A beautiful failure

22 11 2011

20111122-172653.jpgIt has been two years since the congregation formerly known as St Luke’s in Somerstown (in the heart of Portsmouth) moved out of its building and began gathering instead in one of the nearby tower blocks. On Advent Sunday in 2009, with the Bishop’s permission, we ceased Sunday services and opened instead what we have called the Sunday Sanctuary. This wasn’t simply the relocation of our services to another place. We went right back to almost nothing. We had breakfast together and invited residents of the tower block (mainly young families) to join us. We imagined that the typical encounter would involve a bite to eat, a chat and maybe something a bit hands on and – with a light touch – spiritual. Maybe people would stop for 20 minutes or so.

We had no idea whether anyone would come. But come they did. And those who came did not come for a brief visit. They came in the moment we opened the doors each week, stayed with us all morning and before long, unbidden, got stuck in with clearing up at the end of the morning. This very different sort of engagement than we had imagined meant we very quickly had to give the morning more structure and shape. It threw us back on the liturgy. What we do together now has the skeleton of an Anglican Eucharist – we gather over breakfast; we set aside all that we regret from the past week; we collect our thoughts and prayers; we share a story and reflect together on its meaning for us today; we look out to the needs of those around us and the wider world; we give thanks; we share bread and grape juice and we ask God’s blessing as we go on. Though the flesh on the bones might not be so immediately familiar, there is a family resemblance with our sister churches in the Church of England.

As I reflect on the past two years, and what we’ve learnt together, I am bound to ask: has it been a success?

That, of course, depends on what you mean by success. I think we set out on this journey with a little bit of a Field of Dreams mentality: ‘if you build it, they will come’. (That’s a misquote I know but I hope you’ll excuse a little creative license there.) I think we set out with the idea that if we changed what we do together; changed where we do it and changed who we invited to come, that we would make some sort of breakthrough in Somerstown and in particular in the block of flats (Wilmcote House) to which we had relocated.

In those terms, the Sunday Sanctuary has failed.

We have failed to make a big breakthrough in Wilmcote House or in Somerstown. We have engaged with a small number of families in the block, some who have stayed with us and others who have moved on after a little while. But most of the young families in the block pretty much ignore us.

Maybe our ‘offer’ is wrong. We insist on children coming with at least one grown up. We are running a family gathering in a place and at a time when a significant number of parents just want their kids out of the way or off their hands. We had a suspicion from the outset that a kids’ club would be overwhelmed. We had neither the people nor the resources to sustain something like that. So we set ourselves the parameter of barring unaccompanied primary- and pre-school age children at the very beginning. That has proved very difficult at times. I have hated having to turn away kids that are desperate to come in.

But even more fundamentally, I think, the biggest flaw in our thinking is that we were still ultimately operating an attractional model of mission. We were still creating an event that we expected people to come to. We made it as easy as possible for people to come – especially by moving ourselves much closer to where they live. But it still relies on people responding to an invitation from strangers to come to an event they know little about.

So though we took a massive step out of our comfort zone, I still don’t think we fully inhabited Jesus’s radical sending of his disciples to be guests, reliant on the hospitality of others in hostile territory.

As an initiative, then, in terms of measurable outcomes, it has failed.

But what a beautiful failure.

I write this a couple of days after we baptised five members of our community. Of those (four children and one adult), only one came from a family that I think would have explicitly defined themselves as Christians a couple of years ago. And as I write this I am looking forward to seeing six more members of our community confirmed at the cathedral. People whose connection to Christian faith has been very basic and tenuous have discovered a lively faith for themselves.

We have grown in numbers in a small way. We’ve also lost some more longstanding Christians. Some were not able to cope with being so far out of their comfort. Others have simply relocated. So we are not much bigger.

That is so often the measure by which people – consciously or otherwise – judge whether something has been a success. I hinted at it myself earlier by talking about a ‘big’ breakthrough. And on those terms, we have just about stayed steady. We have failed to achieve numerical growth.

But our growth in depth has been marked. Those longstanding Christians who have been able to stick with it have grown in faith as they’ve engaged with new people in an unfamiliar setting. Newer members who had only the most nominal faith have reached a point where they are making a public commitment to live as a Christian. We’ve all grown in the breadth of our spiritual experience as we’ve moved closer to becoming united with our sister parish of St Peter’s.

But above all we’ve grown in the depth of our relationships. The newer members aren’t people who’ve joined us any longer. They are us. We have become one family.

There are lots of things we’ve learnt through this whole experience.

