Apr 192010

I was chatting with Nikki today at lunchtime in Rainy Hall and we covered the usual broad range of topics. I’m doing a funeral in a couple of days and I mentioned that I still don’t get the ‘privileged’ thing that many in ministry speak about. We agreed that, for us certainly, it wasn’t the best word to describe how we felt about funerals. I don’t mean to suggest that we didn’t like doing them, but that there were problems with the word itself. It didn’t seem to capture the ‘motivation’ behind doing a funeral.

As I was wandering home from the station later, it struck me what my issue with the word is, at least in my eyes. For me, it’s the wrong focus. When we speak about being privileged, the focus is on us, and how we are feeling. It’s almost as though we are getting some sort of reflected blessing from the bereaved. After all, “Blessed are those who mourn.” Maybe we’d like a little piece of blessing too?

But, quite frankly, it doesn’t matter a hoot how I feel about a funeral. It doesn’t matter whether I feel any sort of blessing from it at all. It’s not about me in any way, shape or form. I could, in theory, walk away from it utterly untouched and unconcerned and still have been a blessing to those who mourn. Because that’s the important bit. My purpose is to be part of the flow of that blessing from God, bringing the sense of comfort the bereaved need. But in a very real sense I am not even needed for that, but I’m there. And I’m there because I am called to be and so I pray for God to use me in any way necessary to bring that blessing of comfort. My only desire is to speak the words of remembrance of the deceased, to show that memories may yet live and still be spoken with pain and gladness, but nevertheless still spoken, and to communicate that there is hope beyond even those memories. But that’s not about me, or at least it shouldn’t be. That’s about giving myself over to my calling; about dying to my own desires and seeking only God’s. That, to me, is only a privilege in the very superficial of senses.

I suspect that comes across at terribly self-righteous and even critical of those who take a very humble view of privilege. It’s not my intention to criticise others, but simply to reflect on why I have an issue with the word. so, if anyone’s got a better word, I’m happy to hear it.

Jan 202009

I’ve uploaded the short talk I used for my speech training session to the downloads page (and fixed the non-working downloads while there). It’s called ‘Confusion’ and is a slightly different take on John 4 and Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. It developed out of a passing thought as I was preparing for this Sunday.

Mar 292008

I’m churning over some sermon ideas at the moment (pulpit supply in my home church on the evening of the 13th of April) and, following through a particular line of thought, a small section of the Beatitudes popped into my head:

Mat 5:14-16 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.
Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.
In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

It struck me that the balance of these verses is not that we are light so that we may see, but rather that our light is there to be seen. A tiny candle-flame will be seen for miles on the darkest night for all that it does not cause the path before us to be illuminated. For that we need to bring the light to bear in a much more personal way.

Joh 8:12 Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

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.

Sep 302007

Well, I was this close (imagine thumb and forefinger held up really close together) to dropping Modern Christology and opting for something like Homiletics. 150 pages of Schleiermacher just about did my head in and I was seriously thinking of finding something less burdensome. So, last Monday morning I happened to bump into the lecturer and told him what I was thinking of doing. He told me that I wouldn’t ‘get’ Schleiermacher until the end of the course and not to worry about it. To cut a long story short, he persuaded me to stick with it (and not be a dropout like the other 15 out of 35 who did quit). If I’m being honest, I probably didn’t need much persuasion. And now I’m quite glad I stayed.

I’ve just about finished a couple of Bultmann readings and very challenging they are too. One of them was his lecture on ‘Demythologizing the New Testament Proclamation as Task’. This is basically saying the the ‘myth’ thought-world of the New Testament is no longer something modern society can deal with effectively and so it is necessary to strip out the ‘mythical’ aspects of what we read in scripture and look for the bits that we can still directly relate to. It’s not that these aspects are irrelevant, rather we just don’t ‘get them’ with our rational thought processes and so we should dispense with them. So a lot of the ‘magic stuff’ disappears – demon possession, virgin births, miracles, etc. We ‘accept’ them in faith, but only because others before us did and now they are no longer necessary for our faith.

