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.

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Take this light: A reflection for Candlemas

On Sunday in the parish we celebrated The Presentation of Christ in the Temple: also known as Candlemas. We heard again the account of Jesus being brought to the temple by his young parents, to be met by Simeon and aged Anna: expectant, hopeful and looking for this baby who would be a light for all people.

As is traditional at this time of year, we brought candles and lights from home to be blessed and taken away again: a sign of the light of Christ that each of us carries out into the world. As we lit our candles and switched off the lights around the crib, I spoke about the significance of what we were doing. What follows is an adapted and developed version of what I said in that moment.


As December nights grew colder, darker
So we huddled around this place

Waiting.

Waiting for the light to glow:
Faint, at first –
Then a crescendo to full brilliance
As the promise of a saviour came to pass.

We knelt here in worship with the shepherds
And sang his praises with the Christmas angels.
We basked in Joseph’s quiet wonder
And we heard Mary’s joyous yes.

We brought gifts to mark the arrival:
Crafted woollen sheep
Whispered prayers
Tears of loss
Of joy.

We made room here for the lost and the forgotten
Shepherd rubbed shoulder with father as we placed our own people around the manger.
Always room for more.

We watched in anticipation
Long after the world ditched Christmas
Sharing a star with far away travellers
And claiming their homage to this child as our own:
A light for all people.

And now we gather here
One last time.
And we switch off the manger’s light.

Not because he is gone.
Not because it is over.
Not because we are done.

But because he is here.
Because it has begun.
Because we are called.

The light that began in this crib
Is the light we now hold in our hands
As we take its blessings back
To home and to heart.

But it doesn’t stay there.

Take it: take it in your words, your actions, your care
And shine it into the bleakest corners of this world.
Take it and illuminate your heart as you light up your home
So that you become bearers of the manger’s light
In the coldest, shadowy places of life.

Take it, and know that you are blessed
And will bless
And will grow
And will go
Onwards, down darkest paths
As people who carry this light.

God has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and has given us a place with the saints in light.
You have received the light of Christ; walk in this light all the days of your life.
Shine as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father.

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Ebb and flow at Rievaulx 

We spent yesterday at Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire. The site contains the ruined remains of a Cistercian community who lived, worked and prayed in the area for over 400 years. 

The condition of the ruins, along with the thoughtfulness of the information provided by English Heritage, make it easy to imagine the Rievaulx ways of life. But, more than this, half a century of faithful prayer and simple living have left spiritual footprints on the area that are impossible to miss. 

Faced with this ruined grandeur and remnant spirituality, I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if history had been kinder to Rievaulx. 

What if it hadn’t struggled so badly in the 13th Century with livestock loss and debt? 

What if it had not been pillaged by the Scots in 1322?

What if it had not been struck by the Black Death in 1348?

What if more than 15 monks (down from 650) had survived to the end of the 1380s?

What if it had not been suppressed and dismantled in 1538?

What if the dissolution of the monasteries had not taken place? 

What would Rievaulx be today? 

These questions turned naturally on their head, to the institutions and ways of life that I know and love. The ones that seem strong, and yet are as fragile as Rievaulx. 

What if the bricks in the wall of my life – the bricks that offer security and hope and a future – one day lie as ruined as this once-great abbey? 

Rievaulx’s most famous abbot was also one of its first: Aelred. As Aelred watched his community strengthen and prosper, I wonder what he knew about life’s ebb and flow? 

Did he hope that Rievaulx  would become one of the richest abbeys in England? 

Did he fear the challenges that eventuality brought it to its knees? 

Did he wonder about the imprint of holiness that his community would leave on the area for centuries after its death? 

Halfway through our visit, we set up a groundsheet on the site of one of the many chantry chapels. The significance of sitting down for a picnic where, centuries earlier and for hundreds of years, monks and locals had gathered to break bread, was not lost on us. 

And so the questions that have stayed with me – questions about me and about the institutions and ways of life that I take for granted – are these:

When I am gone and forgotten, who will picnic on the remains of my chapel? 

What spiritual footprints will I leave? 

How might my holiness (or otherwise) impact a place? 

What grandeur I see now will lie in ruins? 

What of these ruins will people wonder at? 

Rievaulx was a good reminder of life’s ebb and flow. We grow, we prosper, we struggle, we fade away; leaving only our footprints in time. 

