Hitting Pause

As the so called “freedom day” moves nearer, I am becoming increasingly nervous.

My nervousness is not just because of the increasing cases of COVID 19, although it cannot be ignored.  Nor is my nervousness because I do not think this “freedom” will not quite be what people are hoping.  The reality is, COVID is still with us, and there will be some precautions we will need to take for some time.

My nervousness is based on a concern that people will expect to pick up where we left off last March, as if nothing has happened.  I fear some people are going to be disappointed.

I do not want to pour cold water on peoples hopes, nor am I a “doom and gloom” merchant.  But, I have been reflecting on this as I read a Bible verse;

Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”

(Mark 6 vs. 31)

Jesus had sent the disciples out on the mission field.  He had told them to take nothing with them, but to simply trust that God would provide for their needs.

What those disciples discovered was that God not only met their needs but, God had blessed them abundantly.  They had a message to preach.  They brought healing and wholeness.  There were signs of the kingdom breaking through.

When they return to Jesus they must have been absolutely “on fire” for the kingdom and raring to go. It was exciting and if Jesus had said to them, “That’s great guys, off you go again” they would have done.

Jesus response seems a little strange;

“Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”

Why, when everything just seems to be green light go, does Jesus slam the brakes on?

Why does Jesus hit the pause button?

After so many months of lockdown, many are straining at the lead and raring to go.  We want groups to re-open.  Activity.  We have had a whole year and a bit and now, this is it.

But, I wonder, if Jesus may be saying to us;

“Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”

Why would he say that?

I have come to believe that Jesus is inviting the disciples to step aside and process all that has been happening to them. 

I am sure that the Church I attend is not unique.  A lot has happened to us as individuals and as a fellowship.  We have said goodbye to some folk.  Some of us have faced major challenges in our working environment.  Others have had health issues.

Many of us have had to face our fears in the various circumstances in which we have found ourselves.  Most of us have had to live with disappointments.  Quite a few of us have been far busier than we would have expected to have been, under normal circumstances.

We need a chance to process, to draw breath and find where God is leading us now.

I don’t know whether we are going to be in normal, new normal or new new normal. What I sense is, Jesus is hitting the pause button.  I believe he is saying to us;

“Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”

As we do that, He will renew and strengthen us for the next part of our journey with him.

Life without all the answers

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

How do you choose the books you read?

Perhaps you go by author, you have been challenged by or appreciated previous writings. Maybe a friend or colleague has recommended a particular writer. Maybe it is the theme of the book. The writer is addressing a subject that you are interested in, or want to learn more about.  Some may be attracted by the cover design which piques an interest and leads them to want to find out more.

With the book I have been reading recently, it was neither the theme, nor the writer; it was the strapline.  A few words on the front cover grabbed my attention and spoke to the emptiness within.  The writer is David Hansen, the book ‘The Art of Pastoring’, the strapline ‘Ministry without all the answers’. 

When the first lockdown was announced, I felt utterly bereft.  All of my activity, all my doing for God ground to a halt.  I can remember sitting in my study and praying “what do I do now?”. Having had quite a long ministry in my present Church, my role had markers throughout the week; tasks that needed to be accomplished on certain days.  I was living, to use David Hansen’s phrase, a “task driven ministry”.  With no tasks, my ministry was suddenly cut adrift and I did not know where I would float too.

Through reading David Hansen’s book, I actually believe I began to re-sense what my original calling was about.  Like many, I had become so busy “doing” for Jesus, I had lost sight of what ministry can truly be.  I felt really challenged as Hansen describes ministers and ministry as being a parable of Jesus. 

If my life was a parable, what was the message it was communicating?

A parable draws a comparison between something that is known and something that is un-known.  Jesus sometimes began his parables with the words “the kingdom of Heaven is like…” Hansen says:

Here’s what the pastoral ministry is for me: Every day as I go about my tasks as a pastor, I am a follower of Jesus.  I am therefore a parable of him to those I encounter.  The parable of Jesus works the power and presence of Jesus in their lives.

(page 31)

As we begin to emerge from this time of pandemic, many ministers and churches will, no doubt, want to make up for lost time and get busy again.  In the midst of my busy-ness, I am planning to take with me a question;

If my life is a parable, what message am I communicating?

