Adventures in the heart

I wrote this as a reflection for a group of hospital pastoral carers on the work that we do.  It draws not only on the quote from Abba Makarios, but also the chorus of Auden’s Christmas oratorio, and Ephesians 6:11-17.   

Makarios the Great said: “The heart itself is only a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil; there are rough and uneven roads; there are precipices; but there, too, are God and the angels; life is there, and the Kingdom; there, too, is light, and heavenly cities, and treasures of grace. All things lie within that little space.”

As we sit and listen to others, what we hear beyond their words is the depth of their hearts; for it is out of the fulness of the heart that words are given birth.  Perhaps we are surprised, that each conversation is an exploration without a map, into a realm in which we might encounter rare beasts and have unique adventures.  But we should not be; and if we are it is because we have forgotten what wise men and women before us knew about the nature of the heart.

But who, then, are we, as travellers and aliens in the foreign landscape of another’s heart?  What do we presume to do here?

I suggest our purpose is threefold.

First, we are cartographers.  As we explore, and recognise – since we are seasoned explorers, even if we are in unknown terrain – particular features of the landscape, we recognise them, name them and mark them as landmarks by which to orient ourselves, and perhaps even the person with whom we are speaking.  Our conversation can become an occasion of growing awareness, so that both of us can be more confident in approaching the cities and safe havens, and more cautious in approaching the abode of lions.  Map making is a skill which takes practice, and is one of the things we can bring to the heart of another.

Second, we are revellers.  As we meet angels, recognise light, and discover treasure, we can take the hand of the other and dance for joy.  Celebration is deepened when it is mirrored in the heart of another, and delight and bliss are much richer for the sharing.  So this is another thing we bring to the heart.

And thirdly, we are warriors.  As we meet the dragons of deceit, the toxic beasts and the waste dumps of evil, we do not simply note them and move on.  We confront them, standing not unarmed and unprotected but well-equipped for this.  Knowing within the depths of our own hearts something of truth, of justice, of peace, of faith, of liberation, we can speak into the places in the heart of the other which are void of such goodness.  All of these we can wield with skill and care in the heart of another.

All of this, of course, presupposes that we have dared to travel our own hearts thoroughly, and taken the time to gain wisdom and skill in wandering such landscapes.  But if we have, Makarios’ insight into the heart can provide us with a useful set of images for our own work.

Santa and all that

I know it’s not even Advent yet, but please forgive me a Christmas-themed post.  The realities of the commercial cycle of the year (as opposed to the liturgical one) mean that some things do tend to impinge on one’s awareness.  And one of those things is the omnipresence of Santa in our society at this time of year.

For a Christian family, it poses a number of problems.  How do we maintain a proper focus on the celebration of the incarnation of our Lord, when every attempt is made to distract us to the altar of materialism?  How much of the general Christmas “stuff” is enough?  Too much?  On the other hand, if we ignore it altogether, are we just robbing our kids (and even ourselves) of something harmless and joyful?

More than that, how to handle the question of Santa.  Is it wrong to pretend, to have a little “magic” for kids to believe in?  Is it, like any other dishonesty, a disservice to them?  Or is it an essential part of growing up to indulge in imaginative play and make-believe, and what better make-believe than one you can share with friends and family?

There are no easy answers, and I don’t pretend to have any.  I rather suspect that each family needs to find its own level, dependent in part on family structure and dynamics, cultural traditions, personalities and (let’s face it) financial resources.

But – especially as our daughter is likely to stay an only child – my husband and I have figured out one principle we want to enshrine early.  And that is for her, Christmas is not to be only all about what she gets.  It has to be more than that.  And, mulling this over and tossing ideas around for her to make this a concrete reality in our family traditions, this is what we came up with.

St. Nicholas’ day is the 6th of December.  Close enough to Christmas for all the hype to be well under way, for Santa to be in shopping centres and well on the radar of children.  So we’ve agreed that on St. Nicholas’ day we will make a point of taking our daughter to choose gifts for children in need, to involve her in wrapping them and giving them where needed.  And we will teach her that in doing this, we follow the example of St. Nicholas in serving God by serving those around us, and in this way celebrating the best thing about Santa.  And not only will this teach her something about the proper function of saints as exemplars in the Christian life, it will also teach her that before she focusses on what she will get, it’s appropriate to give thought to what she can give.

