Someone recently asked whether I could offer monthly instalments of time wisdom.  I am not sure that I can, but I do know that the question of how we live wisely and well in time is one that we all need to work on over the long haul.  So I thought I’d at least try.

One of the ideas I have found least satisfactory as an attempt at time wisdom is the idea of work-life balance.  You may think that this is because I am a  workaholic and like all such can’t see the point of life after or beyond work.

Certainly I feel that ‘work’ is often engaging and satisfying and worthwhile, but I feel the same about parts of life that are clearly not work. I quite enjoy eating, sleeping and strolling in the countryside, for instance, and happily spend time doing them.

My problem with the work-life balance cliche is that it opposes overlapping rather than contrasting realities. Think Venn diagrams. Work is a circle inside life. You can and perhaps should question how large that circle can healthily be, but to call that a question of balance is a little odd.

There’s another issue too. It’s whether or not you think of your life vocationally. If you do – if you believe there is an aspect of calling about what you do and that your work not only meets extrinsic needs but also some of your intrinsic needs – then you will approach the question of how you think about the time spent ‘working’ quite differently.

This issue was explored in an interview with the entrepreneur Sarah Wood in a recent interview in the Huffington Post. When she was asked for her key tip to help women integrate work and life, she answered like this.

First of all, I wouldn’t talk about work-life balance because that suggests that work is opposed to life. Actually, I think we all owe it to ourselves to be working in jobs we absolutely love, that are our vocation. I’ve always been a big believer in the idea of vocation. If you’re following your vocation, then that is your life. So I would say it’s more about work-home integration.

One thing that has worked for me is to break down the divisions between home life and work life. I’m not sure it works for everyone, but it has worked for me. I bring my children to the office a lot, my children come to work events, and the people who come to our home are often from Unruly. What this means is I can be me at home and me in the office, there is no inconsistency. With respect to the notion that you have to put on a mask and have a particular professional version of yourself in the office, that doesn’t work for me. I like to feel natural and authentic and that means being the same person at home as I am in the office.

My tip would be to do what’s right for you, and make sure you have a support network in place. That’s really crucial.

What I like about Sarah’s answer is that she suggests that the way ahead is to break down divisions – rather than the traditional time management advice of creating boundaries.

Find more thoughts about time wisdom here

You can see the full interview with Sarah Wood here

I have become increasingly convinced that Julian of Norwich is a person whose writing deserves real attention, and that she has many lessons to teach us today – not least about what worthwhile theology might be like.  Here is the text of a sermon I preached about her a couple of weeks ago.

No one today underestimates the importance of childhood experiences on the way in which people’s inner and outer lives unfold. And yet when the story of Julian of Norwich is told it is not always remarked that she was a child when the city of Norwich was ravaged by the plague. The year was 1349. Little Julian was six years old. Norwich was the second largest city in England with a population of about 13,000 people. That summer, about half of that population died of the plague, known then as ‘The Great Pestilence’.

It must have been a wretched time to be a child. The very nasty symptoms of this terminal disease were there to be seen on the faces and bodies of people in the household and on the streets. Young Julian would never have been able to forget those dreadful days – and indeed she would have been reminded of them when subsequent waves of the disease erupted during the course of her life.

There are those who believe that when she grew up, Julian became a nun at the convent in Norwich, but recent scholarship suggests that it is more likely that she was married when about fifteen and had one or two children, of whom one or both died, and that she long outlived her husband. So here was a woman who lived an ordinary life at an unusually unpleasant time.

So – why do we even mention her today?

The main reason we know anything about Julian is because of her writing. She wrote two books. This is more remarkable than it sounds because they were the first to be written by a woman in English and also because they were just the sort of books that could get a writer into real trouble with the authorities – and by real trouble I mean possibly being subject to the death penalty. Because Julian wrote theology.

That anyone should write theology and not write in Latin, is itself a matter of significance. That the writer should be a domestic woman with no ecclesiastical authority and some startling ideas makes it quite remarkable. It is one of the puzzles of the history of English theology and religion that for centuries Julian’s books were of relatively little influence, or for that matter interest. In the twentieth century, however, her work was rediscovered and T.S. Eliot quoted some of it in his poem Little Gidding which became one of the most formative texts in English spirituality of the twentieth century. ‘Sin is behovely’ she wrote, and he quoted without translating the word behovely which means ‘necessary’ or ‘inevitable’ – ‘but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well’. Little Gidding would not have had the power and influence it had if Julian’s words had not been included.

