Blood, mess, and tears: A Candlemas song

This is a reworking of an earlier blog post, so please forgive the self-plagiarism!


Her silence screams through this story. Voiceless amid the raging hormones, she presents herself and her child: vulnerable but strong; polluted by blood destined to make others pure. This is her story, told by men, through men, for men.

This is Candlemas. A scene unfolding around the healing body of a woman who would have been torn open in childbirth, and who was about to hear the terrifying prophecy of a sword piercing her soul at the pain she would watch her son encounter as he grew.

We are sheltered from the gritty, earthy, fleshy, feminine parts of this story. Mary’s voice is silenced as her story is told through the song of a man.

Forty days marked Mary’s moment of purification. But forty days postnatal is an important milestone for any mother and baby.

  • The wounds inflicted by birth will be knitting together again.
  • There will be signs that the baby is gaining weight.
  • Rest may be less elusive as the baby sleeps for longer stretches.
  • Breastfeeding should be more comfortable; bottle feeding easier to anticipate and plan.
  • The baby may have started to smile and make eye contact.

In the UK, women who have had a baby have a check up at 6 weeks for these reasons. It’s the ‘magic’ moment, where life may take on a semblance of normality once more. But ever so slowly: a new mum at 6 weeks postnatal will still feel vulnerable, wobbly and sore.

So how did Mary feel, as she stood in a world of men in this most female of moments?

  • Was her baby sleeping well?
  • Was he thriving and gaining weight?
  • Were her nipples cracked and sore?
  • Had her vaginal trauma healed?
  • Was she still riddled with the hormone-induced anxiety that kept her constantly watchful of this fragile life?
  • Was she obsessed with protecting her son with a fierce love that burned in every ounce of her being?

Fourteen centuries on, Giovanni Bellini’s painting of the Presentation at the Temple begins to give Mary a voice. Luke doesn’t tell us how Mary felt as she embarked on motherhood. How much did this vulnerable, sleep deprived girl sweat or hold back tears as she handed her baby over to Simeon? How much did her heart plummet as Simeon spoke of a piercing sword?

Luke says only that she was amazed. How much did her amazement overwhelm her? Thrill her? Frighten her? What would she have said, using her own words, if she had been given a voice to tell this story?

Bellini tells us what Luke does not. Here is young courageous Mary, flanked by women, hesitating as she passes her tiny bundle to Simeon. The world of women faces off against the world of men, as the Christ child passes between them.

What is that hesitation? Is Mary beginning to understand the fullness of her vocation and the pain that it will cause her? Is she, like any new mother, finding it hard to trust a stranger with the wellbeing of her child, even for a moment?

Bellini paints the vulnerability and courage of every new mother.

I saw courage and vulnerability in another young woman recently. Amanda Gorman, the USA’s National Youth Poet Laureate and the youngest poet ever to read at a presidential inauguration. At the age of 22, this young black lady stood in a place where no one of her race, gender and age had previously been made welcome. And she took her moment and gifted the world with her courage, her vibrance, and her joy.

And so what better challenge for us to hear again today, on this Feast of Candlemas, than that offered by Amanda last week:

There is always light. If only we are brave enough to see it. If only we are brave enough to be it.

I doubt Mary was silent that day. But through the centuries since she has rarely been given a voice. One of the most prominent figures of the Christian faith, she is also perhaps one of the most idolized, silenced, and mistranslated. Dehumanised in her veneration; stripped of all that joins her with the experience of bringing life into the world: the blood, the mess, the tears – the very stuff of the Incarnation.

Seeing the light; being the light: these things are not just about who we are, what we say and do. They are about who we give a voice to. Who stands among us, gagged from telling their own story? Bringing light into the darkness of this world means making space for the silenced.

Candlemas becomes not just a festival of light, but of song. Rich, harmonised melodies both on and off beat, as thousands join their voices to Simeon, to Mary, and sing their own stories in their own words. Purification becomes liberation. Peace becomes freedom. Salvation becomes song: the fullness of human experience shared as we who have a voice give way to the voiceless.

A pregnant pause: waiting with Mary

The last few days of pregnancy were terrible. I thought it would be all Downton Abbey boxsets and chocolate on tap.

It wasn’t.

It was anxiety and discomfort and last minute jobs and mad rushes to the hospital for monitoring and wondering and second guessing and mess and pain.

It was the physical strain of being so close to the end, so close that every hour mattered. Every hour the pregnancy went on was another hour of my body stolen from me. Of comfort taken away and of a tortuous, drawn our anticipation of the tiny life which would turn my own completely upside down in ways yet to be realised. The fear of what might happen – could happen – even with the reassurance of modern medicine. Lonely hours spent in hospital bays, waiting, wondering, hoping…

Today we revisit the story of the Annunciation. Mary’s bewilderment and joy at receiving the news of her pregnancy. But gosh. Was this really good news?! An unmarried woman in one of the most conservative cultures of its time, suddenly pregnant, visited by an angel, and mother to a son who would shake up the world before being executed as a troublemaker. I’m not sure that my response would have been as holy as Mary’s! I wonder what else she said and thought, unrecorded by Luke and Matthew.

Historically Mary has been portrayed by the Church as meek, mild, obedient and humble. And yet what strength of character it would have taken to bear the pain of carrying the Son of God. Mary was no meek and mild handmaiden, but feisty and fiery; courageous and strong.

