Saturday, 30 March 2013

Lent for Extroverts 40: 'Holy' confusing Saturday

The Mourning of Jesus, Giotto di Bondone
I am on a steep liturgical learning curve. A wacky but, I suspect, deeply committed Christian friend of mine from a different culture had a 'word from God' that the Almighty was presently calling people into the Anglican church from different denominational backgrounds (to stir it up? I'm not sure..) Well I fit the bill. As far as I can remember we never attached any liturgical significance to the day in between Good Friday and Easter Day as I was growing up in a non conformist church. But there are those, and I suppose I'm nearly one of them, who call the day in between 'Holy Saturday'.

I slightly fear the sacralising of the every day. Doesn't it go against the spirit of the Incarnation? I resist the extremes of a trend which I worry could lead to the 'holy dusters' of the very blessed dusted vestry being the focus of a special church service each year, or the holy tea lights being lit on 'holy tea light day'. But I'm being facetious.

I think I can be content with 'Holy Saturday', and in my present liturgical incarnation, there is no liturgy offered, no midnight service of watching and waiting, no bonfire to light the paschal candle while we wait for the Easter sunrise. I did witness all that stuff once and my first impression was a) why are the priests dressed like the Klu Klux Klan? and b) wasn't it just like the scene I imagine in the courtyard when Peter sits by the fire the night Jesus is tormented by the Roman Guard, and the girl says 'Surely you are a Galilean also?' and Peter denies it. In other words, bonfires on Easter Eve can be liturgically very confusing for the uninitiated. 

Then there's the theological conundrum. What was Jesus doing all that time? The 'Harrowing of Hell' is one theory - that Christ descended into Hell and brought out the imprisoned spirits there. There's a contested couple of verses in 1 Peter 3 about it. But does that mean they shouldn't have gone there in the first place? Or were they paying off their sin Purgatory-style and were now ready? Is The Harrowing of Hell a bit too Universalist? Just because someone painted it in the Middle Ages it doesn't make it biblical. Or did he only go to the righteous, to proclaim what they already knew? Or was he just reposing quietly in the tomb, waiting for his moment? We assume that if the women went before dawn then Jesus must have risen before that, which makes it very early indeed Sunday morning.

I do like the idea that the church has a quiet day every year; a day to recover from the intensity of Good Friday and prepare for the joy of Ester Day. I worry that it could become an excuse for a day off though, when I could be drinking deeply from some liturgical well somewhere.

No doubt my liturgical pot will simmer away gently over the next few years. God is a patient cook. I'll do my best to recover from the Klu Klux Klan bonfire experience and ponder the theology of the credal assertion 'He descended into Hell'. Maybe I'll conclude that as the New Testament is pretty silent on the matter, we are not to know what Jesus got up to between the Friday and the Sunday. And maybe one day I'll 'get' Holy Saturday.

Meanwhile, Lent is almost over and this blog series has come to an end. Happy (nearly) Easter.

Friday, 29 March 2013

Lent for Extroverts 39: Between a Friday and a Sunday

In the year 2000 Good Friday fell on 21st April. I know that because I had a baby that day. I was booked in to be induced at 37 weeks because I had suffered a still birth the year before, and pregnancy had become a very stressful condition that I wanted to bring to completion as soon as possible. But when we arrived early at the hospital it was pandemonium on the maternity ward and they told us to come back at tea time. 

A Good Friday service was taking place in our church, in fact in the Church Centre, as the church building was being re-ordered, so after wandering the town for a while we took our plastic seats at the back just in time for the worship to begin. It was Holy Communion. I can safely say it's the only church service I've ever sat through during which I entered into the early stages of labour.

By evening we were back in hospital and the atmosphere was calmer. No induction was needed after all; delivery was natural, the body doing its own work. The long awaited baby came whilst the final of Robot Wars raged in the TV room down the corridor. After the major effort of being born, our little boy slept peacefully in the cradle of the quiet evening with no fuss at all whilst everyone around him went mad with relief and jubilation. We went home the next day. The very first morning he awoke in his new home was Easter (resurrection) morning.

It's quite a thing to undergo a crucifixion and a resurrection in childbirth. It had also been a Friday when we found out our other little son was going to be stillborn. He was delivered early on a Sunday morning. The vicar came to bless him before going back to our church to lead the morning service. It was still resurrection morning - every Sunday is - but sometimes, often, resurrection is delayed. Between a Friday and a Sunday a lot can happen. Or nothing happens. 

It's quiet in the garden of the tomb, apart from the weeping, which has just begun.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Lent for Extroverts 38: Recommended: Church

I'm not in the habit of going to church on a Thursday evening; a couple of times on Sundays is normally enough for me. Unless of course it's Maundy Thursday.

But I do like church. Whether I was bored or not in church as a child, I don't recall. I do recall singing hymns, which I honestly think forms the faith in you from an early age. 

There was a Welsh gentleman, Cadwaladr, in our church, who sang as all male Welsh hymn singers should: loudly and lustily. In those days we had 'Amen' at the end of the last verse, and he would end in a flourish of harmony. It would be a plagal cadence (also know as the 'Amen Cadence') - the fourth to the home note, but sometimes our organist would push the boat out and take the fourth chord into a minor key briefly, before returning to the home note, and Cadwaladr would oblige with a majestic semi tonal sixth, to the note below, and down to the fifth, where he would linger for a second longer than anyone else, beefing out the chord with all his passionate Welshness. It was my equivalent of a spiritual high, standing in front of that voice. It's one of the wonderful things about church; everyone singing together. It reminds us of what we hold dear, even before you count the known physiological and psychological benefits.

