Uncertain certainty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A cruel put-down or words of empathic reassurance?

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

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

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

Whatever the change. Whatever the loss of certainty.

Do not be afraid.

 

 

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

On Earth as it is in Heaven

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

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

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

Simply put, 40 days have passed between Easter Day, the day of resurrection, and the day of ascension, when Jesus went up from a mountain on the outskirts of Bethany, watched by his followers, in to heaven to be with God (see Acts 1:6-11). The Bible tells us about many unusual, perhaps unbelievable events which took place and the Ascension is one of them. To our 21st century rational minds, to speak of someone going up in a cloud is beyond our comprehension. It simply couldn’t happen. It’s impossible.

Well, do take a look at this short film to explore the importance and meaning of the Ascension in more detail but in essence, the Ascension of Jesus represents a significant truth… the physical presence of Christ departs from earth to be replaced by the spiritual presence in the form of the Holy Spirit whose coming we will celebrate in a few days’ time at Pentecost.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Will we remember them?

On 8th May 1945, with the end of war in Europe, the country celebrated (or at least this country did – others did not).

The previous years had seen horrendous loss of professional and civilian lives. Medical services overwhelmed. Businesses disrupted and closed. The economy shattered. Public movement limited. Many were unemployed, homeless, injured and seeking limited food supplies. Politicians were ridiculed and praised. There were heroes and villains. Many gave their lives for the common good. The country, the world, was never the same again.

‘At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.’

On 8th May 2020, 75 years on, we are called to commemorate (sadly, some say celebrate). While all around us… well, just read the second paragraph again.

75 years on from now, I doubt any will remember those who gave their lives for the common good in these current times. Indeed, apart from family, friends and colleagues, will any remember them in 25, 10, 5 or even 2 years time…?

At the going down of the sun and in the morning, will we remember them?

The last post reflected on a renewal of respect for those who serve the public in often unappreciated and oft-criticised ways. Public applause on Thursday evenings acknowledges the work of NHS and care staff together with others who are designated as key workers. As a society, we are, finally, recognising the essential role of refuse collectors, postal workers, telecom engineers, road repairers, supermarket assistants, domiciliary carers and care home staff, bus drivers and all whose work is often disregarded. Blessed are the meek.

Over 100 of those have died due to their work and many others have been attacked undertaking it. They probably knew the risks and took precautions but they didn’t set out to give so much.

Even in wartime, when many set out knowing they may not return, they and all around hoped they would. ‘My father had been killed in an air raid so for us the end of the war didn’t mean he’d be coming home,’ wrote one person recalling VE Day. ‘For many of us, the end of the war didn’t mean life would go back to what it was before 1939.’ (Radio Times 2-8 May 2020)

And so it is for many today, life will never be the same again.

In contrast, another contributor recalled the unexpected: ‘Before VE Day I had never been out after dark. The lights were on in all the windows, and, magically, I could see people inside… it was the beginning of something much more exciting – lights.’

And now candles burn in our windows from 7pm on Sunday. A light for those who work, who suffer, who grieve. ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.’ (John 1:5)

At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we may or we may not remember them but the light of Christ shines on all for eternity.

 

 

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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.

Saying the right thing

‘The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.’

Those words, often attributed to George Bernard Shaw, demonstrate that whether speaking, writing, texting, messaging or emailing, we may know what…

  • we said
  • we tried or wanted to say
  • we said without actually saying it
  • we didn’t mean to say.

And yet Shaw’s words also perceive that the one with whom we have communicated may…

  • understand, not understand or not want to understand
  • hear only what they think is being said
  • interpret it to mean something else
  • have decided their response before we’ve said it…

Or, in other words… ‘A man hears what he wants to hear. And disregards the rest’, as Paul Simon put it (and, for clarity in this piece of communication, that’s the songwriter not the playwright).

Then there’s those occasions when we ‘read between the lines’ but it turns out we hadn’t read the lines in the first place. Or when we assume and it makes an ‘ass out of u and me’.

And take this e-mail from a long-standing friend: ‘Many thanks Richard…very much enjoying your book most mornings!’ Now, is it that they are reading my book most mornings and enjoying it? Or only enjoying it on some mornings and not on the others? Hopefully it’s the former – but it may not be…

I expect all of us (at least I hope it’s all of us…) have fallen foul of a miscommunication. I know I have – many times (and just last week, as it happens) – often unintentionally. Those times when I said or wrote ‘the wrong thing’ or the person I communicated with received it as the wrong thing. Times when perhaps I should have remained silent. It’s true of me as a listener and receiver too.

Workplaces are notorious for unclear communication. You know the type of thing, I expect. Rumour becomes reality before the facts are stated – and when the facts are stated they’re not believed… because of the rumour. Cynicism also plays an influential role: ‘Oh yes, we’ve heard that before…’ and is in itself representative of disillusionment with efforts to communicate.

