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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about us?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In a mirror dimly: When Mother’s Day seems dark

It’s Mother’s Day, and social media timelines are full of people having a good time. Cooked breakfasts, home made cards, flowers, lunch out and glasses of prosecco. Of course, if you believe Facebook, then everyone else’s family is more sorted than yours. Other people’s kids took the initiative to do something special. Other people’s partners went that extra step further. Other families are happier, more chilled, wealthier, more innovative, and kinder to one another. Other families have more than your own family will ever have. If you believe Facebook.

But, away from the plastic smiles and the posed selfies, beyond the idealistic Facebook posts and the status updates capturing moments of perfection, there will be a million different stories. Stories of pain, grief, and disappointment. Of guilt, loss, and failure. Of hurt, regret, and anger. The pretty pink of the Mother’s Day displays cannot colour the bleakness we go through as we are faced with the stark reality of failed and lost relationships.

Mother’s Day seems bigger and more elaborate each year. For weeks beforehand, shops are stocked with the “perfect” present for mum (as if she wants more than your attention and time and a share in your story!) But this growth in celebration doesn’t reflect the reality that painful relationships, and the pain of good relationships now past, are as real as ever.

What hope is there, beyond the plastic and pink, for those of us who find today difficult? What can help us face up to and confront the day, without just bowing our heads and trudging through?

“Parenting is a mirror that forces you to look at yourself”, writes mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn. The child-parent relationship brings out our best and our worst. The naked vulnerability of giving birth and being born remains, for mum and child, in our psyche and our emotions for years after the event. We see our parents and our children at their lowest points, often unmasked and uninhibited, and in their feeble weakness we realise that we, too, are irrational, unreasonable, and scarred.

Two millennia earlier, St Paul had similar ideas. “We see in a mirror, dimly”, he wrote. Paul was writing about love, of all things. Our relationships are, at their best, just poor quality mirrors, dim and dark: offering a shadowy likeness of the pure and radiant love that we find in God who mothers us as Her cherished children.

If my love for my children is a dim reflection of God’s love, then I know that divine love to be wild and untamed, unceasingly lavish and intensely passionate; fiercely protective, always forgiving and endlessly patient.

Some of us have enjoyed the best of parent-child relationships. Most of us will have had a mixed experience, as joy and love blend bewilderingly with hurt and disappointment. Some of us will have had a deeply hurtful experience, or even none at all. Some of us will have known only loss, or emptiness.

In the frailty and failure of our broken relationships, there are always glimmers of hope. A reaching out; a card; a gift; a kind word. A smile from the stranger in the street. A fleeting moment of eye contact. A Facebook ‘like’. A urgent, intense rush of compassion for the person who is hurting. In these snatches of kindness, we see, for a second, a love that is greater than all our failures.

Through a glass darkly: that’s how we see now. But it won’t always be so. Today is a day to hold onto the glimmers, to look at the poor reflections, and to know that this is not “it”. There is more to come: more hope, more love, more fulfilment. It will not always hurt.

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.
Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.

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The Parenting Retreat (or: how to be a good parent without wanting to hide in the loo)

I’ve hesitated about writing this post. I know I’m a good parent. I know our family life is fairly happy and secure. The danger of sharing good things about family life on social media is that we might give the false impression that all is perfect. My family life isn’t perfect. I’m not a perfect parent. Good, but not perfect. We have rows and slam doors and storm out and use bad words. “I’m sending you to the rubbish yard!” says my four year old to me when I upset him. I won’t share what I sometimes say to my husband when he, in turn, upsets me. It’s not pretty.

We’re not perfect. But this summer we got something right. This is our story.


It started in a meeting I had with my spiritual director in July. We talked about the birth of my youngest, a few weeks previously.  We talked about the exhaustion I had gone through in the months before her birth, and the ways in which our family resilience had been tested after. We talked about the past, and the future. My hopes for us, and for me. My ministry, my career, my parenting, my ambition. What was good and life-giving, and what was draining and stretching.  It was a good all-round emotional, spiritual and mental check up. And then, as we finished, she suggested the following:

That I seemed restless.
That I should try and notice that, and not respond to it.
That my maternity leave meant I had a great gift to offer my kids: my time and attention.
That perhaps I needed to put away my phone and my restlessness for the summer, and give myself entirely to my children.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love spending time with my kids. But I had usually managed to dilute it to a point where I could be half-present to them, with my mind half on something else: reading, or writing, or (if I’m honest) Facebook. What was being asked of me here was different. A commitment to be wholly present: not for a morning or even a week, but for two months. Two whole months of concentrated time with three under 5s who usually tested my mental and physical resilience on an hourly basis. I left that session of spiritual direction feeling like I’d been set up to fail.

