God knows what we are doing

A few days ago, my wife, who (unlike her husband) is often prone to outbursts of excitement, came rushing in saying, ‘Richard, there’s a message on the answerphone from the Dean of Southwark Cathedral!  They’ve been using Life with St Benedict in their online Night Prayer and he wants to talk to you about it.’

It’s always lovely to learn that something one has done is being helpful to others. And if you’re interested, the interchange I then had with Dean Andrew Nunn has resulted in an online event to which you would be most welcome.

It reminded me of others who have done things about which they know nothing of the longer-term impact. In my last year at school, the Upper Sixth as it was called then, Miss Edwards became one of those influencers. The geography teacher who never actually taught me was a mainstay in that final year following my mum’s death in the preceding summer holidays. She would regularly give me time and space to talk. She was the one who asked for exam boards to take into account what had happened (I still got ungraded but her thought meant far more than that). She once asked me, ‘What do you want to become in the future?’ For reasons unbeknown to myself, although it probably reflected my loss of identity at that time, I replied: ‘I’d like to be well-known – not famous, just well-known.’ Hey ho, such are the workings of a 17 year-old’s mind.

Fast forward to two years ago and I moved from being ‘well-known’ – at least in the field of work I was in – to being ‘unknown’. It was a strange transition, but supported by a guiding principle.

One of the Bible verses that has been influential on my attempts to live out the faith in which I believe is: ‘But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,  so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.’ (Matthew 6:3-4)

Knowing that God knows what we do is sufficient. We are seen by God’s eyes. And God’s rewards (given  not sought) are many. It’s why you wouldn’t have found my name on the website at work. It’s why the title of this blog (and my Twitter feed) is not my name (I struggle with the ‘About’ page, by the way… oh, there you are, I’ve just hyperlinked it so you know who I am…). It’s why I am influenced by St Benedict and in particular his teaching about humility.

We do of course live in a world which depends on people being known by name (after all, who on earth is Richard Frost – it’s no wonder he has so few followers). Knowing the name of a particular author, speaker or dare I use the word ‘celebrity’, can be helpful: we might be helped by what they do. Knowing a name is useful: hospital staff have it written on their PPE so colleagues know who they are. Our name is crucial to our own sense of identity – so often challenged as we travel through life and not least in this time of pandemic when many of us have lost something of what we do and who we are.

But it is God who knows what we do. That is sufficient.

Happy New Year?

2020 was a year like no other – and 2021 may not be that different!

Lest you think that to be a ‘Unhappy New Year’ greeting, please read on…

In the coming few days as we mark the Epiphany, many will reflect on how the travellers from the East came looking for the Christ-child and found him. As this year begins we too may be considering what we might be looking for in the year that is to come. And while it would be easy to focus on what we lost last year – what we did not find, if you like – it was a year where actually we found lots of new things. In particular perhaps, new ways of being Church.

We have learnt to be Church in new ways. To come to God to pray, to worship and to learn in different ways. We have come to God sanitising our hands, sitting at a distance and wearing our face coverings. We are still the church. We have come to God through online services. We are still the church. The church: not the building but the people. The body of Christ – and Christ has no body now but yours.

So as we look to 2021, it may not be that different.

It’s realistic to think that we will be living under some form of guidance and restrictions for many months. We will still be the church. Online services will continue. We will meet in our buildings as and when we can. We will see and talk to each other during the week. We will continue to pray. Continue to worship. Continue to learn. Continue to be blessed by God.

In these very unsettling, uncomfortable and uncertain times, some things do not change. As the New Year begins perhaps it is those things we need to remember to keep looking for – and finding.

‘Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.’      Teresa of Avila

 

 

 

My prayers for you for a peaceful, blessed and safe New Year. If you are interested, the daily pattern of reflections in Life with St Benedict begin again today. Copies can be ordered through BRF.

The Christmas Post

‘Bah! Humbug!’

Ebenezer Scrooge’s comment on Christmas is one I share.

It probably dates back to childhood times when excitement and disappointment both arrived neatly wrapped. I really don’t like Christmas that much: or rather the way the world (and, to an extent, the church) has chosen to represent it. Christmas also exacerbates the more uncomfortable side of feelings that I don’t fit. All the same, I do wish you a very happy and safe Christmas!

But even my dislike of Christmas with all its ‘fripperies’ as John Betjeman put it, was mellowed this last Sunday when carols were sung at our churches once again (outside, of course). There seemed an added poignancy to the fact we hadn’t sung at all for 9 months… it’s been a difficult pregnancy hasn’t it?

As many have said, although some have stated the opposite, Christmas is not cancelled – but perhaps the absence of many of the ‘usual things’ (hard as that is) will enable us to focus more clearly on the Christ in the story.

To focus on the coming of Christ into our own selves.

The Christ who is ever present and never disappointing.