If you would like to borrow the question, you are welcome!

Where are you?

Image by Lennart Bruchhaus from Pixabay

There has been a single verse of scripture floating around in my mind for a few days now.  It comes from a story in the book of Genesis.  Adam and Eve have disobeyed God and, in their shame, they decide that if they hide they might just get away with it!  The verse that follows this says;

But the Lord God called to the man, “where are you?” (Genesis 3 vs. 9)

I am sure this is a question that many of us have asked of God. Sometimes, we ask it in our fear.  Sometimes we ask it in anger at the state of the world.  Sometimes we ask it because we cannot work out what God is up to in our situation.

“Where are you in the face of this pandemic?”

“Where are you in the face of this diagnosis?”

“Where are you as I face loneliness?”

In the Genesis verse, God turns the tables.  Humanity is not asking the question of God, instead God is asking the question of humanity!

As I pondered these words, the first thing that occurred to me was that it is a strange question for God to ask.  After all, God knew the answer.  This is not a question of location.  God is not seeking the whereabouts of humanity, like a set of lost keys.

He knew what humans had done.  He knew that they had broken the rule of not eating the fruit from that particular tree.  He knew they were hiding from Him and, as He walked in that particular part of the garden, he must have known where they were hiding.  The scene that then follows is less than edifying.  The man blames the woman.  The woman blames the serpent.  The serpent hasn’t got a leg to stand on!

So, does God ask the question in order to humiliate and shame humans into confessing their guilt?

I don’t think so. 

As I have pondered the question, I see this as the universal, continual question raised by God to all humanity for all time “where are you?”

This is not a question of accusation, but it is a question of relation.

This is a question asked by the God who loves humanity, cares for humanity and is genuinely concerned for us.

As I heard the question, I took some time to journal; to pray; to share with God and, I discovered, as I answered God already knew.  Most importantly, God really cared.

Listen very carefully, I think God may be calling out to you – “where are you?”

Infectious?

Image by PIRO4D from Pixabay

In January, I had an experience which recently came back to haunt me.

As a fresh lockdown had begun, I had spent a week working from home. I had not left our house for any purpose for the whole of the week.  I had not been to the shops, to the office or anywhere.

‘Twas on the Monday morning when I received the call.  I was needed for Grandad duty.  My mission; take my granddaughter to school and my grandson to nursery.

The mission was a success!

My young charges safely delivered, to their places of education.  I was looking forward to a, well earned, mug of tea before I tackled my duties for the day.  I had just returned home and was switching on the computer and kettle (not necessarily in that order) when my mobile phone started to make funny noises.

I had been “pinged” by the Track and Trace App.

It advised me that I had been in contact with somebody who had symptoms of COVID 19 and I was required to isolate.

I couldn’t believe it! 

Other than the school and nursery that morning, I had not been anywhere.  How could I have come into contact with anyone with COVID 19?  I hadn’t spoken to anyone.  I had walked past people true enough, but there was no interaction. 

I felt angry!

Someone “out there” putting others at risk of this awful disease?

My anger, however, quickly turned to concern.  Who was the carrier?  Were they okay?

Of course, I would never find the answer to my questions.  Thankfully, I never developed any symptoms and so was able to file the experience at the back of my mind, labelled “one of those things.”

The memory did resurface. This week, as I was reading I was reading Acts 7 and 8.  It is the account of the persecution suffered by the Early Church. 

Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”  Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. And Saul approved of their killing him.

(Acts 7 vs. 58 – chpt 8 vs. 1)

I wondered why Luke, the writer of Acts, should tell us that Saul was a young man?  Also, why does he tells us that Saul approved of their actions against Stephen?

As I have mulled it over, I wondered if Luke was giving us a bit of a warning?

Whether we like it or not, we all influence others.  The attitudes we hold, often communicate far more powerfully than the words we use.  Like an unseen virus, our attitudes can be spread without us even realising we are doing it.  As the R number of our attitude increases we can end up “infecting” many others for good or ill.

