The Helpfulness of Mindfulness – By Guest Blogger Sheila Bridge

SB BlogI’ve been exploring the whole idea of ‘mindfulness’ in more depth recently. There have been two books that have helped me with this Mindfulness and Christian Spirituality by Tim Stead, who is an Anglican priest and Finding Peace in a Frantic World by Williams and Penman. This last one is described as a “life changing bestseller” and that is certainly written by well-qualified people who are leaders in this field and based on a lot of creditable scientific research. 

But as I am a fan of another, rather more ancient,”life changing bestseller” (the Bible) I am interested to know what one might have to say about the other.  Is mindfulness a helpful approach to life for someone who already has a faith perspective. Do the two things complement one another helpfully or contradict one another?

So this post is not about what mindfulness is – it’s a reflection on whether mindfulness is a good and useful practice.

I have heard mindfulness described as’spirituality for the nonbeliever’and I do think there’s an element of truth in that. So my question therefore is, is mindfulness a helpful practice for those of us who are believers? How does it intersect with the faith view of the world we already hold? What does it have to do prayer?

Is mindfulness a helpful practice? And is it helpful for those of us who are believers?

My answer is a resounding YES, followed by a very small ‘but’.

Yes, absolutely, it is a good practise to learn. It is very definitely a practise of self-discipline for the mind. Just like a healthy eating regime is good for your body so mindfulness is an exercise regime for your mind. If you have a mind that jumps around like a monkey in a cage, firing off distress signals regularly causing you to become very anxious then mindfulness and its associated regime of meditation will undoubtedly help. It will help you lower your stress levels, it will silence the monkey it will allow you to be less driven by your anxiety. Keep practising it over time and you will become more aware of the negative self-destructive thoughts that lead you to spiralling downwards into an emotional state where eventually everything seems dark and impossible. Even if you are not an individual who is prone to anxiety, mindfulness will increase your creativity, make you far more aware of simple everyday pleasures and hugely increase the sense that you are actually living your life not just watching it go past you. Those are all very big claims – I do totally recommend it, I am practising it myself, so why the very small caveat (the ‘but’ behind my YES)?

My biggest concern might not sound valid:  It will ‘work’, it has many, many very tangible benefits. My concern is that it will work so well that you might miss, dismiss or generally never get round to the spirituality for which it creates space. You might decide that spirituality is not what you are looking for in which case you will still get huge benefit from learning about mindfulness and practising meditation.

Naturally my personal feeling is that that would be a shame because mindfulness is not the whole story.  It also makes one assumption which I believe to be faulty: it assumes that once you’ve sorted out your wonky thoughts and compassionately accepted your negative emotions, once you have trained your mind then you will be able to be in touch with the ‘essentially happy and content person you really are at your core’.

You will be much happier and more content than you are now but there may not be a ‘happy and content person at your core’?

What if at the core of your being there is only a person who can’t find any peace because of something they feel guilty about or because of a sense of deep shame? Or what if, at the centre of  you, you find an essentially lonely person who is very afraid and easily made to be anxious about everything? Or what if there is a person who is so chewed by anger about what life has thrown at them they can’t find anything about which to be ‘content’? And, even if the person you find at the core of your being is none of those things, even if the person at your core could be described as ‘essentially happy and content’ it still leaves that person all alone at the centre of you, which is a bit lonely.

How does it intersect with the faith view of the world we already hold?

What Christianity teaches is that we were not made to be alone, we were made to find our deepest sense of joy and connectedness when we connect to the God who created us and loves us.

Shelia blog heartYes I know it’s a corny diagram but it’s simply meant to express that life is best when I live it with an awareness of the one who gave it to me and who promises to walk through this experience called ‘life’ with me. God did not create humans so that we could be alone: the big G plus me (and you) was always the intention.

Faith in God inputs spirituality into a practice of mindfulness which is otherwise only physical (being still, becoming aware of your body and your breathing) and mental (learning to acknowledge the thoughts and feelings we have, learning that we can cut them down to size, that they do not have to control us).

Without a spiritual aspect to mindfulness we are still left alone in the universe-and if we are alone in the universe then there is no meaning to our lives. If we are alone in the universe then there is nothing beyond death. If we are alone in the universe, then we have no external objective source of truth. We have no-one to say over us “you are my beloved child with you I am well pleased”.

With only ourselves to tell ourselves that we are loved (or if we are lucky, a significant other to affirm this to us) then we are left propping up our sense of self-worth, security and significance by repeating a self validating mantra along the lines of “I am beloved”, “I am precious”, “I am valuable” and these things are true but you have to say that stuff pretty loudly if you want to avoid the inner critical voice saying “says who?”.

Plenty of humanists will tell you that you do not need an external source of validation to ascribe value to yourself but if we take away the word ‘validation’ and ‘value’, which sound a bit dry and psychological and simply use the word ‘love’ then it becomes pretty obvious that love is something you receive from an ‘other’. In fact love is incomprehensible without there being an ‘other’. So if there is no ‘other’ in the universe then we are at best simply applying positive thinking and worst deluding ourselves.

Christianity offers us ‘The Great Exchange’: we offer to God our week and flawed selves, accepting that we are guilty (mostly of being unloving or self protective) angry and anxious. When we offer this self to God we are given back acceptance, forgiveness and an everlasting commitment to be our companion through life and beyond death.

