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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Quiet Day

The theme of the day is ‘Making friends with anxiety in praying’. Led by Martin Shaw, an Assistant Bishop in the Diocese of Exeter, having been a Bishop in the Scottish Episcopal Church. He has a special interest in music and being with people who want to learn to deepen their praying. Recently he has written a book about an imaginary pilgrimage with St Francis of Assisi using St Matthew’s Gospel: ‘Matthew in Your Pocket’.

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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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Retirement: Stopping & Starting

If I’d had £5 every time someone asked what I’ll be doing in retirement, I could have bought myself my own gold watch.

Play on repeat: ‘Writing books and blogs, learning the piano, photography, family history, U3A, joint ministry with my wife…’ But how upset I’d be if nobody asked. I am so grateful for and humbled by the interest and love shown in these last few months.

Preparing for the next stage of life – as I prefer to call it – started five years ago. You only get one go at this, I thought, and I want to make it work.

Having spent 30 years helping people with phased returns to work, I’ve taken a staged approach towards retirement. Five to four days a week three years ago. Three days since January. Changing the balance of life. Getting used to less structure. Less contact with people. Building new routines.

It’s worked. This writer approaches the next stage of life with a sense of calm. And for one for whom it is an elusive emotion, there’s even some excitement.

At work itself, the last three years have seen succession planning (a far too grand a title, really). We’ve crossed a few hurdles on the way. Many have helped in the process. That’s worked too. Achieving what we wanted. In full and on time. Recruiting replacements. Handing over to successors. Spending less time with immediate colleagues: enabling them to work together, develop and flourish. It’s going to be even better. Wow.

Unexpected, though, has been the return of ‘that Sunday evening feeling’. A loss of motivation sitting in tension with the calling and enjoyment of the vocation. Apprehension alongside anticipation. And a reduced irritation threshold…

A season of stopping and starting. The last client appointment. The last employer meeting. The last conference. The last training course delivered. The last team meeting. The last times of working with and learning so much from others. The last time I’ll see people who have meant so much to me. (Sorry. The hurts of history have made me sceptical of fond farewell, keep in touch promises.)

In all this, I’ve not been counting down the days. So this week’s realisation that there’s just six working ones to go came as a shock. The calmness shaken. The boat rocky. A strange time. The nearer it gets, the less believable it becomes. Such is the nature of change.

But it’s a time to give thanks for the privileges God has given. The privilege of making a difference. The privilege of playing a part in the lives of others. Seeing people make progress – especially in the small ways. Never ignore the small ways: they are always bigger than we think. The privilege of the next stage of life and all that will hold.

I’m writing this on retreat at Alton Abbey, a community of Benedictine monks in Hampshire. There’s a storm blowing outside. There’s one blowing inside too. But this is a place where the clock runs slowly. Where the silence of mealtimes is comforting. The routine of prayer is steadfast. The presence of God is everywhere. There’s sanctuary in the stillness. A place of stability in the stopping and the starting.

‘To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. Oh my God, in you I trust.’ (Psalm 25).

Play on repeat. It works.

‘To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. Oh my God, in you I trust.’

 

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