Being earnest about importance

While one cannot begrudge the third Mrs Johnson and her husband every happiness, one’s heart surely goes out to all who have been refused permission to marry in church because they were divorced. It’s not unlike the situation surrounding the PM’s former advisor’s trip to Barnard Castle when the rest of us couldn’t even go down the road – although one has to credit his belated apology.

There will always be times when George Orwell’s famous phrase rings so very true: ‘All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.’

We’ve all met people who are at pains to make sure we know how important they are, I expect: be they a manager, club secretary or church flower arranger. You know the type: the self-made man who worships his own creator… ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ they ask silently…

Indeed, I can play those cards myself if I wished. I’ve got two websites and published two books (and writing two more). MBE and MSc (Distinction). I founded and developed an international mental health initiative and am a lay minister… that type of thing. But does that make me important?

Or is it that I am a husband and father: those aspects are important to me (indeed, more so) and they are important to my wife and children. They are part of who I am.

Fact is, we often describe someone as important because of what they do rather than because of who they are.

The same can be true about how we measure our own sense of importance. How many times do we hear people say ‘I’m not important enough for…’

We live with an uncomfortable paradox – at times, we can be minded to think we are more important than we actually are and yet we are also more important than we think.

The Dutch priest and writer, Henri Nouwen wrote: ‘You are not what you do, although you do a lot. You are not what you have collected in terms of friendships and connections, although you might have many. You are not the popularity that you have received. You are not the success of your work. You are not what people say about you, whether they speak well or whether they speak poorly about you. All these things that keep you quite busy, quite occupied, and often quite preoccupied are not telling the truth about who you are.’

The disciple John, generally acknowledged to be the author of John’s Gospel also wrote three letters in the New Testament. If you are in any doubt about how important you really are then read these astonishing words:

‘See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.’ (1 John 3:1)

The intimacy of this truth is staggering: ‘See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.’

And that is what we are: children of God.

And that is what you are: A child of God.

A child of God.

Loved by God.

For who you are.

 

 

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The Grace of Renewal

‘Hello. We are expecting you.’

The words on arriving for a long overdue retreat were both welcome and unexpected. For me, retreats are often for taking a break. To get away from it all – whatever ‘it all’ means. The pandemic had already put paid to three and the last one was way back in August. Much too long a gap. Vicarage life is one that can’t be escaped from, of course. Over 50 online services edited. Other events led and preached at. Let alone family demands – and that’s without mentioning the dog.

‘Hello. We are expecting you.’

I’d gone expecting to be renewed and refreshed. Expecting to meet God in a deeper way. Alongside a book by Simon Ponsonby and a PD James murder mystery, I’d brought the icon that was especially written (painted) by a Benedictine monk when I moved on from paid employment. The Icon of the Holy Trinity. Father, Son and Holy Spirit sat at table – a space left for a guest. But these words of welcome changed things. Surely not God expecting me? ‘I the unkind, ungrateful?’ as George Herbert put it.

‘Hello. We are expecting you.’

And it didn’t end there… funny how God always knows just what we need and how that fact often surprises us, isn’t it? Evening Prayer with the Sheldon Community recites Malcolm Guite’s poem reflecting on Psalm 18:

My strength my rock my buckler and my shield!
You came to rescue me, I saw you ride
The wind’s swift wings, I saw the waters yield
To you, as you reached down to lift me out

‘Hello. We are expecting you.’

And later that evening, another Psalm, 4 verse 3: ‘But know that the Lord has shown me his marvellous kindness; when I call upon the Lord, he will hear me.’… The next day, Psalm 66:4 ‘How wonderful he is in his dealings with humankind.’

‘Hello. We are expecting you.’

It all made sense of something that former Abbot Erik Varden said in a recent TV programme: ‘Every day is an opportunity to begin again. There are times of growth. Times of fatigue. There may even be a time of dying. But we must always aspire to be at least receptive to the grace of renewal.’

‘You must sit down, says Love…
So I did sit and eat.’

 

 

 

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Wholly Weak

I am indebted to Canon Mark Oakley for inspiring the title of this post. Writing in the Church Times, he describes how during  the significant days of Holy Week many (not least clergy) wear themselves out journeying through the emotions of them all and they are ‘wholly weak’ by the end of it.

