A Good Innings

The first hour lasted for ages. It was cold. The seating was not exactly comfortable. The people around me talked while those taking part enacted their ritual and well-practiced actions. There were things going on which would seem strange to uninitiated.

No, not church… it was good to be at county cricket again after so many years.

And that first hour… That stage in a new experience when the unfamiliar lingers long, before the later moments rush by too fast… That first hour provided an unexpected presence of peace. I wanted it to last forever.

Depending on whether you are Indian or English it may or may not seem appropriate, but I am of course by far the first person to draw parallels between life and a game of cricket.

During our lives we can often be on the receiving end of the occasional googly, the random bouncer or find ourselves either stumped or caught out. We might even be like England (or indeed Somerset who I was watching last week) and suffer a complete collapse.*

But there are also those occasions when we strike a well-deserved boundary or even a six. All the same, in the traditional long game there are times when it’s all rather uneventful – although some may feel their life is more like the fast and furious T20 or The Hundred.

We talk of the long-lived as having had ‘a good innings’ and reflecting on my stay at the crease so far, moments of sheer happiness (hitting a six perhaps) are fairly few and far between and often short-lived. But I am content to play the game until the umpire calls stumps. There is peace in that contentment even when someone or something nearly runs me out.

Life is a long game. And so is prayer. If we approach prayer in the spirit of only having a set number of overs we find ourselves caught and bowled quite quickly. Prayer is not a test match.

Prayer is a long game and, in the same way the fielding side stays on the pitch for the whole innings, is a case of enacting ritual and well-practiced actions.

Ready. Waiting. In position. Responding.

I was reminded recently that in his book, You are the Beloved, Henri Nouwen puts what I’m getting at much more eloquently by using a totally different metaphor:

Dear Lord, today I thought of the words of Vincent van Gogh: “It is true there is an ebb and flow, but the sea remains the sea.” You are the sea. Although I experience many ups and downs in my emotions and often feel great shifts and changes in my inner life, you remain the same. Your sameness is not the sameness of a rock, but the sameness of a faithful lover. Out of your love I came to life, by your love I am sustained, and to your love I am always called back. There are days of sadness and days of joy; there are feelings of guilt and feelings of gratitude; there are moments of failure and moments of success; but all of them are embraced by your unwavering love…

O Lord, sea of love and goodness, let me not fear too much the storms and winds of my daily life, and let me know there is ebb and flow but the sea remains the sea. Amen.

 

 

 

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*This post was published on the day England lost the fourth test match against India – and coincidentally, Somerset fell to a second consecutive defeat by an innings… hey ho.

Exploring our Faith

Sometimes I wonder why I bother going to church.

Being a lay minister and married to the vicar has something to do with it, I guess…

‘It’s nothing more than a religious social club,’ as a normally mild-mannered, retired priest put it recently.

Like many organisations made up of fallible human beings the church is often a place of paradox.  A place of compassion and conflict. Of forgiveness and fault-finding. Of singing and squabbling. Of prayer and power-holding.

Many appear more comfortable dealing with the linen, arranging the flowers or following the correct way to process around the altar than about nurturing each other’s faith and enabling people to receive the love of God. It’s easier to ‘do church’ than ‘do God’.

If he visited today, I wonder if Jesus would turn over a few tables and ask ‘Where is your faith?’ because it appears so well hidden.

A tad unfair? Yes, of course. I know many churchgoers who have a strong faith and, after all, who am I to judge?

And it is wonderful when (often in smaller numbers, such as during a Lent course or in a house group) people do feel able to speak openly about their belief and their doubts. And yet, why is it that I always feel surprised when that happens…? (‘Oh, ye of little faith, Richard…’)

If talking about faith is not part of natural conversation then what does that say about the church? But is this reluctance to talk openly about the things of God not so much a matter of discomfort but a lack of confidence?

If there is no culture of learning or praying together (outside that provided within a service) or no active sharing of insights about God, it is any wonder that people struggle to feel confident and assured in their faith?

That age-old construct of being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ also continues to undermine the ability of people to ask questions, to have doubts and to take the risk of saying what they believe.

