Praying through trauma when you’ve never prayed before

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.’

Sing with me: An Easter sermon

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.

Chasing Rainbows: Pastoral Ministry in a time of Covid

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.

“Who is like God?” – St Michael, John Ruskin, and Brexit

Jacob left Beer-sheba and went towards Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’ Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’

Genesis 28:10-17

And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.

Revelation 12:7-9

What to make of the angels?

Angels are all around us: Jacob’s dream is testament to that. Imagine highways not from Sky to Earth – but from a world beyond to the world around. From Heaven to Earth. A highway frequented by angels: ethereal beings, not feathered and female, but feisty and mighty. Messengers of hope and triumph and love and the things that must be. An army of messengers captained by Michael.

Today is his day.

Michael, the one who asks in the very meaning of his name “Who is like God?”
Michael, the one who slays Hell’s dragon: an apocalyptic metaphor for the triumph of hope over hate, love over destruction, life over death.
Michael, the great protector of the people of Yahweh.

It all starts with Yahweh. The God of Jacob, and Abraham and Isaac. The one who has watched over humankind through time and across place. The one who announces her place in our story with a simple and recurring statement: “I am Yahweh”.

I am goodness.
I am life.
I am love.

All the good and life and love that you have known.
I am.
I am that.
I am he.
I am she.

In recent years I have come to be a fan of a more modern angel: John Ruskin. Ruskin, who seemed so dull in my undergraduate days, has since challenged and reminded me time and again to see. To notice. Ruskin saw things that others could not see. He saw injustice where others saw only profit. He saw beauty where others saw only routine. He saw morality, where others only saw taste. Ruskin saw, he truly saw, what mattered, and he was keen for the world around him to see these things too.

This awareness and celebration of nuance and detail has been lost, for a time. Our noticing has become simplistic. We choose to see black. Or white. Left, or right. Right, or wrong. Deal or no deal. Leave or remain. We have become mired in the “bear pit of polarisation”.

Friends, we are being called to see beyond this.

“Who is like God?” Michael’s name challenges us in its very meaning.
“I am Yahweh” God reminds us, as God reminds Jacob.

These words lift our gaze. What is beyond the personalities and the rhetoric and the popularity and the name-calling and the fighting?

What do you see?

Free-heartedness, and graciousness, and undisturbed trust, and requited love, and the sight of the peace of others, and the ministry to their pain; – these and the blue sky above you, and the sweet waters and flowers of the earth beneath; and mysteries and presences, innumerable, of living things – these may yet be your riches.

John Ruskin, as quoted in To See Clearly (Suzanne Fagence Cooper)

So says Ruskin, as he calls us to see beyond. These things are all around us – can you see them?

There can be no taking of sides beyond the side of free-heartedness, graciousness, trust, love, peace for others and the healing of their pain. These things are the goodness of God. They are the goodness we see in one another – in our Brexit sister and our remain brother. I believe they are the good things I may find in those I disagree with most violently.

These are the things that triumph as Michael the might Archangel casts Hell’s dragon from Heaven and our own bitter agendas fade away to leave us feeling both ashamed and resolved: ashamed of what we think we have become, and resolved to realise that we can be so much better.

Jacob was mired in a mess of his own. He was fleeing his furious brother to seek a wife from a land hundreds of miles away from home. In his mess, he lay down to sleep. And in his mess, his eyes were opened to a greater reality around him.

Amidst our own mess, our anger, our polarisation, imagine the corridors of heavenly messengers ferrying divine messages from Heaven to Earth – messages of peace, and trust, and healing. What greater vision do we need for our politicians, our media, and our own neighbourhoods, that this reminder to see, to notice, to be aware.

The angels are all around us. Fearsome and feisty, bringing good news and exposing our darkness with their brilliant light. All we have to do is dream, see, notice, and know.

St Michael and the Devil (Jacob Epstein) – Coventry Cathedral

Smiles in the darkness #WorldSuicidePreventionDay

Trigger warning: This blog post explores a previous experience of suicidal feelings. If this triggers in you anything that causes you anxiety or poses a danger, please seek help now. The following may be helpful:

The Samaritans: 116 123
NHS advice on feeling suicidal
Mind


Feeling suicidal but don’t want to die.

Two years ago, that was the Google search that may have saved my life.

