Non-stop shielding

August 3, 2020

Shielding has just ended for over two-million people in the UK. If you’re one of them, you may be relieved at the prospect of normality returning. Or you might be feeling vulnerable.

Shielding during this pandemic has been about protecting the most vulnerable in our communities. There’s even something reassuring about the word itself. A shield keeps us safe from danger. Metaphorically, we all need a shield.

Last week’s Islamic celebration of Eid al-Adha (meaning “Festival of Sacrifice”) reminded me of another kind of shield. The festival is a celebration of a peculiar, if not painful, event in the life of the spiritual father of the three major world religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam. All three look to the patriarch Abraham as a great man of faith. But even he had to be shielded.

One of the most well-known encounters Abraham is said to have had with God is in a vision where God tells him “I am your shield”.[1] Interesting shield! But what would it be like if God was our shield?

Maybe we grew up in one of the above religions but drifted from the faith in direct proportion to how many times God didn’t come to our rescue when we really needed him. If God was a shield, then why did faith feel like no shield from the worst of times. I’ve felt that, too. And ironically, so did Abraham.

The Festival of Sacrifice[2] is a celebration of a story about Abraham’s most heart-wrenching moment. Abraham had two sons – Ishmael and Isaac. He loved both of them dearly but Isaac was the one son born by his, until then, barren wife – they had waited 25 years for this. So Abraham saw Isaac’s birth as a miracle. But then God requested something unreasonably drastic. God asked Abraham to take Isaac’s life! For any modern reader, this story sounds barbaric. So when I think about the story, I ask myself, how was God being a shield in all this?

I guess I’ve come to see divine shielding a little differently now in my 4th decade on this earth. I once thought if you believed in God, he would protect you from anything going wrong. How the Abraham story ends has taught me to see divine shielding in a more grown-up way.

When Abraham was about to sacrifice his son, God told him to stop. Phew, that could have been messy! But jokes aside, God gave Abraham a way out from the test. God provided a ram to sacrifice instead. And for me that’s the point of the story. It’s not a story that tells us God shielding stops bad things happening. It’s a story that tells us that God’s shielding will help provide a way out, a way to cope. That’s why Abraham names the very location, “The-Lord-Will-Provide.[3]

God’s shield protects us in pain, not from pain. Shielding that is never taken away.

[1] The Bible, Genesis 15:1
[2] The Islamic version of the story has Ishmael as the son who God asked to be sacrificed, whereas the Judeo-Christian version, Isaac is the son to be sacrificed.
[3] The Bible, Genesis 15:14

Open for worship

July 22, 2020

What new places will you visit?

You, like me, may have experienced a sense of adventure and curiosity as the country continues to open up after its forced hibernation – what places shall we go and visit? Being cooped up for so long we’re ready to explore.

I will be hitting the back roads of Wales this summer (with most of the country sounding like they’re off to Cornwall). Let us know what places you plan to visit.

Talking of Wales, this weekend the devolved government decided it would open its places of worship again for up to 30 people. The late Welsh revivalist, Robert Evans, would be happy! Who knows, maybe I will pop into a church or two.

Some would say that’s not a bad idea. Not just because faith in something beyond the physical has helped numerous people up and down this country get through lockdown (see our blog on this here) but because of its other benefits.

Other benefits?

I’m always a little sceptical on postulations that religious belief or regular worship have some almost magical benefit. The cynic makes me question who’s really benefitting? So I decided to check out what these benefits were and whether they are legitimate.

My discoveries increased the probability of that trip to the pews of some local Welsh church. Turns out that I might be happier for it. The well-known Pew Research Centre continues to find that people who are active in congregations (religious meetings) are happier for it. And it’s not just religious people who are doing the research.

With no bias, “recently, scholars have applied more scientific rigour to their research on religion, and many of the studies that have been published in the past 30 years have found that religious people tend to live longer, get sick less often and are better able to cope with stress.”[1]

So maybe as we exercise this new-found curiosity to visit places we’ve never been before, maybe it’s worth checking out that local church we always walk by. Or go with that friend who has given us that awkward invitation to their faith community.

Who knows, in the long run we might be happier for it.

