Friday, September 19, 2014

Religious but not spiritual - a talk....

At our late Spring Church Retreat which took place in Camp Pringle on the beautiful shores of Shawnigan Lake in May I took a workshop/lecture/seminar thing for which I wrote my notes out longhand in a notebook - very oldschool - and it meant that I didn’t have them available to share. At the request of a number of members of the Church and the Quo Vadis group I have transcribed them and offer them here and at St John The Divine Staff Blog for comment and consideration!

Religious but not Spiritual
The trend to call oneself “spiritual but not religious” has reached epic proportions,  and so has the response within the community of faith which is the Church.  One book, by Lillian Daniel, is entitled When Spiritual But Not Religious Is Not Good Enough and expresses her frustration at what is, in her understanding, an epidemic of ‘self-made, self-centred, self-absorbed religion, passed off as an innovative spiritual approach’.  As she writes she talks of the need for the checks and balance of a community of faith seeking together, wrestling with the meaning within our scripture and our church life, and an acknowledgement of our part in a story beyond ourselves.  She deconstructs the whole phenomena of ‘spiritual but not religious’ with, admittedly, a fair amount of snark which I hope it’s Ok to reproduce some of it here:
p5  - a conversation on a plane:
“he found himself spending his Sunday mornings sleeping in, reading The New York Times, or putting on his running shoes and taking off through the woods. This was his religion today, he explained. “I worship nature, I see myself in the trees and in the butterflies. I am one with the great outdoors. I find good there. And I realised that I am deeply spiritual but no longer religious.”
he dumped the news in my lap as if it were a controversial hot potato, something that would shock a mild-mannered minister never before exposed to ides so brave and different and daring. But of course, to me, none of this was different in the least.”
or pp.6, 7
 “Have you ever notice that these people’s children are always theological geniuses? They amaze their parents with their wisdom. What are the odds? I presume it is because, like most children, they are parroting back their parents’ values. So the children also see God in nature, but because they are children and have bigger eyes, large heads, and high voices, they generally do so on much cuter ways. “I think there will be doggies and birdies and candy in heaven.” Awww…..
But let’s take that a little further, junior.  Will there he sharks and snakes in heave too? Ewww. How about blood-sucking vampire bats? Now that’ll keep you up at night, junior theologian.
These kids teaching their parents with homespun aphorisms, are actually being poorly service. If they went to Sunday school they could ask about bats and scorpions in heaven. They could ask about cancer when a grandparent gets sick. They would have a place, a spiritual community, in which to go deeper.”
or p 9
“Who are you, God of sunsets and rainbows and bunnies and chain emails about sweet friends? Who are you , cheap God of self-satisfaction and isolation? Who are you, God of the beautiful and the physically fit? Who are you, God the spiritual but not religious? Who are you, God the lucky, chief priest of the religion of gratitude? Who are you, and are you even worth knowing? Who are you, God whom I invent? Is there, could there be, a more interesting God who invented me?”
Strong stuff.
Another commentator, one who I heard at a conference for the Retreat Association of Gt Britain, spoke of some people being ‘Religious but not Spiritual’ – constructing a self-made religion, but rarely encountering the true depths of spirituality as shared by those through the ages who have met God within the community of faith and its discipline.

