Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Things fall apart

Fragmentation. It was WB Yeats who said 'things fall apart, the centre cannot hold' and more and more I know  exactly what he meant. In fact it's become one of my guiding principles in life. In motherhood, ministry, menial tasks, mundanity, mental health and just about anything else beginning with any other letter, if you allow that the centre cannot hold and indeed is falling apart most of the time, it can be quite liberating.

But also difficult, if you're a recovering control freak like me. I can't help it but I just do prefer to come into the kitchen and see all the miscellaneous endless papers that come our way secured in clips (different colours for different members of the family of course), in folders in straight lines next to the cookery books...

Because if for one moment you take your eye off the ball, what you discover is that papers about parents evening are mixed in with papers about the endowment policy shortfall and the forthcoming car MOT, not to mention the ISA that needs switching, the parent survey that needs filling in, the orthodontist appointment that needs making and the latest new password which you mustn't, at all costs, lose.

I used to be a checklist person - make a list for the day, check things off as you do them. Although I hate this mentality when it comes to education or ministry (how to quantify human learning or Christian formation?) I rather liked it as a means to getting things done day to day. It appeared to give a sense of achievement. But recently it hasn't been working for me. It's as if every small thing you try and do leads to more things to do.

Take tax self assessment. Between the tax system changing, me moving house and HM Revenue and Customs' own incompetency, I had two whole years to catch up on. 

Feeling morally bad and  disorganised, clearing this backlog was obviously an imperative for personal integrity. Having therefore put it off for several head- in- the- sand months I decided finally to get it done. Since I'm all digital now, online registration would be the way forward; easy, quick and more efficient. 'How hard can it be?'

Sensing however that this would probably take a bit of brain power and time (two things I do not seem to have at the end of a busy day of motherhood/ministry) I booked into my diary a slot on my day off when I would sit down fresh after breakfast and DO IT. End of. Tick. That was in March.

Looking back through the diary I see that I booked this magic slot (after which it would all be sorted) four times before it actually happened, either because I woke up that morning and had an urgent desire to physically leave the house, or because some other more important thing came up (not important: urgent. Or perceived as 'urgent').

It turned into a kind of personal crusade. March turned into April. April turned into May. Another tax year began. I will do it. I will do it. In the background to my real inertia was of course a lifetime of living with dire incompetency when it comes to form filling.

Where others see a form that requires a modicum of  information - 'simples' -  I see all the possible ways you can get it wrong, from using the wrong colour ink to filling in all your names in one box, instead of noticing your Christian name comes first, then your other names, or your surname first, or your maiden name, etc. etc. etc. A straightforward request for factual information for me is an invitation to anxious gainsaying, imagined nuances of partial fact, and erroneous outcomes bordering on fantasy/horror.

And at the end, when you're congratulating yourself on having Tipex-ed out most of the errors, you'll notice a small addendum which says, quite clearly, 'do not use Tipex'. 

So don't even get me started on Wedding Registers. I could blame my high end 'iN' (intuitive) on the Myers Briggs Personality Type Indicator, but that would be immature.

Having managed finally to sit down one morning, then, steeling myself with the form on the laptop screen, I 'followed the onscreen instructions' until, feeling quite pleased, I seemed to have actually, nearly registered. Until it said I would have to wait for my 'Activation Code' (a small piece of paper sent through the post. Another 7 days).

Oh. So no ticking off 'done tax return' for me that day then, on already my fourth attempt at gaining control of this particular part of my falling apart life.

So, back to booking another day- off -morning in the diary. When the paper came I peeled back the perforation (you know, the way they never tear where you want them to, in fact they usually tear through the very piece of supposedly highly secret information they are sending you through the post that they could just have easily told you online) and I read my activation code. Which was confusing, since they'd insisted on printing it in multiple ways - not just digits and letters but digits and their corresponding words, which freaked me further.

I went to 'activate' my account and was asked for my user ID. Which I couldn't remember. After a great deal of sorting through my filing I found some paperwork which looked hopeful and typed some number in, along with the activation code. 'The information you have supplied does not match our records'.  'You are a pathetically incompetent human being. You are in breach of your own filing system and  personal moral code.'

