Hump

Just in the last few weeks, I’ve realised that I think I’m over the “hump” of my curacy.

Curacies are strange beasts – perhaps even more so as an SSM curate doing one day a week (cue “but vicar’s only work one day a week” joke) – in that so far I have spent the vast majority of my time doing new stuff. Now, I love doing new things, and learning new skills, starting new projects, and so on, but it’s also an exhausting place to inhabit.

The upshot is a huge sense of being de-skilled, and a very low return on investment. So, for instance, I might spend hours and hours and hours preparing to lead a Book of Common Prayer communion (with all the “Thee”s and “Thou”s) for the first time, and the result is something which is fine, but nothing special – and certainly what I would normally expect for the amount of effort I put in. Similarly baptisms, weddings, funerals, pastoral visits, leading other services, civic occasions – the list goes on.

It ends up being a bit of a double whammy – not only am I not doing things which I can easily do (and do well), but I am doing things which I don’t know how to do (and therefore don’t do especially well, despite having spent ages preparing).

The sense then, at least at times, is of a bit of an uphill slog in the early days. You don’t really know the people in the church, you don’t really know how things are done in that culture/context, and you’re doing new stuff, a lot of the time from scratch. There is no shortcut; you just have to go through it.

To be fair I have also probably been trying a little too hard! But I am very conscious of having to cover all the bases on only one day a week. Obviously the goalposts are different to a stipendiary curate – I am unlikely to go to lead a church straight from my curacy for example, but the basics we have to cover in terms of ministry bread and butter are the same.

Anyway – just in the last month or so, thing have started to feel a bit different. With my recent wedding I’ve now ‘done’ at least one of everything. And when I led our big family service the other week, I was actually quite relaxed and even enjoyed it! There’s just the earliest inclination that I’m starting to get the hang of this vicar thing, and that it’s not perhaps going to be quite such hard work all all the time.

The other interpretation is that it’s all downhill from here!!

Wedding

I had the amazing privilege of solemnising my first wedding a couple of weeks ago. I genuinely could not have asked or hoped for a more lovely couple and congregation, and it was a joy to play a small part in the new life were were choosing and vowing to start together.

I am still slightly coming to terms with the fact I actually married them – that I pronounced them man and wife, and signed the registers and certificates. I feels like the first “proper” legal thing I’ve done as a Clerk in Holy Orders (aside from Ordination and Licensing).

Anyway, before I met them I took a straw poll about whether or not I should mention that it was my first wedding. There seem to be two schools of thought here.

The first says “No – what the couple want and need is a confident and competent presence, who will guide them through a major life event with a minimum of anxiety and stress.” This is the same argument that applies to pilots on their first flight, or surgeons on their first procedure. It’s not necessarily helpful for people in your hands to know you haven’t done it before.

The other school of thought says “Yes – be completely honest, and recognise that it’s (hopefully) the first wedding for all 3 of you, and you’re in it together. Take the whole thing lightly, work through it together without feeling the need to have all the answers.” This is a similar argument to a magician or stand-up’s first gig. It can help bring people on your side, and release any pressure or tension, allow for some humour and of course makes any little hiccoughs part of the occasion. It is meant to be a joyous as well as a serious and solemn affair.

I think part of the problem is that it’s very easy to equate “I haven’t done it before” with “I don’t know what I’m doing” – whereas in reality this relationship doesn’t necessarily hold at all.

In the end, I opted for the first position. Be a calm, non-anxious presence who would instil confidence in the bride and groom, and enable them to relax, enjoy the day, and fully enter into the solemn vows being made – no need to let them know it’s my first one.

It all went beautifully well at our meeting – I answered all their questions, went over the vows with them, etc (they had already done marriage preparation, so it was more about getting to know them and planning the service)… Until I was just standing up to leave, when the groom asked “So how many weddings is this for you?”

BUSTED!

It all worked out for the best; I was actually quite relieved they knew, as I felt it took some of the pressure off me, and they felt that it made the day even more special, knowing that it was a special day for me too (if that makes sense).

