Monday, 12 October 2009

Book Review - The Shack by William P. Young

Have you ever asked or been asked the question “where is God when the worst things happen?” If so, I highly recommend reading The Shack, it has a lot to say about life, God, the Trinity and religion. It made me laugh, smile, cry, sob, gasp and ponder; both for the characters and for my own self. So what is it all about….

The story revolves around Mack, who has been living in the shadow of his Great Sadness since an event at “the shack” four years previously. And then he receives a note from God (Papa) who invites him to return to the same shack for a weekend. Mack has no idea what to expect, and he gets the unexpected through his experience with God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit (Sarayu) in human forms.

Mack’s weekend at the shack is organised to help him deal with his Great Sadness and its pain and anger. Through conversations with each member of the Trinity and by seeing their relationship with each other; Macks understanding of God is changed. His faith is unwound and then rebuilt through a new relationship with God. He leaves the cabin a changed man.

A word of warning though; this is no theological textbook. It criticises aspects of religion, it rarely mentions the Bible and it disapproves of much Christian doctrine. For these reasons it has received mixed reviews including being charged with heresy. If pushed I would tend more towards the proclamations that it is our generations’ Pilgrim’s Progress. It gives much to ponder, what can be more important than that?

I recommend it whole heartedly as a book which refused to be put down, which spoke straight to me heart and has given me much to think and pray about. I would love to chat with anyone who has read it, or wants to; I will put a copy in the church library.

Being an LLM Portfolio

And so I felt energised and, determined not to loose my enthusiasm, I started work on my second portfolio. This one could have been produced first since I had received back the marked assignments first, but I was so disappointed with the marks I had received that I had put the whole competency to the back of my mind. It was only when I started thinking about my ministry with my vicar that I realised marked assignments are just that, they are theory; and the competency is about practice and calling. So I set about looking at what was needed to produce the portfolio and was pleasantly surprised to realise it was less onerous than I had imagined.

note - read all this is context - I have not yet received my mark so it might need some additional work!

The course for this competency Ministry in the Church – Being a Licensed Lay Minister was a one day event. It was divided into two elements; the theology of ministry and especially lay ministry; and support and supervision for ministry. We were expected to then write two assignments, one on each segment of the course.

for the theology of ministry I wrote a presentation for a church group on "what is a reader/llm today" which included the presentation itself, speakers notes and a paper with backup information and referencing. the writing of this presentation brought to me a real understanding of what it means to be a lay minister and what the rules and regulations are; it also developed my ability to be able to explain it to others - also helpful.

the support and supervision assignment I chose was an essay on evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the field of support and supervision which I minister; both in terms of that I receive and that I provide to others. Having read the advised documents I felt that they were too narrow and overly prescribed; I therefore brought in my experience of counselling supervision and also the way that volunteers are supervised. I was pleased with the essay but it apparently was not what was expected, hence my disappointment with my grading. I have thought about the issue much in the weeks since and decided that to provide strength to my portfolio I would include a document of reflection on my essay, its mark and the advised texts for inclusion. I am sure this is a challenge to the system, but it is thorough and true and surely that is what matters.

Other information I have provided are documents on my ministry, my role within the ministerial team and my experience of supervision and review sessions. And finally there are the introduction, conclusion and another annotated bibliogrpahy.

as I said, my mentor is currently marking this portfolio so I wait to hear if there is anything I need to add or change; but I think it provides what is needed. and then it will go to moderation in november along with the preaching one.

Preaching Portfolio

Swine flu has struck me down so I'm using the enforced period of rest to.... not rest so much as sit on the sofa and update my blog! close enough to rest, right?!

And the first thing I'm going to share is my experience of pulling together my first portfolio - preaching.

I have blogged about the preaching course I went on previously ( ). Following the course I then wrote two essays; the first entitled One picture is worth a thousand words. How can we make good use of all of the senses of our congregation to enable understanding and retention of our message? this looked at how a preacher needs to be able to connect with as many people as possible with the one sermon. I concluded that by thinking about what the congregation needs, as individuals and as a group, the preacher can look at the message and work to make it accessible, understandable, interesting, engaging and memorable.

