Monday 14 November 2011

'The Life and Work of a Priest'

These two talks were delivered at a Diocese of Natal clergy forum on 10 November 2011

1. The Life of A Priest

Thank you for the invitation to speak on ‘The life and work of a priest’. The phrase of course comes from the first of the questions to candidates in the ordination service: ‘Do you believe that you are truly called by God and his Church to the life and work of a priest?’ As the questions and answers continue, above all else it is clear that there is only one adequate response to this calling – to say ‘With God’s help, I will’ – though perhaps we ought also to say ‘With God’s help, WE will.’ This morning I want to focus on living and working so that we are always, and increasingly, open to God’s help. For it is a strange life we lead – it is neither entirely up to us, nor entirely up to God. But by his gracious mystery, he calls us, as he calls all his children, to be partners with him in his mission to his world

Let us begin with the life of a priest, before turning to the work of a priest. It is right that living comes before working – who we are shapes how we act. We are ‘human beings’ before we are ‘human doings’. And though much of what I want to say relates to all Christians, we, as clergy, as presbyters or priests, have a very particular calling – that, as the Ordinal question reminds us, comes from both God and his Church. Our calling is to serve both – we are priests for the sake of God, and for the sake of his Church, and his world. We are priests for others, never for ourselves.

One very specific part of this call is, as the Ordinal reminds us ‘to preside at the Eucharist with reverence and wonder.’ It is God’s own daunting invitation to declare God’s holy mysteries in the words he gives, and to stand at this sacred intersection between God and Church, heaven and earth – as we both look back to Christ crucified on the cross, and forward to the wedding feast of the Lamb, described in the second reading for Morning Prayer today. In the name of Jesus Christ, and in the name of the whole people of God, we stand at the altar table. We take bread, we take wine – what human hands have made of the bounty of God’s creation. We speak Christ’s words of thanksgiving, for God’s overflowing generosity, goodness and grace. We break the bread, we pour the wine – recollecting the brokenness of Christ, the shedding of his blood. We share out what he has given – the gift of himself, for his people – to feed us, our bodies, our minds, our hearts, our souls – to nourish and strengthen and equip us and his whole Church for the life to which he calls us.

It is not that we as priests are the ones who ‘make’ Christ present – but that he calls us to be his instruments, as we ‘do this in remembrance of him’, so we might know his presence, and make his presence known; so that we all might enjoy true Communion with him. Nor are we, as priests, called to ‘be Christ’, either at the Eucharist, or anywhere else. For it is the Lord’s Supper, not ours. He instituted it, he calls us to recall it. He alone is the Lord of the Banquet. And he alone is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, who brings redemption and life, where death and decay are at work. Thank God, we are released from having to do any of that ourselves, in our own strength! Our task is to let God help us – and to let God help us help others – follow Christ, put on Christ, grow in Christ-likeness, and in having the mind of Christ, in living the life to which he calls us, and, like Jesus Christ himself, doing the work for which his Father sends us.

As St Paul says, all this is treasure in clay jars, earthen vessels (2 Cor 4:7). As God knows only too well (but perhaps our parishioners sometimes forget!), clergy are ‘only human’, as truly fallible flesh and blood as any other child of God. Indeed, I have heard it jokingly said that God calls to ordination those he cannot trust to remain as faithful lay people! We have our weaknesses, our failings, our ups and downs, our good and bad days. We get tired and frustrated; we can get anxious and upset; we can become confused and doubting; and sometimes we can get it wildly wrong – through ignorance, through weakness, and even through our own deliberate fault. Yet, in our ability to model our continuous need for God’s help – God’s forgiveness, God’s healing, God’s renewing, God’s directing, God’s new beginnings – in every area of life, we model for others what it means to ‘put off the old, and put on Christ’.

Living open to receive God’s help requires humility. It means living with an attitude of acknowledged neediness and dependence – that God knows us better than we know ourselves, and that he knows better than we do what is best for us and for those to whom he sends us.

Somehow, as I reflect back on my own journey towards inhabiting more fully the life he calls me to live, I realise that these were lessons that circumstances forced me to learn quite early on. When I was growing up, I sought to make decisions amidst the squalor in Alexandra Township, near Sandton – decisions whether to be a gang member or join the armed struggle like some of my peers and family members. And I realised I needed God’s guidance and his help. I found two Psalms particularly informing my search for a way through life: Psalm 139, ‘Lord you have searched me and know me very well’ (paraphrase); and Psalm 42, ‘As a deer longs for running brooks, so longs my soul for you my God’. These shaped my openness to receive the good things of God, which I knew I could not manage alone.

