Making up our mind

The last couple of decades has seen many changes in the way we live and work.

The 2010s saw a significant increase in the number of people working from home. Now, there have always been people who could do elements of their job where they lived (teachers, for example) but the last decade saw the home becoming the location of choice – either their own or their employer’s – rather than going in to office or traditional workplace base. Technological advances have been integral to this development, of course, as has the growth in ‘agile working’ (where people don’t have ‘their own desk’ but use whatever space is available). Not always easy but it has been a part of this shift in how we work.

The last 20 years have also seen a welcome change in society’s attitudes towards mental illness. Whether royalty or celebrity, work colleague or family member, it’s become much more OK to talk about mental health (although mental ill health is generally what is meant by that term – the ‘mental health world’ has always had a problem with what language to use…). While the continued misuse of phrases such as ‘a little bit OCD’ or self-diagnosing PTSD just days after a difficult occasion show distinct lack of awareness, the fact many of us are able to be much more open about our experiences of depression, anxiety and other such conditions is a significant shift in the culture of how we live.

Combining those two aspects have, inadvertently perhaps, helped to enable our society to be more prepared for the effects of current pandemic. During these strange times, initially in the March-June lockdown and now again in some areas where there are restrictions, people were asked to work at home if possible – even though that brought its own many and varied difficulties. The impact on people’s mental wellbeing has also been acknowledged and the increase in the number of people now experiencing psychological distress for the first time or a worsening of existing conditions is of course concerning.

World Mental Health Day has been marked on 10 October every year since 1992 (I wrote about it last year too). It’s one of a number of occasions when we can focus on some of the pertinent issues (others being Time to Talk Day and Mental Health Awareness Week, for example).

But of course, as with any other specific ‘issue’ or ‘campaign’, one day a year doesn’t change the lives of those who suffer and support on the remaining 360-odd. Within the welcome changes of the last 20 years, there has been a degree of ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ but there are many, many individuals and organisations who work to ensure that we don’t lose sight of the reality of life for the many hundreds of thousands of people who experience the most distressing and difficult thoughts and feelings.

Although God can and does enable miraculous healing there is often no quick fix. Medication may help but isn’t always necessary. However, it will take time and effort – which is in itself part of the reason why so many people end up struggling for so long: simply because it takes so much time and so much effort. It’s hard work to make up one’s mind to be and to remain well.

Recovery from a period of mental ill health may not mean the complete absence of symptoms but it will see the return to a more comfortable level of day to day functioning. To once again live and work well.

Click here for some links that may be helpful in making up your own mind…

 

.

All in a Day’s Work

‘Behind the scenes’ documentaries have been part of TV viewing for decades and, with the growth in streaming alongside hundreds of channels, there are a multitude of different settings for the cameras to spy on.

One series I’ve enjoyed recently has been Channel 4’s The Yorkshire Jobcentre. Given my own career of nearly 40 years helping people to find or remain in employment that may not be a surprise.

Up until 2003, I worked in a variety of settings of what is now the Dept for Work & Pensions including in Jobcentres. The programmes have portrayed both job seeker (often maligned as scroungers) and job advisor (often portrayed as unhelpful bureaucrats) fairly and respectfully, observing difficulties and progress, frustration and commitment for both alike.

I certainly recognised the spectrum of customers from the harder to help long-term unemployed through to the harder to help professional and well-educated, and from the unrealistically ambitious to the desperately lacking in confidence. Similarly, I was fortunate to work alongside very committed colleagues, rejoicing together when someone got a job – but yes, there were a few who stuck to rules as if they’d written them.

The series certainly echoed my experience of it being an honour and a privilege to have played a small part in the lives of so many. Watching people make progress is a wonderful thing.

This coming Sunday’s Gospel reading is the parable of the labourers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). Like many of Jesus’ stories, it’s based on events happening in his time. An employer recruits labourers to work in his vineyard but to our 21st century ears, this parable would raise the hackles of any business person or union representative.

Taken literally, the concept of people who worked one hour and people who worked a full day being paid exactly the same would not go down well – as indeed it didn’t with some of the labourers in the vineyard.

But that’s missing the point of the parable. And the point is not a literal interpretation of the story being told – beyond the fact that for those labourers, among the poorest in 1st Century Palestine, working in the vineyard was a gift, a welcome source of employment.

One common interpretation of the parable is that the owner is God and the labourers are us; the vineyard is God’s kingdom and the wage that is agreed is not only the provision of our daily bread but also our salvation.

Rather than being unfair or unjust, God’s generosity transcends our human ideas of fairness. God is not answerable to the people and can do as he pleases with his gifts.

God’s gift is that everyone – rich and poor, powerful and powerless – receives the same.

In God’s economy, all of us are equally deserving so the reward is equal as well. The reward is not based on each person’s merit or quality or quantity of work but rather from the grace of the one who hires, the grace of God.

As God’s people we are to be those who work in the vineyard because it is a good thing to do rather than because we hope to earn merit or greater rewards or greater recognition by others.

That said, the work itself doesn’t have to be something highly visible or deemed to be more important than others – remember this parable features the poorest of society.