I just happen to be reading Moltmann at the moment as well and coincidentally got to a chapter on much the same thing. The virgin birth, for example, is really of no interest to us and should be irrelevant to our faith. It’s a gynaecological issue, not a ‘make or break’ basis for our faith. Its import comes through the projection, backwards, of what the ‘origins’ of the Messiah might be expected to be (based on cultural myth and past prophecy). In essence – Jesus is the Messiah so He must have had a virgin birth.

As I say, quite challenging stuff and it really forces you to strip away the layers of your own faith and see whether what’s left will withstand scrutiny.

I do wonder though if things aren’t changing again. Bultmann’s lecture was written in 1941. I think that, since then, society has become less ‘rational’ in thought-world. I think there is more of a search for the spiritual and that what was once dismissed as myth (as in just a made-up story) is now becoming more acceptable as myth (a way of expressing a spiritual truth that is beyond our ability to properly describe). Post-modernism is, I think, rediscovering a sense of the ‘greater’. Theologians (and more pointedly, those who put it into direct application, in the pulpit) perhaps need to (re)discover an appropriate language that connects with that spiritual searching.

Sep 172007

Stewart’s asking the question, “Have we lost the wonder of God?”

Coincidentally, the reading I’m trying to do for uni is largely on this very thing. Our first lecture in Modern Christology is entitled “What did the Enlightenment do for us?”
The reading, in a nutshell, is saying that the ascendency of philosophy (and its influence on science) changed the way we use language and hence our way of describing the world around us. Our world and our experience became describable and the implication was that everything became describable – there was (or would be) nothing left to wonder about – all could be explained in the language of science or psychology.

Language is a funny thing – it can inspire and motivate but it can also restrict. Again, part of my reading has been about post-Enlightenment views on Aquinas and Duns Scotus and the use of metaphorical language. Aquinas argued it was legitimate to speak of God metaphorically (equivocally). Duns Scotus argued that we could only speak of God with ‘precise’ language (univocally). My sympathies lie with Aquinas. Metaphor contains an element of ‘beyond’. It points beyond itself to something more than the parts of the metaphor. It contains an element of transcendence and, for me, points to the wonder of something much greater.

And yet, not everyone sees it. Does this mean that it only works for those already on ‘the inside’? Does one already have to know God to grasp His wonder? Which, when followed to a conclusion raises the question, “If there is no wonder, is there no faith?”

Sep 162007

Today was my second Sunday at KHR Grangemouth. I was delivering the children’s talk and today was also communion. So, before I comment on both, I also want to note that I also spent a lot of time blethering over tea afterwards. They’re a very friendly lot at KHR and it’s great how welcoming they’ve been. My big problem is keeping track of names. So, if anyone has any tried and trusted name-remembering techniques, I’m all ears.

Anyway, on to my observations for the day.

The children’s talk went well (I thought) but then it helps when you’ve got a very responsive group of young people. It especially helps when they don’t get stumped when the stock answers of ‘God’, ‘Jesus’ and ‘the Bible’ aren’t the expected answers. I got a lot of very perceptive answers which showed that they understood my questions and were giving it some thought. My theme was ‘meeting’ since that was the first time I had properly met any of them. We moved on to ways of meeting God and that tied nicely into the idea of communion being of particular importance as a way of meeting God. Someone noted that I didn’t use any sort of script while I was speaking. I think with a children’s talk I like to know where I’m starting and know where I’m aiming for. Everything else in between is pretty much up for grabs because you just don’t know what sort of response you’ll get. The knack is to guide any apparently tangential comment back on course (and know when to give up when it just isn’t working).

