Friday, 21 December 2018

Christmas

So Christmas is coming. How are you doing?

At the heart of this feast is the manifestation of utter simplicity; the quiet and unassuming arrival amid ordinary people of the Word made flesh. He came to his own and his own received him not — nothing unusual about that, eh? Life was ever thus.

The story reaches us wrapped lavishly in misunderstanding. He was not, as it transpires, a homeless waif heartlessly turned away from every door. Bethlehem was Joseph's ancestral home and no doubt he had many relatives there with the usual keen sense of hospitality of that part of the world. Each home would have an upper room — a 'kataluma' (mistranslated as 'inn') — to put up guests, and a main family room shared with domestic animals downstairs. It is possible that, the kataluma being too small for a midwife, Joseph and Mary, and all the kerfuffle of delivering a baby, the family made room for them in the family living area, where the manger for the animals offered a convenient crib.

An alternative possibility is that, the katalumas being already full in the homes of Joseph's relatives, he and Mary were offered space in the Tower of the Flock at Migdal Edar. Bethlehem was a specialist centre for breeding sheep. They produced high quality lambs used for temple sacrifice, and the ewes ready to give birth were brought in to this tower at the Shepherds' Field to deliver their lambs. To keep them free of blemish, as the Law required, these lambs intended for sacrifice were wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in the manger out of harm's way. If that's where Mary and Joseph went, it would explain why the shepherds immediately understood and were able to act on the message of the angel. It's also redolent with obvious symbolism. As Jesus's cousin John said — "Behold the Lamb of God".

Another intriguing "Behold" from the Christmas story is Mary's visit to her cousin Elizabeth, triggered by the angel Gabriel mentioning to Mary that Elizabeth is soon to give birth. Mary's response to the angel is "Behold the handmaid of the Lord". The word she actually uses is doula — "Behold, the Lord's doula!" So she is both the one who is to see the Lord into the world — be his doula — and she is the one the Lord has sent to act as Elizabeth's doula through the birth of the baby John.

Interesting, isn't it?

On the third Sunday in Advent, when we thought about the miraculous birth and prophetic calling of John the Baptist, whom Thomas Merton called a "wise, wild baby", we had on the overhead screen at Pett chapel this image:



Now, this is actually the grandson of Julie B who comments here, Levi Samuel, the son of (Julie's daughter) Carolyn and Jeremy, photographed by Carolyn's sister Sharon McMahon, of ThreeIrishGirlsPhotography.com. But from the moment I saw it, that photograph became for me the quintessential image of Christmas. One wise, wild baby after another. What a family that was! Stacked out with prophets and prophetesses, visionaries  . . . people who had the art of courage and the Spirit of God.

Amid all the stress and trivia my prayer for you is that you may hold fast to what really matters, and do not allow yourself to be distracted from the way of simplicity. Insist upon the chance to hear the angels sing. Peace, silence, solitude, simplicity be yours. And may grace be your guide through the whole of 2019.

Saturday, 15 December 2018

The Beaufort Band goes to Pett Chapel

So we had our coffee morning, with a home-made jewellery stall, a craft table and a pin-the-nose-on-the-snowman for children, a fair trade stall full off Christmas goodies, and Beshlie's superb face painting — Buzzfloyd had her face painted —



And so did Donna —


And Bean said to video the Beaufort Band so you could all join in with our coffee morning — and I did.

They played my favourite — the Can-Can — and Joy to the World and Frosty the Snowman, and lots more.



That's Rosie playing the trombone



Alice playing French horn (and also flute) and Hebe playing the violin —



— and in the videos you could also see Donna and Buzzfloyd playing violin. Or is Buzzfloyd's a viola?

While they had a break to get a hot drink and enjoy some of the gingerbread and cinnamon rolls they'd made and look at the stalls, Rosie played her harp.

I caught the end of her playing Silent Night, and here she is playing the beautiful O Holy Night.

Alice and Hebe designed and gilded in several different golds the beautiful art work on her harp — and the east window (the cross) in the chapel is also Alice's design and creation.

And tomorrow at chapel, Gaudete Sunday, we'll be thinking about John the Baptist.



Advent is about getting ready. We are taking full advantage of it.

Thursday, 13 December 2018

Doors

There are words, and there are contexts.



My focus in life is doing what I came here to do, trying to live faithfully, moving when the Spirit says "move", bringing the words that arise in my spirit.



My contexts are 



  1. my household and family; 
  2. my church community; 
  3. the Methodist Church of which that church community is part; 
  4. the people who read my writing; 
  5. this Kindred of the Quiet Way online community.
I can almost discount #3, because the Methodist Church has no time for me and is not interested in me, other than a few individual souls locally who have become good friends. So I am assuming this word is not for the Methodist Church.

But the other four contexts are relational and responsive, they both speak into my life and hear when I have something to say. So it might be for any of them. 

In case it is for you, I thought I'd pass it on here.

We have been, as I expect you've noticed, in a time of upheaval and profound change — this applies to individuals and their communities, in truth to the whole human race and its Earth context. I don't think I have a word for the whole human race. Usually a Spirit nudge is more specific than that.

In 1967 when I was ten, the Doors made their first album, and my sister — who was five years older than me — bought it. We didn't have much money and didn't own many records, so the few we had, we listened to a lot. I became very familiar with that album and listened to it as much as she did.

I left home the summer I turned eighteen (in 1975), and haven't listened to that album since, or heard it played anywhere. I never see my sister and don't know if she still has it.

But two days ago, most insistently and compellingly, a song from that album came back to me. It's been playing and replaying in my head — I just can't get it out of my mind. What's speaking in my soul is not so much the tune or the genre, as the idea of the song.

"Break on through to the other side."

I feel that it might be something I — or you — or someone in one of my contexts, needs to hear and do. Not to give up, to keep going. The only way out is through. Trusting the process and holding the vision. "For still the vision awaits its time. It it seems slow, wait for it — it will surely come, it will not delay" (that's Habakkuk).