Whatever we do if we do it for the Lord and not for our own personal reward, we will bear witness to God’s kingdom and we will see God’s vineyard bearing fruit.

 

.

Will we remember them?

On 8th May 1945, with the end of war in Europe, the country celebrated (or at least this country did – others did not).

The previous years had seen horrendous loss of professional and civilian lives. Medical services overwhelmed. Businesses disrupted and closed. The economy shattered. Public movement limited. Many were unemployed, homeless, injured and seeking limited food supplies. Politicians were ridiculed and praised. There were heroes and villains. Many gave their lives for the common good. The country, the world, was never the same again.

‘At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.’

On 8th May 2020, 75 years on, we are called to commemorate (sadly, some say celebrate). While all around us… well, just read the second paragraph again.

75 years on from now, I doubt any will remember those who gave their lives for the common good in these current times. Indeed, apart from family, friends and colleagues, will any remember them in 25, 10, 5 or even 2 years time…?

At the going down of the sun and in the morning, will we remember them?

The last post reflected on a renewal of respect for those who serve the public in often unappreciated and oft-criticised ways. Public applause on Thursday evenings acknowledges the work of NHS and care staff together with others who are designated as key workers. As a society, we are, finally, recognising the essential role of refuse collectors, postal workers, telecom engineers, road repairers, supermarket assistants, domiciliary carers and care home staff, bus drivers and all whose work is often disregarded. Blessed are the meek.

Over 100 of those have died due to their work and many others have been attacked undertaking it. They probably knew the risks and took precautions but they didn’t set out to give so much.

Even in wartime, when many set out knowing they may not return, they and all around hoped they would. ‘My father had been killed in an air raid so for us the end of the war didn’t mean he’d be coming home,’ wrote one person recalling VE Day. ‘For many of us, the end of the war didn’t mean life would go back to what it was before 1939.’ (Radio Times 2-8 May 2020)

And so it is for many today, life will never be the same again.

In contrast, another contributor recalled the unexpected: ‘Before VE Day I had never been out after dark. The lights were on in all the windows, and, magically, I could see people inside… it was the beginning of something much more exciting – lights.’

And now candles burn in our windows from 7pm on Sunday. A light for those who work, who suffer, who grieve. ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.’ (John 1:5)

At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we may or we may not remember them but the light of Christ shines on all for eternity.

 

 

.

Saying the right thing

‘The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.’

Those words, often attributed to George Bernard Shaw, demonstrate that whether speaking, writing, texting, messaging or emailing, we may know what…

  • we said
  • we tried or wanted to say
  • we said without actually saying it
  • we didn’t mean to say.

And yet Shaw’s words also perceive that the one with whom we have communicated may…

  • understand, not understand or not want to understand
  • hear only what they think is being said
  • interpret it to mean something else
  • have decided their response before we’ve said it…

Or, in other words… ‘A man hears what he wants to hear. And disregards the rest’, as Paul Simon put it (and, for clarity in this piece of communication, that’s the songwriter not the playwright).

Then there’s those occasions when we ‘read between the lines’ but it turns out we hadn’t read the lines in the first place. Or when we assume and it makes an ‘ass out of u and me’.

And take this e-mail from a long-standing friend: ‘Many thanks Richard…very much enjoying your book most mornings!’ Now, is it that they are reading my book most mornings and enjoying it? Or only enjoying it on some mornings and not on the others? Hopefully it’s the former – but it may not be…

I expect all of us (at least I hope it’s all of us…) have fallen foul of a miscommunication. I know I have – many times (and just last week, as it happens) – often unintentionally. Those times when I said or wrote ‘the wrong thing’ or the person I communicated with received it as the wrong thing. Times when perhaps I should have remained silent. It’s true of me as a listener and receiver too.

Workplaces are notorious for unclear communication. You know the type of thing, I expect. Rumour becomes reality before the facts are stated – and when the facts are stated they’re not believed… because of the rumour. Cynicism also plays an influential role: ‘Oh yes, we’ve heard that before…’ and is in itself representative of disillusionment with efforts to communicate.

And it’s not just in workplaces, of course: churches, social clubs, families, any gathering of people experience issues with communication and miscommunication.

Language and communication are complex things.

Indeed, I’m not really sure what I’m trying to say through this blog post. And, in any case, who am I to try and say it…

But I do like what St Benedict said as one of the twelve steps of humility: ‘We speak gently and without laughter, seriously and with becoming modesty, briefly and reasonably, but without raising our voices, as it is written: ‘The wise are known by few words.’

‘Our authority to speak is rooted in our ability to remain silent,’ writes Barbara Brown Taylor. ‘Some of the most effective language in the world leads you up to the brink of silence and leaves you there, with the soft surf of the unsayable lapping at your feet… When we run out of words, then and perhaps only then can God be God.’

 

The next post will be on Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent. That will be the last full post until after Easter: so during Lent, Holy Week and Easter why not take a look at a series of short films, called Out of the Wilderness.

‘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.

Humble Leadership

When Manchester City beat Watford in the recent FA Cup Final, I probably wasn’t the only one to  notice the reaction of Pep Guardiola, the City manager, as the fifth and then sixth goals went in. His head was in his hands. Was it embarrassment… or was he humbled by what his team had done for him?

