So often, I think this. And I’m thinking it again today. There were some great keynotes during my time at BbWorld and there were some less great ones. The great ones are still relevant to me today. Specifically I come back to two when I look with sadness round the traditional parish church and our lack of younger people. One is Seth Godin, on Tribes, and one is Malcolm Gladwell, and Tipping Point.

Some of the detail probably isn’t at all relevant, but the essence of what I remember is enough for me. Because every time I look around at our congregation and see only over 50s, or every (rare) time I see a young person/family risk coming in and then doing a double take because there’s the most enormous age and perhaps culture gap between them and the people who are already there.

I *totally* believe that the church is one of the few places left in society where you *should* be able to see a huge range of people sharing together in worship and fellowship. But I also believe that it’s a lot easier to join a group which is a group of people like you. Because then you look around and think, oh, people that look like me, it must be a place for people like me. And not oh, gosh, I am totally not like anyone here, am I even supposed/allowed to be here.

In my own experience, I have to be honest and say that the churches I’ve seen&been that are numerically (not to split hairs over other definitions) ‘successful’, have been of similar [looking] people. I would hazard a guess that this is why grafts work. The saddest thing is that I also know from experience that it doesn’t take many people for others to catch a sense of potential. That just a couple of families mean that when a wedding couple come in, they see others like them.

Sadly, it takes lots of things to create a real tipping point of a tribe of all, or a fellowship of tribes together. It takes each one who tries, to stay. It takes each one who’s already ‘in’ to be *serious* about generous welcome and hospitality. It takes each place to be intentional about offering and building networks within the greater fellowship. Often we fail at at least one of those. Sometimes we all fail at all of them. And what I think is most worrying, is that we have to succeed at all three, clergy, congregations and Christians. Only then shall we genuinely grow.

We have failed.

Always worth watching again. Seth Godin, Tribes:

The social epidemic – Malcolm Gladwell

The Tipping Point

The tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire. Just as a single sick person can start an epidemic of the flu, so too can a small but precisely targeted push cause a fashion trend, the popularity of a new product, or a drop in the crime rate. This widely acclaimed bestseller, in which Malcolm Gladwell explores and brilliantly illuminates the tipping point phenomenon, is already changing the way people throughout the world think about selling products and disseminating ideas. [from http://gladwell.com/the-tipping-point/]
audio book version:

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This excellent post was on Worshiping with children’s facebook page – or rather, it wasn’t a post but a photo, and I couldn’t bookmark it for some reason, so reposting it not to lose – with all credits/apologies to http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/ & https://www.facebook.com/worshipingwithchildren/

Worshiping with a child is a team sport, i.e. something you do together. And, like all sports having a collection of strategies and tricks to pull out as you play makes worship more interesting, fun and satisfying for all the players – including the parent/coach. So, here is a list of strategies with which even not-very-musical parents can draw children into singing with their congregation. It is far from complete. Add strategies that have worked for you in the Comments section.

- As soon as they are comfortable with three digit numbers children enjoy the responsibility of finding the hymns by their numbers for the family to sing. They become the “keeper of the hymnbook.”

- In the child’s worship bag, provide bookmarks with which a child can find and mark the hymns you will sing.

- Insist they sing with the congregation. Pull them away from anything else they are working on during worship, if needed.

- While the musical introduction is playing, tell your child something you like about this hymn. (Last week my 90 year old mother whispered, “this is one of my favorites!” and I paid attention to it in a new way as we sang.)

- Position their heads so they can hear and feel their voices in the middle of the singing. Younger children enjoy standing on the pew, being as tall everyone else, and singing in the middle of the music rather than hearing it somewhere above them. When children get too tall to stand on the pew, sit beside your standing child or simply scrunch over so that your voice is near your child’s ear.

- Don’t sing all the time. Occasionally, hum or la-la, even whistle a hymn together. (Yes, in the sanctuary!) This is especially welcome by early or non-readers. They can participate and begin learning the tunes without the words.

- As they begin to read, use a paper on its side or your finger to help children follow the words. They will brush you aside when they are ready to keep up on their own.

- Emphasize repeated phrases or choruses in a hymn with a nudge and wink encouraging young readers to sing at least those phrases even before they can read all the verses.

- Invest in a hymnal to keep in a worship bag. With your child underline important words. Write the date of each time you sing each hymn. Add star stickers or dog ear the ones you really like. Encourage your child to make notes or draw illustrations in the margins. Add some of your own.

- Write a key phrase in a hymn you just sang on a piece of paper or a page in a worship journal. Urge your child to illustrate or write about it during rest of worship. Make your own page or add a note or drawing to your child’s page.

Photo: Worshiping with a child is a team sport, i.e. something you do together.  And, like all sports having a collection of strategies and tricks to pull out as you play makes worship more interesting, fun and satisfying for all the players – including the parent/coach.  So, here is a list of strategies with which even not-very-musical parents can draw children into singing with their congregation.  It is far from complete.  Add strategies that have worked for you in the Comments section.</p>
<p>- As soon as they are comfortable with three digit numbers children enjoy the responsibility of finding the hymns by their numbers for the family to sing.   They become the “keeper of the hymnbook.”</p>
<p>- In the child’s worship bag, provide bookmarks with which a child can find and mark the hymns you will sing.</p>
<p>- Insist they sing with the congregation.  Pull them away from anything else they are working on during worship, if needed.</p>
<p>- While the musical introduction is playing, tell your child something you like about this hymn.  (Last week my 90 year old mother whispered, “this is one of my favorites!” and I paid attention to it in a new way as we sang.)</p>
<p>- Position their heads so they can hear and feel their voices in the middle of the singing.  Younger children enjoy standing on the pew, being as tall everyone else, and singing in the middle of the music rather than hearing it somewhere above them.  When children get too tall to stand on the pew, sit beside your standing child or simply scrunch over so that your voice is near your child’s ear.</p>
<p>- Don’t sing all the time.  Occasionally, hum or la-la, even whistle a hymn together.  (Yes, in the sanctuary!)  This is especially welcome by early or non-readers.  They can participate and begin learning the tunes without the words.</p>
<p>- As they begin to read, use a paper on its side or your finger to help children follow the words.  They will brush you aside when they are ready to keep up on their own.</p>
<p>- Emphasize repeated phrases or choruses in a hymn with a nudge and wink encouraging young readers to sing at least those phrases even before they can read all the verses.</p>
<p>- Invest in a hymnal to keep in a worship bag.  With your child underline important words.  Write the date of each time you sing each hymn.  Add star stickers or dog ear the ones you really like.  Encourage your child to make notes or draw illustrations in the margins.  Add some of your own.</p>
<p>- Write a key phrase in a hymn you just sang on a piece of paper or a page in a worship journal.  Urge your child to illustrate or write about it during rest of worship.  Make your own page or add a note or drawing to your child’s page.

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Bartholomew
Isaiah 43.8-13

Today the Church commemorates Bartholomew. Bartholomew is a slightly shadowy character – he is listed as an apostle in all the Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke (not though the piece of Luke we actually hear today), but we hear little else about him and there is some debate about whether he and Nathaniel (who we hear rather more about, and who appears in John’s list of apostles) are the same person.

