Have you ever been frustrated by a disruption to your day? Your plans fail not because of your actions, but because of something completely outside of your control. Many of us would see this as a negative thing, I’m sure, but what about positive disruption? My ministerial training was centred around a benedictine pattern of prayer; in practice this often meant that just when I was getting somewhere with my latest essay, I needed to stop to go and pray.
This took some getting used to and, initially at least, I failed to see the positives of this pattern of prayer. Slowly though I began to see that, when I did return to my work, I had a fresh perspective. I had benefitted from taking time away, and was developing a greater anticipation for prayer, thus what I had first seen as an unwelcome disruption had become a welcome one.
I began this week with a Lectio Poetica Quiet Day at Launde Abbey. Whilst I was looking forward to this, I was concerned about how little space there was for ‘work’ in my diary. During the Quiet Day we were invited to ‘walk out’ a poem, or recite it whilst walking to find it’s rhythm and the disruptions within that rhythm. I focused on the following poem, and found myself disrupted by it!
Philosophers have measured mountains,
Fathom’d the depths of seas, of states, and kings
Walk’d with a staff to heaven, and traced fountains
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove:
Yet few there are that sound them; Sin and Love.
Who would know Sin? Let him repair
Unto Mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man, so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
His skin, his garments, bloody be.
Sin is that Press and Vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruel food through every vein.
Who knows not love, let him assay,
And taste that juice, which on the cross a pike
Did set again abroach; then let him say
If ever he did taste the like.
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood; but I as wine.
Part of the disruption was that I had got completely engrossed in the poem that I forgot to pay attention to where I was walking and found myself lost in the middle of a forest, with no idea of how to get out and no phone reception to find out which direction I should be headed in!
There was much more to this disruption however; as the last two lines heavily imprinted on my heart I became aware of all of the ideas I had wanted to bring to my churches, and watched them slowly float away!
Fundamentally I saw that ministry is about two things, Sin (or Good News) and Love, and I was in danger of making it about so much more! The disruption here was incredibly liberating!
The next day I had my first curates training day – another reason to be concerned about the ‘work’ that I could not do. I laughed therefore when the person introducing the day said that the intention was to disrupt the routines that we were inevitably already building! What if it were not only routines that were disrupted, but also attitudes, stereotypes and preconceptions? My weekly poem, The Dolls House Day, explores this notion in a little more depth.
I love my diary, and organising my time in order to not miss anything and ensure that I have enough time put aside for all that I need to do – but I wonder whether it is possible to be too organised? Am I still leaving time for God to guide, for opportunistic encounters, and to just be present in parish?
Equally no matter how organised I am, mistakes still happen, and things are still miscommunicated at times causing some sort of disruption. This happened before my training day with an interment of ashes service which had not been booked in. It did all still happen though, and all was well.
A regular form of disruption are road works, preventing people from getting where they need to be in the time that they need to get there. Whilst at times such delays could be avoided, is there something important about being made to slow down from the fast pace of our world? Might we see something that would otherwise pass us by?
One final disruption this week has affected gardening plans – I cannot control the rain! I have become aware of a refreshing, pleasing feeling which comes after the rain. Perhaps it doesn’t matter so much if the grass doesn’t get cut for another few days, and I can use the extra space to be attentive to the beauty and refreshment around me!
This has been a week of discomfort in various ways for me and others in parish at times. Last Saturday our churches clubbed together with the local social club to put on a Community Fun Day. It was really well attended, and in many ways a success, but it really took a number of people out of their comfort zones as it was held at the social club – a place most parishioners had never entered before – rather than at church. It is so important though for us as Christians to go out into the world and look for what God is already doing, and find out how we can join in! There was face-painting, a bouncy castle and other activities for children: children really help to build bridges between people who may struggle to see what they have in common and feel uncomfortable with one another!
In the evening we had music from a local Blues Band, and whilst it was not something that the regulars were used to, it was wonderful to see how music began to bring people together in appreciation and conversation – truly amazing! It even took the regulars out of their comfort zone as they listened to “Singing Vicars!”
