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  • Ear Tickling

    It's a bit of a nutty week - a few urgent pastoral things to do and a sermon to research and hopefully get written by midday tomorrow, all before heading east for Baptist Assembly.  It's under control, just about, but if as a result I post nothing today people will get withdrawal symptons and/or worry about me!

    Anyway, the thing that popped into my head and rattled around is part of the 'charge to Timothy' in which I locate my own call to ordained ministry, and to which I periodicially return to be reminded what I'm about.  It's this bit:

    For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.

    2 Tim 4:3 - 4 NRSV

    'Itching ears' or, in what is evidently a more accurate translation of the Greek, things that 'tickle their ears'.  As we read these verses, we all think we know what they mean, and all think that the 'wandering away from truth' is x, y or z that differs from our understanding of truth.  So what we want to hear - what tickles our ears - is what we think is sound doctrine; and what does not accord with what we already think can be dismissed as other people accumulating teachers to suit their own desires.  How easy it is to point the finger at others whose theology differs from what makes us feel comfortable, and say 'aha, false teaching' and fail to notice how comfortable and complacent we have become ourselves.

    Over the 15 or so years I've been preaching, it has often struck me that often people will tell me a sermon is 'good' when what I have said accords with that they already think (and, to be fair, I have been guilty of this too) - that somehow we take into church our subconscious soundness checklists against which we measure the sermon, rather than being truly open to the possibility that God will surprise us.  A nice 'ear tickler' will earn high praise; something that disturbs possibly won't. 

    Over the years I have learned to value sermons that I really struggle with theologically, the ones that far from tickling my ears, cause my hackles to rise or make me squirm in my seat.  To be clear, I don't mean those that are badly prepared or carelessly delivered - they are plain bad.  I mean the ones that challenge what I understand, or force me to reconsider long-held and cherished perspectives.  I have learned that to be told "that made me think" is actually a great compliment to a preacher.  Likewise that 'can I just ask you about point x' need not (always) be a cause for defensiveness but actually is sometimes an opportunity to explore something further.

    So, I am going to do my bestest to keep this in mind as I head off to Assembly, and listen to things that will tickle my ears and things that will give me cause for concern... and trust, that with the help of God's Spirit, I can get some inkling just what is the thing God is saying in this place, at this time.

    It will be intriguing to see what folk say after this Sunday's effort!!

  • Sharing Darkness... Walking with Others Towards the Door of Eternity

    Sorry, that's probably a very gloomy lost title, it's based partly on the name of a book I will be mentioning, and partly on what I think pastoral care of dying or terminally ill peopple is about.

    A lot of stuff recently has been reminding me of an essay I wrote - a very long time ago - based on my experiences of accompanying a couple through the final months of the husband's life.  Diagnosed with metastatic liver cancer, his GP expected him to live maybe six weeks; in the end he lived for nine months, before slipping away.  As a green trainee minister type person, I read lots of stuff to help me face the challenges of caring for this couple, and found some concepts and images that have remained with me since.  It was useful today to spend a little time reading my essay and reminding myself what it actually said, not what I remember it saying!

    The first image I used was from a book called Letting Go by I Ainsworth-Smith and P Speck, London SPCK, 1982 (a newer edition is now published).  They defined what they called 'cones of awareness' around an individual person.

    Cone 1, for the healthy person, is very wide, including work collegaues, relatives, immediate family, neighbours, friends, leisure companions and acquaintances, as well as (potentially) religious and medical professionals.  The healthy person can relate quickly and easily to different groups and is energised by the diversity.

    Cone 2, for the sick person, narrows somewhat; work colleagues, acquaintances, leisure companions may be excluded (or exclude themselves) either de facto or through choice.  The sick person has less energy and is able to concentrate less well and for less time.  Relationships can actually prove sapping rather than energising.

    Cone 3, for the dying person, becomes increasingly narrow, until they are alone, metaphorically if not literally.  Consciousness may be fleeting, conversation draining.  In the end, death, like birth, is something experienced alone.

    Depending on the nature of the illness or condition, the sick person may revert to cone 1 as they recover.  This is the experience, to some extent, of anyone who has had illness or injury that can be overcome with medicine, surgery or rest.

    Some people will, eventually, move from cone 2 to cone 3, a transition that is irreversible.  The transition is not usually abrupt, though it may be, with the scope of those allowed 'in' steadily reducing.  For some people, right at the end, it is too much to have anyone left inside the cone.

    I have found this model quite helpful as I have accompanied families during the end-stage of a loved one's illness.  It has permitted me, quite often, to remain inside the cone longer than might otherwise have been possible.  At other times it has meant accepting that I am excluded from the cone, even when that is hard to face.


