I like to talk. In fact it’s hard to shut me up at times. I get excited about so many things; God, my family, creation, bees, motorbikes, good food, and the list goes on. I get excited and animated as I talk. My arms wave about, more and more wildly as I get more passionate – even on the ‘phone. I have a theory that if my arms were tied to my side I’d be mute!
I love to talk, but I also love quiet and above all silence. Silence around me, but more importantly, in me. In public ministry this silence-loving part of me often takes a back seat. That’s why a week or two ago I went away for a four day silent retreat. I took a six hour drive right away from any distractions and arrived at Abbey House, the Bath and Wells Diocesan Retreat Centre in Glastonbury. A beautiful spiritually refreshing place for a time considering “Sustaining Joy” in ministry.
As I packed I had serious second thoughts. Did I really want that long drive? Surely, I could just be quiet here at home? My wife was coming with me, how was that going to work out? What if I didn’t like Paul, the person leading the retreat?.. But once I arrived I realised just how much I needed that retreat. I love the ministry God has given me but it can be tiring. There is certainly a temptation to get lost in the business and lose sight of God; or more accurately let the noise around drown out the voice of the Spirit. I realised that the joy of ministry can be leached away; almost imperceptibly. Joy and even hope can be drained completely, leaving a dry human husk vainly seeking to show the wonder of knowing Jesus.
When I left I was far from drained, but I was also far from full. I was indeed tired, mentally and spiritually. Then I felt like a failure for not being stronger in the Spirit. That’s such a destructive temptation for me: letting guilt goad me into pushing on in my strength alone.
Getting away to sit in silence with God allowed the Father to deliver me from that temptation, and many others. The Spirit moved in and I smiled, and I laughed (silently). Then I remembered that even Jesus, “would often go to some place where he could be alone and pray.” (Luke 5:16)
I smiled some more.
At the end of those few days I didn’t want to leave. I just wanted to stay, surrounded by the beauty and silently resting in God’s presence. I didn’t want it to end. But then the Spirit sent me out, reminding me that he would always be with me and in me (Hebrews 13.5&6):
“The Lord has promised that he will not leave us or desert us. That should make you feel like saying,
“The Lord helps me!
Why should I be afraid
of what people
can do to me?””
Now I’m back in the town I love, less distracted by the daily noise, and filled a little more with the joy of the Spirit.
It’s good to go away but it is also good to be home!
Having a curate around has taken my mind back to when I started out as a minister. I remember my ordination in particular. York Minster was packed with people; happy smiling people. There were lots of people, family, friends, strangers, priests, bishops and even an archbishop. All were there to wish me and my fellow ordinands well. They were there to pray and ask God’s blessing as we were being dedicated to serve God in a new way.
That description makes it sound a bit like a party but that’s not how it felt. To be honest I was terrified. I was terrified to be the focus of so much attention. But most of all I was terrified that I would not be up to what lay ahead. What if the Church had got it wrong? What if I was mistaken? What if God wasn’t calling me to this? Then I remembered the rehearsal. I had to walk up and down steps in my new cassock, I’d caught my toe in my cassock, tripped and nearly went over. Should I run now? – no, I’d only fall flat on my face!
In the end all went well. I got lots of hugs from friends and family. In short it was a beautiful and memorable day. I even managed not to trip on my new cassock. I remember all of that lovely day, I smile; but only after experiencing a bone deep tingling of terror. Rightly so, I love what God is leading me to be and do, but I am still in awe of the God who trusts an idiot like me to do it!
That thought then takes me to the Bible, to the letter to the Hebrews 12.18-24:
You have not come to a place like Mount Sinai that can be seen and touched. There is no flaming fire or dark cloud or storm or trumpet sound. The people of Israel heard a voice speak. But they begged it to stop, because they could not obey its commands. They were even told to kill any animal that touched the mountain. The sight was so frightening that Moses said he shook with fear.
