Praying through trauma when you’ve never prayed before

I’ve never been very good at prayer.

Well, not if “prayer” is kneeling by the bed. If prayer is rehearsed immature rhymes and tick lists of requests and begging and grovelling and words I don’t understand to a god I don’t want to know.

Thank God that none of those things have to be prayer. Not if they don’t work.

I’m grateful to a great spiritual thinker, John Drane, for the various conversations he invites on his social media pages about life. John is perceptive, wise, and real. And he says that there are some important questions for us to ask about prayer. Even if – especially if – we’ve never prayed before:

How should we pray?
Who should we pray to?
What should we pray for?
What if I get it wrong?


Naming the reality

I love disaster movies. I often wondered what it would be like to live through a life-changing, worldview-shifting event. I’d be the planner. The organised one. The one who kept cool and dealt with the tough stuff later.

Turns out the truth wasn’t far off. I’ve been pretty organised and I’ve Got Things Done. But, perhaps behind the curve, it has taken me weeks to realise that we are living through disaster. What is happening around is will change life as we know it. Whether we feel it yet or not, we are living through trauma.

Humans have done this before. Yesterday marked three years since my own community was traumatised by a terror attack. The difference with the Covid trauma is the scale. We are facing this as communities, as nations, as the world.

When an individual suffers trauma, we expect a support system to kick in. They might seek comfort in the ongoing normality around them: touch, company, talking, socialising.

“Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da, life goes on”.

With this trauma, life will not go on. Not as we knew it. We are living through immense loss, pain, grief, transition, and uncertainty. We are living through mass trauma. Everything we might turn to has gone, or evolved. Communal support, religious rituals, a stable healthcare service, financial security… all gone, or precarious.

This trauma is complex and multi-layered. There is the primary trauma of a pandemic illness. But then the secondary trauma of injustice (why is this pandemic affecting peoples historically oppressed disproportionately?), abuse (of people, systems, and rules), of loss (of people, relationships, ways of life, money, rituals, and touch). The nature of this trauma is that we are in a heightened state of stress and responsiveness for a prolonged period. We are not done. We are in the thick of it now. It is agonisingly painful and desperately tough, with more that lies ahead.

I am more and more convinced that even as we live through this, even now we can prepare the ground for healing. Not “fixing”. “Fixing” is a Western notion that control is within our grasp. We can put this right if we throw the right treatment at it.

We can’t.

We cannot fix this with drugs, with money, with planning.

It is out of our control.

“Healing” is different to “fixing”. The notion of “healing” takes away our need for control. Instead of fighting the current, we go with it, we travel together – in this case on a global journey through a pandemic – and we wait to see what good emerges.

And the first step to healing, I believe, is naming the reality.

This is trauma.

We are traumatised.

The worst days may still lie ahead.

This isn’t how life should be. This isn’t how I expected it to be.

But this is my reality.

There. I named it.


Prayer as naming reality

So if prayer doesn’t have to be recited rhymes or tick lists or great long lines of archaic language, then what is it?

I think the most effective prayer you can pray right now is to name your reality.

“God, this is terrible.”

You see, prayer is never about getting our own way. It’s not about demanding or pleading or begging for the best-case scenario to be the one that comes true. It’s not even about asking for second best, for anything except the worst.

Sometimes the worst happens anyway. Where is God then?

Prayer is many things, but it is not a magic wand.

And the first step in prayer is to name what is happening.

Sounds easy, right?

But to name something we have to notice it.

And we’re not so good at noticing. I was swept along for weeks with home schooling and supporting students and caring for a parish and conducting funerals and planning for a ‘new normal’, that I hardly noticed what was happening around me.

To notice something, we have to stop and look. “Listen with your eyes”, says the old rainbow song.

So, the first steps into prayer are:

Stop
Rest, relax, clear your mind for a moment. Seriously, just take a cup of tea and sit quietly for 5 minutes and breathe.

Look
Listen to yourself, to what you have absorbed, to your 6 senses, to memories and fears and hopes and worries and the noise around you.