First, I think we’ve been reminded of something we already knew, even explicitly remarked upon. People in this place don’t come to stuff. It’s not a matter of tweaking our event to get it just right and then people will come. They won’t. They’re not interested. They don’t care what we have to say. Maybe we could cast our net a bit wider (leaflet all the tower blocks instead of just one) and maybe we’d get one or two more families like the lovely ones who found their way to us and became part of us. We will probably do that. But the fundamental and stark reality still holds. If we build it, they will not come.

Second, we can’t look to the handful of local families who are part of our community to reach their neighbours all by themselves. That’s because they are not the hard to reach, troubled families. Those who have joined us are really nice, together people. If that sounds judgemental on the rest of the families around, I’m sorry. But most of us know what we mean by ‘nice’ people. These are they. Sunday Sanctuary really was a sanctuary for them from the troubles and menace around them. It would take incredible courage, confidence and faith for these brand new Christians to reach out to the most challenging of their neighbours.

Third, that means this is no ‘hit and run’ sort of ministry for me. The idea I started out with that I could spend about three years here and, during that time, get something off the ground, train up local leaders and then move on to the next place (I really thought this!) – well that just seems laughable now. I am going to have to be here for the long haul.

Finally what has dropped like a great big penny is that ministry here has to be relational. Again, I’ve said that before. Right at the outset. But I’m only just beginning to understand what that means. What we’ve discovered, because this is what’s actually happened, is that if we’re going to make a difference in Somerstown, it will be one family at a time. It will be about investing in real friendship – giving time, attention, love and practical support to a small number of people at any one time. It’s like the old story of the little boy throwing starfish back into the sea after a storm. The beach is covered in starfish as far as the eye can see. A man says to the boy: ‘how on earth do you hope to make any difference?’ Picking up another starfish, and casting it back into the safety of the sea, the boy says, ‘made a difference to that one.’

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One step forward…

11 10 2010

I posted at the weekend about the hugely encouraging breakthrough that there had been in forging one community among those who gather Sunday by Sunday in Wilmcote House, despite some clear differences of approach to what that gathering should be about. I wanted to celebrate that, and I still do. I hope not to lose sight of that in what follows.

But it does often feel that renewed challenges follow hot on the heels of every ‘win’.

It was a relatively simple matter for the PCC in the end to complete the review of the Sunday Sanctuary and gather all the fragments of our discernment process together. Because there had emerged at the same time as that was all going on, between my colleague Alex and myself, a desire; an intention to create a new evening service, that would offer a different sort of space from both Sunday mornings in Wilmcote House and Sunday mornings in St Peter’s. More of that in another post.

The upshot, though, was that there would be an outlet for the more established members of the Sunday Sanctuary to express their spirituality through contemporary sung worship and quiet contemplation. Thus it no longer felt necessary, or appropriate (given the response to the suggestion from our newer friends) to try and shoehorn those things into Sunday mornings at Wilmcote House. So far, so positive.

It was clear from our wider discernment that we didn’t need to persist with keeping the Sunday Sanctuary open for two hours. Residents of Wilmcote House liked the idea of a slightly later start and others were finding the long morning hard going, especially those working to keep the kitchen open.

We had been moving towards closing the kitchen at about 11:00 and I had often notified people of that with ‘last orders’ announcement; which, unfortunately, frequently had the effect of creating a rush and making it more difficult to gather people for our all together time. (It made it virtually impossible for kitchen workers to join the all-together time as they had to clear up a new batch of dirty plates, cups and so on.)

So we decided that the Sunday Sanctuary would open at 10:30 instead of 10:00. The kitchen would close at 11:00 and be followed immediately by our all-together time. 11:45-12:00 would be tidy up time, which we would all share together, not simply as a clear up after the real activity but an important part of the expression of our life as a new community. (Kitchen clear-up was to wait until then too, so that kitchen helpers could join the all-together time.)

We also thought that the time between 11:30 and 11:45 might involve differentiated activities so each age group got the sort of stimulation that reflected its unique needs.

As I write this, I think this all sounds right and good. But we haven’t perhaps been as good as we might have been at sticking to that schedule and that may be at the root of some of our problems this half term.

Because it hasn’t felt to me as if we have really been hitting the mark since our restart. There have been lots of good things. The barbecue our first week back was a really good way to come back together. And of course it was encouraging after something of a break that we did all come back together. I think taking a break in future might seem a little odd. It felt odd, actually, during the summer. Projects take a break. Communities – churches? – do not.

