Exploring our Faith

Sometimes I wonder why I bother going to church.

Being a lay minister and married to the vicar has something to do with it, I guess…

‘It’s nothing more than a religious social club,’ as a normally mild-mannered, retired priest put it recently.

Like many organisations made up of fallible human beings the church is often a place of paradox.  A place of compassion and conflict. Of forgiveness and fault-finding. Of singing and squabbling. Of prayer and power-holding.

Many appear more comfortable dealing with the linen, arranging the flowers or following the correct way to process around the altar than about nurturing each other’s faith and enabling people to receive the love of God. It’s easier to ‘do church’ than ‘do God’.

If he visited today, I wonder if Jesus would turn over a few tables and ask ‘Where is your faith?’ because it appears so well hidden.

A tad unfair? Yes, of course. I know many churchgoers who have a strong faith and, after all, who am I to judge?

And it is wonderful when (often in smaller numbers, such as during a Lent course or in a house group) people do feel able to speak openly about their belief and their doubts. And yet, why is it that I always feel surprised when that happens…? (‘Oh, ye of little faith, Richard…’)

If talking about faith is not part of natural conversation then what does that say about the church? But is this reluctance to talk openly about the things of God not so much a matter of discomfort but a lack of confidence?

If there is no culture of learning or praying together (outside that provided within a service) or no active sharing of insights about God, it is any wonder that people struggle to feel confident and assured in their faith?

That age-old construct of being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ also continues to undermine the ability of people to ask questions, to have doubts and to take the risk of saying what they believe.

It’s astonishing how many people have been going to church for years and yet lack knowledge about some basic tenets of our faith and why we do particular things in terms of our acts of worship, prayer and teaching.

The growth of online services has opened up new ways of being church yet doing something that ‘isn’t how we do it’ is still looked upon sceptically and even dismissively by some.

In our current team of six churches we are reprising a series of teaching sessions that were run in our previous parishes called ‘Exploring our Faith’. A way of revisiting some of the basics about prayer, the Bible, communion and other aspects of Christian belief. A way of equipping people to live out their faith more confidently. Quiet events can also be a less verbose way of building up our reliance on God (do contact me if you’d like one for your church).

We have so much to learn from each other about how God works in individual lives. Finding ways to explore our faith with others not only helps each other but also aids the work and ministry of the church. We can reset the balance: so that how we ‘do God’ becomes more important than how we ‘do church’.

So lest you think otherwise, this isn’t about ‘spreading the Gospel’ or being theologically eloquent. It’s about encouraging others in a very natural, normal way.

If you find it difficult to talk about God or your faith, you’re far from being alone. Why not try this:

  • Think about the people you pray for. Do they know? How about in the next week telling one of them that you are praying for them – and then someone else in the following week?
  • And how about telling one other person about something God has done or how God has blessed you in some way.

You never know just how much that might mean to them.

 

 

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The Grace of Renewal

‘Hello. We are expecting you.’

The words on arriving for a long overdue retreat were both welcome and unexpected. For me, retreats are often for taking a break. To get away from it all – whatever ‘it all’ means. The pandemic had already put paid to three and the last one was way back in August. Much too long a gap. Vicarage life is one that can’t be escaped from, of course. Over 50 online services edited. Other events led and preached at. Let alone family demands – and that’s without mentioning the dog.

‘Hello. We are expecting you.’

I’d gone expecting to be renewed and refreshed. Expecting to meet God in a deeper way. Alongside a book by Simon Ponsonby and a PD James murder mystery, I’d brought the icon that was especially written (painted) by a Benedictine monk when I moved on from paid employment. The Icon of the Holy Trinity. Father, Son and Holy Spirit sat at table – a space left for a guest. But these words of welcome changed things. Surely not God expecting me? ‘I the unkind, ungrateful?’ as George Herbert put it.

‘Hello. We are expecting you.’

And it didn’t end there… funny how God always knows just what we need and how that fact often surprises us, isn’t it? Evening Prayer with the Sheldon Community recites Malcolm Guite’s poem reflecting on Psalm 18:

My strength my rock my buckler and my shield!
You came to rescue me, I saw you ride
The wind’s swift wings, I saw the waters yield
To you, as you reached down to lift me out

‘Hello. We are expecting you.’

And later that evening, another Psalm, 4 verse 3: ‘But know that the Lord has shown me his marvellous kindness; when I call upon the Lord, he will hear me.’… The next day, Psalm 66:4 ‘How wonderful he is in his dealings with humankind.’

‘Hello. We are expecting you.’

