Sunday 25 August 2013

So what is it that you do?

“What does a minister do?” By Bruce T Marshall

Last Sunday the kindergarten class stopped by my office for conversation. The question came up, “What does a minister do?”

That’s a tough one. I have a hard time explaining to my wife what I do. What do I say to five year olds?

“Makes speeches,” one child volunteered helpfully. We all quickly agreed on that. Yes I make speeches.

“Talks to people.” That’s true, all the talking I do is not in the form of speeches. I expect many of these five year olds have witnessed the scene in which somebody wants to go home but the minister is still “talking to people.”

“Solves problems.” This also was suggested by a participant. I was about to equivocate and say, “Well, lots of times I may try to solve problems, but the problems are difficult, and one person can’t do it all, and I can’t think of many problems that I actually have solved alone, but I try to do my part.” I thought about saying that but decided it would just confuse things. I swallowed hard and said, “Yes, I solve problems.”

“The minister talks to people when there are problems because it’s better to talk about problems than to hit each other.” What an elegant statement to come from a five year old, to come from anybody.

I’ll let that statement stand. Couldn’t have said it better myself.”

Some questions are just impossible to answer...

I was out with a friend recently. He was getting money from the hole in the wall and I was just kind of lingering on the street. Suddenly a friendly, attractive, young woman approached me saying “I bet I can guess your name”. Now please don't get too excited she wasn’t chatting me up, she was actually working for “Friends of the Earth” and was attempting to get me to give money to the organisation. 

She persisted and kept on saying “I bet I can guess your name, in a friendly slightly flirtatious way.” I just smiled and answered “Go on then” and she said “Dave, Steve, Andy, Mike” I shook my head and said “My middle name is David”. She carried on, but didn’t manage to guess. She then asked if I could guess her name, which I failed to do. My friend then arrived and she asked if he was my brother? To which I replied, “don’t insult him, he’s far too good looking to be related to me.” 

Frustrated she changed her tack and the next thing she asked was "so what do you do?" Now if I'd been really sharp, no doubt I would have responded "Well I mind my own business," but I'm not that sharp and besides she never gave me the time. Instead she quickly said, “are you unemployed.” To which I replied, “Of course not, why would you think that?” She said, "well most people walking round here at this time of day are”. I suspect that this is the answer that most folk give in order to stop her pestering them and interestingly I had just been to the job centre with my friend, who is on the job hunt. 

She continued attempting to guess what I do. She looked me up and down and said “I bet you work in construction” I just shook my head, she continued “are you a chef?” “Do you work in sales?” I bet you’re a civil servant?” This went on for quite some time and I just kept on shaking my head and saying, "you will never guess."

She didn’t.

In the end in order to put her out of her misery I told her what I do (Well really what I am). I said “I am a minister” at which point she stopped and her jaw dropped, again she looked me up and down and then looked at my friend who said, "yes he is" as he began to snigger. The young woman looked like she had fallen into a state somewhere between shock and terror. She stared for a few moments, which seemed like an eternity and then began to mumble “Well then you know what Friends of the Earth are all about then”, to which I replied “Yes I know all about Friends of the Earth”, she then said a few barely coherent things back at me, as all her confidence and brashness had now left her, I just smiled and chuckled. There then followed a short silence, that seemed to last for an eternity and then she turned and kind of lept in the air and pounced on an unsuspecting young man passing in the street and began her patter again “I bet I can guess your name” I turned to my friend and we burst out laughing and off we went for a coffee and a chat.

Now I don’t generally get a kick out of sucking the wind out of the sails of young women, but this encounter did amuse me.

I know I’m not your typical minister; I’m not sure I’m your typical anything; I’m not sure I’d want to be in any case. People who don’t know me are often surprised when they discover what I do. I was asked by someone recently and a few weeks later they confessed to being shocked at first. That said they had thought that at first I meant that I was a minister in the government and not a minister of religion. Now I wonder if that’s what the young woman thought...maybe, maybe not.

This of course brings to mind another question that I’m often asked... “So as a minister what do you?” Or sometimes, “what do you the rest of the week?” I’m also asked how is it going, the job I mean? Again this is hard to answer. My usual response is “Well they haven’t chased me out of town yet.” Which is quickly followed by, “I am loved, they love me”, "the work's a real blessing"

Oh if only people would ask me simple question like "What is the Meaning of Life?", or "If there is a God why is there so much suffering?", or "What happens when we die?" These seem far easier to answer than "So what exactly is a minister and what does a minister do?"

I love the responses that the children given in words by Bruce T Marshall above. I also love his final concluding words

“The minister talks to people when there are problems because it’s better to talk about problems than to hit each other.” What an elegant statement to come from a five year old, to come from anybody.

I’ll let that statement stand. Couldn’t have said it better myself.”

