What makes a person great?

Despite all the difficulties, the Olympics will, no doubt, produce moments of greatness. Great sportswomen and men at the top of their game. Gold medals. World records. Memorable moments.

Whether it’s in sport or politics, businesses or churches, I imagine we can all think of people who are great. Some deservingly of that title. Others who have sought it for themselves.

But what makes people great?

25 July is St James’ Day when we celebrate the life of that close disciple of Jesus: sometimes referred to as St James the Great. There were the many people called James (or Jacob to give it its Hebrew root) around at that time so such titles were used to distinguish from others of that name. The one we remember today is the one whose body, legend has it, was carried to Compostela in Spain. He was the brother of John, one of the other disciples: often referred to as the disciple who Jesus loved. James and John were the sons of a well-to-do fisherman, Zebedee and his wife, Salome, thought by many to be the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

James and John were called ‘the Sons of Thunder’ because of, at times, their impetuous behaviour and outlandish requests. They were both key figures among the central group of twelve male disciples and together with Simon Peter, John and James were often to be found with Jesus, but without the others: for example, at the healing of the daughter of Jairus; on the mountain at the time of the Transfiguration and then again in the Garden at Gethsemane.

Matthew’s Gospel records an incident which is instigated by Salome, the mother of James and John. Mark’s account of the same occasion omits that detail but he too records a request made to Jesus: that the two brothers are to sit either side of him in heaven.

Journeys of faith can sometimes be paralleled with stages of life, and this outrageous request to sit on the right and left of Jesus smacks of the self-interest, unrealistic ambition and arrogance of a young and adolescent belief. We’ve all done it. We’ve all asked for things and incurred the wrath of others. And so it is for James and John: the other disciples are angry.

Jesus’ response to the brothers’ misplaced ambition is to ask if they can walk the path that he will walk. Can they drink the cup he will drink – the talk of a cup is a reference to the suffering and death Jesus will undergo. The journey of faith is about the service of others and of God, not about personal gain. Yes we are to be ambitious for Christ and the spreading of his Gospel: but ultimately none of us will drink the cup Jesus drank.

So where does that leave us in our exploration of greatness? As mentioned, we can think of great public figures. We might also think of people we have known personally who are great in our eyes. What is it that makes them so?

I wonder if it’s because we see someone as great simply because they never tried to be?

Perhaps we might see elements of humility, failings, a willingness to admit mistakes: all those things which are, if you like, contrary to what we might call ‘greatness’.

Yet so often, for example among sports people, politicians, business entrepreneurs and yes, in churches, we see people clamouring for greatness. The equivalent of wanting that seat next to Jesus in heaven.

That is not the way of Christ.

‘Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be the one who serves.’

 

 

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Pastoring the Pastors

Many years ago, I lived in a flat at the top of the Vicarage of a large church in Bristol. In those five years I saw and experienced first-hand the 24 hour a day demands, intrusions and joys of such a place.

From sharing Christmas lunch with the vicar and his family (during which their cocker spaniel ate the remains of the turkey) to making cheese sandwiches for Jack, the local, ex-merchant navy tramp who was a regular visitor day and night. From being ‘held hostage’ one Sunday afternoon by a couple and their young child demanding I found them somewhere to live to  answering the ever-ringing phone.

That experience instilled within me a lifelong concern for the clergy and an awareness of the pressures and the lack of support and understanding of their role that exists at both congregational and broader levels within the church nationally (the same will be true of other denominations, I’m sure).

It’s a concern that has stayed with me for the 35 years since. And then I actually became a clergy spouse when my wife was ordained in 2015. And not only that but our daughter is now training for the ministry!

As I found to be the case in my employment career, God often uses our experiences as part of the bigger picture of our lives.

I’ve written elsewhere about the church being behind the times and while the same is true in this case, it is good that the CofE is addressing the issue of clergy wellbeing. Work that started back in 2015 is now being discussed by local parish church councils. But this is a complex issue and in my experience it’s unlikely that such councils will know how to respond in ways that are truly informed and meaningful.

As also written about elsewhere, the Society of Mary and Martha (colloquially referred to by its location of Sheldon) has been pastoring the pastors for the same length of time since I left my Bristol home. A place of retreat, support and guaranteed anonymity, they have been ahead of the times in the provision of the online Sheldon Hub as a place of further consolation and advice.

The core issue for me, as I have observed and lived with clergy life, is that most people do realise the role of the clergy is not just about Sundays. Indeed, the reality is that that day and the preparation for it (in terms of time) is a relatively small part of the role. But I would be fairly certain in saying that the majority of people have no idea at all what fills the rest of the week. Drawing a topical, if somewhat imperfect, comparison, the working life of a footballer is not just about 90 minutes on the pitch – although there is many a penalty shoot-out…

For many clergy, particularly those working in parishes, it’s on call all day, every day, six days a week (seven if they don’t choose well…). Being anything from a social worker to a business manager, much of it without the relevant training. Being asked to look after themselves while being asked to do more (not least in this pandemic).

A fairly simple and straightforward action that any of us can undertake would be to at least increase the understanding of all that clergy are required to do. And the fact that each one has all the other ordinary (and not so ordinary) family and life commitments as well.

Like its Sheldon namesake, the story of Mary and Martha is helpful. To be like Jesus with Mary, to sit with, listen and understand; and with Martha, to encourage, affirm and support. There are those who do that, for which we can be enormously grateful, but all of us, including me, can do more.

