Into the valley

the valleyInto the valley of Death
   Rode the six hundred.

It seems somewhat foolish to being calling it ‘Freedom Day’. With a third Covid wave charging onward, Tennyson’s famous lines have for me found a very uncomfortable echo in the lifting of restrictions in England on 19 July.

Not though the soldier knew,
   Someone had blundered.

Nearly 40 years of being a public servant have largely suppressed my own personal political views. Echoing one of our party leaders, I sit in the ‘reckless’ camp (by view not hue) but neither would I want to have (or be capable of having) the responsibility our ministers, politicians and their advisors have in taking the country forward. I was honoured in the course of my work to meet several ministers, MPs and advisors and to be part of two government policy working groups. They have a thankless task and they probably won’t be thanked for it…

No doubt I would feel differently if I was running a business or working in a team being decimated by self-isolation pings but whatever our view (political or otherwise) I suspect many of us will continue to echo the BBC’s Chris Mason’s words of almost a year ago: ‘The virus has robbed us of many things. It continues to rob us of any certainty.’

Or, to put it more starkly, those of his colleague Clive Myrie at the height of January’s second wave: ‘We’re all scared.’ He said it three times.

While for many, being able to return to working and living in a more ‘normal way’ is welcome, we will all continue to live in uncertain and, perhaps, scary times for many months to come.

So this former civil servant must add some political balance: ‘This pandemic is not over,’ as the other party leader put it. It could be reversible, Boris.

We are still in the valley of Death.

The Psalmist wrote: ‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.’ (Psalm 23:4).

A long time ago, I experienced a significant period of illness lasting some three years or so and a delightful retired doctor who was a member of our church congregation at that time showed his understanding of my predicament and frustration (and fear) by referring to that verse: ‘Remember, Richard,’ he said, ‘we go through the valley – we don’t stay in it.’

We all go through troubled times. In some cases, those times are very long  but here we have a clear, unequivocal promise that no matter how bad it gets the Lord is with us and we have nothing to fear.

A shepherd’s rod (a straight wooden stick) was carried in their belt to protect the flock from predators. The staff had that familiar hook like crook at the top. The staff kept the sheep in the fold, it was used to rescue them, to keep them on their feet.

Like the shepherd’s, God’s rod and staff are for our protection and to keep us safe. We may get prodded or pushed at times too. We will be rescued and put back on our feet. The Lord comforts us and enables us to know that we are cared for and loved.

Esther de Waal wrote, ‘The promise of the kingdom is not that we shall escape the hard things but that we shall be given grace to face them, to the enter into them, and to come through them. The promise is not that we shall not be afraid. It is that we need not fear.’

Led in to the valley of Death, the horsemen of the Light Brigade had no choice:

Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.

There is, for us then, one significant difference: we do have a choice.

Be cautious.

 

 

Thank you for reading this post – please do share it with others, subscribe and contribute your thoughts at the WorkRestPray Facebook Group. Continuing the Psalm 23 theme, I’ve posted some photos alongside the words of the psalm which you may like to use to reflect upon (you may need to open an Instagram account to read the words – it’s free and there is no other commitment required)

Pastoring the Pastors

Many years ago, I lived in a flat at the top of the Vicarage of a large church in Bristol. In those five years I saw and experienced first-hand the 24 hour a day demands, intrusions and joys of such a place.

From sharing Christmas lunch with the vicar and his family (during which their cocker spaniel ate the remains of the turkey) to making cheese sandwiches for Jack, the local, ex-merchant navy tramp who was a regular visitor day and night. From being ‘held hostage’ one Sunday afternoon by a couple and their young child demanding I found them somewhere to live to  answering the ever-ringing phone.

That experience instilled within me a lifelong concern for the clergy and an awareness of the pressures and the lack of support and understanding of their role that exists at both congregational and broader levels within the church nationally (the same will be true of other denominations, I’m sure).

It’s a concern that has stayed with me for the 35 years since. And then I actually became a clergy spouse when my wife was ordained in 2015. And not only that but our daughter is now training for the ministry!

As I found to be the case in my employment career, God often uses our experiences as part of the bigger picture of our lives.

I’ve written elsewhere about the church being behind the times and while the same is true in this case, it is good that the CofE is addressing the issue of clergy wellbeing. Work that started back in 2015 is now being discussed by local parish church councils. But this is a complex issue and in my experience it’s unlikely that such councils will know how to respond in ways that are truly informed and meaningful.

As also written about elsewhere, the Society of Mary and Martha (colloquially referred to by its location of Sheldon) has been pastoring the pastors for the same length of time since I left my Bristol home. A place of retreat, support and guaranteed anonymity, they have been ahead of the times in the provision of the online Sheldon Hub as a place of further consolation and advice.

