Absorbing the sting

Sometimes you need to be reminded of why you do what you do, and to have someone say to you that it’s worth doing.  Clergy conferences can be about acquiring new skills and ideas – and they should be (even if the congregation groans with all the wild proposals that the Rector makes on return, charged up and raring to go).  But it’s also just good to be recalled to the roots of your call and to its joys.

Martyn Percy, Principal of Cuddeston Theological College, is a master of the quiet but passionate summons not only to ministry but to the gospel itself.  He was upbeat not so much because the state of the Church is better than we think (he says that we don’t really know how things will develop, though he says it was just as bad in the past), but because we are called to attend to what we need to attend to – faithfulness rather than ‘success’ perhaps. 

One of the dimensions was his exploration of ministry in terms of Hannah Arendt’s distinction between ‘labour’ and ‘work’.  Labour is the on-going, repeated and renewed activity that just keeps life going.  It’s not dramatic, but it sustains natural existence.  Work is making something new, creating something that will last. 

Martyn Percy argued that so much of Christian ministry is about labour:  the equivalent of cooking meals that are endlessly consumed, or the daily nursing care of children or the elderly.  This is the reality, and it’s where we co-labour (collaborate) with God and others. Work can be a seductive diversion, to the intense and immediate.  He pointed to the temptation to create building plans or, indeed, Fresh Expressions of church.

What he excelled at was the exegesis of passages about ministry, which opened up shafts of light on familiar parables and narratives, and made you see that the ordinary labour is in fact extraordinary and the place of transformation.  One image he used was one of Stanley Spencer’s series of Christ in the wilderness (above).  He said that though Christ looks a bit chubby anyway, his fingers do look swollen.  Has he in fact been stung by the scorpion he is gently cradling?  And are we prepared to be stung by those we try to nurture and love?  Can we absorb the hostile sting, as Christ did throughout his life and in his death?

I suppose the basic thrust of what Martyn Percy had to say was that Christian ministry needs to be modelled on Christ, and can only do so as Christ is made alive in us.  That seemed to happen a bit as he shared the good news with us.

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7 Responses to Absorbing the sting

  1. Kelvin says:

    I came face to face with a scorpion whilst enjoying the sun in the Med a couple of months ago and encountering them in real life, they do make you focus rather sharply.

    My view is that God is far more likely to be calling us to protect ourselves and our flocks from scorpions than to absorb such a sting.

    What’s good for Christ in Stanley Spencer’s amazing paintings may not in fact be something to emulate.

    It sounds like the conference was excellent – its always good to be provoked into thinking new things.

    Notwithstanding that, I’d say that there’s too much scorpion behaviour in churches and we would be better to learn how to deal with it more appropriately than to build a culture where the acceptance of painfully destructive behaviour is normalised.

    As you’ve probably heard me say before now, I don’t think there are (or ever were) any circumstances where pain is redemptive which might be what’s making me feel rather uncomfortable with the image of being stung by a scorpion as a great metaphor for ministry.

  2. alisonpeden says:

    It was presented as one side of the life of Christ – another being the prophetic challenge made by him to those whose behaviour is prejudiced and generally toxic (including in the healing stories and parables). In fact when you come to think of it, Christ more often argues with someone than accepts bad behaviour, until the Passion …

  3. alisonpeden says:

    Further: but what should we make of ‘Turn the other cheek’ (Matt.5:39) (and ‘Love your enemies’ (Matt.5:43) )? Is this Jesus going over the top to make a point, or does he really mean it?

    Reading today the healing of the man with a withered hand (Mark 3:1-6), you can feel the ‘sting’ that Jesus felt – “deeply grieved at their stubborn hearts’ ( i.e. those who opposed the healing on the Sabbath). But he still challenged them by healing the man.

    At the conference, the discussion was set in the context of the priestly ministry of reconciliation, i.e. refusing to get sucked into the angry agendas of others so as to bring healing between hostile groups or between someone and God, all of which might involve being ‘stung’ somehow.

  4. Kate says:

    Before I move to more contentious stuff, there is a great poem by U. A Fanthorpe about undramatic labouring love. Have a look here: http://ah.brookes.ac.uk/poetry/poemoftheweek/atlas/
    I think some of it might translate rather well to ministry.
    As for the sting, I’m not sure I’m qualified to comment. But I’d wonder whether there isn’t something to be said on both sides. Christianity can encourage scorpion behaviour in individuals, groups and even whole congregations; the vicious can win precisely because the other cheek is turned. Bullies learn nothing from getting away with it except to do it again; the Christian call to justice demands a different reaction. If a central concern is the health of the whole body, sometimes there has to be a brisk challenge to the venomous.
    But not all pain borne for others is avoidable or fuelled by malice. What about the sting of listening to real pain and damage – bereavement, sickness, wounds from long ago- at a pastoral level where detachment isn’t an option? I was told by someone who worked at a high level in child protection about the impact on field workers, especially women, of what they heard. It bled into their lives and changed the way they reacted to their own relationships and the way they saw their own sexuality. I could imagine that ministry may at times necessarily experience and carry the pain of others, and I can’t see how even good boundaries and supervision would always avoid this. Is it unredemptive then?

    • alisonpeden says:

      As so often, Fanthorpe gets it so right – amazingly close observation. Just what I need to remember before tonight’s Vestry meeting.

      I wonder if there is a distinction to be made between ‘wound’ and ‘sting’? You mentioned ‘wounds from long ago’, and maybe listening to them wounds us as well, rather than stings us? Or the consequences of our love of others may wound us. Whereas a sting sounds more like the consequences of standing up to something/someone venomous – what you name the ‘Christian call to justice’. So Christ might be wounded by the death of Lazarus, or the betrayal of Judas, but stung by the ‘hardened of heart’. But how would you classify his reaction to the lepers who did not return to give thanks, and to Pontius Pilate, or the executioners? Wounding or stinging?

  5. Kate says:

    It’s good to distinguish between wounds and stings, even if the incident of the lepers – indifference, ingratitude, unresponsiveness – doesn’t seem to fit precisely in either category.
    But then, what of Jesus the Scorpion? Rejection of his family or the Syro-Phoenician woman or blasting the hard of heart?

    • alisonpeden says:

      Interesting – and scorpion venom is used (like snake and bee venom) in traditional medicine as a cure for cancer. Does Jesus inhibit the growth of what is damaging and invasive?

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