Tuesday, 16 May 2017

What's the difference between...

... Discipleship and Vocation?

16th MAY 2017

Jesus called his disciples to 'follow' him. In those seven words lie the foundations of both vocation and discipleship, it seems to me. It was the kind of invitation that seemed impossible to turn down. Whatever their background they followed him, even to the foot of the cross. 

Whether impetuous fisherman or scheming tax collector, sister of a dead man raised to life or heart-broken mother, they all followed him and became his disciples (Even his mother? Yes, I think so, even his mother).
Where, then, did vocation fit for Peter or Matthew or Mary or Mary?

Well, perhaps becoming a follower of Jesus is something both individual and collective. It is a decision that inevitably leads to forming a community. A follower becomes part of something bigger. A follower, a disciple, is also someone committed to a way of living that then grows into something bigger. And that 'bigger, is vocation. 

The root of the word vocation is vocare, which means 'call' in Latin. In this sense, Jesus called his disciples into something bigger than themselves. And then out of that joining in came specific roles and responsibilities. In the pattern of the early church, we learn that individuals were set aside for particular tasks and purposes. Paul writes lists to do with these roles. Perhaps one of the most well known is the sense of specific vocations listed in the letter to the Ephesians in 4.11-13.

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of faith and the knowledge of the Son of God to maturity, to the measure of the stature of Christ.

Christian vocation then is about the individual calling of people, young and old, to enter into the bigger picture of the body of Christ to build up every one to become fulfilled disciples, followers, of Jesus. Is this the beginning of an answer to my question? What do you think?

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

God's patience...

...Joy's gift

9th MAY 2017

This evening I spent in the company of some inspiring young men and women who are exploring vocation to the priesthood.

Eight faithful followers - pilgrims - of Jesus, from a range of backgrounds and traditions with the Anglican church in Birmingham, had gathered for the second of four sessions specifically laid on to create a forum of shared exploration.

It was an utter privilege to hear their stories and the stories of fellow ministers who commit themselves to the 'cure of souls' in parishes across our diverse and extraordinary diocese.

It never ceases to amaze me what God is doing in the lives of so many and how patient God must be with us.

A common theme which emerged was the sense of resistance many had to the nudge and tug (being pushed and dragged) that would not go away. And how patiently our pilgrim Lord persists with us.

I was a boy of ten or eleven when (looking back) I first had an inkling of a call to being a priest. But I only now know this as I look back over my life. I would not have articulated it quite that way at that age. But the hint came from an unusual choice of reading matter. My family were travelling on an overnight train journey - always a great adventure in itself - from Karachi to Quetta in Pakistan. We were heading to the cool of the hills to escaped the oppressive heat of June in the port city. I was reading the bible (not something I did a lot of then), and, more specifically, was reading the Letter to the Hebrews. My father asked me what I was reading, and I told him. I remember him just looking at me a little oddly. Dad was an Anglican priest and missionary with CMS. He just stored it up in his heart.

Years later, aged 36, I had begun responding to test out whether ordination was right. I finally owned up to my father (I had always resisted because, out of pride, I did not want to follow in his footsteps) and he emailed me back, somewhat cryptically, the simple words - Kumbya, my Lord (Someone's calling). 

My father died before I was accepted for training. Yet I know, he prayed for me throughout his life and somewhere in his prayers was the carefully watching over an emerging vocation to the priesthood. I wear his robes - the same ones he was ordained wearing in 1958. 

On the first day of theological adventure at Queen's Foundation, we were asked to write down a word or phrase that summed up our expectations of training. God gave me one word. Joy. 

Through all the pain and challenges, the highs and lows, the utter lost-for-words sadness and the profound questions that are unanswerable (and will only resolved in Christ) - throughout it all, joy has remained. God's patience and joy's gift are marks of vocation's long road.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

A lesson in the bluebell wood

Doing it leads to fulfillment

7th MAY 2017

This afternoon we visited a stunning bluebell wood in the Lickey Hills. 
The scent of the hillside was intoxicating in the warmth of the afternoon. It was a sight to behold as well. The fresh green of the beech wood, the carpet of distinctive mauve-blue and the cloudless sky were a breathtakingly beautiful combination. 