What’s in a name?

Bartholomew also appears listed in Acts, after the resurrection – leaving Nathaniel aside; in the absence of anything much else, Exciting Holiness at least claims that Bartholomew “recognizes Jesus for who he is and proclaims him as Son of God and King of Israel”.

The Catholic Encyclopaedia informs us that Bartholomew was martyred in Armenia, by being flayed alive – and this indeed is obviously the story that Michelangelo and others heard, for the most famous artistic representations of him are holding out his flayed skin.

In our first reading, Isaiah says “You are my witnesses, says the Lord, and my servant whom I have chosen”. A few verses earlier, at the beginning of chapter 43, Isaiah says “I have called you by name, you are mine”.

Because we are holding his feast, we remember the witness of God’s servant Bartholomew. He is mentioned – called – by name in today’s collect. You might like to glance back at the noticesheet:

Almighty and everlasting God,
who gave to your apostle Bartholomew grace
truly to believe and to preach your word:
grant that your Church
may love that word which he believed
and may faithfully preach and receive the same;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Let’s take it in two parts.

Almighty and everlasting God,
who gave to your apostle Bartholomew grace
truly to believe and to preach your word:

When I looked at the collect, it reminded me of the ordination service, where the words are repeated over the head of each person – “Send down your spirit Lord, on your servant … Bartholomew … for work … in your church”.

Have another look at that first part of the collect. Read it quietly for a second. Now how about reading it again, with your own name instead of Bartholomew? It might need ‘gives’ not ‘gave’. Can we make it a prayer for ourselves – give to me, your apostle, grace truly to believe and to preach your word.

Now you may say that to use the term ‘apostle’ is not correct, because we are only Jesus’ disciples, the twelve were the apostles. But the apostles started off as disciples (those who follow) and ‘graduated’ into apostles – from being students to teachers in the great commission, when they were ‘sent’ – the meaning of apostle.

 

In the great commission, and after Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit we are all sent. So we are all apostles as well as disciples. We follow, and we are sent. The two go together, as they are in the collect: ‘Truly to believe’ = disciple; ‘to preach your word’ = apostle.

So let’s have the confidence, each of us, to pray for ourselves: almighty/gracious/transforming and everlasting God,
who gives to your apostle N grace
truly to believe and to preach your word.

And what are we believing? Isaiah again: Fear not, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name. You are mine.

I have redeemed you. Does that massive, beautiful, incredible thing suffuse our whole beings? Do we believe that, really, truly, to our core? I want to say, if you cut us in half to expose our core, how would you recognise our faith? I’m thinking about Blackpool rock but I’m all too aware that for so many Christians the possibility has become a terrifying reality.

Bartholomew holds out his skin in pictures. Are there days when our faith feels only ‘skin-deep’? When we are afraid, when we do not feel redeemed? On those days, let’s follow Bartholomew, Bartholomew who “recognizes Jesus for who he is and proclaims him as Son of God and King of Israel”, and who leads us into the second part of the collect.

grant that your Church
may love that word which he believed
and may faithfully preach and receive the same;

give us – your Church – grace, strength and trust to love that which we believe – even, especially, on days when the world seems so riven by sin and suffering it is hard to comprehend where God is in it, that we have the confidence to follow Bartholomew from disciple to apostle, and not just recognise Jesus but proclaim him, ‘faithfully preach and receive the same’.

Because the joy of being redeemed is not ours alone. God calls many many more. All. Tradition has it that in his day Bartholomew took the gospel to India, to Ethiopia, Mesopotamia and more as well as Armenia.

Today, we apostles – we disciples who are called, called by name and sent – we are called too to preach and proclaim Jesus, our redemption and our hope. Where? Well Isaiah doesn’t send us so far as Bartholomew went. Just to anyone who will listen:

“Bring forth the people who are blind, yet have eyes,
who are deaf, yet have ears”

“You are my witnesses, says the Lord”, “my servant[s] whom I have chosen”.

There are many people who are blind yet have eyes, who are deaf, yet have ears. They are all around us. We honour saints like Bartholomew – and all those other Christians being martyred today – best by striving to deepen our own faith, to wonder in it, to glory in it and to give thanks for it, that it is not skin-deep, a mantle that we put on or take off, but that our recognition of Jesus as Lord guides and directs every thought and word and deed;

and that we grow in being open to sharing it with those who with eyes and ears open to receiving it – to believe and to preach your word.

And if naming yourself in the Collect doesn’t strengthen you do so, nor remembering that Isaiah tells us Do not be afraid, God has called us by name, that today we are his witnesses, then skip forward to the collect after communion, and carry on praying that this week

Almighty God,
who on the day of Pentecost
sent your Holy Spirit to the apostles
with the wind from heaven and in tongues of flame,
[filling them] fill us with joy and boldness to preach the gospel:
by the power of the same Spirit
strengthen us to witness to your truth
and to draw everyone to the fire of your love;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

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Romans 10.5-15
Matthew 14.22-33

‘The word is near you,
on your lips and in your heart’

 because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.

 how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? 15And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’

Our gospel story this morning is another one of those times that Jesus says ‘do not be afraid’. Trust him, work with him, believe in him. With him, we can do anything, walk over anything.

I deleted a couple of emails that came round while I was on holiday about the ‘season of invitation’. The ‘season of invitation’ is an expansion of Back to Church Sunday – the weekend in September where churches explicitly encourage people to come along and join them.

When people hesitate to invite, it’s mostly because either they’re scared to ask, for what people might think of being invited; or they’re scared of what people might think if they were invited and they responded and came along.

One of the touchstone questions for a church is often ‘would you invite people to join us?’

Would you invite people to join us? It’s often, usually in fact, that people join a church because they’ve been invited along. And if they’re invited along we should hope that they would be made welcome. I know I come across people who might like to come to church, and I really want to encourage them to, while all the time I’m thinking but they have three small children and will they really be welcomed?

And I want to remember those words of Jesus to the disciples ‘Take heart, do not be afraid’. I want that couple to be able to turn up with three small, maybe a bit noisy children, because it is for Jesus that I invite and encourage, and it is for Jesus that they accept, and it is Jesus – and other disciples – that they come to meet.

I need to remember ‘Take heart, do not be afraid’ when I invite people and hope they come; they need to remember ‘Take heart, do not be afraid’ when they pluck up courage to turn up the first time; we all need to remember ‘Take heart, do not be afraid’ to welcome new faces into our midst join with them in our worship of the Lord of all, share with them the joy in being part of the same wider family.

Back to church Sunday isn’t always a success in numbers of visitors staying, but it is always a success in helping people think about inviting, think about being able to say ‘there’s something on at our church next week, would you like to join us’.

The combination of our readings today are an encouragement and a challenge. They are chicken and egg. In Jesus inviting Peter to step out in faith to draw near to him – literally through uncharted waters – and in St Paul urging us to share the gospel in the first reading from Romans. To share the gospel more widely we need to step out in faith…

The challenge is that this encouragement is not as a mission endeavour, it is as fundamental to our salvation. ‘Never be ashamed (says the Baptism service) to confess the faith of Christ crucified. Actually I think the words in our Baptism service say ‘do not be ashamed’ whereas if you pay close attention you will more usually hear me say ‘never be ashamed’. Why? Because although grammatically ‘do not’ can – does – mean something ongoing, it also feels like it can mean just this once as you make the statement in the baptism itself.

