Tag Archives: faith

Chapter 73: all perfection is not herein attained

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For what page or word of the Bible is not a perfect rule for temporal life?

Isn’t this just about being a Christian?

I sat amongst the emerging community holding the proposed Rule of Life for the possible Society of the Holy Trinity, a New Monastic Society aimed at bringing together communities across the UK (and hopefully further afield) under a common rule and constitution. As we read the prologue to this Rule and reflected on what it said, there was an obvious thing to say,

Isn’t this just about being a Christian?

I had sat with Ian Mobsby, Gareth Powell and others for three days a month before and shared the stories of our different communities as they grew and developed. The Rule of Life, mainly written by one of the communities, had spoken to the other communities represented around the table. In our discussions we were clear that we needed this Rule to be a broad umbrella so that communities from across the Anglican communion may gather under it but it couldn’t be so broad as to lose any definition.

In a paper I was asked to write for the upcoming New Monastic Conference, entitled ‘An Understanding Of Religious Life Based On “New Monasticism: new forms of missional & religious life in the 21st century”’, I attempted to articulate what the New Monastic movement understands by a ‘Rule of Life’.

A Rule of Life is fundamental to the identification with the New Monastic movement. A Rule of Life is not just an agreed statement of belief or purpose but a set of commitments which are formally accepted by way of promises/vows. For all Christians, for every community, every monastery, every intentional grouping, the Gospel is the Rule of our life, the measure of our faithfulness to Christ. In this sense, no other rule is necessary. The tradition of the monastic Rule evolved as the deposit of the Gospel for a particular group at a particular time. Thus intentional communities need to be clear about the way in which they respond to the call of the Gospel. There are many possible ways: a community may feel called to follow a classic Rule; another may have felt called to write a Rule that is, for the members, their invitation to the Gospel life; another may have evolved a covenant document that identifies certain key practices that hold the members in their common vocation. (Ned Lunn, ‘An Understanding Of Religious Life Based On “New Monasticism: new forms of missional & religious life in the 21st century”’, Position Paper for ‘New Monasticism: a UK gathering of new forms of missional and religious life’, 14th April 2016)

With this understanding it is a natural response when reading any Rule of Life to say, ‘but that’s just being a Christian’ but the reality is many Christians struggle to specifically embody the gospel in their lives. The life of faith demands to live and move within context. The Spirit of God does not calls us to live anywhere but calls us to live in the time and place we find ourselves. Jesus lived in history, at a particular time and in a particular culture.

One of the ways in which the Society of the Holy Trinity distinguishes our specific vocation is to acknowledge that we are all communities living in urban contexts. This is not to say that we refuse to engage in the gospel elsewhere but the reality is we experience the life of faith is in the city environment. God has called us to live out the gospel in the City and so we have different questions to ask and a unique perspective on God’s vision for the new creation from communities who exist in the countryside.

I was initially uncomfortable with limiting the Rule of Life of the Society of the Holy Trinity to urban life but God showed me his specific call to bless the city. Living in a context requires us to continually return to the specific questions God asks of us and we must ask of each other. ‘How then shall we live here and now?’ It is easy to lose focus and to shift it from one thing and then to another; a Rule of Life forces us to sit with questions longer than we would naturally.

The Early Church wrestled with the question of context. St Paul argued pragmatically that Christians living in the Hellenistic cities of the Roman Empire as slaves and wives of Greeks or Romans did not have the luxury to distance themselves from the company of Gentiles as the Jewish Christians would want. It was easier for new Christian converts to live the Jewish life in Jerusalem but it was not practical or reasonable to ask those elsewhere to live to that standard. The Early Church discovered the need for some contextual common sense in the discipleship of new Christians.

The danger of context, however, is that we err too far the other way and use the charge of ‘context’ to encourage individualism. There is a risk that by adopting the ‘that’s alright for you but I am different’ subjective approach to life that we are never challenged by the cost of discipleship. There are some who are exploring New Monasticism who feel they can tailor make their own Rule of Life so that it works for their life as it is. When this Rule of Life starts to cost something of our life and comfort, they re-assess and change it to suit new priorities, etc. This makes me feel particularly uncomfortable. A Rule of Life must be shared with others to ensure that iron sharpens iron. That is why, even though there are some parts of the proposed Rule of Life of the Society of the Holy Trinity that I am not keen on, I’m happy to sit with it and would love, in the future, to vow to live by it.

A Rule of Life, like the Bible, demands of us to wrestle with the text and seek to hear God reveal himself through the tangible words. A Rule of Life is a lens we use to help us to hear and understand God’s life-giving story as it calls us to participate in it and it is a lens which we need to share with others to ensure we don’t impose our own agenda and distorted ideas onto it. A Rule of Life must not become an idol, formed into our image, but rather must point us to the revelations of God’s love and grace towards us and the world around us.

Esther de Waal, who I have enjoyed journeying with through the Rule of St. Benedict, puts it beautifully at the end of her book ‘A Life Giving Way: a commentary on the Rule of St Benedict’,

The rule of Benedict is a way of life, a life-giving way. To encounter the text in all its fullness and complexity is like a source and stream, always the same and yet always different, or like a tapestry where I follow first one thread and then another and so get different glimpses of the whole. I return to it time and time again throughout my life. Benedict and his practical manual of the love of Christ are always there to help me on my journey, the coming home of the prodigal to the loving embrace of the father. (Esther de Waal, A Life Giving Way: a commentary on the Rule of St Benedict (New York: Continuum, 1995) p.215)

Reflection

Christianity is not a spirituality because it forces us to embrace our humanness; the fleshy, tangible life. We are not dualists, yearning for the separation of our souls from our bodies. We are not a people focussed on some spiritual nirvana achieved by asceticism or prayerful meditation in the hope of transcending our flesh. We are bodily present, rooted in history and geography, in the world we see, hear and breathe in.

The gospel is about the redemption of the world not an escape route from it. Rowan Williams writes,

The only history to be taken seriously is bodily history; and so the redemption of humanity must be located in bodily history. (Rowan Williams, The Wound Of Knowledge (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1990) p.28)

The beautiful revelation of God through Jesus Christ is that God cares for this world and his eschatological plan is bound up in the atoms and particles of creation. The incarnation is good news for us that our earthly lives are not accidental but have a divine purpose: redemption.

The parish system should help us to remember the particularities of our life. Where we live is important. Our neighbours lives demand our attention. The communities of which we are a part are not distractions but the priority of our God who walks that landscape seeking out the lost and proclaiming another world is possible. We can easily forget these truths and realities and that is why a Rule of Life is helpful to hold us in that place of asking the question, ‘how then shall we live?’ How do we live out the gospel in this place at this time? It will be different from those in different contexts but the challenge is, as it has been since the early Christians first discovered God’s vocation given to them by the Holy Spirit at their baptisms, how do we remain united in the demands of different contexts?

Almighty God, through your Holy Spirit you created unity in the midst of diversity;
We acknowledge that human diversity is an expression of your manifold love for your creation;
We confess that in our brokenness as human beings we turn diversity into a source of alienation, injustice, oppression, and wounding. Empower us to recognize and celebrate differences as your great gift to the human family. Enable us to be the architects of understanding, of respect and love; Through the Lord, the ground of all unity, we pray. (“Prayers for Diversity”, Jesuit Resources, http://www.xavier.edu/jesuitresource/online-resources/Prayers-for-Diversity.cfm)

Come, Lord Jesus.

Chapter 72: the good zeal monks should possess

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Monks should practice this zeal with ardent love…

What has happened to the UK?

We live in interesting times!

On the Sunday morning after the UK voted to leave the European Union the lectionary epistle reading was Galatians 5:1, 13-25.

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery…For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.

Enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy; these were the words being used as the ripples of the UK’s decision were felt by all of us. Both major political parties went into melt down as David Cameron resigned triggering a leadership race and then the Labour party followed suit with several resignations and a leadership coup. Scotland began rethinking their independence which, strangely UKIP are dead against because they feel Scotland is better in a union than out… No one seemed totally comfortable with the way things were turning out. Boris Johnson and Michael Gove’s announcement was downbeat to say the least. The political jostling had begun!

Throughout the debate it was clear that what the voting public needed were facts, but who do we trust to give us the facts? As Michael Gove interestingly stated,

I think the people in this country have had enough of experts.

Although we needed facts what we wanted was ‘passion’. The ‘Trump Effect’ (which is sadly now a well known phrase!) is the replacement of intellectual reason with courage in conviction.

They aren’t afraid to say it as it is.

They are passionate about their beliefs.

Nigel Farage, the main force behind the referendum, has now resigned having achieved what he wanted in politics. He worked tirelessly to achieve his aim and ambition with great zeal but at what cost? To be more specific; in what manner? For me passion and zeal, unbridled by reason, faithfulness or stability leads to division. This is what is being outlined in the Galatians passage above.

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

When you sow in division, you reap in division.