In the end, what many commentators do seem to say is that Religion is an essentially human construct which seeks to offer a discipline and accountability to oneself and to one another in our spiritual journey.  It may be misused, or become weighed down with expectation, tradition, bias – even bigotry and an unhealthy approach to life and faith.  But religion itself is not the be all and end all. It is a means to bind us together in faith and to share our journey.
When we use the term religion we are often talking about the constructs of a faith – the institutions and traditions (whether passed on to us, or self-made) – and Spirituality is that encounter with the Divine that comes from being attentive to what we might call our ‘soul space’.  Spirituality does involve discipline, and indeed accountability to oneself and to others, though much of our prayer may take place alone, there is also a calling to listen, to learn and to grow in community.
In Christian terms – it’s not just for, nor is it just about ‘me’.
Spirituality should make demands on us. Taking time for the Spirit, being open to the ‘other’, being prayerful, listening for God, working for justice,  and both stilling ourselves and taking action are disciplines.  These are all spiritual demands, and part of that which binds us together in faith to and with one another, those beyond our immediate faith community, to the dirty, and the unlovely, and the unloved. In fact there is some debate about the origin of the word religion, but many commentators think it’s a form of the  latin ‘Religio’ which may well derives from ‘legire’ – to bind. Religion at its best binds us to one another, to God, to our shared story of faith.
So, with Lilian Daniel I, though I have sympathy with many who declare themselves SBNR (Spiritual But Not Religious) I disagree with the terminology, I also think that it’s something of a cop-out, avoidance of the discipline of faith, a consumer based ‘does it give me what I want’ rather than ‘does it give me what I need, even if I don’t like it’.
But, guess what?
We do it in the Church too.
We construct our religious practice so often to serve ourselves. We keep our faith to one day a week, expressing our busy-ness, our own voyage of self-discovery, our love of nature/sunsets/bunnies/finding God in the garden (preferably with gin & tonic in hand – or is that just me?)
We find ourselves Religious but not Spiritual!
We do not nurture, care for, nourish our soul space. By which we so often do not intentionally  nurturer our faith,  our spiritual formation, our discipleship, our practise of following, seeking, growing.
Now, if that sounds grumpy, it’s because I cannot overemphasise how valuable, life giving, world changing and transformative such intentional practice can be.  Yes, we should take ‘me time’ and garden, relax, do tv, chill. Sometimes a “G n’ T’ is a good thing.  But to enter into an adult faith, a spiritual journey, takes some effort, some time, some work.
The principles of such a discipline, and discipline is of course the root of the word disciple – which is what we in the church, the body of Christ, are. We are the gathering, the ekklesia, of disciples of Christ – the principles of such a discipline are, I believe;
  • Soul Care
  • Spiritual Growth
  • Openness to challenging our current thinking
  • Openness to the divine
So here are some suggestions of how we might address our spiritual life, individually and in community – to add depth to our personal and communal journey:
Read: Spiritual writers and stories, new and old, beyond our comfort zone.  Novels, poetry, prose.
Listen: to speakers, podcasts, talks. But also music – with an ear and heart open to God,
Silence: learn to take time and space in silence. We fill our lives with so many distractions, or allow ourselves to be carried away in a tide of activity. Be intentional about not having a life which is ‘full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’ (MacBeth, Act V, Scene 5)
Practice of Prayer: Try new ways of praying; centring prayer, Contemplation, Lectio Divina, Meditation, Mantras, Poetry and Music prayer (both experiencing and creating).  Explore prayer, preferably with a Spiritual Director/Soul Friend/companion/guide.
Meet: to worship, pray, talk – other than Sundays. There are lots of groups within our own Church community at St John the Divine, but also at Christ Church Cathedral, First Metropolitan, Grace Lutheran and beyond.  There are inter-faith groups and meditation groups, social action groups – all ways of exploring and putting into action a living and vibrant faith.
One way, perhaps helpful, can be to think in terms of what have  been traditionally called ‘Spiritual Disciplines’
For an easy and enjoyable read on the subject I recommend John Ortberg’sThe Life You’ve Always Wanted’ (terrible title, sounds like a self-help book, but the content is excellent!).  Ortberg looks at ancient practice in new ways, exploring the tradition of monastics and others over many centuries within a contemporary framework.  There is no definitive list of ‘Spiritual Disciplines’ but they include practices such as:
  • Celebration
  • Slowing
  • Prayer
  • Servanthood
  • Confession
  • Secrecy
  • Scriptural reflection/meditation
                                                 and much more.
Some would describe the careful and intentional attempt to practise these disciplines, indeed any attempt to pay attention to our spiritual life, formation and growth, as best served by seeking to follow a ‘rule of life’ such as comes from the monastic movement.
This isn’t a bad way to consider how to focus on and grow in our faith.  It is certainly the foundation of what is known as the ‘new monastic’ movement – one source of helpful information, and some inspiration, on this is the book ‘Cave, Refectory, Road’ by Ian Adams, which talks of the dynamic of a rule of life lived out in our everyday walk of faith.  Here in Victoria we have an example of an ‘Intentional Christian Community’ in the form of the Emmaus Community, who invite everyone to join in their daily rhythm of prayer and worship.

