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.

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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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The Greatest Honour

Christine was my manager for 12 years. In the year 2000, she contacted me in my previous job inviting me to be part of a group setting up a new employment service to help people experiencing mental health conditions. We started working together at Workways some 18 months later: it was a role she created especially for me. In the years that followed I got to know someone who saw potential in everyone. She was totally dedicated to her staff both professionally and personally. I am not alone in the fact that we worked together, laughed together and cried together. I am not alone in the fact that without her I would not being working in such a innovative, dedicated and supportive team. Without her, I would not have found my vocation. Without her, there would not have been Mindful Employer, developing as it did from a small local idea in to an UK-wide and international initiative. Without her, I would not have got an MSc. Without her, I would not have been appointed an MBE.

A month after she took early retirement in 2014, Christine was diagnosed with cancer. A couple of years later she rendered me speechless by asking if I would take her funeral. The greatest honour there is. To accompany someone and those who love them on that final journey. Just over two weeks ago Christine died. And today I took her funeral.

Christine demonstrated many of those attributes of leadership that I considered in the previous blog. She led from within. She accepted questions, doubts and mistakes. She listened, taught, affirmed and, yes, corrected – you always knew where you stood with Christine. She did lots of things we never knew about and equipped people to do even more. Christine was in it for others. It was an honour to have known her.

By her own admission, Christine was an atheist. As mentioned last time, Christians don’t have the monopoly on good attributes and good works and what I, and many others, saw and received from her was both humbling and honouring.

In the New Testament there are two letters written by the apostle Peter. In the first one he advocates that we are to ‘honour everyone’ (1 Peter 2:17) and quoting from the Old Testament book of Proverbs, ‘to clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”’ (1 Peter 5:5; Proverbs 3:34).

We’ll explore the attributes of honouring others and humility in some posts in the New Year. But for the moment 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.”’

That was Christine.

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