This isn’t a comfortable post to write. It’s taken me a long time to commit words to the screen. But I decided months ago that I must share this, because it might save another life too.

It started in early 2017. I was pregnant with my third child, and I caught a cold. The cold got worse, and I became quite unwell with a chest infection. I ploughed on with life and, being heavily pregnant as well as unwell, became absolutely exhausted.

I recovered just in time for Emily’s birth, and the following weeks were riddled with minor health issues for her as well as me. I was trying to care for a newborn who needed several hospital trips – two of which were emergency appointments – as well as a toddler and pre-schooler at home. I was missing my pre-baby life, as I suspect most mums do in those first few weeks of overflowing milk and poo, screaming and soreness. Despite being on maternity leave, I was still doing an significant amount of work – the parts of ministry I was committed to and enjoyed – but under some pressure to prove to myself that I could still juggle these multiple vocations of motherhood and ministry. I was grieving the loss of a close friendship, and dreading the Autumn days when I would commit my first baby to the state education system as he started school.

Loss on loss, with little time or energy to give these things the headspace they needed.

I started to feel low, and the cloud didn’t lift. I was no stranger to post-natal depression, but this time I was fighting it. I had no more patience for illness. No more time for myself. I thought that if I ignored it, it would go away. I felt ashamed of the darkness that surrounded me: as someone who gives a great deal of time to the wellbeing of others, how could I admit that I was struggling so much?

So I didn’t say anything. I struggled on with good days and bad days. I hid it well, from everyone except Jim.

And then the intrusive thoughts started. At first I could brush them off. Then I found I couldn’t. Then I felt really, really frightened.

I always thought that feeling suicidal meant that a person would have no fear of death, and no regrets about taking their life. That wasn’t how I felt. I felt mixed up, confused, longing for life but convinced life would be better without me. It was the thought of my kids, and them alone, that was enough, some days. I didn’t want to die, but I did want to end it all. I felt stuck between the two parts of myself.

I thought that if I was really suicidal, if I was really that ill, then even the thought of the kids wouldn’t be enough to stop me. I thought that if I was really struggling with life, then thoughts of ending it all would overrule any desire to keep living. But then I was terrified that the less rational part of my mind might win over in a few fateful moments. I made plans, I felt myself going numb, I was terrified.

And one night, after an awful day, I sat on my bed and did that Google search. Just to prove to myself that I wasn’t really that unwell.

Feeling suicidal but don’t want to die.

Because that is how I felt.

And I discovered, from Mind or the Samaritans or the NHS – I forget which – that people who are at risk of suicide often don’t want to die. They have reasons to stay alive, but things just get too painful, too overwhelming, too difficult to go on. And I knew that’s where I was headed.

It was a red flag that sobered my depression in a moment. That night I got help. It took time to recover, but I did.

These photos were all taken when I was unwell, before I asked for help. This is what someone who is having suicidal thoughts looks like.

We are all different. Many of us will struggle with our mental health, and these struggles will be unique and different for each of us. But I am writing this for three reasons.

Firstly: The power of story. I think most people know me as someone cheerful, upbeat, calm and happy. There were few outward signs of how unwell I was. I have an amazingly wonderful life, with gorgeous family and wonderful friends and a fulfilling job. If I can be as unwell as I was, then anyone can. Depression doesn’t discriminate. If you’re struggling – get help. Tell someone. Take it seriously. If I can talk about it like this, then you can too.

Secondly: For me, feeling suicidal didn’t feel as I expected it to feel. For a time, things got dangerous, and all because I didn’t recognise the warning signs in myself quickly enough. I didn’t phone the helplines because I didn’t think I was that ill. Until I started to enact a plan to end it all, by which point all rational thought was out the window, at least momentarily. The moment ending your own life even enters your mind is the moment to get help, with no shame attached.

Thirdly: No amount of “My door is always open: I’m here for you” Facebook posts would have helped. I know people genuinely mean them and I think it’s right to share them. But what stopped me speaking out was the stigma that is still attached to poor mental health. Things are shifting, but it still doesn’t feel safe to say that you are having thoughts about taking your own life – I’m guessing that would be something of a conversation stopper! And the only way to change this is to take a deep breath and change it. The more of us who talk about our experiences of depression and mental illness, the more we will bring about a culture change. As well as sharing how willing we are to listen to the issues of another, we need a culture of increased honesty and openness about our own struggles, our own depressive moments, our own dark thoughts.

