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.

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 …

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.