This year’s Lenten creativity was prepared for a local Mothers’ Union gathering in which we focused on being companions rather than simply followers of Christ. It included the following, which in response to Matthew 21:1-9 is barely original, but instead inspired, loosely and without honour, on a reflection I found referred to as being of Francis de Sales for Palm Sunday 1622, the more recent poem ‘The Donkey’ by G.K.Chesterton, and Janet Morley’s reflection upon the latter in her 2011 book of poetry for Lent and Easter ‘The Heart’s Time’.
I am a slow ungainly animal, a simple beast of burden,
hardly the appropriate mount for the King,
the one those crowds proclaimed their Saviour.
And yet, he knew this Balaam’s ass
would recognise and carry willingly
the one who came destroying pride,
in his great love and humility.
My girth may travel close by the ground,
and yes, some call me lowly,
but I was not beneath the dignity of
he who came as by his very nature, slave.
The Father’s equal in all things,
his wisdom and his witness ignored
for being as worthless as my braying,
because the mob knew better what his purpose was,
the burden of their expectations being
other than what either of us could offer.
So, we shared together
the inappropriate adulation,
refused to bite, or kick, or shy away
and trod the welcoming path
that parodied the purpose of our shared sacrifice.
It was not me who really bore the weight of obedience
without murmur or excuse,
but he on whose shoulders lay not
the rough-wove cloaks of those who half-understood,
but the guilt of those who
in weakness, pride and anger
would carve for him a fashionable death.
Yet, whilst claiming an equality of shared submission
with he who held the reins of creation,
I ask only that with them I might be forgiven
the ubiquitous sin of stubbornness.
Lent was this year, a dark time. There was a lot of wrestling for me to do, and a lot of just getting through all sorts of anxieties and pain – mental and physical.
My husband and I gave up on our daily ‘Giving It Up’ blog conversation; not because we had a problem with Maggi Dawn’s lovely book, but simply because there weren’t enough hours in the day. He was up to his ears in coursework marking, and other secondary school related strain, and I recognised that it was taking me round in ever decreasing mental circles that weren’t particularly healthy, and were a distraction from the job in hand, namely writing my Old Testament portfolio. But, by late Good Friday this portfolio was complete, and handed in last Tuesday as term re-started.
Easter School marked a significant point for all of working to the end of our final year of ordination training, and brought together people from the OMC/RCC part-time and mixed-mode formats, and those from WEMTC also part of the Cuddesdon family. Since the other year groups have Summer School later in the year (after ordination season), this signals the beginning of the end for those of us due to be ordained this year.
The focus was Mission, which I’m sure would please my diocesan bishop, and our wealth of visiting speakers were very good. What surprised me was the way they inadvertently drew together an important network of experiences, ‘loose ends’ in my past that I’d almost completely forgotten about during training, but were very significant in their contributions to me being there at all.
Ann Morisy was talking to us about community/neighbourhood mission, and started to tell the story of a Mothers’ Union group who, despite age and infirmity, travelled to Zimbabwe carrying old hand sewing machines safely to those who would put them to good use making a living, and teaching future generations, in difficult circumstances. It is unheard of for me to be reduced to tears in a lecture, but I was as she described the impact these ‘radicalised older ladies’ (who allowed nothing to stand in the way of their mission) had on their grandchildren. I remembered the photos our 17 year old son had recently chosen to have printed up which included a large selection of those taken on our trip to Uganda and South Africa when he was nine, largely in connection with Mothers’ Union, and my realisation that they and this, our only trip abroad as a family, has had such a big impact on his view of the world and I guess the purpose of church. It reminded me too, that without Mothers’ Union I’d not be where I am today, as they radicalised this younger woman to contemplate all sorts of things (including foreign travel, preaching… etc.) that I would never have done otherwise.
The second ‘loose end’ of my life, was when Steve Hollinghurst of the Church Army (who blogs here) was talking about the necessity for and growth in Fresh Expressions of Church. He talked about the early church plants, represented on the statistics he showed us from 1992/3 when they tended to be ‘church plants’ through to the present day. I sat looking at a quite boring graph (sorry Steve) thinking, ‘I was probably part of one of those statistics’ and remember spending a very important 4 years or so helping ‘plant’ the All Saints congregation of Warfield Church (which also included the Eternity youth congregation, which was much more of a ‘fresh expression, though were were planted into virgin community, so both were valid). That was 1993/4! I wish we’d known then, what Steve was teaching us now, as I think we might have done things at least a bit differently.
