Plan B

Malvern. Nestling in the foot of the hills that bear its name, the town hasMalvern been a place of holiday and sanctuary on many occasions. And this time was no different.

As we drove up the M5, the Malvern Hills waved at us from between the passing trees, giving greetings as if to long lost friends as we approached. We’d booked an apartment in one of the large, old houses that populate the centre of the town. The website photos painted a place of light and comfort. Four nights away. A time for rest and relaxation… or so we thought.

Having struggled to effect entry, we found ourselves in a dark, cramped living room. The most spacious thing was the high ceiling. The bedroom wasn’t much better: barely six inches on one side of the bed, less than twelve on the other. A lesson in how photos are manipulated to provide an attractive proposition.

The Devil knows how best to attack, of course. He knew we’d come to a place we loved and enjoyed. He often attacks after spiritually blessed times too (I’d just completed the first weekend as a Chaplain). He made use of the fact we’d made a mistake and compounded it with reminders of experiences I’d had many, many years ago. ‘Got you, this time,’ he said. ‘Do you remember how scared you were when you were so ill? All those times of anxiety when away from home?’ The shadows of the distant past had come on holiday with me it seemed.

Grateful for good weather, we spent as little time indoors as we could. A day each wandering around Malvern with its Priory, park and shops and then nearby Worcester with its beautiful Cathedral, river and, previously unbeknown to us, canal and locks all bringing some sense of what we do best on holiday. Add to that a trip to the theatre – our first for over 18 months.

But we knew we needed a Plan B. One that could be implemented before things got worse. One built on the lessons of the past. (Umm… where have I heard that before…)

Plan Bs are often seen as second best, aren’t they? A sign of failure. A few years ago, a well-known retail store ran the supposedly strong and powerful strapline, ‘There is no Plan B’… and how everyone watched the subsequent decline. As a country, perhaps we face the same calamity…

You may have found yourself in similar positions. Not necessarily a holiday that didn’t work out but maybe other times where the Devil attacked even if you didn’t credit it as such. Times when your Achilles’ heel was touched. Times when your weaknesses were exploited. Times when you needed a Plan B.

So, Plan B. Time to go home. A day early.

But not before going up to the Hills.

Not before three hours of living out the truth of the Psalmist’s words:

I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.

The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time on and for evermore.    (Psalm 121:1-2, 7-8)

 

 

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A purpose under Heaven

One of the benefits of being asked to write book reviews (aside from getting a free copy, of course) is that I get to read ones I wouldn’t naturally pick up off the shelf – or, given the demise of so many Christian bookshops in recent years, off Amazon, Eden or Mccrimmons (other book suppliers are available).

Currently, I have two reviews on the go. One for BRF: an Advent book by the excellent Jo Swinney who I have quoted elsewhere and, in a quite different vein, a new IVP Tyndale Commentary on the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes by the theologian Knut Martin Heim for Preach magazine.

The former comprises daily readings so it’s always a bit tricky for the reviewer having to read each ‘chapter’ straight after the other – but nonetheless rewarding and one I may well return to ‘read properly’ in December.

The latter… well, I have to admit I have never deliberately sat down and read anything from this  piece of ancient writing by someone who uses the pseudonym Qoheleth, a Hebrew word meaning preacher which translated into Greek is ekklēsiastēs. It was written as a speech and Heim argues that the speaker was a kind of 3rd-5th Century BC stand-up comedian and satirist. (So, who says you don’t learn anything from WorkRestPray blog posts… no, I didn’t know any of that either…)

Now there is, of course, a very well-known passage from this ancient writing – Chapter 3. It gave rise to Pete Seeger’s song ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ made famous in mid-1960s by The Byrds and recorded and performed by many since:

To everything turn, turn, turn
There is a season turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose
Under heaven
*

But it was another verse from Ecclesiastes which struck me as being particularly relevant to current times.

