Enjoy the silence

26 01 2011

So yesterday I wrote about listening to the radio less. This is essentially about reducing the amount of background noise, both sonic and intellectual. But toning down the wallpaper is not the same as knocking a hole through to the other side.

So what have I done to actually make time for silence?

Well I think it’s fair to say that I’m working my way into a daily and weekly rhythm that includes time to be intentionally still. Each morning, my colleague and I spend twenty minutes in silence as part of our morning office. And before Christmas I was more and more reliably including a midday office with ten minutes of silence and night prayer with a further twenty minutes. Over the Christmas break, I let it go. And it’s been more difficult to reinstate since coming back. I’ve been struggling more with another old habit – staying up late.

So it’s a work in progress, but I think there is real progress.

I’m realistic about where I’ve got to, but I’m approaching this with a sense of joy and freedom. I am not experiencing a ‘hardening of the oughteries’! It’s in response to a sense of invitation and call that I am engaged in this journey, not duty.

So what difference does this make?

Perhaps first I’d better reflect on what the experience of reasonably frequently (I can’t quite yet truthfully use the word regularly) spending time in quiet has been like. I know this is a well worn path. Many have been this way before. And my experience has been very similar to the little I’ve read of others entering into a contemplative way of life.

The first word one has to speak is ‘distractions’. We are so trained by our lives to live either in the past or the future that the mind very quickly wants to inhabit that territory. It’s difficult not to go over some incident that has been. Or to start to plan something that is to come. The ironic thing is how often those thoughts are about how I will share with others the beauty of silence and stillness!

You might notice, though, that I haven’t used the words ‘struggle’ or ‘frustration’ in reflecting on that. It seems to me that so much of our lives is cramming stuff into our consciousness (and in me thereby fermenting this sense of near dread that there’s something I’m missing). It’s not unreasonable to expect that given a bit of space, some of the excess of psychic noise will begin to bubble up and out. (I use the word psychic here in its psychological rather than parapsychological sense.) So I actually see this as a positive thing. That doesn’t mean I let the reviewing or planning instinct take over. I try to acknowledge it and draw myself back to simply searching for stillness.

The way that I do that is again very well known. I repeat a simple phrase or word in my mind, in time with my breathing. Mostly I use the Jesus Prayer: ‘Jesus Christ; Son of God; have mercy on me; a sinner’ or occasionally: ‘in God I live and move and have my being’ or as in Advent: ‘mar-a-na-tha!’ (one of those deeply mysterious Aramaic words we generally equate with ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’). That does allow me to re-centre when the mind wanders.

It’s out of that experience, partly, that I have sought to reduce the level of ‘noise’ with which I surround myself (hence listening to the radio less, watching a bit less TV).

The other thing to say (again?) is that stillness is a better word than silence. It would be difficult to achieve with huge amounts of external noise, but on the other hand, true silence is not possible. There’s always the noise of the rain, or the hum of the fridge, or the sound of a car door being slammed, or birdsong. The essential thing is not to tune it out but to gently suppress the sort of categorisation I’ve just done. To be present to the unique sonic qualities of each vibration, without naming what it is. It’s about the unique gift of each sound actually being a doorway to being present to the immediate present moment.

And sometimes, just sometimes, I am brought into a deep sense of inner stillness, calm and presence.

So what difference does it make?

It doesn’t make me one of those annoying, superhuman, people who never lose it, are never phased or upset or worried. But there is a just emerging sense for me that there is a still centre to my being and that in that still centre I connect with Being and that there I am loved; utterly constantly and faithfully loved.

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What difference does it make?

25 01 2011

According to Mozza, of course, it makes none. But I’m a little more positive than the mercurial Manc. Only a little ;-). I’m not talking about some dark secret revealed to a friend, but the thing what I blogged about yesterday – my desire to enter more deeply into a contemplative rhythm of life; to live a life permeated with silence.

So what difference does it make, this strange new sense of calling? I have responded in some practical ways. I have taken some real steps.