This weekend will mark 9 months, almost to the day, since we first entered “lockdown”. It also marks 9 months in the Church calendar from the Feast of the Annunciation – to which we return today in the days before we celebrate the birth of Christ. I wonder how those nine months of pregnancy were for Mary? Full of anxiety? Joy? Conflict? Was she ostracised by her communities? How long did it take her to persuade Joseph of her faithfulness? How did she feel travelling with child to the town of his birth? Did she suffer in her pregnancy, with sickness or fatigue? How supported was she by the women of her family, in the lead up to the birth? Did she feel loved or alone? Hopeful or frightened?

And what were those final days like? Fraught with worry, and excitement, and discomfort, I guess. Some experiences are universal.

What about us? Unlike Mary, unlike the end of pregnancy, we approach the end of these 9 months with more darkness stretching ahead. Our patient waiting may well have turned over night to despairing frustration. What hope is there in the weeks ahead, when so many of us feel robbed of the glimmer of Christmas joy that we had held on the horizon for so long?

And yet, in one sense, the whole of life is one of waiting – for followers of Jesus that’s about waiting for the promised hope we have in Christ. At no time are we more attuned to this collective waiting than in the season of Advent. Just as Mary waited and hoped, feared and fretted, so we are called year on year, to stand alongside her in her waiting as we, too, wait for the Lord. And how we might have felt this urgency, impatience and anxiety in this year more than others!

But what really strikes me about Mary’s story is this: Mary needed God, but God also needed Mary. Without Mary’s “yes”, there would have been no birth, no nativity, no saviour, no Christmas. God’s invitation, and Mary’s assent, heralded an alliance of Heaven and Earth so complete, so perfect, so potent, that it changed the course of history forever.

In all our waiting, what is God’s invitation to us? Within this darkness, where are the stirrings of the Spirit? We don’t have to say “yes”. But in our courageous partnering in God’s work, we might just be able to change our own small corners of the world.

[Jyoti Sahi – Dalit Madonna] from the Methodist Modern Art Collection © TMCP, used with permission.
http://www.methodist.org.uk/artcollection.

Resilient Praxis: Together Apart

Resilient Praxis is a new series of blog posts here on Out of the Chancel, exploring “Pastoral Theology in the wake of a pandemic”.

In the middle of a crisis it is difficult to reflect effectively. We are learning and adapting in ‘real time’. There will be time, in the months and years ahead, to tidy up this work of reflecting and learning. To trim the edges and plump up the middles.

But for now, pastoral care is still happening. Ministry is still happening. In fact we never stopped. And so these posts will give some space for reflection on what has been, what is, and what is to come. Not tidy, packaged praxis. But praxis that is rough around the edges. Praxis that hasn’t stopped. Praxis that will get us through. Resilient praxis.


Together; apart.

The lovely people of Timperley Parish might be fed up of hearing me use this phrase! It’s one I used early on in the pandemic, quoting Leo Varadker: to be together… we have to be prepared to stay apart”

Together; apart is a motif that has stayed with my preaching and reflections through this pandemic. It describes so much our scattered life – each of us within our various bubbles, but still networked together through friendship and prayer.

Back in March, as the church buildings were closed and our gathered, in-person worship ceased, as a church we found ourselves in a time of turmoil and disorientation. We found ourselves asking some very difficult questions about our identity and our practice – who were we, and how could we continue to be – without the means to meet regularly together for worship and friendship and to help one another out?

But amidst the turmoil, we mobilised. Networks of phone contact were set up, we all had a crash course in new technology, and we found new ways to interact. Through this time new friendships were made, many of us found new ways to help out our neighbours, and many people felt connected to the life of the parish in new ways and different ways. We shopped for one another, supplied medicines to doorsteps, and deepened friendships by waving through windows.

Seeing us operate as a Church in this new way brought me a deep sense of joy. It seemed as if, in all of our loss and in everything we were missing, we found new ways to BE the Church – and many of these new ways of operating seemed to me to say much about the radical, inclusive love of God for every person.

In effect, we were doing the tasks for which we have been called, it felt like we had found our purpose and our identity in this new way of being – and although none of this was new for some of us, for others of us it was new, and for all of us it meant going about it in new ways.

Meanwhile, the cogs of the Church of England have been turning, and in recent weeks I have seen an emerging, strengthening emphasis on the ministry of every person. It has been present for years, of course. But it is currently being heard and received in fresh ways. Perhaps a case of ecclesiology imitating life, perhaps an acceleration of what so many of us have fought so long for: an understanding of church that goes far beyond what we do when we gather for an hour on a Sunday morning.

Church is not about, and was never about, what we did for an hour on a Sunday morning. We’ve said this together often enough, and we’ve lived it out, in part. Being the Church is about being the church in every sphere of life: in gathered worship, in the home, and out in our workplaces and volunteer spaces, and in the shops and parks and everywhere else that we spend our time.

And perhaps the gift of this time is that we have had to redress something in our church life that has been off balance for so long. Where before March we placed so much energy and time into what happens inside our buildings on a Sunday morning, now we find ourselves living, as the Church, in the other spaces that we inhabit through the week. And that includes online spaces, as we interact, connect and pray with one another in new and different ways.

Social distancing won’t last forever. But when it passes, we will be all the poorer if the experience of these days does not change us radically and significantly. There will be no going back to normal. Because normal was, in part, incomplete. And we will still be incomplete, of course – but the Christian life is one of deepening in wholeness and growing in faith. We do not remain unchanged.

Together; apart. I am coming to see this motif not as one for a time of pandemic, but one for discipleship in a post-Covid world. It is not a new idea to state that our time together – in worship, fellowship, and prayer – resources our time apart. And yet we are being shaped profoundly as we come to see that our gathered model of church is so far from being the full image of the Church of God.

We are being formed for something new: something radical. And a first step has to be that when we talk about our church life, we don’t imagine what we do on a Sunday morning, but how we live in every other hour of the week.

