Thursday, June 30, 2011

little miracles

Today's Gospel reading

Do miracles still occur? I've seen people who's doctors & families were sure were dying ... they were sure themselves ... and then, after praying & without further medical intervention, they rally and go on for weeks or months more. Is that a miracle? Ultimately the person dies. But so too the people that Jesus healed died. Miracles aren't about living forever, that much seems certain. But what are they about? In today's Gospel   they are about proof, showing who Jesus really is. So what are the 'little miracles' that I have seen about? Are they God's way of reaching into a situation to give a person the time they need to come to terms with their dying? Or to give their family time? Is it to witness to those around the dying person the power of prayer & help strengthen their faith? Why do some get this 'little miracle' while others don't - or at least seem not to. These are all huge questions. One could proably write a book trying to answer evenone of them. No doubt many have. But at the end I think that all we have is to accept that this is part of the mystery of life and faith. And remember that the Jesus who proved who he was by the miracles also proved by them that the promises he made to his disciples, and to us, are something that we can believe.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

quick questions

Today's Gospel for the feast of St Peter

So here's a quick question for you - who do you say Jesus is? And another one - what does that answer really mean for your life? Peter in today's Gospel declared him the Messiah and the Son of God. Well why wouldn't he? He had seen the miracles. He had heard the teaching. He had been present at the transfiguration. So Peter, who I always think of as a big, impetuous lug, is able to declare with absolute confidence who he thinks Jesus is. And Jesus praises him for his faith. And five minutes later he is lambasting him when Peter tries to tell him that suffering and death is not part of the role of the Messiah. A few weeks later, Peter abandons him in the garden & denies knowing him. He goes into hiding to emerge only after the Resurrection ... and promptly hides himself away with the other disciples after the Ascension. It isn't until after Pentecost that he finds it within himself to put the words that he had declared so confidently to Jesus on the road to Jerusalem that day, that he knows him to be the Messiah & the Son of God, into action. Something that I find comforting, actually. Peter was there. And yet, for all that he had experienced while with Jesus, he still needed God's help, the strength of the Holy Spirit, to follow the path that his declaration of faith to Jesus led. And if Peter needed if, how much more so we?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

‘Why are you afraid?’

today's Gospel


I always wonder what Jesus means when he says to his disciples ‘Why are you afraid, you of little faith?’ There is a storm & the boat is in danger of sinking; a little trepidation is not to be wondered at. But Jesus seems to be telling them that if they had faith, they would not be afraid. But faith in what exactly? Does he mean that if they had faith in him they would know that they wouldn't die? But we will all die, eventually. In fact, Jesus told his followers that they would face suffering and death. To misquote Woody Allen, we don't achieve immortality by not dying. Quite the opposite, in fact. As Christians we believe that to die in this life is to reborn to eternal life. Which makes me think that this is what Jesus means. Don't be afraid. You will die. If not today, then some other time. But death is not something to be afraid of. Have faith. Remember what I've told you. Remember what you have seen. If you really have faith, then you have nothing to fear. Because you know death is not the end.

Of course, having said 'why are you afraid?' he then calms the storm. To show them they can have faith in what he says. So that they can know what he promises is true. And so that we can know it too.

Monday, June 27, 2011

following Jesus

today's Gospel

When I was at Taize last week it struck me what an easy place it was to lead the Christian life. Thousands of people, living in community together, worshipping together. Perhaps that's what the scribe in today's Gospel reading experienced, a wonderful feeling of fellowship and common vision and purpose. He liked it and wanted it to continue. So he enthusiastically told Jesus that he would follow him anywhere. But instead of encuraging him, Jesus tells him that it is a hard life to be one of his followers. Becuase we don't get to spend all our time by the lake in the presence of the Lord ... just as we don't get to spend all our time in places like Taize. These are temporary places of rest to energise us for the hard work of going out into the world ... of living the Christian life in places where there is much to distract us ... of trying to make the message of Christ real to others in the way we live our lives. It would be lovely if we could spend all our time in places like Taize. But ironically, for most of us, that would not be what it means to follow Jesus where ever he goes.

Saturday, June 18, 2011


today's Gospel is Matthew 6.24-34

I'm off to Taize today (Saturday 18 June). It's essentially a retreat, but I'm also going to be looking for some ideas to put into practice in the parish. If the clergy won't try and figure out what younger folk need and want from church & try to do something about it, then who will? Hmm ... perhaps the answer to that question isn't as obvious as you may think! Keep me in your prayers.