I hope that by doing something like this, we can find something of the right balance in the midst of a very unbalanced season!

Terribly fashionable

“It’s terribly fashionable.  The church needs to be seen there.”

This was something a member of the church where I’m about to become an assistant curate said to me, while talking about a particular local café.  On one level it’s a fairly innocuous comment.  On another level, the subtext was very clear; “the church needs to be seen there” meant, I think you should make a point of going there.  It was my first encounter with the social expectations a church can have of its ministers.  Not the expectations about how you can do the formal, easily identified parts of your job (like how you preach), but the expectations about the stuff that’s harder to define, about how you engage the local community and build networks of relationships beyond the formal membership of the church.

And it posed a number of problems for me.  The church needs to be doing a lot of things, but I’m not sure that hanging out in the cool places, hoping to be recognised as some of the cool kids, is one of them.  Oh, sure, I recognise the argument that runs like this:  in this secular age when the militant atheists are selling the idea that churches are irrelevant at best and agents of oppression and abuse at worst, showing that Christians are not only normal people, but people who can engage with the cultural and intellectual life of the world with the best of them, making a contribution and being recognised for who we are, makes us more palatable and is likely to encourage those around us to take our message more seriously.  And there’s something to be said for that idea; retreating into social isolation and refusing to engage isn’t going to contribute to an environment in which evangelism is well received.    It’s also true that if we have established networks of relationships with influential people in government, in business, in academia and so forth, that when we want something from them, or want to work with them in achieving some aspect of our mission, it’s much easier to do that.  So I’m not opposed to the idea of relational networks with the world, more concerned that the shape of those networks be formed by what’s “terribly fashionable.”

Then there’s the apparent equivalence of “the church” with “ordained ministers.”  The church is the community of all the baptised; sure, those of us who are ordained have particular roles of leadership, teaching, and so forth; but if “the church” needs to be doing something, that doesn’t automatically mean it falls into the minister’s job description by default.  I’d almost want to argue the opposite; unless for some reason a particular task requires an ordained person (and let’s face it, very few do), if “the church” needs to do something, it’s the responsibility of the whole community to ensure it happens.  So if you’re convinced that “the church” needs to be connected in with the local café, don’t wait for the minister to do it; feel free to go in, buy a coffee and strike up conversation with the barista yourself.  Even better, organise for your small group to have a regular outing there.  Because the likelihood is, you can do just as much good by doing so as I will by getting my early-morning caffeine fix in a clerical collar.

The situation has other aspects to consider too.  The “terribly fashionable” café in question is, (as I understand it), not modestly priced.  Is its fashionable status reason enough to pay more for what I might get just as well elsewhere?  (And let’s be painfully honest here, it’s not as if the church is going to pay me enough for me to have lots of money to waste on frivolous things, either).  What are the ethics of our economical decisions, and what is a presence in the local social hot spots worth in financial terms?  How do we measure that?  Is this really wise stewardship of limited resources?  Do we even compromise our integrity in the eyes of some if they see us apparently prioritise expensive coffee over, say, providing assistance to our community’s most financially vulnerable?  And yet, what’s the opportunity cost in kingdom terms if we refuse to engage?  How do we measure that?  I’m at a loss to come to immediate answers.

Of course, there are more personal questions in play.  This café’s claim to fame is its marvelous coffee.  I don’t even drink coffee, it makes me feel ill!  It seems silly to go out of my way to a specialty coffee shop and then order an ordinary tea, or a hot chocolate, and avoid the whole point of the place.

And there’s something else, too.  This is one expectation from one person.  No doubt she has others.  Multiply that across the whole congregation, where each person will have their own expectations, and I might well end up running myself ragged just trying to ensure that I’m “seen” in all the right places, seen to be doing the right things, and neglecting what it is that God would have me do in this community.  On the one hand, the members of the parish are going to be the best guides to the local church and area, and help me to orient myself to my ministry context, but to what extent should I let their expectations, their sense of their corporate identity and local community shape my ministry, and to what extent should I challenge those things?  Ministry can be a delicate balance of competing demands.

So what to do?  Shall I make this café a priority in the early days of my new role?  Shall I anxiously avoid it, wondering if I am overlooking something important?  I have no idea yet.  But I hope that whatever I decide on this, and all the other similar expectations to come, that I can make that decision in a way which is well thought through and in line with God’s purposes for this community, rather than simply being blown hither and thither by every demand.