Somehow, in between making a clear choice not to include sung worship and an ongoing effort to avoid cutting and sticking (for those who hated the ‘Sunday School’ feel that it had on occasion) we have ended up with a lot of up-front talking. Storytelling has been and remains an essential part of our shared identity. And I’m a firm believer in storytelling as an art form in its own right. There is a place for a variety of ways to share stories – story sacks, puppetry, pictures, film clips – but above all I think a really engaging storyteller simply speaking a tale can hold the attention of a group. But somehow our style (mostly delivered by me) has become flabby, unengaging and drawn out. Instead of being punchy and exciting, the stories and most especially the reflection following have become long-winded and talky.

In the past few weeks I have noticed that nobody has really been engaged. The youngest children are gravitating back to the Lego, which in a very echoey room is very distracting. The parents and older children are trying to draw their children/siblings’ attention back and the adults without children there are distracted by all of that going on. And on occasion when I’ve been speaking, I’ve been wondering who I’m actually speaking to!

It has brought me for the first time in ages to question my personal commitment to intergenerational community/church. Is it really possible to hold the attention of a middle-aged professional at the same time as you’re engaging a pre-schooler from a refugee family with next to no English? If your comparison is with school, then you’d say: ‘Of course not!’ Vertical teaching groups can work, but the age span is not normally more than two years. But if your comparison is not with education but with, say, a family meal, especially a special celebratory meal like Christmas dinner, then it’s not nearly so clear cut. But maybe I have confused the idea that ‘we only do apart what we cannot do together’ with some notion that we do nothing apart.

[Editor’s note – and I’m the editor! – this post has well and truly now broken the short post rule. Commitments are dropping like flies all around. 😉 ]

Of course, we are rather stuck in that we are in one room. There are not alternative spaces except for outside in the good weather (we have taken children outside for a game or activity). But when it’s getting colder, it becomes much more of a challenge to create discrete spaces – especially with the awful acoustics that this room has (very echoey).

The lesson I’ve learnt from being married to a teacher and being involved in a local primary school is that if we are not engaging people, children especially, it’s because we’re not engaging not because the people are not responding appropriately.

So what to do?

Funnily enough, the thought that has occurred to me is to go back to the liturgy. To look back into the shape of the Eucharist and see how the moments and movements of that might be reinterpreted in our setting. It may be that we need to make the occasional simple sharing of bread and wine into a more regular feature.

That might seem like quite a conceptual leap from talking too much not working to let’s have a simple sort-of-communion each week. But there’s something about the way we’re having to reinvent the wheel each week that I think is giving us a bit of a headache. And actually to start with sharing a meal: breakfast; and to conclude with sharing a simple commemorative meal: bread and wine (grape juice actually) gives the whole thing something of a shape that maybe it’s lacking. Within that, there are moments for gathering, self-examination and reflection, hearing and reflecting on one of our inherited stories, looking out to the wider world and giving thanks, that might just give us the structure that will keep things moving along in a much more dynamic way. It might also help us to express our newfound community-ness more wholeheartedly in the content and shape of our mornings together, not just in the sheer fact of our coming together. And I think the times that have worked best have been those occasions when we have shared food that has some symbolic, nay sacramental, significance – a high point for me, was the simple passover we shared when we were journeying through the stories of Moses.

I’ll let you know how things develop…

[If you’ve made it this far, thanks for sticking with me. I’d welcome your comments. 🙂 ]





New directions

23 06 2010

I know someone who got themselves in a right pickle by blogging about what had gone on in a PCC meeting. PCC? Parochial Church Council – it’s a Church of England parish’s very own baby church parliament. In other church traditions the whole membership of a local congregation takes decisions about the deployment of resources. In the Anglican setup, at least in England, these decisions are delegated to a small, elected, representative body: the PCC.

The Church of England is episcopally led and synodically governed. Basically that means that clergy have all the responsibility and none of the power! Which is a good thing, I think. No really it is. I aim to give away power and pursue influence instead.

Except tonight, the PCC gave genuine leadership itself I think. And I don’t think it will be a problem to blog about it – I’m bigging them up, not dissing them!

We finally, after a few days’ delay, met to kick start the process of discerning a way forward for our main activity. I was going to say, our main Sunday morning activity, but one of the options to emerge was that we should change the time when we meet. That suggestion came from me (and actually, initially from my colleague Alex, so I’ll steal no credit there).

After a short devotional introduction, and a bit of business, we began the process of examining where we’ve got to and where we might be going next. I was surprised by how positive we were about the first of those. There was no desire to roll back in terms of location or engagement or to attempt to work with a different ‘client group’. Young families are still the focus of our presence in Wilmcote House and Somerstown more generally. Measuring ourselves against each of the five values of a mission-shaped church, there was much to encourage us.

We all know, though, that there are frustrations for some of our number – the lack of opportunities to encounter God in sung worship, the lack of extended Bible teaching and opportunities for corporate prayer, the relentless hard work required to do what we’re doing now and the smaller numbers we’re seeing on Sunday mornings these days.

