Back to normal?

“What’s the difference between a Christian and a non-Christian?” asked the young enquirer. “About ten years,” replied the vicar with characteristically dry wit.

Despite often being at the forefront of social change and community action, the church is often seen as being behind the times and, sadly, it doesn’t take much interaction with some congregations to see the truth of the vicar’s wry observation.

Churches are also perceived as places where change is resisted: “The previous vicar did it that way.” “We’ve always had our service at 9.30.” “At the PCC meeting on 23 March 1973 we voted against that.” There are plenty of people with toys poised, ready to throw them out of the pram (yes, including me). The desire to be ‘doing church’ sometimes appears greater than to be ‘doing God’ – being witnesses to God’s love through the way we live our lives and in encouraging each other in faith. Of course, ‘doing church’ is easier and safer…

So, these recent months have seen a breath of fresh air wafting through the sometimes stale surroundings that conceal the full extent of that love. From phone networks to help people keep in touch, to loving our neighbour by shopping for them and, more radically, coming together as the church online.

In the Church of England alone, there are now over 5,500 online services taking place each week as live streams through Facebook, Zoom etc or pre-recorded and available online at YouTube, Vimeo or elsewhere.

‘The revolution in online worship has meant many people who have been excluded from the life of their local church – (due to) infirmity, disability, phobia, mental fragility – feel included,’ tweeted Graham Usher, Bishop of Norwich. ‘I’m ashamed we did not realise this before.’ (my italics)

There’s a danger that those who are not on the internet remain excluded so it’s important to address that and online services are not the same as gathering with others for worship – but they have opened up a tremendous opportunity for creativity when it comes to bringing people closer to God.

Alongside other lockdown easings, this weekend sees the gradual reopening of places for worship. While cathedrals and some churches will be ready to do so, many will not – and that’s good: it’ll be better to be safe than sorry.

Now, I, for one, have been dreading hearing the phrase, “It’ll be good to be back to normal”.

Of course, there are good things in the familiar trappings of church as we know it. They provide the security of social contact with others and the rhythms of prayer and worship. A steady port in the storm providing stability in times of change which is so crucial to our faith as well as our wellbeing. But, as with a lot of things, church will not, and maybe will never be the same, and that will be difficult for many. There will be a new normal.

But that phrase also causes me to reflect on what else comprised the ‘old’ normal. It was Tertullian, a 1st/2nd Century Roman pagan who wrote, ‘See how these Christians love each other.’ As I look at the church generally, I find myself deeply saddened by how these Christians talk about each other. Clergy and laity alike criticising others seemingly for the sake of it. Grudges are grown and forgiveness is forgotten. Is that the normal we want to go back to?

‘After the pandemic, some parishes and Fresh Expressions will go to the wall, never to be seen again,’ writes Philip North, Bishop of Burnley. ‘Churches that have gone to sleep will stay asleep. Those who have risen to the task will be ready for service and proclamation.’

Unimaginably tragic as the circumstances are, the current time opens up possibly the greatest opportunity in generations for God’s message of life-giving, unconditional love to become known by all, churchgoer or not. If you are one who prays for revival, could this be the time?  Do we take that opportunity, or do we lose all that we have gained in these last few months by simply going back to normal?

 

 

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Faith Seeking Understanding

One of my all-time favourite radio programmes is The Goon Show.

While not old enough to have heard the original broadcasts in the 1950s, I listened to countless episodes in my 20s and 30s in particular. Their surreal storylines, absurd logic, puns, catchphrases and groundbreaking sound effects influenced my own, at times rather weird, sense of humour. The Goons wouldn’t have been The Goons without all three of Harry Secombe, Spike Milligan and Peter Sellars – and yet they were also each brilliant as individuals in their own right.

Similarly, in a weird sort of way, one can’t think of the travellers from the East without thinking of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh – three separate gifts but all part of their singular worship of the young Christ.

June 7th is Trinity Sunday – the beginning of a lengthy season when we reflect on how God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, individually and together, play an important part in our life and faith as Christians. (Here’s a short film you may like watch as well.)