But I made a start. The next morning I launched myself cheerfully into wooden train sets and playdough and snacks and outdoor games. By 11am I was on the verge of breakdown. There were tears – and not from the kids. Why was it so hard? It was something about their chaos and mess and noise. Or was it?

Parenting is a mirror says Jon Kabat-Zinn, that forces you to look at yourself. He argues that children provide the perfect opportunity for a prolonged and intense experience of mindful retreat that lasts about 18 years. If you’ve been on retreat, you know it’s tough. As the ‘stuff’ of life is stripped away, as you go deeper into silence and simplicity, you are forced to look inwards. To see yourself with all your props, your safety blankets and your masks taken away. And then you have to begin the tough inner work.

And that moment, as I sat on the sofa and trusted the DVD player to babysit the kids for half an hour, I realised that these two months would be a similar sort of retreat. In the simplicity of offering my kids my attention and my presence, I would have to deal with the complexity of my self that I had too easily run away from. Here was my crash course in mindful, meditative parenting. It wasn’t the kids and their chaos that was pushing me over the edge; it was that in the simplicity of time with them, I had to confront my own shadow side: my weakness, my anger, my failures, my intolerance and impatience. My imperfection. Here I was, forced to stare at myself reflected in the little shiny faces and dirty hands that were so eager for me. In the kids, I had found my mirror.

In the following days, I persevered in this parenting retreat. All the usual retreat experiences seemed to happen: I got angry, I got sad, I felt overwhelmed, bored, frustrated. And then I found peace. Peace in wooden train sets and nature walks. Peace in just being – living – alongside these joyfully simple little people.

And this is what I learned:

Just be present
The kids didn’t want great entertainment or expensive fun. They just wanted me. We played with paper and cardboard and leaves and stones and sand. Often, I just watched, asked questions, smiled. The simpler the better, and they surprised me with the breadth of their imagination and resourcefulness. We had days of fun with a cardboard box and a load of paint.

Don’t fight the inner work
Offering the kids my attentiveness and presence meant fewer distractions and more mindfulness. Breaking the habit of picking up my phone whenever they turned away from me, and instead staying focused on them, meant I had to confront some of my own inner bleakness. This is hard work, takes some getting used to, and gets worse before it gets better. But it left me feeling like I’d done some tough and rewarding inner work.

Make a list
The highlight of our days became the first task each day: making a list. I asked the kids what they wanted to do that day, we wrote it down, and we did it. It gave them space to think about what they really wanted to do (rather than spur-of-the-moment, tired decisions) and it meant I could steel myself for the messy stuff. It taught them about compromise, and about making space for each other. It also meant I could be honest with them about any jobs I had to do that would take me away from them, and often those jobs became a game in themselves.

Forget perfection
We still argued. There were still tantrums – sometimes the kids kicked off too. There was a lot of mess. A lot of things went unfinished. But letting go of perfection gave us a chance to talk about mess and anger and sadness. It gave us a chance to say sorry. It gave us permission to express ourselves, however badly, and avoid the daily build up of bad feeling that would otherwise lead to an ‘end of my tether’ moment.

Rest together
We did a lot, and I stopped using TV as a crutch or a childminder. But we also spent a lot of time under a blanket, watching Netflix together. It gave me space to breath, and it stopped the kids living at 100mph for the whole day. In fact, most days they chose a film to put on the ‘list’ of things to do that day. We rested together, and we built that time into the day.

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Now the summer is over. My oldest has started school. My middle one spends time at playgroup. And my youngest sleeps a lot. The house is eerily quiet, but echoing through it are the memories of a summer in which I found, surrendered and forgot myself, and became one human in a gang of four who, for a fleeting time, had no agenda but fun and laughter.

So for those who find parenting impossible, who sit and cry on the sofa while the kids watch DVDs, who collapse among the mess and are too exhausted to laugh anymore. To those who hide in the loo, and regret their shouting, and feel haunted by the guilt of parenting failures. To those who are bored, frustrated, and annoyed by their kids. That’s me too. But it can be different. It was for us.

Surrender

I have a photo of my first child, taken when he was around two weeks old. He rests in my tired arms, just inside the front door of our home, bundled up in hat and coat and ready to face the world on his first great outing. Our trip was nothing momentous: just a stagger down the road and back. But we were “getting out”.

I remember that moment vividly. I was struggling. I had a baby who wouldn’t sleep, who wasn’t gaining weight, who cried a lot. I know now that in that moment I was being tipped by monumental pressure and extreme exhaustion into the postnatal depression that would take a year to lift.

And as we bundled ourselves up to face the November outdoors, I was terrified. Here was my first moment of surrendering my boy to the world. It was nothing. A 10 minute stroll in which he wouldn’t leave my sight. But in my sleep-deprived, anxious state, it felt like everything.

