Advent where I am….

Advent where I am

is less full of expectation,

and more filled with questions….

Should we gather? Is it safe?

Can we sing? Should we….

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Advent where I am has struggled

through to this final week,

lighting candles in the darkness,

a prayer and a protest,

an emergency has been declared in London,

lockdowns in Holland,

countries are closing their borders,

PCR tests are being taken,

Covid jostles the Christ-child for attention…

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Advent where I am is muted,

the strictly final with its glitter and glamour

provided a bit of light relief,

but where there was joy in the night,

there is weeping in the morning,

cases are rising,

uncertainty prevails…

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But, today advent calls us to ponder

the virgins response,

let it be, she cries as for I have been regarded,

the lowly will be raised,

and I have been blessed.

So maybe Covid comes, a strange prophet,

calling us from our feasting,

opening our eyes to the struggle of others,

pointing again to the manger,

and the cross,

where love gave all

for all…

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Conversation with myself

It’s a lovely day, I should go out for a walk…

You’ll have to get dressed then, but good idea..

Yes, that would be a good idea, but maybe I should check my emails first….

It’s your day off

I’ll just check my emails, ah, nobody has replied to me….. I wonder why not, have I upset everyone again?

Just go out for a walk, look the sun is shining, it will do you good

I ought to vacuum…

You just said you should go out for a walk….

Maybe I’ll just go back to bed…

So no vacuuming, and no walking, I am guessing no reading, no art, nothing that you enjoy…

I’ll just check my emails again

STEP AWAY FROM THE COMPUTER, GET DRESSED, GET YOUR CAMERA AND GO OUT..

Okay, okay…

“God, grant me the Serenity,

To accept the things I cannot change.

Courage to change the things I can,

And Wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time,

Enjoying one moment at a time,

Accepting hardship as the pathway to peace.

Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is,

Not as I would have it.

Trusting that He will make all things right

if I surrender to His will.

That I may be reasonably happy in this life,

And supremely happy with Him forever in the next.

Amen.” 

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Dear Christmas

Christmas is approaching,

what are your plans…?

How many times have you answered this question

in this season of outlandish expectations…?

We choose the menu, trim the tree,

wrap the gifts, preparations are underway.

But this year,

I need a different conversation so;

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Dear Christmas, would you mind

if I did things differently this time?

Would you mind if I chose a quieter

more contemplative season,

if I had beans on toast for lunch?

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Can I ask that the miracle, God with us

settles gently in my heart,

and sooths my soul

with a deeper understanding,

bringing healing

to the fragmented places?

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Would you mind me

simply lighting a candle in the dark,

and letting a softer light

rekindle a flame deep within…?

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For I am a bruised reed,

a smouldering wick,

needing to do December differently…

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Dear Christmas, I hope

that you understand…

Spark- chalk pastel on paper with gold glass paint; mine
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Dear Anxiety…

Dear Anxiety,

I’d like to say some nice things to you, even to say that you are welcome, but the fact is that you are not! You are not welcome, and frankly this is not a good time for you to come visiting, actually there is no good time, just so we are clear, you are an unwanted and unwelcome guest in many ways, but here you are, so I thought I’d take the time to have a chat with you, and wonder what it is that you have to teach me today.

I know it is you, because I feel off balance, my heart is in my mouth and breathing is difficult, I’d like to crawl back into bed and pull the covers over my head, but I suspect I wouldn’t sleep, so let’s talk instead. I know why you are here, things have been pretty stressful recently in all sorts of ways, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that you have turned up!

So, tell me, how are we going to live through this together, because we both know that there are more stressful days ahead, and the going will be tough for a while?

I’d love to hear your suggestions.

With thanks

Sally

Waiting- photo mine

Dear Sally,

First of all, thank you for noticing me and naming me, thank you too for taking the time to talk with me, many people don’t and try carrying on as usual, sometimes I have to shout really loudly to get people to notice me. I suspect you feel that I am shouting loudly now, I’m sorry about that.

