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Many people are involved in some form of leadership. Some have the title “manager” in their job description whilst others are team leaders. Within the community, you might lead a Scouts or Brownie group, or other activity involving young people. You may help run your village hall, Parish Council or take some other responsibility within the life of your village. There are many ways of exercising leadership through paid employment or on a voluntary basis.
When it comes to those in the Church, how do we understand our leadership? How do those on our Parochial Church Councils (PCC’s) feel about their role in the management and governance of their church? Certainly, it is about assisting and supporting others in our shared Christian journey. It is about maintaining our beautiful buildings and raising funds. But in all we do, we are very aware that we need to be receptive to God’s call. We take our lead from God. It is less about our achievements, both individually and corporately, and more about the actions we receive as a gift from God. Our actions soon become ineffective if they are not received as a gift of God’s grace.
Grace is the method by which God leads his Church. It is the mechanism God uses to guide his people. Grace can be thought of as the favour God reveals to those who seek him. It is how we try to understand God’s will. Grace is about God’s blessing and kindness. For those who seek to know God’s will, prayer is the starting point. Grace is the gift we receive through prayer.
In their book “Faithful Improvisation? Theological reflections on church leadership”, Professors Loveday Alexander and Mike Higton tell us that prayer is important when seeking guidance from God. Prayer also offers an opportunity to recharge our batteries, before expending energy. However, they make it clear that prayer is about far more. There is so much more to prayer than simply asking God for advice. Prayer is about far more than just recharging our batteries.
Prayer is one of the most mysterious aspects of Christian life. We might sometimes wonder if God really hears our prayers. Questions about how we should pray and what is acceptable to pray about are common questions for every Christian. Prayer certainly provides guidance and is essential for exploring our underlying objectives and motivations in the presence of a loving God. Prayer brings peace in a world that often feels chaotic. St Augustine of Hippo famously said “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” But according to Alexander and Higton, prayer is about more than rest and guidance.
They continue, “[Prayer] is the starting point because our agency – our determination, our endeavour, our action – is never primary. Our vision of ministry, and of leadership within it, should not begin with any picture of heroic activity on the part of those who minister, but of a deep and abiding receptivity and attentiveness. To minister is to be acted upon by God, to be caught up in what God is doing in and through us. Its centre is not labour (though there is certain to be labour involved), but rest in God. Prayer is therefore necessarily the centre of ministry, including all those forms of ministry that we call leadership”. [From the chapter: “Faithful improvisation or Talent Management?”]
“Heroic activity” is about individual action where God is absent. It is action without grace, and therefore meaningless to God. Action, undertaken within all the fulness of grace, is “of a deep and abiding receptivity and attentiveness” to God. God is taking the lead and not the individual. There is no resentment in action undertaken within a deep and abiding attentiveness. To rest in God is to know an inner peace, often within a world preoccupied with busyness. The need to be constantly busy is often about something missing in life. To place God at the centre, releases individuals from these bonds. Action becomes God-centred. The method God uses to nurture “a deep and abiding receptivity and attentiveness” is prayer.
Wednesday 26th February marks the beginning of Lent. The season begins with Ash Wednesday. The ash formed from the destruction of heroic actions, undertaken in the absence of grace, provides the very foundation for Lenten contemplation. The Lent Group and other services within the benefice help provide a framework for reflection. These services provide a space for prayer as we draw closer to God who desires a deep and abiding receptivity and attentiveness.
Let us start with a prayer:
Lord, help me to act not in anger or nurse a grudge.
Help me to purge my heart of all deceit.
I pray that today I will never give a hollow greeting of peace
and I will never turn away when somebody needs my love.
Help me to speak the truth with heart and tongue.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord,
Sanctuary is a safe place. It is a place of peace. Within Sanctuary we can find the space to explore, more fully, our place within the world. The quest for sanctuary resonates deep within the human heart. But before we can take a step into Sanctuary, we must find the doorway. The human heart contains the doorway that leads into Sanctuary. And the name we give that doorway is virtue.
Christopher Jamison, in his book Finding Sanctuary, says, “Virtue is the recognition of the sacred in daily life. As we open the door of virtue in our personal and working lives, we will open the way into a sanctuary of peace for ourselves and for others. We are enabled to lead a unified life with the same values at home and at work, a life that is transparent and has nothing to hide.”
Living a virtuous life, a life that is morally good, is not enough in itself to create Sanctuary. But there is no other way into Sanctuary other than living the virtuous life. St Benedict (480-547AD) wrote a set of “rules” about how to live peacefully within a community. He understood the doorway of virtue can put people off entering Sanctuary to the extent they never open the door and enter. St Benedict said, “Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation.” Within Christianity, things do go wrong. Therefore, repentance and forgiveness remain central.