This is the song:


Wednesday, 12 December 2018

For East Sussex friends

This is what we're doing on Saturday at Pett chapel.
The Beaufort Band — for the uninitiated — is the wild and glorious gathering of musicians that practises in our front room. Plays an eclectic mix of everything from trombone to violin to jingle bells to flute. Not quite like anything you've ever heard before, and their version of the Can-Can sounds like elephants on drugs. In a good way.

I think I can say, hand on heart, that this event is not to be missed.

Then on Sunday at 10.45, after Buzzfloyd has instructed our youngsters on Everything They Would Have Asked About John The Baptist If They'd Only Thought Of It, the Revd David Freeland leads our church family Eucharist. Every now and then — not too often — you meet someone from whom you can see the light of Christ shining. David Freeland is one of those people. It'll be a good morning.


Saturday, 8 December 2018

Error message

Now I think about it, I can't actually remember entering this human race. 

Is it possibly an administrative error?

Did I just get here by mistake?

Can one unsubscribe?


Friday, 7 December 2018

Politics, Nutrition, Money and Religion

So I got thrown off the scent by builders and general domestic mayhem compounded by an immune system crash and mega-tiredness, but now I've remembered that one of the things I wanted to explore with you was an anarchist church issue about politics, nutrition, money and religion.

Because I have a problem about topics that are admissible in different contexts.

The thing is that, as a preacher, what I can talk about in church is religion, in the narrow definition. 

Let me give you an example. Let's think about intercessions. 

I can pray for peace in human society, for God to help the poor and the homeless and people in prison — but I'm not allowed to offer any opinion about the reality that poverty is substantially a political creation, and so is homelessness, and unjust (political) imprisonment certainly is — plus a lot of legitimate imprisonment also stems from social exclusion and disadvantage which has a political root.

I can also pray for the sick, asking for God to work a miracle and heal this or that person. But I will bring a whole big heap of trouble cascading on my head like an avalanche if I dare to express the opinion (which I firmly hold) that a lot of sickness — mental as well as physical — has a nutritional root, and all sickness whatever its cause can be helped and supported and health improved by right diet. I do realise that many of you who read here strongly disagree with my views on health and nutrition, which is why I now mostly keep very quiet about my thoughts on the matter — it is contentious and generates more heat than light.

I can pray for the church, too, and for more members. But I cannot express my view that one of the church's biggest problems is that it colossally wastes money by a) maintaining large, expensive buildings to house small congregations, and b) paying professional clergy. 

But then the problem arises of a group of people earnestly praying for the cessation of a problem they are directly and persistently causing. It is now known that sugar and refined carbs are at the root of a whole raft of clinical conditions, and refraining from eating them will ease or remove much ill health. So we get the scenario where the congregation earnestly prays for people suffering from a range of ills, then serves tea/coffee with cakes/biscuits/cookies at the end of the service. My husband used to joke that the Methodist Church is fuelled by cake. We encourage people into illness then pray for them to get better. 

Same with money. A week or so back, a member of a church near us encouraged us to go to a church social event and concert with a £16.00 ($20.00) entry ticket. Two days later, the same church had a concert on where one of our household was performing. Entry ticket £15.00 (£18.00). As some of us were really strapped for cash at the time, it ended up with the one who was performing buying our tickets to hear her play! 

But it didn't end there. When we arrived at the church and went to the desk to collect our tickets, the woman at the desk said, "To get in you need three things. Your tickets, your programme, and some raffle tickets. They're £1 a strip."

I stared at her horrified. I had absolutely no money with me. I said, "Are you telling me that even though I have a ticket, I cannot go in unless I buy raffle tickets." 

She laughed (one of those jolly, unctuous, dismissive laughs that makes you feel stupid) and said, "Of course not!"

What? 

That same church costs in excess of £95,000.00 a year to run! 95K! I kid you not! 

I used to go there. One of the things that put me off was the constant harassment for money. I vividly remember an occasion I attended — one of many events held on a regular basis. This was an auction of promises. The promises were donated by church members, and many were valuable, eg a meal out or a ticket into a stately home or something. It was, it's only fair to say, possible to donate something free like baby-sitting or dog-walking. But that was only the beginning. The occasion included a meal, for which you had to pay if you were attending, and you were also expected to bring with you a bottle of wine to share with other attendees. A bottle of wine costs several pounds and so did the meal. Then, you were expected to bid with generosity, paying over and above what the promises were worth, to raise funds for the church. In addition to this, at the same event they held a raffle, for which they wanted prizes donating and expected all attendees to be generous in buying raffle tickets at £1 a strip. I attended that event. I made no promises, but as we were allowed to auction items as well, I gave them a favourite figurine I had of St Francis. I didn't bid on anything, I didn't take any wine, and my husband paid for my supper. Not long after, I left the church. I think the tipping point for me was when the annual financial figures were published, and that church broke even at £95K, where the one I now go to had to make £6K a year to stay afloat. 

The church is meant to be inclusive, isn't it? But these things must never be mentioned. I remember an old lady in a church I once pastored telling me about how she lived in a hostel in her youth. When I knew her, she had a modest home in a rich suburb of London, but as a young woman she barely had two pennies to rub together. She said that the (church-run) hostel places were free, but in the reception area was a collecting box into which those living there were encouraged to put whatever they could afford. They were supposed to pray for God to help them pay their way, and she said she used to feel so ashamed that she did pray but still had nothing to give. She said she used to be so hungry, when she was out and about her eyes were always scanning the pavement in the hope that somebody might have dropped a bit of chocolate or something she could pick up and eat.

When I preach, I'm meant to stay off politics, nutrition and money, and just talk about faith. But I have a difficulty with that, because once you subtract from my life my political views, my nutritional discipline, and the way I spend my money, then you've lost the most substantial ways by which I express my faith.

Now, like most people, I often make poor choices — I waste money, I succumb to a delicious cake, and I can fall prey to simplistic or mendacious socio-political analysis. It's not getting it right I'm talking about, but seeing that faith is holistic.

