What’s in a Name

In the team I used to work with, a sign that people were struggling was an increase in swearing. That’s fine: it acted as a release mechanism – rewarding as the work was, it could also be difficult. I recall one occasion when a lovely colleague of mine walked in to the main office and said very loudly ‘Jesus Christ!’

It spoke of their frustration at a situation: they meant no offence and probably didn’t realise it could have caused any. And while not offended, I was a tad surprised, it has to be said.

Quite rightly, we call ‘foul’ on chants of racial abuse at football matches and it’s important to challenge anti-Semitism and expressions of Islamophobia, for example. But it is strange that Christianity continues to be seen as somewhat of an easy, unprotected target.

From the day to day occurrences, such as the incident mentioned above, to that heard on TV or expressed in other ways (‘Alcohol – put the “good” in to Good Friday’, as one greetings card put it) it is seemingly ‘acceptable’ to do so. Even the ubiquitous ‘Oh, my God!’ is voiced by both unbeliever and believer alike.

So, as we now stand in Holy Week (click here for a simple guide to the key events) and prepare ourselves for Good Friday, is the continued use of such language in this way somehow symbolic of society’s and individual attitudes?

Symbolic of continuing to metaphorically bang the nails in to the crucified Christ perhaps…

As Christians, we believe that Jesus, God’s son, died on the Cross in order that everyone could enter in to a personal relationship with God. To receive God’s love and to gain eternal life with God in Heaven. Hence, why it’s called Good Friday.

And if that wasn’t enough, on the third day – Easter Day – we learn that that same Jesus has been brought back to life. The Resurrection. Yes, intellectually, that bit is more of a struggle. Nearly 40 years ago, it was that bit which held me back from believing in any of it. How on earth can someone come back to life? Impossible.

It does takes a leap of faith. If one can believe that with God nothing is impossible then, therefore, why couldn’t God’s Son be brought back to life?

I started this post by using Jesus’ name in a particular way and it is this same Jesus who says our name too.

John’s Gospel tells us that early on that first Easter morning, one of Jesus’ female disciples, Mary Magdalene, went to the tomb where Christ’s body lay. It was still dark. The stone had been rolled away from the entrance and the tomb was empty. The body had gone.

No doubt, as she sat weeping, Mary recalled Jesus’ teaching about his death and resurrection. And yet the body had gone. Imagine the confusion. She spent 3 years following this guy and believing what he said and now… nothing. Even the appearance of angels did not bring consolation. Then along comes a gardener and she poured out her distress to him. What on earth was going on?

And then one word changed everything. A word charged with emotion. A word which  encapsulated all she was, covered all her confusion and distress, and brought together all her faith and hope.

‘Mary.’

The 16th Century Italian artist, Savoldo captures the moment beautifully in his painting, Mary Magdalene – it’s the one on the front cover of A Story to Tell. In this one word, the simple utterance of her name, Mary has found not a gardener but the risen Christ. And Christ has found her. In the deep heartfelt calling of her name, Mary had found the true fulfilment of who God had made her to be. She turns to face him. And, John’s Gospel tells us, she says his name in reply.

When someone calls our name, it attracts our attention. We turn to face them. We respond to the voice. We see the person who says it. Hearing our name spoken makes us turn in the right direction. And if we are looking for someone we’ve lost, we might call out their name. And such is the joy when we find them – and such is the joy of the person who has been found.

Through the resurrection, Jesus calls each one of us by name.

Believe it or not, he’s saying your name right now.

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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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Gifts, Service & Faith

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?…

  • Respect those who labour among you (colleagues) and have charge of you (managers)… and admonish you (everyone & anyone, maybe)
  • Esteem them very highly in love because of their work
  • Be at peace among yourselves
  • Admonish the idlers
  • Encourage the faint-hearted
  • Help the weak
  • Be patient with all of them
  • See that none of you repays evil for evil
  • Always seek to do good to one another and to all. 

… 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.W

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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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Time for a Good Rest

‘Tiredness can kill. Take a break.’

A sign for the drivers who should have stopped the last time they saw it. For the doctor with one patient too many. For the precision engineer whose work is not as precise. The shop assistant giving out the wrong change. The vicar who’s now driven instead of called.

I’ve seen far too many people put everything in to everything only to be left with nothing for anything. Working so hard to prove themselves to themselves, let alone others. ‘We have to start breaking busy before the busy breaks us,’ as Alli Worthington put it.

This blog is called Work. Rest. Pray. This seventh post is about the seventh day. The day God rested (Genesis 2:1-3). The principle that provides for our lives.

Of course, many people work at weekends. So it’s not as simple as it used to be to keep the Sabbath holy (Exodus 20:8-11). But creating ‘Sabbath moments’: setting aside times that are refreshingly restful and restorative, is possible.

There again, nobody ever teaches us how to rest, do they?

Resting is a skill. And like other tools in our toolbox, it takes practice.

I didn’t learn how to rest until I was over 30 – and even then it was because I’d become unwell. A 3 year-long period of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (M.E.) meant pretty much constant tiredness and nothing for anything. It was a doctor who taught me how to rest and pace life. When it reoccurred some 15 years later, those lessons helped. In between and since, the same principles have undergirded my personal approach to work, rest and play. And I still don’t always get it right.

“It’s OK to be tired” has been our ‘family motto’ for years. Partly borne from that personal experience but also an acknowledgement that life is tiring and that it’s OK to feel tired.

All the same, being tired a lot of the time is frustrating. It messes with our thoughts as well as our body. Other people can also find it difficult when all we can say is “Sorry, I’m tired.”

Jesus got tired. When a storm blew up one evening on Lake Galilee, he was asleep in the boat. Tired from teaching and being followed by crowds of people (Mark 4:38). He also ensured his disciples took time out to rest (Mark 6:30-32).

Having a good rest involves recognising the signs that we’re tired, understanding what helps us to rest, and making the time to do so.

Resting is not necessarily about doing nothing. It can be: whether a daytime resting of our eyelids or imitating Winnie-the-Pooh: ‘Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits’ (both practised most days by this particular writer!).

There are also times when ‘a change is as good as rest’. Taking a break from normal, usual routines to do something refreshingly restful and restorative. It’s an approach which helps overcome the lethargy that accompanies tiredness too.

Take a break from thinking. You know, those times when we overthink a task or topic. Times when the trees get in the way of the seeing the wood. When we need to come up from being bogged down.

And, as one anonymous blogger put it, ‘Resting is an act (of) faith… Trust that (God) will continue to work and take care of things even as we are resting,’ Things will still be OK if we need to take a break for a while.

There are different ways of creating those Sabbath moments. Whether short or long, setting aside times that are refreshingly restful and restorative.

Don’t be left with nothing for anything.

Make time for a good rest. Whatever that means for you. However that works for you. Add more tools to your toolbox.

Here are some words of Solomon in Psalm 127:

‘Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labour in vain…

It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives sleep to his beloved.’

You are the Lord’s beloved. The Lord builds the house for you to work, to rest and to pray.

 

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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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When it all gets too much

A while ago, one Sunday morning after church I met my son and daughter at a local café. They went upstairs while I got the drinks. I set off up the long, wide, wooden staircase carrying a tray full of hot chocolate, teapots, milk, and cups and saucers. And then disaster. At the very top of the stairs. On the very last step. Down I went. Drinks splashed and cups smashed. Down the stairs it all flowed. And yes, I did cry over spilt milk. It had been a hard week. A very difficult weekend. And now this. A symbol of it all getting too much. The tray of life was too full and too heavy.

We all have times like that, don’t we? (oh, please tell me you do too…) When the load we are carrying is too heavy. When work and home life all gets too much. When we fail, worry and make poor decisions. Times when our behaviour towards others changes. We become irritable, quiet or stick our head in the sand. We might even call it stress.

Stress is a much overused word but there are times when we struggle to cope, whether at work or home, or both. There is no such thing as ‘good stress’. We all need a degree of pressure to get things done, to perform well, to do a good job or to please others. But when those pressures exceed our ability to cope with the demands upon us then that’s stress: and there’s nothing good about it.

We all respond to stress in different ways too. Stress affects us physically (palpitations, eczema, muscle ache, sleep disturbance, for example), emotionally (anger, worry, tearfulness etc) and behaviourally (irritability, restlessness perhaps). People talk a lot about ‘work-related stress’ but the biggest cause of long-term sickness absence are non-work related issues. Financial difficulties, care for the elderly, care for the children, relationship problems, difficulties at church and numerous other factors affect the ability to work. Left unmanaged, stress causes health problems and affects our mental wellbeing.

Of course, it’s nothing new. Nearly 2,000 years ago, Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans (7: 22-25a) ‘that which dwells within us turns us against ourselves, the law of our body is at war with the law of our mind’. Paul also sums up the feelings we have about ourselves: ‘Wretched person that I am’. Stress exacerbates our inadequacy: “I am so stupid. I’m hopeless. I am such a failure.”

So amidst this rather depressing passage (and this rather depressing post), come some surprising words. Paul writes, ‘Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!’ A simple statement of a fundamental truth but also a far too simple statement. Profound and deeply meaningful and yet one that trips off the tongue in glib repetition. When I fell at the top of the stairs, thanking God through Jesus Christ was not at the top of my list.

And yet, all the same, let’s turn to Jesus own words: ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ (Matthew 11:28-30)

Familiar verses. There will always be burdens and heavy loads to carry, but it’s what we do with them that matters. At times when the tray is full (or, preferably, before then) we can hand it over to Christ and receive the promise of rest. Through that rest comes strength: a strength that is made perfect in our weakness. Alleluia!

And what do we do next? We take it right back again, don’t we (oh, please tell me you do too…).

Over the next couple of posts we’ll look at managing such loads and gaining that rest and strength. We’ll consider the difficulties of comparing ourselves with others, some practical ways of addressing the balance of work and the rest of life, and looking after our mental wellbeing.

We may still have to carry the tray, but Christ can make it lighter.

 

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