In a meeting a little while ago I was introduced, by a local Children's Centre colleague with whom I've worked quite closely, as 'a community development worker with a dog collar'. It was intended, and taken, as a compliment - but it inevitably raised for me an unsettling question or two: is it an accurate description? is this what I'm called to, here in Hodge Hill? is it what I'm ordained for?
Early on in Lent, I was randomly selected, as one of 500 C-of-E clergy across England, to fill in a daily questionnaire for a week, as part of a national survey on 'patterns of ministry'. I had to tick boxes that described what I did with each hour in the day (worryingly, the survey began at 4am and finished at 3am, but thankfully I was able to ignore a number of those hours!), and what were the key motivators for doing those things. I was also asked how I was feeling at the beginning and end of each day. Did I begin the day 'vigorous and full of energy'? (As someone who is almost always woken up 'prematurely' by his small children, the answer to that question was always a big fat No. A friend suggested it was a 'control question to weed out the nutters'!) What did I do out of feelings of guilt or shame (very little)? How much of my day felt it was in tension with the need for 'family time'?
Thankfully, I'm not someone that's constantly plagued by feelings of guilt, or driven by the pressure of 'ought' (what Ann Morisy calls a 'hardening of the ought-eries'). Thankfully, almost all of what I do as 'work' is stuff that feels good, worthwhile, and life-giving. I count myself immensely lucky - blessed, even - to be doing the job that I do, in the place where I am, with the people that I'm with.
I am aware, however, that I live and work in the constant tension between competing goods: work in the neighbourhood, more explicitly 'church'-focused work, time with my wonderful wife and kids, time reading and writing for the part-time PhD, time with wider family and friends, time just for 'me'... I am aware that every decision I make, every hour or minute I use, is a decision 'for', but also comes with a cost - what I'm not attending to. I'm aware, just as Janey my wife says of her choices, that there is no such thing as a 'perfect balance' - that to do the things that feel important, there's always the cost of giving less time than we'd ideally like to other, equally important things. Each of us would love to spend the whole week with our children - but we also put great value on the work we do with friends and neighbours locally, in forms of creativity and learning, and so on...
The gift that the daily questionnaires gave me was the realisation that, every day, there are plenty of things that 'left an impact on me' in hugely positive ways. Amid the costs and compromises of each day, there was, almost without exception, gift and grace. And at its best, those gifts 'overflow' from one part of life into the others - not cancelling out the costs, perhaps, but enriching them in ways that, without each of those different bits of life, the other parts would not have been enriched.
This week is perhaps as good an example as any. I'm almost washed out of thoughts and creative connections (having blogged 3 times already this week!) - but here's just a snapshot of the last few days...
Palm Sunday liturgy at church - beginning outside in the snow, heading in for a dramatising of the Passion Story, with our children and young people taking the leading roles.
The amazing community Passion Play in the afternoon - of which much more can be read here. Rafi, our 4 year old, sits with me at the Last Supper, a disciple among friends.
Too icy for one school (240 kids from years 4-6) to visit church, so I visit school instead. A 'snapshot' of the story, through the lens of Maundy Thursday, washing the Head Teacher's feet, and inviting him - and the children - to think of creative ways of doing likewise. At the end of the assembly, Head Teacher was asking School Council to reps to think of ways they could mobilise the school body to help out their neighbours in the few days before the end of term.
An Easter service with 20 or so residents of one of the local nursing homes - from the dementia and 'complex' sections. Remembering Mary Magdalene who, having lost her friend and herself, finds herself given back as she hears her name called in the garden. In the midst of fragmentation of congregation and of individual minds, a moment of unity as the Lord's Prayer is said in lucid unison.
The launch of Birmingham's Social Inclusion White Paper (again, blogged in detail here), where I find myself 'reporting back' from our group, being somewhat vocal on our need to face up to our 'professional addiction', and to discover the gifts of patience, imagination, and humility.
Home communion visits in the afternoon. The first relies on a neighbour to let us in, and ends not long after with the paramedics being called. The regular visits of my Reader colleague and the fact we try to fit in an 'Easter visit' just possibly, today, meaning the difference between life and death. Second visit is to 101-year-old saint of Hodge Hill, delighted to be alive, and overflowing with gratitude to family, friends, neighbours, church, God, and the beauty of the world around her.
