Reflecting on ordination day – with Meatloaf!

And all I can do 
Is keep on telling you 
I want you (I want you) 
I need you (I need you) 
But-there ain’t no way I’m ever gonna love you 
Now don’t be sad (Don’t be sad) 
‘Cause two out of three ain’t bad 
Now don’t be sad (Cause) 
‘Cause two out of three ain’t bad

So sang Meatloaf.

Now I never thought that Meatloaf – who I used to play at full volume on my ‘ghetto blaster, remember them, during break at school with my mate the Rev’d Andrew Bawtree, who will be with me tomorrow at my ordination), would be a source of ‘theological reflection’ (I hope that I can, trough therapy and mixing with ‘normal’ people slowly withdraw from using this term!) in the run up to ordination!  And yet, even though I am taking his work totally out of context (another term I have become accustomed to throwing about) I think he does have something to say to me / us.

First of all life is a mixture of the good and the bad, the light and the dark, joy and sadness. And so, two out of three really ain’t bad. St. Ignatius, who urges us to rank consolation over our desolation, in a spiritual practice called the Examen, would presumably agree.

Secondly, because we all need to recognize our need to be in union with our deepest desire and, I suspect that wants and needs are part of the DNA of desire. Let’s go with the psalmist on this one: ‘As my soul longs for the water brooks, so my soul longs for you. My soul is athirst for you, even for the Living God,’ (Psalm 42, 1& 2). To be a fool is to turn away from our deepest desire, for as the psalmist also writes ‘the fool has said in his heart ”there is no God,”’ (Psalm 53, 1). I suspect that St. Augustine nailed it when he described sin as ‘disordered passion,’ the turning away from the our deepest desire. Meatloaf in a funny kindda way (sorry about the pop slang) proves the point about disordered passion, or sin, because in his ‘psalm’ he anatomically splits need and desire from love; whereas in Christianity love is the glue that binds all goods together, love of God, love of each other.

But thinking ahead to tomorrow – ‘my’ big day – I will really will accept that ‘two out of three ain’t bad.’ Three things of significance take place tomorrow.

The British (and Irish) Lions play Australia in the second, and potentially decisive, test.  

It is my wedding anniversary. Twenty two years ago I married Sallyanne. She has been a wonderful wife (and, she has been a catalyst for all that has happened since – imagine what I might have been like if she hadn’t enouraged me to go to church, to get baptized and confirmed, to go to Uganda and very early in our marriage to leave a business whose values she felt to be threatening to my newly found faith!) We all need ‘significant others, life partners, soul mates – she has been, and is, mine. So I am glad that she will share with me the third significant event tomorrow:

My ordination as a deacon.

The Lions might lose, but God willing, I will be around to celebrate my wedding anniversary and to get ordained. Life has many more consolations than desolations. The road ahead will be bumpy, but as Meatloaf says ‘two out of three aint bad.’

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3 ‘cherished’ ordination hopes

So here we are then; four days until ordination, rehearsal at Christ Church tomorrow morning before being whisked off to Cuddesdon for a three day retreat, followed by the big day itself. In the Cathedral I will be supported by my family and friends. All people whose support I ‘cherish.’ Why, you may ask, does he keep going on about the word ‘cherish.’ Simple really, it is a word that has loomed large in my life over the last week or so.

First, ten days ago I bought a new (second-hand) car. It is a shiny black ‘cherished’ Mini Cooper Clubman. (Thank you to my bro’ in law Jimbo for the number plate Y23 REV). Secondly, because my weekly reading from the Rule of Benedict implores his followers to ‘Cherish Christ above all else.’  Benedict suggests that when we cherish Christ unconditionally our obedience to his will for us will follow naturally.

Now cherish is an interesting word. I think it possesses a mystical quality in that if defies precise definition. Mini go some way to explaining the concept of cherishing, for a ‘Cherished Mini,’ is one that has been well looked after, serviced properly and where Mini can trace the cars provenance.

Theologically this definition is, however, less than adequate. Cherishing Christ surely means to be drawn ever more deeply into the mystery of the incarnation where our response is a form of love that goes beyond mere words. Cherishing Christ moves us beyond cognition into a deeper level of knowing. I can’t explain it, but I know how I experience it. So my first ordination hope is that I will truly, from this day forth ‘cherish Christ above all else.

