A LETTER TO CHURCH LEADERS AT EPIPHANY 2022
This note is not telling you about stuff or to do stuff, it’s simply meant as an encouragement right now.
We’re still a week and a bit away from so-called Blue Monday, when we take a great dance song by New Order and turn its title into a gloomy reflection on a time of year when the mornings are darkest, the weather is bitterest and the bills come in. Some suffer quite specifically from seasonal affective disorder, which is a hard condition, but even those who don’t can feel depressed in January.
So, it’s a good moment to affirm you in your experiences and your calling.
The idea of a front line is a popular idiom and many who serve on it in our hospitals, care homes, transport systems and delivery services are deeply weary. Local community leaders have also faced a double bind of increased social demand and a duty to impose and follow Covid restrictions that make it harder to meet those needs.
Clergy are among this number and you also serve lastingly on a spiritual front line. This is a place of intercession, where you carry the burdens of others in prayer and pastoral care and step into a gap as an answer to the prayers of others.
It’s a truism of pastoral care that when the needs of the carer outweigh the needs of those they are caring for, it becomes precarious and, if this imbalance endures, risky. Throughout the pandemic you have been holding congregations and local communities in prayer and loving support while your own needs have often matched, and perhaps exceeded, those seen in others. It is no wonder so many of you feel tired or exhausted.
Our initial responses to this pandemic are almost two years old now, and we made them in a heightened state of alert and with an energy unsustainable over a long period. If we start to run a marathon like it’s a 1500 meters race, the impact will be felt further down the line, and that’s where many of us are. There was no fault here; no-one expected this and if we were told, it’s hard to remember by whom.
I want to offer the deepest gratitude and admiration for the way you conduct your ministry. There is a cost to following Christ; it’s just that no-one imagined when they started out on that road that it would be paid in this particular way. The grittier side to a theology of the incarnation is how it asks us to put one step in front of another in our work for God when we sometimes deeply wish we were somewhere else or in a better frame of mind. Turning up enables God to do his thing in our physical intercession.
We like to style our Christian journey as a measured walk, sometimes across hills with a view, sometimes through valleys of despair. But in reality the pace is rarely measured. It can be more like a car journey through a city. Every three hundred yards there are traffic lights. Cars back up. You can’t get out of first or second gear for any length. Time fritters away and strength is spent without gain. This is how the pandemic is mapped onto spiritual experience.
When we do the sums on the Bible, it’s clear how many people of history defining faith nevertheless went through long periods of time when nothing much seemed to happen, among others: Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Paul – Jesus himself. The average hour long TV drama can have fifteen minutes of adverts and forty-five minutes of action. Meaningful spiritual action is often squeezed into five minutes of the hour, but it is enough. The other fifty-five minutes are a preparation that only God knows we need. Perhaps this is where some of us are now.
Please be kind to yourselves and pay attention to what your bodies and emotions are telling you. We are called to count the cost, but not in acts of self-harm.
Know that you are valued as colleagues but most especially as people made and redeemed by God who loves you with an everlasting love.
And be encouraged that the world to come is being shaped by God as we breathe. He does not need us for this; our lockdowns are a symbol of that. But he chooses to use us at times when we least expect it.
This Epiphany, I hope and pray we get glimpses of that; moments of sudden spiritual clarity that reveal what is to come.
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