They also opened me to another area of necessary dependence – to receive the things of God through the people of God. (I shall say more about the importance of this, and about shared leadership, in my second talk.) And so God led me to mentors and role models, particularly those I found through the Anglican school. Formerly St Michael’s School, then called Pholosho, it provided a much needed structure for me to arrive at life choices.

Now, in Bishopscourt, I continue to pray that God will keep me dependent upon him, and upon his people. If nothing else, I need a fierce spiritual director, who will challenge me to give a regular and honest account of how far I am keeping my promises – the promises of baptism and confirmation; and the promises of the ordinal, as deacon, priest and now bishop. It is something we should all do.

I did my most of my growing up in Alexandra, and then Pimville, to which we were forcibly removed when I was 14. I must say these forced removals caused my father heartache, amongst other things – like him also being an absent father. It was a tough life for us five children – and I pay tribute to my mother for raising us faithfully through thick and thin. ‘Thick and thin’ is in part, I admit, coded language for the difficult and erratic relationship we had with my father. Since then, through becoming a father myself, and through exploring the Fatherhood of God, I have found myself re-evaluating those hard times, and my own father’s failings. I’ve been inspired to strive to be a parent in ways that transcend, even redeem, my own experiences of the fallibilities of human fathers.

These reflections also taught me something of how much our experience of human fathers colours – and inevitably distorts – our own relationship with God as Father; and indeed, how we inhabit the title ‘father’ as clergy. Similarly, the experience of their own fallible human fathers, affects the way parishioners relate both to God and (especially male) clergy. In those places where we like to us the term ‘father’, what a psychological mine field we are walking in!

Most of all, my relationship with my father has taught me of my continuing need to seek ever greater healing and wholeness in my emotional and spiritual life, so that I might not impose the distortions of my own areas of brokenness and woundedness on others. This is indeed a life-long journey, until I come to the future wholeness that awaits me when I finally see Christ face to face.

The key to receiving the help I need, for my own life, and for my ministry, is reflected within another of the questions of the Ordinal: will you be diligent in prayer, in reading Holy Scripture? Earlier, I drew a link between the Eucharist and one of the passages set for this Morning’s Office. As the Preface in the APB reminds us, the word ‘Office’ relates to a Latin word for ‘duty’. It is our duty to say the Offices each day. We need this time in the presence of God, probably far more than we are ever going to realise this side of heaven. What matters is that we do it – that not to do it feels as bizarre as failing to brush our teeth in the morning. Ultimately, it is not a question of what mood we are in, what our attitude is, how we feel, whether we are distracted, if we are on a high or a low. What matters is that we ‘show up’, and do our part.

For prayer is God’s gift. What is required of us is faithful obedience, putting ourselves where we are able to receive that gift – whether it comes to us in some glorious sense of God’s presence, God’s leading, God’s encouragement, during that time; or whether it comes through our finding ourselves in the right place at the right time, just ‘by chance’; or whether we find out, even some time later, that some words, some phrase, we had said, even without realising its importance at the time, had somehow become for another a vehicle of God’s gracious touch.

And all of this is gift! Sometimes the Lord drives this message home to us particularly powerfully in times of spiritual dryness, or when we are exhausted and running on empty. We find that somehow, despite our human inability, our service of others clicks into place, because we are faithful and obedient in prayer – and this happens when it seems we are doing no more than going through the motions, our words almost empty and meaningless, and our prayers barely rising from the floor, let alone passing the ceiling and reaching to heaven!

Certainly, such regular experiences drive me to the chapel each day in Bishopscourt, to be fed by the Eucharist, and transformed through prayer! There are so many new issues that cross my desk, and often I am way out of my depth in human terms – but I know what it means to say ‘I believe in the power of the Holy Spirit’, who takes the offering of my time in prayer and worship, and bears fruitfulness beyond my prior imagining. Prayer is the oil that enables the cogs of the church to run as God intends them!

The Offices also help us live ‘under Scripture’. By following the lectionary, we are taken regularly through the whole breadth of God’s word. Other denominations often do not realise how deeply and comprehensively Anglicanism is rooted in reading the entire Bible. We are steeped in God’s word – so that all of it is familiar, and a ready verse or passage springs to mind when we need it. Further, if we keep on reading all of Scripture, it saves us from our own prejudices (even our good prejudices!) by ensuring that our favourite passages do not distort a balanced understanding of the whole broad message of God in his living word. We are also saved from stagnation, in a faith that has found its comfort zone and is disinclined to go on being stretched so it continues to mature.

