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Easter in Moscow

I’ve been in Russia at Easter three times, and I’m thankful for the experience of a Russian Orthodox Easter.  I’m thankful for the mysterious pageantry of the Easter vigil, the priests in their gold and white robes, engaged in a thurible dance, censing the thronging congregation against a background of icons, crying out apparently at random, ‘Khristos voskres!’ and evoking the joyful reply ‘Voistinna voskres!’

I’m thankful for the richness and depth the experience of processing around the outside of a lit Orthodox church building, carrying candles in the snowy dark, declaring to anyone who would listen that ‘Christ is risen!’  ‘He is risen indeed!’ I’m thankful for the liberally sprinkled water on Easter morning, the kulich cakes, the painted wooden eggs, and the opportunity I had one year on Iona at Easter to read the gospel in Russian at the Easter Sunday service, and say a Russian grace at lunch.  I’m grateful for the way this has connected me at this very special time of year with a different Christian culture and by extension with Christian cultures across the world, and in particular to a vision of God that is awe-inspiring, mystical, beyond our human understanding.

Elsewhere in Moscow the ex-patriot community met in the British Embassy for a service led by the Church of England priest stationed there, and I’m thankful to him and his team for the cultural home they provided for believers from the UK and other English-speaking parts of the world (me included occasionally).

After leaving Moscow at short notice, I worshipped at St Aldate’s in Oxford for three months, then at St Thomas’ Crookes for a short while.  Thanks to Mark Stibbe, whom God used to call me back to a former level of commitment, grown weak in my travels abroad.  Thanks to Mark too for inspiring me to think for the first time, as he led an interactive all-age service, ‘I could do that’….  I had preached on occasion before, but this was the first sense that I could ever be a vicar.  I remember thinking ‘I’d have to know God better and be more convinced than I am now if I were going to throw my hat completely in that ring!’  Thank you, Lord, for meeting me and revealing yourself to me.


Falling from thankfulness

Re-reading yesterday’s post today I realise how quickly I slipped out of ‘thankful’ mode into ‘appraisal’ mode.  Thursday’s post was a ‘thank you’ letter, that came from a place of gratitude and shone a light on the people who had given their time and effort to serve me.  Friday’s post was more of an appraisal, coming from a place of evaluation, revealing the attitude of a consumer reviewing the products she had purchased.

So I want to put that right if I can.

Here’s a heartfelt thanks to everyone at Bearpark for welcoming me into their community, and teaching me about ministry in the hard places; here’s a heartfelt thanks to all the permanent congregation and staff at St Nick’s, for letting this uncommitted student participate irregularly in the ongoing life and worship of the church without contributing beyond joining in the hymns;  here’s a heartfelt thanks to the staff and particularly the Youth for Christ team at Tubingen Baptist Church and Barbara Black, who ensured there was somewhere I could continue to grow in faith while a long way from home; here’s a heartfelt thanks to the team of Russian Baptists who had the courage to witness to the gospel in the face of ideological opposition; here’s a heartfelt thanks to the priests of the Russian Orthodox Church who kept the rumour of God alive in an atheist nation.

Thank you, anyone who reads this, for a second chance at getting this piece right.

More of the Russian Orthodox Church tomorrow!

Falling in love with the Anglicans

Durham saw me falling in love with the Anglicans.  At university I volunteered to help out in a church in an ex-mining village a few miles away from the monumental beauty of Durham Cathedral, where I matriculated amongst the hoards of other students and the decorated Romanesque pillars.

Armed with a deal of prejudice against the worshippers who ‘said the same thing to God every week in their services’ and therefore must be lesser believers than the Methodists who prayed in a ‘make-it-up-as-you-go’ kind of way, I found myself wooed by the poetic repetition of phrases such as ‘you alone are holy; you alone are the Lord; you alone are the most High’, and surprised myself praising God to the words of the Gloria as I made my way to and from lectures under canopies of chestnut leaves.