On the other hand, ‘never’ implies that it goes on. It is a confession for today and tomorrow and the day after and the week after and the month after that. Faith is an ongoing thing. It requires belief today and tomorrow and next week and next month. It requires trust today and tomorrow and it requires us to own – confess – that trust. Today and tomorrow and next week and next month and next year.

because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.

How often do we confess the faith of Christ crucified? Well, corporately every week, in the creed we shall stand and say together in just a moment. How often do we ponder at home what that actually means? How often do we think about each line of the creed as being our salvation? Not just a line to read out because it’s in bold, but because by confessing it with our mouths we are saved.

Perhaps this morning we might proclaim the faith more robustly than normal; really feel how those phrases sound in our mouths; really know ourselves saved by them. Can we startle ourselves with the intensity or passion of our confession? Maybe the creed is the only weekly time we confess this faith of ours. We just offer it to God. We don’t make an effort to say it to ourselves and to others on a daily or regular basis?

Is that enough for ‘confessing it with our mouths’? What does St Paul say next?

how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? 15And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’

Something as amazing as being wholly known, wholly loved, wholly forgiven is not to be kept to oneself. And not everyone knows, understands or believes that. Do not be afraid. Owning something as precious as the way to salvation and eternal life is surely infectious. And this is what we are here to do. To believe with our hearts that we can be justified. To confess Christ as Lord. For ourselves and to others.

If salvation and eternal life are precious to us, how can we withhold them from others? How are others to join us in that wonderful place where Jesus Christ can call us toward him and we can step out regardless of the surety of the ground beneath our feet.

It is to us to bring good news. To be good news to people and to bring good news to people. If that sounds scary, then we must remember Peter on the boat. Take heart. Do not be afraid.

We live today in a culture where not everyone does know the gospel story, the story of the history of Israel, the stories of the prophets, the faithlessness and misery of the people. Not everyone knows the story of God coming to dwell among us to teach us how to live with one another, how to love one another. Not everyone knows the consolation of trusting in Christ who calls us to get out of the boat.

In the storms of life which inevitably surround us, it is often our faith that sustains us. That may be in the support of our families and friends, loving us, as Jesus did, no matter what. It might be in quiet prayer or in being able to be angry with God, knowing that however we choose to express it, he holds us in our pain and is still there when we are empty of tears or of prayers or of anger.

Right now, around the world, there are Christians who believe with all their hearts and are prepared to confess their faith despite this making them targets for atrocities. That is a stepping out into the storm which I cannot even begin to imagine. How their faith can sustain children dying of starvation and of thirst atop a mountain when they were forced to flee their homes, I cannot comprehend. It can hardly feel to be good news to be Christian for many of those Iraqis.

Suddenly ‘Take heart, do not be afraid’ seems small and insignificant if we apply it to working up the courage to tell people we come to church, to invite them to come with us. The passage from Romans echoes hollow – for these people whose believing with the heart and confessing with the mouth has earned them at best displacement, at worst torture and death. They are living – or dying – embodiments of ‘those who lose their lives with save them’. Our prayers today must be that there is comfort amid the storm for those communities.

But it must spur us on too. Our confession of Christ must be able to counter those who say that religion is the root of all evil. 11The scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ 12For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek… This is the truth of the gospel. A truth that we need to be prepared to claim and proclaim. We can start small, none of us is going to change the situation in Christian – or what was Christian – Iraq over night, but that doesn’t prevent us challenging ourselves to be what we can be and do what we can do.

Perhaps that starts with a single step. A single step out over the edge of the boat. Never be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified. Don’t we owe it to those dying in Iraq to not be afraid and really seek to own our faith, proudly and with integrity? To share it with others, that it may be their comfort too..?

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Today I was back in the country, but not back at work until tomorrow. So today I worshipped elsewhere. I really do think every curacy, or even, dammit, just everyone, should go elsewhere once  in a while. It makes you look at yourselves in a whole new light. Perhaps a good light, seeing things that you do that work, and what it feels like where that doesn’t happen, but perhaps mostly, in a revealing light of ah, yes, hmm…

This isn’t a mystery worship report, it’s thoughts I have when I go elsewhere and compare our practice to other places. It’s more liturgical than by priority, but then again…

  1. Open The Doors. No really, you’d think that was a no-brainer, no? Not everyone has sparkly groovy glass doors into a worship space, or glass doors at beginning and endof a lobby, or even (much rarer) glassed outer doors. So somewhere on the way in, there are doors. And usually, as they’re proper doors, they come in twos. Not two sets, but two halves. *A door* is both halves, otherwise it’s only half a door that people have to peep round, squeeze in/past/through. Open The Doors.

    Ours especially are massive and painted black, but our inner doors get kept shut, or if open, closed as soon as the procession is in and ready and I really really hate that. If you come in late, then you’re embarrassed enough without havine the noise of the door and the attitude of the doorkeeper to deal with. But the first doors you come to should be open. Even in Winter I believe that – if you’re chilly, go and sit further up front, and if you’re doorkeeper, put on a scarf or an extra sweater. But in August, no excuses. Open The Doors.

  2. Welcome nicely. Welcome is a big topic currently – how greeting isn’t necessarily (and perhaps preferably not) the same as sidespersoning. We’re trying to work towards getting our welcomers (greeters) outside the church (see above for gloves – easily removable to shake hands – or an extra sweater).

    However, inside or outside, welcome/greet is not to stand in the half open door and demand, however politely, credentials before stepping back. *insert any number of other articles about welcome here…* Whyever people have turned up, they should be welcome. ‘Yes, I’m on holiday’  doesn’t mean ‘and subtext: don’t hold your breath to see me again’ and so also certainly doesn’t the mean ‘fine, do come in, make yourself at home, but we won’t put any extra effort in since there won’t be a next time’.

    I have tried three fairly major churches in my life near where I lived that I tried and due to the over/under/plain scary welcome I never went back. Massive Risk. This morning, I was quite charmingly welcomed by a gentleman who made a little small talk about where I was from and bid me warmly welcome even as a one-off. Then when I’d chosen a seat and minded my own business for a prayerful moment, another gentleman passing the pew leant across and offered his hand. ‘Welcome. Lovely to have you here. I hope that you’re blessed with us today’ and with a warm smile carried on.

  3. What you are given. Not rocket science, these, are they?! But every time I go somewhere new and see our own practice under relative light, I’m reminded how important these small things are. Today: hymn book, service booklet and single folded news sheet, easily read and navigated. Our place: hymn book, service booklet and minimum two folded and stapled news sheet, rather less readable and navigable, if I’m honest, than the one I saw today and far less so than the ones I am rather guiltily coveting of St Mary the Virgin, Fawdon.

    My home village church has the welcome and friendly text printed inside the service booklet as well as on the news sheet, just in case you abandon the latter part-way.