This Covid season is teaching us, acutely and painfully, how to be the church – together apart. I have come to hope that we will find a way to continue in this, so that into the future our times together enrich our times apart. I have come to hope that in our times apart we know we are as much God’s agents in the world as in the hour we spend together for worship. I have come to pray that the “apart” will be seen as equal to the “together” in the shaping of our ecclesiology.

Together; apart. Not a sickness anymore, but a cure. It took a pandemic to teach us. There has been loss and grief along the way. But emerging, phoenix-like from the ashes of before, is a church which may be more whole, more inclusive, and ready to share the love of Jesus in a post-Corona world.

Resilient Praxis: Prayer is not private

Resilient Praxis is a new series of blog posts here on Out of the Chancel, exploring “Pastoral Theology in the wake of a pandemic”.

In the middle of a crisis it is difficult to reflect effectively. We are learning and adapting in ‘real time’. There will be time, in the months and years ahead, to tidy up this work of reflecting and learning. To trim the edges and plump up the middles.

But for now, pastoral care is still happening. Ministry is still happening. In fact we never stopped. And so these posts will give some space for reflection on what has been, what is, and what is to come. Not tidy, packaged praxis. But praxis that is rough around the edges. Praxis that hasn’t stopped. Praxis that will get us through. Resilient praxis.


O blest communion, fellowship divine,
we feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

Hymn: For all the Saints

As places of worship in the UK are asked to suspend gathered, in-person acts of worship, we’re seeing the rise of a phrase I’d hardly heard before 2020.

“Private prayer”.

As in: “The church will be open for private prayer”.

I know what we mean by it. We mean that buildings are accessible for anyone to come and pray quietly. That the sanctuary and peace of these thin places is open to all who need it. And that the activity that takes place within will not be “co-ordinated”, or “synchronous”, or “organised”, or “gathered”. “Private Prayer” is a helpful shorthand for this.

But our language matters. And prayer is never, ever, private.

Today we celebrate All Saints’ Day. We are reminded of the faithfulness of so many people who have gone before us. We give thanks for their lives, and we bring our joy at all that we have shared with them.

But more than this, as we pray and worship on All Saints Day, as on any other day, our prayers and songs are drawn up into communion, “fellowship divine”, with a Community of Saints who span place and time: people just like you and me and people very different to you and me. Held together; united in our diversity.

To open our mouths in prayer is to join with the prayers of the saints who have gone before us, the saints who live alongside us, and the saints who will come after us. In prayer we are never alone. In prayer we are caught up in a great tidal swell which captures the fullness of the human condition and carries it on a wave, to God.

The liturgy of the Church of England, quoting Charles Wesley. speaks of a “mutual belonging” which “transcends death”.

One family, we dwell in him,
one Church, above, beneath;
though now divided by the stream,
the narrow stream of death.

Hymn: Let saints below in concert sing

To pray is to claim our place within this “mutual belonging”.
To pray is to join in the eternal song of the Saints.
To pray is to unite ourselves with one another – and with God.

And this is why prayer is never, ever, private.

This isn’t fastidious semantics. To speak of prayer as “private” is to collude in the damaging idea that faith is “personal”. Of course, faith is deeply personal! But faith in God is not about “me”. Faith is about how I live in relation to God, and to others, and to the natural world. If we remove faith from realm of things beyond us, if we make faith solely about “my private prayer”, then we miss the celebration of today: that with the Saints we are caught up in something far beyond ourselves: something more wonderful, more challenging, and more hope-filled than anything we can generate within our own hearts and souls.

Faith is not lived out alone, but together. And prayer is never “private”, but an expression of our togetherness.

And I don’t think we get this. Yet again I see Christian social media tearing into one another as we debate the rights and wrongs of suspending public worship. Our damning words to one another, our quickness to snipe, our failure to listen – are shameful.

And if we truly grasped our place, and our neighbour’s place, within the Fellowship of the Saints, our rhetoric would not be like this. Whether we are at home or in church, whether we are together or apart, whether we worship via Facebook or Songs of Praise, we are united as Saints.

I want to give the last word to the authors of the very-newly-published Kingdom Calling report:

Recent experiences of the suspension of public worship together in one place because of the Covid-19 pandemic have helped many to come to a renewed appreciation of the relationship between the church as festal assembly, the church in home and family, and the church in everyday discipleship. The first or the second of those may be denied us, for a short time or indefinitely, and, as already stated, without them something is lost. Even without them, though, we are still the church, still called to be sign, instrument and foretaste of God’s kingdom in our sharing together in the mission of Christ that reaches into all the world. If we are not willing to share in that mission, we distance ourselves from the reality of the church, as surely as if we cease to care about meeting together for public worship.

Kingdom Calling, 52.

What we face in the next four weeks is not ‘second best’. As we live as people of faith, taking our place within a sanctified community that stretches before us and behind us and beyond us – as we pray at home and in church buildings and everywhere in between – as we endure the hardship of the coming weeks, we are still the church. Still present, still visible, and still together. And never, ever, to be found in “private” prayer.

Resilient Praxis: Praying through trauma when you’ve never prayed before

Resilient Praxis is a new series of blog posts here on Out of the Chancel, exploring “Pastoral Theology in the wake of a pandemic”.

In the middle of a crisis it is difficult to reflect effectively. We are learning and adapting in ‘real time’. There will be time, in the months and years ahead, to tidy up this work of reflecting and learning. To trim the edges and plump up the middles.

But for now, pastoral care is still happening. Ministry is still happening. In fact we never stopped. And so these posts will give some space for reflection on what has been, what is, and what is to come. Not tidy, packaged praxis. But praxis that is rough around the edges. Praxis that hasn’t stopped. Praxis that will get us through. Resilient praxis.