You’re right of course, my visit was inevitable, the last few months have been very stressful, and there is more to come as you’ve said. I would like to make a few suggestions for you:

  1. Don’t be too hard on yourself, my visit isn’t a sign of weakness, and that fact that you have taken notice could even be a sign of strength.
  2. Instead of going back to bed, may I suggest that you get outside for a walk, it might even help you to sleep.
  3. Try to eat well, regularly and sensibly, I know that bag of crisps looks like a good idea, but how about soup for lunch?
  4. Have a shower, wash you hair, moisturise, it will help you to feel better.
  5. Do something you enjoy, read, draw, take some photos..
  6. This might feel daunting, but dare to tell others how you are feeling, you may find many understand!

These are just a few suggestions, there may be other things that will also help, but don’t treat them like a to do list and beat yourself up if you can’t achieve them every day, remember be gentle with yourself, it’s what you’d tell others to do.

Finally pray, even if your prayer is wordless, so often your sermons remind people that they are loved, that they are precious and honoured by God, so often you state that none are excluded, if you have no words, then meditate on these, for they are so often yours:

YOU ARE LOVED, YOU ARE PRECIOUS, YOU ARE HONOURDE, AND THERE IS NOTHING THAT CAN SEPERATE YOU FROM THE DEEP LOVE OF THE DIVINE, YOUR CREATOR WHO KNOWS YOU THROUGH AND THROUGH.

I will finish my letter now, I am not sure how long I will be staying, I am a rude visitor in that way, but if you dare to learn from me, and when you dare to acknowledge me, you may find that I am not so much uncomfortable, but a call to you to rest!

Could it be, that in a strange way we are actually friends?

Anxiety

Candle- image mine

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out ? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” Matthew 11: 28-30

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Return to wonder.. a psalm of longing

I want to return to wonder

beyond the cynicism that envelopes me,

every year at this time….

the pressure,

the commercialism,

the expectations

they are all back,

adverts abound filled with the things we (don’t) need.

Once again perfection and presentation are demanded….

but…

I want to return to wonder

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I want to return to wonder,

to move beyond the cynicism that envelopes me,

I want to find solace

in the story of ultimate vulnerability,

God become flesh, and not just flesh,

vulnerable flesh,

dependant flesh…

new life given,

eternity encased in flesh…

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I want to return to wonder,

to breathe in and believe in the miracle afresh,

a light shines in the darkness,

and the darkness will not,

cannot overcome it…..

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I want to return to wonder,

for right now I find myself in the dark,

I need that gentle, vulnerable light

to be kindled in my heart again…

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I want to return to wonder….

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The power of words- pondering thank you…

Some of my blog readers will know that I am a great fan of the Enneagram, it helps me to understand myself, and leads to some understanding of others too. Having done much study, I would recommend study over taking tests, I have come to the conclusion that I am definitely a type 9, I have wondered if that might not be so, and looked at other types, al of which lead me back to knowing that I am a type 9, as type 9’s can be a bit like a chameleon!

So, why am I telling you this today? Well because we type 9’s often have difficulty accessing our feelings, particularly our anger, and will do all that we can to smooth things over, to be positive and we are actually quite good at seeing another viewpoint, the problem comes in making sure that we don’t assimilate it as our own! If we do, assimilate another’s viewpoint we may often simply go along with that, but sometimes we come to ourselves, really wake up, and then speak up! If we speak up from a healthy place all well and good, if not it can be a bit overpowering.

Recently I have spoken up, and had the sense to ask some wise friends for their thoughts before doing so! Today I am gathering my creativity to use poetry to express how I am at the moment in order to share a response. This then is my conversation with the institution. Please don’t read it as a conversation with the divine, my trust in God is quite simply that at the moment she is carrying me gently, and taking time to wipe away my tears!

Thank you- a conversation with the institution

We said thank you, as we brushed you aside,

criticisms piled high, and you know it is not personal…

We did say thank you…

We hope you heard that….

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Thank you… well actually you said, we give thanks,

but yes, it’s the same thing,

Please hear from me though, how hollow those words sound

when presented against a bleak, and damming background…

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But, we did say thank you,

and, we do value you….

So, how will you use your gifts

to serve us now?

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(I sigh)

Are you really asking me that?

Now at this moment?

Right now I bear too many wounds,

wounds from your words…

so, thank you, for thanking me,

right now I need some time to heal…

I claim a Holy Saturday.

