Monday, 22 August 2016

Olympians and disciples...

This is the text of a sermon preached at Evensong on Sunday evening - as the Rio 2016 Olympics drew to a close. In part it is a meditation on Psalm119 (or at least the portion set for that day, verses 49-64) in relation to Isaiah 30:8:21 and 2 Corinthians 9. When we think of 'putting in the hours' as disciples, what does that really mean? Perhaps, if it's taking inspiration from athletes, it's about habits of attention to God: in worship, personal prayer, reading the scriptures, fostering relationships... allowing space and time for God's Spirit to be at work in us. It doesn't make us 'busier' but it might equip us to respond to others in obedience to God's commandments of love. Praying the psalms is at the heart of daily prayer - in paying attention to God in them and through them, our lives our shaped with honesty and hope.

O Lord... teach me thy statutes.

As we worship this evening, TeamGB has claimed second place in the final Rio16 medal table.

Some names are well known - Mo Farah, Laura Trott and Bradley Wiggens; others are unfamiliar - including Hollie Webb, Helen Richardson-Walsh and Maddie Hinch in the women's hockey team.

And perhaps, out of the 1000s of people who participate week by week in sporting activities as diverse as archery, badminton and fencing, we wonder what makes an Olympic athlete?

The Director of the Science Gallery at King's,Dr Daniel Glaser, has a succinct answer, based on neuroscience: he says that motivation and innate ability make little difference. 'It's all about the hours your put in.'  Hours and hours of repetitive practice changes brain structure - reflected in the excellence of the 58 year old equestrian Nick Skelton and the 16 year old gymnast Amy Tinkler.

Few of us will dedicate our lives to one such discipline: yet we understand the effort needed to reach a point that a skill looks effortless. In music, languages and sewing, as well as sport, for most of us it's getting to the point where we can enjoy something for fun, make a gift or be understood travelling overseas.

What about our lives of faith: what sort of repetition shapes our lives and deepens our response to God?

Psalm 119 offers wisdom in the form of personal practice. It's made up of 22 eight verse stanzas - bite size pieces which we could read/pray over the course of coming weeks. Psalms form and transform us.

This prayer is addressed to God: it expresses personal faith and encourages others. The psalmist rejoices in God's faithfulness and ponders how we can live more faithfully. We hear of troubles, derision and fear. The quest isn't for the good, lofty or noble ideal in the abstract, but the day by day working out of God's love for us.

Such love is revealed in word, judgments, ordinances, statutes, testimony and commandments.  These are ways of describing God's concern for what is just, peaceable, compassionate and merciful. The faithfulness of God is communicated in such a way that we might be guided; that we might practice ways of kindness; that our dealings with one another might be consistent.

The earth, O Lord, is full of thy mercy. It is full of your steadfast love.

At times of uncertainty and sleeplessness, in weakness and growing older, the young psalmist seeks to learn observe, read, obey, sing about and practice this love. There is joy, delight and freedom. 

Likewise, we are called to put in the hours!  Paradoxically, rather than meaning more human effort, this allows space for God's grace to act on us, in us and through us. We are to practice putting God at the centre; to be mindful of how that love seeps out into the minutia of our life. In acts of tenderness to a child; in courtesy to a colleague; in patience in the face of indignation; in good judgement amidst things which trouble us.

This is the pattern of life Isaiah calls God's people back to: a way which is purposeful and disciplined by the ways of God. Our hope is not in human strength or schemes; our trust is not based on our capacity to manipulate, oppress or deceive others. Instead, we are to return to and rest in God: to abide in his grace, mercy, justice and blessing.

Like the psalmist, Isaiah acknowledges affliction and adversity: but assures us that cries are heard; God's word is spoken. We are to listen and then practice - one step at a time.

This is the way; walk in it.

Both prophet and psalmist weave together thought and action; praise and service.  It is a pattern of live lived under the compulsion of love. God's way of love is made manifest in Jesus Christ; it is costly and generous. It's a love that enables Paul to nudge the Corinthians beyond duty and pride in their giving. It is God's Spirit which awakens in us the capacity to act with such a generous love.

What we hear from Paul is an example of how formation our lives before God opens up transformed lives. It enhances the welfare of others, restores their dignity, enables them to trust others and praise God. It is an act of witness as love divine finds expression in human lives; it's authentic, compelling and live-giving. It glorifies God in expressions of praise, joy and thanksgiving.

Let's weave psalm 119 into our lives: a stanza at a time, perhaps. Let's meditate on God's love; on the commandment to love others. Let's listen, learn, act and sing.

