Archive for the ·


· Category...

Frost and the Holy Spirit


Today, there was frost everywhere for the second time this year. Frost is beautiful, even if the temperature is not necessarily that pleasant. But it got me thinking about the way we receive the Holy Spirit in our lives.

1. Frosted things are still the same things. The frosted leaf keeps its shape. Below the layer of frost, it remains the same leaf. When we are called to something, when we receive gifts, or inspiration, from the Holy Spirit, it does not make us completely different people. Rather, it is using our situation and our strengths and weaknesses. To find where your calling lies, identify your strengths and passions in your secular, everyday life.

2. The edges of frosted objects become more visible. In the same way, the Spirit highlights our uniqueness by pointing our out own gifts, our own specialness to others. Without the Spirit, we are indistinguishable  a mass of brown leaves where no one really knows where one ends and where the other starts. But that highlighting is the same for everyone: it is the same, one Spirit – and just the one Fruit of the Spirit that takes on many shapes: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

3. Smooth surfaces don’t tend to get frosted quite as much. If we were perfect, we wouldn’t need the Holy Spirit in our lives as a comforter, nor as a guide. If we were saints, there would be no conviction of our sins. Not that we should sin to receive more of the Holy Spirit. But we should recognise that God can use our impurities, our imperfections, our own roughness; and that the same goes for our neighbour. Rather than pretending we are perfect, we are led to look at those areas in our lives which fall short, which are turned into something beautiful by the Spirit.

4. All are subjected to the frost. There is no way for things which are outside in damp weather and in sub-zero temperatures to avoid the thin layer of frozen water depositing on them. There is no way to reject the gifts of the Spirit, or its convictions. But there is a way to avoid them: stay inside, do not expose yourself to the world, to pain or to joy, do not interact with anyone. We can close our hearts to the Spirit, but then we close ourselves to a whole range of stuff too.

5. Frost is a response: snow can fall anywhere, because it is formed around dust motes. But frost is made up of ice crystals which are formed on the frosted surface. When we receive the Holy Spirit, we respond to it – and it is that response that we feel. The presence of God is everywhere, it is only our response that we feel in those special times when we talk about the presence of God.

6. Frost makes things shine when it thaws. The Spirit of God is good, and beautiful; but it is also meant to be released, not just taken in. To put it differently, if we were just receiving the Spirit, breathing it in, as it were, without breathing out, we’d become puffed up and, quite frankly, detestable to others. The fruit of the Spirit is something that is shared, and it is in sharing it that we become shining lights and bless others.

Pray for your pastor

no comments

As you will know if you’re a regular reader of this blog, I delivered my first sermon last Sunday. I am incredibly grateful to all who prayed for me on that occasion; and I’ll reiterate that it went really well.

Photo taken from, reused under CC License

Up until last week, whenever I read or heard “pray for your pastor”, I would never think much of it. I’m not sure what my excuses were; but I think that deep down I was thinking a combination of the following four things:

  • The preacher is more qualified than me. He will pray before preaching. That prayer will be better than mine.
  • The preacher will get the inspiration of the Holy Spirit anyway. There’s no need to pray.
  • That’s his job, for which he has been trained; he does not need any prayer in the first place
  • That’s for Sunday. Pleeeeeeenty of time.

These are the most insidious of arguments, because they each hold a tiny nugget of truth. That makes them ring “true-ish”; and makes them all the easier to use as excuses. But each of these arguments is also twisted. Let’s go through them again:

  • The preacher has some level of qualifications; and yes, he will pray before preaching (as well as, hopefully, through the week!). It does not mean that his prayer is better than yours. On the contrary, writing a sermon is no easy task; and it comes with its burdens, stresses, and feelings of low self-esteem. These may impede the preacher’s prayers for his own sermon: for instance, he may feel like he should have done a bit more preparation and he can’t present that work to God (that would be stupid, but stressed people do stupid things). Then your prayer is truly needed; and the knowledge that he is prayed for makes the preacher bolder in his own sermon-writing.
  • The Holy Spirit will inspire the preacher. But that does not supersede the need for prayer (or preparation). There is a famous joke about a young curate who, every week, spent hours preparing his sermons. He was mocked by a very Pentecostal colleague who told him “I only wait to hear from the Spirit”. Enthused by the idea, our young curate decides to try it out. The  next week, when they meet, the Pentecostal colleague asks: “So, did the Spirit speak to you? What did He say?” The curate answers “Yes. He said ‘you’ve been very lazy this week’.”
  • Hopefully, the preacher has undergone some form of formal training. It will generally be the case; and where not, he should receive some form of support by those who are trained. But no training can fully prepare for the sharing of the living Word – or else, that Word becomes dead; and preaching merely a mix of manipulation and of teaching of old doctrine. Only through prayer can we ensure that what the preacher says will genuinely touch the hearts and minds of the congregation.
  • The sermon will be delivered on Sunday. It will, generally, have been written beforehand. Especially in the case of someone preaching for the first time, this will take place days, nay, weeks in advance. Prayer is necessary at all stages of the sermon-crafting, up to the delivery and even beyond that. Additionally, as I’m sure you’ll find, Sunday isn’t that far around the corner.

So pray for your pastor. Pray for his health, his energy, his drive, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit – through the week. Pray that he may be a true imitator of Christ, and that he inspire you to be, in turn, imitators of Christ. Pray that he may move you, challenge you, and speak words relevant to you and to the rest of the congregation. Pray that he may move himself, and be once again reminded with great awe of his own nature as a beloved child before God.

What’s your excuse? What will your prayer be?

Note: given recent news about female episcopate, it might be worth saying that, in the above article and, I’m sure, in many places through the blog, I have used the masculine as a generic term. It is not a theological statement! In this case, the preacher is a “he”, but might as well be a “she”. I find dual writing “he or she” tedious and cumbersome for the reader as well as for the writer; and abhor the abbreviation “s/he”. The plural sometimes works, it felt very odd to use it here. So if your pastor is female, I will leave it to you, reader, to make the appropriate substitutions!

A calling to the obvious


Calling to “the ministry” seems fairly narrow from the outside. But think of a “vocation to teach”, for instance. Yes, it is already a specific calling, but from the inside, there is a very wide range of practices included in teaching.

For instance: what level are you called to teach? Will you teach Special Needs? What will you teach? Where? And far more importantly, why do you want to teach?

The job descriptions limit these questions in no small way. Depending on where you are employed, you will end up a maths teacher in charge of 11-12 year-old students, in a school where pastoral care is entirely the prerogative of someone else. I ended up teaching* measure theory to 3rd year undergrads. As part of this job, there is an amount of things I am required to do. It wouldn’t do to let anyone leave the room without a firm grasp on what is countable or not.

But the mistake, spelled out clearly in all books on ministry that I have read, would be to try and fit my calling into a job description. When I was teaching measure theory, I saw my mission as going further than simply getting the kids (yes, 3rd year undergrads are kids) to know how the axiom of choice leads to the existence of non-measurable sets (and, later, to Banach-Tarski paradox). Some see their mission as awakening the kids to the beauty of maths; I saw mine as allowing them to grow at their own pace, and feel at home with these beautiful concepts. And to get them through exams.

The Devil’s Staircase (I knew I could mix maths and theology somehow) – source: Wikipedia user Gargan, reused under CC license

Yet even as I write these words, I am restricting what my vocation was (in the context of undergrad teaching) to an outcome. To “doing” something. But it was far more than that, it was more than a job. It was, very much, creating ties with my students, allowing them to be themselves with me; and that was something that felt very natural (even though not every teacher is doing it).

That’s the issue I get when trying to articulate my calling to ordained ministry. I start by looking at the parts of ordained ministry that are in the job description (attending PCC meetings, giving sermons, leading and presiding worship, pastoral care, etc.). Yes, all that will be part of what I’ll be called to do; but it shouldn’t be my starting point in articulating my ministry. It should be what my calling later slots into.

