To Blog or Not – that is the question

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Dear Linda and Mary (I’ve changed your names)

I was interested by your question, whether to blog or not. I thought I’d use a blog post to respond. It might seem less personal than an email response, or over the desk conversation, but others might be able to eavesdrop on this conversation if I blog in answer to your question. (And that is just one of the advantages of blogging.)

I have hit a brick wall with my blogging recently. I had thought that those who were posting had become more “expert” about their content. That was off-putting and intimidating. That might just have been an excuse I was using because I wasn’t finding the time for blogging (and I didn’t seem to have any inspiration). Here’s a summary of excuses I could have used (and being able to make these links is another advantage of blogging).

But your question has caused me to re-think.

You will notice from blogs you’ve read that there is a lot of learning contained in people’s posts. There is a lot of expertise on technical matters, as, for example, in this post on how to set up a blog (which you may find useful). But then, you really don’t have to be an expert to blog. I regard my blog as a memory bank – a jog for my memory and a way of reflecting on what I notice. It’s a workbench on which I can hammer out a few ideas. They’ll never be finished or finely polished, but I am learning and the blog is a useful place to put some of that learning.

I also don’t see any point in keeping things to myself. I do have a heart for some things and I do have a voice which is not to be kept silent, in spite of my introverted nature. I don’t believe that any of us should hide our light under a bushel (particularly in dark times) and I do believe that we should be sharing what we know in as many ways as we can.

But then, there are people who complain of the noise. They say that there is so much out there – so much noise, but so little sense: so much information but so little wisdom. Probably the same complaint has echoed through human history, from the time we started to talk, to the advent of the postal services, to the current development of online social media (social media is as old as our talk). Unless we use our intelligence to interpret the noise our talk will be babble, our mail will be junk and our conversation meaningless. Blogging is just another way of talking things through together – a way of publishing. Nobody needs to buy into what we have to say – but it is what we have to say, it is our part of the conversation. (I tried working this out in a post I called Chitter-Chatter five years ago – see how I can refer back to what I have done?)

I do have a bit of a problem about how social media fits my work culture. It’s widely seen as a distraction. But if we work by sharing then blogging seems an ideal means to that end.

I would be interested in what you have to say because I know that you are in unique situations and I would love to know what you are making of those situations given your own passions and interests. I won’t promise to keep up with your posts if you do choose to blog though I will click the “follow” button.

It doesn’t really matter to me how many “readers” or followers we have. I think I am the main beneficiary of my own blog because of the opportunity it gives me to do some creative writing, because it gives somewhere to put my stuff, because it helps me work things out of me and because it makes me interesting to me.

Happy blogging
David

PS You might be interested in this no-excuses guide to blogging from Sacha Chua. She suggests that you always start with a question when you blog. So I did. To blog or not to blog – I am grateful that you asked me the question. Why not have a look at Sacha’s blog for some inspiration?

You zig while I zag – reflecting on some Myers-Briggs training

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The way we make decisions and solve problems was described in terms of a zigzag by Isabel Briggs-Myers. Friend and colleague Julia McGuinness walked a group of us through the zigzag and highlighted how the hierarchy of what Myers-Briggs refers to as our “mental functions” affects the way we make decisions. Typically decisions flow from sensing (defining the problem) to intuition (considering possibilities) to thinking (weighing consequences) to feeling (weighing alternatives). This process reflects the pastoral cycle used for theological reflection (with the process often described as experience > exploration > reflection > response) and Kolb’s Learning Cycle (with accompanying learning styles inventory).