As we, arguably, emerge from the pandemic or at least the intensity of it, we find ourselves going back to normal. Early into the pandemic many, myself included, speculated that we might learn some better, more healthier ways of coping with the stresses and strains of modern life. But, even if we didn’t have the current issues around supply problems and staff shortages, one senses that many workplace normalities still possess less than healthy traits (the same is true in churches and other places, of course).

Heim’s own translation of Ecclesiastes 4 verse 6 reads:

‘Better one hand full with rest than two full hands with hard work but chasing after the wind.’

It reminds me of the first verse of Psalm 127:

‘Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labour in vain.’

So, do we find ourselves ‘working‘ (however, we wish to define that: paid, unpaid, formal, informal) and taking no time for rest? Are we, in fact, simply chasing after the wind?

Who is building the house – ourselves for personal aggrandisement or the Lord? Are we building in vain or for a purpose under heaven?

 

 

 

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*Pete Seeger/adapted from Ecclesiastes © Melody Trails Inc 1959

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)

 

 

Finding Stability in Times of Change

At this time of major change in the way we live our lives and with many people feeling isolated, anxious or unsettled, I’ve put together some short films to help provide some stability.

Click on this link to find out more and to watch them.

2020 Vision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Much of the same? With the same results…

Or time to make some changes?

.

‘Summertime…

… and the living in easy,’ so goes the classic jazz standard. But if you work for Tesco Metro, Harland & Woolf, Thames Valley Police or any other employer going through difficult times then it may not be. For others, especially those running their own business, it can be a case of the Summertime Blues – ‘About a-workin’ all summer just to try to earn a dollar,’ as Eddie Cochran put it.

Rather like Christmas, birthdays, weddings and other such occasions, the summer holidays are portrayed with mythical perfection. ‘You can stretch right up and touch the sky’ (Mungo Jerry). Sun, sea, sand etc and yes, holidays do provide time to perhaps visit some beautiful places and enjoy the company of others.

But for many, holidays can be a difficult time. The change from the routines of working life. The financial and other costs of long school holidays. The absence of friends and usual spare time activities.

Beginning a period of annual leave can be rather like being in a badly landing plane. No sooner as one landed and got through the ‘baggage hall’ of switching off and trying to have a good rest, then it’s almost time to go back to work, where everyone asks if you had a good break… ‘Yes, it was lovely,’ we reply, somewhat unconvincingly. The expectation of a ‘great holiday’ can often dampen the reality of it even more than rain spoils sunshine.

Holidays can, however, provide space and time to consider where one is with work, rest and prayer. Where we are with our whole life balance. Time to think about:

  • Work: What aspects have been rewarding and which have been difficult?
  • Rest: Do we feel rested or restless, energised or exhausted?
  • Pray: Where are we with God – close or distant?

Holidays can be a good period to reflect on the preceding weeks and months and maybe make some decisions about what to do to help that whole life balance. Whether it’s making sure we take a lunch break, spending that ‘spare time’ in ways that fill our soul, or setting aside time for prayer and giving intentional attention to God.

So, if you’re on holiday at the moment, why not take a bit of time to reflect on how work, rest and prayer are placed at the moment – and even if you’re not, how about making some space to do so?

Here’s some links to other posts in this blog that may be helpful:

Holidays can provide a ‘safe harbour’ from some of the storms of life. But we also need to be realistic – the wind still blows and the tide still goes in and out even in the most sheltered port. But it’s also true that Jesus stays in the boat with us and what better mooring is that.

Telling Stories

Every one has stories to tell. Stories of life and learning. Stories about working, resting and praying.

As you read this, you may might like to think about the various ‘chapters’ of your life’s story so far. Times of joy and excitement. Of sadness and difficulty. Different events and experiences. Changing attitudes and responses. The complex and confusing sentences and paragraphs. The jokes.

Life’s story sometimes has a way of putting two deeply-contrasting events close together, doesn’t it? Indeed, my wife and I experienced just that last month.

First, the excitement of seeing the next chapter of our life together begin to open. Having finished her training as a Curate in the Church of England, Jane’s been offered the role of Team Vicar in a lovely coastal and rural part of Devon. Such a blessing and a privilege (albeit meaning I have to begin the 22nd chapter in my Book of Moving Home…!).

