Decisions, decisions

One hundred years ago today, in a small, two-up, two-down, terraced house in Bury, Lancashire, Maria and John welcomed their new son, Tom.

Their second child, he was the eldest: his parents lost a daughter a year before the war started. Maria had worked at the cotton factory at the end of the road. Not long back from the trenches, John had taken up his trade as a stonemason again.  A bright lad, Tom won a scholarship to the local Grammar School and served in the RAF throughout the second war before becoming a career civil servant.

Peace came and so did Renee. A daughter was born but death also played its part in Tom’s life. His father died the day after this writer came in to being. Seventeen years on, he lost both Maria and Renee in the space of 3 months and was widowed a second time four years before his own passing in 2008.

They say like father, like son. In many respects, we were and are quite different. But there are some similarities. I have the same cough and, albeit not as dramatic as his, the same sneeze. My own career bore some similarities to his. He learnt to drive late in life, as I did, but I lack his ability to dance and to socialise.

We were not close, but neither were we distant. I realise now how little I acknowledged his grief for Renee at the time (I was too obsessed with my own). I think I made him proud but he rarely said that – well, to me at least. I enjoyed the deepening friendship in his latter years, however. Rarely seen, he was always there – and that was an invaluable quality. I guess I probably know him better now than I did when he was alive.

I was born, he once told me, “Because we wanted you.” At the time, that made some sense: my sister is 9 years older than me and they’d lost a baby in-between. But in just these last few weeks, I learnt that such was their desire for another child, they had been considering adoption. But nature took its course and along I came.

My dad always let me make my own decisions – especially with career choices but in other aspects too: even when they were ‘wrong’ or didn’t work out well. That’s one thing I have tried to pass on to my own children.

That approach reminds me of one of Jesus’ most well-known parables: the story of the prodigal son. Here was a father who let his youngest child make decisions. A decision to take the money and run. A decision to leave home. A decision to waste it all. A decision to acknowledge the mistake. A decision to return to his father. And all that time, the father wanted his son.

The parable shows us that God lets us make our own decisions.

But it’s easy to blame God for the ‘wrong’ decisions we make, isn’t it: or perhaps, more accurately, for what happens afterwards. ‘Right’ decisions sometimes don’t work out that well. But if things go wrong, is it really God’s fault? By contrast, it can often take far more effort to give credit to God for when things work out for the best.

The parable also shows that God makes decisions.

God makes the decision to be always watching for us. When we come running to God, God makes the decision to run to us. God makes the decision to put loving arms around us.

No matter who we are.

No matter what we’ve done.

 

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Finding Stability in Times of Change

At this time of major change in the way we live our lives and with many people feeling isolated, anxious or unsettled, I’ve put together some short films to help provide some stability.

Click on this link to find out more and to watch them.

2020 Vision

Driving through a local town the other week, I was behind a white van. My prejudices were in full flow. This was a typical, indeed stereotypical, white van, no doubt driven by stereotypical white van man. I knew this to be true (for such is the nature of ill-informed prejudice) because he was going  40 in a 30 mile an hour zone. Typical. Humph. Tut.

And I too was well over the speed limit. The van travelled fast, so I felt the need to do so as well. I was so close I couldn’t see the road ahead. I chose to slow down.

It was an image of today’s busy lifestyle. Others rush around so we do too. Workplaces, churches, shops, loads of places are full of people caught up in the need to do everything quickly. ‘Look at how fast I’m going,’ we cry. ‘Why are you working so slowly?’

It’s not just ‘the Jones’ we try to keep up with – it’s everybody. As if somehow, we will be a better person by doing so – or a lesser one if we don’t.

Of course, we live in a society which demands – and provides – instant gratification. A click of a button can bring a meal to our doorstep in minutes. We send e-mails and get annoyed if someone doesn’t reply straight away. We watch whole TV series at once: gone are the days of ‘And in next week’s exciting episode…’ Bosses, customers, families (and congregations) want everything done yesterday and if not then, sooner.

We rush from meeting to meeting, place to place. Not realising that rushing around uses up so much energy that we are left with less of it for when we arrive for the intended purpose – and the people.

Such rushing is counter-productive and not good for our wellbeing. We are forgetting how to wait. We are forgetting how to slow down. And quite often it’s hard to see the way ahead.

One way to address such things is to take time out. Set aside specific times for reflection or simply to stop. St Benedict offers ‘tools in the toolbox‘ to help with this and you may like to use my own thoughts contained in a book of daily reflections. Or go on a Quiet Day or retreat.