Many have tried to explain the Holy Trinity and many more have been confused by it. There are some Christians and even clergy who don’t even accept the concept of the Trinity. Others think Christians believe in three Gods and yes we perhaps don’t help ourselves by using phrases such as ‘Three in One God’.

Many have suggested ways of how we might understand the structure of the Trinity. Some have drawn a parallel with H2O – we find it in water, ice and steam – all different but still all H2O. You may like to think of the Trinity as a 3-stranded cord – each cord, each person of the Trinity is distinct but together are indivisible and mighty.

But none of those give us the whole picture because none show us the relationship between the three and that is an important aspect of understanding the nature of the Trinity.

As human beings, we have a natural disposition towards wanting and needing to understand things. We like to know the whys, the whats, the whens, the wheres, the hows. Indeed, one of the most difficult aspects of our lives is when things happen or don’t happen and we don’t understand why it was or what was going on. Many of us perhaps have those feelings right now in this time of Covid 19 and all that has happened in these last few months. There are probably other things which have taken place in your life about which you still don’t understand.  There certainly are in mine.

Paula Gooder is a theologian who specialises in the New Testament. She has the ability to convey tremendous academic knowledge in very plain, easy to understand language. Last September I heard her speak about the parables and how we are constantly looking to understand and to explain what Jesus was meaning through the telling of them. Paula Gooder pointed out that even the disciples didn’t always get what Jesus was talking about – and they were with him all the time.

‘Most parables are meant to make us go “What?”’, she said. ‘The problem is that we put an interpretation and meaning on them – we struggle with parables because we think we know what they mean.’

For me, that’s the same with understanding the Trinity.

In other words, we do not have to understand absolutely everything about the Trinity, or any other aspect of our faith.

I have often reflected on and quoted to others the serenity prayer

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
the courage to change the things I can;
and the wisdom to know the difference.

And I wonder if in our ability, inability and perhaps lack of necessity to fully understand things we can substitute the word change with the word understand:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot
understand;
the courage to
understand the things I can;
and the wisdom to know the difference.

Our belief is, as St Anselm put it, about ‘faith seeking understanding’ – whatever that looks like for each one of us

 

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Come, Holy Spirit

Pentecost is the time when, a few days after Jesus ascended in to Heaven, we remember the coming of the Holy Spirit to the apostles. But what of us, moving through all the post-Easter weeks & finding ourselves at Pentecost once again? What place does the Holy Spirit have in our own lives?

The Holy Spirit is often referred to as the third person of the Trinity. Indeed, we often speak of God the Father, God the Son (Jesus) and God the Holy Spirit. Many churches will say a creed or a statement of faith using words such as ‘We believe in the Holy Spirit’ and services often end with a blessing in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

In a communion service, the spirit is invited to come down upon the people and the bread and the wine but in many churches there is often very little teaching or discussion about the Holy Spirit. Whereas in others, such as in the Pentecostal movement, Protestant and Roman Catholic charismatic churches, and some evangelical churches, the Holy Spirit takes centre stage and is manifested in many different and often dramatic ways.

Recorded by the Gospel-writer, Luke in Acts Chapter 2, coming 10 days after the Ascension and 50 after Easter (Pentecost is the Greek for ‘fiftieth’), this appearance of the Holy Spirit as promised by Jesus must have been a dramatic event.

This same Holy Spirit comes upon us today, enabling us to be a community of believers, a community of faith, which joins us in belonging to each other and belonging to God – even in these times where are unable to gather together in the building we call church, we remain the church of God.

So what is the purpose of the Holy Spirit in our lives?

  • The Spirit is sometimes called a comforter: we often experience comfort through a person (or perhaps an item or a place) that reassures us or makes us comfortable. The spirit is also with us to give comfort through such people or directly through prayer and presence.
  • The Spirit is an advocate: someone to stand alongside us; someone who might speak for us, or speak up for us – that’s what the Holy Spirit does; the word also suggests a lawyer who defends us. The Spirit is sometimes considered as a liberator – offering us freedom.
  • The Spirit is also thought of a guide: guiding us to pray for someone or contact someone. These might be thought of as ‘holy nudges’ – those little prompts that show us how God is at work through the Holy Spirit.

