Sunday, April 10, 2011

Just Ordinary Spiritual People

Rector’s Annual Address 2011.

(This is more or less what I said during this morning's service!)

One of the joys of having a computer is receiving 'round robin' emails, which people constantly send me.  One particular email which arrives routinely, every few weeks or so, is one which lists alleged bloopers from Parish Magazines.  Misprints often arise through the use of spell-checkers...those little programmes which look at what you have written, and suggest alternatives. Like last week, when both Christine and I missed the fact that the demon spell-checker has turned Stainer's Crucifixion for next Sunday into Stainer's Cruci-fiction!  Any Islamic readers of our pew news will be delighted...because they believe that Jesus was never crucified!

I have to admit, some bloopers from parish magazines are priceless.  Here's a small selection of my favourites:

"Ladies, don't forget the rummage sale. It's a chance to get rid of those things not worth keeping around the house. Don't forget your husbands".

"Today the Vicar will preach his farewell sermon after which the choir will sing 'Break Forth into Joy' "

"Notice in the kitchen of a Church Hall: "Ladies, when you have emptied the teapot, please stand upside down in the sink"."

And here's a special favourite of mine:  "During the Easter Sunday service, Mrs Williams of the Mother's Union will lay an egg on the Altar"

Speaking of eggs - it’s nearly Easter, so this seems as good a time as any to think about them.  Eggs, of course, remind us of new life...and Jesus rose from the tomb in a similar way that new born chicks emerge from an egg.  This year, there has been a campaign to produce a Real Easter Egg - chocolate eggs which actually have the story of the Resurrection printed on the try to help an uneducated public make the connection between chocolate eggs and Jesus.

But there is another way in which we can use the image of the egg to contemplate Easter.

The Franciscan priest Richard Rohr invites us to use the egg to understand something perhaps even more profound than the image of an empty tomb.   He suggests that these three elements of the egg - yolk, white and shell, can provide an image for our growth as children of God.  The three elements can be thought of as three stories...there is my story, then there is our story, then there is the story.  Rohr suggests that true, biblical religion (and especially true, biblical Christianity) honours and integrates these three stories.  He calls that process of integration a 'Cosmic Egg of Meaning'.

Let me explain - if I can - and especially in relation to our life together as a parish.

The first level at which we all exist is at the level of the individual.  This is my story...the essential being that I am.  At this level, I live as a private individual - I make my own choices.  I decide what I will believe, about God, or about the world.  I am the one who has the free will to live a creative life, or to vegetate my days away in front of the television.  This is the level of individualism - which is a concept that has really taken hold in recent years...especially in the Western world.  This is the level at which we embrace concepts like celebrity...where we become fascinated with the intricate detail of individual lives.  Hello Magazine is the herald of the individual. Consumerism is its life-blood. Strictly Come Dancing and the X-Factor are all about the small life of individuals, raised for a moment of fame above the normal boredom of human, individualism.

But on its own, being an individual is a very small stage indeed.  It's the little stage where I do my own dance and where the sort of questions we ask ourselves are "Who is watching me?  How do I feel? What do I believe?  What makes me unique?".  

Each of us is, of course, an individual - a loved, beautifully created, individual child of God.  But doing 'life' by ourselves is not the solution to a happy and fulfilled existence.  Unless we draw from something greater than our mere selves, we are doomed to an endless self-critical, or self-deluding individualism... and we will wither and die.  Jesus calls us to something greater, something bigger than mere individualism.  In John 15, verse 5, he warns that 'the branch which is cut off from the Vine is useless'.  And in today's Gospel, he reminds us that He is both the Resurrection and the Life.  Life, in all its fullness cannot be attained by an individual alone.  

And so we move to the second part of the the 'white' if you like. If the yolk symbolises 'my story', the white symbolises 'our story'.  This is where the life of the individual becomes integrated into the life of a community.  I becomes 'we'.  This is where we find our group...our community, perhaps, or our country,, perhaps our nationality, or our ethnic group.  For many people, the concept of 'us' is often caught up with the kind of music they listen to, or what gang they belong to.  We feel protected inside the group.  We might be members of a Rotary club, or a jam-making club.  We might be supporters of a football team - and gain a sense of purpose by waving flags and signs around.  Now we no longer have to be great by ourselves...we can ride on the coat-tails of other members of our group...other football fans, or other Cocker Spaniel owners.

All of us belong to many groups.  It is necessary for our growth as human beings to move beyond the yolk, into the 'white' - beyond individualism, and into the group.  For Christians, of course, one of the groups that we choose to belong to is the 'Christian Club' - or as we call it, the Church.  Here, with other Christians, we find group identity, and group purpose.  Together we identify what we need to fight for, and fight against.  

For us, in this parish, our mission is enshrined in our Five Year Plan - agreed at last year's APCM. In that plan, we committed ourselves together, as a group, to being a praying, learning, serving, visible church that is diverse and all-inclusive.  That is, in a nutshell...or an egg-shell!...our group identity

In that endeavour, during the last year, we have been prolific together.  We have provided, each week, across the parish, a minimum of 9 services per week. We have ministered to the sick, and to the lonely, to the bereaved, and to the families of baptised children, and to couples preparing for marriage.  We have provided a community cafe, soon to be on five days per week, for our neighbours to meet one another, and migrate from being individuals to being members of a life-giving group.  We have maintained our church buildings, so that the Kingdom is seen in bricks and well as in lives.  We have raised funds, and supported mission in other places.  We have sung, we have prayed, we have laughed and we have celebrated.  We have danced...especially at last week's barn dance!  We've together been in pubs, and in schools, at quiz nights and concerts.  

