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Seven reasons to ban the Lord’s Prayer

Britain woke up this morning to the news that the Lord’s Prayer has been banned from cinemas.

The Church of England has produced a sixty second commercial.  The only words are the words of the Lord’s Prayer, said by children, the bereaved, people at work and so on.  It’s a beautiful film, Certificate U. The ad is to promote a new website, Just Pray.uk.  The plan was (and is) to show the film before Christmas at screenings of the new Star Wars film to help everyone think about prayer and to pray.  What could be more simple?

The distributors have declared the Lord’s Prayer unsuitable for screening.  They believe it carries the risk of upsetting or offending audiences.

Cue indignation from the press, fury from the Archbishop (according to the Mail anyway) debates about free speech, a possible challenge in the courts and a storm on social media.

But wait just a moment.  Suppose the cinema chains got this one right?

I disagree with their decision and I disagree with the reasons they have given.  I hope it’s reversed.  I don’t believe the film will offend or upset audiences, in the way they mean, and I don’t believe it creates a new precedent.

But from the point of view of global corporations and consumer culture, from the perspective of the gods and spirits of the age, there are very good reasons indeed to ban the Lord’s Prayer from cinemas and from culture and from public life.

This is a prayer said by billions of people every day in every language on the planet.  In every single moment in time, someone is praying these words.  They are the first words of prayer we learn as children and the last words we say at the moment of death.

The Lord’s Prayer is powerful for a reason.  These words shape lives and families and communities and whole societies.

There are real reasons why the Lord’s Prayer has been banned by the demigods of consumer culture, in the boardrooms of the cinema chains.  Here are seven, one for every line.

First, this prayer gives to those who pray it an identity and a place in the world and a countercultural community.  “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name”.  It opposes the myth that we are random specks of matter floating through space and time.  It opposes the myth that our lives do not matter.  It opposes the myth of fragmented humanity.

We are created and loved and called into friendship with God who is our father and into community with our fellow human beings who are therefore our sisters and brothers.  Only someone who has found this new identity can stand against the advertising culture which night and day seduces us to define who we are by what we spend.

Second this prayer gives us the courage to live in an imperfect world.  “Your kingdom come.  Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. 

The world is not as it was meant to be.  It is distorted from its true purpose.  But God is at work to redeem and transform this world, to establish his kingdom.  The Lord’s Prayer invites us not to retreat from the world in fear and pain, to anaesthetise or indulge ourselves.  The Lord’s Prayer invites us to join the struggle to see justice and peace prevail.

Third, and most powerfully, the Lord’s Prayer teaches us to live with just enough.  This is the most dangerous reason why it cannot be shown with the adverts at the cinema.  It teaches us not to want more.  It teaches contentment, the most subversive virtue of them all.

“Give us this day our daily bread”.  This is not a prayer for more.  This is a prayer only for what we need.  Every other advert in the cinema is there to encourage us to spend money in pursuit of happiness.  This one restrains our greed.

Fourth, the Lord’s Prayer teaches me to live with my imperfections and the imperfections of others.  There is a way to deal with the rubbish in our lives.  “Forgive us our sins”.

Consumer culture holds before us the image of perfection.  We cannot be happy until we look like this person, live like that one.  Each image is a lie.

The Lord’s Prayer acknowledges human imperfection and sin, daily.  The Lord’s Prayer offers a pathway to forgiveness, daily. The way of forgiveness cannot be bought.  It is a gift.  Grace.  Grace subverts the whole culture of advertising.

Fifth the Lord’s Prayer offers a way of reconciliation.  “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”.  We are not meant to feud or live in hostility or rivalry.  We are meant to forgive and be forgiven, to be reconciled to each other.  That reconciliation happens without expensive presents, without going into debt, without credit.  People are not made happy by more things, another consumer lie.  The greatest happiness comes from relationships.  The key to great relationships is reconciliation and forgiveness.

Sixth, the Lord’s Prayer builds resilience in the human spirit.  When you say this prayer each day you are prepared for the bad days.  “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” 

When we say this prayer we remind ourselves that we are not living in a Disney fairy tale, a saccharine creation of film makers where every story has a happy ending.

