Let’s be honest

‘Could you go and sniff somewhere else. This is a confined space.’

The remark took me by surprise. I could have understood it if I’d coughed. Humph!

My wife and I were visiting Kingston Lacy, a National Trust property while on holiday last week and admittedly, the path where I stood was less than two metres wide but it was outside. I’d been there ten seconds and would be for a further ten as Jane rejoined me.

As we walked on, he stood there. Umm… awkward. Confrontation or apology? Well, neither as it happened. We just walked on. Putting aside my own humphitude, the incident reminded me how Covid-anxiety is still very present as society awakes from its anaesthetised slumber. I felt sad for him and reflected on what might have happened in his life that sparked such a sensitivity to another’s innocuous behaviour.

It reminded me of a phone call I had with a very dear friend many, many years ago. A difficult situation had developed between us and a mutual acquaintance. ‘Let’s have some honesty here, Richard,’ she said. Ouch. I felt stung – more so than the incident above. It was accusatory. The implication that I was being ‘dishonest’.

In both instances, those speaking were under strain. Yes, they were being honest about how they felt. But they were upset. Their words arising from what was going on for them and not just about me.

A recent article in the Church Times recounted an interview with Jordan Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. Within it, he makes one of the most ‘honest’ statements about the church (that is the Christians who inhabit it) that I have ever read. And I have to say, in all honesty, I agree with him…

‘It may be it’s not reasonable to say to believers, you aren’t sufficiently transformed for me to believe that you believe in God or that you believe the story you are telling me… the way you live isn’t sufficient testament to the truth.’

Ouch.

And, of course, much as I agree with him so is his honesty true of me. That is perhaps the nature of such honesty: that it is uncomfortable. It makes us feel awkward and defensive.

Yes, I could have stood in a more considerate place. Yes, I could have handled the situation with my friend better. Yes, my life could be more reflective of my belief. We can all learn from being on the receiving end of another person’s honesty.

But what is uncomfortable for us also reveals the discomfort of others. Perhaps part of our response to such ‘honesty’ is to ask what’s going on for them? Because it’s probably not just about us.

 

 

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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.

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.

 

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From Being Comes Doing

The retreat was long overdue. The pandemic had put paid not once but twice to Alton Abbey, my spiritual home, and Boris had wrecked two weeks’ annual leave in June. The best part of a year had passed since I last had ‘a period of solitary refinement’ as someone once put it.

I’d been to Sheldon many times for Quiet Days and meetings. But this was different. Four days, three nights. No conversation, no e-mail, no internet.  No church or family demands. Tangible ‘things to do’ complemented the intangible expectation that God may have ‘things to do’ also.

The ‘Welcome Pack’ speaks: ‘May this be a place where you… draw rest, silence, healing and vision.’

Umm… Rest. It had been a busy, far too busy, few months. As punishing as it was rewarding.

There had been little silence – in part, because I hadn’t made enough of it.

Healing? Yes, the hurts of ‘church chunterings’ required soothing balm.

Vision? Something to be seen when not looking for it, maybe?

So God showed his hand straight away.

I am to do nothing.

It is strange (and at times uncomfortable) to be in a place of not doing anything but simply to be. I don’t want to ‘waste the time’ here but don’t want the pressure of thinking ‘What shall I do now?’

Yet, ‘What shall I be now?’ is somewhat more tricky.

AA Milne wrote: “Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits…”

I sit on a bench.

The ground is rough and stony. Dead plants being strangled by living weeds is a good metaphor.

But so is the view from the bench. The vibrant trees and the rolling hills. The silence.

Silence is not the absence of noise but the feeling of it. Being still within it. Surrounded and embraced by it.

‘Speak through the earthquake, wind and fire,
O still small voice of calm’

From being comes doing – not the other way around.

On God alone, my soul in stillness waits; 
from him comes my salvation.

He alone is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold
so that I shall never shaken.

(Psalm 62:1-2)

 

 

Decisions, decisions

One hundred years ago today, in a small, two-up, two-down, terraced house in Bury, Lancashire, Maria and John welcomed their new son, Tom.

Their second child, he was the eldest: his parents lost a daughter a year before the war started. Maria had worked at the cotton factory at the end of the road. Not long back from the trenches, John had taken up his trade as a stonemason again.  A bright lad, Tom won a scholarship to the local Grammar School and served in the RAF throughout the second war before becoming a career civil servant.

