Metrics, measurement and Christian ministry.

Introduction.

How do those in Christian ministry and leadership ever really know that they are doing a “good job” or have done a “good job”?

Can Christian ministry be ever “measured”?

By the numbers of those “led to faith” in Christ?

By numbers “attending”/”not attending” worship on a Sunday morning?

By the health of the Parish/Ministry’s financial well being?

By the number of ministry “projects”,” initiatives”, developed and maintained?

For those employed as a lay person in Christian ministry… in hitting funding, programme initiative and strategic development targets?

For those in ordained and serving in a Parish/Congregational context…able to carry the majority of the people with you? (And in Anglican polity, avoiding a troublesome Easter General vestry?)

By a growth in…. (insert here what metric you think is an accurate measure of Christian ministry….).

Don’t get me wrong, an ability to know what impact or outcomes one’s vocation, one’s support for a ministry, one’s belonging to a local Church and it’s ministries is important, really important.

If we don’t know where we are and where we want to go too and what “signposts” we need to look out for on our journey towards our destination, then, well, difficulty arises. Real difficulty of course arises when an end destination (hoped for destination) is unclear, confused and at times difficult to communicate.

Our deepest, deepest prayer as Christian believers (my deepest prayer, I hope…) is always that all activity and direction of travel is in response to God’s invitation to join in His work of redemption of the world. No small destination or task it must be said!

And it is amidst a world that in every sphere of human activity seems to need to justify itself, above all, through quantifiable measures, the latest set of “metrics”, through being “successful”, that Christ offers this teaching as to what the “kingdom of God” is like.

I must confess this passage makes uncomfortable reading….

The Gospel reading.

26-29 Then Jesus said, “God’s kingdom is like seed thrown on a field by a man who then goes to bed and forgets about it. The seed sprouts and grows—he has no idea how it happens. The earth does it all without his help: first a green stem of grass, then a bud, then the ripened grain. When the grain is fully formed, he reaps—harvest time!

30-32 “How can we picture God’s kingdom? What kind of story can we use? It’s like an acorn. When it lands on the ground it is quite small as seeds go, yet once it is planted it grows into a huge oak tree with thick branches. Eagles nest in it.”

33-34 With many stories like these, he presented his message to them, fitting the stories to their experience and maturity. He was never without a story when he spoke. When he was alone with his disciples, he went over everything, sorting out the tangles, untying the knots.

(The Message, Petersen. http://www.biblegateway.com).

Reflection.

As noted above, I find Christ’s words troubling, “God’s kingdom is like seed thrown on a field by a man who then goes to bed and forgets about it. The seed sprouts and grows—he has no idea how it happens”.

The “suggestion” is that the work of God’s kingdom of love, justice, healing, proclamation, prayer, service, teaching, faithful everyday Christian living (the seeds you might say of God’s rule made real) only needs to be “sown” and then “forgotten about”. Ask any first century middle eastern farmer, then, if growing a crop was quite so simple and I am sure they would have raised a quizzical eyebrow.

But that’s not the drive or thrust of Christ’s teaching here, from my reading at least…

We each, as ministers of the Gospel are uniquely called to sow the seeds of the Kingdom, and those seeds vary in the crop they produce across the seasons ,the climate, soil conditions and whatever “metric” we use to assess the growth/outcome of our Christian witness. Paul exhorts the Church at Galatia to “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6 v 9).

Maybe that “metric” at one level is all we need.

The liberating truth of this Gospel passage is that even with our best effort, our “measurements” robustly established (and rightly so) the work of the Kingdom of God, in sowing the seed of God’s grace amidst the boulders of a broken world, will always at its core, remain unknown, hidden from view.

And deeply frustrating when trying to quantify the work of the Holy Spirit using a spreadsheet.

The seed may be sown.

But as it enters the darkness of the soil,

as it dies to itself and germinates,

as it sends forth a new shoot,

as new life and a new harvest emerges,

there is a lot of unknowing and hiddenness,

alongside a call to perseverance.

