May 2021 blog Rebuilding after lockdown: Rest, recovery and reflection

Rebuilding after lockdown: Rest, recovery and reflection                                          May 2021

A blog from the Tragedies and Congregations team                                  
by Revd Dr. Carla A. Grosch-Miller

Nearly three-quarters of adults in the UK have had at least one vaccine jab and soon half will have had both. Lockdown restrictions eased significantly this month, and many of us ventured out into a wider social world. Many churches have resumed public worship in their buildings. Whilst there remains uncertainty about whether full freedoms will be restored on 21 June, there is a definite sense that we may be nearing the end of the worst of it – whilst being aware that things can change quickly. We are not out of the woods yet, and we know we will be living with Covid in one form or another for a long time, perhaps as we live with flu. But it may no longer have as much power to completely upend national, communal and personal life. There is turn towards hope and a cautious spring in our steps as we amble towards summer.

Are we now in a position to rebuild and recover, maybe even re-imagine the church, using the new skills we gained as we adapted to life under lockdown?

Maybe, maybe not. The answer will be different for different congregations, depending on people’s experiences and resources. What I want to highlight in this blog is the importance of rest, recovery and reflection as we begin to contemplate what church will be and look like in months and years to come.

Our team, which has been leading Trauma-informed ministry sessions to people in ministry around the UK for more than a year, has been struck in recent months by how exhausted those women and men are. It is not surprising. Our bodies have been under threat, causing higher than normal levels of stress hormones to wreak havoc on our brains and other major organs. Add to that the necessity to innovate and learn new skills, spend hours on Zoom, and be a lightning rod for the anxiety of parishioners and it is no surprise that they are worn out. Under normal circumstances, the demands and complexity of ministry are rarely understood. Under these circumstances, few will be aware of just how much stress clergy have been carrying.

This exhaustion is a physiological reality; we ignore it at our peril. What is most needed now for many in ministry is a period of rest, holiday or light duties. People’s recovery from the strains of the last 15 months will be impeded significantly without it.

Alongside rest is the opportunity to reflect. Steaming ahead without reflecting impoverishes the work of rebuilding and reimagining church. What’s been good about the pandemic? What have we learned about being human and about being church? Where might a renewed vision be emerging?

Susan Beaumont in How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going: Leadership in a Liminal Season (2019) speaks about the importance of a listening, attending presence to discern the movement of the Spirit. One cannot be that kind of presence when depleted.

The pandemic has affected the people in our congregations in diverse ways. Some of experienced great loss; some have enjoyed respite from onerous tasks. All have been deprived of life-giving contact with others. Some will want to get back to normal ASAP; others may feel and indeed be unsafe and are unwilling to pick up where we left off in mid-March 2020. The minister will be a lightning rod for diverse hopes and fears. They will be pulled in opposite directions.

A study of the rebuilding of Jerusalem might be helpful. The Persian king Cyrus the Great declared that Judahites in exile in Babylon were free to return home to rebuild in the year 538 BCE. The first group to return set about trying to rebuild the Temple. The attempt faltered. It wasn’t until the year 520, sparked by the prophet Haggai, that the foundation stones for the new Temple were laid. Even then the people’s responses were mixed:

When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments were stationed to praise the Lord with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, according to the directions of King David of Israel: and they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord. 
   ‘For he is good, for his steadfast love endures for ever towards Israel.’
And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away. 
Ezra 3:10-13 (NRSV)

In short, the work of rebuilding is no walk in the park. Complex emotions will be sparked; loss will continue to be grieved. Not everyone will shout for joy at the changes that will happen. We need our church leadership teams to be rested (as much as possible) and resourced. It is not unusual after a collective trauma for a minister to experience physical or mental ill health or vocational trauma. Decent care now may mitigate that.

Beaumont speaks about the challenges of this time,  (14) Issues of Faith: Church leadership in uncertain times p2 – YouTube, underscoring the need to slow down and ask questions that really matter. Simply getting back to normal, in the long run, is not possible. I hope we can support our church leadership to attend to first things first: rest, recovery and reflection … building a foundation that will support the church we hope to rebuild and reimagine.

 

 

Reflection on the March 23 lockdown anniversary

One year on: Feeling our way towards recovery and rebuilding                            23 March 2021

Carla A. Grosch-Miller

 A year ago today the Prime Minister announced the first lockdown. All but essential workers were sent home, places of worship and other public venues closed and we began our crusade against Covid-19. It’s been a bumpy ride. A summer of relaxed restrictions was followed by the alarm of rising rates in the autumn and the introduction of tiers which rapidly became new lockdowns. Next week we hope to begin our way out of lockdown number 3. Watching a third wave rise in Europe, we hold our breath – wanting our vaccination programme to spare us and enable more and more freedom over time.

