Stripped Down to Nothing

following a call to live the Ministry of Word and Sacrament as a life of prayer within the Methodist Church in Great Britain.

As a child, I attended St Andrew’s Presbyterian church in Ealing Road, Wembley, with my parents who were both active members there. It was my Sunday School teachers who introduced me to prayer (“Hands together, eyes closed”). Then, in my early teens, I came across John Greenleaf Whittier’s hymn, “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind”, which includes the verse:

O Sabbath rest by Galilee;

O calm of hills above;

Where Jesus knelt to share with Thee

The silence of eternity

Interpreted by love.

Here was an understanding of prayer as a way of connecting with God which might begin with “Hands together, eyes closed” but did not end there. Here was a description of prayer as Jesus might have known it: as a profound communion; as sharing with God a silence that is deep because all words have been said, because no words need be said, because in the end, both parties acknowledge that all words are inadequate. Here was an image of utter trust. God had faith in Jesus, trusted him and kept faith with him. Jesus trusted God – or learned how to trust God – in everything, with everything. Here was a picture of a rich, faithful bond between two parties – a bond formed in love and for love - which reached into eternity. Its potential was unlimited.

Since I first encountered this hymn, I have longed to experience such a relationship with God and my experiments in spirituality have been directed to this end. As a student, I practised extempore prayer and experienced charismatic renewal. Shortly after leaving university, I was introduced to contemplative prayer, the monastic tradition and the contemporary Christian community movement. I lived as a member of a community for two years and became associated with others. For almost two decades, I experimented with various forms of the daily office and developed a deep love of the Psalms. Along the way, I started writing on spirituality and teaching others from my discoveries.

 

All this time, the image from the hymn stayed with me. When I candidated for the Methodist ministry in 1990, it was with the explicit and declared intention of finding a way of praying that would fuse a Methodist understanding of Word and Sacrament with the glimpse I had received of where prayer can take us – into that most profound communion – “the silence of eternity interpreted by love”. At the time, I made some very elaborate and rather pompous suggestions as to what this might mean, none of which worked in practice. Everything I thought I knew turned out to be provisional. Within a few years, I became much more hesitant and reluctant to talk too much about what I was actually doing. Gradually, I realised that the vision I had glimpsed was a call I was following, not a project I had to complete.

 

Now, as then, if I am asked, “Yes, but what do you do? How do you pray?” I have no answer. The truth is that for more than I decade I have not prayed in any manner which would convince anyone observing me that I am, in fact, living a life of prayer. Viewed objectively, my attempt has been a failure. I do not follow a “rule of life”; I do not read the Bible in any disciplined manner; I do not use the Daily Office or any other “structured” form of prayer; I do not pray for any length of time or at particular times of day; indeed, if prayer is understood as adoration, confession, thanksgiving and intercession, or even as a conversation with God, then I rarely pray at all. Only when I am in church. And, for that reason, I avoid going to church as much as possible.

If I am honest, I go to church to stay in touch with the Methodist community, to whom I owe so much.

 

the exhaustion and “bodily depression”. of “slowly being stripped of layers of myself until I am ‘laid bare’” de-centred or dis-located   “I need to find the real Carol again – someone who started to disappear the minute I drove up the drive to ministerial training college in ……. ” Your own unease, your sense of having “lost” your true self, and your uncertainty about where you belong, and how you relate to the congregational life of the Church –

I identified very strongly with that. In fact, one reason why I have found it hard to get down to writing to you has been my personal reluctance to revisit that experience. I apologise for being such a coward, but, as so often in these situations, it took me a long time to work out why it was that, for all my good intentions about writing to you, I kept delaying doing so.

not just a physical illness but also a spiritual turning point.

Cannot assume get through this and return to “normal life”

Rather a signal that our understanding of “normal life” has to change

For our own sake, a change of direction is needed if we are to realise abundant life, for ourselves, those we love, those we serve.

Rather, this illness opportunity to recognise an unease which has been growing for some time. Transition - anxiety about growth, development, moving on. Questions around whether or if you can live from the centre of the self. Whether it is possible, whether you will be allowed to do so, whether you have the resources within you to live creatively. Whether the life ahead of your will give you what you need. Whether you will be nourished by the spring that feeds you. Be the protagonist or “lead actor” of your own story. Receive the nourishment you need as well as caring for everyone else.

