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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Ministry for the Long Haul 2: Inhabiting the Stories of Ourselves

Yesterday I spoke about how we are constructed as ministers by the stories of our faith, our churches and the communities we are embedded in. I focused on how, after feeding the crowd, Jesus orders his disciples to “gather up the fragments so that nothing is lost” and linked this to the harvest festival of Sukkoth or Booths with its five themes of thankfulness to and dependence on God, living close to the earth, remembering where we come from and solidarity with the poor. I see these as five marks of ministry for the long haul in terms of both our collective and our personal stories.

Gathering the fragments is a task we all have to do for ourselves as well as one another. In post-modern speak, our human stories are put together through bricolage which is French for DIY – pottering around with bricks and mortar so as to make something that is beautiful or useful or both. I thought of that when we embarked on building the now legendary Lego Cathedral at Durham. It took 300,000 bricks. People were invited to pay £1 per brick. At one time we thought it would take longer to build than the real thing. It proved to be a marvellous tool for interpretation and outreach. Children and adults felt they were part of creating something special. For a long time all you could see was a footprint. Walls, arcades, piers, doors, windows began to reach up uncertainly like plants in early spring – painfully slowly it seemed. But after a while, the building began to take recognisable shape. It started to resemble the cathedral so many people loved and admired, even if it was only in outline, a ghost that would still need tens of thousands of bricks were still needed to complete it. Like the Romanesque cathedral itself, this building project required much time and patience, real commitment and perseverance.

Lego Cathedral was a great conversation-starter. We did real evangelism by helping guests articulate what they thought they were doing by helping to construct a building of faith. Each brick was itself an act of faith, of belief and hope in the finished work of art. But it was intriguing to hear a number of people talk about it as a metaphor, as if they were laying another brick on the edifice of their own life. And this does seem to me how our stories are built up over a lifetime. I spoke yesterday about being artists of our own lives, collaborating with God in shaping our stories, framing our lives. Brick by brick, you could say, event by event, encounter by encounter, experience by experience. The footprint may already be there laid out for us to glimpse – or it may not. But somehow, in the providence of God, it happens. And as we grow older and can look back, as I am now doing in retirement, we can see more of it for what it truly is, and – despite the mistakes, despite the false starts, despite so much to regret and repent of, still be thankful. As I said yesterday, eucharistia, thankfulness, does seem to me to be right at the heart of a good journey, be it a long haul or a short one.

There are some episodes in life that you know you’ll never forget because they seem to shift your way of seeing things in some decisive way. One of these happened just as we moved into the vicarage when I became an incumbent. At the age of 32, even I could see that I had a lot to learn, though it’s only now that I realise how much. My predecessor in the parish had died suddenly of a brain tumour in his mid-fifties. He had only been inducted six months earlier so it was a terrible shock to his family and to the parish. His widow was still in the vicarage when we arrived to look around. She spoke about John’s life and ministry, how happy they had been as a family, how much they were looking forward to getting to know the parish and serving there. I asked how she thought she would carry on in the coming weeks and months. She said: “the one thing John kept on preaching, and living out, was the importance of gratitude. If we can be thank-you people, he said, even in the darkest times life can begin again as something wholesome and beautiful and good. I’m now trying very hard to learn that lesson. Time will tell how well I learn it.”

That could come straight out of Thomas à Kempis. In his Imitation of Christ he says: “Be thankful for the least gift, so shall you be ready to receive greater. Let the least be to you even as the greatest, even the most contemptible gift as something of special value. If you consider the worth of the Giver, no gift will seem little, or of too mean esteem. For that cannot be little which is given by the Most High God.” Translating the Imitation for Penguin Classics was the last project my training incumbent undertook in old age. I think that without knowing it, he taught me good habits of reflection that foster a thankful attitude. He still is. I’ve just finished reading a biography of Edith Cavell, the English nurse (daughter of the vicarage) who was executed by the Germans in 1915 for helping allied prisoners escape occupied Belgium. She had the Imitation with her in prison and wrote in it on the night before her execution, as if to say: my life has been offered to God. To have done my duty is all I could have asked. I am thankful for that privilege. 

