Friday, 26 February 2010

The stronger tablets to try for two weeks? I've been on them about a week. They help with what they're meant to help with, but they make it difficult for me to eat as much as I normally would, and what I do manage makes me a bit nauseous. So I'm overtired and grumpy.

Things at Nearest Church are getting interesting in ways I can't really talk about here without taking silly risks about anonymity. I am trying to learn to be patient with others, and with myself.

In general I'm feeling grumpy about LGBTQ issues in the church, but I don't know where to begin discussing the issues. If grace is unconditional, why should any sacrament be withheld from anyone?

Just asking.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Mundane medical stuff

My body has been more achey than usual recently; this week I hauled myself off to first-line tech support (my local GP) to see if anything could be done about a couple of joint-related things.

I have a new diagnosis concerning one of my hands. It isn't really unexpected; people with another of my conditions are quite prone to it. There's nothing they can really do about it at this stage of things: all the treatments would involve serious loss of functionality, and I'm already doing all the preventive stuff I reasonably can. This isn't hugely painful yet, more a mild niggle that I thought I'd better mention, and at the moment I do have full functioning...the worst bit is not really knowing whether or when it will deteriorate, knowing that I'm really not in control of whether I will be able to play.

I also have some stronger tablets to try for a couple of weeks in hopes that the recent flare-up of ongoing stuff will calm down. We shall see.

I am trying to look on the bright side of this, to accept that it could all disappear anyway, I could be hit by a bus or whatever and poof! all gone! All of life is provisional, a gift, and it's absurd to expect mine to be free of pain or disability. I'm not sure if I'm succeeding, taking this in stride as just one more thing that sets me apart from those who are considered healthy and normal in this society, or if I'm simply ignoring the news.

Thanks be to God for the NHS, though -- without it I wouldn't be able to afford treatment.

Make me hear of joy and gladness,
that the bones you have broken may rejoice.
--Psalm 51, v9

Thursday, 18 February 2010

On balance.

I still agree with what I said yesterday, but it wasn't very complete, made some huge assumptions.

I said if something ceases to be a labour of love, you should stop and re-think. I said self-improvement can be about God, if it means discovering and becoming who we are.

But that doesn't mean we should all just do whatever we feel like all the time.

I may enjoy chocolate and sweets, but I have a body to look after and too much of them won't do me any good. I may love stretching and relaxing but if I don't get up and move around I will become ill. Looking after the body I have been given is somewhat complicated, as it comes with some non-standard variations which in this society are seen as medical problems... but even if I were "healthy", the same would apply. Taking good care of myself means recognising that my instincts may be incorrect, or that I may be so far out of touch with my instincts that I need to base my decisions on some general rules or principles.

I think the same is true of my relationship with God. No, I should not do things that I do not do out of love -- but that doesn't mean that I will always be ecstatically happy about everything I undertake. My short-term will and my long-term goals may be out of sync. My ability to discern God's will for my life may be unreliable, or even absent.

God gives us freedom to ignore God, freedom to refrain from an active relationship with God... in order that we can truly enter that relationship in love, not out of fear.

But that means the relationship can be absent or distant. It means we can go about our merry ways, oblivious. We can become so distracted that we don't listen to God's calling to us, Beloved,, or so wrapped up in our own lives that we don't even think to look at the loving work we could do in the world.

I think that's part of why it's important for many people to spend some time in solitude, away from the clamour of all the things that we allow to make claims on our time and energy, away from the people we serve not because we love them adn they need, but for some other reason. Sometimes in the silence we can hear.

I think that just as surely it is important to be part of human communities, to open our eyes to one another's wounds, to see something of God in the earnest schoolteacher, in the lady who does the church flowers... to see Christ in the people we would classify as "good" or "friends" or "saintly" and in those we might rather avoid: the sick, the distressed, the poor; the ones who have been taught no manners at all; the abusive parent, the alcoholic sibling. Even the people who have hurt us most, the people who are most frightening to us, the people who seem monstrous, are beloved children of God.

