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!

 

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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?

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Pulling up the weeds: An Examen for self care

Material adapted from a day I led recently in Gilly’s Quiet Garden, part of the Quiet Garden Movement.


Self-care is a bit like weeding.

This thought struck me some weeks ago, as I found myself delicately rescuing one of our roses from the bindweed that had twisted itself tight round the thorny stem. As I was weeding, I was spending time in prayer and reflection, and working through a particular personal conundrum. The task of unwrapping weed from flower served as a helpful outworking of the inner process of “unwrapping” that I was doing – working out the good and the bad – the flower and weed of the particular issue I was reflecting on.

I am a champion of the importance of self-care. Wellbeing, resilience, self-awareness, wholeness – call it what you like but whatever term we use, it’s important. And it’s important not solely for our own sake, but so that we can be a resource, a wellspring to those around us.

Self care begins with the self, but done well, it is never solely about the self. Poor self-care, or no self care, pushes us inwards. We become introspective, self-centred, blind to others around us, and liable to lash out or project our pain onto the people we love – or (worse?) the people we don’t. Good self care enables us to develop good core strength, from which we are able to support and nourish others as well as our self.

What if your life was a bit like a garden?

There are all sorts of different plants and flowers. Some things – as in your life – are thriving and healthy. They have strong, deep roots and high-reaching leaves. Some produce fruit or flowers, so that you enjoy and give away an abundance of produce – just as much of your life will be about giving out to others. Some plants are young, and some are old. Just as some things in your life will be barely beginning, and other things well-established, or perhaps even going to seed. There will be enormous trees, fragile daisies, and everything in-between.

But, if your garden – your life – is the same as mine, then there will be a few weeds around too. Some of them pose little threat – they are shallow rooted and will pull up with no recurrence. Others are more of a problem: deep or extensively rooted, damaging to the good things in the garden, and needing careful, patient, persistent treatment to eradicate.

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Flowers and weeds: An Examen

The Examen is an ancient spiritual practice which aids self-reflection in ways that draw our gaze from within ourselves and out to the world beyond us. It has three stages.

The first step of the Examen is to notice the moments in which all was well:
Where have I sensed peace, security, deep joy, happiness, comfort?

The second step of the Examen is to notice the moments when all was not well:
Where have I sensed discomfort, pain, insecurity, fear, emptiness?

The third step of the Examen takes our answers to the first two questions and uses them to help us lay down the past and look ahead. For what I have been grateful? What now lies ahead?
Step one

What plants are flourishing in your garden?
In what areas of life are you, or have you been flourishing, thriving, and happy?

What plants are you especially proud of?
What of your own achievements are you proud of?

Which plants are strong and healthy?
Where are your strengths and gifts?

Which plants are being especially productive, giving you an abundance of fruit or flowers for you to enjoy or pass on to someone?
In which areas of your life are you able to give from?

And…

Where is this goodness rooted?
What has build your confidence?
Who has been kind to you?
Who has invested in your flourishing?
What—and who—has built you into you?
Step two

What weeds are present in your garden?

Which are shallow rooted annuals, easily pulled up?

Which are deep rooted and complex, needing dedicated attention?

Which give a nasty sting?

Which can you learn to adapt to and live with?

Which are fast growing and destructive?

Which are stealing your sunshine?

And…

Where is this pain rooted?
What has shattered your confidence?
What cruelty have you survived?
What disappointments have you faced?
What inner conflicts need gentle untangling?
Step three

For what am I grateful?

What gifts have I received?

What gifts can I offer?

What do my reflections tell me about who I am?

What do my reflections tell me about who I could be?

What might I become more deeply aware of tomorrow?

What inner pain needs my careful attention?

Where have I found life?

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When God doesn’t get cross even though we mess up

One of my children has been quite bad tempered recently. I thought he was just tired. But yesterday evening, as we sat having dinner, he hinted at why. “I don’t like Mrs Jones…”

I let the comment go, but later, we sat quietly and I probed a bit further.