In the end it was a lovely service, which I’m certain was legally correct (which was my top priority!!), I was able to share something of the love of God with those present, and it went more or less according to plan.

Just as a postscript, as the mother-of-the-bride arrived at the church before the service, she took me to one side and said “Don’t worry – I’m sure you’ll be absolutely fine.” 🙂

Confidence

One of the main aspects of the curacy for me has been about growing in confidence – but not perhaps in the way one might think.

When I first started leading services at St Mark’s (especially the informal ones) to be honest I hated it – I felt like I had no idea what I was doing, I didn’t know any of the people I was leading, I didn’t know how services we’re “supposed” to be done. It didn’t help that on the very first service I led the projector screen fell off the wall 10 minutes before the start of the service!!!

The strange thing is that, by the time I was ordained, I already had quite a bit of experience of preaching, leading worship, and so on, and my outlook generally is to go for stuff and learn from my mistakes. I’m not particularly phased by standing in front of a large crowd and doing my thing. I’m confident in what I’m good at, and I know what I’m not so good at.

What I do struggle with though is when I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing (the “concious incompetence” in Bradwell’s terms), especially if I believe that there is a “right” way to do it, or that there are expectations I might not meet. This can create a lot of  anxiety and insecurity for me, and was very definitely my initial experience of being a curate. I felt hugely self-concious and exposed, and that I was a fraud who was going to be called out at any moment.

What I think I might be starting to finally get is that isn’t actually about me at all. I did already know this, but there’s knowing and there’s knowing.

The extraordinary privilege I have, as a Christian, and especially as an ordained representative of the church, is to offer an alternative narrative. To be a reminder of what’s actally important. To be the non-anxious presence, who can say “It’s ok – God’s got this”.

I’m learning to be secure in who I am in Christ, as a person and as a leader. So that I don’t need to think about myself at all, much less what other people are thinking of me. Instead, let’s all of us think about Jesus. The measure of if I am doing my job well is not “did I say all the right words”, but “was it all about God”. Within that context, I think I’m learning to trust my own instincts and experience a bit more. To be comfortable with the part I’m playing, even if I get that wrong sometimes. So that when I’m thrust into a new situation, rather than panicking or fretting about the “right” thing to do, I can do my best, listen to the Holy Spirit, and make it all about Jesus. In short, to look outwards, not inwards. My experience so far of being ordained is that you never know know quite what’s going to come at you next, and I suspect the feeling of “winging-it” never fully goes away. But that’s ok – God’s got this.

Please don’t get me wrong – I’m not talking about being complacent, or not preparing properly. I’m not saying we need to give any less than 100%, or that we don’t need to learn from our mistakes, or stop trying to improve. But I am saying that our “performance” (for want a better term) isn’t actually the important metric.

Of course it can also be nerve-racking to do something new. I remember the first time I lead (musical) worship outside my home group. It was an Alpha 2 day, and there were maybe 200 people. I was absolutely terrified! My legs were literally shaking, my hands were sweating so much I could hardly play the guitar. I strongly suspect that it was as painful for everyone else as it was for me! But, 25 years on, I just love leading (musical) worship, whether it’s with 5 or 500 other people. And part of why I love it is that it’s not about me – I am just helping us all give Jesus his worth. I do also think a little bit of stage fright is no bad thing – after all it is the King of Kings we’re talking about here!

Part of the joy of serving Christ is the freedom it brings. Freedom from anxiety. Freedom from being self-concious. Freedom to have fun, enjoy ourselves, and – yes – to sometimes completely stuff things up. Freedom to laugh at ourselves and give glory to God.

So the confidence I’m growing in is not primarily self-confidence. If anything the opposite. I’m learning to be more confident in God, in who He is, and what He’s calling us to be. It’s ok – He’s got this.

