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Embracing My Inner Reformer

The Lord has led me into a new season and has begun a deeper work in me. He has placed me in a context which suits me. He has been clear on His call to this particular place at this particular time. Daily life is no longer such a battle and my sense of vocation is being affirmed by most. All of this has given me freedom from fear of local, daily external threat of abandonment and critique and given a capacity and strength to turn to the internal critique of my own broken psychology.

A few friends have asked me about the Enneagram recently, which, in the past, I have been apathetic about. I have been more suspicious of any personality testing before because of my deep concern of our increasingly individualised identity obsessed culture but I now can better distinguish between a cultural use of a tool and the tool itself. In the Myers-Briggs schema I generally fit into the INTJ type, which generally means I tend to build an internal world which I judge my external world by, I process conceptually first, I value thought and reason above feelings and I seek out workable outcomes and results rather than leave stuff in indecision. I approach this ‘insight’ not as an identity marker but as a pattern of behaviour that I revert to. I try to maintain an openness to it in order that it does not act as a justification for harmful (re)actions in daily life. As usual I want to remain aware of my freedom of choice in it so I don’t enslave myself to the comforting lie of ‘destiny’/’Fate’!

As part of my move into this new season I have, due to geographical circumstance, had to change my Spiritual Accompanier. My previous Spiritual Accompanier I met with for five years and we built up a good relationship which helped me immensely to traverse the season I was in at the time. He was a mentor, who shared a lot of similar experiences to me, e.g. caring for a spouse who struggled with physical pain and restriction, being ordained, having some ‘monastic’ vocation. Our relationship was that of an elder sharing their experience and knowledge as way of guiding a younger through well walked territories avoiding pitfalls and preventable pain. Primarily, though, he was able to affirm me and counteract my internal critic who, at the time was being bolstered by perceived multiple external critics. I needed, in that season, someone I trusted and who knew me and my context to challenge the lies I told myself and my internal distortion of external criticism. my Spiritual Accompanier, therefore, never felt he needed to give me ‘work’ to do because he knew that I already demanded so much ‘work’ myself. He just needed to allow me to be and to externally process my internal battles and to shine a light on it and to send me home having released the ‘demons’ and blessed me.

As I said, since moving contexts and the Lord leading me into a new season, I have been forced (by my geographical circumstance) to change my Spiritual Accompanier and opted to be open and obedient to a Diocesan process of matching. My new Spiritual Accompanier is very different to me, holds very different views to me on many issues but we share enough interests (poetry and monastic spirituality amongst other things) that we can begin conversation. My new Spiritual Accompanier is a teacher on the Enneagram; a fact that, when I first learnt of it, I had a strange internal baulk at. I took note of that response and investigated further.

When friends began asking about the Enneagram and then others asking me about my approach to Spiritual Accompaniment I felt God was trying to lead me to spend my time with my new Spiritual Accompanier to use the Enneagram as a tool to begin to acknowledge some reality to response to the world around me.

I have said before that I have a reoccurring dream that wakes me feeling rigid with frustration, anger and anxiety. In this dream I find myself in a situation where I am being asked to speak to or lead/manage a group of people but no one will listen to my instructions. No matter how much a shout and scream no words come out of my mouth. This fear transforms, very quickly into violence as I battle to take control and stop the chaos. My need to impose some order is met with no change to the situation. I start to shake people who refuse to do what I want. I feel impotent and unable to make an impact on my environment and this expresses itself in a deep anger. It often climaxes on me biting or punching particular people who, in my mind, I see as personifying a lifestyle of carefree, consequence free selfishness who refuse to behave in a way I see as helpful. These people are people from my real life who I hold great frustration that they don’t play by the rules and don’t care about what other’s think. They are people who I now hold as totem for unbridled chaos!

For those of you who know something of the Enneagram, you will already be beginning to see which ‘type” a tend to exist within; Type 1.

If you click on this link you will find a general picture of Type 1s.

I brought this ‘insight’ to my Spiritual Accompanier along with my reoccurring dream and asked him, with his understanding of the theories behind the Enneagram to unpack what might be going on for me. This ‘insight’ does suggest some understandable reasons why I see the world in the way I do and why I respond to certain things so strongly and destructively. It explains my struggles and what makes me stressed/anxious and it certainly explains this vivid dream I continually have.

Each ‘type’, so Christian practitioners of the Enneagram suggest, have an innate truth about the world that is their gift to others. With the Fall and sin this truth has been distorted and now manifests in a twisted version of it. For Type 1s this truth is that God created the world and it was good. The Fall/sin has distorted this gift by persuading Type 1s that it was good but it no longer is and they are being asked to return it to perfection. This gives them a profound drive to perfection and improvement and is why they are characterised as ‘reformers’. This deeply held conviction that it is their job to fix the world and create systems that will lead people to perfection means that they can easily become hyper-judgemental on themselves primarily and then on others around them. They are naturally seeking out the broken parts of the system of the world and tinkering with them.

Type 1s have high sensitivity to right and wrong. They are hungry to know what is good and what is bad. This means that Type 1s struggle with postmodern thought which states that there is no universal system to judge right and wrong. That, in its extreme articulation, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ and it is wrong to judge so. It is this reason which opened my eyes to why I feel so out of place in postmodern liberalism. I have been wired, through experience and circumstance to crave order and clear rules. As these rules are questioned and put in flux I get severely anxious and my response is to push harder to return to structure and order. I become more judgemental and my inner critic goes into overdrive causing me deep and painful tension and causing physiological symptoms such as I.B.S., headaches, panic attacks, etc. It is why I get so deeply frustrated and anxious with ignorance, particularly in people of power. It is why I see something of myself in the Mitchell and Webb’s ‘bad vicar’ (click here to watch.)

So where is the hope?

The Enneagram also reveals how ‘types’ ‘disintergrate’ (respond to stress) and ‘integrate’ (grow). Type 1s disintegrate into introspection and anxiety, they become moody and self detructive and finally aggressively dogmatic and angry. When they are encouraged to integrate, however, they can become spontaneous and creative high achievers. As I reflected on this I suddenly realised the reason why I respond so strongly to the fabled Pablo Picasso’s quote,

Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist. (citation not found)

When Type 1s feel free to grow, they can move from being systematic learners and judgers to being creative reformers. It is Type 1s, when they are integrating healthily, that can do the work of genuine ‘social improvement’; they creatively and systematically review the structures and legislation, deeply understand how things work and why and then innovate by reformation rather than revolution. Type 1s struggle with ‘revolution’ because they perceive revolutionaries as being too driven by fallible feelings which are too subjective. Revolutionaries reject the rules thus creating chaos in the world of Type 1s. Type 1s agree with the assertion of Jean-Francois Lyotard that,

if there are no rules, there is no game. (Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: a report on knowledge (Minnesota, The University of Minnesota Press, 1984) p.10)

They reason why Type 1s feel they can change the rules is because they have learnt them to tested them like an expert and can then, without lived insight make specific changes. I am deeply troubled when rules are changed by people who have not learnt how and why the rules were there in the first place. It is blind folly, in my mind, to change things on knee jerk response rather than properly testing and exploring the brokenness in a system.

