Out of the Wilderness: Waiting

This video is one of a series of short films called Out of the Wilderness, designed for Lent, Holy Week and Easter. It considers how waiting for God’s guidance (and some aspects of life generally) can be difficult.

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A full list of the films in this series can be found here. If you are finding them helpful please do let someone else know about them. Thank you.

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Out of the Wilderness: Wandering

This video is one of a series of short films called Out of the Wilderness, designed for Lent, Holy Week and Easter. It considers how when in spiritually dry times, times when we feel we are in the wilderness, we may find ourselves wandering: unsure of where we are heading.

Click here to watch.

A full list of the films in this series can be found here.

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Out of the Wilderness: Wanting

This video, part of a series of short films for Lent, Holy Week and Easter considers what we might be wanting when travelling Out of the Wilderness.

What do we want from God? What does God want, not from, but for us?

Click here to watch.

A full list of the films in the series can be found here.

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Out of the Wilderness

23 degrees in February. Winter sun in Seville. And visiting one of the city’s 115 churches.

The confessional.

The priest inhabits a solitary compartment. To one side, kneels a man confessing his sin through a latticed screen. No door to hide behind though. His act of penitence witnessed by all around. Unseen by the priest, his confession is heard. His sins no longer hidden. He has come out of the wilderness. The wilderness of unforgiven wrongs.

Commencing today, Ash Wednesday, and as mentioned before, Lent is traditionally a time of focussing on what we’ve got wrong. A time of penitence.

That said, such repentance – the word means to ‘turn around’: to turn from wrong to right – is perhaps a daily occurrence for many of us and one not just limited to 40 days or so in the Spring. Many people live with the mistakes and regrets of the past and their impact on the present and the future. Many people live in a wilderness. Whether spiritually, physically or emotionally, such wilderness times can feel dry and barren.

When we live in the wilderness we can feel that we are wanting, wandering and waiting.

We might think about what we want from God and what is it that God wants, not from, but for us.

Sometimes we can feel a lost in the wilderness. We wander around and don’t know where God is. Times when we want to know God’s presence and how we can trust him in the uncertainties of life.

And in many aspects of the wanting and the wandering, there are times of waiting. Waiting for a way forward or a decision, or waiting for a deeper understanding of what God wants for us.

But, and perhaps paradoxically, it is often in such wilderness times that we experience God in much deeper ways. A God who brings us out of the wilderness. Who restores us and renews us, giving us strength and the ability to see life from God’s perspective.

This is the last full blog post until after Easter (yes, I’m giving up writing for Lent…!) but I’d like to offer you a companion for your own journey out of the wilderness.

This travelling companion comprises a series of short films. An introductory one you may like to watch today and then one for each of the weeks of Lent. There are a couple more for Holy Week and Easter as well.* There’s also a free Companion Booklet you can use to make a note of any reflections or insights you have during this period.

When I was a child I used to love doing a rather strange thing. I would stand on my bed in the very corner of my room, getting up as high as I could and look down over all my toys and books. I’m tempted to say you should try it sometime… but maybe do a risk assessment first! It’s a bit like being in an aeroplane looking down on the countryside.

So often we struggle to see this bigger picture when we are so caught up with the wanting, wandering and waiting. God understands the day-to-day practicalities of our lives more than we will ever be able to fathom. Seeking to see our lives from God’s point of view gives us a whole new perspective. Perhaps that is what God wants for you this Lent.

 

 

*There will be a short post on each Sunday in Lent with a link to the film. If you’d like a personal reminder about each film for each week then simply enter your e-mail address in the ‘Subscribe’ box on this page and you’ll receive a notification. It’s free and secure and your details won’t be shared with anyone else.

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Saying the right thing

‘The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.’

Those words, often attributed to George Bernard Shaw, demonstrate that whether speaking, writing, texting, messaging or emailing, we may know what…

  • we said
  • we tried or wanted to say
  • we said without actually saying it
  • we didn’t mean to say.

And yet Shaw’s words also perceive that the one with whom we have communicated may…

  • understand, not understand or not want to understand
  • hear only what they think is being said
  • interpret it to mean something else
  • have decided their response before we’ve said it…

Or, in other words… ‘A man hears what he wants to hear. And disregards the rest’, as Paul Simon put it (and, for clarity in this piece of communication, that’s the songwriter not the playwright).

