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A space to reflect on Christian theology, spirituality, and ministry within the Church of England

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The Vicar's FAQ


 
Today is the publication date of my book: The Vicar’s FAQ: All you ever wanted to know about Christianity and the Church, published by Darton Longman & Todd.

As you might expect, I’m pretty excited about it! Here are some things you might want to know.

 
Is it just for vicars / Christians?
No! It’s deliberately aimed at those people outside the Church who are curious about what we believe and do. I’ve tried to avoid jargon, or explain it where it’s unavoidable, and hopefully have managed to address all those questions you’ve been burning to ask!

 
What’s it about?
The book seeks to answer a vast range of questions that I have been asked both while training to be ordained in the Church of England, and since becoming first a deacon and then a priest. These range from simple questions about whether vicars get holidays and how much they’re paid to deeply complex questions about what members of the Church of England believe God is like or what our attitudes are towards same-sex marriage.

I answer all of these questions as myself. That is to say, I make no bones about the fact that I’m firmly at the ‘liberal’ end of the liberal-conservative spectrum, and reply accordingly. I try to present alternative points of view where appropriate, and in as even-handed a way as I can, but in the end will always make clear what my own stance is. Be warned!
 

What’s the style like?
It’s informal, with one question running into another in a conversational style. I try to answer complicated questions simply.

 
What topics do you cover?
There are five main chapters:

  • Being a Vicar (questions about the nature of the job)
  • The Church of England: Past and Present (questions about the history of the C of E, going back to Jesus)
  • The Worship of the Church of England (questions about our services and worship in general)
  • Christian Doctrine (questions about what Christians believe)
  • Ethics (questions about some recent hot-button topics)


Where can I get it?
It’s on sale in the UK (not the USA yet I'm afraid!), available at all good bookshops, and of course through Amazon. Here’s a handy link:

 
 

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

God the Father

I’ve been ordained for nearly two years now, and a Christian for a good twenty. One of the things that has been a constant in my spiritual life is an understanding of God as Father. It’s repeated through the New Testament more times than I can count, a direct result of Jesus’ astonishing direction that his disciples should call God “Abba”, an affectionate Aramaic term for a father – close to “Dad”. The Church has heeded Jesus’ direction. In prayer we regularly call on “our loving heavenly Father”, and “Father” language is seeded throughout our liturgy.

Personally this has directly influenced my mental image of God when I meditate, when I pray, when I study. It’s affected by my relationship with my own father, perhaps unsurprisingly. I’m lucky in that I come from a loving and encouraging background, and I love my father more than I’ve ever been able to adequately express, certainly to his face. But it means that when I pray, I have an image of an older man, someone looking down on me.

The thing is, I think I may have had things backward.

Disciple Fathers
It’s something we don’t often think about today, but in the first century, getting married young and having as many children as possible as quickly as possible was very much the norm. It was so normal that it didn’t merit comment. In the Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) we hear about Peter’s mother-in-law, just in passing. We never hear a word about his wife, but we have to assume that if there was a mother-in-law there was a wife kicking about there somewhere. Equally, if there was a wife, the chances that there were no children are extremely remote. We never hear about them, but that’s not surprising, because they would have been so normal and expected as to be unworthy of further comment.

So now I think about it, doesn’t it seem that the vast majority of Jesus’ disciples were probably married? That they were probably fathers?

So when Jesus tells his followers to call God “Dad”, I wonder if he isn’t asking them so much to think about their relationships with their own fathers as their relationships with their children.

Reframing the Concept - Me the Mother
I’ve just had my first child. He’s 5 months old now. Those of you out there who have no children and no desire to have children, I’m sure you get bored of hearing this from people who have had children (biologically or by adoption, I think the emotion is the same), but having a child has changed my life. It is wonderful. It is one of the most wonderful things that has ever happened to me. Perhaps the most wonderful. I love my son with a powerful love that is like nothing I’ve ever felt before. When he looks at me, when he reaches out for me, when he stops crying because I hold him… It makes me tear up just thinking about it.

The point is, I know now how it feels to be a parent. And seeing the parent-child relationship from this angle, it’s a revelation. To think that the love I feel for my son is the same love God feels for me… Wow is that ever a revelation.

