Being heard

My youngest daughter came back from a solitary walk this summer with a grin on her face. She'd found a sheltered niche below a cliff and had settled down to read overlooking the North Sea. She had been there for some time when she heard heavy footsteps followed by a man screaming immediately above her. The screaming went on for some time as she sat frozen, wondering what to do. Eventually the yelling stopped for the man to draw breath and, as she felt the angst on display demanded some kind of response, she took the opportunity to shout out in her finest Welsh accent, “All right?”

There was silence for a long minute before he began to walk away but, as he left, he was laughing.

I've no idea what this man was thinking but perhaps it was enough for him to know he'd been heard and knowing this enabled him to see the funny side of his situation. Our perception can shift dramatically when we encounter God directly or through another person.

Recently a national newspaper asked for examples of kindness their readers had experienced. One reader recounted his visit to his mother in a care home. She could no longer hold a proper conversation but was always pleased to have visitors. During their visit, a woman sitting next to her started crying for no apparent reason, but was obviously deeply distressed. He hadn't known what to do, but his mother reached over and gently held the woman’s hand. For some time his mother just stroked her hand without saying a word until eventually the woman's tears stopped and she was calm again. Words can be overrated. Presence and attention were all that this distressed woman required.

Sometimes the greatest gift we can give another is to hear what is on their mind and in their heart without offering an answer or solution to them but simply to stand alongside them in their pain or confusion. My experience of prayer is that this is how God responds most commonly to me and others. 'Evening and morning and at noon I utter my complaint and moan and he will hear my voice.' Psalm 55:17. The assertion that God hears even if He doesn't answer me, is comforting.

For me, this summer has been filled with changes: either helping other people manage their changing situations or reflecting on the changes I'm living through. But through all the confusion there has been the underlying refrain of the psalmist who always, in the midst of trouble, affirms his trust in God: 'God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble.' Psalm 46; 'For your steadfast love is as high as the heavens; your faithfulness extends to the clouds.' Psalm 57:10. It's pretty much impossible to pick up the Psalms and not find a reassurance that, in the midst of turmoil, God is to be trusted. We're not promised answers, but we are assured that we have been heard and God is with us.

Just knowing that we have been heard can be enough to radically change our perception of our situation. Sometimes it's cathartic to laugh at ourselves; sometimes it's not. But whatever challenges you are facing in this coming season, I hope you are more aware than ever of the presence of the Lord Jesus standing with you. You don't have to hear his voice or get a specific answer to know you are not alone in this season of fruitfulness or otherwise. And when you encounter someone's pain or tangled situation it's not always necessary to use words to comfort or provide an answer, your presence is sometimes all that is needed.

Wherever we are placed, there are people who need to be heard, but finding such people in some communities is particularly hard. Most people don't like to make a fuss and, whilst it's easy to be known in a rural community, it's also easy to hide, trusting on other people's good manners not to invade your personal space. As disciples placed in such communities, we have a calling to seek out the lost and lonely. These are our neighbours who need the love of Jesus and we need to love them. Saying we love them but never putting love into practice isn't enough.

How do you do this? I suggest that we cannot expect other people to share themselves with us or to share Jesus with them if we are not prepared to share ourselves first. This is the season of ripened fruit ready to be enjoyed but it's also the season of new beginnings. Perhaps it's time to do things slightly differently and see where God takes you in building authentic relationships in your community. So I encourage you to share some of your concerns with your neighbours, be they the disappointments of an apparently failing church, a season of invisible fruits or your frustrations. One day, you may have the privilege of being invited to sit with them in their pain and disappointment and, along with your own presence, share the presence of Jesus as well. And once someone has encountered God in another person, their perception can shift dramatically.

Revd Alison Griffiths
Director of Pastoral Care: South

Changing times

Whilst at the farm yesterday I stopped the tractor to chat with a local resident who regularly walks his dogs across our land. He’s a good guy, and we often attempt to put the world to rights together. However, on this occasion I was struck by the topic and tone of our conversation. We began with the condition of the crops and the promise of the imminent harvest, which was then followed by a negative comment concerning the recent, unseasonal wet weather. He then bemoaned the fact that the manager of our mutually supported football team Newcastle United had left. Eventually he made it to the topic of the day, Brexit and the political turmoil in which we currently find ourselves! ‘We’re in a bit of a mess,’ he commented, before adding ‘things seem to be changing all around us’.

