Free at last?

Yesterday in the parish we held a workshop on “mental health unwrapped,” which I hoped would allow us as a community to begin to be more honest about mental health issues in the church, and think about how we might address them.  (As an aside, let me just plug the excellent work being done by the Luke14 initiative in facilitating these workshops; they provided the workshop to us at no cost except the materials we were given to keep).

A very striking part of their presentation was to show us some artwork done by Jenny Nicholls, a Christian woman with mental illnesses, in which she had tried to depict and share something of her experiences.  I’ve included three of her pictures in this post; I wonder what you make of them?






This is the text of a sermon for the seventh Sunday after Pentecost, in the parish where I am now licensed.  The Scripture it references is Mark 6:14-29.

Edited to add: as a special bonus, if you’ve been wondering what my voice sounds like, for the first time I can offer you a recording of this sermon, made available on YouTube, here.

Then she began, on that well-polished floor,
Whose stones seemed taking radiance more and more
From steps too bright to see,
A certain measure that was like some spell
Of winding magic, wherein heaven and hell
Were joined to lull men’s souls eternally
In some mid ecstasy:…
In some fair trance through which the soul possest
Love, ecstasy, and rest.*

Well, that is something of an echo of Friday night’s parish dinner; a few lines of Irish poetry, but in this case relevant to our gospel reading for today. In it – it’s a much longer poem, I just gave you a small taste – the author, Arthur O’Shaughnessy, describes the dance by the daughter of Herodias, and its effect on those who watched it.

The scene – the corrupt king, the beautiful girl, the gathered guests – has inspired many interpretations in the centuries since Mark recorded it, but I particularly liked this one for the way it describes “magic, wherein heaven and hell were joined to lull men’s souls.” Heaven and hell can’t be joined, it would be a violation of their very nature for that to happen; and in expressing it this way, it seems to me that O’Shaughnessy caught something important about what was happening here; the way that boundaries which should have been there, were either not there at all, or were warped in all sorts of unhealthy ways.

You see, it strikes me that Herod got himself backed into the corner of having to execute John in order to save face as the end result of a series of events in which he totally failed to enforce healthy boundaries. Think about it; he married a woman he was not free to marry; he had no idea how to relate to John as a prophet, and had to somehow find his way through the mixed feelings of fearing John, wanting to protect him, being perplexed by him, liking to listen to him, which led to him having John in prison; he had no idea how to communicate about any of this or build a united approach to John with his wife; and as for his relationship with his stepdaughter, well, it’s hard to say much with certainty, but it was déclassé, to say the least, for him to use her in an attempt to build up his status in the eyes of his guests; he made a rash oath, why, we might guess, in order to impress her, to try to buy her affection? And when she came back with a totally outrageous and inappropriate request, Herod did not seem able to say “No,” and tell her to ask for a new pony or something else instead. Boundaries? He had no idea.

Now, I don’t really have time in a sermon to unpack the idea of boundaries, with its many areas of application in depth; I’ll just have to commend to you the idea that it’s one worth reading and reflecting on. So I want to make some brief remarks about the theology of boundaries, before reflecting on what that might mean for our particular context.

When you strip out the psychological jargon, boundaries are about where I end and you begin. We are created, each of us, as separate beings and a part of God’s good creation; but the fact that I am me, and not you, and that we each have free will and so forth, tells us that boundaries, too, are a natural part of God’s good creation. The boundaries that exist in any healthy relationship are determined in part by the roles that we hold in that relationship; the gradient of power and vulnerability, and where and to what extent we have responsibility for the well-being of one another; and what expectations we can reasonably have of one another

Any Christian congregation – ours included – is an arena in which these issues of power and vulnerability, of responsibility and expectations, of boundaries, plays out. It’s in the interplay of these things that we find the marrow of the life and ministry of the church, in which we all participate.

We gather here to work out our salvation, find fellowship with likeminded believers, to be edified, and to be equipped. And with the gathering of believers comes not only the presence of the Holy Spirit, but also the amalgamation of our pain, hurt, suffering and struggles.  Ultimately, the process of working together through these things and finding God’s grace in that, is as much the core business of the church as the more public aspects of our life together.

