In Search of Perfect Freedom?

During the second half of 2015 our Parish, along with others in Chalke Deanery, is considering how to respond to Bishop Nicholas’ three questions:

  • What do you pray for?
  • Whom do we serve?
  • How will you grow?

Last month I reflected briefly on Prayer.  And so on to the second of our questions – “Whom do you serve?” And, like the first, this question works on more than one level.

We serve, here, in the simple sense of “providing for” our neighbours – offering company or perhaps a safe meeting place for the elderly or the young, taking Communion to the housebound, helping in our schools or community groups, running the Wilton branch of the Credit Union.

But perhaps we also serve our neighbours in a broader sense – not only chipping in with things, but helping people to recognise for themselves just how much good work is being done around them – and so renewing hope” among them.

And, more distinctively, we can serve by providing the background narrative – the “God story” which gives real meaning to the life of our communities – and to own personal and family life, for that matter.

Like Amos, we may not think of ourselves as Prophets, and yet like him we may be called by God to prophesy to his people – to see what is already happening in our community – and where there are opportunities still to be explored – and to clothe it all in a clear vision of God’s purposes and God’s kingdom.

For now, let’s keep our feet firmly on the ground and try to answer the question            directly–“Whom do we serve, here?”

Our answers to that questions, I suggest, might fall into three main strands.

Firstly, although the Bishop specifically warns us against becoming a self-interested, self-serving institution – there IS an inevitable and important element of serving each other – of serving ourselves.   And that is in worship!

Our worship depends on servers, on readers, intercessors, clergy and very often on musicians and ringers. And, before we’ve even gathered for worship – the cleaning and decoration of the church, the preparation of weekly sheets and sorting of orders of service.

With the possible exception of the bells – none of that really benefits anyone else directly – it is “self-serving” – but, if our worship is going to inspire us and give us the energy to do God’s work in this place, then it is also essential. So we serve ourselves and each other directly, when we enable our worship together, and we trust and pray that the benefits will be felt by others as a result. That’s all in strand one.

Secondly, we serve our “other” neighbours in some fairly “churchy” ways:

We lead worship and tell Bible stories in our local school.

We contribute to events such as the Annual Tree lighting – engaging a growing number of residents, at least a little, in the Christmas Story.

We open our building at busy times – such as the Cycle Race – and encourage the increasing number of visitors here to use the Prayer guide – not just the potted history.

We take seriously our commitment to the many young families who come to us through Coffee Corner or Baptisms, and those who come here to be married.

And perhaps we demonstrate our concern for others through our charitable giving – our ongoing sponsorship of Richnaider Paull, for example, and our growing awareness of our fellow Christians in South Sudan.

That all takes time and energy – and may leave us feeling slightly frazzled at times – but that kind of service is also essential if we’re serious about engaging other people in the faith we share.

Thirdly, we already serve our neighbours in a number of ways that are less overtly “churchy” – but are just as much an expression of generosity and concern for our neighbours as individuals made in God’s image.

Many church-members are volunteers at the Community Centre – with groups such as the Stroke Club or Thursday Club. Some are volunteer drivers, or trustees of charities –  local or regional.

The work of the Middle School Trust – in providing a local Youth service and improving facilities for our local schools – is starting to be more widely recognised, and we shouldn’t be too reticent about that.

A very great deal of the voluntary work in Wilton does depend on us – and our friends at the Baptist Church. Glance down the photos of this year’s Carnival procession in the Salisbury Journal: organising the winning float from Kingfisher was one of our LPAs, gathering the group of Mayors was “our own” Phil Matthews, and shepherding the Scouts and Cubs were four adults ALL of whom are members of our 10.30 congregation. Between us we ARE serving others in our community, not just ourselves.

And, although I’ve mixed up the order, what I’ve just unfolded for you is the working out of our own Mission Statement!

We say that we strive To share our faith with others that’s about doing the churchy things “out there”.

We say that we strive To seek Christ in all  peoplethat’s about doing the non-churchy things in the community, because we recognise all people as precious to God and mirrors of his image.

We say that we strive To reveal God’s love in worship and action. That’s about gathering together in church and what we’ll then go on to do when we go out among our neighbours.

Is there more that we could do and should do?

Yes, of course! In any of those areas there are other things we could do, other opportunities to be explored – if only our time and our  energy were unlimited.

But, of course, they’re not, and we don’t do anyone any favours by running ourselves into the ground and having to stop doing anything at all. So instead we are forced to choose.

We have to ask ourselves, realistically, what can we do and what do we have to let go? Whom are we serving well and who is being left out? It’s never easy knowing if we’re    making the right choices – that we aren’t being blinded by our own preferences rather than other people’s needs. And there will always be other people’s expectations of us – with their own sometimes quirky ideas of what Christians should and shouldn’t be doing.

There are plenty of people around us who will take whatever we’re prepared to give, without ever putting anything back or helping themselves – how do we best serve them?

For answers, I suggest, we need to go back to “Question one” and prayer.

Jesus taught us to love our neighbours, yes, but he also taught us first to serve God: we need to know and feel that we are furthering “God’s purpose” – not our own. We need to choose the things that will point most effectively to his presence in the community – rather than just doing what we think might be useful, or reacting to other people’s demands of us. Those choices may not make us popular with some of our neighbours – those who disapprove or are envious of the attention we give to someone else.

