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.
I have seen others taking this route (Chaplaincy) losing their respect for/belief in scripture. I understand that; being able to step back from being a community’s spokesperson/shaman/preacher allows a bit of honesty; you don’t ‘need’ to believe on behalf of others any more.
I think I was just lucky; I always found scripture fascinating; even the bits that seemed to make no sense, obviously contradicted or seemed extraneous and best left on the cutting room floor. In that respect, its messy unpredictability seemed more true to life than anything else. Calls to ‘systematic’ theology, the ‘plain truth’ of scripture or readings that disregarded the untidy story in favour of hermetically sealed truth never did it for me, so I hadn’t got that to lose or be ‘converted’ from. The Bible seemed full colour even if evangelical theology at its worst excesses made it seem like an angry, pale man in a 3 piece suit.
The Psalms do it all the time for me and increasingly so. The mix of joy, lament, vengeance, praise, belief, disbelief, humble acceptance, anger and so many many more themes often fill me with a sense of everlasting life. Mornings when I pause, as my NHS computer tries to load up, and I try to keep stillness and prayer and a Psalm can be times when the veil between heaven and earth seem very thin. There is no silence of an empty church, but rather the whirring of a fan over an ageing hard drive and the chatter of people passing wherever I’ve managed to hot desk that day.
Sometimes the stories of an ancient people and an inspired, sometimes dissonant library seem more real in the ‘real world’ that I inhabit.
You will have gathered that I sit and listen more to preaching than I’ve done for at least 20 years. Some observations (some of these apply to any public talk I’ve listened to); most of which make we wince- I was guilty of many of these:-
1: Reading from a script (with no eye contact) does not raise much interest- it usually kills it- particularly if your voice sounds like you are just reading.
2: Talking without a script is great, but not so good when it comes across as aimless and without structure.
3: Most people can’t speak for more than 10 minutes without being boring, so why bother with 20. Some people can’t manage 2 or 3 minutes…
4: How is it possible to be a trained preacher and not know how to speak in front of people?
5: Can you summarise what you are going to say in one sentence? If you can’t, it generally makes it harder for your audience to know what you are saying.
6: The ‘language of Zion’ used repeatedly tends to obfuscate, not enlighten.
7: The person who rarely attends, the guest or the one who is ‘just looking’ is the most important person in the room; not us regulars. If you can’t speak to them, stop.
8: Your honesty and how the passage connects with you is really appealing. If I know what makes sense/fires/puzzles you, I’ll listen.
9: Generally the thoughts of cultural figures from the 1950s who are long dead don’t communicate to us today.
10: I don’t expect to be entertained, but neither do I want to be bored to the point of fury by irrelevance.
Short of saying ‘nice tie’ I don’t know what to say to a preacher when I experience everything apart from number 8. I mean: I’m sure you’ve spent a long time preparing and it is tough, but….
‘can you feel the silence?’
I don’t preach much at the moment: there are unresolved issues (that are not likely to be resolved soon/ever) that preclude that happening. But there is something else: I really like the silence.
Actually; I really need the silence. I think of all the words that I have used in 20 years of regular preaching. I was adept with words and I fear that I used them too much. Whilst the preparation for a sermon was good and forced me to face my doubts/hopes/despairs/dreams, the delivery often went on too long. I believe the Jewish people used to have a belief that a word had form and wasn’t just uttered, but existed forever. Put that way, my public speaking is enough to fill several rooms with waste words.
I need the silence as words came too easy and sometimes too glibly. Faced with a beautiful story and the thin, fragile veil between us and eternity we preachers rush to fill it with words and explanations when silence and mystery would often be a better response.
And if I’m asked to respond in public to a question in church, often I don’t. Not because I can’t think of what to say, but merely because I have so much to say. Sometimes it does you good to listen to what others are saying (and not just hear enough to give a different view) and keep silence for a while.
Maybe the words will come again and I’ll preach them frequently, but just now ‘fasting’ from them and thinking carefully when I do is the necessary thing.
You don’t really like phoning helplines.
You often get frustrated: the person on the other end seems so ready to pick the first phrase that fits into their list of ready prompts that they do not listen to what you want to say. You get frustrated: frequently. Often you end up raising your voice (of which you are not proud) and saying ‘Please; stop talking and just listen’.
