First words

The Accidental Chaplain

Sometimes I put pen to paper, or more accurately I turn my MacBook on.  Yes, I will admit it – my name is Dorothy and I have an Apple habit.  That is beside the point, for now at least.  It might be that the MacBook moment produces some word, a hymn, a poem, by way of response to something has moved me, inspired me, angered me, surprised me or challenged me.  In my role as a priest and hospital chaplain I am often looking for just the right resource and cannot find words which feel right for the occasion, so I resort to writing it myself.

This blog is an attempt to have a place where I can try things out, explore, ponder, reflect and share.   I am happy for anything I write to be used if you happen to find a use for them though I know that some will be a little too niche to be of much use!  I am aware of something that was once said of one of my heroes – the writer and priest Henri Nouwen.  I think it was his publisher – who commented that Nouwen often made the mistake of believing that that which was most personal was universal.  If in this blog  I fall into that trap, please forgive me and add me the to the list of “wounded healers” who you have bumped into.  All I can say is that at least I am in good company!

Anyway, back to the point I am trying to make about these resources being a shared thing.  I don’t really see them as mine.  I see them as a gift from the God who I follow, if only that the gift is that I find of a way of letting out all that is in my heart.  More and more, these words are my prayers, as I try to put into some order the things I encounter which too often defy explanation, causing me to stop short and look at life and faith all over again.  I will upload some in the days to come so watch this space if you are so inclined and avoid it if you cannot think of anything worse!   Be warned though, the nature of my work means that the content is not always cheerful.  I hope, however that it is grounded in reality and will resonate with some you.

So to yesterday.  Yesterday was a funny old day.   I went to Great Ormond Street for a day’s work.  It was of course Maundy Thursday and the pull to go to St Paul’s Cathedral for the Blessing of Oils and Renewal of Ordination Vows was nagging at me, but I had too much work to get done.  At 10am my boss told me I should just go.  I grabbed by Oyster card and rushed out to the bus.  As I was getting onto it – the No. 25 if you are interested – I ran into David Tennant, whom I love not so much for his Dr Who but for his moody, Broadchurch Inspector Alec Hardy.  I was starstruck, and instead of engaging him in that “Do you know I was born in Paisley where your Dad was a minister?” chat, I just put my head down and rushed on to the bus.  I am so mad with myself that I didn’t even try that line.

St Paul’s Cathedral holds so many memories for me as it was where I was ordained deacon in 1997, with many lovely family and friends there to support me.  I remember so clearly my friend Rob, who is now my Bishop, leading us all in the Taize chant Ubi caritas as we waited nervously to enter the cathedral.  I remember the verger passing me a note from Jeremy in which he said he was in the congregation (which I had not expected as he was on his own ordination retreat).  I remember the moment when the great west doors opened and we heard the crash of the organ starting the processional hymn.  I remember desperately trying not to get my high heels caught in the grills which occur too frequently in the central aisle.  I remember seeing many familiar faces from different parts of my life and feeling deeply humbled that they had all made a massive effort to be there.  And I remember a huge roll of thunder as the Bishop of London ordained me.

As I renewed my vows, with hundreds of other ministers, I was acutely aware that doing so felt quite difficult.  Gone is the first flush of excitement about what entering into ordained ministry might mean.  At times in the past 19 years, there have been some massive crises in which I have questioned what on earth I am doing and if the cost of keeping on doing it is worth it.  And yet …  yesterday I had to say those words again as an act of faith, a faith which is perhaps much more real, and certainly much less glossy, a faith which has been bashed about by life and yet, somehow, remains.  I think that might be grace.

The postscript to this is that having got through the service, with a fair amount of emotion, I skipped out of the cathedral ready to face the next year of my ministry with renewed faith and confidence.  I had not gone 100 yards when I fell flat on my face on the pavement!  Passersby where responsive and kind to this woman in a dog-collar throwing herself at their feet. (Sadly David Tennant was nowhere to be seen!)  I hobbled back onto the No 25 bus and then into Great Ormond Street with bleeding knees and scuffed boots and got on with my day looking somewhat bedraggled and feeling just a little fragile.  Maybe there is a message in that!

