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Monday, March 30, 2020

Opportunities beckon to learn about conflict in isolation

There are certain facts we can’t get away from at this time. We have little control over many things in the present situation, just as we have little control over the circumstances of our need perhaps to work from home and to home-school the children.
These are times we would not have even begun to imagine would even be possible just two months ago. Yet, we are here now, and I know many people who have resigned themselves to make the best of it.
Here are some thoughts on the inevitable presence of conflict in all our lives; those which will peak in our being together, closeted within the home together for an extended period.
These periods of isolation will require creativity and innovation. But just as much within the isolation of being together as a family, we will have to confront the inevitable conflict that will occur.
There will be conflict, it occurs in every family, and every family has its own way of dealing with conflict.  I mean by this to say, even if we sweep conflict under the carpet, it’s still there.
The first thing that we can say about conflict is it often happens as a result of stress. We get two stressed individuals, and it’s a predictable powderkeg situation. If one or both are unaware of the stress that’s causing them to demand what they want, interactions easily spill over into conflict.
One of the persons has to be a circuit breaker. Someone within the conflict must endeavour to see that poorly sorted out conflict is an indicator of the stress that one or both are under.  It’s hoped that one can see their own contribution to the conflict, because peace can’t come unless someone starts admitting they’re wrong.
Everyone is anxious at present, just as everyone is experiencing anticipatory grief. When two people have those kinds of dynamics of stress going on within them, it isn’t hard to see how they will end up in conflict.
Times like these we need to recognise the role of stress in the initiation of conflict. Especially when it comes to parents having to home-school their children, whilst working from home, whilst being parents into the bargain.
This is an almost impossible demand, especially given the fact that, as parents, we will never be the impartial teacher we might be with other people’s children.  With our own kids we’re either too favourable or unfair on them.
I can’t imagine parents schooling their children from home without conflict.
I can’t imagine siblings cooperating at all times.
I can’t imagine there being marriages free of conflict either.
But at least in these times, if only we can see conflict as an opportunity, to learn more about each other, to respect one another, and to grow together with each other, we may not only survive this time, but we can also thrive as families.
If the family is Christian, and are perhaps open to committing to peacemaking principles, the opportunities in conflict are threefold: to glorify God by putting God first, to be kind to one another and to serve the other, and to be humble and grow to be more like Christ.
Perhaps most of all in this time of enormous social, financial and medical challenge, the family is also under attack.
But just as parents we can set the goal of being intuitive and hyperaware of the dynamics that go into conflict.
We can help our children understand their emotions that both contribute to conflict and that come as a result of conflict, and we can help our children.
Parents can be redemptive in their approach as they nurture their families through this time, and make the most of the opportunities that present in conflict.
Conflict can either be destructive or an opportunity and never the twain shall meet.

