Life Together

I had the privilege of spending three days at Worth Abbey this week alongside the Benedictine monks who make up the monastic community at Worth. Long-time readers of my blog will know how much monastic spirituality and discipline inspires my own life of discipleship and so I had long anticipated the opportunity to spend time at Worth.

Three days was just about enough time to settle into the daily routine of prayer, worship, work, reading and rest, although I could easily have stayed much longer. By God’s grace, I was able to enter into ‘the silence’ quickly and with ease. In the depths of it, I was able to hear the ‘Still, Small Voice’ on some fairly big things going on for me at the moment. So, at a heart level, just what was needed.

The Benedictine motto is ‘Ora et Labora’ – prayer and work. The brothers there meet 6 times a day for community prayer, and pray the 150 psalms through together every week (!) but also devote significant time to contemplation, silence, and ‘spiritual reading’ – or, in Latin, Lectio Divina. I wasn’t there long enough to do anything of use to the community, but did manage to get some knitting done!

On the reading front, however, I chose to take along two very challenging books that have been with me for a while. The first is ‘Life Together’ by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, along with ‘Discipleship: Living for Christ in the Daily Grind’ by JH Arnold. Both of these books are dynamite in their own way, but Bonhoeffer’s writing on ‘community’ in the protestant Christian setting is deeply challenging. I may do a little blog series on the book some time soon as I think it has some powerful things to say about how we approach ‘church’ in these days to help cut through the nonsense. Both of these were powerful companions both to my personal context, but also to interpreting what I was witnessing in the community I was visiting.

The first remarkable thing about this community of brothers for me was the depth of their welcome and hospitality. Inspite of not sharing more than one or two sentences with just some of them, there was a depth of welcoming and ‘honouring Christ in the guise of the guest’ that I don’t know I’ve ever experienced in the same way anywhere else. Although it was my first visit I didn’t feel like a stranger at all. I had a profound sense that these men were praying for me as well as with me in these few days.

Some of the Benedictines at Worth with their distinctive traditional black habits.

The second remarkable thing was the peace and stillness of the Abbey Church. It is a beautifully modern building – not what you’d typically think of as monastic at all – but the round architecture, with the lit altar in the very centre, spoke of the tangible presence of Jesus at the heart of the place.

Worth Abbey Church

The third thing was a new appreciation for the Psalms. In the space of three days with them I reckon we must have got through nearly 70 (and yes, we chanted them!) and they were all incredibly powerful prayers. I had an overwhelming sense of praying with Jesus and heard his voice strongly through them. Coupled with the Psalms, the daily readings at Lauds (morning prayer) were from Ezekiel, which again spoke powerfully. Great, too, to hear chapters from the Rule of St Benedict read along with readings from the Patristics (writing of the early ‘Church Fathers’).

Whilst a number of the ‘discoveries’ of the few days are matters of the heart for me personally, I definitely came home with a renewed inspiration to persevere in living a disciplined life of prayer, contemplation, practicing silence and living out my own ‘Rule of Life’.

I’m sure that the visit was the first of many.

The Main Thing

It is the relative simplicity of the call of Jesus to be and make disciples, and the complication of what the church over the centuries has done with that, which makes ministry such a challenge at times! It’s not that being or making disciples is easy, but the call is clear.

‘Church’, in whatever form, and in whatever century, has always had to organise itself. It doesn’t exist without a structure – no community does. Jesus’ community, right from the start, was organised…and Jesus even had Judas as treasurer! But there are times when the structure becomes so cumbersome that it gets very challenging to maintain any significant energy for the ‘main thing.’

That has been my experience of nearly (only) 20 years in ministry. It is so easy for the ‘main thing’ to be the welcome escape from the regular life of church. Yet, somehow, we maintain that, regardless of how much we see that it’s not in balance.

And then there’s the pace of change. Whilst necessary, any significant change worth making is worth really thinking through, winning support and traction for. Sadly, not everyone is patient. Equally sadly, church as a community of disciple-making disciples won’t ever be enough for some people in a world of consumer entertainment. Some churches try to compete with that – but again: that’s not our game!

I long to be a part of a ministry where I’m not simply a supplier of religious goods and services, but where I’m a champion, equipper and releaser of healthy disciple/disciple-makers whether scattered out in the world or gathered in community.

I think I’ll hold on to the dream just a little while longer.

Pressing on!

Well, my poor blog has been a bit neglected in these last couple of months with one thing or another…mainly some poorly disciplined over-working and too-busy-schedule of events, but we’ve a lot of work going on in the background of church life, lots of people stuff to support and develop and all the rest. Can’t say I’m not just a little bit tired, maybe even weary, but some seasons in ministry are like that. You have to do the work to break through into a new place.

I’ve made no secret over the years of the struggles I’ve had with mental health. Praise God, I’ve had several years of very reasonable good health after a fairly big crash. The reality is, however, that significant amounts of self-care really need to take place to maintain that.

A big part of that has been carving out, on the solid rocks of resolution, a firm rhythm of prayer, rest and time off. And, although there have been some disturbances to that, the steadiness of that commitment is the stabilising factor. It is all grace!

Anyway, all of that means that I’ve got a bit of a backlog of blog ideas to work through in the next few months, so normally blog output should hopefully emerge soon enough!