Perhaps, Luke points out the youth and approval of Saul to warn us to watch our attitudes and warn us, a negative attitude, can cause injustice to perpetuate from generation to generation.

Saul, later Paul, was to write these words;

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus

(Philippians 2 vs. 5)

Or, as The Passion Translation puts it;

Let his mindset become your motivation.

(Philippians 2 vs. 5)

I think that gives us all something to think about! 

Hungry and thirsty?

Image by LUM3N from Pixabay

I was reflecting on one of Jesus statements in my quiet time today;

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

(John 6 vs. 35)

Jesus original hearers would have known what is truly like to struggle for food and water.

On that surface level, Jesus words mean very little to me.  I am one of the blessed people in the world; I have not experienced real physical hunger.   I have always been able to quench my thirst because, unlike many in our world, I have never had to live with a lack of clean water.

Of course, I have heard plenty of sermons on this passage over the years.  I know that there are deeper, internal hungers. We all have them.  The hunger for relationships, friendships, significance and being valued.  I am sure you could name many other ways in which you hunger.

This period of pandemic has, for me, highlighted the things that I internally hunger for.  I wish I could tell you that “Jesus has supplied my every need”, but I still hunger and I still thirst.  So, does this mean that Jesus cannot meet me in the hunger of my soul?

In my reflection, I tried a bit of role play (thankfully nobody else was near the office at the time!!!).  I imagined that I had gone to see my minister to talk through the problem.  I wanted to know what my minister would advise me to do.  The answer my minister gave was, “pray”.

At first, I thought my minister had missed the point of what I was asking.  Then I realised that my minister had given me the wisest piece of advice I had ever heard. 

Pray.  Such a small word that carries with it immense depth.  What I began to realise is that

The vacuum in my soul creates space for prayer

This type of prayer is not about talking and listening to God.  It is just about being in the presence of God, one friend with another. It is about being known and loved by God.  It is about being aware of God and, in that awareness, our souls are fed and watered.

If you are hungry and thirsty at the moment, allow me to give you the piece of advice that my minister gave me

Pray

Stepping off a ladder

Image by Jazella from Pixabay

Have you ever had one of those moments when, suddenly, you see things more clearly than you used to?

It seems to be happening to me rather a lot at the moment.  Let me explain to you how, this is happening.

I have been reading a book called The Art of Pastoring – Ministry without all the answers by David Hansen.  There are two ways of reading a book.  You can rattle through it at break neck speed and tick it off the “books I have read” list.  Or, as I did with this book, slowly and reflectively.  As I soon discovered, I was reading this book in the way it really deserved.  I have taken the opportunity, every few pages to stop and journal my reflections.  I have been challenged, in ways I could not even begin to describe on paper, to re-think my approach to the way that I minister.

It has taken me nearly a month to reach chapter 4.  The topic was temptation of ambition.  I am not, by nature, an ambitious person.  I am happy with my calling to be a local Church Pastor.  I have never had the ambition to be an international speaker or celebrity pastor.  I must be on safe ground with this chapter I, mistakenly, thought.  It was when I read;

There is no other possible conclusion: every pastor must choose between ladder-climbing and love. 

(David Hansen The Art of Pastoring – Ministry without all the answers page 76)

It was then, that I heard God whisper “you may not have been on the career ladder, but you have stood on others” that it really hit me.  The temptation to stand on a ladder is subtle, so subtle that it can feel as though you are ministering

  • The ladder of being observed
  • The ladder of being noticed
  • The ladder of being significant
  • The ladder of being needed
  • The ladder of being heard

Jesus was spot on when he said;

No one can serve two masters

(Matthew 6 vs. 24)

As David Hansen brilliantly puts it;

The real nub of the temptation to climb ladders is the lie, fed me by the devil, that I can climb the ladder and love those around me at the same time.  It centres on me.  It feeds my ego.

(page 76 – 77)

I think there is a lesson for all of us here, whether of the “dog collar” variety or not, we all have a ministry.

I cannot judge others (that would be climbing another ladder), I can only ask for the grace of God to step off the ladders I am standing on.  I need to face the choice, daily, between ladder climbing and love.  My prayer is that I will make the right choice, my prayer for you is that God’s grace will help you make the right choice too.

