Burn out – remove, replace, refit… renewal?

On Monday we had our kitchen ripped out. It wasn’t new when we moved in 24 years ago: now it wass falling apart in an increasing number of places, and in urgent need of renewal. Having a full kitchen refit is possibly one of the more significant upheavels any household can take on: we’re cooking on a hotplate in the spare room, and I’ve just washed up outside. Whilst this has been several months in the planning, the last month has to a significant degree been focused on this week, and what has turned into a bit of an epic project after significant electrical faults were identified at the end of May – we are fortunate that we’d not gone up in flames years ago.

Laying bare the the old, unhealthy skeleton of our kitchen, ready for replacement and renewal

All this has been tracked, almost exactly, by my emotional resilence and stamina developing significant faults – I had nearly fried myself completely. So, I’ve started to take myself apart too and stepped back from ministry (thankful for a supportive incumbent and permission-giving spiritual advisors). Ironically yesterday was the 8th anniversary of my ordination as Deacon, and I feel bad that I’ve had to temporarily step away so soon, but I had no more to give, so have slowed the pace of my life right down with the active encouragement of my husband. Now, having completed my main contribution to the kitchen project (there were an awful lot of boxes to be packed and put into storage), I can start on my own personal refit: mentally, creatively, spiritually and perhaps even physically.

It’s not the kitchen’s fault, nor the fault of the parishes I serve, though there are contributing factors in both those areas beyond anyone’s control. The menopause, and a slightly rocky start into HRT are also making significant contributions! I’m not sure it’s particularly my ‘fault’ either though my habit of doing to much has caused issues in the past – but never quite on this scale. However, it is a reflection that the balance of the ministry and administrative commitments I’ve voluntarily shouldered is no longer sustainable mentally and physically in combination with other important strands of who I am as a wife, daughter, mother and friend, combined with my calling as a priest and a creative. Having temporarly cleared some things out of the way, it’s time to work out what exactly it is that needs to be integral to rebuilding the fittings of my life, so that I can return better suited to how I make myself available in future.

I have some inkling of what I need to focus on, but not sure I yet have the strength (emotional and physical) to make them a reality. There are some things I can’t control (hormone levels and reactions included) and there are several things that I’ve tried, unsuccessfully, to sort out in the past; so I need to work out what things to accept about myself, and where I can realistically create better habits. There are several things I suspect I need to prioritise but first of those comes rest, something that has had to wait until now, when workmen start to take the weight of the kitchen refit. So in no particular order the things I need to include in my own personal “refit” include:

  • Mental rest from doing too much and from constantly ‘double-thinking’ for others as well as myself, a bad habit to have got into. I have a sneaking suspicion that part of this is being a woman and a mother – are we hard-wired to think for others as well as ourselves I wonder…;
  • Physical rest alongside developing a proper pattern of gentle exercise in the natural world I love and which can better sustain me during active ministry (sounds like an oxymoron but perhaps you get what I mean -and it would be easier if hormones weren’t causing me both pain and anxiety);
  • Renewing my personal prayer life – which has always been less than ideal – in a way that sustainably nurtures and has more integrity with what I seek to enable and encourage in others. My prayer life has become saturated with the public bits of ministry, rather than sustained by soaking myself in God’s presence;
  • Enabling the exciting opportunities that God has presented me with through the traditional and creative skills I’ve been developing in the last two years, so that they form an honoured part of the whole of me, rather than the hiding place that they had become, and more than just a way of seeking positive/encouraging feedback. There is a small project in the wings in this area that might prove important, but it’s not quite ready to ‘go public’ yet;
  • Continue the process of patiently grappling with my own particular experience of menopause and HRT and the physiological responses to hormone levels that I’ve had to adapt to and live with since I was a teenager – like all women, but we all have different experiences of and responses to this;
  • Give more time to family and friends who have been sidelined by my unerring ability to step in and ‘gap fill’ administratively and in other ways, just because I know roughly what to do after years of working in various capacities in the CofE;
  • Find joy in reading again, for pleasure and to inspire and feed my spiritual life – I haven’t read a whole ‘theology’ book since I completed my curacy essays 5 years ago, and have read very few of the novels and biographical style books I used to love. As a way of doing the latter I’ve started to re-read the Terry Pratchet Discworld sequence from the beginning – because at least I’ll get a belly laugh along the way;
  • Work out how to stop feeling guilty for… well everything, anything… doing too much, doing too little, having a body that’s a pain in the ass (quite literally at times), not praying enough, not loving Jesus enough, not letting my emotions out, letting them get the better of me… you get the picture;
  • Work out how to include the role/s I hold in the wider community that bring with them anxieties and workloads that are not necessarily helpful, but as significant and important to others; I stood back from one earlier in the year (as a committee member of a local village hall) but I will need to return to my responsibilities as a School Governor;
  • Renewing my working agreement in discussion with our long-suffering incumbent, to better reflect my particular calling as a part-time, non-stipendiary priest, who is most alive to the working of the Holy Spirit (and unsurprisingly most useful to others) in various forms of creativity – artistically as well as in services and sermons (something to address when I return from a much needed holiday).