Then there’s those occasions when we ‘read between the lines’ but it turns out we hadn’t read the lines in the first place. Or when we assume and it makes an ‘ass out of u and me’.

And take this e-mail from a long-standing friend: ‘Many thanks Richard…very much enjoying your book most mornings!’ Now, is it that they are reading my book most mornings and enjoying it? Or only enjoying it on some mornings and not on the others? Hopefully it’s the former – but it may not be…

I expect all of us (at least I hope it’s all of us…) have fallen foul of a miscommunication. I know I have – many times (and just last week, as it happens) – often unintentionally. Those times when I said or wrote ‘the wrong thing’ or the person I communicated with received it as the wrong thing. Times when perhaps I should have remained silent. It’s true of me as a listener and receiver too.

Workplaces are notorious for unclear communication. You know the type of thing, I expect. Rumour becomes reality before the facts are stated – and when the facts are stated they’re not believed… because of the rumour. Cynicism also plays an influential role: ‘Oh yes, we’ve heard that before…’ and is in itself representative of disillusionment with efforts to communicate.

And it’s not just in workplaces, of course: churches, social clubs, families, any gathering of people experience issues with communication and miscommunication.

Language and communication are complex things.

Indeed, I’m not really sure what I’m trying to say through this blog post. And, in any case, who am I to try and say it…

But I do like what St Benedict said as one of the twelve steps of humility: ‘We speak gently and without laughter, seriously and with becoming modesty, briefly and reasonably, but without raising our voices, as it is written: ‘The wise are known by few words.’

‘Our authority to speak is rooted in our ability to remain silent,’ writes Barbara Brown Taylor. ‘Some of the most effective language in the world leads you up to the brink of silence and leaves you there, with the soft surf of the unsayable lapping at your feet… When we run out of words, then and perhaps only then can God be God.’

 

The next post will be on Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent. That will be the last full post until after Easter: so during Lent, Holy Week and Easter why not take a look at a series of short films, called Out of the Wilderness.

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In my own words

Have you heard the one about the rock star, the actor and the bishop?

To be honest, I’m not really a fan of autobiographies but in recent weeks I’ve ended up reading three of them. Now, lest you think poorly of the all-male choice (yes, I do need to read Michelle Obama’s…) that was just the way the books were given to me.

Where’s my Guitar? by Bernie Marsden. Now, have to admit I hadn’t heard of him but for 4 years in the 1980s, he was lead guitarist with British rock group, Whitesnake and co-writer of their superb mega-anthem, ‘Here I go again’. His is a story of rock ‘n’ roll excesses and successes. Of ego and energy. Of achievements and arguments. And yet amidst proclamations of greatness (although one senses the hands of editors) stand humble qualities of thankfulness to others and acknowledgement of many mistakes and misjudgements.

Behind the Lens by the wonderful British actor, David Suchet takes his lifelong hobby of photography as a basis. Using many of his own photos, he tells his story of becoming and being an actor and of those who had influenced his life and Christian faith. Like Bernie Marsden, he too writes about achievements, mistakes and gratitude to others.

Finally, a Lent book, You are Mine by my fellow BRF author, David Walker, Bishop of Manchester. With the writer apologising for the degree of self-disclosure within this book of daily reflections, it too contains a strong sense of autobiography and similar features exposing the inner man in the public eye. A third book unlocking the box marked ‘not to be opened’.

Even parts of the Bible, Paul’s letters for example, contain elements of what we would now call autobiography and many of the other books (not least, the Gospels) are distinctly biographical. We can read about the lives and times of many people from Abraham and Moses through to Jesus and the figures of the early church such as Peter. There are stories of success and excess, achievement and mistakes, ego and energy. They each have their own story to tell.

So, what would your autobiography include? What have been the achievements? The mistakes? Who are you grateful to? What’s in the unopened box?

But maybe the more interesting question to be asked is what would we like to read in our biography? What would we like other people to write about us?

And… what would God write about you?

Why not try writing it?

