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Sermon: Idols And Vanity (Ecclesiastes 1:1-11)

We start a new sermon series at Knaphill this Sunday on the book of Ecclesiastes. The morning service will be all age, but this is the sermon I plan to preach in the evening, going into more depth than we can in the morning.

Ecclesiastes 1:1-11

This weekend, Debbie has been indulging her love of musicals, going to see ‘Wicked’ with one of her best friends. Although she also loves moving and emotional shows such as ‘Les Miserables’, I think she mainly enjoys the bouncy, singalong nature of a musical. It goes with other parts of her musical taste, such as her love of Abba – something she has imparted to Rebekah, who even did a school project about them last year.

It will not surprise you to know that I am rather different. I like more ‘serious’ rock music, even some of the miserable stuff. I like grumpy, curmudgeonly artists such as Van Morrison. I like the wonderful singer and guitarist Richard Thompson, who sometimes deals in very bleak themes – some of them even too dark for me:

So perhaps you won’t be surprised when I was pleased that someone asked us to have a sermon series on Ecclesiastes!

But actually there were more serious reasons. Ecclesiastes may be unconventional in its tone, compared to many other books in Holy Scripture. It does so to preserve an important voice for us to hear. Sometimes we are so quick as believers to jump in with our perspective on life based on the existence of God and of eternal life. Ecclesiastes helps us to hear what life is like when God is not placed at the centre (even if someone believes in God) and if everything ends with death.

And that’s why you get the cries of ‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ or ‘Vanity! Vanity!’ that you may be familiar with in the older translations. One scholar has argued that the Hebrew refers to a fleeting breath, and so he translates this expression as ‘Breath of breaths! Everything is temporary.’[1] Nothing is going to last. It’s all transient. Enjoy it while you can. But soon it will be gone and the world will continue without you, as if you never happened.

Some people try to live like that. The rock guitarist Wilko Johnson has recently been in the news, talking about the fact that he has terminal pancreatic cancer and how he has turned down chemotherapy but is going out on what will genuinely be a farewell tour. In an interview with the BBC he said that cancer has made him feel more alive, because he is appreciating the detail of things before he dies. But that’s it. Then it’s all gone.

You will say as a Christian that while it’s a brave outlook on life, it’s missing something fundamental. Ecclesiastes helps us appreciate how such people think and live.

In a world that doesn’t put God at the centre, people look to other things to find fulfilment and purpose. And such things can become so pervasive in society that Christians get sucked into the lies, too. In our passage today there are two such examples, where created things take centre stage instead of the Creator, and if we’re not careful, we Christians can absorb these values as much as everyone else. So I’m going to reflect on these two things in this sermon from a Christian perspective. There will be quite a few more as we progress through the book in the next few months.

The first is our work:

What do people gain from all their labours
at which they toil under the sun? (Verse 3)

What’s the point of loading all your sense of self-worth, achievement and meaning on what you accomplish in the world of work? As someone has once observed, “No-one ever wants inscribed on their tombstone, ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office.’”

But some people do. Their career and promotion is all they care about. Families and friends are sacrificed on this altar. Perhaps they have been brought up since childhood to get a good job. As an uncle of my Mum’s told his children, “Make sure you work hard so that you are the one giving the orders, not taking them.” Their sense of identity and purpose is wrapped up in what they do at work.

And of course we collude with this in our society. Meet a person for the first time and after asking their name, the follow-up question is often, “What do you do?” We reinforce the idea that a person’s worth to society and to themselves is based on their employment status.

Yet we also know it can’t be all like that. I once had a manager at work who clearly lived to work, and made life unpleasant for those to instead worked to live. There is the catchphrase of some, “I owe, I owe, it’s off to work I go.” These people have more of a sense of the futility – the meaninglessness – of work. And that sense of frustration at work has quite early roots in the Bible. After Adam and Eve sin, God tells Adam that he will find his daily toil frustrating. Ultimately, all ambitions to make work the centre of our being are crippled by human sin and finish their days in dust and ashes.