Bank Holiday was an opportunity for a day out with my camera to Belvoir Castle. It was a lovely day and there were a number of great photography opportunities, but as I tried to get a photo of a butterfly I was struck by my own discomfort as I held my breath to get as close as possible so as not to scare the butterfly, but also their discomfort as something huge got closer and closer…I haven’t really thought before how wildlife being photographed might make sense of the experience!
Despite the joys of a bonus Bank Holiday, my days have been busy and it has been past 3 o’clock on more than one occasion before I realised I had not eaten lunch or had anything to drink since the morning. Failing to take care of our basic needs can bring its own sense of discomfort.
It was my birthday this week, which was lovely, but which is also something I prefer to spend fairly quietly as I do not like the attention it can bring. All the same sharing a birthday cake is something I love!
Real discomfort came on the evening of my birthday when I tried out a birthday gift – a coffee grinder! I was so excited by it that I even read the instructions so as not to get anything wrong. True to form though, I missed the crucial instruction which said not to overfill the coffee grinder and tipped a whole packet of beans in. This meant that some of the beans got jammed by the weight and the grinder was unable to turn…it then overheated. The discomfort which comes when you have potentially ruined a gift given to you is indescribable! Fortunately when it had cooled down the next day and I followed all of the instructions, all was well.
Towards the end of the week I went to visit someone I had met in parish whilst walking. As I knocked on their door I had no idea what to expect, and was a little nervous. I remain even more uncomfortable about not managing to see this person as there was no answer….
Perhaps the greatest feeling of discomfort came at Leicester Pride where clergy and members of some of the churches in the diocese gathered together to be a Christian presence at Pride. These two aspects of my identity do not always sit well in either Christian communities or LGBT communities. The discomfort of ‘coming out’ as the other in either setting is something I have been thinking about as I wrote The Wardrobe. It was a real privilege to offer reassurances to people who had been so hurt by people of faith because of who they were, how they had been made and created and who they fell in love with. There is still much work to be done in this vein as ILGA details much better than I could. Even so, stepping out and making yourself uncomfortable every now and again to meet the other can be such a valuable step towards each of us better understanding our fellow human beings – all of whom are created in the perfect and beautiful image of God.
I have been on annual leave this week and spending a very relaxing week in Sorrento, seeing the sights and sampling the delights of the surrounding areas – I never believed it would be possible to be sustained on a diet of pizza and gelato, but it seemed important to try it out!
I don’t speak Italian at all, and have never been to Italy before. As soon as we arrived I felt out of my comfort zone with languages being spoken around me that I did not understand, people ushering me through before I really knew what was expected of me. I learned grazie very quickly, but that was as far as it went. I noticed that I became incredibly shy, not really feeling confident to ask for things and tentative to step out from pavements. I was more aware of things going on around me, and soon realised that I was no longer on auto pilot – I was displaced, or dislocated, and acting accordingly.
This can be a positive experience, but it can also be negative depending on the circumstances. For me on holiday it was of course positive, and I enjoyed being more aware of all that was happening around me, but this heightened attentiveness can be extremely tiring. I was drawn to thinking about those who may need to live in this state for some time due to circumstances beyond their control such as refugees and asylum seekers. Current UN figures suggest that 28,300 people a day are forced to flee their homes because of conflict and persecution – a fact which I find completely mind-blowing and which has been a huge focus of prayer for me this week.
I wanted to understand more about these new surroundings and find out what situations have helped to shape this society – perhaps that is a normal tourist thing to do, and the tourism industry makes it very easy for you to find out about popular or well known places and events.
Pompeii was an obvious place to begin, and was a stark reminder of unforeseen circumstances which can lead to unthinkable loss.
This was a cast of someone found during excavation centuries after Vesuvius erupted and yet the fear within seems to have somehow been preserved…
It can also be fascinating to look round and see who you are exploring the past with – and what findings might mean for each of us. I became more aware of individual uniqueness, shaped by society and culture, but also standing separate from it at times.
Herculaneum was the next trip. Whilst a much smaller excavation site, this was evidence of a richer people also devastated without warning.
