Thursday, 4 September 2014

On Fire without Burning Out

What do the disciples at Pentecost have in common with Moses?  They both encountered flames that set something on fire, but without burning it up. 

Last Sunday I kicked off a sermon series on the book of Acts, and on the concept of Shared Ministry, by looking at Acts chapter 2.  I was struck by the image of the flames, dancing on the disciples head, and the similarity with the image of the burning bush. 

What drew Moses' attention to the burning bush wasn't just that it was on fire, but that it wasn't consumed.

Fire usually consumes the thing that it is burning. It draws energy from the fuel. And it is so easy to feel, working in the church, that our energy is fuel. That I'm here to be used up, to be burnt up to provide metaphorical light or heat for others.

But if we are to be fuel (and I'm pushing the analogy too far here, I know), we need to at least think of ourselves as a renewable resource, not  a fossil fuel. Ministry mustn't be something that consumes us, uses us up. It should be flames of fire dancing on our heads, lighting up that bush, without burning us up and out.

So how do we stay on fire without burning out?

I suppose the first thing to say is, I wish I knew! But having narrowly survived burnout earlier this year, with lots of help from friends, colleagues and wise counsellors, and thinking about these images of undestructive flames, here are some thoughts:

1. Burn out isn't the plan. If the flaming bush doesn't do it for you, try imagine a Christmas pudding set alight. the pudding isn't actually burning, its the alcohol in the brandy you've just poured over it that is aflame. If you're the pudding (bear with me here), you're not meant to burn up. I've spent years feeling guilty that I'm not yet used up - shouldn't I be working harder, giving more? No. Let those flames dance around you: you're not the fuel.

2. Each person can only do a small part of the job. That includes you (me, us). The disciples didn't all speak in all those languages - and when they did all speak, it was chaos and half the crowd thought they were drunk. Peter had to explain: but even Peter couldn't do it all on his own - nobody would have listened to him if the others hadn't done their bit of causing chaos first. After years of listening too well to the voices telling me 'you need to make a success of this' (whether real, external voices, or internalised messages), I'm learning to hold up my hand and say 'No. All I can do is my bit: say what I'm inspired to say, and trust that everyone else will do their bit too and that the result will work itself out. I'm only responsible for doing what I can, not for success or otherwise of the result.'

3. Accept that doing the right thing doesn't mean everyone will agree, listen, or like you. That's not to say everyone will disagree, ignore you or hate you either: the idea that your rightness is proved by 'the world's' rejection is as nuts as the idea that it is proved by universal acclaim. But even when the disciples were speaking in amazing foreign languages, inspired by the Holy Spirit (or speaking whatever, and people miraculously understood them - it doesn't matter which), there were people saying 'good grief, they're pissed as newts'. I've spent years hoping people will like me, and judging myself harshly if I get even the faintest criticism . I'm learning (slowly) to accept that just as I can't control and am not responsible for results, so I also can't control and am not responsible for everyone's response.

And I'll just say number 1 again: Burn out isn't the plan. God doesn't want us to be fuel for his fire: we're the lampstands, if you like, not the oil. I don't know about you, but its going to take me a while to stop feeling guilty about not burning out. But I'm trying.


The rest of this post is probably mainly for members of the church who want the sermon notes! This is the shape of what I said on Sunday about Acts 2 and Shared Ministry:

 When we first began discussing Shared Ministry, about a year ago, one concern was that it would be 'just another job for already busy people'. But (as expanded on above) the flames of Pentecost are like the burning bush of Moses - they set us on fire without burning us out. Our energy isn't there to provide fuel for the fire: God's energy dances around us. Ministry - mine,yours, shared - isn't about doing more things, its about being lit up by the Spirit and letting that shine.

So Shared Ministry isn't about doing more stuff. It's about being explicit about who we are and what we are here for.

And looking at Acts 2, what we are here for seems to be to: 
- speak; 
- dream; 
- worship.

I went on on Sunday to talk about how these play out in our vision of Shared Ministry.
On that first day of Pentecost, the first thing that happened when the Spirit came was that everyone spoke as they were inspired.It was only after that, in the chaos that caused, that there was any audience for or point in Peter standing up and preaching. Similarly today, there are different tasks in the church - a few of us are bolshy and loud enough to stand up and shout 'Right, listen here everyone!' - but everyone is called to speak about God in the language they are given, in ways that some of the people around us can hear. There's no point me as vicar, or our reader, or any of us doing our jobs, if the people of God aren't all speaking about God: why should anyone listen to me, if they haven't first had their interest piqued by someone they know, saying something in a language they understand? (Even if they think it is nuts!).

Secondly, we need to dream - to imagine what might happen, what life might be like, what could be different, what should be kept from our past and what needs to change for the future. To hear and receive one anothers dreams, unthreatened by the fact that they won't all be the same. To accept and value the dreams and visions of old and young, men and women, girls and boys; to believe that God's Holy Spirit inspires our envisioning, and to be foolish and trusting enough to think God's kingdom might be brought closer through our dreaming. 

Shared Ministry is about development. It is not about simply keeping the show on the road, maintaining the church building, keeping everything as we like it. It is about working together to always develop our ministry, always develop our church, so that it and we grow. That can seem threatening, I know. But we follow a God who does not rest in one place – who won't stay in that tomb – who is always dancing ahead of us, calling us forward in a pillar of fire or cloud, or with glimpses of a star. So our second task is to be prepared to dream, not settle for the status quo.

Thirdly, to worship. To repent, to be baptised, to bring others to baptism, to devote ourselves to teaching and fellowship and the breaking of bread and to prayer. To giving ourselves to this life of faith – giving our time to it, rather than coming only if something else doesn't come up that Sunday. Giving generously of our money, with the aim that nobody is in need while we have something spare. Praising God, eating together, worshipping together - and doing so joyfully.

Now, fair enough, in Acts chapter 2 people are still in the first throes of excitement about their conversion. its probably not fair or realistic to expect that first ecstasy to continue for ever. It's probably a bit like marriage: even the best marriage, with the two people still deeply in love with each other, doesn't maintain the intensity and excitement of those first heady days and weeks of falling in love. But what it develops is even better - a deep content, joy and trust in each other. If we aren't still in the first falling in love stages of being a Christian, are we in the happy old age of a fifty or sixty year marriage? 

Shared Ministry is about believing that God has given all of us gifts and talents with which to serve. We believe that in our baptism (and/or confirmation) we are assured of the presence of God's Holy Spirit in us. So it becomes almost blasphemous to say 'Oh, but I don't really have anything to offer. That's all very well for those gifted people, those young and energetic people, those who aren't working as hard as I am. But its not for me: if you want that, go ahead, but I'll sit back as usual, I don't have any particular gifts and talents'. To say that would be to deny God's power in baptism and in communion.

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