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.

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.

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.

“As a mother tenderly gathers”: A toddler at the table

Adapted from a sermon preached at Holy Cross Church for Lent 2, Sunday 17th March 2019.


Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

Jesus, Luke 13:34

Nothing has challenged my confidence as a priest more than when I had children. Before I had my first child, I was used to being able to give much of myself, and my time, to ministry. I am not saying that this was a healthy thing to do! But with few other responsibilities, I was able to DO so much more.

Once I returned to work, following my first period of maternity leave, my confidence became much more shaky. No longer could I give everything to parish ministry, because I had to give a significant amount of myself to being a parent. Perhaps it wouldn’t be possible to do both? I remember taking a very young Ben to visit another church, on one Sunday during my maternity leave. To my great embarrassment, the vicar of that church introduced us to everyone at the start of the service, with the words: “And we welcome Jenny and Ben who are visiting us today – you’ll know who they are because that’s who all the noise is coming from”. An innocent, throwaway (and I’m sure well-meaning) comment that left me feeling self-conscious for the rest of my time there. How could I be a priest and a parent if I couldn’t even keep my child inconspicuous when I wasn’t leading worship?!

Of course, my confidence grew over time, thanks in no small part to the encouragement, support, kind words and practical help from so many of you here. And you’ll know that in recent weeks I have often juggled leading worship here – preaching and presiding – with a very clingy but lively toddler in my arms, or at my side.

A few years ago, this would have been one of my worst nightmares: trying to function as a priest while also being needed as a mum. And that nagging voice of doubt would have hissed in my ear: “You can’t do both..!”.

That voice still nags, at times, but it was silenced for a while by a profound moment that happened here, some months ago now. We were halfway through a Communion service, and I was about to begin the Eucharistic Prayer. Throughout the service, despite having excellent and dedicated company in the children’s corner, Emily was starting to become unsettled, and needing her mum. Here I was, at the high point of our worship, about to perform the sacramental act which lies at the heart of priestly ministry: blessing the bread and the wine. And, purely practically, an act that would require both hands free!

And little Emily came running over, arms outstretched, crying to be held. A few years ago, that moment might have paralysed me. A clash of two vocations in a split second: who was I? A priest at the alter, or a parent with a child in her arms?

Knowing that the alternative was a very loud wail (Emily’s, not mine!) I picked her up, buried her inside my chasuble, and carried on into the Eucharistic Prayer. I turned the page of the service booklet, and as I prayed aloud the words I saw, I had a deep moment of grateful realisation. These were those words:

How wonderful the work of your hands, O Lord.
As a mother tenderly gathers her children,
you embraced a people as your own.
When they turned away and rebelled
your love remained steadfast.

Common Worship, Eucharistic Prayer G

This moment, which could have disrupted our worship or distracted us from God, instead became an enactment of the liturgy: as I gathered up a tired, clingy toddler, so God has gathered up people through history, and held them in tender embrace. The very thing that might have knocked my own priestly confidence a few years ago, became an embodiment of priestly ministry and divine action.

I’m sorry to share such a lengthy personal anecdote, but I hope it begins to open up the idea that God might not be who we assume God to be. That’s what happened for me, in that moment some months ago. And it’s what Luke does for us in this passage this morning. Here, God is the tender yet protective mother hen, gathering her brood under her wings. As Jesus watches over his city, and sees the pain, and the confusion, and the violence, he mourns for its hurting people as a mother mourns for her own hurting children.

It is this image of the Mother God that our communion liturgy picks up in the Eucharistic Prayer I mentioned above. It’s an image we find, too, in the words of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah:

But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me,
   my Lord has forgotten me.’ 
Can a woman forget her nursing-child,
   or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
   yet I will not forget you. 
See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.

Isaiah 49:14-16

I do want to be a bit careful here. No image of God is perfect. No image of God is complete. Anything that likens God to a father or a mother will be loaded with baggage for all of us. Some of us, particularly if we have had difficult life experiences and painful close relationships, may find these images unbearably painful.

If that’s the case, I hope the image of the mother hen might help us find a little distance from our own experiences of flawed, and perhaps painful, human parenting. Hens are feisty creatures aren’t they? When faced by predators they will gather their chicks underneath their wings, and peck furiously at whoever threatens them.

What an image for the God who likewise gathers us, her people, under the safety and security of her wings. The same God who wept over her people in the city of Jerusalem as she saw their pain.

