Apr 152010

If you haven’t happened upon it yet, let me recommend at eighty one. Avril writes very movingly and powerfully about her journey alongside her elderly father as he (as they both) come to terms with his vascular dementia.

At yesterday’s candidates’ training session (MTN) we were discussing the difficulties faced when visiting elderly people in care homes. It can be easy to forget that the disconnected faces and the disruptive outbursts are only a snapshot of the person here and now. It’s easy to forget that they have a history, a family, a life. We may never get to hear their stories and so may be utterly unaware of their past. And yet that is what we need to hold in mind during a visit.

This is where Avril’s writing is both profound and necessary. We become privileged sharers in the story and through that sharing come to see others as having a story which, though we may not share it, we acknowledge it before God by valuing our time spent with them and in our prayers for them.

Jan 202010

I’ve been struggling with an essay for the last couple of weeks or so. Not that I don’t know what to write or that I’m not interested in the subject, but simply that I am struggling to motivate myself to get on with it. Part of the problem is a busy time on placement. I don’t mean that I’m being over-loaded, it’s just that the placement work has been far more interesting and not merely as a ‘work-avoidance’ scheme, but genuinely interesting and challenging. And so I have probably agreed to do more than I ought and have probably spent more time on placement work than is required.

Ultimately, of course, this is all to my benefit. It’s the ‘real’ part of of ministry preparation. But I still have the academic stuff to do, although, technically speaking, I am as qualified as I need to be. Once again it’s not a lack of interest in the academic that’s a problem. I love studying theology. For me it’s the underpinning of who I am as a ‘minister’. It goes hand-in-hand with Biblical interpretation and it’s the dialogue between the two that defines my faith and its outworkings. For me, pastoral/practical theology is a result of these two things rather than being a more intimate part of the loop. Of course the pastoral and practical have to inform, or at least question, the Bible/theology ‘loop’, but it it those two which define whether our works are specifically Christian or simply philanthropic (although it’s an interesting argument over the distinction, especially if one is a Christian).

Anyway, this placement has, as placements do, brought the pastoral/practical to the fore and I’ve been busier with these than in any of my previous placements. And the encouraging thing is that as I engage more and more in these, I become more and more interested and excited and committed to them. I suppose that if you take a step back and have a more objective view, you could say that the third placement is the time of moving away from the academic and is the preparation for moving into probation and, ultimately, full-time ministry. So I guess it’s no surprise that this should be happening.

In a sense this gives the lie to the blog post title. Progress is being made in a particularly crucial aspect of my preparation for ministry. It’s just not happening in the area that I am obliged to do as well. Maybe in that there is a greater metaphor for ministry. There will be aspects of it that will excite and enthuse and these are the areas we will naturally wish to focus our energy and attention on. However, there will be areas of ‘obligation’, and they may even be areas we are interested in, but that simply don’t hold our attention as they should. Finding the motivation to do them is important to stop them piling up – they will need done sometime.

If anyone has found the answer to this, I (and the rest of the world, I suspect) would love to hear it.

Aug 042009

One of the things you notice when you visit people is that you will often hear the same stories on subsequent visits. With many people you’ll get a ‘but I’ve told you this before’ comment, but what happens when it’s someone whose memory isn’t what it once was? My supervisor asked me the question a while ago about whether such visits continue to have value or whether there is better use of a minister’s time. It’s especially pertinent when the person visited has little or no recollection of you even having visited previously. It may sound a little callous but it’s a legitimate question (and especially when time pressures come to bear).

I’m not sure I have any kind of answer and I expect that whatever thoughts I have now will almost certainly change when the reality of ministry hits. I believe that stories are important. They define, in many ways, who we are. They are our condensed memory of an event, an experience or a relationship. They are coloured by our prejudice and edited by our ego. But they are important to us and telling them to others allows our stories (and ourselves) to have a place in a bigger story. By hearing stories we give a sense of value and worth to the teller. By bringing their story into our story we grow our own story and allow it to grow and change. And of course, by integrating our story, and the stories we hear, into the ongoing ‘narrative’ we have with God and our faith, then we also grow. And, of course, we have an example in Jesus who ‘unravelled’ people’s stories and opened them up to allow the gospel to become part of their story.

So, when we visit and hear a story, we continue to affirm the life of a person, the importance of their story and their continuing place in the broader story of the church family. When we hear the same story over and over again it may try our patience and we may doubt the use of our time, but it is a way of showing we value the person who is a loved creation of God.

All well and good, but can the reality be sustained in ‘real ministry’?

Feb 192008

I’m trying to fit in some pastoral visits before I finish up at KHR. Having had a cold the other week has meant they’ve piled up somewhat so I’m doing a bit of juggling to fit in as many as I can reasonably do. Anyhoo… that’s for me to juggle and not complain about.

