I’m not busy … much

My mid-40s have definitely brought with them a new consciousness of time’s ‘ever-rolling stream’. Yesterday I found myself thinking: after February half term it’s only seven weeks until the Easter holidays, four until May half term and seven until the summer holidays, which always fly by. Then it’ll be autumn and Christmas will be here before we know it … 2015’s only just round the corner’.

I’m not joking. I genuinely had those thoughts and believed them. When we live busy, task-filled, deadline-driven lives this is how it feels. Of course being very busy some of the time is probably inevitable for most of us, and we can be satisfyingly and fruitfully busy, even in a crisis. But extreme busyness is like an extreme sport: not to be undertaken 24/7/365 if you care about your mental and physical health.

Which is why I’m reading Stephen Cherry’s book ‘Beyond Busyness: Time Wisdom for Ministry’. I came to it via one of those unexpected and enticing journeys through the ether. First I noticed Twibbons proclaiming ‘I’m not busy’ on some people’s Twitter accounts and had a dual reaction which went something like this: ‘How lovely, I wish I wasn’t’ and ‘How sad for them, not to be in demand’! Then I saw a Tweet which led to a beautiful and provoking sermon by Michael Sadgrove, Dean of Durham, which talks about the slow work of Love and says, of God, that ‘most of the time he is so slow his movement is undetectable except to those who stay still for long enough’. Next I discovered the I’m not busy website and before I knew it I was reading the book.

And it’s good. It’s helping me to see time in a different way. It’s challenging me as I’ve been challenged many times before about my unhealthy reliance on busyness and ‘being in demand’ to prove my worth: both to others and also, sadly, to myself. It’s encouraging me to hope that beyond the mechanics of good time management there really is such an enriching thing as ‘time wisdom’; wisdom that frees us up to experience time as a good thing, even a spacious thing, as we did during those long summer holidays of our youth before we learned by misadventure to allow time to diminish us.

I know very well that my relationship with ‘spaciousness’ is ambivalent. I long for it in the busyness but fear it when it comes unexpectedly upon me or, scarier still, within me. Stephen Cherry offers what is effectively a (re)-entry level tool for people who have forgotten, or never learned, how to find and relish spaciousness and live deeply in the moment. Helpfully it’s written in bite-sized sections for those of us who think we’re time-poor.

I’ve not finished it yet, but I already taste a little freedom.

On Being Disturbed

There’s something about Advent that is quite disturbing, perhaps especially when it’s lived against the fairground noise of clanging tills, early Christmas Carols and the newly-imported and oddly-named festival of Black Friday.

Don’t get me wrong, I love this time of year. I’ve even learned to cope with school Nativity plays in late November and the infectious cheeriness of ‘Well here it is, Merry Christmas’, when actually it isn’t.

This faintly crazy dissonance can heighten our awareness that December brings a potent mix of themes and resonances: in church, in the secular calendar, in the natural world. There is hope, judgment and the starkness of stripped branches, endings, ice, expectation, the dying of the year and the promise of a new start. Biblical readings tell of ‘signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars … the roaring of the sea and the waves’, the latter being more than just a metaphor for those living on the east coast of Britain right now.

Through and beyond this time of things falling apart is the promise of a new and breath-taking intimacy between us and God, which will be achieved because a young woman assents to the unquantifiable risk of childbirth and the softening of her own heart to unspeakable loss.

Advent mirrors life. Expectation and joy mingle through our days with fragility and goodbyes. The balance shifts through the weeks and years as we learn to relish the gift of human relationships and the astounding diversity of the created world; to recognise the sacred in the biggest and smallest stuff of our lives; to shape and change what we can in ourselves and our communities; and to create core space in which we can deal with the deepest cuts in ways that encourage growth and healing. 

If Advent is disturbing then that is because it speaks, all at once, of the full range of human experience. It encourages us to face fear and remain standing, to stir up our courage for the realities of risk and to believe in the new landscape that lies beyond our letting go of what’s familiar.

To be disturbed is to be truly alive. The deepest contentment comes not from the ability to deceive ourselves that we are in control, but to admit that quite often we’re not and then live imaginatively in the new space which our honesty opens up.