Now that’s an incredible exchange which is why it would be a great shame if you missed it. Some Christians might reject mindfulness because it stops short of making this connection with God.  And the truth is (as I’ve already said) that you might be SO amazed by the potency of mindfulness to change you that it will be tempting to think that it leaves no place or need for God/faith or spirituality and that would be a great shame because then you would be missing out on that connection which was always intended to be yours. (Big G plus you).

Mindfulness will create more space for God in your life. It will open a door and it is your choice whether or not to go through it. I do not think it will ‘open a door’ in any negative sense as in opening you up to harmful influences in the spiritual world (as a certain strand of Christians might fear although I suppose that depends on what you make the focus of your meditation), the main risk is that it simply opens a door to greater self-reliance which will take you away from God but it is equally likely to create a greater desire for God in your life.  It’s a tool or a process, it all depends how you use it.

It will help you create a calmer mind and yes,  I do believe that that what you most need is NOT simply a calmer mind, what you most need is to be connected to the divine presence that God offers you, but having a calmer mind maybe be a most useful way to create space for that connection.

We do not reject a diet because it doesn’t promise you peace of mind; a diet isn’t meant to do that, it’s meant to achieve weight loss. So why reject a helpful practice on the basis that it doesn’t necessarily offer you spirituality? It puts you in a place where you are more likely to become aware of God and that’s a good thing.

What does it have to do prayer?

If mindfulness offers you an open door to spirituality then this is where prayer comes in.

I’ve tried out a number of mindfulness apps and so far I prefer Headspace as the meditations are straightforwardly about physically and mentally slowing down i.e. they are about body and mind and don’t become “spiritual” in a way that feels weird to me. I also like the guy’s voice – a warm friendly British accent, I don’t know who he is but there is nothing jarring about the way he speaks.

Some of the guided meditations on the Calm app which aim to generate a laudable sense of compassion or kindness both to yourself and other people feel so much like praying that quite frankly I’d rather be praying! I accept that it possible to generate this quality of compassion towards others without bringing a divine being into it but it just feels odd to me. Mind you, I’ve only listened to the free meditations on these two apps so I have no idea what the material is like if you pay a subscription. In Calm’s defence – it’s great if you like background sounds such as running water and birdsong – for anyone with tinnitus, this can be a very soothing alternative to the ringing in their ears.

Tim Stead’s book says that Mindfulness “makes space for God’.

“Whatever I am doing and however well or badly my life is going, someone (God, no less!) Knows I am here and is aware of my every move and every though; someone who is not being carried away by my experiences I am, often losing perspective completely, but someone who is in a position to be able to watch my experience as it flows past, seeing it all in the perspective of eternity. Even if I lose perspective, I know it exists because God is in that place where perspective can be seen. When I’m aware of being held in this sort of gaze I feel totally loved”

(Mindfulness and Spirituality p.46)

When we practise meditation with the conscious awareness of being in God’s presence what we are doing is creating a less cluttered mind and in doing so we are making it easier to hear or sense the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Even if we don’t have any obvious ‘God thoughts’ or words or pictures, even if we are not trying at all to do anything other than be still we can trust that God is at work within us in a way that is transformative.

I begin my prayer times with a period of silence using an app known as ‘Centering Prayer’ . It’s free to download and simply provides a timer, some sounds to begin and end the silence and prayer, a scripture or a quotation at the beginning and the end which help put your act of meditation consciously in the presence of God.

Even only a few moments of silent focusing on our breathing can make as much calmer when we come to pray. After my silence it feels very natural to flow into saying the Lord’s prayer very slowly and thoughtfully, using it as a structure to pray for all those things or people that I want to place in God’s hands. I almost always do this out loud and sometimes I will do with actions as using your body to express what you mean with your heart can be incredibly powerful.

After these two practices, I then turn to reading my Bible and I find I’m in a much better state to hear from it what God might be saying to me. Roughly I spend about 10 minutes on the three different disciplines. But if you can only find 10 minutes, you might still find you get more out of 3 or 4 minutes praying and 3 or 4 minutes reading if you have spent 2 to 3 minutes in silence first of all.

I’ll close with one of my favourite quotations which crops up on the Centering Prayer App which considers how very powerful this discipline can be:

“the contemplative journey [there are huge overlaps between contemplative prayer and meditation] is the most responsible of all responses to God because so much depends on it- the future of humanity, the healing of the wounds of humanity, our own deepest healing. It’s not just a method of meditation or a practice to find personal peace. It’s basically a total acceptance of the human condition in all its ramifications, including its desperate wounded nurse… Humans are fully capable of becoming God, not in the fullest sense of the term, but in a very real way, where the light, life, and love of God are pouring through them, channelling a source of healing, compassion, and reconciliation wherever they go and whatever they do.They are rooted in the divine compassion and mercy, and are manifesting… The pure light of the image and likeness of God within them, which is the assimilation of the mind and heart of Christ in everyday life”

Thomas Keating Heartfulness: transformation in Christ

 

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Intentionally Vulnerable – by Richard Cooke

A talk for the Bishop’s Safeguarding Training Day 2017.

Vulnerability is defined as ‘susceptibility to emotional and physical injury; susceptibility to attack and/or subject to harm’.[1] As a word it comes from the Latin, vulnus, a wound, vulnero, to wound. To be vulnerable is to be capable of being wounded.

