From Being Comes Doing

The retreat was long overdue. The pandemic had put paid not once but twice to Alton Abbey, my spiritual home, and Boris had wrecked two weeks’ annual leave in June. The best part of a year had passed since I last had ‘a period of solitary refinement’ as someone once put it.

I’d been to Sheldon many times for Quiet Days and meetings. But this was different. Four days, three nights. No conversation, no e-mail, no internet.  No church or family demands. Tangible ‘things to do’ complemented the intangible expectation that God may have ‘things to do’ also.

The ‘Welcome Pack’ speaks: ‘May this be a place where you… draw rest, silence, healing and vision.’

Umm… Rest. It had been a busy, far too busy, few months. As punishing as it was rewarding.

There had been little silence – in part, because I hadn’t made enough of it.

Healing? Yes, the hurts of ‘church chunterings’ required soothing balm.

Vision? Something to be seen when not looking for it, maybe?

So God showed his hand straight away.

I am to do nothing.

It is strange (and at times uncomfortable) to be in a place of not doing anything but simply to be. I don’t want to ‘waste the time’ here but don’t want the pressure of thinking ‘What shall I do now?’

Yet, ‘What shall I be now?’ is somewhat more tricky.

AA Milne wrote: “Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits…”

I sit on a bench.

The ground is rough and stony. Dead plants being strangled by living weeds is a good metaphor.

But so is the view from the bench. The vibrant trees and the rolling hills. The silence.

Silence is not the absence of noise but the feeling of it. Being still within it. Surrounded and embraced by it.

‘Speak through the earthquake, wind and fire,
O still small voice of calm’

From being comes doing – not the other way around.

On God alone, my soul in stillness waits; 
from him comes my salvation.

He alone is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold
so that I shall never shaken.

(Psalm 62:1-2)

 

 

Decisions, decisions

One hundred years ago today, in a small, two-up, two-down, terraced house in Bury, Lancashire, Maria and John welcomed their new son, Tom.

Their second child, he was the eldest: his parents lost a daughter a year before the war started. Maria had worked at the cotton factory at the end of the road. Not long back from the trenches, John had taken up his trade as a stonemason again.  A bright lad, Tom won a scholarship to the local Grammar School and served in the RAF throughout the second war before becoming a career civil servant.

Peace came and so did Renee. A daughter was born but death also played its part in Tom’s life. His father died the day after this writer came in to being. Seventeen years on, he lost both Maria and Renee in the space of 3 months and was widowed a second time four years before his own passing in 2008.

They say like father, like son. In many respects, we were and are quite different. But there are some similarities. I have the same cough and, albeit not as dramatic as his, the same sneeze. My own career bore some similarities to his. He learnt to drive late in life, as I did, but I lack his ability to dance and to socialise.

We were not close, but neither were we distant. I realise now how little I acknowledged his grief for Renee at the time (I was too obsessed with my own). I think I made him proud but he rarely said that – well, to me at least. I enjoyed the deepening friendship in his latter years, however. Rarely seen, he was always there – and that was an invaluable quality. I guess I probably know him better now than I did when he was alive.

I was born, he once told me, “Because we wanted you.” At the time, that made some sense: my sister is 9 years older than me and they’d lost a baby in-between. But in just these last few weeks, I learnt that such was their desire for another child, they had been considering adoption. But nature took its course and along I came.

My dad always let me make my own decisions – especially with career choices but in other aspects too: even when they were ‘wrong’ or didn’t work out well. That’s one thing I have tried to pass on to my own children.

That approach reminds me of one of Jesus’ most well-known parables: the story of the prodigal son. Here was a father who let his youngest child make decisions. A decision to take the money and run. A decision to leave home. A decision to waste it all. A decision to acknowledge the mistake. A decision to return to his father. And all that time, the father wanted his son.

The parable shows us that God lets us make our own decisions.

But it’s easy to blame God for the ‘wrong’ decisions we make, isn’t it: or perhaps, more accurately, for what happens afterwards. ‘Right’ decisions sometimes don’t work out that well. But if things go wrong, is it really God’s fault? By contrast, it can often take far more effort to give credit to God for when things work out for the best.

The parable also shows that God makes decisions.

God makes the decision to be always watching for us. When we come running to God, God makes the decision to run to us. God makes the decision to put loving arms around us.

No matter who we are.

No matter what we’ve done.

 

.

Life begins again

Well, you don’t need me to tell you what strange times we are living in. And how much life has changed since the last full blog post on Ash Wednesday. Little did we know what we would be giving up for Lent.