And I like 'The Peace', that bit in an Anglican Eucharist where you go around shaking people's hands. Nowadays as a priest I don't go in for kissing - that's best left to those lay people who want to wade into the difficult waters of 'to kiss or not to kiss'; generally it's much safer not to I find. But by eye contact, and hand contact we remember we are one body. The vertical relationship with God is never enough - he's given us other people too. Much harder. I led a service in a different church recently where I'd been told they 'don't do' The Peace. I remembered just in time.

You hear a lot these days about people going off religion but liking 'the spiritual'. People forget that 'religio' is to bind back. We're too separated from each other. We're separated from the God who made us. Did Jesus, on contemplating the Last Supper, say to himself, 'I think I'll stay in and do some meditation instead'? He earnestly desired to observe Passover with his friends, to break bread, share the cup, pray and sing a hymn with them. That was religion. But it was also a radical reshaping of something known into something new. A King washed his disciples' feet. He took bread and wine and poured his whole broken self into it.

Whilst I'm all for loving God, I also love the church. Of course the church is people, but I love the places too. You can't spend as much time as I have in them, drawing near to God and others; being caught up in the rhythm of prayer; singing hymns; hearing the Word and breaking bread, and not love the church.

The funny head-nodding, small-bowing, paper rustling, draughty, lofty, stained glass, ancient, candle smelling, clapping, smiling, silent, symbolic, seasonal, gently dysfunctional, forgiving, singing, praying church.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Lent for Extroverts 37: The crux of the matter

There comes a time when in order to focus on Holy Week you have to go to the hardware shop. We have a proper one in our town with a lot of different sized nails, sold by weight. I bought four of the longest in the shop and some garden wire fasteners. I was rather wondering (dreading) the assistant might ask me what they were for. I had my answer ready: 'for making a crown of thorns and explaining the crucifixion to small children.' He didn't ask in the end.

I found the ideal gloves for cutting lengths of thorns from our garden bush, but they were no good for the weaving, which is a fiddly procedure. The twigs don't want to bend; they are unyielding until you break them in various places, initially, to start the circle going. Then each length of thorn twig goes in and out quite nicely, though not without a few pricks on the fingers. Weaving a basket must be a similar process, but at least that has some purpose at the end. It will hold something. A wreath of thorns is just for pain.

I have to admit it's much easier to make a cross than understand the cross. I know the cross operates on a number of levels; theological, historical, allegorical, poetic, visual, linguistic. I like the linguistic angle: it's a 'crux', Latin for cross; a focal point of primary significance. A crisis point. A decision. A sifting of true and false motives. I like the idea that something evil is redeemed, made into an icon of forgiveness, life, healing and reconciliation. It has a human shape; both a gruesome and an inspired thought. It's made from a living tree - it is the tree of life. You can make up stories about trees to explain it all to kids. And Jesus probably worked in a carpenters as a child: perfect. Someone can do a clever painting juxtaposing the child Jesus with his destiny. It also looks great in gold and hangs round necks for fashion or for exercising one's 'right' to wear it at work.

But I grapple with the theology, especially the penal substitutionary atonement argument. Try to simplify it right down for an 'answer' and it just works very badly. To the question 'Why did Jesus die?' there is the political and religious answer: a set of linked cause and effects boiling up in first century Palestine, centred on a man who was perceived to be the ultimate religious trouble maker. But you can't escape the fact that Jesus saw his death as purposeful theologically. So to the question 'Why did Jesus die?' the 'answer' is, apparently, 'for our sins/to reconcile us to God.' 

And then I'm in danger of falling into the 'two gods' trap. Jesus (nice) saves us from God (nasty/ angry). 'Jesus died for my sins'; 'He died in my place' are so difficult to unpack theologically. It all comes down to a transaction in the end, which seems very mechanistic. If I can't intellectually reconcile myself to the crux of the matter, how am I going to proclaim it?

Funilly enough I get the 'living it' bit. Things which lead me away from God towards my own selfish ends are to be 'put to death', crucifixion style. It always brings life and peace, after a struggle. And the struggle is ongoing! Death and resurrection are woven into the very heart of all suffering. I really get that bit. Perhaps I should just leave off the intellectual understanding of the cross as a bad job. And yet it's getting harder, not easier, to do so.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Lent for Extroverts 36: The Importance of unimportance

It's important not to feel important in this job. Or to make sure your feeling of importance is legitimate. 

Because once you start to let others make you feel important you will fall into one of two equal traps: you will enjoy feeling important because of others' projections onto you as a church leader; then you will feel lost when you do catch a glimpse of your actual unimportance as an Anglican Minister in the big secular world out there (where recently only 19% of people in the street could name the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury).

Because it's a funny mixture of things in the 'National Church'. People outside the church are interested looking in, up to a point. They see through what can look like the self importance of the church's pomp and ceremony, but at the same time they might be attracted to it because at its best the pomp and ceremony, which we do quite well, reflects the otherness, beauty and holiness of God. 