We are living in a real world of cancer and violence and difficulty, where we are tested, where bad things happen for no clear reason.  We live in that world confident in God’s love and goodness and help even in the midst of the most challenging moments of our lives.  Faith is for the deep valleys as much as the green pastures.  We may not have the answers but we know that God dwells with us and in us.

And seventh the Lord’s Prayer tells us how the story ends, how this life is to be lived and lived well.  “For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours, now and for ever.  Amen”.

The prayer returns as it begins to the praise and glory of the living God.  Our hearts return to their origin and source, the one who created us.  Life is to be lived to God’s praise and glory, not to satisfy our own small desires.  We are beings with a higher calling and a greater purpose.

There are only 63 words in the Lord’s Prayer.  It takes less than a minute to say them.

Yet these words shape our identity, give purpose to our lives, check our greed, remind us of our imperfections, offer a way of reconciliation, build resilience in our spirits and call us to live to the glory of our creator.

No wonder they have been banned in the boardrooms of consumer culture.

+Steven

Note:

This post is based on a sermon given in Peterhouse, Cambridge on Sunday 22 November.

To view the Lord’s Prayer film go to: https://youtu.be/vlUXh4mx4gI

To view the Just Prayer website go to: justpray.uk?

For the Pilgrim Course on the Lord’s Prayer see: http://www.pilgrimcourse.org/

Reform and Renewal: the Noddy and Big Ears Guide

The new General Synod meets for the first time next week.   A central part of our agenda over the next five years will be the ongoing Reform and Renewal process.

Here is an unofficial Noddy and Big Ears Guide to Reform and Renewal.  It’s a Noddy guide because I’ve tried to make it simple.  It’s a Big Ears guide because the whole Reform and Renewal process is about listening to what’s happening across the country and developing a response.

This is also something of a personal perspective.  I’ve been closely involved in the story so far.  To use a Star Trek analogy, let me take you on a guided tour: first to the Captain’s Log to explore the deeper story; then to the Engine Room to understand what’s being proposed; and finally to the Bridge to look ahead into the future.

Captain’s Log: looking back…..

The roots of Reform and Renewal lie in the immense change taking place in the society we serve.  The Church of England has lived through a century of change.

We lived for fifty years, from 1915 to 1965, through the end of Christendom: the idea that society is uniform and that people are Christian unless they opt out, that church going is the norm.  We have had to adjust our ways of being the Church to that new reality.  We have needed to recover, especially, the central idea that God calls us to be a church in mission to our own society, the call to make disciples and the call to set God’s mission at the heart of our common life.

We then lived for fifty years and more with a mistaken understanding of secularisation.  Secularisation began in the 18th century.  It’s the process by which science, democracy, technology and economics became separate from any particular religion (and in that sense it’s closely related to the end of Christendom).  This process has brought immense benefits.

But from the 1960’s until very recently, secularisation has been linked with another powerful idea.  The notion that the more advanced a society, the less place it has for religion of any kinds.  In the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s, many people predicted and believed that the role of faith in society would shrink away to nothing as our society “advanced”.

We have adjusted our ways of being the Church to this reality as well.  For many years, many in the Church have accepted our decline as inevitable.  Many have even planned for that decline to continue as if this was God’s purpose for the Church.  The loss of confidence has been profound.  We have needed to recover the central Christian virtue of hope: the sure hope that God has a purpose for his church and for this Church of England for many generations still to come.

The sociologists now tell us what we have known for some time.  The role of faith in the modern world is not shrinking but growing and also changing.  Britain is not becoming more secular.  Religion and religious affiliation are changing all the time, but the role of faith in public life and private life is not less but more significant.

The former chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, has recently published a powerful study of violence and religion, Not in God’s Name.  Lord Sacks begins with a study of secularization and the gaping hole it leaves in human understanding.