That seems like rather a long shopping list I realise, and you might suggest I shouldn’t be baring my soul quite so publically; but writing it down like this is as much about trying trying to articulate the issues to myself, as it is about the fact that I believe we should be more open about the mental and spiritual health journeys we take – for our own good, as well as to encourage others.

Currently, I’ve agreed a three month respite with my colleague and churchwardens, which was today approved as a ‘starting point’ by my GP. It may take longer (which is probably not what the parishes want to hear) and any healthy habits I can develop must contribute to, and be realistically sustainable in the long-term as part of my ministry. Most of those bullet-points can’t be resolved in isolation from the advice, direction and prayer of others I may or may not know, as I seek to develop the sort of open resiliance (is that a thing) that will allow/enable God to rebuild and renew me.

If you have read this far as I’ve rather openly thought through where I find myself, thank you. Any words of wisdom or suggestions will be welcomed with an open mind. God (as well as the goodwill of others) is I sense very much enabling this break in ministry, and I hope that my own personal refit can be as helpful in the long-run as I expect our kitchen refit to be!

Learning to felt paint – a Mandarin Drake

In August 2021 my husband and I visited the studio of Nicky Heard, a wildlife artist whose stunning images are created from wool! Call it felt-painting, wool art, needlefelting, whatever you like, her work is amazing and award winning. And she leads classes in her studio in Locks Heath, near Southampton.

It took two attempts, because Covid. Even then, the pattern of classes stuttered slightly, because Covid. But they have been a total joy, despite the two hour round trip from Yateley each time. I have learnt so much, not only through her explanations of how to use wool and other natural fibres, but also by watching her work on her own pieces alongside us.

In January this year, I visited Eyeworth Pond, in the New Forest with my Dad – who used to be Head Keeper for the north of the New Forest. As a young child I had riding lessons in nearby Fritham and regularly passed this pond. For both reasons, this is a favourite place to return to, not least because of the community of stunning Mandarin Ducks that have become naturalised since their ‘accidental’ release there many years ago. One of the photos I took that day, became the subject of my first foray into felt-painting under Nicky’s expert tutelage.

My photograph of a Mandarin Drake that Nicky helped me to emulate – in wool!

I’ve created a short video HERE of how the painting developed, as a memory-jogger for myself, as much as for anyone else!

Nicky has recently been featured in the Guardian Arts magazine, is exhibiting with Chalks Gallery in Lymington, has an online shop and often appears at craft fairs. She will be part of this years Hampshire Open Studios, and with her ocean-artist daughter Jasmin with whom she now collaborates on some projects, will be exhibiting at the Southern Nature Artists Exhibition over August Bank Holiday. I can thoroughly recommend you visit any or all of these – or take one of her classes!

I’ve got some ideas for combining these skills with my contemporary Dorset Button wallhangings… but I must get ahead of myself!

My finished Mandarin Drake – given to my Dad to celebrate the occasion of his 90th birthday.

The Jailor’s wife – Acts 16:16-34

I had been really looking forward to leading and preaching at All Saints Church, Minstead last Sunday, on a weekend when my Dad was celebrating his 90th Birthday, and another friend their 80th Birthday. However, it wasn’t to be as we ended up being Covid-bound at home; whilst I remained negative, my husband had brought it home from school and we didn’t want to risk the health of older relatives and friends. However, I am deeply grateful that not only did Dad step in to lead the Service of the Word, with musical support from our son, our future daughter-in-law, and the local vicar (to whom particular thanks), but his friend Karen was able to inhabit the character of the Jailor’s wife. This is my most recent monologue, and a pair for last week’s monologue on Lydia.

All Saints Church, Minstead

I’d never thought of us as being enslaved to Rome, but that night would transport us from being captive within a violent system, to being free to risk all in service to a risen King.

My husband took his job as the chief jailer here in Philippi very seriously; not least because it was the role he’d been awarded for his long service and good conduct in the military. Here, in this outpost of Roman power, we benefited from the gift of a settled family life in the heart of a city. Yes, we had to live ‘over the office’ is it were; yes, my husband’s authority was defined by the dutiful rigour with which he enforced the whim of the city’s officials; and yes, at times the stench from the prison cells could be deeply inhibiting; but we enjoyed the freedom that came with our social status. With the prison and thus our home so close to the public forum at the centre of Philippi, here was little that happened without us knowing.

