Ash Wednesday. Traditionally a time to stop, reflect, begin the preparation for the great celebration of Easter and finally to apply some unique flattering forehead make-up.
Two years ago at this time in the Church’s annual cycle, as a family we made the deliberate decision to step back. We left Ware where I had served as Assistant Curate, Acting Vicar and everything in between for five and a half years, moved to Canterbury and after some deliberation decided to pause in full-time ministry to reflect and consider what might be next. I didn’t even proactively chase getting a PTO in my new Diocese until almost a year later, not because of anyÂ dissatisfactionÂ or grump (when it was requested PTO was granted by Bishop Trevor nice and speedily) but rather simply to have some space in which to *not* operate as a priest. And as part of that stepping back we purposefully looked for a secular job, so for the past eighteen months I have been happily working for a great Credit Risk consultancy, sharpening up on my old skills and learning some new ones on the way.
There’s nothing quite likeÂ not doing something to realise what it is about it you enjoy, things that you are good at (and not so good at) and things that you are really called to. Although the process of stepping back is initially incredibly painful in the medium to long term it is powerfully enabling. When you are in the middle of ministry it is often very hard to discern exactly what it is you are doing and, more importantly, why. Even going on a retreat for a week or so doesn’t provide the necessary space to reflect adequately on what it is, deep deep down, that God is calling you to.
But taking a year or two out, and by that I meanÂ really being out, is the most powerful thing in the world. By taking real space and dying to that which at the outset was your desire (what I wouldn’t have given two years ago to move straight from Ware onto another clergy job) you create the space within which God can resurrect your ministry in the manner he wants. Put things down and leave them down and you discover along the way a new desire to pick some of them back up, not simply because you must as part of your day to day work but rather because you must as your discernment of God’s unique call on your life becomes more apparent. The picture becomes far clearer when you zoom out, take yourself away from it and admire (and critique) from a distance.
Of course, not all of us have the opportunity to simply walk away from what we are doing in order to reflect on it more. Mortgages need paying, food needs putting on the table. We were blessed that God was completely in control of our journey of the past few years, even to the extent that when I sat down to do my accounts for the year 2011 – 2012 I realised that I hadn’t needed to dip into my savings once to cover our daily costs as a family in those months between moving from Ware and taking up my new position. And what a new position! Working in London most weeks (the last thing I wanted) has enabled me to not just re-engage with old (and new) friends, but also positioned me in exactly the right place at the right time when the calls for me to do media work have slowly increased. The God of the cross is also the God of new life and resurrection.
We do all have aspects of our life that can cease. We don’t have to do the things we thought we needed to. We can let someone else run that event at church. We don’t have to sit on that committee. We don’t need to be involved in everything. Sometimes it is only in letting go that we learn what it really is we want to pick up again.
So friends, as we enter the path to the Passion, the cross and the glorious victory of the empty tomb, let me encourage you to step back and see your life as God sees it. He is in control, he has a journey laid out for each and every one of us, even if we can’t see it. Be bold and release the things that you feel identify and shape you and then see what happens. Let God guide you through the grave into the new life beyond.
In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus let go of everything that he was. He could have called down angels to stop the approaching guards, he could have burned with glory in the presence of the Sanhedrin to demonstrate his divinity, he could have made Pilate kneel at his feet and with him the whole Roman Empire and the other earthly powers. Instead of that he prayed a simple prayer to his Father.
â€œFather, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.â€
The Father called him to step back, to trust and to let him take over. And because he did that everything changed for all of us.
Now, please excuse me. I can’t find my palm crosses so I need to get some old newspaper to burn. It’s not what I planned, but actually I think it will work just as well. I’m sure no-one will really notice the difference except me…