Tuesday, 25 November 2014

The Call

I've been meditating on the call of God.

Calling is something intrinsically hard to dissect. Almost every priest I've ever spoken to has told me that they resisted, for months, before giving in. Most of them didn't want to be a priest in the first place. Justin Welby, when asked at his selection conference why he wanted to be a priest, replied, "I don't."

I remember when I first felt God tell me to lead worship. I was nineteen, one year of university under my belt, and I'd been happily ignoring Mum suggesting it for years. I remember sitting cross-legged on the floor of my bedroom before leaving for university, arguing with God about worship leading. The conversation went something like this:

God: I want you to lead worship.
Me: No you don't.
God: Yes I do.
Me: No you don't.
God: Yes I do! Go and lead worship!
Me: You're going to have to make me.
God: Okay.
Me: I'm not pushing any doors.
God: [clearly happy to arrange for some doors to push me] Fine. You don't have to ask anybody. But if someone asks you, take the opportunity.
Me: [relaxedly thinking this situation is unlikely to arise in the foreseeable future] Okay, fine.

The next day my youth pastor called with a broken arm and asked me to lead worship.

...Sneaky, no? I tried to avoid it again at the church I attended at university, and it took three people asking me and the acting Worship Pastor telling me he felt God specifically tell him I should do it before I gave in.

After I started worship leading, my mother started telling me I should look into priesthood. Again, I ignored her saying this for years, before finally I gave in and decided to look into it. I really did not want to become a priest. That was not the plan at all. I was going to be...well, I don't know, but something probably a bit more musical and certainly a lot less Anglican. 'Vicar' was not top of my list of cool jobs to do someday. That list looks something more like this:

1. Rock star
2. Songwriter
3. Robin Hood

Anyway, vicar certainly wasn't on it. The thing about vicars is that they're just so...well...uncool. I didn't like the idea of being public property, irrevocably wedded to the institutional church for better or worse. I don't like the ponce and ceremony, and the red tape, and the politics. But I found the more I looked into it, the more I prayed about it, the more it became a concrete reality in my brain, almost an inevitability that I should have to pursue it, whether or not I actually wanted to.

That's the thing about calls. Frankly, they are more often than not costly, painful, wearisome and difficult. The prophets and apostles pull no punches when it comes to the cost of following Jesus:
'God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to men. We are fools for Christ's sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honour, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labour, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.'   
[1 Cor 4:9-13]
And yet the call of Christ is irresistible; compelling. I resonate with Jeremiah when he says, 'If I say, "I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name", there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.' The call of Christ is compelling: it is impossible to defend against. Despite the resistance we may throw up against him, his unceasing, quiet, inexorable calling to us ultimately draws us in, and our surrender to his ways produces a delight, a peace which cannot be fathomed or replicated. It is the call of the Francis Thompson’s Hounds of Heaven, the compulsion of the suffering Christ in DL Sayers Pantas Elykso:

'I hear Thy trumpets in the breaking morn,
I hear them restless in the resonant night...

They blow aloud between love's lips and mine...
Ring from the cup where I would pour the wine,
Rouse the uneasy echoes about my bed...
They will blow through my grave when I am dead.'

I love the whole of that poem. In it, she speaks of Christ on the cross, interrupting and 'jarring the music of my few, short years' with his testimony of crucifixion and call to follow in his footsteps. It is irresistible, relentless, undefeatable: They will blow through my grave when I am dead...

Who can resist the ceaseless, persistent call of Christ, pulling at you, tugging at your heart so that it takes all your strength to stay, to defend yourself against it, to keep from falling on your knees before him and vowing to follow wherever he goes? There is no peace apart from him; no peace apart from surrender. It is nothing to do with reason or rationality; you don't follow because it makes most sense. At least, I don't understand it like that. You follow because your heart is designed to be in joyful submission to his will, and to resist his will is hard, and hurts, and feels not right; like a magnet trying to pull apart from its opposite.