Most of what we focus on today is unintentional vulnerability: those who are, for whatever reason, susceptible to being wounded because of circumstance or situation. Most of the time, if we are vulnerable it is not because we want to be. To be vulnerable is not something we normally aspire to; after all, our society prizes strength, health, beauty, wealth and success. And often the church unconsciously takes on those aspirations. As a body we seek the same things.

Please don’t mistake what I’m saying here: this isn’t a coded attack on diocesan strategy, or the Church of England’s current Renewal and Reform programme! But I was struck a couple of years ago, hearing Sam Wells, who’s now vicar of St Martin’s in the Fields in Trafalgar Square, say that he had spent the last few years of his ministry in America, where he’d been part of a church that was rich, full, respected and influential. Yet he hadn’t felt it was more the church than we are on this side of the Atlantic. Wealth, numbers, respect, power and a privileged place in society do not automatically add up to holiness. Because part of the calling of the church is to be intentionally vulnerable. In his letters to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul engages in a constant dialectic between the strong and the weak, the invulnerable and the vulnerable:

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one* might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in* the Lord.’ (1 Cor 1.27-31).

Later in the letter he goes on to stress, in the famous passage about the body in chapter 12

there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it. (1 Cor 12.20b-26)

The weaker and less honourable or respectable – the vulnerable – parts of the human body are indispensable, says Paul here, presumably thinking of reproductive and nurturing organs, and we protect them and value them.

He doesn’t say why, but there seems to be a straight line between Paul’s concept of the Christian body and the Old Testament laws that relate to the community of Israel, where widows, orphans and strangers are prized and protected and the role of kings is to open their mouth for the dumb, and to defend the rights of the poor and needy (Prov. 31.8-9 – the verses are for King Lemuel, advice that his mother gave him, and this is perhaps not coincidentally the only Old Testament passage that indisputably comes from a female perspective). There is no utilitarian reason for this – if Israel had been strong, healthy and rich she would surely have been far more effective. Yet where are the mighty and strong empires of the ancient world now? There was something in the calling of Israel to reflect her God that embraced vulnerability intentionally. Not out of force of circumstance or situation, but willingly.

Sometimes there are moments when you might put yourself in harm’s way, make yourself vulnerable for the sake of others. At the Grenfell Tower fire, the Fire Commissioner Dany Cotton was faced with the awful decision whether to suspend normal safety procedures for her firefighters in order for them to be able to save more lives. The decision was to make the invulnerable firefighters intentionally vulnerable to the fire raging through the building.

Abuse of the unintentionally vulnerable is almost always fundamentally some else’s abuse of power.  As the Faith and Order Commission’s theological resource on The Gospel, Sexual Abuse and the Church notes,

All abuse is abuse of power, and all abuse relies on an imbalance and related use of power. Churches can be communities where such imbalance is very evident, not least in the way that different kinds of power can constellate around the clergy: the power of ritual leadership, the power of being entrusted with intimate secrets, the power of having the strongest voice in making the community’s critical decisions and in shaping its culture and attitudes. Nor do clergy always find it easy to acknowledge such power, to ensure they are accountable for the way they use it and to share it consciously with others as they exercise the particular authority they have been given to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments.[2]

Only by recognising, in ministering with the vulnerable, that we as clergy have power that can make us invulnerable and protect us against being wounded may we be able to take the step of being intentionally vulnerable, not by setting that power aside or ignoring it, but using it for the good of those who do not have it. In doing so we become vulnerable ourselves because there will be criticism, misunderstanding and sometimes broken relationships, and maybe other consequences too. But essentially, ‘all leadership is an exercise of power. As such…leadership also always offers opportunities to work at aligning the dynamics of human power with the transforming purposes of God.’ [3]

Jesus sent the disciples out like sheep amongst wolves, woefully underequipped we might think, without gold, silver, copper, no bag or even a change of clothes (Matthew 10.9-10, 16), in a stunning demonstration of intentional vulnerability which is also trust in the one who sends them.

In doing so, they are in fact following the example also of the one who sends them, as Paul develops in Philippians 2.6. In that familiar passage, Paul writes of Jesus (literally): ‘who being in form of God did not consider to be equal with God a thing to be grasped.’ The scholars argue about what ‘being in form of God’ means here? Translations require some extra words to help the sense, and NRSV, for example, translates ‘who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited’. The ‘though’ has been added here, in an attempt to be clearer about the meaning of the word ‘being’. Michael J.Gorman notes that ‘being’ can be translated in three ways here:

  • concessively (‘though/although he was in the form of God’ – i.e. recognising that despite being in the form of God he humbled himself);
  • causally (‘because/since he was in the form of God’, i.e. he humbled himself because this is what God would do);
  • temporally (‘while he was in the form of God’, i.e. accepting the ambiguity of the phrase).[4]

Gorman points out that the pattern at work here is one which can be found elsewhere in Paul’s writings, which he summarises as ‘although [x] not [y] but [z]’.[5] Here are three examples of the pattern at work:

  • In 1 Thess. 2.6-8 Paul says ‘although we might have made demands’ (v.7a), ‘we did not seek praise’ (v.6), ‘but we became gentle, like a nurse’ (v.7b);
  • In 1 Cor. 9.1-23 Paul’s argument runs ‘although I have the right of an apostle’ (vv.1-12), ‘I do not make use of this right’ (vv.13-18), ‘but I became a slave’ (v.19-23);
  • In Romans 15.1-3 Paul encourages the Romans to see that ‘though we are strong’ (v.1a), nevertheless ‘we do not please ourselves’ (v.1b), ‘but please our neigbours’ (v.2), echoed then in Christ who ‘did not please himself’ (v.3a), ‘but took on insults’ (v.3b).

