Growing disciples in an age of busyness

I had the great privilege of spending a few days alongside a community of ordinands at Central Theological College in Tokyo during my time here. The college itself felt to be a symbol of the history and potential available to the NSKK (the Anglican Church in Japan) more widely, with its huge space to accommodate the, as yet, unknown.

A number of people I have encountered have said that the NSKK is shrinking, both in terms of membership and clergy, and needs to think more widely about growth strategies. Whilst it feels like this is an issue that may be pertinent to a number of provinces and dioceses in the Anglican Communion, and yet the ways in which growth is often understood – typically by what can be quantified – concerns me a great deal.

I found myself reminding my hosts of Jesus’ ministry: how his twelve disciples became eleven after a huge betrayal and the crucifixion – and yet modern Christians are the legacy of such humble beginnings. Despite the logic, against the odds, followers of ‘The Way’ grew in large numbers…but why? What made such growth possible all those centuries ago, and yet seemingly so difficult to achieve now?

There is something about both modern British and Japanese culture which boasts an element of entitlement to all things material. All things are possible in our societies – from electronic baths to robot servers to control of household appliances from smartphones. In my view, people within our societies have never been so busy and yet we are given (for a price!) so much to help with that.

One question which keeps coming back within all of these musings is ‘What does the Good News have to offer that is liberating within our tired, over-pressurised society?’ Put more simply, what different way does the Good News point to? When membership of a church means taking on the running of an aspect of church life, volunteering to help with children’s groups, planning the annual church festival or bazaar, and being added to the coffee, reading and prayer rota; what aspect of this new life is liberating? It has struck me that possibly churches have ceased to be attractive to working people because they simply do not have time to participate in all that they are expected to.

I remember trying to justify to my priest why I could not be involved in a fourth church activity as a full-time secondary school teacher who regularly needed to work between 50-60 hours a week. He did not understand and thought that I ought to speak to my line manager about my workload if I was not able to find time for this one other thing. Incidentally, there was no conversation about whether I was gifted for this one other thing or called to it!

So, how can the Church be more relevant to the people it serves? How can it offer liberation from the pressure that we are barely able to see much of the time, due to busyness? Equally how do we move away from the cycle we seem trapped within of serving the church (building), rather than the church (followers of God) serving the wider community?

My hosts heard me refer back to prayer so many times whilst I was with them, but it is so important. I was tasked with praying for between two and three hours a day for each day I served within the NSKK, and through that diligence I have grown in the depth of my relationship with God and noticed God changing my outlook….this example from Jesus is surely the first place to begin?

Seeking the Holy

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I have loved going to places of pilgrimage in Tokyo and blending into the background as I watch the expectation of the sacred or seeking of the experience of the sacred. Yet at Sensouji, it was not so much the obvious places where I found the sacred, but somewhat off the beaten track. Old treasure, lighting, stillness, solitude or the wind offered wonderful reminders of that ever present divinity – if only we will stop long enough to look, to see, to hear and to feel.

Silence

‘…for silence has always been part of the Japanese way. “We Japanese think we can better express our feelings by silence.”‘

Taken from In search of Japan’s hidden Christians by John Dougill.

How often do we make things worse by trying to say the right thing…?

Off Limits…

How often do we see something that seems completely out of reach – or where it is within reach, it is clear that it has not been cared for? These are photographs from a visit to another parish, with a particular focus around a children’s play park. Why is it that in some areas play parks are well-resourced and seem to attract, whereas in other areas they seem to repel those for whom they are intended. Could we do more to be part of the solution…?

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Identity

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Our sense of identity is so important for our mental wellbeing, and yet identity is a complex weave of so many different aspects of self, some of which we can control and some which we cannot. Four weeks ago I was ordained priest, and I think I can honestly say that the weeks which followed that long anticipated and celebrated occasion have been some of the most challenging I have ever had; they have certainly called me to question who I am in this new role. At ordination our Bishop read the ordinal for priests; it was quite an overwhelming moment just before taking my vows to hear all that is expected of a priest. The following is a small extract which summarises quite well the events of my last few weeks:

“…They are to bless the people in God’s name. They are to resist evil, support the weak, defend the poor, and intercede for all in need. They are to minister to the sick and prepare the dying for their death….”

