Praying through trauma when you’ve never prayed before

I’ve never been very good at prayer.

Well, not if “prayer” is kneeling by the bed. If prayer is rehearsed immature rhymes and tick lists of requests and begging and grovelling and words I don’t understand to a god I don’t want to know.

Thank God that none of those things have to be prayer. Not if they don’t work.

I’m grateful to a great spiritual thinker, John Drane, for the various conversations he invites on his social media pages about life. John is perceptive, wise, and real. And he says that there are some important questions for us to ask about prayer. Even if – especially if – we’ve never prayed before:

How should we pray?
Who should we pray to?
What should we pray for?
What if I get it wrong?


Naming the reality

I love disaster movies. I often wondered what it would be like to live through a life-changing, worldview-shifting event. I’d be the planner. The organised one. The one who kept cool and dealt with the tough stuff later.

Turns out the truth wasn’t far off. I’ve been pretty organised and I’ve Got Things Done. But, perhaps behind the curve, it has taken me weeks to realise that we are living through disaster. What is happening around is will change life as we know it. Whether we feel it yet or not, we are living through trauma.

Humans have done this before. Yesterday marked three years since my own community was traumatised by a terror attack. The difference with the Covid trauma is the scale. We are facing this as communities, as nations, as the world.

When an individual suffers trauma, we expect a support system to kick in. They might seek comfort in the ongoing normality around them: touch, company, talking, socialising.

“Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da, life goes on”.

With this trauma, life will not go on. Not as we knew it. We are living through immense loss, pain, grief, transition, and uncertainty. We are living through mass trauma. Everything we might turn to has gone, or evolved. Communal support, religious rituals, a stable healthcare service, financial security… all gone, or precarious.

This trauma is complex and multi-layered. There is the primary trauma of a pandemic illness. But then the secondary trauma of injustice (why is this pandemic affecting peoples historically oppressed disproportionately?), abuse (of people, systems, and rules), of loss (of people, relationships, ways of life, money, rituals, and touch). The nature of this trauma is that we are in a heightened state of stress and responsiveness for a prolonged period. We are not done. We are in the thick of it now. It is agonisingly painful and desperately tough, with more that lies ahead.

I am more and more convinced that even as we live through this, even now we can prepare the ground for healing. Not “fixing”. “Fixing” is a Western notion that control is within our grasp. We can put this right if we throw the right treatment at it.

We can’t.

We cannot fix this with drugs, with money, with planning.

It is out of our control.

“Healing” is different to “fixing”. The notion of “healing” takes away our need for control. Instead of fighting the current, we go with it, we travel together – in this case on a global journey through a pandemic – and we wait to see what good emerges.

And the first step to healing, I believe, is naming the reality.

This is trauma.

We are traumatised.

The worst days may still lie ahead.

This isn’t how life should be. This isn’t how I expected it to be.

But this is my reality.

There. I named it.


Prayer as naming reality

So if prayer doesn’t have to be recited rhymes or tick lists or great long lines of archaic language, then what is it?

I think the most effective prayer you can pray right now is to name your reality.

“God, this is terrible.”

You see, prayer is never about getting our own way. It’s not about demanding or pleading or begging for the best-case scenario to be the one that comes true. It’s not even about asking for second best, for anything except the worst.

Sometimes the worst happens anyway. Where is God then?

Prayer is many things, but it is not a magic wand.

And the first step in prayer is to name what is happening.

Sounds easy, right?

But to name something we have to notice it.

And we’re not so good at noticing. I was swept along for weeks with home schooling and supporting students and caring for a parish and conducting funerals and planning for a ‘new normal’, that I hardly noticed what was happening around me.

To notice something, we have to stop and look. “Listen with your eyes”, says the old rainbow song.

So, the first steps into prayer are:

Stop
Rest, relax, clear your mind for a moment. Seriously, just take a cup of tea and sit quietly for 5 minutes and breathe.

Look
Listen to yourself, to what you have absorbed, to your 6 senses, to memories and fears and hopes and worries and the noise around you.

Notice
What has passed you by before this moment?

Name
Say it. How do you feel? What is bothering you? What is eating you up? Say it.

