I am writing this the week before my summer holiday. For various reasons we are not going away this year, but for me being able to switch off my computer and not having to make ‘To do’ lists each day or do school pick-ups, is a holiday in itself. One thing I want to try to do more this holiday is something I have been reflecting on for a few weeks – the art of doing nothing!
In the work environment we often find ourselves needing to be seen to be doing something, needing to justify our jobs. Before the pandemic I think many bosses held the idea that people who held office jobs needed to be in an office to work effectively. To get some time working from home was not easy and I think bosses assumed that working from home meant working less and being easily distracted and therefore less productive. However, since being forced to work from home that is no longer the case. Many companies are now moving towards allowing people to work from home and visiting the office a few times a month. They have found that there wasn’t a sudden dip in productivity once people were working from home and I think that the challenge going forward is going to be how we balance working from home and getting back into offices – not everyone wants to work from home after all!
The difficulty with working from home is knowing when to switch off from work, when to stop opening emails, when to switch off your phone. Workaholic behaviour has almost been brainwashed into us. If we aren’t doing work we may find ourselves filling in our days with other things: yoga classes, gym, shopping, visiting friends, DIY jobs around the house and garden etc. and if we are not working or being busy we start to feel guilty, guilty that we aren’t doing something!
And that leads me to my question – are you good at doing nothing? Doing nothing means exactly that – doing absolutely nothing. Not checking messages, phones, the internet, not consuming books, articles, podcasts, TV, radio etc.
Dr Sue Smalley, Professor Emeritus in the UCLA Department of Psychiatry and Founder of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) said in 2019 “We are a work-consumed society and that has generated guilt and perceptions of laziness if we aren’t working all the time […] Science is starting to show the value of spending time in silence, in nature, and in not engaging in constant external stimulation. We need time doing ‘nothing’ to be our best selves: well-rounded and creative human beings. The ‘doing’ side of our nature needs a ‘being’ side to be in balance. It’s not surprising that rates of depression, anxiety, and stress are increasing as the doingness of life seems to have little counterbalance.”
Brian O’Connor (Ph.D., Full Professor and Head of the School of Philosophy at University College Dublin) believes that “ the idea of being immensely productive and of never resting, even if it has its roots in the Protestant work ethic, seems to be at a level that's unprecedented, especially in the West”; he goes on to suggest that we might all be a lot happier if we stopped obsessively trying to make something of our talents and consciously embraced idleness instead! Few people get to the end of their life and regret not having worked harder; rather, people regret having worked so much.
Giving yourself permission to take time each day, each week, each month to do nothing is good for you. Giving yourself time to let your mind wander, to think, to ponder. Our churches are open again for personal prayer and reflection, our churchyards too. If you are looking for a quiet space feel free to go in, take a cushion or two, sit quietly, lie down if you like, listen to some music and just switch off! There are many spiritual practices which enable and encourage spending time in silence, in nature, away from constant stimulation – the aim being to help you - not to give you more things to worry about. If you would like any ideas, do get in touch! Every retreat I have been on has always started with the leaders saying that if we found ourselves needing to sleep, then to do just that, because that was what we really needed. If you drift off when “doing nothing” that is good too!
So may I encourage us all to give ourselves permission to do nothing – and to get good at doing nothing; to prioritise time for ourselves and not to feel guilty about it. It will be good for us in the long term and will help us avoid complete burn out in the future.
Jesus said “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 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. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11: 28-30Revd. Yvonne Mullins
References : https://www.shondaland.com/live/body/a30125041/why-doing-nothing-is-actually-one-of-the-best-things-you-can-do/
Whether a holiday is good, bad, or indifferent, with luck it will provide at least one unexpected surprise that gives a thought-provoking memory to take home. My summer holiday in County Durham did not let me down in this respect. I didn’t expect a visit to Castle Auckland, the former home of the Prince Bishops of Durham, to offer more than a pleasant hour or so wandering through the rooms followed by a walk in the surrounding Deer Park. However, on entering the former dining room, the surprise struck. The walls are hung with 13 large life size (in a seven foot frame) rectangular paintings. I thought at first that they had a ‘Russian’ feel to them, but on reading the information provided on a touch screen, discovered that they were a set of paintings by Francisco de Zurbarans, a Spanish painter (1598 to 1664). The set of paintings is entitled “Jacob and his Twelve Sons”. It is based on the ‘Blessings of Jacob’, in chapter 49 of the book Genesis. Each man is painted wearing the headgear of his station and carrying some emblem of his office as described in the Genesis passage.