    The last time I wandered into a different church on a day off I was given nothing. Nothing to play with while I waited, nothing to tell me anything about the community I was joining, nothing to make black and white that I was welcome to communion or to coffee (on that occasion I never found the coffee, and noone came to talk to me, so I left…), nothing to tell me what the day’s readings were, had I wanted to ponder them/look them up in that time before the service began, nothing to tell me of people or situations needing or seeking intercession, nothing to give me any clue as to what this community is or does beyond that hour that day.

    It is totally true that there is no need for a hymn book if the words are on screen, as might be the service itself, and I am an environmental imp, but I can’t get beyond that there is a lot of other stuff missed out on if you don’t do it all or do it badly.

  4. Music. Hymns. We have an organ and an organist. He’s not An Organist, and he plays as well as he can, and that’s pretty good. But very often these rare amazing Not Organists – and, in my experience elsewhere, occasionally some Organists too – do play a massive hulking great beast of a thing which was not at all not made for quick playing (I give you Widor or any Bach toccata), but sometimes I wonder if it has got into first gear by lunchtime.

    There are more great hymns massacred by singing too slowly than there are great hymns ignored due to incumbents’ theology/taste. As a musician, when I’m in practise my lung capacity is higher than many, but if I’m fading fast and having to pace back within a line to wait for the organist to catch up, then it’s just not a good feel.

    This does not mean chucking out the organ in favour of a worship band is the obvious solution. But it’s easy to forget when you’re up front nearest the choir and your colleagues who unselfconsciously sing out, that the experience half way down the nave is often something very different…

    Sung settings. I photocopied some small versions of the mass setting we use, so that they could be available if people wished. Yes, I know not everyone reads music. Yes, I know that’s another thing to pick up. Yes, I know that if you come often enough you’ll learn it (apparently; unconvinced, myself). Yes, I still think they should be available. The ones I did have been disappeared in a very latin american manner :(

    If you have visitors who can read music, then they’ll help the congregation round them be more confident at it. If you have visitors who don’t really read they’ll at least be able to see if it goes up or down a bit/a lot. And hey, even some of the regulars might  get the idea.

    Music during communion. One of the things I really miss about leading worship is how little I get to sing now. Often I could hardly tell you what our two communion hymns are. Sadly I can’t recall any church I’ve been to where the singing of (how apt, I managed sinning there, first attempt…) communion hymns has been done successfully, reverently, well, pickaword by a congregation on the move.

    Perhaps gentle organning would be better? Perhaps. There’s a whole potential raft of feelings about the emotionality of the Lord’s Table, but perhaps just reflective, maybe even uplifting, ideally not depressing or heavy. Perhaps a perfect time for a bit of cd of something that wouldn’t otherwise be able to be done/sung/played? Time for people to sit by faith, with thanksgiving with.

  5. Readings. One of the [many] wonderful moments about the Methodist Connexion service in Birmingham last month was the lively  ( alive – if lively sounds too flippant for you ) style of the readings. The long oral tradition of  the scriptures before they were scribed is often lost by  formal reading. Reading is performance. It’s great when it is; when it’s not, people may as well just read it from the notice sheet, I reckon…

  6. Intercessions. Brief, powerful, to the point. Eminently prayable. Excellent when they are. Good voice also really key here. More so even than in the readings?

  7. Offerings. I had two really powerful conversations with a young mum when I was in Salford, who told me that if the children (3) were aggravating and uncooperative and she was going to be late, then she abandoned coming, knowing the growling looks she would receive, not the gracious gratitude that she bothered to get a handful of under 10s up, dressed, across town and into church at all. (That belongs further up, see ‘Welcome Nicely’.)

    The other conversation I had with her was listening to her saying that she didn’t come when she had literally nothing left that week to put in the collection because people noticed if she waved away the plate/took it and passed it straight on etc. She was so ashamed that it was obvious that she just didn’t bother.

    Yes, I know, giving is a cheerful part of our faith, but in an essay I wrote about that church community I did a lot of learning about shame, a couple of years before it became a much bigger issue with foodbanks. It’s raw and it’s real and it’s powerful. And Jesus took it away, not piled it on.

    We have plates too, but I really do prefer – and long for, for exactly this reason – the old velvet bag which really doesn’t show how much if at all you let out of your hand in it. I suppose that plates are in and bags are out because some people put empty hands in and took full hands out? Less likely to happen if we all sit together , or, radical, grow, hm?

  8. Leaving. Liturgical ergonomics. We have this thing about ‘those who turn left’ – and leave, whilst coffee and fellowship is in the hall to the right. We vary where we stand to greet the congregation as they leave, but I can’t honestly say there’s a good place which successfully encourages people to the hall. However, the president is located in a way that one then chooses to stay or not to stay.

    Today, noone told me at the beginning that there was coffee afterwards, but someone as we left our pews said do stay for coffee. Thank you, I’d like that, I replied (thinking I probably won’t, but it’s important to test these things).

    And I did go for coffee, mulling over whether the people who went for coffee just didn’t bother greeting the vicar, because I couldn’t find a way back to coffee which was straight on right at the back of the church, whereas the natural progression of greeting with clergy/reader gently led to the left, and out of the door. Somewhat peculiarly, I found myself practically outside with no idea how to get back, and not a cycle of people showing how this manoeuvre was to be done.

    Given that I was, naturally, a couple of decades more limber than most, I eventually solved this by clambering carefully over the back of the font steps behind the reader. Most odd. Flow should definitely lead to an encouragement to partake of fellowship, no? And only half at best of the congregation had perfected the alternative manouevre, because there seemed to be a lot that had just sailed out of the door.

  9. Coffee. (you knew this was where it was going to end, didn’t you?) You know me, I prefer it to be recognisably so. It is true that on occasion I used to attempt milk and several sugars in the ‘coffee‘ served at mum’s church in order to hope it got to a passable point. Sometimes it was grinandbearable, sometimes not. Yes, it’s possible I (and others) didn’t really do any favours to the little bush trying to grow just outside the door…

    But if it’s just ‘coffee’ I drink it black. I’d prefer to have the choice, to be honest. I know there’s a whole etteaquette about milk in the cup before or after the tea, but not before the ‘coffee’ in ‘coffee’?? A wise seven year-old later would remind me that there’s ‘squirty’ and there’s ‘cream’. And there’s ‘instant’ and there’s coffee *sigh*

    #savingthechurchofenglandonecoffeemachineatatime #enoughsaid

    And while I’m on it, something in me wants to say cheap biscuits are totally fine, because lots of people are going home to a cooked lunch (never me, usually the after service biscuits are my lunch). And that if I have masses of cake, I’d like or rather prefer to take it and hand it out to the friends at homeless outreach. But there’s something gloriously more abundant about cake or homemade stuff eg chocolate-covered flapjack.

    Gloriously more well, Christ-like. Especially on a day like today, where the preacher reminded us that being loved and fed sends us out reeling from that glad abundance to carry it through and into the world. So maybe, much as I like a Nice biscuit myself, a decent cake rota to go with decent coffee, and you might just see some miracles…..

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Matthew 13.1-9,18-23

This last week I’ve mostly been at the clergy summer gathering – it was a little different to usual. Rather than a theme and different presentations within that, this year it was delivered by a team of external people, part of a course called leading your church in to growth.

