Baptism for the hesitant

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I led a baptism service yesterday and I’ll lead another one next week. I think it is around 5 years since I’ve led one: I no longer lead churches and I’ve only been able to lead these two as the ministers of the 2 churches have allowed me to.

Someone once told me that a measure of a ‘good’ minister is that when they leave, they are not missed; if they’ve done their work well, others have been allowed to grow & they are not needed. However, I conducted both couples’ weddings and I guess that they felt some connection with me so they asked. I feel more than slightly uncomfortable with praise, yet a small part of me feels gratified and humbled. It is wise though to keep John Wesley’s 18th century maxim in mind : ‘If thou art constrained to bless the instrument; give God the glory’.

It’s a peculiar feeling going ‘back’ to something I left. The first feeling is one of strangeness: I’m slightly rusty at something that I once got into a routine of doing. Then there is a tinge of a feeling of being a bit of a ‘fraud’: I’ve had a paradoxical relationship with my parent denomination since I left pastoral charge- I sit on no meetings apart from the handful I’m supposed to attend so I’m welcoming the children into something I have mixed feelings about. I guess there is also a bit of nostalgia: this used to be me and some small part will always miss that.

Most people these days who want to get their children ‘done’ seem to do it for a mix of reasons, but under them is often a paradoxical relationship with faith and church. They remember ‘home’: a place where they might have gone as children but have never found as adults. They are often reaching out for something that they cannot always articulate. Often the small seed of ‘faith’ remains but it is dormant. Perhaps someone who has faith and is conflicted about the church may sometimes be the best person to connect with. That seemed to be the case yesterday and I hope it is this Sunday.

Maybe I wasn’t so bad as a minister after all…

 

 

Funeral 3: some deeper thinking.

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….I don’t think I’m a heretic, but it is one of those labels shouted when understanding and listening has broken down ( see also the use of the ‘pejorative adjective’ in the current General Election campaign)

My question as a Christian is; how best do you honour people, really honour people? Each vicar/priest/pastor/minister has to make their choice. I’m at the stage of I’m not here to compel (this is where I perhaps divert from many ) or get through a set order as ‘that is what is written’, or even to convert when I lead a funeral (although sometimes that might be appropriate if that is what is requested). To try and do anything apart from honour the person who has died, support those who are grieving and be true to yourself (people can see through an act)is all that can be expected from a celebrant.

Sometimes I have even jettisoned the language of ‘religion’ if that was what is appropriate: I’m here by invitation and ‘invitation’ precludes ‘trespass’. Besides, I reckon that if God is God that is ok and God is bigger than any form of words. Many times the songs that people want in a ‘humanist funeral’ often refer to ‘angels’ or ‘heaven’ or ‘seeing you later’ anyway. Also, in general when people say ‘humanist’ they talk about religion more when you discuss what they want.

As a minister (and now a chaplain roaming all over a county) I’ve always been a person who is part of a community , often acting as a representative person in contexts that are not necessarily ‘religious’ (I loathe that word!) . These situations awoke me to a reality beyond church and often they have been converting and challenging. As a chaplain, I’m in those situations all of the time- I have no safe space and cannot exist in a silo. Occasionally doing non faith funerals challenges a lot of my preconceptions, changes my language and enables me to see God where I would have thought him absent.

Now nearly 5 years away from church ministry, I sometimes wonder just how much ministers are missing out by staying away from funerals as they are ‘too busy’ or only doing Christian ones. Society and the funeral business are moving rapidly away from using church ministers: it seems because there are fewer of them, sometimes it is hard to get them to return calls and a minority seem unbending (this is the view of funeral Directors I have spoken to: not mine). Most funeral directors rarely bother; sticking to celebrants whose quality they can guarantee. If I was in church ministry, would I lead non faith ceremonies? Yes:there is a world there where we are not; lamenting over that and not trying to engage seems a pity.

Besides; I only believe that you grow when you encounter boundary situations…

Funeral 2: to humanist or not? A history.

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It was several years ago now. The  village doctor had died tragically early. As to ‘faith’, he was an avowed and passionate atheist. The local vicar, broadly a traditionalist who had been in post for over 30 years insisted that his humanist funeral be held in the parish church, only having the Lord’s Prayer as the dying doctor insisted because it was ‘your church’.