In all these examples the pattern established is one of degradation in some sense, of humbling oneself: Paul compares himself in the first two examples to a slave and a nursemaid, which in context are extraordinary reductions in status. They imply a voluntary, intentional vulnerability.

When Paul does not exercise his rights as an apostle is he renouncing something, or in fact showing his true identity? Much of Paul’s discussion of his apostleship in his letters turns on true apostleship, because he is apparently surrounded by others who claim a form of apostleship which is better than his (the ‘super-apostles’, 2 Cor. 11.5). Part of his argument is that true apostles can be recognised precisely by their humility and the fact that they don’t expect reward. Yes, says Paul, he could ask for reward – but to do so would be to betray the pattern of Christ. Gorman therefore suggests that in the ‘although [x] not [y] but [z]’ pattern, the concessive sense (‘although’) is also, simultaneously, the causal sense (‘because’) too: ‘Thus the “[x]” in the narrative pattern is preceded simultaneously, in effect, by both “although” and “because.”’[6] Or, as he puts it a little earlier, ‘in not throwing his weight around and in forgoing his rights, Paul is acting in character, not out of character as an apostle.’[7]

Returning to Philippians 2.6 we can see the implications of this ‘although/because’ dichotomy for the nature of Jesus and his intentional vulnerablity. Does Jesus not grasp equality with God despite being God, or does he not grasp it because he is God? Gorman calls this latter the ‘counterintuitive narrative identity of Christ and of God’.[8] By it he means that in Jesus’ humbling of himself to death – even death on a cross – we see not an aberration from the divine norm, but congruence with it. Unlike the Roman gods (including the emperors, who were elevated to the pantheon when they died), the God of Jesus Christ acts in character when he humbles himself, not out of character as the Roman gods would be doing. Incarnation is not, in other words, a role adopted for a time to achieve an end, but the way the God of Jesus actually is, in his very being. And yet, at the same time, he is also the majestic God of the Psalms, who reigns above the heavens. Jesus humbles himself although he is God – and yet also because he is God.

How is this worked out? After all, Paul’s aim in the great ‘Christ-hymn’ of Philippians 2 is to encourage the Philippians to ‘imitate the mind of Christ (Phil. 2.5). If they do so, then their behaviour will reflect the life of God.   Intentional vulnerability, then, is perhaps something which we don’t have a choice about. Of course actually we do, but there is something close here to Paul’s sense that the love of Christ ‘compels us’ (2 Cor. 5.14). There is no other way – intentional vulnerability is something we are called to not although we are ministers of Jesus Christ, but because.

Intentional vulnerability lies at the heart of reconciliation. The Venerable Bede, recounting the stories of the conversion of the warring Anglo-Saxon tribes of the Seventh Century, tells of monks who, unarmed, ran between armies that were about to engage in battle. Intentionally vulnerable, open to being wounded themselves, they brought peace. Our battles today are more prosaic, but the challenge to make ourselves intentionally vulnerable, open to being wounded, on behalf of those who are unintentionally vulnerable, to use the power we have on behalf of those who do not have it, remains; because you see, that is God’s pattern.

Richard Cooke
21 June 2017

[1] David W. Gill Theology of Care for the Vulnerable – see http://www.gordonconwell.edu/ockenga/faith-work/documents/GillD.TheologyofCarefortheVulnerable.pdf

[2] FaOC The Gospel, Sexual Abuse and the Church p.36.

[3] FaOC The Gospel, Sexual Abuse and the Church p.37.

[4] Michael J.Gorman Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology (Eerdmans 2009) p.20. This is a much better –and more accessible – book than the subtitle suggests!

[5] Gorman p.23.

[6] Gorman p.24, emphasis added.

[7] Gorman p.24.

[8] Gorman p.25. Gorman quotes J.D.Crossan & J.L.Reed In Search of Paul (SPCK 2005) p.289, when they write that Phil. 2.6 ‘subverts and even lampoons how millions within the Roman Empire took it for granted that somebody with the “form of God” should act.’ See also M.Bockmuehl The Epistle to the Philippians (A&C Black 1997) pp.133-34.

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How to have a great sabbatical – by Naomi Nixon

I wish everyone could have a sabbatical. I know the opportunity is rare unless you are clergy, and even then many of us struggle to actually carve the time out of ministry even when it’s on offer. But as I prepare to return to work after three months I have an overwhelming sense that this gift is one I wish more people had and more clergy took.

One of the reasons a sabbatical is so amazing is that it’s different. And as with anything different it can be a bit disorientating. So I write this partly to share my reflections now and partly to offer a resource for the clergy I work with about how to plan to make the most of the sabbatical if and when it comes – before I forget it all.

