Monday, 31 March 2014

Sensing Lent 23: Mirror

Story tellers have long been fascinated by the idea that there's a world through the mirror you might pass through into; Alice Through the Looking Glass the obvious example.

I always wanted to fill the house up with mirrors; not, I hope due to vanity, but reading too many interior design magazines at one stage of my life, probably. They do create interesting perspectives however. And I can never work out why it is that reflected views look more enticing than the real thing. Yet another example of being an iNtuitive perhaps?

Apparently there are eight references to mirrors in the bible, the general sense of which is of someone looking into divine things only as into a mirror - a reflection only - which will inevitably become the real thing when we can at last see clearly (St Paul) or that if we see what it is to be a follower but do not do it, we are like someone who looks in a mirror and immediately forgets what they look like (St James).

Looking into a mirror shows us what we are like. Letting God look into us, as is customary in Lent, allows us to see what we are like inside. I doubt it is possible to know God better without knowing ourselves better at the same time. That's how the mirror works: He looks at me; I see me. I look at Him; I see me. And everyone else reflected in Him. It's all about perception. Which is why Jesus said, 'the lamp of the body is the eye. Therefore when your eye is good, your whole body is also full of light, but when it is evil, your whole body also is full of darkness' (Luke 11:34).

Which makes you wonder how many times God has been asked to change a person or a situation on our behalf, when really He's trying quite hard to change us and our viewpoint instead.

So when the housework is getting on top of me, perhaps I'll go round taking a few more photos of what's on the other side of the mirror, to make everything look genuinely a whole lot better.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Sensing Lent 22: The Indiscriminate Sun

The annual Mothering Sunday Service angst draws on apace. 

Tomorrow morning I'll be involved, tentatively, experientially, with the annual drawing together of the conflicting strands of spirituality, theology, psychology and liturgy which is the Church's attempt to straddle the ancient practice of returning to 'Mother Church' (with the attendant family gathering) and the modern supplanting of God, for mere blood ties - thanking mums 'for all they do for us' (which is, at worst, giving mum one day off the washing up, and at best, a large bunch of flowers with no work all day).

As mother and minister, the 'no work all day' thing isn't going to happen for me. Instead there'll be the slightly frazzled collision of priest and mum. The priestly/motherly 'me' will feel the need to portray God as a mother, the need to acknowledge others' sadness associated with perhaps having lost a mother, or not being a mother, or not being reconciled to or physically present with either one's mother or one's own children. 

And that's before we consider the sorrows sometimes associated with being a mother, like those experienced by Mary the mother of Jesus, referred to in at least one of the lectionary readings tomorrow ('sorrow, like a sword, will pierce your own soul'). Oh, great. Add to all that the generation for whom Mothering Sunday is nothing to do with mums, but all to do with Church, who would want to police the use of language thereabouts; and the spiritual atmosphere will be interesting, to say the least.

And then there's the cultural gap between those brought up in the church (like me) for whom Mothering Sunday wouldn't be complete without those posies handed to you by your children in church, and those who will be setting off early in the car to be with their mothers and wouldn't dream of interrupting the day by a visit inside a church building, especially on the morning the clocks go forward, losing you an hour in bed. I have some sympathy.

The warm sun today reminded me of the verse 'he causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good'. God is quite frustrating like that - absolutely no respecter of persons. So for all those people for whom tomorrow is solely about mums and nothing to do with Christianity, there'll be as much blessing as for those who see the two as intimately connected. Just like those who do want a God-angle, those who don't 'feel the need' will enjoy the day sitting down to eat with family, giving flowers and perfume, celebrating love and soaking up sunshine. And it will all be gift; the Giver hidden. Which is cause for a certain humility. The Church no longer owns Mother's Day.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Sensing Lent 21: Prayer Chair

Shabby chic is a style that greatly appeals, possibly due to never really having enough money to buy new furniture (apart from once, when we splashed out on a nearly four figure John Lewis sofa).

Down the years, collecting seating in various forms of demise, with various interesting pedigrees, has become a bit of an art form. 

So there's a 1950s nursing chair with a newish cover; an antique Victorian overstuffed chair; a 1980s John Lewis orange two seater sofa covered in crocheted blankets from second hand shops and a squashy feather-filled two seater sofa, bought on eBay after a nerve wracking bidding war, for the princely sum of £1.44.

