Saturday, 29 September 2012

musing on Mark 9:38-50: wagon circling and circle widening

The gospel reading for tomorrow is Mark 9:38-50

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 
But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; 
for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. 
For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, 
it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 
If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; 
it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 
And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. 
And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 
where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

For me, this week, the opening part of the gospel passage has really been knocking, especially:
'we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.'

In yet another of those instances when you have read a passage over the years a number of times, a new chink of light appears.  I find myself asking the question: 'hang on, what on earth is going on here?'

The disciples come upon a person who is doing something good in Jesus' name... and their instant reaction is to be very cross indeed. 
Who is this person?  Not one of us.
And because this person is not following them, not in their little group, they try to stop him from doing what he'd been doing... which was doing good in Jesus' name.
They stop him rather than encourage him;
they stop him rather than finding him an encouragement - being delighted that others outwith their group are actually getting it:
Jesus' message to love God and to love neighbour, in word and deed.
Again, what on earth is going on here?

Having been raised on a diet of Westerns when growing up, the image coming to mind is that iconic picture of covered wagons drawing themselves in a circle when under attack: drawing the circle small and defending the group.
But the gospel passage is not about being attacked.
It is about someone outside the group seeing, or having heard about, what Jesus has done, and going out and trying to do likewise.
A person outwith the group who appears to be thinking that what Jesus has been doing is a Jolly Good Thing.
Perhaps an alternate take on the disciples' attitude could be that they were concerned the person casting out demons - or dealing with mental health issues, or whatever this situation was about - is trying to set himself up as a messiah figure.
But this comes unstuck: the person would be invoking his own name. 
Here again, whoever this person was who happened to be going about doing good, the disciples state that it was done in Jesus' name. 
And so, perhaps at the heart of the problem, is identity and belonging... and a little matter of the pride of exclusivity:
are the group that follow Jesus. 

The gospel passages over the last couple of weeks have featured:
disputes and jostling for best place in the Jesus gang,
reminders about leadership not being about greatness but about humility and service,
calls to the disciples about looking after the ones who are on the edges, whose voices go unheard, who are invisible.
And here, in this passage, the disciples have gone out to do deeds in Jesus' name and have found someone else doing the same. 
Is there a fear about loss of privilege?
If any old random can do deeds in Jesus' name, will the disciples lose their place in the queue?

In stopping the unknown man from doing deeds in Jesus' name, the disciples exhibit behaviour that we, in the church, have also had a tendency towards historically. From the time of the disciples and continuing down through the ages we have effectively circled our wagons, we've fenced the table and actively put stumbling blocks in front of those who may have been inclined to do good.  On occasion, like the disciples, we have been quite caught up in the 'they don't belong', 'they're not in our group', so much so that we have been utterly blind to everything else, including the good that has been done by those who are not in our gang.
Perhaps especially the good: are we tacitly asserting that folk who are not like us are not really capable of being and doing good?
So some questions I am musing on:
How do we - how do I - stop folk from following?
What stumbling blocks do we/ I put in the way of others?
I find it interesting, and hadn't quite picked up on it before [slow to learn, that's me] that the disciples are not even focused upon the fact that whoever this person happens to be, they are doing good things: in and of itself, that is a thing to be praised.  So, how do we, how do I, actively be an encourager not a discourager?  How do we, how do I, see the good and praise that, rather than being worried about losing a place in the queue?
And further, to be awed and inspired rather than sniffy...
Instead of stopping, or discouraging folk, what ways can we find to encourage folk to be all that they can be and more? 

What are our/my motivations for following Jesus and doing deeds in his name?  It is better to reflect on that perhaps, than use the distraction technique of pointing to others... a little self-examination perhaps brings the perspective of humility.
And does the pointing of fingers and getting huffy about who is doing what get in the way of our own active service to our neighbour?  Does spending time arguing about our own place in the queue stop us from giving someone that real or metaphorical glass of water?

How do we break that very human trait of wanting to draw the wagons around in a circle and not let folk in?
And, following, how do we learn to draw the circle in a way that expresses the wide love of God?  And includes, like the cartoon at the top of the post expresses so beautifully, everybody?

Meanwhile, on a practical 'giving a cup of water' front, might I recommend the work of Wateraid...!

Sunday, 23 September 2012

oh Lord, it's hard to be humble...

I have been pondering the texts for today.  The OT text highlights the impossible ideal of the capable wife.  An 'interesting' one to think on for preaching - where to go with that, I wonder!?   
However, what has caught my attention is the combination of the gospel passage and epistle.  Jesus and the disciples are on their way to Capernaum.  As they walk he tells them of his coming suffering and death.  Later, in Capernaum, Jesus quizzes the disciples on the content of their subsequent conversation.  You can almost hear the awkward shuffling of feet in the embarrassed silence that ensues - one of those classic 'tumbleweed' moments.  Given what follows, somebody must have finally 'fessed up: we, as readers discover the topic was a discussion on who was the greatest, of jockeying for position, of pecking order and power.
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
A child is brought into their midst and a lesson is given:
notice the overlooked, the least, the powerless - and welcome them....

