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Category Archives: Ministry
I was given a challenge last night at a Michaelmas Evensong to write a new hymn for harvest so this morning I sat down and gave it a go. Harvest in other parts of the country may differ but, having taken the dogs for a walk this morning and watched small gatherings of Meadow Pipits scurrying around, I got home and looked up whether they migrate from the UK for winter. The answer appears to be that some do and some don’t. I was then aware that the swallows and swifts have left already and that hedges were being trimmed and the lanes, once again, have become 3 feet wider. I was also cheered by the sight of both a Green Woodpecker and a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker!
So that’s the explanation for this:
Michaelmas migration, swifts and swallows fly
Seeking other harvests, throng the dimming sky.
Birds Murmurating, full of hope and fear
Now Sahara crossing, southward is their steer.
Silage stored for winter, hedges cut and trimmed.
Apple harvest gathered, cider vats full, brimmed
Bounty from summer, blossom set and swelled
All God’s hedgerow gathered, not a drop withheld.
Equinox equation, balanced day and night
Triggers winter’s onset, storms the skies ignite.
Barns full of grain, now drying. Market cheer
Beckons winter’s solstice; Christmas drawing near.
Praise God for the harvest. Hidden from our sight
Spirit’s life now moving, make our hearts delight
To praise the Son, whose harvest gathers in
All creation’s longing, as we live for Him.
© Nick Shutt 2016.
11,11,10,11 (Noel Nouvelet)
Private Eye takes no prisoners: “Two Wongas doesn’t make it right” (Eye1346 p.26) as it pokes fun at the discomfort of our Archbishop as he seeks to tackle head on the payday loan company Wonga. Ouch! That made me squirm and feel uncomfortable! Couple this with a more erudite article in Modern Believing (July 2013) by Lawler & Salzman about the Church’s 1500 year journey to overturn the principle of Luke 6.35 ‘But love your enemies and do good, and lend without expecting any return;’ (why this needs to be entwined with the current debate on human sexuality is for another day) as the church finds accommodation with the idea of lending to get a return and it opens up an interesting debate as to the church’s involvement with matters of public policy and our engagement with the banks and the whole investment culture. And, of course, our discomfort as a church comes from realising that in a very small way we have indirectly invested in Wonga ourselves. Usury is redefined from ‘lending without return’ to ‘lending without excessive return’ and in the laissez faire market of our current government it is the market that is left to define what is excessive. That makes me feel even more uncomfortable given the debacles in the banking system uncovered over the last few years: bonus driven banking; Libor scandals; mis-selling of products – it makes for shameful reading – and we are asked to let the market decide?
I stand fully behind our Archbishop’s stand and applaud what he is attempting to do even if the power of what he is advocating is undercut from within by the Church Commissioners’ investment policy. Lest I be accused of hypocrisy I write as one who spent 25 years as a solicitor putting in place secured loans for lenders, both those in the High Street and those who specialised in re-financing those already deeply in debt.
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? – ‘Who guards the guards?’ seems to be a pertinent question to ask and the Archbishop is trying to answer it by supporting Credit Unions. Two Wongas doesn’t make it right but supporting Credit Unions does offer a constructive way forward given where we are in this complicated world in which we live and move and have our being.
I wonder if you share my sense of exasperation? I wrote a letter to the Church Times last week – they probably won’t publish it but this is how I feel at the moment:
Am I the only person who thinks we are a laughing stock (and not in a way that makes us fools for Christ so we can award ourselves a few gold stars) as we consistently find ways to continue to look inwards rather than outwards, absorbing ourselves in what everyone outside the church sees as endless debates about meaningless matters? Sometimes it is hard to discern if we are all playing for the same team (Remind me. Who said ‘a kingdom divided against itself’…etc?) It would be good to tackle the things we should oppose rather than tackling ourselves all the time. But it appears we can’t even do that! Even our Archbishop’s exemplary efforts are hoist on his own petard, with his essential campaign against payday loan companies exploding in his face when it is disclosed that we have invested in the very company we are taking issue with! Goal! – that is an own goal…
We sound like the football manager who is interviewed straight after his side has suffered a crushing defeat on TV who talks endlessly about “taking the positives out of the game”. Hello – wake up – we’ve just been crushed. How about a bit of honesty? This is not a vote of confidence in the management nor a cry from the terraces more a head in hands moment which drives me to my knees.
