Exploring our Faith

Sometimes I wonder why I bother going to church.

Being a lay minister and married to the vicar has something to do with it, I guess…

‘It’s nothing more than a religious social club,’ as a normally mild-mannered, retired priest put it recently.

Like many organisations made up of fallible human beings the church is often a place of paradox.  A place of compassion and conflict. Of forgiveness and fault-finding. Of singing and squabbling. Of prayer and power-holding.

Many appear more comfortable dealing with the linen, arranging the flowers or following the correct way to process around the altar than about nurturing each other’s faith and enabling people to receive the love of God. It’s easier to ‘do church’ than ‘do God’.

If he visited today, I wonder if Jesus would turn over a few tables and ask ‘Where is your faith?’ because it appears so well hidden.

A tad unfair? Yes, of course. I know many churchgoers who have a strong faith and, after all, who am I to judge?

And it is wonderful when (often in smaller numbers, such as during a Lent course or in a house group) people do feel able to speak openly about their belief and their doubts. And yet, why is it that I always feel surprised when that happens…? (‘Oh, ye of little faith, Richard…’)

If talking about faith is not part of natural conversation then what does that say about the church? But is this reluctance to talk openly about the things of God not so much a matter of discomfort but a lack of confidence?

If there is no culture of learning or praying together (outside that provided within a service) or no active sharing of insights about God, it is any wonder that people struggle to feel confident and assured in their faith?

That age-old construct of being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ also continues to undermine the ability of people to ask questions, to have doubts and to take the risk of saying what they believe.

It’s astonishing how many people have been going to church for years and yet lack knowledge about some basic tenets of our faith and why we do particular things in terms of our acts of worship, prayer and teaching.

The growth of online services has opened up new ways of being church yet doing something that ‘isn’t how we do it’ is still looked upon sceptically and even dismissively by some.

In our current team of six churches we are reprising a series of teaching sessions that were run in our previous parishes called ‘Exploring our Faith’. A way of revisiting some of the basics about prayer, the Bible, communion and other aspects of Christian belief. A way of equipping people to live out their faith more confidently. Quiet events can also be a less verbose way of building up our reliance on God (do contact me if you’d like one for your church).

We have so much to learn from each other about how God works in individual lives. Finding ways to explore our faith with others not only helps each other but also aids the work and ministry of the church. We can reset the balance: so that how we ‘do God’ becomes more important than how we ‘do church’.

So lest you think otherwise, this isn’t about ‘spreading the Gospel’ or being theologically eloquent. It’s about encouraging others in a very natural, normal way.

If you find it difficult to talk about God or your faith, you’re far from being alone. Why not try this:

  • Think about the people you pray for. Do they know? How about in the next week telling one of them that you are praying for them – and then someone else in the following week?
  • And how about telling one other person about something God has done or how God has blessed you in some way.

You never know just how much that might mean to them.

 

 

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‘Don’t you know who I am?’

‘I thought you’d have opened up by now,’ the voice said as I unlocked the church door for a Quiet Morning. ‘I’m going to the office.’

‘The office isn’t open to the public at the moment,’ I explained.

‘Well, I’m not the public. Don’t you know who I am?’

To be frank, no I didn’t. But I left it at that. It was when I overheard them talking to the local vicar about their significant health issues that, as is so often the situation, I understood their words. Another case of someone losing sight of who they are perhaps.

The tragic events in Plymouth (a town which was home for me when I was a child and many happy times visiting my grandparents in Keyham thereafter) have shown once again what can happen behind locked doors. But more than that, they will have left many struggling to come to terms with what has taken place and who they are within it.

In stark contrast, the Olympics brought stories of those who have opened the door to tell others about what they endure. The lack of family being there to watch them. The need to focus on mental wellbeing. A coming to terms with who they are.

The Quiet Morning took them theme of ‘Holidays, Holy Days’. A time to reflect on the current season. A time to revisit who we are.

I thought it a good excuse to show my holiday snaps but alas that was not permitted… but I did sneak one in.

A few weeks ago, Jane and I spent time in North Yorkshire and during it we went not once but twice to Ripon, one of the smaller cathedral cities in the UK. We joined a handful of people in the Cathedral’s midday communion service and sat there I became transfixed on this painting which hung on the wall across from where I was.

