Given the coverage of the Lambeth Conference in both church and secular press in recent weeks I have decided it is time to say clearly and simply that I am an ordinand (trainee priest) in the Church of England who hopes, and prays, that my church will soon end its discrimination agains LGBTQ+ people (and end discrimination on grounds of sex, class, race, disability and age, too). I hope and pray that we will welcome and respect all equally and marry same sex couples, as the Episcopal Scottish Church, the Chuch of Scotland, the Church of Wales and the Methodists in the UK have decided to do.
And I hope, very much, that he meets her and listens to her and that they become friends.
Because, most of all, I want us to learn to disagree better – without shouting at each other, walking out of the room, or going to war. I don’t, personally, think Jesus of Nazareth said ANYTHING about sexuality. What he taught us was how to tackle the difficult task of being human, well and how to challenge antihuman forces, practices and beliefs that bring death to people, rather than life.
The issue around sexuality masks a deeper issue that is really about the different ways people of faith read their holy texts. Do we read them literally, as handbooks, telling us what to do and what not to do? Or do we read them as complex products of their time and place, holy poetry, Wisdom literatures that can and do speak to us and inspire us but which also come to us from violent times and places where women, children, sexual minorities, the disabled were seen as ‘less’ than?
With other feminist theologians I want to point out that our scriptures and our creeds were written by and mostly about the actions and beliefs of powerful (straight) men and present us with male imagery for a powerful and masculine God. Our holy texts have been and still are mis-used to oppress and bring death, not life, despair and hate, not hope.
That does not mean I reject the bible or the traditions of my church but I don’t simply ‘accept’ them either. They are to be wrestled with, argued with and searched for the treasures they can and still do yield to us. I revere the bible but I don’t think it’s a simple book with a single message. It inspires and moves me, angers me and troubles me, comforts me and helps me to be human.
And as there are many voices and messages in the bible, though some are quieter than others, so I would like us as people of faith to acknowlege the value of multiple perspectives, many voices. I want us to listen to the voices of the LGBTQ+ community, of children, of women and the poor and the disabled, of minorities and learn what they can tell us of the Divine.
And I very much want Christianity to move on from its obsession with disapproving of what people do in bed and to focus much more on that difficult task of being human, well. Because that’s what I think religion is for …. to help us to be kinder to each other and to the planet and to ourselves. Simple. Albeit, not easy.
Something not many people know about me is that I love going barefoot and always have. I nearly decided to go barefoot when preaching this sermon but then realised that that would be one of those sermon illustrations my preaching tutor warned us about, which is SO exciting and unusual that people get totally distracted and end up not listening to a word you say – so my listeners would be thinking, what is this mad woman doing coming to church with no shoes on – and the rest of the sermon would pass by unnoticed.
So…I kept my shoes on and went metaphorically barefoot instead!
I go barefoot at home for most of the summer, I often go barefoot in the garden, I have even gone barefoot running – which is a thing now – and I did a lot of martial arts as a child – all of which is done barefoot. In fact it still strikes me as a little odd that we don’t take our shoes off when we come into church. Other traditions – Buddhists , my Muslim friends – all take off their shoes when entering a sacred space but Christians don’t. I suspect in our climate that has a lot to do with the fact that we build with stone and we would all have chilblains by the end of the winter.
The reason I am telling you all this is that I think it matters how Jesus sends out his followers in the passage from Luke we heard read for us. Not only are they to take no purse or bag but no sandals either and at least one translation I read said, quite explicitly, go barefoot.
Why might that matter. Well, as someone said when they read that translation, it’s hard to trample on other people when you’re barefoot. And that may explain the popularity of the barefoot schools movement – it started in Scandinavia and has spread here. Everyone in the school, staff, children, visitors, take off their shoes. The education professor researching the results – which range from improved academic results and behaviour to a decline in bullying and carpet wear and tear – says his pet theory is that teenage boys keep their testosterone in their shoes. As that person said, it’s hard to trample on people when you’re barefoot.