And then there's the Prayer Chair. The story behind it: we moved into a large clergy house and found ourselves once again short on the seating front. During the first month I was due to see a wedding couple. Picturing them arriving and having to sit on the floor, a small armchair spotted in a skip, and a kind parishioner who rescued it and brought it round, eventually saved the day.

Who was the genius who re-branded second hand clothes as 'pre-loved? Our skip chair is definitely pre-loved. It needed a new cushion, but apart from that, looked right at home from day one. A bit frayed, dated florals (which I'm rather attached to now) dainty, squishy and perfectly proportioned. It was rescued with love and donated with kindness.

And it's the best chair for praying in. Come in, shut the door, turf the cat off, sink in, feet firmly on the floor, light a candle, be still, listen to the ticking clock. And breathe.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Sensing Lent 20: Cup

Final day of the Oxford Diocesan Clergy conference and it was a day of cups. Giving bread and wine to 350 people presents more logistical issues than with, say, 30 people. You sometimes get quite a bit left over (better than not enough to go round). 

There's something illuminating about Holy Communion as a nourishing meal. When Jesus sat down with his friends to eat the Last Supper before his death he said 'how eagerly have I desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer' (Luke 22:15). He'd looked forward to it for a while. We know that after a meal in first century Palestine, people would recline at the table - relax and let their food go down. It's an intimate picture of after-supper fullness and fellowship.

A bit like the scene after we had broken bread on the final day of our clergy conference (see above). We feasted on real bread, baked in a workshop, broken and distributed, with left overs, like the feeding of the 5000. The generous left overs sat in the cups in various states of brokenness, waiting to be consumed by as many as want to join in. Dregs of wine mixed in, some cups empty, some not quite, I found it all a glorious picture of plenty, of invitation, of not standing on ceremony, even of a nice bit of mess, such as you normally find on the table after a good meal with friends: 'We are one body because we all share in one loaf.'

I'm not generally prone to breaking into King James-speak, but after the feast that was this conference, the first for over 20 years in Oxford Diocese, I've come away feeling that 'my cup runneth over.'

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Sensing Lent 19: Hands

We underestimate the sense of touch in worship. In an over sexualized society, we are perhaps naturally cautious about anything inappropriate. But touch is still powerful in the right context. On day 3 of the Oxford Diocese clergy conference today we had a chance to be anointed with oil during the Holy Communion service. Oil has long been used in Christian worship for healing and blessing. You simply hold out your hands and the person puts oil on each palm, praying:

'In the name of God, and trusting in his might alone,
Receive Christ's healing touch to make you whole.

May Christ bring you wholeness 
of body, mind and spirit,
deliver you from every evil,
and give you his peace.'

The open hands, the skin, receiving the touch of oil, given by another's hand.

There was also the chance to have the laying on of hands for prayer and blessing. This is again an ancient practice, used in Ordination, providing a tactile way to assure someone of God's help and power. At the New Wine summer conferences they always say keep your eyes open while you pray for someone - watch what God is doing in their face. I find this hard - it seems a bit like being a 'peeping tom' on something very intimate between that person and God.

Again, it's in the physical touch of hands that you feel God's own touch, which is not physical, exactly, but which is so much more than just a fuzzy feeling inside. That touch of God via someone else's prayerful touch is sometimes accompanied by other physical sensations - extreme relaxation, sighing, weeping or trembling, so that the whole body becomes involved. I don't think it's just me - it would seem to be a common experience when the Holy Spirit is afoot. It's just naturally supernatural.

So there were a lot of hands today - hands open, hands anointing, hands praying, hands blessing. A room full of 350 clerics's hands praying, anointing and blessing each other whilst receiving Christ in bread and wine (and singing) was, I have to admit, pretty powerful stuff, not to mention a fantastic feat of spiritual multi-tasking.

My only tip would be - next time can we have some fragranced oil? When I had anointing at the On Fire conference, 4 years ago, I smelt nice for days - but more importantly, I felt in some way for a while afterwards, that I was inhabiting the fragrance of the divine.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Sensing Lent 18: Muddy Boots

Day 2 of Oxford Diocese Clergy Conference. Holed up with 350 other clerics and surviving...

Last night Bishop Victoria Matthews told an anecdote about an International bishops Conference during which the following question was considered by the great and the good of the assembled Bishops: 'If God wore shoes, what kind of shoes would God wear?'

It was a question posed by a young girl and there were three wise responses: 

1. He would wear dancing shoes (cf. the 'dance' of the Trinity, aka perichoresis - good Trinitarian answer).
2. He would wear hiking boots to get 'down and dirty' with   humanity (good Incarnational answer).
3. We would be invited to take our shoes off together so He could wash our feet (good Maundy Thursday answer).