 

A couple of days after this post was published, we received a welcome Wellbeing Pack from the Diocese of Exeter: good to know they are taking clergy wellbeing seriously.

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Consciously incompetent

“I want you to hit the ground running,” spouts the manager to their shiny new recruit. “Of course, that’s absolutely fine,” comes the ‘I’ve got to impress’ reply.

Many people have been in such situations. Where the expectation outweighs the reality… on both sides. But hitting the ground running can result in falling over.

Getting settled in to anything new, particularly in a job, can often take months before one really begins to get to grips with everything (well, most things). Change can be a very difficult. We need time to adapt, time to learn. And not just the tasks (that can sometimes be the simple bit) but people’s names and idiosyncrasies, the way people behave towards each other, where things are, the demands, the actuality behind the job description etc etc… And other people need to allow time for that to happen – especially if they want them to be any good.

The same is true with any new stage of life, new location, new home or even new hobby, like learning to play the piano or to paint. It all takes time… and it’s important that it does so.

Often accredited to the American psychologist, Abraham Maslow (he of the ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ theory, if you’ve ever come across that), when we learn new things we progress through ‘Four Stages of Competence’:

  • Stage 1 – Unconscious incompetence – “I don’t know what I don’t know”
  • Stage 2 – Conscious incompetence – “I have no idea what this all means or how to do it”
  • Stage 3 – Conscious competence – “Some of this is beginning to make sense – and I can actually do bits of it!”
  • And ideally end at Stage 4 – Unconscious competence – “I’ve learnt what to do and I can do it ‘without thinking’”

So, for example, when it comes to learning to paint (and piano playing for that matter), I have taken up semi-permanent residence in Stage 2 with occasional forays in to the heady lands of Stage 3…

As humans, we have the, at times unenviable, task of residing in all four stages of competence at once… and that’s because we are all learners.

If you are a Twitterer, you may have seen some Tweets quoting from an excellent Lent book by Paula Gooder, a down-to-earth, easy-to-understand Biblical scholar and writer, and on the leadership team at St Paul’s Cathedral.

Writing in Let Me Go There, Paula Gooder reflects on the disciples and what they learnt in their time with Jesus: ‘The disciples that Jesus chose may not have been the ones we would have chosen, but they were the ones he chose… They demonstrated that they had done what disciples need to do – they had learned. Being a good disciple is not about being perfect from the outset, but is about being someone who can learn. Perfect I can’t do, learning I can.’

God knows that we are not perfect.

That’s the point of Good Friday and Easter.


Gifts, Service & Faith

Writing this during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, a time when churches of all denominations across the world come together for joint services and events. A week to voice a common belief, albeit expressed in different ways.

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of attending an event for healthcare professionals (albeit I’m not one anymore) organised by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference (albeit I’m Church of England).

Arising out of their mental health project, this day of reflection and recollection took as its theme, ‘Gifts, Service and Faith’.

We reflected on the talents, skills and abilities we all have. “What is our motivation to use our gifts?” asked Bishop Paul Mason. “Some think ‘If I do this… God will look after me’ – but that is not the way. If we are always doing the good we feel we should be doing, we may be missing out on the good God wants us to do.”

“God loves, knows and serves us so we might love, know and serve him,” he said. “We are to express the exuberance of our love for God in how we live.”

This exuberance can be expressed in part through our love for and service of other people. But as another speaker recognised, what we practice doesn’t always equate to what we believe. “Theology isn’t written, it’s lived,” said Jim McManus, as he drew our attention to the words of St Paul in a letter to the 1st Century church in Thessalonica:

‘But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labour among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; 13 esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. 14 And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. 15 See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.’ (1 Thessalonians 5:12-15)

In using our gifts in the service of others, Jim’s challenge was to ask: How true are St Paul’s words in your team and in your workplace?…

  • Respect those who labour among you (colleagues) and have charge of you (managers)… and admonish you (everyone & anyone, maybe)
  • Esteem them very highly in love because of their work
  • Be at peace among yourselves
  • Admonish the idlers
  • Encourage the faint-hearted
  • Help the weak
  • Be patient with all of them
  • See that none of you repays evil for evil
  • Always seek to do good to one another and to all. 

… Umm. Marks out of ten for where you work?

The late Catholic Archbishop Basil Hume once wrote, ‘The motive for service must be love’and the 17th Century priest and theologian, Ignatius of Loyola is accredited as writing that we are ‘To give and not to count the cost.’

Fact is, though, such service and giving is often very costly. You probably know how it is: those times when it all gets too much – and all we can do is count…

Or as St Paul wrote in a letter to the church in Corinth, ‘Love does not keep a record of wrongs’ (1 Corinthians 13:5). This love doesn’t keep a record of rights either…

It is an honour and a privilege to use all we have been given (for everything is gift) to love and to serve other people. By using these gifts and through faith in God, we can demonstrate the exuberance of God’s love for all people.

“Living faith works through love,” added Bishop Richard Moth at the event. “Faith is a gift: a living relationship with God. The Lord does not force it upon us nor are we to force that gift on someone else. We are to witness – often it may be silent: but it is often in the still, small voice that we hear God speak. Christ has shown himself to us, so we are to show him to others.”

What an honour and a privilege.