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.
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.
‘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…
And yet Shaw’s words also perceive that the one with whom we have communicated may…
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.
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?
… and the living in easy,’ so goes the classic jazz standard. But if you work for Tesco Metro, Harland & Woolf, Thames Valley Police or any other employer going through difficult times then it may not be. For others, especially those running their own business, it can be a case of the Summertime Blues – ‘About a-workin’ all summer just to try to earn a dollar,’ as Eddie Cochran put it.
Rather like Christmas, birthdays, weddings and other such occasions, the summer holidays are portrayed with mythical perfection. ‘You can stretch right up and touch the sky’ (Mungo Jerry). Sun, sea, sand etc and yes, holidays do provide time to perhaps visit some beautiful places and enjoy the company of others.
But for many, holidays can be a difficult time. The change from the routines of working life. The financial and other costs of long school holidays. The absence of friends and usual spare time activities.
Beginning a period of annual leave can be rather like being in a badly landing plane. No sooner as one landed and got through the ‘baggage hall’ of switching off and trying to have a good rest, then it’s almost time to go back to work, where everyone asks if you had a good break… ‘Yes, it was lovely,’ we reply, somewhat unconvincingly. The expectation of a ‘great holiday’ can often dampen the reality of it even more than rain spoils sunshine.
Holidays can, however, provide space and time to consider where one is with work, rest and prayer. Where we are with our whole life balance. Time to think about:
Holidays can be a good period to reflect on the preceding weeks and months and maybe make some decisions about what to do to help that whole life balance. Whether it’s making sure we take a lunch break, spending that ‘spare time’ in ways that fill our soul, or setting aside time for prayer and giving intentional attention to God.
So, if you’re on holiday at the moment, why not take a bit of time to reflect on how work, rest and prayer are placed at the moment – and even if you’re not, how about making some space to do so?
Here’s some links to other posts in this blog that may be helpful:
Holidays can provide a ‘safe harbour’ from some of the storms of life. But we also need to be realistic – the wind still blows and the tide still goes in and out even in the most sheltered port. But it’s also true that Jesus stays in the boat with us and what better mooring is that.
When Manchester City beat Watford in the recent FA Cup Final, I probably wasn’t the only one to notice the reaction of Pep Guardiola, the City manager, as the fifth and then sixth goals went in. His head was in his hands. Was it embarrassment… or was he humbled by what his team had done for him?
And then, amidst the champagne, streamers and fireworks, as the victorious players held the trophy aloft and then ‘dancing’ in the way only professional footballers can, he simply stood back, watching. A time to let his team have the glory and the honour. ‘Hey, look at them, not me,’ he seemed to say. A sign of leading from within. A sign of humble leadership.
While we might long to see more humility in our political leaders, let’s consider another example of this exceptional gift.
A recent study of seven successful CEOs found they all identified a common theme: vulnerability. ‘Vulnerable leadership is humble leadership,’ wrote Catherine Llewelyn-Evans. ‘Able to acknowledge its own temptations, frailties, and limitations, it will not set itself above others, nor stand on its own importance (for example, when Jesus lays aside his robes to wash the disciples’ feet [John 13])… It is a kind of leadership which — released from its need to posture or impress — gives others permission to be vulnerable, and releases them from fear or guilt.’
Or as John Baldoni put it, ‘Humility is an approach to life that says, “I don’t have all the answers and I want your contribution.” Humility is… the acceptance of individual limitations.’
Humility is grateful for those contributions and expresses that gratitude. It also embeds the ability not just to say ‘I got that wrong’ but also to climb that sometimes elusive next step of ‘You were right.’
In the well-established daily pattern of readings from the Rule of St Benedict (reflections on which are in the book Life with St Benedict) on the day this post is published, 26 May, there begins a series of readings on Chapter 7 – a chapter which is all about humility.
In this longest chapter of the Rule, and using the imagery of a ladder, St Benedict helps us take steps towards what he calls ‘the highest summit of humility’.
Using paraphrases of what he wrote, let’s climb the ladder together, shall we…
Joan Chittister writes that this chapter on humility ‘does not say, “Be perfect.” It says, “Be honest about what you are and you will come to know God.”’
Humility in leadership – or any other aspect of life, for that matter – is an approach, a gift, which enables us to shout, ‘Hey, look at you!’ not ‘Hey, look at me’.
“I want you to hit the ground running,” spouts the manager to their shiny new recruit. “Of course, that’s absolutely fine,” comes the ‘I’ve got to impress’ reply.
Many people have been in such situations. Where the expectation outweighs the reality… on both sides. But hitting the ground running can result in falling over.
Getting settled in to anything new, particularly in a job, can often take months before one really begins to get to grips with everything (well, most things). Change can be a very difficult. We need time to adapt, time to learn. And not just the tasks (that can sometimes be the simple bit) but people’s names and idiosyncrasies, the way people behave towards each other, where things are, the demands, the actuality behind the job description etc etc… And other people need to allow time for that to happen – especially if they want them to be any good.
The same is true with any new stage of life, new location, new home or even new hobby, like learning to play the piano or to paint. It all takes time… and it’s important that it does so.