I believe this is one of the most important lessons life has been trying to teach me. Gratitude seems to me to have an absolutely vital role, if not in directing our stories (for so much is beyond our control), then at least in framing the way we tell them. I’ve found this to be essential to the long haul. Embedding my personal story in the big Christian story is a vital part of that, as I said yesterday: through sacrament and scripture and the life of the church, learning that eucharistia is the foundation of everything we are as the people of God. 

You would expect me to say that at the core of my career as a priest has been daily prayer and worship. Of course that is right: my priestly identity and story are very largely shaped by it. It’s a truism to say that a stipendiary minister is “paid to pray” but it’s an accurate perception all the same. I wasn’t schooled in it during training, so when I discovered this habitus in my first years as a priest, I found in it the church’s answer to my daily struggle to pray. I suppose I was an intuitive Benedictine who, long before I got to know the Rule of St Benedict, instinctively recognised in the office the celebration of the praise of God. For most of my ministry I’ve enjoyed the wonderful privilege of celebrating the divine office in incomparable surroundings and to beautiful music. In particular, the psalms of the day, sung or said, have been an irreplaceable source of strength in good times and bad. In the psalms you witness a community of faith living, praying, celebrating, praising, struggling, lamenting, trying to make sense of life as it is lived under God, asking just such questions about their story as we’ve been looking at. 

But as I look back, I’m clear that the rhythm of what Benedict calls the Opus Dei, the “work of God”, was formed not in cathedrals but in the parish. Here is where the shaping of each day by morning and evening prayer seemed to me to be adding brick by brick to the edifice. Each morning my colleagues and I would go across to church, ring the bell, and say the office with whoever turned up to join us. Next door to the church there was a sheltered housing complex. Elderly women would sit in their rooms looking out over the churchyard. Once I was in the town and someone came up to me to ask me if I’d been unwell. “No, why do you ask?” I replied. “O, my aunt said she hadn’t seen you going over to church for prayers the other day.” I reassured her and said I’d had a few days’ holiday. But it taught me about how public is the priest’s role, and how parishioners take a deep interest in the spiritual habits of the clergy. “Say one for me” isn’t always a jokey aside from those who know little and care less about God. I realised that daily prayer was a duty, not just a privilege. It was part of my job. I only glimpsed then what I know more clearly now, which is that these habit-forming spiritual disciplines are very much an aspect of the long haul. And duty can keep us going even when inclination or desire have given up.

But what the Imitation says is that even lesser gifts are of estimable value and call for gratitude. How do you compare the greater and the lesser? - a gift is a gift. And that is precisely Thomas’s point. If I’ve even begun to learn this, it’s been the hard way. I’m thinking of the gifts that have sustained me particularly during the dark phases of the journey, the arid stretches, the tears. The point about the so-called lesser gifts is that they are very specific. They are unique to each of us. I’m thinking of the people who love us and the intimate relationships that sustain us; the books we have read; the music we have enjoyed; the pursuits that bring us joy, the landscapes on God’s good earth that give renewal and lift our spirits. The longer the haul, the more important these gifts become.

I believe that attention to the details that give texture to our stories is more significant as a sustaining spiritual discipline than we often realise. I’m of the personality type that loves the big picture, the grand narrative, symbols, images, stories, poetry, metaphors, the imagination. I happen to think that this is the world Christian theology inhabits, so they are prized gifts in our proclamation and our life as ministers. Everything is bigger than it seems, more mysterious, more wonderful, more bursting with possibilities, more charged with the grandeur of God than what we can see and touch and handle. But the danger for us INFJs, type 4 on the enneagram, is that we sit loose to precisely those things, the ordinary stuff of life. Detail matters if we take Incarnation seriously, for Jesus was born as a specific human being at a specific time in a specific place. We need to notice it, pay attention to it. We need to feed our curiosity. When Dr Johnson said: “bury yourself in a dictionary and come up in the presence of God” he was on to something profound. 