This comes right down to details. Let's take the simple for-instance of Jesus saying, "Love your neighbour as yourself." What does loving your neighbour mean? Well, we have St Paul to clarify that for us in the famous 1 Corinthians passage about love. Love is patient, he says, love is kind, love is not easily angered. The thing is, we all know in our household that if we eat sugary food we become moody and irritable, our adrenals go out of whack, we get exhausted and snappy and the slightest thing annoys us. We have no chance of living up to what our faith asks of us, in other words, unless we stay off the sugar. This may not apply to you, I'm not saying it does; but it is most certainly true for us. You could preach at us until you were blue in the face, but unless we stay clear of the sugar it is biochemically impossible for us to achieve the moral status recommended and expected. And yet, the place I most often run into the social gatherings structured around the food that scuppers my chances of being any kind of loving at all — is church!

I find I'm drifting further and further out to sea with this. The gap between what I privately believe and practise and consider important, and what I can express and publicly espouse in church, is steadily increasing, so that the teaching under which I sit feels less and less relevant. It's not that the preached word as I presently experience it is untrue, it's that it's uncoupled from the practical expression of daily life. It's like a recipe that gives the ingredients but not the method, or scientific theory without the backing of practical experiment. And I'm not sure where to go with this; my faith discipline is becoming increasingly a private bubble inside but dislocated from the body of believers in which it sits.

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Twisted threads

So there are two strands of thought I've been following through in recent posts — one on the last twenty years of one's life and how to live them well and land gracefully at the end, the other on anarchist church and whatever that might imply.

I've carried on thinking about both. 

little while ago, I said I wanted to explore here the Four Accessibilities, which belongs with anarchist church preoccupations, so I thought I'd come back to that.

But at the forefront of my mind is something that belongs more with the last twenty years of life; which is that I am so tired.

Our family life has been a glorious muddle for the last couple of decades, and this has shown no sign of abating in recent times. Don't run away with the idea that we're unhappy, just somewhat chaotic.

Change has continued to run at full strength in the last year or two. Buzzfloyd and her husband have, with a lot of hard work and persistence, and great expenditure at the US end, managed to import Buzz's mother-in-law (who has fragile health) on a permanent basis, which is a relief and a success, but not without its challenges in their small row house with its two-and-a-half bedrooms, one bathroom, and now five inhabitants (three adults, two children). But that just extends the family tradition, one more variant on "No, seriously, we can do this" that has dominated our whole life.

So meanwhile in our house, we imposed a moratorium on all meetings and socialising three years back when we took in my mother for end-of-life care, and extended an invitation to another one of us to live here because her circumstances required it. That would have brought our number up to eight, which felt daunting, but happily we kept it at seven — my mother got better under the care of our excellent doctor, and was able to return to her own apartment where, two years on, she still is.

Since this summer, we moved the Badger down from his attic to the middle floor (which required carpentry plus plus to create housing for his books and clothes etc), and moved the middle floor inhabitant up to the vacated attic; and then as our temporary resident in the back sitting room got closer to acquiring her own accommodation elsewhere, her incoming domestic accoutrements swelled in quantity until we thought the house would burst. 

While all this was going on, we had the entire house swathed in scaffolding and painted in a humungously expensive preparation guaranteed to defeat the battering of coastal weather and keep it all in good nick for twenty years. So as well as the place being crammed with inhabitants, we also had decorators clog-dancing their way all round the outside at all hours of the day.

Unfortunately they neglected to do any preparation, contenting themselves with spraying paint on top of old blistering layers and even over moss! So after the scaffold came down and a whole lot of fuss was made by us, another scaffold went up — new team; made a hole in our roof front and back — and yet more decorators came. 
Then when they'd gone, a man came to re-tile our complicated Victorian mosaic front path, meaning the postie had to pick his way through the shrubs and hand mail through the window for a couple of weeks. After that, another lot of men came to put in new windows at the back of the house — and not before time; our Alice's room was freezing because she couldn't close her window for three years.

And finally, our temporary resident moved out this last week. That meant carrying a massive amount of boxes down from the attic, packing them in our cars and van, then unpacking them and carrying them up to her attic apartment in the new house. By the end we were all nearly dead and everything ached.

We love her dearly and she is most precious to us — an absolute jewel, really — but no one pretends the last two years all living together has been easy. If you doubt this, you too should try living with a trombonist who needs to practice   every   single   night.

Yesterday was the last push, and now she is ensconced in her beautiful and well-chosen new home.

And today, I felt like a zombie. Too tired to live and far too tired to die. Tiredness so insistent and tangible and assertive I almost felt sick. Tiredness that filled me up and overflowed. I walked up to the store for groceries, and moving in the fresh air eased everything a bit. But you know, one of the aspects of growing older I find most prominent is tiredness as a familiar companion. Too tired to read, too tired to socialise, too tired to structure a book — I even fall asleep watching telly. I am just so, so tired.

Last week, stressed by builders and stressed by house moving shenanigans, a fine piece of spectacular Methodist administrative ineptitude pushed me over the edge and my immune system just crashed, leaving me two days feverish and ill; just tired beyond imagining, too tired to move or get out of bed.

Sometimes I wonder about the progression of the last (next) twenty years of my life as it unfolds; I mean, how could you possibly get more tired than this? But I suppose I will. How on earth will I learn to embrace and integrate and work with it? I just don't know.

So that's Thought One.

But the second thought, about anarchist church, was looking back at some work I did at the end of the 1980s, beginning of the 90s, when the Methodist Church convened a Poverty Project to consider its response to UK poverty. The committee in question had a prestigious minister (running it), a social worker from a gritty housing estate, a member of parliament who always wore a pin-striped suit, and a sprinkling of other individuals I've now forgotten. And then there was me. I was not prestigious and had no qualifications, but I did personally know quite a lot of people in poverty, which was to be my contribution.

