A quickie homily

So, this weekend I was fortunate enough to be on a residential weekend with a group of other Readers (Licensed Lay Ministers) in training.  The purpose of the weekend was to look at crafting a sermon, the art of preaching, and how we can continue proclaim the Good News afresh in this and every generation.

It was great to be able to get together with others on the same journey, and reassuring to know that our Diocese takes our training and our responsibility seriously.

If you’ve read any of my blog before, you’ll know that I’m not new to preaching (thanks to my lovely Vicar having let me loose on the congregation at various points over the past couple of years!).  But what this weekend did was remind me of the responsibility that we all bear as Christ’s representatives on earth.  It reassured me that I appear to be doing something right.  And it reaffirmed my reasons for training as a Reader (because let me tell you it’s not without its difficulties).

Anyway, one of the things we had to do was write a homily.  A homily is pretty much like a mini sermon – something like ‘Thought for the Day’ on Radio 4, or ‘Pause for Thought’ on Radio 2, but lasting about five minutes.  My average sermon length is nine minutes, so you might think that writing one that lasts less time would be pretty easy.  Turns out, it’s not!  It can often take longer to craft a shorter message, because you’ve got to be a lot more brutal in what you put in and what you leave out.  Oh and added that, we were told at 11.00 am yesterday that we would be delivering our homilies (to be peer assessed no less) that same day. At 4pm.  Not only did we have to pick a set of readings from the next week (which therefore took a chunk out of actual preparation of message time), but we also had to make sure we did something much more important…eat lunch!  So in all we probably had about four hours to put together something that we felt would be ‘good’ enough to stand up and talk about in front of everyone.

I am astounded to say that we all managed not only to craft our homilies, but to get them in at the five minute mark.  And there was some seriously good stuff in there.  For a number of people on the weekend, they had never done any formal preaching before – and to them I doff my cap!

Anyway, in the absence of transcripts of anyone else’s homily, and because people seemed to enjoy mine, I present it here now.  Although I chose to aim it at the ‘audience’ before me that day (ie people training for licensed ministry in the church) I hope you enjoy it, and I hope that some of it may ring true for you, particularly if you are involved in some way in reaching others for Christ.  Which in a way I suppose we all are.  I think it’s really amazing what God can do with a person, a list of readings, and a Bible.  Because I tell you this, I couldn’t have done this alone.  To God be the glory!

The readings I used for the homily were taken from Sunday 27th January and the main service of the day.  And they were:

  • First reading
    • Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
  • Psalm
    • Psalm 19
  • Second reading
    • 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
  • Gospel
    • Luke 4:14-21

Yes, I thought ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’ and had a go at referencing them all!

I began with a prayer:

“Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”

“What in God’s name am I doing here?” That’s the question I asked myself a mere five hours ago as I sat down with my lectionary, my Bible, and a pen and paper.  Now I’m not a betting woman, but I suspect most of us here will have experienced similar thoughts if not today, then fairly recently.

Today’s Gospel reading recounts Jesus beginning his preaching and teaching ministry.  In verse 15 we hear that:

“He began to teach in the synagogues and was praised by everyone.”

Now that’s quite a claim…praised by everyone! I guess the Dave Walker cartoon we saw this morning [it depicted various members of the congregation with their wildly varying views on the sermon] may have been lost on Jesus at that point!

And of course later on in the reading, Jesus recites from the scroll about the Spirit of the Lord and anointing being upon him.  So it’s an auspicious start.  Of course we know what will come to pass as Jesus’ life and ministry continue.  But I wonder, did Jesus ever think:
“What in God’s name am I doing here?”  Well I kind of suppose he might have done.  Because we know that, although Jesus was fully divine, he was fully human too.  And though he may not have sinned, he must have had moments when he wondered “What am I doing?”. We know from his prayer in Gethsemane that he wondered if there might be an alternative to God’s plan for him.  So uncertainty, I think, was a part of his life.

And so, I think, it is with us.  I know my own journey to Reader training has often caused me to wonder what I am doing.  And perhaps nowhere does that feel more particularly pronounced, than when preparing to preach.  As we have discussed this weekend, it is a privilege and a responsibility to have the opportunity to share our faith publicly. And preaching it can feel overwhelming.

So with that in mind, I just want just want to refer to two other portions of scripture which make up today’s readings.  The first is taken from the New Testament Epistle (or letter) and is found in verse 28:

“And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers…”

I don’t think these are listed in any order of preference, but it is certainly reassuring to see that not only are we appointed, but that we are appointed by God.

And what has God appointed us to do?  Well, I can’t answer specifically for every person, but I do find it interesting that our Old Testament reading (from Nehemiah) contains these words:

“So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation.  They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.”

They gave the sense, so that the people understood the meaning.  And you know I think that’s really helpful.  For us, as preachers of the Word, we’re here to help people make sense of the Word.  We don’t need to trot out dissertations in the pulpit.  We don’t need to worry about a Bishop on the back row.  We don’t need to worry about the Biblical ‘expertise’ of others.  What we are doing here, in God’s name, is thinking about what God has said, or done, and helping people apply that to their lives now.

I began by using some words from Psalm 19 (which happens to be the Psalm set for today).  In that, the psalmist asks that the words that come from him, be acceptable to God.  And I would like to end by sharing the words which Jesus spoke when he read from the scroll, as recounted in our Gospel reading.  But as I read, please listen out for the word ‘me’.  And when you hear it, don’t think about ‘me, (the preacher)’, or even Jesus.  Instead, apply the word ‘me’ to yourself, and see how that makes you feel.

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

The Lord has anointed me, and he has anointed you also.  Amen.

 

 

 

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Taking a Leap


 

When I preached a few weeks ago at Pentecost, I kept coming back to the theme of excitement. I talked about exciting things in our own lives. We considered the excitement of Jesus’ disciples, having seen him risen from the dead and ascended into heaven. We were encouraged to think about the last time we were excited to be Christians. And I challenged us to think about how we could fan the flames of our faith into an almighty fire, so that when people look at us as Christians they see a spark of something that is attractive to them.