That's what you get with bishops, I guess - pretty water tight theology with some imagination and liturgical appropriateness thrown in.

The dancing shoes is good. At the On Fire conference I went on (Anglo Catholic/charismatic) Michael Mitton showed a clip of a huge dance that one guy starts and gradually everyone joins in because it's infectious and they catch the vibe. Everyone wants to join the dance. Even think Lord of the Dance. But this wasn't my favourite answer.

The idea of foot washing is still something I haven't come to terms with. I know some Dioceses do it as part of the Ordination service but I just have a mental block with it. Something to do with it being a powerful cultural indicator in Jesus' day of servant hood and a necessary service, which now we do not need due to mostly good footwear. And, more importantly for me, good old English reserve. So that wasn't my favourite answer.

My favourite was the hiking boots picture - God getting 'down and dirty' with humanity. So I went on the walk - the most over subscribed 'workshop' of the afternoon. All those Anglican iNtuitives who cannot wait to clear their intense Anglican thoughts and get out and about in the mud. Mud, a lake, a railway, fallen trees, stiles, sheep, fields, grass and puddles. 

The God who gets his boots muddy with us, and for us, has my vote today.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Sensing Lent 17: Map

Maps and I have never had a very good relationship. 

I'm fairly sure there must be a dyslexia-type term for people like me who have trouble internalising routes and directions, and need to turn the map upside down to work out if it's left or right. And as for the Google maps 3D version, where you're not travelling down the map but up it apparently, as you work your way through the stages of your route, I'm all at sixes and sevens with that. I usually set out from home to find some new part of the Diocese, with several sheets of Google maps print outs, plus the route on iPhone and an atlas for good measure. People keep telling me I should get a Sat Nav but I fear my spatial awareness will dwindle to nothing if I capitulate.

Thankfully for the iNtuitives among us, who are more likely to 'assume' something is on the right because of some vague intuition, when the map is clearly pointing left, maps are much more than physical representations of where you are and where you're going.

I'm currently at the Oxford Diocese clergy conference and we have a large map of the Oxford Diocese with coloured stickers to show where we are all from. It feels like home. It tells me where I belong geographically but also spiritually. 

It takes a while to feel at home in a place spiritually, but once you do, the actual place where you live can minister to you, which is a good thing, as ministry often seems to involve a lot of being in the car. Apart from the physical things that rush by - rivers, roads, trees, shops, parks, skies, you also feel spiritually connected to the sacred places, experiences and people that make up the Diocese. It's all in the memory - years of walking and talking with the people of God in the hereabouts of Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire. I suppose you can't have the one without the other.

It's a bit like those maps you get in towns where a large arrow states 'You are here'. Its always good to know where you are and where you are going, physically and geographically. To ask the same question spiritually is harder, but more fruitful. And that's what we're here to do, as a body and perhaps also individually. I hope I am more successful in this latter endeavour than when it comes to finding my way around the Diocese using Google maps.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Sensing Lent 16: Clouds

I can't think of many things which are so ordinary in themselves, yet which have been the carriers of so much poetic, literary, theological, spiritual, musical and psychological freight, than clouds.

A cloudy day may be something to lament, because we all supposedly want sun (if weather men and women are to be believed) but none of us can imagine a sky without those cloudscapes we've all stopped in our tracks to look up to, as the clouds of Michaelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling fill the mind's eye. Or maybe that only happens to iNtuitives...

It was Wordsworth who famously referred  to 'clouds of glory' in his poem Intimations of Immortality:

'Not in entire forgetfulness
And not in utter nakedness 
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies around us in our infancy',

carrying with it the idea of the pre existence of the soul, an idea which is more Platonic than Judeo-Christian, but that's the Romantics for you.

I for one find it difficult to see clouds as just collected masses of water vapour with light shining off them, or through them, or whatever the scientific reason for clouds is. I just can't help thinking of all the other concepts associated with clouds: silver lining; glory; coming in the clouds; Son of Man; etc.

And it's all going on up there most days, take this evening for instance - it was, as Crowded House sang, 'Four Seasons in One Sky', as if were.