[Interestingly Steve’s sessions also touched, tantalisingly briefly, on contemporary pagan/Christian conversations, and his involvement with the Forest Church communities, that I shall be exploring in the next 8 weeks for my next (Mission and Evangelism) portfolio!]
In retrospect all these ‘loose ends’ of the past should all have been much more at the forefront of my mind during training, and I wish my memory for the details of my experiences was greater, but this reminders were very much God’s gift to me as Lent closed. So it seemed so appropriate when at the last Evening Worship of Easter School we were asked to do just that – and in doing so make a cross, which I shall treasure.
The last loose end that appeared in Lent, was news that Rt. Revd. John Cavell contributed to the series “Rev”. When this story was posted on Twitter, the name seemed familiar. When I read the article I remembered why – as Bishop of Southampton he confirmed me in July 1979! As part of my preparations for ordination I have today posted off various certificates to the Diocesan Registrar including my Confirmation Certificate. This is a rare beast many don’t have, and instead have to have certified copies of registers and the like. However, my Mother had taken great pains to obtain one for me from Bishop John many years later. She had been prompted by my uncle’s desperate pre-ordination search for proof of his Confirmation, to make sure her daughter had a certificate, just in case! Given this was October 1991 (before the vote to ordain women to the priesthood), and I have the letter to prove it, that was quite some loose end my Mother left for me to tie up!!!!
I was asked recently (via Twitter) if I would be prepared to write about my experiences of seeking and finding a spiritual director. It would be for some work Revd Mark Godson, who is Director of the London Centre for Spirituality, is doing to write a guide for those new to spiritual direction.
The official route to a spiritual director in my diocese is via our Ministry Department who maintain and support a list of spiritual directors. If you ask them they will put you in touch with someone who has the space and time, with reference to any particular requirements or interests you have at the time of requesting direction.
But I’ve not yet managed to do it that way; trust me to be different.
When it was first suggested to me that I ought to have a spiritual director, it was as part of my rather ad hoc journey into Reader Training. To be honest I can’t remember who suggested it, but at the time I was a Trustee for Mothers’ Union in Winchester Diocese (MU), and my calling to a ministry that included preaching and teaching was growing out of that role.
I was fortunate to come by the wisdom of the wife of our Diocesan Bishop of the time, who suggested I spoke to one particular lady about spiritual direction. The lady in question was a long-standing MU member, but also one of the first women to have been licensed to Reader Ministry in the 1970s as a young mother – something I needed to juggle into the ministry equation.
Having a spiritual director who has some connecting points to my own journey in ministry became important, and is a pattern I have repeated since. It gave us some ‘touching points’ on which to build a growing relationship, a sense of empathy which bred respect (hopefully mutual), and gave me the confidence to take seriously and try the ‘new’ approaches to building and improving a pattern of prayer into my life.
Right from our first meeting, informally in a Debenham’s coffee shop, we agreed how our relationship was to work; the regularity with which we would meet, and the overall length of time she would ‘walk with me’. This was important for her in her semi-retirement, and for me to know that as I progressed through to another stage in my own ministry I would require different expertise and insights to those I required through Reader Training.
It turned out this my first ‘director’ was actually on the ‘approved’ list maintained by the diocese, but I didn’t know that at the time. She was also very open about her own spiritual support, not that she wanted me to imitate her spirituality as a Third Order Franciscan, but so that I knew she had built in the support she required to help others, and was ‘practising what she preached’ as it were.
Ministry as a Reader took more than one unexpected turn for me, which is documented elsewhere on this blog. Part of that journey including a niggling sense of calling to the priesthood that I sort to ignore initially but which was highlighted through the circumstances of a parish vacancy in which I took responsibility for occasional offices. A brief lapse in my pattern of spiritual direction couldn’t possibly be allowed to continue.
As I finally took seriously the question of why on earth several priests of my acquaintance thought I was called to that ministry rather than continuing as a Reader, it was one of these priests that suggested another, as my companion for the next leg of my ministerial journey.