And there is more! I love the way that, again and again, I encounter the living action of the Holy Spirit through the way that Scripture passages that I would never have thought to choose, unexpectedly speak into whatever situations I face. Instead of me deciding what Bible verses apply to some situation or other – in essence, giving Scripture a secondary place in support of my own understanding – instead, Scripture provides the dominant interpretive context. So I am repeatedly challenged to see situations from new perspectives that I would not have thought of for myself. And God speaks to me in new and fresh ways.

For me, at this point in my ministry, saying the offices and sharing in the Eucharist daily with staff in the chapel at Bishopscourt has become an essential anchor for my life. Of course, I also need regular times of private devotion – but these alone would not sustain me, in my current situation.

All of us will find that different patterns work best for us at different times. What matters is that we ensure we are doing what it takes to be like Mary, who ‘chose the better part’ and sat and listened at Jesus’ feet (see Lk 10:38-42). It is all too easy to be caught up, like Martha, with demands pressing in on us. We need to find out what works for us, here and now, in ensuring that busyness, worries and distractions do not take over. We need to battle to ensure that we are at least sometimes like Mary. Alternatively, we can ask ourselves the question of how we best abide in the true vine, and keep on abiding – so that we are continually drawing on the Lord’s leading and guiding, resourcing and strengthening? I’ve prepared some short reflections which we can use, after some questions, for 15 minutes – so we stop talking about the foundations of our ordination calling, and instead, share and practice what it really means to pursue the life of a priest.

[Notes for Reflection:

Luke 11:1-4: Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’ He said to them, ‘When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.’

1. Spend 10 minutes in groups sharing your current practices of prayer. What is your current rhythm of prayer through each day, each week, each season? What have you learnt about prayer over the years? In what ways have you felt strengthened, and that God answered your prayers, even when your prayer time was dry and hard going? (Don’t get caught up in anecdotes of what doesn’t work!)

2. Then spend 5 minutes together in companionable silence. Reflect through your life, from earliest times through to the present, identifying periods or occasions when prayer was dry and hard going. Ask the Lord to show you how he used those times, whether to help you grow or to answer the needs of others. Pause with each memory, and thank God for the gift of that answered prayer, even if you had not appreciated it at the time – before moving on to the next period. Ask God to help you remember how he answered your prayers, next time you feel dry.]

2. The Work of a Priest

Having shared earlier about the life of a priest, now we come to the work of a priest, our calling as ‘human doings’! I am sure you have heard about the parish looking for the perfect rector. Their job description went like this:

We want a rector who is young and fresh, with about 30 years’ experience. We are looking for someone married, with kids, who can reach out to other parents and children; and who is free from family ties in order to dedicate themselves 100% to parish life. Alongside a burning desire to work with teenagers, ministry to senior citizens will be a priority. Our new priest will preach for less than 10 minutes, providing deep and thorough Biblical exegesis that connects with the full range of current affairs each week; and be someone who condemns sin roundly but never hurts anyone’s feelings. Our rector will spend each day parish visiting; and always be in and available when anyone phones or calls. Attending every one of our impressive range of groups, organisations, committees, meetings and services, our minister will be fully engaged with society outside the church. In a life centred on prayer, meditation and Bible study and leading sacramental worship, social activism will be at the heart of this priest’s ministry ...

Sometimes even our own expectations of ourselves tend towards the impossible. But our impossible expectations, and our inability to live up to them, are more often a failure in theology – our theology of the body of Christ – than a failure in our calling. For we cannot speak of the work of a priest, without speaking of the work of the whole Church. And we cannot speak of the work of the whole Church without speaking of God. For the calling of the Church is to share in the ministry and mission of God. And the ministry and mission of God is that the Father, through the Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit, declares that God is love and reconciles all of creation to God’s own self.

For us too, ministry and mission, and the work of a priest, are always shared. They are shared first with God. This is so, because it is God’s mission and ministry into which we are called – and which he chooses to share with us. Therefore we need his help to know what we should do, and how we should do it; and his resourcing and directing, so we do it in his power, in his way, in his perfect time. This bears more fruit, more lasting fruit, than any other way of going about our work! Living as dependently upon God as we are able – even as we shoulder our own responsibilities for faithful obedience – is more important than anything else.