 

 

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Unity in Diversity

The church was full (for once). The visiting preacher had drawn a big congregation. Children played in the far corner. We sat, ready to hear the preacher’s message about the importance of inclusivity. “Children shouldn’t be allowed in church” said the voice of someone behind me. “What are those parents thinking. They should be keeping them quiet.” And on they went. An argument broke out in The Peace. “When my children came to church, they were quiet. Such a shame they’ve spoiled a good service.” I received communion and left. It wasn’t the children who spoiled it.*

On visiting another church (in another team) a while back, I was talking to the vicar at the end of the service. He asked what I did where I lived. “I’m married to the vicar,” I replied. “Ah, there we have a problem,” came his response as he moved on to the next person.

Another time, another place. A Roman Catholic monastery. It’s Mass. I’m Anglican. I’m not allowed to receive that most special gift of bread and wine.

With the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity beginning on 18 January, the ironic fact is that scenarios such as the three shown above will be played out in many churches across the land.

Many organisations experience issues of unity and disunity. Social clubs, workplaces, political parties, campaigning groups… It’s natural when a group of people come together. There are going to be agreements and disagreements. There may be a unity about the purpose – but it’s often the variations which cause difficulties: ‘Oh no, we do it this way…’. The Church is no different.

Disunity can be found within the most respectable of congregations. ‘Power holders’ and ‘blockers’ sit alongside the ‘co-operators’ and ‘team players’. Local/parish churches being brought together under the guise of a ‘team’ struggle to move on from valued historical individuality and identity. And that’s without thinking of the disputes between and within denominations at a national and international level…

A week praying for Christian unity in such a seemingly disunited Church?

The Church (with a capital C) is, thankfully, not perfect. It comprises a very diverse group of individuals. It is open to all: believer, non-believer, not sure believer; people who do ‘church’ but don’t do God. (And, as Nadia Bolz-Weber once put it, ‘Be careful when you say, “All are welcome”. The problem is they show up.’)

Francis Chan wrote, ‘I don’t believe God wants our church life to be centred on buildings and services. Instead, God wants our churches—whatever specific forms our gatherings take—to be focused on active discipleship, mission, and the pursuit of unity.’

Thankfully, the Church (the people) finds its unity in the knowledge that Christian believers, in all their diversity, represent the presence of Christ on earth.

It is in that diversity that unity exists.

 

 

*Taken from A Story to Tell

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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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And the winner is…

Well, it’s nearly that time. Time to cast your vote.

During the last few weeks all the candidates have been persuading us which of them is to be the winner. They’ve shown us why they think they’re the best and we’ve seen why they might not be. Each saying, ‘Follow me’. Each judged for how they’ve performed.

So, who’s getting your vote?

Well, there’s only one person in it really… Anton du Beke.

After 17 seasons of Strictly Come Dancing surely it’s got to be Anton this time… His celebrity partner has done well but I’m sure many will vote just so he can be crowned Strictly champion. Nobody deserves it more.

In today’s celebrity obsessed world, popularity is often governed by how many ‘followers’ one has. Take Anton, for instance, 244,000 on Twitter. Take me, for instance, 130…

Christianity has its own ‘celebrities’ too – preachers, teachers, musicians, poets, authors, clergy who are followed around the circuit of conferences and festivals. Even local churches have their favourites with Sunday congregations deciding whether or not to go based on who’s taking the service.

As in previous years, the Church of England has encouraged us to ‘Follow the Star’ at Christmas. No, not to worship your favourite celebrity but to follow daily reflections for the season’s 12 days. From Christmas Day and on to Epiphany when we remember the visit of the kings who came searching for the Christ-child.

Daily reflections during the current period of Advent (such as that by fellow BRF author Amy Scott-Robinson) can set a helpful pattern too – and why not take a look at my own book, Life with St Benedict to carry on this everyday practice throughout the New Year?

Focussing our thoughts on Christmas in these next few days and beyond is helpful to understanding the true meaning of Christ’s life.

Here is someone who invites each of us to become one of his followers. ‘Follow me,’ he said to the first disciples. ‘Follow me,’ he said the hundreds and thousands of women, men and children who lived around him at that time. ‘Follow me,’ he says to each one of us today.

But what does that mean – to follow Jesus?

It’s not about leaving our work or our home life. In asking them to follow him, Jesus didn’t tell the disciples to stop being fisherman. They continued what they did for their community and their family. Jesus recognised the day to day practicalities of their lives and the responsibilities they had. And that is true for each of us.

In his letters to the churches, Paul encourages us to imitate Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1), to imitate God (Ephesians 5:1). Following Jesus is partly about trying to be like him. And while most of us are not a healer, miracle-worker or even teacher in the way Jesus was, we can imitate him in other ways.

