Patterning our lives together

One of the many good things about being a woman is that for a couple of days each month you get an insight into yourself that reminds you of your  emotional fragility and vulnerability. I can get to thinking that I am pretty ‘nice’ person, these days, who has her temper pretty well under control and can react to stress calmly and with flexibility. But on those two days what lurks underneath  is revealed –  I am easily irritated, moved to tears by the most trivial setback, impatient and generally grouchy.

On those days  it is like the patterns of character ploughed into me by years of being nurtured as a child, friendships, parenthood, marriage, work, worship and prayer become blurred into a dishevelled mess. I can see clearly – and so can my closest friends and family – that the virtues I may have come from the grace of God, not from my own strength. I am aware of my need for God’s love to permeate my being if I have any chance of bearing witness to that love in our world in any way at all.

Even if  you haven’t experienced the joys of PMT  you may recognise the feeling. Grief, stress, failure, illness and anxiety can all leave us feeling frayed. But even in those times, God’s love somehow keeps the pattern in shape, bringing order from the chaos, glimpses of joy in the fog of unhappiness.

I have said before in this blog  that I have a terrible fear of order, routine and things that can bore me. But I am developing a deep appreciation of patterns.

Today coming out of church (actually coming out of Sainsbury’s) I was aware of the enormous volume of traffic. I had just been to a shop that I believed should be shut, Sunday was just another day.

This year’s focus on Black Friday seems equally saddening. I love shopping normally but I could not bring myself to be part of this consumerist frenzy and I disciplined myself to buy nothing on both Friday and Saturday this week. As a pattern of spending it does not seem to make business-sense either – why is everything going cheap just when we are buying Christmas presents? The pattern of January and July sales shaped my years as I grew up and regulated spending, encouraged saving and gave a focus  to fashion fasting and feasting through the year.

Many of our faiths give this same sense of pattern and order that helps us focus on what is important and remind us to pray and stay alert for God’s presence. Advent is the Christian time for getting ready for an encouter for God, Muslim prayer five times a day is just one way their pattern of prayer helps focus an unbroken rememberance of the presence of God.

I get that the Christian calendar cannot any longer regulate the market nor can our patterns of worship dictate supermarket opening times. But I hope we can find ways of patterning our lives together that mean we don’t, as a society, spend our whole lives living in a dishevelled mess. Scenes of people fighting over TVs are only a caricature of much of our normal behaviour. E-bay is a tussle in the final seconds, the scramble for gig tickets is a norm, my children have to fight for a place at sixth-form college and graduates are competing to find any work at all.

How can we help each other live in an awareness of God’s abundant love? A love that does not need to be wrestled away from anyone else. A love that is for all people.What will our new patterns look like and how will they reflect the love, joy and peace?

When I did my placement a year ago in church where many of the congregation had roots in Jamaica I realised that God had sent the Church in this country a great gift, a gift that the Anglican church at least was very slow to welcome. In Birmingham we have a gift of people from a wide range of traditions and faiths who are also looking for new ways of patterning their life so their lived religion is embedded in their civic life. Together we have an opportunity to imagine and  forge some new, exciting patterns that order the chaos of consumption, challenge the frenzy of competition and create a culture of compassion.


Sometimes, in the midst of worship songs, in arguments about the icon of priesthood or in the world of WWJD  (What Would Jesus Do) wristbands, it might be quite possible to forget that our understanding of God includes three persons of the Trinity – God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

As someone training for the diaconate I have understood that our icon of ministry comes from the moment Jesus washed his disciples feet whilst the priests take their imagery from Jesus as he presided at the last supper.

But while I worked as a nearly invisible civil servant for the Church of England, devising campaigns or writing press releases that enhanced the ministries of others, I became interested in the idea of the Holy Spirit as my icon of ministry.

Recently I had a conversation with one of the most successful people I know who has an amazing job which allows him to connect all kinds of people, making a real and tangible difference on a global scale. But he said that in church terms he felt like a second-class citizen because he was not ordained and did not wear the badge of authorised church worker.

