Tag Archives: Methodism

Faith, doubt and Advent

I’ve been making a serious effort this Advent to address something I know is a bit of a problem – my prayer life. I find it really hard to get into the habit of setting aside regular time simply to pray, whether using a daily office or simply sitting with God, not trying to do anything.

I started out with the best of intentions – I was going to say evening prayer every day, having realised that however much I try to be, I am just not a morning person and setting my alarm earlier doesn’t work as I just doze through it. That lasted two days before life got in the way and having let it slip once, it just vanished into the ether.

Part of the problem is, I think, that if I’m going out of an evening, I’m often on a very tight schedule. I often don’t leave the office till gone 5.30pm (sometimes it’s more like after 6pm) which isn’t by choice but reflects the volume of work I have on, and it takes 30mins to walk home. I’ve then got to cook myself dinner, which if making something nice from scratch can take anything between ten minutes and an hour, eat it and do the washing up. By the time I’ve done that, got changed out of  my suit and run out of the door again, I’m often running late as it is.  Time to pray feels like wasted time in the rush to get back into town. Even that doesn’t really wash as an excuse, though, as days when I’m doing nothing other than flopping in front of the television in the evening are still devoid of a daily office, mostly due to sheer fatigue after a long day’s problem solving.

I have realised that I’ve hit several walls at once:

  • Until about four months ago, I lived in Durham with a Cathedral on my doorstep and was able to go to a daily Eucharist and Evensong. I’m so much better at going to something scheduled like that and am much better at praying with others. There is no real equivalent in Milton Keynes and I miss it.
  • I find it hard to read the Bible because my inner academic kicks in and worries about hermeneutics and context and differing interpretations and doctrine and it forms a kind of mental wall. I worry I’m ‘not doing it properly’ and there is no point if I don’t. In short, I’ve lost the art of devotional reading of the Bible.
  • A year of undergraduate-level theology and biblical studies in Durham raised far more issues than it solved. For example, I had to write an essay on how to read the first eleven chapters of Genesis and in researching that came across so many different perspectives and opinions that apart from being sure what I didn’t like and the pre-existing theological bias driving that, I just wasn’t sure how to evaluate these. On what basis could I compare the thoughts of people far more knowledgeable than me and fluent in the original languages? It left me not sure what to think anymore. I think this sort of thing is the cause of point two.
  • Last year, I lived with someone who placed a great deal of emphasis on the use of daily offices, seeking the intercession of the saints and theological reading. This wasn’t a problem in of itself but his habit of making me feel guilty for not persuing these things with same zeal was. It seemed to me that all this stuff and the full-blown conservative Roman Catholic devotional life could easily be used as an excellent way to hide from God, or at least to keep her at arm’s length, and my trying to have an altogether simpler devotional life was ‘just not good enough’ and was frequently criticised. I also found it very hard having my beliefs attacked regularly and having to defend and justify myself all the time, and I don’t think I’ve entirely ditched this person’s baggage.
  • I’m still struggling to come to terms with leaving the ordination process. This might sound an odd thing to say given that it was several months ago and I’m about to embark on the adventure of becoming a Methodist local preacher. However, I think before then I’d had lots of doubts and questions floating around my head that I didn’t dare let surface. The pain of leaving the process and feeling distanced from the church removed that barrier and released a lot of stored-up anger with God, all of which has brought into question several theological assumptions that I suppose I simply accepted without examining them.
  • Further to the previous point, I am sick to the back teeth of church politics getting in the way of real encounter with God in so much of the Church of England. I’m not just on about women bishops and homosexuality and the covenant, but all the stuff about things being done a certain way because ‘we’ve always done it that way’ or ‘that’s how Father likes it’, and liturgical trappings of vestments, acolyting etc becoming so much more important than the God to which they are supposed to point. I JUST DON’T CARE! YOU DON’T EARN BROWNIE POINTS WITH GOD FOR DRESSING UP LIKE ELVIS-MEETS-THE KKK AND WALKING IN RIGHT ANGLES!!! I should add that the forced jollity of charismatic services and the usual evangelical cliches also drive me round the bend these days. Enough of the formulae, I want God!
  • I miss having a spiritual director to hold me to account.
  • I have a massive lazy streak.
  • I find maintaining my own routines and structure difficult.

So where does that leave things?

I’m not 100% sure.

What I do know is that God has been working in my life in the last few years to bring about a lot of healing and through particular things that have happened and the people he has brought into my life, especially TractorGirl, I’m so much more like the person God made me to be and infinitely more comfortable in my own skin. I know that whatever happens, I am loved from top to bottom purely and simply because I am. It’s not about achieving things or never messing up. It’s about pure, unearned, freely-given love. What’s more, that’s true of every single person and every single part of creation. The challenge is to live in the light of those two things and to make time to enjoy God for her own sake.

There’s a great quote from a former Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, which I can never quite get right but goes something like this: knowing God, and being known by God, doesn’t depend upon, nor does it guarantee, being right about God. I think this needs to be my motto over the coming weeks. My last year in Durham made it difficult to hold onto this, but I now see that it’s key, because it not only leaves room for the inevitable errors we all make when thinking about God or reading the Bible, but it also leaves room for doubts and questions and being able to say ‘I don’t know’. Having room for grey areas rather than feeling pinned down to only black or white is something that has been missing for a while now in my faith. That isn’t to say that truth doesn’t matter, but is simply to admit that I don’t have things sorted all the time and like TractorGirl, recognise I need to engage openly and honestly with my doubts.

