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.

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 …

The Kissing Habit

Kissing the ground is a habit I’ve been cultivating for some time. Not literally or publicly, in the-manner-of-the-Pope, though I suspect that his reasons for doing it were similar to mine. I don’t actually get down on my knees in the playground, street or tube station; my kissing habit is more something that goes on in my soul: if a soul can be said to kiss, which I’m pretty sure it can.

For me kissing the ground is about two things. Firstly it’s about recognising that in all of its complexity, brokenness and potential, the created world resonates with quite a lot of the stuff in me. I want to explore the connections between that world, myself and other people, in order to understand better how it all hangs together. Secondly, kissing the ground expresses a longing to live life in all its fullness, as the Jesus of John’s gospel invites us to do. So there’s no time to be lost. I’m almost certainly playing the second half of the game by now, and to echo Henry Thoreau: when I come to die I don’t want to discover that I haven’t lived.

Those closest to me will assure you that I’m not someone who leaps out of bed at 6am with a song in my heart and enough energy to give away to others. In fact I’m a bit rubbish in the mornings. So my determination to embrace life in all its fullness is not, I hope, of the irritating sort. Neither does it fail to take seriously global or individual tragedies, moments of meaninglessness or even just the dragging boredom of some of life’s necessary tasks. This new blog will not sit light to reality.

Instead, my sort of kissing expresses a commitment to ask myself in every situation and experience: what is there here that is significant and lasting, what connects with my life and other people’s, what pushes my roots deeper into creation, what will help me to grow in empathy and what feels real, exciting, meaningful and holy?

In Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov a wise monk called Zosima declaims: ‘Kiss the earth and love it, tirelessly, insatiably … Water the earth with the tears of your joy, and love those tears‘. Whether our tears are of joy or fragility, triumph or tragedy, they are intimately connected with the dust of the earth. In kissing the ground we say a loud and clear ‘Yes’: to life in all its fullness; to our own potential; to the exhilarating difference of others; to encountering the divine in the detail; and to the possibility of meeting God on ordinary, everyday, sacred ground.