All in a Day’s Work

‘Behind the scenes’ documentaries have been part of TV viewing for decades and, with the growth in streaming alongside hundreds of channels, there are a multitude of different settings for the cameras to spy on.

One series I’ve enjoyed recently has been Channel 4’s The Yorkshire Jobcentre. Given my own career of nearly 40 years helping people to find or remain in employment that may not be a surprise.

Up until 2003, I worked in a variety of settings of what is now the Dept for Work & Pensions including in Jobcentres. The programmes have portrayed both job seeker (often maligned as scroungers) and job advisor (often portrayed as unhelpful bureaucrats) fairly and respectfully, observing difficulties and progress, frustration and commitment for both alike.

I certainly recognised the spectrum of customers from the harder to help long-term unemployed through to the harder to help professional and well-educated, and from the unrealistically ambitious to the desperately lacking in confidence. Similarly, I was fortunate to work alongside very committed colleagues, rejoicing together when someone got a job – but yes, there were a few who stuck to rules as if they’d written them.

The series certainly echoed my experience of it being an honour and a privilege to have played a small part in the lives of so many. Watching people make progress is a wonderful thing.

This coming Sunday’s Gospel reading is the parable of the labourers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). Like many of Jesus’ stories, it’s based on events happening in his time. An employer recruits labourers to work in his vineyard but to our 21st century ears, this parable would raise the hackles of any business person or union representative.

Taken literally, the concept of people who worked one hour and people who worked a full day being paid exactly the same would not go down well – as indeed it didn’t with some of the labourers in the vineyard.

But that’s missing the point of the parable. And the point is not a literal interpretation of the story being told – beyond the fact that for those labourers, among the poorest in 1st Century Palestine, working in the vineyard was a gift, a welcome source of employment.

One common interpretation of the parable is that the owner is God and the labourers are us; the vineyard is God’s kingdom and the wage that is agreed is not only the provision of our daily bread but also our salvation.

Rather than being unfair or unjust, God’s generosity transcends our human ideas of fairness. God is not answerable to the people and can do as he pleases with his gifts.

God’s gift is that everyone – rich and poor, powerful and powerless – receives the same.

In God’s economy, all of us are equally deserving so the reward is equal as well. The reward is not based on each person’s merit or quality or quantity of work but rather from the grace of the one who hires, the grace of God.

As God’s people we are to be those who work in the vineyard because it is a good thing to do rather than because we hope to earn merit or greater rewards or greater recognition by others.

That said, the work itself doesn’t have to be something highly visible or deemed to be more important than others – remember this parable features the poorest of society.

Whatever we do if we do it for the Lord and not for our own personal reward, we will bear witness to God’s kingdom and we will see God’s vineyard bearing fruit.

 

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Uncertain certainty

‘The virus has robbed us of many things. It continues to rob us of any certainty.’

In many ways, those words by BBC correspondent, Chris Mason sum up these last few months.

Our local churches have begun opening for public worship for the first time since March. Many might have hoped to go back to a place of certainty… but with its hand sanitisers, the wearing of face coverings, social distancing, and no hymns or coffee it too has changed. It’s different.

The Gospel reading for today (9 Aug) is very appropriate for the current time (Matthew 14:22-33). It’s an account of when the disciples were in their boat crossing Lake Galilee in the middle of the night. Not unusually, a storm blows up. The boat is blown around. And then out of the tumult, Jesus walks on the water towards them. Given their exhaustion and the darkness, it’s not surprising they think it’s a ghost.

But Peter knows it’s Jesus. Responding to Christ’s call, Peter steps out in faith on to the water… and then he noticed the wind.

Peter sinks down and is grasped by Jesus’ hand. Jesus then climbs back in the boat and calms the storm allowing the disciples to continue their journey.

Stepping out in faith is no guarantee that we will not hit troubled or stormy waters. You’ve probably had your own encounters of stepping out in faith and things being difficult. You will have stepped out… and then noticed the wind.

Jesus said to Peter: ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’

A cruel put-down or words of empathic reassurance?