My new spiritual director and I had spent a year as colleagues and friends in ministry, so much of my ‘back-plot’ didn’t need to be sketched in when we met to discuss the idea of changing a relationship of friendship. Some of our initial agreements were much the same as last time were repeated (frequency, and over-all length of direction) but we had to be clear about different things: particularly that I wasn’t going to be pushed into the priesthood, and that we would maintain our conversations of friendship each meeting over lunch, before making a specific ‘candle-lit’ change of focus to my spiritual journey. It was a relationship that works well; even now that period of our lives is now concluded, we have maintained and grown a friendship that is built to a large degree on mutual trust and the need for confidentiality regarding each other’s circumstances.
In the process of discernment of a vocation to the priesthood, I found it particularly helpful to have someone totally outside the process, and in fact the diocese through which that process was being managed, though she had experienced it elsewhere. It enabled my director to help me ask questions of the system and myself, that I’m not sure would have been asked if we had been closer to my diocesan staff and systems.
This year, that leg of my journey concluded, I have with the encouragement of both that spiritual companion and my DDO, started to build a relationship with a new spiritual companion, or ‘soul friend’ as he prefers to be called. Known to, suggested and approved by all concerned, and someone with whom I had already started a significant acquaintance through my developing pattern of retreat days, we again have a regular pattern of meeting, but with a more open-ended time-scale of involvement. Conversations are less focused on the needs of ‘what I need to do next’ and have a more serendipitous nature, but at the moment as I struggle to engage with the highly academic context of my ordination training, they’re best focused on where the most difficulties are at the time, and so doing the job of keeping me moving forward in my spiritual life quiet nicely.
And it’s not escaped my notice that as my own journey moves on, I find I have others approaching me not yet for spiritual direction, but for insights I can offer from my experience into their own questions about faith and ministry. The one thing I have told them categorically from my own experience, is that if you are to support yourself, a ministry and a family of loved ones, all at the same time, then some regular pattern of spiritual direction and companionship is vital to keep your relationship with God grounded on common sense, as well as filled with the deep wells of spiritual resources you need to even attempt the journey!
Six years ago, when our son was nine, we travelled to Uganda and South Africa, partly to connect with Mothers’ Union members and see their work first-hand. Some while ago I was asked to share some details of a particular part of that trip which I refer to here. With apologies for the (six year) delay, here’s a few memories:
From our weekend base at the SOS Children’s Village at Mthatha in Eastern Cape (which we’ve sponsored since a friend was it’s founding director) we travelled in a rented VW Polo to the hills and the most southerly parish in the Diocese of Mthatha. We travelled with the Diocesan Mothers’ Union Worker to Mfula, which lies above the Swart-Kei and Tsomo rivers, approximately 50km from the nearest tarmac (at Nqamakwe north of Butterworth.)
The service at St. Peter’s Mfula was scheduled for 9am. After a 4 hour drive in our totally inappropriate hire car (because the MU 4×4 was off the road), we arrived at 11am, to be greated by two columns of banner waving, ululating Mothers’ Union members at the Rectory gate. After a fresh sandwich in the church hall, we were shown to the honoured seats at the front of the church and started the 2.5 hour service around noon.
As well as the white bloused, black skirted, Mothers’ Union members, other groups represented including the Girls Friendly Society (blue bonnet and skirt) and the Society of St Mary of Magdelene (purple cape).
The worship was sung in Xhosa. We did our best to sing along, but I can’t ‘click’ so I suspect my pronunciation was dodgy! There were no musical instruments, but incredibly good four part singing – the beat emphasised by people thumping their prayer/hymn books. However we were provided with an English Prayer Book, which helped when my husband was invited to lead prayers in English. Like Revd Bekwa’s sermon, and my later contribution to proceedings, these part of the service and celebrations were translated into Xhosa.
You could see our sons eyes come out on organ-stops, and his face crease, as we were doused in incense (this was his first experience of high church worship). We were given communion first, and then after the rest of the packed congregation received we were returned to the altar and given the honour of finishing off the bread and wine – all with much joyful swinging of the censer.
