Thursday, 13 June 2013

Holding on. Lightly

It seems fitting that it's Robert Powell, aka Jesus (without the beard) from Roman Polanski's Jesus of Nazareth, that is holding on for dear life to the hands of Big Ben, Saviour-like, in the 1989 version of John' Buchan's The Thirty Nine Steps.

Because holding onto things has strong resonances in the Christian tradition.

I'm no fan of John Lennon's Imagine: 'Imagine there's no heaven, above us only sky...imagine there's no countries...nothing to kill or die religion too'. 

No justice or passion? People floating around in white drapes saying 'peace' when there is no peace? No thanks.

In contrast, Christians are encouraged to 'Hold fast to what is good' (Thessalonians) and to hold on tenaciously when things are tough. But holding on can also be negative. Holding onto people who need to be let go of; holding onto memories which need healing; holding grudges. Perhaps it's a question of what to hold tightly and what to hold lightly.

Holding on tightly or lightly is a conundrum for the selection process in the Church of England, but also for anyone who's ever needed a bit of divine guidance (you know, that nudging, that prompting, that hunch). 

Here's the conundrum: You think God might be calling you to do something. You approach your parish priest and they listen to you stumbling through a badly articulated explanation of a feeling, that might be a hunch, that might be a 'calling', say to Ordination, then they tell you to go away 'and when you're sure, come back and see me.'

But when will you be sure? Months, even years down the line, when you have started to articulate this feeling/hunch/nudge a bit more fully, they send you off to a BAP (Bishops' Advisory Panel) where for three days you are watched, assessed and 'interviewed' by various CofE 'experts', lay and ordained, to see if they too can 'discern' a calling from God.

The advice you are given by those preparing you for the BAP is 'act naturally'. Don't come across too sure. But not too unsure either. Great. No problem. 

On one level you must hold onto this sense of calling very lightly because if you don't, you're in for a tremendous disappointment when that 'sorry, it's a no' phone call comes through. Ideally you want to respond with a happy shrug and the words 'ah, no worries, I'll go back to teaching. Thanks. Byeeeee'. At the same time, how can you not hold tightly onto something that's so potentially life changing if, as it turns out, you had the right, as opposed to the wrong, end of the stick.

I had to go and see the Principal in my second year of Theological College. Turns out I was right about the original calling but I'd had a further hunch about my vocation and now wished to slant my training towards 'Pioneer Ministry', which was the new sexy at the time. By now I knew the kind of words to use: 'I've had time to reflect....just want to be obedient...'

The Principal had the nicest study in Christendom. The Principal was wise. The Principal was a good listener. He listened to my articulating how I felt drawn to be a Pioneer Minister. He said of my conviction: 'I think you have the right combination: you're holding it firmly but lightly.' So far so good. It wasn't in his gift, I knew that; but he would support my application. I continued to hold onto it firmly but lightly. Actually I didn't manage the lightly bit very well. At the end of the month my application was turned down. I was really upset.

And in ministry day to day I still struggle to hold some
things, some people, lightly. I don't have a problem with the tightly bit - I have a good memory for faces and names and can hold situations in prayer for years. It's the lightly bit. But when people get ill, when they die; when they move away, disagree, can't be bothered or are too tired, make mistakes and let you down; when our plans seem such a good idea and our programmes so very important to mission that we're thrown into confusion when they don't 'work'; that's when we have to learn to hold on. Lightly.


  1. Thank you. I too have trouble with "lightly"... just this week, I'm beginning to sense that there's quite a difference between "carrying" others as a God-given charge and clinging to doing so as a way of feeding my own need-to-be-needed, need-to-feel-somehow-important, need-to-prove-how-holy-and-self-sacrificing-I-am...
    The challenge, as ever, is to discern the point at which the former becomes the latter and to let go - not least because the alternative is to court burn-out and break-down.

  2. Thank you so much for this, brought all the more alive by the fact I am only too familiar with the study in question!

    I'm at that point in ordination training where I feel that I've got to hold on tightly to the sense of calling to ordination, else I'll lose it completely.

    You've also found a Bible passage for me that I knew was there, for a TR on a funeral: I thought that encouraging people to hold on to the positive things of the deceased's life had some Biblical grounding, but could I find it earlier. You have, it's the Thessalonians bit I think! And yes, it needs to be balanced with a letting go as well, I know.

    Prayers and greetings - one day we might meet properly in the hallowed halls themselves ;-)

  3. Interesting to read comments by ordinands... it can also be extremely painful to have that hunch, nudge, call-it-what-you-will, to have various people over the years say "yes" but then circumstances prevent pursuing it at the time, and finally, much older and wiser, to have the hunch kick in again big-time, and for my current parish priest, whose discernemnt I trust very much and who is extremely supportive of me both personally and in terms of affirming and encouraging my growing "no-labels" pastoral and prayer ministry, to say "no" and for it to go no further. Except it doesn't go away... trying to process _that_ one is proving a challenge... (PS I'm the same Anonymous as above...)

  4. That sounds very frustrating and puzzling. Parish priests are not always the best discern ers though. Mine said to me 'Ive always thought of women as being very nurturing' (subtext: 'they stay at home' ! But he did support me in the long term...
    Keep on holding on.