1. Build on a bigger scale. If I was writing a top one rather than a top ten this would be it. Back around the turn of the millennium I went on placement to a church in Winnipeg in the middle of Canada. One of the random things that has stayed with me from that time is my wonder at the town planning. Really. The streets are wide, the Elm-lined verge is wide, the sidewalk is wide, the front lawns are wide, and the spaces between houses are wide. The whole city is built as if space was endless, which of course in prairie land it must have seemed it was. I thought about this a lot at the start of the sabbatical. There is a lot more space. You don’t have to be mean with it, eking out a day off to accomplish rest, exercise, fun and chores. There is time, so build differently. Let a different rhythm of life emerge instead of treating every day like a working day you just don’t go to work on. How would you pray if the day held no constraints? When would you sleep? How would you answer the domestic questions about what you want to do? For me, as a slightly over anxious control freak there was something extraordinary in this slowing down. In saying ‘I don’t mind’ and ‘it doesn’t matter’, in letting a new pattern emerge. One day on the sabbatical we hired a van to move a desk and that was all we did that day. I find that fact incredible knowing how compressed the daily activities of my life usually are. It might be for you that instead of having space to say ‘it doesn’t matter’ what emerges is the readiness to say ‘yes’ to the unexpected opportunity. Building like there is a lot of space is the key. A word of caution though. If you let everything expand to fill the space, what do you want to leave out? I minimised social media for example, not because it is bad per se, just because I knew that minutes would turn into hours and that isn’t how I wanted to spend the sabbatical.

2. Don’t go to church. I could say this is so you can experience what most people do on a Sunday for research purposes, and there is something in that. But mostly it is about making yourself let go, the week doesn’t revolve around Sunday for these months, trust that God will meet you elsewhere.

3. Go to church. I think, in truth, I’ve always wondered if I’d go to church if I wasn’t ordained. I often quote someone or other from college days saying ‘God calls to be clergy those he doesn’t trust to be laity.’ I was called to priesthood at the age of 18 and being a pretty obedient sort of person I followed. Before that I grew up in a church going family. Sundays have been church, for my whole life. The first few Sundays of sabbatical were bliss. Not going to church was a really important part of finding a deep rest which my body and soul were crying out for. Then about half way through the sabbatical it was Maundy Thursday, and not trusting my beloved clergy colleagues to resist talking to me about work I couldn’t go to Chrism in Coventry. So we went to another cathedral, where we knew almost no one. But it was still home. Over the next few weeks we went to church to see friends, to experience strange and wonderful services, to meet with God. We have talked and talked about church like we used to at college, not as the place we work, but as the place we invite people to encounter God. So it turns out I do want to go to church of my own volition – I’m rather pleased about that.

4. Don’t spend like you are on holiday. With a bump back down to earth I need to mention finances. Our dear Archdeacon Pastor offered me this advice, and he is so right. I should add don’t eat like you are on holiday either, but I may have failed on that…I am shocked at how much money we’ve spent on sabbatical. Planned trips have cost more than expected. But also, we’ve mostly been at the house we own in Wales, it is the first time in my life I’ve actually lived in my own home, and the downside is seeing all the things that need attention.

5. Do something once in a lifetime. Most of my sabbatical has been study and rest. But thanks to the very generous grant from Ecclesiastical we rented an apartment in New York for two weeks and the diocesan grant flew us there. We didn’t need to visit churches there, but the impact of being able to was huge and will be lasting.

6. Be dispensable. I’ve had to consciously ignore the lightbulbs going off in my head as I think of work matters. Some discipline early on formed a habit quite quickly. I haven’t done a stroke of the work for the whole sabbatical. If you get the incredible gift of the chance to have a sabbatical don’t waste it by sneaking in bits of work.

7. Trust colleagues. This is the flip side of not doing the work, trust the people who are. They won’t have done it all; they won’t have done it my way. But heavens above they have given me three months off and I am beyond grateful. My work and my identity are closely bound, probably a little too closely. Learning to say ‘it doesn’t matter’ is the work of a lifetime for me; the sabbatical has bumped me up a few levels, I’m hoping to hang on to some of that.

8. Notice things. I have found I constantly want to talk about the weather. I don’t think this is about being British as much as the fact that I’ve noticed it. I’ve thought about the day’s readings without thinking how they relate to sermons or teaching. I’ve worked out how all the villages around us link up. I’ve got to know neighbours. I’ve been to the doctors about niggling things that don’t merit an appointment in work time. I’ve watched how the birds on our riverbank forage differently and where the sparrow has found a house. So much of life goes past me in a blur. I don’t know if I can retain this level of attentiveness, but I have been grateful for it.

9. Something about vocation. This is how I’d written it on my notes because our vocations are so varied, how can a single phrase work for everyone? All I will say is this; whatever is happening with you vocationally is likely to intensify through a sabbatical. So if that scares you don’t plan a sabbatical until you are ready. We began sabbatical burned out from the process of discerning and then convincing others about the new church God is calling us to plant. We were overwhelmed and could barely think about it. It feels so different now that it is strange to even write that. The calling to start St Clare’s has been affirmed again and again and again. Likewise with my day job for the diocese, the certainty of returning to it has been solid ground, a stone building in the centre of a re imagined city.

10. Expect God to turn up. I have never felt so blessed in all my life as in these three months. God has met me in the people who’ve shouldered the work while I’ve have been away, in the disciplined hours of writing up my PhD, in an abundance of restful sleep, in extravagant gestures from other Christians, in small things working out for the best, in better than expected weather, in the welcome at churches thousands of miles away, in morning prayer in a welsh attic room, and in my best friend who I’ve been lucky enough to share it with. I hope I am coming back a better version of myself for all these blessings. I’ve always thought the post sabbatical radiance I see in people is due to the rest they’ve had. But perhaps it is more, even perhaps an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.