I’ve never been very good at prayer.

Well, not if “prayer” is kneeling by the bed. If prayer is rehearsed immature rhymes and tick lists of requests and begging and grovelling and words I don’t understand to a god I don’t want to know.

Thank God that none of those things have to be prayer. Not if they don’t work.

I’m grateful to a great spiritual thinker, John Drane, for the various conversations he invites on his social media pages about life. John is perceptive, wise, and real. And he says that there are some important questions for us to ask about prayer. Even if – especially if – we’ve never prayed before:

How should we pray?
Who should we pray to?
What should we pray for?
What if I get it wrong?


Naming the reality

I love disaster movies. I often wondered what it would be like to live through a life-changing, worldview-shifting event. I’d be the planner. The organised one. The one who kept cool and dealt with the tough stuff later.

Turns out the truth wasn’t far off. I’ve been pretty organised and I’ve Got Things Done. But, perhaps behind the curve, it has taken me weeks to realise that we are living through disaster. What is happening around is will change life as we know it. Whether we feel it yet or not, we are living through trauma.

Humans have done this before. Yesterday marked three years since my own community was traumatised by a terror attack. The difference with the Covid trauma is the scale. We are facing this as communities, as nations, as the world.

When an individual suffers trauma, we expect a support system to kick in. They might seek comfort in the ongoing normality around them: touch, company, talking, socialising.

“Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da, life goes on”.

With this trauma, life will not go on. Not as we knew it. We are living through immense loss, pain, grief, transition, and uncertainty. We are living through mass trauma. Everything we might turn to has gone, or evolved. Communal support, religious rituals, a stable healthcare service, financial security… all gone, or precarious.

This trauma is complex and multi-layered. There is the primary trauma of a pandemic illness. But then the secondary trauma of injustice (why is this pandemic affecting peoples historically oppressed disproportionately?), abuse (of people, systems, and rules), of loss (of people, relationships, ways of life, money, rituals, and touch). The nature of this trauma is that we are in a heightened state of stress and responsiveness for a prolonged period. We are not done. We are in the thick of it now. It is agonisingly painful and desperately tough, with more that lies ahead.

I am more and more convinced that even as we live through this, even now we can prepare the ground for healing. Not “fixing”. “Fixing” is a Western notion that control is within our grasp. We can put this right if we throw the right treatment at it.

We can’t.

We cannot fix this with drugs, with money, with planning.

It is out of our control.

“Healing” is different to “fixing”. The notion of “healing” takes away our need for control. Instead of fighting the current, we go with it, we travel together – in this case on a global journey through a pandemic – and we wait to see what good emerges.

And the first step to healing, I believe, is naming the reality.

This is trauma.

We are traumatised.

The worst days may still lie ahead.

This isn’t how life should be. This isn’t how I expected it to be.

But this is my reality.

There. I named it.


Prayer as naming reality

So if prayer doesn’t have to be recited rhymes or tick lists or great long lines of archaic language, then what is it?

I think the most effective prayer you can pray right now is to name your reality.

“God, this is terrible.”

You see, prayer is never about getting our own way. It’s not about demanding or pleading or begging for the best-case scenario to be the one that comes true. It’s not even about asking for second best, for anything except the worst.

Sometimes the worst happens anyway. Where is God then?

Prayer is many things, but it is not a magic wand.

And the first step in prayer is to name what is happening.

Sounds easy, right?

But to name something we have to notice it.

And we’re not so good at noticing. I was swept along for weeks with home schooling and supporting students and caring for a parish and conducting funerals and planning for a ‘new normal’, that I hardly noticed what was happening around me.

To notice something, we have to stop and look. “Listen with your eyes”, says the old rainbow song.

So, the first steps into prayer are:

Stop
Rest, relax, clear your mind for a moment. Seriously, just take a cup of tea and sit quietly for 5 minutes and breathe.

Look
Listen to yourself, to what you have absorbed, to your 6 senses, to memories and fears and hopes and worries and the noise around you.

Notice
What has passed you by before this moment?

Name
Say it. How do you feel? What is bothering you? What is eating you up? Say it.

You just prayed.


Prayer as deepening awareness

Prayer isn’t necessarily about ploughing through words.

Prayer is about noticing. How often do we stop like that, and notice our feelings, our reactions, our desires? Prayer is meditation. It draws us deeper into ourselves, and it simultaneously draws us out beyond ourselves, to something bigger and greater than our own inwardness.

What is going on inside me?
What is going on beyond me?

How much time do we give to those questions in the rush of life?

To ask these questions is to begin to pray.


Prayer as connection

Nope, still few words.

As we become aware, of ourselves, of others, what desires and yearnings begin to surface?

What deep unfillable holes within ourselves do we try to fill with food and people and Netflix and spending – only to find they fall through like sand and leave us unfilled, unsatisfied, empty?

To pray is to find deeper connection and deeper meaning. We are terribly disconnected. The Western world prioritises the individual to a point where we rarely ask what impact our actions have on anything and anyone.

As we stop, and become aware, what deeper connections begin to form? What peace fills us? What yearnings begin to be met in ways that don’t immediately slip away again?

In this way, prayer begins to join us to something bigger. A movement beyond ourselves and our own time. An awareness of life beyond ourselves: our own smallness and at the same time our amazing capacity to bring huge change, increased connection, and peace-filled justice.


Prayer as letting go

And still few words in this prayer.

As we name reality, and deepen awareness, and build connection, so it becomes easier to let go in prayer. Suddenly, prayer isn’t about what I want. It’s not about changing God’s mind or grovelling and begging to some distant, miserly deity.