I’ve done two visits so far and they were both quite different yet the common theme might be the stories that the two people had to tell. More to the point, they actually had stories worth hearing. How many people are sitting in our circle of acquaintances with a story that would rival that of any best-selling page-turner? More than we know I suspect. Tales of danger (and I mean real danger), exotic travel, loyal service and all the more fascinating and exciting for being true. And generally told with such modesty too and even then only told after a fair bit of prompting. One elderly lady, who looks very ‘proper’ – ‘posh’ even – used to drive Bedford trucks and all manner of other things during service in the RAF. Other stories of wartime service are just downright scary.

It means that we often then look upon the person in a very different light. But why should we have to hear a story before that happens? And what of the ongoing story? The ups and downs of a faith journey can be every bit as exciting and it is a journey we get to share, particularly in a pastoral capacity. One of my hospital chaplaincy placement visits last week was notable in this respect. I kept being asked my story and found myself sharing my testimony with a chap. I felt I had spoken too much and not really spent enough time getting his story. But at the end the visit he told me how much he had appreciated hearing it because he takes so much strength and encouragement from hearing how God works in others.

The point, I guess, is that we all have stories to share and discover from others. Stories bind us to one another through shared experience, shared anxieties, shared enthusiasms. Stories also bring understanding and can be a source of strength, encouragement or even act as a salutary lesson in what not to do. This is especially true when it comes to faith, I would suggest. Sharing stories requires trust though. We are all concerned about whether, through our stories, we will sound ridiculous, prideful, arrogant, stupid. When we have an opportunity to receive a story it’s important, I believe, to acknowledge the gift and to treat that story with respect. Whether it’s ridiculous or exciting, the story is who that person is, their picture of themself. How else can we get to really know one another, except through our stories?

Jan 242008

Well, maybe not so much confused, but yesterday I was certainly dazed and more than a little brain-dead by late afternoon. In the morning I was on my hospital placement followed, in the afternoon, by my follow-up PDI – that’s Personal Development Interview in 121-speak.

Each of those on its own is taxing enough. Both together on the same day was perhaps not one of my brightest scheduling tasks. The hospital placement is with the chaplaincy team and I have a ward assigned to me to do visits in. Up to this point, conversations have been fairly mundane but on Wednesday I had a particularly ‘heavy’ chat with someone. I can’t, obviously, give any details but there was some pretty serious stuff being shared with me. I’m still sorting it through in my mind and working out all of the ramifications. I’ve also agreed with our supervisor to discuss the issues with the group next week. It’s difficult to prepare for something like this, especially when it comes on you out of the blue – the conversation up ’til that point gave no indication that some ‘heavy’ stuff was coming. I guess the point is that I should expect anything and be prepared to go with the conversation wherever it heads. It would be too easy and a bit of a cop-out to steer the conversation away from something I’m not prepared to deal with. After all, the person is sharing this, very personal, information for a reason. For all I know this may be the one and only time they will get it off their chest and I can’t judge the effects of that. I guess it also means that a chaplain/pastor/minister should never treat any conversation as mundane. The true meaning of it can only really be known by the person telling their story. It’s a pretty awesome responsibility and a huge privilege. My hope for this placement, regardless of the academic outcome, is that I will be better attuned to the nuances of pastoral conversations. More to the point, this hasn’t scared me off and, in a way, it’s quite exciting being drawn into that sphere. It’s a challenge, but one to look forward to.

Then on top of that I had my second PDI. That, to all intents and purposes, is a slow roasting on a spit by a psychological assessor who picks your personality apart to make sure you’re not a total fruitcake (or, at least, not the wrong sort of fruitcake). In actual fact, it wasn’t too bad. I’ve nothing to hide and do feel I’ve grown considerably over the last months and years as a reflective person. I know myself better. I better understand my strengths and weaknesses and I can face things I’m not comfortable with in a way that isn’t stressful because I know I’m not comfortable and understand the reasons why. Perhaps most crucially, I can articulate all of this in a way I struggled with before. In this respect I would only have myself to blame if I don’t come across well at my forthcoming local review and then, hopefully, the assessment conference. I have the ‘tools’ and the understanding (albeit still on the learning curve) to ‘sell’ my calling to those who will be looking for it.

It may well sound like it was a pretty intense day, and in many respects it was, but it was one of those crucial points where a lot of pressures came together at once and what it forced out the far side was me with a few more rough edges knocked off and a better appreciation of God at work, reshaping and ‘fitting out’. I was shattered last night. My head was buzzing and I’m still wrestling with a lot of what happened. But I don’t feel stressed by it and I don’t feel defeated by it. In a bizarre way, I feel quite exhilarated, particularly now as I type this blog entry, looking back on yesterday and considering the significance of it all.

Dazed? Most definitely. Confused? A lot less so.