Jesus was a great one for taking things slowly. Admittedly, it got him in to a bit of bother on occasions – like when Martha and Mary’s brother Lazarus died and Jesus took ages to get there, and when Jairus wanted him to come straight away to his poorly daughter and Jesus stopped to heal someone else first.

In human terms, we might look upon those incidents as Jesus giving himself time to think and to conserve some energy because he knew he was walking in to an important situation.

Jesus also made sure he took time out – and he choose to do so. Jesus made time to rest, to think, to pray…

That is to be our pattern. Our pattern for living. Our vision when we are too close to everything that we can’t see the way ahead.

Looking back on 2019, what’s your vision for 2020?

Much of the same? With the same results…

Or time to make some changes?

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Telling Stories

Every one has stories to tell. Stories of life and learning. Stories about working, resting and praying.

As you read this, you may might like to think about the various ‘chapters’ of your life’s story so far. Times of joy and excitement. Of sadness and difficulty. Different events and experiences. Changing attitudes and responses. The complex and confusing sentences and paragraphs. The jokes.

Life’s story sometimes has a way of putting two deeply-contrasting events close together, doesn’t it? Indeed, my wife and I experienced just that last month.

First, the excitement of seeing the next chapter of our life together begin to open. Having finished her training as a Curate in the Church of England, Jane’s been offered the role of Team Vicar in a lovely coastal and rural part of Devon. Such a blessing and a privilege (albeit meaning I have to begin the 22nd chapter in my Book of Moving Home…!).

And then just one week later, we learnt that our lovely 11 year-old cocker spaniel, Pip, has cancer. So our time with her is now limited. But, despite that, and as you may have gathered from previous posts (appearing as pooch and one who takes me for walks), she too has been a blessing and a privilege. She is part of our story.

I expect you will have stories about work, family and maybe, a spiritual one too.

The Bible is full of stories. Indeed, Jesus was a consummate storyteller. He met thousands of people. Each one had a story to tell both before and, without doubt, after they had encountered him. As Christians, it’s easy to focus only on what Jesus did and said and what we can learn from him. But there is a lot to learn from those who met him as well.

So this post comes with a new book: A Story to Tell.

In this book, we consider twelve people who met Jesus: six women and six men. Some  intimate, personal 1:1 encounters: the daughter of Jairus, Nicodemus, the woman from Samaria and the man from the Gerasenes (often erroneously called ‘Legion’). Some from the core group of disciples and followers: Mary Magdalene, Martha and Mary, Thomas, John and Judas Iscariot. And those two people, without whom, Jesus would not have come to earth to shape both our future and our salvation: Mary and Joseph.

They all have stories to tell.

Every story is unique. And there is much to learn from all of them.

You are welcome to download and use A Story to Tell for personal reflection. Do feel free to pass it on to other people too. Maybe see if you can put this link on your church’s website or share it through social media. If you belong to Cell Group or House Group or another Bible study type setting, the book also contains some suggestions for discussion. You can print it off as many copies as you like – or contact me for some printed and bound ones.

In many respects, each of the people featured in A Story to Tell led very ordinary lives. They had similarities with our own existence. From the day to day ordinary to the extraordinary. Difficult times and miraculous times.  Seeing God in the comfortable and, at times, the uncomfortable.

The aim of the book is to try and play some part, even if that is very small, in enabling your faith and trust in God to become stronger and to deepen your experience of the love that Christ has for you.

By learning from the experiences of those who encountered Jesus, who were very ordinary people just like you and I, we begin to learn more about our own story to tell.

Jesus told stories.       

Jesus gave people stories to tell.        

What’s your story?

Switching Off

Picture the scene. The dog’s taking me for my daily walk (a retirement essential). Yesterday’s rain has swelled the brook as it flows gracefully between the trees. Dewdrops on thatched roofs glisten in the winter sun. Birds sing and the local chickens walk the lanes as if they owned the place.

This idyllic scene is broken by a telephone ringing. A hand dives in to my jacket pocket. But it’s not mine – the phone, that is (the hand was). An instinctive action. My mobile doesn’t even ring. Fooled by a landline.

I’d rank myself 7.5 out of 10 on the technological obsession scale (especially laptop and aforementioned phone). When it comes to social media, it’s the strangely-addictive Twitter and the slightly clunky, but nevertheless, useful LinkedIn which keep me posted (do follow me, he says obsessively…).

I do so enjoy the benefits and access to easier communication and information that technology brings. Life is for learning and one can learn so much from all that’s out there as well as communicate so easily with such a vast range of people.

And yet we live in a society which communicates so much but communicates so little too. In cafés and restaurants, people sat together are also sitting apart, conversing with their smartphone. Work colleagues e-mail each other in the same building (mea culpa). Messaging avoids the hassle of the face to face (ditto). Facebook friends number in the hundreds but ‘offline friends’ are few.

