I think it needs to be made clear that the views and opinions expressed on my blog are my own views and not that of the congregation I serve, neither the wider Church in which I minister.I feel the need to write this explanation now my readership grows and people within my own community wonder if the blog is a barometer of my own thoughts and feelings for them. There are no ‘hidden messages’ but if one wishes to read the postings as one might a horoscope than I’m sure there will be some truth found. The blog is neither a barometer nor is it a place to vent about what may, or may not be happening at the time. That would be out of place.I write a lot. I read a lot. I reflect a lot. There are different blogs and paper journals for a whole variety of notes and thoughts. This blog happens to be about a guy who happens to be a priest and happens to live in Germany. Other blogs are about a guy who enjoys poetry, or a guy who likes short-stories.So let’s finish with all of that and get on with things.
Someone once wrote that if life were meant to be lived out in black and white, then we would all be piano players.
While it may be a tempting title to write about ones theological perspectives, or even racial views, I won’t venture in that direction. Instead, when I think about black and white recently it is in the viewing of films and television shows that were before Technicolour.
I suppose on the risk of sounding like a dinosaur, I can remember hours of sitting (too close!) to a tv screen, a black and white tv screen. A smallish, by todays standards, tv which had a pair of needle-nose pliers that sat nearby that was use to change the channel. The tv came with ‘rabbit ear’ antenna which one person would have to manipulate to the shouts of encouragement, or dissatisfaction from those in the room who could still see the screen and the quality of the picture. When watching a show alone it might be that out of sheer frustration that you would put up with a slowly moving picture frame as it jumped up vertically over and over again.
Then came a colour tv and the world, at least the small world on tv changed. It was mind-blowing. I can remember being absolutely shocked that my favourite tv character had red hair. It was like reading a book, and then watching the movie. Somehow the pictures on the screen are never as vivid as the pictures in our imaginations.
We now have satellite television, which means that we have about 300 plus channels of absolute rubbish tv. A vast array of teleshopping and infomercials. The bottom of the barrel North American tv shows only slightly dubbed over so that there is always a conflicting noise of some backwood bootlegger twang, with a Bavarian interpretation that seems to miss the nuance of the language. I become picky in watching any television. Soccer, (or Fussball) is rarely on tv as they want you to subscribe to a special channel, but the highlights often show men slapping one another, and then both falling down on the pitch rolling in theatrical pain. The hockey is not much better as it is a sanitized game with little to no contact and the underdog is usually the team without any Canadian playing on it. Watching a hockey game can be painful as the camera operator struggles to find the puck and a goalie is pulled out with 16 minutes left in the game…why not when you are 7 points behind! While it is not all as bad as I can sometimes make it out to be, there are many gems to watch.
I’ve found that there are some really interesting older films being shown on the ARTE channel and that I am immediately drawn towards the old Black and White films. It is fascinating to watch, as there is much more of a dramatic feel in the cinematography. At least that is what my inexperienced eye tells me. The story lines are also much more ‘real-life’ as opposed to a Hollywood Happy Ending. I find that leaving the colour out brings out a different way of storytelling and a different drama. Either that or I am just being sentimental, pining away for an old glass tube screen television set that weighed about as much as three people, and which we would sit too close watching old shows together that we planned to watch and set aside the time to do so. Now we are likely as a family to be all in our separate rooms, sitting even closer to the screen (of a laptop, iPad, iPod, iPhone) as we stream on-demand Netflix shows, binge-watching at any place, day, or hour.
Meanwhile on the silver screen – having gone to the cinema in town to watch the newest release of the Thor series in blazing colour and 3D glasses, I have to say, I enjoyed it a great deal even with the dubbed over German. It is entertainment. Even though, there is a different quality of experience when we, as a family, sat in a tiny movie theatre to watch a rerun of a Charlie Chaplin film in glorious black and white, with the only sound being a twangy piano soundtrack to play enhance the experience of action, sorrow, or adventure; and the flickering hum of a projector. People munching snacks, slurping drinks, and at the quietest moments, the sound of a theatre full of people breathing.
While I am certainly glad for life in colour, I have become more aware of black & white, the range of greys. The silhouettes, and the drama of 3D. And of utter silence.