Every aspect of priesthood is a huge privilege, and yet the real and huge life issues I can be dealing with mean that it is easy to lose sight of a sense of self.

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A number of years ago I took a job with Loughborough University as part of the Widening Participation governmental agenda. This meant that I was no longer a teacher, and it was much more difficult to explain what I did for work. I had not realised how profoundly my identity had been tied up with my profession, and it was a painful shedding of something that had been life-giving for me; I came alive in the classroom, and loved the challenge of helping students to develop a thirst for learning and a passion and enthusiasm for my subject (Religious Studies).

I had thought that after spending a year as a deacon, it perhaps would not feel so different as a priest, but that is not so. Indeed, everything feels very different! It feels like I am revisiting aspects of identity all over again. For one thing the stole we wear as part of our robes when we are taking services is now worn over both shoulders, rather than just the one.

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It is a reminder of the yoke or responsibility that we bear as priests. Every time I put on my stole I am humbled by a feeling of insignificance – in truth I am not now, nor will I ever be ‘good enough’ for this, yet here I am.

Having the responsibility and privilege to bless people is truly wonderful; blessing or anointing people who are sick, or close to death is just beyond words. It is so painful to be alongside people as their loved ones pass on from this life, yet there is something compelling about needing to be there in the darkest moments, as well as those times of joy, in order that no one be forced to face these situations alone.

I have also been stopped on a number of occasions, asked if I am a priest, and whether I would mind praying for the enquirers who were usually people of different faith. It was as though they thought that my prayers may be, somehow, more valued.

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In addition to all of this the summer holidays began two weeks ago and each day since our church has been a Holiday Hunger hub, seeking to feed any children in our area whose parents cannot afford lunch for them as they usually receive free school meals. The stories that some of these families carry from a western country is truly shocking and leads me to another aspect of the role of priest which feels different as I explore it – that of advocate; helping people to find their voices and stand up against serious injustices.

Within all of this my identity has become more complex to pin down. It is not for shallow reasons that I might tentatively see myself as being what someone needs me to be in that moment, but rather for profound reasons: because God lives and loves us and I am called to be a person of prayer and peace to serve as a reminder of God’s love for us each and every day.

When I was much younger, an art teacher at school described me as a jack of all trades and master of none. That hurt me to my core as a tentative 12 year old, desperate to find that thing that I would excel in. Turns out I  excel in being a jack of all trades….

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

Ascribed to Eleanor Roosevelt

The Bread of Love

Bread and jam or daily bread? 
Bread winner or maker? 
Bread of life or of love? 
Bread with raise or 
that which draws gaze? 
Bread of diversity: 
naan, chapattis, pita, 
flat bread, baguette, 
garlic bread and pizza….
It is kneaded – it grows, 
it feeds, it permeates
The bread of love

The body of Christ
broken for you
to preserve body and soul

Bread draws the world
in a never-ending meal.
Never just for bread, 
but something more real!
People gather near bread,
bread of life, of heaven – 
bread of love!
Manna given by God 
nourishes heart and soul
in the house of God,
not where we gaze at God,
but where God gazes on us!

The body of Christ
broken for you
for everlasting life

Bread because Jesus said
this is my body…
and so the ritual began.
Like the Emmaus journey;
disciples full of lament
met the risen Jesus
in broken bread.
It was the way he did it:
he took it, blessed it, broke it
and gave it to them…
the bread of love revealed!

The body of Christ
broken for you
to eat and remember

“Our hearts burned within!”
This bread of love,
more than bread,
more than being fed.
A nourishment stretching
to all of your being….
Take-bless-break-give
Jesus’ ‘real presence’
God-with-us now
in the gaze of the
self-giving Jesus
in the bread of love.

