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My First Year Is Almost Up

I am sitting here on a couch with a faded cover in a red and moss-green pattern with three distinct grooves–helpfully designating the individual spots one should sit in on this piece of furniture–worn in from years of people sitting here to look out onto the street, to watch the people walk by.

My first year in America is nearly over. It has been a full and fruitful time. I walked in today as my friend R was busily fixing the AC unit, being watched by J the Midshipman who was running an unhelpful commentary for everyone’s amusement. I knew the names of half the people in here, and a few more by face. I know their stories, their joys and frustrations. So I happened upon the sight in the storage room with the broken AC unit and wide-grinning faces turned to greet me by name: I am known, too.

Ministry is not about doing things to people or making people change. Since ministry is, properly considered, the activity of making God’s reality known and tangible to the people of the world, a good amount of it is found in this knowing one-another stuff.

I was at lunch with a friend last week. She introduced herself to me as Jasmine, but no one I ask seems to remember that name. She told me that people recognise me in the Old 4th Ward, Clay Street Community. This is a neighbourhood where you’ll always see a police car sitting by the entrance and screaming sirens will visit most weeks…yet nothing ever turns up in the newspapers. Jasmine supposes it’s because no one cares what happens to poor, black folks and I struggle when she says things like that. Jasmine told me that no one could believe that I was there to support a local initiative. The only time young, smartly dressed white boys go down that street, she said, is to buy drugs. In fact she said that any weekend she’ll sit across from the trendy bars and frequently the beautiful people will pull out hundreds of dollars and ask her to go and find them whatever powder or pill they desire. How could she say no? And yet her neighbourhood is treated like some kind of prison, as if it’s all their fault.

Jasmine, or whoever she is to the rest of her neighbours, is my friend and she has taught me more about the city than I could have found in the press.

I have become not only an acquaintance or neighbour, but friends with many in this city who live their various lives, so separated from one another by habit, pride or wickedness. The bar and restaurant staff of the trendy bars whose patrons cast their cash into the hands of the desperate; the students who are here in Annapolis to become adults; the street people with their scripted sob-stories and the myriad other people whose lives depend on this community, and upon whom this community depends.

I believe this is the sweet fruit of living vulnerably. I left behind security to take a step where it seemed God was leading, and God has provided a home for me amongst the people I never expected and may never have chosen. Being available and being in need is a choice, a choice of faith which seems to be pretty central to the ministry of Jesus Christ, who emptied and humbled himself (Philippians 2:6). It would be disingenuous to arrive in a place to share the Gospel as though I had something to offer when Jesus only had his life to offer. The Gospel is not a matter of ideas, principles or feelings but of life, love, and long suffering. This is, I suppose, why the Gospel could only be shown by the life of the God-Man and not broadcast as some oracle from heaven.

So after a year of ministry I’ve learned that the most important thing to do at all times, is to obey the example of Jesus. Schemes, organisation, activism and learning are important and I think you’ll agree I’ve had a fair attempt at all of these. However once the campaign is over, the funds are raised or the policy change has gone through, people still need God’s grace to be shown to them and this is really only possible when a person makes this their commitment. This is the strange connection between mission and discipleship: Obeying Jesus makes the Christian into a lover of souls and therefore a participant in the worldwide ministry of Jesus.

I have learned therefore not to judge my own success by the metrics of sociological change or number of participants but rather in the number of people who invite me into their lives. In doing so I do not think it too presumptuous to suggest that this is how God gets into people’s lives. This was after-all how I came to faith.

So now as I consider the next twelve months I am anxious not to waste the opportunities I’ve had to connect with people in the city. My desire now is to call all the myriad people of this city, who I have been able to reach, to the worship of the one true God: The one who can reconcile Jasmine with J, R and all the rest who now share this city and do not share a life.

I’ll be writing more on this in the coming days, about what it would look like for me to work in Annapolis to call together a community of people for the worship of God. I value however your prayers, affirmation and comments!