My sermon mentioned a few ideas as to how to fan the flame because, let’s face it, sometimes our enthusiasm for being a Christian and for all that comes with it, can seem but an ember. And after I had got home that Sunday afternoon, I was reading through my sermon notes again, hoping it had struck a chord with at least one person, and wondering what I might or could or should have done differently. And as I read through, this leapt out at me:

“Maybe we can – out in the ‘big wide world’ – be intentional about spotting those opportunities to talk about our faith, or to offer to pray for someone, or to mention what it means to us to follow Jesus Christ.”

When I prepare and then preach a sermon, I try never to do it so that people will think I’m putting myself on a pedestal. I try to make it about ‘all of us’ rather than ‘you lot in the pews and me in the pulpit’. I am aware that I have just as many faults and foibles, flaws and failings as the next person. And I am aware that I need building up, reassuring and challenging as much as anyone else.

So when I was writing the sermon, I was trying to convey what I felt God might be wanting to say not just through me, but to me. And this is where the extract above comes in.

For some time now I have been wearing a cross on a necklace as part of my everyday ‘adornment’. And that adornment is part of my work attire too. So it’s led to one or two img_20180515_112849.jpgconversations with people who have commented on how pretty it is, and then asked why I wear it. So a small handful of people I work with know that I am a Christian.

For some time too I have felt a desire to pray for my workplace. I work in a high school whose student population is about 95% Muslim, the workforce being about 20% Muslim. During Ramadan last year whilst at work, I felt moved to forgo my lunch and instead to spend the time I would have been eating, reading my Bible and praying for the school. Although I mentioned it to nobody at the time, I found the experience very moving and sensed God’s love over and around the school.

It was remembering this experience, along with wearing my cross, and thinking about how we as Christians can be more visible to others, that I felt that God was prompting me to do something extra. On that Sunday afternoon I didn’t really know what the extra would be, but on the Monday morning, I found out!

As I walked into work on the Monday, I felt very clearly and distinctly, that God wanted me to be brave and identify myself not only as a Christian, but as a Christian who wanted to bring the whole school – students and staff – before God in prayer. Not only that, but that I would pray every day, in my own time, before school started, within the school building. And not only even that, but also I should let the whole staff body know about it and offer to take prayer requests to hold before God.

I am not a brave person. I am not a fast to react person. I am not a person who feels comfortable putting myself in a situation where somebody might react in a way I feel I can’t handle. But this wasn’t about me, it was about God. It was time to practice what I had preached!

So I took a deep breath and went to see the Principal. And he said yes. He not only said yes, but he said it was a great idea. He not only said it was a great idea, but he suggested I use the girls’ prayer room to pray in. By the way, our Principal is a Muslim…

I had expected a refusal at worst, a cautious yes at best. I’m not sure what that says about my faith in God, or even my attitude to other faiths, but I do know what it says about God. One word. Awesome!

So when we got back to work on Monday after half term, an email went round the whole staff body explaining that I:

  • Am a Christian
  • Am coming to school earlier so I can pray
  • Am taking prayer requests
  • Am happy to pray for people of all faiths and none

That was two days ago and of all the emails I have ever sent out, that one has had the most impact. I have been approached or emailed back by people thanking me for sending it, by people coming to chat to me about being a Christian, and already, by some prayer requests.

The next thing I will be doing is standing up in our weekly staff meeting and reminding people to keep the requests coming and that I will continue to pray for us all. Now it’s one thing sending out an email, quite another talking to a staff body of 120 – I am really nervous about that but I know that God will give me strength – but again it’s not about me, it’s about giving people the chance to know that there is a God who loves them.

I am so excited and so nervous about where this will lead. God has an abundance of love and grace and blessings that he can pour out upon all people. And we are called as Christians to help to do that. So although in the grand scheme of things I’ve only taken a little step, it still feels like a great big leap to me.

I urge you to spend some time in prayer with God. Maybe he has an even bigger leap for you!

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Pentecost

Here’s the sermon I preached on Pentecost.  Feel free to comment!

Revd Rachel put this up on Twitter yesterday in reference to Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon at the Royal Wedding: ‘When you remember that @abigailmushroom (that’s my twitter name if you want to follow me!) is preaching tomorrow so you don’t have to follow that!’ I know! It’s a bit terrifying today. I did have my pad and pen handy ready to take notes but in the end I was transfixed and in awe of the message of love that Bishop Michael Curry preached at the wedding. And isn’t this a fantastic weekend? Full of celebration! Beautiful weather, a joyful wedding, a fiery sermon and now it’s Pentecost, one of the most significant days in our church’s year.

Those of you who know me well – and perhaps those of you who don’t – will know that I have a bit of a celebrity crush. That celebrity’s name is Caitlin Moran. For those of you who don’t know her work firstly – why?! But secondly, all you need to know is – she…is…awesome! She’s a feisty feminist female writer who can put forward very complex and difficult arguments in a way that is both humorous and profound. I aspire to be a little bit like her.

Anyway, a few weeks ago I got an email to say Caitlin was going on tour. So I booked some tickets. When I received the tickets I then tweeted Caitlin to say that I couldn’t wait to go see her. This is a woman who has 800,000 followers. And guess what? She replied to my tweet. I was so giddy that my husband Neil had to peel me off the ceiling and I suspect the same thing may happen when we go to see her next month (so apologies to Neil and to Caitlin in advance)!

So, that’s a little bit about one of my exciting experiences. And what I’d like you to do now is think of a time you got really excited about something…

Isn’t it great that we can find things to still get excited about. Isn’t it wonderful that we have the capacity to feel unbounded joy and pleasure? Amazing.