But if our Christian service is going to mean anything –  if it is going to bear any lasting fruit – then it HAS to be rooted in that clear sense of furthering God’s purposes. And so we need to be guided primarily by him.

The Diocesan strap line just now is:  Pray Serve Grow.

For now let’s concentrate on the first two and let our common aim be to Pray, Serve, Pray some more and Serve better!

A Prayer of St Ignatius Loyola

Teach us, good Lord, 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 any reward,                                                                                       save that of knowing that we do your will.

Say One For Me!

Say one for me?”

(From a sermon preached on 5th July  – readings Ezekiel 2: 1-5 and Mark 6: 1-13)

At the end of June we began thinking about how to respond to Bishop Nicholas’ initiative “Renewing Hope”, and the three questions we’re being asked to consider in relation to our own parish. (For those whose memories are as variable as mine, I’ve included both the questions and the Diocesan Prayer at the end of this article!)

First, I want to spend a little time thinking around the question “What do you pray for”?

At first sight a very simple question – and I know that if I asked you directly, some of you could answer without hesitation: there are things you were taught to pray for as a child and continue to do so religiously day in day out.      And perhaps there are serious things on your mind right now and prayer is the only way you can deal with them.

Some of you might answer more in terms of HOW you pray – the times of day you choose to pray or naturally fall into prayer, or the kind of prayer you find most fruitful.

Those of you who lead prayers in church probably have a preferred method of constructing them – looking at what’s in the news and what’s going on in our town, seeing who’s getting married or who’s died – or possibly following one of the set patterns from the prayer book.

All of those things are relevant to the question “What do you pray for?” But, if we’re really going to engage with this question then I think we need to ask it in a more fundamental way.

Imagine that same question asked by someone sceptical about faith.                                                                                      “What do you pray for?” – what are you doing that for?

So, what ARE we doing when we pray?

When we first learn to pray, we possibly tend towards the “wish-list” school of prayer –   asking God for things, asking God to make things happen.  In that mode – we naturally pray for the sick, the needy, the wayward:  And maybe that’s not so far from what we heard in the gospel, the first Christians    anointing the sick and relying on God for their healing.  There’s nothing wrong with that  approach, it is indeed a strong expression of faith and trust in God. But if we only pray in that way, there’s a danger that we don’t then do that much to  address problems ourselves.

In contrast, we might be working on the assumption that prayer is really about effecting a change in ourselves – rather than changing other things for us.  In that case, we’re probably more concerned with praying for the gifts we need in order to flourish as a church, praying for grace to recognise the gifts that others bring into the mix and to see more clearly “what’s out there” in God’s world and also “what comes next” for us.

We might use prayer in a very intentional way – seeking a greater awareness of God – perhaps craving some very powerful experience of God’s presence that brought us to faith in the first place – perhaps aspiring to the clear vision of God described in Ezekiel.

If we’re praying in that way, then WHAT we ask for probably doesn’t matter that much – it’s more about the simple fact that we’re talking to God. Familiar times of prayer, familiar patterns of prayer – other sights, sounds and scents – can all help us to reach beyond the words we’re reciting and on to something which simply can’t be expressed in words.

That’s a very absorbing and rewarding form of prayer – although, I suspect, possibly not one of the answers the Bishop is looking for!

We sometimes use the phrase “united in prayer” – suggesting  that prayer can actively deepen our fellowship.

We meet together to pray, here and elsewhere. We can use our weekly sheet, when we pray at home, so that we know we’re praying for the same things.

Recently I was invited to attend worship at Great Wishford School and I discovered that they have a school prayer that all the children and staff know off by heart. And as they prayed that prayer, aloud and together, there was a real sense corporate identity and of being caught up in the same offering to God.  And I think that sense of “unity” is a very good reason for praying – for adults just as much as for those children.

There is a real energy to be found in expressing that shared sense of mission – of willing God’s will into reality.

And then, one last thread for now.

There is real comfort, real strength, in knowing that other people are praying for us – especially when we are facing particular challenges or fears. Most, if not all of us, will have some experience of being buoyed up by the prayers of others when our own prayers had dried up and we’d started to feel we were sinking.

Whether we can somehow communicate spiritual strength through the ether, or whether it is purely psychological, I don’t know – but it certainly seems to help.

That’s one reason why every week over the past six months we’ve include on our weekly sheet George Barsby, working in Tanzania and Julian Lyne-Pirkis in Somalia.  At the very least we hoped they might be assured that, for us, “out of sight is NOT out of mind” and at best we might better arm them for the challenges they face.

Clearly I could only scratch the surface here, but for all if us I think it is worth taking time to consider what WE think prayer IS, and then to ask ourselves whether we are praying for the right things and ALL of the right things.

To answer the Bishop’s question “What do you pray for?” is actually quite hard, I think. Surely what we pray for should always be changing. But that doesn’t make it a simplistic question, or an unrealistic one : it just means that we need to keep asking ourselves the same question, to sharpen our thinking and to refresh our spiritual health.

There is, however, a more straightforward answer to the cynic – who sneers the question “What do pray for?” (i.e. why bother?).

Jesus prayed – to his Father – to enable him to carry out his ministry on earth. WE pray in order that we can continue that ministry now. The cynic may not be convinced by this, that prayer is worth the effort — but we should be.

  • What do you pray for?
  • Whom do we serve?
  • How will you grow?

God our Father, renew our hope.

By the Holy Spirit’s power,

strengthen us to pray readily,

serve joyfully

and grow abundantly

rejoicing in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.