Following this, we went to Naples for the day – that was a completely different experience and not entirely positive. Without the protection and comfort of guides and other tourists making up the masses, Naples felt slightly scary – especially when we happened upon a whole street seemingly dedicated to selling rubbish and illegal items. After a two hour search for somewhere for lunch, and countless moments of feeling vulnerable and seeing people stare at us, we headed back to eat near the station. There was something incredibly insightful about that negative experience of being in an unfamiliar place though, and feeling so incredibly lost whichever direction we took.
Not understanding what something meant was a common occurrence. We saw this “J’existe” statement a lot in graffitied areas, and I wondered who was seeking affirmation of their existence in this society? Who gets lost in the crowds in our societies?
Following the Naples excursion we returned to Sorrento by ferry, and what a beautiful experience that was. The sea was such a comfort from the streets of Naples, as was the beautiful sunset, drawing us back into its light.
There was so much beauty surrounding Sorrento, especially in areas which managed to escape the crowds, and so much to explore. Whilst there will always be much more to see, I found it interesting that deep in my knowing I was drawn to places of peace and calm, and away from the crowds.
My natural leanings are towards solitude; that gives me a greater responsibility to find the balance between being in the world and seeking to understand it and being slightly separate from it, following the ways of God instead – it is such a difficult balance but one which is well illustrated in the experience of the tourist. How do you manage to stay true to your identity and experience which has shaped you, whilst also embracing the other that now surrounds you? As my poem Torn on Tea begins to explore, this new and different surrounding can be intoxicating and mesmerising, and even where our formative experiences seem less interesting, they will continue to be the ones that we most understand and draw us back to who we are….
Most of this week I have accompanied a parish retreat with the Community of Saint Mary the Virgin in Wantage. It is always a privilege to take time out of the busyness of life, but even more so when supporting others in that. It has been a wonderful opportunity to explore or embrace a focus which allows for concentration on finer details of God’s calling, where everyday parish life encourages a bigger picture approach.
Very often I have found that the destination is the journey itself, observing the intricacies of God’s character through the beauty of creation can only leave us in awe of God as creator, redeemer and sustainer. That awe leads us on.
As well as becoming more centred on Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, and focusing on the importance of the Eucharist as a spiritual meal through which we are transformed into the likeness of Christ, I began to experience the cross in a new way.
I was drawn to this particular cross which rested above the altar. Right at its heart was the world, the whole world, drawn in by one huge final sacrifice. Having also been afforded the luxury of reading Mindfulness and Christian Spirituality by Tim Stead, and putting some of that into practice, I began to notice the absolute comfort which came from this powerful symbol, which represented the sacrifice given for the whole of creation through the death of Christ on the cross – and it’s that simple! This is such good news…do we always present it in this way?
Try focusing on one small object or symbol that you feel drawn to – where does it take you?
The Little Ribbon Tin
As my eyes fixed on the little ribbon tin
Transfixed on the beautiful, paled pattern
I wondered who, before me, had it chosen
Whose fingerprints had been embellished
by the vibrant colours here once settled
on this worn, mesmerising, little ribbon tin.
How long ago had they walked the earth
What sort of person, was there any mirth
vibrance and creativity or more of a dearth
of all that we respect, admire and hold dear
How did they come to lose it, through fear
disregard or death perhaps…and thenceforth?
And what was the purpose of this beautiful
receptacle, before it became slightly dull
Did it always house ribbons, always so full
or was it sat empty? Money, buttons or tea?
Bills, cotton, sugar or another commodity
Something meaningful or insignificant, little…
Where and when did it originally come alive
Somewhere familiar or foreign, with a vibe
clearly oozing opportunity, vitality and life
A world far from our time and knowledge
Yet one which may say much about dredge
and call us to be content with what we have.
And these hands, have they been embellished
Or rather influenced, shaped and moulded?
Positively, gently…maybe abused, oppressed
With expectation; demands to be, say and do
Things fitting for a woman, to have and to hold
Still content to be contained and constrained?
This week I’ve been thinking about how we see God; that is how we STRUGGLE alone, before having some sort of EPIPHANY which allows space to ENCOUNTER God.
A few weeks ago I wrote about the art of encounter and the need to look into the eyes of the person we are speaking with. This week I’m inclined to take that idea even further – when we actually look into the eyes of the other, that is when we actually see God. God works through each of us in unique and special ways.