The work, the growth, the mystery and unknowing of God’s life amongst us is always beyond us.

And yet within our reach and participation…. in sowing the seed with perseverance.

Response.

Amidst the unknown, even the hiddenness, what new growth is Christ seeking for…. in your “everyday following” of Christ?

Picture courtesy of @savbrown

For “Trinity Sunday”. Stepping gently into the mystic…

Introduction.

Funny.

Well, not really that funny…

But when I think of growing up in Northern Ireland amidst the trauma of a highly sectarianised and violent community conflict, it was curious how certain, I and a good few of my buddies were on matters of theology, doctrine, the Bible. I mean “themuns”, over there, with their crosses and statues, and belief in purgatory, Mary and dear knows what else were, well, wrong. I was 13 at the time and ran around with a bunch of wee fellas and wee girls also aged 13 who pretty much held a similar view.

(Reader please note, these no longer are my views, by a long long way).

When it came to matters of faith, theology, politics, in polite company (supposedly) you “Heard all, saw all and said ‘feck’ all”. If you wanted to avoid trouble…

Fast forward nearly 41 years, with this Sunday being for some Churches “Trinity Sunday” with a focus on God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, I have a similar nervousness in (in some way) exploring the “Trinity”.

Reading.

As opposed to a Gospel reading here is one way of maybe, just maybe of “visualising” the Trinity…

Reflection.

There is (for me) a symmetry and sense of flow in the above representation of the Trinity.

The Christian understanding of God is three, yet one. Community despite difference. Belonging, togetherness, full authenticity, yet individual uniqueness and purpose.

I could ramble on and no doubt many good folks much, much, more theologically qualified than I, have rambled on and continue to ramble on as to the relevance of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. And such explorations and “ramblings” remain vital in the processes and experience of faith seeking understanding.

However, in my journey of faith and working through life with its seasons that can be sorrowful, joyful and often everyday, for me,

the unknowing element of the Trinity in Christian theology,

the wrestling with this doctrine of the Church,

the mystery that is God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,

the experience of God who is always beyond our doctrines and dogmas and full awareness,

brings some re-assurance.

In so far, that maybe the most important response to all the seasons of life, sometimes needs to be a deeper appreciation of the mystery of God who calls us, not always to understand, but to get caught up in the…

movement,

the flow,

the “perichoresis” (dance),

that is God. Father, Son, Spirit.

Growing up amidst a culture that was deeply sectarianised, with its certainties not necessarily of who I was but definitely who I was not; I do wonder what my 13 year old self would make of today’s 54 year old self.

And this Trinity Sunday, I am very grateful for the wonder, mystery and awe inspiring invitation that the Trinity calls me (and you) into…movement, flow, dance and to step into the mystic.

Selah.

Picture courtesy of @savbrown

This Pentecost, Holy Spirit. Take us by the hand…

Wee Pilgrim

Introduction.

As human beings, touch conveys so, so much. We are tactile beings and when touch is used and offered appropriately, sympathetically and lovingly; touch builds us and others up.

The touch of a lover, the touch of a small child resting on a parent’s lap, the hearty handshake or slap on the back some folks give their mates, the touch of a steadying hand reaching out to a family member who is ill, the touch of bumping into fellow revelers at a gig, the tap on the shoulder by way of encouragement, the touch and warmth of acceptance when you hold hands with those you love; hug those you love.

No wonder, amidst the socially distancing still required by Covid 19, many have deeply felt the loss of touch and human contact, made, sadly, all too personal.

This week’s Gospel reading mentions the work of the Holy Spirit in…

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This Pentecost, Holy Spirit. Take us by the hand…

Introduction.

As human beings, touch conveys so, so much. We are tactile beings and when touch is used and offered appropriately, sympathetically and lovingly; touch builds us and others up.