Did Peter really have little faith? After all, nobody else got out of the boat.

So here we are. We of little faith. A little faith that enables us to step out in the storm. A faith which grasps the hand of Jesus as he reaches out to us.

Jesus places us safely in the boat. He climbs in with us. He calms the storm and takes us on our journey. A journey yes, in to uncharted waters. A journey of continuing change. But also a journey of certainty. A journey in which we will never be abandoned.

Whatever the change. Whatever the loss of certainty.

Do not be afraid.

 

 

(This post is a shortened version of a spoken reflection at St Michael’s, Teignmouth in Devon as it reopened for worship on 9 Aug and that included in the online service for that day.)

Anxious Times Again

In the beginning was the word, and the word was… anxiety.

My wife, Jane and I had just returned from some lovely winter sun in southern Spain when just a week or so later, the first impact of Coronavirus was being felt. Suddenly, things changed and things changed suddenly. It all seemed very unreal – rather like those feelings which accompany bereavement when we think we’re going to see the loved one we’ve lost only to remember that we have indeed lost them.

Indeed, there has been so much loss for so many. Loss of loved ones. Loss of liberty. Loss of the familiar. Loss of the activities and social contact that gave life to life. Loss of sleep. Loss of hugs. Loss of certainty.

It’s felt like life has had to begin again. Walking has become like driving along a country lane and finding ‘passing places’ to maintain social distancing. We’ve washed our hands til they’re sore. Some have been shielding while others clap. Every cough is significant and there’s a whole new meaning to the phrase, ‘Is it me or is it hot in here?’

I thank God I live where I live: far away from socially-crowded cities. I thank God the ten o’clock news is covering other stories again. I thank God I am a natural isolate. I thank God for God.

Yet now several weeks on, maybe the word is still anxiety. These are anxious times again. Anxiety about the easing of lockdown. Anxiety about going out. Anxiety about wearing a face covering. Anxiety about returning to school, the workplace, the shops, to church. Anxiety about becoming closer to others.

There is a difference between having anxious thoughts and having clinical anxiety (and if those feelings are affecting the ability to function then help may be needed [sooner rather than later]). But feeling anxious about the current times is perfectly natural and having anxious feelings does not make any of us a lesser person nor does it mean we are one of little faith.

God knows our anxieties. They are not hidden from God because God’s light is always there to overcome the shadow of their darkness.

‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. In him (in that Word, that Jesus) was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not (and does not, and will not) overcome it’ (John 1:1, 4-5)

 

This post is an extended version of some thoughts for the Diocese of Exeter’s Pause & Pray initiative.

Faith Seeking Understanding

One of my all-time favourite radio programmes is The Goon Show.

While not old enough to have heard the original broadcasts in the 1950s, I listened to countless episodes in my 20s and 30s in particular. Their surreal storylines, absurd logic, puns, catchphrases and groundbreaking sound effects influenced my own, at times rather weird, sense of humour. The Goons wouldn’t have been The Goons without all three of Harry Secombe, Spike Milligan and Peter Sellars – and yet they were also each brilliant as individuals in their own right.

Similarly, in a weird sort of way, one can’t think of the travellers from the East without thinking of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh – three separate gifts but all part of their singular worship of the young Christ.

June 7th is Trinity Sunday – the beginning of a lengthy season when we reflect on how God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, individually and together, play an important part in our life and faith as Christians. (Here’s a short film you may like watch as well.)

Many have tried to explain the Holy Trinity and many more have been confused by it. There are some Christians and even clergy who don’t even accept the concept of the Trinity. Others think Christians believe in three Gods and yes we perhaps don’t help ourselves by using phrases such as ‘Three in One God’.

Many have suggested ways of how we might understand the structure of the Trinity. Some have drawn a parallel with H2O – we find it in water, ice and steam – all different but still all H2O. You may like to think of the Trinity as a 3-stranded cord – each cord, each person of the Trinity is distinct but together are indivisible and mighty.

But none of those give us the whole picture because none show us the relationship between the three and that is an important aspect of understanding the nature of the Trinity.