I admit there's a problem with the Ascension - Jesus going 'up', apparently into the clouds, his feet sticking out from the bottom of a cloud as his body rises up like Apollo 13... we come up against our conceptual limits when we try to imagine how spiritual realities exist alongside physical. Tom Wright puts it brilliantly in Surprised by Hope when he imagines Jesus' 'coming on the clouds' as a peeling back of this reality to reveal the reality of God's reign, in other words - he didn't go to a place - he is in another reality, which will become our reality at his 'return'.

All of which is to say there's a lot of other stuff apart from perhaps being about to rain, going on with clouds.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Sensing Lent 15: Shadow

Shadows seem to have a hard time in the collective imagination, though visually I'm quite a fan.

Associations with things dark and shady mean we prefer light to shadow and we fear what might lurk in the shadows.

Psychology speaks of the shadow side of personality and I've been wondering how this idea links with biblical anthropology.

One of the problems with an over moralised version of Christianity is to focus on outward behaviour (obey this rule, follow these guidelines etc.) whilst neglecting what's going on inside. It's much easier to 'behave yourself' than to be transformed from the inside, with all the murkiness that might be lurking there. But we need to explore and expose the shadows nonetheless.

Or, switching to psychology, the shadow side is the underused parts of our personality. Thinking about the Myers Briggs Personality Type Indicator (MBTI) this would mean, for example, that if you had a preference for Extroversion, looking outwards and being stimulated by externals, exploring your shadow would mean withdrawing and looking inwards for a change. 

And if you tended to think before feeling, you would want to embrace the feeling side of you, even if it seemed somewhat scary to do so. And those of us who make quick judgements and like routine and predictability would want to become more open ended and 'go with the flow' (dreadful thought...)

Finally, as I'm trying this Lent, 'iNtuitives' who love abstract theorising and the big picture, would pay more attention to their 5 senses and try and live in the moment more.

In Jungian thought (which is roughly what the MBTI is based on) far from being something to fear and avoid, the shadow side could prove to be the place of most creativity and growth.

I suppose biblically, coming to terms with the shadowy stuff inside and exposing it to the light and love of Christ would be what we call sanctification. 

I suspect sanctification and shadow befriending are linked, but I'm not sure how. One thing's for sure, you can't see the shadows without the light.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Sensing Lent 14: Wind

It wasn't so much being able to look at a physical object for some spiritual reflection today, but seeing the effect of it on everything else. 

Because it was very windy here. And I was glad to have some cobwebs blown away.

I've always thought wind was a good illustration for atheists, the type who insist on visual proof for anything people say they believe in. 
You can't see God? Well, He doesn't exist then. 

You can't really prove the existence of wind, either, but you can see its effect on everything else.

Wind, though technically invisible, is a powerful picture of the Holy Spirit. Without wishing to wade into theologically tricky waters (which I am just about to do) the Holy Spirit seems to conjure the most dynamic image of the three designations of God, 'Father, Son and Holy Spirit'. 

It would be fascinating to do some research on how people imagine the three persons of the Godhead, but after walking today and seeing everything blowing around, I'm bound to find the wind of the Spirit, the unpredictable, ever changing, fresh, exciting, sometimes dangerous wind, preferable to images of Father (never quite sure how to picture Him, plus the problem of the gendered pronoun) or Son (too many Ladybird Book/Sunday School images of flowing robes and golden hair, and a man, even a resurrected and glorified 'Son of Man', is unable to be in more than one place at a time.)*

Maybe I'm coming over all liberal/feminist/eco-theological, but when it comes to images of the Trinity, I'll settle today for the fronds of a wildly waving willow tree caught up in the essential here and now.

*Aware that some regard ubiquity as a quality of Christ and experienced as 'Real Presence' in bread and wine. But I'm with the late Revd. Gerald Hegarty on this one. Christ is seated at the right hand of God. His Spirit pervades the world, however. I told you I was wading in...

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Sensing Lent 13: Earthen vessels

When in doubt, light a candle. 

That seems like a good motto for a Minister. I didn't always light candles; for at least the first 20 years of my Christian life I would have thought it odd to do so, especially if it was to accompany prayer, which in my world view then, you could do without any physical object assisting you.

I have to admit that once you've started lighting candles it's very difficult to stop. Assuming Richard Rohr is right about the spirituality of the second half of life (see his book Falling Upward, published 2012) I suppose I'm moving from being over conceptualised in Christian practice, to exploring more 'sensed' ways of being (i.e. using the 5 senses). It's what I'm trying to do this Lent anyway).