You just prayed.


Prayer as deepening awareness

Prayer isn’t necessarily about ploughing through words.

Prayer is about noticing. How often do we stop like that, and notice our feelings, our reactions, our desires? Prayer is meditation. It draws us deeper into ourselves, and it simultaneously draws us out beyond ourselves, to something bigger and greater than our own inwardness.

What is going on inside me?
What is going on beyond me?

How much time do we give to those questions in the rush of life?

To ask these questions is to begin to pray.


Prayer as connection

Nope, still few words.

As we become aware, of ourselves, of others, what desires and yearnings begin to surface?

What deep unfillable holes within ourselves do we try to fill with food and people and Netflix and spending – only to find they fall through like sand and leave us unfilled, unsatisfied, empty?

To pray is to find deeper connection and deeper meaning. We are terribly disconnected. The Western world prioritises the individual to a point where we rarely ask what impact our actions have on anything and anyone.

As we stop, and become aware, what deeper connections begin to form? What peace fills us? What yearnings begin to be met in ways that don’t immediately slip away again?

In this way, prayer begins to join us to something bigger. A movement beyond ourselves and our own time. An awareness of life beyond ourselves: our own smallness and at the same time our amazing capacity to bring huge change, increased connection, and peace-filled justice.


Prayer as letting go

And still few words in this prayer.

As we name reality, and deepen awareness, and build connection, so it becomes easier to let go in prayer. Suddenly, prayer isn’t about what I want. It’s not about changing God’s mind or grovelling and begging to some distant, miserly deity.

Pray isn’t something that changes God. Prayer is something that changes me.

As I grow into prayer, I let go of my need to control life, to control others, to control God.

Instead, prayer becomes something that is honestly me, and honestly God. It is about noticing, resting, connecting, and letting go – and through this becoming more authentically myself.

Prayer isn’t a struggle, a battle, or a chore. Prayer is simply being, accepting, communing.

To pray is to become more authentically ourselves.


What if I get this wrong?

I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me.

Jesus

In these words, Jesus is telling his friends about what will happen after his own death. It is only Thomas who dares to voice the question they are all thinking: “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how will we know the way?”

Underneath this simple question is a whole host of worry and uncertainty. Jesus has already assured his friends that he is going ahead of them, to his Father’s house, to prepare a place for each of them. He has promised to return, to lead them to this place. And still Thomas is anxious.

I wonder how many of us share similar anxieties about life and death? Is God really there, and does he care? Will God really remember us, and return for us? Has God really prepared a place in his house for each of us?

It takes great courage to ask the deepest and darkest questions of God. And Thomas’s question gives rise to one of the great statements of Jesus. Jesus is reassuring Thomas that he doesn’t need to worry about how he will find his Father’s House – whether there will be a place for him. Jesus has already said he will return to take us there himself. And there is no risk of getting lost along the way, because Jesus is the only way – there are no detours, no dead ends, no wrong turns.

These words are used, sometimes, to present an exclusive view of the Christian faith. That Christianity – or a narrow version of it – is the only way to be a person of authentic faith and spirituality.

But I don’t hear these words as exclusive, but inclusive. There is no way to God but through Jesus. There is only one way. And that way is through the one who took on everything of our own humanity to be sure that we would find our way to God. It is the way we are all on, regardless of what faith or not we hold, because to be human is to be on the path of Jesus.

So I don’t think it is possible to go wrong in prayer. Even before we take the first steps of naming the reality and deepening awareness, God is already there, waiting.

The God who waits is the same God who will lead us home. Authentically ourselves, and transformed by these brief, fleeting moments of awareness, connection, and letting go.

“I’m ready, my Lord” – Vocation for realists

This is a sermon I originally wrote for The Preacher publication, for the coming Sunday (which happens to be Vocations Sunday). Despite the fact it was written before Christmas, I’m reproducing it here without edit, recognising that our preaching is happening in very different ways, at present. And yet still, God is calling, and people are answering… What does it look like to work out vocation in darkness?