“Science, technology, the free market and the liberal democratic state have enabled us to reach unprecedented achievements in knowledge, freedom, life expectancy and affluence.  They are among the greatest achievements of human civilization….But they do not and cannot answer the three questions every(one) should ask at some time in his or her life: “Who am I?  Why am I here?  How then should I live?”.

Rabbi Sacks puts forward the view that the coming century will be more not less religious, less not more secular.  How should we respond?

A hundred years of change.  The end of Christendom.  The beginning and end of secularization.  How are we as the Church of England to respond to God’s call in our day?  How are we to join in God’s mission and to make that response in faith and hope and love?

Reform and Renewal is part of an answer to these vital questions.

The Engine Room: what are the proposals?

Five years ago, the General Synod of our Church agreed three core priorities.

The three goals are these: to serve the common good of our society, to grow the life of the church in the numbers and the quality of our discipleship; and to re-imagine the ministry we offer to the nation.  The first two are inextricably linked.  We see growth and life in many places but in too many the combined effects of declining and ageing congregations mean that in ten years time, we may no longer be a church in every place.  To serve the common good and the whole people of England we must pay close attention to growth in the life of the Church.

Those goals are widely and deeply owned across the Church of England.  You will find something like them in the vision statements of many dioceses and parish churches.  They have been at the heart of the work of our national Church for the last five years.

But it takes time in a Church of the size and complexity of the Church of England to listen, to reflect, to begin to shape answers to those key questions.  How should be respond to God’s mission in hope?  How do we better serve the common good, grow the life of the church and re-imagine the ministry we offer.  What can we do nationally to support dioceses and parishes?

Little by little, through a process of listening, conversation and research some answers and some initiatives began to emerge.  There are six or seven different streams of work.  They began at slightly different times and different places.  They are also in different stages of discussion or implementation.

One is looking at how we use our historic assets to support growth rather than reward decline; another is exploring ministerial education, another at simplification, another senior leadership and still another what we need to do nationally and so on.  They are all linked together in some way.  For that reason, it’s helpful to see them as one process under the single heading of Reform and Renewal: helping us to be a Church of hope, a Church engaging in God’s mission, a Church of compassion and a Church preparing for a harvest.

If you really want to spend more time with Scottie in the engine room trying to get us to warp speed, then read this summary paper for Synod.

The Bridge: scanning the horizon

That’s the big picture.  I want to zoom in now, if I may, and ask the question what difference the Reform and Renewal programme might make to the life of the Church of England over the next fifteen years, if it bears the fruit we hope it will, by the grace and power of God.  It’s not a programme designed to tackle everything.  The core ministry of the local church remains at the heart of the Church of England: worship, witness, service to the local community.

But here are some of the things which I hope will change over the next fifteen years as Reform and Renewal bears fruit in the life of the local parish church.

A culture of discipleship

First I hope and pray that every church will become better at making and sustaining and equipping disciples: that Christians will understand their faith better, share it more confidently, live it out more fully.  We need to grow again a culture of discipleship across the Church of England.

The Christian faith is not a hobby or a leisure activity.  The Christian faith is a response to the grace of God in Jesus Christ with the whole of our lives, for the whole of our lives, offering lives which have been made whole.

Every local church, every diocese needs a plan for taking forward that culture of discipleship, for growing new Christians, for sustaining established Christians.

Reform and Renewal is helping to make resources available for that task.  There are key proposals to change and increase the Church Commissioners distribution of funds to support poorer parishes and to support growth in numbers and in the depth of discipleship.  There is a major emphasis on how we teach the faith, how we encourage discipleship in every place.

Energy for mission

Second, I hope and pray that every church will focus greater energy and resources on God’s mission and worship, service and witness.  That means less time on bureaucracy, form filling, administration and the like.

A major strand in Reform and Renewal is about simplification: on how we make the task of vicars, of churchwardens, of PCC treasurers and others simpler and easier in the future.

Ministry and leadership

Third, I hope and pray that every local church will have the ministry and leadership it needs to support God’s mission.  Lay leadership and ministry is key and the next two years will see significant developments here.  The voices of lay people need to be heard more clearly in the life of our Church.  We need to invest more in training, equipping and sustaining lay ministers.