As human beings, we have a natural disposition towards wanting and needing to understand things. We like to know the whys, the whats, the whens, the wheres, the hows. Indeed, one of the most difficult aspects of our lives is when things happen or don’t happen and we don’t understand why it was or what was going on. Many of us perhaps have those feelings right now in this time of Covid 19 and all that has happened in these last few months. There are probably other things which have taken place in your life about which you still don’t understand.  There certainly are in mine.

Paula Gooder is a theologian who specialises in the New Testament. She has the ability to convey tremendous academic knowledge in very plain, easy to understand language. Last September I heard her speak about the parables and how we are constantly looking to understand and to explain what Jesus was meaning through the telling of them. Paula Gooder pointed out that even the disciples didn’t always get what Jesus was talking about – and they were with him all the time.

‘Most parables are meant to make us go “What?”’, she said. ‘The problem is that we put an interpretation and meaning on them – we struggle with parables because we think we know what they mean.’

For me, that’s the same with understanding the Trinity.

In other words, we do not have to understand absolutely everything about the Trinity, or any other aspect of our faith.

I have often reflected on and quoted to others the serenity prayer

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
the courage to change the things I can;
and the wisdom to know the difference.

And I wonder if in our ability, inability and perhaps lack of necessity to fully understand things we can substitute the word change with the word understand:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot
understand;
the courage to
understand the things I can;
and the wisdom to know the difference.

Our belief is, as St Anselm put it, about ‘faith seeking understanding’ – whatever that looks like for each one of us

 

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Come, Holy Spirit

Pentecost is the time when, a few days after Jesus ascended in to Heaven, we remember the coming of the Holy Spirit to the apostles. But what of us, moving through all the post-Easter weeks & finding ourselves at Pentecost once again? What place does the Holy Spirit have in our own lives?

The Holy Spirit is often referred to as the third person of the Trinity. Indeed, we often speak of God the Father, God the Son (Jesus) and God the Holy Spirit. Many churches will say a creed or a statement of faith using words such as ‘We believe in the Holy Spirit’ and services often end with a blessing in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

In a communion service, the spirit is invited to come down upon the people and the bread and the wine but in many churches there is often very little teaching or discussion about the Holy Spirit. Whereas in others, such as in the Pentecostal movement, Protestant and Roman Catholic charismatic churches, and some evangelical churches, the Holy Spirit takes centre stage and is manifested in many different and often dramatic ways.

Recorded by the Gospel-writer, Luke in Acts Chapter 2, coming 10 days after the Ascension and 50 after Easter (Pentecost is the Greek for ‘fiftieth’), this appearance of the Holy Spirit as promised by Jesus must have been a dramatic event.

This same Holy Spirit comes upon us today, enabling us to be a community of believers, a community of faith, which joins us in belonging to each other and belonging to God – even in these times where are unable to gather together in the building we call church, we remain the church of God.

So what is the purpose of the Holy Spirit in our lives?

  • The Spirit is sometimes called a comforter: we often experience comfort through a person (or perhaps an item or a place) that reassures us or makes us comfortable. The spirit is also with us to give comfort through such people or directly through prayer and presence.
  • The Spirit is an advocate: someone to stand alongside us; someone who might speak for us, or speak up for us – that’s what the Holy Spirit does; the word also suggests a lawyer who defends us. The Spirit is sometimes considered as a liberator – offering us freedom.
  • The Spirit is also thought of a guide: guiding us to pray for someone or contact someone. These might be thought of as ‘holy nudges’ – those little prompts that show us how God is at work through the Holy Spirit.

There is a lot more to the Holy Spirit than that too – so maybe take a look at this film offering a further reflection.

In his book, Behold the Beauty of the Lord, Henri Nouwen writes:

‘Let us go back in time. In the story of the Exodus, God is revealed as God for us, father-like – guiding the people out of slavery with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Later, in the story of Jesus, we have Immanuel – God with us – the Son of God accompanying the people in solidarity and compassion. Now in the story of Pentecost, God is revealed as God within us – we are enabled to breathe the divine life ourselves. Thus, Pentecost completes the mystery of God’s revelation as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. By becoming not only a God for us and a God with us, but also God within us, God offers the full knowledge of the divine life.’