Along with ‘Coronavirus’ and ‘Covid-19’, terms such as ‘self-isolating’ and ‘social distancing’ have entered our vocabulary as if they have always been present. We’re told to ‘stay at home’. Many are being ‘shielded’. Others are called ‘key workers’ – and doing far, far more than ‘just their job’.

There is death. And plenty of it. Death on a scale not seen in this country (and many others) since the Second World War. Death has not lost its sting. Families are unable to be with their loved one. People dying, sometimes alone, sometimes with the strangers who cared for them. Mourned in public by few or none.

And yet, within it all. Within all the tragedy, the grief and the fear. There is, remarkably, hope.

  • A reduction in air pollution (civilisation being given one more chance to address the causes of climate change perhaps…).
  • In some places (but not in all), people are slowing down (a helping hand to deal with increasingly poor mental wellbeing maybe…).
  • A resurgence of communities caring for one another (an antidote to modern society’s self-isolating behaviour…)
  • A renewal of respect for those who serve the public in often unappreciated and oft-criticised ways (blessed are the meek…)
  • The Church, the community of believers, rediscovering and discovering other ways of being one in Christ. As Luke Coppen put it, ‘Christianity began amid defeat and despair… this won’t be the end, rather a new beginning.’ (The Spectator 11.4.20)

And yet, within it all. Life for most people has been turned upside down. Many are finding aspects of the current times difficult. Gone are all the normal activities and usual freedoms. Many are struggling with unprecedented change. Many find it frightening. Many are anxious and worried.

All those are normal feelings and having them doesn’t mean your faith is lacking – nor does it mean that God is absent (even if it may feel that way at times).

In some respects, life is beginning again…

Finding stability in times of such change is key to living in these current times and beyond. Many are writing about the relevance of St Benedict’s teaching to our modern day lives and experiences – so much so, there’s been at least four books published in the last year. Laurentia Johns OSB writes about the ‘blessings of beginnings’ and former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams has written about how ‘Benedictine stability is the context in which we learn to sit still with whatever company arrives, in the confidence that God in Christ sits still with us.’

In helpful contrast, award-winning, American journalist Judith Valente reflects on the Rule of St Benedict in How to Live: a book which is ‘about living—not just surviving… a book about how to live a balanced, meaningful, and conscious life rooted in the ancient and time-tested wisdom of the Rule.’

The Rule of St Benedict provides a rhythm for prayer and reflection through its four-monthly pattern of daily readings. That pattern is also about to begin again – on 2 May – and you may like to use my book of everyday reflections,  Life with St Benedict as a way of building such a rhythm of stability: one that  relates this ancient Bible-based wisdom to the ordinary and not so ordinary aspects of life. (There are some films to help you find stability in these times of change and uncertainty also).

There is nothing good about this pandemic but there is good that is coming out of it. And it’s to be hoped that when this is all over, we don’t completely revert to how things used to be as we learn how to begin life again.

 

 

.

Finding Stability in Times of Change

At this time of major change in the way we live our lives and with many people feeling isolated, anxious or unsettled, I’ve put together some short films to help provide some stability.

Click on this link to find out more and to watch them.

Listening to Silence

There are two things that I really dislike. One is hot food that is already going cold by the time I start to eat it. The other is when someone talks over me when I’m speaking. You know (or at least I hope you do… or else it’s just me…) when your sentences are completed by the person you’re talking to. Or they think they know what you’re trying to say – and then they say it.

Such occurrences often indicate we’re not being listened to. And I have to admit that in such circumstances, I have resorted to giving what Paddington Bear would call ‘a hard stare’ and starting my sentence all over again just to make the point.

We all do something else too (or at least I hope you do… or else it really is just me…). We’re with somebody, they’re talking and instead of listening we’re thinking of what to say in response.

It was possibly long before 55AD when Epictetus, the Greek philosopher said, “You were born with two ears and one mouth for a reason… so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”

I expect we can all recall times when we’ve felt listened to – and what a difference it made. And then there are those occasions when we’ve come away from somewhere and not felt listened to at all. The verbal equivalent of a hot meal going cold.

Mary Lou Casey put it like this: “What most people really need is a good listening to.” And such listening often requires silence.

I guess many would agree with the principle of that, but silence is often difficult, isn’t it? If there’s a gap in the conversation, we can feel compelled to fill it rather than experience the awkwardness or embarrassment of what to say next. Being silent takes practice.