We need urgently to see more vocations to ordained ministry.  40% of our current clergy are approaching retirement.  On present projections half of our clergy who retire cannot be replaced.  We need as clergy to be better equipped as leaders in God’s mission.  We need our clergy to be more diverse as a group.  We need more younger clergy who are able to offer a lifetime to ordained ministry.  We need to ask the Lord of the harvest to send labourers.

There will be a major national initiative to raise the number of vocations, significantly, by as much as 50% by 2020. That will involve every parish in prayer, in communication, in encouragement, in support.  We are looking carefully at the ways in which we train clergy before and after ordination and how we fund that training.  Dioceses are clear what is needed:  the Church needs ordained and lay ministers who are flexible, collaborative leaders in God’s mission.

Senior leaders

Fourth I hope and pray the senior leadership of the Church of England in 10 years time will be better equipped for their task and more representative of the church we are called to lead: male and female, black and white, from a wider range of backgrounds, well prepared and committed to ongoing learning.  Again we are investing intentionally in that process.

Communication in a digital age

Finally, I hope and pray we will be much more effective at communicating our faith in a digital age.  This is the most important investment the Church of England needs to make nationally.

We are living through the greatest time of change in the way we communicate since the invention of the printing press.  Parishes and Dioceses are moving far too slowly to keep up with those changes in the way we communicate.  We need to invest much more in our digital communications in order to keep pace and contribute to Christian engagement with the contemporary world.

So what is Reform and Renewal about?

  1. Resources for discipleship and growth
  2. Focusing energy on our core tasks
  3. Every local church having the ministry it needs
  4. Equipping senior leaders
  5. Better digital communication

These are not the whole agenda by any means.  There are other issues the Church needs to address.  The world keeps changing around us.

God has called us in our generation to be salt and light, to love our neighbours as ourselves, to have compassion on a lost and bewildered generation.  This is a time of turmoil.  But it is also a time of hope.

Pray for our Church as we move forward and most of all, as Christ commands us, pray that the Lord of the Harvest will send labourers to his harvest field.

And finally….

This post is based on a sermon preached on 15th November in St Mary’s and All Saints, Chesterfield.  I’m grateful to Father Patrick Coleman for the invitation and for the very helpful “Conversation under the Spire”.

I’m grateful to Premier Digital for an award for this blog in the category “Most Inspiring Leadership Blog”.  Like everything else I do it’s a team effort.  Warm thanks to Jane Perry and LJ Buxton for their research and ideas and to Kate Hill and Jason Smedley for managing posts and comments.

+Steven Sheffield

Courage in Ministry

The Bishop’s charge to those about to be ordained deacon and priest

3rd July, 2015

Every year those to be ordained deacon and priest in the Diocese share in a retreat together immediately before the ordinations.  As part of the retreat, the bishop offers an address, called a charge.  This is my bishop’s charge for this year, on the theme of courage in ministry. 

“Rekindle the gift of God that is in you through the laying on of my hands”

2 Timothy 1.6

“Will you then, in the strength of the Holy Spirit, continually stir up the gift of God that is in you, to make Christ known amongst all whom you serve”

Two years into my curacy, I was asked to give the opening speech at the annual summer fair at the local Church school.  The Vicar was unable to be there.  It was an opportunity, he said, to say something Christian to those who gathered, to communicate the gospel.

It was a fine summers afternoon.  There were scores of people milling around.  I asked the headteacher when and where I should speak.  I expected that there would be a stage, a microphone, a clear introduction.  “That’s up to you” she said and handed me a megaphone.

I wandered round the stalls for a while in my clerical collar with this megaphone dangling by my side.  There didn’t seem anywhere obvious to stand or anything obvious to say.  After about half an hour, without any ceremony, I put the megaphone back in the school office and slipped away.

Basically, I funked it.  Here was a chance to say something to a group of parents and children on the edge of the life of the church I’d been given.  Permission, encouragement, opportunity and means were all there.  But my nerves got the better of me.  I let the moment pass and hoped no-one would notice.  My courage failed me.

