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Alter Ego · Dana Delap's Blog

God of the Shadows

IMG_1933In 2011, a young friend of mine sat with me in Durham Cathedral. Anna Grace was about 6 or 7, and we had been walking around the city, amazed by the lights and the glitter which brought Lumière to parts of Durham normally hidden. Now we sat quietly enjoying the space of that ancient Norman building, watching giant pendulums swing light back and forward, out into the farthest corners and back again, across the marbled floor.

I asked Anna Grace what she had liked most about Lumière. “The shadows”, she replied. She found the shadowed spaces at the edges of the light creative and restful. And I had to agree – the shadows were what made the night-time illuminations beautiful.

I was reminded of Anna Grace’s wisdom at Westonbirt this weekend. The light thrown about the arboretum, lit up for Christmas, was sometimes strange, sometimes pretty. But it was in the shadows that I found creativity and there was peace. The crowds didn’t linger there, preferring to ooh and aah around the glitter and glitz. But in the shadows the beauty of the trees was thrown into relief.

This is Christmas – the spaces and the shadows, the oblique angles and people on the edges where we meet God.

IMG_1935This bowl is one of my symbols of leadership. Jackie Mahoney, who teaches me to work with clay, crafted it. Jackie makes the perfect teacher for me – she lets me try things out and make mistakes, and then when I need help she gives it. Jesus did that too – he allowed freedom so that his disciples could learn to be independent. He said to Mary, “Don’t hold onto me”.

During this bowl’s first firing it cracked. It shows a scar. Something in its being was vulnerable to the heat of the fire and it couldn’t maintain its structure. Jackie mended it with glass, in the tradition of Japanese kintsugi, embracing the flaw, the imperfection, and choosing to accept change. I am cracked, but my prayer is that Jesus mends me with glass and gold, a cracked pot through which his light can shine, and be reflected though me into the world.

What sort of a leader is Jesus? One who meets us on the journey and accepts us as we are, because he too bears scars. Jesus encourages us to live life abundantly and love one another fully. This is our faith – this is the Spirit bubbling up within every Christian. This is our journey to become more like Jesus.

When I came on interview to be vicar of Blockley and Bourton on the Hill 18 months ago, I was completely stymied by one question that a member of the panel posed. “What is your leadership style?” I simply did not know.

What the archdeacon told me that I was offered the job, I asked about that question. Should I be worried that I don’t know? He assured me that, because this was my first incumbency, it was something the diocese expected me to learn ‘on the job’ and as I went along.

So that question has been significant to me over the last year, niggling at the back of my mind off and on, occasionally coming to the fore when things are going well or badly. And now they are beginning to distil.

I know myself to be passionate and enthusiastic; I like to play; I like to find a middle way, but if I can’t carry everyone with me, I make a decision based on the opinions of those I trust. I am not afraid of conflict. I love to start projects and then hand them over to someone else. When I am leading, life is never boring, because I make things happen. And I am deeply fallible and vulnerable. I make mistakes, and I’m sorry. I am proud to be a human being made in the image of God.

One of my role models of leadership is Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. Dorothy. Even though she is stuck in Oz, disorientated and alone, it isn’t long before she finds companions for the journey, friends who are in need, in this case of courage, intelligence and emotion. Dorothy can’t protect them from the dangers of the journey, but she maintains her passion, her hope, her faith that the end is attainable. (Brian McLaren, Dorothy on Leadership).

So I am not the Wizard of Oz. I am interested in sharing your company on the journey. I want to laugh and play. I want to acknowledge my weakness, my vulnerability and my joy in finding myself forgiven and transformed by Jesus. I want to be like the man who promised, “I no longer call you servants, but friends.”

Parenting Tips

When my son was a toddler, he swallowed a stone in the garden which got stuck in his throat. We rushed him to A &E where medics were unable to dislodge it, so he was blue-lighted to a larger hospital with a paediatric team. They eventually took the stone out, and breathing was restored. I resolved never to let my son out into the big, wide world again – but my husband quickly pointed out that this was impossible.

So I hit upon my first rule of parenting, taken from Arthur Ransome. The mother in the story expresses to her husband her concern for the exploits of her children, and is told, “Better drowned than duffers. If not duffers, won’t drown.” This has informed my decisions to let my children go out into the world, equipped only with common sense and a sense of humour.

Because humour is the second rule of parenting. To use humour is to employ a non-anxious presence, and it allows space for feelings to rise up and be acknowledged.  The Mom Song has got me through messy rooms, mouldy mugs (and worse) under beds, lack of communication, anger, resentment, lies and recriminations (theirs and mine), and the highs and lows of life – accidents, life and death, new starts, dreams kindled and new friends made, places left behind. If you haven’t seen it already, enjoy!

11940699_10207215337042946_2130213826348287529_nBeauty, like faith, is a mystery. Its interpretation is individually subjective, but also corporate. To quote W H Vanstone (Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense), a work of art creates the possibility of of what we may call a responsive creativity… its greatness, and therefore its greatest blessing, is received only through the articulation of its greatness.