Friday, June 17, 2011

True Freedom

today's Gospel is Matthew 6.19-23

It's funny how things work out. I had assembly in one of the parish school's today. It was on the 'list' to do the story of Paul and Silas in prison and I decided to tell it from the point of view of the prison guard. As I thought it about it from that perspective, it occurred to me that in that story that it is the guard who is the real prisoner in that story, a prisoner of his life and circumstances, while Paul & Silas, even though they are lying in chains in prison after a brutal beating, are the ones who are truly free. The cares and worries of this life have so trapped the guard that he is ready to take his own life when things go wrong. It is Paul & Silas who save his life and the guard is so amazed by this turn of events that he realises that what he wants in his life is what these battered and bruised prisoners have.

I hadn't looked at the Gospel reading before doing assembly & I was quite surprised to see that it was Jesus' words about not trying to work for the treasures of this world, but rather to lay up treasure in heaven. I could almost believe that Paul included words like these when he was speaking the 'Word of the Lord' to him that night to help him understand why it was his prisoner who seemed like a free man and why he felt like the one who was in prison and needed saving.

With all the news of our global financial woes that are getting everybody down, perhaps these words can be of equal importance today. Banks and economies are important and have their place in the scheme of things, but they are not of such overriding importance that they we should let them make our lives miserable when they go through a bad patch. There are more important things in life. Health, family, friends ... and the kind of treasure in heaven that helps to make us truly free.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Preaching to preachers

I spent the last few days at a onference on preaching. The following is a short article that the organisers asked me to write about the event.

Christians in the 21st Century are looking for a relationship with God and an experience of him. This is the pastoral need that preachers in the modern age must meet. To do so they have to move away from the kind of preaching which aims to teach people  about God and instead help them encounter him.

This was the message that the legendary Herbie O'Driscoll had for the group of preachers attending a three-day workshop in the newly opened St Luke's Home Education Centre in Cork. Herbie is a Cork native who was ordained in the Church of Ireland but spent most of his ministry in Canada. There he served not only as Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver, but also as Warden of the College of Preachers in Washington DC. Over the years he has gained an international reputation as a preacher, teacher, lecturer and story teller and in retirement remains in huge demand as a speaker.

Herbie warned those who had gathered from all over Ireland and beyond that the model of preaching used by many today was based on assumptions that were no longer true. It came from a time when it could be taken for granted that almost everyone sitting in the pew had an intimate knowledge of scripture and would be there Sunday after Sunday without fail. This is no longer true and preachers must adapt if they are to pastor to those sitting in the pews today.

Herbie pointed out that the old model advocated what today could be seen as a 'talking head' in the pulpit, with many barriers between the preacher and the people: distance, height, and a wall of wood or stone. The modern preacher needs to remove as many barriers as possible and come down into the congregation and create a space of 'intimate eloquence.' Language can be a barrier also; the preacher must never forget that the only person who will read the sermon is them – all others will hear it and so the preacher must strive to achieve the informality of language appropriate to the spoken word. Indeed, the page itself can become a barrier and he encouraged everyone to move away from it as far as possible and to minimise notes to the essentials.

With that in mind, he challenged his listeners to imaginatively engage with the Biblical texts and to use image and story to engage and teach their congregations. He stressed that the Bible for the most part used image and story to convey its message and encouraged those attending to try to do the same. Storytelling reduces the need for notes and at the same time draws the listener deeper into the inexhaustible riches available to us in scripture.

Using story also allows the preacher to 'fill in the gaps' that the person in the pew has when it comes to the overarching narrative of scripture. For many today the events of scripture can be like a box of photographs that have fallen on the floor and then gathered up and put back in again out of sequence. Using story helps teach people the flow of what happens in the Bible without turning the sermon into a lecture. It takes practice to do it well and it may not be something that all preachers find suitable for them, but it was something that he offered to the group as a potential resource for them, as he did indeed all his many insights and suggestions.