I don’t share many of these concerns personally, but is undeniable that they are very much in evidence among us and that these have the potential to break our communion. Sorry if that phraseology sounds too grand. This is not on the scale or intensity of the things threatening to break the Anglican Communion. But it is clear that we cannot carry the unresolved tension any further without people feeling compelled to walk away.

So, we try and move forward together; to preserve all that we have invested in each other. At the same time, we were keen to preserve the relationships we’ve established with our new friends in Wilmcote House. I was concerned that in our desire to reinstate some aspects of worship as we have experienced we might be loading people up with some unhelpful ‘baggage’ or, worse (is it worse?) put them off completely so that they never darken their door again.

We had an involved, and at odd moments, difficult, conversation. But we managed to conduct it in a spirit of honesty, humility and compassion. At the end of that discussion, we formulated three options:

  1. Integrate more familiar elements of worship throughout the morning.
    We would shorten our opening times. Instead of opening at 10 am, we would open at 10:30. As now, the first half hour would be set aside for welcome, breakfast and conversation. The next hour would incorporate singing, preaching and prayer alongside some more all-age focused activities.
  2. Add a ‘service’ at the end.
    The start and finish times would remain the same, and the time between 10:30 and 11:15 would remain predominated by all-age focused activities, but the time between 11:15 and 11:45 would be a more concentrated and structured service of worship including the elements identified in option 1.
  3. Move to the afternoon.
    Given that research suggests family activities are most successful in the afternoon, we thought we should consider as one of our options moving our activity to that time. This would involve an hour focused on hospitality and storytelling between 5pm and 6pm and then a contemporary music style service at 6:30 pm.

The master stroke that came out of our discussion was that the Wilmcote House families who are part of ‘us’ now should also be invited to participate in our discernment process. We could have invited them to come to our Tuesday evening gatherings that we have set aside for this purpose. But the suggestion that we should instead move our communal discernment to Sunday mornings for the next few weeks was recognised by all as the best way forward. It allows all ages to participate and allows the broadest possible participation in terms of residents, more longstanding members of the congregation formerly known as St Luke’s and some of that latter group who don’t normally make Tuesday evenings.

I am troubled by the possibility that we might be becoming more worship-shaped and less mission-shaped, slightly more stale than fresh expression, but I have to recognise the reality of where people are, what they’re able to give and what they need to receive. I just hope and pray that, whatever the final shape of what we do together, this is a necessary corrective to ensure we grow and develop as a pioneering community and not a withdrawal into more safe and familiar territory. That way lies our demise, I fear.





Gimme five (although four will do).

17 06 2010

The PCC have been considering a review paper that I wrote for them. On the basis of that paper and PCC members’ responses, the PCC will try and produce three options for a way forward at its meeting on Thursday 17th June, 2010. Three is more of a guideline than a straightjacket, so if it turns out we need two or four options, that’s what we’ll do. Over the course of the three weeks following that meeting, at our Tuesday evening gatherings, we’ll be looking at each of the options in turn and entering into a process of spiritual discernment.

That process, much like the way we approached it at our weekend away back in March, comprises 3 broad stages:

  1. GATHERING IN CHRIST
  2. LISTENING TO THE HOLY SPIRIT
  3. GOING FORTH AS GOD’S PEOPLE

This process is adapted from Victoria G Curtiss’s Guidelines for Communal Discernment, available here.

1. GATHERING IN CHRIST
Our usual habit of eating together and sharing Communion will function as the first of those stages but perhaps to ensure the rest of the process doesn’t feel too confined, we might forgo having a pudding for these weeks! We will also try to start the meal promptly at 7:40, giving 10 minutes for people to arrive, say hello and get a drink. I will try and ensure we have finished at the table by 8:30. At the end of our Communion, we will hear the option being considered and be given a printed copy. We then move into the main exploration.

