Friday, 27 June 2014

A Resilient Life

How do you keep going as a Christian, let alone an ordained minister of the Church?

It's four years this  weekend since I got ordained in the Anglican Church and I feel like I'm just getting into my stride. 

But four years is a relatively short time. Will I still be enthusiastic in another four years, or fourteen years, or twenty?

Veteran pastor, Gordon MacDonald's 2004 book, A Resilient Life is full of wonderful, gentle insights into ways to build resilience into a long life of Christian obedience to God's call - water to a parched soul in my case, as I'd been struggling for a while to find anything to read that wasn't a) on a Masters Bibliography, b) quick on soundbites and short on wisdom and c) relevant to Christian ministry in particular. 

Two insights stand out: the need to explore the big questions for each decade of life and the need to do so in company.

He tells a great anecdote regarding the first. An experienced and wise pastor, he would often be invited to address groups of ministers or other leaders with some gems of godly wisdom about staying the course. On one occasion he was invited to speak to a room full of worship leaders, people who (in the style of many of the less liturgical churches) were charged with devising a programme of prayers and music that would lead others into the presence of God at the start of a service. 

On entering the room he was shocked to register that everyone there was in their 20s or 30s; he describes them as a 'bevy of youthful, hyperenergetic and lovable people', but it occurred to MacDonald that the spiritual questions and aspirations of these young people was likely very different from the things that occupy people in their 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond. MacDonald wondered if they really would be able to know how best to lead a congregation of mixed ages into the presence of God: 'They had better know their audience', he thought; '...They had better know something about the big pictures that others brought into the sanctuary'.

Identifying the big questions for each stage of life is something that can help maturity. The things I struggled over and wanted to read about and discuss in my 20s, were not the same as those things I thought about in my 30s, or now (just about still) in my 40s...

He didn't pull any punches with those worship leaders. He told them of a group he and his wife belonged to, of like minded friends who would gather and tell each other the stories of their lives as they had unfolded in the last month. 'There is one subject that never fails to come up - sometimes by way of a joke, a story or a piece of information about someone', he told the young leaders. 'Know what that subject is?' There was a long and somewhat uncomfortable silence. The answer: 'Death! The subject of dying always gets to the table'. He asked them then, how are you going to make sure the songs and readings you choose, minister God to people in this stages of life beyond 65?

He then goes on in the book to ponder the questions that face us in different stages of life. It's all very accurate - I thought about myself going into Ordination training 'like a lamb to the slaughter', just at the beginning of my 40s, nearly seven years ago: in his words, 'the complexities of life further accelerate and - and this is worrisome - we begin to recognise that we can no longer fob off our flaws and failures as youthfulness and inexperience' (ouch, yes that sounded familiar).

So finding out how to navigate the life questions at each stage is a way of being resilient as life goes on. It's often said that to look at the bookcase of a Christian or minister whose books were all current five, ten or twenty years ago, is to look at a person who hasn't continued to grow.

And secondly, what really blessed me in the book was the vision of doing this journey, this questioning and growing, in the company of others. Friendship has just begun to come onto the horizon as something one needs to be more intentional about when the children are poised to leave home. 

MacDonald points to a time midlife when he was a busy pastor and father and had no time to nurture friendships. He regretted it deeply when a mid life crisis loomed. He talks about the 30s as being the first time when 'male loneliness' begins to be a real problem. This is an issue in church life. If it's true that men generally have few others with whom they allow themselves to be open and honest, as he suggests, it has implications for passing on the faith to each generation. And it's certainly true that in a number of Anglican churches, men in their 20s and 30s are the significantly missing demographic.

So it repays us to build friendships and give them time. Quality time. Who are the friends with whom you have fun? Who are the friends who will be honest and even notice if your spiritual life is slowly dying from lack of growth or challenge? And for couples, maybe particularly clergy couples, who are the other couples with whom you can have genuine social and spiritual interaction? 

And ultimately, who are the friends who will be at your graveside, who will be there even at the end, mourning your passing? This was probably the most sobering question in the book. But then he's asking it as someone in his 60s. I must admit, it had never occurred to me before...

Growing through each life stage, and doing it in company. I have a feeling this book will have repercussions.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

The Sun: thanks but no thanks.

I was looking forward to returning my free copy of The Sun this week, or using it to wipe my feet on, as our old doormat is a bit frayed at the moment. But we didn't get one. I don't know whether to be pleased or disappointed. 

On the news last night I had one of those moments when you think maybe you have passed into a parallel universe of unbelievable-ness, that someone's playing a joke and is going to get into legal trouble for creating a photo-shopped image of three main MPs in this country holding copies of The Sun. What a great joke, but surely that's illegal on TV, photo-shopping? Those guys are going to be really cross.