Going barefoot in the ancient world was a sign of humility, of low status. Spiritual teachers might well go barefoot – it was the rich, the powerful who wore shoes.
And when you go barefoot you have to tread more gently, you have to keep more aware of the ground under your feet, of the terrain in front of you – you literally have to tread lightly on the earth.
You are, in fact, less protected and more vulnerable. So, when Jesus sends out people to carry on his work, he asks them to go humbly, gently, to let themselves be vulnerable. Lambs among wolves. As Jesus was humble, gentle, vulnerable – a lamb among wolves.
The spiritual life is not, or never should be, about trampling on others. It is about being vulnerable, gentle, humble.
But here’s the thing about lambs. They are vulnerable. They are also wonderfully playful. I heard a great sermon last term where one of our tutors told us that that thing that lambs do when they jump straight up in the air? It’s called stoating! Because, apparently, stoats do it too. Lambs are exuberant, joyful. And that’s the other truth about the spiritual life, the call to follow in the footsteps of Jesus of Nazareth – it is, or it should be, also about playfulness and joy, as well as vulnerability.
Workers or teachers? Or even learners?
This text is often spoken of in the context of the word mission, a sending out to spread good news. But notice how, in addition to the fact that those engaging in mission should go barefoot, so they can’t possibly trample on anyone, they were also told to be open to receive, as well as to give. They received hospitality. If their host was a person of peace they shared in that peace. They were fed. In response they were to heal, to make people whole and they were to teach – the word for worker or labourer could also mean teacher – and what they were teaching was that the ‘kingdom of God’ was near.
It is easy to think of mission as some we do to others. Here mission is two way, as true teaching is always two way. The true teacher is always also learning from others. Here the people Jesus sends are also receiving blessings from those they meet and bless. Mission, the work of God in the world to bring about justice and peace and kindness – is always reciprocal and should always promote the welfare of everyone involved.
The other thing about teaching is that you cannot teach what you are not practising yourself. We cannot teach others that the kingdom of heaven is near if we are not ourselves always learning to see that the kingdom is at hand. And that is a hard practice and a lifelong practice. It is the practice of paying attention. An attentiveness that is encouraged by going barefoot, though I am not suggesting you literally go barefoot in Stockport. But more that you might think about what it means for the spiritual life to walk gently and with awareness. To stay awake. To notice the beauty around you. The beauty in each person. To recall moment by moment that God is near, that the person with me is a child of God, that the kingdom is at hand.
You’ll never walk alone
So Jesus sends us out barefoot, to walk gently. To be vulnerable but playful. To receive as well to give. And he sends us in pairs. We might be vulnerable, in whatever role or calling we are walking in, but we are not alone.
On Monday I took part in about 45 minutes of what we call Holy Listening though it’s more properly called Lectio divina or holy reading. It’s a kind of prayer using the bible. About 7 people gathered at St Peter’s Macclesfield and we sat and read and reread the passage that would be preached on this morning. There’s a lot of silence and a lot of listening and then people shared what they felt spoke to them in the passage. And some of the ideas in my sermon came from people’s sharings. It’s less MY sermon and more a group effort. And that’s a lovely metaphor for the spiritual life and for church life. It is, it should always be, collaborative.
Holy listening in a small group on a Monday morning is a terrific way to start the week and I commend it to you as something to think about – not least because it’s a great way for you to love and support your clergy and help them with their sermon preparation. But also because it builds community – it builds the kingdom of heaven. Some writers now are using the word ‘kin-dom’ rather than Kingdom – for various reasons but importantly because it makes the point that we are all sisters and brothers in the realm of God and that everyone belongs here.