So, as spring flowers into being and the vaccination numbers grow, I sense a distinctive turn towards hope. People in charge of things are making plans to recover and rebuild. They want to get a handle on this, to control what they can control and to prepare to resume business, as usual if possible.

What will it take for us to recover and rebuild? We are in new territory here and the lay of the land remains lumpy, with hidden hillocks and bogland beneath our feet. There remains significant unpredictability: the possibility of new variants, the effectiveness of vaccination and its take up, the impact of the uneven rollout of vaccines around the world…all of this and more invites a wary caution. In a real sense we do not yet know the full impact of the coronavirus, the losses we will bear or the resources we will have at our disposal. What are we to do? Wring our hands and wait?

Goodness, no. I honour the recovery and rebuilding energy that has arisen. It signals that, as exhausted as many of us are, there is a nascent hope that can sustain and guide us. We have learned a lot over the last year: how to survive and adapt to the changing requirements of pandemic management, the importance of human connection, the fragility of life, and the hidden in plain sight aspects of our life together (economic structure, racism, sexism, domestic abuse, poverty) that make some people more vulnerable than others. I want to take stock of what we have learned into the process of recovery and rebuilding, for it is a process as much as a project.

My gut instinct is that recovery begins with reflection and recollection: reflection about what has happened to us, and recollection of the basic values that we want to shape our rebuilding.

Reflection on the past year enables us to gather up the experience of the many. Asking each other what have been the heartbreaks of the past year, the challenges and the triumphs? and really listening to the answers, we learn the true impact of the pandemic. This database of human experience tells us not only about the losses and costs of the past year, but also the learnings and resources we carry into the future. Naming losses, we grieve. Naming challenges met, we celebrate. If and when new challenges arise, we have a sense of skills and gifts we may employ. Our resilience grows.

And we recollect. What are we, as individuals and as organisations, about? Surveying the lay of the land, what is our purpose for these times? We may not know how much money or physical resources we will have, but we will have a sense of our capacities, our hopes and our dreams. And coming from a long line of ancestors in faith that have risen from catastrophe, we know that God is and that God will continue to call and equip us to do what needs to be done.

Our attention to one another, to the true impacts of Covid-19 and to resources garnered and gained – through reflection and recollection – will lead us towards the new day, with a spring of hope and the confidence of faith in our steps. God direct and bless our journey towards the new day.

Wiser living

Wiser Living…

Writing this in lockdown in February with the snow falling, I am reminded of an interview with Katherine May on “How ‘Wintering’ Replenishes” from the ‘On Being’ podcast[1]. It is a lyrical and moving interview that reminds us of the need to hunker down sometimes and allow our bodies and souls to replenish. It’s no wonder we’re tired in the context of where we are in the flow of this pandemic, finding ourselves in the foothills of exhaustion and possibly burnout.

The term ‘Wiser living’ denotes the final stage on the chart of Phases of Collective Trauma Response.[2] It is seen as the fruit of coming through traumatic events maybe with wounds and scars but with a much deeper understanding of and grace towards our bodies, our souls, our relationships, our work and our faith. Wiser living says, I wouldn’t have chosen for this awful thing to have happened but I have learnt so much through it, I am stronger now.

Katherine May speaks of knowing in her body, her gut instinct, that she was struggling almost a year before she was officially signed off work with exhaustion and burnout. She speaks now of learning to trust her ability to know what she needs and to listen to it. Perhaps you may not be at the stage of burnout yet, but knowing you are exhausted, depleted, in need of rest and replenishment. Be kind to yourself, listen to your body, your soul, to God within you and allow yourself time to ‘Winter’.

 Hilary Ison 12.02.21

[1]    https://onbeing.org/programs/katherine-may-how-wintering-replenishes/ (accessed 07.02.21)

[2]    https://www.ictg.org/phases-of-disaster-response.html

 

Burnout in a Time of Pandemic

Burnout in a time of Pandemic                                                           February 2021

A blog from the Tragedy and Congregations team,  

The Pandemic Wall

Have you hit the ‘pandemic wall’ yet? I first saw this term in a twitter feed recently and immediately resonated with it as did many others.

If one of the stock phrases in the first lockdown in 2020 was “in these unprecedented times”, then the one I hear most often in this third lockdown and say myself is, “it’s so much harder this time”.  In the first lockdown, when the crisis hit we responded with heroic energy: throwing ourselves into coping and adapting; learning how to ‘Zoom’ and work from home; home-schooling; volunteering to help others; setting up more foodbanks as the need grew; clapping the NHS frontline workers and carers; live-streaming church services; setting up pastoral care networks; connecting with friends and family online with games and quizzes!

