Into the valley

the valleyInto the valley of Death
   Rode the six hundred.

It seems somewhat foolish to being calling it ‘Freedom Day’. With a third Covid wave charging onward, Tennyson’s famous lines have for me found a very uncomfortable echo in the lifting of restrictions in England on 19 July.

Not though the soldier knew,
   Someone had blundered.

Nearly 40 years of being a public servant have largely suppressed my own personal political views. Echoing one of our party leaders, I sit in the ‘reckless’ camp (by view not hue) but neither would I want to have (or be capable of having) the responsibility our ministers, politicians and their advisors have in taking the country forward. I was honoured in the course of my work to meet several ministers, MPs and advisors and to be part of two government policy working groups. They have a thankless task and they probably won’t be thanked for it…

No doubt I would feel differently if I was running a business or working in a team being decimated by self-isolation pings but whatever our view (political or otherwise) I suspect many of us will continue to echo the BBC’s Chris Mason’s words of almost a year ago: ‘The virus has robbed us of many things. It continues to rob us of any certainty.’

Or, to put it more starkly, those of his colleague Clive Myrie at the height of January’s second wave: ‘We’re all scared.’ He said it three times.

While for many, being able to return to working and living in a more ‘normal way’ is welcome, we will all continue to live in uncertain and, perhaps, scary times for many months to come.

So this former civil servant must add some political balance: ‘This pandemic is not over,’ as the other party leader put it. It could be reversible, Boris.

We are still in the valley of Death.

The Psalmist wrote: ‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.’ (Psalm 23:4).

A long time ago, I experienced a significant period of illness lasting some three years or so and a delightful retired doctor who was a member of our church congregation at that time showed his understanding of my predicament and frustration (and fear) by referring to that verse: ‘Remember, Richard,’ he said, ‘we go through the valley – we don’t stay in it.’

We all go through troubled times. In some cases, those times are very long  but here we have a clear, unequivocal promise that no matter how bad it gets the Lord is with us and we have nothing to fear.

A shepherd’s rod (a straight wooden stick) was carried in their belt to protect the flock from predators. The staff had that familiar hook like crook at the top. The staff kept the sheep in the fold, it was used to rescue them, to keep them on their feet.

Like the shepherd’s, God’s rod and staff are for our protection and to keep us safe. We may get prodded or pushed at times too. We will be rescued and put back on our feet. The Lord comforts us and enables us to know that we are cared for and loved.

Esther de Waal wrote, ‘The promise of the kingdom is not that we shall escape the hard things but that we shall be given grace to face them, to the enter into them, and to come through them. The promise is not that we shall not be afraid. It is that we need not fear.’

Led in to the valley of Death, the horsemen of the Light Brigade had no choice:

Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.

There is, for us then, one significant difference: we do have a choice.

Be cautious.

 

 

Thank you for reading this post – please do share it with others, subscribe and contribute your thoughts at the WorkRestPray Facebook Group. Continuing the Psalm 23 theme, I’ve posted some photos alongside the words of the psalm which you may like to use to reflect upon (you may need to open an Instagram account to read the words – it’s free and there is no other commitment required)

Do you remember…

… when the FA Cup Final started at 3 o’clock? When there was a piece of card in a Bounty bar? When the BBC used to play a hymn on Ascension Day?

Life is always changing, isn’t it? And in this coming week we see more changes as lockdown restrictions are eased further. Alongside the possibility of going to the theatre and concerts again, we can enter restaurants and pubs. And not least, have the joy of being hugged (cautiously, of course). Indeed, cautious remains a watchword and many will remain anxious too – not least those whose businesses reopen after so many months without the closeness of customers.

These continue to be unsettling and uncertain times.

The one thing that’s certain about change is that change is certain – and over the years I’ve written a number of posts which look at this unsettling companion.

You’ll have your own stories of change and how you managed or have not managed to find stability within them, I’m sure. (I’d love to hear those stories and include them in a new book I’m working on – do please click here to contribute).

