Sunday, 26 April 2015

What Does An LLM Do?

LLM (Licensed Lay Minister) is one of those vague acronyms the Church of England loves so much. The old title was 'Reader' and the theory was that readers were 'Ministers of the Word' - preachers, teachers and readers of lessons. However, many people used being a reader as a kind of half way house to ordination, which led to the role being extended in all sorts of directions, especially pastoral. So, in many ways, a vague acronym makes more sense, and the general answer to "What does an LLM do?" is "It varies, depending on the LLM and the parish."

This particular LLM is a Bible geek, so that underlies my particular focus. I am also not keen on churchiness - by which I mean too much of the internal, mostly inward-looking stuff.

So the best answer I can give to the question posed is to provide a few examples of what I have been doing over the past year or so, both internally and externally. Not to show what all LLMs do, just what this LLM has been doing.

Internal

  • Within the parish I have been doing some preaching at St John’s, as well as covering odd services whilst Jeremy (our priest in charge) has been absent. Leading communion by extension was a novel experience.
  • LLM is considered to be a leadership role, so I end up ex-officio on both PCC (Parochial Church Council) and St John’s CLT (Church Leadership Team - you see what I meant about the CofE and acronyms). 
  • I have been asking around St John’s for ideas about making Parish Communion more attractive to visitors. My thanks to all who have given input on that.
  • As LLM I also sometimes get invited to meetings of the ‘ministry team’ (clergy team, really - this parish has two paid and two unpaid clergy), although in practice my relevance there is limited, I think. I am, though, hoping to persuade them to try out a slightly different preaching approach during the weeks after Trinity. We’ll see how that goes.

External

Outside the parish ‘system’ here are a few activities which (I think) relate to my LLM role:-
  • I lead a non-church-based housegroup. This is a small group with members from different churches and none. Studies are generally audio-visual and designed to focus more on Jesus in daily life rather than in church. We have just finished a Lent course based around Casablanca – a film which starts with the wilderness and ends in self-sacrifice.
  • I write this blog, of course, which is also meant to concern the intersection of God, the Bible, and daily life. At present I think it is a little lacking in direction and needs a rethink. Comments are always welcome.
  • Finally, a teenagers and parents group which I used to be involved with has come to an end, as the teenagers move on with their lives. Every blessing for the future to them and to their families.
The Guildford Diocese website has an interesting analysis of how LLMs fit into the overall ministry of the church here, including:
"Today the LLM’s position as being licensed and lay provides an opportunity for the Reader to be a bridge between the ‘secular’ and ‘sacred’ worlds."
The challenge is to make that work. Pretty much the same challenge every follower of Jesus has, really: living out our faith in the context of daily life.

Friday, 17 April 2015

Life Renewed

The tomb is empty; so is the cross!
A somewhat belated Easter follow-up to Life Matters from last Good Friday.

The basic Biblical picture of life is that we are born, we live, we die, then we are physically raised either to renewed life or to the 'second death', pictured as a lake of fire. The 'going to be with God in heaven when we die' stuff is, Biblically, something of a minor aside, although I have known Christians who thought that was what it was all about.

So, for a follower of Jesus who trusts him to see us through judgement and into that renewed life, death is not be something to be feared. Just as Jesus was physically raised that first Easter, so we will be physically raised when he returns. Death is not the end; renewed life is.

Sometimes people over-think this and decide that life after death is what matters, not the life we live now. This is nonsense. Life is life. The hope of new life forever may well give us a different perspective on the things which happen in our lives now, but that doesn't alter the basic fact that life matters - life now and renewed life in a renewed world.

I realise I have skated across a lot in the above - feel free to use the comments to drill deeper. But for now I want to pick up on a flip-side to the previous post.

There I used an example of extensive medical intervention to help keep a child alive and thriving. What about the other end of life? When someone is dying and technology is used to keep them alive? Sometimes there is a temptation to try to preserve life at all costs, to intervene even when there is no meaningful purpose (except perhaps to keep the surgeon's hand in).