And then, amidst the champagne, streamers and fireworks, as the victorious players held the trophy aloft and then ‘dancing’ in the way only professional footballers can, he simply stood back, watching. A time to let his team have the glory and the honour. ‘Hey, look at them, not me,’ he seemed to say. A sign of leading from within. A sign of humble leadership.

While we might long to see more humility in our political leaders, let’s consider another example of this exceptional gift.

A recent study of seven successful CEOs found they all identified a common theme: vulnerability. ‘Vulnerable leadership is humble leadership,’ wrote Catherine Llewelyn-Evans. ‘Able to acknowledge its own temptations, frailties, and limitations, it will not set itself above others, nor stand on its own importance (for example, when Jesus lays aside his robes to wash the disciples’ feet [John 13])… It is a kind of leadership which — released from its need to posture or impress — gives others permission to be vulnerable, and releases them from fear or guilt.’

Or as John Baldoni put it, ‘Humility is an approach to life that says, “I don’t have all the answers and I want your contribution.” Humility is… the acceptance of individual limitations.’

Humility is grateful for those contributions and expresses that gratitude. It also embeds the ability not just to say ‘I got that wrong’ but also to climb that sometimes elusive next step of ‘You were right.’

In the well-established daily pattern of readings from the Rule of St Benedict (reflections on which are in the book Life with St Benedict) on the day this post is published, 26 May, there begins a series of readings on Chapter 7 – a chapter which is all about humility.

In this longest chapter of the Rule, and using the imagery of a ladder, St Benedict helps us take steps towards what he calls ‘the highest summit of humility’.

Using paraphrases of what he wrote, let’s climb the ladder together, shall we…

  1. Revere God at all times
  2. Align our lives with God’s will not our own.
  3. Listen to our leaders.
  4. Do what God wants and listen to God when life is tough.
  5. Admit when we get it wrong and receive the forgiveness that comes from doing so.
  6. When we feel badly treated, insignificant, and no better than anyone or anything else, know we are always with God. And God is always with us.
  7. Humbling ourselves and being humbled by circumstances helps us know we are precious to God.
  8. Remember that the words and actions of others influence how we act and behave.
  9. Be careful about what we say to others and how we listen to them.
  10. Laugh – being respectful to others when we do so.
  11. ‘Speak gently, seriously and with becoming modesty, briefly and reasonably’.
  12. Be humble in our actions and not just in how we think and feel.

Joan Chittister writes that this chapter on humility ‘does not say, “Be perfect.” It says, “Be honest about what you are and you will come to know God.”’

Humility in leadership – or any other aspect of life, for that matter – is an approach, a gift, which enables us to shout, ‘Hey, look at you!’ not ‘Hey, look at me’.

Consciously incompetent

“I want you to hit the ground running,” spouts the manager to their shiny new recruit. “Of course, that’s absolutely fine,” comes the ‘I’ve got to impress’ reply.

Many people have been in such situations. Where the expectation outweighs the reality… on both sides. But hitting the ground running can result in falling over.

Getting settled in to anything new, particularly in a job, can often take months before one really begins to get to grips with everything (well, most things). Change can be a very difficult. We need time to adapt, time to learn. And not just the tasks (that can sometimes be the simple bit) but people’s names and idiosyncrasies, the way people behave towards each other, where things are, the demands, the actuality behind the job description etc etc… And other people need to allow time for that to happen – especially if they want them to be any good.

The same is true with any new stage of life, new location, new home or even new hobby, like learning to play the piano or to paint. It all takes time… and it’s important that it does so.

Often accredited to the American psychologist, Abraham Maslow (he of the ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ theory, if you’ve ever come across that), when we learn new things we progress through ‘Four Stages of Competence’:

  • Stage 1 – Unconscious incompetence – “I don’t know what I don’t know”
  • Stage 2 – Conscious incompetence – “I have no idea what this all means or how to do it”
  • Stage 3 – Conscious competence – “Some of this is beginning to make sense – and I can actually do bits of it!”
  • And ideally end at Stage 4 – Unconscious competence – “I’ve learnt what to do and I can do it ‘without thinking’”

So, for example, when it comes to learning to paint (and piano playing for that matter), I have taken up semi-permanent residence in Stage 2 with occasional forays in to the heady lands of Stage 3…

As humans, we have the, at times unenviable, task of residing in all four stages of competence at once… and that’s because we are all learners.

If you are a Twitterer, you may have seen some Tweets quoting from an excellent Lent book by Paula Gooder, a down-to-earth, easy-to-understand Biblical scholar and writer, and on the leadership team at St Paul’s Cathedral.

Writing in Let Me Go There, Paula Gooder reflects on the disciples and what they learnt in their time with Jesus: ‘The disciples that Jesus chose may not have been the ones we would have chosen, but they were the ones he chose… They demonstrated that they had done what disciples need to do – they had learned. Being a good disciple is not about being perfect from the outset, but is about being someone who can learn. Perfect I can’t do, learning I can.’

God knows that we are not perfect.

That’s the point of Good Friday and Easter.


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?