I do believe that it points to what the role of a minister is or what it means to minister. Now of course etymologically speaking to minister is to serve; and I believe that to serve is to love in the truest meaning of the word. Now the love I am talking of here is agape love, self giving love, love without prejudice. Which I believe is perfectly exemplified in this verse from Matthew’s Gospel chapter ch 5 vv 48 “Therefore be the perfect, like your father in heaven is perfect”. This is the love that is the root from which ministry must grow. Perfect love is love without prejudice, love for all regardless of where a person has been, who they are, where they are from, what they may or may not have done in the past. This is the love that is expressed in the prodigal son parable. To me this is the essence of love and service; this is the essence of ministry. It is the purpose of my role and it is the primary purpose of a truly religious community. This I believe is the spirit that must run through all that I do and the communities I serve do. Now of course I fall short of this as does the community of people I serve, but we do aspire, we aim at this and accept that it is ok to fall short.

No one can get everything right. I need to remember that. I believe that every human needs to remember that.

I recently came across a wonderful meditation “The Church Where Everything Goes Wrong." by Elea Kemler. She is writing about her experiences of being a minister in a new congregation and all the problems and difficulties that she has to endure in attempting to keep her fellowship of love afloat. At the end of a piece filled with frustration at everything that goes wrong she writes:

“But I also imagine a God who is touched and a little honored by our efforts, however halting, to worship and give praise. I imagine a God who is moved by our attempts to care for one another and to name the things we know as holy. There is a warmth in this congregation that is new to me, a simple friendliness that shines through the fumblings and failures, a love that makes the ragged edges smooth. I have always wanted to believe that our mistakes aren't the most important parts of us. I have always wanted to believe that kindness and compassion matter more than anything. I sense that I can learn this here.”

I too want to believe that kindness and compassion are what matter the most; I do believe that they are the essence of love and service; I do believe that they are the root of true religion.

The Unitarian tradition that I belong to has emphasised not only the priesthood, but also the prophet hood of all believers. I am not the only one who ministers in the congregations I serve. I believe that everyone in the communities ministers to one another in one degree or another; the diverse communities of individuals minister not only to one another, but also to the wider community. We offer love and service to all. We welcome all, to come as they are, exactly as they are, but not to expect to leave in exactly the same condition; to be transformed in a loving and accepting way when they leave and to carry that out into their world.

I keep on wondering about that conversation with the young woman. It matters to me what people think. I care what people think, not only of me, but of what I do. It bothers me that a person can look with fear at me, because of what I do. Do not get me wrong, I do not take it personally. Nor am I ruled by what people think of me, but I do care. To no longer care about things sounds hellish to me.

The fear I would guess stems from the way that religion is viewed in this country. This is of course the fault, to some degree, of religion itself which at times does not come across as loving and accepting of all, quite the opposite, it can be divisive and against some people. That said I do not believe that this is the essence, the true essence, of religion.

Religion for me, or at least the free religion that I aspire to is about love and service. It’s about walking with people in their despair and their hope, in their suffering and their bliss and all that lies in between. It’s about accepting them as they are in all that they are. This is love in its truest sense. It’s about offering perfect love and making that love manifest in the world in which we live and have our being.

Sunday 4 August 2013

Nostalgia for the Present

“I live according to a few simple principles. One I call “nostalgia for the present” (embracing each day as it passes rather that ruing it after it’s gone). Another way you might put this is “looking forward to the present” (enjoying what you have as if in a state of anticipation rather than aching longingly for that which very likely will not be). By focusing one’s energy, to the extent that is possible, on the present, one is liberated from fears of the future and also liberated from regrets about the past. I have seen people in the last weeks of their lives live every minute more fully than they have before, because they recognise what most of us don’t in our daily living; that each moment is precious.

The opposite of wishful thinking (wishing for something you lack) is thoughtful wishing (thinking to wish for what you’ve got right now). What we have right now is this day with the wind blowing and mottled light on the mountains in this beautiful place, carrying on a conversation with another human being who is also going to die. It’s very precious. It’s a miracle that we’re even able to converse. We tend, I think, to take our lives for granted rather than receiving them daily as a gift. I would hope that each day I live I might, through some encounter, be born again to an awareness and appreciation for the gift, the mystery of being, the wonder and the miracle. Not the miracle out there, but the miracle in here.”

Forrest Church

Please listen to the attached meditation before continuing

I recently spent some time with old mates back home in Yorkshire. It was a kind of reunion at a pub that we all use to drink in and get up to all sorts, as young people do. It was a great night and one I thoroughly enjoyed. We reminisced about times gone by. There was a lot of talk about a band that four of us use to be in 20 years ago and those wild and crazy days. It is actually the first time that all four of us have been together for many a year. Three of us no longer live in the area and the one who still does will soon be moving away himself. Now the conversation may have got a little out of hand by the end of proceedings because we did agree to get back together for one final one off gig. Something we may live to regret. We shall see.

Whatever comes of it, it was wonderful to spend time in the company of people who have known me all my adult life and it was great to share memories, some of which have been long lost. It was also great to re-feel these memories in a different light and from a different perspective. Life does seem so different today.

I was recently told by a friend that I am same person I have always been and yet I am so different. I understand what he meant. I suspect that the main difference today is that I am fully present in the life I live. I no longer feel weighted down by the past or in fear of what is to come. I feel connected to what is here right now and I am thankful for the feast in front of me. I am hungry for it.

