About Me

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Some thoughts on liturgy and worshipping God...

yes this is me leading the service. Am thinking that
dress might be too short, what do we think?
Last term part of my course was about patterns of prayer and worship and in large part the liturgy. (For the uninitiated, liturgy is the pattern of worship, the structure, words and prayers that we say during a service). We looked at the history, why we do what we do and how different themes and patterns have emerged. It's been fascinating and not at all what I was expecting, and it has really challenged me.

So I've been thinking about worship a lot recently and the different ways in which we choose to worship. Different churches do things in different ways, for various reasons of course, but the bottom line is about allowing people to meet God in whatever way they can. That is the beauty of the Church of England - that its breadth allows for many different ways of worship.

As many of you will know both my husband and I spent years attending our local parish church but we were not in a place of having a good relationship with God (or any relationship in fact). For me then, moving to a church where services were not structured around large amounts of liturgy was hugely freeing and it was in that freer sense of worship that I really met with God.

Now of course, I work for the church and that has an impact too. I've been leading services and preaching in our church for about two years now. I love doing this, it is an amazing privilege although I do find myself regularly wondering how on earth I got to do what I do, especially knowing that there are many people with far greater biblical knowledge than me and with far more experience of life and faith.

But what I am finding is (which probably happens to all clergy) that I miss just being able to worship freely, without having to think about what's happening next in the service. Even when I'm not directly involved in the service I find I get distracted far more easily than I did before, because I might be thinking about someone I need to speak to, or wondering if an announcement has gone on the website, or whether I need to remember to take anything back to the office with me, or any other random distraction…

So, where I like to be able to completely give myself over to God in worship, to totally let go, and focus on him is almost impossible when I am involved in the service. In the way we run our services, although there is structure to some extent, there is much that relies on listening to God, being open to the Holy Spirit, which is hard when you are looking at the clock thinking 'is it time to get the preacher on yet?'. Never yet has God let me down, even on the days when I have thought I haven't got a clue what to say, the moment I set foot on the stage God gives me something.

So in all this studying of liturgy I have been thinking about whether, if one is leading the service, if it is easier to meet God in a very liturgical environment or in a freer, more charismatic one. Now of course that is subjective, for the very reasons I said above, we are all different and God meets us in different ways, but it's had me thinking. Where I find it hard to engage completely with worship when I am leading, it is because generally I don't know what's coming next. I don't know what God is going to do, or where he is going to take us and the service. However in a more liturgical service, where everything is laid out for you, I wonder if I would find it easier to give myself entirely because I needn't worry what's coming next because it's all written down for me in advance. I wonder if that requires less personal input or less reliance on the Holy Spirit? I don't know of course having not led a service like that, I'm really just wondering. And I guess one could say, that if you are leading the service your role is to lead others into God's presence not get there yourself. I'd be really interested to know other peoples thoughts...

In an aside, I read recently (I can't remember where so sorry for not referencing...) that in the very early church Bishops (or leaders in the church) were chosen according to how well they could hear and be guided by the Holy Spirit. As the church grew quickly it was less easy to find people able to do this, so then Bishops/leaders would pray in advance and prepare some of what they were going to say, before the service or gathering started. Then gradually even they became few and far between and so others were tasked to prepare service material in advance for others and so the development of liturgy began… The idea that early leaders were chosen on their ability to hear and be guided by the Holy Spirit really resonates with me, I suppose because there are large elements of that within my church. But then that puts me back into that sense of confusion! Love to hear peoples thoughts, please do comment below!

Friday, 25 April 2014

Vicar School (first published at Dreaming Beneath the Spires Blog)

This post was first published at 'Dreaming Beneath The Spires' Blog, by Anita Mathias on 1st March this year after my post on the Easter School, though it might be a good post for anyone who wants to know more about Vicar School itself...

So, Vicar School - sounds so jolly nice doesn’t it? Almost conjures up images of greying men in tweed and middle aged women in twin sets in wood panelled rooms, bibles open on our desks listening intently whilst we are taught how to give a good exegesis. Of course, the reality is rather different. On my course, we are very mixed: in age, churchmanship and dress – not sure I’ve seen a single twin set actually! And it’s nice that we are all so different because we can learn so much from each other, but because so many of us are doing different things it can be harder to form strong relationships. For example there are people I only ever see when we’re away on study weekends which is about twice a term, then there are those in my Tuesday class who I see each week but not all of them at weekends. It does get a bit confusing - I am just over half way through my first year and I think I’m just about getting the hang of it all!