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Each of us has a hierarchy of mental functions. There are two pairs of functions. The first pair is about how we perceive, and they are sensing (S) and intuition (N). The second pair is about how we judge, and they are thinking (T) and feeling (F). Each of us has a preference one of those functions in each pair – they become the middle two letters in a Myers-Briggs profile. One is known as the “dominant” function, and the other is the “auxiliary”. Anyone who knows their MB profile can work out which is dominant depending on whether they are “judging” (J) or “perceiving” (P) types and whether they are extravert (E) or introvert (I). For example, someone who is ESTJ has thinking as their dominant function, sensing as their auxiliary, intuition as their “tertiary”. The hierarchy for an ESTJ is thus:

  1. thinking
  2. sensing
  3. intuition
  4. feeling

Elise Enriques Touchette at Shine a Light Coaching identifies them as driver, passenger, disengaged child in the back and baby rather than dominant, auxiliary etc, making the point that we have to make an effort to engage the disengaged child (the one less inclined to function). She uses a square to describe the ideal decision making process from sensing to feeling via intuition and thinking. The process is squared and divided into equal quarters.

myers-briggs

But life is not like that. We start our own decision making processes from out positions of strength. We have a mental function that drives us, that gets us going. The driver for the ENFJ and the INFP is pictured at the top of the right hand diagram, and the shape within the triangle is the measure of the time, ability/inclination/preference the driver brings to the process. Thinking is the baby in the car – there is little ability, inclination or preference to “apply logic”. (I know – I am an INFP!)

The hierarchy of mental functions demonstrates that we find some things easier than others (as if we need to be told that). It reinforces the fact that we need each other to complement one another – that we do need to collaborate in ministry, learning, everything. It reminds me that I need to stretch myself in some directions I find difficult and that I need the help of others for what I find well-nigh impossible.

What is true for us as individuals is also true for any group. The hospital chaplains I mentioned above are not the only group in which the mental functions aren’t equally shared. Any congregation, family, business organisation has its strengths and has its weaknesses which they will need to address either by finding help from the right sources or by making the effort of stretching out from my comfort zone. For me that will be concentrating more on the larger picture (N) and learning to look more at the facts (S). The “T” I might have to leave for another life.

Leadership Styles and a Political Divide

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Sometimes you hear bells ringing all the while through reading a book. There was so many chimes in Finding Your Leadership Style by Keith Lamdin – so many “just so” moments”, so many reminders of other reading – and I so agreed with the direction of Keith Lamdin’s travel.

Two women staffing a train tea trolley lead Lamdin’s book. While passengers on a delayed train were getting upset about missing their connections these “trolley assistants read the emotional climate of the passengers on the train and knew that they needed to stay calm”. They led in that moment offering “something different from those more familiar teachings about leadership, vision and motivation”. Their example demands a second look at “leadership” and suggests that leadership is for all types, leadership is not something special and that all of us have natural ability to lead others – though some make better leaders than others. Lamdin writes:

“leadership, like love, is a natural human capacity and that what makes Christian leaders distinctive is their seeking to live as disciples of Jesus. Discipleship informs our discontent, colours and shapes our vision and strategic purpose, and fuels our courage.”

That discontent, vision and courage is what calls people into leadership.

Lamdin describes six leadership styles: monarch, warrior,  servant, elder, contemplative and prophet. They fall into one of two categories: the politics of salvation or the politics of revelation (h/t Gordon Lawrence for that).

Monarchy exists where one person is in charge. If the buck stops anywhere it stops with the monarch. Lamdin suggests that monarchy and hierarchy can’t be justified from Jesus’ teaching. He says that there is nothing hierarchical about a priest’s walk alongside others in the territory of the holy (Countryman’s language) but “the moment that a priest is appointed and installed as a rector, vicar or priest in charge, he or she is bound into the hierarchy”.

A lot of leadership thinking has taken place within earshot of battle and this has given rise to the warrior category. So, for example, early British writing on leadership was shaped by experience of leadership in World War 2. “They” (for example, Bion and Adair) “developed ideas about officer selection, and the language of strategic objectives, missions, leadership development and battle plans seemed to transfer easily enough into the post-war world of reconstruction.” I remember a time when the Diocese of Chester was led by a Major and a Wing-Commander – not only officers, but also gentlemen – and there was a special room at diocesan HQ marked “hierarchy” with a capital H! This tone of leadership is reinforced by the “heroic warrior paradigm” that is the basis of much of Christian formation (for example, Joshua, Gideon, David, and even Jesus).

The monarch and the warrior belong to the “politics of salvation”. Lawrence understands “politics” as “the sense of influence of one person or party over another”. The politics of salvation is demonstrated through the “isms” – communism, fascism, capitalism and democracy. “The preoccupation of the politics of salvation is with change – that is, others holding power impose it from the outside on individuals and systems”.

