Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Advent Preaching: God's Graciousness Can Be as Unsettling as God's Displeasure

Two really good reads on preaching I've just discovered are

Can Words Express Our Wonder; Preaching in the Church Today Rosalind Brown, Canterbury Press 2009

The Word Militant; Preaching a Decentering Word Walter Bruggemann, Fortress Press paperback edition 2010

I've long been a big fan of Bruggemann, but Brown's writing is new to me. In some ways the two authors both come from similar places in that they understand preaching as the activity of the imagination engaging with secripture.  Brown uses a musical metaphor to talk of preaching as 'Singing the Lord's song in a new land' (Ps.137) The preacher learns to make their own melody from the raw materials of scripture and tradition, that is, tradition in the sense of the community which is already engaged in the adventure of preaching. I loved her insight that preaching is engaging for the listener because of the preacher's 'immersion in, not ingenuity with God's word.'  And her wisdom that preparation for preaching involves a challenge to live differently, not simply to speak creatively. This is why preaching has always been one of the main well springs of spiritual renewal in my own life - and also an unnerving barometer of my own spiritual health at times. The book is full of practical help for the preacher and an enjoyable read.

If you know Bruggemann, then there is nothing very unexpected in this volume but I found two chapters particularly helpful. The first, 'An Imaginative Or' sets out very clearly Bruggemann's  understanding of how the Old Testament leads to the New; it does not lead there 'singularly and necessarily' but only with 'immense interpretive agility'. The connection is grounded in the character of Yahweh and the character of the people who are called out of one kind of existence to something new and radical by their relationship (experienced in absence as much as presence) with this God, a God who holds out a series of moral either/or's. (Think of some of the NT parables.) When the people are under threat or in despair, these moral alternatives give the key to survival and transcendence of the threat through the possibility of living differently. Two examples; either it's every man for himself at the expense of others, or read Deuteronomy 24.19 - 22 where the three-cornered relationship of land owner, land and landless produces a way for all to live together; either become a 'punctilious community of religious discipline, engaging in religious scruple with amazing callousness about the world of human transaction' or read Isaiah 58.1-9 and learn to commit to your oppressed, hungry or homeless neighbour. And the thrust of all this? Decide, by an act of will ,to turn your back on the way things are and look for One who will show you how to live in new ways....

I also like the chapter called 'The Shrill Voice of the Wounded Party'. In it Bruggemann debunks the stereo-types of the Old Testament that portray the God of the Old Testament as unbending and unmerciful, governing through a rigid system of punishment for sin. He gives four examples that show brilliantly how subtle the Old Testament is in its understanding of sin and how sinners are dealt with. There are no absolutes here. Jonah, for example, finds God disturbing precisely because he percieves a forgiveness (for the transgressing but supposedly repentant people of Nineveh) deep within God that he had not expected or wanted. God's graciousness can be as unsettling as God's displeasure.

Chapters like these are giving me plenty to think about and chew on this Advent!

Monday, 29 November 2010

No one under 40?

The Band With No Name is greeted with enthusiasm during Gracefest 2010 at Ripon

One of the myths that is around about rural life is that there 'aren't many young people'. (I hear that said by churches approximately once a day.) Actually one source of research suggests that under 16's account for only 0.9% less of the population in rural areas than in urban ones. It is true that the 16-24 year old age range migrate to the towns and cities in large numbers, but 43.4% of all migrants to the counrtyside are aged between 25 and 44.  There's young and there's young, I suppose. But all this suggests that, even though we do have an aging population in the region, there ought to be quite a few under 40's around. And I think the evidence of my eyes tells me this is so! So I was interested when our Children and Young People's Officer told me about a conversation he had had with NYCC's Children's Strategy and Commissioning Officer who alerted him to the fact that there are young families who are isolated and perhaps needing help across the area, especially in the Ripon, Wensleydale and Richmond areas. On Sunday, at Sharow, the congregation was collecting toys for churches to distribute over Christmas and this got me to thinking about what we can do to support and encourage older young people and particularly young parents. Some of our churches have after school activities (not necessarily - indeed, often not - in church) and many of these result in parents coming to pick children up and stopping to chat, join in with activites and share refreshments. Several of these 'clubs' are bigger and more regularly attended than Sunday services. It's very good when the lines between Sunday worship and community celebration get blurred like this and great fun when the church goes to where people are.

We're thinking about you, Richmond!

Richmond Castle from the Green Howards' Memorial
It's been a great day for sharing a shovel with a neighbour, having long chats on the phone with people you can't get to see, walking across snow-clad fields, drinking tea with the residents of a nursing home and researching places to buy 4X4's on the internet. But I know the snow has caused a little disappointment for Richmond where their new Rector, John Chambers is being welcomed, this evening, in the weather-bound absence of many who would love to be there but daren't venture out. John, we hope your new ministry will be very happy inspite of the chilly start.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

As Winter sets in....

