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Mindful Ministry: Creative, Theological and Practical Perspectives – Ross and Judith Thompson

October 4, 2016

mmI must have heard scores of sermons from staff of the Additional Curates Society which exalt the status of priests to the diminishment of the laity.

This book does not do that whilst still asserting that there is a set-apartness of ordained ministers.

They don’t follow traditional notions of Christian Stewardship because they think jumble sales and other fund raising events are good for fellowship.

They freely admit their own mistakes.

They quote that dreadful book by Alan Billings.

There are self-examination and prayer exercises.

Quotations:

 

A man found an eagle’s egg and put it in the nest of a backyard hen. The eaglet hatched with the brood of chicks and grew up with them.

All his life the eagle did what the backyard chickens did, thinking he was a backyard chicken. He scratched the earth for worms and insects. He clucked and cackled. And he would thrash his wings and fly a few feet into the air like the chickens. After all, that is how a chicken is supposed to fly, isn’t it?

Years passed and the eagle grew very old. One day he saw a mag­nificent bird far above him in the cloudless sky. It floated in graceful majesty among the powerful wind currents, with scarcely a beat of its strong golden wings.

The old eagle looked up in awe. ‘Who’s that?’ he said to his neighbour.

`That’s the eagle, the king of the birds,’ said his neighbour. ‘But don’t give it another thought. You and I are different from him.’

So the eagle never gave it another thought. He died thinking he was a backyard chicken.

 

the word `talent’ used in the sense of gift or ability derives from this parable. This interpretation is not wrong, but the context — a series of parables immediately preceding the Passion narrative, all of them concerned with how we respond to Christ and the nature of the last judgement — ought to encourage us to look for more eschatological meanings. And the use of the familiar word paradidomi in the very first verse, whe re the man `hands over’ his property to his slaves, ought to suggest a reading of this parable in terms of how we handle the paradosis, the tradition that Christ has handed over to us.

If we follow that reading through, the parable, in this context, makes a radical suggestion: that it will not be enough, on the last day, or in the ultimate perspective, for us to hand back to Christ the traditions he gave us intact and meticulously preserved exactly as they were given. That would be as if we had buried them in the ground. No, he expects us to have put the traditions to work and made them grow, so that on his return we will be able to hand back to him much more than he gave us. The gospel he gave us is not a ‘deposit’ we must simply maintain in

its pristine state but (in this parable) a deposit in the bank, where we expect it to grow, or (as another parable puts it) a seed in the ground, that is to grow and bear fruit a hundredfold.

What is the ‘bank’ whereby the gospel grows in this sense? Surely the process of putting it to use in practice, and submitting the result to the process of theological reflection, where the gospel interacts with experience and through reflection and the power of the Spirit who leads us into all truth, we are taken forward into new understanding and action,

and perhaps new insight into Jesus’ teaching. So faithfulness here is

about faithful reflection, sitting under the judgement of Christ regard­ing what we do with his teaching. Losing his teaching or exchanging it for something different and perhaps trendier will of course be un­faithful, but the parable warns us, perhaps, that simply to cling on to the teaching and preserve its pristine integrity, without allowing it to be honed and further developed through use and reflective practice, is equally unfaithful.

 

So likewise, to represent Christ is not to be an identical replica, but to represent Christ insofar as he can be expressed through the medium of the minister’s own humanity. The priest needs to be mindful of when she is representing Christ; and when she is doing so, she needs to be mindful of what her words and actions will be telling of Christ. This is not a counsel of perfection. The priest is an ordinary and often sinful human being, but through that medium, as through the whisky priest and through the likes of Adam Smallbone, the likeness of Christ can shine. The priest can provide, frail as she is, an epiphany in which the human face of God in Christ is glimpsed.

An image that might sum up all these meanings is the flawed icon. Icons — unlike, for example, Renaissance and pre-Raphaelite art ­make no attempt to make their object beautiful. There are no blond young men among the icons of Christ, and no sweet virgins among icons of the Mother of God. The icons’ beauty lies in what they rep­resent, not in what they are in themselves, which is wood and egg-based paint, often cracked and peeling or in some other way defective. The icon may be flawed, yet still it does its work of representing and embodying the holy ones

 

artists like Rembrandt and Van Gogh, who depicted ordinary people (and even in Van Gogh’s case their old decaying boots) without any attempt to beautify them, or to hide their warts, but held in a kind of stillness that makes them holy and beautiful. Good worship is like those paintings: down to earth and welcoming to sinners like ourselves, but presenting us in an order and stillness

 

In an oft-quoted passage, Monica Furlong has described the kind of priest she looks for.

Clergy are in for a growing loneliness, of being misunderstood. I sug­gest that this will only be endurable if they expect this, understand the reasons for it, and do not cast too many envious glances over their shoulders at the circumstances of their predecessors.

I am clear about what I want from the clergy. I want them to be people who can, by their own happiness and contentment challenge my ideas about status, success and money and so teach me how to live more independently of such drugs.