The touch of a lover, the touch of a small child resting on a parent’s lap, the hearty handshake or slap on the back some folks give their mates, the touch of a steadying hand reaching out to a family member who is ill, the touch of bumping into fellow revelers at a gig, the tap on the shoulder by way of encouragement, the touch and warmth of acceptance when you hold hands with those you love; hug those you love.

No wonder, amidst the socially distancing still required by Covid 19, many have deeply felt the loss of touch and human contact, made, sadly, all too personal.

This week’s Gospel reading mentions the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers and the importance of the Spirit’s touch. in taking each of us “by the hand”.

Have a wee read…(highlight added)

The Gospel reading.

1-4 “I’ve told you these things to prepare you for rough times ahead. They are going to throw you out of the meeting places. There will even come a time when anyone who kills you will think he’s doing God a favor. They will do these things because they never really understood the Father. I’ve told you these things so that when the time comes and they start in on you, you’ll be well-warned and ready for them.

The Friend Will Come

4-7 “I didn’t tell you this earlier because I was with you every day. But now I am on my way to the One who sent me. Not one of you has asked, ‘Where are you going?’ Instead, the longer I’ve talked, the sadder you’ve become. So let me say it again, this truth: It’s better for you that I leave. If I don’t leave, the Friend won’t come. But if I go, I’ll send him to you.

8-11 “When he comes, he’ll expose the error of the godless world’s view of sin, righteousness, and judgment: He’ll show them that their refusal to believe in me is their basic sin; that righteousness comes from above, where I am with the Father, out of their sight and control; that judgment takes place as the ruler of this godless world is brought to trial and convicted.

12-15 “I still have many things to tell you, but you can’t handle them now. But when the Friend comes, the Spirit of the Truth, he will take you by the hand and guide you into all the truth there is. He won’t draw attention to himself, but will make sense out of what is about to happen and, indeed, out of all that I have done and said. He will honor me; he will take from me and deliver it to you. Everything the Father has is also mine. That is why I’ve said, ‘He takes from me and delivers to you.

(www.biblegateway.com)

Reflection.

I was struggling to make it up the last hill after a forty mile ride with the cycle club. The harder I tried, the more I seemed to go backwards. Until, I felt the touch of a friend’s hand on my shoulder as he with his strength and momentum pushed me over the crest.

I fondly remember sitting as a small boy on my grandfather George’s lap and pressing with my fingers into his finger tips and watching the imprint of my finger mark fade. I still recall him saying that as you get older your skin is not quite so, as he called it, “springy”.

Lurgan swimming pool. The Boys’ Brigade swimming gala. I was the last swimmer in the relay team (by no means the best swimmer, but why worry). We were in the lead and just before I dived in, my leader tapped me gently on the head and simply said “You’ve got this”. Turns out he was right.

Meeting a dear friend after many years apart to know by the sheer crush of his hug that we were still best friends.

That first hand hold and kiss with a girlfriend. Electric being shared.

The touch of healing hands, a doctor checking me over. A nurse holding my hand prior to an operation. My wife rubbing my head when I am stressed.

The poke in the arm or gentle dig in the leg from my son on his return from university.

The firm slap on the back from a good neighbour as he pulls up a bar stool for a chat and a pint on a Friday night.

The firm grip of Mum’s hand on my collar as she hauled me back from the pavement edge whilst I was a child. (See picture above).

Of course touch can be misused. Touch can so easily violate, manipulate, crush. Trauma of multiple natures is always carried in the body and memory.

Petersen’s description, this Pentecost season that…

… when the Friend comes, the Spirit of the Truth, he will take you by the hand and guide you into all the truth there is”.

…resonates deep within.

Not that I can claim to understand fully the majesty, wonder and sometimes, frankly confusing and challenging work of God’s Spirit in my life. Not by a long, long, way.