As the service drew to a close we entered a second phase of the celebration, in which Mothers’ Union matters took precidence. As I had anticipated I was expected to speak and managed to link the Gospel and Epistle to a talk I had prepared explaining a bit about the work of Mothers’ Union in the Diocese of Winchester, and it’s Family Life Programme in Uganda where we’d spent the previous week. I had also anticipated the exchange of gifts and was able to provide much prized Mothers’ Union badges, some sewing kits provided by MU members of St Barnabas, Weeke, and some silk scarves I had painted with MU logos before leaving the UK. All were later blessed by Revd Bekwa for distribution to those who could best use them.
The beadwork (some done with reeds or grass) we received was exquisite. The Mothers’ Union ladies make it as an income generating project, but sadly being so remote the community has little market for it. We were the first Western visitors EVER to the parish! The roads are the biggest obstruction to the regions development as people would travel to the area for the scenery and wildlife if it were more accessible.
As we shared the wonderful meal that followed (complete with Christmas decorations – in August) we learnt how poor the economy was, with a lot of unemployment. Many of the young girls had dropped out of school or couldn’t find work, or if they could hadn’t the transport to reach it! The soil seemed very thin and we did not see many crops. We were told that they could grow more, and some MU work encourages this, but that often people would complain that they didn’t have the energy to till the soil, which is partly a problem of malnutrition. There were many goats and sheep, and some cattle, but I suspect we provided with more food than many of them saw regularly.
When we finally left, via a better route than the one by which we’d come, we were sung to yet again. Our visit had obviously brought a huge amount of joy to people who had walked miles to see us, simply because we had wanted to meet and worship with a rural community. A deeply humbling experience.
Today formally marked the significant changes that are happening in my life.
During a particularly God-filled Family Communion service this morning, I was prayed for, (commissioned if you like), by trusted colleagues, friends and fellow members of St Peter’s, from my previous role here as a Reader, towards my formation through training for ordination at Ripon College Cuddesdon. That training starts in three weeks time, though I meet my ‘academic tutor’ for the first time this coming week!
It was incredibly moving to stand with my family as folk prayed for us, and each of those who came forward (along with many others) had played a significant part in the story of my recognising and testing my calling to ordination.
Although my Reader License isn’t being rescinded immediately, with the help of various folk, I have now laid down almost all of my commitments within the parish and Mothers’ Union. That process in itself has been hard work, emotionally as much as anything – something I may write about more another day.
At the same time I have been very aware that the title and subtitle of this blog (‘A Reader in Writing – The Ramblings of a Lay Minister’) wouldn’t really be accurate from today, and that it too must change. I have thought long and hard, come up with several ideas, including a pun “Pulled by a Dog Collar” which appealed to my sense of humour, but didn’t seem to express what this blog is about.
This continues to be a place to ramble and reflect on stuff I see around me (often on my regular dog walks), but since 2009 when I started blogging, it has mainly tracked my journey through ministry, sought answers to questions, and offered my thoughts on what the Bible teaches us (often expressed through sermons). This journey is an ongoing process which I guess will never really come to an end; it will simply change, because God always calls us onward into a deeper relationship with him, to new challenges and new ways of facilitating his mission in the world.
I decided therefore, that I needed to take the advice Fibre Fairy’s offered me on Twitter, and find a blog title that would last; something that would see me through life as an ordinand, into ministry in curacy as a deacon and priest, to whatever lies beyond. And suddenly this evening, it came to me that I should title the blog by the very reason I am here: because God calls.
It’s been an amazing ten years adventure since I joined Mothers’ Union after taking on editorship of the Diocesan Mothers’ Union newsletter ‘Archway’, and being almost simultaneously co-opted on to Trustees. During that time I have learnt alot about myself, as well as Mothers’ Union. Along the way fellow members have, I hope, come to understand how important it is to ‘shout about’ Mothers’ Union, the huge impact it’s project work has on people’s lives at home and abroad, and discovered that we really can (and must) harness modern media to share the good news of faith in action that we achieve. Please keep using that website at www.muwinchester.org.uk!
My journey with Mothers’ Union started with a phonecall from the then Diocesan President that I instantly recognised as a case of ‘God on the phone’. That journey isn’t ending here. Both Graham and I have every intention of remaining Mothers’ Union members as family life and marriage must be championed, and our overseas workers supported.