So, the candle. Once that wick gets going it burns steadily and brightly until the wax runs out. This particular tea light holder, one of a pair, is just perfect. It's made of pottery; a bit worn and grubby by now. There are wax stains down the outside, it's a bit scratched and several of the gold stars are discoloured. But, scratched, grubby and stained, it's still holding the light.

It couldn't be a better picture of what St Paul calls the 'earthen vessels' in which we we carry our treasure (2 Corinthians 4:7). Modern translations give us that treasure in 'jars of clay'. For once I prefer the King James version. Because I know exactly what it feels like to be an earthen vessel. Of the earth. Mortal. It accounts for the gap between any dreams I might have for the church, and the reality of ministry - partial, interrupted, subject to relationship strain, relocation, illness, disorganisation, stress, worry, tiredness and just plain forgetfulness.

Earthen vessels, the bodies and lives we carry on in. Reminders that the all surpassing power belongs, not to us, but to God.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Sensing Lent 12: Onion

I'm persevering with my Lent book, Falling Upward, by American Franciscan and Catholic priest, Richard Rohr, about the spiritual task of the later years of life.

You can tell Rohr has written the book in a hermitage - it's long on wisdom distilled from years of personal walking with God, but short on other people's experiences, having virtually no examples of how people are actually growing into the second half of their lives, with the spirituality needed to do this well. There's a feeling in his writing that everything he says is probably true, but is largely unsubstantiated. It wouldn't pass as spiritual/sociological research. But them I'm sure he wouldn't care at all about that anyway. There's just the wise voice of experience, saying basically the same thing 500 ways. 

But two things have chimed with me so I'm sure he's onto something, and one of them made me think of an onion.

1. At one point he says that in the 'second half of life', we make friends with our loneliness and embrace our solitude. 
This has been true for me. When I first started being a Curate I really didn't like the amounts of working alone it seemed to entail. I used to try and fill the silence with activity. I constantly imagined groups that would miraculously support me without me having to drive miles across a huge Diocese to find them, or scenarios where I didn't have to play diary contortions to get together with colleagues, who all had different days off from each other. Sometimes support happened, but when it didn't, I just got on with befriending the solitude.

By and by I got used to being alone, and now I actually enjoy it. It would seem it's integral to processing everything that happens in ministry. And that's even before you pray about ministry. A perfect day is one with face to face stuff but time to be alone and process as well.

2. Linked to the above, he says that the more of life we live, the less stimulation we need and the more call there is to go deeper into the meaning of the few things that have happened to us.

It's like an onion - you just keep peeling back the layers. And there may be tears. After a morning spent out and about with people, hearing different stories, I can think of so many ways to read these stories, to take them to God: sociological, psychological, physiological, medical, theological, pastoral, poetic, etc. I seem to need more and more time to delve deeper, to see where the Spirit is at work in people and situations. That is why, though I'm getting busier, I'm developing a horror of busyness, in case I miss something spiritually significant. Journalling helps. Sometimes I read back an entry and think 'Ah, I missed that...'

There's a conundrum here - the more things you get involved in, the less time you have to reflect but the more time you really need to reflect.

Maybe by the end of the book I'll find out what the answer is. Meanwhile I'll keep peeling.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Sensing Lent 11: Door

You can tell a lot about people from their doors.

There's no way a door is just a door - it says so much more (and that's a rhyme).

An upsetting image I won't forget was of a new mother arriving at a church (this is going back a few years) and finding she couldn't fit the push chair in through the church door because even though the service was for parents and their children, no one had thought to open it fully enough - a lot of church doors have two halves and usually you only need to open up one. Unless you have a pushchair. Or an electric chair. Or a coffin.

What we do with doors is important in church - and not just because we have large heating bills. It doesn't take too much imagination to see that there's a huge image problem with a closed door as opposed to an open one. Sometimes it's even like Chinese dolls: there's a door within a door within a door... 

As well as having a hinge, a door IS a hinge to the outside world. The church within, the world without (lit. 'outside'). 
Yet it is an illusion that the church is separated from the world like this. It is no coincidence that nearly all of Jesus' recorded ministry takes place in the 'outdoors' - not inside a religious building, though he did frequent the synagogue too. He was outdoors because outdoors - out there - was the whole arena of life, and every person, and it is every person's calling to find their unique place there.

Original artwork by Simon Latham - the offering of Good News
at an open door. It hangs by the door.
In pastoral visiting, there's something powerful about being invited inside someone's door. You enter that person's world, on their terms, and glimpse a slice of their life, which otherwise you could not 'see'. You are blessed by their hospitality (in most cases).