To those who are caught up in thinking about God as your father, and who are finding it difficult, perhaps because your relationship with your own parents isn’t all that great, try reframing that thought from this angle. Imagine how you might (or do) feel about your own children, and then put yourself in God’s place.

Now this might be second nature to you. This might be me talking about something totally blindingly obvious. But honestly, this was a genuine revelation to me. My prayers are already qualitatively changed. What does your mental image of God look like? Is the concept of the Father a useful or a troubling one for you?

Friday, 8 February 2013

Funeral Ministry - the Hardest Thing?


The view from the outside
Before I was ordained Deacon, one of my recurring worries was about funeral ministry. I tend to be a pretty emotional person. Pixar's "Up", for example, was a wonderful thing apart from the fact I was sobbing throughout. Im in floods at any vaguely moving moment in books, during my favourite music... The list goes on. Funerals I had attended in the past, as you can imagine, were no exception. I was terrified that as soon as I was put in the position of needing to minister to bereaved people or to conduct a funeral, I would fall to pieces.
 
Nor is this idea of funerals being the toughest area of ministry confined to ordinands. It's something I've encountered again and again through the past year or so. Going into a primary school to talk to seven year olds, one of the questions that was asked was about taking funerals. The children were discussing how some of them hadn't been allowed to attend family members' funerals because they would find it too distressing. One turned to me, still staggered at the thought that one day I'd be a 'vicar' and be leading funerals.

"Aren't you afraid you'll cry?" she asked.

Honestly, at that point, the answer was simple. "Yes," I replied. "I am."

What a difference a year makes.

Back in the summer of last year, at the garden party to celebrate my priesting and presiding at my first Eucharist, an experienced member of the congregation was sat next to me.

"So how have you found the past year?" she asked. "What's the hardest thing? I've always thought that funerals must be the hardest. I couldn't do it. How do you manage to keep yourself together?"

I smiled. "Actually, I've found it to be one of the most rewarding of all the things I do."

So what changed? Well, I discovered two things.


The role of the funeral minister
Firstly, when you’re meeting the bereaved family, or you're at the front of a church or chapel, leading that very particular act of remembrance and worship combined, you're a different person. You are occupying a role, and it's about what needs doing rather than what you're feeling. In case that sounds cold or callous, it's not. You still have empathy with the bereaved, you still care for their suffering, and are committed to doing the best you can to work with the ebb and flow of emotion and to make the funeral do what it's supposed to do.

So what's a funeral supposed to do? Well, it's a process. You begin by taking the congregation into a new space, surrounded by prayer and stillness. Into that space you evoke the person who's died. You call them to mind and memory, you allow the grief to be voiced, and for a moment you take the congregation into the darkest place - facing death. But then you lift them again. You invoke the hope at the heart of the Christian message, and even in the midst of grief, that hope lets in that crucial shaft of light. When people leave a funeral they should be brighter and more hopeful than they were when they walked in. That's why the special space is so important. It's a limbo that allows movement from one state of being to another, and at its best, allows the grieving process to move to the next stage.

When you're the person working to facilitate that process, your emotions and thoughts are about that not about your own emotions. To allow those to engage my mind to any extent would be selfish. It's not about me. It's about everyone else.


The support
Secondly, though a priest may look very isolated there at the front of the church during a funeral (or, come to that, during any act of worship) they're not. Before leading any kind of worship, before embarking on writing anything that will be used during worship, and during the writing process, I pray. I pray for inspiration from the Holy Spirit. I pray for strength to do what God needs me to do for His people. And when I stand at the front of the church I know I'm there with Christ beside me. When I speak, I do so in the power of the Spirit. I don't need to lean on my own strength.

That may sound odd to someone who doesn't believe in God, or does, but doesn't believe in God interacting in the world. This is one of those things that I can't really make clearer or put into other words, though. I can only tell you what I feel when I ask for that inspiration and strength and guidance. I feel warmed and upheld. I feel able to do things that I could not on my own. That's all there is to it.

This is doubly the case when faced with something as emotionally draining as a funeral. The Lord who called me to be who I am, a priest, doesn't leave me to manage on my own dubious emotional strength to serve his people. Every funeral visit, and every funeral, is surrounded by prayer - for the grace and wisdom to listen, to both feel and bear the pain of family and friends, and for the words to bring comfort and at least the beginning of the long process of healing. Those prayers are answered. I am supported and carried through those difficult moments with a strength that isn't my own.