But this is a discipline – and that is something that does, again, need work. Not that we do it alone, as we seek the guidance and strength of the Spirit, the Wisdom, of God on this path.  If we are followers, disciples, people of discipline – we are following the example of Jesus who took his spiritual life very seriously indeed and it filled and fired his own life and ministry.
Ultimately, where both ‘SBNR’ and ‘RBNS’ falls down is that neither really make the demands that making ourselves spiritual discipline; intentionally, in community, does.
We are encouraged to explore faith in community:
  • That we might learn and grow together
  • That we might be encouraged
  • That we might be held accountable for our spiritual life and action
  • That we might work together to change the world
My own statement of where I believe we are being called:
  • We are being called, in our community at St John The Divine and throughout the Church, to be attentive to our Spiritual path.
  • We are being called to maturity – or as Darmuid O’ Murchu says – an adult faith
  • We are being called to transformation
  • We are being called to take responsibility for one another’s growth in faith and for the life of the Church
  • We are being challenged to explore the heritage of our faith
And I believe we have the most fantastic opportunity for crafting our ‘Soul Space’ in the current church – there is a vitality and life which we can call on, ways and means of learning and exploring which haven’t been available to previous generations. In St John the Divine we have resources, including some amazing people, which offer us opportunity to learn and grow and be stimulated and challenged and inspired.  This is an exciting time to be a part of any Church, but particularly so in this, our spiritual home of St John the Divine.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

What are we doing when we preach?

Back in the mists of time, sometime around May, I was at the exceptional Festival of Homiletics in Minneapolis. A five day feast of speakers, worship and making new friends that I enjoyed and felt very refreshed by.  The purpose, to talk about preaching, and to have great examples of preachers and to consider how our preaching can be improved and be stimulating and engaging.
A full Central Lutheran Church, Minneapolis (from Festival Flickr Stream

We did a lot of how, I didn't pick up a lot of 'why?'.  It seemed to taken as a given that we accepted the importance of and the reasons for preaching.  It wasn't the nature of the conference.  But as I consider the possibility of taking on a course of Study - a Doctorate of Ministry in Preaching - the question of the nature and purpose of preaching is at the forefront of my thinking at the moment,

Let's start with me, though, as it is kind of obvious but needs to be said - I love preaching,  More accurately, I love the discipline of preaching, the need to break open scripture, pray through it, consider it, struggle with it and relate it to the lives of faith that I believe our discipleship of Christ calls us to.  For me, preaching is not an academic exercise, but a faithful one.  I share my own understandings (and those of others) in relating our faith and worshipping life together to our everyday walk with Christ.

In this I am assisted, inspired, and challenged by a weekly gathering called 'The Sermon Circle' - a group open to all of between five and thirteen of us that meets on the Thursdays at 10am before the Sunday I am preaching on.  We also meet on the weeks I am not preaching, and the group meets when I am unable to be there, because of the value in sharing our thoughts (and sometimes pooling our ignorance) together as we are confronted by the readings for the coming Sunday.  This is a pretty raw form of Bible Study, with each voice having it's value and it gets me away from ever feeling I might be a 'religious expert' - there's too much wisdom in the room for that!

This Sermon Circle, along with the encouragement and thoughtful response of the people of St John the Divine, Victoria - my current (and future) spiritual home - has been the liberation of my own preaching and I have felt much more than in previous situations that what I am sharing from the pulpit (or the nave) is from, for and connected to the community I serve as Parish Priest.  But that still doesn't start to answer the question - "Why preach?" or the adjunct "What is it for?"

The question is brought into sharp relief when we consider how peculiar and even anachronistic the idea of a person standing up in front of a relatively large group of people and speaking to (or at best with, and at worst, at) them.  In this world of 140 Character updates, interactive, hi-tech, graphic heavy expression - where (apparently) the average transient attention span is now down to 8 seconds and the average length of sustained selective attention is probably limited to about 10 minutes (up to forty for an engaged task) Thanks Wikipedia for the figures - interesting summary article here - just in case your attention is waning and you need a distraction...

So, what are we preachers (or homiletes) doing in sharing words for a certain amount of time, usually between 13 and 17 minutes in my case, it seems...(sermons here to prove it)?

Well, here's the start of my thoughts.  There may be more to come, though as is usually the way with blogging that may be years down the road!

I believe that with a faith rooted in scripture, no matter how we may express that, or how we approach it - from a more literal or conservative interpretative framework, or a more metaphorical or liberal one - we have a responsibility to engage with the text. Not just to read it, but to consider it's meaning, to join in the stories, to consider how they meet with us and where we are today.  There is a place for having someone lead us in that - preaching is ONE (but by no means the only) way in which we can do that.

