Being in Spain on retreat for the month, I can only follow the World Cup very much at a distance but even I couldn’t fail to get a little caught up in England’s dramatic penalty shoot out last night. I went online around full time to see the result and was pleased to see England winning 1-0. Before I could log out though the drama began – a late equaliser in stoppage time – here we go again I and many others were thinking. A tense extra time with Columbia rejuvenated… and then the penalties themselves. Morale was sinking – England have never won in such a situation…and they are the first to miss and we feel stuck in the well worn script. But then the surprise. .. they win…
I shouldn’t have doubted but I did. How appropriate that this all happened on the feast day of St Thomas the apostle. Even as I found myself saying ‘I can’t believe it’ I realised I was echoing some historic words from someone else who seemed caught up in the inevitability of disappointment. Thomas was surprised by Jesus appearing exactly in the place where a week previously he had insisted that unless he touched the very wounds of Jesus he would not believe. ‘Come and touch the wounds’ said Jesus ‘and then believe’.
I’m sure that last night touched the wounds of many a football supporter – 52 years of hurt and all that – but then came the surprise. That’s resurrection. Just as we are caught up in the inevitability of disappointment we are surprised. Sometimes God’s surprises hit us in the face as in the case of Thomas. Sometimes they are more subtle and need sniffing out in mindful attention. We need to make sure we are spotting them. A lot of what being here on a thirty day retreat is about is really taking time to see what God is doing in my life and the world around me, to notice his surprises. In fact they are more sure than England winning a penalty shoot out.
Finally lets remember to pray for the Columbians… After all we know how they’re feeling.
Oliver Wendell Holmes is attributed with this insightful quote. “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”
The simplicity this side of complexity tries to make life more simple than it actually is. It is what many now see as the wilful simplicity that was inflicted on the electorate before the EU referendum, making out that leaving Europe would be a magical panacea for ‘getting our country back again’ – whatever that means – and the recovery of untold millions being wasted on Europe and its institutions. The complex web of relationships, benefits and difficulties was airbrushed out of the picture for the sake of some generalised feeling of ‘life is difficult and it’s all the fault of Europe’. The full extent of the complexity is now becoming apparent as the Brexit negotiations crawl forward and the government struggles to agree with itself, let alone Europe.
However I would argue that the remain campaign also failed in so much as it was not able to articulate ‘the simplicity on the other side of complexity’. Beyond the arguments around the single market, and immigration and all the issues where Europe brings costs and benefits there needed to be a vision of partnership that owned the complexity but was not compromised by it, but rather contained it as part of a greater meaning and purpose.
It is no different in the church. We can swing from easy certainties about God, the gospel, church growth or human sexuality to seemingly muddled complexities about theology, morality or ecclesiology where no-one knows quite what we stand for. There are hard questions to face wherever we turn and we do well to articulate them. However there is a confidence in God beyond the particular issues and which is in fact diminished if we make everything all too buttoned up and clear. I believe that Jesus and the apostles brought a simplicity to their message about the kingdom of God, the supremacy of love and the assurance of grace that acts as a foundation for everything else.
There will be a lot more to say about many things, but they must not obscure the foundation. That’s why within our life here at Launde, we place great value on silence. Silence helps us to find the simplicity on the other side of complexity, to live the essentials, to know God and ourselves before we argue for this way or that. Silence anchors us in the love of God, and from there we are more able to enter the complexities of life more honestly and effectively and with less need to get our own way or have it all sorted.
‘Christ is risen’ we cry each Easter, yet this year with Easter Day being April 1st it was easy to highlight the foolishness of it all just as the first disciples did when told the news by the women. It was T.S.Eliot who began The Wasteland with the line “April is the cruellest month..” in order to show the pain of hope as the natural world comes to life again. We cannot risk hoping too lightly.
Yet if Christ is risen, if Easter is real then we have to start risking new perspectives. We cannot just carry on with the assumption that that situation is always going to be like that, or that this person will never change. If Jesus has risen from the dead then anything becomes possible in this mixed up world we live in. No wonder the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians “from now on we regard no-one from a worldly point of view”.
The late Lesslie Newbigin put it like this: “It is obvious that the story of the empty tomb cannot be fitted into our contemporary worldview, or indeed into any worldview except one of which it is the starting point… It is a boundary event, at the point where (as cosmologists tell us) the laws of physics ceased to apply. It is the beginning of a new creation – as mysterious to human reason as the creation itself.”
