Waiting For the Phone To Ring & Hoping It Doesn’t

I’m sitting down to write this as a kind of reflection in progress. I say in progress because the event(s) I’m reflecting on as I’m sitting here ruminating are only in the midst of their processing. How I feel today is not necessarily how I’ll feel after the next conversation I have on the phone.

It’s been that kind of week. Each time the phone rings, change happens. Some calls have led to minor improvements in mood and outlook. Others the opposite and more than one has brought quite a swirl of shocking emotions, competing for attention in my increasingly-stretched and pressed emotional view.

Just under two weeks ago, my family suffered an unexpected and sudden bereavement. Trained in pastoral work and care as I am, quite experienced in doing it pretty well as I’m told I am, after those first few times the phone rang to offer increasingly desperate and then ultimately crushing news, comforting words seemed far from my mind. Presence, quiet consolation, mixed with a raging sense of the unfortunate unfairness of it all, they’re what came to me then and have sustained me ever since. I hope I’ve been of some support and use to my family in their grief, still so new and raw, but even if I haven’t, I’ve given what I had, what  God gave me when I prayed urgent, hushed prayers asking for ‘enough’ for today and then that tomorrow would bring enough for that day. God has been faithful, kind and generous as have so many of our family and friends, and yet, still I wish what happened hadn’t happened. Death and grief are fine enough when they’re distant, theoretical concepts, but when they come close the feelings they engender, the tiredness, the bone tiredness that’s been part of my life for 12 days now, that’s what I think will change how I talk to bereaved families or families whose loved ones are close to the end. Anyone who’s been through it will probably remember, or still be experiencing the feeling. Being a professional minister means that I sometimes have to do the professional work of supporting grief and loss, but it is so important that any of us who have this privilege don’t detach ourselves so far from the visceral pain of what is happening that we seem aloof. The most helpful things that have happened over the last few days are people who have asked us ‘how are you?’ or who have turned up at the door with food we didn’t ask for or realise we needed but which have meant we haven’t had to think. Thinking is hard. Thinking is tiring. Decisions are distant dreams. So I all of a sudden am very keen on provided soup, casserole and the like.

All of that would and probably should be enough, but then a couple of days ago when the phone rang, it was for a different reason. On the line when I picked up was the Family Liaison Officer from a prison not too far from us. As soon as the prison was named I knew who it was about, but what I was told next really did shock me. A prisoner who I an others at Emmanuel befriended through our Foodbank and other work and who became part of our Church family was seriously ill with Covid-19, she said. He was in a bad way. My heart sank. How sad. He’s due out this year. The shock didn’t end there though. The prisoner, my friend, had named me as his next of kin. Was I willing to take on the role? Having then as I do now, not much idea of what that might entail I thought I ought to say yes.

What a privilege, a sad and humbling privilege. On the one hand that the work I and many others had done with him had had such an impact; on the other that there was no one else who he felt he could trust and rely on to take on this role.

That was on Wednesday morning. I’m writing this on Friday afternoon. In the intervening time, P has deteriorated and rallied, deteriorated and rallied. I have decisions and judgement calls on his behalf which have all been best-guesses. Apparently the answer ‘keep him alive please’ is not detailed enough when responding to the question ‘How would you like us to proceed’, for instance. Just this afternoon I have spoken to the prison FLO, a Dr who is treating him and a member of the hospital’s fantastic chaplaincy team. What I’ve gleaned is that all of them are fantastic and want the best for P and are doing the very best they possibly can to bring it about. It is still very much touch and go what will happen in the coming time. This afternoon P has been asking if I could go and see him. It is, I have to say, pretty gutting that I can’t at the moment.

So, rather than just tell you a long-winded piece of a tale with an unknown ending, how about some reflections….

First, at the moment, the two situations I’ve described above are all I can think about at the moment. As I’m typing I know that there are some people I work with who are pretty unhappy with how things are going at work. I also know that the Church of England, of which I am a part and who to an extent I represent, has got itself in more than one media kerfuffle over the last 24 hours. I also know that all over the place people are receiving news, both good and bad, that the team I support and chaplain for, Northampton Town, have a game tomorrow and plenty more besides. Ordinarily, of course, all of these things are important, some of them crucial, even, but at the present moment I couldn’t really care less about most of that. I wonder where God is in that thought? I wonder how it might impact how I talk to those who are dealing with things of this nature (because I know there are a lot of them) in the future that might be changed compared to how I might have been three weeks ago?