I started this sermon with a prayer taken from our Galatians passage:
“Far be it for me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom the world is crucified to me, and I to the world’
So, what is this ‘world’ that is crucified to me? Well, it’s the world that says being vulnerable is stupid and for losers. The world that says it’s ok to trample on others and which sees gentleness as a sign of weakness. The world that is preoccupied with efficiency and success – going barefoot isn’t efficient and Christ’s death was not a success. That is the world that is crucified. But the resurrection hope on the other side of that is that the kin-dom of heaven is close at hand, then, now, in and around each of us and we are all constantly being called into newness, into the future, into hope and gentleness and the playful vulnerability that is at the heart of the kin-dom of heaven.
One of the privileges of studying theology and ministry at The Queens Foundation https://www.queens.ac.uk/ is that we are able to learn from superb Black academics like Dr Carlton Turner and Dr Dulcie Dixon-McKenzie. And they, in turn, introduce us to a wider world of theology and struggle and resistance and liberation. And to seasoned activist theologians like Professor Allan Boesak who, at the age of 77, is still a thorn in the flesh of unjust powers.
It is a conversation between Dulcie and Professor Boesak entitled Preaching Hope and Resistance in Times of Struggle and was an hour very well spent. I commend it.
I remember Allan Boesak from my youth but at that time did not clearly understand the depth of the anguish and suffering of Apartheid or the complicity of the White Christian churches.
And what impressed me most, from this interview, was that Allan Boesak is STILL thinking and changing and growing. His theology is as relevant today in the struggles we face against sexism, classism, homophobia, exploitation and ecocide as in the ongoing struggle against racism that he has devoted his life to. Jesus, Allan says repeatedly, was and IS a revolutionary and to walk his Way is to walk the way of struggle and justice.
His latest book is Children of the Waters of Meribah: Black Liberation Theology, the Miriamic Tradition, and the Challenges of 21st Century Empire. It’s a book that argues for the voices of women in Scripture, voices of peace to set against the violence of Empire. I haven’t read it yet. It has just gone to the top of my ‘to read’ list…..
Recently I have developed an alter ego. This alter ego is a litter fairy. She is fast becoming just a little bit obsessive about keeping her locality free from litter.
Now, I have always hated litter. My family will tell you that my usual liberal tendencies fly out the window in the face of people who just can’t be bothered to put their crisp packet in a bin and leave it for others. I thought prison was probably too good for such people. And I got cross about it – I even ranted about it. And yet I still DID nothing about it. It was ‘the council’s’ job – an SEP – somebody else’s problem.
But whether it has been the increased focus on climate change and our environment in the news or the drip, drip, drip of reading Richard Rohr’s Franciscan Daily Meditations from the Center for Action and Contemplation https://cac.org/ I am not sure but I now see things a little differently. I have decided that this is MY planet, MY town, MY street and I can and want to do something, just a little thing, to care for it. And that little thing is, most days and most walks, picking up the crisp packet, the chocolate wrapper and the beer can or McDonald’s cup and putting them in the nearest bin.
You could say that, from being an SEP, somebody else’s problem, I have made it MY problem. But, here’s the interesting thing, it no longer feels like a problem. Seeing picking up a crisp packet as a way of caring for our Mother Earth somehow changes the feel of it. I don’t feel angry anymore – I feel it’s an opportunity to do something, something admittedly very small – for my neighbours, for my street, for my town. And now, rather than getting angry with the folk who drop litter, it occurs to me that people who are careless probably don’t feel very cared for. People who drop litter can’t see the beauty of their environment – don’t know that it is a gift to them to be enjoyed and appreciated – and that is very, very sad. So now, when I pick up the crisp packet I also pray for my Sister or Brother Litter Dropper – that they might see a little more of God’s beautiful world and feel just a tiny bit more cared for.
So, a spiritual practice for Lent? If we all picked up three pieces of litter on every walk we took in Lent our town, our country, our city would look – and feel – more cared for. Which I would call Good News.