So it challenges us to ask what rules we want to live by. Recently I was thinking and praying about the state of the country. I will freely own that in relation to Europe I voted to remain. Apart from the economic case, it seems to me essential in today’s world to live interdependently and co-operatively with our immediate neighbours, who basically share our values and Christian heritage. However that is water under the bridge, and we are on the way to leaving. So the challenge that came into my mind was ‘Did I want Brexit to be a success?’ In essence it boiled down to whether I wanted the country to prosper and succeed from here on, or to be proved right in my assessment that Brexit was a bad decision.
I will confess that it is not easy to countenance certain politicians triumphantly milking any future prosperity as the vindication of the leave decision. But I knew deep down that wasn’t really the point. The real issue was whether I wanted the world to run on the basis simply of getting things right or wrong, or whether I wanted the resurrection to be the shape of human life and destiny. If it was the latter, then a new and good future was possible whatever the precise merits or failings of our human decisions and actions. Far more important than me or anyone else being proved right was praying for resurrection to be revealed in this and every situation.
To proclaim ‘Christ is risen’ is to live by new rules, by the power of God to make all things new. That means letting go of all merely human assessments and inevitabilities. It means daring to hope.
It is a year since we moved here to Launde Abbey and all I can remember is warm sunshine, carpets of flowers and the anticipation of spring. By contrast this year we have been grappling with snow, blocked roads, and winter hanging on.
While I’m glad that our move didn’t have to contend with such adverse weather and it has been testing to be cut off here around five times this winter, I’ve tried to challenge myself not just to see snow as an inconvenience and disruption to our everyday lives, and look for the blessings. So I offer you the ten blessings of snow….
- Everything looks beautiful. There is a transfiguration of the world around us as all things become white and shine with a dazzling brightness.
- It is indiscriminate in its transforming power. The ugliest building or mess is touched equally as the most beautiful landscape. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow.”
- There is a disarming silence – the busy world is hushed. More than just the absence of traffic, there is a dampening of noise and an arresting stillness that awakes an inner attentiveness.
- We are humbled by its abundance and power. “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow?” the Lord asks Job. It inspires awe at the natural world.
- Everyone has to slow down. Driving has to measured and steady, footsteps carefully taken, journeys take their time. We cannot rush.
- It makes us prepare. We may not be able to get to the shops, or the delivery van may not get through. Instant availability gives way to anticipation and patient waiting. I’m glad we bought a four wheel drive.
- It creates community. We need each other, to look out for the vulnerable, to push the car, to dispel anxiety by companionship and reassurance.
- We remember to play. We build the snowman, fetch out the sledge or throw a snowball at the boss.
- We are grateful for the little things that we can so easily take for granted – the warming cup of tea, the thoughtful neighbour, the radio or television.
- It melts. It doesn’t last for ever, and usually quite soon the colours of things re-emerge, the daily routine is recovered and life returns to normal…. Or at least a normality that has been touched and even changed by the ten blessings of snow.
The lectionary last Sunday took us to the sublime opening of John’s gospel. We only usually read it at Christmas so it was a treat to be able to give it the attention it deserves on a ‘normal’ Sunday outside the razzamatazz of carols and cribs and nativity plays. Its central message seems so pertinent still today – “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth”.
The phenomenon of Brexit and Trump which still continues to dominate our news day by day has generated a whole lot of new phrases about the nature and reliability of truth. It was back in 1986 when the then cabinet secretary used the memorable euphemism ‘economical with the truth’ but we have gone further now into the so-called ‘post-truth’ society characterised by ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’.
Post-truth was one of the new words entering the Oxford English Dictionary in 2016 with the definition: ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.’ The president of Oxford Dictionaries was quoted as saying “Fuelled by the rise of social media as a news source, and a growing distrust of facts offered up by the establishment, post truth as a concept has been finding its linguistic footing for some time.. I wouldn’t be surprised if post-truth becomes one of the defining words of our time.”
Post-truth seems to be saying that we don’t really care about facts. We’ve seen it in political discourse where huge claims are made with very little factual reality. But then many people it seems have lost faith in established politicians or experts. They don’t trust their so-called facts. Globalisation has not delivered for them so they are ready to throw over the system for the sake of something which just feels better. We enter a post truth society.
I have some sympathy. Facts can be cold and hard. We can be overwhelmed by reality, about the world, about our country, about ourselves. We want something more relational, more understanding, more sympathetic. That for me is where John’s gospel comes in. ‘The word became flesh…. full of grace ’. God comes to us not just with commands or doctrine or philosophical insight. He comes as a human being and he comes full of grace – accepting, merciful, forgiving, loving.