However, when we make God the focus of our lives, our attitude to work changes. It doesn’t come out in Ecclesiastes 1, which simply knocks the idol of work off its pedestal and smashes it. But the wider Christian revelation gives a dignity to work, without letting it become a false god. When God sets the first humans to work, it makes employment a key part of human flourishing. It also means that good and worthwhile work is not limited to ‘religious’ jobs, as if what I do is superior to the work others do. Many jobs can fulfil the creation of mandate of exercising moral management for the Lord over elements of his creation.

And it’s more than our doctrine of creation that makes work worthwhile. As I’ve already said, sin turns work into toil, labour and frustration. Yet it can be redeemed, too, and we see that in the Resurrection. As some of you know, my favourite Bible verse over the last five or six years has been the final verse of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s great chapter on the Resurrection of Jesus. In that verse, verse 58, Paul urges his hearers to make every effort in all their work, because – he tells them – ‘your labour in the Lord is not in vain.’ All our work as Christians, whatever kind of work it is, will be taken up into the fullness of God’s kingdom, through the Resurrection, says Paul. It will not be futile, it will have value.

So – as Ecclesiastes says in dethroning the idol of work – death brings an end to everything. Indeed, ‘everything is temporary.’ But our faith does not end in death, it goes on to resurrection, and that is where we find meaning. Hence in the face of secular attitudes to work – either idolising it or seeing it as pointless – the Christian witness is one of hopefulness about work having a lasting value, when committed to Jesus Christ. Can we dedicate our work to him tomorrow morning?

The second idol is our senses:

All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing. (Verse 8)

How often we see today the attempt to gratify the senses as the way of finding pleasure and even fulfilment in life. It is no accident that more effort is put into making products visually appealing. Adverts are made to be persuasive, not with rational arguments about the superiority of something but by making a visual and emotional appeal. We live in front of screens – televisions, desktop and laptop computers, tablets, games consoles, smartphones and doubtless others yet to be invented.

The aural is another arena of appeal. What started when Gordon Selfridge became the first shop owner to turn shopping into an experience rather than a utilitarian necessity later became the advent of muzak in lifts and piped songs in shops and shopping centres. Certain chains even have their own dedicated programming that is like a radio station you can only hear in that shop.

If we continue with the senses, it wouldn’t be difficult to make a case for the elevation of taste in our culture. We have the rise of coffee shops that make most tea and coffee after church services look out of place, such that you can now go to the Christian Resources Exhibition each year and meet companies that will sell you the equipment to reach Starbuck’s or Costa levels of coffee in your church. (And let’s be honest, what would people outside the church expect these days?) We also have the powerful place of the celebrity chefs, where not only can a Nigella Lawson present her recipes in an overtly sensual way, Jamie Oliver can become a political influence, if only on a single issue of children’s school dinners.

And perhaps straddling all the sensory overload today is pornography, appealing to a multitude of human senses, making false claims about intimacy and satisfaction, then like a drug dealer leaving its customers addicted and desperate for stronger ‘highs’.

It’s not hard to see how the devotion to the satiation of the senses today is an idol, but one which comes crashing down in the face of decay and death. Beauty fades, senses weaken and all who have put their stock in living for those senses find life becoming futile.

Is there a Christian answer to this way of living? Surely there is. Some have responded by expecting Christians to live by denying their senses, and in limited ways that may be a calling for some. So some Christians may be called to be teetotal, as a witness to the fact that you do not need alcohol in order to be happy. Some Christians too may be called to celibacy, as a sign against our culture’s devotion to sex. Other disciples may take vows of poverty, in contrast to the way much of our world seeks sensory pleasure through material possessions.

But those acts of self-denial are not God’s calling for all people, especially because the very sensory experiences that people have made into idols are not fundamentally bad. They simply should not be the objects of our devotion. Only God has that right. If we put our hope in God first and foremost, then we can gratefully enjoy what our senses bring to our attention. As Paul told Timothy:

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. (1 Timothy 6:17)

Of course, even then putting God first is not then a ticket to get drunk on sensory overload. The same chapter reminds us that ‘godliness with contentment is great gain’ (verse 6) and calls on the wealthy ‘to be rich in good deeds’ (verse 18) and so ‘lay up treasure … for the coming age’ (verse 19). Yet when we do put God first and foremost, central in our lives, we may gratefully enjoy the gifts of his creation, returning further praise to him and sharing those riches with those around us, especially those who do not enjoy the many blessings we have.

