As the period of Advent begins, time to take some time out in the busyness of the Christmas season. A special quiet morning led by Revd Jane & Richard Frost. More details to come but please contact Richard if you would like to attend.
We continue to live in times of unprecedented and unsettling change and uncertainty. At a time when change is often feared, stability can be elusive, and busyness interferes with listening to God, this quiet morning offers an opportunity for space and reflection.
There will be two short talks, times of silence and prayer. The event takes place at St James’ Church, Exeter and is led by Richard Frost. There is no charge but donations will be requested to help cover costs.
All are welcome and please contact Richard to book a place.
The first hour lasted for ages. It was cold. The seating was not exactly comfortable. The people around me talked while those taking part enacted their ritual and well-practiced actions. There were things going on which would seem strange to uninitiated.
No, not church… it was good to be at county cricket again after so many years.
And that first hour… That stage in a new experience when the unfamiliar lingers long, before the later moments rush by too fast… That first hour provided an unexpected presence of peace. I wanted it to last forever.
Depending on whether you are Indian or English it may or may not seem appropriate, but I am of course by far the first person to draw parallels between life and a game of cricket.
During our lives we can often be on the receiving end of the occasional googly, the random bouncer or find ourselves either stumped or caught out. We might even be like England (or indeed Somerset who I was watching last week) and suffer a complete collapse.*
But there are also those occasions when we strike a well-deserved boundary or even a six. All the same, in the traditional long game there are times when it’s all rather uneventful – although some may feel their life is more like the fast and furious T20 or The Hundred.
We talk of the long-lived as having had ‘a good innings’ and reflecting on my stay at the crease so far, moments of sheer happiness (hitting a six perhaps) are fairly few and far between and often short-lived. But I am content to play the game until the umpire calls stumps. There is peace in that contentment even when someone or something nearly runs me out.
Life is a long game. And so is prayer. If we approach prayer in the spirit of only having a set number of overs we find ourselves caught and bowled quite quickly. Prayer is not a test match.
Prayer is a long game and, in the same way the fielding side stays on the pitch for the whole innings, is a case of enacting ritual and well-practiced actions.
Ready. Waiting. In position. Responding.
I was reminded recently that in his book, You are the Beloved, Henri Nouwen puts what I’m getting at much more eloquently by using a totally different metaphor:
Dear Lord, today I thought of the words of Vincent van Gogh: “It is true there is an ebb and flow, but the sea remains the sea.” You are the sea. Although I experience many ups and downs in my emotions and often feel great shifts and changes in my inner life, you remain the same. Your sameness is not the sameness of a rock, but the sameness of a faithful lover. Out of your love I came to life, by your love I am sustained, and to your love I am always called back. There are days of sadness and days of joy; there are feelings of guilt and feelings of gratitude; there are moments of failure and moments of success; but all of them are embraced by your unwavering love…
O Lord, sea of love and goodness, let me not fear too much the storms and winds of my daily life, and let me know there is ebb and flow but the sea remains the sea. Amen.
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*This post was published on the day England lost the fourth test match against India – and coincidentally, Somerset fell to a second consecutive defeat by an innings… hey ho.
‘Sometimes I sit and think, sometimes I just sit.’
The last twenty years has seen an increase in awareness of mental health issues. The last twenty years has also seen a resurgence in the use of mindfulness. The two are not unrelated.
Adopting the philosophy of Winnie-the-Pooh (not forgetting his erstwhile companion, AA Milne), taking time to just sit is in many ways representative of the mindfulness approach. To be ‘in the moment’. We spend a lot of lives worrying or having anxious thoughts based on the past and on the future. The basic principle of mindfulness is to focus on the present.
Commonly acknowledged having its roots in Buddhism, mindfulness has been adopted and adapted by people of other faiths and those of none. It’s an approach which works for some and not for others.
The same is true of different approaches to prayer. Some thrive with the structured liturgy used for centuries by the church (itself adapted and adopted in different ways). Others find their approach to prayer is one that is free-flowing and extemporary. Some may use objects like a candle or an icon to aid their intercessions. The comedian Frank Skinner, in his excellent and somewhat quirky A Comedian’s Prayer Book reflected on his use of the Rosary alongside what he calls his ‘freeform chats’: ‘The Rosary is a tighter structure, so I guess that will operate like a supporting rhythm, while these prayers are like the improvised solo: some bum notes but some exhilarating discoveries.’