Where does walking get you in Freiburg? Actually, you can go quite a distance if you are determined, or you can go in circles and dig deeper and deeper like a spiritual wandering.
As I travel mostly by train I get to meet such a wide variety of God’s people. If I was to simply watch over the Anglican flock in Freiburg it would mean visiting people as far away as Basel, and as close as ‘just around the corner’. I walk through the streets on my way to visit people and I often wave to familiar faces on the Straßenbahn, or stop to greet someone who has just come out of a shop.
There is a great many people with very interesting lives, some of which I have the pleasure of meeting, and others I just scratch the surface of knowing. Today I was struck by my desire for ‘thick skin’. Emotionally, thick skin where problems, conflicts, even the daily bumps and bruises seem a bit more tolerable when one has thick skin. At least that has been my ideal, or my perception. Just today, a couple of people opened up to me the idea of seeing vulnerability as something of a gift. One of these people was a young woman who describes the stigma of being ‘sensitive’ and the case for being a sensitive person. Four Thought, Sensitive Souls
On the Straßenbahn ride into the city centre today I sat opposite a young man who by all appearances had thick skin. He just seemed to be wearing a chip on his shoulder. On a very full streetcar, nobody seemed prepared to sit across from this young guy…so I did. His hands, or rather his knuckles, were heavily tattooed with words that intrigued me, they said, “LIVE” and “HOPE”. I guess I was staring, (it is hard not to when you sit toe to toe) and he seemed like he was needing to test to see how long I would sit near him. He opened his bag and a thick fragrance of marijuana started to fill the air. People started to stare, and more backed away as the guy began to grind up large chucks of pot. “Nicht besorgt?”, said the young guy. What I took to mean, ‘Not concerned?’.
It is a truly interesting feeling to walk through a town and know the places, to see familiar faces, and also to look beyond the ‘chip on the shoulder’ to see that someone seems to want to express so much across their knuckles, and yet devise ways to guard their heart. Maybe that is what I do too, with a blog that acts as words across my knuckles, I’m just glad for the chance to walk the city with those who feel vulnerable.
At the end of the day, walking and talking, it is possible to cover a large area of Freiburg. It is not a pilgrimage getting from A to B, but much a kin to digging deeper and deeper in a labyrinth where after much plodding, we find ourselves at the centre with God. Who, I think might also have the words LIVE and HOPE tattooed across knuckles.
I am still discerning why it is I have not written on the Blog for a while. Having had a regular discipline of writing it just seemed that after a short family holiday in Ireland that I needed a pause in this pattern of creativity. I know of many people who like to post a lot of their life and daily events on Facebook or Instagram, and then for their various reasons announce that they have ‘had enough…’ and that they are ‘taking a break’ from Facebook. It seems that there is some kind of abuse, a rant, or perhaps an overwhelming negative presence that they pick-up on Facebook which they feel some distance is required. Many felt this way after Trump was elected in the USA and the online commentary seemed to become more and more vitriolic. I don’t think it is for this reason that I stopped writing. I was not flooded by ‘trolls’ or personally attacked. It felt more seasonal, like a field gone fallow.
There were a couple false starts, that to this day, still sit in the draft box of the blog which will likely never see the light of day. I went through a phase of feeling very guilty that I had not bashed out some writing. I’m still figuring that one out, as guilt is a very strange beast that I share with a great many people.
I suppose I feel that I am entering into a new phase: artists can have their ‘blue phase’, or an ‘expressionistic phase’. While I am not sure how to name the feeling, or the ‘phase’, it does feel significant. The things to which I strongly felt attached and committed have shifted. The closest I can think of for some similar experience is when I first became more attuned to my religious and spiritual life. In this reflective manner, I often feel that things are repeating themselves, but that I have a bit more distance between the ‘things’, be they emotions, or events. I have the sense that I have been here before, that it is a well worn path, but that I am a different person able to see the path as repetitive, but able to appreciate new things along it. Living in Germany I might make the comparison of having driven down the same road many times, but now, instead of zooming along at 200 km/hr the car has broken down and I am walking at a rate of about 5 km/hr. The route or path is familiar, now there is far more detail to be observed. In a sense I feel like I am letting go of things and appreciating the gifts that present themselves.