It's an awesome privilege. When I'm called to take a funeral it means I'm invited into someone's home, into their pain, and they give me the person they've lost. They tell me about that person, they recount their life and their funny little habits, the things that made them laugh, the good times and the difficult ones.

Well... in the best situations they do. It's not always that easy. The process of grief moves in strange ways, and sometimes bereaved families are monosyllabic, unable to answer questions because it's just too much. Sometimes the person who's died wasn't very nice, or had dark secrets, or had a feud with other members of the family. Sometimes the surviving family and friends have their own feuds with each other which are then read into the funeral process. Suggestions are made that someone shouldn't be invited to the funeral, or be allowed to see the body, or, or... Those are the worst times. I'm glad to say that family feuds aren't something I've had to deal with yet. I'm not looking forward to it.

But by the end of a funeral visit, a person's life has been shared with me, and I've been trusted to take possession of that life just for a little while, until the funeral itself, when I give it back to the mourners, and to God.


The rare times
Having said all that, there are those rare occasions when funerals are indeed hard for me, and crying is a real risk. In my (admittedly limited) experience thus far this has happened twice. Both times were at childrens' funerals.

The first was a memorial service for a little girl, a twin, who lived for just 36 minutes. Her twin survived. I was 6 months pregnant at the time and I had cried buckets while writing the service. Thankfully during the service itself, the role and the support of the Spirit kept me going and my emotions didnt spill out. I was very glad to be able, in turn, to support that family in the awful position of being devastated at the loss of a child, and glad at the birth of a healthy child.

The second was just a couple of days ago at the funeral of a little boy of five, who had died of cancer. I have a son of my own now, a little guy of 3 months, and Im still officially on maternity leave. However, the bereaved parents asked me particularly if I would give the funeral address, and I was glad to do so. As I said, its a privilege. Maternity leave doesnt get in the way of that. (Should it? Where does the priest stop and the person needing maternity leave begin? A discussion for another time, I suspect.)

This time though, it was a real struggle. Im pretty sure that having recently given birth to my son, and being hopped up on all the hormones that breast feeding and parenthood produce made a significant difference. All the same, I was able to get through most of my words without giving in to my emotions. It was only at the very end, when I was talking about the Christian hope in life after death that they risked slipping through, and my voice wavered. I didnt choke, thank goodness, but it was a close run thing. Afterwards, at the funeral gathering, the bereaved mum came up to me. Sorry it was hard for you, she said. I boggled. Hard for me?! Well, yes it was, but nothing compared to anybody else in that church!

 
The joy
Does it seem odd that I mention joy in the same space as funerals? Probably! But for all the difficulty of those rare times when the grief is such that it challenges even the uplifting support that surrounds the priest while leading a funeral, there is joy to be had. When things go right, when the bereaved family and friends are lifted by the hope spoken in the liturgy and in my address, when they are able to smile at me afterwards, when people say things like, Somehow I felt so much better by the end,”… These are the good times, and achieving that is what funeral ministry is all about.

Because what makes funerals hard bringing people into the darkness, and feeling their pain thats only half the story. What its really about is the other half: bringing those hurting people back into the light, and pointing them onwards, both in terms of the person theyve lost, and in terms of their own lives. Thats what the Good News is. And in that is nothing but joy.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Back from the Con: A Priest in SF Fandom

Over the weekend of the 7th and 8th of July, I was having a whale of a time at the fabulous CONvergence science fiction and fantasy convention over in Minnesota. And, to be honest, were it not for the fact that I’m currently 34 weeks’ pregnant, I would have been having an equally fab time at the World Science Fiction Convention that was held this past weekend in Chicago.

My attending SF conventions is a surprisingly hard thing to explain to my colleagues and parishioners back home. “You’re going to do what?” “Why?” “You’re into spaceships and things?” And of course the perennial, “So do you dress up in costume?”

To be honest, I don’t mind those kind of questions anymore. The SF and fantasy subculture, despite being all over our cinema and television screens, filling our bookshops and being pretty much the language of the internet, is still rather poorly understood by the average person in the street, or in my specialised case, the average person in the pew. In fact, coming out as an SF and fantasy fan in the Church of England is pretty much as hard as coming out as a Christian among my SF peers. Neither side, on the whole, seems to get the other. That’s not to say there is no crossover at all. Certainly, in American SF fandom there seem to be a relatively high number of Christian fans, although in my experience thus far there are far fewer in the corresponding British groups.