We are called to share what we have. That means being honest with ourselves and others about what we have, and about what we don't have.

Learning to look after my body means listening to my instincts, but also observing what happens when I do some things or avoid others. It means consulting people who are experts, at least some of the time, and gathering information from others. I cannot look after my body by ignoring every symptom I have until it becomes crippling; neither can I look after my body by allowing slight aches and pains to send me to bed wailing of my discomfort. There is a continual process of observation, fact-checking, reflection. I have to be willing to find out that I am wrong, that I have been mistaken, if I am to learn well.

So, too, with a relationship with God. I need the reflective solitude and I need the close-knit community and I need the extended fellowship. To discern God's will for me in the world, I need to listen to God and I need to look at the world, and if I neglect either then I run the risk of destroying myself in vain to serve others, or harming others to serve my own short-term whims.

Perhaps Lent is, if anything, a time of examination rather than penitence, a time of exploration rather than contrition. Oh, penitence and contrition will probably come along anyway if we see, in our examination and exploration, how badly we have treated one another. But they aren't the purpose, they aren't the point.

As for the claim that you don't need Lent to do that -- no, but we time-bound humans tend to function well with a certain amount of cyclical routine. I don't need Christmas to learn about Emmanuel, God-with-us, but it helps. I don't need St Valentine's Day to know Sweetie loves me or to tell him how very much I love him, and indeed we often don't do anything special that day, but when we do it is a pleasure. And frankly, I do schedule time to be especially aware of God. I make time for Morning Prayer, why not make time for Lent? I use an alarm clock, why not a calendar?

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

A fast post.

I don't have much time to write this before I have to leave. God isn't time-bound but I am... and so I am a creature of rehearsals, of attending services at the same time as others, a creature of liturgical seasons even. I think outside of time, the Kingdom of God exists, and this time-bound experience of ours is part of that. So my haste is part of Paradise, and yet there is no hurry. But that's not what I meant to write about today!

There is much ado, as always at this time of year, about fasting, giving things up for Lent or for a day or a week. And there is much ado in response, from people saying, "Hey, this isn't just about self-help, you know, don't forget you're a beloved child of God" and they are, of course, absolutely right.

Margaret said,
So, if you must, do those things that help you know deep inside that you are nothing but dust, then GET OVER IT; know that you are redeemed, get over it, and get on to the true fast of reconciling the world to God. That is our vocation.

+Nick Baines said,
It [Lent] gives us the space to be grasped again by the overwhelming generosity of world as gift, of life as gift, of time as gift, of gifts as gift. Lent should make us more generous in and to the world, gracious for the world and committed in and to the world.

Just because you wanted yet another opinion, yet another piece of advice from an armchair theologian:

I say, to embark on a programme of self-improvement, to attempt to become more yourself, more who you really are? That can be about God. That can be part of "getting over it". That can be exercising the gift of freedom.

So by all means, fast during Lent if you want to. Give something up, take something on. Do it in remembrance and celebration of God's love for you. Do it as an extension of that love to the rest of the world. Do not fast because you think you should, or you want to be seen to do it, or because you're worried about not being holy enough in the eyes of God or think somehow God will love you more if you do the "right" things. There's probably a fancy theological word for that kind of manipulative behaviour.

God already loves you, with a love so large and bright we cannot bear to look straight at it and yet so small and silent it is there even when in all our searching we think we just find darkness. There is nowhere that love cannot go. There is nothing unlawful, nothing you can ever do that will make God love you any less. Love is stronger than any human sin. Love is stronger than death. Love is stronger. That's the point.

So if you're going to take on some positive habit, or give up some perceived vice, do it as a response to that love. I wrote that the other way around first time -- take on some perceived vice, give up some positive habit! Maybe I should have left it! But whether you do something or nothing, do it with a commitment to stop if it ceases to be, literally, a labour of love. If you don't love it, maybe God has other plans for you.