In the approach taken by Benedictines and one I explore a little in my own book, Life with St Benedict, the method of lectio divina can be very helpful. Lectio divina (sacred reading) is not Bible study but is about pondering on the word to enable prayer. Stages comprise reading just a verse or a short passage two or three times (lectio); then meditation, taking a particular word or phrase that ‘spoke to you’ and ruminating upon it (meditatio); leading into prayer, open, honest conversation with God (oratio); and then resting in God, the silent prayer of contemplation (contemplatio).
This same four stage approach can also be used in the slightly less well-known visio divina (sacred seeing) using an image instead of words. Like with lectio, visio divina is not about studying the image as if it was a piece of art. But about using the image to encounter God more deeply: a window for prayer perhaps.
I’ve written about Rublev’s Trinity elsewhere. In using that particular image, an icon in this case, one can enter in to the scene before us: perhaps sitting at the space at the table. Encountering Father, Son and Holy Spirit and letting that encounter take us in to deeper prayer.
These seats are just up the road from where I live. I find they say ‘Come, sit with me.’ As if Jesus was making the invitation. We might be reminded of how Mary of Bethany sat with Jesus (albeit while her sister Martha was getting hot in the kitchen).
So just sit. Dwell upon the image. How might your prayer develop?
This more abstract photo may make us reflect on the cracks and the weeds in our own life. Maybe we can bring those in prayer to God too. A verse from Psalm 25 comes to mind: ‘To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust’. A reminder of God’s faithfulness and healing. Just sit.
We can come to God in many different ways. We can see God in many different ways also.
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‘Hello. We are expecting you.’
The words on arriving for a long overdue retreat were both welcome and unexpected. For me, retreats are often for taking a break. To get away from it all – whatever ‘it all’ means. The pandemic had already put paid to three and the last one was way back in August. Much too long a gap. Vicarage life is one that can’t be escaped from, of course. Over 50 online services edited. Other events led and preached at. Let alone family demands – and that’s without mentioning the dog.
‘Hello. We are expecting you.’
I’d gone expecting to be renewed and refreshed. Expecting to meet God in a deeper way. Alongside a book by Simon Ponsonby and a PD James murder mystery, I’d brought the icon that was especially written (painted) by a Benedictine monk when I moved on from paid employment. The Icon of the Holy Trinity. Father, Son and Holy Spirit sat at table – a space left for a guest. But these words of welcome changed things. Surely not God expecting me? ‘I the unkind, ungrateful?’ as George Herbert put it.
‘Hello. We are expecting you.’
And it didn’t end there… funny how God always knows just what we need and how that fact often surprises us, isn’t it? Evening Prayer with the Sheldon Community recites Malcolm Guite’s poem reflecting on Psalm 18:
My strength my rock my buckler and my shield!
You came to rescue me, I saw you ride
The wind’s swift wings, I saw the waters yield
To you, as you reached down to lift me out
‘Hello. We are expecting you.’
And later that evening, another Psalm, 4 verse 3: ‘But know that the Lord has shown me his marvellous kindness; when I call upon the Lord, he will hear me.’… The next day, Psalm 66:4 ‘How wonderful he is in his dealings with humankind.’
‘Hello. We are expecting you.’
It all made sense of something that former Abbot Erik Varden said in a recent TV programme: ‘Every day is an opportunity to begin again. There are times of growth. Times of fatigue. There may even be a time of dying. But we must always aspire to be at least receptive to the grace of renewal.’
‘You must sit down, says Love…
So I did sit and eat.’
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I wonder what the word waiting means for you?
Waiting for a bus can mean the difference between arriving composed or agitated. Whether it’s at the dentist’s or the hospital, the ‘Waiting Room’ is rarely a restful place. Waiting for a phone call or a visit can stop us from doing anything else.