You have now come to Mount Zion and to the heavenly Jerusalem. This is the city of the living God, where thousands and thousands of angels have come to celebrate. Here you will find all of God’s dearest children, whose names are written in heaven. And you will find God himself, who judges everyone. Here also are the spirits of those good people who have been made perfect. And Jesus is here! (Contemporary English Version)
This description of being a Christian sounds a lot like my ordination, but instead of a Minster there is the City of God, with thousands and thousands of celebrating angels, all my family (all of God’s dearest children). And there instead of a mere archbishop is God himself… and look Jesus is here!
I don’t know about you but my first reaction to this description is very like my reaction to my ordination: Terror. The terror may be different from that of Moses and the ancient people of God, but it’s no less powerful. But then I am to live with this reality. All Christians are to live with this reality. I am to live, day by day, knowing that I have constant access to that Holy Place. Indeed, it is my home, my true Home.
Over the years I have entered that Holy Place countless times: In prayer, in worship, sometimes in despair, sometimes just smiling at the wonder of God in people and creation. Most of the time the terror is gone. I walk in like I do at my earthly home: I walk in hang up my coat, shout, “I’m home”, and drop into an armchair. That is why I need the words that follow, especially Hebrews 12. 28-29:
In this kingdom we please God by worshiping him and by showing him great honour and respect. Our God is like a destructive fire!
I need to remember that terror that I felt before my ordination, to remind me of the greatness of the gift that I have been given. I am a child of the God who is like a destructive or consuming fire. My heavenly Dad is a consuming fire who burns away all the spiritual dirt that clings to me. This God I am called, day by day, to love, worship but also honour and respect. Then I smile again as the love drives out the fear.
I’m smiling again now; praying off my coat and shoes, flopping into an armchair and shouting, “Hi Dad, I’m home!”
While away I would like to share an offering from Wordlive.org:
The Eternal King
As you spend time in the presence of the Lord, worship him as the King of kings. Pray that you may share his compassion for the broken and marginalised…
Cheerful book Ecclesiates: ‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless’ (Ecclesiastes 1.2). I don’t know about you but I normally turn to the Bible for encouragement, or wisdom or perhaps guidance. I don’t tend to look for a big slice of depression; with cream and a cherry on top, but that’s just what I find in Ecclesiastes.
The writer is rich and successful but is bored with life. He has children but he obviously doesn’t think much of them because he resents leaving his wealth for them to enjoy. He is bitter and twisted, which begs the question, “why have this in the Bible”? Why indeed?
Well for a start, it chimes with how most people feel about life, at least at some point. No matter how positive I want to be, at times life will get me down. Then these passages are strangely comforting. They say to me that I’m not alone, that I at least have company. What’s more, they say that I have God for company because he has allowed Ecclesiastes to be part of the Bible.
I can be depressed and I am still not cut off from God. I can be depressed and there is a passage of the Bible that is not saying to me, ‘cheer up’, or ‘pull yourself together’, or ‘count your blessings’, or all the other well meaning but pointless things people say to those who are depressed. No, I hear words that describe how depression feels, “‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless’”. That is the reality of depression. No matter how you try, the world remains grey and featureless, and here in this passage I discover that God understands; I discover that God is there in the darkness.
This reassurance is important because most people find it hard to cope with someone who is depressed, and Christians are not exception. There can also be the implication that depression equals a lack of faith, or a refusal to trust in God. But here we have a book of the Bible that deals with depression and deals with it head on.
Ecclesiastes faces down the argument that if you have good things then you shouldn’t be depressed; that you should, “Count your blessings”. The writer of Ecclesiastes has everything, he is king, he is rich, and he is well educated. He has all this and yet, “Everything is meaningless”.
