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!

 

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The road not taken: Indecision and missing out

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So this is what I wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pulling up the weeds: An Examen for self care

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


Self-care is a bit like weeding.

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

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

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

What if your life was a bit like a garden?

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

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

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Flowers and weeds: An Examen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And…

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

What weeds are present in your garden?

Which are shallow rooted annuals, easily pulled up?

Which are deep rooted and complex, needing dedicated attention?

Which give a nasty sting?

Which can you learn to adapt to and live with?

Which are fast growing and destructive?

Which are stealing your sunshine?

And…

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

For what am I grateful?

What gifts have I received?

What gifts can I offer?

What do my reflections tell me about who I am?

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

What might I become more deeply aware of tomorrow?

What inner pain needs my careful attention?

Where have I found life?

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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.

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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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Dark Spaces: An Advent Calendar

I’m trying something a bit different this year. For every day of Advent I’ll be sharing a short reflection over on a new blog: Dark Spaces.

Dark Spaces is a way of shining light into the shadows of the past year. Some of the shadows are there to cover things we would rather turn away from: painful moments or bad memories. Some are there simply because we’ve not had the time to devote to them. They wait, forgotten but still there, to be discovered by our attentiveness. 

Advent is the beginning of the Christian year: a celebration of the dawn and a time for stillness and reflection. Sitting still in Advent is like sitting in the quiet of the early morning: looking back, looking ahead, and holding everything in quiet meditation. 

The reflections won’t be shared through this blog, so if you’d like to follow them then bookmark or follow Dark Spaces, and perhaps I’ll see you there. 

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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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

 

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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.

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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.