The hardest thing can be to “be ourselves”. our true selves. Our parents, friends, siblings, lovers, dependents, employers, can all insist that we be someone else. Church can do so too. Can live away from “yourself” – your best, strongest, most life-giving self – for a long time. but not good for you, for those close to you, or those, ultimately, for those for whom we care.   Yes we can be conscientious, faithful and generous, but we do not live in the fullest sense of the word, and it becomes increasingly difficult for us to convey to others the transformative empowering life of the Holy Spirit. How can we, when we are living so far from that spring ourselves?

In saying that, I do not wish to imply that what you have been doing is in any way “unspiritual”. Far from it. It is clear to me that you are very much in touch with the Spirit and sensitive to spiritual things. No, what I am trying to convey is rather like the difference between the good, the better and the best.

operating within the good, but want the better because you long for the best.

to be faithful to your calling, you need to venture further out and further in. The spring within you is a broad stream, but you need it to be a great river. You need to feel a larger connection to the eternal ocean. And it may be that you sense this because, being highly attuned to the spiritual dynamics, you know that to survive and flourish in the Church and world as they are at present, only the ocean is enough. The “streams of living waters” which have fed us until now are no longer enough. We all need to find that ocean within ourselves.

the local church has become a “passion-place”. A place which drains your life, rather than feeding you with life. A place where you do not find enough life to replenish and renew the life you are putting into the situation. A “passion-place” does not generate sufficient life to sustain those involved, so it will suck into itself the spiritual energies of any life-giver who gets close to it. Some “passion-places” are so all-consuming that we know as soon as we approach them that they are bad places to be.

But there are also much milder versions: places that are operating a little “under-par”, where the situation appears tolerable until we get immersed. Or where the dynamics are very slightly skewed so that it is only the representative person who is aware of the imbalance, and even then, may remain unsure as to what exactly is wrong.

Because of this, we may not notice the subtle process of depletion which gradually debilitates, disables and dislocates us until something causes us to see that we have been drawn away from the centre of ourselves.

Needless to say, the local church is meant to be life-generating and life-affirming community, maximising and magnifying life so that those encountering it are enlivened, those involved are transformed. Communities such as this become life-giving agencies within their neighbourhoods and even further afield.

There is, of course, a case for venturing into the Passion-places of the world, and a Connexional organisation that is undergoing profound change at every level simultaneously – but which has not yet grasped the scale of what is happening to it – is certainly one such “Passion-place”. But I believe that if we enter such a place, we have to do it as Jesus did it – knowingly, deliberately, with no illusions whatsoever as to how much it is going to cost us, and knowing where our support will come from, how we will be fed so that we can stay there. I also believe that we should only do it because we are convinced that our self-sacrifice at this place, and in this moment, will be radically redemptive for everyone involved. I do not believe that we are called, asked or expected (by God, that is) to sacrifice ourselves routinely or habitually or to nil effect. We are not expendable. God values us too highly for that.

the Ministry of Word and Sacrament because we believed it to be life-giving and transformative – the most life-giving thing we could do, which held the promise of the greatest possible potential for change. For individuals. For communities. For society. For the world.

But then we found that instead we were required to serve the needs of an organisation which is dying and being reborn, and of individuals who are, generally speaking, resisting that process because they want the Church to be the one place where they do not have to face the pain and loss involved with being changed. The forces at work within our situation may be invisible, but they are nevertheless far stronger than we are, Indeed, the strength of the dynamics, together with a lamentable lack of discernment within the organisation, has meant that each circuit minister is struggling with this more or less alone. It is hardly surprisingly, therefore, that despite our best efforts to the contrary, we have been gradually pulled off-centre until we have become impaired.

If this analysis is anywhere near correct, then our first responsibility, to ourselves and everyone else, is for each of us to stop doing what we are doing – stop as much as possible – and if possible, to stop everything – in order to create the time and space we need for the sap to rise again (to use Donald Eadie’s phrase for prayer).

a temporary withdrawal, or one that is open-ended and which may become permanent. Only you will know which of the options available to you is the right one for you, and you know that you have to follow your guts on this. Your head will have all kinds of objections and anxieties, but it is your heart’s truth that you need – you want - to hear.

You will know when you have created space enough for yourself to trace your wound to its root. You will know when you have reached the depth from which new life begins. And you will know when you have rediscovered those things which are, for you, the spring that gives life – a life so abundant, patient, persevering and creative that it is more than enough to keep you living, loving, learning and growing.   It will give you a surplus that you can give to others, and with your giving to others, of course, you will give yourself, too.  