Contemplative Leadership

20170112_142438Along with several colleagues, I have recently discovered Keith Lamdin’s Finding Your Leadership Style. Keith’s work is full of common sense, optimism, realism and encouragement. He examines different paradigms of leader: the monarch, the warrior, the servant, the elder, the contemplative and the prophet. Each of us, he argues, will have a dominant paradigm in our leadership (and, he says, if leadership is “influencing others”, then anyone can do it and most do). David Herbert has written a helpful overview of Keith’s book in his blog post Leadership Styles and a Political Divide.

If there was a part of the book that was disappointing, it was the chapter on contemplative leadership, which seemed to lack detail and depth. Keith recognises a growing desire in church ministers to connect more fully with this paradigm and to claim something absolutely distinctive for Christian leadership. He acknowledges the core value of contemplative living as holding God in your heart and knowing that you are precious… and loved for who you are, and yet by the end of the chapter I was left wondering what he felt contemplative leadership might look like, or why it is needed.

Well-rested leaders

In my own ministry, I often return to Wayne Muller’s quote on Sabbath: The world longs for the generosity of a well-rested people. Here, I interpret “rest” not necessarily as sleep or holiday, but as the radical, life-giving, world-changing rest that we find at the heart of life with God. Rest that relieves us from the burdens of isolation, overwork, and self-interest, and places us in a secure centre from which we interact with and relate to the world around us. It’s the rest that Jesus spoke of in Matthew 11:28: Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.

Rest (in this sense) is at the heart of the contemplative life. It is the rest that the world craves for its people. Rest enables us to be outward looking, non-anxious, compassionate, unhurried, positive, unruled by our ego, and champions of the other. These are values I see rarely in leaders. They are generosity in action.

The contemplative life

In Streams of Living Water, Richard Foster identifies seven “characteristics and movements” of the contemplative life (words in italics are his):

Love: A deepening love for God. A love that is sometimes intense, and sometimes cold, but deepens and strengthens over time.
Peace: A firmness of life orientation that grounds us. This is not a feeling of freedom from anxiety and pressure, but rather a feeling of security and centredness within it.
Delight: A sense of friendship and fun in our relationship with God: God laughs into our soul and our soul laughs back into God.
Emptiness: A dissatisfied satisfaction. A sense of frustration within the intense highs of contemplative living. This might be a yearning, an emptiness, a dryness or a darkness.
Fire: A growing, painful knowledge of everything within us that doesn’t please God, and an awareness of his purifying work within us.
Wisdom: A deepening knowledge of God: not intellectualism, but a knowing and inflowing of God himself.
Transformation: The gradual changes within as God captures our heart, will, mind, imagination and passions.

Contemplative leadership

Mary is often cited as an example of a contemplative leader: known as the God bearer, she bore Christ not only in her womb, but in all the sufferings and heartache that came with nurturing a beloved child who also happened to be God incarnate. Her life and ministry were rooted in inner contemplation. Amidst the activity that surrounded her new born baby, there was a simplicity in her own response: But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart (Luke 2:19).

As Keith Lamdin notes in passing, the metaphor of God-bearer is a good one for contemplative leadership. If, as Richard Foster argues, a potential peril of the contemplative tradition is a separation from the real world, and a lack of engagement with real life issues, perhaps contemplative leaders are those who manage to do both: to gently nurture and fiercely protect their inner life, while allowing God to flow out from that life and into the world. Contemplative leaders become the God bearers within our communities. Another way of phrasing this might be (as many contemplative traditions do) active contemplation.

So what might contemplative leadership look like in the present-day? I wonder if these characteristics are a good place to start, although there will be more:

Awareness. Contemplative leaders are growing in their awareness of God, self and other. They manage their own inner life effectively, and deal with their own negative emotions and reactions (or seek help in doing so). They are expert listeners and observers, and are able to identify where God might be at work in any number of situations. And they often help those they lead to identify and work on spiritual, emotional and material blind spots, bringing God into the ordinary, the painful and the hopeless.

Prayer. Contemplative leaders have a prayer life rooted not in cerebral knowledge, but in hard-won experience. Their prayers will often go beyond words (indeed, words may be a barrier to prayer) but this enables them to pray in any number of ways and moments. Just as contemplative leaders are God bearers, so they become people bearers, holding in prayer the lost, the lonely, the suffering. The practice they devote to prayer in private enables their whole living to become prayer.