This wasn’t quite a ‘road to Damascus’ moment for me, but it came close. Someone (the vicar) was so sure of his faith and thought his God was big enough to encompass even the absence of faith.

I’d experienced a growing feeling of being unsure that when it came to funerals, sometimes people seemed to be ‘christianised’ by the ordained person. I’d become aware that people wanted some element of Christianity, but not the full package. Also that as you were a ‘known person’ in a community, you wanted that person to take your funeral, even if you had no faith.

Gradually, from that day, I began to say ‘yes’ if a ‘humanist’ funeral was requested. Many times what was intended by ‘humanist’ meant some acknowledgment of Christian faith: a prayer, The Lord’s Prayer, but nothing more. Sometimes the family came with negative experiences of religion: the church or a religious figure had put them off, but still wanted ‘something’. They didn’t want their loved one drowned in a ‘one size fits all liturgy.’ I still remember conducting a funeral with no apparent faith content & when I bumped into the family several months later being acknowledged, without irony, as ‘Here’s our vicar’.

The vast majority of church leaders seem to be good at leading funerals: there are a minority though, if stories are to be believed, who are not. Their ‘no’ is remembered long after the event. Digging deeper into the stories that you hear, ‘no’ seems to sometimes owe more to the need for personal power than any desire to uphold orthodoxy. Sometimes the best evangelism when people are incoherent with grief is simply to be kind without conditions.

I realised that I had fully crossed the rubicon when, with a retired bishop I conducted a humanist funeral in a village chapel, because the family wanted something in their community led by people that they trusted.

Now, as a chaplain, and not minister in a church, I’d be expected- if asked- to do whatever it took at a funeral as long as it did not breach my conscience: but to be honest- that has never happened.

My name is Graham: I’m a heretic (see part 3)

 

Friday (Nick Cave) music…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Xhr7j1zukY

Nick Cave’s music has often reached me in a way that much other music fails to: he is an unlikely artist to fill enormodomes- the usual territory of music that is fine in itself but is unlikely to scare or challenge anyone.

Sometimes music reaches so deep into you that other things seem to fade away: this experience is so powerful that it threatens to consume you. I got this sensation when I first started to listen to Ghosteen; it has never quite left me. Others have written more volubly and ably about this work, I see it as a series of meditations on thoughts and feelings arising from the death of his 16 year old son, Arthur. Like the best art, this is rarely direct and is even more moving because of that.

The whole album is shot through with so many things such as: loss, pain, joy, hope and redemption. It doesn’t leave us with easy answers, but I feel better for having played it.

I could have featured any track, but here an extract from ‘Bright Horses’. A high, spectral voice, talk of bright horses (who appear throughout the album as a kind of metaphor for hope) with manes of fire and the protagonist holding someone’s hand, before the mood turns and this is sung:-

‘And everyone has a heart and it’s calling for something
We’re all so sick and tired of seeing things as they are
Horses are just horses and their manes aren’t full of fire
The fields are just fields, and there ain’t no Lord
And everyone is hidden, and everyone is cruel
And there’s no shortage of tyrants, and no shortage of fools

Then the mood turns again- as it often does on this album: there may be something more, something ‘other’:-

And the little white shape dancing at the end of the hall
Is just a wish that time can’t dissolve at all’.

And then something heart-wrenching happens: that sense that often comes in deep grief- the person who has gone may still be there:-
Oh, oh, oh, well, this world is plain to see
It don’t mean we can’t believe in something, and anyway
My baby’s coming back now on the next train
I can hear the whistle blowing, I can hear the mighty roar
I can hear the horses prancing in the pastures of the Lord…
….and so it goes on and on… and that car you see on the A19 with the driver choking back tears may just be me…
Few people can be vulnerable & express things that might not be ‘complete’: just look at your social media feed where it often seems full of gleaming good times and people are talking only about their strength, or somehow hiding. Nick Cave takes the counter intuitive route and i’m so grateful that he did.

 

Funeral:1

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If I lead a funeral (which is much rarer than I used to do), a common response is:

‘I couldn’t do what you do’

In my head I’m saying ‘I think you could; I think anyone could, given time and training: what I do is nothing special’. This is what I attempt to do: others will have different ways:-

You have to learn to listen; really listen when people tell you about the person who died. listen to what they say and what they don’t say (this is sometimes more important). You learn to watch body language and try and ‘read beneath’. Often, you let the silence of grief go on and don’t jump in.

