Monday, 15 August 2016

Roland Walls: In the world, but not of the world...

That distillation of the lines from the gospel of John, chapter 17, that disciples of Christ are in the world, but do not belong to the world, is a constant challenge to Christians today.

I have just (a few moments ago) finished reading "Mole Under the Fence", a series of conversations with Roland Walls.  Roland died a few years ago, after a remarkable life, especially centred on his time in the Community of the Transfiguration at Roslin.  He was a priest, a monk (effectively), a sharp and self-deprecating man who had Christ at the centre of his life.  I never met him, but a retired colleague of mine did, and lent me the book. 

Image from Northumbria Community

Roland lived a life of poverty, and always seemed to be at the edge of things.  He turned down an academic career in the Church of England, and lived life in that (ecclesiastically) strange country: Scotland.  He also "swam the Tiber", converting to Roman Catholicism, but in a rather Newman-like way, because that is how he and community were taken, rather than the angst-laden protest conversion that one hears and sees these days (usually about women in ministry).

Why am I blogging about him?  Because he has immensely challenged me.

He talks of Christians taking on the powerlessness and insignificance of Jesus on the Cross, rather than hanging onto the coat-tails of Christendom (I grossly, grossly paraphrase much of what he says).  He pretty much rejects institutional models of church (although has such immense and complete faith in church as a place where people ought to be able to encounter God).  He is rather non-plussed and embarrassed when people do NOT encounter God in churches.  The eucharistic encounter is central to him - to meet the Trinity (love defined and defining) in the simplicity and complexity of that uniting and dividing mystery.  And that's not even starting to scratch his views on justice, liberation theology, the social gospel, the Iona Community principles - the things that spill out when you do, really, meet God.

And I am immensely challenged.  I am married, and have a family to (now) get through University.  I am not free to drop everything and join the crucified human and divine saviour in a place of emptiness and poverty. I am part of an institutional machinery (in church, and even in a secular, state way) that rumbles on, in a more-or-less well oiled state. It measures success by growth and stability and influence and titles and even (God help us) the clothes we wear.  And I can be immensely fed by all that. Isn't it great to be part of something good and shiny and visibly successful (I hesitated over that word - what word is right?  The sense of being "in", of being "approved", of being "favoured"?)

But Roland challenges us all where we are, I hope and pray.  I am trapped, just as he was trapped by the poverty of his community and de-skilling of any form of institutional ministry by the community's rule.  I am trapped (very willingly) by family, by church, by duty - but in that state of being trapped, I can work (I hope and pray) to help others to encounter God in the communities which I serve.  I am human enough to feel my ego and pride being fed when things are grand: but I can try to be human enough to keep looking for the cross, and the broken garbage nailed there to remind us where and how we are actually invited to meet God.

We are in the world, and the world's "stuff": church, state, society, success, failure - it is all around us.. But I pray that we will not be of the world, defining ourselves by all that "stuff".  We are defined by the brokenness of the cross, meeting the delightfully and bewilderingly complex and simple Trinity of God in bread and wine. 

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

In the world...

Around a couple of corners from the island church is Mac's Bar, over the road from the castle.  It's a pretty regular small Scottish town bar, and you get a bit of a craich and a laugh if you wander in with a dog collar on. Which I do a few times a year.  It's not my local: if you peel away a few layers of things and church encounters (mainly not that good) and some real human experience, you get a bar that provides the altar wine for every eucharist in the small island church.  It's a point of encounter, not a great state secret (as far as I am aware anyway!) and a piece of connection between past and present, the world and the church.  It may look like a carrier bag with some altar wine, but it feels like an encounter between humanity and God...

Monday, 29 February 2016

Obstacles to the gospel...

I pulled together a Facebook page for the church I serve on the Isle of Bute: St Paul's.  All fair enough, the sort of thing that a modern church should be doing to communicate its life and interests. It's a shop window to the world about the life and mission of Christ's body in every context.

