Friday, 9 January 2015

It's really difficult watching the news from Paris when yesterday a friend died in his early thirties because there was nothing more the doctors could do for him. There is more than enough pain in the world through the things human beings cannot control, it takes a diseased imagination to want to impose such agony.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Today the power of a few lines, drawn at speed, on a piece of paper, took on a new significance. Perhaps we should all draw cartoons and pictures to offer an image of a world at peace - flood Twitter, Facebook, newspapers and TV screens with the scribbles of children made with wax crayons, with the reluctant attempts of adults once told that they 'couldn't draw', the shaky hardly-holding-the-pencil attempts of the elderly - we could paper the mosques, churches, synagogues, banks, hospitals, schools, libraries... with our dreams of peace.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

A talk given to 'Reflect' the retreat movement of the Methodist Church. November 2013.

Just Keep Swimming

A film that we watched many times as a family was ‘Finding Nemo’, the tale of Marlin, a father clownfish, searching for Nemo his son. As Marlin risks going into the unknown, the open ocean, he meets Dory, a very forgetful fish, who of course proves to be essential in the finding and rescue of Nemo.

Dory has one mantra which she holds onto even when she has forgotten everything else, she chants “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming…”

There is quite a lot of excitement at home, even though the children are now 20 and 15 years old, because there are rumours that a sequel, ‘Finding Dory’ is in production.

You might be asking by now what any of this has to do with the spiritual life of the follower of Christ!

To a fish, swimming is as essential as breathing is to a human being. It should be a nonsense for Dory to have to remind herself to ‘Just keep swimming’, it is the one thing she should be able to do without thinking, something that requires no special attention – instinctive and vital it needs no special gimmicks, planning or preparation. To a certain extent Dory is over-thinking – yet there is something comforting and courageous about remembering to keep going even in the face of danger and a long journey with no guaranteed outcome.

On reflection I think that there are elements of our spiritual life that we over-think and over-complicate. We are prone to see the attractiveness of gimmicks, projects and special programs and to put a lot of energy and resources into what might be called ‘the latest good idea’. The use of a particular form of meditation, a special icon, a program of spiritual exercises can become problematic. We can feel a sense of failure or frustration if we do not experience the growth or inner peace we are seeking for, abandoning the chosen technique, seeking for another way to ‘fix’ our inner life, or letting go of our thin grasp upon faith altogether. We are not only tempted to this consumer, quick-fix, approach as individual Christians but the same draw to a consumer, programmatic approach to faith is very apparent in church life. 

How do we ‘Just keep swimming’? I guess that depends on what you think ‘swimming’ might mean for you. For me the core of our Christian faith has some key elements without which our journey will cease or at least, like a fish in an aquarium, we will find ourselves going round in circles. To just keep swimming, or indeed breathing, is about a natural connectedness with God, who like the ocean with the fish, supports me, nourishes me, challenges me and offers me endless opportunities to explore, change direction and grow. Without some form of intentional prayer life my swimming will be laboured and the instinct to notice God’s grace becomes dulled. Intentional prayer leads over time to instinctive prayer and we have often neglected focusing on prayer in our nurturing of new Christians.

The two other elements I think are essential for the development of a spiritual journey both for the individual and the church community, are being in relationship with other believers and being in an outwardly oriented relationship of love with the world.

Without wanting to labour the link with ‘Finding Nemo’ too much… it is when Dory and Marlin seek the help of others, turtles, a whale, even sharks, that they are able to continue on their journey towards rescuing Nemo. Shared oversight for fellow disciples is part of the DNA of Methodism, through group accountability, Bible Study, prayer groups and the everyday kindness of sensitive care, societies formed, grew and have borne fruit. Here we find our buoyancy – what keeps us afloat – the network of caring, non-judgmental relationships of grace. 

