Speaking of hope

I don’t make New Year resolutions. But, each and every year, I do try to think about some values, or virtues, that I hope will animate my life over the coming twelve months. I then write a prayer, or select a bible verse or two, which I hope will deepen my understanding of my guiding virtue over the coming twelve months. What I end up doing is a form of extended Lectio Divina. In 2017 my guiding virtues were trust, humility, service and gratitude. The prayer I wrote for myself was:

‘Loving God, help me today to drink from the great well of trust that I may serve you with humility and gratitude all the days of my life.’

One of my virtues for 2018 is hope. Hope is, of course, one of the three ‘theological virtues,’ (1 Corinthians 13, 13). I have felt strongly led to deepen my life in hope over the course of Advent and Christmas. So what is this hope that I am talking of? The Thematic Bible (one of my favorite resources) defines hope as:

‘A confident expectation for the future, describing both the act of hoping and the object hoped for. When grounded in God, hope provides the motivation to live the Christian life, even in the face of trouble.’ 

I guess that the difference between a wish and a hope, at least in Christian terms, is one of grounding. Whereas a wish, however longingly felt, is groundless, hope is grounded in God. Hope in other words is part of a larger story, the author of which is God, the Alpha and Omega. It is belief and trust in God that provides the grounds for hope.

Hope is in many ways the antidote to despair. We need hope when all seems bleak, when life seems cruel and, even unfair. We need hope when the record player of our minds is stuck and all we hear time and again is a voice uttering messages of woe. We need hope when we feel ganged upon and experience a lack of autonomy and control. We need hope when we are, in the words of the Lord’s Prayer, ‘trespassed against.’ We need hope when innocence is removed and the potential for bitterness, anger and hatred sown. We need hope when lethargy and passivity take over and   motivation disappears. Hope, it seems,  is not only a virtue; it is also divine and supernatural energy.

It is easy to see the world as hopeless. So many people live in total poverty and fear. Great swathes of the world’s population live under the rule of injustice and tyranny, trespassed against,  knowing no peace. So many families (including my own) live with the ongoing reality of illness, pain and disability. So many people, myself included, are crying out to God in pain and despair and wondering how much longer will they have to wait for justice, peace and healing. Justice, peace and healing are, I suspect, the expectations we long for, and work for, in living hopeful lives.

The Old Testament reading (Jeremiah 31, 15-17 ) and the collect for the Festival of the Holy Innocents make the relationship between peace, justice, healing (or at least restoration) and hope clear. A verse from the O.T. reading is given at the end of this article whilst the collect petitions God to ‘frustrate all evil designs and establish your reign of justice and peace.’ 

The Church itself often feels a place of despair. A real lack of peace exists between various groups within the church. This is sad because, presumably, the church should be the one institution (or body) that animates and brings into being radical and properly grounded hope? So here are a couple of  questions for 2018:

‘What would a confident and hopeful church look like; how would a confident and hopeful church behave?’ 

I don’t know the answer to these questions but I do know that a church that doesn’t anticipate and work towards a better more just and peaceful future would be an anemic, shallow and, hopeless church.

Maybe one of the reasons that I feel called on to reflect on hope over the next twelve months is my inability to answer my own questions for, in reality, I don’t as yet know what a confident and hopeful Andrew looks like, let alone how and a confident and hopeful Andrew behaves. In 2018 I hope to discover what it means to live a hope-filled life. I hope to do so by reflecting on the verses below which I believe have been graced to me by the ground of all hope, God:

‘Thus says the Lord: Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for there is a reward for your work, says the Lord: they shall come back from the land of the enemy; there is hope for your future, says the Lord: your children shall come back to their own country,’ (Jeremiah 31, 16-17).

‘But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint,’ (Isaiah 40, 31).

May I wish you all a hope-filled 2018.

 

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Speaking of despair; talking of ‘healing.’

Someone once asked me what was the most painful injury I have ever experienced.  My questioner knew that I had played rugby into my early thirties and no doubt expected me to say a broken bone, a popped cartilage or a ruptured ligament. But, even though these things hurt my most painful and enduring injury is in fact a combination of depression and anxiety.  In my experience there is something permanent about anxiety and depression. Even when I am not feeling acutely  anxious or deeply depressed I know that my very own twin impostors are lurking in the background ready to colonize my mind.  Yes, I live with their constant threat.