In my long haul, I’ve found this to be more and more important. In the parish, as I said yesterday, I began to be absorbed by the specifics of the place in which I was a parish priest: the history and fabric of the church building, the town it had served for so many centuries, the physical and cultural environment of its locality, and beyond it, life in North East of England, one of this country’s most characterful and fascinating regions. This belongs to what I was saying yesterday about knowing the story of the place and understanding its grain. But I also found it to be enriching personally to peer beneath the surface, try to grasp what made it what it is. I felt I wanted to become more indigenised, inhabit this strange and beautiful place, become part of its story. I was oddly proud when my children quickly acquired Northumberland accents, started speaking in the patois of the school playground. When we moved south again, they just as swiftly shed the evidence of having been northern for a while but then there was another story to discover and become part of and that was good too. 

When later on I read George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda a paragraph leapt out at me. She says: “A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some spot of a native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of the earth, for the labours men go forth to, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that early home a familiar unmistakeable difference amidst the future widenings of knowledge: a spot where the definiteness of early memories may be inwrought with affection, and kindly acquaintance with all neighbours....may spread not by sentimental effort and reflection, but as a sweet habit of the blood.” It’s related to what I said at my farewell sermon about living close to the earth. I’m certain we can’t be effective ministers unless we cherish and love the places where we serve. I’m saying that for me, developing a sense of place, discovering, getting to know, belonging to that “spot of a native land” has been more significant as I look back than I realised at the time. Each place to which I have belonged has become part of who I am, like the soldier looking ahead to death in Rupert Brooke’s poem, “A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware, / Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam, / A body of England's, breathing English air, / Washed by the rivers, blest by the suns of home.” 

Let me go on to say something about human relationships and intimacy. Why do I speak about people only after I’ve spoken about place, you ask? For the simple reason that first among the gifts of place are the people who become central characters of our stories, either for a while or forever. My family, my close friends, colleagues past and present, teachers, mentors and guides, all belong to particular times and places in my story. And while we must live and love in the present, they all have the capacity to evoke the past. Kierkegaard said in words beloved of analysts and psychotherapists, “life must be lived forwards but understood backwards”. I think this is especially true of how through shared memory our relationships inform the way we look back and how we tell our personal stories. In these recent weeks following my mother’s death, I’m particularly aware of the importance of this. 

(Perhaps this is why I find the notion of virtual friendship through social media somewhat suspect. It lives in an eternal present that sits loose to time past and time future. It doesn’t seem to be rooted in the specifics of place and time in the way that enduring relationships do. Of course, the virtual can lead to the embodied, and embodied relationships can be and are expressed in the digital world, so I’m only asking a question about the Facebook language of “friendship” and what this can really mean if you have hundreds or thousands of them. As an avid Tweeter, I find the concept of “following” one another more honest to the flickering character of cyberspace; but I recognise that we are all learning to find our way around social media and in particular how to bring wisdom to bear on these fascinating but seductive worlds. For even if social media is “of the moment”, the eighteenth century spiritual writer de Caussade reminds us that the present moment is itself a sacrament where we should expect to encounter God. So the question is, how do we humanise, indeed divinise, the worlds we inhabit in cyberspace? How do we follow à Kempis and imitate Christ there? For another day, I think.) 

I have found the cultivation of intimacy as a basic need in the long haul. It has sustained me in ways that nothing else could. I’ve glimpsed the passion at the heart of God’s way of loving by being loved that way myself.  Especially has this been true at times when I have felt lonely or desperate, where I’ve messed up, where I’ve caused hurt or damage, where I’ve needed to be forgiven and reconciled – and sometimes, though less often, when I’ve needed to forgive. You don’t need me to elaborate on this point because it’s a basic part our flourishing as men and women. “It is not good for us to be alone” is a basic fact of human living. But it’s a central aspect of our priestly formation too. It’s not only a question of how our intimate relationships nurture and sustain us, how we are perhaps never closer to life as sheer gift than we are in the presence of people who truly love us. I believe it’s about living the reality of priesthood in the circles of intimacy we belong to and discovering that we have not lost hold of our capacity to be human. risks to our stability and integrity as ministers and as men and women. 