In this moment, I knew that parenthood would be a series of surrenders. This baby who (no cliche – it’s true) I loved so much that it hurt, would have to grow and learn and step out. Roots and wings, they say. One day he will leave my arms, he will leave my hand, my side, my home. And when these moments come, letting him go is the most loving thing I can do for him. Even when everything within me cries out at this little soul becoming more and more his own person. Not mine.

This week brings another moment of surrender, as the baby becomes a boy and has his first few days at school. I am standing with him, once more at the front door. Letting him go, and trusting it will be ok. But this time, I know it’s not about me. Not only do I have to surrender him, he has to know that I am ok about it. That this is a “good thing”. So no tears mummy, not on the playground. My surrender gets steely, because he needs to know that he can flap his wings and that it’s safe to fly.

We grow up, we let go, and sometimes, we come back. Because it’s all ok. It’s safe to fly. Life is a series of letting go and grasping on. Leaving and returning. Surrendering and trusting.

As I forced that smile for the camera, I wondered: One day, will he look back at that picture, and know just how much I loved him? Will he know the pain of bringing him to birth and letting him go? Will he want to come back to my arms?

We surrender.
We let go.
We trust.

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“I will weep”: Leaders as pain-bearers

Apparently babies cry a lot. You’d think I would know this by now, having had three. But there is a biological switch that flicks off between one baby and the next: the same switch that helps women forget the pain of labour. You forget just how much a newborn baby cries. Babies cry for all sorts of reasons.

But mostly, they cry for no reason at all.

This is the toughest crying to deal with. Nothing can make it better. And in these moments the reality of parenting a newborn; the exhaustion and the pain and the frustration; seem so far removed from the fantasy world of happy families. Every scream says to new parents “You can’t help me! You’re not good enough!” Every intake of infant breath brings new hope that the sobbing might subside, and then a fresh bawl that splits the ears and crushes the spirit just a little more.

Emily is 10 weeks old. She’s a crier. She starts at about 6pm, and will keep it up all evening. She cries so hard that she won’t take her bottle. The only thing that soothes her is movement. And so we switch from bouncy chair, to swaying, to walking around, and then back to bouncy chair. Each transition triggered after a few moments of calm, as her face crumples again and her little body becomes racked once more with sobs.

And we ride the storm.

The other night it got a bit much. Nothing I could do for her was right. Everything I tried brought a fresh round of tears. Holding her hot, sobbing body – staying on the move to try and calm her – was just exhausting. I had to put her down and walk away. Gut wrenching.

A little later, as I held her again, I came across this article. It says:

However, there’s another major purpose crying serves. Babies also cry to heal and recover from stressful experiences. When babies come into the world they have often had a difficult journey. Even the gentlest of births leaves a baby with feelings to process as they get used to being in a new and stimulating world.

Crying, often every evening (for what appears to be no reason), is natural for babies, and providing we have triple-checked that all their needs are met, we don’t need to do anything to stop them. We can simply listen, pay warm attention, and allow them to release their feelings.

When a baby is supported to cry in a parent’s loving arms, they will release feelings of stress, then naturally sleep well.

And it got me thinking:

When babies are at their hardest to love – that’s when they need love most of all.
When babies seem to struggle and resist any form of affection – that’s when they need the security of being held.
When babies are inconsolable – that’s when they need the consolation they refuse so determinedly.

Are any of us any different?

We might learn to express some of our basic needs – hunger, or clothing, or security. But do we really? Which of our unreasonable or irrational behaviours are actually a cry for help? What do we still have to learn about expressing our need for affection, or security, or love, or healing? What trauma have we experienced, that we are yet to process?

These seem like really important questions for those of us who are in leadership and ministry roles. A few weeks ago I facilitated a session for colleagues in Chester Diocese on Resilience. As part of that morning, I said this:

A focus on our self is about developing a healthy foundation from which to listen and respond to others. If we can deal with and transform our own pain, we are better able to meet others in theirs, even when their expression of that pain is a threat to us, or is hurtful.

Managing ourselves gives us a better perspective when it comes to dealing with others. It allows us to stand back from the hurtful comment, the unfair criticism, the attempt at conflict, and to ask “What is behind these words? What is going on for this person, at this time, that is causing them to lash out in such a way?”

And I quoted Richard Rohr:

If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it. If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably give up on life and humanity.

And Notker Wolf:

We must be aware that we are never dealing with angels of light. People are more or less strong or weak, and we are all subject to envy, dislike, wilfulness and even deceit. This awareness preserves us from disappointment. It makes us compassionate and also alert to the uniqueness of people and situations. We must meet the challenge of taking human shortcomings into account without also passing judgement on them.