Notice
What has passed you by before this moment?

Name
Say it. How do you feel? What is bothering you? What is eating you up? Say it.

You just prayed.


Prayer as deepening awareness

Prayer isn’t necessarily about ploughing through words.

Prayer is about noticing. How often do we stop like that, and notice our feelings, our reactions, our desires? Prayer is meditation. It draws us deeper into ourselves, and it simultaneously draws us out beyond ourselves, to something bigger and greater than our own inwardness.

What is going on inside me?
What is going on beyond me?

How much time do we give to those questions in the rush of life?

To ask these questions is to begin to pray.


Prayer as connection

Nope, still few words.

As we become aware, of ourselves, of others, what desires and yearnings begin to surface?

What deep unfillable holes within ourselves do we try to fill with food and people and Netflix and spending – only to find they fall through like sand and leave us unfilled, unsatisfied, empty?

To pray is to find deeper connection and deeper meaning. We are terribly disconnected. The Western world prioritises the individual to a point where we rarely ask what impact our actions have on anything and anyone.

As we stop, and become aware, what deeper connections begin to form? What peace fills us? What yearnings begin to be met in ways that don’t immediately slip away again?

In this way, prayer begins to join us to something bigger. A movement beyond ourselves and our own time. An awareness of life beyond ourselves: our own smallness and at the same time our amazing capacity to bring huge change, increased connection, and peace-filled justice.


Prayer as letting go

And still few words in this prayer.

As we name reality, and deepen awareness, and build connection, so it becomes easier to let go in prayer. Suddenly, prayer isn’t about what I want. It’s not about changing God’s mind or grovelling and begging to some distant, miserly deity.

Pray isn’t something that changes God. Prayer is something that changes me.

As I grow into prayer, I let go of my need to control life, to control others, to control God.

Instead, prayer becomes something that is honestly me, and honestly God. It is about noticing, resting, connecting, and letting go – and through this becoming more authentically myself.

Prayer isn’t a struggle, a battle, or a chore. Prayer is simply being, accepting, communing.

To pray is to become more authentically ourselves.


What if I get this wrong?

I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me.

Jesus

In these words, Jesus is telling his friends about what will happen after his own death. It is only Thomas who dares to voice the question they are all thinking: “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how will we know the way?”

Underneath this simple question is a whole host of worry and uncertainty. Jesus has already assured his friends that he is going ahead of them, to his Father’s house, to prepare a place for each of them. He has promised to return, to lead them to this place. And still Thomas is anxious.

I wonder how many of us share similar anxieties about life and death? Is God really there, and does he care? Will God really remember us, and return for us? Has God really prepared a place in his house for each of us?

It takes great courage to ask the deepest and darkest questions of God. And Thomas’s question gives rise to one of the great statements of Jesus. Jesus is reassuring Thomas that he doesn’t need to worry about how he will find his Father’s House – whether there will be a place for him. Jesus has already said he will return to take us there himself. And there is no risk of getting lost along the way, because Jesus is the only way – there are no detours, no dead ends, no wrong turns.

These words are used, sometimes, to present an exclusive view of the Christian faith. That Christianity – or a narrow version of it – is the only way to be a person of authentic faith and spirituality.

But I don’t hear these words as exclusive, but inclusive. There is no way to God but through Jesus. There is only one way. And that way is through the one who took on everything of our own humanity to be sure that we would find our way to God. It is the way we are all on, regardless of what faith or not we hold, because to be human is to be on the path of Jesus.

So I don’t think it is possible to go wrong in prayer. Even before we take the first steps of naming the reality and deepening awareness, God is already there, waiting.

The God who waits is the same God who will lead us home. Authentically ourselves, and transformed by these brief, fleeting moments of awareness, connection, and letting go.

For the Interim Time

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

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


For the Interim Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sent. Displaced. Formed.

The Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the labourer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.”

Luke 10:1-10

Last Sunday’s Gospel reading – the sending of the 70 to share the good news of God’s love – has stayed with me through this week, not least as I spent Wednesday morning with colleagues who have recently been ordained: their own response to being called and sent.