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Setting God’s People Free

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The recent Reform and Renewal Archbishop’s Council report is fantastic and connects really well to what we have been doing through the Bishop’s Certificate in Discipleship and Mission (BCDM).

The core of the report seeks to “empower, liberate and disciple the 98% of the Church of England who are not ordained and therefore set them free for fruitful, faithful mission and ministry, influence, leadership and, most importantly, vibrant relationship with Jesus in all of life”.

The report highlights various dynamics of the situation of lay leadership in the Church today, including 125,000 lay people in elected leadership roles in the gathered church, 70,000 lay people in unelected roles, many thousands involved in sent church activities such as street pastors, homelessness projects, mums’ and toddlers’ groups etc. and 1 million lay people in the wider community, every sphere of society, representing “the untapped source for mission and ministry”.  Where do you fit?

We would really encourage you to read the report which is found here: https://www.churchofengland.org/media/3858033/gs-2056-setting-gods-people-free.pdf

To find out more about BCDM and what is happening around the Diocese, please follow: http://www.dioceseofcoventry.org/BCDM

– Katherine Walakira

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The Presidential Candidate and the Persistent Widow – By Richard Cooke

donald-trump-1301259_640Does Donald Trump drive you to despair? The American election, as almost everyone on the planet must know, has been dominated in the last couple of weeks by Trump’s attitude to women. Throughout his campaign to become President of the USA Trump’s view of women has been questioned. The release of a tape from 2005, coupled with claims made by a number of women about aggressive sexual behaviour from him over many years which conform to the comments he made on the tape, have made his casual acceptance of what he calls ‘locker-room talk’ about women an issue that’s hard to avoid. In his own defence he says that he is far from alone in his attitudes (which he claims to have put behind him), and insists that Bill Clinton has said and done much worse things, implicating his opponent Hillary Clinton as at least an accessory to Bill’s profligate sexual activities. In other words, Trump’s defence is, broadly, that he is the simply tip of an iceberg: get over it.

There is clearly a lot of truth in this defence. Hard though it may be to believe, Trump’s ‘locker-room talk’ does exist and might be more widespread than it is comfortable for many of us to admit. I hear echoes of it occasionally, just out of earshot, with some of the men I play football with on a Saturday afternoon, despite Graeme Le Saux’s claim this week that in 20 years as a top flight footballer he never heard such ‘predatory’ language as Trump used (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/oct/12/footballer-banter-donald-trump-locker-room-insults). The retrial of Ched Evans, former Welsh international, which concluded this week, also lifted the lid on ‘locker-room talk’ and what it can lead to: questioned at the time of the events which led to his trial, he and a fellow player boasted to police of their attraction to and power over women. Anna Krien’s powerful Night Games: Sex, Power and a Journey into the Dark Heart of Sport (Yellow Jersey Press 2014), which won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year in 2014, revealed in uncomfortable detail appalling attitudes to women across several sports in more than one continent. It is a minority of men who perpetuate the kind of attitudes which Trump represents, but they do exist, and they feed into what Elaine Storkey characterises as ‘a global pandemic’ of violence against women. She quotes a UN report which demonstrates that ‘one in three women has either been beaten, coerced into sex or abused in some other way – most often by someone she knows.’ This is not specific to any one country or culture: the one in three figure is a global one. (See Scars Across Humanity: Understanding and Overcoming Violence Against Women SPCK 2015.)

It’s in this situation that we read Luke 18.1-8, Jesus’ parable variously known as the ‘Parable of the Unjust Judge’ or the ‘Parable of the Persistent Widow’. Can it possibly have anything to say to the tip of the iceberg that is Donald Trump’s behaviour?

The first thing to notice is that Luke places this parable in a sequence that deals with the coming of the Kingdom of God, introduced by a question from the Pharisees (Luke 17.20-22), and concluding the section of the Gospel that precedes Jesus’ final approach to Jerusalem. So, though it begins with Luke’s emphasis that it is about the ‘need to pray always and not give up’, in its setting it is clear that this is specific prayer for the coming of the kingdom – the keynote of the prayer which Jesus had taught his disciples (see Luke 11.2-4; Luke’s version of the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ is of course much shorter and more tightly focused than Matthew’s). And the persistence in view is about ‘not losing heart’ (Luke 18.1), or we might say, despairing. In other words this is a parable about seeking God’s Kingdom and remaining committed to it, often despite the situation.

The second thing to notice is that the very attitudes to women which Donald Trump exemplifies have got into the interpretation of this passage, where the widow is often seen as the secondary figure, and frequently characterised as ‘nagging’. She quickly gets stereotyped here, and as a result fades from the central position which Jesus actually seems to have given her in this story. She’s a widow, and as such is often described as poor, lacking anyone to look after her, a sad and downtrodden figure, none of which has any basis in the text itself. She is described as a widow without any further detail. And though many commentators assume that she must be poor because she apparently cannot bribe the judge, part of the point of the parable is that this judge is in fact incorruptible: he fears neither God nor man (Luke 18.2). Bribes wouldn’t work on him.

