Communication & Gentleness

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.

 

 

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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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A Sure Foundation

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.

I can see clearly now

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?”

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

 

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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.