Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Encouragement for Churches: 4 Points On Welcoming Children

I woke up this morning with a feeling of immense gratitude for the welcome I had received in churches as a child. I've no idea whence or why this feeling washed over me today, but there it was.

I wasn't a 'practicing Christian' as a child. I wouldn't have said I had a faith even when I was going to church pre-about 12 or 13. I left at that age when I was having confirmation classes and decided I didn't believe a word of it (only to have to eat my words when I had a conversion experience at university - closely followed by feeling called to ordination).

So what was that welcome that I suddenly felt so grateful for today? As I analysed it, I realised it was made up of some very small things indeed - and that those were hugely encouraging for our practice today. Small things that we do can have a huge impact years later, an impact that we'll never know about. Here are some of the things that, looking back, were important to me, and that might be important for those we are doing them for now:

1. My baptism - and specifically, my baptism certificate. I don't remember this, obviously, as I was only about 6 weeks old at the time. My parents weren't religious, so presumably this was a fairly conventional service for a random local couple coming to celebrate their new baby. The kind that its all too easy for churches to feel used by, as they never see them again.

True, I don't think Panshanger United Church ever saw my parents or I again - if only because we moved 18 months later, before my sisters were born. But they gave us a baptism certificate, and that was stuck, by my mum, into my baby book. Now I don't know if you have a baby book, or looked much at it as a child, but I remember reading through mine regularly - as indeed my daughter does now. Mine had blank pages for adding pictures drawn by the child on each birthday, so at least annually it came out for my latest artwork.

So from an early age, I read and re-read my baptism certificate alongside the account of my first tooth, first words and favourite foods. I read the promises that had been made by my godparents that were referred to, and the blessing prayer that was there for me. It didn't convert me, but it was certainly something that I knew was part of my identity from an early age. (I remember when I became a Christian, I had a very strong sense of reclaiming my baptismal identity, which really took me by surprise!).

Practical point to take away? The baptism certificate you give a family might be really, really important. Get a nice one, bearing in mind what it will say to a 5 or 6 year old child reading it for themselves. Suggest they put it in their baby book.

2. Brownies in the church and church hall. Again, we often think of the 'user groups' that use our church buildings as useful payers of rent, maybe as part of our useful service to the community, but not necessarily as part of our mission and outreach.

But when I think back to churches of my childhood, attending brownies weekly in the church and church hall is one of my key memories. And whilst it wasn't about religion (there may or may not have been church parade at that point - I don't remember it though), we did meet not just in the church hall, but also in the church itself. And that gave a very physical sense of welcome.

My six, I remember, met behind the back row of pews on the left hand side of the church. The pews, the altar rail, the organ - all the accoutrements of church architecture - have never felt alien to me, because from an early age they were a space that I was welcomed into and felt a sense of genuine participation in - even ownership of  'my' corner.

Practical point to take away? Let groups use not just the church hall but the church itself. Just being in the space is important.

3. Bellringing. When I was 9, we moved from the outskirts of London to a little village in Lincolnshire. Our house was right next to the church and churchyard, and bell ringing practice on a Friday night was loud! On the principle that rather than have to listen to it, it would be better to be doing it, I turned up at the tower one night. They welcomed me in, taught me the ropes, and inducted me into the rather beautiful mathematical patterns of change ringing. There was never a hint of being patronised. I left when I left the church - to my 13 year old logic, it was inconsistent to call people to worship that I didn't believe in (boy was I an angry teenage atheist!), and they were lovely about that, too.

Practical point to take away? Let kids join in actual things, not just kids things.

4. Reading the lessons in church. Because this was Lincolnshire in the early 1980s, there was nothing to do on Sundays, and I mean nothing. My family didn't even have a television. So I started going to the church that was 50 yards from our back gate, if not every week, a fair bit, from the age of 10 to 13. Often it was just my sisters and I (for a while they sang in the small choir -see bellringing. They particularly enjoyed singing and being paid for weddings!). One of my hobbies at the time was drama and public speaking, and someone at the church obviously either knew this, or took the trouble to ask, because they asked me if I'd like to read the lessons. It was really lovely to be asked to do something that was relevant to who I was and the particular skills and interests that I had. Well done, St Guthlac's in Fishtoft!

