Finding The Church

 

Meeting

 

Between September 1665 and November 1666, in the village of Eyam, 260 people died of the plague, including a visitor who had come to sell cloth to the locals, but never left. The figure comprised about three quarters of the population because the village had gone into voluntary quarantine in order prevent the plague spreading to surrounding communities. As a result of Eyam’s act of sacrificial love, other hamlets and villages in the area seem to have been spared this horrific fate. Some people must have been asking themselves what kind of capricious God would allow such things.

At the moment, I am reading Maurice Wile’s God’s Action In The World (Bampton Lecture 1986) and look forward to understanding a little more about how God works in what happens to people and communities, for better or for worse. I come at his book from an a priori position, because I think God’s agency works through love and, most significantly, through the love which holds communities, nations and families together. This kind of love is often tested through sacrifice and reveals God at work in the world in many and various ways which are difficult to explain, allowing for the fact that I have not yet finished the Maurice Wiles book.

Thinking about the kind of sacrificial love which holds communities together is the nearest I can get to an understanding of what the Christian Church is called to be as the body of Christ. It is called to live together in sacrificial love, whereby sacrifice is demanded of everyone, as was the case with Eyam. But sometimes the sacrifice is demanded from only one individual, or one family. This is when the community is called to share in the sacrifice in a different way.

Something like the latter scenario is happening in our village. One family who we all love is in crisis at the moment. The people concerned are pivotal to the life of our church, so as a community we are challenged on two fronts; the first, emotional, because it is hard to watch people we love suffer, and the second, practical, involving the day to day running of our churches.

Earlier this week a meeting was called. We met in someone’s kitchen, reckoning that the church itself would be too cold for anything much to get done. Would that this piece of loving common sense was applied to all church meetings. A warm environment makes for constructive decision making.

We met as a body of people entering into the suffering of one of our own. In meeting together, we were allowing that suffering to become, in some measure at least, integrated with our own context, our personal experience of suffering and the relatively new and acute experience of suffering together in one person’s, or one family’s, present pain. We were fortunate in having things to do which could make the people concerned know that they are embraced and held by the community. I say fortunate, not only because we had things to do but because this coming together through suffering is a tangible experience of the God we all worship Sunday by Sunday in church. It tells us as a community, as well as the people in whose pain we share, that we are loved in a way which is beyond human understanding.

What we were all experiencing in this very practical meeting was Christian joy. To experience Christian joy as a community in the face of suffering comes with being Church in the fullest sense. It comes with the conscious experience of being the body of Christ. It is something that we seldom find in the context of the formal Church, as the world, for the most part, perceives it, because the formal Church seldom seems to give itself the time or the opportunity for this kind of joy to be planted in the hearts of those it is supposed to serve, or those who in name or title are called to do the serving. This suggests that the Church, at all levels of its life and in every context, is called, first of all, to be fully alive in its humanity, to know joy whatever the circumstances. Being human as Church is to be the body of Christ.

In the meeting I have just described, all the people present knew each other. Being a small country community, they probably knew more about each other than people would in more formal settings. This, and the fact that we had all been through ‘stuff’ together over the years, made for an altered dynamic, a dynamic of trust. We had learned trust partly through a shared period of unhappiness. We had learned to hang together and get through those dark times, so as to rise again as a transformed and more loving community.

The dynamic of trust allows business to get done (hence it is ‘dynamic’) because there is relatively little in the way of disturbing or distracting undercurrents which make for the kind of politics and game-playing that so often shape meetings and cause them to either stagnate or founder on detail. There was also a shared sense of urgency in this kitchen meeting. The love and the sharing in the suffering of the person we were there to serve gave purpose and focus to the discussion. Too many church meetings lack a depth of focus and purpose. It is often not at all clear what is bringing people together and there seems to be little to hold them together in a way which is meaningful and enduring, with the result that we come away from such meetings wondering why they were called in the first place.

