Jan 042010

Apologies up front – this is very much a ‘thinking out loud’ blog entry and may well descend into a bit of a rant. You have been warned! Even so, I’d appreciate your thoughts.

On Sunday I was leading the whole service and the choice of hymns, reading, sermon, etc was entirely mine. Over Advent we have spent a bit of time in Luke’s gospel and finished off towards the end of Luke chapter 2. I decided to pick up from that point and deal with a passage that isn’t (in my experience) covered very often – the incident of Jesus, as a boy, doing a bunk from the family group and being found in the Temple. I felt it fitted well with a Ne Year start as I believe the passage does a number of things, including giving a glimpse of Jesus’ future life, ministry and purpose but also leaving us with a challenge also very appropriate for the beginning of a new year and a new session – where would we expect to find Jesus if we went looking for Him?

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Nov 162009

Yesterday I had the opportunity to lead the whole service in my placement church. Not a big problem – it’s something I’ve done many times. That said, being somewhere new has the added pressures of not knowing what they know, not knowing how recently they may have covered the chosen passage (an advantage of following the lectionary), whether you are about to utterly contradict previous teaching or whether you’re getting too close to personal/pastoral issues. On the plus side, such pressures do help focus the mind and maybe force you to take that bit extra care of how something is worded.

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Oct 302009

It’s been a packed day and sets the tone for the next few days in fact.

This morning started off with a pre-funeral visit and it was good to be observing only at this stage. Definitely a visit that provided plenty of insights into the task of planning a funeral. Biggest insight was to ‘listen very, very carefully’. I don’t mean just for the details, but when you are being told things in a deadpan manner but with a twinkle in the eye you could easily end up accepting a story at face value and saying something that would entirely inappropriate. It was also good to see yet another approach to gathering information and I’m somewhat in awe of my supervisor’s ability to remember names and details without notes. I see the value of developing that skill because my note-taking was sometimes the subject of some comment and I could see that it might be distracting. That said, I wouldn’t want to rely on my memory for a list of family names and key dates.

I’ve written up my own take on the tribute so it’ll be interesting to compare notes and styles. Crafting the tribute itself was in interesting experience. You obviously want to cover as much as possible and add colour to bare facts. But by the same token you can’t include all the anecdotes and memories – and nor is it appropriate to do so. Those are often very specific memories, special to the person or group relating them to you. But the stories hold the essence of the person you are speaking about. It seems t me that the task of the minister is to distil out that essence and present it in a way that is still recognisable as the deceased and is detailed enough to trigger the memories and thoughts that bring the story to life. Distilling it too much risks losing something of the character of the person; not distilling it enough risks cheapening the tribute as a simple series of anecdotes.

And then there’s the language. Should it be pitched high or low? Should it be my ‘voice’ or should it suit the setting and the people who are there? If I use my own phrasing for something or pick words I would like to hear then I’m risking alienating those who are listening. But then what are the expectations? I’m meant to be the one with the words, the means to express what would be difficult or upsetting for another to say. And sometimes that means an expectation of using ‘proper’ words, respectful words, educated words. And if I lapse into colloquialisms and slang then it’s not me, not my true voice. There’s an assumption there about the order of the relationship, but it also applies the other way up as well.

Anyway, plenty to think about. The funeral is early next week and I’ll be participating in a small way. It’s easy to trot out the trite phrases about what a privilege it is to be alongside others at such a time, but at the moment I’m simply aware of the burden of responsibility we carry to speak words that are meaningful and to be true to the stories that have been shared with me/us. Just as well we’re not in it alone.

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?