I went to Bearpark to support Gillian, a Deaconess at the time (now a priest) in leading the Children’s Church.  The scruffy Wearsider children robed to sing in the choir, and I learned about the Eucharist, processing, albs, writing out your (10-minute) sermon word for word, and calling the vicar ‘Father’.  Like the children, the albs were scruffy too – in contrast to the clean crisply ironed cassock surplice and stole worn by Michael Wilcock and David Day, the memorable figures at St Nicholas’ Church in Durham, where I would sometimes head off on a Sunday evening if I hadn’t had enough of worship that day…

David Day had an extraordinary preaching gift.  He was insightful, measured in his way of speaking, but with the occasional flash of dry humour that paid you to stay awake even in the warm, dusk light of a full church.

I ought not to miss out the ministrations of the Christian Union at Durham, or the Baptist Church in Tubingen I attended on my year abroad, or the registered Baptist Church services in Moscow which held out a witness to Christ in atheist Soviet Russia.  A small group of us occasionally crept in to those services after they had started to join in the plaintive singing of Russian hymns, feeling out of place and a little anxious at doing something that seemed risky.  Occasionally we’d wander through Orthodox services (generally not joining the bent old ladies swathed in colourful headscarves venerating icons or lighting spindly candles in supplication).

Since then I have worshipped almost exclusively in Anglican churches.  I still have a love for the Methodist Church, but haven’t worshipped regularly with my Methodist brothers and sisters since leaving home.  The double dose of Anglican Sunday worship through four years of Durham life, in two very distinctive traditions, hooked me in.  The richness of the words?  The greater visual impact of stained glass windows, colourful fabrics, robes?  The confidence of continuity?  The theological breadth?  I don’t know what won me over, exactly.  But here I am.  Having benefited hugely from its heritage.

Thank you, Lord, for all the people over all those years who were faithful to their calling, and helped me to begin to be faithful to mine.

Thank you for the churches

Lest I should seem ungrateful for all that the Church in its various shapes, sizes, flavours and locations has given me, here’s a ‘thank you’ letter to all the churches that created spaces where over the years I have met with God….  It might run to two (or three or four) posts….

Thank you to Bromborough Methodist Church and all the wise, kind and child-friendly people who ran the Sunday School, taught us to sing ‘Tell me the stories of Jesus’, made me proud of being in the JAM (Jesus and me) Club, and where God first seemed like someone who might ask a huge challenge of me, something worth committing my life to.  Thanks for the image I still hold of the buxom Methodist lay preacher hanging out of the pulpit high above, who imprinted on my early consciousness the possibility of women in church leadership; and to the sense of belonging I and my family got from our circle of friends in the church.

Thanks to all the Methodist chapels on the Isle of Man where I sat on anniversary benches during our family holidays with my grandparents and various other aunts and uncles looking on…  the sense of exoticism from the high excitement of the day, of being part of a collective enterprise, and something bigger than myself.  For the rousing Wesleyan hymns, the haunting ‘Manx Evening Fisherman’s Hymn’, the Boys’ Brigade anthem ‘Will your anchor hold?’ and the Sunday evening brass band services in the Sea Terminal as the Steam Packet boats landed their passengers in the warm sunshine.

Thanks to Dave, Joan and Graham at Onchan Methodist Church for supporting a young teenager through a change of school and environment, and for the opportunities at Ballakilpheric Chapel to lead Sunday School groups, teach 3 and 4 year olds the stories I’d learned… to play my guitar and grow in leadership responsibility, make friends with adults, and be part of a community independent of my parents.  And thanks to the folk at the Darragh, offering their upstairs room to a motley crew of young people every Saturday evening to study the Bible, worship and pray.

Thank you to all of them, and to God for his goodness.  This was just the first 18 years!

Carry-on church

I don’t mean ‘Carry On Church’ as in the slapstick films of the 1960s and 70s, although that’s a thought to conjure with…

I mean ‘carry-on church’ as in ‘carry-on luggage’ – the only luggage you’re encouraged to take now if you fly with a budget airline.  My mum arrived for her last weekend visit with – literally – a fat pink leather handbag containing everything she needed for her stay!

If the institutional church (let’s say, the Church of England!) were an item of luggage it would probably be a trunk.  A handsome, well-crafted, well-travelled trunk with a distinguished pedigree of ownership.  Heavy, needing at least two people to carry it, and a bit battered with use.  Full of treasure, but unwieldy and not well designed for flying Easyjet.

