My sabbatical research into 'public faith and private pain' has now gone 'live' and responses are coming in, for which I am very grateful. Already two separate people have alerted me to a newly published book called Soul Pain: Priests Reflect on Personal Experience of Serious and Terminal Illness, Edited by Jennifer Tann pub. Canterbury Press 2013. As the title suggests, it relates to pretty much the same the same interface/question but is approached via a collection of essays in which Anglican priests reflect on their experiences.
A decade ago when I did my undergrad research on single people's experiences of church, a book was published about two weeks before my submission date that covered almost identical ground, and I had frantically to amend my work to note its existence and to explain why I had not included it in my reflections.
Sometimes I wonder if I am always one step behind God's Spirit (as distinct from keeping in step with God's Spirit) or is it maybe that the ripples need time to spread and I am always a little way from the epicentre? Either way, the book will be a valuable input to my thinking and serves as confirmation that the time is ripe for these questions to be explored.
This morning's PAYG centred on the healing of Bartimaeus, a blind man who asked Jesus to restore his sight. So he was man whose sight had failed, not a man born blind; he knew what he had lost and he wanted it back. One of the things the listener was invited to do was to reflect on areas of spiritual blindness they would like Jesus to heal, and it struck me that you could actually only ask for restoration of 'spiritual sight' you had once had and now lost, or the gift of 'spiritual sight' you had become aware of in others... you had to know your blindness in order to ask for it to be removed. This brought to kind mind the once very popular (maybe it still is) Johari Window:
There may be aspects of my spiritual sight (or health) that are I am aware of and others I am not aware of; likewise areas of spiritual blindness. There are some that others are aware of and others they aren't aware of. So long as I or others are aware of them, then work to 'open the eyes of the heart (or mind)' is possible. But there is the unknown unknown - the spiritual blindness (or sight) of which I am unaware and so are others... only God is aware of it. Prayer then becomes 'please give me the sight I don't know I lack'... but how will I know whether or when I have it? It's a conundrum!! But it does seem like the crucial prayer.
There are many interfaces that have to be managed in ministry, some are more complex than others, and some are more open to misundertsanding and misinterpretation than others. Sometimes I wish language was more precise and less prone to changing its meaning over time. The 'theological integrity' - 'pastoral pragmatism' interface is a tricky one, and there are no absolute answers on which way one should err; rather it has to be a case-by-case consideration, avoiding knee-jerks, entrenchment, stubborness and emotional responses.
Perhaps the way we tend to lean depends on personality - whether we are more 'head', 'heart' or 'gut' people. Perhaps it is shaped by experience, how similar negotiations were, or were not, played out in other contexts. Perhaps it is somehow tied up with issues of power and authority - not just who shouts the loudest, but who is permitted to make which calls.
Anyway, the last few days have seen me once again managing this interface, trying to hold together creatively pastoral and theological aspects, my experiences elsewhere, others' experiences here, matters of personality and persuasion in relation to something very specific and potentially very exciting... It is demanding and tiring work, and the outcome may well not reflect that in any great degree - but maybe that's the point, that the outcome seems somehow natural and normal, effortless and obvious.
I believe and trust that God has been moving the hearts and minds of all involved in this bit of interface wrangling, and that the proposed outcome is good.
I debated whether or not to post this, since among my readers are some of those involved, and undoubtedly others who will wonder what on earth I am talking about. It is all good stuff, nothing controversial or heretical (or no more heretical than usual anyway) and I think I have learned quite a lot through it. Posting has involved me trying to manage another interface - the public-private one, and risking getting that horribly wrong. In deciding to post, my aim is simply to demonstrate just something of the complex, and usually invisible aspects of pastoral ministry.
So, to Gatherers reading this - you'll have to wait and see, but there is nothing to fear and much to look forward to. And non-Gatherers, well, you'll just have to wait and see too!
For yesterday's service, as is my practice, I had 'customised' a baptismal towel by embroidering the word 'baptism', a cross and the date onto it. I also, as is my practice, took along my own baptismal towel, which a friend had embroidered for me (with an applique copy of the banner that hung behind the baptistery of that church) and another she had done for my ordination. Each of these has the dates embroidered too (even if the one on the ordination towel is out by a day... clearly I was pre-ordained by my lovely friend).
At the end of this year it will ten years since my ordination - as a 'late settler' I missed the summer rush and was ordained on 6th December 2003 - and in just a few weeks time I will reach the tenth anniversary of leaving 'vicar school'. This latter is always a bit bittersweet, the self-same day, we celebrated as a college the completion of our studies, and I received the news that I had failed to reach the required percentage vote to a church I was (and still am) convinced God had called me to serve.
A decade on (or thereabouts) I still meet up with a few folk from that church at the English Baptist Assembly, as there is something about the intertwining of our stories that still remains. Whilst at this year's Assembly I realised afresh how God works despite our sin and finitude, despite our stubbornness and deafness... I will always believe God wanted me to serve that church for a season, but I now realise that it was a church that would have struggled to cope with my cancer diagnosis, not because they were weak or uncaring, but because their previous minister had died of cancer.
I believe equally strongly that God called me to 'Dibley', a church that accepted this crazy city-girl and allowed me to cut my ministerial teeth. I went there knowing it was 'for a season' not for a lifetime, and with no idea quite why God wanted me in a semi-rural church. I had nearly six years in which we declined numerically and grew in community. A season in which we relinquished a much loved chapel and adapted to worship in a school hall. A season in which I learned to value this little, faithful community with its proud traditions, 'interesting' characters and unquenchable courage. I knew it was for a season, when the time came to leave I was ready, but Dibley is part of me, and I keep in contact with almost half the membership!
The call to Scotland was a surprise... but I knew from the moment I set foot in the Gathering Place that this was where God had called me, and where God continues to call me, to serve. It has proved to be the right place in countless ways, and God has worked in all that we have shared for nearly four years (already!) both joy and sorrow. Numerically we are stable, but that masks the inevitable transience of a city church, characterised by seasonal variation in who worships with us. As I start to wind down for my Sabbatical, I have begun to look back over these early years of our time together and see how we, too, have changed and grown as God's Spirit has worked within and among us.
A decade ago, give or take, I stood on the threshold of ordained ministry... the path was far from easy, and I could probably write a book on the ugh-ness of Settlement (two times over)... but I have no regrets. I have grown and changed so much myself in that time. I have been privileged to bless babies, conduct weddings, baptise believers, visit sick and dying people, and commend to God's safekeeping those whose lives here are over. I have been accepted and rejected, challenged and supported, disappointed and delighted.
I find it hard to believe that ten years has gone by, that I am now an 'established' minister. "Time flies by when I'm the driver of a train," so sang Lord Bellborough in Chigley. I would not compare what I do with train driving, but there is something about the journey metaphor that is maybe appropriate!