What Luke gives us here is a wonderfully real account of being sent into ministry (and by “ministry”, I’m using the widest sense I can: anything that we do as a response to a higher calling – in any sphere and for any reason). With the curates I was with earlier this week, I spoke of feeling displaced. Either geographically, for those who had moved into new homes and parishes, or at least spiritually, for those who had moved into new roles and taken on new identities. I was mindful that within a Diocese that gives curates 3 year contract, we were a room full of people in transition. Displaced people.

My own experience of becoming a curate was deeply unsettling. We had a new home (which we’d not been able to see prior to moving into it), a new place (we’d moved 186 miles North), and a new context (we’d moved from a working class dock town, to a wealthy suburb with a village feel). I had a new role and identity, with new clothes and responsibilities and expectations and colleagues. Despite the love from so many in the place I moved to, I felt completely inept when it came to speaking the language and reading the culture of the people around me.

I felt displaced.

The ordained life is one of exile, of displacement: of longing for home and of pointing others towards a homecoming that is more than simply belonging in a place. But of course, we have a rich heritage – in scripture and tradition – of this nomadic wandering. If we feel displaced, if we feel like we don’t belong, then with the saints before us we are in good company.

And if the ordained life is one of spiritual wandering, then this is only because we are modelling the calling placed on every disciple. Perhaps it is just harder for us to avoid the journey once we are ordained. Perhaps those of us who are ordained are just better equipped and better encouraged to start placing one foot in front of the other.

In the Judean desert, which was of course the context for Jesus’ teaching, the task of shepherding is very different to the welsh hills and valleys. Shepherds in Palestine have to keep their flocks moving if they are to find water, food and shelter. Jesus as the “Good Shepherd” is no Little Bo Peep, but is the one who drives the flock on to find sparse pasture in the dryness of the desert.

Palestinian Shepherd

We don’t walk alone. We’re called to take our people with us if they, too, are to find pasture. We’re called to lead from the front, from the middle and from the back – tying up shoe laces and bandaging blisters, holding people as a group, and, together, looking for the way ahead. But without this big picture, without this reminder of the task to which we are called, it’s easy to feel lost, displaced, and in exile.

I have my spiritual director to thank for this next bit. One resource that might help us in our own exile is the labyrinth. You may or may not have walked a labyrinth before. A labyrinth is not a maze. It has a beginning, and an ending, and a path that leads you on faithfully from one to the other. There are no dead ends. But there are twists and turns. There are moments where you have to walk in blind faith. There are moments where you near the centre, and you think you’re done – but then quite quickly the path throws you back to the outer edge and you wonder quite what happened. And – as my wonderful friend pointed out to me – when you walk a labyrinth you only ever see 6 feet in front. Only 6 feet, before the path twists out of sight and you have to turn faithfully, in trust and hope and joyful expectation.

When I met with the curates last week, I was able to speak of all this in terms of ‘formation’. We talk about formation a lot with ordinands and curates. It’s a posh word for the tough stuff of training: the process of falling apart and being slowly pieced back together. We might talk about it most in terms of training, but actually, formation is, I think, the work of God in every disciple. It is a leading of us down new paths, a building of us in new ways, and a humble and obedient response from us to this work of God within us.

What does Luke say about it?

The seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!’ He said to them, ‘I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.’

Luke 10:17-20

The seventy returned with joy.

You can sense their astonishment, their excitement, that this wandering, this being sent, led them to experience such acts of God that strengthened them and built them up. And so this is my prayer for you, and for me. That no matter how we feel at this moment, no matter how much we might feel lost, or out of place, or like we don’t belong, that we too will have these moments in ministry of returning with joy – of being blown away by the good that we see God doing within us and around us – and even in spite of us!