Ecclesiastes is often used to teach the fact that earthly riches do not bring ultimate contentment, before pointing to the need for spiritual riches. This point is true but it is not what Ecclesiastes is about. If it were about this then the author would say so but he does not. Ecclesiastes ends as depressed as it starts – all is meaningless at the end of the book, just as it is at the beginning. No, I believe Ecclesiastes is about depression. It is about a man who has everything and still it is as though the colour, texture, and savour of everything has leached away leaving all grey and tasteless.
With this in mind I don’t think this book should be used to make points about spiritual wealth. It should be taken seriously for what it is. For those who are depressed it should be seen as a lifeline; a way into the Bible and the hope that it can bring. Ecclesiastes brings far more hope than all the platitudes put together.
So if you are prone to depression, then I recommend that you read Ecclesiastes. You may find that it speaks for you. If you are never weighed down by depression then read Ecclesiastes, let it sink into you so that you can better understand and support those who are weighed down.
Ecclesiastes is also valuable when your world falls apart. When you lose someone close to you, or perhaps when your health fails. Ecclesiastes can express what is inside at these times, it can allow me to be honest about how we feel. Ecclesiastes gives me permission to say to God, “Meaningless! Meaningless!’ ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless”. Ecclesiastes allows me to say this without feeling guilty that I’ve let God or anyone else down. Ecclesiastes can lead to the cross, where Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
I have said these words before but I feel I must say them again.
Ecclesiastes – the most miserable of the books of the Bible, but at times it may just be one of the most valuable.
I thoroughly enjoyed the short program on Julian’s manuscript. My library is growing… is that banana I smell?
Lost books, L-space, libraries and the odour of bananas
I have a recurring dream of a lost book that I have somehow found. It’s a beautiful book, filled with marvels, hand-written in quirky calligraphy as if by someone who has seen how calligraphy looks but has never been taught how to do it “properly” (bit like me, actually). It has drawings in it that remind you of illuminated manuscripts, and some which are entirely different. It has some resemblance to Jung’s famous Red Book, but the writing is in English and the drawings are not the same. Each time the book pops up in dreams, I wonder whose book it is, whether it exists in our ordinary reality or whether it is something that may one day exist or has once existed and exists no more.
A few nights ago on British TV, there was a programme on BBC4 on…
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Have you ever tried to listen? I mean really listen? I have and it’s a lot harder than it sounds. At least I find it so.
I sit and listen to the wind in the bushes. I listen hard. I’m doing well, for a second or so, then all the concerns and the business come bubbling up. I start out listening to the wind then I suddenly come to myself with a start: I’ve been planning the next service rota in my head or thinking about a tricky issue that will come up in the next meeting. I try again. Again I’m doing well; then I find that I’m not even sitting anymore, I’ve wandered over to check on the bees, or I’m on my knees clearing rubbish from the pond.
I try to listen but so often I find that no matter how hard I try I quickly find that I’m being busy again, I’m worrying again, I’m active again. This fault can happen anywhere, anytime. I can be reading my Bible or praying and my mind can lead me away to the business of the day, or I can suddenly find myself at my computer busily replying to my emails!
This may seem like a normal confession. It is I suppose. The danger is that it needs dealing with or I’ll very soon find that I’m with a bereaved family, and suddenly realise that I haven’t heard a word that the tearful people before me have said. It is serious, I worry about so many things, but only one is needed.
I worry about so many things, the growth of my church, the state of my country, a racist incident in one of my schools, that tricky meeting, illness, family, pets …, the list seems endless until my mind feels as though it is going to explode.
I worry about so many things, but only one thing is needed, only one thing is necessary.
Then I laugh at myself. The silly fool that I am. Rushing around inside my head, rushing around my parishes, rushing around, always late, never getting there. I laugh and Jesus’ words to Martha come back to me. I’ll tell the story (Luke 10.38-42):
Jesus is staying in the house of two sisters, Mary and Martha. Mary is doing her job, she is working hard making sure that her important guest, and the crowd that came with him, are looked after properly. She’s making sure they have a drink at least. But what of her sister? Martha is sitting dough-eyed on the floor listening to Jesus, without a care in the world – without a care for her poor stressed sister.
