‘Stop and Listen’ was delivered by Ian Banks at Manchester Cathedral on Sunday 19th January 2020. It’s based on Psalm 40. The service was one of Thanksgiving and Renewal to celebrate 10 years of the Authorised Lay Ministry scheme in the Manchester Diocese.
A fallow year
Thank you for the invitation to give the address here today – though there’s always the risk in following Bishop Chris that he’s going to pinch all your best lines. Well, if you do hear any of the same messages twice then that’s God trying to hammer the point home!
This is a service of Thanksgiving and Renewal. It also marks a year of reflection, a Fallow Year. So, how’s that working out for you? How are you all enjoying your ‘Year of Idleness’ so far?
I can imagine the Clergy Tutors all sat round in Jamie’s front room, in their onesies and jimjams, catching up on past episodes of ‘The Repair Shop’ – thinking it was some sort of Fresh Expressions. The Bishops will be on their own in the kitchen, taking notes from a very instructive documentary series called ‘Game of Thrones’. The Archdeacons are all down in London, auditioning for the next series of The Apprentice.
Jamie went off to his second home in the South of France for the year. Flew back especially for today with his publicist and hair stylist.
The hard-working support staff at 90 Deansgate are getting on with their day jobs, grateful for not having to organise any extra events, like this one…
Meanwhile, back in the parishes, the ministry teams are keeping the show on the road. For many ALM’s it’s the best thing that they ever did. Some newly minted ones are still finding their feet, excited at what’s opening-up in their ministry.
Some are doing all the 101 things that they were doing before they were ALM’s, only now they have a very large badge. Others are running so many services that they can’t be here this afternoon whilst others are still waiting to be used by their home parishes… Those who’ve been doing it a while have probably got their niche. You have certain things in the life of the church that are ‘yours’, things that maybe you love to do – or are expected to do.
So, it’s not really ‘Fallow’ for us, is it? And, of course, it’s not really a Year-Off for anyone here. And that might be the biggest issue. Our collective busy-ness.
A new vision
After 10 years of the ALM scheme we have now surpassed the original vision of 300 ALMs. The year 2020 feels like the right time to stop and listen to God as we discern a new vision for the future. (1)
That new vision could mean many things couldn’t it? Should the ALM scheme even carry on admitting new candidates? Like the 300 Spartans is 300 ALM’s enough? Though if I recall, that didn’t end too well for the Spartans…
If the ALM scheme does carry on, should there be more outward facing electives – evangelism, pioneer ministry, fresh expressions? Perhaps working with schools and community centres? How does it all fit within the 10-year strategy plan and Deanery re-organisational plan?
Or is it what ALM’s are ‘Authorised’ to do that needs looking at? Honestly, what are you doing now that you couldn’t do if you weren’t authorised? Perhaps we should assist more in life events of the church such as baptisms, weddings and funerals? Might a lay person even be ‘set-free’ to become the ‘focal minister’ in a team? In this faraway land might ‘talks’ one day be called ‘sermons’ and one day might that be the least shocking thing that I say?
A sabbath year
Some tough decisions to take. As ALM’s we need to engage and actively take part in that discussion. But let’s face it, all our diaries fill up with ‘stuff’ don’t they? Mostly church stuff. We have to pray that in the midst of everything else that there will indeed be sufficient time to stop and to listen.
In Hebrew Scripture the Fallow Year was the Seventh Year, a Sabbath Year. Perhaps part of the challenge will be that we’ve lost the idea of Sabbath. For many, our Sunday is just like our Saturday but with church thrown in too. So, if we don’t observe Sabbath day correctly then what chance a Sabbath year?
A rabbi once said that: “on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul” (2). Let’s pray that in this Sabbath Year, a year for reflection, that we especially care for – and nurture – and water – that seed of eternity that is planted in each one of us.
And I rather wonder if today’s psalm, Psalm 40, should become our Psalm for the year? For years, the rock band U2 would finish their concerts with this psalm. There are nods of recognition from some of the old rockers out there. So, for the rest, let’s recreate the scene. We’re in Red Rocks, Colorado. It’s 1983. Bishop Chris is the Edge & I’m Bono…
Sing this song with me if you know it, this is Forty (3):
I waited patiently for the Lord, He inclined and heard my cry
He brought me up out of the pit, Out of the mire and clay
I will sing, sing a new song, I will sing, sing a new song
How long to sing this song (rep)
He set my feet upon a rock, And made my footsteps firm
Many will see, Many will see and fear
I will sing, sing a new song, I will sing, sing a new song
How long to sing this song (rep)
Bono would say “thank you, goodnight” and the band would exit the stage 1-by-1 leaving the crowd still singing – rather like clergy processing out during the last hymn…
A song we can all sing
Psalm 40 tells a story that we’re all familiar with. It’s a song we can all sing. None of us are immune from trouble and despair. Where our world can seem in chaos, formless and void. But the psalmist says we can still give thanks. Sooner or later there will be a new vision, there will be good news to hear. God will work a special act of creation – just on us, putting our feet on a rock and making our footsteps firm.