Appreciating Church is a handbook style
resource book based on an ecumenical project of the same name. The aim of the
project is to create ‘communities of practice’ – groups that foster change in
positive, hopeful, inclusive and encouraging ways. Behind the project, and
behind the book, is the organizational practice of Appreciative Inquiry, a
practice that is based on looking for the best in people and in organizations.
Developed by David Cooperrider, appreciative inquiry and, by extension,
Appreciating Church start NOT from the viewpoint that organizations are
problems to be solved, but that they are miracles of human organizing and
ingenuity – to be appreciated.
I heard Cooperrider speak once. He is both
the son and the father of Christian ministers. His belief in the potential of
human goodness to bring about positive change in the world was palpable and
deeply inspiring. He was perhaps the most hope filled person I have ever met.
Cooperrider’s key insight is that if you go looking for problems you will find
them – and you are then likely to get bogged down in them. If you ask different
questions – questions about when an organization is at its best, when its
people are at their best, you don’t cover over the difficulties but you do help
to generate the imagination, the creativity and the energy needed to move
beyond them. In every system, every church, every person – something is
working, something good is happening. Appreciative inquiry seeks to find that
goodness and to grow it.
Appreciating Church is a practical resource
for bringing some of that hope filled appreciation into churches and church
projects. It does this by bringing together a bit of theory, a lot of stories
and a lot of resources to help communities see themselves and the future a little
bit differently. As a church leader, I particularly liked – and will be able to
quickly and easily use – the practical suggestions for introducing an
appreciative approach into meetings and also its use for the discipline of
Richard Rohr describes contemplation as a
way of seeing that includes recognizing and appreciating. I have worked with
appreciative inquiry in the past and recognize its overlap with the
contemplative path. Appreciating Church seems to me to be one more way in which
the essential spiritual path of contemplation is being reinvigorated for
An excellent talk on movement and why the fitness industry gets it badly wrong from a fitness expert and male model, Roger Frampton. He highlights the ridiculous practice of Western cultures of taking master movers – also known as children – who squat naturally and with ease and then teaching them to SIT for 7 or 8 hours a day.
I suspect that this single practice, the practice of replacing the natural human positions of standing and squatting with sitting on that man made, modern and malign invention THE CHAIR probably contributes more to the epidemic of back pain in the Western world than anything else.
Sitting, slumped over, limits our breathing, contracts our spines, weakens our core muscles and probably much more. We used to squat – Frampton calls it the ‘pre-chair resting position’ – why were we made to stop???
Frampton says we should watch children to understand how our bodies want to move and try to get back our full range of movement – the movement we once had. He criticizes the outcome focus of the fitness industry – constantly measuring time, distance, repetitions, weight – and says we should focus instead on HOW we move – and focus on movement, not looks, not muscles. Work with your body, not against it, he says and prioritize the spine. You are, as a Chinese saying has it, as old as your spine.
So, the Alexander Technique – not about posture but about movement – put movement first, understand how your body wants to move, used to move – find an Alexander teacher or, perhaps better still, watch a small child.
Yesterday I attended a workshop at St Dunstan’s Church Liverpool on Centering Prayer, given by an Episcopal Priest, Cynthia Bourgeault. The workshop was called ‘Centering Prayer – from Performance to Gift’. And, for me, the whole day felt like being given a very important gift.
I have been attempting to practice this form of contemplative prayer since reading Cynthia’s book, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, some years ago. Yesterday’s workshop was an inspiring encouragement to keep going, with some very practical pointers to help us to do precisely that. Cynthia said she has been practising centering prayer for 40 years and that it has transformed who and how she is in the world. She spoke simply and clearly but with great power and depth. A small, loving, vital, intelligent and erudite woman she is a good advert for the results of a life-long commitment to this ancient Christian wisdom tradition.
She spoke first about the tradition of meditation, of which centering prayer is a part. She called meditation ‘a universal human sacred activity’ and a ‘universal activity of the human spirit’ which can be found in every religion and every philosophical path in some form or other. Though meditation is widely known and practised in the East, many Christians are unaware that there is an ancient tradition of Christian meditation too and the teachings of centering prayer are part of a rediscovery of the riches of this tradition.