Waiting can be exciting. Those times when we can’t wait for something to happen. Waiting to hear about the birth of a child or the result of a job interview. Waiting for the stars to come out or the sun to rise.
Waiting for the jab. Waiting to see relatives and friends. Waiting for things to ‘get back to normal’. And now we wait for June 21st. Waiting doesn’t always result in a clear, definite outcome.
Because our 24/7 society demands – and provides – instant gratification we can forget how to wait. Everyone is rushing around. A click of a button brings a meal to our doorstep in minutes or that prized new retail item the very same day or the next one if we can’t wait any longer.
We can send an e-mail and get annoyed if someone hasn’t replied within a few minutes. We can watch box sets of the newest series on TV: gone are the days of waiting for ‘next week’s exciting episode…’
As someone once put it: ‘We act in haste and repent at leisure’. How many times have we seen – or indeed made – important decisions quickly only for them to come undone slowly?
Lent is a time of waiting. Waiting to arrive in Jerusalem. Waiting to gather in the upper room. Waiting in the garden at Gethsemane. Waiting at the foot of the Cross. Waiting for the resurrection.
As we continue our Lenten journey and discover more about what God wants for us there will be times of waiting.
Waiting is perhaps sometimes God’s way of saying: ‘This time is a gift to help you prepare for what is to come.’
Thank you for reading this post. If you would like to comment or offer your thoughts or experiences then please go to the new Work Rest Pray Facebook group. There’s a short film on the topic of waiting which you may like to watch during the period of Lent.
In other news… I am delighted that Feedspot have selected this website as one their Top 60 UK Christian Blogs and that a story of mine has been ‘Highly Commended’ in the Oxford Flash Fiction Prize 2021 (the story itself will be included in an anthology later in the year).
The bride gave a speech. The two best men sang. The groom ate a marmalade sandwich during the signing of the registers and the 300-strong congregation ate cake and drank wine in church.
It was the wedding of the year. At least it was from our perspective. Thirty years ago, Jane and I were married on a cold winter’s day, the previous week’s heavy snow (a rarity in Devon) having only just moved on in time. It was the first wedding in a newly refurbished church after a devastating fire a few months previously. It was a different sort of wedding day – partly because I was and had been quite unwell for the previous 18 months but mainly because we wanted it that way. We’ve often done things a bit differently from what other people expect…
In the years since then, we have had two wonderful children and many happy times. Jane has moved on from teacher and pastor of school children to teacher and pastor within a Church of England Team Ministry. I from a fulfilling career to a rewarding next stage of life (via Buckingham Palace). There have also been many difficult times. The loss of three of our parents in the space of 12 months and a misjudged house move to the other side of the country, to name just two. Many other events have enabled us to love and to cherish, and taken us through sickness and health, for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer.
Throughout all the years, our constant by-words have been communication and gentleness.
We have ‘failed’ in both on many occasions but they remain firm handles to hold on to when the storm is strong.
Back on Saturday 16 February 1991, we were two ordinary people (in, yes, a perhaps slightly extraordinary setting) making a lifetime commitment in the same way many millions of others had done so before and since.
We, like you reading this, like many others, are all ordinary people who encounter an extraordinary God. When Jane was ordained in 2015, she told the somewhat smaller gathering who met afterwards: ‘There are three people in our marriage: and the third person is God.’ Words that echoed those of St Augustine perhaps: ‘love means someone loving and something loved with love. There you are with three, the lover, what is being loved, and love.’
A God who is faithful and strong. A God who steadies the boat when the storm is strong. A God of the ordinary and a God of the extraordinary. A God of love – a love which is at times is very different from what other people expect or experience. The love that the disciple John knew all to well.
Recently, we have both been struck by some words of another great Saint, Teresa of Avila which provide another set of handles to hold to:
Think little, love much, do whatever awakens love.
Thank you for reading this post. Due to the amount of spam being received the comment facility on this site has been removed. If you would like to comment or offer your thoughts or experiences then please go to the new Work Rest Pray Facebook group.
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.
It’s the same every morning. The dog barks. I sit on the edge of my bed for a moment. Go downstairs and give Daisy her Bonio. Put the kettle on. Let her out. Make a large mug of tea. Let her in. Excited at the new day, Daisy does her party trick of leaping from one sofa to the other.