Pomp and ceremony of the 
enthronement of the new
Archbishop last week
The dog collar gives you a certain recognition in the neighbourhood and some people will look to you to solve the problems of the church, to a larger and larger degree depending on your status. That is why successive Archbishops have spoken of the huge 'burden' of expectation. One might almost say that to the extent that the church is floundering, that's the extent to which everyone is desperate that the leader will quickly sort it all out. Did the first century Christians who were fearlessly proclaiming Christ in the midst of persecution and martyrdom go around saying 'What we need is strong leadership'? I doubt it; they were too busy getting on with being the priesthood of all believers.

Various factions looked to Jesus to be a certain leader: political; miracle-working; conquering Jewish King. None of these was on Jesus' agenda. His sense of importance was found in God alone. It's really no more welcome to be feted than to be criticised, as I've been reminded when tempted to feel a sense of clerical importance, for example when tourists in Oxford appear to enjoy taking photos of large groups of clergy as they process out of an Oxford College in their robes during Holy Week. 

Just another 'famous for a few weeks' singer that
everyone loved. Then forgot.
A sense of false importance is the double bind of celebrity culture too. You're led to thinking fame is desirous, but when you achieve it, it must be endlessly propped up by constant exposure to fans and the fickle critique of the media who fall in and out of love with your latest song, film or TV appearance. I just couldn't watch the X factor any more because of this blatant ignoring of the real facts of fame, and the assumption that mere exposure will guarantee a better life. And sadly it's also true that Christian leaders can be flavour of the month. Or not. Look at the crowds during Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and then again on Good Friday.

There's nothing wrong with feeling proud to belong; having dreaded the onset of vestments in my life, I now feel proud to wear them, even sporting the collar on the tube; but any sense of importance emanates only through the grace of knowing I'm loved and called by God, like anyone else.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Lent for Extroverts 35: Here we go...

I find Holy Week difficult; there's no point hiding it. I had a thing when I was a kid, and I was a church going kid; it was that near to Christmas Day some time I would be in church and I would say to myself 'I MUST think about Jesus on Christmas Day; I must think about Jesus on Christmas Day,' like a mantra. Christmas Day would come and I invariably forgot to think about Jesus, caught up in present opening, food and TV.

It's a bit different with Holy Week, being a priest and all. You can't really escape it. And at the beginning of 'Holy Week' I feel a bit like 'here we go...'

It's just such an intense, cannot-ignore-it, pulls-you-in-and-gets-right-under-your-skin story, right up to Easter morning. For some reason I find it much easier to think about the Passion and death of Christ, than his resurrection. So I'm more stuck on the gore than the joy. Which bothers me. Maybe that's because crucifixion was a well documented form of torture and death in the Roman world, and many others had suffered it before Jesus. It was everyday. Whereas the resurrection of a human body from the dead is absolutely outside all imagination. However you try to picture it, it is extremely difficult to imagine the actual moment. Maybe we shouldn't try.

But before resurrection, there's absolutely no escaping the Gethsemane and Calvary agony. Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem. He is not a helpless, confused victim. And he did say 'no servant is above his master. If the world hated me, it will hate you too'. Which I also find very disturbing.

And then there's the challenge of being increasingly aware of things liturgical. I wasn't always this way inclined and I'm sure it brings with it more of a 'living the story' approach to Holy Week, so that although you know that the death and resurrection of Jesus has already happened, yet you find yourself inhabiting it day by day, and you can't help it, because that is what the church is doing too: 'Holy Week'; Maundy Thursday; Good Friday; Holy Saturday; Easter Day...' No doubt there's even a liturgical term for this coming Wednesday...if that's the case it has so far passed me by (can I suggest 'Woeful Wednesday'?)

You cannot help your mood becoming more sombre. And, as I have learnt from taking funerals and presiding at the Eucharist, at the juncture of a paradox, where two things of vast spiritual significance are swirling around each other like a cold front and a warm front - usually death and resurrection - there is plenty of spiritual turbulence for you pick up, like constant background static. That can be a strange and wearing experience.  And normally I need a bit of a sit down afterwards.

So, like I said; here we go...

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Lent for Extroverts 34: The 'E' label

Alex Baker cartoon. Rather brilliant.
Labels are at once necessary and restricting, and Christian labels none more so.

I suppose even if we refuse to label ourselves, others are doing so the moment they meet us, and we're probably doing the same mentally.

I recall going to an evening ecclesiastical/social event - you know, the ones where you don't know whether to wear clericals ('I am serious about my vocation') or a pretty dress ('I am a normal human being'). There were clerics there I didn't know so while I sipped my white wine and made polite vicar small talk I played 'Guess the Christian label' inside my head by assessing clothes, partners and general demeanour. Turns out I was 100% accurate. Isn't that dreadful?

So even if we don't like them, labels are currency of the Church of England, sadly. And occasionally we shoot ourselves in the foot by complaining about someone else's type of label and making out they're less Christian than we are:

This can take a number of forms, depending on the label of the person doing the complaining. If the person complaining wears the (broadly speaking) label 'Liberal', as in 'Liberal Catholic', they will take offence at those with the (broadly speaking) label of 'Evangelical' when they perceive that some of the churches with the 'E' label appear to have young people in them, of whom some have highly paid jobs and a tendency to clap along to songs in church, in the manner of joy and happiness and generally having a good time. They assume, wrongly, that nothing troubles these jolly people and that they are not really proper, GRITTY disciples.

