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’.
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.
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.
You were used to running a church. It was never ‘my church’ and you’ve often avoided those who talk in that way of a group of people as their own possession.
Yet all the same, you remember the feeling of never quite being ‘off duty’ and somehow your faith was symbiotically linked to yours in a way that just being part of a church ever was.
And then that goes: you no longer have a church/churches and you are ‘free’. Some in your role rarely if ever go back: the scars hurt too much, but eventually and haltingly you do.
I confess; I went through a few months when I hardly went to church. I liked the space and the bruises (not from the people in the churches that I once led) from the organisation still caused me to wince. Besides, it was lovely to be able to watch my children play cricket and to be around them without feeling that my time was not fully my own. To put it more crudely, the wife of a minister once said to me ‘Other people’s husbands have the right to be a dick: mine doesn’t’.
A new minister came to the church I once led: he was ‘whole’- he didn’t seem to need to display his ego in a destructive way when he stood in front of people and he seemed to have emotional honesty. We got involved again; I was asked to take part in things, but never to the extent that I felt ‘used’. I got to see just how lovely those people in the church were, when I wasn’t in charge, and we fell into going again.
But this new pattern is different; it is not regular. We try to get there every week and we don’t always manage it….but just being there…among people (mainly elderly) and seeing their faith is often enough. The question ‘Is your church a good church?’ has increasingly piqued me: as long as people pray, lean on each other, try and apply sacred truths to life as it is lived, isn’t that ‘good’ enough? Plus; it really helps if they are the people in your community that you normally see; church isn’t a place that you commute to.
For now anyway; one of the many things that this time is teaching me is that nothing is fixed or definite and nothing lasts forever.
He led a large and some would say ‘successful’ church: more than one site, active social justice work, working with the marginalised, lively worship etc, but you would not know it. He just did what he did and was more eager to talk up others’ role than his own.
And I don’t think it was artifice: he was so comfortable in his own skin, his view of God, his place in the world that he allowed others space to be who they were. When he spoke of people who were broken it was with sympathy without being patronising.
While his views were not in many cases my own, I left his presence feeling built up and not being looked down upon. Also I was thankful: people like him help me do my job better- there is a community out there called ‘church’ that whilst often flawed, provides more open space and support than any I know.
And at the end of our time together, he prayed for me with integrity and respect: it was no act. I left feeling humbled and so grateful: sometimes in the presence of people with similar positions, I have left feeling angry and patronised- their ego got in the way.
It is not hard to be who you are without singing and dancing about it.
I found this this week and it helped me. I have written over many months about the Church and my experiences and the personal view that ‘when she is good she is very very good and when she is bad she is horrid’.
I am largely separated from my parent denomination in terms of its official structure: doing enough to ‘fulfil all righteousness’ and maintain my status as a Methodist minister. At the same time I am enjoying being part of the ‘community roll’ (those attached to a chapel who are not members, but are somehow involved), going along to worship and occasionally preaching….and trying to find Christ in new ways without a whole host of ‘shoulds’/’oughts’. Sometimes that means not being present in certain situations…
So, the quote:-
‘We are called to continue to reach out to and love even our enemies. This does not mean that we must love them at close range, however. Sometimes reconciliation requires separation, particularly in abusive or oppressive situations where proximity threatens our very identities in relation to God. But it also requires the struggle to learn to wish enemies well even when we cannot be in their presence and even when they are impenitent, and even when we are appropriately angry. Boundaries are legitimate. Permanent hopeless barriers are not’.
(L.Gregory Jones ‘Forgiveness’ in ‘Practicing our faith’ ed D.Bass)
Here’s to the continuing journey…
Helpful, non religious article on forgiveness:- http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/03/16/forgiveness-facts_n_6865042.html
I had to cover for a colleague at short notice and ended up doing something for them: talking to an afternoon church meeting about spirituality and mental health.
The meeting began late: someone wasn’t there. People began to talk about the last time they had seen the person and then ran through all the things they normally did. Someone went off to phone them and someone else was deputed to go and see them later. There were further delays as people talked about others who were not there and why they were not there. Some news was shared about someone who died.