And it is not for nothing that Jesus is described in Revelation as standing outside the door knocking to come in. Which is what he does, patiently, persistently, with the door to every human life.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Sensing Lent 10: Water

A quarter of the way through Lent and today I was thinking about water.

Another physical 'thing' with spiritual suggestions.
Three sprang to mind. 

First, fresh water over stagnant. Jesus stood up in Jerusalem and said 'If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. The one who believes in me, as the Scripture said, 'Streams from his belly shall flow, of running water' (John 7:37, Nicholas King translation). Flowing, not stagnant, always implying change and being plugged into the source.

Secondly, overwhelming. When water doesn't do what we want it to we all react as though it were possible to completely control nature. It would seem that only Christ was able to do that. The New Testament speaks ominously of the times when people will live in fear of the roaring of the sea (Luke 21:25), which is alarming if you take prophecy seriously. Water was a scary thing when the Thames broke its banks, this winter in the Thames valley and elsewhere. There's only one thing that is desirable when it comes to overwhelming: to be overwhelmed by God.

And thirdly, still waters. As in Psalm 23, 'He leads me beside still waters, for his name's sake'. Still waters are still fresh, they're just not out of control, churned up and chaotic. Still waters imply being settled and peaceful, still and content.  A very spiritually attractive image for life and for Lent.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Sensing Lent 9: Two chairs, the significance of which I do not yet understand

I'm grateful for the church year which provides a special reason to go deeper in Lent. But this is often coupled with feeling personally uninspired and unsure what to 'do' through Lent. I think the year I finally agree with God that some kind of fasting is probably the only way to fit more of God in, I will have arrived. And then need to repent of my pride, and so be back at square one again. 

Today as I was driving more slowly than usual somewhere, I remembered that one year I tried to give up speeding for Lent. Not 100% successful I have to admit. This year I'm not giving anything up, but trying to live more in the moment, using the 5 senses; and theorising less. And trying to blog about it.

I'm not convinced about daily blogging. Ironically you need to carve out time from an already busy timetable to do it and that can end up being counter productive, especially as Lent is supposed to be a time when we slow down and be more aware. At the same time, I've always wanted to be a writer so if that ever 'comes to pass', as it were, at least I'll know what that discipline feels like each day. Because I'm a creature of habit and it's not a problem for me to sit down in the same place at the same time each day and tap out a few hundred words. Radically, today I am in a different font. The Spirit must be at work somehow then.

And I'm reading Richard Rohr. The cover of his 2011 book, 'Falling Upward', shows two chairs at a table (above). One is facing inwards towards the table and the other towards the observer. The one facing the table seems to match it while the other green one, which I find more attractive, doesn't match anything. If Richard Rohr is right in his other writing on the Enneagram (an ancient personality/spirituality model) this is because I am at home at the 'four' position where you have a need to feel 'special'. I like the green chair because it stands out and looks interesting. It looks special. And it looks down on the other chair, which is just ordinary, and no one wants to be just ordinary....or do they...?

But I digress. The thesis of 'Falling Upward' is that we live life in roughly two halves. The first half of life sees us building our outer life - our skills and achievements, education, partner, home, career and maybe family. We think in terms of being upwardly mobile and failure or weakness is to be avoided at all costs. 

Rohr maintains that there is a second half of life though, which we need to embrace if we are to mature; and this is more concerned with discovering that the very things we think make us strong are eventually obstacles to discovering 'real life' (in a spiritual sense). The ego which has been built, needs to be 'unbuilt' to embrace the life of God, which is made perfect in our weakness.

The idea that the things I tend to rely on each day - physical strength, natural gifts and skills, the hope that nothing will go 'wrong' might need to be undone as the second half of life spreads out into the future is rather scary. 'Down' is really 'up', he says. It's like the Beatitudes, I suppose, and I think I follow the idea. I'm still trying to get to grips with his style, which is to sound like a therapist a lot of the time, but I've had a feeling or a while that I should read this book so I'll persevere. And maybe the chair thing will become clearer.

Meanwhile I keep looking at things, including favourite chairs, trying to sense the meaning in things, and listening to the extremely small amount of silence obtainable in this house. And persevering with Lent.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Sensing Lent 8: Of making many books...