2. LISTENING TO THE HOLY SPIRIT
I have suggested we proceed as follows:

  • Letting go
    I want to invite us all to approach our discernment prayerfully, letting go of any barriers to being receptive to the Holy Spirit’s leading. To do that we need in a moment of quiet to ask for the grace to lay aside our ego, preconceived ideas, biases, and predetermined conclusions that may limit openness to God. What we’re looking for is ‘holy indifference’. That means being indifferent to everything except God’s will. It doesn’t mean, ‘I don’t care.’ And it doesn’t mean we lose our values and convictions. It simply means we are called to be open and focused above all on what God might be calling us to be and do. (Much of this is word for word from Curtiss)
  • Reflecting on the Bible.
    Listening.
    It would be tempting to select a text that offered some support to my own point of view! Or at least for people to feel that I had. I suggest therefore that we make the set gospel reading each week our text for that week. I think it would be helpful too to hear an initial reflection on that reading from different people each week. I am therefore looking for three people who will be willing on one of those weeks each to bring a short reflection (5-10 minutes) on that reading. It will require a little preparation, of course but I already have two volunteers.
    Connecting.
    We’ll follow that with a few moments in quiet, during which I’ll ask each of us to write down the one word or phrase in the reading or what was said following that spoke to us most immediately or seemed to capture the essence of what God might be saying to each of us. We’ll then swap those papers and read each one in turn.
    Examining ourselves
    We then take a few moments in quiet to ask ourselves the question: what might God be asking of me as I approach this process of discernment?
  • Sharing our stories
    Again, in quiet, on one side of a slip of paper, we each write down one thing that concerns us about the option before us and one thing that concerns us. We share our concerns in turn. We all listen in silence. We share our excitement in turn. Again, we all listen in silence. One person records all the things that are shared.
  • Pause for reflection
    We keep a moment of quiet for reflection on what we have heard.
  • Discussion
    We take time to explore our response to the option put before us in conversation.

3. GOING FORTH AS GOD’S PEOPLE

  • Choose direction
    As ‘president’, I attempt to gather our collective response to the option before us and shape it into a summary statement. We express our support of the proposal using the five finger method, as follows:
    5 fingers      I am fully supportive.
    4 fingers       I am mostly in agreement 
and am willing to support the majority.
    3 fingers       I have questions or reservations
 but am willing to stand aside;
    2 fingers       I am somewhat opposed and have concerns.
    1 finger        I cannot support this at this time.
  • Rest with the direction
    We spend a few moments in quiet again, entrusting our exploration to God and praying for our continuing discussions.

Out of this process, the PCC, as trustee of the parish’s resources, will determine how we should proceed together, selecting one of the original options or another that may have emerged from our exploration. I’ll keep readers of this blog up to date with how this proceeds.





Power to the people!

9 06 2010

Another 70s TV reference! Robert Lindsay as ‘Wolfie’ from Citizen Smith.

So when the PCC of St Luke’s agreed to relocate our main Sunday activity to Wilmcote House — one of the local tower blocks — it was, at my suggestion, for the period of one year. We agreed that we would review before the summer break.

And here we are. That review is about to take place. And it’s clear that some members of the congregation formerly known as St Luke’s are wanting to ask some pretty searching questions about what we do. Let me be clear: that’s a good thing. I should be welcoming it. I do. But I also feel somewhat nervous about it.

Why is that?

Perhaps there are two reasons.

FIRST: THIS IS MY BABY

It isn’t of course. This is not my church or my mission. But its current form is an expression of a vision I’ve been articulating – that we would become a mission community, spending a period rooted in particular places in order to found new, indigenous and eventually self-sustaining congregations in Somerstown. TCFKASL (The Congregation Formerly Known As St Luke’s) would be sustained in its mission spirituality by forging and living a shared ‘rule’ in our Tuesday gatherings and our everyday lives.

So I’ve got a lot invested in this enterprise, emotionally, spiritually and, dare I say it, in terms of my reputation. Now some of you more saintly readers of this blog will perhaps be shocked that such a consideration as the last of those should even feature. But there it is. I admit it. I have an ego. It matters what people think. It’s not decisive, but it’s there. Perhaps because I acknowledge it, I’m better able to mediate against its less favourable influence. Time will tell.

By suggesting that we keep the arrangement to a year, I was attempting to save us from getting stuck in yet another set way of being and doing. It was my intention that the arrangement should never become fixed, but always provisional, under constant review. The funny thing is that I think of all of us involved, I have become the most ‘stuck’ in what we’re currently doing. I do genuinely think we might need to give it a bit longer to see how it might work. Even though this is the annual review, we’ve actually only been going for seven months.

SECOND: WHAT ABOUT US?

I am nervous because in part the motivation for some of the questioning is that perennial question ‘what about us?’ I don’t blame or condemn people for that question. It’s a perfectly legitimate question. I’ve been saying for all those months we’ve been operating and for several before that, that if we engage with God in God’s mission we will be fed. And I’ve been saying that if we engage with children, like whom we are invited to become, we will meet God. I’ve been saying it. But for some at least, the experience hasn’t lived up to my rhetoric. There is a degree to which I wonder whether people have been as open to those sorts of experience as they might. But the fact remains. What I said would happen for people has only happened really for those who already found spiritual fulfilment in those ways.

So my nervousness comes from the desire I hear being expressed to pull back from the ecclesiological edge to somewhere a little more familiar. It worries me that the new people we’ve got to know could be sidelined as longstanding Christians look for more of what they’ve known in their church experience.