At first, I could feel some exasperation: I could have been doing something else and why was this taking so long? Then I looked at it differently: this was a community that cared for each other and the gossip was a sign of that. They did care about who was coming to speak, but they cared more about each other; many who were alone and otherwise isolated.
And I thought about how many people could do with relationship and community like that.
‘Just trying the new church out this weekend’.
I read a version of that quote a few weeks ago. I’ve been there and used variations of language like this:
‘Praying that the Lord will show us the right church’ etc
‘We just didn’t feel there was enough for the children’
‘The worship did not suit my style’.
‘We are trying a few places to see what feels right’
I know that in the place where you live the church may be on its last legs, only focussed on itself or overbearing to newcomers (‘Goody: someone new to do jobs‘): I would struggle to be part of a place like that. But, the local church may well be embedded in it’s community, a place of welcome to the outsider and a place where it makes Good News known (but it may not use the language that you do to do that).
One of the issues of being middle class, Generation X etc, where consumer choice is so hard wired into us is that becomes the lens through which we see everything. In other words ‘what is good for me and mine’. I do: I am not immune.
Church then becomes that which feeds me/provides for me so I can be ‘filled/helped/more mission minded’. Just as we will travel to the best school (guilty), the shops we like, the leisure pursuits that fill us, we will do the same for church. At the end, it just becomes another product that the discerning middle class shopper chooses.
I am not perfect or consistent- far from it: indeed I sometimes toy with the idea that there must be something ‘better’ that we could travel to. We haven’t done so: initially that was through no other motivation than laziness. For now I am thinking that ‘the Kingdom of God’ is here- not somewhere else: this is where we live and have most of our significant relationships & this is where-as a result- we do church.
This is the kind of issue that you can’t summarise in a blog posting, but look at the first quote and put in (for example) ‘car’, ‘camera’ or ‘horse’- see what I mean?
We have started going to church regularly once more.
It took a while- we never stopped going; we just didn’t nearly as frequently as we had. I think it was to allow space for recovery and refocussing. Gradually the desire came to go back.
It helped because the minister of the church where I used to go to (he is wonderful and gracious by the way) started something new at 9am that was reasonably short: I still can’t do long acts of worship.
When we were walking there yesterday (I‘d recommend it: you get to see the area where you are praying about & talk to people on the way. Church ceases to be another activity you get in your car to do & one which is separate from where you live), I mused on the fact that I don’t really like ‘contemporary worship’ – which this services uses: yet we still want to go.
I think it is because it is local and it is not so much about being ‘entertained’ the way I want to. be. So we sat there, joined in, spoke with others: young and old, faithful & atheist (yes really), engaged and bored.
There weren’t that many of us, but it was church: worshipping, learning, being together and local.
A good morning.
‘I will miss it now.’
By & large that was the reaction with most people who were involved with our local pantomime after we had finished on Saturday.
There is something healing & therapeutic about being involved with a group of people of disparate gifts and abilities all working towards a common goal. Out of that- eventually- comes idle chatter, banter and sharing of lives: community. Of course there is bitchiness, misunderstanding and falling out- ‘community’ encompasses those things as well.
I will miss it, but my first reaction on Sunday morning was to mentally work out where else ‘community’ would be happening in my week: I need community to be ‘me’. Fortunately I made it to church & then I am leading Beaver Scouts tonight (and meeting with leaders later tonight and tomorrow). And then comes Friday, where I hope to be spending some hours with friends at The Bay Horse.
I think we all need community: latterly advertisers have cottoned on to it: if I see another advert full of hip 20 somethings living in urban loft apartments, festooned with luxury goods & driving eye wateringly expensive cars, I may well write a passive aggressive blog post about it. The (un)subtle message is ‘Buy our products and you can have a life like this…..until we release a newer version that is’. Sometimes human relationships/friendship groups can be constructed around this- you can be part of us/close to us, but only if you can consume like we do.
Whilst I am still attracted to the advertisers vision: it is so seductive….. In my better days I know which version of community that I want to be part of and which is more satisfying.
Mind you; I still miss dressing up, uttering double entendres, running around on stage and people paying money to watch…