The pain is no less for us. Each day brings new accounts of terror, violence, turmoil and disaster. And as Christ looked on Jerusalem, so God looks upon us. God weeps for her people, and longs to gather us to her.

One of the most frustrating moments of parenting is trying to comfort the weary toddler, intent on full-on meltdown because the world around has just become too much for them to absorb and still function. They arch their backs and kick away any attempt at embrace. So it was for the people of Christ’s Jerusalem.

…and you were not willing!

So it is for us.

As we journey through Lent, perhaps we can hear again this call to gather, together, under the shelter of God’s wings. I invite you, in the weeks to come, as the world looks typically hope-less, and we wonder where God is – to hold in your mind this image of God, the mother hen, gathering her chicks close and sheltering them as the predators prowl around us. May we be willing to seek refuge with God, and to find our place together, in the shelter of God’s wings.

Once upon a time, there were “evil scum”

“Evil scum”.

That’s how Shamima Begum has been described in the press in the last day or so. I haven’t linked to the papers that have reported this, but you can search online easily enough.

This isn’t a blog post about Shamima.

It’s a blog post about “evil scum”.

I am currently reading ploughing through Yuval Noah Harari’s anthropology in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. I have a way to go, and I’m trying to see beyond his obvious biases and agendas.

But I am struck by his discussions of our inherent survival mechanisms: the tendencies and instincts that we have carried from a different world into our own, as we have developed far quicker than our evolution, and that of the world around us, could keep pace with.

We create stories, Harari argues, to make sense of the world and of one another. These stories might be economic, political, religious – they are a way to imagine order and to build structure. We have been doing so for thousands of years. Assuming I have understood it properly, then I can buy into some of this argument.

And so, if what Harari says has a degree of truth, what stories are we creating and retelling at the moment, in order to manipulate the world around us; to survive and thrive and advance?

There are thousands. Metanarratives and micronarratives. But one story, which seems particularly prevalent in this age of mass and social media, is the story of “evil scum”.

Once upon a time, there were good people, and there were “evil scum”. The good people lived upright, noble lives, but the “evil scum” inflicted great pain and destruction. Only when the “evil scum” were wiped out did the good people live happily ever after. The end.

“Evil scum” is always someone else.
Usually someone who has done something abhorrent.
Something that we would never countenance doing ourselves.
Something that has hurt – or taken life from – another person.

This post is not an apology for, or a defence of, acts which are damaging, violent, and hateful.

The story of “evil scum” lets the people who do these things off the hook too quickly.

“Evil scum” dehumanises.

“Evil scum” assumes them and us.
We would never do what they have dared to do (one headline about Shamima read How dare she?)
We are upstanding, law-abiding, reasonable, human.
They are evil, perverted, degenerate, monstrous.

This narrative helps us. It allays the deep seated fear that we, too – or those we cherish – might one day do something terrible. It makes sense of the problem of evil by telling us that evil acts are done only by evil monsters. And never by human beings. It tells us that justice is black and white: “evil scum” deserve nothing that requires work on our part: no mercy, no forgiveness; no understanding, because they are not human. They are “evil scum”.

“Evil scum”, according to this narrative, are the ones who do evil things.
Not like the rest of us, who are good, kind people.
“Evil scum” should be annihilated.
Wiped out.
That would fix all our problems.

The problem with this is that it allows pain to avoid eye contact with justice.
The “evil scum” narrative finds justice in destruction.
In a world already tearing itself apart, in a world where, for some, self-destruction seems to attract the highest accolade, then destruction is no justice.

The problem with this is that it takes away human culpability.
We are not so far removed from the horrors of the Holocaust, to forget that good people committed evil acts.
It is humans – and not “evil scum” – who do bad things.
It is humans who kill and destroy and inflict intense pain on one another.

The problem with this is that it tears human beings down the middle.
It creates sides and factions: “evil scum” versus everyone else…
…and asks us to sign up to a side.
It encourages the growth of ideologies resistant to the other: ideologies that provide the fertile ground from which disillusionment and radicalisation grow.

Put simply, when we write one person off as “evil scum”, there are a hundred others waiting to sign up too.

There has to be a better narrative – other stories that help us make sense of the unthinkable: that a fellow human might commit such large-scale damage and pain on another.

I am a Christian minister. The Christian faith is a metanarrative I use to make sense of the world around me. I don’t care whether Harari thinks I’m bonkers or not.