My second hope is that I will focus on the development of my own ministry and not the criticism or ‘idolatry’ of  other approaches to evangelism. It seems to me that this is one way we can honor Jesus’ pre-Crucifixion prayer that ‘they may all be one.’ During my training one bible passage above all others has hit me fairly and squarely between the eyes and it is Peter’s restitution beside the lake. Firstly, we have the confirmation of his love for Jesus, followed by Jesus effectively telling him to mind his own business, to concentrate on his own ministry, leaving John (presumably – he is simply referred to as the beloved disciple) to Jesus.

My final hope is that I will be able to use words only where necessary. This biblical imperative was stressed  in this morning’s N.T. reading from Celtic Daily Prayer (James 3, 1-12). In verse 8, for instance James warns that ‘no one can control the tongue – it is a pest that will not keep still, full of deadly poison.’ Benedict also frequently warns against the dangers of speaking too much, ‘even about spiritual matters,’ for often our speech (my speech) is designed to impress, to dominate or to bring about disunity – and, I think, the more we are convinced by the ‘rightness’ of our view, the greater the opportunity to alienate others.

So there you have it my three ordination hopes: to cherish Christ, to focus on my own developing ministry and, to guard my tongue.

Please pray for me and all God’s children this Petertide.

Amen.

 

The financial crisis is a theological crisis. ‘Trust me.’

So banking is back in the news – big time. We now have in front of us a set of recommendations to deal with a crisis made manifest in 2006-7. I say made manifest because the events of 2006-7 were in reality the result of a storm a long time in the making. Still, for our own comfort, and that of the regulators, government and all other interested parties it is easier, more comfortable, less self-critical, to pinpoint the entire blame on a specific group of people (bankers) behaving in a particular way at a precise time in economic history. The benefit of this approach is that allows those charged with dealing with the issue  to make concrete and, seemingly, highly targeted recommendations.

Scapegoats can easily be established – the blame lies in the system, and as we know the system is always the fault of the previous political regime. The suggested  recommendations combine the structural with the legal by splitting up the banks, into so called ‘good’ and ‘bad’ banks (interesting use of the language of virtue and vice!). The regulators and politicians, whose ‘oversight’ enabled the crisis, are apparently now to be trusted to decide on that which is ‘good’ and, yes you have guessed, that which is ‘bad.’

A prediction from a former fund management executive (me!): the ‘bad banks’ will provide far greater long-term returns than the so called ‘good banks.’ Why?

Well, firstly because the so called ‘good banks’ will in effect become utilities. Secondly, because the ‘good banks’ will over time start to take ever greater risks in order to compete with each other to win market share and to provide greater ‘shareholder value,’ (the sacred cow of capitalism). ‘Good banks’ will become increasingly opaque about their investments and accounting policies and so forth. The ‘bad banks,’ by contrast will be freed to invest, transparently, in more speculative investments, of the sort vital for long-term prosperity and sustainability such as green energy, new medical technologies and, so forth. So it could be that what are now being regarded as ‘good banks’ may become ‘bad banks,’ and vice-versa. Why do I think this? 

1. The ‘consensus’ seems to accept the proposals outlined. Beware the consensus it is almost always wrong!

2. Economic history. So called ‘good’ financial institutions have a long-established track record of getting it very badly wrong, and behaving very ‘badly’ indeed. 

It is very much in vogue to define whether an institution is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in relation to its corporate structure. This is delusional!

If I had to pick one event that should have acted as a predictor of the much larger crisis that was to follow it would be the collapse of Equitable Life in the mid-late 90s.

Equitable was a mutually owned business that made a virtue out of the fact that it treated all of its customers fairly (look at its name for heavens sake) and, was able to do so because it was a mutual, i.e. it had no shareholders. So how did this mutual behave?

Highly educated people, actuaries, discovered the short-term benefits of financial engineering, to offer ‘market leading’ products in order to gain market share in the life assurance industry. It was, in plain language, greedy. And, so lets speed ahead to 2013, the highest profile bank to get into trouble this year is……….yes, another mutual, the Cooperative Bank. 

It may be unfashionable to say so but I don’t think that regulation is a significant part of the solution. Why? Because, it is not as if the financial sector has, for the last two decades, been under, or lightly, regulated. Maybe badly regulated, perhaps wrongly regulated, but, not, under regulated. 