Photo by Jessica Lewis on Unsplash

We need a way back to the way we were

Absolutely convinced that life was a particular way, we easily act on our hunch or conviction, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t occasionally deluded.
Spending a period of time in that place is never fun from the viewpoint of being in it, and we should know we’re there by the extraction of joy, hope and peace that has otherwise departed.
But being in this place it can be hard to see.  So it was for me very recently.
Then on this particular morning, God’s Spirit descended in four compelling voices — voices of people I would normally provide the ministry to — who came one by one, but as if in unison, to give me a piece of God’s mind.
The first voice was in the form of a psalm — God’s Spirit spoke.  Gently recited and then left with me.  Mmm...
The second voice was quite different.  I had just delivered a staff devotion and had issued the invitation — “please hold me to account.”  This person had already been agonising over how to deliver a challenge I needed to hear.  Having heard me issue the invitation, she decided to be bold.  “Steve, can I say something to you, oh this feels awkward (or words to that effect)?”
There was something I’d done in the realm of social media — a reaction to a post — that had genuinely dismayed her.  In my own terms (without putting words in her kind mouth) I guess you could say my ‘reaction’ was conduct unbecoming of a Christian leader.  She was hurt, because, for her, I represented something — I have a role to support order and encourage and not disparage.  As soon as she courageously though gently said what she said, I couldn’t help but agree.  I knew exactly what she was referring to and I couldn’t disagree.  She was God’s instrument in delivering a vital message, the gentlest rebuke.  I thanked her and she was able to leave at peace.  I then immediately acted to undo what I’d done, and then to reflect whether there were other ramifications.
The third voice was from a younger friend who would refer to me as a mentor.  Our relationship over the years has endured some conflict.  He has licence to speak into my life.  In this interaction, there wasn’t so much a rebuke, but a reminder — built on the basis of the first two interactions — that there were things to tend to.
The fourth voice reached out also in the mood of care.  By this time, I’m saying, “Okay, God, You have my attention.”  It wasn’t necessarily the words that were written, and whether they were accurate or not for me, but the pattern remained.  An irrefutable evidence of the work of God through four separate persons who would ordinarily receive ministry from me, not give it.
It’s not just that though.  I have multiple mentors, a pastoral supervisor, occasionally my psychologist, a pastoral team in the church I serve at, and one manager who actively speak into my life.
I don’t need other voices to speak for God, UNLESS other voices need to speak for God.  See my point?
The fact is I’m not beyond hurting those I serve, and when that happens I then ought to be extremely thankful that some have the gumption to lovingly challenge me; as the proverb says, “The wounds of a friend can be trusted” (Proverbs 27:6).
What isn’t lost on me in the absolute fact of God’s providence in my life, to speak through four people over a couple of hours.
We need a way back to the way we were.  I think each person was saying, “There’s something not quite right with you right now... I know because I know you... can I see if I can help you?”
We need a way back to the way we were, and that way is a peacemaking conversation that begins with, “I’m wondering if I can share something that I feel may be important for you to know about what I’m seeing.”  The response therefore is, “Please do share, I am listening.”
The sharer shares kindly, the listener listens with humility.
Yes, it may hurt for a moment.  But we absorb that hurt.  Like the feather down on a duck, we let that hurt hit us in the chest and then nestle safely into the down.  We stay in the moment and hear the brave messenger out.  If they’re gentle, they will win us over, and God’s Spirit then gets through.  We learn something and then we can grow.
I’m writing this to consolidate the learning.  It’s only one step.  But I’m thankful for the compelling nature with which God communicates.  For me, it could only be God who did this.
I’m thankful that God loves me that much that when I stray, my Lord will search for me in my lostness.  Leaving the 99 safe in the pen, God goes after the 1 to bring them back.
It is amazing how often God uses our friends to do that.

Photo by Sami Takarautio on Unsplash

Saturday, March 28, 2020

It’s war and COVID19 is just the tip of the iceberg

We all kind of get it that we’re in a global warzone.  Viruses are extremely hard to predict when you’ve lost control of them.  This is why all the experts are behaving as ‘alarmists’.
We, all of us, are on a journey.  Some began that journey earlier and are experiencing now what we will experience, and others are set to experience what we are now experiencing.  Had we been told two or three months ago that we’d be facing a global catastrophe right now we’d have scoffed at that ‘doomsday’ thought.  But that is our reality right now.
If only it were a medical emergency.  But, no, it is an economic emergency.  It is also a social emergency.  Not only do millions stand to needlessly perish from this virus, the modernised world stands at the door of fiscal collapse, and societal unrest unto anarchy are real possibilities from here.
Let’s tackle the last one first.  The social unrest.
Everyone is grieving.  Everyone is anxious.  The family is being tested like it never has been before. Parents, if they still have their jobs, are working from home and schooling their children and being a parent into the mix.  There is no respite, whatsoever.  And, for the dignity of persons who are now destitute, I won’t harm them by venturing to say anything else here.  They have my prayers.
There will always be stories promoted of how families pulled together and prospered during such a time as this, but they’ll be in the rare minority believe me — fit only for social media consumption of the societal set who cannot bear bad news.
I’ve done enough marriage counselling to know the reality of life in marriage and family — it’s like a box of chocolates, as Forest Gump once said.  I know the dynamics of family and marriage in my own life, it’s not easy and especially in this day it’s harder than ever.  This crisis is all it takes for marginal marriages to end, and for those at the end to spill over into violence (even if a few marriages thrive against the odds — which we can all applaud).  There will be more domestic violence and child abuse than ever before.
There are bonds of cohesion we will all need to work with if we’re to pull through this, and there will be whole communities that will descend into anarchy, and martial law will be necessary to bring a semblance of control.  The possibilities are truly scary.
Let me issue this refrain — I don’t write this to scare but to awaken the sleeper, to raise the ambivalent to awareness, and yet a good many of those will never care.  We will all pay dearly because of these.  We must grow care into a critical mass.
The economic consequences of this the biggest ongoing event in our modern history, by far, are as far reaching as the mind can conceive — and further.  Think worst case scenarios.  Just look at what measures have been put in place that have continued to shock us on a daily basis.  These measures have their social cost, but the impacts run so much deeper.  This shift leaves the possibility wide open for whole democracies to be at the mercy of despotic tyrannies.  Ask an historian: all empires come to end at some point.
In a short while, massive shifts can develop, which are things we’d not have dared to conceive.  Could it be that we’ve been living in some of the most privileged of times and we’re now about to face a time of unimaginable suffering?  I hate even writing those words.  The end of life as we know it, however hard our lives have been.  Now is the time, right now, to pull together, to, as the experts have been telling us, to “pull all the levers.”
I don’t write this to scare but to awaken the sleeper, to raise the ambivalent to awareness, and yet a good many of those will never care.  We will all pay dearly because of these.  We must grow care into a critical mass.
Now to finish.  The medical dimension.  Untold numbers of people are dying.  And not those who are just ‘vulnerable’ — as if that would be something that could make healthy people feel a bit more relaxed.  It will take some of the young.  It will take doctors, nurses, and others in the frontline.  And mainly when the hospital systems are overrun.  We know this. 
But what we don’t realise is we don’t care until it’s close enough to touch us and our lives and where it threatens to take us and our loved ones.  That’s when we sit up and listen more attentively — when it’s too late.  When it’s our loved one who is being intubated and they’re the ones who will 3 people in 10 die.
If this virus runs to worst case estimates and it takes 90 million people globally, we will all know someone who died because of it.  Some of those will actually be our relatives.  This is more people dying in say one year than who died in the six years of World War II.
The impacts of COVID19 are cataclysmic on at least three levels; the medical, the economic, and the social.  It’s war and truly the virus is just the tip of the iceberg, especially in terms of it possibly being the initiator of a domino effect for years and perhaps decades to come.
I don’t write this to scare but to awaken the sleeper, to raise the ambivalent to awareness, and yet a good many of those will never care.  We will all pay dearly because of these.  We must grow care into a critical mass.

Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

Friday, March 27, 2020

2019 doesn’t seem so bad from here

How many of us who decried last year as being tough would now go back there in a heartbeat?
How many of us, when we contrast the stresses we had back then to the losses we’re having now, wouldn’t go back?
How many of us, when last year looks so benign from here, wouldn’t trip back and stay in that “safe” year?
Or any previous year for that matter?
This year puts into perspective previous years.  Anyone who can’t see that isn’t living in reality.  And yet, God is good.  All the time.
We will get through this year, of course we will, but it will be a year like no other, and do any of us see what the new normal looks like?  We don’t even have an assurance of the new normal yet.
I am taking a break from here, which is validation of a number of things.  There are new routines to establish.  There is the recognition that getting away from the noise of social media will be helpful.  And there is an ache in my heart to get away from the transitory and get back to the eternal.
There is a lot of sadness in my heart.  It is time to grieve.  But it is also time to be present and to feel that grief even as we are present with those who sorely need us and depend on us.  Today is an invitation to change.  It is an invitation to do life differently, for a while, or indefinitely.
I sense now is the time for preparation.  For what I do not know.  But just to begin to get ready.  To be quiet.  To be still.  My place is not here right now.  For how long, who knows.  I sense for everyone right now, we’re in a time of war, and when that happens it’s time to focus on family.  I sense that my connection needs and the connection needs of others who are my family will be best meet in the physical moments we have now.
So, let’s be praying for one another in the meantime.  You might not know it, but there are many of you I feel I know at least somewhat and for many of you and your families I do pray.
I am a reluctant pastor these days.  Too many battles and too many scares have caused me to wonder, “God, why me, why do you call me, I do not feel worthy or even capable of this calling very often.”  But God always teaches me something new, and perhaps if nothing else being a pastor or counsellor or chaplain teaches me whose I am.  Continually being humbled for God’s glory, continuing to be used despite my frailties.
It truly seems, I cannot not serve.
If you have genuine need of me, my email is steve.j.wickham@gmail.com.  