The central tenet of Christianity is not:

Love thy neighbour as thyself…

Nor is it:

An eye for an eye…

Nor:

Do unto others…

It’s not even:

Don’t have sex outside of heterosexual marriage.

(Although if you listen to some quarters you’d think this was so!!)

The central belief of the Christian metanarrative, the beating heart of scripture and practice, is this:

No one is beyond redemption.

No one.

This doesn’t fit the “evil scum” narrative at all well, because that would have us believe, in our quest to remain comfortable, that one is either redeemed, or they are not.

I am redeemed. She is not.

But the Christian narrative says that’s not our call to make. And when it comes to those we write off as monsters, this is an impossible narrative to hold onto.

But hold it we must, amidst all our grief and confusion. Because, whatever monstrous acts she has done (or not), Shamima Begum is not a monster. She is a human being. She is one of our own. She has human DNA and human emotions and human reason and human capacity to suffer justice and show remorse and make amends and receive mercy. Or not, of course.

Despite the immediate comfort it offers (I am human; she is evil”), in the end the “evil scum” narrative will offer us little hope, and no justice.

We are human. We are creative and destructive, kind and cruel, wise and foolish. We have the capacity to do wondrous good, or catastrophic bad. Some human acts will be intensely evil, and justice must be served.

But, however awful their acts, no human is “evil”.
“Evil” is what we do, not who we are.
Evil is always a choice.

Here is hope:
We have a choice.
We are not doomed to evil.
We can turn move beyond evil.
Evil does not define us.
Here is hope.


Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
   righteousness and peace will kiss each other. 
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
   and righteousness will look down from the sky. 
The Lord will give what is good,
   and our land will yield its increase. 
Righteousness will go before him,
   and will make a path for his steps.

From Psalm 85

We are the Advent people

“Best. Christmas. Ever”.

So ran a supermarket advertising campaign last year.

Every year on Christmas afternoon, I feel a bit deflated. Yes, it’s probably 99% tiredness after the energy and emotion poured into Christmas in the parish. But there is also a part of me, every year, that thinks “Is this it?”

Is this it?

For all the hype and the build up and the long hours spent wrapping presents and preparing food and looking forward to – Christmas feels a little bit like ‘blink and you’ll miss it’. Have I ever enjoyed the elusive “Best. Christmas. Ever”? No.

The church makes a big deal of Advent – a time of waiting and preparation. What we don’t do quite so well is remind ourselves that, for all our preparations, Christmas Day actually isn’t it. However patient our waiting, however sincere our choruses of “O Come O Come”, if our focus is on how the big day works out, then our waiting will feel frustrated.

One of my favourite quotes is from John Paul II:

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

Through Advent this year, something within me has wanted to turn this inside out a little:

Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Advent people, and our waiting will go on.

Watchful, faithful, active waiting.

We are called, as God’s people, to watch for signs of the Divine Kingdom: to look for glimmers of hope and light and life and love – and to bring these glimmers out of darkness and let them shine brightly.

We are called, as God’s people, to stay faithful: to hold on to God’s promises, no matter how unfaithful we feel we may be, and to have confidence to begin again, and again.

We are called, as God’s people, to be active in our waiting. When we see places and meet people who are in desperate need of justice and compassion, our watchful waiting must become active: we are called to be agents of change and justice in the unfairness of life around us.

We are called. And we are called together. As one. As the Advent people.

I know I will feel a sense of deflation this year, as Christmas Day passes as fast as any other day, as the preparations cease and as my Advent busyness is replaced by Boxing Day emptiness. It’s ok to feel deflated.

But I hope I might remember, too, that one day was never going to fulfill the emptiness within me: the yearning for something more, something better.

The hope and joy shaped holes with me will never be filled by Christmas Day. Not even the “Best. Christmas. Ever.”

Filling these gaps takes longer. But they are being filled, ever so slowly, by the hope of a promise.

The promise of a God who is still at work to redeem this world, and who invites us to join in.

The promise of a homecoming that we are yet to make.

And the promise of a life, which begins now and never ends, in which we will find peace, and love, and wellbeing.

If Christmas 2017 was your “best Christmas ever”, then my commiserations for this year and every year following. But I believe – and I dare to hope – that for all of us, the best is yet to come.

And in the meantime:

We are the Advent people, and our waiting will go on!

