Monday, 28 November 2011

tearing open the heavens... Advent One

          Isaiah 64: 1-9 ...
 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— 
as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— 
to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! 
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. 
From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, 
no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. 
You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. 
But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.
We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. 
We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. 
There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; 
for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. 
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; 
we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. 
Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. 
Now consider, we are all your people. 

The Old Testament reading for Advent 1b is a deep, passionate cry from the heart: calling on God to come, to make known his presence, to rip the heavens apart by way of announcing he is here with us.
I love the drama of it.

And yet, in the midst of heavens being rent asunder, of mountains quaking, of fire kindling into a blaze, are the words:
'when you did awesome deeds that we did not expect...'
Telling words, these.
In the cry for God to come and do awesome deeds, there is a subtle indication that even while the cry is made, we are still taken by surprise when God answers.
Is there a recognition implicit in these words that while we might cry out for mighty deeds, we are a little worried that they may actually happen?
Alternatively, that we are not in the least of the mind-set that they actually will...and that our invocations are made quite blithely?
I'm reminded of the Narnia books and the talk of Aslan who is 'not a tame lion, you know.'
In our worship, in word and sign and symbol, is there a strange parallel occuring?
On the one hand, saying words and performing actions that indicate that we are followers of one who indeed can rend the heavens....
On the other, oddly domesticating our rituals, organising worship in such a way that it resembles a rather dull business meeting, and in the process attempting to de-claw the wild, unpredictable, awesome God who we call upon... and who will rather upset the apple-cart by doing all that decidedly messy awesome-type stuff.
Friend Fran tells a fab. story of the making of the movie 'The Greatest Story Ever Told' -
John Wayne, at the scene of the crucifixion delivers his line: 'Truly this man was the son of God.' 
The director stops and asks Wayne if he could perhaps say it with a little more awe.  Wayne nods, the cameras roll, and he utters the memorable line:
'Aww, truly this man was the son of God.'
In our worship to God, in our expectations of God, are we more 'awww' than awe, I wonder? 
And how might we recapture the latter this Advent, through this coming church year, and throughout the rest of our lives?

Friday, 18 November 2011


Chapel, World Council of Churches, Switzerland
In 2010, a small group of New College ministry students and a couple of our Prof's went on an educational trip to Geneva.  We were there for just under a week, it was fab., and I blogged a wee bit about it here. 

One of the days saw us spend time at the World Council of Churches [WCC] and then head off after lunch to the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey, where studies in ecumenism can be undertaken for short concentrated periods, or up to Masters level.  At both places we were met with hospitality, shown around, the work discussed.  A good day for getting some thoughts going.  However, what has stuck with me was a comment made by a fellow student on the bus heading back to Geneva:
'What's the point of ecumenism, it's not like they're going to become Christians, is it?'
I remember my eyes slightly popping out of my head and inwardly sighing at the same time....
Nevertheless, his comment has stuck with me and this week seems to have popped up back into my thoughts once again.

I got to thinking about how there seems to be a very huge disconnect:
on one hand there are the professional international ecumenical structures and people within them who produce reports, host conferences, create resources, and of course do a heck of a lot more besides. 
Ecumenism at the corporate level. 
On the other, there's ecumenism that bubbles up at the local level: a group of churches of different backgrounds and traditions working together on specific projects, or occasionally sharing worship, joint study groups, etc.
My sense is that the disconnect is a communicational one. 
Does ecumenism shoot itself in the foot by the way information is shared - or not shared, or the manner in which it is shared? 
Does ecumenism at the 'top' get caught up in the big structures that it forgets to provide information to folk at the local end? 
If it does provide information is it written in the language of 'the corporation', creating reports that obscure information? 
Who does it pass the information on to? 
Are initiatives, and the ongoing work of ecumenism shared with a very select group within ecumenical corporate/ academic/ theological groups? 
Is this lack of effective communicating creating a growing suspicion of ecumenical work at the very top echelons - money spent on junkets and talk-fests, etc.? 
Or is the lack of information such that folk don't really think about ecumenism enough to be either suspicious, lukewarm, or excited about it? 
Coupled with all of that, even the very word 'ecumenism' is interpreted by different traditions in very different ways.