Well, if you can cast your minds back to the readings for Ascension Sunday last week, you’ll see another group of people who were pretty excited. The disciples. Last week the Gospel of Luke told us that when Jesus had been taken up to heaven the disciples “worshipped him, [they] returned to Jerusalem with great joy…[and] they were continually in the temple praising God.”

Now if you’ve ever been to a rock concert you might know what that’s like. I remember going to see REM back in the 90s and the atmosphere was electric. People were smiling and singing and raising their hands in the air with the sheer joy of being together and in the presence of their idols. There was such an energy there. And I’m sure that even if you’re not much of a one for rock concerts, you’ll have been somewhere, with other people, sharing in an experience that was communal and uplifting and celebratory.

And that’s what it was like for the disciples. They were praising God, they were celebrating, they were happy to be together, they were filled with joy at what God had done – raised Jesus from the dead – and they couldn’t keep that joy in.

You will probably be aware that for the past ten days Christians across the world have joined together to pray every day, ‘Thy Kingdom Come’. This global wave of prayer began on Ascension Day, and culminates today, at Pentecost. There have been multiple resources available to help bring us deeper into prayer and to consider what it might be like if we were to pray, in earnest, ‘Thy Kingdom Come’. One of the most effective set of resources for me has been the video reflections over the ten days, all centered round the central premise of ‘Thy Kingdom come’. And as I watched them and reflected on them and thought about what God might want me to say today, I prayed that something would stand out above all the others. Thankfully by Friday, it did. And the theme was ‘celebration’. Which was handy really as I’d been thinking about Pentecost, I’d been thinking about what it is to get excited about something, and I’d been thinking about whether or not we feel that excitement about church specifically, and about our walk with God in general.

I’ll come back to the video reflection in a bit, but I wanted to read out something that was on the TKC18 twitter feed on Friday. It’s this:

There’s just so little to get excited about these days…

Apart from our favourite things of course. But we are so ‘meh’ about nearly everything else. So little impresses us. So little really stirs us to deep joy. Because of this, we can bring our general boredom with life into how we see and think about God. We’re a bit bored with faith too. Our eyes are so distracted by the million everyday things around us, we never let it sink in…

We know God – the maker and holder of the whole universe!

We are loved and have been given life for ever!

We have reason to live and light to live by!

These are things to celebrate… but so often we almost give them the ‘whatever’. So in the boring, grey ‘meh’ of our everyday lives, look up today. Let’s realise the awe and wonder of God, hiding in plain sight just beyond the ‘meh.’

Two questions for you now – in a moment of quiet, I want you to ponder them:

  1. Can you remember the last time you were excited to be a Christian?
  2. Why are you here today?

Be honest with yourself…

…Because maybe if you can’t remember the last time you were excited to be a Christian, then maybe the reason you’re here today is not the right one. There’s nothing wrong with coming to church to see our friends, to help out at Sunday school, to sing in the choir or do any one of the other ‘jobs’ that need doing. But our primary reason for being here, is the reason we were created in the first place. It’s to worship God. (And by worship I don’t mean just the prayers or just the singing or just the peace.) In the New Testament, Mark 12:30 it says ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength’ so it is expected of us as Christians that this is what we will do. And whilst the other stuff is important, then if we’re not coming through those doors to worship God, we need to think about why we’re not coming with the primary purpose of worshipping God.

I mentioned previously that I have been watching a series of video reflections during the past ten days. And that the theme that stood out for me , was ‘celebration’. And here is something else I have shamelessly pilfered, this time from one of the video reflections by somebody called Shane Claiborne. Shane told the story of how his church community, due to a double whammy of an unexpected windfall of $20,000.00 thought to themselves “Now what are we going to do with this gift we have been given?” And what they ended up doing was staging a massive event on Wall Street. They had an outdoor party. They invited the homeless, the dispossessed, regular folks whose lives seemed to be the exact opposite of the lives being loved by the great movers and shakers in the world of finance. And at this party they gave things away – money, gifts, their time. They were noisy, they had fun, they celebrated. And do you know what – many many people inside those gilded offices and institutions on Wall Street – came out and mixed with those who were throwing the party. One of the ‘suits’ said that they just had to come out and see what was going on because it appeared so much more exciting than what was going on inside. What Shane Claiborne went on to say in his video was this:

“…our faith is not just a ticket into heaven and a license to ignore the world around us. Our faith is about bringing God’s dream on earth. We’ve got to celebrate the end vision of God’s kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven…the kingdom of God is a celebration.”

When I heard that story I just thought ‘wow’ – what if our churches were like that? What if our churches will filled with people who knew how to celebrate? What if what was going on ‘in here’ and ‘in here’ was so exciting, that people were drawn to us because it looked so much more exciting than what’s going on elsewhere?

Now I know excitement can be hard to manufacture, but it all starts somewhere. And if we want to feel enthused about our walk with God then we need to work at that too. After all I didn’t just decide to get excited about Caitlin Moran, or REM. From a little nugget of something I built up my devotion.

So we might need to think about how we enthuse our lives as we walk with God.

Maybe we can smile at one another.

Maybe we need to really think about the words of the hymns as we are singing them.

Maybe we can (if we are able) get down on our knees when we pray the prayer our Saviour taught us.

And it’s like Revd Rachel often says when explaining to folks why we face the back of the church at the end of the service. We need to take what we have learned in here, out there. Or as I once heard it said:

“The worship is ended – the service begins.”

Maybe we can – out in the ‘big wide world’ – be intentional about spotting those opportunities to talk about our faith, or to offer to pray for someone, or to mention what it means to us to follow Jesus Christ.