It’s a painting by Robert Thorburn of Mary Magdalene stood at the foot of the Cross.

Much has been done in recent years to restore the image of Mary and recognise just what an important figure she was in the life of Christ (you can read more about her here and in these other posts). Along with other women, she accompanied Jesus and the central group of male disciples and is arguably one of the most important figures in Jesus’ time on earth.

And here Mary stands at the foot of the Cross. The painting asks us several questions. What is she thinking? What is she feeling?  In the background is the sun: is it the setting sun of Good Friday after the crucifixion or the sun rising on Easter morning before she makes her way to the tomb? Is she holding on to the cross out of insecurity in her grief or in the security of the knowledge that Christ is the son of God?

Mary Magdalene knew who she was. And in that famous encounter with the risen Jesus, she heard her name being called, confirming all that she was.

I’ve written elsewhere about using images for prayer and reflection. You may like to imagine yourself holding on to the cross – and perhaps being held by it.

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Thank you for reading this post – please do share it with others, subscribe and contribute your thoughts at the WorkRestPray Facebook Group. And please take a look at other images on Instagram and Pinterest.

What makes a person great?

Despite all the difficulties, the Olympics will, no doubt, produce moments of greatness. Great sportswomen and men at the top of their game. Gold medals. World records. Memorable moments.

Whether it’s in sport or politics, businesses or churches, I imagine we can all think of people who are great. Some deservingly of that title. Others who have sought it for themselves.

But what makes people great?

25 July is St James’ Day when we celebrate the life of that close disciple of Jesus: sometimes referred to as St James the Great. There were the many people called James (or Jacob to give it its Hebrew root) around at that time so such titles were used to distinguish from others of that name. The one we remember today is the one whose body, legend has it, was carried to Compostela in Spain. He was the brother of John, one of the other disciples: often referred to as the disciple who Jesus loved. James and John were the sons of a well-to-do fisherman, Zebedee and his wife, Salome, thought by many to be the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

James and John were called ‘the Sons of Thunder’ because of, at times, their impetuous behaviour and outlandish requests. They were both key figures among the central group of twelve male disciples and together with Simon Peter, John and James were often to be found with Jesus, but without the others: for example, at the healing of the daughter of Jairus; on the mountain at the time of the Transfiguration and then again in the Garden at Gethsemane.

Matthew’s Gospel records an incident which is instigated by Salome, the mother of James and John. Mark’s account of the same occasion omits that detail but he too records a request made to Jesus: that the two brothers are to sit either side of him in heaven.

Journeys of faith can sometimes be paralleled with stages of life, and this outrageous request to sit on the right and left of Jesus smacks of the self-interest, unrealistic ambition and arrogance of a young and adolescent belief. We’ve all done it. We’ve all asked for things and incurred the wrath of others. And so it is for James and John: the other disciples are angry.

Jesus’ response to the brothers’ misplaced ambition is to ask if they can walk the path that he will walk. Can they drink the cup he will drink – the talk of a cup is a reference to the suffering and death Jesus will undergo. The journey of faith is about the service of others and of God, not about personal gain. Yes we are to be ambitious for Christ and the spreading of his Gospel: but ultimately none of us will drink the cup Jesus drank.

So where does that leave us in our exploration of greatness? As mentioned, we can think of great public figures. We might also think of people we have known personally who are great in our eyes. What is it that makes them so?

I wonder if it’s because we see someone as great simply because they never tried to be?

Perhaps we might see elements of humility, failings, a willingness to admit mistakes: all those things which are, if you like, contrary to what we might call ‘greatness’.

Yet so often, for example among sports people, politicians, business entrepreneurs and yes, in churches, we see people clamouring for greatness. The equivalent of wanting that seat next to Jesus in heaven.

That is not the way of Christ.

‘Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be the one who serves.’

 

 

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Do you remember…

… when the FA Cup Final started at 3 o’clock? When there was a piece of card in a Bounty bar? When the BBC used to play a hymn on Ascension Day?

Life is always changing, isn’t it? And in this coming week we see more changes as lockdown restrictions are eased further. Alongside the possibility of going to the theatre and concerts again, we can enter restaurants and pubs. And not least, have the joy of being hugged (cautiously, of course). Indeed, cautious remains a watchword and many will remain anxious too – not least those whose businesses reopen after so many months without the closeness of customers.