Technology has been key in developing the 24/7 work, rest and play culture in which we live and has brought both advantages and disadvantages.

And therein lies the rub. For many people, there’s no downtime. No way to switch off. Texts and e-mails come and go day and night. Mobile is the go-to number. The pressure is to be always on. Always on for what? Good customer service or fear of the boss? A need to feel needed? A want to feel wanted? A belief that there is no choice?

Many have become so dependent on the phone, tablet or whatever, that its absence causes them feelings of tension and insecurity. (Sounds familiar?)

So how do we manage these various aspects of modern living in order to flourish as people beloved by God?

Balance and boundaries.

In the previous post, we considered how living well is not so much about work-life balance but whole life balance. When it comes to technology, there’s another word beginning with b: boundaries.

So here are a few more tools for your toolbox to help reset things (some are from others, some are mine):

  • Don’t have work emails going to your personal smartphone (no-brainer that one…).
  • Working at home? Set time boundaries. Make a separate office space or if that’s not possible pack it all away when you’re finished.
  • When it beeps or vibrates, you don’t have to respond immediately. Put it in a different room if it’s a nuisance.
  • Day off means day off.
  • When at home be at home. The people you live or socialise with want you to be with them not someone else.
  • Going out with others for meal? First one to look at their phone pays the bill!
  • Think about where you have those calls. Do you really want other people invading your privacy?
  • Have a social media-free day each week – or even a technology-free one.
  • Switch off (yes, switch it off…) 30 mins before bedtime. Switch on no sooner than 15 mins after getting up. The bedroom is no place for a mobile – if you need an alarm, buy a clock.
  • Pray for wisdom about how best to use the gift of technology.

“But, what about…”

“I want to…”

“It’s important…”

Yes, of course. But you do have a choice also.

You’re far too special to be fooled by a phone.

Reflection for the New Year

This post takes you to a really helpful reflection for the New Year written by Martin Gee at Bible Reading Fellowship. Within it, Martin picks up the theme of work and productivity and focuses on how each of us can face whatever tasks or work await us in the year to come, whether your ‘work’ and ‘tasks’ are paid or voluntary, at home or away, at church or with family, serving or caring. Click here to read

What are you searching for?

The World Cup, Meghan Markle and the Royal Wedding. The top three searches on Google in 2018. The most popular question: ‘What is Bitcoin?’. Ones about Brexit only coming ninth behind Diwali and upskirting.

As one year ends, it’s natural to reflect on what we looked for in the last 12 months – and what happened (or didn’t). The highs and lows. Joys and disappointment. Failures and fulfilment. Times of change (or lack of). Regrets and missed opportunities. Separation. Reconciliation. Loss. Beginnings and endings.

What kind of year has it been for you? Is it one that ends saying ‘Was that it?’ or proclaims ‘That was it – and that was good!’?

And what might the next 12 months hold? Certainties and uncertainties. Hopes and fears. Waiting and wishing. Health and happiness. Stable relationships. A more balanced life of work, rest and pray. A deeper faith.

At Christmas we remember those who searched for the Christ-child. Shepherds from the hills and the wise ones from the East. For the shepherds, the search lasted a few hours or days. For the wise, a couple of years. They encountered difficulties along the way. But they knew what they were looking for – and they knew when they had found it.

No doubt some were sceptical. “What? The Messiah – in a cattle trough?” “Oh yeah, so I suppose you know exactly which star it is, then?” Some would have wanted to stay just where they were. Seated on the ground  watching their flocks by night. Not wanting to traverse afar. Afraid that life will be different. Seeing this Jesus business as too much of a risk.

Just like the shepherds and the wise, searching for the really important things takes time. It is often confusing and rarely straightforward. It involves uncertainty and difficulties. There are challenges and instability. It takes effort. Little wonder we’re tempted to give up searching at times.

And yet it is those very components which help us discern what we are looking for for ourselves and what God’s plans are for us (the two are not mutually exclusive, by the way).

There’s also clue in a word we hear a lot at Christmas. Immanuel. It means ‘God with us.’

Anselm Shobrook, a Benedictine monk at Alton Abbey, talked about how the core of the Gospel message is a mystery and a paradox: ‘We can’t have one without the other: suffering makes God with us authentic.’

It is within our searching, with all its uncertainties and difficulties, that we can most deeply experience God with us.

Across the world, the most popular verse in 2018 on the YouVersion Bible App is from the Old Testament book of Isaiah: ‘(The Lord said) do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.’ (Isaiah 41:10).

