Let’s ‘Give it up’… for Lent

Lent begins. Thoughts turn to chocolate, booze or bacon sandwiches.

Rather like making a New Year Resolution, giving up something for Lent is one of those long-standing traditions which is often short-lived.

We might view giving up something as winning ourselves a few points on the self-righteousness scale. A personal sacrifice. A way to feel good about ourselves. If you read the previous post, you may have thought about giving up some aspect of technology – but that would be too much of a challenge perhaps.

For some, Lent is a time of fasting and focussing on what we’ve got wrong. It contains a very serious and dedicated purpose. So is giving up chocolate, booze or whatever really going to make a difference to the person we are?

Giving up something for the 40 days of Lent is a traditional way of making a token alignment with the suffering experienced by Jesus when he spent 40 days in the desert. (Forty is one of those Biblical numbers that means a long time: like when the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years or the 40 days and nights of rain which floated Noah’s ark.)

Aged about 30, Jesus was beginning the main period of his ministry on earth. Having been baptised by John the Baptist, Jesus then went in to the wilderness and was tempted by the Devil to give up his status as the Son of God. (Matthew 4:1-11).

It was a significant period in Jesus’ life. A life of remarkable teachings, healings, miracles and ministry. A life which was to last for just three more years before his betrayal, crucifixion, death and resurrection – all of which we mark at the end of Lent at Easter.

Lent is the Anglo-Saxon word for Spring and connects with the word ‘lengthen’. The daytime is getting longer. Growth is taking place.

In recent years, there has been an increased emphasis not on ‘giving up’ but on ‘taking up’ something that will deepen our faith in God and trust in Jesus, the one who went through that wilderness experience. To do something which reflects that Springtime meaning of ‘Lent’ – something that will help us to grow.

There are many ways we can do this…

  • There are plenty of books written especially for Lent – some offer a reading for each of the 40 days, others one for every Sunday in the season.
  • Your local church may be running a Lent course – a time to build up our faith with others.
  • Develop a specific pattern of prayer – setting aside a time and place.
  • Keep a journal: recording your experience of seeing God at work in your life and those around you.
  • Going on a retreat or Quiet Day: making time just for you and God – a time for giving God some intentional attention.

In his Rule for monastic living, St Benedict wrote ‘The life of a monastic ought to be a continuous Lent… and look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing.’

So let’s ‘give it up’ for Lent. A time of change and growth. A period of listening more to God and increased stability. Of looking forward to the future with joy and spiritual longing.

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Being Honoured

“I don’t want to get to retirement and think, ‘Was that it?’”

Well, that was 20 years ago. Today, I got to retirement. That was it. And that was good. So good.

For most of the intervening 20 years, I’ve worked with the most wonderful team of colleagues. Caring, supportive and one with a common purpose. A team with a default answer of ‘yes’ – or at least, ‘let’s think about it’. Rather than the demoralising ‘No, we can’t do that’ attitude common in so many workforces. It’s a team which values each other for who they are, not just what they do. I know I have been very fortunate. It has been a privilege and an honour.

For many people, the only reason they know they’re doing a good job are the times when they’re not being criticised. Not that I’ve never been criticised. Far from it. I’ve upset people. I’ve trampled over some. I’ve poached staff from others. I’ve worked with difficult people. I’ve made mistakes. I’ve been bullied, shouted at and disrespected. Everything that happens to everybody at some point or other. That’s working life. 41 years of it.

Yet many people are never thanked for the work they do or honoured for who they are. For me, though, these last few months have been humbling – and somewhat overwhelming. Nominated for a NHS 70th Anniversary Parliamentary Award (which I didn’t get) and a Lifetime Achievement Award from my employer (which I did). And then there was: ‘Urgent – On Her Majesty’s Service’. A letter from the Palace. Six weeks of silence. Nobody could know. When they did, the congratulations were overwhelming. 153 emails. 21 cards. A real honour and deeply humbling. All too much, though. I’ve only been doing my job.

Buckingham Palace last Friday and farewell lunch today. And it all happened again. Cards, congratulations and compliments. Both amazing days. Quite surreal at times. Asked by Prince William if I (me!) thought he (him!) was making progress in supporting employers regarding mental health. The farewell lunch gathered together over 50 people who have supported and taught me so much over the years. Another honour and privilege.

A generous farewell gift pays for a specially commissioned icon to be written (the technical term for icon painting) by Brother Michael OSB, Benedictine monk at Mucknell Abbey. It will be based on the famous 15th century icon by Andrei Rublev. The Trinity.

The icon depicts, from left to right, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. The embodiment of Love. Seated around a table. At the front, an empty place. A place of honour and privilege – and not just for the honoured and privileged. A place at which anyone can sit.