“Why don’t you like Mrs Jones then?”

“I don’t want to tell you”.

I took a punt:

“Did you get told off today?”

“No”. He replied. “Last week”.

And I realised that this child had been holding in all this anguish from being told off – holding it in for a whole week. He was in turmoil. He didn’t want to tell me, because he thought I would give him a second telling off for this major transgression he had committed. It was so bad that Mrs Jones had removed him from the playground, and sent him back to his classroom. It was so bad that mummy must never find out, and he must hold in all this guilt and shame and frustration.

So before I asked what he had done to be sent inside and told off, I took another punt:

I’m not going to be cross with you. Mrs Jones has already been cross. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, I don’t care, but if you want to tell me, you can”.

I was bracing myself to hear a story of infant violence or wanton destruction, and wondering how I would respond without being cross. The lip wobbled, and tears came into the eyes.

“I rode my bike outside the track”.

“Huh?”

“I was on the fast bike, and I wanted to overtake James who was on the slow bike, so I went around him off the track. And Mrs Jones told me to put the bike away and get inside because I had been naughty”.

So I laughed, and relief crossed his face (and mine, if I’m honest).

“Is that it?!” I said.

“Yes” he replied. Slightly bemused. Why wasn’t mummy going mad? He had thought, for a whole week, that he was going to get told off again if I found out. He didn’t realise that Mrs Jones was probably just having a bad day, or that she might not have meant to sound so cross or react so strongly.

We all have Mrs Jones moments – I have loads – but that’s not why I’m writing this.

After this conversation, I became my son’s advocate and accomplice. We had a few moments of ‘therapy’ to help him process some of his “I don’t like Mrs Jones” thoughts. I won’t tell you what we did, but it involved felt tips and a photograph – and a bin (and of course Mrs Jones is not her real name and we do like all of his school staff very much!!)

I was left wondering what this incident might show me about God. Are there times where we do stuff wrong, and suffer the consequences, and hold it all in, and become laden with shame and guilt and worthlessness – and God actually becomes our advocate? Does God become the one who says “I’m not going to be angry. You’ve already suffered. I’m not going to add to your guilt and shame. In fact, I’m going to help you deal with this guilt and be even happier than you were before all this went wrong”?

Today’s Morning Prayer reading (one of!) is from the prophet Ezekiel, writing to a people in exile: to a people who have really made a mess of things and who find themselves cast out away from their home. Ezekiel speaks the words of God:

“Thus says the Lord God: Though I removed them, far away among the nations, and through I scattered them among the countries, yet I have been a sanctuary to them for a little while in the countries where they have gone”.

I think, last night, I became a sanctuary for a little boy who had committed a minor transgression, turned it into a major thing in his mind, and then sat with the guilt. Someone who had been cast out – or in – to the classroom. And I suspect God does that for us. We tie ourselves in knots of guilt and shame, we get shut out of the life we really want to have, and then God says:

“You are far away, you are scattered, you are lost. You’ve got yourself into a mess. But still I will be your sanctuary in exile. And I will bring you home.”

 

 

Soaring on air: Ten reflections on vocation

vocation
və(ʊ)ˈkeɪʃ(ə)n/
a strong feeling of suitability for a particular career or occupation.

Everyone has a vocation to something!

Discovering your own vocation begins with quiet reflection, self-examination and conversation. These questions might help:

What are you good at?
What do you enjoy?
When do you feel most at peace?

I spend much of my time listening to people who are trying to work out what their own vocation is. Through these conversations, I’ve noticed some patterns and common themes. Here they are:

1. It will take time to emerge

Few of us have a “stop you in your tracks” moment where we see our life’s purpose stretching before us in an instant. Reactions to a growing vocation are usually surprise, doubt, anxiety, fear, unworthiness, and nervous excitement – but rarely confidence and self-assurance.