The theme of my charge to you this evening is the place of courage in ministry.  My hope and prayer is that through the years of ordained ministry ahead, as deacons and priests, your lives and ministries will be marked by courage and, particularly courage in proclaiming the gospel.

It’s my practice when preparing this annual charge to read through the ordinal to reference the theme.  I found surprisingly few references to courage in ministry.  I suspect this reflects the settled mentality of Christendom which lies beneath much of our liturgy.  The reality is that we live in a post Christian, pluralist world in which the Christian faith we represent is deeply contested.  Courage is a key component in the ministries to which we are called.

However, I did find three references which I want to explore.  In the ordination of bishops, the candidates are urged to proclaim the gospel with all boldness, referencing Acts 4.32 and elsewhere.

“Following the example of the prophets and the teaching of the apostles, they are to proclaim the gospel boldly, confront injustice and work for righteousness and peace in all the world”.

I take this to apply no less to deacons and priests than to bishops.

As you know, the Bishop will ask the candidates a series of questions before the ordination.  The final question in all three services for bishops, priests and deacons references to 2 Timothy 1.6.  The bishop asks:

“Will you then in the strength of the Holy Spirit continually stir up the gift of God that is in you, to make Christ known among all whom you serve”

In its biblical context, this is clearly a call to courageous ministry.

The third reference is in the questions to the congregation.  After the ordinands publicly answer the great questions, the bishop asks the congregation three questions.  The third question asks this:

“Will you uphold and encourage them in their ministry”

I want to argue that this too is a reference to courage.  It’s not as clearly rooted in a single biblical passage but the story the verse brings to mind more than any other is Joshua 1, where the people urge their new leader at his commissioning, above everything else to be bold.

These three references in the ordinal stand in contrast to the many references to courage in ministry and leadership in the scriptures.  We might think of the courage of Joshua, of Hannah, of Sarah, of Elijah and Elishah, of David and of Mary the mother of Jesus.  We might reflect on the courage of Jesus himself in confronting the scribes and the Pharisees, in setting his face towards Jerusalem, in the Garden of Gethsemane, on the cross.  We might reflect on the many acts of courage in the Acts of the Apostles or the great list of heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11.  That list is provided for us “so that we may not lose heart” (Hebrews 12.3).  It is for our en-courage-ment.

Before we explore these three passages and themes in more detail, let me explore for a few moments the reasons why I want to encourage you to reflect on this theme of courage in ministry.

A few weeks ago the Diocese of Sheffield held its first residential conference for twelve years.  Those of you about to be ordained priest were there together, most of the clergy from across the Diocese and about seventy lay people.  The conference was, I think, a really significant moment in the life of the Diocese.

The overall theme of the conference was discipleship in a Christ-like Church.  But the theme which emerged most strongly over the three days was the need for courage and confidence in our discipleship and ministry at this particular moment in this particular Diocese.  Our agenda was discipleship but I think part of the Lord’s agenda was courage.

My own address to the conference was focussed on the low self-esteem which is a deep part of the culture of South Yorkshire and of this Diocese and of many local churches.  I talked about the battles ministers and disciples face with fear, anxiety and self doubt and the need to overcome these things, to be a Church confident in the love and grace of God and able to minister to the communities we are called to serve.

Paula Gooder expounded the theme of discipleship in Mark 4, 5 and 6.  One of the major themes of Paula’s exposition was the timidity of the disciples and Jesus call to them to be people of faith and courage.  Martyn Atkins addressed the theme of discipleship and the church.  One of his central points was that we know all that we need to know about making and sustaining disciples.  What the Church lacks is courage and confidence in the gospel to act on this information.  Bishop Peter led a session in which three business people spoke about their faith and their work.  Again the theme was courage.  David Ison and Alison Morgan again referenced the need to be bold and courageous in our discipleship.  For those not able to be there, all of these addresses are available on the website.