Among many clergy I know, and others involved in church, there is a feeling of overwhelm, of impending exhaustion. We all have these extra things, Lent courses for churched and unchurched, extra services, and most seem to take on some Lenten practice or other as well. And then just when you're getting used to the routine of it but have been doing it long enough to know it really isn't sustainable and you're starting to get the hang of Daylight Saving Time but really could have done with keeping that hour of sleep and found out that the person who usually brings you palms has pruned early this year and there aren't any, there is Holy Week with even more to do and the organist can only be at half the services because their other church pays more and maybe nobody will turn up anyway and someone is sure it was different last year and someone has moved the key to the flower cupboard. You wanted a broken and contrite heart, Lord? What you're getting is a desperately exhausted one!

And breathe.

Do what preparation you have to, but do yourself a favour and remember every day that you are loved now whether the service sheet for Palm Sunday is finished or not. Do yourself a favour and don't worry too much about how you will feel at the very busiest time... you'll get through it. Make a healthy, tasty casserole and freeze it in single-serving portions so you keep yourself fed during the busiest times. Book a retreat, even a half day of quiet somewhere, if you haven't already done so. Outsource as much of the paperwork as you can.

Then take Lent one day at a time, one step at a time, one breath at a time, knowing you will come out the other side of it even if right now you don't know where or how.

Fast slowly.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

One year blogiversary

I'm probably writing this so late that everyone else has said it already. I've been trying to write it for the better part of a week, and I keep tripping over the words.

I read the Archbishop of Canterbury's address to General Synod on Tuesday. I read it, and my soul hurt.

I share some of his vision, I think. I agree that some of the language around so many debates within the Church is so adversarial, so us-and-them, that it seems people are saying "yes, we want you, but only on our terms", and I wonder whether this is really constructive.

++Rowan Williams speaks of a vision of Church where we all consider how our behaviour affects everyone else before acting. That is commendable. I share such a dream; so do many, many others, I think. How many times have I written about the ultimate interconnectedness of things, about the fact that none of our actions, however small, are in isolation from the rest of the world? What I eat for breakfast does actually affect you who are reading this, in some very small and immeasurable but definite way. What you do can show me, in small ways and large, how I might act for good in the world.

I love the Archbishop's vision of mutual care and learning. But I do not think it can be enforced; I do not think it can come about by people following "guidelines" to fit into one "structure" or another. I think freedom is something we already have, not something we can grant or withhold from one another. He speaks of restraint, as if the imposition of restraint (or not granting certain freedoms) will make people think of others before themselves... I think obedience without freedom is meaningless. He speaks of an Anglican Covenant as something which will encourage people to judge their own actions with more care, but he forgets that many people will go along with it for fear of being found unworthy by human judges.

I think that ++Rowan Williams has confused causation and correlation. He says:
To be free is to be free for relation; free to contribute what is given to us into the life of the neighbour, for the sake of their formation in Christ’s likeness, with the Holy Spirit carrying that gift from heart to heart and life to life. Fullness of freedom for each of us is in contributing to the sanctification of the neighbour. It is never simply a matter of balancing liberties, but of going to another level of thinking about liberty.

but he does not explore the possibility that those he calls to exhibit "restraint" have followed their own very valid discernment processes; he does not acknowledge that the gifts of the Holy Spirit may be exhibited differently in different people, different places, different contexts. He does not seem to see that just because diligent, caring consideration of the whole Body of Christ sometimes leads to restraint, does not mean that it always will. He does not seem to see that imposing restraint externally, rather than leading to open hearts filled with the Holy Spirit, is likely to close them.

The whole thing puts me in mind of a parent trying to sort out a squabble between siblings, not acknowledging why either did the things they did and telling one and then the other to say they are sorry. The result is surly, forced apologies, and lots of resentment for the next round of squabbles.

