Relationship MOT (Updated for 2017)

Today we met with couples who have booked a wedding at Christ Church in 2017. We helped them think through some of their preparations for the day, but a significant part of the morning was spent helping them to think about how to strengthen their relationships.

What follows is a revised version of the Relationship MOT I shared last year. It arises out of the conversations we’ve shared today as we’ve helped our engaged couples think about building healthy relationships.

***But this is not just for married or engaged couples***

I hope it will be helpful for anyone involved in a committed, long term relationship: Married, civil-partnered, or living together; gay or straight; newly committed or celebrating milestone anniversaries.

This list isn’t exhaustive. There may be other things that are more important for a couple to think through. And some things here may be irrelevant or unhelpful.

If you’ve got a partner, then grab a bottle of wine one night or a coffee one afternoon, and look at some of these questions together. Make sure your time is uninterrupted, and that there is enough privacy to do this well. Ten minutes before bed probably isn’t going to cut it. Nor is Saturday morning on the Metrolink (we’ve tried).

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The Questions: Relationship MOT

Communication
How are our differences in personality affecting the way we communicate with one another?
How is our work and home life affecting the way we communicate with one another?
Are we making time and space for meaningful conversation?
Are we finding it easy to talk to one another about our innermost thoughts and feelings?
If not, why?
Does each of us create a safe space for the other to be heard?
Are either of us holding onto past hurts and unforgiveness? What needs to happen to work this through?
Are both of us feeling understood by the other?
Are we both aware of one another’s love language?
Are we both investing energy in listening properly to one another?
What would make each of us feel more heard in the relationship?
Is there a recent example of us communicating well?

Commitment
Have we had fun together recently?
Do we both feel safe and secure in this relationship?
How are we making time for one another on a daily, weekly and monthly basis?
Are we getting enough time apart?
Have we planned fun things together to look forward to?
Are we making time for sex and intimacy?
(If you’re married, civil-partnered, or have celebrated some sort of commitment ceremony):
Which of our vows or promises of commitment are we finding easiest to live with at the moment?
Which are we finding hardest?

Conflict
Are we arguing well? (A good argument involves listening, seeing one another’s points of view, and finding resolution).
Are we aware of the differences in our approaches to everyday life?
Are we managing these differences well?
Is either of us intent on changing the other, or are we enabling one another to flourish as we are?
Are we arguing at the wrong times? Do we need to make space and time to talk properly?
When we argue, are we staying on topic or are we resorting to personal attack?
Does each of us have times when we back down and accept the other’s opinion?
Are we having the same argument over and over?

End thought: Love is not just about feelings.
Love is a choice that we go on making throughout a relationship. Sometimes it’s an easy choice to make. Sometimes, not so much. The relationships that are strongest are those where two people choose to continue loving, even through the rocky times.

When and where to get help?
Talking through some of these things may raise relationship problems that you either are or are not already aware of. No one has a perfect relationship, and every couple will go through bad times. If you need it, get help early and don’t be afraid to ask. It’s more common than you think. Many problems can be easily solved with some careful listening to one another, and a fresh perspective from outside.

Relate do wonderful work and seem to be accessible in a number of ways.

Your local parish clergy (that’s Jim, Suzie or I if you’re in Timperley) are usually really happy to sit with you and listen, and to offer pointers or suggestions for further support. If you live elsewhere, you can find your local parish church here.

If you want to do some reading on relationships, The Five Love Languages is a good place to start.

And if you are at all worried that you are trapped in an abusive relationship, you need to tell someone you trust or contact the National Domestic Violence Helpline or the Men’s Advice Line.

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Turn around!

This morning we celebrated a wonderful baptism at Holy Cross. It was the welcome of a family who we have got to know over some months: two children who have waited patiently for many weeks following their initial request, and who have approached today with excitement and enthusiasm.

The Epiphany Gospel readings are all about revelation: revelation of God and revelation of ourselves. This morning we heard the call of Christ:

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.
Matthew 4:17

What a great invitation to hear again at a baptism! But repent is a funny word. We don’t use it much outside of church services. When we do hear it, inside or outside of church, we probably hear messages such as:

Say sorry!
Own up!
Confess!

Repent as Jesus meant it is about so much more than this.
To repent is to turn a full 180 degrees and change direction.
To repent is to reflect back, take stock, and then journey on with renewed hope and vision.
To repent is to realise more fully who God is, who we are, and who God is calling us to become.

Repentance is about so much more than confession. I worry that our confession liturgy doesn’t always aid this process of God-realisation and self-realisation (though I’m yet to reflect properly on this).

Repentance begins with a fresh revelation of God: not as divine wielder of discipline, but as the one who knows where we have fallen before we think to confess it and who accepts and loves us anyway.

Repentance begins with a fresh revelation of ourselves, not as “miserable offenders” (as the Prayer Book tells us we are) but as creatures who reflect the image of God, and who are full to the brim of potential and promise.

