Message from Geoff Lanham on 29th October
Every morning when I wake up, I look outside at the cherry tree in our garden (yes, I know it has featured before in my musings!). This morning I was struck by how many leaves had recently fallen off. Somehow, the structure of the branches left behind seemed small and skeletal compared to the glory of the fully leaved tree of a month ago. I’ve reflected on this being a bit of a metaphor for the season we’re in as a nation. With winter on its way and the covid restrictions tightening, it feels as though life is being stripped back for all of us. Denied many of the things that bring colour and vibrancy to life, we’re now facing the prospect of a very different kind of Christmas season. Just this morning I read that advertisers are cutting more than £700 million from their Christmas marketing budgets. People are asking themselves, how are we going to survive the frightening prospect of winter during a pandemic? Indulge me a moment as I ponder the way trees approach winter.
Trees have a number of adaptations that allow them to survive during the winter. For one thing, they go through what’s called a period of dormancy. Dormancy is like hibernation in that everything within the plant slows down; its’ metabolism, energy consumption, and growth. Trees don’t make food in the winter, so they have no use for the masses of leaves that would require energy to maintain. They let them go to conserve resources. There’s another positive consequence of this action.
The dropping of leaves means trees can cope better with high winds and heavy snow fall. Without leaves to act as a large sail in wind they are less vulnerable. Branches can bend and flex, without too much damage and the snow has less surface area to land on. We can see, therefore, that dormancy is not a sign of decay and death. The structure left behind, although less glorious in some ways and stripped back, is in a strong position to survive the hard knocks of winter.
How might this speak to our situation? Well, if we are having to slow down again and dial down our activity levels individually and as a church, how will we keep our spiritual metabolism alive and ticking over? How do we pay attention to our resource stocks and get in the sort of shape able to withstand the blackness of the covid storm? Am I suggesting a period of spiritual dormancy when we all hunker down? Not quite. 1 Timothy 4 encourages us to
“Train yourself in godliness…. For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Saviour of all people, especially of those who believe.”
The context for the passage is recognising that some people are in danger of renouncing the faith. Maybe you are feeling like giving up. The winter seems a terrible prospect. There are many things we’re not going to be able to do, but we can continue to train ourselves for godliness. Let me suggest one way to do this. We can pay attention to the spiritual discipline of simplicity. Simplicity has its origin in being willing to receive life and the provision of God as a gift. It’s about celebrating the little things we take for granted, viewing life, nature, health and breath itself as a gift to be enjoyed rather than a right to be expected. When we have a single-hearted focus on God so that he is our well-spring, it frees us from our hunger for status, glamour, and luxury. Simplicity is letting go so that you can make more room in your life for God. It’s creating margin and space in your life to breathe more freely We come to the same point as St Paul, who could declare in Philippians 3: 8,
“…I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ as my Lord.”
Living in simplicity reorients our lives, perspectives, and attitudes away from accumulation and towards generosity and sacrifice.
This season of restrictions does actually give us the opportunity to cut back and simplify life. There’s doom and gloom in the press about families not being able to celebrate Christmas this year. But the idea that Christmas could somehow get cancelled is rubbish. The reason for our celebration can never be scratched. We may well have to simplify Christmas this year, but that’s actually an opportunity. It may be a blessing to gain some respite from what Brian Draper calls this ”more, bigger, faster life”. Slowing down extravagant consumption may be health giving. Instead of opening advent calendars and eating chocolate, why not commit to reading a book of daily advent reflections. Why not develop a framework for putting your focus on God at the heart of the Christmas season. I wonder what stripped back structure of your life will look like this winter? Will it help you conserve your spiritual vitality? Will it help guard you against the knocks that come? You might like to reflect on the idea of simplicity being part of how we train ourselves for godliness. What might be surplus to requirements, taking unnecessary energy and stealing our focus on God?
However daunting these times, perhaps we should take heart from the trees. It’s natural for trees to go through dormancy cycles. In fact, the lifespan of the plant is dramatically decreased if the tree isn’t allowed to go dormant for a few months. We can come through this spiritually healthier and stronger ready for future growth.