Through all of these references to courage, I believe that there is a word from the Lord for the Diocese at this time to recover our courage, not least as we prepare for the Crossroads mission with the Northern Bishops in September but also as we prepare for the next chapter in our life together: living and communicating Christian faith in the communities we serve with clarity, compassion and confidence.

I also believe that courage is an important theme for you to ponder in these final days before your ordination as deacon or priest.  It would not be unusual if at some point in these days or the next few weeks you come face to face with anxiety and fear.

So let’s attend to these three passages, brought to our attention by the ordinal.

“Following the example of the prophets and the teaching of the apostles they are to proclaim the gospel boldly….”

The specific reference here is to Acts 4.29-31.  Peter and John have been arrested, tried and released following the healing of the lame man at the beautiful gate.  The believers gather for prayer.  It is remarkable that according to Acts, they don’t pray for safety or deliverance.  They pray for boldness.

“And now, Lord, look at their threats and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hands to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through name of your holy servant Jesus”.  When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4.29-31).

The word translated boldly or with boldness is a recurring word in Acts: parresia.  It’s used about ten times either as a noun or an adverb.  Parresia is especially linked with preaching and public testimony.  It is important not only for its frequency but because Luke makes it the penultimate word in the Acts of the Apostles.  In the final scene of Acts, Paul has at last come to Rome.  The gospel has travelled from Jerusalem to the heart of the known world.  What is Paul doing as we leave him in Rome?

“He lived there two whole years at his own expense and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 28.30-31).

What does this word translated boldness actually mean?  Parresia does carry the meaning of courage in the normal sense.  But it also has a wider range of meanings drawn from the world of Greek rhetoric: the art of public speaking.

The apostles are praying for courage as we mean it, certainly.  We need the normal kind of courage in ministry. But they are asking for more than this.  They are also praying for certain qualities to be evident in their service of the word.  I’d like to pull out four strands of meaning.  I don’t normally do alliteration but these all begin with “p”.

They are praying for grace so that they may speak plainly first of all.  That is the meaning of parresia in John 15.29 where the disciples say to Jesus “Now you are speaking plainly not in any figure of speech”.  It is vital in our preaching and teaching to speak in ways and language that people can hear and understand.

The word originated in Greek political life with the fundamental meaning of declaring the whole truth without fear or favour.  Telling it like it is.

The author Henri Nouwen, I am told, labored and labored over his books with one aim, to make them shorter, sharper and clearer: more plainly understood.

It’s a serious thing to preach in such a way that people cannot understand you.  Sermons like that leave people feeling that the Christian faith is complicated and impenetrable.  It can leave them feeling ignorant and stupid if you use words which are hard to understand.  Speak plainly.

Second, the disciples are praying for the grace to speak persuasively.  They are praying that their arguments will be clear and persuasive and logical and winsome.  They are praying that their preaching will win hearts and minds as they present Christ on every opportunity.

As the words from the ordinal make clear, we need the boldness of the prophets and the apostles. The boldness of the prophets is the courage to speak truth to power in difficult circumstances.  But the parresia, the courage of the apostles in teaching is learned in the schools of the philosophers as much as the prophets: a clear and open argument to convince our hearers.

Too often we become lazy in our service of the word.  We repeat stock formulas and old arguments instead of working to craft words which will persuade and convince through reason that Jesus is the Son of God.

Third speak publicly.  It’s an obvious but constant theme in Acts that the message of the gospel is carried beyond the Church both in conversation and in proclamation.  “We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard”.  But we do more than tell that message over and over again to each other.

Where does public proclamation feature in your lifetime calling to speak the word?  Where will you look to make your contribution, speaking to the wider culture we are part of?  In the whole history of the Church, particularly in the great Methodist revivals, the power of the gospel is released in new ways when we proclaim our faith in public.  John Wesley’s ministry took a new and powerful turn when he went outside the Church to preach to the miners in Bristol and elsewhere.   As you enter the Cathedral tomorrow and on Sunday, you might recall that Wesley was famously banned from speaking in Sheffield Parish Church, by the then Vicar and instead spoke in the open air, to greater effect than if he had been locked up inside the Church.