Often accredited to the American psychologist, Abraham Maslow (he of the ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ theory, if you’ve ever come across that), when we learn new things we progress through ‘Four Stages of Competence’:
So, for example, when it comes to learning to paint (and piano playing for that matter), I have taken up semi-permanent residence in Stage 2 with occasional forays in to the heady lands of Stage 3…
As humans, we have the, at times unenviable, task of residing in all four stages of competence at once… and that’s because we are all learners.
If you are a Twitterer, you may have seen some Tweets quoting from an excellent Lent book by Paula Gooder, a down-to-earth, easy-to-understand Biblical scholar and writer, and on the leadership team at St Paul’s Cathedral.
Writing in Let Me Go There, Paula Gooder
reflects on the disciples and what they learnt in their time with Jesus: ‘The
disciples that Jesus chose may not have been the ones we would have chosen, but
they were the ones he chose… They demonstrated that they had done what
disciples need to do – they had learned. Being a good disciple is not about
being perfect from the outset, but is about being someone who can learn.
Perfect I can’t do, learning I can.’
God knows that we are not perfect.
That’s the point of Good Friday and Easter.
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?
So, Pooch and I are sat by the river in the sun as a steam train chugs its way past on the other side. (Yes, I know, we do live in an idyllic place…).
A man stops nearby and as he unpacks his tripod and camera, I ask “Trains, birds or trees?” “Trains.” He replied gruffly. “Who takes photos of trees?”
‘Shame you just missed it, then…’ I (almost) replied…
Lots of people rush through life like a train. Going full steam ahead even when there’s a station nearby. Often running late. The equivalent of leaves on the line or the wrong kind of snow are always getting in the way. When the train can’t take the strain anymore it often leads to a derailment. And I’ve seen hundreds of those…
It’s perhaps not surprising that the most read post on this blog is about when it all gets too much. A recent article in the Church Times illustrates the nub of the issue astutely: ‘Wanting desperately to know how to improve his spiritual health and well-being, the American pastor John Ortberg asked advice of his wise spiritual director. The answer was succinct and to the point, “You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.” Ortberg jotted that down and waited for the next point, only to be told: “There is nothing else.”’
It’s worth thinking about your stations – the places where the rushing stops.
And what about trees. The above incident reminded me of a photo I took:
Not by a woodland river but in the hustle and bustle of central London, in Kensington Square, one of those lovely private gardens (although do try not to get locked in, as I did).
One fallen tree is held off the ground, supported by another.
It’s an image which is symbolic of the lives of many people. Some are fallen. Others provide support. Neither are upright.
But the lovely thing about this image is that despite those difficulties, both trees are in full leaf. Both flourishing due to the presence of the other.
You may feel you are one who is always giving others support but hopefully you have people who support you too? Such mutual support enables everyone to flourish.
As for the birds. One of Jesus’ most well-known sayings provides a helpful perspective on the things in life which can cause us to rush and fall over:
‘Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?’ (Matthew 6:26)
Indeed, you are.
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):
“But, what about…”
“I want to…”
Yes, of course. But you do have a choice also.
You’re far too special to be fooled by a phone.
Writing this during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, a time when churches of all denominations across the world come together for joint services and events. A week to voice a common belief, albeit expressed in different ways.
Earlier this month, I had the privilege of attending an event for healthcare professionals (albeit I’m not one anymore) organised by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference (albeit I’m Church of England).
Arising out of their mental health project, this day of reflection and recollection took as its theme, ‘Gifts, Service and Faith’.
We reflected on the talents, skills and abilities we all have. “What is our motivation to use our gifts?” asked Bishop Paul Mason. “Some think ‘If I do this… God will look after me’ – but that is not the way. If we are always doing the good we feel we should be doing, we may be missing out on the good God wants us to do.”
“God loves, knows and serves us so we might love, know and serve him,” he said. “We are to express the exuberance of our love for God in how we live.”
This exuberance can be expressed in part through our love for and service of other people. But as another speaker recognised, what we practice doesn’t always equate to what we believe. “Theology isn’t written, it’s lived,” said Jim McManus, as he drew our attention to the words of St Paul in a letter to the 1st Century church in Thessalonica:
‘But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labour among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; 13 esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. 14 And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. 15 See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.’ (1 Thessalonians 5:12-15)
In using our gifts in the service of others, Jim’s challenge was to ask: How true are St Paul’s words in your team and in your workplace?…
… Umm. Marks out of ten for where you work?
The late Catholic Archbishop Basil Hume once wrote, ‘The motive for service must be love’and the 17th Century priest and theologian, Ignatius of Loyola is accredited as writing that we are ‘To give and not to count the cost.’
Fact is, though, such service and giving is often very costly. You probably know how it is: those times when it all gets too much – and all we can do is count…
Or as St Paul wrote in a letter to the church in Corinth, ‘Love does not keep a record of wrongs’ (1 Corinthians 13:5). This love doesn’t keep a record of rights either…
It is an honour and a privilege to use all we have been given (for everything is gift) to love and to serve other people. By using these gifts and through faith in God, we can demonstrate the exuberance of God’s love for all people.
“Living faith works through love,” added Bishop Richard Moth at the event. “Faith is a gift: a living relationship with God. The Lord does not force it upon us nor are we to force that gift on someone else. We are to witness – often it may be silent: but it is often in the still, small voice that we hear God speak. Christ has shown himself to us, so we are to show him to others.”
What an honour and a privilege.