And it is a rollercoaster of a week. The triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Jesus making his mark. But only witnessed by a few? After all, who’s going to notice a man with a donkey in a first century busy, bustling city…

Then he causes havoc in the temple: turning over tables, shouting – calling out the church for what it does that isn’t about God. We’ve heard that message elsewhere…

On Thursday, there’s a meal with his closest followers. An act of fellowship  contrasted by betrayal. The establishing of what we now call the Eucharist or Holy Communion.  An act now so venerated: given a complexity which betrays the simplicity of its symbolism. Is that a message for us too?

Deserted by his friends (…and who’s not experienced that). A brutal arrest, trial and execution. Yet even the person in charge can see the innocence behind the events. Just like before, the city crowds perhaps thought nothing of a man carrying a large wooden beam in the street. One half of the symbol of death awaiting its upright companion. An ironic weapon for the carpenter’s son.

It is the women who remain faithful – and John. Strength for the dying Christ through those who are wholly weak.

The women are there again later on, watching Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus as Friday grows dark once again.

Less than 48 hours later Mary Magdalene, John, Peter and others get their first glimpses. Jesus has done what he promised to do.

David Rhodes wrote ‘The trouble with Easter is it comes too soon. There is simply not enough time between the terrible events of Good Friday and the discovery of the resurrection to make the necessary adjustment. Easter Sunday is in the wrong place. Like an aircraft in a steep dive, we cannot pull out in time. Plummeting down through Holy Week, we are still going down. And so are the disciples.’

For many, the last year in particular has felt like a long Good Friday. The message of the resurrection that the Gospel brings does not deny the reality of our experience.

But if we stay stuck on Friday with its feelings of isolation, anger and bitterness we will never experience the hope that Sunday brings. So Sunday has to follow Friday as clearly as the resurrection follows the crucifixion. As the American pastor Tony Campolo once said, ‘It’s Friday – and Sunday’s coming!’

For the wholly weak will be made wholly strong.

 

 

 

Thank you for reading this post – please do share it with others. If you’d like to follow the Easter journey there are some short films you may like to use.

Communication & Gentleness

The bride gave a speech. The two best men sang. The groom ate a marmalade sandwich during the signing of the registers and the 300-strong congregation ate cake and drank wine in church.

It was the wedding of the year. At least it was from our perspective. Thirty years ago, Jane and I were married on a cold winter’s day, the previous week’s heavy snow (a rarity in Devon) having only just moved on in time. It was the first wedding in a newly refurbished church after a devastating fire a few months previously. It was a different sort of wedding day – partly because I was and had been quite unwell for the previous 18 months but mainly because we wanted it that way. We’ve often done things a bit differently from what other people expect…

In the years since then, we have had two wonderful children and many happy times. Jane has moved on from teacher and pastor of school children to teacher and pastor within a Church of England Team Ministry. I from a fulfilling career to a rewarding next stage of life (via Buckingham Palace). There have also been many difficult times. The loss of three of our parents in the space of 12 months and a misjudged house move to the other side of the country, to name just two. Many other events have enabled us to love and to cherish, and taken us through sickness and health, for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer.

Throughout all the years, our constant by-words have been communication and gentleness.

We have ‘failed’ in both on many occasions but they remain firm handles to hold on to when the storm is strong.

Back on Saturday 16 February 1991, we were two ordinary people (in, yes, a perhaps slightly extraordinary setting) making a lifetime commitment in the same way many millions of others had done so before and since.

We, like you reading this, like many others, are all ordinary people who encounter an extraordinary God. When Jane was ordained in 2015, she told the somewhat smaller gathering who met afterwards: ‘There are three people in our marriage: and the third person is God.’ Words that echoed those of St Augustine perhaps: ‘love means someone loving and something loved with love. There you are with three, the lover, what is being loved, and love.’

A God who is faithful and strong. A God who steadies the boat when the storm is strong. A God of the ordinary and a God of the extraordinary. A God of love – a love which is at times is very different from what other people expect or experience. The love that the disciple John knew all to well.

Recently, we have both been struck by some words of another great Saint, Teresa of Avila which provide another set of handles to hold to:

Think little, love much, do whatever awakens love.

 

 

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Walk on By

Many have said we live in strange times.

Not least perhaps are some familiar phrases we can no longer use: ‘Is this seat taken?’, ‘May I join you?’

The ‘elbow bump’ has usurped the handshake. The ‘distance hug’ an inadequate replacement for the security and warmth of being held.

Two’s company, six is a crowd…

Even the great principle of the Parable of the Good Samaritan has been turned over – we are now actively encouraged to walk by on the other side… and many have been left lying by the road, trapped by the restrictions, local lockdowns and the fear of leaving their home.