Taking the first step into Sanctuary is about venturing into an infinite world of time and space. Within this world, the usual laws of physics do not apply. Although God provides the plan, each Sanctuary is different. Like any good room, a carpet is required. The pattern of the carpet and the depth of its pile will vary for each person. But the basic constituent of the carpet is the same. The carpet of our sanctuary is constructed out of silence. As the silence grows, the carpet becomes more luxurious: the pile deepens, and the beauty of the pattern intensifies.
Fr Brian of Crawley Down Monastery writes, “Silence means more than slowing down or merely waiting for something to begin. It goes deeper. No one knows how deep except God.... We have to stop, wait, and be still before we can expect silence of mind. Then we can attend and take in words. We rest and just listen. There is nothing we need say. This silence is heavenly. It is silence of spirit. The secret of the Kingdom of God is disclosed, and we have found the treasure, the pearl of great price.”
1st December marks the beginning of Advent. In our schools and churches, we will hear again the Christmas story. We will hear of shepherds and angels, of wise men and “no room at the inn”. The story begins with a young woman called Mary. She is visited by an angel, Gabriel, whose first words to Mary are “Greetings, favoured one. The Lord is with you”. It’s easy to see Mary as someone proffering a way of life unattainable to most people. Although Mary was especially close to God, as a person she was an ordinary young woman. In a worldly sense, she was no one special. She was not wealthy or placed on a pedestal by those around her.
There’s a beautiful wooden sculpture in the chapel of the Crawley Down Monastery. A photograph is shown above. It is a sculpture of Mary standing next to the Angel Gabriel. Gabriel’s wings enfold Mary within God’s loving embrace. There is comfort, tenderness and protection captured within this moment. Mary has allowed herself to draw close to God and, in doing so, knows God’s favour. The Lord is with Mary.
Within our Sanctuary, we are called into a special relationship with God. It is not an easy journey, as Abbot Christopher and Fr Brian would undoubtedly acknowledge. The journey involves tracking back after making many false turns. Repentance and forgiveness remain central. The doorway of virtue and the carpet of silence are but two features of Sanctuary. However far we travel on this journey they will always be particularly challenging. But as our sanctuary develops, we find for ourselves the heavenly treasure, the pearl of great price, of which Fr Brian speaks.
The consequence of global warming is a high-profile issue within the media. Concerns about the environment are important to many people. But when it comes to buying a new car, why shouldn’t something powerful and fun be purchased? If a new and bigger house is desired, why not? If a replacement for what is tatty and rather shabby is preferred, is this a problem? If we want a relaxing holiday in a sunny country, why not hop on the next flight?
Consumerism may be destroying our planet but, at least outwardly, buying the latest new thing is rather enjoyable. We might want to limit our environmental impact, but climate change is a problem for the future. Gone are the days when one group of people can tell someone else what to do and how to behave. In our Post-Modern world, those traditional structures of authority have long since disappeared. If patterns of behaviour are to change, a credible alternative must be proposed. An alternative way of doing things needs to offer a better way of living.
One of the phrases often heard is, “People don’t have time like they used to.” Busyness is of course a relative term. What one person believes is being busy, another will see as relatively relaxed living. It’s interesting that most people believe that their own excessive busyness is someone else’s fault. The assumption is that modern life is busy and there’s nothing anyone can do about that.
Many people think that one day they will do something about their incessant busyness. For example, when they retire. But those who have retired say they remain as busy as ever. The truth is, we choose how busy we are. We are all free to choose how busy we are within our lives.
Since the time of Margaret Thatcher, UK governments have sought to maximise the effect of market forces. Competition has become the byword of everyday life. And competition requires customers – lots of customers! Whether it’s our interaction with the NHS or electricity supply companies, a consumerist culture pervades every aspect of modern life.
Within contemporary society, we are defined primarily as “customers”. We are no longer patients in hospitals or pupils in schools, we are all now customers. We are incentivised through the belief that anything can be purchased. Market forces work hard to prevent us thinking we might have enough. And if that temptation arises, travel companies work hard for our business with promises to fly us to places where we can “get away from it all”. We are driven to work even harder, to afford a new car, a bigger house, a more expensive holiday. We are caught within a cycle of overwork within a modern culture of consumerism. But the world is changing and there seems little doubt the current impact of our lifestyles is not environmentally sustainable.
