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 …

Vulnerable Adults

Honesty and vulnerability have stopped me in my tracks three times in the past few weeks. Not my own heart-on-sleeve habit, which regularly trips me up, but other people’s willingness to acknowledge their fragility in public.

Firstly it was Katharine Welby’s musings about her ongoing experience of hope and despair in the midst of depression. Then Giles Fraser’s ‘Thought for the Day’ in which he tipped off a million or so listeners to the fact that he spends time on the therapist’s couch. And finally Vicky Walker’s anguished and hilarious blog story of a day of mess and awkwardness – life as lived by the gloriously imperfect.

Most of us struggle to some degree with issues around vulnerability and openness. How much we reveal of our deepest hopes, questions and fears will depend on our personality and preferences, our comfort level with the individual or group that we’re talking to, our awareness of the impact on relationships and professional roles, and quite simply our fear of being misunderstood.

If you don’t want to make yourself vulnerable then the answer is simple: keep your thoughts and struggles to yourself. Katharine’s blog went viral, and was followed by an excellent interview in The Telegraph where she acknowledged both her fear of ‘getting boxed up as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Depressed Daughter’ and also the relief she experienced – and the countless grateful responses she received – when she did speak out.

We generally learn most about ourselves, others, life and God when we are willing to take off our metaphorical protective clothing. As Vicky Walker puts it, ‘How can anyone really know me if I hide? And how can you really be known if you say you’re OK too?’ Of course the appropriate level of disclosure does require some good sense. In a subsequent interview on Radio 4’s ‘PM’, Giles Fraser was asked what drove him to therapy in the first place. Laughing, he replied, ‘The point about the therapist’s couch is it’s a safe space to talk about one’s own problems and anxieties – and the point about the PM programme is that it’s not!’

Richard Rohr writes‘Intimacy lets itself out and lets the other in … You are always larger after any intimate encounter … It is always grace’. Even if we’re not living life in the public eye, any decision about opening our hearts involves a risk assessment. But at the right time and with the right person the risks are often outweighed by the potential for new understanding, deepened relationships and real growth, together, in wisdom.