Honest Christianity – the questions we ask

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As a chaplain one of the things I end up doing a lot of is asking questions. Today I heard one of those apocryphal stories which got me thinking about that a lot. 2 Priests had the privilege of meeting the Pope and asking questions of how to develop their faith and ministry. As they were both keen smokers they thought they would ask his Holiness about it .

The first went in and asked “Your Holiness should I smoke when I pray”? He came out looking sad with the response. The second went in and came out shortly later with a big smile on his face. ‘”What have you got to smile about” asked the first. “Well” said the second priest “I asked his Holiness if I should pray when I smoked?!”

As we think about advent and our season of waiting, perhaps we can think about reframing our Christmas expectations. What way should we ask our questions this year? Not just to get the answers we want but to be genuinely open to what it was God wants to say.

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Honest Christianity – sometimes we start in the middle

Here we see the spectacular cosmic pairing of the star Hen 2-427 — more commonly known as WR 124 — and the nebula M1-67 which surrounds it. Both objects, captured here by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope are found in the constellation of Sagittarius and lie 15 000 light-years away. The star Hen 2-427 shines brightly at the very centre of this explosive image and around the hot clumps of gas are ejected into space at over 150 000 kilometres per hour. Hen 2-427 is a Wolf–Rayet star, named after the astronomers Charles Wolf and Georges Rayet. Wolf–Rayet are super-hot stars characterised by a fierce ejection of mass. The nebula M1-67 is estimated to be no more than 10 000 years old — just a baby in astronomical terms — but what a beautiful and magnificent sight it makes. A version of this image was released in 1998, but has now been re-reduced with the latest software.

Inspired by the Big Bang Theory and facilitated by Sky Movies, I have started to watch Star Wars from episode 1. Although I have previously seen them all in the order they were produced, I had not anticipated how difficult it would be to start at the beginning of the story. You start, at least you do if you are my age –  by knowing another beginning – episode 4.  So as you watch episde one you know how the characters develop, what they become. The future is set. You think “how can that sweet child become who he does?”

As I theologically reflect I think is this how some of us see our own lives? We know how and where we are now, we know our pasts and can sometimes think the future is set.

Living as a chef in London at 22 working in one of the top hotels in the country, I knew my past and in comparison to what could have been, this was something of an achievement. But I was restless and not sure if this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life but was heId back by past episodes in my life and thought the future was mapped for a struggle of carrying unwanted baggage.  My twenty two year old self would never imagined I would become an ordained Anglican priest working as a children’s hospital chaplain – I avoided going the way of Anakin!

Within in our faith story we also know our beginnings, middle and end. These are the episodes we know out of order, what Jesus was, accomplished and promises for our ultimate future. This is where our security is, not a restrictive pre-written script, but a storyline we can live by for a life in all its fullness.

Picture fromhttp://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/imagegallery/iotd.html

Honest Christianity – stories of praise

Mawley

Later this evening (Sunday 5th July), I am speaking at a local Songs of Praise style service. It is at Mawley Town Farm, in Cleobury Mortimer (check them out on facebook), neighbours of where we first lived when we moved up to the midlands 30 years ago.

The Robinson family who own the farm are the parents and grandparents of one of our patients at Birmingham Children’s Hospital. Since then I have been invited to share in the service. Tonight I have permission to tell the story of 4 of our patients. If you watched any of our BBC2 series last year Children’s Hospital The Chaplains you will have met a couple of them – Wilf who had the day out to the seaside and Khalisia who is waiting for a new heart.

Although not all these stories have a happy ending, they are all full of inspiration in the way they and their families courageously dealt with their conditions. This is the testimony of full humanity, this is why they want their stories told, this is how we seek to live, choosing to make the most of life even in the midst of the most difficult circumstances.

I can only hope I live my life in a way which is a story worth retelling.

Wondering Wednesdays – stories that change us

woods

This is our 200th post on the blog and we wondered what to write about as it seemed a significant marker post for us.  We decided to share one of the stories we use and which had an impact on the way we think about ministry.  We don’t know who wrote it originally – googling it suggests it may be someone called Francis Dorff but it is online in lots of different formats.  It is a story that sheds light on one of our favourite Bible passages – John 13.34-5: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples”.  This was said of one of the very early teams we looked after in YFC and it stuck with us.  Imagine what the church might look like if we treated each other as if we were the Messiah…

This is the story:

There was a famous monastery that had fallen on hard times. Formerly its many buildings were filled up with young monks and its big church was surrounded with the sound of chants and singing, but now it was deserted. People no longer came there to be nourished by prayer, worship or community. Only a hand full of old monks shuffled through the cloisters and they praised God with heavy hearts.

Near the monastery was a wood and in the wood to lived an old Rabbi who had built a small hut. He would come sometimes to the monastery to fast and pray. No one ever spoken to him but the monks were always pleased to see him. As long as he was there the monks would feel helped and encouraged by his prayerful presence.

One day the Abbot of the monastery decided to visit the Rabbi and to open his heart to him. So, soon after morning prayer the Abbot set out towards the woods and the Rabbi’s hut. As the hut came into view the Abbot saw the Rabbi standing in these in the doorway out stretching his arms in welcome. The Abbot thought it was as though he had been waiting there for him. The two men embraced each other like long lost brothers and then stood back smiling at each other.

The Rabbi invited the Abbot to into his hut. The Rabbi said “you and your brothers are serving God with heavy hearts and you have come to me for wisdom and advice. I will give you the teaching you require on one condition. That when I tell you what it is I have to say you must promise me to only repeat it once. After that no one must say it aloud again.”