Obtusely, they ignore the fact that the word 'Evangelical' is so broad that it's quite hard to define it any longer. Of course some will argue with this statement, saying that those who find it hard to define the label are no longer part of the label. Those ones must be given the 'L' label now. As in The Sojourners, the Red Letter Christians and anyone who questions the C of E's current position on human sexuality.

I admit that people with the 'E' label do bring it on themselves sometimes. They tend to patronise you when talking about the bible; they assume no one else is doing mission except themselves, which is irritating and also untrue. They think that nothing is happening if there's silence in church and engage in some terrible name dropping. Though I suppose that's  a habit of most labels; it's just you name drop different people ('Rowan might have a job lined up for me') ('Nicky Gumbel gave me a lift home once').... (By the way, only one of these last sentences is true of me).

So I do love a bit of guess work, and it can be very funny: you know there's an Evangelical male hand shake and shirt/chino outfit, don't you? But when you get to know people, labels soon become inaccurate, unworkable, and at worst, unkind.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Lent for Extroverts 33: At home?

How far do you feel a sense of belonging in this life?

I think it was TS Eliot in Murder in the Cathedral, who wrote 'Here is no continuing city/here is no abiding stay (I only know that because we had to learn it at school, and I went to see it at Guildford Cathedral when I was 15). It refers to the NT idea that our real home is in heaven.

But I've read my NT Wright and I'm quite attached to this earth actually, and looking forward to the day it's renewed, to the time when we get to enjoy the different skins, the imagination and drive, the great schemes and dreams, without the late trains, litter, bombs, terminal illnesses and regulations concerning Churchyards.

We can belong on so many different levels. When we feel we no longer belong, that's when we need to start worrying. Although I suppose it depends who you think is spiritually in charge right now. If it's Satan, 'the prince of the air' (as we are led to believe in his final temptation of Jesus) then you will definitely not feel a sense of belonging; but if 'the earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof', you will look around at everything provided for our enjoyment and feel right at home.

I felt at home today on a number of levels, travelling to the London Interfaith Centre for a day on interfaith dialogue organised by the United Reformed Church. Kilburn couldn't be more different to Whitchurch but I loved the buzz up Salusbury Road, NW6, and enjoyed feeling at one with Christians from a different denomination. And it has to be said, their buildings are generally a lot warmer.

The day challenged me to ask 'how at home am I with people not just of a different style of Christian faith, but with people of a different faith altogether?' I have to be honest and say that I feel very at home with the idea of fellowship with a Jewish believer - sharing the Hebrew Scriptures etc.; slightly less at home with a Muslim believer, but still content that we will have much in common (perhaps a lot more than I would have with a secularist). When it comes onto the non-Abrahamic faiths, my ignorance and lack of experience would make me feel more guarded. And rural Oxfordshire C of E ministry does not tend to expose me to many from the BaHa'i faith.

Writers like Kester Brewin and Jonathan Sacks (left) remind me that the hesitation is all in my head towards the person whom I  perceive to be so different to me. How we treat 'the other' is a gold plated test of our willingness to be like Jesus. His track record is unsullied. In the final analysis, when the earth heats up beyond our capacity to endure the freak weather and other cataclysms, I suppose we'll finally realise we all belong to each other by virtue of living on the same planet. What a thought.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Lent for Extroverts 32: The small stuff

Sometimes you have a day of small things. Not big, imposing, exciting, life changing things, but just small things.

First off some gifts. A friend brought a litre of Cawston Press apple juice with ginger and I had a glass at breakfast (cold) and a mug at supper (hot). It is perhaps just marginally more delicious hot than cold. It tastes as good as a National Trust gift shop. If you could distil that Olde-Worlde-spicy-pot-pourri-freshly-laundered-tea-towells-smell into a juice and bottle it, that's how it tastes.

Then the kittens brought me some dead leaves. I'm not such a huge fan, but this was a considerable upgrade from peeing on the curtains so I was more than chuffed.

Suzanne Vega famously blew into the stratosphere of cool with her 1987 song 'Small Blue Thing', just her and her guitar, being awesome. She was imagining what it was like to be small and very vulnerable. The lyrics are still haunting: 'Today I am a small blue thing/like a diamond or an eye/With my knees against my mouth I am perfectly round/I am watching you/I am cool against your skin/I am perfectly reflected/I am lost inside your pocket/I am lost inside your fingers/I am falling down the stairs/I am skipping on the side walk/I am thrown against the sky/I am raining down in pieces/I am scattering like light.'

So much easier in ministry to do big things, launch programmes and see conversions. I had been feeling mildly embarrassed throughout our Lent Course (subject: sharing your faith) that I hadn't had a conversation with anyone for a while where I had to  think on my feet about my faith (I was thinking with a 'stranger') and today I suddenly had one, completely out of the blue, with a shop owner. I don't normally wear the dog collar when I'm shopping outside the parish but I must have forgotten one day last week because today, as I went in to get the usual, he said 'Are you Church of England?' to which I said yes and 20 minutes later we had together lamented one of the hardest questions a believer ever has to face: why is there no peace in the world? 'If you find the answer, do tell me' he said.

'Who dares despise the day of small things?' asks the prophet Zechariah. The day of small gifts, of a small conversation about big things. The reason we do not despise the small things is that together they make up the important things. 

