Friday, 22 March 2013

The empty days

At the last session of the Benefice Lent course on Wednesday day evening, I spoke about 'refilling the jug'. We were considering the importance of rest and leisure alongside rest in making a good life balance. Without a good balance, the jug empties and the work can't be done.

I sometimes wonder about using this blog as a diary, or publishing diary highlights in the church notice sheet, to share with people glimpses of what I do on weekdays. So often people comment on my Sundays, and yet that is far from all that I do. I can't decide whether sharing in this way would be helpful to others or merely an exercise in preening my own ego. Sharing the variety might be interesting though.

One of the dangers of refilling the jug in a public blog is of how the blog reads when the level of the jug is low. Right now, with passiontide started and Holy Week just ahead, my jug is definitely feeling half empty. I have, I am told, a reputation for positive attitude and energy. A jug half full person. A jug brimming over and splashing those around person. Taking Barnabus as my personal patron saint, I'm always glad when I hear that people feel positive when I work with them. On my own at home, though, the effort of being a Barnabus for others empties me. This is perhaps partly because I'm not naturally a confident, self assured person. I live in fear of being found out for the failing, weak person I really  am. Anything good that happens in my ministry can only be attributed to God, because it certainly isn't me.

So when I sense any kind of unhappiness with what I do, even if it might not be justified, that affects me deeply. Critical voices always drown out any praise I might have received. I emerge from PCC meetings and other similar evenings feeling that I can't ever be good enough to do the job, that I can't possibly meet the expectations of the others around the table. It doesn't matter that the meeting might have involved many good decisions and made good progress. I can still emerge feeling miserable, because the one critical person in the room has had a powerful effect, and the others, working hard but being neither positive or negative, do nothing to counter or balance the trickle of negativity. I just want to curl up and hide. The jug empties very quickly some days, and a lifestyle based on a six day working week and regular 12 or 14 hour working days does not give enough space to refill when the jug is suddenly and quickly poured out.

Why am I writing this today? Because my day off so far isn't one. I just haven't been able to set aside the mental and spiritual burden laid on me at a PCC yesterday. The sense of being not good enough because I haven't yet brought in lots of young people and lots of money, because I have brought a change of culture that one person doesn't like, is powerful. It pervades my thoughts, disturbs sleep, dominates waking thoughts. And of course the phone keeps ringing. I don't answer it, but that doesn't matter, the fact that it rang is enough to ensure that I am reminded of work. It is ever present, and today its presence brings me lower all the time. I'm on my own in a vicarage, not standing a chance of  refilling the jug before the huge busyness of Holy Week sets in on Sunday.

Psalm 88 is the only psalm that doesn't manage at any point to be positive and offer some praise to God. The choir will be singing it on Thursday evening. In a way it is a psalm of the empty jug. Choir practice points to the bigger truth though. Singing psalm 88 and then turning to the Easter anthem and    praising God holds together the big Godly picture. Resurrection follows death. God refills the empty vessel with His living water. And in a day or two I'll get over the post PCC misery. School Easter services and an Easter bonnet parade will hopefully remind me why this is ok really. So I'm not in a psalm 88 place yet. More psalm 42.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Lead us not into temptation

On Tuesday I presided at a Eucharist for the chapter I have recently joined. Preparing, I looked at the gospel set for the day and decided firmly that a time for silent reflection would be much more appropriate than exegesis from me. For the passage was from Matthew 23, Jesus' thorough warning about the failings of the religious leaders of his day. The dangers that come with being called to serve  as a member of the clergy are as real today as they were then. Reading a warning about the love of fancy garments (at the time large phylacteries and long fringes on prayer shawls) while wearing alb and stole (at least the host church wasn't the one with the gorgeously embroidered chasubles)... Well. Jesus warned his disciples to do as their leads said but not as they did. He add that they create heavy loads for the people, loads they had no intention of helping with or trying to carry themselves.

All those dangers are still there, and I am sure every one of my colleagues is as aware of it as I am. However hard we try, our parishioners want to put us on pedestals, assume that our words are true and valuable (as indeed they should be) and look to us to give instruction and leadership. Many of us work in traditions where the trappings of buildings or dress are deliberately beautiful, to give glory to God. It is only too easy to allow the human sinner to enjoy the attention and the power and the potential glory too much, only too narrow a divide between speaking and working to God's glory and diverting the attention to ourselves, especially if we have parishioners who enjoy what we do and are kind enough to say so. We walk a tightrope. One slip and we inhabit the same territory as the scribes and priests that Jesus so rightly condemned.

And we have seen others fall. Every week it seems that the papers are triumphing over the fall of a priest who has given into the temptations which the power we have over others make so easy. Sexual sin or financial dishonesty make good news story. Knocking people off the pedestal and proving that no one is above others, no one is that good, that is the stock in trade of the press, and it makes our battle against our own human frailty all the more risky. If we fall, everyone will know about it, and enjoy the entertainment.

Jesus words in this chapter of Matthew are very challenging for the clergy. Jesus tells his followers not to call anyone father, or teacher or rabbi, because those titles belong to him and to his Father. All the rest of us are followers. And yet here we are, called by God to lead his people. And many of my colleagues do use the title father, and all of us set out to teach and instruct. It's in the job description. How can we reconcile our Lord's instructions then with his call to us as his servants now? How can we ensure that we work with adequate humility, always pointing to Jesus and never allowing ourselves to become the focus of attention or adoration. If we do our jobs well, the risk that some people might want to praise us for our work is always there. And being human. To a certain extent we do need to hear some of that praise to motivate us to keep going and to assure us that we are doing the job well. Back on the tightrope then.

For a group of clergy listening to that gospel reading, silent reflection on our own work seemed the only possible response. In Lent, silent prayer that the particular temptations that lay in wait for the clergy may be resisted by each of us. Time to quietly grasp the balancing pole that gives us a chance of making it across the tightrope walk without falling.

Lord Jesus, keep us balanced and focused on you, keeping us from falling now, and bringing us safely to your kingdom; that those we seek to lead will also look to you only and come safely to your kingdom.