 

I have said that she wrote two books. However she did not write two different books. She wrote the same book twice – twenty years apart. The first, or short, book was written in about 1413, and it describes the experiences that Julian had when, at the age of 30, she was so critically ill that she and everyone else believed her to be on her deathbed and she was given the last rites.

In the first book she tells us about a series of visions that she experienced as she lay on that deathbed. This is not the place to list them all, but the first vision was of Christ’s head bleeding under the crown of thorns. And one of the more famous ones was of a hazelnut or, rather, ‘a little thing the quantity of a hazelnut lying in the palm of my hand’. Seeing this she is puzzled, as puzzled as you are, perhaps, in hearing the preacher suddenly move from a deathbed scene to talking about a hazelnut. And, being puzzled, she kept asking herself questions. She asked herself what this little thing might be, and the astonishing answer occurred to her, ‘it is all that is made’. Her reflection didn’t stop there, however, because she went on to wonder, ‘how it might last – for it seemed to me it might suddenly fall into nought for its littleness.’

Today we are very used to thinking of the huge scale of the universe. We are familiar with the view of planet earth from outer space. We are also able to pose sophisticated questions about ‘existential risk’, that is questions about the possibilities for the survival of our race or our planet. I think that Julian was in this sort of intellectual territory, you could call it ‘existential wonder’, as she lay on her deathbed thinking about something as insignificant as a hazelnut. And her thinking developed further – ‘It lasteth and ever shall, because God loveth it. And so hath all things being by the love of God’.

There are many ways in which Julian’s life and mind and soul can seem strange and alien to us today, not least the final phase, where she was walled up as an anchorite at the Church of St Julian – after which she has retrospectively been named. But the main reason that I wanted to include her in this series was because of her pioneering and exemplary audacity in writing her experiences and reflections down, and also to honour her place in our culture as the first woman author in English. But I also wanted to talk about her as superb example of a theologian.

 

Julian wrote in the aftermath of devastating social and personal experience, and in all she wrote she sought to be true to the realities of life and death as she has witnessed them as well as to her inner and spiritual experiences. She had a deep and intelligent and Christian curiosity. She was always seeking a better answer, a more satisfactory way of understanding. You could say that there was in her a holy restlessness. Such restlessness is an important part of our spiritual journey. And if we find restlessness in ourselves we might well wonder how to make it holy. The answer is – to formulate the best possible next question and to allow a wise answer to emerge over time.

Julian’s writing begins in suffering, embraces vulnerability, seeks truth and ends with a vision of love and hope. Who could ask for more? She was and is an exemplary theologian. But she didn’t see theology as something for the few but for the many – writing not for prestige or credit but to inform the ordinary people of her time.

We all have deathbeds to look forward to, and, while the plague may seem like a barbaric medieval memory, our cities could begin to look a little like that if bacteria continue to develop resistance to antibiotics at their current rate, or if an especially virulent form of influenza evolves. And if we think it far-fetched to imagine that a child of six could experience what Julian went through we need think no further than some of the children who are refuges from the devastation in Syria, or who, for no fault of their own, have found themselves in a city or village taken over by Isis. If the theology of the future is not actually written by some these children when they grow up, it must at least be credible to them, as it must be credible to us as we reflect on their circumstances.

For it is only after looking such realities in the eye, feeling them deeply and pondering them slowly that we might dare to say ‘Amen’ to Julian’s message of profound hope: ‘all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’

A sermon preached in King’s College Chapel, Sunday 1 May 2016.

There is much that is surprising and impressive about the story in the news this weekend about the Archbishop of Canterbury discovering that his biological father was not the man married to this mother at the time of his birth.

Apparently the rumour started at a dinner conversation with a journalist from the Daily Telegraph. When the journalist told about it he decided that the bet thing was to get the facts. The facts have come out and, according to Justin, have made no difference to the question of who he thinks he is.

The irony in this is that it seems to have made a lot of difference to the way in which people regard him. Rather than having gone down in people’s estimation, he has gone way up – and largely because of the straightforward way in which he has handled the situation, and the modest and humane way in which he has commented on it.

Facts, are, of course, facts. But facts can also make people wriggle and squirm, even when as unequivocal as these.  But Justin seems to be an entirely squirm-free person.

Of course he, like everyone else, has plenty of personality flaws and failings, but this is not the sort of situation to expose them. On the contrary – it is when dealing with the unexpected and the awkward that Justin is at his best because he is also his most straightforward and immediate.