But it doesn’t stop there. He comes full of grace and truth. He starts where we are – but then wants to lead us into a more honest reality. So as Christians we look not so much for a post truth society as a pre-truth society. We affirm the importance of truth, but before it we say there is relationship, there is grace, there is the welcoming face of God in Jesus Christ. God comes to us with love, understanding and patience. When we receive and trust Him, then we embark on the adventure of reality and truth and transformation.
This year, 8 friends old and new joined us in the garden for our late August working holiday. This wonderfully committed, and at times muddy, sweaty and glowing crew, weeded, lifted, edged, dug out, separated, cleared, deadheaded, stacked, and much much more. On the stats side each volunteer offered a minimum of 4 hours a day so over the 6 days around 192 hours of gardening was completed. The list below gives some idea of all that was achieved and it was very gratifying that many of the guests and visitors who saw us at work commented on how well the garden was looking.
• the yew hedge that runs along the car park was cleared of ivy and can breathe again;
• the long border, seen from the back of the house, was cleared of weeds and space created for the shrubs planted last autumn to grow into;
• daffodil bulbs were lifted, split and replanted so they had more room;
• the borders around the front and back of the house were weeded, flowering plants dead headed or lifted;
• box hedges were trimmed;
• the long border in the walled garden had a serious haircut with much clearing and refreshing of the ground;
• the dahlias were deadheaded;
• runner beans were harvested and the bean plants encouraged to stand up again after strong winds brought their support canes to the ground;
• courgettes were harvested;
• flower beds were weeded and some existing plants split and planted to cover gaps in the planting;
• the additional feature dandelions were removed from the new strawberry bed;
• garden produce was carefully sampled at dinner
The prize for the most extraordinary event of the week went to Megan who showed Olympian strength while working on the long border and sheared through the metal neck of one of the forks…
We’re delighted to announce that the next Warden of Launde Abbey will be the Venerable David Newman, currently Archdeacon of Loughborough. The Rev’d Canon Helen Newman will also be joining the staff of Launde in a new role of Chaplain.
Before his appointment as Archdeacon of Loughborough, David was Rector of Emmanuel Loughborough and Area Dean of Akeley East. He was also chair of the House of Clergy from 2007-2009. Helen has been the Chaplain of LOROS since 2009 and previously worked with David at Emmanuel. Helen was made an Honorary Canon of Leicester Cathedral earlier this year. They have both led numerous retreats and courses at Launde in recent years and have a deep love of the place and people.
The announcement of their appointment was made to staff at Launde Abbey this morning. David and Helen said: “Launde Abbey has always been a special place for us during our twenty years in Leicester Diocese and we are very excited at this opportunity to lead the community forward in its ministry of hospitality, prayer and equipping for discipleship. Our vision is for Launde to be a prophetic and sustaining resource, enabling the people of God to negotiate challenging times with courage, wisdom and hope.
Tim Stratford, Chair of Trustees, added, “I am delighted that David Newman is to take on the role of Warden at Launde Abbey and will be joined in ministry there by his wife, Helen. Together they bring deep spiritual maturity and a breadth of experience that it is rare to find.”
The Revd Alison Christian continues to serve as Warden until her retirement at the end of 2016, and David and Helen will take up their new duties in the spring of 2017.
Like many others I watched the Para-Olympics this year and was hugely impressed by the ability, courage and tenacity of the athletes. Despite overwhelming problems caused sometimes by birth defects or by a trauma during their life, the athletes had made something against all odds, sometimes doing better than they would have done had they been able-bodied. They can never get away from their impairment. It will always be with them, but in no way was it dictating to them who they were and undermining their ability to live and achieve.
At the same time as I was watching the Games, something happened to remind me of a traumatic childhood incident. I was invited to help at something and my immediate response was one of dread like a great lump of stone in my stomach. I felt slightly sick and depressed as well. Suddenly, within this dark reaction, a window of understanding opened up and I saw that when I had experienced this feeling in the past – and in my twenties it was often with me – I had blamed myself for not being strong enough to cope, weak, a failure. Now I realised that just like a physical disability, this memory of past hurt is part of who I am. My emotional reaction was a strong and true one, a recognition deep inside me of what happens when life goes wrong or is wrong: a drawing back from the wrongness, which is a sign of health, not dis-ease. The experience will always be with me, although I barely think of it nowadays. It does not dictate in any way who I am. Rather it has helped make me who I am for a lot of good stuff has been born from it.