The monarchs and warriors within our systems are easily identified and they have their place. In certain contexts they are the right styles of leadership. So, Lamdin comments, “the monarch provides safety and stability and organisational effectiveness” and “many great changes in social welfare and charitable work are fuelled by this sense of energy, vision and sacrifice. Where the enemy can be constructed and named, whether it is slavery, child poverty, capitalism or socialism, Christianity or Islam, then the energies of the warrior leader are released”.

I would suggest that there is a problem in any organisation that organises itself around these two models of leadership because they are only particularly suitable for certain contexts (where there needs to be a rule and where there’s a battle). Lives which become just that are dysfunctional and organisations that become just that are abusive and xenophobic.

These are also male models of leadership. In a paternalistic and patronizing culture the likelihood is that the monarch is going to be male (and does monarchy thrive in cultures that aren’t paternal and patronizing?). Sport is prominent in our culture. So much of the talk within sport is fighting talk (defence/attack, fighting relegation etc etc) that it isn’t surprising that we have so many “warriors”.

Was Jesus not spending time with those who’d had more than enough of monarchs and warriors? He spends his time with those the monarchy cast out and he challenged the very essence of enmity by teaching his disciples to love their enemies. Was he not saying that we’ve had enough? Does he not expose the limitations (and suffering) of the monarchs and warriors, indicating other ways that deepen and transform community? Lamdin writes: “Jesus finds himself in a religious culture which should be liberating but which is stifled by regulation and political compromise. He sets himself against the establishment and seeks to overturn it with his capacity bot to heal people and to teach them about his understanding of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”.

The politics of revelation is the landscape from which the trolley assistants emerge. Their leadership takes people (eg Lamdin) by surprise. Their leadership is a revelation. For Lawrence, “the politics of revelation is preoccupied with the conditions and resources for the exercise of transformation that come from inside the person or system, and are brought about through the people revealing what may be the truth of their situation to themselves and taking authority to act on their interpretation”.

The move from one politics to the other is, according to Lawrence, a paradigm shift. It is a shift which allows us to notice a wider range of leadership, to allow the emotionally intelligent trolley ladies to lead us and to recast our organisation for more than battle and an imposed rule.

Lamdin recognises the servant, the elder, the contemplative and the prophet. Of servant-leaders, Steven Covey writes:

“It has generally been my experience that the very top people of truly great organisations are servant-leaders. They are the most humble, the most reverent, the most open, the most teachable, the most respectful, the most caring and the most determined.”

They lead by relationships, not by coercion or domination, guiding people, not driving them.

The elder is the source of wisdom in many communities (though in western society the elder is often redundant). The elder is the consultant belonging to the wisdom tradition represented so well by Jesus through his parables. Here there is no interpretation imposed from outside. Lamdin writes beautifully about this:

“Every time you are faced with something that puzzles you and you discuss it with friends and in the end come to your own decision, you are exercising your freedom and your responsibility. You are more fully inhabiting the world that God has given us in which to work out what it means to be made in God’s image. Every time you do what you are told without thinking, you opt out of the calling that the early stories of Genesis seem to indicate God has imagined for us all.”

The contemplative secures the place of the important and the priority for “prayer, meditation and contemplation” in a world that is at it 24/7.

Lamdin’s comments on the prophet are inspired by Arbuckle’s work on leadership, which Lamdin refers to as the “only book on leadership which is about dissent”. Gerry Arbuckle suggests that the “healthy future of any organisation is to be found not only in the leadership of the hierarchy but also in the leadership that emerges in dissatisfaction and dissents, and in the conflicts between them” It is the prophet who raises the voice of the poor and needy, “a voice that cries for justice, an end to evil abuse of power and the redistribution of wealth”.

Some questions:

Where is there monarchy and where are the warriors in my organisation? Are they strictly necessary in these circumstances?
Should we build a whole leadership industry around them?
Do the politics of salvation shape our pedagogy and church? What would they look like if they didn’t?
And where are the servants, elders, contemplatives and prophets through whom our souls really rejoice?