No one willingly gives up what they enjoy. It therefore appears the future holds two possibilities. Either we are forced to abandon our culture of consumerism, as the environmental impact on our planet becomes ever more severe. Or we need to find another way of life that enables us to live as satisfied, mature, contented, peaceful people beyond a culture of consumerism.
Abbot Christopher Jamison of Worth Abbey, in his book “Finding Sanctuary” writes, “We are piling high material wealth that we cannot carry and even when we succeed in carrying it, most disconcerting of all, our pride prevents us delivering it.” We are excluding ourselves from the proffered sanctuary. Pride prevents those piled high with material wealth, entering the holy place where they might find rest.
St Benedict (480-547AD) wrote a set of “rules” about how to live peacefully within a community. His goal was that all who followed his rule might live satisfied, mature and contented lives. St Benedict understood the temptation to simply keep busy rather than looking into our own soul.
Abbot Christopher Jamison writes, “The real antidote to busyness must be sought outside the consumerist world, and St Benedict describes that place for us.” Abbot Christopher calls this place “sanctuary”. Whilst St Benedict would not have used this term, he was fully aware of the temptations of a synthetic world. St Benedict understood this world offered so much and delivered so little. He also recognised it always lay waiting, as a temptation, outside his sacred space.
Abbot Christopher writes, “Finding sanctuary leads us from the problem of busyness to a real spirituality that brings peace. The quest for sanctuary resonates deep into the heart of several contemporary dilemmas and at the same time contains within it the solution to these dilemmas.”
Christopher Jamison’s book “Finding Sanctuary” is published by Orion. It is a book for beginners and those familiar with the subject of Christian Spirituality.
It was said of those in the early Church: “See how these Christians love one another.” But for all of us, there are moments when we are exasperated by how other people behave and what they say. This might include those on various sides of the Brexit debate. The Bible has the image of clay in the hands of a potter. God, the potter, hasn’t finished with us yet. We are lumps of clay being moulded by God. As we are moulded, those around us help with our formation. The more difficult the individual, the greater the impact. We are changed by each encounter. With those we find most difficult, these are the encounters where we are called to work the hardest. They can sometimes test our faith. It is in these moments of hard work where the real change takes place.
If these relationships are to succeed, the primary goal is to accept the truth of who we are, within ourselves, as we come before God. Only in accepting that truth, as broken individuals, can we accept and love other people. If we lack this self-awareness, any disappointment within us will be projected onto others. We will always be disappointed with others because we remain dissatisfied with ourselves. They will never match up with what we think they ought to be.
Abbot Stuart of Mucknell Abbey writes, “As long as we pretend to be a beautiful vase, the courteous potter can’t do much with us. But if we can accept the truth of who we are, God can work wonders.” It is in those moments when we are feeling driven to distraction by someone else’s behaviour, we need to remember that this may well be the Potter trying to do his work in us.
There are some important characteristics, essential for maintaining any relationship. As the Potter carefully moulds the clay, he imparts his mercy, forgiveness, toleration, compassion and reconciliation upon willing participants. To implement these qualities there must be those who need to be endured, tolerated, forgiven and reconciled. Without these qualities we have no hope of becoming more like Jesus.
Abbot Stuart quotes St Benedict when he says, “Listen. Listen carefully, with the ear of your heart. This person is here as God’s gift to me in the journey to wholeness. My prayer is, Lord, help me to calm down and love you in this sister or brother.”
Many people are angry about what is currently going on in our world. To be angry at the injustices that surround us is not unhealthy. Jesus got angry on numerous occasions. However, anger has its limits. Out of control anger can be a dastardly thing. It says in Proverbs, chapter 29 verse 11, “A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control.”
St. Ignatius of Loyola was a Spanish priest and theologian who founded the Jesuit order in 1534. He listened carefully to what people said and how they spoke to one another. He listened to their swearing and blaspheming. He considered all they did and how they seemed lost in the violence and hatred of the world of his time.
St Ignatius allowed himself to be part of the reality of his world that Christians often resist; the violence and the ugliness. He didn’t find it comfortable but when he allowed it to touch his heart, he found new and deeper desires were born. He placed himself squarely in the presence of a broken world and continued to look, listen and feel.
All that he thought, felt, heard and observed, he brought into his time of prayer. As he became still, he asked God to listen to his joys and sorrows, the reality of his world and the movements of his heart. St Ignatius summarised his longings in the following prayer:
teach me to be generous;
teach me to serve You as You deserve;
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labour and not to ask for reward
save that of knowing I am doing Your Will.
1030am St Michael's Church, Leafield