Thank you, all you who have given in faith to see this vision mature. Soon I will be spending some time back in the UK and I hope for many opportunities to share all the wonderful things which have been accomplished!

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Richard Hooker on the Blessed Sacrament

Our hunger is satisfied and our thirst is for ever quenched; here are things wonderful which we feel, great which we see and unheard of which we utter whose souls are possessed of this Paschal Lamb and made joyful in the strength of this new wine. This bread hath in it more than the substance which our eyes behold, this cup hallowed with solemn benediction avails to the endless life and welfare both of soul and body…it serves as well as a medicine to heal our infirmities and purge our sins as for a sacrifice of thanksgiving…it is enough that to me who takes them, they are the Body and Blood of Christ, his promise suffices, his word he knows which way to accomplish. Why should any cogitation possess the mind of a faithful communicant but this: O my God, thou art true, O my soul, thou art happy?

Adapted from Of The Laws Of Ecclesiastical Polity, Richard Hooker, 1593

In remembrance of Corpus Christi, which is today included in the Church of England’s calendar of feasts I was reminded of this quote from the early Anglican theologian Richard Hooker. He seems to suggest here that in the act of sharing in the Lord’s Supper the Christian is transported not only to that upper room for the Last Supper, but in some mysterious and miraculous sense partakes of the fullness of God’s promises. All the Gospel might well be expressed in the celebration of the Eucharist, which is the everlasting feast all humanity is made for. Not only do we join the Disciples in that Upper Room, but we come to Christ trusting that he will fulfil his purposes on the earth if only we would come to him. We also come because we know that we as individuals need to receive this nourishment from the Lord, like the manna in the desert and like the great feast of the Psalmist or the promised abundance of Isaiah.

To come and take the small bite of bread and sip of the cup expresses a deeper and more real faith than any theologising of scriptural learning or moral piety could ever express.

Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.

John 6:54

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The Church Alone Knows The Truth About God

Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith. Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled; without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal.

Athanasian Creed, opening paragraph.

It turns out that there is a people on this earth who know quite exclusively the truth about God and therefore the nature of the reality he created.

It is not the West. Enlightenment era industrial revolution may have made Europe and America the conquerors of the world, but the truth does not fill the iron glove of Imperial might. Nor is it the ‘Eastern mystics’ so patronisingly mis-read by contemporary materialists to atone for their neglect not only of themselves but their community. The truth about God is not found in the records of kingdoms and dynasties. It did not march across the world with Alexander the Great’s army and no one took it to the farthest flung parts of the earth for people to go looking for it.

But who would trust people to bear the truth anyway?

It must have been written somewhere, sometime. Perhaps in the old books, the sacred books can the truth about God be found. If someone were to read long enough and broadly enough, surely then it would be unwrapped-the mystery of God! And we can gather around this book eating its pages for our food.

Yet books are just the product of people powerful enough to demand their ideas be written down, especially the old ones.

Then surely each person must discern the truth about God for themselves? Books and communities cannot be trusted with such a delicate and sacred thing. Group those people together and they can worship the God they have discovered: A true faith based not on fallible people but on the pure brilliance of the human imagination. These must be the people who know the truth about God!

The Church is a people in the midst of the world who share a book and have an imagination spanning thousands of years. The Church makes the bold announcement that she and she alone knows who God is. God is three Persons sharing one Being. God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

There have been many communities who have picked up the documents derived from the ancient Hebrew people and the early followers of Jesus who have not arrived at this conception of God. Regard the Unitarians or Islam, Anabaptists and Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses or Oneness Pentecostals. All of these and many others opened the pages of the Bible and arrived at a conception of God foreign to the preaching of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

It is not a foregone conclusion that one could pick up the Bible and arrive at the same knowledge of God. This is easily demonstrated with a glance through history or indeed five minutes on the internet. The idea of the Trinity belongs to the Church alone and unapologetically does she say with the words of Athanasius “Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold (this belief in the Trinity)”.