Many things in our lives now are scaled down…  Computers are small enough to fit on your wristwatch.  Music systems are the size of an iPod.  So my question is:  what would a ‘carry-on church’ look like?  If it were going to be simple, portable, and fit-for-purpose in a modern society, what could it do without?  And what would have to be included?

Your thoughts are welcome.  So are other metaphors!

Church made for (hu)man(ity)

I heard that a friend has taken up sleeping for Lent.  She read that sleep is a form of worship because when we sleep we acknowledge God is in control and can manage without us.  It’s an expression of our trust in God.

I’ve been thinking recently about the time Jesus was told off for letting his disciples pull ears of corn from wheat in a wheatfield on the Sabbath.  Jesus said to the Jewish leaders, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.’  In other words, the way God has structured time is for man’s benefit and wellbeing.  It’s not the other way round – that the Sabbath was set up as some sort of eternal abstract structure that people had to align themselves with regardless of their human needs.  Humans didn’t have to keep the Sabbath day at any cost to themselves…it was meant to be a blessing.  A blessing of rest.

I often think of this account in respect of the church.  A woman recovering from depression said to me the other day, ‘I want church to be a sanctuary, not somewhere that’s constantly making demands on your small reserves of energy and time.’

While I endorse the principle that Christians are called to a life of service and discipleship exercised within the body of the church, I felt sympathy with my friend’s comment.  It can feel at times as if people have been ‘made for the church’.  The church is an eternal necessity, and humanity has to lay aside its needs to ensure it continues.

There is a sense in which this is true; we do need to lay aside our needs to ensure the church continues…  to share faith in a way that is appropriate to the context among people who haven’t heard it, even if it’s at great cost to ourselves.  But it can seem as if some church people have got caught up (often without realising it) in keeping an increasingly resource-hungry church fed with volunteers and cash.  And when they’re heard to complain about the shortfall in congregation time or money, we might imagine Jesus saying, ‘The church was made for people, not people for the church.’

And that sets us the intriguing challenge of re-shaping church so it serves people  for the sake of the gospel, rather than recruiting people to preserve the church in a way that risks their own sense of shalom.

Name dropping

I’m a great fan of just dropping Godstuff into the conversation.  If God is part of your mental wallpaper, and you’re the sort of person who allows a stream of consciousness out of your mouth, then God will occasionally appear in the script as a matter of course.  ‘I wonder which side God was on in the Brexit debate?’  ‘I was just chatting to God while I was gardening on Friday….’  ‘God gave me a nudge about phoning xxxx in church on Sunday.’

These phrases are inoffensive.  They might make us look a bit eccentric, but no one could say you were shoving anything down their throats, because this kind of language isn’t intended to persuade or convert. It doesn’t even ask for a response.  But it does make God visible in the world, and possible.  And it allows your interlocutor (the person you’re talking to!) to respond at a number of different levels.

They could ignore what you say and dismiss it.  They could file away what you’ve said in their memories and compile a picture of the God you worship over time. They could joke with you or tease you – refuse to take your relationship with God seriously, but show their acceptance of you by making light of it and diffusing tension.  Or they could pick up on what you say and engage with it in some way – with curiousity or aggression or agreement.

Whilst there may be policies that make it inadvisable to  share our faith or intentionally speak of God in certain areas of society, there is no law against casually sharing one’s own reality with someone else.  It’s good practice for us, so we don’t find ourselves colluding with the secular spirit in our workplaces and leisure circles and sometimes our families.  And it’s a way of signalling that we’re happy to talk about our faith if anyone is insterested in finding out more.  You’d be surprised how many people don’t ask Christians questions about their faith because they assume they’ll cause offence.  Here in Britain we don’t talk about politics or religion!  So an interested party would be worried about embarrassing us by asking about our faith. If we’re chattering about it freely ourselves, they’ll know we’re open to be questioned.

…he humbled himself…

I was at an event today, a conversation about ‘Living the story.  Telling the story.’  One of the people in the conversation asked, ‘Do people out there really want to hear the story of Jesus?  Do they want the message we have to give?’

