This is the shout that the whole congregation make during a Methodist Ordination service.
I’m going to one today; I haven’t been to one, apart from my own in 2001, since 2003 when one was held at the church where I was minister.
They said that when you hear the shout it lifts you up; gives you a view of the mountains that can sustain you through the valleys. I guess that I felt that back in 2001 and that sense of being ‘worthy’, even when I have doubted my own capacity has never entirely left me and despite not being in the place I imagined I would be 18 years ago.
I never expected to have any major contact with the ‘mothership’ (Methodist hierarchy) after leaving church ministry in the Methodist Church back in February 2015, so assisting at the ordination of someone who used to be in the congregation of a church of which I used to be a minister is surprising. It is also rather lovely.
Someone asked me what I feel ‘going back’. 4 things:-
- I had a definite sense of call to go into Methodist Church ministry; 3 and a half years out of church ministry, I feel no sense or desire to go back, but it is good to be open to questioning of any firmly held opinion. ‘Going back’ enables that to happen, I guess.
- Conversely, it is more likely to confirm the (uncertain) direction that I’ve been heading. I used to think that the Christian life was a secure castle; now I think it is more like a coracle on a shifting sea. I have no idea where or what I will be doing in the long term, but that feels right.
- A chance to see what the mainstream church is and how it resources what I do and to reflect on the scars that have healed, but still sometimes ache.
- Maybe it is a reminder to me that what I did in churches did touch people in some way & to give thanks for that, but remembering what John Wesley said: ‘If thou art constrained to bless the instrument, then give God the glory’.
So when I hear that shout, I wonder how I’ll feel?
I guess still ‘worthy’, but in a very different way to how I imagined back in 2001.
I’ve attempted to write a blog post for a week or two now and nothing has resulted. It is fairly easy to blog something; just scribe the first thoughts that come to you and you are off.
…most of the writing I’ve felt ok with has come from a place where I’ve had a few moments of stillness and then; almost unforced, the words came.
I used to have a bugbear when someone led worship and used a line like ‘Let us seek God in the stillness’; I wanted to say ‘Why? Is he not also in the noise?’
….most thoughts that mean something tend to come when there are few distractions and you are ‘in’ the moment. You rarely fish for them; an idea comes, and then another and then another. Sometimes in 5 minutes you can have ideas for 5-10 blogs.
I’ve a confession to make; I haven’t made space for those moments and inspiration has dipped (and for those of you, time rich, who are tempted to say ‘Just slow down then’, I’d say ‘Just listen for a moment before preaching to my need from your wealth‘).
Stay with me; normal service will be resumed soon, or in a while, or later…
A couple of weekends ago I enjoyed a glorious weekend on Eilean Dubh Mor as part of a ‘wilderness retreat’. I’ve been a part of them for several years (5 of the last 6) and they are something that I look forward to more than I ever did a Christian convention in years past.
There is something about the space, silence, laughter, raw honesty, prayer, swearing and whisky that never fails to move me or persuade me that there is still hope. My friend writes about it more beautifully and with better pictures than I do ( see https://thisfragiletent.com/2018/05/09/wilderness-retreat-photos-2018/ for example).
During one of the times when I wandered and wondered around the island, I came across this plant, high up on a rock and surrounded by rockpools. It is a small heather plant; how it lodged in such a fissure and grew is unusual and its presence captured me. In fact I circled back to take the above photo as I wanted the memory.
I wrote some words: kind of a prayer I guess. Parts of it mine from a rich seam of cliche, but other parts I like.
May the eddying wind,
Carry at least one small seed
Deep into the crevasse
Of the rock face of
May it find
Blown there by
the same swirling wind.
May that earth
be moistened by
Unlooked for rain.
And may that seed
Nervously advance roots
And start to grow;
frail at first
and then defiant.
And may that plant
By travellers in the wilderness,
looking for they know not what.
And may it give them
that they cannot articulate,
A wry smile,
A soul that sings again.
I took this nearly 2 weeks ago looking out to sea on a wilderness retreat. I think that shortly after I took this I fell asleep on the same rock and lost an hour. I didn’t fall into that same sea.
This is not the greatest photo in the world but it reminds me of the sheer unadulterated bliss of lengthy periods of looking out to sea and becoming lost in the sound of the crashing of the waves.
Each time I do this on a Scottish island retreat I can hear this music over and over again:-
..and each time I hear this music I am taken back to that still place…
I ‘discovered’ this on a cheap cd I bought a month or two back; I’d not heard much about this singer.
This song immediately grabbed me with its story of a chance encounter. There is so much in that encounter: people taking time with each other, honesty, willing to learn from someone and not to talk down to them and then shining through that, a kind of everyday transcendence.
Where you wait and listen; often in unlikely places, these moments tend to happen. Most of us struggle with that ; we hurry, hear enough just to talk back, use people and mostly just stick to ‘safe’ encounters.
But when we try and live as I believe we are meant to, these moments of everyday transcendence are encountered more and more and we don’t feel so alone.
It’s your funeral…
Listening, really listening is very hard. Most of us just hear enough in order to respond.
I’ve heard some ministers becoming sniffy about the ‘dumbing down’ of funerals. I think underneath that is a fear-almost at times an anger- of loss of control when ‘we’ did everything. I’ve also heard some funeral directors be too directive- ‘they are non religious’, when underneath if you took a moment or two you’d find a richer, more complex story.
Really listening though is hard…when people say they don’t want anything ‘religious’ usually they mean they don’t want that control that those same ministers thought was good. They don’t want coldness, impenetrable ritual, a feeling of being ‘got at’ or something that feels remote. In practice, many of those who don’t want ‘religious’ want the 23rd Psalm, or The Lord’s Prayer, or a prayer or sometimes a combination of the 3.