This is such a difficult balance to tread. In one sense, I am tempted (alongside my recognition that ‘I’m a failure’) to see this as a failure of my leadership. I have not managed to persuade people or demonstrate to them in our shared enterprise that the presence of God is to be found and that this is of itself worship and offers opportunities for discipleship. I am actually not so sure of this position as I once was. I need to look into the Tradition and recent experience to explore more deeply how it is that a mission community on the edge is spiritually sustained.

But on another level, I think I can allow myself to recognise, without blowing my own trumpet – well all right, maybe just a little – that this paradoxically represents an endorsement of my leadership. Because alongside the mission stuff (and in fact not separable from it) is the community stuff. I have worked hard to foster investment in relationships that are open, honest and trusting. People expect and feel safe to share how they’re really finding their journey. And in looking for and implementing ways that we can share in communal discernment, I have encouraged this community to develop a flat structure and an ethos of shared responsibility.

We find our way forward together. So that’s what we’re doing. We are going to try to find a way forward together that allows space for people to be resourced spiritually in more familiar ways as well as engaging in adventurous mission.





Take a chance on me…

13 03 2010

Any priest who encouraged their congregation to take a punt on the ponies would probably not be surprised to be summoned to see their bishop. Gambling has probably rightly been seen as difficult to reconcile with Christian discipleship. It’s forever associated in the Christian imagination with the game of dice that determined which of the soldiers that had brutally executed Jesus would get to keep the shirt off his back. Gambling is associated too with the frivolous waste of resources – the opposite of good stewardship – and with greed and vice. Games of chance seem at odds with a somewhat more deterministic Christian worldview. Letting things turn on the roll of a dice appears the inverse of seeking to learn the will of God.

And yet at the very beginning of the Church’s life we see a pretty major decision being made on the basis of a game of chance. Choosing the successor of Judas was settled by the casting of lots (aka cleromancy [sorry I love jargon]) according to the book of Acts.

It’s not the only time it features in the Bible when people are trying to hear from God or in the next case, the gods. In the story of Jonah, the stormblown sailors work out who the ‘Jonah’ is by casting lots. According to some writers on t’internet there are 70 references to ‘lots’ in the Hebrew Scriptures and a handful in the New Testament. That may be right or it might not. To be honest I can’t be bothered to trawl through and check it out. Maybe I should cast my urim and thummim to find out…

Thinking about the choosing of Matthias over Justus led me to wonder about the role of chance in the process of discernment.

If you’re a reasonably regular reader of this blog then you’ll probably have been wondering if there was ever going to be anything new on here anytime soon. But leaving that aside you probably also know that I’m in the process of writing my MA disssertation at present. It’s on the subject of discernment in pioneer ministry. This is no pure ‘academic’ exercise for me. There are some really puzzling questions facing my colleague and I and the churches and communities we serve. Finding out what shape is taken here by the ‘thy will’ that we want to ‘be done’ in Somerstown as in heaven is very much on our agenda. I’ll say more in coming posts about what we might mean by God’s will and how we engage with it. For now let it suffice to say that I don’t think it’s as simple as working out what God wants and then just getting on with it.

Thinking about casting lots came about as I puzzled over how to help my little mission community – the congregation formerly known as St Luke’s – into taking part in and responsibility for discerning a way foward for our ‘Sunday Sanctuary’ endeavour as we went away together for the first weekend in March. I was taking a trawl through the book of Acts looking at occasions when the Church in mission engaged in a process of discernment as its members wrestled with questions of direction. And this choice – who should replace Judas as one of ‘the Twelve’ – was the first that we looked at. At our weekend away, I suggested four features of that process that might help us in facing the questions that lay before us. I’ve since thought of a fifth. So starting with that new thought, here are five features of the discernment process that I discern in Acts 1.12-26.

