Thursday, August 24, 2006

This Teaching is Difficult

When many of his disciples heard [what Jesus had to say], they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” [1]
Anyone who has heard the teaching of Jesus has to sympathise with those first disciples. His words about Holy Communion may no longer have the same power to shock seasoned churchgoers, because it's an established ritual of the Church which many of us share in without any more thought than we would give to a picnic in the park. But, for many people outside the Church, the idea that we can meet Jesus simply by sharing bread and wine is at best ludicrous and at worst a serious stumbling block to faith.
I guess it offends them in the sense that it offends against their notion of common sense. Perhaps they would find it easier to accept if they understood that Jesus is not proposing any magical or supernatural change to the bread and wine we share. He is simply promising to be with us, in spirit, as we come together around the communion table.
The sharing of holy communion is simply a way of cashing in that promise. It gives us the special confidence of knowing that Jesus is indeed with us, even when he feels far away, because he promised to be there when we share the bread and wine together.
However, let us leave on one side the meaning of holy communion. What about the rest of Jesus' teaching, especially his teaching about lifestyle and morality? This teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?
No wonder that some people do not believe in trying to put God first, and to love our neighbours as much as we love ourselves. No wonder either that there are some people who claim to believe in these values, but who betray them when they are put to the test. No wonder people turn back and no longer go with Jesus and his followers. It ain't easy to be a true Christian!
So why do any of us try to persevere? Because as St Peter put it, even if we wanted to follow someone else's way, 'Lord, to whom could we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.'
Peter himself was to betray Jesus when it came to the crunch, but he didn't allow that to stop him from coming back to the teaching which he knew, from bitter experience, is difficult to follow, but which he also knew to be life enhancing and life giving.
[1] John 6.60—69