Going With Life’s Ebb and Flow

I’ve never been an acute political analyst or social commentator. But there was a time when I was reasonably aware of what was going on in the world and had a half-formed opinion about some of it. I’ve been concerned, then, in recent years to notice that my preaching and writing has featured fewer global references and addressed less social issues than it once did. I have wondered whether my theologising is gradually coming adrift from its essential bedrock of life-in-God’s-world: perhaps I’m slowly disappearing into my own head? For someone who has always held that belief is inseparable from action this is worrying. 

So what have I been on about for the past few years? Well, for a while I pondered birth, doubt, perfectionism and risk. Then I reflected on change, equilibrium, loss, fragility and mending. Followed by busyness, depression, calling, mid-life and happiness. And there’s been an interweaving thread that binds these themes together: the belief that we can discover the divine in the weft and warp of every aspect of the world and our lived experience: there is nowhere that God is not, and in the end it’s all connected.

There are themes that insistently draw me back and I was reminded of one of them by a wonderful sermon (someone else’s!) preached for a baptism on All Saints’ Sunday, just a couple of days ago. We were told that our vocation is always, from the beginning to the end of our lives, to be as fully as possible our unique selves. No-one else, as I have often said and written, has the same gifts, relationships, circumstances, foibles, passions and opportunities as we do. No-one else can reflect the light and character of God in the world in quite the same way as we can. Insofar as we are driven by envy or misadventure or a mistaken sense of not-being-good-enough to try to live someone else’s life, the world misses out, irretrievably, on our singular contribution.

So if my writing and speaking have taken a different direction in recent years that’s because my words come from the soil of my own life, which has changed. There’s no other way that I can communicate with passion and authenticity. Our context – or what I’ve come to think of as our hinterland – shapes our message and what it is that God needs us to bring to the party. Where we live, who we love, how we spend our time: these things will evolve, shift, ebb and flow with the unfolding of our days. Our life today is not less real, less significant or less sacred than it was last month or last year. It might feel unfamiliar, but it holds just as much holiness and potential if we can embrace it, nurture it, pick over its possibilities and begin to live it differently to the full.

Reflections in Time

One of the reasons I failed to blog last week was the disproportionate amount of time I spent staring at a spreadsheet. Not, thankfully, one that required financial analysis, but a list of women who were ordained priest in the Church of England in 1994, the first year in which that was possible. All 1474 of them. Thanks go to the Crockfords clerical directory, its patient administrators, and my forensically determined Dean of Women colleagues for ensuring, we hope, that the list is accurate and complete.

The other task which eclipsed the blog post last week was the need to gather contributions from friends and family for a birthday speech for my husband; and to scan a selection of photos from the past five decades into an album. Whether poignant, hilarious, proud, embarrassing or just simply happy, a big birthday calls forth memories.

Both the spreadsheet and the party have deepened my awareness of the passing of time. Of those first 1474 female priests, 173 have died in the past 19 years; some died within a year or so of ordination, literally having waited a lifetime for the church to affirm their calling. The rest have nurtured communities and chaplained hospitals, prisons and universities; they have enlivened cathedrals and done pioneering work in places that the church doesn’t usually reach. Next year the Church of England will celebrate two decades of women’s priestly ministry, hence the poring over spreadsheets to gather names.

As the pages of the birthday album were turned and the speech delivered – on a barge on the Grand Union Canal, surrounded by the lights of Little Venice and blessed by an almost-full moon – I was conscious of all the water under the bridge: the school days receding yet vivid in memory, the hedonistic freedom of student life, the seismic family events of love, birth and loss, the classic comic moments and new discoveries shared with friends. Accompanied by the inevitable realisation that we don’t look as young as we did thirty, twenty, even ten years ago, because we’re not.

It wouldn’t be healthy to spend all of our time reflecting on the past: being transported back to those moments that seem as vivid as this one and yet seem to have slipped, like sand, through our hands. As one version of Morning Prayer reminds us, ‘The day lies open before us’*, with all its new potential: and that means this day. But every now and again it’s good to recognise that we are what we are because of what has gone before. In the same way that those of the 1994 cohort who will celebrate together next year were shaped in relationship with the 173 who will not be there.