Now don’t get me wrong, even though I really do think that the overall approach to reform of the financial sector, has been and continues to be akin to shifting deckchairs on the Titanic, governance and corporate structure do have a part to play.  A small part, yes, but a part nonetheless.But, they are not the primary issues.

The primary issues are…………….the state of our hearts and the direction of our worship. The bible makes it clear that our hearts tend to be set on one of two things. God or money – it really is that simple! So let us not make it more complicated.

My experience, between 1989 and 2006, is that ‘city system’ worships money above all else. One of the reasons I left the City was that I was falling into the same trap. The story of the Rich Young Ruler by the time I left felt deeply personal. Now making lots of money is not necessarily a bad thing – it can be a very good thing.

But, the more important questions would seem to be about how we make money and for what purposes. Is wealth an outcome or the goal? And yes, we can always ‘justify’ make huge personal gains by invoking the ‘just look how much tax I pay’ game. But what governments, regulators, corporations and individuals have tended to do (whilst in most cases paying lots of tax) is to have created a new ‘kingdom on earth,’ whose every interest must be served, and whose primary interest is greed, and no amount of regulation, governance or changes to corporate structure is capable of modifying greed. C.S. Lewis warned about the dangers of changing the system but leaving in place the ‘same rusty old tubs.’ I agree with him. The real issue is that we first of all need to: 

‘seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.’ 

So we are faced with two theonomic choices: the kingdom of God and His righteousness or the kingdom of man and his self-justified righteousness. 

Trying to sort out the financial system in isolation the state of our hearts is simply to defer the next crisis. 

The financial crisis is also a theological crisis.

Mindful Christianity; towards a theology of mindfulness.

Several weeks ago, during a lecture on ‘Attentiveness,’ the lecturer introduced the concept of Mindfulness; my ears pricked up as I am drawn towards the quieter, more reflective forms of Christian prayer and worship.

My ears then started burning as she started to talk about how Mindfulness was frequently used in the treatment of depression and anxiety. I made a mental note to Google mindfulness. After the lecture I dashed straight to my computer and put the words ‘mindfulness’ and ‘Christian’ into the search engine. I did this because the lecturer has talked about its eastern origins and, I wanted to see whether anyone had ‘contextualized’ (awful word – sorry) for a Christian audience.

My initial search, instead, aroused my curiosity even further because it revealed a significant volume of anti mindfulness rhetoric from within the Christian community.

One of my very rough rules of thumbs is that Christian outrage is frequently a good indicator that further research is warranted!

In the spirit of mindfulness I ordered five books (I am being ironic, taking the …. out of myself – go on be honest you use this word too!). I then approached a couple of friends from an evangelical background, to ascertain whether they felt that I was about to embark on an heretical voyage of discovery.

One of my friends is a clinical psychologist (and a priest) and she felt that mindfulness might be right up this depressives street.

The other chum felt that the criticism came from a lack of understanding of the Christian tradition and, it does seem, that mindfulness is highly congruent (hope you like the use of psycho language) with practices such as Lectio Devina (Benedictine) and the Examen (Ignation). The word practice is important because mindfulness is all about practice, where practice leads to richer understanding, renewal of the mind (very St. Paul) and, the possibility for modified behavior, and even healing.

The words in bold and italics are motifs belonging to both the Christian faith and mindfulness. So far no heresy! 

But if I were to pick one motif that I think describes both mindfulness and the habituation of the Christian life it would be abiding.

Abiding describes a state of resting (in God), where we are, in the state we are in.

Abiding accepts that that the past has happened and the future will happen, but stresses the importance of the now.

Abiding accepts a lack of control over events, past and future, whilst trusting in providence. Abiding, suggests an attitude of patience, as in let’s ‘bide our time.’Abiding is the answer to the tendency to ‘pre-live’ our lives in response to projections about how the future may pan out.

Abiding is hospitable, because it accepts that we stand before God, just as we are. When we abide we accept our thoughts and feelings, hospitably, in the full recognition that we are not our thoughts. When we abide we reject the Cartesian notion of ‘I think therefore I am.’

Abiding is charitable and non-judgmental towards self; to abide is to love self in  a way that replicate’s God’s love.

To abide is to cast aside fear, to trust in providence and to live in the present.

When we abide we enter into the fullness  of the Sermon on the Mount (especially Matthew 6, 25-34),  with it’s invocation to live fully in the moment, understanding that ‘tomorrow will take care of itself.’

