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.

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

For the Interim Time

I’m mindful that I haven’t shared much here lately. Partly, life has taken over somewhat and my reflections have happened in ‘real time’, rather than as anything that translates into text. And partly because I’m in the unnerving, exhausting place of liminal space. Doing any thinking from this place is hard – and again – when thinking happens here it translates rarely into words.

I’ll write again soon. For now, this blessing, from John O’Donohue, captures something of what I would say, if the shady squashy surroundings of this liminal space could take on words. So here it is, for anyone who finds themselves, with me, in the interim time.


For the Interim Time

When near the end of day, life has drained
Out of light, and it is too soon
For the mind of night to have darkened things,

No place looks like itself, loss of outline
Makes everything look strangely in-between,
Unsure of what has been, or what might come.

In this wan light, even trees seem groundless.
In a while it will be night, but nothing
Here seems to believe the relief of darkness.

You are in this time of the interim
Where everything seems withheld.

The path you took to get here has washed out;
The way forward is still concealed from you.

“The old is not old enough to have died away;
The new is still too young to be born.”

You cannot lay claim to anything;
In this place of dusk,
Your eyes are blurred;
And there is no mirror.

Everyone else has lost sight of your heart
And you can see nowhere to put your trust;
You know you have to make your own way through.

As far as you can, hold your confidence.
Do not allow confusion to squander
This call which is loosening
Your roots in false ground,
That you might come free
From all you have outgrown.

What is being transfigured here in your mind,
And it is difficult and slow to become new.
The more faithfully you can endure here,
The more refined your heart will become
For your arrival in the new dawn.


From: “Benedictus: A Book of Blessings” by John O’Donohue. Published in 2007 by Transworld Ireland.

“There’s a volcano in my tummy”

There’s a volcano in my tummy. Apparently that’s a good phrase to help children describe the overwhelming, frightening feeling of uncontrollable, unquenchable anger. I like it. I use it with my kids. There is a book of the same name.

It seems that many of us adults too, have a volcano in our tummies. These volcanoes seem to erupt particularly in two areas: social media, and driving.

Take yesterday, for instance. I was walking down Park Road. Within 5 minutes I had witnessed two incidents of road rage. One directed by a middle-aged man at an elderly lady, who had slowed her manoeuvre to allow a pedestrian to cross. Another by a minibus driver, directed at a car who had slowed to turn into a side road (earning themselves an explosive “PRICK!” – I couldn’t really fathom why).

These sights are not untypical in an average 20 minute walk around here.

Or on social media. An incident of young people causing mischief was posted, again yesterday, on a local Facebook group. Within minutes, there were angry calls for punishment and retribution that went beyond reasonable – with some advocating a violent response.

These incidents are not unusual. Many of us will witness things like this several times a day.

Why is it that words and behaviour that are completely socially unacceptable suddenly become normalised when we sit behind a keyboard or a steering wheel? I mean, I don’t see many people careering around Tesco with a shopping trolley shouting “PRICK!” at little old ladies… (there is a wonderful Michael McIntyre sketch along these lines).

Lots of adult volcanos erupting.

There is a deeper, uncomfortable truth here.

Because there’s a volcano in my tummy too.

A burning anger that sometimes smoulders and other times rages white hot, but always there, buried, and ready to erupt and spew when another driver cuts me up on the road. Or, more honestly, when a driver blocks my safe passage on the pavement as a pedestrian. Hell hath no fury like a mum walking the school run amidst dangerous driving and parking…

I try and rein it in, and sometimes I even manage.

Why are so many of us so angry?

We shrug it off when it happens. Point a finger at the “prick” and console ourselves that we are the better driver, the more upright citizen. That we have a right to be angry – that the target of our anger has somehow deserved this violent outpouring of bile.

The truth is, my anger is not so righteous. Because if I chip away at it, I find not integrity and blamelessness, but a sense of entitlement (“it’s my right of way”, of possessiveness (“it’s my pavement”), and of selfishness (“my life would be safer if they were locked up”).