As we discussed and deliberated (there were a couple of other women on the team at the beginning but, apart from the ones who brought in tea and sandwiches at half time, they all left), and I canvassed opinion from the Actual Poor, something became very clear to me. The main thing people living in scary levels of poverty wanted was not so much a handout as a friend. They were very resourceful and had loads of strategies for out-foxing their circumstances, but what meant the world was someone who understood and someone to be a companion on the journey. This was also true of the people dying in the hospice, which was the other place I spent every spare hour at that time in my life.

So, as I came into pastoral ministry — rather abruptly after an epic battle (I'll tell you about that another day) over inclusive church at the end of which our minster crashed and burned and left me at the helm — I began to formulate some thoughts about what inclusivity needed. 

I came up with the Four Accessibilities. 

Which are:

  1. Accessibility of worship. We had a lot of people in our congregation back then who lived with profound and challenging disability, and a lot of children. Making worship accessible included strategies like repetitive formats so that people for whom words didn't mean as much as the shape of the service could join in — and a relatively small repertoire of songs, and a sung Lord's Prayer. But also high quality music and preaching ministries, to engage the imagination and draw in those on the fringes. And inclusive language (uncommon and contentious, back then).
  2. Accessibility of buildings. We ripped out pews to make space at the back, on one side for those in wheelchairs who were still coming to terms with new disability and felt shy at the front, on the other side to make a carpeted area with toys and beanbags for the littlest ones. We ripped out pews at the front to make space for wheelchairs, and for adults who could crawl and climb but not easily sit on benches to have big easy chairs. We put in disabled-access toilets and a T-loop for hard of hearing people, and got ramps for wheelchairs.
  3. Accessibility of socialising. We began a rolling programme of activities — like our pantomime and our tea-dance and our Old Tyme Music Hall — which involved everyone, not on one day only but for weeks as we practised and rehearsed and learned to waltz and wrote scripts and songs and made props and costumes. There was so much laughter and ingenuity and creativity. And the key thing running through it all was that it was all-age, all-ability and everything was free. No charge. Ever. 
  4. Accessibility of lifestyle. Now this was something impossible to impose, but I thought it very important and made it a non-negotiable foundational principle for myself. To have nothing that could make other people feel jealous or inferior. To choose what was simple, lowly and unpretentious. In what I ate, how I dressed, where I shopped, where I lived, what I drove, what I owned, how I furnished my home. So that nothing about me, ever, could make another person feel ashamed or inadequate. I was splendidly successful in this endeavour, became an invisible nonentity, standardly overlooked, a total nobody; and this I find both hard to bear and an absolute treasure — because one is in good company.
Well, I guess I'd better stop before you grow old and die. Those were my first stumbling steps towards anarchist church, for any of you still awake and interested in the subject.

And now I'm going to finish my day in the usual way (I expect you all do this) with some crushed raw garlic, cider vinegar, propolis and Manuka honey. This mixture gets rid of everything — bacteria, viruses, unwelcome fungi, vampires, demons . . .

G'night.


Monday, 3 December 2018

A prayer for winter

Buzzfloyd sent me this lovely blessing prayer by the Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast, and I thought you might like it too.




A warning — you do have to achieve a remarkable level of stillness to acquire the degree of paying attention he is aiming at. Don't worry if you can't quite get there.

If you are more a beginner at this stillness, you could think of your own entry-level set of aspirations. For example:

May I grow still enough to hear the stealthy rustling of a ninja child who has broken into the tin of Celebrations, so that I may intervene before it makes itself actually sick.

May I grow still enough to hear the very first churning of the cat's powerful stomach muscles, so that I still have time to sprint along the passage and hurl it into the garden before it vomits up a hairball onto the pale cream carpet.

May I grow still enough to hear the quiet steps on the front path of the delivery man who leaves a "You were out" note without bothering to check, so that I can actually get my hands on the Christmas present I bought my mother online.

Here are some of my own personal goals:

May I grow still enough to hear the occasional buzz of the sleeping wasp I unfortunately brought in on the firewood then it woke up and is now at large in the sitting room, so that I don't tread on it if it's crawling about on the floor and get my foot stung.

May I grow still enough to notice the passing of time more attentively so that I don't get involved in the internet and boil my coffee for 55 minutes instead of half an hour.

Uh-oh . . . that last one . . . see you later. Don't grow too still, someone might tread on you like that wasp.


Saturday, 1 December 2018

True Leadership

In the comment thread to my post "Anarchist church leadership and protection", Isaac asked, "Can you give some concrete examples of what True Leadership would actually look like in the Anarchist Church?"

I started to answer, but had so much to say I thought it needed a post of its own. So this is it.


"Can you give some concrete examples of what True Leadership would actually look like in the Anarchist Church?"

Hi Isaac
I suspect my answer to that will carry on unfolding in my head ("And another thing . . .") as the day goes by.
But here are four things.
The first may seem a bit simplistic.
Years ago I heard Nick Cuthbert (I think) say: "A leader is someone other people are following."
I believe that's important. What I personally would like is a leader I can believe in. I remember one year when I went to Greenbelt, John Bell (Iona) was speaking). I thought I should take in a range of speakers, so I tried 2 or 3. I listened to someone who was self-obsessed and shallow, someone who was on a bit of a rant — and John Bell, who was wise, imaginative, intelligent, prepared, profound; he had something to say that made a difference. For the rest of the week, I just went to every single talk he gave, and I learned a lot. That week he was my leader, the person I was following because he was worth it. So I think the true leader of a church is the one people are following, and having to choose a leader from a selection offered by a national body may or may not give you that. A true leader best emerges by the recognition of the group. Jesus said, "My sheep know my voice", and as a pastor I've found that to be exactly true of leadership. The flock know the voice of the shepherd. When you start to teach, the people settle down into profound, accepting quietness. The flocks I pastored were not mine of course — they belonged to Jesus. But I would have prayed for them before I led their Sunday meeting: "Feed your sheep, Lord. They are looking to you. They need you. Feed them through me."