I know as well as anyone that it is possible to find freedom in structure. I am someone who needs a lot of structure in my life, in order to do my work effectively. Thinking about every action I take and the full range of consequences of that action would wear me out in about half a day: there are infinite possibilities, and infinite repercussions of every thing that I do, and my awareness of that is overwhelming. I need rules to systematize that, and I follow what could, I suppose, be called a Rule; I have consciously-chosen routines for different times of the day and for the most part I follow them. And on a day-to-day basis my reasoning has to be "structure says it's time to do the washing-up, so I'm going to do the washing-up now". Contrary to making me feel trapped, this structure is, for me, very freeing. I have chosen the rules as a useful strategy for getting through each day and they free me, at least partly, from the endless cascade of "what if...?" that I would get stuck in without them, or from the disengagement of just allowing routines to happen as a reaction to everything else, an unconscious set of habits. Rules for me are a strategic adaptation to the fact that every second of every day I must decide what to do next and I must often do so with insufficient information.

But a structure or set of rules that works for someone else wouldn't work for me, and what works for me might be disastrous for someone else. There are things about my structure that are useful for others, and things others do that would be useful for me. And every so often I find that I've failed to take account of something, that my strategic rules aren't working so well any more, and I have to stop and evaluate and make some changes. This is all considered quite normal, and as an adult it is recognised both that choosing my habits and structures and rules is my responsibility, and that I will sometimes mess up or need to make changes. People might have opinions on my actions, they might want to give me advice or indeed I might want to ask their advice, but ultimately I am the one who has to make the decisions. Every second of every day, I am choosing... even if what I'm choosing is to follow the rules I've chosen for myself.

Organisations, too, choose structures and rules, laws even, to navigate the intricacies of daily life in an uncertain world. Different communities in different contexts will arrive at some different conclusions as to the best way forward. So why does the Archbishop of Canterbury think that it's appropriate to chastise and scold those who re-evaluate some of their rules? Why does he think that imposing a structure externally will bring about the lovingkindness and awareness he so desires?

Lovingkindness isn't something that can be legislated, something that can be enforced. Compassion isn't something we learn by being told explicitly how to behave in a given situation; it's something we pick up by observation and example, something we might catch, like 'flu but longer in duration.

One reason I've struggled to write this post is because in my reaction to this is so full of questioning others and thinking I know some of the way. That isn't a particularly loving response. Love does not say "you are wrong" but "what can I do that would be constructive?".

I'm not sure about the answer to that. I think it does mean continuing to stay involved with local communities, continuing to do the work I do and to find out what other work there is that I could do. I think it means continuing to blog, not from a perspective of saying what I think is right but from a perspective of reflecting, of exploring. And I think it means hanging onto hope, letting go of fear, reminding myself that love is stronger than death.

Today is my one year blogiversary. I was surprised by the warm welcome I got last year; I continue to be surprised by the friends I've met and the things I've learned. Thank you all for making it such a wonderful year in so many ways.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Creation and evangelism.

I went to Evensong last night at a local church; not Nearest Church, where I've been attending morning services, but another one.

It was good to have some sung psalmody, and indeed the Magnificat and the Nunc dimmitis sung congregationally as well. I'm not very good at singing these without music dots and it's hard to do in a huge church with 10 people dotted around it (any English person walking into a church full of strangers will sit as far from all the others as seems reasonably possible and this is horrible for singing together), but I went, and it was good.

What I didn't like was the sermon.

I cannot tell how much the priest was preaching to the evangelicals I know exist among that congregation, and how much he believes of what he said. The main thrust of his sermon was that we should value, cherish and care for all of God's creation, because the awe and wonder it can inspire in some people is an important tool for evangelism. His view of human arts -- architecture, music, poetry, and flower-arranging (his example, not mine) -- is also that these are to be kept, to be honoured, because they may be useful in evangelising the unchurched. Before the service, during the announcements, the same priest was talking about friendship and community outreach in the same terms, stating that the hire of the hall to a local group was good not only because it brought in income, but because it facilitated a new set of relationships which might be a fruitful field for evangelism.

I am not one to put a huge stock in literal interpretation of the Bible, as any long-time reader will know. But the Old Testament reading, Genesis 1.1 - 2.3, seems quite clear to me. The passage contains the words "God saw that it was good" no fewer than six times, and then adds "God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good." Not "it was good because it made people see God" or any of that. Just, plain and simple, God saw that it was good.