And it’s not just in workplaces, of course: churches, social clubs, families, any gathering of people experience issues with communication and miscommunication.

Language and communication are complex things.

Indeed, I’m not really sure what I’m trying to say through this blog post. And, in any case, who am I to try and say it…

But I do like what St Benedict said as one of the twelve steps of humility: ‘We speak gently and without laughter, seriously and with becoming modesty, briefly and reasonably, but without raising our voices, as it is written: ‘The wise are known by few words.’

‘Our authority to speak is rooted in our ability to remain silent,’ writes Barbara Brown Taylor. ‘Some of the most effective language in the world leads you up to the brink of silence and leaves you there, with the soft surf of the unsayable lapping at your feet… When we run out of words, then and perhaps only then can God be God.’

 

The next post will be on Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent. That will be the last full post until after Easter: so during Lent, Holy Week and Easter why not take a look at a series of short films, called Out of the Wilderness.

2020 Vision

Driving through a local town the other week, I was behind a white van. My prejudices were in full flow. This was a typical, indeed stereotypical, white van, no doubt driven by stereotypical white van man. I knew this to be true (for such is the nature of ill-informed prejudice) because he was going  40 in a 30 mile an hour zone. Typical. Humph. Tut.

And I too was well over the speed limit. The van travelled fast, so I felt the need to do so as well. I was so close I couldn’t see the road ahead. I chose to slow down.

It was an image of today’s busy lifestyle. Others rush around so we do too. Workplaces, churches, shops, loads of places are full of people caught up in the need to do everything quickly. ‘Look at how fast I’m going,’ we cry. ‘Why are you working so slowly?’

It’s not just ‘the Jones’ we try to keep up with – it’s everybody. As if somehow, we will be a better person by doing so – or a lesser one if we don’t.

Of course, we live in a society which demands – and provides – instant gratification. A click of a button can bring a meal to our doorstep in minutes. We send e-mails and get annoyed if someone doesn’t reply straight away. We watch whole TV series at once: gone are the days of ‘And in next week’s exciting episode…’ Bosses, customers, families (and congregations) want everything done yesterday and if not then, sooner.

We rush from meeting to meeting, place to place. Not realising that rushing around uses up so much energy that we are left with less of it for when we arrive for the intended purpose – and the people.

Such rushing is counter-productive and not good for our wellbeing. We are forgetting how to wait. We are forgetting how to slow down. And quite often it’s hard to see the way ahead.

One way to address such things is to take time out. Set aside specific times for reflection or simply to stop. St Benedict offers ‘tools in the toolbox‘ to help with this and you may like to use my own thoughts contained in a book of daily reflections. Or go on a Quiet Day or retreat.

Jesus was a great one for taking things slowly. Admittedly, it got him in to a bit of bother on occasions – like when Martha and Mary’s brother Lazarus died and Jesus took ages to get there, and when Jairus wanted him to come straight away to his poorly daughter and Jesus stopped to heal someone else first.

In human terms, we might look upon those incidents as Jesus giving himself time to think and to conserve some energy because he knew he was walking in to an important situation.

Jesus also made sure he took time out – and he choose to do so. Jesus made time to rest, to think, to pray…

That is to be our pattern. Our pattern for living. Our vision when we are too close to everything that we can’t see the way ahead.

Looking back on 2019, what’s your vision for 2020?

Much of the same? With the same results…

Or time to make some changes?

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And the winner is…

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

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

So, who’s getting your vote?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what does that mean – to follow Jesus?

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

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

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

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

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

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When God is Absent

‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’

Those haunting words cried out by Jesus as he hung from the cross reflect a common human experience. Within the desolation, lie two unanswered questions, ‘Where are you, God?’ and ‘Why has this happened?’.

For centuries, or indeed, millennia, people have asked questions about God’s presence and absence. Where were you, God at Hillsborough or when Grenfell Tower burned? Why did you allow my mum to die when I was just 17? Why when it seemed so right, did that job go so wrong?

People have given up their faith because God did not answer their prayers. People desert the church because they don’t find God there. Many say: ‘We prayed for healing – and it didn’t happen.’ ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’  ‘Why does God allow suffering?’

When our prayers are seemingly unanswered it’s easy to blame God. And, yes, it is hard when some things can’t be explained. Yet some of the difficult things that happen are often down to human error or decisions (or lack of them) or our attitude or response.