You don’t have to decide on your vocation in this moment. Nor in the next half hour, or even the next week or month. Like flowers, vocations take time to grow and blossom fully. They need to be informed and thought-through, and this takes hours of reading, talking, listening and reflecting.


2. It is not your decision (alone)

Vocation is usually about working in partnership with and for others; at the heart of most vocations is a desire to bring about change or improvement for others. We don’t serve ourselves, nor do we serve by ourselves, but for and through people, creation, and institutions. The mutuality of vocation begins at its inception.

In the Church of England, this means that a formal vocation to a particular ministry needs to be rooted in conversation and reflection with others. It is about a process of mutual listening and discernment, and about the coming together of the candidate’s “yes” and the Church’s “yes”.

This is about licensed ministry in a particular context, but it’s a good principle to apply to any exploration of vocation: just as our vocations are not for our own benefit, so we don’t own them. Vocation is about working out our purpose in community, and the burden of the decision about what you do with your life is never yours alone.


3. It isn’t punishment or chore

Desire rests at the heart of vocation. A good way to start thinking about vocation is to ask yourself what you enjoy, and what you want to do. It is tempting, especially for people of faith, to construct a faux-holiness or sense of martyrdom around vocation. We can’t quite believe that God would call us to do something we actually want to do. And when we find ourselves wanting to do something, we convince ourselves it’s not the right thing for us, or that we desire it for the wrong reasons. That’s not to say that vocation is always easy, or that God never asks us to do things we don’t want to do, but (to paraphrase Henri Nouwen) too often “we expect a curse, but instead receive a blessing”.

4. It is more (and less) than a job

Our vocation might lead us to a particular job or career, but it doesn’t always. It is rooted in something much deeper than a 9-5: it is about who we are. Many of us go home from work at the end of the day, but we don’t leave behind the essence of who we are.

As a priest, I am called to live honestly and openly with others as I do life with all its joys and sorrows. I am called to be. And I am – I exist – all the time. Not just in the hours I am contracted to work for. I do have a contract. I do try and stick to my working hours and days. But it’s not always possible, because this call to be is something I do all the time. Every day and every night. I am. Even on my days off. In every place, in every moment, I am living out the priestly vocation to do life with others. I invest in life here as the first task of my vocation in this place.

And perhaps that is the first step in any vocation. To invest in life, wherever we find ourselves, and to see what needs and tasks emerge.


5. It will demand bottomless trust

Vocation is about finding something you enjoy and do well, and then doing it. But that doesn’t make it easy. Living out a vocation will stretch you to your limits, and then some more. It will empty you of your resources and leave you feeling dry and wrung out. It will challenge your priorities and nag at you because the job will never be done. It will demand from you more than you thought you could ever give. It will push you beyond expectation and ability.

Vocation does these things, because it’s vocation. Vocation is about seeing need and meeting it. It’s about being driven by something more than money or status or self-importance. It’s about self-purpose and a rooted love for other people. Your work will never be done. And within all this, you must learn to trust. Trust yourself, trust others, trust God. Trust your intuition about what needs to be done and what can be left. Trust your body when it tells you to rest. Trust your mind when it says you can push a little further. Trust your heart, your soul, your calling. Trust those who love you, and those who have been there, and listen to their wisdom. Trust, trust, trust.


6. It won’t replace your need for self-care and rest

Our culture does not encourage good self-care. We are driven by money and working hours. We measure value in terms of financial worth or dedication to a cause. We are quick to project our dysfunction onto others under the banner of justice or entitlement, and slow to examine ourselves and improve our inner life. Living vocationally without self-care and rest will lead to burn out.

Self-care means working out what you need in place in order to flourish. It’s about being grounded, centred and self-aware. Only those who are self-aware can become truly other-aware, and those who are committed to self-care will be able to give much more in their service of others.