How remarkable, how laughable that there should be in this world one people who claim exclusive knowledge of God! How fragile are such small people, easily blown about by whim and wealth. How subjective their readings of old books. How narrow minded to believe they alone know how to describe God!

Jesus, that great blank-cheque of moral discussion, is recorded to have prayed to God

“I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world…I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them.”

John 17:6-10

Jesus seems to believe that those he had called to be his disciples had been shown a truth that the world did not know. Therefore the disciple’s teaching, once they had become Apostles, was to disclose this truth about God to the world.

Thus there is born (again) in the world a people. The Church, who maintains to this day (with a quavering voice in recent years) the belief that she alone knows who God is.

An unpleasant people. A broken people. A sinful people.

Jesus did not seem to mind that when he told them all he would tell them. Who am I to insist that Jesus was wrong and that somehow the Church has become ‘broken’?

It seems to me that a belief in the doctrine of the Trinity is an act of submission, to give up one’s mind and indeed life to the Church and to affirm that throughout history, no matter what wrong her members have done, that she has triumphantly been faithful in proclaiming the truth about God.

It was always thus.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.

2 Cor. 4:7

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Celibacy for Mission

I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband.

(1 Corinthians 7:32-34)

Today was the feast day of Augustine of Canterbury. He was the first Archbishop of Canterbury, consecrated around 600 AD after leading a team of 40 missionaries, priests and monks who preached in the kingdom of Kent. Because of Augustine’s efforts, the people of England became and remained for over a thousand years a Christianised people.

By this I do not mean to suggest that the United Kingdom is a Christian nation, merely that the story of God and the worship of him was widely accepted and embraced on England’s shores. The Church became a community institution which in various times collected and distributed taxes, mediated property, ran schools and facilitated local and regional political dialogue.

Gregory’s mission to Kent seems to have been a roaring success.

Augustine and his companions were called out of the Monastery for their mission. I believe this single fact is key to the success of Christianity’s spread not only in England but in many other tribes and peoples.

English history is full of dynasties and tribes who come and rule for a time and then fade away or fall out of favour and are overthrown. The Church experiences its own turmoil in England but is not overthrown or rejected like the Normans or Stuarts or whoever else. The reason for this to me is clear.

The Church did not rely on the success of any one dynasty or family, tribe or culture for its mission. Because it grew through conversion, it could have a life among the people, in the villages, towns and cities, which existed independently of families or bloodlines.

The monastics and the chaste religious live in their very bodies the reality that the Church exists by faith not by family. They show that they have nothing to gain through their preaching, that they are not attempting to establish a name or accumulate wealth. They can go anywhere in the world and give their lives away, as the 40 did who left Rome for England.

Perhaps it is because this is such a difficult burden to comprehend, the idea of giving up not only one’s future but also the potential good of that future, that Protestants who are divorced from those grand, old and transcendent Church traditions have not upheld the uniqueness of not only single clergy but other alternative forms of human community.

I submit that something has been profoundly lost with the forgetting of this ancient path to which some have been called. Protestants mistake the Monastic call for that of an attempt to earn God’s favour or an oppressive regime of submission to corrupt institutions. Can it be that those who are lifelong singles could be received today as the frontrunners in the Church and heralds of the Gospel as they have been in the past? What would have to change for that to be a reality?

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Happy Birthday Kierkegaard

Today is Søren Kierkegaard’s 220th birthday. Again I am drawn to his description of the Gospel, how he expound’s Christ’s invitation to all the weary wanderers in this world.