This is kind of the follow up to the preparing the ground for growth sessions that we went to last summer. They told us that where vicars had been on this course and taken home and put in to practice ideas from it they were beginning to see some growth.

Growth is a funny word. It can be taken to mean and can be meant as one or more of a range of things. We’ve told you before that we often pray in chapel in the mornings for growth, in faith and hope and love, in generosity and in numbers.

Growth doesn’t just mean bums on seats or pews. It doesn’t just mean a healthier-looking bank balance. It is also about individual and corporate discipleship, seeking and achieving a closer walk with God, a deeper relationship with our saviour Jesus Christ. It is also about how we mature as a family, how we extend a warm and unconditional welcome to those who would like to join the family.

Growth is about us all growing, living, learning, learning more about ourselves, about each other and about God, and about all of those in the light of the other. It might be a bit scary, but it is in the direction of God. It is our natural trajectory – or it should be. Growth should be heard as a positive word.

But it isn’t always received as a positive thing. Growth can – perhaps often does – mean change. Change is often perceived to be negative. But growth – our natural trajectory toward God, individually and collectively, yes, probably means change.

Perhaps small subtle things, sometimes perhaps bigger or more substantial things. Sometimes we need to lay things aside to rejuvenate – caterpillars, for example. Sometimes it takes something to die in order to be resurrected – that is indeed at the heart of our Christian faith, is it not? It’s the theme of the readings I heard on Thursday, as I attended the funeral of a friend killed in a car crash – that seeds must die to enable growth. Our perishable bodies are laid aside in death for us to put on the imperishable clothing of eternal life. So yes, sometimes growth, renewal means the end of some things and the enabling thereby of the growth of something new.

At the close of the conference there was a sense that growth (in all the senses we pray for it) is acheivable and within our reach as parishes, if we want it to be. And that growth can come, in a small scale at least, from easily-achieved small changes. Changes we shouldn’t be frightened of or object to.

Some colleagues however, were a little sceptical about the effort required of us all to grow. ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’ said the speaker, but the first stone was certainly laid. The vineyard didn’t flourish in a day, but the first seeds were definitely sown…

As with preparing the ground for growth, which after all, was called preparing the ground for growth – the emphasis of LyCig was about making it a priority to sow some seeds, so it made me smile to see that this week’s lectionary reading was the parable of the sower.

Reading the parable again made me think about the sowing of the fields done at the summer gathering, how the seeds sown by the course leaders seemed to have been received, and I thought I would share some of those thoughts with you this morning.

Firstly, there were the people who went to the clergy gathering because they go to the clergy gathering, to gather with fellow clergy, not necessarily to pay attention to particular topics which don’t really interest them. I say this with the utmost respect for my fellows, because I’ve seen it here and I’ve seen it very often in my old life, and I think there’s a place for turning up and hanging out with friends without necessarily worrying about having to concentrate on something else – though in this case I think that would be a loss. These were the people who didn’t get it, or didn’t want to, the places where the seed fell on the path and was instantly gobbled up by the birds.

It benefitted the birds, and perhaps the gathering benefits the parishes of those clergy who come back a little renewed from a few days away, but the message of the growth imperative was lost.

Secondly, there were those who received the word and were very interested, who go away really enthusiastically to set up or set in motion quite a few of the ideas they’ve heard about. These colleagues could really see the benefits to the parish and could believe that it’s all such common sense that pretty instant results should be easily achievable.

Unfortunately for these keen folks, over-keen folks, they’re actually really quite busy when they get back into the parish and they struggle to keep the necessary momentum to implement the change and growth when day-to-day things inevitably take over. Here the seed fell onto shallow soil among the rocks, sprung up but could not be sustained and withered.

Thirdly, there were those who could see the potential and were encouraged to go home and try some things, but those things will not be received with enthusiasm my their churches, by congregations or committees who do not want to change at all or even, seemingly, to grow.

Problems or apathy contribute to choking ideas and hope in these places and, like thorns, prevent growth in an unattractive and painful way. To spend what time and effort and resource is available just on cutting away the weeds hinders healthy or effective growth.

Finally, there were the colleagues who went away inspired, the seeds sown by the LyCiG team taking good root and who will be received with joy on their return, by communities with excitement and expectation, communities who reflect on who they are and how they could be the body of Christ to, and share the gospel truth and freedom with, more people.

These are the communities which hear the word and understand it, the communities who will bear fruit and yield, perhaps thirty, perhaps sixty, perhaps a hundredfold.

Would we like to be that last kind of community? (That is, to a greater rather than lesser extent, a hypothetical question – to survive we must grow, else we shall, naturally, over time, die. Let anyone with ears, listen). So let’s perhaps assume we would.

Church growth research last year revealed that the churches which are intentional about growth, about developing the body of Christ in all its richness and diversity, in its depth and its understanding; these are the churches which flourish and which grow.

The LyCiG team at the clergy conference told us similarly. So rather than just the Vicar and me praying for growth, in hope and faith and love, in generosity and in numbers, could we pray today and regularly to be one of those last communities?

One of those communities where the seeds fall on fertile ground. Where inspiration and ideas meet prayer and prepared ground, and grow; where this means that the community, our community, God’s kingdom flourishes.

Let us pray:

God of Mission,
who alone brings growth to your Church,
send your Holy Spirit to give
vision to our planning,
wisdom to our actions,
and power to our witness.
Help our church to grow in numbers,
in spiritual commitment to you,
and in service to our local community,
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
Amen

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Rather, the celebration was anything but random, but the thoughts are (as usual)

It’s been a hectic couple of weekends. These lovely guys:

cell group
are my cell group. Who I don’t get to see anywhere near enough, nor their partners.

This last two weekends I’ve done mad dashes around the country to be at Robin’s Church of England priesting, and at the national Methodist Conference to see Tom be received into full connexion and ordained presbyter (we’re ecumenical, we are). It’s been a whirl. Some things to remember before I lose them…mostly from yesterday, since it was further from my own experience/usual worship.

Priestings are solemn and pomp-ous, full of you cannot do this in your own strength (which well we know). I was priested among 10, in a cathedral full of gold and red and finery (not a problem, my own sending church, so it was special for me), whilst Robin was amongst his congregation with guests, in his curacy church. This was special to be present, as a curiosity to observe a different church (which we don’t get to do nearly enough/at all) and the way it approaches our common liturgy; as a priest joining in with the laying on of hands in the making of a new priest, close enough to actually do so, rather than the superman move; as the only one of our cell who could actually make it, and thus carrying all our prayers into that space for Robin.

But yesterday, yesterday was different. Yesterday Andy and I met up in Birmingham, to be there for Tom (feeling vaguely guilty about not being at Robin’s first celebration of mass). It is true to say I never fully understood until yesterday – or this weekend, delighting in seeing the updates and photos of all those beginning new ministries who I know or trained with, delighting in the hope that there is for the church with so many new priests and deacons – but especially yesterday, what it means to recognise the anniversary of your own priesting. Given that Tom was at mine and I was there yesterday, I like that we will always share that.