The earth, O Lord, is full of your steadfast love; teach me your statues.  

© Julie Gittoes 2016

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Blessing and glory and wisdom...

In the book of Revelation, we catch a glimpse of heavenly worship; of angels and the whole company of heaven falling to their faces before the throne, giving glory to God and singing: 

"Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honour
and power and might
be to our God forever and ever! Amen."

Those words from Revelation 7:12 seem to be an appropriate response of praise to the gift of a time of Extended Ministerial Development Leave or EMDL (aka "Sabbatical"). Easter Day was my final Sunday at the Cathedral, and I began this period of study, retreat, reflection, travel and refreshment on 1st April. 

Glass from the Holy Spirit Chapel, St James' Church Sydney

It was a season of tremendous blessing - or rather a succession of blessings. It was a season of glory as I glimpsed afresh something of the love of God in the ordinary and the new, in people and places; as I began to re-calibrate my life as a disciple of Christ, seeking balance and refreshment. It was a season of wisdom - which is very much the Spirit's gift - in conversation, in research, in prayer.

What follows is a brief overview of some of that blessing and glory and wisdom.

The Society for the Study of Theology:  I began my EMDL by going to the Society for the Study of Theology (SST) conference in Durham. This has been the academic equivalent of taking an annual retreat for over a decade! As well as chairing a seminar session on Church, Ministry and Theology, I presented a paper entitled 'Alone Together'. This is the beginning of developing a piece of work I've led sessions on (for SEITE, St Anselm's and our Youth/Family Workers); but am in the process of turning into a book.  It's not about 'being single' as a static state but recognising we all will be single (for some/all of our lives) - so how do we speak about fellowship, solitude and mortality?

The SST continues to flourish and this was one of the best in terms of fellowship and theology; there was an intense commitment to do theology rooted in the complexity of life and in an Augustinian sense to discern what moves the human heart.  If you're interested, this is my short paper:

Retreat: I then spent a week on retreat with my cell group in the North Yorkshire Moors (driving up via a weekend with my mother and friends in Herefordshire). We adopted a simple rule of life together for that time - rooted in morning, midday and evening prayer; silent mornings for reading/prayer; walking in the afternoons; a time of conversation and prayer focusing on each person/their context; shared cooking/eating together; and sleep!  I took Rowan's book 'On Augustine' with me - I would recommend it!

Guildford interludes: The 10-14 days or so after that were spent doing some reading and also some writing -  finalising a co-authored paper on Richard Hooker/Dan Hardy (as some of you know, this is a contribution to a FAOC sub-committee).   Time in Guildford also meant I could see my spiritual director and work consultant early on in my EMDL: This is an important part of being able to re-calibrate life - lived fully in Christ - but also to discern how to flourish in a particular context. Being back in Guildford in between trips also meant I could make time to see friends and go to galleries, theatre, or opera. All part of the blessing and gift of re-balancing life. 

Australia has been a series of blessings (there are pictures on Facebook!).  Exploring two new cities has been amazing! Lots of galleries and museums; gardens and beaches; mountains and memorials; glorious state libraries with inspirational reading rooms; enjoying the company of family and friends; and lots of very good coffee!  Underpinning all that has been a series of significant conversations about faith and witness; plus lots of time in two very different cathedrals.

Sydney Cathedral: the welcome as you might expect is rooted in the proclamation of the Gospel with boldness and directness (impressed by their welcomers; they give away dozens of copies of Luke's Gospel). Their informal worship and evensong made be delight afresh in the diversity of our Communion; conversation and prayer with Ross their Director of Music and their new Dean, Kanishka and his colleagues (after worship and at their staff meeting) was engaging and encouraging. If walking together is about being rooted in prayer and discerning a vision of God's Kingdom, I certainly felt we were increasing our capacity to understand one another in a spirit of mutual flourishing.

Melbourne Cathedral: it was good to catch up with Dean Andreas, my friend and colleague from Selwyn days, and his wife Katherine; to meet members of the team there and to share in their pattern of life. I also had a long brunch with 'our' Gillian (former organ scholar).  On one level it's much more recognisable in terms of patterns of worship: like us, they've faced a budget deficit and, like us, they have some major capital works going on (refurbishment of office/community space; the prospect of a new metro station).  There's a strong sense of vision and purpose for being a place of transformation at the heart of this cosmopolitan and culturally diverse city - not least in the welcome they offer to refugees (advocacy, a Mandarin service, English as an add. lang. conversation).