People have written about the humility that has been evident in this episode, and that’s  fair comment. But I wonder whether there is also something here about the way in which a mature faith works. Faith that is which is so anchored in God’s love and transcendence that it embraces the world and its facts with a combination of curiosity and courage. If you felt pompous you could call this mysticism that faces two ways.  If you didn’t feel so pompous you could call it living in the real world. 

Either way, this has been good weekend for the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Hild is one of the more remarkable and vivid characters of the Anglo-Saxon era. The Venerable Bede calls her a ‘most devoted servant of Christ’ in The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Hild was 66 years old when she died, having lived a life of two perfect halves: thirty three years as a lay person and thirty three years as a nun. Not that she was any ordinary lay person – or for that matter any ordinary nun.

She was born a princess in 614 – and grew up in Bamburgh castle on the north east coast not far at all from the holy island of Lindisfarne where Aidan had established a school of missionaries who were bringing Celtic Christianity to England. She was baptised at the age of 13 in York with her uncle the King. It’s impossible to know whether this was by choice or not, but it is clear from the way her life unfolded that her faith was a very deep and significant part of who she was and at some point she must have become, if I can put it this way, a voluntary Christian.

Hild lived in times of great change and upheaval. As well as the spiritual movements that were challenging and changing people’s hearts and souls there were constant disputes, and battles would have been frequent and brutal. She would have seen plenty of soldiers and battle-scarred people at the castle where she grew up – indeed her name, Hild, indeed means ‘battle’. But her own life at the castle would have focused on domestic duties and we can imagine her developing skills in embroidery and weaving. She did not marry and it was her own decision to become a nun.

Although by this time in her life she was probably living in Kent, and she initially intended to follow her widowed sister into a Frankish monastery, she returned to the north east and joined one of Aidan’s training monasteries not on Lindisfarne itself but on the banks of the Wear. She must have quickly impressed Aidan because he soon made her abbess of the convent at Hartlepool. According to Bede, Aidan ‘visited her frequently, instructed her assiduously, and loved her heartily for her innate wisdom and devotion to the service of God’. She also impressed King Oswui who put his own daughter into Hild’s monastery and later gave Hild land to establish a new double-monastery at Whitby.

We don’t know much about what life would have been like here, but double monasteries – those containing both men and women – were not rare in this era. We can imagine the windswept cliff-top community reflecting something of the Saxon culture that would have been everyday life at the equally windswept Bamburgh castle when Hild was young, though with a strong theme of Celtic spirituality running though it. This was a world of runes and the hallowing of the ordinary. The famous Whitby comb comes from this era. It is a small piece of bone on which a fragment of a one sentence prayer for help begins in Latin and then stumbles into the vernacular, making it an apt symbol of the cultural diversity that was everyday life in seventh century Yorkshire. The prayer is not unlike the sort of prayer that visitors leave when in our own St Edward’s Chapel ‘My God, almighty God, help – name’.

Bede tells us that ‘all who knew Hild, the handmaiden of Christ and abbess, used to call her mother because of her outstanding devotion and grace.’ Her monastery was a very successful training academy for clergy who would later rise to high office and make a significant difference, including five bishops. Hild’s reputation and story became well-known and had its own profound effect on many who heard of her. And there were many who travelled, in those days when travel was arduous and dangerous, to seek her advice and counsel. She made all the members of her monastery follow the Rule of life, insisting particularly on the study of the scriptures, and she ensured that not only was there fairness and justice but also peace and charity. In other words, she ran a happy and peaceful family as mother, and gained the trust of many.

It was for this reason perhaps that when the decision was made to gather a synod to discuss the future of the church it was decided that it should be held at Whitby. Hild was responsible for the hospitality – a not inconsiderable task that would have stretched the resources and abilities of her community to the limit.

The synod of Whitby was called to settle a hot ecclesiastical issue. Was the church in England to be Celtic or Roman? The answer, of course, was that it was to be Roman. This must have been hard for Hild to bear as she was, after all, hosting this event at great personal cost and her whole life was based on adherence to the ways of Aidan and the Irish monks. But Hild, like Cuthbert, understood that once the decision was made it was her job to help people accept it and to move forward with that same spirit of charity and peace. This was perhaps one of her greatest achievements.

And there is another one. Hild was not only a brilliant leader of a community, a forward-looking reconciler and wise and devout person; she was also a talent-spotter. There was a young man in her community who had a gift for poetry and music – Caedmon. He was also a very shy and retiring person, someone of great aesthetic and spiritual sensitivity. But Hild encouraged him and enabled him to develop his unique gift. And so it is that in the annals of English poetry Caedmon is the earliest entry. So if we wanted a patron saint of composers, or spiritual singer-songwriters, we might look to Mother Hild of Whitby.