Except that they will. Because God’s perspective on time has always been a bit quirky, and the past, the present and the future are thrown gloriously into the mix, not only on the days of celebration, but in every moment of our lives.

*Celebrating Common Prayer

Beyond Church

My bedtime reading is keeping me awake. Not because it’s a dark Swedish thriller or a family saga with a sinister twist. It’s keeping me awake because it’s a book that constantly pushes me up against the question: ‘If this is what I believe, what difference does it make to the way that I actually live?’

I can’t remember a time when questions of faith didn’t shape my thinking. I grew up in a Vicarage, I was nurtured by a Christian community; from being 14 years old I knew that I wanted to spend my life accompanying people on their own exploration of the Christian story. I didn’t even rebel at university: my mis-spent youth was mis-spent in the Chaplaincy. I have always understood that belief is not just something that happens in your head, or even your heart and soul. It has to be lived out. In order to mean anything at all it should influence everything you are, everything you become and, crucially, everything you do.

For the ten years when my day job was that of a fulltime parish priest it was easier to convince myself that I was shaping my life around what I believe. I could point at things which seemed to prove it. Now that I’m living the ‘portfolio’ version of priesthood and spend a lot of time not-in-church I find it harder to be sure that what I believe makes any real difference to what I do. This is not, emphatically not, because I think that to be a real, authentic fulltime Christian you have to work for the church. I’m continually challenged and inspired by people living out their faith effectively and visibly in all sorts of contexts. It’s just that it’s easier to make it look as though you’re walking the walk if you’re wearing a clerical collar all day and spending a lot of time doing ‘churchy’ stuff.

So here I am, struggling with the same issues, I guess, as any Christian-who-happens-not-to-work-fulltime-(or-even-at-all)-for-the-church. Wondering whether the way that I live really is formed by the Gospel imperatives of grace, justice, forgiveness, generosity, nurture, right relationships and a bias to the marginalised and disempowered. The latter is particularly taxing me, I think.

I don’t know the answer. I’m a work in progress. And so is my reading of the disturbing book: eighty pages to go and more sleepless nights to come. I’ll keep you posted. I have a feeling this one’s going to run and run …

Separate Lives

A couple of weeks ago the broadcaster, writer and academic researcher Vicky Beeching tweeted the question: ‘What do u think of people having multiple Twitter accounts; a personal/private one & public one? Fair enough, or creating multiple ‘selves’?’

I recognise the dilemma. I started my one Facebook account some years ago with the sole intention of promoting my books online. But once the page was in existence and many of my real life friends had become Facebook friends too, the content and conversations became at least as personal as professional. With the original purpose in mind I’ve accepted ‘friends’ requests from people who know me only through what I write, so the page is a bit of a melting-pot of my different selves. Sometimes the obsessively tidy part of my brain would like to unpick it all and start again: perhaps being more social-media-savvy this time and setting up two separate sites.

Most of us would recognise that different aspects of our personality come to the fore as we inhabit multiple roles, engage with people for a range of reasons and purposes, explore relationships with varying levels of intimacy and belong to groups in a different way and for different reasons. We would also recognise, though, that there’s something that ties all of that together, called ‘me’.

Some who responded to Vicky Beeching’s question believe that it’s useful and appropriate to maintain boundaries between business and personal use of social media, even to have separate accounts relating to different areas of interest. One person questioned why ‘multiple selves’ is necessarily a bad thing and another claimed to have more than 35 Twitter accounts, whilst someone else worried that if he had two accounts he would always confuse them.

We are highly complex creatures. Not only do our personalities have many perfectly compatible aspects that are magnified or submerged depending on where we are, who we are with and what we are doing: we are also full of seeming contradictions, and probably some very real ones.

How much of this we reveal to whom and in what context is a constant negotiation within ourselves; it always was, long before social media came into being to point up the issues. Decisions around Facebook privacy options, Twitter presence and with whom we want to be Linked In simply underline the age-old question: How much of myself is it healthy and helpful for me to reveal to whom?