It’s astonishing how many people have been going to church for years and yet lack knowledge about some basic tenets of our faith and why we do particular things in terms of our acts of worship, prayer and teaching.

The growth of online services has opened up new ways of being church yet doing something that ‘isn’t how we do it’ is still looked upon sceptically and even dismissively by some.

In our current team of six churches we are reprising a series of teaching sessions that were run in our previous parishes called ‘Exploring our Faith’. A way of revisiting some of the basics about prayer, the Bible, communion and other aspects of Christian belief. A way of equipping people to live out their faith more confidently. Quiet events can also be a less verbose way of building up our reliance on God (do contact me if you’d like one for your church).

We have so much to learn from each other about how God works in individual lives. Finding ways to explore our faith with others not only helps each other but also aids the work and ministry of the church. We can reset the balance: so that how we ‘do God’ becomes more important than how we ‘do church’.

So lest you think otherwise, this isn’t about ‘spreading the Gospel’ or being theologically eloquent. It’s about encouraging others in a very natural, normal way.

If you find it difficult to talk about God or your faith, you’re far from being alone. Why not try this:

  • Think about the people you pray for. Do they know? How about in the next week telling one of them that you are praying for them – and then someone else in the following week?
  • And how about telling one other person about something God has done or how God has blessed you in some way.

You never know just how much that might mean to them.

 

 

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‘Don’t you know who I am?’

‘I thought you’d have opened up by now,’ the voice said as I unlocked the church door for a Quiet Morning. ‘I’m going to the office.’

‘The office isn’t open to the public at the moment,’ I explained.

‘Well, I’m not the public. Don’t you know who I am?’

To be frank, no I didn’t. But I left it at that. It was when I overheard them talking to the local vicar about their significant health issues that, as is so often the situation, I understood their words. Another case of someone losing sight of who they are perhaps.

The tragic events in Plymouth (a town which was home for me when I was a child and many happy times visiting my grandparents in Keyham thereafter) have shown once again what can happen behind locked doors. But more than that, they will have left many struggling to come to terms with what has taken place and who they are within it.

In stark contrast, the Olympics brought stories of those who have opened the door to tell others about what they endure. The lack of family being there to watch them. The need to focus on mental wellbeing. A coming to terms with who they are.

The Quiet Morning took them theme of ‘Holidays, Holy Days’. A time to reflect on the current season. A time to revisit who we are.

I thought it a good excuse to show my holiday snaps but alas that was not permitted… but I did sneak one in.

A few weeks ago, Jane and I spent time in North Yorkshire and during it we went not once but twice to Ripon, one of the smaller cathedral cities in the UK. We joined a handful of people in the Cathedral’s midday communion service and sat there I became transfixed on this painting which hung on the wall across from where I was.

It’s a painting by Robert Thorburn of Mary Magdalene stood at the foot of the Cross.

Much has been done in recent years to restore the image of Mary and recognise just what an important figure she was in the life of Christ (you can read more about her here and in these other posts). Along with other women, she accompanied Jesus and the central group of male disciples and is arguably one of the most important figures in Jesus’ time on earth.

And here Mary stands at the foot of the Cross. The painting asks us several questions. What is she thinking? What is she feeling?  In the background is the sun: is it the setting sun of Good Friday after the crucifixion or the sun rising on Easter morning before she makes her way to the tomb? Is she holding on to the cross out of insecurity in her grief or in the security of the knowledge that Christ is the son of God?

Mary Magdalene knew who she was. And in that famous encounter with the risen Jesus, she heard her name being called, confirming all that she was.

I’ve written elsewhere about using images for prayer and reflection. You may like to imagine yourself holding on to the cross – and perhaps being held by it.

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What makes a person great?

Despite all the difficulties, the Olympics will, no doubt, produce moments of greatness. Great sportswomen and men at the top of their game. Gold medals. World records. Memorable moments.

Whether it’s in sport or politics, businesses or churches, I imagine we can all think of people who are great. Some deservingly of that title. Others who have sought it for themselves.

But what makes people great?