Things are indeed changing, for the farmer spring has moved into summer and the joyful anticipation of another harvest is coupled with an understandable nervousness, as the culmination of another year’s work is almost upon us. In the political world, Brexit has almost been eclipsed (for the time being) with the race to No. 10 and a new Prime Minister taking centre stage. For many of us, however, the onset of summer is a time to take a holiday, relax, reflect a little and enjoy a well-earned change from the daily routine. ‘Change,’ as someone once famously said ‘is here to stay’!

The summer season can also herald a welcome change in the rhythm of our church communities, as we take a rest from the sometimes frenetic annual programme of activities with which we can easily find ourselves involved - even the children’s workers need a rest sometimes! A church I know of changed the format of their discipleship small group during the summer holidays to include prayer walks, fish and chips at the beach, a barbeque and even a treasure hunt around the ancient walls of the local town. Can I suggest that these changes, far from being a pale imitation of ‘real church’, offer us a wonderful opportunity to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus ‘the pioneer and perfecter of our faith’ (Hebrews 12:2) in fresh and vibrant ways?

Wouldn’t it be good if, instead of wondering where everyone is on a Sunday morning during the holidays, we could creatively embrace the opportunities afforded to us to by this seasonal change and often smaller numbers attending our gatherings? Many of us are fortunate enough to live in beautiful rural areas, so why not take church outside and reflect on our unchanging God’s creative majesty? Perhaps take a walk around your local community, listening to God and praying as you go. Engage Worship have produced some wonderful resources to help and inspire us in their book Outdoor Worship. These include worship stations, a prayer hunt and a guided mediation on The Great Outdoors.

Finally, if you have time off planned for the summer it’s my prayer that the change of focus will be restful and enjoyable; rest is so important in our busy world. As for me, I’ll soon be in the midst of harvest season on the farm, so I’ll have to find my own creative ways to stay connected with the pioneer and perfecter of my faith. I also pray that the next time I meet my dog walking pal we’ll be able to focus on some godly, positive changes together!

Enjoy the season!

Alistair Birkett
Director of Pastoral Care: North

Getting out of the way

Getting out of the way

I've had the story of Naaman the commander of the King of Aram's army on my mind recently. It's one of my favourite stories in 2 Kings 5, the miraculous healing of Naaman and in my experience, when you return to a part of scripture you've not considered for a while, something fresh often hits you and this time I found myself puzzling over Elisha's behaviour.

Elisha barged into this story, and not only does he help the king of Israel out of a major pickle, but in doing so he also takes the opportunity to remind everyone, the king included, that God is still in Israel. Life may be lived out against a stressful and uncertain backdrop of constant political and military turbulence, but God had not abandoned His people. So Elisha took Naaman off the king's inadequate hands with a personal invitation and then proceeded to behave outrageously. First, Elisha denies Naaman entry to his home and then he refuses to see him. Even in our discourteous times this would be considered outrageously rude but, for the Middle East, it was scandalous! Next, Elisha sends out his servant Gehazi with an insulting message. Talk about adding insult to injury!

I've a lot of sympathy for Naaman, who reacted to Elisha's behaviour with anger! It's clear that Naaman behaved with humility from the outset by listening to a slave girl and taking action on her testimony alone. Naaman, the great military leader, had made himself personally vulnerable. Once in the king of Israel's court he discovered his journey didn't end there and he had to trudge on, this time to a strange prophet's modest house. His expectations must have been high, but he'd also have felt very anxious. So, of course, Naaman was angry at his reception! He was hurt by Elisha's discourtesy and frightened by his own suffering, fearful of his fate. Yet again though, he listens to his servants and so bathes seven times in the Jordan and is healed.

Only then does Elisha meet Naaman. Why?

I think we have to go back to Naaman's initial reaction: 'I thought he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy.' v 11. It seems that Naaman didn't just want to be healed, he wanted far more: an experience, a genuine encounter with this God who could heal him. He just had an inadequate view of how this could come about. Elisha knew what he must do though and by removing himself completely from Naaman's encounter with God in the River Jordan, Elisha ensured that Naaman got exactly what he was after all along: a genuine encounter with the living God, proof that there was only one God worth worshipping. Perhaps Elisha could have waved his hands over Naaman and he'd have been healed but Elisha would forever have been associated with this healing and encounter. Instead, Naaman discovered God for himself and by himself. Elisha's role was to point Naaman in the right direction and then to ensure he didn't get in the way of what God was doing with Naaman.