And then the epistle... 'the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy'... and 'Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you'.
'yield', 'submit', avoid partiality - the privileging of the prominent/ the powerful over the unimportant/ the powerless...

At various stages through the week, the word 'humility' has been quietly rolling about my inner landscape, particularly in connection with ministry.  I have mused upon ego and arrogance, power and privilege, have thought about service and self-importance.
What is it to be humble?
And what is it to be humble when you can't keep your head below the parapet due to being in a position of leadership?
As I've thought about this during the week, I decided to do a wee bit of 'googling' - combining words like 'christian service' 'humility' and such-like... I kept hitting sites talking about 'servant leadership'.  It is a phrase that has often bemused me.  Whilst it is a very sincere and deliberately intended oxymoron, meant to make one stop and go 'ah', the phrase works on another, perhaps unintended level.  In my own mind, that there needs to be the word 'leadership' at all in there makes me smile.
Truly, it is hard to let go of the ego, even when trying to talk about a life lived in loving service. 
Indeed, oh Lord, it's hard to be humble...

Saturday, 8 September 2012

ministry skillz, innit?

On a discussion board somewhere in cyberspace a question was asked concerning five particular, possibly useless, skills you bring to ministry.  My offering below:

1/ liturgical/ theological potential I can discuss in detail, and with delight, the development of 6-8th c monastic laws concerning the 'ejecting' of the host post communion; I will one day write the definitive paper on this entitled 'Jesus is everywhere', or, 'I can't believe it's not Jesus'

2/ liturgical/ theological potential If you want to know anything about liturgies for corporate Protestant fasting - y'know, on those occasions when storms hit, plague strikes, or you have an outbreak of pesky witches - then I can rustle up something appropriate.

3/ working within a large institution/ team work potential I am a dab hand at cussing in mid-Scots [c.16thc]

4/ spreading cheerfulness through community singing factor My secret substandard-power: the ability to turn life into a musical at any point in a conversation. My life does indeed go on in endless song...

5/ pastoral care potential I have a deep understanding of the power of the pastoral elbow, and can, when pastorally elbowing simultaneously tilt my head to the side.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

the shark that bit: a dubious metaphor for change

So, there you are, minding your own business, going about your everyday life.  Seeing something that catches your interest, you wander on over to have a closer look.  Suddenly your world is turned upside down and you find yourself being dragged unwillingly to somewhere unknown: everything you've known has changed.  Life in the way you've understood it has been utterly transformed.  Finding yourself in a strange, hostile environment, being pulled and poked at and prodded, wondering where you are and how you ended up here, you're quite naturally disconcerted, very probably frightened, and really rather a tad upset about your situation.
Naturally, you lash out.

No, this is not a reaction to a change of hymn book, or the ripping out of pews, or of congregations being blended to form a united charge.... Although it could be.  It's the story of one poor shark - who I have decided to name 'Bruce' - up in the Hebrides doing what sharks do: swimming about, sizing up the occasional seal for lunch, just getting on with his life aquatic.  Out of nowhere, a fisherman decides he's going to catch and tag this shark.  Which is all very well, but I am left somewhat bemused by the fact that the fisherman is taken by surprise at the shark's reaction.

Pondering this, I wonder about the story as a metaphor for change in the church....
In light of the way in which society has so rapidly changed over the last several decades, and given the way in which the institutional church has progressively moved from a more prominent place to the margins, the training of those called to be ministers has had to change.  We are exposed to new ways of being and doing church as well as considering the traditional patterns of ministry.  Filled with lots of new ideas, combined with the hope of somehow making a difference, [although, sometimes the way we make a difference is not in the way we actually anticipate - scary thought] we finish our training and then head off to unsuspecting parishes.

Some of these parishes are very up to the minute, au fait with this or that latest thing, looking outwards, are aware and of a mind that things might need to change.  But mostly, I suspect, parishes are just getting on with their way of doing things in the way they always have done, in the way most groups of humans, whoever and wherever they are, have done: people living their lives and used to a routine.  We shiny bright new ministers then come in and, a little like the fisherman in the above story, bring with us the capacity to upturn everything.

Moral of the story for me?
It is a useful and salutary thought to remind oneself that ministers are not indispensable and that ministers come and ministers go; the stability or sense of permanence is the congregation who have had a history prior to your arrival and will have a future that will not have you in it at some point.
Concerning change: sometimes a fresh pair of eyes can see that changes are needed, but sometimes we can get caught up with change that underneath may be just for change-sake - or because we ourselves are just slightly bored.  How then do we step back and discern that which is appropriate and inappropriate when it comes to change?  And how do we prepare and not be too surprised by the inevitable reactions that come with change?
I am writing a rather big note to self on parish life and change:
learn the story/stories of the community that you care for;
go gently;
be patient;
don't be dismissive of groups of people;
be mindful of fear and loss - and that this is both writ in the large and in the small;
find the equivalent of steel-capped boots and don't be too surprised when you occasionally get bitten... :)