I suppose over the day there were moments it was hard to separate the two. I had finished writing a piece for our parish mag on the experience of being at St Paul’s, which I suspect will long if not always mark my ministry, so I went with heart full. I am more sorry than ever that my vicar said ‘It’s not about you’ and my first mass was absolutely ordinary, save Tom preaching and having some say in the hymns. I didn’t argue because, technically, that’s true. But actually, I grieved for it not being about me, just a little bit. I was reminded of that over these last weeks as those to be priested this year have agonised over service sheets and readings and special music. I was reminded when I brought away copies of Robin’s service booklet to send to the others, that I have nothing to keep other than the memories to remind me of that incredible privilege. I was reminded as Andy made mental note of all the things he might like to ask about for his.

I’m in a place of low confidence and low energy right now, so what a joy to spend yesterday in celebration. It was the best way perhaps I will ever spend an anniversary of my priesting, and I was hugely conscious of both the commonalities (two years at Westcott in the Federation gave me that) and the differences (though I imagine your average tiny congregation in chapels up and down the country would be similarly envious). So in no particular order, some of the awesomeness of yesterday:

worshiping in a conference venue (no cross, noted Andy) slightly strange, but comfortable, well-lit, good sound system, good screens, access to facilities. It was, in fact, especially at this BbWorld time of year exceedingly peculiar for me in a bit of a blurred-lives moment – entirely at home in massive conference venues but not usually worshiping in them, or, not in quite the same way!

singing in a mass congregation – singing modern hymns and traditional hymns to a band with a beat, no Jesus is my boyfriend, proving there is a happy medium – mass enough that well known songs can lose the band for a verse and ring out a capella but a capella on speed

liturgical dance. yes, really. i was so captivated by the mass dirty dancing shoulder lift moment I couldn’t take a photo fast enough, but the troupe of young people who accompanied music during the offering was really moving and beautifully choreographed.

the Lord’s Prayer – to an easily sung tune, though not one I’m too familar with, and in harmony. again, pretty much unaccompanied and ringing out around a hall for 1000. stunning.

the photos of each ordinand coming up on screen with their name and location, so everyone could feel they were being introduced.

the incredible moment at the distribution of communion, where each new presbyter, rather than assisting, as the CofE do, gathered in a small semi-circle of their family and we all received together. really, really powerful.

catching up even briefly with some old friends and faces from the Cambridge Federation

the choice of hymns tied us together in an odd way for me – Tom’s service included both Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire, traditional in Anglican ordinations, and I, the Lord of Sea and Sky, which Exeter Cathedral put in Andy’s deaconing service. It was the latter that reduced me finally to tears singing it on the exit from St Paul’s, and I kind of figured it might do the same yesterday. I had to listen to the first verse rather than sing, but it was a fitting end to an awesome day.

I love my tradition and I love my church. But, boy, it is glorious to worship in a big, enthusiastic, joyful crowd. I already know how it’s more attractive to many than turning up to a cold, formal Anglican church. But I had forgotten how great it is to have the opportunity to worship like that. Worth every single second of the travelling. (Frighteningly, I know US friends take that kind of round trip just to attend church each week…)

 

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This morning’s reading in morning prayer was the good samaritan. I was just reminded of it as I read this article. Please go and read it too. I apologise for where it’s located, though if its general readership read it, I’m glad.

Have you read it? Please do, I’ll wait. It’s really important that you do. Here’s the link again.

Do you know why it bothers me? Well, the whole spikes thing bothers me and thousands of others, yes. And the statistics of homeless bothers me, having studied it when training in Salford and seeing with my own eyes people who the statistics say don’t exist.

But mostly, right now, the bit that bothers me is at the end, where he gives the sleeping bag. I hope it made you cry. Can I tell you something? I have *no* idea how many people think that reporter reported an accurate view of life in our civilised/developed/insertyourown society today, but I do know that on Saturday evening I offered someone a second cupcake and he said, no, no, give them to the others first. I’ve had one.

Saturday is almost never a day off for me, and often it has work that gets done in the evening. But not working means the potential to go out with Making Winter Warmer into Newcastle.

(are you sure you read that article? you might need to go back here too, to save me repeating myself – please, you don’t want me to do that, I do it enough as it is).

I came home – as do all the others each week – both heartbroken and uplifted. For whatever the rhetoric the media or politics would like to spread – and yes, many have mental health and alcohol-related problems – so would you if you had to spend more than one night like that reporter did, it’s a bit chicken and egg… most people are ‘perfectly normal’, not to mention lovely.

There were many walking past, out on the toon in a lovely evening, ignoring us. A few curious ones asked what it was for. A couple of cheeky chaps tried to claim some food, then didn’t quite have the grace to successfully look sheepish when realising it was for the homeless. One young lady was really interested in the project. As a student who comes from a rural area, she confessed to being absolutely horrified by the level of homelessness she was seeing on the streets here. She went away having written down the project details and hopefully she will indeed spread the word around her friends and peers.

I found myself critically evaluating what’s really needed now – and apart from a location for storage and sorting, which is pretty critical in itself, but needs thinking about also in terms of where the project goes because that might affect the location or type of space (go read their page, for the irony of the homeless project being made homeless) – and basics still needed for the street friends which are the same basics they started out with  – rucksacks, tents, clean basic clothes, flasks, hygiene items – some of the other things are very simple and practical.

The suspended food scheme hasn’t totally worked out, and now volunteers try to make sandwiches to take away. ‘Sandwiches’ basically means a packed lunch type bag of stuff, including water and bananas >

go on, stop for a second and think about the absolute reality of living on the street, now public toilets are barely available, public baths have closed, and there aren’t exactly a vast number of freely available drinking water founts

> and some treats. When there’s more food than people, that’s great, it means people can take away a carrier of extras to keep them going into the following day. But actually there weren’t enough carriers on Saturday. Who cares if a lovely cupcake gets its icing a bit flattened being wrapped up in a serviette – it still tastes the same. Well yes, but I for one have a drawer full of carriers I get when I’ve used my forever bags and have something leftover, or I’ve needed to drop in for an unexpected shop – this doesn’t bother me overmuch as I use them for bin liners, since I get through so little rubbish. (It does bother me that it doesn’t set a good example to other people not to use forever bags, so mostly I only buy what I can carry!)

But I do get them, and lots of people give me things in carriers, and we have a load at church which people bring things for the foodbank trolley in. So they’re an easy addition to the donations.

Thermal mugs. I had a few when I was at work. I honestly haven’t the foggiest what happened to them. I had a stainless steel with a stainless steel inner, and a stainless steel with a plastic inner. I never figured out which was preferable. I think I probably donated them away a long time ago. I replaced them with a breakable one – not a great idea, but much better for taste – from Blackboard, carefully packaged and sent over for me by my friend Dan.

Anyway, a breakable one probably isn’t that great an idea when it’s difficult to be careful with it, but if you get given a hot drink on the streets, keeping it hot for as long as poss would be super. Flasks obviously also fulfil that purpose, but I’m reckoning that plenty of us have one of those thermal mugs lying around somewhere, which be honest, you never use. If you do, feel free to drop me a note, cos we could rehome them for you.