I grabbed a quick shot of the church to start as a profile picture (some more 'peoply' ones will replace it soon) - but there was quite a response to the image as it was published.


After some years at St Paul's, I don't see the "No Entry" sign placed at the bottom of "Deanhood" Place. But when you see that picture, it just screams at you. A church with a "No Entry" sign at the door! How ridiculous is that!

For the Facebook page, easily remedied:


God (or Photoshop) can work in mysterious ways to overcome such problems.

But in real life, the sign is there. Maybe not a big deal, as you genuinely don't really see it as you walk by (I assume...).  But what might it represent? What are the obstacles, the "No Entry" signs that we put up to stop people joining our church communities?

Well, we might stop judging them and rejecting them. Or even just implying that this might be the case.  ALL are welcome. We need to persuade all people, especially marginalised, afraid, broken people that they are welcome to come and make our churches untidy and ragged.

We must effectively advertise our services, events and overall life. Webpages, Facebook pages, a new, fresh up to date noticeboard would do the trick.

If someone is determined enough to beat external obstacles and they actually walk through the door (that can be intimidating - can the door be easier to open, or glass?), we could try making the worship accessible to them. That doesn't mean a change of genre or style or dumbing anything down - but do your worship well and make allowances for anyone new. A little explanation. Some friendly guidance through a liturgy. A "pal" to sit alongside and help out.  But not swamping. No rotas, or elements, or anything like that as you walk through door. Be friendly.  Be kind.  Give time. Give space.  So many little bits and pieces.

There's a much longer set of posts here - and nothing here is very new. There have been initiatives galore at making churches more welcoming and removing the obstacles to people coming to see.

But we can still be surprised when, after years, we once again see the "No Entry" sign that we have completely forgotten was there all along.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Preparing for Lent...

We are on the cusp of the next Penitential season starting - Ash Wednesday this week is the start of Lent.

I find Lent a wonderfully bleak journey (deliberately so) - although one has to work to make a season like this as sparse as it should be, given everything is quite as busy and lively as it seems to be.


The wilderness (where Jesus goes to spend his 40 days and 40 nights) is supposed to be a desert, from the middle eastern setting of the tale.  Here in Scotland do we find wilderness in the sea, sky, islands? On the later winter sparseness of the scenery (like the beach earlier this week on Bute)?

Or do we find the wilderness in ourselves, in our hardness of heart, in the lack of time to focus on others with the grace and love that they really deserve, that God would wish them to have.

Lenten observance - prayer, reflection, space - that is creating a wilderness in the space and structure of our lives to focus on God, on our own shortcomings, on where grace is actually to be found.

Sparseness, silence, wilderness. Lent is a season of all these things.  A journey with and towards God. An uncomfortable journey, but a journey that can lead us into a deeper, richer relationship with God.

Lent.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Advent...

Roughly half way through our season of Advent 2015, and I am pausing for a day away from the charge and other clerical.church time.

Some time to have a glance down the feeds of many other people's social media.  Social media can be a useful but sometimes harsh lens through which to view the season.

I love the blogs and series and posts that many of my colleagues are posting through Advent. Pictures, poems, reflections, words-of-the-day.  All looks great. I can mostly fight down the twinge that I should be doing a bit better at that sort of thing...

I love the sharing of the carol services (a healthy mixture of Advent & Christmas carols), the school nativities (traditional, modernised, surreal), the parties and social events (not many clergy at those, yet) and all the rest of the build up that this time, from the end of November to the 25th of December brings.

In my own charges the preparations follow a pretty familiar pattern - extra worship, a different eucharistic prayer with a slightly hard rhythm, particular choice of hymns, a special discipleship group...  For the sixth time in these charges (still early days) there is now a familiarity about the Advent journey.  A few things have changed - participants, staff, details - but broadly the Advent experience is familiar.

Is that a good thing?

Should Advent feel familiar, year on year?  How do we re-capture the freshness and excitement of what it is all rooted in, the realisation of the coming of the saviour? What new thing can we do, what new innovation can we find to re-capture the newness of Advent?