Accept the invitation so that the inviter may save you from what is so hard and dangerous to be saved from, so that, saved, you may be with him who is the Savior of all, of innocence also. For even if it were possible that utterly pure innocence was to be found somewhere, why should it not also need a Savior who could keep it safe from evil! –The invitation stands at the crossroad, there where the way of sin turns more deeply into sin. Come here, all you who are lost and gone astray, whatever your error and sin, be it to human eyes more excusable and yet perhaps more terrible, or be it to human eyes more terrible and yet perhaps more excusable, be it disclosed here on earth or be it hidden and yet known in heaven-and even if you found forgiveness on earth but no peace within, or found no forgiveness because you did not seek it, or because you sought it in vain: oh, turn around and come here, here is rest! The invitation stands at the crossroad, there where the way of sin turns off for the last time and disappears from view in-perdition. Oh, turn around, turn around, come here; do not shrink from the difficulty of retreat, no matter how hard it is; do not be afraid of the laborious pace of conversion, however toilsomely it leads to salvation, whereas sin leads onward with winged speed, with mounting haste-or leads downward so easily, so indescribably easily, indeed, as easily as when the horse, completely relieved of pulling, cannot, not even with all its strength, stop the wagon, which runs it into the abyss. Do not despair over every relapse, which the God of patience has the patience to forgive and under which a sinner certainly should have the patience to humble himself. No, fear nothing and do not despair; he who says “Come here” is with you on the way; from him there is help and forgiveness on the way of conversion that leads to him, and with him is rest.

Read more in Practice in Christianity.

The annual Naval Academy vs St John's College Croquet Match. Now having ran its 33rd year with the Academy only winning 7 times. Trust Classics students to be experts at lawn games.

Ministry Update Spring 2015

Springtime as I experience it is a time to think. Winter is a time of eating and staying warm but as the weather changes one is not so hurried by gusts of freezing wind and so one has a moment to stand on a sidewalk, to look at the blossom, to speak with someone new who also has a moment to stand still after the long winter’s march from building to car to building.

I made a new friend over the winter months. T arrived on Main Street at the end of November having been made redundant and leaving Baltimore where his wife lived. He had grown up in Annapolis in a very different era, when Downtown was full of African American businesses and the community wasn’t hidden away in backstreets and suburban developments like a shameful secret. He told me and my friends stories of Annapolis which made our eyes wide. The shoe-store which would receive African American customers only at the side door, or the time when the city nearly descended into rioting were it not for the demonstration of friendship between Pip and Zastrow who walked the streets together when white people and black people struggled to see a peaceful future. T maintained an inner confidence, yet sometimes when he was more exhausted he would share with his friends the pain of feeling rejected by his family, the community where he grew up and the passers by on the street who would call the police to deal with him. He became a personality in Downtown Annapolis, singing at the Open Mic nights and Piano Bar for tips; one could ask every doorman on Main Street and they would know T. It made him glow with pride that he could sing and be valued for the fact that he had something beautiful to offer. Today he left the city to go to rehab and I am glad for him. He had become a part of the Christian community in Annapolis and he gave us so many opportunities to grow in our understanding of love.

There are others who are known to the Christian community. Not all find a way out of their situation and some do not want it. I was challenged by a friend that my desire to see an individual’s situation improve, by connecting them with rehab or other resources, was becoming a threshold of relationship. I was guilty of making my love dependent on their performance to my expectations. I was angry at having this placed in front of me yet it didn’t take long for me to realise that he was right. Whether I give someone the time of day, share a meal with them or more must never be because I deem them worthy of attention. Why? Solely because Jesus chooses to see those acts of service as worship to him, and my refusal to serve is an act of rebellion against the King of Love.

This is a hard fact to accept: That an act of love for someone unlovely will scarcely ripple the currents of poverty in a city. The community of Christians I have met here help me keep in mind that such widespread change is not my burden. I have only to care for the one in front of me.

This experience has led me to join initiatives which seek to enable these kinds of small relationships to start. I invited a dozen people from Downtown Hope to come out at 4:30AM on a Wednesday morning in January to meet the homeless who were sleeping in downtown Annapolis in the middle of winter. A couple of weeks ago we were invited to be part of Homeless Resource Day which pairs those at high risk with a host who will spend as long as they need helping that individual find all the resources they need to make steps away from homelessness. I was invited to lobby at the state-wide level in the name of the church for affordable housing policies for the most at-risk populations. I offer my skills to the Coalition to End Homelessnesswhose major goal is to see the homeless connected to communities of people who can walk with them through all the difficulties they are facing and all defeat those things which trap them in poverty. The ability to understand that the inadequacy of my actions is no hurdle to it being an offering to God has radically shaped how I show and tell others about that work.