Some time ago I wrote a reflection on that, which is a different piece to this. You’ll find it here, featuring Leonard Cohen, who also appears below…

However you are preaching and teaching at this time, I hope this is helpful in sparking your own ideas for reflection.


Deeper meaning

Some months ago, my children took me to see the Disney film Frozen II. For 90 minutes we were spellbound by Elsa’s quest to find deeper meaning to her life, as she hears the call of a mysterious siren. Her agonising over whether to follow this call is captured in the soundtrack:

‘I’ve had my adventure, I don’t need something new
I’m afraid of what I’m risking if I follow you.’

I won’t spoil the ending of the film, but I was surprised by how the theme of vocation ran as a thread through the narrative. Today, Easter Four, is Vocations Sunday, and we are tasked to think again about this unwieldy untameable notion that God has called, is calling, and will call us. There are plenty of ways that our readings today help us to think vocationally. We might reflect on the call of the Good Shepherd, and our response as his beloved sheep. We might consider our place within the flock, asking what it means for us to follow faithfully as we seek and share pasture.

Yet what I am struck by is Peter’s exhortation to Christian slaves: trapped so unjustly in a life of servitude and subjugation. If vocation is about finding oneself, about being free, then how can a life of slavery offer a way to live vocationally? Peter’s advice to these slaves to accept the authority of a harsh master causes me some internal conflict, and yet his advice comes to fruition as the chapter concludes. Vocation is rooted not in worldly freedom or self-discovery, but in the woundedness of Christ crucified, who embraces our pain and takes it upon himself, so that we might gather like sheep around their shepherd.

Enslavement in today’s world has many guises. We are alert to the reality of modern-day slavery, unseen yet on our doorsteps. We might know the pain of being enslaved by addiction, or destructive behaviour, or an abusive relationship. Our enslavement might be as painfully simple as being trapped by expectation or the circumstances of day to day survival: we give everything we have to ‘keeping the show on the road’.

How might we see sparks of vocation within the darkness of slavery?

Hineni: Here I am

I came late to the music of Leonard Cohen, but when facing vocational pain in my own life I found some comfort in his final album, You Want it Darker. The lyrics of the title track say something about a deep and unbearable wrestling with God:

‘If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game
If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame.’

How many times have these prayers been cried out in the privacy of our hearts?

God, am I in or not?
Is my brokenness worth anything?
Why don’t you answer me, heal me, glorify me?

If we have asked these dark questions, then we’re not alone. Through Scripture and tradition, good and holy men and women have wrestled with the same doubts. Cohen is the latest in a long line of those who wrestle with God.

And then, in the chorus of the song, comes resolution: a prayer, of sorts. ‘Hineni’, Cohen sings. A Hebrew word spoken in the Scriptures by Moses and Abraham and Samuel and Isaiah. All responding to their own vocational darkness.

Hineni: Here I am. I’m ready.

Cohen offers a glimpse of hope. The life-changing opportunity to respond to God from even the darkest of places. ‘Hineni’, he challenges us to say.

The work of the wounded Christ

In Frozen II, Elsa’s costly moment of Hineni is enacted with and for her people. Our own vocational wrestling is done in community: with others and for others. The Good Shepherd of John 10 is the same Christ crucified of 1 Peter: the broken shepherd who bears the scars of his own vocation, and who calls us to follow him, together, into new pasture. There is an antidote to the world’s suffering: the work of the wounded Christ, enacted by good, compassionate, courageous men and women who are committed to bringing about change and justice. Hard questions are a good place to start. They deepen our awareness and name our fears. Answers take time to emerge, and yet they are rarely beyond our grasp. In the end, we find that it is not so much about doing, as simply being: steadfast and faithful, in darkness and light. With Elsa, Peter, Cohen and Christ, we say: ‘Hineni. Here I am. I’m ready. Use me.’

Sing with me: An Easter sermon

The following is a reflection written for the Parish of Timperley and shared on our blog, along with Easter Sunday worship resources. I’ve shared it here too, for readers from further afield!


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

POPE JOHN PAUL II

An Easter like no other.

History will remember these months as extraordinary. We will tell our children and grandchildren, for generations to come, about the year that we were not able to celebrate Easter in our church buildings.