If you need time alone, take it.
If you need time with friends or family, take it.
If you need 12 hours of sleep a night, take it.
If you need to cook or run or garden or read in order to stay sane, do it.
If you need holidays and fun and parties and nights out and good food and slow coffees and trashy TV shows and spa days and long walks and intimacy and space and laughter and tears, then do it. Do it all.

Take it. Do it. Regularly and as a rhythm of life, and not just as an occasional treat. If you don’t get this right, your life-giving vocation will slowly suffocate you.


7. Some vocations are more important than others

All of us will have multiple vocations. Some of these will be about jobs and tasks. Others will be about relationships and roles we have. I have vocations, among others, to be a mum, a wife, a friend, a priest, a vicar, a spiritual director.

And these vocations have to be weighed and balanced against one another. Usually, they hold together in a harmonising tension. Sometimes they don’t. And when they clash, some of them have to take priority.

My vocation to parenthood will always trump my vocation to a particular job. If my kids need me in one place, and my job needs me in another, my kids win. The job can wait: the work will still be there.

Sometimes, one vocation will trump another. Never make the mistake of treating them as equal, or of getting the priority wrong.


8. It will challenge your sense of entitlement

In a culture of entitlement, how do we discern living from luxury? How do we stand apart from everything around us that tells us to fight for what we deserve? How do we stop the language of entitlement from creeping into our language of vocation?

These are big questions for me. I am aware, in myself and those around me, of a creeping narrative of entitlement. I am entitled to days off, to holidays, to a good standard of housing, to a regular stipend, to affordable childcare…

These things enable me to live out my vocation effectively and freely, and I am grateful for them.

But I am also called to service and self-sacrifice. For me, this means taking less pay than I would do in a non-vocational role. It means sometimes giving up an evening off to sit with someone who needs to be listened to. It means settling for less-than-perfect housing, and having no property as an investment for the future. It means working long hours around my children, so that I can give everything to them, as well as to my ‘work’, when they need me. This call to sacrifice constantly challenges me, as self-giving service and self-serving entitlement bicker constantly on my shoulder and clash in the most painful of ways.

The only way through this, for me, is prayer. On my knees, I remember again who I am, and what I have been called to. I remember to trust, to give, and to rest. And I remember to live flexibly and freely: in the joy of the present and not the fear of the future.

Don’t allow your sense of entitlement kill your vocation to service and sacrifice. Sometimes it’s right to fight for something. Other times we take the hit, in the name of vocation. And it’s always ok.


9. It might evolve… or die

Vocation doesn’t stay the same. As we grow and develop ourselves, so the tasks and jobs to which we are called will change. Thank God you or I are not the people we were ten years ago. Through a decade of growing pains our gifts and sense of purpose will have developed and grown. Sometimes this means taking new paths or reassessing what we’re doing.

Sometimes a vocation might die. This might feel joyfully liberating or intensely painful. Sometimes we choose its demise, and other times the decision is made for us. Sometimes it happens suddenly, and sometimes over a long period of time. Sometimes we might be left with a fear that we were wrong all along.

As vocation dies or evolves, so our need for self-care, rest and trust becomes even greater. These are times to go slowly, to reflect deeply, and to nourish your inner life. Winter is never death, but gestation.


10. It will bring you deep joy

When vocation works as it should – despite the hard graft and the self-giving and the times of feeling purposeless and exhausted – when it goes well, it feels as if you’re soaring on air. And perhaps this is a good clue to discovering and renewing vocation: what brings you deep joy? What leaves you feeling as if you’re soaring? What makes your heart sing?

On any of this, I might be wrong, and this list is not exhaustive, so do comment below on what you’d change or add.

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Holy Saturday’s Hell

Easter Hymn

If in that Syrian garden, ages slain,
You sleep, and know not you are dead in vain,
Nor even in dreams behold how dark and bright
Ascends in smoke and fire by day and night
The hate you died to quench and could but fan,
Sleep well and see no morning, son of man.