The core issue for me, as I have observed and lived with clergy life, is that most people do realise the role of the clergy is not just about Sundays. Indeed, the reality is that that day and the preparation for it (in terms of time) is a relatively small part of the role. But I would be fairly certain in saying that the majority of people have no idea at all what fills the rest of the week. Drawing a topical, if somewhat imperfect, comparison, the working life of a footballer is not just about 90 minutes on the pitch – although there is many a penalty shoot-out…

For many clergy, particularly those working in parishes, it’s on call all day, every day, six days a week (seven if they don’t choose well…). Being anything from a social worker to a business manager, much of it without the relevant training. Being asked to look after themselves while being asked to do more (not least in this pandemic).

A fairly simple and straightforward action that any of us can undertake would be to at least increase the understanding of all that clergy are required to do. And the fact that each one has all the other ordinary (and not so ordinary) family and life commitments as well.

Like its Sheldon namesake, the story of Mary and Martha is helpful. To be like Jesus with Mary, to sit with, listen and understand; and with Martha, to encourage, affirm and support. There are those who do that, for which we can be enormously grateful, but all of us, including me, can do more.

 

A couple of days after this post was published, we received a welcome Wellbeing Pack from the Diocese of Exeter: good to know they are taking clergy wellbeing seriously.

Thank you for reading this post – please do share it with others, subscribe and contribute your thoughts at the WorkRestPray Facebook Group.

No Dogs Please

Daisy the Vicarage Dog is great with people. The six-year-old cocker spaniel can often be seen around the villages with the local vicar. She loves pastoral visiting and is greatly admired in return (Daisy that is – the vicar is too, of course). And yet, despite having lived with many of them and also bred her own pups before coming to us 18 months ago, Daisy doesn’t like other dogs. There’s a story there somewhere.

So, in an effort to help other canines maintain social distance, she now sports the words ‘No Dogs Please’ on her lead. Some dogs are better at reading than others and pass by without a sniff. Others though have owners who tell us how friendly their dog is: ‘Ours isn’t…’ we reply.

It seems to be the same with our own walks in these strange times, doesn’t it? Some give plenty of room and say ‘Thank you’ in the process. Others seeming to be dealing in feet rather than metres.

In a previous post, I reflected on how in contrast to the Good Samaritan we are now actively encouraged to walk by on the other side… and the consequences that has for many, even when it is for the greater good as we wait for better times to come.

Many have taken to wearing metaphorical signs stating ‘No People Please’ to the extent of not leaving their home out of anxiety and loss of confidence.

We will all have our story of these current times – whether it’s the practicalities of home schooling, working or being furloughed, the loss of normal social contacts, the opening and closing of churches. Stories of people we have lost or nearly did, of our own emotional and mental health struggles in the uncertainty and confusion and whether or not we tested positive or even ever had a test. There are and will continue to be many stories of the kindness of strangers, the heroics of key workers and the effect of the vaccine.

All the same, some of us will not want to hear those stories because, as the BBC’s Clive Myrie put it recently, ‘We’re all scared’. Some of us will want to carry a ‘No People Please’ sign for a while. Others of us will want to tell our story – because we need someone to listen. We need people to put down their sign and come close again.

However they may be told, many of us can benefit from listening to other people’s stories.

All the people who ever met Jesus have a story to tell (there’s some on my new website at astorytotell.org.uk). All ordinary people who encountered an extraordinary person.

We too can have such encounters when we put down the signs we carry – and the one marked ‘No God please’ too.

 

 

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Happy New Year?

2020 was a year like no other – and 2021 may not be that different!

Lest you think that to be a ‘Unhappy New Year’ greeting, please read on…

In the coming few days as we mark the Epiphany, many will reflect on how the travellers from the East came looking for the Christ-child and found him. As this year begins we too may be considering what we might be looking for in the year that is to come. And while it would be easy to focus on what we lost last year – what we did not find, if you like – it was a year where actually we found lots of new things. In particular perhaps, new ways of being Church.

We have learnt to be Church in new ways. To come to God to pray, to worship and to learn in different ways. We have come to God sanitising our hands, sitting at a distance and wearing our face coverings. We are still the church. We have come to God through online services. We are still the church. The church: not the building but the people. The body of Christ – and Christ has no body now but yours.

So as we look to 2021, it may not be that different.

It’s realistic to think that we will be living under some form of guidance and restrictions for many months. We will still be the church. Online services will continue. We will meet in our buildings as and when we can. We will see and talk to each other during the week. We will continue to pray. Continue to worship. Continue to learn. Continue to be blessed by God.

In these very unsettling, uncomfortable and uncertain times, some things do not change. As the New Year begins perhaps it is those things we need to remember to keep looking for – and finding.