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Lent for Extroverts 31: Counting the hours

How long is a working week? This is a loaded question for clergy, it would seem, especially the 'full-timers'. Living on the job and 'being' the job are only two factors amongst many which can lead to very heavy working weeks. None of this 'thank goodness it's Friday' lark they go in for on the radio (unless Friday's your day off, but then it'll soon be followed by 'Oh, no, it's Saturday/Sunday...')
I'll be honest: looking at some clergy who appear to be overworked or overworking, it's not a pretty sight. Is it like King Lear who claimed to be 'more sinned against than sinning'? With regards to over work, are there  genuine victims or can you bring overwork upon your own head?

So how many hours is a healthy working week? Don't try and glean the answer from those dreadful Church Times adverts for vacant posts. After reading two or three you will conclude that even should you work every waking hour of every day, and never take a holiday, you will never have the time needed to meet the hopes and aspirations of the crazed people who concoct the adverts in the first place ('You will have the spiritual care of all ages across the seven parishes, including the elderly, the sick, the housebound, the young families, the retired, the traditional, those in the two new housing estates, and the three large Church Schools (one failing). In addition you will be half time Diocesan Officer in charge of IME 4-7...') In other words, you will be utterly knackered.

I recently asked a load of full time clergy the question, and the responses ranged from 37 hours (that guy has is sussed) to 70+. Which is quite a range. I doubt many people count them up anyway; it seems a bit churlish. There must be a happy medium between clocking off half way through Thursday (which might be problematic for the congregation on Sunday) and working 15 hours a day six days a week, which, frankly, does not seem healthy.

Depending on what you read, 50-60 hours seems expected, but I haven't come across much in terms of Diocesan guidance. Perhaps I haven't read the right papers, or perhaps we're expected to be grown ups and, like teachers, just do the work. But even teachers have a notional number of professional hours, whether they stick to them or not.

Some Dioceses recommend a 'sessions' scheme, particularly with NSMs, who are by default part time. You divide the day into three sessions (morning, afternoon and evening) and work two out of three. This appears sensible at first, especially if you have something in the evening and could do with some commensurate down time, let's say in the afternoon. Realistically, though, more work can be done when you're fresh in the morning than in a similar length evening; evening commitments are much more costly in terms of energy and missing out on family time or, shock, horror, social life (if you have one). So the hours in a day do not carry equal weight. And if you start making each session into a set number of hours (I've head it's three in some dioceses, four in others) you could end up working 6 hours a day anyway, which is quite a lot of hours for an unpaid part timer. For a 'part time' clergy mum with school age kids this is all the hours in between school runs. And you still have the shopping/cooking/cleaning/washing to do.

Which brings us to the difficulty of knowing where work begins and ends. If you're at home praying for the parish, you're working, right? If you're in a traffic jam on the way to a church meeting, that's hardly recuperation time; it's work again. An assembly might only take 20 minutes but the preparation beforehand and the lingering in the staffroom afterwards could turn it into two hours work.  It's why you need slack in the diary.

Perhaps a better way forward is to monitor the long term effect of the working week on you. Are you running just to keep still? Are you spending hours on things which other people could do? Are you able to envision new things and implement them, according to the unfolding Missio Dei or are you too busy having to maintain the status quo? If the Ignatian Examen is accurate, God's blessing is richly available through work, but not all work blesses - it depends.

How long is a clergy working week? Should we even be asking? It's as long as a piece of string and as short as your next burn out dictates.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Lent for Extroverts 30: Fathering against the odds

Georges de la Tour, Joseph The Carpenter
These are interesting times for the family as we know it. Even the word carries political freight; John Major's Tory Government famously championed 'family values' until it was discovered the Prime Minister was having an affair with Edwina Currie.

The 21st century family is changing; it may well these days contain two dads; no dad; a dad who lives somewhere else or a dad who's not biologically connected to the children he is bringing up.

The church today remembers St. Joseph, 'father' (or so it was thought) of Jesus of Nazareth. I think of him as mainly concerned with the birth and infancy of Jesus. He must have given him a good start, though we know hardly anything about him save his decency towards Mary, his ability to interpret angelic dreams and his trade as an artisan or carpenter.

The bible talks of Jesus' siblings and I see no reason to doubt that Joseph went on to father his own children with Mary (though this is hotly contested by the Roman Catholic doctrine of  Mary's perpetual virginity). But initially and crucially for the plan of God, it was Jesus for whom he faithfully cared in the first instance. And it would seem, in Catholicism at least, that Mary got all the credit.

It must have been difficult for Joseph to bring up a child to whom he was not biologically related, who spoke of another 'Father' - the one in heaven - in such warm terms. Fostering, adopting and being a stepfather are all hard callings reserved for those with perseverance, who are willing to stick at it for the long term, despite the absence of those fatherly feelings of 'ahh.....chip off the old block'.

With every further media exposure of male abusers of children we're in danger of losing the idea that a man can father and love children not strictly his own. Mr Tom,  played beautifully by John Thaw in the BBC adaptation of Michelle Magorian's Goodnight Mr Tom, is one positive literary example to balance our jaundiced fears of men and small children being a combination to be avoided at all costs.