 

Go and share your bread: Austerity, Abundance, and the Kingdom of God

The following is adapted from a sermon that will preached at Holy Cross, Timperley, on Sunday 29th July 2018 (Trinity 9).


austerity
ɒˈstɛrɪti,ɔːˈstɛrɪti/
noun
noun: austerity; plural noun: austerities
  1. 1.
    sternness or severity of manner or attitude.
    “he was noted for his austerity and his authoritarianism”
    • plainness and simplicity in appearance.
      “the room was decorated with a restraint bordering on austerity”
    • a feature of an austere way of life.
      “his uncle’s austerities had undermined his health”
  2. 2.
    difficult economic conditions created by government measures to reduce public expenditure.
    “the country was subjected to acute economic austerity”

Austerity has become one of our defining narratives. Stories – life – based on the assumption that “There is not enough to go round”. We’re told that we must tighten our belts, adapt to scarcity, get used to hardship, and guard the resources we still have.

Thank God, I’m not a politician or an economist, but a theologian. Because I believe that austerity is not the way of God, nor is it the way to enable a society to thrive. Short term hardship for long term benefits doesn’t wash when the short term becomes the long term, and the gap between the rich and the poor grows larger and larger. But I’m not here to preach economics.

Austerity is not the way of God, and yet it is the starting point for Jesus’ followers in John’s account of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Philip and Andrew are anxious, and we can hear the cogs whirring:

Get the people home. It’s nearly dark and there’s no food. Send them away to fend for themselves. There is not enough to go round. We have to come up with a different plan: we could invest six month’s wages in this crowd and it would be money down the drain.

But Jesus knows a way better than anxious austerity. Anxiety is never a good state of mind to be in. Anxious leaders create anxious followers, and anxious people suppress creativity, increase irritability and achieve little.

And so Jesus shows these anxious guys a different solution to the impossible. Not austerity, but abundance. Not scarcity, but generosity. Not fear, but trust.

What are we to make of the Feeding of the Five Thousand? Some of us think it was a divine supernatural act. Others of us acknowledge that God can work miraculously through the most ordinary of acts, such as a shared lunch. But this miracle was not divine conjouring trick, nor an exercise in sharing.

This miracle was about God and about what God wants for God’s people. Jesus showed that crowd, as the Gospel writers show us, the lavish, endless, inclusive, compassionate abundance of God: in God’s Kingdom there is always enough.

God’s abundant goodness. A God of love who has enough for all. This is the love that Paul talks about in his letter to the Ephesians: a love of incomprehensible, endless depth and height and breadth. A love so all encompassing, so abundant, that we will never fully grasp it.

I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

The narrative of austerity has no place in God’s kingdom, because austerity is rooted in fear and suspicion of the other. Austerity is not about love, but control, or simple, catastrophic indifference. These are not the ways of God.

What about us?

We don’t have endless resources. We have limited time, energy, health, money – as frail humans, even our capacity to love and to have faith is limited. Some of us are giving all that we can. Perhaps some of us might, at some point and through the grace of God, feel moved to offer more.

But as people of limited resources, how do we model and live out the abundant love of Christ?

Perhaps it is enough, at first, for us to know God’s love for us. Perhaps it is enough only to grow deeper into this love. To own it and experience it and share it: to claim it for ourselves and for those around us. To see God’s love for the darkest, most rotten parts of ourselves; for those we love and those we despise and those we are indifferent to. To know a love of endless abundance. Perhaps the whole of life is about coming to dwell more deeply within that knowledge. Perhaps on the deepest level, that is all God asks of us.

And yet, as we go more deeply into love, as we come to dwell within it, we are always changed. Perhaps we discover a corner of our heart that is more austere than we knew. Perhaps we discover a hardness within ourselves: an unresponsiveness and a frantic, anxious clinging on to a finite resource that, in the end, will never bring us joy. Perhaps, as we know God more deeply, so we become open to the question: “Are my resources really as limited as I believed?” Perhaps we find that we do have more to offer, and we come to know a deepening of our generosity.

And as we ask that question, perhaps we also discover a depth of abundance within ourselves that is without limit and full to brimming. Maybe we discover gifts to be handed away endlessly: Love, tolerance, kindness, compassion, understanding of the other, trust, faith: perhaps beyond our time and our material resources and hardness of heart, we do have quite a lot to offer by way of abundance.

Imagine a world where each of us modelled abundant kindness. Endless tolerance. Endless compassion. Endless forgiveness. Endless understanding. I don’t think that such a world would be a world of austerity. I think that world would be God’s world.