And how pertinent to reach that point in our thinking tonight, in a week when a hundred aid charities have launched the biggest joint campaign since Make Poverty History, the Enough Food If initiative that is calling for sustained action so that everyone in the world can have enough food to eat. Christians putting God first and sensory enjoyment second can and should have a significant part to play in this movement. Is it not now more important than ever to ensure that we as Christians ensure that we treat our Lord as Sovereign over our lives, making everything else relative, for the sake of the world?

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Sermon: The Church Of The Ascension

Acts 1:1-11

You may know that my ‘claim to fame’ is that I studied Theology under George Carey, and that he was one of my referees when I candidated for the Methodist ministry. When George left the world of theological colleges to become Bishop of Bath and Wells, he was soon asked to be present at the reopening of a post office in Wells. The reopening was scheduled for Ascension Day. George discovered that the organisers wanted to mark the reopening happening on Ascension Day by him going up in a hot air balloon while people sang the hymn, ‘Nearer my God to thee’!

The story of Jesus’ ascension is a problem for us. Developing knowledge of astronomy over the centuries has meant that it is difficult to believe that geographically heaven is ‘up there’ and hell is ‘down below’. Despite the fact that Christians have long since abandoned such over-literal interpretations, you may recall how in the 1960s the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev said that [Yuri] “Gagarin flew into space, but didn’t see any God there”.

So we might think that the doctrine of the Ascension is worth rejecting. But in response to that we might say, how else do we know that Jesus Christ is reigning in the universe? If he didn’t return to his Father’s side, what did happen to him? If he returned to heaven in a different way without dying, how did he do so? Might we have in the story of Jesus’ Ascension what is sometimes called a ‘miracle of accommodation’? In other words, Jesus accommodates himself to the limited understanding of his followers by the miracle of rising into the clouds as the only way they would have understood that he was returning to his Father’s presence. In that sense, it’s similar to the creation stories – we’re not meant to take them literally, but they are written in the language of the creation stories of their day.

So if at the Ascension Jesus shows the disciples in their limited understanding that he is reigning at the Father’s right hand, what might he teach them – and us, too, with our limited understanding – through this event? I believe he has something to tell us about the church. I want to share ‘Three ‘W’s’ about the church that we see in the light of Jesus’ Ascension.

The first is that he calls his disciples to be a waiting church. Luke reports,

While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. (Verse 4a)

He goes on to show that that ‘promise of the Father’ is the gift of the Holy Spirit. At first, you might think this is not relevant to us, because since Pentecost Christians don’t have to wait for the Holy Spirit. When we turn from our sins and put our faith in Christ, we receive the gift of the Spirit.

And the thought of not having to wait fits with our culture. Do you remember the advert for the old Access credit card, which said it ‘takes the waiting out of wanting’? A society built on credit (or should we say debt?) does not want to wait for anything or anyone. As the rock band Queen sang, ‘I want it all and I want it now.’

It’s something that society does to religious faith and practice, too. Our great annual season of waiting, Advent, is crushed by the unwillingness to wait for Christmas. We are infected by the disease of impatience. We expect instant solutions to deep problems. One application of something that ‘works’ elsewhere and we think the tribulations of the church will be solved.

But God calls us to be a waiting church. The best things take time. They take God’s time, and come in God’s timing. We know it is unwise to give children everything they want, and especially at the moment they request it. So it is between God and us, too. He has wise reasons as a loving parent for making us wait, even for good things.

In particular, I suggest that one reason he keeps us waiting is that he wants to develop character in us. If we received all we asked for instantly, we would love God for the gifts rather than loving him for who he is. Sadly, too many of us in churches are infatuated with the blessings rather than the One who blesses. We want what we can get out of God, rather than to follow him and love him in Jesus Christ.