So how did I end up here? Well, just getting into Vicar School is a slog in itself. Getting selected for me meant going through the ‘discernment process’ in the Church of England. My husband always jokes that this sounds like a bunch of bearded polo-necked men in a room thinking a lot, and well, there certainly was a lot of thinking involved. It’s a pretty thorough process that I usually describe as being like going through intensive therapy. Very worthwhile but hard work and a bit of an emotional roller coaster too. So when I was finally selected and ready to go to college it felt like the end of a rather long journey when the reality is, it’s actually just the beginning of another hard slog.

So, the course began back in September last year, with a weekend away with the other first years. Literally thrown in at the deep end: a weekend away with a bunch of strangers in surroundings that would be at home in a Harry Potter movie (ever been to Aylesford Priory?). Trouble with the weekends is that they start on a Friday evening and if you’re anything like me, by Friday evening all I am capable of is vegging on the sofa with a glass of red and some trashy telly.  And yet, here I was, all ready for some academic hard stuff. Hmm, well, we actually started this weekend with some good old fashioned ‘get to know each other’ exercises. Oh goody, my favourite (not). Ours was ‘if you could choose an animal to represent the Church of England, what would it be?’. Then: ‘now find other people with the same animal, without talking’. Cue lots of people looking like idiots and wishing they were anywhere but here. I would like to add, there was no alcohol involved at this point… I’ve got to admit I wrote in my journal on that first evening ‘what the **** I doing here?!’ Thankfully it did get better, and since then it’s been pretty full on. We’ve had several weekends away, had some fantastic teaching, done our Mission Placement and begun to form friendships too.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at God working through the course to teach me, mould me and guide me, but I am. From the first term’s teaching on church history, which I thought would be massively dull but actually really loved; to getting fed up with more traditional worship styles (I’m a charismatic) and then finding myself weeping uncontrollably during a course Eucharist. From reluctantly starting the discipline of the Daily Office and then finding that God speaks to me through it every day; to realising that at heart I am an Anglican. It’s been quite staggering really (especially the Anglican bit…).

I’m also loving how what I am studying is really feeding into my work – I work for my church and it’s amazing how things that seem pretty irrelevant just slot into what I am working on. In fact I’m currently preparing a report for church on mission and growth, most of which will also feature in an essay I’m doing (rather convenient that one…)

Of course there are still moments when I wonder what on earth God has got me into. Weeks when I have work and college deadlines looming, or when my kids are on school hols and I still have to find time to study, or, as is coming up shortly, planning for the dreaded whole week away at Easter. There have been days when I have wished that I were the kind of person who would be content to be a stay at home mum, when it all seems just too much. And yet these are the moments when I am reliant on God more than ever. To be honest, without him I think I’d have walked after the first evening.

So, as I look ahead there is a certain level of mild panic at what the future holds, at where God might send us, but at the same time there is excitement too. I have learned so much already and yet I still have so much to learn. I am loving learning, loving getting back into academic writing, loving the reading (well most of it, not so sure on Kantian ethics….) and the research. This is a path that whilst being terrifying and unsettling, also feels completely right and where I am meant to be.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Worshipping in Canterbury Cathedral #VicarSchool

A large part of Vicar School is about worshipping together. At Easter School this meant (for me at least) getting up at just after 6 each day and not having time for a morning run, which was a struggle! 
Canterbury Cathedral in the sunshine

We all trundled over to the Cathedral each day for worship at 7.30 in the crypt - which isn't as chilling as it sounds! I've got to say there was something rather special about being one of the first few into the cathedral each morning, as we crossed the Cathedral precincts, having only been allowed in by flashing our passes (only to keep out the tourists not some awful security measure!) then on into the cloisters and entering the crypt by an almost hidden door. Walking in there at dawn, the crypt mostly lit just by candle light, entering in silence as we arrived to worship was very moving. Even for a modern charismatic like me, there is much to be said for worshipping in such a space where pilgrims, monks and Christians have entered and worshipped for centuries, it's like the walls breathe out the joy and sorrow they have heard over the years from the countless prayers that have been uttered in there.

Throughout the week different groups of students led worship, in different styles. I was part of a group leading worship in the style of 'Taize', one morning. In advance, like much of the week, I wasn't exactly looking forward to this. I was well out of my comfort zone and Taize is largely about repeated singing of chants and phrases, however due to cathedral restrictions we were not allowed to have any music at that time of the morning, so no challenge there then! Anyway, I found that actually it felt a real privilege to lead worship in that space. We chose silence and quiet reponses instead of the music. People were able to leave pebbles as a sign of leaving their burdens by the cross. There were some pebbles left which we then left out during the day and when we returned in the evening we found that visitors to the cathedral had continued to use the pebbles, which was really encouraging. 

