Sunday, 27 June 2010

Whoops, whistles and God's invitation

Cheers, whoops and whistles greeted the ordinands as they were presented to Conference this morning in one of the clearest signs of how willingly we have loosened our stays in recent years.

President Alison Tomlin urged them to wave at their families and supporters as the worshipful mix of celebration and solemnity dovetailed perfectly.

In the service we received presbyters and deacons “into full connexion” - as our gloriously-obscure jargon puts it - and lovingly sent most of them on to ordination services in the area for later in the day.

There was not a mention of the football - not one - even though almost every ordination service would clash with it. Today it just didn’t matter.

I was asked if the tables and chairs being set up outside the Guildhall were anything to do with us but they were for the Sunday afternoon tea dance taking place directly underneath the giant screen which would not show the England-Germany game. Too rowdy as a companion for such a gentile pursuit as a tea dance.

The Methodist celebrations began outside long before the service as delegates, ordinands, friends and families gathered in the sunshine. In a remarkable demonstration of servant ministry one of Conference’s respected ministers was even seen cleaning the shoes of another ... from one Central Hall to another!

This day is, like no other in the Methodist Church, a day of journeys as people come from all parts of the Connexion to support those being ordained. As we were reminded at the start of the service, some would have absolutely no idea what was going on but wanted to be there for their loved ones.

President Alison Tomlin, in her sermon, picked up on an Old Testament challenge from Isaiah where God confronts the people with a list of all they have done wrong, trying to live in fantasy world, as she put it.

At the end, instead of punishment there’s an invitation to come back but the people reject it. “The Scriptures are full of people running away whenever God says anything. I understand that,” said Alison, as the ordinands and the rest of us listened.

She asked us: “Do you believe in a God who created all things; holds all creation in the palm of a hand? That God will wait for you.

“That God loves you so much. That God will wait to be gracious to you; standing alongside you in whatever your life currently contains until you feel able to say your next ‘yes’. That is such a gift and such a promise and so amazing.”

As the ordinands began to anticipate their service - the moment when a congregation would shout out the words “they are worthy” and propel them to a new phase of ministry - Alison had a word of realism for them.

“You’d think God’s gracious words would always be a joy and a delight but sometimes they are so hard to bear,” she said. “They are a challenge and a demand and an opportunity that we don’t feel ready for.

“We know God is saying ‘you do it’. They may even be words asking us to do something that is so hard for us that we say ‘please not yet, can I take a little longer to say yes’. God will say ‘yes’.”

Sometimes as Church it feels that we need to learn those lessons. What are God’s gracious words to us? What are we able to say ‘yes’ to today and what is it all right to ask for a bit of time about?

Joy Dine’s great hymn God who sets us on a journey has become very much part of this ordination weekend for Methodism and, as we have always said that we learn our theology through singing, then Conference is getting into the habit of stating that we need to ask God consistently to:

End our longing for the old days
grant the vision that we lack -
once we’ve started on this journey
there can be no turning back

And so to today’s vuvuzela moments:

  • ordinands coming in to Come on and celebrate, some dancing down the aisle.
  • Guide me O thou Great Jehovah - not quite up to Millennium Park standards but the harmonies sounded good up in the gallery
Sadly the World Cup, though full of the noise of the vuvuzela, didn’t quite live up to expectations for England fans. But, even for defeated and probably overpaid soccer stars, the invitation to come and rest in God is still made.

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