Sunday, August 20, 2006

The Two Roads

Over the last few months I have been thinking quite a lot about a poem written by the American poet Robert Frost, which is called 'The Road Less Travelled '. It goes like this:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And, sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.
One of the problems with doing two jobs – my day job in the community and the job I'm actually paid to do in the Church - is that there are only 7 days in the week and 24 hours in the day. So, more or less since I arrived, I have been squeezing my work for the Church into weekends and stolen hours. It has been possible for so long partly because I was relatively young and energetic when I arrived, and mostly because of the patience and forbearance of my family.
Someone once recalled how, growing up in a manse, he scarcely ever saw his father. He was always told that his father – who was the minister – was busy and wasn't to be disturbed. I don't think it has been quite like that in our house. One of the privileges of being a minister, in fact, is that you can work flexi-time and be available to do the school run and attend every concert and prize-giving. I once missed a colleague's induction service, at which I was supposed to offer him a welcome on behalf of the Circuit, because I clean forgot about it and was standing on the touch line watching my younger son play rugby. But nonetheless, there have been many times – especially evenings and weekends – when I have not been available.
In the first circuit where I worked, as the minister's assistant in a large inner city church, a member of the congregation described the minister's wife as a saint, because she worked tirelessly behind the scenes to enable him to devote long hours to church and community commitments. Well, despite having her own career as a community worker, my wife has been that kind of a saint too. She even decorated our manse, virtually throughout and in baking hot weather, while I continued working on the preparatory stages of the Building Blocks project and on many other things.
Much as we have enjoyed our time here, and relished the opportunity to work alongside people who needed and appreciated our help and support, we have been uncomfortably aware for a long time that our lifestyle has been unsustainable. It has lacked what people now call work-life balance. And so I have found myself standing at the fork in the road which Robert Frost describes. In fact, it has been more like a crossroads, because I have also been doing ecumenical work and inter-faith work for the Church alongside the community work and the circuit work. Often I have found myself wondering which way to turn.
I have always had the feeling, which is doubtless shared by a great many ministers and lay people, that if I went further down any one of these roads, much more could be achieved than is being achieved now. By dithering at the crossroads I have prevented many things from reaching their full potential, whether it be ecumenical opportunities here in Leeds 11, or opportunities for fresh expressions of mission and evangelism both here and at St Andrew's, or opportunities for greater engagement with people of other faiths, or opportunities to make our community work more secure. There has always been the feeling of doing a little bit to advance a great many things, without ever being able to do enough about any of them.
Of course, this is a dilemma which we all face to a greater or lesser extent. There is always too much to do and too little time to do it. Team work has relieved some of that burden – such as the very welcome way in which Steve stepped in to take over the task of organising circuit young people's work, just at the point where my wife and I were beginning to feel too middle aged to sleep on any more church floors! Doubtless I could have carried on with the eternal juggling act here and in future circuit appointments, as many other people do, if something hadn't happened to force me to choose which path to take.
The thing which has finally compelled me to choose, as many of you know, has been the need to spend more time with my mother. It's always been a struggle for ministers to weigh the comparative importance of marriage vows, baptism vows, ordination vows, and the injunction – in the Ten Commandments – to honour your father and mother. Jesus himself faced the same dilemma and actually said that, at times, it is necessary to leave our families behind in order to do the will of God. So it has been a struggle to know what to do about my mother's illness, and that struggle has resulted in yet more compromises. We have visited her less often than we really feel is right while, at the same time, neglecting the manse garden, which has inevitably become more like a natural garden and – at times – more like a rain forest.
I have found that I could not travel all these paths and be one traveller. And so I have looked down the various paths as far as I could, and wondered where they might lead. And sometimes I have tentatively explored them, without going so far that I reached the bend in the undergrowth which would have left the crossroads behind. That is, until now.
