Listening

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I’m reading a lovely book at the moment. I picked it up by chance and joined the library just to take it out. It has not disappointed.

It is more than the title says; far beyond a travelogue it is a deep soulful search into what it is to be human alongside the description of walking 4000 miles across America.

I’m currently about a fifth of a way through it and reading the story of someone whom he found hard to listen to: an evangelist:-

‘ I receive you’ the true listener says with her eyes, ‘I see you, no matter what you say, and I accept you, just as you are’. There’s a deeper kind of listening that is mutually exclusive with judgement and the desire to control or convert. Oddly enough, this kind of listening is the most subversively transformative; as soon as you don’t need someone to change their mind, they’re much more inclined to do so, because its not a fight. There’s no need to defend, and so it’s safe to explore something new. But that kind of listening isn’t easy, especially when what’s being heard  is abhorrent to you, when you know it’s causing harm. I didn’t want to receive the evangelist, or see him, or accept him. I tried to shut down, but he wouldn’t shut up’ (p77-78).

I sat with someone last week who began, in halting tones, to form what they believed. They talked about questions and struggles; things didn’t connect, but they were starting to.

And then someone preached. Well not preach exactly, but ‘correct’ what they said- tell them what the ‘right’ answers were. I could feel the harm and see the person begin to close down. I tried to stop them by opening up the space again, but it was too late.

I wonder what the person who had ‘preached’ would say: ‘I shared the gospel’? ‘I gave them the truth?’ ‘I lifted them from error’?

There has been some press in the last week or so about the Metropolitan Police arresting a street preacher; often in the type of Christian circles that are quick to scream ‘we are being persecuted’. I’ve watched the video: the police seem to be wrong in what they did, there is the issue of Freedom of Speech, but what struck me most was the ‘violence’ of the preacher- there seemed to be no listening to the culture, respect for the passers by or indeed respect- just a concern to get a point of view across without much regard for the other.

Maybe it is unfair of me to say this; I am a chaplain- I am not an evangelist (at least not in the sense in which it is often employed), but there does seem to be something deeply holy about listening for listening’s sake and not just to get enough ammunition to prove your truth. Maybe the more ‘sure’ you are means the more likely you are to listen.

Anyway; back to the book…

53

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I have my annual birthday today. There was a time when I would work as normal; celebrations like this were fitted around ‘normal’ life. However a few years ago, I got into the habit of taking a day off and doing something I liked- a long run, a film I like, a mooch around record shops etc. Juggling home, work, teenagers is sometimes demanding so I look forward to this one day free of constraints and obligations.

Latterly I have planned a long solo walk; a day when the slow rhythm of footsteps, silence and wildness begins to recalibrate my soul, sense of self and God. Eventually, my fevered thoughts and frustrations go and I am aware of nothing other than ‘being’ in the walk. I find it utterly lovely and the stillness can remain for days. There will be a much shorter walk with friends (and a big breakfast) on Saturday: I can’t survive without long term friends, but neither can I survive without periods alone with not much going on.

Who knows: maybe this day will give me back something of my writing mojo that is currently almost missing….

4 years on

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I’m preaching this morning; something that I now do only sporadically. More particularly I’m leading worship at a service that I helped start nearly 13 years ago in a community centre. Today is the last one; I’m surprised that it gave life for so long, but excited that I go to a church where they try new things; more particularly with a new demographic that now have contact with the church.

It struck me that this is almost 4 years to the day since I had a ‘farewell’ service in the same church and it got me reflecting about what has changed and the difficulty of that change (in effect, becoming homeless, moving house, financial pressures, but bigger than that: there are no maps).

I’ve been reading Mary Oliver poetry recently and this one helped:-

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice –
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do –
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Friday Grime

When your oldest son is 17, they have gone from being a child; in many respects, they are a man. Gone are the easy snaps on facebook and the sense that this person is ‘known’; they are a mystery and their reference points are outside the family. Growth takes a bit of getting used to.

But there are moments: moments when you connect.

My son likes ‘Grime’; I have no idea why- maybe it is the equivalent of rebellion, maybe is speaks some of his language and reinforces his developing world view. For one precious hour this week, when we were in the car, he began to play the songs that meant something to him and why they did.

Grime is a sweary genre, but this one stuck out. I like it- I see in the social commentary something of the world view I had at the same age, although the style is very different.

That collection of moments was very special…made even more so when he began to play what he called ‘old school One Direction’ (to me, they are recent) and we sang together at the tops of our voices, the connection real, but unspoken.

Time and church

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‘You need to be more involved in your local church’

I remember preaching something like that once, although probably not as overtly psychologically manipulative as that. Over time, I became less overt: I was aware of people who were on the edges of church life around my age who just had too much on; giving them a guilt trip about what they weren’t doing did not seem like a good thing to do.

Maybe that made me a bad minister, I don’t know. I do know that this is a bugbear of ministers who have pastoral charge over a church; we have empty roles to fill and we can’t do them/we already feel overloaded and why won’t people come forward? The trouble is that-although this is true- when it comes across as needy and as guilt-ridden as that, it isn’t very appealing. Besides which; doesn’t ‘calling’ mean more than doing jobs in your local church?