The Heresy of Western Leadership

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I am grateful to Justin Lewis-Anthony’s scepticism about leadership. The same day that America was going to the polls to elect Donald Trump I was exploring leadership in ministry with friends and colleagues in the Diocese of Chester including Helen Scarisbrick and Jenny Bridgman. Lewis-Anthony suggests that the leadership bandwagon started rolling in the early 90’s (he blames George Carey), and since then leadership programmes in the church have been proliferating. The Diocese of Chester was quick onto the bandwagon and I was involved in one of their first courses. (I don’t understand why we haven’t given as much attention to other ships which have a more legitimate claim to be part of the fleet – we never hear of friendship, fellowship or companionship training programmes do we, even though there is more theological justification for them?)

Where do our ideas of leadership come from, and why are we so bothered about leadership anyway?

Justin Lewis-Anthony’s book has the clever title You are the Messiah and I Should Know: Why Leadership is a Myth (and Probably a Heresy)He traces our thinking about leadership to the double headed Emersonian “ur-myth” of “the frontier” and “the American Adam”. For Lewis-Anthony “there is a layer of mythology which is omnipresent, omnipotent and omni-transparent, pervading and influencing every part of our understanding of the world. Our knowledge of leadership comes from believing in and living under the power of the myth of leadership”.

There is a reminder here that we can’t escape mythology in ideology. Drawing on the work of Levi-Strauss, Lewis-Anthony reminds us that ideology develop in an unconscious process shaped by the stories which we tell ourselves. He quotes Kelton Cobb (p.99):

Our myths feed us our scripts. We imitate the quests and struggles of the dominant figures in the myths and rehearse our lives informed by mythic plots. We awaken to a set of sacred stories, and then proceed to apprehend the world and express ourselves in terms of these stories. They shape us secretly at a formative age and remain with us, informing the ongoing narrative constructions of our experience. They teach us to perceive the world as we order our outlooks and choices in terms of their patterns and plots.

In other words, we are caught in a bubble – a bind. Once the myth making took place round the camp-fire. Since the 1950’s it’s been on-screen through film making. One nation has dominated the film industry, and consequently the unconscious formation of our ideology. For a long time we have been subjected to the only films available which have relentlessly had the same story to tell. They have fed us our scripts.

Lewis-Anthony quotes German film maker, Wim Wenders: “No other country in the world has sold itself so much and sent its images, its self-image, with such power into every corner of the world. For 70 or 80 years, since the existence o cinema, American films – or better, this ONE American film has been preaching the dream … of the Promised Land.” (p.75).

The frontier is not about place, but about defining experience. It is to the frontier that the American intellect, according to Turner, owes its striking characteristics. “That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom – these are the traits of the frontier.” (p.81).

The American Adam myth breeds the individualism that Turner talks about and which is such a modern phenomenon. The frontier depend the sense of individualism to the extent that Americans told themselves, according to Billington, that “every man was a self dependent individual, fully capable of caring for himself without the aid of society.” (p.93).

The journey to the frontier is essentially westwards. The journey spawned a genre of film which took over our screens, the “Western”. The western myths of the Western have shaped a leadership that is essentially masculine and white. The films show how the west was won and defended and how the wild was tamed and controlled. Typically the hero is a man “in the middle, between civilisation and savagery”. Lawrence and Jewett describe the Myth: “A community in harmonious paradise is threatened by evil: normal institutions fail to contend with this threat; a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task: aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradise condition: the superhero then tends to recede into obscurity.” (p.210).

The American Adam is a man, and a man with a gun. Lewis-Anthony is quite right to point out that in carrying out the redemptive task, the American Adam becomes the American Cain. But it is with the status of hero and leader that this American Cain is expelled, rather than with a curse.

For Lewis-Anthony any leadership based on this Myth is fundamentally violent, and therefore wrong. “Under the American mono myth of redemptive violence, to be a leader/hero means to be prepared to use violence. To be a disciple/follower means to accept, in turn, an invitation to use and be thrilled by violence.” (p.213). Leadership in our society is “fatally flawed by its roots in violence, the will to power and destruction”.

