Missing pages

missing pagesWhen I was a child I enjoyed reading Biggles books by Capt WE Johns. Such was that enjoyment, over the years I have bought and read 89 of the 98 stories penned about the heroic airman. In recent times, I have also come across other works by the same author: stories about Gimlet and Worrals.

Another childhood delight were Anthony Buckeridge’s books about Jennings. Now owning all 24 stories and having read each of them five or six times, they, like Biggles, make good bedtime reading.

So imagine my surprise when I find that Buckeridge also wrote about another schoolboy miscreant, Rex Milligan. Just four of them and I am now on my second.

As a writer myself, I liked the different style Buckeridge adopted but the scrapes his characters get into are familiar. Reading happily one night, suddenly the story didn’t make sense. I read and re-read the same bit but no, something was wrong. It was confusing.

Looking down I’d moved from page 32 to page 97. Turning on to find the missing leaves, I got to page 128 – which was followed by page 65… Then on to 97 (again) and finally to the end (158). It wasn’t as if the book was falling apart: but with 32 pages missing, a big chunk of the story would never be known.

It’s a bit like that with people, isn’t it? Everyone has a story to tell but with many, if not most, we know but a fraction of it. There are many missing pages.

When Boris Johnson got in a mess with his own pages, it was a journalist who asked the simple question: ‘Is everything OK?’ Because clearly it wasn’t. After all, here’s a man not long married, a new baby, recently lost his mum and, oh yes, he’s Prime Minister too. A forlorn figure unable to publicly admit to any difficulties for fear of appearing weak.

We’ve all met people whose hidden stories are revealed in different ways. The angry. The quiet. The arrogant. The joker. There are always missing pages. A chunk which may never be known.

Like you, I imagine, there have been many times when I have had the enormous privilege (and relief, on occasion) when someone discloses what’s written on their missing pages. To admit that everything is not OK.

But like me too, there may have been times when your own hidden story comes out in an unfortunate manner. Irritability. Rudeness. Sarcasm. Anger.

There will always be hidden stories. And Jesus was a great one for reading them. But when he did so, he came not to ridicule, condemn or criticise but to help, heal and make whole.

You may like to look at these stories that Jesus read:

All of them, like all of us, with hidden stories and missing pages.

All of them, like all of us, not to be ridiculed, condemned or criticised but helped, healed and made whole.

 

 

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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

‘Don’t you know who I am?’

‘I thought you’d have opened up by now,’ the voice said as I unlocked the church door for a Quiet Morning. ‘I’m going to the office.’

‘The office isn’t open to the public at the moment,’ I explained.

‘Well, I’m not the public. Don’t you know who I am?’

To be frank, no I didn’t. But I left it at that. It was when I overheard them talking to the local vicar about their significant health issues that, as is so often the situation, I understood their words. Another case of someone losing sight of who they are perhaps.

The tragic events in Plymouth (a town which was home for me when I was a child and many happy times visiting my grandparents in Keyham thereafter) have shown once again what can happen behind locked doors. But more than that, they will have left many struggling to come to terms with what has taken place and who they are within it.

In stark contrast, the Olympics brought stories of those who have opened the door to tell others about what they endure. The lack of family being there to watch them. The need to focus on mental wellbeing. A coming to terms with who they are.

The Quiet Morning took them theme of ‘Holidays, Holy Days’. A time to reflect on the current season. A time to revisit who we are.

I thought it a good excuse to show my holiday snaps but alas that was not permitted… but I did sneak one in.

A few weeks ago, Jane and I spent time in North Yorkshire and during it we went not once but twice to Ripon, one of the smaller cathedral cities in the UK. We joined a handful of people in the Cathedral’s midday communion service and sat there I became transfixed on this painting which hung on the wall across from where I was.

It’s a painting by Robert Thorburn of Mary Magdalene stood at the foot of the Cross.

Much has been done in recent years to restore the image of Mary and recognise just what an important figure she was in the life of Christ (you can read more about her here and in these other posts). Along with other women, she accompanied Jesus and the central group of male disciples and is arguably one of the most important figures in Jesus’ time on earth.

And here Mary stands at the foot of the Cross. The painting asks us several questions. What is she thinking? What is she feeling?  In the background is the sun: is it the setting sun of Good Friday after the crucifixion or the sun rising on Easter morning before she makes her way to the tomb? Is she holding on to the cross out of insecurity in her grief or in the security of the knowledge that Christ is the son of God?

Mary Magdalene knew who she was. And in that famous encounter with the risen Jesus, she heard her name being called, confirming all that she was.

I’ve written elsewhere about using images for prayer and reflection. You may like to imagine yourself holding on to the cross – and perhaps being held by it.

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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)

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.

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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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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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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.

Will we remember them?

On 8th May 1945, with the end of war in Europe, the country celebrated (or at least this country did – others did not).

The previous years had seen horrendous loss of professional and civilian lives. Medical services overwhelmed. Businesses disrupted and closed. The economy shattered. Public movement limited. Many were unemployed, homeless, injured and seeking limited food supplies. Politicians were ridiculed and praised. There were heroes and villains. Many gave their lives for the common good. The country, the world, was never the same again.

‘At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.’

On 8th May 2020, 75 years on, we are called to commemorate (sadly, some say celebrate). While all around us… well, just read the second paragraph again.

75 years on from now, I doubt any will remember those who gave their lives for the common good in these current times. Indeed, apart from family, friends and colleagues, will any remember them in 25, 10, 5 or even 2 years time…?

At the going down of the sun and in the morning, will we remember them?

The last post reflected on a renewal of respect for those who serve the public in often unappreciated and oft-criticised ways. Public applause on Thursday evenings acknowledges the work of NHS and care staff together with others who are designated as key workers. As a society, we are, finally, recognising the essential role of refuse collectors, postal workers, telecom engineers, road repairers, supermarket assistants, domiciliary carers and care home staff, bus drivers and all whose work is often disregarded. Blessed are the meek.

Over 100 of those have died due to their work and many others have been attacked undertaking it. They probably knew the risks and took precautions but they didn’t set out to give so much.

Even in wartime, when many set out knowing they may not return, they and all around hoped they would. ‘My father had been killed in an air raid so for us the end of the war didn’t mean he’d be coming home,’ wrote one person recalling VE Day. ‘For many of us, the end of the war didn’t mean life would go back to what it was before 1939.’ (Radio Times 2-8 May 2020)

And so it is for many today, life will never be the same again.

In contrast, another contributor recalled the unexpected: ‘Before VE Day I had never been out after dark. The lights were on in all the windows, and, magically, I could see people inside… it was the beginning of something much more exciting – lights.’

And now candles burn in our windows from 7pm on Sunday. A light for those who work, who suffer, who grieve. ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.’ (John 1:5)

At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we may or we may not remember them but the light of Christ shines on all for eternity.

 

 

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