Thanking Herbie on behalf of the the group, the Dean of Cloyne, the Very Reverend Alan Marley, said it had been a memorable few days and a true pleasure to sit at the feet of one so willing to share so generously of his time and talent with others. The tenor of the group was that it had been an exciting, energising, and encouraging time and no one, he was sure, would ever approach preaching in quite the same way again.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

the Magdalene laundries

today's Gospel: Matthew 6.1-6, 16-18

A proper look is to be taken at the Magdalene laundries. Good. I am no expert, but from what I know they were societies dumping ground for inconvenient women. Terrible things were done there to some by those who ran them & I hope they will be held accountable. But I hope the society that made such places possible will also be held accountable. Such places do not exist in a vacuum. If we forget that, we are in danger of allowing the same kind of thing, perhaps to a different group, to happen again.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

love your enemies

today's Gospel Matthew 5.43-48

Love your enemies. Now that's a tough one. I didn't think I hated anyone. Then a few days ago a clergy colleague, hearing where I had gone to school, mentioned he was good friends with one of my old teachers. I actually had to get out of the conversation. I went to school in the days of corporal punishment. I've forgiven most of my teachers - those were the times we were in. But this teacher sticks in my craw. He, for some bizarre reason, didn't like my footwear. They were a bit eccentric, I admit, but they weren't against the school rules. He was always going on about them, but he couldn't make me not wear them & frankly these were the days when most people only had one pair of shoes - I had nothing else to wear. I was a good student, never in trouble, but he bided his time & one day he got me good. It was also the days of most kids only having one pair of uniform trousers. I got mine dirty & had to go to school in jeans - it was something that had happened to all the kids at one point or another with no response from the teachers other than a bit of grumble about it not happening again. I'm sure you know what's coming - this teacher gave me an unmerciful thumping. He used open hand and fist. We were doing exams, so I got my beating in front of the whole school. When he was done he told me to go back to my seat. The look on his face was one of enormous satisfaction. I then, hurting & holding back the tears, had to sit down and do an exam.

That was over thirty years ago. Just thinking about it makes me seethe. We're told to love our enemies. Can I bring myself to love this man? The truth is that I can't. The man I am now can forgive him in his head; the boy he struck still feels all the pain and anger of that day. If I was to meet him, could I act lovingly toward him? I hope so. I'd like to think that I could, even though there is part of me, the boy I suppose, who would long to give him a smack. I'd like to act as if I could forgive him if only because the hurt and anger that I carry around from that day only allows him to hurt me still. He's probably forgotten it. I haven't. But that doesn't mean I should let that day make me into someone who behaved as he did that day.

Monday, June 13, 2011

the short season of Pentecost

I began to wonder yesterday if the Church is missing an opportunity in the way it treats Pentecost. It is the third most important festival day of the Church, and yet it is hard to see how that is made manifest. My own experience of church attendances is that they tend to be average at best on that day - in fact often below average. Nothing like the swelling of numbers that occurs for Christmas and Easter. They, of course, get a season afterwards to emphasise their importance. What does Pentecost get? The day itself. There were stark words inscribed in the lectionary for today, the day after Pentecost: ordinary time begins. I suppose Pentecost suffers by its proximity to Easter; on the other hand, we don't curtail Lent or Easter anyway when they occur early in the year and they fall hard on the heels of Christmas as happened this year.

Pentecost is the time when we remember the birth of the Church and is potentially an opportunity for a time for great spiritual renewal. Perhaps the time has come to mark this major feast of the Church with a little more than just a season that lasts a day.

today's gospel reading is Matthew 5.38-42

Sunday, June 12, 2011

the giant's causeway


Sermon Whit Sunday 2011
May my words be in the name of the Holy & undivided Trinity: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit – amen.

My family and I took a week’s holiday in Donegal last week. It was as far north as we had ever been, and we decided it would be a shame not go just a little bit further and visit the Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim. It is, after all, a world heritage site and in any case it was hard to resist the chance to see this famous place where the rock formations are so extraordinary that for thousands of years all who saw them found it impossible to believe that this was a natural phenomenon, but instead was something that must have been built by the giant heroes of the distant past.

It was about a three hour drive from where we were staying so we had to make a day of it and get an early start. The weather was miserable – overcast, chilly, with a lot of heavy rain-showers –so you can imagine that the car journey was a bit tedious even though we took the scenic coastal route … because with all the rain it was rather difficult to see the scenery! When we arrived the rain was torrential; so we decided to have our picnic in the car and hope for a break in the weather before chancing the half mile walk down.
By the time we had finished eating the rain had slowed to a drizzle. So it was on with the wellies and the rain coats – and with four boys you can imagine this was proceeded by the usual protests of ‘I don’t need wellies’ and ‘I don’t need a raincoat’; which was met with the usual parental reply of ‘if you don’t put them on then you’re not going’ - and off down the steep path.