Many good Samaritans have paid a price today too. Not just in the rightly applauded NHS – although the pressure of being ‘heroes’ is taking its toll on many. But also the oft-forgotten care homes and overlooked domiciliary workers. And then there are the hidden helpers, quietly applying bandages to local communities and neighbourhoods and many a  university campus and workplace too.

We also see the equivalents of the priest and the Levite (a priest’s assistant). Both these passers-by saw the wounded traveller but did not reach out. No doubt on their way to something important – torn between many competing needs. Who are they today? Some might say government but could any of us really do better? Or maybe Covid-conspiracy theorists protesting against loss of freedom while others suffer because of it or the ones who simply flout the advice and requests to socially distance? But aren’t they also expressions of fear…

And what about the robbers, the people who attacked the unfortunate traveller. Is there a parallel for them? What led to them to committing the crime? Who will meet their needs?

And finally, we have the innkeeper. The one to whom the Samaritan took the man who’d been attacked. Who are they today? The ones who are in it for the long haul, sticking by, regardless of cost – financial, physical or emotional?

But of course there is also the donkey – the ones who carry the whole load.

Jesus’ parables were often based around real events – and no doubt incidents such as people being robbed while travelling actually happened. As we considered in the previous post, the parables were not always meant to be taken literally but this one has found its way into many aspects of our attitudes towards others today.

In Jesus’ time, the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was notorious.  Jesus’ audience (Jewish lawyers and his own disciples) would have known this and thought the traveller a fool. Add to that, the Samaritans were outcasts and the enemies of the Jews so for a man from Samaria to help a Jewish traveller would have shocked his listeners – let alone that the priest and the Levite, for whom another Jew was indeed their neighbour, walked by on the other side.

So Jesus turns everything on its head (not the first or last time). He turns the message from judgement of others to compassion for others.

Martin Luther King once said, ‘The first question the priest and Levite asked was: “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But… the good Samaritan reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

 

 

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Back to normal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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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.

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.

What the devil is going on?

Well, dear reader, it’s been quite a fortnight since the last blog post.

Having supervised her two charges through their ecclesiastical removal, Pip peacefully moved on to her heavenly kennel. (Yes, there will be dogs in heaven – after all, dog is God spelt backwards…). Her loss is huge both to us as a family and, in particular, to Jane’s work – not least as she begins the next stage of her ministry.

Then, after going to a rather disappointing concert by Fleetwood Mac at Wembley Stadium, the Vicar’s husband returns home to discover that the Vicar’s Mini had been recycled by the recycling lorry (reversing clearly not being the driver’s strong point…). Thankfully Jane was not in it at the time – indeed, not even at home when it happened. But another loss all the same.

So, not the trouble-free period we’d hoped for. Here we are, sent to this new place to do work for God and this all happens. What the devil is going on!

Many Christians talk about having a personal relationship with the living and loving God but fewer openly acknowledge the presence of a living and not so loving Devil. ‘Evil’ is ‘Live’ spelt backwards and the Devil does have ways of making such living difficult. We might even talk about being under ‘spiritual attack’ – for example, doing God’s work but facing opposition in it and believing that things that go wrong are from the Devil.

So, were Pip’s death, the car being written off, a disappointing concert and the impact of the loss of familiar places and routines things of the Devil?

No. He’s more intelligent than that.

Were they symbols of spiritual attack? Yes, quite possibly. But not in themselves. They were, as Lemony Snicket might put it, ‘a series of unfortunate events’.

However, it can be the case that the Devil uses such events to ‘attack’: challenging and undermining our sense of identity and our faith and trust in God. He tells lies and distorts the truth. He touches our weak spots. He messes with our minds and our understanding about God. ‘Oh, so you thought you were doing what God wanted you to do, did you? Well, look at all these nasty things that have happened. You must have got it wrong… perhaps you’ve even sinned and this is your punishment…’

Thankfully, we know where the truth lies – and that has been shown by what happened next. It was quite remarkable! But more about that in the next post on 8 July (why not Subscribe so you can be sure to find out what happened!)

Jesus himself had such an encounter with the Devil – and it came immediately before he began the next stage of his ministry. Out in the wilderness for 40 days and nights, he was tempted by the Devil three times: (1) ‘You must be hungry… turn these stones in to bread’ (2) ‘You think you are so powerful… and you can prove it, can’t you? Go on, jump.’ (3) ‘Worship me – and I’ll give you everything in the world!’ (Matthew 4:1-11)

The Devil tried to mess with Jesus’ mind and his mission. The late Bob Gass wrote “Satan tried to get Jesus to succumb to three different kinds of temptation, and he’ll try the same with you.”