Picture by my wife, circa. 2009.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

A stunningly callous spiritual abuse happening right now

Fearful beyond reason for losing control over their congregants, watch for the pastoral leaders who will chastise, rebuke and discipline their people for admitting fear or for appearing fearful.
This kind of control is evidenced in followers of the leader who will themselves chastise, rebuke and discipline people for being fearful.  Abusive leaders often have many mouthpieces.  Indeed, behind every Christian who does this is a denomination, doctrine or figurehead who rules by the iron fist that no believer is to be fearful.
This is absolutely antithetical to the gospel; Jesus knew and accepted that we would battle regularly with fear.  
Let’s look at the signs of this tyrannical form of lordship that gaslights us as being (toxically) ‘fearful’:
·                   attracting their indignation for posting what really concerns you on social media — especially when you express sadness or other ‘negative’ feelings i.e. when you’re being honest, and where, in fact, you are actually reaching out and inviting others to get alongside you.  In such situations, we may actually be saying, “I need some help here.”  Never should anyone be made to feel guilty or ashamed for not feeling strong enough
·                   wherever you hear the person or leader say something to the effect, “You are making us Christians look bad/weak/worldly for your display of ‘not trusting God enough’.”  What these people are motivated by most of all is maintaining the appearance of strength, when faith is anything but the appearance of strength, but it is strength in weakness
·                   situations where someone keeps spruiking, “we got the victory,” and they insist on everyone in the faith being jolly, joyous, happy-clappy and cheerful — I mean, all the time
·                   where you cannot express your grief about either the present situation or other losses you’ve had in your life — loss will swamp our faith and grief is something that insists our faith grow, and this cannot occur without feeling the weight of it.  Denying our grief is always counterproductive and it ultimately stifles our growth in faith
·                   responding to emails or other communications with any sense you’re uncertain of the direction of leadership — it’s a dangerous organisation that cannot cope with your real thoughts
·                   criticism toward you at any sign that you’re not dependent on them for all your guidance — that you’re able to operate autonomously, and even that you’re taking counsel from others spiritually.  This is a revelation of their fear of losing control over you when they might be criticising you for being fearful — indeed, they might say, “Why are you so fearful that you’re going to them?”
·                   when you’ve lost your job and they say, “What are you worried about, the Lord will provide for you... you lack faith, stop being racked with fear”
·                   any lack of compliance to their rebuke — which may be viewed by them as sedition, a sure sign they’re not doing God’s work in your life or the lives of others
God understands that this is a fearful time, just as we’re invited to run to God in response.  We never have to be fearful of our responses before God.
God says, “Do not be afraid” because God knows we will be fearful.
Being fearful is the opportunity to turn, to repent, to return back to faith, but that’s not to say we won’t repeatedly need to follow that process — we will!
It’s neither fair nor is it loving to tell someone off for being fearful.
The opportunity is to encourage, to build up, to restore the person.  But someone who must maintain a grip of control over people will have no interest in encouraging, building up, or assisting people to heal.
These times are fearful times.  The last time we faced anything like this was back in the 1930s and 1940s.  It would be fair to say anyone — with Christian faith or not — has elevated levels of anxiety at present, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with a lack of faith.
Some leaders — though they will not be honest about this when they do it — are morbidly fearful of losing their ministries.  How ironic then when they accuse you of lacking faith.
Honestly, how horrendous is it that when people are shocked and in absolute turmoil right now, they are berated by people who should know better.  Too many times people will accept this reprehensible treatment, accepting it as right, and of all things, think of it as God’s will.

Photo by Taneli Lahtinen on Unsplash

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

15 ways to be a simple blessing in this changing world

Kindness is the currency of hope in this present age, and gratitude is what manufactures it.  Here are a few ideas on how to be kind in this changing day:
1.                 offering to run an errand that will not only help someone, but it reduces or eliminates the need for contact, especially when it keeps older people safely isolated
2.                 smile.  Strangely enough it reduces fear, and it can be seen from more than 2 metres away
3.                 making a mask for someone, or just as good, if you’re young and fit giving them yours.  Not all masks offer the same protection, but take it from me as a once-time ‘specialist’ in such things, something is always better than nothing
4.                 understand that people may be sad or fearful.  That is all.  You hear them out and resist the temptation to give advice
5.                 make room for happiness and laughter, understanding that people need humour in dark times
6.                 being a friend to anyone and everyone, not too scrupled to hang out with ruffians, but refined enough to dignify everyone, seeing in them the best
7.                 you may not have it to give away, but you buy a grocery item, or a toilet roll extra, and pray on who to give these items away to.  Indeed, having bought one or two more than you need, God will supply the person to give it to.  God’s good like that
8.                 spending time with a neighbour, from a safe distance, of course.  Making it your mission to get to know one person you don’t know per week.  That’ll take at least 10-15 minutes each time
9.                 being someone who explains change well.  There are bound to be people who cannot understand either the pace or details of change.  Being able to report the facts without skewing them with our own opinion is a kind gesture
10.              offer to take a pay cut if others will benefit.  This assumes you’re not already losing your job.  Have you noticed that the kinder you are with giving money, the more God multiplies the spiritual blessings?  It’s true
11.              do the housework, teach the kids, clean up what wasn’t yours to do.  Particularly in the home, extra effort is always appreciated
12.              think of writing a list of six people you know who are doing it tougher than you are... plan to bless them somehow and ensure at least three of them cannot tell who did it.  Do simple things with significant impact
13.              write secret notes of encouragement and thanks to people, making some of them anonymous, and add to these a little gift if you can, and especially prioritise the person who is recovering from illness
14.              be ready to invest.  Not on the stock market, but in the bank of good ideas.  Get behind the brainstorming and don’t be the black hat
15.              enjoy the hard work that is emblematic of this time, knowing that this season will soon enough pass.  Know that your attitude is infectious!