The chance to choose clothes – with a size and item request you can pull out stuff that will fit, but it might not be what someone would have chosen themselves. I hope I don’t hear you saying ‘they should be grateful’… Dignity is perhaps the biggest loss in life, however that takes form. If we have lots of donations in certain sizes, why shouldn’t someone get the choice – because I can tell you, you might not think twice about being able to browse a rail, whether it’s in Monsoon or in AgeUK, but when you have nothing, making some conscious controlled choice gives back a bit of humanity.

Treats -  Mrs M and another mum and I have discussed baking for these street friends – and more. We’ve talked about baking bread together and doing enough to keep and to give away – to Sanctuary, our local supper project, to the foodbank recipients, to MWW. When the request came in first for bananas, I began looking for recipes that – much as cupcakes are indeed a treat, and thus entirely justified as such – contain grains and fruit and don’t get trashed if they’re in a pocket for a while. Homemade granola/cereal-type bars. Flapjack. Chocolate content being in chips within rather than on the top where it melts sticky (did I point out wipes are on the request list, given that there’s little by way of washing facilities on the street…?)

I had mused on this ‘group’ being Bread of Life, and I feel like it’s getting closer. Catering packs of clingfilm, or – especially if sandwiches are being given out – tupperware sandwich holders? How do you best organise your belongings if everything you have fits in a small rucksack, or two carrier bags, which are getting a bit ripped?

Go on, you know you want to think about that one too.

Gents, those bulging pockets beyond phone, keys and wallet, and a dislike of manbags; ladies – doesn’t everything manage to collect all mangled in the bottom of your handbag – how does that happen? Now try and put your cupcake and your donated travel toothbrush into the mix. It’s not pretty, is it, but it’s all you’ve got.

If you did as I asked and read the back stories, you’d know that I have a dream. I’ve had a dream for a long time. I’m not totally sure going in to ministry is going to get me any nearer or any further away from it. I suspect, if anyone told me to dream away, I might have ended up with something not dissimilar from http://www.lighthousewoking.org/

So now I’m perhaps quietly wishing I had a parish within the town centre with a hall and a kitchen. Cooking burgers on a gas stove with a bbq picnic atmosphere in the sunshine is one thing, but developing the project further to face the next winter is something they are having to face now. There are already agencies which run inhouse homeless support and outreach, including hot food vans. MWW need to work out what their usp is, and how they work alongside not in competition with other agencies to extend and enhance. I know they’d love a hot food van, but I’m pretty certain there’s a whole heap of official stuff that comes with getting a van.

But what they do – what they do best – isn’t just about the food – indeed it didn’t start about the food.  While it would be mega-twee to say man does not live by bread alone, the greatest commandment of all is to love one another. Sure, that very definitely includes food. But more than that, it means loving people, hugging people, listening to people, laughing with people, looking people in the eye. At eye level. Not looking down on people, not passing by on the other side.

Very genuinely, statistics tell us that we really are only a single short crisis away from needing the foodbanks or becoming homeless ourselves. It is there but the grace. The people who gain most from an evening out on the streets with MWW? Close run thing. Honestly. I dunno.

I think it might have been me.

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Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’

I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.

I have spent the last few sermons suggesting, or trying to, that we might want to think of Easter and the time leading up to Pentecost wondering (as did some of the bystanders in our first reading from Acts) what does this mean, what the point is.

Not as in, “the church is declining, what’s the point?” Not as in “nothing we can do can really make a difference, what’s the point?”

Not really even as in “we come here each week, what does it mean to us? Is it just habit? What is ‘being a Christian today’? What’s the point?”

But in a very serious and genuine way, what does Christ’s death and resurrection mean for us? Or let’s go further back. What does Christ’s incarnation, his life, his teaching, his love, his death, his resurrection mean for us? What is the point? Why are we here?

We are here because we believe that all that meant something.

Or we are here because something, we don’t quite know what, but something bigger than ourselves draws us to seek something, somewhere where we can be part of something bigger than ourselves, where we can ask big questions and search for answers while we work out what we do believe (and that’s completely ok, believing often isn’t the first part of church, often belonging is, and faith grows from there).

We are here because the church is the place where the things that Christ taught us to do are still carried on. The place whose projects, mission, ministry and outreach mean that 22 million hours of voluntary service happens outside the church every month. That as governments and councils wilfully or regretfully withdraw funding for things, the church is the place that picks up education, care, activities, support for old and young alike. We are here because we believe in that?

Those volunteer hours aren’t for your CV. They aren’t to make you feel good, although these may be side-effects. They aren’t as payback in gratitude for things you have received (although that might be an impulse to honour).

We are here – and Christians in this country undertake that amount of voluntary service – because of what Jesus taught the disciples during his ministry, and reminded them of at his resurrection. Loving one’s neighbour, caring for those in need, feeding, clothing, sheltering any as though they were Christ himself; believing that we are a people worth more than petty hardships, that we have value in ourselves, made in the image of God, that we are ultimately saved and given eternal life by the sacrifice of the cross…

Jesus came among the disciples on the first day of the week and said peace be with you. As my father sent me, I send you. Not ‘as my father saved me’. We are sent.
At Pentecost we are sent. The disciples had those weeks of Easter, like we’ve had, wondering how on earth they were going to carry on the teaching and healing that they had witnessed, wondering how they would be any kind of light in the world when it was a world in which they locked their doors to meet together.

And they were reassured. Jesus would return to his father and send a ‘comforter’ (advocate, encourager, one to walk alongside). And so here we are. Jesus has ascended to his father and our father, and this morning the Spirit blows among us afresh – if we let it. The Spirit will comfort, enable, encourage, advocate and walk alongside us as we do what Christ told us to do. If we let it. If we set it free and let it set us free.

Christ sends us. Christ sends us out. Pentecost sends us out. The Spirit sends us out. We are equipped at Pentecost to go out and share the Christ we know, or we are getting to know. We are equipped for our language to be understood by others, because we are given the power to speak. In our case, that may not be in Cretan and Arabic and Egyptian and Roman, but in the human everyday language that we use in our ordinary life. In the daily conversations with others we meet at home, at work, on the bus, in the pub, at the Post Office.

In our day, it might seem a very small vision to dream of Pentecost equipping us to admit that we have this slightly off the wall, counter cultural irrational faith in a sky fairy. But from small things, great things can grow…

We believe that there is a God who is infinitely creative and loving, to the point of coming among us to show us how to be the people he created us to be, to the point of living our life and dying our death – more than our death, the death of a rejected, marginalised, tortured, dehumanised refugee (because that never happens anymore, right?);

We believe in a God who wanted us to learn – wants us to learn that there is more to life than the evil we can inflict on one another by greed or selfishness or indifference or hate;

We believe in a God who gave us the rich diversity of nature and the capacity to own it – and the sense, if only we would use it – to steward and nurture it to the benefit of all.

Apologetics is the term for our explaining and understanding of faith (often thought of as defending, or apologising for; better set alongside evangelism, the sharing of faith). The Spirit comes to empower us not to apologise, not to meet in hesitancy and embarrassment, but to meet in joy and in glorious enthusiasm for what we believe; what we are here for; for what the point is.