'O King, O Captain, wasted, wan with scourging,
Strong beyond speech and wonderful with woe,
Whither, relentless, wilt Thou still be urging
Thy maimed and halt that have not strength to go?...
Peace, peace, I follow. Why must we love Thee so?'

Thursday, 20 November 2014

You See Bones? I See An Army

I can't believe I'm about to say this, but right now, being in the Church of England is very exciting.

I'm not a person overly fond of tradition or ritual, so believe me that sentence surprises me as much as it might you. But it's precisely that delight in reimagining, initiating and creating new things that is making me excited about the age-old lumbering C-of-E.

Institutionalised Christianity is fissuring and crumbling around the edges. It's been cracking up for a good few decades now and it comes as no surprise to anybody that numbers of clergy are falling, congregations are aging and churches are shuddering shut their doors beneath the burden of decrepit, ancient buildings. There is no money in church anymore; I know this because the diocese of Truro is the joint poorest in the country, and all they can talk about is how are we ever, ever going to scrape together enough pennies to keep this old thing lumbering on? PCCs are meeting in chilly church halls up and down the county, drinking bad coffee, wringing their hands and talking around and around the insurmountable issue of no money.

But you know what? I've never liked institutionalised Christianity. The early church did pretty well for itself outside the political mainstream, until Emperor Constantine decided it was politically astute to adopt the budding religion and enforce it on the entire empire. Institutionalised, politicised, dried up and regulated by officials and clerks, the radical love-focused movement withered, becoming a cracked, stone-encased statue of what it used to be. Outside, in countries where being a disciple of Christ was still subversive and countercultural, Christianity flourished. But inside, we lost some of that radicalism, some of that zeal and passion and the desire to pursue Christ at all costs. We compromised, basically.

But now, for the first time in nigh on 500 years, the Church is waking up to the fact that it cannot go on like this. I mean, the established church. Of course, in every century - every decade - there have been growths and revivals and motions of the Spirit which have fanned into flame passionate new disciples of Jesus. Nearly always, these movements have had to find a home outside of established church structures, because the existing ones have rejected new ways of doing things. But now, for the first time in a long while, the established church is waking up to the fact that the way it has done church for generations cannot go on.

I have sat through several hours, at this point, of diocesan talk on this subject. In deanery meetings and diocesan roadshows (unfortunate correlations perhaps to the antiques roadshow, where you bring out old keepsakes and wonder how much dosh they're capable of making) the conversation is all around new models of church. How can we reimagine church in the twenty first century? How can we engage with those people who have never stepped foot inside a church, and who never will unless we greet them in their own language? What are we struggling and striving to maintain and keep alive, which ought perhaps instead be allowed to die?

At our last deanery meeting, we were each handed this article by the blogger Archbishop Cranmer. I cannot tell you how excited this made me. The Church of England, that big old institution so establishment it has the Queen as its governor, is scratching its head and telling itself it needs to stop thinking about maintaining Sunday services the way they've always been done, and start dreaming up new ways of engaging with Jesus and the unchurched community. It's investing its efforts and resources into training pioneer ministers, and training its existing clergy to get entrepreneurial, imagine new forms of church, engage with those outside their walls and get their hands dirty in mission.

Now, I don't want for a minute to give the impression that I don't think this has been going on already. Of course there are many great examples of lively, flourishing congregations, thick with mission and passion for God, all across the country and, indeed, the whole Anglican communion. HTB is one good example. So is All Saints, Margaret Street and St James' Piccadilly. They're three very much alive churches of different traditions, off the top of my head (I'm sorry, they're also all in London: only because that's the diocese I know best). There has always been life in the Church of England. But let's be honest: the facts and figures tell it for themselves; the number of Anglicans has halved in the past fifty years, two thirds of under-25s define themselves as having no religion, and the average Church of England attendee is 53 years old.