However (and I would have said this publicly even had I remained a Trustee), I happen to think that for Mothers’ Union to continue to be supported so that its project work remains viable and as well respected as it is, will require some drastic structural changes to the overall organisation. I suspect that time has come when we seriously need to consider merging Diocese (each is currently an independent charity) or work on a Provincial basis. Part of the problem is that we must continue to work within Charity Law, but alternative ways must be found of remaining accountable whilst celebrating our active passion for marriage and family life. I’m not sure that any of the proposed changes to Charity Law will help this. Being accountable is important, and thus some local administration will always be a necessary burden, but something needs to be done quite radically to change the expectations of local people held by central management, else we will see enthusiastic younger members come, and then go, as I have. Otherwise I fear that the passionate, pioneering and prayerful flames that Mary Sumner sparked all those years ago will be suffocated because the way we work stifles the creativity of those wanting to take projects forward in the name of Mothers’ Union.
The various adventures that Mothers’ Union has given me, including speaking in HMP Winchester, gathering round Winchester Cathedral during Make Poverty History, in my own and in various other parishes, have all contributed to the call that I am now responding to. Without them I would never have become a Reader, and it is through ministry as a Reader that I came to understand my calling to the priesthood, that I admit many others recognised long before I did.
I will be starting ordination training at Ripon College Cuddesdon, through their part-time Oxford Ministry Course in September, where it is hoped I will achieve an MA in two years, with a view to being ordained in 2014 as a self-supporting minister. Because our son will be working through GCSEs and A-levels during this period, it is currently our intention to stay living in Yateley, though I will need to serve a curacy elsewhere in the Winchester Archdeaconry. Quite what the next leg of the adventure with God will be, only he knows, but be assured I will continue to shout about Mothers’ Union wherever and whenever I am given the opportunity. I hope you will to.
Thank you to everyone I’ve met through, and who has encouraged my involvement with, Mothers’ Union over these last ten years, regionally, nationally and internationally. May God inspire and bless us all as we continue to work together to support marriage and family life.
I spent time recently finding and replaying two videos of our new Bishop of Winchester, Right Revd Tim Dakin. Nominally this was for the benefit of my father, but it led me to some reflections of various sorts.
The first video focuses on the challenges Bishop Tim offered at his enthronement in April (which sadly I missed due to a prior wedding invitation):
The second video is something that it has been suggested be played in parishes so that they can get to know their Bishop:
My first thought was surprise that these videos are no longer easily searched for and available through our Diocesan website from where they were initially circulated last month. I know one of them should exist in my parish as a DVD, but I’ve not seen it yet. However I felt that for people who might wish to refer to it, to show others or as source material for their own reflections, either personal or parochial, not keeping it accessible through the Diocesan website seemed a little short-sighted. (Or perhaps my search abilities are distinctly lacking!)
Rather more important, was the challenge I heard the Bishop give me personally, which I listened to through the ears of someone recently selected for training for ordination!
1. How passionate am I in my personal spirituality?
2. Do I have what it takes to be a priest in a faith community that shows pioneering qualities?
3. What might be the prophetic nature of my ministry in both a local and global context?
I can’t answer any of those questions clearly here, but here are a few far flung thoughts, that step beyond my initial reaction of ‘I am not worthy to enter ministry under this man.’
1. I am a lot more aware of how important my personal spirituality is to my survival in life, and particularly in ministry, following the changes I’ve made in my prayer life during my journey through a vacancy and towards selection over the last couple of years. Aware enough to have already made this a priority in my work with spiritual directors over my two years as an ordinand. I know that unless I have a deep, well grounded and stable prayer and pattern of life, I will not be equipped to survive parochial ministry at any level. There will be brief mention of where I’m at with this in my mid-week sermon tomorrow, but I believe that our Bishops’ current call to prayer (we’re on the third day of a Winchester Novena) is a pre-cursor of the mission community concept I understand Bishop Tim started at CMS, and has suggested for this diocese.
2. How many parishes (clergy and laity combined) are truly open and willing to be pioneering? I’ve had several thoughts in recent months about ways it might be possible for some rural churches to be pioneering in the way they use their buildings (probably all done before), or enable ‘unseen’ sectors of their community to worship in a way that responds to their own historic context. I won’t expand here, but I will soon post my BAP presentation which touches on one such idea, already well-tried in communities where it was appropriate.