Happy St. Joseph's day.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Lent for Extroverts 29: Ambition and the C of E

Archdeacon Robert - has Episcopal aspirations
When there's nothing on the TV I am prone to watching DVD episodes of Rev. This is a UK comedy, certification 15, starring Tom Hollander as Rev. Adam Smallbone, an Anglican priest, struggling to balance the demands of a small bunch of parishioners, a large and costly church building and a life at the sharp edge of inner city London. It proved a surprise hit when it first appeared in June 2010 (a week before I got ordained), winning a slew of awards inclding Best Sitcom in the British Academy Television Awards. 

Nigel - already a lay reader - thinks he'd be
perfect for Anglican Ordination
In episode 6 of series 2, advancement in the Church of England is considered, with both the weasley Archdeacon (above) and Adam's Lay Reader (the humourless Nigel) looking to advance their ecclesiastical careers (or to discern God's voice in the next step, if you want to put a good gloss on it). 

Archdeacon Robert, usually self assured and bullying, suddenly develops a sickening 'humility', telling all and sundry that he could not possibly presume to be a bishop, unless of course God were calling him. And Nigel, in a wonderful scene of body language belying what he knows to be false, invents a girlfriend called Cherry to make his social and emotional life appear a lot healthier, and takes up hanging around with 'the youth' and the homeless, in the hope of being selected for Ordination training.

The tortuous C of E selection process has been renamed endless times to try and make it seem more palatable, now being called a Bishops Advisory Panel, or BAP for short; an acronym which is misleading in its suggestions of something light and fluffy. In reality it is the best part of three days of interviews and clerically observed meal times, in a conference centre somewhere cold and difficult to drive to, which is demanding enough to leave you in a state of mental and physical demise for days afterwards. 

Recommendation to attend a BAP is in the hands of the Diocesan Director of Ordinands and the local Bishop. To get to see a DDO you need to have spoken to your Vicar and at least one Vocations Advisor, and filled in enough paperwork to necessitate a small forest of saplings to be replanted. So I have some sympathy with Nigel.

The process for appointing a bishop is even more convoluted, involving a 'Vacancy in See' committee; a Cathedral dean; 2 Archdeacons; members of the General Synod; two Archbishops; The Crown Nominations Commission, and, of course, secret meetings. In episode 6 we are treated to Archdeacon Robert squirming in front of a panel of imposing C of E people, one of whom wants to know, before he can be appointed bishop, if he is in an 'active gay relationship'. He crucially hesitates, and we know he will thereby 'fail' to be appointed.

Nigel is also, unsurprisingly, unsuccessful in his hopes to be recommended for ordination training, and is genuinely, lividly upset. Both wander into the church in the final scene, to seek solace, and we hear the strains of jazz music wafting out of the church CD player. It is music lent to Adam by an elderly care home parishioner for whom it recalls happier days. Joining them quietly in the pews are Adam and wife, Alex, who have endured a brief marital crisis, and Colin the drunk who has lost yet another another job. 

The whole episode makes you want to rail against the horrible clashes of personal and priestly life and the complicated and sometimes cruel church processes; yet we're presented with the underlying conviction that in it all there's still something profound worth giving your life to.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Lent for Extroverts 28: Mood Music

I have a love-hate relationship with music on the radio. It's different with an iPod - you choose those tracks yourself - but with radio, I can be suddenly ambushed by a song that comes on without warning, and unaccountably I have to switch channels for sadness.

I have two songs which are currently off limits but there have been and will be many others.  I can't remember when this unfortunate state of affairs started;  it was an issue with certain 1980s albums associated with past broken hearts, but I usually saw sense and buried the CDs in a cupboard till the danger was past. But it's the unpredictability of radio which is the problem. You have no control over what it evokes and it can take you by surprise.

Maybe it's to do with endings because there was a particularly bad episode when my last child started Primary and I would walk home from the school run at about 8.45 am, come in the house and put the radio on. And sometimes it went right off again. I presume the two things were linked.

Luckily I'm always discovering songs which make me feel terrifically happy for no apparent reason, so in the car I'll put the latest one of those on loop and work out how many times I can play it for the duration of the journeys between meetings. Fourteen times with a regular 3 minuter is a nice 42 minute journey to Diocesan Church House. The time passes in a flash. And at the other end the meeting is bound to be more bearable.

A recent research project at Goldsmiths College, London University has shown that even a 15 second snatch of a track which makes you happy can significantly enhance your perception of someone else's face looking happy, even if you're looking at a neutral face. And if you've been listening to music which makes you sad, it will appear everyone you encounter looks sad too.

I try to analyse musically why some are sad and others happy; it may be tempo, key signature; the voice. It could be a song's association with certain people or situations past or present, and the words of course; but none of these alone is the defining factor. It's nebulous. In fact, my sad song could your happy one and vice versa.

Anyway, here they are: two sad, one happy.


Sailing, by Christopher Cross.

An amazing guitar riff sets the scene, playing around a set of three notes which are very close harmonically but which change subtly through the build up and into the first verse. I think it's them. They cannot decide on major or minor and it just unsettles me. The chorus sort of resolves into major 7th chords which are then layered with further harmony into major 9ths. Cross's voice is perfect. I could've picked his 1981 theme to Arthur, the classic Dudley Moore adaptation which came out when I was sweet 16. What a year, what a song. But Sailing just has the edge for me.

Lifening, by Snow Patrol.

