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.

Advertisements

“As a mother tenderly gathers”: A toddler at the table

Adapted from a sermon preached at Holy Cross Church for Lent 2, Sunday 17th March 2019.


Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

Jesus, Luke 13:34

Nothing has challenged my confidence as a priest more than when I had children. Before I had my first child, I was used to being able to give much of myself, and my time, to ministry. I am not saying that this was a healthy thing to do! But with few other responsibilities, I was able to DO so much more.

Once I returned to work, following my first period of maternity leave, my confidence became much more shaky. No longer could I give everything to parish ministry, because I had to give a significant amount of myself to being a parent. Perhaps it wouldn’t be possible to do both? I remember taking a very young Ben to visit another church, on one Sunday during my maternity leave. To my great embarrassment, the vicar of that church introduced us to everyone at the start of the service, with the words: “And we welcome Jenny and Ben who are visiting us today – you’ll know who they are because that’s who all the noise is coming from”. An innocent, throwaway (and I’m sure well-meaning) comment that left me feeling self-conscious for the rest of my time there. How could I be a priest and a parent if I couldn’t even keep my child inconspicuous when I wasn’t leading worship?!

Of course, my confidence grew over time, thanks in no small part to the encouragement, support, kind words and practical help from so many of you here. And you’ll know that in recent weeks I have often juggled leading worship here – preaching and presiding – with a very clingy but lively toddler in my arms, or at my side.

A few years ago, this would have been one of my worst nightmares: trying to function as a priest while also being needed as a mum. And that nagging voice of doubt would have hissed in my ear: “You can’t do both..!”.

That voice still nags, at times, but it was silenced for a while by a profound moment that happened here, some months ago now. We were halfway through a Communion service, and I was about to begin the Eucharistic Prayer. Throughout the service, despite having excellent and dedicated company in the children’s corner, Emily was starting to become unsettled, and needing her mum. Here I was, at the high point of our worship, about to perform the sacramental act which lies at the heart of priestly ministry: blessing the bread and the wine. And, purely practically, an act that would require both hands free!

And little Emily came running over, arms outstretched, crying to be held. A few years ago, that moment might have paralysed me. A clash of two vocations in a split second: who was I? A priest at the alter, or a parent with a child in her arms?

Knowing that the alternative was a very loud wail (Emily’s, not mine!) I picked her up, buried her inside my chasuble, and carried on into the Eucharistic Prayer. I turned the page of the service booklet, and as I prayed aloud the words I saw, I had a deep moment of grateful realisation. These were those words:

How wonderful the work of your hands, O Lord.
As a mother tenderly gathers her children,
you embraced a people as your own.
When they turned away and rebelled
your love remained steadfast.

Common Worship, Eucharistic Prayer G

This moment, which could have disrupted our worship or distracted us from God, instead became an enactment of the liturgy: as I gathered up a tired, clingy toddler, so God has gathered up people through history, and held them in tender embrace. The very thing that might have knocked my own priestly confidence a few years ago, became an embodiment of priestly ministry and divine action.

I’m sorry to share such a lengthy personal anecdote, but I hope it begins to open up the idea that God might not be who we assume God to be. That’s what happened for me, in that moment some months ago. And it’s what Luke does for us in this passage this morning. Here, God is the tender yet protective mother hen, gathering her brood under her wings. As Jesus watches over his city, and sees the pain, and the confusion, and the violence, he mourns for its hurting people as a mother mourns for her own hurting children.

It is this image of the Mother God that our communion liturgy picks up in the Eucharistic Prayer I mentioned above. It’s an image we find, too, in the words of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah:

But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me,
   my Lord has forgotten me.’ 
Can a woman forget her nursing-child,
   or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
   yet I will not forget you. 
See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.

Isaiah 49:14-16

I do want to be a bit careful here. No image of God is perfect. No image of God is complete. Anything that likens God to a father or a mother will be loaded with baggage for all of us. Some of us, particularly if we have had difficult life experiences and painful close relationships, may find these images unbearably painful.

If that’s the case, I hope the image of the mother hen might help us find a little distance from our own experiences of flawed, and perhaps painful, human parenting. Hens are feisty creatures aren’t they? When faced by predators they will gather their chicks underneath their wings, and peck furiously at whoever threatens them.

What an image for the God who likewise gathers us, her people, under the safety and security of her wings. The same God who wept over her people in the city of Jerusalem as she saw their pain.

