Pain, Powerlessness & Presence

Those of us who have been out of active education for a while, even those who work around education, like me as a university chaplain, sometimes find it difficult to remember that learning is hard work.

Until you have to focus your concentration, on another presenting information, or on a book, or trying to wrap your head around a concept, “well, it’s not that hard.” Until you learn to drive, or operate other machinery that involves learning to do several things at once, “that looks easy!”

Or to look at someone with a chronic health condition, or poor mental health. Easier to say “just get up and do something, you’ll feel better” until it’s you.

Learning, like growing (why else would we know about growing pains?), is hard work. Learning is something we may seek, or something that finds us, when we don’t want to be found. I think we are all going to have to go through a lot of learning in the coming weeks as we journey through these Interesting Times.

One of the hardest lessons we have to learn is that when faced with things beyond our control that there really is nothing we can do. And it seems to be a lesson we need to relearn from time to time. A lesson in humility and limitation. I can’t be the only one feeling that way. I may draw strength from the truth that as a Priest I’m in a rare and privileged position of being paid not because of what I do, but because of who I am. You might like to call it being an Avatar of the Divine… which sounds incredibly self-aggrandising and even pompous. It’s not a phrase I would habitually choose. I do not feel as if I radiate very much divine glory or wisdom… if any. I certainly cannot burst onto the scene like some demi-god, dispensing lightning bolts to slay the wicked, or healing rays to uplift the fallen. (That’s what my Role-Playing Games are for, after all.)

Instead, what am I? An anxious human being, feeling rather out of my depth and uncertain. As a Chaplain (and an extrovert), so much of my ministry revolves around being available to others, and so much of that involves being visible. To be visible, you need to be where people are. As public life, as the university, rapidly winds down, that is, frankly, rather scary.

And yet…. as a Christian I believe in a God who is not remote and aloof, but walked among us in the form of Jesus Christ. To do so meant leaving behind much of the familiarity of the heavenly realm (and how can we even begin to visualise that?) As one description [COLOR=var(--color-text)](Philippians 2:7) puts it, the ministry of Jesus was one of [/COLOR][COLOR=var(--color-text)]kenosis[/COLOR][COLOR=var(--color-text)], of self-emptying, “making himself nothing, and taking on the nature of a servant.” Of dependence upon divine power from outside, rather than within. Dare I, in my weakness and uncertainty actually actually claim a connection, an affinity? If Christ was indeed fully human and fully divine, there has to be an overlap.[/COLOR]

Today, in the still-odd experience that was live-streamed Morning Prayer, the liturgy and readings remembered the life and work of Joseph. Not the Joseph of the Old Testament, him of the musical’s Many Colours (and no, nerds, not Saruman either), but Joseph the carpenter, the step-father of Jesus. Michael Card put his dilemma, and his faith so beautifully: “Father, show me how I fit into this plan of yours. How can a man be father to the Son of God? Lord, for all my life I’ve been a simple carpenter. How can I raise a king? How can I raise a king?”

If the power of the Eternal divine can be vested in a human form, if the power of the Eternal divine can charge and entrust himself in the person of Christ to an ancient near-eastern jobbing builder, wise in woodworking and unskilled in high falutin’ theology, then maybe I have a better chance than I feel.

In the meantime, I will be who I’m called to be, as best I can: a man of prayer, a man of hope, a man of faith. And trust that God will be me in the right places, whether real or virtual. It doesn’t remove the uncertainty, or the pain of growing and learning, or the self-doubts of worth in a culture that values productivity over presence. And I invite you to walk with me too… why else would I share my vulnerability here? Please pray for me, even as I seek to pray for so many (and you… whoever you are).

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