Creativity. Contemplative leaders usually have active imaginations and lively dreams! They give time and attention to thinking creatively about problems and situations, and the space they allow themselves enables a better response than ‘we’ve always done it this way’. Fresh expressions of faith and worship are rooted in this time alone for the contemplative leader to reflect and create. The active imagination of the contemplative allows for possibilities for God to minister in ways not otherwise enabled. (Keith Lamdin discusses dreams and visions as an expression of the prophetic paradigm, but I wonder if they are perhaps more an expression of the contemplative?)

Depth. Contemplative leaders do not offer quick, superficial fixes. Their response – to God and to others – is measured and thoughtful. This can be frustrating for those being led in the age of the instantaneous. Often problems arise, and are addressed and dealt with more quickly than the contemplative can sit down to consider them. Their own response to a problem will be to step back, to reflect, to consult and to wait. If they are allowed time to do this, they will often find solutions that are more deeply effective and longer lasting than the quick fix. The challenge for the contemplative leader is to make themselves heard, and persuade others to slow down and allow time for a deeper solution to emerge.

Security. Contemplative leaders are rooted in God, and devoted to nurturing attention to God above all else. This growing awareness of God and their own place within his love enables them to be centred and secure. Because of this groundedness, contemplative leaders are perhaps more able than other paradigms to lead in ways that are differentiated and non-anxious. This, in turn, enables the community as a whole to flourish free of anxiety. A secure leaders forms a secure people. For more on this see Edwin Friedman’s Theory of Differentiated Leadership. Because of their centredness, contemplative leaders are strong leaders, but not in the ways we would expect: their strength manifests inwardly as much as outwardly.

Leading by example

Every person is called to contemplation. Every person deserves to give time to nurturing the inner life. As we become more attentive to God within us, so we notice him more around us and beyond us. Contemplative leaders help us, by their example, to pay attention: to God, to ourselves, and to others. Attention, depth of character, and love are increasingly absent from modern life, and so who better than the contemplative leaders among us to draw us back to our still centre? In the coming years, contemplative leadership could be a prophetic task for the whole church, if we were equipped and ready to offer this to the world.

I have not only repeated the affirmation that contemplation is real, but I have insisted on its simplicity, sobriety, humility, and its integration in normal Christian life.
Thomas Merton.

Five things that parenting is teaching me about leadership

Five unformed thoughts on being a parent, being a leader, and how the one informs the other…

1. It’s going to get messy!
My kids are messy: it’s how they learn.

They are most engaged with pretend play when I let them empty 8 boxes of toys all over the lounge, sit in the midst of it all, and act like I’m grateful for the plate of squashed plastic food I’m offered. But it teaches them social skills.

They are most likely to eat dinner when I turn a blind eye as they tip their food off their plates, rub their hands through it, and wave it around in the air. But it teaches them to be at ease with food.

They often need my best efforts at comfort when they’re at their dirtiest: blood and tears staining my clothes as I sit in the mud that they slipped on while I hold them and soothe their fall-induced sobbing.

Parenting is messy. But in the untidiness, my kids learn and thrive and grow. In the mess, they need my intimate involvement: sleeves rolled up and hair pushed back. I have to be in the mess with them.

We don’t lead from the margins. We can’t stay squeaky clean. The most effective leaders I know are the ones who jump down from the pedestal, roll up their sleeves, and get elbow-deep into the mess of their people. It’s not glamorous, there’s not much glory in it, but it’s where people grow.

Leadership: It’s going to get messy!

2. I learn as much from them as they do from me
Father never knows best. Neither does Mum. Sometimes I pick a battle with the kids and realise a split-second too late, actually, they’re right. Trumped by a three year old. Our relationship is at its best not in our head-to-head battles, but in our learning to listen, negotiate, understand, and see a different perspective.

The kids teach me something new every day. Simplicity, attentiveness, joy, kindness, acceptance and inquisitiveness are all gifts that I am growing into, because of their examples.

It takes courage for a leader to admit that their people have things to teach them. It’s one thing to say it – we all say it – but to live it and model it, especially when we have to admit that we’re wrong, requires gutsy humility. My leadership feels more genuine when I am both teacher and pupil. In this way leadership becomes a dynamic interaction that enables mutual flourishing, and we grow together through it.

Leadership: Leaders still have a lot to learn20160512_193707

3. They will not grow into a mini-me
How I am gripped by the temptation to sculpt my kids into small statues of my own self! They already look like me, talk like me, act like me. I want the best for them, and “the best” is everything that I didn’t quite acheive or experience. What is middle age when one can relive one’s youth through one’s offspring?