There is a lot more to the Holy Spirit than that too – so maybe take a look at this film offering a further reflection.

In his book, Behold the Beauty of the Lord, Henri Nouwen writes:

‘Let us go back in time. In the story of the Exodus, God is revealed as God for us, father-like – guiding the people out of slavery with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Later, in the story of Jesus, we have Immanuel – God with us – the Son of God accompanying the people in solidarity and compassion. Now in the story of Pentecost, God is revealed as God within us – we are enabled to breathe the divine life ourselves. Thus, Pentecost completes the mystery of God’s revelation as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. By becoming not only a God for us and a God with us, but also God within us, God offers the full knowledge of the divine life.’

God is for us. God is with us. God is within us.

God is for you. God is with you. God is within you.

Come, Holy Spirit

 

 

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Life begins again

Well, you don’t need me to tell you what strange times we are living in. And how much life has changed since the last full blog post on Ash Wednesday. Little did we know what we would be giving up for Lent.

Along with ‘Coronavirus’ and ‘Covid-19’, terms such as ‘self-isolating’ and ‘social distancing’ have entered our vocabulary as if they have always been present. We’re told to ‘stay at home’. Many are being ‘shielded’. Others are called ‘key workers’ – and doing far, far more than ‘just their job’.

There is death. And plenty of it. Death on a scale not seen in this country (and many others) since the Second World War. Death has not lost its sting. Families are unable to be with their loved one. People dying, sometimes alone, sometimes with the strangers who cared for them. Mourned in public by few or none.

And yet, within it all. Within all the tragedy, the grief and the fear. There is, remarkably, hope.

  • A reduction in air pollution (civilisation being given one more chance to address the causes of climate change perhaps…).
  • In some places (but not in all), people are slowing down (a helping hand to deal with increasingly poor mental wellbeing maybe…).
  • A resurgence of communities caring for one another (an antidote to modern society’s self-isolating behaviour…)
  • A renewal of respect for those who serve the public in often unappreciated and oft-criticised ways (blessed are the meek…)
  • The Church, the community of believers, rediscovering and discovering other ways of being one in Christ. As Luke Coppen put it, ‘Christianity began amid defeat and despair… this won’t be the end, rather a new beginning.’ (The Spectator 11.4.20)

And yet, within it all. Life for most people has been turned upside down. Many are finding aspects of the current times difficult. Gone are all the normal activities and usual freedoms. Many are struggling with unprecedented change. Many find it frightening. Many are anxious and worried.

All those are normal feelings and having them doesn’t mean your faith is lacking – nor does it mean that God is absent (even if it may feel that way at times).

In some respects, life is beginning again…

Finding stability in times of such change is key to living in these current times and beyond. Many are writing about the relevance of St Benedict’s teaching to our modern day lives and experiences – so much so, there’s been at least four books published in the last year. Laurentia Johns OSB writes about the ‘blessings of beginnings’ and former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams has written about how ‘Benedictine stability is the context in which we learn to sit still with whatever company arrives, in the confidence that God in Christ sits still with us.’

In helpful contrast, award-winning, American journalist Judith Valente reflects on the Rule of St Benedict in How to Live: a book which is ‘about living—not just surviving… a book about how to live a balanced, meaningful, and conscious life rooted in the ancient and time-tested wisdom of the Rule.’

The Rule of St Benedict provides a rhythm for prayer and reflection through its four-monthly pattern of daily readings. That pattern is also about to begin again – on 2 May – and you may like to use my book of everyday reflections,  Life with St Benedict as a way of building such a rhythm of stability: one that  relates this ancient Bible-based wisdom to the ordinary and not so ordinary aspects of life. (There are some films to help you find stability in these times of change and uncertainty also).

There is nothing good about this pandemic but there is good that is coming out of it. And it’s to be hoped that when this is all over, we don’t completely revert to how things used to be as we learn how to begin life again.

 

 

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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.