I want to be clear that, despite my vote to remain in the EU, my concern and disappointment is rooted not in the outcome of the vote itself but in the nature that the debate was done and the precedent it has set for the future of our society. As always my judgement on the morality of a decision is based not on the decision itself but on the process and means by which the decision was arrived at. If the vote had gone the other way, I’d have still been upset and uncomfortable about the decision (albeit less intensely).

I have, as regular readers of this blog will know, for a long time been criticising the direction of our society in the UK over the last few decades. At the heart of my criticism and concern is the liberal, individualised approach to politics which places the individual desires and passions at the heart of all conversation. What matters most in debates is not reason but what a person thinks and feels. The subjective voice is unassailable and if someone’s beliefs are criticised then the opponent is labelled ‘intolerant’. Opinion is held higher than than fact or truth because there is no longer any objective truth. It comes down to what we ‘reckon’. This leads to us ensuring we get what we want but never paying the cost to get what we need.

What was obvious throughout the debate and in the aftermath of the referendum was that we the voters, en masse, didn’t know what we were doing. We were not told all the information we were fed lies from both sides and as the reality hit we were all as confused as before. We talk about the value and success of democracy but what the referendum did show me was that democracy doesn’t work because it relies on the generally uninformed voter making a decision which inevitably goes to the person who is charismatic and not for the one who is able to make the change to society that most of us don’t know we need. The referendum was won, not by truth but by personality.

Plato, in his book ‘Republic’, depicts democracy as a denigration of strong governance and places the democratic regime just above tyranny. The democratic man, which he uses to portray the character of democracy, is a man who is free to do what they want and live how they want. This democratic man is ruled by his passions and base desires. He is uneducated with little self control. Democracy is painted as self-autonomous units fighting and competing to survive… sounds like the UK at the moment!

When reading Galatians a day after the referendum it was this depiction of democracy that came to mind as I prepared to preach into a society where the political, economic and social stability of our nation was in chaos. Markets were uncertain. Communities were divided and a rise in xenophobia and racism became prevalent. Families were divided deeply and there was no sign of any leadership. This is the fruit of living life by our flesh, our passions.

The alternative, Paul argues, is to die to the flesh.

And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

The referendum was also a debate about identity. We, as a nation, are struggling to articulate a shared identity due to the aggressive pursuit of the individual identity in our capitalist, neo-liberal culture. There is no longer a shared narrative to our lives together. This is why the concept of family, community, fellowship is eroded and there is such high levels of loneliness, mental health issues, depression, anxiety and violence; and it is that one word which describes the debate and the fruit of the vote to leave, on both sides: ‘violence’.

Violence is rooted in fear. Violence is the response when we feel threatened. Violence is characterised by the cross. So what should our response be? How then do we live?

Love.

This is not the love that allows people to live how they want but the love which desires that people belong and are brought together. This love is not just allowing others to exist nearby but a desire for transformation and growth. This love is rooted in the monastic vow of stability, obedience and ongoing transformation. Esther de Waal writes,

Genuine love is free from exploitation or the manipulation of others. Where this is missing love becomes a delusion, a subterfuge, a means to an end. The patience and gentleness of verse 5 are again virtues which Benedict admires and which he has been encouraging. This is the opposite of that violence which is not limited to aggressive behaviour but may be a reflection of the hidden violence of feelings which comes out in tone of voice or the glance… The ‘wicked zeal of bitterness’ must refer to the rivalries and power games that can tear communities apart, the sort of competition that is unsuitable in the body of Christ. If you must compete, he seems to say, at least compete in love! (Esther de Waal, A Life Giving Way: a commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict (London: Continuum, 1995) p.211)

Paul contrasts the life lived by the passions of the flesh as a life guided by God’s Spirit.

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

To live by the Spirit one must die to the flesh. This is what is being outlined by St. Benedict in this penultimate chapter of his Rule.

Let them, “in honour prevent one another” (Rom 12:10). Let them accept each other’s frailties (of body and soul). Let them try to outdo each other in obedience. Let no one do what is best for himself, but rather what is best for another. Let them expend the charity of brotherhood in chaste love.

I’m a passionate person; I feel things powerfully and I have strong convictions but I know I must learn to control and master that passion by deliberately and intentionally dying to self and being drawn into the community of love and respect. I must establish my identity in Christ and allow him to form me in his likeness.

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.(Phil 2:3-8)

Reflection

…salvation is not an individual project, but one we undertake with and among our brothers and sisters in Christ. We work out our salvation not only in fear and trembling, but also in community. It is in our care for, and interaction with, one another that we become the body of Christ, now and forever. (Norvene Vest, Preferring Christ: a devotional commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 1990) p.267)

Now, more than ever, the UK needs to be re-trained in living with others. There was a great cry, after the vote on the UK membership in the EU, to come together and be united. It sounded so simple but we have lost the art of doing that. Living with others is a cost to our personal sense of freedom. We have heard a lot about freedom and our own sovereignty over the referendum debate but I repeat Paul’s words to the Galatians,

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.

It is the paradox of the Christian life that we have been given freedom to choose to become slaves to one another in Christ. Community is not easy and so the need for guidelines is so important. The Rule of St. Benedict is the greatest example of such guidelines which hold people together when every passion and zeal is telling them to flee or worse do violence in thought, word or deed. A Rule of life must cover every aspect of one’s life; the thoughts (orthodoxy), the feelings (orthopathy) and the actions (orthopraxis). It must be shared with those you live with in order that everyone exists within the same narrative because with no shared story there is no shared values, direction, destination and ultimately no shared character/identity.

We have voted to leave the EU to regain our own sovereignty so how do we now build a common life together? On this issue there remains silence or rather there remains a competition for ideological power or individualised tolerance. The Kingdom of God is established when we allow our political ideology, our self-identity, our sexuality, our gender, our class, our weatlh or status to become secondary to the identity which brings joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I appreciate that may be interpreted as another subjective option of many in this pluralistic society but, as a Christian, I can see no other option offering such hope.

How is it possible that the gospel should be credible, that people should come to believe that the power which has the last word in human affairs is represented by a man hanging on a cross?I am suggesting that the only answer, the only hermeneutic of the Gospel is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it…. Its character is given to it, when it is true to its nature, not by the characters of its members but by his character. Insofar as it is true to its calling, it becomes the place where men and women and children find that the gospel gives them the framework of understanding, the “lenses” through which they are able to understand and cope with the world. (Leslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (London: SPCK, 2004) p.227)

The New Monastic movement is a fresh call from God to intentional place ourselves in the environment of community under a framework that will shape us into the character of Christ. That was the goal of St. Benedict and the other monastic fathers and mothers and it is the goal of this new wave of monastics. The sharing of a way of life challenges the individualised culture we now suffer within. We need to commit to a Rule which is not shaped by me or my desires but is shaped for me and my transformation and in which my passion and zeal will be focussed solely on seeking God’s will in our life together; redemption of my flesh to be guided by the Spirit.

Almighty and everlasting God, by whose Spirit the whole body of the Church is governed and sanctified:hear our prayer which we offer for all your faithful people, that in our vocation and ministry we may serve you in holiness and truth to the glory of your name. Raise up leaders of character who will lead us to inhabit your story of hope and in which all of us find our rest.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Where Next?

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Suscipiendus autem in oratorio coram omnibus promittat de stabilitate sua et conversatione morum suorum et oboedientia.

Upon admission, in the oratory, before all, he is to make a promise to stability, conversion (of behaviour/morals/life) and obedience,

I have been joined, as I have journeyed through the Rule of St Benedict, by increasing numbers of companions whose path happens to meet with mine and/or mine with theirs. Some of them have made commitments to particular monastic houses in different traditions, others are parish ministers who seek deeper community and discipleship within that service and others are those exploring what has come to be known as ‘New Monastic’ communities.

The New Monastic movement in Britain is a loose collection of groups who have identified a desire for more intentional community than that which is offered through traditional forms of church gathering. There is no stringent entry policy to this ‘network’/movement; it is better seen as an association. Even when a group identifies themselves in the category of ‘new monasticism’ it doesn’t bind you to another group who have also chosen to name themselves as such. In this way the movement remains self governing and flexible.

It works… sort of.

Accountability is covered for most of these groups through independent means but is not enforceable. Communities should seek to have an outsider to oversee or converse with the community to ensure safeguarding of its members and that relationships remain healthy as the group grows and evolves together. These relationships are based on trust and so the selection of a spiritual companion for a community can be a risky one.

The connection between individual groups and communities is a free choice. A group can, if they choose, be independent and get on with doing what they’re doing and being what they’re being without interaction with another group (many do). This choice, however, can lead to a sense of isolation and/or blind egotism, not to mention the spending of energy re-inventing of the metaphorical wheel! Many want to learn from others and become acutely aware of the challenges that face intentional community. At these times they reach out and discover the joy of journeying with others who share something of what they are living through.

Again, these relationships between groups/communities are self-selecting and so carry with them potential dangers. The concern I have is that of the blind leading the blind when there are communities that, although still learning and emerging, have journeyed terrain before and so can steer with wisdom and experience.