But I have known, the “touch” of God, taking my hand and guiding me (and you I trust you too) into “truth”. Of life, faith, the environment, friends, family, community, God’s word as in the Scriptures and above all God’s word as in the person of Christ. Occasional experiences of Christ’s gift, the Holy Spirit, amidst times of prayer, worship, communion, service.

I have no doubt that I have experienced the “touch” of God’s Holy Spirit way beyond my knowing.

Thanks be to God.

I do wonder, maybe, in our everyday experience of a “touch” and a person’s hand shaping our lives we see, feel and better understand the work of God’s Spirit throughout our lives. Maybe.

And getting each of us over that “hill”.

In letting us rest as a child in a grandparent’s arms,

In that experience through touch that someone has confidence in us.

In that bear hug that says, “It’s good to see you”.

In that genesis moment of love and a journey towards emotional and physical and relational intimacy,

In that act of everyday neighbourliness, (even a slap on the back).

In that grasp of authority, love and protection. (Thanks Mum!)

In the Spirit of God, taking each of us, by the hand and leading us deeper into the truth of God. Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

I wonder…

“Clip man” and an Archbishop’s Prayer. (For those just about holding ministry together).

“Clip” man usually sits in my office and occasionally amidst a busy and stressful working day I will ask for some of his “superpower” in helping me to “Hold my stuff together”.

I joke of course, but who hasn’t wanted a “Clip” man or woman in their lives, truth be told.

Whilst wrestling with this week with a few ministry related tasks (and frankly drawing a blank) I was reminded of the words of the late Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero who summed up the task of Christian service and ministry amidst a broken world as being the following…

“It helps, now and then,

to step back and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of
the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the
master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not yet our own.  Amen”

(www.thepastorsworkshop.com)

Powerful words. Unsettling words. Reminding each of us in Christian ministry that we are not the be all and end all…words. “Clip” man or woman words in that ultimately its not up to us to hold things together words. Words and a Gospel truth to live by, as Archbishop Romero was to be martyred in his stand for the poor against a right wing military dictatorship.

If you have been (like me) amidst the Covid pandemic, seeking to find ways to hold onto Christian ministry and indeed re-imagine many aspects of Christian ministry, Romero’s prayer offers insight, wisdom and assurance…

“The Kingdom of God is not only beyond our efforts; it is beyond our vision”. Thanks be to God.

“…the kingdom lies beyond us”. Thanks be to God.

“We plant seeds that will one day grow.” Thanks be to God.

“We lay foundations that will need further development”. Thanks be to God.

“We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs.” Thanks be to God.

And maybe, just maybe, amidst the ongoing chaos of a global pandemic and its toll on countless numbers and its toll on each of us when we can no longer hold our “stuff” together…

there is a call to continue to work as hard as ever but in the knowledge that we might rest…

In planting.

In watering.

In laying foundations.

In being a worker.

and not the Messiah.

That responsibility lies elsewhere. Thanks be to God.

Thanks and thanks again to God. Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Go gently…

Christ’s call to be in the “now” of our uniqueness.

Introduction.

A number of years ago I found myself coming to the “end of the road” in terms of a role I had loved and been blessed through for over nearly 12 years.

On top of a questioning of vocation and securing income, I also faced a potential life altering illness that then (and today, still) could severely disrupt everyday life. The initial “shock and awe” of the Consultant’s words still echo and I am deeply, deeply grateful for my health and and the National Health Service.

Mid-life crisis…possibly? There was a lot going on and the radar was pretty cluttered.

A few years later and I am still learning to appreciate the “now” that I experience today even amidst what might disrupt. And Christ’s teaching from John 15 v 9 to 17, this week’s Gospel reading resonates deeply.

Maybe you too?

Read on…

The Gospel reading.

9-10 “I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love. If you keep my commands, you’ll remain intimately at home in my love. That’s what I’ve done—kept my Father’s commands and made myself at home in his love.