And then just one week later, we learnt that our lovely 11 year-old cocker spaniel, Pip, has cancer. So our time with her is now limited. But, despite that, and as you may have gathered from previous posts (appearing as pooch and one who takes me for walks), she too has been a blessing and a privilege. She is part of our story.

I expect you will have stories about work, family and maybe, a spiritual one too.

The Bible is full of stories. Indeed, Jesus was a consummate storyteller. He met thousands of people. Each one had a story to tell both before and, without doubt, after they had encountered him. As Christians, it’s easy to focus only on what Jesus did and said and what we can learn from him. But there is a lot to learn from those who met him as well.

So this post comes with a new book: A Story to Tell.

In this book, we consider twelve people who met Jesus: six women and six men. Some  intimate, personal 1:1 encounters: the daughter of Jairus, Nicodemus, the woman from Samaria and the man from the Gerasenes (often erroneously called ‘Legion’). Some from the core group of disciples and followers: Mary Magdalene, Martha and Mary, Thomas, John and Judas Iscariot. And those two people, without whom, Jesus would not have come to earth to shape both our future and our salvation: Mary and Joseph.

They all have stories to tell.

Every story is unique. And there is much to learn from all of them.

You are welcome to download and use A Story to Tell for personal reflection. Do feel free to pass it on to other people too. Maybe see if you can put this link on your church’s website or share it through social media. If you belong to Cell Group or House Group or another Bible study type setting, the book also contains some suggestions for discussion. You can print it off as many copies as you like – or contact me for some printed and bound ones.

In many respects, each of the people featured in A Story to Tell led very ordinary lives. They had similarities with our own existence. From the day to day ordinary to the extraordinary. Difficult times and miraculous times.  Seeing God in the comfortable and, at times, the uncomfortable.

The aim of the book is to try and play some part, even if that is very small, in enabling your faith and trust in God to become stronger and to deepen your experience of the love that Christ has for you.

By learning from the experiences of those who encountered Jesus, who were very ordinary people just like you and I, we begin to learn more about our own story to tell.

Jesus told stories.       

Jesus gave people stories to tell.        

What’s your story?

Trains, Birds & Trees

So, Pooch and I are sat by the river in the sun as a steam train chugs its way past on the other side. (Yes, I know, we do live in an idyllic place…).

A man stops nearby and as he unpacks his tripod and camera, I ask “Trains, birds or trees?” “Trains.” He replied gruffly. “Who takes photos of trees?”

‘Shame you just missed it, then…’ I (almost) replied…

Lots of people rush through life like a train. Going full steam ahead even when there’s a  station nearby. Often running late. The equivalent of leaves on the line or the wrong kind of snow are always getting in the way. When the train can’t take the strain anymore it often leads to a derailment. And I’ve seen hundreds of those…

It’s perhaps not surprising that the most read post on this blog is about when it all gets too much.  A recent article in the Church Times illustrates the nub of the issue astutely: ‘Wanting desperately to know how to improve his spiritual health and well-being, the American pastor John Ortberg asked advice of his wise spiritual director. The answer was succinct and to the point, “You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.” Ortberg jotted that down and waited for the next point, only to be told: “There is nothing else.”’

It’s worth thinking about your stations – the places where the rushing stops.

And what about trees. The above incident reminded me of a photo I took:

Not by a woodland river but in the hustle and bustle of central London, in Kensington Square, one of those lovely private gardens (although do try not to get locked in, as I did).

One fallen tree is held off the ground, supported by another.

It’s an image which is symbolic of the lives of many people. Some are fallen. Others provide support. Neither are upright.

But the lovely thing about this image is that despite those difficulties, both trees are in full leaf. Both flourishing due to the presence of the other.

You may feel you are one who is always giving others support but hopefully you have people who support you too? Such mutual support enables everyone to flourish.

As for the birds. One of Jesus’ most well-known sayings provides a helpful perspective on the things in life which can cause us to rush and fall over:

‘Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?’ (Matthew 6:26)

Indeed, you are.