possibly the most difficult service of the year

virgin and childIn the UK this Sunday is marked as Mothering Sunday. And, when you are a local church Minister, it is one of those Sundays that takes a disproportionate amount of thought and preparation. It is a day when, when I have got it ‘wrong’, I have had more complaints than any other in the calendar year! Allow me to let you in on some of the things that have to be considered and how I have not got it right on occasions…

Gifts – do we give a gift on Mothering Sunday? If we do it should probably go to all women so that nobody feels excluded. Will a small posy of flowers be a blessing, or is it just a token? Will some women feel patronised by being included? Can we afford that number of posies of flowers? Who will organise getting the flowers and sorting them? Who will give them out? When in the service will they be given out? Are there any alternatives to flowers?

Inclusivity – not all women are mothers. Some would desperately love to be a mother and others would rather not. Some mothers no longer have their children with them – they might have moved away, they may have lost contact, some may have died prematurely. Some people did not get on well with their own mothers and would rather not be reminded of them. Some people are mothers and find it a joy, others find it a struggle. How can we prepare a service in which we take account of and include all of those different emotional needs and circumstances?

History – Mothering Sunday was not originally about mothers. It emerged in the era when the wealthy had lots of domestic servants in their homes who worked all hours and (if allowed out on a Sunday) attended the same church as their master/mistress. This was one Sunday in the year in which they were released from the obligation to attend that church and could go back to their Mother church and also visit their home. That’s a tradition that is no longer observed due to changed cultural and social structures. Mothering Sunday has now become about Mums. But if we focus on the historical roots of the day it could become a ‘Back to Church Sunday’, yet my experience in local church is that this would not be something that many would appreciate.

Language – It used to be ‘Mothering Sunday’, now it is ‘Mothers’ Day’. That change of language reflects the change of purpose of the day. But if it was a day to think about mothering it would be different from thinking about mothers. We could sensitively reflect on mothering as a positive concept and perhaps avoid upsetting some people by reminding them of past hurt or current pain.

Bible – linked to ‘language’, the Bible constantly talks about God as Father. Far less frequently is God referred to as ‘mother’ or even in the feminine, although there are a few passages – you can find a good summary of them here. I was in the congregation of a service on one occasion when the person leading opened with a prayer that began: “Mother God…” Now, don’t get me wrong, I do believe that we have paid insufficient attention to the femaleness of God, and that we have ‘maleified’ Genesis 1:27 when the Bible talks about male and female being made in God’s image: if both genders are made in God’s image, what does that say about God? And I don’t actually think that to talk to God as our Mother is disrespectful, blasphemous or wrong. But to begin with those words upset almost everyone in the church (male and female) because it came without explanation or warning. I don’t think many people remembered anything about the service after those two words. There is still a lot of patriarchy in our theology and practice in church and Mothering Sunday has the potential to run aground on the rocks of that prejudice.

Tradition – I have found to my cost that if you try to change the way that Mothering Sunday has been done before you will get criticism. There is something important for people (which I have underestimated) about tradition (and that’s coming from a non-conformist branch of the church). One year I took the decision not to give out flowers but said that we would use the money instead to give to a charity working with bereaved mothers. I had not asked many people about this, I had not sought approval from the leadership team for this, I acted out of good motives but rashly and unilaterally. I naively thought that this would receive universal assent and affirmation as a new way of doing things. Nope. Cue lots of unhappy people (men and women) because I had changed from the traditional way we had done things. I’m not having a go at those people – their upset was genuine and I had not taken their feelings and thoughts into account. I’m just illustrating how deeply tradition is felt and how not to go about changing it.

Commercialisation – I do struggle with the way in which Mothers’ Day (Mothering Sunday) has been hijacked commercially. Cards have to be sent, gifts have to be bought, meals with the family in restaurants are booked (when usually people spend the time differently). Again, don’t misunderstand me. I am not against showing people that you love them by sending cards and gifts. It’s just that it sits uneasily with me, especially when there are people (identified above) for whom this is a difficult time and everywhere they go there will be reminders.

All of this may lead you to think that I am against Mothering Sunday. No. Not at all. It’s just that it’s so difficult to prepare for when you have to take all of the above into account, and that’s alongside the intention to prepare a service in which people can worship and encounter God, and a sermon through which God can speak. The beauty is that when I have got it right, it has been a very special time. For me it starts with preparing a service in which people can worship and encounter God and a sermon through which God can speak. But then it’s entirely right to take into consideration the issues I have mentioned above.

I think it is important that we encourage people to be who they are in church, not putting on a pretend, happy face when inside we are weeping. It is important that we bring all of our lives and experiences with us into church and seek God’s Spirit to minister to them, not leaving the difficult items at the door to be collected (unchanged) on the way out. Prayers can be inclusive, allowing time and space for the pain and hurt to be expressed to God alongside the thankfulness. If I was doing it again I would probably still want to make a gift to a charity working to support bereaved parents, but it would be alongside not instead of existing traditions if they were helpful to people.