I’m sounding a bit philosophical I suppose.
There are many things on that Autobahn that I just don’t think I need to carry anymore. As the speeding and achieving give way to the slowing and appreciating the pause in writing and reflecting will likely take a different tone as well. One of the areas that I think motivated my behaviours that increased my speed, my push, and my resolve to achieve stems from a self-contmept. It sounds terrible, and it is even difficult to see it typed out on a screen let alone think that others might read it. Honestly, the focus on the unattainable, the high self-expectations, the need to be different, to be liked, to be defined by my feelings… these all seem to be on the road, yet again, but instead of them fuelling my ‘reason for being’ I just can’t carry them along the road anymore. I’ve dropped them. I’m sure that I will see them on the side of the road again, like I do now, but I just don’t think I need to pick them up; and if I do, I don’t think I will have the same attachment to them.
Several times in the last few weeks I have been reminded of a particular part of Thomas Merton’s ‘Seven Storey Mountain’. In seemingly random conversations this book keeps being mentioned and I am glad for the prompting to recall the read, which for me, was fundamental and foundational.
I should first say in context, the Seven Storey Mountain was one of the first books I read in what I could describe a spiritual journey. Merton’s book sat alongside, the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. There is a moment in the book where I thought, “finally someone else understands”. I cannot quote chapter and verse, but there is a part of the story in which Thomas Merton describes a holy moment as he stands on a busy New York street corner and knows in an instant that everybody, everything, and himself is with God. It sounds really simple, but for me it was the moment that I felt listened to and understood. I felt both alive and dead at the same time. Then it was gone. I have not felt like chasing this moment so as to repeat it as I know that it has and will be, always with me. The problem is that I’ve started going too fast, picking up unwanted ‘stuff’ and letting many of the ‘things/emotions/expectations’ that are flung at me, to stick. Rather than standing on the street corner with some kind of mystical experience I have slowly, gradually, turned myself somehow into a street performer juggling balls which all the passersby and onlookers have thrown another ball out and I have thought it vital to my being to make sure I catch the ball and add it too my act.
I suppose something had to happen as one can only juggle so much before all concentration is lost.
The ‘balls’ are starting to drop and they lay about my feet, and yet again I feel that I have found myself at the street corner, where everybody, everything, is simply in God. I don’t need to impress God with my juggling, and I don’t need to impress myself. I really don’t care what people think of me even though I struggle with this constantly, and I suppose I am learning to use these experiences not as tactics of shame and inadequacy, but to acknowledge there presence, to treat myself more gently, and choose to act in ways that are transformative, redemptive and beautiful.
My day to day tasks seem to take on a different light, and I am far less interested in propping up an institutional presence, or persona that speeds along aggressively achieving only so as to hide feelings of shame and inadequacy.
Now I walk a little slower and more intentionally; focused on the here and now, rather than on dwelling on what should been, or could be.
When I was as old as my youngest daughter is now I had limits set that allowed me to journey far and wide unsupervised.
When I was a couple years younger than what my oldest daughter is now, I had a wide circle of city blocks in which I was permitted to journey unsupervised. The boundaries were marked by various landmarks more than streets. I could go as far as the Black Cat which was a small shop on a seaside road, basically where the sidewalk ended and the road became too narrow and too twisted to safely walk or travel on by bicycle. The other landmark was what I would consider the next village where there was a couple of blocks of park separating the next shopping street. The north and south were marked by natural boundaries like the forest up the mountain, and the ocean to the south. A vast expanse for a young child, but in reality it was not especially far. However, it does push the limits of what most modern day ‘helicopter’ parents would allow.
For less then 10 Euros I just put my eldest daughter on the bus to Stuttgart to be met by her grandparents. On a weekly basis the same daughter travels from school on various trains and street cars. She is smart, and can, we believe, handle herself in different situations. It still feels a bit like she has by bus, gone far beyond where I traveled alone at her age. Then again, I doubt my own parents knew what I was up to between my day long trips out with friends.