Good Friday

The following is the text for my reflection during a service of 3 hours at the cross today. The theme is “approaching the cross”, and we start “from the outside looking in – the view from the edge (the crowd)”

Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” (Mark 15:29)

We start our journey towards the cross at the edge, amongst the crowd, looking in. A bit like the crowd in our reading, we are faced with the temptation to pass by – in our case to get to the happy ending of Easter Sunday (not that it was all that happy at the time, incidentally, if you read the gospels carefully). Or perhaps just to pass by the crucifixion bit..

Maybe the fact of Jesus being crucified offends us or upsets us? God couldn’t come up with a better plan than the bloody and humiliating public execution of his son as a state criminal? How can this be the act of a God of love? Come to that how can a God who can’t even save himself save us? Best not to think about it too much. Much better just to pass on by and leave Jesus hanging there.

Or maybe Jesus being crucified scares us. The last thing a 1st Century Jew would want is to be associated with an insurrectionist – no shortage of wood for another cross. Far better to keep our heads down and stay in the crowd. Just keep quiet about knowing Jesus. Don’t want to stand out, don’t want to stick up for Jesus. What would our friends say? I could lose my job. I certainly don’t want to end up on a cross myself! No – safer to just pass on by and leave Jesus hanging there.

Or, frankly, perhaps we don’t really care that much? We’ve got a busy and full life, things to do. Need to get to market to buy supplies before the Sabbath. What’s another criminal strung up by the Romans? We have money, security, we can come to worship whenever we want to, do our duty, pay our tithe – what do we need a saviour for (especially one who gets himself killed)? Sure there was a lot of excitement about this Jesus, but I’ve got a job, a family, my parents need looking after, the garden needs weeding. I’m sorry – I haven’t got time to stay, I need to pass on by and leave Jesus hanging there.

Or just maybe we feel too ashamed, or unworthy. This is God we’re talking about, after all. Dying for me. I put him there through my sin and disobedience. How can I meet his eye, how can I watch him suffer? I know that it’s all alright in the end, so better just to pass on by, leave Jesus hanging there.

After all, it is not a pleasant place to linger, a crucifixion. How much less the crucifixion of our Lord and saviour. It is offensive and upsetting. It is scary. It is inconvenient and disruptive. It is a place of guilt and shame.

But linger we must, because the crucifixion is also an invitation. It is an invitation to wonder and awe. It is an invitation to having our hearts broken. It is an invitation to participate in God’s rescue plan for the whole of creation. It is an invitation to costly, self-giving, death-defeating love. In the upside down kingdom of God, slavery and death is an invitation to freedom and life.

And above all else it is an invitation to worship.

So my sisters and brothers, the invitation is to not pass by. Dare we linger? Dare we, for the next few hours, stay with Jesus, hanging on the cross? Dare we allow it to offend us, upset us, scare us, disrupt us, shame us? Dare we accept the invitation to worship and be changed?

Priesthood

As I have written before, in the Church of England we have three orders of ordination; Deacon, Priest (or Presbyter), and Bishop. The usual pattern for those expecting to be ordained priest is to serve the first year as a deacon, and then be ordained priest the following year. The diaconal year is an opportunity to focus on the servant aspect of being ordained, which is, in many ways, the foundational aspect of ministry, and never changes.

That said, I found it a slightly odd year, which felt for me personally to be more about what I wasn’t allowed to do! From a purely functional perspective, there wasn’t an awful lot to distinguish what I was doing as a deacon compared with what I’d been doing for the last 20 years!! I could spend the next 5 or 10 posts unpacking this, but even I would find that boring – so I’ll move on. Suffice to say for now that I am in no way diminishing the ministry of a deacon, or suggesting that the year was wasted or pointless.

What did catch me out a bit though was just how special my priesting ordination felt. In fact, at one point on my priesting retreat, late on the Saturday evening, I was a heartbeat away from phoning up the bishop to tell her I couldn’t go through with it!! But it was just a wobble, and after much prayer (and tears!) I finally went to sleep, and did indeed turn up at the cathedral the next day.

Reflecting upon it, I suppose there’s a number of elements going on which combined to make it feel the way it did.

Firstly there’s the sense of completing a journey (or at least a leg of the journey), of passing a milestone. Becoming a deacon had a temporary or transient feel to it, whereas last summer was reaching a waypoint to which I had been journeying probably since I was 19 or 20. It’s not the end of the journey by any means in terms of ministry, but it almost certainly is the ‘highest’ Order I will receive (I can’t imagine a scenario where I’d be ordained bishop!). There is no “next step” in that sense – this is now my life.

Secondly, on the day itself I felt a strong sense of commissioning and authority, in a way that I didn’t as a deacon. That I was receiving the full authority of the bishop (and the church) to minister, serve, and lead in the parish, as a Clerk in Holy Orders, and a Priest. That I can bless, absolve, and preside at Communion in Jesus name. Wowzers! I know a lot of this happened at my deaconing, but somehow last summer it felt a lot more real than the summer before, and it was scary, humbling, and exciting. I suspect a part of it was having had a year of being a “rev”, and coming to terms with what the means in practice. Which is in itself still very much a work in progress.

Finally, it was amazing and wonderful to preside at Holy Communion the following day. In one sense, the Eucharist is what sets us, as the Christian church, apart from all other religions and social clubs. That we break bread and share wine together in Jesus’ name is to my mind the defining characteristic of who we are and what we do. And be able to lead us all in this act of worship is an incredible joy and privilege.

I’m not wild about the term “priest” (except when it is used to mean the priesthood of all believers), and I am deeply uncomfortable with any cultic undertones or suggestion that my role shares anything other than name with the Levitical priesthood. I am not offering sacrifices, making atonement, or mediating between humanity and God – that job is already done. But I am perhaps helping us remember that this job has been done, and to help us pass on this good news to the world.

Snow Globe

One of the things I have learnt from my spiritual director is to try to incorporate some silence whenever I pray. By which I mean inner as well outer silence (which is much harder!). I sometimes feel like Chidi from The Good Place, who says his mind is like a waste disposal unit with a fork in it, constantly grinding and grinding away. Other times I feel like Dumbledore, who needed to syphon his thoughts off into a Pensieve. I don’t really know if everyone feels like their head is “full”, or if I’m just a bit odd, but my guess would be that most of us from time to time feel like this?

Anyway, as I was trying to still my mind recently, the image of a snow globe came to me – you know one of those globes with a house (or whatever) inside, and the globe is filled with water and glitter. When you turn the globe upside down, the glitter all swirls up and spins and eddies, completely obscuring the scene inside. However, if you then put the globe down, the snow starts to settle, and slowly the water clears, until eventually everything is still, and you can see the house again – indeed, you can see all the way through the globe.

It struck me that being silent in prayer is a bit like this. At first my mind is a complete flurry, with thoughts spinning and whirling. I must remember this. How am I going to solve that? Did I send a card to them? When’s our anniversay? Have I packed the swimming kit? And so on. Sometimes the drifts are deeper – where is life going? What does the future hold? Am I bringing up my children well?

But then, as I just sit, in silence, allowing these thoughts to fly around, they do begin to settle. It’s not a process that can be hurried. Sometimes I use the Jesus prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy in me a sinner”). Sometimes I just wait and allow the blizzard to rage in my head.

Either way, eventually the snow does settle. The thoughts stop flying round quite so violently. I can begin to see a bit more clearly. I can begin to think a bit more clearly. I can begin to hear God’s voice a little more easily.

Growth

I love it when I come across verses the the Bible which I’ve never really noticed before.

In this case, it’s from Acts 9:31

Meanwhile the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up. Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.

In general Acts paints a very dynamic picture of the early church – this great explosion of community and faith, with thousands being converted, daily growth, healing, miraculous escapes, signs and wonders. With the possible exception of the “Toronto Blessing” back in the 90s, this has not been my personal experience of church.