I have found that being in the role of a public representative of God’s grace and love can pose risks to my capacity for personal intimacy. As with anyone in a caring role, how we express care and compassion can become professionalised. We show love and care because it is our job to, R. S. Thomas’s “willed gentleness” that I mentioned yesterday. I don’t disparage that. We cannot be everyone’s intimate friend even if we sign off our parish letters “with love” or “your sincere friend and vicar”. But we can find ourselves to be seriously lonely even when at the core of elaborate networks of ministerial relationships. So I want to follow the hunch that it’s the richness of our personal intimate relationships that sustains warmth, humaneness and joy in the way we are with everyone else. During the long haul, intimacy has not only enriched me and held me personally, but has been crucial in enabling me to do what we are all invited to do as we collaborate with God in reaching out to his world: to inhabit and model being as fully human as I can be. It’s trying to be an exemplary disciple, or perhaps I mean human being, before the world, not only in virtue of public office but because of what we are in our deepest selves. I use that word crucial deliberately. It takes me back to the crux, the cross where we see self-giving love demonstrated in all its precariousness, fragility, vulnerability and infinite generosity. In this theological sense, passion is always an aspect of love. 

So what has sustained me personally over the long haul? As I’ve prepared this, I realise that I’ve fallen into unwitting alliteration in my answers: prayer, place, and people. And I only have to state in this way to see how obvious it all is. I am speaking to you as peers in ministry. My only possible qualification for standing here on these days is that I have been practising it a little longer than some of you. Let me conclude with a fourth ‘P’ that sums up some of what I’ve been trying to say. I am thinking of our capacity to stand back and take in our story, reflect on where we have come from and what it means. It’s the word perspective. 

The longer the haul, the larger your perspective – at least, if you bother to take in the view. In the early years of ministry, everything is in the foreground, inevitably: vivid, sharply focused. The beginnings of any new aspect of life ought to be like that: etched on our consciousness and engraved in the memory because they are so alive, so intensely lived. When there is ecstasy it is fierce and joyful; when there is agony it is desperate beyond words. With every privileged success you feel you could fly; with every mistake you wish the earth would swallow you up. It’s like William Blake looking into the sun and seeing angels of every hue in the universe, both dark and light. It’s true of the first stirrings of love and friendship; of faith coming to life; of the leap of insight as we grasp some truth or wisdom for the first time. And it’s true of being ordained. I can remember the first fine careless rapture as if it were yesterday. 

“If only it could last” said Augustine as he gazed out of the window in a rapturous moment with his mother Monica one day. But it’s a mercy that it doesn’t, I think. It’s not just a truth for photographers that while foregrounds matter a great deal, they are not the whole picture. With the years comes depth of field, to stay with the analogy of photography: things lie both in front of and beyond the plane where once we saw everything in just two dimensions. The long haul brings perspective, the capacity to see the landscape in a larger way, and as part of it, the path we ourselves have trodden in our journey thus far. The foreground isn’t everything. Someone once said, don’t trust foregrounds: they flash by so quickly when you are on the move. 

I’m thinking particularly of our experiences of disappointment or failure in ministry. For yes, there are tears in things. How have they not broken me over four decades? I spoke yesterday about being men and women who are ourselves formed by the mercy and grace that we hold out for others to discover. In one of his ordination addresses Michael Ramsey speaks about the need for grace to wash our motives, aspirations and ambitions in ministry as well as our words and actions. In the harvest feast of Succoth as we’ve seen, the Israelites were taught to learn the lessons of dependence on God, which is the other side of gratitude. 

I clearly recall what my bishop said to me in our personal interview on the night before I was ordained deacon. “Michael” he said, “you will make mistakes in the years that lie ahead. Many will be short-lived in their consequences; some may be serious. When you stumble or fall flat, there’s no point in wishing you hadn’t. Seek God’s mercy, get up if you can, dust yourself down and carry on. If you are seriously injured by your fall, make sure you find the help you need and take the time it takes to stand upright again and start walking.” I have recalled that advice gratefully times without number. But I would have added: in the early years of ministry, every mistake feels huge, possibly irrecoverable from. They squat there in the foreground, loud and ugly, mocking everything you hoped for, everything you pledged. It’s having travelled a certain distance that puts them in perspective. Mostly they are the result of simply being human. 