Apart from the fact the Gary Lightbody is probably a genius, it's his voice (vulnerable; gets me every time) and choice of chords. He begins in a major, with the bass note of the acoustic guitar on 1. Then the bass note goes up to 2 while the major chord is suspended, picked over the top; THEN, genius, he drops the bass note two semitones below the home note and ends on the fourth, before repeating it all through the song. It's the clash of major chords while the bass goes walkabout that does it. And the lyrics: a simple desire for the basics of happiness, nothing more: 'A hand upon my forehead/a joke and then a laugh/waking up in your arms/a place to call my own./This is all I ever wanted from life...'


Writer, by Ellie Goulding.

I think it's the combination of her really high and child like, faultless voice, and the rhythm, which took me a while to suss. It's genius really: 9/8 in the verse, with a weird (in a good way) stress on the 1st and 7th beats, switching effortlessly to 12/8 in the chorus. It just gives a fairly straightforward song something more. I think after a few more journeys to Church House I might get sick of it, but it's doing the trick right now. What are your sads and happys?

Friday, 15 March 2013

Lent for Extroverts 27: A never ending story

'The poor you will always have with you', says Jesus, on receiving Mary of Bethany's 'wasteful' anointing of his feet with her costly perfume, perfume which cost the rough equivalent to $6000, an amount which, co-incidentally is equal to one ounce of the perfume Baccarat des Larmes Sacrees des Thebes, the second most expensive perfume in the world.

So Mary was lavish, to say the least. An enormous waste of money, if you think about it. Jesus thought about it and told the assembled dinner party that, effectively, it was money well spent. It was money poured out from love. Mary alone understood what was ultimately precious.

Visit to African
clinic by a member of the biggest boy band in the world,
whose collective earnings over two years is £100 million
Perhaps the visits to Africa of various pop groups and celebrities are two way traffic. Who benefits most? I squirm as the slow piano music introduces a famous Western teenage singer looking on helplessly and then then weeping in an over crowded clinic filled with stricken mothers watching their babies dying of malaria. But maybe that trip will prove to be the best inoculation against the worst that celebrity culture has to offer. A reminder of what true riches are: clean water; enough to eat; healthcare and education; a family who haven't died of AIDS.

For those brought up in the age of Live Aid and Make Poverty History, Jesus' words about the poor are difficult to negotiate. Perhaps he simply states a fact. Watching Comic Relief for 25 years is ample proof that despite the millions given, despite a mosquito net costing just £5; every day, in one clinic in one small area of Uganda, 30 children are admitted suffering from preventable malaria. Not all will survive. Presumably this was true 25 years ago. And it's still true today. Despite all that money. In fact, James Corden is now shouting on the TV screen: 'Comic Relief has raised £800 million over 25 years and NOTHING HAS CHANGED. 'The poor you will always have with you.' 

So I have endured a sketch about Simon Cowell marrying...himself; a British teenage heartthrob blowing is nose on his T shirt and a spoof Archbishop of Canterbury giving a homily in which he informs us that if we give to Comic Relief this represents 'Christianity in action'. Did they get advice from a religious affairs correspondent on this one because despite Jesus' awkward realism, I think the 'Archbishop' may be right.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Lent for Extroverts 26: The power of positive

The power of positive thinking has always fascinated me. Are there some people who are just wired up for positivity, while others seem negative about life in general? The psychologist and family therapist, Robin Skinner, says you can tell in someone's face whether they are facing life with positivity or negativity because the tiny inflections of the face, of the eyes and brow and mouth, can eventually settle into a physical pattern so that smilers can be seen almost to be smiling at rest, while frowners, over time, can't get rid of that fierce or troubled look.

Actual in-flight smile air bound for Corfu.
See what I mean?
I may be praying here too.
Books on stress and anxiety suggest that you can actually raise your mood if you smile during a stressful experience, despite feeling like it's the last thing on earth you want to do, because the physical act of smiling, even whilst scared, releases endorphins or feel good hormones into the blood, thus lessening anxiety and lifting your mood. This is why, if you are unfortunate enough ever to share a plane journey with me, you will observe me smiling in a most unnatural, goon-like but I hope, effective, manner.

If it's possible to affect one's mood by smiling and thinking positive thoughts, perhaps its the same for the way we view church life. There are ways and ways of perceiving ministry: one day the emails can seem encouraging; the people we see are drawing near to God in good times and bad; the admin pile is a doddle to get through. On other days, the same set of circumstances can appear draining and difficult. What makes the difference? 

Ignatian reflection encourages an attention to what blesses us and what drains energy from us. It's much more subtle than 'work is hassle; free time is renewing'. You can be blessed in your work and drained by 'boredom' at rest or by entertainment overload. It's about recognising that God's will for us is blessing; not all good times and no suffering; but blessing. And we need to move in the general direction of the things in which we're individually designed to flourish. I will never be blessed by studying church law or accounts; but some will.

Widely regarded as a bit grumpy...
Positive ministry is not ministry devoid of sadness or difficulty - I would expect a funeral to be a 'positive' experience, if there is rapport with the relatives and a sense of God's presence in the preparation and execution (if there are too many funerals in one week and a sense that one is rushed and cannot do a good job, that's different). 

Positive ministry is one where encouragement abounds due to a sense of gratitude for all we experience, which is pure gift. Not everything hangs on me: I believe in collaborative ministry and that the buck stops with God. It is gratitude and the sense that it is not all about me that provokes positivity and a sense of well-being. To meet a negative person (or worse, cleric) is to see one for whom the stresses and strains of ministry have sucked all the spark out of life. This is not God's purpose for us, nor is it a great picture to present to the world.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Lent for Extroverts 25: I have a hunch...