Working or retired. Happy at work or not. Employed or unemployed. Parent at home, student or volunteer. Well or unwell. Feeling loved or unloved. Of faith or no faith. Whatever your situation. The place awaits you.

A place of honour and privilege.

A place to which you are invited.

Invited by Love to be honoured for who you are.

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked any thing.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.

Love (III) by George Herbert

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Retirement: Stopping & Starting

If I’d had £5 every time someone asked what I’ll be doing in retirement, I could have bought myself my own gold watch.

Play on repeat: ‘Writing books and blogs, learning the piano, photography, family history, U3A, joint ministry with my wife…’ But how upset I’d be if nobody asked. I am so grateful for and humbled by the interest and love shown in these last few months.

Preparing for the next stage of life – as I prefer to call it – started five years ago. You only get one go at this, I thought, and I want to make it work.

Having spent 30 years helping people with phased returns to work, I’ve taken a staged approach towards retirement. Five to four days a week three years ago. Three days since January. Changing the balance of life. Getting used to less structure. Less contact with people. Building new routines.

It’s worked. This writer approaches the next stage of life with a sense of calm. And for one for whom it is an elusive emotion, there’s even some excitement.

At work itself, the last three years have seen succession planning (a far too grand a title, really). We’ve crossed a few hurdles on the way. Many have helped in the process. That’s worked too. Achieving what we wanted. In full and on time. Recruiting replacements. Handing over to successors. Spending less time with immediate colleagues: enabling them to work together, develop and flourish. It’s going to be even better. Wow.

Unexpected, though, has been the return of ‘that Sunday evening feeling’. A loss of motivation sitting in tension with the calling and enjoyment of the vocation. Apprehension alongside anticipation. And a reduced irritation threshold…

A season of stopping and starting. The last client appointment. The last employer meeting. The last conference. The last training course delivered. The last team meeting. The last times of working with and learning so much from others. The last time I’ll see people who have meant so much to me. (Sorry. The hurts of history have made me sceptical of fond farewell, keep in touch promises.)

In all this, I’ve not been counting down the days. So this week’s realisation that there’s just six working ones to go came as a shock. The calmness shaken. The boat rocky. A strange time. The nearer it gets, the less believable it becomes. Such is the nature of change.

But it’s a time to give thanks for the privileges God has given. The privilege of making a difference. The privilege of playing a part in the lives of others. Seeing people make progress – especially in the small ways. Never ignore the small ways: they are always bigger than we think. The privilege of the next stage of life and all that will hold.

I’m writing this on retreat at Alton Abbey, a community of Benedictine monks in Hampshire. There’s a storm blowing outside. There’s one blowing inside too. But this is a place where the clock runs slowly. Where the silence of mealtimes is comforting. The routine of prayer is steadfast. The presence of God is everywhere. There’s sanctuary in the stillness. A place of stability in the stopping and the starting.

‘To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. Oh my God, in you I trust.’ (Psalm 25).

Play on repeat. It works.

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

 

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Success or Fulfilment?

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

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

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

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

We sat down.

And, of course, it was fine.

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

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

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

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

Fulfilling. Full. Filling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fulfilment gained through expressing that love towards others.

Fulfilment gained by taking a different approach.

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Tools in the Toolbox

Chances are, your computer or smartphone is using software called SQLite. In fact, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Skype all use it. So, when the product’s Christian founder, Dr D Richard Hipp quoted the Rule of St Benedict in ethical guidance for programmers, he certainly caused a bit of stir.

‘Anyone who follows The Rule will live a happier and more productive life,’ he writes on the company’s website. Needless to say, social media was full of, how shall I put it, frank opinions!

Hipp focussed on Chapter 4 of the Rule: ‘The Tools for Good Works’. In the two previous posts we reflected on two foundations for life: being and loving ourselves and finding rest and strength through Christ. In order to build on those foundations, we need some tools to do so.

Summarising Chapter 4, these tools might be described as:

• Reading the Bible – also called lectio divina (‘sacred reading’)
• Prayer – setting aside specific times and places
• Saying sorry and changing from past behaviour
• Listening to the teachings of others
• Living in a holy way
• Fidelity in relationships
• Controlling anger
• Respecting other people
• Making peace with others
• Having hope in God’s mercy

They are, if you like, tools in our toolbox. Tools for spiritual wellbeing.

When we open a toolbox, we may only pick out one tool at a time. We use it, put it back and then choose another one. We don’t always know how to use a tool straight away – it can take practice. Sometimes we need someone to show us how to. You might be using some of Benedict’s tools already. Maybe there are some others you could use too.

Day to day 21st Century living also means we may need some contemporary tools to complement the Rule’s tried and tested methods of 1500 years ago. So let’s take a look at two that may be helpful.