Yes, life is difficult at times. Bad things happen. So where does the truth lie?

Describing God as a being a like a mother hen protecting her brood from a marauding fox (aka the Devil), Nadia Bolz-Weber once said, ‘The mother hen offers us a place of shelter and love so we know where we belong. The fox still exists. The danger is not optional. The fear is. Under the protective wings, we are loved.’

Protected and loved. That is where the truth lies.

As the Psalmist put it…

‘I love you, O Lord, my strength.
The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer,
    my God, my rock in whom I take refuge,
    my shield…. my salvation, my stronghold.

‘His way is perfect;
    the promise of the Lord proves true;
    he is a shield for all who take refuge in him.’ (Psalm 18: 1,2,30)

What’s in a Name

In the team I used to work with, a sign that people were struggling was an increase in swearing. That’s fine: it acted as a release mechanism – rewarding as the work was, it could also be difficult. I recall one occasion when a lovely colleague of mine walked in to the main office and said very loudly ‘Jesus Christ!’

It spoke of their frustration at a situation: they meant no offence and probably didn’t realise it could have caused any. And while not offended, I was a tad surprised, it has to be said.

Quite rightly, we call ‘foul’ on chants of racial abuse at football matches and it’s important to challenge anti-Semitism and expressions of Islamophobia, for example. But it is strange that Christianity continues to be seen as somewhat of an easy, unprotected target.

From the day to day occurrences, such as the incident mentioned above, to that heard on TV or expressed in other ways (‘Alcohol – put the “good” in to Good Friday’, as one greetings card put it) it is seemingly ‘acceptable’ to do so. Even the ubiquitous ‘Oh, my God!’ is voiced by both unbeliever and believer alike.

So, as we now stand in Holy Week and prepare ourselves for Good Friday, is the continued use of such language in this way somehow symbolic of society’s and individual attitudes?

Symbolic of continuing to metaphorically bang the nails in to the crucified Christ perhaps…

As Christians, we believe that Jesus, God’s son, died on the Cross in order that everyone could enter in to a personal relationship with God. To receive God’s love and to gain eternal life with God in Heaven. Hence, why it’s called Good Friday.

And if that wasn’t enough, on the third day – Easter Day – we learn that that same Jesus has been brought back to life. The Resurrection. Yes, intellectually, that bit is more of a struggle. Nearly 40 years ago, it was that bit which held me back from believing in any of it. How on earth can someone come back to life? Impossible.

It does takes a leap of faith. If one can believe that with God nothing is impossible then, therefore, why couldn’t God’s Son be brought back to life?

I started this post by using Jesus’ name in a particular way and it is this same Jesus who says our name too.

John’s Gospel tells us that early on that first Easter morning, one of Jesus’ female disciples, Mary Magdalene, went to the tomb where Christ’s body lay. It was still dark. The stone had been rolled away from the entrance and the tomb was empty. The body had gone.

No doubt, as she sat weeping, Mary recalled Jesus’ teaching about his death and resurrection. And yet the body had gone. Imagine the confusion. She spent 3 years following this guy and believing what he said and now… nothing. Even the appearance of angels did not bring consolation. Then along comes a gardener and she poured out her distress to him. What on earth was going on?

And then one word changed everything. A word charged with emotion. A word which  encapsulated all she was, covered all her confusion and distress, and brought together all her faith and hope.

‘Mary.’

The 16th Century Italian artist, Savoldo captures the moment beautifully in his painting, Mary Magdalene – it’s the one on the front cover of A Story to Tell. In this one word, the simple utterance of her name, Mary has found not a gardener but the risen Christ. And Christ has found her. In the deep heartfelt calling of her name, Mary had found the true fulfilment of who God had made her to be. She turns to face him. And, John’s Gospel tells us, she says his name in reply.

When someone calls our name, it attracts our attention. We turn to face them. We respond to the voice. We see the person who says it. Hearing our name spoken makes us turn in the right direction. And if we are looking for someone we’ve lost, we might call out their name. And such is the joy when we find them – and such is the joy of the person who has been found.

Through the resurrection, Jesus calls each one of us by name.

Believe it or not, he’s saying your name right now.