25 July is St James’ Day when we celebrate the life of that close disciple of Jesus: sometimes referred to as St James the Great. There were the many people called James (or Jacob to give it its Hebrew root) around at that time so such titles were used to distinguish from others of that name. The one we remember today is the one whose body, legend has it, was carried to Compostela in Spain. He was the brother of John, one of the other disciples: often referred to as the disciple who Jesus loved. James and John were the sons of a well-to-do fisherman, Zebedee and his wife, Salome, thought by many to be the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

James and John were called ‘the Sons of Thunder’ because of, at times, their impetuous behaviour and outlandish requests. They were both key figures among the central group of twelve male disciples and together with Simon Peter, John and James were often to be found with Jesus, but without the others: for example, at the healing of the daughter of Jairus; on the mountain at the time of the Transfiguration and then again in the Garden at Gethsemane.

Matthew’s Gospel records an incident which is instigated by Salome, the mother of James and John. Mark’s account of the same occasion omits that detail but he too records a request made to Jesus: that the two brothers are to sit either side of him in heaven.

Journeys of faith can sometimes be paralleled with stages of life, and this outrageous request to sit on the right and left of Jesus smacks of the self-interest, unrealistic ambition and arrogance of a young and adolescent belief. We’ve all done it. We’ve all asked for things and incurred the wrath of others. And so it is for James and John: the other disciples are angry.

Jesus’ response to the brothers’ misplaced ambition is to ask if they can walk the path that he will walk. Can they drink the cup he will drink – the talk of a cup is a reference to the suffering and death Jesus will undergo. The journey of faith is about the service of others and of God, not about personal gain. Yes we are to be ambitious for Christ and the spreading of his Gospel: but ultimately none of us will drink the cup Jesus drank.

So where does that leave us in our exploration of greatness? As mentioned, we can think of great public figures. We might also think of people we have known personally who are great in our eyes. What is it that makes them so?

I wonder if it’s because we see someone as great simply because they never tried to be?

Perhaps we might see elements of humility, failings, a willingness to admit mistakes: all those things which are, if you like, contrary to what we might call ‘greatness’.

Yet so often, for example among sports people, politicians, business entrepreneurs and yes, in churches, we see people clamouring for greatness. The equivalent of wanting that seat next to Jesus in heaven.

That is not the way of Christ.

‘Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be the one who serves.’

 

 

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Windows for prayer

‘Sometimes I sit and think, sometimes I just sit.’

The last twenty years has seen an increase in awareness of mental health issues. The last twenty years has also seen a resurgence in the use of mindfulness. The two are not unrelated.

Adopting the philosophy of Winnie-the-Pooh (not forgetting his erstwhile companion, AA Milne), taking time to just sit is in many ways representative of the mindfulness approach. To be ‘in the moment’. We spend a lot of lives worrying or having anxious thoughts based on the past and on the future. The basic principle of mindfulness is to focus on the present.

Commonly acknowledged having its roots in Buddhism, mindfulness has been adopted and adapted by people of other faiths and those of none. It’s an approach which works for some and not for others.

The same is true of different approaches to prayer. Some thrive with the structured liturgy used for centuries by the church (itself adapted and adopted in different ways). Others find their approach to prayer is one that is free-flowing and extemporary. Some may use objects like a candle or an icon to aid their intercessions. The comedian Frank Skinner, in his excellent and somewhat quirky A Comedian’s Prayer Book reflected on his use of the Rosary alongside what he calls his ‘freeform chats’: ‘The Rosary is a tighter structure, so I guess that will operate like a supporting rhythm, while these prayers are like the improvised solo: some bum notes but some exhilarating discoveries.’

In the approach taken by Benedictines and one I explore a little in my own book, Life with St Benedict, the method of lectio divina can be very helpful. Lectio divina (sacred reading) is not Bible study but is about pondering on the word to enable prayer. Stages comprise reading just a verse or a short passage two or three times (lectio); then meditation, taking a particular word or phrase that ‘spoke to you’ and ruminating upon it (meditatio); leading into prayer, open, honest conversation with God (oratio); and then resting in God, the silent prayer of contemplation (contemplatio).