By now the rain had cleared completely and there was quite a crowd heading down – a lot of others had also waited for the rain to stop before heading down. When we were about half way down a voice rang out loud and clear: ‘The Giant’s causeway is boring!’ You can imagine how embarrassing that was amongst all these tourists from America, Germany, Japan, and England! It was even more mortifying that the voice belonged to one of my own children! You may be sure I pulled him to one side & spoke some sharp words about not making a show of his family in public like that!

But embarrassed as I was, I could kind of see his point. From where we were standing there was a spectacular view of the coastline, but Ireland is full of spectacular coastlines. From where we were standing, it was hard to see what justified getting up early when we were supposed to be relaxing on holidays for a three hour car journey on a miserable wet day. Indeed, as we began to get closer I began to wonder if the whole thing was going to be a bit of a disappointment ... this was a place I had read about in my school books, heard all kinds of legends and stories about, had heard friends who had visited rave about all my life ... and yet here I was, standing practically on top of it, and all I could see was rocks ... rocks that didn’t a whole lot different to the ones you might see almost anywhere on the Irish coast without having to mount what was practically a military operation in order to see them!

And then, just as I almost felt like gathering the children together and apologising to them for all we’d put them through to get there – especially the one I had given out to for embarrassing the family and the nation before the tourists of the world – suddenly, I began to see it ... I was looking at the rocks and I suddenly realised that the ones at my feet had the famous honeycomb pattern ... I looked up and the whole landscape seemed to change before my eyes ... out of all the rocks that a moment before had seemed so ordinary, the Giant’s Causeway emerged ... it was almost as if the whole extraordinary formation simply melted into view ... basalt columns, some of them 50 or 60 feet high, soaring above our heads, each with its many sided shape nestling snuggling against its neighbours ... and in a moment it was easy to imagine why so many stories have been told about the place down through the centuries about how it came to be ... standing there it was almost impossible to believe that this was something that was not man-made ...

Today is Whit Sunday, the feast of Pentecost, the day when we remember the time when the disciples of Jesus, frightened and feeling abandoned, huddled together in a rented room in Jerusalem, wondering what the future might hold for them, only to have something extraordinary happen to them. The story is told at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, and since St Luke never mentions it again, we might be forgiven for thinking that it was not something that the early church hadn’t seen of being of very great importance, that maybe it is something that we make too much of a fuss about. However, when we begin to really immerse ourselves in the story that we begin to fully understand its meaning. We begin to see is that the story actually occupies a double position in the New Testament: Luke wrote both his account of the Gospel and Acts and intended them to be seen as a narrative whole ... that means that the story of Pentecost is actually set at the very centre of the story he has to tell us ... it is the lynch pin, the turning point ... his Gospel tells us what things were like when Jesus was there ... Acts tells us how they were once he was gone ... and in case anyone missed the point he was making, he begins Acts with the same event that he ends his gospel with, the Ascension. And the first thing that happens as he continues the story is what happened at Pentecost ... and the people who were afraid and hiding when Jesus was with them and afraid and hiding after he had ascended are suddenly changed ... they have the courage to go out into the world and proclaim what they have seen.

Pentecost sets the tone for all what follows in the Acts of the Apostles ... it is the lens through which we are to view and understand all that follows, both in Acts and by extension the whole history of the Church... without that moment of Pentecost it would be easy to see the Church as something that we did ... the work of generation after generation of people ... a remarkable achievement ... but something we can reduce to human terms ... and claim as the work of human hands ... but Pentecost reminds us it is nothing like that at all ... that our Church is something that by all rights should have collapsed and faded into obscurity almost at once ... but that instead the humble, frightened, confused people who were there at the beginning were filled with the Holy Spirit and went out into the world to do extraordinary things ... the church is no more the work of hands than is the Giant’s Causeway ...

Pentecost is the place where we must stand so that something that might otherwise be ordinary can emerge into clear view as something that is incredibly extraordinary ... Pentecost is the lens that takes the safe comfortable view that we have of the Church in the world and melts it into the almost unbelievable reality of what it truly is ... God’s power at work in the world to continue the work that was begun in Christ ...