But they are not me. They will have their own hopes and dreams. Their own gifts and vocations. These things are not mine to snatch and sculpt. To speak into them, even when invited, is to tread on hallowed ground.

Leaders can be tempted to form our people into miniature versions of ourselves. Without great care, Christian leadership may turn into “helping people to become more like Jesus me”. The overwhelming urge to correct those who dare to voice an opposing opinion, or to belittle those whose faith story is alien to my own, is an all-present danger.

Good leadership is about providing safe space. Space in which people can explore, ask questions, and grow more deeply into their God-given self. It requires great trust from the leader: “Will my people be okay if it turns out that they are not like me after all?”

Leadership: Breaking the me-mould

4. Interruptions are hidden treasure
Parenting is one long interruption. From the positive pregnancy test, to the sleepless nights and the sick days away from school: kids go through crises on a daily basis. In a moment plans have to adapt and fit around this tiny person who wields such surprising power.

It’s frustrating, exhausting, and one of the greatest gifts of parenting. So there’s a full day of work planned and the toddler’s running a fever? Work has to adapt as home boundaries are drawn in. The central heating is turned up, blankets are pulled out of drawers, and pyjamas are worn. Jobs are done in-between cuddles. Phone calls are made to the soundtrack of cBeebies. Meetings are rearranged, and the space and stillness created for this little body to repair itself becomes like hidden treasure. The interruption becomes a golden moment for nurture, care, bonding and comfort.

We leaders have great plans for our people. The trouble is, the people keep interrupting the plans! And yet the inconvenient interruptions – the personal crises and pastoral fall outs and undiaried encounters – become golden moments in leadership. It these interruptions, unprepared and unscripted, which create space for God to be at work without me applying my own agenda and solution. The more experience I gain as a leader, the more I cherish and search for interruptions.

Leadership: The interruptions are everything

5. It’s all about the love
My kids are good kids. I think I’m a pretty good parent: the best, for these particular kids. We have good systems, boundaries, rules and strategies in place, and we all live within these.* But none of these are parenting at my most effective. At the heart of our family life is a self-giving, unconditional, honest love. Boundaries can be moved, rules broken and systems blown apart.  The time we spend together, and the attention we offer to one another, are the glue that holds us together. We create memories, share secrets, walk a long way together; we laugh and cry and gossip together.

*Sometimes.

But it’s not all idyllic. We bicker and argue. Sometimes we might be aggressive, verbally or physically (the kids are very good at fighting with their feet). We all have our selfish moments. Sometimes the kids make me so irrationally angry that by their bedtime I am reduced to stony, exhausted silence when I should be singing songs to soothe and comfort them. My oldest is only three: apparently it just gets harder from now. Every parent knows the heartache of loving their kids. Love hurts.

Strategies, boundaries and systems are great tools for leaders. But they are not leadership. When the fancy structures fall away, leadership is about building relationships, falling into steadfast love with our people, and committing to the flourishing of everyone in our care. It’s about offering a self-giving love so strong that it makes our hearts ache.

Leadership: It’s all about the love

 

 

…and a victory of hope

It was the women who went to deal with his body. Early, at dawn. Few would see them. They wouldn’t make much fuss.

They would nurture him in death as they had tended him in life. Washing him with tears and anointing him with oil. Grieving, broken, empty.

But then everything changed.

An empty tomb.
A panic.
An earthquake.
A bright light.
An angel.
A cry.

A greeting.

A RESURRECTION!

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A revolution beyond all expectations.
A victory greater than political autonomy.
A liberation more eternal than simple Earthly freedom.

The victory of Easter is a different sort of victory.
It is a victory that points all of our struggles towards a greater whole.
It is a victory that shines the most brilliant of lights into the darkest of our experiences.

It is a victory that hears our emptiness and brokenness, our failures and frustrations, our disappointment and fear, our dying dreams and our misplaced expectation, and says…

these things do not have the last word.

Easter day is a triumph of:

Joy
over
sorrow

Peace
over
turmoil

Reconciliation
over
conflict

Reunion
over
grief

Good
over
evil

Rest
over
pain

Stillness
over
anxiety

Love
over
hatred

Life
over
death

Light the fireworks!
Uncork the champagne!
Laugh and sing and marvel in awesome wonder!

Today we know not how our story ends, but that our story doesn’t end.
Today is simply the beginning of the eternity of our lives.
Today we mock and laugh at Death himself, knowing that although we bear his scars, he will never again defeat us.