So that's the practical point to take away - find out about the actual children you have, and what they enjoy and are good at, and let them use their skills.

None of these things are hard. You're probably doing all of them already. And that's the point I want to make - keep doing them, be encouraged, and don't be downhearted when those children leave and you never see them again.
Sandra Miller, talking about the Christenings Project, makes the point that the family and all the guests attending a baptism probably won't come back to your church. But do a good job, and you may well be one of three or four occasions that person has gone to church that year, and they may well end up going to a completely different church again - if not that year, maybe decades later.

Trust that the seeds you are sowing might grow a lot later.

Monday, 4 June 2018

Silent Eucharist

A Silent Eucharist? But....how?

When I posted on twitter last week that I was doing a Silent Eucharist at St Brides on Sunday, to start our June series on Holy Communion, that was the question I was asked. How does that work, exactly? So -  here is what we did!

If you googel Silent Eucharist you'll come up with various rites for completely silent services. The rubrics (Anglican for 'instructions'!) are generally printed in a service sheet, and people read them as they go along. We didn't quite do that, though we used bits and pieces inspired by some of those.

But our themes are as much preaching themes as anything else, and this had been billed as a sermon series, so we did have a sermon! And we had three hymns. Other than that, it was mainly silent, built around a semi-mimed Eucharistic prayer to which I had been introduced by a methodist clergywoman (whose name I can sadly no longer recall, and I've long since lost the handwritten instructions she gave me) at a retreat years ago.

So this is what we did:

Introduction, during which I explained what was going to happen. I explained that when the Tibetan singing bowl was struck, they were to look in the order of service for what was the next thing to read or do.

Then we stood to sing a first hymn - singing together is important, I think. And practically, I had thought there would be the kids with us, and we could all sing together before they went off to the FISH group. (In practice, all our regular children except my two were off as three key parents were ill!).

Then the bowl was struck, and the first instruction people read was to take the stone (these had been given out with the hymn books and order of service) and hold it in your hand, feeling its weight.
The service sheet said:

Feeling the weight of all that is wrong in life in the stone which we hold, we acknowledge our sin before God.

Passing the stone to the table, it is placed in a bowl and water is poured over the stones.

That done, the bowl was struck again and people read:

We hold our empty hands open to receive forgiveness

 After a pause, the bowl was struck again. Then the reading was printed in the order of service, with the instruction to read it through several times and ask God to reveal its hidden depths to you.

There was then another silence - which I held long enough for me to read the passage 4 or 5 times. Then the bowl was struck, and our speaker then gave some input (described in the order of service as Food for Thought). (This was Jonathan Clatworthy and he gave a brilliant talk on the reception history of communion - maybe he will blog that!).
There was another silence for reflection, and then we sang another hymn and had a time of silent prayer, with the option to light candles.

When the bowl was struck again, it was time for a silent peace - bowing to one another, making eye contact! People surprisingly really enjoyed this.

Then came the Eucharistic prayer. Everyone was asked (in the introduction) to gather around the front of the altar - they were reminded of this at this point by the celebrant - me - making an expansive 'come and gather round' gesture!

The Eucharistic prayer:

First, I leafed through the first few pages of the Bible, slowly. Then I slowly let the pages flick past, all through the Old  Testament, stopping at the ribbon that marked the beginning of Matthew's gospel. I put the Bible down on the altar, put a finger on the page and paused.

Then I got the bread (a loaf is needed, not a wafer. In our case, a gluten free pitta bread), and wrapped it in a lavabo cloth. Picking it up like a baby, I rocked it in my arms. 