The pain is no less for us. Each day brings new accounts of terror, violence, turmoil and disaster. And as Christ looked on Jerusalem, so God looks upon us. God weeps for her people, and longs to gather us to her.

One of the most frustrating moments of parenting is trying to comfort the weary toddler, intent on full-on meltdown because the world around has just become too much for them to absorb and still function. They arch their backs and kick away any attempt at embrace. So it was for the people of Christ’s Jerusalem.

…and you were not willing!

So it is for us.

As we journey through Lent, perhaps we can hear again this call to gather, together, under the shelter of God’s wings. I invite you, in the weeks to come, as the world looks typically hope-less, and we wonder where God is – to hold in your mind this image of God, the mother hen, gathering her chicks close and sheltering them as the predators prowl around us. May we be willing to seek refuge with God, and to find our place together, in the shelter of God’s wings.

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!

 

When God doesn’t get cross even though we mess up

One of my children has been quite bad tempered recently. I thought he was just tired. But yesterday evening, as we sat having dinner, he hinted at why. “I don’t like Mrs Jones…”

I let the comment go, but later, we sat quietly and I probed a bit further.

“Why don’t you like Mrs Jones then?”

“I don’t want to tell you”.

I took a punt:

“Did you get told off today?”

“No”. He replied. “Last week”.

And I realised that this child had been holding in all this anguish from being told off – holding it in for a whole week. He was in turmoil. He didn’t want to tell me, because he thought I would give him a second telling off for this major transgression he had committed. It was so bad that Mrs Jones had removed him from the playground, and sent him back to his classroom. It was so bad that mummy must never find out, and he must hold in all this guilt and shame and frustration.

So before I asked what he had done to be sent inside and told off, I took another punt:

I’m not going to be cross with you. Mrs Jones has already been cross. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, I don’t care, but if you want to tell me, you can”.

I was bracing myself to hear a story of infant violence or wanton destruction, and wondering how I would respond without being cross. The lip wobbled, and tears came into the eyes.

“I rode my bike outside the track”.

“Huh?”

“I was on the fast bike, and I wanted to overtake James who was on the slow bike, so I went around him off the track. And Mrs Jones told me to put the bike away and get inside because I had been naughty”.

So I laughed, and relief crossed his face (and mine, if I’m honest).

“Is that it?!” I said.

“Yes” he replied. Slightly bemused. Why wasn’t mummy going mad? He had thought, for a whole week, that he was going to get told off again if I found out. He didn’t realise that Mrs Jones was probably just having a bad day, or that she might not have meant to sound so cross or react so strongly.

We all have Mrs Jones moments – I have loads – but that’s not why I’m writing this.

After this conversation, I became my son’s advocate and accomplice. We had a few moments of ‘therapy’ to help him process some of his “I don’t like Mrs Jones” thoughts. I won’t tell you what we did, but it involved felt tips and a photograph – and a bin (and of course Mrs Jones is not her real name and we do like all of his school staff very much!!)

I was left wondering what this incident might show me about God. Are there times where we do stuff wrong, and suffer the consequences, and hold it all in, and become laden with shame and guilt and worthlessness – and God actually becomes our advocate? Does God become the one who says “I’m not going to be angry. You’ve already suffered. I’m not going to add to your guilt and shame. In fact, I’m going to help you deal with this guilt and be even happier than you were before all this went wrong”?

Today’s Morning Prayer reading (one of!) is from the prophet Ezekiel, writing to a people in exile: to a people who have really made a mess of things and who find themselves cast out away from their home. Ezekiel speaks the words of God:

“Thus says the Lord God: Though I removed them, far away among the nations, and through I scattered them among the countries, yet I have been a sanctuary to them for a little while in the countries where they have gone”.

I think, last night, I became a sanctuary for a little boy who had committed a minor transgression, turned it into a major thing in his mind, and then sat with the guilt. Someone who had been cast out – or in – to the classroom. And I suspect God does that for us. We tie ourselves in knots of guilt and shame, we get shut out of the life we really want to have, and then God says:

“You are far away, you are scattered, you are lost. You’ve got yourself into a mess. But still I will be your sanctuary in exile. And I will bring you home.”

 

 

Soaring on air: Ten reflections on vocation

vocation
və(ʊ)ˈkeɪʃ(ə)n/
a strong feeling of suitability for a particular career or occupation.

Everyone has a vocation to something!