Exploring the nature of God (including in the feminine) is something worth doing, and worth doing well. One of the moments that I think worked well was when we got some people up to have a ‘dandling’ competition using some of the dolls from the crèche, coming from this image in Isaiah 66:12-13:

‘I will extend peace to her like a river,
    and the wealth of nations like a flooding stream;
you will feed and be carried on her arm
    and dandled on her knees.
As a mother comforts her child,
    so will I comfort you;
    and you will be comforted over Jerusalem.’

(If you don’t know, dandling is playfully bouncing a child up and down on your knee.) The congregation voted for the best dandling and then we explored what it meant that God’s people (Israel in the Old Testament) are described as dandling – playful, secure, comforting, loving… and how that might be true of us.

I hope that, whatever Mothering Sunday means to you, it will also bring with it a greater awareness of God’s love, compassion, protection, joy, pride, enthusiasm and, yes, dandling into your life.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

 

what did you think of church today?

Dearest bloggists

I apologise for the recent silence – I was enjoying a week away and felt that it would be better for me to take a holiday from writing bloggages as well. But now, da da daaaah, I am back. And I have been doing a lot of reflecting.

This morning I was visiting one of the churches in my section of the Eastern Baptist Association (and preaching there). After the service there was a shared lunch and the thought occurred to me that it would be interesting if the same conversations took place over the shared lunch as might normally take place in our homes after the service*…

sheep chat“What did you think of this morning’s service?”

“It was quite good, but I didn’t like the second song.”

“Oh. That’s one of my favourites. But the music group did play it too slowly.”

“And weren’t they loud? I couldn’t hear myself sing when they hit the high notes.”

“You’d have thought the sound desk would have turned them down a bit.”

“They were probably too busy trying to get the Minister’s attention to tell her to turn her radio mike on.”

“It was good that she realised. I really enjoyed her sermon.”

“Me too. But it did go on a bit long. She could have cut her fifteenth point and still had the same impact.”

“You’re right. It did get a bit repetitive. But I didn’t mind as it was my favourite parable.”

“The parable of the wise and foolish virgins! Really – that’s your favourite parable?”

“Oh yes. It reminds me of the scout motto: ‘Be prepared’.”

“But you were never in the scouts.”

“That’s true. But I like to be prepared. That’s why I always check out the songs from the hymn number board before the service.”

“Oh. I use it to choose my lottery numbers!”

“If you won, would you give anything to the church?”

“Perhaps, I could stuff a wad of notes in the offering bag. That would surprise the stewards if the bag was full.”

“It might make them smile.”

“It would certainly make the treasurer smile.”

“I’d pay to see that…”

[conversation continues]

When you look at or participate in conversations about church services how much of the dissection is based on your preferences; what you got from the service; what you enjoyed; what distracted you… in short, how much of it is about you?:

If it’s more about you than it is about God can I gently suggest that you ought to revisit your approach? We call services an ‘act of worship’, which reminds us that the focus of the service is not us, but Jesus Christ. Surely any post-service analysis that relates to us should be much more about what we were able to offer by way of worship than what we got?

Just a thought.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

*All of these are fictitious comments and any similarity with over-lunch comments (past or present) is purely intentional but coincidental. None relate to any of the services where I have been present.

looking for the impossible

searchToday I spent time and effort searching for something. It was an important document. It was my tax return. I had found ones from previous years but needed this year’s. I file my returns online but was sure that I also printed out a summary of this year’s return. Yet I could not find it anywhere.

I had used some tax return filing software specially designed for Ministers of Religion and thought that I would have the document I needed in the backup folders. But then I realised that I had filed the return on a different computer and, not so long ago, I had removed my profile from that computer because I had not needed it. I thought I had made copies of everything and put them on an external hard drive, but when I checked it I did not have a tax return for this year.

My heart sank. It was gone. My tax return for 2014-2015 had vanished.

And then I realised something. I have not yet filed a tax return for 2014-2015 because that financial year has not finished yet! And the return I needed was for 2013-2014 and I had that in my hand.

D’oh!

Do you ever search for what does not exist?

No?

So you have never looked for the perfect partner, job or house – where there is nothing wrong with it at all, it is flawless – so that you will be happy?

You have never bought a lottery ticket (or raffle ticket) or entered a competition and had a feeling that ‘this time’ you would win and life will be better?

You have never caught yourself imagining a different life where ‘the grass is greener’ and you never have any problems?

I think that part of the way that we have been designed is to seek the best, to have ambitions, hopes and dreams. I that is one of God’s fingerprints that is left on us – a desire for improvement, for progress, wanting something better. But it is not intended to be focused on ourselves, it is intended to be focused on others.

