Br. Josh: Obedience to God’s Commands

Preaching at Evensong tonight at St Mary’s Priory Church, Br Josh reflected on what the Book of Numbers and St Paul in his letter to the Corinthians says about obedience to God.

‘At the command of the Lord they would camp, and at the command of the Lord they would set out.’

Numbers 9:23

Br Josh said:

1) Greetings

It is very good to be back with you here and with the Holywell Community. I have been moved by the welcome I’ve received from you all and am very thankful for it.

For those who don’t know: I’ve recently returned from a somewhat unanticipated trip to my home country of New Zealand, which was required in order to apply for another visa to continue as a lay member of the Holywell Community.

When I came to look at tonight’s readings, I found that they were helpful for making sense of my recent experiences. I will focus on two ideas. First, obedience to God’s commands and, second, the importance of times of both movement and rest for discerning God’s commands and acting on them.

2) Obedience to God’s Command

The theme of obedience to God’s commands runs through all of the scripture we have heard tonight.

The book of Numbers tells the story of the journey of the Israelites through desert wilderness to the promised land having escaped from slavery in Egypt. In the passage we have just heard, they are just setting out and things are going smoothly; they are following God’s commands.

Things will go less smoothly for them soon and they will become rebellious. But tonight we are interested in this snapshot of a people who are obedient to God. A people who listen to God, encamp, move, and camp again when they are told.

It is all very well for us to be told that we ought to follow their example. Since I’m in the preacher’s position tonight, I’ll say it myself: you ought to obey God’s commands. But this does not tell us how to discern what God commands are in our particular situations.

In Numbers, God regularly talks to the Israelites, and especially to Moses. Much of the book is devoted to regulations which are given from on high. These are explicit instructions about all manner of things, including, for instance, how to set up and pack down their camp and what to do in cases of illness.

But in the section of Numbers that we have heard, God’s commands are made clear by a cloud which appears as a fire at night. The fire and cloud indicate when the Israelites should camp, when they should move, and which way they should go.

The cloud was associated with a special tent called the Tabernacle, which was set at the centre of the camp. God dwelt in a unique way in the Tabernacle. It was a holy place, set aside for special treatment.

We hear that as soon as the Tabernacle was set up, the cloud hovered over it. The cloud thus indicates the presence of God. The movements of this sign of the presence of God then convey commands.

It is important to note that the cloud is not just a miraculous sat-nav: its movements are significant because the cloud represents the presence of God and God’s commands are, I hope you agree, of more importance than the commands of your sat-nav. God’s commands have an authority that the commands of your sat-nav do not have.

So the Israelites of our reading, whose obedience we are to copy, learnt the commands of God by virtue of a clear and visible sign of the presence of God. This can seem a bit unhelpful for us. While we frequently sing the words of William Williams ‘let the fire and cloudy pillar, lead me all my journey through’, this fire and cloudy pillar is, for us, only a metaphor.

In our second reading, St Paul tells the church in Corinth that ‘circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing; but obeying the commandments of God is everything’ (v. 19). We are being told again: Obey God’s commands.

Here we can ask a familiar question: how are the people in Corinth to know God’s commands? One answer is that the Corinthians have an authoritative voice in St Paul. Much of his letter is devoted to answering specific practical concerns that have arisen for the Christians in Corinth. Just as Moses did for the Israelites, Paul conveys commands which, he explicitly states, come from God. In some cases he distinguishes these commands from his own opinions, which he also offers.

The voices of St Paul and of Moses continue to have authority for us today, as conveyed through the scriptures. The Church also continues to have authoritative voices in the form of bishops, who are successors of the apostles. But the Bible does not give us a straightforward answer to every practical question we ask it. Nor do we expect bishops to be free from error in their judgements. Even if we did, it would hardly be appropriate to bother them with every tricky issue that arises for us!

More progress can be made by considering the ‘conditions’ which St Paul claims are unimportant.

Some members of the church at Corinth were circumcised, some were uncircumcised (that is, roughly: Jewish or Gentile). Some were slaves and some were free. Members of the church clearly put a lot of energy into debating the relative status of these conditions.

But Paul tells them that these distinctions mean nothing compared to following God’s commands. This implies that God’s commands can be followed in any of these conditions. If not, if, say, it was impossible to follow God’s commands as a slave, then Paul would have to tell slaves to try to become free. He doesn’t.

