Categories
2020 Bible Reflections

April 11th 2020: Psalm 142

Psalm 142

A maskilof David. When he was in the cave. A prayer.

I cry aloud to the Lord;
    I lift up my voice to the Lord for mercy.
I pour out before him my complaint;
    before him I tell my trouble.

When my spirit grows faint within me,
    it is you who watch over my way.
In the path where I walk
    people have hidden a snare for me.
Look and see, there is no one at my right hand;
    no one is concerned for me.
I have no refuge;
    no one cares for my life.

I cry to you, Lord;
    I say, “You are my refuge,
    my portion in the land of the living.”

Listen to my cry,
    for I am in desperate need;
rescue me from those who pursue me,
    for they are too strong for me.
Set me free from my prison,
    that I may praise your name.
Then the righteous will gather about me
    because of your goodness to me.

You can listen to today’s Psalm here: Psalm 142 audio

David speaks this psalm from within a cave. It’s an important detail, particularly resonant today on Holy Saturday, when we remember the body of Jesus, in Joseph’s tomb, on the day of lost hope and quiet turmoil that his friends and disciples were going through. Yes, he had promised that if he, was destroyed he would rise within 3 days. Yes, those who had been paying attention might have been hopeful of something miraculous taking place, but Jesus’s family friends and followers had just watched the flame of hope and the light of love die, apparently, with the death of Jesus as they awoke on this Saturday. And they were frightened. Life was locked in a cave.

And so we return to David, another who spent time hiding in a cave, pursued by his enemies and, it often seems to me, by his own fears, doubts and questions, both about himself and his life and about whether the God he had put his hope in was really going to come through for him and save him. It’s a fair enough question and just as David asked it, the followers of Jesus asked it whilst he was in a cave, so it seems understandable to me that many of us might be in a place of doubt and questions and crying out to God for deliverance. Only a few days before this in his own story, Jesus had asked God if there was any possibility of the cup of suffering being taken from him. When the answer came back a resounding no, he once again set his face to what was needed and required of him and gave his life, his all, on the cross, scorning its shame, so that the possibility of resurrection might exist not just for him but for all.

David hiding in his cave cried out to God but still wanted to make it clear that he trusted God. Jesus trusted God and his plan all the way to the cross, the cave and the depths of death. Will we trust God through our own doubts and suffering in the hope that Sunday is coming?

Something To Do

Commit to contentment. What gifts have you been given that you can enjoy and use for the benefit of other people?

Something To Pray

Lord, you invite us to enter into the fellowship of Jesus’s sufferings. Help us to wait in this place of pain and watch with you for the dawn of tomorrow’s brand new day and brand new hope.

Categories
Faith

Hope (a New Year Meandering)

I’m not big on resolutions for the start of a new calendar year. Over the last couple, I’ve promised to write on the Church of England lectionary reading every day (lasted a few months) and write a new song every month (managed one for half the months of the year) so it turns out I’m not too good at keeping to what I promise to do. That’s  pretty difficult, humbling thing to admit to.

The end of one year and the beginning of another offers the opportunity for grandiose statements about how great/terrible/abominable the year just ending was and how much better/more hopeful and full of possibility the one to come is. This seems particularly so with 2016 in mind. The combination of seismic political upheaval, the sheer fact that there are myriad celebrities in our aspiration-obsessed culture and therefore more of said celebrities (very sadly) die in any given year (and this will only be more so in the coming years) and the way that we have access to news about virtually everything, all of the time, if we want it, even though we often miss the most important things happening both under our noses and in the forgotten far-reaches of the planet, all of that can combine to make it seem like it’s been a terrible year.

Allied to all of this, it seems to me that I am not a very resilient person. I don’t know about you. You might be. In which case, move on and ignore this paragraph. But the fact remains that, I at least, am learning that I need deeper and deeper wells of resilience that I did not realise would be necessary. How did previous generations deal with, say, the loss of entire families in war, or to diseases like TB, when I can’t cope with not being able to complete my work because my internet connection is intermittent? How are we, for whom, in the West, life expectancy and quality of life is, in the main, longer and better than ever, become so frightened of death, so scared of ‘the other’ that we keep both as far away as possible, when, so we’re told, we have it better than ever before in the whole of human history?

2017 will be a year of change for me. I’ve got a calendar year from midnight to find a new role within the Church of England. Changes of this nature don’t just affect me. They affect my long-suffering wife and our wider family. As I go through the process of applying, if this time is anything like other such junctures in my life, I would not be too surprised to find myself questioning my worth, value, suitability for roles, even though I am trained, qualified, experienced, called, equipped and sent exactly for the kind of roles that I might be looking at in the coming weeks and months. These doubts have assailed me many times and they boil down to two key things: I don’t trust myself, perhaps rightly and, more seriously, I often fail to truly trust God, thinking instead that if I just work harder, longer, better, more sacrificially (those two often seem to equate to the same thing in my head at least) then somehow God will be more pleased with me and therefore elevate me to some kind of ability or situation that would otherwise be beyond me. Working hard is important. Making the most of the gifts we are given is a key facet of the scriptural narrative, but the key, the absolute key, is to know that the heart of those gifts, the giver and effector of them, is God. I have gifts to share with the communities I live in and serve because God gives them to me. I can use or squander them, in partnership (hopefully) with him, but the gifts are given by him. God has brought me to the beginning of 2017 to be someone who points people to Him, who draws people into family and relationship with him, themselves and with other people. I do have to move, to be active, to do ‘the work’, but most of all I have to trust God that when he says he will be with me, when he says he will not leave me, when he says that he will send the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, to support and encourage me, when he promises miracles, transformations, healings, mercy and grace and all of the other things that we’re told are the promises of God: that those things will come to pass if I walk with him, one step after another, faithfully, as faithfully as I can, day by day. It’s not cool, it’s not sexy, it might not win me a platform, or influence, but it will be what I am invited by God to do in this next year.

I’ve been thinking recently that all the words I can use about God, Church, Faith, and what all of those things are and mean (all of which change on a daily basis) pale into insignificance when placed next to the Word, the coming of Jesus, who was both God and man, into the world that first Christmas time. He is who we need to get to know, to follow, to mimic even, as 2017 dawns. Not just by learning about him, talking about him, what he might think about certain issues, political parties or societal changes, but actually take him at his word that when he said that he would be with us to the end of the age (this one we’re in now) if we asked him to be, that he actually would be and that one of the main tasks, if not the main one, of the Christian life is some form of commitment to actually working out what that relationship of closeness might mean for us, both individually, as Church families and as the whole Church. If we got to know Jesus, what might we see? What might he invite us to do? What might he actually want to do for us, give to us, so that we might pass on the gift to others this year?

So, don’t fall for slogans, or long paragraphs like mine, this new year. Don’t rely on blogs, books, memes, videos on Facebook or even the Huffington Post to tell you what to think this new year. Don’t mindlessly retweet. Even more, don’t beligerently retweet. If you have questions, doubts, fears, if you’re looking for a reason to be hopeful, a reason to be cheerful (part 2017) this new year, then you actually, actually, actually, you actually can do no better than to silence all the words, all the screens, all the arguments, and invite Jesus, the only Word truly worth hearing and listening to, to be live with you, in you, through you and for you this coming year.

You might think this blog, therefore, is a waste of time, shouting into a void, obsolete. Well, yes, maybe, but these are the kinds of words I needed to hear at the end of 2016 and the start of 2017. So I wrote them to myself. What would the Church be like if I, if we, chose to prioritise the things that Jesus chose to prioritise? He gave a priority to love (of God and people), a priority to the poor, a priority to prayer, a priority to telling people about the kingdom of God through sharing stories they could relate to and a priority to building teams of people who could partner with him in his work. Wouldn’t it be great if I lived with these priorities? What could change? What could happen? What mountains might be moved if we joined together in living this way?

Let’s find out in the year to come

Categories
Disability

Things You Learn Lying On the Bathroom Floor

This blog is also forming the basis of a piece I’ve been asked to write for this weekend’s event at the Vatican, Living Fully 2016. This looks like being a fantastic event. I’m sad not to be attending, but very happy to be able to offer this contribution to the discussion and debate. 

Things You Learn Lying On the Bathroom Floor

Recently, I was enormously privileged to be asked to both preach and act as a co-best man for two dear friends of mine, Matt and Ruth. This happy event took place towards the end of a period of seemingly frenzied activity in the life of the Churches in which I am Assistant Curate, The Emmanuel Group in Northampton. I was nervous before I spoke. There’s so much that one wants to say in a wedding address, particularly for close friends. Fortunately, I managed to strike the balance between providing a warm up for the best man’s speech later that evening and speaking words of love, truth and blessing to Matt and Ruth from God as they began their married life together.

Prior to that day, the week had contained several other events which had been noteworthy. A couple of apparently serious incidents involving people in the life of our Church community provided both opportunities for exercising ministry and opportunities to take on more worry and tension than I perhaps should have done. In the same week, I found myself praying for the new Mayor of Northampton, Cllr Christopher Malpas, as he began his term of office by inviting me to be his chaplain. I can tell you that these events are not normal in the course of my life and work. What is normal? And why might I begin a piece about disability, fear and leadership by talking about things which to other ministers might seem fairly normal, even mundane?

Let’s return to Saturday night. It’s around 10pm, the wedding is starting to wind down and I’m laughing at another joke from a friend I see far from often enough. And then it happens. I feel a tightness around my core, the muscle group that stretches around the middle of my body. I know what’s coming. Fortunately,  I manage to attract my wife’s attention before I am unable to speak, and she propels me along to the bathroom, which is mercifully vacant. As the door closes, wave upon wave of spasm hits me and I am doubled over in agony. I can’t breathe. I can’t speak, except in groans and to say the most important word I can think of at that moment: ‘sorry’. I’m sorry to my wife that she has to see this, to deal with it. I’m sorry that I nearly had an ‘episode’ in a very public place. I’m sorry that my body is out of control. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

In short order, I’m lying flat on the bathroom floor and, in the cold light of day a few days later, I’m not ashamed to say that I am whimpering. I am scared. What if it doesn’t stop? It did last time, a year and a half ago, when an over-busy Christmas period ended with me on my parent’s lounge floor putting a dampener on the beginning of our Christmas celebrations. It did immediately after I arrived home from playing a show with my band (in a former life!) in Trafalgar Square to (I’m told) 10,000 people, but what if it doesn’t this time?

Fortunately, it did pass. I was able to re-enter the fray of the wedding before too long and have spent most of this last week recovering my equilibrium. But there were a few moments lying there on that bathroom floor, and I say this advisedly and without seeking to overly dramatise the event, where my life, and my immediate future, flashed before my eyes.

During those moments, convinced that my body was letting me down, I decided that there was no way I would be able to undertake in future the functions of the priestly role. What use would I be to people if, when under a modicum of stress, my body decides to stop allowing me to work?  From there I find myself in a cycle of reflection. What is the priesthood about? Does it require bodies and minds to be of a suitable consistent standard to be acceptable to God and deemed as priestly? Leviticus 21, particularly vv16-c20 has the potential in thought processes such as these to be a source of terror and a weapon of tyranny.

The Lord said to Moses, “Say to Aaron: ‘For the generations to come none of your descendants who has a defect may come near to offer the food of his God. No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; no man with a crippled foot or hand, or who is a hunchback or a dwarf, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles.

This passage, taken in context, is about ritual purity or impurity. However, for me, at times when my sense of worth has been challenged, it has the power to rear its head as a judge and jury: I am not enough. I couldn’t be. My body does not measure up and because my body doesn’t, neither does the rest of me. You might read this and feel like my exegesis is off (it probably is) and that I’m being overly-dramatic (I very well may be) but feelings and deeply-internalised thoughts can be heavily consequential and hard to shift or shake off.

A combination of the glorious fulfilment of the law by Jesus and the belated flourishing of institutional common sense has made it possible for a slightly more representative selection of the Body of Christ to be considered suitable for ordination and leadership in his Church. I found it instructive, however, that it was in the moment and aftermath of reduced functionality that my sense of priestly identity, something which I think I know can only be imbued by God, was challenged, by me, in my own head. Have I, have we, in rightly emphasising the importance of honouring God in calling, training, equipping and sending leaders, misplaced our sense of balance? I would argue I certainly have, perhaps you have too.

We all know that the weaker (in whichever sense we are denoting weakness, certainly impairment does not equate to weakness in all cases) parts of the body are to be given the greatest honour. We know, too, that the greatest, and arguably most powerful acts of Jesus came in his weakest moments. In submitting to suffering, in emptying himself of all but instead of imposing his will and his way on all people, so that those very same people could have eternal life, life to the full, access to the grace and peace of God. Our God was not in human terms physically, mentally or emotionally, at his strongest when he was at his most efficacious.

And yet, as I writhed on the floor in agony, it was my ability to prove myself effective in the future, immediate and long term, as a minister that I most worried about. To put it bluntly, if this situation didn’t improve, or change, I wouldn’t be able to do my job. Rightly or wrongly, probably wrongly, this was my instinctive reaction, one that I had to fight against in the moments of uncertainty that followed for me in the proceeding days. I don’t believe that anything or anyone but God can give a person what is necessary for them to be a priest. Neither could anyone but God truly revoke that calling and identifying. 

The diocese in which I live and minister, Peterborough Diocese in the Church of England, has been fantastic for me as I explored a calling to ministry, had that calling affirmed, trained and now am completing the second year of my curacy. At most stages along the way, my impairment has been a ‘live’ issue. Both the diocese and I have had to work together on finding approaches to life and ministry that are appropriate and effective for me. I want to say here that I greatly appreciate the care, support and incisive challenges that have been given to me by my Bishops, my Archdeacon and other senior staff in the Diocese and wish to honour that. I had, and have, at least as much to learn about the ways in which I can live as a priest as ‘the Diocese’ in this regard. Similarly, my Training Incumbent, Margaret Johnson, truly has enabled me to flourish during the two years I have worked with her. I am incredibly grateful for that. These might seem like unnecessary things to say in a piece like this, but I think they’re important. Many people and institutions have collaborated to ensure that I have become able to live and work out the calling that God gave me. I know other people with impairments and disabilities have had good experiences in this regard, whilst for others similar processes have been hugely painful. There is, though, hope.

Our Churches benefit hugely from being ministered to by people who run the full gamut of the wondrous glory of God’s creation. Some of these ministers will be all-action, placed in physically and emotionally demanding situations and circumstances. Some will be able to offer less physically. Still others will offer a level of academic rigour in their dealings with Scripture and theology that will be far and above that offered by other ministers. There is not a minister of the gospel who does not, in offering to serve God and his people, find themselves in the position of needing to sacrifice, to suffer for the outworking of their calling, whichever element of themselves, their lives, or the lives of those they love might be squeezed for the sake of the Church. Ministry, like the Christian life, looks subtly different each time it is gifted by God to a person. Therefore, there is not one ‘successful’ approach to Christian ministry, there are, in effect, as many as there are ministers. Some need to be catalysts, some pragmatists, some spend more time listening, some tearing down the walls of unjust structures, physically. What do all have in common? They shine the light of Christ into the world, as sacramental presences, drawing communities of worship and praise around the divine, communities that are then sent out to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God. An effective ministry is not a busy ministry per se. As Eugene Peterson (who always says things that I wish I’d thought of first) says, the busy pastor is the lazy pastor. A good point for reflection, that.

An effective ministry is one that points people to Jesus and his glory. People with impairments and disabilities, temporary and permanent, have at least as much to offer in this as those unfortunate enough to think that they are in no way impaired. Indeed, I, as an impaired person, have a crucial role to play in this. Without us, the ministry of the Church is limited, deficient. With us it is more fully equipped to minister to the world in all its breadth. Those of us involved in this event know this. Pointing out to the Christian world and the world at large that fullness of life, abundance, grace and mercy, as well as brokenness and blessing can come in many shapes and forms is an urgent prophetic mandate in our day. If that means that the functional demands made of priests and ministers have to change or be more readily flexible in some instances, as time goes on, a wider and wider spectrum of the Church is, happily, coming to this realisation too. then so be it.

God identifies us as his children, reconciled to himself in and through Jesus. that word will not be unspoken. I wonder how many people God calls to ordination for whom his word of affirmation and invitation is never heard because our expectations and requirements do not permit it. For the Church holy, catholic and apostolic truly to be living fully, we have to continually be open to expecting the unexpected from God, for him to breathe life where there were only dry bones, for the wind of the Spirit to blow in unforeseen, unlikely places. On that bathroom floor, it felt once more, and all the more, unlikely that I had what it takes to be a leader in Christ’s Church. Yet here I am, when I am in pain and when I am not; when everything is working and when it is not, privileged and blessed to be such a leader, learning and growing all the time. I pray that we would be open across the breadth of the Church, to affirming the calling to Church leadership of more people who may look at first glance like unlikely ministers, but on whom the Spirit rests. Then we may, writhing on the bathroom floor in weakness, or rejoicing in the strength that only the joy of the Lord can bring (or whatever the opposite of writhing on a bathroom floor is), truly be living fully.

 

 

Categories
A Song A Month

A Song A Month for Spring: See In the Dark

It’s been a couple of months in the writing (life happened) but, finally, here’s the next installment in my 2016 songwriting odyssey. ‘See in the Dark’ is another pretty serious song, this time about certainty, and the loss of it, and whether or not that’s ok. I wanted to write a song from the place of having lost certainty, resisting the temptation that can sometimes befall songwriters, especially Christians I think, for everything to resolve nice and neatly. It seems to me life isn’t really like that very often.

I’ll do my best to present a jolly, jaunty little summer number next time!

Without further ado, here’s the video. Hope you all enjoy. Thanks for watching.

Categories
February 2016

February 1st 2016: Matthew 27:11-26

You can follow today’s reading by clicking on this sentence.

I talk too much. Especially under pressure. Especially when I’m under pressure and I think that the pressure being placed upon me is unjust, or has put me in danger, even the kind of danger that will end up with me looking stupid. I’ve never been in the position of having to defend myself for the sake of saving my life. I’ll be bluntly honest here and say I hope I never will be either. I can’t even begin to imagine what that would be like. Much is made of Jesus’s silence as he stands before Pilate here. He gives nothing away. He does not identify himself, he is not charged with anything, he does not accept or deny anything. He just is. In this moment of almost complete powerlessness, when the very real temptation to seek a way out must have been somewhere nearby, light shone simply by accepting what was to come.

What can I learn from this? I want to be less defensive. I want to be more positive. I want to be more aware, more confident in who I am, because of who God is and what Jesus did in going through this event and what was to follow. I want to keep things simple. I want to think and worry less. I want to be where I am and let God bring about what God is bringing about, even if it’s only through my obedience.