Never mind. I would phone. Everyone knows speaking with a human being is much more effective than doing business with a computer. Everyone except anyone who's ever tried to phone HMRC, that is. After five minutes of being told how straightforward it was to register online, five minutes of not understanding the multiple options and a further fifteen of waiting for a human being, I gave up because I'd now been at it several hours and needed to go out. After all the things I had to do whilst out, I came home, did supper, helped with homework, thought about doing my tax return, thought about how little brain and/or time was left of the day and gave up. I booked another day off slot in my diary. Another week went by.

On my sixth attempt at registering online, I realised I had three different user IDs, due to having attempted to re-register twice and being given a new number each time. By some divinely miraculous stroke of luck I eventually managed to match up the correct user ID, password, activation code, AND type in my Unique Taxpayer Reference Number. It was like a slot machine moment. They matched!! The lights flashed!! I was registered!! All this was before I even started to fill in the forms. Let's call it a work in progress.

Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold. In many ways I experience life as a series of fragmentations and 'multiple overwhelmings' (David Ford). I do battle with organising all the parts of my life.

I try and file papers but they just get lost. There are multiple bank accounts and doctors/dentists appointments between us. Passwords are forgotten and important dates blindly come and go. People's braces are not checked regularly and other people's shoes don't fit them. Even conversations, where both parties are actually listening and matching up the dots in theirs and others' diaries, are hard to come by (laptops, Youtube clips, Twitter, Facebook, TV, radio, DS games, XBox, Playstation, internet banking, phone calls and other interruptions being what they are). Part time 'work'/'ministry' is never the sole culprit. Or running a home and family. Or studying for an MA. It's the combination of course.

To let it all hang loose or scream against the chaos (trying to get it all under control again) are the two options. I do not know which way it will go. 

I dream of living in a hermitage. 

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Empty Nest Syndrome

I am feeling bereft. My big baby, my almost- grown- up- and- able to- stand -on- its- own- two- feet baby which I have fed and filled and nurtured, has left home today. I have had to part with him even though I had got used to his solid presence in the study, patiently standing to attention, waiting for more filing, eying me wonderingly day after day.

I have filed him full of every bit of ordained life, public and private, that I could think of, every report, summary, reflection, mark and record of my comings and goings over three years since I said 'Yes, send me, fill me' and in return they sent me a large black folder and said 'fill it.'

I didn't ask to give birth to this difficult thing; the gestation was long and tortuous, but as with all unwanted pregnancies, you eventually become somewhat attached.  At first you cannot ignore the appetite, the constant craving for attention. Only you can satisfy its needs. Fill me, fill me, it cries. Sometimes I didn't understand its cry; I was confused in the early days. What would be an appropriate level of filling?  Was this a cry for more filling or less? Was it happy or angry? Too full or still hungry? The insides of a strange young being are only understood by experts, but I was the one having to fill it day after day, worrying about whether it was the right filling, worrying whether the filling would be regurgitated and I would have a lot of mess to clear up afterwards and thus be a bad parent. Parent envy stalked me: other parents seemed to understand their offspring better. They knew just what was needed to fill them, fulfil them.

Time has gone on. As with all parenting I have gained experienced. I have poured myself into this being. It is wholly part of me, which is why separation is so hard. Our memories are shared. Do you recall at the start I couldn't even....?! Or that awful time when.....?! Then again I was so proud of the time when.....! 

I hope the people who encounter you will appreciate the life and death that has gone into you, the personal struggles and costly learning that fills you. I hope they'll like the coloured tags I put on you so others would get the complex, often funny, and occasionally maddening picture you are trying to represent (you don't know how to speak yet, but in a way you do). Your plastic wallets are many and smooth and sleek. Your grids are straight, signed, and, hopefully, impeccable. Your learning outcomes are cross referenced to within an inch of their vocational, ministerial, spiritual, personal, characterful, relational, missional, evangelistic, collaborative and qualitatively faithful life.