These days, when you make it, you end up listening to more preaching than doing it. You know what a tough gig it is: to even attempt it takes time, soul bearing, conquering your demons and listening to the mess, contradictions and inconsistency in the passage. It is never easy and can never be so: those who sit there and listen face enough mess, contradictions and inconsistency in their own lives. Those things cannot be fixed, but held, honoured and bought into contact with the Story of Grace.
Sometimes you feel that much of the preaching you listen to is like ‘helpline preaching’: you are struggling to see how the text has been been listened to, sat with and then wrestled with. Sometimes the first word that has been read or concept that has been deduced is the peg on which a whole sermon rides; you experience an ‘everything I know about x’ talk. The passage sits outside, alone, unheard, sad: you usually get bored and disengage. To paraphrase the Smiths ‘The words that are constantly said, say nothing to me about my life’.
You long for preachers to listen more and say less. You stand in the presence of deep mystery; I know that you know that…but don’t be scared by it. We who listen want that.
I’m preaching today: watch me ignore all of this….
There was a time that if you offered me a prayer meeting or a special service, I’d be there. In hindsight, I grew immensely through the experience of doing so and being there. If you offered me one now, I’d most likely not go and I’d be thinking about how time is precious and I would not want to ‘waste’ it (working 9-5 ‘ish’ , juggling teenagers and getting older does that to you).
Yet if you offered me connection; real connection with people, I’d be more willing to make the effort than I ever was.
As soon as it percolates into you that your time is really your own, it is a heady feeling. There is no external or internal voice telling you that you ‘should’ go to something when you’ve already been out 3 or 4 nights that week. You come to realise that you were gradually allowing yourself to be drained by ‘shoulds’; your internal voice has gradually begun to change and be more affirming. After a while you end up positively choosing – as opposed to being a rebellious teenager-what you want to do.
Years ago this would sound very, very selfish. But you also get twinges of guilt about the times you laid false obligation on tired people to do the same. You know you preached a gospel that talked about engagement with the world where you lived, but you also felt responsible for running an Institution.
You ask yourself; ‘Is this a sustainable way for a church to function?’ In your current form of engaging with the institution, no. Do I feel guilty about that? No; not anymore- I can only do so much with the time, energy and inclination that I have. If there is a call to be more ‘busy’ or active, it will come…but it hasn’t yet.
Maybe, you realise; you are still coming to terms with ‘Institutional church PTSD’ and the things that you believe that you experienced will never lead to the old ways coming back.
And maybe that will be ok.
I struggle with Easter Sunday, or at least some church expressions of it.
A few days back I was listening to a programme on Radio 4 about the increasing use of funeral singers. During the course of the programme they wheeled out a vicar who talked about music that they weren’t too keen on having in a funeral: ‘My Way’ was mentioned (I’ve had it once, and generally struggle with it myself). They then went on to talk about music they were ok with. The Vicar mentioned ‘Always look on the bright side of life’ and felt it was ‘close to the gospel’ as we try and look on the bright side.
During the same week- Holy Week-I went to two funerals. Both people had died from cancer leaving teenage children. My grasp of the gospel was not strong enough to look on the bright side….
It would be that aspect of Easter that I struggle with: the faux triumph and forced jollity that seems to come into some evangelical celebrations; the darkness, doubt and silence that happened between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday has been avoided, Lent has been ‘Eastered’ out and now you just get ‘loud’.
Meanwhile, for you, the doubts are mounting & you are not sure what/if you believe and you want it verbalised/held/not necessarily answered, but your church just gives you noise or an insipid suburban blandness. Perhaps you might get a heady cocktail of both: life may be bad, but cheer up and look on the bright side!
If Easter means anything, for me it includes the hope sometimes felt in the middle of pain, the strength to live out resurrection despite the odds or even the smile I experienced from a man with dementia who knew he was fading, yet whose face lit up as we recited the Lord’s Prayer together and said ‘I remembered that’. It has to be something that has lived/is living through Good Friday and Easter Saturday.
Strangely though, I can take this (despite the attempts of ‘happy’ Christians to put uplifting beats and twee graphics in many of the versions I saw on youtube and despite the readiness to post this on Good Friday (‘help: pain and unanswered questions; let’s avoid them!’)) especially if it is played on Easter Sunday, for in many ways we are still in Good Friday:-
A blessed Easter: Sunday’s coming.