Jan 102008

The first week of the second semester of third year is now underway and I have been to classes for all three of my subjects. Actually, I only have two classes because one of my subjects is a placement with the chaplaincy team at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. In some respects that’s a dream course – no weekly reading, no exam, no term-time essay. But, it other respects it’s quite tough. The assessment requirements are: a satisfactory report from my supervisor; a 4000-word essay relating the placement to the theory done last semester; a 2000-word ‘journal’ report; a verbatim. Then, of course, there’s the placement itself. I’ve been assigned to the renal ward and I have to spend a couple of hours each week touring my ward and chatting with any and all (patients, relatives and staff). That’s the bit I find hardest. I’m not a natural conversationalist. Give me a topic and I’ll discuss it for hours but start me from cold and my brain turns to jelly after saying hello and commenting on the weather. But that’s partly why I wanted to do the course. Conversation, and especially pastoral conversation, is a skill, so it can be developed through effort and application. So, if at the end of this course, all I can do is chat more freely and in a relaxed way, then I’ll have benefited immensely.

As for the other two courses – well, a mixed bag so far. One class is Method of Reading the Hebrew Bible. It’s about the different critical methods that have been and can be applied to interpreting scripture. There are only 5 in the class and it looks like it’ll be really good. I volunteered to do the first presentation/group discussion next week. Typically, I was then informed that it was probably the most difficult. I’ve gone through the readings and had to laugh. The one I’ve to do starts off with speaking about approaching scripture as myth/saga/story and then develops the idea of ‘experiencing’ the narrative, not just reading it as words (all in response to ‘literary criticism’ – I’ll do a separate blog entry I think). I was speaking to the lecturer today (I had to borrow a book from him) and he was asking how I found the readings. I sad that I thought they were very clear and straightforward and not at all ‘difficult’ and he explained that the reason they are found difficult is because some people can’t get beyond the idea of myth/saga/story implying ‘falsehood’. Anyway, that course looks to be really enjoyable.

The other academic course is Reformation Theology – looking at the events and arguments surrounding the Reformation and counter-Reformation. It promises to be a good course but it’s a big class – over 25. That’s not so good because, in my opinion, honours level courses need that bit more ‘involvement’ and more opportunity to explore issues in detail. You lose a lot of that in a bigger class I feel. Still, the weekly reading is not too onerous and the essay’s pretty straightforward so all in all I should make the most of a relatively uncomplicated semester.

Dec 132007

David recently posted on a Sunday of very contrasting services and I thought I’d chip in my tuppenceworth.

The morning service was largely done by Buskit, a charity group from Grangemouth High School who take humanitarian aid across to children in Belarus. The three young people were very confident and spoke eloquently of their experiences. One even took the children’s address – a daunting enough task even for the experienced. Mind you, with some of the activities they were leading in Belarus, they’ve all got good experience in communicating with groups of children.

I think that the thing that struck me most was how much they said they had been affected by their experience. It was a very genuine sense of personal change that they communicated – not just a simple ‘yeah, it was meaningful’, but a very deep understanding that they had learned much form their trip. Schools often speak of learning lessons ‘for life’. Well, it’d be difficult to get a more effective teaching experience than the one the Buskit group get. I don’t know if there is any Christian ‘drive’ within the group, but you’d be hard pushed to find a better example of love and care for others.

Which brings me to the evening service – a very different example of concern for others. At this time of the year, KHR have a ‘bereavement service’ where those in the parish and the congregation who have experienced a bereavement are invited along to a service of remembrance. It’s very thoughtfully put together with comforting words of poetry, prose and scripture on the order of service, on cards in the pews and in the read reflections of the service. The act of remembrance is to drop a pebble into a bowl of water (for those who wish to come forward), using the action to symbolise a letting go, or a remembering of the ‘ripples’ caused in life, or whatever else may come to mind. It’s a deeply affecting time and very emotional. David is on hand with a comforting hug or a warm handshake and words of blessing.

What struck me was how busy the service was. It’s obviously something that is very meaningful for those who are there and is very much appreciated by them. I can be a bit of a sceptic when it comes to symbolic actions, which may sound odd coming from someone who has put together labyrinths, although perhaps it would be fairer to say that the symbolism needs to be ‘sound’. It can be too easy to come up with something that is a bit ‘tacky’ and is too open to misinterpretation. That’s most definitely not the case here, where the liturgy for this service works very well (although quite how it might be taken if the deceased had drowned is another matter).

The day of contrasts comes, in my opinion, in the direction they take. The morning is one of looking outwards to others and the evening is looking inward to our own needs (or far and near as David termed it). The good thing about the ‘inward-looking’ part was that it wasn’t done simply as a inwardly focused experience, rather it was about bringing Christ into our inner life to help heal hurts. The outward, of course, was about ‘being’ Christ to the world. A reminder that we are to look after ourselves as well as one another. “Love your neighbour as yourself” is very difficult when we ourselves are broken and in need. And, this is true not just of bereavement, but in many things. When we feel the love of Christ for us, as we are; when we feel His acceptance of us, as we are; when we can know the riches we share in Him; we can learn something of sharing that with others in their need, whether it is a sick child in Belarus or a grieving relative close to home.