And then you realise it's actually true: the three leaders of the main political parties have actually agreed to be photographed holding copies of The Sun, thus endorsing a paper which relies on sensation and bare boobs to sell copies. I honestly thought someone had done a photo shop image, placing copies of The Sun into hands that were actually holding up something else. But apparently, yes, the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the Leader of the Liberal Democrats have endorsed The Sun on National TV. Because The Sun of course represents US ALL: 'OUR ENGLAND'... OUR BOYS.

Now I know it's a special edition for the World Cup, and I know (tellingly) that 'Page 3' has been omitted in this one. And I've nothing against football, apart from the fact that I though after the Olympics we were going to have more women's sport on the box...

But still...I went to bed last night deeply depressed and woke up feeling the same. Questions going round in my head included: has Ed Milliband taken complete leave of his senses? (he has since been forced to apologise to disgruntled Liverpool and other Labour supporters - what a surprise). Also: how can those 2 others sleep at night with excruciating photos out there for ever? Would a female MP stomach being photographed endorsing The Sun? The evils of mass media monopolies, etc. etc.

I suppose it was a moment when I realised (as if it weren't obvious anyway) who really holds the power in this country.

An argument for continuing to have 'Page 3' goes like this: it doesn't harm anyone; (some) women are happy to be photographed topless so why shouldn't they? Our readers can decide if they don't like it: those who object are mostly people who don't buy it and they don't have to.

Which is why I'm nearly always suspicious of phrases like 'each to his own', 'live and let die' and 'let the markets decide'. 

A sombre side to letting the markets decide, of course, is that the markets did decide in Liverpool, which boycotted the national Sun distribution due to continued resentment against that newspaper for its inaccurate and hurtful reporting of the Hillsborough disaster, in which thuggish fan behaviour was wrongly attributed to innocent victims.

If The Sun can leave out Page 3 for mass consumption, why can't it embrace the 21st Century and leave it out altogether? 

I'm basically imagining a day when an old copy is kicking around somewhere in an archive and one of my grown up grandchildren (still to be born) looks puzzlingly at page 3 of the 'newspaper' and asks, 'Granny, why is that lady topless inside a newspaper?' and I'll explain, slightly embarrassed, that I lived in a time when this was still thought to be entirely normal; and she'll look at me, and look back at the photograph, and look up to heaven as if to say, 'I can't believe they actually used to do that'.

The sort of 21st Century equivalent of parading a bearded lady round a circus ring. And for the sake of our esteemed political leaders, I hope my grandchildren don't stumble across an old photo of them gormlessly endorsing such a paper.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

A Smile on the Face of God

I first read A Smile on the Face of God in 1993 whilst living in Eastbourne on the south coast. 

Adrian Plass was a local author then, famous in the Christian world for his sideways glance at the sometimes odd things we do in church, but which nonetheless don't stop God from working healing and forgiveness into the most mundane or hopeless situations, often through those who have come to terms with their own brokenness.

The subject of his beautifully written biography knows all about brokenness - he is Father Philip Ilott, an Anglo Catholic priest whose life has been characterised by unusual suffering - emotional, spiritual and physical. 

Born in 1936, Philip was an unwanted baby whose dysfunctional relationship with his mother (he was sexually abused from a young age) defined much of his life. A period of singing in a Cathedral choir provided an awareness of something spiritual, greater than himself and his own troubles, and gradually the ceremony, incense and meaningful ritual he encountered there drew him towards Anglo Catholic worship. After a spell of very real and lively Church Army Evangelicalism, he took Holy Orders in 1967.

He finds some happiness in marriage and family life, though his dark childhood traumas still lie buried deep within. As is the way of things, these surface through irrational behaviour and a tendency to overwork. He collapses one day in church, and, extremely worried, his wife and the doctors advocate rest. But the blackouts get worse. His condition is finally diagnosed as epilepsy. He must give up parish ministry completely. Absolutely mortified, Philip tries to hide the dreadful situation from the rest of the church for as long as possible. Will God really let his whole role and identity as a priest be taken away so ignominiously? 

When a visiting preacher says he has come to offer him the gift of healing, rather than being delighted, he feels embarrassed, but agrees to go through with a midweek healing service in church, with some parishioners coming to pray and offer support. But he is mortified. A priest serves others; should he be so feeble as to need others' prayer for his own weakness and physical failing?

Philip feels justified in his scepticism of miraculous healing however, when his epilepsy worsens shortly afterwards. But God has other ideas. Exactly three months later, another visitor (this time, ironically, the local Church Army Captain) comes to him enthusing about the 'gifts of the Spirit' after some local involvement in a Charismatic group. This time he allows his hopes to be slightly raised, trying to be polite to this keen fellow Christian, but he feels on balance it's 'not for him'. 

But in the kitchen, about to wash up a mug after his visitor has left, Philip is suddenly overwhelmed by the healing presence of God. Like the haemorrhaging woman who touched Jesus' cloak, he somehow 'knows' in his spirit he has been healed. He says to his wife, 'I feel like I've been 'born again' again!' His epilepsy completely disappears, never to return. 