11-15 “I’ve told you these things for a purpose: that my joy might be your joy, and your joy wholly mature. This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends. You are my friends when you do the things I command you. I’m no longer calling you servants because servants don’t understand what their master is thinking and planning. No, I’ve named you friends because I’ve let you in on everything I’ve heard from the Father.

16 “You didn’t choose me, remember; I chose you, and put you in the world to bear fruit, fruit that won’t spoil. As fruit bearers, whatever you ask the Father in relation to me, he gives you.

17 “But remember the root command: Love one another.

The Message. (www.biblegateway.com)

Reflection.

Where to start working through the implications of Christ’s words as recorded by St. John in this week’s Gospel reading?

There is just so, so much to focus on…

“I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me”.

“Make yourselves at home in my love”.

“”If you keep my commands, you’ll remain in my love”.

“Love one another the way I have loved you”.

“Put your life on the line for your friends”.

“You didn’t choose me, remember I chose you, and put you in the world to bear fruit, fruit that won’t spoil”.

I guess that each of these statements by Christ deserves a book or two in their own right! But what “caught my eye” on reading was Christ saying to his followers…

“I’m no longer calling you servants because servants don’t understand what their master is thinking and planning”. (John 15 v 15. The Message).

Far be it for me to claim that I know, exactly, what the Trinity “is thinking or planning” and like the Apostle Paul, I “see through a glass darkley…” (1 Corinthians 13 v 12) but I do take huge comfort in the knowledge that in my everyday life, amidst worries and concerns (some outlined above), in seasons of plenty or scarcity, somehow, somehow, Christ invites me to be part of the enterprise that is serving and building his Kingdom. Not just a servant. A co-creator with Christ of his kingdom, today and tomorrow.

Humbling stuff to be honest.

It is in the “now” of our lives that Christ calls us “friends” (John 15 v 15).

Not the…

Perfect,

Got all our “s**t” together,

Career doing quite nicely thanks very much,

Feeling upbeat about life in general

Well both mentally and physically,

Family relationships at ease,

Worries and stressors disappearing and causing a lot less trouble.

It’s now, today, this very minute, that Christ calls you and I to be his friend. And to serve his Kingdom with whatever we have got and even not got. To give our uniqueness.

Selah.

Picture courtesy of @savbrown

To abide. (Verb). To accept or act in accordance…

Introduction.

There are seven “I am’s” claimed by Christ in the Gospel of John beginning with his assertion “I am the Bread of Life” (John 6 v 35) and ending with “I am the Vine” (John 15 v 1 to 8). You might note as Comerford does (www.patrickcomerford.com) the beautiful symmetry in bread, wine and all that Christ is, by way of his “I am’s” that is celebrated during the Eucharist.

There is much to be gleaned from this week’s Gospel reading, so let Christ’s words taken from the King James Version sit with you for a minute or two….

The Gospel reading. John 15 v 1 to 8.

I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman.

Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit.

Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you.

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me.

I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.

If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.

If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.

Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples.

The King James Version. (www.biblegateway.com)

Reflection.

For those who minister/work for the Church, Christ’s words to “abide” or as is translated in other paraphrases of the Bible “rest” can seem, well, oxymoronic.

Christian ministry, I have found, is as busy and frenetic as any other walk of life…often without clear goals, a sense of “result” or closure to help an individual find balance personally and professionally. The work of the Kingdom is, *cough*, eternal and beyond our deepest wonderings and activity even we we feel deeply in touch.

Christians are called by Christ himself to abide and to therefore produce “fruit” through his indwelling. Speaking personally there have been seasons of my ministry when I have “withered on the vine” through activity, busyness, internal and external expectations, a lack of leadership oversight and (sadly) little room to be in Christ; to rest in Christ, to learn from Christ. Everyday practices that sustain…reading, prayer, worship, trusted friendship often are forgotten about until the candle is almost out.

