Friday, November 16, 2007

Guarding the Holy Fire

Warning: extremely long and introspective post ahead. Well what do you expect if I take my laptop on retreat?!

O thou who camest from above,
the pure celestial fire to impart,

Kindle a flame of sacred love

on the mean altar of my heart.

We had the reading from 1 Kings 3 the other night, when Solomon is offered his heart’s desires by God, and he chooses wisdom. I asked the congregation what they would choose if they were given the same offer from God; and I then reminded them about Jesus’ teachings, that God does make us that offer.


It is the season for bonfires. We have embarked upon a significant reordering of our garden, removing a lot of shrubbery along the north wall with the intention of establishing a vegetable patch in the optimum area for growing, and planting some fruit and nut trees. As a result of some rapid and destructive work on my part, we acquired a great heap ready to become a bonfire.

My first attempt to light it all failed miserably. I thought that lighting a fire along the lines I’m accustomed to doing in our fireplace in the home would be sufficient for lighting up the bonfire itself. We had been advised that you should either burn the plants soon after cutting down, or else wait around six months for the material to dry out. So I established a fire in various points around the bonfire, using newspaper, kindling and – big cheat, or so I thought – lots of firelighters. I was very sensible and took lots of precautions, like having buckets of water to hand, the hosepipe ready to use, wearing gloves and so on.

Well, the ‘fires’ took off well enough, but the rest of the bonfire didn’t take, and so I was left with the bonfire largely intact, just with a few gaps!


One of my predecessors in post had a vision for revival, in that he saw a fire spreading out from Mersea into the wider nation. As I mentioned before, I’m prone to visions, but most of the time I suppress that side of my nature. I find them disturbing. When they break through they are significant for me, but they are not things that I would wish to base a ministry on.


Long time readers of the blog will know that I struggle with the ‘George Herbert’ model of ministry, which I see as no longer bearing the glory of God for us. The core of the George Herbert model, as I see it and reject it, is the notion that the ministry of the church is carried forward by the minister of the church; that, to put it crudely, if it isn’t done by a dog collar it isn’t done at all. That, I am certain, is wrong and not of God. We need to fully embrace the five fold pattern of ministry as described by St Paul in Ephesians – indeed even more than that five fold pattern. Within those five, though, I am becoming clearer that ‘pastor’ may not be the most distinct of my giftings.

I have been putting in with this general point a specific conclusion – that my presence at certain sorts of high profile events in the parishes was redundant; that I am basically an optional extra; that whilst it might be all well and good for me to be present at certain things I am not essential to the business of the church being carried forward. Peterson's comment, which I like greatly: work out what God is doing and then get out of the way! Getting out of the way seems often to be the best thing to do. So, for example, I had no qualms about going to Greenbelt this year, and not being at the West Mersea flower festival.


A few days later a neighbour advised that the ideal way to establish the fire properly was to use petrol. This I had no experience with, but it seemed straightforward enough, so off I trotted to the petrol station with my jerry-can to get the necessary. Not having the requisite experience at filling such cans I managed to splash some petrol on my hand. Never mind. I got back home and poured on a litre or so, which I thought would be enough to get the fire going, and then lit it up. The petrol caught, burnt extremely well, but didn’t set the mass of material on fire. Clearly, not enough petrol. I thought I’d leave it but my wife expressed disappointment. “I’m not going to pour more petrol on it now!” I said.

That would be stupid.

Dangerously so.


One of the interesting things that I remember from astrological lore is that each sign has an unhealthy, normal and healthy expression. So, for example, an unhealthy Scorpio is a ‘grey lizard’ – all the intense emotions have been turned inwards, and the soul becomes sick and destructive. Normal Scorpios are the scorpion itself – a bit prickly with a nasty bite, but functional; the healthy Scorpios are eagles, able to soar above the mundane and see deeply into the mysteries of existence. And so on. You don’t have to hang on to the specific imagery to see a truth that there are unhealthy, normal and healthy ways to live.

I’m a Leo. The three corresponding images are: shy pussycat, Lion and King.


Of course, I do like to please. So I changed my mind five minutes later. I thought that I knew where the burnt out areas were, so I resolved to pour on four more litres of petrol in different areas, and then light it. Which I did with gusto. You can imagine the result.