  1. BEING GROWN UP
    This is pretty much the first decision that the band of Jesus’ disciples had to make following the ascension of Jesus. Here for the first time they’re on their own. They’re not simply following where they’re led anymore. The responsibility lies with them. I think that’s significant. It’s not simply a matter of seeing where Jesus is off to next and tagging along. It calls for a degree of maturity, independence even. I don’t mean that they are no longer dependent on Christ. But their relationship has changed. He is simply not physically there any more. The disciples have to come to terms hwith his abscence. His promised presence comes to them through the gift of the Holy Spirit. In terms of the Acts account, the fullness of the Spirit is yet to come at this point. They’re not quite on their own. But they’re not just followers any more either. It’s down to them. They have to grow up.
  2. GROUNDED IN PRAYER
    But as much as they have to grow up from their dependence on Jesus’ constant physical presence and direction, they are absolutely grounded in prayer. They don’t approach this question cold, their response comes out of their prayer. According to the writer of Acts they are ‘constantly devoting themselves to prayer’. I think this isn’t so much about just becoming empty vessels through which the Holy Spirit can speak. Prayer is the means by which they continue to be formed as disciples; to become themselves; to grow up into the people God is calling them to be.
  3. ROOTED IN THE TRADITION
    Judas was a pretty bad egg. At least that’s what the writer of this text wants us to think. None of this hanging himself after being overcome with remorse as in Matthew. (Take note anyone who wants to deny that the Bible has errors or contradictions.) In contrast to Matthew’s account, the Acts writer depicts a smug Judas getting his come-uppance. God gets ‘medieval on his ass’. Anyway none of that is really the point! The point is that despite having had a really bad experience with one of the Twelve (whom incidentally, Jesus chose), they don’t think: ‘well, eleven apostles is enough’. It doesn’t even occur to them that there should be fewer than twelve. The deep sacramental significance of the number is not a matter of small importance for them. It was what they had received from their Lord and it echoed the symbolic division of tribes in their own sacred history. There was no question for them but that their should be a twelfth apostle.
  4. TAKING RESPONSIBILITY
    I suppose this is very much linked to the first point, so maybe that wasn’t such a new point after all. But it comes from a different part of this story of discernment. There are about 120 people together at the point of making this choice. Some of these will have joined the growing (and, on occasion, shrinking) band of disciples at different points in Jesus’ ministry. But the original Twelve were chosen from a bigger band of followers who had been there from the start: Jesus’ baptism. So I think it’s unlikely that the two names were the only two possible names that could have been put forward at this point. This group have taken responsibility and narrowed down the options. From a larger field of candidates they have got it down to two between whom they cannot choose. They’ve got two good options. If there was only one obvious choice, they wouldn’t have needed the next step. It would have been settled by default. But the writer wants us to see that the unsuccesful candidate was a jolly good egg. Joseph Barsabbas (son of Sabbas) has the latin nickname ‘Justus’ – meaning fair-minded.
  5. LEAVING IT TO CHANCE
    This is the bit that is the most difficult for the modern mind to cope with. But when it came down to it, they left it to chance. They drew straws or threw dice or coloured stones. We don’t know exactly how they ‘cast lots’ and it’s a good thing that we don’t. Otherwise we might have ritualised that particular action instead of being able to see the metaphorical possibilities. There is a place for chance, or happenstance if you prefer, in finding a way forward.

At the beginning of our weekend away we drew straws to see who would end up reading which Bible passage of the half a dozen or so we would be hearing over the course of the weekend. I suggested to people that if they got one of the Bible readings they might look for what God wanted to say to them through this particular reading. And to those who didn’t get a reading, I made the invitation that they look for what God was wanting to say to them through not having a specific passage to look at.

Does that mean that I think God chose this particular reading (or lack of a reading) for them? I honestly don’t know.

I suspect not.

I think it’s more about the openness to hear from God that’s important. I believe that God, by God’s Spirit is gently calling, speaking, leading us all the time. That openness, if people achieved it, will have created the space for them to connect with the still small voice and so grow into what God has for them. Do you understand what I mean?

I guess I’d say the same about that group of disciples. Was Matthias the only right choice? Was there some flaw in Justus’ character that meant he would have been a disaster? He surely couldn’t have been worse than Jesus’ personal choice: Judas. So maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe both men would have been an equally good choice but in the end there could be only one. So let chance happen and see what emerges.

But what both men had, I think, is character. They were formed through their experience of Jesus and their deep and constant engagement with God in prayer. In the end it was about the whole community being shaped by Christ together and then seeing what happened. As I’ve said before I think this is a more authentic way of reading the stories of Jesus himself. I don’t think his ministry is about him following a minutely laid out plan. So that at every point he is hearing form his Father what to do next – turn left up ahead you’ll meet a blind man, heal him; breathe in, Son, now breathe out – no I really think Jesus just wanders about and stuff happens because of who he is. Wherever he goes, there’ll be a blind man or a troubled woman or a demoniac or a dead child. So maybe for us too, discernment is more about the formation of a Christlike character in us as individuals and communities. Making some choices ourselves using the brains what God has given us, then, taking a chance, letting stuff happen.





Of regeneration and resurrection.

6 01 2010

Tonight, with my sons, I re-watched David Tennant’s last ever(?) outing as the Doctor. I’m never quite sure whether it’s great telly or utter twoddle. Maybe it’s both.