And when we speak of Jesus as head of his body the Church, we are not merely according him some honorary position – a sort of figurehead, while we get on with the real business of running the Church! Not only as individuals are we to follow Christ, put on Christ, grow in Christ-likeness. Together we are to have the mind of Christ, and live the life to which he calls us. There is no such thing as a self-sufficient Christian, and especially not a self-sufficient Christian leader! Clergy who are ‘one-man bands’ model the heresy of a Unitarian God. All authentic ministry is Trinitarian, exercised in mutuality and interdependence.

As well as being dependent upon God, we are dependent upon one another. For, as St Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, ‘To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.’ And, speaking of the Spirit’s many and varied gifts, he adds ‘All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually, just as the Spirit chooses’ (1 Cor 12:7,11). Every Christian has a part to play – and all of us, whether clergy or laity, are responsible for helping one another make our best contribution, and discerning our common calling.

Now this takes us into more challenging territory. Those of us in leadership probably find it easier to decide for ourselves what we think should be going on, and then hand out jobs to others! Yet, if we stop to reflect, how often can we look back and recognise that discernment has often come to us through many different channels. Little bits of God’s jigsaw come to us in many different ways, contributing to a fuller picture. Perhaps our readiness to share some insight has encouraged someone else to share another, so that together we have begun to see a bigger pattern emerging. And one way or another, we will find that the pattern points to the good news of Jesus Christ being made manifest – often in ways we had not expected, but into which we are called to participate.

Looking back on my own life, I see this more clearly than I did at the time. I had always thought of myself as called to be a pastor – yet, wherever I went, I found myself sucked into politics too. In South Africa, in the 80s and 90s it was perhaps inevitable – especially when I was based at the Cathedral in Johannesburg, and then in Sophiatown. Pastoring in the midst of politics also included going with mothers to mortuaries to identify sons shot by the military; or listening to parents desperate to feed their children, but with no chance of work or honest income. I encountered such pain, through this ‘stoep traffic’, of those who turned up on my doorstep with their suffering, their struggles.

And yet, everywhere I went, I found acts of mercy and grace, people who lived by bringing Christ-shaped hope to what appeared to be hopeless situations. Often it was the people who seemed least important in the parishes who saw the potential of the gospel with clearest eyes – perhaps it was because they had no egos, they were more able to rely on God. Often too they were the praying engine of all we did. Politics and pastoring were also inextricably linked in Grahamstown. This ‘city of saints’ also knew poverty so dire it was as if one could smell it, touch it, almost literally cut it with a knife – and it called out a response from God’s people.

Then I came to Cape Town, and found the heavy weight of expectation that Archbishops must participate in public debate. I suppose I have my predecessors to blame, especially the one known as ‘Arch’! But it should not be any other way. For there is almost no part of human life that is not in some way ‘political’. Certainly, no part can claim to be outside religion – unless all life is outside religion. For either God is God of everything, or he is no god at all! Therefore both the Church, and Christian individuals, have a right and a duty to speak out, and often also take action, on any and every aspect of human activity!

The greatest challenge is learning to discern together what God is calling us to do in any particular situation. The rhythm of shared daily prayer and Eucharist at Bishopscourt enriches this area of life. It helps us know how each has a part to play, how all of us have particular gifts and callings and contributions – and that what we achieve together, by God’s grace, is far greater than merely the sum of our individual efforts. Sitting under Scripture – together – is often a key way of learning what God has to say in some new situation.

So, for example, Genesis 1 recounts how God created the universe, and it was ‘very good’. He also created humanity, whom he blesses, saying ‘be fruitful …’ Jesus echoes these words, when he says he came that we might have ‘life in abundance’ (Jn 10:10). Pastors cannot preach spiritual abundance, if we are not prepared also to be called to mission in opposing all that mars the goodness of God’s creation, or undermines the potential of every single person to be fruitful and flourish, in the circumstances we encounter. Often we express this through the church formally, as an institution. So, for example, in June, I preached in Orlando Stadium at the funeral of Ma Albertina Sisulu. It is certainly my primary task to share the good news of Jesus Christ, and his promise of life everlasting to all who will hear it; especially when we are faced with the enormity of death. But, in the presence of the President and political leaders, I also spoke of the gospel-shaped principles by which Mamma Sisulu lived, and of how her legacy is betrayed when politicians use political power, even blatant corruption, to enrich themselves and their families and friends.