As you practice the discipline of simplicity, may there be for you in this season what Brian Draper calls,
“…A finding, and a losing.
A growing, and a shedding.
A calling, and a listening.
A letting go, and a receiving.”
Message from Geoff Lanham on 22nd October
As we all find ourselves on a knife edge waiting to see if higher restrictions (or even a further lockdown) are to be imposed on our region, I think it’s true to say that many of us feel in worse shape this time round than compared to last March. We know more what’s involved and the weight of separation from families and friends feels heavier now. It’s disappointing and bewildering to see the cases rising and our hospitals beginning to fill up again, even though we were told to expect a second wave. I want to encourage us all that it’s ok not to be coping in “heroic mode” with this prospect. Being Christians means that we have solid grounds to have hope, but that doesn’t mean that we have to sustain a front of some imagined “victorious, invulnerable” spiritual façade. It’s inevitable that should be feeling the keen edge of our own weakness. It’s natural that we might want to howl and kick the table. I love these words of Paul Swann in the Church Times this week,
“Our weakness is not a surprise to the one who made us, but it often comes
as a surprise to us.”
Thankfully, God still believes in us. He’s not about to give up on us because we can’t muster the perfect emotional response. He doesn’t critique us for somehow allowing our disappointment and pain to spoil our witness to others. I believe firmly that we share God best from a renewed sense of our own humanity. People outside the church are looking to see if we can identify and empathise truly with their struggles. Yesterday I watched a programme in which it became clear that Donald Trump had been influenced by a book entitled “The Power of Positive Thinking.” In Trump’s world, if you tell yourself all is well and that you’re not sick, you have no problems. If you banish negative thoughts, tell yourself there’s nothing to see then there is nothing there. How different this is to a realistic Christian Spirituality that doesn’t try to hide death or suffering. St Paul knew that problems and suffering were part of the deal of being a follower of Jesus. He wrote in 2 Corinthians 4,
10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 11 For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.
We are the people who are “always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake”. We know about the reality of frustration and limitation. We’re not escapist pain deniers.
A little earlier in that passage, Paul describes himself as being “hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” So, don’t beat yourself up or try to compare yourself to other people you imagine are coping better with circumstances at this time. We are all struggling in different ways.
More than ever, what is needed is to be encouragers of one another. The writer of Hebrews says “Encourage each other daily.” God wants us to be imparting courage, strength and perseverance into people. I remember running my first 10k race. Training on my own in all weathers had been really hard at times. Come the day of the race, I was amazed by the effect of being encouraged by complete strangers cheering along the way. It gave me strength and inspiration to keep going and push myself further. Who are the people at the moment who seem down-hearted? Who haven’t we heard from for a while? Whose body language screams “I’m really struggling”. Which parent is feeling overloaded with the demands of looking after their kids? Which worker is secretly eaten up with stress? Who is feeling weary and anxious when they normally appear so together? We all need others pouring courage into us through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. More than ever we need people to exercise that lovely ministry of building others up. Why not pray for another these words from Psalm 51,
“Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.”
At the beginning of the day, ask God to reveal to you who might need a phone call or a card.
I remember watching a film a few years ago called “The company of Strangers” about a group of older women who go on a coach trip in the Canadian wilderness to visit the former house of one of their group. The coach breaks down and the women are forced to walk to another derelict house to find shelter. There they stay for a number of days. During their stay they are totally alone. No-one knows where they are. No one sees what they are doing. No one hears their cries as they shout down the lake into the forest. They feel abandoned.
Within any time of difficulty for a Christian, the seed of truth still exists that we are not abandoned by God. We may bleed, there may be no happy ending in sight, but we will still be held and embraced in love. Some of you may be starting to struggle to believe this. That’s why you need others cheering you on from the side to help keep hope alive in you. Despite our feelings of aloneness and abandonment, we need others to assure us that we are anchored in being seen, deeply loved and cherished by our heavenly Father. He will strengthen us and resource us to face what’s coming.
22nd October 2020