Saturday, 18 June 2016

The voice of silence

Green Bell, above Eden Valley.

1 Kings 19:11-12
He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.

The spiritual journey downwards reveals God’s surprising word to us.

Let us go on a journey with Elijah the prophet.
It’s a journey every human being will need to make at some point or other.
It’s a journey that writer Richard Rohr calls ‘falling upward’, and it’s far from easy.
It’s a journey without geography, except the geography of the human soul, and it’s the most important journey we’ll ever make.

I don’t know if you’ve ever done something really heroic, and felt justifiably proud, only to come crashing down the other side?
On July 6 2005, Britain was riding high having just won the Olympic bid for London 2012 against stiff competition from Paris.
The great and glorious news was announced – Britain had won the Olympic bid.
Elated scenes in Trafalgar Square!
Cue cheering, screaming, hugging, jumping up and down.
Union Jack umbrellas, balloons and streamers.
Prime Minister Tony Blair, called it a ‘momentous day for Britain’.
We all felt wonderful; we felt proud; we felt elated.
Less than 24 hours later, London was plunged into terror and grief as we reeled from fatal attacks on the London Underground and bus that killed 52 innocent people.
A lot can happen in a day.

Elijah had reached perhaps the pinnacle of his spiritual achievements.
He had stood up to the threat from wicked King Ahab and his evil wife, Jezebel; he had proved with miraculous power even over weather, that the LORD was God, and not Ba’al.
He had been a faithful leader to Israel and zealous for Israel’s God.
But all it takes is 24 hours, a scary threat from Jezebel, and Elijah is on the journey down.
The great prophet of God, the confident man of faith turns on his heel and runs away.
‘He got up and fled for his life and came to Beer-sheba, and left his servant there (…) and went a day’s journey into the wilderness and sat down under a solitary broom tree.’
From hero to zero in three easy steps.
What has happened to Elijah the great prophet, the man full of righteous anger, the mighty instrument of God’s judgment?
He’s just discovered he’s human after all.
It seems to be our lot in life to have a trough after a peak.
To suffer gloom and boredom after joyful achievement.
Remember the disciples at the Transfiguration?
Coming off the mountaintop with the vision of Jesus fresh in our hearts, to the messy humanity at the bottom of the mountain– a child no one can heal?
Coming off the mountaintop always carries a strong health warning.
Bear Grylls, explorer and survival expert extraordinaire writes movingly of climbers he has known who have not survived Everest - the thing to note is that they nearly all died on the way down.
They conquered the summit, but lost it on the descent.
The descent in life is always a tough one.
The descent into mediocrity, the descent into losing capacity…

Elijah’s descent begins in fear and continues as he runs away from Mt. Carmel, scene of his spiritual triumph over the prophets of Ba’al, scene of his wonderful God-filled moment of victory.
After running, he is tired; he despairs and he falls asleep under a tree.
He is alone, he is depressed and he is exhausted.
Having experienced a spiritual peak on Mt Carmel, he is now on the way down, miles form everything familiar and in unchartered territory spiritually.
But unchartered territory spiritually is the best territory to be in for growth.
Perhaps even here we are learning (depending on how mature we are) that it is at our lowest, that God can be nearest.

Mercifully God knows we have also physical needs when we’re at our lowest ebb.
After sleeping, Elijah is refreshed by food that miraculously appears, twice, and an angel encourages him to eat his fill before continuing the journey to Mt. Horeb.
The angel doesn’t ask why he is going there (though well he might, and we might) – just that he eat enough for the arduous 40-day journey.
A 40-day journey from one mountain to another.
I expect human beings always discover something about themselves in the mountains.
40 is a biblical number for completeness – it’s as if Elijah is destined to wander in order to discover himself, as did the Israelites in the desert for 40 years.
This is Elijah on the way down.