Then I think true leadership is local. Knowing people's histories, having known the people who worshipped with this community who are now in glory, knowing their family members who have ceased to worship, is important. A writer once said "show me a place's geography and I'll tell you its history". What unfolds in life is vitally connected to location. A leader needs to have grown (not necessarily their whole life, but at least a good long while) in that place. Imposing a stranger may be refreshing but will give you a shepherd who will never really know and understand the flock. 
   
Also, keeping leadership local is a strong safeguard against abuse. A few weeks ago, a woman in a church near me was telling me about an incident from her childhood where her sister was sexually abused by a church leader. Her mother called him out, whereupon his denomination hastily redeployed him to work in their mission in Africa. The abused child felt desperate about the likely outcome for the African girls, and as a result lost faith in both the church and God, that she had trusted and believed in. 

Once after I'd had a nightmarish time stopping corruption and abuse in a church appointment I was given, the hierarchy offered me what my Chair of District described as "a plum job". I don't share this view of pastoral ministry as a career opportunity.

I've also seen instances where congregations, suffering under not abusive but seriously incompetent ministry, have declined to re-invite their minister — but because of the Christian tradition of kind silence, have not apprised the unsuspecting new congregation where that leader sought appointment, of the problem.

In all cases, I think institutions tend to favour the leader not the people, and institutionalism tends to offer a safe haven for abuse, masking it, hiding it, and using the time-worn method of insisting on confidentiality to perpetuate it. Isolate and conquer. 

Keeping leadership local, relying on the circle of the whole people of God as the eyes and ears and hands and feet and brain and backbone of the church, creates health and strength. It is much harder for evil and incompetence to flourish where people's back stories are common knowledge.

Then I think a key characteristic of leadership is anticipation. This is partly shrewd humanity, partly spiritual charism (knowledge, wisdom, prophecy). The ability to sense when something's kicking off, to have a quiet word before trouble starts, to move the flock on before the avalanche hits them, the insight to spot an emerging gift in a youngster, nurture and encourage it, to see what has not been covered in the discipleship programme and recognise what is needed to remedy that. A leader who cannot anticipate, who is always reactive not proactive, is a disaster.

And I think the jewel in the crown of true leadership is listening. To listen first of all for the voice of the Spirit — where is God leading us, what is he asking of us, what is the now word of God for us in this time and place. We root our listening in the scriptures (the whole Bible not just proof texts wielded as weapons) and in prayer, but in the minutest detail of everything we do, every day, we are listening for the Spirit's voice. To do that, we have to live simply. If our lives are cluttered by possessions (acquiring, curating or just muddling round in the mess of our hoard), commitments, meetings, relationships, socialising, a crammed schedule — then the still, small voice of the Spirit is often missed. Silence, solitude, and simplicity, help us listen to the voice of the Spirit: and we can't lead anybody if we don't do that.
   But we must also listen to the people. The reason so many are wandering off right now is that they are neglected, unnoticed, their voice and their story unheard. Imposing a programme on people and insisting they do it is not what inclusion looks like. The church congregation is a circle not a pyramid. Nobody is at the top, nobody is the most important. As Jesus said, the first shall be last and the last shall be first — that happens in a circle. And he said we should be like the little children. Now, responsibility goes with authority, so I wouldn't leave it to an eighteen-month-old kid to lead Sunday worship. In the circle, people contribute according to their gifting and ability, and that should be decided by the circle as a whole under the leading of the Spirit. So, who's in charge? Jesus is. Who's the boss? Jesus is. Who speaks for him, acts for him here? We all do. So the decision-making process involves the whole body, but in the life of the church there will always emerge those who listen well to the Spirit and the people, who anticipate well, who know the landscape and the people with long familiarity, and whom the flock naturally follow. That's your leader. But, no imposing, no laying down the law — it's done by listening, and you take the people with you. You don't impose top-down.

I hope that helps!

Pen

Thursday, 29 November 2018

Thinking about a song

Two of my mother's favourite perspectives:
"Don't draw attention to yourself."
"Don't rock the boat."

She believed (still does) in slipping through the world, as Ezra Pound put it, "like a field mouse, not shaking the grass", in the Taoist ideology of find your way like water round the immovable stones in life's river bed. 

She rarely engaged in conflict, or responded to provocation, preferring to just raise her eyebrows and go her own way. She dealt with the difficulties of interaction with the human race by not entering it. She has been the archetypal cat that walks alone. She kept her own counsel, went her own way.

Yet for all that, here and there when she saw it as necessary, she stood her ground.

When I was about fifteen I watched an encounter she had with a man who came to fell a dangerous dead branch from an oak tree on our land, overhanging the road. He charged an eye-watering sum and we were chronically poor. My mother said nothing when she received his request for payment, just got out her cheque book. He (a somewhat oily type) said to her, in receipt of her cheque, "If ever you're in trouble again, just get in touch."

And she replied, "If I'm ever in trouble, I'll get out of it somehow without coming to you."

She could hold her own, when she saw fit to do so. I logged the conversation in the Useful Items section of my memory. 

When I was a little girl, about seven, she gave me a little book that I loved, called A Pocketful of Proverbs.



I knew most of the proverbs in the book already — which is itself always a delight to a child — but there was one new to me:
Of all the sayings in the world
The one to see you through
Is never trouble trouble
Until trouble troubles you.

It caught my attention, amused me because of the word play, and gave me a great deal of food for thought. One of the questions quick to my mind is, "Is that true?" I asked it of myself about the proverb. On balance, I thought it was true. Letting sleeping dragons lie is, in general, a wise rule of thumb.

But one should not be deluded that it comes without cost.

Excuse me if (yawn) you are well familiar with this word, but have you much thought about casuistry?

The definitions of it online are almost as complex and abstruse as the concept itself. 

It first caught my attention when I came across it as a young woman, in someone's (I forget whose) reference to the casuistry of the Roman Catholic Church — the overlooking of the actual application of the draconian rules (eg about contraception and celibacy) that people found impossible to keep. The priest and his 'housekeeper', for example. People finding their way like water round the blocks. People who had decided that of all the sayings in the world the one to see them through was never trouble trouble until trouble troubles you.