And as we leave this church building today, my prayer is that we take our Pentecost celebration out there with us, that we live every day with the prayer ‘thy kingdom come’ in our hearts, and that when people look at us, they see not just a person, but a person whose life is lived in celebration of the one to whom we pray ‘Thy Kingdom Come’.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

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If you can’t say anything nice…

 

Here’s the script of my sermon this Sunday (17th March) just gone.  I had actually set out to write something quite different, so I was quite surprised when it ended up being this.  God moves in mysterious ways!

The Gospel reading on Sunday was Luke 16:31-35 and the New Testament reading was Philippians 3:17-4:1

“If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything.”

Have you ever had that said to you? As a child – and particularly when arguing with my sister – it was said to me a number of times.

Words are incredibly powerful. Words can inspire acts of great goodness and beauty, but also acts of great horror and brutality.

Have a scroll through any social media platform (or if you don’t subscribe to social media, try reading an online newspaper article on a contentious issue and then look at the comments section) and it won’t be long before you’ll come across some real vitriol.

Take the recent case of Shamima Begum, the 19 year old from the UK who spurned the country – our country – that had fed and clothed and educated and cared for her for 15 years, and joined the jihad in Syria.

Four years later, having seen two of her children die and heavily pregnant with another, she asked if she could come home.

And the country gave her an answer. And the answer was ‘no’.

And we saw the reaction to her as a person. And the reaction was ugly.

Undoubtedly she has done wrong. Shamima Begum was ready to betray her country, our country, and she seemingly had little remorse or regret.

Comments on social media ranged from the humorous… “Making a mistake when you’re 15 is getting caught down the field steaming drunk on White Lightning, not joining ISIS.”… to the humourless… “Don’t let these women wedded to terror come home. They made their Isis husband’s beds, now let them rot in hell.” Disturbing too were the reports of a shooting range using a picture of the teenage girl’s face as target practice.

I don’t how Jesus would have handled the whole Shamima Begum situation. I don’t know what his reaction would be towards those of us who want to Shamima and people like her to ‘rot in hell’ (although the parable of The Prodigal Son did come to mind more than once when I pondered her story). What I do know is this though, no matter what we say, what we think, or what we do, Jesus wants to be with us in our pain.

In our Gospel reading today we are told that Jesus laments over Jerusalem, and we hear these words:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem…How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

I wonder how many of us find that we act like children of Jerusalem a lot of the time? I don’t mean just in the case making a mistake of epic proportions, or of our reaction to a teenager who made a mistake of – admittedly hugely – epic proportions.  It can be in all kinds of things.  We might be Brexit Remainers who pour scorn and derision on those who voted Leave – or we might be Leavers who are fed up of hearing Remoaners go on and on about how awful things are going to be when (or if!) the UK leaves the EU.  We might have the attitude that the way that we worship is better than the way others choose to worship. We might deride young people for being oversensitive ‘snowflakes’, or we might think the older generation are out of touch and irrelevant.

If we can’t think of anything nice to say, we end up saying something nasty. Instead of drawing near to God, we are, as Jesus says of the children of Jersualem, not willing to do so.

Our other reading this morning was from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. In it he urges the church at Philippi to draw nearer to Christ, as in so doing they may be conformed to Christ and live more fully the life meant for them.

I think God wants us to live more fully the life that is meant for us. And that is not a life of griping and sniping, of bitterness and contempt.  Jesus gave his life that we might live, and have life to the full.  He didn’t give his life so that we might spend it pulling other people down.  Jesus wanted to gather together the children of Jerusalem so that they could find their strength and comfort in him. But the children of Jerusalem preferred to do things their own way, treating their God as a distant being, and living their lives far from God.  And ultimately, their rejection of Jesus brought upon them their undoing, their undoing at their own hands.

Now in what might seem like a crunching gear change, I would like to finish today by mentioning St Patrick. Today is St Patrick’s Day, and I did a bit of research on him yesterday. Patrick became a Christian whilst being held in slavery in Ireland.  He managed to escape his master and thereafter began his Christian ministry.  Some years later, after he had been appointed bishop, he decided that – rather than holding a grudge against his former master, he would return and pay his ransom.  Yes he had been treated badly – possibly inhumanely – by those who had kept him in slavery.  But Patrick had experienced God’s grace, and who was he to not extend that grace to others, even those at whose hands he had suffered?

Patrick was called by God. Patrick was sheltered by God like a mother hen who gathers her brood under her wings. Patrick brought many people to Christ, because he allowed himself to be guided by the will of God. Here are some of the words of St Patrick’s breastplate prayer:

Christ be with me,
Christ within me,
Christ behind me,
Christ before me,
Christ beside me,
Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ in quiet,
Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

During Lent, we as Christians hope that through examination of our actions and attitudes, we can discern which of those are of God, and which of those are not of God. If we allow Jesus to ‘gather us together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings’, then we allow ourselves, just by being in proximity, to be influenced and guided by God’s will, and to experience Christ within and all around us.

My prayer this Lent, is that we let Jesus shelter us as a hen gathers her brood under her wings. And that, in drawing closer to God, through Jesus, we may discern the will of God in all that we do, all that we think and all that we say. And that instead of deciding if we can’t say anything nice, to not say anything, we decide if we can’t say anything nice, to ask God to help get us to that place where we can.

Amen.

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Next steps

This blog is a bit of a mix of sermons, reflections on life in general, and a narrative about my personal journey with Christ.  Through all these things I guess I am attempting to chart my ‘lived-out’ experience as a Christian; not only that, but also to try to make sense of the many things that life throws at me.  I hope that my ponderings might also strike a chord with other folks from time to time.  We’re all in this together after all.  But at the very least, this blog is pretty good at serving as something like this…

…which is what these next few paragraphs are going to be.  A kind of ‘holding place’ (or as Prof. Dumbledore calls it, a ‘Pensieve’) for some stuff that’s been going round and round my head!