When Christians abide they are literally in-vocation.

Abiding is also concerned with commitment, a commitment to act responsibly in order to achieve the breaking in of the kingdom on earth as in heaven. Such a commitment is realized through starting with self. The ancient Christian meditative and contemplative traditions stress a series of practices designed to bring increased sense of shalom over time.

Shalom is itself a manifestation of reconciliation with self as lived in the present. Shalom and reconciliation are practices which lead to potential outcomes; let’s not put the cart (or should I say Descartes!) before the horse .

Mindfulness (just like the ancient Christian spiritual practices) invites practitioners to enter into a process where they become fully aware of how they feel, both emotionally and bodily, (and yes, we are supposed to worship God in 3D using our soul, mind and body) and therefore opens up the possibility for self-healing, a practice Jesus advocates: ‘physician heal yourself,’  (Luke 4, 23). 

If abiding is my chosen motif, then the incarnation is my  theological rationale. Christianity is a fully embodied faith!  Mindfulness celebrates the unity, the interpenetration, of mind-body-soul – so does Christianity. Orthodox Christianity rejects Cartesian ‘non humanistic’ logic and Platonic dualism, so does mindfulness. Mindfulness, when done in a Christian context, allow us to accept Jesus’ great invitation to all who feel downtrodden and anxious both emotionally and physically:  ‘Come to me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke on you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and you shall find rest to your souls.’  (Matthew 11, 28 & 29). 

So why not give it a go? 

From me to you with love. With a little bit of help from my friends Matthew, Amos, Benedict and Athago

Well, just as ordination approaches Celtic Daily Prayer has managed to throw my way the starkest of warnings; stark because they relate directly to my salvation, and, you can’t get starker than that!

It seems that being ordained, with all that this entails, is simply not sufficient for salvation (I knew this anyway, please don’t worry). The tasks, or functions, associated with ordained ministry by themselves don’t cut much muster. It appears that our Lord is far more concerned with the state of our hearts, the direction of our love and devotion.

Today’s readings, the Gospel reading in particular, warn of the dangers of ministers, and the priesthood of all believers, inverting the human-divine relationship and, the relative ease with which we are able to convince ourselves we are acting in God’s name when, in reality, our real concern is the satisfaction of our own ego.

Matthew informs us that ‘‘it is not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord, who will enter the kingdom of Heaven, but the person who does the will of my father in heaven. When the day of judgement comes many will say to me ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, drive out demons in your name, work many miracles in your name?’ The I shall tell them to their faces: ” have never know you, away from me all you evil doers,” (Matthew 7, 21-23).

Ouch! Proclamation, prophesy, healing – all characteristics of ministry, aren’t enough! Achievement is rendered irrelevant!  Matthew makes it crystal clear that even if our motivation falls short of the Divine standard, in other words our primary motivation is the promotion of self, healing and other acts of power are to be expected. The fact that we might be able to heal, prophesy or preach does not mean that we are favored by God! We need to be constantly on our metal so that we discern the difference between the works of the Spirit (which in any case are validated by their fruit) and mere psychological manipulation, which we know can produce powerful outcomes (even speaking nonsense).

You might think that it is better under this scenario to steer clear of the ‘power plays,’ to act as a sacramental technician, or a top trumps worship-leader. If this is your preferred approach my advice would be to maintain a significant distance between yourself and the prophet Amos. In his role as God’s mouthpiece Amos rants against the people of Israel saying, ‘I scorn your festivals, I take no pleasure in your solemn assemblies. When you bring me burnt offerings, your oblations I do not accept them, and I do not look at your communion sacrifices or fat cattle,” (Amos 5, 21 &22). Worship, it appears, can feel good without being good.

So what are we to do given these scenarios? Well, Jesus summation of the law would seem a good starting place. Carrying ourselves with humility, being aware that He is the creator, we are the created. Or we could take Benedict’s advice: ‘Live in fear of judgment day and have a great fear of hell,’ balancing this with remembering that ‘what the eye has not seen nor the ear heard, God has prepared for those who LOVE him,’ (Rule of Benedict Chapter 4). God’s only rule is love!

Finally the advice of Abbot Athago (one of the Desert Fathers) is worth chewing over: ‘If you are able to revive the dead, but not willing to be reconciled to your neighbor – it is better to leave the dead in the grave.’ 