On this Ascension Day we remember how the disciples watched as Jesus ascended in to heaven. The Bible tells us about many unusual, perhaps unbelievable events which took place and the Ascension is one of them. To our 21st century rational minds, to speak of someone going up in a cloud is beyond our comprehension. It simply couldn’t happen. It’s impossible.

In essence, the ascension of Jesus represents a significant truth… the physical presence of Christ departs from earth to be replaced by the spiritual presence in the form of the Holy Spirit whose coming we will celebrate in a few days’ time at Pentecost.

So on that day, the disciples, and probably others including many of the faithful women, stand gazing upwards. Perhaps talking about what had happened in those three years that Jesus was with them. ‘Do you remember when he did that…?’ ‘Yeah, that was wicked, man.’

They looked back because the weren’t certain what the future held. They would have found some stability in their memories of Jesus yet the challenge was for their faith to see them in to the future.

The fact is that they, like us, can’t just stand there looking up or looking back.

Some words from Helen Mallicoat…

‘I was regretting the past and fearing the future. Suddenly my Lord was speaking:

“My name is I AM.” He paused. I waited.

He continued.

“When you live in the past with its mistakes and regrets, it is hard. I am not there. My name is not I Was.

“When you live in the future with its problems and fears, it is hard. I am not there. My name is not I Will Be.

“When you live in this moment it is not hard. I am here. My name is I AM.”’

 

 

 

Thank you for reading this post – please do share it with others, subscribe and contribute your thoughts at the WorkRestPray Facebook Group. There are also short films about Ascension and Pentecost for you to watch.

Benedictine Quiet Day – Finding Stability in Times of Change

At a time when change is often feared, stability can be elusive, and busyness interferes with listening to God, this quiet day offers an opportunity for space and reflection. Hosted by Southwark Cathedral, the day will be held via Zoom but you will not be required to be at your screen for all the time.

Reflecting Benedictine spirituality, the day takes the principles of three monastic vows: obedience (listening to God), conversion of life (change) and stability to explore how people can relate those principles to their faith, work and other aspects of life in very practical ways.

The day is open to anyone of any denomination. No prior knowledge of monasticism is needed! There will be 3 short talks and periods of silence together with guidance on how to use the day.

For more information and to book a place please visit the Cathedral’s website or contact Very Revd Andrew Nunn, Dean as shown below.

A lasting influence

Sarah Everard is the latest of many, many people whose tragic death has uncovered deep, long-standing issues within society.

Think too of others – Sarah Payne. Suzy Lamplugh. Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman. Emily Davison.

You can probably think of others. People who have been more influential in death than in life.

Throughout history there have been many such seminal moments. Times when as a society and as individuals we are forced to face up to that which has been left unaddressed, avoided or denied.

The Pankhursts. Mother Teresa. Nelson Mandela. Martin Luther King.

Once again, you can probably think of others – why not make a note of them here.

We might think of other occasions which have challenged the status quo and influenced change. In the 1980s, the Faith in the City report uncovered that which had been hidden in our inner cities. In the work I used to do, changes in equality legislation enabled significant improvements; and the work of Dame Carol Black in the mid-2000s brought workplace mental health to the fore. In the intervening decades, the change has been noticeable but is still ongoing.

Will the legacy of Sarah Everard, Black Lives Matter, Me Too, IICSA, Living in Love & Faith make a difference? It will probably be many years before we know the full impact.

People can have a lasting influence on each one of us – I know they have for me. I can think of several individuals I’ve known who through the things they said or did have helped shape the person I am. Perhaps you can recall some too.

I wonder what societal reaction Christ’s death would have if it took place today. An innocent 33 year-old. Killed in a barbaric way. There would be swathes of flowers and social media videos. Maybe protests too. (The resurrection branded as ‘fake news’…)

Would we remember his life, his teaching and the miracles?

As we move on through Lent and gradually approach Easter, maybe it’s a time to reflect on Christ’s lasting influence on society and on each one of us…

 

 

 

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.

Waiting

waitingI wonder what the word waiting means for you?