This same four stage approach can also be used in the slightly less well-known visio divina (sacred seeing)  using an image instead of words. Like with lectio, visio divina is not about studying the image as if it was a piece of art. But about using the image to encounter God more deeply: a window for prayer perhaps.

I’ve written about Rublev’s Trinity elsewhere. In using that particular image, an icon in this case, one can enter in to the scene before us: perhaps sitting at the space at the table. Encountering Father, Son and Holy Spirit and letting that encounter take us in to deeper prayer.

In recent days I have put some images on to Instagram and Pinterest for using with visio divina. Let me share a couple of them now with some thoughts on how they might be used.

windows for prayerThese seats are just up the road from where I live. I find they say ‘Come, sit with me.’ As if Jesus was making the invitation. We might be reminded of how Mary of Bethany sat with Jesus (albeit while her sister Martha was getting hot in the kitchen).

So just sit. Dwell upon the image. How might your prayer develop?

windows for prayerThis more abstract photo may make us reflect on the cracks and the weeds in our own life. Maybe we can bring those in prayer to God too. A verse from Psalm 25 comes to mind: ‘To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust’. A reminder of God’s faithfulness and healing. Just sit.

We can come to God in many different ways. We can see God in many different ways also.

 

 

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Being earnest about importance

While one cannot begrudge the third Mrs Johnson and her husband every happiness, one’s heart surely goes out to all who have been refused permission to marry in church because they were divorced. It’s not unlike the situation surrounding the PM’s former advisor’s trip to Barnard Castle when the rest of us couldn’t even go down the road – although one has to credit his belated apology.

There will always be times when George Orwell’s famous phrase rings so very true: ‘All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.’

We’ve all met people who are at pains to make sure we know how important they are, I expect: be they a manager, club secretary or church flower arranger. You know the type: the self-made man who worships his own creator… ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ they ask silently…

Indeed, I can play those cards myself if I wished. I’ve got two websites and published two books (and writing two more). MBE and MSc (Distinction). I founded and developed an international mental health initiative and am a lay minister… that type of thing. But does that make me important?

Or is it that I am a husband and father: those aspects are important to me (indeed, more so) and they are important to my wife and children. They are part of who I am.

Fact is, we often describe someone as important because of what they do rather than because of who they are.

The same can be true about how we measure our own sense of importance. How many times do we hear people say ‘I’m not important enough for…’

We live with an uncomfortable paradox – at times, we can be minded to think we are more important than we actually are and yet we are also more important than we think.

The Dutch priest and writer, Henri Nouwen wrote: ‘You are not what you do, although you do a lot. You are not what you have collected in terms of friendships and connections, although you might have many. You are not the popularity that you have received. You are not the success of your work. You are not what people say about you, whether they speak well or whether they speak poorly about you. All these things that keep you quite busy, quite occupied, and often quite preoccupied are not telling the truth about who you are.’

The disciple John, generally acknowledged to be the author of John’s Gospel also wrote three letters in the New Testament. If you are in any doubt about how important you really are then read these astonishing words:

‘See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.’ (1 John 3:1)

The intimacy of this truth is staggering: ‘See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.’

And that is what we are: children of God.

And that is what you are: A child of God.

A child of God.

Loved by God.

For who you are.

 

 

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Do you remember…

… when the FA Cup Final started at 3 o’clock? When there was a piece of card in a Bounty bar? When the BBC used to play a hymn on Ascension Day?

Life is always changing, isn’t it? And in this coming week we see more changes as lockdown restrictions are eased further. Alongside the possibility of going to the theatre and concerts again, we can enter restaurants and pubs. And not least, have the joy of being hugged (cautiously, of course). Indeed, cautious remains a watchword and many will remain anxious too – not least those whose businesses reopen after so many months without the closeness of customers.

These continue to be unsettling and uncertain times.

The one thing that’s certain about change is that change is certain – and over the years I’ve written a number of posts which look at this unsettling companion.