They might not be sure as to why, part from it feels ‘proper’ or somehow comfortable. Some people are prepared to listen; to take the fragments of faith/hope/superstition/wishful thinking/whatever is offered and to honour them- not to look down or disparage them.
…and out of these fragments make something unique that honours the person and whatever faith (or non faith) they bring.
It’s not hard to listen: you just have to remember it is not their funeral, but yours…it was never about you in the first place.
The third in an occasional series about funerals.
One of my funeral songs is ‘I still haven’t found what I’m looking for’. It reflects what I’ve found to be true; everything is temporary- to be enjoyed while it is here, but with no expectation that it will be here all the time or that it is mine by ‘right’ forever.
All that I’ve written in the last few weeks about this wilderness is not meant to be fixed or final. I do not think I’ve ‘arrived’ or (pet hate, this) ‘moved on’ or found enlightenment; I could be wrong.
I’ve come to realise that there is no ‘arrival’; over three years ago I thought that a couple of years in I would have found a place of stability. I haven’t found that place; or maybe the fluidity of life, thoughts and being is actually what the future will be like.
Maybe I won’t have that paid off mortgage (unlikely: we own nothing), country cottage and disposable income…ever. Maybe I won’t have a stable role in any church or community. Maybe I’ll just learn that being a stranger and refugee is how it was always meant to be.
I could conclude this with the obvious ‘I still haven’t found what I’m looking for’, but I want to go for the less obvious and far more nuanced ‘The First time’.
There’s a book in the New Testament called ‘Philippians’. This part of the Bible has letters to churches; advice to help them negotiate the story of the culture that they live in. Part of this book has a lovely hymn in about Jesus and at the centre are the words ‘…he emptied himself’. Unpacking that whole passage is complex (I once spend a happy couple of hours in a library reading 50 plus pages of commentary on the Greek text and didn’t get bored...). In theology, they have the idea pf ‘kenosis’, which in simple terms is the study of this idea.
One way I take it is that if you are sure of your own identity, you’ll do anything to reach someone else; you don’t compromise, but you don’t stand on false ceremony. The human temptation is when you are unsure, you just get more strident and stop being servant like; in the context of a death the effects of that on a family are catastrophic. Occasionally ministers fall; they become too insistent on things being done ‘their way’- those stories are remembered by families and by funeral directors for years and are spun out of all proportion.
The way I’ve gone with funerals therefore is that if you don’t have a faith, but you want me to take a funeral, I’m not going to at the point of great need insist that you become ‘religious’. The way my journey has worked out, that seems akin to ’emptying out’ and serving people. Besides which, I figure; God’s bigger than any form of words. What I’ve noticed is that paradoxically, people who don’t want ‘religion’ often end up talking about faith more on a funeral visit than those who do want ‘religion’ (I’ve also noticed that I’ve prayed more...)
I could talk here about a humanist funeral that I once led with a Church of England Bishop in a church, but I’ve run out of time…
That is the kind of title that would turn most people off: we don’t talk about death in polite society- mostly we ignore it until it knocks on the door of those we know and our world is devastated; we never expected this.
I’d never encountered a humanist funeral until the very staid and traditional local vicar led one in his Parish Church.
It was several years ago: the village doctor had died- the vicar knew him and had been visiting him as his cancer journey drew to a close. The vicar had suggested that as the funeral was going to be large, the parish church was the only place big enough to hold the funeral. Knowing that the doctor was atheist, it was the only appropriate response. The dying doctor spoiled the purity of the humanist ceremony by insisting that The Lord’s Prayer be said as he said to the vicar: ‘It is your church’.
That was an eye opener for me. I’d been fairly ‘orthodox’ before that moment. I could understand the idea that people might want something different, but that seemed ‘wrong’; we provide something and if you don’t like it, you can go elsewhere. If someone ‘edgy’ had have done what the vicar did, it would have meant something. Someone staid and traditional and so comfortable with that that his God was bigger got through to me.
I have a confession to make; my name is the Reverend Graham Peacock and I sometimes lead humanist funerals.
I used to somewhat pass over stories and individual lives. Not entirely, but there was always something else to do- something that was more ‘pressing’ & sometimes the focus was on getting people to do things rather than listen to who they are.
I guess that we need planners, people with big ideas and strategy for churches. Sometimes it seemed to me that the people who talk of them did do so whilst ignoring the stories of others, viewing people as ‘blocks’ to ‘the project’or at least those stories of those who didn’t fit and can’t be healed or fixed. Perhaps that is too harsh, but having sat through meetings (true of any organisation) where big things are discussed, individual lives can be forgotten.
I wanted to have those big ideas, but I wasn’t very good at them or at least very energised by them. I wanted to hear the stories of those who would take a time to tell them. I think I began to move more in that direction in the latter years of full time ministry and people allowed me to do so.
I could not see that being a feature if I moved anywhere else. All I was seeing was meetings, meetings and more meetings to deal with the reality of a declining denomination and the increasingly onerous demands of charity law.
Now I get to hear stories; lots and lots of stories. Except this time I feel no pressure to mould them to a predetermined narrative: I ‘just’ have to hear them. Many of those stories have not been told; people have never really trusted anyone with them. When it happens, it is unutterably precious; the glory of a single human soul.
That’s why I have this song; pretty much my story over the last few years- I had an idea/a calling/a feeling/a direction of travel and it seemed that I would have to lose that and ‘grow up’….. and now I don’t; I’ve got it back.