Pieta by El-Greco

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Preparing a way- pondering advent 2

I am preparing my advent 2 service for Sunday, and am struck by the themes of preparation in the readings, these are not the preparations of gift lists, of planning menus, of decorating, and then as often in my case redecorating the tree. There are no trimmings in our readings, and certainly no carol sheets, candles and window decorations.

I set up my nativity set this morning, posted a photo on Facebook , beginning my often used Christmas myth buster that there is no donkey mentioned in the gospel narratives, nor as a friend added is there any mention of a stable, and while there are plenty of angels around they appear beginning their messages with the phrase do not be afraid, so they certainly aren’t tinsel bedecked and sweet!

This weeks readings are about preparing a way, making smooth paths, clearing boulders, levelling mountains and filling valleys so that a rough way might be made passable. They are also about preparation of hearts and minds of the people who will walk these paths, words like repentance and refining, purifying and cleansing rub shoulders, with the potential for making us shudder. Do I need to repent, do I need refining, do I need cleansing and purifying? The answer to all of those is probably a resounding yes! Yes I do, and of course advent gives me a chance to step into a space where I can look to my soul, but first of course I will need to make space in amongst the lists and activities that can so easily clog December in order to do so.

I reflect too that the readings speak not only to individuals but also to communities:

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years. Malachi 3: 2-4

And not only to the elite, it seems that God chooses to work on the margins, or from the margins:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah… Luke 3: 1-3

So what do these readings say to the church today, and how do these readings inform and help us to share the gospel message? Maybe they offer us real reflection space, to consider our direction of travel honestly and soberly, as the world plunges in and out of the global pandemic many of us are left asking questions regarding lifestyle and former ways of being, the highlighting of the global disparity in vaccine availability has been a real challenge to justice and fairness. We have also been looking to issues of climate change and sustainability, the Black Lives Matter movement highlighting issues of racism, and the Methodist Churches vote on the God In Love Unites Us resolutions have caused us to think about the fullness of human flourishing in regard to sexuality and inclusion. Inclusion may well be the key word here!

To include the excluded we need to create a clear way for vaccines to be offered to all! To include the excluded we need to consider how consumption fuelled by consumerism is accelerating global warming, did you know that one of the most polluted places on the planet is the middle of the English Channel, the cause? Container ships! Check it out if you think that may be untrue!

To include the excluded means to value all life as equal, regardless of gender, colour, sexuality and ability, all should be given space and a place to thrive, to live safely, and not to be wondering where the next meal may be coming from, or whether your home will be under water next year!

John the Baptist called people to repentance and to the cleansing ritual of Baptism, which while symbolic was an outward sign of an inner decision to change, to live differently, thus becoming different. I have been in so many meetings where we have talked about getting back to normal, and fewer meetings where we have pondered what the new normal might be, even fewer are looking to real change, refusing to settle or to look to settle somewhere a little further along the road, but articulate a call to be roadbuilders, and way makers, moving the boulders, dealing with the specks in our eyes that we might see clearly. This is hard work, but a work that we must do individually and together…

I wonder what we might start with today? Do you hear the call in the wilderness?

‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
   and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
   and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
  Luke 3: 4-6

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On certainty and being in control…

Following my blog post yesterday a friend sent me a lovely message, it said this:

Sally, reading your eternal footsteps post, I get the picture of you emerging from a chrysalis as a butterfly!!!!
You have retired from life as a caterpillar and are undergoing a complete reshuffle within the cloistered wall of a cocoon. Bet the caterpillar feels disoriented and asking what’s going on! God will use all the bits that make up you and put you all back together in a different shape and far more splendid to enjoy the freedom of his garden! Excuse my fancifulness but the picture was so bright I just had to share it
!

I can certainly identify with the soupiness of being recreated, the messy process of transformation from caterpillar to butterfly can be seen via time-lapse in many YouTube videos like this one, and is a well documented and often used illustration. It is a slow process in many ways, and the caterpillar is completely unmade, or undone before becoming something new, and yet it remains the same while being completely different. As I pause to reflect over the last three years, years that have brought so much change to my life I know that I have been undone in many ways, and have even participated in my undoing! It wasn’t long ago that I wrote a blog-post on Coming out at 57, in support of Philip Schofield, but also telling a part of my story, revealing a part of what had been hidden before is to make yourself vulnerable, even if it sets you free in many ways!