How will you proclaim the gospel publicly in the coming year, with courage.

Finally, the apostles are praying for the grace to preach the gospel persistently, in season and out of season as Paul himself charges Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:

“In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message, be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; convince, rebuke, and encourage with the utmost patience in teaching” (2 Tim 4.1-2).

Here is the first part of the charge to ponder about courage which applies especially to your service of the word. Preach the word of God with boldness.  Labour for the gift of plain speaking so that everyone can understand what you are trying to say.  Work hard at your preaching and teaching so that what you say is persuasive, well constructed, within the community and outside it.  And resolve to be persistent in what you say, in season and out of season.

Make no mistake.  You are being ordained to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ and to preach the word of God.  Pray for boldness in that calling all the days of your life.

I’m going to ask you to reflect, in second place, on the courage envisaged by that final question in the ordination service.

“Will you in the strength of the Holy Spirit, stir up the gift of God that is in you to make Christ known amongst all whom you will serve”

To understand the question, it’s important to reflect on the context of these distinctive words in 2 Timothy 1.

“For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self control” (1.6-7).

My own understanding of the context of 2 Timothy is this.  I don’t believe 2 Timothy is general instruction from an older to a younger minister (although 1 Timothy and Titus can be seen in that way).  I believe 2 Timothy is a genuine Pauline letter written at a particular time of crisis in Timothy’s life and ministry.  Timothy has been somehow caught up in one of the sporadic waves of persecution which are a feature of first century Christian life. In that wave of persecution, Timothy had the opportunity to make the good confession, to stand up for his faith in Jesus Christ. For whatever reason, his courage deserted him and he failed the test.  He is in a place not unlike Peter the apostle after the denial.  2 Timothy is written in this moment of great crisis to restore Timothy to his vocation, to help him find his courage again in these moments of despair and failure.

We are talking about prophetic courage here: the willingness to pick yourself up after a bad fall when you messed things up personally or professionally and get back on the horse.  The courage to get back into the pulpit after the family service went drastically wrong; the courage to go back a second time into the unruly classroom or assembly; the courage to say the really difficult thing at the PCC meeting or in the pastoral encounter; the courage to step up to the plate of costly, difficult, demanding ministry situations again and again and again and again.

Christian ministry would probably be very easy if we were perfect, balanced, gifted people. The reality is that we are imperfect, disordered, temperamental so and so’s trying to do the best we can.  For most of us most of the time, our ministry will be punctuated by those moments when we didn’t speak or act, when we let the opportunity go, when we try and fail, when we are on the batting plate but ball after ball sails past us.

How does Paul respond to Timothy, his child in the Lord in this moment of crisis.  He responds first with love and affection.  This is the most passionate letter in the New Testament I think. “To Timothy my beloved child” (1.2).

He responds with prayer: “I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day” (1.4). There is urgency and desperation here.

He reminds Timothy of God’s grace in verse 6.  Through the rest of the letter Paul gently restores Timothy’s vision for ministry and sets before Timothy both his own example and that of the Lord Jesus Christ.  He is trying to encourage Timothy, to put courage into him, to enable him to engage again with the task to which Timothy has been called.

One of the themes I would encourage you to reflect on in these days is how you believe God responds to you when you lose your courage, when you have those moments like the one I described and many more much worse than that.

Will God respond in any less a way than Paul does to Timothy: with love, with prayer, with grace, with gentle rebuilding, with vision and example.

The rhythm of lifelong ministry is one of failure and restoration.  If that’s not the whole rhythm it will be part of it.  The long term fruitfulness of your ministry and mine depend in how you deal with those situations of failure and remaking.

That is why this final question is at the heart of it all.  It presupposes moments of failure.

“Will you in the strength of the Holy Spirit, stir up the gift of God that is in you…..”

Why does the gift need stirring up?  Because the flame has burned low.  The gift is dormant.  The Greek word at the centre of 2 Timothy 1.6 is anapourizein.  It means to catch fire again.  To burn again with the love and passion of God.  Will you rekindle courage and hope in your ministry again and again and again and again through all the years ahead?

