Friday, December 28, 2007

Keeping a Spiritual Journal

The other day a friend said to me that he was thinking about starting the practice of keeping a journal and I had kept one for a while, hadn’t I? We chatted a little about it, but it was neither the time nor the place to go into any depth. Since we had that conversation Christmas has passed, the Kews have moved with animals across a wide ocean, and now we have a long weekend to adjust to being a family of husband, wife, dog, and cat together in our English home before I get back to work and Rosemary begins teaching online.

As I couldn’t talk to David while in Tennessee I am going to talk to him through this entry – and allow anyone who wants to eavesdrop on what I say. With the New Year beginning, starting to keep a journal might be something that others want to do.

I got into the business of journaling forty years ago. I didn’t set out on my journal for any highfaluting reason but because I was having trouble concentrating on my prayers. Praying has never been an easy business for me as I have one of those minds that zips off after every red herring. While sometimes red herrings can be substance for prayer, most of the time they are distractions and diversions with little to do with the task in hand. My journal began as an act of desperation: the only way I could keep my mind on my prayers was writing down what I wanted to say to God.

So, having purchased a modest notebook I set about the process. It wasn’t clever or sophisticated, but it did the trick because I find myself writing jibberish if I don’t keep my mind on the task. I really envy those for whom prayer seems to come naturally, with a flow of words between themselves and God that is akin to a conversation!

I guess from that point onward what I was doing evolved, and over the years it has been on the pages of several dozen rather ordinary notebooks that I have wrestled through my relationship with God. Here’s the first important point about keeping a journal, what you write in it is between you and God, and is certainly not the business of anyone else, even your nearest and dearest.

A few years ago I was reading a biography of Tolstoy. The great Russian novelist kept a journal for many years, but his biographer suggested that he wrote with one mind on eventual publication and so there was some posturing. Also, as his relationship with his wife deteriorated he realized that she was reading it after he went to bed, which then prompted him to use it to poke at her knowing that she would never admit to peeping. This was obviously a man engaging in keeping a journal for questionable reasons!

What began for me as a place to record my petitions gradually moved beyond that. Certainly all these years later I write out my prayers like I always did, and it is obvious that the journal is addressed to God, but it is also the place where I bring into the presence of God far more of myself than that.

I am writing this the day after Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in Pakistan, a cause for great anxiety and much grief both in her homeland and beyond. Her death will definitely have a profound impact upon the world and I found myself writing and praying about that, but I went beyond looking at parallels in history and the meaning of God’s providence in such tragic circumstances. My journal entry became about God’s nature and purpose, enabling me to ponder the mysteries of the divinity as they intersect with the fallenness, evil, and foolishness of humankind. I said nothing new and definitely did not develop my own understanding of the Lord any further, but it enabled me to grapple with and lift to God a tragedy within the context of my praying.

Sometimes my journal is fed by the Scripture that I am studying in my own devotional life, and I might meditate on a the whole passage or just one tiny fragment of it. At other times I find myself ruminating on something someone has said or an insight (pleasant or otherwise) about myself. My journal is a place where I can bare my soul not only to God, but also to myself for I find myself able to identify and tussle with things about me and my personality that I would often prefer to avoid.

Yes, my journal is filled with joy and delight, but it is often a place of confession and penitence, and there have been occasions when the writing has been accompanied by tears and deep heartrending. It is because my journal is designed for the Audience of One that I am able to do this, pulling no punches about myself as I do so. I hate let’s pretend religion, and have discovered that this spiritual diary has the capacity to keep me honest not only in God’s presence but with myself and with others.

If a journal is a place of confession and penitence, it is also a place where the immensity of life is agonized over. One of the problems for many of us is that we tend to live life on the surface, either ignoring or avoiding some of the deeper and more tangled challenges. There are many doubts and fears that I find myself mulling over and trying to work through. I loved what Os Guinness wrote years ago that doubts are the growing pains of the soul, and my journal is definitely a place where doubts of all kinds surface and are explored.