Our challenge, it seems to me, is to halt the false obedience of doing as we are told - keeping the show on the road, meeting peoples’ unrealistic expectations and sustaining the annual cycle – and to begin, instead, the far deeper, greater, scarier and more creative obedience of living from the centre of ourselves.

This involves a vast leap of trust: the belief that the pastoral task for which we have been called and trained is not, primarily, to be a consultant to individuals, nor to be a chaplain to congregations, but rather to be those who stimulate, develop and implement pastoral strategy so as to promote radical, inclusive, holistic change.

Sometimes, yes, this means working with individuals, but more often it means relating to groups, congregations, circuits and even larger networks. It seems to me that we have to trust that this is our best way of loving God, loving our neighbour and loving one another at this time. In other words, that we are not neglecting the pastoral task if we appear to abandon it in order to live from the centre of ourselves.

What is the most loving thing we can do for someone else? I would say it is to convey to them the immense riches of the life of God in a form that meets their need, whatever it is, right now, at this moment; in a manner that enables them to receive it; and in a context that encourages them to make it their own. We are life-bearers so that we can be life-bringers. We are given life so that we can show others how to live life to the full. How can we do that if we are not doing it ourselves? Our pastoral task is to help others identify the Source of life within themselves and their situation, to show them how they can keep that life flowing fast enough, fully enough and consistently enough to effect and sustain far-reaching, large-scale change. And, as this is a tricky, scary business, much of that task involves creating a safe environment within which they feel secure enough to do this, encouraging them to try things out, and helping them work through or overcome their fears of doing so.

We can only do this to the extent that we are doing this ourselves, because only then are we able to anticipate their needs and fears at any particular point in the process. And anticipation, as the Helen Mirren character says in Gosford Park, is the secret heart of servanthood, the gift that a good servant has which separates them from the rest. It seems to me that, if we truly desire to be servant ministers these days, we do not fulfil that calling by doing what our congregations want them to do, or what the Church wants us to do, but by anticipating the needs of a Church that is reluctantly and with great resistance undergoing profound change.  

And you and I know that what the Church needs, more than anything else, is time and space where it is free to retreat, relax, express and explore these issues, time and space where it can listen to itself and to the gentle heartbeat of God in the midst of it all.

 

 

the exhaustion and “bodily depression”. of “slowly being stripped of layers of myself until I am ‘laid bare’” de-centred or dis-located   “I need to find the real Carol again – someone who started to disappear the minute I drove up the drive to ministerial training college in ……. ” Your own unease, your sense of having “lost” your true self, and your uncertainty about where you belong, and how you relate to the congregational life of the Church –

I identified very strongly with that. In fact, one reason why I have found it hard to get down to writing to you has been my personal reluctance to revisit that experience. I apologise for being such a coward, but, as so often in these situations, it took me a long time to work out why it was that, for all my good intentions about writing to you, I kept delaying doing so.

not just a physical illness but also a spiritual turning point.

Cannot assume get through this and return to “normal life”

Rather a signal that our understanding of “normal life” has to change

For our own sake, a change of direction is needed if we are to realise abundant life, for ourselves, those we love, those we serve.

Rather, this illness opportunity to recognise an unease which has been growing for some time. Transition - anxiety about growth, development, moving on. Questions around whether or if you can live from the centre of the self. Whether it is possible, whether you will be allowed to do so, whether you have the resources within you to live creatively. Whether the life ahead of your will give you what you need. Whether you will be nourished by the spring that feeds you. Be the protagonist or “lead actor” of your own story. Receive the nourishment you need as well as caring for everyone else.

The hardest thing can be to “be ourselves”. our true selves. Our parents, friends, siblings, lovers, dependents, employers, can all insist that we be someone else. Church can do so too. Can live away from “yourself” – your best, strongest, most life-giving self – for a long time. but not good for you, for those close to you, or those, ultimately, for those for whom we care.   Yes we can be conscientious, faithful and generous, but we do not live in the fullest sense of the word, and it becomes increasingly difficult for us to convey to others the transformative empowering life of the Holy Spirit. How can we, when we are living so far from that spring ourselves?

In saying that, I do not wish to imply that what you have been doing is in any way “unspiritual”. Far from it. It is clear to me that you are very much in touch with the Spirit and sensitive to spiritual things. No, what I am trying to convey is rather like the difference between the good, the better and the best.

operating within the good, but want the better because you long for the best.

 

 

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