I know we have had moments of despair at this thought. In my sad moments, I have remembered the joy of previous Easters here in Timperley. The egg hunts, the bacon sandwiches, the bucks fizz, the excitement, the flowers (oh, how I will miss the Easter flowers after the stark emptiness of Lent!), the marking and lighting of the paschal candle as a sign of ever-present hope, the joyous acclamation that “Christ is risen!”

I have been sad about what we won’t have this year, but also grateful for a place and people who have created such happy memories: memories to grieve and to recreate at some future date, when we are once more together.

In other times this week, I have also felt deep joy. It comes through the simple things: a smile across the street at a stranger. A chance meeting in the queue outside the Co-op. A word of encouragement from one of you. A linking up of two friends who hadn’t managed to exchange contact details before the lockdown. Meeting neighbours on the doorstep as we clap for carers each Thursday. Rainbows in windows. The discovery of plain flour in the shops once more! The deepening prayer life of the community, which has felt tangible this week. The ways in which we have come together, even while we are apart, to rejoice in good news, and to cry at sad news.

And for me, amidst all the pain and uncertainty, the good things far outweigh the despair.

Hallelujah is an ancient word, meaning “God be praised”. It originated in Ancient Hebrew, and is, quite simply, a one-word prayer. We might use it colloquially or in jest when we hear good news. But it is a word for bad news as well as good news. It is a word that calls us to turn again to God, in joy and sorrow, in faith and fear, in certainty and uncertainty. It doesn’t seek answers to unanswerable questions, nor does it try to explain or excuse God. It doesn’t ask for our emotional response or rely on the whims of our feelings. It says, simply, “God be praised”. In good times, and in bad.

And Pope John Paul II, in his quote above, calls it a song. Songs can be ones of joy or sorrow. Or perhaps even joy-in-sorrow. Because today, as we celebrate the cornerstone of our faith: that Jesus Christ conquered death to bring life and love into this world, we celebrate joyfully and in anticipation of the hope that lies ahead. But we do so also in sorrow, as some of us are unwell, grieving, or just feeling very alone.

And being people of joy – being the Easter people – doesn’t mean that we are full of superficial smiles and denial about the tough realities of life, particularly at present. It means that we live through the hard days knowing that better days are coming. It means that we live through the hard days knowing that however alone we might feel, we are not alone. And it means that we live through the hard days knowing we can be honest with God about the awfulness of it all, and that God will never let us go no matter how much we rant and rail and lash out at God.

This is what it means to sing “Hallelujah”.

There is another song that you may know, that you may have sung (like I have) at the saddest moments your have lived through. It is a hymn of deep faith, and each time I sing it (often faced with the reality of death in the form of a coffin and grieving family) I sing it with defiance and hope: 

I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness
Where is death’s sting?
Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me

Friends, sing through these hard times with me. Sing in sorrow and joy. Sing “Hallelujah!” and “God be praised!”. Sing alone, sing together, sing with the angels and all who go before us. Sing with defiance in the knowledge that we stand shoulder to shoulder, in the victory of Christ over death and darkness, and sing knowing that one day, we will once more gather to break bread and share wine and sing our defiant songs of hope together.

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

Chasing Rainbows: Pastoral Ministry in a time of Covid

Rainbows have sprung up everywhere. Some scribbled in crayon, others splatted in paint, and still more printed carefully and geometrically on an inkjet. Signs of defiant hope and deep courage in the face of immense change and loss.

And how quickly we were swept along by change. Watching the evening news bulletins felt enough to induce dizziness and disorientation. “The world’s gone mad” seemed to be a common sentiment, as new phrases and words tumbled into our everyday use: social distancing, self-isolation.

And as we, the Church, leaned into the storm, again and again I could hear the call in my mind, and in my prayers: “the Church is resilient”. Pastoral ministry has had to change more quickly and more substantially than (arguably) at any point in the history of the Church. Overnight, our tools were taken, but by day we crafted new ones. We are bent out of shape, but we are not broken. Incredible feats of community have emerged within hours. Entire communities of hundreds of people have moved their collective life online, or onto phone wires. As far as possible, we have endeavoured to leave no one behind.