Sometimes, like a sore in my mouth that my tongue refuses to leave alone, I will come back to these issues ad infinitum, kicking them around, poking at them, and trying to get inside why it is that this thing might be troubling me. But this is what God intends for us. Our faith does not grow and deepen if our life remains unexamined, and a component of prayer is examining ourselves and our mind in the presence of the Most High God.

What is fascinating when going through journals years or even decades later is how things that seemed insurmountable issues back then have now either melted away or been put into an entirely different perspective. In addition, requests are made and there is a record of those prayers being answered. Diaries and journals that have a prayer-related orientation are a wonderful record of God’s dealings with each of us. One of the pleasures of keeping such journals is going back over them and discovering not only how we have grown and changed, but also how within the context of this happening we have gained a clearer understanding of what God is truly like in the manner that he confronts, cares for, and shapes us.

Just as I am bound to spend time with Scripture each day, because my journal and prayer life are now so closely interwoven I also try to spend daily time with it. Now there are days when I don’t manage it, and I don’t put myself onto a guilt trip for missing this important part of my life. It is when I go two or three days in a row without getting into my journal that I start getting anxious because it tells me that I am letting my spiritual disciplines slip. But there is more to it than that, because when I avoid my journal it is evidence to me that I am seeking to avoid something in my life that needs to be dealt with: be it sin, shame, confusion, guilt, a relationship gone bad, or whatever. I probably know in my heart what it is, but I am not necessarily eager to see what my heart thinks there in blue-and-white upon the page.

And it is important to me that it is written on the page because I know I would never do it properly if I used my laptop. Others might be different, but just as it is important to me to receive communion kneeling if I possibly can, so it is important to me to have the white, lined page before me and the pen in my hand. There is an indelibility when the words are on the page, while on the computer it can be erased or edited until I think I have got it right. Often what goes on the page, even if the spelling is rotten and the grammar awful, is the heart truly speaking.

Sometimes I will open my journal not knowing what I will be writing about, at other times the subject matter may have been on my mind for days and now I am letting it out to see the light of day. On those days when I don’t know where to begin I just start writing, seeking God to guide me into all truth. It is often amazing what come flowing out and some of those entries are the most fruitful.

Entries don’t have to be long. Sometimes I will write no more than half a dozen sentences, and there are rare occasions when I might write several pages, but most of the time it is 300-500 words. This works for me, but others may go about this in an entirely different way.

Not long after C. S. Lewis’s death, his brother, Warren, was discovered making a mighty bonfire in the garden at The Kilns of letters and journals by his brother. While some were retrieved, others were lost. I like to think that my journals will be destroyed in the same way by my survivors after I am gone from this world because there is much in there that is between me and my Maker. Through my journals I have learned to pray, and praying can at times be a raw and messy business, as are some of these books.

So, David, I hope that will get you started…

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Going down to the sea in ships

For nearly two and a half years I have lived in the company of several remarkable men. I met the first of them in a chance encounter with an audio book which I listened to on a long car ride, and this set me off on an odyssey that almost three dozen novels later is nearly over. The men I am talking about are Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, the product of Patrick O'Brian's productive mind, then more recently I've come back into contact with C. S. Forester's hero, Horatio Hornblower.

It was Patrick O'Brian who launched me on this journey that has given me such delight while feeding my own imagination -- something that I have always believed especially important for a preacher to do. I am not a nautical person. My father-in-law was a civil servant with the Royal Navy so my wife has always had this yearning for the sea, but I am a landsman who will get a touch of seasickness on the shortest ferry journey. Yet I have found myself deeply stimulated by my immersion in the period of the long drawn out conflict that was the Napoleonic Wars.

Because we had read O'Brian's Master and Commander series Rosemary and I went on to read the whole Horatio Hornblower saga. The Hornblower stories were written by C. S. Forester during the years that straddled World War Two. I had tried them when I was a kid and had not acquired the taste, but fifty years later I came back to them with gusto, and reveled as much in the glorious tapestry of adventure and interrelationship as I did in the Aubrey-Maturin tales.