Maybe my parents will be surprised about what I write, but I can remember one early October day when my best friend and I took a bus to downtown Vancouver into the heart of Chinatown. Together we boldly walked into a store selling all sorts of things from housewares to what looked like dried chicken feet in glass bottles in the display window. We asked for firecrackers which were illegal and we were, after some sideways glances of the shop owner, led to a back room behind a beaded curtain where there were piles and piles of firecrackers wrapped in red waxy paper into what looked like bricks. We bought all we could afford and invested in one special firecracker listed as a 1/4 stick of dynamite. (I very much doubt it was a what it said it was, but at least the blast was extraordinary.) On the return trip I seem to recall an idea that we would disembark in Stanley Park and then walk over the Lions Gate Bridge so that we could spit down into the sea water far below.
It seems strange to think about these things now that I am a parent and my daughter sends me WhatsApp messages from the bus to Stuttgart. While it is good to have limits and boundaries, it certainly an interesting social experiment when in Freiburg there has been in the University quarter of town, a lengthy construction project. The site is now an open public space, but there were delays due to the unearthing of the Old Synagogue. Now that the area has finally opened and the water fountains have turned on, it is like all of Freiburg has now entered the space that was once blocked by wire fencing and heavy machinery. A tidal wave of people has flooded into the space.
Nearby to this new public area is a newly renovated café called the Schwarze Katze in which I met some people from around the city. Given the name ‘The Black Cat Café’ I just had to go and reflect on what was a much smaller and far more distant Black Cate Café of my childhood. While I was sitting alone in the café I realized I was coming close to reaching my own limits, not in geography, but in a personality that was seated nearby. A young blonde male student perched cheerfully on the end of a beer bench, and started to chat away to some of the young women that joined the table. All this would be fine and normal, but for the hat that was on his head – a bright red ‘Make America Great Again’ hat from a Donald Trump rally. As the conversations at the table became louder, the rhetoric became more apparent. People began to turn and stare, one passerby seemed so shocked he distractedly fell into the small water channel that borders most of the streets in Freiburg. The young guy had enough sense to figure that people were not pleased with his attire, nor his words, and he turned the ball cap around on his head. We had all reached our limit.
Over the years I have amassed numerous volumes of books on the subject of the church. As large as the self-help section is in any given bookstore, the religious book trends give equal footing to what I might call the self-help-for-the-church section. While there are certainly some gems on how to be / do / become church; for the large part, anyone who seems to be able to string a sentence together could market a book about doing church better.
Doing church better written by pastors, for pastors, to make them feel that they are never good enough, that the church congregation that they serve is not good enough, that the grass is always greener on the other side of a denominational fence. All these things lead to some very destructive thoughts about ourselves and the church.
Besides the piles of books on the church, another thing that seems to pile up in our household (and I am sure yours too) is the kitchen space devoted to food storage containers. Be it Tupperware, Lock’n Lock boxes, IKEA Förtrolig, or old margarine containers; there is a drawer, or shelf, located in the kitchen where we keep all these lids and containers.
Sometimes I think that the church is represented in that shelf of containers. While seeking harmony feels like the most pleasurable thing to imagine in the church, it is often frustratingly absent much of the time. The church is a lot like that drawer of tupperware for a few reasons.
- We start off well intended, but soon find it a mess.
- We really want to savour the moment, but it usually comes back days later as a fuzzy mess.
- We have all the right stuff, but sometimes things don’t click.
We start off well intended but soon find it a mess: Let’s say it is a new school year and you’ve gone out an bought a set of storage containers. Our hopes and dreams of having a nice orderly school career are almost religiously symbolized in the new displayed and neatly stacked set of storage containers. However, with in a week (and often times sooner) you find that lids are missing, that the base of another set has shown up and it even has a sticker with some other persons name on it. I pretty sure that these storage containers reproduce all on their own when they are left in the cupboard in the dark. In fact, storage containers are the opposite of socks. Socks disappear in the wash, whereas containers multiply in the cupboard – so much so that the neatly organized system becomes a hodgepodge of lids and bases which now need to be crammed into a small shelf so that the door of the cupboard barely closes anymore.
