Windows for prayer

‘Sometimes I sit and think, sometimes I just sit.’

The last twenty years has seen an increase in awareness of mental health issues. The last twenty years has also seen a resurgence in the use of mindfulness. The two are not unrelated.

Adopting the philosophy of Winnie-the-Pooh (not forgetting his erstwhile companion, AA Milne), taking time to just sit is in many ways representative of the mindfulness approach. To be ‘in the moment’. We spend a lot of lives worrying or having anxious thoughts based on the past and on the future. The basic principle of mindfulness is to focus on the present.

Commonly acknowledged having its roots in Buddhism, mindfulness has been adopted and adapted by people of other faiths and those of none. It’s an approach which works for some and not for others.

The same is true of different approaches to prayer. Some thrive with the structured liturgy used for centuries by the church (itself adapted and adopted in different ways). Others find their approach to prayer is one that is free-flowing and extemporary. Some may use objects like a candle or an icon to aid their intercessions. The comedian Frank Skinner, in his excellent and somewhat quirky A Comedian’s Prayer Book reflected on his use of the Rosary alongside what he calls his ‘freeform chats’: ‘The Rosary is a tighter structure, so I guess that will operate like a supporting rhythm, while these prayers are like the improvised solo: some bum notes but some exhilarating discoveries.’

In the approach taken by Benedictines and one I explore a little in my own book, Life with St Benedict, the method of lectio divina can be very helpful. Lectio divina (sacred reading) is not Bible study but is about pondering on the word to enable prayer. Stages comprise reading just a verse or a short passage two or three times (lectio); then meditation, taking a particular word or phrase that ‘spoke to you’ and ruminating upon it (meditatio); leading into prayer, open, honest conversation with God (oratio); and then resting in God, the silent prayer of contemplation (contemplatio).

This same four stage approach can also be used in the slightly less well-known visio divina (sacred seeing)  using an image instead of words. Like with lectio, visio divina is not about studying the image as if it was a piece of art. But about using the image to encounter God more deeply: a window for prayer perhaps.

I’ve written about Rublev’s Trinity elsewhere. In using that particular image, an icon in this case, one can enter in to the scene before us: perhaps sitting at the space at the table. Encountering Father, Son and Holy Spirit and letting that encounter take us in to deeper prayer.

In recent days I have put some images on to Instagram and Pinterest for using with visio divina. Let me share a couple of them now with some thoughts on how they might be used.

windows for prayerThese seats are just up the road from where I live. I find they say ‘Come, sit with me.’ As if Jesus was making the invitation. We might be reminded of how Mary of Bethany sat with Jesus (albeit while her sister Martha was getting hot in the kitchen).

So just sit. Dwell upon the image. How might your prayer develop?

windows for prayerThis more abstract photo may make us reflect on the cracks and the weeds in our own life. Maybe we can bring those in prayer to God too. A verse from Psalm 25 comes to mind: ‘To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust’. A reminder of God’s faithfulness and healing. Just sit.

We can come to God in many different ways. We can see God in many different ways also.

 

 

Thank you for reading this post – please do share it with others, subscribe and contribute your thoughts at the WorkRestPray Facebook Group. And please take a look at the images on Instagram and Pinterest.

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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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.

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.

For World Mental Health Day

When someone takes their own life, the impact on those left behind is devastating.

When it’s a terminally ill 92 year-old care home resident who takes her life a few weeks after her husband died, one can to an extent understand why she might have chosen to do so. But all the same it is devastating for family and the care home staff alike. When a 32 year-old man whose life is turning around after years of depression does so, it shatters parents, siblings, friends and healthcare professionals who supported him alike. Everyone is left drowning in a pool of despair asking ‘Why did they do it?’ ‘What else could we have done?’ ‘What did we do wrong?’ 

Coming as it did just hours before Christ himself was crucified, for the remaining eleven disciples and the others who followed Jesus, the death of Judas Iscariot by suicide would have been devastating. Yes, he had his fingers in the purse. Yes, he walked in to the garden at Gethsemane and handed over the Messiah. Yes, he had betrayed not just Jesus but that whole group who had gone through so much together in the previous three years. After all, he’d witnessed healings and miracles. He’d listened to the teaching. He’d walked and prayed. He was given the same authority to minister to others as the rest of the disciples. He’d had his feet washed. He received that first communion. Judas had become a friend. A close friend.

And then he did that.

Although there is often a link between suicide and mental ill health, three-quarters of those who end their own lives are not in contact with mental health services. As someone put it, ‘A suicide attempt may appear to come out of the blue, and family and friends may feel mystified about why someone has taken their own life. But suicidal feelings often develop gradually, without others being aware of them. People often find it hard to talk about these forbidden feelings, and therefore disguise them, particularly from the people they care about.’