Thank goodness we can be naked before God without either causing offence or risking someone trampling on our vulnerability. A God who, being three in one and one in three, is unlikely to suggest that we unpick ourselves in an attempt to start again and create something more tidy.

In Real Life

My friend and I laughed ruefully over pizza about our envy of other people’s lives-on-social-media: ‘They’re all re-tweeting each other, why aren’t they re-tweeting me? … everyone follows his blog, how does he do that? … their Facebook pages are Wall-to-Wall with photos of themselves partying … I texted her and I knew she’d seen it, so why didn’t she reply straight away?’.

Conclusion: everyone else is in the middle of the action and we’re waving from the edges.

Of course we realise it isn’t true. That’s why we’re able to laugh at ourselves. We know that people’s tweets and posts are a partial account of their story. IRL – which my friend reliably informs me means ‘In Real Life’ – most people are as complicated and imperfect as we are, with more beneath the surface than showing above. The best social media communicates the fun and achievements of people’s lives alongside their fragility and questioning.

I go through phases, IRL, when I spend a fair amount of time noticing the daily niggles, racking up the comparisons and worrying at the question ‘what have I actually achieved today that will change the world for anyone?’ It makes me very grumpy. It doesn’t enhance the lives of those around me. It’s probably a relief to everyone when I suddenly notice once again the wonder of being alive and safe in an amazing city, with the profound blessings of family and friends and the privilege of working on projects that excite and inspire me.

I suspect that I’m not the only one who needs to use periods of grumpiness more creatively. So when the dissatisfaction descends, perhaps we can use it to connect with the deeper restlessness within: the persistent longing to discover more of the Love that creates, sustains and reinvents the world.

As St Augustine famously said, ‘We are made for Thee, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee’. It’s okay to be restless. It’s okay to desire more. Because at heart the ‘more’ is about longing to dwell more fully in the Love which in turn spills over into a deepening of our relationships with others and with the world.

This kind of restlessness is creative and good. We just need to recognise that the dissatisfaction induced by comparing our Facebook pages and re-Tweet scores is too closely related to envy to be fruitful. Let’s kick the habit of comparison, notice the giftedness of our own lives, and intentionally exchange the envy for a restlessness that will drive us more deeply into love of God, others and the world.

Zoning Out

I wasn’t looking for homespun wisdom but it leapt out at me during an innocent browse in a Cornish gift shop. Those little plaques and over-decorated plates proclaiming one-size-fits-all clichés are not my bag. But the beautiful piece of stone and tasteful carving must have lured my eye. ‘Life begins,’ the piece proclaimed, ‘where your comfort zone ends’. Successfully tipping me out of mine.

I’ve always had an instinct for pushing the limits. All through my twenties and thirties I deliberately challenged myself to do things that felt a bit scary. I walked the Inca Trail, parascended in Mexico and transplanted my life to South Africa for nine months. I was the wild card on the shortlist for the job of my dreams, presented Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the Day’ and agreed to chair a school governing board without ever having been a governor. Taking the risk of marriage twice and pregnancy four times should also get a mention, as should the many aspects of parenting three children that constantly push me to places, both literal and within myself, that I’ve never visited before.

Then a combination of circumstances caused a gradual shift somewhere deep in my soul. I don’t mean I shut myself away from life or its challenges and opportunities: I doubt anyone, even now, sees me as someone who needs drawing out of her shell! I just stopped saying yes to suggestions and requests that demanded a significant stretch beyond my previously tested horizons. Unless, of course, they involved affordable luxury or culinary delights.

Sometimes it really is the case that life begins when we risk the unfamiliar and untried. I’ve been there and I’ll go there again: possibly later this week when I stand in front of a large group of bishops and formidably able women clergy and attempt to deliver a homily.

But there are times when beyond-the-comfort-zone is not where we need to be. Days, months, perhaps even years when we dig deep in a different way, for a new sort of courage: the sort we need in order to adjust to change, to face loss, to give more time to nurturing those closest to us, to discover the different wisdom of a new phase in life, to find ways to engage with the brevity, poignancy and depth of the human adventure, to slow down and smell the coffee and to figure out what we really want to do next.