How do we learn to make use the work done at the higher echelons of ecumenism? 
Does it even fit at the local level? 
How do we ensure high calibre theological discussion is maintained, and also that it is shared in such a way as to make it a useful and enriching resource for folk in the pews?
How do we demonstrate that ecumenism / working together can be a powerfully enriching thing, a useful way in which to marshal limited resources as we work together - rather than reinventing the wheel in our own small corner?
How do we market ecumenism and make it sexy? 

Still thinking.
I suspect it's not one of those instant quick-fix solution type matters...!

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

peas, perfect peas...

I haven't written for a while, she said, stating the blindingly obvious.
Immersed in sin and penance, me.  Well, pre-Reformation sin and penance in Scotland, at any rate.  I had thought that this particular thesis section, c. 16-18 000 words, was going to be a little more straightforward: the research was fab. but the writing has been like getting blood out of a stone, however, it is getting there and the time away at St Deniol's did help.  The more I write, the more details I find I have to put in, whether in the body of the text or in footnotes and I was quite impressed by the recent heavily bibliographical footnote of 487 words.  Friend Fran commented that it had finally become a 'real' thesis!   In the meantime, I keep forgetting that while I know about various bits and pieces, it still needs to be shown in some way on paper that I do, for examination purposes...and find myself trogging back over paragraphs hoping that I've made some reference or other to background, or given an appropriate definition of a term.  If I ever get this whole thing done and actually pass the PhD, I am hoping that organising a possible book will be a much more straightforward process.
Well, I can kid myself on.

Thinking along things that are also not quite straightforward... 
this Sunday just gone was Remembrance Sunday, a day with lots of whirling thoughts, emotions, and symbols.  A trainee pal of mine was slotted to preach and so I had gone along to quietly cheer her on.  I was particularly aware of when I went off into 'sermon loop' space, that is, the time during the sermon where a word of phrase sends you on a little train of thought to somewhere else before looping around and plugging you back into the sermon.  Given the type of Sunday, the trigger was the word 'peace' and I heard the sermon loop train coming to take me away. 
I was reminded of a story about a friend's sister who had been having a rather trying day.  Sitting in the living room with children wanting this, or husband wanting that, she cried out plaintively 'I just want some peace!'  A hush duly descended, followed by youngest wee boy c. 3 or 4 leaving the room and then reappearing and, in an effort to comfort his mummy, quietly handing her a bag of frozen peas.

It was a brief thought, followed by an even briefer one as I mused on how often we misunderstand what peace is....

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Gladstones, Gladstones everywhere, but not a choc to eat

And back to thinking of my stay at St Deniol's / Gladstone's Library.

yes, rather wonderful.

Fab. accommodation, fab and friendly staff, fab food - tho' alas, no small chocolate bars to buy and surreptitiously snack on in the dark reaches of the night, as opposed to the dark reaches of the library, because, as you know: 

eating in libraries is wrong, dear ones. 
*looks over glasses in a severe manner*

Happily got into a routine of falling out of the most comfy bed in Christendom and being fed breakfast
before walking to the library down the corridor festooned with icons and statues of the great man, Gladstone.
Then having worked, not pfaffed [miracle!!], sashaying back along the row upon rows of non-smiling Gladstones for a little smackeral of lunch, a post-prandial walk 'round the grounds, and then back to the desk and work.
Eventually, the delights of good food in the evening, not cooked by me - and no washing up, yay - and then retiring to the drawing room and the fire-place for one's coffee.

Really, a super place and I'm looking forward to spending two weeks there in February to get cracking on more writing: I actually got some work done.
Having seen the place in the autumn, it will be quite lovely to see it in the first flush of spring.

Just a shame that on the way down I stupidly forgot my greatcoat in the overhead rack as I changed trains at Crewe.
leather gloves
full set of house keys
flash drive with back up files and scanned maps for thesis...

Having tried lost property and other avenues - with the very helpful Virgin folk [not ironic, they were lovely] - I am still without these.
Somewhere out there, in the wilds of the UK I have a vision of a black overcoat being ferried back and forth between train stations, wandering far from home....

Thankfully, I didn't have my phone or wallet in the coat, so it could have been quite a lot worse.
Again, I reflect on the truth:
of all the things I've lost in life,
it's my mind I miss the most....

Mind, I do think the library would make a killing marketing a line in chocolate Gladstones... jus' sayin'