Sunday, 22 September 2013

Multiply overwhelmed

Sometimes you need a handy tagline to attach to your life and I have two absolute corkers at the moment. They both describe life as I, and many others I know, experience it presently, and help me make sense of my endless, sometimes conflicting, role juggling, which actually I now realise everyone is doing, all the time.

The first phrase I identify with is 'multiple overwhelmings', coined by theologian, David Ford in 1999. I didn't know you could have a plural of overwhelmings, but it comes as no surprise - this is precisely the territory we are talking about. Whatever can surprise, will surprise; sooner or later you will feel out of control in life and nothing will ever be straightforward. So bring it (them) on. We're not just overwhelmed by life: we're multiply overwhelmed. It's a great description of church life, any life, in the 21st Century. 

I used to wonder why it was so difficult to deal with certain issues in ministry. I'm a great lover of lists: I would write down some important things I needed to discuss with a senior colleague, whose experience I was sure could sort out whatever pressing concern had arisen, once and for all. I would write in my diary, 'Discuss so-and-so'. First I had a small diary, a week to a page. That soon became unworkable so I got a bigger one, with two days to a page. Eventually, after all the scribbling was getting me down, I got one with ONE DAY TO A PAGE. Morning, afternoon and evening appointments sprawled all over it.

So I would go to the meeting with an important thing to discuss, but then come back not having talked about that thing, feeling quite frustrated. It would have to be rescheduled into a discussion at a later date. Meanwhile if anyone asked me 'have you sorted out x yet?' I would have to say 'Sorry, not yet.' 

It kept happening. What was wrong with me? Then I realised the reason was that by the time the meeting came round, there was something else more important to discuss. In fact, by the time the meeting came round there were normally multiple more important things all jostling for that prized space at the top of the list of VERY IMPORTANT THINGS THAT ALL NEED DISCUSSING.

Every meeting with someone who could help, turned into an exercise in strict prioritisation. And it's the same with the diary. All time is finite. Putting one thing in will mean not doing something else. It's about volume. There's nothing like 'really important things' to knock off the merely 'important' thing you were going to sort out, so that what did seem important now goes into second place. Or third. Or fourth. Or fifth.

Housework - sadly the same. I plan to do the hoovering. On opening the shoe cupboard to find the hoover I remember my winter shoes are lost in there, so I decide to clear out the cupboard instead. The underfloor heating's kicking in (something I am always positively overwhelmed by). I remember the school uniform is still damp and needs to be dry by tomorrow. I go to get it from the utility room in order to hang it in the warm cupboard before searching for my shoes. I am greeted in the utility room by the cat litter tray which is too smelly to leave. I deal urgently with that. The phone rings. I pick it up and deal with something important. Afterwards I can't remember what I was doing. Then I notice it's time for the school run. To sum up my afternoon, I haven't done the hoovering, found my shoes or dried any washing.

As well as 'multiple overwhelmings' (because we couldn't just have one thing - let's be overwhelmed) I am conscious of another constant theme in life: that of 'rapid, discontinuous change'. This phrase was coined by two American writers on church growth (Roxburgh and Romanuk, The Missional Leader, 2006). They describe a 'light bulb' moment when they realised that church leaders across the US were noticing that the usual things that used to keep church life sustained and healthy were not working any more. Churches had always adapted to change, but incremental change is a lot different to 'rapid discontinuous change'. The latter can leave us wondering why a once flourishing congregation is suddenly, unaccountably, dwindling.  Where are people on Sunday mornings? A potent mix of cultural, sociological, economic, familial, technological and demographic change has left many organisations reeling, and the church is no exception. 

I feel it too with technology. As soon as one operating system is up and running, there's another bearing down on us. Teachers, preparing this autumn for the 'New' National Curriculum, hardly had time to implement it before the 'New' New National Curriculum appeared like a juggernaut coming over the hill. Every change needs time invested in it before it is mastered, Then, at the point of mastering it, more change comes along. You are a novice again. And again.