Snow in the Village
Just a pretty picture to remind us of the importance of good neighbours to help us get through the cold spell. And to remind us to pray for all who have to venture out on the roads in adverse conditions, especially farmers, emergency services, nurses and carers, clergy and those who work in transport, mail and haulage.

O God, our Creator,
You are present in Your power in every place.
Preserve, we pray, all who travel in treacherous conditions;
Surround and warm them with your loving care,
Protect and separate them from every danger,
And bring them in safety to their journey's end,
Through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Lost in Wonder, Love and Praise?

Christmas at Ripon
I've just spent a snowy day preparing a course on worship for York St John University and marvelling, yet again, over what it is that makes worship live (or conversely appear static, incomprehensible ritual.) For 12 evenings from Easter to July, in Ripon, we shall be examining the deep roots of Christian worship. What transformed it from a group of people basically following Jewish worship practices and recalling Jesus in a simple meal, to  a year-round, world wide celebration of Christ's birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension? How do Christians understand the freedom, insight and 'fresh take' on tradition that the Holy Spirit brings in diverse cultures? And how do our experiences of worship today emerge from and draw on these traditions while speaking of new experiences of God in the lives of believers? For nearly 20 years, I've taught worship (liturgy) to students in Britain, Sri Lanka and the Czech Republic and to students from across Africa. It is always an adventure in which we discover afresh how God communicates with and renews people whether in a grand cathedral mass or a tiny country church where Prayer Book Mattins has been the bedrock of worship for four centuries, whether in  rediscovering the path of the Celtic saints or serving breakfast to people with no home and missing morning prayers to find them dry clothes and a food hamper. Today I have been planning a twelve week module for Readers which will be based at Thorpe Prebend in Ripon, in the spring. If more people are interested, comment here, and we will run a second group for others.

Apostolic Women

Most Revd Katharine Jefferts Schori
Chief Pastor and Primate ECUSA

Apostolic Women, Apostolic Authority ed. Percy, Rees and Gaffin, Canterbury Studies in Anglicanism is a good read. The articles in it mainly came out of a conference of women bishops, clergy and lay leaders at Ripon College Cuddesdon around the time of the Lambeth Conference 2008. I was intrigued by Emma Percy's 'What Clergy Do, Especially When It Looks Like Nothing.' She compares the ministry of parish clergy with learning to be a mother. Based on the research of Naomi Stadlen, she argues that, as with mothers, a lot of what clergy do looks straightforward, even instinctive, and it is quite difficult to articulate exactly what has been achieved. Yet, just as we notice disturbed, unhappy children, we notice unhappy congregations. The parallels Percy develops between motherhood and priesthood are interesting - two 'jobs not like other jobs'. She writes, for example, about the skills involved in taking the story of an unknown person and, working with the family during a pastoral visit, creating the narrative picture that speaks of the person's uniqueness at their funeral. She highlights the ability most clergy have to shift between different contexts and 'modes of being' in the course of a day; from a big funeral to a finance meeting to a toddler group to an adult study group. Being truly present in each of these circumstances demands the kind of letting go of other things that may be on one's mind that caring for a young child so often requires. The book also has the results of Revd Canon Jane Hedges' research on attitudes to women in leadership in the Church of England and the sermon delivered by The Most Revd Katherine Jefferts Schori (pictured above) at the conference.

Ripon Cathedral New Website

Ripon Cathedral 2009 D.M. Challoner

Bede (Ripon Cathedral Reredos)
   Congratulations to the cathedral on their exciting new website - one of the best I've seen lately and well worth a visit if you are looking for ideas for days out, services, educational, arts and recreational events. It amazes me that one community can be engaged in so much!  I am looking forward to the Advent services tomorrow and then, of course, all the Christmas services which the choir are busy practising for. The cathedral looks spectaular after today's snowfall.

Faith in the Future of the Countryside

This recent conference about life and faith in the countryside a was a source of inspiration and some good practical recommendations came from it. With speakers like Prof. Michael Winter (Exeter Universtiy), Prof. Mark Shucksmith (Newcastle University), the Archbishop of Canterbury and input from deleagtes from the four corners of Britain, it is hoped the government and churches might take notice.  There was an urgent call for the government to support affordable housing schemes by making provision for planning decisions based on parish plans rather than on complex, expensive referenda. Another recommendation asked the government to remove barriers to churches accessing public funding for projects that benefit the community. The churches were challenged to provide better training for rural clergy, specifically for the unique demands of multi church ministry. As the daughter of a forester who did some of the replanting of reclaimed land in the South Wales mining valleys, I was delighted with the recommendation that the government safeguard the economic, ecological and recreational benefits which  public forest estate brings when Forestry Commission land is sold. For more information visit www.cofe.anglican.org/faith/mission/ruralaffairs