Richard Fowler info@because.uk.com

Richard is editorial assistant at Because

[1] https://www.hindawi.com/journals/isrn/2012/278730/

This is the air we breathe

July 17, 2020

Sometimes

All I need is the air

That I breathe

And to love you

Do you recognise the song? It was popularized by the Hollies in the 1970s, and it was a hit for Simply Red some 20 years later.

The air that we breathe is in the headlines again this week, and, surprisingly, it’s good news. Apparently, air quality has got better during lockdown. Some have speculated as to whether high air pollution has been a contributing factor in the spread of coronavirus. But, with fewer cars on the road and with many factories closed, air quality in major cities like London and also in rural areas has improved hugely.

It’s late news in one way, for many of us have noticed the difference when walking, running or cycling. It’s great to breathe in the purer air, and I for one don’t relish returning to how things were before the outbreak.

Another song I like is “This is the air I breathe” by Michael Smith. It’s a Christian song which suggests that the more we breathe in the freedom of Jesus, the more we want to do so. It’s like our newly restored air quality: the more I breathe it in, the more I want to go for a walk and indulge in a long, slow intake of clean, fresh, unmasked air.

Sometimes it’s all we need.

And to love, of course.

James Henderson info@because.uk.com

Look up!

July 13, 2020

Have you looked at the stars recently?

It certainly helps from time to time. But maybe even more so during the lockdown. There’s something about stepping outside and peering into infinity that is almost mesmerising. This is what two astrophotographer’s have done as lockdown eases – their stunning pictures of the Milky Way taken from Devon can be seen here.

We can all remember that moment when we looked up at the stars and they held our gaze and caught our breath. Maybe it was on a bender, or that romantic walk, or that clear night when we took out the rubbish. For me it was when I visited my mother in the Scottish countryside. I got there late – midnight. With no streetlights to compete for my attention, I stepped out the car and was hit with what seemed like hundreds of thousands of little lights peering down at me. And there it was.

The Milky Way!

I had only made my acquaintance with this strip of stars in picture form. But in real life they were every bit as awe-inspiring. As the stars held my gaze, I got that reduced feeling. Not the one you get in a supermarket, but the one when you meet something so much more bigger than yourself. I guess when you come face-to-face with infinity, that’s inevitable.

Inevitable and soothing.

I say soothing because there is something about the starry blanket of mystery and magnificence that reduces the mundane and menial of our existence. That gives us perspective. Millions of people have lived and died on the watch of the same starry splendour. These stars are a witness to the transience of human life as they inhabit their own perpetual transcendence. This is why we are soothed by them. They speak beyond our infinitesimal life.

Life with all of its worries, stresses, pressures and pain hems us in. Pushes our gaze ever inwards, closer to our own horizons of concern. Yet, the stars in all their stillness dare us to think beyond ourselves. Beyond the stress. Beyond the here and now. They dare us to question.

For me when I stood stunned at the splendour of this train of stars, I was met with the question of my existence. The starry inquisition asked of me, what is this light show, this universe, all about?

I don’t know what your answer would be to such a jury of jewels. But if you are looking for an answer, here is what one poet’s conclusion was from long long ago:

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.”[1]

This week, why don’t we find time to look up.

Richard Fowler info@because.uk.com

Richard is editorial assistant at Because

[1] The Bible, Psalms 19:1-2
Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

Lockdown take two

June 29, 2020

Could you endure another lockdown?

With lockdown easing, taking our first tentative steps into a freer brave new world has been exciting. Emerging from hibernation has had a kind of first-day-back-at-school feel – we’re all excited to see each other. And we’ve wondered how we got through it?

So you can imagine why the people of Leicester may be a little jittery this week with the news of a possible regional lockdown looming! In the US, Texas and Florida are already shutting down again. So just how do you get through another lockdown?

In a BBC Newsbeats piece last week, 4 people gave us what had helped them endure the solitude, anxiety and uncertainty of the Coronavirus lockdown.

Answer: religion!

I had read elsewhere surveys finding that more people had been praying during lockdown, but I was curious to know what it was, specifically, about people’s faith that had helped them get by. Here is what they said:

Philip who’s Christian said, “It’s the personal connection to God which gives you hope.”

