Pausing and preparing

Dear Friends

I write in mid-July, a time in the year when in more normal times, many people look forward to something of a break, an easing down of activities, one of those necessary more dormant times that enable us to be refreshed for a new season that beckons in the early autumn. And whilst most of us may be past practicing the routine of the school terms, the late July through August ‘summer holiday’ season still forms part of our annual cycle.

Except perhaps this and indeed last July, for the second year running as the traditional summer break nears, many people are looking forward to getting back to more of life as it once was, P.C. (pre-COVID)! Last year the hope was found in the receding rate of infections, allowing some relaxation of the rules, this year the hope is found in the effectiveness of the vaccination programme.

But we have learnt other lessons, too, including that we have to be prepared for a new turn of events for the virus is not going away, and as I write, the infection rate in soaring and I’m personally aware of people who are having to self-isolate having been in contact with those who have received a positive test. We have also wrestled with the tension between personal freedom and community responsibility, and are very aware that one person’s choice can impact on another’s comfort.

So, this feels a time of gentle, tentative steps, and not one of ripping masks off and returning to the life many of us yearn for again. Perhaps as this summer’s seasonal break approaches, this may be a time to pause and prepare for a new, and potentially different Autumn season.

One of my favourite one-liners from the gospels tells of Jesus pausing from the busyness of the demands placed upon him, to prepare for what comes next. In the passage, Mark describes of a feverish set of activities for Jesus through the Sabbath, first teaching in the synagogue and conducting a healing, then going back to the home of Simon and Andrew where Simon’s mother-in-law had a fever. He healed her, and as news of his presence and powers spread, people gathered at his door seeking his ministry. That night Jesus must have gone to bed physically and mentally pooped, aware too, that busyness awaits him in the coming days. So, Jesus pauses to prepare, which Mark relates:

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. (Mark 1:35).

Jesus wanted time out. I imagine that he knew that the new day would bring fresh crowds, fresh demands, fresh expectations. He sought to immerse himself in the presence of God, the true ground of his being.

A few years ago, I led a group from my former church, St Andrew’s Roundhay URC, on a weekend retreat to Lindisfarne. On the Sunday we had a beach communion, during which we heard read a series of passages from Mark’s Gospel, each of which told of occasions when Jesus, sometimes alone, sometimes with his disciples, stepped back from the hurley burley of life, and paused to take time out with God.

These were times that Jesus carved out of his rounds to take a moment to sense God’s presence, perhaps find renewal, refreshment, guidance and strength. Some of the occasions were in the ordinary days of life. Others, and I think of Jesus praying before his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, were in deeply troubling times.

As we listened to each passage from the Gospel, we gained a sense of the desire of Jesus to connect his humanity with God’s divinity. To immerse himself in God, and variously seek God’s refreshment, renewal, comfort, guidance or strength.

I hope that in the summer weeks that lie ahead, that we’ll get some summer sunshine and that each person within our church community, whatever their situation, may find some time, whether a week, a day, or an hour to do their own retreat, and find a quiet place, whether in a garden or local park, and spend some moments in prayer, to pause, to reflect and to prepare.

Meanwhile, I leave you to read a reflection penned by Karen Gardiner, one of the group from St Andrew’s who retreated to Lindisfarne that weekend. Her words may also be sung as a hymn, including to the tune Quem pastores laudavere (528 Rejoice and Sing – ‘Jesus, good above all other’), so you may read them or sing them to yourself.

Sacred spaces, quiet places,
smiling faces, tear traces,
birdsong which the soul embraces,
Circled in the grace of God.

Contemplation, expectation,
fascination, hesitation.
Beach communion, celebration
circled in the peace of God.

Spirits broken, friendship token,
Words of kindness gently spoken.
Long diminished faith awoken,
Threefold from the heart of God.

As we hopefully emerge from this pandemic, help us to pause and prepare for the journey to come, and may God guide you to travel gently and carefully, caringly and patiently, through the summer’s soul-warming days.