These continue to be unsettling and uncertain times.

The one thing that’s certain about change is that change is certain – and over the years I’ve written a number of posts which look at this unsettling companion.

You’ll have your own stories of change and how you managed or have not managed to find stability within them, I’m sure. (I’d love to hear those stories and include them in a new book I’m working on – do please click here to contribute).

On this Ascension Day we remember how the disciples watched as Jesus ascended in to heaven. The Bible tells us about many unusual, perhaps unbelievable events which took place and the Ascension is one of them. To our 21st century rational minds, to speak of someone going up in a cloud is beyond our comprehension. It simply couldn’t happen. It’s impossible.

In essence, the ascension of Jesus represents a significant truth… the physical presence of Christ departs from earth to be replaced by the spiritual presence in the form of the Holy Spirit whose coming we will celebrate in a few days’ time at Pentecost.

So on that day, the disciples, and probably others including many of the faithful women, stand gazing upwards. Perhaps talking about what had happened in those three years that Jesus was with them. ‘Do you remember when he did that…?’ ‘Yeah, that was wicked, man.’

They looked back because the weren’t certain what the future held. They would have found some stability in their memories of Jesus yet the challenge was for their faith to see them in to the future.

The fact is that they, like us, can’t just stand there looking up or looking back.

Some words from Helen Mallicoat…

‘I was regretting the past and fearing the future. Suddenly my Lord was speaking:

“My name is I AM.” He paused. I waited.

He continued.

“When you live in the past with its mistakes and regrets, it is hard. I am not there. My name is not I Was.

“When you live in the future with its problems and fears, it is hard. I am not there. My name is not I Will Be.

“When you live in this moment it is not hard. I am here. My name is I AM.”’

 

 

 

Thank you for reading this post – please do share it with others, subscribe and contribute your thoughts at the WorkRestPray Facebook Group. There are also short films about Ascension and Pentecost for you to watch.

Wholly Weak

I am indebted to Canon Mark Oakley for inspiring the title of this post. Writing in the Church Times, he describes how during  the significant days of Holy Week many (not least clergy) wear themselves out journeying through the emotions of them all and they are ‘wholly weak’ by the end of it.

And it is a rollercoaster of a week. The triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Jesus making his mark. But only witnessed by a few? After all, who’s going to notice a man with a donkey in a first century busy, bustling city…

Then he causes havoc in the temple: turning over tables, shouting – calling out the church for what it does that isn’t about God. We’ve heard that message elsewhere…

On Thursday, there’s a meal with his closest followers. An act of fellowship  contrasted by betrayal. The establishing of what we now call the Eucharist or Holy Communion.  An act now so venerated: given a complexity which betrays the simplicity of its symbolism. Is that a message for us too?

Deserted by his friends (…and who’s not experienced that). A brutal arrest, trial and execution. Yet even the person in charge can see the innocence behind the events. Just like before, the city crowds perhaps thought nothing of a man carrying a large wooden beam in the street. One half of the symbol of death awaiting its upright companion. An ironic weapon for the carpenter’s son.

It is the women who remain faithful – and John. Strength for the dying Christ through those who are wholly weak.

The women are there again later on, watching Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus as Friday grows dark once again.

Less than 48 hours later Mary Magdalene, John, Peter and others get their first glimpses. Jesus has done what he promised to do.

David Rhodes wrote ‘The trouble with Easter is it comes too soon. There is simply not enough time between the terrible events of Good Friday and the discovery of the resurrection to make the necessary adjustment. Easter Sunday is in the wrong place. Like an aircraft in a steep dive, we cannot pull out in time. Plummeting down through Holy Week, we are still going down. And so are the disciples.’

For many, the last year in particular has felt like a long Good Friday. The message of the resurrection that the Gospel brings does not deny the reality of our experience.

But if we stay stuck on Friday with its feelings of isolation, anger and bitterness we will never experience the hope that Sunday brings. So Sunday has to follow Friday as clearly as the resurrection follows the crucifixion. As the American pastor Tony Campolo once said, ‘It’s Friday – and Sunday’s coming!’

For the wholly weak will be made wholly strong.

 

 

 

Thank you for reading this post – please do share it with others. If you’d like to follow the Easter journey there are some short films you may like to use.

A lasting influence

Sarah Everard is the latest of many, many people whose tragic death has uncovered deep, long-standing issues within society.