First, I will reflect in this post on one seemingly tiny thing that is actually, I think, quite significant.

I listen to the radio less.

Great, you might say, so now you’re less well informed. Well you might think that (unless you thought I was listening to Radio 1 or local radio). No. I was listening a lot to Radio 4. So I was, even if I say so myself, incredibly, magnificently well informed. But this was my routine — I would get up and put on the radio, then go downstairs to make breakfast, and put on the radio, then get in the car for the school run; and put on the radio.

So the upshot of all that was I was stupendously, fantastically well-informed. And that during those mornings with my family my head was somewhere else. At times I even shushed my children because there was something so interesting, so informative that I wanted to listen to on Radio 4. I was so concerned with the big world out there that I missed the entire universe of wonder right in front of me, every time my wife and children sat down together to eat.

I was not present.

So I took a decision. I turned the radio off. I listen to it much less. I am somewhat less well informed and somewhat more present.

How wonderful! Well, yes and no. Being present is hard. It’s scary, actually.

Being confronted with the reality of ourselves in the present moment can be mightily uncomfortable. That’s why most of us avoid it.

And I have been astonished to discover how addictive a simple thing like listening to the radio can be. There are times when it takes a conscious mental effort to leave it off. I don’t always manage it.

Why does it matter? Surely it’s okay to listen every now and again? Well maybe, but I feel that until I can actually manage to do without it, that I must do without it.

Does this sound mental? Maybe it is, a bit. But I do feel that it’s spiritually significant –this little skirmish with this little habit. It’s about how much I am truly prepared to truly embrace the gift of discipline.

And it’s interesting that when I do manage to be firm with myself, other things take the radio’s place. Like games on the iPhone. I had to delete one before Christmas because I found myself playing it in every spare moment, and even in some moments that weren’t spare.

But in the main, sticking to this small commitment is making a difference. I actually manage to complete things like preparing the breakfast in a reasonable time. And so I am not quite as much of a source of frustration for those closest to me in the mornings. And I give those closest to me much better attention than they were getting before. I am more present to them. They and I feel more valued, appreciated, loved.

And so I am just beginning to experience, in a small way, how simultaneously rewarding and challenging is giving up something good for something better. I suspect this little skirmish is going to lead me into others. I’ll let you know.





Got religion?

24 01 2011

Quite apart from my deliberations over my Sunday night conversations in the pub, I have been in the grip of something of a crisis. I don’t mean I’m having a breakdown or anything like that. Or maybe I am, of a sort. I think it’s more like what I understand the Swiss theologian Karl Barth to mean when he refers to a ‘krisis’. It’s a moment of realisation, a sort of existential confrontation with a bigger reality.

I have been feeling increasingly like I am playing at being a Christian. And that far from working as a priest being an expression of my discipleship, it’s actually a hindrance. Because being a priest can make you feel like ‘of course I’m following Christ’, whilst simultaneously evading the all-consuming implications of a life of discipleship. But this cognitive dissonance can’t persist indefinitely without reaching a moment of krisis. That came for me late last year.

I found myself increasingly troubled by the same insistent question:

Am I really prepared to live my life as if God is at the centre of reality?

That’s scary on a number of levels.

First it sounds like I’m a religious nut. There are people, I know, who read this blog, who don’t share my faith who are probably feeling a little worried, scared or disappointed. Maybe you thought that despite my faith, I was at least in other respects fairly sensible. But no, turns out I’m just as much of a nutjob as the rest. To those friends I say bear with me, it’s not going to make me into a relentless and annoying preachy sort who talks about nothing but God. And you might even find a point of connection with what I think this all means in practice.

The other level on which it’s scary is that I don’t wholly know the answer. I’m not sure I am prepared to live like that. What might it mean for my family? Will it be another thing drawing us apart, or might it be something that draws us together? On the other hand, the alternative is not particularly attractive either. I am finding it less and less tolerable to be a sort of nominal follower of the Way (I wouldn’t have said I was before this). But giving up and embracing a materialistic lifestyle isn’t much of a draw either.That seems to me to leave people exhausted, broke and broken.