It is not just the paintings themselves which have such an impact but the story behind their purchase. Robert McManners (Chairman of Bishop Auckland Civic Society)* writes of them: “brought there by Bishop Richard Trevor, it is no accident that these images have silently pleaded their case from the walls of the Long Dining Room for the last two and a half centuries – a case for religious, ethnic and social tolerance as relevant today as it was then. Their significance lies not just in the quality of the art but in the prominent visual statement that is being made by their display.”
The background to the purchase of the paintings by the then Bishop of Durham was this. In 1755 a Bill was passed in Parliament to allow the integration of immigrant Jews through naturalisation. It was an unpopular Bill but one which Bishop Trevor promoted. Two years later it was repealed and this event may have led to Trevor’s purchase of the Zurbarans paintings thus enabling him to continue publicly to demonstrate his stance. He was able to buy them all, except for the picture of Benjamin (on which he was out-bid). Nothing daunted, he commissioned (at considerable cost) a portrait artist, Arthur Pond, to paint an exact copy so that he would have a complete set to hang. The Bishop also arranged for the re-design of the Long Dining Room so that it would become a fitting place for the display of the paintings.
Good to know that in 1755 one of the most influential and powerful Bishops of the Church took a stand and was prepared to ‘put his money where his mouth was’! Sad to think that in our day there is as great a need as in 1755 for religious, ethnic and social tolerance. We naturally fear, are suspicious of. ‘difference’, those ‘not like us’, however many times we may have heard the exhortation to “put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature”, or read the words of the letter to the Colossians, (Chapter 3, verse 11) “Here there is no Greek or Jew, no circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and in all”. It is said that “familiarity breed contempt”; it’s all too easy to take for granted that one has “put to death one’s earthly nature”, is un-prejudiced. Thank goodness for unexpected holiday surprises to jolt one into questioning assumptions!Penny Wood
*Zurbarans at Auckland Castle by Robert McManners OBE
The Leaves of the Tree are for the Healing of the Nations
My gaze has often been diverted from the computer screen to the trees in the gardens around us. Watching the leaves unfurl, catkins and blossom appear and the trees blowing in the wind/gales this Spring has been a joy. Trees are appreciated for their beauty, their rootedness, the habitats they provide for animals and for the multitude of useful products they provide.
Trees are mentioned throughout the Bible, from the first to the very last chapter. In the creation story the land produces trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God sees that it is good! (Genesis 1.12). After a while, things are not so good. Adam and Eve disobey God’s command not to eat the fruit of the tree in the middle of the Garden and have to leave Eden.
At the pivotal point of the Bible is the tree of the Cross, the life-giving tree, which gives humanity the promise of a new start. The final Biblical book pictures the river of the water of life flowing from the throne of God. On each side of the river stands the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations (Revelation 22.1-2).
We are increasingly aware just how much trees contribute to the overall welfare of our world. Trees can greatly help to combat climate change, reduce global poverty and decrease migration. Although many tree-planting projects are being undertaken world-wide, conservation of existing forests is also being carried out. Two interesting programmes are: ‘The Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy’ and ‘The Great Green Wall’.
The Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy is a network of forest conservation projects across the 54 countries of the Commonwealth. The aim is to conserve indigenous forests, to raise awareness within the Commonwealth of the value of these forests and to save them for future generations. Knowledge and best practice will be shared and collaborative initiatives for forest conservation set up. (https://queenscommonwealthcanopy.org/)
The Great Green Wall is an African-led movement to provide a wide belt of trees, vegetation and fertile land right across the Sahel, from Senegal in the West to Ethiopia and Djibouti in the East. In the Sahel land is rapidly losing its fertility, people cannot grow enough food and poverty is increasing. Millions are forced to go hungry or flee their homes in search of employment. The Great Green Wall is bringing Africa’s degraded landscapes back to life and reclaiming the land for people to use. Women in particular benefit from making and selling tree products such as shea butter, frankincense and soap. The income from their businesses helps them to pay for essential healthcare and education.
In Ethiopia, as temperatures rise, trees are disappearing and the desert is spreading. The Metema Forest in the north-west of the country is especially important because of its frankincense (Boswellia) trees. These are a lifeline for local families who sell the resin which they tap from the trees. The resin is used around the world as incense and in essential oils. Unsustainable practices used to extract the resin stop the frankincense trees from regenerating. Without action, the forest will be on the brink of extinction in 20 years’ time. With tools and training, the local community in Metema is learning ways to harvest frankincense sustainably while protecting the existing forest, and 3000 new trees will be planted. (www.treeaid.org/projects/ethiopia/future-forest-project/)
I visited a frankincense warehouse in Ethiopia many years ago but had no idea where the resin came from!
