It is that day again.

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I have my annual birthday today. It hasn’t got a ‘0’ on, but is one of those numbers between 50 and 60 where you slip into another age bracket that those who set surveys get you to tick. Depending on the survey and the bracket, it can make me feel very old.

There was a time when I would work as normal on my birthday, but as I’ve got older, I’ve realised that time is running out; well not running out exactly, but anything that I don’t do now may well not get done done later. Perhaps it is part of loving yourself so you can love others, perhaps it is an indulgence or maybe the two are the same.

The last 3 or 4 years, I have usually gone for a long walk alone in a wild place; the kind of walk where you see few people, you sometimes get lost and you feel the blowing of the wind that sometimes threatens to topple you over.

That is where I will be for most of today-Snowmaggedon permitting. It is a useful reminder that I am very small against the wonder of all that is, that ‘purchased experiences don’t count’ (Douglas Coupland) and heaven for an introvert with extrovert features. Oh; and I may just drink beer this evening as well- it is a birthday after all.

Some things are never the same

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Much as I do not like labels, some part of being ‘Methodist’ helps me. I like the emphasis on community, informality and the strong emphasis of a practical outworking in what you believe. I like that as a minister you are not considered to be of a separate order to others. I like Wesley hymns. I like….so much, really. However, I also recognise that I cherry pick what I like.

Someone once told me that the church can be like the little girl with the little curl: when she is good, she is very, very good and when she is bad she is horrid. I’ve experienced much of that undeserved, gracious good and the kindness and generosity of ordinary people has been wonderful. Unfortunately in one or two significant incidents I’ve experienced the reverse where I’ve felt significantly threatened.

As a result, whilst I still remain in faithful communion with my denomination and ‘fulfil all righteousness’ to do so, I have a critical distance between myself and the formal structures of my church; in 3 years I have felt unable to attend anything more than one evening meeting and (by choice) have no formal role in that organisation. One of the experiences of this journey is that I’ve found others who feel themselves in a similar position and have experienced affirmation: you are not alone, unusual and your experience is not an isolated one: it is ok. Indeed, reviewing a book on NHS whistle-blowing for a professional journal, I found the feelings of transference overwhelming: the sense of any hurt or difficulty you feel in saying ‘this is wrong’ being made very much your own personal problem.

At the same time I feel profoundly grateful to those who against the odds, keep the flame of my denomination flickering. However I do not (yet? Or forever? Or somewhere in between?) feel able to rejoin them in that sense.

But that is ok: sometimes the road to forgiveness does not mean that the relationship will ever be restored in the same way.

A settled community

Three years or so ago someone said to me something like ‘When you get this job; they won’t want you living in this parish- you’ll have to move’. I remember saying something like ‘ ‘they’ have no power over me’ like that’. I can still recall the delicious feeling of freedom that I felt.

‘They’ have no power over me.

Even saying that phrase now, I feel the same sense of freedom. I travelled for years under a false sense of obligation. I’m part of a closed Facebook group for ministers of my denomination; often I can sense that unhealthy feeling of over obligation; mostly it is self perpetuated, but with ‘they’ controlling your accommodation and in some ways your life it is a living reality. In hindsight, it was a reality that was slowly draaining the life out of me.

I’ve realised that part of my make up is to resist; if ‘everyone’ seems to be doing something; I’ll often desire to do the opposite. That wasn’t the reason why we chose to stay in this village that we’d lived in for over 10 years- no one could be that petty- but sometimes it comes back to me; I’ve done something that ‘they’ wouldn’t like.

I guess we stayed in this place because of ‘community’: that feeling that you get where-as the theme to ‘Cheers’ goes- everyone knows your name. If not ‘everyone’, many people. The unforced and random conversations that result in pubs, shops, churches and on the street are lovely: you don’t have to be always working to establish yourself. The impact on my mental health of not changing everything all at once and keeping many of the same friends and community activities has been incalculable; it has given me the basis to make new friends and try new things.