But what does it mean in practice? What am I actually talking about if not that I will just bang on about God the whole time?

Well what it comes down to is a call to embrace discipline as a gift not a burden; to live in a rhythm of life that makes prayer the centre of everything. And I’m not talking about prayer in terms of nagging my invisible magic friend to give me what I want, not even what I want for MIMF’s sake over my own. No this is prayer as contemplation. This is about making proper time at set moments each day to be still and silent — that sort of deep and intentional silence and stillness that opens up the possibility of a real encounter with the Divine. I am hungry for that experience for myself and I am increasingly persuaded that it’s the most important thing I can do for the people of Somerstown and the city centre.

It’s good if there are effective managers and leaders of organisations and projects around. It’s good (but rare!) if Christian clergy are similarly ‘effective’, but I am finding myself more and more taken with the view that what people need me to be, whether they are members of the local Christian community or not, is a deeply spiritual person. They need me to be someone who has sunk deep wells into the Greater Reality, the Mystery of Being, the Wellspring of Life or if you prefer — God. Because people here, as pretty much everywhere, are so caught up in the daily grind and rush of life, of living in the painful past, the uncertain future or anaesthetising themselves with extremes of experience; they are so caught up in that that they cannot be truly present to themselves or the present moment or to the Eternal in that present moment. And most of the time, neither can I. But what people need is not someone with a load of good arguments and ideas about how that’s all wrong, but someone with a genuine and compelling story of a different sort of experience — the sort of experience that seems to be available to anyone who takes silence seriously.

And so prayer (or if prayer sounds too narrowly religious for you, think: stillness and silence) is not merely the thing that will sustain me in the primary work of Christian ministry. It is the primary work of Christian ministry. Because people see through bullshit. They’ll know if I’ve really been there or if it’s someone else’s story I’m trying to pass off as my own.

So I am in the process of attempting a re-ordering of my life. I am trying to get more religious; religious in it’s best sense: a commitment to a rhythmic life. Because the experience of monastics and mystics alike is that the reconnection (another meaning of religion) I desire is not achieved casually but through persistence. Have I ‘got religion’? Not nearly so much as I hope to yet.

There’s more to say on this, but for now, I think I need to stop. And be still.





Good enough is just going to have to be good enough

14 10 2010

Today has been a bit of a reality check. But an intentional one. Not one of those unexpected occasions that brings you down to earth with a bump.

I spent a significant part of the day working on my project and diary planning for the next three weeks or so. It very quickly became apparent when I compared what I have to do with what time I have available, that I have taken too much on.

That hasn’t led to any desperate soul searching on my part. I am not about to offload any of it. There’s either no-one to give it to, or it’s too late to pull out or it’s an essential ongoing commitment. Or a combination of all of the above. Seriously, believe me. I’m not being a martyr.

No, reality was biting in a different way.

A week or two ago my colleague returned from a meeting with his work consultant. One of the things that had really stuck out for him from their conversation was the thought that one of the things that kills your effectiveness – in ministry, probably in any work – is perfectionism. Notice I said perfectionism – that’s the drive to make things perfect. That’s not the same thing at all as saying that what one does is perfect. In fact, perfectionism tends to leave one with the feeling that nothing one does is ever good enough.

But when I really worked out when I was going to do what I need to do; and tried to ensure that I was building in getting to bed before midnight on most nights instead of as a rare exception; and having a proper rest day at least once a week; and making sure that prayer is a priority, I realised that I was going to have to be strict with myself. The limited time I have allocated to the tasks I have, is all the time I have. I am just going to have to get better at working out how to do something in one hour that previously would have taken two or more.