I love this prayer of confession from Janet Morley, because it gives us words to express our lack of self-acceptance, and sets our low self-esteem within the bigger picture of God’s ongoing, radical affirmation and love of us. Repentance, or turning around, becomes a much greater possibility each time we accept ourselves as God accepts us:

O God, Giver of Life, Bearer of Pain, Maker of Love,
you are able to accept in us what we
cannot even acknowledge;
you are able to name in us what we cannot bear to speak of;
you are able to hold in your memory
what we have tried to forget;
you are able to hold out to us
the glory that we cannot conceive of.
Reconcile us through You
to all that we have rejected in our selves,
that we may find no part of your creation
to be alien or strange to us,
and that we ourselves may be made whole.
Through Jesus Christ, our lover and our friend. Amen.

At our baptism this morning, we shared words of welcome and commission. These words are not just for the newly-baptised. They are for every one of us who is journeying on. They are for those who feel that they are not good enough and those who feel that they don’t belong. They are for those who were baptised 60 years ago, and those yet to reach that point in their journey of faith. They are for those who have it all sorted, and those who are falling apart. These words are a powerful reminder of the fullness of what it means to repent – to turn around – and they always bring me close to tears.

We are glad to have welcomed you into Holy Cross Church this morning. There will always be a place for you here. Your baptism joins you to Christ and to his whole Church, in every part of the world, in the past and in the future, on earth and in heaven.

Even before today, God began his work in you, but it will take the whole of your life to complete that work. There will be moments when the journey ahead is a delight and there will be times when it is hard, but you will never be alone. You will always have the support of other Christians. There will be many milestones on your journey: confirmation will be one of them.

Remember that in Jesus heaven has touched our world. Belonging to him will change your life and, through reading the Bible, you will learn more deeply the story of God’s love. Through worship, prayer and caring for others you will grow more and more like Jesus.

Stand up for fairness, truth and kindness. God’s love is for you, and for everyone. Share with other people the good news of his love.

 

Contemplative Leadership

20170112_142438Along with several colleagues, I have recently discovered Keith Lamdin’s Finding Your Leadership Style. Keith’s work is full of common sense, optimism, realism and encouragement. He examines different paradigms of leader: the monarch, the warrior, the servant, the elder, the contemplative and the prophet. Each of us, he argues, will have a dominant paradigm in our leadership (and, he says, if leadership is “influencing others”, then anyone can do it and most do). David Herbert has written a helpful overview of Keith’s book in his blog post Leadership Styles and a Political Divide.

If there was a part of the book that was disappointing, it was the chapter on contemplative leadership, which seemed to lack detail and depth. Keith recognises a growing desire in church ministers to connect more fully with this paradigm and to claim something absolutely distinctive for Christian leadership. He acknowledges the core value of contemplative living as holding God in your heart and knowing that you are precious… and loved for who you are, and yet by the end of the chapter I was left wondering what he felt contemplative leadership might look like, or why it is needed.

Well-rested leaders

In my own ministry, I often return to Wayne Muller’s quote on Sabbath: The world longs for the generosity of a well-rested people. Here, I interpret “rest” not necessarily as sleep or holiday, but as the radical, life-giving, world-changing rest that we find at the heart of life with God. Rest that relieves us from the burdens of isolation, overwork, and self-interest, and places us in a secure centre from which we interact with and relate to the world around us. It’s the rest that Jesus spoke of in Matthew 11:28: Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.

Rest (in this sense) is at the heart of the contemplative life. It is the rest that the world craves for its people. Rest enables us to be outward looking, non-anxious, compassionate, unhurried, positive, unruled by our ego, and champions of the other. These are values I see rarely in leaders. They are generosity in action.

The contemplative life

In Streams of Living Water, Richard Foster identifies seven “characteristics and movements” of the contemplative life (words in italics are his):

Love: A deepening love for God. A love that is sometimes intense, and sometimes cold, but deepens and strengthens over time.
Peace: A firmness of life orientation that grounds us. This is not a feeling of freedom from anxiety and pressure, but rather a feeling of security and centredness within it.
Delight: A sense of friendship and fun in our relationship with God: God laughs into our soul and our soul laughs back into God.
Emptiness: A dissatisfied satisfaction. A sense of frustration within the intense highs of contemplative living. This might be a yearning, an emptiness, a dryness or a darkness.
Fire: A growing, painful knowledge of everything within us that doesn’t please God, and an awareness of his purifying work within us.
Wisdom: A deepening knowledge of God: not intellectualism, but a knowing and inflowing of God himself.
Transformation: The gradual changes within as God captures our heart, will, mind, imagination and passions.

Contemplative leadership

Mary is often cited as an example of a contemplative leader: known as the God bearer, she bore Christ not only in her womb, but in all the sufferings and heartache that came with nurturing a beloved child who also happened to be God incarnate. Her life and ministry were rooted in inner contemplation. Amidst the activity that surrounded her new born baby, there was a simplicity in her own response: But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart (Luke 2:19).

As Keith Lamdin notes in passing, the metaphor of God-bearer is a good one for contemplative leadership. If, as Richard Foster argues, a potential peril of the contemplative tradition is a separation from the real world, and a lack of engagement with real life issues, perhaps contemplative leaders are those who manage to do both: to gently nurture and fiercely protect their inner life, while allowing God to flow out from that life and into the world. Contemplative leaders become the God bearers within our communities. Another way of phrasing this might be (as many contemplative traditions do) active contemplation.