Obviously that raises the question of what our message is, and I’ll have a go at dealing with that at some point.  But I think the questioner had had experience of rejection when sharing the message….and was tempted to put the blame for this at the unbeliever’s door.  Of course I don’t know the circumstances.  But I do come across it quite often – a slight repressed anger at someone who hasn’t responded to the gospel in the way we might hope.

Earlier in the day I preached from the Parable of the Sower.  And it’s clear in that account that some people don’t want the message, or can’t hear it at the moment.  But some definitely do want to hear it.  And if you ask, ‘Do people want to know they are unconditionally, profoundly, eternally loved?’  or ‘Do people want to know everything they’ve done wrong has been forgiven and forgotten?’ or ‘Do people want to know the foundational peace of being connected with the one who created the heavens and the earth?’ the answer must be, ‘OF COURSE they do!’

And if the uptake of our message is lower than we’d like, when the content of the message is so amazing, shouldn’t we be asking what we’re doing wrong?  Or even better, shouldn’t we be asking the people we’re sharing the message with what we need to do to be heard?

I wonder when you last asked a friend or colleague who’s a non-church-goer to help you tell your story in a way they could hear it?  Have you ever asked what would really make a difference to them?  It might be something you’ve got no control over – like the sexuality debate or the Crusades – but it might be something you could do something about.  Maybe you use jargon that people don’t understand.  Maybe you don’t ask enough questions to find out what your conversation partner is really asking.  Maybe your actions and way of life undermine your words.

With the best intentions, and out of a desire for God’s glory, and sure of the truth of the gospel, we can still come across as complacent, deaf, or even arrogant.

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And yet, Jesus, being in very nature God….  humbled himself….  and invested huge amounts of time and effort learning to speak the language of the locals, explained patiently in a myriad of different ways the mystery of his Father’s kingdom, lived a life completely aligned with his teaching, and gave up that life as the last thing he could do to open our eyes to his love.

Sharing our faith is a long-term, whole-life, costly commitment that demands humility, empathy, and imagination, not just an occasional conversation.  Are we in it for the long haul?

With thanks to @jonbirch for ASBO Jesus cartoon

Joining in

Just a brief post today:  how do you discern what the Holy Spirit is doing so you can join in?

Here are three possible signs (not the only ones – you’ll have your own):

  1. Where have a number of different people had the same sort of idea about something?  This comes about because they are all like springs of water bubbling up from the same Source.
  2. Where can you detect something morally beautiful happening?  Selflessness, or compassion, or a deep sense of connectedness, or redressing a case of injustice?
  3. When do plans come together easily?  Teams assemble without needing to persuade people to join in, money is found, potential partners or punters say ‘Yes’.

These are all positive signs that God is at work, and when you see them, it is worth joining in.


The institution, evangelism and the Holy Spirit

The concept of evangelism seems to flow from the anxiety of the institutional church to increase its numbers by infecting more people with faith.  I don’t mean to suggest that people who love and serve God through a recognised role in the institutional church don’t have a natural instinct to want to share Jesus, or enable others to experience his life-transforming presence.  But evangelism is a word that describes a formalised process of faith-sharing.  It is almost an institutionalised process, with resources and techniques and strategies and courses.  These can be helpful.  But it does seem to place the onus for the task of making God known on the individual person, or on the church as an institution.  It leaves very little room for the extraordinary, constant, powerful, independent, infectious action of the Holy Spirit.

I met today with a group of young(ish!) people whose lives are animated by the Holy Spirit.  Their ministries are based on the principle of discerning what the Holy Spirit is doing – in the world and in their own lives – and joining in.  It is this marrying together of what they see the Holy Spirit doing in the world and feel him doing in their hearts that leads to the sense of call, often to do unconventional things. Things the institutional church doesn’t understand.

They are convinced of the reality of God at work in every sphere of society in the lives of people who wouldn’t think of church as a place to go for peace, comfort, help or salvation.  They want to be out there amongst them, listening, questioning, empowering, supporting, signposting, comforting, praying, creating beauty and offering sanctuary.  In and through all that Holy Spirit-fuelled activity, Jesus will be known.  And people will be infected by the life of Jesus through their rootedness in God.

When we’re joining in with what God is already up to, faith can jump from one person to another entirely without words.  Jesus is catching.  Count on it.