I have spoken before about a profound moment in my life at Soul Survivor camp listening to Mark Russell speak on bringing change in the Church. He asked whether some of us are called to top down change (reformation) whilst others are called to bottom up (revolution). At that moment I seemed to feel a physical finger poke me in the shoulder. I was being called to sit on committees, boards and governing bodies to do the slow, careful and deliberate work of reformation not ‘reckless’ reactive revolution!

I have, as we approach the 500th anniversary of the protestant Reformation, been reflecting deeply on the person of Martin Luther. I connect deeply with him (he too can be seen as a Type 1 INTJ!) particularly with his motivation and then with his personal, inner struggles. Luther deeply desired unity and was moved profoundly when people took his thoughts and ideas and used them to enact violent revolution. His heart desired a correction of damaging ideology that had distorted the Christian faith and experienced deep tearing within him as he was judged as wrong despite his conviction of ‘rightness’. He could not match up his internal conviction with the external world and this was the source of great anxiety.

As I begin this journey in this new season I am learning to better acknowledge the distortions of the person that God desires me to be but not in undue judgement but safe in the knowledge that God alone can transform me to perfection. He requires only that I stay still and allow Him to do His work in me and the world he loves. There will be times when He will call on me to work with Him in the reformation of His creation but I must be wise to ensure it is His voice I’m following and not my twisted internal drivers.

I have also been encouraged by my new Spiritual Accompanier to embrace my spontaneous, poetic, fun and creative side… so I’m going to go and play lots of games and perform some improvised comedy (safe within the rules!)

Di-Vesting Authority


General Synod is an addiction for me; I know it’s bad for me and causes me great harm but yet I can’t resist engaging in it!

The latest gathering of Synod, like the recent gatherings before it, was rife with painful discord before it had even begun. As I prepared myself for social media outlets to fall into confusion and bitter rivalries (as it seems to do daily now!) I looked at an item on church vestments and thought

“At least there’s a relatively trivial debate on frocks!”

Having said that, despite the two larger decisions to be passed at Synod, it was this ‘trivial’ one that causes me to reflect most theologically about the state of the Church of England at present. As a mixed tradition mongrel of Roman Catholicism and Charismatic Evangelical I have already thought deeply about my use of vestments and, although many would say I am conflicted in my current practice, choosing to wear vestments at times and at other times not, I do know where I stand on this issue (see my post on vestments here.) This piece of legislation, for me, was going to be merely a naming of my current practice but has caused me to reflect again on that practice and the implications it presents.

My current practice is that for baptism and Holy Communion I robe for anything else I don’t. I’m Roman Catholic for their sacraments, charismatic evangelical the rest of the time! It’s not fool-proof but it’s what I have settled with for the moment. The other thing I’d want to stress is that I am, of course, contextually sensitive; if a context demands or requests I wear robes I do and if they would cause the congregation distraction I don’t.

The reason this decision has caused me to reflect, however, is an ecclesiological one. This albeit minor decision betrays the current confusion and division over the Church of England’s understanding of church and authority. This small, ‘harmless’ legislation again highlights the underlying conflict at the heart of Anglicanism in the 21st century and like the turmoil 500 years ago which caused the Great Reformation and 500 years before that the Great Schism and 500 years before that the establishing of the Great Councils it is caused by a lack of clarity on authority.

The cause of this uncertainty of authority stems from several sources sweeping across Synod and disrupting, distorting and severing fellowship and peace. One source is the individualising of society by our subjective post-Enlightenment libertarian/liberal philosophy. I have written on this so much I don’t want to unpack it anymore (if you’re interested read any other blog post and it’ll be there!) This is truly a massive problem when it comes to our understanding of Christian community.

The second source is, on it’s own, not a negative force (in fact it is quite the opposite): the rise in charismatic evangelical theology of which I am a son.

The charismatic movement began with the Pentecostal revival at the start of the 20th century and came to prominence in this country during the latter parts of the century. One aspect of this theological movement is a more egalitarian ecclesiology. If all God’s people are able to be filled with God’s Spirit, be used by God and receive prophetic words and pictures then power is no longer placed in one specific person but within the Body. The understanding of the priest as a kind of conduit for prayer and worship is dismantled. This is a good and proper challenge for the Church.

The prime time when this is exercised is in charismatic worship/prayer events where the gathered community wait on God and speak out words of knowledge and prophecy, speak in tongues and (often forgotten) interpretation of tongues. To keep in line with St Paul’s deep desire for order in church services there is a suitable place of weighing up words and pictures but ultimately everyone is encouraged to encounter God and share what they hear from Him. All voices are given a hearing. St. Paul emphasises in his important discussion on worship in 1 Corinthians 11-14 the necessity for order and the need for ‘one to interpret’ and to ‘weigh what is said’. (I don’t want to go into the exegesis of the refusal of the female voice in this context!)

In these events the ‘leader’ may well be a lay worship leader assisted by another ‘leader’ or vice versa. That ‘leader’ does not have to be ordained and they become, quite rightly, more of a facilitator. This role is key but is rarely trained with the gravity and import it deserves. People are released to lead these gatherings and imitate others without any rigourous understanding of authority. This enabling of lay leadership is rightly to be encouraged, however, but it is in this context that vestments becomes a potential stumbling block.

Vestments, historically, have sought to be signifiers of authority within the worshipping life of a congregation. The clothing is, in this respects, uniform, identifying the person in a particular role. This has meant that bishops, priests, deacons, lay readers, etc., all of whom have specific roles in a worshipping community have had these visible signs of those roles. In the new context where lay leadership is being encouraged vestments are a sign of restricting power to ordained/licensed individuals. To truly allow the laity to thrive we must, understandably, remove the vestments from the ordained but in so doing we must also remove sole authority too.

The charismatic tradition, particularly when wedded to the evangelical tradition, within the Church has really flourished over the last few decades and is one of the largest growing traditions in the Church in England. I want to stress how indebted I am to this inheritance and believe God is using it for His glory in His Church but…

It is not hard to see that within a culture where authority is placed solely on the individual and their perceived experience of the world the charismatic evangelical tradition has a lot to offer. The evangelical tradition gives, if not carefully taught, a highly individualised faith experience; salvation is for the individual, it is not a communal experience. Mix that with the charismatic tradition where the emphasis is on the personal experience of God we have created worship which is, collective in that it is expressed best with others but the experience remains rooted in the individual. The ecclesiology of the charismatic evangelical tradition is individualised, experiential and struggles to present a truly communal reality.