What would Jesus say to P, or to those treating him, caring for and about him, or to my family, or to me, if we paused to listen today? Maybe ‘come to me all who are weary’ might be something. Would Jesus weep? Would he rage? I think I know what he would not do: walk by on the other side. I think he would point out all the ways he is at present involved, working, caring for, soothing and challenging in equal measure. I think at some point he would ask ‘what do you want me to do for you?’ and then do it, to show that this world is not all there is, that what we see in front of us, the failures, the mess of our own making and that made by others, is actually gloriously passing away, and would give a sign that the better world we are promised and of which we dream is closer than we even dare to believe. I think he would do all this and more.

A little while back, in a previous lockdown, far, far away before any of this happened (the end of October) I wrote a piece about starting to record a new album called Ruthless Trust. Sometimes my trust is wafer thin. Sometimes it’s thinner than that, whatever that is, but at times like these, when I honestly have no clue what to do or say, it’s a surprising comfort to me to be able to say ‘I am no longer my own’ and that in some small way I have understood a little of what it means to enter into the fellowship of the suffering that Jesus went through for me, for my family, for P, for those treating and caring for and about him. I’d give a lot to not have gone through the last two weeks, or to have watched those I love go through the last two weeks, but it seems like all I can do is persevere and hope that in doing that, faith and character follow and that out of all of that, this maelstrom of words I have written here which gives you an insight into a little of the chaos of my brain at the moment, new hope would be born. I want that hope to be firm, not in a concept or a thing, but in the One who is making all things new.

In the meantime, if you pray, please do for my family, for me, for P and all who have not had pieces written about them today but who also need some comfort, some peace and some strength to carry on.

The phone only rang 3 times while I was writing this. I hope it doesn’t ring again for a good while.

2020 Bible Reflections

April 23rd 2020: Psalm 5

Psalm 5[a]

For the director of music. For pipes. A psalm of David.

Listen to my words, Lord,
    consider my lament.
Hear my cry for help,
    my King and my God,
    for to you I pray.

In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice;
    in the morning I lay my requests before you
    and wait expectantly.
For you are not a God who is pleased with wickedness;
    with you, evil people are not welcome.
The arrogant cannot stand
    in your presence.
You hate all who do wrong;
    you destroy those who tell lies.
The bloodthirsty and deceitful
    you, Lord, detest.
But I, by your great love,
    can come into your house;
in reverence I bow down
    toward your holy temple.

Lead me, Lord, in your righteousness
    because of my enemies—
    make your way straight before me.
Not a word from their mouth can be trusted;
    their heart is filled with malice.
Their throat is an open grave;
    with their tongues they tell lies.
10 Declare them guilty, O God!
    Let their intrigues be their downfall.
Banish them for their many sins,
    for they have rebelled against you.
11 But let all who take refuge in you be glad;
    let them ever sing for joy.
Spread your protection over them,
    that those who love your name may rejoice in you.

12 Surely, Lord, you bless the righteous;
    you surround them with your favor as with a shield

In today’s Psalm, David asks God to listen to his prayers. We are told that he prays in the morning and in the evening. I have no doubt that he was praying during the day too. I would have been if his job was my job and his enemies were my enemies. There’s something here of two elements:

  1. Persistence in prayer. Most of the time when we start praying we know what we are praying about, or asking for (although not always, sometimes all we can do is groan and ask God to hear the deep cry within us). David speaks here of continually going to God and asking him to hear and intervene as he prays. God is not an instantly-gratifying slot machine. One thing you notice through spending any time with David’s Psalms is that he obviously felt as if he put a huge amount of time into his relationship with God and so he knew his ways, what God wanted, the kind of things it was right to pray. If prayer is a conversation, a deepening of relationship, then as much as it is for God to hear and to answer, it is also for us to be committed to actually putting in the time in prayer, making it a priority, deepening our own commitment to our side of the relationship that we have been offered through divine generosity. We can be known by God and approach him in conversation, with our thankfulness and our requests, as well as our weeping and our laments. Having been given such a great gift, we ought to use it.
  2. David recognised God’s holiness and that he would have nothing to do with evil apart from finding ways to get rid of it. Of course David lived before Jesus triumphed over death and evil in the resurrection and his ascension, so we now know that we can be forgiven and free if we trust him. It is worth remembering when we pray that the one we are praying to is holy and right and good as I said earlier this week and that his love is what makes us worthy  to be his friends, adopted members of his family. I can try my best on my own, but I will never be the right kind of good without the intervention of God. That’s not to do myself down, that’s just how it is. Evil has been overcome. We ought to do our utmost to stay away from it where we can and ask God to lead us in the path to everlasting life, and do so often.