It can be horribly tempting, like Gehazi discovered, to embellish what God appears to be doing; or to get involved to manoeuvre events to go in a certain direction; to manipulate people into responding in a certain way to what is said or done. It can be hard to stand back, leave well alone and let the Holy Spirit work in people's lives, but I am increasingly convinced that our task is simply to find out where God is at work and help the work along, which sometimes means we need to get out of His way. And if we are ever tempted to grab some of that glory and honour for ourselves by inserting ourselves into the story of what God is up to, then running in the opposite direction is the wisest move we can make.

It's my hope and prayer that I am not tempted to meddle in situations that I should leave well alone but I suspect that I have quenched the Spirit on many occasions by blundering in with good intentions when I should have backed away. Over time I have realised it boils down to how much faith I have in God. Do I trust God enough to step away at times and refuse to interfere? Is my faith strong enough to let God be God and be content to live with the consequences? The roll call of the faithful in Hebrews 11 acts as a healthy reminder that although they did not get what they thought they were promised, nevertheless, throughout their lives God was active and at work. Most of the time, like Elisha in this story, we don't have to make grand gestures to help people to encounter the living Jesus, we just have to be willing to point them in the right direction and then get well out of the way to let God get on with meeting them. The steady, ordinary life of an obedient disciple who is humble enough to know their place and do what they are told is exactly what most of us are called to.

Revd Alison Griffiths
Director Pastoral Care: South

Encouraging pioneers

The cultural landscape in the West, alongside our increasingly globalised world, has created a situation where I believe we need to move beyond our over-reliance on past church growth formulae and algorithms, and instead move to explore and pioneer different approaches to missional engagement. I would argue that the rural church in particular needs pioneers; so how might we go about encouraging an environment which is both supportive of those who have a pioneering spirit, but also assist the church to see new ideas as not so much a threat to the status quo? How could we view this as an opportunity to have a ‘mixed economy’ of both old and new?

One of the early steps I would want to suggest, which would be of help to both church and pioneer, is the ability to see the past without destroying it. Pioneers can be very good at critiquing all that has gone before as no longer fit for purpose. However, many of the things that we see as perhaps old and traditional once had pioneers to initiate them — Sunday school, church organ, hymns, seating and service times, to name but a few. The identifying and valuing of the past can also be helpful for existing congregations to see that things were not always as they are now and pioneering new ventures to share the gospel is within the DNA of the church.

For pioneers to be encouraged and truly utilised, we have to give room for failure. I have written before on this topic, so I don't wish to labour the point here other than to say, could we learn to equally celebrate “Let’s try it” as well as “we did it”? Someone once said, “If you get a bullseye every time, you’re standing too close to the target.” If we are not failing every now and again, we’re not trying anything innovative or stepping out in faith.

Isolation can be one of the most significant issues faced by pioneers, especially those within a rural context. Helping pioneers feel accepted as part of the church is so important, even if the initiative or idea will not be outworked in the local church. Some can see pioneers as eccentrics, people who don't fit in. What might it mean for us to create the space for pioneers to experiment whilst at the same time being valued, supported and prayed for as part of a worshipping community?

Pioneers, as well as those who are part of the established church, can be in danger of looking for the quick fix; the sticking plaster to place on the wound. I am becoming convinced that discerning what God is already up to, and how we respond to this as Christians, takes time. The church and pioneers can both have unrealistic expectations of how quickly results might be achieved, perhaps all to used to living in a microwave society where everything is ready at the sound of a ‘ping’. The rural context has so much to teach us in terms of the right conditions for growth, how it takes time, and how there is often a seasonality to this too.

Teamwork and encouragement go hand in hand. This is a simple, but a profound lesson contained within the epistle to the Hebrews:

Let's keep a firm grip on the promises that keep us going. [God] always keeps his word. Let's see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out, not avoiding worshipping together as some do but spurring each other on, especially as we see the big Day approaching. [Hebrews 10:23-25 The Message]

Let’s seek to be encouragers of pioneers within our churches over the coming months.