The second essay was: Does preaching still have a role to play in communicating the Gospel in a multi-media society? This is something I feel passionately about and I looked at the society which the church currently exists in, the role of the sermon and the way preaching is part of Christian life, relating preaching to Jesus’ own life and his use of stories about the lives of the people he met. I reviewed the possibilities for new forms of preaching and personal growth during and after sermons; as well as new forms of church. However I concluded that what matters most is the human connection, in whatever form.

The essays were well received by the tutor, which of course matters; but what is more important is that I gained a lot from writing them and thinking about the issues involved.

So that was the marked assignment section of the portfolio completed; but that is just part of the requirement. In addition there were at five sermons with feedback and analysis to be included, an introduction and conclusion, an annotated bibliography and some supporting information to show my completion of the competency - a document on my theology of preaching and one on the church calendar and use of the lectionary.

The two pieces of work which took the most time were the annotated bibliography (a list of all the texts read around the competency with a 100-200 word summary of each) and the theology of preaching. the latter was extremely involved since I have not yet taken the theological reflection course, but with some guidance from my mentor and some good reading material I managed to capture my theology in words on paper.

and the sermons. I included three from the family communion service to show progression of learning and development of style. I then included one from the all-age monthly service and one from the adult midweek communion service; showing breadth of experience and adaptability of style. Each one was provided with the feedback, analysis and a reflection on my learning.

the portfolio ended up much larger than I expected, but then the sermons themselves and all their supporting information took up the majority of it. I delivered it to my mentor, rather than trusting it to the postal system, and he has subsequently delivered it to church house for moderation next month. I await to see the grade I receive but no matter what it feels fantastic to have got one portfolio completed.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

LLM Conference

Two weeks have passed, sorry for the delay, since the Oxford Diocese LLM (Lay Minister) conference and I am ready to blog, so here goes.

Before I head into the actual formal bits of the conference I need to share my highlight and that was the people. To meet so many lay ministers and those in training was fantastic. I compared notes about portfolios and callings and churches and balancing ministry with life. I have even got a buddy for my training, she has offered to just be there through the ups and the downs of the production of portfolios. Thanks Elizabeth!

The theme of the conference was preaching "how do they hear" and there were speeches, workshops and seminars on the various aspects of preaching. On top of that there were services of various formats and styles throughout the weekend. It was busy, really busy, and I could have done with just half an hour at some point to reflect and absorb, but that is the only negative I have of the whole weekend.

We met on Friday afternoon and started with a service before dinner and then the first speaker Rev'd Stephen wright "Cutting out the interference: letting the voice of scripture be heard today". He started by highlighting that the way we as preachers help people hear scripture can be hindered by all sorts of interference from the simple misunderstanding of words in daily life, to the affect of historical context, to the delivery we use which can confuse the scriptural message. Stephen's summarised points:
- the important of attempting to recover some of the biblical meanings and resonances of words by explaining the scripture accurately
- it is good to counter our own ways of explaining by listening more carefully to the scripture itself and use it's tones and performance to come into our sermons
- we need to inhabit the meanings of the words as written and perform it for the audience of today by bringing if to life
- we are asked to enhabit and enact the scripture so congregations can be moved and transformed by words crisply and clearly

Saturday started with worship before moving into seminars and workshops. I chose "preaching in a sermon series" by Rev Philip Tovey for my first seminar. We started by comparing how our churches programme their preaching, to a one we follow the lectionary; before looking at how we could produce a series of sermons on a subject of interest or on a biblical book. It was fascinating to think about this possibility and is something I hope we might be able to use.

The second workshop I attended was "storytelling". I apologise profusely for forgetting who presented it, but suffice to say he was the most amazing storyteller. The workshop started with him telling the parable of the good samaritan from Luke 10. He then asked us to go into pairs and tell the story to each other purely from memory. It was surprisingly difficult to get started but the interesting point was that once we got into the zone the story just flowed. I have been interested in story telling since I saw Bob Hartman speak last year, this workshop has peaked my interest further still and I intend to try and use it in the future.

After lunch it was free time for some, but for those of us in training it was a meeting about our training, how we feel about it and how we would feel about possible changes for the future. As a new trainee I appreciated hearing from others and voicing my experience, but it was clear from those who are at the end of their training that this was a very new and extremely welcome experience.