Adrisa who’s Hindu said, “I feel like there is a higher power taking care of me, and it’s reassuring.”

Kasim who’s Muslim said, “When I feel down mentally, I turn to God to feel better.”

Hannah who’s Jewish said, “Faith gives me another side to life and exploring that area has given me strength”, describing the Sabbath – a day of rest – as being a day to reset.

I guess one thing we can learn about the effects of lockdown on the human psyche and spiritualism is that freedom is a spiritual matter not just physical. Peace, hope and purpose seem to be the measured results of physical confinement with God. Echoing the kind of clinical insight of psychologists Viktor Frankl and Carl Yung who could see purpose and meaning was not constrained by personal circumstances.

There’s a personal echo of truth here of lockdown’s mini religious renaissance; I, too, found this small, quiet voice of God calling me back to a more authentic version of myself during lockdown. Have you heard that same voice, too?

No doubt, many of us may be left with an opposite feeling after seeing just this weekend the world hit 10 million cases of Coronavirus. Where’s God in that? One of the interviewee’s comments jumped out at me: “Challenges and struggle have been happening for ages. But religion teaches you God has a plan and it helps to accept reality a lot more”. I thought on this.

It reminded me of the piece of deep painful poetry I once read; words that pierced through the most trying time of my life. With a reputation as a middle eastern prophet, the writer echoes the truism of the words above – that somehow God’s plans for us are not synonymous with our circumstances. And this prophet had some credibility to say such things. Unfairly imprisoned in a pit filled with mud, the biblical Jeremiah writes:

“My soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”[1]

These words come from some of the most well-known biblical verses. They talk about a God who doesn’t protect us from suffering but protects us in suffering. This God seems to be more consistent with my observations and experiences. Yet, this same Bible goes further and claims that God himself came to us as Jesus, sharing in our suffering, to tell us about his plan of compassion and love. A message of hope that can see us through a second lockdown, maybe?

If you’d like to know more about where God is in a Coronavirus world, please check out John C. Lennox’s short book with the same title.

Richard Fowler info@because.uk.com

Richard is editorial assistant at Because

[1] The Bible, Lamentations 3:20-23
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

The new normal

June 24, 2020

The ‘new normal’ is a phrase that has entered our vocabulary in the past few months to convey how life will be different because of COVID-19. What will this new normal look like? Will more people work flexible hours or work from home? Will bikes and walking overtake our use of public transport? Will we forever have to social distance in supermarkets and restaurants? For these things and many others, we will just have to wait and see how the new world order will pan out.

But for some, the new normal has already begun and for them, life will never return to how it was before. There have been over 40,000 deaths from COVID-19 in the UK alone and in the past three months, many others have died for other reasons. For the family and friends of those who have died the new normal is facing life without their loved one, with no prospect of returning to how it used to be.

Bereavement comes from an old English word that means “rob,” “deprive,” and “seize.” The bereaved person feels they have been robbed and deprived of their loved one because they have been seized from them in death. It is probably the most severe psychological trauma most people will encounter during their lives. Almost all of those who experience a bereavement will face distress, depression, and sadness as a result. The majority will experience grief, a word that comes from the Latin for “make heavy” and accurately describes the heavy burden or affliction someone carries because of their loss.

With over 600,000 deaths occurring in the UK last year and all the recent deaths that are COVID-19 related, many of us will know someone who is recently bereaved. When faced with that situation you, no doubt, feel sad and want to help the person cope with the new normal they are experiencing, but where do you start? If you are anything like me, you can feel totally inadequate in such circumstances. It takes us out of our comfort zone and very quickly we can feel out of our depth. What can I say or do to help? What shouldn’t I say or do to make matters worse?