Peace came and so did Renee. A daughter was born but death also played its part in Tom’s life. His father died the day after this writer came in to being. Seventeen years on, he lost both Maria and Renee in the space of 3 months and was widowed a second time four years before his own passing in 2008.

They say like father, like son. In many respects, we were and are quite different. But there are some similarities. I have the same cough and, albeit not as dramatic as his, the same sneeze. My own career bore some similarities to his. He learnt to drive late in life, as I did, but I lack his ability to dance and to socialise.

We were not close, but neither were we distant. I realise now how little I acknowledged his grief for Renee at the time (I was too obsessed with my own). I think I made him proud but he rarely said that – well, to me at least. I enjoyed the deepening friendship in his latter years, however. Rarely seen, he was always there – and that was an invaluable quality. I guess I probably know him better now than I did when he was alive.

I was born, he once told me, “Because we wanted you.” At the time, that made some sense: my sister is 9 years older than me and they’d lost a baby in-between. But in just these last few weeks, I learnt that such was their desire for another child, they had been considering adoption. But nature took its course and along I came.

My dad always let me make my own decisions – especially with career choices but in other aspects too: even when they were ‘wrong’ or didn’t work out well. That’s one thing I have tried to pass on to my own children.

That approach reminds me of one of Jesus’ most well-known parables: the story of the prodigal son. Here was a father who let his youngest child make decisions. A decision to take the money and run. A decision to leave home. A decision to waste it all. A decision to acknowledge the mistake. A decision to return to his father. And all that time, the father wanted his son.

The parable shows us that God lets us make our own decisions.

But it’s easy to blame God for the ‘wrong’ decisions we make, isn’t it: or perhaps, more accurately, for what happens afterwards. ‘Right’ decisions sometimes don’t work out that well. But if things go wrong, is it really God’s fault? By contrast, it can often take far more effort to give credit to God for when things work out for the best.

The parable also shows that God makes decisions.

God makes the decision to be always watching for us. When we come running to God, God makes the decision to run to us. God makes the decision to put loving arms around us.

No matter who we are.

No matter what we’ve done.

 

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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.

In my own words

Have you heard the one about the rock star, the actor and the bishop?

To be honest, I’m not really a fan of autobiographies but in recent weeks I’ve ended up reading three of them. Now, lest you think poorly of the all-male choice (yes, I do need to read Michelle Obama’s…) that was just the way the books were given to me.

Where’s my Guitar? by Bernie Marsden. Now, have to admit I hadn’t heard of him but for 4 years in the 1980s, he was lead guitarist with British rock group, Whitesnake and co-writer of their superb mega-anthem, ‘Here I go again’. His is a story of rock ‘n’ roll excesses and successes. Of ego and energy. Of achievements and arguments. And yet amidst proclamations of greatness (although one senses the hands of editors) stand humble qualities of thankfulness to others and acknowledgement of many mistakes and misjudgements.

Behind the Lens by the wonderful British actor, David Suchet takes his lifelong hobby of photography as a basis. Using many of his own photos, he tells his story of becoming and being an actor and of those who had influenced his life and Christian faith. Like Bernie Marsden, he too writes about achievements, mistakes and gratitude to others.

Finally, a Lent book, You are Mine by my fellow BRF author, David Walker, Bishop of Manchester. With the writer apologising for the degree of self-disclosure within this book of daily reflections, it too contains a strong sense of autobiography and similar features exposing the inner man in the public eye. A third book unlocking the box marked ‘not to be opened’.

Even parts of the Bible, Paul’s letters for example, contain elements of what we would now call autobiography and many of the other books (not least, the Gospels) are distinctly biographical. We can read about the lives and times of many people from Abraham and Moses through to Jesus and the figures of the early church such as Peter. There are stories of success and excess, achievement and mistakes, ego and energy. They each have their own story to tell.

So, what would your autobiography include? What have been the achievements? The mistakes? Who are you grateful to? What’s in the unopened box?

But maybe the more interesting question to be asked is what would we like to read in our biography? What would we like other people to write about us?

And… what would God write about you?

Why not try writing it?

 

 

And the winner is…

Well, it’s nearly that time. Time to cast your vote.

During the last few weeks all the candidates have been persuading us which of them is to be the winner. They’ve shown us why they think they’re the best and we’ve seen why they might not be. Each saying, ‘Follow me’. Each judged for how they’ve performed.

So, who’s getting your vote?