Pope Frances is reigniting for many the idea that love is at the heart of the Christian faith. From choosing to drive a simple car and turn away from pomp and glitter, to kissing a man badly disfigured, or allowing a child to sit on his chair, he has brought a simplicity and generosity to the throne of St Peter. Churches throughout the UK are giving away food, providing beds for the homeless and sending volunteers out as Street Pastors. 

In the market place of faith, those who seek connection, solace, peace and long to make sense of life are returning to the cathedrals, the monasteries and retreat houses. Doing the old things, the instinctive things, the Godly things well is very attractive. Opening the doors of our churches so that people might pray may well be as effective as any program we might devise but of course it is more than opening doors, we need to be those people who swim well, so that others can feel confident in setting out into unknown waters.

These are signs of Christians doing those things that come naturally – praying, living in community and loving our neighbours. No amount of church-growth theory, statistics for mission, Fresh Expressions – worthy as these things are – should ever be understood as a replacement for those things which should be as natural as breathing, or as instinctive as a fish swimming.

I believe that a distinct contribution that Reflect can make is to help the church to ‘Just Keep Swimming’. Helping to support intentional pray that leads to instinctive prayer, connecting people to the source of all life, community and love. 

Michaela Youngson

Nov 2013

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Pentecost Sermon

Sermon for Pentecost 
(without my ad-libs!)

On Message or On Fire?

The day of Pentecost is the 50th and last day of the Easter Season, it is a celebration both of resurrection and of the gift of the Holy Spirit to the world.

In Church tradition Easter Sunday has had a focus on the newly baptised and those new to faith, Pentecost takes us further in the journey of discipleship, traditionally being a focus for confirmations, testimony and a commissioning of those in particular ministries within the life of the church.

Today is a day when we might look again at where our resurrection faith has taken us – we are reminded of the commissioning power of God’s Spirit that calls all Christians to a ministry of proclamation and prophecy.  Like those early disciples we are given a voice to tell the story of Christ’s resurrection and to share the reality of God’s inclusive love.

What was going on for the disciples on that day of Pentecost? Pentecost was and still is a major festival for the Jewish people, taking place 50 days after Passover as a remembrance of the giving of the Torah 50 days after the Israelites escaped from Pharaoh and Egypt.

Jerusalem would have been buzzing – bigger crowds than were in Westminster this week for the State Opening of Parliament! Pilgrims from all over the world would attend the festival and the streets and public squares would be full of the rowdy chaos of human living.

Somewhere in that city a group of Christ’s followers were gathered in one place. Some of them had, over the last 50 days, witnessed the living Christ, risen from the dead; others would have heard the story, told again and again by their friends. Some of them had witnessed Christ’s ascension into glory and both marvelled at the sight and yet felt the pang of loss and the fresh anguish of bereavement and confusion.

What had Jesus meant when he had said “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”?

So on a day when the whole city was alive with a festival spirit, yet the danger from the religious and political elite was still very real, it is not surprising that this group of Jesus’ friends would get together to share their hopes and fears, to admit to their confusions and argue about what it all meant. There would have been safety in numbers but also the solidarity of those who have been through traumatic and confusing events.

I think there may well have been heated discussions about what to do next, if they were open about seeing Jesus risen and ascended what would the consequences be? Should they get their ‘story’ straight – agree a message, a common narrative and would that be a cautious story, only told to a few safe people – after all they were all in danger if they openly declared their association with Jesus. How could they make sense of all that had happened in the garden, in Emmaus, on the seashore and on the Mount of Olives?

Into this story of human confusion, without warning, suddenly came a sound from heaven like the rush of a violent wind, divided tongues as of fire rested on each of them and they were filled with the Holy Spirit.

Unbidden, unlooked for, God intervened, it was as though the Spirit could not be contained a moment longer – pouring into the world in a new way, a dramatic and challenging way – burning with love and passion – bringing both order and chaos, alive with new possibilities and freedom.

