’, but it it those two which define whether our works are specifically Christian or simply philanthropic (although it’s an interesting argument over the distinction, especially if one is a Christian).

Anyway, this placement has, as placements do, brought the pastoral/practical to the fore and I’ve been busier with these than in any of my previous placements. And the encouraging thing is that as I engage more and more in these, I become more and more interested and excited and committed to them. I suppose that if you take a step back and have a more objective view, you could say that the third placement is the time of moving away from the academic and is the preparation for moving into probation and, ultimately, full-time ministry. So I guess it’s no surprise that this should be happening.

In a sense this gives the lie to the blog post title. Progress is being made in a particularly crucial aspect of my preparation for ministry. It’s just not happening in the area that I am obliged to do as well. Maybe in that there is a greater metaphor for ministry. There will be aspects of it that will excite and enthuse and these are the areas we will naturally wish to focus our energy and attention on. However, there will be areas of ‘obligation’, and they may even be areas we are interested in, but that simply don’t hold our attention as they should. Finding the motivation to do them is important to stop them piling up – they will need done sometime.

If anyone has found the answer to this, I (and the rest of the world, I suspect) would love to hear it.

Aug 152009

I have about a week and a half left of my summer placement and it’s paperwork time. I’ve been thinking over some of the ‘big’ things from the placement as well as the individual tasks and activities. My mind was working overtime last night and I couldn’t really settle to sleep. The family are back home (or continuing their holiday) after their extended stay here in Brussels and I was on my own again. I was thinking that I’d now like to be back home as well. But I don’t mean that in any negative sense; I’m not homesick and pining for my own house; nor am I desperate to finish here and be away. As I was thinking this over last night, I realised it’s been a factor in all my placements so far. Continue reading »

Nov 282008

I had a discussion the other day with Stuart, my current placement supervisor, and we were talking about 3-legged stools. It was in the context of models of ministry and holding the tension of theology, scripture and ministry. It was this last that we were mainly thinking of and Stuart offered his opinion that his particular ministry is ‘incarnational’ – he seeks to present Jesus to people through his care, concern and actions. We agreed that it was a pretty tall order but nonetheless gives a ‘model’ of ministry shaped by and shaping the understanding of theology and scriptural interpretation. The 3-legged stool comes in to the picture when, if you remove any one of the three, you lose integrity and direction. Without scripture ministry becomes person-centred in the wrong way; without theology we lose sight of the what and why; without a model of ministry we risk losing personal integrity and may become a facade for a ‘job’ rather than a vocation.

I wondered where I sat and what ‘ministry model’ I had that influenced the other two. I concluded that the key idea for me is ‘kingdom’. It’s probably pretty obvious from my other writings that the idea of ‘inaugurated eschatology’ (to use the buzzword) figures highly in my thoughts and the working out of this is that I believe that ushering in God’s kingdom through enabling and encouraging the gifts of others pretty much describes my ‘model’ of ministry. So, stripping away the theological language, it’s about being part of a community who seek to serve God with the gifts they have (and to actively seek and nurture God’s gifts) in a way that brings God’s love to the wider community they find themselves in. In many respects it overlaps with Stuart’s incarnational model but has its own distinctivenesses. And it clearly shapes, and is shaped by, my approach to scripture and understanding of theology.

We also couldn’t help but note that such images are annoyingly trinitarian. It’s almost like you’re being reminded of something 😉

Feb 282008

It’s my local review tomorrow (Friday). This is the ‘light grilling’ at the end of my six month assessment placement. The outcome determines whether I will be given a place at one of the National Assessment Conferences and it is there that the final decision will be made about whether or not I will become a Candidate for Ministry for the Church of Scotland.

I feel positive about it. The placement has been beneficial and has helped clarify a number of issues. But I don’t want to feel complacent either. I, no doubt, have many rough edges. However, to a degree, the issue isn’t the rough edges as such but rather my self-awareness of them. That said, rough edges that stick out too much, however much one is aware of them, are always going to factor into the selection equation.

I have to confess that, before this placement, I was happy enough to do one but felt slightly frustrated that I had to repeat something I had already done. It wasn’t just a case of going through the motions though. At my last Assessment Conference I was asked about how I would feel if I wasn’t accepted. I answered that I would take it as an indication that I needed to be taught something. I had partly forgotten that when I started the placement – or at least it wasn’t as forward in my mind as it should have been. Well, it transpired that that was exactly what this placement was about – being taught something. And there was a fair bit of learning to do. Some of it was reinforcing what was already there, some of it was new, some of it was old with a new twist, some of it was very personal, some of it was very academic and some of it was about pushing me into areas I knew I needed to address. In other words, it was a placement I needed to do.

So that’s why I feel quietly confident but the better self-awareness is also why I’m not complacent. After tomorrow morning, I may be lightly grilled or deep-fried and crispy. Either way, a little frazzled around the edges is certain.

Jan 242008

Well, maybe not so much confused, but yesterday I was certainly dazed and more than a little brain-dead by late afternoon. In the morning I was on my hospital placement followed, in the afternoon, by my follow-up PDI – that’s Personal Development Interview in 121-speak.