So, at the beginning of any kind of meeting between these worlds there are a lot of basic questions and assumptions to get past before any kind of meaningful conversation can take place. Yes, I’m into spaceships, and have been since I was old enough to start picking books out of my primary school library. No, I don’t wear costumes. More because I don’t have the skills to make them or the flair to wear them than any kind of deeper reasoning.

And on the other side… Yes, I believe in God. Yes, a God who created the Universe. Yes, I do believe that all the time. No, I don’t think He did it in seven days.

The thing is, once you do get past those basic questions, once you’ve established that the things you believe or enjoy don’t automatically make you a nutter, then the conversations really start. And they can be amazing. Because these days there is that lack of simple general knowledge about the things either cultural group get up to, there is a curiosity and openness that can stimulate some great dialogues.


Witnessing
I enjoy sharing my love of SF with my congregation, especially my firm belief that the flexibility of the genre allows for the exploration of deep questions about the world, spirituality and human nature that might not be possible in other forms of literature or media. I’ve not delivered a Doctor Who related sermon yet, but with the new season already begun, it may only be a matter of time before that happens.

When it comes to speaking about my faith at SF conventions, I feel that this is actually a part of the ministry to which I’m called. My calling isn’t just to serve a single parish. Rather, it’s to be a witness in the wider world, which for me includes the world of Science Fiction. More than often, this witnessing is a delicate thing. There is often history and hurt for people in their experiences with Christianity or organised religion in general. My role isn’t one of proselytising. It can’t be. Instead, I need to be a living representative of what I believe, and where possible, and where I’m empowered to be, a conduit for the love and acceptance that I believe God offers to all people, everywhere. That can take the form of private conversations where people need to talk through their spiritual burdens. It can take the form of the cut and thrust of more academic debate, about evolution, understandings of the Bible or my thoughts on Jesus’ relationship with the Old Testament Law, where my theological training is at its most useful. Or it can take the form of participating in programme panels about the role or representation of faith in the SF genre.

At CONvergence I was glad to be included as a speaker on two faith-related panels: “The Importance of Faith in Fiction” and “The Christian Roots of Modern Fantasy”. With my growing confidence in my own ministry, I’m enjoying these kinds of panels more and more. I can speak clearly about issues that are close to my heart, and connect not just with my fellow panellists, but with everyone who packed into that particular convention room to listen to, and often to debate with, us. Again, the aim isn’t to evangelise. It’s to enable conversations, to share thoughts and understandings, to broaden minds on every side. And I love it. I really do.


Pulling down the barriers
I delivered a sermon this Sunday, the 2nd September, entitled: “Religion: Cause of all the World’s Problems?” It was about how believers, and Christians in particular, are often not the best witnesses we can be. The God I follow, who I believe was incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, is a God of revolution. He’s about overturning the human desire and yearning to build walls around ourselves and our communities and judge those on the outside. Jesus was about radical openness for the outsider, about destroying the barriers that keep us apart. And following that example can be hard. It can be easy for non-Christians to look at the way some Christians behave or express themselves and honestly think that there is nothing there of Christ at all.

So the challenge is to live his example – loving, listening, and confronting the walls that humans insist on building to exclude and judge others. And as a Christian, as a priest, as an SF fan, I need to do that from the altar, from the pulpit, from the dealers’ room floor, equally.

And if I can do that just a little, who knows how many barriers may come down, how many better relationships built?

Sunday, 24 June 2012

What will change? Reflections on the eve of priesting

Out of the Silent Land...
I've just emerged out of silence at the end of a four day priesting retreat. It's been a good time for me - but then silent retreats always are. I'm one of those people who revels in silence and in regular, monastic patterns of prayer, and the return to talking once more is a bit of a shock. This time, too, I really needed that space and silence, because later today I will be ordained priest.