Rachel Joyce’s novel, The Music Shop, tells how as a child, the central character Frank would sit with his mum, Peg and listen to music. On one occasion, they prepare to listen to Beethoven’s 5th:

‘‘Brace yourself,’ she said. ‘Here comes the most famous four notes in history.’ Da da da dum. The sound crept out of the silence like a great beast emerging from the sea. Da da da dum. ‘Hear that?… You heard the little pause in the middle?… There is silence inside music too.’… Over time, Peg played all the silences she loved.’

Loving silence takes practice. The ability to be silent with others – and to be allowed to be silent – can often be a true mark of how comfortable we are in their company.

If being silent with other people is difficult then how much more it can be with God. Or at least it can seem that way. It is, at times, undoubtedly difficult to discern what God is saying – and how often we complete God’s sentences in the process.

God does use words and also actions, events and circumstances to speak to us. St John of the Cross also described silence as the ‘first language of God’.

‘Our words are too fragile. God’s silence is too deep,’ writes Barbara Brown Taylor. ‘Silence is as much a sign of God’s presence as of God’s absence – divine silence is not a vacuum to be filled but a mystery to be entered into.’

Silence frees us from some of the distractions of everyday life and allows us to listen and to give intentional attention to God. And yet, being silent doesn’t automatically mean that God will speak. It’s easy to think, ‘Right, your turn now, God.’

We sit in silence, wanting to hear God’s voice, just like the Old Testament figure, Samuel: ‘Speak, for your servant is listening’ (1 Samuel 3:10). And we may well hear it in such times but God also ‘speaks through the earthquake, wind and fire,’ as the hymn puts it. Speaks through the noise that surrounds us. Speaks at times when we are not expecting it.

God is always listening to us. As we talk to God, unlike with other people, it is important that we allow God to speak over what we’re saying. To complete our sentences for us. To say what we are trying to say.

God’s words and love are like a hot meal that does not go cold. And is one which we are invited to eat.

Unnumbered Blessings

It’s very easy to focus on problems, isn’t it? Just like I did in the last blog post! Indeed, it seems to take far more effort to ‘count our blessings’.

Within the events of the last few weeks, some of which were described in that last post, God has also blessed. Living in yet another idyllic part of Devon, evening walks by the sea and time spent exploring the neighbourhood make us think, ‘Are we on holiday or do we actually live here?’! We have been made to feel so welcome – not just the 200 people who came to the licensing service but also our neighbours and individuals from all around the six churches who have been so lovely and so kind. (Oh yes, and then there was Wembley again. The Who. ‘What makes him so good…’)

But (briefly, this time) back to the problems. Within just 3 days of the ‘car mangling’, not only had the perpetrator settled and paid up, but we were also able to find a new to us vehicle. But the blessing wasn’t just finding a second-hand car in a very short space of time. Neither that it simply suited Jane’s practical needs. It was, perhaps more importantly, one in which she can locate her identity: a vicar in a bright red Fiat 500! It says something of the person God has made her to be.

And on that very same day… we met Daisy. Daisy is a 4-year-old Cocker Spaniel who’s just had her third and final litter of pups. As well as this other unexpectedly quick provision, what was also remarkable is that Daisy’s been living with a lady who we’ve never met before but who brought our last dog, Pip in to the world nearly 12 years ago. Daisy needed a home and we needed a dog (and need is not an exaggeration). A dog for our home, for our family and our ministry. God knew exactly what we needed – and it wasn’t ‘just a dog’.

These remarkable answers to prayer and underserved blessings weren’t just that God brought both things together on exactly the same day in the midst of all that was changing. If that wasn’t enough, it is also that God should provide these very practical, down to earth things in our lives when we already have so much.

God’s provision of the practical things in life is one sign – just one sign – of the enormity of his love graciously given and available to all. And it is sometimes a struggle to find the words to adequately voice our response to that love. So let me defer to two others who have done so – and perhaps you might find these words helpful when you are counting your blessings:

Mary, the mother of Jesus:

‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.’ (from Luke 1:46-55)

Those words, from what became known as ‘The Magnificat’, inspired the first ever hymn written by English hymn writer and priest, Timothy Dudley-Smith:

Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord!
Unnumbered blessings give my spirit voice.

Amidst life’s problems and its joys, it is often the unnumbered blessings that really give our spirit voice.

What the devil is going on?

Well, dear reader, it’s been quite a fortnight since the last blog post.

Having supervised her two charges through their ecclesiastical removal, Pip peacefully moved on to her heavenly kennel. (Yes, there will be dogs in heaven – after all, dog is God spelt backwards…). Her loss is huge both to us as a family and, in particular, to Jane’s work – not least as she begins the next stage of her ministry.