“Christ has no body but yours; no hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which his compassion looks out upon the world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world.”
St Teresa of Avila
I photographed the eyes of each person I encountered in one day – well over 30 people. I saw so much beauty in the eyes of each person, with so many stories to tell, so much wisdom. Some lacked that wisdom, but had that youthful determination which is so admirable. Our eyes tell so much about us. They sometimes communicate things that we don’t want them to.
Looking into the eyes of another can make each of us vulnerable, but it can also be where growth happens.
Some months ago I met a woman in a petrol station, as she struggled to put air in her tyres. I went to help her, but it was a good five minutes before I actually saw her. And it was a few minutes later still before she saw me.
That encounter was one not just with each other, but with God through one another, as the poem below further explores.
So often I find myself struggling alone, not wanting to ask for help. A recent BBC news article shows how little we as a nation know those who live closest to us, and how unwilling we are to ask for help from them.
I wonder what would happen if we did begin asking for help more freely…
Would neighbours get annoyed with one another?
Or would we find something new in the experience?
Would it lead to an epiphany whereby we discover that our neighbours are quite nice people really?
Might it in turn lead to us encountering God in one another, as we look into each others eyes?
The Faceless Woman
Saturday afternoon. Miserably bleak.
Incomplete mundane tasks creep upon me;
fuel gauge beeps, warning lights flash.
Fuel station! Reluctantly I pull in.
Frustration looms and I wait,
as she stops me in my tracks.
I fail to see this faceless woman in my hotheadedness.
At least I don’t really see her and her need;
the pain and upset which she bears are also invisible.
Do I even want to see such brokenness?
Much easier to ignore, or rather simply not address.
Yet, as if prompted, I get out of the car
to draw closer to the bereavement of which we never speak.
Her agitation is plain. That I see.
Yet I don’t see, she is faceless to me.
Or perhaps my eyes distort.
Exaggerated facial contortion
mixed with masked humanity –
I fail to look as I ought.
Indeed something is wrong, it needs fixing…
It takes time to see that is me not her
‘It won’t work,’ cries her despair.
Temporary success seems lost on her
’I must be off to London.’
Expressionless, listless stare.
Finished I bid ’take care and drive safely.’
And then I see her, this faceless woman;
old, frail, weary and distressed.
Embodiment of human brokenness,
and yet beautiful in her
For this faceless woman, her unnamed grief, I feel compassion
as never before – it brings me to my knees.
Evident in my eyes, she seeks to claim it for her own;
she flings her arms around me and we embrace.
This moment, as a sacrament, shows us God’s unending grace.
On release, we look at each other anew
God’s love brims over for the other, we turn and leave transformed.
With thanks to all who were willing to allow their eyes to be photographed!
As I prepared my sermon for today around the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, I was prayerfully transported back to Cuddesdon. Only months earlier we had used this passage for a Eucharist with children. They had designed, or at least had a say in, most of the service; they had chosen to focus on the abundance of God. All week I have been pondering God’s abundance, and signs of that abundance, across the parish.
If we’re considering material abundance, then perhaps the parish in which I serve does not offer a life of plenty. This week Church Times have included a few articles on the need for the Church of England to become more relevant to people who live in parishes just like mine. Whilst I absolutely support the sentiment behind this thinking, I would also question whether people in more deprived areas are withdrawing from church, or just withdrawing from organised church services. In a little over a month I have encountered so many people who wish to share deep aspects of their lives with me and be prayed for. Material abundance is something that they may be able to see but is completely out of reach, much like these blackberries which grow behind bars, impossible for anyone to reach and benefit from.
A life of plenty is something in the distance that many will fail to see because they are too busy or too preoccupied with the here and now.
And yet even in these places where hope is difficult to find, there are small reminders of this abundance springing up in very unlikely places and flourishing on very little nourishment.
I am inclined to believe that it is not material abundance which God offers, neither is it an abundance which we can see but is far out of reach. Instead God offers a rich abundance which may at first be difficult to identify or describe.