You’ll have your own stories of change and how you managed or have not managed to find stability within them, I’m sure. (I’d love to hear those stories and include them in a new book I’m working on – do please click here to contribute).

On this Ascension Day we remember how the disciples watched as Jesus ascended in to heaven. The Bible tells us about many unusual, perhaps unbelievable events which took place and the Ascension is one of them. To our 21st century rational minds, to speak of someone going up in a cloud is beyond our comprehension. It simply couldn’t happen. It’s impossible.

In essence, the ascension of Jesus represents a significant truth… the physical presence of Christ departs from earth to be replaced by the spiritual presence in the form of the Holy Spirit whose coming we will celebrate in a few days’ time at Pentecost.

So on that day, the disciples, and probably others including many of the faithful women, stand gazing upwards. Perhaps talking about what had happened in those three years that Jesus was with them. ‘Do you remember when he did that…?’ ‘Yeah, that was wicked, man.’

They looked back because the weren’t certain what the future held. They would have found some stability in their memories of Jesus yet the challenge was for their faith to see them in to the future.

The fact is that they, like us, can’t just stand there looking up or looking back.

Some words from Helen Mallicoat…

‘I was regretting the past and fearing the future. Suddenly my Lord was speaking:

“My name is I AM.” He paused. I waited.

He continued.

“When you live in the past with its mistakes and regrets, it is hard. I am not there. My name is not I Was.

“When you live in the future with its problems and fears, it is hard. I am not there. My name is not I Will Be.

“When you live in this moment it is not hard. I am here. My name is I AM.”’

 

 

 

Thank you for reading this post – please do share it with others, subscribe and contribute your thoughts at the WorkRestPray Facebook Group. There are also short films about Ascension and Pentecost for you to watch.

Let’s be honest

‘Could you go and sniff somewhere else. This is a confined space.’

The remark took me by surprise. I could have understood it if I’d coughed. Humph!

My wife and I were visiting Kingston Lacy, a National Trust property while on holiday last week and admittedly, the path where I stood was less than two metres wide but it was outside. I’d been there ten seconds and would be for a further ten as Jane rejoined me.

As we walked on, he stood there. Umm… awkward. Confrontation or apology? Well, neither as it happened. We just walked on. Putting aside my own humphitude, the incident reminded me how Covid-anxiety is still very present as society awakes from its anaesthetised slumber. I felt sad for him and reflected on what might have happened in his life that sparked such a sensitivity to another’s innocuous behaviour.

It reminded me of a phone call I had with a very dear friend many, many years ago. A difficult situation had developed between us and a mutual acquaintance. ‘Let’s have some honesty here, Richard,’ she said. Ouch. I felt stung – more so than the incident above. It was accusatory. The implication that I was being ‘dishonest’.

In both instances, those speaking were under strain. Yes, they were being honest about how they felt. But they were upset. Their words arising from what was going on for them and not just about me.

A recent article in the Church Times recounted an interview with Jordan Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. Within it, he makes one of the most ‘honest’ statements about the church (that is the Christians who inhabit it) that I have ever read. And I have to say, in all honesty, I agree with him…

‘It may be it’s not reasonable to say to believers, you aren’t sufficiently transformed for me to believe that you believe in God or that you believe the story you are telling me… the way you live isn’t sufficient testament to the truth.’

Ouch.

And, of course, much as I agree with him so is his honesty true of me. That is perhaps the nature of such honesty: that it is uncomfortable. It makes us feel awkward and defensive.

Yes, I could have stood in a more considerate place. Yes, I could have handled the situation with my friend better. Yes, my life could be more reflective of my belief. We can all learn from being on the receiving end of another person’s honesty.

But what is uncomfortable for us also reveals the discomfort of others. Perhaps part of our response to such ‘honesty’ is to ask what’s going on for them? Because it’s probably not just about us.

 

 

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The Grace of Renewal

‘Hello. We are expecting you.’

The words on arriving for a long overdue retreat were both welcome and unexpected. For me, retreats are often for taking a break. To get away from it all – whatever ‘it all’ means. The pandemic had already put paid to three and the last one was way back in August. Much too long a gap. Vicarage life is one that can’t be escaped from, of course. Over 50 online services edited. Other events led and preached at. Let alone family demands – and that’s without mentioning the dog.