In any case, I never quite squared the circle with that one; I was convinced that the strident church-centric approach of some of my colleagues in the wider church was not the correct one, however, I’m not sure if I found the ‘right’ approach. I was grateful for the number of people who offered their gifts and sometimes let things ‘slip’ so that people could exercise their unique gifts in a way that ‘worked’

I guess I’m writing this as nearly 4 years into my current way of being outside of full-time church ministry, I do little in a local church, feel little inclination to do so and sometimes I have mild twinges of guilt about that.

Yet, as I think about it a little more, as to helping out in a local church; I have no model or personal experience of 2 adults in their early 50s working full time and two teenagers with ‘full’ lives. My previous experience of helping out in a local church before I was a full-time minister was as part of a couple in their mid/late 20s in full-time work but with no kids, more energy and ‘time rich'(and much less involved in the local community than I am now.)

What’s the answer? Some thoughts:-

  • I don’t think there is an answer at the moment; just ‘go with the flow’ is about all that I can say- help out where you can, but recognise that to commit to anything is difficult right now.
  • A sense of repentance where I’ve put heavy guilt in the past on people in the same situation.
  • The future is open and unknown; one thing that these last few years have taught me is that once you’ve set out on a journey, the journey changes you-you don’t return in the same form, or at all…

To be continued…

Lower: some unsettling music for Friday.

Sometimes uneasy listening is the best kind of listening.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m as much in love with an obvious tune as the next person, but a song, an album that you have to work at is often more rewarding.

I’ve liked Low ever since a friend introduced them to me over 20 years ago. I liked their loud/quiet, the songs that seemed to defy categorisation (Slow core‘ anyone? I thought not...) and the moments of real and fragile beauty made all the more apparent by what surrounded them.

Even though I know some of their songs very well (‘Death of a salesman’, which I think is one of the most profound songs ever written and one of the few that I can play and sing without chord charts) I never quite ‘know’ them; they are impossible to define.

I’ve seen them play half a dozen times in both large and small venues and always been moved by the experience: it has often seemed more like a secret cult at worship than a mere gig; sometimes you can hear the cliched pin drop. Give me that many times more than the facebook photos of ‘Look, here we are paying stupid money to sit 200 meters back from someone really well known whilst we drink overpriced beer’.

The genesis of their new album has been covered elsewhere (Google ‘Double Negative’ and read the reviews), certainly better than I ever could. Is it double their usual slow and introspective mix, or do two negatives make a positive? I think a bit of both.

It took me several listens to get into before its charms began to weave their way into my soul. Like life, it is full of ‘uglybeautiful’ moments; a song has moments that jar, soothe and then jar again. This means that when the beauty comes, it is all the more startling. Even after 2 weeks of living with it, I am still playing it and finding new things to appreciate and move. It is not the kind of album to listen to in bits or as background. I could go on, but I’ll close with the last song: I like the way that this homemade video uses feet to show that the journey goes on.

‘My eyes fail with watching for your promise…’

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I sat through that funeral earlier this week.

I must have conducted around 500 funerals: each one is different and it is never an act- it is impossible not to be touched by any of them (and if you are not, perhaps you should consider giving up conducting them), but this one really got to me; my first contemporary to go and a lovely chap; so full of life.

It was when his oldest son got up to speak and talked with the kind of raw honesty that his dad had about how his dad had told him how two friends had prayed that one day he would see him again (a relationship breakdown had led to no contact) that I lost my equilibrium. I remembered those days- 2 years- when 3 of us met for an hour a week to be vulnerable, pray, swear and try and be honest. I remembered prayers prayed for us and the possibility of children that at that time seemed so unlikely and prayers for my other friend’s child in difficulty.

I struggle with prayer- always have. I struggle with the simplistic ideas of ‘God has answered this’ or ‘God hasn’t answered that’. I think of people that have died (my friend, whose funeral it was), people who haven’t got better, relationships that have broken down etc etc etc….oh and that whole issue about a suffering world. I struggle with some of the triteness in Christian culture that can’t be honest or lament. I get the silence, the stillness and the openness to God and sitting with the Big Questions and knowing that somehow, although things will fade and die, that somehow you are held.

…and yet… in this service. lamenting a life that had faded and gone too soon, I was aware that I was unexpectedly in the presence of answered prayer: in my family’s life and in the life of a young man who was talking honestly and showing the broken beauty of redemption.

I don’t understand- I really don’t. Sometimes-often- as the psalmist says, my eyes fail watching for the promise. I could dismiss it, or walk away, but just at that moment, I glimpsed a shaft of light and the grace to live in the light of the big and beautiful questions.

My friend: Rev Peter Knight 1965- 2018

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I’m travelling to Oldham today, but the funeral of a friend: my first funeral for a contemporary.  Others have put it better than I can, but this is an edited version of something I wrote to him when I last saw him, 2 months before he died. If it was a fuller address, I’d have dwelt more on Felicity, his wife and his children and grandchild.

I miss him so much: one reason why this is a good deal longer than I usually post.