It was then time for the third workshop of the day and I went for "communicating to those without a church background" by Sheila Lloyd. We started by thinking about what we know about church, what those who have been coming to church for some time know and what those 'out there' know. we decided that it was probably along the lines of:
Us: 90%
few years in church: 65%
Occassional visitor: 35%
concluding that if visitors don't know things about church then they might be less inclined to come along to church; they might in fact be ashamed of what they don't know. We need to be aware of this in our preaching. We also looked at how a persons age affects their knowledge. Fifty years ago most people would have a biblical knowledge of some overview and social morality was common to Christian. This commonality changes for those under 40 who have not had the same backgrounds as previously.

How can we make it more accessible?
- set the scene
- talk about mountains and geography
- introduce the characters
- explain what transfiguration is and include examples eg butterfly
- catch peoples attention so they are interested to keep listening
- retell the story in normal language - perhaps with story telling
- use pictorial aids
- make sure it's not too long
- reduce the scope of the sermon - clarify the message
- relate the story to real life - in context
- encourage reflection on the feelings of the people in the story
- ensure we provide some challenge so that the more knowledgable are fed and extended - leave them with questions to take away

We have to make sure we have caught peoples interest and that there is opportunity for them to ask questions of people within the church. If we touch peoples' hearts then we are doing our job.

It was then dinner time before our evening speaker; Margaret Withers who spoke on "hearing in their own language - communicating with all age congregations". she started by asking what makes services easy to access; we concluded that the following elements increase accessibility:
- Familiar structure
- Less words and more visual impact
- Easy songs to sing
- Not much to learn

She then went into some details about how we can make workship more accessible, interesting and useful.
- It's not about adding gimics to a dull service but about providing ways for the congregation to participate more usefully.
- The way lituurgy is led and presented is about deepening the experience of worshipping god, the delivery can make it dull or exciting.
- Using settings in different layouts can refresh and invigorate a service.
- Music is often the main aspect of a service that people are affected by. Therefore the length, type, mood, subject and speed of the chosen music are important.
- Drama works for many old and new testament stories. Drama bibles are great. It is powerful to have someone mime whilst the gospel is read.
- Often the dramatic part can replace a sermon or even the whole service (eg the passion on good Friday). Actions can speak louder than words but you need to keep it simple.
- Posture and movement have meanings and impacts - don't disregard them.
- The church itself and all it's furniture are the most amazing signs and symbols. Fonts, crosses, banners, stained glass. Even 100 years ago most people couldn't read and therefore the culture was to learn through pictures and muiral. We then focussed on words. But now we as a society is back to focus on short texts and animations - we need to use the same.
- Visual images last longer.
- The most evocative sense is smell.
- Every service is all age because every person is at a different stage in their spiritual journey and life. Make sure you challenge the regular and mature congregation members in every service, do not just drop to the lowest common denominator. We should challenge not entertain. We should ensure that we give the full Christian message at every service.

Saturday night concluded with an Iona service, perfect!

Sunday morning started with breakfast before our Eucharist service. The reading for the day was on Joseph which a number of us read out in a dramatic style. There was then a sermon on the importance of preaching and how we can and should reach outside the church in our ministry. We then broke into our area groups for a bible study before lunch to complete the weekend.

I left for home physically exhausted but spiritually buoyed. I was apprehensive about what the weekend would be like but am now determined to attend all future conferences, next years' weekend is in my diary already.

Oh and finally, we are going to try and call ourselves Lay Ministers from now, it should be more accessible than LLM.

Power of Prayer

This is a post out of sequence and a little bit off subject but I feel it's important to share it.

Rachel has been really ill this week with asthma, she has had a couple of episodes with blue lips and we had to call the doctor out in the middle of the night on Tuesday night because she couldn't catch her breath properly. The doctors were great, they gave me advice on upping her ventolin inhaler and how much paracetomol I could give her, I can't fault them. But this didn't do anything for her fear, and I know from my own asthma that if you can stay calm then the attacks are much easier to manage.

So I prayed. I prayed whilst I held her, I prayed whilst she slept, I prayed with her when she was awake. And then she asked me if we could go to church and have Neil pray for her. So we went to the Wednesday morning Eucharist and afterwards Neil prayed with her. During the service she was wheezing and just curled up with me, but within 5 minutes of laying on of hands she was wondering around and asking to eat cake (not even chocolate had tempted her for 3 days before this).

I leave it to you to draw conclusions, but it is all too much of a coincidence for me. I have never myself experienced the immediate effects of prayer, but for Rachel something happened.