Tom Wright asks the question about “what any of this has to do with something most Americans also believe, that the God of ultimate justice and truth was fully and finally revealed in the crucified Jesus of Nazareth, who taught people to love their enemies, and warned that those who take the sword will perish by the sword”. Lewis-Anthony continues: “Wright reminds those within the church, the ‘religious admirers of leadership’ that there is a basic problem in this admiration of North American society. With its roots in the mythic use of violence by the outsider, the extra-societal Adam, what can we find in the scriptural tradition to counteract, or set aside, this cult of violence? Surely we can find some ways in which the crucified Jesus of Nazareth rescues leadership from both Marduk and John Wayne.”(p.213).

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Why are we bothered about leadership? It matters to those who are the victims of leadership violence. It matters to those of us whose minds have been made up by a myth of leadership. It matters to those who are excluded by such a myth – anyone who is not a white, male, rooting’ tooting’ son of a gun. It matters to God’s mission. The Washington Free Beacon has put these two images together, a Nazi rally – which inspired a scene in Star Wars. It all looks frighteningly ecclesiastical, except there’s more people.

Playmaking leadership in the eyes and hands of great conductors


Itay Talgam uses the faces of conductors to talk through different leadership styles. On one extreme is the face of Riccardo Muti. He is shown as very commanding and competent. He has the expression of one who is responsible for Mozart. He wants the music to be played his way, the proper way. As competent as he was, 700 music employees of La Scala wrote to him (2005) asking him to resign because, they felt, he was using them as instruments.

Talgam uses the expressions of Herbert von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein and Carlos Kleiber to explore other ways of leading without commanding. In those expressions there is the encouragement for the orchestra to exercise their own responsibility, to express themselves, to add interpretation, to become storytellers themselves. They are expressions that energise their fellow professionals. Kleiber is shown as rejoicing in the play, joining with the orchestra in spreading happiness. Great conductors and leaders are playmakers. Just watch from 19:27 to see leaderful joy.

This happy and blessed state is the product of hard work. There are hours of meticulous practice as the music gets under the skin of the musicians. They are led and lead each other to this ecstasy through the practice of the community, by listening to one another, by responding to each other, by loving each other. They all know their place in the social system and play their responsible part in it, with their abilities, goals and wills, according to the boundaries of the organisation. It’s hard work that works magic.

Conducting has often been used as a metaphor for leadership. The metaphor raises the importance of listening and negotiating the parts we want to play, the level which we want to work together and practice together. It shows the possibilities of engagement and empowerment which dissolves organisational boundaries as play pleases, drawing others in pleasure.

Doula dos and dupes …. and ministry

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Doula (L) with newborn and mother” by TheLawleys – http://www.flickr.com/photos/lawley/2056696634. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

What do clergy do? Well, the joke goes that they work on Sundays. And they joke when someone thoughtlessly asks “what are you doing for Christmas”. Whatever they do puts clergy on top of the pile when it comes to job satisfaction.

What do clergy do, especially when it looks like nothing? That’s the title of an excellent book on ministry by Emma Percy that leaves the impression that clergy should actually find it difficult to answer the question, “what do clergy do?” It’s a reminder, for Emma, of what many mothers ask at the end of a busy day – “What have I done all day?” They don’t see the answer themselves. In fact, they have done a lot but it feels like nothing.

What does a doula do? That was a man question on Radio 5 yesterday as Nicky Campbell asked a doula from Somerset what she did. She found it difficult to answer. She tried. “A doula does a whole range of things”, she said. “She is just there”, she said. She is there for the family, helping women to have the birth they want. I got the impression that a doula can’t narrow their job to one thing, or the other, or the many – but only the every thing that is needed. And Nicky Campbell asked, “what does a doula do in the birthing room?” “Well” she said. “Sometimes I do nothing, or knit and drink tea, sometimes I give massage for 15 hours at a time – whatever is needed.”

And that is what a doula does. And that is what a minister does. And that is what anyone does who respects the life-giving power of another. Here’s how another doula explains that a doula is “somebody on the journey who will be there for you no matter what”. “Rather Christ-like” is what I have to say, and, rather overwhelmed with the obsession with leadership talk as I am, I’d also want to say that it’s a view of ministry in which leadership talk is laid to rest in wisdom and helpfulness.