Once complete, The Great Green Wall – an 8,000km long mosaic of trees and restored land - will be the largest living structure on the planet, 3 times the size of the Great Barrier Reef. It has the potential to transform the lives of millions living on the frontline of the climate crisis. (www.greatgreenwall.org)
May trees be for the healing of the nationsLiz Welters, Associate Minister
When I was at school, my English teacher encouraged us to learn one of the speeches from Macbeth: ‘Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow…’. She said there would be times in life when it was useful to be able to declaim it, and indeed I have enjoyed doing so on many an occasion. I have to work really hard to memorise things, but, as well as Macbeth’s speech, I used to be able to recite all eighteen verses of Lewis Carroll’s ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’. I only ever managed the first four lines of the Mock Turtle’s Song: ‘“Will you walk a little faster?” said a whiting to a snail. “There’s a porpoise close behind us, and he’s treading on my tail.”’ Oh, and the chorus – Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the dance?’
I have found myself thinking of the Mock Turtle’s Song on several occasions as I have tried to navigate my way down a busy street whilst trying to stay socially distanced from other people. At times it feels very much like a dance. It is funny how we have all learnt a whole new set of social skills during the pandemic – we can veer our way down the pavement, stepping out into the road to allow space for each other. We can queue in a socially distanced way, more or less. We can sound out whether someone is happy to have you in their house or not. And I reckon I can judge a 2 metre gap almost to the centimetre, having had to measure it out so many times to sort out seating in our churches.
As we continue down the Government road map, the situation gets more complicated – partly because several of the ‘rules’ are now guidance rather than being mandatory. When meeting with family and friends, it is now up to us to “make a personal choice on whether to keep your distance from them, but you should still be cautious.” And we can travel to amber listed countries, but are advised that holidays abroad are not for this year. It is much harder to negotiate with others around social situations when the rules are ‘you can, but perhaps you shouldn’t’.
And it is, of course, further complicated by each of us coming at things from our own particular angle, influenced by factors like whether we have had one or two doses of the vaccine, whether we or our loved ones have particular health needs that make us more vulnerable, whether we are more cautious by nature or just have been yearning for contact with others – that hug, a pint in the pub with friends or a meal out.
The big challenge facing us all is learning how to respect one another’s choices, how to give each other the room that each of us needs, how to allow each other to move at the speed that is right for each of us. Rather than denigrating one another for being too cautious or not cautious enough, we need to learn to honour one another and support each other’s positions. Not a bad lesson for life generally!
Come and Eat
I write this message the day after pubs opened for outdoor hospitality – a day which began with snow falling in the morning and ended with lovely warm sunshine and folk visiting our local village pub!
One of the things we have learned through Lock Down is just how much we appreciate being able to meet together to share hospitality. As we meet over drinks or a meal, we have time to catch up, to share our news and to listen to one another. In our Benefice we have used Zoom to have online coffee mornings and quizzes – these have helped us keep in touch and we always begin by finding out how everyone is, sharing what has been going on and listening to any concerns people might have. We have shared the good news of the vaccine roll out, as each age group and each village has been reached. We have offered each other support.
During Lent our Benefice used Bishop Steven’s sermons Come and See for our online Benefice services. He ended his series encouraging us to be thinking about how we would move from being an online community, back to one where we can once again meet up in our churches to share the Eucharist together – how we would move from “Come and see” to “Come and Eat”. This call to share hospitality reminded me of a book I had read a few years ago called Surprise the World by Michael Frost. It is a small book in which Michael explores the 5 habits for Missional People. The first two habits he suggests are Bless and Eat.
We have seen evidence of people looking for ways to bless others throughout Lock Down – people volunteering to help with shopping, delivering medicines, baking treats, dropping of bars of chocolates, writing letters or notes of encouragement, phone calls etc. Blessing others involves offering words of encouragement and affirmation, acts of kindness, doing a good turn and giving gifts (perhaps a birthday present but also random gifts just to show someone you care). I hope that most people reading this can attest to either being on the receiving end of such blessings or of being an initiator of them!
The second habit Michael Frost suggests is eating together. Eating together was a central Christian practice for the early church. They did not only meet to celebrate communion together, to break bread and share wine sacramentally, but they also met to share “ordinary food” as part of an agape meal. Accounts of Jesus earthly ministry and the early church place meals at the very centre of sharing life together. The Apostle Paul relied on people welcoming him and his co-leaders into their homes; and through these opportunities Paul developed strong relationships.