And if we are to take the roots of our faith seriously, there is some value in making - consciously or unconsciously - the statement that we are going to talk about these things for a while. Or we are going to listen as someone shares their interpretation - not as an expression of superiority or control, though preaching is used that way.  In the same way that as priest I see my worship leading as facilitating the worship of the community, I see my role as preacher as facilitating an involvement with scripture and with the realities of faith - part of a process, not the whole of it.  A place I have been liberated to take by the Church which supports me in my role as their servant and minister.

I am also convinced that there is a calling to be counter-cultural in this!  To say that there are things worth paying attention to, and to give time to them. By this I don't mean the preacher him or herself - though a good preacher is a joy to listen to and to engage with.  I mean the idea that we feel the need to apply our faith, to get to grips with our story passed down over generations and over many centuries - to explain and explore, to recognise our part in a greater story and a greater community of faith and not just to create a faith in our own image, that idea is worth putting some effort into.

I do believe there are lots of ways in which we can think of making our preaching more engaging. I am sure there are ways in which we can facilitate a common learning together, within our acts of worship and beyond, that are creative and imaginative. I am committed to, and love using, Social Media to share, explore, consider, debate.  But after all this time (I have been ordained for 18 years) I am convinced that there is still a place for preaching, and a role for those of us who take the strands of faith and tie a few together to add to the tapestry.

But I am open to discussion.  And not always right. Feel free to comment.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Yes, I preach

To keep things moving on the blog, here's the sermon from Sunday.  I have been thinking about the purpose and nature of preaching lately - but such lofty thoughts will need to wait....

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Sunday Sermon

Of course, having made reference to my Sunday Sermon in the previous blog post, I really should post that too...

God is nowhere?

Good song to go with this morning's sermon, and indeed last Sunday's sermon

Am going through a rediscovery of various things - including some of the music I haven't listened to for a while, and a reconnection with the heartfelt part of faith.  It's easy to get lost in the practicalities of Church, or the intellectual aspects of talking of faith.  This last year has been a journey into a deeper emotional engagement with my own faith and a desire to share and foster that in the community I am privileged to be leading, St John The Divine, Victoria.

Anyway, this song works well as part of a theme. Jars of Clay, Silence.  The video is fan made...

The illustrious history of weepy women

I wondered about putting this on New Kid Deep Stuff, but decided that things have been too quiet here lately - so here's my thoughts for the commemoration of St Monnica, mother of St Augustine, which is marked tomorrow (August 27th) in the Anglican Calendar.

First of all I need to share what the Anglican Church of Canada writes in the way of biographical information for this day:

Today we remember Monnica, a woman of fourth-century North Africa and the mother of Augustine of Hippo. She was a devout Christian, regular in her prayers and careful in raising her children to be Christians as well. However, her eldest son Augustine wandered away from the Church in his youth and came under the spell of an outlaw sect  known as the Manichees. Monnica refused to give up on her son and tried to get others to argue him out of his infatuation with Manichean teachings. She once approached a bishop who told her that, given time, her son would certainly outgrow his false opinions. But Monnica would not be soothed and continued her entreaties.  The bishop finally groaned: “Woman, go away from me now ! As sure as you live, it is impossible that a son of such tears should perish!”

Augustine was embarrassed by his mother, and when he decided to leave North Africa and seek his fortune in Italy, he tricked her so that she would not come with him. He ought to have known her better, for she eventually showed up on his doorstep. By that time Augustine had at last renounced the Manichees and was slowly moving back towards the Church. Monnica had the supreme joy of beholding the fulfillment of her prayers at the Easter Vigil of the year 387, when Augustine was baptized at the basilica of Milan.

Shortly afterwards he decided to return to North Africa with his mother, but while they were waiting for a ship to take them across the Mediterranean Monnica fell ill. It was soon clear that she was dying, and Augustine became anxious, knowing she had always wanted to be buried in North Africa. She told him not to worry, saying: “Nothing is far from God; I need not fear that he will know where to raise me up at the end of the world.”

 A few days later she died, at peace with God, the Church, and her son.

And the Bible Readings set for this day give some background... Click on the references to go to links at The Oremus Bible Browser.... 

And here's what I think....

The illustrious history of teary women

At first sight it looks as though today`s Bible readings are about weepy women – along with Monnica being described as a mother who weeps for her son when he joins the Manichees and longs for his return to Christian faith.  We celebrate Augustine tomorrow, so we know the end of the story…

So often, tears are seen as signs of weakness – and when we see someone weeping we are conditioned to think that this person can`t cope.  We read of Hannah in today`s lesson from 1 Samuel and see her disappointment and distress at not being able to conceive.  We hear Jesus talk of women in labour struggling and tearful.  If we go elsewhere we see the women who go to the garden after Jesus` death weeping, and Mary Magdelene weeping in front of who she thought was the gardener.  Alongside the story of the woman who washed Jesus feet with her tears and dried them with her hair.