But even all that doesn't really tell the whole story. When all's said and done, the early morning panics, the night time worries, the weepy walks; the scary schools, the chilly morgue, the wet graveyards, cold churches and warm homes; the lonely streets, stuffy lecture rooms and musty vestries; the hopeful young, the wrinkly smiles; the hilarious, the demented, the whole and the broken; really and truly, others can stare at you and coldly leaf you through; they can dissect, moderate and compare you with an ideal, but when all's said and done, they really did have to be there.

Good luck my Ministry Development Folder.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

'That they may be one.'

Two into one?
Sculpture at Highmoor Hall

Revelation 22: 12-14; 16-17; 20-end
‘See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end... 

...The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’
And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’
And let everyone who is thirsty come.'
John 17:20-end
‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 

Do you ever wonder what the church is for?
In days gone by (we might call it during Christendom) it was obvious…perhaps…
The church was for hatching, matching and dispatching; i.e. baptizing, marrying and burying people.
Today the majority of the population appears to live lives unconcerned with the things of God, and of the church.
Vast numbers of young people have dropped out of the church in recent years.
It is largely accepted that Christendom is dead and this leaves is with some big questions.
One of which is what is the church for?
One way to answer this is to see what Jesus said he wanted for his church, and luckily he did just this in the longest single discourse recorded in the NT, a part of which we had read just now.
John’s gospel shows Jesus telling his disciples what his desire for the people of God is…and that includes us.
‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.’
So what was Jesus’ parting shot to all his followers?
‘That they may be one’…
So we’re going to look at what it might mean to be ONE; what example we have within the Godhead and why it’s so important.

Firstly, what does it mean to ‘be one’?
One is a fundamental word; the basis of all counting; the foundation upon which everything else is built.
We talk of ‘one flesh’; ‘one heart and mind’; ‘as one’.
All these denote unity of heart and purpose.
To ‘be one’ is a good thing.
It’s in stark contrast to the individualism and its consequences that we often see around us.
Individualism is occasionally a good thing…each person is different and unique and should be valued as such…
Eg. We treat siblings according to their uniqueness…
But it can be, and often is, taken to extremes:
On Radio London the other day I heard a debate about August born babies in primary schools…
In our current education system, an August baby is seen to be disadvantaged because they come into school later than other children to Reception class, and particularly with summer born boys, they are seen to be behind in their class work because of it.
The suggestion was made that in ‘exams’ (I’m not sure if they were referring to National Curriculum tests in this, or later exams) each child should have test streamlined to their age in years and months…
It’s complicated already without trying to get a system whereby August and July birthday children can be graded entirely fairly alongside their winter counterparts; I cannot imagine any computer could ever devise such a thing; it’s individualism gone mad…
By the time children get to secondary school everything evens out anyway, and if it’s five year olds we’re talking about, they shouldn’t be taking exams (and they’re not!)
Jesus says ‘may they be one’.
How can the members of God’s family be one when we all like different styles of worship?
We have four different Sunday service just here in this small village! (Parish Communion; All Age Worship; Evening Prayer and BCP Communion).
Obviously there’s some crossover, and it’s natural that with different ages and backgrounds we are drawn to expressing our faith in different ways communally.
So haw can be ‘one’?

What is the theological mandate for one-ness as laid out in the gospel today?
The clue is in verse 21. Jesus says ‘As you, Father, are in me, and I in you…’
That’s the high order of one-ness we are to aim for.
Jesus and the Father are one.
Does this mean they just merge with each other into something indefinable?
No, they maintain their distinctiveness.
The early Christian Councils were at pains to show that each of the three persons of the Trinity was distinct in their person-hood; yet one in mind, purpose and substance.
Remember our Creed: ‘of one being with the Father
This is straying onto the material for Trinity Sunday of course…!

But that’s too how we should be with one another.
We are all different; we see God in different ways; we express our understanding of Him in different ways:
To some, quiet contemplation is the way God is known; to others, the vibrancy of musical instruments, the louder the better; to others, God is unchanging and steady; to others the Spirit is unpredictable and surprising.
All these points of view are correct of course.
We all need to enlarge our vision of God.
So if we’re all going to different services Sunday by Sunday, how practically can we be ‘one’?