I've bought an egg timer. The type where the sand runs through, just as time runs inexorably through your fingers. It runs for exactly ten minutes. The point of this is because I need to slow down. I need to make time for silence, meditation, stillness and prayer. I cannot easily stop rushing about, but my egg timer will make sure I sit in the chair, for ten minutes, 'in the press of a busy day' and consider God in the midst of all the multiple overwhelmings and rapid, discontinuous change. 

I want to recentre myself within the Unchanging One, so that, instead of being overwhelmed by circumstances, I have a chance to be overwhelmed by Him.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Demon discouragement

Discouragement in Christian ministry, as with most forms of 'work', can come in many guises. As can encouragement. Generally speaking I spend more time encouraged than discouraged. Is this because I've only been in the 'job' three years? Maybe. Is it because generally I'm a positive person? Perhaps. Or because I'm 'part time' and spend quite a lot of my life doing other things, apart from 'ministry'? Or because I came into it midway through life, having done other things before? Possibly.

Discouragement does sometimes loom though; with the state of Christianity in the West, it can feel like you are walking along a tightrope and as long as you look straight ahead at your destination, you are okay; but if for a moment you look down, at the steep gorge and the swirling rapids hundreds of feet below, you are certain to come a cropper.

In September 2006, during the time I was filling in initial forms for the Diocesan Director of Ordinands (itself a test of how easily you can get discouraged), an article was published in the Saturday Times which I wish I hadn't read. Entitled 'Juggling the impossible in a long stone building with pews and a steeple', it was a sad personal account of one Anglican priest's battle with discouragement, which led to him leaving the ministry after 13 years, along with, as he claimed, at least a quarter of his ordained colleagues. 

He describes their initial hopes and dreams and the deeply significant Ordination service, during which they were charged with going out into their communities in the name of Jesus himself 'to serve as part of the great and benevolent machinery of the English state' (his phrase). But it was all eroded by the reality of daily ministry, trying to keep ancient church buildings going in the face of dwindling congregations and resources,
whilst still being available to carry out occasional offices for people who 'mock the church' by expecting services (marriage, Christening) which in their mind are entirely unconnected with any ongoing expression of corporate church life.

It made for grim reading, and was overly harsh in places. Logically perhaps I should have given up there and then...But I didn't. I consoled myself thinking of all the reasons this particular person had allowed himself to fall into discouragement so badly there was no way back. There must be a name for the psychological phenomenon whereby you are fully conscious of huge potential pitfalls in a given situation, yet you remain convinced that in your particular case, everything will be okay. Blind optimism. Or self delusion, perhaps?

But think about this: if all women, able to use their vivid imaginations to the full, decided that, say, childbirth was too undignified/uncomfortable (not to mention painful) an experience ever to consider going through; that the various pitfalls and outcomes might eventually overwhelm them, therefore it would be best to avoid it altogether; if we all took this quite logical stance, the whole human race would literally, eventually, die out. So clearly, the phenomenon of knowing about the potential dangers/risks associated with a course of action and doing it anyway, is fundamental to human survival. 

So I got ordained. And here I am, still going. Generally encouraged. But aware that the most fundamental safeguard against discouragement is to keep going deeper into God, because if the Church in this country dwindles much more, it's going to be like the Dark Ages, where the monks and nuns kept the Christian faith alive in worship and contemplation for 600 years before something was reborn nationally and culturally. And keeping the faith alive with tiny groups of deeply committed people is quite a good description of how ministry feels in small semi-rural churches sometimes (though, I'm very happy to say, without the Black Death).

Having said that, there are admittedly certain things, even just words, I'd rather not hear too frequently. I'm only human. No matter how much you tell yourself that it doesn't matter too much and it's not likely to destabilise everything, not immediately anyway, there are some frequent, constant drips......No doubt you'll have some of your own...