Hild is one of very few women to make the headlines or achieve celebrity status in the church of the Middle Ages. And yet we see in her a person of rare gifts and profound influence. Taken as a whole she offers a vision of the sort of person whose life reflects the best values of British Christianity. For what we see in Hild is someone whose life is Christ-centred, focused on learning and generous in hospitality; we see someone who is personally and domestically wise, politically astute, conciliatory in defeat, open to inspiration, music and art and encouraging of the young and talented. If we are wise, if we want to live lives worthy of our faith, we could do a lot worse than to allow ourselves to be inspired by her story.

 

This sermon was preached in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge on 21 February 2016 as part of the series ‘Women of Spirit’.

Readers of Another Angle may be interested to read this …

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has announced the shortlist for the 2016 Michael Ramsey Prize, which will be awarded at the Greenbelt Festival later this year.

Archbishop Justin said: “This year’s Michael Ramsey Prize shortlist offers a glimpse into the riches not just of contemporary Christian thinking, but of Christian living. Each book has been a gift to the Church – helping us to think more deeply, act more wisely and witness more effectively to the glory of God.

“Writing such as this challenges, nourishes and inspires the Church to be ever more deeply and more joyfully what it is called to be: a praying, reconciling, proclaiming and witnessing community of people following Jesus Christ. It will be a real privilege to join my fellow judges in reflecting on these books, and sharing them with a wider audience when we announce the winner at the Greenbelt Festival this year.”

The shortlisted titles are:

Benigno Beltran, Faith & Struggle on Smokey Mountain (Orbis)

Stephen Cherry, Healing Agony: Re-imagining Forgiveness (Continuum)

Anne Richards, Children in the Bible (SPCK)

Francis Spufford, Unapologetic (Faber & Faber)

John Swinton, Dementia: Living in the memories of God (SCM)

Frances Young, God’s Presence: a contemporary recapitulation of early Christianity (Cambridge University Press)

The shortlisted books will be studied by the five judges over the coming months. They will meet together at Greenbelt on 28th August 2016 to choose the winning title.

Read more about the shortlisted books on the Michael Ramsey Prize Facebook page

For three years I have been working on a book about sin, The Dark Side of the Soul. When I started on the project I had no idea just how much I would learn in the process, or just how intellectually, emotionally and spiritually engaging it would be. But now the job is done and I have a copy of the book with its stunning cover in front of me.

It’s an obvious and easy time for a moment of reverie – all that reading and thinking and writing and rewriting, and rewriting, and rewriting … (sigh), and editing and correcting. All that work and worry is now safely sealed between those covers.

So I look at my book I ask myself  ‘Why did I write it?’ and, ‘What does it say?’

Why did I write it?

People today tend to think of ‘sin’ either as an excuse for a laugh, or as an excuse for a guilt-trip. Yet the truth is that the idea is not only really interesting, it’s ethically and spiritually important.

To say that human beings are sinful is a genuine, helpful and liberating contribution for Christianity to make to the world today. But it’s a hugely difficult idea to put across because people are so defensive about the suggestion and so dismissive of the language.

One of the slippery things about sin is that it hides under the radar of self-awareness. So a book about sin has to be a bit tricky too. As I say at one point, the idea is to shine a light into the dark side of the soul to give the demons a bit of a fright. Clearly this book isn’t a textbook, thesis or monograph! It’s serious about its subject, but not super-serious.

The last chapter is called ‘Demon Wrestling: A Practical Guide’. Maybe I should have called it ‘demon frightening for beginners.’ One reason for writing the book was to name and startle a few demons. These cheeky monkeys strut around the place full of vanity and pride, pretending that they do no harm, and how easily we let them deceive us.

Not that I really believe in demons. But the idea of demons does point to something about the experience of sin. We often think of it as coming at us from outside. The truth, however, is that what we think of as ‘outside’ us is probably just a bit of the inside that we are not very aware of – the dark side of the soul.

What does it say?

Well, yes it says that we are all sinners. I go along with the original sin idea, and I don’t think that there’s much point in thinking about how bad very nasty people are. In fact my chapter on ‘malicious tendencies’ is one of the shortest. The truth, I argue, is that more trouble is created, more harm done, and more people get hurt when no one is intending it and everyone believes him or herself to be acting in a well intentioned, justified or even benevolent way. I don’t say anywhere in the book that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. But that’s just because I try to avoid cliches. The point is a good one. Hardly anyone sets out to be horrible. Even trolls think that their actions are justified or helpful. Yet its often when we are high minded that we are at our worst – and vice versa.