Now that we are back to meeting in our churches we are able to celebrate communion through word and sacrament. We have the opportunity to explore God’s word and to break bread together. As Christians we believe that Jesus is present with us always, but there is something very special and life affirming about being able to meet and break bread together – something we have really missed during the pandemic. Communion creates community. Christ living in us brings us together in new ways. We have all had to be very cautious about meeting up, keeping to government guidelines and there may well be some folk who are hesitant about coming into our church building just yet, but would like to receive Communion at home – if that is you please do get in touch with the Benefice office or email firstname.lastname@example.org and we will arrange that.
Michael Frost goes further as regards hospitality and encourages us to meet up with three people each week to eat together – not necessarily to eat a full meal but for a coffee, a sundowner, a walk – a chance to be together! Now that is a challenge I think we would all look forward achieving. The pandemic has taught us that time spent with each other is something money cannot buy. I hope that in the coming year we will find lots of opportunities to share hospitality in our gardens, our homes, our churches and in our villages!Revd. Yvonne Mullins
Passion Sunday 2021 – I walked across the footpaths to deliver some Fringford Village Voices to the houses by Fringford Mill. There’s a point where you reach an opening into a field that curves around towards the stream in the distance that feeds the water mill, and where the field also slopes uphill back toward the village. On the top of the slope there used to be tree, standing quite tall, but leafless and dry. I stopped and looked over the field, and suddenly noticed that the tree wasn’t there; it’s lying on its side, collapsed. I wondered when it happened. That great tree; when did it finally topple and fall, alone and unseen? In a storm? In the night? How many thousands of people across the world, recently, have slipped away in a similar fashion alone and unseen?
There has been much sorrow in the past year, either because death has hit us personally, or because the sheer scale of the numbers afflicted weighs on us all. The Archbishop of York, talking on the radio this morning said how the story in the gospels of the woman who had suffered with haemorrhages for twelve years had been a source of comfort to him in the pandemic. What struck him in the story is that Jesus, surrounded at the time by “a great crowd that pressed upon him” none the less senses the need of a specific individual who only dares to “touch his cloak”, and heals her. We need to know that no person or part of God’s creation is of indifference to God rather, as Jesus is reported as saying in Luke’s Gospel, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight”. God sees us.
God is with each one of us, whether we sense it or not, in life and in death. Today, as we enter Passiontide, we are going to see what that ‘being with us’ means for God. As he journeys to the cross it means that God in Christ has “born our griefs and carried our sorrows.” In session 5 of the ‘Inspired by Art’ Lent Group we looked at a painting of Christ carrying his cross. It is by an unknown painter, Italian, Venetian, about 1500 [I will try to put it up on the Shelswell Churches website]. Made as a private devotional work, as an aid for prayer and contemplation, this unflinching depiction of Christ’s misery is an emotionally powerful image. The viewer is drawn above all to the eyes; they express such sorrow and suffering. This is what it means for God to be with us – a sharing of our humanity, our pains, our deaths. Only by going through this can God bring us to the other side, the empty tomb and the risen Christ. We cannot have Easter without the Crucifixion.
The meaning of the events often become clearer if we can ‘experience’ them in some way; so, during Holy Week [the first week in April] read the Passion narratives in the Gospels, journey through the week with Christ, contemplate the events, enter into the story as best you can. Then, on reaching Easter Day, rejoice that Christ is risen, and see that we are a new creation.
Penny Wood LLM
There is No Cure for Curiosity
According to an old saying, ‘The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity Have you ever felt like asking a question during a sermon? What are you talking about? Could you explain that more clearly? A sermon is not the best setting for questioning. The disciples of Jesus asked him questions, not in the middle of him talking to the crowds, but when they had time and space for an explanation. Jesus also asked questions of the disciples.
When I was in Waddesdon I placed an ‘Any Questions?’ box in Church. People put in questions they would probably not ask out loud. Although these were anonymous, I could usually guess who the most searching ones came from! From time to time I would attempt to answer the queries during a service
In another setting, a not-so-young person would come up to me regularly after a service. I soon realised that he was intent on asking me a question, probably one I would not be able answer off the cuff! Often my response had to be, ‘I’ll find out and let you know’.
