Quiet Day for Advent

Taking  the theme ‘A Holy Family’ and led by Rev Jane & Richard Frost, this Quiet Day offers a way to help prepare for Advent. Interspersed with times of silence, three talks consider Jesus, Joseph and Mary.

Donations will be requested to cover costs. Please book a place by contacting Richard.

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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.

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‘Summertime…

… and the living in easy,’ so goes the classic jazz standard. But if you work for Tesco Metro, Harland & Woolf, Thames Valley Police or any other employer going through difficult times then it may not be. For others, especially those running their own business, it can be a case of the Summertime Blues – ‘About a-workin’ all summer just to try to earn a dollar,’ as Eddie Cochran put it.

Rather like Christmas, birthdays, weddings and other such occasions, the summer holidays are portrayed with mythical perfection. ‘You can stretch right up and touch the sky’ (Mungo Jerry). Sun, sea, sand etc and yes, holidays do provide time to perhaps visit some beautiful places and enjoy the company of others.

But for many, holidays can be a difficult time. The change from the routines of working life. The financial and other costs of long school holidays. The absence of friends and usual spare time activities.

Beginning a period of annual leave can be rather like being in a badly landing plane. No sooner as one landed and got through the ‘baggage hall’ of switching off and trying to have a good rest, then it’s almost time to go back to work, where everyone asks if you had a good break… ‘Yes, it was lovely,’ we reply, somewhat unconvincingly. The expectation of a ‘great holiday’ can often dampen the reality of it even more than rain spoils sunshine.

Holidays can, however, provide space and time to consider where one is with work, rest and prayer. Where we are with our whole life balance. Time to think about:

  • Work: What aspects have been rewarding and which have been difficult?
  • Rest: Do we feel rested or restless, energised or exhausted?
  • Pray: Where are we with God – close or distant?

Holidays can be a good period to reflect on the preceding weeks and months and maybe make some decisions about what to do to help that whole life balance. Whether it’s making sure we take a lunch break, spending that ‘spare time’ in ways that fill our soul, or setting aside time for prayer and giving intentional attention to God.

So, if you’re on holiday at the moment, why not take a bit of time to reflect on how work, rest and prayer are placed at the moment – and even if you’re not, how about making some space to do so?

Here’s some links to other posts in this blog that may be helpful:

Holidays can provide a ‘safe harbour’ from some of the storms of life. But we also need to be realistic – the wind still blows and the tide still goes in and out even in the most sheltered port. But it’s also true that Jesus stays in the boat with us and what better mooring is that.

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Quiet Day: Life Giving Water

Led by Canon Chris Palmer at Exeter Cathedral: ‘A day to come and be with Jesus as he offers us life-giving water, using the icon of The Encounter of the Woman at the Well as a focus for our reflections. Our time together will include worship, addresses, and times for silent prayer – and a simple lunch provided.’

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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)

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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.

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

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What’s in a Name

In the team I used to work with, a sign that people were struggling was an increase in swearing. That’s fine: it acted as a release mechanism – rewarding as the work was, it could also be difficult. I recall one occasion when a lovely colleague of mine walked in to the main office and said very loudly ‘Jesus Christ!’

It spoke of their frustration at a situation: they meant no offence and probably didn’t realise it could have caused any. And while not offended, I was a tad surprised, it has to be said.

Quite rightly, we call ‘foul’ on chants of racial abuse at football matches and it’s important to challenge anti-Semitism and expressions of Islamophobia, for example. But it is strange that Christianity continues to be seen as somewhat of an easy, unprotected target.

From the day to day occurrences, such as the incident mentioned above, to that heard on TV or expressed in other ways (‘Alcohol – put the “good” in to Good Friday’, as one greetings card put it) it is seemingly ‘acceptable’ to do so. Even the ubiquitous ‘Oh, my God!’ is voiced by both unbeliever and believer alike.

So, as we now stand in Holy Week and prepare ourselves for Good Friday, is the continued use of such language in this way somehow symbolic of society’s and individual attitudes?