I believe his work is diaconal – because not all diaconal work is done by ordained deacons (although all deacons have a diaconal ministry.) I believe the work of many of my lay friends is both priestly and diaconal but I think we have become so rooted in a christological (Jesus-centred) view of ministry that we look for the work of incarnate Christ to live on in the Church. Thus when anyone becomes excited about their faith we encourage them into a role which strengthens the life of the church such as a Reader or a priest. (Somehow forgetting that Jesus was a teacher, healer, carpenter, story-teller and a party-goer.)

The incarnate Christ was rooted in a time and place and I think, in our minds and hearts, that time and place has become equated with Church. As disciples we gather to hear from those who have been ordained to represent Jesus and then together we re-enact the Last Supper. The Church somehow captures the presence of Christ and becomes a focus for Jesus’s ongoing ministry.

But the Holy Spirit blows where it will. It gives words to those who need help articulating, it brings life to dry bones, it anoints people to work for justice and it bears witness to Christ. Connecting, articulating, witnessing and working for justice sound a lot like the ministry of a deacon and a lot like much of the work faithful people do outside the walls of the Church because they want to play their part in making God’s world a better place.

I hope we, as church people, can celebrate this work and these people so they do not come to our congregations feeling that they are less than a priest or deacon wearing a dog-collar but knowing they share the ministry and mission of God – and reach the places that could never be reached if all ministry was left to those who are ordained.

Ordained people play a vital and extraordinary role. I know so many wonderful priests whose ministries I would never play down. But we are co-workers and if those of us with a dog-collar are not enabling those of us connected in all corners of the world to join the mission of God then we are missing our calling.

Jesus is our Lord, saviour, friend, example and our pattern for living. But the Holy Spirit also offers us some unique patterns for ministry that could liberate us from the idea that ministry happens in Church and ensure that all our work is seen as sacred and the baptised people of God are seen as equals. I might get myself a new wristband (WWTHSD) What Would the Holy Spirit Do – I hope many of my friends who work outside the church would understand that, like them and through them, the Holy Spirit would be bringing life to the forgotten corners of the world through a myriad of ministries.

Being in the room

Today  there was a fantastic conference for lay people and clergy organised by the Church of England, Birmingham. It’s the second one, my main memory of the first one is tripping over on the way to the podium and sprawling on the floor in front of 1,000 people – and right in front of two Bishops.

I didn’t go to this one. I was meant to be there and I wanted to be there but on Friday night I decided I needed to be at home and ‘in the room.’

My youngest son neeeded me around to explore the sadness he was feeling a few days after the death of his Godmother, my elder son needed help writing a personal statement for sixth-form college and my daughter needed me to help prepare for a fundraising lunch tomorrow . (Thankfully that sentence has just reminded me that I need to take her brownies out of the oven.) And I needed to be in the room for my own sake too, after last weekend at college and a busy week at work I needed to be home with my own emotions, not distracted by even really good talks and Bible studies.

As a smart phone  and meeting addict (a lethal cocktail) I realise I am rarely in the room. I go to so many meetings that I know if I do not reply to e-mails coming to my phone the moment they arrive, I might well never get to them or it might be a week until I sit at my computer. So I will quickly bang out an answer on my phone while half-participating with what is happening in the room. Looking at that written down it is obvious that that’s a recipe for disappointment.

Facebook seems to offer to take us out of the room too. This morning I was offered the chance to watch a grieving husband sing to his dying child or read another post about a father losing a son in hospital. I am not sure how and why these deeply personal moments of grief have become entertainment for millions and if they actually make us less sensitive to the pain that is tangible, the pain that we can respond to, the pain that is in the room.

This week’s Bible readings notes that we use at home have been on children in the Bible. The writer concludes that Jesus said little about parenting or how to be adults around children but more about the virtues and importance of children themselves. Perhaps one of the things we need to learn, to become like children (meaning a person too young to have a mobile device of any kind) who will see the kingdom of heaven, is to be focussed on the thing in front of us, to live in the present moment and to react to the real things around us.

