God knows what we are doing

A few days ago, my wife, who (unlike her husband) is often prone to outbursts of excitement, came rushing in saying, ‘Richard, there’s a message on the answerphone from the Dean of Southwark Cathedral!  They’ve been using Life with St Benedict in their online Night Prayer and he wants to talk to you about it.’

It’s always lovely to learn that something one has done is being helpful to others. And if you’re interested, the interchange I then had with Dean Andrew Nunn has resulted in an online event to which you would be most welcome.

It reminded me of others who have done things about which they know nothing of the longer-term impact. In my last year at school, the Upper Sixth as it was called then, Miss Edwards became one of those influencers. The geography teacher who never actually taught me was a mainstay in that final year following my mum’s death in the preceding summer holidays. She would regularly give me time and space to talk. She was the one who asked for exam boards to take into account what had happened (I still got ungraded but her thought meant far more than that). She once asked me, ‘What do you want to become in the future?’ For reasons unbeknown to myself, although it probably reflected my loss of identity at that time, I replied: ‘I’d like to be well-known – not famous, just well-known.’ Hey ho, such are the workings of a 17 year-old’s mind.

Fast forward to two years ago and I moved from being ‘well-known’ – at least in the field of work I was in – to being ‘unknown’. It was a strange transition, but supported by a guiding principle.

One of the Bible verses that has been influential on my attempts to live out the faith in which I believe is: ‘But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,  so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.’ (Matthew 6:3-4)

Knowing that God knows what we do is sufficient. We are seen by God’s eyes. And God’s rewards (given  not sought) are many. It’s why you wouldn’t have found my name on the website at work. It’s why the title of this blog (and my Twitter feed) is not my name (I struggle with the ‘About’ page, by the way… oh, there you are, I’ve just hyperlinked it so you know who I am…). It’s why I am influenced by St Benedict and in particular his teaching about humility.

We do of course live in a world which depends on people being known by name (after all, who on earth is Richard Frost – it’s no wonder he has so few followers). Knowing the name of a particular author, speaker or dare I use the word ‘celebrity’, can be helpful: we might be helped by what they do. Knowing a name is useful: hospital staff have it written on their PPE so colleagues know who they are. Our name is crucial to our own sense of identity – so often challenged as we travel through life and not least in this time of pandemic when many of us have lost something of what we do and who we are.

But it is God who knows what we do. That is sufficient.

Being Honoured

“I don’t want to get to retirement and think, ‘Was that it?’”

Well, that was 20 years ago. Today, I got to retirement. That was it. And that was good. So good.

For most of the intervening 20 years, I’ve worked with the most wonderful team of colleagues. Caring, supportive and one with a common purpose. A team with a default answer of ‘yes’ – or at least, ‘let’s think about it’. Rather than the demoralising ‘No, we can’t do that’ attitude common in so many workforces. It’s a team which values each other for who they are, not just what they do. I know I have been very fortunate. It has been a privilege and an honour.

For many people, the only reason they know they’re doing a good job are the times when they’re not being criticised. Not that I’ve never been criticised. Far from it. I’ve upset people. I’ve trampled over some. I’ve poached staff from others. I’ve worked with difficult people. I’ve made mistakes. I’ve been bullied, shouted at and disrespected. Everything that happens to everybody at some point or other. That’s working life. 41 years of it.

Yet many people are never thanked for the work they do or honoured for who they are. For me, though, these last few months have been humbling – and somewhat overwhelming. Nominated for a NHS 70th Anniversary Parliamentary Award (which I didn’t get) and a Lifetime Achievement Award from my employer (which I did). And then there was: ‘Urgent – On Her Majesty’s Service’. A letter from the Palace. Six weeks of silence. Nobody could know. When they did, the congratulations were overwhelming. 153 emails. 21 cards. A real honour and deeply humbling. All too much, though. I’ve only been doing my job.

Buckingham Palace last Friday and farewell lunch today. And it all happened again. Cards, congratulations and compliments. Both amazing days. Quite surreal at times. Asked by Prince William if I (me!) thought he (him!) was making progress in supporting employers regarding mental health. The farewell lunch gathered together over 50 people who have supported and taught me so much over the years. Another honour and privilege.

A generous farewell gift pays for a specially commissioned icon to be written (the technical term for icon painting) by Brother Michael OSB, Benedictine monk at Mucknell Abbey. It will be based on the famous 15th century icon by Andrei Rublev. The Trinity.

The icon depicts, from left to right, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. The embodiment of Love. Seated around a table. At the front, an empty place. A place of honour and privilege – and not just for the honoured and privileged. A place at which anyone can sit.

Working or retired. Happy at work or not. Employed or unemployed. Parent at home, student or volunteer. Well or unwell. Feeling loved or unloved. Of faith or no faith. Whatever your situation. The place awaits you.

A place of honour and privilege.

A place to which you are invited.

Invited by Love to be honoured for who you are.

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked any thing.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.

Love (III) by George Herbert

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.’