Look through the Gospels and we read about the times Jesus spent with other people. Times when he cared for others, when he wept, laughed, sat down and ate meals. He listened to people, young and old, rich and poor, healthy and sick. He showed others love. He spent time in prayer – sometimes with others but, more importantly, alone. Follow me he says – follow me by doing the things I do. Many of us do things like that.

Speaking at a conference I recently attended, Ian Mobsby put it like this: ‘find out what God is doing and join in’.

More controversially, of course, these same Gospels tell us how Jesus challenged the leaders of the day. He challenged false doctrines and mistaken importances; he challenged wrongdoing and injustice. So in this election week, as we each decide who to follow and wait to see who the winner is, there is a message there too.

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When God is Absent

‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’

Those haunting words cried out by Jesus as he hung from the cross reflect a common human experience. Within the desolation, lie two unanswered questions, ‘Where are you, God?’ and ‘Why has this happened?’.

For centuries, or indeed, millennia, people have asked questions about God’s presence and absence. Where were you, God at Hillsborough or when Grenfell Tower burned? Why did you allow my mum to die when I was just 17? Why when it seemed so right, did that job go so wrong?

People have given up their faith because God did not answer their prayers. People desert the church because they don’t find God there. Many say: ‘We prayed for healing – and it didn’t happen.’ ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’  ‘Why does God allow suffering?’

When our prayers are seemingly unanswered it’s easy to blame God. And, yes, it is hard when some things can’t be explained. Yet some of the difficult things that happen are often down to human error or decisions (or lack of them) or our attitude or response.

The Psalms, that great collection of words about the human condition, pull no punches on this topic… here’s just two examples…

‘How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever? How long will you hide your face from me?’ (Psalm13:1)

‘O Lord, why do you cast me off?’ (Psalm 88:14a)

As Christians, we speak of having a relationship with God. In many ways, that relationship may well contain the same elements there are in those with people: anger, abandonment, disappointment, frustration, shouting, unanswered questions… That relationship also understands there are times when we need to express such emotions towards God. Beth LaNeel Tanner put it like this ‘The personal cries of pain and brash accusations against God are not thoughts to be hidden from the throne of God but to be deposited with all their jagged edges and sharp cries before the face of God.’

In our relationships and friendships with others, we can also grow apart. It is one of my deepest regrets that I have lost contact with so many friends over the years – and a lot of that was down to me not keeping in touch as well as them. So it is with God, if we don’t ‘keep in touch’ – not just through prayer but also actively looking for God’s presence in our lives – then we may well grow apart from God. As a vicar I once knew used to say, ‘If God seems far away – then who’s moved?’

Yes, there are times when God does seem far away but we too have to take some responsibility for that. If God seems far away or feels absent then it’s important to consider what we’re doing to ‘find’ (or ‘distance’) God. For unlike human relationships, where both presence and absence occur, God is, ultimately, never absent. But neither can we just sit back and wait for God to make that presence known.

The more we look for God’s presence, the more we will see God present and the more God will show us that presence. So, a couple of thoughts about recognising God’s presence in our lives.

An increased sense of thankfulness. Thanking God for every aspect of every day. Whether that is ‘Thank you, God for safe travel’, ‘Thank you, God for that phone call or text exchange,’ ‘Thank you, God for the sunset,’ ‘Thank you, God for a person (or pet)’, ‘Thank you, God for that car parking space’… Consciously thanking God (and not feeling guilty if we forget to) for all we are given increases our awareness of God’s presence in our lives – and helps us to look for that presence too. Using an approach such as The Examen can be helpful in this respect too.

An increased sense of trust. ‘Trust God and everything will be fine.’ Yeah… Right… Simples… But does anyone ever tell us how to actually do it? Trusting God will vary in form for each of us but perhaps some of it is the merging of personal responsibility with our personal experience of God (which is not unlike trusting other people really). For example, looking back at how God has blessed and provided for us in the past. Verbalising our trust also helps: for example, starting the day by saying, ‘To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; Oh my God, in you I trust’ (Psalm 25:1-2a). Simple words to say at any other point in the day also – maybe ahead of difficult meeting or situation or any other time when you need the reassurance of God’s presence. Because God is never absent.

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