Yesterday I attended a local mosque for Friday prayers. The Khutbah (sermon) was about remembering God. Not just five times a day at prayers (tho’ that sounds good to me) but with every step – and particularly when you are thinking of sinnning! Practicing the presence of God, is something I am only just starting to explore. Any tips for remembering God with every step, being, staying and living in the room with God,  would be more than welcome.

Or to quote the Psalmist:

One thing I asked of the Lord,
    that will I seek after:
to live in the house of the Lord
    all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the Lord,
    and to inquire in his temple”

Psalm 27 v 4.


Live life to the full – the meaning of vocation

Yesterday I had the privilege of speaking to an older woman called Audrey who has spent the last twenty years or so tirelessly campaigning against injustice and poverty and working with all the faiths in Birmingham to create a movement of compassion for our world.

I was asking for an official quote about something but when we had finished that bit of business she said: “You know what, Jessica. Take every opportunity while you are young. Don’t get too bogged down.”

For the two and a half years I have been spending time with a good friend who has terminal cancer. As she got closer to death she became clearer and clearer that we had a duty to enjoy ourselves, to make the most of what life offers, to do the things that make us happy. She wrote about this is her wonderful blog.

I wanted to believe it and know in my head that Jesus talked about bringing abundant life, life in its all fullness. But another part of me was stuck in the idea that my enjoyment was not important. There is a 70s chorus that rings around my head which goes something like this:
“J-O-Y, J-O-Y surely this must be, Jesus first and yourself last and others in between.” I think, like many people, that my enjoyment is something to be squeezed in after I have done my duty to God and my neighbour.

But on Saturday I had the chance to spend the day with other deacons listeing to Canon Rosalind Brown talk about the spirituality and the theology of being a Deacon.  So much of what she said was enormously helpful but what really stood out was when she said it could be part of the Deacon’s calling to introduce someone to good wine.

I love introducing people to people and I also love introducing people to things – whether it is a brand of skincare, a holiday park, a book, food, a clothes company or wine but I assumed this was completely unrelated to anything as sacred as ministry or my vocation as a deacon.

But it turns out it is not. Thomas Traherne, quoted on Saturday puts in like this:

“You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself  floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you. Till you can sing and rejoice and delight in God, as misers do in gold, and Kings in sceptres, you never enjoy the world…

“Yet further, you never enjoy the world aright, till you so love the beauty of enjoying it, that you are covetous and earnest to persuade others to enjoy it. And so perfectly hate the abominable corruption of men in despising it, that you had rather suffer the flames of Hell than willingly be guilty of their error. . . . The world is a mirror of infinite beauty, yet no man sees it. It is a Temple of Majesty, yet no man regards it. It is a region of Light and Peace, did not men disquiet it. It is the Paradise of God. It is more to man since he is fallen than it was before. It is the place of Angels and the Gate of Heaven.”

And so, Rosalind concluded, we need to ensure our spiritual life includes enjoyment of God’s world and perhaps it is part of a diaconal (or any) ministry to help others enjoy it too. We should (as my friend said, we have a duty) to enjoy and model enjoying God’s hospitality and take time to marvel. And we should invite our friends and neighbours to go for a walk, appreciate music and where appropriate share a good glass of wine. Our engagements with the tough bits of life need balancing with restorative engagement. And finally, Rosalind reminded us, we don’t have to do it all  alone – we can join with others who are also enjoying God’s hospitality.

So thanks to Audrey, Rosalind, Thomas Traherne and my friend, Libby, I feel the jigsaw is starting to make sense. Perhaps I will take J-O-Y off my mental playlist for a while.

Bringing Hope

Hope and change in circumstances are often linked.  Giving Hope, Changing Lives is the strapline for Birmingham’s Social Inclusion Process which aimed to make life better for the people of the city.  We often hope people will get well soon, have a lovely holiday, get over their divorce quickly – in short we hope that circumstances will conspire to bring them happiness.