In practice, I think this will mean having to figure out a way of giving my prayer life (in whatever form) the time it needs and so engaging with scripture, but also finding time, however ad hoc (and ad hoc may well be the best thing at the moment), just to enjoy God. Not having answers is hard for me as a scientist who likes to have things well-defined (which I know is ironic giving how much of science is really groping in the dark) but also as someone who likes to be in control. It feels vulnerable.

That brings me back to Advent, which is my favourite time of the Christian year. God didn’t come into the world on clouds descending, in a blaze of glory and power and might. Instead, God in human flesh was born as a small baby, entirely dependent on his parents, themselves very ordinary and at the mercy of the political situation of their day. which made them forced pilgrims and refugees. It’s an enormously vulnerable position fraught with risk, with the risk of loving all of us so much as to give up the thing that matters most.   God in the vulnerability, the mess and the ambiguity of the world is the only God that makes sense to me in my vulnerability, mess and ambiguity. Sometimes it’s all I can hang onto.

A brief update on life…

I’ve had a mad three weeks or so and therefore just haven’t found the time to blog, so here’s an update on life at the moment:

I am now Dr TOH, as of 8th June. I have just minor corrections and thankfully not many of them, so the thesis should be all done soon. However, I doubt I’ll make July congregation because of the rest of life…

I have been up and down the country looking for work. Had a few interviews since I last wrote anything. One will take a fortnight to get back to me and I’m not convinced I want the job anyway. One would have been great but turned me down – since when has talking through in detail the planning of the final two chapters (representing a year’s work) of a PhD thesis been an insufficiently strong example of planning an activity? The interview I had in Manchester today seemed to go well and I’ll hear tomorrow. The company seemed great so I’d really like to progress to the next stage. All in all, with job applications, life has been hectic.

I had my first experience of the dismalness of benefit claiming this month. One now has to apply for Jobseeker’s Allowance and Housing Benefit by phone, and they want to know one’s entire life story. Then I had to go for an interview with Jo, an advisor who slavishly followed her computer system (which couldn’t cope with the concept of a graduate looking for graduate jobs) and talked to me as if I am a particularly stupid monkey with a particular reason to be stupid. She refused to listen to me and the system couldn’t cope with the types of jobs I’m applying for – management consultant wasn’t on the list, so such jobs can’t exist… I’ve promised to be a good girl and look on the Jobcentreplus (plus what, exactly?) website twice a week, which I intend to use to find the most bizarre jobs going and blog about. I have to go back Monday for my fortnightly humiliation. Prayer please – felt very down after the last time.

TractorGirl has been on a pioneer missioner adventure. Whatever comes of it, I hope it gives her the confidence to explore the Diaconate when the time comes. Can’t deny it hurts, though, watching her being encouraged when the Church of England gives one no room to pursue ministry with integrity.

We have had some sunshine at last, and I now have a tan of sorts. In other news, Prince Phillip is still alive. Oh yes, I may have solved my impending housing issue and last week I bought a new tie 🙂

Uncertainty

It’s been a busy week with essays to get done, so I haven’t had the chance to blog for a little while. In case anyone wonders what a mathematician is doing writing essays (I got a grilling from a friend on Facebook for this yesterday), I am doing a BA in Theology and Ministry with the Lindisfarne Regional Training Partnership. For the most part, it’s been a good experience, though given it’s in its first year, there have been teething problems. I’m currently doing a module on the Christian tradition, which has given me the chance to write essays on Anglicanism’s shaping by the Reformation and on the Enlightenment.

The first of those ties into a current dilemma: For some time, I was exploring the possibility of Anglican ordination but that didn’t work out because I didn’t want to lie about the nature of my relationship with TractorGirl. Now, during my time in Durham, I’ve attended Methodist churches at the same time as worshipping at the Cathedral  due to being part of Methsoc. My theology has in some respects moved closer to Methodism than the high Anglicanism I had settled into when I arrived in Durham, but there is a lot about Anglicanism that I still really appreciate.

The reason I’m rambling about this is I am considering joint membership of both churches and this raises certain issues:

  • Is the three-fold ministry of Bishops, Priests and Deacons the only model for church order or can other models such as the Methodist system work? Is it contradictory to accept two very different structures?
  • How important are the Sacraments, and in particular, participation in the Eucharist, to my faith and how I understand it? I have no problem accepting Methodist sacraments as valid because I go with Richard Hooker’s receptionist understanding and admire Wesley’s emphasis on regular communicating. However, both the Methodist churches in Durham only have monthly communion.
  • Tied in with this is the Methodist sense of membership involving belonging to one particular church, unlike the Anglican system, shaped by being the established church. In practice, this means choosing a church to belong to, and while I’m very definitely part of the family at my preferred church, services there clash with the Cathedral Sung Eucharist which I usually go to. I worship regularly at the other Methodist church’s evening service, but feel much less part of the family there. How to choose?

To add to all of that, the only thing I really miss about exploring ordination is being able to preach. Methodist local preaching has been suggested to me and does appeal, but I’d need to worship regularly in the church to be able to do that with integrity, which may mean having my membership at my less preferred church, or attending the other and sacraficing being a regular at the Cathedral Sung Eucharist. Help!

At the same time as all of this, I’m pondering my future career plans. There are a couple of jobs I’m applying for this week that would use my maths and keep me in Durham. One of them is to do with regional development, which is something I’m more than open to looking into in the future, and it’d be great to be able to use my maths to do something useful.

I think, in the long run, I’d love to have the chance to work on the interaction of science and faith like I was able to in my Enlightenment essay, but am not sure how to make this happen. Answers on a postcard, please!