In that moment, all thoughts of safety, of getting their story straight, of being ‘on message’ were burnt up in the searing heat of God’s life-giving Spirit. No safe narrative or human agenda, no political manifesto or religious doctrine could contain the love of God as revealed in Christ!

The quiet, whispered concerns of a haunted group of men and women were transformed into the coherent, inclusive message of God’s love for all people.

The international crowd heard the shouting and singing of this rag-taggle band of believers, each in their own language and they could not resist. They were drawn to the spectacle and intrigue of the occasion. Peter , never one to hold back – and on this occasion empowered by the Spirit - began to preach.

He told the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. He placed that story centrally in the history and prophetic tradition of the Israelite people and he urged the crowd to the salvation offered in Christ. On that day about three thousand were added to the number of believers.

A group of people, some who were not particularly articulate, were transformed and released. Their religion was not to be a whispered rumour to be shared with a select few – it was to become a living faith, a movement which would flow to the very ends of the earth and to change history. Time after time when the story of God’s love for all people seems threatened with silence, the Holy Spirit gives a voice to the voiceless and the new life of Christ bursts again from the tomb.

This week many of us have remembered the 70th anniversary of D-Day – the Second World War was a time when life was trampled and hope seemed small and fragile. Both world wars and conflicts since have lead to a deep questioning of the possibility of a God of love in a world of suffering and chaos. Those questions are real and valid and ones people of faith have to face up to – and to offer simplistic answers is not good enough. Yet even in the midst of such conflicts, God’s Spirit has continued to touch lives and offer transformation. The following is a diary extract of a Dutch Jewish young woman, who later went voluntarily into a concentration camp to help others. Her name was Etty Hillesum and she later died in the camp aged 29.

“Tuesday morning, half-past nine. something has happened to me, and I don’t know if it’s just a passing mood or something crucial. It is as if I had been pulled back abruptly to my roots, and had become a little more self-reliant and independent. Last night, cycling through cold, dark Lairessestraat – if only I could repeat everything I babbled out then! Something like this:

God take me by Your hand, I shall follow You dutifully, and not resist too much. I shall evade none of the tempests life has in store for me, I shall try to face it all as best I can. … I delight in warmth and security, but I shall not rebel if I have to suffer cold, should You so decree. I shall follow wherever Your hand leads me and shall try not to be afraid. I shall try to spread some of my warmth, of my genuine love for others, wherever I go. But we shouldn’t boast of our love for others. We cannot be sure that it really exists. I don’t want to be anything special, I only want to try to be true to that in me which seeks to fulfil its promise. I sometimes imagine that I long for the seclusion of a nunnery. But I know that I must seek You among people out in the world.”

There is something in Etty’s words of the same Spirit-prompted courage that drove the disciples from seclusion into the City square at Pentecost. She writes of babbling in prayer aloud in response to an abrupt act of God in her life which leads her to a declaration of obedience and to knowing that she must seek God among people out in the world.

We are called to that same, outward looking, generous obedience that enabled the followers of Jesus to risk everything in order to tell the story of God’s love. 

The other story dominating the news over the last few weeks has been that of elections. Politicians getting their story straight – working out the message that they think will best articulate their vision of how the country or Europe should be run and woe betide the candidate or member of a party who is not ‘on message’. Cynicism seems to be the order of the day when we consider our politicians, yet I’m not convinced that’s entirely fair. Having met a number of MP’s, without doubt some only seem to be able to sell a particular view of the world based on their party manifesto, the conversations with those have left me cold or frustrated and in one case blazingly angry. However, the majority of politicians I’ve had the privilege to meet have been genuine, hard-working women and men who want to make a difference locally and nationally. They will support their party because they believe in the broad direction of policies but they also burn with a passion for justice and the well-being of communities and from time to time that passion will take them ‘off-message’ – those individuals are on the whole more attractive because there is an integrity and a connectedness between their words and their beliefs.