Why can God’s commands be lived out in all of these conditions? The answer in our reading seems to be the following: The Gospel message; the message of God’s coming to earth as a human, suffering the worst that the world could offer, going still further by descending into hell (as we have just said together during the Apostles’ Creed), and rising again and taking our human nature back into the life of God; requires us to radically rearrange our priorities and values. In light of these new priorities and values such differences in our earthly condition and status becomes secondary.

This is, in turn, because the Gospel command is to imitate Christ. In doing this, in attempting to perfectly love God and perfectly love our neighbour, we will be slaves in so far as we are bound by His example and not by our own selfish desires or projects. And by being slaves of Christ we will also be free, in so far as we are not beholden to human masters (if we really manage it, we won’t even fear death – and what could make you more free than that?). In other words, we will be slaves by emptying ourselves with Jesus and free by rising with Him into new life and eventual reunion with God.

The Corinthians, then, are pointed to a different sign of the presence of God: God incarnate in Jesus Christ. They are to follow God’s commands by following the example of Christ.

This is a very different picture from one natural-seeming but incorrect reading of the passage. Paul talks about God ‘assigning’ or ‘calling’ us to a condition. We might look at this, and Paul’s advice to the Corinthians to stay in whatever condition they find themselves in, and conclude that God commands slaves to be slaves forever. Indeed, defenders of slavery have in the past appealed to verses like the ones we have just heard.

Paul clearly does advise the Corinthians that they should not bother too much about changing their condition but, rather, should focus on imitating Christ within their condition. But he does not say that these various conditions are fixed in nature and irreformable.

The picture of the natural and social world as fixed and unchanging that I am warning against can be encouraged by the words of our Psalm: ‘By the word of the Lord were the heavens made and all the hosts of them by the breath of his mouth […] For he spake and it was done, he commanded and it stood fast’ (Ps33:6, 9). The incorrect interpretation says that everything that exists is commanded by God in a way that implies that any attempt to change anything is rebellion against God. Surely we don’t want to be quite that conservative.

3) Movement and Rest

The second idea which I want to emphasise tonight is the importance of movement and rest. This idea helps us to both to see what is wrong with the fixed picture of society and the world and to discern what the command of God is in our own situations.

In Numbers, we see God determining appropriate times for the Israelites to move and appropriate times for them to encamp. This continues to be true for us both collectively and individually. That is. there are times for change and times for rest.

Please excuse me for getting a bit metaphysical for a moment. I can’t help it. Christians acknowledge God as creator. We believe that everything depends on God for its existence. God’s way of being is thus distinct from, and superior to, the being of any created thing. This is a great theme of Psalm 33. Paul is also drawing on it when suggesting we are ‘called’ or ‘assigned’ to a place: our being and all of the circumstances we find ourselves in depend on God.

Now, as the Ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides would tell you, there’s something about the very idea of movement that suggests imperfection. Movement is change and if everything is already perfect, then why would you bother changing? You could only get worse!

And yet, mysteriously, God doesn’t just create a world of pure bliss without change or the possibility of decay. God creates a world which develops over time, absolutely depending on God for its existence, but with a level of freedom to do its own thing. We ourselves are created by God and have a role (which we are free to reject) in bringing about God’s purposes.

This does not provide any kind of straight forward answer to why bad things happen. The world is not just a little imperfect: it contains true horrors. This is important to say on Holocaust Remembrance Sunday. When things go wrong, they can go very very wrong and we have to avoid glibly saying that the horrors of the world are made OK by being part of a process towards which achieves a higher good. Nevertheless, we do have free will and God does work through us and through the imperfect world which we inhabit.

Returning to our scriptures, the Israelites are not just sent straight to the promised land in an instant, they must grow and develop in their time in the wilderness. God leads, but they must participate.

Similarly, the early Christians of Corinth could not simply magic away the society which they existed within. As the historian and theologian N. T. Wright puts it, ‘inveighing against slavery per se would have been totally ineffective: one might as well, in modern Western society, protest against the mortgage system.’ But, Wright continues, Paul could plant a seed which would develop over time. That seed is, of course, the Gospel itself which played a major role in the eventual abolition of slavery. And which, we hope, will further transform the world and end injustices. [The quotes for this passage were taken from this useful blog post.]

God has created a dynamic world, in which our actions are part of the transformation of the world. Movement is important! God has also given us an example in Jesus Christ against which our own lives and our societies can be judged, and which we can attempt to imitate. A culture with slavery, all things being equal, is less Christ-like than one without it. The same might be said about pay-day loans or radical levels of economic inequality.

