Sunday, 12 July 2015

Abiding at the Vine

After a couple of weeks away in lovely Pembrokeshire it was always the plan to end my sabbatical on retreat again, using the time to draw deep from God, as if I was taking a deep breath of fresh air, before returning to the hectic pace of ministry. Circumstances meant that I was looking for somewhere in South Wales or the West Country, and via a google search or two I came across the inviting website of the The Vine set in the lovely Costwold village of Hullavington.

I was somewhat apprehensive about visiting a new place on my own and after a lovely but fairly 'full-on' fortnight away with two pre-schoolers, was expecting to need plenty of time to slow down to God's pace. I was pleasantly surprised. The accommodation at The Vine was akin to a luxury Cotswold B&B complete with a beautifully renovated little chapel and great coffee. It would be easy to turn this post into a trip advisor review (and a very favourable one it would be too), but the wonderful hospitality wasn't the whole story.

I had shared a little of my context with the curators of the retreat house and asked if they had any resources that would help me reflect on a happy and healthy pattern of discipleship and ministry for the next few months and years. They kindly lent me some books to read and far away from a good wifi connection I got reading and reflecting.

I began to flick through few books but was struck by a particular one that seemed very practical, down to earth and had the largest print(!), called Leading on Empty by Wayne Cordeiro. I recalled as I began to read that I had heard the author give a synopsis of the book on a DVD at a conference in Lancashire and was struck then by the simple and practical steps he had taken to recover from ministry burn-out. Here isn't the time to share some of the personal things about the renewed sense of what God has called me to and how that fits into where I am now, but in a very real sense I began to experience a taste of the renewal and restoration of my soul I had been so longing for throughout this sabbatical time. The issues of my life, over which I had yearned all sabbatical to know God's perspective and wisdom on seemed a lot clearer and that gave way to a sense of peace that I hadn't experienced for some years, that God was ultimately in control and was working out His purposes.

Richard Foster in his classic book Celebration of Discipline talks of the need for all Christians to take some regular time on retreat, drawing away from the demands and distractions of life and drawing near to the presence of God in order to hear his voice. Im sure, this particular retreat was a right time, right place moment, but for those looking for a lovely, quiet, delightful retreat centre in the West Country, look no further than The Vine.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Library's and Lindisfarne

So my record and journal of sabbatical life has fallen somewhat by the wayside. In this post I'm organising some thoughts I recorded a few weeks back when a good chunk of my time was spent at the Belben Library, Cliff College and then unexpectedly on Lindisfarne.

In the unexpected spare time I had in May I began to put together a proposal for a PhD, working through Cliff College researching the relationship between the British Methodist circuit structure and growing Methodist churches. So I spent a number of days holed up in the Cliff College Library, reading and thinking about what it means for the Methodist people to express their ecclesiology (way of being church) in a way that is true to our heritage but relevant and appropriate to the missional context we find ourselves in. Being minister of a medium large, fairly self-sufficient Methodist church, struggling to fit into imposed circuit structures gives me a specific and particular lens with which I view the British Methodist circuit system - and it isn't favourable. Whatever the outcome, whether I end up embarking on a PhD or not, the space and time to read and think and pray was a welcome gift, and one that began to stir in me again the longings for the Methodist people to be renewed in faith and discipleship - a longing that had been so significant in my sense of call to ordination, but which had been somewhat lost over the last two years or so.

This time also reaffirmed to me how much I love study and reflection, how much I love wrestling with greater thinkers than I, and how much this energises me as a disciple and minister and how keen I am to ensure that in my return to full-time paid ministry, I want to guard space for me to read and think and pray. I'm sure this is part of the '...being transformed by the renewing of your mind' that Paul talks of in his letter to the Romans.

Secondly, after a few days commuting to Cliff, an opportunity turned up, quite unexpectedly to have some retreat time on Lindisfarne at the Open Gate retreat house.  This turned out to be another precious and wonderful gift. I found it hard to switch off and relax into the slow pace of life there but found it, as so many others have done before, such a 'thin place' where the presence of God seems so rich and close. Where in the library at Cliff I had begun to sense my mind being renewed and here I began to feel my soul and spirit creaking towards some semblance of restoration. In going I was somewhat anxious about how I would fill my time, what would I do? would i spend the time yearning to get off the island in a mild claustrophobic panic? Actually the gift of time and space was quite wonderful. There was time to walk and enjoy the spectacular sea views for what they were. Time to enjoy the wildlife all around. Time to enjoy the beautiful scenery, and time to catch up or, perhaps 'catch down' to God's pace.