So where does all this leave us? Are we ‘on message’ or ‘on fire’.
We have heard this morning of people who, despite danger and the possibility of dire consequences, have been prompted by God’s Spirit to a courageous proclamation and a world-changing love.

How do we live as disciples in the light of Pentecost? Often as we grow up in the church or join a church later in life we will learn a set of behaviour and a particular way of describing our faith. We become comfortable and safe in our discipleship because we know the rules, we understand what is acceptable and what is not acceptable – this may not be a bad thing – it leads to order in church and to respect for others and helps us to understand the ground upon which our faith is built.

There is a problem though, if we become too comfortable in our patterns of worship and discipleship. It was risk that brought the followers of Jesus together on the day of Pentecost – they looked for comfort and security in each other’s company. Yet God loved them too much to leave them there – they were filled with God’s Spirit and led to an outrageous, dangerous way of life that turned them into outcasts, prisoners, victims of persecution – yet also led to a world-wide family of faith that still today is prompted by the Spirit to proclamation and love in action.

My worry is that often in church we are like the disciples before the Spirit was poured out – we look for comfort and security, we look to be with those who are like ourselves – we can become a closed shop, a private club with rules of our own that we understand, we can turn inward and love each other but forget about the world that God loves. We end up ‘on message’ when for God’s sake and the world’s we need to forget our own security and be ‘on fire’.

We become the opposite of Pentecost, expecting people to conform, to understand our language – both spoken language and the language of our actions. If the Spirit’s arrival at Pentecost was a dance of passionate love to which all are invited, we sometimes seem more like the wall-flowers at a dance, sitting on the sidelines moaning that we don’t like the music.

What do you need to risk in order to join the dance? What do I need to set aside and let go of to live in that more dangerous, outrageous place of loving which God is calling me to? What do you need to decide is less important than the proclamation of God’s love in word and action – what rules and limits have we as a church and as disciples placed on the Spirit of God?

The Spirit will not be confined by our way of being church, will not be daunted by our fear – the Spirit is still moving and dancing within the world today, still prompting us to join in. If we live in fear and in a restricted form of discipleship that is lost in rules and is daunted by the world beyond these walls then the spirit will break out in other places, will pour out upon men and women, will cause them to prophesy and old and young will see visions and dream dreams. We may find that we are left behind, huddled together in safety against a world gone mad – but where is God? God is there in the world, calling us to join in, to speak out, to let go.

Where is our hope in this? I believe God continues to pour out the Holy Spirit into our lives, our church and the world today. As Peter said in his sermon – everyone who calls on the name of God shall be saved. We know this, yet we do not always live as those who are confident. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will refresh us and renew us today and give us the courage to live as Christ’s people in the world. Amen.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

A glimpse of glory

Reflecting on Ruth Gee's Presidential Address, I was reminded of this poem from 'The Weaver, The Word and Wisdom. It may be of help to those attending Conference who find London a challenging place to be!

A Colour Catches My Eye

Lost in the hot crush of a heaving crowd,
I find myself frustrated by the tourist pace of casual, slow enquiry.
I am in a hurry.

I want to walk faster than this,
but the busy streets close around me.
I have a train to catch.

In the hustle of the holiday throng,
with a dozen different languages
rough on my ears,
I stand still.

Between the buildings a colour catches my eye.
A banner of flaming red,
scorched with yellow,
burns for a split second.

Brought to my ears
on an impudent breeze,
the sound of a samba band
beating to a rhythm of thunder and power.

From deep within my closed and worried throat
comes laughter,
uncalled for and unexpected,
bubbling up, brilliant with giggling joy.

I see myself lifted from sombre sobriety
to a state of intoxicated glee
that gives me a voice
and opens my eyes
to the reality of a city that is carnival chaos,
Mardi Gras magic and festival frenzied.

In a moment of grace
I know a new spirit,
moving my feet to a different rhythm
and my heart to a fuller way of loving.

Michaela Youngson