To reminisce is of course a good thing. To relive old memories and loves can bring joy to the heart and to the spirit. That said there are dangers too. I know that there have been times in my life when I have found the past very painful. I could not have had the conversations I had the other week just 10 years ago. It would have filled me with anger, fear, pain and shame. It would not have been the conversations themselves that would have caused this, more my own memories of my own life and those experiences.

Memory really is a peculiar thing. As I look back at my life today it seems so different than it was ten years ago. The pain and the suffering I have experienced is still there and is still real, that said it is now in its proper proportion, it is surrounded by love and joy and laughter, as all lives are. The problem I suffered from back then was that I just kept getting stuck in my troubles. I did attempt to come to terms with them, I tried to examine them honestly, but could not. Instead I just spent ages lost in my own and other people’s underwear, with seemingly no way out. Thank God this is no longer the case. By the way I do thank God for this, for it is faith that has allowed me to look the world in the eye again and experience the joy of living. It has allowed me to see my life as it really was and not as I remembered it.

They say that the true gift of life is in the present, that only now exists; that to live healthily, spiritually, you have to embrace the now. They say that if you focus on what is there that the pain of the past will disappear and the fear of the future will diminish. This is easier said than done.

Now while not wishing to argue with this truth, experience has taught me that this is only half the answer. The key I have discovered is that by coming to terms with the past and learning lessons from it I have been better able to fully connect to what is there and to no longer be ruled by what is yet to come. Much of the last few years of my life have been about rebuilding relationships on every level of life, physical, mental and spiritual. I have found that by doing so I have been able to truly “sing the joy of living”, by connecting to all that is there.

I spent a long time trying to flee from what was actually there, believing it to be the problem; I was searching for answers that were not to be found elsewhere. Finally I quit searching; I stopped and was able to appreciate the fruits and whatever else was there. I learnt to love what was there, a bit like the man in the dandelions story that I so love to tell.

I have been a minister for three years now, hard to believe! During this time I have been guided by the wisdom of Forrest Church. His writings have held me as I have learnt the craft of ministry. One of the principles he lived by was “nostalgia for the present”. He described this as embracing each day as it passes instead of ruing it after it has gone. Or “looking forward to the present” which he has described as enjoying what you have as if in a state of anticipation rather than aching longingly for that which likely will never be.

Now this became really pertinent during the last years of his life as he died of Oesophageal cancer, as he learnt that he had to practise what he had always preached. And where did this wisdom come from? It came from pastoral ministry. He learnt it as he shared in the lives of so many people, especially those at the ends of their lives. As he wrote himself “I have seen people in the last weeks of their lives live every moment more fully than they ever have before, because they recognise what most of us don’t in our daily living: that each moment is precious.” That even in those last moments of life there is a potential for peace, beauty and completion.

I remember a Unitarian colleague tell me that he had become convinced of God’s presence in life during those moments that he shared with people just before they died. That something was happening in those moments that he cannot begin to describe, all that he knows is that life took on a different meaning during this time and that he himself was transformed by being present then. The conversation has stayed me, it keeps speaking to me. I believe I am beginning to see the truth within it. It's one of those "Spots of Time" moments. It is another of those great moments from the past that has helped me to better connect to the present and not fear what is to come.

It is hard to believe that I have served the good folk of Altrincham and Urmston for three years now. We have experienced so much together, connected to so much, they have taught me so much. What has become clear to me during this time is that above everything ministry, certainly my ministry, is about being a guest in the lives of other people. It is about being present in their lives. I can think of no greater privilege than to be invited into the lives of other people, at the level that these beautiful people have invited me into their lives. In those precious moments I have experienced life in a way I never dreamed possible. Sometimes this has been challenging, difficult, disturbing and even painful, but it has been beautiful. I couldn’t have asked for anything more.

My life seems so rich in meaning today because I have learnt to accept what can be mine rather than wasting my time wishing for what cannot. I can see the gifts I am surrounded by and I love them, even the dandelions. This is what ministry is, whether it’s the ministry I do as a professional minister or the ministry the communities I serve do together. When we enter into the lives of each other we empty ourselves and yet by doing so we find ourselves abundantly filled with love and by giving ourselves to one another we discover ourselves in that encounter; by doing so we connect to ourselves, to one another and to that Great Reality in a deep and meaningful ways; by doing so we are no longer cut adrift, but connected to all that is; by doing so we are no longer empty, but fully filled.

I’m going to end with a final few words from Forrest. This seems appropriate having spent three years being guided by him from the grave. In his final book
“The Cathedral of the World” at the end of the chapter “The Search for Meaning” he wrote:

“So it's pretty simple for me: Love when you can. Do the work that is yours to do. Be the person that is yours to be at any given time. Think to wish for what is yours at this very moment. To love. To serve. To touch. To know. Think to wish for all that is yours to have. Think to wish for all that is yours to do. And think to wish that you might be who it is that you might most fully be. Avoid wishful thinking. Avoid the traps and pitfalls of nostalgia for the past. Savor every moment as it passes. And enlist yourself in saving that which can be saved this very moment, in order that it, too, may endure for others to enjoy.”