The flames leapt up at least fifteen feet into the air. I leapt back not quite as much, but still quite a distance.

My hand had caught fire – that splash of petrol being one of the little details I’m so good at overlooking. More than that, the jerry can was alight and so were several patches of lawn where I had splashed petrol in my leap back.

I was scared. I hadn’t felt so scared since God had made so plain to me that I was on the road to hell.

I panicked and threw the jerry can at the fire.


I set out my views about George Herbert earlier this year in an article that was placed in the Mersea church magazine. The article occasioned much comment OFF the island, in the other two parishes in my care, and I was interviewed about it for the mainland parish magazine. This has generated much ill-will and disappointment, and the head of steam associated with it came out into the open at the beginning of November, in various meetings.

In the face of much of the criticism I feel myself to be on solid ground. I do feel it to be of God that I am rejecting – and explicitly arguing against – the George Herbert model. I am certain that God is calling us to change our patterns of ministry, and the changes that are taking place, in West Mersea in particular, seem to me to be an anointing of the process. Much that is blessed and a blessing is taking place.

And yet. I discussed this matter with my monthly clergy support group and, as they are quite good at doing, they challenged me. I came out with some of my usual arguments but for the first time I wasn’t wholly convinced by my own words. I realised that I had been missing something; I had been bundling two things together that need to be separated. I no longer see my perspective as completely true. I now believe that I am needed at what might be called the ‘high profile events’, and that my not being at them – however justifiable the reasons may have been – that this has hampered the mission of the church.

I’ve been making some mistakes.


A friend commented on my confession about visions, and told me not to be so frightened of them. They are a gift of God, a spiritual gift. Surely it is not to be scorned?! Yet they do make me uncomfortable, I really am no longer in control when they flow through me.

(Cue God’s laughter).

On my triangle of Anglican churchmanship, I would place myself solidly in the blue (Anglo-Catholic) part. In my talk I said that when one area of churchmanship became too extreme, the solution would be found on the opposite side. So the solution to an excessive literalism is in liberal catholicism (this is the polarity currently tearing the communion asunder of course).

The opposite side to the mid-blue is the liberal evangelical, or, as I characterised it in my talk, the charismatic. It’s the style of churchmanship that emphasises the direct rule and gifting of the Spirit, that can transform dull ritual into effective praise. This is the area of New Wine and old wineskins. This is the area I feel I am currently being called to explore, and I have to say it is not a comfortable thought for me.


My aim was not true and the jerry can fell to the edge of the blaze.

Let us give thanks to the Lord for he is good, and his mercies endure forever.

For my own name’s sake I delay my wrath;
for the sake of my praise I hold it back from you,
so as not to cut you off.
See I have refined you, though not as silver;
I have tested you in the furnace of affliction.
For my own sake, for my own sake I do this.
How can I let myself be defamed? (Is 48)

An aside: God’s sense of humour – the man so obsessed with our dependence on petrol and the calamities that are coming ends up burning himself because he is unfamiliar with the properties of the real thing. That’s why I think that sometimes God is laughing at me; and it’s good for me to join in with that laughter. After all, the man who is able to laugh at himself will never be short of amusement.


Part of the trouble is that I haven’t seen attendance at these high profile events as priestly work; I haven’t seen it as vocational. I have seen these events as broadly secular in nature – they are not worship, the Word is not preached nor sacraments administered. Consequently what is the point in having a priest there?

I think the flaws in my perception have two components – one is a failure to recognise that there is more to being an incumbent than being a priest; the other, that there is more to being a priest than being a minister of word and sacrament.

On the first point there is something about being a leader of a group which isn’t captured by my understandings of priesthood. It’s much more primitive than that. I often think about Alexander the Great, and what made him successful, and one of the things that I have admired about him is the way he would eat with the common soldiers; that he would spend time with them and be known to them. That’s not a priestly job, but it is certainly part of the charism of leadership.

I think I’ve been failing on that score. Not completely, but enough for it to have become a problem. I haven’t spent enough time with the troops. The actual events themselves are irrelevant, that is, it doesn’t matter if they are secular in nature. The key point is that they are important to the people in the community and congregation; and consequently, it’s important for me to take that seriously and not scorn it. For that is indeed the impression generated – if I am not present, then the event is not seen as being worthy. Sometimes that might be exactly the message that needs to be given, but not usually. Usually it’s exactly the wrong message to give.