But for many people circumstances will not change to bring them happiness. The diagnosis of a terminal illness is rarely revoked, mental ill-health can persist, deep-seated lonliness is often hard to alleviate and a bereavement cannot be reversed. In these situations happiness has to be found within the situations, hope is not about looking for a change in external circumstances.

This is what I found so striking in documentary screened by Bringing Hope, an organisation dedicated to being alongside families and communities affected by serious crime and violence. During the  documentary, entitled Inside Out, a prisoner, only named as Prisoner A,  explains what Bringing Hope means to him. He says that the hope they have brought is more than a light at the end of the tunnel but is something that means every day, despite the restricted circumstance of prison life, is no  longer a Groundhog Day but has potential for good, he can see that day as a gift. I wanted to stop the film and jump up and ask the team at Bringing Hope how they did that. How could they literally bring hope without any possiblity of change circumstance.

In his beautiful meditation on the Eucharist, With Burning Hearts, Henri Nouwen talks a lot about how sadness can be transformed. Nouwen retells in great depth the story of the dicsciples who are walking to Emmaus when they encouter the risen Jesus (Luke 24: 13-35) and in the second chapter he focuses on the role of the stranger who listens to our story and transforms it. He says: “The loss, the grief, the guilt, the fear, the glimpses of hope, and the many unanswered questions that battled for attention in their restless minds, all of these were lifted up by this stranger and placed in the context of a story much larger than their own. What had seemed so confusing began to offer new horizons; what had seemed so oppressive began to feel liberating; what had seemed so extremely sad began to take on the quality of joy! As he talked to them, they gradually came to know that their little lives weren’t as little as they had thought, but part of a great mystery that not only embraced many generations but stretched itself out from eternity to eternity.”

I wonder if that is what had happened to Prisoner A in the documentary?  Perhaps really good listening and understanding had helped him see his story in a new way and find ways of living that good bring joy in terribly sad and difficult circumstances. Perhaps too he was challenged to look at himself truthfully and see both the potential and the pain inside himself.

Nouwen goes on to say that this was not sentimental and soothing conversation.  Jesus told the disciples that they were ‘Foolish’ and ‘Slow to Believe.’ I think I’d get a bit defensive if my spiritual director or priest said that to me. But Nouwen says the directness cracks open a cover of fear and self-consciousness leading us to tear off our protective devices and begin to see a spectrum of opportunity.

I am lucky enough to have people around me who will listen and understand my story and offer gentle challenge where necessary. (Perhaps we need to make sure that we all have those people and we all are those people for each other.) One of those people challenged me by retelling a sermon she had heard about Jesus on his journey to his crucifixion, Jesus in the most horrific circumstances that could not be changed. She said Jesus had three options, three possible ways of being. He could have been angry and defiant, he could have been resigned and defeated or he could, and did, embrace what was before him – entering into it dignity, with (com)passion. Faced with difficult circumstances I know anger or resignation both come naturally – Jesus’ third way offers more a challenge.

In World Without End, written by Helen Thomas in the 1920’s, she says this: “…I came to realise that everything that is part of life is inevitable to it and therefore must be good.  I could not be borne high upon the crest of ecstasy and joy unless I also knew the dreadful depths of the trough of  of the great waves of life. I could not be irradiated by such love without being  swept by the shadow of despair. The rich teeming earth from which all beauty comes is fed with decay; and out of the sweat of labour grows the corn. We are born to die; if death were not, life would not be either. Pain and weakness and evil as well as strength and passion and health  are part of the beautiful pattern of life; and as I grew up I learned that life is richer and fuller and truer the more you can understand not only in your brain and intellect but in your being, that you must accept it all; without bitterness the agnony, without complacency the joy.”

Taken to an extreme this kind of philosophy makes me uncomfortable. We cannot sit back and accept injustice and oppression as part of a natural order. But neither can we avoid sadness or eliminate pain for ouselves or others. I don’t ever want to stop trying to change structures that oppress people, systems that cause unhappines or prejudices that spark violence and hatred. But sadness, isolation, fear and loss are always with us and with our neighbour and if we can find ways of bringing hope and sharing joy within difficult circumstances I think we have found ourselves an important mission.