I wonder whether an effective model for leadership might be that of the pain-bearer?

The pain-bearer is the one who hears the cries of the world around them.
The one who holds those cries, as a parent holds their sobbing newborn, until they subside.
The one who is simply present: calm, reassuring and comforting.
The one who doesn’t turn their back and walk away from the pain, but who sits through it and suffers alongside.
The one who knows that they themselves are hard to love.
The one who listens, who pays warm attention, who is unafraid of feelings.

Pain-bearers are self-aware, secure, and committed to confronting and working through their own pain. They recognise their own inability to express their basic needs, and are ready to work through that inability. Pain-bearers are able to face the pain of another – their anger, frustration and fears – and sit with that pain. They hear past the cries of “You can’t help me!”, “You’re not good enough!” and they stay anyway.

I am lucky to know one or two pain-bearers. They are shy people, but they are leaders nevertheless. Theirs is a leadership that is wholly and completely for the other, so that those whose pain they bear may flourish and shine.

There’s a lot of pain around at the moment. Perhaps we need just a few more pain-bearers to help us navigate these times?

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Relationship MOT (Updated for 2017)

Today we met with couples who have booked a wedding at Christ Church in 2017. We helped them think through some of their preparations for the day, but a significant part of the morning was spent helping them to think about how to strengthen their relationships.

What follows is a revised version of the Relationship MOT I shared last year. It arises out of the conversations we’ve shared today as we’ve helped our engaged couples think about building healthy relationships.

***But this is not just for married or engaged couples***

I hope it will be helpful for anyone involved in a committed, long term relationship: Married, civil-partnered, or living together; gay or straight; newly committed or celebrating milestone anniversaries.

This list isn’t exhaustive. There may be other things that are more important for a couple to think through. And some things here may be irrelevant or unhelpful.

If you’ve got a partner, then grab a bottle of wine one night or a coffee one afternoon, and look at some of these questions together. Make sure your time is uninterrupted, and that there is enough privacy to do this well. Ten minutes before bed probably isn’t going to cut it. Nor is Saturday morning on the Metrolink (we’ve tried).

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The Questions: Relationship MOT

Communication
How are our differences in personality affecting the way we communicate with one another?
How is our work and home life affecting the way we communicate with one another?
Are we making time and space for meaningful conversation?
Are we finding it easy to talk to one another about our innermost thoughts and feelings?
If not, why?
Does each of us create a safe space for the other to be heard?
Are either of us holding onto past hurts and unforgiveness? What needs to happen to work this through?
Are both of us feeling understood by the other?
Are we both aware of one another’s love language?
Are we both investing energy in listening properly to one another?
What would make each of us feel more heard in the relationship?
Is there a recent example of us communicating well?

Commitment
Have we had fun together recently?
Do we both feel safe and secure in this relationship?
How are we making time for one another on a daily, weekly and monthly basis?
Are we getting enough time apart?
Have we planned fun things together to look forward to?
Are we making time for sex and intimacy?
(If you’re married, civil-partnered, or have celebrated some sort of commitment ceremony):
Which of our vows or promises of commitment are we finding easiest to live with at the moment?
Which are we finding hardest?

Conflict
Are we arguing well? (A good argument involves listening, seeing one another’s points of view, and finding resolution).
Are we aware of the differences in our approaches to everyday life?
Are we managing these differences well?
Is either of us intent on changing the other, or are we enabling one another to flourish as we are?
Are we arguing at the wrong times? Do we need to make space and time to talk properly?
When we argue, are we staying on topic or are we resorting to personal attack?
Does each of us have times when we back down and accept the other’s opinion?
Are we having the same argument over and over?

End thought: Love is not just about feelings.
Love is a choice that we go on making throughout a relationship. Sometimes it’s an easy choice to make. Sometimes, not so much. The relationships that are strongest are those where two people choose to continue loving, even through the rocky times.

When and where to get help?
Talking through some of these things may raise relationship problems that you either are or are not already aware of. No one has a perfect relationship, and every couple will go through bad times. If you need it, get help early and don’t be afraid to ask. It’s more common than you think. Many problems can be easily solved with some careful listening to one another, and a fresh perspective from outside.

Relate do wonderful work and seem to be accessible in a number of ways.

Your local parish clergy (that’s Jim, Suzie or I if you’re in Timperley) are usually really happy to sit with you and listen, and to offer pointers or suggestions for further support. If you live elsewhere, you can find your local parish church here.

If you want to do some reading on relationships, The Five Love Languages is a good place to start.

And if you are at all worried that you are trapped in an abusive relationship, you need to tell someone you trust or contact the National Domestic Violence Helpline or the Men’s Advice Line.