Pray isn’t something that changes God. Prayer is something that changes me.

As I grow into prayer, I let go of my need to control life, to control others, to control God.

Instead, prayer becomes something that is honestly me, and honestly God. It is about noticing, resting, connecting, and letting go – and through this becoming more authentically myself.

Prayer isn’t a struggle, a battle, or a chore. Prayer is simply being, accepting, communing.

To pray is to become more authentically ourselves.


What if I get this wrong?

I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me.

Jesus

In these words, Jesus is telling his friends about what will happen after his own death. It is only Thomas who dares to voice the question they are all thinking: “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how will we know the way?”

Underneath this simple question is a whole host of worry and uncertainty. Jesus has already assured his friends that he is going ahead of them, to his Father’s house, to prepare a place for each of them. He has promised to return, to lead them to this place. And still Thomas is anxious.

I wonder how many of us share similar anxieties about life and death? Is God really there, and does he care? Will God really remember us, and return for us? Has God really prepared a place in his house for each of us?

It takes great courage to ask the deepest and darkest questions of God. And Thomas’s question gives rise to one of the great statements of Jesus. Jesus is reassuring Thomas that he doesn’t need to worry about how he will find his Father’s House – whether there will be a place for him. Jesus has already said he will return to take us there himself. And there is no risk of getting lost along the way, because Jesus is the only way – there are no detours, no dead ends, no wrong turns.

These words are used, sometimes, to present an exclusive view of the Christian faith. That Christianity – or a narrow version of it – is the only way to be a person of authentic faith and spirituality.

But I don’t hear these words as exclusive, but inclusive. There is no way to God but through Jesus. There is only one way. And that way is through the one who took on everything of our own humanity to be sure that we would find our way to God. It is the way we are all on, regardless of what faith or not we hold, because to be human is to be on the path of Jesus.

So I don’t think it is possible to go wrong in prayer. Even before we take the first steps of naming the reality and deepening awareness, God is already there, waiting.

The God who waits is the same God who will lead us home. Authentically ourselves, and transformed by these brief, fleeting moments of awareness, connection, and letting go.

“I’m ready, my Lord” – Vocation for realists

This is a sermon I originally wrote for The Preacher publication, for the coming Sunday (which happens to be Vocations Sunday). Despite the fact it was written before Christmas, I’m reproducing it here without edit, recognising that our preaching is happening in very different ways, at present. And yet still, God is calling, and people are answering… What does it look like to work out vocation in darkness?

Some time ago I wrote a reflection on that, which is a different piece to this. You’ll find it here, featuring Leonard Cohen, who also appears below…

However you are preaching and teaching at this time, I hope this is helpful in sparking your own ideas for reflection.


Deeper meaning

Some months ago, my children took me to see the Disney film Frozen II. For 90 minutes we were spellbound by Elsa’s quest to find deeper meaning to her life, as she hears the call of a mysterious siren. Her agonising over whether to follow this call is captured in the soundtrack:

‘I’ve had my adventure, I don’t need something new
I’m afraid of what I’m risking if I follow you.’

I won’t spoil the ending of the film, but I was surprised by how the theme of vocation ran as a thread through the narrative. Today, Easter Four, is Vocations Sunday, and we are tasked to think again about this unwieldy untameable notion that God has called, is calling, and will call us. There are plenty of ways that our readings today help us to think vocationally. We might reflect on the call of the Good Shepherd, and our response as his beloved sheep. We might consider our place within the flock, asking what it means for us to follow faithfully as we seek and share pasture.

Yet what I am struck by is Peter’s exhortation to Christian slaves: trapped so unjustly in a life of servitude and subjugation. If vocation is about finding oneself, about being free, then how can a life of slavery offer a way to live vocationally? Peter’s advice to these slaves to accept the authority of a harsh master causes me some internal conflict, and yet his advice comes to fruition as the chapter concludes. Vocation is rooted not in worldly freedom or self-discovery, but in the woundedness of Christ crucified, who embraces our pain and takes it upon himself, so that we might gather like sheep around their shepherd.

Enslavement in today’s world has many guises. We are alert to the reality of modern-day slavery, unseen yet on our doorsteps. We might know the pain of being enslaved by addiction, or destructive behaviour, or an abusive relationship. Our enslavement might be as painfully simple as being trapped by expectation or the circumstances of day to day survival: we give everything we have to ‘keeping the show on the road’.

How might we see sparks of vocation within the darkness of slavery?

Hineni: Here I am

I came late to the music of Leonard Cohen, but when facing vocational pain in my own life I found some comfort in his final album, You Want it Darker. The lyrics of the title track say something about a deep and unbearable wrestling with God:

‘If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game
If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame.’

How many times have these prayers been cried out in the privacy of our hearts?

God, am I in or not?
Is my brokenness worth anything?
Why don’t you answer me, heal me, glorify me?

If we have asked these dark questions, then we’re not alone. Through Scripture and tradition, good and holy men and women have wrestled with the same doubts. Cohen is the latest in a long line of those who wrestle with God.

And then, in the chorus of the song, comes resolution: a prayer, of sorts. ‘Hineni’, Cohen sings. A Hebrew word spoken in the Scriptures by Moses and Abraham and Samuel and Isaiah. All responding to their own vocational darkness.

Hineni: Here I am. I’m ready.

Cohen offers a glimpse of hope. The life-changing opportunity to respond to God from even the darkest of places. ‘Hineni’, he challenges us to say.

