Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Lead me?

Had a meeting with my spiritual director yesterday.

I'm not sure if it's working very well as a direction relationship. That's not really something I want to discuss in much depth here. Suffice to say that in this, as in so many other situations, I find that I am not being led, but leading. I feel that our conversations challenge and stretch her but don't offer me a whole lot beyond the reflection I already do. She's a wonderful person and in many ways I enjoy our chats, but I don't feel I am being directed.

I join choirs and end up playing instruments rather than being part of a section of voices. I join a church and end up an organist.

I am trying to figure out how to live a semi-monastic life in a largely secular world. My partner, my housemate, many of my friends are not religious; I am someone who needs regular and structured engagement with God. Sharing that with others is important to me, but people with similar needs to mine seem to be few and far between. We talked about this. And I mentioned that a few people I know have commented (some in more depth or with more vehemence than others) that I could be a priest, and that I don't really feel like that's what I'm called to but I'm not saying "never" because the last time I did I was wrong, and because, well, Mary didn't. (And there, now you know too, dearest internets. Is this a surprise? Am I going to get a rash of comments along the lines of "of course"? I'm curious.) We talked about confirmation and preparation for confirmation and the difficulty of finding appropriately-timed classes of a suitable nature, and drew the same conclusions I'd already drawn.

I would dearly love there to be a local Morning Prayer I can get to. Long Walk Church is, well, a long walk, and taking two hours out of my day (which is what it is by the time I've walked there, prayed with the others and walked back) and walking so much is not always workable. We talked about this. One of the things I have mentioned before in our chats is that we could have Morning Prayer at Nearest Church, but I don't feel I can ask for that without ending up leading it, and I don't want to take on too many additional leadership roles (in addition to being the organist and choir director). I go to the weekday Eucharist even though there is no music at all specifically so I can be involved in a service where I'm not taking a leadership role. Half the time, I get asked to read. Big sigh.

Last night after talking with this lady who is "directing" me I asked if we could say Evening Prayer, since it was getting late. (One of the reasons I am not sure about this relationship as one of spiritual direction is that we never pray together.) She couldn't stay any longer due to another appointment but a colleague was meant to come just under an hour later for Evening Prayer. I asked if I could stay and practice the organ, in that case... so I did that. My phone battery died and my wind-up watch had wound down, so I had no idea what time it was. Evening Prayer was meant to be at 6pm. I practised, a lovely instrument in much better repair than the one I usually play. It got dark outside. Some people came and had a meeting in a back room. No (identifiable) clergy about, though, and nobody saying Evening Prayer.

So I said Evening Prayer on my own. Again.

When I got to the train station 20min walk away it was nearly 8pm. I'd waited two hours.

It felt like a pretty pointed message that if I want daily prayer to happen locally I'm going to have to do it myself, or at least ask, and may well end up leading it, and is it really so bad to lead if the alternative is praying alone?

I do not like this. I don't like the feel of it. I don't feel ready to lead and I think there is a huge amount of confusion among other people about what sort of leader I am. I am a musician and I am happy to take the lead, sometimes, in music. I don't know what it is that other people see or feel or intuit about me that makes them think I am a leader of prayers. I don't know why after at least a year of praying that I'll find people to pray with in some sort of local setting, the answer still seems to be "here, you do it".

Is this really something I'm supposed to do, or is it just that I'm not in quite the right place? Am I meant to take the lead in this or find somewhere that will have the kind of support I seem to need?

Guess I'd better get on with things and find out. No sense asking God to lead and then refusing to follow, even if I'm not sure of the path I tread.

Sunday, 26 September 2010


I went to three church services today, each with something for me to take away.

The first was the usual at Nearest Church, where I am settling in as organist. It's interesting getting to know the choir members individually and as a group, it feels rather different than it did when I was singing with them. I can't quite tell if I'm doing things "properly" but there is much that feels right. Gentle Vicar was on good form and the sermon was, if a little meandering, compassionate and affirming and challenging.