Communion was pretty much to formula but with one aspect that I do think merits looking at. In KHR, like a number of churches I have been in, the elders who will be distributing the elements get served first. Then the rest of the congregation is served. I quite like having the elders served after the congregation. One church I was in used a particular formulation of words that, paraphrased heavily, said, “We have tasted, it is good, now you can have some.” It wasn’t intentionally ‘elitist’ but that’s how it struck me at the time. That has stuck with me and perhaps now I’m a little over-sensitive to the impressions given during communion. One communion service I did like was one where the bread was distributed and everyone ate as they received it but when the wine was distributed, it was kept until everyone had some. Then everyone took it together. I enjoyed the more ‘communal’ feel to that approach. That said, it obviously wouldn’t work where a common cup was used. I’m also going down to the evening communion service which, I’m told, is different, so I’ll add another entry later about that.

Sep 072007

I’m preaching the sermon at Harvest Thanksgiving in my placement church on the 23rd. The lectionary readings for that Sunday are very appropriate and I particularly liked the one from Amos:

Amos 8:4 Listen to this, you that trample on the needy and try to destroy the poor of the country.
8:5 You say to yourselves, “We can hardly wait for the holy days to be over so that we can sell our grain. When will the Sabbath end, so that we can start selling again? Then we can overcharge, use false measures, and fix the scales to cheat our customers.
8:6 We can sell worthless wheat at a high price. We’ll find someone poor who can’t pay his debts, not even the price of a pair of sandals, and we’ll buy him as a slave.”
8:7 The LORD, the God of Israel, has sworn, “I will never forget their evil deeds.

When we consider the effects of globalisation and ‘market forces’, who’s to say that things have changed much today? Our quest for cheaper goods, our throwaway lifestyle, our desire for more exotica (be it food or whatever) has a global impact. And there will always be someone ready to supply that need all the while exploiting the supplier to make their own profit.

We may make our outward show of ethical behaviour, but behind it, what’s really going on? Whether wilfully or in wilful ignorance, we can’t ignore the effect our consumerism has at a global level. All the more so if we claim the name Christian yet hold the lives of others in contempt.

Sep 052007

Today I started writing some pages that set out my theological standpoint. It was quickly turning into a bit of an epic so I’ve decided to break it into bite-sized chunks and offer them up for your delight, one morsel at a time. My cooking is never too good at the best of times, so perhaps it’s not the best analogy to use. Rather, the smaller pieces should make it easier to comment, but please bear in mind that it’s not a full picture. I hope that the coherency of the whole becomes more obvious as I post more parts. This one merely acts as an introduction and explains why I place such an emphasis on theology.

For me, theological understanding lies at the root of faith (not all faith, but mine in particular). Despite having a church background that places scripture in a very high position (the highest, one might almost argue), I always find myself questioning it and attempting to reconcile its inconsistencies, not with reference to other scripture or alternative critical methods, but with theology. The question for me, if you like, is, “What does this tell me about God and is it consistent with our understanding of God?” For me, theology, in a sense, drives interpretation of scripture whilst always recognising that scripture is part of God’s revelation to us. Understanding scripture then becomes held up against a yardstick that asks, “Is this a faithful and consistent understanding of God?”

That makes theology, not the dry academic discipline it often appears, but a very immediate and essential aspect of our faith. Theology is our understanding of God as we go about our everyday business, as we meet and speak to people, as we make ethical and moral judgements, as we choose one path over another, as we witness, in word and deed. There are so many areas of our life that scripture simply doesn’t address and so it is theology that allows us to make our judgements. One might argue that this is the role of ethics, but ethics can be entirely secular and it can be easy to confuse ‘doing good’ with ‘being a Christian’. Even our ethics must be driven by our theology.

Perhaps this approach is simply a consequence of how I came to faith. I know many other Christians who wouldn’t even consider their faith being based on such ‘academic’ grounds. Nonetheless, I think theological thinking is what gives us maturity and depth in faith. We may just not call it theology.

As a final word, let me place one caveat on what I intend writing. One of my lecturers using the phrase ‘language at its breaking point’. I love this phrase and think it is very apt when we hope to describe God with mere words. So, when I use mere words to attempt to describe feelings and thoughts and concepts, please do remember that they will never do justice to God.