Think too of others – Sarah Payne. Suzy Lamplugh. Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman. Emily Davison.

You can probably think of others. People who have been more influential in death than in life.

Throughout history there have been many such seminal moments. Times when as a society and as individuals we are forced to face up to that which has been left unaddressed, avoided or denied.

The Pankhursts. Mother Teresa. Nelson Mandela. Martin Luther King.

Once again, you can probably think of others – why not make a note of them here.

We might think of other occasions which have challenged the status quo and influenced change. In the 1980s, the Faith in the City report uncovered that which had been hidden in our inner cities. In the work I used to do, changes in equality legislation enabled significant improvements; and the work of Dame Carol Black in the mid-2000s brought workplace mental health to the fore. In the intervening decades, the change has been noticeable but is still ongoing.

Will the legacy of Sarah Everard, Black Lives Matter, Me Too, IICSA, Living in Love & Faith make a difference? It will probably be many years before we know the full impact.

People can have a lasting influence on each one of us – I know they have for me. I can think of several individuals I’ve known who through the things they said or did have helped shape the person I am. Perhaps you can recall some too.

I wonder what societal reaction Christ’s death would have if it took place today. An innocent 33 year-old. Killed in a barbaric way. There would be swathes of flowers and social media videos. Maybe protests too. (The resurrection branded as ‘fake news’…)

Would we remember his life, his teaching and the miracles?

As we move on through Lent and gradually approach Easter, maybe it’s a time to reflect on Christ’s lasting influence on society and on each one of us…

 

 

 

Thank you for reading this post – please do share it with others. If you’d like to follow the Easter journey there are some short films you may like to use.

No Dogs Please

Daisy the Vicarage Dog is great with people. The six-year-old cocker spaniel can often be seen around the villages with the local vicar. She loves pastoral visiting and is greatly admired in return (Daisy that is – the vicar is too, of course). And yet, despite having lived with many of them and also bred her own pups before coming to us 18 months ago, Daisy doesn’t like other dogs. There’s a story there somewhere.

So, in an effort to help other canines maintain social distance, she now sports the words ‘No Dogs Please’ on her lead. Some dogs are better at reading than others and pass by without a sniff. Others though have owners who tell us how friendly their dog is: ‘Ours isn’t…’ we reply.

It seems to be the same with our own walks in these strange times, doesn’t it? Some give plenty of room and say ‘Thank you’ in the process. Others seeming to be dealing in feet rather than metres.

In a previous post, I reflected on how in contrast to the Good Samaritan we are now actively encouraged to walk by on the other side… and the consequences that has for many, even when it is for the greater good as we wait for better times to come.

Many have taken to wearing metaphorical signs stating ‘No People Please’ to the extent of not leaving their home out of anxiety and loss of confidence.

We will all have our story of these current times – whether it’s the practicalities of home schooling, working or being furloughed, the loss of normal social contacts, the opening and closing of churches. Stories of people we have lost or nearly did, of our own emotional and mental health struggles in the uncertainty and confusion and whether or not we tested positive or even ever had a test. There are and will continue to be many stories of the kindness of strangers, the heroics of key workers and the effect of the vaccine.

All the same, some of us will not want to hear those stories because, as the BBC’s Clive Myrie put it recently, ‘We’re all scared’. Some of us will want to carry a ‘No People Please’ sign for a while. Others of us will want to tell our story – because we need someone to listen. We need people to put down their sign and come close again.

However they may be told, many of us can benefit from listening to other people’s stories.

All the people who ever met Jesus have a story to tell (there’s some on my new website at astorytotell.org.uk). All ordinary people who encountered an extraordinary person.

We too can have such encounters when we put down the signs we carry – and the one marked ‘No God please’ too.

 

 

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The Christmas Post

‘Bah! Humbug!’

Ebenezer Scrooge’s comment on Christmas is one I share.

It probably dates back to childhood times when excitement and disappointment both arrived neatly wrapped. I really don’t like Christmas that much: or rather the way the world (and, to an extent, the church) has chosen to represent it. Christmas also exacerbates the more uncomfortable side of feelings that I don’t fit. All the same, I do wish you a very happy and safe Christmas!