Friends who are ministers have often asked how that is possible: to live in an area where you were a minister. If you have friends outside the Christian bubble (which many full time, paid,  church people seem to struggle to do), it is natural and easy: or at least I have found it to be the case. Some of the same ministers have also wondered if church people can ‘cope’ with that. I think that betrays an unhealthy view of people who attend churches to be almost like children who cannot cope without a change in role of the ‘adult’ minister. I’ve found what I already knew: that view is manifest nonsense, people are ‘adult’ enough.

 

…oh and perhaps ‘they’ never thought that possible: it is.

It was easier to get rid of than I thought…

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Books

‘Stuff’

Notes

Even souvenirs that I had held on to for years.

I got rid of a lot. At first I went through things slowly, carefully filtering what to keep and what not to keep.

And then we moved. At first the pile of boxes slowly diminished and then when all of the unpacking was done, there was still more to do. Eventually, some of what was unpacked was repacked for the tip/recycling/charity shops. What began as a slow stream became a raging torrent.

Contemplating that months before gave me some anxiety: how can I get rid of that? Where am I going to put that? How can I live without that?

But when you are in the middle of a change it gets easier.

It is challenging though: I have become wary of very wealthy people in big houses and secure finances talking about how we don’t need possessions to define us, who at the same time seem unwilling to part with what they have. My educated middle-classness was (and still is) defined by what I have accumulated and held on to. At 49, as I was then, you have a tacit expectation of stability, security and mortgages paid off and you become defined by what you have. Getting rid of large amounts of that and having little financial stability threatens all of that: Who am I? What will I be? Why am I somehow ‘different’ than my peers?

At times the process went:

I can’t move.

This is too hard.

And then, slowly and fleetingly, yet the frail flame of faith is always guttering and threatening to be blown out:

I can move.

We can do this.

We are doing this.

The financial stability, 3 years down the line, has not yet come, but the feeling of release and freedom has; I haven’t missed much of what I’ve let go. And with that freedom, comes openness: what shall I be? Where will we go next?

It is always hard and yet easier to get rid of what can can never hold on to for ever: I don’t think that you find Grace without it…

..in the rear view mirror…

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Someone said to me that what I would experience when I ‘left’ the church, or at least when I left the direct pay of the church, would be the sensation of that denomination disappearing from me like something seen through a rear view mirror.

I understood what they were saying- sort of- yet it is hard to imagine what change will look like until you experience it. All that you really know is what you are currently experiencing. I think it became more apparent when I went to a conference a few months after beginning my new role; one other chaplain referred wryly to the experience of connecting briefly with his denomination as ‘connecting with the Mothership’

To all intents and purposes the formal structures of my denomination have dropped out of the ether; I have only attended one evening meeting in 3 years and I reckon I have made around half of the various synods (all day meetings) that I am supposed to attend. One I forgot about: so far has my world changed.

Suddenly you begin to realise that you are not ‘compelled’ to be at things you often struggled with: you have choice. Initially this is both bewildering and liberating. As time goes on, the heady feel of liberation goes stronger: the delicious feeling of ‘the hardening of the oughteries’ gets stronger.

Whilst your admiration for those who remain ‘inside’ begins to increase, you lose the guilt and realise this uncertain path that you are on is your ‘new normal’. There won’t be a fixed point or destination any more.

Over time, you experience a craving for this thing called ‘church’: you can’t exist without it. Yet over 3 years in, you have no real desire to engage with its formal structure ; at some time you may engage more closely with the place that birthed you, although perhaps you never will.

But you feel ok with the liminality…

 

Tempus fugit. A lot.

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There is a line from Dark Side of the Moon’ that goes: ‘Then one day you find, 10 years have got behind you’.

I’ve just realised that it is around 3 years this week since I had my leaving service from being a Methodist minister in a regular church appointment. My local friends tell me I am ‘defrocked’; I’m still very much ‘frocked’ (although mostly in pantomime).

I don’t know what I imagined on that day: we still had nowhere to live (that is a long and painful story & one reason why I still don’t preach regularly), I had no model of what the future looked like, it was nearly 20 years since I last had a contract of employment and I had no live model of what spirituality looked like outside of being a rev within a church.

3 years later and I’m still standing: sometimes that has been ‘just standing’ and sometimes it has been ‘thriving’. Mostly it has been somewhere in the middle; often a mix during the same day.