The Abbot agreed and the Rabbi looked straight back to him and said “the Messiah is among you.” For a while both men were silent, neither knowing what to say. The Rabbi eventually said “it is now time for you to go back,” the Abbot left pondering the words he had heard.

The next morning, the Abbot called his monks together in the main room. He told them he had been to visit the Rabbi in the woods to receive wisdom from him on their situation. He explained to the other monks the condition the Rabbi had put on the teaching. The Abbot paused with all the eyes of the other monks on him wondering what he might say. Eventually the Abbot said this “the Rabbi says that the Messiah is among us.” The monks were startled by this teaching, “What could it mean they asked each other?” “Who could it be they asked, could it be a brother John or Matthew or Thomas? Could I be that I am the Messiah?” They were all deeply puzzled by the Rabbi’s teaching. But no one ever mentioned it again.

As time went by, the monks began to treat one another with a very special reverence. There was a gentle, wholehearted, and generous human spirit among them now which was very hard to describe but very easy to notice. They lived with one another as people who had finally found something. But they prayed and lived and read the scriptures together as though they were looking for something. Occasionally visitors found themselves deeply moved by the life of these monks. Before long, people were coming from far and wide to be nourished by the prayer life and community of the monks and people were asking to become a part of their life together in the community.

Wondering Wednesdays: learning through stories

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Today is day 1 of our human development module.   It is a day for storytelling as we explore how we have been shaped by our experiences, how our faith has been shaped by our understanding of God’s story.  We remember, we laugh, we may even cry a little bit.  We talk about what stories we most remember from our childhood and how we may have been influenced by them.  I blogged previously about Jo March, hers was one of the stories that shaped my understanding of what it was to be a woman.  More recently I have been inspired by watching the film Brave and hope that is a story which will shape both young boys and girls, I can’t remember anything quite so empowering from my childhood!  I was never really someone who wanted to be rescued and was more of a tomboy than a princess despite being called Sally!

Stories also help us to reflect with other people and can give a safer way to explore some difficult options.  This is one of the stories I sometimes use:

So Bipley sat by the grey lake in Wibble Wood and thought and thought.  “If I keep the tough stuff around my heart, I need never feel hurt again.  But then having the tough stuff around my heart means that I can’t feel any of the beautiful things in the world.”  Bipley was very, very stuck.  It felt like he was sitting next to the biggest problem of his life (p13).

The story works in several ways and while it is for children it can sometimes produce some fascinating insights with adults:

It presents options about what to do when you face a huge obstacle in your life.

It presents new possibilities, creative solutions for tackling and overcoming seemingly insurmountable problems.

It shows ways of dealing more effectively and far less painfully with very common emotional problems.

It provides options for new ways of being.

These new ways forward may not be acted on in the child’s life right as that moment, but can act as a seed planted in his mind, taken in as a resource, and lived and used fully in later life (p12).

From Sunderland, M.  Using Story Telling as a Therapeutic Tool with Children.  Bicester:  Speechmark, p12-13.

What are the stories, or books, or films or songs which have shaped you or been therapeutic at particular points in your life?

 

Constructing stories

I am trying to join some dots between different strands of thinking and reading I have been doing this year.  One of the joys of live tweeting from events is that you get drawn into a variety of subplots as you start interacting with other tweeters.  I got to read Donald Miller’s  A Million Miles in a Thousand Years as a result of this. The subtitle of the book is How I learned to live a better story.  I started reading it as I was exploring a part of my story.  I revisited Sussex University where I was an undergraduate as part of a trip to Brighton.  I sat in the Student Union bar which had barely changed, drinking the same beer as back in the day, writing reflections remembering who Sally was back then and who she is now.  Overall I am happy with the story I am living.  There are sadnesses and life is not without complications at times, but ultimately choosing to follow Jesus as enabled me to live a better story.  However, in middle age I am also aware that choices I make now may have profound implications on what my story may look like in later years.

Donald Miller

Alongside this I am writing a piece of autoethnography (or autobiography) for my thesis on shame in the church.  I need to explain why I am drawn to research shame and why it is important for me to explore how to minister in non-shaming ways.  I wrote this piece before I began to read the stories of people who had responded to my anonymous questionnaires.  I needed to explore my own vulnerabilities if I were to ask others to share theirs.  I became very aware that my story had been shaped by some significant incidents and that my values had often been formed by childhood experiences but until I consciously started reflecting I wasn’t fully aware of what, how and why.

I then started reading an article by a friend  on narratives and reflection and began to consider her contention that

What we have instead of truth, [in the context of reflection] therefore is plot, and plot is available for retelling.  We can modify, develop and re-narrate the plot of a story.  Looking back at stories of the past can offer us ways to re-interpret them, and so invite alternative ways of going on in relation.  Stories of the past are important contextual narratives in making current actions justifiable. 

This resonates for me with Miller’s telling a better story and I am aware of a desire to narrate stories in ways which are life-giving and which enable others to live life-giving stories.

Cheese Pizza

The adorable nephew (aged 10) stayed with us this week. As he said to me pizza and pancakes is now a tradition, it is part of the story of a sleepover with Auntie Sally and Uncle Paul.  We have a jointly constructed story which can get retold according to audience and intention and the story varies depending on whose voice is being prioritised.  I may talk in terms of autonomy and choice, he may be thinking soft Auntie Sally for letting me have cake for breakfast (one of my childhood loves).   I am still not clear how all these insights and thoughts will impact my ministry but I am more conscious of the importance of understanding how what I say may be heard and how  important it is for me to understand the stories I live and work within.

References (the academic in me makes me do this):

Miller, D. (2009)  A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.  Nashville:  Nelson.

Ramsey, C. M. (2005) Narrative: from learning in reflection to learning in performance, Management Learning, vol 36(2): 219-236.