Sunday, 22 March 2020

Made for Rest - Learning to Pace Ourselves in a Time of Crisis

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.

St Nick's Live Stream Eucharist: An Introduction

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Tuesday, 17 March 2020

A Self-Isolator Attempts to Pray


* In light of the decision to suspend public worship in the C of E, I've decided to revive this blog as one way of digitally reflecting on prayer & worship with parish and beyond in extraordinary times.*

Last night I had a chat with a senior colleague about what suspension of public worship might mean for us in the C of E. He said, (words to the effect) ‘perhaps it’s an opportunity for us to pray.’ For as diaries empty, services stop, and our public activities are suspended, what are we called to do as the people of God?

This past week I’ve been in self-isolation with some COVID-19 symptoms. I suspect it’s not COVID-19 and my symptoms, though unpleasant, were ultimately too mild to warrant a test.  Nonetheless, it has been a salutary and, at times, uncomfortable experience.

One of the things that has come home to me in this past week of isolation is how difficult it is to pray and yet how necessary it is. I’d love to be a mystic and a ‘proper’ person of prayer, but especially when I’m poorly, I often struggled to sit down, pray and listen to God.

However, this experience of finding myself a kind of ‘short-term hermit’ or anchorite – where I have had to rely on the kindness of friends to bring me food etc. – has reminded me of my vocation to pray.

Indeed, since I started to feel a bit better, I found myself asking for people to send me prayer requests via Twitter. I have received many and have taken them to God.

Rather unexpectedly, the deeper I’ve gone in to self-isolation the more connected I’ve felt with prayer and the better able to take the concerns of others to the Living God.

This has not been grand work or impressive work. Being alone has reminded me of my insignificance. I might like to pretend that I am ‘this’ or ‘that’, but self-isolation has taught me that I am, for the most part, irrelevant.

The real question God presents is this: am I – are you, are we – prepared to be faithful? Will I/we dare pray, for others, for the world, for myself/ourselves? Will I/we dare to be exposed to the living God?

Like most modern people I am almost infinitely distractible. Indeed, over the past seven days I’ve watched a lot of crap on Netflix; I’ve flicked through my phone in search of entertainment. I’ve searched the Net for the latest updates. I’ve wasted time.

I actually think that’s okay and normal. I’m no more a saint than you. As humans, we are time-wasters. We have a gift for it.

However, I have also felt that call that the anchorites know, that the likes of Julian of Norwich knew: to pray and listen and hold others in God’s wondrous Love.

In the days and weeks to come, when public worship is suspended, I hope that we all can find time to listen to God; to hear his still small voice in the oddness of the days we are living through. I hope we can pray for others and ourselves and become alert to the extent to which we are in each other’s hands.

I hope we can pray this prayer of St Julian of Norwich:

In you, Father all-mighty, we have our preservation and our bliss.
In you, Christ, we have our restoring and our saving.
You are our mother, brother, and Saviour.
In you, our Lord the Holy Spirit, is marvellous and plenteous grace.
You are our clothing; for love you wrap us and embrace us.
You are our maker, our lover, our keeper.
Teach us to believe that by your grace all shall be well, and all shall be well,
and all manner of things shall be well. Amen