This extraordinary physical healing begins to impact church life immediately, as Philip begins a monthly healing service in the context of Benediction, an Anglo Catholic contemplation of the Blessed Sacrament. Soon others are being healed in various ways, some receive the gift of tongues, which heals their emotional life, sometimes leading to physical healing. There is no blueprint; all cases are different; and not all are physically healed. Throughout, as praying priest and one who wants to offer God's blessing whatever the outcome, he relies on the inner voice of God to guide him, sometimes against all the odds. 

One of the most remarkable accounts of gradual physical healing is of a baby who is brought to him with life threatening encephalitis and water on the brain. Several sessions of prayer and laying on of hands by Philip and the baby's mother and grandmother, and the baby recovers completely, to the astonishment of the local hospital.

All the while, however, dark memories from the past haunt Father Philip. The things that happened at home at night when his father was in the War. His parents' agonising fights. The un-forgiveness he harbours towards his father for never standing up to his mother. The feelings of bing unwanted in the womb. He knows he must eventually confront them and seeks prayer from an experienced fellow priest. This results in some distressing, vividly recalled episodes as he brings before God's Spirit the memories which have lain buried for so long. The Eucharist brings him immense comfort in this context, as he contemplates how we are fed by Christ, even as the placenta feeds an unborn baby.

Throughout his faithful and prayerful parish ministry, in a number of different settings, Father Ilott's life is a mysterious mixture of trauma, healing, pain, release and disease. He prays unstintingly for the most difficult parishioners, sometimes going into the church at night to sit in the pews where they sit, and feel the things they feel which make them react the way they do. He is challenged  as a young priest by powerful people he cannot stand up to, and plagued by impotency as if still a child.

He has prophetic dreams which appear to mark different periods of his ministry. In one he himself is being crucified. After a long spell in a happy Isle of White parish, he takes a disastrous appointment to a wealthy Sussex parish which turns out not to be in keeping with his humble and spiritual approach. He feels all he is wanted for is to be a guest at sherry parties. On the day of his installation (he only stays 18 months) he has an overwhelming feeling 'that I was the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time'.

But even in the next parish the road is not smooth. In another dream he is in a wheelchair and the Lord leads him to a locked door. He asks Philip if he will open the door with a heavy key. He has the choice. He decides he will. Beyond the open door he sees hundreds of people suffering various illnesses, maimed, hurting, in wheelchairs. The dream finds real life fulfilment as Father Ilott, settling into this new parish, becomes seriously ill for the second time - losing the feeling in his limbs one by one. Again he is mortified at being so weak and unable to continue his parish duties. Hospital tests ensue: this time the diagnosis is devastating. Incurable MS. 

Again he must contemplate giving up parish ministry, and this time he feels it may well be forever. Finally, at the end of his own resources, he visits Walsingham, the Catholic place of pilgrimage in Norfolk. Mary the mother of Jesus has played an increasing part in his spirituality, a poignant image of the loving mother he never had. Here, sitting in peaceful contemplation in his wheelchair, in the half light of the small church, he feels she is asking him to endure his suffering for sake of her son and for others. Instead of being a busy parish priest leading a church, he will becoming someone to whom many sick and hurting people come for spiritual prayer and counsel, though at great cost to himself. 

This is more or less how the book ends, though with a surprising postscript...

Sometimes people say that faith is for people who can't cope with real life, but there's enough 'real 'life' in the story of Philip Ilott for most of the rest of us. 

As well as his deep experiences of suffering and healing he seems to have been someone with a strong awareness of the paranormal, describing at least three occasions when he either saw objects moving by themselves, or had an intimate conversation with someone who had died. One time, in anguished prayer for his troubled teenage daughter, he 'sees' her as a new born baby floating down the aisle in church, helpless and needing his love. It is this which teaches him to value his family as much as his beloved ministry.

I loved the book the first time I read it, especially since living in Sussex around about the time the story draws to a close (1989) I could imagine some of the places where Father Philip found himself. Now I'm a minister too, I mine the story for ways of being which promote prayerfulness, facing reality and being aware that God still longs to pour healing into many situations and lives, whether healing of relationships, conversion, emotional healing, physical healing, or resilience in the face of continued suffering.

For we are complex beings, driven sometimes by forces from the past, or from spiritual realms of which we are unaware. And God desires our wholeness, our final 'conversion'.

The story of Father Philip Ilott is a powerful reminder that we often swim in some murky depths which only Christ can heal; that forgiveness and healing after even the most damaging of actions can be possible in Christ. 

The ongoing life of Christ in the sacraments, prayer, confession, spiritual gifts and bible study are the means by which the Spirit of God cleanses, heals, renews and sets us free; and the means by which we offer that freedom to one another.