But if, the grave rent and the stone rolled by,
At the right hand of majesty on high
You sit, and sitting so remember yet
Your tears, your agony and bloody sweat,
Your cross and passion and the life you gave,
Bow hither out of heaven and see and save.

A E Housman

I was introduced to this poem by David Brown at a training event earlier this year. David suggested this was a poem for Holy Saturday.

As it starts, it’s all about the “if”.
What if?
It’s a question that tortures us now, as it tortured Housman:

What if the very thing that Christian hope clings to – the death and resurrection of Christ – was only a death?
What if the dead man Christ knew nothing of the futility of his suffering?
What if, in death, he only added to the hatred of the world?
What if death is the end?

Housman then pivots his poem, his questions, on the “but”:
But if the tomb could not hold Christ,
But if Christ ascended into glory
But if Christ, in glory, remembers human suffering
But if Christ, in resurrection, transforms the darkness of death
Then surely he will see our pain and return to make it okay.

Housman was an agnostic, and this is an agnostic poem.

And is there a more agnostic moment, for Christians, than Holy Saturday?
Holy Saturday lies between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
It is a day of mystery and darkness.

Here is the liminal space between:
Death ………. and ………. resurrection
Darkness ………. and ………. light
Despair ………. and ………. hope
Sorrow ………. and ………. joy
Anxiety ………. and ………. reassurance
Giving up ………. and ………. starting afresh
Pain ………. and ………. healing
Hate ………. and ………. forgiveness
The ending ………. and ………. the beginning.

Housman’s poem is a poem for our agnostic self in our agnostic moments
(And – unless it’s just me – then even priests have agnostic moments!):

The moments in which God seems distant and all we have is unformed questions and silent answers.
The moments of longing that life could have been different, but of facing up to the reality of deep pain and disappointment.
The moments in which we question: Why? What for? Who cares?

Some Christian traditions hold that Holy Saturday was the day of the harrowing of Hell: a belief that Christ “descended into Hell” to liberate those held by Satan’s chains.

While Satan and Hades were thus speaking to each other, there was a great voice like thunder, saying: Lift up your gates, O ye rulers; and be ye lifted up, ye everlasting gates; and the King of glory shall come in…

While Hades was thus discoursing to Satan, the King of glory stretched out His right hand, and took hold of our forefather Adam, and raised him. Then turning also to the rest, He said: Come all with me, as many as have died through the tree which he touched: for, behold, I again raise you all up through the tree of the cross.

The Gospel of Nicodemus

In our “if” moments, our Holy Saturday hell, I wonder if we can hear, even distantly, the voice that thunders to our despair, our hurt, our hopelessness:
“Open your gates, and let me in!”

And I wonder in what “buts” we find glimpses of Christ’s resurrection hope?
But if there can be hope…
But if this is not the end…
But if this is a beginning…

Bow hither out of Heaven and see and save.

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Hieronymus Bosch, The Harrowing of Hell

“I think we’re nearly there” – Leading through brokenness

The story of The Exodus – the escape over three millennia ago of the Israelite people from slavery in Egypt and their subsequent journey homeward bound – is one of the greatest stories ever told. And it begins with a broken man being called to rescue this broken people from a broken tyrant overseeing a broken economy within a broken culture.

I was reflecting with Jim today on the brokenness I have seen lately in people around me, and in myself. This brokenness is not a bad thing: the opposite, in fact. Some of the people I most admire and look up to; those who have taught me how to live well; are broken.

Actually, on some level, we are all broken.

And the more I become aware of the brokenness around me, the more I realise that my leadership – in all areas of my life – must begin in the brokenness.

Moses told this to the Israelites; but they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery.
Exodus 6:9

The people of Israel were so broken; their inward (and probably outward) cries of pain were so overwhelming, so unbearable, that they could hear and see and feel nothing that didn’t hurt.