Do we need more reason than that?

It seems to me that means and end have been confused.

It's true enough that people may be drawn to faith through their wonder at the beauty of creation. Surely the sun and moon are beautiful and may remind us that God is God; much of my sense of the holy is grounded in sheer awe at the natural world. But surely also the centipede is created by God and therefore is also good, even if to most humans it seems repulsive. Surely even the rat and the louse are God's creatures, regardless of our revulsion. Are they less good than a waterfall, in God's eyes rather than in our human context? Truly the stars sing of God's majesty, but so do the grasshoppers. Either might bring someone to consider the Creator behind the creation, but they do not somehow fail in their createdness if they don't. God made them and saw that they were good.

It's true enough that people may be drawn to faith through the observation of human-created artefacts...grand cathedrals, concert halls and the concerts within them, shuttles that fly to the moon, poetry that sticks in one's mind, a child's scribblings on the back of old envelopes. Indeed, music has been and, I suspect, always will be an important part of my own journey to and in faith. It's a lot more complex than "listening to or singing the music leads to belief in this or that doctrine" and I suspect that most paths are winding, most journeys are complex. There's no denying that the creations of human beings can glorify God and that sometimes people may be receptive to that. But if a cathedral fails to inspire someone, should it not have been built? If a piece of music falls on deaf ears, either spiritually or literally, should we condemn it as bad because we cannot conceive of a use for it? Context is important, purpose is important, but to reject all that does not fit our human-defined contexts would be a grave error.

It's true enough that people may be drawn to faith, or to church, through their relationships with others. Again, this has certainly been the case for me. Where would I be today without a kind word here, a bit of quiet understanding there, the hands that caught me as I stumbled, kept me from hitting the ground and helped me keep my balance until I found my feet again? Where would I be today without those who continue to offer me support and guidance? I have encountered people who somehow bring light, and I have wondered what makes them shine so brightly. But are those who help me, those who show me love, somehow more worthy in the eyes of God than those who are indifferent, or may even hurt me in their fear and brokenness? I don't think so. Taking a less personal approach, is a bishop a better person than someone who works at a supermarket? Is a hardworking father who pays his taxes, donates to charity, spends time with his family and volunteers at his local church somehow more Godly, more valuable, than the homeless, frightened refugee who sneaks in halfway through the service to pocket as many biscuits as she can before the wardens notice? No! All these are made in the image of God. All these are God's dearly-beloved children.

I attempt to serve others not because I wish to influence them into thinking or behaving more like I do, but because I love them, or because even if I cannot find it in myself to love them I believe that God loves them. I am human and this is complicated and difficult but I do try to eliminate in myself any expectation of reward for this: love does not entrap.

I pray, not so that others might see or know of me praying and feel that they should too, but because I have something to say to God (usually "Help!" or "Thanks!" or "I don't understand!" or "I love you!") and I believe God just might have something to say back, if I can but listen. I sometimes delight in praying together with others and sometimes find it difficult, but my prayers are prayers, not some sort of social propaganda.

I write and play music as part of service to others but also so that God might hear it, and so that others might explore their faith through music as I have done, or if they so wish, join me in the most authentic form of prayer available to me. As a musician involved in church liturgy I do hope that others will use music as a route to worship and prayer, and I aim to facilitate that, but never to force it. As a teacher I try to give people the tools of my art, to empower them to find their own creative voice, but I know full well that I cannot make anyone choose what to do with those tools or whether to use them.

I sing of my sorrows and joys, frustrations and triumphs, struggles and wonders, complaints and gratitude. I sing my confusion and pain, and my love and praise, not to change others to do my will, but to reconcile my human will to God's divine love and mercy, justice and majesty.

"Natural" wonders, created artwork, and the love we can feel for one another -- these are all precious gifts from God, and they are to be valued and cherished. To my mind, using them with the intent of manipulating others to be more like ourselves is not worshipful, but idolatrous.