Along with the Covid-19 pandemic the years from late 2019- to the current day have brought many other changes, celebrations of family weddings and new-born babies have sat alongside lockdowns and isolation, I struggled with being alone so much, not helped at all by two bouts of an illness that put me in hospital as well as other lesser infections. Hopefully with a new diet the infections are now under control as I still wait for an operation, and in the meantime I can get back to doing some work, today’s meeting certainly indicated that.

Most of all though I am left with the knowledge that I hate being out of control of my own life and that these last two years particularly have brought with them quite a lot of that, my own body rebelled against me, and my usual stress relief of walking in the hills was at times restricted by lockdown and by my own health. My working life has changed in my absence, and that is a tough thing to deal with, even though I can laugh at myself because if I had made the decision I would have been happy with it. That teaches me something about me!

Earlier this year I reflected upon the Methodist Covenant prayer, which contains the words, “let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you”, pondering my struggle with being laid aside, even temporarily. I wonder to myself if I want to be busy and to be seen, I want to show up and do stuff, and I have to ask myself if there is actually any humility in that, perhaps that question needs to play a large part in my recreation, perhaps it too will set me free! Maybe life has just held up a mirror for me to look into, and asked me “what’s so great about being in control anyway?”, especially when you go around talking about being centred in Christ, and giving your life to the divine…. you just can’t have both!

For someone who wants to be a free spirit I am aware that I want to be in charge of my own decisions, but I am also becoming more aware that I must give myself to the soupy- messiness of this time and allow it to do its work. I come back to the raw grief of Holy Saturday as a helpful focus, and also to the newly pregnant Mary, remembering my favourite quote from Barbara Brown Taylor from her book Learning to Walk in the Dark; “…..new life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.” Darkness brings with it mystery, uncertainty and a sense of unknowing, or being out of control, uncertain. It also brings many gifts, rest and restoration, a place and space for questioning, as Taylor-Bradford says: “I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.”

Maybe I can say that I have needed this period of uncertainty with it’s reminder that there is a divine presence, a holy creator holding all things, even me, one who in Jesus showed us what it was to be somehow utterly dependent and utterly independent at the same time, standing up for what was right, showing a new way to live, challenging the “powers that be” yet completely reliant upon God, the one who understands our struggles and meets us in the midst of them time and again. Today another Psalm speaks to me, Psalm 139:

Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;

    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
    if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
    your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
    and the light become night around me,”
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
    the night will shine like the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

Darkness may surround me, uncertainty and lack of control might be where I am at the moment, but I am not alone. My friend on the mother hand is more certain than me, I mused about what colour the newly emerged butterfly might be, her response made me smile; All the colours of the rainbow I’ve no doubt!

Bring it on!

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Disorientation….

Sunday morning, and once again I am wondering what to do with myself, I have listened to the service on Radio 4, a Harvest Service, listened to the news, prayed, read the daily devotions from my Northumbria Community Daily Prayer book…. I could go to worship, but am not sure where to go for various and complex reasons. I find myself in a state of disorientation.

As I write this I am reflecting that the last time I led face to face, in person worship was March 2020, the combination of the pandemic, and my own illness have meant that I have had a prolonged absence from any form of meetings, work related or otherwise. I have seen my family from time to time, but usual visits to friends in Norfolk and other outings have all been put on hold as I have waited for an operation, and operation that has been cancelled 3 times, and I now join the waiting group of approximately 5 million people! My life and health have undergone huge changes, and am disorientated.

In the last few weeks I have moved house, setting up a new manse, a place to live and to work from, but I am not yet working. Tomorrow I speak to a doctor for an Occupational Health Interview, and will be assessing with him what a phased return to work might look like for me over the next few weeks and months, but I will not be returning to what I left, and that is disorientating!

I have to reflect that I don’t do disorientation well, I have spun in all directions, been cross with life, with other people and with myself, sometimes all of those things at once, this might be because of prolonged periods with only myself for company, and I am my own worst critic, I also tend to invent scenarios in my head. I have struggled with depression, which has meant that getting out to walk, which usually helps, has been an immense struggle, even forcing myself into the garden has been hard. The world inside my head has been, and continues to be disorientating.