We may not be slaves, we may not have experienced oppression to the same degree as the Israelite people under Pharaoh, but life hurts, doesn’t it?

Sometimes, life hurts so much that we can hear nothing but our pain.

Disillusionment, disappointment, anger, frustration, sadness, hurt: these things begin to shape our narratives: they become the dominant stories that we tell. We lose sight of the future we were promised. We forget that there might be promise beyond the pain. We become hope-less.

A few weeks ago, I had a particular day where a number of people asked me to listen to their pain, and to pray with them. Thankfully, I had my anointing oil on hand! Following that day, I made a decision to always carry the oil – at least, as much as I would remember to. I think this decision arose from a realisation that I am ministering to a broken people. Not that the people I minister to are an anomaly; rather, I see in them the brokenness that many of us wear as casually and normally as our clothes. With the oil, I am ready to hear their brokenness, to embrace and anoint the darkest of their fears, and to speak words of comfort and hope and freedom.

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But…
Broken people don’t listen.

Why should they?

And yet, the story we have to tell – of resurrection and life and love and hope – needs to be heard.

So how do we tell it?

Anyone called to or engaged in Christian leadership needs to be ready to minister to the brokenness. Sometimes, the pain of our people is so profound – and shapes their story so crushingly – that before we can begin any meaningful work of discipleship or teaching or building up we need to address the pain.

Effective leaders must be pastors, listeners, healers, and encouragers.

If our people are broken in spirit, then the first – perhaps the only – tasks of leadership are:

To understand the brokenness
To listen, painstakingly, patiently, undefensively.
To hear the story behind the story; the meaning behind the words; the pain behind the aggression.
To be able to retell the story back to the storyteller in their words.
To empathise, and not sympathise.
To be there, with no agenda.

To bind up the wounds
To speak little, but incisively.
To offer words of healing balm, rather than explanation, defence, challenge, or frustration.
To embrace, without turning away.

To earn back trust
To recognise this is slow work.
To teach by listening rather than talking.
To offer freedom, autonomy, and space to make mistakes.
To be ready to go back to the work of listening, hearing, understanding, when the pain crowds in and this inner work is too much.

As a church, we are broken, and we have a difficult time ahead. Trust in us as an institution – as with many institutions – is at an all-time low. The narratives all too often turn to desperation, failure, regret. We must learn to lead our people through despondency, through disappointment, through brokenness.

But these things must never come to define our story.

We are broken, but our brokenness is not the end of our story. The great story of the Exodus probably never felt like an epic tale of adventure to the broken Israelite slaves. At what point did they, as a generation, realise the extent to which their story would be told, retold and learned by heart?

Probably never.

My greatest heroes, my cherished role models, are all broken people. But it is their brokenness, and their embrace of that brokenness, that makes them heroic.

We are all on a path through brokenness to wholeness. And increasingly, we need leaders who have walked that path, and who are willing to walk it again with their people; as slowly and as painstakingly as it takes. The best leaders never sprint off ahead. The best leaders stay with – and unite – the group. The best leaders tie up shoe laces and wipe snotty noses and sit with those who have given up and hand out snacks and plasters and jokes and say,

“Look ahead – I think we’re nearly there“.

And there is the wholeness we glimpse in brokenness. It is in the people among us to are ready
to listen,
to hear,
to heal,
to hope.

“Called” or “named”? Finding language of vocation for the second half of life

I recently caught up with my wonderful Spiritual Director, and we had what might be considered a “bread and butter” SD session around discernment, vocation, calling and desire. In the interest of working out loud, what follows is some of my ongoing reflection on what we shared. Some of it is pertinent to me personally, and some of it is more hypothetical and related to my interest in the vocations of others (it is, of course, what I, as a Priest, Spiritual Director, Assistant DDO, parent, and friend spend a large amount of my time talking about!). However, I’ve written entirely in the first person below, to enable these reflections to be less abstract.