All forms of meditation aim to still what is sometimes called the ‘monkey mind’ – the endless inner chatter that humans engage in. Many forms of meditation seek to do this by training the mind to focus on a single point – the breath is perhaps the most common of these, and mindfulness meditation is a secularised form of this. Another form is the repetition of a mantra or repeated word or phrase. In the Christian tradition, the work of John Main and the World Community for Christian Meditation encourages this single point form of meditation.
Cynthia Bourgeault describes centering prayer as rather different. Though it is a form of meditation, it is called prayer, she said, rather than meditation in order to honour the intention of the practice, which is to enter a presence that is characterised by love. And rather than focusing on a single point or word, it is based on the principle of learning to let go of each thought, to release, to consent to just being in the presence of the divine in each moment. It is about intention not attention. God, she said, is IN the silence, in the noise of the inner chatter, in the consent to let it go. Centering prayer is a way into a different way of being, a different way of perceiving reality. Each thought that arises is an opportunity to practice that letting go, that release, that consent to be in the presence of God.
The aim of centering prayer is not a deep state of bliss, or profound quiet. The subjective experience of your prayer time doesn’t really matter. The noisiest and least settled prayer times may actually teach you the most. The aim is simply to practice letting go of thoughts when they arise, gently, with kindness. It is not hard to do, she said, but it is hard to value and it is of immense value. The value of each tiny act of letting go is that it mirrors the self-emptying of God that Christians see in Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection. It is nothing more or less than the way that we learn, thought by thought, day by day, prayer time by prayer time, to ‘put on the mind of Christ’ – which is the calling of every Christian, the key to walking the ‘Jesus path’ as best we can.
And unlike secular meditation methods, like mindfulness as it is widely taught in the West at present, centering prayer is not something you do for yourself. It is not about YOU at all. It is not done in order to ‘de-stress’ – it is not ‘me time’ or about reducing your anxiety levels. It is something you offer on behalf of a suffering world. It is not about acquisition but about generosity of heart. It is about creating a space for love to be a little more present in the world, a little more often, about opening up points of eternity in the every day. It is a gift YOU give to the world.
If you want to make a start, these are the four guidelines of centering prayer. It really is VERY simple.
Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within. (At our workshop, Cynthia said this would ideally be quite a neutral word or short phrase, like ‘Wait’ or ‘Quiet’ or ‘Let be’ or ‘be still’. It doesn’t need to be a ‘holy’ word as such)
Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly and silently introduce the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within.
When you notice yourself thinking, return ever so gently to the sacred word. (You don’t repeat it the whole time, just when you notice a thought)
At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.
Next week I will be speaking to 30 head teachers from Merton about the well-being work in schools on which my PhD was based and which I have written about in books and teachers’ resources.
An important strand of that work is a focus on character strengths and virtues. You can hear me talking about this strand of my work on You Tube
What are character strengths?
Every religion and every philosophical tradition has a concept of virtue, a way of thinking, feeling and acting that is morally valued or good. And as far back as Aristotle, education has been concerned with character and with morality or goodness, teaching children to understand right and wrong, as well as with knowledge. Aristotle saw the virtues as necessary to a flourishing life or happiness.
More recently, psychologists have linked the use of character strengths and virtues with well-being, vitality and a sense of fulfillment. Psychologists Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson (Peterson & Seligman, 2004) say that there are 6 universally valued virtues
Wisdom and knowledge
Love and humanity
Spirituality and transcendence
They describe character strengths, like creativity, hope, gratitude, kindness, as the traits that allow us to display these virtues and say that
They are valued in almost every culture
They are valued for themselves, not as a means to other ends
They can be developed
They are influenced by our environment, some settings lend themselves to the development of strengths whereas others preclude them
Seligman and Peterson list 24 character strengths, under the headings of the six virtues. I have used this list for 15 years in my work in schools and in my PhD on well-being in education. I kept most of the names of the character strengths but changed the virtue headings to strengths of the head, action, heart, community, self-control and meaning. I have added a single strength, patience, which is essential to teaching and learning. I have written a simple definition for each strength. I also dropped ‘social and emotional intelligence’ and replaced it with the Aristotelian virtue of friendship.