Now, as this epic spasm of novel reading draws to a close I find myself determined to learn a great deal more about the Napoleonic conflicts against whose backdrop our fictional heroes lived out their lives, fighting, prevailing, and often grieving deep wounds and loses. I had never actually been able to place the Napoleonic Wars when it came to their importance in world or British history, but now I realize them to have been a major turning point. They enthrall me -- as have the fictional characters on whose lives I have eavesdropped.

Jack Aubrey, Patrick O'Brian's creation, is a complex personality, a gentlemanly mixture of swagger and kindness. He is an extrovert, a man's man, someone who grabs life with both hands, and seemingly loves nothing better than a good fight -- especially if it helps him acquire prizes by capturing other vessels and their cargoes with the result that he and his crew get a percentage of their value. His foil is Stephen Maturin, the ship's doctor, who is an even more complex individual, an Irishman with a Catalan father who aligns with Britain because of his loathing for Napoleon and the evil that he wreaked in the Iberian peninsula.

Jack Aubrey is shrewd and cunning at sea, but he is also a lamb for the slaughter when on land -- a fool who is easily parted from his money by those who promise to make him richer quicker. He knows how to fight and inspire men, but you always sense that he is a little at a loss when he is in the company of his wife, family, and polite society. I suspect that his shortcomings on land was fairly typical of sailors of that age used to tours of duty that would be months or even years in length.

But there's another side to Jack Aubrey, for he is the man of war who loves music. In this he is a complete contrast to Horatio Hornblower for whose wooden ear turns music into a raucous din to be endured rather than enjoyed. Aubrey is a halfway decent violinist, and it is music that cements his deep, brotherly friendship with Stephen Maturin. There's many an evening when they have sat in the captain's cabin playing string duets, for Maturin was a pretty good cellist. If other musicians happen along, then they are dragged into this business of music-making, even music writing.

While Jack Aubrey is bluff and hearty, Horatio Hornblower continually fights internal battles with himself. Like his hero and namesake, Horatio Nelson, a little while on land and he has lost his sea legs, so seasickness is his unwanted companion whenever he gets back on board a ship after time a-land. Then there are these inner uncertainties that dog him even as he rapidly ascends the ladder of naval promotions, proving himself a strong and courageous leader. It is as if Hornblower never really grows out of being the uncertain boy who was rowed across Portsmouth Harbour to the HMS Indefatigable, where he became a midshipman.

He creates a kind of shell around himself to protect his seemingly fragile psyche, with the result that he barks at subordinates unnecessarily and cannot even tell his best friends his appreciation of them. He makes decisions well, but then in the quiet of his cabin second guesses himself, scared that if the action goes wrong or if the unexpected happens his career will be at an end and the respect that people have for him will evaporate. What thoughtful leader, if honest, has not had such fears and anxieties in the dark of the night after hard decisions have been made?

While Jack Aubrey has a lusty appetite when it comes to the opposite sex, Hornblower doesn't have much of a clue about women. He stumbles backwards into his first marriage to Maria, seemingly unable to walk away from a kind young lady who is the first to show him feminine affection. It is an inappropriate marriage, and throughout he wrestles to hide his pitying true feelings from this poor creature who is his adoring wife. Maria has a sad life, losing two children to smallpox, then dying in the process of giving her husband his son, Richard (what an excellent choice of name!).

Hornblower is off fighting Bonaparte when this tragedy takes place, but it sets him up to marry a woman who he believes is so far above him both socially and in every other way that she is beyond reach. He has the good fortune to become the husband of Lady Barbara Wellesley, the younger sister of the soon-to-be Duke of Wellington, England's greatest general. With such a match to a woman he adores, his continued rise is almost guaranteed.