I placed the bread carefully down on the altar, and slowly turned the pages of the gospel. About midway I looked up, smiled, and included everyone in a wide arm gesture of welcome and acceptance. Turning the pages again I stopped at the crucifixion. I touched the page, paused, then lifted the bread high and tore it in two.

I then placed a large wine glass on the altar, and opened a bottle of wine.

From quite a height, carefully and slowly, I poured the wine into the glass. As it reached the top, I didn't stop, but kept steadily pouring. The wine brimmed over, and as the flow kept going, poured over the sides of the glass and began to stain the altar cloth (I should say I'd replaced the altar cloth with a thick and doubled tablecloth of my own that I knew would wash out!). I kept pouring until the bottle was empty, and held it there for a few seconds so that the last drips weren't wasted.

Then I took the bread, ate it, and passed it to the person next to me, with a gesture to do the same. And then the cup. The bread and wine were passed around the room, everyone either helping themselves or offering them to the next person.

When everyone had finished, they went back to their seats, and the bowl was struck. This directed people to their order of service, where they read that they were to mentally recall as much of the Lord's Prayer as they could.

Finally, we stood to sing our last song, and for the blessing and dismissal.

I'd only done this before in small groups, not on a Sunday morning, and it was AMAZING! The quality of the conversation and reflection afterwards also bowled me over.

Highly recommended, if you have an adventurous congregation who are up for it!

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Book Review: 'Phoebe' by Paula Gooder

Paula Gooder's book 'Phoebe'

Paula Gooder, Phoebe: A Story, Hodder & Stoughton, 2018

Phoebe is somewhere between a historical novel, an exceptionally good interactive museum guide, and an adult’s version of the children’s TV series The Storykeepers, full of daring young Christians braving the culture around them to pass on the stories and letters that they have been entrusted with.

The book consists of two parts. First comes the main body of the book, the fictional story of Phoebe in Rome. She has travelled there from Corinth with a task from Paul and a secret mission of her own.  It’s not exactly a novel - though it has much of the narrative arc of one, and is as much of a page-turner. It's a fictional account of what life as an early Christian would have been like, told through the eyes of Phoebe, the deacon mentioned by Paul in Romans 16. It’s an engrossing story, and Gooder's profound scholarship is lightly and effectively incorporated.

In telling this story, although it is fictional, Gooder draws on her own considerable scholarship, both biblical and historical. The second part consists of historical notes, referencing and explaining some of the details and the evidence behind the artistic licence taken in the story.

One of the episodes that stands out most for me is when Phoebe first encounters the Roman Christians telling the stories about Jesus that have been handed down among them. She is astonished – in Corinth, we’re told, they argued about theology with passion and vigour, but she has never come across this kind of corporate storytelling before. That was an entirely new insight for me into the variety of the early Christian experience. 

Similarly, later in the book Peter visits Rome, and tells them a story they hadn’t heard before – that of his betrayal of Jesus before cock crow, and then his forgiveness by Jesus at the lakeside. The way in which Gooder describes the hearers of this story incorporating this new insight, this new detail, into their faith – and its impact on one main character, who feels himself to be beyond forgiveness - is electrifying. Its a very effective and thought-provoking dramatisation of how the early Christians received the content of their faith as a continuing process of revelation rather than as a package deal.

We also see how different groups with the Roman church react to aspects of the letter Phoebe carries – Paul’s ‘Letter to the Romans’ - which causes as much consternation as interest! The tension between the Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus on certain points is sympathetically portrayed, and Gooder succeeds in winning our empathy on all sides.

Gooder also deftly handles the question of different attitudes to women. Nobody in the book is opposed to Phoebe’s presence as Paul’s deputy. But there are sparks of tension as the wisdom of women preaching – and thus risking attracting unwelcome attention or persecution to the whole group – is debated. Phoebe’s own back-story is a moving and all-too-real one of human trafficking and the vulnerabilities of young women – in which Roman society seems both impossibly distant from, and yet eerily close to, our own. 