As if to emphasize that I was on the right track a few days later someone spoke to me of the echoes of their own childhood trauma coming up out of the blue to affect them. Again there was a deep shock felt emotionally and physically, a sense of surprise that this incident long past and seemingly worked through could suddenly take them unawares and propel them into dismay; and then, finally, a working through to a place of steadiness again. Despite our reaction, in exchanging notes both of could see how far we had come over the years.
So where is God’s healing in all this? I am healed; so is my friend; so are those disabled athletes who so impressed us at the Para-Olympics. We are not cured, we are healed. Healing is about wholeness, about being reconciled to God, our friends and families, our histories and ourselves. It is about forgiving and knowing you are forgiven. God’s love has helped me come to terms over the years with what happened, but more than that his presence has allowed me to make use of the experience on behalf of others. Yes, every now and again the old feeling will suddenly wind me, but recognising it and standing back from it, I can now say –No, Alison, you are not weak or a failure. You are slightly disabled. All human beings are disabled in one way or another. Live with it and make something of it.
It is interesting how we can say the same thing over and over again – as we do in the repetition of The Lord’ Prayer and even read commentaries about it, but not ‘get’ for ourselves what the passage is offering. It is also interesting to go back and see how a biblical passage gives and gives in different ways according to where you, the receiver, are at any given time.
This week I was reading and praying through Luke’s Lord’s Prayer (11: 1-6) and reading the notes at the bottom of my bible. Not for the first time I came across the note that goes alongside, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Another way of interpreting this line was, “Give us this day our bread for tomorrow.” For some reason, known I am sure to scholars, the first interpretation has become the one we all use.
But the second is very powerful and it got me thinking about a book called “Sleeping with Bread.” This book has this title because after the war when orphan children were collected together who had lived wild amongst the bombed out buildings of many major cities, it was found the children could not go to sleep at night unless they had a hunk of bread to clutch in their hands. They had so often gone hungry, so often been really afraid of starving that despite now being in a safe place, they were unable to trust that they would be looked after when they woke up: that there would be food on the table. As soon as they were given a hunk of bread they went to sleep, comfortable and confident.
Asking God for the bread we will need tomorrow is not about greed or wanting to rush things. It is about asking Him to give us today the trust that we need to face tomorrow: the trust in Him. At certain times this need is more powerful as we face life-changing experiences – illness and its treatment, bereavement, redundancy, retirement, the birth of a first baby, the children leaving home – and many other things.
So sometimes I will use, “Give us this day our bread for tomorrow,” because sometimes I need God to give me more trust in the future – the future I am walking with him – than I can find in myself. I need that bit of bread to clutch in my hand.
The Americans have a phrase that they sometimes use when saying “Goodbye” and it is “Missing you already.” This is a bit how I feel as I slowly watch the seasons change in this beautiful place in which I have been so privileged to work for the last four years, and know that I will never again have the opportunities I now live with daily.
Ever since the late spring when I knew I was retiring, I have been very conscious of the passing of the days; the subtle movements through the seasons. I am aware that I am living through many of the things that give me so much delight at Launde for the last time. For example, the house martins and swallows who come with such joie de vivre and energy to Launde in the spring have been practicing their breath taking aerial acrobatics for the last few days. I know that this is a sign that they will soon be gone. Sky bombing, wheeling and climbing, they give us such delight before leaving for their long pilgrimage south for the winter. I don’t like it when they go. The world seems a slightly less joyful place. It is easy to get maudlin.
About two weeks ago, I realised that a beautiful bush which I can see from my office window and which slowly turns red and gold and then into a dazzling fire; this had already begun its seasonal change. What with this and the swallows, I had to admit that:-
Autumn is coming and I am missing Launde already.
But then, I woke up. As I “turned aside” to look at my burning bush, I realised that of course that turning aside is the moment when we stop what we are doing and in the present moment see what is in front of us. The phrase, turning aside, means just that. We stand aside from out busyness, from our routine, from our driven-ness and hurry; we pause and wait and see now. My melancholic wrapping everything around with a future sense of loss means that I am not able to be very simply here in the present. The invitation, to paraphrase the words of poet, Mary Oliver, is mostly to stand still, learning to be astonished. So I need to learn to stand still. I need to learn astonishment at all the beauty I see because, at present, I take it all so much for granted. I need to stop thinking about what I have to say goodbye to and trust that God has other wonders to show me and other experiences I need to learn for, in the words of another poet, Robert Frost there are “miles to go before I sleep.”