So it’s nice to reminded of an alternative model – that of a church at peace, living in the fear of the Lord and full of the Holy Spirit… and growing. This is certainly closer to my everyday experience of church life, and it’s easy to think of it as a second best. Don’t get me wrong; I long and pray for revival; that God’s spirit would sweep through our land again – goodness knows we need it.

But until She does, maybe it’s ok to live in peace, in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Spirit… and maybe even grow?

Meanwhile the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up. Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.

Messy Bed Test

I’ve been reflecting recently on what I’ve started calling the “messy bed test”.

It runs is as follows. My younger son, for reasons known only to himself, likes to mess up our bed. He likes to pile up the pillows, mound up the duvet, push the bedspread onto the floor, and then sort of burrow into the bedding. I suppose it’s a sort of den or something.

By any objective measurement this is a pretty benign activity – it only takes 2 minutes to straighten out the bed again, and he’s not doing any harm at all, and he loves doing it.

What is interesting is how my reaction varies to (what feels like) his daily question: “Can I mess up your bed?”

Sometimes I smile to myself and say, “ok, yes.”

However, sometimes my reaction is more along the lines of “No, you can’t. I’ve only just made it, I’m trying to get the house tidy, and its me or Mum who are going to have to sort it out again.” I do my best to convert this into “I’m sorry no – not today” before it actually comes out of my mouth. It’s amazing how forgiving children can be. But I digress – this post isn’t intended to be about my shortcomings as a parent!

The difference between these two scenarios? Entirely me. The request hasn’t changed. The amount of time and effort to re-make the bed hasn’t changed. What has changed is my ability to handle what I perceive as an extra demand being made of me.

In this way, it becomes an indicator of my own mental state and stress levels. The reason I say “no” to him is because I can’t cope with it. It shines a light on my inconsistencies – why should the answer sometimes be yes, and sometimes no… or sometimes having your head bitten off?

Now of course boundaries are right and proper, and where ever there is a boundary a child will push it. It is also reasonable not to want your bed to be messed up, and to say “no” to this request. My point is simply that it is sometimes the trivial things like this which act a bit like rev counters, and show when we’re pushing the limit, and in the red zone. Or, if you like, it’s a sort of litmus test

Maybe, like me, you have a “messy bed test”

 

Burning Bridges

It seems apt at this time of year, where there is a lot of remembering going on, to think about the past, and in particular people from the past. One thing I have noticed is that people from my past don’t always stay there, and in particular having changed to another church locally, there are an lot of familiar faces.

In fact, there have been one or two folk where I’ve had to pause for a minute, and think to myself about how we “signed off” last time we saw each other. Are there any unresolved issues kicking about – which always mattered, I guess, but are a little bit more immediate now I am their curate? Thankfully so far the answer has always been “no”.

Maybe its just me, but I find it very easy to want to “write off” relationships, especially where they are professional rather than social. My natural reaction when I get bad service is to walk out and say to myself “I’m never going back there again”. Even better if I can deliver a cutting parting shot that makes it clear exactly how I feel. Or to quit a job out of frustration and stick two fingers up at the boss on the way out. Or to say deeply hurtful things as a romantic relationship ends, and vow never to see or talk to them again.

As with other things, being ordained brings what was always true into sharper focus – that we cannot live this way. The theological point is that the other person is made in God’s image, and loved and cherised by Him. The practical point is that I might go to a person’s house for a funeral visit, and discover that they are the person I swore at in the restaurant the night before!!

Anyone who follows The Way, who calls themself a Christian, is God’s representative on Earth. We are each Christ’s ambassadors. I don’t believe that we have the luxury of burning our bridges, or “writing off” relationships. How we treat other people is taken as a proxy for how God feels about them. We never know when someone from our past is going to randomly walk into church, or join our Alpha group. What will their reaction be to seeing us there – perhaps realising for the first time that we’re a Christian? How is our ambassadorship reflected in the last conversation we had?