At the heart is a sense of their identity in Paul which flows through their guidebooks, welcome and vision.  Apt given they proclaim the good news in such a global city.  I shared in Bible study, a social for chorister parents and staff meetings amongst other things - I preached on the Spirit/language of the heart at Pentecost, bringing greetings from Guildford, of course!

The text is here if you're interested:

Theological Work: the final half of my EMDL is the more explicitly theological part of my time away: marriage, disagreement, the 'alone together' project and ethics of Christian leadership are sketched out below.

Marriage:  There have been a couple of pieces of good news: one was reading Bernice Martin's review of 'Thinking again about Marriage' in the Church Times - she so eloquently captures the essence of the project. It's more than the sum of its parts; and she encouraged re-reading of it as a resource in contemporary debates (SCM's pricing policy is a bit eye watering, but I can get discounted copies if anyone is interested!).  
Disagreement: The second piece of good news is that the report on Communion and Disagreement has now been sent to members of the General Synod as a GS Misc. Together with a document containing the five supporting papers, it is available on the FAOC page of the Church of England website ( Jeremy Worthen suggested that they be brought to the attention of others. It has been an understandably intense project, but I hope that taken together this work will contribute in a positive way to Synod and beyond. 

Alone Together: At the moment I am happily ensconced in Cambridge: it's wonderful to have time to settle into the UL and I'm focusing on reading as much as I can  while I'm here. There's also the space to  let the ideas percolate and I'm having some extremely helpful conversations along the way.  Writing, for me, tends to be a process a bit like using a stove top espresso maker... the water, coffee, heat need to be there... and something emerges! 

Soon after arriving in Cambridge, I led a quiet day at Westcott House.  It was one of those things which it was possible to say yes to because a. I'm here and b. the theme for the day was a spiritual working out of the bigger writing project, 'Alone Together'.  It was strange and familiar to be back; but I was encouraged by the interaction with some of the students afterwards. 

On 'Alone Together' book proposal, the overall structure is certainly clearer now. I've ended up with an opening section giving some context to the challenge (pastorally and missiologically) of loneliness and single person households. The rest of the project will have a fourfold structure. That will be an exploration of fellowship/shared endeavour (it is not good to be alone) and solitude (Jesus went to a deserted place); then as well as reflecting on mortality/living well in the face of death (do not cling on to me), I plan to write on legacy and kinship in relation to childlessness. Each section is rooted in a biblical text/texts. I might be primarily a doctrine person, but that begins (always!) with attentiveness to Scripture!  

Ethical Leadership:  One of the highlights before coming to Cambridge was a day at Leeds University taking part in a fantastic workshop at Leeds University on the ethics of Christian leadership within the CofE. The wonderful thing about a smallish group of clergy/academics is that you cover a lot of ground whilst still having time to delve into a range of questions.  There was an interesting philosophical paper on rhetoric/persuasion, avoiding the dualism of 'leader' and 'led'; followed by a superb session by Loveday Alexander on models of leadership in Paul's epistles - that Paul and the people were called by God; and that those two way relationships shaped the community relationships.

However, two papers in particular stood out. One was Mike Higton talking theologically about leadership - and described the role of the leader as one who 'assists others in the performance of a collective practice'. He said it isn't coercion or imposition, but enabling others, working with the free agency of others; in order that we celebrate, communicate and mediate the love of God. Specific roles and responsibilities flow from and are rooted in our common practices (word, sacrament, forgiveness, care etc); and the leader keeps that circulation of love going - but also needs to receive that. So there’s a mutual dynamic of being enabled by others and enabling others to flourish.

The other was Sam Wells on 'there are two ways of doing this': exploring truth/integrity and unity/grace.  He set out his basic ethical framework from the universal to the ecclesial - and ended up with an exploration of the two languages of leadership.  First of all he described the contractual - safeguarding, due process, care for staff, and exemplary models of organisation/accountability (learning from the best of the secular world). Secondly there was the covenantal - our reliance on God, the transformation of the Gospel, the transfiguration of the Holy Spirit, rooted in word, sacrament and prayer. Holding those two together really resonated with my learning during the mini-MBA at Birbeck University last term - as well as my experience as a disciple first and foremost (but also as a priest). 

My return: I am now turning my mind to Summer School - and in particular the festival day on Abundant Life - which meant thinking about the Holy Spirit for a TED style talk! The focus of that was an invitation to consider what it might be mean to be Spirit-led - literally breath by breath. 

Bird of Hope - Catherine Clancy
© Julie Gittoes 2016