Some questions for educators to think about:
Is it better to focus on strengths or weaknesses? Always? Sometimes? Never? If sometimes, when?
Do you think there is anything missing from this list?
What I LOVE about teaching the Alexander technique in groups and workshops are the WONDERFUL people who rock up to them! AND how much I learn. And last Saturday’s workshop, Be Still and Wait: Prayer, the body and the Alexander Technique, was no exception.
A few were people I knew already – including my husband who was an extraordinarily kind, unobtrusive, supportive gofer. Mostly, they were people I didn’t know – from Manchester, from Whaley Bridge, from Wildboarclough.
I was nervous. I hadn’t run a workshop on prayer and the AT before. But mostly I was thrilled that people had come to explore and to be open – and above all to PLAY – with these most important topics. And I opened by saying that I am not an expert on either the Alexander technique nor prayer. But I am a student of both and that I was grateful for fellow students to study with.
And my first question could have generated another workshop just on its own. What, I asked, does the Alexander Technique mean to you now, in one word or short phrase? And what does prayer mean to you now, in one word or phrase?
And they said, after time for thought and discussion, that the Alexander technique means……openness, friendship, skeletons (!), balance, rootedness, awareness, posture, environment, connection, self-awareness, embodiment, harmony, alignment, poise, possibility.
Honestly, I was in awe of those responses! From people with a very little, or in some cases no, previous experience of the technique. Those who are relatively new to a discipline sometimes see it with a freshness and clarity that those who have studied for longer can miss.
And they said that prayer means ……silence, stillness, deep silence, laughter, connection, alignment, comfort, openness, harmony, uncertainty, conversation with God, environment, spiritual awareness, spiritual connection, balance, and friendship.
And we looked at our lists with some amazement, all struck by the overlap, the similarities and connections between them. And I COULD have asked – are there any words or phrases from either list that could NOT go on the other? But we had sat and talked long enough and I wanted them up and moving 🙂
So I will save that question for another workshop.
So what did we do then? Well, we did some contemplative anatomy, something I have learned from one of MY teachers, Bruce Fertman, Peaceful Body School. We looked at the fact that we have, not two arms but one arm structure and at how wide and spacious that arm structure is. And then, in threes and in silence, we made bread, softly, creatively, with love and gentleness and awareness of that spacious arm structure. It baked while we ate lunch, filling the space with a wonderful aroma and waking up the sense of smell as our morning activities had woken up our senses of touch, sight, hearing, kinaesthesia and proprioception.
And I read, after lunch, from a book by Kabir Helminski Living Presence: A Sufi Way to Mindfulness and the Essential Self. And we engaged in patient, waiting, open listening and discussion. And we went for a walk, channeling our inner dinosaurs because the room was quite chilly by that time. And then we gave one another bread, the bread that we had made with love and attention and openness.
And we used our senses of touch and sight and kinaesthesia and proprioception to explore and choose and add a Christmas decoration to the Christmas tree in the church we were meeting in.
And then we said our goodbyes and said what we were taking away from our four hours together, four hours of playful exploration of the Alexander technique and prayer. And mostly what I take away is a memory of how beautiful humans are, how kind, how generous, how thoughtful, how funny. We are not all like that all the time. But we all CAN be like that, some of the time. And that, in this season of Advent, of waiting, gives me hope.
My workshop plan – a playful plan for a playful workshop. And no, for students who know me well, we DIDN’T get through a fraction of it!