Surge Capacity

All amazing stuff – but I simply don’t have the energy this time round.  My ‘surge capacity’[1]is depleted and I’m feeling exhausted and struggling to regulate the low-level thrum of anxiety beneath the outwardly coping exterior.  The ‘body keeps the score’, as the trauma researcher and author, Bessel van der Kolk writes[2] and so, for the first time ever, my skin has developed eczema!

Surge capacity, or heroic energy, is incredibly important in the face of a one-off shock event or disaster – gearing us up through the release of the stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) to keep ourselves safe or to leap into action to help others. It’s only meant to be for a short period though, even if recovery and restoration takes longer. But this pandemic is stretching out interminably; it’s the trauma that keeps giving as the long-term impacts will keep on unfolding for months and probably years to come.

Professor Ann Masten,[3] who coined the term ‘surge capacity’, says, “This (pandemic) is an unprecedented disaster for most of us that is profound in its impact on our daily lives….. I think we maybe underestimate how severe the adversity is and that people may be experiencing a normal reaction to a pretty severe and ongoing, unfolding, cascading disaster.”

 A normal reaction to abnormal circumstances – so I can cut myself a bit of slack and be a bit kinder to myself. It’s not me being abnormal, inadequate; it really is ‘normal’, understandable that I should be feeling like this. Masten continues, “It’s important to recognize that it’s normal in a situation of great uncertainty and chronic stress to get exhausted and to feel ups and downs, to feel like you’re depleted or experience periods of burnout.”[4]

 The Development of understanding Burnout

One of the early American researchers in the 1970’s into the experience that came to be known as burnout[5]was working as a psychoanalyst at a substance abuse clinic where the term ‘burnout’ was a slang term for extreme substance abuse. Freudenberger realised that both he and many of the caregivers there were exhausted and drained by their work with addicted clients and adopted the term ‘burnout’ for their experience too. In a sense, the experience of the caregivers was mirroring that of the addicts in over-doing it; “they were overworked, perhaps overly idealistic, and certainly overly committed” and “like substance abuse, burnout is an illness of immoderation”.[6]

 Freudenberger also used the vivid illustration of a burnt-out building to describe the impact of emotional and psychological burnout. Under the strain of living and working with complex demands in society and in our churches, exacerbated by the added pressures of coping in a time of pandemic, he describes how our “inner resources are consumed as if by fire, leaving a great emptiness inside, although (our) outer shells may be more or less unchanged….Only if you venture inside will you be struck by the full force of desolation”.[7]

 The impact of burnout has been all too vividly portrayed for us on our television screens during this third lockdown with the cumulative impact on doctors and nurses of dealing with the trauma of patients dying of Covid 19, exacerbated by having to stand in for families at the point of death. James Lawrence, Director of CPAS, reports from his recent engagement with clergy in Anglican dioceses that two thirds describe themselves as just “hanging on” or “struggling” and that the four words most used to describe their feelings are “fatigued, frustrated, fed up and fragile”.[8]

 What is burnout?

Burnout happens when we’ve pushed ourselves above and beyond our resources to cope. This can be for worthy reasons to meet the enormous need that confronts us, or perhaps because we’ve tried to live up to our own or others’ expectations of us. Often we will have ignored the warning signs in our bodies and emotions trying to get our attention, until we suddenly crash and burn. It is often characterised by:

  • Exhaustion – I simply can’t do my job anymore
  • inability to concentrate, read or pray as you would normally do
  • cynicism – a negative view of life, “what’s the point?”
  • low feelings of self-worth – “I’m useless, I can’t do this, what have I got to give?”
  • inability to be creative, to imagine the future.

Is this different from compassion fatigue & vicarious trauma?

Compassion fatigue can perhaps be seen as a precursor to burnout. It often afflicts caregivers and church ministers in coping with the weight of pastoral need and suffering that confronts us. If, as a hospice chaplain a few years back, I had recognised my reluctance to visit another patient as the onset of compassion fatigue, I may have stopped sooner to attend to what was going on for me, rather than pushing on and eventually crashing with burnout.  Vicarious trauma is very similar to compassion fatigue and can happen in response to dealing with the constant ‘drip, drip’ of desperate suffering and trauma of others.  A powerful example of this was seen in the BBC news clip of Baptist and Anglican ministers breaking down in tears as they struggled to respond to overwhelming emotional and physical need and the social injustice before them.[9]

 What can I do in the response to compassion fatigue and burnout?

Self-care is vital. We ignore this at our peril, even though we often find it hard to make space for it. It’s also difficult when the usual things we would do to look after our emotional and physical well-being are denied to us in lockdown. We need to look for simple and accessible ways of taking care of ourselves and connecting ourselves back to resource through things such as: 

  • rest: connecting with your body’s needs and learning to listen to them.  A Tedx talk on Seven Types of Rest[10] includes passive and active rest such as physical exercise and breathing practices
  • retreat: exploring sabbath rest and simply being still with God; allowing others to hold you in prayer when you find it hard to pray
  • relationships:  connecting with supportive and loving others in whatever way you can; allowing yourself to be on the receiving end of love and care
  • re-creation: connecting with the natural world, slowing down to notice and wonder at creation and the surprising places where God comes to meet you
  • reducing stressors and expectations: giving ourselves permission just to be – it’s okay not to be functioning at the same levels we normally do. Let others know that you need time out. 
                                    • Hilary Ison
    •  

[1] https://elemental.medium.com/your-surge-capacity-is-depleted-it-s-why-you-feel-awful-de285d542f4c (accessed 04.02.21)

[2] Van der Kolk, Bessel. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York, Viking, 2014.

[3] https://icd.umn.edu/people/amasten/ (accessed 06.02.21)

[4] https://elemental.medium.com/your-surge-capacity-is-depleted-it-s-why-you-feel-awful-de285d542f4c (accessed 04.02.21)

[5] https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/fascinating-history-burnout-arianna-huffington (accessed 06.02.21) 

[6] https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/fascinating-history-burnout-arianna-huffingto (accessed 06.02.21)

[7] https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/fascinating-history-burnout-arianna-huffingto (accessed 06.02.21)

[8]https://www.cpas.org.uk/browse-everything/leading-future-1   (accessed 05.02.21)

[9] https://youtu.be/FwRcibp4sJ4 (accessed 05.02.21)

[10]   https://ideas.ted.com/the-7-types-of-rest-that-every-person-needs/ (accessed 29.01.21)

Thoughts on the Anthropocene

Living in the Anthropocene: Resilience and adaptability                                14 Jan 2021

A blog from the Tragedy and Congregations team, www.tragedyandcongregations.org.uk

I am writing this in mid-January 2021. We are in our third lockdown in the UK. A new more highly transmissible variant of Covid-19 is sweeping through the country. Of late, daily deaths have numbered over 1,000 (today over 1,500). When will it end?

Today the BBC reported that 2.6 million people have been vaccinated. It is hoped that in a little over a month’s time, all people over 70 and those who are clinically extremely vulnerable will have had the opportunity to receive at least one jab. We do not know if those who are vaccinated can still transmit the virus. As for potential new variants, our scientists are confident that vaccines can quickly be re-engineered to meet the challenge. The vaccine is good news. But it is not enough. I confess that I find myself less and less interested in getting ‘back to normal’.

2020 was an annus horribilis for the human family. But it was not just bad news for us; the earth and other life forms suffered too. 2020 was the year that we achieved the redoubtable distinction of so filling the planet with our stuff that now there is more human-made material on earth than biomass. It was also the year that upper ocean temperatures hit a record high, nearly 47 million acres of land burned in Australia, and the Arctic continued to warm at over twice the rate as subarctic lands. Zombie fires in Siberia and Alaska erupted from peatland and permafrost. Violent storms pummelled areas in East Asia, the United States and South America, and included a record Atlantic hurricane season. The sixth mass extinction continued to accelerate: species dying out at a rate 100 times greater than the natural evolutionary rate. This mass extinction has human fingerprints all over it.

We are living in the Anthropocene, the first planetary epoch defined by human activity shaping the natural world…not for the good. That human well-being is tied to the well-being of the land is a theme that runs throughout the Old Testament: there can be no long-term flourishing of one without the other, says Ellen Davis.[1] Is it any surprise that by means of a pandemic the land may be trying to, in Meg Warner’s words, vomit us out?[2] The evidence of the Anthropocene is that we have sold our inheritance, squandered our vocation and forgotten that to be fully human is to protect and preserve. And for what? Package holidays and more stuff than we can use?

I strongly suspect that 2020 will have been just the first of many anni horribiles to come, as we continue to reap the consequences of our ways of living.

How will we live if rolling crises will be our lot for some time to come? What does resilience look like in the Anthropocene? What is pastoral care when so much is at stake?

Perhaps some of the lessons of the pandemic will prove 2020 to have been a training ground for years to come. We learned and re-learned some basic things about ourselves and the natural world that can serve us well in the future. We learned how vulnerable we are to forces outside of our control. We learned that our lives are interdependent with others and with the life of the planet. (The earth breathed easier when we stopped rushing around: recall the birdsong that was the soundtrack to Lockdown one, the goats that roamed Llandudno freely, the goose that nested in York Railway Station.) We learned that there can be serious consequences from the simplest of our actions: a handshake or hug can lead to a Covid fatality. But perhaps most of all we learned that we are adaptable. When circumstances require, we do things differently. We create. We innovate. We do what we need to do.

Resilience in the Anthropocene must be rooted in adaptability, and pastoral care must major in strengthening. We are learners our whole lives long, thanks in part to the neuroplasticity in our brains. The lessons of the 6thcentury BCE, when the sustained catastrophe that was the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple and the carrying off of people to exile in Babylon resulted in theological innovation, give me hope. It will not be without pain, but we can change. We will not survive as a species if we do not. It is clear to me that getting ‘back to normal’ is not good enough. As Pope Francis writes, ‘This is the moment to dream big, to rethink our priorities – what we value, what we want, what we seek – and commit to act in our daily life on what we have dreamed of.’[3]

Walter Brueggemann’s framework of reality, grief and hope[4] structures the way forward. It is the only way we will be able to hear God’s call for the living of these days and the redeeming of our time. Facing fiercely into what is really happening in our world, naming and grieving the suffering caused, and holding on to our faith in God who is and who will be and who never lets us go but continually calls us to faithfulness, we will do what we have to do. We will do what we can.

So I end on a note of hope. Things are tough. They may well get tougher. But we have all we need to navigate the storms. Getting ‘back to normal’ has little appeal and, as wonderful as vaccination is and as grateful as I am for it, it is not the answer to our predicament. What is needed for our tomorrows is what Martin Luther King, Jr. prescribed nearly sixty years ago: courage, compassion and creativity. Now, as always, it is about practising the faith, hope and love that engender those qualities.

God help, sustain and bless us and our world in those practices.

                                                                       Carla A. Grosch-Miller, January 2021

 

[1] Davis, Ellen F., 2009, ‘Learning our place: the agrarian perspective of the Bible’, Word & World, 29:2 (Spring 2009), pp. 109-20; Davis, Ellen and Berry, Wendell, ‘The art of being creatures’, On Being with Krista Tippett [podcast], National Public Radio, (broadcast 10 June 2010, updated 16 April 2020), https://onbeing.org/programs/wendell-berry-ellen-davis-the-art-of-being-creatures/, accessed 13 Jan. 2021.

[2] Warner, Megan, 2020, ‘Resilience in a time of COVID-19 – Three biblical models: plague, uncleanness and indigestion’, Crucible, (12/10/2020), https://crucible.hymnsam.co.uk/articles/2020/october/articles/resilience-in-a-time-of-covid-19-three-biblical-models/, accessed 13 Jan. 2021.

[3] Pope Francis and Ivereigh, Austen, 2020, Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future, London: Simon & Schuster.

[4] Brueggemann, Walter, 2014, Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks, Cambridge and Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

 

riding the wave

This pandemic is adding inches to my waist. The connection was shamelessly illustrated to me last night. In the middle of the BBC evening news report of rising infection levels (the number of cases tripled in Northumberland this week), I went to the kitchen and grabbed a handful of chocolate biscuits. No mystery where those inches are coming from, as if there ever was one.

 Which leads me to contemplate creature comforts and the role of respite and celebration in surviving the pandemic. When an individual is traumatised, her brain may oscillate between intrusive thoughts about the traumatising event and a kind of numbing dissociation. In this way her brain gives her periods of rest and recovery so that she has more resources at her disposal to try to make sense of what has happened when she can.

 So too communities and churches need periods of respite and outright celebration in the midst of the rock and roll of this onslaught of global pandemonium. We need to be reminded of the good things in life as a kind of ballast and hope-basket. We need to laugh and move and sing and just feel good – forgetting momentarily the danger and drama unfolding before us. No wonder young people are raving. (I am not condoning this.) Celebration is more than a safety valve. It’s an affirmation of the joy of being alive.

 In mid-July the granddaughter of a church member got married in much reduced circumstances. Scores of church members lined the streets around the church in a socially distanced manner to greet the bride as she arrived. Though they could not attend the wedding, they could celebrate the occasion and share the joy. The event lifted the spirits of everyone. Lockdown-schlockdown, love is alive and kicking and so are we. I am aware that such a thing would be illegal under the current Rule of Six and further local restrictions in the NorthEast; we will have to be more creative next time.

 I have added to the list of leadership tasks in a collective trauma: Celebrate Joy! Create respite!  (Emphatic exclamation mark!) So much is happening in this disillusioning, sometimes despairing time: survival, adaptation, seeking ground firm enough to stand on, learning to hold opposite ideas in our heads (we will celebrate Remembrance Day together; we can’t gather for Remembrance), watching out for folks who are more severely impacted, contemplating church life in the future, assessing risk, trying to stay healthy, worrying about future traumas (economic impact, Brexit, climate change, mass extinction…..ugh). This is all tricky, heavy stuff. Attending to our needs for simple pleasure and collective celebration is an essential, along with self-care. Play and celebration help calibrate our souls to the eternal now.

 Bring out the party hats. Refuse to not celebrate special events in whatever safe way you can. Add “notice Joy!” and “Take a break!” to the list of things to do today. It may be the most important thing you can do for yourself and the community. And a lot healthier than scarfing chocolate whilst watching the evening news. That said, I’m cutting myself some slack here. My jeans still fit. Just. (Don’t ask me about my corduroys.)

 Revd Dr. Carla A. Grosch-Miller and

the Tragedy and Congregations team (www.tragedyandcongregations.org.uk)

September 2020

Are we there yet?

Are we there yet?                                         

We have been offering small group information and discussion sessions for people in ministry under the title of Trauma-informed ministry for times like these. What we notice is that folks are worn out and wanting this to be over, despite knowing that we are in this for the long haul and that that might be a very long time. The weariness is accompanied and sometimes offset by excitement about the opportunities ahead in a changed landscape. Yesterday I was asked How long will we be in this disillusionment phase? with obvious longing for it to be over. (You may want to look back at our Mapping the journey through uncharted Covid-19 territory blog.)

Well, it won’t be over until it is over. We can’t change that. And that’s not a bad thing.

Being up close and personal with the disillusionment phase this summer has led me to believe that interesting and very important things are happening during it. People are recouping their energies after the heroic output that was called forth in lockdown. The disillusionment phase is a time of depleted energy, which will hopefully lead us to rest more. At the same time there is a settling into the facts of what has happened and its impact on us personally, as a church congregation and as British people and world citizens. When a traumatising event occurs, there is a rupture in time. We have the experience but don’t really understand its impact at first. Whilst being heroic, we are carried on a wave of adrenalin to respond. When that crashes – as it must – the full impact of events begin to register. Not only are we disillusioned, but we may be de-illusioned, stripped of ways of thinking that no longer work in this new world we’ve entered. Fundamental assumptions about the safety and benevolence of the world, of other people and of ourselves are shaken and shattered. These nonconscious assumptions have enabled us to live and plan in a relatively stable world. Now they are gone. And the work of rebuilding and reshaping them is a long and arduous task that begins in the disillusionment phase.

Through all the phases after and during a collective trauma, we are surviving and adapting. Human beings are constantly creating new neural pathways in the brain as we meet challenges and obstacles and learn new ways of doing things. We are born learners and we create those new pathways until we die. By now many of us have begun to master the art of holding two opposite things in our head: we will begin in person worship on _____ (fill in the blank) and maybe we won’t (if the infection rate soars). We are learning to live with unpredictability. It remains hard work for our brains and is exhausting but we are doing it.

In the disillusionment phase we are also experiencing sparks and seeds of new possibilities. Whilst looking for ground firm enough to stand upon, we are innovating. That is exciting (and may come with its own exhaustion). These sparks and seeds enable us to survive and adapt and through them we might find our way to a new normal in months or years to come.

Finally, we continue to name and grieve the losses. This is tricky, as we wrote about in Lament and the Pandemic a few months ago. It is tricky because it forces us to face those losses and we prefer to look away and skip over them. And it requires we actually grieve them, when we in the Western church have lost the capacity to lament and prefer the excitement and positivity of the new things. A kind of toxic positivity will seize some in a desire to avoid negative emotion, fearing that expressing it will bring us down. But the opposite is true. Have a go at writing a lament, as advised in that earlier blog, and you’ll discover that it shifts things within us and releases energy for the future. Walter Brueggemann, who features in our last blog Living in Apocalyptic Times: Reality, Grief, Hope, talks about how grieving the losses enables us to grasp the new normal as we find our way into it.

It is this business of naming loss that may keep us in this phase for some time. We simply do not have a sense of what losses are ahead, although we know they are looming. Not only is the infection rate rising and there is the possibility of local lockdowns, but the impact on the economy of this pandemic has not fully hit. And then there is climate change and Brexit (… I need a lie down, or a stiff cuppa).

It is no surprise that the characteristics of the disillusionment phase are exhaustion, low energy, tension and conflict, and utter unpredictability and variability of emotions. There is a lot going on! But it is worth hanging in there so that the important, soil-turning work that happens in this phase can be done and done well. We listen prayerfully and discerningly to our people, encouraging honesty about how this really feels, and holding both sadness for the losses, and excitement for new possibilities in tender hands. We also take good care of ourselves. This work is costly; we must steward our energies as we will be in this for the long haul and we want to lead well.

Are we there yet? Hardly. But we are definitely on our way. And we also have what we need: a faithful God who refuses to let go of us and who walks with us through the valley and into the sunlight of a new day.

Revd Dr. Carla A. Grosch-Miller, with the Tragedy and Congregations team

Living in apocalyptic times: Reality, grief and hope                        

Living in apocalyptic times: Reality, grief and hope                        

   from the Tragedy and Congregations team, www.tragedyandcongregations.org.uk

 

As the pandemic continues to unfold around the globe, it may be helpful to think about how we are living in apocalyptic times. The word apocalypse means an uncovering or revealing. When a collective trauma happens, it is common for it to be closely followed by disturbing revelations of other traumatising realities. It is as though the lid of Pandora’s Box is lifted and all kinds of things fly out. A minister is found to have engaged in misconduct and it is revealed that the treasurer has fiddled the books. The world is hit by a pandemic and the killing of George Floyd ignites a resurgent Black Lives Matter movement around the world.

Covid-19 has revealed (and reminded us) of much: the interconnected nature of life on earth, a shameful hierarchy of value among human beings, the benefit to the earth of us pausing our activities, the vulnerability of certain groups of people, the ache of loneliness and lack of human touch….the list goes on.

Old Testament scholar and wise man Walter Brueggemann, reflecting on the impact of the destruction of Jerusalem in 587BCE, observes that in times of cataclysm there are three urgent prophetic tasks: to face into reality, to grieve the losses, and to foster hope. In that order. I would argue that these are not just prophetic but also pastoral and priestly tasks.

Reality: What is revealed is real – pay attention to it. The veil has been torn and the scales fall from our eyes. What is revealed may set the course for our future ministry together.

Grief: Grief is the antidote to denial. The Bible testifies to the power of lamentation. Name the losses (lost health, lost loved ones, lost innocence, lost ease of being in the world, lost time…). Grieve them. Or notice how your current emotional state is actually one of grieving.

Hope: Grief also opens the way to authentic hope. Not the hope that everything will be OK or go back to normal, but the sure knowledge that God is working God’s purposes out amidst the chaos and pain. God is not done with us. We can rely on that. We hope for a new normal which manifests the commonwealth of God among us.

Those familiar with the myth of Pandora may recall that the last thing left in the box is Hope. The thing with feathers (Emily Dickinson). That orientation of the spirit that transcends the world and is anchored beyond its horizons (Vaclav Havel).  That which does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us (Romans 5:1-5).

Fierce with reality, unafraid to shed a tear and with hope in our rucksacks, we press on……

Carla A. Grosch-Miller with Christopher Southgate and Hilary Ison

            22 July 2020

 

Resources: Walter Brueggemann (2014) Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks (Grand Rapids MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.); and (2020) Virus as a Summons to Faith: Biblical Reflections in a Time of Loss, Grief, and Uncertainty (Eugene OR: Cascade Books).

Carla Grosch-Miller’s ‘Lifelines’

Carla Grosch-Miller’s collection Lifelines (Canterbury Press), 978-1-78662-234-3.

I have kept company with this book most mornings for the last couple of months. It is a trustworthy book – by which I mean that the poet’s evident zest for life and love is discovered in and through struggle, and the griefs of the deaths of her brother, mother and father. This is no easy appeal to goodness or to joy, but material won out of and beyond bitterness of experience.

The book begins with a long section tracking the church’s year. Unlike Malcolm Guite’s fine sonnet sequence Sounding the Seasons (also Canterbury) the verse here is free and colloquial, but insight is always breaking through. On ‘Christmas Morn’ we are described as ‘complicated dust’. In ‘Bent over’ an old woman is ‘looking to the time/when I shall be emptied of all but love’.

Indeed Grosch-Miller is very strong on the beauty of old age, extraordinarily evoked in one of the early grief poems of the second half of the book. ‘I saw beauty in the fragility/of her shrinking shoulders… Saw it in her thick thighs and pretty feet/the pixelated skin of her ankles and shins.’

Beyond the grief section comes Carla’s own struggle with faith: ‘It slips between my fingers/this faith that once sustained me./The graceful cup I make with my hands/prefers emptiness now,/the kiss of wind,/the memory of water.’ Here are poems that will speak to many who find themselves in a place of emptiness. And poems of the resolution that keeps on keeping on – ‘I will walk to church today’ (‘Sunday morning’), and is surprised by grace. ‘Grace is grace. It comes… I pray that each heartbreak to come will/crack the stone/and allow more Love to seep in.’ And always the honesty, the accuracy of tone, as in ‘Psalm for the Dead’, and the ‘Mother’s Day Prayer’ which balances a prayer for vigour in giving birth with a prayer for courage in facing death.

The book relents, towards the end, and offers us less intense, if no less wise, poems from a walk on St Cuthbert’s Way. Good prayers for any pilgrim, from one whose own journey has given her the right to pray ‘Receive the full weight of my being/Read the tilt of my body as a leaning into you/Render my soul to be fit for heaven on earth’.

So I commend those drawn to this website, by acquaintance with or interest in tragedy, to consider this remarkable book – which would be a true and giving companion on their journey of exploration.

Christopher Southgate

July 2020

easing out of lockdown?

Easing out of Lockdown – what next?

 

At the beginning of lockdown in this coronavirus pandemic, the Tragedy and Congregations team offered a short document on ‘Thoughts for Ministers in the first phase of the coronavirus crisis’

http://tragedyandcongregations.org.uk/2020/03/24/guidance-for-min…s-crisis-deepens/ ‎

which is still worth revisiting for the information on trauma reactions.

Stress is exhausting

15 weeks on, as we begin to ease out of lockdown, I wonder what your reaction was to the news that churches could open again for private prayer and then for public worship at the beginning of July? If the Twitter-sphere is anything to go by then it is, as would be expected, a very mixed experience, with some really glad and able to be back in church again, and others more cautious or unable to open up for various reasons. But whatever your situation, just coping with the experience of the past 15 weeks will have been exhausting on a personal and professional level, as well as psychological and emotional. The stress reaction to a crisis is fuelled by the release of adrenalin to help us respond as best we can. But that stress response is only meant to last for a short time to deal with an immediate event – not 3 months and counting! It will be in our bodies as well as our minds that we will be registering the effects of this.

Take time out

In a recent poll of clergy in the Diocese of London, it emerged that 72% had not had any time off since lockdown began. It’s understandably been really difficult to take time out during lockdown but it is vital for ministers and church members to take time out over the summer, whatever that will look like. Your whole brain-body needs to rest and allow the nervous system to reset before ploughing on to the next phase of this crisis. Self care is vital if we are in this for the long-haul.

Take time to reflect

You may have come across the saying, “we have travelled so far, so fast, that now it is time to sit and let our souls catch up with us”. I’ve seen it in various forms, but the truth of it is important for this in-between time from one stage of the pandemic to the next. It’s important for us on a personal level, but also for ministers to be able to encourage church members and church leaders to reflect on their experience and where we are now. There is no ‘going back to normal’ as many of us wish for, and there will be many losses to acknowledge and grieve, as well as new insights, initiatives and opportunities that have emerged. But most importantly, what has shifted within ourselves as people and congregations? What have our experiences been and what have we learnt?  When we travel this road of reflection, we are better able to make life-giving choices about how to move forwards as God’s people on the Way. 

Living with the unknown

One of the hardest things of living through this pandemic crisis is living with uncertainty, with the anxiety of simply not knowing. Nobody knows how this will all turn out, and what ups and downs there will be on the way. It makes us feel insecure and vulnerable. How can we resource ourselves to live with such vulnerability – both our own and as leaders, trying to hold it for others? For leaders in these times, it means holding your nerve and being prepared to live with the vulnerability of ‘not knowing’ the answers, but being prepared to work them out together.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke counselled his ‘young poet’ to be patient with the uncertainties in his heart, to ‘love the questions themselves’ and to live them, without seeking answers. He would not be given the answers, wrote Rilke, because he could not live with them. Instead he should ‘Live the questions now.’[1]  ‘Perhaps [we] will then gradually,’ suggests Rilke, ‘without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.’

We are travelling this journey as the disciples did in the experience of Holy Saturday – of the extreme vulnerability of not knowing the outcome, nor of what lies ahead. What holds us is that we are accompanied; Jesus has travelled this road. We can only be present to the experience and live into it in the company of the one who is faithful and who holds our souls in being.

Hilary Ison with Christopher Southgate, Carla Grosch Miller July 2020

A visual aid to help us reflect on our experience in the storm….

Three representations of resilience (with thanks to Ruard Ganzevoort) 

  1. the rock – solid, unmoved as the waters swirl around it in the raging river.
  2. the tree – well rooted in the ground, able to bend and flex with the wind and all that buffets it
  3. the complex of sand dunes – the storm lifts up the sand and swirls it around, so when it lands again after the storm it is still the same overall complex but refigured in shape and form

 

In what ways do any of these representations speak to my experience or that of the church?

[1]    Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, Tr. M.D. Herter (New York/London: Norton, 1993), 35 (italics in the original).