One of the things I do in the book is to mash up the seven deadly sins and to come up with a contemporary list of deadlies or vices. My list runs to 23 which I group together in 6 clusters. What all these things have in common is that they are attitudes, habits or actions that, pleasurable or otherwise positive as they may seem, ultimately hurt the person who practices them as well as others.

I don’t think that there is a short list of capital sins from which all the others flow. My image of how sins works is more like a net or web of tiny, almost invisible, filaments. No one filament is that important or that powerful, but between them they ensnare and trap us in such a way that our wriggling and struggling only makes matters worse.

The things I’m most interested in are apparently blameless practices, or even virtues, that go sour on us.  For instance, I’m fascinated by our obsession with the shortness of time these days, and while I think that some time management ideas are really smart, I still see expert time managers getting busier and busier. Indeed, despite my best efforts it’s constantly happening to me.

Busyness is one of my deadlies. It’s okay to be busy – sometimes – but as a way of life it’s bad.  And I add ‘certainty’ and ‘control’ to my list of deadlies too. We tend to believe that if we were only more certain, or if we only had more control, the world would be better place. This is sinful fantasy. The truth is that many things are unknown and mysterious and when we are dealing with anything other than the most crude and basic processes it’s not control but guidance, and companionship, and facilitating the best efforts of others that will bring us closest to happiness, peace and flourishing.

Honestly I don’t think we will get to anything like peace, justice and flourishing without dealing with sin, especially the sin that hides itself in virtue. That’s why I wrote The Dark Side of the Soul.

 

 

A sermon for Ash Wedensday delivered at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge.

One of the first puzzles that often faces a person who believes that there is a good God who loves us and desires our love in return is this: how do I live with myself? A sense of spiritual inadequacy is one of the most common responses to the presence of God. Faced with the purity, holiness and perfect loving-kindness of God we realize how very different we are and we feel guilty – if there is something specific on our mind. Or, just as often, we feel ashamed that we are – well, such a disappointing human being.

The guilt response is what we heard illustrated in the Psalm that was the Introit to this service. Allegri’s Miserere is David’s long song of lament when he realized just how bad and sad a person he was by misusing his power as King.

And that is rightly where our Ash Wednesday service, and therefore our Lenten journey, begins – with the sense that we are in the wrong. Although some people may have to work hard to generate a sense of penitence or compunction or sorrow, for many it is not far below the surface of smiling happiness or earnest seriousness. It’s one of those things that people think about but don’t talk about; that feeling of not being right with yourself, not being right with God.

But although feeling that sort of feeling is the beginning of the Lenten journey, it is certainly not the end. Lent is not an invitation to wallow in guilt or sink in shame, but to acknowledge it in some way and then to move forward in our relationship with God and our neighbours.

So – what to do for Lent? What to give up? What to take up? Most of us could afford to be rather more adventurous and self-challenging in our Lenten disciplines. There are, after all, no rules that we must obey. We are free to do what we like. My most memorable Lenten exercise was to try to give up grumbling.

I have since persuaded quite a lot of people to try it. No one has found it easy. One person told me it almost ruined her social life. And yet the pleasure of complaining is indeed a sinful pleasure. It does nothing to reflect the glory or grace of God. Sometimes we must protest, sometimes we need to critique, but much of our grumbling and complaining is unworthy of us.

But if giving up grumbling is a new idea, our service this evening will end with an invitation to you to connect with a very ancient idea. Before the congregation is dismissed, a bowl of ashes will be blessed, and those who remain for a minute or two will have an ashen cross smeared on their forehead while the minister says, ‘remember that you are dust and to dust you will return’. This ancient ritual points to the truth that while people imagine the spiritual quest as a struggle upwards, against gravity, as it were, in truth Christian spirituality is mostly about the journey downwards, based as it is on the belief that God can cope with anything other than dishonesty, hypocrisy and pretense.

It’s the real you that God loves, even if you find yourself disappointing.

The journey of Lent is not one of self-improvement, or one in which you discover how to be a perfect, good or impressive person; nor is it a journey that teaches you calm and serenity. It’s a journey that teaches you that God is love, and that God loves you.

To do justice to Lent we need to remember that at the heart of Christian spirituality we do not find the quest to be good, but the struggle to allow yourself to be loved by God as the mortal and the sinner that you undoubtedly are.

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