I’m not writing this for sympathy, or to shock. There were a million reasons for me to bury this experience and never speak of it again. But it is because of those reasons – because of the roles I have and the positions I hold – that I have to speak about this. It might shock you to know that I felt like this, for a time. I hope one day that our honesty about our mental health – in good times and bad – will not shock, but be received in the same way that talk of physical health is received. Until then, this is my small contribution towards changing attitudes and normalising what is a common experience for so many of us.

“There’s a volcano in my tummy”

There’s a volcano in my tummy. Apparently that’s a good phrase to help children describe the overwhelming, frightening feeling of uncontrollable, unquenchable anger. I like it. I use it with my kids. There is a book of the same name.

It seems that many of us adults too, have a volcano in our tummies. These volcanoes seem to erupt particularly in two areas: social media, and driving.

Take yesterday, for instance. I was walking down Park Road. Within 5 minutes I had witnessed two incidents of road rage. One directed by a middle-aged man at an elderly lady, who had slowed her manoeuvre to allow a pedestrian to cross. Another by a minibus driver, directed at a car who had slowed to turn into a side road (earning themselves an explosive “PRICK!” – I couldn’t really fathom why).

These sights are not untypical in an average 20 minute walk around here.

Or on social media. An incident of young people causing mischief was posted, again yesterday, on a local Facebook group. Within minutes, there were angry calls for punishment and retribution that went beyond reasonable – with some advocating a violent response.

These incidents are not unusual. Many of us will witness things like this several times a day.

Why is it that words and behaviour that are completely socially unacceptable suddenly become normalised when we sit behind a keyboard or a steering wheel? I mean, I don’t see many people careering around Tesco with a shopping trolley shouting “PRICK!” at little old ladies… (there is a wonderful Michael McIntyre sketch along these lines).

Lots of adult volcanos erupting.

There is a deeper, uncomfortable truth here.

Because there’s a volcano in my tummy too.

A burning anger that sometimes smoulders and other times rages white hot, but always there, buried, and ready to erupt and spew when another driver cuts me up on the road. Or, more honestly, when a driver blocks my safe passage on the pavement as a pedestrian. Hell hath no fury like a mum walking the school run amidst dangerous driving and parking…

I try and rein it in, and sometimes I even manage.

Why are so many of us so angry?

We shrug it off when it happens. Point a finger at the “prick” and console ourselves that we are the better driver, the more upright citizen. That we have a right to be angry – that the target of our anger has somehow deserved this violent outpouring of bile.

The truth is, my anger is not so righteous. Because if I chip away at it, I find not integrity and blamelessness, but a sense of entitlement (“it’s my right of way”, of possessiveness (“it’s my pavement”), and of selfishness (“my life would be safer if they were locked up”).

And then if I chip away another layer, I find, under the entitlement and possessiveness and selfishness, a well of pain that I have hidden away. Rejections. Disappointments. Fears. Disillusionment. All neatly stored, unprocessed and undealt with, and crusted over with a defensive, smouldering anger.

Anger becomes my defence mechanism. My way of shielding the painful parts of myself from the world around. Mostly I can hold it in and keep a lid on it. But sometimes it erupts – for many of us – from the driving seat or the computer screen.

If only we could say that this was a problem for online interaction and road safety. But if half of us are walking around, living day to day with these intense volcanoes, we are hardly an emotionally healthy and robust community of people.

“There’s a volcano in my tummy“, I encourage my kids to say. How many adults were never taught to handle their anger well? Anger is never comfortable to observe. As angry kids we shout and scream and slam and hit and screech and cry. And we’re told to pack it in! and be quiet! and STOP!.

So we bury it. Layer on layer. Hardened crust on hardened crust. We never learn to deal with it. Anger remains dangerous, taboo, frightening. It must be kept hidden and never shown.

But these crusted volcanoes have a nasty habit of showing themselves. The moment we feel ‘safe’ – stuck in our metal boxes-on-wheels or hiding behind a screen name, out spews the magma.

I wonder, what did people do 100 years ago – before cars and computers – to vent their anger?

Anger isn’t bad. It’s not unhealthy. Used well, it can be a creative force for justice and good. And yet unless we learn to harness it, process it, and then release it, it will always harness us. Anger management seems to be quite an enterprise. But perhaps we could just start by owning it, by talking about it.