And all done with a backdrop of rainbows, thanks in great part to the efforts of the nation’s children. Many have been, at times, anxious, confused and scared – and yet they, too, have shown deep resilience. And through their fear and anxiety has come hope, and kindness, and generosity. And one sign of this is the rainbows they have placed in their windows.

Together-apart

I spent some time reflecting with lay ministry trainees in Chester Diocese last week, on how their pastoral and listening ministries were being enacted within the present circumstances. We batted around words and concepts like “contact”, “reassure”, “afraid”, “worried”, “anxious”, “frustrated”. What was clear is that all of these men and women were still deeply engaged in pastoral ministry, as were their wider church communities. “The Church has not closed; the Church has been deployed” say various snappy Facebook memes.

Who would have thought that we could take away a capacity to meet face to face, to share physical contact, and food and drink, and sacred space – and that our pastoral ministry would actually be strengthened in a time of such denial?

Yet all around, I see strengthening pastoral ministry. I see connections being made, and company being sought out, and prayer being offered wholeheartedly, and love and encouragement shared: and all together-apart, or apart-together.

A people in exile

On being shut out of our buildings, the Archdeacon of Hastings, Edward Dowler, wrote a splendid article in the Church Times this week, (with which I disagreed almost entirely) arguing for clergy to be allowed access to their churches for prayer:

Similarly, what the clergy and other “worship leaders” (as the Government terms them) may be able to do in the current situation is to maintain the prayer life of their churches on behalf of the people of the parish as an act of service in the present, and in preparation for the day when, God willing, everyone can return.

There were holes in Dowler’s argument. The implication that prayer is more effective in certain places, done by certain people, is not problem-free. His assumption that empty churches might come to be seen as “spooky castles” by the neighbours denies the “thin place” atmosphere of these spaces. And his assumption that:

More prosaically, the presence of young children, the constantly ringing phone, and the internet mean that vicarages are not always havens of peace, conducive to prayer.

Raises its own questions about the nature of peace, and of prayer, and how those of us in pastoral ministry with young children might ever find it possible to pray in a sustainable way.

But more than anything, there is profound meaning in clergy joining laity in exile from sacred places. Together-apart. Apart-together. Together we have been sent, deployed, ensconced or shut out – depending on how one sees it.

And this is ever more profound because our buildings are so important, not because they are not. Sam Wells talks about the local church as being the place that holds collective memory for a community:

Often at the axis of the meeting of roads, the church building is also at the crossroads – whether consciously or unconsciously to the local inhabitants – of many singular moments of decision, change or transition… buildings in which ‘prayer has been valid’ are more like people than stone or brick, because of their vibrant association with the folk we and others have loved.

Wells (2008) Praying for England, 10, 12.

Our buildings are not empty. They are filled with memories both personal and collective, with prayers, with the still air that still holds the snuff of the candles and the damp of prayer books. They are filled, as Gilo has written so beautifully, with silence:

Silence is there. Praying in her many houses.
Clergy nor creed nor any religion own Her.

Walking the edges

I have found relief from the frustration of being unable to access our churches by walking the boundaries of the parish. A tradition that stretches back centuries, ‘beating the bounds’ is an ancient way to pray with movement and exercise for the wellbeing of the whole parish. We might be in exile, but still I can walk the paths of saints who went ahead, encircling, protecting, and committing to God. Prayer for my community has moved from the middle to the margins as, quite literally, I walk the margins and come to know my place of ministry from its edges.

This crisis will challenge our entitled clericalism and will hone our collaborative skills. Together, as clergy and lay, we pray, we minister, we rest – from a place of exile. As the priest of this place I have given a lead on some of this togetherness. But other leaders have emerged too. Those who quietly phone one another to offer friendship. Those who have led the way in establishing a daily collective prayer time in the parish. Those who have shared photos on social media to encourage and cheer each other up. All have been led, and all have led. None of it from our buildings. Together apart. More signs of an emerging, growing, strengthening pastoral ministry.

