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Of stolen joy, of thin and thick places - Retreat Reflections

The day started well and I was feeling pleased with myself. I was following the advice I give my coaching clients (usually a good idea!). Despite the busyness of juggling client commitments and over 100 DIY and cleaning jobs before we could put our house on the market, I had made a good choice. I had downed tools and protected my monthly retreat day in my diary. I frequently tell my clients that scheduling in and protecting times of personal and relational renewal are not luxuries - it is one of their key leadership responsibilities. Unless leaders looks after themselves and their most important relationships, they will be no good for anything or anyone.

And so I found myself at 8.30am setting off for my place of retreat, carrying a variety of bags towards my car. They contained my lunch, my journal, far too many books (!) and a bag containing a tin of varnish and silicone sealant (surplus to home-sprucing requirements) that I would take back to Toolstation and B&Q on the way home. I was looking forward to my time alone with God. So far so good. And then I dropped the bags containing my lunch and the DIY items onto our front path.

Slightly annoyed but unflustered I retrieved them and continued towards the car. It was only as I put the bags onto the back seat that I realised the lid of the varnish was slightly dislodged and it was starting to leak into the bag. I quickly pressed the lid back into position - the worst thing I could have done. Somehow, that action caused an energetic spurt of varnish to ascend into the air and anoint my face, my hair, my new breathable waterproof coat and the windscreen of my car! In that momentary pause while my brain tried to comprehend what had just happened, a thought formed in my brain, a 'still small voice', if you will, saying: "Don't let anything steal your joy". Interesting. It was the second time I had heard that voice. The first was the day before my daughter's wedding when everything seemed to be going pear-shaped in our efforts to deliver flowers, tables and other decorations to the reception hall for the waiting team of volunteers.

I'm not known for my unbridled joy. More of a steady affect with few highs and lows and occasional dips into melancholia and depression. At the same time, I do have to handle varying degrees of irritability with things and with people on a regular basis. Mostly it is an inner battle and I have learned not to let it show, but it still has a tendency to leak out (look out for a forthcoming blog on 'Irritable Soul Syndrome' ). But I have had much to be joyful about recently. My youngest daughter, Beth, had just married a wonderful man (Josh) and the wedding day, after what seemed to be 12 months of 24/7 planning (massive credit to my wife Laura - a blackbelt project manager), and despite the stress of the day before, had been wonderful. The English spring weather had even taken a weekend break from being one of the wettest and coolest springs on record to delivering warmth and sunshine. And in a few weeks' time, God-willing, another of my daughters, Mel and her husband Sam, are due to welcome our second grandaughter into the world. Life is good.

But for now, my plans to set off early had been thwarted and I spent the next hour or so desperately scrubbing 'quick-drying varnish' off my body, my clothes and my car. I have long been inspired by the example of Viktor Frankl, the Jewish Psychologist and Holocaust survivor and his choice of attitude towards his apalling experiences in Auschwitz. His words came back to me now:

'Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom'.

If he could make such a choice in such extreme circumstances, then surely I can make a good choice under a mere shower of varnish. As I scrubbed away, I repeated to myself: "I will not give away my joy, I will not let it be stolen from me".

Approximately two hours behind schedule, I pulled my car into the Farthing Downs car park, my chosen place of retreat. I experience Farthing Downs as a 'thin place'. Early Celtic Christians gave this name to a place where the gap between earth and heaven, the material and the spiritual worlds, seems especially thin. At last I can relax and (hopefully) hear from God. I opened the bag containing my food and drink supplies only to discover that when I had dropped this bag onto the path, along with the varnish bag, the yoghurt had split open and distributed its contents across every item of food and drink it contained! "Don't let anything steal your joy" , I heard again. Approximately half an hour later, the mess was cleared up enough for me to start the day with a meditation and a journal entry. I committed the rest of the day to God and invited him to meet with me and speak with me, if he so wished. And even if he didn't, this day was my offering of love, devotion and thanks to him.

The weather forecast was for an unseasonably chilly north wind with sunshine and showers all day. The next hour or so seemed the driest so I decided to postpone any reading until later and set off for a mile-long walk along the ridge of the North Downs. The exposed position of the ridge meant the wind seemed particularly keen and I zipped both my fleece and my recently scrubbed waterproof coat up to my chin. As I walked, the unfolding chalkland meadow was alive with Dropwort, Agrimony, Yellow Rattle, Yorkshire Fog and Cranesbill (don't you just love English wild flower names?), and with ladybirds and hover flies. Skylark and dunnock added an exuberant soundtrack.

And then the clouds parted for 15 minutes, the full glory of the place hit me, my walk slowed to a halt and I couldn't go on. My senses were on overdrive. I was wading through a scene so thick with meadow joy and beauty, it was simply overwhelming.

I stood there and drank it all in. It was as if nature was responding to the Psalmist's exhortation in Psalm 96 to...

'Sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth...

...Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let the sea resound, and all that is in it.

Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them; let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.

Let all creation rejoice before the LORD...'

Minutes later the clouds rolled in once more and the first few spots of promised rain began to fall on my now raised hood. I made my way back to the car.

After lunch, I sat in the car and read through Paul's letter to the church in Philippi (in modern day Greece) from which I had been asked to preach in a few weeks' time. The letter is brimming with Paul's exhortation towards joy, despite the threat that his life's mission and even his life might soon be snuffed out in a Roman prison. The Philippian church was worried about him, but his repeated exhortation was to 'Rejoice!' and not to worry about him or anything, but to turn all their concerns into prayer. He told them he had learned: 'the secret of being content in any and every situation' (ch 4 v 12). Perhaps I was starting to learn it too in my small way.

The joy and richness of my meadow experience was still with me as I completed that day's journal entry later that afternoon before heading home. The recollection drew tears to my eyes. God had felt so close and so exuberantly joyful in his creation. He had met with me and answered my prayer.

I drew into B&Q's car park on the way home. While the varnish was now unreturnable, at least I could take the sealant back to the DIY store. As I got out of the car, I checked my receipt and discovered I had brought the wrong one. Another plan thwarted! But this time I was primed and just smiled. Nothing was stealing my joy now. At least not today.

Questions for reflection...

  1. What threatens to steal your joy, and in what circumstances?

  2. What choices could you make in such moments that would protect your joy?

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