Where it gets tricky, is that what I am called to is very deeply rooted in me. So much so that it feels natural, to the point that it seems wrong to spell it out. It feels wrong because, surely, everybody would agree with it, and it barely needs pointing out. So how do I identify the nature of my calling? Through conversation. Through discerning what is shared with everyone from what belongs to my calling.

Last Thursday, I engaged in conversation on whether helping the poor should include teaching them how to use the help – whether, to cut a long conversation short, financial support could be given to people without at the same time teaching them that grocery shopping should come before large screen TVs. I was passionately on the side that support should be unconditional (but that the offer to help should also include, as an option, that teaching). Because of many reasons, but mostly because I am passionate about letting people “come as they are”, and about allowing them to grow at their own pace, in an environment that welcomes them.

See, I thought that everybody would see the value in this approach. Because I thought it was self-evident, because I ended up hanging out with people who share this value.  And I thought failures to allow people  to come as they are, especially in the Christian context, were down to practical contingencies, to our fallen nature, and to limits to our own efforts. I was, clearly, wrong in that.

But talking with others about these things, on a side issue, has allowed me to identify this as a key aspect of my calling. Now I can start to reverse the discernment process from trying to see what aspects of the job fit with who I am, to seeing how these aspects of my calling (these things that feel self-evident to me) can be grown in the job descriptions; and why ordained ministry resonates with that and why I then have that calling.

Do you want to learn about measure theory? Let me know! :)

What are you called to? (we all have a calling, whether in the ministry or not!)

How do you discern your calling?

*I’m using teaching in a loose sense. I  was leading example classes/seminars.

The nature of (my) calling


A calling is a hard thing to articulate. It’s extremely personal, hard to describe, hard to explain – but harder still to dismiss.

Photo: floeschie, reused under CC license

And yet it is crucial to be able to do so; because if your calling is to the ministry, you will find people coming to you with a drive to test their own calling. Because you will want to explain to friends what you’re living. Because it will puzzle others. Because, ultimately, it is an awesome thing to share.

But the truth of it is, there appears to be no formula for callings; there is no constant in there. Which makes it incredibly hard to know in our minds as well as in our hearts that we are called; because there is no pattern to test our calling against.

Some callings are of an extraordinary, precise and unmistakable nature. S/Paul, on the road to Damascus, had a great and life-changing experience. Gideon was called out of a quiet life by an angel.
Some are more subtle. Samuel got called three times before recognising the Lord and his calling. Some, but not all, are made through people – Saul, Elisha are examples; and to an extent Gideon’s calling.
A lot of callings lead to massive changes in the lives of the called (both Sauls, Gideon, Elisha, etc.) but some happen to people who are already in the temple (Samuel).

The only constant is that once the nature of the calling was established and accepted, there was no doubting it. There was a strong resolve to do whatever needed doing to serve.

This is encouraging and daunting at the same time. Encouraging, because it means that if I commit to the ministry for life, it will be a deeply satisfying decision. Daunting, because it feels like there’s no getting out. A relief too, because there’s nothing I can do about it.

My calling wasn’t spectacular. It started out as a feeling last September – a series of tiny nudges in the direction of ministry; combined with a series of advertised opportunities to grow in that direction. When I reached the stage where I took it seriously, and prayed about it, that feeling was fed and grew. When I started going for the opportunities given to me, I felt a deep sense of satisfaction. My prayer turned from “Is this real?” to something akin to Samuel’s “speak, Lord, for your servant is listening”. And I’ve taken things one at a time since. I’ve shared this with close friends, and with my own Elis. At this stage, I’m serene and trusting that, if this is God’s calling for me, it will lead to the ministry. Like many, however, I still sometimes momentarily doubt whether I’ve not just made a massive mistake; but quickly realise that these are just insecurities about my own abilities, and am quickly brought back to the confidence in my calling.

If you’re in ministry or planning to go into the ministry, what was your calling like?

What would your advice for people who are feeling called (including me) be?