UK users of the same app looked to another Old Testament prophet for  assurances  about the past, present and future. Jeremiah wrote: ‘For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.’ (Jeremiah 29:11).

Immanuel. God with us. God grants the strength we need. God wants the best for us: plans to give us a future with hope.

Maybe at some point in the Christmas period, why not take a while to consider what you’ll be searching for in 2019? And how you think you’ll know you’ve found it.

Success or Fulfilment?

Had a few days in Switzerland earlier this month. Speaking at a conference of business people from across Europe followed by being a tourist in sunny Zurich.

Sharing the conference stage with an English colleague, we were to be interviewed by globetrotting, all-Australian, Greg van Borssum. Martial arts expert, Mr Universe competitor, world champion pistol shooter, film director, fight choreographer and stuntman on Mad Max.

We’d talked beforehand by email and phone about how the panel discussion would go. Greg wanted to talk about my story. I didn’t. He said “It’s going to be a blast!”  “I’m British,” I said.

Greg went from failed school kid to Oscar winner via financial ruin and depression. He’d arrived the previous day after a 35 hour-long trip and had had a run in the mountains before breakfast. He had a high energy, high motivation, self-driven approach to life. We were poles apart on the ‘Frost scale of masculinity’. Follow that, I thought.

We sat down.

And, of course, it was fine.

He was the stereotypical gentle giant. And, yes, I did share some of my story. It was a good lesson in how not to compare oneself to others.

From our totally different approaches to life, we stood on common ground. Ambassadors for better mental health. Sharing a passion for enabling people to live and to work in a better place.

One of many things Greg said was that life is not about success but about fulfilment.

Society measures success by achievement. How high the salary. How large the house. How expensive the car. How big the bonus. How lovely the children are. Which university. How fashionable the clothes. What the job title is… But is such success fulfilling?

Fulfilling. Full. Filling.

What is it that fills us? What really nourishes the soul and the inner being?

Greg’s challenge was to look at life differently. In many respects, Christianity is also about looking at life – and living life – from a different approach.

Jesus’ approach was different. It remains, even today, counter-cultural. Sometimes counter-intuitive also.

‘The last will be first, and the first will be last,’ he said. (Matthew 19:30; 20:16; Mark 10:31 & Luke 13:30)

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven… Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth… Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled… Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ (The Beatitudes in Matthew 5)

Paul’s letter to the Romans put it another way: ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)

In a previous post we considered the tools for the toolbox alluded to in Chapter 4 of the Rule of St Benedict. The same chapter says, ‘Your way of acting should be different from the world’s way; the love of Christ must come before all else.’

It’s easy to look upon those words from the Bible and the Rule and be daunted by such high standards. To feel poles apart from others on some imaginary ‘God’s scale of acceptability’.

But there is no scale. For the love of Christ is the toolbox itself.

The love of Christ is the centre of everything about us. Everything we do stems from that love. That is where fulfilment lies.

Fulfilment gained through experiencing the love of Christ in our own lives.

Fulfilment gained through expressing that love towards others.

Fulfilment gained by taking a different approach.

Time for a Good Rest

‘Tiredness can kill. Take a break.’

A sign for the drivers who should have stopped the last time they saw it. For the doctor with one patient too many. For the precision engineer whose work is not as precise. The shop assistant giving out the wrong change. The vicar who’s now driven instead of called.

I’ve seen far too many people put everything in to everything only to be left with nothing for anything. Working so hard to prove themselves to themselves, let alone others. ‘We have to start breaking busy before the busy breaks us,’ as Alli Worthington put it.

This blog is called Work. Rest. Pray. This seventh post is about the seventh day. The day God rested (Genesis 2:1-3). The principle that provides for our lives.

Of course, many people work at weekends. So it’s not as simple as it used to be to keep the Sabbath holy (Exodus 20:8-11). But creating ‘Sabbath moments’: setting aside times that are refreshingly restful and restorative, is possible.

There again, nobody ever teaches us how to rest, do they?

Resting is a skill. And like other tools in our toolbox, it takes practice.

I didn’t learn how to rest until I was over 30 – and even then it was because I’d become unwell. A 3 year-long period of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (M.E.) meant pretty much constant tiredness and nothing for anything. It was a doctor who taught me how to rest and pace life. When it reoccurred some 15 years later, those lessons helped. In between and since, the same principles have undergirded my personal approach to work, rest and play. And I still don’t always get it right.

“It’s OK to be tired” has been our ‘family motto’ for years. Partly borne from that personal experience but also an acknowledgement that life is tiring and that it’s OK to feel tired.