3. I guess that, as with question 2, the prophetic nature of mission depends on context, existing links, and new opportunities. I do think that where these are international, the time is coming where these need to evolve beyond Christians travelling between countries to share practical and spiritual expertise. Mothers’ Union has spent the last century setting examples like their current Family Life Programme (that I’ve visited myself), but will environmental and economic considerations require that we do such things differently?
At least I’ve stepped beyond my initial feelings of inadequacy when I heard his enthronement sermon, but I guess the adventure of responding to my calling has only just begun. Working it all out with this man setting the example at the helm of the diocese in which I serve, is just going to make it a bit more challenging and exciting than it was already!
This week we started a short sermon series at St. Peter’s Yateley on the values of ‘being church’, the first of which focused on being ‘Broken Hearted’. It came at what is a time of hugely mixed emotions among our congregations, with news of an amazing healing and of difficult bereavements among our fellowship this week.
When a broken soldier reached the place where Jesus was, he found Jesus in the guise of a Mothers’ Union Family Holiday team, some of whom are here this morning. One of the most successful snipers in the British Army, Neil looks back at the summer of 2005 and recognises himself (and I use his own words here) as “a murderous, lying, thieving, cheating scum, on the verge of alcohol dependency” and suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
It was the weight of a stone placed in Neil’s hands, space to think about the words of Matthew 11 “Come ye who are heavily laden and I will give you rest”, and the prayers of at least one person here, that enabled Jesus to break through into the life of that soldier’s hardened heart and emotions. He became ashamed of what he had become, both in action and in attitude, and as he started to believe in Jesus and in God, Neil says he started to change from the inside to the outside. (His full testimony is here – something I’ve also been working on publicising this week, which is probably why it sprang to mind!)
There is a close relationship between repentance and compassion. For Neil to recognise and repent of those things that were wrong with the person he had become, he had to experience of the compassion of Jesus through those that offered his family that holiday experience, the chaplain who gave him that stone, and the prayers of those who though shocked by what he told them, talked and prayed for him and his family.
For Neil to become the person he is now, himself a member of the Family Holiday Team, and training to be a Reader whilst still serving in the Army, the only sacrifice he had to make was that of a broken and contrite heart before God, as we heard in the words of Psalm 51. His joy, and that of his family, has been restored through an awareness of his own faults. His heart-shattered life has been re-made, ready to reach out with Christ’s love for others.
Neil received the love of Christ, enabling him to find repentance, and so turn the wheel of Christ’s compassion for a broken world onwards toward other’s who come broken-hearted to the place where Jesus is.
When Mary reached the place where Jesus was in our Gospel reading this morning, she too was broken-hearted. But hers was not the burden of those things that she had done wrong, but the ultimate reality of bereavement that we are all confronted by when a loved one dies. The miracles of healing and life, like that of the blind man whose eyes were opened by Jesus, and those experienced this week by others in our congregation this week, are often overshadowed by the length of suffering we see in the lives of our friends, and the pain of parting that some we of know have also experienced this week.
Like many people since, as Mary fell questioning and crying at Christ’s feet, she was in darkness; wishing not that he would take away the grief she felt, but that he had made it so the pain had never happened at all.
It’s tough to say it, and tougher still to live through it, but Christ is not fully come into his Kingdom, and so death is still a fact of life. Mary’s sister Martha has in the earlier part of this story (that we haven’t read), come to some understanding that Jesus is the Son of God, and the resurrection of the dead is part of the sequence of events that will reveal his coming in glory. Yet neither of the sisters are aware that Jesus’ actions in the next hour and in the coming days in Jerusalem, will inaugurate that time though not bring it to completion.
Yet Mary kneels in the street, covered in her tears and the dirt of daily life, having turned to the one person she feels can make a difference in her grief. Like her sister, she is not content to sit at home, as tradition would have dictated, and wait for the Jesus to come to make his mourning visit.