In his article “Human Capacity and Human Incapacity”, John Zizioulas outlines the difference between traditional philosophical thought on personhood and the unique Christian understanding.

…Western thought arrived at the conception of the person as an individual and/or personality, i.e., a unit endowed with intellectual, psychological and moral qualities centred on the axis of consciousness.

For the Christian, however,

…being a person is basically different from being an individual or ʻpersonalityʼ in that the person can not be conceived in itself as a static entity, but only as it relates to. Thus personhood implies the ʻopenness of beingʼ, and even more than that, the ek-stasis of being, i.e. a movement towards communion which leads to a transcendence of the boundaries of the ʻselfʼ and thus to freedom. (John Zizioulas, “Human Capacity and Human Incapacity: A Theological Exploration of Personhood”, T.F. Torrance and J. K. S. Reid (eds.), Scottish Journal Theology Vol 28 (1975), p.406)

I have argued repeatedly that the UKʼs capitalist liberal democracy has shaped the way we participate in Christian community, i.e. limited us on the individual participants own experience of God. It is in this view that Zizioulasʼ statement is important.

Zizioulas’ ʻopenness of beingʼ lends itself to the charismatic experience seen in many of the growing churches in the UK. Charismatic theology emphasises the importance of a transcendent experience and is achieved by creating an expectation of receptivity to God’s gifts. The challenge comes when attempting to be open to God, allowing others to be used by God to speak to you whilst remaining an autonomous individual; the central authority in our post-modern philosophy.

Samuel Wells takes this idea of receiving gifts and discusses an improvisational device called ʻoveracceptingʼ as a potential tool for Christian ethics.

Overaccepting is accepting in the light of a larger story. The fear about accepting is that one will be determined by the gift, and thus lose oneʼs integrity and identity. The fear of blocking is that one will seal oneself off from the world, and thus lose oneʼs relevance and humanity. Overaccepting is an active way of receiving that enables one to retain both identity and relevance… Christians imitate the character of God to the extent that they overaccept the gifts of creation and culture in the same way God does. (Samuel Wells, “Improvisation in the Theatre as a Model for Christian Ethics”, Trevor Hart and Steven Guthrie, Faithful Performance: Enacting Christian Tradition (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007) p.161)

Within this framework we can go someway in achieving both communion with others whilst remaining unique enough to have an identity. Zizioulas’ further development in his understanding of personhood challenges individualism by suggesting we must de-individualise Christ.

In order that Christology may be relevant to anthropology, it must ʻde- individualiseʼ Christ, so that every man may be ʻde-individualisedʼ too. (John Zizioulas,
“Human Capacity and Human Incapacity”, p.438)

Christʼs de-individualisation is, for Zizoulas, pneumatologically conditioned because it was only ʻof the Spiritʼ that Christ united the human, one individual, and the divine, another individual. In this way the Spirit makes it possible for one to be many and so constitutes, for Zizioulas, the church.

…the mystery of the Church is essentially none other than that of the “One” who is simultaneously “many”. (John Zizioulas, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church (London: Darton Longman and Todd) p112)

Zizoulas goes on to suggest that

If the Church is constituted through… Pneumatology, all pyramidal notions disappear in ecclesiology: the “one” and the “many” co-exist as two aspect of the same being. (Zizoulas, Being Communion, p.139-141)

Zizioulasʼ belief that this will ʻremove any pyramidal structutures’, as understood by our current culture, is undermined, however, by his continued assertion of the importance of the presence of a bishop, as representative of Christ, within the community. This order of precedence raises the “one” above the “many” and thus creates, for our culture, a hierarchy. Indeed, it is the role of bishops and, to a certain degree, clergy in general that has been seen as the undermining of the full realisation of an egalitarian, flat leadership encouraged within charismatic theology and the wider culture. It is the vote on vestments that deconstructs further the role of clergy within the church which have held sway over the Church, for better or worse.

Jürgen Motlmannʼs ecclesiology offers us a helpful addition.

The doctrine of the Trinity constitutes the church as a “community free of dominion.” The Trinitarian principle replaces the principle of power by the principle of concord. Authority and obedience are replaced by dialogue, consensus, and harmony… The hierarchy which preserves and enforces unity is replaced by the brotherhood and sisterhood of the community of Christ. (Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993) p202)

Moltmannʼs social Trinity is a communion free from dominion and authority and offers an ecclesiology for our generation who are hungry for the intimacy of community whilst maintaining autonomy of individualism.

Moltmann outlines three different paradigms of the church: The Hierarchical paradigm of God the Father, the Christocentric paradigm of God the Son and the Charismatic paradigm of God the Spirit. He suggests that in the Early Church there was a monarchic social structure seen through the authority of the Father and manifested itself in Papal supremacy. This caused a social rebellion in the form of the Reformation, which replaced such a view with a brotherhood of believers based on the centrality of sola scriptura. Moltmann admits,

Of course, practically speaking the distinction between trained theologians and people without any theological training has taken the place of priestly hierarchy. (Moltmann, Sun of Righteousness, Arise! God’s Future for Humanity and the Earth (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010) p23)

Tony Jones, an ecclesiologist writing about Moltmannʼs theology, suggests,

While Moltmann admits the christocentrism did not entirely overwhelm the hierarchical church, he fails to acknowledge… that hierarchy has been just as prevalent in his own Reformed tradition.(Tony Jones, The Church is Flat: The Relational Ecclesiology of the Emerging Church Movement (Minneapolis: JoPa Group, 2011) p144)

In the last of these paradigms, it is God the Spirit that brings unity whilst encouraging plurality. In the charismatic congregation, Moltmann suggests,

no one has a higher or lower position than anyone else with what he or she can contribute to the community.

In this context vestments become void of any purpose and all symbols of hierarchy and power can be dismissed. This paradigm, however, can be, and, as I am arguing, has been, too easily adopted by the individualism of our age as Moltmann goes on to say,

…all are accepted just as they are…Everyone is an expert in his or her own life and personal calling. (Moltmann, Sun of Righteousness, Arise! God’s Future for Humanity and the Earth (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010) p23-25)

 

And there it is: the mantra for the Church at the present time. No one can tell anyone what is right or wrong. All must be accepted and placed as equally authoritative and by so doing authority is displaced and no longer shared.

The Church of England is currently facing a new social rebellion akin to the Great Reformation and again it is about power and authority. The Reformation caused authority to be placed in Scripture and thus power/authority was placed in the hands of any who could read and interpret the text. Richard Hooker, who I would argue is the the architect of Anglican ecclesiology, later stated the need for three authorities: Scripture, tradition and reason, with Scripture having a form of primacy.