As Isaiah 55:1 says, “You that have no money, come, buy and eat…without money and without price.” Isaiah and the feeding of the five thousand offer an invitation from God to this abundant life where, in sharing the little that we have, what we have grows beyond all recognition.
What we have to share may not be material; it might be our time, hospitality, friendship, care and prayers. As small as these may seem, when we offer them out they grow in our hearts and the hearts of others.
When we don’t offer out the gifts that we have, or share what we have, the imagery of “The Old Shopping Bag” can soon become a reality.
The Old Shopping Bag
Do you remember the time when we met
I was new, vibrant and perfect without blemish
You were much younger then
You hadn’t yet met your man
And the children were mere stars in the sky
Those were the good old days
You would meet your friends and take me too
We would go to all kinds of places
You would give me items for safe keeping
Far more than I could carry – I didn’t mind though
I was just happy to be by your side
Sharing in the joy feeling alive
Do you remember the day the pennies ran out
You had met your man by now
I could see how much you loved him and he you
But things were different
We didn’t go out together so much
You didn’t see your friends often
Giving me items for safe keeping
Almost never led to a day out
It tended to result in a visit to one place
The same place again and again
My sides were rarely bulging when we left
And I was beginning to show signs of neglect
That debt came shortly after your first child
How beautiful she was and so very placid
You spent your days loving and mothering
And he would bring home the bacon
Your man the bringer of happiness and laughter
Came home in the middle of the day
He slung his boots hard on top of me
It was miserable and wet anyway
Yet his return seemed to bring
More anguish and distress
I had never seen you like that before
Little did I know it was to become the new normal
The trips out became fewer and fewer
I was now looking positively shabby
With threads dangling and my once vibrant print
Now scuffed and barely recognisable
To add insult to injury one of my straps hung loose
Even the lighter loads that you now entrusted
Into my care were too much to bear
I was tired but that was nothing
In light of your sheer exhaustion
Desperation and insatiable hunger
You asked and you received but never enough
Kind as people were…it was never enough
I’ve been reminded of an advert from about ten years ago which claimed that patience was for yesteryear, now impatience is a virtue. This advert has come back to me a number of times as I have thought about how telling it is of our society in some ways. The immediacy of communication has made us impatient for news and information, as well as for material items – why wait when we could have it now? I am beginning to realise how ingrained this perspective has been in my own attitudes, despite understanding myself as a fairly patient person…well, with some things!
As I walked around part of the parish earlier in the week, I felt the impatience of others so keenly, and it began to surface in me as well.
Impatience of parents, trying to get through the tasks of the day with children who are also impatient as they would much rather be doing something else; older children playing out, struggling when things do not go their way; the impatience of many with a welfare system which affords them very little, despite hard work or ill-health and; even the impatience of those providing services because it is the twentieth time someone has complained to them about x, y or z this morning. These are just some examples…
My own impatience manifested itself through a deep desire to act now, to do something – anything – for those who were struggling. Why wait on God when I could just roll up my sleeves and get cracking? I could do some practical things to make a real difference in some people’s lives here and now…. But what about tomorrow, when I couldn’t do those things, when I wasn’t around?
This building site as a symbol of the early stages of building and the need for strong foundations reminded me that those things that are worthwhile cannot happen overnight, as well as giving an echo of the impatience that those waiting for their houses to be built may feel!
Ministry is not like a game of pool, when whoever pots all of their balls followed by the black wins. I was thinking about how much easier that would be, as I played pool with our 13+ group (not that I was so skilled, sadly!).
There are times when the phone rings, and it is appropriate to drop everything to be where you are needed. It is a real privilege when that happens and people let you into their lives in all of their grief and sadness, and I am so grateful for the times that that has happened this week.
More often though, I wonder whether ministry is like ironing shirts – it takes time and patience to do it properly, and even when it is done another shirt will not be far behind!
I perhaps had not realised how impatient I can be sometimes, and there has been much to reflect on around my approach to ministry this week. No longer am I an ordinand, in one place for a very short time. I am not chasing ideas for portfolios, essays and presentations. This is the long haul, and it is essential to wait on God and capture God’s vision and God’s ministry in this place. Afternoon tea on my day off stopped me in my tracks and reminded me of this…God did promise the Israelites a land flowing with milk and honey!
