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

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

Genesis 28:10-17

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

Revelation 12:7-9

What to make of the angels?

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

Today is his day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friends, we are being called to see beyond this.

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

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

What do you see?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.