Casuistry occurs when pragmatism meets ideology.

I have come across it happening right now in the Methodist Church, where our Safeguarding programme has escalated almost to the level of an obsession. In Circuits where Local Preacher ongoing training has simply run into the mud and stopped, Safeguarding training is proliferating like mushrooms on dead wood.

I am all for safeguarding children and vulnerable adults from harm, and I think the best way to do it is to respect and listen to them, to include them in decision-making, and to give them the space and opportunity to be heard and to stand up for themselves. What we do instead is infantilise those who are not in power, imposing on them decisions made behind closed doors by Those Who Know Better, and imposing on them, wholesale, edicts from above.

And this is where the casuistry arises. So dense and unrealistic is the programme we have rolled out that its application is impractical. Let me give you an example.

At our recent training, we were offered the case study of a church that wanted to set up a 'Wednesday Club' serving lunches for old people, including some with dementia. We were given a list of those who would be required to run it, and asked what action would be needed (police checks, interviews, clear rĂ´le descriptions and boundaries, and work partners) for the manager, assistant manager, minibus driver, kitchen volunteers and volunteers to chat with and serve lunch to the people for whom the club would run.

Actually, thinking of the nature and membership of our Circuit's Methodist church congregations, the answer to all of it was short and simple: no Wednesday Club, then — make your own lunch.

But the church is peopled by irenic souls who believe that of all the sayings in the world, the one to see you through, is never trouble trouble until trouble troubles you. They flow round the impracticalities like water round stones — gently acquiescing to  the draconian legislation imposed upon them, but (crucially) only very selectively applying it; thus rendering it, of course, ineffective.

A couple of decades ago I had a run-in with Methodism over this very issue. A then senior official in that denomination, having been made to apologise by a better man than himself for all the insults and lies he had flung at me, subsided rumbling, saying that I was born to rattle the cage of the Methodist Church. 

And as long as the church deals in cages, may it be so.

The big problem with the church's Safeguarding programme, is that the same people who made it necessary are running it. If it is administered with kindness, intelligence and humanity, it will make the world a safer and gentler place. But that's not the outcome of the programme, it's the outcome of kindness, intelligence and humanity. If it's run by bullies or the inept, it merely serves to magnify the scope of their influence. I've seen it ignored when it suited church leaders, and I've seen it applied to crush and exclude people when that in turn suited church leaders. The bottom line is, you cannot legislate for goodness, or institutionalise it. You can only live it.

My mother has, time and again, said to me "Don't draw attention to yourself," and, "Are you rocking the boat again, Penelope?"

Like anyone, I prefer a quiet life. But when it comes to that proverb about never troubling trouble, for me the jury's still out. I will never go looking for trouble, but when it comes to safeguarding any human being including myself, I think I prefer the approach of this song by Elvis Presley, which is also logged in the Useful Items compartment of my memory.





Though I hope in my own case, I am neither miserable nor evil; merely determined to see truth emerge.

Made me laugh today

You know how, on Amazon, customers can send in a question which is then emailed out to other customers who've bought the product?

Today, looking at socks airers on Amazon — specifically, this one:



. . . I came across this question and answer (click on it if it's too small for you to read properly):



Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Day off, is it?

"You have won the game. Time, 8.43." 

Fine. Twelfth game of Spider Solitaire. Now what?

We have builders.

Working from home is a hard-won prize to be jealously guarded, the fruit of decades of strategic life choices, grown in the compost of determined simplicity: small budget, low income, few possessions, sparse schedule, and no social circle whatsoever — just a sketchy outline of friendship almost too faint to make out.

But, though working from home is a privilege to which I tightly cling, it does have its drawbacks. And one of them is that, from the perspective of those who are not yourself but everyone else, you are clearly completely unoccupied. You are the obvious sentinel, gofer (I had to check how to spell that; a gopher is something else) and companion of those who are at a loose end.

When the household schedules building works, its members then leave the premises, all except for Guess Who.

It is a blessing that these days builders have no wish to speak to me. Well — only if they need to. Like yesterday morning — BANG BANG BANG on my door. 

"Yes? Can I help?"

"Can you come and look at this. You got lead."

"Ah yes. So I see."

"Only, we don't do lead. It's split. Musta been like that for years. And we don't do lead. We don't carry lead."

"Oh, dear. What should we do?"

"Well, if you get the lead, we can put it in, but, see, we don't do lead. We don't carry lead."

You get the drift? You have absorbed the point? They don't do lead.

Happily, yesterday, my best beloved had also fallen into the trap of working from home, and was willing to go up to Travis Perkins building supplies merchant for 6 metres of lead. Though what the hell we shall do with the surplus two metres I have no idea. Freegle it, I guess.

Other than when such emergencies arise, though, I am grateful to be entirely see-through to builders nowadays. I have hair like mouldy hay, a midriff like a Sherman tank and features like Les Dawson.

In parenthesis, in case you have never heard of Les Dawson, a northern-English comedian:




But years ago when I was young and lithe with long blonde hair, and even then worked from home, they were more inclined to chat.

The opening gambit never varied:

"Day off, is it?"

I have always been more than a little Aspergery, but even I know the correct response to such an enquiry is not (however mellow one's tone):
"No, you moron. I am here because you are."

At the age I am now, I would just say, "Yes." 
I mean — why go to the bother? 
But as a young woman, chronically worried about seeming lazy or under-productive or insufficiently hard-working or in any way unsatisfactory, I would start to explain that, well, no, I work from home, I am a writer, I . . . No one is ever listening. Or was even then.

It's so much easier now. I am clearly just the old biddy who keeps house for the Ones Who Have Jobs, and are therefore elsewhere. Because the whole working world is elsewhere, right?