We started by talking about vocation and some of the questions I wrestle with: for myself or for others. A list of these questions might look like this:

How do I make good decisions?
How do I discern where I am supposed to be?
How do I discern what I am supposed to do?
How do I discern who I am supposed to be?
How do I plan for the future?
How do I prepare for opportunities that are as yet, unseen?
How do I know when it is right to disrupt my settledness, to deviate from a particular path, to try something new or to recommit to something old?
What do I mean when I say “God has called me”?
Is it possible to go against God’s call?
Is it possible to find I have put myself, by choice, into the wrong place?
When it comes to discerning my vocation, is it possible to make a mistake? 
Will I mishear or misunderstand what is being asked of me?

Looking at this list, these questions are mostly concerned with the future. They are anxious questions. They assume that there are “right” paths and “wrong” paths. They fear being left behind or making mistakes. They assume that there is little value in the present moment; that I exist almost wholly for some future destiny; that the best is yet to come. They are questions that are anxious to manipulate time, to control outcomes and to impose a plan on my life.

I have been shaped by the theory, first talked of by Jung but taught more extensively in terms of spirituality by Richard Rohr, that we live life in two halves, summarised as thus:

The first half of life is concerned with establishing my place in the world. I am concerned with discovering who I am and what my life’s aims are. Rohr describes this as building a container that will hold life for me.

The second half of life is about stripping away this identity and the security it brings. It’s about finding a deeper sense of purpose, and being less concerned with myself, at least on a superficial level. If the first half of life is about building the container, the second half of life is about filling that container.

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In terms of vocation, I am beginning to wonder whether the language of “calling” is a language for the first half of life. The questions listed above are first-half-of-life questions. This language, and these questions, assume that I have a particular task or destiny. They construct God as an omnipotent, omniscient being who has a plan for me and is waiting for me to respond to the divine beckon as I am led on through the next door.

There is nothing wrong with seeing vocation in this way. These questions are good and noble, and the language of “calling” is a helpful way to articulate them. But it is a language for building the container, not for filling it. It is a language that develops self awareness, enables experience, discovers God, builds trust, and teaches about failure and success.

What happens when this language has run its course?
How do I think of vocation as I journey towards the second half of life?
How do I articulate these issues without using the language of “calling”?

Suddenly, vocation becomes much harder to articulate. Language of “calling” is safe, secure, tangible, definite. Beyond this, the language I use to talk about vocation becomes much more intuitive, ethereal, and elusive. It becomes a language of being, loving, and just knowing.

And if the language of “calling” and the questions I started with are concerned with the future, so being, loving, and just knowing are a language for the present moment. Talking about vocation in this way slows us down and draws us back. It offers a pause in which we can rest and listen.

No longer is vocation about fear, anxiety or anticipation of what might happen, but about security and trust with what just is. Perhaps vocation, in part, is about the gift of the present moment. Perhaps this is an articulation of vocation in the second half of life.

And so when decisions demand an answer, when the future is suddenly the present, how do I discern what next? Vocation in the second half of life is not about a five year plan or a response to a call. Instead, it’s about attentiveness, faithfulness, and being present to what is happening now. If vocation is rooted in God-given desire (and I think it is) then the dominant question for vocation is “what do I desire now?” and not “what do I think I might desire in 6 months or 5 years?”

And so what of a vocational language for the second half of life? Along with being, loving and just knowing, I’d like to try out naming for a while.

But now thus says the Lord,
   he who created you, O Jacob,
   he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
Isaiah 43:1

And so here’s a second-half-of-life vocational question for the present moment:

What and who defines my identity and my purpose right now?

And I suspect that the answer is rooted in God’s tender loving naming of me.

Now my heart’s desire is to know you more
To be found in you and known as yours
To possess by faith what I could not earn
All-surpassing gift of righteousness
From ‘Knowing You (All I Once Held Dear)’ by Graham Kendrick

That seems like a good place to root any exploration of vocation. But this is just the start. If you’re reading this then I want to know what you think. Let me know!