But we distort that through selfishness to become wanting to improve our life, make progress for ourselves, wanting something better for us. When we want more, better, perfect in order to make our life easier, better, happier, we find that we will be striving for what doesn’t exist and lose a sense of satisfaction.

Paradoxically those who seek to serve others often find greater satisfaction than those who seek others to serve them (my loose paraphrase of things Jesus said).

Be blessed, be a blessing

the parable of the banquet (revisited)

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It was a very posh do. In a very expensive restaurant. The chef had three Michelin Stars and more were expected. There was normally a waiting list of six to eight months just to get a table. But since he was also the host of the event the chef reserved the whole place for his invited guests.

It was a very posh do. The invited guests all turned up (surprising some of you) in beautiful gowns (the women) and black tie (the men). The tables were arranged in a circle so there was no top table (surprising others of you) and people were allowed to sit where they wanted. The chef had prepared an amazing menu of food for his invited guests. There were twelve courses (if you count the champagne cocktails on arrival and the after dinner mints and coffee). It was the best food that the guests had ever tasted.

It was a very posh do.  Each course was brought to the table by waiters and waitresses who were impeccable in their attire, deferential in their manner and superb in their service. No sooner had a course finished than the waiters and waitresses swooped, removed the debris, cleaned and re-laid tables as necessary and brought the next course in a seamless stream of serene service.

It was a very posh do. At the end of the meal the host thanked the guests for coming. The guests all thanked the waiters and waitresses. They left significant tips for them. Some guests had made sure that they remembered the names of those who had served them and made sure that they thanked them personally. In the end one of the guests proposed three cheers for the waiters and waitresses and there was a thunderous series of cheers. The waiters and waitresses felt very good about all of this.

The chef, meanwhile, had gone home.

Be blessed, be a blessing

the heart of the matter

Sorry about the absence of a bloggage on Friday and over the weekend. On Friday I went to visit a church near Southampton as part of my sabbatical studies, and it was so encouraging. Thank you Gordon and your church for the hospitality and sharing.

On Friday evening I stretched out my left arm at about 10pm and felt a twinge. By 3am on Saturday the twinge had become very painful indeed and my left hand was starting to feel a bit numb, so I looked at NHS Direct’s website and entered my symptoms. I was rather surprised that it suggested I should go to hospital immediately.

So I rang NHS Direct instead, and having spoken to two nice people they concluded that I should go to hospital immediately and, before I knew what was happening, an ambulance crew was knocking on the door. They wired me up and did not see anything too alarming but took me to the hospital anyway.

The hospital staff were great (I was feeling silly and a bit of a fraud, especially when the ambulance staff insisted on wheeling me in a wheelchair). They realised quite quickly what I was trying to say all along: that I had strained / torn / tweaked a muscle in my arm.

The problem was that the symptoms were such that it meant that the answers I gave to the person on the phone sounded suspiciously like the symptoms of a heart attack. Let me state here and now, on the record, I did not have a heart attack, I don’t have any heart problems, and other than a very painful left arm I am fine. Any rumours circulating to the contrary are false!

I am glad that our NHS system was so efficient and alert to the possibilities of me having a heart attack. I am grateful to all the staff who made sure that they were happy that I was not going to keel over before releasing me into the wild, rather than just taking my word for it. I am happy to know that my heart is in good condition. Better to be safe than sorry. At the hospital the doctor I saw could tell I was in a lot of pain and prescribed me some heavier duty painkillers for the pain in my arm – unfortunately they also make me feel dopier than usual.

But it did feel like a bit of an over-reaction. I only wanted some advice about what I could do to reduce the pain in my arm and ended up having an ambulance ride and a mini waxing (pulling off the electrode contacts from the ECG machine also removed a few body hairs).

I wonder if sometimes churches are the same. Someone may come to us asking for some help and before they know it they have been presented with a full explanation of the good news about Jesus, enrolled on an Alpha course and provisionally booked for a baptism. When people came to Jesus he was far more generous – he allowed others to set the agenda. He did not have a set routine of questions designed to diagnose their problem or a series of presentations and programmes to make them a Christian. Several times in the gospels he asked people, “What would you like me to do for you?”

That’s an amazing question to ask. It’s a dangerous question, a vulnerable question, and it’s a mission question. It leaves the power with the person who has come to him rather than him assuming control of the situation. It keeps the focus on the individual rather than on what we might think is the answer.

Yet at the same time we often find Jesus answering the wrong question. When four friends lowered their paralysed friend through a hole in the roof to get him in front of Jesus for healing, Jesus told the man that his sins were forgiven! He did not start with the physical healing, he healed the man’s soul. But then, to demonstrate that he had authority to forgive sins, he did the apparently more difficult task of healing the man.

Confusing isn’t it?

Yes and no. Jesus knew what was at the heart of the man’s needs. We may need to spend some time listening to get to the same point. But if Jesus’ mission question is not far from our lips we will be on the way to getting to the heart of the matter.