At the heart of my concern around the New Monastic movement is that we want to remain connected with the world in some areas of our life but not in others and we want to remain in control and choose the sacrifices and changes we experience. The sacrifice of the community is self selecting to suit our individual needs and what we think is right for us. Are we falling short of the ultimate hurdle which distinguishes a normal life and the monastic life? Does New Monasticism encourage people to remain individualistic consumers whilst giving the impression that we’re living radically different lifestyles? Do we just want to be different?

I’m more than aware that we all have unique vocations due to what God wants of us in our different contexts, with our personalities and experiences. Some of us are ready and blessed to be called to traditional monastic life in the different traditions. Some of us are called to that way of life but find ourselves in families and relationships which also seem to be permanent. Some of us are called to ordained ministry and some form of more intentional life. There seems to be several different shapes and models emerging all naming themselves something slightly different in order to distinguish themselves. ‘Missional Communities’, ‘Hubs’, ‘Home Groups’, ‘Organic Communities’, ‘Parish Monasticism’, ‘New Monasticism’, or any other unique name for a group who have a particular shape and call on its members. Some would say,

It works… sort of.

Discipleship and mission must be contextual. Where you find yourself must impact how you live out your faith and mission. The Holy Spirit calls us to particular tasks at particular times in particular places but the source of strength and call must remain fixed in the same God. Although the expression of faith has adapted to different cultures and language the faith remains steadfast. It is the tension between the rootedness of tradition and the fresh expressions of faith and mission which keeps a sense of life. A balanced life is one lived in tension.

I am an advocate of uniting all these different expressions of discipleship and community and I know that many others disagree. I can see that there may be some who feel uncomfortable ‘pinning down’ or ‘fencing in’ these exciting, new discoveries. ‘Organic’ and ‘adaptable’ keeps the thing streamlined and efficient, able to move to new places but I am extremely cautious about this view. It strikes me that there’s an addiction to novelty and being different. Maybe I’m being too cynical but is there not still an ‘attractional’ mindset underneath this approach to move with the times and the people we want to connect and bring into the group/community?

I agree that the Spirit blows where it will and the Church has suffered by its slowness to catch up with God. I agree that definition can exclude some who might have otherwise moved further in if they were encouraged to, or rather if they were not discouraged by boundaries. I agree that most communities who identify with this ‘monastic’ call, whatever that means for them, remain fragile and embryonic. And I totally agree that the reason traditional church doesn’t work for increasing numbers of people is because of our culture’s anxiety, fear and disapproval of institution.

It still comes down, for me, however, to a desperate need for the gospel to challenge individualistic consumer culture and not collude with it. Structure and framework is needed for a sense of security and refuge. It is not sustainable to constantly live in uncertainty, risk and vulnerability; we need shelter, even if it is just a tent which is moveable.

This is why I have found reflecting on the use of tents in the Bible encouraging. Tents give people a resting place in a landscape of wilderness. Tents are used as ‘home’ when you are being called to be nomadic. Tents give you the space to feel safe when the rest of your life is danger and risk. Paul uses this image to describe our earthly bodies on earth and to encourage us to see ourselves as belonging to another place.

I have shared before this prophetic picture someone once saw for me of a mountain goat living in rocky terrain, barren and wild. The words that accompanied that picture were, “You were built for this terrain.” I often find myself in spiritual wilderness, barrenness. I find myself in conflict and rough seas. When I do find a settled place, a place of comfort, I get uncomfortable. I thrive in the wild but even I need times of peace and rest. I survive but in a different way to how the sheep of the green pasture survive down in the valley.

I was reading Psalm 104 last week and then a verse sprang out as an encouragement for me,

The high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for the coneys. (Psalm 104:18)

What struck me was I was built for one context which is not shared for others but I still need refuge and places to recuperate. Graham Cray, ex-bishop of Fresh Expressions UK, when I shared this picture with him told me to hold onto the monastic practices to sustain that call to those contexts.

The Church is in exile; divorced from mainstream culture. The passionate discussions over calling the last Fresh Expressions’ Conference ‘From Margins to Mainstream’ focussed many people’s concern on where do we want to see ourselves. Some like being margin, periphery dwellers, others like to be anywhere but ‘boring mainstreamers’, some like the comfort of the known and others are anxious but uncertainty. Whatever is mainstream for one is margin for another; it depends on where you’re standing and how you see yourself.

I am one who finds himself, more often than not, in isolated viewpoints. I don’t fit. This always runs dangerously close to my obsession with being different and contrary and I am on constant watch to not fall into that trap. I know that is part of where God must hold me close and is part of my spiritual practices.

Rules of life are meant to be way markers not straight-jackets. I have explored different rules of life and studied the charisms of different communities what fascinates me and excites me is that despite being different they share similar central calls; they name them different things but they’re essentially the same. I’m talking about principles or virtues they live by not the practices they perform. Ian Mobsby and the Moot Community named these principles, ‘postures’.

I wonder what might happen if we acknowledged together, a sense that the monastic call is commitment to ‘stability, conversion and obedience’ (words used by St Benedict in chapter 58 of his Rule)? Some may want to interpret them as the traditional vows of ‘chastity, poverty and obedience’ but I see them as interchangeable.

Stability

A desire to remain rooted somewhere or with someone; no matter what the spiritual weather is like, no matter what temptations afflict you, you stay and remain faithful.

Conversion

A desire to change, to turn away, step by step, from the things of this world to the Kingdom of God. To seek, in different circumstances and in different ways, to become more and more Christ-like, poor and dependant on God.

Obedience

A desire to place yourself under the decisions of something or someone else. To seek to curb that deeply human temptation to be in control of ourselves and our decisions; to hold onto the power in or own lives.

Over the next few weeks I want to develop this motif and offer some potential suggestions how, in different contexts, disciples can adopt these three shared vows whilst remaining contextual and flexible in practice.

Chapter 59: sons of noblemen or of poor men offered to God’s service

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…if the child is under age, the parents should write out a petition as above.

What is the role of godparents?

Whilst introducing some members of our church to the Anglican baptismal theology in the hope that they may join the baptism team, I found a great oversight in our basis for preparation policy. At our church we currently invite parent(s) to come along for an evening to talk about what baptism is and to ‘help them to work out if baptism is right for them’ (to which the snowier seems to always be “yes”!) This ‘preparation evening’ is a great opportunity to share the good news of Jesus Christ with them and to encourage them to consider the life of a disciple and to answer the call to follow him. No problems so far…

Then I looked down at Canon Law B22.3 (you know the one, right!?)

The minister shall instruct the parents or guardians of an infant to be admitted to Holy Baptism that the same responsibilities rest on them as are in the service of Holy Baptism required of the godparents.

This assumes that due instruction has been given to the godparents; that the godparents are aware of their responsibilities and can,

…faithfully fulfil their responsibilities both by their care for the children committed to their charge and by the example of their own godly living.(Canon Law B23.2)

In our parish we currently only ask that the parents speak with the godparents about their responsibilities but we have no contact with godparents prior to the baptism.

I asked some other clergy to send me their baptism preparation process to see where we could develop and improve ours. Of the 6 shared with me none of them do any instructing of the godparents on their role and responsibilities and of the 5 churches where I have been aware of their preparation process none of them did either. Bearing in mind that we struggle, in my current parish, to get godparents who are baptised let alone practising Christians we are a long way off. We have long since wavered the requirement of confirmation as set out in Canon Law B23.4!

So here is my question (and it is a question): Would it be so bad to adopt a stricter policy of admission to Holy Baptism based on the requirements laid out regarding godparents?

Let’s take the idea of looking at the admission to Holy Baptism through the lens of a monastic model in a parish church. If a parish church’s baptism policy was connected into a more monastic understanding of discipleship then the approach to infant baptism could be viewed in similar terms as St. Benedict does in this chapter of his Rule. This would be no different to the theology behind infant baptism outside of a monastic understanding of discipleship with parents and godparents taking on the responsibility of making vows on behalf of the child.

In practice, the parents of a child being offered to the monastic life would need to write the petition, an unbreakable contract agreement, with the same understanding of the commitment being made if the child was of age. This would mean the same sort of rigour of instruction before an offering of the child was made. In Canon Law it states that,

No minister shall refuse or, save for the purpose of preparing or instructing the parents or guardians or godparents, delay to baptize any infant within his cure that is brought to the church to be baptized, provided that due notice has been given and the provisions relating to godparents in these Canons are observed.(Canon Law B22.4)

For every child to be baptized there shall be not fewer than three godparents, of whom at least two shall be of the same sex as the child and of whom at least one shall be of the opposite sex; save that, when three cannot conveniently be had, one godfather and godmother shall suffice. Parents may be godparents for their own children provided that the child have at least one other godparent…No person shall be admitted to be a sponsor or godparent who has not been baptized and confirmed. Nevertheless the minister shall have power to dispense with the requirement of confirmation in any case in which in his judgement need so requires.(Canon Law B23.1&4)

Now, whenever delaying baptism is discussed there are some who get uncomfortable with placing ‘hoops’ in the way. They feel that the parents will feel shunned or rejected by the church and that experience of ‘not being worthy,etc.’ will impact in their view of church in general. I understand the fear of this and can see the complex pastoral issues this raises but this is what happens when you develop such an open door policy in the first place. How do these pastoral minded objectors interpret Jesus’ challenge in Luke’s gospel,

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:57-62)

William Barclay suggests,

It may well be that we have hurt the Church very seriously by trying to tell people that Church membership need not make so very much difference; we would be better to tell them that it must make all the difference in the world. We might have fewer people; but those we had would be totally pledged to Crist. (William Barclay,The Gospel of Luke: the daily study bible (Edinburgh: St. Andrew Press, 1961) p.133)

I had a young man contact me wanting to be baptised and so I eagerly met with him to talk about it. I asked him why he felt he wanted to get baptised and he ‘just wanted to’, his family had all ‘been done’ and he had ‘missed out’. I asked if he had any experience of God. He answered by saying that he once prayed for something and it happened. I talked about what he would have to promise if he wanted to be baptised and talked about the need for a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. I sent him away with homework; to read Mark’s gospel and to write down any questions or confusions about what he read. I asked him to contact me in a week and we’ll chat about what he had discovered. I also invited him to come to church and to experience worship and prayer in the context of a community of believers.