Pete: my friend.

I think I first met Pete in 1991; I bumped into him on a cricket field for a scratch team that we were both playing in. Funnily enough, I still use that kit and think of him every time I wear it and still will.

We trained as local preachers in the same circuit, although not at the same time. What I remember about him then was something that marked him all of the time that I knew him; his enthusiasm and zeal. ‘Zeal’ is a strange word and it conjures up images of wild-swivelled eyed loons who have no connection with reality. Nothing could be further from the truth with him: he was always well earthed- even earthy.

It was at Hartley Victoria College, Manchester that I really got to know him. Three of us shared a study: ‘The Room 69 Experience’. I learnt many things from this time. Most of that came out of the desire that if we were to be formed as ministers, we had to learn to be vulnerable and accountable; we’d seen too many who weren’t. I appreciated his part in that and especially the sense that if we were Christians and male we’d have to learn to bring the two together. I think I’d imbibed the idea that somehow ‘maleness’ was separate from your Christianity. Those times together were amazingly vulnerable and honest but also, at times, extremely crude. That is something that I’ve carried from that time into any strong friendship; honesty, lack of pretence and extreme crudity: he was formative for me.

We talked a lot, but we also managed to pray- sometimes as long as we talked! I can remember in particular about families; estranged children, health issues and the desire for a family. It was quite emotional a few months back, talking with my sons about him and these prayers and them allowing me to photograph them and send the picture to him.

I recall many things from lectures that we shared. The one I remember most was when he agreed to get the phrase ‘When I was a bedhumper at Slumberland’ into a seminar on ‘Basic Christian Believing’ (which we called ‘Barely Credible Bumbling’). He managed it, completely poker-faced and neither the butt of the humour got it nor the lecturer, but everyone did.

We saw each other a few times after college and he was always the same Pete: honest, encouraging and not frightened of asking the direct question or issuing a challenge, but always in a way that made me feel built up and not torn down. After that life, geographical distance and family life meant that most of our recent contacts were through social media, but through them, I saw the same person, albeit one who had grown in stature and maturity. Our paths were now very different, but in the ministry I now have, I need to see people like him who have remained within The Methodist Church system as a reminder of our shared calling. I also need to have a questioning of what I’m doing (I don’t believe an unquestioned life is worth living). He showed me in what he did, both grace and dignity in bucketloads.

His ‘sitting down’ celebration was deeply moving for everyone there (even though ‘band led evangelical worship’ has not been my thing for many years…). Aside from the love for him that filled the room what got to me was what I’d missed: he was still so much ‘Pete’ but with a deeper and richer authority in the way that he led worship and preached. Also, the things that I’d appreciated about him were still there but amplified by the years and the relationships that he’d made along the way. He did not make it all about him and chose to spend individual time with everyone there; even taking time to needle me gently.

It was Sartre who talked about individuals who act in ‘bad faith’; people who play a role, adopt false values and live inauthentically. If I was to pick individuals who did not do that whom I have known, I would pick Pete.

At that service he said ‘I’m about to take one of the most amazing journeys that a human being can take’. He did and is doing and one day I hope to see him again.

‘Today I’m not a vegan’

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It was another funeral.

(A lot of my posts are about funerals; it is often there when the reality of life and death hits us with a stark reality that the most profound comments occur).

The buffet was laid out and the person who had laid it on said to one of the deceased’s relations ‘Sorry; I forgot that you were vegan’. The person smiled and said ‘Today it is about her, so it is ok- today I’m not a vegan’. A few minutes later, the host rustled up some vegan food, but to me that wasn’t the point; the grace and dignity of the person who was prepared to set aside a belief in that instant to honour someone else was.

A few years back I heard a story- which may have become apocryphal in the telling- of 3 Methodist ministers, all teetotal,  walking down a street when a someone rushed out of a house and noticing the minister of his church amongst the 3 said ‘My wife has just had our first child; come and see him and have a drink to celebrate’. The ministers entered the house to see the child and share the joy.

As the householder disappeared to get drinks, two of the ministers turned on the third and said ‘I thought you were teetotal’.

‘I am’- he said ‘ ‘But one of us has to be Christian’.

When you become aware of the Grace and compassion given to you; ‘standing on ceremony’ seems to be an act of weakness than strength. I think I’d like the courage to be different.

Typo

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It was a funeral; a strange one in the sense that a church had been found 40 or so miles from where the person had lived for large parts of their life and some way from where they spent their last few months. The funeral director had also come from 40 miles away.

We gathered to celebrate her life: someone sang who had sang to them in the rest home, a poem was read and a hymn was sung.

That’s when I noticed it: the typo. Every last verse of the hymn had a typo on the same word. Initially, I was distracted but then I began to smile; this was life being celebrated- broken, imperfect, affected by ill health but life.

Life has typos, imperfections, glitches, catastrophes and things that don’t connect. Often there is a temptation to airbrush it out: ‘living my best life: now’ , #perfectmoments etc and that temptation can be strong at the end: ‘they were perfect- would do anything for anyone’ etc.

I believe that this temptation has to be resisted; keep the typos centre stage.