Once again, I was left reflecting on the pace of life that seems in tune with God, and the pace of life, characterised by manic activity that I so often lead. This has been an oft-recurring theme for this sabbatical and Im realising how slow a learner I am! But I left committed to living a life, and finding a rhythm that had far more space to encounter and hear the tender voice of God speaking to my mind and my soul, for after all, that voice is surely life and health and peace.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Reflections from Papua New Guinea - part 2

As I said in my last post, I wasn't expecting to be writing from the relative comfort of the UK so soon and I'll share a little here about what led to my return so that anyone who's interested can read. After spending a couple of days at the lovely Mapang Missionary House in Port Moresby for a couple of nights and being hosted brilliantly by local United Church members, I flew the 90 mins or so internal flight to New Britain Island and Rabaul Airport where I would be greeted by my former colleague Garo (pictured) and his wife Dada.

Many people have asked about why I ended up in PNG in the first place. Well, for a number of years, Garo served in the UK church in Lancashire, while I was stationed there, even serving in the same circuit for two years. As I was planning my sabbatical I wanted to test a call to theological education as well as experiencing Christianity in a different culture. Garo, now back in PNG, serves as Principal of the School of Theology & Mission at Rarongo - the primary training college for Ministers in the United Church - and so this contact provided an opportunity both to teach and see a different cultural context.

As I arrived Garo informed me that there had been a few earthquakes in the area, likely linked to the increased activity of Mt Tavurvur - an active volcano on the island of New Britain. Having never experienced an earthquake I was a little apprehensive but was unsure what was really in store.

We headed to a local foodstore, as Garo and Dada were concerned for me to have as western a diet as possible - their constant thoughtfulness and care to me from the word go was quite remarkable - and it was there that the fun(!) really began. After a while in the store I heard a loud rumble and instinctively assumed it was thunder, it was the fact that the whole building was shaking and the shelves emptying their contents to the ground that made me realise in that this was something quite different. We ran from the building, still shaking at this point, as some of the ceiling fixtures came down around me, being one of the last to leave the building with the ground still shaking violently outside. It soon transpired that this was a significant earthquake - of greater magnitude than the recent ones - and one of the largest that Garo & Dada had experienced. It was significant enough to make international news but thankfully there were no reports of casualties. A tsunami warning was issued but no major problems occurred.

For me this was a frightening experience. I've never experienced an earthquake before, let alone one that was so sizeable and I was shaking from the ordeal. Even recounting it now, nearly two weeks on, makes my heart race and the adrenaline kick in just a little.

We proceeded on to Rarongo, considering my options as I went. It was our guess, and no more, that this latest quake marked an escalation in the activity of the volcano - something that would pose a threat to many of the communities on the north of New Britain island.

On the basis of the information at the time and in the context of a frightening earthquake it seemed the most sensible decision to head back home fairly quickly in order to make sure I was safe and my family back home could be assured of my well-being. It was my guess that if the earthquakes continued, and if the volcano did erupt, having me around and needing to get me out of the province would have been a burden that the local people didn't need to have and so, it was thought best for me to return initially back to Port Moresby and then home. A couple of weeks on and that decision seems somewhat ridiculous. The earthquakes have continued but seem not be escalating and their scale is considerably diminished from the one I experienced. The staff and missionaries at the college are continuing as normal so it feels somewhat a considerable opportunity gone to waste. On the flip side, what I didn't want to happen was for the college to spend considerable resources on feeding and looking after me only for all this to go to waste just a couple of days later.

Nevertheless, my brief overnight stay at Rarongo enabled me to see the college, its beautiful setting- a rural village on the coast, just paces from the beach - and to meet some great people, however briefly. The care and love given to me by some of the staff of the college and Garo & Dada was quite something.

So this stay in PNG was a lot briefer than expected. My family are relieved I'm home, the love and affection from my two lovely children seem to bear this out! Im left with mixed feelings. Im glad to be out of the heat, I'm glad to have modern comforts again, but I am reflecting on my propensity to panic rather than to pray. My honest reflection (and my critique is of myself solely) is that I made quick, even possibly positive decisions quickly & decisively, (something I'm not prone too!) but I what I didn't do is to pause, pray and seek the mind of my Creator and Master. Unanimously Ive been reassured by godly and caring friends in the UK that my actions were entirely reasonable and I'm coming to terms with that, but how can I continue to encourage others to lean on the Lord even in the most severe of trials and to know His peace and wisdom if when push comes to shove Im unable to do so. If I had my time again, I may not necessarily have a different outcome, but I would hope to take a breath, pause, pray and seek the guidance of One whose will and wisdom can only ever be for my eternal good, whatever the earthly circumstances.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Reflections from Papua New Guinea - Part 1

As many of you will be aware by now, I'm not in the Papua New Guinean bush teaching student minsters but back home in the UK largely feeling sorry for myself. I'll say more about that in my next post, but I wanted to share some brief and fairly simple reflections from my travels over the last week or so.