When getting instructions on how to choose a new king, Samuel was reminded that ‘the LORD does not see as mortals see; mortals see only appearances but the LORD looks on the heart.’ (1 Sam 16.7) So Samuel, having inspected seven of Jesse’s sons, asks if there are any more to whom he can give ‘the once over’ and is told ‘only the youngest who is looking after the sheep’. His name is David and the rest is history… He would not have been the human choice but he was God’s choice.
We may want the discernment only God can give, but we also need to ‘see as mortals see’ as well. This is particularly the case when it comes to first impressions of our churches. The warmth of welcome is important: A smile, a handshake, or an engaging conversation will all make a lasting impression. I had a ‘head in hands’ moment recently when I learnt that many years ago when the person I was talking to started coming to one of our churches, it had taken a whole year for someone to speak to them and they were repeatedly asked on the door ‘are you visiting?’ My response, other than to put my head in my hands in shame, was to say ‘you’re a better person than I am. I would have stopped coming long before 12 months!’ People are of primary importance.
Of secondary importance are our buildings. Yet they also convey a great deal about our life as a Christian Community. Shabby, out of date notice boards, worn out service and hymn-books, and tatty clutter in our churches ‘speak volumes’ to anyone who ventures across our threshold for the first time. They may not say it but they are surely thinking ‘this looks unloved’.
So renewal is something not just for people but for our plant as well. It is good that we are caring for both as long as the latter does not usurp the former, which sadly is too often the case. But let me celebrate a new notice board erected at St Paul’s with the aid of half a dozen or so volunteers.
Once upon a time there was a gardener who was constantly perturbed that grass always grew abundantly everywhere except on his lawn, which seemed to be a haven for moss. Not only did this fact disturb him but each Spring he would commence an unequal battle in his tiny garden, usually full of optimism that this year will be different, that something would grow that thrives on more than just neglect or that could be harvested at a time other than the 2 weeks when the gardener was holiday in August. The gardener remained optimistic even though it appeared he had learnt little from previous years where he had adopted a similar approach with little success!
“It is a new beginning again as Spring is here bringing with it the promise of a new start: a new beginning,” said the gardener who surveyed his garden with a spade in hand.
You see this gardener had a very strange idea of how to keep his garden. He would make a good start each Spring, clear his small patch, dig it, manure it, and plant numerous seeds and plants but then, rather than continually tending his patch, he became somewhat distracted by other interests that kept him from his garden. There was the FA Cup Final, the joy of looking after his grandchildren, the unseasonable weather, the need to shop and buy stuff, friends who came to call as well as his other jobs and the fact that he was too tired to face the prospect of getting out in the garden.
Soon the seeds and plants began to grow but so did all the weeds. There was no time for pruning the fruit bushes or digging up the weeds, the grass on the lawn soon passed 6 inches and started to seed. There was an abundance of foliage but little evidence of fruit as the summer progressed. Numerous weeds choked the plants he wanted to cultivate. The slugs and caterpillars moved in stripping many of the plants of their health and vitality. A mole took centre stage in the lawn leaving ample evidence of subterranean activity.
Meanwhile the gardener continued to pursue his other interests paying little regard to the garden even though he walked down the garden path many times each day. It was as if the garden had disappeared from his consciousness.
Then early one morning in the autumn having enjoyed a leisurely summer doing not a lot in the garden, the gardener stepped out of his house and paused to look at the garden. It was a mass of brambles and ivy. He could make out some of the plants he’d planted in the Spring, but many of them had simply not made it. They had been choked by the weeds or eaten by the insects.
“How did this happen?” he asked himself.
Then he had a moment of self-revelation, came to his senses, and realised that being a gardener was not just a bolt on to life – it was about life itself, that the garden needed constant tending and care. If the garden was not the top priority then weeds would grow, insects would eat everything. He lamented the lack of pruning. He could see with his own eyes that his garden looked very green but there was little or no fruit. It might look healthy if you glanced at it quickly – plenty of green stuff – but closer observation quickly revealed the true state of the garden.
“I have been a fool again,” thought the gardener. “I have neglected my garden for another season and I will reap what I have sown because of my neglect. There is hardly any fruit or plants that I want in my garden. It has been overtaken by weeds.”
