Message from Geoff Lanham on 21st January
I was talking to someone the other day who reflected that they couldn’t understand why they were unable to make more use of silence to draw closer to God during lockdown. After all, you’d think it would be easier to practise, given that we have fewer tasks to be doing. I found myself identifying with their experience. I have been secretly disappointed with myself that silent contemplation and listening have so easily slipped off my spiritual radar over recent months. The phrase “physician heal thyself” has come to mind more than once. After all, vicars are supposed to be those who teach others to pray. Why have I not embraced more the opportunity to be alone with God? As I’ve pondered, I’ve realised that, for me, there’s something about feeling overwhelmed. It’s a bit like going into a sweet shop with hundreds of jars and feeling paralysed by indecision. There’s too much to choose from. In normal times of busyness, when we’re distracted by competing demands on our energies and time, silence is something that seems precious and elusive. Perhaps when we don’t have something, we value it more highly. We crave stillness like an oasis in the desert of pressured lives. When our days are punctuated by greater quiet and we slip into a rhythm of monotony and “sameness”, silence loses its appeal. We’re all feeling a sense of loss about the things that we can’t do. What we’re looking for is more activity, not more solitude (apart from the very strong introverts amongst us!)
Of course, there are other reasons why we fight shy of silence. In solitude and silence, we learn to stop doing, stop producing, stop pleasing people, stop obsessing, stop performing (all the things we unconsciously rely on to form our identity.) In silence, we stop doing anything except simply be our naked self before God. As we become transparent in our truest state, we are found by Him. Perhaps that is why it can seem so unnerving. Silence shows us stuff about ourself we’d rather not face or be reminded of. It’s a bit like allowing the scaffolding on a building to be taken down so that the building is revealed in its true state. Evangelical Christians can place a heavy emphasis on what we can accomplish for God through our activity and service. As Ruth Haley Barton writes, “This has left us uncomfortable and even suspicious of prayer forms that invite us to just be in God’s presence beyond all of our doing.” In silence we discover there is work to change us that only God can do.
What can we do; those of us who feel we are skating on the thin ice of failing to practise what we preach? Well, as always, we need to discard false impressions of how God looks upon our frailties. Believe it or not, God is not looking to hammer us for the fact that we’re struggling to be a Thomas Merton or a Mother Theresa in these incredibly stressful, wearying times. I’ve found it helpful to be reminded recently that God looks at the deepest desires of our hearts and that He works with what He finds there. In the 14th century, an anonymous priest wrote a book called The Cloud of Unknowing. In its final chapter, the author says, ‘It is not what you are, nor what you have been, but what you want to be that God sees, with merciful eyes’. We think the opposite when we consider how God views us. Raised on production targets and performance pay, we imagine that God is only concerned with how we’re delivering the goods. Wrong! God looks at the intention of our hearts. So, you and I don’t need to beat ourselves up that lockdown hasn’t made spiritual giants of us. Most of us are ‘walking wounded’ at the moment. Most of us have experienced losses of some kind (things we’ve missed or not been able to do, feeling of passing wasted time, opportunities we’ve not been able to grasp.) It’s not surprising we’ve felt overwhelmed and that our good intentions about creating a wonderful support trellis of spiritual practices have remained unfulfilled. God sees us with merciful eyes, so we do not need to berate ourselves. Like a toddler who trips over when learning to walk, we simply need to pick ourselves up again and keep listening to the Jesus who modelled drawing apart to lonely places and who encouraged us in Matthew 11.
29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
Can you hear God whispering to you, “I see that you want to be finding rest for your souls? Remember, I the “The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.” (Exodus 14: 14)
None of us have a choice about walking out of the lockdown desert at the moment, as much as we’d like to. Counter-intuitively, the challenge is to walk deeper into the silence of the desert, for there we will find God. I’m indebted to the Dean of Winchester Cathedral for the following illustration. You may remember, or have heard of, the Hollywood actor Johnny Weissmuller. Those of us of a certain age remember a man of impressive physique who excelled in the role of Tarzan. The part required few words, but a lot of swinging through the jungle, fighting lions and wooing the lovely Jane. When a reporter asked Weissmuller his approach to the role, his response was simple, ‘Just keep hanging on to that vine.’ Perhaps, that is good advice for us in adversity. Hang on to the vine. Remain connected to the one who brings life. Allow yourselves to be nourished and ministered to in silence.
If you want to explore more why you might be experiencing these times as exhausting and enervating, you could follow this link to an article written by Darren Blaney in the Baptist Times.