It seems such a long time ago I was writing posts about searching for a local church to attend.

I settled on Nearest Church, partly because of the warm welcome given me by the congregation there. I haven't been disappointed.

I've had some quality mentorship and guidance from the organist there; I am involved in choir directing, choosing hymns, and pretty much anything to do with music. I've been practising the organ and playing for services occasionally when Networking Organist can't be there. The choir, like the congregation, is small but caring.

Gentle Vicar has been on sabbatical for the last few months, so I haven't gotten to know him any better. Having visiting clergy has been interesting, but I'm looking forward to his return.

Delightful Reader I was shy of at first, but we are slowly getting to know one another. She is also very supportive, but in a different way than Networking Organist is.

It isn't all kittens and cookies...there are issues. There are parishioners who would really rather have a Resolution C parish, and stayed away when we had a female priest the other week. There are parishioners who don't get on with other parishioners, new arguments and ones that have been running for years. I think I've managed to stay clear of them so far but it's only a matter of time...But we rub along, somehow. We all need grace. One bread, you know?

I find myself struggling not to jump in and provide admin support. I can do the work; I worked in a synagogue for a few years, I grew up in a house with clergy in it, some of my best friends are church folks, and I'm reasonably competent with computers as long as someone will proofread for me.

But me taking over the secretarial work would not be best, in the long run. I know from past experience that office work is, ultimately, something that makes me very unhappy. I know I have difficulty with long-term follow-up on paperwork tasks, and I struggle with that enough in the secretarial side of my own work. Longer-term, I would be a poor secretary, but having me do the work for free would block progress toward a sustainable solution for them and block my own progress in work that is meaningful and fulfilling.

Yet, it needs to be done. It isn't any more fulfilling for the people who are doing it now. Most of the world is run by people doing what needs to be done, rather than what brings meaning to their lives, and why should I be any different? The perfectionist in me hates to see it being done badly, too -- not that I'd do it perfectly, but I see errors that are avoidable. So I find myself wondering whether there is some way that I could help without taking over, some way I could help streamline some processes and document others in such a way that people can do them without as much stress and fuss as now.

I am biding my time on this. I am waiting until Gentle Vicar is back, and has been back for a while. Much has changed in this community and it will take time for it to settle. If there's no sign of improved admin after 6 months I'll say something.

The musical situation is similar, in some ways. Networking Organist is not paid for the choir rehearsals or the admin work he does in connection with the choir (the sort of thing that might reasonably be passed to a secretary, if such a thing existed). He is paid below what is usual for the service on Sunday mornings. The choir is small and lacks confidence, though they are enthusiastic when given reason to be.

But with this, I can build something. I don't mind doing most of the work for free, because I'm learning a huge amount. Because of my training, because of the guidance Networking Organist gives me, because of my experience, I'm in a position to meet people where they are and show them a bit of what they can do. Networking Organist is really great -- when he puts me in a leadership position he is absolutely supportive, with any suggestions being made entirely behind-the-scenes and any questions from choir members referred to me. People seem to be responding. I have ideas for a children's choir and various other projects, and I'm being given the freedom to take my time figuring out what I want to do, even as I'm having one or two small things dropped on me when I'm ready.

At the same time, I go to Long Walk Church for Morning Prayer a couple of times a week if my dodgy hip (which has been very good recently) will let me, and although I've not been there for some time, I haven't lost sight of Church-by-the-Station. I'm not spreading my bets, exactly, or looking for another community -- for the time being I am committed to attending Nearest Church and getting involved there -- but these other connections are not to be abandoned. I've not worked out what I have to offer in these other contexts, but they seem important. I keep visiting Leafy Suburb Church when I can, though I'm never quite sure whether I want to go to see Ambassador for Compassion or because of some other gentle yearning for the warmth and caring of the community there. That connection seems important too.

I can't write about most of this stuff in any detail without destroying what anonymity I retain here, and I want to keep that anonymity so that when I do need to write about the difficult stuff, I can do so without fear of professional repercussions.