The word “doula” originates in the ancient Greek word δούλη which is the feminine form of “slave”. The doula is non-technical, non-medical – her only qualification is her experience as a woman and her willingness to share her practical wisdom.

Shiphrah (her name means “brightness”) and Puah (her name means “splendid”) are outstanding women who get a mention in Exodus 1:15-20. They are really doulas, although they are known as midwives who trick the Pharoah and resist his final solution to the Hebrew problem. He ordered them to kill the boy babies but Shiphrah and Puah have a reverence for life and carry on their work of bringing life into the world. They show themselves as wise women and they show the Pharoah up as totally stupid. Ackerman writes that rather than cower before the most powerful man on earth they “defend themselves with straight faces against Pharoah’s charge of insubordination. Their lives are at stake, and yet their sly comparison between the vigorous Hebrew women and the pampered Egyptians comes through as totally credible to the ‘wise’ king: ‘Oh yes, of course, that would be a problem, wouldn’t it?’ There is a great relish in this uneven conflict between the effete elite and the crude, but shrewd, vital, and resourceful, oppressed. The king fails to realise that not only is he being deceived, but he is also being mocked.”

That’s what doulas can do. That’s what ministers can do – but never just that.

Growing Gardens of Love

How disappointing is joyless religion? William Blake captures the disappointment so well in The Garden of Love.

I went to the Garden of Love,
and saw what I never had seen;
a Chapel was built in the midst,
where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
and ‘thou shalt not’ written over the door;
so I turned to the Garden of Love
that so many sweet flowers bore.

And I saw it was filled with graves,
and tombstones where flowers should be;
and priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
and binding with briars my joys and desires.

This is big religion and tragic religion. This is religion that perversely keeps watch, that keeps people out of the garden, that cancels playtime. It overpowers many faith communities around the world. Eucharistic religion, on the other hand, rejoices in the present moment, delights in love and hope, and grows new gardens of playfulness. Church planters take note.

The photo has been released into public domain by its author, Chitrapa at the wikipedia project

The gateway where hope and history rhyme

Migrant Mother - Dorothea Lange 1936
Migrant Mother – Dorothea Lange 1936

In her beautiful blog, Maria Popova describes Reverend Victoria Stafford’s meditation in The Small Work in the Great Work (in the collection The Impossible Will Take a Little While: Perseverance and Hope in Troubled Times) as “gorgeous”. Stafford is “interested in what Seamus Heaney calls the meeting point of hope and history, where what has happened is met by what we make of it. What has happened is met midstream by people who are … spiritual beings and all that implies from creativity, imagination, crazy wisdom, passionate compassion, selfless courage, and radical reverence for life.” Here is how Heaney puts it in The Cure at Troy where hope and history rhyme:

Human beings suffer,
They torture one another,
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.

The innocent in gaols
Beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker’s father
Stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
Faints at the funeral home.

History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracle
And cures and healing wells.

Popova frames her post with Dorothea Lange’s iconic photograph of Migrant Mother. The woman moved by Lange is possibly a Californian pea picker in the Great Depression. Perhaps Popova has been prompted to turn to this photo by Stafford’s anecdote:

“I have a friend who traffics in words. She is not a minister, but a psychiatrist in the health clinic at a prestigious women’s college. We were sitting once not long after a student she had known and counselled,  had committed suicide… My friend, the doctor, the healer, held the loss very closely in those first few days, not unprofessionally, but deeply, fully – as you or I would have, had this been someone in our care.

At one point (with tears streaming down her face), she looked up in defiance (this is the only word for it) and spoke explicitly of her vocation, as if out of the ashes of that day she were renewing a vow or making a new covenant (and I think she was). She spoke explicitly of her vocation, and of yours and mine. She said, “You know I cannot save them. I am not here to save anybody or to save the world. All I can do – what I am called to do – is to plant myself at the gates of Hope. Sometimes they come in; sometimes they walk by. But I stand there every day and I call out till my lungs are sore with calling, and beckon and urge them toward beautiful life and love.”