Firstly, Papua New Guinea (PNG) is so very far away from the UK! It looks far away on a map and on plane tickets when the relevant timings are set out before you, but it is quite another thing to spend  nearly 2 1/2 days travelling to the place one is headed to. Nothing quite prepared me for just how long it would take to get there and back, but I made it courtesy of Singapore Airlines!

Secondly, PNG is hot & humid. The temperature was around 30* celsius while I was there and its a heat that comes with a high degree of humidity too that makes it feel even hotter than it is. For someone who naturally prefers the cold, it was something of a shock to exit the plane at Port Moresby and be confronted with the sheer wall of heat that is the pacific climate.  

Thirdly, PNG is a land of contrast. Although my experience was confined to the capital Port Moresby, and a brief stay on New Britain Island, the gap between rich and poor is immediately evident. There are brand new 4x4 and SUV's driving the same streets that naked children live and scavenge on. The streets are dirty and sometimes unkempt, while pristine office blocks and high end hotels line them. This contrast is even more noticeable the further out from the capital one gets. The rural communities living in increasingly primitive conditions, yet each with cell phones - an essential point of connection to the rest of the world and essential services.

Fourthly, PNGers are lovely people! Although I must confess to being intimidated at first by the cultural differences, my experience of PNG people is overwhelmingly positive. In my brief time in PNG I met church officials and local church members and found them to be a delight. The small band of church members who looked after me for a few days in Port Moresby were a wonderful tribute to their church and nation as they ferried me left and right and looked after me with incredible generosity. Once again, the kindness and hospitality of the local people left a lasting impact on me.

Lastly, PNG is often referred to as the 'Land of the unexpected'. My last post was about the need to relax into God's purposes whatever they may be. I didn't anticipate being back to soon, or experiencing an earthquake - Im unsure as to what God's purpose in all of this is still - but the laid back culture of the pacific once again challenged my need to be in control at all times rather than go with the flow a little more. In the next post I'll share some more reflections about living in a vulnerable situation and the challenges faced by communities whose infrastructure is far less reliable than that in the west.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Don't Panic!!!

Although it wasn't planned this way, the increasing theme of this sabbatical seems to be around the area of trusting God. I guess the whole theology of sabbath and sabbatical is fundamentally an issue of faith and trust. Right at the foundation of the world we are set an example of sabbath - of rest - by God himself as though He wanted us to know right from the beginning that non-stop frantic activity is not how God wants us to be or how He wants us to live.

Im not good at stopping and being still, not good at resting and so perhaps my faith and trust levels are not as high as I would like them to be. Its as though frantic activity, the need to be doing doing doing says to ourselves, to others, and ultimately to God that we are indispensable, He cannot do with out our doing. I remember a wise college lecturer saying to us that a day off was an act of faith - a statement that even when we are not exerting energy the world will not stop turning, for it is Gods work anyway not ours.

I think of all the people I have worked with who thought time off was almost a sin, a sign of neglect of God's work, rather than a statement of faith that says there is One bigger, greater and more able than I.

I write all this in the context of a week for us that has been full-on with frantic activity. I am due to fly to Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea in a matter of hours (writing this from an airport cafe) and although we had planned to have all our preparation done well in advance to enable us, maybe naively, to have a relaxed family week, we have been rushing from pillar to post to get VISA's sorted, borrow all sorts of things from friends, pack, re-pack, buy last minute essentials, collect items that need to be taken to missionaries stationed in PNG and etc etc. This has hardly been a week of rest and relaxation. I would love to tell you how I have quietly trusted God all along and rested in His peace amidst the various upheavals! Nothing could be further from the trust, as I have panicked, panicked, panicked!

I'm reminded of Corporal Jones in the sitcom 'Dads Army' whose catchphrase of 'Don't panic' was almost always accompanied with frantic activity as he, yes panicked!