The work of the wounded Christ

In Frozen II, Elsa’s costly moment of Hineni is enacted with and for her people. Our own vocational wrestling is done in community: with others and for others. The Good Shepherd of John 10 is the same Christ crucified of 1 Peter: the broken shepherd who bears the scars of his own vocation, and who calls us to follow him, together, into new pasture. There is an antidote to the world’s suffering: the work of the wounded Christ, enacted by good, compassionate, courageous men and women who are committed to bringing about change and justice. Hard questions are a good place to start. They deepen our awareness and name our fears. Answers take time to emerge, and yet they are rarely beyond our grasp. In the end, we find that it is not so much about doing, as simply being: steadfast and faithful, in darkness and light. With Elsa, Peter, Cohen and Christ, we say: ‘Hineni. Here I am. I’m ready. Use me.’

Resilient Praxis: Sing with me – An Easter sermon

Resilient Praxis is a new series of blog posts here on Out of the Chancel, exploring “Pastoral Theology in the wake of a pandemic”.

In the middle of a crisis it is difficult to reflect effectively. We are learning and adapting in ‘real time’. There will be time, in the months and years ahead, to tidy up this work of reflecting and learning. To trim the edges and plump up the middles.

But for now, pastoral care is still happening. Ministry is still happening. In fact we never stopped. And so these posts will give some space for reflection on what has been, what is, and what is to come. Not tidy, packaged praxis. But praxis that is rough around the edges. Praxis that hasn’t stopped. Praxis that will get us through. Resilient praxis.


The following is a reflection written for the Parish of Timperley and shared on our blog, along with Easter Sunday worship resources. I’ve shared it here too, for readers from further afield!


Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song.

POPE JOHN PAUL II

An Easter like no other.

History will remember these months as extraordinary. We will tell our children and grandchildren, for generations to come, about the year that we were not able to celebrate Easter in our church buildings.

I know we have had moments of despair at this thought. In my sad moments, I have remembered the joy of previous Easters here in Timperley. The egg hunts, the bacon sandwiches, the bucks fizz, the excitement, the flowers (oh, how I will miss the Easter flowers after the stark emptiness of Lent!), the marking and lighting of the paschal candle as a sign of ever-present hope, the joyous acclamation that “Christ is risen!”

I have been sad about what we won’t have this year, but also grateful for a place and people who have created such happy memories: memories to grieve and to recreate at some future date, when we are once more together.

In other times this week, I have also felt deep joy. It comes through the simple things: a smile across the street at a stranger. A chance meeting in the queue outside the Co-op. A word of encouragement from one of you. A linking up of two friends who hadn’t managed to exchange contact details before the lockdown. Meeting neighbours on the doorstep as we clap for carers each Thursday. Rainbows in windows. The discovery of plain flour in the shops once more! The deepening prayer life of the community, which has felt tangible this week. The ways in which we have come together, even while we are apart, to rejoice in good news, and to cry at sad news.

And for me, amidst all the pain and uncertainty, the good things far outweigh the despair.

Hallelujah is an ancient word, meaning “God be praised”. It originated in Ancient Hebrew, and is, quite simply, a one-word prayer. We might use it colloquially or in jest when we hear good news. But it is a word for bad news as well as good news. It is a word that calls us to turn again to God, in joy and sorrow, in faith and fear, in certainty and uncertainty. It doesn’t seek answers to unanswerable questions, nor does it try to explain or excuse God. It doesn’t ask for our emotional response or rely on the whims of our feelings. It says, simply, “God be praised”. In good times, and in bad.

And Pope John Paul II, in his quote above, calls it a song. Songs can be ones of joy or sorrow. Or perhaps even joy-in-sorrow. Because today, as we celebrate the cornerstone of our faith: that Jesus Christ conquered death to bring life and love into this world, we celebrate joyfully and in anticipation of the hope that lies ahead. But we do so also in sorrow, as some of us are unwell, grieving, or just feeling very alone.

And being people of joy – being the Easter people – doesn’t mean that we are full of superficial smiles and denial about the tough realities of life, particularly at present. It means that we live through the hard days knowing that better days are coming. It means that we live through the hard days knowing that however alone we might feel, we are not alone. And it means that we live through the hard days knowing we can be honest with God about the awfulness of it all, and that God will never let us go no matter how much we rant and rail and lash out at God.

This is what it means to sing “Hallelujah”.

There is another song that you may know, that you may have sung (like I have) at the saddest moments your have lived through. It is a hymn of deep faith, and each time I sing it (often faced with the reality of death in the form of a coffin and grieving family) I sing it with defiance and hope: 

I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness
Where is death’s sting?
Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me

Friends, sing through these hard times with me. Sing in sorrow and joy. Sing “Hallelujah!” and “God be praised!”. Sing alone, sing together, sing with the angels and all who go before us. Sing with defiance in the knowledge that we stand shoulder to shoulder, in the victory of Christ over death and darkness, and sing knowing that one day, we will once more gather to break bread and share wine and sing our defiant songs of hope together.

Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song.

Resilient Praxis: Chasing Rainbows – Pastoral Ministry in a time of Covid

Resilient Praxis is a new series of blog posts here on Out of the Chancel, exploring “Pastoral Theology in the wake of a pandemic”.

In the middle of a crisis it is difficult to reflect effectively. We are learning and adapting in ‘real time’. There will be time, in the months and years ahead, to tidy up this work of reflecting and learning. To trim the edges and plump up the middles.

But for now, pastoral care is still happening. Ministry is still happening. In fact we never stopped. And so these posts will give some space for reflection on what has been, what is, and what is to come. Not tidy, packaged praxis. But praxis that is rough around the edges. Praxis that hasn’t stopped. Praxis that will get us through. Resilient praxis.