I can’t provide you with a one size fits all answer to those questions, but from the bereavement seminars I’ve attended at university and run by my church two pieces of advice stood out for me, and have been invaluable in my Christian ministry. First, the one thing I’ve realised not to say is ‘I understand what you are going through,’ because with the best will in the world I don’t. Both of my parents died in the last five years and I reacted in a particular way to my loss, but that doesn’t mean I understand how someone else is feeling who has just lost a parent. Everyone’s experience is different, everyone’s sense of loss and the grief they encounter is unique to them. I’ve had to recognise that I may not understand what a bereaved person is going through, but I can be there for them. And so, secondly, I’ve had to learn that when I am with a newly bereaved person one of the most helpful things I can do is just listen. Very often I don’t know the right words to say, and frequently there are no words that can be said, but what I can do is listen to what the bereaved person wants to talk about. It might be about how much they miss the person who has died, it might be about the numbness they feel, it might be about the anger and hurt they feel that their loved one has left them alone or the God they looked to has deserted them. It could be about anything at all. Simply giving a person the space to off-load their feelings can be of the greatest help.

The new normal for a bereaved person is not an easy thing to come to terms with, but with shared tears and a listening ear, we can help that transition rather than hinder it.

Barry Robinson info@because.uk.com

A new intimacy

June 22, 2020

After 51 years of marriage my wife and I know each other very well. But this lockdown has created a new intimacy between us. Women may understand the importance of this rather better than men. For the first time in our married life, I have been allowed to cut my wife’s hair – under strict instruction as to how and where – and only just the once so far! (By comparison, I have allowed my wife to cut my hair three times, although seeing as I am quite bald on top, that’s not too onerous a task.)

I don’t think our local ladies’ hairdresser or barber’s shop have anything to fear as we will both be returning to them as and when they open. But I have now learnt that to be allowed to cut a lady’s hair requires a great deal of trust and intimacy in a relationship. Even after 51 years, my wife was very nervous about letting me loose on her crowning glory. However, she was pleasantly surprised at the outcome. Either that, or too polite to say anything!

When I suggested that I was paid the going rate, and where was my tip, her thin smile told me that next time she did my hair I might end up completely bald!

But as close as I think we are, being allowed to cut my wife’s hair was quite a privilege and depending on how fast the lockdown is eased I might have to do it again. I expect I am not the only man who has been allowed to cut his partner’s hair in this current lockdown, but it certainly felt like our relationship had reached new heights.

Which got me thinking about trust and intimacy in human relationships. Do we have family or friends that we have a close connection with? Do we have someone we can share a problem with, a person we can trust absolutely? I used to have that kind of relationship with my younger brother, but sadly he died recently. We could tell each other anything, share our triumphs and disasters openly with no hint of judgement or criticism. I guess such intimacy can only come from growing up together, having each other’s backs in any situation and, despite leading different lives, somehow remaining closely connected throughout our lives.

Which then got me thinking about another very close relationship in my life. One that is even more important than the one I have with my wife (and you might be surprised to learn that she understands and supports this). I’m talking about my relationship with God, forged over 45 years of following the Christian faith.

It is interesting that many people today fear to have a relationship with God, let alone an intimate one in which they have absolute trust and can tell God anything. Yet when we understand who and what God, is we find out that he already knows us intimately, whether we realise it or not.

There is no mistake we can make that God does not already know and none that is beyond his power to forgive, God has watched humanity since he created us and we can never surprise him. That ancient book of wisdom, the Bible, tells us that God loves us, but why, oh why, do we find it so hard to believe? The answer, in the main, is because we don’t know him.

If you have a close, deep, intimate, trusting relationship with somebody in your life, as I did with my brother for many years, it is sad but inevitable that one day that relationship will come to an end. Either through a change of job, a move to another part of the world, a breakup or divorce, an illness or death.

But a close, deep, intimate relationship with God will never come to an end, whatever our circumstances in life or death. Yes, not even death can end that relationship with God!

With that in mind, I would like finish by throwing out a challenge to you. Why not take the first step in building that unbreakable, eternal relationship with your God? You have absolutely nothing to lose.

Keith Hartrick info@because.uk.com

Keith is an editor at Because

Freedom plan

May 29, 2020

FREEDOM!!!

It’s beginning. Many of us can go out more often, see a few others, buy a little more, enjoy the fresh air and breathe a sigh of relief. But, responsibly so, of course. Without hurting people or breaking laws. With freedom always come responsibilities.

Oddly enough, this weekend many western Christians celebrate the Spirit of freedom. It’s a special festival called Pentecost and it’s about how God’s Spirit frees us from our past to live new and different lives.