The Psalms, that great collection of words about the human condition, pull no punches on this topic… here’s just two examples…

‘How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever? How long will you hide your face from me?’ (Psalm13:1)

‘O Lord, why do you cast me off?’ (Psalm 88:14a)

As Christians, we speak of having a relationship with God. In many ways, that relationship may well contain the same elements there are in those with people: anger, abandonment, disappointment, frustration, shouting, unanswered questions… That relationship also understands there are times when we need to express such emotions towards God. Beth LaNeel Tanner put it like this ‘The personal cries of pain and brash accusations against God are not thoughts to be hidden from the throne of God but to be deposited with all their jagged edges and sharp cries before the face of God.’

In our relationships and friendships with others, we can also grow apart. It is one of my deepest regrets that I have lost contact with so many friends over the years – and a lot of that was down to me not keeping in touch as well as them. So it is with God, if we don’t ‘keep in touch’ – not just through prayer but also actively looking for God’s presence in our lives – then we may well grow apart from God. As a vicar I once knew used to say, ‘If God seems far away – then who’s moved?’

Yes, there are times when God does seem far away but we too have to take some responsibility for that. If God seems far away or feels absent then it’s important to consider what we’re doing to ‘find’ (or ‘distance’) God. For unlike human relationships, where both presence and absence occur, God is, ultimately, never absent. But neither can we just sit back and wait for God to make that presence known.

The more we look for God’s presence, the more we will see God present and the more God will show us that presence. So, a couple of thoughts about recognising God’s presence in our lives.

An increased sense of thankfulness. Thanking God for every aspect of every day. Whether that is ‘Thank you, God for safe travel’, ‘Thank you, God for that phone call or text exchange,’ ‘Thank you, God for the sunset,’ ‘Thank you, God for a person (or pet)’, ‘Thank you, God for that car parking space’… Consciously thanking God (and not feeling guilty if we forget to) for all we are given increases our awareness of God’s presence in our lives – and helps us to look for that presence too. Using an approach such as The Examen can be helpful in this respect too.

An increased sense of trust. ‘Trust God and everything will be fine.’ Yeah… Right… Simples… But does anyone ever tell us how to actually do it? Trusting God will vary in form for each of us but perhaps some of it is the merging of personal responsibility with our personal experience of God (which is not unlike trusting other people really). For example, looking back at how God has blessed and provided for us in the past. Verbalising our trust also helps: for example, starting the day by saying, ‘To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; Oh my God, in you I trust’ (Psalm 25:1-2a). Simple words to say at any other point in the day also – maybe ahead of difficult meeting or situation or any other time when you need the reassurance of God’s presence. Because God is never absent.

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Time to Remember

Two minutes silence.

The season of remembrance. A time to remember the many people who gave their lives during war and conflict. A time for memories of the loved and lost.

Memories. Memories can be both reliable and unreliable. Accurate and embellished. Reassuring and frightening. Clear and unclear. Timebound and timeless.

Memories of an encounter or a place cheer the soul. Memories make us laugh and cry. Memories can be private and can be shared. Memories can be encouraging and demoralising. Memories may be reinterpreted and gain a different meaning.

Memories shape what we do – be that improvements because of bad experiences or the ubiquitous ‘I’ve always done it that way.’

Memories of a critical comment may stop us from doing something: or make us do it out of fear of repetition.

Memories of being bullied at school or work influence current relationships: feeling we’re bring criticised or having our faults pointed out – even though it doesn’t happen.

Memories of getting lost make us doubt where we are another time.

Memories of lost friendships may cause us not to seek new ones. 

Memories remind us of who we used to be.

The memories we have – whether inaccurate or accurate, helpful or unhelpful – influence how well we live life and relate to others. While some memories fade and disappear, others retain the accompanying pain.

So, when did we last give ourselves two minutes’ silence? When did we take time to remember?

Praying for the healing of painful memories can be very beneficial. Like with praying for healing from a physical or mental health problem, some elements, some symptoms if you like, may well remain but with prayer for inner peace and wholeness, the ability to live life and relate to others can improve. (It’ll take more than two minutes, though.)

In a book that was influential in my own experience, David Seamands wrote:

‘In this special prayer, we allow the Spirit to take us back in time to the actual experience and to walk through those painful memories with us. It is then through the use of our sanctified imaginations, that we pray as if we were actually there at the time it took place, allowing God to minister to us in the manner we needed at that time.’ (Healing of Memories by David Seamands [Victor Books 1985] now available as Redeeming the Past [David C Cook 2002])

To pray for such healing requires the setting aside of time. Time which won’t be interrupted or foreshortened. Time to recall the memory. Time for silence.

In a context of prayer, open to the Holy Spirit, we carefully relive what took place. To remember the words, the actions, the people, the detail, the consequences, the pain.

As we recall the memory, we bring the person of Jesus right in to the midst of all that took place. Imagining him there for you and any others involved.

To ask for God’s forgiveness. To forgive those involved. To forgive ourselves.

To reach out to God for healing of the pain.

To receive God’s love.

To listen to God as the pain is healed.

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.