All the same, being tired a lot of the time is frustrating. It messes with our thoughts as well as our body. Other people can also find it difficult when all we can say is “Sorry, I’m tired.”

Jesus got tired. When a storm blew up one evening on Lake Galilee, he was asleep in the boat. Tired from teaching and being followed by crowds of people (Mark 4:38). He also ensured his disciples took time out to rest (Mark 6:30-32).

Having a good rest involves recognising the signs that we’re tired, understanding what helps us to rest, and making the time to do so.

Resting is not necessarily about doing nothing. It can be: whether a daytime resting of our eyelids or imitating Winnie-the-Pooh: ‘Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits’ (both practised most days by this particular writer!).

There are also times when ‘a change is as good as rest’. Taking a break from normal, usual routines to do something refreshingly restful and restorative. It’s an approach which helps overcome the lethargy that accompanies tiredness too.

Take a break from thinking. You know, those times when we overthink a task or topic. Times when the trees get in the way of the seeing the wood. When we need to come up from being bogged down.

And, as one anonymous blogger put it, ‘Resting is an act (of) faith… Trust that (God) will continue to work and take care of things even as we are resting,’ Things will still be OK if we need to take a break for a while.

There are different ways of creating those Sabbath moments. Whether short or long, setting aside times that are refreshingly restful and restorative.

Don’t be left with nothing for anything.

Make time for a good rest. Whatever that means for you. However that works for you. Add more tools to your toolbox.

Here are some words of Solomon in Psalm 127:

‘Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labour in vain…

It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives sleep to his beloved.’

You are the Lord’s beloved. The Lord builds the house for you to work, to rest and to pray.

 

When it all gets too much

A while ago, one Sunday morning after church I met my son and daughter at a local café. They went upstairs while I got the drinks. I set off up the long, wide, wooden staircase carrying a tray full of hot chocolate, teapots, milk, and cups and saucers. And then disaster. At the very top of the stairs. On the very last step. Down I went. Drinks splashed and cups smashed. Down the stairs it all flowed. And yes, I did cry over spilt milk. It had been a hard week. A very difficult weekend. And now this. A symbol of it all getting too much. The tray of life was too full and too heavy.

We all have times like that, don’t we? (oh, please tell me you do too…) When the load we are carrying is too heavy. When work and home life all gets too much. When we fail, worry and make poor decisions. Times when our behaviour towards others changes. We become irritable, quiet or stick our head in the sand. We might even call it stress.

Stress is a much overused word but there are times when we struggle to cope, whether at work or home, or both. There is no such thing as ‘good stress’. We all need a degree of pressure to get things done, to perform well, to do a good job or to please others. But when those pressures exceed our ability to cope with the demands upon us then that’s stress: and there’s nothing good about it.

We all respond to stress in different ways too. Stress affects us physically (palpitations, eczema, muscle ache, sleep disturbance, for example), emotionally (anger, worry, tearfulness etc) and behaviourally (irritability, restlessness perhaps). People talk a lot about ‘work-related stress’ but the biggest cause of long-term sickness absence are non-work related issues. Financial difficulties, care for the elderly, care for the children, relationship problems, difficulties at church and numerous other factors affect the ability to work. Left unmanaged, stress causes health problems and affects our mental wellbeing.

Of course, it’s nothing new. Nearly 2,000 years ago, Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans (7: 22-25a) ‘that which dwells within us turns us against ourselves, the law of our body is at war with the law of our mind’. Paul also sums up the feelings we have about ourselves: ‘Wretched person that I am’. Stress exacerbates our inadequacy: “I am so stupid. I’m hopeless. I am such a failure.”

So amidst this rather depressing passage (and this rather depressing post), come some surprising words. Paul writes, ‘Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!’ A simple statement of a fundamental truth but also a far too simple statement. Profound and deeply meaningful and yet one that trips off the tongue in glib repetition. When I fell at the top of the stairs, thanking God through Jesus Christ was not at the top of my list.

And yet, all the same, let’s turn to Jesus own words: ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ (Matthew 11:28-30)

Familiar verses. There will always be burdens and heavy loads to carry, but it’s what we do with them that matters. At times when the tray is full (or, preferably, before then) we can hand it over to Christ and receive the promise of rest. Through that rest comes strength: a strength that is made perfect in our weakness. Alleluia!

And what do we do next? We take it right back again, don’t we (oh, please tell me you do too…).

Over the next couple of posts we’ll look at managing such loads and gaining that rest and strength. We’ll consider the difficulties of comparing ourselves with others, some practical ways of addressing the balance of work and the rest of life, and looking after our mental wellbeing.

We may still have to carry the tray, but Christ can make it lighter.