Or does the very familiarity of waiting (again) for a saviour, actually capture the centuries of waiting that had passed before the birth of Jesus?  The cycles of the Jewish calendar and festivals, the celebration of a long-lost-reality of a Passover. The cycles of conquest and despair, followed by hope and (partial) restoration.

And does the the very familiarity of waiting (again) for a saviour, actually capture the centuries of Christians waiting for it to happen again, puzzling about the words that Jesus said to them: 'Some of those here present will not have died before the end times come...'?

Waiting is a very human occupation. We wait, from the moment we are born.  We wait for our life on earth to end.  And we need to fill that waiting with something - life, love, relationships, cures for cancer, an end to wars, universal acceptance of all humanity.  It stops one getting bored, to have something to do while we wait.

A pause in the Advent waiting.  A time to reflect.  To wait for the Advent waiting to start again, tomorrow...

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Strangers in a strange land

The oblique reference to a passage in Exodus, and direct reference to the Robert Heinlein science fiction novel are rather relevant to aspects of church life here at the moment.

The island of Bute will receive some Syrian refugee families in the next little while, refugees fleeing unimaginable (for us) horrors of the conflict in their country. This part of their journey may have started from a camp like the one above (photo Al-Jazeera). Their destination is a smallish Scottish island with a smallish Scottish town on it.  The people of that town are working to produce a welcome for their new arrivals – in a carefully managed, subtle, aware style.  Some of the press are trying to make a rather more negative story of it, but the overall story is one of goodwill and a preparedness to welcome these strangers to our strange land. 

And it will be very strange – a cold and wet place, compared to Syria. A place where people speak English, often so quickly and with such a broad accent that even other Scots cannot understand them. A place where the customs, traditions, common ideas and conflicts are very particular and local.  So, many prayers and much hard work ahead to welcome and help them prepare to integrate into Rothesay society.  To allow these people to valued and loved and accepted is an enormous gift that we have to offer.

I have been here (Bute and Cowal, the neighbouring peninsula) as a minister for about 5 and one half years now – and I still have quite a feeling of being a stranger in this strange land.  I am a Scot, but with many more years of living on the east coast of the country and having a centre of gravity over there. The west coast can seem a strange and alien land. My wife is a west coaster – well, a south-west coaster – but it can still all seem a little strange. As a professional church minister, the hard line drawn between catholic and protestants seems to wiggle somewhat as it passes through the Episcopal Church – all rather strange for this strange land.  Even the strange land of ministry as one career – over ten years now, counting my full-time training at college, is a sometimes peculiar place in which to live.

So the Syrians? Will be welcomed as best as can be managed. Volunteers and others will rally round and support as appropriate, and leave well alone as appropriate. Their stories may unfold as we get to know them.  Their status as official refugees rather than asylum seekers means they arrive here with as stable and safe status.  There is a lot of misinformation and rumour about.  These are people who need our help. As Christians, this is clear from all we believe and try to live out. As human beings this must be done and will be done.


And we will welcome these strangers into this strange land.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Convalescence

Being unwell is not something I have much experience with, partly due to (relative) youth and maybe a certain bloodymindedness about struggling on with colds. No days off.

Until last week.

After about two years of getting round to it, I finally arranged a minor nose op, to help me breathe, taste etc.  No problem, really. Except for the general anaesthetic and best part of a week off work. I was whacked out by it, much to my (male) surprise.

It was the first time I have ever (yes, ever) been to a hospital as a consumer, other than when I had an outpatient's appointment for verrucae as a 12 year old. Those went away by themselves.

But this time, feeling a bit ill, a bit tired, a bit vulnerable.

It has been rather a useful exercise in the vulnerability that we all much accept is being human. Even now, two weeks on, I am still a little bit more tired than usual, as I immerse myself in funerals, synod agenda, vacancy worship rotas.

But we are all human and we are all vulnerable...