I have always been uncomfortable with the declaration, made by some that 'God told me to do such and such', but looking through the bible, it would appear that this is how many individuals did actually hear God's voice. In fact it's quite the norm for whole conversations of great detail to be recorded between believers and God, in which God is either listing the measurements of a new Tabernacle in minute detail (Exodus 25); itemising purity laws that run to greater length than an entire NHS manual (Leviticus 11), or sending someone to a specific address where a certain man will be for whom they must perform some service (Acts 9: Ananias going to heal Saul's blindness).

Opinion seems divided on whether it gets harder or easier to hear God's voice as you go through the Christian life. I understand the viewpoint that part of the maturing process is to experience the apparent silence of God, as it makes you more reliant on seeking God for God alone, and not for what He might be able to do for you. But it would appear to be unfortunate timing that just as you might be mature enough to take on leadership of some sort, you begin to find it more and more difficult to discern God's actual voice.

The more I read Old and New Testament accounts of how God spoke with individuals, the more detached they appear to be from my actual experience. I have never heard a long message from God which itemises everything in such detail as per bible accounts. It's been much more an impression, a hunch, a 'feeling' (oh, but you can't trust your feelings....) that maybe, it's just possible, that I might just think about considering doing such and such. As an option amongst other possible options, of course. 

You can imagine the chaos if this impressionistic, hunch-like feeling were all that the bible heroes had to go on: 

Moses: I've got this sort of hunch that maybe we should build a kind of building thing for God to be worshipped in...
Aaron: Could you be more specific?
Moses: Well, I think maybe we ought to use some, maybe, building materials...?
Aaron: Yesss.........what did you have in mind?
Moses: Well, I had a vague impression that maybe something that will last a bit longer than tents....?
Aaron (to himself: this is going to be painful...)

Or Ananias:
Ananias: I had a very small feeling this morning that maybe there's someone who needs my help out there...
Mrs Ananias: Yes? Anyone in particular?
Ananias: To be honest I can't really be sure - someone who's possibly quite nearby?
Mrs Ananias: Well, the maidservant's been very glum recently...
Ananias: Not, not her....Oh, I dunno, I'll ponder it for a few weeks and see if I get any clarity...
Mrs Ananias: Probably best; we are awfully busy these days...

Or for that matter: Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King: 'I have a hunch....'

But maybe there's more to be said for the hunch than first meets the eye. I had one a few days ago. I thought it was probably just me, but I pondered my hunch and sent an email, in which I chose some words carefully, on a hunch. Which led to an impression that I should pray for someone. Which led to a conversation around a decision that needed God's guidance. Guidance that in His great kindness, He apparently wanted me to be involved in.

So today I am giving thanks for the hunch. It may not quite be divine lightning falling from the heavens; it may not lead to a huge new Cathedral being built round here, or someone being miraculously healed of blindness; but it may just be the still small voice that, especially this Lent, I need to hear and act upon.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Lent for Extroverts 24: Climbing trees

I had to rescue a kitten from up a tree today. When I say 'had to', it was a difficult call: it was the kitten's first tree experience, though she's been practising on a tall fabric screen in the study, so I knew her balance was already amazing, but the first time she went up that she couldn't get down either. 

She had no hesitation in shimmying up the apple tree - nice day, a bit windy, but Spring is on the way and here it was, right before her, a vertical brown object just perfect for digging your claws into, up you go fast, lots of smaller sticky out bits you can hare along too, amazing feeling, no one can catch me...until you suddenly discover the ground is rather a long way off and going down feet first is not quite the same exhilarating fact it's really quite tricky. So after going back up higher and back down to the same spot fifteen feet off the ground several times, you just stop and look at your owner with those big hazel eyes and start mewing helplessly.

If I'd been in less of a hurry to go to work I would have stayed and watched a bit longer but I began to anthropomorphize rapidly, imagining my little black dot was stuck for ever and needed her mum to save her (classic mother-knee-jerk response). One wobbly stepladder, several fruitless attempts at calling her name and tapping the branch and a desperate grab later, and she was in my arms and swiftly into the kitchen with the door closed.

She probably spent the rest of the day thinking 'I don't know why that strange being got me down from a most enjoyable romp up the vertical brown spiky object; I was having such a great climbing up those green swishy things that hang near the windows any day...'

The response to small inexperienced beings appearing to get into trouble is so immediate; one wants simply to rescue them. It's just as well we never really see what goes on when we leave our tiny tots at child minders/nursery/school etc. We'd probably never be able to watch what they go through in order to grow up, without wanting to intervene every ten minutes. When I first left one of mine at nursery, they would lift him up at the window to wave goodbye, but I would have preferred not to see his little face crumpling behind the glass. Maybe a certain amount of ignorance is bliss.

And God lets all sorts of things happen to us in order that we should grow up. There would be little point in him rescuing us from this and that, even if think we need him to come and take it all away; we'd never learn to stand on our own two feet if that were the case. Perhaps we are more often the answer to our own prayers than we realise. 

I'm going to need a lot more stamina to allow the kittens up the tree and let them make their own mistakes, whatever that means. Growing up is too precious to keep intervening. But I'll probably be standing under there for a while yet; worrying.