On the way back up the path to the car, I asked the child who had declared the Giant’s Causeway boring on the way down what he thought ... ‘it wasn’t boring at all Dad,’ he told me. The ordinary had become extraordinary by drawing near and experiencing it for himself. Something that on this feast of Pentecost I pray that you and I and all people may come to know and understand within this church with which God blesses us everyday ... Amen.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Women Bishop's 2


In yesterday's post I raised the issue of women bishop's in the CofI, promising to return to the topic today. I'd like to begin by saying that I think the issue is one that requires proper study - a blog post is not going to provide any real answers, either in terms of understanding why it is that more than 20 years after enacting legislation we do not have any women bishops, or what it is that we might do to change things. The best it can hope to do is stimulate discussion - and perhaps provide a forum in the comments box for that discussion to begin. What is really needed, of course, is a proper academic study of the matter ... do I hear anyone volunteering to do the article for Search?!!

The small amount of comment generated by the previous post has thrown out a few thoughts. One that it is all too pc to worry about & we should be concerned only that the best person gets the job each time and not be looking to set gender quotas. Indeed. But I believe that the fact that we have currently no women bishops and almost none with the kind of profile that normally leads to a purple shirt is something that should concern us. Surely it is not to be suggested that in over 20 years we have never ordained a single woman who would have been capable of being the best person for the job?

Another suggested innate misogyny. Tempting. But that would be to suggest that the CofI wanted to have its cake and eat it - to show the world it was up-to-date enough to legislate for women bishop's but with no real intention of acting on it. Hypocritical, in other words. Call me biased, but that is not my experience of the CofI. Another said it was something to do with the CofI not being able to think outside the box. That, I think, may be closer to what the problem is.

First, let us consider the current state of play with regard to women priests in the CofI (& I'll have to warn you, as this is not an academic study, I'm speaking anecdotal in respect of the figures). We've achieved reasonable gender balance over the years, and I think each years crop of ordinations produces a good gender balance. However, I think that admirable picture hides something important. The first is that a disproportionate amount of women go into non-stipendiary ministry (NSM). The second is that far more women go forward for ordination in their late 30s & 40s, or even older, than in their 20s.

The first calls into question our model of ministry. What is it about the full time ministry that dissuades a lot of women from entering into it? Does it demand more hours than a woman with family responsibilities can reasonably give? Whatever the reason, the NSM route has rarely been the path to high-office in the church. So the women in this ministry are all but automatically excluded from ever ending up in the House of Bishops.

The second is the age profile of women going forward. Actually, most ordinands tend to be older these days. But when I was in the Theological College there was a little acronym for such students - TOTWP: Too Old To Wear Purple. The point was that once a person was in their 40s, by the time they had built up the years to be in a position to be considered episcopal material they would be too old to be considered a suitable candidate. Leaving aside the implied ageism of this attitude - why should a person in their 60s not be given the same consideration as someone in their 40s or 50s? - it does show the CofI to be stuck in a certain mindset. Only life experience in ordained ministry counts towards preferment in the church. No account is taken of the transferable skills a person might have earned in the 20 or 30 years or more in their work (or indeed ministry) prior to being ordained. Which is odd, because at the parish level, this doesn't seem to apply. Parishes seem very glad to get an incumbent who has some life experience outside the church under his/her belt.

Perhaps I am wrong about this. As I have said, I am operating anecdotally. So maybe someone will be able to point me to the dozens of cases where people's many years of work experience prior to ordination has been taken into account when it comes to appointing clergy as deans, archdeacons, or to other posts that usually make up the portfolio of episcopal candidates. In the meantime, it seems to me that as a greater proportion of women enter the ordained ministry as 'late vocations' then clearly such a model for preferment is naturally going to lead for a situation where very few women end up in senior positions in the church.

What I've written above is purely my own opinion based on my own experience. As I said, it can't hope to porvide any real answers, but it would be good to think it might generate some discussion. Now, I'm off on a wee holiday, so I won't be able to engage with any comments you might make over the next few days. I would encourage you to comment though. I think this is an important issue, worthy of discussion, & what you have to say could well provide important clues as to why things are as they are. Also, to those of you linking in through my facebook page, could I ask you to cut & paste your comments here also, so that everyone who wants to take part has the full picture of where the discussion is? Thanks.

today's Gospel reading