The eerie lull of liminal space

As a church (and a Church) we are now in the eerie quiet of liminal space. The initial shock of this crisis has worn off. We have mobilised and established new ways to be. We seem to be operating efficiently: resources are being developed; structures put in place. I am wary about too much structure; too much organising.

An eerie quiet has descended after the frantic chaos of the change we faced a fortnight ago.

What comes next? We don’t really know.

Perhaps more shock, more loss. Maybe we will have to dig even deeper, to find innovative ways to process our grief and live in this strange new world. Maybe there will be a new normal, or a return to the old and familiar.

We are becoming adept at living with the uncertainty.

And this is why pastoral ministry is a little like chasing rainbows, at present. We probably thought it couldn’t be done, without buildings, without food, without physical togetherness.

But here we are, doing it.

We chased the rainbow and we found we could go on.

In Christian tradition, the rainbow comes after the disaster. A promise that something new will come after something awful has happened. God’s sign that God will not let us go.

It is too early to tell sense-making stories and to find reason in the uncertainty.

But we can go on chasing rainbows, a day at a time, as our pastoral ministry thrives and evolves and something even more meaningful and profound emerges from the unknown, even from this place of exile.

Just being: A reflection for Epiphany

Reflective melancholy.

That phrase seems to describe, for me, these dark days of late December and early January. I had an Epiphany, of sorts, some years ago, when I learned that (for reasons I can’t pretend to understand), the mornings of this time of year still get darker, despite us being through the Winter Solstice.

Cold mornings, quick days, long nights.

They add to my sense of time slipping away too fast and too soon, as I stop to wonder:

Where on earth did Christmas hide amidst the frenzy of Advent consumption?
Did I make the most of precious moments of rest and friendship and joy?
When did the children get so big?

Speaking of Epiphany: Epiphany dawns on the horizon of these darkest of days like a blazing sunrise. Shimmering, waiting, full of hope yet to birth. Just wait – we’ll get there.

For some years now, I have resisted making New Year resolutions. I find them a chore (‘they’re meant to be a chore’, you say). They are the annual reminder that I am not enough as I am. That how I have lived is a failure. ‘Could do better’, says January 1st.

So now I don’t listen to that voice, and I don’t make resolutions.

Instead, these dark days become a time of self-reflection.
Of prayer.
Of growing in awareness and trust.

I am always exhausted after Christmas. This year more so than others. And into the foggy half-baked new year musings of ‘What could have been?’ ‘What will be?’ come these ancient words:

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
   and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
   and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
   and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
   and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

Lift up your eyes and look around;
   they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
   and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
   your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
   the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
   the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
   all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
   and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.

Isaiah 60:1-6


Arise.
Shine.

My Spiritual Director is very skilled in reminding me – often – that action is rarely needed. What matters is awareness and presence.

Awareness and presence.
Being, not doing.

For some years I’ve been able to cast aside any obligation to make resolutions at this time of year. But this year was the first time I made the link with Epiphany.

The very word Epiphany means revelation.

A group of travellers met a foreign baby and declared him to be worthy of homage and worship and lavish gifts packed with meaning that has tumbled down the centuries ever since.

In that moment of revelation, they were present. They were aware.

A week ago I was burned out. I had been running on empty for far too long. Once we had celebrated Holy Communion on Christmas Day, I barely left the house for well over a week. It was enough just to be.

And my act of defiance from this place of exhaustion was to scrap the obligations. I threw out any plans of dieting and exercising. I tore up my “to do” lists. I turned off my email sync. I spend long days in pyjamas and ate leftovers and quick food.

And I became present, and aware of life happening around me.

It is hard for those of us who pack life full of activity to stop like this. It forces us to face the things we’d rather run from. We have to notice the uncomfortable, the painful, the shameful. These things flood in and threaten to drown us as the froth of everyday activity ebbs away.

Epiphany is not always joyous. At least, not at first.

But as I learned to still myself, to deepen my presence and awareness, a new rhythm emerged. A rhythm rooted in a deep rest. My mind started to clear. New shoots of energy began to spring up. But slowly, slowly…

Winter is not death, but gestation. As life lies deep below us underground, even now storing up the energy for spring’s explosive birth, so new life lies deep within us too.