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Lost in the Dark

Having accompanied my son to where he was staying in Berlin with a friend for 10 days, I began my own short stay. Meticulous Frost Family planning meant we’d had an excellent journey and the next stage was straightforward too. Well, according to Google Maps it was. I confidently took the tram back in to the centre of Germany’s capital and 20 minutes later, alighted at the correct stop. So far, so good.

It was dark.

I hadn’t reckoned on that.

Setting off in the direction my inner compass told me was south (for that was the desired direction), I found the right street. Should be the next left… but it wasn’t… and so it went on… My map wasn’t detailed enough. It was too dark to read it. No GPS app on the phone. My normally reliable sense of direction had lost its way.

Twenty minutes later and it was indeed the case, dear reader, that I was lost. People I stopped were tourists too. Finding a map on another tram stop showed just how lost I was. Heading in the diagonally opposite direction from where I should be going.

Thankfully, a knight in a shining taxi came to my rescue.

We all feel lost in the dark at times. Sometimes literally but also in other ways. Insufficient training to know how to do a job. Lack of communication or clarity. Being overwhelmed by negative opinions. Following a lost leader. Worries or concerns feel different in the dark too: trebling their size (at least) and taking on a different conscious or unconscious form (not least in the middle of the night).

The streets of Berlin looked very different in the daylight, of course.  And later on, I saw where I’d gone wrong. I should have looked in a different way!

Seeing things in a new light – whether literally, metaphorically, psychologically or spiritually – doesn’t always make the darkness disappear completely, but doing so does mean it’s diminished and can be looked at in a different way.

Jesus once described himself as ‘The light of the world’ – although I also like to think of him as being a ‘light for the world’. He goes on to say, ‘Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.’  (John 8:12)

Now, of course, there are times when we walk in darkness. But what we have here in Jesus’ words is the assurance that even in the darkest times, the presence of the light of Christ helps us to look at things in a different way. We can also be reassured by the words of the writer of John’s Gospel: ‘In him (Jesus) was life and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.’ (John 1:4-5)

It is impossible for darkness to totally extinguish a light. It is impossible for a light not to illuminate darkness.

What brings light in your darkness today? Will you focus on the darkness or use the light to look upon it in a different way?

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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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Trains, Birds & Trees

So, Pooch and I are sat by the river in the sun as a steam train chugs its way past on the other side. (Yes, I know, we do live in an idyllic place…).

A man stops nearby and as he unpacks his tripod and camera, I ask “Trains, birds or trees?” “Trains.” He replied gruffly. “Who takes photos of trees?”

‘Shame you just missed it, then…’ I (almost) replied…

Lots of people rush through life like a train. Going full steam ahead even when there’s a  station nearby. Often running late. The equivalent of leaves on the line or the wrong kind of snow are always getting in the way. When the train can’t take the strain anymore it often leads to a derailment. And I’ve seen hundreds of those…

It’s perhaps not surprising that the most read post on this blog is about when it all gets too much.  A recent article in the Church Times illustrates the nub of the issue astutely: ‘Wanting desperately to know how to improve his spiritual health and well-being, the American pastor John Ortberg asked advice of his wise spiritual director. The answer was succinct and to the point, “You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.” Ortberg jotted that down and waited for the next point, only to be told: “There is nothing else.”’

It’s worth thinking about your stations – the places where the rushing stops.

And what about trees. The above incident reminded me of a photo I took:

Not by a woodland river but in the hustle and bustle of central London, in Kensington Square, one of those lovely private gardens (although do try not to get locked in, as I did).

One fallen tree is held off the ground, supported by another.

It’s an image which is symbolic of the lives of many people. Some are fallen. Others provide support. Neither are upright.

But the lovely thing about this image is that despite those difficulties, both trees are in full leaf. Both flourishing due to the presence of the other.

You may feel you are one who is always giving others support but hopefully you have people who support you too? Such mutual support enables everyone to flourish.

As for the birds. One of Jesus’ most well-known sayings provides a helpful perspective on the things in life which can cause us to rush and fall over:

‘Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?’ (Matthew 6:26)

Indeed, you are.

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