Let me remind you of what I said yesterday about the necessity of having spiritual guides, mentors, confessors who know us and can read us, who are there to hold up a mirror to ourselves and help us deal with the shame and the failure, the envy and the guilt, all that poses threats to our ministry and our humanity. They help us to make connections, see our narratives in new ways, and lend perspective. The decades undoubtedly bring the comfort of a longer view, the kind of wisdom that enables us better to see things as they are. There is something necessary and strangely reassuring about being in a role or a place long enough to have to live with your mistakes. Cultivating depth of field has had a stabilising effect on my journey through ministry. I think I am more trustful and less anxious than I was when I started out. The tears never go away as long as we truly care about what we are doing. But their effect, especially when penitence is involved, is to heal rather than to destroy. Is this why the desert fathers used to speak about “the gift of tears” as a kind of baptism?

What gives us this depth of field, this perspective? Is it just that we have travelled? I think it has to be more than mere distances clocked up on the milometer. It comes back to something I said earlier about “noticing”. The foregrounds we journey through inevitably leave their mark on us. They change us. We would not be what we are if we had not walked that particular way. “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference” says Robert Frost in his endlessly quoted poem but it is not any less wise for that. So the capacity to pay attention to the roads we travel, notice the landmarks, learn how to read the landscape, all these play a part in shaping the stories we tell about ourselves as our way of remembering where we have been and what we have been given. As reflective practitioners for whom this kind of attention is a life habit, we not only become emotionally and spiritually intelligent but are given degrees of insight that equip us to be good, wise guides and pastors of others.   

Let me go back to the idea of being artists of our own lives in collaboration with God our maker and redeemer. So much in our story was unforeseeable at the outset. I don’t so much mean the big narrative about the privileged lives we lead, being affluent by any standards, well educated, giving our lives to do something we love. Nor do I mean the greater wealth of loving and being loved by others, or knowing and loving God, though there is nothing inevitable about any of these things in an uncertain world. I mean the contingencies of life, how we find ourselves in this place rather than that, in this particular role carrying these particular responsibilities. The twists and turns of the journey can baffle us sometimes. We may wish that things had turned out otherwise. We may have discovered that what we thought we would be giving most of our time to in ministry has turned out to be very different. 

For example, I became a dean twenty years ago believing that my primary task was to be a spiritual leader working closely with the bishop, the head of a religious foundation and faith community called a cathedral. The reality was more like being the CEO of a medium-sized business. Looking back, I can see that dilemma foreshadowed in my incumbency when “running a parish” felt not altogether to be the same as reaching out to the community, caring for people in their need, proclaiming the gospel, pursuing social justice, and offering spiritual accompaniment to the faithful. I have had to make friends with an institution as well as undertake a mission and practise a way of life.

So the narrative of our journeys has had to incorporate a great deal of nimble footwork on the way. You could call it improvisation, not in the sense of an organist meandering across the keyboard while the collection is taken, but as jazz musicians know it, that essential ability to seize the moment and do something creative and beautiful with it within the setting of a musical line that has its own direction of travel. When you travel, you develop an instinct for good spontaneity, what will enhance and enrich the journey, when it is good to turn aside to eat, drink or sleep or follow your curiosity, or where there is a need to attend to, even if it was not planned in advance. I think of Moses turning aside to see the burning bush, and the Good Samaritan not passing by on the other side when a wounded man needed his help, and the risen Jesus accepting hospitality on the Emmaus Road when he was making as if to travel on. Sometimes to “turn aside” is for the moment only, and we soon find ourselves back on the road we had taken. Sometimes the change of direction is permanent: but for that fork in the track, we would by now be in another place entirely. I said that jazz has its direction of travel, but who ever knows precisely where this musical adventure will end up? And not only is the journey different from what we imagined, and the story we tell about it, but we are different too because of it. You never know what the long haul of ministry is going to entail. As John Henry Newman said, “to live is to change, and to live long is to have changed much”.