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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“Called” or “named”? Finding language of vocation for the second half of life

I recently caught up with my wonderful Spiritual Director, and we had what might be considered a “bread and butter” SD session around discernment, vocation, calling and desire. In the interest of working out loud, what follows is some of my ongoing reflection on what we shared. Some of it is pertinent to me personally, and some of it is more hypothetical and related to my interest in the vocations of others (it is, of course, what I, as a Priest, Spiritual Director, Assistant DDO, parent, and friend spend a large amount of my time talking about!). However, I’ve written entirely in the first person below, to enable these reflections to be less abstract.


We started by talking about vocation and some of the questions I wrestle with: for myself or for others. A list of these questions might look like this:

How do I make good decisions?
How do I discern where I am supposed to be?
How do I discern what I am supposed to do?
How do I discern who I am supposed to be?
How do I plan for the future?
How do I prepare for opportunities that are as yet, unseen?
How do I know when it is right to disrupt my settledness, to deviate from a particular path, to try something new or to recommit to something old?
What do I mean when I say “God has called me”?
Is it possible to go against God’s call?
Is it possible to find I have put myself, by choice, into the wrong place?
When it comes to discerning my vocation, is it possible to make a mistake? 
Will I mishear or misunderstand what is being asked of me?

Looking at this list, these questions are mostly concerned with the future. They are anxious questions. They assume that there are “right” paths and “wrong” paths. They fear being left behind or making mistakes. They assume that there is little value in the present moment; that I exist almost wholly for some future destiny; that the best is yet to come. They are questions that are anxious to manipulate time, to control outcomes and to impose a plan on my life.

I have been shaped by the theory, first talked of by Jung but taught more extensively in terms of spirituality by Richard Rohr, that we live life in two halves, summarised as thus:

The first half of life is concerned with establishing my place in the world. I am concerned with discovering who I am and what my life’s aims are. Rohr describes this as building a container that will hold life for me.

The second half of life is about stripping away this identity and the security it brings. It’s about finding a deeper sense of purpose, and being less concerned with myself, at least on a superficial level. If the first half of life is about building the container, the second half of life is about filling that container.

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In terms of vocation, I am beginning to wonder whether the language of “calling” is a language for the first half of life. The questions listed above are first-half-of-life questions. This language, and these questions, assume that I have a particular task or destiny. They construct God as an omnipotent, omniscient being who has a plan for me and is waiting for me to respond to the divine beckon as I am led on through the next door.

There is nothing wrong with seeing vocation in this way. These questions are good and noble, and the language of “calling” is a helpful way to articulate them. But it is a language for building the container, not for filling it. It is a language that develops self awareness, enables experience, discovers God, builds trust, and teaches about failure and success.

What happens when this language has run its course?
How do I think of vocation as I journey towards the second half of life?
How do I articulate these issues without using the language of “calling”?

Suddenly, vocation becomes much harder to articulate. Language of “calling” is safe, secure, tangible, definite. Beyond this, the language I use to talk about vocation becomes much more intuitive, ethereal, and elusive. It becomes a language of being, loving, and just knowing.

And if the language of “calling” and the questions I started with are concerned with the future, so being, loving, and just knowing are a language for the present moment. Talking about vocation in this way slows us down and draws us back. It offers a pause in which we can rest and listen.

No longer is vocation about fear, anxiety or anticipation of what might happen, but about security and trust with what just is. Perhaps vocation, in part, is about the gift of the present moment. Perhaps this is an articulation of vocation in the second half of life.

And so when decisions demand an answer, when the future is suddenly the present, how do I discern what next? Vocation in the second half of life is not about a five year plan or a response to a call. Instead, it’s about attentiveness, faithfulness, and being present to what is happening now. If vocation is rooted in God-given desire (and I think it is) then the dominant question for vocation is “what do I desire now?” and not “what do I think I might desire in 6 months or 5 years?”

And so what of a vocational language for the second half of life? Along with being, loving and just knowing, I’d like to try out naming for a while.

But now thus says the Lord,
   he who created you, O Jacob,
   he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
Isaiah 43:1

And so here’s a second-half-of-life vocational question for the present moment:

What and who defines my identity and my purpose right now?