I have loved the interplay of warfare, the hard life of sailors in those days, the relationships with wives, sweethearts, naval bigwigs, politicians, and the enemy, to name but a few of the factors that are so artfully woven together. Hornblower emerged from the leftovers of a film script that C. S. Forester, an English resident in California for much of his life, was writing. The Master and Commander sequel was imagined into existence by Patrick O'Brian, an Englishman who wished he were Irish and lived much of his adult life in Southern France with his wife. How is it that two determined exiles should write such glorious books about this England about which they had such mixed feelings?

The naval escapades of the Napoleonic Wars were in many ways the climax of the age of wooden ships. For millennia when men went down to the sea in ships and carried out their business in the great waters they had done so in small and by our standards flimsy vessels. The ships that fought in the early Nineteenth Century might have been the climax of wooden ship technology, but although their sailors did not know it within a generation or two they would be replaced by metal creatures driven by steam engines and requiring coaling stations all over the world.

O'Brian and Forster capture the squalor of those old boats: the close quarters in which men lived, the stench between decks, the ghastly food, the damp cold of wintery oceans, the terror of storms tossing them all over the place, the hard work and the countless hardships endured by officers and men alike. The authors have great respect for these tars, for they were a tough race, beyond anything most of us are likely to experience today, and the discipline with which they lived could be cruel and harsh.

But it was upon their backs that the British Empire blossomed. By prevailing at sea against Napoleon's navy, the Britain that emerged from those years of endless warfare was poised to become the preeminent global power. The British developed a supreme confidence, gathered colonies so that the sun never set on the Union Jack, and they were both the dominant trading nation and manufacturing power. The British were to be feared and envied after Napoleon had been finally defeated in 1815, and although not without challenges, they remained the world's top dog for a full century. That dominance slipping from their hands first in the trenches of Flanders and later in the battle to the death against Hitler and his Nazis. In those conflicts British and French were not enemies but fought side-by-side.

The Royal Navy remained the premier sea force for nearly 150 years, finally surrendering this privilege to the Americans during World War Two. Alas, it has continued to shrink and atrophy, and today is a mere shadow of its former self. I don't think the Royal Navy is worried about playing a supporting role to the Americans, but perhaps the tragedy today is that it continues to be pruned and reduced as once Great Britain adjusts to being Little England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

I have enjoyed my thirty months spent with fictional characters who represent beings who laid the foundations of something proud and significant. While these individuals have warts and shortcomings they also reflect an ideal -- men of honor prepared to die for the cause for which they were fighting if that is required of them. We live in an age that glorifies self-interest, and old-fashioned notions like this are either unknown, unrecognized, or unappreciated. I have no desire to romanticize war, and in one of the Hornblower books Forester launches into a tirade against it, but the real battles of life are ultimately only won by men and women of enduring honor and integrity. Furthermore, honor and integrity add touches of civility to a society that has become a dog-eat-dog affair.

Good fiction should stimulate rumination over these and larger concerns. I think that these naval sagas are good fiction and do just that. Characters are given time in book after book to develop, much as personalities grow and mature in real life. I suspect that some of the facets of these players that I have met in my reading have influenced me, and will continue to shape my thinking for a long time to come.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The View from the Bleachers

My memories of the many games of rugby that I played when I was younger were of the tackles, the bumps, the bruises, and those occasional wonderful moments when I could tuck the ball under my arm and run. Because I was on the field my experience of the game was just what my own eyes saw and my own body felt. When I watch a game today, whether live or on television, I have a much better picture of what is actually going on, and can tell you with far greater accuracy what is really happening.

I feel that having moved to ministry in the UK I am now watching the fate of North American Anglicanism working itself out from a seat in the bleachers. In some ways, because I am no longer involved on a day-to-day basis and experiencing the rough and tumble, I can step back a little and try and work out exactly what is going on. Obviously, it is a very personal set of observations, but they come from someone who spent many years, as it were, on the field of play.