The big question, the one that's been following me around as I read and prayed and reflected over these last four days is, 'what will change?' 'What will happen next?' This time last year I was ordained deacon. That was a tremendous change, and one that I expected. So many things were changing at once. I was leaving a tight-knit college community after two years, I was starting work in a parish, I was moving house, and I was taking on a new role, one easily identified by the strange new clerical collar that I had agreed with my training incumbent I would be wearing at all times while 'on duty'. I was anticipating that being identified as a clergy person and being seen in that light would be the biggest difference. My theology of ministerial priesthood has never been particularly high - the concept of an ontological change occurring at the moment of the laying on of hands doesn't really make sense to me unless it's framed in terms of self-understanding and social identity. But both of those things are real, and the change, the experience of being in that new position, the experience of that new way of life did indeed feel significant and true at the deepest levels.

So my question is, will this new level of ordination be something else again? From a social identity perspective, it's not such a dramatic difference. Even within the church congregation whom I serve, few enough people know the difference between a deacon and a priest. My new status will be known only through the new things I'll be able to do - presiding at the Eucharist, blessing and declaring God's forgiveness. Outside the immediate church community even fewer will know or care about the new meaning of the 'dog collar' around my neck. Perhaps that's as well. It's enough that I'm recognised as a represent of the church and Lord I serve, and any other distinctions are small enough to be insignificant.

But will it feel different to me? Will I be different?


Ordination Roles
Generally, and in simple terms, the three layers of ordination in the Anglican Church are viewed as encompassing different roles: the deacon's role is one of service, of care and concern for others; the priest's role is one of proclamation, through word and sacrament; and finally the bishop's role is one of oversight, of guiding and correcting those in one's charge.

The thing is, those roles naturally blend together in the experience of everyday life and ministry. Working in a parish, even as a curate and not an incumbent, all those different roles come together. In a parish, clergy serve, they proclaim, and in due time, they exercise oversight over the many volunteer groups that have to operate together to make a church function. I've not been doing much oversight in the past year, but I've certainly been doing my fair share of serving and proclaiming! Indeed, even in terms of the sacraments, I've already been involved. I won't get into a discussion about what might constitute a sacrament - time for that later! - but whether we believe there's two or five or seven or no end of sacraments, I have already been privileged to take a role in one of them. Over the last year I've baptised enough children to put me well into double figures.

So what is the change?

It seems to me that the move from deacon to priest will involve two major changes.


1. New Proclamation
First is that the proclamation I've been doing - speaking about God's word with various study groups, in conversations and of course in regular preaching - will now be extended. Instead of being purely word-focused, it will now take in proclamation of a different sort - in the form of presiding at the Eucharist, declaring God's forgiveness, and pronouncing God's blessing.

From where I'm sitting at the moment, the fact that I will be able to, at last, preside at a service of Holy Communion, is by far the greatest of these. As always in the Church of England, what we think actually happens at a Eucharist varies hugely from congregation to congregation, and if we're honest, from individual to individual within each of those congregations. What do I think goes on? Well, the most important thing to say is that I believe the Eucharist is a mystery. No, a Mystery, with a capital M. We don't know what exactly happens. We're not supposed to. At a Eucharist, God reaches out to us, fulfilling his promises through Jesus, and somehow in that moment we are closer to him than we might ever normally be in the course of this life.

Ok, so that's the big thing out of the way. If, however, you really pushed me on the details, I would positively affirm that Christ is absolutely really present in that space, and that God has chosen that means especially to reach out to us, and for us to reach out to him. Celebrating Holy Communion makes for a 'thin' space and time, when the boundaries between earth and heaven draw much closer together, and enable us to glimpse beyond. That said, I don't think that Christ is especially in the bread and wine more than he's in the space and the people, and for me, the whole service: the gathering, the hearing and expounding of the Word, the remembering and reliving the Last Supper and Christ's passion and sacrifice, the offering of our own selves as we receive God's life... these all together constitute the experience I spoke about above. It is not a matter of a single prayer or a single set of words that enable us as a whole congregation to draw that specially near to our Lord.

So the new proclamation there is of Christ's real presence - a great and wonderful new thing.

At the same time, I will be able to do two other things I've wanted to do ever since I first heard God's call - I'll be able to pronounce blessing and forgiveness. These two things are the heart of the Gospel, and finally being able to declare with authority that God's boundless forgiveness and love is extended to those around me will be amazing. These too are forms of proclamation - and as a priest, I will be able to make those proclamations with the authority of the Spirit and the Church behind me.