For those bereaved by suicide, the loss is great. A loss as great as any other death, arguably more so in some circumstances. Those left behind may feel betrayed. They may feel angry with the person who has taken their own life. All the love they gave them. All the time and effort they spent. All the worry and suffering they went through… and then they did that.

Such feelings are natural and normal.

Many deaths leave unanswered questions. When the loss is through suicide, especially if is there is no note or explanation, the unanswered questions may always remain just that, unanswered. That is a heavy cross to bear.

Judas’ fellow disciples had each other. A community of support. While Christ’s subsequent resurrection would have eased their pain – and no doubt he both comforted and counselled them in their loss – Judas’ death would have remained a permanent mark on their souls. They would have been angry with him. They would have cried. They would have felt the agonising confusion of grief-shaped disbelief.

So too for us. The pain will last and the healing may take a long time. The good memories remain but the loss is deeply felt. Death by suicide does not have the same stigma as it used to but can still leave those left behind feeling uncomfortable when seeking help. It is important for those who have been bereaved to avoid a drift towards isolation and to retain the community of support that already exists and is available – even though that may be difficult in itself. 

‘God has no timetable for our recovery from tragedy,’ said Bishop David Walker. ‘There is no date after which he expects us to have pulled ourselves together. He knows that the hurt we experience can last a lifetime. He is always ready to see our tears, to hear our cries, and to whisper his words of comfort.’

Help for those who have been bereaved by suicide is available at uksobs.org

Help for those experiencing suicidal thoughts is available through The Samaritans samaritans.org or by contacting emergency medical services.

This blog post is an edited version of ‘Judas – Betrayal & Loss’, one of the stories contained in A Story to Tell

Anxious Times

Driving through the Yorkshire Dales. Enjoying a film in the cinema. Coming back from a successful conference. Lying in someone’s arms. Stuck in a car park. Waking in the night. Watching over a poorly child.

If you’ve ever had a panic attack you probably remember exactly where you were and what you were doing at the time. Sometimes totally unexpectedly, they can happen in good times as well as in difficult times.

While the ‘what if’ thoughts rise up occasionally, thankfully mine all happened some years ago now. But I still remember them. The most uncontrollable and frightening feelings I have ever experienced. Anxiety is, as a film  once put it, ‘like a bird of prey getting its claws in to you. It takes you to places you don’t want to go to.’

A panic attack is just one aspect of anxiety. When your body experiences a rush of intense mental and physical symptoms. The consequences often lead to then avoiding going somewhere for fear of having another one. Life starts to close down and the anxiety gets worse.

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week and it’s so good that attitudes towards anxiety as well as depression (which is also very common as this film describes), bi-polar disorder, psychosis, body image and other forms of mental ill health have improved considerably – especially over the last two decades. (If you want to know more about mental health conditions don’t ‘Dr Google’ it – go to where the reliable, evidence-based information is such as at NHS Choices.)

Despite those improvements, there are still difficulties for those who experience such issues, not least, alas, in some areas of the church. ‘It has…been the experience of many sufferers that the implicit message in church is that depression is “laziness”, anxiety is a “lack of trust” and that mental health problems can be resolved by greater “obedience to Christ”,’ observed Will Van Der Hart, director of The Mind and Soul Foundation. Thankfully, the church too is responding with initiatives such as the Mental Health Access Pack.

As a previous post considered, feeling anxious or depressed at certain times is perfectly normal.  But it is right to be concerned when those feelings or symptoms affect our ability to function. When they affect our ability to live well.

Asking for help in such times is not a sign of failure. Although the act, or even the very thought, of seeking help can feel frightening. We may be scared of ‘what will come out’ or worried about ‘what’s wrong’ or what other people will think. But as Jo Swinney put it, ‘Depression, anxiety and mental anguish are not signs you are a bad Christian.’ Or a bad person, for that matter.

Asking for help is a sign of strength. Seek help, don’t let it get worse. Recovery is possible.

It does take time and effort, though. So, here’s some links that may be helpful…

If you work for a church or Christian organisation, there are some free workshops to help explore what it is to live well and work well mentally – and also to help managers and supervisors support their staff team. If you don’t work for the church then get in touch with MINDFUL EMPLOYER, an NHS initiative which specialises in this area.

And why not share this post with someone you know who’s struggling? Simply send them this link: http://workrestpray.com/anxious-times

Time to Talk

The first Thursday in February is the annual Time to Talk Day. It’s another opportunity to raise awareness about mental health.

Many more people now speak openly about their experience of depression, anxiety or other more severe and enduring conditions such as bi-polar disorder or psychosis. With one in four of us seeking help from a doctor about a mental health problem at some point in life, it is encouraging to see the increased recognition of the importance of looking after our mental wellbeing.

Indeed, when we talk about ‘mental health awareness’, fact is most people are actually talking about mental illness. Thinking about the conditions, the problems, the stigma, the discrimination.

So, it’s important that we also think about our mental health – the ways in which we keep our mind healthy.