It’s well recognised that there are five areas of our lives which are key to our mental wellbeing:

Connect – with other people around you
Be active – some form of physical exercise (don’t automatically think ‘gym’ or ‘marathon’: do what you enjoy and can manage)
Take notice – of the beauty of creation and of what’s happening for other people
Keep learning – a hobby, a course, reading: we can indeed learn something new every day
Give – to others, whether that’s in church, at work, in family life or volunteering or through those simple, but often very meaningful, random acts of kindness.

These also take practice and if any feel unfulfilled, our wellbeing may not be as good. Maybe have a think about what you do that relates to each of those ‘Five Ways to Wellbeing

Another tool is based on an approach called Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP). This is a really straightforward and practical concept. Anyone can use it.

In its very simplest and stripped back form, it involves writing two lists:

• Firstly, what we do every day to keep ourselves well (e.g. taking a lunch break, going for a walk, reading a book, a set time for prayer) and also do occasionally (e.g. meeting a friend, going to a concert, gardening, baking, receiving communion).
• Secondly, the signs that it’s all getting too much (e.g. disturbed sleep, more irritable, physical aches, muddled thoughts).

The point being: when we notice the signs – is it because we’ve not been doing what we do to keep ourselves well?

The value of this particular tool is in the writing. Written down and kept somewhere as a reminder. A reminder of what we know works. A reminder of what it is that keeps us well.

Having the tools that God provides helps us live a happier and more productive life.

As someone once put it: ‘You will live with your mind for the rest of your life, so make it a good companion.’

 

 

PS There are other things that can be added in to a WRAP – other action to take, people to contact or not contact, for example. It could be shared with someone who can help keep us well. Click these links to download a long or a short version or for more information from the originators, Mental Health Recovery.

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Stability in times of change

‘Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes, Turn and face the strange’ David Bowie’s lyrics reflect the way that change is a constant and often unsettling companion.

Over the last 30-40 years, the workplace has changed beyond all recognition for many people. Technology, the internet and social media has brought massive change. Organisations go from one restructuring to another restructuring. Gone are the steady 9-5 routines, the lunch break and personal work space. In has come a long hours culture, hot desking, unachievable targets and 24/7 e-mails.

Part of the difficulty in ‘turning to face the strange’ is that while the world around us changes at a very fast rate, as human beings we often change much more slowly. The core characteristics of who we are take years to develop as we go through life being shaped by events and other people. I’ve been preparing to make the change from employment in to retirement for 2-3 years and I have no doubt it’ll take a few more months to fully adjust. It takes time to change. You may like to think about how you’ve changed in the last 5, 10, 20 years – and how you would like to change further in the next 5, 10, 20.

Whether of our own choice or not, it is often the waiting and the uncertainty of the prospect of change which is the most difficult characteristic of this unsettling companion. We like to know where we stand. The bigger picture remains blurred as we focus on the detail. We may accept the office move but what we really want to know is ‘Where will my desk be?’ or indeed, will I even have one? In such times, we want to hold on to that which remains the same. Hence why sometimes we are often resistant to change, be that at work, home or church.

This need for stability is reflected in one of the main principles, or vows, of Benedictine monasticism. Stability for the nun and the monk is about remaining in a specific community for life. For those of us living outside such settings, stability often finds itself dependent on many things: our house, family, job, finances, the place we live, the people we know or the church we go to, for example. And when something threatens those things, such as change or uncertainty, life becomes unstable.

The Rule of St Benedict retains a relevance to our lives in a world where change is often feared, stability can be elusive and busyness interferes with listening to God. For all seeking a deeper relationship with God, stability is found by becoming increasingly rooted in the one with whom that relationship is sought. This is further enhanced by two other Benedictine vows: listening to God and conversion of life. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, this conversion, or change, is necessary for our relationship with God to grow. Whether a monastic or not, the principles of these vows can be viewed as threads running through our faith.

So how do we experience stability in God, particularly in times of change? Through prayer, in part, yes, and you would expect me to say that. But what does that prayer look like?

The principle of the ‘daily quiet time’ so beloved and valued by many Christians finds it source in the times of St Benedict and well before then. We see it in Moses going up to the mountain top and Jesus spending time alone in prayer. Setting aside times of giving intentional attention to God.

Crucial to experiencing stability in God is making such specific times to pray (as well as the ongoing prayers which act like punctuation marks in the sentences of our lives). It is the daily rhythm and the place for doing so that are key. To enable such times to become as natural as all the other rhythmical practises in our life – in the same way as times for eating, getting dressed, travelling to work or watching our favourite television programme. Such daily practices and routines provide us with a sense of stability. And it is often in those stable times that we experience the closeness and love of God more clearly and deeply.

As we do so, and as we listen to God, we become increasingly aware that in order to change, stability is needed; and in order to be stable, we are also to change.

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