Writing and Purpose

I hate writing. Always have.

I remember being genuinely and unstoppably excited about learning to read and do maths in primary school. I was like a sponge soaking up information. Books were a revelation. I remain genuinely grateful to people who write them, so that I can read. I am sorry that I will not ever return the favour.

The worst bit of primary school, maybe apart from painting pictures, was having to write stories. I really struggled to come up with ideas. I did not see the point in trying to make my stories vivid and exciting – they just weren’t, I knew that, so why pretend? I put great effort in trying to convince my poor Mum that homework tasks like turning a comic into a written story were really stupid and futile, since surely everyone could work out from the pictures what was happening and therefore writing any further words would be a great waste of time. She was unimpressed…

My growing interest in maths and natural sciences thankfully helped me to avoid writing as much as possible in my later school and university career until it got to the point of writing dissertations. That was no fun. I pushed myself through writing up my Master thesis, but the perceived futility of spending months of my life writing a PhD dissertation that I knew nobody apart from the two examiners would ever read eventually got the better of me. I gave up on that one.

And then somebody quite seriously suggested I should be a priest. I had no problems at all coming up with lots of reasons why that was a stupid idea. That fact that most priests have to write a sermon every single week, or – horror over horrors – even more than just one, was probably one of my better excuses. It didn’t work though: Here I am, six weeks after receiving a recommendation for training towards ordination from the Bishop’s Advisory Panel, preparing to go to theological college this summer.

Preaching has, of course, happened in the meantime. As part of our internship, we are given plenty of opportunities to be involved in leading worship in various ways, and so I have, helped along by advice and feedback from the ministers I was working with, written an all-age talk as well as a handful of sermons and short reflections – and there are a few more in the pipeline. Surprisingly, I really enjoyed the process. Maybe it is because, for the first time, I feel that I have something important and relevant to talk about. When I sit down to write a sermon, I know what I am doing this for. I picture the people I am writing for and ask myself how I can help them relate to the passage of Scripture I am speaking about. My words matter as soon as there is the slightest chance that they can build a bridge for someone towards a clearer understanding or a closer relationship with God. It seems worth putting in effort when I have the genuinely exciting story of God’s love to tell.

Here’s hoping that that will carry through for a while when the volume of writing work increases. Then I’ll only have to figure out how to extent that new-found enthusiasm to other areas of writing. Essays are relatively fine, actually, because I do appreciate how having to express myself in ways that other people can follow helps me to clarify my own thinking.

But blogging, for example? Why do people blog (unless they are told to) and what for? I have no idea if anybody reads this, who reads it, why you are following our blog, and thus what would be helpful or interesting to you. Blogging feels like writing into a vacuum: Are my words disappearing into the endless depths of the internet or have just convinced a bunch of strangers that I am a complete weirdo? And yet, there might be other weirdos like me out there who can draw something useful out of this. So here you are, help yourselves.


I am the gate for the sheep

As part of our engagement with our placement churches we are given the opportunity to preach (with some coaching from our very helpful and encouraging clergy). So here is Christine’s attempt to make sense of Luke 10:1-10.

“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.  They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

Well, I am a city girl. I grew up in an apartment block wedged in between the motorway and a busy high street, and the only little bit of green was the watercress and chives we grew in a flowerpot on the balcony. No sheep in sight – apart from the little cuddly toy I brought back from a holiday in the countryside, where at least I learned that real animals don’t have a lot in common with Shaun the Sheep.

But I have to admit that it wasn’t until I did a bit of research for this sermon that I learned that sheep stealing is a thing. And I am not talking about sheep stealing in the church here. Yes, there is that thing where the vicar of the newly founded church in the neighbourhood figures out that in order to boost their numbers it is much easier to invite your congregation over than to actually convert people to Christianity. But let’s not open that can of worms; let’s stick to four-legged animals for the moment.

Call me naïve – it never actually occurred to me that there is a lot of profit to be made by stealing actual life sheep from other people’s fields. It’s a big thing though. In the UK there are almost 90000 sheep stolen every year, at a cost of more than £6m to farmers. And apart from insurance, there is not a lot farmers can do about it. You mark your sheep and put a padlock on the gate, but that is not going to stop serious rustlers. So, it is an issue, and it seems it was just as much of an issue at Jesus’ time.

The circumstances were slightly different: Unlike in Cornwall, food and water were quite sparse in the arid climate in Israel, and therefore sheep needed to be moved much more frequently to avoid overgrazing. There were also a lot more predators around: Wolves, panthers, hyenas, jackals, possibly even bears and lions. So, leaving the sheep on their own in an enclosed field was not an option. Shepherds had to be in continuous attendance. During the day they moved the herd around, and to protect them at night they often penned them in in a stone wall enclosure. The only entrance to the enclosure was a simple gap in the wall, and rather than closing it with a gate, the shepherds would personally guard it by settling down for the night right in the gap. The shepherd himself quite literally was the gate – as if to say to any wolf or lion: If you want to get to my sheep, you have to go through me first!

This is the mental image that Jesus tries to evoke when he talks of himself as being the gate of the sheep. He is the sort of shepherd who in order to protect those in his care puts himself in the line of danger. He does not stand far off, but rather, when it comes to it, he leaps right into the breach. This is why he gave his life for us on the cross.