The good news is that I am not alone, for I now know that many, many people live with and suffer from mental illness. In fact I would like to suggest that helping people live with and through the threat or reality of mental illness is one of the church’s challenges. Naming and acknowledging mental illness perhaps needs to be normative to the church’s healing ministry?

Thinking about mental illness and healing has been at the forefront of my ponderings these last few months. I minister in what looks like a very ordinary market town. Of course it isn’t really ‘ordinary’ because there is no such thing. Inside each and every person and community is to be found a complex and competing relationship between light and dark, pain and joy, hope and despair.

In looking after myself and ministering to my community it is important to help create the situation where light, hope and joy stand a chance of winning through. In many ways this is how I now understand the concept of Christian healing. In saying this I in no way wish to discount the possibility for the miraculous, rather I simply want to stress the ‘ing’ in healing. The ‘ing’ helps me see healing as an ongoing process rather than an event.

This year I have had to look the worst consequences of depression and anxiety squarely in the face. In my very ordinary parish I have taken funerals for those who have simply been unable to find the means to carry on, and it has been heart rendering. I have also spoken to many people who feel that life is either not worth living or is a never-ending uphill struggle. Such conversations are part and parcel of my ordinary pastoral ministry. Such conversations demand that I take my own vulnerability seriously.

For many years I tried to hide the fact that I have suffered. I was ashamed of my ‘fragility.’ I strongly felt that I shouldn’t feel as I sometimes do. I thought I was a freak, a uniquely tortured specimen. The more ‘successful’ I became the more tortured I felt. I both felt and thought that I was always on the verge of being found out, uncovered and revealed for the sham that I thought that I was. Being a Christian didn’t help, after all as someone of faith surely I shouldn’t think and feel anxious and depressed? Surely God is all the medication that I need? But, as I have already suggested, the good news is that I am not uniquely tortured.  Just like me other people have a whole collection of scratched records stuck on constant play in the jukebox of their minds. Through the healing process I have come to learn that the jukebox doesn’t need to be on constant play and, that other songs can be added to the play list of the mind.

Nowadays I carefully and selectively choose to share my vulnerability. It helps me and, hopefully, others. Sharing and caring builds up a feeling of solidarity and ‘ubuntu.’ Ubuntu is the African philosophy / theology that stresses that we are all in it together: ‘without you there is no me.’ When we care and share we build up that most precious of all commodities: good neighbourliness.  Thanks to the help of doctors, specialists and friends I now have a range of strategies open to me to help me not only cope but occasionally thrive. Not everything I have tried has worked and this means I am very careful about making too many recommendations. There is  no one single  cure-all. If there was I would have found it and taken it. So, although anxiety and depression are commonplace each individual needs, with assistance, to find their own means of firstly surviving and then, hopefully, flourishing. For what it is worth prayer, meditation, exercise and writing are all core elements in my from surviving to thriving strategy. And, yes, medication has also, at times, played a significant role. I know that many, many people appreciate and find significant value in ‘talking therapies.’ In all honesty I didn’t.

Having said that I am loath to offer general recommendations I would like to ‘big up’ two resources and one possible strategy. I do so with some nervousness!

Recently Bishop Steven (Oxon) has been reflecting on depression and anxiety. In November he gave a wonderful presidential address to the diocesan synod and has subsequently written a very gentle reflection on the Lord’s Prayer as a prayer of healing. It is available though the link below:

https://blogs.oxford.anglican.org/seven-reasons-to-say-the-lords-prayer-each-day/

The other resource that I would highly recommend is Katharine Welby-Robert’s ‘I thought there would be cake.’ It is (again) gentle, grounded, humane, honest, reflective and funny. Oh, and its realistic. Katharine talks about her own battles with anxiety, depression and chronic fatigue. For me she is an exemplar of the importance of ‘ing’ in healing. At only £7:99 her book is great value for money.