Pentecost, perhaps more than other times of year, and not least because of the reading from Acts, is the time we are given the opportunity, nay, instructed, to think bigger, think further, think beyond our own little group safe inside those doors, locked or otherwise (physically or metaphorically).

I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.

Pentecost is the time we can shake out our feathers and seek to be consumed by the wind and the fire and lifted to be full of the Spirit and full of the abundant life and energy given to us by the risen and ascended Christ.

Pentecost is the time we shall be brave enough to dream dreams, for God and for the church, and for this church. When we shall see visions, when – if – we allow ourselves to imagine what we could be, what we would long to be, who we would long to be. When we shall prophesy – when we shall stand up and speak truth, when we shall not ignore that women are being stoned to death for being Christian, that it’s not ok to hound out the homeless or the asylum seekers; that a living wage is not just compassionate but imperative, that foodbanks are a rosette on the lapel of many churches but an anathema to society…

What are your dreams and visions? If you let yourself free to dream dreams for God, what do you envision? What/Who do you want to see us being? What do you want to see us doing? Where do you long for, pray for the Spirit to renew our practice, worship, thought, activities, life…?

Would you like to write or draw something of your dream on the card you have. It doesn’t have to make sense. We’ll collect them up and offer them into the Pentecost display in the sanctuary, for us to pray with for the next few weeks.

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I had a surreal experience on Friday. I was waiting to hand over donations of shoes and socks to be given out on homeless outreach last night. While I was waiting, I watched a man considering buying a car.

Personally, when it comes to cars, I just think wheel at each corner, gets me from a to b. This was not that sort of car. It was the sort that costs a lot more than many of the houses in this parish and across the northeast.

Not only did these cars cost more than houses, I mused, but they’d be rubbish cars to sleep in if that was the only shelter you had. I didn’t even like to think quite how many hot meals and drinks the amount of petrol one of those cars guzzles a week would buy…

 

This morning, the disciples are being prepared for Jesus’ leaving them, being prepared for Pentecost. Being prepared – re-commissioned to go out and share the teaching, the healing, the fellowship of Jesus with each other and with others. They are being reassured by the announcement of the arrival of the Spirit of truth to be with them for ever.

Our bible version, the NRSV, calls the Spirit ‘advocate’. Older versions call it (him/her) ‘comforter’. Other languages I read the bible in call the Spirit ‘spokesperson’ or ‘helper’. Or the one who will ‘animate’ us.

These variations show us the beauty of diversity, the richness of God’s world in language and image. They echo back through the ages to the tower of Babel, and they pre-empt the gift at Pentecost of the facility to be understood in many languages.

Let’s consider some of the different translations for the Spirit as it is promised to us in John’s Gospel today. I wonder what our own preferred word for the Spirit and the part it plays in our own lives might be.

Spirit as comforter. Everything we have learnt about God is that he is a loving father, a caring shepherd, a merciful judge. We have just heard that Jesus goes before us to prepare a place for us in his father’s house. We know that death has been destroyed by Easter and the resurrection, even if we don’t really understand how.

We may be comforted by the eternal presence of the Spirit when Do not be afraid is what we need to hear. When life is at its lowest ebb, when hearts are broken, when one is lost and in pain or distress, when the going is tough. We are reminded that the Spirit will be with us forever, the truth the ever-presence of God at our side in our need, before us, behind us, under our feet, at our elbow.

We are comforted, consoled, reassured of this most fundamental truth, that we are loved. And because we are loved, we are free to love in our turn. Indeed we are commanded to do so. If you love me, you will keep my commandments. Under the new covenant, to love one another as I have loved you.

Those of us who know the presence of the comforter, do we fulfil the great commandment by offering comfort to others? A gentle touch to a lonely widow, a kindly word to a sad soul, a prayer for healing for those in turmoil? Food to those who are hungry, clothes to those who are naked, shelter where we can, to those who have none?

Where Jesus walked ahead of his disciples, now he is to be no longer there. We are his eyes and ears, his hands, his feet, his voice. The Spirit lifts us up to be able to be the followers Christ called us to be, to be able to be redeemed sinners who share that grace with others, to heal, to teach, to minister ouselves. The Spirit comforts us, and we are strengthened to live into the life we are offered.

Some bible translations use ‘helper’. We can receive help, and we can help. When we say ‘our help is in the Name of the Lord’ we might hear it as comfort (the help that we receive), but we might also hear helper as something more active – the gift of the Spirit enabling us to fulfil Jesus’ commandments, to bring glory to our father and to bring about the kingdom on earth.

What about advocate – the term used by our Gospel version – is most commonly known as someone who takes one’s side, who speaks for someone who cannot or is not able to stand for themselves.

It is a term from the legal world – the courtroom lawyer on our behalf, but has a wider representative function. Spokesperson broadens the image still further. Either can be heard as a defensive or an offensive position. They might be a figure to better express what you cannot or to intervene in situations you are not equipped for; they might be a prophetic voice to call out injustice and inequality.

There are many instances of and opportunities for advocacy in today’s world. Again, if the Spirit of truth walks alongside us, who are we freed to speak for intercede for, walk alongside in our turn?

When the Bible calls us to honour the orphan and the alien and the widow, it calls on us still to seek out those who are on the edges of our society, those who have no voice, those who would have been the first sought out by Christ.

Spirit as animateur. As in life-giver or puppeteer? Both and, perhaps?

Paracletos, the one who Jesus will petition the Father to send us, is the one called to our side. The Spirit will be one who consoles or comforts, one who intercedes on our behalf, will be one who encourages or uplifts, hence refreshes. This encompasses the two way sense of being loved and loving God, and of loving others.

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. We are not solely consoled and uplifted, encouraged and refreshed, to bask in the love of God. We are refreshed to do his will, encouraged to do his work, uplifted to be the comforter and advocate of others, those who Jesus loved, and called us to love. We are given life, life in abundance, and we are called to live it.

Over 80 people sleep rough on the streets of Newcastle-Gateshead. They have no car to shelter in. They have only the clothes they stand up in. Those clothes, certainly this weekend, are mostly soaked through and there is nowhere to dry off or change into clean dry clothes. Who is their comfort?

Over 1000 people have received food parcels since the Gateshead Foodbank was set up last year. Regardless of what media and politics might like you to believe, those people are desperate to give in to asking for help. Where is their advocate?

The Holy Spirit we wait for comes not only to encourage us, but to encourage us. Not only to speak for us, but to us and through us. Not only to heal us, but to send us out to heal. To breathe life through us that sets us on our feet and opens our eyes to the lives around us that we can touch with the love of God.

The Holy Spirit comes to form us and empower us as church, not just to come to church but to be church. What does that mean for us? How will the Spirit of truth animate our lives? As we wait for the one called to our side, let us pray.

Father, our reading from Acts told us that

30While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent,

Send your Spirit into our lives, that we may give thanks for our comforts and let go of those things we do not need. Refresh and encourage us to keep your commandments, to love one another as you have loved us. Raise us up to speak for others, to find time to care for those in need. Walk alongside us and give us life, guiding us that we might live it rightly to your glory.

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