Christ on the verge of entering into his coming Kingdom, is the only hope that Mary feels able to reach out to, seeking some sort of compassion that will really make a difference to the emotions which fill her to overflowing. That unwitting action on her part, helps to set the stage for hope and healing to be revealed to the broken-hearted of her time, and of our own.
The Jews who followed Mary to the place where Jesus was, had been startled into curiosity by her sudden departure from the house after Martha had spoken quietly of Jesus’ approach.
Their’s was a time and place where emotions and compassion for the broken hearted had perhaps become ritualised. They would have expected the sisters to remain seated at home, receiving visitors who would then wait upon their needs, bringing them food and keeping the house in order during seven days of mourning.
Running out of the house to fall at the feet of this man who was not even family, may fit our stereotyped image of the wailing of mourning in some Eastern cultures, but would not have sat well with Jewish tradition.
Today in what we call the post-Christian western world, it seems we are beginning to leave an era when mourning had become over-ritualised. Though there are certain appropriate formalities, things are becoming a little more relaxed as people take more time to celebrate the reality of the life of a loved one, however short that life is cut. But still, many people have a tendency to suffer the “stiff-upper-lip” approach, trying not to allow grief and their emotions to be visible to others, and seeking to do everything, that they think others expect of them.
Perhaps the Jews are not so far wrong, by giving others the strength and companionship of not having to focus on the basic chores of life, releasing people to focus on their grief and love for someone.
The same is perhaps true for those of us who at times come alongside our friends and neighbours at times of grief, or other times of distress and trouble, some of them quite long-term. I have at times wished I was more prone to the visible emotion of tears, thinking that by showing compassion for anothers’ grief in such a way, they would feel permitted to release the stopper they are keeping on their own emotions, and thus find some measure of healing and peace.
I say this because when Mary reaches him, Jesus has come to a place where the burdens he is carrying for his friends Mary and Martha and for his future, well to the surface. Jesus weeps.
Jesus showed his humanity. The Word made flesh, the creator of the world, wept for his friends, the living and the dead. There is no triumphalism of one who knows that he will shortly raise Lazarus from the dead, in an act that will contribute to his own crucifixion and resurrection. Instead he bears the griefs and carries the sorrows (Isaiah 53:4) of all that he shares and is about to do, to the point of tears.
Yet, Jesus’ tears are also those of a deep anger – at least that is what the language of the original gospel of John suggests. The Word of God, our creator, is exhibiting his utter frustration that the world he brought into being, is so broken that death, and the sin of the world exhibited in our lack of understanding of his love for us and our need to love each other, still has the power to cause suffering, or at the very least ignore our ability to alleviate it. That is what is propelling him to Jerusalem and to the cross. That is the strength of love that was shed in the tears of Christ.
We are called to be a people who have come to the place where Jesus is.We are an Easter people, those who believe in the resurrection of not just Lazarus, but of our Christ, the Word made flesh. If we understand that Christ died to inaugurate the coming of God’s Kingdom, we must know too that we have the responsibility of not simply knowing God’s compassion for a broken world, visible in Christ’s crucifixion, but working to bring about a greater understanding of what he did through exhibiting that compassion ourselves.
We rightly think that many people in St Peter’s have a willing spirit, and often spend their time coming alongside those who suffer in body, mind or spirit. We need to celebrate, and encourage those that dare to enter and come alongside the empty people of the world, people who come to us as a place where Jesus is, the living Word. We are called to be a people who weep with Christ in the broken places of people’s lives.
As we come as those broken by life, or by death, to the place where Jesus is,we need to trust that it is a place where we can be honest about the state of our own lives, our emotions, and our ability (or lack of ability) to carry on as we are. We should not feel constrained by tradition or culture to kneel before our crucified Christ in any other way than that which has integrity with our anger at our own or another’s suffering.
Our compassion should include our frustration at the state of God’s broken world, and if necessary our broken lives. That is where it truly follows the example of the tears that Jesus wept.
Through the power of the Holy Spirit, as Christ’s Easter people, everyone can
“Turn to Christ for comfort, hope and healing. In receiving it, we are marked by the cross, which requires us to expend our own lives sacrificially in offering and gift. [In this way] the Church is, in a real sense, a communion; the Body of Christ.”
