Nearly a month ago, I left my job, my house and my friends in London and drove for what felt like days up the motorway to start my new life in the Great North East. And when people asked me, “So what will you be doing in Sunderland?”, I had a number of wise, sagely answers for them.
“I will be discerning the will of God for my life, particularly whether ordained ministry is my vocation.”
“I will be living in intentional Christian community, and adopting a rhythm of daily prayer, eucharist and service.”
“I will be serving the people of three parishes, embodying the love of Jesus for them.”
“I will be shadowing and working alongside a number of well-esteemed clergy, and benefitting from their sought-after wisdom.”*
“I will be continuing my theological studies, observing and reflecting on theology worked out in action.”
And now I’m a few weeks in, it’s not that any of those answers were wrong exactly – it’s more that I simply missed out my primary activity, the one task that seems to take up more of my time than any other: asking questions.
What I do in Sunderland is ask questions, from the sublime to the ridiculous. Here’s a small selection of the many that have been on my lips since arriving:
“Can you tell me the alarm code again?”
“Why is Mary suddenly such a big part of my life?”
“What is a girdle?”
“How do you tie a girdle?”
“Why are the windows bricked up?”
“What does Holy Cross day mean?”
“When is bin day?”
“Where should I go on a sunny day?”
“Does Asda sell asparagus?”
“What happens at the crematorium?”
“What are all these keys for?”
“What’s an Ember day?”
“Where do we keep cheese graters?”
“Can you help me make sense of the Daily Prayer book?”
“Which doctors’ surgery should I go for?”
“What’s the Angelus?”
“How do you work the lawnmower?”
“What on earth is a blood-stained purificator?”
“Where do I leave the bins out?”
“Why do you pray for the dead?”
“Where’s the post office?”
“Why does the statue of Mary have a flower?”
“Do you know how the tumble dryer works?”
“What’s the difference between the invocation of saints and praying to them?”
“What was that green poncho thing called?”
“How do you always know what office hymn we’re singing?”
“Is there anywhere to park there?”
“What does ‘concelebrate’ mean?”
“Is that razor wire on top of our garden fence?”
“How do I process in and out?”
“Which garage will fix my car for a fair price?”
“What does clearing the altar mean, and how do I do it?”
“What does preparing the altar mean, and how do I do it?”
“Can you show me that one more time?”
“Will Fridays start this early every week?”
And of course, the most regular of them all:
“I’m really sorry, can you remind me of your name?”
It’s a very humbling experience, realising you know absolutely nothing. And it’s meant that I’ve started my year of supposedly ministering to others by gratefully receiving their kindness instead. Far from being unsettled and bewildered, I’ve spent my first few weeks feeling more content than I have in a long time, upheld by the many people I’ve depended on to show me the ropes.
It’s thanks to the affectionate hug of a woman who reassured me after I’d failed at getting the car out of the drive unharmed this morning, saying “Don’t let it feel out of proportion – you’ve only been a bit of an eejit.”
It’s thanks to the patience of the curate who spent a whole Friday morning walking me through my tasks on Sunday so I wouldn’t be so nervous about spilling Jesus’ blood or forgetting when to bow.
It’s thanks to the strength of my new housemate who came out in the garden to get the lawnmower started for me every time my weak attempts at pulling the cord failed.
These first few weeks have been about the coffee people have poured me, the meals they’ve cooked me, the books they’ve lent me, the explanations they’ve repeated for me, the prayers they’ve offered for me, the films they’ve watched with me, the tight-knit groups into which they’ve welcomed me, and the countless smiles with which they’ve encouraged me.
Over the rest of the year, I hope I stay humble enough to receive the help and kindness so graciously shown by the people I’m living, worshipping and working alongside. And I’m praying that from here on, I can focus on asking another type of question: “How can I pray for you?” “Would you like another coffee?” “Can I give you a hand with that?” “Would you like to come in?” “Would having company help?”
But it have a sneaking suspicion that God has more to teach me through my questions of helplessness than the help I think I can give. Please pray that I’ll learn it quickly!
*Hope you’re reading this J, K and P… You can pay me later.