Resilient Praxis: Praying through trauma when you’ve never prayed before

Resilient Praxis is a new series of blog posts here on Out of the Chancel, exploring “Pastoral Theology in the wake of a pandemic”.

In the middle of a crisis it is difficult to reflect effectively. We are learning and adapting in ‘real time’. There will be time, in the months and years ahead, to tidy up this work of reflecting and learning. To trim the edges and plump up the middles.

But for now, pastoral care is still happening. Ministry is still happening. In fact we never stopped. And so these posts will give some space for reflection on what has been, what is, and what is to come. Not tidy, packaged praxis. But praxis that is rough around the edges. Praxis that hasn’t stopped. Praxis that will get us through. Resilient praxis.


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.

“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.

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”.

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Broken Biscuits

Disappointment: we’ve all met it.

A failed job interview.
A friend who lets us down.
A diagnosis.

A test we didn’t pass.
A holiday that didn’t meet expectations.
A financial hit.

A God who doesn’t sort it.

I think of it as broken biscuit syndrome

My four year old loves his mid-morning biscuit.
He looks forward to it, plans it, asks for it.
At the right time, I relent, and we go to the cupboard.
This is the moment he’s savoured; the moment he can choose the biscuit he’s dreamed of all morning.
We open the box.
Disaster and disappointment: all the biscuits are broken.
Not one is whole, round and perfect.
His dream is shattered.
Two halves will not do.
The shadow of disappointment crosses his face, and he wrestles with the reality that his hopes will not be realised exactly as he had thought.

20161205_153823Broken biscuits.
A silly thing to get upset about, but not when you’re four years old.

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Matthew 11:3

I wonder if John the Baptist was suffering from broken biscuit syndrome?
He gave everything for this cause.
He held nothing back: the vitriol, the frustration, the passionate anger of light clashing with darkness.
It landed him in prison: this wild lover of the outdoors confined to a cell.

In his question is lament, sadness, disappointment.
Are you really the Messiah?
Why aren’t you more like me?

For John, maybe Jesus was a broken biscuit.
Not what he had hoped for, nor what he expected.

When we feel disappointed with God we are in good company.
In fact, it’s inevitable for all of us who imagine God in our own image.
(And how else are we to imagine God?)
As we project our own hopes, personality, agenda and expectations onto God, God will always disappoint.

Encouragement for John comes as his disciples are walking away:

 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.”
Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he’. Matthew 11:7-11

Did they hear Jesus affirm John?
Did they hear the overwhelming kindness of that white lie?
(And did you spot it?)
Did they hear?
Did they hear?
Did John?

When we feel that God is a broken biscuit, how can we hear this affirmation?
Perhaps it is just out of earshot.
Or perhaps our ears are closed to it.
Perhaps we might need to let go of what we cling to for security, turn and look disappointment in the face, and journey through it to find God reaching out to us from within and beyond.
Or perhaps the message never reaches us.

There will always be broken biscuits.
There will always be disappointments.
But one day we will see our most punishing failures and setbacks for what they are: crumbs on the floor of Heaven’s banqueting house.

Thin Places: A poem for the Transfiguration

You know a thin place when you pass through one. Somewhere in which people have prayed for a long time. Somewhere with a sense of perfect stillness. You might feel like you’re in a thin place when you visit a big church or cathedral, or the ruins of a monastery or other holy site. The atmosphere of a thin place is difficult to describe, and overwhelming to experience.

The story of a rabbi standing on a mountain top with his friends, and in a single moment being transformed by brilliant light, is a thin place story. It leaves me wondering whether thin places have a particular geography, or whether our lives are actually full of the potential of these moments, wherever we happen to be, as Heaven touches Earth?

Perhaps we are never far from a thin place.
Perhaps thin places are just longing for our attention.
Perhaps we need only to give them space, and they will find us.

This poem is 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 are both transformed and transform,
Sacred moment by sacred moment.

IMG_0429

Sunrise over Lake Galilee: a thin place.


I took some inspiration for this from Pablo Neruda’s poem Keeping Quiet. It’s worth spending some time with. Here’s a glimpse…

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.

The Annunciation: A meditation on partnering with God

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.

It might help you to know the story that has inspired this piece. If so, you can read it here.


She could have said no, you know.
Even as the angel told her what would be, Mary still had a choice.
The angel waited for her response.

God sought Mary’s yes.
He wanted her permission, her assent.

Mary could not have done this alone.
But neither could God.

Nothing will be impossible with God, says the angel.
And nothing would have been possible without Mary.

Mary needed God.
God needed Mary.

God’s suggestion
and
Mary’s assent
heralded an alliance of Heaven and Earth.
A union so perfect, so complete, so potent, that it would set the world alight.

And so as Mary cradled that embryo – then foetus – then baby, with her body, so God himself cradled Mary.
She became overshadowed by the Most High: held, protected, empowered.

20160329_165807
Have I known moments of annunciation? Perhaps…

…a creeping feeling of what will be.
…a prompt to become more fully who I really am.
…a nudge towards my destiny.
…an invitation to partner with God and await what unfolds ahead of me.

I don’t have to say yes.
But are there things that God cannot do without my yes?

Do I ponder, perplexed and disturbed as Mary was, on how God might be using my own moments of annunciation – and my quiet submission to them – to change my own small corner of the world?

And do I know that I am cradled, even as I seek the courage to say “yes”?