And the sequence in the psalm is interesting too. It’s thanksgiving first then the complaint. Life’s like that though isn’t it? We can go in and out of good and bad times. Things don’t flow in a straight line. This psalm is nitty-gritty, down-and-dirty, real-life. Real-life written by someone with an implicit trust in God.
As you stop and listen
- So, as you stop and listen, where are you?… Are you down in a pit or are you up on a rock?… We don’t do what we do for the praise – but we like to know that our work is not in vain. Often it isn’t bad feedback that is disheartening but the absence of any feedback at all. So, if, right now, you feel discouraged – take heart from this psalm.
- As we stop and listen, can we really say, with the psalmist, that we “waited patiently?” Taking this year to talk about the future can raise expectations about how quickly change can happen. Perhaps we should each pray for patience, for ‘loving endurance’?
- As we stop and listen, how is our hearing? Do we need God to dig out new ears for us? Do we only hear what we want to hear? If it’s not familiar, do we dismiss it? Do we not perceive this new thing?
- As we stop and listen, how honest are we? Do we say what we think Christians are expected to say? Or like the psalmists, are we open about our doubts and struggles? As we discuss the future, let’s be honest with each other – about the training, future areas of ministry, what we are authorised to do…
- As we stop and listen, when did you last, or when did you ever, actually sing a new song? I don’t mean metaphorically and I don’t mean someone else’s. I mean one that you wrote! Your words, from your heart about your relationship with God?
- So, are you up for a challenge? I challenge you in 2020 to put down in words how you feel about God. Write a poem. Try and fit it to a tune that you already know. If every single one of us here did it then by the end of the year we could put together a completely brand-new hymn book! Perhaps we call it: ‘A Hymn Book for a Different World’?…Go on, give it a go (4).
Who we are
Whilst this year is an opportunity to step back and think specifically about the ALM scheme, we should also reflect more generally on who we are.
Looking round many of us are at the Saga-holiday-end of the spectrum rather than the Love Island end. I’m of an age where last week I got an e-mail selling me the virtues of a walk-in bathtub – and I clicked on it rather than deleting it! I can forward you details if you’re interested…
For the most part, we know what we like and like what we know. So, if called on to do something totally new and different, how would we react?
Moses was 80 years old. He’d been tending someone else’s flock for 40 years. One day, he was out with the sheep, probably thinking about his pension plan, when he took a different path – and from there he saw a bush that was burning. His life completely changed direction… But how long was that bush burning for, waiting to be noticed? How many other signs had Moses missed along the way, along the years? (5)
Regardless of our time in life, perhaps we need to take a different path? Not the one that led us to being ALM’s or clergy or whatever else it is that we’re doing now – but with where we go next. In our Gospel reading, Jesus said: “come and see”. Are we inquisitive enough to do just that?
Because in itself taking a different path is not enough. Like Moses, we need to be interested enough in what’s happening around us to look up from our feet, take notice, spot that piece of burning shrubbery over there that’s meant just for us and then be curious enough to step off the path and take a closer look.
Wonder and surprise
Abraham Heschel said: “Never once in my life did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame. I asked for wonder, and he gave it to me.” (6)
He also said: ‘I have one talent, and that is the capacity to be tremendously surprised, surprised at life, at ideas… Don’t be old. Don’t be stale.” (7)
In Ezekiel, God says I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh (8).
Wonder, surprise, a new spirit. Does that describe you and me? Could that describe you and me? To never be old? To never be stale?
The people he intended us to be
If we pray for nothing else for ourselves, then please God let it be that. To constantly begin afresh each day, alive to God – and alive to the plans that he has for us to become the kind of people that he always intended us to be.
As someone once said, God loves us just the way we are. But he loves us so much that he doesn’t want us to stay that way (9)…
So, let’s pray: Lord God forgive us our foolishness for thinking that we can change the world. But give us the strength and the imagination and the tenacity to try! And all the people said: Amen
- Abraham Joshua Heschel ‘The Sabbath’
- https://genius.com/U2-40-lyrics or better still watch U2 at Red Rocks https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AjtpplE39_g
- Annoyingly I didn’t think about the title for the Hymn Book until afterwards! And it doesn’t have to be a hymn tune…
- Thanks to Anna Carter Florence ‘Rehearsing Scripture’
- Abraham Joshua Heschel ‘I asked for Wonder. A spiritual anthology’
- Abraham Joshua Heschel – quoted in a number of books
- Ezekiel 11:19