I am often asked why I entered into the ministry; it happened several times at our denominational annual meetings. It’s a good question to ask any minister and it was particularly appropriate this year as I was being formally recognised. That said it is a question that I always feel reluctant to answer, it often fills me with dread. Why you may well ask? Well the reason is that my journey began with agonising, horrific grief; my journey began as I attempted to come to terms with a great loss. The death of my dear friend Claire’s son Ethan and all that followed it, is truly what cast me down the road to Unitarian ministry. Love and loss and finally putting the pieces back together, is what compelled me down this path. As I tried to come to terms with my own grief, while attempting to be there for Claire, I was held and supported by my own minster Rev John Midgley. He was present with a kind heart and a listening ear. He was there the day that Ethan was killed and over the weeks and months that followed. He said very little that I can remember, but he did listen. It cannot have been easy. To me this was a great example of pastoral ministry. John listened and he was there. Claire often tells me how seeing a single tear in his eye at Ethan’s funeral held her through some very dark days. He was no robot, merely going through the motions; there was deep compassion in his presence.
I have now been with the good folk of Altrincham and Urmston for nearly a year and I feel that we have got to know one another quite well. From the outset I made it a priority of mine to spend time talking, but above all else listening, to them. During the worship we have shared I have encouraged openness by allowing them to get to know me. Worship for me must always be speak the language of the heart and not just feed the intellect. This may well have been a challenge for some folk, but was a deliberate decision on my part in an attempt to give those present permission to be open with me. I have pretty much spent time with everyone connected with both congregations, visiting them in their own homes and talking with them about many things. This has been a real treasure to me, personally. We have some real gems hidden away in our congregations. I cannot begin to express how deeply moved I have been by what people have shared with me. Virtually every conversation has been littered with moving stories of love, of pain, of grief and of faith. I have heard some of the most incredible tales of personal spiritual experience, something I have interest in. I have rarely left someone’s home without feeling that my life has been enhanced by the time we have just shared. I have felt welcomed into the lives of the people within both communities and for that I am profoundly grateful.
One of my favourite hymns is All Are Welcome Here which reads “All are welcome here...all are welcome to seek in spite of fear...to open wide to all our hearts...for all are welcome here.” For me the purpose our faith is to build communities of love that encourage that search for understanding and meaning, that search beyond the confines of ourselves; we are about building communities that encourage each of us as individuals to continue that search but to do so together, unconstrained. For me the key to creating this welcome and fostering it amongst ourselves is in the listening; the key is to listen with the “ears of our hearts.”
“Listen with the ear of your heart”, has become one of my mantras over the last few months. It comes from “The Rule of Benedict” a set of ancient principles for monastic orders, followed by many Christian and some Buddhist communities today. The foundation of the rule is listening, deep attentive listening. It begins, “listen carefully, my child, to the instructions...and attend to them with the ear of your heart “. What is required is deep listening, a concept proposed, in contemporary times, by the Dalai Lama.
This has become the foundation of my ministry, to “listen with the ear of my heart” and to encourage that in others. Of course I often fall short of this mark as I get wrapped up in many things, some important but many trivial. That is ok though, one of my other mantras is “progress not perfection”.
The reason I came into ministry is to keep open my own heart and to encourage others to do likewise.