And I suspect that the answer is rooted in God’s tender loving naming of me.

Now my heart’s desire is to know you more
To be found in you and known as yours
To possess by faith what I could not earn
All-surpassing gift of righteousness
From ‘Knowing You (All I Once Held Dear)’ by Graham Kendrick

That seems like a good place to root any exploration of vocation. But this is just the start. If you’re reading this then I want to know what you think. Let me know!

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.

The ghosts of Christmas: A reflection on hauntings and hope

Adapted from a sermon preached at Holy Cross Church, Timperley, for the First Communion of Christmas 2016.


You’re probably familiar with the story of Charles Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol. Written and set in Victorian London, Dickens tells the story of miserly businessman Ebenezer Scrooge. Over a series of evenings, Scrooge is visited first by the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley, and then by ghosts of his past, present and future.

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The Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge back to his childhood and youth, showing how he was once a warmer and gentler soul, but that as he became increasingly miserly, so he began to forfeit everything good in his life. The Ghost of Christmas Present opens Scrooge’s eyes to the plight of others who live around him, especially his employee Bob Cratchit and Bob’s son, Tiny Tim. Finally, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come takes Scrooge to the moment of his own death: the end of a life that, while full of wealth, was empty, futile and despised by all. Scrooge wakes from this final dream a changed man, and you will know, or can guess, how the story ends.

What better time than Christmas Eve to revisit this story, evocative as it is of Victorian Christmases and the virtues it extols of generosity, goodwill and friendship? At Christmas, more than other times, we come face to face with our past, present and future. This may stir within us both great joy, and deep sadness.

I wonder what our own ghosts of the past, present and future might say to us? I’m sure that none of us are quite as miserly as Scrooge, but I do wonder whether each of us is haunted by our own regret, anxiety and fear. Equally, we will each hold onto treasured memories from past Christmases, and hopes for what future Christmases might have in store.

If you are like me, you are most likely haunted by these ghosts in the middle hours of the night. The moments when sleep evades you, and past memories or future worries seem overwhelming. It can be very difficult to let go of past mistakes: the hurts we have caused, the wrong choices we have made, the relationships we have damaged. And worries about the present or the future can seem endless at 3am. A nagging sense that life isn’t quite as we hoped it would be. As we planned it to be.

Perhaps, like Scrooge, we become tormented by all that has happened, or the fear of what will happen. Perhaps we even wake up with a fresh resolve to live a different way, or atone for a past mistake. Does our anxiety push us so fast into the future, that we forget to cherish the present, which soon becomes the longed-for past?

Every time we walk into church, we are met by our past and our future. For all of us who are baptised, our Christian journey is rooted here in church with the presence of the font, or baptistery. Every time we come, we see the font and we are reminded of our own beginning – our baptism into Christ’s light – and everything that has happened since through which he has walked alongside us.

And every time we come, we see the table, and we are reminded of our future hope. As we gather around that table to share the bread and wine, we receive a foretaste of the feast that awaits us in God’s eternal Kingdom. As we gather around the table, we don’t do so alone. We meet in the company of all those who have gone before us, and all those who will come after us. Holy Communion unites us with all God’s saints, as we look forward to a day when we will feast with them at the table in Heaven.

We live in a strange time. The liminal, transitional, suspended space of the “then” and the “not yet”. Something happened, in that manger in Bethlehem 2000 years ago. Something life-changing, world-changing – as choirs of angels lit up the sky and shepherds and kings were drawn and invited to worship the first born child of a humble Jewish carpenter family. It happened.

Tonight, we place God – the baby in whom all our hope is founded – into the manger.

But he doesn’t stay there.

God’s plan is still unfolding. His kingdom is still growing. You and I, simply by being here in this church tonight, are part of that expanding, life-changing, unstoppable plan. 