Well, there’s only one person in it really… Anton du Beke.

After 17 seasons of Strictly Come Dancing surely it’s got to be Anton this time… His celebrity partner has done well but I’m sure many will vote just so he can be crowned Strictly champion. Nobody deserves it more.

In today’s celebrity obsessed world, popularity is often governed by how many ‘followers’ one has. Take Anton, for instance, 244,000 on Twitter. Take me, for instance, 130…

Christianity has its own ‘celebrities’ too – preachers, teachers, musicians, poets, authors, clergy who are followed around the circuit of conferences and festivals. Even local churches have their favourites with Sunday congregations deciding whether or not to go based on who’s taking the service.

As in previous years, the Church of England has encouraged us to ‘Follow the Star’ at Christmas. No, not to worship your favourite celebrity but to follow daily reflections for the season’s 12 days. From Christmas Day and on to Epiphany when we remember the visit of the kings who came searching for the Christ-child.

Daily reflections during the current period of Advent (such as that by fellow BRF author Amy Scott-Robinson) can set a helpful pattern too – and why not take a look at my own book, Life with St Benedict to carry on this everyday practice throughout the New Year?

Focussing our thoughts on Christmas in these next few days and beyond is helpful to understanding the true meaning of Christ’s life.

Here is someone who invites each of us to become one of his followers. ‘Follow me,’ he said to the first disciples. ‘Follow me,’ he said the hundreds and thousands of women, men and children who lived around him at that time. ‘Follow me,’ he says to each one of us today.

But what does that mean – to follow Jesus?

It’s not about leaving our work or our home life. In asking them to follow him, Jesus didn’t tell the disciples to stop being fisherman. They continued what they did for their community and their family. Jesus recognised the day to day practicalities of their lives and the responsibilities they had. And that is true for each of us.

In his letters to the churches, Paul encourages us to imitate Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1), to imitate God (Ephesians 5:1). Following Jesus is partly about trying to be like him. And while most of us are not a healer, miracle-worker or even teacher in the way Jesus was, we can imitate him in other ways.

Look through the Gospels and we read about the times Jesus spent with other people. Times when he cared for others, when he wept, laughed, sat down and ate meals. He listened to people, young and old, rich and poor, healthy and sick. He showed others love. He spent time in prayer – sometimes with others but, more importantly, alone. Follow me he says – follow me by doing the things I do. Many of us do things like that.

Speaking at a conference I recently attended, Ian Mobsby put it like this: ‘find out what God is doing and join in’.

More controversially, of course, these same Gospels tell us how Jesus challenged the leaders of the day. He challenged false doctrines and mistaken importances; he challenged wrongdoing and injustice. So in this election week, as we each decide who to follow and wait to see who the winner is, there is a message there too.

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Making comparisons

Oh, how I hated role-play!

Waiting for the moment when the enthusiastic, upbeat, uber-confident, staff trainer or presenter would make us act out what they’d been teaching us to do. ‘Please don’t pick me, please don’t pick me,’ my inner voice repeated over and over again.

Thankfully on many occasions, it was the confident extroverts who had their moment to show everyone else how it should be done. ‘Phew, not me,’ says the relieved inner voice. ‘Until next time…’ I whisper back. I’ve had enough trouble playing myself at times, let alone trying to be someone else… They’re bound to be better in any case.

A previous post reflected on how, as human beings, comparing ourselves with others is one of our least helpful attributes. Usually applied negatively, doing so exacerbates feelings of stress, inadequacy and failure – especially when it all gets too much or we perceive someone is more successful than we are.

In a recent interview with Radio Times, the broadcaster Paddy O’Connell put it like this: ‘You don’t measure success in Volvos. Success is being the sort of person people want to bump into.’

So, what makes us that sort of person?

We all have our public persona and our private persona. Most people see the public, outer person we present. Many like the public version of themselves – for some it’s a role they can play with confidence. For others, the outside is a uncomfortable place to inhabit. Whereas, much fewer people (if any) meet our private, inner being. There also, in that location, some are happy with who they are, while others are deeply unhappy.

In her excellent new book, fellow BRF author, Cally Hammond reflects on what we can learn from the public and private personas of one the prominent figures of the early church, Augustine of Hippo. She writes one of the most perceptive comments I’ve read for a long time:

It is a mistake… to compare the outside of other people’s lives with the inside of our own life.’