You all know this, really; I’m not telling you anything you haven’t observed for yourselves. If you’ve been in the church for more than five minutes you know something of what it’s like when someone in power tries to use that power for their own ends; or when someone’s weakness turns a meeting agenda on its head; or when we discover that what I think my job is, and what someone else thinks my job is, are two very different things indeed; and so forth. They’re all boundary issues of one sort or another.

So what can we do, to work on building our own healthy boundaries, and avoid making mistakes which are akin to Herod’s, in kind if not in scale? Every personality is different, and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer; but whether we find it in spiritual direction, or in meditation, or in prayer, or solitude, or therapy, we all need those times free from distraction in order to be clear about who we are.

And that is, at the end of the day, the core issue underlying so many boundary problems. If Herod had been clear about who he was – who he was as king, who he was in his family relationships, who he was as a Jew – clear about his own power and responsibilities, and clear about his own personal vulnerabilities and expectations, he could have avoided not only this debacle but also his later death in exile. Instead what we see is a weak man, fuddled in his relationships and easily manipulated by others.

In the same way, if we are clear about who we are – who we are as Christians, who we are in our personal relationships, who we are in our professional lives – we can be clear about our power and our responsibilities, be honest about our needs and seek to meet them appropriately, and be realistic in our expectations of one another. And we won’t find ourselves bound helplessly in the “winding magic, wherein heaven and hell were joined to lull men’s souls…in some fair trance” with which O’Shaughnessy so aptly described Herod’s dysregulated inner life.

Let us pray:

God of life,
bless this place, and all who gather here;
bless our giving and receiving,
bless our words and conversation,
bless our strengths and weaknesses,
bless our sowing and our growing,
bless our coming and our going,

*These lines are taken from Arthur O’Shaugnessy’s poem, Salome, the full text of which can be found here.

Looking to the future

“Once Honi was travelling on the road, and he noticed a man planting a carob-tree. He asked him how many years it would take before the tree would bear fruit, and the man answered: “Seventy years.” Honi then asked: “Art thou, then, sure that thou wilt live seventy years?” And the man replied: “I found carob-trees in existence when I came into the world, consequently my ancestors must have planted them. Why should I not also plant them for my children?” “

This story comes from the Babylonian Talmud, a compilation of Jewish Rabbinical scholarship (tractate Ta’anit, for the curious).  I found it when I was looking up prayers of blessing when planting trees (I was giving a tree as a house warming gift), but it made me pause for another reason.

You see, I anticipate moving house soon.  And although, in the ten years or so that we’ve lived in our current home, I’ve been happily doing what I can in the garden, knowing that it might only be the people who came after us who saw the full benefit, as soon as we had a definite horizon for moving out, something in my mindset switched.  I pondered only planting things in pots, that I could take with me when I moved.  I wondered whether it was worth maintaining what we had for the next few months, or whether I might as well neglect it, since I could not even be sure whether the person coming after me would want or care about a garden (or indeed, whether the people who bought our house might want to knock it down and start from scratch).  I was more interested in investing in the new place, which I would enjoy, than continuing to invest in the current one, which I was leaving.

So when I read this story, something in it niggled at my conscience.  What is the spiritual significance of my garden, and the legacy I leave here?  What does it mean to work for a fruitful future, even on my humble plot of land (and truth be told, I’m a very mediocre gardener)?

I’m not sure I have answers.  Part of thinking about that is second-guessing who might come after me.  Will it be someone who wants fruit trees, a vegetable garden, herb beds, fruiting vines over fences (everything I’ve fantasised about and only partly achieved)?  Or someone who wants something as low-maintenance as possible?  Or someone who wants to keep everything full of natives and encourage native bird and insect life?  All of these have worthwhile dimensions, so which one should I work with as a vision?

But even though I might only be here another three months, I’d rather wrestle with those questions, and do what I can, than write this garden off as no longer worth my attention.  In time there will be a new garden to shape, but for today, I give thanks for the person who planted the plum tree which now gives me a rich harvest, and ponder what blessing I might leave for those who come after me.

Of course, the metaphor extends beyond gardening.  There are many ways in which we plant for a fruitful future.  But I find this story an encouragement; I don’t need to see the fruit of my planting, or even know for certain that it will be enjoyed, to participate in the human chain of planting and blessing and openness to a fruitful legacy not entirely within my control.  There’s something of hope and trust and joy in that.  And that sits better than indifference to all but my own “success.”