In all our regret and anxiety and fear, God uses us and God changes us. We are a people who are always on the move. The Christmas that you and I celebrate this year will not be the Christmas we celebrated last year, nor the Christmas we celebrate next year. We have changed, and we will change. We are not the people we were last year. And this moving is the faithful work of God’s Spirit within each of us, whether we know it or not, as we change to become more and more people of the Light.

Never mind the ghosts of past, present and future that haunt us. On this most holy of nights, God holds the darkness of their taunts: the regret and anxiety and fear, and fills that darkness with his marvellous light. And so I wonder what Christ – not a baby now – but risen, ascended and enthroned in Heaven, might say to us about our past, present and future? I don’t know, and perhaps the answer is different for each of us. But to me, I think God might say:

About the past: “Let it go. I forgive you. Forgive yourself”.
About the present: “Trust me and don’t rush”.
About the future: “All shall be well”.

Perhaps in a few moments of silence, you might like to invite God to speak to you the words of encouragement, affirmation and love that you need to hear tonight.

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Hineni: Here I am

I’m a bit young to know Leonard Cohen’s music well. But since his death I’ve discovered his final album, released last month and a profound insight into the wrestlings of a man staring death in the face.

Cohen was deeply spiritual, with Jewish heritage and a grasp of concepts from across different faith traditions. His final album pulls together the threads of a lifelong relationship with the spiritual, as he addresses, argues with and gives in to God, swinging like a pendulum between anger and contentment, questioning and acceptance. In the dying words of the album there is little resolution, with the wistful line, addressed to God: “I wish there was a treaty between your love and mine”. Cohen’s final words after a lifetime of grappling with God through song.

This album is full of vocational darkness, which I’ve written about before. We might think of God like a fairy godmother – a myth who makes all our dreams come true and keeps us living in cloud cuckoo land. The truth is far harder.

Vocational darkness is the cloud that settles when we say “yes” to God. Becoming who we are made to be – realising our full potential – these are painful journeys. The gateways and bridges to contentment and fulfilment have names such as sacrifice, cost, grief, pain and death. There is deep joy and peace to be found with God. But not without cost.

Death is the ultimate vocational journey. None of us knows exactly what happens beyond it. But I am confident that death is transformational, redemptive and an ultimate fulfilment of who we are – somehow. Only after will we know.

Cohen puts this vocational darkness at the heart of his title track: You Want it Darker.


Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls this a song for our time, in a 10 minute reflection well worth listening to.

Surrounded, as we are in the West, by fearful uncertainty and anguished disillusionment, here is a song of challenge and protest and prophecy.

Cohen rails against God:
Why are we so broken?
How have we, created in the image of God, become so ugly and disfigured?
God how could you let this happen?

And within his anger is disillusionment about his own place in the world:

If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game.
If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame.
If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame.

How many times have these prayers been cried out in the privacy of our hearts?
God, am I in or not?
Do you want me, or not?
Am I willing, or not?
Why don’t you answer me, heal me, glorify me?

If we have asked these dark questions, then we’re not alone. Through scripture and tradition, good and holy men and women have wrestled with the same doubts. Cohen is the latest in a long line of those who wrestle with God.

And then comes his response to God. Hineni, he says. A Hebrew word owned by Moses and Abraham and Samuel and Isaiah. All responding to their own vocational darkness.

Here I am.
I’m ready.
I don’t understand or I don’t agree or I don’t know… but I’m ready.
Here I am.
Choose me.

Cohen gives us glimpses of the invitation to respond to God. Hineni, he challenges us to say.

It’s a tough word. A mirror. It draws our questions and doubts away from God and back to ourselves. It is not God who is responsible for the terror of our world. It’s us. We might do it in God’s name but it’s still we who do it.

A million candles burning for the love that never came
You want it darker
We kill the flame.

How could we let this happen?

There is an antidote to the world’s suffering. It’s the work of good, compassionate, courageous men and women who are committed to responding to their own vocational darkness and bringing about change. The hands and feet of Christ in the world.

Frankly, it’s easier to ask the questions without being bothered to find the answer.

The answer, Cohen says, is hineni. Here I am. I’m ready. Use me.