So what does God’s place, or the Kingdom of Heaven, look like? People running to catch buses, frustrated when they miss them, children screaming at one another, people shouting at one another? Or people showing love, care, joy, peace, patience and kindness? How can we encourage this, rather than reacting to the impatience in our communities and wider society?
Impatience is a Virtue
Impatience is a virtue
Did no-one tell you
Patience is so yesteryear
Just for those who fear
All that is exciting or taboo
What good can come
From a patient hum
A steady stroll through life
Avoiding fun and strife
You might as well be numb
Get out there and live
You have to give
All of yourself to the cause
Sing until you are hoarse
Let go of all that is negative
Then you are caught
In a cycle fraught
With danger and dis-ease
Ceasing to please
All around who thought
Impatience is a virtue…
Patience is a virtue
Possess it if you can!
This week has felt rather busy, and as I look back I can see that I have definitely been guilty of cramming too much into my diary and therefore failing to give real time to anything. It has struck me that this is very much the way of our modern world: fit as much as you can into as little time as possible to prove how productive you can be! And yet, I’m not sure ministry is a business of productivity or a measuring of success…if it was, as the Church Times article about Broken asserts, many of us would be failures!
The week began with a baptism in our first service…
…and the revival of a worship band with me on cajon in our second service.
On Monday morning I decided to walk around a part of the parish: collar, rucksack and trainers on! This is becoming something of a routine, which I love! It gives me the space to respond to whatever comes my way…to attend! I was also combining the walk with a short photo shoot in each church, as setting the churches up on social media was also on my list of things to do for the week! It was lovely just to spend time alone in God’s presence as I worked.
When I arrived at the second church, there was a lot of activity. We also had a young offender working with us. As I looked at him, whilst he had nothing to do, he looked completely bored and disinterested. God took over as I hauled him into the church, showed him how to use the camera and encouraged him to get lost in it. He certainly did, and there was a huge sense of pleasure as I watched his attention to detail develop, and his eye fine-tune to the potential of the camera. He took some beautiful photos with particular focus on light.
The real reward came when I asked him whether he had enjoyed it, to which he replied, “I did actually”, and his whole face lit up as a broad smile crossed it – what a privilege! Yet it was one that I didn’t see until I was half a mile up the road, lamenting on how few people I had encountered that morning! I had been responsive, but completely unaware that God was with me in that whole encounter!
A candle to remind me that Christ is with me was a bit of a theme this week in my encounters! One particular encounter really humbled me, as a woman asked me to address an envelope for her as she could not spell very well. She insisted on sharing every detail of the letter with me, which was a real privilege, and came with great responsibility. I would have been happy to just address the envelope, but I realised that she needed to share.
Other encounters reminded me of the need to not only attend with people, but also to be mindful of ways in which they might practically need help. Gardens are beautiful, but can become extremely burdensome to someone who is housebound. Whilst they might not ask, can we do something to help as a church?
That tied in with a brief exchange I had with STAR (Supporting Tenants and Residents) when thinking about how we could support their work in the parish. They said the one thing every agency struggles to provide at the moment is time…Attend!
Lectio Divina also reminded me of how Ruth attended her mother-in-law, refusing to leave her side despite being given permission.
Then I was reminded about the need to attend to the community – where is God already working? What is going on that we can join in with? This was part of an art exhibition of prisoners’ work, and was one of the most amazing drawings I have ever seen!
Again and again I have come back to thinking about attending, being fully present in the flesh, being pervasive, almost, in our world.
Attend! Listen! Watch and wait but what will I see? What will I hear? What am I even waiting for? A miracle, a bolt of lightening, the transfiguration or Jesus coming on a cloud in glory? Maybe one day, be prepared as they say; but no, that’s not what I mean. I’m talking about attending in the here and now; immanence rather than transience…being God with skin on or the hands and feet, eyes and ears of Jesus. Attend! Listen!
There is something in the saints saying God is with us come what may; God incarnate in you and in me. So attend, listen to that voice deep inside the soul.