He never came to church and I still wait for him to get back in touch. This is not the first time this has happened to me. I have had three previous conversations which have ended after our first meeting. All of them began with a request to be baptised. After these conversations I feel guilty that they hadn’t taken the opportunity to explore faith, I questioned whether I was putting too many barriers in the way and I beat myself up that I wasn’t able to share my faith i a way that was attractive or exciting for them.

Then I remind myself that for each of these encounters I also have stories of when I have sat with someone and share my faith with them and they now stand as faithful, practising Christians. God can and does use me sometimes!

I read the gospels and I see there Jesus asking people to follow him and many turning away and not taking him up on it. These refusals to follow Jesus don’t make Jesus change his admission policy but rather to pray and love them nonetheless. We should do the same. Keep the challenge to be a disciple but love those who feel it is too costly for them. There’s nothing wrong with being the crowd, Jesus still loved them, they just weren’t disciples with the responsibility and cost involved.

Reflection

We can all feel great pressure to make everyone we meet a Christian. The focus on mission and evangelism can be heard as a drive to increase membership in our churches but there is a distinction which needs to be heeded to stop us from selling grace too cheaply. Evangelism is not about the results. Evangelism is only about proclamation of good news; the word in greek for ‘evangelist’ means messenger, someone who speaks a message of good news. How the hearers responded was not their job, their sole purpose was to say the good news to the people. Let us not change the message so that it is favourable to the hearer. Let us instead proclaim the message faithfully and allow the hearers respond how they wish; some will hear, others won’t. Jesus knew this more than any of us.

Mission is more about establishing God’s Kingdom in our hearts and proclaiming it with our mouths and transformed lives than it is about increasing our market share. The results of mission and evangelism must remain out of our control if we are to not become manipulative or manipulated. This should not hinder the passion with which we engage in mission or evangelism we must still do it with all our heart and lives but God builds his Church. He must encounter people by his grace and he has always given humanity freedom to choose to respond or not. Allow him to take the heart ache of all those who do not listen to his voice.

Gracious Father, you came and met us in your Son, Jesus Christ, and called us to live a life as your disciples. You told us the cost and warned us of the challenge but you also showed us the glory of your resurrected life and the power of your Spirit. May we never forget reward of being in you and having you dwell within us. May we not sell that powerful experience of grace short with the people we meet.

Come, Lord Jesus

Chapter 57: artisans and craftsmen

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… if anyone becomes proud of his skill and the profit he brings the community, he should be taken from his craft and work at ordinary labor.

Who am I?

As June 2015 approaches and I come to the end of my official curacy, marked by a final assessment panel and an interview with my bishop, I am finding it hard not to think about the reports that will be gathered about me and my suitability to minister. On the bishops desk will be a minimum of 9 reports assessing my progress over the last three years, my competences, my character and every aspect of who I am. It is a pretty daunting thing if you think about it too much!

I have also been undertaking some intense ‘soul searching’ and reflection for the last few months guided by a counsellor. This has helped me to understand a little more as to what makes me behave and think like I do. I am acutely aware of the complexity by which God works through my own free will and psychological and genetic tendencies to reform me. When is something to be named as ‘God-given’ and when is it not?

I find it hard to accept that all talents and skills are to be ascribed to the spiritual realm. There are things that I’m good at which are there because I have worked very hard at learning and perfecting them. When I was an atheist I would get frustrated with religious people saying God gave them that ‘gift’ when it could be taught without involving God at all. I’m not saying that God can’t use those skills that one learns and does courses in but that we shouldn’t ascribe all skills to God for there are some skills which do not honour him nor would he want us to use. Take learning how to torture someone. It may seem facetious to say this but there are some people who are very good at taking other human beings to the edge of their life but holding them on the brink to force them to speak on the desired issue. This is a skill which not everyone can do. We wouldn’t dream of saying,

They’re really good at that it must be a god-given gift.

What is the distinction? Is it in the purpose of the activity? If someone learns a skill without knowing God and uses it to actively deny God is that still God-given? Is everything we are and do because of God? If this is true then why does he change us? In saying that all skills and talents are God-given, to me, denies the wonder and power of God’s redemption.

There are things that I have picked up through my experiences that are not healthy. I respond badly in certain situations which are not edifying and I am not proud of and I wouldn’t dream of turning round to the people I hurt and say,

This is the way God made me so you can’t complain.

It would be nice to say that because it takes all the pressure for me to change off and to blame God for making me ‘this way’. The truth is God didn’t make us ‘this way’. We were made by flesh and blood and we’ve been shaped by an imperfect world filled with imperfect people. Some parts of me are messed up and need reforming and that’s also true of you.

When St. Paul talks about spiritual gifts he is both vague and specific. The lists of gifts are not, in my mind, exhaustive, nor are we meant to be focussing on the list of gifts but rather the point of these passages (1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12 and, some would argue, Ephesians 4 but I have my questions on that!) is to highlight God the giver of grace through his Holy Spirit. God equips us for the tasks he calls us to. In my view and my experience, God never equips us for no reason. God calls first and equips after. This order makes more sense for God wants us to serve and behave dependent on him not on ourselves. Naming and blessing all our capabilities on behalf of God is not the same as truly experiencing the transformation of God via his Spirit.

That’s why, in The Rule of St. Benedict, I think it is clear that the ‘artisan’ is described as having a ‘skill’ and not a ‘gift’. But, you may protest, what about Bezalel!

The Lord spoke to Moses: “See, I have called by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: and I have filled him with divine spirit, with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft.” (Exodus 31:1-5)

My reading of Exodus 31 is that Bezalel is given ‘skill’ for a specific task. The call comes first the skill second. God helps Bezalel to learn the necessary skills with the other aspects of the gift, ‘wisdom, understanding and knowledge/intelligence’ (from the original Hebrew).

Now, I’m not saying that these skills are not important and can’t be used by God; quite the opposite! It is a testament and a witness to the redemption of God and how God works that he does use those things we learnt before we received his gift of grace. The distinction I am wanting to make is between that which God has given to us and how God uses us. The former is perfect for it comes from God and the latter is imperfect but redeemable if we choose to obey God’s will. Does this distinction need to be made? I would argue it does for we can easily slide into blessing everything we do as ‘God-given’ and controlled by God without considering the important aspect of our own fallenness and brokenness.

When it comes to questions of my identity I struggle to communicate such a concept because of the confusing assumptions of both myself and the hearer. When I sit before the panel assessing my vocation and competences and I talk with my bishop, I will struggle to communicate seemingly simple questions about discernment. This is not about what God is calling me to specifically but about how he has equipped me. What of my personality is God-given? What part of who I am is from God?

What it comes down to is I can only be sure of this: I am in Christ being renewed for his glory all the rest is debatable.

Reflection

The most significant challenge in this chapter of the Rule is the guidance,

…if anyone becomes proud of his skill and the profit he brings the community, he should be taken from his craft and work at ordinary labor.

As I face the panel I will be sensitive to my own pride and, as with most days of my life, pray that God will humble me, that he will remind me of my identity in him and to speak only of that.

We are so keen to establish our self esteem because we all are confused about who we are at the deepest level. We feel we should know ourselves but the truth is we don’t and that’s scary. Thomas Merton suggests,

The reason we hate one another and fear one another is that we secretly or openly hate and fear our own selves. And we hate ourselves because the depths of our being are a chaos of frustration and spiritual misery. Lonely and helpless, we cannot be at peace with others because we are not at peace with ourselves, and we cannot be at peace with ourselves because we are not at peace with God. (Thomas Merton, The Living Bread (London: Burns and Oates, 1976) p.9)

In his extended commentary on identity in ‘New Seeds of Contemplation’ he says,

In great saints you find that perfect humility and perfect integrity coincide. (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 1972) p.99)

Humility, Merton asserts,

…consists in being precisely the person you actually are before God, and since no two people are alike, if you have the humility to be yourself you will not be like anyone else in the whole universe. (ibid.)