But these tears aren`t tears of weakness.  And weeping isn`t a sign of not being able to cope.  Nor is it just the province of women – the writers of the psalms talk of weeping by the rivers of Babylon, the prophet Jeremiah cries out “Oh that my head were a spring of water and my eyes fountains of tears”, King David wept over the loss of his Son, Absalom, and in the shortest verse in the Bible (at least in the King James translation) we read ‘Jesus wept’ (John 11.35).

Weeping becomes something that has multiple layers – from bereavement, to loss of nation, longing for forgiveness, compassion and hope.  It’s not that a person isn’t strong, but that only tears can express the depth of their feeling.

For Monnica, mother of St Augustine, whose commemoration is part of today’s Eucharist, her tears were for her son’s spiritual life.  She, faithful in following Christ, struggled with Augustine’s drifting to a sect which she saw as so far from the truth.  She wanted her son to know the fullness of the faith she had found in Christ, and the knowledge of God’s love in Christ.  For those of you who like to know these things, Manichaeism was a Gnostic sect that believed that matter was evil and spirit was good – the material world was dark and the spiritual world was light.  It was a dualistic religion of asceticism and self-denial.

She saw her son drifting from the fullness of life offered in Christ, and wept with compassion, loss, and even hope.  In dismissing her, perhaps in a short tempered moment, the nameless Bishop actually seemed to speak some truth – it is impossible that a son of such tears should perish.  When such love and compassion is shown, change, transformation, hope is present. 

I suffer from two great afflictions –  certainly when it comes to expressing emotion – that I am English, and that I am a man.  From a country that still believes in the ‘stiff upper lip’ and a western society that somehow continues to buy into the myth that ‘big boys don’t cry’.  I am learning again to recognise that God doesn’t live solely in places of reason, order, clear thinking, argument and structure.  God is in our hearts, our emotions, our messy lives, our love, our compassion, our frustration, our despair and our tears.

So if you encounter any wailing people in our scripture or any of our Christian story – be aware that such tears are blessed, and God hears the cry of our hearts when the words fail.  I thank God for the illustrious history of weepy women, and men, and pray that I may too be able to follow their example. 

Thanks be to God.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Today at Church

Not done this for a while, but today's Pentecost Celebration at St John the Divine was so enjoyable that I think I want to post a sermon which shares a bit of the holy chaos and the feeling of welcome and inclusion which is (for me) one of the strengths of St John's.  So here is my thought for today!

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Collecting it all together

If you do want to read the entirety of my dissertation on "power and pastoral ministry' (and who wouldn't ? (joke) ) then it might be easier if I just give all the links in one post....  So here goes - click on a title to be taken to the full chapter

Chapter 1 - The roots of power in pastoral relationships
Chapter 2 - A New Testament understanding
Chapter 3 - Power structures within the Church
Chapter 4 - The use of power and its abuses
Chapter 5 - Observations and Conclusions

And there we go...

Friday, June 06, 2014

Last but not least - Bibliography

I should really let everyone know my sources, so here's a link. 


That's all folks.  I have a couple of essays which might bear re-reading and sharing, I will get back to you on that.  In the meanwhile, enjoy some Anathema

Concluding Chapter

Here it is - some threads drawn together in my deliberations from 18 years hence.  I am, as previously said, amazed by how much of what I wrote back then is embedded deep within my style and convictions as I proceed in this wonderful, weird and wacky world of  Ministry.  As the years go by I realise more and more the privilege and responsibility of this calling - and how much fun it can be, as well as the deeply moving experiences of being alongside people in all aspects of life and death.  I could say more, and will do.  But here's the last chapter... and for those of you who like such things there will be a Bibliography added soon...

The nature of power in Pastoral Ministry

Chapter 5
Observations and Conclusions

The purpose of this study has been to make it clear that to attempt to deny or ignore the power inherent in Pastoral encounters is deluded and opens the way to serious, though often unconscious, abuses of the power that exists whether it is acknowledged or not.  This acknowledgement of power and the acceptance of the authority conveyed upon those engaged in pastoral ministry is the beginning of any attempt to move on and tackle the related issues that arise in pastoral work.  The presence of power will, whether known or not, influence any pastoral encounter for ill or for better.[more]