New Year’s resolutions might work for you.

For me, they obstruct the deeper work of noticing. Of just… being.

Just as the magi travelled steadily, faithfully, determinedly, it is enough, too, for us to simply keep going. To make no big changes. To strip away the froth of ambition. And to know that we, alone, are enough.

Arise, shine, for your light has come!
…Lift up your eyes and look around…
…Then you shall see and be radiant;
   your heart shall thrill and rejoice,

We are people of the light, and light deepens our awareness.

May this knowledge, this awareness, be ours this Epiphany, and this year.

Sunrise over Lake Galilee

“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

It is more blessed to receive…

I’m trying to gather up loose thought threads from the past 7 days.

Last week I heard NT scholar John Barclay talk about giving and receiving. About the pitfalls of altruism and the need to develop a theology of receiving. I cannot do his words justice, although if you’re interested, you can hear them for yourself here.

What I heard (which is not necessarily what John said!) is that in churches across the land, we are very good at altruism and service. Churches are full of people who give without measure – of their time and money and gifts. Every church has a group of men, women and children who are always there to help and to serve. And this is wonderful. We give thanks for it in the life of our own parish, and we celebrate the ways in which our generous and sacrificial service brings us together to care for one another and God’s creation.

But, but, but…

I think John was arguing that this has set up an unhelpful dichotomy. It splits us down the middle, into people who ‘give’, and people who ‘receive’. John talked about the altruism scale: on the one end is self-giving, selflessness, generosity, and charity. On the other is selfishness, self-centredness, and self-interest. Altruism sets us up at one end or the other. We are the ‘giver’, or the ‘receiver’. The selfless server or the selfish taker. And darn it, I’ve lost my notes, so this may or may not be a faithful rendering of John’s words.

It is more blessed to give than to receive, says Paul to the church leaders in Ephesus, supposedly quoting Jesus, although we have no record of Jesus saying these words.

And so we have churches full of sainted martyrs, who have learned to give and give and give. I know this because I am one. But I’m no saint. Because I haven’t learned the first thing about receiving.

What stunted, twisted view does this give us of the grace of God? How can I, how can we, know the first thing about receiving the extravagant, lavish grace of God into our lives, if we have had so little practice in receiving a gift well.

That’s not for want of trying. I am blessed to be surrounded by givers. I cherish the conversation and company and smiles and encouragement and kind gifts and generous acts and hard work that I benefit from on a daily basis from the people around me.

But if I’m honest – if we’re honest – to be on the receiving end of another’s altruism makes us a little nervous, doesn’t it? Immediately we’re looking to repay. A nice thank you card, a reciprocated act of kindness – and a small dose of guilt and unworthiness thrown into the mix. How hard it is to receive graciously and without payment! And yet, more often than not, gifts are given in this spirit.

My friends. We are excellent givers and rubbish receivers.

This weekend men and women across the country were ordained Deacons in the Church of England. Everyone ordained as a Priest or Bishop starts out life as a Deacon. This life is one of service: Deacons are called to care for the people in the communities in which they minister. In one sense, everything Deacons do is a reminder to us of the nature of the Christian life is one of service: of helping one another along the path.

But, but, but (again)…

Can deacons teach us something about receiving?

Service is at the heart of Diaconal vocation. Deacons point us to God’s Kingdom. As we receive the ministry of Deacons, so we receive not from individuals and personalities, but from the God whom they serve. Just as Deacons are called to serve, to seek out the lost, to bring the needs of the world to God in prayer, to visit the sick – so are those of us on the ‘other side’ called to receive this ministry from them without repayment or payback?

There is nothing wrong with giving and altruism. But we must learn to receive as well as give. If we can’t nail down a theology of receiving, we are falling a long way far from the Kingdom of God, which is ruled by the King who gave everything for us to receive without cost. He faced “absolute annihilation”, (as Christopher Burkett phrased it when he spoke to the Chester Deacons at their retreat last week) so that we might find him beyond the nothingness. When there is nothing left to give – there is still God. As Christopher reminded us, “This is your witness”.