Shared love and the trust which comes with it make for productive meetings. But this particular meeting was more than productive. It was a living out of the Gospel, a reminder that we are called, as Church, to bear fruit, fruit that will last (John 15:16). Bearing fruit that lasts does not depend on strategy. In the life of the Church it depends on vision which is informed by love and worked out in the kind of meetings which take place around a kitchen table.

 

 

 

Feel The Fear – And?

We carry fear around with us. It is something we are born with

 

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It is said that people engage more readily with social media posts if they come with an image. I am not sure if this is a comment on a collective diminishment of intellect, attention span, or possibly a renewed penchant for the visual – because it is also said that our appreciation of the visual arts is actually waning. I don’t know if any of this is true, as these assertions are hard to prove statistically. But there must, all the same, be a reason for the fact that for most of us, it is the image which grabs our attention, although it will seldom retain it. So the image alone leaves the viewer with one of two options; the first, to switch off (in every sense of the word) and the second, to read a line or two of whatever is being offered on the rest of the page or screen.

This is not to suggest that we need to engage more deeply, and with greater discernment, on images and visual representations, although we probably do, but to ask ourselves what we are really looking for in the short intervening moment between looking at the image which comes with this post and deciding to read what is said about it. Is it curiosity? Or anxiety? Or a combination of both? The image has a context, but it is not the context that drew me back to it when I started to write. It is the haunting expression on the face of that particular man. I think it is the face of fear, of a man who is afraid of losing everything. To lose, in regard to his position, is to fail and to fail is, in some measure at least, to cease to exist. We have all known what it feels like to fail, or to be afraid of failing.

We carry this fear around with us. It is something we are born with. As very young children, fear is mixed into the imagination, but the imagination is also fed by experience. These primal experiences often have to do with immediate circumstances, such as war or violence closer to home. All too soon the very young child learns that violence does not happen of its own accord (apart from certain natural events like storms) but is perpetrated by other human beings, often those most close to us. It is also impossible to rationalise the fear which comes from experiencing violence, whether physical or emotional, and that remains true, to a greater or lesser extent, for most of our lives. So we are caught in a vicious circle. What we do not understand or cannot explain to ourselves makes us afraid and the fear which derives from not understanding makes us still more afraid – afraid of some indefinable state of isolation or non-being.

To return to the image posted above, could it be that the threat which this person poses to us stems from deep within his own fears, and touches us all in that dark part of our inner being in which we feel most alone, and most afraid?

If this is the case, it must require that we develop some kind of coping mechanism, some way of managing, but not denying, the kinds of fear which this person evokes in others and which may well be a variant on the fears he carries around in himself and of which he is in denial, as we all are when it comes down to what we most secretly fear.

We learn in the Christian tradition, and in other religious language frameworks, that love casts out, or resolves, fear. I have always found this quite hard to understand. I find it difficult to reconcile the way I feel when I love a person with the way I feel when I am afraid of someone. Some people know fear in the same context as love. They fear the person they love – or love the person they fear. So love itself does not seem to be casting out fear. Some other kind of love is needed.

It is love’s source that we need to draw on when we are most afraid.

With the season of Advent approaching comes the opportunity, for those who can spare the time or the mental space, to contemplate love’s source in the face of a tiny and vulnerable child. This child is, of course, all children and all vulnerable people. It is also the child in all of us. But somehow this particular child, this Jesus, brings unfathomable peace to all who will accept Him and are willing to be transformed by Him in the moment of doing so. No one is beyond His reach, including the frightened man in the picture I have posted. So perhaps the best thing we can do in regard to this particular individual is to hold him and his unnameable fears in the presence of this Christ Child and in the radiance of His smile.

 

 

A Book Whose Time Has Come

 

We all carry our fears around with us.   They are part of our emotional DNA.

The two questions which drive us, ‘Am I loved?’ and ‘Am I safe?’ are lodged deep in the subconscious and in the memories which have helped shape our lives. Our private fears feed into the collective – into how we respond to the politics of the time both national and global.