A major wobble today in my attempt to use all the senses in Lent, as it's my Thursday 'study day'...'Of making many books there is no end and much study is a weariness of the flesh' (Ecclesiastes 2:12). How very true. Another time I would love to elucidate the wonders of the above collection as I try and mine the literature of women's experience of leadership. But today what I needed, by 3pm, was to get out and about, walking. It did my brain and soul so much good, walking and observing fencing through which vegetation was poking, or just plain rusty fencing, that I'm wondering if I might be undergoing a personality change this Lent.

By the end of this dissertation I may become someone who prefers fences to feminist practical theology.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Sensing Lent 7: Tree

Tree on the banks of the Thames, Pangbourne Meadow.

The tree is a powerful symbol in Christian theology but before we had the tree of life, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree on which the saviour of the world was hung, there were just trees.

There must be something intrinsic about a tree which lends itself to spiritual illustration. In the 90s we all tumbled to the fact that trees were being aimlessly felled in the rain forest and 'green' issues took off. Planting a tree is seen by religious and non religious people alike as almost an act of goodness; or of remembrance, when someone has died. 

What is it about trees? Apart from being beautiful, there's the visual symmetry and the roles of the different bits: the root which supports the trunk, the branches giving shelter and shade, and the twigs and buds producing flowers then fruit. 

And all in season. Spiritual metaphors abound. We have to be rooted and grounded in love (in God?) or we won't grow spiritually; we are pruned by extraneous stuff being laid down, sometimes through fasting and repentance; and thus we 'bear fruit' that will last - the fruit of a good life etc. It's all in John's gospel, chapter 15.

Trees are so plentiful round here it's hard to imagine the landscape without them, which leads me to today: being as it was the 20th anniversary of the ordination of women in the UK to the Anglican priesthood. 

I had coffee with a fellow female clergywoman and one who is currently in training. It wasn't till we'd ordered and taken seats in the cafe that the significance of being together on this particular day dawned on us, and I left in celebratory mood, giving thanks for the joys and the freedom to minister in this role and calling. 

Fruitful trees and fruitful ministry. A perfect day 7 of Lent.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Sensing Lent 6: Bread

We offered this bread today as part of our first Lent Lunch to take place in the new Parish Room. Nobody minded that we're still using Christmas napkins (and our beautiful new Christmas tablecloth lovingly embroidered by....somebody). 

The church has a noble tradition of offering lunches over Lent to which anyone is invited - the ingredients being gratitude that we have so much and remembering to eat simply so that other can simply eat. Our lives are generally not simple. We consume too much of everything because we can.

We are fortunate to be able to serve the lunches this year in a room on the High Street. The street and the church have too long been separated. So church and community come together in that delightful blurring of boundaries you tend to get in rural and semi rural ministry. We need those blurred edges so that the welcome is endlessly wide to those who do not profess a recognised Christian faith but who are nonetheless entirely at ease with the idea that we come together to eat, give and be grateful.

Simply bread. But its symbolic status in the Christian faith, and in modern consciousness ('our daily bread') make it a potent representation for Lent (even when it is accompanied by two home made soups and three different cheeses). 

Do you have to be a Christian to give and be grateful? Of course not, but Christian theology allows the church to draw on more than just the physical - in the breaking of bread we perceive Jesus, the bread of life 'in which all our hungers are satisfied (Common Worship Liturgy for Holy Communion). 

Lent is a deep stream that feeds the life of the church for six weeks: Jesus in the desert, what really counts in life ('Man shall not live by bread alone...') the need to act justly on behalf of others. 

A basket of bread. A Lent lunch. A hungry world. Gratitude, giving and penance. That's a lot of food for thought.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Sensing Lent 5: Blossom

View from Guildford Castle looking across to the Cathedral. 10.03.14

Where did you spring from 
with your candy pink splodges
bobbing in the uplift?
No blot on the landscape,
no backward glance at winter's frown. 
Like sticky potato prints
held by a child recalling
life is for laughing.
One dollop of your strawberry sundae 
slipping down the chin,
and we pretend that summer's coming in.
Above this town, upon this patch,
Not where the grass is greener,
but here and now,
the bricks in the sun,
the church on the hill, 
bloom where you're planted; 
blossom where you will.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Sensing Lent 4: Earth

Despite the spring sunshine on day 4 of Lent beckoning me outside, I still felt the iNtuitive temptation of a new book that just arrived through the post.

But no. Out I went to feel, the warm sun, taste outdoor coffee, touch worms, look at the yellow daffodils and smell the mint growing again in the patio pot, and the cat poo unearthed in the garage.

