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.

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Pulling up the weeds: An Examen for self care

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


Self-care is a bit like weeding.

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

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

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

What if your life was a bit like a garden?

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

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

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Flowers and weeds: An Examen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And…

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

What weeds are present in your garden?

Which are shallow rooted annuals, easily pulled up?

Which are deep rooted and complex, needing dedicated attention?

Which give a nasty sting?

Which can you learn to adapt to and live with?

Which are fast growing and destructive?

Which are stealing your sunshine?

And…

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

For what am I grateful?

What gifts have I received?

What gifts can I offer?

What do my reflections tell me about who I am?

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

What might I become more deeply aware of tomorrow?

What inner pain needs my careful attention?

Where have I found life?

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Chatter

We’re full of it aren’t we?

Chit chat chatter.

I have been glued to BBC iPlayer recently for their series on BBC called Retreat: Meditations From a MonasteryIt’s compulsive watching: an hour during which absolutely nothing happens. Nothing and everything. I won’t spoil it. Watch it!

But one thing that struck me was the lack of chatter. It brought back memories of the “silent hour” we used to hold every Wednesday morning at theological college. For that hour, we were asked not to speak to one another; not to make noise; not to greet or even acknowledge one another. We were to give that hour completely to prayer and reflection.  To direct our attention to God, and to our inner self. We were liberated from chatter: it was wonderful.

The problem is, we are very good at chatter. We fill silence before it fills us. We try and generate companionship with small talk, and we small talk to make ourselves feel better. Of course, there is a time for this. But silence can be companionable too. The deeper silence of the brothers that featured on the BBC 4 series was inspiring. Their companionship was so deep, and they were so attuned to themselves and to one another, that there was no need for chatter. Small talk was useless, and each community modelled ways of living alongside one another without feeling compelled to fill the silence.

What we didn’t see was how this affected the quality of conversation that the brothers shared. I can guess, from my own experience of silence and community, that those conversations would have been shorter, deeper, and more life-giving that any small talk.

But chatter doesn’t just  happen “out there”, does it?

I have recently started a discipline of silence as my first task of the day. Before anyone else is awake, before the sun is up, there is silence.

Outwardly.

Inwardly, my mind, flabby as it is from being out of the silent habit, chatters on and on. I am learning to rein in my inner chatter. Small minds talk small. Even to themselves.

I was aware of this inner chatter recently as I led a congregation in 2 minutes’ silence on Remembrance Sunday. Outwardly, we were silent. But inwardly? As a ‘holder of the space’ I was conscious of my own chatter amidst my solemn reflection: Will I time the silence right? Will the recorded music work? Is everyone ok? Will my children keep quiet? 

(Ironically, perhaps, the children were as silent and still as any of us, and they were perhaps much better, too, at silencing their inner chatter. What example we could take from them!).

Chatter. We do it to make ourselves feel better. And we do it because it’s bad habit. I wonder what deep-talk we might achieve if we manage to silence our small talk? And I wonder what inner peace we might find, if our minds can break their habit of chatter?

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This present moment

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Change and Decay: A meditation for the seasonally affected

Autumn took me by surprise this year.

Overnight, warm sun seemed to turn to cold rain. I don’t think this was just my lack of attentiveness. The seasons overlap and creep upon us and tease us as they ebb and flow before disappearing without warning. This Autumn was a poignant one for me as my oldest child started school. It hit me harder than I expected. The reality of the passing of time and of ageing; the grief at losing concentrated time with one of my soulmates; the submission to an institution and a system that I knew so little about; the change of rhythm to our days, weeks, and terms; the extra time and space it gave me to reflect back on a year of (so far) extraordinary gift and challenge – and the inner work this involved.

Autumn is a moment in which we are caught up in, taken aback by, and plunged into change, perhaps without feeling ready for it. Death and decay creep in: plants die and leaves fall.

It’s hard to think of Spring at this time of year. But I am always surprised at how quickly the decay turns again to life. What strength must lie in the earth, that it can so quickly bring to birth once more green signs of life. Winter is never death, and always gestation.

What follows is a meditation for all who have found themselves hitting October with bewilderment: where has this year gone?

It is for all who fear change, decay and death.

It is, perhaps, the song of the sunflowers. 

What makes you strong doesn’t come from outside. What makes you strong is what you carry within. In plants, strength and vitality lie dormant in winter, ready to burst through with new shoots in Spring. Autumn is a time to bed down, to reabsorb life and take it back to the innermost places, to quieten and to listen and to wait. This jars, amidst the otherwise busy-ness of this time of year.

This Autumn, may we find time to keep slow pace with the trees, and like them, store up vitality.


Our moment of parting
Was unnoticed.
How was I to know that sunset smile
Would be the last you would show me
Before the cold months of your absence?

Your whispered goodbye
Barely heard
Above the cruel, harsh winds
So quick to hurry in change
And decay.