Some questions to enrich, embolden, renew, and restore:

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What new dreams are gestating within you?
What flickers of hope can you see in the darkness?
Where are the safe places emerging in which you can put trust?
Which of your frustrations is opening a door to new, surprising opportunities?

Death has been swallowed up in victory.
Where, O grave, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?

 

Into the Ashes

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.
Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.

On Ash Wednesday, are we concerned with our beginning or our ending?

We are at the beginning of Lent: forty days of fasting and devotion lie ahead of us.
We are perhaps considering beginning something new: a spiritual discipline, new habit, or acts of kindness.
We are reminded, as the cross of ash dusts our faces, of the new beginnings we have in Christ.

And Ash Wednesday is about our ending too.
We might be committing ourselves to ending bad habits, or denying ourselves something for a season.
We are invited to confront our mortality: to dust you will return.
We are marked with ash: the bleak nothingness that is left after glowing embers have died cold.

Ash Wednesday is a beginning and an ending.
Ash Wednesday is a liturgical staging post, encouraging us to take a moment, step out of our tired routines, and pause.
Ash Wednesday is a turning circle: an opportunity to look back, look ahead, put down, pick up, re-evaluate, take stock, change direction, and carry on.

Ash Wednesday is the day when we have the courage to face our ending.
Into the ashes we go, as we put on the symbol of all that threatens our wellbeing and happiness.
Ash Wednesday is the day when we can wear death on our face and say that this is not the end.

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The ash that we wear is not a smudge, but a cross.
A reminder of the instrument of destruction that brought an end to death.
A statement that we find our beginning in Christ’s ending.

On Ash Wednesday, we are called again to faithfulness.
The crossed ash is a reminder of God’s faithfulness to us: the once-for-all act that has put an end to death and destruction so that we can face all our endings with courage and hope.
As we stop at the staging post, turn around in the turning circle, we do so confident of God’s unending love for us.

The ash that we wear today is not a curse, but a blessing.

Over two millennia ago, God was calling his people back to him through the words of the prophet Joel.
God is still calling.
Ash Wednesday is a day to hear the distant voice of our God, ever-patient, ever-loving, as he calls us back again to his mercy.

Yet even now, says the Lord,
   return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 
   rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
   for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
   and relents from punishing. 
(Joel 2:12-13)

This Lent, what do you want to turn from and to?
This Lent, what do you want to put down or pick up?
Is there “bleak nothingness” in your life?
What would transform this nothingness into a new start?
What signs can you see around you of God’s faithfulness to you?
Is God calling you to something?

The night that God let go

A reflection for Christmas Eve, adapted from that shared at Holy Cross Timperley.

Tonight we recall that holy night when God took on our human life with the most fragile of beginnings.

God himself became a helpless bundle of tears and gurgles.
God himself identified with human beings at one of the frailest moments of our existence: the moment of our birth.

Our Christmas carols sing of this wonderful truth, but how often do their words pass us by?

He came down to Earth from Heaven
Who is God and Lord of all.

So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of his Heaven.

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,
Hail the incarnate deity.

And of course, John, in the prologue to his Gospel, puts it like this:
In the beginning was the Word.
The Word was with God.
The Word was God.
The Word became flesh.

Here is the God who created the stars and the planets and the oceans and the mountains.
Here is the God who is so holy that the Israelite people could barely stand in his presence and live.
Here is that God choosing to leave his Heavenly throne to come and live among his people.

Tonight we find our God lying in a feeding trough: the tiny baby of a peasant girl and her fiancé.

What is this, if not the ultimate divine act of letting go?
God let go of the Heavenly realms, to come and live among his created beings on Earth.
God let go of divine power, to begin life here as each of us has done: weak, vulnerable, helpless.

Welcome to Christmas night. The night that God let go.

We all know what it is like to have to let go of something, or someone. We have all known loss. Human experience calls us back to this well trodden path of letting go. We may have had to let go of childhood, of possessions, of ambitions, of past hurts, of good dreams and bad memories, of relationships, of health, of our home, of dear friends and family members, or even of our very selves.

Letting go can be beautifully liberating, or crushingly painful. Sometimes it is both. Many of us here this evening have walked some very difficult pathways of loss and letting go this year. And in all that we have to let go of, in all our experience of loss, God has been there before us. He knows what it is like to have to let go.

He was little, weak and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us he knew.
And he feeleth for our sadness
And he shareth in our gladness.

The incarnation, and this tiny baby who is the centrepiece of our nativity stories, is a reminder that God knows what human life is like.