But we need to go broader and deeper still.  If all we are is a group who like doing things together...then we've missed the point entirely.  Groups can be wonderfully nurturing places...essential for our growth away from the smallness of individualism.  But groups can also be dangerous places.  Just think how many people have thrown away their lives for causes which were all about ‘group identity’…everyone from the Crusaders to the Nazis.  If we are not careful, our group can become our God.  We can end up worshipping the Vine, instead of the source of the Vine's life.  We can end up worshipping our Church, rather than the God who gives his life to the Church, just as Jesus gave life to Lazarus.

How can we escape from that trap?  How can we go deeper and broader, beyond the life of our group, our parish, into the very heart of God?

That is the third part of the egg...the shell.  If the yolk is 'my Story' and the white is 'our Story'...then the shell, which should bind it all together is 'the Story'....the sacred story of a God who creates all life and all possibilities, and holds them in his hands.  The way to avoid our group becoming the reason for our existence is to go deeper...into the Divine Life, into that which transcends our individualism and our particular group - and which opens us up to the incredible potential of life to the full...or 'eternal life' as Jesus called it.  "I am the Resurrection and the Life....and everyone who believes in me will never die".  Or as we were reminded a couple of weeks ago, Jesus is the Living Water:  "anyone who drinks of me will never be thirsty again."

The challenge of Richard Rohr's Cosmic Egg is that we should learn to live with all three of its parts.  Not content with individualism, we embrace the group.  Not content with the group, we embrace the whole...the transcendent reality which is God, in Jesus Christ.  Richard Rohr gives some examples of the kind of people who have managed to become like that…people whose sense of themselves and the groups they belong to are enlarged by their connection to the Divine Life.  He lists people like Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa and Julian of Norwich.  And of course, St Francis of Assisi after whom this particular building is named.

But how?

How do we do this?

Here's the nub - and here's the heart of what I want to say to the whole parish today, as my Rector's Annual Message:

I think that I should tell you that I get a great deal of ribbing as I drive around our Diocese and Deanery.  I get teased mercilessly by my colleagues in clerical collars, because I insist on driving around in a car which has stickers on the door. One of my fellow Vicars keeps threatening to turn my stickers upside down, ever since he discovered that they are magnetic! 

Do you remember what the stickers on my door say?  Basically, just four simple words...words we agreed last year would be our motto as a parish..."Just Ordinary, Spiritual People".  

Because that's what we are...or at least, what we aspire to be.  On the one hand, we are ordinary people.  We are individuals, who like many individuals have discovered something of the joy and the challenge of living together in community.  In our case, we live as part of a group we call the North End Portsmouth Team Ministry.  Like other ordinary people, we care about our buildings, and our social programmes.  Like other ordinary people, who belong to other ordinary clubs, we sing in choirs and bands, we run table top sales and fayres, we paint, we dig, we polish, we maintain.  But that is all, basically, the stuff of ordinary people.  Essentially, on that level, there is little difference between what we do and what most community clubs do.  Go into the Buckland Community Centre, or the Baroque Choir, or any charity shop and you will find people who are just as committed, just as passionate about what their organisation, their group, is doing for the community around them.

And rightly so.  And many of our members are members of these other clubs and groups too.

But we aspire to more.  We are ordinary spiritual people.  That's what we claim about ourselves.  We claim that our inspiration comes from a greater, wider, deeper, broader root than pure group identity.  We claim to be people who are spiritual...we are those whose lives are caught up not just with each other, but with the source of all life...the transcendent reality of God.  By our simple claim to be 'just ordinary spiritual people' we claim to be in touch with the whole of the Cosmic Egg...yolk, white, and shell.  We claim to be people whose lives are rooted in the Lord who is the Resurrection and the Life.

So here is our challenge for the coming year. We have laid some strong foundations together in the last few years.  Our buildings are better maintained than they have been for some time.  Our congregation numbers are rising, and our income is holding steady, despite the economic hardships of our age.  But now, we need to go deeper.  Now we need to discover more of what it means to be people who are spiritual beings – those in whom the Holy Spirit makes His dwelling.

We’ve begun to think about what that might mean. Recently, for example, we’ve started holding Healing Services – every two months around the parish - as a chance for us to be touched by God’s healing power for our bodies and our souls.  Soon, you will all be receiving information about a Quiet Day which we plan to hold in Romsey, on September the 24th – a chance to draw aside from the world, and to think about what it means to be God’s Pilgrim People, on the journey of faith.

But I am hoping for more yet.  With new members about to join the ministry team, and with new connections growing with other churches in our Cluster, I hope that over the next few months we will be able to start new groups – home groups, or study groups – so that we can all have the opportunity to go deeper…the chance to meditate upon our faith, and truly begin to connect at a Spiritual level with the source of all life.

But there’s more yet.  What would it mean for us to be truly spiritual people? Could there come a time when anyone who visits any of our churches finds only unconditional love and acceptance.  Sometimes I think we’re nearly there.  Could there come a time when we truly begin to see ourselves as intimately connected not just with each other and God, but with a whole world outside our doors…a world which is desperately lost in the lies of consumerism and individualism?  Could there come a time when we give as much money to alleviate poverty as we currently give to maintain our church buildings?  

That’s the kind of vision that I want to hold before you today.  It’s just not enough for us to be just three churches who happen to have a presence in this area.  God calls us to something greater, wider, deeper, and much more spiritual.  God calls us to be salt and light to North End, Hilsea and Copnor.  God calls us to become the spiritual heart of this community…the first place that anyone turns, when they begin to glimpse that there is more to life than just individualism alone.  We are called to be those who understand the full implications of the Cosmic Egg.  We are called to be those who model what it is to be ordinary, yet deeply spiritual people.  


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