Michael Sadgrove also claims the “gate” as the standpoint for Christian ministry. Considering Job in his book Wisdom and Ministry, Sadgrove asks about the piety required of those who are called to be friends and comforters to those who have to endure pain, and says that we don’t stand apart from suffering humanity, but face the world as it is. “We must often sit among the ahses where Job is, and must always go outside the gate to the place of the skull, where Jesus is.”

Opening the gate of Hope at the meeting point of  hope and history begins with holding a moment (as in Lange’s photo) closely and deeply, and meeting that with all that we are. For me, this is a passionate rendition of all the pastoral cycle seeks to do in theological reflection and pastoral practice. The final word goes to Victoria Stafford: “Whatever our vocation, we stand, beckoning and calling, singing and shouting, planted at the gates of Hope.” There we see the world “as it is and as it could be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle” Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother is in the public domain.

People gatherers

Feeding the 5000 by Eularia Clarke

Some people are just good at gathering people together. They call on people and the people come. This seems to be what leaders can do – or, rather, are those people who can gather us together our leaders? People gatherers have an attraction and an authority. Whether we call a meeting or throw a party, we are acting as people with authority, people able to call on others. Most people can grow that authority, usually by the attractive way that they gather people. Conversely, we have all been in gatherings which have been so carelessly organised that we have said “never again”. There’s usually a reason why “nobody came”.

Neighbours Table tells the story of a people gatherer. In an interview with Tammy Helfrich (available as podcast), Sarah Harmeyer talks about her recent life as a “people gatherer”. She adopts a word for the year. Word of the Year 2011 was “community” which brought a vision for inviting 500 people to her table during the year. At the point of the interview, she is nearing 1500 for the 3 year period on a budget of $75 per month. She started with an invitation to a “pot luck” delivered to her neighbours. Her father made a table to seat 20 – 91 came. She suggests that people are waiting to be invited, that whole neighbourhoods are waiting for such catalysts for change, for people to step forward.

Her “manners” can guide us all. “Plan ahead to be present with people”, develop a culture of mutual respect, interest and listening, introduce people to one another by saying what you love about them – all that makes for a good time gathering. So, pause for thought. Why do we call people together? Are they just instruments to our ambition, pawns in our little games? Are we prepared for them? What is our interest in their offering? Do we know them? Do we love them?

There is always a reason why “people come flocking”.

PS People gatherers are the image of God who gathers people like a shepherd, making of them a nation and a church. Eularia Clarke’s picture of the feeding of the 5000 is a celebration of God as “people-gatherer”, recalling the feeding of the multitude. The painting is part of the Methodist Modern Art Collection, © TMCP, and is used with their permission.

Celebrating eucharistic action: Dix’s purple passage

Fresco of a female figure holding a chalice from Catacomb of Saints Marcellinus & Peter in Rome
Fresco of a woman holding a chalice from Catacomb of Saints Marcellinus & Peter in Rome

“At the heart of it all is the eucharistic action, a thing of absolute simplicity—the taking, blessing, breaking and giving of bread and the taking, blessing and giving of a cup of wine and water, as these were first done with their new meaning by a young Jew before and after supper with His friends on the night before He died. He had told his friends to do this henceforward with the new meaning “for the anamnesis” of Him, and they have done it always since.

Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacles of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth.
People have found no better thing than this to do
  • for sovereigns at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold;
  • for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church;
  • for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; 
  • for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; 
  • for a school child sitting an examination or for Columbus setting out to discover America;
  • for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover;
  • in thankfulness because my mother did not die of pneumonia;
  • for a village chief much tempted to return to fetish because the yams had failed; because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna;
  • for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlements of a strike;
  • for a child for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so, wounded and prisoner of war;
  • while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheatre;
  • on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church;
  • tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows;
  • furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewed timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk;
  • gorgeously, for the canonisation of S. Joan of Arc—one could fill many pages with the reasons why people have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them.
And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei— the holy common people of God.”

Dom Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy, London, 1945, p. 743, with a few changes I’ve made for the sake of a more inclusive language.