‘Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.’      Teresa of Avila

 

 

 

My prayers for you for a peaceful, blessed and safe New Year. If you are interested, the daily pattern of reflections in Life with St Benedict begin again today. Copies can be ordered through BRF.

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…

 

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Anxious Times Again

In the beginning was the word, and the word was… anxiety.

My wife, Jane and I had just returned from some lovely winter sun in southern Spain when just a week or so later, the first impact of Coronavirus was being felt. Suddenly, things changed and things changed suddenly. It all seemed very unreal – rather like those feelings which accompany bereavement when we think we’re going to see the loved one we’ve lost only to remember that we have indeed lost them.

Indeed, there has been so much loss for so many. Loss of loved ones. Loss of liberty. Loss of the familiar. Loss of the activities and social contact that gave life to life. Loss of sleep. Loss of hugs. Loss of certainty.

It’s felt like life has had to begin again. Walking has become like driving along a country lane and finding ‘passing places’ to maintain social distancing. We’ve washed our hands til they’re sore. Some have been shielding while others clap. Every cough is significant and there’s a whole new meaning to the phrase, ‘Is it me or is it hot in here?’

I thank God I live where I live: far away from socially-crowded cities. I thank God the ten o’clock news is covering other stories again. I thank God I am a natural isolate. I thank God for God.

Yet now several weeks on, maybe the word is still anxiety. These are anxious times again. Anxiety about the easing of lockdown. Anxiety about going out. Anxiety about wearing a face covering. Anxiety about returning to school, the workplace, the shops, to church. Anxiety about becoming closer to others.

There is a difference between having anxious thoughts and having clinical anxiety (and if those feelings are affecting the ability to function then help may be needed [sooner rather than later]). But feeling anxious about the current times is perfectly natural and having anxious feelings does not make any of us a lesser person nor does it mean we are one of little faith.

God knows our anxieties. They are not hidden from God because God’s light is always there to overcome the shadow of their darkness.

‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. In him (in that Word, that Jesus) was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not (and does not, and will not) overcome it’ (John 1:1, 4-5)

 

This post is an extended version of some thoughts for the Diocese of Exeter’s Pause & Pray initiative.

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.

2020 Vision

Driving through a local town the other week, I was behind a white van. My prejudices were in full flow. This was a typical, indeed stereotypical, white van, no doubt driven by stereotypical white van man. I knew this to be true (for such is the nature of ill-informed prejudice) because he was going  40 in a 30 mile an hour zone. Typical. Humph. Tut.

And I too was well over the speed limit. The van travelled fast, so I felt the need to do so as well. I was so close I couldn’t see the road ahead. I chose to slow down.

It was an image of today’s busy lifestyle. Others rush around so we do too. Workplaces, churches, shops, loads of places are full of people caught up in the need to do everything quickly. ‘Look at how fast I’m going,’ we cry. ‘Why are you working so slowly?’

It’s not just ‘the Jones’ we try to keep up with – it’s everybody. As if somehow, we will be a better person by doing so – or a lesser one if we don’t.

Of course, we live in a society which demands – and provides – instant gratification. A click of a button can bring a meal to our doorstep in minutes. We send e-mails and get annoyed if someone doesn’t reply straight away. We watch whole TV series at once: gone are the days of ‘And in next week’s exciting episode…’ Bosses, customers, families (and congregations) want everything done yesterday and if not then, sooner.

We rush from meeting to meeting, place to place. Not realising that rushing around uses up so much energy that we are left with less of it for when we arrive for the intended purpose – and the people.

Such rushing is counter-productive and not good for our wellbeing. We are forgetting how to wait. We are forgetting how to slow down. And quite often it’s hard to see the way ahead.

One way to address such things is to take time out. Set aside specific times for reflection or simply to stop. St Benedict offers ‘tools in the toolbox‘ to help with this and you may like to use my own thoughts contained in a book of daily reflections. Or go on a Quiet Day or retreat.

Jesus was a great one for taking things slowly. Admittedly, it got him in to a bit of bother on occasions – like when Martha and Mary’s brother Lazarus died and Jesus took ages to get there, and when Jairus wanted him to come straight away to his poorly daughter and Jesus stopped to heal someone else first.

In human terms, we might look upon those incidents as Jesus giving himself time to think and to conserve some energy because he knew he was walking in to an important situation.

Jesus also made sure he took time out – and he choose to do so. Jesus made time to rest, to think, to pray…

That is to be our pattern. Our pattern for living. Our vision when we are too close to everything that we can’t see the way ahead.

Looking back on 2019, what’s your vision for 2020?

Much of the same? With the same results…

Or time to make some changes?

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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.