The Christ who calls us to be people who don’t fit.

 

 

 

The Coming of Christ

It’s always good to have one’s prejudices challenged.

This Advent, I’ve been reading Celtic Advent by fellow BRF author, the excellent David Cole. In one of the daily reflections, he writes about the hymn known as ‘St Patrick’s Breastplate’. Now, a long time ago, this was sung in a Sunday morning service: all nine verses of it… or was it ten… what a dirge it was and I have never liked it since.

But like many prejudices, our judgment on things once encountered, forever discounted is due to the fact we don’t understand things fully.

Attributed to St Patrick, it’s a prayer of protection and was subsequently translated by Cecil Frances Alexander (she of ‘All things bright and beautiful’ – another victim of prejudice, perhaps…). It is in a tradition of Irish Celtic prayers and can be found again in a version called ‘God’s Aid’ in the Carmina Gadelica and more recently, the song ‘Everything’ by Tim Hughes.

David Cole writes, ‘The verse which sits as the key point of this prayer is the one which states that Christ is within us and in every other surrounding area of us and our life:

Christ be with me, Christ with me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,

Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me
Christ in mount of friend and stranger.’

Advent is a time of preparation. Preparing for the first coming of Christ in human form, as a baby at Christmas. Advent is also a time to remember we are preparing for the second coming of Christ: returning in glory to the earth at a time to come.

In Celtic Christian spirituality, there is a third coming that sits in-between the two:

The coming of Christ into our own selves.

‘This is not just a single event,’ Cole writes, ‘a moment of conversion or becoming a Christian. This is a continual activity in every part of our lives on a daily basis.

‘(This) may happen multiple times a day, and in every decision we make… This isn’t about eternal salvation; this is about Christ being intrinsically involved and interwoven in every part and aspect of our everyday lives.’

This Christmas, and in the days before and beyond it, may we all experience the coming of Christ into our own selves.

A Sure Foundation

It’s the same every morning. The dog barks. I sit on the edge of my bed for a moment. Go downstairs and give Daisy her Bonio. Put the kettle on. Let her out. Make a large mug of tea. Let her in. Excited at the new day, Daisy does her party trick of leaping from one sofa to the other.

Then we sit. The only sounds are birds singing, the fridge humming, a clock ticking and the radiators waking up.

To you O Lord, my soul in stillness waits,’ as one of the great songs of Advent puts it.

Prayer. Asking for God’s blessing on the day ahead. Prayer for the three people I love most. Prayer for those who work – refuse collectors, shop workers, NHS staff; those facing difficult meetings; those finding fulfilment; those fearful of job loss. Prayer for myself. Sometimes rambling. Sometimes concise. The same words begin. The same words end.

It sets up the day. Whatever the day may bring. A sure foundation.

On this Advent Sunday, as a new Christian year begins, it is perhaps good to reflect on how prayer sets up all we do and all we are and all we are to be.

Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain.’ (Psalm 127)

(As an aside, that Psalm also speaks to those who work too much… ‘It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil.’)

The centrality of the prayer is the foundation on which the Lord builds the house which we not only inhabit but also reflects our total being.

And yet, for many of us, it’s difficult to develop and maintain a routine of prayer. (My evening time is much more variable.)

Perhaps that’s because we are trying to be like someone else? We try to be a better Christian based on what other people do – or what we perceive them to be doing. ‘I wish I could pray like you’, ‘I should be reading the Bible every day but…’ How on earth do any of us know how someone else prays!?

If someone else finds extemporary prayer helpful then that’s great but it may not suit you. If someone doesn’t find structured liturgy helpful that doesn’t mean to say that you won’t. Silence or speaking in tongues, how other people pray is of no consequence. There is no one, single, right way to pray.

It’s important to find an approach that reflects both you and your unique relationship with God – and what God wants for you as the person you are.

So back to the edge of the bed. The words of Psalm 25. The same prayer starts every day before anything else…

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
O my God, in you I trust.

May that be a prayer for all of us in the year ahead.

‘I got it wrong’

We’d witnessed chaos and conflict. People lost sleep and found anxiety. There were accusations with no evidence. No one willing to say they got it wrong. No one willing to accept defeat. It was a sad sight.

Then last Saturday, at around 10am Pacific Standard Time (6pm GMT), a rainbow appeared in the skies above Venice, Los Angeles, California.

It was as if the world had breathed a sigh of relief.

As history looks back on the Trump presidency, only time will tell whether it’s President-Elect Biden who makes America great again.

Back in 2003, when I was interviewed for what became my final job, I was asked about what strengths I brought to the role. ‘I will always admit to my mistakes,’ I remember saying. And it’s a tenet I stuck with through the intervening years both at and away from work. And continue to do so.

That said, I can be forthright in presenting evidence if the accusation is incomplete of the facts.