Forced to change

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

It has finally happened. 

I knew, sometime ago, that things were not right and that the demise was inevitable. 

I tried to keep things going for as long as possible. 

Try as I might, my laptop was getting slower. 

At first, I excused it.  Okay, so it was taking 10 minutes to start up in the morning – just enough time for that pre-work mug of tea.

Okay, the screen had cracked, it was part of its charm, its character. 

Okay, so bits had started to break off it, they were not important, just decorative and I had gained a rugged laptop.

Despite all its failings and weaknesses, I was fond of my computer.  I knew it’s quirks. I was used to it.  I knew where everything was.  All of my photos, documents and history were there.

After one, particularly frustrating, Zoom meeting, I took my laptop to my son and asked him how to solve my problem.   His reply sent chills down my spine;

“Face facts Dad.  This computer needs putting out of its misery, you have to put it down”

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

I heard echoes of Monty Python as I finally had to admit; this is an ex-computer, bereft of life it rests in pieces!

Just in case you were worried, this is not a blog about computers! 

The saga of the computer, however, has made me think about some other issues.  My change of computer made me accept that change can be both costly and painful.  Sometimes, however, it is both inevitable and necessary.

That is what many of us have faced over this last year. 

We have all faced enormous changes in the way we live and work.  Some of those changes, whilst they were not welcome, were necessary.  Some have been costly both in terms of time and energy, as well as financially.

But, not all of the changes have been negative. 

We have seen people becoming more aware of the vulnerable within our communities.  We have seen people support one another in different ways.  We have been challenged to think more creatively in how we do things.  We have also had some space to clear out some of the rubbish.

As we emerge from lockdown, the temptation for many of us is to rush back to the way we have always done things, and so forget the lessons we have learnt along the way.  We need a time of honest reflection, before God, to ask “what now?”  To develop my computer analogy, I cannot go back to the old machine but, some programs needed to reloaded and some needed to be ditched altogether. 

How can we do this?  I believe this can only come through open and honest prayer.

The kind of prayer does not involve asking God, but allows us to encounter the presence of God and allow His Spirit to speak deeply into our hearts.  To explain this kind of prayer I quoted, in Church yesterday, Mother Teresa’s “business card” which says;

The fruit of silence is prayer; The fruit of prayer is faith; The fruit of faith is love; The fruit of love is service; The fruit of service is peace; This is very good business!

Mother Teresa

If we are to continue to tell HIS STORY in a post-pandemic society, we must begin by embracing silence.   

Begging for bread

(Image by Couleur from Pixabay)

It was only a small part of the sentence, but it hit me like an express train! 

Yes, the story may only have been a few verses in length yet, it contained so many emotions.  There was hurt, frustration and rejection.  Mark, in his Gospel, says that the Pharisees came to question and test Jesus.

There are times, as a Minister, when you meet people who are, let’s say, a little challenging!  Perhaps you have encountered them too.  They are the ones who have “on a mission” written all over their face. They are the sort that you have to “fix the smile” as they test, question and examine you as they speak.

I wonder, if Jesus did the same? 

Did He fix the smile? 

Did His heart turn somersaults too? 

Did He think “why don’t you ever listen?  Haven’t you got it yet?”

Mark gives us a clue as to what Jesus felt in that small part of the sentence;

He sighed deeply in his Spirit (Mark 8 vs. 12 – NRSV)

The problem with testing is that we expect a right or wrong answer.  That is what the Pharisees were looking for. I think our society has conditioned us to the same type of thinking.

Right or Wrong

Pass or Fail

Righteous or sinner

Sound or unsound

I think Jesus sighed deeply in his spirit because, the Pharisees could quote chapter and verse of the rule book but, what they had not grasped was, the intention behind the rule book.  Much less did they understand the Kingdom of God.

The Kingdom is not about right or wrong.  Who is in and who is out.  The Kingdom is about The Grace of God reaching out to all humanity in its mess, chaos and brokenness. 

Each of us is a work in progress, therefore, we cannot fail we just need a little more work.

I came across this image, which really spoke to me of what God’s kingdom is about. 