This request to stir up the gift of God that is in you is not a once and for all request to speak sternly to yourself on the day of ordination.  It is a commitment, like the other commitments you are making in these questions, to habits of life.  And one of them is the habit of continually stirring up the gift of God that is in you: catching fire morning by morning.

“Rekindle the gift of God that is in you through the laying on of my hands….

Finally and very briefly the third passage from the ordinal: the third of the questions the bishop asks the congregation.

“Will you uphold and encourage them in their ministry?”

We are not called to serve alone.  We serve as part of the Body of Christ, the people of God.  As the Body of Christ, the people of God, we uphold, encourage and support one another in every part of what we do.  I hope that will be true of your relationships within this group, within the deanery in which you serve and within the congregation.  We receive as much as we give in ministering to others.

One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given as a deacon and priest I pass on to you.  When you are feeling sad or depressed or down in your ministry, no matter what it’s about, go and pay someone a pastoral visit. You will almost always come back with a changed perspective, upheld and encouraged by the grace of God.

At the end of our diocesan conference, it happened to be the Feast of St Barnabas and I named Barnabas as an additional patron saint of this diocese in the coming years.  I enrolled everyone there into a new Society, the Fellowship of St Barnabas and enrol you all in it as well today.  It has one purposes, to build each other up in courage and boldness in our discipleship and ministry now and in the years to come.

Preach the gospel with boldness: plainly, persuasively, publicly, persistently.

Continually stir up the gift of God that is in you.

Be a son of encouragement to others and allow them to encourage you.

May God bless you richly in these final hours of preparation before your ordination as priest and deacon and in all the years ahead.  I look forward to serving with you.

 

+Steven Sheffield

 

 

The Top Ten Proverbs for Twitter and Facebook

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People in Britain spend more time online than they do sleeping: 8 hours 41 minutes a day according to an Ofcom survey in 2014.  That’s twice as much time as the average person spends watching television.  The same “average” person checks their phone 113 times a day.

Last Sunday, I was asked to preach on the theme of being a disciple online at All Saints Church,

Woodlands, near Doncaster.  What does the Bible have to say about how to be a Christian on Twitter or Facebook, in emails or texts?  How are we salt and light in that part of God’s world?

I turned to the Book of Proverbs in the Old Testament.  Proverbs is made up of over 400 short, pithy

sayings, most under 140 characters.  They are thought provoking, memorable and full of wit, just like a good tweet.

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So here are my top ten Proverbs from the Old Testament for users of Facebook and Twitter and other online media.  The words in italics are my own, very short, application of each verse.

  • A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches
    Proverbs 22.1
    Take care of your reputation online and offline
  • Some friends play at friendship but a true friend sticks closer than a brother
    Proverbs 18.24
    Friend is a big word not a small word; friendship is a gift and a blessing
  • Iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another
    Proverbs 27.17
    We grow as people through wit, humour and interaction online and offline
  • Better is a little with righteousness than a large income with injustice
    Proverbs 16.8
    We spend much of our time online buying and selling and banking. Financial honesty and transparency is key; pay your taxes
  • Like a city breached, without walls is one who lacks self control
    Proverbs 25.28
    Self control is needed in normal life and even more in the private world of online interaction. When it goes, we are soon overwhelmed.   
  • A gossip goes about telling secrets but one who is trustworthy keeps a confidence
    Proverbs 11.13
    Holding confidences is as important in texts, emails, facebook and twitter as in real life
  • A gentle tongue is a tree of life but perverseness in it breaks the spirit
    Proverbs 15.4
    Words have real power to build up and to pull down.  Use them well. 
  • The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels, they go down to the inner parts of the body
    Proverbs 18.8
    So do rumours circulating on the internet.  Beware.
  • Like vinegar on a wound is one who sings songs to a heavy heart
    Proverbs 25.20
    It’s well worth taking the trouble over what you say. Engage brain and heart before posting. 
  • A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver
    Proverbs 25.11
    And its worth taking trouble over the way you say it….

+Steven Sheffield