If you’ve been following my blog at all you’ll know I’ve been exploring ordination for quite some time.  In my post ‘Calm in the storm’ (10th January 2018) I wrote a bit about what was going on in my life and the uncertainty I felt due to a number of factors.  Some of those things are still the same, but others have moved on (for example I aced my assessed work – I was pleased and slightly startled! – which has given me the confidence to keep pressing on with my studies and to dare to dream that I may do ok in the next round of assignments).

Whatever else is happening though, I still feel very strongly this call of God upon my life to do something ‘more’ than I am currently doing, to serve Him.  As previously mentioned, I have been exploring my calling for around ten years – at times with vim and vigour, and at times reluctantly.  These past couple of months have been very much the latter.  I have had some real doubts.  I have wondered whether all this hard work is worth it.  I have felt that so much of the joy and enthusiasm that I felt at the beginning of my stepping out in determination at the start of 2016, had dissipated.

However, three things happened to me a couple of weeks ago which helped that joy and enthusiasm start to bubble up again.

The first was this – I had a very vivid dream.  I’m not really a one for thinking that dreams can have a massive impact on my decision-making process (which is probably a good thing seeing as most of mine are decidedly odd), but this one stuck with me.

In my dream I was sitting at a table.  All of a sudden a man came up to me and introduced himself as Philip.  He asked if he could sit down and have a chat with me.  He asked me what made me happy.  In my dream I said “finding out about things, passing on that knowledge, and helping people find out more about God”.

That was the end of the dream.  I woke up smiling.

The dream had come the night before our Diocesan School of Ministry study day.  We opened with some worship and the reading was this, Acts 8:26-40:

26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go towards the southto the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.) 27So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ 30So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ 31He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.’
34The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ 35Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’And Philip said, ‘If you believe with all your heart, you may.’ And he replied, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. 38He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philipbaptized him. 39When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

[Interestingly when I went to my Bible to read along, it fell straight open at the scripture – that never happens!]

Following the reading we were asked to pick out, from a list, some words which appealed to us.  I chose ‘teaching, trust, obedience’.  Those words seemed to leap out at  me and remained with me for the rest of the day.  I felt like God was trying not only to speak to me about what was going on within the Bible reading, but also what the Bible reading might have to say about my current state of affairs.

Then the third thing.  There is a member of the School of Ministry team with whom I have a long history, having known them for a decade now.  This person is one in whose opinions I lay a lot of store – and in my experience they don’t say things unless they need saying.  This person took me to one side at the end of the day and said to me “Rachael, are sure that Reader Ministry is definitely not for you?”.

Now had anyone else said this to me, I would have shrugged it off.  But when this person said it to me, I couldn’t shrug.  Not only could I not shrug, but I found I didn’t want to.

I actually saw one of these:

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And I felt like this:

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Now it’s not like I haven’t considered Reader ministry before.  In fact right at the very beginning of my inkling that I was being called to ‘something else’ in the C of E, I did consider it.  And it was really appealing.  But then as I ventured further along the path, I felt like I was being prompted to very seriously consider ordained ministry.  So I did – and I have – and I continue to do so.  A couple of people did say to me ‘ooh you would make a really good Reader’, but more than a couple of people have said to me ‘ooh you would make a really good Priest’.

I am aware that having been contemplating ordination for a very long time now, to veer off in the direction of contemplating Reader ministry may seem like I’m just fishing around for any chance of getting ‘in’ with some form of authorised ministry.  I also worry that having come away from the Bishop’s office for a second time, without being sponsored for a BAP, that I will appear wishy-washy and like I don’t really know what I want to do.

However, I guess that that’s the discernment process.

Which is why I (ever the bibliophile) I picked up a book on the subject on my way back from the study day:

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Having read it it’s done a good job of nudging me to make a decision as to which way to go.

It still is kind of tricky because I do feel that ordained ministry could be for me, and me for it, and I am ok with waiting for it.  I know that if God wants me in a certain situation, then He has the power to put me there (or at least nudge me nearer to there!).  But a number of times I have wondered if ordination is a  ‘yes, but not yet’.  And even as I was sitting in the Bishop’s office in December, I did keep thinking ‘maybe I’m meant to be a Reader’, whilst talking about the reasons I felt drawn to ordination.  That said, I don’t want it to appear like I’m contemplating Reader ministry as a stop-gap or stepping stone to ordination.    I do know that in conversation with my Spiritual Director, and with a good friend of mine who spent some time as a Reader before being ordained, they both encouraged me to hang on to that sense of calling that I’d had for so long.

But whether that is Reader…Priest or Reader…Reader or …Priest or indeed …???!!! who can say?

I’m pretty much ready to take the next steps though – and I’m sure whatever’s around the corner, it won’t be boring!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sermon – 18.02.18 – Where am I this Lent?

This was a tough one to write – I don’t know why.  In the end I wrote it the day before I was preaching.  I’d prayed that whatever ended up coming out of my mouth would touch at least one person (for good, not for bad!).  Thankfully I got more than one positive report on it.  I always feel a great sense of honour and some extent pressure, when writing a sermon.  I know I can’t please all of the people all of the time, but I do hope to please (or challenge, or uplift, or comfort, or affirm) some of the people, some of the time.

The sermon was based on the Gospel reading which was Mark 1:9-15

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.  He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.”

Where am I this Lent?

If you take away nothing else from this sermon today, then I’d like you to take away that little phrase.

Where am I this Lent?

Take a moment just to think about that.

When I was thinking about the Gospel reading for today, an image came to mind of mountains and valleys and it lead me to consider how we all have mountain top and valley deep experiences in our lives.

I wonder whether you’re closer to the mountain or the valley this Lent?

And I wonder what today’s reading could say to you about that?

Where am I this Lent?

The start of the Gospel reading has Jesus, joining with many others and going down to the River Jordan to be baptised. We hear that: “…just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.”