Jesus’ words came into his mind “Seek first my kingly rule, my integrity, and all these things will be yours as well”. “This garden is my life,” he thought. In that moment he was thankful that despite the mess that confronted him he knew he was offered a new beginning. He could only transform his garden if he transformed his life – root and branch – he determined that he would not pass up this new beginning; there was time still to produce fruit, even though it was late in the season.
One of the most emotional post resurrection encounters is the one that takes place between Jesus and Peter on a beach on the Sea of Galilee. The lead up to that encounter is instructive. The disciples had gone back to their old jobs; perhaps they thought the adventure was over so they returned to the familiar but without apparent success. They fished all night and caught nothing – that is until a stranger on the shore told them to throw their nets again with extraordinary results: 153 fish in total were caught – and not one fish is lost, as miraculously the nets are not torn. All are safely gathered in.
Whilst Simon Peter realises that it is Jesus who is on the shore there is something unfamiliar about this person as Jesus is not as the disciples remembered him. There is something familiar yet unfamiliar about him. He is not a ghost; he sits and eats breakfast with the disciples and when breakfast is over he asks Simon Peter a question.
In our English translations we lose the power of what Jesus is saying. Jesus says, “Peter do you agape me more than these others?” Agape is the Greek word, which is all about self-forgetful love, the love that Christ demonstrated on the cross by dying for us. So Jesus asks Peter do you love me in this sacrificial, self-denying way more than the others? Peter’s answer “Lord you know that I love you” should be translated as “Lord you know that I am your friend”. Peter isn’t making the commitment to self-sacrificing love. He calls Jesus his friend. Neither does he answer Jesus’ question as to his capacity to love more than the others. That remains unresolved.
Yet despite Peter’s reticence Jesus commissions Peter to “Feed my lambs”. He is entrusted to look after those who are young in the faith. Perhaps this is the easiest of tasks as feeding young ones spiritual milk may prove to be less demanding that some awkward questions from those who are adults. So Peter is drawn in. He acknowledges his friendship with Jesus and is commissioned.
A second time Jesus asks “Peter do you agape me?” This time the comparison with others is dropped. It is a straightforward question: Do you love me? Again Peter gives the same answer: “Lord you know I am your friend.” Peter again misses the opportunity to speak in terms of undying love that is agape. Yet Jesus still commissions him again, extending his commission to “tend my sheep”. The terms of his commission have been expanded. Now he is given a role guiding the whole flock, a position of far more responsibility rather than one confined to looking after lambs.
The third time Jesus asks Peter the question he no longer says to him if his love is the agape love of his first two questions, but he adopts Peter’s wording and simply asks “Peter are you my friend?” Having failed to get Peter to express an agape love Jesus settles for pressing Peter as to whether he truly is his friend. Peter is clearly annoyed at this pressing and acknowledges that Jesus knows everything about him including his capacity to name Jesus as his friend. Peter is commissioned a third time by Jesus. This time his charge is to “feed my sheep”. This is the most demanding of the three commissions. Looking after lambs is a partial job; guiding the whole flock is one of responsibility but not one of ultimate responsibility, but feeding the flock is the greatest challenge of all. It is about nurturing the flock and looking after it to see it thrive individually and collectively.
Jesus appears to have given up asking Peter if he has the capacity to love him completely selflessly. Being Jesus’ friend is enough. Jesus knows who he is dealing with. The man who had denied him three times is restored three times. He calls himself the friend of Jesus with repeated assurance and Jesus accepts him at face value. He will not press Peter to be anything other than his friend.
As Jesus lowers the stakes from “do you agape me more than these?” to “do you agape me?” and then finally to “Are you my friend?” Peter’s responsibilities are increased from feeding lambs, to guiding the flock and ultimately to feeding the flock.
For us we are almost certainly in the same boat as Peter: unable to love our Lord with the same love, which he has shown us. Jesus, the Son of God, demonstrated the agape of God by dying for us but we can say, in the same way as Peter did, that we count ourselves as Jesus’ friends. And that is good enough! As friends of Jesus we will receive a commission from him to live out our lives as his disciples. Our task is to follow Jesus. It really is that simple yet also totally absorbing. We probably won’t get the Damascus Road experience or the privilege of a beach walk with our Lord yet we can still stand up and call ourselves friends of Jesus.
Jesus has the same question for each one of us: “Are you my friend?” If so, live it.