Discovering your own vocation begins with quiet reflection, self-examination and conversation. These questions might help:

What are you good at?
What do you enjoy?
When do you feel most at peace?

I spend much of my time listening to people who are trying to work out what their own vocation is. Through these conversations, I’ve noticed some patterns and common themes. Here they are:

1. It will take time to emerge

Few of us have a “stop you in your tracks” moment where we see our life’s purpose stretching before us in an instant. Reactions to a growing vocation are usually surprise, doubt, anxiety, fear, unworthiness, and nervous excitement – but rarely confidence and self-assurance.

You don’t have to decide on your vocation in this moment. Nor in the next half hour, or even the next week or month. Like flowers, vocations take time to grow and blossom fully. They need to be informed and thought-through, and this takes hours of reading, talking, listening and reflecting.


2. It is not your decision (alone)

Vocation is usually about working in partnership with and for others; at the heart of most vocations is a desire to bring about change or improvement for others. We don’t serve ourselves, nor do we serve by ourselves, but for and through people, creation, and institutions. The mutuality of vocation begins at its inception.

In the Church of England, this means that a formal vocation to a particular ministry needs to be rooted in conversation and reflection with others. It is about a process of mutual listening and discernment, and about the coming together of the candidate’s “yes” and the Church’s “yes”.

This is about licensed ministry in a particular context, but it’s a good principle to apply to any exploration of vocation: just as our vocations are not for our own benefit, so we don’t own them. Vocation is about working out our purpose in community, and the burden of the decision about what you do with your life is never yours alone.


3. It isn’t punishment or chore

Desire rests at the heart of vocation. A good way to start thinking about vocation is to ask yourself what you enjoy, and what you want to do. It is tempting, especially for people of faith, to construct a faux-holiness or sense of martyrdom around vocation. We can’t quite believe that God would call us to do something we actually want to do. And when we find ourselves wanting to do something, we convince ourselves it’s not the right thing for us, or that we desire it for the wrong reasons. That’s not to say that vocation is always easy, or that God never asks us to do things we don’t want to do, but (to paraphrase Henri Nouwen) too often “we expect a curse, but instead receive a blessing”.

4. It is more (and less) than a job

Our vocation might lead us to a particular job or career, but it doesn’t always. It is rooted in something much deeper than a 9-5: it is about who we are. Many of us go home from work at the end of the day, but we don’t leave behind the essence of who we are.

As a priest, I am called to live honestly and openly with others as I do life with all its joys and sorrows. I am called to be. And I am – I exist – all the time. Not just in the hours I am contracted to work for. I do have a contract. I do try and stick to my working hours and days. But it’s not always possible, because this call to be is something I do all the time. Every day and every night. I am. Even on my days off. In every place, in every moment, I am living out the priestly vocation to do life with others. I invest in life here as the first task of my vocation in this place.

And perhaps that is the first step in any vocation. To invest in life, wherever we find ourselves, and to see what needs and tasks emerge.


5. It will demand bottomless trust

Vocation is about finding something you enjoy and do well, and then doing it. But that doesn’t make it easy. Living out a vocation will stretch you to your limits, and then some more. It will empty you of your resources and leave you feeling dry and wrung out. It will challenge your priorities and nag at you because the job will never be done. It will demand from you more than you thought you could ever give. It will push you beyond expectation and ability.

Vocation does these things, because it’s vocation. Vocation is about seeing need and meeting it. It’s about being driven by something more than money or status or self-importance. It’s about self-purpose and a rooted love for other people. Your work will never be done. And within all this, you must learn to trust. Trust yourself, trust others, trust God. Trust your intuition about what needs to be done and what can be left. Trust your body when it tells you to rest. Trust your mind when it says you can push a little further. Trust your heart, your soul, your calling. Trust those who love you, and those who have been there, and listen to their wisdom. Trust, trust, trust.


6. It won’t replace your need for self-care and rest

Our culture does not encourage good self-care. We are driven by money and working hours. We measure value in terms of financial worth or dedication to a cause. We are quick to project our dysfunction onto others under the banner of justice or entitlement, and slow to examine ourselves and improve our inner life. Living vocationally without self-care and rest will lead to burn out.

Self-care means working out what you need in place in order to flourish. It’s about being grounded, centred and self-aware. Only those who are self-aware can become truly other-aware, and those who are committed to self-care will be able to give much more in their service of others.