For Merton the practical things of everyday life should not be items of conflict,

The saints do not get excited about the things that people eat and drink, wear on their bodies, or hang on the walls of their houses. To make conformity or non conformity with others in these accidents a matter of life and death is to fill your interior life with confusion and noise. (ibid.) (my emphasis)

My personality and my preferences are ‘accidents’ not to be seen as static like some perfect idol but rather to be sacrificed before God to used and changed as he wills. My skills and competences, likewise.

Genes, parenting, and spiritual forces do condition who we are. But for believers whose spirits have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit these conditioning factors cannot determine who we are unless we choose to allow them to do so. (Gregory Boyd, God of the Possible: a biblical introduction to the open view of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000) p.147)

In order to know who we are we must know who God is and discover who we are before him.

But under the steady bombardment of meaningless propaganda that is always directed against us, we surrender our privilege to think and hope and make decisions for ourselves… And we will never find God if we are not ourselves mature persons. To find God one must first be free.(Thomas Merton, The Living Bread (London: Burns and Oates, 1976) p.11)

Freedom comes when we follow Christ into his death and live in his resurrection and new creation. Death of our ego, death of our personality, death of everything we think defines us which is not Christ. In uniformly being in Christ we find we are uniquely ourselves.
Abba Father, you call us to life in you through participating in the death and new life of your son Jesus Christ. We humbly approach you and ask that you take every aspect of our life and use it for your glory. We ask you keep our eyes fixed on you and to continue the work of discipleship.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Chapter 56: the abbot’s table

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The abbot will eat with guests and travelers.

What does it mean to have ‘a calling’?

I have spoken at length on my understanding of ordained ministers within the life of the whole people of God. The tension, it seems to me, is most obvious around questions of holiness. By holiness I mean ‘set apart-edness’ of the clergy from the laity. Some would say that ontologically, the very substance of the ordained is different from the non-ordained, while others see no division accept in the function of the clergy. It comes down to an opinion on whether the clergy are changed into something particular by God’s Holy Spirit, distinctive from the other members of the Body of Christ. Where you stand on that idea will mark out how you respond to the particular calling on certain people that differentiates them from others.

So what does it mean to have ‘a calling’?

The Bible is full of God singling out a particular person for a specific task. Some of these tasks are on a temporary basis (e.g. Moses leading the people out of Egypt to the Promise Land, Ananias welcoming Saul/Paul in Damascus) others are permanent (e.g. Abraham being the father of many generations, Peter to ‘feed [my] sheep’). God calls his people, as a collective, to particular tasks (to be holy, faithful, loving, etc.) but there are specific tasks to specific people.

It is clear from the Bible that God calls all people to himself to know and love him and to become his disciple. Once someone has responded to that call they are a disciple, allowing God to transform them, by his Holy spirit, into the likeness of his Son, Jesus Christ. After that God will call them to additional tasks or lifestyles to grow into alongside and in conjunction with the life’s work of discipleship.

What task, then, is given to those called to be ordained?

This is a contentious issue and it depends on who you ask. Some would say it is into a leadership role within the church, others would emphasise a pastoral, serving role, others will create a particular cocktail of various functions and characteristics which define ‘ordained ministry’ but there is no concrete definition because God calls many people to it from different backgrounds, upbringings, experience, personality types, etc. Ordained ministry will look unique to each person who tries to live it out.

The added complication comes when you distinguish, in the Anglican Church, between ordained deacons, ordained priests and ordained bishops. The Anglican Church ordains people into three forms of ministry and they have different functions, roles and some would argue, characters. We confuse it even further by ordaining one person as a deacon, a priest and (in some cases) a bishop, all of which are unique a separate callings but are held together. I am, for instance, both a deacon and a priest simultaneously.

God, it seems, calls us both into tasks (temporary and sometime repeatable) and into way of life (permanent and evolving). Trying to discern one of these is difficult enough but then distinguishing between the two becomes even more difficult. It is for this reason I struggle with the simplistic view of ordained ministry as synonymous with ‘leadership’. ‘Leadership’ is a task, a role. At some point you will cease to be able to function as the leader or you may find that in a particular context you are called to follow and not to lead. If you are ordained as a ‘leader’ then it means you must always lead or, otherwise, your status as ‘ordained’ must be able to be revoked when you don’t ‘lead’.

Take a hypothetical scenerio: you are ordained and you lead a church congregation. You go to a conference and are put in a group where you are being led by someone else. In this instance you are not ‘leading’ therefore are you ‘ordained’ if the definition of your status is ‘leadership’?

Ordained ministry for me is about a specific ‘way of life’. What that looks like needs to be clarified in general across the Church of England. We have fallen into a complicated situation of defining ordained ministry as so many different things that it is not any one thing; it’s subjective. The problem with it being subjective it can no longer be institutionalised and therefore anyone can say they are ordained. We have so many different forms of ordained ministry that I’m not surprised when people are dismayed when they are not selected to be ordained.

Throughout the Rule, St. Benedict distinguishes certain roles within the life of the community but establishes those roles within the way of life of the call to be a monk. The call is to be a monk and within that God may have a particular job, relatively temporary, to perform (e.g. dean, cellarer, infirmarian, etc.). The call of the abbot, however, seems to be different. In modern day Benedictine monasteries the abbot is clearly one of the monks with particular responsibilities and tasks to perform (outlined in the Rule). Here, in this chapter, it paints a picture of the abbot living a separate life to the community, welcoming guests in his own dining room.

Earlier in the Rule, St. Benedict indicated that the table was a symbolic place for communal life, it is around the table, as well as in the oratory, that the community grew. In separating the abbot from them at the dining table puts a division between the abbot and the other monks. I am glad to say that this chapter never really worked out and, in modern day monasteries it is not held to.

Reflection

It is easy to fall into the trap of setting the ordained ministers away from the people. They are to be set apart for their particular roles, which the non-ordained may not, for unspoken reasons, participate in. It is all too easy to settle for the ‘this is tradition’ argument for why only the ordained may preside at Holy Communion or why only the ordained may baptize.

Having walked the discernment process through with several people now, and having gone through it myself, I have discovered the process is far from uniform. Some are ordained for one reason which, seen in another person, is the reason they are not ordained. The deep questions of calling have become muddy to the point at which it is harder to discern the difference between ordained and non ordained ministry.

For what it’s worth, from this ordained minister, I feel a re-examination of the parish church to fit a model of monastic life may lead to a greater understanding of ordained ministry from the ministry of the people of God. The abbot is the symbol of ordained ministry and the callings and tasks of other officers in the church are valued with equal honour.

Father, I abandon myself into your hands.
Do with me whatever you will.
Whatever you may do I thank you.
I am ready for all, I accept all.
Let only your will be done in me and all your creatures.
I wish no more than this, O Lord.
Into your hands I commend my soul.
I offer it to you with all the love of my heart.
For I love you Lord and so need to give myself,
surrender myself into your hands without
reserve and with boundless confidence
for you are my Father.
Amen

Charles de Foucauld (1858–1916)

Come, Lord Jesus.

Chapter 50: brothers who work at a distance from the oratory or are traveling

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Brothers who cannot come to the oratory at the appointed hours – because of their distance labor – should say the Divine Office where they are, kneeling in fear of God.

Who do I pray with?

Part of my personal reflections as I read the Rule of St. Benedict has been on my place within the Northumbria Community. My noviciate process has been stalled for two years now and recently I have been revisiting my future of the journey with them. I called a stop to the noviciate process due to my difficulties with the dispersed nature of the community. Despite having local groups that meet to encourage living out the Rule of Life and to have fellowship with, I have never found a group local enough. As a parish minister I feel a strong connection with my geographical location, serving and praying for the people in the area I live and work. I feel I would benefit from a community who walk the Rule of Life in that location asking the question, ‘How then shall we live… here?’

I still find the Rule of Life for the Northumbria Community enriching and challenging and I find myself returning to it and wrestling with its questions. I still say the Daily Office regularly and have settled into a sustained rhythm embedded over five years. I have made annual retreats to the Mother House over the years and contribute a relational tithe to them each month. I still feel a deep connection with the Northumbria Community and value their friendship and prayers but is the season changing now?

Part of my reflections on my relationship with the dispersed community has been the question of prayer and how it connects me into the community. Each morning, lunchtime and evening when I sit down to pray the Daily Office I feel a connection with the community, mainly those praying at the Mother House in Northumberland. I think of them often, sitting in Nether Springs, preparing meals, cleaning rooms for guests, leading workshops, pausing to say those shared words that I too am saying several miles south in my parish. It is the rhythm of prayer that connects me most; connects me into the established relationship with specific people and, in a smaller way to unknown members of the community across the world.

Over time, however, I find that I think of them less as my mind turns to my more immediate community in the parish. I now consider those who sit with me in situ regularly praying the Daily Office with me. My prayer ‘home’ is no longer up in Northumberland but here in York.

I have moved.