‘Hello. We are expecting you.’

I’d gone expecting to be renewed and refreshed. Expecting to meet God in a deeper way. Alongside a book by Simon Ponsonby and a PD James murder mystery, I’d brought the icon that was especially written (painted) by a Benedictine monk when I moved on from paid employment. The Icon of the Holy Trinity. Father, Son and Holy Spirit sat at table – a space left for a guest. But these words of welcome changed things. Surely not God expecting me? ‘I the unkind, ungrateful?’ as George Herbert put it.

‘Hello. We are expecting you.’

And it didn’t end there… funny how God always knows just what we need and how that fact often surprises us, isn’t it? Evening Prayer with the Sheldon Community recites Malcolm Guite’s poem reflecting on Psalm 18:

My strength my rock my buckler and my shield!
You came to rescue me, I saw you ride
The wind’s swift wings, I saw the waters yield
To you, as you reached down to lift me out

‘Hello. We are expecting you.’

And later that evening, another Psalm, 4 verse 3: ‘But know that the Lord has shown me his marvellous kindness; when I call upon the Lord, he will hear me.’… The next day, Psalm 66:4 ‘How wonderful he is in his dealings with humankind.’

‘Hello. We are expecting you.’

It all made sense of something that former Abbot Erik Varden said in a recent TV programme: ‘Every day is an opportunity to begin again. There are times of growth. Times of fatigue. There may even be a time of dying. But we must always aspire to be at least receptive to the grace of renewal.’

‘You must sit down, says Love…
So I did sit and eat.’

 

 

 

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Wholly Weak

I am indebted to Canon Mark Oakley for inspiring the title of this post. Writing in the Church Times, he describes how during  the significant days of Holy Week many (not least clergy) wear themselves out journeying through the emotions of them all and they are ‘wholly weak’ by the end of it.

And it is a rollercoaster of a week. The triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Jesus making his mark. But only witnessed by a few? After all, who’s going to notice a man with a donkey in a first century busy, bustling city…

Then he causes havoc in the temple: turning over tables, shouting – calling out the church for what it does that isn’t about God. We’ve heard that message elsewhere…

On Thursday, there’s a meal with his closest followers. An act of fellowship  contrasted by betrayal. The establishing of what we now call the Eucharist or Holy Communion.  An act now so venerated: given a complexity which betrays the simplicity of its symbolism. Is that a message for us too?

Deserted by his friends (…and who’s not experienced that). A brutal arrest, trial and execution. Yet even the person in charge can see the innocence behind the events. Just like before, the city crowds perhaps thought nothing of a man carrying a large wooden beam in the street. One half of the symbol of death awaiting its upright companion. An ironic weapon for the carpenter’s son.

It is the women who remain faithful – and John. Strength for the dying Christ through those who are wholly weak.

The women are there again later on, watching Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus as Friday grows dark once again.

Less than 48 hours later Mary Magdalene, John, Peter and others get their first glimpses. Jesus has done what he promised to do.

David Rhodes wrote ‘The trouble with Easter is it comes too soon. There is simply not enough time between the terrible events of Good Friday and the discovery of the resurrection to make the necessary adjustment. Easter Sunday is in the wrong place. Like an aircraft in a steep dive, we cannot pull out in time. Plummeting down through Holy Week, we are still going down. And so are the disciples.’

For many, the last year in particular has felt like a long Good Friday. The message of the resurrection that the Gospel brings does not deny the reality of our experience.

But if we stay stuck on Friday with its feelings of isolation, anger and bitterness we will never experience the hope that Sunday brings. So Sunday has to follow Friday as clearly as the resurrection follows the crucifixion. As the American pastor Tony Campolo once said, ‘It’s Friday – and Sunday’s coming!’

For the wholly weak will be made wholly strong.

 

 

 

Thank you for reading this post – please do share it with others. If you’d like to follow the Easter journey there are some short films you may like to use.