We had heard about the place through friends. A little oasis hidden in 
the hills. It seemed too good to be true. And yet it turned out to be just as they had said. Their description was fulfilled in reality.

Fulfillment is an interesting word when it comes to this topic of vocation. 
It seems that as we talk together about what it is we feel we are 'called by God to do and be' we are discovering some shared experiences.

Vocation is a process of fulfillment, is what I want to say today.

For some people, it is by doing what brings fulfillment that they discover their vocation. They did not way for someone and/or God to give them the green light. They just got on and did what they enjoyed/were good at/found fulfillment in. And then, as they looked back on their experiences they were able to sense who God had called that vocation into being.

At the same time, fulfillment itself can be illusive. It is a byproduct of an action of service. But it is not the main thing. It is a kind of gift, sometimes a very unexpected gift.

Just like our hour among the bluebells. Unexpected. It needed to be experienced to be appreciated. Doing it brought its own fulfillment.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Godly bumbling

Just get on with it

4th MAY 2017

Thinking about vocation, a contrasting view:
Surely, we are just called to get on with our lives in obedience to God's ways, which are pretty clear. Its not about great bolts from the blue - Jesus has made it clear what it means to be a disciple. We are just to set our compass daily, as best we can, in the direction we believe Jesus leads us. Its not about calling, its about obedience.

And, indeed, the very word 'called' is a little suspect, really. Because, we are all a little suspicious of people who reckon they are 'God's gift' or have been given special direction or instructions directly from God. We worry about people who hear God 'speak'. And we also reckon that the kind of people God seeks out for particular roles, are generally people who are reluctant recruits rather than wanting to get 
to the front of the queue (The first shall be last, and the last shall be first, after all is a big theme of Jesus). 

I spent part of today in an engaging conversation with three wise Christian friends. In a wide-ranging conversation I asked, eventually, what they thought about the idea of 'calling'. We came to the view that this was a problematic word (for some of the reasons above). We thought about our own experiences of the process of discovering our 'vocations'. And we realised, with a great deal of relief, that it was often only as we looked back that we could see how, the Master had led us to respond to situations and circumstances in particular ways that shaped our direction. It was not, very often, that we were ever very certain about our direction of travel. It was just that one step of faith had led to another and so, we then discovered, we were now in this particular job or role or holding that responsibility. As one of us said, 'I just got on with what I was getting on with. I did not have a vision or a  calling, I just found myself doing the role out of obedience. Later, I looked back, and realised it had been a vocation.'

Are we, as Christian thinkers and educators, too hung up with a particular process of prayerful discernment which takes no account of the 'bumbling' nature of human activity and life? If we are very honest, are we not really all just bumbling along trying to be godly?

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Like a sunflower

Seeing Vocation

2nd MAY 2017

This evening, a group of 12 or so people from St Hilda's gathered round food and conversation to continue to describe and understand the nuances and subtleties of an unfolding communal vocation.

Two summers ago, we discerned together as a church that we were being called to reach out from our comfort zones to the primary school children of the parish and their families. We had a simple aim and passion. To share the good news of Jesus with every single child of a primary school age over the next five years.

This shared vocation sprang from a sense of call which our Children's and Families' Missioner responded to about 12 months before we put together our vision document. 

Tonight there was a great sense of affirmation of this vocation, to bravely and creatively engage with children and their families, both patiently and joyfully. Tonight was about 'seeing vocation'. We are learning together what it means to work as a team delivering different platforms for sharing the good news of Jesus' death and resurrection, forgiveness and new life.  

When people ask 'what is vocation?', I find it helpful to put flesh on the bones, reality on the theory. Vocation looks like the picture above. This is a prayer wall. It comes from a Prayer Space event with a school. It represents the unleashing of prayer, the prayers of school of children. It is made possible by one person responding to God's call. And that obedience leads to a multiplicity of outcomes. It is like a blossoming of a thousand flowers, from one seed. 

It is estimated that an average sunflower has a seed head of between 1000 and 2000 seeds. From one flower comes the possibility of 2000 more flowers. Isn't that an amazing picture of the incredible impact that a single person's obedience to a vocation of God can look like. Looking at a sunflower seed head is 'seeing vocation'.