This is significant when considering what rhythm you pray to. I am feeling less and less of a relational connection with the people in Nether Springs (the Mother House of Northumbria Community) not because I love them any less or that I don’t desire to be with them more but because my rhythm of life has had to change. The Rule still stands as root for me to return to but the Daily Office has become less of that connection than it did. I don’t pray at the same time as my fellow journeyers up in Nether Springs due to the different work days that we have. I no longer pray for the same people as I focus my prayers on the local area with the prayers of the people around me.

Where does this leave me in my relationship with the Northumbria Community?

Many would say it doesn’t matter where you are, you engage with the community when and where you like; that’s what it means to be a dispersed community.

You’re expecting too much. It is too idealistic.

Maybe that’s true but I still have a deep call to be part of an intentional community which is rooted in the monastic tradition and part of that call, for me, is about location.

Another question I have is about the alternatives. I have yet to see God leading me to start an intentional community where I am at this point in time. I will soon be moving on from current role and it would be foolish and impractical to start anything now. I have, however, sensed there is a group of people orbiting the idea of this form of community discipleship in York and there is the potential bubbling up. What that looks like, how it would work and what Sarah and my role in that is has yet to be discerned. As my mind thinks over this possibility I think less of the Northumbria Community and more about the people who seem to share a call to intentional community in York.

Having prayed for over a year now around this subject all I can say is that I feel called to be a part of a group of disciples who live and work close to one another, who live out a life of prayer, study, dialogue and worship with one another, who have a passion for reconciliation, healing and creativity. I want to explore this with people who live close to me who can share my life as I share theirs and we share the life of Christ with the world.

Reflection

Parish life lends itself to a community at prayer in and for a specific location. Each morning and each evening I pray for my geographical area, I lift their needs and questions to God on their behalf and I am privileged to share that task with a small group of others who sit with me and support me. When I am unable to meet with them I still pray, wherever I am or they are and I do not feel alone… Of course I am not alone in prayer as thousands (if not millions) of others are praying with me at the same time, they’re just not in that room with me physically and that is where my reflections return.

Where is my physical community at prayer? Where is the community who not only say prayers with me but live out the prayers with me, who know me, know my heart, challenge me, pray for me and speak God’s word into my life?

Father, you are with me and by your Spirit you pray through me. You have called me to this place with a particular vocation and ministry. Keep me faithful to your timing and rhythm. Lead me in the way of Christ and gather round me the Body of Christ that I may play my part in it.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Chapter 48: daily manual labour

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…the brothers should be occupied according to schedule in either manual labour or holy reading.

What is work?

Why is it that after time off from ‘work’, feeling refreshed and think clearer, you begin work and almost immediately feel exhausted? The phrase ‘back to the grindstone’ is so apt at these times. I am just starting back at work after a week of relaxation and rest and for some reason find myself asking,

Why can’t I find the peace of rest during my working week?

It is not sustainable nor logical, I think we can all agree, to work until you’re exhausted and empty and then recoup the lost energy only to spend it all until the next break. The constant emptying and filling puts our nerves on edge as we live at extremes. In this narrative work becomes draining and rest becomes fulfilling. We immediately start to talk about work/life balance as if work and life are separate. We see work as a means to afford to live; life happens after work.

E.F. Schumacher, in his wonderful book ‘Small is Beautiful’, describes the West’s fundamental understanding of work.

There is a universal agreement that a fundamental source of wealth is human labour. Now, the modern economist has been brought up to consider ‘labour’ or work as little more than necessary evil. From the point of view of the employer, it is in any case simply an item of cost, to be reduced to a minimum if it cannot be eliminated altogether, say, by automation. From the point of view of the workman, it is a ‘disutility’; to work is to make a sacrifice of one’s leisure and comfort, and wages are a kind of compensation for the sacrifice. Hence the ideal from the point of view of the employer is to have output without employees, and the ideal from the point of view of the employee is to have income without employment. (E.F.Schumacher, ‘Small is beautiful:a study of economics as if people mattered’ (London: Abacus, 1988) p.44-45)

I remember when I first read this section of Schumacher’s book and having an intellectual light switched on. I looked at the economic problems facing the UK at the time (and which have not gone away but got worse!) and it made sense: The government, both then and more so now, in trying to balance the books, needs more money coming in than going out and so they want to increase exports whilst cutting costs. What is the greatest cost? Wages. That is why, when money is tight people get laid off or made redundant. People are just a cost, a necessary burden. If we could work without having to pay them then we’d make more money or if we can get one person to do three people’s job then we’d make a massive saving.

Why do we need more money? So we can pay to not work?

Work is seen by the workman, i.e. those who work, as task to be done in order to be able to pay for leisure. The shared vision of work/labour is to earn money to be spent on leisure pursuits outside of work. In the current economic climate, however, people are fearful for their jobs and so, to avoid redundancy and still be able to pay top price for mortgages, cars, leisure activities which are going to make you feel that slaving away was worth it, you work harder and longer hours to show your bosses that you are willing to sacrifice more than others and therefore you have no time for leisure. Work is sacrifice! Those who sacrifice more, appease the economic ‘gods’ and so are safe for another season but the ‘gods’ are never appeased… I digress!

Schumacher goes on to suggest,

If the ideal with regard to work is to get rid of it, every method that ‘reduces the work load’ is a good thing. The most potent method, short of automation, is the so-called ‘division of labour’ and the classical example is the pin factory eulogised in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Here it is not a matter of ordinary specialisation, which mankind has practised from time immemorial, but of dividing up every complete process of production into minute parts, so that the final product can be produced at great speed without anyone having had to contribute more than a totally insignificant and, in most cases, unskilled movement of his limbs. (Schumacher, ‘Small is Beautiful’, p.45)

Here is where I have a major problem with the current governments approach to the welfare problem: it is based on this notion that we can continue to see work in the way outlined above and yet force people also to do it more and for less money. People who don’t work cost the government money and don’t pay any money into the bank. To create money and balance the books we must cut the number of people we give money away to and encourage them to give more to us. If they worked, then they’d earn money and pay tax, they’d also not need money from us to live off. Why don’t they work? Why would they work if they get the money anyway? The mantra, therefore, ‘making it pay to work’, is employed.

This is nonsense, however, when jobs are being cut and the jobs being created are so unskilled that no takes pride in what they do. People aren’t at work because they’ve been made redundant or they’ve not been trained with a skill that is valued. We cut the pay of teachers and they feel unvalued and so struggle to commit to their vocation of training our children to achieve. We cut the pay of nurses and they feel unvalued and so can feel unenthusiastic to work beyond the bare minimum (thankfully many fight this urge!)

I sit each week volunteering at a Food Bank and I hear the same stories again and again. People who are trained in one trade/skill, who have worked for years find themselves laid off because money was tight or they’re pay has been cut or is static against the raising prices and are unable to pay the essentials to live. Cheaper labour can be found and so we become wary of foreigners coming in and being willing to work for less because they’re just happy to work but we don’t want to work because work is about earning enough to enjoy life outside of work.

The other thing wrong with the mantra ‘making it pay to work’ is that it still sits within the understanding that to get someone to work the incentive is money. Money is the system of value, in other words, we judge our value in the world by how much we get paid; this is why the celebrity culture is so big, we look at them and how much money they have and we subconsciously or consciously judge them to be valued more in society. Our teenagers all want the jobs that pay more money and be famous because they are desperate to feel valued by others. When they are completely starved of that sense of value they ‘settle’ for ‘menial’ jobs and accept that they are not valued by society so why bother contributing to it. In fact, why bother even working? They say to themselves,

I will never amount to anything of value (being paid money) so I can take that value (money) without working.

I think there needs to be a change in language around work. The culture needs to change to see work as something you do to connect with other people and to develop as a human being. The major difficulty with this is that a new vision of work requires the death of the major shackle we have to the capitalist materialist view of labour: consumption.

I was not accurate when I said that we find value in how much money we have; to be more precise we find value in how much we consume and in order to consume we must pay. Advertising is driven by the need to increase consumption so that people give more money so that others can consume more so that others can consume more, etc. This is another area of our society where we are lost and broken. Is there any hope?

Grace!

This is the message of grace: Forget the system of sacrifice and trust in God who provides. God grows the plants in the field and has created food to sustain us. He gives us what we need for free in order that we might enjoy the world and life with him. In this world of grace work is another opportunity to be with God. We are called to be co-labourers with God in his world; from the very beginning we are to work alongside God not because He couldn’t do it on his own but because work is more about relationship and process than the end product. We feel fulfilled when we enjoy good relationships with others. Work within the understanding of grace is to be celebrated and enjoyed as a complimentary part of life with God and others. It is to fit equally beside prayer/worship, rest and play.

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Reading and study

There’s so much to say about work that I’ve neglected to even talk about what most of this chapter in the Rule of St. Benedict spoke on; reading!

Here study and reading is as much part of the day as prayer, work and eating. As an avid reader my heart jumps for joy to know that reading/study is marked into the day as a task that is expected to be done, so much so that someone will come round and make sure I’m doing it! The pressure I feel when I’m not ‘working’, fulfilling the expectation of those who pay me money, should equally be felt if I fail to read a book and study.