2. New Authority
Which gets me onto the second major change. Authority. As a deacon, I've had a certain amount of authority behind me. The words I speak from the pulpit (or lectern, or chancel steps or wherever) have the weight of authority. When I pray with people I'm visiting, or lead a service of the Word, I'm doing so with the backing of the Church.

But now, as a priest, that authority gets much more. I'm trusted to be following God's will to the extent that I can pronounce forgiveness and blessing and consecration. I will have been prayed for, and had hands laid upon me, joining me to the run of my apostolic forbears right back to Peter, which means that I will be publicly acknowledged to be someone chosen and anointed by God to do this particular work of his.

Even as I write those words I can barely get my head around them. I mean... wow.

And that authority will make people see me differently, and will make me see myself differently. How could it not?


Functional or Ontological?
So will I change? Or is it just about me being able to do new things?

Well, I'm afraid I'm going to hedge. I will certainly be doing new things. And that will certainly change me as a person. As people we are never set in stone - we change through experiences and years. These new experiences will change me.

How I'll be changed though... I just don't know. My incumbent tells me that the change is palpable once one has a chance to settle into it. I believe him. What it'll feel like though... only the experienc will show me.


So, as I head out now, dressed in my clericals, cassock and surplice and stole in my hands, please pray for me, and for my brothers and sisters to be ordained with me, and I guess I'll let you know how it goes!

So what's all this about?

First thing's first, welcome to this blog!

It strikes me that before we get into the business I actually created this blog to discuss, it might be an idea to give you a brief introduction, both in terms of who I am, and what I envisage this space being about.

And you are...?
The simple stuff first, then. As I write this, I'm both a curate and a deacon in the Church of England. For those not in the know about C of E language (and bear with me, those who very much are), that means two things. A curate is a job title (like 'vicar' or 'rector'), meaning that I'm essentially still in training and functioning as an assistant to a more senior clergy person. An apprentice vicar, if you will. I've just finished my first year (of 3 or 4) of curacy in the Buckinghamshire parish in which I serve, and thus far am loving every minute. Really. My role as deacon, on the other hand, refers to a level of ordination. The C of E has three levels, like the Roman Catholic Church - namely deacon, priest and bishop. More on that in future posts.

After heading up to Oxford University to read theology way back in 1998, I kicked around Keble College until 2007, had a wonderful two years working for Wiley-Blackwell publishers as an assistant journal publishing manager, and finally spent two years in training for ordained ministry at Ripon College Cuddesdon.

In terms of general interests, I'm on the eclectic side. I'm a confirmed science fiction and fantasy fan, particularly Doctor Who, and have been fortunate enough to have some short fiction and audio drama credits writing Doctor Who fiction for Big Finish Productions. I'm a regular attendee at conventions (Gallifrey, WorldCon, I'm looking at you), and chances are if I'm not working I'm off doing something SF/F related. I've been practicing Ki-aikido for the last year, which I'm enjoying immensely, even if so far I've only made it to my yellow belt. Though I simply don't have time in my life for it at the moment, I had tremendous fun over a couple of wonderful years with the SCA and briefly with the Vikings, which means I'm one of the few curates who can show up to a St. George school assembly in my own armour, carrying my own sword and shield.

Ok, so that's me. I'm sure other facets of my personality will emerge over time.


And why the blog?
I wanted to write this blog for two main reasons. Firstly, one of the things that's drummed into you at theological college, and then later during curacy-related IME (Initial Ministerial Education), is the need to be a 'theological reflector'. That is, it's a good idea to make a habit of taking time and space to work through theological and pastoral issues and questions that bring you up short in the course of ministry. I do that naturally to some extent, but it really helps me to write my thoughts and conclusions down. So, I thought, why not write some of them down in the form of a blog? At least then, some other people who might be musing on the same things might find them useful.

Secondly, and much more selfishly, I miss the theological discussions that were a regular feature at college. I really miss bringing up a topic, and being able to benefit from colleagues suggesting their own thoughts, good books that they'd been reading and could recommend, and the general back and forth that helped my initial barely-formed theological ideas get hammered out into something that I could take into the world.

What I would love is if this could be a place for some of that back and forth. For me to lay out and wrestle with the things that are on my mind and heart, and perhaps get some feedback, some reading suggestions, some interaction that could help me, and anyone reading along, develop our thinking.

That's the ideal. Whether it works in practice... I imagine I'll find out!