Quiet Day – Biddulph, Staffs

‘Finding Stability in Times of Change’ – a Quiet Day at St Lawrence’s Church, Biddulph.

At a time when change is often feared, stability can be elusive, and busyness interferes with listening to God, this day offers an opportunity for space and reflection. Led by Richard Frost, there will be 3 short talks and periods of silence together with guidance on how to use the day.

A donation will be requested to help cover costs. Please book a place by contacting St Lawrence’s Church Office by email or tel: 01782 513891. All are welcome.

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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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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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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.

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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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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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