As we hear this story of bread broken, shared and left over, our eyes are drawn to the table before us. It is only in our own breaking of bread and pouring of wine, as we celebrate Holy Communion, that we find the fulfilment of this story. Here, week on week, we enact the abundant, self-giving, inclusive, immeasurable love of God.

As I preside at the Eucharist, I always try (and sometimes fail!) to ensure that there is more than enough bread, and more than enough wine. The theological significance of having some leftover shouldn’t be lost on us after reminding ourselves of this miracle of abundance. In the Kingdom of God there is always more than enough.

And it is no use partaking in this sacrament, week on week, if we remain unchanged by this abundance. We cannot change the ways of others. We cannot alter the stinginess and miserliness of the world around us. But we can change ourselves. My hope and prayer for each of us here who feast on the abundance of heaven, is that we do not leave this place unchanged, but that we renew our resolve to give everything that we have, and everything that we are, for the good of the people of this world.

And so go out today, back into this austere, weary world full of people who are under so much strain; go from here and share your bread. Model kindness, compassion and love as if there is no other currency by which to live. Because in the Kingdom of God, kindness, compassion, and love need no guarding, no rationing, and no hierarchy. They are for all and they are endless. As people of God, will we hear the call to grow into abundant love, and to allow ourselves to be shaped by that abundance?

20180726_195159

Rotas, rhythms, and “back to school”

This week – one of the hottest of the year – my head has been in Christmas: Christmas services, Christmas rotas, Christmas planning. Given the nature of my work, even in July Christmas is never far away – it’s a perk of the job.

It’s not just been Christmas. I have worked through rotas for September to December, so I have journeyed through Autumn, Harvest, Halloween and All Saints, Remembrance Day and Advent as I’ve headed towards the big C. My head has done 4 months of festivals and feasts in a week.

I love the Autumn. After the slower pace of Summer, Autumn brings refreshing rhythm and a renewed sense of purpose.

But we’re not there yet.

This week my oldest child finished his first year of Primary School. I bawled, and I wasn’t alone. His class said goodbye to the staff who had nurtured and encouraged them and formed them into a solid bunch of friends who would continue to do this school thing together. They spent their last day in an environment which had cocooned them so delicately: a stepping stone from mum’s arms to school’s bosom. They said goodbye, at least for a time, to the friends they had come to know and love and invest in their weekdays with.

And so this week was an ending, of sorts. A week of looking ahead to the Autumn, of looking back over the school year, and feeling a little bit out of kilter within it all.

I never stopped to imagine how the end of the school year would feel, as a mum. The strange combination of desolation and elation, of sadness and thankfulness, of disorientation and relief. The anxious, fearful, overwhelming, joyous sense that I will taste this strange cocktail of loss and reward again and again and again: the end of Reception, the end of primary school, the end of secondary school, graduation or new jobs, moving out, serious relationships being made and broken, grandchildren being born: trauma and celebration.

And what grounded me through this week was those Autumn rotas.

Right now we teeter on the precipice of summer. Life goes freestyle for a while, as we muddle through again as a family of 5 who’ve lost all routine. We might have to learn to tolerate each other a bit more. To adapt to the loss of a routine and sense of community that term time gives us. We will have to navigate the arguments and the tantrums and the meltdowns without the promise and sweet relief of childcare and school looming the next day.

And that’s okay. We’ve done this before. We’ll adapt and it will be awesome.

But right now I feel unanchored. It will be fine to float for a while, and we are all desperate for the rest. But I’m looking forward to those Autumn days. The restored routine. Fresh expectation. New friends and old mates. Early mornings and 3.25pm picks ups and solid bedtimes and grown up evenings. The slide towards Christmas, the nights drawing in and the frantic October morning search for that elusive pair of gloves.

We need rest. But then we need rhythm. And Autumn is packed full of it. We find rhythm in routines and systems and the promise of special times that happen over and over. From ‘Back to School’ to Harvest to Armistace to Advent to Christmas to New Year’s resolutions – we are carried by familiar stories and rituals that ground us and tell us more about who we are.

Rhythm keeps us sane. Rhythm tells our story.

And rhythm tells bigger stories too – it refreshes and reminds and resets us for the journey ahead.

So I’m grateful for summer, and for the rest it brings. But I’m looking ahead too, to a new rhythm and a new term. Old stories told in new ways. Feasts and festivals (and perhaps the odd famine) that will shape and mould and send me on my way.