Fear also supplies us with a necessary energy, so it is useless to tell ourselves that we have no reason to feel afraid, especially in the times we are living in. Instead, we need to learn how to manage fear.  It is a spiritual task.

My latest book looks at how we can learn to pray into our fears, both private and collective, and so confront them through wise and compassionate action.

IST Cover plus Back

 

 

 

Being There

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The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities. (Is. 53:11)

There could not have been a more fitting reading for the day after the People’s Vote March. Perhaps it was the feeling that the march itself was making many righteous, in the way the Suffering Servant of the book of Isaiah can be understood as a collective, as a redeemed people.

Since I was due to preach the following day, I found myself mulling over the meaning of collective righteousness as we waited for 2 hours for the march to begin. We were told that the numbers of people there had so exceeded expectations that the police were having to close more streets to traffic, which made it possible for those familiar with London to take a few short cuts and get to the bit of the march that was actually moving.

Nevertheless, we did stand still for two hours on Park Lane, outside the Dorchester hotel. Expensive looking cars with darkened windows were occasionally escorted to its doors. I couldn’t help noticing the occupant of one of these as she emerged. She was dressed in the most stunning African traditional dress and head covering. That, too, must have been expensive, along with the car and the stay at the Dorchester. I tried to imagine who she might be. A powerful person, perhaps in government. Whatever the source of her obvious wealth I did find myself wondering how she thought about the poor in her country, whether she had any sense of responsibility for them, how she justified the wealth differential, Would she need protection in her own country, if 700,000 protesters were to pass by her front door?

Most of us on that march, as far as I could see, were neither conspicuously poor nor conspicuously wealthy. We were, for the most part, ordinary people privileged to live in a country where peaceful protest against the government of the day is not only permitted but protected. The police were amazing. They were there in steely vigilance, quietly taking responsibility for our safety, at some risk to themselves. Who knows what would have happened if violence had broken out? I was grateful for their professionalism and the confidence which it gave us. I suspect that even in the West and among the most powerful nations people taking part in marches and demos rarely feel as safe and confident as we did with the police around.

But to return to Isaiah; there was a sense of solidarity, not only because all 700,000 of us were there for the same reason, but because we seemed to be taking responsibility, quietly bearing together, the sum total of the iniquities which had brought us there from up and down the country, and from abroad, to demand that the government ‘repent’, that it turn itself around (which is the real meaning of repentance) in regard to Brexit and, most importantly, that it take responsibility for the people – all the people.

Isaiah’s suffering servant is thought by some biblical scholars to be a collective, a people. He suffers with them and he bears the responsibility for their suffering. He makes himself ‘part of’ the iniquity, and its healer. This suggests that what ought to come out of the People’s Vote march is a willingness to be responsible together, both government and people, for the iniquity of the first referendum on Brexit, a short sighted, irresponsible and entirely self-interested course of action. Irresponsible and self-interested on the part of the leadership of the time who were banking on a comfortable ‘remain’ majority that would also get them back in power; short-sighted on the part of a public that had failed to ask itself, or the government, some important questions pertaining to the wider picture and to longer term consequences. Two of these are especially significant in regard to Isaiah’s imagery of collective responsibility. They pertain to what happens to Ireland and, possibly the most important, what might be the long-term consequences of the fragmentation of Europe.

When a dish cracks it will be sundered by the next impact or excessive heat rise. The UK leaving the EU will likely create fissures and fractures in the political and economic fabric of Europe, opening the way to power for the far right which is already becoming entrenched in certain corners of the continent. We have been there before. Our parents and grandparents bore this particular iniquity in and through two world wars. By the time Jacob Rees Mogg’s prediction that it will take 50 years for the benefits of Brexit to be felt it will be far too late.

