Saturday, 29 November 2014

An Alternative Advent

If you have read my blogs, are a Facebook friend or listen to me preach then you will know how much I value the season of Advent.

There are very many reasons for this. To be honest, I suspect that part of it is simply linked to my personality. I am the type of person who gets a great deal of pleasure out of anticipation (and remembrance for that matter); sometimes even more than from the actual thing that is being anticipated (or remembered)!

But as I have also often said, there are theological reasons for my appreciation of Advent. Amongst the many is the fact that the Lectionary readings and, indeed, the very theme of the season, make us face up to the fact (and the mystery... even perhaps the frustration!) that we live in the ‘in between’ time - in between the First Advent (the Birth of Jesus) and the Second Advent (his Coming again, and please note that I am neither pressing nor suggesting only one possible interpretation of this awaited event!)

I tend towards the view (it is called ‘inaugurated eschatology’ if you are interested!) that  there are both ‘already’ and ‘not yet’ aspects to the Kingdom of God. In other words, in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus the coming and promised Kingdom of God was ‘inaugurated’ and, indeed, continues to break into the here and now through the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit (so I suppose you might call my view ‘Pentecostal eschatology’??) but yet there remains an ’age to come’ in which the Kingdom of God will be fully established.

Now, as I say, I am not willing to force any particular specific interpretation of the how, the what or the when of this (certainly not!).

But  for me it is a view (best articulated by the theologian Oscar Cullman) that makes sense of the fact that I see and know God’s action and presence in the 'here and now' in so many ways, and yet, there are other realities too. Prayers are answered, but not all; I have seen God work in marvellous ways, but only sometimes; etc etc.

I have not explained this very well, but it is only a short(ish) blog!!

My point is that this is one of the things that I love about Advent. I deeply appreciate the opportunity this season offers for reflection on all of this and the attempted explanation of it in preaching and discussion.

And so it is with a deep sense of bereavement that I find that I will be missing both the First and Second Sundays of Advent.... one because of illness and the other because I will be on holiday... yes, of course I can still join in worship, and being on holiday is not a bad thing (although I think I wish I was feeling healthier to enjoy it!) But I will not have the opportunity to lead worship, offer public prayer or preach until so far through Advent that the pressure will be on to talk about shepherds and angels and (even!) wise men!!

But on further reflection I have realised that the very reason I am missing these (mainly illness) is in itself an illustration of my thoughts about living in this between time, this ‘already’ but ‘not yet’ age.

As people have shown concern for me in my health challenges in these last few weeks, several have said something along the lines of, ‘I pray for you; I so wish God would answer my prayers’.

Well, as you may imagine, I know what they mean!

I have prayed frequently for folks to be healed... and I have seen remarkable answers to these prayers!..... sometimes.

On occasion, I have myself been healed in response to prayer and ministry for things such as a relatively minor twisted knee... but not for this ongoing, debilitating and more serious condition of Multiple Sclerosis.


And I suppose that this is where I come back to the thought about living in these in between times. It is also at this point that I re-affirm my underlying Calvinism in its affirmation of the sovereignty of God in all things. (What do you know? I seem to be a Calvinist, Pentecostal, non-fundamentalist, anti-literalist, inaugurated eschatologist! That’s me folks!)

And as for Advent reflection? Well, it will not happen (this year at least) so much in worship, but will be in the context of personal prayer and meditation as I reflect on the present health realities I face and speak to and listen to God with regard to these in the light of the promise of his coming Kingdom, and the fact that I believe that kingdom was inaugurated in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus and breaks into this present age in the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit, but a Kingdom whose final and full establishment we await in hope.

And so, what does that all mean for me, now?

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Waiting and wondering

As I have shared before via my blog, I have friends and colleagues who have counselled me to share less about my health in public. They have suggested that this is all private stuff and I am making myself too vulnerable etc.

I think they are wrong.

I think this partly because I do not subscribe to the view that Ministers should keep some kind of ‘professional distance’ from the realities of life or guard ourselves from human encounter or the embrace of normal living reality or the admission of human frailty or weakness. I cannot square that view with the honesty of (for example) the Apostle Paul or the outpourings of the Psalmists.

But more than that, I have been touched by the number of people who, on reading my blog or hearing me speak regarding my health challenges, have got in touch with me (many of them strangers) to share their experience, seek a listening ear or express their appreciation of how helpful they have found my sharing.

So, if you do not like my openness and honesty, stop reading now!

When I was first diagnosed with MS, I had been unwell for almost two years and unable to sustain full-time ministry. My energy levels were very low, my cognitive functions were compromised, my muscles were stiff, my balance not great and the other ‘unseen’ symptoms were irritating, limiting and debilitating.

And then (quite suddenly and without warning or apparent reason) things began to improve. In due course, I was called to St Cuthbert’s as Minister and things continued to improve. My health was better than I expected it to become, I was able to function pretty much fully in Ministry, and – aside from the occasional dip or blip – I was able to work well and fulfil my Ministerial and pastoral responsibilities.

But almost two years ago there was a marked dip in my health levels; energy drained, symptoms were exacerbated, mental and physical abilities were compromised. None of this would be outwardly evident to most onlookers. But the difference has been very obvious to me and those closest to me.  

With the exception of the occasional week or two, I have not been able to sustain reasonable health or full ministerial functions since January 2013. More recently I have been put on restricted hours and duties by my doctor. And more recently still other medical issues have arisen which are being investigated and which may or may not be somehow related to MS.

And so I am waiting... waiting to find out what is going on medically, waiting for tests and investigations, waiting to engage in further consultations regarding my future ministry and also waiting in hope (at least a little!) that I may yet regain improved health.

But I am also wondering... wondering if I may have to accept that these health limitations are here to stay, wondering if some big decisions may lie ahead, wondering if there are other things going on in terms of my health and wondering what is best for me, for my family, for St Cuthbert’s....

And, if I am to be honest (and you would not expect anything less!) then I am also worrying a little. What next? What are the implications and consequences of this current situation? How will I know what are the right decisions to take?

Yet, in the midst of all that I do still hear God say ‘Do not be afraid’... and I can lay aside the worries and find something of his peace. ‘The peace that passes all understanding’? Hmmm... I always read that as ‘the peace that makes no sense of circumstances’!

And I guess that’s what it is. My circumstances might seem to rob me of peace, but somehow my faith in God sustains me in an ongoing peace.

If that sounds a bit shallow and trite – a pious platitude – then all I can say is that it is genuinely my experience – as real as is my experience of wondering and worrying.

And if that sounds contradictory, then so be it. It is my reality at the moment!

And somehow faith remains, hope is sustained and peace enfolds me while I wait... and wonder... and worry...