Some suggestions: Go to a different service for a change!
What do you experience of God there that you haven’t experienced before?
Come to a mid-week event: Thursday Prayer in June or a Coffee Morning if you’re free.
Come to one off events like our forthcoming Spring Fayre. (May 18)
Attend joint services: if we all did that on the same day, we would be around 60 people!!!
If the Christian Church is not expressing one-ness across boundaries, we cannot hope to be a witness to Christ in the world

Because, finally, this is why Jesus prayed for on-ness: ‘that the world might believe’
There’s a reason why we need to be one: it points to Christ in a fragmented world.
Jesus knew that even the pagans show love amongst their own kind.
If we only ever go to church gatherings where there are people like us, then how are we distinctively Christian?
People naturally divide over barriers of age, gender, class, economic status, church-goer, non…
We are called to be inclusive and different.
So to sum up:
1.      Jesus calls us to ‘be one’.
2.      How? Like he and the Father are one.
3.      Why? Because a fragmented world needs to see God’s love expressed in the church, the body of redeemed people whose unity points towards the final end of all things: ‘The Spirit and the Bride say Come!’

Contemplative Cat

                                   Contemplative Cat

If I could sit like you,
staring at the green
light on grass,
the emerging pink of apples
hanging in the moment;
slowly blinking at
the inconsequentialities of
existence; eyelids heavy
with the wisdom of
doing nothing;

if I could unhurry; attend;
like your soft purr,
your fur
soaking up the seconds,
sun on skin, rain on glass,
day on day, life on pause;

if I could sit like you,
ignoring the wound
of words, the gash of flesh
peeled back to reveal
something raw, it would heal
in the waiting.
If I could sit like you,

Sunday, 5 May 2013

3D God

Sixth Sunday in Easter

Revelation 22:1 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.

John 14: 26-7 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. 

·         Is your vision of the Christian faith 2D or 3D?
·         I was pretty skeptical of 3D cinema when it first came out.
·         I’ve always found the cinema larger than life and extremely noisy anyway (not in a bad way but they have really beefed up the surround sound in recent years.)
·         But now you can go to see a movie with 3D glasses on and it fairly jumps out of the screen at you.
·         Try The Life of Pi, like I did, with 3D glasses, and the tiger with whom the boy hero is shipwrecked is absolutely terrifying! As is the very realistic capsizing of the boat on which Pi and his family are travelling.
·         For children growing up today who have never been to a 2D cinema, I would imagine seeing a film in 2D now would be a very tame experience.
·         Today we have a vision of the city of God set before us which is decidedly 3D.
·         The book of Revelation is perhaps the most 3D book in the whole bible.
·         What does it show us of the Christian life? How can it enlarge our vision of the peace and power available to us as we Christ today?
·         We will look at this vision of the glorious City, the New Jerusalem, and particularly at the river of life which runs through it, and think about that river as a spiritual image for us here in our village, to see if we can begin to see in 3D…
·         Revelation is full of terrifying images of dragons, beasts and warfare; but also the most beautiful and beatific images as well.
·         Is the book of Revelation about heaven?
·         I am constantly uncomfortable with the word ‘heaven’ because of the images it conjures up, which I find rather 2D; images of wispy clouds and disembodied people floating around or not doing very much.
·         We celebrated this week the life of much loved priest in the Memorial Service to Angela Butler, someone who devoted her life to an energetic and active serving of her Lord and God.
·         I cannot somehow imagine her sitting around in a whitish space not doing very much but being quite peaceful…
·         We often say of the dead: ‘May they rest in peace’ and in many ways they may be at peace, but there’s a second part to that prayer: ‘And rise in glory.’
·         ‘Glory’ is a word implying something active and alive; and that is the picture of the Holy City in Revelation.
·         We can begin that exciting life here and now, and it continues when we inherit eternal life
·         Let’s look at the 3D vision of the Holy City:
·         It has no temple for its temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb (in other words, it’s not buildings orientated.)
·         It has no need of sun or moon because the light of God is so bright within it.
·         This light is like divine guidance: the Kings of the earth walk by it.
·         And there’s a river running through the middle of it.