Martha complains to Jesus and he says, “Martha, Martha! You are worried and upset about so many things, but only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen what is best, and it will not be taken away from her.”
I see Martha in my mind, and I see the March Hare from Alice in Wonderland, I see myself growing huge ears and big teeth, and I laugh again.
I remember why George and Margaret and other teachers in college taught me Christian Meditation. I laugh, as the knots in my mind untie. I laugh as I sit quietly again. The laughing fades with the gentle rhythm of my breathing. The worries begin to dissolve with the gentle repetition of the Jesus Prayer; “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”. The words flow, and eventually become background. For a little while at least I am Mary, not Martha, I am sitting with my mind open, I am sitting at the feet of Jesus; waiting and listening. Then occasionally, just occasionally, I enter completely into the silence between my thoughts. I am beyond thought, one with Christ, one with the Father, one with the Spirit – but those thoughts only come after. For that time, all too short, I and God are one, and my ‘I’ dissolves.
Then I’m back in the struggle with my business. I’m sitting at Jesus feet but itching to get on with the work to be done. I’m Martha once again. I notice and laugh, and Jesus laughs too.
I head to my next meeting, busy, but still with words, gentle but firm in my mind, “only one thing is necessary,” and was that just a hint of another laugh?
I’ve been listening to an interview with Chris Packham. Chris Packham, if you don’t know him, is a naturalist and t.v. presenter. In that interview it was clear that Chris was absolutely, 100% committed to the natural world. His passion shone out of every word that he spoke. That passion and commitment was, for me at least, compelling. That interview made me want to know more, to do more for the natural world. It made me want to check out Chris’ website. The passion is there too. In particular, one phrase from that website really jumped out at me, “it’s important to suck up every last drop of life”.
I thought about that. I agreed whole heartedly that, “it’s important to suck up every last drop of life”.
I look to my church and I am excited to see more and more bishops and ministers who are 100% committed to what they proclaim. I see more and more Christians who are really living their faith too and I’m encouraged. I’m encouraged because not so long ago I saw too many Christians apologising for their faith. No wonder our churches went through a time of decline; no wonder we are starting becoming healthy once again.
Why were we ever embarrassed? Who knows? But what I do know is in my faith I have found something completely life changing. I’m still far from perfect but I’ve definitely become a better person through that relationship. I encourage people to give the Christian life a go because I hope they will find it as wonderful and rewarding as I have.
When I first became a Christian God gave me a renewed zest and love for life, all life. That’s probably why Chris Packham’s words struck such a chord in me. I certainly know how important it is, “to suck up every last drop of life” – thanks Chris, that phrase is going to stick with me for some time!
Over the many years since that first encounter with God things have changed, but that love has not grown less. I’ve been depressed but God has been there in the darkness. I’ve been on top of the world and He’s been there too. As I’m writing this I’m feeling grateful for being able to live in such an attractive and friendly little town. I’m really looking forward to enjoying the rest of this summer. I hope you are too.
I’m nervous and excited all at the same time. Why? ‘Change’ – that’s why!
Change is here in all sorts of forms. There is political change in the air. What will leaving the EU end up looking like? Who will lead us out? Who will lead the opposition? Will there even be an opposition? At least there is a now a period of calm. Nothing will happen in a hurry. But is this the calm that leads to a beautiful future, or is it the calm before the storm? I know so many people who are anxious and afraid. Sadly, that fear is turning some hard and unfeeling; aggressive even to any they see as a threat or just different.
I read the news and hear that this fear and hardening of the heart has led some to be hostile to Eastern Europeans living and working here. It is like the start of a civil war. Neighbours who got along fine are now the target of hostility. Family friends are being shunned at the corner shop and outside of school. This is certainly not England’s finest hour!