Then, after going to a rather disappointing concert by Fleetwood Mac at Wembley Stadium, the Vicar’s husband returns home to discover that the Vicar’s Mini had been recycled by the recycling lorry (reversing clearly not being the driver’s strong point…). Thankfully Jane was not in it at the time – indeed, not even at home when it happened. But another loss all the same.

So, not the trouble-free period we’d hoped for. Here we are, sent to this new place to do work for God and this all happens. What the devil is going on!

Many Christians talk about having a personal relationship with the living and loving God but fewer openly acknowledge the presence of a living and not so loving Devil. ‘Evil’ is ‘Live’ spelt backwards and the Devil does have ways of making such living difficult. We might even talk about being under ‘spiritual attack’ – for example, doing God’s work but facing opposition in it and believing that things that go wrong are from the Devil.

So, were Pip’s death, the car being written off, a disappointing concert and the impact of the loss of familiar places and routines things of the Devil?

No. He’s more intelligent than that.

Were they symbols of spiritual attack? Yes, quite possibly. But not in themselves. They were, as Lemony Snicket might put it, ‘a series of unfortunate events’.

However, it can be the case that the Devil uses such events to ‘attack’: challenging and undermining our sense of identity and our faith and trust in God. He tells lies and distorts the truth. He touches our weak spots. He messes with our minds and our understanding about God. ‘Oh, so you thought you were doing what God wanted you to do, did you? Well, look at all these nasty things that have happened. You must have got it wrong… perhaps you’ve even sinned and this is your punishment…’

Thankfully, we know where the truth lies – and that has been shown by what happened next. It was quite remarkable! But more about that in the next post on 8 July (why not Subscribe so you can be sure to find out what happened!)

Jesus himself had such an encounter with the Devil – and it came immediately before he began the next stage of his ministry. Out in the wilderness for 40 days and nights, he was tempted by the Devil three times: (1) ‘You must be hungry… turn these stones in to bread’ (2) ‘You think you are so powerful… and you can prove it, can’t you? Go on, jump.’ (3) ‘Worship me – and I’ll give you everything in the world!’ (Matthew 4:1-11)

The Devil tried to mess with Jesus’ mind and his mission. The late Bob Gass wrote “Satan tried to get Jesus to succumb to three different kinds of temptation, and he’ll try the same with you.”

Yes, life is difficult at times. Bad things happen. So where does the truth lie?

Describing God as a being a like a mother hen protecting her brood from a marauding fox (aka the Devil), Nadia Bolz-Weber once said, ‘The mother hen offers us a place of shelter and love so we know where we belong. The fox still exists. The danger is not optional. The fear is. Under the protective wings, we are loved.’

Protected and loved. That is where the truth lies.

As the Psalmist put it…

‘I love you, O Lord, my strength.
The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer,
    my God, my rock in whom I take refuge,
    my shield…. my salvation, my stronghold.

‘His way is perfect;
    the promise of the Lord proves true;
    he is a shield for all who take refuge in him.’ (Psalm 18: 1,2,30)

All Change

We counted them in and we counted them out. 77 boxes packed up by Wotton’s wonderful removal people and unpacked by two rather tired occupants in less than a week. So much other stuff too – furniture, pictures, books, things that have moved untouched from attic to attic, garage to garage. For Jane and I, it was our eighth move together in 28 years of marriage. We’re well-practised!

Having myself moved 21 times, in one sense I can’t even begin to understand what it’s like for people who have lived in the same place for 20, 30, 40 years or more. I guess to an extent I thrive on change – whether that’s a change of place, a change of job status, a change in being the person I am. I find it invigorating. A time to begin a new chapter in life. Yes, there are unhelpful aspects to that personality trait: I regret immediately cutting loose from school friends (it’s a long story…), for example. And in the intervening years, losing contact with many others I’d hoped would stay in touch – people I thought I meant something to. That said, I’m not very good at maintaining contact so it cuts both ways… change can also be hard.

Many people find change difficult, of course. I think of the Ford engine plant workers in Bridgend and the local cafes, shops, suppliers, contractors, child care facilities and many others who will lose customers as a result of its closure. Then there’s the elderly man diagnosed with a terminal illness. The small business owner whose partner disappears leaving her to run it single-handed. The person about to start a new job (like my wife…). Change can be daunting and unsettling.

Our own move also brings to mind the people who will be affected by our arrival. There will be expectations of us and comparisons with others. We will please and we will disappoint. Change can be humbling and also a privilege as we become temporary, fellow travellers.