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Monday, March 23, 2020

Thriving in Spirit during Isolation by Keren Dibbens-Wyatt

Being stuck indoors can be frustrating as some of us are just now discovering. Due to a debilitating chronic illness I’ve been stuck in for most of the last 24 years, completely housebound the last few, and currently spend 23 hours a day in bed. I know, then, a little bit about isolation. 
It’s been said that this time of enforced stillness might bear the fruit of contemplation in many of us. It’s true that this could be an opportunity to pray more and maybe think about starting spiritual or creative practices we haven’t made the time for till now. Certainly, God has been gracious in leading me into a deep and enriching prayer life. I can recommend it wholeheartedly! 
But the first thing I want to say is that things of God are never forced, and so, whilst these intentions are good, the best use of this time is to sow the seeds for those things, rather than imagining we can all become saintly figures over the course of a month. We must not make the mistake of thinking this is just another thing on our to-do list, or that it is easily accomplished. It takes years of making time for prayerful silence, soul work and building relationship with God before much fruit appears. I know I spent the first few years of my own seclusion mostly demanding healing and then sulking when it didn’t come. 
So, I would caution others to be patient with themselves. But yes, beginning the contemplative journey is going to take discipline, time and no shortage of challenges. Here are just a few of the main things that I would focus on to make a good beginning.
Firstly, and especially if you live with a partner, spouse or family, you will need grace. Buckets of it. Things that irritate you need to not just be forgiven, but accepted and even loved. When you can’t get away from one another, this will be crucial. Work at honest but loving communication, because in a time of confinement, treading on eggshells and letting frustrations build up is not going to end up anywhere good. Small annoyances and grievances will magnify, so they need to be dealt with lovingly and quickly. Appreciate too, that there are things you do that are annoying to those around you. Ask what they are and find ways to minimise sticking points. 
As well as exercising your grace muscles, you will need to become more aware, and this too will help you in your contemplative time. See the small things. Look at your living space with different eyes, because you need to be able to change activities often to avoid boredom and frustration. If you are going to start new practices, then you may, for example, want to place a dining chair in the hall, if that’s the quietest place in the house and the best place to pray. Or your kitchen table might become an art studio. If you live in a small space, as my husband and I do, you may need to become pretty inventive about that. Susannah Wesley (mother of John and Charles) wore a large apron. When she wanted to pray, she sat with it pulled up over her head to create a tiny sanctuary. The children knew not to disturb her if the apron was up! 
Awareness and grace will also help you learn gratitude. This is a spiritual practice in itself and believe me, it is vital. Treasures such as beautiful birds at the feeder, a flower glimpsed through the curtains, your cat purring, these will become sources of immense thankfulness. With gratitude in your armoury, you can change the irritation of a barking dog into a semblance of joy that it is singing its song. It’s not easy, but it is doable, with God’s help. And you will need his help, so ask for it every moment. 
Build up your prayer life slowly, starting with a few minutes and letting the desire to do it lead you into spending longer with the Lord. Forcing it will just make you sit there resenting the time, and I don’t think he would enjoy it much either! So be disciplined, but as they say, “don’t push the river.” 
And the most powerful spiritual weapon in your arsenal at this time may well be a sense of humour. I think that, along with prayer and creativity, it is laughter that has kept me (relatively) sane all this time. God bless you, protect and guide you in this difficult time. 

Keren Dibbens-Wyatt is a chronically ill writer and artist with a passion for poetry, mysticism, story and colour. Her creativity features regularly on spiritual blogs and in literary journals. Keren’s full-length publications include Recital of Love and Garden of God’s Heart. She lives in South East England and is mainly housebound. Keren’s website is: https://www.kerendibbenswyatt.com/ and you can find her at her Facebook page The Honeycomb Hermit and on Twitter.