Then we sit. The only sounds are birds singing, the fridge humming, a clock ticking and the radiators waking up.
‘To you O Lord, my soul in stillness waits,’ as one of the great songs of Advent puts it.
Prayer. Asking for God’s blessing on the day ahead. Prayer for the three people I love most. Prayer for those who work – refuse collectors, shop workers, NHS staff; those facing difficult meetings; those finding fulfilment; those fearful of job loss. Prayer for myself. Sometimes rambling. Sometimes concise. The same words begin. The same words end.
It sets up the day. Whatever the day may bring. A sure foundation.
On this Advent Sunday, as a new Christian year begins, it is perhaps good to reflect on how prayer sets up all we do and all we are and all we are to be.
‘Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain.’ (Psalm 127)
(As an aside, that Psalm also speaks to those who work too much… ‘It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil.’)
The centrality of the prayer is the foundation on which the Lord builds the house which we not only inhabit but also reflects our total being.
And yet, for many of us, it’s difficult to develop and maintain a routine of prayer. (My evening time is much more variable.)
Perhaps that’s because we are trying to be like someone else? We try to be a better Christian based on what other people do – or what we perceive them to be doing. ‘I wish I could pray like you’, ‘I should be reading the Bible every day but…’ How on earth do any of us know how someone else prays!?
If someone else finds extemporary prayer helpful then that’s great but it may not suit you. If someone doesn’t find structured liturgy helpful that doesn’t mean to say that you won’t. Silence or speaking in tongues, how other people pray is of no consequence. There is no one, single, right way to pray.
It’s important to find an approach that reflects both you and your unique relationship with God – and what God wants for you as the person you are.
So back to the edge of the bed. The words of Psalm 25. The same prayer starts every day before anything else…
To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
O my God, in you I trust.
May that be a prayer for all of us in the year ahead.
Choosing new frames at the opticians is never easy.
Because I’m so short-sighted (-10.75), on a recent visit I had to resort to taking ‘selfies’ so I could see each of the contenders properly. Even then, the photos didn’t really tell me what they looked like. But, after gauging family opinions on the possibilities, and accompanied by my wife and an excellent practitioner, a further appointment settled on the right ones. Well, I hope they will be.
Now you may be thinking – oh, here he goes, trite message about how looking through the right lens to ‘correct our vision’ means we’ll see God more clearly.
And while there is truth in that, even the best specs don’t guarantee perfect vision all the time. Doing ‘all the right things’ doesn’t mean we ‘get it all right’ – and for me, that ‘corrective’, right versus wrong approach to Christian living is not only demoralising but misses the point about God’s astonishing love for us.
It reminds me of the story of the healing of Bartimaeus, a blind beggar in Jericho. Sat by the road, he hears Jesus approaching, calls out and, miraculously, his sight is restored (Mark 10:46-51).
For Bartimaeus, it was his faith in Jesus that enabled him to see clearly. But it wasn’t just about that.
That encounter is also about the question Jesus asked: ‘What do you want me to do for you?’
Imagine for a moment, Jesus asking you that question.
Possibly, like many of us, you may have a very long list of answers… You may be thinking, well I’ve asked you to do lots of things which haven’t happened… Our unanswered answers are tough at times, aren’t they?
It can be difficult to hold that apparent absence of response in tension with things Jesus promised: “Ask, and it will be given to you” (Matthew 7:7) and “…if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (Mark 11:23-24)
Bartimaeus. There he was. A beggar. An outcast. People always telling him to be quiet. He had no place in the presence of the new kid in town.
And afterwards… yes, he could see again. Yes, some would be amazed by his miraculous healing. But I guess he also remained a beggar and an outcast. And people would still tell him to shut up.
But perhaps, despite all that, his faith remained strong.
It can be like that for us: we receive some of the things we want, while other things remain difficult.
So, looking deeper, what of our faith – what do we want Jesus to do for our belief and trust in him?
You may like to find a quiet space.
Imagine for more than a moment, Jesus with you.
And Jesus says: “What do you want me to do for you?”