Take care not to attend so much that you fail to see what is right in front of you though. Gazing up to the heavens, desperate to hear God’s guidance I almost didn’t see the hope offered through an exchange with an offender; the woman struggling to cross the road; and the man desperate to talk and be heard, had I not heard the pervasive plea from God, “Me in them not me for thee!”
This week I had felt drawn to walk the parish. Having been given boundary maps and a Leicester A-Z last week I was fully equipped! Not being fully sure what I would find I set off on Monday morning after Morning Prayer, rucksack and camera in hand. It would be wonderful to have been able to walk the whole parish in that day, but one of the first things I became aware of was the sheer scale of it – this was a project not a small task!
This tree was my first encounter. I smiled to myself as my attention was drawn to it, wondering whether it would be a symbolic theme of my journey – I could not have seen at that point just how insightful that fleeting thought was! There was something about this dead tree which drew me…
Continuing my walk I began to pass people on my way. Each time I passed someone I greeted them – it seemed like such a simple act and yet it led to so many different responses. I am still not really used to wearing a clerical collar; it’s comfortable but as I don’t see it, I often forget I am wearing it. I think the quick return greeting whilst continuing to stride ahead was a response to the collar – polite, but without a plan to engage as you never know what might happen next! A few people who were approaching me crossed the street well before we were at a safe distance for me to greet them, which made me more aware of being perceived to be part of an establishment as a cleric, someone to be avoided! Others just ignored me completely. Only one or two were happy to pass the time of day. This led me to think about what we have lost in our communities which has led to such mistrust even of a friendly smile…?
Whilst thinking about our losses I began to wonder about the art of encounter. It seems relatively easy to encounter community en masse, but how can we begin to see individuals again?
What needs to happen for one to trust another enough to allow them to look into their eyes, and know that they care?
Amongst other places on my walk I came across the local crematorium and cemetery. I became aware of the ways in which death can surround us so much that we fail to see the life.
Perhaps it is little wonder when life can be so difficult, and lives chaotic. This view of society is often seen by the Police, which I learned something of as I met with a PCSO from the area.
Later in the week I spent time with the food bank. There I found those with a desperate need for encounter, for someone just to listen to them, as they were given precious food items that I take for granted.
I also joined a Knit and Natter group who wanted to encounter and share in each others lives as they knitted.
Weekly pastoral visits bring welcome encounters to individuals who are otherwise housebound, and what a privilege and joy it is to be someone who brings light and laugher into someone’s day, whatever they are facing.
When invited to a local school summer fair, encounters seemed slightly easier, especially when introduced by a trusted member of their community.
Here people were willing to show their skills and pass the time of day with me – my henna tattoo was evidence of that!
As I look back over the week I find myself concluding that the art of encounter is so complex. Some eagerly await and welcome it. Others absolutely turn away from it, perhaps even fear it. On ordination retreat we had the opportunity to have our feet washed by our Bishop, which I took. As Jesus washed his disciples’ feet he said “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me” (John 13:8) and this tradition has been passed down, where those who are to serve must also be willing to be served. It is such a humbling act, but what really pierced deep into my heart was the way that Bishop Martyn intentionally looked into my eyes, into my soul, and encountered me in a way that few people do. It made me realise how necessary and yet difficult encounter is – you never quite know what the other person is seeing. That said we are made in the image of God to be relational beings – we need encounter.
I am completely convinced of the need to just be present in community, willing to greet, be ignored or verbally abused, to walk alongside or to stand alone, to be the hands and feet, eyes and ears of Jesus.
My challenge to you, should you choose to accept, is to walk around your community this week and greet all those who you meet. It is a tiny act, but it may well make a huge difference to some.
The Art of Encounter
“Death is nothing at all”
Can we really say this
When death and decay
Drain life day after day
Little by little leaning on
All that we know and own
Sapping all that we are
Hour by hour
Minute by minute
Tick tick tick
Yet, like corn in a field
That grows and matures
Over the seasons
With sun and rain
In equal measure
Its fruit ripens and hardens
Then dries and dies
Yet within a small seed
Lies potential for new life
Tick tick tick
New life born perfect
Thrives in community
One encounters the other
As they look
And really see
Into the soul
As God in all glory
This beautiful creation