So God makes us wait. Holy waiting purifies our motives and focuses our hearts. We grow in grace and become more tuned into the purposes of God, rather than the lusts of our hearts. Our willingness to wait is a mark of true discipleship. And that is what the church is meant to be: a group of disciples, those who are learning the ways of Christ. Waiting puts us in a position where we learn Christ. Is that what we want? If it is, let us accept the grace of waiting.

The second characteristic of the church at the Ascension is that she is a witnessing church. What happens after we’ve waited and the Holy Spirit has come? Jesus is quite clear:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Verse 8 )

Make no mistake, the Ascension leads to Pentecost. In fact, Easter leads to Pentecost. With Pentecost comes the gift of the Holy Spirit. And with the gift of the Spirit comes the promise that we shall be witnesses.

In particular, the witness that happens starts from where we are and moves outwards. Just as the disciples were in Jerusalem when they received the Holy Spirit, so their witness began there but it didn’t end there. It went to Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth. Their witness may have begun with the people with whom they were most familiar, but gradually the Spirit drove them further from their comfort zones to be witnesses to Jesus Christ.

The Holy Spirit does the same today. We make a grave mistake when we think witness is about us staying where we are and waiting for people to be attracted to us. That’s actually a cop-out from being witnesses to Christ, and thus cannot be a work of the Holy Spirit.

No. Instead of the idea that we attract people to us while we sit comfortably (or uncomfortably) in our pews, the Holy Spirit sends us out from the place that suits us to the world as the witnesses of Jesus. The word is not ‘come’ but ‘go’. A witnessing church asks, how are we going into the community and beyond, carrying the love of God in Christ?

Similarly, a witnessing church does not say, how can we attract enough people into this congregation so that it survives for another generation? It won’t say that, because that is a selfish question, more concerned with personal preservation than the Gospel. Jesus said that those who wanted to save their lives would lose it. Those who lose their lives for his sake and the Gospel’s will save their lives.

So a witnessing church, filled with the Holy Spirit, says, the love of God in Christ is such a beautiful gift. Where are the people who need that love? And in the waiting time of Ascension, a true church is consumed with that vision of witness that its members plan how to move out from the church base, spreading God’s redeeming love in Christ to people in spiritual need, material need and social and emotional need.

If this happens, then the church will meet as much as she needs for worship, fellowship and discipleship – but no more. It will not simply become the centre of our social lives, but the refuelling station as we venture into the world, filled with the Holy Spirit. Our social lives will more likely  be fulfilled in the world as we network with friends who do not yet know how much Jesus Christ loves them.

At Ascension-tide, then, the church anticipates this mission. We allow this mission to be the organising principle of church life. And we long for the equipping power of the Holy Spirit in order to put it into practice.

The third and final characteristic of the church at Ascension (at least in this sermon) is that she is a watching church.

While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Verses 10-11)

This last week I went to the races. Sandown Park, to be precise. I go once a year. Before you think I have a gambling problem, let me explain that it was to attend the annual Christian Resources Exhibition. I was helping to staff the Essex Christian Healing Trust stall, but also found an hour or two spare to look around for myself, buy presents for the family and new clerical shirts for myself. When I was trying to hunt down a gift for Debbie, I was accosted by one stallholder who wanted me to know that his organisation had collected together all the scriptures about the Second Coming and it was their sole aim of their charity to make known what they saw as the truth on this subject. I took their leaflet and hurried on.

Similarly, it was only the other day that one churchgoer told me how a relative lectured him for twenty minutes about the imminence of Christ’s Second Coming.

Hence many of us become nervous of the fervent, if not extreme Christians who go overboard on this theme. We tend to think they’ve consumed too much fruitcake. And that’s before we get to the sects and the cults with their bizarre readings of Holy Writ.

Nevertheless, we are to watch for the coming of Christ. Not in a standing-around-waiting posture, for which the men in white robes seem to censure the disciples here. Just doing that achieves nothing. The doctrine of Christ’s return was never meant to reduce us to inactivity and inertia. Quite the opposite, in fact. When we look for the coming of Christ, we are anticipating the fullness of God’s kingdom, the new creation in which God will bring into being the new heavens and the new earth.