If life matters, and if death is not the end of life, then surely the way that life is lived matters, even in the period before dying. Once there was the idea of a 'good death' in the sense that during the final moments relationships were healed - dying with your family around you, at peace with God and with your neighbours. It didn't necessarily mean a pain-free death, but one where neither pain nor drugs got in the way of these relationships. In modern times this sort of idea lies behind the hospice movement's approach to terminal care.

Easter is important in dying for several reasons. Firstly, Jesus' death and resurrection allow us to be reconciled to God, at peace with him. Secondly Jesus' resurrection foreshadows our own resurrections, and those of the people whom we love. If we live and die 'in Jesus' (whatever that means - a topic for another post) then we will be reunited at our resurrection - not only is death not the end of life, it needn't be the end of relationships either.

Finally, whilst we are alive, here and now, Jesus encourages us to reconcile any broken relationships we may have: to forgive and to seek to be forgiven. It saddens me how many families have factions who fell out years ago and who now never talk. Forgiveness is a great healer, and helps to avoid the 'if only's of death.

So, may your week ahead be filled with blessing, may you experience life which matters, and may you find peace in your memories of those you hope to meet again, come the resurrection.

Friday, 3 April 2015

Life Matters

If a puppy was born with a badly deformed heart, so it was in pain and distress, if it needed a long series of major operations to have even a chance of growing up, most people would sadly take it to the vet to be painlessly put down, I suspect. It would be seen as a mercy.

I have known two babies born with badly deformed hearts. Both suffered pain and distress and went through a long series of major operations, without a great chance of success. So far, both have made it through: they are battlers. In their short lives they have known far more than their fair share of suffering, but they have also known much joy and love.

Should they have been put down at birth, or even before? I suspect most of us would strongly feel they should be given their chance at life, although some high-profile figures might disagree. Somehow life is important and its quality depends on more than just lack of pain and life's significance lies in more than just its length.

Good Friday is a day when Christians remember the suffering and death of Jesus, we believe for the sake of the world, so that all who put their trust in him may have fullness of life, forever.

I think this has relevance to the suffering that goes on in the world; although no way would I claim a complete answer to this venerable question (recently brought up by Stephen Fry and treated by the media as if it were a new thought).

Why do we live in a world where children are born with deformed hearts? I don't know, but I do believe that their lives matter, and that surrounding them with all the love we can matters, and that their parents are heroes who should be celebrated.

Why do we live in such a world? One answer is that God is either incompetent (or at least not omnipotent) or evil. This is slack logic: these may be two options, but they are not the only two. One other that strikes me is that any alternative may be worse.

Why did the parents of these babies allow them to go through such distress? Because they believed that their lives mattered, and they did whatever they could to allow their child every chance to experience life and love and joy. They could have wiped the slate clean and started again, but they chose not to. That individual baby mattered.

Our lives matter to God: that we find love and joy and meaning is, I believe, his priority. Rather than wiping the slate of the world clean, he gave his son to live with us and to die for us, so that we might have every chance to find that love, joy and fulfilment. Every loving parent knows that there is a price to be paid for their love; sometimes that price is hard to bear. God, through Jesus, paid the highest price, because he loves us and because our lives matter to him.

There may be all sorts of other reasons for the suffering in this world. I don't know, I am not God. But I do know that faith is about trust.

I trust that God is good and loving, and that life is in him. And life matters.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Geek Ramblings

One new thing which has struck me about Lent this year is that it is a time to seek a new vision, a direction to go for the future.

Jesus, having been affirmed by God - "You are my Son, whom I love, with you I am well pleased" - goes out into the wilderness to discover how to live out that affirmation. Likewise we, being reminded in the run-up to Easter just how much God loves us, have the opportunity in Lent to take time out to seek our response, our direction for the rest of the year, maybe longer.

This blog has changed a lot over the years. It seems to me that it has recently been tending toward geekiness, and that this is the trend to continue.

By 'geekiness' I mostly mean: enthusiasm, knowledge, enough understanding to realise that there is far more I don't know than I do, and an attitude that considers this to be wonderful news - there is always going to be more to learn!

I am a Bible geek, and I have written a lot about that. I am also a science geek: there's been a lot less about that recently; I think I should enthuse about science more in future. Also I am a computer geek: I do write a bit about that already, so I'll just see what comes up in that area.