I believe we have seen an ascendance of reason as the primary authority under which the others must fall but, with the advent of charismatic theology, there is a need to rightly emphasise the Holy Spirit’s authority in the Church which has morphed intellectual reason to ‘experience’. I would say that the Holy Spirit is in all of these but I understand the move from reason to experience and it comes down to semantics for me. I would argue, however, that this ‘experience’ has been adopted by our individualised culture, abandoning objective truth and making ‘reason’ subjective experience and this is now our sole authority. It is the individualised experience, by way of the charismatic evangelical tradition being allowed to continue without rigorous ecclesiological questions being asked, that is now seen in Synod debates. The vast majority of decisions now are made on the basis of individualised experience which is a distorted understanding of reason and from this Scripture is re-interpreted and tradition is changed.

The decision on vestments opens for us the gaping hole in our ecclesiology and the social rebellion occurring in the church will only end in division if authority is not placed somewhere safe to bring about St. Pauls’ order and decency.

On Discipleship Within The Monastic Tradition

This is the text of a paper presented at the first Postgraduate Research Morning hosted at St Hild’s College in Sheffield on Monday 5th June 2017.

 

I want to talk about discipleship today from within, what many are calling, ‘the New Monastic Movement’ of which I am part. This movement has emerged out of a protest against the steady increase of individualism prevalent in our Western culture. Many would argue that the individualisation of our society began in the Enlightenment with philosophical thought becoming more introspective and focussed on the subjective interpretation of reality famously summarised in René Descartes, “I think, therefore, I am.” The Church has not been immune to this social deconstruction and this has led to a powerfully individualised faith experience. This erosion of the corporate understanding of faith has impacted the Church’s discipleship and life together.

With the secularisation following on from the Enlightenment project and the further mechanising and fragmenting of all aspects of our lives, the place of community has diminished. In the late 20th century, with the Church increasingly  unwilling or unable to offer intensive forms of Christian discipleship, some have gathered together to re-discover what it means to live out the communal life as described in the New Testament. The faithfulness of the monastic and mendicant saints throughout history became wells around which these small groups were nourished, inspiring them to live counter-culturally. These ‘pioneers’ discovered that the shared life they dreamt of had long been practiced by communities like the Franciscans, Benedictines and the Jesuits, among many. Others arrived at a similar place by a different route, having sought, in the first place, to rediscover the spiritual fortitude and charisms of the very same saints of old and so to re-dig wells of Grace in the ‘places’ where God has worked for generations before. Regardless of the path towards a contemporary articulation of the monastic way of life, they all learned that the historic forms were in need of some re-imagining for the new context in which we now live. In this way these expressions of communal discipleship can all be reasonably described as ‘new monastics’.

The term ‘New Monasticism’ was first used by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a letter he wrote on 14th January 1935. This is what he said,

the restoration of the church will surely come only from a new type of monasticism which has nothing in common with the old but a complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ.  I think it is time to gather people together to do this. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Testament to Freedom (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), p.424)

Two years later, Bonhoeffer published ‘The Cost of Discipleship’ in which he seems to expand on his view of classic monasticism. He writes,

The expansion of Christianity and the increasing secularization of the church caused the awareness of costly grace to be gradually lost…. But the Roman church did keep a remnant of that original awareness.  It was decisive that monasticism did not separate from the church and that the church had the good sense to tolerate monasticism. Here, on the boundary of the church, was the place where the awareness that grace is costly and that grace includes discipleship was preserved…. Monastic life thus became a living protest against the secularization of Christianity, against the cheapening of grace. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003) p.46-47)

This ‘toleration’ of monasticism by the Church, however, relativized the discipleship lived out in the monastic houses. The Church was able to avoid the criticism of secularisation by living the life of holiness vicariously through the achievements of these monks who obeyed the radical call to forsake all earthly things and follow Jesus Christ in discipleship.

Bonhoeffer argues that Martin Luther’s journey through the monastic life led him to see how the monastic life had failed the Church by perpetuating this lie that Christians could pay others to be ‘disciples’ on their behalf. The monastic houses had become, by the time the Reformation began, propped up by the financial donations by the Roman Church paying a select few monks to be obedient for the rest of God’s Church. Luther’s protest was an attempt to release the radical  obedience to follow Christ, found in the charisms of monastic life, and invite all Christians to participate in this form of devoted life of monasticism.

I say all this, yes, in order to justify the New Monastic movement as a continued protest for the Church to embrace the way of life outlined in the founding documents of the Benedictines, Franciscans, Jesuits and others. But I also say it in order to acknowledge and outline the popular portrayal of monastic life and the criticisms that it therefore receives. I want to argue that it is the early monastic life, articulated most purely in the Rule of St Benedict, that holds the key for us todayas to how to live as ‘a living protest against the seculariztion of Christianity, against the cheapening of grace.’

Listen, my son, and with your heart hear the principles of your Master. Readily accept and faithfully follow the advice of a loving Father, so that through the labour of obedience you may return to Him from whom you have withdrawn because of the laziness of disobedience. My words are meant for you whoever you are, who laying aside your own will, take up the all-powerful and righteous arms of obedience to fight under the true King, the Lord Jesus Christ. (RB Pro:1-5)

Thus starts the Rule of St Benedict. It begins with an unswerving command to obedience, not a popular command in our individualised, self-autonomous culture but the monastic life centres on the vow to stability, obedience and conversion of life. Columba Cary-Elwes helpful highlights that ‘the very word obedience has a treasure hidden in its history.’ She writes,

If you unpack it, ob audiere, to listen intently is the language of love. When you really love, you listen intently to know what the one you love wants to happen. (Columba Cary-Elwes, Work and Prayer:the rule of St. Benedict for lay people (London:Burns & Oates, 1992) p.182)

This understanding of obedience is acceptable in the context of our personal relationship with Christ but it becomes problematic for many in our post modern, subjective culture. To love and obey another is seen by our self-autonomous society as oppressive and open to all manner of abuse. In outlining the role of the abbot in his Rule, St Benedict, on more than one occasion, however, quotes Christ, “Whoever listens to you, listens to me.” Christ imparts authority to his disciples in order that they may speak on his behalf to others. The abbot in the monastic community is to represent Christ to his monks. The risk of abuse to that kind of power is real and Cary-Elwes acknowledges as much when she states,

No doubt also an abbot can go beyond his rights, and what is wrong or evil should not be obeyed. Yet all that happens is under divine providence and God’s wise guidance of the world, and this includes commands of superiors. (Cary-Elwes, Work and Prayer, p.40)

St Benedict spends many chapters portraying what an abbot should and should not do; he spends so much time that it begs the question, “why is it so important?” It is important because the role of the abbot directly impacts the discipleship of the rest of the community. ‘The first thing that defines the abbot,’ Esther de Waal writes, ‘is not the position at the head of an institution but his relationship with sons’ She links this with the model of discipleship undertaken by monks.