Paul, a Christian writer, put it this way, “We have freedom now… the fruit that the Spirit produces in a person’s life is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these kinds of things”.1

As lockdown unfolds, that could be our freedom plan.

What do you think?

James Henderson info@because.uk.com

1The Bible (Easy-to-Read Version) Galatians 5:1,22-23

Reach Out

May 22, 2020

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, and taking care of ourselves and each other has never been more important. As new words have entered our vocabulary like ‘Covid-19,’ ‘lockdown,’ and ‘social-distancing,’ we are missing family, friends, and colleagues. The disruption to our daily lives and the uncertainty about the future raises anxiety and can be detrimental to our mental well-being. That’s why the theme of this week has been about kindness and looking out for each other.

In a recorded message to launch this week, the Duke of Cambridge said, “We’re all connected. And sometimes just talking about how you’re feeling can make a big difference. So right now, let’s join together across the UK and reach out to someone.”

In a week where the awareness of mental health issues is being highlighted why not take time to see if there is someone in your life that you could reach out to and provide some encouragement. Conversely, if you are feeling overwhelmed by this pandemic, talking about your feelings to someone you trust can help to relieve the tension.

It is a mark of the Christian community to be there for one another – reaching out can make a big difference, all it takes is the first step.

Barry Robinson info@because.uk.com

Chorus of consistency

May 18, 2020

Many things have changed in the past couple of months. Less traffic, slower download speeds, queuing at shops, and out of control hair! But there’s one thing I’ve noticed that has stayed consistent: the singing of birds. And I’m sure they’ve turned the volume up! Such has been their impact national news – presumably to spice up their monosyllabic feed of misery – has recorded our feathery friend’s symphony of sound in Shrewsbury.

Maybe with less traffic noise, human chatter, and school playgrounds muted, birds have reclaimed the airwaves. And I’m not complaining. There’s something tranquil, even mesmerising, about the playful tune of birds such as the nightingale, robin, or song thrush to name a few. Even as I write this blog, I can hear the twitter of birds outside my window and the sound takes me back into my school classroom years ago.

A classroom that still used chalk, and where we were studying the poetry of the romantic poet, John Keats, and specifically his Ode to a Nightingale. Keats’ mastery of language and metaphor meant this poem expressed the joy – nay, bliss – of this most vocal of birds. I’ve just read it again and there’s something pertinent about its message for us today.

The poem focuses on a man standing in a forest listening to the beautiful song of the nightingale. This provokes a deep mediation where he longs to forget “the weariness, the fever, and the fret” of human suffering and our eventual death (something we are all too aware of in this pandemic). But the nightingale seems immortal because of its consistently sung song across the ages, “Perhaps the self-same song that found a path through the sad heart of Ruth”. Ruth? Who’s she?

This enigmatic reference to a Ruth is thrown into the poem but the irony need not be lost on us when we find her story, written in the Bible, is one that resembles the kind of consistency of the nightingale’s chorus. Ruth, too, is a story of consistency.

A woman named Naomi had been widowed whilst living in a foreign land. Ruth had married one of her sons who also died making her a widow too. When Naomi decided to return to her homeland, Ruth in a remarkable act of loyalty, went with her vulnerable mother-in-law even though Ruth would now be the one living in a foreign land. “Where you will go, I will go” is Ruth’s chorus of consistency to Naomi (you can read or listen to the story here).

This display of loyalty – albeit extreme – seems to be missing in our very transient, easy-come-easy-go world. But I wonder whether in, and after, this crisis we need to find our own chorus of consistency and loyalty with the vulnerable we know.

After COVID-19 the grieving will not be gone. And not all grieving is obvious. There will be those who have lost someone to the virus. But not all loss is visible. Others will have lost jobs, some would’ve lost connection with friends, and, as I read this morning, some even have lost counselling sessions for their mental illness. I wonder whether these people will need a friend like Ruth? Someone who will say to them, ‘I’m here for you’.

Maybe we can be that loyal friend, that chorus of consistency, in the life of another who has lost something.

Richard Fowler info@because.uk.com

Richard is editorial assistant at Because

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