God is for us. God is with us. God is within us.

God is for you. God is with you. God is within you.

Come, Holy Spirit

 

 

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On Earth as it is in Heaven

In comparison to Christmas and Holy Week and Easter, Ascension Day (21 May) often just passes us by.

Even if we were able to meet in our churches, because it’s a Thursday, the congregation may be very small and rather like some of the other events in the church year, such as Ash Wednesday or some saints’ days, we may not fully understand what it is we are actually marking.

We are of course keen to commemorate the first day of Jesus’ life on earth at Christmas and yet we can totally overlook this, the last day of his earthly ministry.

Simply put, 40 days have passed between Easter Day, the day of resurrection, and the day of ascension, when Jesus went up from a mountain on the outskirts of Bethany, watched by his followers, in to heaven to be with God (see Acts 1:6-11). 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.

Well, do take a look at this short film to explore the importance and meaning of the Ascension in more detail but 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.

The Ascension and other similar events stretch our minds and our imaginations because we live in an earthly sense and not yet in a heavenly one. As Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 13:12, ‘Now, we see through a glass, darkly.’ We do not yet see face to face.

We do not yet see the heavenly aspects – we get glimpses of heaven but we are human beings and not yet divine beings.

As Ronald Cole-Turner put it: ‘Just as the incarnation – God becoming human in the form of Jesus – reveals to us the outreach of the love of God, so the ascension reveals to us the transfiguration and the gathering up that is to come at the end. What happens to Jesus Christ – death, resurrection, and being raised in exultation to glory – will happen to us all. The Ascension… is a reminder that our lives are caught up in something far more grand than we can imagine.’

So if we see the Ascension of Jesus as an assurance for the present here on earth and a promise of what is to come in heaven, in other words, on Earth as it is in Heaven

  • What does the Ascension mean for you in your life here on earth?
  • And what glimpses of heaven do you see?

 

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Holy Week & Easter

While it will feel strange not being able to mark the most important week in the Christian Year in our churches, we can also know that God can bless us in new ways at this time.

Using art, words, music and silence, these two films reflects on some of the events of Holy Week and Easter.

The films are divided in to parts so can be watched one day at a time if you wish. Click on the links to watch:

Palm Sunday to Thursday

Good Friday to Easter Day

A full list of the films in the Out of the Wilderness series can be found here.

Wednesday in Holy Week is traditionally called a Silent Day because the Bible doesn’t indicate what happened on that day. So why not have your own personal Quiet Day using these 3 films?

Unity in Diversity

The church was full (for once). The visiting preacher had drawn a big congregation. Children played in the far corner. We sat, ready to hear the preacher’s message about the importance of inclusivity. “Children shouldn’t be allowed in church” said the voice of someone behind me. “What are those parents thinking. They should be keeping them quiet.” And on they went. An argument broke out in The Peace. “When my children came to church, they were quiet. Such a shame they’ve spoiled a good service.” I received communion and left. It wasn’t the children who spoiled it.*

On visiting another church (in another team) a while back, I was talking to the vicar at the end of the service. He asked what I did where I lived. “I’m married to the vicar,” I replied. “Ah, there we have a problem,” came his response as he moved on to the next person.

Another time, another place. A Roman Catholic monastery. It’s Mass. I’m Anglican. I’m not allowed to receive that most special gift of bread and wine.

With the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity beginning on 18 January, the ironic fact is that scenarios such as the three shown above will be played out in many churches across the land.

Many organisations experience issues of unity and disunity. Social clubs, workplaces, political parties, campaigning groups… It’s natural when a group of people come together. There are going to be agreements and disagreements. There may be a unity about the purpose – but it’s often the variations which cause difficulties: ‘Oh no, we do it this way…’. The Church is no different.