The widow keeps coming to him. She won’t let up. She sits on his doorstep till he takes notice and acts. Her persistence isn’t a sign of poverty or being downtrodden, it is a sign of strength. Widows are often strong people precisely because they have had to look after themselves. Jesus here offers us a woman who can handle herself in the face of injustice. She is passionate for justice in her cause, she desires vengeance (something picked up in the final section of the parable, Luke 18.3,7). She will not rest until she gets it. We don’t know what her cause is: whether the hurt and offence was caused to her or to someone she loved. But we do know that she has an adversary or opponent. Someone has done her wrong, and they must pay in some way (Luke 18.3). Her passion for justice is fierce and ferocious.

In fact the (literal) ‘punch-line’ of justice story actually gets missed in conventional translations. The judge says at the end of the story that he will grant her request because he fears that she will ‘wear him out.’ But the literal sense of this phrase is that she will ‘beat me up’, ‘strike me in the face’ or even ‘give me a black eye’! It is a boxing term, used by Paul when he speaks about how he subdues his own body (1 Cor. 9.27, see Amy Jill Levine Short Stories by Jesus HarperOne 2014, p.234).

So if we re-run the story it actually seems to be about a strong woman who has a passion for justice, so much that even the judge who fears no-one eventually fears her.  She is a feisty woman, and Jesus uses her example to show how the disciples should pray for the kingdom and not despair.fist-bump-1195446_640

The parables of Jesus often seem to me to be the kind of story you’d read in a local newspaper, the stuff of village or market-place gossip and conversation (maybe, in a 1st-century gymnasium, even the ‘locker-room talk’ of the day). This sounds like a story that could be based on a real incident: the widow whose passion for justice forced the judge who didn’t care to care. If we see the story in this light then the widow may suddenly come into focus and we recognise her because we know her in our own time too. She is the women of Liverpool who sought justice for those who died at Hillsborough and fought for a quarter of a century for the truth to be heard. She is the women of Nicaragua whom I met some years ago at a Conference some years ago in Kentucky, who had come to America to plead for the truth about their ‘disappeared’ sons and husbands from the Sandinista era to be revealed by the CIA. Modestly and movingly they made their case. ‘Mary had at least the body of her son to hold and to bury’ I remember one saying, ‘but I do not know what happened to my son, I never held the body I gave birth to, and I do not know where he is buried. I cannot place flowers on his grave. If you believe in justice, you will tell me what happened to him.’

The widow of the parable has a pedigree in the Bible too. She is Rizpah, the silent widow who keeps vigil over the bones of Saul and Jonathan until David does the right thing and buries them (2 Sam. 3.7; 21.10-14). And she is Anna, who begins Luke’s story of Jesus, the strong widow who never remarried and for decades kept the hope that she would see the ‘consolation of Jerusalem’ (Luke 2.38).

For the widow of the parable, for the women of Hillsborough, and for Rizpah, we see that even the justice of this world is ultimately delivered to those who persist and do not despair. So Jesus says, God will bring justice for those committed to his kingdom. He promises that it will come ‘quickly’ – and we might ask what this means in the context of eternity. But who are we to judge the timescales?

Persistence and commitment to the kingdom Jesus brings means believing, often against the odds and the evidence, that the vision of that kingdom where justice will be done, where women and men are treated equally, where what is broken is mended, where tears are wiped away and where death shall be no more is a possibility, however crazy it might seem. To pray ‘Your kingdom come’ is a prayer of faith in a despairing world. It is the kind of prayer of faith which sustained the American civil rights movement. In March 1965, after the great march from Selma, Martin Luther King gave a speech on the steps of the Capitol building in Montgomery, Alabama, with the refrain ‘How long? Not long.’ He concluded, ‘How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’

Praying for the kingdom is not simply a spiritual matter, it is a matter of action too, co-operating with the arc of the moral universe which King spoke of, the movement of God in our world. Jesus offers us the image of a strong woman who would not take no for an answer in her quest for justice as an exemplar of those who seek the kingdom of God. She helps us to believe that, whatever ‘locker-room talk’ persists, God is on the side of those who seek justice for women across the world.

 

 

 

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And In All Studies… – By Naomi Nixon

…that will deepen your faith and fit you to bear witness to the truth of the gospel

These are words from the ordination service, promises the clergy make, and probably the rationale for my current existence as clergy training adviser. Let’s be honest though, it is not the bit of the ordination service most people remember, it sort of slides by in a litany or virtues. I don’t mean that we don’t mean it, but the others are perhaps more top of our minds for example:open-book-1428428_1280

Will you lead Christ’s people in proclaiming his glorious gospel, so that the good news of salvation may be heard in every place?

I won’t speculate about how it compares those of you who are lay people into your discipleship, only to say that I know it does. Indeed how could any of us be a disciple of Christ without the commitment, the hunger and thirst, to learn?

One of the things I get to do in my job is talk with clergy about what they want to do for their development. I like the word development, it has a sense of a holistic ‘moving on’ which feels very Christian to me. But, you knew there was going to be a ‘but didn’t you?! But development can also tip us in to the world of career planning and success chasing. These things aren’t necessarily bad. In fact I often encourage clergy to be a little bolder about preparing themselves for the next job and therefore thinking about the ‘CV’ so ask to speak (we never actually write a CV, but you know what I mean).

But there is still a ‘but’. Learning is not only about achieving. I’ve been thinking about this a lot this week.

