Saturday, November 28, 2015

Ordination in Interesting Times

An ordination in the Cathedral this afternoon - difficult for any preacher I suspect ...

Reading Luke 21:34-36;

Advent Eve: it is an interesting time for an ordination.

In the week of the Paris attacks the BBC, ITV news, various British papers (Spectator, Telegraph, The Times and the Daily Mirror) announced that the Archbishop of Canterbury had confessed that the attacks in France had made him doubt the presence of God.

Just this week this event was seized upon by the columnist Joe Bennett in Thursday’s Otago Daily Times where he ridiculed the Archbishop of Canterbury (and faith generally) because Archbishop Justin had made this confession of doubt about God.  Well, the Archbishop obviously didn’t have his media consultant by him at the time, and it is not the first time he has made this sort of admission – but good on him!

A lot about the ordained life and the life of faith generally might be drawn from this incident: the Archbishop demonstrated honesty, emotional capacity, and vulnerability.  He was willing to share the shock and pain of a society in a time of crisis; he stepped out from behind the fa├žade of office and presented the reality of Christian faith, and the pain and questioning it entails.  

He modelled the way faith has to be lived - always in tension with doubts and questions.   Such public vulnerability carries many risks: he may be criticised for such frankness by some ‘believers’ while behind that is an abyss of secularism and unbelief that mocks faith and jeers at the falling numbers in the Christian churches.

For all the ordained and those about to be, this incident reminds us of the hazards of our calling: what it means to be vulnerable; what it means to live with the tension of faith and doubt; what it means to minister in a social context where faith is out of fashion and churches struggle to survive. 

While it is easy to get discouraged in ministry and wonder about our calling, from the beginning the Church has always remembered that the reality we are caught up in from one moment to the next is far from being the whole story. 

This time before Advent is the season when we are expected to remember this.  For instance you may recall how over the last few weeks we have been reading much from Daniel, from Revelations, and the little apocalypses in the Gospels.   Sometimes we have fretted over these obscure and difficult passages of apocalyptic scriptures and wanted to protest at why we are expected to read this in church.  What sense will people make of them? We may imagine visitors leaving our services and shaking their heads in disbelief and confusion.  

Nonetheless for centuries at this season the practice of the church has been to look beyond the things of the present and toward the end of time:  when we engage the apocalyptic texts our spiritual horizon expands to include an unimaginable future holding judgements, desolation, and the end of all things.  

To have that ‘sense of the end’ within our spiritual tradition means that changes in society and culture, being in fashion or out of fashion, knowing calamity and disaster, however traumatic and horrible at the time, do not define the church.  You could say that our faith is, in a sense, ‘future-proofed’.

But of course there is more to it than that.  Running all the way through the scriptures are the stories of the spiritual life and the endless scope we have for getting ourselves into trouble and losing heart – whether we think about the sometimes comical lesson of Jonah in Nineveh or Paul’s cranky letters to churches that have lost their way.  

We can see that most clearly in the Gospel for our liturgy today:  where the Gospeller warns the faithful “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down”.  It can be better translated as saying: “pay attention to yourselves …” (so that the troubles of the present moment don’t distract or overwhelm you).

‘Pay attention to yourselves’.  He gives us simple directions – about being alert and praying – and this practise of self-awareness, something developed through prayer, silence and with a good spiritual director, this discipline of paying attention to ourselves, is at the very heart of the ordained life.  Without it we lose direction and quickly become weighed down with a multitude of things and lose heart.

As I said, it’s an interesting time to be ordained, the eve of Advent.  Remember the Archbishop of Canterbury caught on the spot, blurting out what is in his heart and not afraid to appear vulnerable, maybe even foolish; a target for a world where faith is out of fashion:  that kind of faithful vulnerability is at the heart of the ordained life.  To live with that faithful openness will not solve all the problems the church faces; the problems of a broken world; problems of war, poverty, climate change; but it keeps us honest and therefore open to what God will do in us and through us.

The eve of Advent is an interesting time to be ordained, the rumours of the end of time resonate through the soul of the church, and amidst all this, tomorrow we start a new liturgical year, and our newly ordained take up their ministry.  ‘Pay attention to yourselves.’

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