In the next few days, I’m going to do a bit of thinking out loud about what these 3 years have meant. Once thing I have learned, however, is that change, huge change is possible and I never thought it would be for me. Most of us spend a huge amount of time, energy and money trying to fight it off and ultimately we can’t. At best, it makes you feel more ‘alive’: the highs are higher and the lows are lower than you’ve ever felt.

Nothing is sacred. Perhaps because of that; everything is sacred- even the bits that you’d prefer to skip.

A story about a chaplain

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I’ve kept this story for a while; since I last regularly blogged over a year ago. It had an impact on me then and still has an impact on me now. Parts of the story have grown ‘shiny’ in the telling, but the central message is good.

It stems from a conference in the USA on prison issues; the kind of conference where there are a lot of prominent people and a lot of loud voices. In the middle of the conference sat a priest who who barely said a word. On the final day of the conf, the leader pointed to this priest and asked him to tell his story about why he was at this conference.

The priest began to share that he hadn’t always been a priest. In fact, this priest had once been one of the hardest of criminals: one who had little respect for authority, and do everything in their power to gain the advantage over others.

While he was in jail, he came across a prison chaplain. This chaplain was a country bumpkin, and seemed very naive. Very quickly in his tenure he became identified as an easy mark, and the priest visited him regularly to see what he could get this chaplain to do. And, without fail, the chaplain would give in to his requests. This always happened, to the point where the priest said he had become angry at the stupidity of this chaplain who he was taking advantage of. Finally, when he had taken something from this chaplain another time, the priest lost it. “Are you really this gullible?” the priest  shouts. “Are you so naive and stupid that you can’t recognise that I’m purposely taking advantage of you?”

The chaplain looked at the convict/priest and replied slowly. “I knew exactly what you were doing,” he told the inmate. “I know that you are probably taking advantage of me. But, in this business there are basically 2 options: to be a cynic, holding your trust close to your heart and never opening up the light of God’s love; or to be a sucker, willing to err on the side of grace. The chaplain looked the priest/convict deep in the eyes. “I’m not willing to be a cynic.”

The priest shared that at that moment, he first looked into the eyes of Christ and led him to consider the place of God in his own life. “Ever since,” the priest said, “I’ve asked myself the question, “Are you a cynic or a sucker,” and I choose the role of cynic.

Original source http://www.onlywonder.com/wordpress/     accessed 24/1/7

 

Friday Music

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My older son listens to Grime, but he is 16.  It is not something I could ever get into: a (nearly) 52 year old reverend getting ‘down wid da kidz’ would be, I fear, the height of incongruity, although I appreciate the dexterity and skill of some of the artists he has played to me.

It was through him that I first heard of Stormzy: ‘Shut Up’ is catchy, but not my style. However, later I heard ‘Blinded by your Grace’; it didn’t sound very ‘Grime’, so- curious-I listened to it, listened to it again and listened to it once more.

I searched for blogs about it, as I was taken in by the joy and the theology therein. I couldn’t find one, apart from one very evangelical one that sounded as if the reviewer was sucking a lemon as he wrote about Stormzy’s life not being compatible with Faith & as he damned him with stern gatekeeping.

Yes: from what I’ve seen and heard, there are inconsistencies in his lifestyle, but, there are many in mine; I wouldn’t say that many of my actions are very ‘Christian’. However, that is not the point for me; sometimes, isn’t enough just to be captured by the joy and exuberance of what you are listening to?

Maybe it is enough to be open to whatever fragment of Faith that is offered by any artist and rejoice in it and see how it lights your own path. Perhaps the reviewer’s theologically correct, yet joyless and judgemental review is actually much further away from any Gospel than Stormzy’s  hopefulness. Indeed, having looked at the short ‘Gang Signs and Prayer’: Christian iconography pervades this deeply moral, yet uncomfortable short.

I like this version of the song most; beautifully shot in a South London estate; most probably the one he grew up in and intercut with images of people searching for Grace and redemption: I find it really moving and very powerful.

Music begins around 1:20 if you are impatient; but don’t be.