We're away this weekend.
Oh, was it my turn?
We can't find the key.
The heating hasn't come on.
The milk's off.
The boiler's broken.
Please fill in the attached forms ASAP.
The projector won't talk to the laptop.
We weren't expecting you this morning.
We were expecting you yesterday morning.
You're supposed to sign twice on the certificate.
We tried that 6 years ago.
We tried that 26 years ago.
What do you mean, we can't have a kerbstone?
Car Boot Sale.
I never got that email.
Road closed due to Triathlon.
They've voted No.
Fire hazard.
Slipping tile.
Faculty application.
Share increase.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

A small gem of dynamite

'I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me.' Philemon verses 10,11.

‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. Luke 14: 26-27

Paul wrote four letters from prison - the prison epistles - Philemon in the shortest. The recipient was probably a leader in the local church who, it would appear, owed his salvation to Paul. The epistle is a plea from Paul for Philemon to accept back a runaway slave named Onesimus, now a Christian convert. Slavery was widespread in the ancient world and it would take some time before the dynamite of the gospel began to ignite the reformers to purge its ugly stain from polite Western society.

What I love about this tiny gem of Scripture is what makes the gospel for this Sunday hard to hear. Being church, following Christ, is all about getting relationships right. And the gospel challenges all our relationships. If it doesn't, what kind of gospel is it? 

Paul writes 'I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother' (v.7). Philemon is a joy to Paul - the head of the house where the local church meets, the 'Apphia' of the letter probably his wife; 'Archippus' possibly their son. And Onesimus was their slave, living and working in the house where the church meets. But something went wrong and Onesimus ran away, finally ending up in jail and being converted by Paul.

So here are some interesting relationship alterations. Philemon is a slave owner but now a Christian; Onesimus was a slave but is now a Christian. Paul is an old man, a believer of many years, now a prisoner for his faith. He appeals to Philemon to take Onesimus back, this time as a brother in Christ. He refers to Onesimus as 'his heart' - literally, his 'innards', that deep place from where his heart beats or breaks. 

'Onesimus' means 'profitable' - in a clever Pauline linguistic trick, once he was 'useless', now he is 'useful'. The gospel changes everything. To use the word 'profitable' about a human being is heavily ironic to us, who shy away from the idea that people can be associated with any idea of monetary value. But Paul is onto something. Only now, as a brother in the Lord can he be properly 'useful'.

Will Philemon rise to the gospel challenge and take Onesimus back as a brother? To do so would to be to go against the culture of the day. But the call of Christ eventually (sometimes it takes a while) challenges culture. Jesus says unless we put him first, 'hating' natural family ties whilst loving him above all else, we cannot be his disciples. Give up your possessions. Give up your status. Give up your rights. Give up your slave. 

Commentators have noticed how Paul emphasises his advanced age and his chains in his appeal to Philemon's better nature. Surely he cannot deny an old man this favour? Receive this young man, who I have (literally) 'given birth to' in jail, as a brother, and you will be surely blessed. One can sense the strong emotional appeal. An appeal that perhaps would be hard to ignore, especially if the letter was to be read out in the local church gathering, which was what normally happened with Pauline epistles.

It reminds me of a wonderful incident reported about Pope Francis. Shortly after taking office, the Pope emerged one night from his room in the hostel Casa Santa Marta. Paul Vallely tells the story in his recent book Pope Francis, Untying the Knots

'It was just before dawn and a young Swiss guard was on

duty by the door. Discovering he had been standing there all night the Pope went back into his rooms and brought out a chair. He told the young soldier to sit down. The guard said he could not. The rules did not allow it. Whose rules? asked the Pope. 'My Captain's orders', the soldier replied. 'Well he is just a Captain and I am the Pope and my orders are that you sit down'. The soldier sat down (...) A few minutes later Francis appeared with a slice of bread and jam (...) which the leader of the world's billion Catholics gave to the soldier, with the words: 'Buon appetito, brother''. Vallely observes that this is both a personal, even humble act of kindness, but also veiled in subtly authoritarian terms, which cannot reasonably be refused!