 

Compassionate Leadership for the Church

 

 

‘Brexit. Is it worth it?’ is one of the placard slogans displayed by ‘remain’ protesters. But short questions beg short answers, and short answers often only serve to exacerbate the anxiety and confusion which give rise to the question in the first place.

If we were to apply the same question to the life of the Church of England, and of its sister provinces in Scotland, Wales and Ireland, a short answer would also beg a great many further questions relating to its spiritual, moral and financial viability: So, the institutional Church: Is it worth it? Is it truly viable – or is it too late to think about this question? Many would say that it is.

To ask this question of the institutional Church is to ask whether it conveys life, the kind of life which connects with people, whether or not they are church-goers, and which gives and sustains hope. Many of those who have little to do with the Church are asking themselves if the Church is worth it, if there is any point to it. They will be looking first to its leaders to furnish an answer, if an answer is what is really required. I would be willing to hazard a guess that the reason for Pope Francis’s popularity, among Catholics and non-Catholics alike, is that he does not furnish answers or issue imperatives. Instead, he enters into the pain and fear of those he serves and, by doing so, speaks hope.

Drawing on the example set by Pope Francis, we could say that deeply compassionate leadership defines the viability of the Church. The question which needs to be asked of the Church of England, therefore, and of its sister provinces in the UK, pertains to how its leaders are to be equipped to speak compassionate hope, first to their own clergy and people, and through these to society, but leaders will not be able to speak compassionate hope into the life of the Church without having first known it themselves. They will know it as we all do, as something which binds us to God and to other people when friends are there for us in our humanity. Leaders need to be cared for in their humanity so that they can care for those they serve in the same way.

It seems that the hierarchical structures which exist to maintain the current system of governance and leadership, and which define the Church, no longer act as conduits of compassionate hope, the kind of hope which ought to sustain the Church’s life, or viability. As a result, the institutional Church is perceived by many to be largely irrelevant and to pertain to another age. Its power structure conveys constraint and introversion mediated through an arcane authority code which has something of the imperial about it, purple being traditionally the colour of emperors, rather than of repentance.

Revelations of clerical abuse suggests that at present, the way of leadership needs to speak first of repentance, as Pope Francis demonstrated on his recent visit to Ireland. Leaders demonstrate repentance in such a way as to allow the whole Church to take responsibility for the past, including our collective responsibility for the world and for our own society. But the Church cannot take responsibility for the suffering of others until it has known what it is to be forgiven, to be held and embraced by those it has wronged, irrespective of who they are and of the nature of the offence committed. In terms of the functional life of the Church, this embracing might begin with a complete re-ordering of the structures which make forgiveness and embrace impossible. While this may involve a purely functional re-ordering, it is more likely that it will call for the kind of breaking down of hierarchical barriers which would return us all to our full humanity, allowing us to perceive one another as fellow persons with different gifts and callings, but equal in the eyes of God.

Episcopal authority is derived in some measure from a monastic tradition of obedience but in the life of the institutional Church, it often seems to lack the genuine affection on which monastic authority depends for its credibility. For those on the outside, the structures which are propping up an ageing Church, and which sustain a culture of deference and clericalism, appear to be maintained by pragmatism worked out through a managerial mindset which distances leaders from those they are there to serve.  As a result, financial viability, rather than the preaching of the good news of compassion and hope, becomes an end in itself.

Notwithstanding the importance given to mission, what, and where, is the vision? Good management is necessary for any organisation to thrive and grow but it needs to have a vision to support it and to this end, it needs to care for its own people, including those at the top.

The constraints imposed by a still patriarchal and hierarchical system of governance have created an all-pervading atmosphere of distrust and constraint which dehumanises the Church and makes forgiveness and compassionate leadership difficult. The system demands too much of its leaders and of those it is supposed to serve and support, with the result that power games, status envy and the politics of exclusion increasingly dominate the Church’s life.