If there is a specific request that you don’t understand or is out of your comfort zone, you have to practice taking a deep breath and avoiding a reflex ‘No’: it isn’t your funeral, you are not in command, you are honouring them. A ‘No’ from a minister/celebrant is remembered for years: in some families for several generations. That ‘No’ often seems to come from being unsure and not being able to cope with being unsure; sometimes though, it seems to come from a misplaced sense of power.

Then you go away and do nothing on the funeral for at least a day (ideally- but I’ve evolved this pattern as even at my peak, I only did 30-35 funerals a year); you let your subconscious do the work- you think, you pray and you see what happens. Eventually you write, preferably in a couple of sittings: this is going to be precious to those who hear it- you may make mistakes, but you try not to. Avoid euphemisms: yes it is important to celebrate and give thanks, but ‘they are not gone from us’, ‘gone to a better place’ or ‘no longer with us’; ‘they have died’.

You are human. This is obvious; but from some of the stories I’ve heard some people forget that. This can never be just a job; reading out a script with no inflexion, trace of humour, sadness, warmth etc comes across that it is just a job. Some measure of the grief always hits you; sometimes obviously and when you are not expecting it -you try not to show it- it isn’t about you.

And ultimately, this is not about you: this is not ‘your’ funeral. You have to fade away and the person who has died and the people that their story was intertwined with become the centrepiece. You have to be so sure of ‘you’ that you don’t need any applause or acclaim.

You could do what I do; more accurately-you could do it in your own way.

I don’t have to go anymore

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I don’t ‘have’ to go to church any more. I had to go and lead worship for over 15 years. Before that, I was pretty much regular for…well ages.

When I finished being a minister of a church, I stopped; well paused for a time. I’d done the same in a sabbatical in 2008. This time, various things were going on and it was prudent to get out of the way; I was bruised. A rhythm of sorts gradually came back, but never in the way it had before. I think I described myself sardonically to a friend around that time as ‘Hello; I’m Graham and I’m a recovering Christian.’

I relish/relished not being in charge, not being at the front and being ‘invisible’. But now when I’m actually in worship, I love that sense of being taken into a bigger picture & given a bigger map to live on: here are people who believe and are trying to live that out, here are prayers, strange wild stories of Beyond, songs and hymns and a sense that God exists outside of my thoughts and questions and …Hope…

Of course, there is much else, but mostly I leave with a sense of being lit up inside and a desire to carry on.

And that is why I think I will never stop going (although I am not able to do so today): even though I don’t ‘have ‘to go any more.

Poem

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We had this lovely poem at the funeral I led yesterday. I had never heard of the author, but it was one of the person who died’s favourite poets. 

It was the last two verses that affected me most. The majority of teenagers do not subscribe to any kind of defined ‘orthodox’ faith, but there seems to be a vague feeling amongst many that ‘something’ is there or could be there. For others, the idea that there is nothing there, but what if there was?

This poem captured the mood beautifully. Apparently the person  had said that people should wear black as we ‘should be bloody sad’: how can you use euphemisms like ‘passed away’, ‘gone to a better place’ or ‘no longer with us’ when the rest of their teenage friends are there, weeping and in rude health?

Sometimes only poetry or song will do.

 

The growing, aching quiet of this home

has led me to reading space theories.

The notions are slowly wrapping around my bones,

settling between my heart and ribcage with intricacy.

 

When I feel bereft in this aching grief

I find soothing in the words of a philosopher.

William James explained the multiverse in brief,

but with the foresight of an astronomer.

 

He spoke of time as a non-linear vision,

one where the universe is not one but many,

a different one spun off every one of our decisions,

therefore the versions of us that exist are many.

 

How comforting to think

that there are so many universes.

Perhaps one where the Titanic did not sink,

one where humanity is kind to the earth, not a curse.

 

Possibly one where magic is real

where faith is rewarded instead of scorned.

And perhaps even one where I do not grieve,

because you are alive and I have no need to mourn.

Multiverse // Wild Embers, by Nikita Gill.