Earlier, I said that the Ancient Israelites were lucky compared to us in so far as they had, in the fire and cloud, a sign of the presence of God which could unambiguously direct their actions. I said that, for us, the ‘fire and pillar’ is at most a metaphor. But, in fact, we are better off because we have Christ to direct our actions. And Jesus isn’t simply an inspirational historical person. We Christians believe that Jesus lives and that this is not just a metaphor.

Of course, our original problem comes back, how do we discern what the Christ-like action or society is? Here we shift from movement to rest.

In order to listen, you need to stop moving every now and then. And in order to obey, you need to listen. This is a connection that the Benedictine tradition insists upon.

The Holywell Community, like all Benedictine communities, take vows of obedience. I have now stood in front of you and vowed obedience twice. Once with Br Seb in August and once when I returned. You will not be surprised to learn, given these vows, that Benedictines have put a lot of thought into what obedience means and what it doesn’t.

The Holywell Community Constitution says that ‘Obedience includes listening to God, and hearing what he has in mind for the Community’. This connection between obedience and listening is clear, as our prior and sub-prior often remind us, in the etymology of the world ‘obedience’ from the Latin ‘obedire’ meaning ‘to listen’.

The kind of listening St Benedict has in mind for his monks is not merely the kind of listening required to follow orders. Rather, it is a kind of listening that changes you internally as well as externally. We are called to listen to Christ and to be transformed in both our internal motivations and thoughts and, consequently, in our external actions. Our imitation of Christ must be both internal and external.

At one of the recent services for the week of prayer for Christian unity, someone said to me: ‘It’s good to see young people being holy.’ But we’re not especially holy and these ideas aren’t just for Benedictines of whatever flavour. All Christians need to find time to rest with God and to listen.

There are countless methods for listening to God and I’m sure you already have some that work for you. One practice that I have found particularly rewarding, and which I have missed while away from St Mary’s, is Holy Hour. It goes like this: after a brief hymn, we kneel or sit in silence. Our attention is focused on a consecrated host placed on the altar. The Eucharist is, of course, a means by which Jesus Christ is present with us. By meditating on the host we are drawn deeper into this mystery. Some people read passages from the Bible or other spiritual writing through which they hope to hear what God is saying. Others simply sit in silence. The service ends with a blessing and some more short hymns.

I cannot recommend the practice enough. Like the Ancient Israelites, we have a sign of the presence of God (and not merely a metaphorical one) in the consecrated host. We even have a pillar of cloud in the form of incense at the side of the altar!

If you are interested, please do join us at 4pm on Fridays in the Benedict Chapel. If a whole hour doesn’t sound appealing to you, you might want to quietly duck in and out for a shorter time. Please feel free to ask any of us any questions you might have about it.

Whether or not the idea of Holy Hour is appealing to you (and my advertisement is over now): it is important to find a way to rest with, and listen to, God that works for you and brings you into closer alignment with Christ.

4) My Recent Movements

I began tonight by saying that these readings had spoken to my recent experience, but you’ll have noticed I haven’t said anything much about that yet. I’ll now offer some thoughts on the topic to conclude.

I’ve been standing up here encouraging you to listen to God as though I’m some kind of expert on the matter. This is a bit silly given that I’m much newer to the faith than most of you. But, even moreso, I am terrible at listening to God. I am not the kind of person who is comfortable saying God says this or God says that and am always ready to explain away any sense of God’s saying something. My sceptical mind often goes back to an acquaintance at high school who told his girlfriend at the time that God said they’d be together forever… Of course, she broke up with him the next day.

But sometimes in prayer, ideas fix themselves in your mind with a kind of external force. One such thought that would recur to me in prayer was ‘Go Home’, my response was always. ‘Yes, eventually’ or to explain it away by saying to myself ‘ah, I see I must be a bit homesick.’ But sometimes God forces our hand. It turned out I was going to have to go home.

This hiccup has all, from my perspective anyway, turned out for the best. I now have a home church in New Zealand, which I have not had for a long time and I’ve had a much needed chance to reconnect with family and friends. I’ve also come back more secure in myself and more ready to throw myself into the work of the community. I am very much looking forward to the coming year.

This isn’t exactly a case like the Ancient Israelites, who moved and encamped following the command of the Lord. I was less following the cloud than being pushed by a wind from behind. Perhaps things would have been easier if I had followed the command when I heard it… Who knows?

In any case, I thank you all for your patience in dealing with a lay brother who was here one minute and gone the next and I hope that you will continue to pray for me and for the whole Holywell Community that we will, as the prologue to the Rule of St Benedict says, ‘listen with the ear[s] of [our] heart[s]’ to what God is saying to us.

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Welcome back Br Josh

This morning we welcomed Br Josh back to the Community, following his return from New Zealand.