It all made sense of something that former Abbot Erik Varden said in a recent TV programme: ‘Every day is an opportunity to begin again. There are times of growth. Times of fatigue. There may even be a time of dying. But we must always aspire to be at least receptive to the grace of renewal.’

‘You must sit down, says Love…
So I did sit and eat.’

 

 

 

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In my own words

Have you heard the one about the rock star, the actor and the bishop?

To be honest, I’m not really a fan of autobiographies but in recent weeks I’ve ended up reading three of them. Now, lest you think poorly of the all-male choice (yes, I do need to read Michelle Obama’s…) that was just the way the books were given to me.

Where’s my Guitar? by Bernie Marsden. Now, have to admit I hadn’t heard of him but for 4 years in the 1980s, he was lead guitarist with British rock group, Whitesnake and co-writer of their superb mega-anthem, ‘Here I go again’. His is a story of rock ‘n’ roll excesses and successes. Of ego and energy. Of achievements and arguments. And yet amidst proclamations of greatness (although one senses the hands of editors) stand humble qualities of thankfulness to others and acknowledgement of many mistakes and misjudgements.

Behind the Lens by the wonderful British actor, David Suchet takes his lifelong hobby of photography as a basis. Using many of his own photos, he tells his story of becoming and being an actor and of those who had influenced his life and Christian faith. Like Bernie Marsden, he too writes about achievements, mistakes and gratitude to others.

Finally, a Lent book, You are Mine by my fellow BRF author, David Walker, Bishop of Manchester. With the writer apologising for the degree of self-disclosure within this book of daily reflections, it too contains a strong sense of autobiography and similar features exposing the inner man in the public eye. A third book unlocking the box marked ‘not to be opened’.

Even parts of the Bible, Paul’s letters for example, contain elements of what we would now call autobiography and many of the other books (not least, the Gospels) are distinctly biographical. We can read about the lives and times of many people from Abraham and Moses through to Jesus and the figures of the early church such as Peter. There are stories of success and excess, achievement and mistakes, ego and energy. They each have their own story to tell.

So, what would your autobiography include? What have been the achievements? The mistakes? Who are you grateful to? What’s in the unopened box?

But maybe the more interesting question to be asked is what would we like to read in our biography? What would we like other people to write about us?

And… what would God write about you?

Why not try writing it?

 

 

Unnumbered Blessings

It’s very easy to focus on problems, isn’t it? Just like I did in the last blog post! Indeed, it seems to take far more effort to ‘count our blessings’.

Within the events of the last few weeks, some of which were described in that last post, God has also blessed. Living in yet another idyllic part of Devon, evening walks by the sea and time spent exploring the neighbourhood make us think, ‘Are we on holiday or do we actually live here?’! We have been made to feel so welcome – not just the 200 people who came to the licensing service but also our neighbours and individuals from all around the six churches who have been so lovely and so kind. (Oh yes, and then there was Wembley again. The Who. ‘What makes him so good…’)

But (briefly, this time) back to the problems. Within just 3 days of the ‘car mangling’, not only had the perpetrator settled and paid up, but we were also able to find a new to us vehicle. But the blessing wasn’t just finding a second-hand car in a very short space of time. Neither that it simply suited Jane’s practical needs. It was, perhaps more importantly, one in which she can locate her identity: a vicar in a bright red Fiat 500! It says something of the person God has made her to be.

And on that very same day… we met Daisy. Daisy is a 4-year-old Cocker Spaniel who’s just had her third and final litter of pups. As well as this other unexpectedly quick provision, what was also remarkable is that Daisy’s been living with a lady who we’ve never met before but who brought our last dog, Pip in to the world nearly 12 years ago. Daisy needed a home and we needed a dog (and need is not an exaggeration). A dog for our home, for our family and our ministry. God knew exactly what we needed – and it wasn’t ‘just a dog’.

These remarkable answers to prayer and underserved blessings weren’t just that God brought both things together on exactly the same day in the midst of all that was changing. If that wasn’t enough, it is also that God should provide these very practical, down to earth things in our lives when we already have so much.

God’s provision of the practical things in life is one sign – just one sign – of the enormity of his love graciously given and available to all. And it is sometimes a struggle to find the words to adequately voice our response to that love. So let me defer to two others who have done so – and perhaps you might find these words helpful when you are counting your blessings:

Mary, the mother of Jesus:

‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.’ (from Luke 1:46-55)

Those words, from what became known as ‘The Magnificat’, inspired the first ever hymn written by English hymn writer and priest, Timothy Dudley-Smith:

Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord!
Unnumbered blessings give my spirit voice.

Amidst life’s problems and its joys, it is often the unnumbered blessings that really give our spirit voice.