It’s the courage needed to wait on God for purpose and direction rather than running after them with an ever-decreasing sense of who we might be. I think I can say from experience that in these times we don’t stop living. For a while we just make surprising decisions about exactly what that means.

Distracted by Envy

I’ve been thinking a lot, recently, about envy. This is not a new theme for me: which is a sad and sorry thing for someone with so many blessings in her life to admit. I don’t envy people’s smartphones, or holiday destinations, husbands, houses, handbags or lack of thread veins (actually that last denial is probably a fib). But I envy their gifts, skills, social capital, spheres of influence; and of course their impressive Twitter following and blog statistics.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sufficiently conflicted to genuinely rejoice in other people’s achievements and successes whilst simultaneously wanting some of what they’ve got. I’m energized by the new wave of younger female clergy who are articulate, well-educated and formidably able. Yet I do sometimes envy their confidence. I love to see women of my own, mid-life generation, beginning to occupy senior roles with a combination of gravitas and refreshing new perspectives. I absolutely do not want their jobs: I would much rather be part of the way in which they are equipped and encouraged to get there. Yet I do sometimes envy their achievements.

There are, of course, people who are so (enviably) comfortable in their own skin that they can rejoice in other people’s successes without even a slight twinge of ‘wish that were me’. But there are also many, I think, who share my tendency to the distraction of envy.

I think it’s time we got a grip on it. Even if it’s only a small part of ourselves, and a deluded one, that thinks it wants to be someone else, it distracts us from the unique and wonderful project of exploring our own God-given gifts, strengths and opportunities. It disables our thinking and our doing. It diverts us from the things-about-the-world-that-only-we-can-change-for-the-better.

None of us has the same combination of knowledge, wisdom, understanding and experience as another. We have access to different places. We relate to different issues and individuals. Our passions and interests, our social background, where we’ve lived and what we’ve seen, our particular competences and strengths and, yes, our fragility and mistakes: all of these things put each of us in an entirely unique position.

So we do need to accept that God is calling us, not to be someone else, but to take the heady risk of becoming truly, madly, deeply, all that we, and only we, can possibly become.

On Mute During Airtime

Many column inches have been filled on the subject of writer’s block but in a refreshing twist on the theme of being lost for words The Observer’s Eva Wiseman has been musing instead on how it feels to be tongue-tied. Describing the experience as ‘a physical reaction to something invisible’, she puts it down to a momentary confluence of forgetfulness, hesitation, insecurity and the ‘fear of being found out’. It’s a relief to see a professional communicator admit that she struggles with the ‘red-faced muteness’ that afflicts most of us at one time or another.

I admit that ‘tongue-tied’ is not a phrase with which I’m often associated. When I first started blogging and shared with my brother the fear that I would run out of things to say, his response was: ‘Sis, you’ve never had a problem filling a space with words’. Similarly, those present when I chair meetings frequently see me wrestle with my own tendency to run-at-the-mouth at the expense of other people’s airtime.

Yet in spite of all this I sometimes find myself involuntarily on mute.The process of articulating something heart-felt can leave me red-faced and faltering. No matter how passionate we are about our subject, no matter how much we trust the biblical promise* that even in extremis we will be given the words to say, a sudden sense of complete inadequacy can turn eloquence to ashes.

Wiseman reflects on all this embarrassment, confusion and adult shyness then inverts the problem. She rejects the solution of teaching everyone to articulate their thoughts seamlessly and without hesitation. Instead she reminds us that life is a dialogue not a TED talk: therefore ‘something is lost when only those who speak well are heard’.

If we’re overcome by muteness and embarrassing blushes it could be because what we’re trying to say is too important to be left unsaid, no matter how painful it is to find a way of saying it. And when we witness someone else struggling to express themselves it might be that what they are longing to articulate goes right to the heart of who they are and what they believe. Wiseman is right. It’s worth persevering in our speaking and our listening. Let’s not lose each other’s deepest insights because we lack the patience to listen. Nor because we give up before we’ve said what we really wanted to say.

*Matthew 10:19; Mark 13:11; Luke 12:12