I want them to be people who can dare, as I do not dare, and as few of my contemporaries dare’ to refuse to work flat out and to refuse to work more strenuously than me.

I want them to be people who dare because they are secure enough in the value of what they are doing to have time to read, to sit and think, and who face the emptiness and possible depression which often attacks people when they do not keep the surface of their mind occupied.

I want them to be people who have faced this kind of loneliness and discovered how fruitful it is, and I want them to be people who

have faced the problem of prayer.

I want them to be people who can sit still without feeling guilty and from whom I can learn some kind of tranquillity in a society which has almost lost the art. [Paper at Wakefield Diocesan Conference, 1966]

 

In John 3.14 Jesus likens himself to the bronze serpent lifted up in the wilderness, which enabled the Israelites to be healed of the bites of the real snakes. That sounds like a model of counselling, which enables us to see uplifted into consciousness the things that have wounded us, so that we cease to be harmed by them. In Jesus we see the things we most fear and repress — brutality, suf­fering and death, and our own part in them — lifted up, presented to full view on the cross, so that we begin to be set free from their com­pulsive hold on us, being ‘born anew’ (John 3.3) to new possibilities of choice and life.

 

In his declaration of the name of the spirit that possesses him — ‘Legion, for we are many’ — the man may be referring to the many names and stories people have used to imprison him and exclude him in shame. Perhaps what is in the Gospels often described as ‘possession by an evil spirit’ can be understood as the im­position on us of alien names and demeaning stories — something in the experience of many of us, for sure. The name ‘legion’ suggests an anal­ogy with the Roman forces who had taken political possession of the land, imposing their own alien story on the people. All of this Jesus is able to liberate the man from, allowing him to become clothed and free from shame, reposing in his right mind. But the villagers will not have it. The man’s new-found peace disturbs them, so that they urge Jesus to leave. They do not like to see this man, whom they have placed in a pigeonhole labelled ‘mad’, walking about quite normally among them.
Something similar happens when someone labelled ‘convict’ or ‘mur­derer’, having undergone real change of heart and mind, is released from prison to live among people in the community, and perhaps, as in our focusing example for this chapter, even to go to church . . .

 

The difference is that doctor or therapist would be unprofessional if he started talking to client about his own problems. He has to present himself as an un­known space circumscribed by his own expertise, if the client is to trust and feel he is being properly attended to. But, though some would advocate the same professionalism of the clergy, it does not seem, as a general rule, appropriate to the pastor. The Good Shepherd, after all, preserved no such aloofness. Several times he is described as express­ing, or otherwise evidencing, how vexed and deeply troubled he is by people’s lack of response, or by his own coming death. In this sense the good pastor is, as Pritchard puts it (2007, Chapter 8), the ‘wounded companion, sharing the journey’ of his people.

 

Fr Elias Chacour, a Palestinian Christian priest with a long record of extraordinary achievement in the struggle for transformation, education, hope and peace with justice, in his local community, has an interpretation of the earlier part of the Sermon quite different from that normally understood by the ‘Blessed are . . .’ sayings of Jesus. As an Aramaic speaker himself, he traces the word used by Jesus, normally translated as ‘Blessed’, back to an Aramaic word, `ashray’, meaning `get up, go ahead, do something’ ( zoo’, pp. 143-4). Perhaps even in this part of the Sermon on the Mount, therefore, Jesus was enjoining radical action together with acceptance, rather than passivity?

 

Michael Ramsey comments, ‘As for the term “mortal” sin, who knows whether the pride or complacency of the devout may not be as deadly as the scandalous acts of the profligate’

 

In most of these cases God does not command imperiously: his call is often awesome, accompanied by vision, but also courteous and reason­able, considering and dealing with the hesitation of the person called. The call runs with, not against, the grain of the person’s experience so far: the disciples have the gift of fishing already, now Jesus calls them to put their fishing skills to a new task: ‘Follow me, and I will make you

fish for people’ (Matthew 4.19; Mark 1.17).

 

Enabling others to flourish in ministry may at times require a delib­erate stepping aside from using all your own strengths and skills, so that others may fill the vacuum. Walker notes how Jesus declared, in the context of his own coming sacrifice, that ‘it is expedient for you [disciples] that I go away’ (John 16.17) — for only if Jesus goes can the Spirit (and all his gifts) arrive.

 

Quite often tasks which seem to be about something else — fairs and other social events, and maybe even jumble sales — whose ostensible aim is to raise funds are valuable also and perhaps mainly for the con­viviality they establish in the community, and the way they enable new gifts to shine in the people who work to accomplish them. Similarly, part of the value of community fairs and craft fairs is not the funds that organizations raise so much as the chance to be creators rather than just consumers of good things; to create things themselves and enjoy what others have created. There is something here that goes to the heart of the gospel, and ministers can welcome such events and affirm the opportunities for conviviality they provide, rather than seeing them as distractions from the main business of the Church.

 

while what the world values — riches, fulfilment, happiness, reputation — are the subject of Jesus ouai, watch out!

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