It's the same with Paul. He is transformed by the gospel; he longs for the same transformation in his brothers and sisters in Christ. No matter what Onesimus has done: 'if he has done you some wrong, owes you anything, put it down to my account. I, PAUL, AM WRITING IN MY OWN HAND, I SHALL REPAY'* (this comes before a 'gentle' reminder that in fact Philemon owes him everything anyway!) Hints of the Good Samaritan, who was similarly moved from his 'innards' (same verb) with pity and generosity. 'So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me' (verse 17). The slave is equal to the apostle. 

This is radical stuff. The logic of the gospel - equality of status before God and love for all fellow creatures - drives all before it like a flood. Hierarchical relationships based on power sit very uneasily where Jesus is Lord. They sit uneasily in the church. Paul was an old man, he had
softened. The phenomenon of someone whose life is so touched by the gospel that everything they do and think, everything they are, is seasoned with gentleness and grace, is a very compelling one. 

Maybe you know someone like this. By loving Christ above all other, by letting God's heart touch ours, by letting the logic of the gospel turn all natural relationships on their head, we can become people like this. For his glory,

*Nicholas King translation

Sunday, 1 September 2013

How to be humble

Luke 14: 'When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable. ‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place.But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’

Jesus noticed things, people. He was a people watcher. He describes here a familiar setting - a celebration meal. We all have a sense of who the important ones are at a formal, or even informal meal, in any given social setting, even if we think status doesn't matter any more these days. Yes, we have Twitter, where you can message your favourite author or celebrity in the hope they will respond, but mostly, the more well known they are the less likely that is to happen.

At my school (all girls, fee paying, 1980s) status mattered. The Head had status. She had 'presence'. She ate lunch with a different table of 'gells' every week on the dining hall. Obviously, she took the top table, on the dais, and the 'top' seat on that table. If it was your turn to sit next to her you had to accord her the proper status while she complained about Elton John ('isn't he the one who writes everything in C?') and telepathically expected things to be passed her (salt, jug of water) at just the right moment without her having to ask for them. It always gave me indigestion.

Status is not dead. Alain de Botton writes (status) 'anxiety is provoked by, among other elements, recession, redundancy, promotions, retirement, conversations with colleagues in the same industry, newspaper profiles of the prominent and the greater success of friends'. I only have to think about colleagues who have finished their Curacies already while I trudge into year four and at least three more 6 hour training days, plus paperwork, and I break out in a cold sweat...

Jesus 'noticed' how guests subtly chose the places of honour and of course he wants reversal, in his inimitable way (you can see why he made enemies amongst the religious status holders...) Aim for the lowest place and you will be moved higher, maybe. We all want to be noticed, to count. Who can think of someone who's so secure in their identity that they can be said to be truly humble? It's difficult. Rev. Angela Butler, a colleague on our Team, who passed away in the Spring, was such a person. She was ready and willing to serve the church as a single woman three decades before women could be ordained, but she never complained about her apparent lack of status; instead she waited patiently until the Church came round to the idea. She served by making others feel good about themselves and by underplaying her own talents and her vast experience of ministry. Other people, ordinary people, genuinely interested her - she was constantly amazed, like a child, by the ordinary situations where she perceived something extraordinary to be a work.

Is humility a spiritual issue? 'Humus', from which we get 'humility', means earth.
When you're earthed, you know who you are and you understand your status before God, others and self. The earth is good. The earth IS. By chance we sang 'For the Beauty of the earth' as we considered this passage in church: I like the version which uses the tune 'As with Gladness', particularly as Beth Nielsen Chapman sings it: (it's really beautiful, especially the key change...)

If your view of reality is as forgiven person, reliant on God, it's refreshing not to have to grab onto personal status. Who we are counts before what what we do. A completely counter cultural way of looking at life. When my maternal grandpa died a prayer was discovered in his desk. It surprised the family - he did not come across as an especially religious man. It was entitled: 'A Prayer for Humility':

'Lord, keep me from becoming talkative and possessed with the idea that I must express myself on every subject.
Release me from the craving to straighten out everyone's affairs.
Teach me the glorious lesson that occasionally I may be wrong. 
Make me helpful but not bossy.
With my vast store of knowledge and experience it does seem a pity not to use it all.
But Thou knowest, Lord, that I want a few friends at the end.'