Disunity can be found within the most respectable of congregations. ‘Power holders’ and ‘blockers’ sit alongside the ‘co-operators’ and ‘team players’. Local/parish churches being brought together under the guise of a ‘team’ struggle to move on from valued historical individuality and identity. And that’s without thinking of the disputes between and within denominations at a national and international level…

A week praying for Christian unity in such a seemingly disunited Church?

The Church (with a capital C) is, thankfully, not perfect. It comprises a very diverse group of individuals. It is open to all: believer, non-believer, not sure believer; people who do ‘church’ but don’t do God. (And, as Nadia Bolz-Weber once put it, ‘Be careful when you say, “All are welcome”. The problem is they show up.’)

Francis Chan wrote, ‘I don’t believe God wants our church life to be centred on buildings and services. Instead, God wants our churches—whatever specific forms our gatherings take—to be focused on active discipleship, mission, and the pursuit of unity.’

Thankfully, the Church (the people) finds its unity in the knowledge that Christian believers, in all their diversity, represent the presence of Christ on earth.

It is in that diversity that unity exists.

 

 

*Taken from A Story to Tell

2020 Vision

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?

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And the winner is…

Well, it’s nearly that time. Time to cast your vote.

During the last few weeks all the candidates have been persuading us which of them is to be the winner. They’ve shown us why they think they’re the best and we’ve seen why they might not be. Each saying, ‘Follow me’. Each judged for how they’ve performed.

So, who’s getting your vote?

Well, there’s only one person in it really… Anton du Beke.

After 17 seasons of Strictly Come Dancing surely it’s got to be Anton this time… His celebrity partner has done well but I’m sure many will vote just so he can be crowned Strictly champion. Nobody deserves it more.

In today’s celebrity obsessed world, popularity is often governed by how many ‘followers’ one has. Take Anton, for instance, 244,000 on Twitter. Take me, for instance, 130…

Christianity has its own ‘celebrities’ too – preachers, teachers, musicians, poets, authors, clergy who are followed around the circuit of conferences and festivals. Even local churches have their favourites with Sunday congregations deciding whether or not to go based on who’s taking the service.

As in previous years, the Church of England has encouraged us to ‘Follow the Star’ at Christmas. No, not to worship your favourite celebrity but to follow daily reflections for the season’s 12 days. From Christmas Day and on to Epiphany when we remember the visit of the kings who came searching for the Christ-child.

Daily reflections during the current period of Advent (such as that by fellow BRF author Amy Scott-Robinson) can set a helpful pattern too – and why not take a look at my own book, Life with St Benedict to carry on this everyday practice throughout the New Year?

Focussing our thoughts on Christmas in these next few days and beyond is helpful to understanding the true meaning of Christ’s life.

Here is someone who invites each of us to become one of his followers. ‘Follow me,’ he said to the first disciples. ‘Follow me,’ he said the hundreds and thousands of women, men and children who lived around him at that time. ‘Follow me,’ he says to each one of us today.

But what does that mean – to follow Jesus?

It’s not about leaving our work or our home life. In asking them to follow him, Jesus didn’t tell the disciples to stop being fisherman. They continued what they did for their community and their family. Jesus recognised the day to day practicalities of their lives and the responsibilities they had. And that is true for each of us.

In his letters to the churches, Paul encourages us to imitate Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1), to imitate God (Ephesians 5:1). Following Jesus is partly about trying to be like him. And while most of us are not a healer, miracle-worker or even teacher in the way Jesus was, we can imitate him in other ways.

Look through the Gospels and we read about the times Jesus spent with other people. Times when he cared for others, when he wept, laughed, sat down and ate meals. He listened to people, young and old, rich and poor, healthy and sick. He showed others love. He spent time in prayer – sometimes with others but, more importantly, alone. Follow me he says – follow me by doing the things I do. Many of us do things like that.

Speaking at a conference I recently attended, Ian Mobsby put it like this: ‘find out what God is doing and join in’.

More controversially, of course, these same Gospels tell us how Jesus challenged the leaders of the day. He challenged false doctrines and mistaken importances; he challenged wrongdoing and injustice. So in this election week, as we each decide who to follow and wait to see who the winner is, there is a message there too.

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