Something To Do

Make a point of praying today. It doesn’t matter what kind of prayers you pray in the first place, just spend time in prayer. Make it a priority.

Something To Pray

Thank you is always a good place to start, if you can’t think of anything else, but if you spend any amount of time actually focusing on God, I’m sure the thoughts, words and perhaps even tears will come.

2020 Bible Reflections

The Return of Daily Bible Reflections

Periodically I discipline myself to write a short piece about the readings that are offered for each day by the Church of England, the Church I work for. As we are in the midst of Coronavirus and all that it has brought so far and will bring in the future, it feels like a good time to start writing them again, particularly as I’m largely going to be at home for a good while.

I hope you enjoy the posts which will follow and that you find them helpful. I know that a lot of people I know and who follow me aren’t Christians and will probably sigh and move on when the posts come up on your social media feeds, but you never know, some of my jokes might be funny. Unlikely, I know, but still, a possibility which makes reading the posts probably worthwhile.


March 2016

March 22nd 2016: Luke 22: 39-53

You can follow today’s reading by clicking on this sentence.

Have you ever prayed so earnestly that it was as if you were sweating blood? In our comfortable Western context, prayer can easily lack intensity. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a place where someone sweated like great drops of blood blood in anguished prayer. If they did, we’d probably try and calm them down, make them sit down so as not to distress other people. Jesus, as he does this, is entering the most intense moment, not just of his life, but arguably of all of human history. Still, it’s a detail that can sometimes get brushed over in our cultural of appropriateness.

Jesus finds his disciples sleeping ‘because of grief’ and demands that they pray ‘earnestly that you might not come into the time of trial’. If we do pray like this, it’s easy for us to slip into feeling selfish or to descend into self-absorption. Recently, the concept of the enemy ‘prowling like a lion that he might devour some’ has been much on my mind. As I write this in front of the backdrop of the unfolding event of the terror attacks in Brussels this morning, I find myself thinking again of how accepting I have become of ‘times of trial’, moments when evil rears its head and wreaks as much havoc as it possibly can, seeking not just to devour individuals, but whole communities, cultures and ideologies. Evil is part of our world, our lives, but it is never acceptable. We should do all we can to stand against it, recognising, especially this week of all weeks, that we have one who is for us and who went to the Cross to defeat evil. In our own lives, in our thoughts and actions, in our words, in our politics, in the choices we make with money, let us not be people who repay evil for evil. Let’s instead be people who pray earnestly for those who find themselves in a time of trial, that the merciful love of God would enfold them. Let’s be people who, when faced with evil, repay it with good. Where there is hatred, let’s bring love. Easy in theory, but all so very hard in practice.

Let’s be people who hold true to the one we believe in and love, the Prince of Peace.


March 2016

March 8th 2016: Hebrews 9:15-28

You can follow today’s reading by clicking on this sentence.

There’s something about knowing people are praying for you. Whatever you think prayer is, or whatever you think prayer does, it’s impossible, it seems to me, not to at least be touched by knowing that someone is praying for you. It does us some good to realise that we’re being remembered and thought of by others, that they consider us worth lifting before God, whatever we’re going through. I have real trouble fathoming the mechanics of prayer, beyond the idea that it’s an ongoing conversation between God and the person that is praying to him. On that basis, I try hard not to present a shopping list of demands, and instead to get to a place where I don’t hide from God (what a waste of time that is anyway), and, if I am to understand what he is saying to me, that I’ve given myself the best chanceSo, how astonishing is it that, when he entered into heaven after his ascension, Jesus took as one of his primary tasks continuing exactly this conversation with God on behalf of people, on behalf of you and me. We’re so valuable to him that he keeps bringing us to God’s attention, day and night, night and day. We are never forgotten.

So, how astonishing is it that, when he entered into heaven after his ascension, Jesus took as one of his primary tasks continuing exactly this conversation with God on behalf of people, on behalf of you and me. We’re so valuable to him that he keeps bringing us to God’s attention, day and night, night and day. We are never forgotten, never alone.

It’s seemingly bonkers. But then isn’t most of the gospel of Jesus Christ? We, us humans, are all of irreplaceable value to God. Think about that when you’re down on yourself, or other people today. The good news of Jesus is that he brought glory to God in how he lived, died, resurrected and ascended, and he did it all so that we could be with God.