So it is not possible for a piece of art to become great without public acclaim. Art must therefore be publicly displayed in order to call out our creative response to it.

The reason for this excursion into philosophy is a ‘corn doll’ that we had in church over harvest. We have an artist in our congregation, and it is a delight to show her works in church. But putting it up might have provoked reactions of joy, mystification or dislike. So, does art have to be beautiful to be meaningful? No. Does it have to be meaningful? I think I would argue that if it produces a creative response, it is necessarily meaningful.

Vanstone goes on to argue that responsive creativity is the coming-to-be of one’s own recognition of blessing conferred by the original creativity, God, who awaits our creative recognition of love. So any art which provokes a response, whether great or not, leads us further into the heart of our Creator, whose art we rejoice in.  Long live the corn dolly and all who respond to her.

The little tortoise-shell cat sat on the edge of the hole into which the ashes had just been placed. She looked down, and then turned away. The priest continued to read the prayers, as the cat returned her attention to the hole, and carefully reaching down with her paw, dislodging a little patter of soil.

It was clear to the priest that the cat was sizing up the depth of the hole, deciding whether to explore this strange new phenomena in what she had come to think of as her garden. A clerical hand grabbed her by the scruff of her neck and removed her from the vicinity of the grave, while continuing to lead the psalm.

The cat sat down a few feet from the mourners, her back to the priest, and began to wash. The short service concluded, and the family moved away. They smiled at the cat and talked about how much the deceased had loved her own cats. The priest silently sighed with relief, and after a swift glare at the vicarage cat, walked home, followed by the tortoise-shell.

DSC00549.JPGAfter the service I was left with the sound of sobbing echoing like an ear-worm through my week. It had been a huge funeral, and people in the village commented on the number of mourners who came. They assumed that managing the size of the congregation would be challenging to the vicar.

But it was my own grief after the death of my sister in law six months ago made the experience of leading the service draining. It is well known that one bereavement sparks the memory of other losses. It was the sobbing at this funeral that reminded me so strongly of Sarah’s funeral, and the grief that I and others expressed there.

As a priest I see a lot of grief, and I feel immensely privileged that people are willing to share their bereavements with me. Don’t get me wrong – I love my job. But know that I am vulnerable too, and sometimes emotions get better of me. Would you expect anything else?

One of my parishioners has died. I knew he was very ill because people in church told me, and I met members of his family praying in church. He did not want me to call, was not a Christian, variously described by those around him as a humanist and an atheist. He wanted to be cremated – I have suggested that a humanist takes the service.

His family want to remember him with thanksgiving, and the village halls that are used by the school and by committees and rural cinema – they don’t feel ‘right’ for a celebration of a life well lived. The most appropriate and worthy meeting place for a memorial service is the church. So I have offered the church for a thanksgiving, which I will lead, Christianity-lite.

The funeral director is surprised, and tells me that most clergy won’t allow the church to be used for such a service. But we use the church for concerts – those who chose to find God in the music or the silences. Faith and God will be present at this memorial, not unnamed, not named often; present in the very stone of the building, the 1,200 years of prayer that seeps from the walls, and in the hearts and faces of those present for whom faith is important.

Which would be the better witness – to refuse a family the church which lies at the heart of the village, or to have faith that even without words, God will speak to those present?

Being Known

As a priest in Newcastle, I was generally anonymous. Even in a dog collar, unless someone was in a local congregation, I was irrelevant. Henri Nouwen was right to say, “I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self” (In the Name of Jesus, 1989).

One of the joys of moving to the country is the ease of conversing about spirituality and faith. There is no way for a vicar to hide in a village. People know me, and they weigh up my actions as carefully as they weigh my words. They see me in the shop, at the school, in clubs and societies. They know my politics, my bad habits and my motivations.

And there are no edges to ministry here; every conversation and interaction could become public. People notice if I am sharp or critical, if I miss prayers in church, or if I am careless. I relish being known, though it is sometimes costly to me and to my family. But to be known does not protect me from being irrelevant. It is only through transparent vulnerability and availability that Jesus is made known in my life.

11057304_986740608026659_8069286298640311903_n One of my good friends in Blockley helped a group of children to make an Easter Garden. He started with a trolley from the allotments, and added clay from the brick factory. The crosses were made by the father of one of the flower ladies. The stones, all with fossils, were found in the gardens of the village.

Moss and earth w11102687_986740681359985_6081072265970990167_nere brought from the woods, and the empty tomb is a breeze block cleverly disguised with half a round stone shot from the middle ages. It was put in place in front of the nave altar on Good Friday. Over the next 3 days, people added to it. Carrot goldfish appeared in a water filled brook; flowers and bulbs were planted; a goat stood next to the well; two white figures appeared (teaspoons with a scrap of fabric over them).

When the stone was rolled away in the Easter service, the tomb was empty. The mystery within a mystery – “He is not here; he has risen”. For me the joy was as much in the collegiality and sharing of the story – not mine, or yours, but our story of faith, discipleship and telling the story through words and pictures.


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