Partly that is about just getting on with it and not faffing around the edges of a task. But also it’s going to mean it’s going to have to be the best it can be with an hour spent on it; not the best I can possibly make it, however long it takes. And do you know, I think faffing around has perversely to do with that same perfectionism. It’s because I’m labouring under a vision of whatever I’m working on that the actuality can never live up to. It’s fear of mediocrity that keeps me from actually just ploughing in and getting it done. Hence perhaps losing the way with Sunday mornings. Most likely because of being afraid of something being less than perfect. My near constant state of exhaustion from having to play catch up in the wrong sort of time (ie: when i should be playing/resting/sleeping) means mediocre is what I sometimes (often?) end up delivering – most of all in terms of the time and attention I give to those closest to me.

If I was a teacher, I’d probably want every lesson to be outstanding. But my suspicion is that any teacher who wants to actually have a life outside school will tell you that’s impossible. Good is good enough. It has to be. There’s a time and a place for excellence. But just like your battles, you have to pick your moments. Trying to make them all the very best will mean none of them can be.

Some of you out there are probably saying: ‘Well, duh!’ If so, well done for getting there before me. I’ve known this for… well probably forever. Will this be the time I finally nail it? It would be nice. But having failed to do so for the past 21 years of my working life, I am a little skeptical. But maybe this time…





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.





What to do when your ass speaks…

18 03 2010

‘If God can speak through Balaam’s ass, God can speak through anyone.’ It’s an old, bad joke. A joke, sadly, I’ve never quite grown out of.

I suppose some people who’ve found their way to this page after typing in ‘ass’ as a search team are going to be seriously disappointed.

Er… Because there’s not a lot of donkey-related information on this page.

The ass I’m referring to belonged, according to Numbers 22, to a Canaanite prophet called Balaam. The story is from the period when the people of Israel are hanging around in the lands east of the river Jordan, beating up the locals. This is okay, apparently, because God had told them the land was theirs and they should turf out those wicked people who were going around the place wickedly minding their own business and stuff. Shocking. Sounds to me like they deserved everything they got.

So the people dishing out the righteous justice have already seen off the Amorites and ‘Og, king of Bashan’ (what a quality name) and now, understandably, Balak, king of Midian, is getting a bit perturbed. (He and his people have also it seems been minding their own business. The infidels!) So Balak calls on Balaam (local purveyor of sooths what needs saying) to go and put a curse on the Israelites.

As an interesting aside, it seems that Balaam receives his oracles from none other than YHWH – God of the Israelites. I’m not the first person, and certainly not the cleverest, to suggest that the evolution of Hebrew monotheism might not have followed the straightforward path outlined in the Bible. I wonder if there’s a hint here that YHWH might have started out as a Canaanite deity. If so, it seems someone has forgotten to airbrush it out.

Anyway. According the text, it seems that Balaam isn’t a false prophet. Balak’s invitation to dish out a bit of cursing is getting the thumbs down from the big G. Balaam stays at home. What happens next is a bit odd (but not the oddest thing that happens in the story). First off, God tells Balaam that it’s alright for him to go with all the king’s men. Then, it seems, God is cross that Balaam goes with all the king’s men and sends Arnie the Angel to stand in the way (complete with flaming sword). Now call me old fashioned, but if you say it’s alright for someone to do something, it’s a little bit unreasonable to be cross with them when they do it. Actually, I can think of more than one occasion where my wife has done the same… 😉

Anyway poor old Balaam sets off on his poor old longsuffering ass. Apparently donkeys can see things people can’t. So Balaam’s ass sees Arnie the Angel. And being more than a little intimidated by big shiny fellow with flaming sword, tries to turn around. Balaam, being a grumpy old sod, whips his ass. I know. I know. I just can‘t resist…

It’s at this point that the even stranger thing happens: Balaam’s ass speaks. Nothing especially profound. Pretty much just, ‘stop hitting me with a big stick!’ It’s at that point that Arnie the Angel stops being invisible (not really very fair of him/her/it in the first place) and tells Balaam to listen to his ass and turn back.