I do not doubt that I need to enter into a more charismatic space, that I need to not bind up my charismatic tendencies. I need to come into my inheritance as an anointed son of the Kingdom.

That’s why Joel Osteen was good for me, and why that passage spoke so much to me:

“Friend, somebody needs your hug today. Somebody needs your love. Somebody needs to feel your touch. You may not realize it, but there is healing in your hands. There is healing in your voice. God wants to use you to bring hope, healing, love and victory to people wherever you go. If you’ll dare to take your mind off your troubles, get your mind off your own needs and, instead, seek to be a blessing to other people, God will do more for you than you could even ask or think.”
I’m sure that’s the voice of God to me at this present moment in my life.

There let it for thy glory burn
with inextinguishable blaze,

And trembling to its source return
in humble prayer, and fervent praise.


I’ve got quite a lot of shy pussycat in me. Those who know me tend to demur more or less forcefully when I say something like this, because it seems so foreign to the person they see. At a PCC meeting recently I was even explicitly described as ‘very charismatic’ (and what about that Gazette interview?) The thing is that once people have got past the barriers I tend to relax, and am more myself. In a new situation I will always hang back and put myself on the edge. In part this is fear-driven, but underlying the fear is the very real difference that being half-deaf makes. The situations that are most difficult and stressful for me are precisely where there are large numbers of people in a disorganised and noisy environment. Something like a Harvest lunch, for example. Hard walls; lots of people; the noise of cutlery and crockery; the inevitability that someone will sit on my left. These situations I find intensely stressful. Where I have got to know people it’s much easier, for the fears are less in any case, but also a) more people know about my disability, and b) it’s easier for me to mention it myself. Yet where I am not known, and no allowances are made for it, it’s just as possible that I will be put on the spot and asked to engage in a public conversation – sometimes extremely public – when I can’t really hear what is going on. That’s a problem.

It’s much easier when I have my wife with me. We’ve agreed a rule that in this sort of social context she glues herself to my left hand side, so as to cover my ‘deaf zone’. It was quite an amusement to me when I realised that what I had needed in my life wasn’t a right hand man but a left hand woman. My trouble at the moment is that she is often not able to be with me, and so I often feel that I am wandering naked into the conference chamber.


As is so often the case I was rescued by my wife, who had seen the explosion, and my leap, and came out to help. Of course this time I hadn’t established any safe precautions, so my wife had to set up the hose herself pretty quickly. I came to my senses, took the hose from her and told her to get well back.

I then spent at least a minute showering the jerry can with water; as soon as I felt confident I grabbed the can, pulled it away from the blaze and emptied the remaining petrol into the ground.

The blaze abated. Most of the material had burnt through. I went to church and said thank you to God.

Praise our God O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard; he has preserved our lives and kept our feet from slipping. For you O God tested us, you refined us like silver. You brought us into prison and laid burdens on our backs. You let men ride over our heads, we went through fire and water, but you brought us into a place of abundance. I will come to your temple with burnt offerings and fulfil my vows to you – vows my lips promised and my mouth spoke when I was in trouble. (Psalm 66)

I have a new phrase that I have agreed with my wife: ‘idiot space’, that place I reach when I am tired and my judgement becomes significantly impaired.

Those moments when I am most authentically blond.


When I was in the civil service, despite being pretty good at the job – even if I do say so myself – I didn’t flourish in the way that the hierarchy wanted, and they specifically told me that I needed to raise my profile. On various occasions my peers confirmed this; I remember one occasion in particular, on a training course, when we had been working through a problem together as a group, and when I finally emerged from my customary position of wallflower, and made a contribution, I was told ‘Sam we want more of you’.

Perhaps part of the problem with my seeing some of these functions as unnecessary is simply that I often end up in conversations that are simultaneously trivial and tremendously draining. Perhaps if I was more able to share myself then the conversations would be less trivial, and I wouldn’t be so resistant to engaging in them. If I put more in, I would get more out.