It’s very easy in times of change to be swept along by the uncertainty and the unknown. To be consciously incompetent. We can also just as easily forget that that which stays the same provides stability – whether it’s furniture, pictures, books… and, for us, our dog, Pip. Albeit in a poorly state, she has made this house her home more quickly than we did (finding a dead blackbird on her first venture into the garden probably helped!). Pip has been a constant companion in a time of change.* In times of change there is often plenty that remains the same.

If we allow it to be so, God’s constant companionship provides stability in times of change. A stability built on trust in God. A stability built on intentional prayer – spending time with God. A stability which abides in God’s love.

Now you’d expect me to say all that. Indeed, it’s easy to say things such as ‘trust in God’, ‘spending time with God’, ‘abides in God’s love’, isn’t it. They can become clichés. Phrases that trip off the tongue. Spoken without truly, inwardly knowing the full and enormous depths of the total and absolute truths they contain.

Trusting God in times of change.

Spending time with God in times of change.

Abiding in the love of God in times of change.

With God, we become increasingly aware that in order to change, stability is needed; and in order to be stable, we are also to change.

.

*Postscript: the day after this post was first published Pip moved peacefully to her heavenly kennel. ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’.

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.

 

New for 2020, Out of the Wilderness – a series of films to watch for Lent, Holy Week & Easter

 

 

Time to Talk

The first Thursday in February is the annual Time to Talk Day. It’s another opportunity to raise awareness about mental health.

Many more people now speak openly about their experience of depression, anxiety or other more severe and enduring conditions such as bi-polar disorder or psychosis. With one in four of us seeking help from a doctor about a mental health problem at some point in life, it is encouraging to see the increased recognition of the importance of looking after our mental wellbeing.

Indeed, when we talk about ‘mental health awareness’, fact is most people are actually talking about mental illness. Thinking about the conditions, the problems, the stigma, the discrimination.

So, it’s important that we also think about our mental health – the ways in which we keep our mind healthy.

‘Mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community’. (WHO)

That’s a very positive statement. A lot of people spend a lot of time, energy and money looking after their physical health – exercise, diet etc – but I wonder how many of us put the same amount of effort in to keeping ourselves mentally well?

Being mentally unwell is not a weakness. Indeed, it is often those who are the most conscientious and dedicated who experience such difficulties. Depression, for example, has been called ‘the curse of the strong’. 

Feeling anxious or depressed at certain times is perfectly normal. We’re bound to feel anxious if we’re facing an important exam or a relative is in hospital, for example. It’s natural to feel down or low after a bereavement or the break up of a relationship. Indeed, those emotions and responses are a necessary part of who we are as human beings – and integral to our ability to cope with difficult situations and to live well.

But it is right to be concerned when those feelings or symptoms affect our ability to function. When they affect our ability to live well. When we feel bothered by them. When work, sleep, family life and other everyday matters are increasingly affected. If such things are happening every day for more than two weeks, help needs to be sought.

The difficulty is that a lot of people don’t seek help that quickly. We feel we ‘ought’ or ‘should’ be able to cope. We might tell ourselves ‘not to be so stupid’. Others might tell us to ‘pull ourselves together’. It can be difficult to talk – but as this short film shows it’s important to do so.

Asking for help is not a sign of failure. Although the act, or even the very thought, of seeking help can feel frightening. We may be scared of ‘what will come out’ or worried about ‘what’s wrong’ or what other people will think.

Asking for help is a sign of strength. But it is important to be realistic. Although God can and does enable miraculous healing, generally speaking, there is no quick fix. Medication may help but isn’t always necessary. However, it will take time and effort – which is in itself part of the reason why so many people end up struggling for so long: simply because it takes so much time and so much effort.

The good news is that people get better. Recovery does happen. Unlike many physical health conditions, though, recovery from a period of mental ill health may not mean the complete absence of symptoms but it will see the return to a more comfortable level of day to day functioning. To once again live well.

So, what do you do to look after your mental health? Are you working all the hours God sends and missing out on all the other things God wants to give you?

It’s not so much about work-life balance: it’s about whole life balance. It’s about work, rest and pray. It’s about having time for others perhaps through work (be that paid or unpaid; or in the family home or elsewhere); time for ourself through rest and recreation; time for God through prayer and listening.

As quoted in a previous post, ‘You will live with your mind for the rest of your life, so make it a good companion.’

The above is an edited version of a sermon preached by the author at Portsmouth Cathedral on 3 February 2019 on Mental Health Awareness Sunday. Listen here to full talk.