For the first half of our lives we like to think we’re on the way up - upwardly mobile – acquiring qualifications, work experience, relationships, children, a house, etc.
There’s nothing wrong with these things; they’re markers of identity.
But eventually we have to ask ourselves who are we, on the inside.
This is the turning point of the journey of life, because if done truthfully, it requires us to be divested of our pretensions to status, pride and subtle one-up-man-ship.
Alain De Boton writes of ‘status anxiety’ and most of us suffer from it – even in the church.
We wonder who is more spiritual, more knowledgeable, more popular.
Who has the perfect family life, the better lifestyle, the longer lasting relationships.
Those of us with kids compare them to other people’s and either feel smug or panicked.
It would be better if we could accept ourselves with contentment.
The other side of status anxiety is pride.
If you’ve ever started to imagine yourself as more than you are; and then been brought up short, you’ll understand what taking a tumble feels like, pride-wise.
It feels like Elijah feels.
Elijah doesn’t know why he’s in a cave miles from anywhere and everyone.
He can’t even answer the question, ‘what are you doing here Elijah?’
A question God puts to him twice.
A question we could perhaps interpret as ‘what are you, here in this desert, Elijah?
This is the crux of falling upwards: we grow by having our false pretences stripped away.
As a once great prophet full of courage and purpose and spiritual power, Elijah doesn’t look much now.
An old man hiding in a cave, unable to answer the most basic question about himself.
Who are you?
What are you doing with your life?
It’s a question God asks us from time to time.
Who are you?
What are you doing with your life?

This is where the story gets mysterious.
This is where God appears in a surprise.
This is the famous part of the story, so you know it well.
Here at this moment of crisis for Elijah, God is about to pass by.
Here comes the great wind – splitting rocks, more powerful than anything you’ve ever imagined, a raging, hissing, destructive, terrible force of nature.
But God was not in the wind.
Here comes the earthquake – a hissing, boiling, splitting, shifting landslide of terror and awe.
But God was not in the earthquake.
And then the fire – roaring, consuming, raging, full of heat and light and acrid smoke.
But God was not in the fire.
Although God is often described like a fire, or like thunder, or like a rushing wind of Pentecost, it is God’s prerogative to be where God will be.
He does not dance to our tune.
He is the God of surprises.
We can’t assume we have God taped.
We can’t assume he does things the way we would.
How will God surprise you today?
Elijah’s surprise is what happens after the noise, after the rumpus, after the adrenalin fuelled activity and excitement.
Because surprisingly, God is in the ‘after whisper’.
God is in ‘the still small voice’; ‘the voice of silence’; ‘the voice of a thin, fine silence’; ‘the voice of fragile silence’ (however you translate it)*

In a week of violence and tragedy, with the Orlando gay club shootings and the violent death of a Leeds MP going about her daily constituency duties, the voice of silence is eloquent.

There are sometimes no words.
We do well to stop, to attend to how we conduct ourselves in public and in private; what violence we have in our own hearts, what prejudices we unknowingly harbour towards those who are very different from us.
Who vote differently, who love differently.
We do well to be silent in the face of our own manipulation of others with language, to get them to do what we want, or to endlessly justify ourselves.
We do well to listen again to the still small voice of God.
The smallness of the voice masks its power to speak the word of loving correction, to raise us up and set us on our feet again.
Or the voice can be a question.
What are you doing here?
After your job, or that role is no longer yours, after your charity work is done, after your parenting, your project, your directorships, at the end of everything, what are you?
What is your name?
(My name is Legion, for we are many).

In the silence, in the whisper of something utterly true about himself, Elijah meets God afresh.
In our quiet places of prayer, alone or together, God speaks something special and unique to each of us also, here and now.
Elijah’s journey was downwards, to littleness.
Ours is too.
Only after that journey did God re-instate him, with a fresh direction and fresh instructions.
He shows him his successor – always a sobering moment for anyone.
Elisha will be even more full of the Spirit than Elijah.
But we mustn’t compare.

The downwards journey to littleness is one all of us will make; some sooner than others.
It is of course the ultimate journey made by Jesus, in his Incarnation and eventual self giving on the cross.
As we leave Elijah at Mt Horeb, humbled and surprised, about to re-engage with the next phase of his life, we can ask for grace to look beyond the chatter, the contests, the spin, the prejudice, the comment, and to make room for the surprising, the very personal, the very quiet, the very life changing, word of God.


(very helpful website re. translation of ‘still small voice’)

Saturday, 11 June 2016

The Care Crisis

To care or not to care: that is the question.

Except it's never a question of not to, when it comes to pastoral ministry.

I suspect that if you asked most people what they expect from their parish priest, if they expected anything, it would be an expectation of good pastoral care.

But what is good pastoral care?

In fact, what is care, when it's boiled down to its essential nature?

The etymology of care seems to originate from the Old Saxon kara, or sorrow; also the Old High German chara, or lament. Which is interesting. It suggests that before you give care, you feel it. It suggests it comes from within.