Waiting for a bus can mean the difference between arriving composed or agitated. Whether it’s at the dentist’s or the hospital, the ‘Waiting Room’ is rarely a restful place. Waiting for a phone call or a visit can stop us from doing anything else.

Waiting can be exciting. Those times when we can’t wait for something to happen. Waiting to hear about the birth of a child or the result of a job interview. Waiting for the stars to come out or the sun to rise.

Waiting for the jab. Waiting to see relatives and friends. Waiting for things to ‘get back to normal’. And now we wait for June 21st. Waiting doesn’t always result in a clear, definite outcome.

Because our 24/7 society demands – and provides – instant gratification we can forget how to wait. Everyone is rushing around. A click of a button brings a meal to our doorstep in minutes or that prized new retail item the very same day or the next one if we can’t wait any longer.

We can send an e-mail and get annoyed if someone hasn’t replied within a few minutes. We can watch box sets of the newest series on TV: gone are the days of waiting for ‘next week’s exciting episode…’

As someone once put it: ‘We act in haste and repent at leisure’. How many times have we seen – or indeed made – important decisions quickly only for them to come undone slowly?

Lent is a time of waiting. Waiting to arrive in Jerusalem. Waiting to gather in the upper room. Waiting in the garden at Gethsemane. Waiting at the foot of the Cross. Waiting for the resurrection.

As we continue our Lenten journey and discover more about what God wants for us there will be times of waiting.

Waiting is perhaps sometimes God’s way of saying: ‘This time is a gift to help you prepare for what is to come.’

 

 

 

Thank you for reading this post. If you would like to comment or offer your thoughts or experiences then please go to the new Work Rest Pray Facebook group. There’s a short film on the topic of waiting which you may like to watch during the period of Lent.

In other news… I am delighted that Feedspot have selected this website as one their Top 60 UK Christian Blogs and that a story of mine has been ‘Highly Commended’ in the Oxford Flash Fiction Prize 2021 (the story itself will be included in an anthology later in the year).

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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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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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)

 

 

Uncertain certainty

‘The virus has robbed us of many things. It continues to rob us of any certainty.’

In many ways, those words by BBC correspondent, Chris Mason sum up these last few months.

Our local churches have begun opening for public worship for the first time since March. Many might have hoped to go back to a place of certainty… but with its hand sanitisers, the wearing of face coverings, social distancing, and no hymns or coffee it too has changed. It’s different.

The Gospel reading for today (9 Aug) is very appropriate for the current time (Matthew 14:22-33). It’s an account of when the disciples were in their boat crossing Lake Galilee in the middle of the night. Not unusually, a storm blows up. The boat is blown around. And then out of the tumult, Jesus walks on the water towards them. Given their exhaustion and the darkness, it’s not surprising they think it’s a ghost.

But Peter knows it’s Jesus. Responding to Christ’s call, Peter steps out in faith on to the water… and then he noticed the wind.

Peter sinks down and is grasped by Jesus’ hand. Jesus then climbs back in the boat and calms the storm allowing the disciples to continue their journey.

Stepping out in faith is no guarantee that we will not hit troubled or stormy waters. You’ve probably had your own encounters of stepping out in faith and things being difficult. You will have stepped out… and then noticed the wind.

Jesus said to Peter: ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’

A cruel put-down or words of empathic reassurance?

Did Peter really have little faith? After all, nobody else got out of the boat.

So here we are. We of little faith. A little faith that enables us to step out in the storm. A faith which grasps the hand of Jesus as he reaches out to us.

Jesus places us safely in the boat. He climbs in with us. He calms the storm and takes us on our journey. A journey yes, in to uncharted waters. A journey of continuing change. But also a journey of certainty. A journey in which we will never be abandoned.

Whatever the change. Whatever the loss of certainty.

Do not be afraid.

 

 

(This post is a shortened version of a spoken reflection at St Michael’s, Teignmouth in Devon as it reopened for worship on 9 Aug and that included in the online service for that day.)