What does that mean? If we are filled with hope because Christ is returning, then while that may give us inner peace, it also gives us holy restlessness. We want to see the kingdom of God, so we get on with building for it. We call people to follow Jesus. We bring relief to the poor, and seek to change all that puts them in poverty. We bring God’s healing to the sick. We look after the creation that God is going to renew.

Such a church is vibrant internally and externally. Internally, it is a forgiving, loving and safe place to be, where the only fear is awe at the presence of God’s holiness, not a worry that people have to tread on eggshells in the presence of bullies. Externally, it is known as a people who would be missed by the community if they folded, who champion the poor, and who have a winsome but challenging word for the world.

Let me ask, then, whether we are a church of the Ascension. Are we willing to wait, so that God may form us more in the image of Christ? Are we witnesses, replacing the idolatry of church as social club with church as fuelling station for sorties of love into the world? And are we watching for Christ’s return, aligning our life and witness by the shape of his coming kingdom?

Too often in the Methodist tradition we ignore the Ascension. O that we embraced it and let it shape us.

Healing In Essex

Well, what a great day I’ve had. I serve on the committee of the Essex Christian Healing Trust, and today was our AGM. You wouldn’t think an AGM made for a great day, would you? Well, we did the business – accounts, elections and so on – in thirty minutes over lunch. The rest of the day was a wonderful conference, led by John and Gillian Ryeland from the Christian Healing Mission in London.

Now I ought to declare a connection before going any further: Gillian is a friend of mine from teenage days. (Note, Gillian, if you read this – I didn’t say old friend!) We went to the same secondary school, and before she married an Anglican vicar she was a member of the same Methodist circuit where I grew up. We were in a circuit youth preaching team together, where I gained my first experience of leading worship and preaching. I have met her and John on and off over the years – usually at the Christian Resources Exhibition!

Today, John gave us a series of talks called ‘Meeting Jesus – Finding Healing’. You can find MP3s of these talks when John gave them on an earlier occasion here. Essentially, John’s teaching could be broken down into a rough structure, something like this. The first stage was to remind us thoroughly that God the Father, Abba, dearly loves us. He took various word images from Ephesians 1 to reinforce this.

The story I most liked was an illustration he gave of forgiveness. He said that many people pictured the way God takes away our sins as if they are a document he takes out of our hands and places in a filing cabinet. They are not on view, but when we sin again and are forgiven, another document goes into that cabinet. The file gets bigger, and God can bring out the whole file to accuse us. This, however, is contradictory to the scriptural notion that God ‘remembers our sins no more’. Rather than put our sins in a filing cabinet, he said, the office equipment God uses is a shredder. I love that: our sins are shredded.

Having begun with the Father’s love, John’s second stage was to raise our expectation that we may meet with Jesus and hear him speak to us. Quoting John 10, ‘My sheep hear my voice’, he encouraged us to be more optimistic that we can hear the voice of Jesus. Without wishing us to lack discernment, he said that many Christians are more afraid of deception than they are expectant that Jesus will speak to them.

That led to a third stage of interaction with Jesus. If he has spoken, what is our response? It puts the focus away from the problem and onto Christ. It takes us away from agonising over the will of God, because everything is a response to God. Christ sets the agenda.

All this he built into a prayer model that we can use for ourselves or to accompany someone who comes with a prayer request. Firstly using volunteers and later encouraging us to try this with each other in pairs, the prayer minister encourages the person with the need to dwell quietly on the love of God the Father for them. This was like brief, guided prayer. Then the prayer minister asks the person to sense where Jesus is. Some could describe that geographically (“He is right here”, indicating with a hand). Others did so by describing something they sensed or saw in their mind’s eye. Then the prayer minister encourages the person to hear what Jesus is saying to them. This is followed by considering how to respond to that.