The learning process is more analogous to that of apprenticeship by which one person learns a skill from another. In the ancient world skills were handed down from father to son, and so apprenticeship also carries with it the implication of a father-son relationship. It involves imitation and long, patient watching and copying, a shared learning that owes much to the fact of daily living together.(Esther de Waal, Seeking God: the way of St. Benedict (London: Fount, 1985) p.130)

Discipleship, within the monastic tradition, begins with obedience; to listen intently to God through His Spirit and His people under authority. Rowan Williams paints a beautiful image of this model of discipleship as he suggest that being a disciple ‘is a state of being in which you are looking and listening without interruption.’

You are hanging around; you are watching; you are absorbing a way of being that you are starting to share. You learn by sharing life; you learn by looking and listening. (Rowan Williams, Being Disciples: essentials of the Christian life (London: SPCK, 2016) p.3)

‘Obedience is not an imposed subservience to an external authority but a condition of inward growth,’ as Dominc Milroy writes,

The monk who is not authentically obedient to his abbot and his brethren will not be a happy monk; the carpenter who is not obedient to the laws of governing joints will make an unreliable table. All disobedience represents, in this sense, the pursuit of illusory freedom which obstructs the acquisition of real freedom. (Dominic Milroy, “Education According to The Rule of St. Benedict”, Ampleforth Journal, no.84 (Autumn 1979) p.4)

As well as obedience, discipleship, within the monastic tradition, also begins with stability. Brian C Taylor says,

The Benedictine vow of stability is a vow to a community of people… In this sense it is a marriage…The grass is not greener “over there”: one must work out one’s problems with this person because, if one doesn’t, one will have to work it out with that person. This is precisely what is so freeing about the vow of stability, both in monastic life and family life. To have to work it out is to demand growth, as painful as it is, and that is freeing. Faithfulness is a limit that forces us to stop running and encounter God, self, and other right now, right here. (Brian C. Taylor, Spirituality For Everyday Living: an adaptation of the rule of St. Benedict (Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1989) p.17)

Or to put that more succinctly, Meister Eckhart wrote: ‘The meaning of stability: God is not elsewhere.’

If obedience is about listening intently, then stability aids our silencing of unnecessary distractions ‘for stability says there must be no evasion.’ There must be no escaping into a fantasy world or the day dreams of how we’d do great things if only… ‘At the heart of stability,’ Metropolitan Anthony bloom suggests, ‘is the certitude that God is everywhere, that we have no need to seek God elsewhere, that if I can’t find God here I shan’t find Him anywhere.’

Both obedience and stability combine with the commitment to seek out the conversion of our lives and gives the framework within which discipleship occurs in the monastic tradition. Conversion of life is about life-long, inner transformation which ensures discipleship is not a course to complete but a way of life to journey deeper into. Thomas Merton argues that a commitment to total inner transformation is to be regarded as ‘the end of the monastic life, and that no matter where one attempts to do this, that remains the essential thing.’

The Rule of St Benedict is immensely practical and pragmatic and can be used as a manual for a devoted life to following Christ. What we need to learn from it and the wider monastic heritage is the communal necessity of this way of life. Discipleship for Benedict, Francis and the other monastic fathers and mothers can only be done with others. Love can only be practised in the cut and thrust of community life. If the vows to stability, obedience and the ongoing conversion of one’s life can be seen as the soil in which monastic discipleship is rooted and from this the tree of discipleship can bear good fruit then we must acknowledge that all three require other people to be faithful and obedient to and to be changed by.

The monastic tradition has always rejected a form of life that attempts to replicate the religious life outside of a communal setting. John Cassian describes a type of monk called Sarabaites in a derogatory manner,

They… go on living in their homes just as before, carrying on the same work; or they build cells for themselves, call them ‘monasteries’ and live in them as they please… Shirking the austere rule of a community: living two or three together in a cell; under no direction: aiming above all else at having freedom from the elders, of going where they like, and of satisfying whatever passion they like. (John Cassian, The Conferences of Cassian, “Conference 18: Conference of Abba Piamun on the three sorts of monks”, Owen Chadwick (trans.), Library of Christian Classics Volume XII: Western Asceticism (London: SCM Press, 1958) p.268-269)

St Benedict also depicts this type of monk as,

…unschooled by any rule, untested, as gold is by fire, but soft as lead, living in and of the world… They live together in twos or threes, more often alone, without a shepherd in their own fold, not the Lord’s. Their only law is the pleasure of their desires, and whatever they wish or choose they call holy. They consider whatever they dislike unlawful. (RB 1:7-9)

The monastic life, I would argue, is still ‘a living protest against the secularization of Christianity, against the cheapening of grace.’ But in our modern context this requires us embracing the challenge of community life as outlined in the Rule of St Benedict. In this portrayal of community life discipleship is intrinsically linked with the submission of our self wills to the discipline of the larger community’s apprenticeship training. This is not the romantic, sentimental community life that we all easily describe in our dreams of missional communities but a very real and costly life which demands obedience and stability in order to enter into the inner change of discipleship.

Without this ultimate commitment to the other monks, to wife or husband, to child or parent, change is difficult at best because it lives under the threat of abandonment. With a commitment to stability, change is no longer a threat but something to be undertaken together. One can change or ask for change in the other when one knows that one is loved and that this request will not drive the other away.

What the monastic tradition offers the Church today is a communal way of life that challenges our cultures hyper-individualism by demanding the sacrificing of the idol of self and ‘a complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ.’ We must discover that on the boundary of the Church today the monastics still preserve ‘the awareness that grace is costly and that grace includes discipleship.’

Stable Life


Stables smell and stables sweat,
Stables get what stables get.
There’s no choice in type of mess,
Mess is mess and it’s all a guess.
In this place of dark and grime,
God Almighty came in Time.
To live the life we fail to live,
To live beside, to give and give.
To empty himself for you and me,
To be here for all to touch and see.

So when we’re tired of work and sweat,
When we’re told to receive what we get.
When there seems no choice in our mess,
Remember God chose you for nothing less
Than the life of His Son who paid the price
For all the riches that have been lost in vice.
God lived a life and can live ours too,
To walk and guide and carry us through
Not out of the mess but to stability
He’s here for all to touch and see.

Written for the advent season 2016 when the publicity strapline was “Do you live a stable life?”.

Carl Wark

carl_wark_from_the_east_-_geograph-org-uk_-_1076424
Above me rock, grey and fresh.
Below me bog failing to dredge.
All around, vast iron fortifications
Sheltering, under, damp bronze fern.
Circling the stone refuge foundations,
Holding up the tower of the Old Man,
Up there in the wind swept heights.
Down here the cloistered valleys.
Ascending the cast ire
On unaccustomed foot.
Descending to the umber
Of the bitter terrain.
Up to the vistas
And all he surveys.
Down to the mire
Wading through his malaise.

Written on my first walk near my new home in the Peak District on Tuesday 3rd January 2017.

Easter Sermon

I was challenged, by my wife, to sum up my Easter sermon using the names of popular chocolate bars. The result follows. Enjoy!