Symbolic of continuing to metaphorically bang the nails in to the crucified Christ perhaps…

As Christians, we believe that Jesus, God’s son, died on the Cross in order that everyone could enter in to a personal relationship with God. To receive God’s love and to gain eternal life with God in Heaven. Hence, why it’s called Good Friday.

And if that wasn’t enough, on the third day – Easter Day – we learn that that same Jesus has been brought back to life. The Resurrection. Yes, intellectually, that bit is more of a struggle. Nearly 40 years ago, it was that bit which held me back from believing in any of it. How on earth can someone come back to life? Impossible.

It does takes a leap of faith. If one can believe that with God nothing is impossible then, therefore, why couldn’t God’s Son be brought back to life?

I started this post by using Jesus’ name in a particular way and it is this same Jesus who says our name too.

John’s Gospel tells us that early on that first Easter morning, one of Jesus’ female disciples, Mary Magdalene, went to the tomb where Christ’s body lay. It was still dark. The stone had been rolled away from the entrance and the tomb was empty. The body had gone.

No doubt, as she sat weeping, Mary recalled Jesus’ teaching about his death and resurrection. And yet the body had gone. Imagine the confusion. She spent 3 years following this guy and believing what he said and now… nothing. Even the appearance of angels did not bring consolation. Then along comes a gardener and she poured out her distress to him. What on earth was going on?

And then one word changed everything. A word charged with emotion. A word which  encapsulated all she was, covered all her confusion and distress, and brought together all her faith and hope.

‘Mary.’

The 16th Century Italian artist, Savoldo captures the moment beautifully in his painting, Mary Magdalene – it’s the one on the front cover of A Story to Tell. In this one word, the simple utterance of her name, Mary has found not a gardener but the risen Christ. And Christ has found her. In the deep heartfelt calling of her name, Mary had found the true fulfilment of who God had made her to be. She turns to face him. And, John’s Gospel tells us, she says his name in reply.

When someone calls our name, it attracts our attention. We turn to face them. We respond to the voice. We see the person who says it. Hearing our name spoken makes us turn in the right direction. And if we are looking for someone we’ve lost, we might call out their name. And such is the joy when we find them – and such is the joy of the person who has been found.

Through the resurrection, Jesus calls each one of us by name.

Believe it or not, he’s saying your name right now.

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Telling Stories

Every one has stories to tell. Stories of life and learning. Stories about working, resting and praying.

As you read this, you may might like to think about the various ‘chapters’ of your life’s story so far. Times of joy and excitement. Of sadness and difficulty. Different events and experiences. Changing attitudes and responses. The complex and confusing sentences and paragraphs. The jokes.

Life’s story sometimes has a way of putting two deeply-contrasting events close together, doesn’t it? Indeed, my wife and I experienced just that last month.

First, the excitement of seeing the next chapter of our life together begin to open. Having finished her training as a Curate in the Church of England, Jane’s been offered the role of Team Vicar in a lovely coastal and rural part of Devon. Such a blessing and a privilege (albeit meaning I have to begin the 22nd chapter in my Book of Moving Home…!).

And then just one week later, we learnt that our lovely 11 year-old cocker spaniel, Pip, has cancer. So our time with her is now limited. But, despite that, and as you may have gathered from previous posts (appearing as pooch and one who takes me for walks), she too has been a blessing and a privilege. She is part of our story.

I expect you will have stories about work, family and maybe, a spiritual one too.

The Bible is full of stories. Indeed, Jesus was a consummate storyteller. He met thousands of people. Each one had a story to tell both before and, without doubt, after they had encountered him. As Christians, it’s easy to focus only on what Jesus did and said and what we can learn from him. But there is a lot to learn from those who met him as well.

So this post comes with a new book: A Story to Tell.

