I have run out of wine! I started this blog because my heart was heavy with the burden of a ministry I had failed to realise. I was full of negative feelings such as guilt, anger, blame toward both myself and the church(es) that had not nurtured me better. For a while I felt that me blogging was a pointless exercise, and yet it was an outlet for feelings and thoughts which needed to be expressed and served also as a spiritual discipline focusing me on lectionary readings each week whether I liked them or not and forcing me to engage with them either adversarially or in an attempt to glean something of value.
I was grateful for the very, very small number of friends who made it obvious they had read my blog entries and encouraged me to persist. And as I put my words out there, I came to see that it was not all just about “preaching” in the narrow sense, where I think I have something of value and others need it but it was about my own struggle with my faith journey and engaging in that struggled moved me back toward church: surprisingly enough to the church of my childhood (though a transformed and transformative community). Once I was “back” in the church there was no fanfare or immediate reifying of my ministry and I am ashamed to have felt so anticlimactic about the whole thing but there were crumbs of encouragement in liturgies, in things that were said and in the readings themselves.
I was asked to preach one day and I felt euphoria and joy as if that one event was some sort of realisation, and end of a struggle (but of course it was not). From that event, and from my now more frequent attendance at church as I am relearning that maturity means sometimes honouring the community not just acting like a selfish individual has grown an opportunity to participate in writing, collating and delivering liturgies and the desire to make them meaningful and affirming is still strong in me. I have learned that there may be more readers of my blog than is obvious to me week to week and have laughed at myself for still being weak and childish enough to need people’s approval and “praise”.
This journey is mirrored by the progress I have made in my professional and in the beginning steps of my academic life too. I have learned much, changed and grown and begun to experience a hard-won success.
I have identified a purpose and a direction to my life and all should be as a wedding feast. I ought to feel full of confidence and energy to extend hospitality to people and to bring the best of my inner gifts to the table for sharing with people who bring so much to me! “Ought to” I say, as though I hadn’t learned by now that the world is not governed by “ought tos” and “shoulds” and that whatever deeper reality we feel is possible and right is always one we need to struggle for (and forgive ourselves for frequently failing).
If we can reclaim Mary, not as a hyperfeminine vessel for the patriarchy of the church but as first apostle and nurturer of all that is Christ-like and wise then perhaps she at this time in my life, in all these times in all our lives turns a motherly glance at me/us. “Poor darling” she might say, “you have run out of wine”; and then the good advice has to follow (I did say motherly) “Do whatever he tells you”. “He” in this situation meaning Christ, meaning the God who has embraced and lived humanity but somehow at times transforms and transcends the exhausted and uncertain humanity that is all we know.
How then does Jesus respond to us running out of the “wine” of our ministry, the “wine” of our wisdom and the “wine” of our energy for goodness and beauty? Does he say “that’s ok then you rest and I will do everything?” It is tempted to read a God of miracles in this way. To see us as able to do nothing more than ask for grace and wait patiently for Jesus/God to accomplish all. But Jesus demands a more exhausting collaborative approach. You have run out of wine, out of the good stuff? Alright then bring water. Bring the mundane stuff of your labour and good intentions to me. That is so unbelievably unglamorous to do isn’t it? To spend long stretches of time bringing nothing but our ordinary labour and out common place accomplishments to God. These times lack the euphoria, the deep feeling of connection with God or the universe, the lightning-bright glint of revelation and the winged-feet feeling of success. We simple plod and plod and plod and bring boring old water to God to be blessed.
That is the “coal face” of faith, the place where the euphoria ends and we are still our own boring and fallible selves with our own boring and somewhat (at times) unfulfilling lives struggling to make meaning and struggling to grasp the moral politics of the reign of God from a place of exhaustion and uncertainty and surrounded by less than ideal understanding and nurture.
So when at Jesus’ word we give a taste of the water to the “chief steward” to those who are able to receive, judge and distribute our ministry and when the chief stewards of our ministry tell us that our ministry is the “good wine”, they may tell us we are good at preaching or good at counselling or good at leading- the temptation after all our hard work and despair is to feel pride, not just a healthy sense of accomplishment but an identifying of the self with the accomplishment. Then it is easy to get fancier and fancier, to fall in love with our own cleverness and success and perhaps popularity too and to lose sight of the need to be bread broken, not just a fancy and overly rich gravy.
And this happens to me.
Because of the depth of despair and cowardice and emotional pain and failure that I have experienced, when I begin to succeed then I want to see myself as forever transformed into a “wine maker” that can do no wrong. My pride in this situation holds many dangers, the obvious one is the narcicissm of forgetting to self-question and assuming your own infallibility. In the past I have been very critical of this lack of reflexivity in successful and charismatic others, so I need to keep that in my own mind as I at times experience success.
Other dangers are the loss of empathy and kindness as I become impatient with those who do not understand what I am saying, or who think differently. There is also the very great danger of despair when I fail to live up to unreasonable standards within myself- there is the all-or-nothing approach where a bad day or a bad week or a misstep damns me right back into perpetual failure and self-hate. All of these are the blights of pride, if I see any part of my ministry as bigger than it is, or as all my own work.
In preaching for example, it is entirely possible that my words could be wrong and therefore others who hear them need to always be free not to agree with me. But it is also possible when others gain something of value from my preaching, that the water was only water but that God turned it into wine not at its source, but somewhere between me and the person who heard the words. The wine might only become wine in the chief-steward’s mouth for all we know.
So in this grey time, when I cannot seem to put a foot right; when I have become addicted to a spiritual feeling of connection and euphoria which I ought to have been experienced enough to know was unsustainable; when there are simply not enough hours in the hot and sometimes lonely days and old anxieties resurface to drive a wedge between me and my support networks. When the temptation once again is to “drop out” of studies and church and even of my friendships and simply go to work and read novels. In this grey time all I see before me are water jars to do very ordinary tasks. I have run out of wine for others, for myself.
I have nothing to give.
I will continue to bring water then, since I don’t have wine remembering in the words of the second reading that my gifts were “for the common good” not for my own ego or individual success. I will follow the apostles like Mary, who point me toward Christ to take my cues from the one who makes meaning from my mundane, who changes my water into wine.
Sometimes the best wine comes much, much later than we would expect.