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An Extraordinary Gift

fullsizeoutput_a64Today is an anniversary for us – the anniversary of a tiny little life which both was, and never was.  That is the pain of stillbirth.  Seventeen years on it is still a day of quiet remembrance and reflection on all the lost potential.   

As we tried to absorb the news that the child I carried would be, in the words of Isaiah, a child “born for calamity” we wandered along the Fulham Road from The Chelsea and Westminster Hospital to pop in on a friend who was receiving palliative care at The Royal Marsden Hospital.  Given the awfulness of both their and our circumstances, it was a strangely upbeat conversation.  The subject was how you choose a name for a child who is unlikely to live more than a few hours, if at all.  

We settled on Matthew, as it means “gift of God” (as, coincidentally, does Dorothy).  Matthew had too many chromosomes, 23 too many, and that is, as the obstetrician and medical friends gently told us, just too many to be compatible with life. 

You might ask why we called him a gift from God when it was all going so disastrously wrong.  There was something instinctive in us which needed to hang onto hope with our fingertips – a hope that this was a life which, though so fragile and broken, might somehow count, even if in medical terms it was a write-off.  

As I reflect all these years on, I think he has been a gift, albeit an intensely painful one.  A part of Matthew’s legacy, and perhaps, if we are honest, at times our therapy, is the work we both do. Maybe such a loss brings with it a quiet empathy which enables us to walk alongside others who face their own loss.

I also think that Matthew was something of a John the Baptist, preparing the way for our other two children to come to us.  We have in them two vibrant, healthy young people who have become ours and, amidst all the ups and downs of family life, we remain deeply grateful for them.

In the days after Matthew came and went, my sister sent me a card in which she had pressed some delicate, orange poppies which were growing in her garden that season.  I still have them and am always strangely surprised and comforted if I see orange poppies when I am out walking at this time of year.  They remind me that life, though fragile and transient, is always a gift. 

“Little child,
for you Jesus Christ has come,
he has fought, he has suffered.
For you he entered the shadow of Gethsemane
and the horror of Calvary.
For you he uttered the cry, ‘It is finished!’
For you he rose from the dead
and ascended into heaven
and there he intercedes —
for you, little child, even though you do not know it.
But in this way the word of the Gospel becomes true.”
“We love him, because he first loved us.”

(From a French Reformed Baptismal Liturgy)

Hard Enough To Watch The News …

It has been the most awful of weeks.  The callous murder of 22 people in Manchester, many of them young, and the injuring of so many others, has left me bewildered and despairing.

I look at the potential in my two teenagers, so full of optimism about the world and so sure of their invincibility, and I fear for them.  I will show my age and something of my musical taste when I confess that this week I have been singing the Everything But The Girl song (The Night I Heard Curuso Sing):

I’ve thought of having children
But I’ve gone and changed my mind
It’s hard enough to watch the news
Let alone explain it to a child
To cast your eye ‘cross nature
Over fields of rape and corn
And tell him without flinching
Not to fear where he’s been born.

Of course it is way too late – those children are here and we are muddling through trying to help them navigate their route through a world in which there is much love, but a dangerous amount of hate too.

I know that many of you will understand when I say that this week I have been unable to stop thinking of the parents who have been plunged into the disorienting grief of losing a child, the children who have been left without a parent, the families, schools, friendship groups and communities reeling in shock and trying to make sense of a world in which an exhilarating night out can end so traumatically.

In the midst of the sadness, anger and distress, I have to make a choice. The choice I make is to focus on the good I see day in, day out in this world.   It was most certainly evident on Monday night in Manchester amidst the many acts of kindness shown by strangers who reached out with practical humanity to their neighbour.  It has been evident in the care for the injured and bereaved since then.  And it is evident in the place in which I work.  Great Ormond Street Hospital opened on St Valentine’s Day 1852 and it is a place where the best of human care and compassion is poured out by people who choose to live out love each day.

I also choose to bring the muddled outrage of what I feel to the God whose name is Love, knowing that I lay it all before one in whose presence the masks can come off and I can be honest.