Each of those on its own is taxing enough. Both together on the same day was perhaps not one of my brightest scheduling tasks. The hospital placement is with the chaplaincy team and I have a ward assigned to me to do visits in. Up to this point, conversations have been fairly mundane but on Wednesday I had a particularly ‘heavy’ chat with someone. I can’t, obviously, give any details but there was some pretty serious stuff being shared with me. I’m still sorting it through in my mind and working out all of the ramifications. I’ve also agreed with our supervisor to discuss the issues with the group next week. It’s difficult to prepare for something like this, especially when it comes on you out of the blue – the conversation up ’til that point gave no indication that some ‘heavy’ stuff was coming. I guess the point is that I should expect anything and be prepared to go with the conversation wherever it heads. It would be too easy and a bit of a cop-out to steer the conversation away from something I’m not prepared to deal with. After all, the person is sharing this, very personal, information for a reason. For all I know this may be the one and only time they will get it off their chest and I can’t judge the effects of that. I guess it also means that a chaplain/pastor/minister should never treat any conversation as mundane. The true meaning of it can only really be known by the person telling their story. It’s a pretty awesome responsibility and a huge privilege. My hope for this placement, regardless of the academic outcome, is that I will be better attuned to the nuances of pastoral conversations. More to the point, this hasn’t scared me off and, in a way, it’s quite exciting being drawn into that sphere. It’s a challenge, but one to look forward to.

Then on top of that I had my second PDI. That, to all intents and purposes, is a slow roasting on a spit by a psychological assessor who picks your personality apart to make sure you’re not a total fruitcake (or, at least, not the wrong sort of fruitcake). In actual fact, it wasn’t too bad. I’ve nothing to hide and do feel I’ve grown considerably over the last months and years as a reflective person. I know myself better. I better understand my strengths and weaknesses and I can face things I’m not comfortable with in a way that isn’t stressful because I know I’m not comfortable and understand the reasons why. Perhaps most crucially, I can articulate all of this in a way I struggled with before. In this respect I would only have myself to blame if I don’t come across well at my forthcoming local review and then, hopefully, the assessment conference. I have the ‘tools’ and the understanding (albeit still on the learning curve) to ‘sell’ my calling to those who will be looking for it.

It may well sound like it was a pretty intense day, and in many respects it was, but it was one of those crucial points where a lot of pressures came together at once and what it forced out the far side was me with a few more rough edges knocked off and a better appreciation of God at work, reshaping and ‘fitting out’. I was shattered last night. My head was buzzing and I’m still wrestling with a lot of what happened. But I don’t feel stressed by it and I don’t feel defeated by it. In a bizarre way, I feel quite exhilarated, particularly now as I type this blog entry, looking back on yesterday and considering the significance of it all.

Dazed? Most definitely. Confused? A lot less so.

Jan 052008

One of my tasks during this placement is to read and discuss a book from the recommended list from 121. I chose Eugene Peterson’s ‘Under the Unpredictable Plant‘ which is subtitled ‘an exploration in vocational holiness’. I’ve started it and I am enjoying it, but I’ll save fuller comments for a little later. My first reaction to it has been wondering what its relevance is – it seems very pre-occupied with what, to me, sound like very typically US issues. It takes as its starting point the problems surrounding much of the US evangelical movement – things like the ‘prosperity gospel’, mega-churches and ‘programme-led’ and results-based ministries. That said, it doesn’t mean it has nothing to teach, and in many respects it is quite a challenging read, forcing the reader to question what his/her primary focus is in ministry.

I have recently started reading some blogs which, in a sense, back up what Peterson’s purpose is in writing the book. They all point to major issues within US Christianity. And as I read these and related links, I do start to see the relevance of the book. With so much culture exchange between the UK and the US, it’s only a matter of time when there are similar issues here. In fact, with the rise in popularity of churches such as, for example, the Vine and Hillsong in the UK, one might argue that the issues are already here. I’ve just read an illuminating interview with Eugene Peterson which pretty much sums up where he’s coming from in his writings. So, with that as a background, I’ll approach the book in a slightly different light and post my thoughts accordingly.

As for the blogs I’ve been reading – millinerd, internetmonk and the Boar’s Head Tavern – I’ve decided that the more I learn, the less I know. Whenever I read a bit of theology or someone’s thoughts on theology, it just raises more and more questions in my head that I don’t know the answer to. So I read some more, answer (or at least clarify) some of those questions, but at the same time raise others. The question-answering seems to proceed linearly, the question-raising is almost certainly exponential. Maybe I should just stop reading and finding questions. Then again, I was having a clearout of paperwork earlier and came across a printout of a sermon I delivered a little while ago. In it, I had a wee go at ‘simple faith’, claiming that there’s really no such thing and that not confronting questions and issues was doing a disservice to the intelligence we’re gifted with. Maybe I need to listen to what I preach to others.

Dec 022007

Today was communion and I’m afraid I had a very mischievous thought at the way it’s done at KHR. It was prompted by a particular wording of the prayer I was saying near the start of the service. I was speaking about the bread and wine as visible reminders of the body and blood of Jesus. Only, as I said it, I realised that they weren’t actually there. At KHR they’re brought out just prior to the sacrament and removed again just after. In my home church they’re out for the duration of the service.

It got me wondering why it was done like this (in either place) and I guess that ritual is often historically inherited, but sometimes it’s the liturgical emphasis that’s needed.

Anyway, my mischievous thought – do we just ‘wheel out’ Jesus when it suits us and tuck Him away when we’re done? Actually, given one of the points in today’s sermon, it’s maybe not such a trivial question.