Let’s not forget that although Jesus is the Son of God, he is also a regular human being. So what happens next: “…a voice came from heaven…” is not run of the mill. It’s what might be described as a mountaintop experience. Jesus, as with the other people gathered there, has heard John and accepted his message and declared his faith publicly through the act of baptism. Of course where Jesus differs from the rest of the crowd is that he has not sinned. But Jesus wasn’t baptised just for show –he was baptised as an outward sign of his obedience to God. It’s just that God happened also to be his father. And it is when his father speaks and says: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” that this mountaintop experience begins.

So I wonder, in the context of the question Where am I this Lent? Are you there? Are you having your own mountaintop experience? Can you relate to what happens in these three short verses?

Perhaps though when you ask yourself Where am I this Lent? You are a bit more aligned to what happens next.

“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.”

We have heard the Gospel reading today from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, which tells us that the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. A quick glance into some other interpretations gives us sent (NIV), pushed (The Message), and made him go (GNV).

All of this gives us the sense that Jesus, divine yet fully human, son of God and son of man, a real person with real emotions, joys and fears, was not necessarily champing at the bit to let go of his mountaintop experience. Now this is purely conjecture, but perhaps Jesus was thinking that this mountaintop experience was the beginning of his ‘mission’. After all, he has heard a voice from heaven saying that he is doing well; he may have felt empowered and equipped and ready to take on the world. Instead, the Spirit – the same one who moments before had landed on Jesus in the form of a dove – tells him to take on not the world, but the wilderness.

So Jesus – possibly still literally wet behind the ears – goes.

We know that Jesus spent a long time in the wilderness. Forty days and forty nights is long enough when you are comfortable and don’t have many challenges. But when you are trying just to survive, when every day is a struggle, and when you don’t know what tomorrow will bring, then forty days and forty nights is a long stretch. We hear that Jesus not only had to contend with wild beasts, but with Satan too.

So is this you? If you were to ask yourself Where am I this Lent? You might not be dealing with actual real live beasts, but perhaps there are things happening to you or to those you care for, that are making you feel like you are in a personal wilderness time. Maybe it does feel like you’re having to struggle with Satan.

Now I want, just briefly, to mention the other three readings given for today. I am of course preaching on the Gospel reading, but the others, in a nutshell are:

The Old Testament reading – Noah, the ark, the rainbow;

The Psalm – God’s steadfast love and faithfulness;

The New Testament reading – references to Noah, to baptism, and salvation.

When all of these readings are taken together, we can identify a very important thread running through them.

In all these readings, God is there. God is there for Noah – and he places a rainbow in the sky as a promise. The psalm talks of God’s everlasting and steadfast love. The NT reading is a letter from Paul, with a reminder to God’s people that God did not abandon Noah, that God is patient, and that God raised Jesus from the dead.   All reminders of God’s presence.

If you are asking yourself Where am I this Lent? the answer could be you might be on a mountaintop of joy, or you might be in a valley of despair. You might be one thing one day and another the next, or all kinds of things rolled into one.

If we look again at our Gospel reading, we very easily see at the beginning that God is present, when he speaks to Jesus. It may not seem immediately obvious where God is when Jesus is in the wilderness, as we quite naturally get taken up with wild animals and Satan. But we do hear that when Jesus was in the wilderness, there also were angels who – depending upon the translation we read – waited on him, ministered to him, helped him, took care of him. So even in the wilderness, when Jesus would have felt far from all he knew – the presence of God, through the angels, remained.

So when you ask yourself Where am I this Lent? have a think about how you’re going to feel the presence of God.

Lent is a special time for us as Christians, and as such there are a number of church-led opportunities for you to draw near to God, or to draw nearer than you are right now.

Perhaps you could come to one of the Lent groups, to refresh your knowledge about how the things we do in church draw us nearer to God. Maybe it is that you would prefer to sit and to pray – so you could consider coming to Morning or Evening Prayer. There are also many online and printed resources you can use – because God isn’t limited to a church building – and if you are thinking that you would like to use Lent to become more aware of God’s presence, but are not sure where to start, just ask one of the Ministry Team.

Because wherever you are this Lent, God is near you. Whether you feel God’s presence or not, God is near you. Whether you want God or not, God is near you.

So when you leave this building later today, and go out into the world, and ask yourself Where am I this Lent? Remember that wherever you are, you are always in the presence of God.

Amen

 

 

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Sermon – 26.11.17 – St Stephen

Here’s the text of my sermon from Boxing Day.  It was our church’s patronal festival and I was given the honour of preaching at it.  I was going through a bit of a ‘dark night of the soul’ at the time, but constructing this sermon helped the darkness begin to lift a little.

The Gospel reading was Matthew 10:17-22

17Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; 18and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. 19When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; 20for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. 21Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; 22and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

Our Gospel reading for today is on first glance a pretty bleak one. All that stuff about being hauled up before the authorities, being flogged, families turning against one another, people being hated. All these warnings about what may happen if people choose to witness about Jesus Christ.  It’s not particularly encouraging.

Hidden in the middle of this Gospel reading however, we have these words:

“…do not be anxious about how you are to speak or what you are to say, for you will say what is given to you in that hour.”

We often seem to find this in portions of scripture – a little nugget hidden amongst all the other stuff. And it’s this little nugget that I would like us to take away with us today.

“…do not be anxious about how you are to speak or what you are to say, for you will say what is given to you in that hour.”

As I was preparing today’s sermon, I felt very much that this was the message to take away. But I also wanted to think a little bit about the reason for us being here in church today (no, not the mince pies and sherry at the end of the service!). The reason being of course that it’s St Stephen’s Day.

Now I’ll have to admit that apart from being aware the Stephen was the first Christian martyr, that’s pretty much as far as my knowledge of him went. So I thought it would be a good idea to read about him a little more – and here is a brief synopsis.