I look inside of myself and I find some fear too. It seems to lurk there waiting for a time to strike. Perhaps I’m worn out, and stressed, then I’m faced with that difficult person – the one person I really didn’t want to see. My more noble emotions are spent and my fear sees the power vacuum, sees its chance and jumps in. I react defensively not compassionately; I say the hurtful things that may stop the person but certainly do not build them up – certainly do not show Christ and his kingdom. I become captive to the old kingdom once again. The kingdom that is already a lie, that is already on its way out: In short I fall.
Or at least that is the real danger. Thankfully, Christ is in me and the Spirit seems to bring me round quickly. So far, he has always been able to stop me before my tongue does any real damage (Cf. James 3.1-12). When I do react wrongly, He gives me the strength and the humility to say ‘sorry’ – such a hard word to say. As the Spirit refills my reserves of love, the fear goes or at least reduces, and I’m more able to see the person not my fears (Cf. 1 John 4.18); I am more able to be loving, compassionate, patient and kind.
That brings me to one of my heroes – Thomas the Apostle. Often called ‘Doubting Thomas’ and relegated to a lesson from failure (John 20.24-29). He’s a hero to me because in Thomas I see a man that I can follow. He failed like another of my heroes Peter, who denied Jesus. Those heroes make me smile. They give me hope. Not hope for the easy times, such hope is everywhere, such hope is cheap. No Thomas and Peter give me hope for the hard times, the times when I am overwhelmed by life – and there are many. Most of all stories like the doubting of Thomas give me hope for when I fail, for when I doubt, for when I question what God is doing. More accurately, it is how Jesus deals with Thomas (and Peter) that gives that hope. Jesus, accepted their failures. Jesus accepts mine and transforms those failures.
So, I look at Thomas and I see a flawed saint. A saint who failed but who Jesus redeemed. I see a saint for my country in its current hour of need. I can follow a flawed saint, I may even be able to be one! So might those who are fearful now, those who are failing their neighbour, who are hating the stranger. Through Thomas Jesus tells me that there is hope even for them. There is hope. They too can be flawed saints.
To be a “a flawed saint” – now there’s an ambition!
As I think of Sunday and worship I am in shock. My country has voted to leave the European Union to chart a more independent course in the world. I had hoped that we would stay and work with our partners across Europe for the good of all. I have no illusions the EU is perfect, then I have no illusions that the UK government or any government is perfect. I did however see countries across Europe working together for more than just trade to be a good thing. The UK, I believe could have done more good being part of this.
I can say this more clearly now. Before the referendum I felt that I could offer those that I lead guidance on the sorts of questions to ask. Such as, “What would be best for all, not just me?” I did not feel that I could direct people to make one or other political choice. I know that the people of my benefice were divided on this issue, people of intelligence and good conscience. So I am sad, but I accept the decision and am now trying to see how best to move forward. What advice is the Spirit giving to God’s people? What witness can we have to our nation?
At this time of uncertainty, we need to be together. We need to make clear decisions and we must rebuild the relationships broken by angry and divisive campaigns from both sides. My job, the job of Christ’s people now is to pray and work for a better future. The referendum has left this country deeply divided. I need to work hard to rebuild those bridges. Bridges between young and old are particularly needed. The statistics that I read showed an overwhelming majority of people under 30 wanted to remain but a similar majority of those over 60 wanted to leave. Of those aged 14-16 who could not vote over 75% wanted to remain. This division cannot be healthy for our nation. The alienation of young and old, will not help us be confident looking to the future.
I look online, on social media and in the papers and I hear only discord. I look for political leadership and I see a vacuum.
I look to my Church and I find hope. My country is anxious and divided, so Christ’s people must be united firmly to the rock of Christ. I unite with both of the English Archbishops and my own Bishop of Norwich, in urging all Christians to be Christlike and show the signs of the Kingdom that is greater than any early authority. The signs of the work of the Spirit that Paul summarised as, “ love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, and self-control” (Galatians 5.22-23). At this time, if we are to have joy and peace, we most certainly need to give our country an shining example of peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, self-control, and greatest of all – love.