This present moment

I have been recently drawn back to my own present. Back from a busyness that discards the present in favour of the future. Back from an imaginative world of “what ifs?” and “what nexts?”. And into a present moment that is both transition and statis all mixed up. What follows is a reflection arising out of those musings, which keeps in mind Sunday’s Gospel reading (Matthew 25:14-30).


Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.
Matthew 25:21

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Who are you, in this present moment:
Do you feel painfully broken, as a smashed vase?
Or burstingly whole, as an apple tree waiting to fall?

How long has this present moment lasted:
A second, perhaps,
Flashing by in a smudge of busyness?
Or else a lifetime,
As you look to a future in which nothing can be like what has past?

How does this present moment feel:
Like water, slipping through your fist in the bath?
Or like a sack of rocks slung across your shoulder?

This present moment offers few things:
How do you hold them?
Are they pieces of that smashed vase, discarded around your feet?
Are they coins, clung tightly in your fist for fear they will vanish?
Are they clouds: unreachable and ungraspable, turning to vapour in your presence?

How do you receive this present moment:
This gift, this talent, entrusted to you alone?

You could
bury it.
Ignore it.
Move on from it.
And it will pass:
Unnoticed,
Unwelcome,
Unlived.

Or you could
befriend it.
Double it.
Move on with it.
And you will grow:
In pain,
In complexity,
In joy.

And so sit, friend.
And sit
And sit.
Don’t wait.
Don’t hope.
Don’t expect.
Just sit
And be faithful
To this present moment.

Ebb and flow at Rievaulx 

We spent yesterday at Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire. The site contains the ruined remains of a Cistercian community who lived, worked and prayed in the area for over 400 years. 

The condition of the ruins, along with the thoughtfulness of the information provided by English Heritage, make it easy to imagine the Rievaulx ways of life. But, more than this, half a century of faithful prayer and simple living have left spiritual footprints on the area that are impossible to miss. 

Faced with this ruined grandeur and remnant spirituality, I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if history had been kinder to Rievaulx. 

What if it hadn’t struggled so badly in the 13th Century with livestock loss and debt? 

What if it had not been pillaged by the Scots in 1322?

What if it had not been struck by the Black Death in 1348?

What if more than 15 monks (down from 650) had survived to the end of the 1380s?

What if it had not been suppressed and dismantled in 1538?

What if the dissolution of the monasteries had not taken place? 

What would Rievaulx be today? 

These questions turned naturally on their head, to the institutions and ways of life that I know and love. The ones that seem strong, and yet are as fragile as Rievaulx. 

What if the bricks in the wall of my life – the bricks that offer security and hope and a future – one day lie as ruined as this once-great abbey? 

Rievaulx’s most famous abbot was also one of its first: Aelred. As Aelred watched his community strengthen and prosper, I wonder what he knew about life’s ebb and flow? 

Did he hope that Rievaulx  would become one of the richest abbeys in England? 

Did he fear the challenges that eventuality brought it to its knees? 

Did he wonder about the imprint of holiness that his community would leave on the area for centuries after its death? 

Halfway through our visit, we set up a groundsheet on the site of one of the many chantry chapels. The significance of sitting down for a picnic where, centuries earlier and for hundreds of years, monks and locals had gathered to break bread, was not lost on us. 

And so the questions that have stayed with me – questions about me and about the institutions and ways of life that I take for granted – are these:

When I am gone and forgotten, who will picnic on the remains of my chapel? 

What spiritual footprints will I leave? 

How might my holiness (or otherwise) impact a place? 

What grandeur I see now will lie in ruins? 

What of these ruins will people wonder at? 

Rievaulx was a good reminder of life’s ebb and flow. We grow, we prosper, we struggle, we fade away; leaving only our footprints in time.