We can never justly accuse God of not knowing human suffering, because he came to Earth and lived it for us.
We can never justly accuse God of not stepping into our shoes, because that is exactly what he did.

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I wonder what we see when we look at the nativity scene. Mary and Joseph, yes. And a baby. Shepherds and sheep, wise men, perhaps a donkey and an ox. Not forgetting the angels.

I wonder how often we look at that scene and see God? We know the baby is the baby Jesus. We know this baby is God, taking on human form. But do we really see him?
Do we truly grasp the full significance of this tiny baby laid in a feeding trough?
Do we look upon this baby and remember all that God let go of, in order to come and live this life of frailty and humility?

The nativity is not a fairy tale to make us feel warm and fuzzy at Christmas time.
The nativity is not, primarily, a script for a school play.

The nativity is an account of loss and pain, of flesh and blood.
The nativity is an account of life’s interruptions and injustice crashing headlong into God’s love and mercy.
The nativity is an account of our frail and fickle lives becoming intimately entwined with the awesome, majestic, eternal life of God.

On this holy night, we give thanks to God that he let go of everything to walk in our shoes: to feel our pain and to know our helplessness.
On this holy night, we commit to God our own acts of letting go, our pain and our loss, and we ask for his gentle love to enfold us.
On this holy night, we gaze upon the Christ child, and see that the Lord has drawn near to the broken hearted.

On this holy night, the Word became flesh, and he lives among us.

Back in the pews

(Or, more accurately, in the Children’s Corner, on the floor, at the back, pushing a pushchair down the aisles… anywhere but the pews..!)

I’m now four months into my second stretch of maternity leave. Taking a time of extended leave from parish ministry is a bit of a contradiction in terms: as ministers we live incarnationally and try and share every aspect of everyday life with the communities we are placed within, and I can only ‘leave’ that way of life to a limited extent.

Both of my mat leaves have given time for reflection and a change of pace to my ministry, as well, of course, as the cherished time it allows us as a family. Here are three things I am learning this time around:

The view from the pew is very different to that from the priest’s stall
There is currently a photographic exhibition running in Florence which exposes what worship looks like from a priest’s point of view. More information here.

As clergy, we forget that our view is a unique one, not shared by those in the pews. We may look down upon a sea of faces, but there is much that we can’t, or don’t, see from the front. And unless we take time out and delegate some of our ‘up front’ ministry, the pew perspective is one we will never have.

This is when constructive feedback is vital and valued. Banner blocking your view? Sound system dead spot? Notices too long? Preacher incomprehensible? We probably have no idea. I’ve noticed all of these things since I started maternity leave, having been previously completely unaware. Of course, this works on a different level too, and it’s not just about minor logistics.

Getting to church with two kids is HARD
Getting out of the door complete with shoes, coats, blankets, pushchair, hats, gloves, snacks, drinks, baby milk, nappies, wipes, dummies, entertainment, keys, phone, money, muslin cloths and two children is hard enough. It becomes almost impossible when we’re aiming for a set time, and one kid has an explosive nappy while the other kicks and screams because they wanted the other coat on.

The walk to church is full of worry. Will there be room for the pushchair? Will someone open the double doors for me? Did I remember the baby milk? Are we going to be late?

And then through the service, keeping a baby and a toddler quiet at the appropriate moments is exhausting. Seriously. I rarely manage it.

I am endlessly thankful to the kind parishioner who turned to me after a midweek service of Holy Communion and said: “I love having your boy here, and I don’t care how much noise he makes. It makes us like a family”. A profound moment. We are a family. And I know that we are a parish who welcome children, and who understand that “if there’s no crying, the church is dying”. This support for me as a mum helps me to keep bringing the kids, week on week.

But it’s still hard, and clergy are not exempt from the stress of parenting in public.

Sometimes, it’s easier to be a pastor without the dog collar
Without many of my usual duties, I find I have more time to chat and listen. I really value this time, and it’s challenged me to reflect on why it doesn’t happen as much when I’m working. Do the demands of professional ministry sometimes get in the way of effective pastoral ministry? Does the dog collar become, at times, a barrier? Is the perception of others that “the vicar’s too busy for a proper conversation”? I hope that when I return to work in June, I will still make it known that I have as much time and space to give to conversation as I did on leave.

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Few clergy have the luxury of taking a time of extended leave, and yet still be fully present within their ministry contexts. It’s a great gift to be able to take this step back for a different perspective, and I hope the gift will be as much for the parish and the wider church, as for myself.