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

There are many authors who, the original of this quotation is attributed too, but as I spent some time reflecting on Mark 8 today, I wrote these words

Christianity is one beggar telling another where to find bread

The Kingdom comes

when this beggar takes the bread he has found and shares it with another

A Breath From God

I couldn’t resist it.  This photo was one I took this morning.

This is the second day of snow.  As I sat in our back room, and was preparing to do some work, I saw these two faces.

In case you are wondering who, or what they are, there is no mystery!  They are two of our garden ornaments.  As winter began, we put them up on a table to prevent any wind damage over the course of the coming season.  Instead of damage, however, the wind has caused the snow to be blown off the faces and caused them to emerge from their snow bound captivity.

As I returned to the warmth of the house, I turned to my morning passage and read;

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

(Genesis 1 vs. 1 – 2 – NRSV)

Those words “while a wind from God…” do not appear in every version but, I liked the image it brought to mind.  I thought of the wind in a creative, playful, imaginative way.  That wind, blown by God, causing this amazing planet with all its variety and beauty to emerge. 

It really spoke into my heart. 

But something else stirred within me too.  I think there are times when all of us need a wind from God to blow through our lives. Sometimes that wind is needed to blow away the cobwebs of our thinking and dull religiosity.

Sometimes that wind is needed to blow away the rubbish that accumulates in our Souls, like the dead leaves on an autumn tree.

Sometimes, that wind is needed so that we are stirred up and shaken.  The type of wind that rattles the fences of our self-security. 

Sometimes, a gentle breeze is needed.  The sort that, on a hot and stifling day, causes the air to move and brings with it refreshing and restoration. 

There are times that, like the scene in our garden today, we need the wind that can be creative and causes something, once covered over, to emerge.

Amazing God you who blew the wind at creation. Blow through my life.

Blow away the dead leaves Refresh the air around me And rattle the fences of my self-security.

Amazing God, you who blew the wind at creation. Blow through my life.

Let your work of creation And re-creation Happen in me

And may, what emerges, Bring glory and honour to you

What do the Monkees and Holland Haven have in common?

Recently, I have been struggling to pray.

I know I am a minister.  I know such things should be the bread and butter of my trade.  Nonetheless, prayer has been a struggle.

Maybe, you have experienced times like this too? 

God seems distant, a long way off.  You feel as though you have been trying to pray through a fog. Your words feel empty, as they bounce off the ceiling.

I shared what I was experiencing with a Spiritual Director. 

She suggested I try a type of reading called Lectio Divina. To help, she guided me to a story, found in Luke 24, of the Emmaus Road.  You may know it.  The story is about how two disciples encounter the risen Jesus, yet they did not recognise him until much later on.

So, over the past couple of weeks, I have been reading and re-reading the passage.

I have looked at art work.

I have looked at children’s cartoon versions.

I have allowed my imagination to picture the scene. I tried to imagine what those disciples had seen and felt. I even imagined myself as one of them.

This morning I had a great meeting and felt really chipper.

I decided, between tasks, to take the dog for a walk.

I drove over to Holland Haven to really blow the cobwebs away. As I drove, the Monkees were on the radio playing “Last Train to Clarksville”.  I just had to join in!

Picture the scene, dear reader, me behind the wheel of my car, wrapped up like a polar explorer, belting out at the top of my voice.

Take the last train to Clarksville
And I’ll meet you at the station
You can be here by four thirty
‘Cause I’ve made your reservation

Don’t be slow
Oh, no, no, no
Oh, no, no, no

Perhaps it was the song.

Maybe it was the walk.

Maybe it was the amazing colours of the sky (I was battling a boisterous Collie when I snapped it).

My mind went back to that familiar story of two dejected disciples trudging along the road towards Emmaus, and I found I was praying…..

God of the way and of the journey We don’t know how long our journey will be All we can ask is that we know you are near

God of the way and of the journey We don’t know whether our path be rough or smooth All we can ask is that we can lean on you

God of the way and of the journey We don’t know if we will travel by day or night All we can ask is that you will light our path

God of the way and of the journey Wherever we are called to travel May our travelling bring us nearer to you

As I prayed, therein lay peace…..