The body of Christ
broken for you
feed your heart with thanksgiving

It feels like acceptance,
true appreciation
of things said or done –
like a warm glow
but so much more!
Why then keep it,
or build barriers
around God’s table?
Protect the bread of love!
LGBT, disabled, disfigured,
marginalised people –
Step away from the bread!

The body of Christ
broken for you
that you may have faith

No – this banquet is holy,
utter inclusivity a necessity,
Jesus, offered for all!
This bread of love
transforms with a taste;
a meeting of souls.
As Meister Eckhart said,
‘your eyes which see God
are the same eyes through
which God first saw you.’
Great is the bread of love,
the mystery of faith!

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Images of Work

If you had to find an image for the work you do – whatever it is that preoccupies most of your time – what would it be?

This is mine:

Sometimes ministry can feel quite lonely so the lone dandelion represents it well. There are a number of other dandelions around, but actually I am often slightly separate from everyone else – you can really stand out in a clergy collar and people react in a variety of ways; I have had some crossing the street to avoid getting too close! There is something wonderful about what I do though, and about being a little on the periphery. Whilst it can be slightly lonely at times, it can also be a real privilege to be alongside people at the happiest and most difficult times of their lives. That is represented in this photograph by the light and vibrant green in the foreground and the darkness looming in the background.

How about you?

The Idol of Time

Throughout Lent, and even in the last few weeks of Eastertide, I have been struck by the number of things that I have not had time to do…or go to, or take part in, or even think about. Ministry for me has become one of presence, of noticing, and listening where the rest of the world continues to pass by in the frantic rush which we have all become accustomed to. What has concerned me over the last few days, perhaps weeks if I am truly honest, is how little I have been able to inhabit that ministry of presence, noticing or listening, because I have been too busy. This was made abundantly clear when a parishioner who I had hoped to visit during the week, but had not managed to, called me on my day off terribly upset and really in quite a panic…if only I had made the time in the first place.

During lent we had watched the television drama, Broken and used it to reflect on current issues in our society. One of the episodes features a mother calling Fr Michael as her son, Vernon, is upset. Vernon always listens to Fr Michael and so she hoped that he would be able to answer the phone and calm Vernon down. It was the end of a demanding day for Fr Michael and he let the answer phone pick the message up as he went to bed. After Vernon was shot dead by the police because his anxiety had escalated significantly, Fr Michael was racked with guilt – if only he had answered the phone, Vernon might still be alive. Equally, if only I had made time for this particular visit in quite a busy week, upset and panic may have been avoided. Is it helpful to think of things in this way though?

I have developed a habit of putting my diary on my prayer stand to signify that these are the plans I have, whilst also acknowledging that things may work out very differently when I follow God’s plans – and often they do! What are diaries and time really about in today’s world though? Who is really in control of it? And who ought to be held to account when things go wrong? Many seem to recognise the pace of life is too fast – this is something that the Bishop of Gloucester wrote about only this week. However much we seem to recognise the scarcity of time, it seems to be very much a state we are stuck in. As we was asked to consider during Lent, “when was the last time you afforded yourself the luxury of getting lost in something you truly love doing?” I suppose I am really wondering whether time is our latest idol….

If this is the case, time becomes something we all are fascinated with, be that around how much or little we have. There would be a hierarchy around those amounts held typically indicating those who have less due to being in demand being held in high regard, and those who have time in abundance potentially being held in much lower regard. This hierarchy would encourage individuals to actively seek to be busy, to be seen to be in demand. It may be difficult to resist such an attitude to time – busyness would become infectious, affecting even those who did not wish to become slaves to the idol of time.

And so this idol begins to swallow up the masses who blindly follow, failing to notice as significant moments pass by, completely unaware of all that is being missed as new life begins to bloom and the magic of springtime comes alive, testifying to the true beauty of creation.

So I ask…are you busy? Have you got a little time to spare…?