February 2016

February 1st 2016: Matthew 27:11-26

You can follow today’s reading by clicking on this sentence.

I talk too much. Especially under pressure. Especially when I’m under pressure and I think that the pressure being placed upon me is unjust, or has put me in danger, even the kind of danger that will end up with me looking stupid. I’ve never been in the position of having to defend myself for the sake of saving my life. I’ll be bluntly honest here and say I hope I never will be either. I can’t even begin to imagine what that would be like. Much is made of Jesus’s silence as he stands before Pilate here. He gives nothing away. He does not identify himself, he is not charged with anything, he does not accept or deny anything. He just is. In this moment of almost complete powerlessness, when the very real temptation to seek a way out must have been somewhere nearby, light shone simply by accepting what was to come.

What can I learn from this? I want to be less defensive. I want to be more positive. I want to be more aware, more confident in who I am, because of who God is and what Jesus did in going through this event and what was to follow. I want to keep things simple. I want to think and worry less. I want to be where I am and let God bring about what God is bringing about, even if it’s only through my obedience.

January 2016

January 27th 2016: Matthew 26:36-46

You can follow today’s reading by clicking on this sentence.

Have you ever felt guilty for asking God to stop something terrible happening to you or someone you love, believing that not only should you persevere, but you should somehow enjoy it and seek it too? Perhaps it’s just me, but I have a bad habit of telling myself off for wishing that things might be easier, less painful, less serious, even while I know that a certain course of events is the right one. Jesus had a pretty good idea of what was coming as he prayed in the Garden, and as he asked 3 times for the cup to be taken away from him, I have no doubt that he meant it. ‘Yet not my will but yours’ is, naturally crucial here, but even so, this passage indicates to me that it is ok for us to be honest with God in prayer. It’s better than pretending with false humility or piety. I’m pretty sure God sees right through that. Ultimately, if our primary aim is to live lives which point people to Jesus, sometimes we have to do things which do not seem to be in our own self-interest, but are instead kingdom building (or as was the case here, kingdom-inaugurating). Jesus was willing to do this, for God and for his fellow humans, but his emotions and suffering were real, showing that our prayer lives can be places of open, honest dialogue, whilst remaining worshipful and humble.

Are we awake to hear the voice of the spirit as we pray? Are we alert, or are we counting down the minutes (or seconds) until we can get done with our prayer time and get on with the real business of the day? Prayer is the real business of the Christian life. Actions are important, but they are by-products of our individual and corporate times of intimacy with God. Have you got so busy, so cerebral, so active that you don’t have time to pray? Do something about it.

January 2016 Lectionary Ramblings

January 12th 2016: Matthew 21:18-32

You can follow today’s reading by clicking on this sentence.

‘Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.”

This stark verse is quite a challenge. I’ve prayed for lots of things in my time. I’ve thought that I’ve had faith for the vast majority of them. Of these prayers that i have prayed with what I consider to be faith, only a small portion have been answered in the way that I was praying, or hoping for. So what’s going on here?

It could be that I don’t have enough faith. I’ve always wondered who the arbiter is in deciding how much faith is enough, and of what sort. It must be God, but I’ve had an awful lot of people in the course of my life tell me that they’re sure I don’t have the enough faith, can’t have, otherwise this or that would have happened, or wouldn’t have done. I would be able to walk, I’d be in less physical pain, I might not have depression, my band might have been more successful and so on and so forth. So what role does God have in all this? Is it right for us to see the prayer of others go unanswered (as far as we can see) and draw our conclusions and judgements about them and their faith accordingly. It seems to me that seemingly unanswered prayer offers us a dangerous opportunity to assume a role that was never ours.

I’m never totally convinced that if I believe hard enough, with enough force, or with the kind of intensity which runs the risk of bursting a blood vessel, that this is what results in the answer to prayer that I may have been seeking.

Prayer is a relationship, a developing conversation. What I’ve been most struck by about it recently is that as well as speaking, both parties in it can choose to listen to. It does us good to listen to the voice and the heart of God, but the idea that he might want to listen to me too has been somewhat baffling, humbling and exciting to me recently. What a concept! God thinks I’m worth listening to.

Some of us see miracles, seemingly on a daily basis. At what point do these cease to be miraculous? Some can be physical healings, or cures. Others can be seeing a hardened heart softened by the glorious, gentle embrace of the Spirit. Prayers can be answered immediately. Prayers can take a lifetime to answer. Many will, it seems to me, only be answered in the light of a new world, in eternity.