A couple of years ago I sat in a vast, canvas cavern at New Wine, listening to Justin Welby speak. In the worship time before his talk, we sang the Worship Central song Dry Bones. I like this song, mostly because of the middle section: These dry bones will live again / We're nothing without you, nothing without you. As I sang it, I sang it over the Church of England, and I felt God say, "The child is not dead but sleeping," - an echo of Jesus' words in Mark 5:39.

Death is not always a bad thing. That's something I've heard a lot of people say in the past few weeks, in discussions around the future of the church. We belong to a movement based around the premiss of resurrection, founded on the fact that death is but a prelude to resurrection. And in all these long discussions around how we can keep the church alive, the question has been asked, "Ought we not to allow our own death?" Because while it may be painful, death is not the end, but another beginning, an opportunity for new life to be born in the ashes of what came before.

So yes, I am excited. Because who knows what unimaginable fresh life may rise from these ashes, and what may be in store from the God who raises dead men from tombs, breathes existence into dust, and calls forth an army from dry bones.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Inviting Horror and Grief into our Worship

Be merciful to me Lord, for I am in distress;
my eyes grow weak with sorrow,
my soul and body with grief.
My life is consumed by anguish
and my years by groaning;
my strength fails because of my affliction,
and my bones grow weak...
I am forgotten as though I were dead;
I have become like broken pottery.

In my alarm I said, "I am cut off from your sight!"
Yet you heard my cry for mercy 
when I called to you for help.
You saw my affliction,
and knew the anguish of my soul.
You have not given me into the hands of the enemy
but have set me feet in a spacious place.

Into your hands I commit my spirit.

I trust in you, Lord;
I say, 'You are my God'.
My times are in your hands.

Be strong, and take heart,
all you who hope in the Lord.

                        (psalm 31)
*            *            *

These psalms have always seemed too extreme to me, the ones filled with despair and violence. I've never been able to relate to the bloodthirsty vengefulness or existentialist despair the psalmists express. I turn to the worshipful psalms instead, the ones that talk about thirsting for God's presence and seeking his face, and skip over the bits in Psalm 139 where the psalmist pours out a torrent of hatred upon God's enemies.

But we read this psalm tonight at evening prayer, huddled together in the cold chapel, candles flickering beneath the window, and I found my eyes filling with tears.

I woke up this morning to darkness seeping around the edges, tinging the day with grey pessimism. I greeted the altogether familiar, weary depression like an old acquaintance. Oh. You again. Welcome back. You seem to have made yourself at home...

It's exactly the violence and horror of the psalms that makes them such good prayers. What else can express the unspeakable awful raw bloodiness of grief? I went outside for a cigarette and the screams, like saws grinding away inside, filled my ears. On days like this, when I want to worship, I find myself at a bit of a loss. There are a handful of worship songs which talk about pain - Matt Redman's You Never Let Go and Tim Hughes' When The Tears Fall are good examples - but they're never as violent as the psalms. They're altogether rather passive; the only metaphor we really seem comfortable with in church is storms: so we sing Oceans and Faithful One and Hillsong's Be Still and at times when our circumstances seem to be thundering around us, I've no doubt these are really helpful. But they don't express the reality of the violence within.

You know what I listen to, when the screaming drowns out all else, and I crawl into a corner and squeeze myself shut? Linkin Park. I put on Breaking The Habit and I fill my mind with its images of blood and pain. Because there is no Christian music I can think of which conveys the depth of rage and violence and bloodiness of this.

And yet the psalms do. We seem to have lost this in church. It's like we've sanitised them. But if we have no public lament, if we have no vehicle for anger and grief, how can we channel it into worship? How do you allow God into the midst of the violence and despair when we have no language in our worship which allows him in? And yet our God is the crucified Christ, who hung, bleeding, in the very core of suffering humanity, nailed in the most violent way imaginable to a cross of wood, redeeming the worst depravity of mankind into an altar of grace and healing. This is the very centre of our faith: why have we sanitised it?