I wrote these words some time ago as I reflected on the many families I work with who experience a loss which feels all wrong.  It is a little rough around the edges and somewhat raw, but I share it now as something of a prayer for the many families who are bereaved in Manchester.

When Nature’s Order  (Tune “O Flower of Scotland”)

When nature’s order
Is turned around and we must face
The loss of our child whom
We love and long to embrace,

We bring our sorrow,
We speak our anger,
We search for meaning,
We long for peace.

When all around us
The world goes on and ours stands still
And grieving is lonely
And empty hearts can’t be filled,

We bring our sorrow
We speak our anger
We search for meaning
We long for peace

And when our sorrow
Begins to ease and hope returns
We’ll always proclaim how
Our lives with love for them burns.

We bring our sorrow,
We speak our anger,
We search for meaning,
We long for peace.

When we remember
Your child, so loved, nailed on a cross
Your comfort enfolds us –
Our God knows all about loss.

You soothe our sorrow,
You hear our anger,
You give us meaning,
You bring us peace.

DMB, 2010

A Day to Remember

IMG_0003Today is the last Saturday of April.  For me, that means just one thing, one really important thing.  It means that it is the day of the Annual Memorial Service for Great Ormond Street families whose child has died.  I reckon I have been part of at least 12 of these over the years.  Each one is different yet all are deeply moving, inspiring, poignant, sad and, yes, strangely hopeful.

The service has evolved over the years to being something that those with faith, those without, and the many who are not quite sure, can feel welcome, included and supported.  Those attending are of course mostly parents, but there are also many siblings, grandparents, extended family and supportive friends who come along to remember a child – a much-loved child whose living and dying has changed them and us.

Today our theme was that of journey and we reflected in words, music and actions something of the journey through grief that led us all to be in the one place, remembering, giving thanks, shedding tears, and trying to find some meaning in that which, if we are honest, defies explanation.  As one parent said, everyone there is a member of an exclusive club that no-one ever wants to belong to.  

So we gathered and we sang together.  We listened to beautiful, gentle music played by a pianist and a harpist, we reflected on what has helped us to take the next step on what is often a frightening, lonely and exhausting walk through grief.  We lit candles and we heard the name of each child read aloud.  In some ways it is a very simple gathering but it climaxes with these names – the reason we are all there.  As the last one was read aloud, we stood in an act of remembrance.  One member of the congregation came with her guide dog, and my colleague pointed out to me that even Daisy the guide dog stood in silent respect at that point.  Of all the sad moments of today, it was this which moved me to tears.

This year, as every year, it was a huge team effort and we were blessed with a gifted and dedicated team of staff and volunteers who each turned up on a bank holiday Saturday to play their part to ensure it was as gentle and supportive an occasion for those who came.  But where else would we be? 

Sometimes I deal with the sadness of my work by writing and I am getting into the habit of writing something for this yearly service.  This is what I wrote for today.  I offer it now in simple tribute to these extraordinarily courageous, dignified families who are generous enough to allow us to journey beside them for a little while.

I Journey On

I journey on
Not because it’s easy to take the next, uncertain step
But because, for reasons I cannot comprehend,
I have been granted the gift of life
Which, even though you fought so hard to stay,
Was denied you.

I journey on
Not because of my bravery, for, believe me
Your death has left me fearful and overwhelmed,
But because your courage inspires me
To hang on
Hoping for a better, brighter day.

I journey on
Not because I want to.
Truthfully, on some days, without you here,
I simply don’t,
But your legacy makes a difference
So each day I will say your name and sing your story.

You journey on
Not because you remain with us
But because you
Walk with angels now
And understand the painful questions
Whose answers my limited vision cannot see.

We journey on
You and I, the visible and invisible woven together,
Not because life is as it was when I could hold you
But because where there is love
The journey is eternal
And nothing, not even death, can break the bond we share.