When you have an opportunity to stand back from what is going on, you are better able to see all the players in action, and it is a little easier to measure their play against a common set of reference points. Quite honestly, it seems to me that denial of the realities is standard at both ends of the spectrum. The voices of those who ally themselves with the "establishment" and the National Church seem as determined to read the situation through their own set of colored lenses as those at the other end of spectrum to put their own spin on the realities. While those who want everyone to kiss and make up are more sentimental than realistic.

If Kevin Martin is correct, and I think he has been fairer in his analysis of what is going on than most, then for those who continue as part of the Episcopal Church a crunch point is fast approaching when declining numbers and funds will no longer be capable of upholding the infrastructure that presently exists. You might have been able to say until now that its only a relatively small number of parishes that are causing all this upset and, by and large, other than them everything is fine and dandy, but it is no longer just parishes heading for the exit. When dioceses start doing the same then you have to change your tune.

But then, those who are conservative, orthodox, or whatever other label you want to give them, have their own blinkers on when it comes to looking at the realities. It might be a wonderful sense of relief for those leaving to get out from under the antagonistic leadership of the Episcopal Church, but it is incredibly hard and grueling work to create a whole new infrastructure in which to be church. Having been at the front end of a number of new ventures in my time, I know from personal experience the grinding agony of having limited financial resources, relatively little land or property, and how incapacitating it can be to do pioneer work after you have got over the euphoria of getting the new ministry (or whatever) up and started. It requires guts and a special mix of gifts to be a pioneer.

If you look at those who split away from the denominations at the time of the Fundamentalist Crisis in the 1920s, it wasn't until the 1970s that they were in a position to move forward having put a complete new set of structures, seminaries, and so forth, in place. While the parallels between the 20th and the 21st Centuries are not precise, there is plenty of evidence from history that movements take at least a generation to take root and much longer than that to make a systemic difference.

What makes it more tricky for those who are attempting to plough a new furrow is that in many circumstances they are facing crippling legal challenges. I almost gagged when I heard the size of the legal bills facing the CANA congregations in Northern Virginia. If you are starting afresh sums of the size they are having to cough up to the attorneys are crucial in the launching of new initiatives and the firmer establishment of what is there already. It is very handy to blame these lawsuits on Dr. Schori and her legal advisors, but when you take the action of separating from the denomination, knowing what the situation is regarding the ownership of the property, then you have to admit that you walked into this one with eyes wide open.

It is handy to blame what has happened on other people, and certainly the disastrous decisions of the 2003 General Convention were the climax of a long build-up to this crisis, but scapegoating those who you believe caused the problem does not find a way forward, neither does it seem to square with the spirit of Scripture's teaching about finding reconciliation. There is a dysfunctionality on all sides, let's call it fallenness, that has intensified the depths of this tragedy. Put in the language of heaven and earth, the Devil has been having a field day and we have all cooperated with him.

Watching the Rugby World Cup in September and October, what struck me about the way England played was their ferocious determination after a terrible start in the tournament not to let their opponents score. They were dogged in their defensive play, but their problem was that instead of going out to score tries and goals, they tended to play to prevent the other side from scoring against them. When in the final they came up against South Africa, they encountered a team who played a different kind of rugby and knew how to sidestep England's defensiveness.

What I see in the American church right now is that same dogged defensiveness. Each side is saying, "We are not going to let those who are against us win." The result is unappetizing, a war of attrition, which ultimately no one can win, and from which only the lawyers and those who nay say the gospel are benefiting.

Right now the orthodox/conservatives are winning nothing, in the medium and long-term the Episcopal Church loyalists are going to be really digging a deep hole for themselves, and meanwhile the Anglican Communion teeters on the brink of division and, worse, extinction. Clearly, the Anglican experiment as we have known it is floundering in deep water and the outcome for the advance of the Gospel is hardly very encouraging. I am sure that those who are passionate that they are right are going to stomp all over me for what I have just said, but that is what the game looks like from someone who is no longer actively involved. All I can do is grieve and pray, and ask God that at some point he will raise up wiser heads whose voices will be heard above the din.