Last Sunday, a complete stranger made the error of getting into conversation with me while I stood by our car with the door open. The other half of me-and-him was getting eggs from the garden gate next to our chapel (rescue hens and eggs at £2 a dozen, where the supermarket ones are £2.15 for six). So this lady plus small dog paused to chat on her way home with her own eggs. We talked (as you do) about her dog — how sweet, how pretty, etc. I do have a few social skills, and it was, in all fairness, a nice dog.

She told me how the dog had come into her life. What had happened was that her son Gary had woken up in the night a few months ago, asking himself why his wife Ruth didn't work. I'm not sure in what sense she didn't work. Like a defunct washing machine perhaps, or a clogged vacuum cleaner. Who knows? But evidently Gary felt dissatisfied with this arrangement. He pointed out to Ruth that she hadn't worked ("at all", as his mother put it) for twelve years and now it was time she did. Ruth conceded that their three children could be left to fend for themselves and their house remain uncleaned. They could eat freezer food and take-away pizzas (I am making this up, the dog lady left out that part), but who would look after the dog? A dog needs a companion. So Gary said they'd give the dog to his mother: and so they did.

I listened to this.

"Gary should be careful," I eventually replied. "He might find, once Ruth is financially independent, she may discover she doesn't need Gary at all."

Swifter than an ostrich on speed, "Oh, no!" responded the dog lady: "No, no, no! No. Gary's very good."

At what, I wondered, but thought it might seem indelicate to enquire.

But Ruth was quite right. The spiritual power of dogs is that they help us to understand the virtue of companionship.

And in the evening of the day I met Dog Woman, I went to a concert (our Rosie was playing trombone) where a friend wanted to tell me how lonely she was. What she hated, in particular, was coming home to an empty house. Let's hope Gary doesn't mind, eh? And let's hope he has a liking for Indian takeaways, because I don't think anywhere delivers roast dinners at eight o'clock in the evening. And I wonder what he'll do if they need to have builders in?

But maybe I sound sour and should shut up now. Or someone's eye may fall on the spine of To Kill A Mocking Bird and mistake it for a word from the Lord.

I want to write about the Four Accessibilities and also about Politics, Nutrition, Money and Religion — but that will have to wait until Thursday when these drills and sanders and rivet guns (and that whatever it is that shakes the house like a volcano and an avalanche competing for top spot) have gone their merry way.

Uh-oh. Heavy boots in the passage. Bye now.

Then I'm going to play a thirteenth game of solitaire and have a cup of tea.




And what about you? Why are you here, reading this? Day off, is it?

Living light

I used to find living through winter darkness very hard. 

When I looked into it more deeply, though, I wondered if I might be starved of living light rather than merely of sunlight. So I adjusted what I was doing, and found my suspicions well-founded.

I love sunny days. But . . .

. . . if I have firelight



and starlight (in good company with Jesus who is the living light)


and moonlight


and dawn light


and the slanting light of the afternoon



and candle-light



then I find my soul is fed with the wonder and mystery it needs to stay steadily strong.

And it is a mistake to think of a fire


as merely a heat source.

If you have a fire in your home, you have a pet dragon.

A fire eats and breathes, it speaks, it is full of personality and different every day. A fire is a friendly companion, with the added spice of being distinctly and uncompromisingly dangerous; the sort of friend who can destroy your living room in under two minutes and think it's funny.

Having a fire on your hearth is akin to inviting the sea to live with you, or swapping out your roof for the starry sky like Jesus did. Elemental.

I respect the experience and testimony of those who experience SAD. Without doubt it is a thing. 

But

I humbly offer the view that it is a thing one might deepen and worsen by going into the winter with central heating and closed curtains.

Living light makes life better.



All living light. And firelight, after all, is the sunshine stored in the remembering heart of a tree. I am thankful for the trees who gave their lives that I might be comforted all through the cold dark months of winter by living light. What a treasure. What a precious and wonderful gift.


Saturday, 24 November 2018

Non-compliance


I am really looking forward to worship tomorrow, at our little chapel at Pett. I personally have absolutely no preaching or leading duties tomorrow, so get the chance to enjoy some else's input.

And tomorrow morning — that's November 25th at 10.45am — our preacher is Buzzfloyd who often comments here. In the Methodist Church, when we talk about a preacher we don't just mean the person who gives the address. The preacher is responsible for crafting the entire act of worship.

I am specially looking forward to tomorrow's worship for four reasons.

Firstly, Buzzfloyd is a cracking good preacher — engaging, unfailingly interesting and thought-provoking, kind and full of faith.

Secondly, I know she has recently been thinking about non-compliance as a social skill — as an asset rather than a problem — and I am hoping she may be sharing some of her thoughts about that tomorrow.

Thirdly, it is all-age worship, which suits our congregation at Pett very well. We are genuinely all-age, ranging from toddlers to grannies, and everyone is full of good ideas and they all offer brilliant insights and contributions when given the chance. And I know that Buzzfloyd can be trusted to ask honest questions in search of real answers — as opposed to the tired ruse of asking leading questions to oblige the people to second-guess the answer the preacher prepared earlier.

Fourthly, Buzzfloyd has a substantial praise section lined up for us, and as the word of God goes forth upon the praises of the people, we know that this is just the best way to enable the flow of the Spirit in our midst; which after all is why we go to church.

So it's going to be brilliant and good fun and interesting and I've been looking forward to it all week, and if you live in East Sussex your journey to join us would not be wasted. If you live in the US you may be just in time to catch a flight but if you're in Australia you might be cutting it a bit fine even if you start out now.

Fabric and weather

I live on the south coast of England, where the weather is much warmer and gentler than in the north. Even so, we have the three of four seasons requirements of our clothing.

Typically, January is deeply cold and frosty; if it snows, it's most often in January.  

February is a very cold month, and usually has light persistent rain most of the time. It's the time when the light returns, a good spring-cleaning month as the lemon-juice sunshine illuminates all the cobwebs! The snowdrops (Fair Maids of February) are in bloom. The ramsons are up.

March is a blustery month — very cold, sharp, north-easterly winds — and often bright, clear, joyous sunshine. The daffodils are up and blooming.

April is the month when as a young woman I determinedly wore my new summer dresses and felt absolutely freezing cold. Definitely springtime, but definitely still very cold. Still the month for daffodils and tulips, and the fruit trees also coming into blossom — cherries first. Late frosts sometimes catch the blossom before it sets.

Then May brings the greening of England — all the trees coming fully into leaf, and the woods glorious with bluebells. The lilies of the valley come into bloom.

June is high summer, the zenith of the light at St John's tide over the summer solstice. The trees come into full canopy, and all the plants like green alkanet and Queen Anne's Lace and comfrey and ragged robin and Traveller's Joy and feverfew and heal-all and eyebright and everything are in bloom. It can still be a cool month, but also blazing hot. It can be rainy — or not. I've even known it snow in June!

July is usually a hot month. The soft fruit like strawberry, cherries and raspberries continue, that began to appear in June. The beans and courgettes and tomatoes start to be ready.

In August the summer begins to turn, the grass often going brown in the heat, the trees still in full canopy but a different sniff to the wind. It can be a turbulent month, with electrical storms and a surprising amount of rain.

September is a golden month — time for the grain harvests. Of all the days in any given year, the one most likely to be fine and warm and dry is September fourteenth. It's a lovely month — long, warm evenings, very mellow. The nights freshen with lower temperatures towards the end of the month, bringing the gold and red colours to the leaves of all the deciduous trees.

October is blustery and wild, with wind and rain storms; very invigorating and refreshing, time to get out coats and sweaters as the last leaves are blown from the trees.

November is often drizzly and misty, the frosts begin and the nights draw in. It can be still surprisingly warm right into mid-November, but at that point the subtle change from autumn to winter takes effect.

December is often warmer than either November or January, often quite a dry month with less wind. Sharp frosts at night and clear, starry skies very often — great for carol-singing! The winter solstice (Yul) comes just before Christmas, and after that the light returns by twenty minutes every week.

So our weather is quite variable!

Micro-fleece, while being bad news for the oceans by shedding tiny plastic fibres into the water-courses that eventually get absorbed into our bodies via the food chain, is very handy for the many English days characterised by light drizzle and chilly wind (autumn, spring). Indian cotton and linen are perfect for the high summer. But now, as we go into the coldest part of the year, layered wool is the very best thing. If you layer cotton, the result is often heavy and restrictive of movement. If you layer micro fleece your skin can't breathe and it feels suffocating. But layered wool is cosy without being too hot.

Today, I have a long-sleeved cotton t-shirt, and over that a medium weight cashmere cardigan buttoned up to wear like a sweater, and over that a longer, heavier cashmere cardigan worn open. And even in my north-facing room with no heating, my nose is cold but I am comfortably warm. I have snuggly micro-fleece trousers and very cosy slippers.




Friday, 23 November 2018

Jephthah's bandits and the anarchist church

Nearly twenty years ago I instigated a Fresh Expression Of Church called the Universal Glue Factory — a name inspired by Wayne Dyer's speaking of love as the glue that holds the universe together.

We did a variety of things, and meeting for worship was obviously one. Our worship meeting we called Jephthah's Bandits — because we had found ourselves outside the church by an improbable coincidence of circumstances.

But the name Jephthah may not immediately be familiar to you. In case not, let me tell you about him.

Jephthah's tragic story is told in the book of Judges (chapter 11). He was a mighty warrior, the offspring of Gilead and a prostitute. Gilead had other sons born within the institution of marriage, who, when they reached adulthood, drove Jephthah out of the family. They didn't want to share their inheritance with him, and felt that he had no right to it because he was not properly part of the family, since his mother was not Gilead's wife. The offspring of establishment is security; but also sometimes is lack of imagination, casual cruelty and segregation.

So, dispossessed and alone, he made common cause with a group of bandits — men in a similar situation — who, like Peter Pan's lost boys, all hung out together.

Later on, when Israel went to war against the Ammonites, Jephthah's brothers came to look for him — they now needed his skill in battle. Craving their acceptance, he returned to fight for them. Desperate to seal his inclusion, he bargained with God. He promised to offer in sacrifice the first creature that should meet him on his return from war. He came back victorious, and on the way home was met by his daughter, dancing and singing in celebration of his victory. Like all people caught up in cycles of abuse and rejection, his first instinct was to blame her for the fate that now awaited her — look what misery you've brought on my head! She asked for a little time together with her friends, which he granted her, and then he put her to death. We do not know her name. The story contrasts strikingly with the binding of Isaac, in which God provides a ram to avert the sacrifice of Abraham's son. 

The offspring of exclusion and rejection is an ongoing destructive cycle, the tragedy of wasted life, nameless, unrecognised, unrecorded. 

So that's Jephthah.

Why I think of him in connection with the anarchist church is because I see him, and his bandits in their hideout in the hills, in the modern world. 

I see the "dones" — those who have tried their best with church and, disappointed and disillusioned, are done with it. I see those who fall foul of the structures, requirements and regulations of the church, and wander dispossessed, those whose ministry and gifts are rejected or neglected, who are not pastored in times of grief, who are left like sheep wandering on the fells without a shepherd. It is not so much the community that does this, for they have surrendered their power to the institution. They watch from the sidelines, unsettled but silent, as things take their course. Jephthah's daughter is delivered nameless and alone to her death, because for her there is no angel to intervene.

When an asteroid hits a planet and blows it apart, the debris is scattered locally in space, but begins to whirl in its familiar patterns of orbit, reassembling in a mish-mash of components as it is drawn together again. It sorts itself out in time. This also happens to people.

An anarchist church would allow people to find their own level, tell their own story, put their lives back together and begin to heal. The pain of rejection, the patterns of inclusion and exclusion, would no longer apply, because there would be no hierarchical pyramid, no power structure; only a circle in which, under the eyes of everybody, anybody could take their place. 

In the end, I think, the scattered debris of Jephthah's bandits will form into an anarchist church. It will only be a matter of time.