In the afternoon I went to a sung meditative service at Long Walk Church. I hadn't been to one of these before and wanted to hear their choir (which is small) and find out how they do things. It was interesting. It was good to be in a service where I didn't bear responsibility for the liturgy. It was good to see what was going on there. I realised that one of the very important things for me as a choir director is going to be to make sure I keep singing in other situations and especially in choirs where I am not leading. This is harder than it sounds, but having realised how important it is I think I might be able to fit it in.

The third service was at Leafy Suburb Church, which has been so important on my spiritual journey and which has one of my favouritestest people in the entire wide world, previously referred to here as Ambassador for Compassion, as Curate. Her sermon was good but I did struggle with one possible interpretation of what she said. She was preaching the potter in Jeremiah and the images of wrath and destruction which follow; she said that God does continually re-form us and that sometimes this is uncomfortable or frightening, especially if we are willfully resistant. She spoke of change and fear of change, about how we respond as individuals and institutions, about actions having consequences, about judgement being part of growth. She spoke of clay pots before and after firing, about flexibility and brittleness and the uselessness of shattered vessels.

The problem I have with this model is that it is too easy to extend it into something ugly, evil even. It is too easy to fall into the sort of theology that is found in some of the psalms: the idea that those who are prosperous are so because they are righteous, and conversely that those who suffer have somehow managed to piss God off. That kind of tit-for-tat petty logic is rife in our society and it is so very easy, and so very unhelpful, for people who are successful to think they needn't engage with those less fortunate, and also for people who are in real distress to blame themselves and get stuck in the mire of guilt.

I don't deny that change can be uncomfortable. I am sure that sometimes God speaks to us with discomfort if other methods don't work. I know that cause and effect is a simple fact of life in this world. But I don't think that's the whole picture. I know we suffer hugely at the hands of one another, and to say that is God's doing is to deny free will.

I believe God's love is transformative. I can't square that with punitive aspects of judgement. There is this whisper of hope that says nothing is wasted, not even our most selfish sins; that broken clay pots can still be made into mosaics. There is some persistent whiff of something I can only call redemption. The God who created the heavens and earth may well be a jealous God, but this is Christianity we're talking about here, and the God that loves us so much that God gave God's Son for us is not going to withhold that love because we've messed up (and isn't the Greek "hamartia" or "sin" more about missing the mark, the way an arrow misses a target, than about willfully doing wrong? No idea what the Hebrew is like).

That, too, can be oversimplified into something ugly. Our sins will be forgiven, transformed into something good? Then why bother trying to be good? Why bother striving for right action? Isn't trying to please God just a sort of Pelagian heresy?

That oversimplification also falls apart when viewed from the foot of the cross. I can't speak for others, but when I love someone, I wince when they are in pain. How much more so for God who loves us infinitely and unconditionally, and has much better than my measly human awareness of others' suffering? When we turn away from good, when we harm one another, that infinite love results in infinite pain which God bears on our behalf. That is quite terrifying. We are commanded to love God; by extension that means caring enough to want to reduce any pain God might bear. That means that even though by God's grace we are forgiven we should still strive to do God's will -- not for fear of what God will do to us should we fail, but because we love God's delight and abhor God's pain.

The other thing Ambassador for Compassion spoke of was the need for a two-way relationship with God. We are not golems, fashioned of clay with no will of our own. We live and breathe and laugh and cry; we respond. When we respond to God with open hearts, we participate in our own fashioning, our own formation if you like to call it that, and God responds back.

I think that dialogue-rather-than-monologue relationship with God is a key to avoiding both of the oversimplifications I've outlined in this post.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Turn and return and turn again

Oh dear, it's got to the point where people are leaving me comments asking me to come back and I don't even see them because the most recent post is more than two weeks old.

That, in and of itself, is mildly distressing. Many apologies to any of you who might worry about me. I am well.

That I can't say I've been blogging much anywhere else is perhaps more telling. My career-related blog is getting posts even more intermittent than this one; my locked journal (which had several posts a day for many years) is all but abandoned. I'm not even really leaving long rambly comments on Nick Baines' blog (which has more than once been the cause of my not having time to blog here). My e-mails to various dear friends have become shorter and less introspective, very much more "I did this and that and the chard is still growing" than they once were. I'm not even doing pen-to-paper reflective journaling on my own (I tried for a few months early spring but it isn't good for my elbow to do that much longhand writing).