‘Mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community’. (WHO)

That’s a very positive statement. A lot of people spend a lot of time, energy and money looking after their physical health – exercise, diet etc – but I wonder how many of us put the same amount of effort in to keeping ourselves mentally well?

Being mentally unwell is not a weakness. Indeed, it is often those who are the most conscientious and dedicated who experience such difficulties. Depression, for example, has been called ‘the curse of the strong’. 

Feeling anxious or depressed at certain times is perfectly normal. We’re bound to feel anxious if we’re facing an important exam or a relative is in hospital, for example. It’s natural to feel down or low after a bereavement or the break up of a relationship. Indeed, those emotions and responses are a necessary part of who we are as human beings – and integral to our ability to cope with difficult situations and to live well.

But it is right to be concerned when those feelings or symptoms affect our ability to function. When they affect our ability to live well. When we feel bothered by them. When work, sleep, family life and other everyday matters are increasingly affected. If such things are happening every day for more than two weeks, help needs to be sought.

The difficulty is that a lot of people don’t seek help that quickly. We feel we ‘ought’ or ‘should’ be able to cope. We might tell ourselves ‘not to be so stupid’. Others might tell us to ‘pull ourselves together’. It can be difficult to talk – but as this short film shows it’s important to do so.

Asking for help is not a sign of failure. Although the act, or even the very thought, of seeking help can feel frightening. We may be scared of ‘what will come out’ or worried about ‘what’s wrong’ or what other people will think.

Asking for help is a sign of strength. But it is important to be realistic. Although God can and does enable miraculous healing, generally speaking, there is 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.

The good news is that people get better. Recovery does happen. Unlike many physical health conditions, though, 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 well.

So, what do you do to look after your mental health? Are you working all the hours God sends and missing out on all the other things God wants to give you?

It’s not so much about work-life balance: it’s about whole life balance. It’s about work, rest and pray. It’s about having time for others perhaps through work (be that paid or unpaid; or in the family home or elsewhere); time for ourself through rest and recreation; time for God through prayer and listening.

As quoted in a previous post, ‘You will live with your mind for the rest of your life, so make it a good companion.’

The above is an edited version of a sermon preached by the author at Portsmouth Cathedral on 3 February 2019 on Mental Health Awareness Sunday. Listen here to full talk.

Success or Fulfilment?

Had a few days in Switzerland earlier this month. Speaking at a conference of business people from across Europe followed by being a tourist in sunny Zurich.

Sharing the conference stage with an English colleague, we were to be interviewed by globetrotting, all-Australian, Greg van Borssum. Martial arts expert, Mr Universe competitor, world champion pistol shooter, film director, fight choreographer and stuntman on Mad Max.

We’d talked beforehand by email and phone about how the panel discussion would go. Greg wanted to talk about my story. I didn’t. He said “It’s going to be a blast!”  “I’m British,” I said.

Greg went from failed school kid to Oscar winner via financial ruin and depression. He’d arrived the previous day after a 35 hour-long trip and had had a run in the mountains before breakfast. He had a high energy, high motivation, self-driven approach to life. We were poles apart on the ‘Frost scale of masculinity’. Follow that, I thought.

We sat down.

And, of course, it was fine.

He was the stereotypical gentle giant. And, yes, I did share some of my story. It was a good lesson in how not to compare oneself to others.

From our totally different approaches to life, we stood on common ground. Ambassadors for better mental health. Sharing a passion for enabling people to live and to work in a better place.

One of many things Greg said was that life is not about success but about fulfilment.

Society measures success by achievement. How high the salary. How large the house. How expensive the car. How big the bonus. How lovely the children are. Which university. How fashionable the clothes. What the job title is… But is such success fulfilling?

Fulfilling. Full. Filling.

What is it that fills us? What really nourishes the soul and the inner being?

Greg’s challenge was to look at life differently. In many respects, Christianity is also about looking at life – and living life – from a different approach.

Jesus’ approach was different. It remains, even today, counter-cultural. Sometimes counter-intuitive also.

‘The last will be first, and the first will be last,’ he said. (Matthew 19:30; 20:16; Mark 10:31 & Luke 13:30)

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven… Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth… Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled… Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ (The Beatitudes in Matthew 5)

Paul’s letter to the Romans put it another way: ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)

In a previous post we considered the tools for the toolbox alluded to in Chapter 4 of the Rule of St Benedict. The same chapter says, ‘Your way of acting should be different from the world’s way; the love of Christ must come before all else.’

It’s easy to look upon those words from the Bible and the Rule and be daunted by such high standards. To feel poles apart from others on some imaginary ‘God’s scale of acceptability’.

But there is no scale. For the love of Christ is the toolbox itself.

The love of Christ is the centre of everything about us. Everything we do stems from that love. That is where fulfilment lies.

Fulfilment gained through experiencing the love of Christ in our own lives.

Fulfilment gained through expressing that love towards others.

Fulfilment gained by taking a different approach.