The Mothers’ Union in the Diocese of Winchester (of which I’m currently a Trustee) is linked through the Mothers’ Union Wave of Prayer to members in Kitgum, an area of Northern Uganda that lived for decades under the influence of war between the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Ugandan Army.
Those living in Northern Uganda are beginning to rebuild their lives, but this week Kony has been ‘trending’ in social media due to this video, and others (like BBC commentators) have been suggesting it is misplaced and won’t change things among the people affected.
In 20o4-5, during the last big peak of media awareness of the Lord’s Resistance Army, and it’s leader Joseph Kony, I spent considerable time sharing in local churches the plight of child soldiers, and those that sought to avoid that fate. The ‘night commuters’ walked miles to the ‘safety’ of towns in Northern Uganda, often to be abused by the Ugandan Army soldiers and others that they thought would protect them, or to fall foul of disease that spread in the crowded yards where they huddled together.
Mothers’ Union members in Kitgum wanted to provide a night shelter for these children, and here in Winchester Diocese we successfully raised the funds for them to do this. The shelter was built and used.
In 2006 when I visited Uganda, the situation was still too volatile to travel to Kitgum, though I did manage to speak to Mothers’ Union leaders in the region by phone. My colleague was also unable to visit in 2008 but met Mothers’ Union leaders in Kampala, and brought back this information.
Now that relative peace has returned to the region, when we hear sporadic news from the Diocese of Kitgum it is all about the wounds that need healing: children’s lives damaged physically and mentally, communities rebuilding trust, as well as houses, livelihoods, and churches. Amidst this I discovered last week that Mothers’ Union members in Kitgum are planning a conference around Mary Sumner Day 2012 (August 9th) which will use music, “Bible exposition and drama about family life and prayer” to strengthen their Christian faith in such difficult circumstances.
If you are moved about the plight of the children of northern Uganda by the current hype surrounding #Kony2012, I would encourage you to support (prayerfully and/or financially) organisations like Mothers’ Union whose members have lived through and experienced first hand the pain of the civil war fostered by Joseph Kony which still isn’t fully resolved in Uganda or in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In this way more good will come from the possibly mis-judged campaign that is currently ‘going viral’ among those who use social media.
When my son was about six, one of those people with ‘grandmother’ status in our family died.
My husband and I had discussed previously that we would explain clearly but simply to him what had happened. Our son was already aquainted with the concept of death, since from the age of three he’d had tropical fish, and sadly through the poor advice we were initially given, and the short life span of some fish, by six years old he had discovered that fish don’t live for ever.
When I came home from supporting my Father at the end of the day that J died, my husband had broken the news of her death to our boy. We knew he would be devastated as she was full of fun and he delighted in the pony rides and mud in her fields he enjoyed when we visited regularly.
I came home with ‘Thingy’, a small toy that had been in J’s lounge and frequently been played with by our boy on our visits there. I explained that because J had died, and could no longer look after it, ‘Thingy’ was now his. It made J’s death a bit more real for him, which was obviously painful, but it meant that he understood why there was a need for us as a family to do more travelling and sorting than normal, and why everyone (especially Grandpa) was rather miserable and upset.
Although we decided it wasn’t appropriate for him to attend the short crematorium service (partly because of sensitivity to J’s relatives), he did attend the far more personal Thanksgiving Service that was held at a week or so later, with the familiar things he knew (her saddle, riding boots and garden flowers) clearly visible along side the wicker urn which held her ashes. We were able to share together our collective grief, and the strain of my role in the service (a reading), as being perfectly normal, rather than something hidden or secret.
I was reminded of all this by a recent conversation with a grieving family who needed to encourage their grandson to explain to the four year old great-grandson, the death of a much loved, and talented, grandparent. It also sent me back to find various resources I’ve been made aware of over the years that can help children, and adults, to cope with their grief at the death of a loved one. I’m really collecting them here as an aide memoire for my own future reference, but thought it might help others too.
I found some good advice at Dragonflypin.co.uk. Here there are also other resources for helping children and adults of different ages as well. In particular I have come across the following two story books which are good:
There is also a good leaflet to support adults helping children when someone has died. It’s produced by Mothers’ Union called ‘Children and Bereavement’ and is available direct or through local members in the community in which you live. It includes other ideas for remembering a loved one, and some contact details for different support groups.