I also love reading or hearing other geeks (by the above definition) enthuse. Not specifically in 'my' subjects, but whatever their area of expertise and geekiness may be. Enthusiasm can and should be infectious. I have rather lost track of other blogging geeks over the years; this coming year is a good time to invest some (scarce) time and (scarcer) energy in finding some more. Any suggestions in the comments below would be greatly appreciated.

What have you discovered over this Lenten period? About yourself or about this world? Are you an enthusiast? If so, what can you do with that enthusiasm? Do share below, start a conversation, "it's good to talk".

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Casablanca vs. Chocolat

Our housegroup has just finished a Lent course on Casablanca; a couple of years ago we did a similar course on the film version of Chocolat - how do they compare?

I found Casablanca to be the better film - although both are excellent - but Christ and the Chocolaterie, by Hilary Brand, is by far the better Lent course.

The film Chocolat has an obvious relevance to Lent, being the story of a young woman, Vianne Rocher, and her daughter, Anouk, opening up a chocolaterie in a small village in early-60's France - during Lent! The village has a rigid social structure and an inflexible morality hiding a range of troubles. Vianne talks to people and asks questions, gradually bringing change and freedom to the village, although not without conflict.

Casablanca is also a good Lent film: starting from exile in the wilderness and ending with sacrifice, it tells a story of love and renewal, of hope lost and found. It also has some of the most memorable dialogue in movie history, wonderful acting, and a fascinating back-story.

The trouble with A Beautiful Friendship, by Paul Kerensa and Zoe Young, is that it is essentially inward looking. There is an early link between Casablanca's wartime refugees and today's refugees:
"In 2013 the world saw more refugees than at any time since Casablanca's release."
But that is in the introduction and the rest of the course focuses relentlessly on God/Jesus in the Bible and on individual personal feelings and morality, for example:
"Have you ever felt 'abandoned at the station' like Rick? You may have felt wronged by love, by life or by God. Did you express anger or frustration to God, or are you still keeping it inside?"
There's nothing wrong with looking to Jesus in the pages of the Bible, of course, but the Christian calling is to take him out to the wider world. The Bible can be a light helping us to see, but it can also be a box for keeping Jesus safely out of the way. Likewise, our feelings are important to God, but endless self-examination is looking in the wrong direction: we are to follow Jesus as he walks his world, not sit and obsess about how we are doing.

The great thing about Christ and the Chocolaterie is its outward focus. The film's setting may be similarly confined and claustrophobic, but this Lent course's vision is very much toward our neighbourhoods.

Vianne, like Jesus, brings change to a rigid community; the mayor and much of the community resists change and growth, ultimately with violence, much like the scribes and Pharisees. The message of the course is about how we can bring healing and change, not just within ourselves but amongst family, friends and neighbours.

There is self-reflection, too, but often as a step along the way to changing how we can help others.
"'If you lived in this village, you understood what was expected of you, you knew your place in the scheme of things.' In the film, who controls and who allows themselves to be controlled? ... In the film, how do those who refuse to be intimidated demonstrate their defiance? Are there other useful ways you have learned to stand up to bullies?"
Brand too uses the Bible extensively throughout the course, in parallel with the film. In the context of John 8:1-11, the woman caught in adultery, she asks (after some preamble):
"How have you reacted when someone you knew admitted his or her failure or weakness to you? Has it strengthened or weakened your relationship? Has it strengthened or weakened your respect for him or her?"
Note the openness of her questions: they are designed to encourage us to think about people and about meaning, not just to have right or wrong answers.

Not that A Beautiful Friendship is a bad Lent course, far from it. Compared with much housegroup material available it is well written, works hard, asks reasonable questions, and has some interesting exercises for participants to do. I am a member of another Lent group this year, which is essentially listening to talking heads then wittering: roughly par for the (Lent) course in my experience. Kerensa'a book is far more than that.

But, for any Lent group which wants to have relevance for those outside the circle of committed church-goers, 'the usual suspects', Christ and the Chocolaterie is by far the better course. It also includes recipes for a chocolate feast!

A final quote:
"Do you spend enough time having fun with others? When was the last time you had a good laugh? Does your church community as a whole spend enough time doing social things (whether formal organised activities or informal ones)?"