I often feel guilty when I sit down and read or study. I even feel guilty writing this blog because it is technically not part of any job description I have, but then my job description doesn’t really exist because, again that is not part of the world of grace…

Why do I feel so much pressure to be seen to be doing something? It’s because I want to know that I am valued. Our society values someone by what they do and contribute and so I must do or contribute something. This is not grace…

I feel I am indebted to others whose money goes to ‘pay my bills’ and to I am then shackled to them as a slave. What will reading and study do for them. I feel that if they pay me then I should perform my duties to them. This is not grace…

Some might say,

Other people can’t afford to not work and to spend their days reading and studying. What gives you the right to be given money by others to sit about and be lazy?

I’d challenge that. There is always time for reading and studying if you prioritise it. There is also an assumption that reading and studying has no value because not many people would pay you money to read and study. If we need to earn the right to stop generating income and ‘waste time’ participating in a task which cannot be valued then we are slaves to a world outside of grace…

Reflection

I feel guilty about my life as full-time minister. I feel the judgement of others as they look at me, in my free house, with my stipend,

Am I worth it?

Or

What differentiates me from those who don’t get this?

The problem begins when we talk of what I do as ‘work’ in the sense of what it is widely understood to be. I don’t do what I do in order to pay for leisure; I do what I do because I feel God is growing me in the tasks of this ministry. My ministry is my life not a means to a life. Every disciple should be able to say that. My worth, in the world of grace, comes not from what I do or achieve or ‘earn’ but by the unending love of God. I work not to earn value or worth but as a vehicle to experience value and worth. I work because I am blessed because it is part of the gift of life.

Take my wife as an example. She doesn’t get paid by a pay check for anything she does. In the eyes of the current society is is a sponging, work-shy slacker. She costs money to stay alive, with her food, heating, shelter and (in my wife’s case) medicine (lots of it!) What does she contribute to society? A lot. Does she generate income? No. Nothing she does adds money into the bank. She is of little value to society in this sense.

But…

She does contribute to society. She spends her days caring for others, encouraging others, giving people value outside of the purely materialistic understanding of existence. She is able to do that because she herself has received that same love and value from God as a gift in His pure grace. Without people like Sarah, the world would be a poorer place. She is my partner in ministry; it’s my name on the pay-check but it’s our money. If Sarah didn’t do what she does in the way she does it I wouldn’t be able to be the person God wants me to be in the place where he wants me.

I contemplate my life without Sarah a lot and I’m genuinely scared. How will I function without her beside me? I know, however, that what my life with her has taught me that life is a gift of grace from God that is meant to be shared with others. We must begin any understanding or study of life with the understanding of ‘grace’. God provides out of love for us and we’re called to participate in its delivery in order to draw close to him. The money I receive is not a deserved outcome of a sacrifice I have made, it is a gift to ensure I am able to live the life God has called me to. The gift comes first, the rest is a response.

Sarah lives by grace. I want to too.

The Christian community should be a place where all resources are shared, not out of duty but out of love. This means to have an attitude to all things as gift and to and to eradicate discussions of earning, sacrificing, etc. In this community reading and studying is another activity that is done; it has no less value than the creation of goods which can be sold to purchase other goods. In this community prayer is not a luxury which must be done after you have earned enough money to stop working.

I am fortunate to live the life I lead but it is a life that I invite others to live too, not because I don’t work but because work is another way I get to be with God. I am free to choose to follow God in everything I do. I share all I have with anyone who needs it. My house has been used to house others so they don’t feel the need to sacrifice life to just survive.
I share my table to help people who have none. The money that comes into my bank account each month is a generous gift from others which I pass on to others, through charity, relational gifts and blessing.

If you live in York and would be interested in living a life of grace why not get in touch and join Sarah and I in trying to work out what that looks like for us. We want to structure our lives around ‘prayer, study, dialogue and worship’ (Alan Roxburgh, Missionary Congregation, Leadership and Liminality (Harrisburg: Trinity Press, 1997) p.66).

Prayer is a life shaped around times in the presence of God establishing identity in his grace. By study I mean exploring and seeking out the truth of God where it may be found. By dialogue I mean real and deep, committed relationship with others that leads to wholeness, healing and reconciliation and by worship I mean activities which honour God, using our body and skills to communicate our love and acceptance of his grace.

Gracious Father, Thank you. Thank you for all your gifts to us. Thank you for your acceptance of us and desire to see us grow in maturity of faith. Thank you that everything in heaven and on earth is yours and of your own do we give you.

Come, Lord Jesus

Chapter 37: Old men and children

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Human nature tends to show sympathy to the aged and to children. The Rule also should make provision for them.

What is sympathy?

It would be too easy to skip past the opening of this chapter blindly accepting the statement that,

Human nature tends to show sympathy to the aged and to children.

without questioning whether we, as a society at the present moment, do show sympathy for aged and children. When pondering this question I find myself asking,

What is sympathy?

As I continue to pray for my own personal recovery from mild, stress related depression and after my public admission to suffering from this; I have received many expressions of concern and some sympathy from others. This has been nice, to some extent, but it has also not helped. The responses to my illness have fallen broadly into three categories: the first is what I might call ‘distanced concern’ and the second is ‘accepted reality’.

By ‘distanced concern’ I mean people who don’t know what it is like to feel and think like I do expressing concern that I am damaging myself and my behaviour is unknown and scary to them. This is not their fault; I don’t expect everyone to understand what I am going through and their concern is, I hope, truly genuine. It is nice to know that people want me to function and flourish; the fact they don’t know how to make that happen doesn’t belittle their desire to help. Their desire, however, stops at the point of action because they can’t help me. This is not their fault and I am not accusing them of some failure because there is none. Saying that one can get tired of expressions of concern when what you want is someone to help you. When you’re stuck down a hole there’s only so many times you can have people walking past wishing me luck in getting out,

Wow, that must be tough. I really wish I could help you up but I’m not sure how. Let me know how that works out.

The second category of responses, I want to name ‘accepted reality’. This is what I understand as sympathy; from the Greek syn (beside, to accompany) and pathos (feelings, passions). In both the Latin and the Greek, the words we use to get ‘sympathy’ have this sense of accompanying in another’s feelings. I have experienced this being manifested in worthy statements such as:

I know how that feels.

I have been through something similar to that and I know how the pressures impact me.

I too feel similar feelings to you. You’re not alone.

These are very well meaning and can help to know that you’re not alone in a situation. Again, however, there’s only so much sympathy I can take before I get tired of people sitting at the top of the hole I’m in telling me,

I’ve been down a hole before. It was a real struggle for me to get myself out. I can’t really help you except to sit and wait for the answer to become clear.

There is I feel a deeper part to sympathy which I’d like to separate from the mere accompanying aspect and I’d name that ‘empathy’. Empathy has a more intense dimension to it which is important. The difference in the root of this word is that instead of the syn (beside) it begins with en (in). There is a helpful video which distinguishes between ‘sympathy’ and ‘empathy’.

If sympathy is a ‘coming alongside someone in their emotions and feelings’, then empathy, for me is about entering into the pain of the other. To continue this analogy of the hole: if some walk past offering good will and others sit at the top of the hole to keep a suffering one company, then empathy is when someone jumps into the hole and sits in it with them. I feel guilty, however, when there is a sense of empathy shown towards me because I perceive it as them having to take the same feelings as I have in an attempt to help me but the solution to the problem is not found, we just end up sitting together bemoaning the fact we feel this with no way out.

The third response, which has been rare in my case and I continue to pray for, is what I want to call ‘transformative compassion’.

When I read the gospels and particularly the stories of when Jesus ‘had compassion’ (Mt 9:36, 14:14, 15:32, 20:34; Mk 1:41, 6:34, 8:2, 9:22-23; Lk 7:13) I’m always struck by the way in which this leads him to action, to change the situation whether that’s raising someone from the dead, feeding the hungry or healing the sick. Jesus never seems to just sympathise or empathise with suffering but his response is to act in eradicating it.

For me this ‘transformative compassion’ is something altogether different from our usual responses to other’s sufferings. The two previous responses have been different by the proximity we have with the pain; the first is at arms length, one might say objectifying and observing, the second has two stages, one close enough to hear the cries and to pay close attention but remaining separate from the pain, the next stage is to enter the life and to allow the pain to change your life. This third response continues that trajectory through the pain to the other side and it is, I would want to suggest, a purely God activity. To say it is a God activity does not, I think, excuse us from engaging in it; we are to be instruments through which God works this compassion.

I cannot pass this opportunity to remind us of the fabulous Greek word for compassion: splagchnizomai. Trying to say it gives a sense of the sense behind it. It literally means to be moved in your gut, like being punched firmly in the stomach. It means to wake you up to the severity of another’s experience and to have no other option but to stop it.

Being the kind of person I am, I cannot allow injustices to continue unchanged. My tendency is to isolate the root cause of problems and to work towards bettering the system which perpetuates them. This task is never as easy as people suggest (and most of the time it is to destroy the system altogether which is neither helpful nor Godly… I could say more but I won’t.) It is from this outlook and with the little energy I currently have that I become impatient with ‘pastoral sympathy/empathy’. It is not effective to just sit and wait for someone else to do something. I have little time to sit and tell someone that it’s ok to feel pain while someone repeatedly punches them in the face, without actually turning and stopping the other person from punching them in the face.