This was the first time though, as many other commentators have said, that the Doctor has approached his regeneration as a kind of death. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Russell T Davies’ writing is intelligent — this is light entertainment after all — but this was certainly a new spin on a familiar event in the ‘Whoniverse’ and it got me thinking.

It took me back to some significant conversations on the subject of what might follow this life.

It’s less common these days to encounter people who would answer that question: ‘nothing’. There are all kinds of weird and wacky ideas out there. I sometimes feel I have more sympathy with those who have the integrity and directness to give the ‘nothing’ answer.

It was interesting recently to deal with a funeral where for one close relation that clearly was their answer. I am a Christian priest and so I will always want to talk about the hope of resurrection, but I wanted to do so sensitively in a way that recognised rather than obliterated this relative’s conviction. People often talk about how the loved one will ‘live on’ in the memories of those left behind and in particular in the way they have been influenced and shaped by their lost loved one. At this funeral, I said that would be enough for some or all they could honestly believe but that just for one moment I wanted to invite them to imagine the possibility of something more real and tangible — that there is some sort of real life beyond what we experience now. On the other hand, I always want to gently resist that desire to say (quoting a poem actually penned by a clergyman) ‘death is nothing at all’.

It might seem strange for a character that can cheat death and be ‘reborn’ after a fatal injury to be afraid of that process. But though his next incarnation will still be able to say ‘it’s me’, it won’t be this me. It won’t be exactly the same ‘me’ that is contemplating his end. It will be a new form that remembers exactly what it was like to be each of his previous incarnations but there is still a sense in which the tenth Doctor ceased to be. That thinking entity met its end. A new one came to be. There was a sense or continuity but only after a real ending; a real dying.

I think this has some resonance with the Christian idea of resurrection. This has often been confused with ideas of an eternal soul or spirit.

Jesus (according to the Authorised Version of the Bible) does say: ‘For what is a man (sic) profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?’ Indeed throughout the Bible the words ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ appear. But I’m very doubtful whether when speaking in Hebrew or Aramaic, Jesus or anyone else had in mind the wafty ‘ghost in the machine’ suggested by those English words. There’s no sense I think in the Hebrew tradition of a person’s being ending up in some way detached from their physical existence. That’s not what resurrection is about. I don’t think Jesus would recognise what all those hellfire preachers were talking about when they asked people about the destiny of their eternal soul.

So I guess I’m of the monist persuasion when it comes to Christian anthropology. We are holistic, embodied beings. That’s my best guess anyway — what do I know really?! I don’t think that who I essentially am can be sensibly distinguished from the physical stuff of my presence in this world. I think that’s more biblically authentic and more readily reconciled with what neuroscience tells us about ourselves. The clincher for me is that the personality of brain injury patients can change so radically that they seem to be a wholly different person. If there’s some whispy stuff that is the real repository of our essential self, what could we realistically say is contained there? Nothing that makes any sense in terms of how we human beings relate to each other. And if our essential being utterly transcends how human beings experience each other and relate to each other then any disembodied continuance of that essence would be so strange as to render it incomprehensible to what we are now. It wouldn’t evade the continuity question I pose below. One might ask how such an existence could be deemed human at all.

It seems to me that the idea of resurrection is about the re-embodiment of a previously embodied psyche — by which I mean an emergent property/pattern of the brain. To talk about a disembodied part of us that is untouched by death makes us immortal rather than mortal. So if we are instead a holistic embodied being then death really is an ending. We do truly die.

The horror of this is that I will end.

Socrates the Greek philosopher (a believer in the soul in its ghostly sense I think) approached his death calmly. Jesus the Hebrew faced his end in agonies of sadness.

Resurrection is about a re-embodiment. The thing that sometimes keeps me awake at night is that even if a new being comes to be that can remember exactly what it was like to be me, do I really go on? Is there experiential continuity? The Doctor saw an end of himself coming, even though a being called the Doctor would still exist in the Universe. That’s just a fiction of course. But I know how that character feels.

The thing that has offered some comfort has been to ask myself where the 5-year-old or 10-year-old or 15-year-old me has gone. There’s a real sense in which those children are gone from the world. My growth and learning has changed me so that the experiencing and thinking person I was at those ages does not exist anymore. And yet the sense of continuity with those people that I was is so strong that they are still alive within me. Maybe resurrection feels like that. Maybe the very different form that will exist eternally in the presence of God will be so profoundly identified with this me now that there will be a continuity with this experiencing self. But maybe in an even more beautiful way because it will not just be the ‘me’ as I am at the point of my death that is resurrected but the whole of me as I have been throughout space and time. That would truly be a much more profound existence than that offered by the regeneration of a Time Lord.