Friday, 29 May 2015

Nourishing the heart

Possibly the best visual aid ever: what things freeze your heart, and what things unfreeze it?
On a recent retreat, I had the chance to reflect on the nature of the heart as the bible conceives of it. There are over 900 references to the heart in Scripture; it is portrayed as the emotional, spiritual and personal control centre of a person, their very inner being; and the nourishing of the heart, or guarding of it, is of primary importance.

A good place to start is Proverbs 4:23: 'Guard your heart for it is the wellspring of life'. The injunction to guard your heart, implies that there are things which invade it, or to imagine it differently, things which freeze it.

Our retreat speakers* came up with possibly the best visual aid I'd ever seen - a frozen cloth heart suspended from the ceiling in an enormous block of ice, which melted throughout the 5 days, so it wasn't difficult to imagine the spiritual heart freezing and thawing, and to let that visual image ask what things tend to cause freezing and thawing to happen in our lives.

As a minister it was playing on my mind that there's nothing worse than a Christian leader with a frozen (or freezing) heart, and it often seems that it's various things to do with the institution of the church which contribute to that freezing, or at least cooling. Over-work, endless bureaucracy, a career that's plateaued, lack of personal renewal, imbibing the widely documented societal loss of confidence in institutions - it can all get you down. People watch public ministers, and people are not fooled. After a while they're going to see through yet another bright, happy, coping face. And a shrivelled heart is not reflective of the beating, passionate, life-filled heart of God for the world.

Another depressing cooler of the heart is the narrative of scarcity we tell ourselves in the Church: not enough money, not enough people. Even the discussions at national level about reform and renewal in the Church of England (see below)

are a response to perceived loss of direction, a kind of panic about perceived spiritual austerity. But as Rowan Williams has written, 'the church is always renewed from the edges, not from the centre. There is a limit to what the institutional church an do: institutions have their own dynamic and their own problems, and renewal tends not to come form central planning' (Silence and Honey Cakes, p. 109).

One of the ways Christianity diverges from contemporary culture is perhaps in the realm of the heart. 'Follow your heart' is a common theme, on reality shows and stories of human endeavour. As far as this means 'do what is uniquely you', it seems like a good mantra. But Scripture also suggests that the heart is sometimes deceived: 'the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure', is how Jeremiah 17:9 puts it. How do we know when this is happening, when the heart might, if not be exactly in the deep freeze, have developed some ice along the way, especially when we're immersed so fully in the things that freeze the heart that we can't really see outside the box (or ice cube).

Last bit of ice still clinging to the thawing heart.

One way we suspect our hardness of heart is in the leakage from behind our masks. We all know the learnt, 'civilised' ways to mask our true feelings, especially when to let them out would be to show ourselves as petty minded, envious or spitting with anger. But an unguarded moment can reveal the murky depths. One way Richard Rohr puts it is that 'invariably when something upsets you, and you have a strong emotional reaction out of proportion to the moment, your shadow self has just been exposed. So watch for any overreactions or overdenials' (Falling Upward, p. 133). So we need honesty in matters of the heart. And we need to nourish the heart.

The most compelling Christians are those who keep their hearts tender, who are childlike, not childish, who have the capacity to fully attend to others because they don't need to use others to sort out all their own unresolved issues. We are all wounded in some ways, through things that happened in the past, sometimes beyond conscious memory. We harbour unforgiveness, superiority and inferiority complexes, resentment, envy. We can try and hide it, but the bad root always produces bad fruit. And sanctification (growing in holiness) is nothing if not dealing with the inner heart. In fact, religious observance without the nourishment, guarding, unfreezing and warming of the heart, is likely to produce at best, ineffectual witness, or at worst, deeply unattractive witness to Christ.

Imagine if, instead of getting a whole load of new reports on how to grow the Church of England, we Christians instead took pains to guard/unfreeze/nourish our hearts. What kinds of healing would go on? What kind of joyful, free and wholesome people would be released into the world to be naturally supernatural and to point the way to the warming up of a multitude of frozen hearts....? That sounds like a good way to grow the church, and much cheaper. 

*Thanks to Phil Stone, Warden, Scargill House and David Rowe, Warden, Lee Abbey.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Swimming against the blue tide

I don't think I've ever woken up to a Britain that felt so changed as I did the morning after the results had come in for the 2015 General Election. I went to bed with thoughts of equal red/blue and a generous dollop of orange (and hopefully some refreshing swathes of green) and woke up to a country of two halves - blue and yellow. It was an even bigger shock because the opinion polls had the Tories and Labour running neck and neck, so I had been imagining how parties would have to come together in alliances - even speculating that this was going to be the way of UK politics from now on, and a good middle way it seemed, to me at least.

I suppose it shows how unpredictable politics can be. When party politics was just blue or red, things seemed a lot simpler. It seems ironic that an election campaign which saw more parties represented in front of live audience sessions than ever before, should have paved the way for a political landscape which is more one sided than ever - both south and north of the English/Scottish border. And more oppositional. One can only imagine how it will be for David Cameron, whose party wants to press ahead with more austerity measures, to face Scottish Nationalist MPs across the bench, since their main aim is to oppose austerity. One might almost feel a tiny shred of sympathy for him. Almost. 

Waking up to a blue and yellow "United" Kingdom, I felt I was sinking into a pit of gloom all day, and am still struggling. This is to do with many things - the fact so many people now need food banks, the gap between rich and poor, the nagging feeling the NHS isn't safe, etc. etc. 

More pressingly, however, I'm gloomy about the following nightmare scenario: David Cameron's 2017 referendum on Europe is fuelled by a UKIP surge (after Nigel's short holiday) and a majority are persuaded our best interests lie outside Europe. This further worsens our relationship with Scotland as they want to stay in Europe, leading to overwhelming pressure for another independence referendum. This time Scotland votes YES. The morning after, I wake up, not even to blue and yellow, but to a blue with an increasingly purple tinge. I am no longer an EU citizen, or even a citizen of the United Kingdom, but a little Englander instead. My passport will be doubly illegitimate. 

Prof. Linda Woodhead has carried out research that suggests Anglican clergy consistently find themselves positioned to the left of their congregations politically:

She argues that England as a whole is now generally slightly right of centre, with Anglicans even more to the right politically. However, 'official church teaching is positioned much further to the left of both the population, and even more so, Anglicans.' I'm not sure what teaching she refers to, but she may have a point. Someone has quipped that Anglicans are 'Telegraph readers led by Guardian readers'. Why is this?

The calling to 'seek and to save the lost', is hard wired into clergy, so that any political party which appears to favour the wealthy over the poorest in society is going to be regarded with suspicion. Ideologically I find it much harder to map the Conservative vision onto a Christian vision, than I do a socialist vision. The liturgy of Ordination for new priests enjoins them to 'resist evil, support the weak and defend the poor'. After a while, it changes the way you see society. Of course, there are many ways of being lost, and lostness can equally apply to those with wealth who are spiritually poor and whose hearts are closed to those in genuine need, those who are unemployed through illness or disability; or who are working and still unable to live at any standard even remotely approaching comfortable. And you do see need when you're a minister. It sniffs you out.

As fortune, or the Lectionary, would have it, that gloomy Friday morning, 8 May, was the feast of Mother Julian of Norwich, whose most famous quotable quote was 'All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well'. So I tried to take consolation from that. It's just that, as one of our typically slightly less than right wing church leaders tweeted: 'all manner of things may not be quite as well as some of us had hoped'.