So, what are we to take from Jesus’s statement? It’s bald and bold. There aren’t too many ways of getting around it or taking it out of context to fit our circumstances. The closest I can come to an answer is to encourage each one of us, including myself, to persist and persevere in prayer. If we see our prayer relationship with God merely as a means of spiritual oneupmanship, or as a way of getting ahead of others who choose not to pray, so that we, rather than they, come to fullness of joy, then I think we are missing the point. We saw last week, did we not, that God’s design for us and our relationship with him is contentment and trust, that we please him because we were made for his joy and glory. I don’t please God more than you because I happen to be in full time ministry. We have an invitation to a lifelong, life-giving transformation through the work of the Spirit. Similarly, I wonder, are we designed to be content with who we are, and our circumstances, hard and sometimes terrifying and seemingly unfair as this is? If I am to rejoice in the Lord always, theoretically, this has to happen when I am in pain, or suffering, and when I am not. I have not been good at this during my life!

What if God’s desire is for my heart’s desire to simply be him, his praise and his glory? What impact does this have on what I ask for in prayer with faith then?

You’ll see this post is almost entirely speculative. I think in the end it’s because there isn’t a single one of us, or any who have gone before, who truly understand the depth, privilege or potential of prayer. I certainly don’t. I simply offer my speculations and hope and indeed pray that they are somehow helpful to you as you go about your day today.

January 2016 Lectionary Ramblings

January 6th 2016: Colossians 4:2-18

You can find today’s reading by clicking on this sentence.

‘Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with thanksgiving.’

It’s hard to keep going, isn’t it? New years very often don’t mean a new you, or a new start (unless you work in, or have fallen prey to a marketing tactic). I remember several late Decembers in recent years where I’ve thought something along the lines of ‘it’ll be great when this year’s over, I can leave it all behind me as I move on to the new.’ Except that doesn’t work. January begins and, most likely, what your life looked and felt like in December will be what it looks like in January. It can be discouraging to tread on through January and find that the exalted hopes we sang about and resolutions we made have already faded into distant memory. Is it worth it all?

Well, yes it is. We’re hidden with Christ in God. We’re clothed in love because he has dressed us that way, and now we can live with him day by day, devoting ourselves to prayer. God wants to talk to us. He wants us to listen for his voice around us, but also, he wants to listen to us. What a strange thought, that God would want to listen to me. Especially when I feel like I struggle to get people around me to listen sometimes! But God wants me to bring myself to him every day, not necessarily in a set series of forms of words (although those help many people) but as myself. Are you talking to God, today? Not just bringing him your cares and concerns, the things you’d like to see fixed or redeemed, but in a relational way. Are you honest with God? There’s no point pretending when we pray. We’re searched and known anyway. But in praying we are acknowledging God, bringing ourselves to him, making life about more than us. In some small way we are doing part of the work of ushering in the kingdom. Prayer ‘works’ because it causes us to look to God beyond ourselves and acknowledge our need of him. Sometime today, at least once, spend some time making yourself think of things for which you can ‘render thanks for the great benefits we have received at his hands’. It’ll make the world about more than you and, ultimately, bring the glory of God once again back in to focus as the centre of your day.

2014 Lectionary Ramblings Lectionary Ramblings

August 27th 2014: Acts 4:13-31

Read Acts 4;13-31 here

What must it be like to pray, to finish, and then have the ground shake? What must it be like to have so much integrity in the expression of your faith that those who accuse you don’t know what to do with you? They know they disagree with you, they think you might be quite dangerous even, but they are at a loss, unable to completely deny the truth of what you are saying?Wouldn’t it be great to have a faith like that, a life like that? Wouldn;’t it be astonishingly exciting to be the kind of person who is so open to the Spirit of God that you can quiet a fevered room with the loving wisdom and authority of the prophetic voice God has given you? I think it would certainly be intriguing!

Before he had such experiences and such a voice, Peter didn’t think much of himself, as we’ve discussed previously. He was an “average” bloke, something of a failure. He was someone God called, called in much the same way as many people are today. He was someone who was willing to trust and obey, to the best of his ability, even when it meant reaching the limits of his ability and getting things, seemingly, disastrously wrong.

Are we willing to put ourselves in a similar position to Peter where rather than relying on ourselves, or constantly berating ourselves over failure and weakness, we instead make ourselves available? God loves us all the same way He loved Peter. He wants a relationship with us all the same way He did with Peter, pursuing him constantly throughout his life, and He longs for us to be willing and available so that we might live in such a way as the ground might shake when we pray.