21st January 2021
Message from Geoff Lanham on 14th January
I know it’s not the weather for cricket, but please indulge me as I inflict my first cricketing metaphor on you. A few days ago, I clicked on the sporting news and saw that Australia were very likely to win the Second Test against India. So, imagine the surprise when I read the next day that India had mounted a remarkable fightback to save the match. On day 5 they had needed 309 runs to win with eight wickets remaining. Vihari and Ashwin wore down Australia by batting for more than 42 overs. In that heat, believe me that takes some doing against one of the best bowling attacks in the world. India ended up with 334 for five for a heroic draw. Early on in the innings, India’s batsmen faced the challenge by attacking with some thrilling stroke play, but then the game turned as they lost wickets. Reading the account made me think how important it is to know when to turn from attack to defence.
O.K, I’m getting to my point, I really am! With the very solemn recent pronounce- ments from our Chief Medical Officer about the pandemic, it seems crucial that we all hunker down for some gritty defending. Now is not the time to be gung-ho or blasé about risk. The terrible statistics and impact on our hospitals mean that we have to all accept the need to go into full defensive mode against this virus. The responsibility we have as leaders to show a duty of care has meant that we took the decision to go back to pre-recorded services. We urge you all to hear the advice about reducing our individual unnecessary contacts as we wait for the vaccine rollout to save the day. As our Archbishop has pointed out recently, staying at home as much as possible is an act of love for our neighbour. I know it runs counter to the “other directed” nature of our faith to love our neighbour by keeping our distance, but now, more than ever, is a time to show responsibility to our neighbour by doing everything we can to reduce the possibility of sharing the virus.
Recently, I took the decision to block one of my Facebook friends who was sharing material that was casting doubt on the coronavirus crisis in our hospitals. My patience finally snapped with the level of what I felt was misinformation. It jarred horribly with a very poignant post from a Birmingham ICU nurse who writes,
What I experienced yesterday was something I am struggling to find the words to explain. It was something I have never seen in my 28 years in the NHS… The team I worked with were some of the most flexible and resourceful that I have ever seen. They are being stretched beyond anything anyone could have imagined. New patients just kept coming and they just kept making space. They are working at 2-300% above their normal ICU capacity… For those who claim hospitals are not ‘full’ or overwhelmed as the corridors are empty and are going around filming them. Yes, the hospitals are ‘quiet’ in the corridors, because there is no visiting allowed to try and contain spread. If you could see beyond the locked doors of critical care you would see a different picture!
The danger these days is that we are drowning in misinformation. We are all at sea, having no landmarks, no ways of navigating the tides of spin and lies. In a 2007 book, “The Cult of the Amateur”, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur Andrew Keen warned that the internet not only had democratised information beyond people’s wildest imaginings, but also was replacing genuine knowledge with “the wisdom of the crowd”, dangerously blurring the lines between fact and opinion, informed argument and wild speculation. Recent events in America have laid bare the scale of the misinformation ecosystem. From the prevalence of climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers, white supremacists, anti- maskers, COVID-19-deniers and holocaust deniers, the post-modern claim that all truth is relative has come home to roost. Yet, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously observed, isn’t it right that “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts”. The times we’re living through challenge all of us as Christians to search our souls about our commitment to truth.
Proverbs 6 claims,
There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him:
17 haughty eyes,
a lying tongue,
hands that shed innocent blood,
18 a heart that devises wicked schemes,
feet that are quick to rush into evil,
19 a false witness who pours out lies
and a person who stirs up conflict in the community.
Truth matters to God. As Christians we follow the one who himself is the truth and who taught that integrity of speech matters (Matthew 5: 33-37.) We Christians need to be careful about sharing / re-tweeting stories or articles that may be false, for in doing so we may end up spreading lies and deception. More than ever, it is important to exercise discernment, to check the facts and listen to experts. That’s not the same as being gullible and unthinking. We need to be wise in the way we use social media, so that we’re not simply reinforcing preconceptions from our own narrow silos. We need to listen to a range of credible, responsible opinion. A good fact checking site is one that show their work and provide unambiguous links to the evidence they rely on.
As we’ve seen from the storming of Capitol Hill in Washington, words really do matter. They have consequences. May we be salt and light, witnessing by the measured way in which we use speech. When people claim things, let’s remember to use the fact checking websites. In these days when people attach themselves to ideas and ideologies because of the emotional connection they are given and the way they make them feel, may we have a humble, yet passionate commitment to speak truthfully. As Proverbs 10:9 in the New Revised Standard Version, puts it,
9 Whoever walks in integrity walks securely, but whoever follows perverse ways will be found out.
Let us also pray for our own government and health officials, that their messaging may be clear and accurate. The WHO has used the term “infodemic” over recent months. It defines it as an “overabundance of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it harder for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance.” We in the church have a role to play in combating the “infodemic”, by encouraging civic duty in others, promoting the good of vaccination, courageously countering lazy thinking, conspiracy theories and misleading theological interpretations, wherever we find them. As the World Council of Churches wrote back in June,
We pray that churches everywhere will be empowered and equipped to be messengers of unity, trust and truth, against the voices promoting division, suspicion and unsubstantiated rumour.
God bless you all as you seek to love your neighbours by distancing.
14th January 2021