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.