I have described the method briefly. This is a summary of three talks, so about two hours’ worth of material. There are some obvious caveats to apply, but I found it a helpful, simple and liberating approach. I had two experiences where I had a clear encounter with Jesus, and he said significant things to me about a major crisis I have been facing over a period of months. I’m afraid I can’t give you any specifics here, because the nature of the issue is that it’s one I can’t discuss publicly. What I can say is, be encouraged. I hope this commends the Christian Healing Mission to you.

Christian Resources Exhibition

As trailled yesterday, I drove to the Christian Resources Exhibition today. Why do a round trip of around 150 miles once a year? Isn’t it just today’s equivalent to the moneychangers in the Temple?

It could be, but I don’t use it like that. I asked a treasurer at one church and stewards at another what they might like me to look out for, so I took a list. That helped me focus on where to spend my time and where just to smile and walk on quickly. I did end up talking to other people, not least some companies I hadn’t previously seen on the church website scene, but I could largely concentrate and easily not lose time on some stalls.

What was I seeking? Two of my churches face problems now in having a musician available for every service. I obtained some details about electronic reproduction of hymns and worship songs. Hymn Technology were plugging their HT-300 Hymnal Plus, and that might well be a good solution for one of the churches. DM Music (whom I’ve used for various things in both previous circuits) are still selling affordable MIDI file players from Roland. We bought one for a church in my last circuit. They have become more sophisticated now and will also handle MP3s, but are good for churches on a tight budget. The guy was also honest, in that once I said we owned a Yamaha Clavinova keyboard, he said we didn’t need the MIDI player if it were a modern Clav; we just needed to buy the MIDI files of the particular hymns and put them on a USB memory stick, because today’s Clavs have USB ports and we could play the files that way.

My other search target was unsuccessful, though: one church wanted information about communion kneelers and pulpit falls. I could have obtained all sorts of information about vestments and the like, but not about these. I’m sure we’ll track down what we want through other means, though.

There were a few personal interests I wanted to look up. I always like the bookstalls, but resisted this year. Partly that was because I have several books piled up from the sabbatical, partly it was because brutally in an Internet age the deals weren’t that good. I know that will sound awful to some Christian booksellers who will rightly point out that Amazon is not a ministry, but a minister whose wife is not in paid employment only has so many pennies and cost becomes a real factor for us. (And I do support the local Christian bookshops whenever possible: the Diocesan Resources Centre is a mine of information; the other bookshop is the local agent for IVP’s Leadership Book Club, so they get some orders from me, too, when the good books aren’t too Calvinist!)

I also wanted to see the stall for the Essex Christian Healing Trust, on whose committee I serve. They were at the show for the first time, and getting encouraging responses. It was also pleasing to see them in a section with other healing ministries, with whom there was an evident good rapport rather than competition. 

I took my rucksack as a disincentive to those exhibitors who want to thrust large plastic bags into your hand. There is a certain environmental unfriendliness to the exhibition in that respect.

But one aspect of the CRE always makes it a pleasure. I always bump into old friends, I just don’t know who it’s going to be from year to year. Today, I saw three old friend, all of whom had connections with my last appointment. Adam used to be the curate at one of my ecumenical churches; he’s been an incumbent for several years now. Bernard was my technical whizz at another church, always able to come up with some amazing Heath Robinson contraption to solve an electrical problem. And Peter, a pastor, missionary and international evangelist. He travels to Uganda, India and other places, eschewing the big conurbations to take the Gospel to obscure rural areas.

Yet this year, there was one other meeting with a friend. Someone I’ve known through blogging for a few years, but never met before. Dave Warnock. It’s funny how you have an image of a person before you meet them, and find you’re wrong. In Dave’s case, I did have an image: there’s a photo of him on his blog. Somehow, though, I’d wrongly projected that into an idea of him as taller and thinner than he is. (No, Dave, I’m not saying you’re fat, just that I was wrong.) And somehow from his writing, I didn’t expect such an extravert!

It reminded me there are all sorts of ways in which we wrongly extrapolate in church life and outside. How tempting to fill in the missing details, only to be hopelessly wrong!

Exhausted

Well, it appears that the hope of starting back quietly and easing myself in has been a pipedream. I’m shattered, and off to bed soon.