Monday, 1 May 2017

I have been to the mountaintop

I have seen the Promised Land

1st MAY 2017

Today, the sun speared down through clouds, spotlighting the most beautiful landscape, a golden 
land that lies between the Malvern 
Hills and the Welsh mountains. 

It is a special land, redolent of a promised land in my mind, sometimes.

I have been thinking about Moses and one of the contributions made by a fellow-blogger. What a profound thought was shared, how humble was Moses, the man who led his people to the verge of that land of safety and hope. Yet, he was not going to stand on an inch of that land. The question was asked, what had he once done that prevented God from letting him lead his people into the promised land? Moses, who had the strength to argue with God to change his heart on his people's behalf, could not change God's heart on his own behalf? 

I am not sure that it was a punishment by God. I have always considered this to have been 
about the different kinds of leadership that is needed for peoples, countries and, even, 
churches. There comes a point when a leader has gone as far as they can go. And God then prepares the ground for another leader. 

Martin Luther King, the great civil rights campaigner, was no saint. But he was a prophet. 
He was the one man above all who helped to articulate the hope of the downtrodden and oppressed black population of the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. He also led the movement to the verge of greater racial equality in the United States. 

But he died before he saw the end of enmity and a promised land of equality (some might 
say that promised land is still far off, even further off, now in the days of Trump). His last speech, before his assassination, echoed the story of Moses. This is how his speech 

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live - a long life; longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to 
do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a
people, will get to the Promised Land. So I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm 
not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. 

There is something majestic and rock-like about this failure. Because to Martin Luther King, 
and to Moses before him, I don't think the Promised Land was The Thing. 

I think for both of them The Thing was simply obedience to their vocation. How we would 
all love to live each day with that incredible and inspiring confidence: 'I am not worried 
about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.' 

Sunday, 30 April 2017

With us and beyond us

Pilgrims together: 30th April 2017

It has been my experience that conversations on walks can be both profound and mundane. I have probably said before in this blog, that walking with someone seems to provide a liberation. The very act of walking in the same direction, side by side, shoulder to shoulder, seems to inspire confidence and confiding.

Today in church we reflected on the thought that Jesus is a fellow pilgrim, walking alongside us - metaphorically and in some way other than physical - throughout our lives. In the road to Emmaus story in Luke 24, Jesus is described as being 'like a stranger' to the two friends so lost in conversation. The Latin for the word we have translated as stranger in modern versions, is 'perigrino'. This word actually means pilgrim. A pilgrim is someone who is travelling in the same direction as others. These others may be strangers. But on the course of a long pilgrimage, they can become friends, and profoundly so.

Most of the time in our lives in modern 21st century Britain, we are rooted in one place. We may travel for work. We may travel for pleasure. But rarely is it on foot. And rare still, might we go on pilgrimage. Yet, as we reflected in church today, we are together as a community of faith, a group of ordinary pilgrims who need each other's companionship on this journey of faith. 

Jesus, we are learning, never imposes his presence upon us. And, as the story of the post-resurrection appearance on the road to Emmaus tells us, Jesus was happy to go on beyond the journey of the two he walked with when they reached their destination. But they invited him to stay with them (for the day had ended and the night was at hand). I love that phrase, which is repeated and picked up on in the Anglican rite of compline. 

In the context of exploring our over-arching theme of vocation, I find this moment of the story instructive. Jesus is the one who will always stay with us but is also always taking us beyond our current horizon. The Lord is with us. But the Lord is also beyond us. In his earthly ministry he urged all those who wanted to be his disciple to 'follow him'. From the very beginning he was always on the move. Death tried to hold him still. And the forces of death nailed him to a tree to pin him down. But even death could not hold him for long. On the day of this encounter in Luke 24, Jesus is on the move again. Resurrected, he is on the road again.

We try, sometimes, to seek Jesus in the safe places, in the familiar ways, in revisiting experiences we once had on the road way behind us. And there is nothing wrong with remembering and being thankful for the things we received from Christ and through others in the past. For such remembering causes thankfulness. And thankfulness is often the spur which prompts us to put one foot in front of the other day by day. 

But it seems that we need to help each other as fellow pilgrims to affirm two things. First, that Christ is indeed with us (and rejoice in the Christ we see in each one of us). And second, that Christ is also further up ahead, maybe even over the horizon of our sight. With us and beyond us.
That's the Christian life.