The strategy I would suggest is laughter therapy. I am nervous about suggesting this and recognise that for someone staring into the abyss my suggestion might appear to be a little insensitive. If I have offended you please accept my apologies. Recently I attended a seminar on ‘laughter, mirth and merriment,’ during which I took part in something called Laughter-Yoga. Fortunately for me , and the other participants, I was able to remove my cynical hat and found the session intriguing. Someone very close to me suffers with permanent and chronic pain (alongside other conditions) and I told her that I had attended the workshop. A few days later she phoned me back to tell me that she had, with a friend, done some ‘purposeful laughing’ and  that it had paid dividends. So why not google ‘laughter therapy’ and give it a go?

I am extremely grateful to the likes of +Steven, Katherine Welby-Roberts and Ian MacDonald (who led the course on Laughter, Mirth and Merriment) for helping create the conditions whereby naming and acknowledging the cruel reality of mental health problems paves the way for the breaking through of light, hope and joy; healing in other words.

For all who are suffering; prayers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Speaking of vocation

Let’s start with some good news: the vast majority of people working in education, medicine and, health do so out of a sense of vocation. One of the privileges of my ministry is that I get to work alongside educators and health professionals. Put bluntly one of the reasons they do their jobs is because they care. Their professional (and professed) desire is to use their carefully and diligently developed skills and interests to serve others.

Now the bad news: in contemporary society the notion of vocation has been devalued. This is in fact really, really bad news. Such is our society’s obsession with business and the ‘economy’ that vocational jobs are not only undervalued but underappreciated. I am not using the word appreciated sentimentally. My criticism is that in undervaluing those in vocational employment we fail to appreciate their contribution to the economy. In a book I co-edited (Theonomics) Alan Wilson and Rosie Harper made the following audaciously obvious claim:

‘A banker is no more a wealth-creator than the nurse who saves his life in casualty, and no less.’ 

Tragically over the last thirty or so years the west’s chosen method of doing economics has led to the acceptance of a belief that the banker, or business manager/ leader, is in some way entirely self-made. The worst excess of this way of thinking is the belief that somehow they have ‘made it’ in spite of the system. This I would want to suggest is economic gobbledygook, yet it many ways it is ‘our’ current economic orthodoxy.

Such thinking has spread into our public and charitable institutions. Vice Chancellors, for instance, are no longer regarded  by themselves or those who set their pay and rations as having reached the height of their vocation. Instead they have been re-categorized as educational entrepreneurs operating in the mythical international market for talent. The ‘fruit’ of such faulty thinking is the extraordinary levels of remuneration granted to the Vice Chancellor of Bath and Bath Spa universities.  Vice chancellors, just like the vast majority of corporate managers, are not, of course, entrepreneurs in any academic understanding of the word. They don’t take significant personal risk, they don’t invest their own capital or stake their all on the ‘success’ of the institution they manage and administer. One of the peculiarities of modern economic ‘thinking’ is the category confusion between entrepreneurship and business  administration. I wonder whether the desire to describe, and be described in, entrepreneurial terms can be regarded as an economic  manifestation of capitulation to an emerging culturally economic norm: hubris? Hubris, of course, undermines the economic and theological virtues of care and service. Hubris is by its nature inward looking and self serving even when it pretends to be otherwise. Vocation by contrast is always outward looking. True vocationalists use their interests and passions for the benefit of others.  The ‘average’ academic (teacher and healthcare professional) bears the impact of such crass, sloppy, and hubristic thinking remaining undervalued and underappreciated, whilst their most senior ‘business administrator’ is rewarded as an entrepreneur  and, this matters. It matters economically and, it matters theologically.

It matters economically because empirical research shows that excessive wage disparity seriously harms productivity. And, in this country, we have a problem with productivity.  It matters theologically because significant disparities in income erode our ability to relate to each other and, trust each other. As Alan Wilson and Rosie Harper state economic equality ‘liberates the rich from status anxiety and the poor from abject hopelessness.’ I would add that greater income equality liberates the hard squeezed middle from resentment and exasperation. Equality, it seems to me, makes sense both economically and theologically. It makes sense economically because it feeds through into productivity, it makes sense theologically because it places paramount importance on the value of all human beings and, on the relationships between human beings.

If we, as a society, really wish to re-balance the economy, and achieve higher levels of productivity, I would suggest that a re-discovery of vocation would be a great place to start. We need to value and appreciate those who diligently develop and use their skills to care for and serve others. We also need to stop re-categorizing and paying silly money to those who ‘lead’ vocational institutions.