Being outdoors is healing. Dirty fingernails, walking on the springy moss (we don't have lawn, just moss) and noticing the rhubarb has suddenly sprouted again lifts the spirits in a way no amount of abstract thinking can do, even with a new book sitting unread.

I was perturbed by Giles Fraser's article in the Guardian today... (NB: Very fruity language alert in the first line, if you're sensitive to these things). I realised that 'self growth', akin to what I am attempting this Lent, is not at all the same as soul searching for sin. Have I become nothing more than a liberal delusional, thinking that psychological development of my underused Myers Briggs side is a worthy task for the penitential season?

Interesting, that intersection of theology and psychology. Several times during training for the C of E I wondered if what was going on in the personal realm had a theological or a psychological explanation. For example, the temptation to harbour attitudes that are unwise and unhealthy, those little dark areas within that remain stubbornly un-healed - is that the devil or some area of human development you still need to go through? My evangelical friends would say the former, my liberal ones the latter.

In a stand against dualism I came to feel that both were
right. So whilst somewhat sharing Giles Fraser's queasy feeling about what he sees as doomed attempts at human betterment, I still think 'know thyself' is a good starting point for Lent.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Sensing Lent 3: Glass

Stained glass in St John the evangelist, Stoke Row, Oxon, UK.
Glass. It struck me looking at this beautiful window that those of us who spend a lot of time making church related visual aids out of cardboard and sticky backed plastic, are probably missing a trick. 

In the days when people didn't have bibles, or for that matter, WH Smith, the stories told through glass were vivid enough. 

It's a very different experience reading words on a page than feasting your eyes upon this image from one of Jesus' nature miracles, for example - the angled boat tossed and turned in the turquoise sea, the sails billowing out, the knots on the ropes looking real enough to touch. 

It tells, or shouts, the story. At least one disciple is praying through sheer terror, another holds his cloak to his neck, a third looks anxious. But the fourth looks downwards, perhaps more trusting. Another little story inserted there? Jesus commands the storm, his arm outstretched towards an artistic insertion of a white bird (I'm guessing doves, though seagulls might be more likely...did they have seagulls in Palestine?) 

Further images and symbols around the frame yield enough material for six bible studies, negating the need to go on Amazon or print out endless reams of paper.
Plain window, same church.

St Paul famously looked 'through a glass darkly', which has to go down as one of the most provocative and poetic images of the King James Version of the Bible. 

I know the church can seem boring and out of touch, irrelevant to modern life and stuck in the dark ages, but we do have some very good windows. Taken in slowly and thoroughly, with a little guidance on hand, I reckon they could convert a few people on the spot.

Whether you're looking through a glass, looking at a glass, or reflecting on whether you are currently seeing clearly or not, it's a potent piece of stuff for day three of 'sensing' Lent.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Sensing Lent 2: Stone

Day two of a Lenten focus on 'stuff', hoping to glimpse God through something physical. 

And today I thought about stone. In particular, these stones. 

Stone is solid, dependable. Those dry stone walls in the Cumbrian fells are a masterful example of craftsmanship without the aid of cutting edge technology - just stones, each one unique, piled in such a way as to keep sheep in/out, mark the boundaries and look beautiful as walkers clamber over them into the next field. It's not difficult to see why St. Paul used stones being built together as a metaphor for the church (the 'living stones' of 1 Peter 2:5).

I didn't realise when I got ordained that so much ministry would be bound up with emails, that even pastoral relationships would be so affected by the tone of them. Because there are ways and ways of writing emails...At least once I've sent one off with a bit too much haste and rued the consequences...There are currently over 4000 in my inbox (that is, 4000 read ones; panic not) - I'm not sure how many months went by since the last electronic clear out but that does seem an awful lot of ether...

With so much electronic communication going on, it was good to go somewhere today and look at something solid and immovable (barring earthquake, out of control tractors or the Second Coming, that is). Stone. You can touch it, it's cool. It's not just grey. Things grow in between it, other things actually live on it.
If you were to bump into it, or scrape your flesh against it, you'd know all about it though ('he is the stone that causes people to stumble; the rock that makes them fall', Isaiah 8: 14).

These particular stones house a building where learning and Christian formation takes place*, so in all their steadiness and physicality, they say to me 'we have been built; you are being built; the church is being built.' 

Which is a good solid sandwich between the emails of this morning and the emails of this evening.

*Ripon College, Cuddesdon, Oxfordshire, UK.