I read this book in two sittings, and came away feeling almost as if I had just heard some of the stories about Jesus for the first time - as if I was having to make a really difficult decision about whether to risk following this new way - as if it mattered. There's a freshness and urgency to the story that captures something of what it must have been like to be hearing all this for the first time. 

Highly recommended.

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Maundy Thursday

Thoughts for Maundy Thursday, on John 13:1-15

Footwashing was a rather more normal thing then, of course, than it is now. If you were walking in sandals on hot and dusty roads, through donkey dung and maybe worse, then your feet needed even more cleaning than even the pongiest toes amongst us nowadays. We find taking our socks and shoes off to have our feet washed in this annual ritual a bit awkward feet – few of us like our feet, so we might worry about what they look like – we worry about smelly – personally, I worry about getting cramp if my feet get cold – you might worry about being ticklish. But in Jesus’ day footwashing wasn’t an odd, awkward ritual – it was just another dirty everyday personal hygiene task.  Perhaps the closest analogy for us is wiping your bottom.

In fact, thinking of it as a bit like wiping your bottom perhaps gives us an insight into why Peter reacted as he did. I have often heard from people who, as they are getting older, are fearful and resistant to becoming dependent on others for that sort of intimate, embarrassing personal hygiene assistance. In contemporary society, we tend to guard our independence fiercely, and can often imagine nothing worse than letting others do such things for us and to us as we decline and become incapable of doing them ourselves. Sometimes people even speak of a preference for suicide, hoping to take a trip to Switzerland before they get to that stage of dependency.

Peter, I’m sure, was quite used to having his feet washed by slaves or servants. Yet he refuses that help from Jesus twice, and emphatically – ‘you will NEVER wash my feet’. What he couldn’t accept was the idea of Jesus, someone he looked up and admired, someone he had recognized as the Messiah, doing something like that for him. It was a class issue as much as an issue of personal space. I recognize that, too, from conversations I’ve had. I’ve heard people who would reluctantly accept intimate assistance from a nurse, or a paid carer, express their humiliation at the thought of their spouse, or their children, or a friend having to do those things for them.

So Jesus here challenges some quite deeply held feelings – both in Peter and in many of us – about wanting our independence, and about what classes or types of persons we find it acceptable to receive help from with intimate tasks.

Jesus’s response is intriguing. He doesn’t deny that he is in a class apart, that he is someone special. Rather, he recognizes that prejudice against someone like him doing something like that and plays into it. ‘You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am’.

Jesus’s washing of the disciples’ feet comes out of a deep confidence in who he is and what his calling is. That confidence is emphasized again and again in this passage. We’re told first of all that it’s the Passover, that festival that we’ve just been exploring, with all its long historical roots of freedom and identity as a chosen and called people. Then we’re told that Jesus KNEW that his hour had come to depart - he has the confidence that comes from a deep inner conviction of the time being right. Then again, during supper, we hear that Jesus’ act of footwashing happens ‘knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God’. Again, Jesus’ confidence in his identity and calling is emphasized.

He washes their feet, has that conversation with Peter, and then returns to the table to explain what he has done. Yes, he says, ‘you call me Lord and Teacher, and rightly, for that is who I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example’.

Out of Jesus confidence in his identity and calling comes this astonishing commandment, to wash one another’s feet. To both give and accept loving, intimate, personal service, in humility and interdependence.

In the other gospels, in Matthew, Mark and Luke, the instruction that Jesus gives at this point is to celebrate communion – ‘do this is remembrance of me’. That has proved a much easier instruction for followers of Jesus to put into practice over the centuries. Here in John’s gospel, though, which is so often about the meaning behind the symbols, the instruction John emphasizes is to wash one another’s feet. The point of communion, John’s version seems to say, is not just to eat together, or to remember that last supper of Jesus, or even to make a sacramental communion with Jesus. The point is what it will enable us to become. To become, like Jesus, confident in our own identity and calling - so confident that we become able not just to serve others in humility, but even to accept our own humiliating interdependence.