We all vainly attempt to Boost our own power and influence as though we truly were the gods of the Galaxy when we don’t even have the power to change York(ie). What Jesus taught, the secret of how the whole of creation really works, is to humbly follow God. Without God we soon discover that life is no Picnic. Every attempt at solving our problems without God not only fails but Mars his image in us. For He has revealed that image in Jesus, the Lion of Judah, yes, but also a humble servant. But Jesus wasn’t just a good human being like the rest of us who had in some way miraculously achieved perfection, he needed to be Divine, showing his power to radically change the very fabric of the universe, to revolt, to reform, to rotate the accepted death and decay. To Twirl the twisted tatters of our interpretations of reason around.

In His resurrection God confirmed His image in Jesus which means that when Jesus hung on the tree beTwix heaven and earth he reconciled them together in his brokenness. This truth began as a Wispa in the garden when the women saw the stone Rolo-ed away. New Creation sprouting where Death once remained un-opposed. But with each life that is impacted by the Ripples of resurrection He reveals more of His glorious Bounty extravagantly poured out as He continues to create a fresh His Kingdom on the earth.

O Come, Thou Day-Spring, Come And Cheer

morning-star
He awoke for no reason. One moment he was asleep but now he was awake and alert. Had something jolted him from his slumber, an unexpected cat screeching outside, a fox knocking over a metal bin or a stranger breaking into the house?

He waited in the semi darkness of the room, his wife, still gently breathing, beside him. The anticipation of further movement nearby was palpable as he strained his ear for any slight sound…

It was no use. He jumped from the bed and quickly manoeuvred the obstacles dotted around the room. He grabbed a dressing gown from the back of the door, not entirely sure whether it was his own or his wife’s bright pink one but now was not the time for fashion choices. He opened the door trying not to wake his wife unnecessarily and stepped out into the hall way.

Only now did he notice that his breathing was very shallow and his heart was beating so loudly that he was surprised the whole house wasn’t shaking with the reverberations. He reached the top of the stairs and peered over still keenly listening for noise.

He called out, “Is anybody there?”

Immediately he thought how stupid such a question was. As if a burglar would come to the bottom of the stairs and openly announce “Yes. It’s only me. You don’t mind if I take your TV, do you?” He stood for a moment reflecting on this before descending the stairs.

It was at this point he realised he had no weapon with which to hit any potential intruder. Maybe all the burglar will need is the shock of being caught. He continued to descend the stairs with worse case scenarios playing out in his mind.

After inspecting all the rooms he decided that there was no unwanted visitors and whatever interrupted his sleep had not repeated and so he returned to his bedroom.

Now, of course, he was wide awake with adrenaline pumping round his system. As he entered the bedroom he looked over and saw the glowing numbers of his alarm clock.

5.30am.

Did such a time exist? He tried to remember the last time he was awake at this time and how in an hour and half he was meant to be leaving the house. He sat down on the edge of the bed to decide what he should do: return to bed in the hope of falling asleep or do something productive with this gift of an extra hour awake.

As he contemplated, he looked out of the window and saw the sky, still dark with night but on the horizon over some houses at the end of this garden he saw a sliver of light. Or was it? He wasn’t sure if it was a trick, an optical illusion. He peered out. His eyes now straining towards the horizon. He was willing the sun to rise.

It was always talked about; getting up early to watch the sunrise. The romance of this beautiful event. He thought for a moment of waking his wife to share in this but thought better of it. Anticipation of danger had now been replaced with the expectancy of seeing the first light, the dawn of a new day. The fear of darkness now a hope of light. His breathing, still shallow but now with the excitement of experiencing so infrequent an occasion.

It was the same sensation. He felt so present, alert, expectant, aware, muscles taut and the mind sharp. Every movement, sound, shift in the environment carefully noted and assessed. This was a physical as well as a mental experience. Time suddenly became real like when you start to count seconds by. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven…

He must have stood at the window for forty five minutes. His mind jumping through topics. On several occasions he jolted from these wanderings to refocus on watching for the morning dawn, the first light.

“A watched pot never boils.” he kept reminding himself. But yet he waited, expectantly, for the sliver of light to grow into a wedge…

Oh to think of the times he had missed this. He questioned, many times, whether what he was looking at was the sunrise or just light pollution. He thought of giving up and returning to bed but he desperately wanted to see it…

And still he waited. Expectant. Ready…

My soul waits for the Lord. More than those who watch for the morning. More than those who watch for the morning.

What is Love?

Originally written for The Big Bible Project as part of their focus on Song of Solomon (published on October 28th 2014)

I’ve been reflecting on our culture’s view of ‘love’ recently. Love is used all over the media; from its use in marketing to advice columns, to status updates and in tabloid headlines. It is used in popular culture as a generally accepted, shared point of reference when it comes to social cohesion: we all think ‘love’ is a good thing.

But what do we mean? How do we love?

‘To love our neighbours as ourselves’ has been replaced by the seemingly synonymous concept of ‘treating others as you would like to be treated.’ No one questions someone’s ‘love’ for something or someone; who’d dare do that, for no one knows someone else feelings and cannot judge the truth in their experience. This is where I become uncomfortable.

Our culture has allowed ‘love’ to be singularly an individual experience with little to no relation to others. The important thing, for our culture, is that you ‘love’; no one can stop that ‘love’. We talk about ‘love at first sight’ as if ‘love’ cannot be judged or fully grasped and therefore fully shared. Romance, sentimentality, poetic emotions that overwhelms us and we cannot voice or articulate them; these are now what ‘love’ is about. It is interesting that ‘romantcism’, as a movement, is defined as,

a movement in the arts and literature which originated in the late 18th century, emphasizing inspiration, subjectivity, and the primacy of the individual.

The central tenants of this understanding of ‘love’ has redefined and shaped our culture so that ‘love’ is now a subjective and individual experience.

The Song of Solomon is a passionate exploration of ‘love’ but about whom is it written? Is it about God and his people? Or is it about two humans, passionate about each other and desiring a deeply sexual union? Many have argued both sides and I find that interesting; for no other reason than we find it difficult to define different ideas of ‘love’. We talk about ‘love’ a lot but if we took more time thinking and defining what we mean, I think we’d realise how little we really want to know about it.

There is a real problem with having just one word for this complex experience, we call ‘love’. We ‘love’ pizza and we ‘love’ our friends and we may even ‘love’ another person to commit our lives to them. The issue arises when we cannot be specific about what we mean by ‘love’. Take this disturbing video from the USA about a man who is dating his car!

(Please be warned: some may find this video disturbing)
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/10/my-strange-addiction-cars_n_1268798.html

It was CS Lewis, in his book ‘The Four Loves’, which highlighted the Greek’s use of four separate words for ‘love’: storge, philia, eros and agape. Eros is the sexual love which often gets mixed up with our concept of pure love (this is probably why sex sells!) This is the most powerful and the most all-consuming of the ‘love’ experiences but it is, as Lewis puts it, the ultimate in ‘need-love’ where there is a sense of possession; either to possess another or to be possessed by another. This need, even to be possessed, is a dark temptation which can hide itself behind a false sense that it is sacrificing itself to the other when actually it is striving to have itself justified by the other.