In this book, we consider twelve people who met Jesus: six women and six men. Some  intimate, personal 1:1 encounters: the daughter of Jairus, Nicodemus, the woman from Samaria and the man from the Gerasenes (often erroneously called ‘Legion’). Some from the core group of disciples and followers: Mary Magdalene, Martha and Mary, Thomas, John and Judas Iscariot. And those two people, without whom, Jesus would not have come to earth to shape both our future and our salvation: Mary and Joseph.

They all have stories to tell.

Every story is unique. And there is much to learn from all of them.

You are welcome to download and use A Story to Tell for personal reflection. Do feel free to pass it on to other people too. Maybe see if you can put this link on your church’s website or share it through social media. If you belong to Cell Group or House Group or another Bible study type setting, the book also contains some suggestions for discussion. You can print it off as many copies as you like – or contact me for some printed and bound ones.

In many respects, each of the people featured in A Story to Tell led very ordinary lives. They had similarities with our own existence. From the day to day ordinary to the extraordinary. Difficult times and miraculous times.  Seeing God in the comfortable and, at times, the uncomfortable.

The aim of the book is to try and play some part, even if that is very small, in enabling your faith and trust in God to become stronger and to deepen your experience of the love that Christ has for you.

By learning from the experiences of those who encountered Jesus, who were very ordinary people just like you and I, we begin to learn more about our own story to tell.

Jesus told stories.       

Jesus gave people stories to tell.        

What’s your story?

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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.

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What are you searching for?

The World Cup, Meghan Markle and the Royal Wedding. The top three searches on Google in 2018. The most popular question: ‘What is Bitcoin?’. Ones about Brexit only coming ninth behind Diwali and upskirting.

As one year ends, it’s natural to reflect on what we looked for in the last 12 months – and what happened (or didn’t). The highs and lows. Joys and disappointment. Failures and fulfilment. Times of change (or lack of). Regrets and missed opportunities. Separation. Reconciliation. Loss. Beginnings and endings.

What kind of year has it been for you? Is it one that ends saying ‘Was that it?’ or proclaims ‘That was it – and that was good!’?

And what might the next 12 months hold? Certainties and uncertainties. Hopes and fears. Waiting and wishing. Health and happiness. Stable relationships. A more balanced life of work, rest and pray. A deeper faith.

At Christmas we remember those who searched for the Christ-child. Shepherds from the hills and the wise ones from the East. For the shepherds, the search lasted a few hours or days. For the wise, a couple of years. They encountered difficulties along the way. But they knew what they were looking for – and they knew when they had found it.

No doubt some were sceptical. “What? The Messiah – in a cattle trough?” “Oh yeah, so I suppose you know exactly which star it is, then?” Some would have wanted to stay just where they were. Seated on the ground  watching their flocks by night. Not wanting to traverse afar. Afraid that life will be different. Seeing this Jesus business as too much of a risk.

Just like the shepherds and the wise, searching for the really important things takes time. It is often confusing and rarely straightforward. It involves uncertainty and difficulties. There are challenges and instability. It takes effort. Little wonder we’re tempted to give up searching at times.

And yet it is those very components which help us discern what we are looking for for ourselves and what God’s plans are for us (the two are not mutually exclusive, by the way).

There’s also clue in a word we hear a lot at Christmas. Immanuel. It means ‘God with us.’

Anselm Shobrook, a Benedictine monk at Alton Abbey, talked about how the core of the Gospel message is a mystery and a paradox: ‘We can’t have one without the other: suffering makes God with us authentic.’

It is within our searching, with all its uncertainties and difficulties, that we can most deeply experience God with us.

Across the world, the most popular verse in 2018 on the YouVersion Bible App is from the Old Testament book of Isaiah: ‘(The Lord said) do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.’ (Isaiah 41:10).

UK users of the same app looked to another Old Testament prophet for  assurances  about the past, present and future. Jeremiah wrote: ‘For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.’ (Jeremiah 29:11).

Immanuel. God with us. God grants the strength we need. God wants the best for us: plans to give us a future with hope.

Maybe at some point in the Christmas period, why not take a while to consider what you’ll be searching for in 2019? And how you think you’ll know you’ve found it.

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