In the early life of the Christian church the followers of Jesus attended temple, but it wasn’t long before a debate arose over the distribution of food. There were two groups of Jews in Jerusalem at the time – those who had been born and raised there, and those who were from outside of Jerusalem but had chosen to make it their home.  It would seem that some of the outsiders were not getting a fair deal when it came to the distribution of food (there is probably a whole other sermon there, but unfortunately no time to go into it today!).

In order to address the problem, a group from the ‘outsiders’ (the Hellenists) went to see the Apostles, who suggested the Hellenists set up a council of seven trusted people who would be able to oversee the fair distribution of the food.

One of these seven was Stephen, and of him, it is written that he was:

‘…full of grace and power [he] did great wonders and signs among the people’.

And it would seem that the issue over food distribution was sorted out, as we do not hear of it again.

However, in an echo from the recent past, there were those who didn’t like Stephen and the great wonders and signs that he did. And the next we hear; Stephen has been arrested. Again with echoes of a recent past, it doesn’t matter that Stephen is innocent of any charges levelled at him, and that the testimonies against him are fabricated, he is, like Jesus, put to death anyway. And again, with echoes of the words of Jesus upon the cross, Stephen says:

“Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

And then he dies.

But how does all this fit in with our Gospel reading and the nugget that I wanted us to take away with us? Well if you remember, the nugget is this:

“…do not be anxious about how you are to speak or what you are to say, for you will say what is given to you in that hour.”

And just like this nugget that is found in the middle of the Gospel reading, so too there is a nugget in the middle of the Acts reading about Stephen. Well it’s quite a lot more than a nugget actually, maybe more of a chunk.

I have mentioned before the similarities to Jesus’ arrest, subsequent trial and execution. But where the stories differ is that Jesus did not say very much in court.  Stephen however, takes the opportunity when asked by the high priest:

“Are these things so?”

to launch into a long and powerful speech – not in his defence but, as it turns out, accusing the people of Israel of idolatry and blasphemy.

I am not sure if Stephen knew when he made this speech, to where it would lead him. I am not sure if he knew he was about to make this speech. But I imagine that the words which came out of his mouth – words which detail not only the history of Israel, but also speak of warning to God’s people not to let it happen again – were God given.  There would have been many gathered in the court for whom these words would have been an inconvenient truth (which was all the more reason to silence the person speaking them). But of course what Stephen’s executors (and Stephen himself) were not to know at that time, would be how his words, and their actions, would be written down and referred back to, through centuries to come.

And of course what Stephen’s executors (and Stephen himself) were not to know at that time, would be how a certain man in the crowd – a man holding the coats of those who were stoning Stephen – a man called Saul, would become one of the most effective means of the spreading of the Good News of Jesus Christ and of God’s kingdom on earth.

And so we return to our Gospel nugget:

“…do not be anxious about how you are to speak or what you are to say, for you will say what is given to you in that hour.”

We may not be called upon to stand up in front of a court and witness. We – hopefully – will not end our days by being put to death by an angry mob throwing stones at us.  But we are called, to bear witness to Jesus Christ. (Incidentally did you know that ‘martyr’ means ‘witness’?)  It might seem like an enormous task at times – how do we witness?  How will we know what to say in a situation which we think calls for us to talk of God?  It’s all very well sitting in church and singing hymns and praying and listening to a sermon.  But how do we carry the Good News out into the world?  Well, I don’t know.  I can’t give a pat answer for every situation that we may come across in life. But I do know this – that by attentiveness to God’s word.  By meeting with God’s people.  By time spent in prayer.  By all these things, then when the times do come for us to be martyrs – to bear witness – then we can trust God that we will say what is given to us in that hour.

Amen.

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Calm in the storm

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‘Stronghold’ Sieger Koder

This is my ‘post-Bishop’ post!

I can’t promise that all my posts make sense, but if you want half a chance of knowing what this one’s about then you’ll probably want to read ‘I’m off to see the Bishop!’ to get some kind of a clue.

The picture that you see above is of a postcard that I picked up in a bookshop recently.  I’ve more recently given this postcard to a friend of mine, but I think I’ve given it the correct title – let me know if I’m wrong – of ‘Stronghold’.

I bought the postcard just a couple of days before I went to see the Bishop, back in December.  I didn’t know then that I’d end up passing it on to someone whom I thought would probably need it more than me; all I knew was that I felt prompted to buy it and keep it about my person.

As I say, I was going to see the Bishop that week.  But the day before going to see him, I was also off to see my Academic Tutor who advises me on my assessed work for the Diocesan School of Ministry that I attend.

So I had a meeting with a Tutor, a meeting with a Bishop, and then an (unrelated) phone conversation with some troubling content.  All within the space of 24 hours.

I was glad I had the postcard.

The meeting with the Tutor had been harder going than expected.  It was to discuss the second part of my assignment.  I’d worked really hard on it and, boosted by the warm reception for the first part, had kind of assumed I’d get the same type of feedback.  Well you know what happens if you assume don’t you?  I wouldn’t say my work was ripped to shreds, but it was torn into quite a bit.  Still, having decided to take the (constructive) criticism on the chin, I took my notes home and vowed to use the episode as a chance for academic development.

Next up was the meeting with the Bishop.  This time I felt I’d done my homework – literally and figuratively (see previous post) and although I was more nervous than on my previous visit, I was more sure of myself.  And actually this time the chat was much better.  I did feel a bit grilled, but I also felt that I gave strong, articulate answers.  Not only about the difference being ordained would make to me and what I would be able to do as a result of it, but also about the type of ministry to which I might be being called.  So I did feel like I was coming from a position of strength.  What happened next then was a bit of a shocker.  Because I actually thought the Bishop was going to say I could go to a BAP.  And he didn’t say that.  He said that if the area of ministry to which I feel called, is an area of ministry to which I could be called, then I should go on a placement to the kind of parish I was talking about. AAAGH!  Now I have nothing against new experiences (well, I do a little bit) and in essence I think it’s a great idea.  But I felt like it was another hoop.  And that I would need to jump a little bit higher.  Don’t get me wrong, I think it is really important to have your vocation tested and I am sure that it will all be worth it in the end, whatever I end up doing.  But just at that moment I could have chucked the towel in.  Instead I said ‘yes that’s fine, I have no problem with going on placement’ (because I don’t really) and again left the office with the hope of returning at a later date.