We really want to savour the moment but it usually comes back days later as a fuzzy mess: “Wow, that supper/lunch/desert/food brought by guests/ was tasty! Let’s keep some for later, maybe for lunch tomorrow.” You’ve said these words, only to find that either the food never makes it from the refrigerator to the container and after some time gets gently sorted to the back of the shelf with several bottles of half used salad dressing only to be discovered next time you give the fridge a good cleaning. OR, that yummy food goes into a container and is packed away for school/work/picnic and maybe you realize when you open up your storage box that the food doesn’t look as it did before, or that the only thing cold the next morning that really has any taste is a cheese pizza as you look at your now limp salad that you enjoyed so much the night before. The food get’s tucked away, unfinished in the bottom of the school bag, office briefcase, or on the floor of the car where after some months and seasons of sliding back and forth it has become lodged under the seat and we blame the dog for any strange smells whenever a guest rides in the car with us.
We have all the right stuff but sometimes things don’t click. You know the feeling of being on your hands and knees as you search for all the parts of your container system. Why is it that it is always the bottom shelf that these things go? You have all the parts: you have food, you have a base, you have a lid. Sometimes you can only find a huge base that is far bigger than the amount of food you need. Blue berries, and that cheese sandwich will bounce around for hours before lunch until you have your own (unwanted) smoothy. Or your box and the lid are a different size or shape. How many people knew that margarine containers are not universally shaped, but can be loosely (and ineffectively) held together with a rubber band? Then there is the real challenge that you think you have all the right parts, but they somehow don’t magically click together. That pudding desert has managed to find the crack in the seal and is partially pooled at the bottom of your bag, and you may wonder how you are going to put it all back together again in a nice presentation so that it can sit on the table amongst all the other items of food that were brought for the shared lunch.
What then do we make of this when we compare it to the church given that so many want to write books that make us believe that we can be better, do it more wisely, or be more effective.
In a multicultural setting we may have in theory the desire for harmony, but what we must be willing to live with is much more chaotic. We start off well intended but soon find it a mess. We need to learn to live with the mess. Money, sexuality, politics, and religion are all issues we want to find harmony in discussing or sharing, but culturally we come from diverse understandings so we should be prepared to find it a bit unclear. We may start off with a simple church activity only to find that like the multiplying tupperware, we are now dealing with different issues and perspectives. We may even be surprised that some unknown item has appeared and we don’t really feel that prepared to begin discussing it, or how to answer.
We really want to savour the moment but it usually comes back days later as a fuzzy mess. It is nearly impossible to copy a method or system of being church and reproduce it to everyones delight. The church self-help book market is great at making you believe that if you just follow these 3, 7, 10, easy steps then you too will be the pastor of a mega-church. Yes, it might be great, like that Tiramasue cake, but when we take it home with us and open it up the next night the colours look a bit off, and it seems the coffee has started to separate from the rest of the cake. Maybe we are surprised when what looked (or tasted) great, has grown into something else mysteriously.
We have all the right stuff but sometimes things don’t click. Here I think that there is the biggest area to frustrate as it seems like we have all we need, we are so close, but it doesn’t go like planned. If we take the parts of any kind of church event we have high hopes for having it all work out, but in reality, we may have all the right parts, but something has failed to ‘click’. People go to great amounts of effort to dream up, and provide that pudding that will be out for others to share. Some blame may get passed around as to what part didn’t live up to expectations – that lid should have held together, and it didn’t! Each of the parts of the package have been designed with the best of intentions, but when we mix a Lock’n Lock with an IKEA Förtrolig the design (and cultural) differences make it more challenging to ultimately what was desired in the first place – to share in the enjoyment.
In the end of it all, the whole desire was that something good was made and there is an equal desire to share it, or have it continue. Sometimes, however, our expectations are not met and we don’t have that harmony. In these kinds of moments it is like God trying to tell us something. Maybe it is not so much about the system, the containers, the organization, the desire to preserve, the desire to have it all come together; but that we have something truly good to share. We enjoy our enjoyment. Forcing things to harmonize can be a frustrating experience, but if we take a look at what God has given us and let things work out, maybe as God intends, and despite ourselves, we find that there is a lot of good stuff to celebrate.