We know the voice within our own heads that says “I’ve done my bit”. I suspect even the most generous of us has these moments! But if we root our self-worth and our value in what we are able to give out to others, then we are far from whole.

What happens to the one who cannot give?
The one who could never give?
The one who won’t give?

Are they less of a person?
Do they show less of the Kingdom of God?
Are they less worthy of the love and grace of God?

Surely not!

Because our faith is rooted in our own desolation – in Christ’s desolation on the cross – from which God’s riches were revealed.

I’m not sure where we start with a theology of receiving. But I think it probably begins somewhere around here. In annihilation, in desolation, in nothingness, in death. Perhaps we learn fully to receive only when we can give no more. When our frail, exhausted bodies give way to ill health, and our tired, over-stimulated minds finally rest from anxiety and thought.

Perhaps only then, when we are entirely dependent on the self-giving of others with no chance to pay back, do we begin to know how to receive.

Would love to hear your thoughts.

“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.

Standing at the chasm: A reflection for Shrove Tuesday

Doesn’t Christmas feel such a long time ago?

In the Church calendar, we have travelled through Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, and the unimaginatively titled “Ordinary Time” before reaching the start of Lent. You don’t have to be religious to have felt a rhythm to the journey in recent months: the closing nights and the expectant waiting of Advent, the bittersweet (for many) joy of Christmas with all its promise and regrets, and the long, dull days of January that brings us through winter towards Spring – and Easter.

But now we reach a precipice – a chasm that we must cross before we can rest in the balmy days of late Spring and early Summer, with its sunny afternoons and cool evenings; lengthening days and Easter-egg-fuelled TV binges as the sun sets later, and later.

Lent.

Self denial.
Giving up.
Discipline.
Hardship.

For a while now, we take up a different pace.

I didn’t know until recently that Shrove Tuesday is also known as “Mardi Gras”: literally “Fat Tuesday”. Historically, Shrove Tuesday had a carnival feel about it (and the word carnival might mean “to put away flesh” – a word for the final day of eating meat before the long abstinence of Lent).

So here we are. Shrove Tuesday. Fat Tuesday. Mardi Gras.

Celebration and carnival.

Finishing off the spoils of the past few weeks, before the slower pace of Ash Wednesday and Lent. A strange mix of surplus: using up the extra we have, and of shriving: self-examination and reflection for what lies ahead.

Surplus and shriving.

In the Christian tradition, Shrove Tuesday was the day to make this shift from plenty to paucity. It was a day for using up the leftovers: for feasting and fattening and saying goodbye to indulgence. And it was a day for reflecting on one’s own darkness and failures; spiritual preparation for the disciplines of Lent.

I wonder what the spirituality of Shrove Tuesday looks like for you? The following questions might help:

From plenty…
What has gone well for you in the past few weeks?
What resources have been at your disposal?
How wisely did you use (or abuse) them?

To paucity…
What areas of discomfort, or pain, or shame are you aware of within yourself?
What darkness have you seen in life around you?
Which wrongs in the world would you like to put right?

It’s not really fashionable to talk about “sin” anymore. (I’ve written about this before). But Lent is a time to reflect on our sin. Or, if you prefer, on our failings, insecurities, hurts, pains, disappointments, mistakes, regrets and missed opportunities. Collectively, we might call these things sin, or we might not. It doesn’t matter.

But as we stand at this dark chasm of everything that we wish we and the world were not, we have a chance to bring change. Sin, darkness, failure, regret: these things do not have the last say. Lent reminds us of the importance of facing them, and then conquering them.

Just as, in the Christian tradition, Jesus wrestled for 40 days with the demons of his own greed, and invincibility, and power: so we wrestle with our own demons as we enter this chasm of Lent.

As Christ wrestled, we wrestle. And as Christ conquered, we conquer. We emerge on Easter Sunday, having lived through the self-denial of Lent and the trauma of Holy Week, as people renewed and re-formed. People committed to bringing light into darkness, hope into despair, and life into lifelessness.

But that’s for later.

For now, we begin.
We enter into darkness and denial.
We go from plenty to paucity.
We face our demons, and we wrestle.

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