The other interesting thing about these sheepfolds is that they were often shared by several shepherds. The herds would freely mix and needed to be separated out again in the morning. This was possible because up to this day, in the middle east sheep are trained to recognise their shepherds voice. They are normally not herded by driving them from behind, but follow the calls of the shepherd who goes in front. Therefore, they are so used to walking towards their shepherd’s familiar voice, that they can easily be separated just by calling them. Mix-ups are unlikely because the sheep simply do not follow the call of a stranger.

It makes me wonder: Whose voices do we follow?

There is such a plethora of voices around, all of whom claim to lead us in the right direction. We hear of fake news, email scams, we are smothered in political campaigning and commercial advertising. There are differences of opinion on everything, even within the church. Whom can we trust and follow? How can we distinguish between a good shepherd and a thief? It is an age-old question: How do we recognise the voice of God and distinguish it from all the other voices?

Thankfully, wiser people than me have wrestled with this question, one of whom is Ignatius of Loyola. Apart from founding the Jesuit order, he developed an elaborate system of Spiritual Exercises that are designed for people to find their true purpose and calling. A lot of it boils down to the question: How do I know if my plans and desires are in line with God’s purpose, or whether I am being led astray? Ignatius says: you actually already know it. Deep down in your heart you can feel if your plans are good or not. Modern day Jesuits put it like this: “Ignatius realised that if you act in accord with God’s desires for you, you will feel a sense of rightness, tranquillity and peace, what Ignatius called consolation. The main feature of feelings of consolation is that their direction is toward growth, creativity and a genuine fullness of life and love in that they draw us to a fuller, effective, generous love of God and other people, and to a right love of ourselves.”

So note, this is not as simple as “Oh I just do what makes me feel good.” It is not about any sort of selfish short-term gratification. But neither should we make the mistake of thinking that following God has to be onerous and joyless. Because our God is a God of life and resurrection. In his parable, Jesus makes this distinction between himself as the good shepherd and the thieves: The thief comes only to kill and steal and destroy. I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

There is just one gate, Jesus Christ, but a variety of shepherd’s voices that might be calling us in Christ’s name but also thief’s voices that lead us astray for their own gain. So here is my challenge to you: When you are faced with a decision, when you are unsure what to do, whom to follow, which voice to trust, ask yourself: Does this make me listless and numb or does it fill me with joy and peace? Is it life-giving and life-enhancing, not only for me but also for others?

And actively look for this shepherd’s voice. When you have a moment of quiet, why not look back over your day or your week, and ask yourself: What have I done or experienced that has strangely warmed my heart, that just felt like the right thing to do, that has made me and others come to life? This is when you know that you are following the voice of the good shepherd who wants all his people to have life, and have it abundantly. Amen.

A week in the life…

So now that we have had four weeks to settle in, what are we actually doing all week?

As we are still quite new here, a lot of our time so far has been spent getting to know people. There are eight churches in the Cluster, five potential placements, various mentors, tutors and other wonderful people who will guide us in making sense of our new experiences, there are neighbours, local shopkeepers and a good few of these people who you just bump into everywhere. We have only met a fraction of them so far and I am already desperately failing to remember all their names.

So until we get assigned one or two churches each to permanently work with, we travel around the different churches in the cluster for Sunday services, to get to know the different characteristics of each church and congregation. That typically involves fitting in two services each Sunday morning, catching a lift from the clergy who dash out of one church halfway through coffee to make it to the next one just in time. And now the poor folks also have to get up earlier to pick us up and postpone lunch to drive us back as we don’t have a car. At other times we also tag along with members of the clergy team for midweek communion services, funerals, weddings, charity AGMs, harvest lunches and where ever else it is acceptable for them to show up with three interns. And if there is a Messy Church going on anywhere in the Cluster, you can be quite sure to find us there, moving tables, writing name tags and running crafts activities.

On Mondays we travel into Truro to volunteer with St Petroc’s Society, a homeless charity who run a resource centre where clients can get clothes, showers, GP treatment and housing and benefit advice. St Petroc’s also do outreach work and run supported accommodation and cold weather provision. So far we have mostly observed the reception staff at the resource centre and sorted massive piles of harvest donations, but once we are properly inducted and our DBS checks have gone through we will also be able to work with clients more directly. On Wednesday afternoons we invite Josh, who is an intern in a similar project in Penzance, and our deputy warden Melissa over for games or movies and dinner, before Melissa drives us to Truro for our SWMTC evening theology classes. This term we are doing doctrine and next term will be church history and ethics. On Thursday mornings we take part in the ministry team meeting, on Thursday afternoons we learn New Testament Greek, Friday is our day off and Saturdays we are given time to study and research.

Then there is the daily community life, of course: We hold morning and evening prayer together in the Community House Chapel every day at 8 am and 6 pm (except Wednesday evening and Thursday morning when the timings are different) and we make an effort to cook and eat together whenever possible and have a great house-clean once a week. There are lots of people who provide mentoring and advice: Tess, our community warden holds weekly reflection talks with us. Jane, the DDO, comes in regularly and leaves homework in the form of reflection pieces and essays to write. Lucy, our theology tutor comes to chat, Simon, our very own Priest in Charge, comes to chat, David Stevens tutors us in Greek once a month, and, oh yeah, Bishop Chris is coming for dinner in December. And then, there is the social life of the village: Stithians seems to have about two or three charity events a week, so we go to eat some excellent cake on Friday mornings and our diaries are rapidly filling up with Charity Candlelight Dinners and Charity Burns Night Dinners and … we are certainly not going to get bored anytime soon.