The problem is when accusations are made and the ‘accuser’, for want a better word, neither offers explanation nor substantiates their claim. When one is left in a state of limbo: left feeling ‘I honestly don’t know what I did wrong. Will someone please tell me!’

Those who have wronged us are sometimes, deep down inside, never truly forgiven. Anger, hurt and bitterness can be carried for years. Ruminating about what happened over and over again. Blaming other people. Blaming ourselves. Blaming God.

Having reminded his readers of Jesus’ words, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself,’ Paul’s letter to the Galatians highlights the cost of living in the desert of unresolved dispute: ‘If… you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another’. (Galatians 5:13-15)

When, in his victory speech that Saturday evening, Joe Biden quoted the words from the Bible that for America it was ‘A time for healing’ (Ecclesiastes 3) it was to strengthen another tenet that perhaps all of us can benefit from, whether Republican or Democrat, Tory or Socialist, church or, even, another church: “It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric, lower the temperature, see each other again, listen to each other again…. to make progress, we have to stop treating our opponents as enemies,” he said.

The desert of unresolved dispute is a harsh and barren place. Let us always be ones who bring water to such a land.

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us.

 

 

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I can see clearly now

Choosing new frames at the opticians is never easy.

Because I’m so short-sighted (-10.75), on a recent visit I had to resort to taking ‘selfies’ so I could see each of the contenders properly. Even then, the photos didn’t really tell me what they looked like. But, after gauging family opinions on the possibilities, and accompanied by my wife and an excellent practitioner, a further appointment settled on the right ones. Well, I hope they will be.

Now you may be thinking – oh, here he goes, trite message about how looking through the right lens to ‘correct our vision’ means we’ll see God more clearly.

And while there is truth in that, even the best specs don’t guarantee perfect vision all the time. Doing ‘all the right things’ doesn’t mean we ‘get it all right’ – and for me, that ‘corrective’, right versus wrong approach to Christian living is not only demoralising but misses the point about God’s astonishing love for us.

It reminds me of the story of the healing of Bartimaeus, a blind beggar in Jericho. Sat by the road, he hears Jesus approaching, calls out and, miraculously, his sight is restored (Mark 10:46-51).

For Bartimaeus, it was his faith in Jesus that enabled him to see clearly. But it wasn’t just about that.

That encounter is also about the question Jesus asked: ‘What do you want me to do for you?’

Imagine for a moment, Jesus asking you that question.

Possibly, like many of us, you may have a very long list of answers… You may be thinking, well I’ve asked you to do lots of things which haven’t happened… Our unanswered answers are tough at times, aren’t they?

It can be difficult to hold that apparent absence of response in tension with things Jesus promised: “Ask, and it will be given to you” (Matthew 7:7) and “…if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (Mark 11:23-24)

Bartimaeus. There he was. A beggar. An outcast. People always telling him to be quiet. He had no place in the presence of the new kid in town.

And afterwards… yes, he could see again. Yes, some would be amazed by his miraculous healing. But I guess he also remained a beggar and an outcast. And people would still tell him to shut up.

But perhaps, despite all that, his faith remained strong.

It can be like that for us: we receive some of the things we want, while other things remain difficult.

So, looking deeper, what of our faith – what do we want Jesus to do for our belief and trust in him?

 

You may like to find a quiet space.

Imagine for more than a moment, Jesus with you.

And Jesus says: “What do you want me to do for you?”

 

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Walk on By

Many have said we live in strange times.

Not least perhaps are some familiar phrases we can no longer use: ‘Is this seat taken?’, ‘May I join you?’

The ‘elbow bump’ has usurped the handshake. The ‘distance hug’ an inadequate replacement for the security and warmth of being held.

Two’s company, six is a crowd…

Even the great principle of the Parable of the Good Samaritan has been turned over – we are now actively encouraged to walk by on the other side… and many have been left lying by the road, trapped by the restrictions, local lockdowns and the fear of leaving their home.

Many good Samaritans have paid a price today too. Not just in the rightly applauded NHS – although the pressure of being ‘heroes’ is taking its toll on many. But also the oft-forgotten care homes and overlooked domiciliary workers. And then there are the hidden helpers, quietly applying bandages to local communities and neighbourhoods and many a  university campus and workplace too.

We also see the equivalents of the priest and the Levite (a priest’s assistant). Both these passers-by saw the wounded traveller but did not reach out. No doubt on their way to something important – torn between many competing needs. Who are they today? Some might say government but could any of us really do better? Or maybe Covid-conspiracy theorists protesting against loss of freedom while others suffer because of it or the ones who simply flout the advice and requests to socially distance? But aren’t they also expressions of fear…

And what about the robbers, the people who attacked the unfortunate traveller. Is there a parallel for them? What led to them to committing the crime? Who will meet their needs?