It is because there are no easy answers that I write as I do. The church as we have known it probably is way beyond any kind of repair, but the dynamics now in place seem to me to promise further rending, further parting of friends, and further bloodlettings. Such a course is one that only leads steadily downward. Each time through history that major crises have shaken American Anglicanism the result has been to further weaken the witness of the church. Isn't it about time that we started to learn from the mistakes of the past while attempting to create a Kingdom future? This isn't about compromise, this is about what does it mean to be faithful to the Lord Jesus Christ.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The End of Term

Looking forward to seeing my animals again!

It seems amazing, but my first term as Development Director at Ridley Hall is now drawing to a close. In a few days I will be boarding a plane back to the USA, and will be reunited with my wife, Rosemary, after our longest time away from one another in nearly forty years of marriage. One of the things that these fourteen weeks apart has re-emphasized to me again is that I am not constitutionally suited to bachelordom and the single life. As Scripture says, "It is not good for man to be alone..." I say "Amen" to that!

What has been interesting, and it came up in a conversation this morning, is how I am perceived by the students and my colleagues here. In the USA I am very obviously English, but here folks are not sure of that at all, and over breakfast with the Principal, an American, and a Canadian student, it became obvious that in this community I am perceived to be an American. That will probably make some of my American friends chuckle, but that's the way it is in perfidious Albion.

This very much came out yesterday at a trustees meeting of the seminary. I will not bore you with the details, but apparently from the way I presented my report, and from a slap across the wrist that I received from one of the bishops, I had forgotten in such situations how to be haved with necessary English reserve. I would hasten to add that I have no desire whatsoever to rediscover how to become English like that again, although perhaps I will have to be a little more careful. There is nothing wrong with a little brashness every now and again, especially if it keeps people thinking and discourages them from being stuffy.

It fascinates me what I have missed in these last few months. Obviously, I have missed Rosemary very, very much, but I have also missed my dog and cat, too. I am looking forward to having them all here in Cambridge with me. But almost as much, I have missed what can only be described as the priestly rhythm of life. It is now more than four months since I last presided over a Communion service, and nearly as long as that since I last preached the Word. These activities, the ministry of Word and Sacraments to which I was ordained in the late 1960s, have shaped the pattern of my life and suddenly they were taken away which left me floundering.

Here I have had no opportunity to exercise these tasks, merely to sit in the congregation and be ministered to. Perhaps that did me a world of good. Certainly, I have learned to squirm as parishioners do, and last Sunday if I had not been a visitor at the church where I was worshiping I would have been tempted to walk out because of the vacuous error that was being proclaimed angrily from the pulpit. Sitting as the recipient of ministry in a congregation is a good place to learn some fundamental lessons about humility and self-control!

I mentioned how empty life could seem without celebrating and preaching to our fellowship group on Monday morning. We were pondering and praying over the high points and low points of this first term of the academic year, and the Principal and I were the only two ordained members of the group. I wasn't fishing, but within minutes I was asked if I would be the celebrant of the end-of-term eucharist for the group, and that was a great joy. Then within 24 hours my phone rang and I was asked to preach and celebrate on a regular basis at St. Andrew's, the village church that I have been attending. Suddenly, after this enforced lay-off I was being given back something that I realize is much more precious to me than I had previously imagined.

So, I return home to Tennessee for two last weeks on Monday. I say home because I realize that home for me on earth is where Rosemary is. It is also my home because that is where one of my houses is, for our beautiful Tennessee homestead is like so many tens of thousands of others, trapped high and dry by the sub-prime crisis. There are nights when I have lain awake getting quite mad at the greed that has created the mortgage crisis that is now enveloping the markets here. I pray that we won't be paying two mortgages for too long.

What has been an interesting phenomenon is that as far as I can recall, I have not dreamed about once about England the whole time that I have been living back here. Instead, I have been dreaming about America -- perhaps that says something about where a large part of my soul is lodged.