Lincoln Advent: 16 December

Advent Prayers, 16 December
Furnichurch, Skegness

God’s home is now among his people.
He will live with them, and they will be his people.
God himself will be with them.
(Revelation 21.3, New Living Translation)

How does it feel to be the dwelling place of God?

Our whole Christian story is based on the belief that God not only dwells among us, but comes to share our human nature. All that we are is taken up into the life of God in Christ. But that is only half the story. When God comes to Mary, Mary’s ‘yes’ makes her the God-bearer. When Jesus is born in the stable, human life reveals the presence of God. When we are given new life in the Spirit, God becomes our very breath. We become God-bearers; our lives become a revelation of God.

These things are ‘given’ to us in faith. But this is Advent, and we know that we live in the space between ‘already’ and ‘not-yet’. ‘Already’ is the fact that God shares our life and wants our lives to proclaim his presence. ‘Not-yet’ is our ability to embody that fully – to know, truly and deeply, that we are the dwelling place of God.

Most of us carry voices in our heads that tell us we are not good enough. We can’t sing. We can’t dance. We are (cruelty of cruelties:) ‘no good with people’. Even if there are many things we know we are good at, there is usually some undermining fear: maybe this time we will be caught out. If we are not even sure that we are ‘good enough’ for the normal tasks of living, then how can we be the dwelling place of God?

To make a dwelling place is to make a home – to make a place where others are welcome. I read once (I cannot think where) that in order to offer hospitality, we must first feel at home ourselves. We have to have a certain ease with our place in the world, so that we can help others find ease and well-being. Part of the task of the church is to be a place where we can learn to feel at home – where we can experience enough of God’s love to let go of our fear of failure, and to trust that we might be (may be) the very dwelling place of God.

Jean Vanier says this:

To love someone is not, first of all, to do things for them, but to reveal to them their beauty and value, to say to them through our attitude: “You are beautiful. You are important. I trust you. You can trust yourself.” … To love someone is to reveal to them their capacity for life, the light that is shining in them.”

(J. Vanier, From Brokenness to Community, p. 16)

We learn to trust ourselves as we give and receive trust from other. We come to feel at home, as God’s dwelling place, when we respond to the presence of God, dwelling in others.

Today we pray for Furnichurch, which helps those who would otherwise struggle to furnish their homes. Pray that through their efforts, more people will be able to feel at home, make spaces of hospitality, and come to see that they are the very dwelling place of God.

the original post is here.

familiar story

I have finally read Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church. I dared not read it sooner, lest it struck too close to the bone. But it was time now, and worth doing.

Her work has always felt familiar. Despite her fame, neither her sermons nor her writing seem so very different from what a lot of us do. I find delight and surprise in her words without thinking them impossible to have conceived or to have heard elsewhere. (I guess I expect rather a lot from preachers and writers.) And so it was with this. There were times when the book left tears burning, and times when I had to hold myself in place as my instincts rebelled.

What jarred most was this: there was grief, but no void. There was choice, but no real vulnerability. She makes much of the lessons of being unemployed, and what she says about finding life in the spaciousness of it makes so much sense to me. But the moment she realised she needed to leave her congregation, she received an unsolicited call from a college president asking her to teach. She had three months off before going to a job that was hers and that she wanted. It is not always like that, and there were moments when the weight of it didn’t quite ring true.

I was jealous at first, I suppose. But in the end, I was glad for her. For her it has worked. She was given a path; and that path has helped a lot of people. It is good.

Then I realised that, while I would love to receive the phone call she did, and would love to have a next step, a clear goal, a job — I would not actually trade my place for hers.

Years ago, on retreat, I consciously ran from the question ‘are you willing to give God everything?’ Last year, on retreat, I went back to that question, and still wasn’t sure of the answer. The nun I spoke with (both times) said, ‘but is that not what you did in ordination?’ Maybe. Yes. It’s what I thought I did. But most of us who are ordained have plans and visions too. They are about God. And often they are of God. But they are not always about giving God everything.