We knew that there was a small group of a new Jewish sect in town – the Jesus-men I called them. They’d taken up residence with Lydia, the dealer in purple cloth. That seemed to jeopardise the status on which she relied for her wealthy trade, but she’d always been a rather independently-minded woman and it was hardly our concern. I did of course know that she regularly joined the Jews at worship in their prayer-station on the river bank outside town (Acts 16:13), but that wasn’t somewhere we ever went.

We were also more than familiar with the fortune-telling of the young Delphic-woman and her over-zealous, greedy minders. There was often more than a grain of truth in what she revealed, but her fascination with the Jesus-men who travelled out to pray by the river daily, seemed unusual. For days she was like an annoying stray dog, always yapping at their heels about some most High God, and something about a way of being saved. Well, I thought, we’d all like to be saved from a way of life that exerted authority through greed and violence, but something has to pay the bills. And, I doubted whether even the greatest god in the pantheon, be it Zeus or ‘the One’ the Jews believed in, was capable of paying the price to set her free.

How wrong was I?! Wrong about the One, wrong about the price of freedom, wrong to think it wasn’t possible to live with different priorities, wrong to think that it was only others who were oppressed by the violence that surrounded us.

I watched as these Jesus-men were dragged into the public forum. Apparently, they had uttered that name “Jesus” over the Delphic-woman. Now she was silent, free from the fortune-telling spirit whose power had spoken through her, and the grasp of those who had manipulated her for their own gain. But, there’s no-one so hard-done-by as a salesman whose gimmick has been busted, nor so canny; so these Jesus-men weren’t charged with property damage, but with disturbing the peace. Which was ironic, as doing so brought anything but peace. People love a band-wagon to climb on, even if it’s based on trumped-up charges, blatant discrimination, or a desire to exert power – and this was all three. There was a riot.

And the Jesus-men were beaten.

The senior civil-servants dealing out this so-called justice, may have been inured to inflicting pain, perhaps because they only briefly saw the consequences. However we did. The bloodied and bruised Jesus-men, Paul and Silas, were brought into the prison for our safe-keeping. We knew what the unsanitary depths into which they were shackled would do to open wounds. But mercy was not a word that the authorities understood, so we weren’t allowed to show it. Having done what was required of us, we slept; but not for long, because the earth moved.

We were used to the earthquakes, they’re relatively common here, but this was more terrifying. As we fled outside to safety, over the rumbling of the earth we could hear the cell doors falling from their hinges, the rattle of prisoners chains falling free, and the sound of something else, something like… songs of joy coming from deep inside the prison?! I was frightened of what my husband would do to himself as he ran, sword in hand, toward what should have been crumbling walls. I followed at his call, and there, in the lamplight, found him trembling on his knees at the feet of the prisoners within. Time stood still.

[Pause]

All the prisoners were free, but no-one had escaped. My husband seemed captive to the fear that even so, his life would be forfeit. I was simply flooded with relief, that he, that we, were all still alive. When he brought Paul and Silas out into the open, I could see the confusion on his face, and I heard it in the question that came stumbling from his lips: “What must I do to be saved?”

And then they spoke the name that had given freedom to the Delphic-girl, the name that had brought them to this place, the name they had been singing as my husband ran towards them… Jesus. “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved. You and your household.”

There in the prison yard that night, those men spoke words that healed my husband, and I, from the painful scars inflicted on us by our blind acceptance of others expectations. As we carefully washed their wounds clean, they spoke words of healing which showed us that being bound to the One, true God, was a far greater service to the world he has created, than we could ever offer to a society which demanded hardened hearts and minds. We opened our home to these men who had travelled to us in response to a vision given them by the Spirit of the living God, and then been imprisoned at our hands. In return, they offered us the hospitality of Jesus in whose name they proclaimed these freedoms, breaking our bread to speak of a redemption that brought us to sit at table in unity and harmony.

There are some forms of light that shine more brightly than a candle in the darkness, or the sun at dawn. There are some forms of cleansing that can heal wounds that are far deeper than the eye can see. Yes, some insist on the freedom to bear arms, to carry keys that imprison, to manipulate the innocent; but there is also the freedom to understand that we need not be shackled to those behaviours, that we can be healed of our selfish adherence to power-politics and our bondage to that which destroys our humanity.

As our lives are being transformed by the message of freedom to be found in Jesus Christ, as we rise washed by the waters of baptism to a new life that will imprison no-one, least of all ourselves, the only duty which now carries any weight for us is that of learning more of the One who sent him because he loves us. As we work to release others from whatever evils control and manipulate them, we too can sing of freedom in Jesus Christ, our Lord.

All Saints Church, Minstead has a wonderful ‘three decker’ pulpit, a very ancient font that spent hundreds of years buried in the old Rectory garden, and is the final resting place of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It is well worth a visit!