The Oxford English Dictionary, describes the word “abide” as follows…

” abide by (no object) Accept or act in accordance with (a rule, decision, or recommendation” (Lexico.com)

and notes that other understandings of the word “abide” include…

“to live; dwell”. (Lexico.com)

Maybe one way of understanding Christ as the “true vine” is in individually and corporately accepting no matter how “well”/”unwell” our spiritual state, no matter how “withered” we are, it is Christ alone who brings fruit to bear. Even if that necessitates pruning and pairing back.

Our work,

Prayer,

Relationships

Busyness,

“Fedupness” (at times)

Joys and

Brokenness are (to mix metaphors) our soil, our daily offering that the vine seeks to grow from.

Which, for this pilgrim, is maybe an understanding I should ease back into much, much more often.

Selah.

Picture of Joseph and Christ Emmanuel from a specially commissioned work “The Holy Family”, by Juliet Venter (www.juliet.icons.co.uk)

Fish. Fear. Faith and (splutter) Resurrection.

This Sunday’s lectionary reading is the wonderful passage from Luke 24 v 36 to 40 where the risen Christ, in person, appears amidst his deeply fearful disciples. And eats some fish.

The Gospel reading:

36-41 While they were saying all this, Jesus appeared to them and said, “Peace be with you.” They thought they were seeing a ghost and were scared half to death. He continued with them, “Don’t be upset, and don’t let all these doubting questions take over. Look at my hands; look at my feet—it’s really me. Touch me. Look me over from head to toe. A ghost doesn’t have muscle and bone like this.” As he said this, he showed them his hands and feet. They still couldn’t believe what they were seeing. It was too much; it seemed too good to be true.

41-43 He asked, “Do you have any food here?” They gave him a piece of leftover fish they had cooked. He took it and ate it right before their eyes.

The Message.

Reflection:

Fear is, for us all, part and parcel of what it is to be human. Indeed, the psychological sciences tells us that alongside anger, happiness, disgust, surprise, sadness; fear is one of our six primary emotions. Regardless of background, age, culture, gender etc. In so many ways fear can be a positive response to life and its vicissitudes; though given my experience of the Covid-19 pandemic I, for one, have used up my “fear allocation” it has to be said. Quite possibly you too.

It is so important to pay attention to our fears. Fear, rightly understood and acted upon ultimately leads to survival. Fear is, how do we say, “important”.

But not all fears become reality. Far from it. Thanks be to God.

There is much wisdom in the quote from Roosevelt when he quipped…”The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. Much wisdom, if not always easy to build his maxim into our life. Truth be told (and despite some preachers best efforts when they tell their flock to choose “faith over fear”), fear is real, often not about choice, is felt in the core of our being and sometimes is present for very good reasons. When confronted by fearful situations it is known that our basic human response of fight, flight, freeze or flop so often directs our first response to a challenging situation.

The disciples must have been scared witless by the Crucifixion, the death of their Messiah and the religious authorities seeking them out. Maybe there was a fair bit of fighting, flighting, freezing and flopping going on as they pulled themselves together after the death of Christ.

Yet.

Into the middle of this fearful and dejected group, Christ physically appears. He scares the life out of those gathered. Indeed, he creates “fear”, as the disciples mistake him as a ghost. Christ, somehow, through walls and closed doors, in person, turns up. The resurrected body is fully visible and fully touchable. The resurrected body, that is the resurrected Christ, is actually hungry. His shaken followers offer him some “leftover fish”.

The wonder,

the glory,

the mystery,

(the confusion),

the hope of ages,

is that Christ,

meets our deepest fear…

and eats

leftover fish.

Response:

With the Church, globally, now in the full flow of the Easter season, a few questions of examen to consider…

Amidst my fears, what might I do, today with God’s grace, to face my concerns?

This week and in the weeks ahead. Where does Christ meet me in the ordinary and seek to share a meal with me?

In the midst of all that distresses me…what “leftover’s” does Christ seek from my life, my relationships, my well being, my community of faith?

Selah.