Panning for gold.. I have done it a few times, usually with children- standing with a sieve/pan usually in cold water, scanning through an awful lot of grit and gravel to see if there is the teeniest glint of gold. Didn’t feel dissimilar to what I have spent the last few weeks doing – trawling through many many books for essay research. I never did find any of the real stuff- but I have this time around.
I am writing about taking a congregation through the sometimes tricky and painful process of change, and looking at the subject from a whole variety of angles. Fear not, I will not be foisting my essay on an unsuspecting public – but I thought a few of the nuggets I found along the way were definitely worth sharing. They were worth finding, regardless if I can use them in the essay or not..
John O’Donohue, late poet/writer/thinker/priest, is writing about the intoxicating combination of hope and insight. “Some of the most decisive moment in one’s life are when someone shows you a new frontier and helps you across into a world of new possibilities and promise. To be helped towards a new way of seeing is to be given access to a whole new world. At its highest point of intensity and possibility Meister Eckhart refers to this as the Birth of God in the Soul”
“the Birth of God in the Soul” what a wonderful way of expressing it! Perhaps it particularly appeals to me, as a former midwife. Being a ‘spiritual midwife’ is very much part of what I see priesthood being about. Helping to birth God in the souls of others. It was an awesome privilege to deliver each of the precious babies I brought into the world. A wonder that I never got blasé about. My last delivery ever, was undiagnosed twins on a GP unit ( the 2nd one, a breech) but that is another whole story.
Going back to nursing, I took up palliative care nursing- very much a type of ‘midwifery’ at the other end of life. Travelling barefoot with individuals and their families on the Holy ground of the approach to death. Both birth and death involve the whole family, and are perhaps the most dramatic points of change that happen to any of us. Both types of midwifery involve reducing the fear, and the pain and retaining as much dignity as possible. Both involved (for me anyway) staying with the person in and through the pain, physical or psychological. Accompanying with compassion. ( the Latin root of the word compassion means ‘to suffer together with’ . A costly, but precious privilege.
Travelling with individuals and more particularly with whole groups and congregations through the processes of change has many echoes of both sorts of midwifery. I loved the way Ann Morrisy in the book Journeying Out uses the phrase ‘cascades of Grace’ to describe what happens when a congregation starts to look and then move outwards into the community, perhaps for the first time.
“Willingness to be alongside those who know deeply about struggle, are without power and aware of the possibility of being overwhelmed is what venturesome love is all about. Community ministry involves the provision of structures that enable people to express venturesome love..”
And in so doing, so venturing, start off a cascade of grace benefiting everyone involved. Morrisy also links this with the miracle of the water in to wine. Likening the church to the worried wedding hosts whose wine is running out.. what do we do?
What do they do? What do the servants do when they are given a nonsensical command by Jesus in response to the predicament? Go and fill up huge water jars with water ( no mean feat and involving a fair bit of work and effort) and then serve them up as if they were wine. And behold, their obedience, their willingness to ‘journey out’ of common sense and comfort zones result in the finest of wines being available in abundance. A cascade of grace. God’s extravagance revealed in the first miracle.
Returning to where I started.. crossing frontiers, entering new worlds. A wondrous but often frightening experience. In morning prayer today, the Old Testament passage was from Joshua chapter 1 . Joshua is about to take the people of Israel across the Jordan, into an unknown land. God speaks to him and says:
“I will not fail you or forsake you. ..Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed. For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go. “
Only thing that counts.