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A New Zealand citizen, Br Josh had to return home in order to renew his Visa, and so spent Christmas with his family.

Standing in for our Episcopal Visitor, Bishop Dominic OGS celebrated this morning’s Mass during which the ‘rite of welcome and re-commisioning’ took place.

He had earlier sworn his Oath if Canonical obedience before the Archdeacon of Monmouth.

Archdeacon of Monmouth (left) listens to Br Josh read his Oath

Blessed Christmas

A Blessed Christmas to you all from all of us!

We will be taking a break from our Outreach Projects, and saying our Offices privately over the next few weeks.

Public saying of Offices will resume on January 8th.

All Age Worship will be back on the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6th) at 9.30am

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What are we up to this Advent?

This Advent we have got stuck in  with all the outreach activities of the churches in the town.

We’ve helped with assembling over 90 shoe boxes of gifts for dispatch to Moldova and are putting together gifts for teenagers who have recent left care here in Monmouthshire.

 

Church with out walls

We will be joining parishioners to sing Carols in local Old People’s Homes and in the local pubs, as we take out the message of Good News.

Our Prior and Sub Prior played key parts in the  Abergavenny and District Council of Churches ‘Scratch Nativity Walk’, yesterday. Can you spot them?

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Our Sub Prior has prepared a Meditation on the Advent themes in our Jesse window, to try and help people spend some time reflecting during the Advent Season.

 

Christingle on Christmas Eve

Advent will come to an end with our Annual Christingle Service and Nativity Play at 4pm on Christmas Eve – do join us for what is normally a fun service!

 

Sub Prior’s Reflection on New Monastic’s Conference

 

Upon being appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby set himself three priorities for his archiepiscopate: The renewal of prayer and Religious Life throughout the church, the churches role in reconciliation as a peacemaker, and encouraging every Christian to share their faith. It was under the first of these headings that the New Monastic Leaders Conference was held last week at Lambeth Palace and St Andrew’s Church, Southwark.

Over thirty new monastic communities were represented from around the UK, as well as visitors from the USA and Australia.

At the welcome to the conference Rev’d Ian Mobsby of the New monastics network spoke passionately and eloquently about the role of new monasticism in recontextualising the church for a new generation who are seeking answers to questions of faith and seeking a sense of belonging and a face of humanity in a world where people are increasingly alienated. He also shared an exciting vision of new monastic communities as a means of meeting the need for apostolic ministry – the gathering together and sending of the people of God. The growth and spread of new monasticism, he argued, is a call for action against the enormous poverty in our society as individuals seek to follow a calling that gives a great sense of belonging, is profoundly transformative and deeply giving.

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The conference was structured around Ignatian principles of listening to others, which were led by the Chemin Neuf Community and the The St Thomas Way Community. We were invited to listen prayerfully and attentively, and we spent regular periods of companionable silence at the end of our small group sharing sessions: time to digest what had been discussed and to offer it to God, invoking the presence and action of the Holy Spirit to speak to us through our longing for community.

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Within the Ignatian principles we heard a Story of Consolation from the Northumbria Community, through which they shared the moments of great blessing and joy in the building of community. We heard stories of everyday miracles from unexpected places, and ways in which living in community can set people free to do what they are meant to be doing all their lives.

To balance this we also heard a Story of Desolation from a member of the Chemin Neuf Community, which offered a profound reflection on ministering to others from a place of desolation, as Jesus did on the cross. It addressed the fact that in new monasticism and in fresh expressions and pioneer ministry we take risks, often walking on ‘fault lines’ between communities, within communities, and in dangerous places which may bring us suffering, but which are ultimately for good. We were reminded that in striking out into new ground we are often called to stand in difficult places which can bring individuals and instiotutions top their limits, but are prophetic for the sake of the kingdom. Desolation, we were encouraged, may be a point on your journey as a community, but it is not the destination. It was Martin Luther King who coined the phrase ‘suffering has it’s own alchemy’.

We were greatly blessed by Archbishop Justin’s perspective through our plenary, and it was wonderful to hear a church leader so keen to be associated with new monastic communities and the movement of new monasticism in the church. ‘It’s entirely beyond our control’ he said ‘and that is a wonderful thing’. ‘If the church isn’t doing things that aren’t incomprehensible to people outside then it’s not doing what it should.’ The archbishop went on to emphasise his dedication to the message ‘communities matter’ and that by celebrating vocational community ‘celebration puts possibilities into peoples minds’. He went on to discuss the dedication of his chaplain to a vocations system that would offer a central website for those considering vocations to community alongside ordained ministry. It would be wonderful to think that the Church in Wales would be similarly forward thinking in committing to and affirming the message ‘communities matter’. Christian life lived in community is, Archbishop Justin concluded, ‘the aspect of the churches life which is purely about God’.