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I still look
Still search
Still reach
For your August warmth
But you glare at me
Me, surrounded by the sodden brown carpet
That once was glorious canopy,
And you are
Taunting
Cold
And give nothing.

And so it is time for
Disengagement
Detachment
Decay
I turn in on myself
Returning withered to my roots.

And here is all I need.

Dying and gestating within me
The remnant of the goodness we had
And the promise of a Spring yet to be:
Painful memories and hopeful promises
Stored up for the life that will grow
As I wait; patiently, slowly, still.

A meditation for the impatient

Impatience isn’t always bad. But how difficult it can be to live wholly in the present moment. Here is an exploration of waiting – more questions than anything: an unresolved conversation of my self with self, and perhaps arising from my own feelings of frustrated impatience.


What are you waiting for?

What lurks beyond your horizon
Nagging and pulling you from
The peace of the now
To the mystery of the next?

What wonder, what pain
Haunts the memory of a future
Yet to be?

What promise and dread surround you?
What hopes sustain you
What fears detain you
In the night time of your vigil?

How are you waiting?

In peace and confidence
Or in trembling anxiety of what may
Or may not
Happen?

What colour will be the dawn
That rises from the night?

Might it be that the curse you expect
Comes instead as blessing,
As the dark turns to violet and orange and brilliant blue?

And when will your waiting end?

Is it enough to receive the gift of tomorrow?
Or is your waiting endless habit:
Always anticipating, never receiving?

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Buffers and safety nets: managing busyness

The bigger your empire grows, the more you have to look after your hinterland.
Ed Balls, quoting advice from Denis Healey.

Advent is a busy time in this house. We are two clergy with two churches and two children. Every year it challenges our discipline of remaining unbusy and resisting a culture of overwork. Every year we become busy and we overwork. We reach Christmas Day feeling grumpy, tired and ill. And every year we look back and feel like perhaps we missed out on the prayerful preparation that the four weeks of Advent are set aside for.

But this is never failure.

As I look back, I can see that each year, we have developed a little bit more awareness. We have learned more about managing our time better. We have become slicker at preparation and invested more time in people – and ourselves. We have realised that perfection is out and “good enough” is in. We have scaled down our expectations, and taken pressure off ourselves. We are learning.

In his memoirs, Ex-politician Ed Balls writes insightfully about balancing leadership and life. Those who watched his recent performances on Strictly Come Dancing will have seen a man full of energy and vitality: someone whose world is bigger than his work.

For Ed, his growing “empire” was his career, as he became a political adviser, then an MP, then a cabinet minister, and then shadow chancellor. His “hinterland” was the hobbies he nurtured to keep him sane: sport, music, family and friends. He speaks powerfully of Denis Healey’s influence on his own work/life balance, and the importance of being a multi-dimensional leader with a life beyond politics.

It’s not so different for anyone else.

For clergy in local churches, the empire grows each Advent as we take on extra work, meet extra people, hold extra services and keep friends and family (of all shapes and sizes) entertained. In these moments, perhaps our hinterland gets neglected. Perhaps we don’t have a hinterland to start with.

And this isn’t just a problem for clergy. I suspect most of us feel the pressure of Christmas mounting through Advent. I suspect we all know the rising guilt of failing – yet again – to create the perfect Christmas, as we reach the day itself feeling tired, ill, grumpy.

The lesson in our house this Advent has been simple, but profound. I hope it will transform the way we work well into next year, so that by Advent 2017 it has become habit. Our lesson is this: buffers and safety nets.

Buffers are stoppers. They make us pause, reflect and turn 20161218_172747around if necessary.
Safety nets are there to catch us when we fall.

In a usual week, by accident rather than design, we have breathing space. Time to catch up with each other, and other colleagues and friends. We have time to tinker with a sermon, read a chapter of a book, respond to a pastoral crisis, make a decent cup of coffee, and take the kids to the park for an hour.

This availability is our hinterland, our buffer, our safety net. And in busy times, as the diary fills up and every waking minute is used, we lose them. Busyness becomes dangerous as the buffer is no longer there to make us pause, and the safety net is no longer there to break a fall.

We don’t notice until we have a small problem. A poorly parishioner, a family argument or a broken printer. And then we need the buffer of time, and the buffer has gone. A small problem becomes stressful, drawn out and more difficult to resolve. We tire, we fall, we crash.

So, I say this to myself, and to anyone else who has felt the pressures of life lately. It’s become a mantra in our house this month: Get to know your buffers. Rig up your safety nets. Don’t neglect your hinterland. And when things get busy as your empire grows, defend them fiercely and cling to them at all costs. Without them, we become one-dimensional and wrung out. With them, we become people who have time, energy and joy that flows beyond ourselves and transforms those around us.

Safety nets and buffers: the best gifts you can give yourself this Christmastime.