If you need time alone, take it.
If you need time with friends or family, take it.
If you need 12 hours of sleep a night, take it.
If you need to cook or run or garden or read in order to stay sane, do it.
If you need holidays and fun and parties and nights out and good food and slow coffees and trashy TV shows and spa days and long walks and intimacy and space and laughter and tears, then do it. Do it all.

Take it. Do it. Regularly and as a rhythm of life, and not just as an occasional treat. If you don’t get this right, your life-giving vocation will slowly suffocate you.


7. Some vocations are more important than others

All of us will have multiple vocations. Some of these will be about jobs and tasks. Others will be about relationships and roles we have. I have vocations, among others, to be a mum, a wife, a friend, a priest, a vicar, a spiritual director.

And these vocations have to be weighed and balanced against one another. Usually, they hold together in a harmonising tension. Sometimes they don’t. And when they clash, some of them have to take priority.

My vocation to parenthood will always trump my vocation to a particular job. If my kids need me in one place, and my job needs me in another, my kids win. The job can wait: the work will still be there.

Sometimes, one vocation will trump another. Never make the mistake of treating them as equal, or of getting the priority wrong.


8. It will challenge your sense of entitlement

In a culture of entitlement, how do we discern living from luxury? How do we stand apart from everything around us that tells us to fight for what we deserve? How do we stop the language of entitlement from creeping into our language of vocation?

These are big questions for me. I am aware, in myself and those around me, of a creeping narrative of entitlement. I am entitled to days off, to holidays, to a good standard of housing, to a regular stipend, to affordable childcare…

These things enable me to live out my vocation effectively and freely, and I am grateful for them.

But I am also called to service and self-sacrifice. For me, this means taking less pay than I would do in a non-vocational role. It means sometimes giving up an evening off to sit with someone who needs to be listened to. It means settling for less-than-perfect housing, and having no property as an investment for the future. It means working long hours around my children, so that I can give everything to them, as well as to my ‘work’, when they need me. This call to sacrifice constantly challenges me, as self-giving service and self-serving entitlement bicker constantly on my shoulder and clash in the most painful of ways.

The only way through this, for me, is prayer. On my knees, I remember again who I am, and what I have been called to. I remember to trust, to give, and to rest. And I remember to live flexibly and freely: in the joy of the present and not the fear of the future.

Don’t allow your sense of entitlement kill your vocation to service and sacrifice. Sometimes it’s right to fight for something. Other times we take the hit, in the name of vocation. And it’s always ok.


9. It might evolve… or die

Vocation doesn’t stay the same. As we grow and develop ourselves, so the tasks and jobs to which we are called will change. Thank God you or I are not the people we were ten years ago. Through a decade of growing pains our gifts and sense of purpose will have developed and grown. Sometimes this means taking new paths or reassessing what we’re doing.

Sometimes a vocation might die. This might feel joyfully liberating or intensely painful. Sometimes we choose its demise, and other times the decision is made for us. Sometimes it happens suddenly, and sometimes over a long period of time. Sometimes we might be left with a fear that we were wrong all along.

As vocation dies or evolves, so our need for self-care, rest and trust becomes even greater. These are times to go slowly, to reflect deeply, and to nourish your inner life. Winter is never death, but gestation.


10. It will bring you deep joy

When vocation works as it should – despite the hard graft and the self-giving and the times of feeling purposeless and exhausted – when it goes well, it feels as if you’re soaring on air. And perhaps this is a good clue to discovering and renewing vocation: what brings you deep joy? What leaves you feeling as if you’re soaring? What makes your heart sing?

On any of this, I might be wrong, and this list is not exhaustive, so do comment below on what you’d change or add.

20170713_1527301.jpg

I have seen: A Meditation for Mary Magdalene

In the Church calendar, 22nd July is Mary Magdalene’s day. Mary is an enigmatic figure: the subject of myth, speculation and fantasy. We don’t learn too much about her from the texts of the Gospels. She was a devoted and radical follower of Jesus, healed from “seven demons”, according to Luke, and present at the burial of Jesus. Mary was the first witness to the Resurrection, and the first person to preach the good news of Christ.

Here, I have speculated about the demons that may have haunted Mary in the days before she met Jesus. We’re all haunted by memory, experience, pain: we all carry and battle with our own demons. I explore them here as constituent parts of who we are: the things we’ve heard, felt, loved, hated, feared, dismissed and clung to. No judgement is intended – life is not black and white, and we are made up of a spectrum of experience, feelings and actions. As we grow in faith we move beyond the superficiality of these to experience them more deeply and more wholly. In doing so, perhaps we are liberated from our own demons.