I then returned to work, and it was there that just a couple of hours later I received a phone call which meant I needed to leave immediately and attend to a really distressing situation.  It’s a situation that won’t be discussed here, but needless to say it helped me put the other stuff in context.  It’s a situation that won’t go away by itself.  It’s a situation that has already improved in some ways, but that could easily rear its head again.  It’s a situation that is way out of my comfort zone (bigger than any placement) and which is draining mentally, emotionally and spiritually.  It’s a situation that scares me.

And so back to the picture.  After the Tutor meeting, after the Bishop meeting, after the Situation.  The picture.  It kept coming to my mind and I kept taking it out of my bag to look at it.  I then transferred it to the kitchen so I could see it more frequently. It’s what kept me going for the next few weeks of rewriting my work, of thinking about placements, of dealing with the situation, of standing waiting for the kettle to boil and trying to keep calm in the storm.

As we approached Christmas at our church, I would find myself in situations (carol service, nativity, midnight mass) where I couldn’t sing the words to the carols, because I felt powerless and lost and angry and sad, all at the same time.  I knew it was due to the emotional turmoil I was going through, and so what I tried to do was keep that image in my mind, let the words speak to me where they could, and just keep calm in the storm.

And then a funny thing happened.  A few days after Christmas, my husband and I were out with my best friend and her husband.  We were talking about our hopes for 2018, and my friend mentioned that someone at the church they attend, had decided to ‘claim’ 2017 with a word, or a phrase.   So my friend and I decided to pray over the next few days as to what we thought God’s message might be for us for 2018.

It wasn’t long before I had a number of things whirling around in my mind, but the one that kept coming back to me in my prayers was ‘Be the calm in the storm’.

That was quite scary for me.  A lot of folks who know me seem to think I am quite a calm person.  Maybe it’s because I’m a bit slow on the uptake (or a ‘reflective thinker’ as my Vicar more kindly phrased it for me!).  And I suppose because I like to weigh up a situation from various angles, I might be seen as being calm.  The thing is though – the picture had reminded me that the calm in my storm was God – it seemed that what God was trying to tell me was that through the choppy waters of 2018, I would need to be that calm for others.

Hmm.

Eventually I realised that, if God could put the thought there, and that if God was going to be my calm in the storm, then I would just have to ‘girl up’ and get on with it.

And I am reminded of the scripture that I’ve mentioned before, and which has stuck with me for a long time now:

“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13, NKJV)

So here I am, braced for the storm.  And I know that my stronghold, my God, is braced too.

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I’m off to see the Bishop!

In my previous post on here, I mentioned that I was, amongst other things, waiting to see the Bishop.

It seems quite apt that, just as the season of Advent and waiting begins, my wait to see the Bishop is over.

If you’ve seen my previous post you’ll see where I came unstuck.  It’s because of that becoming unstuck that I’ve spent the last 16 months honing my ‘reason(s) why ordination will make a difference to me‘.  And I think I know.

The thing is, will the reasons I have, be the reasons the Bishop wants to hear?

I’m not going to list those reasons here as they’re personal to me, and to share them just now wouldn’t seem right.

But here’s what’s whirling round my head right now…

  • I hope that I’m not doing this for me (if I’d known how much internal upheaval the whole exploration process was going to bring, then I’m not sure I’d have ever begun).
  • I think that I am doing this for God – because God will not leave me alone.  For ten years now it’s been like a dripping tap and I have not felt easy since that still small voice whispered in my ear.
  • I know that I have had to learn to trust and to rest in God over this last year and a bit.  One lesson I have been learning is I have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
  • I pray that whatever the outcome tomorrow – whether the Bishop thinks I should go and be BAP’d or whether I should not – that I have the strength to cope with what comes next.

And off I go, off to see the Bishop.  I will report back when I’m out the other side!

 

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Who and where am I?!

Back at the end of July, after school had finished for the summer (I work in a high school so I had finished too – yay!), I delivered my last session as the Children’s Work Co-ordinator at my parish church.

I had been involved with the children’s work (though I don’t like to call it ‘work’ as that suggests hard toil!) for ten years, and had looked after the Sunday school groups and other activities, for nine.  It was a time of huge spiritual growth for me, and one in which I learned to accept that I can’t know the answers to everything, that children are incredibly perceptive (sometimes unnervingly so) and that if you can’t explain a concept to a four year old, then you probably don’t understand it yourself!

As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, at the end of July I delivered my last session.  I received some lovely gifts, a ‘big up’ from the Vicar, and lots of ‘thank you’s’.  It was lovely.

And at first I was ok.  A couple of years previous, I had taken three months ‘off’ doing anything to do with the children’s work.  I’d been doing it for seven years and was feeling a bit jaded if I’m honest.  I’d also been allowing God’s voice about exploring my vocation, to penetrate a bit more than previously.  I didn’t really think about it being a trial run for not doing the children’s work anymore, but I did know that at some point I would need to stop doing it, as much for the chance for fresh blood and new ideas to be allowed to flourish, as for myself.

My time away from the front line was fruitful and formational, in that instead of x amount of hours per week being taken up with planning, overseeing rotas, thinking of themes, putting practical things in place, I was able to just ‘be’ with God.  At first I’d thought I would read this theological book, or spend time doing that amount of Bible study.  As it happened, I didn’t really do those things.  But I did spend more time in prayer and resting in God’s presence. And God was more than happy to welcome me.  And what He seemed to say to me was “Keep going.”.

Continue reading

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