Did I plan it this way? No, of course not. But there are limits even to how far ministers can control their diaries. Yesterday, the car was due its annual MOT and service, so it seemed a good idea that my first weekday back would be one where I ploughed through all the emails, saved and/or printed minutes and documents that had been sent, noted meeting dates and so on.

Unfortunately, the garaged failed to ring and say the car was ready. Phoning them at 4 pm, I discovered one of the tyres had failed the MOT. It was 4:50 pm before they confirmed it would be OK for me to sort out the new tyre today. Thus, a rush job to pick up the car, a trip to the chippie for our dinner rather than a proper cooked meal, whizzing the children through bath and into bed, and out to a stewards’ meeting from which I didn’t return until nearly 11 pm.

Today: most of the morning with our lovely superintendent minister being briefed about happenings in my absence. Also, a discussion about ‘stationing’, because my appointment here currently runs out next year, and wheels have to be put in motion depending on whether there is a will on our part or the churches for us to stay. Then, the new tyres and back to the garage to get the MOT. A sandwich around 2:30 pm, then off to our Messy Church event, the date of which had been altered for unavoidable reasons while I was off. That also left us too late to cook a meal and get the kids to bed at their normal time, so we beetled up to Sainsbury’s café. Then back for their bath and bed routine, and rushing out for another stewards’ meeting at a different church. Thankfully, that didn’t end so late, but now it’s time for a quick supper drink and bed.

Tomorrow, I shall be hitting the M25 (perhaps in frustration?) as I make my annual slog pilgrimage to the Christian Resources Exhibition. I have various things to look out for on behalf of my churches: electronic music systems to replace organists we don’t have, kneelers and pulpit falls, etc. Hopefully I won’t succumb to any books. I’ve got too many waiting.

Then at least I don’t have an evening meeting. Debbie will be out at a circuit training event for pastoral visitors. I might finally begin to think about worship for this coming Sunday.

Going Back

So the sabbatical is over. No more for another seven years.

OK, that last sentence is mean, especially for the vast majority of people who don’t receive sabbaticals. What have I gained from this one? Some spiritual encouragement from the week at Cliff College.  A sense from the time at Trinity College, Bristol that I’m not insane to feel out on a limb as a minister with my personality type. And the sheer pleasure of using my long-dormant hobby of photography in Christian fellowship at Lee Abbey. From both Cliff and Trinity has come the desire to explore PhD research, although there are obstacles. Right now would not be a tactful time, ministry-wise. There would also be the small question of the finance.

What do I bring back from it into ministry? Actually, I’m not sure right now. I’m aware that some people in my churches are already talking about the things I shall be bringing back from the sabbatical for them, as if it has been a three-month trip to some extended version of the Christian Resources Exhibition. Sorry, that’s still for me just one day of the four next week.

What will I bring back for my churches? I don’t think it will be (or ever could have been) specific resources and ideas. I hope it brings a revitalised me, even if – quite honestly – I still don’t have the answers to the questions about why I feel so frustrated in ministry a lot of the time. I only have, as I said above, the sense that I am not mad, after all.

But I hope they’ll see something in me. What that is, I don’t know. I had some comments today. Given the assumption that no sooner shall I be back than I shall be off for a fortnight recovering from the upcoming nasal surgery, we did some things with my churches today. One church was holding a fund-raiser for Chelmsford Street Pastors. A couple at another church were celebrating their golden wedding. People made some strange comments. One person thought I had gained a suntan. 

“Must have been all that snow at Cliff College in February,” I joked.

Another thought I looked relaxed. With small children? Rarely possible!

So I’ll see what tomorrow brings. I have a communion service in the morning at St Augustine’s. In the evening, I have café church at Broomfield, where I am going to show some DVD clips from Lee Abbey. One is ‘Words Are Not Enough‘, some mimes to biblical passages by Dave Hopwood, their creative arts director. The other is ‘Lee Abbey Reflections‘, which contains meditations and music that can be used worshipfully.

Oh, well. Once more into the breach …