‘Is it alright to ask questions?’ This query came from a senior police officer who joined a Home Group I was running in Autumn 1999. He was re-exploring faith after the birth of his child, having been brought up in a strict denomination where questioning was certainly not allowed. As his responsibilities included monitoring the movements of Apocalyptic Sects (easier to write than to say) in the run up to the Millennium, and we happened to be studying the Book of Revelation, it made for fascinating and fruitful discussions.
Home Groups are good places to ask questions, but such groups do not suit everyone, even when we are able to meet together in person. However, there are lots of opportunities on Zoom or for private study this Lent. We know from the ‘Food, Glorious Food’ course that Zoom is a format which can work well, giving people opportunities to learn, ask questions and share knowledge.
‘Curiosity must be outgrown or endured. A child is born with its mouth in position to utter the word “Why?” and when, at some later date, it is punished for asking too many questions, it thinks up enough additional questions during its punishment to make the Encyclopaedia Britannica look sick.’ Boston Sunday Post, August 1, 1915
Are you feeling bored? Have you outgrown the curiosity about faith you once had? Are you enduring questions about Christian belief, without having a chance to voice them? Lent is the time to let loose your curiosity and explore. If you haven’t already done so, do Zoom in to one of the courses on offer, or study at home.
Inspired to Follow, produced by St Martin in the Fields and The National Gallery. How can art enlighten our Christian journey?
Come and See, from the Oxford Diocese. How can we question and explore the Christian faith afresh?
Pilgrim Journeys: The Creeds, 40 days of Reflections by Bishop Steven Croft. How can we reflect on and respond to the statements in the Creeds? Booklet or daily emails available.
There’s also: Inspired by Hope, from Embrace the Middle East. How do Christians in the Middle East still have hope, despite all they are facing? How can we learn from them? For a booklet, please contact me or see https://shop.embraceme.org/collections/church-resources/products/lent-study-guide-2021
I think questions are vital to our growth as Christians. They help us develop in our understanding of who God is, who we are, and what it means to live out what we believe. Of course, not all questions have easy, pat answers. Sometimes we have to live our questions for while, in the company of God and others, before we find our peace.Liz Welters (Associate Minister)
‘I will give thanks to you, Lord, with my whole heart; I will tell or all your marvellous works.
I will be glad and rejoice in you; I will make music to your name, O most high’
Thus started this morning’s psalm (Psalm 9: 1 – 2). If only.
And the latest missive sent out from the Diocesan Bishops urges us to turn:
from the bitterness of thinking about what
from the misery that comes from our hopes
|to thankfulness for these things and a deeper
commitment to treasure them
to a deeper hope that rests in God and God's promises
to a focus on joy, 'a witness to eternal realities in the
But that is very hard. Perhaps like me you feel your resources are low. Perhaps you too are finding the days to be dark, dreary and drab. And perhaps you also long for a hug from those you love but can’t see at the moment. I wish I was one of those people who are naturally optimistic, joyful, able to find light in the midst of any darkness. I have a friend like that. She had an abusive first marriage. She lost her first husband and her eldest son to suicide, and has faced numerous challenges since. But still she counts her blessings, effervesces with joy, and looks for things to be thankful for. She’s even written a book about her experiences (Choosing Eros – Julie Hagerty). But I’m not like Julie and I guess that is just how it is.
But although they may be personality traits, I guess that thankfulness and joy are also partly disciplines. There are loads of websites devoted to the practice of both. They tend to stress that although we cannot make ourselves feel joyful, we can become more open to the experience of joy. We can do things like being still, like practising being really present during the day, looking and listening inquisitively. trying to savour each moment – savour all the simple joys of life - the ability to see, to hear, to feel, to taste, and to touch, the beauty that is all around us, the miracle of our existence.
It is often when we stop, when we are still, that we notice things. In November, I noticed that amidst the black stubs of bygone blackberries and the few ragged leaves still clinging onto otherwise bare branches was one shrub that seemed to have large buds on it. A search on Google and I learnt that most trees have buds on them all through the winter. They protect the branches through winter and are there, ready to burst into growth in the spring. Everything we know witnesses to the fact that there will be better times in store. Winter leads to spring, the night to the morning, and as the psalmist puts it, ‘heaviness may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning’ (Psalm 30.5).
I came across a poem on the internet – it had been written collaboratively on 5th April last year on Facebook by the Federation of Writers (Scotland) – people could only post one line, and 59 comments later, the poem emerged. I was going to just include an excerpt, but couldn’t decide which bit was best, so here is it all. I wonder that your recipe for joy would contain? And can you prepare some parts of it now?Alice Goodall