So what might contemplative leadership look like in the present-day? I wonder if these characteristics are a good place to start, although there will be more:

Awareness. Contemplative leaders are growing in their awareness of God, self and other. They manage their own inner life effectively, and deal with their own negative emotions and reactions (or seek help in doing so). They are expert listeners and observers, and are able to identify where God might be at work in any number of situations. And they often help those they lead to identify and work on spiritual, emotional and material blind spots, bringing God into the ordinary, the painful and the hopeless.

Prayer. Contemplative leaders have a prayer life rooted not in cerebral knowledge, but in hard-won experience. Their prayers will often go beyond words (indeed, words may be a barrier to prayer) but this enables them to pray in any number of ways and moments. Just as contemplative leaders are God bearers, so they become people bearers, holding in prayer the lost, the lonely, the suffering. The practice they devote to prayer in private enables their whole living to become prayer.

Creativity. Contemplative leaders usually have active imaginations and lively dreams! They give time and attention to thinking creatively about problems and situations, and the space they allow themselves enables a better response than ‘we’ve always done it this way’. Fresh expressions of faith and worship are rooted in this time alone for the contemplative leader to reflect and create. The active imagination of the contemplative allows for possibilities for God to minister in ways not otherwise enabled. (Keith Lamdin discusses dreams and visions as an expression of the prophetic paradigm, but I wonder if they are perhaps more an expression of the contemplative?)

Depth. Contemplative leaders do not offer quick, superficial fixes. Their response – to God and to others – is measured and thoughtful. This can be frustrating for those being led in the age of the instantaneous. Often problems arise, and are addressed and dealt with more quickly than the contemplative can sit down to consider them. Their own response to a problem will be to step back, to reflect, to consult and to wait. If they are allowed time to do this, they will often find solutions that are more deeply effective and longer lasting than the quick fix. The challenge for the contemplative leader is to make themselves heard, and persuade others to slow down and allow time for a deeper solution to emerge.

Security. Contemplative leaders are rooted in God, and devoted to nurturing attention to God above all else. This growing awareness of God and their own place within his love enables them to be centred and secure. Because of this groundedness, contemplative leaders are perhaps more able than other paradigms to lead in ways that are differentiated and non-anxious. This, in turn, enables the community as a whole to flourish free of anxiety. A secure leaders forms a secure people. For more on this see Edwin Friedman’s Theory of Differentiated Leadership. Because of their centredness, contemplative leaders are strong leaders, but not in the ways we would expect: their strength manifests inwardly as much as outwardly.

Leading by example

Every person is called to contemplation. Every person deserves to give time to nurturing the inner life. As we become more attentive to God within us, so we notice him more around us and beyond us. Contemplative leaders help us, by their example, to pay attention: to God, to ourselves, and to others. Attention, depth of character, and love are increasingly absent from modern life, and so who better than the contemplative leaders among us to draw us back to our still centre? In the coming years, contemplative leadership could be a prophetic task for the whole church, if we were equipped and ready to offer this to the world.

I have not only repeated the affirmation that contemplation is real, but I have insisted on its simplicity, sobriety, humility, and its integration in normal Christian life.
Thomas Merton.

All travelling safely home: A meditation for Epiphany

On January 6th, we reach the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas, and the Christian calendar celebrates The Feast of the Epiphany: the arrival of the three wise men in Bethlehem, bringing gifts for the promised Jewish saviour. 

But these men were not Jews. They came from foreign lands, and their entrance onto the Nativity scene is a reminder of a divine love that is offered not just to an elite, select group, but to every person, regardless of their nationality, gender, sexuality or social status.

The prophet Jeremiah talks about God’s people being “gathered from the farthest parts of the earth” (Jer 31:8). I have tried to write this meditation from a “farthest corner” of my own – the deflated sense of normality that I return to after our Christmas celebrations, in what ought to be one of the most joyous times of the Christian year. Perhaps in the relative stillness of “normality”, away from the distractions of Christmas, we might receive again the real gift of Christmas: the love, acceptance and adventure of a life with God.

As ever, use this as it is helpful, and ignore it as it is not. 


On the thirteenth day of Christmas
The tree is well away
The house is hauntingly empty 
And the wind seems so much colder.

January’s darkness is not like December’s:
Pregnant with anticipation
As light and warmth swell
And holiday loiters promisingly on the horizon.

January’s darkness is bleak:
The embers of Christmas grow dim
And we notice (as if for the first time)
The gloomy days filled with worry and bustle.

But on the dark chill of Christmas’s thirteenth day
A band of angels gathers
As a day is just yet dawning
And a quiet herald whispers poems of hope.

In our darkest, furthest corners
Something in our souls is stirred.
A hand reaches in, to lead us from our gloom
As December’s embers flame again.

Star is swallowed by brilliant sunrise, and
Rising, we leave our emptiness behind
Drawn by Epiphany’s brightest light
To join a company of kindly strangers

All travelling safely 
Home.

Arise, shine; for your light has come
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
Isaiah 60:1

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Sunrise over Lake Galilee