No shame. No judgement. No guilt.

Just safe space to be honestly angry, or angrily honest, in an attempt to try and tame this most frightening of emotions.

There’s a volcano in my tummy, and there’s a volcano in your tummy. And that’s ok.

Sent. Displaced. Formed.

The Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the labourer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.”

Luke 10:1-10

Last Sunday’s Gospel reading – the sending of the 70 to share the good news of God’s love – has stayed with me through this week, not least as I spent Wednesday morning with colleagues who have recently been ordained: their own response to being called and sent.

What Luke gives us here is a wonderfully real account of being sent into ministry (and by “ministry”, I’m using the widest sense I can: anything that we do as a response to a higher calling – in any sphere and for any reason). With the curates I was with earlier this week, I spoke of feeling displaced. Either geographically, for those who had moved into new homes and parishes, or at least spiritually, for those who had moved into new roles and taken on new identities. I was mindful that within a Diocese that gives curates 3 year contract, we were a room full of people in transition. Displaced people.

My own experience of becoming a curate was deeply unsettling. We had a new home (which we’d not been able to see prior to moving into it), a new place (we’d moved 186 miles North), and a new context (we’d moved from a working class dock town, to a wealthy suburb with a village feel). I had a new role and identity, with new clothes and responsibilities and expectations and colleagues. Despite the love from so many in the place I moved to, I felt completely inept when it came to speaking the language and reading the culture of the people around me.

I felt displaced.

The ordained life is one of exile, of displacement: of longing for home and of pointing others towards a homecoming that is more than simply belonging in a place. But of course, we have a rich heritage – in scripture and tradition – of this nomadic wandering. If we feel displaced, if we feel like we don’t belong, then with the saints before us we are in good company.

And if the ordained life is one of spiritual wandering, then this is only because we are modelling the calling placed on every disciple. Perhaps it is just harder for us to avoid the journey once we are ordained. Perhaps those of us who are ordained are just better equipped and better encouraged to start placing one foot in front of the other.

In the Judean desert, which was of course the context for Jesus’ teaching, the task of shepherding is very different to the welsh hills and valleys. Shepherds in Palestine have to keep their flocks moving if they are to find water, food and shelter. Jesus as the “Good Shepherd” is no Little Bo Peep, but is the one who drives the flock on to find sparse pasture in the dryness of the desert.

Palestinian Shepherd

We don’t walk alone. We’re called to take our people with us if they, too, are to find pasture. We’re called to lead from the front, from the middle and from the back – tying up shoe laces and bandaging blisters, holding people as a group, and, together, looking for the way ahead. But without this big picture, without this reminder of the task to which we are called, it’s easy to feel lost, displaced, and in exile.

I have my spiritual director to thank for this next bit. One resource that might help us in our own exile is the labyrinth. You may or may not have walked a labyrinth before. A labyrinth is not a maze. It has a beginning, and an ending, and a path that leads you on faithfully from one to the other. There are no dead ends. But there are twists and turns. There are moments where you have to walk in blind faith. There are moments where you near the centre, and you think you’re done – but then quite quickly the path throws you back to the outer edge and you wonder quite what happened. And – as my wonderful friend pointed out to me – when you walk a labyrinth you only ever see 6 feet in front. Only 6 feet, before the path twists out of sight and you have to turn faithfully, in trust and hope and joyful expectation.

When I met with the curates last week, I was able to speak of all this in terms of ‘formation’. We talk about formation a lot with ordinands and curates. It’s a posh word for the tough stuff of training: the process of falling apart and being slowly pieced back together. We might talk about it most in terms of training, but actually, formation is, I think, the work of God in every disciple. It is a leading of us down new paths, a building of us in new ways, and a humble and obedient response from us to this work of God within us.

What does Luke say about it?

The seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!’ He said to them, ‘I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.’

Luke 10:17-20

The seventy returned with joy.

You can sense their astonishment, their excitement, that this wandering, this being sent, led them to experience such acts of God that strengthened them and built them up. And so this is my prayer for you, and for me. That no matter how we feel at this moment, no matter how much we might feel lost, or out of place, or like we don’t belong, that we too will have these moments in ministry of returning with joy – of being blown away by the good that we see God doing within us and around us – and even in spite of us!