This meditation can be used in different ways. You could sit with it for a while and take time to reflect on different words and phrases. But most of us flick by things like this at more of a pace: just more words that we absorb in our hurried catching up. That’s okay too. This piece is intentionally short for that reason. Maybe a word, an idea or a question will remain with you into the day. Stop here for as long as you are able. And no longer. Use this place as a quiet pause, a deep breath, a moment for your soul to listen and speak.


Think back
and notice:

what memories
what experiences
what feelings
have you bundled up and used
to plug the empty spaces in your soul?

What have you heard
About yourself?
From who?
Did you believe it?
(And should you believe it?)

What have you felt?
And who made you feel it?
And did it feel good?
Or not?

What have you loved?
And did you love as only you could?
And was it deserving of your love?

What have you hated?
Despised?
Rejected?
Could you instead embrace it as gift?

What have you feared?
And what survival instinct
Triggered your fear?
In the bright light of day
Is it really such a threat?

What have you dismissed?
Written off
Before you gave it a chance?
Is there still room for it in your future?

What have you clung to?
What has carried you
To this place
To this moment
And what will see you ahead, and home?

Pause.
Hold these things close
and then see beyond them.

And perhaps, within
the smiles
the agony
the undeserved gifts and the unresolved moments
you might glimpse enough
for just a second
to say, with her

“I have seen the Lord”.

20170713_151939

Hold on: A reflection for the dark days

Psalm 88: Stark, honest, raw. It joins voices of despair that span place and time. It gives permission to lament, and it carves a space for unresolved sorrow. It resists shallow niceties and bland platitudes.

The time between Good Friday and Easter Day is unresolved time. The Messiah is dead; the curtain is torn (but what does that mean?); God is silent. I wonder how many of us live in this unresolved, painful place, not just this weekend, but through much of the year. How many of us hang between darkness and resolution?

Here is a reflection for all of you who are holding on by your fingertips, as you plummet through this liminal space.


Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?
Psalm 88:12

An uncertain glance.
A silent tear.
Darkness rises, chokes and blinds.

It is finished,
And you launch into the unknown
Falling through the nothingness of what next?
Into the endless void of where now?

Fear sings her taunts
And Doubt dances on the place you used to stand:
What will catch you?
Who will save you?

In the land of forgetfulness
No memory sustains you
No story reminds you
No music restores you.

Going back is not an option:
That door has closed.
Beasts of regret and fires of what if? lie behind.

But you can go on.

Is there a glimmer in the darkness?
A seed planted but long forgotten?
A fresh shoot of – what?

You wait.
You watch.
You hope.

And then you step forward
Because forward is the only way to go.

Hold on, weary one.
Cling to the echo of a promise you have never understood.
Remember the hope you once passed by.
Believe that beyond what you know, there is a more brilliant future dawning.

Look up.
Look back.
Then travel on.

It’s night time, but morning is coming.

By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Luke 1:78-79

 

20160226_145806

 

Clouds and Mountain Tops

As Lent draws in this week, Sunday’s Gospel reading takes us back to the Transfiguration, perhaps the ultimate account of a “thin place”. The Old Testament reading is that of Moses, ascending a mountain and approaching fire through cloud to meet with God. 

Just as the mountains are covered by cloud, so these encounters of humans with God are shrouded in mystery.

What is it like to see God face to face?
To hear God’s voice?
To carry the weight of responsibility for his people?
To dwell on the mountain, within the cloud and fire of his presence?

Clouds and mountain tops.
Mystery and glory.

I shared a poem on this blog a few months ago, reproduced below, which explores the thin places we encounter in day to day life: ordinary moments in which we glimpse, just for a second, the Extraordinary. Perhaps mountain top moments are not as elusive as they seem. Perhaps to see God in the everyday: in the people we love and the strangers we pass; in the mundane tasks we complete and the many others we fail at; is as full of mystery and glory as finding God up a mountain in cloud and fire.

And so I offer this poem again, returning to the mystery of the Transfiguration, as an exploration of thin places: of their fragility and strength. I believe they are there to be inhabited, for a time, if only we stop and notice them.


Thin Places

The sun-bleached rainbow framed by heavy cloud.