“I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know, the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.” (Schweitzer)

One of the areas of my ministry where I have been able to pour myself in is the Learning Church. Again, the format is congenial – I have room to express myself properly before the discussion begins, so I’m less likely to be misunderstood; and certainly, by now, I am relaxed enough to not worry about the conversations at the end; indeed I greatly enjoy them. However, it still happens that I can be ‘thrown’, and I have noticed that there is a link between my capacity to hear and my level of nervousness. It might be simply that the noise of blood pounding within my ear makes voices less distinct; it might be more psychosomatic, in that the armour muffles the sounds. They’re the same thing of course.

I’ve written quite extensively elsewhere about the dangers that come from emphasising personal experience. I see this as part of the church’s Babylonian captivity whereby Modern philosophy is taken as determining the shape of the gospel.

Yet there is an opposite danger, and it may be that I have fallen victim to it. It’s possible to rest in the mind and engage with the issues at an intellectual level, and not actually put oneself on the line in an existential way. Most middle class protest movements seem to be of that sort. My guardedness may not just be about interpersonal conversations, it might be wider than that.


There is an issue of trust here. For the underlying assumption is that the people I will be spending time with are either indifferent or hostile to me. I think that assumption needs to be dug up and examined to see if it is worth keeping. One of the things that helped me to see my mistake in all this was an emphasis by one of the wardens that people weren’t hostile to me, that they did in truth want to see more of me. That was quite a challenging thing to hear, and it brought this assumption of mine out into the open.

The thing is I am really quite a guarded person – in person. I’m much less guarded on this blog, in fact, the principal therapeutic achievement of the blog is that I feel I have been able to open up in a way that is simply unavailable to me through speech (with the partial exception of closest family and friends). The flow of words dislodges much of the accumulated detritus and I find it to be a healing space.

My armour is so highly polished that it can seem transparent; and time has meant that the armour is much more flexible than it has been – yet it is still there, and it is a barrier.

I need to put the armour down. I need to risk a little more.


We still had a fair bit of garden material still to burn, and it was apparent that we were never again going to have a bonfire in our garden. My wife and I dragged some material down to the beach, to the edge of the waterline. We had had some fence panels renewed, and so we had quite a bit of extra material. I knew I had to get back on the horse, otherwise I would remain fearful for ever.

After the Remembrance service I went back to the petrol station, purchased a new jerry can and filled it with petrol. After Sunday lunch the family gathered on the beach, and I poured all of the petrol onto the bonfire, thoroughly soaking throughout the pile. And then I lit it.


A proper bonfire. All the material blazed. The sea was very close. The family was safe. I managed to burn my hand again though – I was wearing gloves, and when I took them off I discovered that a burning ash had lodged itself in one of the folds.

A little reminder of foolishness and grace.


There is a second and more theological point that I need to ponder. I think my understanding of priesthood is insufficiently incarnational; that it has been too narrowly restricted to the core attributes. The things I have taken seriously are the core things like worship, teaching, spiritual direction and, more latterly, a clearer understanding of apostolic leadership. It’s this latter point that seems to be blossoming out for me at this present time. The thing is that priests are – to use Ramsay’s language – walking sacraments. The ordinary business of life is not foreign to God, it is beloved of God, and it is therefore not inappropriate for that person who is a sacramental sign of the presence of God to be present in the ordinary business of life. If something is worth doing, then it is worth my being present for it. That is, after all, the ministry of presence to which we are called. That seems to be part of the charism of apostolicity, and what God is asking me to learn at this time.

It’s possible that my ministry so far has been primarily docetic.

None of this means that I need to restore George Herbert to pride of place. I just need to be more discriminating about the use of my time. Sometimes it is more important to attend an event (with all that it costs me) than to pursue the other elements of my vocation.

I think I have a few apologies to make, especially to the mainland parishes.

After my clergy support group I went into Colchester to watch a film (Eastern Promises). I had a spare half an hour, and I wanted to think this issue through, so I started to wander around the town. In the Christian Science reading room a Bible was open, so I went to look at the passage that had been highlighted: “There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine righteous who need no repentance.”

I heard God laughing at me once more, and I joined in.


The secular and intellectual mindset is really very deep in me, and I’m being challenged in those deepset beliefs. I don’t like the “supernatural” elements. And yet I am very drawn to them at the same time. I don’t respect them intellectually, I want to be Richard Dawkins and repudiate all of it.

I can’t of course. God’s presence is far too real and undeniable.