The Crypt with evening worship in Taize style
I have to say that I did struggle with some of the worship. I knew it would be in varying styles and I prayed each day that God would meet me in each act of worship and He did, which was amazing. I've said before and I will say again, that is the beauty of the Church of England, that we can all meet God in different ways and the church caters for many different people. However there is something to be said for worshipping in your own preferred style and by the end of the week I was just desperate to sing and worship with abandon!

It has made me think more about what worship is and how people meet with God in different ways. And about the space one is in, as we meet in a soulless assembly hall each week, I really noticed the difference being in a building that has been used for worship for hundreds of years. As I said above, it's like you can feel the prayers and praises of those who have gone before just oozing out of the walls. An amazing place to worship...

Do you see what this means—all these pioneers who blazed the way, all these veterans cheering us on? It means we’d better get on with it. Strip down, start running—and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed—that exhilarating finish in and with God—he could put up with anything along the way: Cross, shame, whatever. And now he’s there, in the place of honor, right alongside God. When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he plowed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls! 

Hebrews 12: 1-3 The Message Version

Saturday, 19 April 2014

A week in Canterbury, Vicar School Update...

The stunning St Augustine's - Kings School at dawn (aka: 'Godwarts')
So just before Easter I spent a week in Canterbury as part of my course. We stayed in the beautiful Kings School and worshipped each day in the Cathedral crypt (not as chilling as it sounds!).

It's fair to say I had not been looking forward to this week away, after all it's an entire week away from the family and I had never been away from the kids that long before. I had a lot of work to do in advance, plus prepping everything at home so that all would run smoothly while I was away and to cap it all off, it was the school hols so I'd be missing out on fun with the kids. However I tried to go with an open mind rather that just dreading the whole thing and actually I was pleasantly surprised and would probably even say that I think I enjoyed the week. It was tough, long hours of study, not much time to oneself and up at the crack of dawn for worship each day, but there were positives too! People keep asking me if I had a good week away and it's hard to know what to say, I think I'm still processing it to be honest. There were lows and highs that's for sure. 

A definite high was being able to spend more time with others on my course. As the course has so many different aspects to it we are rarely all gathered, but here we were all stuck in together for a week. You can't help but get to know people when you are with them 24/7! Nothing like bumping into someone in your PJ's with crazy bed hair, for breaking down barriers… Before I went I had just read the 'Moment Maker' book (see previous post!) and so I thought what an opportunity to take the moment and get to know people better and it was amazing to hear other peoples stories of how Jesus has impacted their lives. Made me realise how similar we all are, despite obvious differences and different styles of churchmanship.

Definite low point was mid week, missing everyone at home, feeling exhausted and supping wine from this mug, by myself in my room! #classy (by the way it says Pugs - as in pug dogs - my husband thought it implied something else..)

I'm not sure if this is a low point or a high point, but in one afternoon bible study towards the end of the week a friend played a Matt Redman song (a modern Christian worship leader) at which two of us burst into tears, realising we had really missed being able to worship freely. I went back to my room plugged in my iPod and blasted myself with modern worship songs, singing away to my hearts content, not caring if anyone heard (if they did they were to polite to comment!) 

The teaching was great, although we clearly all struggled with the long hours (including the tutors!) There was one afternoon when a sort of game started, seeing who was going to nod off first. Slightly awkward moment for me, when we were given a 2 minute break in one class, so I ran out to get some tea as I literally could not keep my eyes open and was telling my friend this just as the tutor walked past… Although we did then move the class outside (a la Dead Poets Society) for some fresh air!

And I am pretty sure God was having a joke at my expense when I discovered the name of  my room: 'Cranmer' (see previous post!)

The week ended with cocktails and singing on the Friday night (definite high!) and then the last talk was on Zombies (yes actually on Zombies, not a metaphor) #random 

To be honest it was great to get home, but I think overall it was a good week and I certainly won't be dreading it so much next year!

Monday, 14 April 2014

Book Review: Moment Maker

Sorry another book review, but there's some great books out there at the mo!

This one is 'Moment Maker' by Carlos Whittaker. Pastor, Musician, Worship Leader, Writer, Blogger, Tweeter, Carlos is almost unheard of in the UK and yet in the US he has made quite an impact. 'Moment Maker' on Amazon UK right now has no reviews, yet the American one has 53 - and the books been out just over a week! (although by the time you read this I'll have posted a review on the UK version…).