Another Biblical paradigm that has helped in discerning how to engage with the broader sweep of political life is that of Covenant – and especially a talk that the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain gave to the Lambeth Conference in 2008. He particularly focused on God’s covenant with Noah. After the flood, God warned Noah and his sons not to shed human life – for humanity bears the image of God. God also said ‘I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants, and with every living creature – never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ And he gave the rainbow as a sign of this Covenant. This provides us with three principles, which can act as touchstones for discerning what is Covenant-shaped, God-shaped, and so to be promoted.

First – sanctity of life, and with it, issues of respect and dignity. Second – integrity of creation, never to be destroyed again – which helps shape our commitment to environmental protection. Third – dignity of difference, and with it honouring diversity – though also being sensitive to distinguish this from unacceptable ‘inequality’. In July I and other Western Cape religious leaders spent time in the poorest areas of Khayelitsha, where, frankly, people have to live in conditions that are barely better than an open sewer. Fruitful flourishing, with dignity, it is not!

Reflecting on these ideas has helped me also to see we can view our Constitution as a Covenant between all South Africans, and between Government and Citizens – a covenant for healing the past, and bringing genuine flourishing to all, which churches should support. It has also helped me focus my energies within this broad commitment to promoting Constitutional Democracy. Knowing that the truth will set us free prompted me to accept the invitation to join the Press Freedom Commission, set up under the chairmanship of Justice Pius Langa, to review best practice and regulation within the print media. An effective free press is indispensible to successful democracy, and the living out of a Constitution which potentially provides a framework in which every citizen has a real opportunity to flourish in practice.

Yet not all that Christians are called to do needs to be done through the institutional Church. We need to empower people on Sundays, for their Monday to Saturday life – and teach them to see the patterns of God at work in all areas of life – laying aside false divisions between private faith and public life. Some of our people hold positions of power and authority, in various walks of life – public and private sector. Some have influence in other ways – in the classroom perhaps, or in local community networks, like neighbourhood watch; even the golf club!

We need a better theology of economics – based on stewardship of a finite world; and not fatally flawed theories of limitless growth. We need a better theology of work – fundamental to human dignity, and indeed, part of what it is to be made in the image of God, who laboured creatively to bring our universe into being. We also need to promote Christian models of leadership. Jesus the Messiah, King of kings and Lord of lords, came ‘not to be served, but to serve’. The goal of leadership should never be solely self-interest.

One very effective matrix we can use, and help others to use, for discerning God’s calling on our lives, is to reflect together on where we are seeing the fruits of the Spirit. Another is that of the two Great Commandments. We are to love God with heart and soul and mind and strength, and our neighbours as ourselves. The flourishing to which God calls us can thus be said to have emotional, spiritual, mental / intellectual, and material / physical components – and these should not only interact with each other, but also be fruitful for us as individuals, and for the communities in which we share with our ‘neighbours’ – recognising that these communities can be drawn in all manner of ways.

As we look at developments around us, we can ask – what promotes, or what impedes, human flourishing and fruitfulness in each of these areas? We may be surprised to find that the gospel is impacting in places we had not expected – and God is opening our eyes to see our place in that mission. The Spirit moves wherever it will, Jesus told Nicodemus – and we will often be surprised as to how, and where, God is acting!

So let us not be slow to follow the lead of God’s Spirit. This is a Diocese, I know, with a long record of daring to go to unexpected places in response to God’s call. My prayer is that you will keep this up – and refine and model ways from which the rest of the church can learn. Let me end here – and ask for questions. Then we can take time for some more reflecting together, and singly, on the work to which God is calling you, here and now, within this Diocese.

[Notes for Reflection:

Luke 4:16-21. When Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’

1. Spend 10 minutes in groups sharing the trends of your parish / area, and the sort of social changes that are affecting people within and beyond your churches. What enriches and liberates people – spiritually, emotionally, mentally, materially? – and as both individuals and communities? In what ways is God already using people in your churches, in local society, to bring such ‘good news’ in the face of impoverishment and oppression (not only material, but also spiritual, emotional, mental; as well as both individually and societally)? What relationships and partnerships is God already building?

2. Then spend 5 minutes together in companionable silence. Reflect through past times where you have seen this ‘good news’ of Jesus Christ being received in ways you perhaps had not recognised at the time. Thank God for them. Ask God to help you learn to discern more readily where his gospel is growing shoots and bearing fruit. Reflect on how being part of the body of Christ, shared leadership and ministry, has made a difference to you. Give thanks for these times. Ask the Lord to help you grow in ‘Trinitarian’ shared ministry and mission.

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