George Orwell, in his book ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’, articulates this well in a scene where he describes a group of ‘tramps’ being fed by a church in London with a worship service afterwards. The ‘tramps’ behave ‘in the most outrageous way’. At the end of the chapter Orwell reflects,

The scene had interested me. It was so different from the demeanour of tramps – from the abject worm-like gratitude with which they normally accept charity. The explanation, of course, was that we out-numbered the congregation and so were not afraid of them. A man receiving charity practically always hates his benefactor – it is a fixed characteristic of human nature. (George Orwell, ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ (London: Penguin Books, 2001)p.197)

He goes on to outline the need for practical action to change the circumstances and the cultural responses to the poor (which I’m afraid continues to this day!)

I say all this because St. Benedict’s use of the word ‘sympathy’, I think, moves into ‘transformative compassion’ by changing the situation for those who struggle. He does it with the sick and the wayward monks and now he does it for the elderly and the children. This is a practical response to the various needs to those who struggle with certain aspects of his Rule which does not pander or release them from obedience but encourages them to participate and move towards holiness.

Reflection

Our society has sympathy for the elderly but it is, I would suggest, a passive sadness about their welfare. Individuals are left to care for our children, sick and elderly. Loneliness is a problem, but a problem which is insurmountable and so no one engages in systematic change. The church could be a radical force for change in the way we treat the vulnerable, the sick and the elderly. Here in York there is a move for the Church, via the One Voice York network, to provide twenty or more families to foster children along with the ‘Home For Good‘ initiative. One Voice York also is looking at establishing a practical network of visiting the isolated and elderly, providing them with company and practical help. These two initiatives, for me, go some way at transferring the sympathy of most to the ‘transformative compassion’ of Christ.

Many will say that parishes already fulfil this task of visiting the elderly but it often relies on the clergy and/or a few lay people. The inclusion of the elderly and the young is the task for the whole church. It is the whole church who should, as St. Benedict outlines, not think of this care as an extra part of the life of the Church but to be woven into our approach to community life in general. This might mean having small groups adopting children and/or elderly and discovering ways in which the tasks of the community can be adapted to suit them without changing the general Rule of everyone else.

This approach requires a change in ecclesiology and eschatology of the Church which currently sees everyone as part of the Church and that you go to worship to remind you of the peace that awaits us when we die. The Church has sanctified the status quo wholesale without a need to change it. The church sympathises with the struggle and waits for the pain to stop when we die or when Christ comes again (if they think he really will!) Instead, what I am proposing is that the church is made up of those who live out the reality of the Kingdom of God which is being born amongst us and that we are ‘co-labouring’ to establish. As disciples of Christ we actively seek and work out, with fear and trembling, our healing to be transformed more and more into the like-ness of Christ, image of God. Whilst we change we are placed within the Body of Christ as part of the community of others who are likewise being changed for encouragement and support. As we seek God’s will for us our eyes are lifted to others and we learn, through the Body of Christ and later outside to the world, to love others and to seek how they can live in the joy and hope of the Kingdom which God wants to establish here on earth. This will involve, therefore, the elderly and the children as well as everyone else. The Kingdom of God will manifest itself differently with different people and we encourage it however we find it.

Heavenly Father, I thank you that you are not satisfied with the way the world is and that you are moving to change it. I thank you for the gift of your transformative Spirit and I ask that you would come in power to change me, the world and all that populate it. May your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours, now and forever. Amen.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Chapter 35: weekly kitchen service

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The brothers should wait on one another.

What’s so wrong about actions?

For the last few weeks I’ve been engaging in my reformation tradition by reading some Martin Luther and studying Lutheran Theology. It’s always important to be aware of the traditions that shape you either consciously or unconsciously and to own those thoughts or philosophies for yourself. As I’ve read Luther and touched on other Reformation Theology I’ve re-engaged with the debate over ‘justification through faith or works’. This chapter in the Rule of St. Benedict, written by a Roman Catholic monk has something to say into this debate, particularly to those of us who are suspicious about ‘works’.

I find that we protestants get overly cautious around discussions about living out our faith as in anyway necessary, as though we may slip into talk about justification through works. As a Roman Catholic convert I don’t have this hang up. I find that the Bible is clear that if we do not show, in our actions, our faith then our faith is demeaned or lessened.

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. (James 2:14-18)

I am aware that ‘justification by works’ is a particular thought that divorces our heart from our actions. Some people think that it doesn’t really matter what they believe as long as they do set rituals or actions and that makes them right before God; that the actions of a human make them righteous before God and not the actions of God Himself. The passage in James and what St. Benedict is proposing throughout his Rule says something very different: we need both faith to inform our actions and our actions to reveal our faith.

To err on the other side is to say, “I believe in Jesus and know that he died and rose again and has forgiven my sins” but then to not allow that impact one’s actions. This means that actions have no role to play in your relationship with God. This attitude has led to many ‘Christians’ acting in very odd and non-loving ways. Jesus had something very particular to say to them in the telling of the parable of the sheep and the goats.

We can talk all we like about ‘love’ and ‘hope’ as ideas but what does it mean to live these out? What actions best communicate such conceptual ideas? Our faith is established on the principle of Christ who said,

The greatest among you will be your servant. (Matthew 23:11)

The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22:25-27)

We live out love, hope, faith in actions and particularly in service of others. If we do not serve others then we are not following Christ for he said,

Servants are not greater than their master. (John 13:16)

Being a servant in a Christian community is not about being open to abuse but is a mutual understanding that service is itself the position of power. Service, for Christians, should be the expression of the right use power. We should be trying, in Christian communities, to out-serve one another and rejoicing in the service of others as they act out the character of Christ the Servant King.

In this chapter St. Benedict repaints the picture of Jesus washing his disciples feet. This event must be seen as a modelling of correct behaviour and action within the Christian community. The washing of the feet is, in my eyes, just as important as the Last Supper that follows. To ‘do this in remembrance’ must also be connected with foot washing as it does to the Eucharist. Part of this scene in John’s gospel is Jesus’ exchange with Peter who refuses Christ’s service to him. Jesus rebukes Peter and says that he must allow Jesus to serve him or it’s tantamount to saying he doesn’t want to be in relationship with Jesus. We must never refuse the service of others, freely given and, therefore, freely received. Our actions are, despite what we would like to believe, reciprocal as we enter into the Kingdom of the free exchange of gift from one to another, no one being able to keep a record but trusting that all should give and all receive in abundance.

We must be careful, however, that we do not just perform the servant task but that the action flows out from the correct heart and understanding, by faith, of who Christ is. Our discipleship should lead us to serve others in love not as a duty but as natural response of thankfulness for Christ and who he is and what he did. We should, as well, be encouraging people to grow in their faith so that they can learn how to express that through loving service but we must also direct others and ourselves to ensure that all service is done from a place of faith.

That is why prayer is placed again at the heart of this, clearly sacramental, part of the life of the monastery. Before you begin the task you pray, three times, in front of others,

O God, come to my assistance. O Lord, make haste to help me. (Psalm 70:1)

It is why at the end of your time of service you pray, again, three times, in front of others,

Blessed are You, O Lord God, who did help me and console me. (Psalm 86:17)

These prayers should place God at the forefront of our minds as we do them. We ask that we would meet Christ in those that we serve and to know Christ knelt with us as we serve. We seek to recognise that we serve because Christ serves and we follow him.

Reflection

The life of discipleship is a total experience. What I mean is that it should impact every aspect of your being; physical as well as emotional and spiritual. We cannot divorce our humanity from our spirituality. If we say in our hearts, “Jesus is Lord” but do not clothe the naked, feed the hungry, look after the poor then we lie to ourselves and others. On the other hand,

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

Parish ministry continues to show me the many different ways we all struggle to walk the narrow path of Christ. We all fall short and all have our own blindness in our discipleship that is why we need to commit to one another in obedience and faithfulness to practising the art of becoming Christ-like, in heart and action.

Do we require too little of those who see themselves as part of the Church? I don’t mean in terms of time of service but rather requiring a Christ-like discipleship to root all ministry. I see too many churches happily encouraging voluntarily action of their church-goers but where do we require a mature faith to be at the heart of a desire to serve? Church-goers can continue to be physically part of a community and become active members of congregations without their faith being deepened or even properly started. We busy the people who turn up to our churches to get them involved but we rarely ask whether their hearts are in the right place. This then leads to PCC’s and committees being populated with people who have little faith or experience in the transformative power of Christ and the decisions of the Church become worldly rather than that of the Kingdom of God. There are people who do not have a relationship with God that informs all their choices. They look to worldy wisdom before Godly wisdom.

Loving Father of us all, thank you for coming in the form of a servant and leading us to right thinking and right action. Thank you for the model of Jesus who became in very nature a slave and humbled himself even to the point of death. Teach and lead us all to follow in his footsteps the way of the cross, narrow as it is.

Come, Lord Jesus.