So two questions from me – to you with love (as the Beatles song goes).

What is your real ministerial motivation?

What sort of ministers impress you?

For all my Emmaus Road friends.

So many people have been part of my journey and, to all of you thank you. As I leave theological college today I feel truly humbled. I am experiencing a sense of sadness mixed with anticipation. I hope, as I previously reflected, that the next stage of my journey (and yours) will ‘be a far, far better thing than I have ever done before.’

This morning my mind drifted towards the Emmaus Road story (Luke 24,  13-15). I began to think about how many, or all of you, have been my Emmaus Road friends.

You have met me and greeted me,

You have listened to my story, heard my confusion,

You have walked with me, talked with me, stayed with me,

You have eaten with me,

You have revealed something of Him to me.

And, this is surely what Christian pilgrimage and mission, at its most basic (yet profound?) level is all about: just being present for each other, sharing our stories as we seek to understand the wisdom and mystery of God, going the extra mile with those we are charged to love and care for and, finally, living the sacramental life together, both in the Eucharist and, through ‘common’ hospitality.

If this is our approach we can be confident that  ‘eyes will be opened and we will recognize him,’ (a paraphrase of Luke, 24, 31). How do I know this? Simple, its been my experience, my journey.

So to you all whether you are family, friend, colleague, student, teacher brother, sister, thank you. You have been true Emmaus Road friends. God bless you all.

‘May it be a far, far, better thing that i do’; a hopeful reflection for all to be ordained.

Charles Dickens begins A Tale of Two Cities with one of literature’s most memorable opening lines, ‘it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’

The closing lines aint half bad too: ‘it is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done before.’ Through these lines Dickens captures my sentiments towards my two years at Cuddesdon and, my hopes on leaving at the end of this week.

Let’s start at the end; I have never been a linear person!

My real hope is that entering into ordained ministry really will be a ‘far, far better thing than I have ever done before.’ This is not to discount, or devalue, all previous experience, indeed I hope that in some strange way it will all be gathered into my new, ministerial, identity. In this sense my new role is the culmination of all that has gone before and, all that will be, in the future. I hope that the ‘new thing,’ as Isaiah might have put it (see I have been reading the bible in the last two years!) will be better, in the sense that It will be more explicitly orientated towards God and others than anything my previous jobs and roles. Perhaps, the only real prayer that I can enter fully into is ‘thy kingdom come, on earth as in heaven.’ As I reflect back I  suspect that in my previous  business career, although I hope I always tried to act ethically (I know I failed) a lot of time was devoted to the building of ‘my kingdom on earth.’ 

It strikes me that many of Jesus encounters, with the religious and social elite, can essentially be reduced to what I think of as the ‘kingdom question.’  For whose benefit are you operating? Answering this question requires rigorous honesty, and, of course, being human, we can never entirely let go of our ego. Please never believe anyone who says  ‘it’s all for the kingdom,’ for what they are claiming is perfection.   

Anyway, let’s move on……..

So why has Cuddesdon been the ‘best of times, the worst of times?’  (Please note the ordering of the Dickens’ opening remarks, what I am trying to say is that it has been the best of times, but in becoming the best of times, it has meant that I have also had to endure the worst of times, mostly with ill grace and resentment). It has been the best of times because I have met many wonderful people; people committed to (imperfectly) the bringing in of the ‘kingdom here on earth, as in heaven.’ It has been liberating because I have been introduced to a diverse range of Christian theologies and doctrines, providing the opportunity for renewal of the mind. This has led to me finding myself, coming to understand something about my true identity as a being created in God’s image.

It has been the ‘worst of times,’ because I have had to learn to trust God! Confronting the fact that I am far more confident in myself to work things out, than I am in God’s grace and providence has been really very difficult. Understanding that I cannot control my environment, that many of my prior beliefs were pretty shallow, or just plain wrong, and being stripped of all positional power and authority for two years, was extremely painful, it was ‘the worst of times.’  Being reformed is not always easy! But, it is part of our true calling. In creating the new, we really do have to throw off the old. 

And so, as I approach the end of my journey at Cuddesdon, I would like to make one request, and that is for your prayers that the next stage of my journey would truly be ‘a far, far better thing than I have ever done before.’ 

Can you make this prayer for all to be ordained this year, ‘Lord, may it be a far, far better thing that they do than they have ever done before,’ Amen.