When I sat down to pray with that question last Spring, it led me to a path I hadn’t foreseen. I seemed to say ‘no’ all over again. I hadn’t the energy to try to give God everything. I wanted space for God and a room of my own; the possibility of silence and space for creativity; a life of self-offering but also a life that was not constantly eroded by the failure of dreams in the face of reality. I wanted out of Nineveh. But I tried going back. God gave me a bush, showed me how not to take myself quite so seriously, and then cut me free to choose life where I could find it.

I have found it, in many many ways. Silence and creativity. The blessing of a door to close. The freedom from constant demands; time and space to find myself again; time and space to fall in love with God all over again, and with people too. I was never not. But there is more space for it now — a space full of friendship, rivers, arches and the smell of rising yeast.

So, I understand Barbara Brown Taylor’s choices. I can sense freedom in stepping outside the church, pitching your tent elsewhere, broadening the vision. There are even moments when I am tempted to do that, and I realise it might be both wise and necessary to get on with it.

But I seem to be called to folly. Priesthood does not go away just because it becomes difficult. I stand further from the altar than I used to, and further from the altar than I would like, but that is where my vocation is centred, and where I know most clearly who I am in Christ.

‘Are you willing to give God everything?’ I’m not sure I will ever be able to answer, but I am willing to give God this: I will stand in the place of hope and vulnerability, trusting my vocation. I will hold to the belief that I am called to fulfil my vows as a priest through word and sacrament, through joy and sorrow, through life and death, no matter how much easier it would be to walk away from them. I will push at the door until there are no doors left, or until God shows me another way. But I will only push when it feels like the right door: a door wide enough for silence and creativity; for private and public space; for relationship and solitude; for prayer, communion and community. I will choose life, and choose church, and trust that both can thrive together.

I will keep asking the question, and let God to turn each no to yes.

lessons in reality

I’ve just learned something rather important.  Things that I think are deeply private needn’t always be so.

I’ve always struggled a bit with Facebook.  I joined reluctantly when I was in Dunoon, and linked to a few church people.  But the more I used it, the more I valued it as a space to connect with old friends and good friends, and I fairly ruthlessly cut down my friends list and ignored new requests to create ‘safe space.’

A brief flirtation with Google+ (all those lovely circles, but hardly anyone there) made me look again at Facebook lists:  a way to filter posts to those for whom they are most appropriate.  I decided it was possible to relax the boundaries a bit — to say yes to friend requests I’d long been ignoring, safe in the knowledge that I could create a ‘close friends’ list of those who I trust enough to bear with a certain amount of venting on my worst days (‘safe space’).

But before I could add people, I needed to look back.  Was there anything lurking that needed to be deleted, any tar pits waiting for me to fall into if the wrong person looked back through my profile.  (I know: who could be bothered looking back through a profile? But it’s always the person you least expect who actually takes the time…)  I have never used Facebook — or any other medium — to talk about people, but still there are times when generic comments become specific to knowing eyes.  So, I trawled all my old posts.

In four years, there were only five updates that I chose to delete.  Two were truly grumbly, one spoke well of something that had happened in the church, but in shorthand ways that could be misunderstood, and two were simply too pathetically self-indulgent to exist any longer in cyberspace.   But that was all.  Really, even those posts could have stood if they needed to.  The earth would not have stopped turning had the ‘wrong’ person read them.

At worst, my Facebook statuses revealed very clearly that state of my moods.  Good days and bad, seasons of tiredness, and moments of joy.  The thing is:  the people who saw me knew those things already, whether they were linked to Facebook or not.  Indeed, they often knew them better than I did, and could perceive both the causes and shifts of my moods long before I admitted them.

So, all that privacy seeking for nothing.
I think it must have had something to do with the goldfish bowl.

But that is really good news.  Because if I have have learned that facebook — my safe space– is really OK, even uncensored, then perhaps there are other anti-goldfish moves that were unnecessary too.  Like loosing confidence in the blog.

Oh, it is a long journey.  Many false promises of returning to blogging, and of learning to write regularly again.  But things are happening.  I simply need to reform habits of discipline and get on with it.

But I’m still (mostly) applying one old rule on Facebook:  when it comes to members of my former congregations, the other person gets to initiate the friend request.  When it comes to young people, or those who are in a particularly fragile phase of life, they get to initiate as well.  I will say yes now.  But they get to choose.