The conference was a wonderful opportunity to meet people from a wide variety of different new monastic communities, all of which took a very broad variety of incarnations. I came away convinced of the important work God has entrusted to us as a new monastic community here in this place, and excited that in ministering through those moments of both consolation and desolation we, the Holywell Community, are a part of something much bigger and more wonderful in God’s church than cannot yet be fully grasped or comprehended.Sub Prior

Br Seb reflects on his first two months with us

 

Two months after joining the Holywell Community, Brother Sebastian sat down with the editor  of the Parish Magazine  to talk about how he’s settling in.

 

Br Seb came to Abergavenny from the other side of the country – Thorpe-le-Soken, around five miles from the nearest beach on the east coast of Essex.

His parish priest there, Fr Jeremy Dowding, used to serve and worship at Holy Trinity so knows Abergavenny well and suggested this would be a good move for the 18-year-old, after leaving college where he’d been studying English and maths.

Seb, who recently featured in a Church of England campaign to raise awareness of living with autism and exploring vocation, says he found moving away from home and settling into a new environment a bit confusing.

But, he went on, it’s been a really good experience, meeting new people and learning new ways of church.

“I served in Thorpe for two years,” he said, “and it was similar but St Mary’s is much bigger and there are differences in how things are done.”

Living away from home has also been a new experience but Seb told himself he had to move on and feels he’s settled down quite quickly. He’s enjoys sharing with Br Josh and is missing him being there but is looking forward to when he returns from New Zealand after Christmas.

“I tell myself any person my age would love to be living in a four-bedroomed house by themselves,” he said.

Seb has also had lots of new experiences since joining the Community – he assists with verging in funerals and is now reading the lessons, having never done that before.

“It took a lot of practice but I think I’m getting the hang of it now,” he said.

He also enjoys being part of the Crafty Women group, although he says it felt a bit odd at the beginning, being one of the only men there. But, he says, they are really good people and it hasn’t bothered him as much as he had thought it would.

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Br Seb with Fr Tom OSB at Buckfast Abbey

Little Footprints is another of his duties and, while Seb says he’s taking a bit of time to get to know the parents and toddlers but he’s getting there. The parents are lovely and the kids very good and they’re getting to know each other more. He also enjoys making the crafts and, according to Fr Tom, is very good at it.

As to the future, Seb is helping to plan the Christingle service and both he and Josh will play a big part in the Thy Kingdom Come initiative next year.

Summing up his time here so far, Seb said: “I’ve tried to do everything the best I can and everyone has been lovely; thank you for the welcome.

And discussing the Community at a recent joint wardens meeting, it was agreed that this charming young man has grown in confidence and become a valuable member of the Church.

 

Where are the old Holywell Lay Members now?

The Prior writes,

I regularly get asked about those who have previously been in the Holywell Community. ‘How are they?’ ‘What are they up to?’ Having been at the Monastic Taster Day at the weekend, I thought now was an opportune moment to share news of them….and their journey.

I was great to see Br Adrian (2016-18) recently when we visited Mucknell Abbey to collect the St Jospeh Icon. Adrian has just completed his first year of noviciate. He has clearly found his home there.

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Of the 6 at the recent Conference in Ty Mawr 2 were formerly with us : Joanna (2nd Left) and Br Adrian (far right)

After the recent postulants and novices Conference at Ty Mawr,  Joanna  (2017-18) visited us while dropping of a fellow conference member to the train. Many who have seen her at Ty Mawr confirmed the impression I got that she is very happy and contented there.

A few weeks ago I had Tea with Samuel ( 2014 -16) at the Hilton in Cardiff. He is now in his third and final year of Ordination Training. Following his Deaconing at the end of June, I have invited him to Deacon our End of Term / Feast of St Benedict Mass here on the evening of July 11th.

Jennii (2016-18) is working as a Parish Missioner in Aberavon. She is a regular visitor to Abergavenny and all seems to be well with her.

Amy (2014-16) and Michael (2015-17) have returned to the secular world. I spoke to both of them over the Summer . Amy was working as a Barmaid and Michael as a Librarian.

That leaves Simon (2016-17) who after gaining his BMus from Leeds has returned to the locality to live, while studying for his MMus at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff. Our former Concentor is now the Priory’s Deputy Director of Music.