DMB March 2017

 

First words

The Accidental Chaplain

Sometimes I put pen to paper, or more accurately I turn my MacBook on.  Yes, I will admit it – my name is Dorothy and I have an Apple habit.  That is beside the point, for now at least.  It might be that the MacBook moment produces some word, a hymn, a poem, by way of response to something has moved me, inspired me, angered me, surprised me or challenged me.  In my role as a priest and hospital chaplain I am often looking for just the right resource and cannot find words which feel right for the occasion, so I resort to writing it myself.

This blog is an attempt to have a place where I can try things out, explore, ponder, reflect and share.   I am happy for anything I write to be used if you happen to find a use for them though I know that some will be a little too niche to be of much use!  I am aware of something that was once said of one of my heroes – the writer and priest Henri Nouwen.  I think it was his publisher – who commentated that Nouwen often made the mistake of believing that that which was most personal was universal.  If in this blog  I fall into that trap, please forgive me and add me the to the list of “wounded healers” who you have bumped into.  All I can say is that at least I am in good company!

Anyway, back to the point I am trying to make about these resources being a shared thing.  I don’t really see them as mine.  I see them as a gift from the God who I follow, if only that the gift is that I find of a way of letting out all that is in my heart.  More and more, these words are my prayers, as I try to put into some order the things I encounter which too often defy explanation, causing me to stop short and look at life and faith all over again.  I will upload some in the days to come so watch this space if you are so inclined and avoid it if you cannot think of anything worse!   Be warned though, the nature of my work means that the content is not always cheerful.  I hope, however that it is grounded in reality and will resonate with some you.

So to yesterday.  Yesterday was a funny old day.   I went to Great Ormond Street for a day’s work.  It was of course Maundy Thursday and the pull to go to St Paul’s Cathedral for the Blessing of Oils and Renewal of Ordination Vows was nagging at me, but I had too much work to get done.  At 10am my boss told me I should just go.  I grabbed by Oyster card and rushed out to the bus.  As I was getting onto it – the No. 25 if you are interested – I ran into David Tennant, whom I love not so much for his Dr Who but for his moody, Broadchurch Inspector Alec Hardy.  I was starstruck, and instead of engaging him in that “Do you know I was born in Paisley where your Dad was a minister?” chat, I just put my head down and rushed on to the bus.  I am so mad with myself that I didn’t even try that line.

St Paul’s Cathedral holds so many memories for me as it was where I was ordained deacon in 1997, with many lovely family and friends there to support me.  I remember so clearly my friend Rob, who is now my Bishop, leading us all in the Taize chant Ubi caritas as we waited nervously to enter the cathedral.  I remember the verger passing me a note from Jeremy in which he said he was in the congregation (which I had not expected as he was on his own ordination retreat).  I remember the moment when the great west doors opened and we heard the crash of the organ starting the processional hymn.  I remember desperately trying not to get my high heels caught in the grills which occur too frequently in the central aisle.  I remember seeing many familiar faces from different parts of my life and feeling deeply humbled that they had all made a massive effort to be there.  And I remember a huge roll of thunder as the Bishop of London ordained me.

As I renewed my vows, with hundreds of other ministers, I was acutely aware that doing so felt quite difficult.  Gone is the first flush of excitement about what entering into ordained ministry might mean.  At times in the past 19 years, there have been some massive crises in which I have questioned what on earth I am doing and if the cost of keeping on doing it is worth it.  And yet …  yesterday I had to say those words again as an act of faith, a faith which is perhaps much more real, and certainly much less glossy, a faith which has been bashed about by life and yet, somehow, remains.  I think that might be grace.

The postscript to this is that having got through the service, with a fair amount of emotion, I skipped out of the cathedral ready to face the next year of my ministry with renewed faith and confidence.  I had not gone 100 yards when I fell flat on my face on the pavement!  Passersby where responsive and kind to this woman in a dog-collar throwing herself at their feet. (Sadly David Tennant was nowhere to be seen!)  I hobbled back onto the No 25 bus and then into Great Ormond Street with bleeding knees and scuffed boots and got on with my day looking somewhat bedraggled and feeling just a little fragile.  Maybe there is a message in that!

fullsizeoutput_3f6

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