So to return to the beginning, this sabbatical is increasingly about learning to trust God when the plans I make seem to take another direction, to remember that I am dispensable and that He is big, is great and is Eternal. In the context of ministry, I need to learn that God is ultimately in control, and ultimately He is responsible for the outcome of His work. My task is to be regularly available, willing and faithful, and to have enough faith not to try to grasp the outcome for myself but to trust Him in all things.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Awe-some architecture

Last week was mainly spent with my lovely wife being tourists in Barcelona. Its somewhere we'd always wanted to visit and a sabbatical was the perfect excuse to farm the kids off to the in-laws and hop-it overseas for the first time together.

There was much about Barcelona to love, the climate, the culture, the art but what will really stick in our memories was the visit to Sagrada Familia - the stunning cathedral, still under construction, designed by Antoni Gaudi. Im not a huge architecture person, I enjoy historic buildings as much as the next person, a beautiful stained glass window may take my eye, but on the whole I'm usually left fairly non-plussed by buildings. The Sagrada Familia was different - I was encouraged to go by friends, but little could prepare me for the incredible awe-inspiring experience of being inside this masterpiece, built intentionally for the glory of God.

Im guilty of cheapening awe. My language and vocabulary regularly describe things or experiences as 'awesome' when they are far from that, often just mundane or ordinary. But this cathedral was different. A description and even pictures don't do it justice, (I've posted some anyway), this was a place that literally took my breath away as I experienced what Gaudi had always hoped and prayed would be the case - a glimpse of the glory of God.

I like space and stillness and this building was crammed with tourists all snapping away, yet still the overwhelming sense of the heaviness of the presence of the Lord was not lost - rarely, if ever, has a building, architecture, imaginative and creative use of light and stone, imagery and craftsmanship drawn me to close to the God of heaven and earth.

So this led me to reflect in the last few days, have we lost a sense of awe and wonder? I was certain that it was the Maker of heaven and earth and cathedrals that I was in awe of, His creation, His creativity, His innovation, His light, His glorious colour, His presence. But I'm surrounded by these things every day, yet I embody little in the way of awe. When we gather for worship there may be reverence, there may be deep-rooted integrity, there may be a longing and hunger for more of the Lord in our lives, but its a while since I was aware of being in awe and wonder at the goodness and glory of God.

So for me the challenge in these next days is to live with an increasing sense of awe and wonder at the glory of God - glimpses of which are all around us. Maybe the church would be a more spectacular place too, if we were able to regain a sense of awe once again when we gather intentionally aware of the presence of the King of all Kings.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Easter Comings and Goings

I spent Holy Week and Easter in and around Bath, the home city of Laura and I. I had always hoped that having a sabbatical over the Easter period would enable me to experience the journey of Holy Week and Easter as a disciple again as having led Holy Week and Easter services for the last 11 years has left me often feeling as if I had 'gone through the motions' somewhat. So I spent time in a variety of church settings, morning prayer at Bath Abbey, time with All Saints, Weston, - a church we used to attend in our younger days - and the long walk of witness from Oldfield Park to Twerton Roundhill (see picture below), with all of them being opportunities to receive.

Perhaps though the most significant moment for me was during the Easter service at All Saints where a non-stipendary minister was sharing feedback from his own sabbatical. He shared that prior to his sabbatical he felt like he '...didn't know whether he was "coming or going"...' due to the combined pressures of his employment and his ministry. He went on to share that what he had realised was that ministry, indeed discipleship, is all about 'coming and going'. The contrast of coming to God for refreshment and renewal and being sent to 'go' to serve, witness and minister.

Im still pondering the significance of this idea for me and my own discipleship and ministry, but I do have a sense that it was a word from God for me to mull over. As I was reflecting and sharing a bit of this with someone this week they shared the observation that the Easter narratives are full of this contrast of coming and going. Jesus comes to Jerusalem, heads into the temple and then goes again. The disciples come to Jesus for the last meal, they go in fear at his arrest. Jesus' followers and friends come to the cross and go away in sadness in mourning. The same followers come to the tomb in sadness and grief and go sharing news of great joy. The same person I was speaking with went on to suggest that the tension of coming and going was also present within me - and I think they are right. I have the desire to come to God to find refreshment for my body and soul, to drink from the fountain  but equally it seems that often I would do anything to find a way of avoiding this, as though Im running away from the source of healing and strength that I need.

In the next few days Im going to try and balance these two aspects of discipleship which are complimentary. I hope to spend time drawing near to God, but conscious that any drawing near is about me being changed, filled, resourced for the going into the world that God calls each of us to.