Saturday, 28 January 2017

Taking the strain

I was asked recently to prepare something brief for a group thinking about ordained ministry expounding the Gospel passage which ends ‘the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath’, which took me unexpectedly back to my poem Pointing which I read for them, and it then came out like this:

Blocks of stone (such as those which you find in the walls of churches) will expand and contract with sun and frost, which is why the mortar between them will crack and eventually fall out, so that the wall then requires re-pointing. 

Occasionally someone is so frustrated with the time and cost involved in re-pointing that the person has what they think is the bright idea of using more robust material; sometimes it is even concrete.
But as soon as the pointing is stronger than the stone, it is the stone and not the pointing which takes the stress, and it is the stone which cracks and flakes away: the pointing is no longer a sort of safety valve to protect the stone but a sort of vice which will not give to relieve any pressure.

There are church walls where strong and robust pointing now stands proud of the wall and the stone within it is damaged and hollowed out.

It strikes me that the poem and that image might provide a helpful tool as we try to think how to apply the last and most famous words from that Gospel passage: Sabbath was made as a gift for us; we were not made to be held in check by Sabbath.

Looking back at the commandment we know Sabbath is to be holy, to be without work, and (the bit to which attention is paid least) to be where we are not a burden on others: to sanctify, rest and let up.

As the slabs of our lives expand and contract under it strains and pressures, they cannot be laid endlessly one on top of the other; we all know that they need to be next to more friable, Godly, free and non-assertive material.

But as soon as this is ‘stronger than the life it frames’ it is in danger of being the burden itself.  

I had the classic illustration of that again only a couple of month ago when someone was telling me about his pre-War childhood in rural Aberdeenshire and not being allowed to read his aircraft magazines at his grandparents’ home on a Sunday, something which still seemed to shape his relationship with the church all these years later.

As you think about ministry, you will be aware of clergy whose ministry is damaged by not giving enough time to what sanctifies, rests and lets up: they don’t pray enough, don’t take the time off they should, don’t see how their incessant demands can be a burden on others.

But I think Jesus’ words, the poem and the image of ‘the wrong sort of pointing’ identifies an opposite danger. 

In the last few weeks I’ve come across one situation in which a Churchwarden of a newly vacant parish told me that she had never been inside the new Vicarage built for the last incumbent, and another situation in which a group of Funeral Directors expressed extreme frustration at how difficult it is to get a prompt response when trying make arrangements with a few clergy. 

It is almost as if it is the strength of the protection which has been built around their ministry is in fact the thing which is damaging and hollowing it out.

Yesterday, a charity which works at issues of work-life balance published a report which achieved its desired headlines about just how many young fathers wanted more time with their children.  

Even a brief look at the actual report reveals that the issue for most of them was not about doing less work but about being able to be more flexible about the work they did do.

My prayer is that their and our pressures receive the gift of the Sabbath’s ability to take the strain.

The shape of the lens which took this picture of St Michael’s old Chancel (now its Lady Chapel) captures marvellously the way the layout of furniture is designed so that those who pray there gather around the lectern and altar.  

It isn’t one of mine but one I’ve just discovered on the Geograph website (an attempt to illustrate every square of the map) and was taken by John Blakeston.

No comments: