Last week I went down to Pickwell Manor in North Devon to do a session on communicating your story to a group of pioneers learning to apply the principles and tools of social enterprise to their missional activities. It is always a brilliant five days as we hear from successful entrepreneurs, have teaching on devising mission statements, writing funding bids and evaluating impact, as well as sharing community together in a beautiful house situated in a stunning location.
This residential forms a module on CMS’s pioneer mission leadership training course. In addition to having the opportunity of sharing my skills and expertise with 2nd year students at Pickwell, at the beginning of the week I was in receipt of teaching on my 3rd year module about pastoral care. We were looking at death and bereavement, not a subject I was particularly looking forward to exploring! However, as we shared our experiences of loss, read poems and found passages from the Bible that included how Jesus responded to grief and sought to prepare his friends for his own imminent death, we began to recognise a cycle of death and renewal that is constantly at work. This is evident in our individual lives, the natural world with the changing seasons and in the communities to which we belong. Even positive changes in circumstances such as marriage, having children, moving house or being promoted involve a loss of the familiar and a challenge to security.
Yet our Society seems obsessed with avoiding pain and removes any evidence of death as quickly, quietly and professionally as possible. We don’t know how to talk with those who are suffering and rarely confront our own mortality unless we are forced to do so. But what we began to appreciate afresh this week is that you can’t just push grief away. It remains unresolved and manifests itself in other ways – depression, addiction, obsessive behaviours, relationship breakdown and long term ill health. While we have become very successful at prolonging life, by colluding in a corporate denial of death our experience of living can become superficial and meaningless. It is only as we give space to the hurting that healing can come and we once again glimpse the newness that is possible on the other side. Through the process we are able to grow in self awareness and appreciate what really matters.
Many of us in Devon this week have experienced the grief and frustration of seeing that things are not as God intends, the pain and rejection of being misunderstood in seeking to address this and the isolation and loneliness of choosing to set out toward an unknown destination in search of something new and authentic. Sometimes it’s hard to watch the struggle. We want desperately to remove it and deliver them from the soul searching and inevitable heartache that accompanies it. Yet as I stared into the flames of the wood burner before leaving Pickwell yesterday, I was reminded of the biblical story of Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego. They were thrown into a furnace for refusing to idolise their king. They went through the fire but it did not consume them and the on-lookers observed four persons present in the furnace rather than three (Daniel 3:25). Maybe God could have spared them the trial but instead went through it with them and saved their lives. He does this, I think, because of my least favourite verse in the Bible, “…we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. (Romans 5:3)” I don’t believe God wants us to suffer but if we can allow Her to take our losses and disappointments, She can use them to develop all that is good in us and reveal new and exciting possibilities. But this does not happen in isolation. It happens through hospitality, in community, and this week, at a mansion in North Devon!