It is ‘agape/love’ which the Bible calls us to and is in fact a much rarer experience than most of think. We have softened ‘agape/love’ to be synonymous with our more frequent experience of storge, philia and eros so that it fits in with our post-romanticism culture. This is seen most in our reading of 1 Corinthians 13 (the famous ‘wedding reading’),

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8, NIV)

We so often feel like we can divide this ‘agape/love’ into components and we say to ourselves,

Well, if I show patience, then I’m being loving.

or,

I managed to not shout at them for hurting me; so I showed them love.

Whereas, I suspect, this passage is actually describing this ‘agape/love’ as a complete thing. In order for something to be ‘agape/love’ it needs to be all of these things or it is not ‘agape/love’.

With the rise of the romantic movement which came out of the Enlightenment, we have developed, as a culture, into a highly individualised society and this has eroded most understandings of communal relationships. We have allowed the concept of ‘love’ to become primarily about gaining an experience for ourself rather than relationship with others.

Online relationships can easily be romanticised with our popular culture, media and even shared social narratives shaping our concept of love. We read the Bible through the lens of post-romantic Western culture and abuse the revolutionary and divine experience of ‘agape/love’ which is totally other focussed. This ‘agape/love’ has been perfectly revealed in Jesus and we must allow his love to challenge our understanding of what love is and to shape us to be transformed by it.

Jesus never commanded us to ‘love ourselves’ because he knows how easy that is to blind us to the real love of God and the love of others. The command to ‘love our neighbours as ourselves’ assumes we love ourselves and never commands us to do it. To love ourself doesn’t mean we have positive emotional thoughts about ourself but is about where our focus is. Due to our cultural bias to individualism and subjectivity this means we’re all obsessed, both positively and negatively, with ourselves unable to enter into true, healthy relationships with others. What God is calling us to, is not healthy opinions about ourselves but about a life focussed on him and other people. It is not about having a positive self image, it is about not having a self image at all so we can love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, uncontaminated with a sense of ‘me’ or ‘I’.

Reconciliation Is Not Sitting On The Fence

I rarely write a script for my sermons but due to the contentious issues raised during this one I felt I needed to. Many people have asked to see a copy and so I publish it here in full.

The reading for the day was Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
(It also is inspired by the epistle as well: Romans 8:12-25)


This week has seen several momentous debates take place. It started with the Church of England’s General Synod discussing the issue of allowing women to become bishops and finished with the House of Lord’s debating the controversial ‘Assisted Dying Bill’. It has been a week of heated opinions and difficult conflict. To add to these there’s also been renewed conversation around the Israel/Palestine conflict to manoeuvre. All in all it could have left many of us feeling overwhelmed and confused.

Which side do I stand on?

How do I know what is right and wrong?

Who can I trust?

I wouldn’t blame anyone for just keeping your head down and not engaging because it’s tiring, isn’t it?

PrintWhen I was at school we often staged debates on moral and ethical issues. These debates were put on to help us to develop our persuasive writing technique and for this reason I was always quite good. You see, to succeed in a debate you must defeat your opponent’s argument and not, necessarily, with facts. Most of the time they were won by playing with language. If you can bring into question the use of a word you can subtle destabilise any argument.

The truth is language is complicated and the english language is so steeped in history that it is one of the hardest to fully grasp and therefore easiest to manipulate. The meaning of words have been adapted so many times through the centuries that the original meaning doesn’t usually match its common usage. Debates end up being caught in details over language (or semantics). The game in debates is to attack weakness of understanding of words until you judge the right time to play the ‘simplify’ card. A debater will suddenly grab the confused and tired mood of the crowd and state the thought now running through most listeners heads:

“We can spend all day discussing semantics but at the end of the day this is all about people and all people need is…compassion. Compassion is not allowing suffering, therefore, assisted dying is the right thing to do”

No one will have the energy to argue the definition of compassion and it sounds plausible enough and, let’s be honest, we don’t have time to debate this anymore… To no one’s surprise, therefore, these staged debates always ended in a stalemate.

To be honest many of us don’t care as much about somethings as other people and so debates are often won by the most energetic arguers. To persuade others is more of a marathon of campaigning, slowly wearing opponents out. As victims of these campaigns it’s easy to tire and to give in rather than try and stand and engage.

Take the issue over Israel and Palestine for a moment:

israel-palestine-gaza-390x285Who has the right to the land of Gaza and the West Bank? We could start by going into all the history and legalities over this issue. The use of words such as ownership can then be brought into question. Historical facts could then be muddied by interpretation of events and phrasings and then there’s the insurmountable obstacle of personal stories and the tangled web of historical violence from both sides.

Who started it? What were the real motives behind each attack? Who are the secret players behind the scenes, the hidden investors? We could easily end up just throwing your hands in the air and saying,

“I don’t know.”

It’s in this tired, apathetic position that you are a prime target for lobbyists with an agenda to come alongside you and gently and nicely persuade you to just subtly ‘understand’ their point of view. They say,

“I know, it’s complicated, right. All you need to know is… Israel are seeking complete control of their ‘Promised Land’”

or

“You just need to realise that… there was never a state of Palestine in the first place.”

The work of reconciliation, of bringing people into true understanding and real peace, is hard. In fact, I’d go as far as to say, it is humanly impossible.

In those school room debates the problem was that the point of the exercise was not to discover the truth but to win an argument at any cost. Success was judged not by the right outcome being found but a majority of people agreeing with you at the end. You didn’t have to be right; you just needed to be popular. I was always good at standing up, observing the room, and re-phrasing the emotions; twisting them and manoeuvring them to sound very similar to my motion and, therefore, encourage them to feel like I was speaking for them; I was a born politician. This, I soon realised, was a very useful tool in life. I could get what I wanted!

I discovered, however, that getting what I want isn’t always the best thing. I could manipulate anything except the truth. I didn’t know what was good for me, I still don’t. I don’t always know what is right. I had intelligence but not wisdom. The poverty of wisdom was always my (and I suspect all of our) undoing and I soon realised that building my life on intelligent manipulation of facts was like building a house on sand and it soon began to crumble and harm me. I had made decisions based on what I wanted. I had made my bed and now I slept in it. It was then, I was convicted of my lack of wisdom and found my need for God, the source of real wisdom.

The problem is I still have to wrestle with how much I argue about anything, particularly issues of faith, knowing that I have the ability and the sinful desire to ‘win’ at any cost. I am acutely aware of my own personal need for wisdom over and above intelligence and rhetoric.