·         Settlements have always been built on rivers, because of the need for refreshment of course: they bring life to everything.
·         The river is described as ‘bright as crystal.’
·         It flows right through the middle of the city, down the city street!
·         And the tree of life grows on each side, producing fruit which nourishes people in every season.
·         What a different picture from many of the world's cities.
·         What a different picture from war torn Syria, where in Damascus, armed militia are roaming the streets and daubing crosses on the doors of those they plan to kill, making it one of the most dangerous cities in the world at the moment.
·         In the light of this violence, Obama is even considering arming the other faction so they can retaliate, a move that has little support across the world...
·         It’s a far cry from the Holy City, the city where God is so present everyone can see him face to face, where the good things that grow there heal people, instead of killing them.
·         Our gospel is one of the readings often chosen at funerals: ‘Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you…do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid.’
·         When we remember that Jesus spoke these words on the eve of his own violent death, we know he must have meant a kind of robust peace which can stand up in the face of all sorts of trouble; not just an airy fairy, vague feel good factor.
·         We pray for peace because power without peace is often misused; but perhaps peace without power is too vague an idea to effect change in very difficult areas of the world.
·         And perhaps we need the power of God as well as his peace in our lives; power to be transformed from the inside out.

·         Peace and power are brought together in the person of the Holy Spirit of course.
·         Returning to our 2D/3D image, when someone mentions the Holy Spirit, I wonder how you picture him?
·         Francis Chan has written a book called ‘Forgotten God’, subtitled ‘Reversing our tragic neglect of the Holy Spirit.’
·         Because the Holy Spirit is often the neglected person of the Godhead.
·         If you have trouble picturing the Holy Spirit, try picturing that river in Revelation.
·         Ezekiel, a prophet in Israel’s history also had a vision of the Holy Spirit, connected to a river
·         In his vision the river began shallow - he started to wade in it, led by an angel, and it was ankle deep.
·         He was beckoned to go in further; it became knee deep.
·         He was beckoned in further; it became waist deep; even further and he couldn’t wade anymore; ‘it was deep enough to swim in, a river that could not be crossed’ (Ezekiel 46:5).
·         ‘And the angel said ‘Mortal man, have you seen this?’ (next verse).
·         Have we seen this Spirit?
·         Can we be envisioned by the Spirit for our life here?
·         Have we experienced the rushing, the nourishing of something (someone) who’s alive and available to us every day?
·         The life of that Holy City starts when we turn to Christ and open our lives to the Holy Spirit: He is the river which waters our lives and our communities.
·         We have ample illustration of that river here in Whitchurch, with our own Thames, which frequently bursts its banks after too much rain.
·         You cannot hold a river in; it’s ‘alive and goes where it will.

·         Yes, it does offer a tranquil setting as summer dawns; everyone is drawn to a river which reflects back the blue sky on a cloudless day.
·         But remember the river is about life and sometimes it’s quite unpredictable.
·         Perhaps we could imagine a figurative river of life running through us here… down the High Street, past The Old Stables, up the drive and past the church door, blessing and healing as it goes; even through the church door…?!

·         We are part of that river, inhabited by the Spirit, needing renewing every day.
·         As we recall Jesus’ words ‘My peace I give to you’, we also remember he sent the Holy Spirit to fill us for service and mission.
·         He even said that it was a good thing he was going to the Father; otherwise no Spirit
·         They might have wanted to hold onto Jesus forever, in bodily form, but he said ‘do not cling to me.’
·         Perhaps he was trying to get them to progress from 2D, to 3D vision…
·         If we let God enlarge our vision from 2D to 3D, what will that look like in Whitchurch?
·         It will be a vision that sees our community and all its life through the 3D lenses of God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
·         As we approach Pentecost, may the life of the Spirit of Christ nourish us and give us hunger for more, as we wade out into the river, even to the point of swimming.