Exploring with the Mothers' Union the beginnings of the Easter stories, from Mark's abrupt ending in silence and terror, to John's intimate encounter between Mary and Jesus.
Late arrival at the monthly Big Local Partnership Board meeting - negotiating responsibility for a repeat of last year's very successful Hodge Hill Community Festival. Misunderstandings and tensions at times - about limits, priorities, possibilities.
Later in the evening, a small handful of us gather in church to remember the story of the unnamed woman who anointed Jesus - a prophet anointing him for a task, a journey; a teacher showing him the way of humble love; a friend committing to stick with him to the end. In a quiet, intimate moment, we anoint each other and hold in love the broken of our world.
The grandeur of the annual clergy gathering at the Cathedral to renew our vows together, still feels more than a little dissonant with the story of Maundy Thursday. Later in the day, back in Hodge Hill, we seek to remember and re-enact that story, washing feet and watching and praying in the darkness. To my shame and horror, I discover I missed a willing 'washee'. Hurt and forgiveness meet 'just off stage' in exactly the place where the story invites us to consider them.
I am not able to be at church for 'Stations of the Cross', led ably by one of our Readers, because I am helping out (and looking after our two kids) at the first of two 'community activity mornings' - originally planned to be on the wasteland, but re-located to our 'community hub' after a post-snow pitch inspection suggested we might well lose some children in the mud. At lunch-time, as colleagues and congregation members are reflecting and praying in church, I am standing outside the Hub alongside Sarah, my community worker colleague, Ola, a Nigerian Christian friend and neighbour, and Mohammed, a newly-met Muslim granddad, serving burgers (non-Halal beef, or Halal lamb) to 42 children and a fair number of grown-ups.
In the evening, our weekly 'extended family' meal (10 kids, 9 adults) is filled with laughter, deep thankfulness for the events of the past few days and for the achievements and gifts of the past few years, but also lament too for those we know who are suffering, or are set to suffer with the 'welfare earthquake' in the coming weeks.
We have 50 children at The Hub today, and among many other creative activities get our hands caked in mud and clay making 'seed bombs' (many of which we will scatter at our sunset gathering tonight). At the end of that particular activity, I find myself washing my hands alongside a young Muslim girl, who gently but persistently takes the caked clay of my hands with hers. It may not be as sensational - and inspirational - a news story as the Pope's foot-washing yesterday in an Italian prison (also of a young Muslim woman, although somewhat older than my new friend), but it is my Maundy Thursday moment - and perhaps my Easter Sunday too.
I miss the kids bedtime tonight, because it coincides with sunset. 8 of us meet at 6.15pm at the entrance to the wasteland where last Sunday's Passion Play ended up, and we gather, with picnic rugs, folding chairs, and lanterns, in the 'garden of Gethsemane'. We share 'stories of hope' - unfinished, messy - which, in large part, are also stories of lament at the neglect and injustice of the world as it is. There are tears - not just of lament, but of gratitude too. Sally, the brilliant curate, has brought a bottle of oil from the Cathedral 'do' yesterday - a mixture of the oils for baptism, healing, and anointing for confirmations and ordinations - and invites us to pour a little on the ground where we sit. Enacting the kind of 'wasteful generosity', the hope in an abundant, healing God, that the woman of Holy Wednesday proclaimed with her anointing. We throw our seed bombs as far as we can into the wasteland that, one of my friends and colleagues reminds me often, we are calling - in eschatological anticipation - 'Bromford Meadow'.
My amazing friend Rachel Mann writes in her stunning book Dazzling Darkness of the 'broken middle' in which she has found much of her life lived. My life is quite mundane beside hers, but I am aware, especially in weeks like this, that the joys and the gifts I discover from day to day come not out of a place where I have achieved great things or even established a 'good life balance' - but out of the places of tension, cost and compromise where, in the cracks, compassion, generosity, trust, friendship and hope are nevertheless glimpsed.
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