And then if I chip away another layer, I find, under the entitlement and possessiveness and selfishness, a well of pain that I have hidden away. Rejections. Disappointments. Fears. Disillusionment. All neatly stored, unprocessed and undealt with, and crusted over with a defensive, smouldering anger.

Anger becomes my defence mechanism. My way of shielding the painful parts of myself from the world around. Mostly I can hold it in and keep a lid on it. But sometimes it erupts – for many of us – from the driving seat or the computer screen.

If only we could say that this was a problem for online interaction and road safety. But if half of us are walking around, living day to day with these intense volcanoes, we are hardly an emotionally healthy and robust community of people.

“There’s a volcano in my tummy“, I encourage my kids to say. How many adults were never taught to handle their anger well? Anger is never comfortable to observe. As angry kids we shout and scream and slam and hit and screech and cry. And we’re told to pack it in! and be quiet! and STOP!.

So we bury it. Layer on layer. Hardened crust on hardened crust. We never learn to deal with it. Anger remains dangerous, taboo, frightening. It must be kept hidden and never shown.

But these crusted volcanoes have a nasty habit of showing themselves. The moment we feel ‘safe’ – stuck in our metal boxes-on-wheels or hiding behind a screen name, out spews the magma.

I wonder, what did people do 100 years ago – before cars and computers – to vent their anger?

Anger isn’t bad. It’s not unhealthy. Used well, it can be a creative force for justice and good. And yet unless we learn to harness it, process it, and then release it, it will always harness us. Anger management seems to be quite an enterprise. But perhaps we could just start by owning it, by talking about it.

No shame. No judgement. No guilt.

Just safe space to be honestly angry, or angrily honest, in an attempt to try and tame this most frightening of emotions.

There’s a volcano in my tummy, and there’s a volcano in your tummy. And that’s ok.

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.

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.

We are the Advent people

“Best. Christmas. Ever”.

So ran a supermarket advertising campaign last year.

Every year on Christmas afternoon, I feel a bit deflated. Yes, it’s probably 99% tiredness after the energy and emotion poured into Christmas in the parish. But there is also a part of me, every year, that thinks “Is this it?”

Is this it?

For all the hype and the build up and the long hours spent wrapping presents and preparing food and looking forward to – Christmas feels a little bit like ‘blink and you’ll miss it’. Have I ever enjoyed the elusive “Best. Christmas. Ever”? No.

The church makes a big deal of Advent – a time of waiting and preparation. What we don’t do quite so well is remind ourselves that, for all our preparations, Christmas Day actually isn’t it. However patient our waiting, however sincere our choruses of “O Come O Come”, if our focus is on how the big day works out, then our waiting will feel frustrated.

One of my favourite quotes is from John Paul II:

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

Through Advent this year, something within me has wanted to turn this inside out a little:

Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Advent people, and our waiting will go on.

Watchful, faithful, active waiting.

We are called, as God’s people, to watch for signs of the Divine Kingdom: to look for glimmers of hope and light and life and love – and to bring these glimmers out of darkness and let them shine brightly.

We are called, as God’s people, to stay faithful: to hold on to God’s promises, no matter how unfaithful we feel we may be, and to have confidence to begin again, and again.

We are called, as God’s people, to be active in our waiting. When we see places and meet people who are in desperate need of justice and compassion, our watchful waiting must become active: we are called to be agents of change and justice in the unfairness of life around us.

We are called. And we are called together. As one. As the Advent people.

I know I will feel a sense of deflation this year, as Christmas Day passes as fast as any other day, as the preparations cease and as my Advent busyness is replaced by Boxing Day emptiness. It’s ok to feel deflated.

But I hope I might remember, too, that one day was never going to fulfill the emptiness within me: the yearning for something more, something better.

The hope and joy shaped holes with me will never be filled by Christmas Day. Not even the “Best. Christmas. Ever.”

Filling these gaps takes longer. But they are being filled, ever so slowly, by the hope of a promise.

The promise of a God who is still at work to redeem this world, and who invites us to join in.

The promise of a homecoming that we are yet to make.