It is the leaders who pay the first and perhaps the greatest price. Fear and distrust lead to isolation and loneliness and can also lead to serious mental health problems. Similarly, the administrative and organisational demands placed on those in positions of leadership in the context of the diocese or parish leave little time or mental space for deep prayer, the kind of centered stillness which requires hours rather than minutes. Out of this centered stillness comes clarity of vision, as prayerful leaders in the past have demonstrated. It also builds the inner strength which makes deep compassion not only possible but lifegiving, both for the leaders who pray and for those they serve.

 

 

Have A Nice Day

 

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Summer colds are the worst. So is depression on a clear blue late September day. There is some consolation in knowing that you are not the only sufferer, but only very little. This is because the worst thing about colds, ‘flu and depression is that they claim you. You may try, if you are a praying sort of person, to think of all those who are suffering from far greater physical or mental conditions than your own, but this seldom takes you to a different place. On the other hand, you might also try being fully present to the moment through owning it fully. This helps but it requires focus, and depression makes focus almost impossible. You are constantly returned to whatever trigger set this particular downward spiral in motion.

Having read few books on the subject of depression (they tend to make me more depressed, so I read them later when the depression has passed) I have evolved my own coping mechanisms. One of these, the most important perhaps, draws on Jon Kabat-Zinn’s helpful thesis; ‘you are not your depression’[1]. Your depression does not own you, so there is no reason to allow yourself to be consumed by it. But trying to suppress it doesn’t work either. It’s better, if possible, to step outside the depression and view it objectively. Ask yourself what it is, rather than what it is about or what has caused it. You find that just like a cold or ‘flu, it is simply depression, a condition that chiefly affects our state of mind, although it can have serious physical side effects, some of them even life threatening.

In looking at depression objectively, hard as that may be at the time, two further things emerge; the first, an objective take on the underlying depression that to a greater or lesser extent most of us carry around for much of our lives and, the second, the will to make something positive and good happen out of it for someone else. This is not self sacrifice. It is self preservation.

It is also the nearest I can get to a definition of depression as prayer. In times of depression prayer has to do with the determination to convert negative energy into something positive and re-creative for another person, or another situation. This conversion of energy is not something we do through our own efforts, but something we want to have happen. Depression adds acuity to the wanting, even if the wanting is not consciously directed to God, but comes from a determination that our depression at least serve some good purpose. The determined wanting is the prayer.

The wanting is important, first because the will to re-create, or to bring life from something that is essentially about death, takes us to a different place of understanding in regard to ourselves and to the purpose of our own lives. The worst thing about depression, and about the lingering viruses that feed depression, is that they weaken us both physically and emotionally to the point that it is hard to believe we have a purpose at all and it is equally hard to believe that there is anyone or anything worth the effort needed to make our experience of depression something that could be life transforming for someone else. I think this is what Christ himself experienced as he walked to the place of his execution – the seeming purposelessness of it all.

But in wanting life to come from our current experience of death, which is what depression amounts to much of the time, we become agents of re-creation for the persons or situations we most care about. Here is where truth comes in. When we hit rock bottom in depression, we also hit truth, if we allow ourselves to. Truth reveals to us, sometimes surprisingly, who these people or situations really are. Depression focuses the mind on the things and the people that really matter to us. It is a great refiner.

In times of depression, we do not have the means for holding on to the delusions which help to cushion us from long hidden pain or from the memory of destructive relationships. Work, alcohol, general activism, or any other addictive pursuit will simply not do it for us once depression takes hold, so it is as well to face this from the beginning.

When it comes to looking at how past pain and the things which trigger it are feeding this particular depression, it helps, once again, to step back, to allow objectivity. In order to do this, I have found it necessary to first let go of all the past circumstances that trigger the pain of the present so that I can come to terms with the fact that I cannot change them. Letting go does not mean burying them by trying to ‘forget’. Letting go is a willingness to allow a transfiguring of the way we experience the pain of today. This helps to re-direct our wanting from a desire to be vindicated for the past, as well as from whatever has contributed to the current depression, into a forceful wanting that life should come out of the darkness and death which threatens to overwhelm us. Sooner or later that determined wanting, that urgent need to be heard by God, will win through.

