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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Stability in times of change

‘Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes, Turn and face the strange’ David Bowie’s lyrics reflect the way that change is a constant and often unsettling companion.

Over the last 30-40 years, the workplace has changed beyond all recognition for many people. Technology, the internet and social media has brought massive change. Organisations go from one restructuring to another restructuring. Gone are the steady 9-5 routines, the lunch break and personal work space. In has come a long hours culture, hot desking, unachievable targets and 24/7 e-mails.

Part of the difficulty in ‘turning to face the strange’ is that while the world around us changes at a very fast rate, as human beings we often change much more slowly. The core characteristics of who we are take years to develop as we go through life being shaped by events and other people. I’ve been preparing to make the change from employment in to retirement for 2-3 years and I have no doubt it’ll take a few more months to fully adjust. It takes time to change. You may like to think about how you’ve changed in the last 5, 10, 20 years – and how you would like to change further in the next 5, 10, 20.

Whether of our own choice or not, it is often the waiting and the uncertainty of the prospect of change which is the most difficult characteristic of this unsettling companion. We like to know where we stand. The bigger picture remains blurred as we focus on the detail. We may accept the office move but what we really want to know is ‘Where will my desk be?’ or indeed, will I even have one? In such times, we want to hold on to that which remains the same. Hence why sometimes we are often resistant to change, be that at work, home or church.

This need for stability is reflected in one of the main principles, or vows, of Benedictine monasticism. Stability for the nun and the monk is about remaining in a specific community for life. For those of us living outside such settings, stability often finds itself dependent on many things: our house, family, job, finances, the place we live, the people we know or the church we go to, for example. And when something threatens those things, such as change or uncertainty, life becomes unstable.

The Rule of St Benedict retains a relevance to our lives in a world where change is often feared, stability can be elusive and busyness interferes with listening to God. For all seeking a deeper relationship with God, stability is found by becoming increasingly rooted in the one with whom that relationship is sought. This is further enhanced by two other Benedictine vows: listening to God and conversion of life. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, this conversion, or change, is necessary for our relationship with God to grow. Whether a monastic or not, the principles of these vows can be viewed as threads running through our faith.

So how do we experience stability in God, particularly in times of change? Through prayer, in part, yes, and you would expect me to say that. But what does that prayer look like?

The principle of the ‘daily quiet time’ so beloved and valued by many Christians finds it source in the times of St Benedict and well before then. We see it in Moses going up to the mountain top and Jesus spending time alone in prayer. Setting aside times of giving intentional attention to God.

Crucial to experiencing stability in God is making such specific times to pray (as well as the ongoing prayers which act like punctuation marks in the sentences of our lives). It is the daily rhythm and the place for doing so that are key. To enable such times to become as natural as all the other rhythmical practises in our life – in the same way as times for eating, getting dressed, travelling to work or watching our favourite television programme. Such daily practices and routines provide us with a sense of stability. And it is often in those stable times that we experience the closeness and love of God more clearly and deeply.

As we do so, and as we listen to 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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