I suppose that, in choosing to spend more time on community work and less time on circuit work, I am taking the road less travelled – at least by Methodist ministers – though I hear of more and more ministers branching out into new areas of work. Also, I have to say that it wasn't our first choice – since we actually decided that I would move to be the superintendent of a larger circuit, closer to where my parents live, only to find this particular road was a dead end.
I expect one day to return to full-time circuit work, perhaps sooner rather than later. But having said that, I'm also aware of Robert Frost's description of the way one road leads to another, so drawing us further and further away from the place where we began. It is often difficult, and not even desirable, to retrace our steps
It has been a great privilege to be a minister here, despite the many tensions and stresses which the work has brought. Although I know that, once we have passed the bend in the road, it won't be possible to look back, we shall miss you all and carry you in our thoughts and prayers.
We came here because this circuit was a priority appointment and we were especially asked to come. I'm not sure the reasons why the circuit was made a priority were the right ones, but it was certainly the right decision. In my view the work here should remain a top priority for the Church and I am only sorry that the category of priority appointments has been abolished!
Last summer, someone from the Anglican Church described Faith Together in Leeds 11 as one of the most important projects attempted by the Church anywhere in the country, and I don't think they were far wrong. When those four young men blew themselves up in London they put this community under an intense media spotlight which still searches us out from time to time. Only last week the cameras were back in Beeston when the Secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain visited Hamara, but last year – when Muslims and Christians stood shoulder to shoulder as fellow believers from our community, at impromptu news conferences, and at the two minute silence and at the tributes to the victims in St Pancras Church, I think part of God's reason for our coming to live and work with you was revealed. It remains a source of amazement to me, actually, that when I told the Principal of my training college that I was going to study Islam as part of my preparation for ministry, he laughed! That decision, to study Islam, was probably one of the most significant decisions I have ever made.
The groundwork which members of this church, and this circuit, had carefully prepared with our Muslim neighbours and colleagues over the years, showed its value at that crucial hour. Our work and witness together was an important – and very concrete – part of the community's collective 'No!' to what the terrorists were trying to achieve and helped to provide some of the binding which held people together through the crisis.
I have described the work we have done together here as a collective achievement, in which I believe we have all worked together as a team. I am grateful for your prayers, help and encouragement, as we have sought to know and do God's will. I am mindful that if the work here had depended on me, it would have failed completely. Instead, many people have played key roles in helping the circuit to achieve milestones such as the Investors in People award, the enduring success of our Live at Home Scheme, the creation of the Building Blocks and Faith Together projects and the memorable and inspiring acts of circuit worship which have breathed new life into our tradition of circuit rallies.
One of my guiding principles has been the teaching of the Chinese sage Lao Tsu, who said, 'Go to the people. Live with them. Learn from them. Love them. Start with what they know. Build with what they have. But with the best leaders, when the work is done, the task accomplished, the people will say "We have done this ourselves.”'
When we look back on the past achievements of this circuit, if you find yourselves saying, 'See what Steve has done, or what Neil has done,' then we will not turn out to have been very good leaders. For these milestones to be enduring, you need to feel, 'Steve and Neil may have helped us, but we have done this ourselves.'
And, of course, even our most enduring achievements are not ours alone. Our work will only succeed if it is inspired and guided by God. We need to be wise, and the writer of the Letter to the Ephesians defines wisdom as 'understanding what the will of the Lord is.' [1] In his best moments, that is what King Solomon managed to do. In return, we are told that God rewarded him with long life. [2] Well, it isn't always so. But if we do the will of the Lord, God will sustain us and encourage us, which is why the Letter to the Ephesians says that we should aim to get drunk with the Spirit of God, like the first apostles on the Day of Pentecost when the Spirit came to them at nine o'clock in the morning. The Spirit which the writer has in mind is the Spirit of thanksgiving and rejoicing in the power and presence of God. So let us, whether w e are looking back or looking forward, go on 'giving thanks to God the Father, at all times and for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
[1] Ephesians 5.17
[2] 1 Kings 3