Blinkers, Paradigms, and Chickens

Q. Why did the chicken cross the road?
A. To get to the other side.

Chances are you’ve heard this joke a million times – I certainly have. It’s the classic children’s joke – utterly daft, amusing because it’s pointless. It sets up an expectation of an unexpected punchline, but then no.

There are million of daft jokes out there – “How do you know if there’s an elephant in your fridge? Footprints in the butter.”, “What’s yellow and very dangerous? Shark infested custard”, “What’s brown and sticky? A stick” and so on. I love these jokes. They’re not particularly big or clever or witty or erudite, but they make me smile, and sometimes laugh.

Except that the chicken crossing the road joke turns out to something quite different. I have told this joke for probably 40+ years, and it has never once in that time – nor in any else I have spoken to – even occured to me that it has a second, euphemistic, level of meaning.

Until I saw these tweets:

Like Kat (and incidentally, I’ve no idea who she is – that’s twitter for you), my jaw dropped. The Other Side. The joke is actually about death!

Of course it is. It’s obvious. Staring you in the face. After all, How many other “crossing the road” jokes are about getting squashed, or at least the dangers of roads?

Q. Why did the hedgehog/squirrel/turkey/frog/… cross the road?

A. To visit his flat-mate.
A. To show what he was made of.
A. To prove he had guts.
A. To prove he wasn’t chicken

I’ve always understood these other jokes in that way (or at least felt like there was some trick I was missing)… why did it never once even occur to me that the original chicken joke is along the same lines? These are quite clearly gross being run-over jokes, so why shouldn’t the original be? The answer, of course, is that I attached an interpretation to the joke the first time I heard it – “to get to the other side of the road”, and I didn’t realise that I had made this interpretation or assumption, let alone reconsidered or revisited it. It’s not that I considered and dismissed an alternative interpretation, it’s that it never even crossed my mind as a possibility, and likely never would had not an external factor intervened.

This then becomes (for me at least) an example par excellence of interpretative blindness. We have not only failed to interpret something correctly, we didn’t even realise that we’ve made an interpretation, and that other interpretations may be possible. For a children’s joke this isn’t a big deal, but when you look at politics, culture, or indeed the Bible, suddenly it matters a great deal. When Jesus tells a parable, we may interpret it as normative (this is, it is establishing a norm for behaviour – how we should be going about things). What if it is actually descriptive? Could Jesus be saying “we all know the world is like this – make sure you’re not being as silly as this example”? The massive danger is that we don’t even realise that we are interpreting it a certain way. So we neither question or own understanding, nor can make sense of anyone who comes at it from a different angle. It’s not that we realise we haven’t got the joke – we think we have got it, but have actually missed the point altogether.

This recast joke also demonstrates a paradigm shift beautifully. Paradigms are the way we make sense of the world, how we see and understand it. They are our mental models. A paradigm shift happens when our understanding changes in a radical, irreversable way – that once our viewpoint has changed, we can never again go back to our original understanding. You might describe it as a light-bulb moment, I suppose. In the case of the chicken joke, I (and now you – sorry!) can never again understand this as a joke simply around an animal trying to cross a street. It will forever more be a dual joke, with two meanings. When there is a paradigm shift, we realise that our previous model was incomplete, and now our understanding has grown and developed. It’s a bit like Harry Potter – you think you understand a given character’s role and motive, but at the denouement it’s all turned on it’s head, and you suddenly understand Snape was actually trying to save Harry (or whatever). So when you re-read the passage again, you know understand what was actually happening. Your original interpretation has been proved wanting.

The ultimate example of this is Jesus – nobody conceived that God’s great Messiah would be born in obscurity, and executed by the Romans. Yet if you read the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament, this great paradigm shift occurs, when you see that Jesus is actually fulfilling the prophecies and promises. Just not in the way anyone expected. And people today I think still struggle to understand Jesus (not helped, it must be said, by the Church a lot of the time), but perhaps not even realising there is something to understand.

Who would have thought that all this could come from a 13 word kids joke!