Rainbows have sprung up everywhere. Some scribbled in crayon, others splatted in paint, and still more printed carefully and geometrically on an inkjet. Signs of defiant hope and deep courage in the face of immense change and loss.

And how quickly we were swept along by change. Watching the evening news bulletins felt enough to induce dizziness and disorientation. “The world’s gone mad” seemed to be a common sentiment, as new phrases and words tumbled into our everyday use: social distancing, self-isolation.

And as we, the Church, leaned into the storm, again and again I could hear the call in my mind, and in my prayers: “the Church is resilient”. Pastoral ministry has had to change more quickly and more substantially than (arguably) at any point in the history of the Church. Overnight, our tools were taken, but by day we crafted new ones. We are bent out of shape, but we are not broken. Incredible feats of community have emerged within hours. Entire communities of hundreds of people have moved their collective life online, or onto phone wires. As far as possible, we have endeavoured to leave no one behind.

And all done with a backdrop of rainbows, thanks in great part to the efforts of the nation’s children. Many have been, at times, anxious, confused and scared – and yet they, too, have shown deep resilience. And through their fear and anxiety has come hope, and kindness, and generosity. And one sign of this is the rainbows they have placed in their windows.

Together-apart

I spent some time reflecting with lay ministry trainees in Chester Diocese last week, on how their pastoral and listening ministries were being enacted within the present circumstances. We batted around words and concepts like “contact”, “reassure”, “afraid”, “worried”, “anxious”, “frustrated”. What was clear is that all of these men and women were still deeply engaged in pastoral ministry, as were their wider church communities. “The Church has not closed; the Church has been deployed” say various snappy Facebook memes.

Who would have thought that we could take away a capacity to meet face to face, to share physical contact, and food and drink, and sacred space – and that our pastoral ministry would actually be strengthened in a time of such denial?

Yet all around, I see strengthening pastoral ministry. I see connections being made, and company being sought out, and prayer being offered wholeheartedly, and love and encouragement shared: and all together-apart, or apart-together.

A people in exile

On being shut out of our buildings, the Archdeacon of Hastings, Edward Dowler, wrote a splendid article in the Church Times this week, (with which I disagreed almost entirely) arguing for clergy to be allowed access to their churches for prayer:

Similarly, what the clergy and other “worship leaders” (as the Government terms them) may be able to do in the current situation is to maintain the prayer life of their churches on behalf of the people of the parish as an act of service in the present, and in preparation for the day when, God willing, everyone can return.

There were holes in Dowler’s argument. The implication that prayer is more effective in certain places, done by certain people, is not problem-free. His assumption that empty churches might come to be seen as “spooky castles” by the neighbours denies the “thin place” atmosphere of these spaces. And his assumption that:

More prosaically, the presence of young children, the constantly ringing phone, and the internet mean that vicarages are not always havens of peace, conducive to prayer.

Raises its own questions about the nature of peace, and of prayer, and how those of us in pastoral ministry with young children might ever find it possible to pray in a sustainable way.

But more than anything, there is profound meaning in clergy joining laity in exile from sacred places. Together-apart. Apart-together. Together we have been sent, deployed, ensconced or shut out – depending on how one sees it.

And this is ever more profound because our buildings are so important, not because they are not. Sam Wells talks about the local church as being the place that holds collective memory for a community:

Often at the axis of the meeting of roads, the church building is also at the crossroads – whether consciously or unconsciously to the local inhabitants – of many singular moments of decision, change or transition… buildings in which ‘prayer has been valid’ are more like people than stone or brick, because of their vibrant association with the folk we and others have loved.

Wells (2008) Praying for England, 10, 12.

Our buildings are not empty. They are filled with memories both personal and collective, with prayers, with the still air that still holds the snuff of the candles and the damp of prayer books. They are filled, as Gilo has written so beautifully, with silence:

Silence is there. Praying in her many houses.
Clergy nor creed nor any religion own Her.

Walking the edges

I have found relief from the frustration of being unable to access our churches by walking the boundaries of the parish. A tradition that stretches back centuries, ‘beating the bounds’ is an ancient way to pray with movement and exercise for the wellbeing of the whole parish. We might be in exile, but still I can walk the paths of saints who went ahead, encircling, protecting, and committing to God. Prayer for my community has moved from the middle to the margins as, quite literally, I walk the margins and come to know my place of ministry from its edges.

This crisis will challenge our entitled clericalism and will hone our collaborative skills. Together, as clergy and lay, we pray, we minister, we rest – from a place of exile. As the priest of this place I have given a lead on some of this togetherness. But other leaders have emerged too. Those who quietly phone one another to offer friendship. Those who have led the way in establishing a daily collective prayer time in the parish. Those who have shared photos on social media to encourage and cheer each other up. All have been led, and all have led. None of it from our buildings. Together apart. More signs of an emerging, growing, strengthening pastoral ministry.

The eerie lull of liminal space

As a church (and a Church) we are now in the eerie quiet of liminal space. The initial shock of this crisis has worn off. We have mobilised and established new ways to be. We seem to be operating efficiently: resources are being developed; structures put in place. I am wary about too much structure; too much organising.

An eerie quiet has descended after the frantic chaos of the change we faced a fortnight ago.

What comes next? We don’t really know.

Perhaps more shock, more loss. Maybe we will have to dig even deeper, to find innovative ways to process our grief and live in this strange new world. Maybe there will be a new normal, or a return to the old and familiar.

We are becoming adept at living with the uncertainty.

And this is why pastoral ministry is a little like chasing rainbows, at present. We probably thought it couldn’t be done, without buildings, without food, without physical togetherness.

But here we are, doing it.

We chased the rainbow and we found we could go on.