But even my dislike of Christmas with all its ‘fripperies’ as John Betjeman put it, was mellowed this last Sunday when carols were sung at our churches once again (outside, of course). There seemed an added poignancy to the fact we hadn’t sung at all for 9 months… it’s been a difficult pregnancy hasn’t it?

As many have said, although some have stated the opposite, Christmas is not cancelled – but perhaps the absence of many of the ‘usual things’ (hard as that is) will enable us to focus more clearly on the Christ in the story.

To focus on the coming of Christ into our own selves.

The Christ who is ever present and never disappointing.

The Christ who calls us to be people who don’t fit.

 

 

 

The Coming of Christ

It’s always good to have one’s prejudices challenged.

This Advent, I’ve been reading Celtic Advent by fellow BRF author, the excellent David Cole. In one of the daily reflections, he writes about the hymn known as ‘St Patrick’s Breastplate’. Now, a long time ago, this was sung in a Sunday morning service: all nine verses of it… or was it ten… what a dirge it was and I have never liked it since.

But like many prejudices, our judgment on things once encountered, forever discounted is due to the fact we don’t understand things fully.

Attributed to St Patrick, it’s a prayer of protection and was subsequently translated by Cecil Frances Alexander (she of ‘All things bright and beautiful’ – another victim of prejudice, perhaps…). It is in a tradition of Irish Celtic prayers and can be found again in a version called ‘God’s Aid’ in the Carmina Gadelica and more recently, the song ‘Everything’ by Tim Hughes.

David Cole writes, ‘The verse which sits as the key point of this prayer is the one which states that Christ is within us and in every other surrounding area of us and our life:

Christ be with me, Christ with me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,

Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me
Christ in mount of friend and stranger.’

Advent is a time of preparation. Preparing for the first coming of Christ in human form, as a baby at Christmas. Advent is also a time to remember we are preparing for the second coming of Christ: returning in glory to the earth at a time to come.

In Celtic Christian spirituality, there is a third coming that sits in-between the two:

The coming of Christ into our own selves.

‘This is not just a single event,’ Cole writes, ‘a moment of conversion or becoming a Christian. This is a continual activity in every part of our lives on a daily basis.

‘(This) may happen multiple times a day, and in every decision we make… This isn’t about eternal salvation; this is about Christ being intrinsically involved and interwoven in every part and aspect of our everyday lives.’

This Christmas, and in the days before and beyond it, may we all experience the coming of Christ into our own selves.

‘I got it wrong’

We’d witnessed chaos and conflict. People lost sleep and found anxiety. There were accusations with no evidence. No one willing to say they got it wrong. No one willing to accept defeat. It was a sad sight.

Then last Saturday, at around 10am Pacific Standard Time (6pm GMT), a rainbow appeared in the skies above Venice, Los Angeles, California.

It was as if the world had breathed a sigh of relief.

As history looks back on the Trump presidency, only time will tell whether it’s President-Elect Biden who makes America great again.

Back in 2003, when I was interviewed for what became my final job, I was asked about what strengths I brought to the role. ‘I will always admit to my mistakes,’ I remember saying. And it’s a tenet I stuck with through the intervening years both at and away from work. And continue to do so.

That said, I can be forthright in presenting evidence if the accusation is incomplete of the facts.

The problem is when accusations are made and the ‘accuser’, for want a better word, neither offers explanation nor substantiates their claim. When one is left in a state of limbo: left feeling ‘I honestly don’t know what I did wrong. Will someone please tell me!’

Those who have wronged us are sometimes, deep down inside, never truly forgiven. Anger, hurt and bitterness can be carried for years. Ruminating about what happened over and over again. Blaming other people. Blaming ourselves. Blaming God.

Having reminded his readers of Jesus’ words, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself,’ Paul’s letter to the Galatians highlights the cost of living in the desert of unresolved dispute: ‘If… you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another’. (Galatians 5:13-15)

When, in his victory speech that Saturday evening, Joe Biden quoted the words from the Bible that for America it was ‘A time for healing’ (Ecclesiastes 3) it was to strengthen another tenet that perhaps all of us can benefit from, whether Republican or Democrat, Tory or Socialist, church or, even, another church: “It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric, lower the temperature, see each other again, listen to each other again…. to make progress, we have to stop treating our opponents as enemies,” he said.

The desert of unresolved dispute is a harsh and barren place. Let us always be ones who bring water to such a land.

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us.

 

 

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