Sunday, August 13, 2006

A Happy, Healthy Church

The Letter to the Ephesians was probably written a considerable time after the death of St Paul. In the meantime he had fallen out of favour and then regained his popularity. People were clamouring for more of his teaching and Christians of long-standing found themselves hunting through their lofts, packing cases and blanket chests, looking for some of St Paul's missing letters which had been circulated long ago around the young churches in his care and then discarded or forgotten.
If losing a letter from St Paul sounds sacrilegious or careless then, in fairness, we need to remind ourselves that St Paul never crafted his letters as though he intended them to be kept for posterity. He dictated them, often in great haste, in a kind of shorthand that our careful English translations paper over and conceal. He was addressing immediate problems and often he was writing to people who disagreed with him intensely. Little wonder, then, that some of his letters did not survive, and that others survived only in fragments.
It's fashionable now to claim that St Paul invented Christianity, reshaping the original teaching of Jesus into something quite different but, in fact, during own his lifetime St Paul never had much influence on the shaping of Christianity. Like so many writers and artists, his enduring reputation was forged only after his death. At the time, other people appeared to win the arguments and only with the benefit of hindsight did Christians come back to St Paul's teaching and rediscover him as one of the Church's greatest ever theologians and pastors.
The writer of the Letter to the Ephesians seems to have been one of this new generation of fans. He had read all – or almost all – of St Paul's surviving works, and probably St Luke's biographical account of St Paul's ministry too. He may also have had in his possession some fragments of a letter written by St Paul to the Church in Ephesus. Around these he constructed what he believed St Paul would have wanted to say if he were writing to the same church now.
It's clear that he believed St Paul would have been greatly upset by disunity within the Church, so he makes a touching plea that members of his congregation – or of the different congregations in Ephesus – might bear with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. [1]
The writer is a realist. He knows just how difficult it is for Christians to get along even with one another. It takes every effort that we can muster to bear with one another's faults, failings and foibles. Not only that, but it takes every effort to reach out to one another across the divide between different generations, genders, cultures and races. Being one family under God is a nice idea. We talk about it when people are baptised, and it's the cosy concept which underpins our family services. There is even an organisation that has been set up to help us become more 'family friendly'. But the very fact that we need an organisation to help us do this proves what the writer of the Letter to the Ephesians already knew. Being one family is far from easy. In fact, he says it can only be achieved if we are united to one another by God's Spirit and if we allow God's deep peace, which passes all understanding, to bridge the many divides which separate us. Just as God is undivided, so we too can be undivided – but only through the grace of God, bestowed on us by Jesus Christ.
The writer embarks on a little digression at this point, quoting a creed used by the early Christians, which he uses to prove that Jesus Christ gives us the gifts that we need in order to live and work together in unity, and that these gifts are powerful enough to overcome every obstacle. Echoing the teaching of St Paul himself, he also says that we don't necessarily receive exactly the same gifts – but instead we are equipped by the Spirit according to the measure that we need, including any gifts we might need to carry out special tasks that have been assigned to us such as teaching, or evangelism, or pastoral care. But his key point is that – one way or another – all of us are given gifts to help us do two things. The first thing is the basic work of Christian ministry – which is, serving God in our daily life and work, whatever that might be. The second thing is the building up of the body of Christ, where we all share the same basic responsibility to help one another become more like Jesus Christ – and not just to become a little bit more like Jesus, either, but to measure up to the full stature of Christ; to think, and speak, and act exactly like him. Nothing less will do!
That incredible image – of being exactly like Jesus Christ himself – brings us back to the writer's main theme of getting along with one another. We mustn't be immature or behave immaturely. Instead we must strive for complete maturity in every aspect of our faith and life.
And we mustn't allow ourselves to get drawn into power struggles or devious schemes. I think that what the writer means by his colourful references to trickery, craftiness and deceitfulness is the tendency which all of us have of trying to persuade other people – even in church meetings – to do what we want rather than what God wants. When we're really serving our own interests – trying to keep things the way we prefer them to be, or to protect our own role in the church's life, or simply to have a quiet time and avoid being shaken out of a comfortable rut – that's not something we're likely to admit, is it? Instead, I guess we're all tempted to dress up our motives as something better and more noble than they actually are, to claim that we're only concerned for the best interests of the Church, or for the effectiveness of the Church's work, or that the will of Jesus Christ himself might be done. Of course, the only mature approach is to be honest both with ourselves and with others, and to confront our true reasons for doing things or for resisting change.
There is a difference, however, between speaking the truth and speaking the truth 'in love'. In many churches I have come across people who prided themselves on always speaking the truth, and they have seldom minded how obnoxious they were – or how many people they upset – in the process. After all, they had the perfect excuse for being nasty. They were only speaking the truth.
Interestingly, I have found that these same people didn't usually like it when others spoke the truth to them. Plain-speaking wasn't a two-way street! Nor were they always humble enough to recognise that they might still be wrong even when they were absolutely convinced that they had truth on their side.
The writer of the Letter to the Ephesians had met people like this too. That's why he's careful to qualify his statement by adding that we must speak the truth only in love. Love is always honest, and it can be angry when things are wrong and need to be put right. But a person who speaks the truth in love will be patient and kind, and will keep his or her self-control even when other people are losing theirs. Above all, speaking the truth in love is about being positive and constructive. It's about seeking to build something better rather than simply knocking things down. It's aim is to make the whole body stronger and more effective, not to cut others down to size, or teach them a lesson, or undermine them. And the writer concludes by reminding us that the mark of an effective church is always first and foremost that it is a loving church.
To sum up, then, what – according to the Letter to the Ephesians – should we look for in a healthy, happy church? We should look for a group of people who are making a real effort to find a sense of togetherness and shared purpose that will bridge all the differences between them. We should look for people who are keen to serve God in their daily lives and to encourage and build one another up whenever they meet together. We should look for people who are really striving to get the best out of life by measuring up to the pattern set for us by Jesus Christ. And we should look for a group of people who try to decide what to do with honesty, integrity and love. Then we shall have a church which is worth belonging to, which builds us up and helps us to grow. If we belong to a church like this we shall be able to do the works of God and we shall find ourselves working not just for the kind of goals which are here today and gone tomorrow, but for goals that will endure forever.
[1] Ephesians 4.25 - 5.2