I’ve had a wonderful long weekend away working on my PhD. While the rain battered the roof of our loft room in our house in Wales, I sat at my desk there and wrote and wrote and wrote. Tens of thousands of words emerged from this activity. But they are not the finished product of the thesis; they are, mostly, the transcribed words of the recorded interviews I’ve done over the last couple of years.

I’ve been doing the PhD for 6 years.* I am nowhere even near finishing. I’ve come to the conclusion that most of a PhD is not reading or writing, it is psychological warfare. Most of the experience of doing the PhD has been, in truth, anxiety. Anxiety that I can’t communicate my proposal in the first place, anxiety about being accepted, anxiety about finding the time to do it, anxiety that I’m not intellectually up to it, anxiety that I’m not actually doing anything, anxiety that I’ve read the wrong books, got the wrong ideas, that it’s a waste of time, that it’s a waste of money. Most of all that I will never finish it.

I don’t think that this is just me, all the clergy I’ve worked with whose PhDs I’ve supported in some way have expressed similar woes.

But, I think that this weekend a couple of important things happened for me. One was I had that amazing sparkly-in-the-stomach feeling of happiness. The happiness I only feel of being completely in the right place. I’ve had this feeling before about the research, in fact, if I ever manage to get past all that worry and do some really concerted work on it, I always get that feeling. My brain is woken up, connections ping in my head, the urgency of discovery lights me up.

Here’s the bad news, that’s only been twice this year. Don’t judge me, getting past both busyness and psychological warfare is hard. As are all spiritual disciplines. And that is what this is, the ‘deepening faith’ of the ordination promise is this for me, and this is perhaps very personal; my faith as a child came from the emotional relationship with Jesus, it is my bedrock. But the ongoing flourishing of my faith usually comes from the intellectual approach to Christianity, the perfection of the Christian philosophy, the practicality of what we believe, not just the love of who we believe in.

But it isn’t just the personal, inward, dimension of the promise. Because I am, we are, fitter to bear witness as a result of feeding our minds. That is the other thing that happened while I was studying, all sorts of associations come into my mind, resources are closer to reach for and ideas for ministry come fizzing out unbidden. The fact that I drove home writing a blog in my head is perhaps a small example.

‘All studies’ in the ordination promises are not just the first ones after ordination, nor are they only the reading for a sermon or a lent course. It is the ongoing activity of being a disciple, pushing ourselves to learn in new ways, not achieving learning, but living in it.

If all of this is true then, why on earth the introspective battle? And this was something of a revelation to me. Whilst I very much want to have a PhD (my ego would like to add the letters D and R to my name, a nobler part of me hopes that my research will be useful, and I’d also like the anxiety gone) but in the first place, what I wanted was to do a PhD. I already have what I wanted, I’m doing it. And I love it. What a waste it would be to miss it while I worried about finishing it.

So, after 6 years, perhaps I’m finally learning something.

 

 

 

*It’s about the theology of FE Chaplaincy by the way

 

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Public and Personal – By Naomi Nixon

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There are some very good and very wise things Christian leaders have said since Friday morning. I agree deeply with all the ones I’ve read, I agree we need to pray for peace, work for stability, show love.

But, in truth, that isn’t speaking to my heart, not yet. Something else is going on, and it might best be called grief for me. It might best be called grief for the people at my church this morning in ‘Remain’ voting territory of Warwick, Leamington and Kenilworth. But I think there is something going on for people who voted differently too, being on the receiving end of grief is tough, no matter how happy you are at the result. There are others feeling ashamed, already let down or bewildered. There are a few letting inner rage at ‘otherness’ out, as if it is allowed now.

And there is my ten year old niece who is scared because everyone is so upset and that the upset is somehow bigger and scarier than she can comprehend.

For years working as a chaplain in Further Education, (in ‘Leave’ voting Nuneaton) I felt frustrated at the church’s narrative of public theology; working for keeping influence at the highest levels of society while not investing in mission and ministry for the poorest. Even when the doors of FE colleges were suddenly thrown open to the church, the church stuck with Universities and left brick layers and hairdressers to their own devices. I thought, in truth, this was snobbery, at best left over snobbery of years gone by, but snobbery nonetheless.

I actually have come to think it isn’t snobbery at all, it is about the difference between public and personal theology. In fact, investing in universities and worrying about a public voice is not the church obsessed with privilege but instead an attempt to ensure that the values we learn from Jesus are guiding virtue into public life. To put it crudely; a politician who has been steeped through church school and university with Christian virtue and has to face Bishops in the Houses of Parliament is more likely to be ashamed if caught lying, even if they do not have a personal living faith.

I didn’t used to care about that, I think I was wrong. I have come to see the importance of public theology. I hope and pray that the church, through Bishops, through people in local communities, can be part of rewriting our public narrative, from divided to reconciled, from hate to love.

But, the personal needs attending to as well. What about how we feel? Church needs to be a place, a community, where we can feel as well as think.

And today people are feeling a very great deal. If we are in grief, we desperately need to be allowed to feel sad, if we are ashamed we need to feel forgiven, if we are scared we need to feel comfort, if we are happy (but surrounded by intensity we can’t share) we need to feel connected. If we feel hate, we don’t want to bottle that up, we need it to be healed.

Whatever we feel, we need to feel loved, so that we can show the certainty of love in an uncertain world.

As a church let us let people fall to their knees, let us teach one another again how to share in lament, so feelings can be held within the safety of the body of Christ. Let us feel how much we need Jesus.

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