For example, there was one occasion where I laid hands on someone who had suffered from a sore neck for quite some time. The pain left her; my scepticism didn’t leave me. I don’t deny that the pain departed, or that I played some instrumental role in the process. It’s just that I was not conscious of any power flowing through me, there was nothing dramatic to signify anything other than the psychosomatic. I was quite happy to say to the lady ‘your faith has made you well’.

In other words – nothing to do with me, I can go back to sitting at the margins, I’m not really needed, you can do it all without me, please can I stay in my place of safety and not take any risks please…

“For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.” (2 Tim 1)
Who am I to take on this role of authority – indeed, who am I to share in however small a way in the attribute of kingship, or headship, or authority? I am just a pleb, an inhabitant of idiotspace, a sinner.

But I am also called and chosen, and I must bear good fruit. I did not choose this path; I have been chosen for this path, and if there is one thing that I am convinced of about my vocation it’s that my own choices are deeply misleading and self-harming. I must submit to God’s will, for that way lies the path of integrity and profoundest happiness. I cannot become who God is calling me to become, and who I want to become, unless I accept what God has in store for me, and cooperate with his intentions.

I need not to be afraid of such charismatic gifts that God has seen fit to bless me with.

Jesus, confirm my heart’s desire
to work, and speak, and think for thee;
Still let me guard the holy fire,
and still stir up thy gift in me.


Through the illness of a colleague I ended up taking communion to a greatly aged lady last week, someone whom I used to visit regularly, so knew pretty well, but whose care I had passed on to my colleague (with a very quiet mind and heart). Yet the one afternoon that I take communion to her – for the first time in at least six months – is the day that she is particularly poorly, and, indeed, a little over half an hour after receiving communion, she died and entered into glory. After she received, and as I was leaving her room, I rested a hand gently on her shoulder and said ‘God Bless You ______’ and I certainly felt that a connection was made.

Coincidence? No, godincidence. There are a few too many dots being marked for even me not to see the connections, and the overall shape that is being established. I feel that I was an angel of death in that situation – not as something fearful, but as a welcome minister of God’s will. Death, after all, is the culmination of the healing process.

Yet still I doubt. Thomas is my patron saint, not only for his doubting, but because his doubting was loved and redeemed, and he was given the climactic words of the fourth gospel. And blessed are those who have not seen and yet believed.

I don’t believe in miracles in the sense of supernatural intervention. I don’t believe in ‘supernatural’ in that sense at all. I do believe that God is fully engaged and active in the world, I just don’t see the world in that sort of way.

Yet that seems to be my failure. Perhaps my intellect is what needs to die in order that I might be fully reborn. No matter how much I give over to God, He still wants more. Lord I believe! Help my unbelief!

There is something here that I cannot see clearly yet. Ah well. God’s timing is always perfect, and I’m sure he’ll make it plain when He needs to.


I have often used the distinction between a castle and the sun in my sermons. I am pointing out that the gospel is so divine that it does not need our protection; rather, it needs to be set free. What I am starting to see is that I have been treating my vocation as something to be walled up and protected, as besieged and under stress. It’s not. It is from God – it is divine – and therefore it needs simply to be and be expressed.

Become who you are.

I still need to learn the truth in this text:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine, as children do.
We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

(Marianne Williamson)

One way of characterising the way forward is to say – I need to bring the Learning Church into the church. Integrate the intellectual with the affective. Incarnational not docetic. My enthusiasm grown larger. And I wonder about the delay in my starting up a healing service. Perhaps it could only move forward once I had reached this realisation.


Many years ago I said to a girlfriend that I wanted to be burnt up, to have been wholly consumed as a holocaust, with nothing left but ashes. That remains my desire; I just hadn’t realised that I have been the one blocking it, with my fears, and my nervousness, and my lack of trust.


If I was offered the same thing as Solomon, I would ask: help me become the person you intend me to be.


God is doing something wonderful here in Mersea. There are too many people gathering, too much material being put on the bonfire. I need to change my methods. I need to abandon the newspaper and firelighters and start pouring on the petrol.

Holy Father, set my heart on fire with love for you, that it may burn in me, giving light to others, that I might see your glory, that I might know as I am fully known, and at the end, see you face to face. Amen.

Ready for all thy perfect will,
my acts of faith and love repeat,
Till death thy endless mercies seal,
and make my sacrifice complete.

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