The statements from the Archbishops and the Bishop of Norwich are copied below.
24 June 2016
On Thursday, millions of people from across the United Kingdom voted in the Referendum, and a majority expressed a desire that Britain’s future is to be outside the European Union
The outcome of this referendum has been determined by the people of this country. It is now the responsibility of the Government, with the support of Parliament, to take full account of the outcome of the referendum, and, in the light of this, decide upon the next steps. This morning, the Prime Minister David Cameron has offered a framework for when this process might formally begin.
The vote to withdraw from the European Union means that now we must all reimagine both what it means to be the United Kingdom in an interdependent world and what values and virtues should shape and guide our relationships with others.
As citizens of the United Kingdom, whatever our views during the referendum campaign, we must now unite in a common task to build a generous and forward looking country, contributing to human flourishing around the world. We must remain hospitable and compassionate, builders of bridges and not barriers. Many of those living among us and alongside us as neighbours, friends and work colleagues come from overseas and some will feel a deep sense of insecurity. We must respond by offering reassurance, by cherishing our wonderfully diverse society, and by affirming the unique contribution of each and every one.
The referendum campaign has been vigorous and at times has caused hurt to those on one side or the other. We must therefore act with humility and courage – being true to the principles that make the very best of our nation. Unity, hope and generosity will enable us to overcome the period of transition that will now happen, and to emerge confident and successful. The opportunities and challenges that face us as a nation and as global citizens are too significant for us to settle for less.
As those who hope and trust in the living God, let us pray for all our leaders, especially for Prime Minister David Cameron in his remaining months in office. We also pray for leaders across Europe, and around the world, as they face this dramatic change. Let us pray especially that we may go forward to build a good United Kingdom that, though relating to the rest of Europe in a new way will play its part amongst the nations in the pursuit of the common good throughout the world.
to Norwich Diocesan Synod,
Saturday June 25th 2016
following the EU Referendum
The result of Thursday’s Referendum seemed to take even some who supported the Leave campaign by surprise. The announcement of the resignation of the Prime Minister, a year after victory at the General Election, adds to the level of uncertainty. The will of the people expressed in the Referendum must be honoured but no one has yet negotiated an exit from the European Union under the Lisbon Treaty so much is unpredictable.
In this diocese every voting district, except Norwich, voted Leave. Some areas like South Norfolk were very evenly split. Great Yarmouth saw a majority in excess of 70% for Leave. Norwich voted 56% to 44% in favour of Remain. It’s a reminder close to home of the division of opinion.
Therein lies a consequential danger of the outcome of this referendum. Ostensibly it has been about separation from the European Union. But it has revealed major divisions in the United Kingdom – between Scotland and Northern Ireland on one side and England and Wales on the other; between London and the rest of England since the capital voted heavily to Remain. But there are other divisions too – between north and south in England; between rural and urban; between young and old.
Such divisions are dangerous, especially after a campaign which was often shrill, bruising and alienating.
Our church communities, including this Diocesan Synod, contain people who voted on both sides in this referendum. There is no single Christian position on the European Union and membership of it. But there is a common Christian conviction that unity is better than division, hope better than despair and that we are always in partnership with Jesus Christ when proclaiming the good news. He offers salvation and redemption for all people in all places at all times.
So in the wake of this referendum we have much to do. First we should pray for our country and for the people of Europe. Then we should pray for our Prime Minister and for all Government ministers, indeed all politicians. The tragic death of Jo Cox is a reminder that the generous service given to their communities by so many Members of Parliament can be dangerous. Our political leaders need our prayer and support, never more so than now.
Further, in our local communities and in our churches we should be the agents of unity, always hospitable and not hostile and committed to the pursuit of the common good. As St Paul tells the Galatians “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6.9) Rarely have we had more gospel work to do.
God bless our country, and God bless you all.