I've been thinking about care recently, and what sometimes feels like a care crisis in society.

Nearly every week I hear stories of care being stretched to its limit - whether from unpaid carers who feel undervalued and who themselves are in great need of care, or from overstretched establishments where there are a shortage of carers, resulting in distress for elderly or infirm residents. The shortage of carers might be blamed on poor pay, expensive local housing or a host of other factors. One might even begin to fear that as a society, we don't care for our carers.

There has recently been discussion instigated by care workers who visit elderly and infirm people in their own homes, but who are not paid for their travel time. In a landmark case, a care worker successfully sued her employer by claiming that this meant she was being paid for only seven hours work when she was effectively doing twelve. 

Twelve hours a day, driving from house to house, attending to vulnerable people who sometimes see no one else all day, giving care, empathising, listening, but always keeping one eye on the clock, because there's another drive ahead, and someone else waiting... and then another drive and someone else, and someone else, and someone else. 

Can you imagine doing this for twelve hours a day?

I was visiting a parishioner once when a care worker called in. And out. She looked hassled and wasn't able to give the elderly gentleman the main thing he needed: time to be properly noticed by another person. I'm sure she was a person who understood care, but she was working in a system designed to deliver anything but, whilst becoming increasingly in need of care herself as a result of that system. It never ceases to depress me that the most vital jobs, and the ones which mark out a caring society from an uncaring one, are the ones which are underfunded and undervalued. With an ageing population, we can ill afford to get care wrong.

Parish priests sometimes find themselves visiting a parishioner in hospital. I remember my first. Dog collar in place and pacing the corridors trying to locate my person, I rounded a corner and spotted a junior doctor whom I knew, the son of a friend. Whether it was because I knew his story, or because I was for the first time in hospital in a different capacity (as priest, not patient) I suddenly saw what I'd never seen before - the cost of care. I don't mean the billions the NHS spends every year, though that is significant, but the human cost, to those who give it, hour on hour, day on day, week on week, month on month, year on year. 

The Junior Doctor was young, clever, focussed; but he looked tired. I realised then, because I was suddenly in the business of care, that care giving is so much more than doing clinical tasks. Real care giving suggests something that patients in hospital already know - that we are beings with deep spiritual needs, and we need to be reassured, encouraged, and shown compassion. And that takes energy and love. Rightly, the NHS tacitly acknowledges this deeper need in their own definition of care 

Which brings us to pastoral care. I'm beginning to dislike the phrase. Interestingly it appears nowhere in the Church of England Ordinal, which is a helpful corrective. It seems to be something coined, perhaps by the Church, out of the increasing need for priests to act with professionalism and to be seen to be doing so. And, dare I say it, to be seen by everyone else to be doing at least something worthwhile (let's be honest, most people don't understand the need for church services, or why we do God stuff).

So what are we doing when we do pastoral care? What does it feel like to give effective pastoral care? Is it even an appropriate phrase? And what are the costs? 

I imagine this: a spiritually aware Jesus, standing in a practically stampeding throng of people, stopped suddenly on his way to heal the daughter of the Synagogue leader in Luke 8:40-48. As he stands there, people pressing in on every side, an important job to do somewhere else, something happens that delays him. And he allows himself to be delayed. He notices what has happened only inwardly though. 

Unbeknown to him, a woman has deliberately reached out to touch his cloak and has been immediately healed of a long term hemorrhage. Jesus stops and says 'who touched me?' An idiotic question to the disciples. Clearly everyone is touching everyone - they're in a dense crowd of jostling people. But Jesus persists: 'Someone touched me, for I noticed that power had gone out from me'.

This is spiritual care. It feels as though something's gone out from you. Anyone who has cared for a dying person, or someone who's ill, difficult, grieving, or in any kind of need, will recognise it. It means that any kind of caring ministry, including pastoral ministry (which is mostly everything we do as priests) will need you constantly to refuel. It explains a little comment made to me by a much more experienced priest, some while back: 'no one will understand how tired you can get as a minister'.

Caring. Empathising with others who care. Wringing your hands over demoralising and underfunded systems of care. Being interrupted. Noticing things you'd rather not notice. Noticing people you'd rather not notice. Being aware of your internal energy levels. Refuelling. Caring for self. 

To care or not to care: that is a complex question.