Talking donkeys. Invisible angels with fiery swords. It all sounds more than a little far fetched, doesn’t it! It all sounds like a bit of a bad trip. So why on earth would I make it the text for the Saturday morning session of our recent weekend away?

Well because I wanted to suggest to people that guidance can come to us from the most unexpected of sources. We shouldn’t expect that God will communicate only to and through the people who call themselves God’s people. Guidance may not even come through people at all. Now I don’t mean we should be listening more carefully to what our animals are saying. If someone came to me and told what it was God had told them through the voice of their hamster, I would back away slowly and then, when I was at a safe distance either a) run away or b) get them sectioned. In fact I’d probably react in the same way to anyone who told me they’d heard the audible voice of God in any way. What I mean is that interpreting the story, once again, metaphorically, we should expect to hear from God in circumstances, maybe particularly those that have something of the uncanny about them. (More of this when I post about St Peter’s vision in Acts 10.)

What’s interesting on this occasion is that the guidance is about not going in a particular direction. About some sort of imperceptible obstacle to taking a particular way forward. I often hear people talking about guidance in terms of the opening and closing of particular doors. You have to be careful about this because tit could end up sounding like you should only ever take the easy option. I don’t think it’s that. Actually, Balaam in this story is trying to take the easy option – doing what the king asks instead of standing firm on what he is fairly confident is right.

This reminds me of the occasion from Acts 16 when St Paul and his companions are prevented from going into Turkey by the ‘Spirit of Jesus’. I was reminded of this story by my dissertation supervisor when we were discussing the relationship between discernment and spiritual formation. So, to develop the point I was making in my last post, if the key is spiritual formation, then maybe discernment becomes about being steered away from unhelpful options rather than being shown the one and only way forward from a set of options.

For the parish congregations that my colleague and I are working with, the voice from ‘outside’ the community is not closing a door but potentially opening one. The civic authority has made an invitation that looks like an amazing opportunity to set the Anglican mission in Somerstown on a very sure footing for a very long time to come. We are seriously exploring it.

The other aspect of this story that I wanted to explore is the notion of prophecy itself. In the popular imagination, prophecy is about foretelling – the supernatural ability to predict the future. But, as many commentators have pointed out before, in the Bible, prophecy is very much more concerned with forthtelling. It’s about the people being called to account for themselves and their faithfulness to their values and tradition. Prophets often speak in the midst of a crisis – identifying current troubles as a judgement on a failure to be faithful.

There’s a notion too though, within the pentecostal and charismatic traditions that prophecy is a ‘charism’ – a special ability to speak on behalf of God to the Christian community. This might be a momentary gift or a more longstanding gift; such that the New Testament identifies prophet as a distinct ministry in the life of the Church. My own experience within these traditions and my growth away from them inclines me to be skeptical. But I have been challenged by thinking about this whole notion of discernment to consider again whether (again in the words of my dissertation supervisor) these experiences and gifts might be in my future as well as my past.

So with all that in mind, I invited the people at that Saturday morning session to invite God to speak through them prophetically in response to the invitation we had heard from outside the community.

In a discussion, it’s perfectly normal to expect people to influence one another and for the conversation to develop a dynamic of its own. But if we were to hear in a way that went beyond our collective voice, I thought we needed to approach this question differently.

So I invited people to go and find a space on their own; to spend 10 minutes in quiet, asking God to speak through them; and then to write down what they thought they’d heard. I then asked people to put their piece of paper into a bowl. In then invited everyone to take a piece of paper and read what was written on it. It wouldn’t be fair to share the individual contributions. But there was a sense I think in which there was both an encouragement and a challenge. There was an encouragement to engage in the process we were being invited into without knowing what the outcome would be as well as a challenge to remain true to our emerging core values. I think the sum of those contributions was bigger than its parts and there was a sense that this process moved us on. The door remained open. The way was not barred by any angels with flaming swords that we could detect. But then of course, I could be speaking out of my ass…





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.