In Christian tradition, the rainbow comes after the disaster. A promise that something new will come after something awful has happened. God’s sign that God will not let us go.

It is too early to tell sense-making stories and to find reason in the uncertainty.

But we can go on chasing rainbows, a day at a time, as our pastoral ministry thrives and evolves and something even more meaningful and profound emerges from the unknown, even from this place of exile.

Just being: A reflection for Epiphany

Reflective melancholy.

That phrase seems to describe, for me, these dark days of late December and early January. I had an Epiphany, of sorts, some years ago, when I learned that (for reasons I can’t pretend to understand), the mornings of this time of year still get darker, despite us being through the Winter Solstice.

Cold mornings, quick days, long nights.

They add to my sense of time slipping away too fast and too soon, as I stop to wonder:

Where on earth did Christmas hide amidst the frenzy of Advent consumption?
Did I make the most of precious moments of rest and friendship and joy?
When did the children get so big?

Speaking of Epiphany: Epiphany dawns on the horizon of these darkest of days like a blazing sunrise. Shimmering, waiting, full of hope yet to birth. Just wait – we’ll get there.

For some years now, I have resisted making New Year resolutions. I find them a chore (‘they’re meant to be a chore’, you say). They are the annual reminder that I am not enough as I am. That how I have lived is a failure. ‘Could do better’, says January 1st.

So now I don’t listen to that voice, and I don’t make resolutions.

Instead, these dark days become a time of self-reflection.
Of prayer.
Of growing in awareness and trust.

I am always exhausted after Christmas. This year more so than others. And into the foggy half-baked new year musings of ‘What could have been?’ ‘What will be?’ come these ancient words:

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
   and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
   and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
   and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
   and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

Lift up your eyes and look around;
   they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
   and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
   your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
   the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
   the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
   all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
   and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.

Isaiah 60:1-6


Arise.
Shine.

My Spiritual Director is very skilled in reminding me – often – that action is rarely needed. What matters is awareness and presence.

Awareness and presence.
Being, not doing.

For some years I’ve been able to cast aside any obligation to make resolutions at this time of year. But this year was the first time I made the link with Epiphany.

The very word Epiphany means revelation.

A group of travellers met a foreign baby and declared him to be worthy of homage and worship and lavish gifts packed with meaning that has tumbled down the centuries ever since.

In that moment of revelation, they were present. They were aware.

A week ago I was burned out. I had been running on empty for far too long. Once we had celebrated Holy Communion on Christmas Day, I barely left the house for well over a week. It was enough just to be.

And my act of defiance from this place of exhaustion was to scrap the obligations. I threw out any plans of dieting and exercising. I tore up my “to do” lists. I turned off my email sync. I spend long days in pyjamas and ate leftovers and quick food.

And I became present, and aware of life happening around me.

It is hard for those of us who pack life full of activity to stop like this. It forces us to face the things we’d rather run from. We have to notice the uncomfortable, the painful, the shameful. These things flood in and threaten to drown us as the froth of everyday activity ebbs away.

Epiphany is not always joyous. At least, not at first.

But as I learned to still myself, to deepen my presence and awareness, a new rhythm emerged. A rhythm rooted in a deep rest. My mind started to clear. New shoots of energy began to spring up. But slowly, slowly…

Winter is not death, but gestation. As life lies deep below us underground, even now storing up the energy for spring’s explosive birth, so new life lies deep within us too.

New Year’s resolutions might work for you.

For me, they obstruct the deeper work of noticing. Of just… being.

Just as the magi travelled steadily, faithfully, determinedly, it is enough, too, for us to simply keep going. To make no big changes. To strip away the froth of ambition. And to know that we, alone, are enough.

Arise, shine, for your light has come!
…Lift up your eyes and look around…
…Then you shall see and be radiant;
   your heart shall thrill and rejoice,

We are people of the light, and light deepens our awareness.

May this knowledge, this awareness, be ours this Epiphany, and this year.

Sunrise over Lake Galilee

For the Interim Time

I’m mindful that I haven’t shared much here lately. Partly, life has taken over somewhat and my reflections have happened in ‘real time’, rather than as anything that translates into text. And partly because I’m in the unnerving, exhausting place of liminal space. Doing any thinking from this place is hard – and again – when thinking happens here it translates rarely into words.

I’ll write again soon. For now, this blessing, from John O’Donohue, captures something of what I would say, if the shady squashy surroundings of this liminal space could take on words. So here it is, for anyone who finds themselves, with me, in the interim time.


For the Interim Time

When near the end of day, life has drained
Out of light, and it is too soon
For the mind of night to have darkened things,

No place looks like itself, loss of outline
Makes everything look strangely in-between,
Unsure of what has been, or what might come.

In this wan light, even trees seem groundless.
In a while it will be night, but nothing
Here seems to believe the relief of darkness.

You are in this time of the interim
Where everything seems withheld.

The path you took to get here has washed out;
The way forward is still concealed from you.

“The old is not old enough to have died away;
The new is still too young to be born.”

You cannot lay claim to anything;
In this place of dusk,
Your eyes are blurred;
And there is no mirror.

Everyone else has lost sight of your heart
And you can see nowhere to put your trust;
You know you have to make your own way through.

As far as you can, hold your confidence.
Do not allow confusion to squander
This call which is loosening
Your roots in false ground,
That you might come free
From all you have outgrown.

What is being transfigured here in your mind,
And it is difficult and slow to become new.
The more faithfully you can endure here,
The more refined your heart will become
For your arrival in the new dawn.


From: “Benedictus: A Book of Blessings” by John O’Donohue. Published in 2007 by Transworld Ireland.