Whilst on holiday I was enticed into a debate with a fellow traveller on the coach tour. The issues being debated were wide and various; the existence of God, matters of ethics, political discourse. It was tiring. I landed a few fine tuned points which won ground but ultimately it was a thoroughly unsatisfying encounter. Why? Because in the end both parties, him and me, were unwilling to listen. We didn’t seek wisdom, we sought success.

295_Conflict_4Winning arguments is easy if you can just wear down your opponent and the easiest way to do that is keep moving the goal posts; re-define the terms of the argument until it gets too complicated and they get confused and worn out. You don’t need truth to do this; all you need is stamina and intelligence.

It is easy to look at the world with all the complicated issues brought out by relationships and be overwhelmed and confused. The instinctive position at this point is to succumb to the ‘live and let live’ view or the “there is no ‘right’ answer”. This is problematic when it comes to creating laws, governance and guidance as to how we live together. This approach only ends with lots of people doing what they like trying not to hurt others which ultimately won’t happen as we need to interact with each other; our personal desires will always conflict with someone else’s. The only way we can all be happy and not upset others is by not living together.

So how then do we live together?

Wisdom.

And how do we gain wisdom?

I want to suggest it’s ‘time’ and despite what many in our culture and society believe, we know we have time. God is a god of eternity. He is timeless, far above our concept of it. He holds all things in his everlasting existence. We proclaim that His kingdom will have no end. This means we have time; time to stop, time to listen, time to pray and invite God to work, time to wait for God to emerge and reveal Himself the source of wisdom.

Impatience and urgency are dangerous when making decisions. Yes, there’s a need for pragmatic decisiveness but should only be done in God’s timing.

Here’s where the General Synod has succeeded this week and where the House of Lord’s failed.

Members of the Church of England's Synod join in morning prayersIn November 2012 General Synod’s motion to vote female bishops failed, only just but enough. What was clear back then was that the debate had been established on the principle that there was an ‘us’ vs. ‘them’. The aim was not to discover wisdom but to ‘win’ at any cost. Both parties on the extremes didn’t seem to care how they would win just as long as they did. This week, however, the tone of the debate was not on winning points and persuasion but a genuine, heartfelt desire to seek wisdom and to trust one another. The debate stopped being about party politics but more about seeking genuine peace and wisdom only found in the Spirit of God.

At Friargate Theatre back in May there was an evening entitled ‘The Stones Cry Out’ where two men from the Holy Land came and shared their stories. One was a Palestinian the other Israeli. Both men had lost daughters in the conflict and now they were travelling around together witnessing to the power of their relationship across the great divide.

The Palestinian father suggested the true route to peace is not to be pro-Israel or pro-Palestine but to be pro-peace. In order for real reconciliation and peace one must hold both parties in critical tension. To commit to both in equality and to be pro both and, at the same time, pro neither. This is not sitting on the fence! The problem with sitting on the fence is that the fence still exists. Real reconciliation is destroying the fence and stretching across to both sides.

berlin19-1To dismantle such a fence of division takes time, building trust and relationship something sadly lacking in our politics in this country. My very public critique of the Same Sex Marriage Bill was not based on some personal, moral judgement on homosexuality but on the way a decision was being sought. It was rushed. The lobbyists pressured opponents with the supposed lack of time and bullied people into making a response; to choose a side of the fence. Rather than taking the fences down they were happy to keep them there. People were forced off the fence onto one side or the other and it was all done by the manipulation of language. The same is being done with The Assisted Dying Bill.

When Lord Falconer was asked to give people time to engage and for a thorough exploration and facilitated discussion to take place he said there was no time. We need to make the decision now.

Why? Because he is afraid. He is afraid to wait. He is afraid of the suffering. He is afraid of what he might find when he stops and listens to the secrets of his heart. I sympathise with those who can see no hope in the future and want to take control of the confusion that surrounds them but the correct Christian response is to witness to our trust in the miraculous hope of God to bring peace and comfort. When all you have to look forward to is meaningless abyss then suicide may well feel like the best option; why wait?

We wait because, through the lens of Christ’s gospel we have lots to wait for.

Our gospel reading today calls us to deliberately and intentionally challenge our instinctive desire to act decisively ‘now’ to separate and divide; to judge ‘now’. God has time and so do we. God’s Kingdom will outlive every other lobbying group, political ideology and revolution. We are to look to Him for our wisdom not some human campaigner. This will mean we must exist in the painful complications of difference but it is in this field we call life that we grow. We live in peace when we accept God’s rhythm, God’s timing. Seeking relationships over and above position and power.

Peace is only achievable when we stop and let God work. To wait, often uncomfortably, in hope. This will often feel as if nothing will ever change, how it is is how it always will be but God waits for us to invite Him in and we should wait for Him to work. So let’s pray in God’s eternity for His hope and wait for His peace to rule.

 

Home

home-sweet-home

We search for home;
We fantasise, we dream.
We pass through its hearth and warmth
In the pursuit of another’s sweet embrace.
We knock at its neighbour’s door
Enquiring about their provisions,
Measuring to see if they will house.
Then we return home
To decide when we can move.
We sleep in home’s bed, dreaming
Of one day achieving the rest
Of an imagined pillow that holds our head.

We run and run to grass always greener
And quickly forget which shade we were comparing.
We search and journey to find the elusive
And have fallen in love with the motif of quest
When what we truly desire is a place to belong.
We travel around the globe
To experience the new
Because the old has got under our skin
And has found out what’s there.
The old uncomfortably knows us
And we are scared of what it might say.

The braver person is not
The one who breaks new ground
And travels the world,
Discovers fresh territories
And explores the unknown;
No. The braver person is
The one who stays and allows
Their inner world to reveal its hidden-ness,
The wide empty spaces,
The dark corners and the questionable characters
That will take you for a ride
And milk you for all you’ve got.
It is in this inner place
You discover a landscape
Of immeasurable beauty
And a tranquility that surpasses location.

To know the riches of beyond externals
Is the fruit of the noblest task.
Home is not found nor made
From the vapour of our own imaginings;
It is forged in the fire of commitment,
The pressure of staying
And the searing heat of vulnerability.
The risk of relationship costs
More than any flight, visa or relocation;
All these put together and more besides
But the pay off can not be contained
In a bank balance, travel guide or holiday snaps.

Home is not just where the ones you love are,
It is where the ones you have wrestled with
And have stayed are.
Home is where you learn
That real love surprises you
By hiding under discord and alienation.
Home is where the heart beats
In a rhythm that Time has trained and honed;
A tempo that when you are anywhere else
Jars and irks and begins to lose itself.

Home is where obedience
Is rewarded with freedom;
Where one can grow
Thanks to the roots
And flourish
Thanks to the soil.

Written after a weekly Burning Fences gathering at El Piano, York where we shared reflections on what we are looking for in our individual futures. The common theme of ‘home’ emerged. This was then read at a Burning Fences event called ‘Family’ on Sunday 11th May 2014.