I wanted to end on this note of seeing in perspective, having depth of field. Where is the long haul taking us? The other night we watched a beautiful film called A Late Quartet. I had seen it before but it was on TV and I said to my wife that it was not to be missed. It’s about a string quartet one of whose players, the cellist, is diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. The fallout among his colleagues threatens to break up this group of musicians who have invested their entire lives in making music together. The piece they are working on is one of Beethoven’s late quartets, the Opus 131 in C sharp minor. The film explores how the music is a metaphor of the human relationships and vice versa. But it also showed me how, as the totally deaf composer comes to the end of his life, Beethoven is striving for a new depth, a new purity and simplicity, not composing to please the crowd but for the sake of achieving perfection in the art itself. You find this is true of the late works of so many of the greatest artists. While I was watching, I thought of you the Stepney clergy and what I might bring to you in this conference.

I think it’s this. Thomas à Kempis says in the Imitation: “Purity and simplicity are the two wings with which we soar above the earth and all that is temporary in nature.” By purity he means the virtue Jesus is speaking about in the Sermon on the Mount, “blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” That’s not just resisting temptation, keeping ourselves uncontaminated. I doubt if that’s it at all. It’s something altogether more profound and more demanding, to practise singleness of mind, heart and purpose so that we are intent only on one thing, which is to do the will of God. Simplicity means the same thing, being stripped of all extraneous distractions so that we are focused on God and what he desires for us and of us.  

So late in life, I am trying to learn this lesson. I am not very good at it, though having to downsize in retirement, shed a lot of things that once mattered, lay aside the roles that have defined me for so long and live like everyone else behind an ordinary untitled front door are important as outward signs of an inward development that I hope may be to grow old gracefully. The narrowing of our horizons in later life can help us focus on what we really need to see, what ultimately matters for all our living and dying. Purity and simplicity are two words that sum it up for me. And if I have a regret, it is that I didn’t cotton on to the importance of those words a lot earlier on in my life. If I had, they would have helped me to come to terms more realistically with the failures and disappointments, with the unexpected and not always welcome surprises that are part of what it means to be on the road. 

But although I have retired, there’s an important sense that the long haul is not over yet. Ministry goes on in new ways. Life goes on in new ways. There will be surprises, ordeals maybe that will test faith in ways that can’t be foreseen. But retirement is like every other stage of the journey: filled with the promise and hope that whatever it brings, God will be there, even in the shadows. There is still time to learn, try to be a better disciple and a better person, aspire to a greater simplicity and purity of heart, a wiser, more generous way of being human and being Christian. What St Luke says of the youthful Jesus should be true at every stage of life, that we grow “in wisdom and stature and in the favour of the Lord and of human beings.” Matthew Arnold has a poem where he pictures life as a river flowing from the mountains to the ocean. He says that we are fortunate when there comes a moment of insight about what it was all for. “And then he thinks he knows / The hills where his life rose / And the sea where it goes.” The imitation of Christ is the clue, to attain to our full humanity which is “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” – this is the long haul as it reaches its God-given destination. 

September 2016

1 comment:

  1. Michael: thank you so much for sharing these talks, 'Ministry for the Long Haul' - real insight and much wisdom.
    However the question that keeps coming back and please prove me wrong is that there is still a perception of one priest, one parish and one church building ie the ability of the ladies in the nursing home to notice your absence, the ability to write the church booklet etc.
    My wife is the parish priest of five rural parishes each of them different and each wanting their 'pound of flesh' and one person can't be in five places all at the same time and sadly the model we (honestly) do find ourselves in with the need to produce mission action plans, the collection of huge amounts of parish share is that if this isn't carried achieved then it looks like failure by 'those' looking in and setting the task.
    In so many ways the church at a local is extraordinarily liberal with its love and welcome but deeply conservative with its needs of the clergy but I fear at a great cost.
    Thank you, Simon.