[1] Jon Kabat-Zinn Full Catastrophe Living: How to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation, Platkus Books Ltd., London (2004)

Disposable Time

‘Happiness is a right, but you have to catch it yourself’ said Benjamin Franklin of the American Constitution. It was a very English thing for an 18th century American to say. We English have traditionally held that pulling yourself up by your own boot strings is a moral imperative. This is why Pelagius, writing in the 5th century, was a very English heretic. Pelagius argued that human beings did not need divine grace in order to fulfil God’s purpose for them because they could perfectly well fulfil it through their own efforts and character. Part of his argument entailed the denial of original sin, as it was then understood. Original sin was seen as a stain on a person’s soul that could only be eradicated by the grace imparted through baptism.

In his book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins argues that original sin would be better termed original selfishness; our natural propensity for the furthering of self interest at the expense of anyone or anything that gets in its way. Original selfishness, Dawkins argues, has its origins in the instinct for survival which we have inherited from our earliest humanoid ancestors. He has a point. But it also creates complications, or at least invites a redefinition of the notion of inherited sin. However, one thing seems obvious; in modern society unredeemed original selfishness leads to a state of personal and collective loneliness.

In terms of the individual, those who have led selfish lives often find themselves alone and unvisited in their final years, a situation exacerbated, perhaps, by the selfishness they have passed on to others.

Added to this, what is becoming increasingly obvious is that the tendency to individual selfishness, along with collective greed, will lead to the demise of our species within the next couple of centuries.  But this increasingly obvious fact does not seem to be making us less selfish, either in terms of how we think about the planet we are bequeathing to the next three or four generations, or how we conceive of our own happiness at this moment.

Perhaps the difficulty lies in the significance of the moment itself, the moment in time which is now. Time has become a kind of currency. We are used to thinking about disposable assets, but isn’t time itself a disposable asset? We never seem to have enough of it. Disposable time, and how it is used, is central to the question of happiness and to that of loneliness. Too little disposable time forces us to compress our lives into a rapidly shrinking time framework, usually at the expense of our relationships and of our mental and physical health. Later in life, the sacrificing of relationships will lead to us having too much disposable time, too many hours to fill and too few people left with whom to share them.

Do we simply dismiss this future scenario as the inevitable price we pay for living in the times we live? Or can we change it? or, better still, is there a way for re-connecting with the source of true happiness in the disposable time that is given to us? This brings us to the core question; If we want happiness, can we find ways of being present to stillness, and the peace it brings, from within any one transient moment in daily life? Only in allowing stillness will we be able to re-order our happiness priorities.

There are two stories from the Gospels which hint at how we might re-think our happiness priorities. The first is that of the encounter between Jesus and the rich young man who wants to know what he must do to inherit the kingdom of God. (Matt. 19:16-22) He has led a good life but he is afraid of parting with his possessions. This is understandable. Material assets impart a feeling of safety, so to let go of them willingly is frightening. This was the young man’s problem. He found it hard to come to terms with the fact that his assets were truly disposable. Like many of us today he also felt that he was defined by what he owned, or by what he had achieved, and that his happiness depended on these things.

The other story concerns two sisters, Martha and Mary. (Luke 10:38-42) Jesus is having supper at their house and Martha complains to him for allowing her sister to sit listening to what he is saying instead of helping her with the meal. (Why is her brother not being asked to help, one can’t help wondering?) But Jesus replies that Mary has ‘the better part’. The story concerns the proper deployment of disposable time when it comes to what makes for real happiness.

This is not to say that spirituality (whatever that word signifies) is more important than practical action or rational thought, but that there are deep human needs which take precedence over everything else. Denying these needs leads to unhappiness. The deepest of these is our need for God, and meeting our need for God requires time, rather than money.