And finally, we have the innkeeper. The one to whom the Samaritan took the man who’d been attacked. Who are they today? The ones who are in it for the long haul, sticking by, regardless of cost – financial, physical or emotional?

But of course there is also the donkey – the ones who carry the whole load.

Jesus’ parables were often based around real events – and no doubt incidents such as people being robbed while travelling actually happened. As we considered in the previous post, the parables were not always meant to be taken literally but this one has found its way into many aspects of our attitudes towards others today.

In Jesus’ time, the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was notorious.  Jesus’ audience (Jewish lawyers and his own disciples) would have known this and thought the traveller a fool. Add to that, the Samaritans were outcasts and the enemies of the Jews so for a man from Samaria to help a Jewish traveller would have shocked his listeners – let alone that the priest and the Levite, for whom another Jew was indeed their neighbour, walked by on the other side.

So Jesus turns everything on its head (not the first or last time). He turns the message from judgement of others to compassion for others.

Martin Luther King once said, ‘The first question the priest and Levite asked was: “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But… the good Samaritan reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

 

 

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From Being Comes Doing

The retreat was long overdue. The pandemic had put paid not once but twice to Alton Abbey, my spiritual home, and Boris had wrecked two weeks’ annual leave in June. The best part of a year had passed since I last had ‘a period of solitary refinement’ as someone once put it.

I’d been to Sheldon many times for Quiet Days and meetings. But this was different. Four days, three nights. No conversation, no e-mail, no internet.  No church or family demands. Tangible ‘things to do’ complemented the intangible expectation that God may have ‘things to do’ also.

The ‘Welcome Pack’ speaks: ‘May this be a place where you… draw rest, silence, healing and vision.’

Umm… Rest. It had been a busy, far too busy, few months. As punishing as it was rewarding.

There had been little silence – in part, because I hadn’t made enough of it.

Healing? Yes, the hurts of ‘church chunterings’ required soothing balm.

Vision? Something to be seen when not looking for it, maybe?

So God showed his hand straight away.

I am to do nothing.

It is strange (and at times uncomfortable) to be in a place of not doing anything but simply to be. I don’t want to ‘waste the time’ here but don’t want the pressure of thinking ‘What shall I do now?’

Yet, ‘What shall I be now?’ is somewhat more tricky.

AA Milne wrote: “Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits…”

I sit on a bench.

The ground is rough and stony. Dead plants being strangled by living weeds is a good metaphor.

But so is the view from the bench. The vibrant trees and the rolling hills. The silence.

Silence is not the absence of noise but the feeling of it. Being still within it. Surrounded and embraced by it.

‘Speak through the earthquake, wind and fire,
O still small voice of calm’

From being comes doing – not the other way around.

On God alone, my soul in stillness waits; 
from him comes my salvation.

He alone is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold
so that I shall never shaken.

(Psalm 62:1-2)

 

 

Uncertain certainty

‘The virus has robbed us of many things. It continues to rob us of any certainty.’

In many ways, those words by BBC correspondent, Chris Mason sum up these last few months.

Our local churches have begun opening for public worship for the first time since March. Many might have hoped to go back to a place of certainty… but with its hand sanitisers, the wearing of face coverings, social distancing, and no hymns or coffee it too has changed. It’s different.

The Gospel reading for today (9 Aug) is very appropriate for the current time (Matthew 14:22-33). It’s an account of when the disciples were in their boat crossing Lake Galilee in the middle of the night. Not unusually, a storm blows up. The boat is blown around. And then out of the tumult, Jesus walks on the water towards them. Given their exhaustion and the darkness, it’s not surprising they think it’s a ghost.

But Peter knows it’s Jesus. Responding to Christ’s call, Peter steps out in faith on to the water… and then he noticed the wind.

Peter sinks down and is grasped by Jesus’ hand. Jesus then climbs back in the boat and calms the storm allowing the disciples to continue their journey.

Stepping out in faith is no guarantee that we will not hit troubled or stormy waters. You’ve probably had your own encounters of stepping out in faith and things being difficult. You will have stepped out… and then noticed the wind.

Jesus said to Peter: ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’

A cruel put-down or words of empathic reassurance?

Did Peter really have little faith? After all, nobody else got out of the boat.

So here we are. We of little faith. A little faith that enables us to step out in the storm. A faith which grasps the hand of Jesus as he reaches out to us.

Jesus places us safely in the boat. He climbs in with us. He calms the storm and takes us on our journey. A journey yes, in to uncharted waters. A journey of continuing change. But also a journey of certainty. A journey in which we will never be abandoned.

Whatever the change. Whatever the loss of certainty.

Do not be afraid.

 

 

(This post is a shortened version of a spoken reflection at St Michael’s, Teignmouth in Devon as it reopened for worship on 9 Aug and that included in the online service for that day.)