    Another book that informed my essay, way back when, was Sharing the Darkess by Sheila Cassidy published by Darton, Longman and Todd in 1988.  In this book, Cassidy uses a set of of four sketches to illustrate the kinds of relationships that a sick, or dying, person may experience in their care setting.  If I remember correctly (it is more than a decade since I read the book and I don't have it to hand to check), there are four increasingly deep and mutual relationships:

    1. the medical professional - a doctor, pictured in white coat and with a nurse who is passing a syringe, who has skills, drugs and procedures to offer.  The personal level of interaction is, inevitably, minimal
    2. the clergyman (sic) - pictured in clerical collar and stole, holding a 'host'; he has a functional role and the tools of scripture and tradition.  A more personal relationship, but still professional.
    3. a professional, pictured in 'mufti', who now has no professional tools, yet who retains the knowledge and experience gained over years.  Counselling or pastoral care can be offered. (I think this image probably relates to a terminal diagnosis)
    4. human beings - pictured naked, stripped of all that training or experience can offer.  They meet in shared vulnerability and have nothing to offer but themselves.

    The idea being explored here is slightly different from the cones model, in that it, at least to a degree, considers the de-skilling and re-humanising of the professionals involved in palliative or terminal care.  In other words, once you are allowed to remain inside the 'cone' of a very sick or dying person, you have to become more vulnerable yourself (in an appropriate way - you are still a professional) accepting that you don't have all the answers and can't make it all alright.  At least that's what I think it was about - I could be wrong!


    The challenge for medical and religious professionals alike is that sometimes we can't 'mend' what is broken, that this person is going to die, and that if we are privileged enough to be allowed to stay in that ever-narrowing cone, we must allow ourselves to be de-skilled.  To sit in silence, holding the cooling, pale hand of a person who is nearing the door of eternity... that's both privilege and challenge.

    Over the last year I have to varying degrees walked with a number of people as they, or their loved ones, have neared the door from life to eternity.  Sometimes I was allowed into the cone, sometimes I was an outside observer; either is a valid place to be.  As we draw closer to the autumn festivals of All Saints and All Souls (even if Bappies generally don't mark them) and even of Remembrance, it seems somehow fitting to reflect, if briefly, on how we best share the darkness, walking with otherws towards the door of eternity...

  • It's all worthwhile when...

    ... a young person at church, thousands of miles from any blood relative, has an ear-to-ear grin because the church bought him a birthday cake and sang to him.

    ... some of last year's African students offer powerful insights from their culture which inform the sermon in a way no amount of theologising or biblical study ever would

    ... the person leading prayers of intercession has done an amazing job, thoughtful, profound, generous-spirited, honest (and they fitted perfectly with the hymn after the sermon!)

    ... people will give up part of their Sunday afternoon to discuss pastoral care (especially when the list of those needing care is sooooo long)

    ... someone feels free to express a view that is likely to be unpopular (even when that makes more work for me/others!)

    ... it's Sunday teatime and I'm knackered-but-content!

  • For Fun

    Trawling around cyberspace, I found this which made me chuckle...

    A well-known proverb states: an optimistic would say a glass is half full, while a pessimist would say it is half empty. What would people of different professions and walks of life say?

    The government would say that the glass is fuller than if the opposition party were in power.

    The opposition would say that it is irrelevant because the present administration has changed the way such volume statistics are collected.

    The philosopher would say that, if the glass was in the forest and no one was there to see it, would it be half anything?

    The economist would say that, in real terms, the glass is 25% fuller than at the same time last year.

    The banker would say that the glass has just under 50% of its net worth in liquid assets.

    The psychiatrist would ask, "What did your mother say about the glass?"

    The physicist would say that the volume of this cylinder is divided into two equal parts; one a colorless, odorless liquid, the other a colorless, odorless gas. Thus the cylinder is neither full nor empty. Rather, each half of the cylinder is full, one with a gas, one with a liquid.

    The seasoned drinker would say that the glass doesn''t have enough ice in it.



  • Sermons with Minds of their Own

    Unusually, I have just finished preparing my sermon for tomorrow - to have done so with less than 24 hours until delivery is, for me, extremely rare.  There are many reasons for this, some are purely practical, but mostly it's becuase this one seems to have a mind of its own.  When I began preparing I had a clear idea in mind of where I wanted to go... but I ended up somewhere utterly different.  What I thought I wanted to talk about was inter-generational relationships within western-European-style families; what I ended up with is something about re-envisioning church along the lines of a roughly Afrcian philospophy of extended family.

    Last week's sermon, over which I sweated and toiled, was one I ended up quite pleased with.  This week's I'm far less confident about.  I'm happy enough with what it says, just not quite sure that it necessarily does quite what it needs to.  Ah well.  This time tomorrow I will know better how it has been received.

    It has been interesting to prepare, I have certinaly enjoyed the 'research' and study involved, I just hope that through it we detect something of God's voice.