And the promise of a life, which begins now and never ends, in which we will find peace, and love, and wellbeing.

If Christmas 2017 was your “best Christmas ever”, then my commiserations for this year and every year following. But I believe – and I dare to hope – that for all of us, the best is yet to come.

And in the meantime:

We are the Advent people, and our waiting will go on!

 

The road not taken: Indecision and missing out

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…

I came relatively late in life to Robert Frost’s famous poem. If you don’t know it – go now, and read it. It will stay with you long after you’ve forgotten my words.

I spend a lot of time with people who are trying to work out what to do with their lives. Which roads to take, and which to ignore. I hear stories of fear and curiosity; of regret and gratitude; of anxiety and excitement.

And for every road we take, we turn our backs on ten, a hundred, a thousand more. A thousand roads not taken. The snickets and cul-de-sacs of life that we will never explore and that will remain untrodden. Perhaps more weighty than the question of “Which way?” is: “How do I deal with the knowledge of the roads not taken?” 

That is, how do I manage the overwhelming sense of Missing Out (I’m currently reading a fascinating book of the same title) on the options I don’t choose? The potential I never realise? The opportunities I allow to slip away, unseized?

I have wrestled with a decision recently. I was tortured, for a while, about which road to take. It seemed as if one road would lead to joy, and life, and fulfilment, and the other to despair and exhaustion and disillusionment. The problem was, I didn’t know which road would lead where. It felt as if choosing one road would close off ten more. I was paralysed with indecision. Even though I’ve written about this before, even though I hold firmly to the notion that there are no bad decisions, I fell into a rut.

I didn’t know what was the ‘right’ thing to do.

And this might make me seem crazy, but eventually, with Robert Frost in mind, I wrote to myself. This is usually my ‘fall back’ option when prayer and reflection and meditation fail me. When I’m getting deeper into fog with no clarity. In these moments, writing becomes an act of untangling: a gentle separating of the threads that have wrapped themselves around my soul. And somewhere, there is usually a still, small voice of divine sense.

So this is what I wrote:

I’m not going to tell you what you should do, or who you should be. The paths are yours to take. You choose one before another and they all lead to joyful surprise and sorrow-filled desolation. Whichever way you go, there will be tight, dark corners and glorious summits – and you will navigate through, step by sometimes painful step, because there is always another step on. I will be with you but I will never force you.

These decisions are not mine to make – but yours. I will give you good, wise people and a capacity to seek out their wisdom. But rarely will I shovel it into your consciousness. You must seek it out: lament it, search for it, find it, and treasure it. And you will. Find it.

But the wisdom is not in the decisions; the roads you take. The wisdom is in how you walk them. No matter what roads you take, you also choose how to travel them. So I’m not going to tell you what to do. That choice is a gift that is yours alone. But choose with confidence and freedom, and know that the road you take shuts off no doors and few opportunities.

And when you do choose a road, walk it wisely.

The wisdom is not in the roads you take, but in how you choose to walk them.

To this point, I have thought of choice as being an exercise of my freedom. But perhaps those of us caught up in the cultural metanarrative of ‘progression’ (that is, we believe that as a race, we need to advance, to progress, to flourish, to succeed, to prosper…) are actually slaves to indecision. We believe a myth that only the ‘right’ decisions will allow us the greatest prosperity (as if prosperity is all we have to hope for…!)

So maybe the decisions – the roads we choose – don’t matter. Maybe what matters is how we live out the decisions we make. We could take one road, or another, and yet on both roads we could make choices that bring life or joy to ourselves and others – or we could make choices that sap us of strength and energy.

So, going forward, I am resolved not to worry too much, with dear Robert, about the roads not taken. There will always be missed opportunities and more potential than can ever be realised. What I will worry more about is how I travel the roads I take:

Will I be a good companion?
Will I seek out those lost on the way, and walk with them?
Will I try and light up the darker corners of the paths I take?
Will I walk wisely, and rest often?

And perhaps, when we become more conscious of how we walk the roads we take, instead of which roads we take, perhaps then we don’t miss out on all that much after all.

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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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