We need to unleash the horror of the crucifixion into our worship. Perhaps it isn't appropriate for corporate worship songs: then again, maybe we need to make it so. But we must as a community recapture the depths of suffering into our language and music, because if not we are abandoning people to shallow worship. It is in claiming God as our own in the midst of the agony, in welcoming him into the centre of our grief and pain, that we allow him to redeem it. I believe, firmly and completely, that God is able to take the worst depths of sin and turn it inside out into the highest heights of grace. That's how it works, isn't it? The deeper the sin, the greater the forgiveness. It's Jesus' parable of two debtors in Luke 7:40-47.

If we don't as a community claim the darkest places, own them and acknowledge them, they will never be transformed by God's grace and the power of his Spirit into the tabernacles of his glory they were destined to become. This is where those who rant over the Sainsbury's Christmas ad miss the point: it is not about glamourising war, or skirting over the grit and horror; it is about recognising the triumph of grace in the darkest places. And after all, the darker the night, the more brightly the light shines.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Rainbows & Resurrection

I write this curled up in the comfortable chair beside my window, looking out at a rainbow arching brightly over the wet fields. Rainbows always spell one thing out to me: hope.

They only appear in the rain and the grey, when the air itself is saturated with spray, and the sun slips through a break somewhere, and lights the sky with beautiful, ethereal colours.

I have seen a rainbow every day this week. My friend Verity came to stay and on Tuesday, we motorcycled the West Cornwall Coast Road, which has stunning views of granite, rugged carn on your right, and the deep blue ocean on your left. Just as we rounded the corner and the ocean horizon opened up in front of us, we saw a huge rainbow plunging from the sky deep into the sea, reflected on the waters. I've never seen anything more beautiful.

This past year has felt like constant drizzle at best, and at times, hard, hammering torrents. It's been okay, mostly, since moving: the drizzle has eased off to grey clouds, and there have even been times I've felt the happy sigh and stretching of my soul in contentment and peace. God's here, and that makes all the difference. I can feel myself unwinding, the tension of the past year uncoiling in my gut. The rhythm of life here is so healthy: far from thirsty ambition, far from manipulation and politics, far from raw sexuality and the heavy, viscous grief which envelopes everything it touches. All that's left here is the joyful discipline of prayer and community, and a life lived on the outside. In the city, man has dominated nature and forced her to submission beneath heavy tarmac and tall buildings. Here, any time you want to go somewhere, you're venturing out into the alive wind, which snatches at your hair, and the open sky which showers you with rain or sunshine depending on its mood.

It's humbling, and good. I feel like I've pulled my life out from the live mains socket and am remembering what it means to be alive; simply alive.

It's taking an adjustment. My brain still wanders down the familiar, well-worn paths it used to; my heart still quickens and squeezes over the same old memories. But they're losing their power. God is pumping fresh life into my veins, and the old is being washed and cleansed. This year has been a death; a crucifixion. But there is a glimmering rainbow in the sky, and I can feel in my bones the stirring wakenings of resurrection.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Of Bonfires and Octopi

Of all the things I’d anticipated when moving to deepest, darkest Cornwall and joining the Stithians Community, I’ve got to say that giant fairy-lit papier-mâché octopi weren’t one of them…Yet here it is:
ocean world
This, dear readers, is an eight foot, many tentacled wicker octopus, stuffed with fairy lights, which was constructed, mâchéd and lit in the Community House last week. It’s for the village’s production of Ocean World, an ‘ecological musical’ (you didn’t know that was a thing, did you) containing many scaly props. The octopus is going to sit on top of the font, while a 15-foot whale is hanging from the roof. This would be less amusing if there weren’t also going to be a baptism and a funeral in the church next week; somewhere, a small child is going to have the distinction of being baptised in a font surrounded by eight dangly tentacled legs. That’s definitely enough to scar a child for life.
In other news, we engaged in a spot of community gardening last weekend and attempted to burn the loose branches etc in an Exciting Bonfire. Here is our Exciting Bonfire:
This lasted for precisely two seconds before the petrol burned off and we were left with some damp twigs. Never mind. There’s always next November.