We all do it. We compare our inner, private self with someone else’s outer, public self. But, if we think about it, how crazy is that? We’re being the person we are and they’re playing a role… no wonder we don’t feel happy or successful…

Whether it’s at work, socially or more personally, many relationships are built through those public, outside portrayals. However, the deepest, most special relationships are often the ones in which the role-play mask is put aside and the inner person is revealed. And it is in such relationships, the ones built on love, trust, acceptance and communication, that often we discover there are no comparisons that need to be made.

For deep down inside, many people are very similar to ourselves.

Think of those times when you thought you were the only one going through a particular experience. What a relief and reassurance it was when you discovered other people felt the same.

We are, of course, more than the sum of our parts and as life goes on, many people strive not only to like the person they are – both the inner and the outer self – but to love that person too.

One of the other prominent early church figures, St Benedict quotes words of Paul ‘By God’s grace I am what I am’ (1 Corinthians 15:10). It is one of the great joys of God’s love that we are enabled to draw closer and closer to the point of being able to say, ‘I am who I am’. Of accepting the person we are. Of accepting that God’s love is for the person we are.

Maybe that’s the sort of person we’d like people to bump into.

Teamwork matters

There’s a story about President John F. Kennedy visiting NASA headquarters. Introducing himself to a janitor, he asked what the man did. “I’m helping put a man on the moon!” came the reply.

Whether it’s an Apollo moon landing or England’s cricketers winning the World Cup, success is often all to do with teamwork. Behind the ones who gain the adulation are many others who play a part and they too are to be honoured and respected.

Success is also to do with attitude. In the last 15 years of my paid employment, I was fortunate enough to work in a team where 9 times out of 10 the default answer to any situation was ‘Yes’. Or at the very least, ‘Let’s look at how we can do this.’ By the same token, as we all know, there are many organisations and situations where the default answer is ‘No… no, we can’t possibly do that.’

Such attitudes not only influence success (or lack of it) but also define the culture of a workplace and the team who work there. Indeed, the same is true in any gathering of people: voluntary organisations, churches, social or sports clubs etc. There are people who say ‘yes’ – and there are plenty who say ‘no’!

Whether they are ‘yes’ people or ‘no’ people, when individuals or a clique dominate not only do others feel ignored, isolated or diminished but what everyone does suffers and at worse becomes dysfunctional.  Communication deteriorates. Rumour outweighs reality. Skills are lost. Morale drops. People leave.

When the default answer is ‘yes’, successful teamwork is more likely to occur, but it’s important to be aware of what matters to both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ people.

So why do some people say ‘yes’ to everything? Perhaps they just want to be helpful? To feel they’re as good as others? To feel wanted and valued? Or, by contrast, do they have an inflated sense of self-importance?

And what about ‘no’ people? Is it because they’re just plain difficult or lack confidence in their abilities? Carrying hurts or pain from the past? Worries about the future? Or a deflated sense of self-importance?

“If you want something done, ask a busy person…” Well, yes but maybe not always. People who aren’t busy often want to be. (Busy doesn’t always mean someone has the right skills either.)

Those who always say ‘yes’ sometimes need to be protected from themselves. They become the ‘go to’ people whose approach can be “It’ll be quicker if I do it” or “I’m a team player – as long as you do it my way”. Often refusing or not seeking assistance, they overload themselves and, paradoxically, end up saying ‘no’ to others who want to help. ‘Yes’ people often need to learn to say ‘no’ (and be allowed by others to do so). ‘No’ people may need encouragement and support to know they are valued too.

The value of teamwork is that everyone plays their part. More importantly than that, though, is that everyone is allowed to and enabled to play that part. Equipping others to feel valued and part of the team is not only crucial but also honouring and respectful. Leaders aren’t the only ones to facilitate that – it takes humility from all to be part of a team. Everyone has different skills and abilities. Some are yet to discover theirs. Many need encouragement and support to do so.

As we’ve reflected upon before, Jesus chose a mixed bunch to be part of his central group of disciples. Many other men and women followed him too. They squabbled but they also sought to learn. Jesus showed them how to do some things and enabled them to do more. They weren’t as hopeless as often portrayed (it takes a lot of skill to be a fisherman, for example) but they were, like you and I, ordinary people (sorry if I’ve deflated your sense of self-importance by calling you ordinary…).

When Jesus calls ordinary people to do his work, to play a part in his team as it were, what an astonishing privilege that is.