I am thankful to those who have been faithful in contributing to my living costs and supporting me in prayer. I consider it a sacred privilege to be supported in a way that I can offer my life for the benefit of the church and the city in ways which are different than if I was in a workplace setting. I have been able to create resources for our church community as well as jump into the founding of a nonprofit which seeks to help people form transformative relationships with the city’s most vulnerable residents.

Most importantly of all, your support enables me to be available to share the love of God, and that is deeply humbling.

If you would like to become a supporter, USA residents can give here and hitting “give to missionaries” and UK residents can fill out this form.

As always please write to me and ask questions. I love to talk as you well know.

Peace,
Ian.

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Pastoring a Post-Christendom Generation

Sports presenter; Ted speaker; Apple Executive; Bono; Russell Brand; Therapist; Teacher; Actor; Nonprofit Leader; Entrepreneur; Academic.

These are the culture shapers of today (April, 2015). People receive their content and comment and though they don’t have political power they exercise an enormous amount of influence through their organisations and their public appearances. This is no bad thing and has always been so. Some people have enough charisma or dumb luck to find themselves in the public eye and often people rally around them and thus change is made and new initiatives are begun.

Now the Church in her effort to renew the proclamation of the faith to each generation in many ways leans on these contemporary patterns of leadership to define her clergy. Ministers today often look and sound like executive leaders and inspirational speakers, or therapists and academics. They start initiatives and make speeches, run training programmes and group discussions and this has become the expectation placed on clergy by society broadly and then more importantly, the congregations they serve.

Congregations who have grown up in a culture where a secular model of leadership has eroded much of the holiness from Holy Orders. The smaller, grass-roots quasi-independent churches which are springing up are most at risk of losing this sense of the Sacred in their leadership because they depend so heavily on the shaping from the context into which they are reaching. They may not have a Diocese, Conference, Presbytery or sending Church who can help a pastor stay accountable to the specifics of his or her calling and the community who they and a small team have called into the household of faith may not be theologically aware enough to understand what a Minister is and what they exist to do.

So by accident of the church’s context the calling to ministry might morph into a calling to executive leadership or distant lecturing or therapy.

This is the challenge pastoral ministry to the post-Christendom generation.

Leaning on the Old Ways

For Lent this year I decided to take up the practice of giving confession to a minister of a local Anglican church. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer has a fantastic section headed ‘The Reconciliation of the Penitent’ and each week we would sit down and work through the liturgy. I enjoyed it because of its form, the fact that I knew what the response was going to be: no matter what I confessed the minister was going to announce the forgiveness of my sins. That’s what he was there to do.

He wasn’t there to be my therapist.

He wasn’t there to give me advice.

He wasn’t there to fix me.

He was there to make present the truth of the Word of God.

To be a living proclamation of the Gospel.

I think it takes an extraordinary amount of courage and singleness of mind to be that kind of person and so I can forgive when ministers find themselves pressured into becoming the mirror image of Bono. It is hard to stand up to the post-Christendom world holding nothing but a Bible and bread and say ‘repent for the Kingdom of God is near’.

It’s so irrelevant.

We’ve entered the world Bonhoeffer saw from afar. The religious edifice surrounding Christianity is being pulled down, with its traditions of power and position and publicity. Now it rests on the shoulders of ministers to maintain the discipline of their calling when the world would begin to demand much more from them and their congregations don’t understand the old ways of faith, don’t trust in the utterance of absolution, the breaking of bread and the proclaiming of the Word.

What a task. What a trial.

Jesus said: These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. (John 14:25-27)