A fleeting, fragile moment
That lifts eyes from Earth to Heaven beyond.
In an instant her curtain is drawn back
And she is stripped bare in brilliant light:
A glimmer of the promise
We heard whispered long ago.

The kindness of a stranger’s gentle smile.

It is good for us to be here,
Sheltered from death’s dark shadow
And the sting of dread that wakes us each new day.
Here, we are as we are:
Alive to Earth’s brilliant goodness;
Eyewitnesses to Heaven’s majesty.

The crash of waves along deserted sand.

This place is not for now:
The bubble bursts,
The curtain drops,
The moment fades.
This is a home too perfect; unready yet to hold
The fullness and frailty of all we must become.

The peace of death as pulse and breath are stilled.

We do not leave unchanged
If change is to become ourselves.
Ahead: a thousand moments of transfiguration,
Each one a death – and resurrection – in itself,
As we transform and are transformed,
Sacred moment by sacred moment.

20160122_114624

 

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.

Donald Trump: The fairy godmother

“I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world”. Socrates.

Why has Donald Trump been elected president today?

That’s a question I’ve seen asked time and again on social media this morning. I’m not an expert in American politics, and the reasons for Trump’s rise to power are complex. But there is a subtle factor in his success that isn’t unique to the USA.

Across the Western world, privileged people are feeling disempowered. Those who have always done well, socially and economically, suddenly find themselves feeling hard done by.

There is a mistrust of the establishment and a suspicion of institutions. We can speculate on events of the past decade that have fed this ill feeling.

A vote for Trump, or (in the UK) for Brexit, or UKIP or Corbyn is, for some, an anti-establishment protest vote. Here are people or movements, set slightly apart from the establishment, who promise a voice to those who have been told that they are voiceless.

(This in itself deserves some unpacking. What has gone so wrong that those who have most privilege, most opportunity, most wealth, feel like they actually have least? What about those who are truly voiceless: victims of violence, racism and trafficking, asylum seekers, those who can’t afford to eat or stay warm – who is giving them a voice?)

Amidst the fear and anxiety and disempowerment appears a man who can promise to make all our dreams come true. He hears these narratives of disappointment and disillusionment, and he tells a winning story. The shady tycoon plays the part of fairy godmother. What does he offer that is so attractive that it sells to the USA a man so otherwise repulsive?

These quotes are from his victory speech this morning:

Now it is time for America to bind the wounds of division, we have to get together.

I will be president for all of Americans, and this is so important to me.

We will begin the urgent task of rebuilding our nation and renewing the American dream.

Every single American will have the opportunity to realize his or her fullest potential.

The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.

We will double our growth and have the strongest economy anywhere in the world.

Nothing we want for our future is beyond our reach.

We must reclaim our country’s destiny and dream big and bold and daring.

While we will always put America’s interests first, we will deal fairly with everyone.

Sounds pretty good right? The perfect remedy, in fact, to fear and anxiety about the future. The people will come together. Every man and woman will be encouraged to reach their full potential. No one will feel forgotten any longer. Jobs will be created and wealth generated. America will be safe, secure and successful. The dream will come true.

20161109_113026

But these words are the first bricks in the wall that will shut the privileged in, and everyone else out. There are no bridges promised here. Here is America saying me, me, me. In Trump’s references to international relationships he made it clear that any such relationships would be on America’s terms:

We will get along with all other nations [pause] willing to get along with us.

Watching this speech live, Trump’s pause was deliberate, manipulative and threatening.

This is a fairly tale that feeds fear and denies America’s responsibilities as citizens of the world. It reassures the disempowered by offering them safety and security at a cost that they won’t have to pay. America’s dream becomes the world’s nightmare.

There has to be another way. What story can people of faith – the everyday theologians on the ground – tell, to counter these narratives of fear and the fairy tales that promise all and deliver little?

One of the greatest challenges facing faith communities this century is the rise of religious and political extremism. I heard Rowan Williams speak recently about how the Desert Fathers and Mothers – the theologians of 2000 years ago – were “thinking through what it means to live as a guest in God’s world”.

Here is the seed of a radical theology of hospitality. We are not citizens of our nation, but of the world. And this is not our world, but God’s world. God is the host, and we are his guests. The people we hate are his guests too. You and I, Donald Trump and the jihadist fighter – all guests of God.

How does this begin to reshape our narratives of fear, anxiety and disempowerment?