So, 'Moment Maker', what's it all about? Well, the clue is in the title, it's about making 'moments', allowing yourself time to make moments, listening for God's guidance in making moments, recognising moments. What's a moment? A moment is an opportunity, it's making a memory, it's a divine appointment, it's a life changing experience, and so much more.

Whittaker (or Los as he is known) is an expert moment maker, wanting to get the absolute most out of life. This book is essentially a collection of stories about 'moments' from him and his family's lives which he shares with raw honesty, self deprecating humour and a passion to show you how you can get more out of your life! I love the way Carlos writes, high paced; thoughts and experiences blurring into one; a riot of creativity and joy. I've never met the guy but I imagine he writes just like he lives his life.

Although this book is about Whittaker's own experiences, he gives some great advice on how to get more out of your life - how to experience 'moments' in your life too. That said, it's not one of those irritating self-help books by any stretch of the imagination, it's more a collection of inspiring stories, centred on the heart of Jesus, as he notes: 'the greatest moment maker of all time'. Most importantly it focuses on the why? of 'moments' - there's great stories of fantastic things he's done, but the important thing is the heart behind it - the why.

Reading this book, it's hard not to be encouraged by Whittaker's enthusiasm for life. Once I started it I couldn't put it down, being carried through it on a wave of joy. There were such laugh out loud moments that I totally embarrassed myself reading it in public, and yet his genuine honesty allows you to experience his willingness to be vulnerable too. I literally cringed reading about his plan to woo a girl back to him (not a moment that ended well!) and I have to admit to shedding a tear as he relates how his daughter gives her life to Jesus as he almost tries to talk her out of it!

A great read, an inspiring reflection on life and well worth buying… 

Moment Maker is available from Amazon and costs (in the UK) £9.99 although the dispatch time is quite slow so if you can't wait you can get it for kindle for £5.99.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Book Review: 'Francesco, Artist of Florence: The Man Who Gave Too Much' by Anita Mathias

The story of Francesco, artist of Florence is one that whilst written for children, will touch the hearts of adults too. Anita has a lovely way with words, that say just enough but at the same time invite one to imagine more. I love books like this, in the 21st century so much is laid out for us on a plate and yet one of my favourite things as a child was reading books that captured my imagination as well as my heart. Francisco's story does both.

Francesco himself is a craftsman, making boxes decorated deliciously in pietre dure, a decorative art that uses inlaid semi precious stones to make images and designs. It was a particularly popular art in 16th Century Florence. Like many artists Francesco struggles with the pricing of his work. He gives away his pieces at ridiculously low prices, being swayed by the covetous glances or persuasive words of his customers, and the desire for his work to go to those who love it as much as he does. (Having been an artist for some years and given away many paintings for nothing, I totally understand where he is coming from!).

I have to admit to feeling a certain affinity with this book having been one of those who proof read it for Anita before publication. Then, as now, as I read it again, I just love the amazing descriptions of semi precious stones, reminding me of biblical descriptions of the temple, so detailed that you can begin to picture them in your own mind. I'm a creative type and these kind of descriptions capture me, leading my imagination in a dance of colour and shape and pattern. But this book is not even really for me, it's for children who I am sure will be as captivated as I was.

Francesco is a devout man, balancing the voice of his heart with that of his clearly long suffering wife, Elisabetta. This is not just his story but one of him learning to forgive himself. Is he simply a fool, as his customers rudely proclaim, or is he a man with the generous heart of an artist, delighted to see his work desired so much?

'And so I carve gardens of unfading flowers, in which I place a singing bird on a golden bough, to keep a drowsy emperor awake with his eternal songs'. 

This is a one of those books you'll want to keep forever! One for the grandchildren. If you're a parent you might know what I mean. Our bookshelves are full of hundreds of kids books, some less dull than others. There's some old favourites, a bit tattered around the edge, some losing the cover, one with a bit of juvenile srawl on a few pages. But then there are a few that get looked after. They are the ones the children ask for almost with a sense of awe. These are the ones with beautiful hand painted illustrations, or the ones with the quirky story, or the ones that Mummy had when she was 'little'. Francesco's story is one of those. Not only is it a lovely story but it's a book that you will want to keep. A book you will want to read not just to your kids, but to your grandchildren, or maybe, even to yourself.

Anita Mathias
Anita Mathias is the author of 'Wandering Between Two Worlds' (Benediction Classics, 2007) and blogs at Dreaming Beneath the Spires. You can also visit her at Facebook or on Twitter.

The book is available on Amazon for just £3.99