What makes a person great?

Despite all the difficulties, the Olympics will, no doubt, produce moments of greatness. Great sportswomen and men at the top of their game. Gold medals. World records. Memorable moments.

Whether it’s in sport or politics, businesses or churches, I imagine we can all think of people who are great. Some deservingly of that title. Others who have sought it for themselves.

But what makes people great?

25 July is St James’ Day when we celebrate the life of that close disciple of Jesus: sometimes referred to as St James the Great. There were the many people called James (or Jacob to give it its Hebrew root) around at that time so such titles were used to distinguish from others of that name. The one we remember today is the one whose body, legend has it, was carried to Compostela in Spain. He was the brother of John, one of the other disciples: often referred to as the disciple who Jesus loved. James and John were the sons of a well-to-do fisherman, Zebedee and his wife, Salome, thought by many to be the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

James and John were called ‘the Sons of Thunder’ because of, at times, their impetuous behaviour and outlandish requests. They were both key figures among the central group of twelve male disciples and together with Simon Peter, John and James were often to be found with Jesus, but without the others: for example, at the healing of the daughter of Jairus; on the mountain at the time of the Transfiguration and then again in the Garden at Gethsemane.

Matthew’s Gospel records an incident which is instigated by Salome, the mother of James and John. Mark’s account of the same occasion omits that detail but he too records a request made to Jesus: that the two brothers are to sit either side of him in heaven.

Journeys of faith can sometimes be paralleled with stages of life, and this outrageous request to sit on the right and left of Jesus smacks of the self-interest, unrealistic ambition and arrogance of a young and adolescent belief. We’ve all done it. We’ve all asked for things and incurred the wrath of others. And so it is for James and John: the other disciples are angry.

Jesus’ response to the brothers’ misplaced ambition is to ask if they can walk the path that he will walk. Can they drink the cup he will drink – the talk of a cup is a reference to the suffering and death Jesus will undergo. The journey of faith is about the service of others and of God, not about personal gain. Yes we are to be ambitious for Christ and the spreading of his Gospel: but ultimately none of us will drink the cup Jesus drank.

So where does that leave us in our exploration of greatness? As mentioned, we can think of great public figures. We might also think of people we have known personally who are great in our eyes. What is it that makes them so?

I wonder if it’s because we see someone as great simply because they never tried to be?

Perhaps we might see elements of humility, failings, a willingness to admit mistakes: all those things which are, if you like, contrary to what we might call ‘greatness’.

Yet so often, for example among sports people, politicians, business entrepreneurs and yes, in churches, we see people clamouring for greatness. The equivalent of wanting that seat next to Jesus in heaven.

That is not the way of Christ.

‘Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be the one who serves.’

 

 

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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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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.

I can see clearly now

Choosing new frames at the opticians is never easy.

Because I’m so short-sighted (-10.75), on a recent visit I had to resort to taking ‘selfies’ so I could see each of the contenders properly. Even then, the photos didn’t really tell me what they looked like. But, after gauging family opinions on the possibilities, and accompanied by my wife and an excellent practitioner, a further appointment settled on the right ones. Well, I hope they will be.

Now you may be thinking – oh, here he goes, trite message about how looking through the right lens to ‘correct our vision’ means we’ll see God more clearly.

And while there is truth in that, even the best specs don’t guarantee perfect vision all the time. Doing ‘all the right things’ doesn’t mean we ‘get it all right’ – and for me, that ‘corrective’, right versus wrong approach to Christian living is not only demoralising but misses the point about God’s astonishing love for us.

It reminds me of the story of the healing of Bartimaeus, a blind beggar in Jericho. Sat by the road, he hears Jesus approaching, calls out and, miraculously, his sight is restored (Mark 10:46-51).

For Bartimaeus, it was his faith in Jesus that enabled him to see clearly. But it wasn’t just about that.

That encounter is also about the question Jesus asked: ‘What do you want me to do for you?’

Imagine for a moment, Jesus asking you that question.

Possibly, like many of us, you may have a very long list of answers… You may be thinking, well I’ve asked you to do lots of things which haven’t happened… Our unanswered answers are tough at times, aren’t they?

It can be difficult to hold that apparent absence of response in tension with things Jesus promised: “Ask, and it will be given to you” (Matthew 7:7) and “…if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (Mark 11:23-24)

Bartimaeus. There he was. A beggar. An outcast. People always telling him to be quiet. He had no place in the presence of the new kid in town.

And afterwards… yes, he could see again. Yes, some would be amazed by his miraculous healing. But I guess he also remained a beggar and an outcast. And people would still tell him to shut up.

But perhaps, despite all that, his faith remained strong.

It can be like that for us: we receive some of the things we want, while other things remain difficult.

So, looking deeper, what of our faith – what do we want Jesus to do for our belief and trust in him?

 

You may like to find a quiet space.

Imagine for more than a moment, Jesus with you.

And Jesus says: “What do you want me to do for you?”

 

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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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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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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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