Sunday morning, and pondering the news and the theme of harvest, shortages of petrol high energy prices and empty supermarket shelves seem to be a theme, alongside that climate change and the need for action is high on the agenda as it should be. It feels like the world, or certainly the UK, is a strange place particularly with the Governments peculiar agenda seeming once again to be to save Christmas, placating the masses as if that is all that is needed! I suspect I am not alone in feeling disorientated.

In short, I am a bit lost, and am asking myself who I am and what shape my life needs to be… A bit of me wants to rush in and gather up as much normality as I can, while another wiser part is content to allow new and potentially creative things to emerge, which means allowing the disorientation to go on for a bit longer, something I am not comfortable with.

Of course the Scriptures are littered with people going through times of disorientation, through exodus and exile, loss, famine and radical reinventing of lives, on a personal and even national and institutional level. Psalms of lament offer radical expressions of loss and anguish as the psalmists pour out their hearts to God in an attempt to re-orientate themselves often only landing on the deep connection they find at rock bottom, God is good!

While praying yesterday I kept coming back to the words “I know the plans I have for you”, with a deep sense that striving and pushing and trying to scrabble my way to a semblance of normality is not going to be helpful at this time. I am disorientated, and right now there is nothing I can do but accept that, that is how life is right now. There will be a way forward, I just can’t see it, all will be well, I just can’t feel it. My struggle for certainty and a firm place to stand isn’t helping me when the place I am looking for has gone. So I will say with the psalmist;

Wait….. for God, Wait with hope.. Hope now, hope always (Ps 131- The Message.

Autumnal path- image mine
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New beginnings?

Well here we are, the 1st September is upon us, and in Methodism that means a new church year. I start it in the strangeness of being “laid aside” ( read our Covenant prayer for context), and while I am working towards a phased return to work I am not there yet, and have a meeting with occupational health to discuss what a return to work after a prolonged illness looks like.

This has been a very strange and disorienting time within what is a strange and disorienting time, I find myself in the rather peculiar position of moving from knowing nothing, to knowing bits and pieces, which I must confess feels more anxiety inducing than knowing nothing. Right now I have nothing to say and nothing to share. In some senses it feels like Holy Saturday, that strange and empty day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday where there is nothing to be done, so I wait.

I wait, and I don’t wait alone, I wait with my doubts and my fears and my questions, and there is nothing to distract me from them, they wake me up in the night and they whisper over and over during the day reminding me of my faults and flaws and introducing wild scenarios of strange and probably unlikely situations, but they are vivid in my minds eye. This is a lonely place, lonely because my friends and family mostly live elsewhere, and the strangeness of these strange times has meant much less contact than usual.

I ask myself if I am wrong to share this, I have been told before now that I should only share good news, and at one point was told that “nobody wants a depressed minister”, and yet I also know that I am not the only one who has ever been in this position, and that the constant clamour for good news and positive messages can be wearing in itself when you are in a dark or shadowed space.

I find myself in a shadowed space, I am not depressed, but I am uncertain, I am uncertain about both my short-term and my long-term future, so I am having to learn to live in the moment and from moment to moment, in this moment I choose to share my story. It is not a story of doom and gloom, but rather a story of possibility, but a possibility that in this moment I can neither wonder about or work towards yet. Yet, is the key word here, for I will return to work, and I do have a future, but now is not a time for decision making, especially when it may come at the behest of the voices in my head and the strange scenarios conjured up by my imagination.

So, despite my dis-ease I am choosing to receive this time as a gift, a gift of waiting, not even of anticipating. I have lamented, I have berated myself, I have faced regrets over decisions and broken relationships, in the midst of all of this I have tried to remind myself of the good stuff, but I am much better at wallowing if I am honest, and I cry with the psalmist “how long oh Lord”.

On this day of new beginning I pray for those like me who are stuck, who have nowhere to go and nothing to do. I say this as I prepare to move across the city so I appreciate the irony of my words, but I will not be moving with the energy that new starts often bring and demand. So I will wait, I will watch and wait. And I hold to the promises that rise in my heart;

Be still and know that I am God.

I know the plans I have for you.

Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

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