Like many, I’ve found the past week disconcerting, strange and worrisome. As a parish priest, I’m learning what on earth it means to be a priest in a time of social-distancing, self-isolation, and no public services. Like many priests, this has entailed both creativity (using the internet to broadcast worship) and going back to the basic call to pray, love and (using safe means!) connect with people.
This last week has been very busy. I’m not moaning. I’m stating a fact. As Area Dean as well as parish priest, there’s been a lot to consider, respond to, and rework. I can’t imagine how difficult things are for people with real responsibility, like emergency workers, senior leaders and those who have direct care for people with great personal need. I also have no idea how it must feel to be self-employed and lose all one’s income overnight or be anxious about renting and the threat being made homeless.
What has come home to me is how tempting it is to try and find new ways of being busy. Instinctively, I am a busy person and I think that’s okay. I rather love it. However, this week, my diary has gone from having things happening almost every hour during the day and evening, to seemingly nothing.
At the same time, the crisis has provided new things to be busy about. In so many ways I’ve been busy seeking to cope, with good colleagues, with all that crisis throws our way, as well as meet real felt need in the community. A signal of trying to cope with this new reality is my lack of sleep and rest. The word ‘unprecedented’ has been over-used this week. However, there is a reason it has been used so unrestrainedly.
For, from a Church of England point-of-view, there is no one – from Archbishop to the most-freshly baptised Christian – who is not facing an entirely new set of social and ecclesial realities. We are all improvising. We are all hoping, and we are all scared. We have come to realise that our old ways of going on as Church need to be re-examined. As a Church in a time of virus, we cannot rely of lazy formulae or many of our ready-made assumptions.
This past week I’ve thought a lot about that line attributed (in my head!) to the great spiritual writer, Gerard Hughes: ‘We are made for rest, not for work’. In the midst of stress and busyness and the need to address crisis conditions it has resonated around my body.
Gerry Hughes’ remark is a reminder that, for as much as we are inclined to define ourselves by ‘work’, rest is God’s defining gift.
I say this with all due caution. I’ve experienced unemployment and enforced worklessness as a result of ill-health and disability. I know how important work is, for financial as well as psychological and social reasons.
However, I do worry that too often people like me define ourselves by the work we do. Work is valuable, but few of us, if any, will say – when we come before the Living God – if only I’d spent more time in the office.
Rest requires slowing-down, letting-go and learning to listen to and make friends with silence, space and seeming pointlessness.
If God rests so can we. We take our cue from him. He is the one who goes ahead and shows us who we are made to be.
If there is one thing us ministers can rediscover in these strange times, it is rest. Those of us who lead are not always good at taking time out to befriend God’s quietude, silence and restfulness. Let us dare. It will really matter in the tough and testing days to come.