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 052009

I am leading the intercessory prayers on Sunday. It’s Remembrance Sunday of course and that makes intercession all the more pointed and necessary. It also adds to the pressure to make them specifically relevant and appropriate. For some inspiration on form and words, I was looking through Walter Brueggemann’s book “Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth”. Some words from the preface, echoed on the flyleaf, struck me as being particularly apposite:

… prayer is characteristically a dangerous act, and dangerous rhetoric is required to match the intent of the act. It is an awesome matter to voice one’s life before God and our lives should therefore be awesomely uttered.

It’s a powerful reminder of what prayer is. As Brueggemann says later, prayer is not a “grocery list” we approach God with; it is a coming before the Almighty God with a petition to intervene. Is that what we really want? Would we really want God to act? Can we be sure we would like what He did? The warning, “Never wake a sleeping dragon, ” has, for some reason, popped into my head. I can’t help but feel that it is somewhat irreverent and peculiarly appropriate at one and the same time.

So, in Remembrance day prayers, when we are conscious of the weight of expectation to acknowledge the sacrifice made by so many, how do we find the dangerous words that speak prophetically against violence as a means to achieving an end? How do we tread the line between complicity and condemnation? And, above all, how do we pray to God in a way that isn’t a ‘shopping list’ but contains a very real expectation of intercession?

It’s a dangerous business, prayer.

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.


Jun 092008

I was doing pulpit supply down in Law on Sunday. Lovely wee congregation, very welcoming and some novelties thrown in to boot.

First thing I spotted was the video camera. They record the service and distribute dvds to anyone who is unable to get to the service. I was offered one but decided to forego the pleasure of watching myself. But, I’m back in a few weeks time and I might just take them up on the offer. I guess there’s always some merit in being able to critically analyse how you present yourself.

The other novelty was really nice. The very first time I did pulpit supply I got caught out when I was asked to pray with the choir and elders and I’m not so hot on ex tempore prayers. Now I expect it so it’s not a shock when I’m asked. So, on Sunday, when I came into the vestry and found a little delegation of people I was expecting to be praying with the choir or whoever. However, I was quite wrong! This little group meet with the minister just before the service to pray for the service and for the minister. I was really pleased and I was also very impressed that this prayer ministry was in place.

Nov 212007

Someone of my recent acquaintance had asked if they might include me in their prayer ministry – a small group of friends who passed prayer requests to others in the group.

Of course I didn’t mind and one evening after church the person spoke to me about a ‘message’ they had felt come to them during the service. They had seen me travelling a road and I was coming to a fork in the road where I would need to make a decision. One fork had a massive arrow pointing out the correct direction and the person felt that the message was that a time of decision was coming (or had happened recently) and that the ‘answer’ was glaringly obvious (but the choice would still be there). A scripture verse (that had been part of the lesson) that they felt was ‘for me’ was Hebrews 11:8 “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going.”

This does indeed resonate with me in many ways. I sense a strong call to ministry but have often questioned whether this is into parish ministry. The church don’t really make this distinction. The only question from them is whether it is ‘Word and Sacrament’ or some other form of ministry. I have no doubt in my mind that it is to ‘Word and Sacrament’ but still remain unclear whether this’ll end up as parish ministry or not. Maybe that element of ‘doubt’ is a hint that I’ll end up being called to somewhere or something that I hadn’t considered.

Whatever it is, and whether I do end up knowing or not, I pray that, like Abraham, I can follow this calling in faith and not seek to impose my own desires.

Nov 122007

In a manner of speaking.

Managed to get my Modern Christology essay in this morning after finishing it just before midnight last night. Had a major ‘writer’s block’ by Saturday and what I can only put down to a bit of divine inspiration got it going again on Sunday. If I even hint at doing a systematics course next year, please shoot me and put me out of my misery early. I’ve decided I like practical theology and I can’t be bothered with arguments over minutiae (even though they are fun sometimes).

Now, the irony of this essay was that it was on “the role of Christology in the Christian account of prayer”. I came at it from the perspective of what our understanding of petitionary prayer says about Jesus. Interesting enough, but the really illuminating feature of the study I did was about petitionary prayer itself. In order to determine a link to Christology, I first needed to establish the ‘nature’ of petitionary prayer. The conclusion was ‘interesting’.

When we pray a prayer of petition or intercession, what do we expect to happen? Here’s a joke which, I think, pretty much sums up what I reckon many people think of prayer:

A journalist heard about a very old Jewish man who had been going to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem to pray, twice a day, every day, for a long, long time.
So they went to check it out. The journalist went to the Wailing Wall and there he was walking slowly up to the holy site.
After about 45 minutes, he turned to leave, and the journalist approached him for an interview..
“Sir, how long have you been coming to the Wailing Wall and praying?”
“For about 60 years.”
“60 years! That’s amazing! What do you pray for?”
“I pray for peace between the Christians, Jews and the Muslims. I pray for all the wars and hatred to stop, I pray for all our children to grow up safely as responsible adults, and to love their fellow man.”
“How do you feel after doing this for 60 years?”
“Like I’m talking to a b****y brick wall.”

Sound familiar? If so, it’s because of what we ‘expect’ of prayer. We expect a ‘fix’, a ‘cure’, an ‘intervention’ of some sort. But in all the reading I did, this was never the expectation of prayer. Our prayers cannot change the mind of God. Rather, our prayers can change the mind of ourselves. Prayer is about knowing God’s will – understanding what it is and coming to terms with it. We can’t bully or pester God into doing something we want done, but we can come to know what He wants us to do.

Now, here’s the biggie – does God ‘pass on’ our requests to those who are in a position to answer prayers?