I'm not doing badly -- my physical and mental health seem to be pretty good at the moment, I'm doing lots of work, I'm mostly getting enough rest (although as always there is this battle to catch up, this temptation to be busy on days off). But given how much I have previously relied on reflection and analysis in a written format, I'm starting to wonder what's up here. Am I really just too busy, or am I avoiding something? Is this about finding a voice (I typed "void" the first time, Freudian or what?!?) for my career-related blog, or giving myself space to speak at all? Is this about being more private, more circumspect now that some of my job is so obviously tangled with my religious life, or about being honest with myself? Is this about busy-ness or about not allowing stillness? I don't want to be precious or dramatic about this, and maybe I just need to accept that it won't be perfect and I can't do everything, but I have written hundreds of words per day for several years and don't seem to be doing so now. It isn't that I can't think of what to write, as evidenced by the verbosity of this post. It's that I'm not sitting down and starting.

I think I need to work out a Rule again. I have sort-of had one of one sort or another since my last year at Academic Institution, where the Rule consisted of "practise two hours before anything else" and I built everything -- my prayer life, my social life, my work, even my love life -- around that.

I don't have anything like that focus now. I have some things that are major -- the organist job, the teaching, a chamber group -- which will always take priority over other work. I've tried to shape my days sensibly and I'm not generally spending hours and hours online talking when I should be working. But there are things that are getting neglected, including this blog. Some of the neglected things are optional; some are not, and I wonder if some of my tiredness is not from being too busy but from being a little ungrounded.

Do you have a Rule of Life, or a set of intentional habits for your daily life? How specific is it, and how flexible? How do you decide when, if ever, to make changes to it? How do you make this fit around variable working patterns?

Friday, 3 September 2010

A double portion of manna

I'm not sure how long this will last, but...

I've been taking one day off per week for a long time now. I used to keep various rules for what constitutes a "day off" but now it is mostly "a day where I don't do anything unless I feel like it." All plans for my day off are provisional: if I'd rather stay in bed that's what I do.

Anyway, for years, the pattern was teaching work on Sunday, academic work Mon-Fri, day off Saturday. It didn't take very long, once the teaching work moved to weekdays, to fill Sunday with other kinds of work. Sunday is a special day for me, but it is not a day off; what I do in the mornings is worship, but it is still definitely work. Often I go to services in the afternoon and the evening to participate in or study what other congregations are doing, musically; I like it, but it's very much work. When that doesn't happen, Sunday is turning into a sort of study day. I like that, too, but it's still work.

I've been mostly taking Friday or Saturday off, depending which one is available.

Here's the problem: there is a Day Off, and then there are various chores. You know the sort of thing -- laundry, grocery shopping, the weeding in the garden that I truly don't feel like doing but which needs to be done, that kind of thing. These aren't things that belong on a day off, but they also aren't things I necessarily get a chance to do during the working week.

I'm thinking about taking two days off. I can't really justify taking two days off of practising... but I'm thinking about designating either Friday or Saturday as maintenance-focused rather than career-focused, so that I can do what practising needs to be done and then run around doing the various chores so that on my real day off I can rest without these things hanging over me.

What brought this on, of course, was talking to someone else about the importance of taking a day off. I wrote:
The idea is that God gives us a day to rest, even dropping a double portion of manna the day before... the idea is that there is value in your resting as well as in your working, value in your sleeping as well as in your waking. There is as much value in dreaming as in filling out forms, there is as much value in not trying to achieve anything as in striving to improve the world. God's kingdom includes your day of rest.

I think that last bit is the bit that we lose so easily.

The Kingdom of God includes our rest. It isn't only, as I wrote earlier in the same e-mail, that our rest makes our work possible, that without rest we wither, lose our edges, lose our flexibility. It isn't only that we need to rest: it is that our resting, in and of itself, is part of living in the Kingdom of God.

Tomorrow is my day off. I'd better get on with some laundry!