Well intended. Savour the moment. God provides the right stuff.
I cannot remember who it was that gave me this piece of advice as I started off in my journey of priestly ministry, but I have a suspicion that it was the bishop who ordained me to the priesthood.
No matter who it was, it has been advice that has stuck with me, and as such, has presented many unique opportunities to reach beyond the walls of the parish church. A friend recently asked me why I write this blog. I had to think about this, as I believe, my initial intentions for the blog have changed and developed overtime – an excellent time to reflect.
Many in the english speaking world will be familiar with George Herbert, a Church of England priest famous for just about everything under the sun, from poetry, The Country Parson, the look, feel and presence of an Anglican clergyman. George is a favourite image of what a great many people hold as the stereotypical Church of England vicar. I’ve had a rough go with the image that George portrays, and that stereotype, but I do admire his writing abilities. Perhaps, the gentle idyllic reflections were what I initially hoped to capture for the blogging audience.
The world, and the purpose of my blog, are ever changing things, so much so that I do find it difficult to set time aside for any creative input. Schedules, demands of an active parish, the loneliness of being geographically distant from neighbouring Anglican clergy, and even, the busy family demands, are completely foreign to the life of George Herbert, who in a sense, rented out the parish to other clergy so that he had the time to write and bumble along.
In 2009 I picked up a copy of a book with the exciting title: If you meet George Herbert on the road, kill him, by Justin Lewis-Anthony. The book proved to be a worthwhile read in that it helped to disprove the myth of the man, George Herbert, and of the myth of the clergy role which many still hold on to and envision as the gold standard for all other forms of ministry. If you want a taste of what the book is like, the Guardian article written by Lewis-Anthony summarizes it all very nicely.
As much as I have a dislike for the attitude set by many inside and outside the church with this fascination with George Herbert, I must say that some of what I feel to be my most creative ministry experiences are when I just bumble along as I imagine good old George having done.
Which brings me back to loitering with intent. Occasionally…well, frequently…I found myself preparing sermons in different neighbourhood pubs. Maybe the pint of beer helped with the creativity of the sermon writing process. I’d almost always sit at the bar because it was uncomfortable. Uncomfortable in that you really didn’t want to stay too long like you would if you had that nice seat at a table that was tucked away close to the wood fire on a cold winter day. Uncomfortable also because it is usually the lonely people, or the ones with issues and great needs that sat at the bar. So loiter with intent meant that in my clergy shirt, with a notepad and an open bible I would sit with one hand on the pint glass, and the other clutching a pen as I made my initial notes on the upcoming Sunday’s bible readings.
The man in black clericals at the end of the bar was to many people like a shiny fishing lure to the trout. “I just gotta ask…”, or “My friends and I were curious…”, were the typical ‘pick-up lines’ of what would turn out to be some curious, and lonely people.
The best people, as I may have mentioned before in another post, were the bartenders themselves. While there isn’t (to my knowledge) a book that is the bartenders equivalent to the clergy’s George Herbert; it is the standard belief that as people fill themselves with alcohol, they will eventually pour themselves out to the bartender. So loitering with intent meant to avoid the easy joking conversation of a small clutch of tourists, or hardcore drinkers, that were at one end of the bar, and sit alone and wait for the bartender to unload the problems of the world in the sacred moment with the highly polished wood bar top, and brass taps separating us like the dutifully polished screen of the confessional in a Roman Catholic church.
In many ways, bumbling does not reproduce fantastic results in a culture – a church culture – that wishes to see the pews fill-up with new members. However, the ministry always felt creative, vital and in some ways, maybe a little bit like a golden piece of poetry in amongst the commonness of ordinary life.
Looking back over time at what has been creative ministry, and in the case of this blog, some creative writing, it is on one-hand, an outlet, and on the other hand, a way that I, and others, may reflect on what I do, and how God is present – be it in Canada, or in Germany; be it in a church, or at the end of the bar. While I highly doubt that my writing, either the content or the style, will ever be compared to George Herbert’s poetic prose, at least like the Country Parson I’ve got the name that fits the role.